Thursday, November 30, 2006

Hurting Each Other

I'm a MySpace addict. I check my account a half-dozen times a day for various matters, like show updates and messages from friends. I know I'm not the only addict around the people I hang out with. Yet I find it odd when people take great offense to actions that seem like a dis by their friends. In particular, declining Friend Requests and changing the order of your Top Friends list. This all may sound so silly, but it's serious business for a number of people.

Late last year, I spoke with a couple friends of mine about receiving Friend Requests from people they didn't know. One said she received a request from someone that was a friend of a friend of a friend. Since she didn't know this person, she declined her request. A short while later, she met this person face to face. The encounter was awkward to say the least. This person took great offense to the supposed flat-out rejection. But I wondered why. Is the acceptance of a Friend Request symbolic of acceptance in other aspects of life?

I know I'm one to talk about taking stuff way too personally, but I've never been crushed by a declined Friend Request. I've felt bad for inadvertently hurting someone's feelings by leaving a comment on his or her's page, but I know that kind of reaction is not solely by my doing. I don't have that kind of power over someone.

In regards to the Top Friends (aka, the 4-24 profiles listed on the front page), I'm flattered when a friend of mine puts me up there. However, I've never expected to be "ranked" among even my closest of friends. I have my own weird way of placing my friends in the Top 24 and it's not easy to explain. I have friends from college, bandmates, my band, blogging friends, friends from work, writer friends and so on. Are these the only people I'm closest to? Absolutely not. Yet they each have their own specific reasons why they're up there. If I were to take someone out of there, that does not mean there's been a major fallout between us. However, people think that is the case.

Writing all of this stuff out makes me think this is gossip strictly for the middle and high school crowd. Yet it's not. Has the addiction of MySpace made us so? I think of the site as a virtual portal. It's not a replacement for face to face/phone to phone conversations. No matter how many features get added to the site, it's no substitute for them.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Happiness and cheer

With the holidays coming up, I'm slowly making my way into some holiday shopping. Nevermind the long lines, sparse parking and crabby customers, it's the Christmas music that can be annoying the most. I can tolerate hearing the classics to a certain degree (Phil Spector's Christmas album still rules, Big Crosby's stuff is still good, U2's version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is still great, the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York" tears me up inside and so on), but a number of songs are played to overkill. Doesn't matter where you are; you can't escape these songs. So in the last five years, I've decided to make my own Christmas mixes from various sources. These are songs that I have yet to be tired of.

I still listen to the Vandals' Oi to the World once a holiday season. Nothing like songs titled "A Gun for Christmas," "My First Christmas as a Woman" and "Hang Myself from the Tree" to liven the mood. Yes, this is dark and cynical stuff, but very funny and tuneful at the same time.

Another staple is Vince Guaraldi's score to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Not only do I love the cartoon itself, but the score is what makes it for me. It's loose poppy jazz played in a really "live" way. As a fan of the drums and piano especially, there's something so timeless about this music.

A few years ago, local label Idol Records released Electric Ornaments. Featuring some of the best local bands at the time, a number of the songs hold up. While there are some standards that get a standard walk-through, original tracks by Centro-matic, Valve and Clumsy are pretty stunning (at least in my mind). Plus, Chomsky's rendition of "Christmas Time Is Here" and Pinkston's rendition of the Kinks' "Father Christmas" are prime tracks also.

Lastly, I have to give props to my blogging friend Jeff of Jefitoblog. His 2005 Holiday Mixtape introduced me to a number of wonderful tracks, including George Winston's "Joy." His 2006 Holiday Mixtape recently came online and there are a number of stellar tracks here too. From Peggy Lee to Aretha Franklin to Twisted Sister to the dB's, you're not going to hear these songs as you stand in line behind a person having a hissy fit about Playstation 3's availability.

So what songs get you through the holidays?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Say Cheese!

Taking a little cruise down memory lane last night on YouTube, I came upon a few videos I remember seeing all over MTV in their day. Here are three of them:

White Lion, "Wait"

Firehouse, "Love of a Lifetime"

Nelson, "After the Rain"

Listening to these songs again, I don't find anything wrong with the songs themselves. They're tuneful and filled with melody. However, I can totally understand why grunge was such a great thing for me, the 7th grader in '91/'92, and the jaded rock music critic who was much older than me.

The biggest thing that strikes me with these videos is how goofy-looking guys take themselves very seriously. But how can White Lion's singer consider himself a serious musician when he's constantly bending down in leather pants? How can the guys in Nelson take themselves seriously with their whole look? "That's what people did in those days" they would probably argue today. But come on, this is pure cheese. Yet cheese sells . . . for a while.

I get the same feeling whenever I watch that silly Panic! At the Disco video for "I Write Sins Not Tragedies." Sure, this band has sold a lot of records, but so what? Are the same people who love this band going to be feeling like us former Nelson and Firehouse admirers when they get to be our age? I think that's definitely in the cards.

So why do I even care? Because there's something very peculiar about how cheese can be taken so seriously and then be forever lampooned.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Living in Happy Hollow

I think it's very safe to say that last night's show at the Gypsy Tea Room was the best show I've seen all year. Cursive headlined, Jeremy Enigk played second and the Cops opened. Yes, I usually complain about paying for service fees and parking for shows like these, but this one was totally worth it.

I was lucky to see Jeremy play twice as he played a five-song set at Good Records in the afternoon. As a longtime fan of his stuff, it was great to see him perform solo with only guitar and piano at his disposal. He played songs from his recent solo album, World Waits, along with a couple of prime tracks from Return of the Frog Queen (including "Explain") and a song from the United States of Leland score. Though he would play all five of these songs again in a few hours, I didn't mind.

