Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite Albums of 2009

I listened to a lot of music in 2009, but little of it was "new". I heard most of the releases that will show up on everyone else's list. I didn't really care for most of them. Here's what I did like:

Album of the Year: David Sylvian - "Manafon"

David Sylvian worked with some top-notch musicians known for their improvisation work. He recorded some sessions of them playing, selected sections he liked, and them improvised vocals over the top. Record finished.

He packaged it as digital downloads, a compact disc, or a deluxe hardback book. Built a lovely website, too.

The music is beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking, and the execution is masterful. It's also all completely in line with where I think interesting musical art should be going. Hands-down winner this year.

If you liked Talk Talk's records "Spirit of Eden" and "Laughing Stock", you'll probably like this.

Best New Album by Old Band: (Tie)
Nitzer Ebb - "Industrial Complex"

Nitzer Ebb has long been a favorite of mine, but they hadn't released any new material since "Big Hit" in 1995.

They returned this year with a vengeance. "Industrial Complex" doesn't break any new ground for the band, but it produces a re-cap of their unique take on EBM and industrial. Few bands are both so catchy and so abrasive. The album is solid all the way through with plenty of references to all of the great things about all of their records. I could even hear some pop tart making "Hit You Back" a Top 10 single. Only available as downloads for now. Skip iTunes' AAC format for some good ol' MP3s from

If you like Nitzer Ebb, Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, or dancing to synthesizer music, check it out.

The Church - "Untitled #23"
The Church has managed to make my lists almost every year they've released an album. They really earned it in 2009 with "Untitled #23", which made a number of other people's best-of lists as well.

A solid, mysterious album with songs that reminded me of my own "Overcast" in places. They stretch a bit here, too, with Steve Kilbey marking the outer edges of his vocal range and style, including one of his more aggressive vocal takes on "Anchorage".

Masterful work from veteran musicians. Obviously great if you are a fan of The Church (or a newcomer). Also great if you like Television, or other post-punk guitar bands.

Best Reissue: Kraftwerk's "The Catalogue"
There was a lot of competition for this slot, with the runner-up being the nicely-packaged and chock-full of rarities re-issue of Duran Duran's "Rio". But Kraftwerk absolutely dominated with "The Catalogue".

Unfortunately delayed several times, and then released in the USA with a "well, this is what you have to buy if you want the good albums" approach, The Catalogue shames most other reissues.

The packaging is top-notch. A 12"-record sized proper box. Tiny reproductions of the albums, using proper 3-dimensional boxes with spines and slide-out envelopes. And then massive, gorgeous booklets with full art and liner notes as the band always intended.

The sound quality is also incredible, to the point where you can hear obvious flaws in the original recordings or sound programming. Well worth the price, and a fitting tribute to a band as influential on the pop music of this century as The Beatles were on the music of the last century.

Essential listening for any music fan. These guys are part of the modern cultural canon. Also essential for packaging designers.

Best Björk Album (Not by Björk): Fever Ray - "Fever Ray"
Or perhaps it's the best album by The Knife. The Fever Ray album made a bunch of folks' top lists this year. It's...good.

In particular, its strengths lie in its production, packaging, and total impact. In many ways it's the Björk record of the year. "Quirky" vocals by a non-native English speaker delivered with a charming accent, a unique vocal style, and funny/mysterious/borderline nonsense lyrics.

Nice synth/electronic production, but overall bearing a very strong resemblance to her other band, The Knife. Not surprising, but I sort of expected more. The record skates by a lot on style. The songs have moods, but don't really go anywhere or lodge deeply in the mind. Lots of reliance on 5ths, weird sounds, and the same sort of vocal processing and effects that made The Knife sound so fresh.

For fans of Bjork, The Knife, film soundtracks, and "headphone music". Not so good for parties.

Fever Ray also gets points for actually making the single "When I Grow Up" available for free download. Try BetterPropaganda, where I find a lot of music.

Video for "If I Had A Heart":

Doubtless part of Fever Ray's success lies in her willingness to use the Internet for promotion.

David Sylvian finally put "Small Metal Gods" up on YouTube, but he's got no free download. Neither The Church nor Nitzer Ebb put up free downloads, and neither of them have "official" videos on YouTube yet. In their case, it may be they simply don't have the budget or interest in such things. To The Church's credit, they haven't pulled down any of the fan-made videos for their new album.

Artists, remember: In the 21st century, you should worry about getting people to pay attention to your music, and less about getting them to pay for your music. The former is becoming more difficult but remains a pre-requisite for the latter.

I look forward to more great music in 2010!

2009's Greatest Hits

Here's my 12 greatest hits of 2009.
  1. January - My 2009 started with a trip back to Dartmouth for a music symposium and celebration of composer Jon Appleton. An incredible time, and I wish there was going to be another one in 2010!
  2. February - I created "Overcast" for the RPM challenge. I'm still quite happy with it.
  3. March - Saw my brother play a great loud rock show with Farflung at Bottom Of The Hill.
  4. April - Spent a week relaxing in Hawaii with my lovely wife.
  5. May - Was flattered when Dave Allen featured a cover of Shriekback's "Faded Flowers" on his music blog. Dave's been a key part of two bands that were major influences on my musical development.
  6. June - Attended the SFMusicTech conference and got to know some great new friends.
  7. July - I turned 40 and had an incredible birthday party.
  8. August - I got laid off from Rhapsody shortly after completing their iPhone app.
  9. September - Took a bit of time off, smelled the roses, slept in, worked out. Realized "Lost" is awesome.
  10. October - Fielded many, many interesting job offers and interviews while starting some consulting work.
  11. November - Worked extensively on 2 interesting new jobs.
  12. December - Had a great Christmas day get-together with friends and family and spent a fun New Year's Eve at Smuggler's Cove.
I have many resolutions for 2010 and look forward to the next decade, which my friends have christened "The Ten".

Monday, December 21, 2009

Re: Issues about Reissues

I've written about reissues of albums before, but it seems there's always more to say.

The Clash's essential album "London Calling" is receiving a 30th anniversary reissue. This is notable for several reasons. It comes 5 years after their 25th anniversary reissue. I'm not faulting their impeccable mathematics or sense of marketing, but the justification seems a little flimsy. One should remember the 25th anniversary was itself released just a few years after the initial remaster/reissue.

The 30th anniversary of London Calling is also less substantial than the 25th anniversary version. I'm pretty sure the label isn't going to keep multiple SKUs for this record in circulation. This leads one to the inevitable conclusion that there will be yet another version - the "definitive" 40th or 50th anniversary that collects all the material smeared across the various versions so far.

We've seen this before, with things like the Blade Runner film releases. In the 21st century, it seems some works no longer have a single, definitive, canonical version of a work, just endless permutations.

