Monday, March 31, 2008

Better than Dylan

Setting aside general issues related to covers, one artist in particular that always seems ripe for covering is Dylan. That his songs are so widely recorded by others is as much a testament to the quality of his compositions as it is the crappiness of his voice. The Byrd's chimey version of "Mr. Tambourine Man," Hendrix's visceral take on "All Along the Watchtower"--these are but the earliest examples of Dylan covers that surpassed the original. Two more recent (though not that new) interpretations of Dylan songs that follow in the tradition of bettering the originals come from Norwegian singer-songwriter Magnet and (now-defunct) folk/bluegrass trio Nickel Creek. The tale of the tape:
Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" (from Nashville Skyline) vs. Magnet's "Lay Lady Lay" (from On Your Side).

Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time" (from Greatest Hits Vol. II) vs. Nickel Creek's "Tomorrow is a Long Time" (from Why Should the Fire Die?).

The original versions of the above songs are obviously not terrible; Dylan sings much worse on many other records. But these particular covers of these particular songs are just better. Magnet's "Lay Lady Lay" more fully captures the sensuality (there, I said it) of the lyrics, while Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek has a certain breathless impatience in her voice that better serves the theme of "Tomorrow is a Long Time."

I note, however, that one Dylan song whose original version cannot be bested is Wigwam (from Self Portrait), which was recorded when Dylan was apparently in his feebly-moaning-to-horns period of songwriting. Not many people know this, but I too once went through a phase of feebly moaning to horns. It was when I was in a coma for a week, right after I had been in a car wreck. During that time, record company execs came into my hospital room and recorded my comatose moans and released them on iTunes without my family's permission. The result? You guessed it, my moans went platinum and the execs all became billionaires. True story!

I guess Peter Murphy is limber

Three things to note about "Cuts You Up," the 1990 single off the album Deep by former Bauhaus frontman and so-called Godfather of Goth Peter Murphy:

1.  It is a good song with a good first line ("I find you in the morning / after dreams of distant signs / you pour yourself over me / like the sun through the blinds"); 

2.  The video features Murphy playing an Ovation 12-string. And while Murphy looks cooler than I did with my Celebrity 12-string, he does so only barely. Just further proof that that guitar is Cool Poison; and

3.  I'm pretty sure that's Wesley Snipes playing the electric guitar-violin thingie in the video. Always bet on black! Anyway, the pictures and music:

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ricky Gervais, genius

Perhaps the single most famous scene of the British version of The Office (which resides in my personal top five of best television series ever), featuring a stirring rendition of the bass line from The Trammps' "Disco Inferno" (1976). I've probably watched this scene over three dozen times; somehow, with each successive viewing, I learn more about this fragile little world we call Earth . . . and my place in it.

Dith Pran, 1942 - 2008

The New York Times reports this morning that Dith Pran, survivor of the Pol Pot regime and subject of the 1984 Roland Joffe film The Killing Fields, passed away today in New Brunswick, New Jersey after succumbing to pancreatic cancer. He was 65. The Killing Fields, a term coined by Pran, was based on the short book The Death and Life of Dith Pran (1985) by New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg, who covered the political and military turmoil in Cambodia (including the rise of the Khmer Rouge) during the height of America's involvement in neighboring Vietnam. Pran, a journalist himself, had been an indispensable part of Schanberg's Pulitzer-Prize winning reports, serving not only as Schanberg's interpreter but also as his guide through the war-torn country. Pran's personal and professional loyalty to Schanberg (as well as his desire to have Cambodia's story told to the outside world) forced him to stay in Cambodia, even as the Khmer Rouge began its systematic imprisonment and execution of all educated and Westernized nationals, and even as Pran had evacuated his own family. The two men's working partnership and deep friendship, along with Pran's eventual capture by the Khmer Rouge and Schanberg's expulsion (along with the rest of the world press) from Cambodia, is the essential story of The Killing Fields.

Here is the trailer for the film, which stars Sam Waterston as Schanberg and Dr. Haing S Ngor (who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) as Pran:

While compelling throughout, The Killing Fields is really marked by its incredibly touching final scene, where Pran and Schanberg are finally reunited in a Red Cross refugee camp after a four-and-a-half year separation. Pran had spent the separation imprisoned in a Cambodian labor camp (fighting a daily battle with malnutrition and torture), while Schanberg had been perhaps imprisoned in a different way, back in New York, still reporting on Cambodia and still searching for any word of Pran while wrestling with intense guilt over the fact that he had kept Pran in Cambodia to assist in reporting, even when it was clear that Pran should have evacuated with his family when he had had the chance.

It is cheap to show just the last scene, but here it is anyway. Joffe's song choice for the scene somehow works, even though it shouldn't. First, it violates the rule (which I just made up) that iconic Beatles songs (including iconic post-Beatles Lennon or McCartney songs) should not be used in film or even personal mixes (as they are too iconic to the point of distracting from the film or the mix). And second, the utopian nature of this song in particular seems just too direct and unsubtle given the political story. Somehow, however, it all works--and this scene, with this music, gets me every time. (One technique that works particularly well is the way the camera pivots to track Pran's face as he recognizes his old friend after so long, right after the music has moved from tinny mono to full stereo.) The result is a reunion that is searing:

Saturday, March 29, 2008

I can't help it

I kind of love this song:

And this song:

