Wednesday, August 31, 2011

In Which I Take Back Everything Bad I've Said About the iPad

My wife is an Apple fangirl.  It's no use trying to explain to her that Apple products embody style over substance. Style is important, she tells me, likening the slender profile of a MacBook Air to a sexy stiletto heel in contrast to the "comfortable shoe" of my Asus laptop.  So, naturally she wanted an iPad.

The iPad, I tried to reason with her, is nothing more than a larger, unwieldy version of the iPhone (which she already owns), but without the phone. It lacks the functionality of a laptop and isn't good for much more than suffering the web. You only think you need an iPad because of Apple's slick marketing, which persuades you to buy yet one more gadget slated for obsolescence before you've opened the box.  Of course, I got her an iPad 2 for her birthday.

I fiddled around a little with it.  The only app I found remotely interesting was Garage Band (which hardly resembles the Mac version).  A couple of weeks ago, my wife gave me a smug, slightly sinister smile and handed me her iPad open to a demo version of The Music Path. Oh. My. God.

The Music Path is an iPad app that offers video lessons from a bevy of well known musicians on how to play the guitar, piano, drums and bass, including Jackson Browne on fingerstyle guitar, Jake Shimabukuro on the ukulele, Richard Thompson on acoustic rock guitar, Vonda Shepard on piano, Eric Johnson on electric guitar, and Leland Sklar on the bass, to name just a few (with more to come).  The lessons are shot in HD video and have cutaways of right and left hand technique, as well as for music notation and tabs.  Each lesson is modular and individually priced from $1.99 to $19.95. There's even a pretty cool promo video featuring Jeff Bridges, who seems genuine in his assessment of the app as extremely cool.
I'm pretty sure I would concur with The Dude on this.  My only hesitation about buying the RT (and maybe Jackson Browne) modules would be my fear that I will also have buy my own iPad when my wife demands hers back. According the FAQ, they may develop a Windows version if there is sufficient interest.  If TMP looks way cool to you and you don't want to spring $800 bucks for an iPad, email them and let them know.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Artist of the Week Trifecta

The heat index is back up into the triple digits throughout most of the Midwest. Lawns everywhere are parched and the days remain long and languid. I don't feel like going outside, I've got a ton of work to do at my real job and, rather than writing, I've just been, well, rehearsing I guess. I haven't played in front of a real audience of non-relatives in a very long time. And it's amazing how your very own lyrics can fly out of your head in a flash or you muff a chord change you've played a hundred times. Honestly, I'm in awe of folks who seem to perform effortlessly as breathing.

Speaking of which, I spent a good deal of time listening to Reverbradio and Grooveshark this week. One of the fun things about diving into a sea of mostly DIY music is "discovering" an unsigned artist who could be the next big thing. At a very least, it's easy to find more than a few folks who are going to have exciting careers which I will enjoy following.

One is San Francisco area singer/songwriter Aoede (Lisa Sniderman, who also has a bitchin' blog). With a vocal style similar to Feist or Fiona Apple, her songs are more lush and ornate than either. She also writes some seriously catchy hooks.  "I Lost You Win" builds from a simple melodic piano riff into into an almost Bell & Sebastion like baroque pop arrangement with a chorus that is just stuck in my head. In "Fairy Tale Romance" and "Crave Me" Aoede shows a playful side that is warmer and more intimate than B&S as well. It kills me that I'll be in San Fransisco the next two days and she has no live dates.  Maybe next time.

One of the most intriguing artists I've stumbled across is the UK's Steve Thompson, who has apparently been kicking around the hallowed streets of Liverpool for the last twenty years, both solo and in various bands. You can hear some pub rock roots as solid as Brinsley Schwarz, but Thompson's sound is decidedly more sophisticated. His song "It's O.K" sports a catchphrase chorus over a stomping rhythm that sounds a bit like Wilco meets Oasis, as does "Do What You Like" (featuring a subtle, but infectious synth riff you don't hear from most guitar driven bands).  Thompson recently released Cartoon Life, a six song EP and I look forward to hearing more.

Last, but certainly not least, please check out Emmeline, a Dallas singer/songwriter whose music transcends more than a couple of genres--almost always an indicia of originality.  Some of her songs are distinctly piano based and she reminds me a little of Sara Bareilles as a singer and Vanessa Carlton as a songwriter, as for example, in "Where the Light Is."  As they say in Swingers, her vocals are money.  This girl can flat out sing.  Give her the musical hand of a producer like Linda Perry (who helped pilot Carlton's studio work) and I'd wager what's left in my 401k she'd be unstoppable. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Curse of the Rock Biopic

Before the Curse: Kilmer as the Lizard King
Much like appearing on the front of each year's iteration of EA Sports' Madden franchise all but ensures the featured athlete will suffer a horrific injury, movies about dead rock stars tend to kill, maim or marginalize an actor's career--even after a great performance.  Who needs to talk about Jim Morrison and Club 27 when it's far more entertaining to follow the slow motion train wreck that has become Val Kilmer.

