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Monday, April 30, 2007

Denton Rock City

Props to Largehearted Boy for linking the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's recent article on Denton's music scene. The gist of the story: is Denton's scene about to be the biggest and most influential spot in Texas? The how's and why's are discussed, but something I've always wondered about is what makes the town's music scene so special. To me, you don't move there thinking your Creed knock-off will get big. If anything, you're there to further explore sounds that aren't mainstream or predictable.

There is something about college towns: they have their own self-contained music scenes. Given the location, a big metroplex is usually far away. So, instead of pining for scenes like the ones in LA, Chicago or New York, a different kind of vibe comes out. Of course you have those cheese rock bands that play at sports bars and frat parties, but you have all these bands that are nothing traditional. In the case of Denton, the 40-minute distance between Dallas makes for a completely different world. Plus, having a liberal arts college in town is a major catalyst.

I didn't go to UNT, but I've known plenty of people that have and/or currently do. UNT brings in all kinds of musicians from all over the world, but it doesn't strike me as a place that's like Julliard or Berklee. Meaning, the abundance of jazz musicians is the key difference. Playing real jazz (no, not the safe, "shopping music" kind) requires a mindset that is not locked up in tradition. Couple that mindset with rock music and you have something not coming to a Top 40 radio station any time soon. And that's cool.

Great music can come from anywhere, but there are definitely certain areas that foster and spread it around to a larger degree. When you're not being wooed or compelled by rock stardom, you're less likely to play music that is easily pigeonholed. You're not holding out for an A&R rep to come to your local bar. You're not intending to "make it." If anything, playing is a part of who you are whether you make any money at it or not. While I've met plenty of people like this in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and Houston, Denton definitely frequently attracts this type of mindset.

Now, does this mean Denton will be on top of the Texas music scene chain? I doubt it, but seeing what I've seen come out of there in the last nine years, it's not going away any time soon. And that's fine by me.

Friday, April 27, 2007

You Know You're Right

I've been curious about Everett True's recent biography of Nirvana, Nirvana: The Biography, ever since it came out. It's 656 pages about one of the the most important bands in rock history, all written by a noteworthy journalist and longtime fan. After reading some reviews and portions, I'm not sure I want to read it simply for one large reason. And that reason is: the biographer makes it abundantly clear this is his story, loosely implying he's as important to the story as the the principals featured. This, in my opinion, takes a lot of power away from the overall story.

True has plenty of legitimate credentials and bragging rights to write a biography on Nirvana. He was the Melody Maker journalist that Sub Pop flew in to write the infamous spread about the Seattle music scene. He introduced Kurt Cobain to Courtney Love. He wheeled Cobain up on stage at the band's legendary set at the Reading festival in 1992. He was a friend of Cobain's and had written plenty about them over the years. So why do I not really care to read about his experiences with the band? Well, based on what I've seen, the book is more My Experiences With Kurt Cobain and Nirvana Masquerading As the Final Word than Nirvana: The Biography.

I have no problem with reading or writing about my personal experiences with bands. Hell, that's what I frequently do on this blog. The deal is, with Post, I wanted to steer clear of saying stuff like "I remember this" and "I remember that" in the main body of the story. I'm the author, so of course this is a personal reflection. But do I need to bring myself into the light and say it is even more than it already is? Not to me.

Once again, the route I took with Post was very similar to how Michael Azerrad approached Our Band Could Be Your Life and Come As You Are: The Story of Nirvana. Meaning, Azerrad never came on out and said, "Me! Me! Me! I! I! I!" in the main story. As the reader, I picked up on Azerrad's connection right away because of how well he knew the material and wrote about it so well. Of course Azerrad's a fan of the band and got to know them well, but he doesn't throw in personal anecdotes like, "Well, when I interviewed the band for Rolling Stone, I thought they were . . ." and the like. Again, he's the author, so of course this is going to be a personal reflection to an extent.

A few years ago, I read Everything: A Book About Manic Street Preachers by Simon Price. As a fan of the Manics who always wanted to know more about them, that's what Price's book did. The deal was, I found it very distracting when he would throw himself into intergral parts of the story. When he gets all defensive about a Richie Edwards documentary he was interviewed for, why is this talked about so explicitly in a book that's supposed to be about the band?

Now I'm not meaning that authors shouldn't banish "I"s, "me"s and "I remember"s out of their books. Not so much. As a matter of fact, Pat Gilbert's Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of the Clash has plenty of personal anecdotes. But he never declares these as important as the band's story. If anything, be it his visit to where the band recorded the so-called "Vanilla Tapes" or his final interview with Joe Strummer, his anecdotes set the background a little better.

Make no mistake, authors can get a little carried away when writing a biography about a rock band. Part autobiography and part biography, the author (doubling as the historian) puts his or her's slant on things in the process. It's great to have a variety of differing opinions on a single band or genre, but for me, I don't think the definitive word comes from just one person.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The audio of an unassuming dude

I'm this week's guest on Leah's Girl Talk podqast. The mind of an unassuming dude is further explored in an audio format. Enjoy!

The World Won't End

Last week's edition of Ask the AV Club kicked off with the following question:

Is American Idol bad for music? Specifically, will AI take us to the point where an entire generation will largely listen to and identify with anesthetized, focus-grouped pop music written and composed by studio rats, sung exclusively by flawless, mass-approved performers?

The answer he got from Noel was pretty right-on:

The real danger of American Idol—if there is a danger—is that the young kids who grow up wanting to be on the show will pick up only on the superficial qualities that allow its contestants to go far. As much as the judges cry out for "originality" and urge everyone not to "play it safe," it's obvious that curvy women in skimpy outfits who sing 20-year-old Top 40 hits with lots of flashy vocal runs can count on winning praise and votes, week after week.

