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april 2007

4.2.07
It's hard to single out one song as the best thing on LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver, and while both the first single, "North American Scum", and my friend Sliced Tongue's early favorite "Watch the Tapes" deserve some consideration, the standout for me is definitely "Someone Great". It could have come smack out of 1983, and it's also different from anything on the eponymous debut album (a distinction it shares with only one other track on Sound of Silver, "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down").

But the whole record is pretty fucking great. Unless you gave the first one a serious chance and hated everything on it, Sound of Silver is worth spending some money on.


4.3.07
I get the feeling that Régine Chassagne's lead vocal on the first half of "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" from Arcade Fire's Neon Bible is kind of like Donnette Thayer's tracks on Game Theory's albums: they probably wouldn't have made the cut if there wasn't a romantic attachment to the main songwriter in each band.

Chassagne also sang a lead on "In the Backseat" from Funeral, but the performance was much more restrained for most of the track, and by the time she was reaching back and trying for a more power, the mix kind of washed over her vocals and helped mask their weakness. But she's going full throttle on "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" from the first note, and it's a real relief when the song shifts into its second movement and Win Butler takes over the vocal duties.


4.4.07
Here's something you don't see every day: the Hold Steady taking on "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" for their hometown Twins. Kind of a sad, booze-soaked rendition, especially considering that this song is supposed to help get your blood flowing during the 7th inning stretch, but I guess when you spend most of your waking hours drinking in bars, the atmosphere kind of soaks into you and carries over into anything you do.


4.5.07
I'm gonna quit trying to figure out how the new Modest Mouse stacks up against their earlier efforts and just sit back and enjoy listening to it for a couple of weeks. Something about it still feels out of sync with their back catalog, but that doesn't mean it's not a fun listen.


4.6.07
A couple of months ago after Apple's Steve Jobs published a visionary essay calling for the abolishment of digital rights management (DRM) for online music sales, there were several pundits who questioned his sincerity——his grandstanding my be useful for winning over consumers and putting the blame for the current copy protection mess on the record companies rather than on Apple, who dominate the markets both for legal music downloads through the iTunes store and portable devices to play those downloads through the ubiquitous iPod. Their basic argument was that, since making online music sales free from copy protection, it would lessen Jobs' control of those two markets, because people could then buy songs from iTunes without having to own an iPod or they could buy songs for their iPod from somewhere besides the iTunes store. In other words: Jobs' essay might be good PR, but it wasn't a good business decision, therefore Jobs comments couldn't be taken seriously.

However, there were two things that these critics didn't realize about Jobs: first, he's a true music fan, and when developing the hardware and software for the phenomenally successful iPod, most of his decisions were made with what other music fans would want from a portable music player and online music store, not necessarily what supposed business experts would have thought were good ideas. And second, Jobs has enough faith that the iPod and the iTunes music store can not only compete on an open market where users are free to choose their online music source and their music player without having to worry about copy protection, etc., but that his company's offerings will continue to dominate. In other words: he believes that it's not the DRM scheme that locks you into an iPod if you use the iTunes music store and vice versa that's giving him control of both markets, it's the fact that the iPod and the iTunes music store are the best of their respective offerings on the marketplace, and that as long as he and his teams at Apple continue to let the consumers drive their development efforts, that will remain the same with or without DRM schemes.

As of last week, when EMI announced that it would make its entire catalog of online offerings available via the iTunes store without DRM, the Mac faithful were proved correct: just as he had originally pushed the record labels to offer legal online downloads for under $1 on the iTunes store, he had now scored his first victory in his quest to make music downloads DRM-free; EMI's decision to follow Jobs' advice will surely be the first in a series of annoucements from large and small labels alike that will eventually culminate in a DRM-free marketplace for online music sales. In other words: Jobs has taken the first step towards revolutionizing the music industry for the second (or maybe third) time in this decade.

When history looks back at Jobs' role in our culture, his contributions to the world of the personal computer will surely not be forgotten. But thanks to his efforts to drag the music industry kicking and screaming into the 21st century (the major labels would likely already be dead if not for his influence), efforts which, if they have similar impact on the movie business and other entertainment industries, could be far wider ranging than just saving the major labels from their own shortsighted decision-making, he will likely be remembered as the man who transformed both the relationships that consumers have with their entertainment content and the way that the producers and owners of that content get that content into the hands of consumers.


4.9.07
The new Bright Eyes, Cassadaga, hits tomorrow. I'm going to buy it eventually, but I'm not going to rush right out and get it like I have their last few efforts. This one's got the feel of earnest folk written all over it, an even more plaintive version to 2005's I'm Wide Awake It's Morning.

