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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Why I have an iPod

Earlier this year I blogged about why I don't have an iPod. I still stand behind my reasons (the cost, the annoying two-second gap between live tracks, etc.) but I've never thought iPods were bad or useless. I had a lot of reasons why I didn't have a bulky, expensive model but I wasn't really thinking about the smaller, cheaper models like the Nano and Shuffle. Upon receiving an iPod Nano from my sister and brother-in-law for Christmas, I believe I've found yet another way of enjoying music.

My iPod has only 2GBs of space but this works better for me. There isn't enough room to put a variety of full albums in the library, but that shifts the focus onto individual songs. I put a lot of my all-time favorite songs in from iTunes, press the 'Shuffle Songs' option and see what comes up. I currently have 111 time-tested favorites loaded, including songs by Suede, Petula Clark, Koufax, the Beatles, Public Image Ltd. and the Jam, and plenty of room left. This is like having my own personal jukebox without having to dump quarters into it and there is no wading through crappy, unwanted cuts.

While I'm not completely sold on listening to the 'Pod in the car (CDs sound fuller compared to the compressed sound of MP3s), listening to it with headphones while walking the dog or walking around the house is perfect. The sound isn't deafening but it's loud enough to hear everything. I haven't listened to music on headphones in years and it's a welcome return. Hearing music split up on headphones is a much different experience compared to listening to speakers in a room. I think there's something cool about hearing certain instruments and voices on the left channel while hearing other instruments and voices on the right channel.

I'm still not completely sold on MP3s over CDs, but with an iPod, I don't have to worry about tracks skipping while I walk around. Unlike a portable CD player, there is no need to keep an iPod still to ensure seamless listening. I really dig that, especially while walking a dog that takes off once we step out the front door.

Don't think I've changed my tune or done an about-face here. I still have reservations about listening to compressed MP3s but it's like I have my own radio station or jukebox in my pocket. This is another advantage of personal technology: I have more control over my listening pleasure in a portable way. This sure beats having to settle with the songs that are stuck in my head.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Hey, Remember the '80s?

Bob Mould chimes in with some inspiring words in The Big Takeover #57. Reading this quote gives me even more hope because it comes from a guy who lived in a very similar climate in the 1980s:

"It's gotta change. And it will change. And I tell my younger friends-people that are in their late-20s to mid-30s, when they get panicked and worried-we went through this before, 20 years ago, in the Reagan years. We got out on the other side. It took awhile, and a lot of damage got done, and a lot of lives were lost in a different way in the '80s, but you get through it, you know?"

I was born in '79 and was very oblivious to what was going on in the world. I kept hearing about "Star Wars" on the news, but I always thought they were talking about my favorite movie. I remember being very annoyed that I couldn't watch cartoons one morning because some guy named Oliver North was giving testimony. I remember lampooning Reagan's voice in a talent show in elementary school and seeing the man be lampooned in videos like Genesis' "Land of Confusion". I heard about AIDS and was aware of super-rich people, but everything else that the '80s "stood" for (greed, poverty, AIDS, bad hair, tacky clothing, synth-pop, hair metal) were not big deals for me.

Seeing so many trends these days take a cue from trends in the '80s, I often think that we are reliving the '80s. Whenever I hear somebody around me or read someone's writing somewhere fearing for the worst about where our culture is supposedly headed, Bob's quote comes with a great degree of comfort. Our climate is not gonna change overnight, but it will change.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Post excerpt

Yet another Post excerpt summing up my current mood (especially the last line). Hope everybody had a nice Christmas.

Following the success of Very Emergency, the Promise Ring was in a tricky situation with Jade Tree. The band wanted to do more with the sound of their records, the look of their records and overseas distribution, but Jade Tree could only offer them a certain amount. The label couldn’t offer numbers in the six-figures to sign a new act, let alone make a very polished-sounding record for an established act. If Jade Tree did throw that kind of money around and didn’t make a profit, the label wouldn’t be around anymore. The label was always a very small operation; even with the success of the Promise Ring and Lifetime, it was run out of a spare room in the house that Owen and Walters shared. With help from interns over the years, Owen and Walters were the only full-time employees on the label.

In 1999, Jade Tree expanded by hiring on two more full-timers and moved its operations into an office in downtown Newark. Still small in structure and funds to an extent, Jade Tree couldn’t afford to jeopardize everything they had worked so hard for. “[Jade Tree] became a grind,” Gnewikow told Mean Street. “They were friends of ours. It would be ridiculous and completely unrealistic to go up to them and say, ‘We really want to stay with you, but we need $150,000 to do our next record.’” The guys in the Promise Ring weighed their options about what to do next. “You can’t grow in a relationship that doesn’t change,” von Bohlen says. “[It’s] important to grow.”

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Lesser Lights of Heaven

If you've ever heard Zao, chances are you haven't forgotten what they sound like: extreme, exorcism-like vocals over brutally heavy riffs and big drums. No, this isn't the kind of music I listen to on a regular basis, but I respect it and enjoy listening to it from time to time. After seeing the recent 3 and 1/2 hour documentary on the band called The Lesser Lights of Heaven, I don't know if I find the band's history more interesting than their music.

Other than Napalm Death, Zao is the only other band that I know of that retains none of their original members in their current line-up. Led by drummer Jesse Smith and a number of membership changes over a dozen years, certain members like vocalist Dan Weyandt, guitarist Scott Mellinger and guitarist Russ Cogdell floated in, around and out of the band. Now without Smith in the band, it sounds like blasphemy that the band is carrying on with the Zao name. I don't think it is, but how I feel this way can only be summed up after watching The Lesser Lights of Heaven.

I first read about Zao in Alternative Press in '98 shortly after Where Blood and Fire Bring Rest. The write-up on them was in a multi-page look at the current state of hardcore and it proved to be one of the more influential articles for Post. Ryan J. Downey wrote the blurb and it turns out, he produced and directed The Lesser Lights of Heaven.

At first, it seems natural to ask, "Why spend 3.5 hours on one band?" But I think that's plenty of time. This isn't your standard, chop-chop/get-to-the-point documentary that focuses on the main points and leaves out a ton of stuff in order to have an 80-90 running time. Probably every question I've ever wondered about the band is discussed. Band members, especially Smith, make no bones about personality differences, their views on organized religion and how certain records were thrown together to make some money. Not many bands are this blunt about who they were/are and this makes for a very engaging documentary.

The topic of Christianity and how it plays into organized religion has a big part in this film. Band member's views on organized religion and heavy music have been a controversial part of the band since their beginning. Playing a style of music that is often considered "death metal" because of the detuned guitars, pounding drums and screaming vocals, many have thought that metal band made up of Christians is an oxymoron. For Zao and a whole slew of bands, it's about creating good and powerful music, and not about being a ministry. As someone who doesn't subscribe to one set of beliefs under one organization, this attitude is something I really relate to. There is no way I can get into crappy, mediocre music, secular or non-secular.

Overall, this is a great DVD. A 3.5 hour documentary on a band is a tad long, but with it being on DVD, no one is holding you down to watch it in one sitting. Maybe this will start a trend of band documentaries and how length isn't that big of a deal. I get a little annoyed with documentaries that cut out so much stuff so they can make for a user-friendly running time. If the band's story is that interesting, take all the time you need.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Against what?

"'You're not punk and I'm telling everyone'/Save your breath I never was one"

-Jawbreaker, "Boxcar"

Punknews.org reports some pretty big news: Against Me! has signed with Sire Records. For those that don't know, Sire Records was the home of a number of influential acts in the late-'70s/early-'80s (like Talking Heads, the Ramones and Madonna). It's also a major label. Against Me! is a folky punk act that has released records on non-major labels like No Idea and Fat Wreck Chords. Is there any reason to get all in a huff about this? No. Has this ever been a reason for me to get all up in a huff? No.

As someone who was introduced to modern rock music through artists on major labels, I never had a problem with bands signing with major labels. Being someone who didn't have a lot of access to music other than the radio and MTV, I didn't feel compelled to find what else was out there. When I got sick of what I heard and saw on regular programming, I started looking elsewhere. I always judge music by how it makes me feel; not which label puts it out. I never thought label choice would be a distraction from listening. As Elvis Costello put it once, it's like getting a box of Corn Flakes and eating the cardboard.