Now, I'm well aware that American Idol is its own thing, but I think its impact in the long-term is similar to TV variety shows in the '70s and Star Search in the '80s. Meaning, this is just entertainment and a sign of its time in culture. You could pose this question to previous generations and merely replace AI with words like "disco" or "MTV."

In the case of American Idol, as seen season after season, it is not necessarily a credible, star-making machine. If anything, AI is like a cruel, tongue-in-cheek joke for cynics, fluffy entertainment for those that want to be entertained and something naive teenyboppers can go nuts over. I'm pretty sure these teenybopper fans will eventually become what former New Kids On the Block and Backstreet Boys fans became: normal, well-rounded human beings who are often embarrassed that they were fans.

Yes, AI is a force in our modern culture, but it's not the only force. If anything, it seems like a scapegoat. Hence why I find another part of Noel's answer to be very dead-on:
I'm starting to believe that most of the people who get up in arms about American Idol don't watch the show enough to know what they're talking about, and are really railing against what they imagine it stands for.

It's true: people imagine AI stands for across-the-board, bland mediocrity. However, AI is not the only way people can gain exposure to their music careers. The show's popularity seems to infiltrate all aspects of life, but not everybody watches the show. The 12-year-old learning to play Led Zeppelin and Metallica riffs is probably not going to become brainwashed by the fabricated sounds coming out of AI's contestants. I'm pretty sure American Idol will be a motivator to this person much like Donnie & Marie were to anguished teenagers in the '70s, New Kids On the Block were to anguished teenagers in the '80s, and the Backstreet Boys were to anguished teenagers in the '90s. Good music will always be around, but so will prefab pop.

Thinking about friends and family I know, there are a few former New Kids On the Block fans in the mix. I wouldn't say they were the type that cried at the sight of them, but they were definitely fans. Did their perception of what made music popular get tainted forever? No, because they were just coming of age and learning about music and life in general. (I think puberty had something to do with it as well.) Instead, with age, they gained a better understanding of themselves and the music they listen to. One is still at bay with what she hears on the radio. Another listens to a wide variety of music, from hip-hop to crusty post-hardcore. Their time as New Kids On the Block fans was a mere blip in their overall life as music fans.

So, those are my two cents. American Idol may make a lot of people watch Fox a couple nights a week, but they are not ruining the whole world of music for everyone. It's a part of the music world, but it's more in the pop culture/entertainment world than the legitimate world of music.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Make Me a Mixtape (11-year-old edition)

For his birthday, I've been commissioned to create a mix CD for my eleven-year-old cousin. I was given a few ideas along with songs he really wants to hear. The first five tracks are the ones he really wants to hear (in addition to a few other upbeat Beatles tracks). So, I decided to make the following mix CD. Any ideas/suggestions would be great. Maybe those who know 11-year-olds well could really help. (I'm especially looking at you, Py and J.)

1. "Who Let the Dogs Out" -- Baha Men
2. "Main Title/Rebel Blockade Runner" -- John Williams (from Star Wars Episode IV)
3. "The Imperial March" -- John Williams (from Star Wars Episode V)
4. "The Battle of Yavin" -- John Williams (from Star Wars Episode IV)
5. "Yellow Submarine" -- the Beatles
6. "Help!" -- the Beatles
7. "With A Little Help from My Friends" -- the Beatles
8. "Nowhere Man" -- the Beatles
9. "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" -- B.J. Thomas
10. "My Cherie Amour" -- Stevie Wonder
11. "My Back Pages" -- the Byrds
12. "Kites Are Fun" -- the Free Design
13. "Return to Sender" -- Elvis Presley
14. "I Can't Stop Dancing" -- Archie Bell & the Drells
15. "Seven Days Too Long" -- Chuck Wood
16. "Reach Out I'll Be There" -- Four Tops
17. "Storytelling" -- Belle & Sebastian
18. "She Don't Use Jelly" -- Ben Folds Five
19. "The Sporting Life" -- the Decemberists
20. "Race for the Prize" -- the Flaming Lips
21. "Girl from Mars" -- Ash
22. "Ten Minutes" -- the Get Up Kids
23. "Pull Shapes" -- the Pipettes

Monday, April 23, 2007

Turn My Headphones Up

Last week, Idolator gave a heads-up on a story concerning the ridiculous amount of times certain back catalogs get reissued. Since we've heard about the artists that have received this treatment over and over again, what about the ones who've never been given their proper due? So, I decided to do a list of albums I'd like to see get the reissue treatment once and for all:

Metallica's material up to the Black Album
Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and . . . And Justice For All are great records, but sound incredibly tame on CD. A commonly used word in describing non-remastered material is "thin." Well, that's very much the case here. Plus, maybe we'll finally hear Jason Newsted's buried basslines on . . . And Justice For All.

Neil Young's 70s solo material
Neil has released so many albums in his lifetime that his work in the 70s gets kinda lost in the shuffle. The deal is, albums like Harvest, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and After the Gold Rush are sublime. The problem is, sharply adjusting the volume knob between songs to hear their beauty royally sucks. And no, the single-disc Greatest Hits collection from a few years ago is not enough.

Tom Waits' Asylum and Island material
A record like Small Change demands the reissue treatment. So does a record like Rain Dogs. These records sound nothing alike, but both have a whole assortment of colors. Hearing something like "Kentucky Ave." or "I Wish I Was In New Orleans" with their orchestral arrangements in full bloom would rule.

The Replacements' Sire-era material
Aside from Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, the Mats' major label output is more or less mentioned as a footnote in their history. As evidenced by the 1997 compilation All for Nothing/Nothing for All, the Mats deserve the treatment regardless.

U2's material up to Achtung Baby
U2's secret weapon is Adam Clayton's basslines. When he kicks in on "Where the Streets Have No Name," the hair on my neck raises. The same can be said for a number of their tunes. The current CD version of their 80s output lacks the power heard on their Best of 1980-1990 collection.

