Wednesday, August 31, 2011
Check out this interesting interview with labor economist David Card.
A breath-takingly beautiful video of the scale of the universe and our place in it.
To paraphrase Shakespeare: There is more in sky and earth than one can even imagine.
Sunday, August 14, 2011
1. "Rill Rill" - Sleigh Bells
2. "Walking the Cow" - A Camp
3. "No Surprises" - Radiohead
4. "One Man Wrecking Machine" - Guster
5. "Home" - Sheryl Crow
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
I'm trying a new way of reviewing music. I'm going to list things about the album that make me go yes, no, and hmmm. This album is more or less what the title says. It is a mostly studio recording, in which Amanda Palmer covers Radiohead songs in stripped down versions with ukulele as lead instrument. I'm assuming she has some session musicians acommanying on a few of songs, but mostly it is just Amanda Palmer on ukulele, and occasionally piano.
You can stream the album or purchase it here.
Yes: Amanda Palmer's cover of "Idioteque" is a revelation. Stripped of the electronic music of the original Radiohead recording, it becomes clear that in this case the composition of the song is what gives it a haunting sense of paranoia and dread, not the artificiality of Radiohead's music. Score one for Radiohead's songwriting ability, and score one for Palmer's creative rearrangement of the song for ukulele, prepared piano, and hand drums.
Palmer also does a bare bones ukulele and voice performance of "Creep," supposedly while "Hungover at Soundcheck in Berlin" ("This is the saddest room I've ever played to. Nobody came to my show. But you're here.") In my opinion, this is a perfect simulation of the mood under which "Creep" should be appreciated. Palmer gives a great vocal performance, evoking the pain and anger that "Creep" was intended to be evocative of. Especially beautiful is Palmer's use of falsetto mid-way through the song.
No: The songs of The Bends are Radiohead's most immaturely pretentious, and it is no coincidence that despite the prettiness of Palmer's covers of "Fake Plastic Trees" and "High and Dry," I don't particularly care for them. There is only so much adolescent BS you can take from Thom Yorke after you reach a certain level of maturity. I don't hate these songs, but every time I hear them, regardless of who it is singing, I just want to say, "isn't that a bit much?" "High and Dry" does have a nice chorus though.
Also, having a second version of "Creep" on the album ("Live in Prague") is hard to explain, especially given that the only big differences between the two versions show why the soundcheck version was so good and the second version is not. Firstly, this version is in front of an audience, which you are acutely aware of due to applause and the occasional sing-along, and which works counter to the sense of the song as an elevation of rejection and loneliness to an ideal form. Secondly, her singing is much more precise in the Prague performance, which you would expect in comparison to an off-the-cuff soundcheck performance. This is not a good thing. A refined performance is in stark contrast to the pathos underlying the song. Palmer's frequent voice semi-cracking in the Berlin version is part of what gives that version its "authenticity" and resonance.
Hmmm: Was there really a great demand for more covers of Radiohead songs? Once you get over the novelty of the ukulele and stripped down arrangements, most of the songs in this album do not stand out. There is nothing wrong with the two OK Computer covers, it's just that I don't see that they go beyond the original and at least give us a new understanding of the songs (1). Almost all the songs are good barring the few mentioned in the "no" section, but this is partly on Palmer being a competent arranger and performer, and mostly Radiohead (often) being really good songwriters. However, "Idioteque" and the soundcheck version of "Creep" do reinterpret the originals in a way that at least expanded my understanding of the songs, and music-listening is never zero-sum.
(1) Radiohead's recording of "Exit Music (For a Film)" goes on my list of greatest musical recordings of the 1990's, and the fact that the original is so perfect means that if you are going to cover it, you are better off taking a cover of it in a direction completely different from the original rather than hewing to the same structure (2). It doesn't matter if it's Amanda Palmer, Vampire Weekend, or the Easy Star All-Stars, I have yet to hear a cover that resembled Radiohead's original that wasn't completely dispensable.
(2) For example, a good punk or grunge cover of "Exit Music" would earn a place in my music collection.
