Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Top 10 Albums of 2008

Yes, I still buy CDs. Some people find this surprising given my line of work. This is the CD's Golden Age, and not long from now we will fondly reminisce about 2008 and how you could buy a physical CD with full fidelity of almost anything you wanted for cheap, and how the stamped CD lasts nearly forever, as opposed to your CD-Rs which are silently erasing themselves as you read this.

I am proud to say this year's edition at least feels like it has fewer "old artists" on it. Also you can play a sampler playlist using the embedded player at the bottom!

  1. M83 - "Saturdays = Youth"
    There was no contest - this was my favorite record of 2008. It's perfect - the cover art, the sounds, the words. It reminds me of how intense, embarrassing, painful, and powerful it felt to be a teenager. Each track works on its own and as an album it's even better. Reminiscent of classic 4AD artists but not totally retro.

  2. Neon Neon - "Stainless Style"
  3. Unlike M83, this record is almost totally retro. Neon Neon is comprised of one of the guys from Boom Bip and the singer from Super Furry Animals. I was vaguely familar with the former and not at all with the latter. Regardless, the two of them created a great pop album.

    It's even a concept album about the life of John Delorean, and it obliquely (but chronologically) details his epic rise and fall, in new wave synth-guitar-and-drum-machine glory. Even starts off with a theme that could have opened an early-80s TV show.

    The few hip-hop tracks are fairly weak and feel tacked-on - though I give bonus points for them trying to set Delorean up as sort of the "ur-hustler". The sexy groove behind "Racquel" (Welch) and the melancholy-but-poppy "I Lust U" are also great.

  4. The Roots - "Rising Down"
  5. "My squad's part Mandrill and part Mandela, my band 'bout seventy strong just like Fela, yeah part Melle Mel and part Van Halen and we represent Illadelph...kinda like W.E.B DuBois meets Heavy D and the Boyz"
    Those lyrics open the album, and the best tracks live up to that. Half of the record is strong, melodic, and has enough guest rappers to keep the vocals interesting.

    Some of this record is just awful. The Roots have been making music for a long time, and felt it was important to bracket the record with some screaming telephone messages. I'm sure they found it interesting and relevant. I found it acoustically painful and totally unnecessary. They included a rap recorded when one member was 15. Please no.

  6. Santogold - "Santogold"
  7. Great songwriting, with nods to 60's girl groups, ska, reggae, new wave, and a bunch of other influences. Not a bad song on it. I don't think there are any classics - she's not the new Bob Dylan - but given how many artists these days can't write a melody or even a hook, I am quite pleased to hear someone who knows how to craft a fine song stretch themselves.

    Over time I find I don't much care for the production, which sounds sort of cheap and instantly dated to my ears.

    I was reluctant to try this album due to all the hype around it. My loss. It's very strong, and I look forward to hearing Santogold's next album.

  8. TV On The Radio - "Dear Science"
  9. This album is probably on every hipster's year-end list. But this year's model is actually very listenable, despite extremely dense production. I think the songs could have been a little stronger, but the grooves and feeling are undeniable.

  10. Local H - "12 Angry Months"
  11. My wife said "Aren't these guys always angry?" Exactly.

    This record is another concept album - the singer broke up with his longtime girlfriend, and spent a year (the titular months) detailing his feelings. Some of it is a little forced, but Local H is my epitome of loud rockn'roll. Some great stuff on here - the opening and closing tracks are long epics, which is a nice change from Local H's usual 3-4 minute glittering gems of hatred.

    Plus I'm pretty sure there's some Big Country influence audible on "The Summer of Boats".

  12. Old Fogey Category (3-way tie)
    These 3 old fogey artists all released albums that were as good as anything they did in their prime. I really enjoyed all of them up to some mysterious tipping point, at which point I said "well, why am I listening to this instead of one of their older records?"

    Bauhaus - "Go Away White"
    Bauhaus' new (and absolutely final) album finds them at their most aggressive, hard, and tight. They sound utterly confident and powerful. It makes one wish their other records were as solid. The songs also have a fire and immediacy that reflects their "live in the studio" origins. "Too Much 21st Century" is a great start and there's no stopping. "Endless Summer of the Damned" manages to both comment on environmental destruction and lampoon goth culture. Genius, and a fitting finale to their career.

    Al Green - "Lay It Down"
    I really liked this one at first. Nicely produced and recorded. Sounds classic. Some good guest stars. But eventually I realized it just wasn't as good as his old stuff, and by refusing to even try anything new, the record eventually proves itself completely inessential. Oh well.

    Grace Jones - "Hurricane" (no streams available, import only)
    Watch the video. This is some amazing stuff. Machines stand in for Sly and Robbie, which makes it both different and less compelling than her classic records, but like Bauhaus, there is a confidence and power here only hinted at in her earlier records. Funky and creepy.

  13. Obligatory Harold Budd Record
    Harold Budd & Cliff Wright - "A Song for Lost Blossoms"
  14. He made an album this year, so of course he's on the list!

    A very nice record with awful cover art. My friend Ray Guillette said it made him wonder what Harold Budd's bathroom looks like.

    Nice music for a Sunday, especially when it's cold and/or raining.
  15. Anu - "Cyborg Love Songs"I listened to this a lot, even after I was done making it. People are actually buying this record, making it my most popular non-Pants record since "The Shape of The Universe".
My 2007 picks are here.
My 2006 picks are here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Work Quote of The Year

"All our research indicated 'Rock N'Roll Cats' would do well..."

Work Quote of The Day

I'm sitting in a meeting that is scheduled to run from 10:30 to 6:00 pm.

I've already had to sit through a 30-minute discussion about what a product manager does. I've been doing product management since 1993, so this was not exactly enlightening.

The best quote so far was this absolute gem: "Frequently, people will pay money for convenience".