It wasn't until I got into face to face that I even heard of the idea of "selling out." The band had recently put out a record on a label that had ties to a major label and some fans felt the band lost its credibility by doing such. A thought that is almost always thought is that the band was going to dumb down its sound for more money so more moronic and passive fans could into them. Did it happen for face to face? Nope. Do I think it will happen for Against Me!? Nope.

I think it's a legit fear to think that a band will change rather dramatically over time, especially when they sign with a major label. It does suck when you see a band that you like and feel like they're playing to robotic paying customers instead of human beings. It sucks when you want to say hi and ask them a question but you can't because there are bouncers and managers blocking you off. The experience is more impersonal than it is personal, but you can't blame a band for attracting a large audience.

How bands get noticed is still a hazy situation. Exposure through magazines, tours, songs on the radio and MTV are ways, but there are so many other ways. Major labels have some of the widest-reaching resources you can find, but so do a number of smaller labels. Historically, this wasn't always the case. Several smaller indie labels now have access to the same resources that only majors once had. I think that's a great thing, but at the end of the day, it's what I think of the music that draws me towards or away.

I once heard that a band sells out once they leave the garage and play a place where people pay money to see them. That's taking it a little too far, but it's a good argument. Probably the most cited example of selling out is going back on one's word. Jawbreaker got a lot of crap for signing with a major after swearing that they'd never sign to one for years. Sure, the band looked like hypocrites, but as it was revealed later, signing with a major was a last-ditch effort to keep the band going. In the case of Liz Phair, she unapologetically polished her sound for a larger audience. As a casual fan of her's, I didn't have that much of a problem with her last two records, though the sweeter flavors in her sound are not as welcome as they are for others.

Being one's self is doing what is best for one's self. No one else knows what's best for you other than yourself. Fans think they know a band by what they say in the press, at shows and on their records, but that is only a small part of who they really are. Every band has a different experience and it's better to have an experience instead of not having an experience at all.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Trees

Yesterday, Torr posted the news that Trees, one of Deep Ellum's best known clubs, is closing soon. Yes, the club where Kurt Cobain smacked a bouncer with his guitar and was then smacked by the bouncer (see the Nirvana: Live, Tonight, Sold Out!!! video for documentation) is closing its doors. I've had some very mixed feelings about the place over the years, but it's sad to see a major Deep Ellum venue close down. I saw a number of shows there and have a lot of stories. So I will first talk about the memorable shows I saw:

The Vandals/30footFALL, fall '98
This was the first show I saw in Dallas after moving to Fort Worth for school. Good, fun punk rock viewed from the balcony on stage right. I had never seen 30footFALL play in their hometown of Houston (where I lived primarily between 1987-1998) so it was cool to finally see them live.

At the Drive-In/Murder City Devils/400 Blows, winter '00
ATDI was supporting their fantastic Relationship of Command record and played a rather sloppy set. They were not as powerful as when I saw them with Jimmy Eat World the previous year, but I got in for free, so I wasn't complaining. I couldn't help but notice that there was an invisible diagonal line splitting the band in two (Omar and Cedric stayed close together on stage right while Jim, Paul and Tony were mostly on stage left), but Jim insists this was not intentional.

Idlewild/Arab Strap/The Rocket Summer, early '03
I don't remember if Idlewild's The Remote Part was out in America by the time of this show, but they played a number of tracks from it. They were incredibly better live than on record (though their records are really good) and they were really charged. The Rocket Summer was a sight to see: Bryce played with a live drummer along with DATs. They switched off instruments and it came off pretty well.

Cursive/The Appleseed Cast, sometime in '03
Cursive was supporting The Ugly Organ, a smart, powerful concept album about love, relationships and being portrayed as a tortured artist. The band had cellist Gretta Cohn playing with them, adding a nice element to their rather abrasive sound. I remember Tim made a comment about how they didn't like playing encores, so they played just a little longer with no break.

Guided By Voices/My Morning Jacket, summer '02
GBV was touring behind their rather lackluster Universal Truths and Cycles, but this show was a lot of fun. Opening with the Bee Thousand nugget, "Hardcore UFOs," the set consisted of a lot of favorites like "Teenage FBI" and "Game of Pricks." Nate Farley was so drunk by the end of the show that Tim Tobias was calling out the chord changes to him. My Morning Jacket almost stole the show with their melodic riffin' goodness. I was now a fan and continue to be one today.

The Promise Ring/The Weakerthans, spring '02
The Promise Ring had released a very mature and slower (but still great) record called Wood/Water only a few weeks before, but they were not "on" on this show. They seemed tired and lifeless going from the slower material to the faster, older stuff. By October, they were no more. The Weakerthans' material ran the gamut between slow, midtempo and fast but they were really into it.

Burning Airlines/Rival Schools/Red Animal War, early '02
Red Animal War was in a weird spot. Justin told me at the show that he decided to move to Austin and it kinda shocked me. I wondered how the band was going to stay together given the distance. Luckily they stayed together, but their set that night was filled with weird samples between songs and it all ended with an angry rant from Justin screaming "Who killed JFK?" Rival Schools smoked and I briefly met Walter, Sammy and Ian after the show. J. Robbins had no voice, but played the show anyway. He sounded horrible and I hid in the back.

Those were the most memorable in terms of good and strange things happening, but one show in particular was the last straw for me. I refused to go back to the venue (with two exceptions) for the rest of the time they were open.

The Danes/25%Toby, December '02
There were other local bands that played too, but these were the two bands that I got to see. 25% Toby is a four-piece that features Toby Halbrooks from the Polyphonic Spree on lead vocals. This band is not a serious band. Toby flies around stage, rolls on the floor, bumps into band members and sometimes falls off the stage. Their music is sloppy punk rock but it's not a stupid novelty. The songs are short, fast and are rather memorable (like, "I Go Down, She Gets Off"). The point is, they are a fun live band.

Well, it's been a long night and it's about 1:30am. There are about 20-30 people left in the venue and 25% Toby is wrapping up their set. Mid-song, Good Records/Polyphonic Spree manager Chris Penn gets up on stage and sings along with Toby. My friends and I think this is a cool, fun thing between friends. Neither Chris nor Toby were doing anything wrong-they were just singing together into the mike and having a good time on stage. Shortly following Penn's arrival, a bouncer proceeds to forcefully grab Penn and throws him out the back door. At first we thought this was a joke, but it wasn't. This, was not cool and this was too far.

With the last few months of going to shows at Trees, I kept having bad vibes about the place, especially with their security staff. They were buff and tough and made sure there was a wide distance between the artist and the audience. Fair enough that they're doing their job, but when they're pricks about it, it's not cool. As certain staffers walked around the audience during sets, I felt like the Gestapo was doing the rounds. Plus, the guys at the doors were usually drill sergeant-like jerks to everyone.

As of late, ticket prices had gone through the roof. I was annoyed that I had to pay $18.50 to see Bright Eyes play in '03 after it was advertised as $14 (or somewhere close to that) on the day of the show. While the ticket company should probably be more at fault than Trees, I wasn't happy with the surprise. The show wasn't that great and the venue was packed. I had never seen it so packed before and would never see it as packed again.

At some point I said I would never go back to Trees. I missed one really good show (Jets to Brazil on what became their final tour), but I don't think I missed much overall. I did go back with some friends to see the Bouncing Souls in 2004 and saw Sparta play there earlier this year. I will say this, their staff was pretty cool to me at the Sparta show, but I wasn't planning on going back there any time soon. Trees wasn't bringing in a lot of acts that I wanted to see. Most of the acts that I wanted to see were at the Gypsy Tea Room down the street. While Gypsy and Trees shared the same security staff, I rarely encounter problems or bad attitudes from them at Gypsy.

