Sunday, November 2, 2008

I Hate Billy Joel: "You May Be Right"

In the music video for "You May Be Right," Billy Joel's live performance sees Joel onstage, dancing on twinkletippytoes in an alleged "rock" performance. It's as if he engineers lyrics based on his ability to pantomime them on stage. He throws fakes punches as he croons "it's too late to fight," and cowers with his hands over his eyes at "turn out the lights." The bridge is handled by a saxophonist in a Hawaiian shirt. The lyrics talk about a wild young man, but instead of a rock beat he's selling bogus, piano-bopping with all the grit of Elton John (This isn't rock, it's crocodile rock.) Years later, live at Shea Stadium, a balding, white-bearded Joel will wheeze and fatten, sitting behind a keyboard, turning red in the face and bulging with phonynonconformity, as rebellious as an AC/DC album sold exclusively at Wal-Mart.

The premise of the song is a woman calls Billy Joel crazy, which he admits that while she may be wrong, she may be right. (This covers 100 percent of possible outcomes, making Billy's statement meaningless.) The song goes out of its way to mention how crazy Billy is; "crazy" is said eight times, including chorus repetitions. He's thrice a "lunatic", and "madness" and "insane" make one cameo apiece. But unless the song is a brilliant satirical commentary on the wildest fantasies of department-store management types, or Billy Joel's idea of insanity is the time he "...rode my motorcycle in the rain/And you told me not to drive/But I made it home alive/So you said that only proves that I'm insane." If Billy Joel's idea of insanity is a drive in the rain, does that mean he was officially a phony the first time he used wind-shield wipers? (Someone at called it their "all-nighter study song." Billy Joel is as rebellious as waiting until the night before to cram for a physics test.)

Then comes the subtle racism of the lyric "Walked alone in Bedford-Stuy." Another Joel scholar over at songmeanings figured it as an act of racial subterfuge: "I always get a kick out of the line that he walked thru Bedford Stuy alone. (Bedford Stuy (BedStuy) is a neighborhood in Brooklyn. It definetly ain't the greatest neighborhood and what he's saying is that its dangerous for a white guy to walk thru there. and therefore he's "crazy" for doing it. LOL! (Bedstuy is featured in many of Spike Lee's movies.)"

The line is given some extra punch by country superstar Garth Brooks--adding an entire new layer to the Bedford-Stuy song-and-dance at a live performance, Garth reaches the line after climbing a pyramid in windbreaker and headset, slapping the hands of the teeming mass of the front row and works the crowd like an awards ceremony infomercial preacher. And why, exactly, is Garth Brooks covering your song? They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps. Bob Dylan turned the Beatles onto marijuana. David Bowie and Iggy Pop. Billy Joel, however, has done a duet of this song with Bryan Adams. Billy Joel is rock for investment bankers in middle-age crises.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "Live Your Life" by T.I. feat. Rihanna

Well, this one is just baffling. The fact that a 4-year-old internet meme--"Numa Numa." Come on. You know, this asshole--was somehow tapped for a hip-hop song. The fact that it hit No. 1, if only for a week. That fact that its not a total trainwreck. Everything about it, really.

The thing is, detached from the actual "Numa Numa" samples that start and close the song, as well as Rihanna jacking the melody for the pre-chorus, it's a solid enough single. The T.I. sound of massive synths and subtle orchestration sounds makes the songs sound huge, and the effortlessly bluster of the lyrics matches up (my fave: "I'm the opposite of moderate, immaculately polished/With the spirit of a hustler and the swagger of a college kid/Allergic to the counterfeit, impartial to the politics/Articulate but still would grab a nigga by the collar quick.")

The other thing, though, is that even the 12-second bookends of "Numa Numa" are enough to color the whole song. How did this happen? Did T.I. call Rihanna up after a late night of browsing YouTube to pitch the song? "Sup, girl? Listen, you wanna come sing the hook on my new single? Nah, nah, I want you to sign the song from this video. This shit is bumpin'!" The song would have to be amazing to avoid being overshadowed by the premise, but it is not.

As a number one single, this just feels inconsequential, and there's no reason it should have dethroned T.I.'s vastly superior "Whatever You Like," which has already been honored with a quickie "Weird" Al parody. It's mildly interesting to see that internet culture is mainstream enough for T.I. to jack a beat from a novelty video, but I think the one-week stint on top is appropriate: there's the initial "...seriously?" reaction, the realization it's okay enough, and then the realization "okay enough" isn't reason to stick around. Looking forward to Jay-Z's take on "All Your Base," though.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Concert Review: TV on the Radio, the Electric Factory, Philadelphia, Oct. 10

TV on the Radio are one of those bands that it's easy to imagine failing live because of the intricate production and loads of intertwined effects that go into their sound. But much like Radiohead, a band whose sound seems to present similar challenges, they counter most of it by tweaking the songs to rock a little harder and swing a bit more to make them translate well to a live setting. It can be a whole hell of a lot more impressive to recklessly plow through songs with a dozen things going on than to pummel away on just a few chords, and when TV on the Radio gets into a groove they are a tremendously exciting live act.

Still, it can be a little hard to keep things loose with so much going on, and at first the band seems a little boxed in by their equipment. Lead singer Tunde Adebimpe has a secondary mix and a synth with an entire rack of effects pedal up front, and bassist Gerard Smith has graduated from standing shyly with his back to the audience to hiding entirely behind a barricade of keyboards, synthesizers, laptops, even partially tucked behind an amp. David Sitek is also kind of off in a corner, still, shredding and swinging the wind chimes that hang off his headstock, but back behind a sixth touring member who mostly plays sax. It can take awhile for all the instruments and effects to be tweaked from song to song, which isn't long enough to derail the show, but there's just enough downtime between songs for the crowd to deflate a little and hamper the momentum.

Although the band shifts toward a more guitar-based approach live, the rocking songs werent' really the highlights. The band's greatest asset is having Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, two of the best vocalists out there right now. Anytime they got a chance to harmonize, like on "Dreams," it was captivating. Malone, in particular, shines, and it's great to see him getting a high-profile lead vocal on the new single "Golden Age." The band really seemed to be getting into a groove at the very end, when the rocked-up "Satellite" lead an amped crowd into the excellent encore. The mellow "Love Dog" was a surprising highlight, showcasing Tunde's vocals and sounding all the world like a dark, downer '80s ballad. "A Method" features most of the band on percussion, including wood blocks, bells, and even Tunde hitting a cymbal as he sings. The rousing end, with Sitek pounding a single tom on the floor, is a great reminder that TV on the Radio is. And the finale of "Staring at the Sun" got a bigger reaction than the band's breakthrough "Wolf Like Me."

As with the Against Me!/Ted Leo/Future of the Left gig I saw the previous night at the Electric Factory, a rigid crowd, coupled with some poor sound mixing, hurt the atmosphere a bit. In the first few rows, the guitar crunch smothered over the finer details of the song, including the sax parts, but it seemed like a more even mix further back in the crowd. The band also took a bit to really get into a groove, though, and the show got more and more engrossing with each track.

This may be more of a commentary on indie crowds in general than TV on the Radio in particular, most kids were more concerned with snapping video on their iPhones than enjoying the moment. I also saw at least one grumpy greenhorn concertgoer, who frowned the whole time and shoved people who were bumped into him from the pit. (Here's a tip, you doofus: it's a rock show. People dance, the crowd is chaotic, and you have to be ready to be bounced a little. If you're going to be a dick, sit in the back or don't come at all. No one likes you.)

About a third of the way into the set, I decided to relocate back to the only section of the crowd where anyone was jumping around. During "Satellite" I was bouncing and singing along, and made eye contact a few times with another guy who was doing the same. After the song, he went out of his way to grab me and say "Thank you!" simply for being one of the few in the crowd showing energy. I kept it up, and when the show ended he thanked me again and gave me a quick hug. I saw where he was coming from, though. It's a sad state of affairs when indie rockers are so rigid and starched that I made someone's night just by, you know, shaking my ass a little.