Friday, March 28, 2008

New Car Mix

Getting a new car is the perfect occasion to make a new mix. Or a few new mixes. The appropriate playlist depends not only on the type of car you just got but also the conditions you'll be driving in. My friend Alison just got the official pace car of stuffwhitepeoplelike, the Prius; it is silver, the color of the future. Driving a Prius this weekend in Houston, assuming warm and sunny weather, requires a nice, sunny Prius-y mix (no older songs, no songs by particularly hirsute musicians). To wit (and in this particular order):
"L.T.W.T.M.S." by The Trouble With Sweeney (no streaming source for this song, unfortunately)
"Too Young" by Phoenix
"Over and Over Again (Lost and Found)" by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
"I Summon You" by Spoon
"Right Moves" by Josh Ritter
"One Horse Town" by The Thrills
"I Love N.Y.E." by Badly Drawn Boy
"Rebellion (Lies)" by The Arcade Fire
"Ageless Beauty" by Stars
"Myriad Harbour" by The New Pornographers
"How Good It Can Be" by The 88
"They Never Got You" by Spoon
"Summer (Butcher Two)" by Matt Pond PA
"City Rain, City Streets" by Ryan Adams
"I Feel It All" by Feist
"Greek Song" by Rufus Wainwright
"Gone for Good" by The Shins

Also good to have would be a mix CD of Obama speeches.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Austin City Limits (the show)

Here is Austin City Limits' broadcast schedule until May 31. It probably goes without saying that the PBS show--America's longest-running concert music program--is one of my favorites. Also I like Hardcastle & McCormick, but I don't know when that airs these days (probably during dinner time). My DVR used to record Austin City Limits each week, but now it doesn't anymore, even though I never told it to stop. It's almost like that DVR just does whatever it wants to do. Like that time it started recording all those weird Cinemax After Dark movies full of naked people hugging each other over and over again! Gwen found these on the "recorded programs" list, and I had to explain to her how the DVR must have recorded these shows on its own ha ha ha that DVR really is a prankster hey how was your day honey you sure look nice in that sweater set.

Maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed

I'm focusing on the negative today, but rather than fight it, I'm going to wallow in it and own it. In that spirit, I present one of the most maddeningly horrible songs of the 1990s. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, liking this song is a sure sign that you were born with fetal alcohol syndrome. Scientific fact!

Band names I don't like (a work in progress)

Disclaimer: Most of these bands play music that I also kind of hate. There are exceptions, though.

Velvet Revolver
Green Day
Matchbox Twenty
Death Cab for Cutie
Three Doors Down
Seven Mary Three
Architecture in Helsinki (this may be the name I hate the most)
Toad the Wet Sprocket
Taking Back Sunday
New Found Glory
Dashboard Confessional
Puddle of Mudd
Linkin Park (wait, I hate this one pretty bad, too)
Limp Bizkit
Band of Horses
The The
I Am Kloot
Kenny Chesney


Better than Ezra
Deep Blue Something
Porno for Pyros

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Current rotation

Two albums that have been around for a little while but that I recently bought and am currently giving a listen to are The National's Boxer (2007) and Band of Horses' Everything All the Time (2006). I saw part of The National's set at ACL 2007, and while they seemed good, I just didn't get around to buying their album until now. As for Band of Horses, I honestly just didn't like their name (based partly on my preternatural fear of horses). But I'm trying to be mature and keep an open mind. Though I will say that if there are a lot of songs about horses (or even donkeys or mules) on this album, then they can just forget it!

Childhood was exciting, confusing

This song, while certainly cheesy, holds a special place for me. Mainly, it reminds me of my childhood. I have a lot of fond memories of that time. The time I found that extra-terrestrial in my backyard and lured him into my room with Reese's Pieces has got to rank pretty high up there, though. My new little buddy and I had so many adventures: I taught him how to speak, we made a phone together, and we would ride bikes through the air (he knew some magic and what not). Then there was that dark day. The day that these scientists wearing space suits started doing dastardly experiments on us. I'm afraid my little buddy's balls were monkeyed with somethin' fierce. And I thought he was going to die! And he did die! But then he came back to life, based on what I could tell from the geranium. Then my little buddy went home, and it made me so sad. But I still think of that little scamp, I do. That whole episode really taught me a thing or two about immigration.

Okay, I made all that up. I was really just describing this movie I saw one time called E.T. It was pretty killer. Anyway, here's that song I was talking about:

College circa 1994

My guess is that Rice students in 1994 who owned the soundtrack to the Roland Joffe film The Mission (1986) outnumbered Rice students in 1994 who had actually seen the Roland Joffe film The Mission (1986) by a ratio of 5:1. I mean, everyone had this soundtrack. A medley by which to reminisce (and do one's Poli Sci 314 homework):

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Two from The New Pornographers

I don't think I had seen any videos from The New Pornographers before actively searching for them on YouTube. My search, like the bounty enjoyed by the Pilgrims and the Native-Americans at the first Thanksgiving, was fruitful: here are the videos for "Myriad Harbour" and "Challengers," two of the catchier (and thus more popular) songs from the album Challengers (2007). Just as an aside, I saw TNP on a double-bill with Spoon this past November at Warehouse Live (the Houston Press review of the show is here), and Neko Case annoyed me throughout TNP's entire set. Part of it was that it seemed like just because she had that tambourine she thought her life was so sweet. Well, news flash, Ms. Case: I'm saving up for a tambourine myself, and when I get it we'll see whose life is so sweet then!

That old feeling

There's that exhilaration again: I have just learned of something unbelievably good and true on the internet (this time from my buddy Rich). This is only tangentially related to music, but no matter, as sometimes we have to recognize there are things that are simply bigger than music. Bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than all of us. So without further ado, I present to you, quite simply, the Best Blogger in the Blogosphere:

Author of thirteen different blogs, all of them awesome.

You're welcome.

