Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Apple’s Kindle Killer in Waiting ...

The tech, business and publishing worlds have been emitting at least a low-level buzz in recent months about what the ever-secretive Apple Inc. may (or may not) be on the verge of doing on the e-book reading device front. That is, are they poised to launch a Kindle killer?

Inevitably, they have something up their sleeve, and given their track record on hardware development, odds are it will be game changing. This recent “Silicon Alley Insider” column from lays out a couple of interesting possibilities and makes what seems to be a reasonable speculation on how things will shake out.

Most of the book/magazine/newspaper-lovers (i.e., readers) I’ve talked to have been quite skeptical about the Kindle and similar e-readers up to this point. While I agree the current technology leaves A LOT to be desired, I do believe that once we get beyond the Betamax equivalents of e-readers, they will be something that readers of books and magazines can and will embrace. That is, when they are conveniently portable (flexible and roll-upable, like a printed magazine), wirelessly connected to the all of the world’s literature and periodicals, energy efficient, touch sensitive and full color with image quality equivalent to today’s glossy magazines.

From what I’ve been reading, whatever Apple is working on won’t likely be all of those things right out of the shoot. But it will probably be the equivalent of a 50-yard gain – moving the e-reader ball well down the field.

Assuming all of the above does occur, my main and lingering reservation about these devices is the tradeoff for having a full library at your disposal anytime, anywhere is you will also have an expensive and fragile device to look after (i.e., protect from damage and theft). Gone will be the carefree reading of a paperback that you can lose or pass on to a friend and the hassle-free discarding (recycling) of a magazine that you’ve finished reading. When your e-reader is with you, it’s with you ... and it’s not fond of sand, water, extreme heat or cold, direct sunlight, being dropped, etc. Nevertheless, that tradeoff might still be worth it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Deadman’s Hand

Still humming from the three Church concerts I saw earlier this month. Here’s a video clip of “Deadman’s Hand” from their new album Untitled #23. This was filmed during a special mid-afternoon radio station gig they did on June 15, 2009, prior to their show that evening at The Triple Door in Seattle. Good performance from the beginning of the tour (the shows I saw were near the end of the tour). This is a treat given the dearth of good video footage of the band playing live. Maybe that’ll be corrected soon.

Note Marty playing bass centerstage and Steve taking over his guitar spot. They’ve done that for a song or two on past tours, but they did it considerably more this time around ... a way to keep evolving their approach and sound, I suppose.

Stocks, Gold or Mattress?

The info in this piece from the May 2009 issue of The Atlantic isn’t necessarily profound, though it does map out the current lay of the land investment-wise. However, it does so in a well-written and very entertaining manner. Writer Jeffrey Goldberg’s voice echoes around in my head like my own while I read this article.
Another article in the same issue – which I admit I only skimmed because I can only take so much of this depressing economic stuff – outlines how the financial industry effectively capture our government in recent years. It includes an intriguing chart (see below) depicting the escalation of the financial industry relative to the rest of the U.S. business world over the last few decades.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Fading Echoes of WWI

The world’s oldest man died two days ago. Britain’s Henry Allingham was 113 years old ... Imagine all that he saw during his lifetime! My grandmother lived to be 100, having had feet not only in two different centuries, but two different worlds: a childhood in which people still got around by horse and buggy and the dark nights were lit by gas lamps to an adulthood seeing space travel and moon walks – and that with 20+ years still to live! She died in 1991, so she would be 118 if she were still alive today: A full five years senior to Mr. Allingham. That’s not much when you’re talking in terms of centuries.

Like most records, Mr. Allingham’s reign as world’s oldest man (however they verfiy that) was short lived, lasting only one month.

What I find fascinating about the coverage of Mr. Allingham’s life upon his passing is the nearly total focus on his participation in World War I (a now almost extinct résumé item). I guess that makes sense given that he was the second-to-last living British WWI veteran. Reportedly, there are no French, no German and only one American veteran of The Great War still alive ... 68 million participants and maybe only one left!

Mr. Allingham dedicated his many post-war years to ensuring the remembrance of that now distant and largely forgotten, but incredibly horrific and devastating war. Rightly considered by historians to be the first modern war, WWI was also still quite primitive. Despite the advent of lethal machinery, chemical weapons and other agents of destruction, the war was still fought nearly hand-to-hand (or at least trench-to-trench) . Very often the soldiers could see into the eyes of their enemies.