Things have been heading in this direction for a while, whether you're talking about the US versus UK releases of albums by The Beatles, The Clash, The Chameleons, or other bands; or even compact discs with "bonus tracks" versus albums without them. Which album is "definitive"? Even fans will argue about it. The real answer: the one you heard first and most.

The CD itself was marketed as an "upgrade" over vinyl LPs. The music business thrived as fans bought all their old records again, just for a technological improvement - and one whose merits have been debated ever since. And of course, now the record business isn't even trying to sell a new format - they're just trying to get you to buy a new CD. And we're doing it.

They've even tried to come up with ways to get people to buy digital files with poorer sound.

The record industry knows they missed the boat for delivering a new physical format for music. Movies have at least one more round left in them. They've gone from videotapes to DVDs and now to Blu-Ray (after managing to nip a format war in the bud). While some newer movies clearly benefit from being seen in high-def glory, the benefits for older films are debatable. And that's assuming you can figure out how to properly connect all your gear to get the best picture - many home users can't.

Re-issue fever has even hit the videogame industry. Lucas Arts recently "re-issued" a version of Secret of Monkey Island. This new version featured "high definition" art, improved controls, an in-game hint system, and voice-overs. It didn't make the game substantially different or better in terms of experience, story, or content. Perhaps it made it more palatable to a new generation of gamers.

This arguably started with Castle Wolfenstein - an old Apple ][ game which was most famously re-imagined by a fledgling iD software as the first fast-paced 3D first-person shooter (Wolfenstein 3D), and which was then in turn re-imagined as a fancier first-person shooter (Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory) and then again as a rather poorly received 3D first-person shooter (Wolfenstein). Clearly, there is a point of diminishing returns, and Wolfenstein is clearly leaning on "brand" more than depth of story, characters, or quality. There's little to connect any of the games other than their name.

Quoting or drawing inspiration from previous works is a common artistic practice - it's too bad nobody can collect royalties on Shakespeare. But the phenomenon of refurbishing, remastering, or reissuing an existing work with updated technology is a relatively new phenomenon.

It's generally considered less risky. It's like consumer products: Toy Story, New and Improved, now with 3D! Harry Potter, with all the stuff originally edited out restored! Switched-On Bach with Ocean Rain fresh scent! Adding a little something new to something proven and familiar all but guarantees sales from the ardent fan base and collectors, and may get enough of a PR push to pull in a few new fans.

Regardless, it works for me, at least sometimes. There are several CD reissues teed up for release in 2010. Top of my list right now is the Duran Duran side project Arcadia - this re-issue will feature nearly impossible-to-find rarities and great packaging. Hooray!

Friday, December 11, 2009

We're all on Family Feud: The abuse of opinion polls

Back when I was in the single digits and living in Virginia, there wasn't much on TV. No cable yet. You end up watching whatever you can. I remember seeing Richard Dawson (a guy who got his start in a sitcom about a concentration camp) smooching away in his inimitable style.

Family Feud was an awful, awful show. The best/worst part was how the game worked. You were asked questions and were supposed to guess what "average polled Americans" said about things. The famous line "The survey SAYS...", followed by the answer flipping down from the giant Whitman's sampler chocolate box display. Teams lived or died not by their knowledge, but by their ability to guess what other people thought. This has been famously parodied before, because it's a pretty silly and fatuous game idea.

The Internet has given us many great things. Lots of entertainment. Video and music on demand, sometimes even legally. It has heightened communication between individuals and communities. It has also provided many new ways for people to provide feedback and opinion, frequently anonymously.

Naturally, that ability to comment at any time, on any subject, regardless of whether we know what we're talking about or not, has some downsides.

One is the rise of a culture where everyone thinks their opinion matters and deserves to be heard. This is followed by Big News feeding that for sensationalistic purposes.

Yesterday I happened to be out to lunch with a friend and out of the corner of my eye I caught CNN's coverage of the health care reform bill. They had one of their instant polls up about "Whether you thought the bill was going to increase the federal deficit" [emphasis mine].

Of course, the numbers were shocking. Unsurprisingly, something like 75% of the respondents said they thought the bill was going to increase the deficit. Were one passively watching and not paying careful attention, one would get a strong impression the deficit would increase under the bill. Much of this had to do with the typically clipped and simplified presentation of the polling data, which downplayed the "we asked a bunch of dopes on the street" aspect.

This is not what the poll was saying or proving. Nor was it what the poll was for.

Fundamentally, the idea of collecting and presenting this information is just silly. This is largely inessential data for everyone except a small number politicos watching the polls. Even then, what they should do with this data is figure out how to better educate people about the issue, or perhaps understand whether people are actually educated about the situation. Instead, these herd mentality numbers are used as if they are some sort of important facts in the "ongoing debate". As if what people think about the bill and its possible impacts are more important than the actual bill and its impact

This really irks me. It's dangerous, lazy thinking. The bill itself isn't even "finished" yet, with many key provisions controlling cost - things like "who gets covered?" and "how long do they get covered?" and "what are they covered for?" - not yet locked down.

Most of the people actually voting on the bill haven't even read it, so they don't even know for sure. Each analysis of the bill's costs makes a number of different assumptions, so none of those can be definitive, either. The end result is the knowledgeable folks can provide a more informed opinion, but even they cannot definitively say what the bill's impact on the deficit will be.

The average polled person has nowhere near enough information to weigh in on this issue. News presenting these "opinion polls" as facts do everyone a disservice. This data could be used as a lead-in to a detailed discussion of what the bill actually proposes, to either bolster or refute the opinion polls. But that never happens.

By emphasizing and focusing on what uninformed people think or feel might happen, we further destroy our ability to have reasoned, proper debates and turn more towards charisma and force of personality and presentation. We turn away from "what is true" to "what people will believe". This encourages the kind of knee-jerk demagoguery where outright lies get traction because they "feel true".

Once it's OK to respect and discuss what people "feel is true", rather than what is actually true, you end up wasting time addressing and relentlessly debunking fringe positions already disproven: Vaccinations cause autism. Obama's not eligible to be president. Climate change isn't real. The list goes on.

And once there's enough of these topics circulating in the news, even more people start to pick up the thought virus. They figure "well, people are talking about it, where there's smoke there's fire, it must be true or something". And the cycle becomes ever-harder to break.

Stephen Colbert may be loving it. I'm not.

Put another way, only 40% of people in the USA say they believe in evolution. Think about that, and then ask yourself if you really want the carefully considered, highly informed opinions of everyone else driving the agenda for national debate on complex subjects like health care reform.

At this point, we're all contestants on Family Feud. What you know doesn't matter. How well you understand how little everyone else knows does.

