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Thursday, August 31, 2006

Consider the source

I heard that Panic! at the Disco covers Radiohead's "Karma Police" in their live sets, but until a few days ago, I had yet to hear a live recording of them doing it. Well, there are several versions available on YouTube (here's one that's pretty decent-sounding for a bootleg) and I got to thinking. Considering the fact that these guys grew up on bands like Third Eye Blind and Counting Crows, I think I understand why frontman Brendon Urie (and several other mall emo singers) sing in this frequently off-key, nasal way.

I've never seen Counting Crows or Third Eye Blind live in concert. However, I did see plenty of performances of them on The Tonight Show and VH1's various concert specials back in the '90s. What was one of the most glaring aspects about these performances? The vocals were really bad. TEB's Stephen Jenkins looked like he was frequently struggling to hit most of the notes and he frequently sang off-key. As evidenced by their Across a Wire live recording, CC's Adam Duritz would often sing different melodies that were often off-key. So with a young band like Panic! At the Disco, I think I'm now understanding why they sound so nasally and off-pitch even after a lot of pitch correction.

I read in AP that either P!ATD guitarist Ryan Ross or Brendon Urie was a huge fan of Counting Crows' Across a Wire because Duritz sang all sorts of different melodies. As much I am a fan of putting on a show that delivers elements that you can't get on the record, one of these elements is not totally different vocal melodies. I don't care how cool it may be: off-key is off-key.

I know I'm one to talk as a fan of growling metal/hardcore, poppy post-hardcore and mathy post-hardcore, but I cannot tolerate the kind of singing I hear in bands like P!ATD and Fall Out Boy. It's as if I can see the vocals in a ProTools file and there are no peaks -- just a straight line. While that may look "perfect," the very human aspect of singing gets chucked out the window. It doesn't matter if it's Celine Dion, Frankie Stubbs or J. Robbins, I hear humans singing when I hear them on record. Yet with the way that modern technology can make humans sound "perfect" with no gaps or variations, this feels like I'm hearing a robot, not a human.

Music should sound good and I have no problem with pitch correcting tools. If they smooth out some rough spots, that's OK. Pitch correction has been frequently used for quite a while, but it's only been in the last seven or eight years that pitch corrected vocals have gone haywire. Most people first heard it in Cher's techno/disco anthem "Believe," but now you hear it modern rock singers, pop country singers, R&B and rap singers and so on.

I haven't heard the latest recordings by Third Eye Blind or Counting Crows, but I wouldn't be surprised that they also have plenty of robotic pitch correction going on too. With their debut (and wildly popular) albums coming out between 1993 and 1997, the now college-aged members of Panic! At the Disco were just hitting puberty when these recording came out. I can't fault them for being introduced to music like this, but I just wish they study more about to real singing rather than ape the sound of a whooping crane.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

I know this is wrong 'cause we're told this is wrong

Like their last record, Cursive's new record, Happy Hollow, keeps growing on me and all for the better. I'll say that if you liked The Ugly Organ, you're going to enjoy this one too, but I don't mean to imply that this is a retread. Cursive has successfully managed to make great records in the last few years, but none of this happened overnight.

My introduction to the band was via their third album, Domestica. Feeling like this was an angry Fugazi clone, I passed on it and sent it to the "crap box" at KTCU. Well, my friend and fellow DJ Steve retrieved it from the box, along with their Burst and Bloom EP, and just so happened to have them out when I was once over at his house. I don't know why, but I wanted to listen to Domestica again, in addition to Burst and Bloom. Even though I still think Domestica sounds like an angry Fugazi clone, I think it's great.

The deal about Domestica is that the lyrics were all coming from the stance of someone going through a divorce. At that time, when it came to lyrics about breaking up, most post-hardcore/emo bands would sing about breaking up with a girlfriend. Dealing with a marriage falling apart is way more intense (at least in my mind) and to be honest, I couldn't really get into a record all about this. Listening to the record now, I still feel a lot of pain coming from principal singer/guitarist Tim Kasher. Sometimes hearing this kind of pain is a great comforter, but other times, it's not.

Instead of divulging more in the post-divorce angst, Kasher went with a sharp satirical angle, in addition to a more optimistic one, on The Ugly Organ. Poking fun at himself along with taking the view of other perspectives, I quickly realized that Kasher was going much further than most other lyricists in the genre. Musically, The Ugly Organ took risks and didn't come across as a train wreck. After appearing on the Burst and Bloom EP and the split-EP with Eastern Youth, the presence of cellist Gretta Cohn was even more pronounced on the record. Along with appearances by keyboards, saxophone and a choir, Cursive was painting with a lot more colors here. Plus, the songs that they were creating were much more poppier, disjointed and defined.

