Wednesday, February 29, 2012

memories of colorwar

It's funny how memory works. I can't remember a joke I heard yesterday. But a colorwar song from summer camp, 35 (or so) years ago can force itself into my head and I can't shake it. As part of a group, I had to sing this over and over until we knew it cold. But, after colorwar was over -- what? a week later? -- I haven't had to sing it since. We were at Camp Moshava, our team was "salt" and the other team was "sugar." The song was sung to the tune of "Anachnu" Na'avor" ("We Shall Pass") by the Duda'im -- an Israeli pop song from 1967. It was specifically from the Six-Day War, and it was a proud declaration that we will get through the Straits of Tiran. I still remember every word of the colorwar song:

We put a lot of salt
On everything we eat.
And that is why we are
The team that can't be beat.
We have lots of ru'ach
Because we are malu'ach
Sugar is sweet but salt is neat!
Anachnu na'aleh
B'col sheh na'aseh
Malu'ach hachi tovah
B'macabe'at Moshava
Malu'ach, white and brown
We never let you down.
And that is why we say
We're sure to win today.
So let us stand and shout
We'll empty sugar out!
Sugar is sweet but salt is neat!
Anachnu na'aleh...
For the record, "ru'ach" means spirit and "malu'ach" means salty.

The chorus, translated means:
We shall excel
In everything we do
Malu'ach is the best
In Moshava's colorwar.
All these years later, I still remember this as well as any song I've ever learned.

You can hear the original song here:

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

knitting on the roof

Since getting the boxes and boxes of CDs from Freecycle (see post), I've been going through them to decide what to keep and what to give away. Basically, I keep it if there's anything on it that I like.

One disc I listened to tonight is Knitting on the Roof. KotR is sort of a tribute to the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, with each song from that show reinterpreted by a different avant-garde artist. The name is a play on the fact that it was put out by Knitting Factory Records, the house label of the Manhattan club, the Knitting Factory.

Most of the tracks on this are just jaw-droppingly horrendous. The banjo-base rendition of "Miracle of Miracles" keeps changing tempo seemingly at random. "Do You Love Me?" is reinvented as a phone conversation with. It's got instrumentation in the background, and if you listen carefully you can kind of make out strands of the song's melody. Kind of. When the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars sing "Tradition," they change the words: "At three I started Hebrew school / At ten I smoked some weed / I hear they found a bride for me / I hope she puts out." Very clever, boys. And then there's the Residents' version of "Matchmaker, Matchmaker." I've never liked the Residents. Your mileage may vary. You be the judge:

There are two exceptions. Jill Sobule's rendition of "Sunrise, Sunset" sounds like, well, everything else Jill Sobule does. It's not really bad, but I'm not sure that that baby-doll delivery works well here. The one good track is Magnetic Fields doing "If I Were a Rich Man." Stephen Merritt's monotone is mesmerizing here, in the same way that Johnny Cash was in those final recordings he did with Rick Rubin.

The funny thing is that my wife has been a fan of Magnetic Fields since before I met her. She tells of how she used to go see them play at The Middle East in Cambridge. She'd sit on the stage and he would insult her clothing. I've given a listen here and there, but I never really took to them. This, however, could start me on the road to fandom. And it alone is enough to make me keep the album.

Monday, February 27, 2012

come, let's go to the game

About a week ago I blogged about a Chassidish version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." In that post, I mentioned that I was singing "Take Me Out..." in Hebrew. Someone posted a comment, asking why I was singing it at work, where I got it, and if it's on a CD somewhere. Taking those questions out of order: I am not aware of any CD recording of it. I was singing it at work because I sometimes absent-mindedly sing while I walk or do work. It's not like I was at a board meeting or anything. I can see that:
CEO: Brockmore! What are the projections for the Fleeblefop file?
Brockmore: (softly) You ain't nothin' but a hounddog. Crying all the time.
I also sing (hum, actually) in the dentist chair. But that's another story.

Anyway, I came upon the Hebrew version quite on purpose. I used to go to a lot of baseball games. Since they sing "Take Me Out..." during the seventh inning stretch, I thought it would be funny to sing it in Hebrew. I originally thought of doing that with "The Star Spangled Banner" at the beginning of the game, but quickly decided that that was too disrespectful.

I enlisted the help of a friend at work who knows Hebrew -- though he grew up writing English, he's become womething of a Hebrew poet. He's been published. I understand he's quite good, though I am ill-equipped to judge. Together we went through the song and translated it line by line. Of course, there are places where the translation is loose, but that's reasonable.

Following are: the Hebrew version written in Hebrew (spelling may be off -- sorry), the Hebrew version transliterated into English, and the Hebrew version translated back to English:

First, in Hebrew:

בא, נצא למשחק
בא, נצא להמון
קנה לי בוטנים ו'קרקר ד'קס
אין אכפת לי אם אף פעם לא נחזור
נשיר הידד לפועל
אם לא מנצחים זה חבל
באחת, שתיים, שלוש מפסידים באצטדיון
Next, transliterated into English:
Bo, netzeh lamischak
Bo, netzeh lahamon
K'neh li botnim v'cracker jacks
Ain Echpat li im af pa'am lo nachzor
Nashir heidad lapo'el
Im lo m'natzchim zeh haval
Be'achat, shta'im, shalosh mafsidim ba'etztadyon
Finally, translated back to English:
Come, let's go to the game
Come, let's go to the crowd
Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks
It doesn't matter to me if we never et back
We'll sing hooray for the team
If they don't win it's a shame
With one, two, three misses at the stadium

Sunday, February 26, 2012

lovely wrapping on an icky present

One of my favorite songs is "Marie Provost," from Nick Lowe's debut album, Pure Pop for Now People (for purists or Brits, that would be Jesus of Cool). It's got such a pleasant sound -- jangly guitars, bouncy beat, and harmonies on the vocal. And I don't sing it or play it if my wife's around, since she loathes the song.