One bad jam

Here is a scene from the unbelievable movie Krush Groove (1985) that features the unbelievabler Sheila E. and the unbelievablest Prince singing one of the best jams of all time, "A Love Bizarre." Note however that, while Prince's voice appears on the track, his tiny little self is nowhere to be seen. Also note that the track is not included on the Krush Groove soundtrack but instead appears on Sheila E.'s album, Romance 1600. I was just starting sixth grade in the fall of 1985--the height of the Cold War and Sheila E. mania--and it seemed like all of America was walking around their houses in lacy pirate gear and fingerless gloves, all the while banging on a lone snare drum with only one stick. Boy did I ever fall right into that fad. I would wear my Sheila E. outfit and take that snare drum with me everywhere--school, the mall, band practice (I played flute), my weekly orthopedist appointment, everywhere. It's embarrassing to think about now, but it was the only way I could make sense of my world at the time.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Pogues + Joe Strummer = London Calling

Holy sh-t:

I'm feeling like getting my Pogues on today, so here are a couple more live performances, recorded at The Opera House in Boston in 1989 (check out how completely bombed out of his mind Shane MacGowan is--how is he not dead yet?).

"White City."

"A Rainy Night in Soho." How awesome is this song? Ten awesome. For a long time, though, I thought the last line was "You're no measure of my dreams," which I like more than the real line, "You're the measure of my dreams."

Keeping it Peel (I get that one!)

Here is a very interesting BBC online tribute to the late, great John Peel, whose work as a broadcaster and journalist for the BBC influenced much of modern rock and also created the very rad Peel Sessions. In addition to chronicling Peel's life and work, the BBC website gives a complete (but I bet they spell it compleat) inventory of the literally thousands of Peel Sessions over the years. It's definitely worth a look.

Idlewild is catchy

I had never seen the video for Scottish band Idlewild's "Little Discourage" (from 100 Broken Windows (2001)) before, so here it is. This single, which reached number 24 on the UK singles chart in September 1999, definitely supports the conventional wisdom that 100 Broken Windows sounds a lot like Document-era R.E.M. Even the title and lyrics of this song sound like they came straight from J.M. Stipe circa 1987. Unsurprisingly, then, I've always liked it.

Favorite Beatle

According to writer Robert Sullivan, one of the major decisions any person will make in his life is choosing his favorite Beatle; indeed, "the Beatle you pick can say as much about you as your DNA." The occasion for Sullivan's observation--published in the "Shouts & Murmurs" section of the January 29, 1996 New Yorker (only the abstract is currently available online, unfortunately)--was his four-and-a-half year old son's announcement that he liked George the most, a somewhat independent and darkhorse choice that apparently charmed his father. "To me, my son's choice is perfect: in the very act of choosing George, he has proved his Georgeness." Sullivan himself was a John wannabe who admired John's daring and rebellious qualities, but who was, he had to admit, deep down an eager-to-please Paul man, with an "inner soundtrack tend[ing] toward cloying love songs."
Not only do I agree with Sullivan's general premise that Beatle-picking is as indicative as a Myers-Briggs assessment, I would also guess that Sullivan's situation--wanting to be the kind of person who likes John the most, while identifying primarily with Paul--is true for many (including me).

Also true is that, while I wish I could say I like Scary most, deep down I see myself more as Baby Spice. Maybe it's because I usually find myself singing all of Baby's parts whenever a Spice Girls song comes on the radio (and by "radio" I mean "my iPod," and by "my iPod" I mean "my Top 25 Most Played playlist while walking around the lake and sobbing softly").

Saturday, March 22, 2008

I want specifics on the general idea

Today, I rekindled my affection for Built to Spill's "Car" (from There's Nothing Wrong with Love (1994)). I found it again on an old scratched-up mix-CD that had been shoved into the back of my car's glove compartment; driving around with the windows down and the outside temperature at about 75 degrees, I listened to the song three times in a row. There's something oddly affecting about the way Doug Martsch caterwauls the last word of each line ("At best I'll be asleep when you get baaaaack," "I wanna see it nooooooow," "I want specifics on the general ideeeeeaa," etc.). The real Barrett the Cat caterwauls a lot, too, and that is also oddly affecting. The affect is that it makes me want to yell yell yell, kick kick kick, punch punch punch.

The minor fall and the major lift

This very interesting article (reprinted in does two things: it (1) chronicles the various incarnations of Leonard Cohen's majestic "Hallelujah" over the years, and in so doing, it (2) proves that the internet is pretty awesome. Pretty VERY awesome. While this article focuses on just a few versions of "Hallelujah" (Cohen's original record, Jeff Buckley's more well-known version, and John Cale's interpretation), it acknowledges--and a quick search on iTunes will confirm--that there are literally dozens and dozens of cover versions of "Hallelujah" out there. And as proof of just how good a song it is, a disproportionate number of these other versions are actually pretty good.

My two favorite videos of the last few months

For those who have not yet seen these two videos, I envy you. You stand at the precipice of a grand and beautiful new world. Welcome.

R. Kelly's "Real Talk":

Yellow Dog Mascot Dance Off (not music-related, but certainly genius-related):

Friday, March 21, 2008

Maybe Stephen Malkmus is just a regular dude

A profound exhilaration washes over me whenever I find a really, really cool website that is full of rad stuff. Take this one time I found this hilarious and adorable website written by elementary school students who report Houston news, apparently for some kind of school project. That was a good day.

Well, today may be even better, as I have stumbled across La Blogotheque, a truly outstanding French website that features its own commissioned collection of fly-on-the-wall music performances, collectively titled The Take-Away Shows (Concerts A Emporter). Blogotheque describes it this way: "Sessions are always filmed as a unique shot, without any cut, recorded live. We usually haven’t much time to record them, so the groups have to be spontaneous, to improvise, play with what they have with them, and with their environment, whether there’s a public or not." Look me in the eye and tell me that's not completely fascinating. Here, for example, is a page of recent videos of Stephen Malkmus languidly performing various songs on acoustic guitar, including some older R.E.M. covers:

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Uploaded by lablogotheque

Other interesting videos on The Take-Away Shows include performances by The Arcade Fire, Okkervil River, Xiu Xiu, Architecture in Helsinki, The Shins, The National, and literally dozens of others. Here is another video from the site, this time featuring José Gonzaléz:

S13.4 - JOSE GONZALEZ - How low
Uploaded by lablogotheque

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Late Night Drive

If I had to make a late-night drive from Houston to Austin (taking US-290, not I-10) at this very moment, here are some songs I would want playing on the radio:

"Good Year for the Roses" - Elvis Costello & The Attractions (Almost Blue)

"Madame George" - Van Morrison (Astral Weeks) (Unfortunately, no audio or video clip of this song is available on the innerneck.)