Here's where matters get a little weird though: as maligned by what mainstream critics and hipsters viewed as emo at the time, I didn't understand why they were only praising Cursive. I'm guessing that since a lot of what is perceived as emo is more for the "teens and teens only" crowd, here was a band that wasn't going down that route. Of course there are plenty of other bands that don't go down that route, but Cursive seemed hand-picked and singled-out. I can't knock the band because they were creating some of their best stuff, but still, why just Cursive?

Anyway, after Kasher did a third record with his more-than-a-side-project the Good Life, Cursive was supposedly done again (they had briefly broken up a few years ago). Gretta Cohn left the band and the word was that the band was not replacing her. They were working on new songs, but I didn't expect Happy Hollow to be great. A band's magic can wither away after so many records, line-up shifts and so on. Yet when I got to review the record for Punk Planet, I was pretty darn excited. Now having "lived" with the record for about a month, I think it's safe to say this is one of best records I've heard all year.

For some odd reason, but unlike Domestica, The Ugly Organ and the Good Life's Album of the Year, I didn't pick up on Happy Hollow's lyrics right away. After reading a review on Punknews.org and listening to Jim and Greg's review on Sound Opinions, I realized how incredible this stuff was. Dealing with religion, closed-minded attitudes, hollow presentations and American dreams, there is a common thread here, just like the ones found on the aforementioned records. Yet are you seeing the band peddling graphic novels or short films to sell the albums' "storylines"? Nope -- Cursive lets you use your imagination without buffoonish pretension.

Musically, Happy Hollow covers more untapped terrain first heard on The Ugly Organ. With a small horn section on many of the songs, this makes for some cool augmentation. On paper, a horn section with Cursive may not work, but just like having a cello in the band, this somehow works incredibly well. Similar to The Ugly Organ, there is some great poppy stuff and sharply dissonant stuff here. But again, this doesn't sound like a trip back to the same well for the same kind of water.

So what does a Cursive mean in the big picture? Well, for me, this is what post-hardcore's modern evolution really sounds like. In addition to Red Animal War, the pAper chAse, the Forecast and a number of bands on Polyvinyl, Dischord and Jade Tree, you can tell that these bands have listened to the essential records, but they aren't stuck in the world of 1995. Of course the mass-marketed, overly-commercialized banal robot pop thought of as mall emo for "the kids" is very hit and miss, but that's the easy stuff. Lifetime, the Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate weren't being shoved down your throat in 1995 -- you had to search this stuff out. Somehow I'm now realizing that with modern records by bands like Cursive, this is a very similar hunt. This is the kind of hunt that comes with a great reward. I should think about that the next time I decide to read another puff piece on Panic! At the Disco . . .

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

It's the color of your skin

In honor of my Complete Idiot's Guide to Catherine Wheel over on Jeff's blog, here's a little essay about the band's most-remembered tune, "Black Metallic."

I don't remember who said this, but Catherine Wheel's "Black Metallic" was once described as the "Rock You Like a Hurricane" of the '90s. I don't know if that comment was made to be sincere or tongue-in-cheek, but the point is, the song rocks in a good way. Yet I find matters a little strange that this track is their best known song.

At over seven minutes in length, "Black Metallic" is not a bad song at all. The shortened single version got plenty of rotation back in 1992 and 1993. Alternative/modern rock radio was really coming into its element now as an FM powerhouse to the right of the dial. "Black Metallic" was one of its popular tracks, along with "I Want to Touch You," another single from the band's debut album, Ferment. Catherine Wheel would go on to make four proper albums after this before going on indefinite hiatus. As easy as it would be the just let matters slide, I gotta say that this band was way more than a "one hit wonder."

Singles like "Crank," "Delicious" and "Judy Staring at the Sun" got some nice airplay too, but I don't know if they ever reached the same level of notoriety as "Black Metallic." "Waydown," the lead single from the band's third album, Happy Days, got plenty of airplay in '95 and also got some exposure through some rather non-traditional outlets. Beavis and Butt-head raved about the song's video and this can now be found on the Beavis and Butt-head: The Mike Judge Collection Vol. 1. The video also popped up in a made-for-TV movie about teenage alcoholism. Cutting between a poolside breakdown with clips of Catherine Wheel vocalist/guitarist Rob Dickinson singing, this made for an interesting sight while I watched the movie in my high school health class.

