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july 2007

I used to think that the Feelies' version of "What Goes On" was better than the Velvet Underground's original. But that's just plain crazy.

I have got to stop buying Ryan Adams records. I keep falling for it everytime he puts out a new one and the critics call it his best solo work since Heartbreaker. I've managed to resist a few here and there (Demolition, Rock N Roll, 29), but I'm still drawn to him by the possibility that he'll produce something as amazing as Pneumonia (his final record with Whiskeytown) or Heartbreaker. And he usually has at least a couple of tracks on each record that I'm blown away by, but I'm hoping for a whole album, and he just keeps letting me down.

Having said that, I have a feeling I'm going to pick up Easy Tiger eventually. The song lengths are nice and short, and through previewing it on iTunes I've got a pretty good idea which tracks I'm going to fall in love with this time. Plus, I've always liked him better when he's working with a stable band, and even though this is billed as a solo record, it's an updated incarnation the Cardinals backing him up just like they did on 2005's Cold Roses and Jacksonville City Nights.

Listening to music outside is fun. I just wish it would quit raining every time I try to do it this summer.

I have Dan Deacon's Spiderman of the Rings in a playlist with all of the other records I purchased at the same time I bought that one, but for some reason the iPod seems reluctant to play any tracks from it when I play the list on shuffle. It has a real affection for Battles' Mirrored, though.

I can tell the difference between Gershiwn, Copland, and Bernstein pretty easily, so here's what I need to do to pass my final listening quiz on Wednesday:
  • Figure out how to tell the difference between the three movements of Gershwin's Piano Concerto. I think this is the second hardest part of the quiz, but it's doable with a few more listens while following along with my notes. Movement 3 is very distinct from the other two, but there are some overlaps between 1 and 2 that could be tough, especially the alone-at-the-bar sections that are kind of randomly inserted into each one.

  • Be able to distinguish any movement of Copland's Billy the Kid from any movement of his Appalachian Spring. This one is generally pretty easy, except for movement 4 of Appalachian Spring, which uses a sqaure dance theme and which can sound at times like the cowboy themes used in Billy the Kid.

  • Know the differences between each movement of Bernstein's Chichester Psalms. Movement 1 is cake, because it's unlike anything else we've listened to, and it's also my favorite piece from the semester. Movements 2 and 3 are a little more difficult, but I think I should be able to master them.

  • Find some way to recognize each of the four movements of Bernstein's Kaddish. This is the toughest of all, for a variety of reasons: first, this is the last piece we studied, so it's the one I've listened to the least; second, I generally dislike the piece; and third, it repeats the kaddish text four times, each time a little different. If we get narration with the segment we're tested on, it will be a lot easier, but I somehow doubt that's going to happen.

So that's it for the class. Except coming up with a solid paper topic, researching it, and writing a halfway coherent essay by Wednesday...

Yesterday was our last day of lectures for my music class, and although none of it is going to be required knowledge for the final listening quiz, we spent quite a bit of time on what's been happening in so-called classical music since the 60s. Mostly we looked at the minimalist movement, pioneered by composers like Terry Riley and Steve Reich, both of whose ideas you can hear in pretty much anything in popular music that uses loops, which is pretty much everything these days.

The one piece I liked the most was Terry Riley's In C, which is a set of 53 fragments of music, some of which are only a single note and none of which is more than a couple of beats. The idea is that each instrument (there can be any number, and of any type) comes in one at a time, with the lead instrument playing through the entire series of fragments in a specific order, but playing each fragment as many or as few times as he wants. Once he has moved on to a new fragment, the next instrument in line is free to move to the fragment the lead instrument just abandoned, although there is no set limit for how long he can continue to hold on his current fragment. And so on down the line.

I should clarify: I like this piece in theory, and I could probably listen to five or ten minutes of it without getting bored. But most performances by professional musicians take at least an hour, and it can sometimes go on for much longer than that. But it's still a pretty cool idea, and both conceptually and musically this modular, looped approach to constructing songs has very clearly made its way into the mainstream.

Brain tired of orchestra music. Brain want rock.