The Pixies entire catalog
The Pixies catalog was reissued a few years ago, but not remastered for some reason. Sorry, but Joey's guitar, Charles' voice and Kim's bass and voice need a kick up in the regular volume department.

R.E.M.'s '80s material
If anything, we should have a better chance to understand just what the hell Michael Stipe is singing about on Murmur.

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band's material before Springsteen went solo
Again, this is a case of tons of colors on records. Born to Run got the deluxe reissue treatment last year. Now, how's about a reissue of stuff like Darkness On the Edge of Town, Nebraska, The River and even Born in the U.S.A.?

Red House Painters' 4AD material
Mark Kozelek and band accidentally pioneered what has been dubbed "slowcore." Wouldn't it be great to feel the distorted guitars when they kick in on "Mistress"?

Weezer's Pinkerton
I don't care how embarrassed Rivers Coumo was about this record when it was initially considered a commercial disappointment, this record deserves a two-disc reissue. The b-sides found on the "El Scorcho" and "The Good Life" singles are worth the reissue treatment alone.

Jawbox's Grippe
Dischord did a fine job with remastering Jawbox's second album, Novelty. But the album that deserves the remastering treatment is their debut. Sounding like an unmastered rough mix by today's standards, crucial elements of their sound (ie, Kim's bass) are impossible to hear at normal volume.

A number of albums in the SST catalog
This is apparently a dicey issue. SST is still functioning, but there have been many reports of overdue/delayed royalty payments with some of their biggest bands. So, I don't know if this will ever come to fruition. It would rock if I could finally hear Double Nickels on the Dime and Flip Your Wig with a lot more clarity.

The Beatles' entire catalog
The announcement about this happening is rumored to be any day now. The deal is, this is at least seven years late. Compare the remastered cuts on 2000's 1 to versions found on the CDs released in 1987. There's a difference and they deserve this treatment.

So, what's the deal with all this remastering? Well, as someone who listens to recorded music in a variety of ways, the one spot where I really notice the difference is in my car. It's not like I blast my music, but I hope to never listen to my copy of Neil Young's Decade ever again in there. Nothing like turning the volume way up on "Broken Arrow" and then having to turn the volume way down if I want to hear a different CD. It's about having consistent volume. And it's not about ripping fans off.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The mind of an unassuming dude

This week's edition of Leah's Girl Talk podqast deals with a personality I know all too well: the unassuming dude. Meaning, the kind of guy who's nice, funny and caring, but doesn't seem inclined to get out and play the dating field. As much as I hate labels (they make you dismissible), I have a lot of the traits. And I have plenty of reasons why.

I'm not speaking for all unassuming dudes, but I have a very big fear of being burned by someone. It's not like I think all roads in relationships lead to burned or broken hearts, but I've been very affected by such stories by friends of mine and my own experiences. So, my theory was to just completely avoid the circumstances that could lead to this. I decided years ago I would never drastically rearrange my schedule for someone else. I plotted my own detour and have been on it ever since.

I figured if I entrenched myself even more with music, film and books, I wouldn't have to worry about those things ever getting up and walking out of my life. Well, as much as I love having the chance to listen to, watch and read whatever I want to whenever I want to, there's a feeling that this is not enough. Not dealing with the issues that plagued me for so long, I realized it was the mental equivalent of keeping a small dumbbell in my pocket. I had to realize that human interaction is still the best thing for me, even as someone who needs alone time.

But I am not about to get up and actively "play the field." It's not my style. I don't have the motivation to try and fail in the dating world. I do have the motivation to write books, odds be damned. I do have the motivation to play shows, odds be damned. If I were to fail at writing or playing, that would be OK with me. If I were to fail in the dating world, that would not be OK with me. I can be very black-or-white about certain things and dating is one of them.

Leah mentions the frustration about the situation women like her think: "He's nice, he's sweet, but he doesn't ask you out." She poses the question to her male guests about why this is. Both James and Jason respond with very understandable and reasonable responses. I'd chime in with all the times that I've misread the interaction and it didn't pan out into something more than a friendship. How am I supposed to know what she really thinks? It's that whole "yes" means "no" and "no" means "yes" chess game. I'm just not interested in playing guessing games. That's what I interpret most dating is.

Another situation Leah proposes is the woman pursuing the man. If I were to be in this situation, I'd take that to mean this person is pushing too hard and/or desperate. It's not a good first step. Of course, this is a hypothetical situation, but that's my answer. I'm often led to believe there are ulterior motives behind every action, especially in the dating world.

Lastly, just when I start to think dating somebody would be a positive thing in my life, I'm reminded of what I don't like about dating, marriage and family. I'm talking about when the relationship is more dictated by what the woman wants more than what the man wants. It's an uneven balance where one person gets way more than the other. I'm also talking about standing in line at an eatery and there's a mother with a spastic, wired child that can't sit still. It's as if these situations are my destiny no matter what. I fear the Billy Cosby line of "My wife and I were intellectuals until we had the children."

So that's my response: fear keeps me from seeing this other side of life. I argue I've seen a little bit of it and don't really want to know much more. Of course, that could be the fear talking. But there is still plenty of curiosity about things working out. Until I'm proven that it can work out for me, I'll never fully believe it.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore

Leah recently posted about a T-shirt she ordered. The shirt's message: "Meat is Murder -- Tasty, tasty murder." As someone who used to have "meat is murder" and "fur is dead" bumper stickers on her car, she fully acknowledges her opinions have changed on the subject. I in no way fault her for changing her mind. As a matter of fact, I commend her for being honest with her past and present. She is a human and it's normal for humans to change their opinions about things. However, there was a time when it seemed like anyone changing his or her mind on eating meat, drinking alcohol, or experimenting with drugs would be subjected to a blacklisting.

