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august 2007

So here's the story with the Police tickets: sometime earlier this year, back in January or February, I got an email from Best Buy saying that, as a Reward Zone member, I was going to be given a chance to sign up for a chance to buy pre-release tickets to a Police concert (I don't get that much stuff from Best Buy, but I guess I must have signed up for their points system, probably when we made a big purchase last year).

So I signed up, and I was lucky enough to get a code for the presale. This didn't guarantee that I would be able to get presale tickets, just that I would have a chance. So the day of the presale comes, I log on the second the ticket site opens up, and ten minutes later I've completed my purchase of two floor tickets for the August 3 show at Madison Square Garden, a Friday night show that was, at that point, the final stop on their reunion tour. I'm a huge fan of the Police and so is my wife, but while she got to see them a couple of times before they broke up, I never did, so I was very excited that I had the chance to see them, especially at such a storied venue on the final night of their tour.

We were tempted to sell them, because the prices for the month or two after the tickets were released were going for crazy amounts on eBay, but I also really wanted to see them, and even though it's a huge splurge for us to pay this much for a concert (the face value on the tickets was $500 for the pair), we haven't really taken any vacations this year so we figured this would count. So we held onto them, and figured we'd spend the whole weekend in New York after the concert.

As we were starting to look at hotels, etc., a few months later, the Virgin Music Festival, which takes place in Baltimore, announced that the Police were going to be headlining——in fact, they were playing on August 4, the day after the MSG show that we already had tickets for. Now, I'm not a big fan of festivals, but I took a look at the rest of the lineup, and in addition to the Police, there were a ton of other bands that I wanted to see, including Modest Mouse, TV on the Radio, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Peter Bjorn and John, LCD Soundsystem, Spoon, Ben Harper, Interpol, and a few others. So then we started to do the math...

We had already laid out $500 for the tickets to see the Police. Add in another $400 for two round trip train tickets, and another $200 for a hotel, and we were already up to $1100 for a single 2-3 hour show, and that price tag didn't include meals or additional hotel charges if we decided to stay the entire weekend.

The Virgin Festival tickets, on the other hand, were only $175 per person, and we wouldn't have to pay anything for travel or hotel expenses because it was being held right in Baltimore. They also had a a premium VIP package for $450 a person that included special seating, premium parking, air-conditioned indoor facilities with bathrooms for VIP ticket holders only, and several other perks. Since I'm not a big fan of the typical festival experience (I'm just too old for it now), I thought that might be a good solution for us, especially because, at that time, tickets like ours were going for well over $1500, which would have covered the cost of the original Police tickets plus two VIP passes to the Virgin Festival. So we'd still get to see the Police, we'd get to see a ton of other bands, we wouldn't have to travel, and if we could sell the tickets for at least $1500, we'd get to do it all for free.

We went ahead and bought the Virgin Festival VIP passes, but I decided to hold off on selling the MSG tickets for a bit. You see, at that time, New York had ticket scalping laws that prevented anyone in New York from paying more than a certain amount over face value for events taking place in New York, even if the person selling the tickets from from out of state (the way most ticket laws work is that they only govern sales of tickets from in-state sellers for events in that state; even under New York law, however, if both the ticket seller and the ticket buyer were not in New York, there was no limit on how much the tickets could be sold for). But there was talk that New York was going to allow that law to expire, so that out of state ticket sellers like me would now be allowed to sell tickets to New York residents for as much as they were willing to pay. I figured since a lot of the potential buyers for the tickets were New Yorkers, it might be worth it to wait a few weeks for those restrictions to be lifted.

It was a calculated timing risk, and in this case, unfortunately, it didn't work out for me. New York did in fact allow the scalping laws to expire, but at almost the exact same time, the Police announced several more shows in the NYC area, including a Giants Stadium show the day after the Virgin Festival, an Atlantic City date in November, and another MSG show on Halloween. So at the exact moment that the restrictions on resale price for my tickets disappeared, the market was suddenly flooded with similar tickets.

It took a few listings on eBay, but we still managed to sell the tickets for a nice profit, and even though it didn't completely cover our Virgin Festival tickets, it was enough to defray the added VIP tickets cost so that we still felt like this was the right decision for us: now we'll be paying far less than we would have for a single show in NYC and seeing a ton of other good bands besides the Police in the bargain.