Young Liars
The Wrong Way
Dancing Choose
Golden Age
Wolf Like Me
Halfway Home
Blues From Down Here
Shout Me Out

Love Dog
A Method
Staring at the Sun

Concert Review: Against Me! (with Ted Leo and the Pharmacists; the Future of the Left), the Electric Factory, Philadelphia, Oct. 9

It's disheartening how single-minded crowd can sap a show of its excitement. The Oct. 9 triple bill of the Future of the Left, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and Against Me! promised--and delivered--three high-energy sets, but the sea of Against Me! fanboys and fangirls was totally apathetic to the warm-up acts.

The show's highlight might have been the Future of the Left, a trio which sports two former McLusky members in drummer Jack Egglestone and singer/guitarist Andy "Falco" Falkous (who has lost so much weight that I didn't recognize him at first.) They've got all the bite and sneer McLusky had, though Falco uses a keyboard just as often as he does a guitar these days. He even uses a loop pedal to stack vocals, building up a kaleidoscope of screams to pummel the audience. The band adds electronics in without feeling any less like a rock band, but the crowd was lost the second they ventured to step past power chords. At one point, Falco was working up a surge of feedback by running a drumstick over his guitar strings. Some manatee in the crowd was looking down, idly playing with the tip of her stretched-out blouse. She looked up to the chaos on stage for maybe half a second, then looked back down to over-extended garment as though there wasn't even a band present. What can you do with an audience like that?

Ted Leo, who I assumed would headline when I bought my ticket, was also similarly disrespected. I spent a few songs in the second row behind a bunch of teens hugging the rail for that coveted up-front spot, too busy dreaming about Against Me! to remember to dance, clap or otherwise acknowledge the Pharmacists. I told a girl in front of me I was there for Ted, and asked if we could swap spots until Against Me! "I won't be able to see," she protested. "...see what?" I countered. "You're not even paying attention." "But I won't be able to see." I even offered $20 for collateral, but she refused. The next guy I asked was more reasonable. (You're a generous dude, Steve!)

Granted, Ted didn't do himself any favors with a questionable setlist. Only one track each for The Tyranny of Distance and Hearts of Oak. Five Shake the Sheets tunes, but no "Me and Mia." He omitted "The Ballad of the Sin Eater," his trademark live song and a tremendous closer. Live, Ted's spastic vocals get room to stretch out live, and he gets to show off his guitar chops and add a little noise. It elevates even the so-so material, and the band still sounds tight, but devoting over half your set to your newest, weakest album and new material isn't accommodating to the disinterested crowd, nor is it throwing any bones to the few fans scattered amongst it. But, again, what can you do to kids that are there just to see one band and songs they already know, not expressing actual interest in hearing new music?

Consider me pretty soured by the time Against Me! came out to do their thing to rapturous applause. They play well, but it seems too basic and too traditional to stir up that much excitement. It comes down to some guys in black shirts and jeans playing vaguely folksy punk, with just enough Joe Strummer/Billy Bragg twang and grit on the vocals to set it apart. But once you're past the signature hits, it just starts to feel like watching any number of adequate punk bands. (I also have to say that punk fans aren't as tough as they used to be; I was able to muscle my way all the way to the front row AND get a spot on the railing, front row center!) But I guess neither a seeming lack of interest in music nor a wimpy crowd are surprising for a band that's only half-filling the venue on the strength of a Spin album of the year. I caught their encore from the back of the hall, and kids were steadily filing out instead of sticking around for more, so I guess the crowd's interest wasn't even held by what they came for.

This all makes the show sound like a real downer, which it wasn't. All three bands played well and were raucous enough to enjoy. It's just that anyone who was ready to do so had to fight against the will of the crowd to do so. One can only imagine how much better the show would have played in a smaller venue, with a few hundred excited fans packed together. Maybe they can try this again once the residual Spin hype dies out.

Improv Music Theories: Loops

Pango (3:55:06 AM): Looping is really blowing up in music, I think.
Prince (3:55:27 AM): Perhaps.
Pango (3:55:52 AM): It's the natural progression from long, complicated compositions to formulaic verse/chorus patterns down to repetition at even smaller level.
Pango (3:56:18 AM): I think rap and electronic were big in this stage.
Prince (3:56:20 AM): So we'll be back to congos and maracas before long?
Pango (3:56:26 AM): Rap, especially earlier stuff, was just a drum loop.
Pango (3:56:30 AM): And techno relies on it.
Pango (3:56:34 AM): But I mean really small loops.
Pango (3:56:38 AM): Think of how minimal the Field is.
Pango (3:56:48 AM): Or how Panda Bear and El Guincho are just tape loops of short phrases.
Pango (3:56:56 AM): Animal Collective is using electronic loops.
Pango (3:57:02 AM): And bands use it live to layer stuff - Final Fantasy.
Pango (3:57:24 AM): Epileptic Peat, who used to play around State College, looped huge patterns on his eight-string bass, custom built, and played live Final Fantasy style.
Prince (3:57:42 AM): You might be onto something, but let's give it time.
Prince (3:57:45 AM): All the time in the world.
Pango (3:58:09 AM): Talking Heads tried to do it on Remain in Light, but without the benefit of electronics.
Pango (3:58:21 AM): Which is why it's such an eerie album, it's a tight, funky live band stuck in a pattern.
Prince (4:00:07 AM): I dunno, it's 4 AM and I don't want to think.
Pango (4:05:39 AM): Fuck Buttons is an example of it's popularity in noise.
Pango (4:08:08 AM): TV on the Radio, fuck, even the Future of the Left uses it. Guys from MCLUSKY were using a loop pedal, for vocals, nonetheless!
Pango (4:08:20 AM): Like it was just a normal thing for a rock band to do, a noisy, guitar rock band
Pango (4:10:17 AM): Battles is looping rock.
Pango (4:09:11 AM): I once saw the Violent Femmes play, and they used a seashell.
Pango (4:09:15 AM): A SEASHELL.
Pango (4:09:18 AM): But that is another thing entirely.

Bonus Note to Self:
Pango (4:13:24 AM): I like that they ignored an obvious closer in that previous song.
Pango (4:13:48 AM): If you fade out in the penultimate song, it feels like you're emerging into something new with the real last track. It's like having two last tracks.
Pango (4:13:57 AM): It's a very pleasing arrangement.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Film Review: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading is driven by coincidences, but never feels contrived. The Coen Brothers are among the few filmmakers who could draw up characters so singular in their purposes to make the bad decision after bad decision required to move the story along so effortlessly that it's almost glib.

The plot, such as it is, might almost be called "screwball noir." The characters bounce around, entangling themselves in sex and crime. Two gym workers, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), stumble upon a computer disc containing the memoirs of a disgruntled ex-CIA agent, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich,) who has been fired for his alcoholism. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), in preparation for divorce, has also put his financial records on the disc. Linda and Chad contact Osborne and suggest a reward for returning the files, which he interprets as a blackmail attempt. Meanwhile, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a US Treasury agent who is sleeping with his own wife, Osborne's wife, and various women he solicits online--including Linda--gets wrapped up in the reward/blackmail scheme, and on, on, on, on...

In other words, it's one of those movies where everyone's connected, although not everyone gets to meet. We miss out on the perpetually perky Linda pestering Osborne face-to-face, or the happy-go-lucky Chad colliding the frigid Katie. The movie's two biggest stars, Clooney and Pitt, meet for only a moment, although it's long enough to provide the movie's biggest shock, and--depending on your disposition--biggest laugh.