Class done. I can start listening to music with electric guitars in it again.

Someone please keep me from buying the new Smashing Pumpkins album. I know I shouldn't, but I have such a weak spot for Billy Corgan and Ryan Adams. Neither of them have produced an album where every track is worth hearing in nearly a decade, but I keep indulging because there are always moments where you think they still have it in them. But the moments shouldn't be enough anymore, especially because there are plenty of artists out there who are giving me more than just a few moments out of an entire record.

I'm just terrible at cutting off bands who used to be great. But if I can do it for R.E.M. and U2, I ought to be able to do it for Billy Corgan and Ryan Adams. Right?

I've been intrigued by what I've heard of Tokyo Police Club, and I'm willing to bet that the local indie store won't have any of their EPs, so I finally dipped into my iTunes gift certificate money and bought both A Lesson in Crime and Smith. Not sure exactly how to describe them, but they've got a nice, raw sound that mixes in some 80s mope rock elements, new wave keyboard touches, and post-punk guitars that often veer pretty far into actual punk territory. In other words: I like what I hear so far.

I've been trying to pin down White Rabbits, and while they are becoming more distinctive the more I listen to them, the most accurate description I've been able to come up with is that, on their best songs, they sound like a more enthusiastic, less mopey version of the Walkmen. And I'm not really sure if that's enough to recommend them yet.

I picked up Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (god, that's an annoying title to type) and Interpol's Our Love to Admire. I'm still waiting for Spoon to give us another Kill the Moonlight, and while my first impressions of this record are that it's more distinctive than Gimme Fiction, I still don't think it meets the standard of Moonlight. As for the Interpol...well, Interpol is Interpol, but I like them.

I'm coming around on Datarock. I mean, I already love a ton of the individual tracks on their debut, Datarock Datarock, but there were enough songs that felt like duds in the early listens to make me see them more as a potentially great band in the future than a band that already deserved my unqualified affection.

But the only two songs that still give me real pause are "Fa-Fa-Fa" and "Sex Me Up", mostly because of their heavy reliance on disco influences. On balance, though, they're no worse than some of David Byrne's late 70s indulgences in that genre, so I'm willing to forgive them a little for that, because they channel the more brilliant parts of Byrne on several other songs on the album. Besides, how can you not love a record that includes a love song about the almost-forgotten 80s avant pop artist Laurie Anderson, and a sincere one at that?

I like songs about robots. "One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21" (Flaming Lips), "My Robot" (Looper), "Stray Dog and the Chocolate Shake" (Grandaddy), "Citizens of Tomorrow" (Tokyo Police Club), "Gold Star for Robot Boy" (Guided By Voices)——all great songs, all of them.

I'm not especially into record labels as arbiters of taste, but if I had to choose a label that's my favorite based on their selection of artists I've liked in the past, it would be between Saddle Creek and Kill Rock Stars. So I found myself pleasantly surprised when I saw that Saddle Creek had signed Tokyo Police Club, one of my favorite new bands. I mean, I don't really understand how the business aspects of the record industry work, but I just get the feeling that Tokyo Police Club are going to get the right kind and amount of attention from Saddle Creek, that this is a label that's going to take care of them and give them a chance to build a bigger audience.

At least that's what I naively choose to believe. At any rate, the Saddle Creek folks are going to finance the band's full-length debut, which will hopefully be out early next year. I am sick in love with Smith and A Lesson in Crime; they, along with Art Brut's It's a Bit Complicated, are pretty much all I've listened to in the past week. I just hope their first album keeps up the momentum from their EPs and doesn't disappoint like the meandering, unsteady debut from Voxtrot earlier this year.

I might be coming around on Voxtrot's debut, too. But that's taking a lot more convincing than my recent Datarock conversion.

First impressions of Spoon's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga: there are too many songs that remind me of "Sister Jack", and not enough that remind me of the near-flawless brilliance and vitality of Kill the Moonlight. I'm afraid this is just another Gimme Fiction: a decent record with some great songs from a band that still hasn't quite figured out how to build another masterpiece after their first one (kind of like fellow Texans ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, who have also failed to live up to the promise of their astounding Source Tags and Codes).