The one thing that I'm happy about with the Virgin Music Festival is the band overlaps. I mean, I know that with bands playing at both the north and south stages all day that you might occasionally have to make a choice between the very end of one band's set or the very beginning of another's, but I thought the organizers would arrange it so that there would at least be a five or ten minute gap between sets.

But when they finally released the schedule a couple of weeks ago, not only were there significant overlaps between the sets (at least 15 minutes in most cases and up to 30 in the worst ones), but the sets of the two bands that I most want to see, the Police and Modest Mouse, have near-complete overlap on the two separate stages. And that just sucks. There are other, lesser overlaps (for instance, in order to get a good seat for the Police, we're going to have to abandon TV on the Radio about 15 minutes into their set), but the Police/Modest Mouse overlap is by far the worst, since both of those bands rank in my current all-time top five.

The choice on who to see is easy though: it's going to be the Police. The main reason is that seeing them was the driving force behind our decision to attend the festival. Also, I've seen Modest Mouse live before, whereas I never got to see the Police live when they were making records and touring, and this will also likely be our only chance to see the Police ever again, whereas it's probable that Modest Mouse will swing through here again at some point.

But even though the choice is obvious, it still sucks that we have to make it in the first place.

Yeah, I said, festivals aren't really my thing.

The first artist we saw at the Virgin Music Festival was Amy Winehouse, who started her set at around 2:00 on the main (north) stage. I'm not really a fan, but I was curious to hear more than just the clips I've listened to on iTunes, and while she was definitely entertaining, I'm still not going to rush out and buy her CD. Her voice is compelling, but the music is too throwback for me, and I wonder how long she'll be able to stick with that style before the gimmick wears off.

She could still turn out to be something great, depending on how her songwriting matures and/or which producers she works with, but she could also be completely off the radar by her next album if all she comes back with is a rehash of her current CD.

The second band we saw was one of the ones I was most looking forward to: Peter Bjorn and John, who are behind one of my favorite albums so far this year, Writer's Block. They had that weird, goofy Mentos vibe that only Europeans can pull off without looking lame——guitarist Peter Moren was wearing a white and navy blue striped shirt that could have come from a Monkees garage sale, and bassist Bjorn Yttling paired his brown corduroy pants with a tan Members Only jacket——but it just added to their sweet sincerity.

Given how studio-based their recorded sound is, they sounded surprisingly raucous live, with Peter using a rock sound with his guitar to anchor most of the songs. The set highlights were a faster, more intense version of "The Chills" and a hauntingly beautiful version of "Amsterdam", which is far and away my favorite song on the record. The live version had Peter and Bjorn singing a capella, accompanied only by quiet arpeggio chords on Peter's guitar; it was one of the best performances we saw at the entire festival.

I'm a really big fan of Les Savy Fav based mostly on their singles/b-sides collection Inches. I've gotten one of their full-lengths, but I wasn't nearly as taken with that, although I do like their Plagues & Snakes EP and their contribution to the Adult Swim compilation Warm & Scratchy, "The Equestrian". I'm guessing that they're one of those bands that produces much better work when they just hit the studio to get a few songs down in a short session instead of spending months in the studio crafting a coherent album.

Radiohead suggested at one point that they might abandon the album and just roll out EPs on a regular basis, and although they've shown no inclination to actually follow through with that idea, it's only a matter of time before someone like Voxtrot or Tokyo Police Club decides to forgo creating a traditional album and instead build their careers on the EPs that first gained them notice. Or it could be an established band like Les Savy Fav, who come to realize that their lifestyles outside of their rock jobs are more conducive to quick stints in the studio in between tours and real-life. As much as I'm excited about a new record from Les Savy Fav, I wouldn't mind at all if they instead released two or three EPs six or eight months apart, just to see if that produces a more consistent batch of songs than they would have gotten out of a more conventional album recording session.