At least that record was paired with Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, a more experimental collection of tracks that indulged Conor Oberst's on-again-off-again flirtations with drum machines and other lo-fi electronic sounds, which served as a nice foil to the old school folkie tendencies on Wide Awake. There's no such counterpoint coming with Cassadaga, and based on the introductory Four Winds EP, I have a feeling it could use one.


4.10.07
It's some sort of cosmic bad timing that Rage Against the Machine, the most incendiary, politically-oriented band of the 90s, broke up just as the second Bush era began. If Clinton's relatively benign reign inspired the kind of vitriol we see in the band's best work, like "Bulls on Parade" or "War Within a Breath", god only knows what they would have come up with in response to the tyrannical despotism of Bush the Younger. I guess you could generously see their work as prescient, but man, I sure wish there had someone around in Bush's first term to get young people off their asses and angry about what was happening to our country.


4.11.07
I hate coming up with titles for my saleable photos, so I decided that for any new photos, I was going to just steal titles or lyrics from songs and albums that I love, figuring this would save me the tedious work of coming up with my own titles. I mean, there are so many good ones out there already, why should I waste my time coming up with inferior ones?

But of course, finding just the right title for a particular photo, even in an ocean of great pre-made titles, is still no easy task, so instead of spending twenty minutes coming up with minimalist, one-word titles for my photos, I spent hours combing through my iTunes library looking for just the right phrase. Nothing's ever easy.


4.12.07
Alright, I'll admit it——the Fratellis album I had some hope for turned out to suck pretty bad. But I still love "Flathead", and there are a couple of other tracks that aren't terrible. But overall it's one of those records that whoever it is that catalogs my CD collection after I'm dead will wonder if I got it as a gift or something.


4.13.07
We're a little over a third of the way through the year, and I have to say that, hands down, LCD Soundsystem's Sound of Silver is the best release of the year so far. There are a couple others that are in contention for the top 10 list, but so far it's been a pretty lackluster year for music, and although we've got some releases on the horizon that hold some promise——Wilco, Rufus Wainwright, Voxtrot——there aren't really any that I'm dying to get like I was Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem.

The release schedule through June is steady, with usually one record a week that I'm looking forward to, but no clusters of big releases like we had in March. I'm not sure what the year will hold after the spring, but a lot of indie labels like to use the late summer/early fall pre-Christmas time frame to put out some of their bigger releases, so hopefully we'll see things pick up a little bit as we enter the summer.


4.16.07
One of the other vendors across the way at Spring Fair this weekend was selling CDs, and he was also playing music all day. One of his selections was the new Bright Eyes album, which I am kind of iffy on buying, even moreso after listening to the 30 second samples on iTunes. But hearing the complete work, even though the sound quality wasn't the best, has sold me on it a little more——it was a lot stronger than I had previously believed. I still don't think it's going to be their best work by a longshot, but I'm much more likely to pick it up in the next couple of weeks now.


4.17.07
Another vendor at Spring Fair a couple of booths down from me, different from the music guy who played Bright Eyes, was whistling as he set up Saturday morning. And I know that this is so improbable that it can't possibly be the case, but I swear he was whistling the whistle part from Peter Bjorn and John's "Amsterdam".

Anyway. I know he wasn't, but it was nice to have that song in my head for a few minutes.


4.18.07

Mixtape: 1988

Track 8
"One of These Days"
Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart
Camper Van Beethoven

I have very specific memories associated with this album; when it came out, I was going to a public boarding magnet school for science and math, and aside from general curfews about when we had to be back in the dorms at night and strict policies about class attendance, we were pretty much left to our own devices. Sure, technically they did a bed check around 11 every night, but after that it wasn't too hard to sneak out to someone else's room and hang out there for as long as you wanted.

Second semester of my senior year, I spent a lot of time down in the room of two juniors who happened to have a computer (and this was back when almost no one had their own computer, even students who were attending a science and math oriented high school). It wasn't a very good computer by today's standards——a simple monochrome green and black screen that was really designed as a terminal for text-based commands and programming. Remember Matthew Broderick's computer from Wargames? Yeah, like that.

But just like in Wargames, even though the computers weren't really designed for gaming, people wrote games for this PC anyway, and the one game that my friends had loaded was Pirates, which my recent research tells me was Sid Meier's (of Civilization fame) first great creation and which has been redeveloped for the PC and PSP in the last few years. It was the first of many games that I would get addicted to over the years——Sim City, Diablo II, and now World of Warcraft——and it holds a special place in my heart because of the communal way in which I experienced the game. Since it was in my friend's room, there was almost always someone else in there watching over your shoulder as you played, or if someone got to the computer before you did, you'd hang out with them while they planed.

