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4.25.2006

moments before the wind. has moved 

I switched over to Wordpress so RSS feeds and trackbacks among other things are now very easy. please change your bookmarks, or favorites, or whatever you use. Thanks!!

new addy:
www.alimarcus.wordpress.com
and still, as always,
www.momentsbeforethewind.com

these must be the flags of freedom flyin' 

I have to post about this, just because I want to spread the word.

www.livingwithwar.blogspot.com

This is a blog to support the last-minute release of a new Neil Young album, Living With War. It is not a blog run by Neil Young, contrary to what some people think, as evidenced in the comments.

Amazing point #1: There are comments! How often do high profile bloggers enable comments on their blogs? Often, the rationalization is that with such famous people, the number of comments would be unruly and too difficult to moderate, etc. etc and so forth. Not this one. Just one example of practicing what you preach.

Amazing point #2: An internet campaign! a real, true, internet-based campaign. According to an alternately hilarious and articulate CNN interview with Young, the album was a rash decision as far as standard time frames are concerned. Reprise Records didn't know it was made until Young brought it to them asking for immediate distribution. So due to the slow manufacturing process, they've opted to go digital. Utilizing YouTube and Blogger are normal for people like me, and intelligent choices for people like Young's label camp. Especially when the message is about freedom of speech and democracy and the voice of the people. Young even outlined it in the interview: first they will publish the lyrics, then they will roll out streaming music from the website, then they will have the album available at digital retail, and then, finally, when it's ready (in May sometime), the physical CD will appear.

(Did I say May? Yes. That means the entire turnaround time is...a month. From recording studio to Tower Records. That's the kind of bold change that needs to be made.)

Amazing point #3: from "Flags of Freedom":
flags that line old main street are blowin' in the wind
these must be the flags of freedom flyin'


Thanks to Coolfer for the information.

I also want to add a link to this dicussion at the Slog about Pink's new protest song, "Dear Mr. President." Be sure to read the comments. My opinion is that its rockin' on two accounts. Gets the kids thinking, and also, hey, Pink can sing. who knew? Maybe one day she'll veer towards a more Lucinda Williams kind of grit, or a Chrissie Hyndes kind of rock. That'd be neat.

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4.24.2006

reason number infiniti 

Makes me want to puke. Gives me chills to the core of my being.

4.23.2006

and i threw my roses down 

NY Times on MySpace

The future of MySpace seems up in the air, although not as much as optimists would like to believe. This lengthy article in today's NY Times explains a bit about the inner conflicts of the Rupert Murdoch's corporate takeover. It's pretty clear that Murdoch's bottom line is going to win out over the desire to serve the MySpace users. The article does a good job of illustrating the discrepancies between the executive's goals. Go read it.

There was one point that isn't quite accurate though. A lot of discussion is made about giving advertisers their own profiles, so that MySpace users can become friends with, say, Target or a new Nike line. Therefore, the company could post blogs and send out announcements that are affectively personalized, directed advertisements. There is a line drawn between these sorts of overtly commercial tactics and the social networking that currently goes on on the site. My immediate reaction to this assertion is that a huge component of MySpace is already doing this- the music industry uses it as an advertisement in exactly this fashion. Bands having their own sites to promote shows is just the tip of the iceberg. Venues, radio stations, record labels, booking agents, all these people and more have company MySpace profiles. They are doing it to enhance their business. To a certain extent, it fosters the relationships that create the business, but it is mostly, in my experience, just another form of shameless advertising. To expand this concept from, say, a local Seattle bar to a new line of Clinique makeup isn't nearly as drastic as the article makes it out to be.

Does this make Fox's intentions acceptable? Does it merely expose MySpace's purported revolutionary networking as just another form of the same old game? Or is it all a matter of scale? Maybe the value of promoting music makes it more ethical than promoting more blatantly consumer-oriented products. Maybe the great effect that MySpace has had on the music industry will soon become a thing of the past, as the site falls into corporate conglomerate oblivion.

All in all, the article makes MySpace feel like an exciting, promising business venture, but is incredibly disheartening to those who attribute(d) any kind of value that goes beyond what can be found in a mall or on TV.

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4.20.2006

say, say, the light 

I'm in a recording studio, although it looks strangely similar to KEXP's radio booth with the microphones for guests and the shelves of music. I am aware that the room next to me is the office-space of the studio, and that inside it is Ben Gibbard, frontman for Death Cab For Cutie. I am trying to decide whether or not to go introduce myself, knowing that I may not be able to refrain from insulting his band. I am also under the impression that he is waiting for me; there has been some sort of previous communication between him and I, and he is expecting my arrival. What I can't figure out, though, is the nature of the meeting. I am afraid that he already knows how I feel about his band and that this is some sort of confrontation, but it is equally possible that he has no idea who I am and in that case, why would we have set up a meeting? Paranoia strikes deep.

That strange feeling in dreams of knowing things without being able to explain their existence is really unnerving, and in this little KEXP-like studio control room I am deeply saturated with it, debating what to do. In walks someone whom I now can't place. In the dream, I knew him - he was some kind of musician, tall, splayed hair, dark glasses, dark clothes. Damn, I can't remember. Anyways, he somehow assures me that Ben Gibbard doesn't know who I am, and prompts me to venture into the office.

It turns out to be very anticlimactic; whatever I was expecting out of Ben Gibbard never surfaced. Surprise. In fact, it's all pretty hazy right now. One moment sticks out crystal clear though. I guess I had said something to him that was total BS, about working at the studio or something, and he looks at me, narrows his eyes, and says "what are you really here for?" I am shaken by that comment, because I interpret it as a challenge. Maybe he does know! I think.

In the end, I am left here wondering what the big deal was. In fantastical sensory-overload dreamland, it seemed a horrible thing to be on what felt like Ben Gibbard's turf and wanting to dis his music. In the waking life though, I am, as usual, fascinated by the way in which we allow ourselves to experience feelings in spite of their irrelevance to reality. It makes it pretty clear that maybe what we consider relevant is more a function of what we consider appropriate, or sensible, or acceptable.

I can't get the slitty-eyed accusation out of my head though: "What are you really here for?" Why Ben Gibbard? Why, of all people, did this have to come from the King of What Is Wrong With Pop Music?

Later, after this episode, I dreamed I was walking through a kaleidescope, where the walls and ceiling turned in 3-d motion with every step I took, changing my surroundings from an airplane to an elephant herd to a Versace store. The soundtrack was REM's Green, which is kind of an apocalyptic album. Some lines i definitely remember dreaming:

Sometimes I feel like I can't even sing
I'm very scared for this world; I'm very scared for me

Hello, I'm sorry I lost myself
I think I thought you were someone else

I'm not supposed to be like this
But it's OK...

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yesterday was once tomorrow 

...what to write...what to write...

I'm going to post some reviews. No sense in waiting around for someone to pay me for them when the albums are out there just waiting to be bought.

The Attic is a local Seattle band that I had the pleasure of reviewing for Seattle Sound, but due to space constraints it won't be published there, so it's pasted below. (Other writing of mine and others in SS streets in May, so keep your eyes peeled)

And below that is one on Two Gallants, contemporary bards of the modern age. They will be in Seattle June 1st, mark your calendars...

Tomorrow i will describe in depth the dream I had last night about Ben Gibbard. Until then, enjoy--






TWO GALLANTS
What The Toll Tells
(Saddle Creek)
We are welcomed into Two Gallants’ sophomore effort, What The Toll Tells, with the tell-tale dustbowl winds, bristling across the barren flats of Oklahoma, ushering in a certain kind of scene, stripping away any semblance of civilization, or the luxury of participating in it. But what follows proves to be a sort of reckless abandon with respect to expectations. All bets are off; all rules null and void.

What follows is a sometimes-frenetic, sometimes-morbid, always-riveting catalogue of human experience. Epic, nine-minute ballads bring us to the point of nihilistic exhaustion, and then sprawling bursts of energy faithfully return us to the ground. Searing political damnation melds with the adolescent pathos of a life that no longer wants to be lived. Seems a bit heady for two guys in their early twenties, doesn’t it?

After the underground success of their first album, The Throes (Alive Records), childhood buddies Adam Stephens and Tyson Vogel signed on at Saddle Creek Records for Toll, most notably home to Conor Oberst. The duo bears a lot of similarity to the good parts of Oberst’s Bright Eyes outfit: country-esque roots, relevant youthful disillusionment, lyrical acrobatics, believable passion and serious songwriting skills.

“Steady Rollin’” eagerly steps up as the pub sing-along, as the chorus is half-yelled, “I come from the old town baby/ to wait for you to save me,” but this rowdy romp is more the exception than the rule. “Slender Rest” provides the kind of macabre respite that evokes a confessional Byron, and “Threnody” is a masterful story worthy of Edgar Allen Poe. It’s rare for such poetic notions to sound so much like rock’n’roll.