In parting, Trees had a wild ride and got a little taste of it. Hopefully another venue will open in its place so a whole new set of memories can begin.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Gang of Four

After reading Jack Rabid's interview with them in The Big Takeover #57, I decided to dust off my copy of Gang of Four's Entertainment! Boy, I think it's safe to say that I finally get this band.

As I've mentioned before, there was a point in my high school years (junior year especially) when I started searching for music instead of accepting whatever was on MTV or the radio at the time. Thanks to mentions in Rolling Stone's Alt-Rock-A-Rama and J. Robbins' kudos of it in a Guitar World article, I was interested in Entertainment! At that time, Henry Rollins' and Rick Rubin's label Infinite Zero had reissued it along with out-of-print Troublefunk and Devo records. This was some good stuff, but after having Entertainment! in my library for years, I never really "got" it. Now after hearing quite a few bands that the press has lumped them together with, I get Gang of Four.

For the longest time, I thought Gang of Four was a funky Clash. Very British, very scratchy and not the most pleasant to listen to all the time. While I still agree with most of my descriptions, I can't call them a funky Clash anymore. GoF definitely had something going that was different from a lot of post-punk bands in '79-'81. What exactly that was, I'm not 100% sure, but I will say this, they did a lot by not playing together at the same time. Bassist Dave Allen carried the melody while interacting with drummer Hugo Burnham as guitarist Andy Gill and singer Jon King pushed the sound over the top. They gave each other room, but not the kind of traditional room. Sometimes the bass would drop out of nowhere while sometimes the guitar would drop out of nowhere. This definitely did not sould like a bunch of art school students trying to learn how to play rock music as they went.

Now with bands like Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, Moving Units and Maximo Park, a lot of Gang of Four's sound is in them whether they know it or not. I hear a lot of Bloc Party's sound in "Damaged Goods" while "Not Great Men" sounds like a lot of Franz Ferdinand's dancier material. I don't think it's fair to call these bands copycats, but there are noticeable similarities.

If it weren't for a band like Bloc Party being a tad poppier than Gang of Four, I don't know if I would really get what was so great about GoF. As much as I and other people gripe about younger bands sounding like clones of great bands, this is an example of younger band helping me understand the greatness of an older band. There are still several bands out there that I like but don't fully understand their greatness. I enjoy a lot of the Replacements' material (especially their Let it Be and Tim era), but I've never understood the kind of life-changing effect they've had on people. Maybe it would have to take a handful of younger bands that sounded a lot like them for me to understand, but I don't think that should be the route for every legendary band. I'm sure I'll understand in some way or another.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Post excerpt

Here's a little bit from the Jawbreaker chapter. The line about the merry-go-round seems to echo my current mood:

DGC was behind the record and got the band a lot of publicity, but they couldn’t wait forever for Jawbreaker to break out. “There was definitely a six-month wait-and-see period,” Schwarzenbach told Punk Planet years later. “We were doing a lot of big press with newspaper columnists and, almost always, they had no familiarity with the band and none of them would say if they even halfway liked our record.” The band kept moving along and they had a few new songs in development, but overall, their shot on a major label had passed. “Our intention with a major label was to try to move it up to a new level and to do something different with the band,” Bauermeister said. “After a year of trying to market ourselves, we were still in the same place we were before. It looked as though nothing had changed. We would have to tour even more.”

The band was on a constantly moving merry-go-round, but a much bigger one than when they were on an indie label. “During that time I was worried so much - the joy was often only in hindsight,” Schwarzenbach said. “Like the tour we did with the Foo Fighters: it was fun to be with them, because we had friends in the band, but generally it felt like we were being pulled along. We were riding something that was really disorientating. That’s when I felt like I was worried over everything. I was constantly looking forwards and backwards. I was incapable of actually being there. In a way, I don’t think we could enjoy it because we didn’t know where we were.”

The more touring they did, the more the tensions between the three of them, especially between Bauermeister and Schwarzenbach, worsened. Bauermeister harbored a grudge that Schwarzenbach had taken over the band, feeling like Jawbreaker was Schwarzenbach’s show with a backing band. When time came to do press for Dear You, the focus was on Schwarzenbach and his lyrics, often making light of the other two’s contributions. In Bauermeister’s eyes, he felt he had hit a glass ceiling with playing in Jawbreaker. Here he was, about to turn 30 and still playing teenager music.

After playing a show in Eugene, Oregon, Bauermeister wanted to get home as soon as possible. “I had asked whether we could drive down that night, but after taking Adam to the airport in Portland, I was told we were staying,” he remembers. “More correctly, I came back to find Blake and our roadies partying with the other bands and was then told that we weren’t driving back. When I tried to make my argument as we were driving back to the motel, Blake’s response was to spit gum in my hair, so I threw the van in park and went for his throat.”

The two of them ended up getting out of the van and fought on a sidewalk. A house party was going on right in front of them and people were yelling at the two of them to get out of there so the cops wouldn’t come. Driving to San Francisco after their scuffle, the two had a lot of time to talk. “Blake and I had a long talk that evening and on our drive down [and] the fight served to diffuse a lot of tension that was happening between us,” Bauermeister says. “And then we continued our tour.” Doing a few more sporadic shows around the country, their final show of the tour was in Olympia, Washington.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Curb Your Enthusiasm

After hearing much adulation from trusted sources (read, friends who understand my sense of humor), I gave Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm another shot. Being someone who quotes lines from Seinfeld almost every day and still enjoys watching it, I cannot say I'm a fan of Curb.

Hear me out: a few years ago, I watched the "Chet's Shirt" episode (the one with Larry going to Ted Danson's child's birthday party and getting his two front teeth knocked out). I thought the episode was all right, but not anything great. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, I rented the first season of the show on Netflix. I watched nine out of the ten episodes and found myself laughing pretty hard at them, but not really wanting to watch them over again. Why am I not compelled to watch these episodes again? The uncomfortable aspect.

A lot of the show's humor comes from any one of the characters making a big deal out of a relatively small thing and being in awkward situations. Larry David is a comic genius and comes up with a lot of great storylines, but I get turned off by the uncomfortable run-ins that happen in every episode. From jokingly calling his wife 'Hitler' in an earshot of his manager's Jewish parents to not tipping "the captain" at a restuarant, this is Seinfeld-like humor with a harder bite. You could think that I would love seeing this kind of material over and over again, but I just don't.

Just like how I don't think gross-out humor (the kind that There's Something About Mary made popular) is funny, I can't get into the kind of humor that makes people feel uncomfortable. The BBC's version of The Office is all about a kind of uncomfort but it wasn't as pronounced as seen elsewhere. There were serious undertones to The Office, along with playful laughs with no uncomfort attached.

I'm not saying Curb Your Enthusiasm is a bad show. It's well shot, has a nice pseudo-documentary style to it, it's well-acted and has some good payoffs. I just don't enjoy it enough to watch any more episodes.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

How Strange, Innocence

Explosions in the Sky came into my life at a time when I was listening to a lot of other instrumental rock bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai. After receiving a copy of EITS's Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, I kind of schlepped over it because it sounded like a smaller, lo-fi version of Godspeed and Mogwai. Listening to EITS again after four years, I realized that I have been missing out.

Reading about the band on Chrome Waves (full archive of posts here), reading all the rave reviews about their second proper album, The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place and them doing the score to Friday Night Lights kept the band in my thoughts. It was all of those things, but I now consider myself a huge fan after reviewing the band's "first attempt at recording," How Strange, Innocence, for Punk Planet.

The story goes that the band recorded How Strange, Innocence essentially as a demo for anyone that wanted to hear their music. They only made 300 copies of it on CD-R and essentially gave it away at shows. Once the buzz was building on the band, there was more demand for the record. Temporary Residence then pressed 300 copies on LP and to no one's shock, the pressing quickly sold out. Now remastered on CD and with more than 300 copies pressed, everyone can enjoy this record.

