Thursday, January 31, 2008

Current Music and Cooking

I've been listening to LCD Soundystem's Sound of Silver a lot. The singles, "All My Friends" and "Someone Great" are both excellent. James Murphy's songs can be a bit repetitive because of "dance" side of the "dance/punk" but they all have an interesting payoff in terms of lyrics or musical crescendo if you keep listening. Go watch the videos if you're interested.

As for cooking, I added some Serrano peppers to the meaty spaghetti sauce I cooked last night and topped it off with some grated Five Year New York Cheddar, which has a very sharp and pungent flavor. It was delicious and went great with the Cappuccino Stout I decided to try that night. California cuisine at its finest!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Number Eight: Radiohead's OK Computer (1997)

I purchased OK Computer a little bit after the hype began. I don't know if anyone else remembers this, but OK Computer was huge in the music press. Everyone talks about Nevermind like it was a revolutionary album but I don't remember feeling that way at the time. OK Computer did seem revolutionary.

I first listened to the album while on a family road trip from Modesto to Vancouver. I remember putting on my headphones and getting more and more excited by what I was listening to. I think the other two albums that were on heavy walkman rotation for me at this time were The Smiths' Louder Than Bombs and The Smashing Pumpkins' Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. I had recently purchased The Pixies' Surfer Rosa and loved it as well. Then came OK Computer. It's the first album I remember being present for, in a general sense, at release. I felt like part of something bigger and more important. Exciting things were happening and I was listening to them! This was the CD equivalent of driving to Fresno with my Dad to see Pulp Fiction before it hit wide release.

The video for "Paranoid Android" was odd and captured your attention, but the music was more interesting. Thom Yorke has repudiated comparisons to "Bohemian Rhapsody", noting that his song isn't as musically complex as Queen's. That may be true, but to this music theory neophyte it sounds comparable and I vote it as the "Bohemian Rhapsody" of the 90's. (If you're keeping track, Belle & Sebastian's "Your Cover's Blown" is the "Bohemian Rhapsody" of the 00's.) "Paranoid Android" has an amazing slow build that's like 10 seconds of a Pixies song stretched to 6 minutes. Then there's the amazing payoff--"Off with his head man!"

"Electioneering" is the other stand out track - a catchy rock single with a beat you could dance around to and enough Radiohead weirdness to make you feel superior to Nirvana fans at school. "Karma Police" is good, but doesn't have the energy or surprise of my two favorites. Overall though, there are no bad moments - you can skip the computer voice if it really bugs you - and that consistency is something I value. Even one misstep can throw you out of the groove of an album and ruin the feel.

OK Computer marked the end of mainstream innovation in rock. It was the last great album that meant something beyond the pages of Rolling Stone and Sure, we've still got Jack White but he seems more like that last Roman in Britain, lingering behind to pay homage or just because he likes the place so much.

The Two-Pronged Movie Review System Attack

Lately I've been meditating on the inherent inadequacies currently existing in contemporary film reviewing. Often I think reviewers feel an obligation to review a movie on the average viewer's terms and not their own. But on the other hand, reviewers who provide an intensely subjective take on a film and fail to take into account other viewers' reactions merely produce so much more folderol for the universe. So what I've been wondering is: could there be a way for a film reviewer to strike an effective balance between the two impulses? A foolproof way to provide a little something for everybody? Or is such a project beyond the scope of criticism?

Behold: Little Earl's Two-Pronged Movie Review System Attack.

Allow me to explain.

I have noted before (and others have as well) that our movie experience today consists of two almost unrelated but simultaneously coexistent kinds of movies in the marketplace: the blockbusters and the art films. The blockbusters are usually created for people who are not interested in reading movie reviews, although some blockbuster fans do appreciate intelligent analysis of their favorite genres - as long as the movie reviewer respects the modest goals of the blockbuster, of course. Many nights on Rotten Tomatoes I have marveled at the heated and exhaustive discussions users will have over the merits of such artistically comical enterprises as the Die Hard and Rambo sequels. The art films are really where the movie reviewer serves the most valuable function. But because newspapers and websites (I presume) ask their critics to pitch their content in a way that does not exclude the blockbuster fan, what ends up happening is that movies that merely aspire to entertain will be praised over movies that aspire to move the human soul simply because the critic knows that the blockbuster movie is more likely to deliver what the viewer is hoping to see, even if the critic doesn't much admire the movie personally.

Roger Ebert has famously professed ambivalence over his four-star review system, but nevertheless he has stuck with it. He seems to understand the two standards at play, and yet he will use them interchangeably. When he feels like reviewing a movie solely based on what it is trying to achieve as a blockbuster, he will do so (hence the four-star review for M. Night Shyamalan's Signs), and when he feels like reviewing a movie solely based on his own personal gut response to a film, he will do so (hence the four-star review for...every cheesy Oscarbait movie of the past three years?). As a result, his four-star review is beginning to lose its weight. Unsurprisingly, when needled on the subject, he cops a plea on the grounds that his editors make him use it. Here is a legendary exchange from his Answer Man column:

Q. Do you hold different genres to different standards? It would seem so. You gave The Stepford Wives three stars, most likely just because it wasn't the WORST remake you'd ever seen, but you gave The Life Aquatic 2.5 stars, probably because to you it was not on par with The Royal Tenenbaums. Would you honestly rather sit through The Stepford Wives again than The Life Aquatic? I know I'd sooner have a Charles Nelson Reilly movie marathon.