That literary references seem more appropriate than music ones is not so strange, given that their name comes directly from a James Joyce short story and Stephens claims Faulkner as a key influence. The narrative quality of almost every song on Toll speaks to this. It’s not just the lyrics either, because the dynamics and tempo are employed to tell a story of their own, alongside the words.

It is partly this refusal to utilize pop standards of regularity or predictable form that recall musics of the early 20th century. But the rough vocals, schizophrenic tempos, sparse arrangements and torrid tales meld together into a most appealing - and thoroughly modern - combination. And we know that these boys are not down-on-their-luck coal miners, nor are they heroes of the romantic poet persuasion. (They may want to be: “So I’ll take to the hills to live savage and free/ I don’t need nobody, nobody needs me.”) Their skill in depicting the commonalities though, between these character sketches and the life of a youthful American citizen, is outstanding. The ability to play it off with complete sincerity is a marvel, and the effect on the listener is sheer wonder at the shock of recognition. ALI MARCUS

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4.14.2006

everybody knows what i'm talking about 

There's an interesting dialogue going on at Alex Ross's blog today about classical music, specifically, attempts to figure out what elements are responsible for its loss of apprecation, audience, and general place in American culture. It would appear that, on some kind of larger scale, the same kinds of cultural earthquakes that made rock music cool made classical music uncool.

One key point brought up by Steve Metcalf via Ross and then A.C. Douglas is about the inability of the educational system to expose kids to the classical genre. They don't all agree about whether or not you can blame the schools.

-Metcalf says, "Blaming the schools for the problems of the concert hall is, I'm afraid, a cop-out. It excuses us from the harder task of inventing genuinely compelling new concert models and thinking up compelling new ways to sell them to an over-stimulated and distractible public."
-Douglas says, "In today's world, the single most important — overwhelmingly important — entity in the promotion of classical music is none other than the commercial media, cable and broadcast TV most especially."
-Ross says, "The need now is to recapture the attention of young adults, not by making the music superficially "cool" (can't be done, anyway) but by stressing its passion, its intelligence, its relevance."

Back in college (Music degrees do actually have relevance) we spent a lot of time talking about the seismic postwar rumblings that caused this earthquake. But it's the classic black hole of History, and we can find significance as far back as we want - The French Revolution, maybe?

I'm not going to go that far back, but I do want to go beyond WWII. I think that the real culprit, since we are assigning blame, is the 19th century-era canonization of the western Germanic tradition. The very obvious split between "serious" classical works and "trashy" operas was not dissimilar to the genre-pandering marketing engine of today's pop music industry. In the same way that a contemporary rock critic will invoke the spirit of, say, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, and Radiohead to establish a credible background for a new post-rock-post-punk-emo-retro-soul band, for about 150 solid years now, classical music appreciation starts with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner. Anyone who ever took piano lessons will verify this. There is an implicit assumption that people who appreciate classical music are involved in an intellectual dialogue with the music itself, and if they are not, then they aren't part of the club.

Meanwhile, Rossini's operas were hits, and in the realm of industry-speak they were the Top 40, the Garth Brooks. It's no suprise that a social divide caused a division in the market. This is no strange occurence to us today.

Therefore, and I hope you can follow my train of thought, to try and blame the schools for not being able to indoctrinate children with the Beethoven bug is absolutely ludicrous. There are so many upsetting problems regarding schools and arts education, but this is not one of them. To relegate classical music to a scholastic experience merely furthers the pigeonhole effect, limiting the realm of experience to academia, separating it from the grit and passion of regular experience; this instinct shows that we have come no further than about 1875.

Despite the differences of opinion of the above critics (and they are not incredibly different, either), one thing jumps out at me. They adhere to the term "classical music" in a way that will not help them in their common cause. Everybody understands that it's a term of convenience; it applies to the Germanic canon but also to Debussy and John Adams and plenty of contemporary symphonic or opera composers that I don't know enough about. Nevertheless, if they are concerned with selling, they will need to change their terms. Critics and salesmen knew it in the 19th century, and these days they call it branding, but the question of naming is essential to changing the public opinion. What category would the Kronos Quartet fall in? (By the way, Mr. Ross has a great review of them in a recent New Yorker) - Or how about Elvis Costello's new release with the Brodsky Quartet - more like a Schubert than anyone else I can think of. And a lot of Billy Joel's earlier work crosses the line as well. These are just a few obvious examples.

Musicians, even rock musicians, especially rock musicians, owe a whole lot to people like Beethoven and Wagner. I hear echoes all the time. The social stigma of classical music is undoubtedly what keeps people away.

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4.12.2006

no man's wife 

This New Yorker article about Muzak is pretty interesting. I'll admit that I did not know Muzak did regular music programming; I thought their whole business was about the instrumentalized pop music. Turns out it is a stigma that they are still trying to shed. The brand became too closely associated with the product, like Xerox. What Muzak really does is unite stereotypical associations of musical genre with lifestyle perceptions in what an executive calls "retail theater." A brilliant term, by the way.

What do I think of this? It's a real turn-off, in the sense that the music choice seems so uninspired. On a corporate level, I mean, Gap and Armani could do so much better than merely imitating the blandness of MTV or VH1 or CMT, depending. Seattle's OnHold program, for instance, takes the opportunity to expose callers to local independent music while they angrily or patiently await their service from the city offices. Whereas Muzak claims to be helping the retail stores make money, the Seattle government helps the artists by showcasing their work. Music for Music's sake, and for all the right reasons, it seems.

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4.11.2006

my tambourine is still shaking 

It's pretty clear to everybody that major labels are having a hard time adjusting to the effect of new technology on their business models. It's less of an adjustment and more of a sea change in terms of business practices. While the advantages of social networking websites and filesharing and cheap recording equipment is obvious to users of MySpace, BitTorrent, and GarageBand, the wake-up call to marketers seems to be incredibly delayed. I tend to zone out when quarterly financial reports come out, because they say the same thing over and over and over again. CD sales down a certain percentage, profits down a certain percentage, but the growth of digital music revenue, if it continues to expand exponentially, promises to exceed anybody's wildest dreams. It seems to me that as more of these reports that come out, more people are learning to harness the power of the internet.

I think maybe the politics of fear had a huge impact on the first few years of the millenium, but as it continues into absurdity, the scare tactics - while very real to the defendants in court - are symptomatic of some kind of kamikaze attempt to preserve an order that actually disappeared a few years ago. (What am I talking about? Music or the White House?)

In the end, major labels will refine their various departments, seek out the right kind of talent, and figure out how to re-route the massive amounts of dollars that flow through their creaky pipes. It will take years, because an entire population raised without CDs has to become working adults, and eventually the older veterans will come to a point of understanding. When we get there, I wonder if the indie/major divide will be any different. It is true that in our current circumstances, more independently-minded, young/technology savvy kids have an advantage. That can go one of two ways though - it can cause a revolution, or it can provide the experimental evidence that will point the majors in the right direction. Which is more likely?

As for my own music, which I give away for free for several different reasons, I continue to believe that the surest, most stable and most favorable way to pursue a musical career has nothing to do with selling sound recordings. Most music can be got for free these days, and I doubt the abilities of a free-market government to find a way to limit that. I doubt the goals of smart record labels will continue to involve suing their fans.

This op-ed article exposes, in the simplest of ways, the hypocrisy of the music industry and the impotence of the beaurocratic structure. Poignantly written by Alan Berry of Berry's Music.

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4.10.2006

if that's what you choose 

"That's what made me realize something about the nature of phonographs: they admit no ending. They imply perpetuity.

All this seems far from our usual concerns with the hardware of sound reproduction. But then again, speculating on endlessness may be getting at the purposive essence of all this electronic gadgetry — its "telos," as the Greeks would say. In the perennial rebirth of music through recordings, something of life itself steps over the normal limits of time."


This is a quote from an article written by Hans Fantel in 1989. To find out who he is and what he is referring to, click here. It's a wonderfully written article, and hits on one of the most compelling ideas about classical music.

It also does something else, which is what I want to write about. As this delicious Victrola coffee courses through my system, I think perhaps the caffeine is causing me to make some connections that may take a bit of explanation.

Just a few days ago, I rambled a bit about folk music and why it is important to me in the abstract, tangible way that it is. The key idea that I have been thinking about ever since was the word "temporality." And I don't think I even came close to explaining what I meant; I chose instead to bet on the reader's instinctual understanding. I hope that worked, even if just a little bit.

For both Mr. Fantel and me, temporality is exquisite proof of something to wonder at, something to revere. Its exposure through musical events seems to have affected us in a similar manner; at least, I read what he wrote and feel a sort of kindred experience. For me, it had to do with folk music and for him it had to do with technology. None of this matters of course, because underneath it I see a larger framework- the human desire for immortality. Not that you can defy time - but you can perceive an existence of things outside of the standard rules that it imposes. That sense of perception is many things: fulfilling, thrilling, intimidating.