The survey says? Bzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Holiday Music: Kraftkirk "Gloria"

Continuing a chain of thought from my last few blog entries, here's a holiday song I recorded as KRAFTKIRK. It's appropriate given the season and my recent purchase of the Kraftwerk "Catalog" boxed set (which is amazing).

It was intended as a faithful homage to Kraftwerk, including the weak/wobbly vocals. Definitely inspired by the Something Awful image shown here (created by darthphunk)

I created this in a single evening back in 2001 or 2002 for a Rhapsody easter egg album called "Merry Everything" (it's still in there). Sid Luscious did a track, too. Sid will post about that soon.


Winter Holiday Memories & Liam Clancy

It's the time of year when you leave work and it's pitch black outside. The chilly air abounds. You look forward to curling up at home with a mug of something. Sweaters. Fire. Christmas trees. Time with loved ones or family. Maybe both.

We did not have many traditions in my family growing up. Of the rare gems of pleasant memories from my childhood and the holidays, I've always savored one thing: The Clancy Brothers "Christmas" album.

The Clancy Brothers are musical legends. Look at those guys. They know how to enjoy life, hell, they look like they're enjoying it 24/7. Right NOW. While the photo is being taken.

You know hanging out with these guys for Christmas is going to leave you needing a follow-up vacation, and likely some sort of hangover cure. Maybe even a black eye. But it will be the best Christmas you ever had.

The music is incredible. These guys play Christmas songs with a fury and joy unmatched by most rock bands. The Pogues sound like Air Supply compared to the might of the Brothers Clancy. You'll hear hearty singing, whoops of joy, howls, and powerful folk strumming. I imagine this is what Nick Cave has been trying to emulate for years.

They have a tender side to be sure, but you'll likely remember the rocking tunes the most, the glee in their voices as they talk about drinking whiskey from tumblers, describing the feast, and remind us all to enjoy ourselves because "Christmas comes but once a year!"

The liner notes even include a recipe for plum pudding, complete with instructions for how much the chef should be drinking while preparing it. Of course, it's out of print and not available on digital services, but you may be able to find it somewhere.

But sadly, an era has ended. Liam Clancy passed away, the last of the surviving Clancy Brothers. I will raise a tumbler of the good stuff for him this holiday season, and when I fire up my prized copy of The Clancy Brothers Christmas, it will sound a little more bittersweet.

Oh, all the comrades e'er I had,
They're sorry for my going away,
And all the sweethearts e'er I had,
They'd wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot,
That I should go and you should not,
I gently rise and softly call,
Good night and joy be with you all.

[Thanks to MetaFilter for the tip and the quote]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

This year I have many thanks to give. It's been a remarkable year so far, and I look forward to a relaxing last few weeks (work aside!)

I am thankful for my health. I have my issues and problems, but am healthy, hearty, and hale and have made good progress this year.

I am thankful to be working on two great projects and interviewing for and evaluating more other new opportunities than I can count, during a time when so many cannot find any work at all.

I am thankful I for my wonderful friends and the experiences we've had together this year.

I am thankful for my family, most of all my lovely wife.

Monday, November 16, 2009

John Cage vs. Robert Rauschenberg

John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Robert RauschenbergWonderful music blog Synthtopia asked a great question:
Why do people still hate John Cage?
(when they love Robert Rauschenberg)

I believe the answer lies in cultural differences between the worlds of art and music, and in how popular (i.e. non-university/ivory tower) culture interfaces with and accepts visual art and music.

The primary problem is music fans are like Grampa Simpson - "I don't like change!". The audience for "serious" music has never really moved beyond the 19th century (and that's being charitable!). Classical concert-goers still worship the ancient ones - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms. Maybe you can get some classical fans to listen to Debussy - but only the "nice" stuff.

All the interesting music akin to the exciting 20th century art movements (expressionism, futurism, collage, dada, abstract expressionism) is "hard to listen to", and it's difficult to convince symphonies, with their high overheads and dwindling audiences, to take a chance...even on something as relatively mild as Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. As a result, people don't get to experience much of Cage's works, and inevitably what gets played by symphonies is what is reinforced as "the best".

Meanwhile nearly everybody else is listening to pop music (and I include here any flavor of electro, house, metal, country, hip-hop, etc.) and few of those listeners are interested in, understand, or appreciate John Cage's innovations. A quick glance at the comments on the Synthtopia article unfortunately confirms this - some the normally well-considered, open-minded folks revert to the stock comments about Cage - "he's a charlatan/my kid could do that", "his ideas are more important than his art", and of course, "it's not real music". Cage would have whole-heartedly supported and endorsed all of the previous statements, by the way.

But these are exactly the same comments leveled at Rauschenberg, Pollock, and other visual artists of the 20th century. Presumably these statements are made by people who think Caspar David Friedrich or Leonardo Da Vinci or whoever painted the crying clown with the flower are the only "real artists".

Art changes as culture changes, because art reflects and is culture. When we shut art down, we're shutting down cultural change, literally living in the past, off of old, received ideas. People hated Beethoven and Wagner at first, too.

Cage's body of work is as diverse and thought-provoking as those of his good friend Marcel Duchamp - and they are the most important artists of the last 100 years (or more).

However, finding good recordings of said Cage works is challenging, because what gets recorded is what will get bought, and people don't like Cage's music. So there's a vicious cycle.

Plus some of Cage's works don't translate well to the recorded environment, either because they're "conceptual" or because they rely on improvisation or chance, meaning that a particular recording of them is completely beside the point.

Finally, visual art has a certain immediacy - you look at something, you get it. And if you don't, you can look away and come back to it later. People's hyperbole to the contrary, it's hard for something you look at but don't like to "hurt your eyes" (bright, flashing lights aside). Music is inherently temporal - you have to sit through it, and in some cases, actually pay attention. That's hard for a lot of people. And in some cases, the sounds are jarring, loud, and inescapable.

We don't have to like every piece of art we experience, but we should at least try to appreciate it and understand why it's important or interesting before we go back to listening to our old favorites. This requires effort on our part. We have to change our culture, our education, and our mindsets and not fear or shirk that effort.

It's a challenge. When I observe the world these days, I see a retreat from empathy, from understanding, and from the effort required to look beyond easy, shallow surfaces. Cage believed music was all around us, everywhere. We just had to go to the trouble to listen to it. How can anyone not appreciate that?

Monday, November 09, 2009

My Top Ten Twenties on SF Appeal

I was featured on the "cover" (do websites have covers?) of SFAppeal today, as part of Corey Denis' fantastic "Top Ten Twenties" project.

She asked what my top 20 albums from 2000-2009 were. Here is my response:

What are your top 20 albums released between 2000 - 2009?