This is a long way round to get to Camper Van Beethoven's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, but this album was the constant soundtrack for all those hours spent playing Pirates——it was always on in that room, even at 3 in the morning when the actual occupants of the room were asleep and the only light was the toxic green glow of the computer screen. Camper Van's country-infused indie rock, with a violin that snaked its way through almost every track, fit well with the nautical outlaw settings of Pirates.

The "sweetheart" in the album title refers to Patty Hearst, aka Tania, the heir to the Hearst publishing fortune who was kidnapped by a band of radicals in the 60s and brainwashed to the point where she participated in an armed bank robbery with the rest of the cult. Camper Van always had a penchant for the weird——in many of their early interviews, they claimed that they were being monitored and infiltrated by the Illuminati, a favorite target of conspiracy theorists for centuries——and although there were certainly elements of that weirdness in the lyrics on this record, there were also a lot of relatively straightforward songs, including a few instrumentals and a cover of the traditional tune "O Death" (which you might recognize from another version that appeared on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack).

I saw the band play live several times in the late 80s in support of this record and their next, Key Lime Pie, and I felt a real connection with them. Sweetheart remains one of my favorite albums from that time in my life, mostly because the laid-back vibe of many of the songs and the positive tone of the lyrics, which were hopeful without being sappy, gave me some vague sense that everything would work out in the end. "One of These Days" is one of these optimistic tracks, although its optimism about the future is cut with a melancholy about the present that is reinforced by the music——slower than midtempo, with a pensive violin that serves as a complimentary voice to David Lowery's restrained vocals.

I don't know quite how to wrap this up——despite the length of this post, I've only just begun to explain my complex relationship with this album. But think I've gone on quite long enough for now, and all I can say is, it's remarkable how well these songs hold up after nearly two decades. This was a brilliant, underappreciated album in its own time, and it's unfortunate that it remains so today.


4.19.07
I'd just about given up on Nine Inch Nails——their last release was solid but gave us virtually nothing new, and it very much felt like Reznor was running out of gas creatively (or that he was going to stick to a rote formula in the hopes of recapturing his early to mid 90s success)——but Year Zero actually sounds pretty promising, despite the baggage of being a concept album and having to carry an extensive backstory that spans across dozens of web sites and other media.

I'm waiting to hear the whole thing before I decide for sure, but the clips I've heard sound like he's pushing himself more than he has since his landmark The Downward Spiral. I don't think it's going to match that classic, but at least it sounds like he's trying to live up to the energy and innovation of that album rather than rehashing its formula to guarantee sales.


4.20.07
I have a $30 iTunes gift card that I got for my birthday, and I have no clue what to spend it on. Usually when I buy stuff off iTunes, I get tracks that are only available on iTunes, because otherwise I would rather own the CD, even if it takes my local independent record store a month or two to get some of the more obscure stuff in stock. But I looked around iTunes for quite a while yesterday, and didn't find anything that really fit the bill.

I also thought about getting some of the stuff I've been looking for on CD but haven't been able to locate thus far, like Beirut's Gulag Orkestar, I'm From Barcelona's Let Me Introduce My Friends (although I'm still not quite sold on this record——I can't decide if it's Beulah with more singers and instruments, which I would like, or Polyphonic Spree with a rougher, looser production, which I would not), or Guillemots' Through the Windowpane, but I'm still holding out hope that I can find these on CD soon, and I'd really rather have them that way.

I could always use the gift card to pick and choose some older songs that I'd like to own but that I'll never buy the whole album for, or songs that were included on the casette version of a release but not on the later CD release, which means that they could help complete some currently imcomplete albums that are loaded into iTunes. But that takes a lot of time, and I just don't think I have it in me right now.

So I guess I'm just going to hold onto my gift card and wait for something to come along, either and older song that I hear and just have to have, or a live release or EP from a contemporary artist that I'd like to own but don't want to track down in the record store.

I hate having money to spend on music and nothing worthwhile to spend it on.


4.23.07
I ordered some Wilco tickets from Ticketmaster last week, and they came with a extra I haven't seen before: for each ticket you buy online, they send you a code to redeem a free song off of iTunes. It doesn't really make up for the $8.25 "convenience fee" per ticket on a $25 general admission ticket, but it's better than nothing, and it's certainly more appropriate than the never-ending cash back credit card offers they're always throwing at you at the end of a transaction.