That's what I hear.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Survival of the Fitness

Nearly 23 months ago, I noted that I was not in great shape. After 3 months of working out and eating healthy, I made substantial progress.

However, that progress came with a price of its own, as my various leg problems started right around that same time.

In the 2 years since, I've been to a half-dozen doctors and finally have something approaching a diagnosis - I have mild scoliosis. That means my spine is curved, and it turns out the curve is to my left side, through the L1-L3 vertebrae, which are likely pressing on or irritating the nerves for my left leg. (That image isn't my X-Ray, mine is in different places and is of a different degree.)

In all likelihood, this scoliosis is the result of breaking my left femur when I was about 3. My left leg is about 11 millimeters shorter than my right, which causes my pelvis to tilt down on the left side, which causes my spine to aim to the left. Let it sit like that for 36 years and add a bunch of weightlifting and running and you end up with scoliosis and some more wear on the right side of the vertebrae than you'd like - though miraculously the discs are all healthy and intact.

Unfortunately, there isn't much one can do for adult scoliosis. I've got some shoe inserts which seem to be helping a little bit (step 1 is level out the pelvis). My back muscles are really imbalanced now - the left side is huge and strong, the right is weak, short, and tight. Correcting that imbalance may help, but as the right side gets stronger, the left may try to overcompensate.

Beyond those basic changes, one enters the realm of the sort of voodoo which I generally avoid. (I've been given a "prescription" to try that, by the way).

Regardless, over the last 2 years I gained back all the weight I lost, in no small measure due to curtailing gym activity because of the pain and twitching in my leg. Time to get back on the horse (or in this case, the treadmill) and eat right.

I've also had a lot going on at work lately, most of it not good news. That said, I'm happy just to have a job (and health insurance) at this particular moment in history.

I've got a few new musical tools and some ideas, and once I can tear myself away from the latest computer games, I'll be back to composing and working on other projects.

I hope everyone else is doing OK. Drop me a line, let me know.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Anu and Rhapsody in USA Today

I am not afraid of the iPod.

As part of my job I get to talk to the media every once in a while. USA Today dropped by our offices a few days ago to take some photos and chat.

Apparently the story is running in today's USA Today. There's also a video clip down in the lower left, which was shot several weeks ago.

For all sorts of reasons I don't talk a lot about the specifics of my job here, but I'm always happy to answer questions for you lot.

Talking to the press is always scary - you never know what they're going to do with what you say or how they're going to make you look. I think about that every time I have to open my mouth in front of a reporter.

Thankfully, the USA Today team did a fine job. I guess I'm semi-famous for a day now.

And to be clear, I think iPods are awesome. I've owned many and still own an original Shuffle and one of the new iPod Touch things. I just think if you're passionate or even interested in music slightly beyond "yeah, I buy a CD now and then", you owe it to yourself to try Rhapsody. It's not perfect yet, but we're working on it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I am at the airport, and happy to be here. 30 minutes of uninterrupted time. To listen to music. To think. To write.

I had a really nice weekend. I went to the gym both days, took care of some errands, and got in some good goofing off. Ate some tasty food. Got good sleep, except for last night, which was my own fault.

I haven’t been happy a lot lately – a lot of crankiness and frustration, mostly of my own invention. I seem to find a lot of things to agitate me these days – There’s a lot going on at work, for example, but I think some of my frustration is just me projecting my own insecurities and problems onto others. But I know some of it is continued irrationality in the workplace. Not that most other jobs would be better.

Things that have frustrated me in the last few hours:

• I forgot to change shoes for my trip and am wearing my heavy workboots instead of comfortable sneakers. I may end up being happy about this if it rains tomorrow and Wednesday as forecast.
• My Ibiza Rhapsody MP3 player isn’t playing well with Rhapsody – MP3s with album art don’t transfer the album art over. AAC files are being transcoded instead of transferring natively. The UI is very close to perfect, but that just throws its few mistakes into greater focus
• Work meetings where I can’t tell if I failed to prepare adequately or other people did.

The airport continues to evolve. Southwest has installed these ridiculously posh (by airport lobby standards) leather club chairs that have power points and USB chargers. I kept waiting for some sort of meter to pop out (“Please swipe your credit card for 5 minutes of comfortable seating and electricity”). But I guess they’re just trying to make waiting in the airport tolerable.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Birthdays and Aging

We're the last generation to grow old
Our children won't have that problem because they're so lucky
For us, being old is going to be a big problem
Who will dispose of all of us?
- 9353, "Senior Citizen Disposal Plant"

63 years ago today, the world's first atomic bomb was exploded at the Trinity site in Alamagordo, New Mexico. I am told my grandfather worked on it.

39 years ago today, the first manned mission to the Moon was launched from Cape Kennedy. Also I was born. 4 days later my newborn eyes saw the television broadcast of the landing.

Over the last 39 years technology has made some astounding advancements. In 1969 a "computer" was a room- or building-sized machine that was little more than a fast calculator. There is more computing power in an iPod now than was used for the Moon shot.

We finally have the "hang-on-a-wall" flat-screen, high-definition color televisions (telscreens?) that I heard about when I was a kid. Almost every piece of recorded music is available on-demand, and video is following close behind (funny that books, the oldest data/media format, are not yet available this way). Video games have gone from "Pong" to things that, at a glance, are barely distinguishable from HDTV broadcasts.

I grew up with rotary dial phones. I remember when the government broke up Ma Bell, and allowed MCI to start competing. Now mobile phones are not just common, they're banal. "Mail" has been replaced with "e-mail", and "e-mail" is also something completely different. As is Twitter (which is also something completely stupid, but that's another post) and all the social networking junk.

