Friday, February 26, 2010

Unexpected Spam (AKA Inbox Got Biffled)

How did Red Man tobacco get my email address?  Got a message from them this morning promoting their Red Man Moist Snuff and the Red Man Racing Team (featuring Greg Biffle driving the #27).  Does it have anything to do with the Georgia Satellites CD I purchased recently?  Gotta say, though, the prospect of winning a Biffle-autographed pit crew fire suit is almost enough to make me start dippin'.

[Note to Red Man: I am not serious.  Please do not send me any free samples.]

[Note to kids: Do not put this stuff in your mouth.  Your lips will fall off.  Not right away, but eventually.]

[Note to readers: Please do not think I am making fun of the Georgia Satellites.  They were awesome.  Two words: "Battleship Chains".]

Thursday, February 25, 2010

First They Came For The Bundt Cake, And I Said Nothing...

I initially misread "food deserts" as "food desserts" in this Village Voice headline:

Michelle Obama Wants to Eliminate Food Deserts in Seven Years

and thought, "Maybe we really are on the road to tyranny" and also, "aren't all desserts 'food'?"

On Contra and Words In/As Music

Since I semi-panned Vampire Weekend's "Horchata" (and attempted to point out the absurdity of their far-in-advance ticket sales) in this space, I figured I was compelled to follow up on the subject of Contra, mainly to say the following:

1. Still not able to fully surrender myself to the pop pleasures of "Horchata" because the lyrics won't let me (and while I'll grant that this can sometimes be a good thing, it's not in this case).

2. Think Contra is really good.

Some elaboration (in which I argue for less emphasis on VW's lyrics while talking mostly about VW's lyrics):

To describe a general trend, the older I get, the less I listen to lyrics.  Or, I should say, the less I listen to lyrics for their meaning or "content" per se.  I listen to lyrics as another component of a song's overall sound - I'm favoring sound over meaning.  I find myself thinking about lyrics only when a phrase jumps out at me, either because it's jarringly bad or out-of-place or strikingly good or apt.  Or when a song is recorded in such a way as to force me to pay close attention to the vocals.

"Horchata" has the unfortunate combination of vocal-centric production and awkward lyrics.  On VW's debut, there were plenty of memorable phrases, good and bad (Oxford commas, climbing to Dharamsala, "a Mansard roof through the trees": yes, please; "kefir on your keffiyah": not workin' for me).  On the rest of Contra, I find fewer phrases jumping out at me than on VW, even though Ezra Koenig's vocals are way out front for most of the album.  And for the most part, out front is where they belong.  Koenig's vocals are very good.  I'm a sucker for the slipping in and out of falsetto thing (there's probably a proper musical term for this) that he's really good at.  He makes it sound like an expressive technique rather than a gimmick or quirk, and the songs on Contra give him a good platform to show it off.  I propose that there's a lot more pleasure to be had from VW's music by focusing more attention on Koenig's singing and less on his words*, but to each his own.

Some of my fears on hearing "Horchata" were realized on the album as a whole, but what I thought were going to be deficiencies, particularly the sidelining of Koenig's guitar in favor of what I interpreted as Rostam Batmanglij's musical fussiness (I swear I typed this last part before I heard that Rostam came out - I found out while Googling the spelling of his name!), actually work and help make Contra sound like a step forward, though a somewhat unexpected one, from VW's debut.  The AutoTune, the ska - these touches show me that the band was unafraid to walk the line between making a fun, enjoyably scattershot pop album and a goofy, embarassing mess.  They ended up on the right side of that line, but close enough to the edge for the album to demand, and reward, attention.     

* This discussion of VW's lyrics got me thinking more about this subject, but I guess the title of the post ("Contra and How We Read Lyrics") illustrates my fundamental difference of opinion.  I know what the author means by "read" in this context, but I still think I'm primarily "listening" to lyrics rather than reading them in any sense.  At a basic "what I'm listening to this music for" level, I just don't care about the levels of meaning that may or may not exist in Koenig's lyrics.  I agree that they can stand up to a bit of analysis and are "interesting" in that way, but they're not that interesting to me in that way.  

The way Koenig sings "contra" as four syllables (or later, ten!?) and "lie" as three, one word taking the melody down, the other bringing it up, and the effect that produces, is much more interesting to me than whatever he means by "I think yr a contra".  That's not to say that any word with a similar sound would do just as well as "contra", but I think the fact that it's a surprising, non-obvious, non-trite word is more important to the success of the song than any other associations it might have. 

I do take pleasure in lyrics that register as rich and complex as words while also being singably musical and at one with the melody - for me, this is the essence of Bob Dylan's genius, to cite one obvious example (assignment for a songwriting or music appreciation class: try listening to "Visions of Johanna" and just concentrating on the vowel sounds. One of Robyn Hitchcock's versions will work nicely if Dylan isn't handy).  I also value lyrics for the way they can cue an emotional response, either reinforcing the mood of the music or, sometimes, whether intentionally or not, sending a conflicting emotional message.  In these two areas, VW's lyrics certainly get passing marks from me.  Even with "Horchata", it's only the verses that bother me - I think the chorus is actually pretty good.  