1. Austere - Curio (2000)
Austere is a mysterious duo from Portland, Oregon. The epitome of independent music. They manufacture and release their music themselves, with beautiful, unique, hand-made packaging. "Curio" came in a cover made with real gold leaf and a riddle, which when solved, prompted Austere to send me a link to a bonus track. I am a huge fan of Austere - nearly every one of their releases is fascinating and special.

2. Death Cab For Cutie - We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes (2000)
My friend Dave Lampton introduced me to this album. Death Cab's songwriting peak coupled with crisp production. Great songs filled with longing. Makes me think of college. I play this when the days start getting short and the nights start getting long.

3. Morphine - The Night (2000)
Morphine's posthumous release, and their finest hour. Murky, mysterious, and sexy. Really the only essential Morphine album. Good with a bottle of red wine and someone new to kiss.

4. Outkast - Stankonia (2000)
Stankonia catches Outkast poised between their relative hip-hop obscurity and their commercial success and following mediocrity. Their best album all the way through, with several standout tracks, including the unfortunately prescient "B.O.B."

5. PJ Harvey - Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)
I am not a rabid PJ Harvey fan, but I absolutely love two of her albums - "To Bring You My Love" and this one. From the ringing, yowling opening track to the sweet finish, there are no weak spots. The soundtrack to my introduction to San Francisco. I don't think Ms. Harvey has made a record nearly this good since.

6. Idaho - Levitate (2001)
Jeff Martin from Idaho went on to do film and TV scoring after "Levitate". You can hear why - his aching voice and solid production are coupled to some great songs, like "For Granted". I'm a sucker for anyone name-checking freeways (see also: Death Cab For Cutie, Ryuichi Sakamoto & David Sylvian).

7. Lucinda Williams - Essence (2001)
Lucinda Williams' "Essence" is the sound of heartache. I cannot listen to this album without tearing up a little. And the title track is sexy and worthy of a soul rave-up cover version.

8. Local H - Here Comes The Zoo (2002)
Local H epitomizes angry, grungy guitar rock, and nowhere better than on "Here Comes The Zoo". "Half Life" is a solid example of the band's sound. No mere lunkheads, this record is actually a concept album of sorts, and the story it tells is as dark as they come.

9. The Church - After Everything Now This (2002)
The Church have made a lot of records (23 at last count). And their 90s output was...not very good. "After Everything Now This" marks a dramatic turning point, where they began cranking out great rock albums. If any new band released a song like "Numbers", they'd be the next big thing. And the normally oblique Steve Kilbey is quite affecting when he details learning of the death of his father in the title track. The soundtrack for afternoon sliding into night.

10. John Foxx & Harold Budd - Translucence/Drift Music (2003)
John Foxx was the original singer for Ultravox and wrote some of their best songs. After Midge Ure replaced him, he made a number of great synth-pop albums, particularly the Gary Numan-esque "Metamatic". In later years he started making ambient music. This 2003 album found him collaborating with Harold Budd. Each disc has its own character - "Translucence" is more focused on piano, "Drift Music" more synth. Great with morning coffee.

11. Tim Hecker - Radio Amor (2003)
\"Radio Amor" proves that it is possible for an album without words or melodies to tell a story. Ambient music at the other end of the spectrum from "Translucence/Drift Music", full of noise, hisses, radio static, and glitchy, stuttering piano samples.

12. TV On The Radio - Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes (2004)
TV On The Radio is a really interesting band, seemingly bent on following their muse regardless of fashion. Great songs, hazy production. Solid for parties.

13. Harold Budd - Avalon Sutra (2004)
Harold Budd's planned valedictory album. Beautiful music largely for actual, real, acoustic instruments. Miniature masterpieces. Reminds everyone that Budd is a composer with a serious music background. The sound of Sunday morning.

14. Ryuichi Sakamoto - Chasm (2004)
Ryuichi Sakamoto has been making interesting records for a long time, ranging from progressive to pop to absolute weirdness and noise. "Chasm" contains all of the above, starting with glitchy hip-hop and moving through beautiful ambient and instrumental music. By far the standout is the track with David Sylvian - "World Citizen", which manages to name-check the 101 freeway in a beautiful, haunting song.

15. Stars Of The Lid - and Their Refinement of The Decline (2006)
Ambient music made with acoustic instruments (brass and strings), or passable samples of same. Beautiful, slow, marred only by the juvenile humor of the titles. Put the cover away and just listen. I think of falling asleep on airplanes.

16. Scott Walker - The Drift (2006)
There may be some obscure albums on this list, but none are weirder or more disturbing than Scott Walker's "The Drift". Music writers talk about "experimental" music, or records that push the boundaries. They all sound like Hannah Montana next to "The Drift", which is a veritable David Lynch film in sound. Creepy, powerful, even funny...there really is nothing else like it, all wrapped in Walker's mannered, operatic voice. Not bad for a former 60's pop star. A record worth focusing on. 

17. Burial - Untrue (2007)
The formerly anonymous poster boy for dubstep, Burial's "Untrue" is a DJ Shadow-meets-Blade Runner masterpiece, improving just enough on his debut to create a sound but not a rut. Great for subways, walks in the rain, or working.

18. Fennesz Sakamoto - Cendre (2007)
I never get tired of hearing this album. Christian Fennesz' "Venice" almost made this list, and Sakamoto's "Chasm" did. Their collaboration on "Cendre" brings the best of both worlds. Sounds like watching time-lapse film of pianos disintegrating, burning, or corroding. One track is clearly a transformation of one of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedies".

19. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
Only LCD Soundsystem can make an introspective, melancholy dance music record. The bass parts are all cribbed from other songs. Every track is good, and some reach beyond greatness into the sublime. 

20. M83 - Saturdays = Youth (2008)
I refrained from loading this list up with reissues and limited myself to just one album from a band from the 80s. But M83 has me covered. Their retro-flavored "Saturdays = Youth" reminds me of what it was like to be a teenager discovering the 4AD catalog, feeling everything with the intensity of the first time. This album has beautiful, ethereal songs played with heart, passion, and emotion. Wonderfully free of the irony infecting so much  neo-80s stuff. Some bands look at old photos and laugh about how funny everybody looked. M83 looks at the same photos, sighs, and remembers what falling in love for the first time felt like.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Airlines, Fees, and Old vs. New Business

This article caught my attention. In short, the airlines which charged the most ancillary fees for "extras" like checking bags lost more money than those that didn't.

I also thought about this Fake Steve Jobs post regarding IBM mainframes and the old-school airline carriers. Many of the same companies charging fees and losing money are stuck customers of IBM. Snark aside, FSJ is correct in that the airlines are basically computer operators.

Over the past several years I've flown a lot, on both old-school large carriers (American, United, etc.) and new commuter carriers (Virgin America, JetBlue) as well as some in-between (Alaska, Southwest).

Next month I'm speaking at Loyola in New Orleans and had to book air travel. I realized I was disappointed that I had to fly old-school. Really disappointed.