Jeff Robinson, Los Angeles

A.Stars are relative, not absolute, and analyzing them represents a waste of valuable time that could be profitably spent watching aquarium fish or memorizing the sayings of Dr. Johnson. I am compelled to award them because of market pressures. I, too, would rather see The Life Aquatic again than The Stepford Wives, but within the context of the two films, I think The Life Aquatic falls further short of what it was trying to do -- even though what it does is better than anything in The Stepford Wives. I realize my logic is impenetrable. I recommend just reading the reviews and ignoring the stars.

Ah, but all this has got me thinking: what if I were to employ not one, but two star systems? One I might call the "objective" system, where I rate a film based on how well it achieves its purported goals, and the other I might call the "subjective" or "gut" system, where I rate a film based on how I really feel about it. Think about the impact this would have. Why, it could revolutionize the entire rating system world!

Or perhaps it is an even more ridiculous idea. Just how do I define a film's artistic goals "objectively"? Am I trying to guess the filmmakers' intentions? Am I trying to guess the average moviegoer's aesthetic tastes? Could that be a big fat waste of time? And just how do I propose to rate my"gut" reaction to a movie? Is my gut opinion really all that different from my cold, clinical opinion?

I don't know. And frankly, my dear, I think we might as well find out. As some of you may have noticed, I have thus far avoided the entire issue by leaving my film reviews free of a star system. But for the next few months, I think we shall try a little experiment. If it flops, then it flops. But if it succeeds...well, we'll wonder how we ever did without it.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Because He Has a NYTimes Column and I Don't

Yep, I'm picking on Stanley Fish again. His newest column argues that Constitutional Theory doesn't matter, at least when we're discussing Supreme Court justices. He goes through some first year law school talk (I know, I'm there) to back it up.

This is the equivalent of writing a column about how the Bloods and Crypts don't really like red and blue clothes because they find them stylish. Everyone knows this. Hell, even clever-mediocrity-as-intellectualism think tank employs Dahlia Lithwick to write about this issue. "Strict constructionist" is code for "maybe I'll vote against Roe v. Wade".

Perhaps I should be easier on Fish. After all, he's telling me that I shouldn't care about something I already don't care about, which is always nice to hear. Coincidentally, that's often the message of Slate articles as well.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

She's a...Horr

Looking at a map of South Carolina's primary results, broken down into individual counties, it appears that the only county won by Hillary Clinton is a county by the name of "Horry."

Horry. Say it out loud. Coincidence? Providence? Happenstance?

Let the conspiracy theories begin.

Friday, January 25, 2008

For He's a Jolly Good Fela

In my ever-expanding search to explore every known genre of music besides jazz, I've recently been listening to a musician named Fela Kuti. I'd known Fela Kuti mostly as an Afrobeat musician who had heavily influenced Talking Heads. My roommate has owned a 2-disc compilation called The Best Best of Fela Kuti and occasionally he has played it in the kitchen. Whenever he put it on I noted that it was not bad. I finally ripped the collection and now have been giving it my serious attention.

Fela Kuti's music is simultaneously very familiar and entirely unique. Imagine James Brown jamming with The Doors and you might get the idea. Or Bob Marley fronting Parliament-Funkadelic. His songs are all about fifteen minutes long and he sings and raps over a seemingly endless groove. Some of his material simply jumps out of the speakers with a wild percussive energy. You can almost feel the oppressive sun blazing down upon an urban African street.

Easily as interesting as Fela Kuti's music is the story of Fela Kuti's life itself. It is the kind of life that is so outrageous and so over-the-top that it is surprising more people don't know about it. If you even have a sliver of time, I recommend that you read his entry on Wikipedia or his bio in the All Music Guide. But if not, then allow me to extract and condense the highlights for you:

Born in Nigeria, Fela studied music in London in the early '60s, and would probably have ended up playing a decidedly non-political hybrid of jazz, funk, and African "Highlife" if he had not met a woman in America who introduced him to the writings of Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement. He dropped his original "slave" middle name "Ransome" and changed it to "Anikupalo" ("he who carries death in his pouch"). Back in Nigeria, he became a superstar and set up his own house/commune/ recording studio and dubbed it the Kalakuta Republic, eventually declaring it independent of the Nigerian state. Suffice to say, the Nigerian government did not like this and attempted to raid the Republic several times. In 1974 they tried to plant a joint on him but, thinking fast, Fela ate the joint. They took him into custody and waited for him to excrete the joint but he swapped feces with another prisoner and was freed. To commemorate this slightly comical event, Fela decided to name his next album Expensive Shit.