"I'm in Love with a Girl" - Big Star (#1 Record - Radio City)

"Girls" - Death in Vegas (Scorpio Rising)

"I Found a Reason" - Cat Power (The Covers Record)

"Brothers on a Hotel Bed" - Death Cab for Cutie (Plans)

"Brooklyn Stars" - Matt Pond PA (Several Arrows Later)

"Sunken Treasure" - Wilco (Being There)

"Speed Trials" - Elliott Smith (Either/Or)

"Come and Find Me" - Josh Ritter (Golden Age of Radio)

"Golden" - My Morning Jacket (It Still Moves)

"By the Mark" - Gillian Welch (Revival)

"A Whiter Shade of Pale" - Procol Harum (Procol Harum)

"Mercy Street" - Peter Gabriel (So)

That I'm even talking about this means I'm getting old

Here is a very interesting article (from Minneapolis-based music website, Perfect Porridge) about wearing earplugs to live shows, and whether the pros of earplugs (saving your hearing) outweigh the cons (being a tool). From the tone of the article, it seems that the stigma of wearing earplugs is not what it used to be, primarily for two reasons: (1) there are enough health-conscious people doing it to where seeing someone in earplugs is not such a rarity, and (2) modern, well-designed earplugs apparently can lower volume while maintaining, or even enhancing, sound quality (by not cutting out the high and low frequencies). Here is a web page of various earplug types, ranging from simple one-size-fits-all versions to those that are customized and shaped by an audiologist for an individual's ears.
I've been more conscious about my hearing lately (my sensei's advice), so I've been giving some thought to wearing earplugs at rock shows (or at least bringing some with me and then making a game-time decision). Sensei also says that I should think about wearing a condom when I ride the bus. Sensei is so wise. They say he has the strength of a lion and the heart of a wild pony! 

Olivia Newton-John > Every current female pop singer

The conclusive evidence:

Recreating "How Soon Is Now?"

Here is a good video from a Youtube poster named "danielearwicker" that demonstrates how to get the sound achieved by The Smiths in "How Soon Is Now?" Not only is this a great demonstration of a difficult effect, but it also features one my favorite guitars, the lovely Rickenbacker 660/12:

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

You can buy almost four Radiohead albums for that

Today's Houston Chronicle (best daily newspaper in Houston!) reports that a federal judge has ordered a Houston man to pay $23,250 to five record companies for illegally downloading 31 songs on Kazaa. I'm actually kind of dying to know what these 31 songs were. If one of the songs was not "Umbrella" by Rihanna, then I will just scream!

Rolling like thunder, under the covers

Do you know what I like? Hollywood gossip. Do you know what I also like? Bollywood gossip. After that, I would say I also really like covers of songs I know.

While a fair amount has been written on what makes a good cover (see, for example, here and here), the true test for me is whether the song is simply believable coming from the covering artist. Some easy examples of covers that fail this test: H.R.M. Madonna's "American Pie" (what did Don McLean ever do to Madonna?), Macy Gray's "Walk This Way" (of course, I don't believe Macy Gray even when she sings her own songs), and Save Ferris's "Come on Eileen" (a particularly egregious act given the greatness of the original). For a good compilation of some of the worst covers of all time (with embedded videos to make life easier), see here.

Contrast those bad covers with, say, Stevie Wonder's "We Can Work It Out," Sinead O'Connor's version of "Nothing Compares 2 U," Alien Ant Farm's "Smooth Criminal," or The Bangles' take on "Hazy Shade of Winter." A list of some of the best covers (which shares some entries that are on the list of worst covers) can be found here.

An example of a pretty enjoyable cover that has been floating around the internet for the last year or so is Mat Weddle (of Scottsdale, Arizona folk/pop group Obadiah Parker) singing his version of Outkast's "Hey Ya!" This performance, recorded at an open-mic night in Scottsdale, was put in heavy rotation by Arizona radio stations and then gained a lot of popularity via Youtube. It is now available on iTunes.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Answer to the Question Nobody Asked

Apparently, '90s grunge freeriders Stone Temple Pilots have announced that they are reuniting, with their first show back scheduled for May 17, 2008 in Columbus, Ohio. STP (like the fuel additive, I get that one) frontman Scott Weiland has also made threats about the band possibly recording a new album. As he told The Pulse of Radio, "We were never a band that felt like we needed to lean too hard onto our muscle. We always felt like we had enough beauty and enough finesse in our music, you know, while we were together, that could carry us into a long career. So for us to make a record at an older age doesn't seem like a stretch, you know, 'cause we were never all about brawn."

That quote was seriously all pops and whistles to me.  I didn't understand a word of it.

Anyway, I will freely admit to liking one Stone Temple Pilots song, but college was a very confusing time for me. One very important thing to note: STP's reunion tour kicks off in Columbus on the very same night as Radiohead's impossibly-priced show in Houston. Let's just say that yours truly all of a sudden now has some serious leverage in negotiating with those Radiohead pricks.

(Note: I didn't really want to include a picture of Stone Temple Pilots, so I'm using this picture of a puppy that apparently can fly.)