Listening to How Strange, Innocence reminds me of the days of the 11:30s, my band in college. We were inspired early on with bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros and Ride and later added a little more Nuggets-era garage rock to it. We tried to record some songs on a computer, but ultimately we weren't that satisfied with the results and the songs were never released. Reading about Explosions' thoughts on How Strange, Innocence now sounds rather familiar: "We've had a bit of a love/embarrassment relationship with this record. At certain points along the way several of us wanted to buy back all of the copies and burn them. Listening now to the album, it almost seems like a different band composed of four different people."

Hearing almost all of EITS's material, I don't think there is anything to be embarrassed by with How Strange, Innocence. It's not some cheaply-recorded demo that sounds nothing like the band now. You see a natural progression from it to Those Who . . . and The Earth . . . It makes sense.

Too many bands and labels think people really want to hear demo material. Seeing all these reissues of young bands' records out with demo versions of already-released material is a cheap smokescreen. Hearing a track like "Time Stops," I can't think of a reason why somebody wouldn't want a song like this out there.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Merry Christmas, Damnit! Part Deux

I'm still having a good December, but the topic of making the holidays into one big vanilla milkshake rears its ugly head again. Listening to last night's replay of Ernie Brown, one segment was about how some schools are trying to ban Christmas songs being sung. Just like my thoughts on saying "Merry Christmas," have you ever heard of a child running home and crying that he/she was offended by Christmas songs? Well, if there were songs called "Santa Claus is Really Your Dad," "Buying Your Gifts Put Mommy and Daddy in the Red for Another Year" or "Christmas Kills Puppies, Kittens and Babies," I'd understand, but how can a song like "O Holy Night" be offensive?

Then I read this great article in the always-satirical, The Onion, this morning:

Activist Judge Cancels Christmas

WASHINGTON, DC—In a sudden and unexpected blow to the Americans working to protect the holiday, liberal U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt ruled the private celebration of Christmas unconstitutional Monday.

"In accordance with my activist agenda to secularize the nation, this court finds Christmas to be unlawful," Judge Reinhardt said. "The celebration of the birth of the philosopher Jesus—be it in the form of gift-giving, the singing of carols, fanciful decorations, or general good cheer and warm feelings amongst families—is in violation of the First Amendment principles upon which this great nation was founded."

In addition to forbidding the celebration of Christmas in any form, Judge Reinhardt has made it illegal to say "Merry Christmas." Instead, he has ruled that Americans must say "Happy Holidays" or "Vacaciones Felices" if they wish to extend good tidings.

Within an hour of the judge's verdict, National Guard troops were mobilized to enforce the controversial ruling.

"Sorry, kids, no Christmas this year," Beloit, WI mall Santa Gene Ernot said as he was led away from his Santa's Village in leg irons. "Write to your congressman to put a stop to these liberal activist judges. It's up to you to save Christmas! Ho ho ho!"

Said Pvt. Stanley Cope, who tasered Ernot for his outburst: "We're fighting an unpopular war on Christmas, but what can we do? The military has no choice but to take orders from a lone activist judge."

Across America, the decision of the all-powerful liberal courts was met with shock and disappointment, as American families quietly took down their holiday decorations and canceled their plans to gather and make merry.

"They've been chipping away at Christmas rights for decades," Fox News personality John Gibson said. "Even before this ruling, you couldn't hear a Christmas song on the radio or in a department store. I hate to say it, America, but I told you so."

Gibson then went into hiding, vowing to be a vital part of the Christmas resistance that would eventually triumph and bring Christmas back to the United States and its retail stores.

The ban is not limited to the retail sector. In support of Reinhardt's ruling, Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Jew, introduced legislation that would mandate the registration of every Christian in the United States and subject their houses to random searches to ensure they are not celebrating Christmas.

"Getting rid of every wreath or nativity scene is not enough," Kennedy said. "In order to ensure that Americans of every belief feel comfortable in any home or business, we must eliminate all traces of this offensive holiday. My yellow belly quakes with fear at the thought of offending any foreigners, atheists, or child molesters."

America's children are bearing the brunt of Reinhardt's marginal, activist rulings.

"Why did the bad man take away Christmas?" 5-year-old Danny Dover said. "I made a card for my mommy out of paper and glue, and now I can't give it to her."

Shortly after Dover issued his statement, police kicked down his door, removed his holiday tree, confiscated his presents, and crushed his homemade card underfoot.

A broad, bipartisan coalition of lawmakers has been working closely with the White House, banding together in the hope of somehow overruling the decision. So far, however, their efforts have been fruitless.

"Our hearts go out to the Americans this ruling affects," Sen. Chip Pickering (R-MS) said. "If it's any condolence, I wish you all a Happy Holidays, which, I'm afraid, is all I'm legally allowed to say at this time."

---

While I doubt that Christmas songs will be banned in all schools and I doubt Christmas will ever be cancelled, some more flags need to be raised with all these anti-Christmas folks. As Ernie put it best, "We're fighting tolerance by intolerance." As he also brought up, if people want to raise a stink about Christmas, then what about the thought of working on December 25th? What about canceling the multi-week holiday break for colleges? How would these people feel about that?

Maybe I'm getting a tad carried away here, but come on, the world will never be a united cult of political correctness. Desire to make it one only drives us away from each other. I don't know about you, but that's the opposite meaning of what the holidays are about to me.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Holiday changes

Here's an excerpt from Greg Kot's year-end round-up on music in the Chicago Tribune:

HERE'S THE MESSAGE the record industry sent music lovers just as the holidays approached: DROP DEAD.

With compact-disc sales tanking for the third time in four years (down 10 percent so far from 2004), the major labels got increasingly desperate in 2005. Sony-BMG began encoding CDs with copy-protection software to limit copying of the discs. But the software exposed consumers' computers to Internet viruses, and Sony BMG had to recall millions of the infected CDs.

The $6.5 million public-relations disaster was the latest black eye for an industry that sees Internet file-sharing as a threat to its existence, rather than a doorway to creating a new business model that would enable artists and record companies to reach more listeners than ever. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, which represents more than 1,450 companies, says there are 900 million unsanctioned music files on the Internet. In an attempt to quash that thriving underground music community, the federation and the Recording Industry Association of America have filed 19,000 lawsuits worldwide against peer-to-peer file sharers around the world over the last two years.

All of which belies that more people than ever are listening to music. Isn't that the point? Music needs to be heard before it can be sold, as Damian Kulash of the Chicago band OK Go wrote in a recent New York Times opinion piece: "I certainly don't encourage people to pirate our music. . . . But before a million people can buy our record, a million people have to hear our music and like it enough to go looking for it. That won't happen without a lot of people playing us for their friends, which, in turn, won't happen without a fair amount of file sharing."

It's an attitude reflected in a recent Pew Research Center survey. Half the artists surveyed believe that sharing unauthorized files should be illegal, but only 15 percent held individual users responsible. Nearly 90 percent said they promote, advertise or display their music online, and 69 percent sell their music online.

Though sales of conventional CDs were down, business boomed on the Internet. Sanctioned digital album sales have skyrocketed 214 percent so far this year over 2004, and digital song sales are up 154 percent. Download-friendly videos and ring tones also have become new revenue streams for the music industry. Yet the industry comes out of 2005 further tainted as an inept $12 billion-a-year giant, more concerned with reining in consumers rather than exploiting advances in technology that have made the trading of music files accessible to tens of millions of consumers a month.

The music industry may be hurting, but music itself is more vital than ever. Tens of thousands of artists released new music this year, and it would take a dedicated listener years to hear it all.

---

I've been thinking since I did my last post on the RIAA's attempt to curb downloading and how other industries react to change. Since it's Christmas time, I've thought about how certain holiday things have changed because of interests by the consumer. I'm curious how vendors responded and I doubt they responded like the RIAA tends to respond to change.

I haven't been to a Christmas tree farm in years, but I believe they're still around. I don't think they are as widely-attended as they used to be, but people still go out for the real thing. Fake Christmas trees probably sell more since they're a lot easier to deal with (you only buy it only once, there is no sap and it's easy to assemble and disassemble). I'm curious if any Christmas tree farm owners wanted to sue the makers of fake trees and the costumers that buy them. Such a thing would sound ridiculous, right?