4.24.07
I went looking for Beirut's debut album and one of Patrick Wolf's first two releases at an independent record store I haven't visited in a while, but I came up empty, so I picked up two recent releases, Bright Eyes' Cassadaga and Nine Inch Nails' Year Zero.

I haven't heard either all the way through yet, but Year Zero is loads better than Reznor's last outing, where it felt like he was treading water a bit. This one is a lot more challenging——the beats are much more disjointed, and there's a lot of dissonance the keeps the tension level pretty high. Many of the solos are played with indeterminate instruments——whatever they once were, they've been run through processing so many times that it's impossible to pinpoint the original source——and they sound like nothing so much as a very expensive piece of hardware in the early throes of a catastrohpic failure.

Cassadaga is a lot richer and more textured than I expected from the preview EP. I'm still not going to be convinced that this is anywhere close to Oberst's best effort, but I'm also pretty sure that this record is a worthwhile addition to his canon.


4.25.07
I'm usually pretty pleased when a band I like has their music show up as part of the soundtrack of a show I like, but it still really bugs me when I hear it in a commercial. I'm not really sure what the difference is, except I bet they get paid a lot more for the commercial (which is actually a good thing, because unless the band gets so infatuated with advertising money that they become jingle writers, the money they earn from commercials will allow them to continue making music the way they want).

I don't know. Art has always been a commerical enterprise because very few artists are so independently wealthy that the income from their work doesn't matter to them, but there's always been something about music being used in commercials that doesn't feel right to me. That attitude makes less and less sense in a world where any form of media can be co-opted for use in another——songs being used in video games, video game snippets being looped in songs——but there you have it.


4.26.07
LCD Soundsystem's "Someone Great" might be my favorite song of all time. Or at least this month. Definitely this week.


4.27.07
Yesterday was the presale for the Decemberists show at Merriweather-Post with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and although our original plan was to just get cheap lawn seats like we did for the Wilco concert that's coming up, when I got into the presale I realized I would be able to get pretty good pavillion seats, so I opted for that instead.

I love the thought of sitting out under the stars on a warm June night and listening to the Decemberists play with orchestral accompaniment, but seats 20 or so rows back in the center aren't something I'm going to get to experience every day either.


4.30.07
Along with the actual tickets for the Decemberists concert last week, I also earned another three iTunes tracks from Ticketmaster, meaning I had six tracks and a $30 gift card to spend. So instead of waiting to find either a new release that was exclusive to iTunes or an EP that I don't really need to own a hard copy of, I decided to go back and try to fill in the gaps in the older parts of my CD collection.

There are surprisingly few records that I used to have in cassette for that I have not been able to reaquire in CD form. For a long time I didn't have Cactus World News' Urban Beaches, but a reader of this site had a copy and graciously made one for me last year. The Screaming Blue Messiahs' Gun-Shy was also missing for a long time until I finally broke down and bought a copy on eBay for fifty bucks——the only problem is that, although it plays find in a regular CD player, the optical drives in computers can't read it correctly, so I can listen to it in my home, but I can't convert it into digital content.

Just on a whim, I searched for Gun-Shy in iTunes, and of course it wasn't in there, so I just started jumping from band to band from the 80s to see if anything caught my eye. It wasn't too long before I stumbled on the Bolshoi, a mid-80s neo goth band that released a good EP, Giants, and a pretty good first album, Friends, before releasing a mediocre sophomore disc, Lindy's Party, and then disappearing forever.

There was actually a CD re-release of Giants and Friends that jammed both releases onto one disc, but in order to make the two records a single release, they had to cut a song from each one: "Waspy", the closing track from Friends, and "Sliding Seagulls" from Giant. On the digital iTunes versions, of course, there is no such space restriction, so the tracks missing from the combined CD version were first two tracks I added to my cart on iTunes. There was also a newly appended bonus track for Friends, and an expanded release of Giants that inlcuded material from early 12 inches. So I added those, bringing my grand total to seven tracks, which was enough to eat through my six Ticketmaster free tracks and a single song of the $30 card.

I went to my cart to check out and couldn't find an option on that page to redeem my codes, so I pushed Buy Now figuring that I'd have an opportunity to redeem my codes on the next page before the transaction actually went through. But no, it just charged my credit card and started downloading immediately. Even though it's as obvious as anything, it took me a good while to find out where to redeem codes (there's a link on the upper right hand side of the iTunes store), and of course, since I'd already downloaded the songs, it was too late to use them for the Bolshoi songs.

So I still have six free Ticketmaster songs plus $30 to spend in the iTunes store. Let's hope I can fill in the gaps on some other abridged CD releases, or at least find an EP or two that's worth picking up.