Years later, a certain single called "Jumper" by Third Eye Blind received a lot of airplay on radio, MTV and VH1. Featuring a similar chord progression in the chorus and a very similar middle-8 section to "Black Metallic," longtime Catherine Wheel were pissed. At that point, I didn't see what the fuss was until I listened closely to the song. Hearing the song again this morning, the similarities are definitely there, but not to a point where the claim could be thrown into a lawsuit.

For us Catherine Wheel fans, it's easy to think of "Black Metallic" whenever we hear "Jumper." We think about a band that made great rock music that is still fresh today. I don't think you can say the same about Third Eye Blind, but I could be wrong. That band had some decent singles, but they also an annoying frontman who overshadowed the whole band. That wasn't the case with Catherine Wheel. They were popular in their day, but when it comes down to the selling of memories back as nostalgia, we tend to only get one song. That's why I had to do a Complete Idiot's Guide for these guys. All of their records have slipped out of print, but you can still find them in used record stores. Enjoy the MP3s and grab them while you can -- they're up for only a week.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A reality with virtual products

As much I am a fan of iTunes, something happened over the weekend that made me realize another compromise one makes with buying songs online. Here's the situation: what if the MP3 you bought has a clip/break in the middle of it? Is there a return/refund policy with purchased MP3s just like there are with CDs that are scratched? Well, I might be missing something, but I didn't see one listed on their help/support page.

In my case, the song that I wanted was listed twice in the iTunes Music Store. Both versions were of the same length and from the same album, so I assumed that they were one in the same. Well, after buying the first one listed, I took a listen. Two seconds into the track, I heard a glitch, much to my chagrin. I listened to it again and again to make sure that the problem wasn't just my computer. Nope -- the problem was with the file itself. So, I opted to download the second version of the same song. This time, no glitch and no problems, but I started thinking: what about those that buy entire albums via iTunes?

If you didn't know, iTunes offers many exclusive goodies with full album downloads. For either $9.99 or $11.99, you get the whole album plus a b-side or two. Well, what if you bought a whole album for that non-album b-side only to find a glitch on that track? Since iTunes often restricts the buying of individual bonus tracks, do they expect the person to shell out the $9.99 or $11.99 again?

I may be thinking too hard about this, but I think this is a reasonable question. After buying tracks from the iTunes Music Store for a couple of years, this was the first time that I ever found a glitch on a track. I don't buy many tracks from the place and I can't argue with the $.99 cent cost per track. However, what if you bought a lot of tracks from the place (especially full albums for those cherished non-LP tracks) and got tracks with glitches? You can't return a virtual item, so what do you do when it's defective?

As convenient online buying can be, virtual products can be incredibly disposable. Something as valuable as music shouldn't be treated -- as Greg Kot put it best -- like toilet paper. iTunes has done a great job of making CD-quality MP3s available for cheap prices without the dangers of peer-to-peer networks. But in a general sense, how much are we owning with virtual products? If a virus wipes out our hard drive filled with MP3s, a library worth hundreds/thousands of dollars can be zapped in an instant. How convenient would it be to rebuild that? I don't know about you, but I'd be really pissed.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Is it hiding, covering or both?

Jason brought up a great observation/question a few days ago:

What is up with 40-50 year old men wearing Hawaiian shirts? Seriously, everywhere I turn nowadays, a guy is decked out in one, with the top button unbuttoned just enough to expose his graying chest hair. Is this the latest fad for middle-age men?

Sure, the shirt looks comfortable and loose and casual, but I can think of several other types of shirts that exhibit those qualities. Why Hawaiian?

As someone who has known people that exactly fit this persona, let me share a few things.

First things first: I like loose and open button-down shirts. What I'm not a huge fan is the kind of design that features really hot colors (ie, pink, yellow) with surfboards and/or classic cars lined up all over the shirt. I can tolerate plants and flowers to an extent, but the flashier the stuff is, the less I like it. I have no problem with a black bowling shirt with blue and red flames with bowling balls and pins, but that's about as flashy as I can take it.

I think my taste in these kinds of shirts is a sort of reaction against what I've seen before. I don't like hot colors in the first place, but these shirts tend to hide girth. With an untucked Hawaiian button-down shirt, a big belly is less visible. The attention is more on the flashy colors and designs than anything else. It's a much different story when the man is wearing a solid colored dress shirt that is tucked in.