But Fela's triumph was shortlived. In 1977 1,000 soldiers raided the Republic, beating Fela and his family mercilessly (they threw his 82-year-old mother from a window, causing fatal injuries), and eventually burned the place down. Fela and his band regrouped, however, and on the one-year anniversary of the attack, Fela married 27 women in an elaborate ceremony. His bandmates eventually began deserting him, but undeterred, he formed his own political party and attempted to run for president of Nigeria, although the government failed to recognize his candidacy. To make a long story short, he officially died of AIDS in 1997 although it was commonly believed that the numerous beatings at the hands of the government had ultimately killed him.

Although politically progressive in many ways, Fela held quite traditional views regarding women. In the song "Lady," for instance, he sings:

If you call woman
African woman no go ‘gree
She go say I be Lady o

At first you might interpret this as Fela saying, "Don't call African women 'women'; call them 'ladies' please." But what he is actually saying is "Some African women think they are fancy little European ladies instead of good, respectful African women." He goes on:

I want tell you about Lady
She go say him equal to man
She go say him get power like man
She go say anything man do
She go want take cigar before anybody
She go want make you open door for am
She go want make man wash plate for her for kitchen
She want salute man she go sit down for chair
She want sit down for table before anybody
She want piece of meat before anybody

African woman go dance she go dance the fire dance
She know him manna Masster
She go cook for am
She go do anything he say
But Lady no be so

Of course, Fela had a rather sarcastic sense of humor so it is hard to known how serious we should really take these lyrics. And in one sense he has a point, because fancy clothing and elaborate European table manners are ultimately quite worthless. But this song really highlights the dilemma that former colonial powers the world over face: how do you best re-establish your own cultural identity in the aftermath of colonialism? In some ways, it is good to preserve your cultural heritage and traditions. But perhaps some traditions, such as the subjugation of women, are worth abandoning? I guess it's fair to say that before people can worry about having women's rights they first have to worry about having any rights. And on that score, Fela was a warrior.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bad Arguments From Famous People

Here Stanley Fish argues against people who register as Independent when they vote. He reasons that everyone should have a preference for a party because the President appoints so many government workers. These appointments, he says, are quite important.

Unfortunately for Fish, Independent voters can still vote in presidential elections. They only lose out on primary elections in some states. Unless different candidates within the same party appoint different types of people to Federal posts, Independent voters have no less of a say in appointing Federal workers than anyone else.

What Fish should be arguing against is the sentiment that both major political parties are the same. Now this is an argument that I can get behind. There are major differences between Democratic and Republican appointees. Do you think the EPA should be actively hampering efforts by individual states to improve fuel efficiency? Do you think that officials going to work in Iraq should be asked their opinion on the proper legal status of abortion?

If you care one way or another you have an incentive to vote. But you don't have much incentive to register for a party and vote in a primary. In fact, this is one area in which candidates from the same party would have little to distinguish themselves.

Apology for the Delay

My #8 is in works but yesterday was hectic. I had a terrible outline assignment due so I didn't finish my work for a different class. My teacher decided to call on me and I sounded like an idiot. We had an extra class that lasted until 5:00 and my tire went flat on the way home. My sister's car battery died, so I carried my battery 4 blocks through the rain to give her a jump.

We did eat at a tasty restaurant after it all, though.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Stone Making Bush Movie; Witty Comment Not Necessary

Oliver Stone Votes for 'Bush' Project

Honestly. I don't even know what to say anymore. How long until "Darfur: the Oliver Stone movie" or "The 2008 Economy: an Oliver Stone film"? Whatever happened to picking slightly more culturally peripheral topics? Does he just sit around and think, "What huge issue of the day does every other filmmaker in the world have the good sense to shy away from at this moment? That? OK, let's do it." Now I'm just waiting for "Microsoft: The Movie."

Saturday, January 19, 2008

9. Tom Waits' Bone Machine (1992)

Allow me to paraphrase a line from I review I once read on If all civilization as we know it were destroyed in a giant nuclear holocaust, and the earth's contents turned into an endless heap of ash and metal, and one man survived, and he decided to make music, this is the album he would create.

Bone Machine was my introduction to Tom Waits. I was in the stage of my musical education where I stayed up late at night flipping through the All Music Guide, trying to find all the artists with five-star albums that I didn't know anything about. I got to Tom Waits, and, well...the All Music Guide provides a list of applicable genres beneath each artist's name, right before the bio. And for Tom Waits, it said "Singer-Songwriter/ Experimental." And I thought, "What the hell kind of a genre is that?" It didn't really sound like something I would like, so I waited a while on Tom Waits. When a friend borrowed Bone Machine from the library, he also loaned it to me. I put it in the stereo, and out came...the insane ramblings of a madman! But it wasn't bad. In fact, some of the songs were downright catchy. I could suddenly see how "Singer-Songwriter/ Experimental" was perhaps the only appropriate description of his style. Since there was no picture of Tom Waits on the cover, I drew this wild image in my mind of what he must have looked like. He was about 80 years old, with a big, crazy beard, and with half of his teeth missing. When I actually saw a picture of him I thought, "Oh, he just looks like an ex-con or something."

I feel pretty confident in saying that Bone Machine is Tom Waits' second-best album, behind Rain Dogs. What sets it apart from his other post-Rain Dogs albums is, ultimately, the strength of the songwriting. Sometimes Waits can fall into the habit of repeating himself, or relying more on schtick than emotion. But with Bone Machine, not only do the funny songs stay funny on repeated listens (revealing new details each time), but they're more than just funny. They're also stylistically different from each other. And they don't really sound like other Tom Waits songs that you've heard before (not even on Rain Dogs). For some reason, on Bone Machine, he was in the zone.