The various motivations are work are preposterous, but endearing. Linda is convinced she needs the money to pay for some cosmetic surgeries ("My job involves interfacing with the public," she tells an unsympathetic health insurance agent) while Chad is so naive he's "really fucking surprised!" that Osborne scoffs at the mention of a reward.

If the Burn After Reading has a flaw, something that makes it merely "another very good Coen Bros flick" instead of "another Coen Bros classic," it's that the characters are wildly entertaining but not always relatable. The Coens pile on so many quirks that it's surprising this problem doesn't drag their films down more often. Only The Hudsucker Proxy, which had characters so affected they just seemed insincere, was derailed by this.

The biggest offender is Katie Cox. Where Linda and Osborne's singular characteristics compelling, Katie just seems one-note. Swinton's performance is fine, but when her only characterization is being an "unrelenting bitch", she turns out to be a drag. It's never explained why she's so sour or, more important, why anyone puts up with her. Maybe she and Osborne shared their misanthropy before he hit his slump, but the chatty, clueless Pfarrer? Her icy demeanor does lead to a great gag when we see her at work. Needless to say, she doesn't make the greatest pediatrician.

More often, however, the actors sketching out oddball, but well-defined, performances which give nice little opportunities for character study. Take how McDormand and Malkovich deal with frustrating phone conversation. Linda gets into a (literally) one-sided argument with an automated phone service that keeps asking her to enunciate. "A-gent. A-GENT!" she hollers, and you get the impression she's the kind who will keep complaining aloud once she hangs up, even if no one's around to listen. Osborne takes the more direct approach, responding to a bank teller's simple request for an account number by screaming "unfortunately I don't sit around all day trying to memorize the fucking numbers! Moron! " Both of them would act the same in person, but it's more telling that they keep up their respective forms of aggressiveness even when they're alone in a room shouting into a phone.

The last scene (some spoilers in this paragraph!) shows how the films' insubstantial ature works for and against the film. In the second and final scene in the office of a CIA Superior (J.K. Simmons in a hysterical bit role), two agents go over the events of the film, unable to make much sense of it, and actually glad that a few people got killed, simply because it gets them out of their hair. (Why they don't seem to think they'll be bothered again once relatives and friends ask where these missing characters went is another question.) Their callousness and cluelessness garner big laughs, sure, but it undermines some of the warmth and depth the characters built up, despite the stylish plot. They even agree to pay for Linda's surgeries just to put the case behind them, but it's played for an off-the-cuff laugh, and brings no on-screen satisfaction for Linda.

Then again, the movie wouldn't work so well if it was played excessively straight. Burn After Reading doesn't aspire to break much ground, but it's amazing well-crafted. And, hey, even "just" another very good Coen Bros. movie is still something to celebrate.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "So What" by Pink

I had a sinking feeling when I first heard this one. It was so obnoxious, so grating, so aggressively stupid that any kind of popularity was unfathomable. So, of course, now it's atop the charts (see also: Girl, Hollaback.)

Just listen to the first ten seconds of this song. Like that shrill "na-na na-na na-naaaa naaaa/na-na na-na na-nahhh" that sounds like a spoiled, shrieking little schoolyard brat? Well, get used to it, because that's the main vocal melody for the verse lyrics, as well as the guitars. At least she has the courtesy to alternate between ending on sharp and flat notes, proving her versatility in delivering off-key vocals.

It's all the worse because the pre-school cadence leaves nothing to focus on but the inane lyrics--something about a break-up, but it's okay because "I'm still a rock star/I got my rock moves/And I don't need you." Not (m)any rock stars I know would ever say "check out my flow," reference losing their table at a bar to someone called "Jessica Simp" or end their song by blowing a raspberry, but hey.

The video is also a collection of Pink showing off her "rock moves," which include rebellious behavior like riding down Sunset Boulevard on a mini tractor (?), smashing a guitar in a music shop and assaulting the employee, and accidentally getting her hair set on fire in a scene that is disappointingly brief and non-graphic.

But what really bugs me is that someone on YouTube wasted three minutes of their life laying down a piano cover of the song, which is almost entirely the left hand stumbling over the main nursery rhyme melody, somehow managing to make it sound even less musical. And who the hell are the YouTube users materializing in the comments section to praise the pianist for banging out four notes of trash that a toddler could accidentally bang out on a toy xylophone?

If this isn't the worst No. 1 hit of the year, my disbelief just might force this review series into early retirement.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Concert Review: Tricky, the Trocadero, Philadelphia, Sept. 5

How does Tricky's music translate to a live setting? Well enough, though in a different manner than might be expected. Anyone who's followed Tricky knows that he's rejected his reputation in favor of following his own instincts (including a dogged refusal to make good records for the second half of his career.) One only needs to look at the set-up to guess Tricky's current live approach: he uses a more-or-less standard rock line-up, including live drums. As on his albums, Tricky's live set relies on a female vocalist. I couldn't identify the current singer, but she was definitely no Martina Topley-Bird. The current set seems about as good as it could be without catering to those into trip-hop Tricky and expecting to hear a lot of his voice or more than a handful of cuts off the early albums. Tricky's put out some unconventional and sometimes hard-to-classify music, but today's live show accommodates audience singing and clap-alongs.

Still, it's the vintage material that works the best, even when reworked. His covers of rap classics "Black Steel" and "Lyrics of Fury" got good run-throughs, and "Pumpkin" sounds majestic, mysterious and menacing even when it's a live guitarist instead of samples. The highlight by far, however, was Pre-Millennium Tensions opener "Vent." A paranoid, ashmatic breakdown on record, "Vent" became an eight-minute rise-and-fall, verse and explosion mantra live. When Tricky rocks it up, he goes all-out, grasping the mic with both hands and vibrating on the balls of his feet as he bounces up and down, or pointing to the ceiling and shaking as he shouts like he's singing to a God he's angry with.

The problem is, Tricky isn't always that invested in the show, especially during new material. This is best demonstrated through Tricky's smoke breaks, during which he faces the drummer, does a little back dance and inhales a joint during any song that doesn't involve him - very irritating for the concertgoers suffering in the non-smoking venue. If Tricky needs to be blazed to perform, maybe he should at least cut back to the point where he doesn't need a J every three songs just to keep a buzz going.

Opening for Tricky was Telepathique, from Sao Paulo, Brazil. They were adequate, but far less entertaining than the true opener - the homeless black dude who told my friend and I racist jokes for pocket change while we were waiting outside the venue. ("Do what black people and Batman have in common? Robin! Hahaha, okay last one, what's the best kind of nation? That' a DO-nation, folks, so whatever you've got, coins, bills, Visa, Mastercard...")

Telepathique had the elements to be interesting, a three-piece with a female singer and two vaguely hipster-looking dudes handling guitar, drums, and two laptops. But, true to the slot of an opening band, Telepathique falls squarely under "cool for two songs" territory. Their tunes rotated between three parts: the over-processed '80s dance segments, the driving rock segment where the actual drum kits gets used, and the occasional foray into noise and distortion. It became rote quickly, especially with the lead singer's "tip-toe around the band to the computer/synth table and join the boys" manuever, executed no less than three times. The act just never seemed forceful or raucous enough. The Brazilian element's promised add some swing and swagger to the group never delivered, and the frontwoman seemed sterile even when tossing out rock-star movies like flipping the bird then sliding the finger down between her thighs.

Tricky's show is enjoyable enough, but hard to pin down how successful it is: the crowd seemed enthusiastic, but when I wiggled my way to the second row, I realized that the crowd was diluted enough to allow anyone to saunter up next to me without bumping into anyone. He's putting out decent enough stuff, but the disappointments mean fewer are listening than should be.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

"What does God hate?"