Given the choice, I'd be flying Virgin or JetBlue. They provide TVs in the seatbacks. Wi-Fi. Comfortable seats. Decent online check-in. Minimal fees for the sort of travel I tend to do. Pleasant terminal experiences.

When I think of the old-school carriers, I think of middle seats, "here's yer peanuts", no movies, no power outlets, and a general sense of "we're doing you a favor by flying this plane, so siddown and shut up until we get there". Then I think about how I need to budget more time at the airport because I'm now going to be charged $25 to check my bag. And I think about all the super-thrifty folks who will be lugging their overstuffed rollaboard bags down the aisle and trying to ram them into the overhead compartments just to save $25 or more, and how much less-pleasant that makes things.

A quick side note about that: One of my least favorite experiences here is watching this happen - and not just because it's frequently my bag getting mashed by someone else's. Frequently there's an older woman who is trying to heft a massive, should-have-been-checked bag into the overhead compartment.

The flight attendant approaches and asks me to help the woman with her bag, because "we don't handle luggage". I'm a polite guy, I'll help out someone obviously in distress, but hey, I don't work for the airline. I "don't handle luggage", either! The flight attendants aren't allowed because of risk of injury and lawsuit - so clearly I, a paying customer, should have to do this. Maybe I can pass out knives at the restaurant tonight, too.

I digress. I don't want much out of air travel. I want to get where I'm going safely. I want a comfortable seat. I want some options for entertainment, including a power outlet. Internet access is a bonus.

Ultimately I suspect the reason the old-school carriers are hurting is more about their business attitude than the fees they're charging customers or their mainframes and back end. The new carriers seem to care about your flying experience (or at least the flying experience for my demographic) first. The old airlines project an image that my experience is incidental to their business.

I think the older airlines are stuck in many ways - the attitude towards customer experience is just as important as the business model, executive motivation, fees, or technology back end.

When was the last time your business evaluated what your customers really want?
When was the last time you thought about how well you're serving that need?
When was the last time you changed anything?

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Kraftwerk Remasters and Dollars

As I mentioned some time ago, Kraftwerk is about to release remastered versions of their albums. Repeatedly delayed, but supposedly, finally, available on November 17, 2009.

However, "Computer World" - perhaps their best album - is only available as part of the boxed set (in the USA).

The reason given is "clearance issues", which Kraftwerk and the labels are unable to resolve.

Generally, "clearance issues" is a fancy way of saying one side or the other was asking for money and the other wouldn't give it up.
If this is in fact the case here, it's not great behavior. It indicates both Kraftwerk and the labels prefer to make the fans pay more than they should, and don't care if a seminal record like "Computer World" is available in decent-sounding form for casual listeners.

The alternative is equally troubling. If money wasn't the issue, it means the intellectual property situation is so busted that no amount of money or legal wizardry could rectify things. Sad state of affairs when both the band and the label - the intellectual property owners - are unable to resolve intellectual property issues.

I am not sure which is a greater indictment of the music business.

It is difficult not to believe this is simply a cash grab on both sides. Typical music industry shenanigans or good business practices, depending on your point of view.

I love Kraftwerk. They're fantastic. But Kraftwerk's post-"Computer World" output is not very good. There are 8 albums in the boxed set. I want 5 of them. But in order to get the 5 I want, I have to get 3 I don't want: "Techno Pop" (also known as "Electric Café"), "The Mix", and "Tour De France" are just not very good albums ranging from tepid to terrible.

I should also note that I currently own (or previously owned) all of these records, in some cases having purchased the vinyl and CD. I've already ordered the box. But the bad taste lingers.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rhapsody for iPhone

The news broke today. Rhapsody submitted their iPhone app today ("Rhapsody for iPhone").

This was my final project for Rhapsody. I am proud to have been a part of it. We had a very small team (myself, a designer, a developer, and a QA person) and a short time frame.

Rhapsody on iPhone from Jamie on Vimeo.

(Those are my hands in the video!)

This was a fun, challenging project and a great way to end my time at Rhapsody.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

CMX: See Cocktail, Failure

According to this article in The Guardian,
Sony, Warner, Universal and EMI are reportedly preparing a new digital album format that will include songs, lyrics, videos, liner notes and artwork.

I am skeptical of the chances for success here. The labels are not supposed to work together directly, because of collusion problems (though that's never stopped them). The labels have historically not done well developing their own in-house technologies.

As I said previously, there's nothing here that cannot already be accomplished with existing technology, and one can expect the new files containing video, lyrics, and other assets to cost more.

The label's plan raises a number of questions for me, though:
  • What audio format? It needs to be MP3. I'm assuming CMX is going to be a "wrapper" format that allows a bunch of assets to be collected together. This would theoretically allow any audio format to be contained.
  • Is there DRM? Given who's involved in the creation of this asset, DRM seems likely.
  • Is there a license fee? If the labels want wide adoption, the format needs to be free and unlicensed.
  • Can anyone create these files? If I can't make my own on my computer for the CDs I've ripped, I'm not interested. A key for wide success is the ability for all labels (and users) to create something like this for their back catalog, not just a handful of new releases.
  • What players (portable and otherwise) support these files? This is the big one. If nobody has display capability for these files, it's all but dead already. As the article notes, it's pretty clear Apple won't support them - and Apple represents 80% or so of the MP3 player market. Unless the labels have been working with the top MP3 player manufacturers for a year and/or unless the format is trivial to implement (unlikely), there won't be portables that support this format until next year.
  • Is the file "the album" or is the file something referenced by the tracks on the album? For the last 10+ years, people have been breaking the album up and focusing on track-based experiences. I don't see massive demand for a return to a monolithic album unit. If I were working on this, I'd make CMX or Cocktail an additional file type rather than making it "the thing that was played".
I'm intrigued to see what CMX and Cocktail end up being. I still believe a simple format based on open standards is the right tech solution.

The right content solution is limited interactivity with high-quality content - correct lyrics, detailed liner notes, and high resolution art. Done properly, an open approach would easily allow inclusion of video and applications/EXEs. Focus on the content and usability, not animations, whizzy menus, etc. In other words, do exactly the opposite of DVD menus!

Friday, August 07, 2009

Laid Off: The Rhapsody Ends

Yesterday I was laid off from my job at Rhapsody. I am sad about leaving - I have a long, strong affiliation with Rhapsody. But I'm also excited about new opportunities, both music-related and non-music-related.

I will miss working with the people there - some of the smartest, hardest-working folks I've ever known. They have an unflagging, inspiring passion for music. I know things are in good hands there.

I am currently looking for a new job - my CV and references are available on request.