Yeah, it's been a while. Not making any promises it won't be another two years before the next post.
Monday, June 08, 2009
I now have a Twitter account. I'm not entirely sure what I'll be doing with this account, but my ideas so far are to tweet thoughts about music too short for blog posts, give notice of what I'll blog about shortly, tweet about live performances I am going to or music I am buying, and give thoughts on music I am listening to. Maybe I'll even live-tweet an album when I first listen to it.
If I ever get Trout Mask Replica, I am definitely going to live-tweet it.
Sunday, June 07, 2009
77 Favorite Albums: Compilations
Note: I have not written all the reviews of my favorite compilations. In the interest of putting content on my blog, here are the two reviews I have completed. This post will get moved to more recent dates as it is updated, so try the link on the sidebar instead of bookmarking the post.
Compilations are often the bane of music reviewers and fans. Even some of the best are completely redundant for fans that have most of the albums. However, many compilations are also a waste of money for people who don’t have any of the albums, due to bad song selection, unrepresentative collection, or sometimes just too expensive due to the inclusion of unessential songs. Most music reviewers will not review straight compilations of widely-available tracks because they either feel it is beneath them (and may be correct), or they have already reviewed the albums that the songs come from and don’t want to write another review about them. The unfortunate result is that if the casual music listener is interested in acquiring just the best songs by a band, they often lack good information on what compilations to get.
However, reviewers often do get involved when outtakes, rarities, and singles-only songs are packaged onto discs along with well known album tracks. When this happens, fans end up paying money for whole CDs where sometimes less than a quarter is music they don’t already have. The record companies are often criticized for this, but I don’t blame them that much.
The record industry is not a non-profit organization, and it needs to make money. Unless you are talking about a band that has a huge hardcore fan-base, like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, the audience for rarities- and outtakes-only collections is small (Note: the lack of a comprehensive non-album Rolling Stones song collection from their time with Decca is exhibit A in why Allen Klein and ABKCO are assholes). On the other hand, the people who buy greatest hits collections will not give a damn if outtakes and rarities are put on the disc if it does not make the album more expensive, and often the singles-only songs are greatest-hits material. The economics of releasing a greatest hits and rarities mixed compilation are usually better than for releasing a rarities-only compilation, so it is obvious why so many more of the former exist and so few of the latter. The alternative is that only the most successful bands release rarities and non-album songs for wide distribution.
Incidentally, the best alternative to these compilations is to package outtakes, rarities, and singles as bonus tracks to albums, which is the standard practice on a lot of recent album re-issues. I’m not even going to go into the arguments purists make that this violates the integrity of the artist’s original work.
So, what about these compilations that mix rarities and greatest hits? Some are very good, and even worth their price, while some suck. Non-coincidentally, the same can be said for non-album song-only compilations, which often are given the same attention as albums. However, only fully or partially redundant compilations will be reviewed here, as my favorite non-redundant compilations will be reviewed along with other albums. In this post, I will review compilations on three points. First, the highlights of the compilation: the best or most interesting songs and quality liner notes. Second, should you get the album, for both the casual listener’s and the fan’s point of view. This will address the overall quality of the song selection, the quality of the non-album tracks, how essential the material is for fans, etc. Lastly, I’ll recommend an album that pairs well with the compilation, on the basis of album quality and limit of overlap.
Death to the Pixies – Pixies
Note: I am reviewing here the first disc of this 2-disc compilation. The first disc is a best of collection, and the second disc is of a 1990 concert. The live disc will be reviewed as a separate album at a later date.
The Pixies were one of the all-time greats of alternative rock, and invented the soft-loud dynamic shifts that are a hallmark of grunge music and other alternative music that followed. However, the Pixies were so much more than just a musical style. They wrote some very weird songs, but they were never goofy (although some of their songs are hilarious jokes), and they never sounded banal or like a self-parody. If I forced to use an adverb, I’d say they were post-modernly weird. Their lead guitarist, Joey Santiago, often played in a dark, almost apocalyptic style that was a great complement to the weirdness that flowed out of the band’s singer and songwriter, Black Francis (actual name Charles Thompson). Above all the weirdness, almost all of their songs are very tuneful at their core, which distinguishes them from a lot of other alternative bands. Also, the Pixies never made the same album twice. All of their albums, even their short debut, have distinct styles and range of moods.