Gift certificates have been around for quite awhile but the reality that almost every major retail outlet offers them is relatively new. Certificates are good, simple and handy little things that can help out those who have no idea what to get for somebody. However, certificates are almost like giving cold hard cash as a present; something that I've come to think of as a bit of a cop-out on the gift-giver's part. Is there a Coalition of Gift Givers that tries to stop people from buying gift certificates instead of something sealed in a box? Are they trying to curb the giving of bad gifts? (I don't think your mother will like Converge as much as you do). That sounds even more silly.

The RIAA can sue whomever they want to, put whatever spyware they want to on CDs and make as many anti-piracy PSAs they want to, but they aren't going to change people's activities back to the pre-MP3 days of music listening. They can continue to say "Bah Humbug" when so-and-so didn't sell the projected amount on CD and blame the customer/curious music listener for such. I just sit back and watch them try to walk forward with their shoelaces tied together.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Merry Christmas, Damnit!

Kev has blogged about this before, but I thought I'd chip in some more comments with my feelings on the subject.

Have you ever met anyone who was offended by the words, "Merry Christmas?" I haven't and I don't think I'll ever be offended by that line. I'm not an atheist or a churchgoer, but I honestly don't know how I could be offended by such a remark. Apparently some people are, but I question if these people are really offended.

A line like "Merry Christmas" is as harmless as "Have a nice day." Of course there is no guarantee as to how large or small the merriness or niceness one's experience will be, but the sayings are often meant in the most kindest of ways. Granted, "have a nice day" has no words relating to a messiah, but "nice" and "merry" are friendly bedfellows.

I say "Merry Christmas" in a way that owes no implication of a certain religious denomination because wishes of happiness know no boundary of creed or belief. While there are others that want to be picky about the "Christ" part being in there and not being in there, I want to keep saying it, possible offense taken be damned.

A TV news story I saw earlier this year featured a great line about our modern culture: "the land of the free has become the land of easily offended." I think this line fits perfectly in this case. The thought of homogenizing everything with "Happy Holidays" is silly to me. If people want to be sensitive to the those that get offended by the inclusion of "Christ," well what about all the grinches and Scrooges who hate all things Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza and Festivus? Are we not far off from appeasing those people too? (Reminder: those people are really hard to please and probably don't enjoy pleasure even if it's addressed)

Maybe this kind of coverage is exactly what anti-Merry Christmas activists want: people talking. Well, consider yourself victorious in getting people talking, but we're talking about how lame such ideas are. Isn't this supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year?

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Grammys

Once again, a post on the AV Club blog inspires a comment from your's truly:

Does the world need another rant about the Grammys?
posted by:
Keith Phipps
December 8, 2005 - 11:37am

Oh Grammys! Each year I can feel you trying hard for legitimacy. Each year you never quite get it right. It's cute, really. You're like the 48-year-old suburban dad who thinks owning an Audioslave CD sets him apart. Somewhere deep inside you know you're the least legitimate major awards group. But you keep trying.

So, yeah, thank you for a Best Alternative Music Album category that makes sense. It's nice to know you've heard of the Arcade Fire. And, oh yeah, U2. They're still good. Thanks for nominating them for that album came out last year past your inexplicably early deadline. And, uh, yeah, The White Stripes are on there a couple times. That's cool. John Legend. Fine. Fiona Apple, Kanye West, The Killers... There are some good names on here.

But, wow, Male Pop Vocal Performance: Paul McCartney, Jack Johnson, Rob Thomas, Seal... Did you just watch SUV commercials and pick your choices from there? The Black Eyed Peas?!? The Black Eyed Peas?!?

Okay, I'll stop there. Ragging on the Grammys hasn't been necessary since the great Jethro Tull Fiasco of '89. We're rooting for you Grammys. Maybe someday you'll be an accurate representation of what was best about music the year before. (Or at least an awards ceremony where the rules make sense, like the Oscars.) Right now, you just seem as crazy out of touch as ever. At least the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards represent, you know, kids' choices. Who knows who the Grammys represent?

Along the lines of what Nathan posted last week on the Oscars, the Grammys are just recognition of apparent validity to a mass audience. Now they're not on the same level as a kid getting an award for perfect attendance, but a Grammy is just an award with a lot of perceived prestige behind it. Sure, it would be nice for a musician to have a Grammy on his or her shelf to look at from time to time, but the emotional reward of making and playing the music far outweighs whatever awards come with it.

It's interesting that the Oscars still have some respect with film critics while music critics lightly touch on the Grammys. Case in point, Rolling Stone. Peter Travers will talk a lot about who should win and who will win at the Oscars while various staff writers will write a simple wrap-up on the Grammys.

Come to think of it, I haven’t had an in-depth conversation with a music fan about who should or shouldn’t have won at the Grammys in a long time. Maybe there's a mention the day after, but no one I know openly talks about who should have won and who shouldn't have won for years after the fact.

Just like the Oscars do, the Grammys are billboards for the acts/songs/albums that are nominated. For the passive music listener, nomination usually leads to heightened interest, enjoyment or annoyance. For those of us perusing MP3 blogs, our iTunes library, used record stores and so on for music, we know that the Grammy winners aren't really going to sway our thoughts.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Favorites of Year's Past Revisited

Since I've been writing up my favorite records of this year, I've decided to revisit some of the ones that I called my favorites of yesteryear.

Ryan Adams, Gold
The album of 2001 for me. A 16-track album with ups and downs in moods, but never drags. Even though it came out in the fall, I got more into it than any other record that I got that year. Interestingly, the album really made an impression on me after sitting in stop-n-go traffic on I-45 through Corsicana for 50 minutes. I had a lot of time to listen and I think that's the beauty of traffic: it's an opportunity to spend more time listening to music. I think I listened to the album 1.5 times and by the time I got out of the bottleneck, I knew what was going to top my year-end list.

Now, I don't listen to Gold as much as I do with later efforts like Love is Hell and Rock N Roll, but I still think very highly of Adams's overall work (even though I gave a cold shoulder to some of his new records that came out this year).

Bright Eyes, Lifted . . . or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
A glowing, 4-star review in Rolling Stone made me very curious about this record in 2002. I had heard tidbits of Conor Oberst's stuff through EPs, but nothing more. Burning a CD-R copy of KTCU's copy, I was pretty amazed by what I heard right away. Combining marching band-like drumlines with strings, horns, gang vocals and keyboards was a great augment to Oberst's intimate folk leanings. The lyrics were especially great: hopeful, angry, frustrated (aka, feelings I was feeling back in 2002, my first year out of college).

Listening to the record now, I still really enjoy the vastness of the songs, but the lyrics sound stuck in the mindset of an early 20-something. That stuff was what Oberst was dealing with at the time, so I don't think he's at fault for writing such frank lyrics. With what all I've gone through since this record (and now approaching my late-20s), certain problems/anxieties I had in 2002 aren't as pronounced in 2005. So, listening to this record now sounds like a former worn-out version of my post-college angst.

Hey Mercedes, Loses Control
2003 was the last time I ever saw Hey Mercedes play. They played a number of songs from this album, but it was unreleased at the time. Given my prowling of peer-to-peer networks, I obtained an unmastered version of this record and played it a lot. By the time of the show, I knew almost all of the words and sang along. Of course I looked like a fool being the only one in the front singing along to them, but then again, I didn't care in that moment.

Listening now, I think the music and lyrics hold up. Bob always writes lyrics from an angle that knows no distinguishable age. So a line like, "quality time with the unkind/is better than being alone" still rings true for me. I still say the band's first album, Everynight Fireworks, is my favorite of their's but Loses Control is a very worthy follow-up.

Modest Mouse, Good News for People Who Love Bad News
This was a surprise in 2004. I had heard little tidbits of MM over the years but never really paid close attention to them. Based on general curiosity, I picked this up for $7.99 at Best Buy and was very happy with what I bought. An incredibly diverse record musically (banjos, horns, strings, light piano, along with standard guitar-bass-drums) with some very enlightened lyrics.