For now, I'm just going to enjoy my coffee, watch the sun rise, and think about what to do next.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Cocktail: Digital Album Art Failure In The Making

The Internet has been rife with rumors and news of Apple's supposed partnership with the labels and their plans to launch a new "digital album art" format/system/technology. The code name is "Cocktail".

I agree with the concept - digital downloads should have a rich art experience, especially given there's no cost to duplicate. There's just the cost of creation. At a minimum it should be a true digital equivalent of the hard copy, where digital's features (duplication, searching, scaling, etc.) are used to offset its limitations (intangibility)

My plan would look something like this:
  • Includes high resolution versions of the original front and back album cover. No digital re-creations. No cop-outs. Get the rights, labels. You are "intellectual property experts" now. Act like it. Do the work.
  • Includes lyrics, at least if the original album did. They're already out there for people to find. Make it easy, and don't think you can nickel-and-dime people on this
  • Includes as detailed credits as possible for the album - producer, engineer, side men, studio, etc.
  • It's free when you buy the album
  • It is an open standard built on other open standards. No proprietary technology, no license fees. It should be possible for anyone and everyone to build something like this for free.
  • The technology is simple - so there won't be bugs in people's album art.
  • Requires no install of a plug-in or application. If you have a web browser, it should work.
  • It works on a broad range of devices, not just the iPod. There should be a way for it to render on a TV screen, a computer monitor, anywhere. And it should be controllable with a simple remote
  • No DRM
  • Users can back up/copy/save as needed
  • Users can print hard copies of elements
In other words, it looks a lot like web pages or a PDF.

Several years ago, one of the major labels passed through Rhapsody and were showing several technologies they were hoping to get Rhapsody and other music services to adopt. They were even contemplating making adoption mandatory for their contracts. One of the things they showed was a "digital album art package" demonstration.

Despite the fact this label had just spent the bulk of the meeting talking about how they wanted to decrease Apple's hold on the music business, they showed their demo on an iPod.

They showed something that was effectively a tiny Flash movie/application, with some animation and a few "scenes". On the iPod's tiny screen it was interesting, but also ridiculous.

Some of the things I noted at the time:
  • The labels planned to charge more for the "art". "It costs us money to develop this", they said. "Plus it's added value, and people will pay".
  • No lyrics were included. "We have to pay mechanical royalties on that, and we don't want the extra cost. Plus look how small the screen is."
  • No credits for the album were included.
  • It had taken 1-3 weeks to build each of the demos. While they were confident they could either increase the speed of the process or farm it out to other developers/make it the artists' problem, they said they only had a few of these done.
  • They had no plans to build art for their back catalog. Given the above reasons, they indicated they would only build this for select albums moving forward.
  • The technology only worked on the iPod (at the time) and had clearly been designed with the iPod in mind. So it would only be of use to iPod owners and clearly favored the iPod infrastructure.
  • They were the only label behind this. They had plans to establish a standard and encourage other labels to adopt it.
You couldn't do anything with their demo other than "drive around" a bit, and after about a minute of playing around with it, I was uninterested. I couldn't imagine it captivating anyone. The other items above insured it wasn't going to go anywhere.

I don't know if "Cocktail" is close to this. But knowing how slow the music business moves, and the motivations of the people behind it, I suspect it actually is closer to what I've described above than not.

Which means calling it "Cocktail" is perfect - you think it's a good idea at the time, but the next morning your head hurts and you're wondering why you were so stupid last night, why you hurt yourself.

If Apple is also working on a tablet PC/giant iPod/Netbook as has also been speculated, they're doing "Cocktail" for one reason - to help sell new Apple hardware. This new "feature" will appear on a handful of major releases at the end of 2009 and then go the way of CD-I and other formats the industry never got behind (Quad! DVD-A! HDCD! SACD!).

The sad part is Apple and iTunes already offer everything one needs - it is possible to embed multiple JPEGs of nearly any size in MP3 and AAC files. All you'd need to do as the label is supply some high-resolution images, and you could quickly and easily scan your entire back catalog. All you'd need to do as the hardware manufacturer is allow the user to page through those images - most devices can handle this at some level.

And all you'd need to do as the user is read and enjoy.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Marcel Duchamp, The Boomtown Rats: The Power of The Original Version, and Thomas Dolby

A recent Metafilter article brought up the subject of Marcel Duchamp's "readymades". The Readymades were everyday objects that Duchamp called art. The two best-known are a bicycle wheel stuck to the top of a stool and, most famously, a urinal signed "R. Mutt".

Some people argue that in fact these were not items off-the-shelf, but pieces specifically created by Duchamp to look like off-the-shelf items.

This coincided with the release of a remastered version of "In The Long Grass", by The Boomtown Rats. Until this event, this was one of the few albums in my vinyl LP collection which was not available on CD (or in any digital form).

I was at the gym, starting my workout as the album came on. I couldn't wait to hear it in nice, clean, crisp sound. I was surprised to find the album order had been changed from my USA release. And even more surprised to find 3 of the album's 10 tracks ("Drag Me Down", "Dave", "Lucky") to be totally different recordings.

There was a moment of wondering if I had fallen into a parallel universe. I wasn't sure what was going on. Maybe I was so used to hearing the degraded vinyl version that the new fidelity was confusing me.

But no, I'm a musician, I have good ears. These were different mixes with different vocals. And I didn't think I liked them!

I got home and asked my friend The Internet, and he told me the truth - these were in fact the original mixes. Bob Geldof and The Boomtown Rats had to do the new mixes and recordings for the US release. And Bob & co. felt the new versions were markedly inferior to the original versions. So for the album, they'd decided to put the originals back on, restore the correct running order, and release the "correct" version of the album.

Well, this really bothered me. I actually had first heard the other, "bad" versions. And I liked them. In fact, I liked them better than the "correct" versions. But I also really liked the album and really liked the band. I could have gone to my grave not hearing the new version of the record and never thought anything was amiss.

I think about Marcel Duchamp.

Then, out of the blue, Thomas Dolby reissues a nice, deluxe, definitive version of his debut album, "The Golden Age of Wireless".

I originally owned this album on cassette. I listened to it extensively in the early 80s. At TIP one year, I met a girl who also had a copy. We were listening to hers and the second track ("Radio Silence") came on. Her cassette had a very different version of the song than mine did. Hers had guitars and live drums. Mine was synthesizers and sequencers. Weird.

Over the next few years, I found out that "Wireless" had not only been released in these 2 different versions, with different mixes of "Radio Silence", but had originally been issued without its biggest hit ("She Blinded Me With Science") and its best track ("One Of Our Submarines"), and had included Thomas Dolby's first 2 songs "Leipzig" and "Urges".

On top of that, there were some versions that used the "short" version of "She Blinded Me With Science" and some that used the more famous 12" mix (famous for its stuttering "Sci-i-i-ence" edits, one of the sounds that defined 80s dance music).

