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september 2007

Over the weekend, I picked up Liars' Liars, Lyle Lovett's It's Not Big It's Large (a return to recording with his Large Band, with whom he has recorded his best work), and a used copy of Les Savy Fav's debut, 3/5. All the artists were found in the L section, although that wasn't really intentional (I found the Les Savy Fav while engaging in another fruitless search for Jens Lekman), and each is turning out to be pretty good in its own way.

A week from today is looking to be a pretty big day for new releases, with the Go! Team, Animal Collective, Kanye West, the Shout Out Louds, the Good Life, and the Figurines all putting out new discs. I expect that the weekly releases will pick up between now and the end of October as the holiday season approaches, but hopefully there won't be too many weeks when we'll have as many as we're going to have next week——one or two new releases a week is great, but six pushes my ability to properly assimilate them before something else comes along to push them out of the way.

On a whim, I picked up Kronos Quartet's cover of Sigur Ros' "Flugufrelsarinn". Not sure what I think——"Flugufrelsarinn" is only a moderate favorite of mine, and Kronos seems to be doing a lot of fucking around in the studio (in an attempt to mimic the glacial keyboards and atmospheric guitars of Sigur Ros, it sounds like they're applying some decently heavy effects and filters to their string instruments). The quartet also doesn't do a great job of capturing the rhapsodic apogee that comes in the middle of the original track.

I guess it was worth 99 cents, especially because it's gotten me back in the mood to listen to Sigur Ros again, but I'm not sure how many plays the Kronos track is going to get after it drops off my playlist in another few weeks.

The final set on the first night of the Virgin Festival was the one we'd really come to see: the Police. It would have been hard for them NOT to open with a crowd-pleaser, but "Message in a Bottle" certainly got the crowd going. They were tight from the first note, and Sting seemed to be in a good mood, grinning broadly for much of the show and taking advantage of the full width of the massive stage to interact with different sections of the crowd. Stewart's drumming was as amazing as you would expect, but watching him play was a little odd——while he was playing, he would look straight ahead with his mouth slightly open and a dead look on his face, but the rest of his body was crazy with movement. It was as if someone had attached Stewart's barely living head to the top of a drumming robot, and his head was just along for the ride. Andy was mostly still on his side of the stage, letting Sting carry the performance load.

They played a surprising number of non-hits from their early records, which was nice to see, but they quite often took the three-minute song length and stretched it out to five or more to allow for Andy to mix in some extended jams and flat-out rock solos (there was one song where Andy finished a two minute solo, and not a minute later started another one that lasted an additional two minutes). I would have preferred if they had stayed truer to the original versions, of if they at least didn't add more than a minute to the original version, so we could have heard more songs, but all in all, it was a pretty good performance. "Wrapped Around Your Finger" and "Walking in Your Footsteps" were special highlights for Stewart, as he got up and played with his big percussion setups for most of those numbers.

I'm really glad we got to see them on this tour, and even though I was a little disappointed with some aspects of the VIP experience at the Virgin Festival, I think this was still a better choice for us than going up to see them at Madison Square Garden in New York. The set was great, but it could hardly live up to the expectations I had for it, being a Police fan for 25 years who never got to see them live the first time around. Better to be a little disappointed in the midst of a larger festival where I got to see a ton of good bands and some truly outstanding performances than pay a few hundred dollars more for one show in New York. Still, if they extend this tour and pass through the Baltimore-DC area again, I'd happily pay see them another time.

As I was reading through the live coverage of Apple's special event yesterday, during which they announced updates to every facet of their iPod line, from small changes like increased capacity and new colors for the traditional iPod (now dubbed the iPod classic) and the iPod shuffle, to major overhauls like a completely new form factor for the popular iPod nano line and a new type of iPod called the iPod touch (which is basically an iPhone without the phone functionality), I was pondering which of the many new models might replace my aging 40 gig second generation iPod, which I've had for nearly four years.

And then came the announcement that I had to read on three separate news sites before I would believe it: the 8 gig iPhone was dropping in price from $599 to $399. Suffice it to say, my iPod dilemma is settled: my new iPod is an iPhone. Not "going to be an iPhone"; IS an iPhone, as in I bought one last night on the way home from work, before the folks in the Apple store even had time to change the signage in the store to reflect the new lower price.

Art Brut's "Sound of Summer" is the perfect song for lovesick 16 year olds who are too shy to ask out their summer crush and instead choose to communicate through roundabout means like mixtapes and novels with highlighted passages. But all the 16 year olds who remember making mixtapes and breaking off the tabs so they can't be taped over are at least in their mid-30s now; I think today's teenagers are even farther removed from casette tapes than my generation was from 8-tracks. Which makes me wonder if the song is really meant for 16 year olds, or whether it's really meant for old folks like me reminiscing about their teen years.

Whatever. It's a kick ass song.

tall buildings shake...