Medical science has progressed as well. While I personally am rather disenchanted with medical technology these days, medicine has come a long way. There are fantastic new drugs, ranging from anti-baldness treatments (something that was joked about when I was a kid) to better sleeping pills and advances in painkillers. Advances in medical imaging that put full-body scans within reach of anyone. Things one couldn't do at any price now available down the street.

One reason there will be so many more amputees, damaged brains, and other disabled veterans of the Bush wars is how much better doctors have gotten at saving lives. Many of these same patients would have died had they sustained their injuries in the 1991 Gulf War. Technology marches on, for better or for worse.

Medical science even found a vaccine for HPV - a virus, and a cancer-causing one at that. It's a double miracle. Yet many people are hesitant to give their children the shot to prevent it, for a variety of reasons. Some of which are the typical fear and ignorance that have caused humanity problems for thousands of years.

And now the respirocyte. Apparently a scientist is developing:
"a robotic red blood cell that, if injected into the bloodstream, would allow humans to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath or sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for hours at a time"
Man, how cool would that be? It would revolutionize swimming and diving, at the very least. Maybe more people would walk if they didn't get winded. Marathons would be a lot easier. Presumably this could also be modified to allow breathing of oxygen-poor atmospheres - either our own soon-to-be-carbon-laden Earth or perhaps even the 95% CO2 Martian atmosphere.

That's how it starts - first people just want to improve a little bit. Like say carving up your eyes with lasers so that instead of seeing 20/150, you now see 20/15? You don't look any different, and hey, now you're "back to where you were a few years ago, maybe a little better", right?

Given technology's relentless march, where will we be in 3 or 4 more decades? I used to want to live forever. Now I'm not so sure. Certainly I want a long, healthy, and happy life. It's been a good 39 years, and I hope to have around 39 more. But our planet is already over-populated, and the numbers aren't going the right way. Should science be extending people's lives, perhaps indefinitely?

Even if the technology permits, will religion and other social/cultural biases allow it? I also believe there will be generational issues. Tattoos and earrings have become banal, too (much to my chagrin!), but to older people they still have certain connotations (I was asked to remove my earrings before testifying in front of Federal judges). What about body modification? I'm not talking about tiny metal barbells through various tissues, I'm talking about leopard spots. Or bioluminescent skin or hair. Or scales. Or built-in displays and memory.

I look forward to the future, and hope that I last long enough and that it comes fast enough that I can at least see it, if not actively participate.

Hey you kids, get off my lawn!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Car Trouble: 100 Years and Counting

Have you ever had a ride in a light blue car?
Have you ever stopped to think who's the slave and who's the master?
Have you ever had trouble with your automobile?
Have you ever had to push push push push?
Car trouble oh yeah
- "Car Trouble", Adam Ant (from "Dirk Wears White Sox")

The world recently passed the 100th birthday of the Model T - the first mass-produced and successful car. I've been thinking a lot about how quickly the world used up all the gas, and what the car has done to the planet and society.

Depending on how you score and who you believe, the first automobile to run on gasoline (primitive and nasty gasoline at that) appeared in 1875 or 1890, and various European companies were building cars during the last decade of the 19th Century.

By the early 1900s, cars were the fastest-selling transportation. Ford's Model T was the thing that really took off, though (which was a relief, as Ford's previous ventures and efforts had been failures).

Gasoline underwent substantial evolution as well. By the 1920s the world had catalytic "cracking" (which greatly improved distillation yields) and 40-60 octane. Engine technology had advanced and required higher octane and higher quality, which lead to...lead. Leaded gas - gas mixed with tetraethyl lead, some of the most toxic stuff man has ever created intentionally.

By the 1950s, lead levels had increased and octane levels had increased again. Better cracking technology again. In the mid-1970s, just 20 years later, the industry and the world agreed to stop using leaded gas for a variety of reasons (toxicity, the fact that leaded gas destroyed catalytic converters, environmental concerns).

The period from the 1920s to the 1960s also saw massive proliferation and expansion of the gas station. They popped up everywhere, offering more and more services as differentiators. The energy crisis of the 1970s more or less killed momentum here and turned gas stations into the minimal dispensing facilities we know today.

Now it's 2008. There has been minimal consumer-facing innovation in the entire gas-auto ecosystem for the last 20 years, and arguably regression - the biggest-selling American vehicles were basically bimbo trucks - fake off-road "cars" built on profitable but fuel-inefficient truck platforms. Fuel efficiency stagnated.

The world is fast running out of gas, and it's happened relatively quickly. 100 years is not very long.

But it was long enough to define America's cities, its economy, its values (family, environmental, corporate, governing), its architecture, its lifestyle. For most Americans, life without a car isn't just unthinkable, it is impossible. And without cars and trucks (and lately airplanes) today's society would quickly collapse.

Yet it has been so clearly unsustainable for so long. How can the world not be ready to move on?

I am old enough to remember pumps dispensing leaded gas. I remember cars that did not have shoulder seat belts, or had them as add-on/after-market accessories.

I also spent my primary school years during the oil crisis of the 1970s. I remember gas lines, even/odd license plate rationing, and many science classes being told in no uncertain terms that the world was running out of oil, and that was probably good anyhow because cars were poisoning the environment in just about every way one can imagine (it's not just the emissions. Think about the paint, the construction, the batteries - hell, just the tires alone are a nightmare).

My father can remember cars without seatbelts. His generation saw the maturity of the gas-auto ecosystem. That was just 50 years ago.

His father (my grandfather) would remember the first modern gasoline and gas stations, and my great-grandfather would likely have remembered the introduction of the Model T.

And now it's all but gone, in 3 generations. A short period of time in human history, and yet our entire society is dependent on it. Look around you. It's all gasoline, it's all cars and trucks. And it has to stop - there is no choice. It will stop - the gas will run out, and/or the environmental damage will cost too much to continue.