There were different versions of the album cover. There may have even been different versions of "Airwaves" - some with the bridge, some without.

Which one of these was the "right" album? The definitive album?

There are other instances of this sort of confusion around the "original" work, whether it is George Lucas "improving" the early Star Wars movies or Star Trek's original series getting "digitally remastered" (i.e. completely re-done) special effects.

Todd Rundgren once said that after he'd heard a mix 3 times it became the final, definitive mix for him. He's concisely describing what I'm getting at here: The first experience one has with a particular work is usually the defining experience. Regardless of what tweaks the artist may insist are needed (or not), the viewer seldom notices the differences - unless the works are put up against each other in a "spot the differences"-type of comparison.

The original experience is the one that contains all the power. Any later modifications cannot substantially affect this original experience. It is said "You only get one chance to make a first impression" - that's especially true in art.

I think this also means there's little value in revisiting previous works with an eye towards "improving" them. While I find it interesting to hear the Boomtown Rats' other takes on their material, it doesn't change my feelings about the album as a whole, or the missing tracks, or the new/replacement tracks. The best thing about the Thomas Dolby remaster isn't the changing of the running order to what is "correct", or the deletion or replacement of "Science", "Submarines", "Leipzig", and "Urges". It's the addition of long-lost singles and b-sides, some of which I've never heard before.

Whether Duchamp created the readymades from scratch or not is irrelevant at this point - everyone experienced the idea of the readymades with the (possibly incorrect) understanding they were common household objects. That idea gave them power, even if it's not true, or wrong, and even if the artist could take it back or change it later.

The initial impact of the idea matters most. Aim carefully. You only get one shot.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Creativity and The Gear You Need

Gear. No matter what your work or hobbies are, there's probably gear that goes along with it. Good gear, bad gear, cheap gear, expensive gear, stuff in fashion, stuff out of fashion.

I spend time on sites like MatrixSynth and Vintage Synth Explorer, as well as more focused blogs like Chris Randall's Analog Industries and Stretta, reading about instruments and recording devices.

The merits of particular synthesizers and other music gear are regular topics of conversation. Like any community there are The Topics - the stuff that gets brought up over and over and never resolved, such as "digital versus analog", "plug-ins versus hardware", "what should I buy?" and "which piece of gear is better/best?"

The last topic in particular is one I find somewhat silly. In most cases, the differences between the gear being discussed aren't meaningful in any sense. If reasonable people (or even Internet forum readers) disagree, it cannot be clear-cut, can it?

Even if one could prove an identifiable difference, that's not the same as demonstrating that one particular approach/sound/item is "better" than the other for the purposes of doing something creative.

There are people who will say "oh, well, if you're doing house music, you have to have a 909", as a way of saying a certain piece of gear is standard, if not "required" for a given genre. I think using exactly the same gear that other people in your chosen genre is a good way to sound just like everybody else - and that's a bad thing!

For creative endeavors, my experience and belief is the outcome - the creative work - matters far more than what went into it. For modern recorded music, the end listener really has no idea what created what they're hearing - and most of them don't care what created it, either.

In the case of the "vocal chain" - the microphone, pre-amp, and other gear that gets the voice to the recording media - people will argue or discuss the gear to death. But few people acknowledge the importance of getting a good take from a good vocalist, on a good piece of music. The performer matters more than the gear, always.

In general, I think worrying about the "sound quality" of synths or other gear is a distraction or a way of avoiding deeper issues. Does the gear one uses really make that much of a difference, once it is in a mix, reproduced over varying playback systems?

Let's assume it does for a moment. Do you really want to be making music so dependent on one instrument or timbre? If you do, the choice is clear - you get a Moog or whatever exxxpen$ive gear you need and that's the end of it.

Is the problem with your music really that the "Moog Voyager sounds too clean, and you need a vintage MiniMoog" or that "your synth has DCOs and VCOs are better"? Or that you need a new $2,000 microphone preamp?

Or is the problem with your music about 6 inches in front of the mic or the synth?

I think people focus on gear discussions because it's much less scary than talking about the deficiencies of the most important gear in the chain - you.

It's easy to say "my music is bad because I don't have [insert expensive gear here]". In my case, I know I'm going to get more bang for the buck by improving me. Writing better music, performing it better, making the most of the gear I have.

Pick an instrument you already have and do something with it. Quit worrying about the sounds it doesn't make, the alleged deficiencies, or what it doesn't do. Use the sound it does make - and make something.

I think there's a dearth of writing and discussion about creativity out there - I'm contemplating a project (blog, book, or something) focusing on creativity, process, and outcome rather than gear.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Newspapers, Record Stores, and The Tonga Room

I. The Death of The Newspaper
No-one could save Woolworths, because the niche it had catered for no longer existed. Similarly, commentators are up in arms about the plight of regional newspapers. But when was the last time you read one? Sometimes, the depressing conclusion is the only accurate one.
There's a simple reason the newspaper business is in trouble: No one is buying newspapers anymore. You aren't. I'm not. As a result, newspapers are in a death spiral of sorts - they start raising their prices, which makes even fewer readers want to buy them.

Offering free Internet versions of newspapers is one competitor. Another is pure Internet news aggregation and free sites. But there's more to this story, and less.

Television and Internet news provide news instantly, on demand, as it happens. Print newspapers have an inherent lag which results in "aged news", as The Daily Show cruelly notes:
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
End Times
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

Cruel, yes. But also true.

The real problem with the newspaper business is that newspapers did not really understand their business. Most newspapers derive a majority of their revenue from advertising - classified (user-generated ads, if you will) and paid advertising. In effect, they are advertising delivery vehicles that happen to have news.

Once Craigslist, Ebay, Freecycle, HotJobs, Monster, and other special-purpose sites ate the newspapers primary classified businesses, the newspapers started dying. Newspapers hadn't realized their "true business" was conveying classified ads. If their business really was news, papers would be competing and succeeding on the quality and quantity of news. Newspapers that delivered true, accurate, and well-written news - or at least popular news - should thrive.

While people can argue about the quality of news reporting over the last few years, it is difficult to argue that a general decline in quality is responsible for people abandoning the newspapers for Internet and TV news, as those providers offer even lower quality, less reliable news. That's not why revenues and readership are declining.

Ultimately, the regional (and some national) newspapers are dying because people just don't care about them. No readers, no purchases, no paper. They're less relevant to readers because there's better ways to get news (TV, Internet) since the key value for news to users is timeliness. They're less relevant to advertisers because their targets are elsewhere now.

II. The Death of Record Stores
The National Association of Record Merchants (NARM) is now sponsoring "National Record Store Day", as sure a sign of the irrelevance and death of the record store as there is. It was April 18, 2009 this year.