Why? Well, there is the subject matter. "Marie Provost," tells the story of a silent film actress who can't make the transition to talkies. She dies destitute, and is eaten by her hungry dog. The signature couplet is "She was a winner / Who became her doggie's dinner." The song is based very loosely on the life and death of actress Marie Prevost. Her dog didn't actually eat her, her legs did have tiny bite marks when her body was found. Presumably her dog was trying to wake her. I provide that detail only to avoide impugning the collective reputation of dogs.

You can hear the song here:

"Marie Provost" is one of many songs that sound very pleasant but are, well, icky, if you pay attention to the lyrics. A better known example is Billy Joel's "Always a Woman":
"And she'll promise you more than the Garden of Eden / And she'll carelessly cut you and life while you're bleedin'"? Not exactly a great character reference. But he's singing softly, almost wistfully. The piano is pleasant. So it's easy, if you're not paying attention, to miss how truly angry the song is.

One more example... "Every Breath You Take," (AKA The Stalker Song) by the Police. In interviews, Sting has said that occasionally he hears of couples using this as a wedding song. Now that's creepy.

If anyone has other examples of this, songs that sound all pleasant but are actually icky, I'd be curious to have them brought to my attention.

I ahve to wonder, sometimes, if listening to unpleasant messages like this affect the way one views the world? Is such an effect mitigated if one isn't really paying attention? Or is it actually reinforced because it takes on a subliminal quality?

Anyone out there studied the psychology of music?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

musical guests on tv shows

The celebrity guest appearance is an easy ploy for TV shows to use. There's a certain excitement to the guest star that can boost ratings, and the guest star gets some additional exposure. It's easy. Almost as easy as a blogger posting a list of things such as celebrity guest appearances on TV shows.

Anyway, the following are ten memorable appearances by singers or bands on regular TV shows. The order of presentation is not meant to imply an preference. These are in alphabetical order by the name of the show.

1) Batman: Chad and Jeremy
This harmonic duo has their voices stolen by Catwoman. Funny how nobody seems to notice as she and her henchmen stroll onto the stage. FWIW, Paul Revere and the Raiders appear in another episode of Batman, trying to rally electoral support for Penguin. Also, Chad and Jeremy also performed on The Dick Van Dyke Show. But that was as "The Redcoats." Here, though, are Chad and Jeremy on Batman:

2) The Brady Bunch: Davy Jones
Usually the first such guest appearance anyone of my demographic mentions. This was after the Monkees had broken up and Jones' stock was at an ebb. Still, a credible song.

3) The Flintstones: Ann-Margret (as Ann-Margrock)
In this list I not willing to include performers' appearances in which they play characters other than themselves. That's why Suzi Quatro's appearances on Happy Days (as Leather Tuscadero) don't count. I make an exception here only because the Flintstones had a pattern of renaming people and places to include some geologic reference. For the purposes of that show, appearing as Ann-Margrock is essentially the same as appearing as herself. In one part of the episode she sings Pebbles to sleep. As good as that lullabye is, it can't hold a candle to "Ain't Gonna Be a Fool":

4) Here's Lucy: Donny Osmond
Donny performs two numbers (the first as a solo, exciting an obviously-enamored Eve Plumb. The second, as a duet with Lucie Arnaz). He reminds me of a second-rate Vegas lounge crooner.

5) I Dream of Jeannie: Boyce and Hart
Best known as the songwriting duo behind some of the Monkees' biggest hits, Boyce & Hart were also performers in their own right and had some chart success of their own.They were also not above making guest appearances, having done so on The Flying Nun, Bewitched an I Dream of Jeannie. The last of these is my favorite because of the way they managed to subtly milk their Monkees connection. The covers of the first three Monkees albums are shown within the first fifteen seconds of the first clip below (The Monkees is the album that Bobby Hart is holding when Jeannie blinks him to her home -- you can see that at 13 seconds; At five seconds in, both More of the Monkees -- in the rightmost bin -- and Headquarters -- above his right shoulder -- are visible at 5 seconds in. Meanwhile, a jazzy version of "Last Train to Clarksville" is playing in the background. In the second clip, you can see the cover of Davy Jones' pre-Monkees solo album attached to the wall. It's above and to the right of Jeannie's head at the beginning of the clip It's clearly visible again, in front of Jeannie's face as she plays the drums, 53 seconds in:

6) The Munsters: The Standells
This was before the Standells' big success with "Dirty Water," which I suppose is why they performed a Beatles song for this guest appearance. Oh, and that's writer/actor/director/producer, Zalman King, as the bearded man:

7) The Odd Couple: Jaye P. Morgan
You know, I agree with Felix. Jaye's interpretation of the song is way too slow.
8) The Simpsons: The Ramones
The Simpsons featured a bunch of musical segments over the course of its run. There was the time Homer managed singer Lurleen Lumpkin. There was Homer's old vocal group, the Be Sharps. And there was the psychiatric patient who nthought he was Michael Jackson. This was my favorite:

9) Square Pegs: The Waitresses
New wave music was a big part of this Square Pegs. Devo appeared in a later episode. And in one episode, Johnny Slash formed a band (called Open 24 Hours), including John Densmore (formerly the drummer for the Doors). Throughout that episode, Densmore is referred to as the drummer from the Doors. But I liked the Waitresses's appearance best:

10) What's Happening!!: The Doobie Brothers
Raj and company take on the thorny issue of music piracy. Who says What's Happening!! didn't have gravitas? This appearance is noteworthy because of its shear length. Rather than one song and out, the Doobies did a miniconcert. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

the band that fits on a bicycle

It was December, 2007. I was visiting Tucson, Arizona, with the family. We were wandering around the Fourth Avenue Street Fair (a semiannual event). I was bored.