[Update 3/11/10: Sounds like some good points were made related to the topics discussed above in this conversation between Koenig and author John Wray.  The idea of Koenig taking the scattershot, reference-heavy, product-naming approach to lyric writing from rap and applying it to guitar-keyboard-pop is particularly interesting and, I think, explains a lot.  Others probably made that connection a long time ago, but I didn't.] 

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lost in a Dream

I've been waiting almost a year for this one.  If it captures even half of what it was like to be in the room with this trio, it will be an exceptional album.

I noticed something odd in the way Amazon lists the album credits:

Chris Potter , Jason Moran , Paul Motian

Oh Shoot

One of the best pieces I've read on the subject of guns.  Nothing flashy - just a clear-headed look at a highly charged subject.  The Awl continues to get it done.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vampire Weekend 2031 Reunion Tour - Tix On Sale This Friday

So I noticed that tickets go on sale this Friday, February 26th, for a Vampire Weekend show on September 15th (don't worry, that's September 2010, not September 2011).  And that the Flaming Lips Summerstage show, in late July, is already sold out.  When did we get to the point of having to plan SEVEN M*****F****NG MONTHS ahead to see a band play a gig?!?

I was about to get all "in my day" up in here, but then I did a quick search and found out that when Paul McCartney played Shea Stadium last year, 2009, tickets went on sale a month before the show.  One month.

I haven't fully thought out the practical economics of this, but it seems to me that selling tickets to a sure-to-be-popular show seven months ahead of time would be a good thing for the ticket resale market (known as "scalping" in the pre-StubHub era).  Resellers can snap up a big chunk of the tickets before a lot of people even realize the show has gone on sale (or realize it but hold off on buying tickets), and then rake in the cash as demand increases toward the show date.   

BTW, I might post a belated review of Contra soon.  Because what the world needs now is love, sweet love, and another opinion on Contra.

UPDATE: I've become aware of a regrettable omission in the above post.  I neglected to mention that American Express cardholders can buy tickets via a "presale" on Wednesday the 24th.  ROCK'N'F***IN'ROLL!!!!!!!!

UPDATE #2: Apparently, ticket buyers will be required to show ID and the credit card used to buy the tickets to get into the show.  Which, in theory, should eliminate scalping and any possibility of getting some money out of the tickets if some kind of schedule conflict comes up in your life between now and September.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ebert in Esquire

So, the Esquire profile of Roger Ebert I read yesterday is really sticking with me.  I keep thinking about it.  I don't think it's necessarily a great piece of journalism, but the material, the story itself, is just very compelling stuff.  Especially if, like me, you've been keeping up with Ebert's blog. 

I suppose the story could be made into some kind of rote, trite inspirational thing, but the details of it, and Ebert's own personality, keep that from happening.  Or more specifically, they keep it from becoming trite.  Ebert is, in a real, non-trite way, inspiring.  I certainly recommending reading the profile, but more than that, I recommend Ebert's blog (on which he's now posted a response to the profile).  Anyone with even a trace of Anglophilia should find his recent pieces on London hard to resist.   

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Henry Threadgill's ZOOID at Jazz Gallery - Friday Early Set

I've leave the in-depth reviews to others, but I thought I would share one "sound image" that stuck in my mind.  This may sound silly if you weren't there (or even if you were) but during Threadgill's last solo of the set, I very clearly imagined the following:

Threadgill as the priest of some heretic religion, meting out damnation to his followers in no uncertain terms.  The language was unfamiliar, but the message was clear, "For what you have or haven't done, you are f*cked". 

So pretty much, Threadgill = badass heretic priest, is what I'm saying.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Re: Transference, What He Said

Spoon are cool in a supposedly "post-cool" era, cool in an old school rock'n'roll way.  There's a slight edge, danger, aloofness they project (I'm thinking mostly in terms of their music, rather than their fairly nondescript image) in a way that few of their fellow Pazz'n'Jop perennials do.  Of the top 20 artists in this year's P&J albums list, perhaps only the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, of course, Sonic Youth, give off a similar vibe.

After sitting on that first paragraph for a while, I was going to pick it up and write more about Transference, talking about how Spoon's incredible each-album-better-than-the-last streak was finally over.  That this was a good album (very good, even), but that maybe they'd taken the spare/minimal/reductive approach one step too far this time.   But then I finally caught up with Rob Harvilla's take in the Village Voice and realized it would be better to just link to the work of a professional who basically nailed it.

Just a few more stray thoughts on the subject:

Using a William Eggleston photo as your cover is always a fine choice, indicative of good taste, and they picked a particularly nice one.

Eggleston reminds me of Big Star which reminds me that "Goodnight Laura" is kinda sorta Spoon's "Blue Moon".