The Cops are from Seattle and their material often reminded me of Mission of Burma. Though there were no noise-filled jams, there were definitely parts that sounded like the great Boston band. Most of their material had that pulsing dance beat that you can clap along to. Decent stuff, but once Jeremy got on stage, it was a different story.

Though Jeremy performed this summer with a full band, it was just him on this tour. You could speculate all you wanted to about the lack of drums, lead guitar, bass and strings with performing this stuff solo, but Jeremy stole the show. His voice still sounds incredible and it filled the ballroom up. He was really relaxed and cheerful between songs, but he went off into a different world when he played. His presence wasn't contrived or silly; it was the Jeremy Enigk that people have been glued to ever since Diary.

I wasn't expecting Jeremy to play any Sunny Day songs, but he casually rolled into a version of "How It Feels to Be Something On" at the piano. Though slower than the album version and less bombastic, it sounded so good on piano (especially the ascending melody at the tail-end of the pre-chorus). In addition to the five songs he played at the in-store, he did a rousing rendition of "Shade and the Black Hat" from Return of the Frog Queen. Though its outro was him banging away on the piano, it felt like an interesting way to jumble up the set's vibe.

Following the set-closing "Explain," I saw something that I had never seen before: a non-headliner be called out for an encore. Jeremy tried walking up the steps to the green room, but he came back. There was thunderous applause and a number of pleas for another song and he delivered. Doing a charged version of John Lennon's "Mother," I was blown away. I don't really know Lennon's version, but Jeremy made the song so intensely personal. Yet at no point did I feel like I was watching Dashboard Confessional perform. This was such an awe-inspiring set and I didn't feel old. It was nice to see people appreciate Jeremy as a solo artist instead of That Dude from Sunny Day Real Estate. He's not trying to escape his previous life as SDRE's frontman, but he is moving on. That in itself is a major point of inspiration.

As far as Cursive, they were excellent as usual. Playing an equal amount of songs from Domestica, The Ugly Organ and Happy Hollow, I had no complaints. Augmented by a horn section (trumpet, sax, trombone) and a cellist, there were no empty spots in the Ugly Organ or Happy Hollow material. The horns played a little bit on the songs from Domestica and that was pretty sweet. More accents than anything else, they added some nice colors. They encored with "Sink to the Beat" and it blew the roof off. Tim Kasher even pulled a guy up from the crowd to play his guitar during the song's middle eight. The guy was pretty great as he did some simple soloing that never veered into pure wankery. A very cool way to end the night.

Overall, the whole show was fantastic. Plus, it was not a bust attendance-wise. There were a lot of people my age there, but so were a number of teenagers. Yes, the same people that allegedly all bow down at the Temple of Chris Carrabba, Gerard Way and Pete Wentz. Yet everybody seemed very into it all. Like Jeremy Enigk, Cursive isn't marketed to death to "the kids." They still make incredibly dense music after all these years. Plus, people actually care about what they have to offer even if it's not all over MTV, Fuse or glossy magazines. I think I should remember this before I pass future judgment on this younger generation.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


I'm not an expert on Robert Altman's films. I can't say I'm a big fan of his work. However, he was a filmmaker that took a lot of risks on stuff that most people wouldn't dare do. (How many films not involving Christopher Guest have you heard of where they started shooting a film with a general idea instead of a script?) He was unafraid to say stuff that a lot of people thought about but couldn't put into film. This is why it's sad to hear the news about his passing.

A number of Altman's films are staples in film courses and film schools. Myself, I was first introduced via the eight-minute, one-take opening in The Player. Blasting the MTV style of fast-cutting while paying homage to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil opening shot, I was impressed. M*A*S*H came a few months later, but I didn't see another Altman flick until earlier this year.

If you only look at his highest-grossing films and say that's all the worthwhile stuff he did, you're missing a lot. Films like Nashville and Short Cuts aren't popcorn fare where everything is neatly handed to you. Instead, they're snapshots of specific times in the last forty years that don't feel dated today. Nashville isn't just about country music in the Seventies and Short Cuts isn't just about living LA in the Nineties. He focuses on humans going through human things more than the always-shifting pop culture of the day.

While there can only be one Altman, understand that he's not going to be forgotten any time soon. He was always respected among film critics and scholars. Also, a number of younger directors, including Richard Kelly and Paul Thomas Anderson, cite him as a major influence. You can debate all you want about how Anderson's Magnolia and Kelly's Southland Tales hold up to Altman's stuff, but it's hard to argue they were taking cues from a great.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Kingdom Come

I wrote a similar post about this earlier this year, but I want to bring up the topic again: why is modern hip hop/rap considered so . . . hip? I'm talking about the people that love the orchestral folk of Joanna Newsom, the poppy rock of Destroyer and the brutal metal of Mastodon who also love modern hip hop. I ask this as Jay-Z's "comeback" record, Kingdom Come, arrives in stores this week.

Full background recap: I've never been a full-fledged fan of hip hop/rap. There were times in middle school and high school where it seemed cool, but never as cool as classic rock, grunge and metal. I couldn't understand how white suburban males found solace and inspiration in this stuff (from the music to the fashion). I couldn't understand how guys my age found Too $hort singing about prostitutes and Public Enemy singing about racial tension cool. What was so appealing with songs about gritty street life? What was so appealing about wearing Los Angeles Raiders jackets and baggy jeans? I didn't understand it then, but I think I have a slightly better understanding now.

There was something so appealing about the attitude and grit found in this music. This was stuff that was not a part of everyday suburban life. The fantasy was safe to have because the suburbs are mostly safe as compared to the ghettos. While grunge and hard rock played into people's anger, hip hop was something that played into a desire for confidence. I've had self-esteem issues since adolescence, but I have yet to see hip hop as a way raising my level of confidence. Why? There's too much materialism discussed. It's not everywhere in hip hop, but it takes up most of what's eaten up by the mainstream. I'm not going to gain the confidence of finishing and publishing my book by hearing songs about rims and gold chains.