Radiohead is expensive

Radiohead is playing the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Woodlands Pavilion Wood on May 17, 2008. Tickets went on sale awhile back, but I was too busy sitting on my sofa to buy them, so the only way to get tickets now is through a ticket broker. A quick lunchtime suvey of prices on the internet shows that prices for this show are just downright obscene. Tickets in the center of the pit, row P (so the sixteenth row), are going for as high as $7,000 each. Which is just plain wrong, as that's exactly $7,000 more than what I paid for In Rainbows. (It is clear that Radiohead is just bound and determined to get that $7,000 from me one way or the other. You're a worthy adversary, Radiohead. A worthy adversary, indeed.)

I like headphones

I'm no audiophile, but after a few months of listening to my iPod and computer through Shure's SE530's, I can say that I love these earphones and would recommend them to anybody. They sound great, are tough enough to accompany me to the gym or around the trail at Memorial Park (look, this body doesn't sculpt itself), and easily stay in my ears the whole time. At $449, they are a bit on the pricey side, but the (perhaps unsurprising) fact is that there are earphones out there that are much pricier, and probably much more delicate. Before the SE530's, I had Shure's E3c earphones (which are now discontinued), and the SE530's squash the E3c's like a grape (especially in bass response).

As for over-the-ear or on-the-ear headphones, I have been pretty satisfied with the SR325i's from Grado, which I've had for a long while now. They don't look nearly as cool or sound as good as Grado's GS1000 headphones, but the GS1000's cost $995, and I have not yet decided to become a coke dealer. As it is, the SR325i's offer more than enough performance, even without the use of a headphone amp.

For a good resource on earphones and headphones, including very in-depth reviews, look no further than Headroom.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sometimes numerous songs have the same name

If there is one thing people know about me, it's that I'm an empiricist. Perception, observation, evidence, and experience--these are the currencies in which I trade. Indeed, my gut tells me that I am probably the most empirical person on the internet. That said, my empirical mind has observed the following:
Fact #1: "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince is a fantastic song.

Fact #2: "Summertime" by The Sundays is also a fantastic song.

Fact #3: After careful listening, it is clear they are not the same song and are completely unrelated.

Fact #4: It is tempting to declare the DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince song more rad, but The Sundays' song is actually radder.

Join me in observing the videos for both:

But my favorite song titled "Summertime" at the moment can be heard here.

Art Garfunkel: songbird, reader

Art Garfunkel, best known as the female half of 1960s husband-and-wife duo Sonny & Garfunkel, likes to read books. In fact, his official website contains a log of each and every book he has read since June 1968 to the present (totaling more than 1000 books). For each book, Garfunkel lists the author, title, publication date, and how many pages it was. For real. I spent all morning adding up the number of cumulative pages he's read over the last forty years, and the number got so big I passed out. (Just as a heads-up, the number is definitely bigger than 500.)
Actually, I really do love Simon & Garfunkel, and I wholeheartedly buy into the no-duh notion that Paul Simon is one of the best songwriters in the history of pop music. Hearts and Bones (1983) and Graceland (1986) are both unbelievably gorgeous albums. But Garfunkel's The Animals Christmas Album (with Amy Grant) (1986)? I'm going to go with very believable and less gorgeous.

Apparently it's just me.

LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends" (from the album Sound of Silver)--named the number one track of 2007 by Pitchfork, the best single of 2007 by Guardian Unlimited, one of the ten best songs of 2007 by Time magazine, and "melancholy" and "triumphant" by doesn't seem that earth-shattering to me. I mean, I like melancholy and triumph just like everybody else, but I think this song is just okay. My bad, y'all.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Music videos are fun

Speaking of music videos, two websites worth exploring: The first is the website for The Director's Label Series, which is a DVD collection showcasing the music videos of seven fancy-pants directors: Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, Anton Corbijn, Jonathan Glazer, Mark Romanek, and Stephane Sednaoui. The music videos include, for example, Jonze's "Weapon of Choice" (Fatboy Slim), Corbijn's "Heart Shaped Box" (Nirvana), Glazer's "Karma Police" (Radiohead), Gondry's truly impressive "The Hardest Button to Button" (The White Stripes), and many others that would be right at home on Stuffwhitepeoplelike.

The second collection of music videos--Pitchfork's "100 Awesome Music Videos"--includes fare that is more middlebrow, but precisely because it comes from Pitchfork, the middlebrow-ness of the videos only serves to communicate the studied highbrow-ness of the compilation. (See inclusion of "Super Bowl Shuffle" by Chicago Bears Shufflin' Crew, "We're Not Gonna Take It" by Twisted Sister, "Hello" by Lionel Richie, etc. appearing next to "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads, "Dirty Boots" by Sonic Youth, and "Shady Lane" by Pavement.) Nonetheless, this list is worthwhile because it does put a lot of good, embedded videos in one place.

One omission in both compilations is the 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque video for Radiohead's "No Surprises" (from OK Computer) directed by Grant Gee. Both the song and the video are incredible:

A new video from Spoon

Spoon, perhaps my current favorite band, has released a new video for its fantastic Motown-laced track, "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb"--a song that has been in my heavy rotation for about six months. In fact, the entire album on which the song appears--Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (I agree that there is probably one too many Ga's in there)--is so good that I actually feel guilty for having bought the album last fall instead of in July, when it was released. This video for "Cherry Bomb," comprising stop-animation paper cut-outs, is just okay; its main virtue is that it accompanies one of the best ding-dang songs of the last year.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

This song makes me want to not cry so bad.

If we were to draw a Venn diagram where one set represents "people who were alive in 1991," and the other set represents "people who have functional use of their ears," it is a mathematical fact that the intersection of the two sets would be labeled "people who think the song below is ridiculously awesome."