With each album, it becomes clearer that Britt Daniel is one of the best and most distinctive lyricists working - an aspect of Spoon's music I don't often see mentioned.  Maybe because his lyrics often don't "make sense". [Update: Tom Ewing is on the case over at his new Guardian gig]  

"The Beast and Dragon, Adored" is easily one of the best recordings of the past ten years or so, and might still be the high point of Spoon's career, but I'd give Ga, etc. a slight edge over Gimme Fiction.  Both stone classic albums, though.

A Pizza Recommendation

I can safely recommend anything and everything at Grandaisy Bakery on W. 72nd St., but I recently found something new that might be easy to overlook: celery root pizza.  A small, thin square, but loaded with a very nice mix of sweetness and herb flavors.  They didn't offer to heat it up for me, but by the time I thought of asking, I was too far in to turn back.  Delicious, even cold.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

WSQ/M'Boom at Birdland

When I first heard about this, I assumed for some reason that M'Boom (the all-percussion group founded by Max Roach) and the World Saxophone Quartet would be playing separate sets. Even though I eventually found out that they were playing together, I was not at all prepared for the sound of nine or so master musicians launching into the staccato intro of "Hattie Wall", the WSQ's traditional set opener. The WSQ has a big sound on its own, but the addition of M'Boom's interlacing rhythms, those additional, complimentary colors (including Joe Chambers playing the tune's insistent nine-note motif on vibes), created a moment of music that was thrilling in the most literal sense. It was so powerful, so strong, as to be genuinely moving. And that was just the first tune.

I've written about the WSQ before, and I've been hoping for a chance to catch them live. At Birdland, all three surviving original members were present - Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake, and David Murray. That's a gathering of saxophone colossi right there.  There's no substitute for Julius Hemphill, but James Carter brings a huge amount of fire* and game on alto and soprano.

I don't know if Max Roach had any pedagogic intentions when he started M'Boom, but seeing the group perform is like taking a crash, non-academic course in percussion appreciation.  The depth and sophistication of the group's music expands notions of what can be achieved with percussion instruments in a jazz context (obviously, all-percussion ensembles are a highly developed tradition in other parts of the world). The WSQ was already a highly rhythmic group - despite having no traditional rhythm instruments, their work almost always has a strong rhythmic pulse, often driven by Bluiett's baritone - so the addition of M'Boom was less about giving the WSQ a rhythmic foundation than it was about adding greater complexity, extra dimension to the music.

Although nothing in the rest of the set quite matched the shock/awe of "Hattie Wall", the music stayed on a high level as the combined groups played compositions from various members.  One Murray composition was based on an Amiri Baraka poem called "Imagine Obama Talking To a Fool" ("ha-has of imbecility"!), though Murray titled his composition "Yes We Can" (can't wait for the viral WSQ campaign video in 2012 - watch your back,  There were moments when the elegance of the harmonies and arrangements suggested Ellington, and there were nods to the percussion-heavy musics of Brazil and Latin America, including a showcase for Latin percussion legend Ray Mantilla.

*A large digression, or a whole other post, would be possible on the role of overblowing and other post-Coltrane sax techniques in this music, suggested by this recent study (via NPR's A Blog Supreme).  In short, I'll just say that to me, at least in the WSQ's music, these sounds suggest not anger or rage, but attempted transcendence, an effort to push past the limitations of the instrument, of technique, of the music (Hamiet Bluiett briefly touches on this subject at about 8:20 of this profile - the whole thing is worth watching, though).

Bonus Links

Some vintage performance footage of M'Boom (this site is definitely worth browsing - lots of great video)

My previous post about the WSQ with links to some amazing YouTube videos of them playing in an elementary school

Flavor Almonds

Funniest thing I've seen on McSweeney's in a while.  I don't want to spoil it with analysis, but there's something about the repetition of the words Lord and Denise.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Fantastic Voyage of the Astroworms

 I found this amazing sentence sitting inconspicuously near the end of a news story about Iran's nuclear program:

"In a separate development, Iran said it had successfully launched a rocket carrying a mouse, turtle and worms into space for research purposes."

 And then this:

"The launch of the Kavoshgar-3 – which means Explorer-3 in Farsi – came after Iranian state television broadcast images of officials putting the creatures inside a capsule before the rocket took off."

I want to see these images.

A Trivial Revelation

In my recent post about Nabokov's Stories, I don't think I made reference to VN's penchant for big words.  I had to look up quite a few of them, and in the process learned the following piece of information:

The word decal is short for decalcomania.

How could I not have known that a word I've heard all my life is just a shortened form of a much longer, much stranger word?  Decalcomania.  Just look at it.

Bonus Links
I just discovered this.  And even better, this.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Funky Quote of the Day

From an underrated entry in Rufus Thomas's "Funky _____" series, "Funky Mississippi":

"We don't have hippies, down in Mississippi
but we funky funky just the same"

At some point, I'd like to track down all the Funky Somethin's and do a list.  Watch this space.