They're dying for the same reasons newspapers are dying. You're not going there. I'm not going there. NARM is reduced to creating a "holiday" for it. Their website is a study in looking back to the good old days, with its 90s fontography. (And kids, that funny-looking "o" is supposed to represent a 45-RPM single. They haven't really been sold in most record stores for nearly 20 years. They're kind of like shellac 78s. Oh never mind.)

Why aren't we going there anymore? There are parallels with the newspaper situation. Record stores died because they didn't really understand the value in their business. Record stores assumed there was something "magical" about the record store experience. But really, record stores only existed because people needed a place to go buy music. The only reason we went was to get music. Once we could get it someplace else, we stopped going.

Once Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and Target started carrying the Top 100, 40, 20, or 10 (and deeply discounting those records as loss-leaders to generate store traffic), record stores began to lose their walk-in traffic from casual fans who wanted one record and would pick up a few others as impulse buys.

Once Amazon and other web sites were able to offer catalog depth far exceeding even the largest megastore, record stores began to lose their hard-core traffic. I remember trying to buy a Kraftwerk record in the late 90s at the Virgin Megastore on Sunset Boulevard. I was told by one of these employees they could "special order" it for me. It would cost extra and take 2-3 weeks to arrive. I went home, ordered it on Amazon, and it showed up days later, on my doorstep. No extra charge. Unsurprisingly, that Virgin Megastore is now shuttered.

Of course, not all record stores are gone, just like not all newspapers are gone. But the ones that remain are the same kind of small, niche-oriented, small sub-culture shops that exist for just about any hobby, such as comic-book collecting.

And just like some people enjoy the ritual or habit of reading the Sunday paper (partially because it's old fashion, tradition, etc.) there are people who enjoy browsing and wandering through record stores.

But record stores, like newspapers, are irrelevant to the majority. They're no longer a cultural force, and like newspapers, ultimately only have themselves to blame. More forward-thinking stores would have understood they were in the music distribution business. There was no reason for Amazon to be able to destroy Tower et. al. except those stores couldn't see beyond their expensive real estate. They thought their stores, employees, and fancy displays were the "magic" driving their business. All the customers saw that as the packaging around what they really wanted - the music. Once they could get the music in more convenient ways, they didn't need the record store or even the compact disc anymore.

III. The Death of The Tonga Room
In February of 2009, reports began to crop up that The Tonga Room was going to be closed and likely demolished as part of a condominium conversion of the building it inhabits.

Once the word was out, a few people started a belated attempt to save it.

But it's too late. By the time you have to organize an effort to save something - National Record Store Day, for example - it's already too late.

Predictably, the San Francisco whiners come out in droves in comment sections on websites, bemoaning the loss of another San Francisco icon, griping about dot-com carpetbaggers, and saying that San Francisco just isn't what it used to be. They should go look in the mirror.

The Tonga Room is closing, just like newspapers and record stores, because you don't go there. I don't go there. They don't go there. If it had fantastic business, it wouldn't be closing. End of story.

You can get the historical society to label it a landmark. And then just like all the other landmarks, you can museumize it. Charge a fee. Trap it in amber. Restore it to its former glory, just like it was decades ago. Tourists will stop by and check it out on the way to Coit Tower.

But you won't go there. You'll sit at home, reading the news on your iPhone while you listen to the music you downloaded from the Internet. You'll sip your coffee, look out the window, and wish you lived in a simpler, better, time - one filled with newspapers and record stores and charming Tiki bars.

You might even wonder why people don't appreciate what they have until it's gone.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Overcast Books and PDF now available

"Overcast" books are now available from Blurb in both ImageWrap hardcover and softcover. You can see Blurb's preview and order your copy today.

RPM 2009 (v1.0)
By Anu

Created to accompany the 2009 album "Overcast", the book features more than two dozen images by noted photographer James Carrière and book design by award-winning designer Iran Narges.

"Overcast" includes the complete lyrics for the songs as well as essays and blog entries by Anu describing the creative process, completed entirely during February 2009.

The "Overcast" book is the ideal companion to the album and a beautiful art piece on its own. It is clearly the best of the books I've done so far.

There is also a free PDF available with the album or by itself.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Remembering Gary Finneran

Gary Finneran with Tuscaurora in 1999Gary Louis Finneran took his own life on May 10, 2009. He was 45 years old.

Gary was best-known as the singer for the Ex-Idols, a notorious Los Angeles/Orange County punk band active in the early 1990s.

I knew him as the leader of Tuscaurora, a loud-as-hell rock band in the late 90s. Gary wrote terrific, creative songs, sang with a unique voice, and played left-handed guitar. As musicians go, Gary was the real deal.

Gary was a charismatic, talented, and troubled person. He had an infectious smile and true punk's sense of fun, adventure, and a lust for chaos. Whenever I think of him, I think of him smiling or laughing.

I didn't know him well, but well enough. Well enough to know how much he loved and idolized Kurt Cobain. How passionate he was about music. And drinking.

I spent time with his kids. I saw his bands play. I saw Gary set fire to a stage. My then-girlfriend Anne was the bass player for Tuscaurora and the keyboard player for the M-80s, an 80s cover band who were one of the inspirations for Sid Luscious and The Pants.

I reconnected with Gary briefly a few years ago. At that time, Gary was taking composition classes, "learning to write real music", he said. It sounded like he had moved beyond his self-destructive tendencies and achieved a new kind of happiness and stability in his life.

I am sure Gary's better friends are feeling the same way I am about him these days: Surprised. Not surprised. Disappointed. Angry. Sad. Mystified. Grateful that we had him as long as we did.

In addition to his music and devastated friends, he leaves behind 3 children.

The world is the poorer for his decision to quit its stage.

Tuscaurora - Like We Were Never
Tuscaurora - Beautiful Nothing
Tuscaurora - Get You High
The Ex-Idols - Kind of a Sid and Nancy Song
The Ex-Idols have made their music available for free download.

"He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar"
- David Bowie, Ziggy Stardust

Gary Exits

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dave Allen likes my Faded Flowers Shriekback Cover

Mr. Dave Allen from Gang of Four and Shriekback has taken a liking to a cover I recorded of Shriekback's sublime "Faded Flowers". You can read what he had to say here.

You can get the track from Alonetone.

I am incredibly flattered. Both Gang of Four and Shriekback were big influences on my musical development.

Dave has been a big advocate of the next music business model and is continuing to promote new stuff over at his Pampelmoose site.

This track was one of the last and best things I recorded at The Hive in L.A. before shutting it down and moving to San Francisco. Ace producer Ken Kessie helped with the mix and the always fantastic Anne Kadrovich contributed backing vocals.

The original track has long been a favorite of mine and is a standout on Shriekback's wonderful "Oil and Gold" album.