I'm still not ready to buy full albums off of iTunes if there's a chance that I can buy them at my local record store in CD version, but I've gotten pretty comfortable buying EPs there. So yesterday I picked up the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Is Is, which features five tracks from early in their career, and Los Campesinos' Sticking Fingers Into Sockets.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' disc sounds exactly like what you would expect if you know the band's history——a bit rawer than Fever to Tell, but not a dramatic departure from that record's sound. I can't tell if Los Campesinos are just goofy enough for me to love them or so goofy that I'm going to get tired of them quickly, but I don't expect it will take me too long to find out.

The next artist on our list to see at the Virgin Festival was Ben Harper and his sometime backing band the Innocent Criminals, but since they were playing the north stage, the beginning of their set overlapped with the end of Peter Bjorn and John's and would also interfere with the beginning of LCD Soundsystem's, and I didn't want to miss a second of that. Plus, it was bloody hot, and we just wanted to rest for a few minutes, so we decided to stay at our spot near the south stage and try to catch as much of Ben Harper wafting down from the north stage as we could.

Unfortunately, the dance tent, which was pretty close to the south stage, was going full blast, so all we heard for half an hour was the nonstop thumpa thumpa thumpa coming from whatever DJ was playing at the time. It did quiet down a few minutes before LCD Soundsystem came on stage, so that we were able to hear Ben Harper's "Forgiven", but that's pretty much all we got before LCD Soundsystem took over.

I'm not really that into dance music, even the dancepunk and IDM movements that started in indie music circles a couple of years ago (they've pretty much faded as movements, but most of the bands involved are still actively making music, some moving closer and closer to classic disco territory, some moving more towards rock), but I'm way into LCD Soundsystem. This year's Sound of Silver is a near lock for my best-of list for 2007, and it might even be the best record to come out this year.

Even though James Murphy, the prime mover behind the band, uses a lot of synthetic sounds in the studio (keyboards, drum machines, etc.), live he was backed by a full band (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums) and his sound transformed from dance-oriented geek with a penchant for rock sounds to a full-on postpunk rock band. Aside from that, the songs were pretty faithful reproductions of the studio versions, except "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House", which got a tougher, meaner sound. It was a great set, though, and I'm desperately hoping that they swing back through here before too long for a smaller club show (although, alas, it appears that their occasional pairing with Arcade Fire won't come any closer to us than NYC).

Right before their set started, this older couple (I would guess early to mid-50s) sat down on the grass in front of us with Red Bull and vodka mixed drinks. They had a very hippie-ish vibe, and pretty much as soon as LCD Soundsystem took the stage, the man stood up and started playing some wicked air guitar (actually I think it was air bass) with absolutely no care for what all the too-cool teens around him thought of his performance. This continued off and on until "North American Scum", which really got him going. After that, he stayed seated most of the rest of the set, trading a joint back and forth with this wife for a few minutes before tucking the roach back into a matchbox. I was mostly paying attention to the performance on stage, but it was hard not to be distracted by these two every now and then.

LCD Soundsystem didn't play my favorite song, "Someone Great", but they did a great version of "All My Friends", which is almost as good. It was well worth missing Ben Harper and the Beastie Boys (the end of LCD Soundsystem overlapped with the beginning of the Beasties' set on the north stage) to see this set in its entirety——it confirmed that the brilliance of James Murphy is not limited to the confines of the studio.

When I first heard Morrissey sing "Everyday Is Like Sunday", I knew exactly what he meant. Sundays were the epitome of long, boring, wasted hours, days when nothing ever happened, where time stood still for an eternity of nothingness and waning grey silence. But that was before I had a job, a real job, after which Sundays became the harbor of the last few hours of serenity and personal time before handing myself back over to the forced rhythms of the workweek. The song was written for idle youth, and I must be getting old. I kinda like Sundays now.

Alright, as much as I love the two Tokyo Police Club EPs, A Lesson in Crime and Smith, I'm going to have to warn you all away from their recently released single "Your English Is Good" (with "Swedes in Stockholm" as the b-side). It's really subpar and was hopefully recorded before the two releases mentioned above, because it really sounds like a demo compared to the stuff on those records. I'm not quite sure why they released it, other than that they won't have any actual new product to sell us until sometime next year and they figured they'd sucker a few people like me who are so eager for more material from them that we'll click on the buy button before listening to the tracks.