Peach (1:03:30 AM): Which I suppose is roughly $14 billion million billion.
Peach (1:05:26 AM): Well, I'm gonna go watch King of the Hill before bed.
Peach (1:05:38 AM): That Hank Hill is a man's man, I tell you hwat.
Pango (1:06:40 AM): Take it easy.
Peach (1:06:50 AM): Dude.
Peach (1:06:52 AM): Seriously.
Peach (1:07:01 AM): That Don Henley shit isn't going to make me take it any easier.
Peach (1:07:06 AM): And even if that's not your intent...
Pango (1:07:09 AM): WHOO-HOO-HOOOOO
Peach (1:07:10 AM): It's still burned there.
Pango (1:07:16 AM): Fuck that song.
Peach (1:07:23 AM): Fuck Don Henley.
Peach (1:07:27 AM): Who is Don Henley?
Pango (1:07:40 AM): Sounds like the name of a failed politician, who would drop out in the first round of a primary.
Peach (1:08:26 AM): I think "Don Henley" is how Dan Quayle incorrectly spelled "potato."
Peach (1:09:00 AM): Little known fact: Don Henley was the eighth shooter of Bobby Kennedy.
Pango (1:09:15 AM): Don Henley doesn't care about black people.
Peach (1:13:19 AM): When Robert Johnson died, his last words were "Don Henley."
Pango (1:14:03 AM): Don Henley is Robert Johnson reincarnated; his punishment for selling his soul to the devil to master guitar is reliving life only to play "Witchy Woman."
Peach (1:14:40 AM): In this famous picture of Robert Johnson, the ethereal vapor at the right of the shot is the ghost of Don Henley.
Peach (1:09:32 AM): On the eighth day, God created Don Henley.
Peach (1:09:54 AM): It was His only mistake.
Pango (1:09:55 AM): On the ninth day, God woke up with a hangover saying "Oh, man, what did I do last night?"
Peach (1:10:53 AM): "I'm always jotting things down on pieces of paper. I've got pieces of paper all over my house." -Don Henley (actual quote)
Peach (1:11:29 AM): "I grew up with Ray Cromie, and he turned out to be the normal one." -Don Henley (actual quote)
Peach (1:12:03 AM): "This one goes out to the one I love." -Michael Stipe (feat. John Henley)
Peach (1:12:14 AM): (Code name for Don Henley)
Pango (1:12:30 AM): "I believe in nothing. I know only the tangible power of steel and fire. It is the power to inspire fear in the weak." - Don Henley
Pango (1:15:39 AM): Don Henley is synthesized from lysergic acid derived from ergot, a grain fungus that typically grows on rye, and was first synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann.
Peach (1:17:29 AM): They say bitches ain't shit. But we all know what Don Henley is.
Pango (1:17:54 AM): You better check yourself before you wreck yourself, 'cause Don Henley in your ass is bad for your health.
Peach (1:20:23 AM): What does God hate?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "Whatever You Like" by T.I.

"Hot wings, baby, do you have any?"

And so begins the greatest musical romance of the year. What's even going on here? In the video for T.I.'s "Whatever You Like", he stops into a fast food joint and flirts with the cashier. They flirt, he passes her his number, and we see them out on the town. But, as we find out in a surprise twist ending, the girl daydreamed the phone number, and in reality it was just a one-hundred dollar bill¹ to pay for the grub. So we get the poor chicken-pusher hallucinating herself starring in a hip-hop video as T.I. openly raps about being a sugar daddy ("a rich, usually older man who offers money or gifts to a less rich, usually younger person in return for companionship or sexual favors" - Wikipedia.)

Recap: to escape the drudgery of pushing cheap, greasy meals, she dreams of being exploited by a rapper in return for sex. Not only is the message that this is what young girls should dream of, but that they will never actually have it and be forced to pretend.

Silly if you think about it, but the song is too slick to give you the free time. It's really the beat that carries it. There are synths that approximate the tone and timing of stabbed strings, which gives it a vaguely classical feel that clashes just right with the thick synthlines and thumping bass hits (not quite "What You Know" epic, but suitably reminiscent.)

Although there are no clever rhymes, and T.I. is merely serviceable rapping about the good life, the delivery is smooth and sing-songy at all the right times, and the superficiality slips past. His high notes are sweet and insincere, and just about right for a shallow come-on. Nothing essential, but catchy and sleek enough to work as a No. 1 for a week, sure

¹ a.k.a. "Benjamin."

Monday, September 1, 2008

Mashups: "Wolf Like Rihanna" by ToToM

Someone put my number one song of 2006 and my number one song of 2007 - "Wolf Like Me" and "Umbrella" - together in a mashup. (Yes, they are officially number one. I make lists every year.)

And I do mean mashed em up. I am almost not convinced that this ToToM entity has audio software that allows him to do anything more sophisticated than literally play the songs over top of each other. It's mostly Rihanna's vocals ringing out over the guitars from TV on the Radio, and the dissonance between the overlapping tracks makes Rihanna sound ghostly and disconnected.

What's truly amazing, though, is what happens to Jay-Z's superfluous opening rap. It's a testament to the goodwill towards "Umbrella" that we all just kind of looked the other way for those forty seconds in the first place, and in the mash-up they come in over the opening feedback from "Wolf Like Me," as if ToToM is saying "You're not good enough for the riff, Hov." But then the bridge comes in, and the music drops. It's right where Rihanna's sweet "you can run into my arms" line should come in. Instead, the rap comes back in, slowed down, epic, the best moment in the mashup.

Maybe Girl Talk has changed the focus towards packing layers and layers of songs all into one, instead of finding two songs that have the same structure and dynamics and somehow complement each other, so you don't hear this kind of thing as much. But "Wolf Like Rihanna" is masterful.

Download: "Wolf Like Rihanna"

Monday, August 25, 2008



(Click picture for full-sized scan of original journal entry.)

March 13th, 2002
So I get Mom to sign my N.H.S. papers, then fucking leave it at home. Thank God XXXXXX covered and picked it up for me. I got five of my six NHS papers out, Mr. XXXX left for a dentist appointment or some shit while I was getting the new packet so I get him tomorrow. Also, fucking Whittenberger Summer Writing Project. Jesus. Mr. XXXXXXXXXX said he couldn't get a letter done before Monday. Fuck. FUCKER. I almost cried. I had to pop out to the bathroom to regain myself. I was all shaing nervous tension for first period, but its okay, Ms. XXXX and Mr. XXXX are writing my two letters. Resume's good as one, got my transcript, all I have to do is write a page on why I likes tah write and prouce a short story or five poems. In one night. No pressure. Oh, today I listened to Talking Heads "Remain in Light" and "Significant Other" by the Limp Bizkit. [Emphasis mine-Ed.]

March 14th, 2002


The crux of this entry is the final sentence: "Oh, today I listened to Talking Heads 'Remain in Light' and 'Significant Other' by the Limp Bizkit." It casually appears in a disconnected way, like a "Now Listening" field on a LiveJournal entry. Only it is written in a notebook. Which means I had to voluntarily write "the Limp Bizkit," even though no one but me would ever read it. Maybe I wasn't listening to them, and it's a metajoke by my past self on my future self. Or maybe I knew it was wrong, and recorded my sins as a cautionary tale.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"If anyone asks who your favorite Beatle is, the right answer is 'John Lennon.'"