The lyrics are just part of the story; the music is a big part of what I can't get into. No matter how many warm melodies are put on a track, when the rapping kicks in, it gets annoying. I have yet to hear many melodic colors in rapping and I doubt I'll ever hear them. Plus, too much of rapping feels mechanical and talkative. I'm wired into warm melody and all kinds of warm melody, be it Shane MacGowan of the Pogues, Tom Waits or Barry Manilow. That's just me.

So I wonder about the people that are my age, who have been through the teen angst phase and are settling into adulthood whether they like it or not. What's the appeal of hip hop at this age? Is there still a fantasy element involved?

It puzzles me when I see Pitchfork's Track Reviews section praising a number of new hip hop tracks from Jay-Z and Nas, Clipse, Trick Daddy and Akon. Yes, they reviewed indie rock stuff like Voxtrot and Matt and Kim, but that's a minority. Granted, Track Reviews is usually pretty balanced with all sorts of styles of music, but I'm just amazed at how much hip hop is covered on the site and on MP3 blogs in general. How can Voxtrot's Smiths-meets-Strokes rock be as acclaimed as a Jay-Z and Nas track? Does my lack of understanding hip hop impair me with this?

I've asked this to people over the years and I've never really received a straight answer. And I don't take "I don't know, I just like it" and "If you don't understand, you'll never understand" as suitable answers. One answer I have heard over the years is the production quality. There's something about the beats and the orchestration, but I usually find this stuff cold and robotic. Plus, the production is just the beginning of enjoying a song. It doesn't make up the beginning and ending for me. The melodies are key.

Again, what am I missing here?

Friday, November 17, 2006

Some sharing for an early weekend

Time to share some funny/amusing stuff I've read in the last few weeks that you might enjoy:

Useless Advice from Useless Men answer a question by a mother dealing with a three-year-old who has gone beyond being a Toddler Terror. My favorite line is the opening line: "As someone who does not have children, I know exactly how you should be raising your kid."

Jeff gave a link to Py Korry's review of Paul Young's new album, Rock Swings. Yes, the same man that gave us such pop hits as "Everytime You Go Away" goes the crooner/swing route on songs like Metallica's "Enter Sandman."

Ryan (formerly of Trickles of Reason and now of Zine -O- Phonic) sent me a link to a local band called face to face. No, it's not the Eighties Boston band or the might Nineties pop-punk band of the same name; this one is a praise and worship band.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Paradise Lost

I've seen my fair share of documentaries. Some great, some OK and some just appalling (Riding In Vans With Boys comes to mind). I had never seen one that left me incredibly disturbed and frightened at the same time. Besides, I always thought that was a feeling that you could only get from watching a gritty, but fictional, horror movie like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Exorcist. Documentaries don't have those jumps like the ones you find in the original Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street. Well, Paradise Lost (and especially its sequel) have changed that perspective for me.

I had seen Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger's revealing look at the making of Metallica's St. Anger in Some Kind of Monster, but I had never seen the film that put them first in the spotlight. Paradise Lost originally made headlines because it was the first time that Metallica allowed some of their songs be used in a film. Well, the focus of documentary itself made an even bigger impact upon its release in 1996.

Paradise Lost takes an even view at the aftermath of the murders of three young boys in a small Arkansas town. Three teenagers, later known as the West Memphis 3, are arrested and sentenced to life in prison (including one on death row). But the question that lingers throughout the whole film is "did they or didn't they?" To me, I couldn't tell with Paradise Lost. Upon viewing the sequel, I had a better understanding and felt really uneasy at the same time. I don't want to open up a debate here, but let's just say that more questions and suspicions arise as Paradise Lost 2 unfolds. You could say there was a heavy bias in favor of the ones in jail, but certain people not in jail seem more like suspects versus the ones that are in prison.

I'm not going to spoil anything more, but I will say that I'm glad a third installment is set to arrive sometime next year. The truly scary thing is that this is not some fictional film claiming it is real. This is not some Blair Witch Project or a The Last House on the Left or even a Fargo kind of thing. It's something no marketing ploy can do.

Like when I saw The Exorcist for the first time a few years ago, a lot of stuff from Paradise Lost stuck in my mind with a sense of terror. There were no lame jumps out of doors, tricky musical stings or gory make-up. It's just real-life stuff that is fascinating and terrifying at the same time.

I understand why people turn to film to be entertained and would stay away from a film like this. No, this is definitely not popcorn material. As a matter of fact, I had to watch a few hilarious episodes of Police Squad! to take my mind off of Paradise Lost. Yup, it was that powerful a charge. But these movies are proof as far as how powerful documentaries can be. They can be shallow and boring, but they can also get a charge out of you that you can't with fiction. (Maybe that's why I'm so attracted to documentaries in the first place.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Sunken Dreams

. . . And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead feel like they've been around for ages and well, they have. I remember reading about them some ten years ago in a Rolling Stone recap of South By Southwest. Just the name itself sounded cool. Picking up on their recorded material with their second album, Madonna, I've been lucky to see them live twice (right after Source Tags & Codes came out and a few months before Worlds Apart came out). Yet being a Trail of Dead fan for the last couple of years has become a very defensive thing with their post-Source Tags & Codes material.

Source Tags & Codes, the band's 2002 major label debut, came out a time when people were convinced that dense modern rock was becoming mainstream again. Records by the Strokes, the White Stripes and At the Drive-In released in the previous two years came out to critical raves and legitimate enthusiasm by the buying public. Yet when Matt LeMay's 10.0 score of Source Tags & Codes appeared on Pitchfork, there was some understandable suspicion. How could a new record be considered essential for a score so often reserved for older, time-tested material? Describing the album's grand finale (complete with a strings-laced reprise), LeMay wrote, "The impact is immediate: you know without a moment's doubt that you have just heard something that is absolutely classic." Looking back, you could say this was the final salvo for this era's mindset.