Then I noticed a band playing on a corner. It was three guys, dressed in fashions that made them look like they were from the 1850s, playing fiddle, mandolin and washboard (or was it fiddle, guitar and washboard? I don't quite remember).The idiosyncratic style, combined with the raw enthusiasm were an engaging mix. But what really hooked me was the song, "Sweet Heaven When I Die." That convinced me to get the album they were selling. Funny thing is, I watched for a while before deciding to buy the disc. During that time, no one bought any. Then, when I did, it was like the seal was broken. I guess I was sort of like the first hungry guest at a buffet reception. Once I bought a disc, they all went pretty quickly. The Disk identified the band as The Dusty Buskers.

The album was what one might call a DIY job. CD-R labelled with a Sharpee, and a simple insert card in one of the half-thickness CD cases. When they took a break between songs, I heard one guy tell another to go to Kinko's and make more copies. But when I got to the car and started listening, it was wonderful! It was raw and underproduced, but it captured the spirit that I had just seen. It was sort of the folk music equivalent of hard lemonade. But they can explain it better than I can:
Here is their video for "Sail Away Ladies":

And here's a live version of "Sugar Hill":
So some time went by. Most of the time when I buy a CD from a street performer, I don't have any contact with them. But a year later I decided to look them up on line, and found that they had signed with Old Bisbee Records, and had an album out, called The Life and Times of Dusty Buskers. Of course neither their website nor that of their record company seemed to have any way for me to, um, you know, buy the album. MBA students take note: This is not considered best practice.

A few emails later, and I had a check in the mail to Fiddlin' Phoenix (he plays fiddle and mustache for the group) for the album. It was cleaner than the first album, which I had been informed consisted of their demos. But it didn't quite have the same energy.

Since then, there have been two more albums, A Hypomanic Evening with the Dusty Buskers and Buskin', both of which I was only able to buy after emailing Fiddlin' Phoenix. What I said about best practices? Still aplies.

Of the three "real" albums, my favorite is Hypomanic. It was recorded live at a radio station in Tucson, and released as a limited edition item. I especially love the fact that they did "Punk Rock Girls" (a Dead Milkmen song) and "I Don't Want to Grow Up" (a Tom Waits number that I knew via The Ramones), but in their old-timey style.

I generally get to Tucson once a year, but so far haven't been able to see them in concert (except for during that glorious afternoon performance on Fourth Avenue four years ago. If only we can get them to come to New York.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

take me out to the rebbe's tisch

The other day, at work, I was walking in a hallway and absent-mindedly singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in Hebrew. I didn't realize it was loud enough for anyone to hear. But a colleague called me back to ask if I'd heard the Chassidish version. Since I hadn't he sang it for me...

Take me out to the rebbe's tisch.
Take me out to the tisch.
Drink with the rebbe l'chaim.
Eat some shiraim.
Take me out to the rebbe's tisch.
Eat gefilte fish.
'Cos it's 1! 2! 3! gabaim
at the rebbe's tisch.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

on mourning a dead star

My post a week or so ago about Whitney Houston's death elicited a comment from someone noting (favorably) the fact that I didn't call it a tragedy. I called it untimely, which I think is reasonably justifiable. A tragedy? No.

But the comment reminded me of some thoughts I have regarding how we react to musicians' deaths. To celebrity deaths in general, I guess. But this blog is ostensibly about music, so I'll try to stick to musicians. (I'll admit, I was tempted when Gary Carter died last week to post the video of "Let's Go Mets Go" so I could comment on Carter and tie it in to music.

I remember when John Lennon died. I was in high school, and many classmates were mourning. One even took a week off from school to sit shiva (the Jewish ritual of weeklong mourning over a dead relative). I never quite got this. Sure, I liked John Lennon's music -- some of it anyway. I still do. But he wasn't a messiah or a family member. He was a musician.

One may say that the problem is that I wasn't a big Lennon fan. I just admitted, afterall, in a kind of lukewarm way that I liked "some" of his music. Fair enough. I didn't mourn when Lee Brilleaux (of Dr. Feelgood) died in 1994. I felt sad about it. And there's a wistfullness as it reminds me of my own mortality and my lost youth. But I don't mourn the death of a singer and musician, however talented he may have been, whom I have never met and have never had any relationship with.

When my grandparents died, I mourned. When my parents die I will mourn. If I outlive them, I will mourn the deaths of my wife, my sister and (God forbid) my children. But musicians? My favorite musicians? Nick Lowe? Dave Edmunds? Wreckless Eric? No.

 I was called heartless and uncaring for what was perceived as a lack of sufficient grief when Lennon died. However, I think we trivialize the concept of mourning and familial closeness when we confuse our interest in a musician (even if we say "love" colloquially) with what we feel for our loved ones

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

At what point is it a different band? (part 3)

Awhile ago (here and here) I talked about the question of when a band has changed enough that, even with the same name, it's a different band. In those posts I looked at specific issues with specific bands. In the first, I considered Dr. Feelgood, a band that -- through a variety of personnel changes -- no longer contains any of its original members. In the second, I considered Ducks Deluxe, a band that broke up in 1975 and reunited more than thirty years later.

In a more general sense, the question of whether a band is still really the same band comes down to who is the creative force, and who gives the band its sound. Granted, that's all kind of vague, which leaves lots of room for debate.