Friday, March 14, 2008

Swing batter swing

My buddy Rich and I used to debate the criteria for what made a good at-bat song (the song that plays as a batter in baseball approaches the batter's box), and we never reached a consensus definition. In the end, it was something akin to obscenity: you couldn't define it, but you just knew a good at-bat song when you heard it. In 2004, ESPN Page 3 did the world a great service and published the at-bat song of almost every starting player in the majors. It is definitely worth a read.

Over the years, I've changed my hypothetical personal at-bat song hundreds of times, ranging from agit-rap (Public Enemy's "Bring the Noise") to classic rock (Zeppelin's "Kashmir") to electronica (Moby's "Extreme Ways"). At this moment, though, if I had to choose a song to walk up to the plate to, I'd probably have to go with Mr. Christopher Cross and his 1981 hit, "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)."  Specifically, the chorus:

When you get caught between the moon and New York City
I know it's crazy, but it's true
If you get caught between the moon and New York City
the best that you can do
the best that you can do
is fall in love . . . .

I know, you're scratching your head and thinking, "What a lame at-bat song." But BOOM! Look who just hit a walk-off homerun to win the World Series! And now is having his number immediately retired as he rounds the bases! IN YOUR FACE, MR. HEAD SCRATCHER.

We are young despite the years

When R.E.M. was younger, Michael Stipe had a 'fro, Peter Buck shook and jived convincingly, Mike Mills looked like a middle-schooler, and Bill Berry probably had no idea how to spell "aneurysm." And they were the coolest band in the world to me. Here they are, in their national television debut on October 6, 1983, playing "Radio Free Europe":

The dirty little secret of live performances

The earpiece in the drummer's ear, the light show that is perfectly coordinated with the tempo of the music, the synthesizer or string section that cannot be found onstage, and the performance that perfectly recreates the sound found on the album--these are all regular, and unsurprising, aspects of most touring rock shows. And more often than not, they are the telltale signs that the band performing--whether it is a stadium rock icon or a cheap, franchised cover band--is relying on backing tracks to create their sound.

Here's basically how it works: a band will pre-record various parts of their performance, usually on a computer hard drive, that they cannot perform live (for whatever reason). Such parts may include additional guitar riffs, synthesized music (like percussion, organ, strings, or horns), soundscaping, and even additional backup vocals. The band will then perform their songs live in time with the pre-recorded material. How do they coordinate the live performance with the recorded one? Usually through the drummer, who has an earpiece that plays a metronome-like "click track." The click track indicates when the backing track's music will begin, allowing the drummer to count his bandmates into the song to fit the backing track. The stage lighting is often also matched with the click track, so that the lighting effects are timed exactly to the songs.

The result is a live sound that is a full and perfect re-creation of the studio recording found on the album. This is why, for example, with only four members, U2's live performances--featuring numerous guitar parts, synthesizers, and additional vocals--sound so good. This is also why Keane can get away with having only one singer (who plays no instrument), a drummer, and one keyboard player, with no bassist or guitarist in sight. And it's not just modern, synth-heavy bands. Many traditional rock groups, such as The Who, rely on backing tracks. The undeniable fact is, for a very large number of touring acts, much of the "live" show was recorded long before the band took to the stage.

This 2001 article from Onstage Magazine, which refers to backing tracks as "the dirty little secret in the world of live performance," offers an interesting how-to on using backing tracks effectively. But isn't it cheating to use pre-recorded music when the show is billed as "live"? Doesn't the use of backing tracks mean that sometimes the band is no better than a karaoke act? Or are backing tracks simply necessary to satisfy concertgoers' expectations that their favorite bands' stage performances sound "just like the album"? The answer, no duh, is Yes.

In this performance of "Where the Streets Have No Name" (from the very important! black-and-white concert film Rattle and Hum), count the personnel on stage and then count the instruments heard. And notice the headphones on drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. who counts the band into the song. Also, try to read the subtitles. Whoever wrote those has the worst penmanship I've ever seen!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

There are lame guitar shops, and then there's Rockin' Robin

For the fourth-largest city in the Republic, there really is a dearth of good, local guitar shops in Houston. The shop of choice for most seems to be the 36-year-old Rockin' Robin Guitars, often viewed by Inside-the-Loopers as the venerable go-to place for the sophisticated guitar connoisseur. What a bunch of hooey. The selection there is horrible. Unless you're looking for a random-year Strat or Les Paul (and you don't care what exact year or which particular model), then you're out of luck. Barely less common guitars are almost impossible to find: mention a Rickenbacker 660/12 or a Gibson Hummingbird, and you'll only get blinks in return. Actually, that's not entirely fair: they'll blink at you, and then they'll tell you how nobody plays those guitars, and how this beaten-up Korean-made Strat they happen to have is really more worthwhile to own. Certain manufacturers they apparently don't even sell, like Vox. Not selling Vox amplifiers? Really? Shopping at Rockin' Robin is thus akin to going to a garage sale: the inventory is random and incoherent, as if limited to whatever stuff Mr. Rockin' Robin happened to have bought for himself over the last thirty-plus years (and priced at about 30% more than what you should be paying for it). Throw into the mix the condescending attitude of the employees, and what you've got is a rarity: a guitar store that is actually a bummer to hang out in.

But there are those who love Rockin' Robin. Why? The answer is simple: given its location, equidistant between River Oaks and the West U./Southampton area, a lot of Rockin' Robin's customers simply have more money than experience (or time) to know any better. The clientele comprises mainly doctors and lawyers or their floppy-haired kids. (I know--growing up in West U. and frequenting Rockin' Robin when I was younger, I recognize my own kind when I see it.) Rockin' Robin thus smartly caters to a middle-aged, bourgeois imagining of what a guitar store should look like: poor lighting, torn concert bills and posters on the walls, amps lying about, peeling stickers on old rotten door frames, employees with long hair and rock-n-roll snarls. I guess the look is right (for those expecting their guitar shops to look like something out of Guitar Hero), but everything else--involving the actual buying of guitars--is wrong.