Source Tags & Codes' follow-up, Worlds Apart, arrived in January '05. To me, I felt that the band had made a much better record than Source Tags & Codes. Even though I really dug Source Tags & Codes, I felt the band had a better grasp of songwriting this time out. Instead of depending on simple loud-quiet dynamics and an echo-drenched sound, the band made an upfront epic with really thought-out songs. Yet trying to convince people of the album's merits went mostly unfounded. Simply, people had moved on to other things, even as early as summer 2002. The hope that dense modern rock could unite doe-eyed teenage music fans and jaded 20/30-somethings didn't catch on this time.

Though favorably reviewed in a number of major publications, Pitchfork felt like they were on a smear campaign with Worlds Apart. Nick Sylvester's 4.0 review reeked of an overly-critical, "Why does this matter right now?" vibe. This kind of piss-taking is something I find so disheartening about being a fan of music who wants to share what I like. Nevermind the merits of the songs or the songwriting itself; how does this matter with the populist ideas of right now? Well, that's not how I process music. I know, different strokes for different folks. But there's something to wonder about when it seems like people skip town on something they previously held in extremely high regard.

This week sees the release of Trail of Dead's new record, So Divided. Matt LeMay's 5.5 review reads like his feet are on the ground as compared to his Source Tags & Codes review. I don't agree with a number of his points (especially his shots at Worlds Apart), but he doesn't seem like he's going to town with nitpicking either. Other publications, like Rolling Stone, have given the album favorable, but not earth-shattering kudos. But the deal is, there is no hopeful hype that substance-filled rock music is going to blow the tepid crap out of the mainstream's water stream right now. In other words, the record has to speak for itself as a record instead of a statement about post-whatever society. So does the band sink or swim on So Divided? Signs point to both in my mind.

I don't hate So Divided, but I'm not really that bowled over by it. "Stand in Silence," "Wasted State of Mind" and "So Divided" are great tracks, yet there's some very uneven stuff on here. Sometimes I wonder if they're trying to pull my leg. The one-two of "Naked Sun" and a cover of Guided By Voices' "Gold Heart Mountain Top Queen Directory" feels misplaced. They feel like b-sides plopped in the middle for fun. I appreciate the band for going further outside their previous work, but that doesn't always mean it's something I'm going to like. "Eight Day Hell" feels more like a Polyphonic Spree song, but I actually dig it. The atmospheric, country-tinged "Witches Web" feels more like AM/Being There-era Wilco, but I also dig this. The rest feels so-so, something I had yet to feel about Trail of Dead's music.

Tying the whole record together, So Divided sounds like a straight-up rock record, Trail of Dead-style, not an epic record, Trail of Dead-style. I think the band is doing the right thing even if the results aren't as strong as what I've heard before.

Have I learned anything by seeing the whole praise-and-destroy of this mighty Austin-based band? Plenty. I could be all cynical and bitter about this, but I choose to think even more about the things that I really like. In the case of Trail of Dead, they're staying on the course they've always stayed on even if critics say otherwise. So Divided is not going to make people lose their proverbial minds, but at least it's a decent effort to not be firmly tied into a noose they can't loosen.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Universal

Up until a few months ago, the place where I started and stopped for information about movies and TV shows was the Internet Movie Database. Now, I go there less and less because Wikipedia has so much more. So I wonder, what happened to the IMDB? It used to be so packed with information but it seems so on the cusp compared to what Wikipedia has.

Case in point: I watched Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and three episodes of Police Squad! last night. Curious about details about both features, I hit up the IMDB first. The page devoted to Paradise Lost is scant with information beyond some reviews and some trivia. The page devoted to Police Squad! has some nice tidbits, but feels a little lacking. Hitting up Wikipedia, I found a ton of information, especially in the case of Paradise Lost. Not only is there a page devoted to the documentary itself, but an incredibly thorough page devoted to the West Memphis 3. Police Squad!'s page is also thorough and pretty easy to read. So, what happened?

There was a time when Wikipedia was scant with information and filled with factual errors. I figure more people have become attracted to what the site offers, so more information has come to light. Even the most smallest matters in the pantheon of well-known everyday life is covered. For example, Bob Nanna's page is surprisingly accurate despite the misspelling of Pete Havranek's name as Pete Haverick and the fact that Havranek and Roy Ewing started the band before Nanna joined. Small details, but not as mangled as I've seen it elsewhere.

For my book research, the site has been incredibly helpful. Whether it's about Dave Grohl's Pocketwatch cassette or the 9/11 attacks, there's plenty of accurate information to go through. So now I wonder, is Wikipedia just blowing everything else away with information? How has this place become the place to find information on anything, from teeth to Frank Miller and the meaning of abandonment?

Monday, November 13, 2006

X Marks the Hope Box

In my nine years of playing shows, never have I played a show quite like the one we played Saturday night at Hailey's. Opening for Tilly and the Wall and Pony Up!, we hoped this would be a fun show. As simple as it sounds in words, it was and so much more.

When I pulled up at 7:50, there was already a line of about thirty people. As the rest of us loaded in, more people kept showing up and lining up. By the time we got to play, there was roughly 100 people watching us and plenty more listening outside in line. 100 people may sound like small potatoes to some, but not for us. Plus, this was a whole different crowd. Our last show in Denton was two years ago at a diner where the audience consisted of some friends of ours and the band members in the other band on the bill.

Despite some missteps (a longer, makeshift intro on one song, on-the-spot transposing in another), I felt like we did a great set. I couldn't stop smiling and singing along not because of how large the crowd was, but how much fun I was having playing live. As someone who used to love playing drums as a way beating out my mental frustrations, I'm now at a point where I just love the idea of playing music, especially the drums. So I really enjoyed our thirty minutes on stage as I normally do but slightly different this time out.