I begin to see that it's possible that concepts like History, Past, Future are not things that definitely exist. In high school, we used to hate it when our tests were "cumulative"; it meant that we had to remember everything we'd learned for the whole year, instead of just that unit or semester. At the time, it seemed ridiculous that the teachers expected us to know all that. Now, I see it was ridiculous that the students believed they could just move on.

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4.08.2006

waiting in line for the ferry 

The OED's first two definitions of "criticism" are as follows:

1. The action of criticizing, or passing judgement upon the qualities or merits of anything; esp. the passing of unfavourable judgement; fault-finding, censure.
2. The art of estimating the qualities and character of literary or artistic work; the function or work of a critic.

This exposes a common confusion about what to expect from critics, musical and otherwise. What some people simply call "judgement", others would call "positive criticism" or "negative criticism." Many people will notice that it is much easier to criticize than to plainly describe a work; it's a natural reaction to think "I like this," or "I don't like that." It is usually more of a challenge to point out specific characteristics from an objective stance. It also, people often note, requires an amount of musical vocabulary that people often lack.

The difference between OED definitions #1 and #2 is that #1 is the common public conception of the meaning of "criticism." The truth is, though, #2 is usually expected of most critics. I am discovering this as I write more and more music reviews for editors, and absorb their advice, input, and goals. What I see is happening though, is that objectivity itself, the act of merely describing, is strikingly biased as well.

Writing a review of some music that I don't think is particularly stellar is what's hardest, because what I really want to do is describe all its failures. Do the musicians involved really want to hear that? I should hope so! They should not be so quick to take just one writer at her word anyways, and besides nobody is capable of avoiding conflict. If they think they are, or if they wish they could, then their priorities are not in the right place. I think without making a conscious decision to be this way, I am a major supporter of the Socratic Method - or my version of it anyways.

It makes sense to me that there will be many more 'bad' reviews than 'good' ones. This is representative of the general quality of music out there: there is so much more bad than good. Most music is mediocre at best. I realize that I am a more critical person than most (in the sense of def. #1), and I fully believe that the relative few treasures more than make up the lack in everything else. And I also acknowledge the pleasure derived from ripping on awful music; though I can't in any way make that sound anything but malicious, it's nevertheless true. I love to bash awful music.

Some people argue that it doesn't do any good to be so negative. So many bands are struggling just to keep on it; why would somebody want to expend the extra effort just to further discourage them? Well, in the example of certain horrible bands, I would say that that is precisely my goal. I would also say that opening a discussion on a band is nothing but good for that band, because there is always someone else with a different opinion, and writing about it brings it into people's conscious thoughts. Any press is good press. Besides, if you ask me, it's the rare musician who really has what it takes to perservere, and I am not even referring to musical skill. If someone has it in them, that alone will get him where he needs to go. That's the kind of faith I have, and it's the kind of faith you need in order to keep on it.


Of course, maintaining this kind of faith is what prompts me to seek it out in others. The people I have surrounded myself with are recognizably radiant in it, and the musicians I respect, whether I know them personally or not, are similarly aglow. And this is what I mean about being objective; a critic can only be objective within her own worldview. Even when I try my damndest to avoid a bias, it's only some poetic ambiguity, or distanced technical language that is a device for feigning interest. I want to add, also, that the challenge of this kind of writing is strangely enticing as well - sort of an exercise in subtlety.

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4.06.2006

i believe my throat hurts 

Definitions are a pain in the ass. I was going to try to define folk music, because it is coming up in a lot of conversations and I wanted to defend it. Nobody comes to the defense of folk music.

But I can't define it. What folk music is to me is music that sprouts from a community. Music that bonds people together who otherwise wouldn't be bound in that way. It doesn't matter how- it could be in a classroom, or in a cotton field, or in a recording studio. For me, it was some concerts on a lawn and summer camp. Some grownups that fascinated me and included me in their worlds.

There is something about folk music, too, that requires the passage of time. There is a lineage; there is something that you can trace forwards and backwards out from yourself. And then you feel this line, like a thread of fishing wire, tugging right there on you, and that is the moment that people are searching for.

Folk music isn't just the Carter Family or Joan Baez. It's not just first-grade music class, or an autoharp, or some aging hippies. It is saturated with temporality, and it helps to situate yourself in a certain place and time. And when people play it, when they cover songs, or write their own, or have them stuck in their heads, they are participating too.

Our private lives seem so important; cars, or personal media devices, or any number of things, pretty much separate us from really having to pay attention to what goes on around us. But it's also important to make sure that we can get pleasure or entertainment out of things other than sexy consumer products, at least sometimes. I know that those things, like certain TV shows or a hot pair of jeans, can tug at a person too.

My defense of folk music is simply that it is meaningful. A fleeting memory that I have of "The Sound Of Silence" on the shores of Fallen Leaf Lake sticks forever, and the deaths of a million pairs of perfectly worn jeans doesn't even come close, despite the momentary grief.

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4.04.2006

the hills of iowa make me wish that i could 

Scattered things today.

-Sometimes blogging is like a cocktail party, where everyone is sufficiently willing to participate in sort of random conversations with strangers, either for entertainment or for the rare moment that it brings a new person into your life somehow. Other times, it feels like you ventured out to a different table in the cafeteria, and are completely unable to participate on equal terms. Blogs, too, are capable of mimicking society in the sense that some are clique-y and others are not. Blogs themselves will not change the world, but the people that write on them might.

-Other recent similes running through my brain: "A pretty girl is like a minstrel show" (Magnetic Fields), and "Dave Matthews is like Starbucks" (me).

-On Amazon.com there is a video clip of Springsteen et al recording John Henry, one of the tracks on the upcoming album of Pete Seeger covers. Go watch it. I was expecting some solo Tom Joad-esque versions, since the album was reportedly recorded back in the 90's - and no doubt there will be some - but this video indicates something I am now incredibly excited for. Springsteen-ified folk songs. I'll write a post about folk music one of these days, and you will see why this is such a fantastic turn of events in my world.

- Two Gallants are a band that I highly recommend. The reference their name makes to Joyce is cool, but the subconscious memories it dredges up for me about "Goofus and Gallant" are cooler. Highlights! rules! Please listen to their music, it is enchanting.

4.01.2006

i'm a mountain like you said to be 

I just had an experience worth talking about. I was parking my car and I had the radio on. A Brandi Carlisle song was playing, and I'm sitting there thinking, "What's all the fuss about this girl?" I don't really get it. I am also frustrated because finding parking on a a Saturday night on Capitol Hill is not very easy, and all I want to do after a long day out and about is go inside and sit down.

Then, the song switches, and on comes those tell-tale arpeggiated guitar-pluckings with the warm, electrified, if-they-had-a-color-they'd-be-sunny-yellow tones that mean only one thing: REM. "Strange Currencies," to be exact. Also, I find a parking spot. So I smile and do a kick-ass parking job while singing "I don't know why you're mean to me..." And then I sit in the car, sing along with the rest of the song, and move on.

Why did I wait to hear the whole song? I have Monster, and easily could have just gone up to my apartment and played it. I was even thinking, as I sat in the cold dark, about what exactly it was that kept me glued there, unable to turn off the radio. And I think that the reason is precisely what can be magical about the radio. You never know what is coming, but the second you recognize a song there is this sheer sense of happiness. I can't really explain it, but everyone knows that feeling, the "yes!!!" that sometimes escapes under your breath, even when you are alone. It would not have been nearly as satisfying to play it on my own. Maybe it has to do with a person on the other end, the DJ that put that in, and after traveling through the airwaves from wherever to wherever, the point of recognition is a powerful thing. It feels like an act of God.

That's not very eloquent. I think maybe there is a song in here somewhere, but I can immediately think of two people who have done this better than I. Dar Williams in "Are You Out There?" says "You never know who's still awake/ You never know who understands" and Paul Kimble of Pistol Star writes, "The lives that you saved were the songs that you played" in "Mr. DJ."

Also let's not forget the greatness of the song itself; to have turned it off in the middle would have been offensive. When "Strange Currencies" comes on, it's like one big buildup to the part that goes "I need a chance a second chance a third chance a fourth chance..." where the rhythm kicks in in a surprise climactic moment. It's the highlight of the song. It's the whole point.

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3.30.2006

the salt in my stew 

In a Toronto Star article Blake Sennett, of Rilo Kiley and The Elected, is quoted as saying "I'm just a fan of sad lyrics with happy music." This is something that he is quite good at (ex: "So Long", from The Execution Of All Things), and it's got me thinking, as a songwriter who has done exactly that, about what motivates people to write songs with this subversion in mind.