I'm not surprised that Tom Waits is one of the few singer-songwriters to have been able to maintain a credible acting career, because such a heavy facet of his appeal lies in his delightfully theatrical delivery. Take "Goin' Out West," for instance, sort of like a freaky, mutant version of "Act Naturally":

Well I'm goin' out west
Where the wind blows tall
'Cause Tony Franciosa
Used to date my ma
They got some money out there
They're giving it away
I'm gonna do what I want
And I'm gonna get paid
Do what I want
And I'm gonna get paid

Little brown sausages
Lying in the sand
I ain't no extra baby
I'm a leading man
Well my parole officer
WIll be proud of me
With my Olds 88
And the devil on a leash
My Olds 88
And the devil on a leash

Well I know karate, Voodoo too
I'm gonna make myself available to you
I don't need no make up
I got real scars
I got hair on my chest
I look good without a shirt

Well I don't lose my composure
In a high speed chase
Well my friends think I'm ugly
I got a masculine face
I got some dragstrip courage
I can really drive a bed
I'm gonna change my name
To Hannibal or maybe
Just Rex
Change my name to Hannibal
Or maybe just Rex

I'm gonna drive all night
Take some speed
I'm gonna wait for the sun
To shine down on me
I cut a hole in my roof
In the shape of a heart
And I'm goin' out west
Where they'll appreciate me
Goin' out west
Goin' out west

Can't you just totally see this guy? Some crazy piece of American trash who thinks he's got what it takes to be a movie star even though he's probably about as sociable as Mike Tyson? What I love about him is his confidence. "I'm gonna make myself available to you" - like he's doing Hollywood a favor. And each detail is more outrageous than the last. But what really sells it is the performance. Waits isn't just writing some song from the point of view of a crazy guy; he actually sounds like that crazy guy! The song is like a whole world unto itself. It's better than most short stories or movies, in a way. The twangy surf guitar lick also helps.

Then there's "In The Colosseum," apparently sung from the point of view of an overly-enthusiastic Roman spectator:

This one's for the balcony
And this one's for the floor
As the senators decapitate
The presidential whore

It's always much more sporting
When there's families in the pit
And the madness of the crowd
Is an epileptic fit

Sure, the evocative instrumental clang definitely takes you there, but what really does it is the jarringly-echoed vocal, which makes it sound like some split-faced guy from a Picasso painting is doing all the singing. Then you've got "Jesus Gonna Be Here," in which Crazy Old Man Jimbo pledges his devotion to his savior in what sounds like a West Virginia shack:

Well I've been faithful
And I've been so good
Except for drinking
But he knew that I would
I'm gonna leave this place better
Than the way I found it was
And Jesus gonna be here
Gonna be here soon

Despite the comedic elements, the song is also quite affecting, because it suggests that a lot of toothless old miner people ultimately mean well.

Bone Machine's one weakness is probably its ballads, which, as a friend once put it, are "a little too Springsteen-y." There are three songs on the album I usually skip: "Who Are You," "Little Rain" and "Whistle Down The Wind." I can see what he was trying to do, but I get the impression he felt like he needed to write a couple of "normal" songs because he couldn't just fill the album with crazy songs, could he? Well sure he could. Let everyone else write the normal songs, Tom, because no one else can write the crazy songs as well as you can. The one exception to the ballad rule, "Dirt In The Ground," is a haunting hymn which genuinely manages to be sad instead of just "sad" in quotation marks like so many other Waits ballads, and is probably the best song on the album. Over a mournful piano and a wheezy saxophone Waits summarizes the Buddhist idea of "life as suffering" with image after image of chilling beauty: "Hell's boiling over/And heaven is full/We're chained to the world/And we've all gotta pull." While some might find this worldview nihilistic, I ultimately find it liberating, because (much like the final title card in Barry Lyndon) it suggests the absolute egalitarian nature of the cosmos: no matter how different we like to think we are, one day we're all going to be dead.

As "Dirt In The Ground" and most of the other songs illustrate, Tom Waits is one of the few artists from the '90s to successfully record acoustic-based instruments without draining all the life and energy from the sound. Part of the way he achieves this is by using 2 x 4s and trash can lids as percussion (hence the "last man to survive a nuclear apocalypse" vibe). But the other part of it is that, unlike most other veteran artists from the '70s, he's simply refused to become complacent, a stance that's perhaps unintentionally summed up to perfection in "I Don't Wanna Grow Up," a song that at first appears to be some sort of country hoedown Toys 'R' Us jingle parody/homage, but upon closer inspection possibly reveals itself to be Waits' very own artistic (and philosophical) manifesto:

When I'm lyin' in my bed at night
I don't wanna grow up
Nothin' ever seems to turn out right
I don't wanna grow up

How do you move in a world of fog
That's always changing things
Makes me wish that I could be a dog

When I see the price that you pay
I don't wanna grow up
I don't ever wanna be that way
I don't wanna grow up