Pony Up! sounded great with their poppy atmospheric rock as did Tilly and the Wall's folksy pop and stomp. If you've never heard Tilly and the Wall before, they have a tap dancer that plays on an amplified block of wood instead of a drummer. Yes, the beats sounded like Riverdance at times, but it was actually enjoyable overall. People were going nuts for them and they ended up playing two encores.

So why all this gushing? Well, as someone who knows what is like to play to just a couple of friends at midnight on a Saturday night at a youth center, I could really appreciate a show like this. I don't have stars in my eyes that demand that I play only for big crowds, but it's a nice feeling to play cold turkey to a whole other (and large) audience.

One other thing I have to add. After Tilly and the Wall finished and the crowd starting thinning out, a familiar face walked up to me. Turns out it was the guy who was nearly paralyzed for life in an accident two years ago and went to see Braid on their reunion tour in a wheelchair. I got a chance to talk to him a year later at a Firebird Band show and he was now walking with a slight limp. From what I observed Saturday night, he walks perfectly fine and is doing well. He liked our set and gave us some nice kudos. It was great to see him again and I thanked him for coming out.

So why was this encounter so amazing to me? Well, it's because this guy was from a younger generation that is often made light of for not understanding the power of music. This generation knew punk rock as blink-182 and New Found Glory instead of the Ramones or the Sex Pistols when they were growing up. Critics tend to fear the worst with this generation (and younger) that they will never understand music on a deeper level because of stuff like reality shows and the Internet. Well, like in all generations of music fans, there are the ones that are into it on a passive level and then there are the ones that take it to a deeper level. Knowing this guy's story of how he was so committed to recovering from his accident to see Braid on their final tour (and the miracle that he can walk again) is pretty well beyond inspiring for me. I can now remind myself of how powerful music is to any generation despite cultural fads. This is what it's all about to me with playing and listening to music.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Stop Me If You Think You've Heard this One Before

Merritt has the full story on her blog about this, but here's the Cliff Notes version: a friend of ours was at a mall and kept noticing a female working at a kiosk desperately trying to have people stop and talk to her. Stopping people mid-pace, the hope was to get these people to see what she was selling. The friend walked by this girl a few times as he wandered through the area a few times. After repeated pleas, he decided to have some fun with her.

Responding to her question of "Can I talk to you guys a moment?", he responded by saying with a smile on his face, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO." He figured since he had walked by her a few times, along with the smile on his face, she would understand that he was joking. Instead, our friend was given looks of pure aghast. He felt sorry that she didn't catch his cajoling, but I think he did something we all wish we could do.

I am not a fan of the practice of breaking into a person's personal zone for the sake of selling something he/she probably doesn't really want or need. Whenever a panhandler comes up to me at a gas station asking for spare change, a telemarketer calls me, a door-to-door salesperson comes to my door, a clerk comes up to me in a retail store trying to sell me something I don't want or someone is trying to collect money to a church I'm not aware of, I turn on the cold. I'm usually very curt as I try to be polite, but I could do worse. Though there are exceptions to this (ie, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts selling popcorn or cookies are totally fine given their ties to their organizations), I usually become this stoic being when I'm confronted with this face to face.

I think my mindset about going shopping, getting gas or going out to eat is very similar to how I like to drive from point A to point B without any slowdowns. If I run into a back-up because of an accident, a disabled vehicle or construction work, I'm not happy. This is limiting me from getting to where I want to go in the time that I hoped it would take me. I would like to completely avoid them, but I know I can't always elude them. I think panhandlers, go-get-'em sales reps, telemarketers and other forms of solicitors are obstacles on the road of life.

I know people want to make money doing this form of solicitation as they can rake in some nice cash, but it seems incredibly informal and pathetic. I couldn't do this stuff and feel like I'm doing an honorable thing. Plus, in some cases, this is breaking the law. Signs all over Lower Greenville and Deep Ellum encourage patrons to not give money, food or drink to homeless people. Yet a similar kind of approach is deemed OK for salespeople in a mall or retail store? There's a good reason why "No Soliciting" signs are all over businesses and homes.

I might be crossing some opposing paths here, but I see these as similar actions. If I wanted to stop by and check out a kiosk in a mall, then that's my decision; not the decision by someone else trying to force me to stop. If I wanted to donate money to a church, then I would go to the church on my own time and donate the money myself. I don't need faceless strangers hoping that a forced smile and a forced "hello sir" will be enough in order for me to take out my wallet. That's just how I see it. Is this cold? Yes, but I have plenty of reasons why I am this way. What's your take? Am I being too harsh?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

As Daylight Dies

Killswitch Engage has the distinction of being a band that I had never heard before this year and has become one of my all-time favorite bands. I know statements like that are ripe for tearing down by others, but that's how strongly I feel about this Massachusetts-based quintet. The band's fourth album, As Daylight Dies, is not likely to gain the kind of kudos that Mastodon's Blood Mountain received earlier this year, but it is no less an incredibly strong effort.

As Daylight Dies is the first record in the band's career where the line-up is the same as its predecessor. Shifts in the drummer, guitarist and vocalist positions did not drastically the band's sound on their previous albums; they helped the band grow into a titan. But what happens when it feels like it's grown big enough that it isn't likely to drastically go anywhere? That's what I wonder when I listen to this record.

The eleven songs do not detour from what KSE fans are used to hearing: smooth-but-bruising guitars, guttural-to-clean vocals and tightly-focused drumming. There are plenty of melodic hooks and plenty of hard and heavy parts too. All the right ingredients are here but why does feel like the material feel like it's reached a crossroads? Because their previous records outdid their predecessors. As Daylight Dies doesn't out-do The End of Heartache; they're on-par with one another.