These times may still be going on, but I remember back in '97 when people who followed the militant straight edge path were staunchly opposed to any kind of drinking alcohol, taking drugs, smoking cigarettes, or eating meat. For those that broke "the edge," they were seen as traitors and treated like outcasts. For those who were the judge and jury, they tend to make light of it now. Trying to get anyone to fess up to such actions requires mental teeth pulling.

I'm not exempt from making bold claims in my younger years, but I never went so far as being militant about my beliefs. So it puzzles me when I see a former straight edge follower be so candid about his or her once fervent ways. As much as I think everyone should be allowed to change their minds, I get a little ticked off. As someone who just wanted to enjoy the music and didn't really care about Earth Crisis or Good Riddance's political stances, I felt like the odd man out. The music is what drew me to them, but the widespread extremity of their fans just turned me away. It's like I want mental reparations for this. All the shit that I had to deal with is now just a "dude, I was a stupid kid" explanation. I don't think that's enough.

Something unbeknownest to me at the time -- but makes a lot of sense in hindsight -- was what drew me to bands like Sunny Day Real Estate, the Get Up Kids, and Lifetime. This wasn't tough-guy, hardcore-for-life hardcore. There were no politics sung about. There were no donations being made to Food Not Bombs with the sale of each record. This music was about expressing your frustration, sadness and joy without having to wear the right clothing or have the biggest Xs on your hands. So, in doing research for Post, I realized that was a major reason why people were drawn to post-hardcore/emo. I'm not about to make light of straight edge (it was a viable alternative to people that didn't want to adhere to society's pressures), but the extreme views that came from it are sharply criticized.

Taking extreme views are easier to take when you don't have to pay your rent, groceries or electric bill. Speaking from a world where those things are taken care of by your parents, it can seem like you will always live in this cushion. But with age most people are forced to be pragmatic. I give people the benefit of the doubt because people gave me the benefit of the doubt (and still do). As someone who once claimed he would live in a cardboard box in downtown Houston and never drive a car, I'm not exempt. If anything, that was my fear of growing up and becoming somebody I didn't like.

But we have a tendancy to hold people forever to a statement of belief. Take any elected official, Ian MacKaye or even Blake Schwarzenbach from Jawbreaker. Statements made back in a certain time and place are taken out of the context in which they were made. They are believed to be unchangable and timeless, but when it seems like the views have slightly changed, pundits cry out. We don't give these people the benefit of the doubt, but why? It's as if nothing is to ever change. I just can't behind that.

My desire is to have people explain themselves and be honest about their past. The major desire is to just have people admit their past. Hence why I don't enjoy the "dude, I was a stupid kid" response. So many actions and statements get washed over with a sentiment like that. It's like a myth to some, but I remember it as a daily struggle. And I'm not about to make light of any daily stuggle from ten years ago or today. Who knows, maybe my opinion will change on that notion in due time.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

"Just go explain the situation, Miles."

If you watch LOST, or practically any other TV show, you're bound to have a moment where you say, "Where have I seen this person before?" But there are times when you don't realize somebody on the show played a small, but very memorable character in a film you saw once. In my case, that belongs to M.C. Gainey aka, Mr. Friendly, Zeke, and currently, Tom.

Gainey was recently featured on the Official LOST Podcast and the topic of his acting career was brought up. Not only has he done a lot of television work (including the beloved Adventures of Brisco County Jr), but he was also in Sideways. His character has no name other than "Cammi's husband." If you're putting two and two together, he's the naked guy that runs after Paul Giamatti's character after he retrieves the wallet. Yup, that's Mr. Friendly in all his glory.

The thing is, I re-watched the scene to see if Gainey looked recognizable compared to his character on LOST. Other than the eyes and the cheeks, you'd have no idea. The music drowns his voice out and his face doesn't get a close-up. Of course you get a close-up of another part of his body.

I'm firmly aware that most actors and actresses are only a few degrees away from one another. (Gainey and Kevin Bacon have two degrees of separation.) But I find enjoyment in seeing someone's acting career over the years in various roles, especially the bit players. Now in the case of Gainey, I'm not about to watch Con Air or Walker Texas Ranger, but it's nice to see a guy have a major role on a show instead of only being known as the Naked Guy in Sideways.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Everyday I Write the Book

Details are scant at the moment, but as of last night, I've begun writing another book. Unlike Post, it will be fiction, but it's heavily based on personal experiences. The idea has been brewing ever since my trip to Chicago in October 2005 and I finally got the motivation to start writing it. This time, there was no pile of shingles hitting my head or anger towards a certain book on the topic. I just couldn't stop thinking about this and wanted to put words onto a page.

There's no title or deadline, but it's a fun little project to work on right now. If you want some ideas as to what it's about, let me share with you a passage from Post centered around No Idea Records' Var Thelin:

Thelin saw plenty of bands play together for four or five years, write lots of songs and usually turn into something special. But by the time that happened, they were gone; usually because the band members graduated college and left town. “At best, you’d be left with one demo tape that they’d recorded in someone’s bedroom,” he says.

Stay tuned on this and Post in the coming weeks.

Monday, April 16, 2007

So Yesterday

Fellow blogger/AV club member Donna gives some useful information about something I've wondered about: can we really predict what determines a hit song or movie? I'm not exactly sure what makes a movie a hit, but I do have ideas about hit songs. The smoother on the ears, the better. Where you go from there is anyone's guess.

If anything, Top 40 pop hits sound smooth. There's no dissonance to be found; it's just polished, shiny sounds. Makes sense, right? Well, for me, I still like plenty of pop hits from the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, and part of the Nineties. But there seemed to be a major drop-off in the late Nineties. Ever since then, it's been difficult to find anything pleasing to my ears that constitutes pop music.

Why the late Nineties? I'll give you two great reasons why: Matchbox Twenty and Britney Spears. From the rock angle, Matchbox Twenty made faceless rock even more faceless with their bland chord changes and uptempo beats. From the pop angle, Britney Spears's music was faux-sexy singing with pop-friendly breaks and beats. What made them so appealing for a large audience? Their feels.