Picked up a bunch of new stuff yesterday: The Go! Team's Proof of Youth, Kanye West's Graduation, the Shout Out Louds' Our Ill Wills, The Good Life's Help Wanted Nights, the Figurines' When the Deer Wore Blue, and Animal Collective's Strawberry Jam.

I haven't listened to anything but Kanye and the Good Life yet, but Kanye is really pushing himself, with more mixed results than his first two stellar albums, while the Good Life effort is a more palatable version of their last record, Album of the Year, but it's not nearly as good as I'd hoped after Cursive (Good Life frontman Tim Kasher's other band) released one of their best records, Happy Hollow, last year.

The Figurines' Skeleton was one of those pleasantly quirky little pop records that bubbles up out of Europe every now and then, reminding us that indie guitar pop isn't practiced solely by North American bands. But like many of the successors to similar records, their follow up to Skeleton, When the Deer Wore Blue, seems to be missing the spark that made its predecessor such a pleasure to spend time with; Deer tries way too hard to make a statement, so much that it feels plodding and muddy compared to Skeleton. It's like the Church after Starfish, when they started thinking they could be the Australian U2 and all their songs had to mean something.

There are still some good tracks that recall their best work on Skeleton——"Hey Girl" is probably the best——but overall the record is a pretty big letdown.

Speaking of follow ups to quirky little European indie pop records, the Shout Out Louds also released a new record this week, Our Ill Wills. Their Howl Howl Gaff Gaff took a while to get noticed in the US, but they slowly built a small following on the strength of the unbridaled joy found in tracks like "Oh, Sweetheart" and "100 Degrees". And while the Figurines seem to have stumbled with When the Deer Wore Blue, Our Ill Wills is a more mature but still very listenable step forward for the Shout Out Louds.

Like Deer, Wills is darker and more serious than the record that came before it, but unlike the Figurines, the Shout Out Louds don't seem to have forgotten what people liked so much about them in the first place, and there's a sweet pop heart beating in each track, even the ones that are musically a little more dour. On every song, there's a little bit of fun, a little bit of mirth, a little moment that makes you fall in love with the band all over again.

I'm still getting to know this record, and while it's definitely got a different vibe than Howl, I think this could end up being one of the year's better releases.

Okkervil River's The Stage Names got some pretty consistently glowing reviews when it was released back in August, so much so that I knew I'd pick it up eventually, but I was in no hurry. And then when I finally did buy it, I listened to it once through, wondered what it was all those critics saw in it, and let it quietly drift off my playlist after less than a week.

But this week, I added it back in when I was adding the six new records that were released last week, and despite some pretty good albums among those six (Kanye's Graduation and the Shout Out Louds' Our Ill Wills being the two best so far), The Stage Names has been dominating my playlist. I like it when I'm immediately taken with an album, but I'm also happy to stumble upon a slow-grower, as those kinds of records have frequently turned into some of my favorite records of all time (Game Theory's Lolita Nation, Radiohead's OK Computer, Modest Mouse's The Moon and Antarctica, and the Unicorns' Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?, just to name a few).

I'm not sure if The Stage Names will end up among that very select few, but this is definitely an album that's going to end up being one of my favorites from this year. And if I don't get anything else from it, that's certainly enough.

Apple, I know you're fucking around with this whole iPhone ringtone ridiculousness at the behest of the RIAA and the record congolomerates, who are desperately trying to wring every last penny from their paying customers even though every extra thing they overcharge us for means one more customer who's going back to BitTorrent and never paying another dime for content. But it's time to put your goddamned foot down, Steve Jobs, and tell those fuckers that it's insane to expect people to pay for a song and then pay THE SAME PRICE over again for a 30 second segment of it.

This is uncomfortably close to having to pay for a song once to play it on a CD player and once to play it on a computer (another harebrained scheme that the recording industry tried and failed to force on consumers). If it's wrong to use a song as a ringtone on a device that's a phone primarily known for its ability to play music as well, then is there anything that has been traditionally considered fair use that the music conglomerates would allow us to do if they had their way?

Get it through your fucking heads, you morons (many of whom would already be out of business if Steve Jobs hadn't kicked a modicum of sense into your fat heads when he launched the iTunes music store): if you can get modern consumers to pay for music at all (and I feel very strongly that we should to support the artists who make it), you should sell it as cheaply as you can in as many places as you can and let people do with it what they will, short of uploading it to let other people have it for free. Because if you don't do those things, people are just going to download it for free and do whatever the hell they want with it anyway.

Dumbfucks. Get with the program and step into this century, please. Cassette tapes didn't kill the record industry, recordable CDs didn't kill the record industry, and the only way that downloads will kill the record industry is if you try to handcuff consumers and keep legally downloaded music from being as flexible to use and easy to procure as the illegal stuff that anyone with an internet connection and 15 seconds on Google can figure out how to download.

Picked up a few new things yesterday: Les Savy Fav's Let's Stay Friends, Rogue Wave's Asleep at Heaven's Gate, and the solo debut of Kevin Drew (of Broken Social Scene fame——he even uses the band's name on the album cover to trigger greater awareness), Spirit If...