People often refer to "early Beatles" or "late Beatles" to distinguish, because the band's later psychedelic sound was so vastly different from the earlier merseybeat. Heck, even when they made Abbey Road, trying to back to their earlier style, they produced a record that bore little resemblance to their early material. But because of the continuity -- no breakups and no change in personnel (at least once they got famous) -- no one thinks of them as different bands.So, could the Beatles have replaced anyone and still been truly the Beatles? Lennon and McCartney were the creative axis. George Harrison was, by far, the best musician in the group, and Ringo gave the band its goofy factor. So it's easy to say that each of the four was a necessary ingredient in the band.

the Merseybeat Beatles

The psychedelic Beatles
But I don't think so. I'll buy Lennon and McCartney -- each was necessary for the band to truly be the Beatles. But Harrison? As good as he was, he could have been replaced. There are lots of other good guitarists who could have stepped in. And similarly, Ringo could have been replaced. I'll note that for a time it was thought that all four members of the Who were essential. But when Keith Moon died, he was replaced by Kenney Jones and the band played on. I'll admit that there were some (purists?) who didn't accept it. But there are also some who haven't come to terms with the idea of Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett. Backing up to the Who, though, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend are the essential ingredients. I realize, of course, that events being what they are, I'm not going out on much of a limb by saying that.

To take an example from the other end of the spectrum, there's Squeeze. The band has gone through more lineup changes than anyone would care to remember. But through it all they remained Squeeze because Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook were there.

Monday, February 20, 2012

freecycle jackpot! (part 2)

Technically, it wasn't Freecylce. But the idea's the same. A friend's husband is doing carpentry in a house in East Hampton. The ownerwants to sell the home, and wanted it emptied. He didn't want to bother selling things. So our friend posted on facebook all this free stuff that was in need of new homes. We're talking bicycles, furniture, art, clothing, ceramic tile. And, of course, the subject of this post: Two big metal CD stands full of CDs.

There were fewer discs than the last haul (which I wrote about here). But this was more closely aligned to my taste. As before, there are a few discs that I already have (e.g., Schoolhouse Rock Rocks, Saturday Morning Cartoon's Greatest Hits and Elvis Costello's Blood & Chocolate), and I'll be passing these duplicates along.

There are some that I'm reasonably confident I won't like (Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin). But I'll give them a listen just in case.

There are a lot of CDs that I'm excited to be getting. Three are as follows:

  • Black 47 -- Home of the Brave: I have Black 47's debut, Fire of Freedom, and I've loved it ever since buying it. The combination of rock and rap with Celtic influences was fresh and innovative when it came out, and it's still a great listen. But for some reason I never bought any of their other material. I read a review of one other album. That was a very positive review, but it was clear that the reviewer loved the album before hearing it, so I didn't put much weight in it. Now, I guess I'll find out how the followup to HotB was.
  • Blink 182 -- Enema of the State: I saw a couple of their videos years ago, and thought the songs were catchy. I never did buy any of the albums, though. I guess I was waiting to get one for free.
  • Various Artists -- Pure Disco 2: There's a bunch of great tracks on this: "Last Dance," "Upside Down" and "Play That Funky Music." But the big thing for me is that The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" is represented. I had the single back in the days of vinyl, and have missed it since I don't have it on CD. Or, rather, I didn't until today.
I will say there's one thing frustrating here. I found there are a bunch of jewel cases that have the insert and everything, but no disc. There are others with the disc but no booklet. And there are some with the wrong disc in them. I suppose that makes sense since this is all coming from some single guy's home. On the other hand, more than half of the discs (including the three listed above) are still factory-sealed.

By the way, As I write this, I am listening to Songs in the Key of Springfield, a collection of music sequences from The Simpsons TV show.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

my daughter the songwriter

OK, it may not be Cole Porter. And I realize that other kids do this kind of thing. But I can't help feeling a surge of parental pride when I see that my daughter is playing with music and songwriting. Her impromptu tribute to her friend and to her cat has me beaming with pride.

So, is this how Bob Dylan started?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

cd review: longhorns: original motion picture soundtrack

Longhorns, the movie, is a sexual coming (out) of age comedy -- sort of a gay-themed Porky's / Fast Times at Ridgemont High type of production, set in Texas in the 1980s.

With the movie modeled on the 1980s sexcoms, HP Mendoza (who was tasked with creating the soundtrack) set out to make an album that was similarly modeled on the soundtracks to the 1980s sexcoms. That means lots of different tracks by a bunch of different bands.

Now, that's not to say that this is a travelogue of 1980's styles. There's no hair-metal, ska or punk rock. This is an album full of late new wave electro-pop. None of this would sound out of place on a Pet Shop Boys album. 

Actually, what a lot of the music sounds like is HP Mendoza's music sifted through a 1980's synth-pop filter. And that makes perfect sense, since central conceit of the album -- that it's a compilation of various artists -- is basically an inside joke. The featured bands -- Queerious, Analog Crafts Night and Orel Bernstein among them -- are all, in fact, Mendoza.

Mendoza crafted a catchy, engaging collection. The music is danceable and compelling. His penchant for clever wordplay is less evident here than in other works of his, especially the soundtrack to Colma: The Musical. Still and all, there are plenty of good double-entendres. My favorite track is "Race the Storm," which has a slight country flavor -- the only taste of country music in the soundtrack, despite the movie's Texas setting.

The only weak spots on the album are the last three tracks, which are score pieces, which aren't designed to stand on their own as music the way the other tracks are.

In case you care, here's the trailer for Longhorns

Friday, February 17, 2012

a backward view due to weird al

I was at the supermarket, and the radio playing background music started playing "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys came on. I didn't recognize it as the Backstreet Boys. I just new it as the song that "Weird Al" Yankovic parodied with his song, "eBay."

Earlier in the day I was with my daughter in the waiting room at doctor's office and Billy Joel's "Vienna" came on the radio. I pointed out to my daughter that the song was by the same guy who did "Piano Man," which Weird Al parodied into "Spider Man." Let me note for the record that I am aware that the Weird Al song is called "Ode to a Superhero." But for reference I find it easier to just call it "Spider Man." We had been talking about royalties, and how songwriters get paid when people put their songs on records. She asked me if Weird Al gets royalties for "Piano Man." She was surprised to learn that "Spider Man" was based on "Piano Man," and not vice versa.