The most convincing side of this record is that it's hopeful but not a watered-down, preachy kind of hopeful. Isaac Brock comes across as a grouch in interviews, but he lays a lot of eggs of truth on Good News. Even though "Float On" has been played to the point of annoyance via a variety of places (especially the Kidz Bop version), a line like "Even if things get heavy/we'll all float on all right" still rings true for me today.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Not Fickle, Just Choosy in 2005

It fascinates me how some bands are paraded with compliments one year and are egged with harsh criticism only a short time later. . . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead were pegged as saviors of rock when Source Tags & Codes came out in 2002, but this year, there were way more negative reviews of Worlds Apart than positive reviews. Maybe that's the standard definition of backlash. I think of it more as what Kevin Smith went through with Mallrats when it first came out. He describes the feeling as one minute people want to hear what you say and think and then another minute the same people are telling you that your ideas suck. Is this being a fickle turncoat? I don't think so. People judge a work one at a time because loyalty can be blinding.

This year, a couple of bands that I really like their earlier efforts released new records: Coldplay and Death Cab for Cutie. Here are my reasons for why I didn't bother picking up their new records:

Coldplay, X&Y
I'm a big fan of Coldplay's first album, Parachutes. Yeah, there are some Radiohead and Jeff Buckley overtones on it, but it's a warm and beautiful album from start to finish. With A Rush of Blood to the Head, there are a number of standout tracks, like the title track, "In My Place," and "Clocks." However, this album began a writing style that I couldn't really grasp: building parts with rather lame payoffs. Songs build and build, but a lot of them just whimper out in the delivery. I'm not implying that the band softened their sound for a broader audience, but it just sounds like the band is playing it too safe with the melodies.

With the gargantuan amount of press surrounding X&Y, I gagged at the sight of it. Does it really matter if they are or aren't "the next U2?" No. Coldplay will be Coldplay just like U2 has been U2-two different bands! So I see all this speculation every day for a few weeks straight and then certain tracks appear online. First single "Speed of Sound" is a safe rocker with an awesome atmospheric piano line but a rather lame feel to it (calling it a "Clocks Jr." is a good assessment). Then a couple more tracks are heard on a certain radio show/podcast that I like to listen to and a blog that used to be around and decide this: I'm gonna wait X&Y out and borrow a friend's copy. That moment hasn't come yet.

Death Cab for Cutie, Plans
I've never watched a full episode of the O.C. I'm aware that a certain character on the show really likes them and the band's music has been featured, but that's all I know. For me, I've been a very picky fan of Death Cab. I felt for quite a few years that their best material was their Forbidden Love EP, a collection of songs that weren't really labored over. That opinion changed when I heard Transatlanticism. The band's rather timid approach to rocking out was thankfully not there anymore and the songs hold incredibly well together.

With Plans, I didn't really get into the few tracks I heard online. First single "Soul Meets Body" is a good, dancey song with acoustic guitars. Definitely a change in what they had done before, but not a vast change. Then, after hearing a couple of tracks that Jeff posted on his blog, I decided to hold off buying Plans. The songs were too mellow and lifeless to get into.

So there you have it, one person's explanation as to why certain new records get a cold shoulder. I don't mean to be a fickle or passive listener, but there is plenty of other stuff out there that it's hard to give enough individualized attention to records that don't really impress me.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Almost favorites of 2005

I’m hesitant to call these my Least Favorites of 2005 or The Most Disappointing Releases of 2005, but I think of these records as records that I spent some good quality time with but just didn’t find the urge to keep going back to them.

The Mars Volta, Frances the Mute
As someone who really enjoyed (and still enjoys) their first album, De-loused in the Comatorium, I found Frances the Mute a tad frustrating. The band sounds quite wayward (see the half-hour-long finale, “Cassandra Geminni”), anti-climactic (see “The Widow”) and a tad on the silly, but fun side (see “L’via L’viaquez”) on this record. I can listen to the long songs on De-loused without any hesitation; however, I can’t say the same about Frances. This isn’t a sophomore slump, but it’s just a little more of a challenge than I can handle.

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Cold Roses
I’m still in the dark as to why people think Adams’s debut record, Heartbreaker, is the best album of his career. Many people compared Cold Roses to Heartbreaker sound-wise, mood-wise, feel-wise, but like Heartbreaker, I can’t say it’s my favorite Ryan Adams record. Cold Roses may have worked as a single album, but there are one too many good songs on here to leave off. As much I am a big fan of everything Adams has released up until this year, I think my rather lack of excitement over Cold Roses swayed me from picking up his two other records that he released this year (Jacksonville City Nights and 29).

Foo Fighters, In Your Honor
I love the first three Foo Fighters records. There is Nothing Left to Lose is an incredibly underrated album, but with their last two records, One By One and In Your Honor, they feel like they’re losing some steam in their engine. While I think it’s worthy of a double album, I found the second disc way more interesting. The first disc is standard Foo Fighters rock, but its brightness feels like it’s losing its luster. The second disc is a lot more experimental and chilled out, but it feels a little too laid back.

Doves, Some Cities
Despite having some great singles (“Black and White Town” and “Snowden”) on it, Some Cities feels a little lacking. As a big fan of their singles on Lost Souls and almost all of The Last Broadcast, I found Some Cities to be a rather safe retread of old ground. The songs just don’t spark the kind of charge I get with their other material.

Bright Eyes, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn
Maybe it was all the press surrounding Conor Oberst earlier this year (there was a large amount of hype tossed around by certain publications) that prevented me from spending more time with these records. I think Oberst is a really talented songwriter, but as he even states on the Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek DVD, the press doesn’t want to be the last one to cover something potentially big, so when dozens of articles are printed for a few months straight, it seems like a big deal. Well, as an unapologetic Bright Eyes fan, I just felt a little indifferent to his two new records. I’m not a huge fan of Emmylou Harris’s voice, so I can’t say I enjoy the tracks she’s on I’m Wide Awake. On the flipside, I’m a huge fan of Jim James’s voice, but singing under Oberst’s voice doesn’t equal an enjoyable harmony for me. The tracks on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning are more stripped down, making a rather nice change from the bombast of the last few records. Most of I’m Wide Awake is really strong, but I got a little caught up in other records to go back to it. Now with Digital Ash, this was a good experiment, but at the end of the day, I can't fully sink my teeth into electronic computer-based rock.

The Decemberists, Picaresque
Overall, this is a really enjoyable record: bright melodies, right-on lyrics and great orchestration. However, I think the album loses its air towards the end when the album goes from being a collection of singles to a stage production. The kinds of theatrics that are presented get in the way and test my patience.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Favorite music of 2005

This is by no means a list of all the music I’ve fancied this year, but here is a highlight reel. I can’t give these albums justice by just listing them, so I feel it’s necessary to explain why I like each one.

Bloc Party, Silent Alarm
I’m still not sold on dancey guitar rock in the vein of Gang of Four. For all of 2005, Bloc Party has been painted by the press as a dancey rock band, right up there with Franz Ferdinand. Upon listening to Silent Alarm over and over again this year, I feel that there is way more to this band than just jagged guitars and jumpin’ drumbeats. Silent Alarm isn’t confined to all things considered post-punk between 1979 and 1981. I hear splashes of mathy, mid-90s post-hardcore in spots but then I also hear traces of early U2 (especially Boy). These songs go places but they don’t lose the listener in the process. Each one has its own recognizable melody, beat and flavor, so Silent Alarm rarely drags. From the crashing opener of “Like Eating Glass” to the bopping vibe of “Banquet” to the haunting “Price of Gas” to the driving “Little Thoughts” to the blissful “So Here We Are” and so on, Silent Alarm lays out all sorts of stuff on the table. Displaying a band with band members that know when to play all together and when not to, Bloc Party may very well have an actual career in front of them instead of “Whatever Happened to?” infamy.

My Morning Jacket, Z
I’m on an album-by-album basis with a lot of bands; I want to hear as much of their new records before I lay down my cash for them. Then there are bands that I just buy new records from because I like the band so much. My Morning Jacket, a band I was sure that I would find their follow-up to It Still Moves a worthy release, is one of the latter. Well, I was right with my assumption even though Z is a rather vast departure from It Still Moves. The album rocks and trips out in spots, but My Morning Jacket isn’t afraid to try different sideroads from their normal gonzo barnburners.