My youngest brother Tyler has finally gotten to the age when he's becoming interested in music. I've been waiting years for the opportunity to micromanage his burgeoning taste-precisely the reason I also look forward to having children. He's 13 now, going into 8th grade; right around the same age I was when I found Nirvana and picked up my first CD, Nevermind. My other brother Dane and I have plotted for this occasionally, agreeing that it's necessary to get him started off on the right foot. A few weeks ago, I finally sat down and whipped together a mix for him, and came up with this tracklist:

"Hate to Say I Told You So" by the Hives
"Fell in Love With a Girl" by the White Stripes
"Miles Away" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
"Doin' the Cockroach" by Modest Mouse
"One-Armed Scissor" by At the Drive-In
"Wolf Like Me" by TV on the Radio
"Song 2" by Blur
"Everlong" by the Foo Fighters
"Buddy Holly" by Weezer
"Devil's Haircut" by Beck
"Take Me Out" by Franz Ferdinand
"Come As You Are" by Nirvana
"Dream All Day" by the Posies
"Come Together" by the Beatles
"Karma Police" by Radiohead

It sticks pretty close to alternative/indie rock, but that's how I got started, and I figured it'd be the best way to break in for a kid in a small Pennsylvania town where middle schoolers wear their parents' old AC/DC shirts. Maybe some of the choices were too ambitious, but I didn't want to dumb it down or give him mediocre starter bands if he was ready for advanced placement. I even felt bad about limiting it to rock, and had considered a more diverse mix of genres, but settled on themes for each mix CD so I don't stunt his interest in, say, hip-hop by representing it with just one song that he could hate.

His reaction has come slowly. It took at least a week to get him to listen to the whole mix. I have to restrain myself from screaming: "It's only fourteen songs! You spend eight hours a day in front of the computer with headphones on! How long can it possibly take to get around to this?"

Part of my interest in his musical development is the desire to give him opportunities that I never had growing up. As the firstborn, I had no one looking over my shoulder saying "Psst, Follow and Leader and Significant Other seem cool on your 14th birthday, but down the road you'll be too embarrassed to even trade them in."

I feel the obligation to shield him from inferior influences. Alarms go off in my head whenever I see a threat of him getting into lousy music. He seems to run around with a lot of emo girls, He's talking about growing his bangs out. I caught him with a folder of songs by artists including AFI, Hawthorne Heights and Fall Out Boy. He has various musical ringtones for friends, and claims each selection is that person's favorite song. The other day, I heard Panic! at the Disco piping from his Motorolla. Speaking as his eldest brother and protector, that friendship ends now.

Maybe I should be recommending him ringtones instead of records. Part of the probably could be his generation. Is that all songs are to him? Diversions while browsing MySpace? He won a 1-gig MP3 player in a school raffle months ago, but didn't load anything on it until very recently. In my early teens, I was used to spending all my time on online with WinAmp going, but I was already in the habit of purchasing music.

It's possible, in fact, that Tyler may never purchase a CD. Does that mean he'll never understand listening to an album as a whole? As an example, he said Nirvana and Weezer were his favorites on the mix, so I sent him Nevermind and the Blue Album. But he's got MP3s, so he's never listened to an album while thumbing through liner notes and reading lyrics. Even if Nevermind becomes his first favorite album, will he get that same wave of nostalgia that millions do when they see that disc with the wavy blue water line pattern? Will seeing Spencer Elden's junk immediately put the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" riff into his head?

I try to give him guidance, but there's just so much ground to cover. "I know this is hard to understand, but between the blue Weezer and the red Weezer they went from the best band ever to the worst." "I'm not saying bigotry is good, I'm just saying it's okay to be a little emophobic." "If anyone asks who your favorite Beatle is, the right answer is 'John Lennon.'"

At least he's interested. He says he likes Nevermind more than the Blue Album, though he doesn't yet have the musical vocabulary to express why ("The music appeals to me more." No shit, kid!) He even stunned me by coming back from back-to-school clothes shopping with a Nirvana t-shirt in tow, which got me thinking about generational differences again. As I named the members for him - that's Kurt, he's dead; that's Dave, he's in the Foo Fighters now; that's Krist, he hasn't done anything worthwhile since this photo was taken - I realized he didn't seem to know anything about the band's history. And where would he? He's into music fairly passively, and I haven't noticed him reading about music online. Again, by contrast, allmusic was practically my homepage. My playlist. He did make a MySpace playlist out of the mix, though, which the best I can gauge means I'm on the right track. I'll just have to remind myself that some musical growing pains are inevitable, and fight the urge to disown him over that "I Write Sins, Not Tragedies" ringtone.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "Disturbia" by Rihanna

Rihanna is a definite step up after Katy Perry (why did I launch my reviews during "I Kissed a Girl"'s inexplicable seven-week stranglehold on that No. 1 spot?), but "Disturbia" seems more like some record exec's pitch for a blockbuster single than something deserving of the spot.

It probably started its life that way; "Disturbia," like Rihanna's previous No. 1 "Take a Bow," was added as an extra track to a re-release of her blockbuster Good Girl Gone Bad. It might not be fair to downgrade these songs because they have gotten greater play than more deserving singles on the actual album if the songs didn't feel and sound so tacked-on. Like "Take a Bow," a mismatch of playful kiss-off lyrics to a guy with a melodramatic R&B ballad performance, "Disturbia" goes off in too many directions at once to have any emotional center.

"Disturbia" feels more like an excuse for a horror-movie themed video with a dozen costume changes than an actual tune. It's one of those songs where layers of vocals effects and a thick arrangement overwhelm the artist; you know, the kind where faceless back-up singers handle the melody while the star kind of dances around it with meandering melismas. This is most distracting with the "bum bum be-dum" hook, especially Rihanna's song-ending blowout. ("Bum ba da dee da DAAAAAAAAA-aaaaaa-aaaaaahhhhh oooooOoOoOoOooah oh-oh-oh-OH-OH-OH ooooooaaaaaAaAaAahhhh.")

Maybe it is fair to compare "Disturbia" to "Shut Up and Drive" or "Don't Stop the Music" after all. The album was re-released to include it, so why not? That makes "Disturbia" the sixth single off an album that's already been mined clean.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Film Review: Pineapple Express

Like Knocked Up and Superbad, Pineapple Express infuses a less-than-serious premise with genuine warmth without sacrificing the slightest bit of absurdity or humor. Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) inadvertently gets caught witnessing a murder while high, and can only think to turn to his pot dealer, Saul Silver (James Franco), for help. The widely-watched red band trailer gives the essence of the plot - stoner comedy meets action flick parody - but conceals just how ridiculous the movie is going to get. (The censored green band trailer, a friend observed, makes all weed references so oblique that Denton and Silver just seem retarded.)

The main draw is the unlikely pairing of stoner comedy and action flick parody, although transition is a little ragged. The first half definitely contains some pure pothead comedy that might be lost on those with no knowledge of drug culture. Sure, Franco's been sporting dimmed eyes his whole career (it may even be method acting, as anyone who's seen this interview can attest,) but he also perfectly hits all the stoner tropes. Saul's cross-joint is the pinnacle of stoner engineering by those who've smoked so much they look for increasingly complicated ways to toke. Dale's bit about the psuedo-friendship between customer and dealer is perfectly articulated in Saul's desperate guilt-tripping to get Dale to linger after the deal - "We could watch some crazy videos on the Internet!" - is spot on. Especially great is Saul's off-the-cuff listing of his favorite civil engineers. Pineapple Express, like Harold and Kumar, is fully aware that stoners can be doctors and scientists, not just slackers and dropouts.

But while Dale and Saul stumble through the second and third act blazed, sure, Pineapple Express does seem to lose sight of its aesthetic when it trades hot-boxing for Hot Fuzz. It's the chemistry between Rogen and Franco, reunited onscreen for the first time since Freaks and Geeks, at the heart of the film, not the plot. They're funnier on the run from the bad guys speculating than they are in the climactic gun battle, which works on a different level because it's structured exactly like a real action movie's finale would be: at a hideout, with all the characters combining to fight, and the baddies getting picked off one-by-one. On that note, special mention should be made of the hitman Matheson (Craig Robinson, best known as Darryl on the Office,) the only funny villain by both script and Robinson's performance.