The first example that pops to mind is Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues," where lines like "I don't know what I'll do/ all I do is sit and sigh." The jaunty rhythm and signature yodeling belie the pathos of a man who's been slighted by the woman he loves. This is interesting because Hank Williams got his yodeling pretty much direct from Jimmie Rodgers, the "blue yodeler." The Blue Yodel had such power because its primitive sound could easily be taken for cries of joy or sobs of pain, usually both at the same time. That Emmett Miller is associated with yodeling in blackface much more than Rodgers (who also was known to perform in blackface) suggests a deeper racial interpretation, or misinterpretation, depending on who you talk to.

So what incites this subversion? Is it originated in some sort of slavery-era musical culture like gospel, where the invocation of a spiritual happiness helps to override the pain of the physical present? Appropriation is the definition of American music, and tracing lineages can bring up some thought-provoking questions as well as crazy theories. For instance, maybe for Sennett and others, the musical qualities correlate with a spiritual language, while the lyrics represent the physical existence. By using our standard language - written word - to express the tangible reality, and juxtaposing it with music that by its very nature is a medium one cannot literally touch, there is some sort of poignant cosmic friction. To highlight something so internal is a special collaboration between things known and unknown, and my speculative powers are losing their ability to focus on what's rapidly becoming way too abstract. Hopefully I've made some sort of sense.

This combination tends to have a different effect on people than a song that sends matching emotional signals in both it's music and words. As a songwriter, I've always said that a song is not just about the words, but that the interplay of the words and music have to work in a way that creates a narrative all its own. Sennett is extraordinarily good at this, my main criteria for judging songwriters.

some links:

a review I wrote for The Crutch on The Elected
Their newest album, Sun, Sun, Sun. You have to open the pdf file- it's really easier than it looks.

Love And Theft, the authority on blackface and American culture. Written by Eric Lott, a professor in my old English department at UVA. And Dylan's album was named after this book, 'nuff said. Read it.

some music:
Emmett Miller clips
Listen for the "Lovesick Blues," later made famous by Hank, and also the "St. Louis Blues" and "You're the Cream In My Coffee."

Jimmie Rodgers clips
tons of great songs! He was the same time period as Miller, but I don't often see them compared, probably b/c Rodgers had pop success and Miller was still part of the vaudeville circuit. They are so similar.

Hank Williams clips
Listen to "Lovesick Blues" here if you're not familiar with it. Now you may come to understand how the sound changed over time, and what that means about cultural perceptions etc., given that Hank is often referred to as the father of country music.


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3.28.2006

motownphilly back again 

Greatest Hits albums. A point of contention for many, or few, depending on who you talk to. In my world, there are few benefits, and in the end I firmly believe that they do more harm than good. First a few things in support, to be fair:

-They serve as a good introduction to a band that you are unfamiliar with; it is not uncommon for someone to buy a greatest hits album, and then become interested in the original sources after the fact.
-They generate extra recognition for musicians; the implication of a retrospective is that there has been a meaningful career worth celebrating.
-It's a good way to get a few new songs, or re-tooled, re-mixed versions.

but, here are all the things that are disturbing:

First, the cons of the above pros.

-The converted fans can often only like the "popular" songs, and are conspiciously missing the context in which they originally came from. This is in my opinion a less satisfying experience, and somewhat ignorant. I've seen many people eventually end up buying, say, Turnstiles, b/c they like Billy Joel's Greatest Hits, and not being able to get into it at all. The music that makes it onto the radiowaves is frequently of a certain type of character (upbeat, or rhythym-heavy, or some other such "poppy" sound), and the beauty of an album like Turnstiles, or Blood Sugar Sex Magik, or Tragic Kingdom, lies in the structure of the album. No question about it.
-Record labels abuse the format. Have musicians like Hillary Duff or Britney Spears really displayed the kind of longevity, not to mention talent, that justifies a greatest hits release? I think not.
-With the ditigal marketplace becoming so prevalent, there is no need to produce an entire CD in order to introduce a single to the fans. Exclusive downloads work just fine.

and more:

-I get the distinct feeling that record labels re-releasing content in most cases has very, very little to do with the content, and very much to do with the bottom line. This in itself bothers me, and appears to exploit a loving audience. How many times should someone be expected to buy the same sound recording? It's a blatant scam.
-As a proponent of the album format, merely for artistic purposes, I think greatest hits are a waste of space. They are uninteresting in their construction, and often there is no flow, no connection between the different songs. If it is a band I already love, there is not a lot of interest for me, because there is no cohesive narrative.
-People often argue that an album sometimes only has a few good songs, so an aggregate compilation of them is much more pleasurable that owning 6 albums and skipping around the tracks. I say, if an artist makes an album with only a few good songs, it's not worth buying anyways, that they're probably not very good anyhow.

Well, if anything, I encourage you to give more attention to the primary source. From the perspective of a musician, this is the intended expression of their art. This week's (is it last's, already? Seattle is so behind) New Yorker had an article about Camille Pisarro's preferences for specific kinds of picture frames, and explained how it is a matter of respect to preserve the original content in the frame that the artist meant for it.

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3.25.2006

like paper in the wind 

I would argue in most cases that music sounds better on vinyl than on CD, but it's a taste that I devloped quite recently; growing up, I was all about cassettes and then CDs, and never once complained. It wasn't until some time in college that I started paying attention to vinyl, and anyways what really inspired me was the desire to hang John Denver's Greatest Hits on my wall. (I don't think I know of another album that emanates just absolute pure joy.)

I've really come to believe, more fervently than about Denver or Springsteen or whatever, that classical music sounds exponentially better on vinyl than on CD. I have always hated listening to classical music - and I've been playing it on piano for years and years and years. My parents had a decent collection of piano and orchestra works, and I detested all of it. Lately I have been buying some of my favorite pieces on vinyl though- for example, Chopin waltzes, which I own on CD also. And by "own" I mean "stole from my parent's shelves." I discovered that the elusive "warm" tones, which sort of defy description even though everyone knows what it refers to, make a world of difference to the sound of a concert hall. The music comes alive in a way that I've only previously experienced while playing it myself. And as for the symphonic works, it has all of a sudden become listenable.

I thought for a moment that maybe I've just grown up a little, and am beginning to acquire the taste for the genre. Maybe it is just all those years of classical music study and academic obssession paying off. But when I try to listen to some stuff on CD that I have, it simply isn't the same. Maybe it appeals to the experience of the performer, because the slightly muffled fuzziness seems more tangible than digital perfection. Maybe lending it that antiquated sheen is sort of like a sepia-toned photograph, enhancing the appeal through an implicit sense of nostalgia.

ADDITION - 3/29/06 - Bob Dylan writes in Chronicles: Volume One: "Folksingers, jazz artists and classical musicians made LPs, long playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves- they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LPs were like the force of gravity."

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3.24.2006

water from another time 

I'm still thinking about movies and music - really, the proliferation of music-related movies lately. On my list to see these days are Heart Of Gold and Be Here To Love Me, about Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt, respectively. These are clearly much different from the biopics Ray and Walk The Line, being of the documentary rather than the blockbuster pedigree. And in the way that many things seem to refer back to a singular experience that in some way introduced me to a specific idea, this makes me think of O' Brother, Where Art Thou?

Nobody would argue with the revolution that O' Brother inspired - in the film industry, regarding soundtracks and quality (Dirty Dancing has a great soundtrack but how can you compare Patrick Swayze with Ralph Stanley?), and in the music industry, where it singlehandedly influenced the entire cultural opinion towards a more southern, roots-oriented kind of taste. How many of you knew people back when O' Brother came out that thought it really was George Clooney singing "Man of Constant Sorrow"? Neither a biopic nor a documentary, the movie pretty much did everything perfectly - really, absolutely perfect. The Coen Brothers' collaboration with music producer T-Bone Burnett includes The Big Lebowski and Ladykillers as well, both exceptionally done.

So then I start comparing the musical motives of the songs in O' Brother with it's follow-up, cinema verite-styled Down From The Mountain, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, of Don't Look Back fame. The movie is comprised of interviews, performances, and behind the scenes shots of a show at the Grand Ole Opry that the musicians from O' Brother put on, and then eventually went on tour as well. Where one movie fictionalizes the music of well-respected artists and simultaneously catapults many of them into the mainstream consciousness (Stanley's been around since the 40's and didn't really get national recognition until 2000, despite his patriarchal position in the world of old-time and bluegrass music), the other movie gives the real artists credit where credit is due. Dan Tymisnki (Clooney's doppleganger), for example, is better known as a member of Union Station, the band that Alison Krauss plays with, but in Down From The Mountain, he is front-and-center.