I didn't actually buy them, but I came pretty close. I also almost bought the iTunes exclusive Live from Soho collection, which is culled from their performance at the Apple store in Soho, but listening to the samples from this disc was also a disappointment——the mix is weird, and the singer's voice doesn't seem very strong. Yes, I'm dying for new songs from Tokyo Police Club, but I'm perfectly happy to wait until 2008 if that's what it takes to get quality tracks from them.

Sometimes my iPod really is paying attention. I was half-dreaming of, half-wishing to hear Bright Eyes' "False Advertising" while getting ready for work yesterday morning, and it graciously obliged me by selecting it from a shuffled list of 1800 songs later that day at work.

Way back when, it seemed like Lifted was going to be the first in a long string of brilliant albums from the then-22 year old Conor Oberst, and while his subsequent output hasn't been terrible (and some of it has been quite good), that record remains his high water mark, and "False Advertising" is one of the best tracks from that effort.

I'd give anything to feel more of the chills that run down my spine when, two minutes into the song, the music comes to a halt after Conor utters the words "Now all anyone's listening for are the mistakes", but those moments are a lot harder to find in his last couple of albums, where the microscope he uses to scrutinize himself is turned to a telescope that he points at the world at large.

For whatever reason, Oberst is better at dissecting his own faults than preaching about our global ills, and while I appreciate that there are at least a few artists who are spending their creative energy to call attention to the disaster of a president we've had for the past six years, he's still a little too young to be going the hardcore Neil Young route.

My longtime goal of giving a rating to every single track in my iTunes is becoming just about as unattainable as my year mixtapes series, which has been stuck on 1987 for a long, long time now. But I'm giving it a good serious go these days anyway, focusing on records from my youth which I know backwards and forwards and on newer records that I've been listening to a lot——my goal going forward is that by the time I compile my annual best-of list, I've rated everything from that year.

I don't know if I'll actually be able to live up to that (and given my poor follow through with the year mixtapes, I have serious doubts), but at least it's a plan, which is better than what I had last week.

If the Virgin Festival planners had left any time at all between the sets at the two main stages, we would have tried to head back up to the north stage after LCD Soundsystem's set to catch the Beastie Boys' set, before then heading back down to the south stage to see TV on the Radio before finally heading back to the north stage for the Police. As it was, however, it just wasn't feasible, so instead of shuttling back and forth, we decided to get something to eat (we hadn't had anything all day) and wait around the south stage to catch the first few songs of TV on the Radio before getting in place at the north stage for the Police.

While we were getting our food, we were able to catch a couple of songs from the Beasties' set ("Brass Monkey" is the only song I remember for sure), but soon enough it was time for TV on the Radio. We only got to see three songs, but one of them was "Blind" which is one of my favorite tracks from the band. I had a secret hope for "Me-I", the band's contribution to the Warm & Scratchy compilation, but I'm betting that I didn't miss it even though I only saw the earliest part of their set. They seemed to push the feedback wash closer to the front of the mix than they do on their records, but we really didn't get to stay at the show long enough to rate it one way or the other.

The Hold Steady and Art Brut are touring together, and they're coming to the 9:30 Club in November. If I can't find a way to get to this show, I don't really deserve to ever see a live show ever again.

It's been a long time since anything has been released that I've felt compelled to go to the record store for, but yesterday I grabbed the New Pornographers' Challengers and Okkervil River's The Stage Names. I like the New Pornos pretty well, but that was really more of a gift for my wife, who is a huge fan. Okkervil River has been on my list for a few weeks now, and since the record store still doesn't seem interested in stocking any Jens Lekman or Bishop Allen, I figured I might as well pick up Okkervil River just to have something new to listen to.

I recently started to put together a list of CDs that I'm pretty sure my local record stores will never stock so I can order them from Amazon, including discs by Patrick Wolf, 120 Days, Bishop Allen, and Jens Lekman. However, when I looked up Bishop Allen's first disc, Charm School, so I could add it to my shopping cart, I discovered that it's basically out of print, so the only way I'm ever going to get it is if I download it from iTunes.