On thing I find particularly fascinating in Mr. Allingham’s obituary is the description of the early fighting planes. The WWI aces took to the skies in contraptions that were only a little more than a decade beyond Wilbur and Orville Wright’s mechanized kite. Astounding! Really makes you think about the things we complain about, doesn’t it?

Despite Allingham’s efforts to remind later generations of the supreme sacrifices made by the soldiers of World War I, The Great War – nor its successor – proved to be “the war that ends all wars.” So, regrettably, the brutally eloquent words of WWI poet Wilfred Owen remain as poignant and necessary today as ever:

The Show
by Wilfred Owen

My soul looked down from a vague height with Death,
As unremembering how I rose or why,
And saw a sad land, weak with sweats of dearth,
Gray, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,
And fitted with great pocks and scabs of plaques.

Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,
There moved thin caterpillars, slowly uncoiled.
It seemed they pushed themselves to be as plugs
Of ditches, where they writhed and shrivelled, killed.

By them had slimy paths been trailed and scraped
Round myriad warts that might be little hills.

From gloom's last dregs these long-strung creatures crept,
And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes.

(And smell came up from those foul openings
As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening.)

On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,
Brown strings towards strings of gray, with bristling spines,
All migrants from green fields, intent on mire.

Those that were gray, of more abundant spawns,
Ramped on the rest and ate them and were eaten.

I saw their bitten backs curve, loop, and straighten,
I watched those agonies curl, lift, and flatten.

Whereat, in terror what that sight might mean,
I reeled and shivered earthward like a feather.

And Death fell with me, like a deepening moan.
And He, picking a manner of worm, which half had hid
Its bruises in the earth, but crawled no further,
Showed me its feet, the feet of many men,
And the fresh-severed head of it, my head.

Then, of course, there’s Owen’s most famous lines: “Dulce et Decorum Est”, too.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Walter Cronkite, R.I.P.

There’s not a whole lot more that I can say about Walter Cronkite, the greatest TV news anchorman of all time, that hasn’t already been said in the last 24 hours since the announcement of his death last night.

I’m old enough to remember Mr. Cronkite’s regular presence on “the TV news” every evening from my childhood through young adulthood. He was truly the standard bearer for an anchorman .... something I’ve come to appreciate all the more having lived through what came later and what persists at an even more debased level today.
No mere newsreader, he was America’s reporter, taking the solid, old-school journalistic skills he had learned as a wire service reporter in World War II and applying them to his decisions, delivery and sense of decorum and fairness to every nightly newscast. He went on location to report and get a genuine first-hand view of what was going on, not as some shallow photo opp. He was as objective as humanely possible – only breaking that on the rare occasion when his common sense and understanding of the pulse of populace dictated that he should do otherwise. He was professional, yet human; dignified, yet dogged. I can’t think of a much higher accolade than to be universally remembered as “the most trusted voice in America” – and for it to be sincere (no mere marketing spin) and true!

There will never be another Walter Cronkite. Not just because of the extraordinary times and circumstances he lived through, but also because of his genuine skills, ethics, humanity, steadiness and charisma.

Kudos to the current CBS news team and anchor Katie Couric for recording a second newscast on Friday night and getting this tribute clip on air during the network’s West Coast newscast.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Att: Media People ... Just Get Used to It

I’m usually very optimistic – you know, glass half full kind of guy. That’s been a lot harder lately when thinking about the state of the media industry these days. While I remain excited by the opportunities that technology increasingly affords us – as writer/editors and as readers – it’s also hard to deny the increasingly apparent conclusion that the dramatic loss of advertising that knocked the stool out from under the industry in the last 18 months or so isn't coming back. It's not coming back to print or TV, and it’s not all migrating to the web either.

Now one of the nation’s most reputable research firms has issues a new report that puts it in blunt terms: The horror show of the last year or so is the new normal (See’s “The New Normal Is Ugly”). Get used to it.

Yes, there will still be advertising, but it’s not likely to be in the large and concentrated doses that the media industry came to expect over the last few decades. That means one of three things essentially:
1. Some other, new advertising model that promises robust gains (for a wide swath of players) must be created/discovered;
2. Consumers will need to start regularly ponying up (cash and/or serious personal consumer info); or
3. Quality content will become far more rare than we think it is already.