I'm psyched about the Les Savy Fav record——they have become one of my favorite bands largely on the strength of their singles collection, Inches. I've only listened to it halfway through, and although I don't think they'll ever measure up to Inches again, it's a good record, and it's great to see them recording new material again (their last record of completely new material before this one was in 2001).

I've always had a soft spot for Rogue Wave——frontman Zach Rogue sent me a copy of their first CD, Out of the Shadow, to review months before they were signed to Subpop and started to get serious critical attention——and even though their sophomore effort, Descended Like Vultures, didn't wow me, their single "Eyes" is one of the best songs written this decade, and I had hope that it might set the tone for their latest work, Asleep at Heaven's Gate.

I'm not quite sure if Asleep reaches those heights consistently, but I like it much better than Descended, and it's easily their most mature and consistent record yet. They've always suffered from comparisons to the Shins, but this is the record the Shins might have made if they had followed their more quirky instincts instead of going straight for the classic pop jugular. That's not to say that Rogue Wave isn't mining that same vein (pardon the mixed metaphor), they're just taking a more unconventional approach.

Since 1996's The Road to Ensenada, Lyle Lovett has released only one album's worth of new material, 2003's My Baby Don't Tolerate, after releasing a record every couple of years for the decade before that. That record was mediocre at best, and showed that his time away from recording music had dulled his wit and songwriting; if you wanted to be generous, you could say that it was his bid at mainstream country success and wasn't meant for fans like me anyway, but even that's a stretch, because even though it's slicker and more overproduced than his best work, it's still too different from the kind of stuff that gets played on bigtime country radio stations.

So I was hopeful that his latest, It's Not Big It's Large, which includes his Large Band as part of the artist moniker (Lyle Lovett and His Large Band) for the first time since the iconic 1989 album of the same name, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, would be a return to his earlier sound, and would have at least one track as much worth remembering as the title track from The Road to Ensenada.

And while it's definitely better than My Baby and more faithful to his classic sound (it even starts off with a big band instrumental number, just like the 1989 record), it still doesn't approach the heights of the long string of near-perfect records he made starting with Pontiac and ending with Ensenada. "South Texas Girl" is probably best song, and although it's no "The Road to Ensenada" it defintely deserves a place alongside his best tracks. At any rate, it's nice to see flashes of the old Lyle; it gives me hope that he's still got some great music ahead of him still.

Over the weekend, we were passing by an independent record store in north Baltimore that I don't go to very often, so I decided to stop in and look for Jens Lekman even though it's the same chain as the other three record stores that I frequent, so I didn't hold out much much hope. But there it was: Oh You're So Silent Jens, sitting right where it should be on the rack.

I've been wanting this record for a long time, so it's nice to finally have it, especially since the follow up is coming in a few weeks and will presumably be much easier to find because his profile has risen so much since the release of Silent. The Euro kids have gotten a lot of attention from me this year, from Peter Bjorn and John to the Shout Out Louds to Jens; I'm not sure if it quite qualifies as a trend, but it's nice to have a few more records in the rotation that come from somewhere besides North America or Britain.

So the Flaming Lips have released a single called "I Was Zapped by the Lucky Super Rainbow", which is an annoyingly cutesy title even for a band as quirky as the Lips. Furthermore, it's included on the soundtrack for a movie called Good Luck Chuck, a vehicle for grade A tool Dane Cook.

The 30 second clip of the song in iTunes doesn't sound half bad, really, but with all that baggage, I'm going to have to be in love with it before I plunk down 99 cents to add it to my music library. Buying an average song from XTC's Andy Partridge that was the theme song for a show I actually liked (Wonderfalls) is one thing; doing anything to support a project that even remotely involves Dane Cook is something else entirely, and I just don't think it's a line I'm going to be able to cross.

I was going to make a comment that Jens Lekman sounds like 69 Love Songs-era Magnetic Fields without all the snarkiness, but come to think of it, there was very little that seemed insincere or ironic on that monster release (at least among the songs that have stuck with me). Sure, there was plenty of humor, sometimes wry, sometimes ribald, but in this day and age, it's easy to forget that funny doesn't have to equal snide and saracastic.

I got little tiny bug feet.

Apple has released the first iPhone update since I bought mine, and one of the main new features is the ability to browse the iTunes store over a wi-fi connection and buy music directly from your phone. So even though there wasn't really anything on my list to buy on iTunes and even though I was sitting right in front of my Mac where I could have used the desktop client if there was something I wanted to buy, I spent some time poking around the wi-fi version of the store until I found something I could test this new feature on.

It ended up being Tokyo Police Club's "Your English Is Good" from their performance at Lollapalooza this past summer. It downloaded very quickly, payment was just as easy as using the desktop client, and when I connected my iPhone back to my Mac, iTunes immediately transferred it to my main music library and added it to my larger music collection.

I don't see myself using this feature very much, but the fact that Apple is adding new apps and functionality is encouraging; there's not a whole lot wrong with this device, but most of the issues I have could be fixed with new software.