It's also possible that some might point to gaps in logic in the story, but most of them are nods to shoot-em-up screenplay structure. Dale's subplot with his high school girlfriend makes as much sense as any tacked-on romance in an action flick, and her complete absence from the denouement points out how arbitrary that role is. It also leads to one of the film's best silly jokes, when Dale hurries her family into their car and suggest they check into a motel under a fake name, pauses, looks around himself, and comes up with "Garagely." Saul may even top this with the world's best drug dealing aliases: "Santiago and Dunbar."

But in the end, the film closes not with an explosion, a kiss, or a celebration, but with guys sitting at breakfast, recounting the tale and vowing to be best friends, and their relationship buoys the action. The black-and-white introductory flashback scene, which details secreet military testing on marijuana and an unscientific reason why it have have been banned, is cute, but feels ultimately pointless without Dale or Saul. The brief period when they are separated is also less entertaining. Pineapple Express is funniest when the dialogue is something that you'd hear from a zozzled friend while lounging on the living room couch.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Film Review: The Dark Knight

With well over $300,000,000 in 10 days (one of many sales records broken), I suppose The Dark Knight would coast by just fine without one more rapturous review. But even though I've seen the film three times, I can't stop thinking about it, and wanted to jot some thoughts down.

Like this year's other genre masterwork, Iron Man, The Dark Knight is a big-budget crowd-pleaser that manages to remain grounded without betraying its comic book origins. Yes, it's got a big budget and huge action sequences. It's a movie to see again and again, if only for one more chance to chuckle, cheer and cringe along with the crowd at scenes like the Joker's pencil trick, Batman's balcony interrogation of Maroni and the first revelation of Dent's disfigurement.

But the action is matched by detailed characterization along with - and this is where it surpasses Iron Man - a plot that raises legitimate, difficult questions about the burden of being a (super)hero, of making extraordinary decisions for a greater good. Batman may have saved lives by unmasking, at least in the short run, but would that have stopped future terrorists from doing the same thing the Joker did? Or worse? Batman might also have prevented killings by taking the Joker's life. But does any one person have the right to make that decision?

The question becomes increasingly urgent as the Joker's "social experiments" slowly raise the stakes from the life of one thug in a bad Batman outfit to a boatload of civilians. A real sense of danger develops. The Joker goes from being dismissed as "some guy in a clown suit...a nobody" to a threat so great that there's talk of bringing in the National Guard in just two hours of screen-time. He may be limited to Gotham, but as the camera pulls away from an exploding hospital it feels like the entire world is at stake. (Compare this to a dud like Superman Returns, where Lex Luthor was somehow able to raise contents without raising any sense of menace.)

It may be impossible to determine how much of the hype behind Ledger's performance stemmed from his death. But perhaps the best compliment I can give his acting is this: not only did the name "Jack Nicholson" not cross my mind until an hour after I'd left the theater, but I don't know that the name "Heath Ledger" did, either. There is not a single scene with the Joker that is not instantly memorable, yet the audience is in awe of the character, not the performer.

Perhaps this is because Ledger sells the Joker as so twisted that he'd act just as bizarrely whether or not anyone was watching, just to make himself laugh. With touches like his pratfall exit from the overturned semi-truck and his dainty skip away from the hospital, it's like the Joker is mugging for a camera that's not even there. The Joker is horrifying because his giggle can switch to a scream of rage at any second, and there's no reason why. Like No Country for Old Men's Anton Chigurh, the Joker has no past, no history, no motivation beyond "fair" chaos; "nothing in his pockets but knives and lint."

Chigurh's sinister interpretation of "fair" as a life-or-death coin flip also brings us to Harvey Dent. As mentioned before, The Dark Knight poses difficult moral dilemmas, and Aaron Eckhart's performance as Dent should not be overlooked. In many ways, The Dark Knight is really Harvey Dent's movie. Eckhart has got to carry the film's themes through his character's growth and change. Most of them come down to moral relativism; a vigilante is only a hero until he steps over the line, or "until he lives long enough to see himself become the villain," to use Dent's words. Batman and the Joker are well-defined on their opposite poles of discipline and chaos, and reveal each other's nature, but change very little.

Dent's caught in the middle. He is a good man, but too idealistic for his morals to survive the reality of Gotham City. Unlike the Joker, origin is everything for Dent. My little brother complained there wasn't enough Two-Face, but the film gets it right: the character is meaningless without Dent's fall. The final showdown with Lt. Gordon's family at gunpoint is perhaps most chilling when Dent asks "You think I want to escape this?", indicating that even in his madness he realizes the immorality of his actions, but is so distraught he wants revenge anyway.

Dent may try to deceive himself, but his crimes are all the more horrific because, unlike the Joker, he is, or was, too decent a man to act above the law. Once he becomes Two-Face, Dent uses "chance" as a rationalization of the violence he wants to commit. While Chigurh's coin flip is at least a true 50/50, Dent loses any semblance of fair when he starts flipping until he gets the result he wants, like when a coin flip spares Maroni, but a second kills his driver and crashes his car.

The Joker wants to prove that everyone has the potential to sink to his level. Batman really is incorruptible, but he is a vigilante, and the public cannot hang their hopes on him. Dent can bring Gotham together, but the loss of his reputation would be devastating. The symbolism of Gordon turning Dent's face over from the scarred to the untouched side as he and Batman decide to preserve his reputation as Gotham's "white knight" may not be subtle, but the melodrama is befitting of a comic film. And, in a roundabout way, it answers the question of who has the right to make such broad moral decisions as the ones the Joker poses.

We can go to Alfred for an answer: "...that's the point of Batman, he can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make, the right choice." The turning over of Dent's face is important because it shows that Dent, like Batman, or any "hero," is most important as a symbol. This is another reason the Joker's threat feels so pressing: unlike other comic movies, where the girl or the city or the planet is in danger, The Dark Knight takes on the very nature of the struggle between good and evil. Aiming for that can so often seem silly, which keeps even the best comic flicks as just comic flicks, The Dark Knight tackles the underlying themes without sacrificing the pace of the tensest, grittiest and most gripping comic adaptation to date.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Concert Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park, Chicago, July 20

(The Aluminum and Connector stages are the main stages, which have hourly sets on the hour. Balance is the side stage, where there are hourly sets that stagger a bit, usually starting around the half-hour mark.)

1:30 p.m. Dirty Projectors (Aluminum)

Low-key but very interesting set. I saw the first 20 minutes or so before heading over for Boris, and I was a bit dizzy from the bizarre vocal harmonies. Band leader Dave Longstreth has got a strange voice, but the combination of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian produces some wonderfully strange melodies. Some unexpected dynamic changes and odd time signatures popping up, as well. Certainly the most worthwhile band I wasn't familiar with that I looked into.

2:00 p.m. Boris (Connector)

Apparently in a Japanese psychedelic metal band, all crowd-hyping responsibilities fall upon the drummer, who works the crowd by waving his white gloves and banging a massive gong. When Boris became the festival's biggest sound problem casualties - only halfway into their allotted hour-long slot, equipment problems stopped them - it was the drummer who abruptly (albeit awesomely) ended the set by jumping up, kicking over his cymbals, and diving into the crowd. Like Animal Collective, a set that was really peaking when it got cut off.

3:00 p.m. The Apples in Stereo (Aluminum)

The Apples in Stereo's set was solid, but the band does not benefit from the rougher edge of a live rock performance. Too much of their charm comes from the studio sheen that gets lost when guitar amps choke out the keys and harmonies. New Magnetic Wonder highlight "7 Stars" lost a lot of it's kick without the shimmering ELO-style effects on the backing vocals, and even stacking the first 20 minutes of the set with other recent "Can You Feel It?" and "Energy" couldn't keep the band from sounding more ordinary; one friend described them as a "more cerebral Weezer." Since the Hold Steady already concerned the weekend market on nerd-rock, the Apples were just a midday time-killer.