Here's where my thoughts are overlapping. The biopics intend to give the artists credit as well, and they do it without using the actual music. This is a little confusing to flesh out, but there is a big difference to me between the O' Brother/Mountain scenario, where the actors were mostly lip-synching, and the biopic thing where the actors are basically doing impersonations. Every single musician from the O' Brother soundtrack got a gigantic career boost, and overall there was a really positive feel to the whole thing. Concerns about the A-word (can you guess it? It ends with "thenticity") hardly have to be addressed. Meanwhile, I am a bit apprehensive about Jamie Foxx's musical career, and I wonder what, if anything, will come from Reese Witherspoon or Joaquin Phoenix via an opportunistic record label. While they do have track records of being talented actors, they aren't anything more than karaoke experts in these movies. Clooney wasn't giving off the karaoke vibe in O' Brother.

As I write, I am thinking that maybe it is mainly the difference between a Coen Brothers film and the more mainstream-tastes of the biopics. After all, the Grammys haven't drawn a line, since all these movies have been nominated, and neither has T-Bone Burnett, who was the musical director for Walk The Line. I think that in the end, I feel like the Coens treat the music with more respect, because they do not employ the uber-cheesy impressions in an attempt to be sincere. Coen sincerity comes from an altogether different angle, one that has alot more to do with irony, sarcasm, and perversity than a straight-up pop mentality.

I look forward to the Townes Van Zandt movie not because I am one of his adoring fans, but because I think we need a break from the big-Hollywood glamour. And besides, maybe it will open the door for that Gram Parsons movie I mentioned earlier. Maybe Joel and Ethan Coen should think about doing a movie about Gram and Emmylou. Imagine the possibilties.

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3.22.2006

but there's no reasoning 

On the bus yesterday I eavesdropped while two sixty-ish women talked about SXSW. The women did not know each other, but in the course of the twenty minute bus ride they attempted to tell their life stories and connect over points of empathy or compassion. It was touching, really. One woman, the younger of the two, had spent the week in Austin at the festival with her husband, graduate student daughter, and college-aged son. Apparently, though neither of her children were participating in the festival, they are regular attendees because of mutual friends they have that live locally. Direct quote:

Younger Lady: We had to go to rock shows, like, six times in one day. And really, my husband and I were just happy to be with our kids, even though they were in this other, party party place. Luckily, there were a lot of musicians who got together in churches-

Older Lady interrupts: -and jammed? I love it when people jam in churches!

Younger Lady: Yeah, jammed. Lost of gospel and lots of jamming. I liked it with bluegrass. But I'm tired now and need some peace and quiet.

SXSW for the older set.
I haven't heard or read a whole lot about this year's fest. This is by far the most compelling review I've come across. Jamming in churches, gospel/bluegrass fusion- how great!

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3.19.2006

if you don't, the devil will 

I saw "Walk The Line" yesterday and I had pretty much exactly the reaction I thought I would have. I was too wrapped up in the authority of the impersonations to just sit and watch the movie. My complaints rest with the complete dissimilarity between Reese Witherspoon's and June Carter's voice, and also with the ignorance of all parts of Cash's life other than his romance with June Carter. Not total ignorance, but too much.

If people wanted to make a movie about an epic romance between hugely famous musicians, they could do one about Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and they should call it "Tomorrow We Will Still Be There." Brother Adam says it should be called "20,000 Roads." Anyways, talk about melodrama, and true unrequited love. The musical collaboration turns into (or is fueled by) a desperate love affair; their eventual paramount recording "Grievous Angel" would be completed just short of Parson's overdose at age 26 in Joshua Tree National Park.

The album itself could tell most of the story. The re-release version, "GP/Grievous Angel" could frame the entire movie. There's no happy ending, but a sort of purity of intentions - kept pure by the untimely death. Who would be the actors? Musicians or actors? Because of my doubts with Phoenix and Witherspooon, I'm inclined to think it should be musicians. Musicians who want to and can act. Hmm.

Am being kicked off the computer. More later.

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3.14.2006

it's what you're taking with you on the day that you go 

Ryan Adams' label is suing some people for leaking his album Jacksonville City Nights a month before release date. No, that's not right; they are being indicted by a federal grand jury for violating the 2005 Family Entertainment Copyright Act. From Pitchfork:

The pair are believed to be the first individuals prosecuted under the prerelease provision of FECA. By posting the tracks, Thomas and Bowser violated the section which states that media shall not be made "available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial distribution." Adams' label, Lost Highway Records, is a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, which, obviously, was intending Ryan's album for commercial distribution.

Keep in mind, while you continue reading, that the drama is caused by the obsession with pre-release secrecy, as well as an underlying fear of technology.

In related news, there has been a big stir lately around Victory Records Hawthorne Heights release. Dirty label wars, street team marketing at its worst (or best, depending on how you view it) and dramatic statements from Tony Brummel, the label's owner, have all been highly entertaining. Basically, an email surfaced in which Victory's street teem was encouraged to sabotage the Ne-Yo album, viewed as HH's main competitor in first-week sales. The oft-quoted passage:

As for Ne-yo, the name of the game is to decrease the chances of a sale here. If you were to pick up handful of Ne-yo CDs, as if you were about to buy them, but then changed your mind and didn't bother to put them back in the same place, that would work. Even though this record will be heavily stocked and you might not be able to move all the stock, just relocating a handful creates issues: Even though the store will appear to be out of stock, the computer will see it as in stock and not re-order the title once it sells down and then Ne-Yo will lose a few sales later in the week.

Yes, well, this is not illegal, not to my knowledge. This is what street teams do, duh. Anyone who thought otherwise is fooling themselves. Sure, it's dirty, but, uh, it's no different from taking the CDs of the bands you like and leaving them in prominent places - which I do ALL THE TIME.

Anyways, Brummel isn't into making music available before the release date. In Jeff Leeds' NY Times article last week, different pre-release strategies were covered in relation to the spread of digital music, and Brummel is thoroughly convinced that it cannibalizes sales of the album.

Ne-Yo still outsold HH by a lot. Coolfer wonders about second week sales, which is a valid point, but the illusion of cutthroat competition between these two unrelated bands is getting a bit old. It brings up all these ideas though, about digital music, the inability to control it, and the absolute mania about release dates, which mainly exist in order to be able to brag about sales , which in turn help to inflate all sorts of other numbers.

Does Universal really need to put two guys in jail for up to 11 years for leaking an album? Insiders orchestrate leaks all the time. And when it comes down to it, leaks do absolutely nothing but boost sales, especially when they are talked about as much as these two bands, both of which are awful. Besides, Ryan Adams released three albums in 2005, an ambitious undertaking, and sold a reportedly 250,000+ of them combined- a good number by anyone's standards.

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3.12.2006

as part of everything 

I'm worried that music is becoming a passive entity in our lives. The idea of getting music "on demand" from a variety of formats in a variety of locations until you have basically around-the-clock saturation implies that there is a kind of active behavior in the seeking-out of this music. To a certain extent, this is the case, because deciding which satellite radio provider to choose, which download service to select, and what kind of personal media device to carry in your back pocket involves some basic kinds of decisions involving certain brands, certain genres, or certain payment structures.

There are two disturbing things. One is that none of these decisions have much, if anything, to do with the specific music that will be listened to, and the other is that what seems to require a sort of interaction with the material is merely consumer strategy, and people become actually disengaged from what they are hearing.

My first worry is pretty cut-and-dry: to choose iTunes over eMusic or vice versa could have something to do with the staunchly independent character of eMusic, or the a la carte availability of iTunes. It could have to do with being an iPod/Apple devotee. Regardless, there is an exponential increase in the potential for limitation of content, which is why a future that involves significantly higher digital download activity could be a bit like subscribing to BMG was back when I was a pre-teen: eventually the catalog feels like a cage. It's whatever the third (or fourth, or fifth, or whatever) party was able to secure licensing and distribution for. You start buying things simply because they are what's offered; they are what current DRM standards call for; they are what's sent to you in the mail every month on the hopes that you won't be motivated enough to repackage and send it back.

My second worry is really where things start to get scary. Pop music has been an integral part of movies since Apocalypse Now, or The Jazz Singer, depending on how you spin it. Teen dramas on TV have been similarly using music since the days of Beverly Hills, 90210 or maybe before. We are not surprised when we hear a song that exists in the real world playing on a TV show that we know is fictional; it's not outside our realm of understanding to pretend that a famous band in reality could be a famous band in the world that Seth and Summer occupy. When we see a picture of a watch in a magazine ad, we know that it is not a real watch; it is just a picture of a watch.
We are also accustomed to public places like stores and restaurants that play background music; satellite radio stations have made this incredibly easy- no commercials!
Walkmen and now iPods make it irresistably easy to actually carry a steady soundtrack to our own lives right in our pockets; we've actually become the people in those movies and TV shows; we now have appropriate, personally selected music running behind every stroll in the park, bus ride to work, even at work in some cases.
This is great! Isn't it? I'm not so sure. With devices that play streaming music for long periods of time, there is a weird paradox happening. Because just as consumers - excuse me, music listeners - seem to gain all the access they could possibly want to personalized, on-demand music 24/7, they can actually stop paying attention to the music. They don't have to get up to flip records or tapes, they don't have to search for the remote to chance CDs. They don't have to choose the order of the music they listen to - the technology takes care of all that. No wonder less people than I had originally hoped actually complain about the absence of liner notes- few people are spending that much time with the music to notice.