Usually I hate to do this with full-length albums if there's even a remote chance that I'll be able to pick it up on CD, but I've done it a few times in the past, most notably for Beulah's Handsome Western States and When Your Heartstrings Break and the Go! Team's Thunder, Lightning, Strike, which was available on iTunes months before they had a US distributor (and even when it came out in the US, it was a different version than the original release because of the copyright issues with their heavy use of samples).

So I picked it up, spending the last bit of the gift card that I got for my birthday earlier this year, and I noticed that in addition to Charm School, there are also two compilations of the EPs from the EP-a-month-for-a-year project that Bishop Allen did in 2006. So if I like their debut as much as I'm expecting to based on the clips I've heard, those might end up in my iTunes shopping cart before too long as well.

So far the reviewers of the New Pornographers' new record Challengers seem to fall into two groups: those who see the slower pace as a positive thing, a sign of maturity and growth, and those who see it as a negative, showing a lack of ideas and creative energy.

I've only listened it to a couple of times so far, but I'm definitely in the former camp right now. I've always liked the New Pornographers, but I could never bring myself to unapologetically love them because there was something a bit too manic about the uniformly uptempo nature of their music. On one song every three tracks or so, that kind of intensity can be amazing, but a whole album's worth can be a little hard to take in a single dose. So while I liked lots of their songs individually when mixed in with other music on a shuffled playlist, I found it difficult to make it through a whole album in one sitting.

On Challengers, however, even though the overall tone is more mellow and a bit slower paced, that ends up working pretty well in terms of being able to digest the album as a complete entity. There's more time to soak up the music, and the moments of frenetic pop come as a nice change that keeps the album chugging along; they don't feel like an assault because there's room to breath in between the faster songs.

I'm not sure if it's enough to turn me into an unqualified fan, but I wouldn't be surprised if that happened. There are any songs that immediately grab you and don't let go, but I've found myself wanting to keep Challengers on repeat, which hasn't happened with any of their previous records.

I really like Liars debut album, They Threw Us All in a Trench and Stuck a Monument on Top, but I wasn't able to follow them as they dove into considerably more bizarre waters on their subsequent two releases. I've been waiting for years for them to swing back around to the more mainstream side of things, and I had great hope that their new album might be that record after hearing their contribution to the Warm & Scratchy compilation, "Sunset Rodeo". This is easily the most listenable track for someone like me since their debut, and it actually might be their most accessible track ever.

Their recently released EP, Plaster Casts of Everything, which is a prelude to their new full-length, is also encouraging. I picked it up on iTunes, and although its three tracks are definitely more abrasive and experimental than "Sunset Rodeo" and anything on their debut, they're not as out in left field as the stuff on their previous two albums.

The new Liars record comes out tomorrow, and I'm pretty likely to get it based on these four new tracks unless the reviews or the clips I listen to expose those songs as red herrings and the album turns out to be more in the same vein as their last two records.

When I bought Liars' Plaster Casts of Everything, the iTunes store informed me that it was available in iTunes Plus format, which means that it is encrypted at 256 mps (twice what normal iTunes tracks are encoded at, so the sound quality is better) and it also has no DRM, so you're not restricted to only playing the track through iTunes or an iPod (not really an issue for me, but still).

The tracks are also more expensive than normal iTunes tracks, $1.29 per song rather than the typical $.99. But I decided to add the whole EP to my cart and see how that affected the price, and to my surprise, the Plus version of the EP cost the same as the regular version. So I decided to give the Plus tracks a try.

I don't really notice much difference in the quality, but I'm mostly playing the songs in my car through an iPod, on iTunes through my computer speakers, or in the standard earbuds that come with all iPods, and none of these formats is exactly an audiophile's dream for listening to music. And as I mentioned previously, since I only listen to music on my computer through iTunes and I only listen to it out in the world on an iPod, the lack or presence of Apple's DRM scheme doesn't make much of a difference to me currently.

So I guess if it costs more, I'm not very likely to buy Plus tracks in the future, but if by buying an entire EP or album I can get the Plus versions for the same price as the regular versions, I might as well pick up the higher quality tracks.

I know that the goofily cheery Los Campesinos will break my heart someday, just like Architecture in Helsinki did, but for now I am content to love them.