Seems like folks turn into things
That they'd never want
The only thing to live for
Is today

I'm gonna put a hole in my TV set
I don't wanna grow up
Open up the medicine chest
And I don't wanna grow up

I don't wanna have to shout it out
I don't want my hair to fall out
I don't wanna be filled with doubt
I don't wanna be a good boy scout
I don't wanna have to learn to count
I don't wanna have the biggest amount
I don't wanna grow up

Well when I see my parents fight
I don't wanna grow up
They all go out and drinking all night
And I don't wanna grow up

I'd rather stay here in my room
Nothin' out there but sad and gloom
I don't wanna live in a big old Tomb
On Grand Street

When I see the 5 o'clock news
I don't wanna grow up
They comb their hair and shine their shoes
I don't wanna grow up

Stay around in my old hometown
I don't wanna put no money down
I don't wanna get me a big old loan
Work them fingers to the bone
I don't wanna float a broom
Fall in love and get married then boom
How the hell did I get here so soon
I don't wanna grow up

Me neither, Tom. Me neither.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Woody Sounds Pretty Normal Here

Woody Allen sounds off - New York Daily News

I do think he's wrong about thinking that he hasn't had any influence on other filmmakers, though. How about Rob Reiner (When Harry Met Sally), Stephen Frears (High Fidelity), Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), or any other filmmaker making movies featuring intelligent urban professionals talking nonstop to each other?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Number Nine: Ride's Nowhere (1990)

Have you heard of this album? I hadn't until a few years ago. Apparently it was big in England, but then kidney pie is big in England...Let's start with the cover: it's one of my favorites of all time. At first it looked like a photograph of a giant worm trail under blue sand. Then I read the back and found out it's a painting by Warren Bolster called "Wave". The painting suggests immense ego-defying power within utter stillness. Such is the power of Nowhere.

The album sounds a lot like other shoegazing bands. If you're not familiar with that term, it basically means that the songs have almost constant electric guitar distortion, sometimes in chorus with the melodic lead and sometimes as the sole melodic element. Ride are less extreme in their love of distortion than some, but Nowhere is pretty noisy. I once played some Stereolab for a friend who likes contemporary jazz. His response was, "This is decent but it's all crescendo." You could say that about Nowhere and if you don't like that sort of song then this album isn't for you.

I, however, love that endless crescendo. It makes me feel like a superhero. The songs give a sense of incredible power and energy without being forced. Punk and heavy metal, the two "power" genres, rely on literal energy to achieve their sound. The singers yell, the guitarists play really fast, and the drummer smashes his drums. The best shoegazing doesn't have to do that. The music exudes confidence, and the arrogant lyrics often reflect this. The wall of distortion makes everything seem interconnected, with my observant ego validating it all. The closest comparison I can think of is Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones. The muddy production, horns, and overdubbing on that album achieve much the same effect.

"Vapour Trail" sticks out as a track worth special attention. The melody is simple but the guitar keeps shifting slightly in volume, stereo panning, and level of distortion. It's a love song but the lyrical focus is on observation rather than emotion and even starts with a vague insult:

First you look so strong
Then you fade away
The sun will blind my eyes
I love you anyway
Thirsty for your smile
I watch you for a while
You are a vapour trail
In a deep blue sky

Love is linked to disappointment; beauty will let you down. It's just a vapour trail after all, but if the sun shines through it in just the right way, and you're in just the right spot, it's everything.

Nowhere was Ride's first album and their only great album. They're one of those bands that had one good idea (not an original idea, but still a good one) and milked it for all it was worth. Unfortunately, the members of the band thought that their album was good because they were inherently talented people. They were wrong. I listen to Nowhere and lament the fact that there can be no sequel because nothing else quite matches it. My Bloody Valentine can sometimes feel formless. Oasis can often seem too melodically formulaic. With Nowhere, Ride struck the perfect balance between the two.

Drinking is Good for You

I found this article in Slate interesting. The test looked at 4 factors that might affect lifespan, smoking, fruit and vegetable consumption, and alcohol consumption. All other factors being equal, those who drank moderately, 1-2 drinks a day, had longer lifespans.

If I'm reading this passage correctly, "People who score in the one-, two-, and three-point range are at intermediate mortality risk, directly proportional to their scores," then moderate alcohol consumption is just as important a factor in determining lifespan as smoking, healthy eating, and exercise.

Of course, this study doesn't seem to include a measurement of quality of life. If you are a smoker and decide to take up casual drinking in order to counteract that you may live longer but be more uncomfortable in your old age. Still, it's interesting to see a study like this. Along with the recent reconsideration of the recommended low-fat high-carb diet that has been going on, this study seems to indicate that some of our societal assumptions about health may be unfounded. That extra piece of toast may be much worse for you than that glass of wine with dinner.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Head Like A...Businessman

Herr Zrbo sent me the link to a Trent Reznor interview in which Reznor seems to address many of the exact same issues I brought up in my post on the music industry back in June. Hell, I'll just post Zrbo's e-mail:

Here's an interesting interview with Trent Reznor on Cnet, I guess he tried pulling a Radiohead and offering a new Saul Williams album (titled: The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust) for virtually nothing and it ended up failing. He has some interesting thoughts:

Here's a couple interesting parts:

"It kind of gets into the bigger picture that you've had to face as a musician over the last few years, which in my mind was a bitter pill to swallow, but it's pretty far down the hatch with me now: the way things are, I think music should be looked at as free. It basically is. The toothpaste is out of the tube and a whole generation of people is accustomed to music being that way. There's a perception that you don't pay for music when you hear it on the radio or MySpace."