In contrast, the best guitar shop in Houston, also locally owned, is Fuller's Vintage Guitars. Located near 610 and Shepherd, it has an impressive selection of new and vintage guitars, hung neatly and logically throughout the store. The prices are as low as any you would find on the web, and the staff is very knowledgeable and helpful. They're basically guitar nerds, and with their large inventory, they pretty much have to be. Fuller's apparently has one of the largest Rickenbacker collections in the country, and when shopping for a Gibson ES-335 last year, I had my pick of about six in the store. That's admirable. One important advantage Fuller's seems to have is its relationships with the major guitar manufacturers; it is, for example, one of only twenty-six shops in the U.S. designated as a Gibson Original Dealer. As someone with no affiliation with either Fuller's or Rockin' Robin but who has spent a lot of time in both, the difference between the two is night and day. One is an actual, working guitar shop; the other is a clichéd cartoon of one.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

My Morning Jacket's Wall of Sound

My Morning Jacket's psychedelic/alt-country/jam band version of the Wall of Sound was in full effect last night at Verizon, with mixed results. MMJ was clearly going for a big, epic sound, but the line between being Epic versus just being Loud was often blurry for me in their two-hour set. Standing about twelve feet from the stage, the general feeling I had was one of unevenness: there were times I felt awed, and there were other times I honestly felt, well, bored. During the show, it struck me that a wall of sound can be grandiose and enveloping, or it can be impenetrable and two-dimensionally monolithic. If nothing else, the fact that I even had a moment to have that dorky thought proves that MMJ's show was at times uninvolving for me. (Or that I was high from second-hand pot.)

A lot of this seemed related to the material: with the band's newer songs (including a healthy dose of songs from the upcoming Evil Urges, which includes "Highly Suspicious," where Jim James sings like Prince!), the emotion seemed somehow programed into the performance, as if a connection with the audience could be dialed in with something as simple as a volume knob on the engineer's console. So while loud, there was sometimes distance and sterility, even on some old favorites like "The Way That He Sings." Which was a shame because I love that song.

On the other hand, MMJ's performance of their other older material was exactly what I had hoped for--alive and immediate--even though it suffered a little human error (like occasional poor mixing of vocals or guitars). "One Big Holiday," for one, was ridiculously good, and "Run Thru" had the crowd completely. So there were definite high points on Monday night, but I will say that the last MMJ show I saw--at ACL Festival 2005--had, if less volume, then definitely more rawk. One consistency between the two shows, though, was Jim James's voice (from the I'm-singing-at-the-bottom-of-a-well school of rock, whose alumni also include Hope Sandoval), which soared.

Another plus from the show was that I didn't see any whored-up soccer moms dancing among the crowd. I did see a really tan dude with lots of hair product in an untucked, striped shirt with fancy jeans, though. And that made me a bit sad. But then I thought of him being a male hooker who was perhaps broke, and that made me feel better. I win again!

UPDATE: The setlist, along with some videos of the show, is here (courtesy of a music fan website that has recently endeared itself to me, Breakfast on Tour).

Namechecking Christina Applegate seemed pretty cool in 1991

Maybe it's still pretty cool now. What's abundantly clear, however, is that this song, in which said namechecking occurs, continues to be The Awesome:

On the Youtube page for this video, there is one commenter who wrote, "Fo shizzle yo--Notorious BIG and DJ Jazzy Jeff HOOOKED IT UP in this one!" I can't lie: I wish I had written that.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The Manchester Orchestra are good, young

My first brush with The Manchester Orchestra came at ACL Festival 2007, when they accompanied the solo, acoustic Kevin Devine for a few songs during his Saturday 11:00am set. The sound of Devine with the band was incendiary, especially on "Just Stay" and "Cotton Crush." So much so, in fact, that I immediately had two thoughts. First, I regretted missing M.O.'s ACL show from the day before, and second, I needed to check out their music. When I got home to Houston, here's what I learned: (a) they're from Atlanta; (b) they're ridiculously young (average age: 19), and (c) they're really, really good. Their first full-length album, I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child (2006), features "The Neighborhood is Bleeding," "Wolves at Night," and "Where Have You Been?" The songs are interesting, yet familiar in a late-'80s indie sort of way. The band is getting the attention it deserves: not only did the boys appear on Letterman and Conan this past fall, but they have also toured with Kevin Devine, Kings of Leon (whom I hate), and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, among others. This, in addition to having played Bonnaroo and ACL, and playing in this year's Coachella (coming up in April). How envious am I of the idea of being 19 and playing in a rock band on Letterman and at major rock festivals? Ten envious. (By the way, in the photo above, that fair maiden in the back row who looks like Dave Grohl is no maiden. It's just a dude with long hair. His name is Robert McDowell. You can look it up!)

Here they are, performing "Wolves at Night" on Letterman last September:

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Arthur Yoria is worth the $10

Chicago-to-Houston transplant Arthur Yoria picked up a guitar for the first time relatively late in life, while he was a student at UH. He has since gotten pretty good and released two EPs and two full-length albums. Along with former Rockets point guard Matt Maloney, Yoria also founded his own record label, 12Records, Inc., which distributed his two albums--I'll Be Here Awake (2003) and Handshake Smiles (2007). Both are pretty cheery and melodic, and both include a number of standouts, such as the David Garza-esque "Call Me" (no relation to the Blondie song), "Sandy," and "Here to Stay." While his songs have been used on a number of TV shows (including The O.C. and various MTV broadcasts) and ad campaigns, Yoria still toils in relative obscurity. His career took a slight detour after I'll Be Awake due to panic attacks that kept him from performing live, but he seems back to his old form. He now plays throughout the country but can often be found at Rudyard's, where his shows often feature "live" looping in addition to a full band. I chatted with him briefly last year at one of his shows, and he couldn't have been nicer. He is certainly worth the $10 cover (or whatever it is).

