Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some Perspective ...

The Earth (and its moon) as viewed from 114 million miles away. ... That’s not even “deep space.” In fact, cosmically speaking, this is not even beyond our stellar neighborhood. The next closest solar system to ours, Alpha Centauri, is 4.2 light years away. (A light year equals approximately 5.8 TRILLION miles .... you do the math!) This picture of the Earth and its faithful consort is taken from somewhere in that celestial wasteland between Venus (37 million miles away) and Jupiter (240 million miles away) – Hey, it’s not easy dodging all those rocks out there! In essence, that’s like snapping a picture of your house (and shed) from the corner of the Green’s and the Brown’s yards two houses down the street!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dissecting Rock’s Greatest Songwriting Duo

I just got around to watching the second edition (actually Part 1) of the two documentaries on the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership. (I wrote a lengthier post about the first one I saw, Part 2, almost a year ago, which you can read here.)

This installment, Composing the Beatles Songbook: Lennon and McCartney 1957 - 1965, covers the early years of the partnership, examining how the two musicians developed and began to assert their own styles and voices, while also continuing to work collaboratively on many occasions (at least during this period).

Insightful commentary and interviews with friends who were there at the time add considerable nuance to the typically over-simplified summary of the pair’s individual songwriting styles and influences. The film also debunks the myth that the band was initially John’s; a common assumption based on the fact that he was the founder and leader of The Quarrymen, the band which Paul joined before the group evolved into The Silver Beatles and then just The Beatles. It makes a compelling case that Paul quickly assumed co-leadership with John based on the duo’s superior composing skills and stage presence.

The documentary dissects Paul’s emergence as an exceptional pop songsmith (and sheds light on the roots of those sensibilities), while also providing one of the more thorough explorations of Dylan’s pronounced influence on John’s songwriting in 1964 and ’65. The detailed examinations of McCartney’s “Can’t Buy Me Love” and Lennon’s “Hard Day's Night” (Who knew they were both blues songs, in their own, early Brit-pop, kind of way?), as well as John’s confessionals, “Help” and “Norwegian Wood,” are particularly interesting.

While the music involved and the story of the dynamics between the duo is undoubtedly more compelling in the second DVD, spanning 1966 - 1970 (again, you can read more about that here), this view of the early years is surprisingly substantive and entertaining – even without any direct commentary from the composers themselves. The bottom line is that there was a lot there, even in those early days when they were simply Mop Tops (or, at least, so perceived).

If you like The Beatles, or just appreciate the art of songcraft, I highly recommend checking out both of these documentaries.

The Beatles’ first fully acoustic song, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” from 1964’s soundtrack to the second Beatles’ movie Help, is one of several examples of the strong Dylan influence on John Lennon’s songwriting.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Who You Calling Old? (and How?)

Here’s another entertaining and insightful missive from one of my favorite media biz bloggers: The Newsosaur himself, Alan Mutter. This one is particularly interesting to me because not only does it spotlight yet another of the ongoing follies and missteps of today’s media industry, but it also deals with demographic sensitivities that I’ve been attuned to and writing about for a dozen years or so.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Unmaking the Myth of Print ... from Gutenberg On

I just stumbled across Robert Pinsky’s recent New York Times Book Review piece on The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegree (read it here). It’s an interesting look at Pettegree’s demythologizing of the early years of print (now so revered as the modern iteration wheezes on in the sick ward) in the aftermath of Gutenberg’s revolutionary invention.

Turns out, despite his trailblazing ingenuity, Gutenberg “died bankrupt and disappointed.” Either he hadn’t quite figured out how to monetize his “hi-tech” creation (remember, everything is relative) or it simply took a few decades for the market to catch up to his idea. Apparently, piracy was problem right from the start, too.

And, in further evidence that human nature doesn’t change much, even over half a millennium, the first successful runs on the early printing presses were not what we would later come to know as the classics, but rather Renaissance pulp (albeit religious) and vanity (certificates of papal indulgences).

I doubt I have the time to dedicate to wading through Pettegree’s lauded scholarship, but I did enjoy Pinsky’s enticing summary ... and you might, too.

Friday, August 13, 2010

R.I.P., Richie Hayward

Saddened to hear of the passing today of Little Feat founder and drummer Richie Hayward. Little Feat was an entertaining, funky and soulful genre-crossing band, of which Hayward’s steady backbeat was an integral part. I saw Hayward working the kit live on two occasions, once with Little Feat and once as part of Robert Plant’s band on his first solo tour in 1983.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Boston’s Best All-Time Pop Music Artists?