I want to see people pay more attention, and I mean real attention. I want to see people who care about music enough to give something of themselves to it. And I don't mean their money. I mean a kind of focus, a kind of meaning. Music needs to be brought back into the public sphere in a way that encourages participation. It's obviously going to encourage consumption; but it doesn't have to encourage this unfortunate breed of scavenging which ends up, in my eyes, looking like a weird, pop-art version of greed.

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3.11.2006

i was never one for sweeping 

Let's talk today about live performance vs. recordings. How do you decide what makes a good band? Initially, it's one or the other, right? Somebody goes to a show, or somebody hears a song on the radio (or some other version of it's recorded form), and if they like it, they want more. That's how it works, generally, is that people hear something good and they want more of it.

How do you deal with bands that have great studio albums but just are awful in concert? I mean, what sort of excuses would you make, and how far will you go? Maybe the singer just doesn't have a great voice, and needs the studio technology to pull it off. Maybe a five piece band just isn't capable of reaching a certain kind of sonic glory. Maybe the members are really unattractive, awful performers, and don't know how to connect with an audience. So when you return home and see the CD lying on your shelf...do you still like it? Have you lost faith? Do you feel duped? Or does it not matter?

Another scenario: what about bands that are really fantastic in live performance but who's albums don't capture any of the chutzpah? I think this is more common. Is the memory of the show enough to conjure up whatever it was that materialized within and therefore make the recording a kind of vicarious concert experience? Do they just need a better producer? Does it mean that they are great musicians but not great artists?

What it comes down to is figuring out what you, as an audience member, prefer. Everyone is going to have a different opinion. And a Phish-head is going to feel differently from a Rilo Kiley fan. I don't think it's fair to expect every show to be superb, but I also expect talented musicians to put on a good show. When they don't, I am disappointed in them and my opinion inevitably grows more critical.

I think what I'm getting at is that, a good album is a good album, and a great album is even better, but the live show (which is almost always the more rare way to experience a band), has to at least be able to back up the quality of the album, and hopefully can go way beyond. In my book that makes it more important than the sound recording.

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3.08.2006

lifetimes are catching up with me 

I want to return today to the thoughts that Chuck Levin has inspired in me this week. I am blessed with one of those moms that send me newspaper clippings in the mail, with little notes written on the paper just in case I can't determine which article was meant for me. This week's installment was a profile of Chuck Levin's Washington Music Center, a music store in Silver Spring, MD, where I spent a good amount of my teenage shopping time.

The opening line of the article grabbed my attention: "Maybe your junior high school band teacher tipped you off." This is precisely what happened to me. Well, it was my brother's high school band teacher, because my school didn't have a band- I substituted this by participating in the Handbell Choir, but that's a whole other post in itself.

When I was 13, I started a band with two of my friends, mainly because we idolized Gwen Stefani and also had a huge crush on Gavin Rossdale. I had no idea what to do with a guitar, and was mainly writing lyrics, playing piano, and starting to find my singing voice. My parents, tipped off by the formidable Mr. Earl Jackson - the archetypal band teacher - supplied me with an electric guitar from Chuck Levin's and that was my introduction to the store. Over the years, I made multiple trips back there, for an acoustic guitar, to help others pick out equipment, or just to browse. I had a lot of friends that lived in the area, and I would frequently stop in if I was passing by, just to walk around and touch things, really.

Chuck himself died a few years ago; I knew when it happened because my mom sent me the clipping for his obituary. I haven't been to the store in years; I haven't been in Silver Spring for years, but I am happy to read this article and discover that it's still alive and kicking. Here's the link to the article.

Well, that's just background. What I've been thinking about has little to do with my teenage memories of the store, but it has a lot more to do with the obsession of musical "gear." Stores like Chuck Levin's have this ability to cast a reverential patina over even the smallest of trinkets. Glockenspiels, guitar straps, effects pedals, small percussion instruments and cases, for instance. Don't even get me started on the guitars and the amplifiers.

My personal experience of "gear" has fluctuated over time. I definitely sympathize with the desire for new toys, and the way that novelty actually spurs creativity. The proud feeling of belonging to a tradition, whether it's the tradition of being a Chuck Levin's customer, or the tradition of the Telecaster, there's a way that simply by owning these things, you are participating in a History of Events. On the other hand, since that complicated stretch of months where I had to pack up three years of a life in Charlottesville into one suitcase bound for Paris, and then somehow compromise later on with a Civic-full of the life that I brought with me to Seattle, I've learned to detest owning things, especially large, awkward-shaped heavy things.

I foresaw a little bit of this problem of material right before all the moving happened, and so I did the obvious. I went to Chuck Levin's, and I went to Guitar Center, and I picked out the best, most versatile guitar I could find, haggled the price between the two stores, winced as I made out the biggest check I've ever written to date, and told myself that it was a done deal. No need to take three guitars to an as-yet-undetermined location on the west coast. No need to negotiate between the big, wooden sound of my mom's old Yamaha, the convenience of my acoustic-electric, and the bad-ass-ness of my electric. I decided to have the best of all worlds and stick with one guitar.

Two years later, I am still incredibly happy with this decision- I love my guitar and it serves me well. Still, I frequently find myself in music stores, running my fingers down the weathered side of an old Martin, or doodling on a flashy Strat. I have moods where I consider buying things. A cheap classical guitar in a thrift store sometimes makes sense; other times I am more focused on percussion, which is why I mentioned the glockenspiel. I have, despite my desire for an ascetic setup, acquired certian things. Bongo drums, shakers, two keyboards and a harmonica in the key of C. I've found that it's creatively stimulating to both nurture the gear obsession and also restrain it. Striking a balance seems to be important. I've arrived at my own through a series of coveted objects and kind gifts.

I am the kind of musician that has a trusty relationship with my guitar. I haven't named it, or even given it a gender; it's no Lucille. Nevertheless, I would feel a bit like a traitor if I had to divide my time between more than one. There would be an entire drama in my head, involving two (possibly more) inanimate objects in competition for my love and affection. Is that self-centered or what?

Materialism is built into our culture, so much so that it's pretty obvious how people's sense of identity is tied to the objects they own. This is why "branding" is so effective (and I put the word in quotes because I don't actually think that it is a new concept, just a new marketing description which is itself a brand). I don't expect to be able to step outside of myself and actually avoid these feelings; I don't think there's anything bad about it until it gets out of hand. Maybe self-imposed restraint is my way of preventing total chaos (financial, spatial, audible, mental, neighborly, etc...). Or maybe I'm just waiting for a bigger closet.

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3.07.2006

in somebody else's sky 

When I first moved to Seattle, there was some real interesting musical stuff going on in the Starbucks realm. I believe it was right around the time that Ray Charles passed away, Ray came out, and Hear Music had their first bona fide hit with the Ray Charles music they put out. All of a sudden, it became clear to me and lots of other people that music retail has potential to survive outside of the local music store. If you could pick any demographic to market music to, wouldn't you pick the Starbucks crowd? People who will drop $5 on a latte, daily, would most likely also be willing to throw in a nicely packaged CD every now and then. Plus, the music is right next to the cash register, and the artist is almost always some kind of legendary figure, so it can't be bad music; it can't be nearly as abrasive or silly as the stuff that music stores often keep on their displays.

Back in 2004, the future of Hear Music seemed incredibly bright. There seemed to be an already powerful system in place, and no outside distribution deals were necessary, and the customers were willing. Ask my parents, or your parents...and you'll see. Back in 2004, what I envisioned happening was the fulfillment of the Hear Music doctrine, which, though I can't find the text anymore, had to do with people of discerning taste bringing truly good music to the forefront of their priorities. Basically, Hear Music used to say, "This is music that we think is good, and we are making this compilation so that you will find out how good it is too."

But that was then. Now, in the "about us" section of the S-bucks site, it says, among other things:

Starbucks Hear Music is dedicated to creating a new and convenient way for consumers to discover, experience and acquire all genres of great music through its CD compilations and music programming for Starbucks coffeehouses worldwide, as well as its innovative partnerships with other music labels to produce, market and distribute both exclusive and non-exclusive music.

To quote that famous 70's sitcom, "Hey, wha' happened?"