The feels found in these songs are very basic: uptempo, but not too fast or too slow. The choruses get stuck in your head whether you like them or not. They have that kind of effect. But I wonder: did pop music become more annoying or did my overall taste in music just change to a point of no return in the late Nineties?

I remember seeing the videos for Smash Mouth's "Walking On the Sun," Sugar Ray's "Fly," and Matchbox Twenty's "Push" for the first time on 120 Minutes. I didn't like any of these songs and I was befuddled when they went into heavy, regular rotation the following week. Forget the fantastic tracks by Suede, 60ft. Dolls or Orbit also featured on 120 Minutes, the ones that got the most play were the ones I couldn't stand. As far as I remember, my taste in music didn't drastically change around then and it hasn't really changed since. So it's been a rule of thumb that whatever I strongly dislike will probably become a hit. There are definitely exceptions, but the point stands.

For me, the over-calculated sounds of pop music in the last ten years make me wonder: Does putting any soul or grit into your singing voice disqualify you from having a hit record? Aretha Franklin's "Natural Woman" wouldn't fit in this formula. Nor would Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together." The less human-sounding, the better, right? Not to me.

I remember hearing Hilary Duff's "So Yesterday" at a movie theater only a few days after I saw an ad for the song in a radio trade magazine. The quote used in the ad came from a programmer stating the song had a "perfect" sound for a lot of people. Hearing the song, I put the "perfect" sound together: mid-tempo, repetitive verse, and a bright chorus. Was this sound perfect for me? Absolutely not. (And this is coming from a lifelong Journey fan.)

There is obviously a loose formula that have made people like Linda Perry, Max Martin, and the Matrix millionaires. While some nuggets have come out of these modern hit factories ("Since U Been Gone" and "Beautiful"), these are no means like the hit factories of yesteryear. They aren't even on par with the timeless hits from Motown or the Brill Building. You don't need computers to tell you that. But the way so many pop hits sound like computer programs these days, wouldn't it make sense that a computer program determine their market potential?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Fidgeting Wildly

A few months ago, I posted the following comment on a friend's MySpace page:

Hey, when can my metal band get a nice, big write-up in one of the magazines you write for? We don't have a label yet, but we're working on it. We haven't played a show yet, but we have some offers. As a matter of fact, we don't have any songs just yet. Oh yeah, we don't have a name yet or any band members. We have a manager though! That said, how can this be cooked up in a couple of months? :-)

I wrote this after hearing about a few bands that formed more like the Backstreet Boys than a garage band. The comment was meant to be a joke, but ever since I wrote this, I've read about more bands that form this way. It's not an across-the-board epidemic, but I'm baffled by how bands form this way. Is this really a band at all?

Be it Panic! At the Disco, Cute is What We Aim For or Boys Like Girls, these bands come together and cut a record just a little after the conception period. It's like they form, cut a record and then start playing shows. Thanks to management ties or booking agents, these bands get on big bills and essentially piggy-back with the other bands. Now, not to sound like a certain green-colored fellow who lives in a trashcan on Sesame Street, but that's not the way I'd ever want to start a band at that age.

I do know of bands that cut a record before playing a show and they're spectacular. The deal is, Centro-matic and The Crash That Took Me are not made up of recent high school graduates hoping to get a nice timeslot on the Warped Tour. If anything, these bands started out way more casually. Becoming a full-fledged touring band with a record deal was not the main goal. It was something fun to do on the side. It was not a race to escape college life and become a rock star.

Some sage advice Ian MacKaye told me a few years ago rings very true in this case: "I don't think that people should make a record and then start playing shows. I think they should play shows and try to figure out if their songs are any fuckin' good before they make a record. Think about what the word 'record' means. It's if you record something, you save it for posterity. Are you making something to sell with someone or are they making something to document? And if you're making a document and you're just making a record before you haven't even played a show yet, then what kind of document is that?"

The reason why this stuff bugs me is that this is a misleading way to do a band. I'm not surprised when I read about how half-formed bands with half-formed songs really struggle in the studio hoping to cut some fully-formed, glossy record. But I just hope that teenagers see right through this nonsense and do it another way.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Take Your Time

I can't think of a lot of bands that have been around for a number of years, put out a number of records, and are still interesting/relevant to a sizable, modern audience. There are a few I can think of, but Low seems to fit the criteria as of late with me.

Formed in 1993, the band has released eight proper albums, a slew of EPs and singles, a couple live records, a box set, and a DVD. Pretty impressive, but for so long, it seemed like they had only one vibe. Their songs were not just slow and calm, but the dirge-like feel found on them was easy to dismiss. For me, I wasn't too impressed by what I heard for this very reason. The saving grace was Alan and Mimi's vocal harmonizing. But that wasn't completely enough for me to dig into any of their records.

Well, thanks to a recommendation (and liking the sound clips I heard) on a recent Sound Opinions podcast, I decided to check out their latest, Drums and Guns. No, this isn't the most cheerful music, but it's not bedtime music either. As a matter of fact, it's about the subtleties here. As much as I am one to avoid electronic-tinged music, the electronics found on this record are pretty melodic. They provide some very nice atmosphere. Alan and Mimi's vocals are pretty great as usual and there are plenty of different moods on here.

But all this gets me to think: this band is still putting out interesting stuff and they're on their eighth record. Now is it me, or does this seem weird? I hear all the time about how some band's first or second album is better than anything else in their catalog. I'm well aware that lightning is very hard to bottle, but a few modern bands are on a hot streak. There's no winning formula here, but I can't help but notice this is prevalent with a number of bands that formed in the Nineties. Be it Death Cab for Cutie, Belle & Sebastian or Wilco, the connecting glue is the long haul.

Now I'm not dissing bands that are only a few years old here, but I wonder if we'll be talking about Voxtrot's fifth record in high regard as their debut material. In a day and age when a number of people are pulling out the proverbial knives on their self-titled debut album, it's something I think about. Is this just a changing of the times?