However, the one thing they were not was consistently emotionally resonant. Unlike most alternative rock bands since, they preferred songs that were about something weird, like watching surrealist films or finding out you are the product of incestuous union, than songs about real emotions, with a few notable exceptions. However, most of their songs do really rock, and pack a ton of energy. If you are a big fan of Nirvana or other ‘90s alternative bands, odds are good you’ll just find the Pixies to be weird. On the other hand, if you are a fan of bands that experimented with rock styles and unusual lyrics, such as the Talking Heads, you may find the Pixies to be one of the most enjoyable and intelligent rock bands of the last 20 years.
Highlights: It’s a best of compilation, so basically everything. Okay, maybe they could have left off “The Holiday Song” and “Cecilia Ann” to include a few more songs from Bossanova and especially Trompe Le Monde, but everything else is great. In particular, “Where Is My Mind,” “Debaser,” and “Monkey Gone To Heaven” are landmark songs in alternative rock.
Also, a short essay about the Pixies written by Gary Smith, the producer of the Pixies debut, is included. The essay was written in 1997 and muses on the early days of the Pixies immediately before they began recording, their impact on alternative music, and the degradation of the popular alternative music scene. The essay discusses the shock elements of their music and the loud-quiet dynamics, but doesn’t mention the surrealism, irony, humor, and satire that are the quintessential elements of the Pixies’ music that most of the bands that followed in their footsteps didn’t keep in mind. While not comprehensive or essential, the essay is well-written, and it contains a hilarious description of an early performance of what can only be “Vamos” (A later live performance is included on the live CD).
Should you get it: For the casual listener, this is a good compilation of the first half of the Pixies short career. However, it gives only cursory attention to their last two album, which were done in a significantly different style, and leaves out many great songs from those albums. Also, there are some fan-favorite songs from the earlier albums that are not included either. Given both that the compilation is out of print and that the newer compilation, Wave of Mutilation: Best of Pixies, has all the songs on this compilation and more, I’d recommend that one over this if all you want is the Pixies best songs.
For the Pixies fan, the second disc of this is a live album of a 1990 concert that is mainly songs from Come On Pilgrim to Doolittle. This album was the only extensive recording of the Pixies in concert until the reunion tour, and the only one of the band in its prime. If you can find the album used with the live disc, I’d pick it up. Expect a review of the live album in the future.
Pairs with: Trompe Le Monde. The Pixies last album is a great one, and the compilation has just two songs from it. Trompe Le Monde is also special because it is the Pixies most diverse album, and has more emotionally resonant songs than all of their previous albums. Between the live disc and the best of compilation, most of the songs from the Pixies best album, Doolittle, are on here, rendering it unnecessary for the non-fan.
The Best of Blondie - Blondie
Blondie hardly needs any introduction, as they were one of the most successful New Wave band. The most distinctive element of Blondie was the supremely confident singing of Deborah Harry. What’s not well-known about Blondie is that the band was very diverse, experimenting with a lot of different genres throughout their career, and that they were arguably the first New Wave band. In fact, as George Starostin pointed out, their debut album proves that New Wave, insofar as it could be called a single style, did not develop from punk. That album was released in 1976, the same year as the Ramones debut album.
Highlights: This compilation has basically every pre-1981 song they did that made the top-5 in the US or UK charts. I think most are pretty good, though your mileage may vary. It also contains re-mixed versions of four songs. “Sunday Girl” contains vocals from a French lyrics version of the song that was released as a B-side. Its sort of a neat effect, as Deborah Harry really does a good job with the accent.
Should you get it: If you’re a casual listener, this is probably the compilation to get if you are not going to get any Blondie albums. It does an okay job of giving a representative sample of each phase of Blondie’s career, excluding their last album before their break-up, which I’ve read was not a good album. The only real flaw is that there are not more songs from their early career, when the band was more wise-assy than later on.