3:15 p.m. King Khan & the Shrines (Balance)

Performance of the festival? Perhaps. My only reservation is that seeing Khan at the Bottom Lounge the night before was even better, although he pulled out some new tricks for the big crowd. Not enough people have heard of this guy, but he got people to pelt each other with garbage for one tune, then to wave (and later tear up) dollars bills for "Welfare Bread." If enough people were watching, it could certainly be a pair of breakout performances. His rough garage rock (with something like a nine-piece band here) is enough on its own, but no one all weekend matches Khan's showmanship. Why is a chubby Indian guy singing a gospel song about crawling into a woman's uterus? Is that a blue stormtrooper helmet he just put on? Do you think his cheerleading back-up dancer is single? Why aren't his albums even released in the U.S. yet?

5:00 p.m. Occidental Brothers Dance Band International (Balance)

This group mixes Chicago natives with African musicians, and they held up very well despite a tough spot between Khan and Wu-Tang. A lot more energetic than Vampire Weekend, who played at the same time the day before on a main stage. You haven't heard New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" until you've seen the guy singing it banging along on a gourd. Also a decent substitute for El Guincho, whose cancellation was heartbreaking.

6:00 p.m. Ghostface Killah & Raekwon (Balance)

Ghost and Rae may not have caught GZA's run-through of Liquid Swords last year (the Genius was, in fact, missing a Wu-Tang show in Amsterdam that night, if that decision can be rationalized) but seemed to avoid all the pitfalls that brought his set down. They did have the advantage of a side-stage set, meaning the smaller crowd was packed tight and hyped up, where GZA was preceding a sea of hipsters just staking out spots for Daydream Nation. But where GZA simply demanded loyalty by shouting "let me see them W's!" after every song, Ghost and Rae came bounding right out of the gate. A few 36 Chamber touchstones ("C.R.E.A.M." and "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nothing to Fuck Wit" close to the front) heated the crowd up before the duo plowed through 2-3 minute blocks of tracks off their respective solo efforts. The quick pace and spontaneity never sagged; Ghost dismissed beats he wasn't feeling by frowning to the crowd and giving a thumbs down, while Rae did a cut a capella when the DJ didn't have the track. Even the standard ODB nod at any Wu-Tang show, a run-through of "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," beat last year's. Getting Wu together long enough to run through 36 Chambers would be next to impossible, but Ghost and the Chef seem up to tackle one of their efforts as long as they could keep the off-the-cuff feeling: Cuban Linx or Ironman, anyone? (Some research after I wrote this blurb shows me they actually did the former in London in May. Keep yr fingers crossed!)

7:00 p.m. Spiritualized (Aluminum)

I get why Spoon had to headline, being just good enough that everyone agrees on their being decent, but their set two years ago was a total chore, and the little I caught this year was mostly tired people half-heartedly nodding. The weekend really ended with Spiritualized, who deserved the night skies that Spoon got. A brass section or strings might have helped flesh things out, but the additional of two female gospel singers compensated nicely, especially on "Soul on Fire." The set stayed in a rock mode, including a riveting take on "Come Together" and a noise jam so intense that it apparently shorted the sound system for awhile; it had sounded like a quiet breakdown at first, but when things abruptly cut back in the crowd realized that Spiritualized had overpowered a stage that withheld all of Daydream Nation a year before. Fantastic set with a slightly low-key crowd, but that may be because it's a band to let wash over you, not necessarily to move to; although try telling that to Jason Pierce, who concluded the set by chucking his guitar into the floor like a dart and leaving at the conclusion of the loudest thing to grace Pitchfork's stages this year.

Concert Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park, Chicago, July 19

(The Aluminum and Connector stages are the main stages, which have hourly sets on the hour. Balance is the side stage, where there are hourly sets that stagger a bit, usually starting around the half-hour mark.)

1:30 p.m. Jay Reatard (Aluminum)

My inexperience at navigating Chicago's public transit means I missed the first five minutes of Reatard's set, which is devastating for someone who bangs them out 1234let'sgo Ramones style. I couldn't get far enough up to get into the pit where people were really into it, but even a bit further back his energy is overpowering. An early afternoon main stage set was probably not the best place for him, as evidenced by the contrast between the tiny pit in Union Park and the total havoc he wreaked at the Bottom Lounge at the aftershow (in the best performance of the weekend, bar perhaps King Khan.)

3:00 p.m. Fleet Foxes (Aluminum)

Fleet Foxes into Fuck Buttons into Dizzee Rascal was my most diverse two hour block of the festival. The Foxes' record relies on perfect vocal harmonies and spacious reverb, but the band can replicate it live crisply, even in a less-than-ideal outdoor venue. Well-placed in a midday set, something to sway to with closed eyes and take a much-needed chance to relax in the hot sun.

3:15 p.m. Fuck Buttons (Balance)

The set was delayed a little by sound problems, but the duo compensated with a lot of energy. Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power stare each other down from opposite sides of a large table with all their equipment, looping noise and flailing as they add live percussion and screaming vocals distorted into total incoherence. An electronic noise duo could easily turn into a laptop snoozefest live, but Fuck Buttons keep things manic and mesmerizing at the same time.

4:00 p.m. Dizzee Rascal (Connector)

Dizzee Rascal's talent is disgusting. He's 22, but has enough material off three albums to construct a show that sounds like a run-through of his greatest hits. Dizzee's set effortlessly bounced from his dark instant classic "I Luv U" to the electro of "Stand Up Tall" to the dance floor jam of "Flex" to the classic rock big beat of "Fix Up, Look Sharp" to the fake gangster call-out "Where Da G's At." But who knows if he'll ever truly break stateside. His encore of "Dance Wiv Me" was a little frustrating. It's a number one hit in the U.K., but over here people couldn't be bothered to hang around for an extra three minutes before catching Vampire Weekend. To be fair, while he had the crowd he worked them well, and the amount of people shouting his name back at him in "Jus' a Rascal" gives some hope. Another top-notch hip-hop set in what becomes the trend for the weekend.

7:00 p.m. The Hold Steady (Aluminum)

For a moment I struggled on what to say about the Hold Steady. What they do isn't complicated - glossy rock with big hooks - but what's impressive is that I had not listened to the band before about two weeks ago, and just spinning Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive in the background on my way to and from work prepared me to sing along to nearly every chorus in their set. I didn't care about the band two weeks ago, and there I was, seven rows back, pumping my fist and chanting. Convert that to thousands who thought they made one of the best records of 2006 and know every word to every song, and the crowd energy is overwhelming.

8:00 p.m. Jarvis Cocker (Connector)

Trying to headline the Connector stage against the crowd favorite triple-header of Vampire Weekend-Hold Steady-Animal Collective over on Aluminum is a difficult task, but Cocker's showmanship matched any of them without even touching on a Pulp song (although Titus Andronicus reportedly opened the day with a cover of "Common People.") How a skinny Brit in a navy blue suit and thick black rims was the suavest guy at the festival isn't easy to explain, although moves like the world's slickest disrobing sure helped.

9:00 p.m. Animal Collective (Aluminum)

The Animal Collective are getting way out there with their live performances now, pushing electronic loops as the basis of their material, most of which is new (I only took note of "Peacebone" and "Fireworks" off Strawberry Jam, in addition to the surprise inclusion of Panda Bear's "Comfy in Nautica.") It's impressive not only that the Animal Collective is pushing for such a departure in sound (as if they weren't experimenting to begin with), but that they retain a large fanbase who follows them through their experiments. As aforementioned, the set abruptly ended at around 10 with Avey Tare politely apologizing for the band's curfew, just as the crowd's trance seemed to be heightened. While it lasted, however, the hour-long swirl was the perfect end to the day.