As background, I should explain that we have most of Weird Al's work, and we keep copies of his albums in the car. We didn't used to. But on a family road trip in 2010 our youngest child (who was then two years old) took a strong liking to Weird Al, a few of whose songs were on Doctor Demento compilations that we had brought along. At one point he decided that he liked "Smells Like Nirvana," and had us play that over and over again for hours straight. Mostly he would say "again" every time the song ended. Sometimes he would be distracted when the song ended, and we would hear the beginning of the next song. But eventually he would notice and insist that we go back. At other times he wanted repeated playings of "Weasel Stomping Day," and at others it was "Amish Paradise."

But this past year, on roadtrip 2011, it was "Spiderman." He loves the character and anything about him, so of course he wanted repeat playings of the song. And more repeat playings of the song. And still more repeat playings of the song. At one point I put on the radio and we heard "Piano Man." It was during the instrumental break, and he was all happy until we heard Billy Joel's vocals.

So we, as a family, have a backward view of Weird Al. There are a bunch of his parodies that we are very familiar with, while we have at best a passing awareness of the original work. I love "White & Nerdy," while being unfamiliar with Chamillionaire's "Ridin'." And I can't say what "TMZ" and "Party in the CIA" are parodies of. Admittedly, though, there have been cases where an appreciation of one of his parodies led me to look up and appreciate the original work. I have a new appreciation of Coolio after hearing his song, "Gangsta's Paradise." I only found interest in that because of "Amish Paradise."

Now, part of that is a function of age. At 46 I am not as up on what's cool as I was at 18. When it comes to the songs he parodied on In 3-D, which was released when I was 18, I was pretty familiar with all of those. Of course, in a bunch of cases I still liked the Weird Al parodies better.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

government waste and creepiness in boston

The Boston Public Health Commission has something called the "Start Strong Initiative," which has the goal of preventing abuse in teen relationships. Actually, rather than paraphrasing, I'd rather quote the website:
The Start Strong Initiative aims to stop teen dating abuse before it starts. We focus on teaching 11-14 year olds teen dating violence prevention strategies and healthy relationships skills. By including Boston young people in every part of the programming, from planning to implementation, we are making sure that we are not just talking about teens. We are talking to them and with them and helping them become part of the solution to the very serious issue of teen dating violence.
The goal of preventing abuse in relationships is, certainly, laudable. But I am skeptical of the possibility that the Public Health Commission can make a difference, and I am also doubtful that this is where their resources should be going.

Part of their initiative is to get teens to select their music with an ear toward the healthiness or unhealthiness of its portrayal of relationships. To that end, they are comparing music to food, recommending an emphasis on consuming music with healthful ingredients. The following video explains it, but first let me note that I find this extremely creepy:

On the BPHC website, they have a recommended procedure. Teens should research their music, printing out the lyrics and comparing the relationship elements present to a list of positive elements and a list of negative elements. After scoring the songs relative to the elements on the lists, the listener (I suppose I should say prospective listener, since this is presumably done before actually listening to the song or watching the video) can sum the scores and get a song's overall relationship health score, which gives an indication as to whether the song is good to listen to. Just as we wouldn't want a diet full of nothing but empty calories, we wouldn't want a musical diet full of nothing but bad depictions of relationships Let me note here that I find this extremely creepy.

Yeah, that's gonna succeed...

Sarcasm aside, I should note that the Initiative's teen task force (my phraseology, not theirs) has scoured the Billboard Hot 100 and come up with their lists of the best and worst songs for 2009, 2010 and 2011. Let me note here that I find this extremely creepy

Now, if they really want to affect what songs teens listen to, what they have to do is identify the popular kids and pay them to listen exclusively to the "healthy" songs. Don't get me wrong, I'm not recommending they do such a thing. But that would have more chance of success than what they are currently recommending. Let me note here that I find this extremely creepy.

Did I mention that I find this extremely creepy?

Monday, February 13, 2012

t'nu li rock 'n roll

I like a lot of Israeli pop music. My two favorite bands from the 1980s are Benzeen and T-Slam (בנזין and תיסלם for Hebrew readers), though neither of these bands has what one would call an extensive body of recorded work. If I am not mistaken, Each of these groups put out two studio albums before breaking up. Other bands did a lot more, but just didn't appeal to me nearly as much. I'm thinking specifically of Mashina (משינה). I have more than half a dozen albums of theirs, and I know there are others I don't have. But their flavor of ska-influenced rock isn't really my favorite.

Anyway, one of my favorite tracks, by T-Slam is "תנו לי רוקנרול" ("Gimme Rock 'N Roll," pronounced "T'nu Rock 'N Roll"). See the video:

There's something funny about a song denigrating disco while relying on a heavy disco beat.

A couple of decades ago, in preparation for a summertime party on a lake, I made a special mix tape that had nothing but this song played over and over. I gave it to the host to play, without explaining it. First track didn't phase people. Neither did the second. But gradually people started realizing that they were hearing the same song over and over. By the end of the tape I had a whole lawn full of people -- most of whom are not Jewish and have no experience with Hebrew -- singing along to the chorus (or at least the first two lines of it): "T'nu li, t'nu li rock 'n roll / T'nu li t'nu li rock 'n roll."