This is what business does, right? It grows and grows and makes more money and more money...or it doesn't, and is considered a failure. Now, I dont think that Hear Music has been a failure, necessarily, because obviously their media ambitions are only getting larger. Soon they will be distributing movies as well, and soon they will be moving to Los Angeles, which is what all media companies do when they get "serious," i.e. be closer to the bigwigs. (Besides, Seattle will always have that inferiority complex towards the "other" west coast music scene.) As you may have noticed, Starbucks distributes albums from other record labels too, and I wouldn't be surprised that a large source of their income comes from those CDs rather than the compilations that Hear Music was founded on. Clearly, their future is bright, and the possibilities of more media involvement seem increasingly plausible as time goes on. More and more Hear Music Coffeehouses will open, if the digital downloading services turn out successful. How about a Starbucks magazine? How about a Starbucks digital download service, complete with an exclusive iPod to boot?

I know that this all sounds very critical, but I don't think that what Hear Music is turning into is bad. It's still very far from the major-label exploitation that we have come to know and despise. In fact, watching its development is of great interest to me; their learning experiences are valuable to me. I think it's important to pay attention to what they started off as, and what they are pointing towards, as success and reputation build. It's exciting, I know, but it's a big responsibility. If a company starts off with certain values, and then gains respect for having those values, it's important to grow in proportion to them. Not that any one person's or company's values should remain stagnant, because that is a worse offense, but graceful change is possible. If beliefs are really a true element of a person's or a company's being, than it should be obvious to the world.

[AS OF 4/25/06, MOMENTS BEFORE THE WIND HAS CHANGED URLS. THIS POST AND MORE CAN BE FOUND NOW AT WWW.MOMENTSBEFORETHEWIND.COM AND WWW.ALIMARCUS.WORDPRESS.COM. PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF THIS CHANGE AND REPROGRAM YOUR BOOKMARKS AND FEEDS. THANKS!]

3.03.2006

can you see them? 

I was going to post about Chuck Levin's today and the general gear-mania and how that applies to various gender stereotypes, but since sitting down for my daily love affair with the internet, I've discovered something great and I wanted to share. I've alo had some coffee and this may add to my excitement.

Sonicbids. I've known about it for a long time; many artists have sumbitted their EPK's (electronic press kits) to places I have worked through Sonicbids, and I've seen lots of ads about it and things. However, I always had this lingering frustration with it; I guess it's taken a long time for me to become really adept at dealing with digital music. To be honest, I'm still not that accepting of it, but I'm much more likely to listen to a clip on my computer than I ever have been before.

So today I created a Sonicbids account, and I am now the proud new owner of an EPK. Here's the link.

It never made sense to me why artists sent their EPK's to record labels. As a person who was often on the receiving end of that stuff, I never paid attention to the emails; I know it sounds strange, but packages in the mail were much more demanding of my attention. Maybe because they are tactile. But, as we all know, the personal hang-ups of the A&R person is really all that counts when it comes to getting someone's attention. So this isn't why I opened an account. I discovered that through Sonicbids, it's ridiculously easy to submit music to festivals, competitions, conferences, promoters, and other media people that could potentially like it and talk about it to more people. Um, SWEET?! It's not that one couldn't undertake these activities out of their own accord, but it's all compiled and organized and easy to pay for things- too easy, like Seattle public parking meters!

Unfortunately, none of it is free, but then again neither is mailing CDs. I was actually forced to open a Sonicbids account against my will, as I had no other way to apply for a certain Seattle-area mega musicfest. A sly marketing technique, yes, but it has also opened my world just a bit wider, so it's not all bad.

Of course there's no guarantee that the people on the receiving end of my future EPK blasts will care any more about it than I ever did. Karmic retribution pops up in the strangest places. Or the most obvious ones.

[AS OF 4/25/06, MOMENTS BEFORE THE WIND HAS CHANGED URLS. THIS POST AND MORE CAN BE FOUND NOW AT WWW.MOMENTSBEFORETHEWIND.COM AND WWW.ALIMARCUS.WORDPRESS.COM. PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF THIS CHANGE AND REPROGRAM YOUR BOOKMARKS AND FEEDS. THANKS!]

2.28.2006

worlds removed from all those fires 

Why do people use words like "straightforward" and "stripped-down" to describe music? It's pretty clear what that tends to mean - acoustic guitars, clear, often quiet vocals, generally few instruments - but it's a strange term and I wonder about it. For instance. Is there such a thing as "stripped-down blues"? Yes. How about "straightforward electronica"? Maybe. "Stripped-down big band"? Hmm.

It's less that these are objective terms and more that they invoke a certain style of performance. Less attitude, more sincerity. Or, on the flipside, less passion, more boredom. I know, I know, what interesting words really are objective when it comes to describing music, and I of all people would rather argue opinions that facts anyways. But, the term always rubs me the wrong way.

A lot of music is, in my opinion, too much. What's the opposite of stripped-down, wrapped-up? Bundled up? I'm not sure, but I know it when I hear it. And it can happen in so many ways. Vocal showiness, too much background noise, too much harmony, a producer who is too fond of Pro-Tools. I see a lot of people make use of that stuff simply to hide their inability to carry it more plainly. Studio tricks abound, and to some extent we are all using them, and the truth is, voices are just plain tricky sometimes. But it's not cool to dress up a song with crap to hide all that.

And then there are, of course, lots of things to love about mega-productions. So I'm not talking about all music, I'm just talking about that section of bad music that cant pull it off. Some people go for Sea Change, and others strictly Midnite Vultures. What can I say, it depends on the mood.

Some people would say that the true test of a good song is in it's most basic (a.k.a. straightforward) form. I'm not sure how I feel about that. If what we are judging is song quality, does it matter what instruments are used? yes, of course. But then again, there's a certain pleasure in hearing Springsteen's "Born in the USA" when he plays it solo, or hearing Counting Crows play an entire concert in which they turned all their songs into slow, acoustic ballads. And, then again, there's that Ted Leo cover of "Since U Been Gone," which, although people seem to love it, does no justice to Kelly Clarkson's version.

I don't really have a point. Beware of over-production. And Luxmundito.

[AS OF 4/25/06, MOMENTS BEFORE THE WIND HAS CHANGED URLS. THIS POST AND MORE CAN BE FOUND NOW AT WWW.MOMENTSBEFORETHEWIND.COM AND WWW.ALIMARCUS.WORDPRESS.COM. PLEASE TAKE NOTE OF THIS CHANGE AND REPROGRAM YOUR BOOKMARKS AND FEEDS. THANKS!]

2.26.2006

first the roots grow down and then the plant grows up 

NY Times Magazine has an article today on Broken Social Scene. It's worth a read, especially if you are interested in the conflicts of independent artists. How do you incorporate the major label system in order to participate while simultaneously rejecting the consumer capitalist notions of big business? The answer is you can't, but that you have to pick your battles and find a balance that makes sense. The article does a good job of depicting all the little tensions. Read it.

A sentence in it has stuck with me though, in the 20 minutes since I read it, so I want to figure out why.
Alissa Quart writes: "If it all sounds hopelessly earnest — another emo band bent on saving one little corner of the world — it isn't, or not quite."
I don't know if it's possible to think about this without arguing about the definition of emo, but I'm going to try.

First of all - and this already proves the exercise a failure - emo is about a sound, or a look, or an image, or something. "Saving one little corner of the world" is a goal much larger than a niche marketing tactic or an adolescent boy's sensitivity. It's a grand statement, but it also seems to me to be a defining aspect of pretty much all artists/musicians I know. That's what I want to do. That's what lots of people want to do. It doesn't matter how small the corner (well, to some it does), but that little snarky phrase, well, pisses me off.

"Hopelessly earnest"? The alternative, in the world of pop music anyways, is akin to prostitution, but that's a harsh word. 'Selling your soul' is also a bit melodramatic. 'Faustian' makes it seem more profound. Robert Johnson actually makes it something great. Anyways, it doesnt matter. Why would people choose any of that over earnest-ness? Why does that sound so condescending? I'm not sure.

The very first definition in the OED says "Ardour in battle; in wider sense, intense passion or desire." What is that, too serious for some people? Maybe so. But this whole thing sure does feel like war, or a cycle of war and peace. So I guess I am offended on two counts. One, that an offhand comment belittles a central ethos in the world that I (and a lot of others!) exist in, and two, that is associates something about me with emo, which may be the worse offense.

UPDATE: this, found on Alex Ross's blog:
"Whoever is capable of listening to himself, recognizing his own instincts, and also engrossing himself reflectively in every problem, will not need such crutches. One need not be a pioneer [it. added] to create in this way, only a man who takes himself seriously — and thereby takes seriously that which is the true task of humanity in every intellectual or artistic field: to recognize, and to express what one has recognized!!! This is my belief!" -Schoenberg, of all people.

2.16.2006

i believe in yesterday 

Terry Teachout wrote an article on the Beatles that got me thinking about some things. I like the musicological perspective that he writes from, incorporating cultural influences outside the realm of pop music. He compares the Beatles to Irving Berlin, that kind of thing. A couple interesting claims in this one:

-The Beatles were the first rock-and-roll musicians to be written about as musicians.