Biofuels aren't the answer. Drilling for more gas and oil isn't the answer. I'm not even sure magic fuel-free cars are the answer, as just having a car-centric society creates so many problems. Carbon emissions need to dramatically decrease. Society has to change.

I think about how much gasoline and the car affected and steered development for 100 years. About how much the Internet has changed society in just 20 years. I have yet to imagine a pleasant post-gasoline society 100 years from now. Or even 20.

It must be possible, right? I suppose (and occasionally fear) I'll be around long enough to see the beginnings of it.

And remember this:
You don't need anything after an ice cream

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Music business says radio plays are piracy.

Latest news from the goofballs in the music business: Apparently radio plays are piracy and have not just no value for the recorded music business, but in fact have negative value (It's stealing! It's piracy! We should be getting paid!)


Then why have so many of the labels been found repeatedly guilty of payola? Why have they all literally been breaking the law to pay ridiculous sums of money to get airplay for their music?

Would you pay someone to steal from you?

It is true that in other countries, sound recording owners are paid when music is played on the radio. I'm not opposed to that - I'm just opposed to these tactics, as well as the sudden change of heart.

USA radio stations have never paid royalties for sound recording use. Nobody really complained while the music business was riding high. The labels just kept sending the hookers and blow and cash to the radio DJs and everything was good...great, even, because the artificially high cost of getting music on the radio meant that the copyright cartel could continue controlling the airwaves and all but lock out any independent music.

Now the recorded music business continues their "brilliant" plan of suing and/or making life difficult for all of the people in their value chain (retailers, digital services, customers, etc.) in an attempt to alleviate their own financial misery.

Radio listening is already dropping among those who buy music. Adding additional financial burden to radio will result in more advertising or more cost-cutting, further lowering quality. This will drive more users away from radio and towards the Internet, at which point the industry can expect less revenue and less control.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why I Don’t Go See Live Music Anymore

This blog asked the question “Why don’t musicians demand more money from clubs?” He notes that the amounts being charged at the door have, if anything, decreased over time; and that the monies paid to the bands have stayed relatively flat ($50-$100).

He wonders why he can’t get paid more for doing his job. In my experience, this is not a complaint limited to the music business.

Too Much Music
I think the answer is simple – it’s a supply-and-demand issue. While most cities have a large number of music venues, there are many more bands than venues. Most bands will play anywhere on any bill at any time.

In the worst situations, the economics get so bad the clubs can actually charge the bands to perform (known as “pay-to-play”). This sort of thing comes and goes in some of the major cities (Los Angeles being most notable).

Club owners don’t have to offer most bands any (more) money, because the club owners recognize any specific band needs a night at any venue more than any specific venue needs a night with any band. Especially local bands with uneven material and no following to speak of.

The result is that musicians have no leverage when it comes to demanding more money from the clubs.

Most of it stinks
There’s just too many bands. And most of them aren’t very good. I’ve been going to shows since the late 20th century. The bands have not improved much...they’ve just gotten a lot louder.

The quantity “issue” is not addressable, nor should it be. I like that there are plenty of musicians out there. I just wish they were better at what they do. And by that, I don't mean some nebulous definition of "good music". While I am mystified by the hype surrounding bands like No Age, I'm also perfectly willing to posit that I "just dont' get it" because "I'm old."

That said, here are common mistakes club bands make:
  • Boring music. This is the usual – the band’s material is derivative or underbaked, or just…bad. The best thing most bands could do is play more covers. Except for…
  • • The obligatory cover. You know it’s coming. It will be the last song of the set. It will be something “clever” that shows the audience how much the band knows about music. Most of the time, it’s by far the best song in the band’s set and they’ll actually play it with more fire and fun than any of the previous tunes.
  • Dull performance. The Cars could get away with standing stock-still because it was fresh and their songs were fantastic. Bands out there, take heed: You are not The Cars. Put on some different clothes. Move around. Get lights or a slideshow or videos. Make me think you actually care that you have an audience. Perform. Make me feel something or have an experience. Do not resort to cheap gimmicks – Nudity? Done. Attacking the audience? Stupid. Dumping various fluids on the crowd? Great way to keep people from coming to see you next time.
  • It’s too loud. Most venues have more than enough sound reinforcement and sound guys who aren’t terrible. The rooms are usually relatively small. Yet every band thinks “sweet, now I can really turn up my amp!” As a performer, I hate the volume – looking out into the crowd and seeing people wince, jam fingers in their ears, or otherwise not enjoy themselves brings me down. And as an audience member, I resent having to enter a hazardous area, bring earplugs, and still risk hearing damage. Enough, already. Turn down. If you can’t play well quietly, you have no business being loud.
  • It’s too long. If you’re playing longer than 40 minutes, you better be amazing. I guarantee that even your friends and fans are looking at their watches by then. It’s always better to leave the crowd wanting more, and the bands after you will appreciate you getting off the stage on time so they can start their set. If you’re the last band, don’t drag things out. Let people go home.
Learning from Cover Bands
A good example of what works is looking at the successful cover bands in your area. As someone who’s done time in both original and cover bands, I can tell you that cover bands (playing in and watching) are usually far more fun for the audience.

Good cover bands:
  • Pick hot material – not just good songs, but good songs they can play very well. The material matches the band’s sound and capabilities.
  • Put on a show. They spend money on costumes or performing clothes, wear appropriate cosmetics, and look like they mean (show) business. They will also rehearse the music enough that they can focus on actually performing – this could mean just smiling and moving around, but can also mean coordinated dance moves. Whatever is appropriate.
  • Play at an appropriate volume level. They never take things personally when asked to turn down – they turn down. They know if they don’t, the dance floor will clear and they’ll never get invited back.
Thus cover bands can play almost any club in almost any city and walk out the door with hundreds (even thousands) of dollars in hand. They know their audience and know their job is to entertain.