If you ask me, none of these tracks are weak, but "This is Absolution," "The Arms of Sorrow," "My Curse" and "For You" are some of the standouts. There are a number of spots that are trickier/mathier than what they've done before (see the intro to "For You" and most of "The Arms of Sorrow" for starters) and one song sounds like All That Remains wrote it ("Still Beats Your Name"). Still, I wish that the stellar "This Fire Burns" (currently only available on a WWE compilation) was on As Daylight Dies. It would not be an odd fit with the rest of the songs on the album and it would have been a welcome addition. Alas, that is not the case.

So if I were to review this record like Jim and Greg do on Sound Opinions, I would say hold off on buying this and burn a copy of for the time being. In hopes that Roadrunner reissues As Daylight Dies with bonus tracks (as they have done before with KSE's back catalog) in less than a year from now, it would be worth the wait if you like what you hear.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Politics Shmolitics

Yesterday, the more pleas I saw for people to go out and vote, the more uncomfortable I felt. Plenty of the blogs I hit up everyday said something along the lines of "Vote and if you don't, don't complain." Folks, this is why I find discussing politics so alienating.

There are plenty of reasons why I don't discuss politics on here or in my everyday conversations. The biggest reason is because I don't have a lot of interest in politics in the first place. By what I've seen, heard and read for the last eight years, political debates are usually pissing contests. Judging by the views I've processed, it would be easy to think that we're all slowly going downhill either on the left, right or down the middle. Yet I don't think we're going totally downhill or totally uphill. Debating the direction we're going seems futile, especially when adults start screaming at each other like they're in grade school.

To my ears, political debates are similar to how people talk about professional sports. They think they can sway matters, but they're not in full control in deciding who goes and who stays. Wouldn't it sound silly if I got all huffy-and-puffy talking about Tom Waits not using guitarist Marc Ribot on an album and debating someone to the death about it? I think so. That's why I don't discuss matters like I'm in a political debate.

What's really difficult about discussing politics is talking about them with friends and family. When Bush was re-elected in 2004, someone very close to me threw me a mean cheapshot: "The right person won." As someone who didn't vote for Bush that year, I wasn't about to throw any cheapshots towards the people that did vote for him, so it hurt. This was a reminder that talking politics can bring out the worst in our hurtful sides. Sorry, but I'm not interested in hurting people like this.

What's even more difficult is having a view that appears to be in the minority around your circle of friends and family. I remember in fifth grade, almost everyone in my class wanted Bush to win over Dukakis. Only one guy wanted Dukakis to win (apparently because he shook his hand at a rally). The boy was teased as it seemed like Bush was the better man by a mile. Looking back, I'm glad he didn't cave in with his views.

Yesterday, a friend of mine posted a MySpace bulletin that I could relate to:

I myself did not vote. Why? I didn't educate myself enough on the issues and facts of the candidates. I just know I fucking hate Rick Perry and that he's got to go. Even then, I felt I didn't know enough. I'm not proud of this fact, and it's a shame I didn't learn more so I could vote.

Whatever you decided to do today, I hope you did what you felt needed to be done.

Reading this was a breath of fresh air, but when I heard that he got "slammed" by others for saying this, I felt bad for him. The way I see it, I have a right to vote and a right to not vote. Both have consequences, so why does one sound so much better than the other? Is voting blindly way better than not voting at all?

I'm not a lemming and I learned some lessons with the 2004 election. I choose to keep these relatively private as I'm not interested in creating an all-out-war with those around me. All I know is this, with word that the Democrats won a lot of races yesterday, a lot of my friends are happy but a lot of the members of my family aren't. I'm not going to choose sides here: they're my friends and family. We can agree to disagree but I disagree in turning political discussions into witch hunts and trials.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

This One's For You

Yesterday's focus was on Scott Walker. Today's focus is on Barry Manilow. Yes, the man behind such hits as "Mandy," "Can't Smile Without You" and a handful of other songs you couldn't escape in the Seventies. I grew up listening to his stuff and still like a lot of it. Yet I was appalled to see a display in a bookstore last night for his latest album, The Greatest Songs of the Sixties. Here's my reasoning:

A big chunk of Manilow's audience is older than me. So I've wondered why these people want to hear re-recorded versions of songs they've heard for most of their adult lives. Following up The Greatest Songs of the Fifties, Manilow goes through versions of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," "And I Love Her" and "Strangers in the Night" on this collection. Manilow doesn't drastically change the songs' arrangements here; it sounds like he's phoning this stuff in. Sure, he's serving his audience what they apparently want, but isn't this just trying to tread water as the boat slowly sinks?

Similar to Kenny G covering songs that you've heard enough times in your life (especially "My Heart Will Go On"), what attracts people to these retreads? The same can be applied to the people that watch American Idol and buy the CDs filled with these cover songs. While I may have an interest in hearing Tom Waits' version of "Somewhere," I doubt it's going to surpass the original cast recording version in my mind. So what gives?

I understand there is a market for people who don't like hard-sounding rock or pop. They like music to be a soothing, unchallenging matter. This is a mindset I hope to never have as a music fan. Music is just so endless, so why would I want to have something so limited in my regular rotation?

I'm sure Manilow and his record company are eyeing another record: The Greatest Songs of the Seventies. Will Manilow reprise some of the hits from his heyday? I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure he'll cover songs by artists like the Carpenters, Carole King and Neil Diamond. So I wonder, is there a stopping point for these kinds of albums for Manilow? I doubt there will be collections of Eighties and Nineties material because that's a little too "young" for the audience. Well, there could be additional editions of the Fifties and Sixties material until the cows come home. In my mind, the cows are home and they need a rest.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Boy Child

The music of Scott Walker has finally hit me like a pile of bricks. I've had samplings of his solo stuff and his material with the Walker Brothers over the years, but I'm now fully-engaged. This has been five years in the making.