"For me, I choose the battles I can fight. In my mind, I think if there was an ISP tax of some sort, we can say to the consumer, 'All music is now available and able to be downloaded and put in your car and put in your iPod and put up your a-- if you want, and it's $5 on your cable bill or ISP bill.'"

Little Earl again. I said back in June that I liked the ISP idea best. If musicians are expecting to make any sort of money at all from their recorded work again, the ISP model is probably going to be their most reasonable shot. I think the Radiohead experiment is going to be a freak occurence rather than the start of a new trend. Fans probably felt so grateful for Radiohead's gesture that those who decided to pay might have felt a little guilty just downloading the album for free, so they paid some money. But when 20 other artists start doing that in a month? Forget it. Eventually fans will lose their charitable impulse. Trent says:

"What disappointed me is that I had thought--and this is just based on how I experience music--given the opportunity (his voice trails off). Why do I end up stealing music? Usually because I can't get it easily somewhere else or the version I can get is an inferior one with DRM, perhaps, or I have to drive across town to get it to then put it on my computer or it's already out on the Internet and I can't pay for it yet. If I think of it a month later walking through Amoeba (record store), I want to just buy a piece of plastic and give most of the money to the record labels, who have to be thieves because my experience with them has always been that? And you have a lot of reasons why you didn't do it. So I thought if you take all those away and here's the record in as great a quality as you could ever want, it's available now and it's offered for an insulting low price, which I consider $5 to be, I thought that it would appeal to more people than it did."

First of all, I barely even know who Saul Williams is (I thought he was a poet). Just how strong is the appeal of this album? (I like the title though). Secondly, why would people pay $5 for something they can still get for free? You just can't count on public generosity in a situation like this. Even if I did really want to hear this album, I must disagree with Trent and say that $5 is still too expensive. To quote my old post: "But I'm not paying $18 for a Led Zeppelin CD. Even with the packaging. What would I pay for, you ask? Hmmm. I can conceive of paying for an artist's entire catalogue, on mp3, in high-quality sound, with no glitches, for maybe about 50 cents. Seriously. And maybe with some exclusive video clips, photos, and essays thrown in."

The reason I say that is because what I'd be paying for is basically a service, and not a product. Instead of downloading all the albums myself and making sure they're glitch-free and labeled correctly, and instead of going through all the trouble of rounding up the videos and the essays and such, I'd be paying someone else to do it for me. And yes, I'd pay for that, but I wouldn't pay very much. It would be like asking people to pay me for the mp3 mixes I make them. Gimme a break. Still, if it were legal, I'd go for it. However, I think the record industry will just have to suffer a little longer before it finally realizes that it's come to that.

Friday, January 11, 2008

10. Pavement's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)

A bone I'm throwing to Yoggoth? Perhaps. But between the three or four albums that were essentially dueling it out for my 10th spot, I ultimately had to admit that, even against the better angels of my nature, I would simply be more likely to put this album on than any of the others.

Why, my friends? Because when it comes down to it, as questionable as Steven Malkmus' pitch can sometimes be, as irritating as his slacker pose can often seem, the bottom line is, when he feels like it, the man can compose a mean rock song. Twelve of them, in fact. And they don't all sound the same! (Take that Kurt). He's like the Tom Petty of the lo-fi generation. Almost every single one of these tracks is built like a truck - or like heaven (which is a truck, of course). Not only is there a tasty lick on every chorus, but, loathe as I am to say it, every tune is well-produced and, despite ragged appearances, actually well-played.

How would one describe the sound of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain? Let me suggest this: if a Grateful Dead jam session happened to be crashed by the Replacements, and everyone decided to take meth instead of acid, you might end up with an album that sounded like Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Country-Jazz Rock for Pringles addicts. Lounge music for Tetris geeks. At times the botched chord changes and cringeworthy vocal acrobatics are, I will admit, not entirely to my taste, but I'll tell you what: I'd rather hear a band that can write songs as good as these play them sloppily than hear a band that writes terrible songs play them perfectly.

Yoggoth, of course, may not understand what I'm talking about, because Pavement's music sounds perfect to him. Maybe he's right. Maybe the rest of us are warped fools, and Yoggoth one of the blessed few tuned to the magic frequency where Pavement sounds like the Beatles. Only science can decide. All I can say is that my immediate impression of Pavement was of a band that was frustratingly insular and self-consciously obscure. But Yoggoth has repeatedly stressed, with utmost sincerity, that my impression is mistaken, and, you know, what the hell? After all this time I think I'll just give him the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, though, I really haven't understood what kind of audience Pavement had been hoping to reach. I suppose the answer is...Yoggoth and pals.