Tribute bands are a whole other bizarre game.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Back To DC

Off to DC again tomorrow for a second attempt at testifying for the copyright board. More details after it's all done. For now, just enjoy my senior yearbook photo. 1987, baby!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Farflung's new video

My brother is one of the members of this fantastic space-rock band (he's the guitar player in the hat at the end).

This is from their new album, "A Wound In Eternity". It is awesome.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Some Recent Thoughts

1. There is always hope. [Thanks to BoingBoing for brightening my morning]

2. It's actually rather easy to be completely uncompromising (as long as you don't mind the loneliness). Working with other people, however, is always a challenge.

3. Try something. If it doesn't work, try something else. Beating your head against a wall just hurts you and annoys the wall. [Thanks to Hector]

My leg situation has leveled off for now. For a variety of reasons I won't be discussing it further here. Feel free to contact me personally if you like.

I am also starting early preparations for my next recorded music project, which I plan to be a major departure from anything I've done before. And there will probably be some new live music project, though the two are not currently related.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Decayed, Decayed and Cyborg Love Songs Books available from Blurb

The book/liner notes for both "Decayed, Decayed" and "Cyborg Love Songs" are now publicly available from Blurb.

Hardcover prices are $22.95 each. Softcover is $12.95 (plus tax and shipping). These are not marked up in any way - that's what Blurb charges. If you buy one, let me know and I'll send you some music.

A record of Februa...
By Anu

RPM Challenge 2008...
By Anu

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cyborg Love Songs and Decayed, Decayed in Rhapsody

My two RPM Challenge solo albums are now available in Rhapsody for streaming and purchase.

Even if you're not a Rhapsody subscriber, you can go check them out for free:
Decayed, Decayed (2007 RPM Challenge)
Cyborg Love Songs (2008 RPM Challenge)

The purchases are currently DRM-protected RAX files, but will be MP3s in a week or two.

I will be adding links to the books soon.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Sunday, February 24, 2008

RPM Challenge Update: One Minute Left! [updated]

It's been a long, busy, and challenging few days since I last posted. At that time, I had about 4 tracks near done ("Perfect", "Home is where the hum is", "Magnesium and other metals", and "Ctrl-Q").
In the two weeks since, I've had many rehearsals with one of my other bands culminating in a show at the DeYoung Museum, the usual crazy stuff at work, and a few very bad nights of sleeplessness and twitching in bed.

I also had an old friend visiting from out of town who stayed in my studio.

Regardless, I've managed to get 3 more tracks finished.

Updated: I've added Yahoo's new Goose player to provide in-line playback of tracks and updated all the links. They should all play now.

"Daemons" was the first of the 3. Drum and bass-inflected pop. My lovely wife provided some lyrical criticism which led me to substantially improve the song. And per Brian Eno, there appear to be no problems that more backing vocals can't fix. This will almost certainly be the first track on the record.
Daemons [mix 07]

"Cyborg Love Song" is the inevitable title track. This one was surprisingly easy. From just a tiny bit of lyric and a melodic fragment in my head, the rest sprang out. It's sort of unabashedly pop and (new) romantic, which is appropriate given that I wanted to make a synth-pop record. The project has gone in a little bit of a different direction, but there's something I find beautiful and disturbing about this song.

The worst part of working on it yesterday was that after having gotten close to final, some plug-in had a bad interaction with Cubase and it corrupted the session, preventing me from saving and forcing a crash followed by a reboot. Nice. I've traced it down - apparently the Sonalksis TBK Filter doesn't play nice with Cubase if you draw in automation while the track is playing back.
Cyborg Love Song [mix 04]

"Undo" was today's task. An homage/rip-off of everything on Burial's "Untrue" album. It's going to be the last track on the record. It's also got a few nods to some other songs I have written, including "Decayed, Decayed". I am not 100% happy with this one right now, even though it is probably done. We'll see how it sounds in a day or two, and how much time I have left.
Undo [mix 02]

I also demoed "Download" but this is likely going to undergo substantial changes. The good news is that it only has to be about 2 minutes long - I'm down to the last minute but I plan on mixing the heads and tails of the songs together and this will likely "eat" a minute or so.

One interesting thing is that most of these songs stretch out a bit - they have long intros and outros, something I haven't done in 10 years. Some of that is giving the songs some room to breathe instead of "don't bore us, get to the chorus". Some of it is padding to hit the 35-minute mark.

The only other thing I have to do this week is finish up the book, which I'm waaay behind on. Then again, I guess only the album/audio has to be finished and shipped by 3/1, so no sense in killing myself over it if I don't have to.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Sid at the DeYoung

My good friend Sid Luscious played the DeYoung museum on Friday night. I'm sure he'll post about it on his blog but I wanted to share some thoughts as well.

As someone who loves modern art, it was great to get to the DeYoung for any reason. And walking in there as everything was getting set up was a treat - hearing the synth solo for "Valerie N" floating through the halls on a cloud of reverb while admiring a huge Gilbert and George mural with a poop crucifix and a caption of "Shitty" was just...perfect.

It's been a long, hard road for Sid. I'm glad he finally got to show his work at a proper museum. By all accounts, the show was a success. I feel privileged to have been there. The Pants never sounded better, many friends turned out, and a great time was had by all.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Magnesium and Q [updated]

A busy last few days. During the week I started on "Magnesium and other metals" (a.k.a. "Periodic Table").

I tried using a few new instruments that I hadn't used much before. The good news is I got them to work. The bad news is that getting the sounds exactly right was tricky - some parameters weren't quite right, and it took some doing to dial them in.