Last weekend, The Sunday Globe Magazine published a round-up of what they deemed “Boston’s 25 Greatest Pop Music Artist Ever.”

Like most of these lists, this one (compiled by three veteran Globe music writers) hits most of the obvious marks (Aerosmith, J. Geils Band, Boston, The Cars, Pixies et al), as well as a few more under-the-radar essentials (Jonathan Richman, Mission of Burma). Mainly, the list suffers from having to corral such a wide ranging cast of characters. Yes, Donna Summer and New Kids on the Block deserve to be on a list attempting to encompass all genres of popular music over the last half a century, but in whose world do those artist occupy the same space as Joan Baez?

I appreciate a wide range of musical styles, but this just seems a bit off. Such is the dilemma (and demise?) for major metropolitan daily newspapers these days: How do you succeed trying to be all things to all people?

Perhaps separate lists by genre would’ve made more sense, and allowed for inclusion of a few of the unfortunate omissions (the article even had a sidebar listing acts the compilers really regretted not being able to include in the top 25). Maybe the original assignment was for the Top 40 artists of all time and some evil editor (or lack of adequate advertising sales) dictated a last minute paring down of the list to a mere 25 spread over four or more genres of popular music.

Scope aside, I have no major beef with the list as published (see below). That said, I am disappointed (though not terribly surprised) that several of the acts that stand out to me as among the greats of the once proud and mighty Boston music scene were ignored.

In place of the disco artists and boy bands on the Globe’s list, I would have included 1980’s and 1990’s stalwarts like Push Push and Dennis Brennan, The Raindogs, O Positive, The Del Fuegos, The Neighborhoods, The Cave Dogs, and Scruffy the Cat, or even Shy Five – all of whom played an important part in making Boston a musical town to be reckoned with. And while most of these bands did this through numerous energy-filled, sweat-drenched appearances at clubs like The Rat, The Tam, The Paradise, The Channel, T.T. The Bear’s, Jack’s, Club III, etc., several also put out some outstanding records (a few of which actually sold beyond the borders of the Bay State).

Furthermore, since folk fits with rock more than disco and boy bands (at least in my world) and The Globe did acknowledge folkies James Taylor and Joan Baez, how could Bill Morrissey and Tracy Chapman be overlooked? And while Boston has long been a renowned blues-loving town, is there not a single homegrown blues musician worthy of inclusion? Ronnie Earl? Bonnie Raitt? Jerry Portnoy? James Montgomery? (C’mon! They merit a sidebar, at least!)

I do give the Globies extra kudos for the inclusion of Morphine, a band all-too-easily overlooked, but who were so far ahead of their time (or was it simply beyond time?) and everyone else in producing the ultimate in smokey, jazzy, bluesy, minimalist cool. (R.I.P., Mark Sandman!)

The Globe’s 25 Best
In an attempt to protect their content assets, The Globe no longer allows free online access to the full text of many of their articles. Too bad, in this case, because the write-ups that accompanied the list were entertaining, as well as insightfully and knowledgeably written. You can read a brief summary of the feature here, or shell out a few bucks to see the full unattractive web presentation of the article. Better yet, if you’re in New England, at least, see if your local library has a back issue of The Globe Magazine from 8/8/10.

The Boston Pop Hit Hit Parade
1. Aerosmith
2. Pixies
3. James Taylor
4. Donna Summer
5. The Cars
6. J. Geils Band / Peter Wolf
7. Joan Baez
8. New Edition
9. New Kids on the Block
10. Aimee Mann / ’Til Tuesday
11. Boston
12. Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers
13. Mission of Burma
14. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
15. The Lemonheads (one of the most over-rated bands in pop history, in my book)
16. Dropkick Murphys
17. The Remains
18. Galaxie 500
19. Morphine
20. Amanda Palmer / Dresden Dolls
21. Guster
22. Tavares
23. Dick Dale (who knew, the king of surf guitar caught his first waves in Quincy?)
24. Tom Rush
25. The G-Clefs (Who?!)

Among the “we would have liked to have mentioned” artists listed by the authors in a sidebar were: Letters to Cleo and Buffalo Tom. Both worthy occupiers of the fringe of classic Beantown popdom, but neither quite to my taste.