Indie music is so, um, white.

Or so says the normally-annoying Sasha Frere-Jones. I think he's actually on to something, though, as obvious as the point may be. (From the October 22, 2007 New Yorker.)

You heard it here first

Scientists at M.I.T. have concluded that, as a matter of physics, it is impossible to look cool while playing an Ovation guitar. Don't I know it--I had one (in fact, I had the cheaper Celebrity model) throughout high school and college. Sigh.

I don't really get Vampire Weekend

I honestly don't get what the buzz over Vampire Weekend is about. If these guys didn't push their preppy Ivy League schtick so aggressively (with references to Columbia, Hyannis, Cape Cod, Cambridge, etc.), would the songs themselves actually be so well liked? Even Pitchfork gave their self-titled debut an 8.8, which is pretty high praise for what really amounts to nothing more than status-conscious lifestyle jingles., where are you when we need you?

Lick the Tins does a good Elvis

I was going to post a list of my favorite covers, but that seemed too daunting. Instead, I'll just highlight one particular cover--Lick the Tins' rendition of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love"--that is at least equal if not better than the original version. This track can be found on Lick the Tins' 1986 album, Blind Man on a Flying Horse, and on the soundtrack to the 1987 John Hughes film, Some Kind of Wonderful.

As an aside, the Some Kind of Wonderful soundtrack is worth getting for the other songs as well. Included is a slightly peppier (and more satisfying) version of "The Hardest Walk" by The Jesus and Mary Chain (compared to the version found on Psychocandy) as well as a very '80s sounding cover of The Rolling Stones' "Miss Amanda Jones" by The March Violets.

Kevin Devine should be more famous

While there is no shortage of confessional singer-songwriters armed with acoustic guitars, Brooklyn-based Kevin Devine is simply more special--and more likable--than most. His set at the 2007 ACL Festival, in which he was accompanied part way through by Atlanta-based (and enviably young and talented) Manchester Orchestra, was one of the highlights of ACL for me.
Above is one of the pictures I took at that sweltering set. Below are some videos of Devine performing live I found on Youtube (check out the very cherry Gibson ES-335 (in Cherry) in the second video).

"Heaven Bound and Glory Be" from Put Your Ghost to Rest (2006):

"Cotton Crush" from Split the Country, Split the Street (2005):

Playing to my vanity is always a good business idea

I'm surprised I haven't heard of this before. I feel a bit guilty for wanting one.

France's First Lady > Our First Lady

Carla Bruni--former supermodel and mistress to the likes of Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, and new wife of French president Nicolas Sarkozy--is a not a bad singer-songwriter. I'd be interested to know how Laura Bush measures up in the music department. Here is Bruni singing her best known English-language single, "Those Dancing Days Are Gone," from her album No Promises (2007):

Saturday, March 8, 2008


BigChampagne--founded by my old friend Eric Garland (SJS '90, Rice '94) back in 1999--has emerged as the most-relied-on independent collector of online music acquisition stats (such as P2P music sharing and other downloads) in the music industry.  BigChampagne monitors which songs are being swapped and downloaded--legally and illegally--and it sells this information to broadcasters such as MTV and record labels.  The information helps, for example, a record company in deciding which song off an album should become the next single (based on knowing in advance how popular the songs are among downloaders and file sharers). I had talked to Eric about his business idea a long time ago, when BigChampagne was just getting started, and I'm glad to see that it has done so well.

My Morning Jacket plays Houston the day after tomorrow.

Jim James, lead singer for MMJ, writes nice songs, and he sings them well.

You cannot sexy-dance to "Jesus, Etc."!

Wilco's performance at Verizon last night was crowd-pleasing, if not spectacular. "Not spectacular" because Jeff Tweedy's voice was shredded and torn, making him sound like he was channeling Tom Waits. "Crowd-pleasing" because Tweedy as a result spent a fair amount of the night affably apologizing and compensating by playing a longer set (six songs in the encore) comprising many older songs from the Wilco catalog ("Kingpin," "Red-Eyed and Blue," "Monday"). I would have preferred more songs from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Summerteeth, and I would have definitely liked to have heard "At Least That's What You Said" (which they didn't play the last time I saw them, either, at ACL Festival '07). Standouts of the night were "Via Chicago," "A Shot in the Arm," "Pot Kettle Black," "Jesus, Etc.," and, of course, "Impossible Germany." Of the four times I've seen Wilco, this was probably the weakest show, though it's still Wilco, so I riked it a rot.

As with almost any show, the most egregious element was the concertgoers. Gwen and I were standing in the General Admission floor area, but we were immediately behind the small area set aside for handicapped people (where there are chairs so they can sit). This is generally a good place to see a show because there is no one standing in front of you (if you are directly behind the barricade that marks the back of the handicap section), and you are still relatively close to the stage. There was one group of middle-aged women inside the handicap area last night, however, that abused this accomodation unmercifully. They seemed unfamiliar with Wilco's music generally and instead were just tickled at the idea of themselves being at a "rock concert." The specific problems, in order, were that they were (a) not handicapped, (b) standing, and (c) dancing. The dancing was particularly egregious. Mainly because it was from the incredibly painful please-look-at-me-while-I-sensually-look-at-my-own-body school of dancing. There seemed to be a sizable gap between how attractive they thought they were and what they actually looked like. And this, um, sultriness went on for every song in the set. It is a scientific fact that you cannot sexy-dance to "Jesus, Etc."! What's next, Adagio for Strings?!

UPDATE: Breakfast on Tour's pictures and recap of the show can be found here.