I remember when I first got this album I was puzzling over the lyrics to the last verse:
הושבת אותי בחדר

אתמול עד מאוחר
לשמוע אנדוניבי
של אנשי הכפר
The first two lines were easy to figure out: "She sat me in a room / Yesterday until late." But I couldn't figure out the last two lines. It took a friend at work (who knows Hebrew better than I do) to figure it out. The last two lines are supposed to mean "To listen to 'In the Navy' / By the Village People." But what made it interesting is that they transliterated "In The Navy" and Hebraicized the pronunciation to "Indo Navy," but "The Village People" was translated to "Anshei Hak'far" which means, literally, "the People of the Village."

Funny thing, on their compilation album, there is an English version of this song, but the translation is loose, due in part to the need to rhyme and keep rhythm and in part to the nontranslatability of idioms.  

freecycle jackpot!

I hit the Freecycle jackpot, Saturday. Someone gave us boxes and boxes of CDs and DVDs. We're talking well over a thousand CDs and over 250 DVDs.

In terms of musical style, this load is all over the map. There are old pop standards like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. There are pop singers from the rock era such as Neil Sedaka and Neil Diamond. There's rap. There's heavy metal. There's country. There's classical. There are a bunch of Chinese and Japanese CDs. There's lots of Jewish music, lots of Christmas albums, and I've noticed one album of "Arabic Exotica." There are soundtracks, and compilations. There are albums of big name stars -- Madonna, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. There are local artists who produced their own CDs.

And, as if to complete the joke, there is an album of Gregorian chants.

I've started going through these, first separating the ones I know I'm not keeping -- duplicates, albums I already have, etc. After that, I'll be listening to the discs to decide what to keep and what to pass on. Then I'll be enterring the ones I keep into my database. Yes, I am anal-retentive enough to keep a database of my CDs. That may or may not be the subject of future posts.

There are occasional Freecycle posts where people are giving away CDs. But they generally get snapped up pretty quickly. You pretty much have to be lucky enough to see the post right after it goes up. In this case, we got lucky that my wife saw the adds just as they were posted.

I've gotten CDs through Freecycle before. There's a guy on Long Island who works in the music business (I'm not sure in what capacity), who occasionally gives away CDs. What was interesting about this guy is that he wanted responders to tell him what styles they liked, and he would then give them bags of CDs (maybe a dozen or so) that were specifically picked for them. I got CDs from him a couple times and I remember picking up and seeing lots of bags on his porch, each labelled with the name of an intended recipient.

I also remember one woman who posted that whe was giving away 500 CDs. She gave me several boxes that had many, many copies of about 5 different CDs. I ended up giving away a lot of the discs to a friend at work who was working on a sculpure and needed multiple copies of a CD. It didn't matter what CD, as long as they were all the same.

And there was one guy from Flushing who was moving in with his girlfriend and needed to get rid of a huge collection of CDs, DVDs, records, tapes, comic books, and other media. I suspect his girlfriend made it clear that, while he could move in with her, his stuff couldn't. He didn't want to bother making personalized packages, and he didn't want to have an endless stream of people coming in and picking through a slowly-dwindling collection. He wanted it all gone at once.

This giveaway was like that last one. A woman had boxes of stuff that she wanted out. On the way over I was guessing that this was a matter of divorce, or a death. Or maybe her son moved out and left stuff behind. But no. She explained that she had been running an eBay business, but was quitting it and this was her remaining inventory.

So maybe what I have to thank is the ongoing cultural shift away from physical CDs and toward digital downloads. I assume that cultural shift makes CDs less attractive to eBay buyers. I, of course, am a dinosaur -- I'm not really comfortable with having music without the CD. I can listen to things on a iPod, and I use iTunes to listen to songs that I have ripped from my CDs. But I gotta have that CD or it doesn't feel right.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

whitney houston, 1963-2012

There's not much I can say about Whitney Houston that isn't, in the wake of her untimely death, being said by many others. This is especially true because I was never really a fan of hers. I was, of course, aware of her. And I knew that she had one of the best voices around. But her style of music never interested me much.

There is one thing, though that I can give her. In fact, I had been planning to write a brief post on the subject. I devoted two posts (here and here) to the national anthem and the singing thereof before ballgames. The second of those posts was devoted to what goes wrong. Having written that, I have been planning to note what may be the best pre-game performance of the Star Spangled Banner -- that of Whitney Houston before the 1991 Superbowl:
Goodnight, Whitney, and Godspeed.

i was in the club

I was in high school when I joined the Columbia House Music Club. That was the one that advertised on TV and in magazine? They sent you, what was it? Eight? Twelve? records or tapes or 8-tracks for a penny. But you committed to buying eight more (I don't remember the exact number) at regular club prices. Oh, and when you bought your first album at club prices they sent you another eight. And to make sure you really thought you were getting away with something, the TV adds let you in on the secret -- that you could writte the numbers of additional items you wanted in those extra unmarked blank boxes. So, all in all, you got like twenty-zillion albums for the price of one. Or so it seemed.

My purpose here isn't to look at how the club worked or how it made money. I'll let Mental Floss do that.

I was in high school, with a growing interest in music, and a Walkman (technically, a Toshiba portable stereo). So I joined Columbia House, and chose to get music on cassette tape. Yeah, choosing cassette was stupid -- the sound quality on prerecorded cassettes was pretty awful. But what did I know?

I remember having all sorts of fantasies of joining under a fake name, then (after getting the free tapes) claiming that I never signed up. It must have been some prank. And, no, I'm not sending you back these tapes. Thank you very much. But I didn't do that. What I did do was cancel my membership after my obligations had been met and freebies had been received. Then I rejoined to start the process over again. I bthink I only once ended up buying something I didn't want (because I forgot to return the monthly featured album on time).

I remember a lot of the albums that I got, though I don't recall much about the order.

I got a bunch of Barry Manillow tapes -- my sister liked him, and so I, worshipful little brother, felt that I had to as well. Don't get me wrong. I still kind of like a few of his songs -- "Mandy" (hey -- she came and she gave without taking, but I sent her away) "Copacabana (Disco)" and "I Write The Songs." But my tastes have gone elsewhere. Now, I'd be satisfied with a greatest hits package.