What about the songs themselves? Moments of wonder abound: the opening track, "Silence Kit," screeching to a halt, Malkmus portentiously warning, "Ecstasy feels so warm, inside/till five hours later I'm...chewin'...screwin' with my...hand." The way "Stop Breathin'" twiddles on a guitar lick for two minutes, perfectly aware that it doesn't need to do anything else. The possibly cryptic attempt at suburban rap in "Unfair": "Walk with your credit card in the air!/Swingin' nachos like you just don't care!" My favorite stretch of the album probably begins around what I tend to think of as Side Two, where most albums usually hit the wall. But not Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which serves up "5-4=Unity," their wobbly tribute to Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," "Heaven Is A Truck," a gracefully lugubrious ballad with a piano-based melody that Elliott Smith would have jumped off a cliff for, and "Range Life," the ultimate aging hippie anthem that never was. I mean, who can forget Malkmus' hilariously skewed take on his fellow '90s alt-rockers?:

Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins
Nature kids, I/they don't have no function
I don't understand what they mean
And I could really give a fuck
The Stone Temple Pilots,
They're elegant bachelors
They're foxy to me, are they foxy to you?
I will agree they deserve absolutely nothing
Nothing more than me

Lord, I could go on, but I'll leave "Fillmore Jive," and the rest, to our Pavement guru extraordinaire.

Say goodnight to the last psychedelic band, indeed.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Hey Don't Ask Me (What America Thinks)

One of the best political articles I've read on Slate in recent memory is called "Who's Afraid for Obama: What the claims that a black man is unelectable say about the rest of us." Written on Tuesday, before the author could have known that Obama would actually go on to lose the New Hampshire primary (d'oh!), the piece is nevertheless still quite intriguing. It takes as its target people such as myself, who feel that they themselves are perfectly fine voting a black man for president, but remain convinced that the rest of America wouldn't be. To summarize two pages of scholarly and rhetorically sound analysis, he concludes that people like myself don't really know what the hell we're talking about. And you know what? Based on my experiences in 2004, I would have to say that he is right. Don't ask me who America is willing to vote for and who America isn't. Hell, if people were willing to vote for George W. Bush right after he'd just done all that crap that he did, then clearly I understand the American electorate about as much as I understand the lyrics to "Tumblin' Dice." But personally, I don't care if a guy has three nipples, a lazy eye and a goiter. I'll vote for anybody.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Number Ten: Nirvana's Nevermind (1991)

Why is Nevermind at the bottom of my list? It's a safe choice. I've seen it on lists in many publications. Half of these people haven't listened to it in 10 years, but it's the pick that gives you "cred." I come from the opposite angle. I didn't buy Nevermind when it came out. For me, Nevermind was the album that the assholes in high school listened to. I had my Velvet Underground, Smiths, and...Smashing Pumpkins.

I didn't give Nevermind a full listen to until sometime in '98. I was surprised by how catchy the songs were. Just like when I listened to London Calling and thought to myself, "this is punk?", I listened to Nevermind and thought, "this is grunge?" Of course, by now Grunge is next to meaningless. No other grunge band stood the test of time, or even the test of 5-years-later. The alternative-rock revolution is only the latest and weakest "Louder is Better" revolution that comes around every decade. Critics moan over it for a while and it ends up just sounding like rock has always sounded. It'll probably happen again. Or maybe rock is dead. Hard to tell.

Back to the album. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is a great punk single. Cobain claimed that he didn't know it was a brand of deodorant at the time he chose the title. Who knows if it's true - I certainly knew it was a brand of deodorant. The song was released at just the time my peers and myself were starting to worry about whether or not we should be wearing deodorant. Of course, no one wanted to wear a deodorant specifically marketed for teenagers. Thus the terrific "cool by being uncool" title resonated strongly inside this Reagan baby. (What happened to that cool/uncool spirit? Even rap had its Flava Flav. Did rock die the moment it couldn't laugh at itself?)

The rest of the songs are great. To be honest I'd have to listen to the album again to tell you more about them. "Drain You" is my second favorite, but the others tend to blend together and it's hard to tell if I'm humming along to the Unplugged versions instead when they run through my head. Hence the #10 spot for an album that everyone else either leaves off or puts at #1. It's a great album, but it wasn't my album when it came out, and it changed MTV a lot more than it changed the artistic direction of pop music. And we all know how MTV turned out...

Monday, January 7, 2008

Best Albums of the '90s -- aka Internet Killed the MTV Star

Originally we intended to follow the Best Movies of the '80s with the Best Albums of the '80s. But after dwelling for so long in that dank, fetid decade, we decided to crack open the skylight a little bit and give the Best Albums of the '90s a try (besides, the '80s aren't going anywhere; we can always work our way back, right?).

I'd say that artistically, the '90s were an improvement over the '80s. I have more enthusiasm for my ten best albums of the '90s list than I would over a ten best albums of the '80s list, just as I would have more enthusiasm for a ten best movies of the '90s list than I had for my ten best movies of the '80s list. Artists just seemed to be a little more into it in the '90s. Since the '80s had created a bit of a vacuum, musicians and filmmakers were able to reach back to the '70s, and even the '60s, for a re-kindling of that original passion. Ultimately it looks like that new fire hasn't burned quite as hotly and for quite as long, but in a way the '00s are still in the process of distinquishing themselves from the '90s. Well, at least cinematically. Musically, I feel that the '90s ultimately created a closed narrative of its own - one that probably ended in the final last gasp of popular music as we know it (or so I controversially propose).