The journalism side of this morass is not much more encouraging. As Clay Shirky eloquently stats on his blog: “chaos is our lot.” Obviously, things are in an evolutionary state of flux. The transition from “State A to State B,” as Shirkey puts it, will take some time (years, if not decades, perhaps) ... So, again, like or not, we need to get used to it!

The Altar of Intelligent, Guitar-Driven Rock

Having seen three concerts by the veteran Aussie rock band The Church over the course of a week earlier this month, I feel compelled to write something about the experience. There have been only a handful of artists in my long, music-loving life that I’ve been interested in enough – and also had the opportunity to indulge myself to this extent – to attend several of their concerts on a single tour. The Church are the latest additions to an august list that includes Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Page & Plant, The Waterboys and Wilco.

The first time I saw The Church live was in early 1986 in Washington, D.C., when they opened for Echo and The Bunnymen (to this day, one of the best double bills I have witnessed). At that point, I had been a fan of the band for a year or so, having discovered their 1984 release Remote Luxury and enjoying a cassette of their first U.S. release, The Church, given to me by a friend who worked at my college radio station. I have been a total convert ever since – tracking down nearly everything the band (and its three principal members) have put out and seeing them in concert about a dozen times. Even today, despite a lot of twists, turns and tangents in the band’s career, I’m still a devout believer in The Church’s intelligent, atmospheric, guitar-driven rock.

Part of the challenge facing the band today – aside from the formidable business and financial concerns that one would expect veterans of their stature to be beyond at this point – is that casual fans still see them as an ’80s band. Sure they had their two big hits in that plastic, rah-rah decade, but today they are quite distant from the cultural touchstones of that era. The fact is, the bulk of their recorded output is post-’80s, and many of their greatest artistic achievements have come during the last 20 years.

But, due to this lingering popular mindset, the band no longer commands big audiences when it tours in the States. The shows I attended drew between 200 and 300 people each in venues that could’ve accommodated many more. Church appearances today, it seems, are for initiates only. (Sad really, since they may well need at least a few more converts to remain viable on a business level). Fortunately, the less-than-spectacular turnouts didn’t diminish the quality or enthusiasm of the performances I saw.

In my experience, the band’s shows are always good – and sometimes truly great. I can’t say any of these three recent shows was the absolute best Church concert I’ve ever seen, but I will say that they rank very near the top. I’d be hard pressed to say even which of the three shows in this stint was the best. They were all good, and they all had some unique highpoints as well as shared ones.

The Three Locales

Though similar in size, the venues for the three shows I attended could not have been much more different. The first was at Showcase Live, a nice new club tacked on to the side of a suburban movie complex (part of the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium complex) in Foxboro, Mass. The club features a mixture of a cabaret-style table seating and standing room. Despite its off-putting suburban mall environs, the venue itself offers great sightlines and excellent sound. For The Church, it also featured an engaging light show projected on a large screen behind the band – an enhancement that was absent from the other two locales.

The Foxboro show was a casual, intimate affair with more between-song banter from singer/bassist/lyricist Steve Kilbey than either of the other two shows. The crowd was quiet, but attentive. An added benefit of this gig was that, before the show, we got to chat briefly with guitarist Marty Willson-Piper. He was affable and humorous as expected. (Maybe it’s his new Rasputin beard, but he looks taller than I remember him being.)

The second show was in Manhattan at Irving Plaza, a typical rock club with stage and open floor space ringed by with a small balcony above. As expected, the NYC audience proved to be the most boisterous of the three shows and the band responded with their most energetic performance. There was less between-song chatter and more of a full-frontal assault on the tunes.

I wrapped up my triumvirate at Connecticut’s Ridgefield Playhouse, a 500-seat theater in a tony, quintessentially New England suburb. (Kilbey even made a comment about the local real estate – he’d be glad to live there if you have a house to donate!) The playhouse was well-suited to the show, but unfortunately it attracted less than 200 people. But the few who were there were quite enthusiastic and it yielded a looser, less frenetic, more impulsive (particularly vocally) performance from the band than either of the two previous shows (especially compared to the night before in Manhattan). Even poker-faced guitarist Peter Koppes was cracking jokes with the audience.