Sufjan Stevens, Come On Feel the Illinoise
In a word, beautiful. With more words, Stevens’s album about Illinois is 22 tracks with all sorts of colors (including horns, pianos, keyboards, acoustic guitars, banjos). My only reservation about this record is that it’s a little too much of a good thing.

Franz Ferdinand, You Could Have It So Much Better
I was very skeptical about this album and this band. I enjoy certain tracks from their debut album, but it seemed like their dancey kind of rock wouldn’t last more than one album. Well, thanks to Jason getting an advance copy of YCHISMB, I gave it a listen and was really blown away. I find this way better than their debut. Yes, there are plenty of disco-like drumbeats and skronky guitar lines, but there is so much more going on melodically on every song that those are not a problem. The leadoff single, “Do You Want To,” still brings a smile to my face when it kicks into Stereo. Other standouts include “This Boy,” “You’re the Reason I’m Leaving” and the Something Else-era-Kinks-like, “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” lead me to believe that FF has more in them than I previously thought.

Stars, Set Yourself on Fire
Released in their native Canada in 2004 but released in the US in 2005, this was further proof for certain buzz-lookers that were focusing on Montreal as a hip place for music. Well, you can’t deny the melodic vitality found in the lush rock found in bands like Stars, the Dears and the Arcade Fire. Set Yourself on Fire runs all over the place with moods and feels but the songs flow incredibly well together.

Youth Group, Skeleton Jar
Forget any sort of punk or hardcore implications with this band because Epitaph Records released this record in the USA. Even though they opened for Death Cab for Cutie and DCFC’s Chris Walla sang praises of them, they are not a Death Cab clone. This is tuneful, smart pop rock with snappy numbers like “Shadowland” and “Someone Else’s Dream” and epic builders like “See-Saw.”

The Go! Team, Thunder, Lightning, Strike
A big problem I have with sampling is that it takes the piss out of the beauty of the original song. Prior to hearing the Go! Team, DJ Shadow and the Avalanches were the exceptions to my feelings. After spinning Thunder, Lightning, Strike plenty of times, I think the focus should be on the songs and not the samples. While there are certain recognizable samples from ‘60s/’70s R&B pop in their music, the Go! Team makes their own fun pop that is still good even after the sugar rush has passed. Complete with horns, guitars, pianos and crackin’ drums, this record reminds me of the way that Top 40 music used to be made and why music from that era still holds up.

Koufax, Hard Times Are in Fashion
The piano/guitar rock pop combo keeps putting out fantastic stuff despite constant line-up shifts. Joined by Ryan and Rob Pope from the Get Up Kids, Robert Suchan and Jared Rosenberg unleash eleven memorable tracks with some very honest reflections on post-9/11 culture.

Troubled Hubble, Making Beds in a Burning House
An incredible live band that put this, their best effort to date, out on Lookout! Sadly, the band is no more, but their fun, intelligent indie rock/post-hardcore lives on with this record.

Manic Street Preachers, Lifeblood
This record was released late last year and I hoped it would come out in the US some time this year. Well, a US release date is still pending but at least Epic released a 2CD/DVD reissue of the Manics’ The Holy Bible. While other people gawked at the macabre found on Richie Edwards’s final album with the Manics, I found the band’s fourth album as a trio a really strong comeback of sorts. There are more keyboards and more sophisticated feels on Lifeblood and the Manics are all the better for it.

Nada Surf, The Weight is a Gift
For better or worse, this isn’t a departure from the sound that is showcased on Let Go, but there are enough charming songs on here to warrant repeated listening.

Aimee Mann, The Forgotten Arm
This is a concept album lyric-wise, but this isn’t some convoluted tale that requires the listener’s patience for a payoff. These songs have bite to them and get to the point more directly than anything on Mann’s last few records. Bachelor No. 2 and Lost in Space are their own gems, but The Forgotten Arm is my favorite from start to finish.

Ben Folds, Songs for Silverman
Folds’s second proper album since Ben Folds Five’s break-up, Songs for Silverman is considerably more mature-sounding than anything he’s done before. Now I’m not saying songs like “Evaporated” or “Brick” weren’t serious, but the album’s opening track of “Bastard” is about as jokey as it gets. Odes to Folds’s daughter and Elliott Smith come off as heartfelt and not sappy mush. Though the album takes a few tracks to get cooking, once “Landed” kicks in, the album doesn’t falter.

Portastatic, Bright Ideas
There are times when I have a hard time distinguishing between Portastatic and Superchunk. Both feature Mac McCaughan on lead vocals and guitar, but the only big difference is that Portastatic isn’t gonna pull out a punk-tinged pop song. Bright Ideas is as good as the last few Superchunk records, but it is very much a Portastatic record. Listening to it, I’m curious what McCaughan will do with Superchunk next.

. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Worlds Apart
This Austin-based band sheds its punkier leanings for something more concise and better than their other recordings. Not only are they louder and more epic on Worlds Apart, but they’ve learned how to flesh out well-structured rock songs with a melodic tug.

Bob Mould, Body of Song
Of all of the records I’ve heard Bob Mould on, Body of Song feels like Mould’s strongest release sans a band's moniker. The electronic shenanigans found on his previous releases are given a “supporting role” (as he put it on Sound Opinions) on Body of Song, thus giving more room to the melodic punches that Mould has been throwing for years.

Here are artists/records that have I enjoyed over the years but really got into in 2005:

The Weakerthans
Ever since their debut, Fallow, I’ve taken an interest in this band. They aren’t traditional punk rock and they aren’t traditional, gentle acoustic rock, but they are somewhere in the outskirts of both fields. Upon revisiting all of their three proper albums, I must say this band has been a consistently strong outfit over the years. How I even got back into listening to them was mostly because of a little mention I give them in Post's Promise Ring chapter. At a time when the Promise Ring tried to blend in softer, gentler material with their older, more-immediate material, their tourmates the Weakerthans had an easier time doing the same kind of aesthetic.

Tom Waits
I’m still going through Waits’s back catalog to find what I like and what I don’t like. While I can’t really get into his cacophonic jazz renderings, I find his ballads (like “Take It With Me” and “Tom Traubert’s Blues”) just breath-taking.

Petula Clark
My time working for radio stations that play older music introduced/re-introduced me to a number of time-tested artists. Petula Clark’s “Downtown” may be one of her best known singles on the radio, but she had a string of powerful, uplifting singles in the ‘60s too. With a charged singing voice, honest lyrics and lush orchestration, songs like “Call Me,” “A Sign of the Times” and “Who Am I” make me go ga-ga over Ms. Clark.

The Four Tops
Given the vast number of quality artists on the Motown label, the Four Tops are my favorite. The songs found on their double-disc anthology are the definition of the kind of pop-soul music you heard on the radio in the ‘60s and ‘70s. With complex themes of hope, love, loss and forgiveness told with passionate singing and (once again) lush orchestration, the Four Tops hold high in heart.

Converge, You Fail Me
Loud, fast, crazy and screamin’ metal/hardcore is not the kind of stuff that I usually listen to. However, when it’s done very well and it rings a lot of my bells regardless of my mood, I take note. You Fail Me is pummeling but I don’t see it as a bunch of heavy riffing and screaming. While I’m not all hot to trot to listen to their entire back catalog, I must give Converge a lot of respect.

The Raspberries
The Raspberries were one of the prototypes for ‘70s arena-rock-pop. Despite their commercial knock-offs, the songs of the Raspberries still stand up very well, even with their bigger-than-life sound. Fronted by Eric Carmen, the band could rock your socks off but also had you singing along. Though they paid very obvious references to rock giants like the Who and the Beatles, the band gave a very American kind of flair to their British idols.

Feeder
A band that is more known in the US for its single (and brief WB staple), “High,” Feeder is a great singles band from across the pond. Like the Foo Fighters, Feeder walks around hard-charging and soft-leaning boundaries and has put out five albums full in that route. Due to half of their catalog being released here in America and their singles being a little better than their album tracks, the news that the band is releasing a singles collection next year is some really good news.