I don't believe any band has a plan to remain relevant, but I get the feeling certain bands are willing to endure and progress at the same time. Of course, the question of popular relevance is decided more by the fans and critics. That equation is really difficult to understand.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

2,000 Years of Progress

I've said it before and I'll say it again: you can never escape where you come from. It's not like I want to forget where I come from, but it's interesting how your past comes back into your life. Be it a chance encounter with someone who knew someone you went to college with or a college classmate who went to the same elementary school you went to, or something like this. It's strange, but it's like a magnet of life. I was reminded of this at a recent instore at Good Records.

After watching Goldenboy play a set, I was chatting with a friend of Tania's when along comes a gentleman politely passing out sampler CDs. He mentioned the label was new and based out of Houston. Looking at the address on the back of the sleeve, I saw that it was based out of the town I lived in from 1987 until 1998: Kingwood. Small world indeed.

The label, named Mia Kat Empire, is based in a suburb that, for all intents and purposes, is a good place to raise a family. But it's the kind of place that can make you want to explore what else is out there in the world when you graduate high school. There's nothing hip about the place. There are no record stores or bookstores. Live venues are rec centers and garages. Though there are always plenty of middle school and high school bands, it doesn't make for the kind of scene like the ones you find in Austin, Dallas, or even Houston for that matter.

Regardless, I still have many happy memories of playing in bands in that town, but there are plenty of reasons why I don't live there anymore. If anything, where I live now suits who I am now. So maybe that's why it's so mindblowing to me to find a label based out of my hometown that actually puts out quality stuff. There's no fixed genre, but it's a lot of what makes good indie rock. Meaning, there's a lot of energetic melodic stuff, but some softer, quieter material as well. There's no screamo, lame punk rock, or Weezer knock-offs. It's just something I can't distill into one catagory. And that's good.

Though most of the label's roster is not based in Kingwood, many of them are from fellow surrounding areas of Houston. Around here in Dallas, I hear all the time about bands from Austin, but not many from Houston. The only one that I've encountered in the previous years was Bring Back the Guns. Now I have a handful more to know about.

The crazy thing is, when I lived in Kingwood, the thought of doing a label was unheard of. The most bands would do was cut a few songs at a cheap studio in Houston. My friends and I thought releasing a 7" was cool, but the most we ever did was release cassette tapes. As far as I remember, it was a big deal when local band Temper Scarlet put out a CD. We're talking 1994-1997 here and it's funny to think about in hindsight.

The point to be made is how it doesn't matter where you are, you can create something. The chances of making something in a town that is worlds away from anything hip or cool are greater. I know this idea has been said many times before, but it's a point of pride to see something like this actually come to fruition.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

I Second That Emotion

When word came down last year that my friend Trevor was co-authoring a book on emo, a fellow friend asked me how I felt about this. Even though the time it's taken me to write my book has been double the time it took for his book to be written and published, I have no sour grapes about it. The way I see it, the more different, legit views on something, the better. But I was concerned about how this "emo joke book" would go over on me. As regular readers know, I'm pretty uptight about how the mainstream has rewired everything remotely emo into a commodity. I'm also firmly aware I'm not in the book's target demographic. Still, I found Everybody Hurts: An Essential Guide to Emo Culture to be an enjoyable read.

If there's one genre that's overdue for satire, it's mall emo. Too many bands have taken themselves too seriously kicking out jams that will probably be best remembered like Eighties hair metal. All those flat-ironed haircuts, tight clothing, glossy-sounding records, eyeliner, and onstage "rock moves" will be the stuff so many teenagers will make light of with laughs in years to come. Hey, it's a part of growing up.

Trevor and fellow Alternative Press writer Leslie Simon have come up with something that is funny and heartfelt. The key here is that they are willing to make fun of themselves in the process. Analyzing the fashion, music, food, Internet, TV and film, this is not just about people who started listening to the Get Up Kids in 2002. More than anything, it's about the generation that was born between the mid- to late Eighties and early Nineties. These are the ones that come out to the Warped Tour, shop at Hot Topic, and read AP. Seeing where the authors fit into the mix as writers who cover this culture, it makes sense how well of an informed opinion they have. As a plus, Trevor and Leslie give not just an older perspective, but a perspective that isn't filled with bitterness and resentment.

Using drawings and lists to better illustrate their points, the book's an easy read. Everything is very concise, but not too vague or inside. I may never understand what's so great about Brand New, but in the case of why their second album is considered essential to this culture, it's "because, thanks to [lead singer/guitarist Jesse] Lacey, every frontman whose band has sold more than one hundred thousand records now automatically becomes an arrogant prick!" Very funny stuff because it's true.

Even with all the jokes and jabs at bands, fans and themselves, Everybody Hurts actually says something. Whether you like it or not, this is what many teenagers/college students have been a part of for the past few years. The book is meant to be humorous, but it doesn't feel one-dimensional or vacant. It simply says, "This is who we are, jokes and all." And that's refreshing when so many people haven't said that.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Bunch of savages in this town.

I have yet to see Grindhouse, but something Keith wrote in the comments section of his review really made me think:

One of the sagest pieces of advice I ever received as a critic was that you can never judge something by its worst fans.

If I'm reading this correctly, what I gather is that you can't fully judge something by what fervent fanboys and doubters say. Sounds like a reasonable judgment right? Well, why do we give so much power to what these fervent people have to say?

A part of reading online news stories/reviews is seeing the comments section. Sometimes the comments can be valid, but more than anything, they're knee-jerk reactions to whatever the topic is. They can be well-written, but more often than not, they're immature and tacky. There's a whole culture around online comments sections that I've never fully understood. Does being the first one to post a response qualify you as a winner? Not in my book, but it is for plenty of people. Does a poorly-written, two-sentence response to a multi-paragraph review carry as much weight? Not to me.