Concert Review: Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park, Chicago, July 18

(The Aluminum and Connector stages are the main stages, which have hourly sets on the hour. Balance is the side stage, where there are hourly sets that stagger a bit, usually starting around the half-hour mark.)

6:00 p.m. Mission of Burma performing Vs. (Connector)

Burma had the silliest approach to doing a classic album, playing the four bonus tracks before actually starting the proper album and punctuating the set with prerecorded vinyl crackle to represent flipping the record over. Perhaps not as essential as their set two years ago, but only because the specific setlist meant the absence of the Signals, Calls and Marches heavy-hitters. There was one big improvement: two years ago, Burma cut "Trem Two" from their setlist because Roger Miller's loop pedal overheated and malfunctioned, but the rain earlier in the day must have kept the stage cool enough not to melt their equipment. Burma plays with more grit despite their age, their records are still as progressive as any contemporary bands, and they were built to play as a whole all the way through, making them a great fit for a Don't Look Back set.

7:15 p.m. Sebadoh performing Bubble and Scrape (Connector)

Poor album choice aside - it seems like a recent Bubble and Scrape
reissue helped edge this over their classic Bakesale - Sebadoh's set was a welcome return from the slightly undersung indie rock heroes, and provided and an interesting peek into how the band's dysfunctional dynamics (read: weed) made the group so frustrating. Lou Barlow took two minutes between every song to retune, while a glassy-eyed Eric Gaffney giggled from behind the drumkit. It did, however, make for an entertaining set, especially because once the band ripped into a song they usually played very tightly. They got a little sloppier as the night went on; on Bubble and Scrape, "Elixir is Zog" thrives on the back-and-forth between quavering and screamed vocals, but live Gaffney hummed his way through it in a drowsy monotone. It was also mildly disappointing that Sebadoh was the only Friday night act not to squeeze in any encore selections (although a request "The Freed Pig" could have made that Sunday night Dinosaur Jr. set a little awkward.)

8:30 p.m. Public Enemy performing It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Aluminum)

First, a minor complaint: the Bomb Squad's pump-up-the-crowd, we-ain't-bringing-Public-Enemy-out-til-you-make-some-fucking-noise routine somehow started up before Sebadoh even finished their album and then continued to run for nearly half an hour before Chuck D even dragged himself on stage. More on this later. Flav's absence in body, if not prerecord vocals, made "Bring the Noise" a bit bizarre, but once the hit the stage the set had the crowd in a frenzy. His role as comedic foil adds some interesting dimensions to the live show, whether it's: 1.) countering the jeers he got for a cheap plug for whatever reality show with the psuedosensical "Boo? What are you, motherfucking ghosts?" 2.) constantly drawing attention to his vocals, Flav was a riot (Psst: If you're going to lip-synch, don't do it with your face in the lens of the Jumbotron camera) or 3.) inexplicably telling us how great some album called A Nation of a Millions is. Also interesting was that the group actually takes the Don't Look Back booking pretty seriously, giving trivia and historical information about each song and really giving the crowd a reason to feel they're hearing a historic album. (Millions being the Pitchfork classic album selection with the most actual pop-culture impact helps, too.) A lengthy encore kept the crowd going, as a belligerent Flav disregarded the 10:00 p.m. curfew and declared the band would play til they got shut down. They didn't, but the next night Animal Collective would be suddenly stopped at 9:55 p.m. Did we really need 30 minutes of the Bomb Squad to prepare us for a set that was going to be two hours long? But this is how you do a Don't Look Back set, and Public Enemy handily wins the honors for best of Friday night.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Initial reactions to the new design's new look has most of the tell-tale signs of a bad Web site redesign. What should be the real purpose — easy access to data about listening habits, and lots of it — is no longer the site's main function. The top most recently listened tracks used to be visible at the top of a user's profile, but now the list cannot be seen without scrolling down the browser. Old profiles showed the top 50 overall songs and artists, which can be adjusted, but the default is now just fifteen. And the expanded overall charts only seem to go to 200, down from 500. That's 300 overall top artists and top songs that users no longer have access to, not matter how the settings are adjusted. How can removing content be seen as an upgrade?

Apparently, thinks users are less interested in scrobbling and having access to their own charts than they are with turning into an underdeveloped and unnecessary social networking site: the Shoutbox is creeping up the bottom of the screen like a mutated MySpace comments box, and do we really need a Facebook-esque recent activity section?

The only plus to the new direction is the increased focus on in-site listening. The top tracks playlist high on people's profiles, but they seem slow to load, and there's already a lot of mistakes with songs where the playlist will include a live cut or a remix that is clearly not the intended song.

No precedent comes to mind of a Web site reverting to an older layout after doing a redesign, no matter how much the users complain, but the least can do is restore the full scope of the charts instead of cutting info out, even if they keep the eyesore design.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

No. 1 Single Reviews: "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry

How can a song called "I Kissed a Girl" be so utterly sexless and sterile?

It's certainly not for a lack of trying. The arrangement tries to straddle a line between rock and electroclash, but the processed guitars are dulled of any edge, and the synths are sterilized. The music video tries even harder, beginning with Perry literally stroking a pussy(cat) in the clumsiest metaphor in a No. 1 single since, well, since "Lollipop" was on top two weeks before it.

A quick look at Jill Sobule's 1995 single of the same name shows why Perry fails. It's not a great song, but it's cute enough, and Sobule's innocence is far more erotic than Perry's showboating. Sobule saves the titular lyric for the end of the chorus, as if she's shyly admitting her kiss the first time. Perry whips the line out right as the chorus starts, and repeats it over and over, crassly flaunting it in a weak attempt at sex appeal.

While Sobule actually thinks to include some flirtation before the kiss, Perry's courtship is limited to the admission "I got so brave drink in hand/Lost my discretion." That's right: she's that college sophomore spilling her drink and putting on a little show with her girlfriend at a kegger to rile the guys up. Replace the video's lingerie-clad background dancers with a ring of frat boy's chugging and cheering her on, and you're closer to Perry's true intentions.

That's probably why it's a number one hit; the average American radio listener isn't interested in a single that treats female homosexuality on terms other than a Girls Gone Wild one-off make-out session that exists only for the sake of the audience.

Covers: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" (and others) by Fiona and Emily

Sitting on a mattress, leaning against a bare wall, two British girls stare blankly into the camera, their vacant looks suggesting sedation, or perhaps abduction into a cult. The poor video quality gives the whole thing a slightly psychedelic tinge. The girls are singing Radiohead's "Street Spirit (Fade Out)", and it's really, really good.

They are Emily, 16, and Fiona, 13, two English girls who "like to sing and play songs for you all to watch and hopefully enjoy on youtube!" Outside of the strange videos, they seem like normal enough girls with normal enough interests. According to their Web site, they both love McFly and the Beatles, although Emily - somewhat bizzarely for a British teen - lists Lynyrd Skynyrd as one of her favorite groups. They're both fine singers, and Emily's guitar work usually supports even songs with more layered arrangements just fine.

Yet there's something off. Maybe it's the slight dissonance of their harmonies, which makes every song slightly eerie. Maybe it's the nervous way Fiona habitually and intently glances away in the videos - checking the lyrics, presumably. Maybe it's the fact that a thirteen year-old shouldn't be singing lyrics like "Rows of houses all bearing down on me/I can feel their blue hands touching me/All these things into position/All these things we'll one day swallow hole."

Maybe it's the fact that she's convincing when she does.

Other account highlights include: the wildly inappropriate way Fiona bounces on the edge of her bed as she croons the voyeuristic lyrics of the "Mr. Brightside,"; their unnerving, warbling "la la" harmonies on "Horse With No Name,"; the insanity of the girls doing the "ooooo!" noises in the chorus of "I Am the Walrus,"; and Fiona's oddly blank stare in "Wonderwall" (Challenge: make it through the first ten seconds while matching her death gaze into the camera.)