The end result was a close to final version of "Magnesium". The mix was all over the place, but this morning I sat down and got it all worked out. I think it still needs some backing vocals on the chorus.
Magnesium and other metals [mix 07]

I wanted to keep moving and on schedule so I started thinking about the next song - "Q" (or "CTRL-Q"), a song about video game addiction. I also wanted to do something that was sort of swing-y and in 6/8.

I built the track up pretty quickly and went off to the gym, wondering what I would do for vocals to keep it from sounding too much like "Personal Jesus". Fortunately, I head some tracks off the IAMX album "The Alternative" and it gave me all the inspiration I needed.

I got back from the gym and threw down the vocal, which turned out much better than I thought for a first take/trial. Forgot to eat dinner but got the track done.

Then I had some dinner and listened back to the mix. Vocals are too loud and probably have too many words.
Ctrl-Q [mix 05]

But...I have 18 minutes, 30 seconds in 4 songs. I'm halfway done.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Long-lost friends stop hiding!

Ok, here's a new rule: If you're going to de-lurk and comment on something, and you're a friend of mine and you haven't gotten my e-mail need to get in touch with me!

K, I'm thinking about you at this moment, but you're not the only one who's done this...I've got a whole alphabet soup I could reference.

I figure some of this is because while I'm easy to find on the internet, my e-mail address isn't. So here's the deal: my e-mail address is my first name (the 3 letter one) plus my last name as one word (a****** - huh, that looks like something else entirely...) at the GMail dot com.

And K, funny that you commented the other day. I was just thinking about you as I was marveling that the following is now available in Rhapsody:

Jet Black Factory - "3 Poisons"
Jet Black Factory - "Lamplight Shining"
Jet Black Factory - "Vinegar Works"

Monday, February 04, 2008

RPM Challenge - the first few days [updated again]

The 2008 RPM Challenge has begun! I've been busy since Friday night and have already produced 2 tracks.

The first track is tentatively called "Perfect". It's built around a whole-tone scale (made obvious by running up the scale early in the song). I'll say this - it's hard to write melodies in whole-tone when you're not used to it. It really sounds weird. But that's OK by me - I'm looking for something a little outside what I'd normally do here. I need to finish the words and I'm not thrilled with the vocal performance yet, but the rest of the track seems promising. I spent Friday night and most of Saturday working on this one.
Perfect (rough mix 05)

Saturday night I started in on a new piece. I was thinking about how easy it's been for me to fall asleep on airplanes (and how difficult to sleep anywhere else lately). I wanted something that would convey the dream state and flying. I built this song out of noise and drones, and did a very low vocal reminiscent of a track I recorded 10 years ago called "LEM". An appropriate homage. Working title for this song is "Home is where the hum is". More or less finished after a second mix pass - lots of low-end energy made for an overly muddy mix the first time around.
Home is where the hum is (rough mix 04a)

Between these 2 songs I already have nearly 8 minutes done. Seems almost too easy so far!
Today I was researching some of the physical problems I've been having - apparently magnesium deficiencies can produce some of the symptoms I've been having. After doing some poking around on the Internet, I realized that the quest for completely balancing one's body chemistry is good grist for a song. Maybe I'll call it "Magnesium and other metals" or something to do with the periodic table.

Updated: Apparently the Chill server cares about capitalization of filenames. Sorry the links weren't working. Fixed now, and as a consolation prize I put up a newer, more complete mix of "Perfect".

Would love to hear what people think of the tracks.

Updated again: Goose player installed, links updated, mixes updated.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Wabi-Sabi and Product Design

There are many examples far worse than this.
I find it funny that people will spend hundreds of dollars on a fancy piece of elegantly designed consumer electronics like the iPod or iPhone and then stick them into a cheap and hideous case designed to "protect" it.

It reminds me of those living rooms some of my friends' families had with nice furniture trapped under plastic shrouds.

What's the point? They love the object's beauty so much they'd rather hide it or obliterate it completely lest it get a single scratch? These things aren't supposed to stay perfect, flawless, beautiful forever (just like you and me). The expected consumer lifetime for most PDAs, mobile phones and MP3 players is 18 months. You really can't live with a scratch that long?

I believe Apple puts those shiny chrome backs on the things to force people to fetishize them, constantly trying to rub off their own fingerprints. Sisyphean in a way. All that attention - it's like washing your car every day.

Zune has done a nice job of giving their players surfaces that still feel and look nice but don't require you to carry a bottle of Brasso everywhere you go.

There's a Japanese concept known as wabi-sabi. There aren't direct analogues in English, but the general idea is there is a dignity and beauty in things that are aged and worn, and that impermanence and transience are good and right.

Would you rather have a shiny brand new guitar or a vintage Strat from the 50s? Most people, not just guitar junkies, prefer older, worn instruments. Wabi-sabi.

Fender and other manufacturers have realized there's big money to be made in delivering new guitars that look (and to a lesser degree, feel) like they're old.

As a guitar player and appreciator of wabi-sabi myself, I cannot deny that I think older guitars look and play better than new ones. I even think the faux-old ones look better than new. But I could never buy an ersatz old guitar. That's cheating, and even cheesy. Part of the wabi-sabi aesthetic is the implication of the wear - this thing has been around, it's been used, it has a history.

The Steampunk movement is operating in this space coincidentally, if not explicitly. And one of the reasons people liked the design in Star Wars so much was how everything in the world felt used and old, as opposed to the typical "out of the packaging" look of most other science fiction.

I wish more designers would take advantage of wabi-sabi. What would a car that came "relic"ed look like? Why don't they? (answer: because the car companies have a lot invested in you wanting brand new shiny cars instead of old ones - and there are way more old cars than new available. The reverse is true for guitars).

Consumer electronics would be great like this. I would love an MP3 player that was slowly rusting, with big chunky knobs. Or a PDA with a leather back that wore and aged like a Filofax or notebook. A home stereo with dents.