After a slew of respectable films, Kilmer appeared as Morrison in Oliver Stone's 1991 homage The Doors.  (Side note, in college, I discovered that almost every Doors album sounds way better when played at 45 rpm.  Try it sometime.)  Although he made the arguably decent Tombstone two years later, what once appeared to be a promising career slid inexorably down hill, with Kilmer variously appearing in films such as the monumentally awful Island of Dr Moreau (for which he won a Razzie), The Ghost and the Darkness and, more recently, MacGruber.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Artist of the Week Kate Mac

If you haven't completely let go of the wasteland of broadcast radio and mainstream media for finding new music, do it now for your soul.  If you like music, either as a musician or fan, do yourself a favor and become part of one of the many places that are both places to discover new artists and social communities to boot.

For now, take a listen to Kate Mac, a young singer songwriter from around these parts and now writing and playing wonderful music in Virginia.  Her songs are compelling, literate and--the toughest part of this trifecta--catchy.  She sings with the effortless command of a seasoned pro, which makes me hate her even more.  Just kidding.  Mostly.  Anyway, please check her out and support independent artists.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Airport Food, a Baby Taylor and a Magic Moment

A few months ago I was staring at a wall of impressively unappetizing menus at a LAX food court and wondering why I can never seem to avoid eating at airports. I'm usually just in a rush to catch a connecting flight or, as was the case that day, I didn't want to chance getting caught in traffic and missing my flight home. So I took one of the last available seats along a counter. There was no room to even open a newspaper. After opening the box and gazing upon my tepid miniature pizza and its greasy pools of peperoni, I just wanted eat quickly and get to my gate.

As I was about to dive in, the seat next to me opened and a man slipped in to take it. A bit older than me, he was bald with neatly trimmed goatee. He wore a casual black shirt and jeans. In close quarters and no hurry to catch our flights, we defaulted into airport chat.  He asked me what brought me to LA and after learning I was a lawyer, he wanted to tell me about being called for jury duty and how fascinating it was. He seemed distinctly uninterested in talking about himself. All I knew is that he used to live in LA and now he lived in Nashville. "And what do you?" I finally just asked.

"I'm a songwriter."  My ears prick up. I resist the urge to clarify that I meant day job.

"What genre?"  As soon I say this I think it sounds stupid, but I'm not sure what would have been better.

"Oh, a variety," he said. "A little R&B, soul, pop and mainly country now," hence, I astutely deduced, his move to Nashville. At this point, I'm beginning to suspect he may actually be a songwriter, as in making a living doing it.

"Anything I might recognize?" Great, another insipid question. Even if he's well established, how in the world would he know what I would recognize?  This is really an indirect way of asking are you famous and, if so, how famous?  I start looking for the turnip truck that dropped me off in LA.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Writing Metal Lyrics: Yep There's an App for That

I admit I've never been a big metal fan.  It's not so much the din of screaming vocals over repetitive minor fifth chords that turns me off.  Sometimes the musicianship can be exceptional and the riffs undeniably catchy. It's just the lyrical content that I can't get past.  By that I don't mean the typical subject matters of death, violence, the occult, religion, the old Gods, or death.  I mean the cringe inducing cliches, hackneyed rhymes and clumsy similes that have nearly become a metal trademark, despite the apparent sincerity of the writer and regardless of sub genre (heavy, speed, thrash or death). 

The lyrical ham-fist has been a constant since the early days of metal.  Way back in 1978, in "Metal Gods," Judas Priest sang about, well, I'm not quite sure: 

We've taken too much for granted
And all the time it had grown
From techno seeds we first planted
Evolved a mind of its own

Marching in the streets
Dragging iron feet
Laser beaming hearts
Ripping men apart . . . .

Machines are taking all over
With mankind in their command
In time they'd like to discover
How they can make their demand

Better be the slaves
To their wicked ways
But meeting with our death
Engulfed in molten breath

On the one hand, I guess you could say the song is a critique of  industrialized society and our increasing dependence on technology, a la Ted Kaczynski.  Mercifully, Kaczynski didn't burden his manifesto with lockstep  ABAB, AABB rhyming verses.  And just what the hell is the last part about?  Is it better to be a slave to the wicked ways of technology or to meet your death "engulfed in molten breath," or both? I'm not sure whether the "but" is intended to be conjunctive or disjunctive, but I'm pretty sure it's a bad thing either way.