I got three Supertramp albums (because I liked "The Logical Song"), Being With You by Smokey Robinson (because I'd heard the title track on radio a bunch of times), The Captain and Tennille's Greatest Hits (remember "Love Will Keep Us Together"? Apparently it did, since they're still married), something by Dionne Warwick (I must have recognized a song title or something), and a compilation of The Lettermen (I have no idea why). No, that'snot the complete list. But it gives you an idea of what I was interested in.

So I listened to these tapes on my Walkman, and brought them with me on shabbatons (weekend trips with Jewish youth groups) with Young Judea. I still remember one of them. While the cool kids were listening to AC/DC's "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" on a huge boombox, I was hanging out with my friends and a small Radio Shack tape recorder (that usually stayed with my TRS-80 computer), playing "Rainbow Connection" from the soundtrack to The Muppets Movie. I still remember Miriam going through my box of tapes, and then asking dissapointedly if I didn't have any Billy Joel? Years later, we were hanging out and I told her I had Billy Joel. She just kind of looked at me funny. The moment was gone.

I still had those tapes years later, long after I had lost all interest in most of them, bought vinyl versions of the ones that still interested me, and bought CD versions of most of those. Those old cassettes, with their hissing background noise and their cracked and broken cases still sat on my shelf, mocking me. With my wife's encouragement, I eventually threw them out. She knows that I have Billy Joel.

Friday, February 10, 2012

videos for mushing season

It's dogracing time up north. The Yukon Quest is going on while as we speak. So in honor of the season I present videos of songs related to the dograces.

First up are two songs called "Yukon Quest" The first is by David Ruthstrom and Jeannie Robertson. The second is by Earl Hughes. My apologies -- the second video cuts off a little too soon. But the song is good enough that I'm posting it anyway.

Next is "Iditarod" by Mike Campbell and members of his team from the 2007 race:
And finally, the iconic mushing song. From Hobo Jim, "Iditarod Trail:
Happy trails...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

cd review: "country love" by harold allen

The second album by the New York-based singer is a playful enjoyable sample of modern country music.

Allen sings crisply and clearly, and his material is full of great hooks and clever lyrics. "Jack Daniels" is the standout track. This clever drinking song has me repeating the catchphrase "Jack Daniels take me away" in my head. "The Train Song" and "Hold Me Now" are also great. As a father, I can't help loving the slower "My Biggest Fan."

"Your Northstar," a bittersweet goodbye, is what Allen seems to be pushing as the album's single of sorts (see the video following this paragraph). As good as the song is, I still would have preferred to see "Jack Daniels" pushed. Though admittedly I have a bias toward fast material, and am therefore not the best person to make such a call.

"Country Love" is a great followupto re-Deuced, standing up to repeated listenings. It's available for purchase through his website or from CDBaby.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

music underground

One of the great things about living in New York is the music in the subway. The Transit Authority has an official program, Music Under New York, in which performers get specially designated spaces and times to perform with an official banner. Harold Allen, about whom I wrote here, performs as part of the MUNY program. Other performers I've enjoyed include the Ebony Hillbillies and Jeremiah Lockwood.
A brief video profile of the Ebony Hillbillies
Jeremiah Lockwood performing in the New York subway.

The MUNY program includes performers in a wide array of styles. Aside from the conventional, you can see people playing saws, or Chinese dulcimer.

I should note that there are plenty of musicians who perform without the MUNY imprimatur -- that will be true as long as there is potential tip money. Quality can vary, of course, but some are really good. A number of CDs in my collection were unplanned purchases from musicians whom I liked.

Now sometimes the performers get on the trains to serenade the passengers between stops. There's one particular mariachi band that I've seen a bunch of times on the E and F trains, and around twenty or so years ago their was a group of breakdancers that always seemed to find my car on the 7 train. I'm more likely to be annoyed by performers on the trains than by those on the platform, only because the close quarters and closed doors on the train make the music more of an imposition on those who may not want to listen.

If you're into a variety of styles and want a free concert (though tipping, or buying a CD is always encouraged) during the weekday, you can always find something in the subway.

Monday, February 6, 2012

madonna's halftime show: horrendous

So yesterday's Superbowl halftime show included Madonna doing a medley with a puzzling array of stars -- Nicki Minaj, LMFAO (am I the only one who thinks that they look like South Park co-creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone?), Cee Lo Green and others. According to newspaper articles, she was helped by Cirque du Soleil director, Jacques Methe, but this seemed more like Cirque du Merde. We had Star Wars meets ancient Greece (with a Viking flourish). There was a marching band. There was a Richard Simmons lookalike dancing on a wire (OK, he was good). There was the cheerleading squad (who made me wish for Toni Basil's "Mickey" video). There was so much more, and yet it all seemed like so much less:
What struck me is that Madonna wasn't really doing the bulk of the dancing. For the most part she was strutting, while the really strenuous dancing was being done by the supporting cast. It makes perfect sense, I'll admit -- at 53 she has lost a lot of the athleticism that she had decades ago. I'd prefer that she adjust her act accordingly rather than use smoke and mirrors (and of course those brief camera angles up her skirt) to make us think she is still the performer she was.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

songwriting lessons i have learned

I have previously mentioned that I do a little songwriting on the side. I'm not particularly prolific. If you look at completed songs, I have three -- and two of them involve co-authors.