What about a PC application that "aged", wore, and picked up dings and marks? What would that be like?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Las Vegas and CES 2008

Las Vegas, 1978. My family is on a trip. We've been to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyons, Lake Powell, and many other sights. Our dusty van rolls up in front of Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas. My young brother and I share what seems like a giant room covered in burgundy shag carpet. There are mirrors on the ceiling and I can't figure out why. I've read numerous books mentioning people stealing ashtrays from hotels. Naturally, I steal one from Caesar's. I still have it.

Las Vegas, 1994. I have been working at Spatializer Audio Laboratories for a few months. I am sent to work COMDEX, the legendary expo. While the company, our booth, and staff are small, the show is gigantic, overcrowded, and ridiculously expensive. It's also raining all the time. I am staying at Bally's and marveling at how much Vegas has changed. I am in my mid-20s, gainfully employed at what I think is a great job, and happy to be alive. I'm going to get engaged soon.

Las Vegas, 1996. I am still working at Spatializer Audio Labs and here with the now large Spatializer team. Staying at the Hilton. I am separated from my wife. Her company has a booth less than 50 feet from ours, and I watch her working with the man she's left me for. It is late and gray. I am pushing through the crowds in my raincoat, Deckard desperately searching for the replicants. I need to talk to her. There is crying. Awkward phone calls. Emergency telephone shrink sessions. I haven't eaten food in a month. A month from now I will start divorce proceedings.

Las Vegas, 1998. I am lying on the fake beach at the Hard Rock with my girlfriend, enjoying a nice vacation. There is much relaxation, some drinking, and a little gambling. My Dad lives here now and I see him briefly.

Las Vegas, 2000. is hosting a small event at the House of Blues, largely so our PR director's band can play there as part of the EAT'M conference, where I'm speaking on a panel. One of the women helping host the show flirts with me. We'll meet for drinks later. I will find out that she lives in L.A. - the town I am just about to leave in a matter of weeks. We will have dinner a few times and stay in touch. She'll end up in San Francisco shortly after me, stay at my place for a bit, and then resurface years later rooming with colleagues at work.

Las Vegas, 2007. I am here for CES, working the Rhapsody booth. Proud to be here, and feeling good about life and myself. We're showing Rhapsody 4.0, finally available after a long and tortured development cycle. We are also showing the first Rhapsody-optimized MP3 player. The show is exciting and long. The second night I'm there, I can't fall asleep - my leg twitches and keeps waking me up. I get no rest. The same thing happens the next night, despite my exhaustion and working out.

Las Vegas, 2007. The MTV Video Music Awards. Ever since I first saw MTV, I wanted to be on it. Working for MTV and being behind the scenes is almost as good.

Las Vegas, 2008. CES is over. I am sitting in the West Wing of the MGM Grand. West Wing is their "modern" part of the hotel, a nearly W-ish take on their regular rooms. Economical but very nice. Nice furniture. After multiple nights of business dinners, I finally had a night to myself to relax and get some room service. I've managed to work out every day and worked hard at the booth. Lots of demos for press and others.

Last night I managed to have dinner with an old friend not seen for many years.

The night before I nearly got time to myself. So very tired. 20 feet from the eleveators...but a hand clapped me on the shoulder. My former boss. "Let's go have dinner". So to the cab line with 2 other people. $40 later and we're at the head of the cab line. The door closes. The driver asks "where to?" One of our party says "Take us to the Indian restaurant at the El Dorado". The cab driver says "there's no hotel named 'El Dorado' in Las Vegas, and I only know about 3 Indian restaurants in town." Our companion is stammering. "Well, what's that place, you know, across the freeway?"

"Sir, that's a condo complex."

Our other companion is frantically texting on his Blackberry. Oh god it is going to be a long painful night. If I weren't wedged in the middle of the cab, I'd already have bailed out.

"What's the name of that place, you know..."

"Sir, I need a destination or you're going to have to get out of the cab."

The other guy says "We're going to 'Lotus of Siam', do you know where that is?"

"Yessir, it's outside of town in Commercial Center, near all the massage parlors. We'll be there in 10 minutes."

I'm not a huge Thai food fan. But at least we're going somewhere. Or are we? Companion 1 is racking his brain "wait, what are the restaurants you know?"

Cab driver says "'Gandhi' is a popular one."

"Yeah, that's it! wait, it's called 'Gaylord'. It's in the Rio, yes, the Rio. 'Gaylord' in the Rio!"

Too late. We're on our way to 'Lotus of Siam'. Which will have a one hour wait. We'll pass the time griping about work over Newcastle at a pool hall nestled between several karaoke bars and "Asian-style" massage parlors. At 9:30 one of our party will look at their Blackberry and say "oh, we have to leave right now, I have a meeting to get to."

I get to sleep at midnight, my chapped lips still burning from the Thai food.

Viva Las Vegas.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

2008 Resolutions

  1. Get in better shape. I did this last year quickly and successfully before leg issues and lassitude dragged me back down.
  2. Spend at least one night a week with friends (and make more). I have many wonderful friends here in town (and out of town). I should see them more often.
  3. Read more books. My stack isn't getting smaller fast enough!
  4. Finish the new Pants album and play better/more gigs. 4 more songs is all we need!
  5. Finish a new solo album. Since I turned 16, I've managed to create at least an album's worth (10 songs/45 minutes) of new music every year. 2008 will be no exception! Not sure whether I'll blast it out during the RPM challenge, but I have a few ideas...

I also have a short list of errands that I will finally get around to. For example, it may shock some readers to know that despite my crazy relationship with music, my main stereo speakers date back to my college days and both of them have holes in the woofers. I need to finish my personal will. And so on.

Unlike most people, I actually stick to my resolutions and do what I say I will do. I will try to keep the blog updated once a week (at a minimum), which is roughly double what I've managed over the last few years. As always, dear readers, I welcome your feedback and appreciate your time.