Back when Ash's Free All Angels came out in 2001, I was struck by the orchestral sample used in "Candy." It was from the Walker Brothers' rendition of "Make It Easy on Yourself," a Burt Bacharach/Hal David tune. I had never heard of the Walker Brothers, so I thought this was some obscure sample they dug up.

When I read the news release that Scott Walker was producing Pulp's We Love Life, I wondered what the big deal was. Who was this guy and what was so great about him? I got around to hearing some Walker Brothers while I worked at an oldies station and I liked what I heard. However, the word about Scott Walker's solo material was that it was even better. My interest was considerably raised upon reading Scott Plagenhoef's 9.3 Pitchfork review of Walker's 5 Easy Pieces box set. Still, I was too wrapped up in other stuff to check his stuff.

Fast forward to a few months ago, fellow Punk Planet reviewer Justin Marciniak talked up Walker's Boy Child compilation in his reviewer spotlight. Featuring cuts from his classic period between 1967 and 1970, Boy Child is a prime introduction to Walker's material. But it was not Boy Child that fully-introduced me. It was the It's Raining Today compilation, which also covers the '67-'70 era. Playing on the PA one night when I was at the Cavern, I realized that I had to pick up something from Walker, be it Boy Child or the five-disc 5 Easy Pieces set. 5 Easy Pieces won out because I found a copy drastically reduced at the nearby, going-out-of-business Tower Records last week.

So how do I go about describing this material? Well, let me get this out of the way first: the voice. Yes, Walker has a crooner-like approach. Yes, it's deep and a tad dramatic at times, but I don't find this annoying. Walker has a deep range that neither stays in an ultra-low or ultra-high register. Walker has some great stories to tell in his lyrics and they are full of colors. Singing about rumored affairs, lost loves and pretty places with a sense of cynicism, the material doesn't come across as ironic or tasteless.

The shining quality of Walker's material is with the use of an orchestra. I love the sound of a large string section creating a feeling like you're walking in an English countryside in the fall. The result is neither sad nor happy -- it's really peaceful. I've heard this vibe in songs by Nick Drake, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot, but nothing so fleshed out as what Walker has done. Songs like "The Bridge," "Montague Terrace," "It's Raining Today" and "Copenhagen" beautifully illustrate this.

Walker was incredibly prolific in the Sixties and Seventies, but he has only released three albums since 1984. His latest, The Drift, was released earlier this year on 4AD. Though his material has morphed into free-form sonic soundscapes, Walker still has the proverbial "it". A documentary entitled 30 Century Man recently premiered and shall get a theatrical release in the UK early next year.

All this said, this is some of the greatest orchestral-tinged pop music I've ever heard. I'm a sucker for this stuff, so I'm biased. I've heard plenty of crooners that just croon and bore me. This is not the case here.

Friday, November 03, 2006

American Hardcore

After a handful of months of watching the trailer and reading reviews about it (one here and another here), American Hardcore finally hit Dallas this weekend. After seeing it today, I'm very safe in saying that I prefer American Hardcore the film over American Hardcore: A Tribal History, the book in which it's based on.

American hardcore itself has only really been talked about in small doses in books and films. Michael Azerrad delves into it quite well in Our Band Could Be Your Life, as do films like Another State of Mind and The Decline of Western Civilization, but there was an even bigger story to be told. When I read American Hardcore: A Tribal History for book research (how can you talk about post-hardcore without knowing what hardcore was?), I felt like I was reading an encyclopedia with narrow-minded/catty exposition courtesy of the author, Steven Blush. While the quotes and stories are really cool and the information is incredibly thorough, the book got very repetitive and annoying with Blush's comments. This is not an easy book to read cover to cover.

With American Hardcore, this is a film that is great from start to finish. The essence of the book (hardcore all across the United States and its varied mindsets behind it) is there, but it doesn't feel like a bitch-fest made up of nostalgic old folks. The usual suspects are here (Henry Rollins, Ian MacKaye, Mike Watt), but they add more to what you've heard before in Get in the Van, Our Band Could Be Your Life and even American Hardcore: A Tribal History. Interviewing people like Joey Shithead, Brian Baker, Dave Smalley, Mugger, Greg Ginn, HR and even Moby make for a story that's different than the stories you've heard before. It's not completely different, but it's way more rounded than anything else I've seen about American hardcore.

One of the prime gems of American Hardcore is the live footage, especially of the mighty Bad Brains. Those guys inspired so many people to start bands that it's not even funny. The deal was, for the longest of time, I had never seen classic Bad Brains footage anywhere. I had heard about how the Bad Brains' shows were life-changing, but their records could only shed so much light. While the footage of Minor Threat, Black Flag and the Cro-Mags is great too, be glad that one of hardcore's greatest bands gets ample coverage in the live and interview department.

The interviews themselves are engaging. These guys don't romanticize their experience, but they definitely make it clear how the experience affected them. Probably the best example comes with Brian Baker being speechless about Minor Threat's first gig opening for the Bad Brains. 26 years after the fact and it is still difficult to put this into words. Incredible.

Various topics that sprang up in the wake of hardcore are touched on. Ian MacKaye explains what "Guilty of Being White" is about and how he's baffled that it's seen as a white-power rally cry. Straight edge is also spotlighted, but not too much. Violence is also covered, but not made light of or romanticized. Overall, this is telling the story like the story happened without making the same points over and over again.