The Set List and a New Steve

I was a little concerned that there was no variation in the set list from night to night (the whole tour, in fact). Fortunately, however, there were sufficient variations in how the songs were done, as well as the overall vibe of each performance, which minimized any potential disappointment.

It’s apparent that The Church’s goal on this tour was to really highlight their newest material – a risky endeavor given that casual fans view anything released after Starfish in 1988 (or maybe 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix) as “new.” That’s 15 studio albums and assorted odds and ends!

Seven of the 18 songs in the set were from either the new CD, Untitled #23, or its predecessor, Uninvited, Like the Clouds (2006). The new tunes more than held their own against the classics. In fact, every one of the new songs performed – with the possible exception of “Happenstance” (OK, but not exceptional) – grew on me considerably over the course of the three concerts. By the third show, I was looking forward to the new tunes, especially “Operetta” and “Space Saviour,” two of the mellower tunes from Untitled, as much as old favorites like “A Month of Sundays” or “You Took.”

The other remarkable thing about these shows was Kilbey’s appearance and performance. Not only sporting a buff new look (despite the thinning hair and gray beard), he was the most animated I’ve ever seen him – by a factor of 10! Who’d have thought we’d ever see typically sedate Mr. K doing Chuck Berry duckwalks and interpretative dance moves? There is something to be said for kicking hard drugs! Kilbey was more talkative than ever. It was also the first time I’ve seen him perform a song without either a bass or a guitar strapped over his shoulder – thus enabling the theatrical movements.

The Songs and the Performances

The band kicks the shows off with a great opener: the surging “Tantalized” from 1986’s Heyday album. It's a captivating way to get the blood pumping right out of the gate. In Foxboro, the song featured an extended staccato guitar strumming intro from Marty (stage right) before the rest of the band joined in – with Peter (stage left) playing unusually dissonant (almost punk) chords against MWP’s muted machine-gunning to further extend the intro. In New York, the band launched into the song in unison with a ramped up sense of urgency that foreshadowed the rest of the show.

The interplay between the Church guitarists has always been spectacular (a trademark of the band, in fact), but it has now reached a sublime state. The two musicians shine in their own right, while perfectly complementing one another – both in the free-form jams and the more compositionally constructed moments. Meanwhile, Kilbey and drummer Tim Powles do much more than simply build a foundation for the soaring guitarists.

The rhyming, low-key spoken beginning of “Block” (from Uninvited, Like the Clouds) follows the opener, eventually segueing into a momentum-building crescendo reminiscent of the band’s Priest-Aura material (sadly, none of which was played). “Day 5,” another tune from Uninvited, comes next and provides the first taste of the band’s atmospheric, elegiac side. Both of these songs come across much better live than on the original CD.

The sarcastic ode to L.A., “North South East and West” from the mega-selling Starfish LP, picks the pace up again and gives Marty another opportunity to command the spotlight on guitar.

Just a few songs later comes the first visit to the front end of the band’s catalog: “Almost With You” from 1982’s Blurred Crusade. Here, Koppes swoops in with magically melodic lead lines representing the truly classic sound of the band’s early, breezy pop. The interestingly chorded ballad “A Month of Sundays” from 1984’s Remote Luxury follows, heightening the acoustic presence in the set. It’s faithfully rendered with Marty carrying the tune on acoustic and Peter adding electric embellishments behind him.

Then, as we creep past the midpoint of the show, comes the first of the band’s epic jam tunes: “You Took”(also from The Blurred Crusade). The whole band seriously cuts loose on this one. They follow the propulsive improvisations with the majestic “Operetta,” which also introduces Kilbey’s interpretative movements. At the first show, I thought these were somewhat farcical, but by the third show I saw that they were genuine and actually pretty cool if you can appreciate the singer’s sense of ethereal whimsy.

The requisite performance of the band’s biggest hit, 1988’s “Under the Milky the Way,” follows. It seems sincere, not over-extended or grandiose. (In other words, they don’t milk “Milky Way.”) The rendition of the song in New York was the best of the three thanks to Koppes’ haunting e-bow guitar solos juxtaposed against MWP’s familiar acoustic strumming. One might expect the mega-hit from yesteryear to be the delegated set closer, but a different Starfish tune plays that role. “Reptile,” yet another colorful palette for the interplay between the two guitarists, closes the regular set with a noisy, but tight arrangement. The song is a showpiece for Marty, but in NYC Peter stole the thunder with his biting, melodic leads weaving around MWP’s jaunty riffs.