For the Blondie fan, there is no reason to get this album unless you really want to hear "Sunday Girl" with French lyrics and can’t get a-hold of the French-language single version. The three other re-mixed songs are not noticeably improved, although “Rapture” has an extra verse, which may interest the completists out there. Other than that the only song you won’t find on the albums is “Call Me” from the film American Gigolo.
Pairs with: Parallel Lines. Or Plastic Letters if you want to address the flaw of not representing the early material enough. I will warn you that I have not heard these albums and I am making this recommendation based on reviews I have read, so caveat emptor.
soon next: A Compleat Collection - The Kinks
Sunday, May 24, 2009
This was a fun concert at the Middle East Cafe, a nightclub, restaurant, and bar in Cambridge. The room was reasonably small, and the acoustics were very good from some parts of the room, though not so much in the area directly in front of the stage. The headlining band and the reason I was attending was Tally Hall, whose debut album I have reviewed.
Deezy and the Brobots
Deezy and the Brobots is sort of a country-ish 4-piece rock band. This was the only band performing that I did not enjoy. I wasn't expecting to enjoy them after listened to their MySpace page. On the recordings there, the singer has a flat nasal voice with little range that quickly gets annoying. Live her voice was not so annoying, either because of the poor balancing of volumes in mixing or because of the greater energy. Still, the music was rather generic and unmemorable. The guitar-playing was only rarely interesting, and the arrangements and song structure did not stray from the conventional. The most interesting things the band did was attempt some harmonies and have the lead guitarist switch to trumpet for one song. However, because of the poor mixing the harmonies were almost inaudible, and the trumpet playing was somewhat flat in tone.
The worst thing about the performance was that it wasn't even bad. The musicians are all competent at their instruments, and the songs were fairly consistent. It's just that the band lacked anything interesting and original.
April Smith and the Great Picture Show
This band seems like it could have a lot of potential. The band plays in a pop rock style, but April Smith sings in the style of classic musical and torch singers. This is just one aspect that makes the band stand out. The bassist does play some electric guitar, but mostly plays the double-bass, which was interesting to witness. The Great Picture Show also has a full-time keyboardist, which is used to give a theatrical feel to the music.
I really enjoyed April Smith's singing. She brings a ton of emotion, and the vocal melodies are entertaining. She is quite good at material hat call for a full-throated approach, but was wonderful in a softer song, "Beloved," which brought down the house. The band played up a storm behind April Smith, and pulled off some great theatrical moments, such as a quote from J.S. Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor" to begin "Terrible Things." Just noting, Ross Federman of Tally Hall filled in on drums for the night.
Malbec is sort of a genre hybrid. It mixes pop music, techno, and hip-hop. The band has multiple guitarist, and a live drummer, but also has synthesizers prominent, and the songs are built off of grooves, and the rhythm section is very strong. The lyrics are a mixture of the romantic and idealistic. I really enjoyed dancing to the songs (Of course, none of the indie kids in the audience knew how to dance, and it was only me and three other people who were dancing). Their studio recordings seem less energetic and rhythmically powerful than live, but I'd recommend checking out the band if you are a pop rock or techno fan and your biggest dislike of mainstream hip-hop is the lack of melodicity and mundane subjects.
[7/19/2011] This post stayed as a draft for over two years, and as a result this concert is almost a distant memory. Therefore, the only section of the review that was not written, Tally Hall's performance, will not get a full write-up. Ironically, this was the only reason I attended the concert and the main impetus for writing this post. I will give a few interesting points I remember from their performance.
Joe Hawley was the lead singer on more songs than I expected, including a few I'm almost positive were not sung by him on the album. They simulated the cool vocoder-like effect on "Taken for a Ride" and a few other songs with Hawley singing through a megaphone. I thought the new stuff for their second album sounded a little whimsical, and sort of like some sort of fantasy (as in the genre) rock. This is not a good thing for me. They did not perform "Banana Man", but compensated at the close of the show by bringing a tuba player on-stage, to perform first "The Whole World and You", then Biz Markie's "Just a Friend" (This was that brief time period in 2009 when the song became popular again due to its usage in an alcohol ad advocating against drinking and driving [edit 7/20/2011: apparently the timing was a coincidence, and Tally Hall has been covering this song almost as long as the band has existed. Also, any irony in this parenthetical is entirely accidental.]). It was an appropriately unserious way to wrap things up. And that's all I got.