One concern that I had prior to seeing the film was about bitter reminiscing. If the film was filled with it, the tone would become a drag. Yes, punk rock is a cash-making machine depending on what kind of punk rock you make and plenty of people involved in hardcore in the Eighties have negative opinions about how things have played out. Luckily, this kind of back-biting doesn't come in until the last few minutes of the film. Plus, one of the final comments recognizes how cyclical the drive to do something like hardcore has been a part of our culture for a long time and will not go away any time soon. Sure, you can bitch about a band like Panic! At the Disco because their music sucks and you can't escape them because of all their media coverage in the last year. However, that doesn't mean that all new music sucks. You have to look harder for the good stuff. That attitude was what brought hardcore together in the Eighties and it's what still binds people together. American Hardcore is a great reminder of that.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

End Hits

Kyle and Josh have an interesting discussion over at the AV Club: does rock and roll ever forget? They're talking about an artist that has an appealing creative quality for a while, but then it seems like the quality is gone. To further illustrate their point, Kyle quotes a line by Abe Simpson: "I used to be with it, but then they changed what 'it' was. Now, what I'm with isn't it, and what's 'it' seems weird and scary to me."

The main example they use is Ian MacKaye. MacKaye has made a wide variety of rock music since 1979 and has been pretty consistent. The Slinkees/Teen Idles and Minor Threat played fast punk rock, Embrace was not as fast and a little darker/moodier, Fugazi was arty and jazzy and his current band, the Evens, is softer and melodic. Does he still have the proverbial 'it'? I think so, but I can understand why people may still play 13 Songs more than Get Evens.

My opinion on the Evens is this: their music is worthwhile, but definitely not something I listen to on a regular basis. I still prefer Fugazi as I'm still finding new and exciting things about their back catalog. I'm glad MacKaye is still playing music and running Dischord, but I'm more interested in which classic record from Dischord's catalog will be remastered next. That's just me.

For almost any artist that has stuck around for years, there's a point where it feels like there's a plateau or a sharp decline. I could really care less if Weezer makes another album, but I'm curious about what Wilco does next. I used to be someone that bought every record by every act that I loved, but that's not the case now.

For me, I want the essential records more than every record. I'm fine with my copies of The Blue Album and Pinkerton while my copy of The Green Album collects dust. I'm not really interested in what River Cuomo does next, but I'll probably take a listen. I know that lightning is hard to bottle, so when I'm hearing something new that doesn't grab me, I look for something else that does. Fickle? Maybe, but it's all in the pursuit of a rush rather than a sense of loyalty.

A frustrating thing is this: what about bands that have so many albums that it's difficult to say there is one truly essential record? Sonic Youth is a great example. Here's a band that I was never really into in high school and college, but have warmed up to them in the last few years. From what I've heard and read, they have some really essential stuff, some so-so stuff and some clunkers in their catalog. Most people would recommend Daydream Nation first, but then promptly recommend Sister, Goo, Dirty and one of their last few records if you like Daydream Nation. Having only Daydream Nation just wouldn't be enough. After all these years, Sonic Youth still have that creative zest, but it's doubtful they'll make something that eclipses Daydream Nation.

Familiarity is a good thing but it can also be a turn-off. I doubt that Tom Waits' forthcoming Orphans will break any new ground for him as an artist. Yet for people like myself that enjoy almost all of his stuff, we want to hear it. I can understand why someone would want to remain at bay with Small Change and Rain Dogs because fandom takes on different meanings for different people. Come to think of it, it's the fans that decide whether or not somebody still has "it" or not. For me, I'm happy a number of artists stick around and still kick out records even if the new records don't match up to the previous stuff. It's better than stopping prematurely and wondering what might have happened. Yet sometimes, we're screaming for mercy when there's too much to process.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Ghouls Night Out

Our third Halloween passed us last night without a hitch. Jason and I, along with our friend (and new neighbor) Ryan, gave out 90% of the candy we had in 45 minutes. We thought we were prepared; we had twelve bags total and wanted to save some for our big party this weekend. Well, we packed it in early and we didn't turn anybody down, but our street was packed once again. Police were directing traffic and everything. Pure insanity, right? Not really. Just a lot of people coming and going.

I will to admit to playing favorites with passing out my favorite candy. As a fan of Reese's white chocolate cups, I handed them out to kids that had really cool costumes. One dressed as Spider-Man, one dressed as Jason Vorhees, one dressed in the ghost Scream costume and one dressed as Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books. Everybody else got KitKat, M&Ms, Almond Joy, Snickers, Butterfinger and regular Reese's peanut butter cups. What we have left is a plastic Jack-O-Lantern not even 2/4ths full with assorted candy.

We quietly ventured outside of our house to check out what all our neighbors did for the night. Some went really over the top (some giant spiders, a graveyard lit up by plastic Halloween-themed displays) while some kept it really simple (sit on the front of the lawn with folding chairs). At no point did we ever see things get out of hand. There were no fights, screaming children or juvenile behavior. This got me thinking.

I've met a few people over the years that equate Halloween with pagan worship. Well, in my time as a trick-or-treater and a candy-giver, I have never seen lambs be sacrificed, orgies or dances around fires. Halloween, like Christmas and Thanksgiving, benefit from being watered-down and mainstream. They're very safe, kid-friendly get-togethers. With Halloween, it's supervised by parents and in the case of my street, aided by friendly police officers. How can any of this be a bad thing?

Well, yes, there are bad eggs that like to play cruel jokes and TP houses, but that stuff is tame compared to what fear-induced people think Halloween is all about. The dead don't rise out of their graves and witches don't fly across the sky. If anything, it's a friendly version of door-to-door visits with no ulterior motives.

As I stated last year, I'm definitely making up for lost time with the last few Halloweens I've experienced. When I lived in an apartment, nobody came by and the night felt awkward. I'd watch Halloween and/or Halloween 2 and go to bed. Last night, I passed out candy, walked down the street with my friends, watched Halloween with the commentary track on and three Simpsons' 'Treehouse of Horror' episodes. Amazing what getting out of my cornered view will do.