At the Drive-In, Relationship of Command
While writing the At the Drive-In chapter in Post, I found myself listening to ATDI’s final album quite a bit. Forget all the hype surrounding this band back in 1999, Relationship of Command is the apex of the band’s long and arduous road. They couldn’t have topped this record so I’m glad its ex-members have found their own voices in their respective bands, Sparta and the Mars Volta.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Why do we care?

I planned on writing a blog post on the following topic, but Nathan Rabin over at the AV Club wrote up a really good post before I could write it. Here is his post and here is my comment:

Why do we care?
posted by:
Nathan Rabin
December 1, 2005 - 4:57pm

Howdy you alls,

I know it's been longer than a camel's dong since I last rapped at ya (to borrow the immortal opening gambit of one of my favorite columnists) but I been all busy and shit, rocking, rolling and also whatnot.

So anyway, I read William Goldman's "The Big Picture" a little while back. It's a pretty mind-bogglingly useless book cobbled together haphazardly out of similarly lazy and pointless columns Goldman wrote about two intertwined subjects in the 90s: handicapping the Oscars and making wildly inaccurate predictions about various film's box office potential. Part of what makes the book so useless yet strangely addictive is its incredibly short shelf life. Who exactly is hungering in 2005 to re-live half-assed predictions about the box-office potential of, say, "Three Men and a Little Lady" (for the record all of Goldman's anonymous Hollywood heavyweights concur that it can't possibly be anything other than a monster hit)? Historical irony plays a part as well, as when Goldman breathlessly enthuses that Kevin Costner will be able to command thirty or forty million a movie after the runaway success of "Wyatt Earp".

So here's my question: why are we, as a society, so fascinated by box office? It seems to be a fairly recent development. Why do people without any financial or personal stake in a film's economic performance seem to care so passionately about what Tom Cruise or Adam Sandler or Julia Roberts' movies will do at the box-office opening week? And why do we care so passionately about the Oscars?

My guess (and here comes the part where I attempt to answer my own question) is that it has something to do with our culture's mania for competition, for reducing everything, whether it's politics or movies or literature, into a horse race with clear winners and losers that can be quantified in a fairly concrete fashion (Gladiator won Best Picture so it clearly must be the bestest, etc). Caring about the Oscars or diligently following a film's economic fortunes gives us a rooting interest in movies, makes us feel involved in a way that merely enjoying a film or seeing it over and over again apparently doesn't.

Another thing that really struck me about the book was how often movies that make a lot of money or dominate the box office are forgotten while movies that endure and gain additional emotional resonance are ones that flop initially but pick up a devoted and passionate following through the years, movies like "Donnie Darko" or "Office Space" rather than the "Beautiful Minds" or "Good Will Huntings" or "You've Got Mails" of the world. The movies that endure are ones that audiences have to find on their own rather than having them shoved down their throats by studios or the press.

So, what do you guys think?

For a lot of people, box office performance and awards are thought of as measurements of apparent validity. The deal is, do we (as in, the audience members and not the employees of the movie studio) really remember how much a movie makes or how many Oscars a film earns in the longrun? My answer is no. We remember the films that matter to us personally because of the stories, the characters, the writing, et al. and whatever it earns is a footnote. The true success of a film (and this applies to music and books too) is that it gets made. As long as a film is available in a viewable format, it's a success.

Talking about weekend box office numbers is good "watercooler" talk the following Monday. It's a news item on TV and radio too. It's a topic, but the importance of a film isn't based off its opening weekend or recognition by the Academy. There is heavy pressure on a film to perform well on the opening weekend, but the DVD market is becoming more important than the theatrical/first-run market these days.

Are any of the strengths or weaknesses of a film based on its ability to attract a large audience and make a profit? Well, they can be pointed at if the film does or doesn't perform up to expectations, but it's all in how people feel about the film over the years. Classic examples are Citizen Kane and It's a Wonderful Life. Citizen Kane was highly-touted but a box office disappointment and It's a Wonderful Life was a box office bomb. Are those factors any gauges as to how people think of these films now? Absolutely not.

One of my favorite movies in last few years is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Sure, it was interesting to see it be at the top of the box office for a few weeks and it was cool to see scruffy-lookin' Peter Jackson go up for Oscars all those times, but those were only a few weeks and one night a few years ago. What sticks with me today are the things that I enjoy about the film (the plot, the characters and the acting) and those are documented on film.

For a lot of people, movies are pure entertainment. The mainstream channels that promote films also boast the prestige of awards, box office performance and raving critical reviews. Those are interesting diversions from the film's emotional core when it’s out in the theaters, but are they really gonna matter when you sit and watch a film in the comfort and privacy of your own home years later?

Comment by: Eric Grubbs at December 3, 2005 - 9:48pm

Friday, December 02, 2005

Last Book Update of 2005

It's been a relatively long time since I've given an update on Post. Well, here's an update:

Writing and researching continues, but at a rather slow pace. I used to work on stuff everyday but that changed in October, following my temporary unemployment. I took it rather easy for most of that month. This was the first time since college that I ever had a break from something work-related. I got a lot out of taking almost a full month off and while it put my mind at ease, my writing took a passenger's seat.

It's strange; not being on a regular work schedule probably would have been a golden opportunity to write all the time. Not in my case. With being out away from a work environment, the inspiration to write grew to a halt. Now that I'm back in a work environment, the writing has really picked up.

Most recently, I have been fleshing out the Jimmy Eat World chapter. After 18 pages, I took a breather and tooled around on other chapters. The Hot Water Music chapter is beginning to take shape as I have some more interviews and research to do in order to start from scratch with it. All that I have left to work on is the Dischord Records, Sunny Day Real Estate and the intro and epilogue chapters, before I go into "post-production" with the whole book (editing stuff out, fleshing stuff out, etc.).

Since there is no deadline, I cannot say when Post will come out. I want it out next year, but when next year, I don't know at the moment. Until then, enjoy the blogs and future Punk Planet stuff from me.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

RIAA satire

The Onion always comes through with great satire. In honor of my post on MP3 blogs, here's a little blurb about the RIAA found in this week's Onion:

RIAA Bans Telling Friends About Songs
November 30, 2005
Issue 41•48

LOS ANGELES—The Recording Industry Association of America announced Tuesday that it will be taking legal action against anyone discovered telling friends, acquaintances, or associates about new songs, artists, or albums. "We are merely exercising our right to defend our intellectual properties from unauthorized peer-to-peer notification of the existence of copyrighted material," a press release signed by RIAA anti-piracy director Brad Buckles read. "We will aggressively prosecute those individuals who attempt to pirate our property by generating 'buzz' about any proprietary music, movies, or software, or enjoy same in the company of anyone other than themselves." RIAA attorneys said they were also looking into the legality of word-of-mouth "favorites-sharing" sites, such as coffee shops, universities, and living rooms.

I don't blame the RIAA for being afraid of peer-to-peer downloading and other forms of MP3 sharing. However, the year isn't 1999 anymore, where there was talk of a little program called Napster making the rounds on college campuses. The RIAA continues to combat piracy in 2005, but only alienating more people in the process. Isn't the point of all successful businesses to make the customer happy?

Several measures have been taken in trying to stop people from putting a CD into a CD-Rom drive and ripping songs from it into an MP3 format. So far, the most elaborate attempt has been via Sony's DRM program (which installs a program in one's computer after a CD is placed into a CD-Rom drive). With threats of viruses attacking computers with this program installed and a lot of pissed off listeners, Sony wisely recalled discs with the DRM feature.

My feelings on the matter have always been this: I bought it, so I can do whatever I want to do with it. If I love a particular track or album and want to share it with people via the Internet, that's my choice. This is about sharing by making the fences lower, not higher. To use the old cliche, the cat is out of the bag here. The technology is available to share music this way, whether it's seen as legal or illegal. Trying to put a stop to it only means that people will create ways to get around it. That's the power of a virtual world.