Hmm. I don't have much evidence to back it up, no access to archives and such, but I wonder if this is true. I find it hard to believe, that's all.

-The Beatles were among the first pop musicians to start thinking in terms of recordings, not songs or live performances, as the finished musical product that they would offer to the listening public.

After reading Phil Spector's biography , I find this hard to believe as well. Again, no concrete proof. His use of the word "among" is mollifying though.

-It would not be until McCartney’s “Yesterday” that they recorded a song whose lyrics were of correspondingly high quality [as the melodic structures].
This just isn't true. "'Til There Was You" was released in 1963; "Yesterday" not until 1965. Just one example.

-Unlike jazz, which developed with great speed from a purely functional accompaniment of social dancing into a full-fledged art music of the highest possible seriousness, most rock has remained as commercial as the simplest-minded pop music of the pre-rock era...Without the Beatles, this might well not have been the case. Neither virtuoso instrumentalists nor pure songwriters, they instead explored the possibilities of the hybrid art of the record album as art object more successfully than any other popular musicians of their generation.

Does this mean that the album itself represents the commercial structure of the industry? That may be a redundant question, but relevant too in this time of changing power structures. It seems like there is a conflict here, because on one hand, it's a damning view of an album, but on the other hand, there's a lot to be said for the integrity of an album as a work of art. I, for one, fully support the endeavor, in fact, I tend to respect musicians more for the ability to create an album that coheres.

I'm getting distracted. I'll leave you with my favorite part of Teachout's analysis. It strikes me as a key element of the Beatles' success. I'll never know what it was like to have been a teenager in the 60's, but my generation has its own comparisons:

What started out as a stripped-down, popularized blending of country music and rhythm-and-blues intended for consumption by middle-class teenagers evolved into a new musical dialect in which it was possible to make statements complex and thoughtful enough to seize and hold the attention of adult listeners.


2.14.2006

let's all pray for rain 

Where I grew up in Virginia there is a place called Wolf Trap, which is the country's only national park devoted to the performing arts. It's there because a lady who owned the land donated it to the government and helped build some performance spaces that are, in my opinion, the best venues around. There is a gorgeous outdoor pavilion for the summer/fall, and an equally enchanting intimate barn complex for the wetter, colder times of year. I grew up attending Peter, Paul and Mary's annual summer concerts there and have strong memories of a Bill Cosby show, Mary Chapin-Carpenter, and several John McCutcheon shows in the barns. As I got older, I saw more memorable shows: Tracy Chapman, Eddie From Ohio, Carole King.

If you know me personally, or if you just know my music, it's obvious how much of an impact these experiences have had on me. Wolf Trap is one of those places where people drive two or three hours for a show, and I lived about five miles from it.

So you can imagine my happiness when I discovered a Wolf Trap Blog! It's run by a woman named Kim Pensinger Witman, and is devoted to reporting on the Wolf Trap Opera Company. Now, I've never seen an opera, not at Wolf Trap or anywhere, but I sure studied them a lot in college. When we lived in Paris I declined to join the others to see an opera in the Jardin du Luxembourg- I just didn't feel like going. It'll happen one day, I'm sure.

Ms. Witman addresses several different things in the blog that I can appreciate, but my most favorite part (b/c of its relevance) are the audition notes. It seems that she's taken her reactions from what appears to be many, many auditions and posted them for all the world to read. They remain anonymous, of course, but boy, are they enlightening.

Now, I don't pretend to have the skills of an opera singer. But, having never taken voice lessons, or really even spoken of vocal chords as an instrument, something in her remarks hit a profound chord with me (pun intended). People pay attention to things that I think pop music critics and musicians often ignore. What's more, they (she, in this case) comeup with useful critiques that are at once metaphorical, practical, and poetic. Here's a few of my favorites:

-This is so obviously effortful; visually and audibly apparent
-There’s a significant flutter and it’s not always under control; there are some go-for-broke moments that end up being variable in pitch and placement
-Steely top. With a bit of a wobble. It’s not pretty per se, but interesting.
-He works very hard, but the performance doesn’t fully take off. My response is one of respect, but not one of wanting to hire him
-Trouble expressing different characters/ideas, it all sounds the same.
-Doesn’t sing a single clear vowel
-She seems either nervous or lost or sad; or all of the above
-He’s good, but his inventiveness doesn’t sustain him through this whole long scene
-Making good musical sense of the Stravinsky; the courage to invest in the phrasing, find the core of the intentions behind them
-You can see and hear her executing everything she’s been taught, but it’s so hard to believe any of it
-He doesn’t fully trust his equipment yet. But this is still one of the best renditions I have heard


Here's a link to one of the full postings.

For those of you near DC, here is the link to the concert schedule.

2.10.2006

she'll do me, she'll do you, she's got that kinda lovin' 

"Authenticity's a bitch," writes Andrew Gilstrap on PopMatters today. Good point.

I got my introduction to "The Authenticity Debate" in college, in an odd-shaped, one-round-wall-and-two-flat-walls space that otherwise would have been library storage. Above us was Cabell Hall, the University of Virginia's music auditorium, so we were frequently conducting class while listening to the Glee Club's glee or the orchestra's tunings. Outside our door were the Music Library stacks, a circular trail (remember, underneath the auditorium) that wound through music scores and theses and rock criticism, up and down ramps, occasionally skirting a table or at least a chair.

In short, it was a haven of sorts, a place to disappear and also find yourself in dusty volumes and endless interpretations of things that matter - and wireless internet to boot! But this is not merely library worship. You have to understand that this building is located in the famed "academic village," Thomas Jefferson's vision of a civilized community of scholars designed to promote all the good stuff about secular education that I need not get into. The mumbo-jumbo of TJ's ideas retains it's credibility, but is complicated by many other truths about his life that seem to get in the way. Nevertheless, it remains that any UVA grad will attest to the beauty and grandeur of The Lawn, the main quad that is lined with the original dorm quarters (now reserved for those special few who make the cut) and bookended by the Rotunda on one end - a mini, Jeffersonian Pantheon - and good old Cabell Hall on the other. Even if the most memorable experiences of the Lawn involve streaking it, getting caught by policemen with flashlights, and returning to your pile of clothes in the corner only to find them misplaced by your devious friends.

Strolling down the length of the Lawn, famously terraced for maximum grandiosity, underneath the colonnades, admiring the overwatered spring green grass and the perfectly spaced trees (and the students playing frisbee or having picnics, living the very pictures that peppered the catalogue they received in high school), up the stairs with the secret society's cryptic markings, into Cabell Hall where I would then descend into the depths of the Music Library, there was surely a lot to contemplate about authenticity. But this post isn't meant to be about UVA, it started off as an introduction and turned into a quasi-nostalgic description of things I used to do (see the later reference to nostalgia for a possible explanation).

So, with an overly indulgent context now set, I return. Gilstrap addresses the problems of authenticity as a method of judgement for "true" roots music, because it inherently prevents anyone from using it in a way that preserves its authenticity. How's that for a mobias strip?

So people have attached certain cornerstones of knowledge to the term, hoping to at least represent a sort of knowing-ness and connection to things that is deeper than the average American. It's strange, because isn't roots music - americana, whatever you want to call it - isn't it supposed to be representative of the general American population? People use the term "Authenticity" to make a distinction between something that means something and something that blatantly buys into consumer culture. Nostalgia is a big part of it.

He writes:
Before too long, how many songs will be born of genuine personal experience, as opposed to someone's abstract idea of what certain experiences must feel like, or from vague memories of experiences that don't exist anymore? In short, is it possible for there to be genuine roots music — at least in the traditionally accepted sense — anymore, without it being little more than proof that someone listened to their Alan Lomax, Carter Family, and Muddy Waters discs with a really attentive ear?

People don't necessarily have to label themselves as followers of a certain tradition in order to actually be followers of a certain tradition. It's all in the aftermath, anyways. The tags become reference points for, yes, discussion, but mainly, for consumption.

My definition of roots music is that it hails from the period before music splintered into genres. Before "rock and roll" became an advertising slogan. I don't know when that is, somewhere around 1950 I think. I mean people like Bill Haley and Big Joe Turner and Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams- they pre-date things like "rock," "country," "folk." And once you mix in early blues and jazz, it's a virtual melting pot- how American. When music recalls this era, it has the makings of being authentic roots music.

You have to take into consideration the way that technology has changed the sound of music as well, and then there is the little phenomenon of rock and roll (maybe these two things are related, like form and function- which is a duck, which is a decorated shed?) to contend with, and hence the reason why there is so much debate about authenticity. There have to be new definitions. I think we are all living proof of them, it's just a matter of being able to put it into words.

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