Whatever its failings, you have to admit that metal is a genre of rock music that does not suffer from lack of ambition. Metal fearlessly tries to take on the big epistemological questions like the meaning of life and our place in the universe.  Metallica's "The Never," appearing on their breakthrough Black Album from 1991, even goes Stephan Hawking on your ass:

All that is, was and will be
Universe much too big to see
Time and space never ending
Disturbing thoughts, questions pending
Limitations of human understanding
Too quick to criticize
Obligation to survive
We hunger to be alive

All that is, ever
Ever was
Will be ever
Through the never
Wow.  I'm tossing out my copy of A Brief History of Time.  Kudos to Hetfield for cramming in however many syllables it takes no matter the meter.  And once you've committed to the line "time and space never ending," then "disturbing thoughts, questions pending" practically writes itself.

Speaking of which, why labor over your metal lyrics to capture just the right bleak metaphor or ominous sounding turn of phrase when there's an app for that?  Actually at least two apps.  "The Metal Maker" java app will generate metal lyrics for you.  You simply input a song or album title and it generates your lyrics in seconds.  Sadly, it appears the lyrics are random regardless of your title, e.g. typing in "Taters and Gravy" still yielded three verses about unrelenting despair.  Likewise,  Battlecry, available as a java plugin or downloadable app, will write your metal classic for you in the blink of Satan's eye. 

Now if I could only remember where I put my leather chaps.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Gawd Those Guys Were Good

All bias aside, Lawrence, Kansas in the early 1980s was an awesome place to see live music.  What is now The Bottleneck was then "Off the Wall Hall."  It was essentially one big space with a stage backing up to the street side and a bar at the opposite end.  Ordinarily, the only seating were bleachers on one side.  The admission was nearly as cheap as the beer.  Well known bands like Black Flag would make a stop there and OTWH served as base camp for cadre of local bands like Get Smart, The Clean and the Sin City disciples to name a few.

A little band from Athens, Georgia even stopped by for a gig back in November of 1981.  Admission was two bucks and there were at most maybe 100 of us there to see a band named R.E.M.  They as yet had released only the single "Radio Free Europe" (with "Sitting Still" on the B side).  Local band the Mortal Micronotz, whose lead singer was still in high school, opened.  (If this is the right 'Nautz show I'm recalling, they had only recently formed.  In response to cheers for an encore, they asked if we minded them playing their short set twice because they were out of songs. We didn't.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Lost Roots and Broken Branches

Jimmie Rodgers
My earliest exposure to music was to the country music my Dad loved.  Having been born in 1923, this meant artists such as the Carter Family, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow and Hank Williams.  He was especially fond of Jimmie Rodgers, a/k/a the "Singing Brakeman," considered by some to be the father of country music and most certainly the patron Saint of yodelers.

Dad would try to impress on my nine-year old brain why "Blue Yodel" ("T for Texas") was the greatest song in the world as it played from his truck radio.  I suppose I probably thought it was too although, at that age, I had no opinions of my own and even sat willingly through countless episodes of Hee Haw.  Before long I had my own eight-track player and we weren't listening to or talking about music together.  Within a couple of years, we wouldn't be listening or talking together at all.

My Dad's family was not close.  At all. I only have a hazy recollection of my paternal grandparents, who I was too young to remember meeting and who both died before I was in first grade.  I hate to admit their  American Gothic-like photo freaks me out and makes me wonder what weekends at Grandpa's would have been like.
Charles and Maude Odle

As a result, I know next to nothing about my genealogical roots on his side of the family.  The oral history is sparse.  I know the birth and death dates for my grandparents Charles and Maude Odle (nee McBride), and that they came to  McKinney, Texas from somewhere in Appalachia.  Dad didn't talk about his childhood or family for reasons I'll just never know.  The only specific factoid I remember him telling me, that Maude was a cousins with John Wesley Harding and had letters from the outlaw--may have been a tall tale for all I know.
I wish I knew more.  As it is, the roots to my family tree are long lost and it's branches are broken<-----much less gag inducing if turned into a song title.  Which it will be.  Maybe not.  But more than that, I wish I knew a little more about my musical roots.  Appalachia? Was there a tradition of music in the family? Dad strummed the guitar, but who else?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Trying Too Hard, Gillian Welch and The Weight

It's hard to believe it's been its been six years since Gillian Welch's last album Soul Journey and a full decade since Time (The Revelator), a stunning album whose title track I still enjoy butchering, er covering. I've only partially listened to The Harrow and the Harvest, but I think I'm going to like it.