I'm still in the dark about how somebody could highly praise a writer, director, or band and later rip them to shreds. And the ripping apart is usually over one matter -- be it a follow-up book, film or album. It's the apparent ebb and flow, but I've never understood the abundance of vitriol. It's as if you love a person's work, you're destined to hate it.

Now, my personal experiences with the extreme have usually been separated by one or two degrees of separation. I have friends and family who are very much into the world of anime and sci-fi who take relaxed, tactful approaches in talking about their feelings on various shows and movies. But they definitely know people who make Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons look tame. Chances are very good the reason why these people are so ardent has nothing to do with the shows they watch, the films they see, the books they read or the music they listen to. Be it fear of rejection or anger towards family or friends, the list is endless.

Still, what's the most frequent topic brought up in interviews? What the hardcore fans' response is/will be. "How will your fans react that this is coming out on Sire Records?" "What about the fans of your first film, Clerks?" "What's been the response from your fans about your latest book?" It never ends and never fails in writing copy. Such is life, but I think it's important to place more emphasis on how the person felt about writing the book, directing the film or making the record. That's far more interesting to me. Besides, you will always have doubters, even with your most critically-acclaimed work.

So, the advice Keith got is very true. But I'll add this, what carries more weight: how you feel about the book/movie/record or what everyone else thinks of it? I go for the former. Of course I acknowledge what the critics are saying, but I stick with my own feeling.

Friday, April 06, 2007

In a Million Pieces

Brought up in a thread on the SOMB, as well as an interview with John Vanderslice, the common topic is: does written criticism still matter in a time of online "consumer journalists" (aka, bloggers)? I say yes, but to an extent.

If anything, the abundance of bloggers throws way more opinions into the mix. Depending on your viewpoint, this can be a good thing and/or a bad thing. Sure, certain records are even more inescapable when print journalists and bloggers praise the same stuff. For example, how many times do you want to read about how Johnny Marr joined Modest Mouse? Moreover, how many times do you want to read a glowing review of the Arcade Fire's Neon Bible?

Even in this day, a music critic at The New York Times or Rolling Stone still has plenty of precedence over bloggers. Not a lot of bloggers have written books, been interviewed in documentaries or on national TV shows, and/or have done interviews with some of the most popular artists of the time. But what defines credibility is changing. A blogger recognizing the greatness of some act months before anybody else covers the act is a point of pride. It lends a lot of credibility to him or her, especially when the blogger is consistently on-the-ball.

In the writer's case, a key difference is between the stuff you bought/downloaded for pleasure versus the music you've been instructed to write about. In my case, the reviews I write for Punk Planet and the stuff I write about on this blog are often different. At Punk Planet, I have deadlines, word counts, and an expectation to review everything I'm sent. Here, I have no deadlines, word counts, and can write about whatever I want to write about. Both situations have their pros and cons, but the good outweighs the bad in both situations. Hence why I keep at them.

Keep in mind, I have never made any money from my writing about music, film, books, et al. Making money was not the reason why I started writing a book, a blog and write-ups for Punk Planet, but I'm not adamantly opposed to receiving compensation. The point is, where I'm coming from (a writer who likes to blog and work on a book in my free time) is different than where a journalist is coming from (a writer who makes his/her living wage by writing and/or editing). The results can vary. I'm not saying one trumps the other, but there is a difference.

The interesting thing these days is what constitutes an informed opinion. From what I've seen, it's very blurry. Does the opinion of a respected journalist who wrote a 400-word review of the Arcade Fire's Neon Bible matter as much as a respected MP3 blogger writing less than fifty words on Neon Bible along with posting some MP3s from the album? To me, it depends on who's saying what and what's being said. Eric at Can You See the Sunset? might convince me to check out Andrew Bird's new album because of what he wrote about it. Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune and Rolling Stone might convince me to check out more music by the girl groups that influenced the Pipettes.

In both cases with Eric and Greg, I've read them for a while. I know their tastes are closer to my tastes than the writers at say, Pitchfork Media. Eric's and Greg's approaches to discussing music in written form are different, but both provide me with options. Though it can be difficult to know what I will really like versus what I might kinda like, I'm glad there are different approaches.

Back before I ever knew of fanzines, I thought the music reviews in Rolling Stone, Trouser Press, the Houston Chronicle, music books, and specials on MTV and VH1 were "the word." All these years later, I'm so pleased to know they aren't the only "word"; they just give a glimpse. Blogs are very helpful to me, but so are columns by music writers I trust and respect.

Though there is a mentality to piss all over bloggers by certain people coming from the pre-blogger media angle ("Bloggers, raise your standards!" went a line on Pitchfork a few months back), I'm not choosing sides. I like the fact that MP3 bloggers have been able to exist without the threats of litigation by traditional music critics. Unlike the continuing shooting-in-the-foot by the RIAA with suing people who download music, MP3 bloggers aren't being chased down and put into a half-nelson hold.

The big picture is that people still care about music. We still talk about it and listen to it. How we handle the music itself is debatable (do you prefer holding a record in your hands or pulling it up in your iTunes library?), but music hasn't become as disposable as certain people have previously thought. Who knows if the traditional music critic will vanish one day. I doubt it. There's always a need for somebody to tell the difference between the meat and the fat for a large reader base.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Black Christmas

The name Bob Clark might not ring any bells to you, but I'm sure you're very familiar with one of his films. He directed A Christmas Story, the beloved tale of Ralphie and his desire for a BB gun. But Clark made plenty of other great films, along with critically-panned clunkers. So the news of his untimely death yesterday was incredibly sad. If there's something about Clark that should not be forgotten, it's his major achievement in the horror film genre: Black Christmas.