There was a time that I wrote prolifically. Back in high school I wrote dozens (maybe hundreds) of songs. But, to be charitable, they weren't very good. I think my more recent efforts are better. There are a lot of reasons for the improvement. But I'm going to focus on three lessons I've learned. Let me note that I am focusing here on the lyrics rather than the melody. There are two reasons for that:
  1. I think of myself more as a lyricist than composer; and
  2. I know very little formal music theory, and so can't express concepts of melody or chord progression in written form. At least not well.
I try not to be too rigid. In many of my early attempts at songwriting, I thought that verses had to match each other syllable for syllable. If the first verse had ten syllables in the first line, then each verse had to have ten syllables in the first line. So I spent a lot of time counting syllables, and trying to add or delete in order to make the count right. This led to many awkward turns of phrase, and many words that were pronounced with the emphasis on the wrong syllable. I have since learned to rely on feel rather than syllable counts. If it sounds right, then it doesn't matter if two syllables are squeezed together or one is drawn out a little longer. Consider, for example, the Lennon/McCartney classic, "I Saw Her Standing There":

The first line of the first verse has seven syllables: "Well she was just seventeen." The first line of the second verse has five: "Well she looked at me." But it works because "she was just" in the first verse is pressed into the same musical space as "she" in the second.

When rhyming, it's more important that the sounds please the ear than that the rhyme is perfect. Take, for example, the first two lines of Billy Joel's "You May Be Right":

That's right. He rhymed "party" with "sorry." But it worked.

Finally, I have learned not to try to spell out every detail. This one I only learned recently, and it was a real epiphany that allowed me to finally make progress on a song I was working on called "Do You Think of Me (Now and Again)?" It's a song about remembering a former significant other. I had been having trouble for the longest time, trying to figure out the details of the past relationship and how to put it in words. Then it hit me: I don't have to. I can be vague, provide enough information to provide context, and let the listener imagine the details. A good example is the Elvis Presley song "Teddy Bear" (written by Kal Mann and Bernie Lowe):

It's a great song. It gets the idea across. But there's not really much detail.

Saturday, February 4, 2012 a zappa needs a bicycle

First, let me say that I don't "get" Frank Zappa. I've never really enjoyed his music. But the following, from the Steve Allen Show in 1963, leaves me fascinated:

Now, on the one hand, this demonstrates what it is that I don't like about his music. Specifically, the performance that starts at about 12 minutes in: I find it more cacophonous than melodic. I may find many of  the sounds interesting, even enjoyable. But, to my ears, they are not combined in a pleasing way.

But on the other hand, I can appreciate that Zappa dug sounds. He was endlessly fascinated by new and offbeat sounds, and he wanted to incorporate them into his music. At about 2:15 in the following clip, he explains "The challenge of collecting and organizing unusual sounds, along with the ordinary musical sounds, is something I enjoy doing."

The key is that he innovated. And if there were no innovation, music would be stagnant. With innovation, genres are constantly changing and merging, and new genres are forming. And many would argue that Zappa created a new genre. I'm not so sure, but, maybe...

Friday, February 3, 2012

stuck at work while black violin plays

Well I'm jealous. I'm stuck at work while the family is off to watch Black Violin.

I can't describe Black Violin any better than the bio on their website, so I'll let it do the talking:
Combining a daunting array of musical styles and influences to produce a signature sound that is not quite maestro, not quite emcee, this group of two classically trained violinists and their DJ is redefining the music world-one string at a time. With influences ranging from Shostakovich and Bach to Nas and Jay-Z, Black Violin breaks all the rules, blending the classical with the modern to create something rare-a sound that nobody has ever heard, but that everybody wants to feel.
These guys are great performers and showmen, and they understand kids. They encourage kids to get up and dance during their shows, they encourage their audience to videotape their shows. and they have a positive message (two really):

  1. Think outside the box
  2. Whatever you do, work hard at it. The best ones are the ones who put in the extra effort.

Black Violin is on the short list of performers who my wife tries never to miss. Unfortunately, they seem to play a lot during the workday (and in this case, it's during my busy season too), so I am SOL. But I can console myself with the following video:

Thursday, February 2, 2012

audio version of an optical illusion

There are some optical illusions that rely on visual ambiguity to create two competing interpretations of an image or a moving image. When you view the image, your brain interprets it one way or the other. Your brain may suddenly shift interpretations, but you can't process both simultaneously.

The following moving image of a spinning dancer (created by Nobuyuki Kayahara) is one example:

Is the dancer spinning clockwise or counterclockwise? There are no visual clues to distinguish, so your brain makes an assumption, and you can't make it switch. The Rubin vase is another example.

I am reminded of that when I think of one of the best known plagiarism suits in the music world. It involved George Harrison, whose song, "My Sweet Lord" was said to be too similar to the Chiffons's "He's So Fine." Following are the two songs:

The court decided that Harrison had subconsciously copied the Chiffons song,and ultimately he was orderd to pay nearly $600,000. You can read about it here.

What's interesting for me is that, for years I didn't hear the similarity. It didn't matter how many times people pointed it out, or how they explained it. Then, at some point it hit me. As if a window shade had suddenly been drawn back, I saw it. Now, as much as I try, I can't hear either song without thinking of the other. As an aside, I'll note that the above Wikipedia link for Harrison's song gives a music theoretic explanation of the similarities:
Both songs have a three-syllable title refrain ("My Sweet Lord" and "He's so fine") followed by a 5-3-2 descent of the major scale in the tonic key (E major for "My Sweet Lord" and G major for "He's So Fine"). Respective tempos are similar: 121 and 145 bpm. In the respective B sections ("I really want to see you" and "I dunno how I'm gonna do it") there is a similar ascent through 5-6-8, but the Chiffons distinctively retain the G tonic for four bars and, on the repeat of the motif, uniquely go to an A note 9th embellishment over the first syllable of "gonna". Harrison, on the other hand, introduces the more complex harmony of a relative minor (C#m) as well as the oft-repeated, fundamental and distinctly original slide guitar motif.
For all it's worth, I prefer "He's so Fine."