• For a more detailed perspective on the glory years of the Boston music scene, check out Brett Milano’s excellent 2007 book, The Sound of Our Town. I’ve seen many a local club show over the years in the shadow of Brett’s benignly hulking figure.

A Fortune ... For Those Who Do

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Vanishing Art of Listening

Recently, one of my favorite regular features in Electronic Musician magazine was discontinued. At first, I was a bit dismayed by the axing of Grammy-winning producer and engineer Nathaniel Kunkel’s monthly column. But, as interesting as it had been, I have to admit that Kunkel’s column had pretty much run its course after a few years. So I was delighted to see it replaced by a new monthly contribution from composer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Steven Wilson.

Wilson is an innovative solo artist and leader of the modern English prog-rock band, Porcupine Tree. He’s hardly a household name, but he’s a respected musician who has achieved a modicum of commercial success and considerable artistic triumphs in his 15 or so years in music biz.

I knew from the few interviews with Wilson that I have read over the years that he is a thoughtful and articulate artist. His first few EM columns have bolstered that impression.

In his August column, Wilson argues that cheap convenience is trumping artistic aesthetics in modern music and, as a result, devaluing the experience itself. It’s quite ironic that as recording technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent decades, the quality of what most of us consume as music has regressed substantially.

As Wilson thoughtfully puts it: “Would you rather see the Mona Lisa in the flesh, or look at a thumbnail jpeg of it on your mobile phone? And if you’d only ever seen the virtual Mona Lisa, would you really feel honest saying you’d seen it at all?” Or, as applied to music, “If you’ve only experienced an album [you know, 10 or so purposefully sequenced songs] as compressed audio files [MP3s], have you really experienced it?”

Wilson says consumption of music primarily through compressed MP3s is analogous to making a photocopy of a genuine work of art and putting it in a crappy picture frame. The chasm in relative quality greatly undermines the nuance and beauty of the art.

• Check out Wilson’s first solo release, Insurgentes, or Porcupine Tree’s latest, The Incident, both of which I wrote about in my round-up of last year’s best releases.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Another “Soda,” Please!

Prepped for a day at the beach ... Some summertime humor, courtesy of Jim Meddick:

... Sounds like the contents of my fridge.

As the blog logo (above) suggests, it’s always 5 o’clock (somewhere) ... but if your watch fails, you can always count on the sun.

Big Co’s Scheming to Undermine Net Neutrality?

The news of the alleged negotiations (i.e., conspiring) between Verizon and Google to undermine the principle of net neutrality, as reported today in The New York Times and elsewhere, should be more than a bit concerning to all of us who use the internet as an information source and are wary of large corporations wielding even more control of the media industry. Media pundit Dan Kennedy outlines the ramifications of such corporate conspiring in today’s post on his Media Nation blog (read it here).

Google has since denied the veracity of the reports, claiming its ongoing commitment to net neutrality. Be that as it may, if you care about the First Amendment and your variety of choices regarding digital news and entertainment, then this is something you might want to keep an eye on.

If you find the prospect of an increased stratification of the here-to-fore reasonably equitable playing field of the Internet disturbing, consider registering your concern here. The number of citizens voicing opposition needs to grow significantly to gain the attention of the powers that be and counter corporate lobbying efforts.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Is It Too Late Now?

I was driving in the car this morning with my 8-year-old daughter. A homemade collection of World Party’s greatest hits was playing on the stereo and mid-way through the song “Is It Too Late” (the opening track from the band’s 1990 L.P. Goodbye Jumbo) a sudden declaration erupted from the back seat: “I really like this song!”

“Yeah,” I thought, “this is a really good song; like much of the stuff done by this much under-rated and now almost forgotten band.”

I tracked down this video for the song. It’s a stripped-down, three-piece live performance at Tower Records on Sunset Strip from a few years ago. This post-aneurysm performance by World Party maestro Karl Wallinger and friends doesn’t quite capture the nuance, compositional depth and fine production of the original studio recording, but it is entertaining and serves as good reminder of the band’s affirmative spark in the face of the some of the dire realities of modern existence.

Of course, besides the catchy hook, I can see the appeal of this song to my third-grader – with its plea to save the elephants and all. (She’s currently torn between wanting to save wildlife and play in the WNBA when she grows up. As for that, she has plenty of time: It’s not too late.)

Monday, August 2, 2010