Don't mistake Clark's 1974 original for last year's lame remake. Believe it or not, but the man behind the tender Christmas Story also made a menacing film about a killer stalking a sorority house around Christmas time. Clark's Black Christmas came out a few years before John Carpenter's Halloween and still holds up as well as Carpenter's flick. Though Halloween has certain similarities with it (namely, the first-person view from the killer), Carpenter wasn't ripping off Clark. As a matter of fact, as noted on the recent DVD reissue, Clark and Carpenter knew each other and didn't hold any grudges. But for film buffs, don't think Carpenter came up with the frequently-imitated splatter formula out of thin air.

Without giving away anything about Black Christmas, I'll say this: The reason why the original works is because it's not some brainless tale of hot bimbos being picked off one by one. You're literally left in the dark with matters that are never fully explained. The remake tried to explain everything and zapped its strength in the process. With the original, you have a group of well-rounded women, who have their faults, trying to deal with their lives as they plan to go home for Christmas break. Add in the mystery of a psychopathic killer only makes matters worse. The deal is, none of these characters are wooden stereotypes that you're just waiting to get off-ed. Dare I say it, but you actually care for a number of these people.

Since Black Christmas and Halloween, the splatter genre formula has been beaten to submission with cheap imitations. Gone are the subtleties; in are more gore, lame sex, and one-note stereotypes. So maybe that's why I still find these original movies way more riveting. They may not make you jump out of your seat like I Know What You Did Last Summer, but you actually think about them after you watch them. Not many horror films can do that. And not many films I've seen do the same that Black Christmas does.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

You've Done Nothing

No matter what stage you're at in life, there are pros and cons. I agree with the Joni Mitchell line of "something's lost, but something's gained in living every day." In my case, being 28, single and happy has been a good thing for me. But there are definitely gripes that come up from time to time about being single. I'm talking about the nagging desire to change the status of being single to being in a committed relationship. No matter what, I can't help but feel defensive about this.

From what I've seen with web ads and billboards for dating services, it seems like you're in luck if you're single and Christian. Consequently, if you don't label yourself a Christian, you might as well just sit in some dark corner and rot. Yes, I'm exaggerating things, but the point remains. What about people like myself? Do we not "matter" to the dating service market?

Certain people I know have strongly urged me to join a singles group at a local church. Well, that's not going to happen. I have my own beliefs and consider myself a very spiritual person, but I'm not going to pretend I'm of one denomination. I find it deceitful claiming one denomination when I'm really not one or the other. It's not the best way to be upfront with people.

Another matter that does not comfort this is hearing happily married people say, "I'm so glad I'm not in the dating world anymore. It's brutal." Whenever I hear this, it feels like being single is some sort of indefinite detention class. It's like it's my fault for being single and I should be over-extending myself to change this situation. When I last checked, I still don't have the skills to manipulate fate or the future. Nobody does, but certain people are led to believe the contrary.

Not to take a defeated view of life, but fate intervenes whether you like or not. There's no escaping fate. I can't tell you how many times I've heard of people getting together because of "dumb luck." Be it an impromptu gathering of friends and family, a friend staying with another friend over a holiday, or a random meeting at a party, fate happens. If you're waiting for the day for fate to happen, well, it can be indefinite. So it would be best to find yourself and what you like in the meantime.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Life Less Ordinary

Sometimes you should just take risks. My Complete Idiot's Guide to Ash went online today and it serves as a reminder to the risk I took getting into the band in the first place.

Back in '96, while on a family vacation in London, we visited the Tower Records in Picadilly Square. I picked out a CD I wanted to get (Metallica's Load came out that day) and my father found a few Ted Heath CDs that were unavailable in the US. Tallying up the cost, my father told me to pick out another CD for import tax reasons. Apparently if you spent a certain amount you wouldn't have to pay extra taxes on them. Well, right after he told me this, there was a large display for Ash's 1977 in front of me.

Even to this day, 1977's cover is arresting. A camouflaged-colored, mirror image of a knocked-over trashcan makes an impression. Maybe it was the green (my favorite color) that caught my eye. I had heard of Ash only a few days before. 1977 had just come out and the band was doing a lot of television appearances that week. I saw a picture of them in a TV program schedule and was curious. They were a three-piece rock band and that's all I knew. Combined with the fact that all of the copies in the store contained two hidden bonus tracks, I wanted to get this. This was long before you could get any MP3 on the Internet, so this seemed valuable to me. When I got back to our flat, I was blown away by the record.

Sitting in a hallway listening to my Discman, I enjoyed Load, but was really taken with 1977. Starting off with the sound of a TIE fighter flying by was nice. All of the twelve songs were great. They were poppy, punky and well-done. I was now an Ash fan.

The years passed and I kept track of the band. I've picked up every new record whenever it has become attainable. Realizing the band would be perfect for one of Jeff's guides, I wanted to share. But I have to remind myself of how a small little risk paid off big time. This encourages me to take more risks.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The WaMu Way

While driving down the old street I used to live off of last week, I saw something that seemed right out of Mike Judge's Idiocracy. The Washington Mutual bank is now WaMu. No, it's not just a website URL; the whole place has been re-branded this. I can understand how an abbreviation can be useful (ie, NAACP instead of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), but Washington Mutual is not a mouthful to say. So, what's going on here?

The sound of WaMu just sounds odd to me. Part the sound of a baby crying and part the sound of a cow mooing, this name sounds like something Ben Burt would have for something in one of the Star Wars films. I definitely wouldn't think of a bank when I heard this. It's like if Bank of America shortened their name to BoA or Wells Fargo shortened their name to WeFa.

My big "huh?" is why the need for a name change. Maybe this was made to tell the difference between Washington Mutual and Northwestern Mutual. I'm not sure. If anything, I'm reminded of a mid-90s SNL skit with David Spade. Spade, mocking Don Lapre's infomercials, noted how much extra time he had because he only used abbreviations. Of course the joke was you couldn't understand what he was talking about. I think you can make the case here with WaMu.