Happy 2008!

My Top 10 Albums of 2007

2007 was not a great year for new music, at least for me. I'm getting older, so everything I have ever heard gets to compete with everything new. The new stuff usually loses. I also find that as I get older, I am just less interested in what's going on right now and more interested in exploring various branches of the music history tree.

Regardless, here are the 10 2007 releases I thought most noteworthy.

  1. Burial - "Untrue"A last-minute entry, surprisingly topping this list. This moody downtempo record by a guy from South London is like "Blade Runner" meets DJ Shadow. Simple, spare tracks that conjure vivid images and a variety of moods. Cinema for your mind. Not too long, not too weird. The sort of record I wish I would make sometimes.

  2. LCD Soundsystem - "Sound of Silver"
    Electronic/Rock. I didn't care for their last record, but this one has actual songs plus production that even makes the hipsters shake their butts. The basslines are almost all cribbed from other songs, which makes for a fun game of "where'd he steal that from?" But the influences are at least a bit novel, and there's a sense of longing and melancholy beneath the partying, and it's carefully leavened with humor and irony. I don't know if I'll be listening to this record a lot in 2008, but it certainly made 2007 better.
  3. Amy Winehouse - "Back To Black"
    Pop/Soul. Take her personal life out of the equation for a moment. She's got a great voice, writes great songs, and manages to make music that isn't for children but doesn't make you like a complete old fart listening to it. The production is a decent blend of retro and modern. And the songs are catchy and melodic without being stupid.
  4. Nine Horses - "Money For All"Alternative. If this were a full-length record instead of an EP, it would almost certainly have topped this list. Most of this is semi-decent remixes of tracks from the David Sylvian-masterminded group's first album "Snow Borne Sorrow". But the ringer here is the title track, whose edgy and topical lyrics ("...I'll take that coat/remove them shoes/should a guy like me be afraid of a man like you?...") practically made it my theme song for the year.
  5. Stars Of The Lid - "And Their Refinement Of The Decline"
    Ambient. Unusual in that it's not electronic - the record is all cellos and brass (or at least convincing samples thereof). A double-album with some unfortunately juvenile titles for what are quite beautiful compositions. The record unfolds extremely slowly. The sort of music I would want played at my funeral. I mean that in a good way. If these guys had gone to music school, you'd be reading about them in The New Yorker or New York Times or other classical publications.
  6. M.I.A. - "Kala"
    This Electronic/Pop album makes me feel very old and very young. Very young because it's au courant and hip and fun and makes you want to dance and everyone's talking about it. Songs are reasonably solid and it's an example of a contemporary record and artist that don't make me completely wince. It makes me feel old because I can't listen to the whole thing without getting a headache. Hell, I can barely look at the album art without getting a headache. It's a bit much all at once, but who listens to albums all the way through anymore?
  7. Nine Inch Nails - "Year Zero"
    Industrial rock. Back in the 90's, Nine Inch Nails were one of my favorite artists - very exciting, fresh, and different. Then they started making records like "The Fragile" (all of the NINnies love this record. It bored me to tears). "Year Zero" isn't an incredibly amazing record, but it's consistent, has some interesting production (while being less reliant on that production than previous albums), and some decent songs ("In This Twilight"). I'm also giving them a spot here because of the unusual marketing campaign and "alternate reality game" which I believe will be one of the most influential things about the album. And there's Trent Reznor's issues with the traditional music business.

  8. Tie between After The Night Falls
and Before The Day Breaks (both by Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd). These ambient albums are sort of companion pieces - the track titles on each record mirror each other. Very much in the same vein as their soundtrack to "Mysterious Skin". Heavily treated piano and guitar. I probably listened to these two albums more than anything else this year.

  • Underworld - "Oblivion With Bells"
    Electronic/Dance. Underworld put out an album this year, which all-but-guarantees placement on this list, as I think they are awesome. This record is not their best, but it has some very strong moments ("Crocodile", "Beautiful Burnout") and only a few really weak ones ("Ring Road", for example).

  • My 2006 picks are here for reference.

    2007 In Review

    2007 was a tough but rewarding year. As I think back over all that happened, a few events in particular stand out:
    1. Leg problems. 2007 saw the rise of my various issues with my left leg. Not sure whether they were related to my sudden increase in activity towards the end of 2006, but if nothing else 2007 will be remembered as the year my leg started twitching.
    2. Fitness backsliding. In February, I weighed about 172. Now I weigh about 182. Some of this is due to not being able to work out because of leg problems (see above).
    3. Decayed, Decayed. I completed the RPM challenge and made a hip-hop-esque record.
    4. Work. Life at Rhapsody continued to be challenging, frustrating, and rewarding.
    5. Travel. Because of work I was in a different city almost every month. Last year saw multiple trips to Seattle, New York, New Jersey, Las Vegas, Washington, DC and even Seoul, Korea. I flew many different airlines, stayed at many different hotels and managed to not get badly delayed at all. I became a professional business traveler.
    2007 also saw fewer gigs by my friends The Pants as they struggled with busy schedules, new jobs, personal issues, and adjusted to 2 new band members. I played several memorable gigs with Palace Family Steak House, assisting in their "district-by-district" scheme and armed with a fantastically heavy Gibson Artist RD on permanent loan from the Adam Tober Rare Guitars collection.

    I also found myself completely burnt out about world events. I am beyond outraged and upset. Also completely powerless. The election process in the USA bores me to death when it isn't depressing me. This year I donated more money to worthwhile causes than in previous years - a reflection of a modest increase in my income and a desire to make the world better (presumably by throwing money at it). I also decided to stop giving money to Dartmouth, which neither needs nor deserves it at this point.

    Not a bad year. Not the best one. I have nothing to complain about.