I sometimes lament that Baltiore doesn't have a local music scene that I can get into; there are very few local artists that I like (Double Dagger and Dan Deacon are probably the two best known, and it's just now striking me as very odd that D is the starting letter for each word in both of their names) and there's not really any kind of coherent movement that I'm aware of (I mean, I'm sure there is, but if I haven't heard about it living so close, it's got to be a very, very local thing).

On the other hand, I know myself well enough to know that, even if there were some bands that I was really into, I still probably wouldn't take advantage of the frequency of their performances in the city; I still haven't made it to Ottobar once, even when bands like the Hold Steady and Ted Leo were playing, and that's right down the street from where I work.

I don't know. I guess it's that yearning for Baltimore to achieve something distinguished among the ranks of American cities, a desire that anyone who's lived here for a while and learned to love the city even a little bit will be familiar with. It's a city on the verge in so many ways, but it's like the people who live here, I mean the ones who were born here, who have never left here, and who will die here, have given up on the city already, and no matter how hard a particular artist or movement might try, their efforts will never really reach past the county line. We're doomed to be known nationally for crack and murder and bad streets and horrible public transportation and ladies with big hairdos who like to say "hon". Oh, and crabs, too, I guess. Yay.

So it turns out that we won't be seeing the Police play Madison Square Garden next Friday after all, but we will be seeing them play on Saturday. I'm still finalizing the details and I don't want to jinx anything, but the rest of the story will be forthcoming next week.

A couple of weeks ago, we went to see the Decemberists play at Merriweather-Post with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. The idea, as stated by frontman Colin Meloy at the start of the show, was to add orchestral accompaniment to songs that they'd tried to record strings and horns for in the studio but which didn't quite work out well enough to make it to the final album version.

The songs were pretty appropriate for that purpose in that they all either featured some element of strings or they were more grandiose numbers that could easily handle the additional weight from a backing orchestra. The playlist included "The Crane Wife 1 & 2", "Los Angeles, I'm Yours", "The Infanta", "I Was Meant for the Stage", "The Bagman's Gambit", "Odalisque", "We Both Go Down Together", and, finally, "The Tain", their extended song cycle that I've always wanted to see live.

The use of the orchestra was pretty much dead on for all the songs——it added to the song without overwhelming it, and it never seemed like it was just tacked on. Sometimes it was turning a light string part into something meant for an entire string section, and sometimes it really changed the impact of the song, but all in all it was a pretty successful integration of a contemporary rock band with more classical elements.

The band also played a couple of numbers where they gave the orchestra a break, including "The Perfect Crime #2", "O Valencia!", and the ever-popular crowd-participation number "The Mariner's Revenge Song". The band was in fine form for the entire show——Colin's showmanship has grown along with the size of the band's audience (at one point he jumped off the stage into the audience and then, realizing that he had no easy way to get back up, he ran all the way around the reserved seating and up the stairs on the other side from where he'd started, which necessitated a short intermission so he could catch his breath), and this particular version of the band has been playing together long enough now that their interactions seem like second nature.

It was interesting to watch the BSO members during the show, too——you could tell that some of them (a lot of them, I'd guess) saw this as just another gig: show up, play the music that's in front of you, and go home so you can get some sleep before you get up for tomorrow's rehearsal and performance. But there were a few who really got into it, enjoying their chance to play something that I'd bet is a bit easier than most of what they're asked to play and something as purely joyful as rock music.

The tickets for that show were more expensive than most Merriweather-Post shows at $75 a pop, but it was well worth it, even though we'd just seen the Decemberists play in March. They remain one of the most consistent and engaging bands in the modern music scene——we've seen them play five or six times now, and there's only one show that I would consider less than great (and that came at the end of a very, very long tour).

I don't think there are very many bands, no matter how revered, that don't have some critics, especially if they hang around making increasingly crappy records for twenty or thirty years after the records that made us revere them in the first place. But honestly, have you ever met someone who doesn't like the Police? I mean, someone who is otherwise a fan of rock music? Me neither.