If you told me when I started this post that it would not be finished until almost a month after Tally Hall released their next album, I would be amazed at my slowness. I would be an order of magnitude more amazed if you told me that this would be over two years later.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
1. Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum - Tally Hall (2005)
2. Lost and Gone Forever - Guster (1999)
3. OK Computer - Radiohead (1997)
4. The Mollusk - Ween (1999)
5. Keep It Together - Guster (2003)
Monday, May 18, 2009
1. Doolittle - Pixies (1989)
2. Trompe Le Monde - Pixies (1991)
3. Come On Pilgrim - Pixies (1987)
4. Bossanova - Pixies (1990)
5. Surfer Rosa - Pixies (1988)
Yes, I really like the Pixies.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
1. The Name of This Band is Talking Heads - Talking Heads (1982*)
2. Before And After Science - Brian Eno (1977)
3. Fear of Music - Talking Heads (1979)
4. Ramones - Ramones (1976)
5. Remain in Light - Talking Heads (1980)
*2004 expanded re-release of collection of live performances from 1977-1981.
Saturday, May 16, 2009
1. Abbey Road - The Beatles (1969)
2. Blonde on Blonde - Bob Dylan (1966)
3. Let It Bleed - The Rolling Stones (1969)
4. Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall of The British Empire) - The Kinks (1969)
5. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band - The Beatles (1967)
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
1. "Exit Music (For a Film)" - Radiohead
2. "Rainy Day" - Guster
3. "We're Going Wrong" - Cream
4. "March Into The Sea" - Modest Mouse
5. "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" - Radiohead
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Sunday, January 04, 2009
Monday, December 29, 2008
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Welcome to the new Meanderings of a Post-Modern Present-Day Wit. I am reinventing it as a music review-focused weblog. There will still occasionally be political posts, but they will be rare and restricted to subjects I really care about. However, expect the same random frequency of posts on random topics.
A few details about my musical tastes:
2. Bob Dylan
3. Talking Heads
Favorite albums from the last 20 years:
1. Marvin’s Marvelous Mechanical Museum (2005) – Tally Hall
2. Doolittle (1989) - Pixies
3. Ganging Up on the Sun (2006) – Guster
4. OK Computer (1997) – Radiohead
5. Lost And Gone Forever (1999) – Guster
Obscure songs by famous bands that I really like:
1. “You Never Give Me Your Money” – Beatles
2. “Dandelion” – Rolling Stones
3. “Mr. Grieves” – Pixies
4. “Subterranean Homesick Alien” – Radiohead
5. “Bike” – Pink Floyd
That’s enough space wasted with lists for now. Expect a post introducing a major list to follow this one.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Saturday, December 13, 2008
Here is a very entertaining review of the latest David Byrne-Brian Eno collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. The album is very interesting, and I will have a review of it up in the future.
Download "Strange Overtones" from the album site. The song is probably the best on the album, and twenty-five years ago it would have been a #1 single.
After what seems like forever, I have returned to my blog. Weekly posting will return soon, but Meanderings will no longer be a politics-oriented blog. There will still be the occasional posting with my unique political ideas (such as that the UN Security Council should deploy forces to Kashmir to wipe out the Pakistani terrorists, but even if they decided to do so, Pakistan would not let them in because Pakistan is almost a failed state), but a combination of lack of attention, the destruction of Iraq, and the utter incompetence of the Bush administration have caused me to lose my appetite for politics-at-large. The main focus of the restarted Meanderings will be stated in my next post, sometime around Christmas, but you can guess it from the contents of the present front page.
Hint: Not the Philadelphia Eagles. Although I will post about them if they make a real playoff run.