The encore’s commence with another jamming guitar excavation from the past: “An Interlude” (from The Blurrred Crusade). Each night, this is one of the highlights of the concert, with all the band members serving up the touchpoints of the classic Church sound. It is followed by the uplifting and declarative “Space Saviour” from the new album.

The band leaves the stage again before returning for a second encore of Starfish’s “Hotel Womb” – yet another major jam opportunity and the band’s most pronounced foray into their renowned Neil Young-ish feedback/noisy-guitar breakdown. In Connecticut, Kilbey even threw in some references to Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” as well as Bowie’s “Jean Genie” during the final moments of jamming.

As I stated at the outset, I was already a convert, but these three shows certainly renewed my faith in and hope for a band that has seen its share of commercial struggles and miscues, yet continues to create great (albeit too-often overlooked) music and compelling live performances. Their 2009 “So Love May Find Us” U.S. tour is now over. I’m already eager to see them again.


Tantalized / Block / Day 5 / North, South, East and West / Happenstance / After Everything / Almost With You / A Month of Sundays / Deadman’s Hand / Pangaea / You Took / Operetta / Under the Milky Way / Reptile / Encore 1: An Interlude / Space Saviour / Encore 2: Hotel Womb


The Church on My Space

The Time Being, Steve Kilbey’s blog – Always interesting, personal and sometimes provocative. Written in a stream-of-consciousness quasi-verse-like format.

No Certainty Attached: Steve Kilbey and The Church, by Robert Dean Lurie, Verse Chorus Press, 2009. An engaging well-written biography of Kilbey’s life and career. Most of the focus is on The Church, with many revelations and astute insights into a complex, talented, very human character.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Compact Between Advertisers, Publishers and Consumers

This recent Advertising Age column offers an insightful look at the implicit agreement between consumers (readers/users) and advertisers, by way of publishers – that is, who gives what in order to get what. It spells out in concise and simple terms how that has historically worked, how it is now breaking down, and the ramifications of its disintegration.

One of the problems evident here is the disconnect between the thinking and actions of consumers en masse vs. those of the individual consumer. For example, we might all agree in theory that in order to continue to have access to good content (for free or even at low cost) we as a class of consumers must be willing to put up with advertising messages in some way shape or form. Yet that understanding does not make any one of us more willing to sit through commercials (print, web or TV). It’s TiVo time all the time, isn’t it?

I don’t claim to have a solution for this, though the author of this column presents a reasonable and seemingly easily implementable one. I do wonder if we’ll have to suffer the loss of access to good content before we’re willing to compromise and either put our money down and pay for things we value or else not only put up with ads, but give up the info that would allow for more effective targeting of those ads – which would make them more palatable but also raise privacy issues. (It’s another whole debate, but I think our privacy went down the drain a long time ago – and most of us can’t even fathom all the ways.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Church Live in L.A. Radio Studio

This is an impressive performance by The Church in the studio of an L.A. radio station at the beginning of the band’s 2009 North American Tour. It includes four (extended) songs and some interview banter. Despite Marty Willson-Piper now looking something like Rasputin and Peter Koppes looking somewhat disinterested (not playing that way though!), this is a captivating performance. The music is, for the most part, dense, atmospheric and dramatically dynamic; with lyrics that are alternately obtuse or esoteric and intelligent. This is fairly indicative of the bulk of the band’s material, as opposed to the more commercial sounds of their few isolated hits.

Songs include:
1. Day 5 (from Uninvited, Like the Clouds, 2006) @1:09 in video
2. Block " @ 6:30 in video
3. Pangaea (from Untitled #23, 2009) @ 18:60 in video
4. You Took (from The Blurred Crusade, 1982) @ 21:51 in video
5. North, South, East and West (from Starfish, 1988) @ 36:20 in video

The audio is crystal clear (it is a radio studio, after all) and you can hear the two different guitar parts really well. I’m really looking forward to seeing these guys a couple of times in the next week.