The six-year span between recordings is long, but not uncommon. Welch said in an NPR interview that it wasn't actually "writer's block," but that she and her writing partner Dave Rawlings were just trying too hard. They had reams of songs written, they just didn't like them.  I think there's an interesting lesson in there somewhere. I believe it's best to try and write as often as you can. But when it stops being fun, you know you're trying too hard. Take a break or wait for a relaxing evening to kick back and jam with a friend. Having someone to bounce ideas off of, who you don't have to bounce those ideas, is really invaluable. In that vein, I have a few half finished songs that drove me nuts until I just gave up. I might even post them here soon for some some commentary, suggestions or ridicule.

I'm just glad Gillian is back. For any fans of OCMS, the video below shows Gillian and Dave in London a couple of years ago doing one of the best versions of the Band's "The Weight" I have ever heard.  Never a huge hit in it's time, the song, for which Robbie Roberston had the writing credit, tells a story steeped in Americana while at the same time being almost surreal.  More or less, it's about a guy with a friend named Annie who stops in the town of Nazareth to say hi to all her eccentric friends.  I'm not sure anyone knows where the chorus line "Take a load off Fannie" came from.  In liner notes to a box set, Robertson said he chose the town Nazareth because Martin guitars are made there.   I just thought it sounded biblical and had the right number of syllables.

The basic I-III-IV chord progression made The Weight a staple in the body of songs most beginning guitarists learn.  But it is a difficult song to pull off because the chorus utterly depends on the three part harmony which, because the Band featured three lead singers (Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm), they did extraordinarily well.  I think Gillian, Dave and OCMS do a pretty fine job too.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

There Will Always be Songs that Suck Worse Than Yours

In pop culture, popularity has always had an uneasy relationship with the aesthetic.  Critics write off artists who have mass appeal simply because they have mass appeal.  In some cases, where popularity arises only from appeal to the lowest common denominator among listeners, the scale slides toward schlock.  An example might be, not to name names, but her initials are Celine Dion. On the other hand, during its ascending popularity throughout the seventies, Led Zeppelin was loathed by most of the musical press. I personally liked Zeppelin just fine, although I did tire of making out with my first girlfriend under her poster of Robert Plant's shirtless torso.
What "cool" might look like in 1975
 When you're thirteen, you like music that is "cool." However, cool is just the opposite of what it is when you're in college--you like a song simply because it's popular.  (As opposed to collegiate cool, when the more obscure the European death metal band on your t-shirt is the better.)  Like every kid, I tried to wear what was cool, and listen to music that I thought was cool, regardless of how authentic, soulful and accomplished a particular artist might be or, usually, was not.There was some good music to be found in my juvenile jukebox, but it was mostly there by accident. The line-up of and artists of bands I admired included what was popular on adult album radio, including Bachman Turner Overdrive, Elton John, Jackson Browne, Jethro Tull, Rush and for we true rebels, KISS.

I went to see Kiss in 1976 at Denver's McNichols Arena (the "Big Mac") . It was my first true rock concert and I'm still semi-shocked by parents let me go.  They would have been really freaked to see the fog of green smoke that blanketed the arena.  Nor would they have been amused by the wild-haired gentleman in the row directly in front of me, who had a huge bag of pot open on his lap while he methodically rolled joints and passed them around to whoever wanted.  Good times.

Anyway, Uriah Heep took the stage as the warm-up band. I had never heard of them, but was sufficiently impressed that afterword I bought Demons and Wizards with my next Columbia record club selection. It has not aged well.  Then came Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter!  Kiss was still touring in support of Destroyer, which included their hits, "Beth" and "Detroit Rock City."  My personal favorite, however, was "God of Thunder," the tune to which Gene Simmons most frequently spat blood.  You had to love that.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Artist of the Week

If you're in the Kansas City area, first: I'm sorry.  Why the hell do we live in this God forsaken furnace of hellfire?  105 degrees today and tomorrow will be hotter.  Seriously?

Second, on the bright side, you can see Sara Swenson play at McCoy's in Wesport this week on August 4th.  John Hart of 98.9 The Bridge introduced one of her songs by remarking you should see her now in a small venue while you can. I concur with John and highly recommend you step out of the heat to listen.