However, a few words of warning. Our faithful readers might assume that, since you've all lived so recently through the '90s, you would find the entries in our Best Albums of the '90s list much more familiar. Although I hesitate to predict anyone's reaction, my hunch is that this will not be so. No grunge, for example, has made my list. Hip-hop will not be making an appearance. In some ways, the '90s represented the largest split between American and British tastes. Although I have never even visited England, my list will make it appear as though I have been raised in a flat in Chelsea. In short, keep an open mind and you might learn about some of Britpop's finest moments. Yoggoth, in turn, will be broadcasting his list "live from the bowels" of his old college radio station. Stay tuned and have fun.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

New Study: Monkeys Pay For Sex!

Study: Monkeys 'pay' for sex by grooming

Ladies and gentlemen! Is a new age upon us? Just think: what incredible array of possibilities does this information portend for the human race? Perhaps prostitution should now be called "human grooming"? Or perhaps we should develop some kind of "Biological Market Exchange," where economists rate the quality of the "mating market" of certain colleges and universities based on the favorability/unfavorability of each schools' male-to-female ratio?

The possibilities, people...the possibilities.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Quick Thought About Slate's Email Exchanges

Do they ask these guys to write like this?

"A digital meditation on the end of the analogue era, a procedural about process itself, Zodiac has less in common with Se7en or All the President's Men than with new-media masterworks like Inland Empire, Russian Ark, and Southland Tales, or the system-based storytelling of The Wire (aka the best narrative film of the decade)."

Now back to my paragraph-based meditation on presidential primary coverage accompanied by mug-based warm liquids consumption for the sake of warmth itself (aka the best food of the decade). PS. something about new-media and how blogging is like diary-keeping with benefits.


I've been watching Season 2 of The Wire. Man, I love this show. There is some interesting discussion of David Simon, the creator, and his politics on the internet. (here and here) But these discussions often miss the main draw of show--the wonderfully interesting characters. Hell, the characters are so well done in The Wire I find myself wanting to read Bleak House just because others have used it as a basis for comparison.

I also recently watched a few episodes of 24, the first time I've seen the show. My first reaction is disappointment. What's so great about this show? It seems like a bad, interminable Tom Clancy movie. If every single episode has a 180 degree plot twist, 180 degree plot twists quickly lose their novelty. If the good guy acting as bad guy actually turned out to be a bad guy then I might be surprised. But in the world of 24 all good guys acting as bad guys always turn out to actually be good guys - and vise versa. As far as overly complex, yet mostly traditional television goes, give me Lost over 24 any day.

The most fun I've had watching live TV in the past month was the Giants-Patriots game. I was rooting for the Giants as much as anyone else but at the end of the game I changed my mind. Bill Belichick really is smarter than everyone else and I hope they win the Superbowl. Who else is there left to root for? The Cowboys just seem like a slightly less talented version of the Patriots. Indianapolis is good but doesn't play like they care all that much. The Redskins and The Chargers have been fun to watch recently but don't have a chance of winning it all and neither does Brett Favre. If this NFL season were a novel I was writing, Cleveland or Minnesota would have defeated The Patriots in the postseason. Thankfully we have the Presidential primaries to hold us over until Oakland's amazing 16-0 record-breaking performance next season.

Movies From 2007 I'm Interested In Seeing

Having just insulted everybody else's "Best Movies of 2007" lists, I eventually took a good look through them all and realized that, what do you know, there are a lot of movies from last year I'd probably like to go see! The end of the year (functioning as it does as a semi-official boundary for award show and critic's list purposes) is usually a good time to compose a list of "films I wanted to see but haven't yet." Of course, many of these films are essentially out "this year," some having not even entered wide release yet, but a few of these movies stretch back into last February. Mostly these are simply the movies that hit that particular combination of 1) appearing on so many critic's lists that I feel like I need to form an opinion of my own, and 2) actually seem interesting to me. There are some exceptions, of course. I'm not that interested in Ratatouille, having not been too amazed by The Incredibles, but so many critics said it was great that I figure I'd at least want to be able to argue with them about whether it is or isn't. Likewise, Control didn't appear on too many lists, but I like Joy Division and it sounds like it would at least illuminate my appreciation of that band. I feel like as long as I go out and see all the films below, I can feel pretty confident that I've caught at least the uppermost layer of the best cinema of 2007. We've got 15 titles in all, so it shouldn't be too hard:

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik)
Away From Her (Polley)
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Lumet)
Control (Corbijn)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Schnabel)
4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Mungiu)
Grindhouse (Rodriguez/Tarantino)
Into the Wild (Penn)
No Country for Old Men (Coen)
Once (Carney)
Persepolis (Paronnaud/Satrapi)
Ratatouille (Bird)
Sweeney Todd (Burton)
There Will Be Blood (Anderson)
Zodiac (Fincher)

Now...who wants to join me?