Some popular Hawaiian stereotypes are clear skies, classic cars, endless waves and beautiful scenery. There is a draw of escapism to this world, especially in the world of stuffy industrialism. In other words, you're not seeing all the beautiful Hawaiian stuff when you're working in an industrial city everyday.

Also, I see these kinds of shirts are a way of saying: "I'm laid back." Instead of wearing a tight t-shirt or dress shirt, here's a one-size-fits-all with a lot of room. Plus, with the shirt being worn untucked, you might get the sense that this guy is not an uptight fuddy-duddy.

Now with the chest hair situation, this is where it gets gross. Yes, all men have chest hair but that doesn't mean they have the right to show it sticking out of their shirts. The average top button is at the mid-point of the chest, a space where some men have a lot of chest hair. For the men who have a lot of this showing, it's rarely flattering. I could be wrong, but I have yet to meet someone who has thought this was sexy.

Middle-aged men have a right to let loose when they're at play, so I don't blame them for being attracted to a shirt design that is all about play. That said, they have a ways to go if they don't want the fashion police critiquing them.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

"and in June reformed without me/and they got a different name"

Here was an odd sight last night at the Cavern: the Mag Seven played with its chief songwriter/co-founder in the audience. I know each band has its own reasons to carry on after a member leaves, but is there a general line where bands should just hang up the name and go by something else?

In the case of the Mag Seven, the band started out as a side project featuring Dan Phillips and Scott Brayfield from Slowride and Doni Blair from Hagfish. Releasing two albums (Eighth Round Knockout and Use Your Powers for Good, Not Evil), Dan and Scott would eventually leave the band, leaving Doni the sole original member. When I heard that Doni was keeping the band going, I had one of those "I'll believe this when I see this" attitudes. Dan wrote all the songs -- which are a distinct blend of rockabilly, punk rock and surf rock -- and his style was very unique.

Well, a third album, The Future is Ours, If You Can Count, dropped this past June and the band has been playing around a little. The band, now a four-piece including two guitarists, played a number of songs off the first two albums reverently. No matter how well they played, the experience was weird as the guy that wrote most of these songs stood in the audience.

As far as a general line, a major factor depends on the name recognition. I understand how bands keep the name going as long as it has marquee value. But what about the bands that have no marquee value? What about the bands with an identifiable sound changes into a completely different sound after a major line-up overhaul?

The band I'm in has grown out of being a side project with various players to a stable four-piece line-up. While the current line-up is a little more straight-forward and rocking compared to what the band was a few years ago, I don't think the sound has been completely overhauled. Now with the band I was in before, that's a completely different story.

Before I joined this band, they were a mix of Doors, U2 and Oasis. When I joined the band, they were a mix of Stooges, Kinks and Superdrag. After I left and the original guitarist/songwriter left a few months later, the remaining members reportedly became a mix of screamo and space rock. Reaching a point where the band's sole original member was the bassist/singer, the band's name was changed just a few months ago.

Bands are gonna do what they're gonna do, but I strongly believe that a band name can be dragged through some mud. As much as I like the post-Steve Perry Journey, this version of Journey just isn't the same. As much as the post-Dan Phillips version of the Mag Seven plays the same kind of music, it's still not the same.

Friday, August 25, 2006

London Bridge is falling down

Fellow blogging friend Jeff posted a live performance of Fergie's "London Bridge" and wonders about the song's appeal. He asked: "How does anyone manage listening to the radio anymore?" My question is: how can anyone listen to this song, period? I can understand if this song was played in a dance club or a strip club, but what about on regular radio or MTV?

I've attempted to watch this video a few times, but it's difficult to watch it the whole way through. These are loud, moronic beats under a bland, monotone melody and ultra-skanky lyrics. The song's main hook sticks with you, but not in a pleasant way. How can you convince me this is a good song? Who is actually listening to this and liking this? Am I missing something in what I perceive as being Blender-like content set to a beat?

I have no problem with female singers being sexy, but I'm turned off when they act ultra-skanky. There's something very un-sexy about a sleazy tease and well, I'm not buying it. With Fergie, I pass this off as her playing another role in a long line of roles. As Stacy Ferguson, she appeared as a baseball player in a motivational/inspirational piece hosted by Mr. T, one of the many members of the house band on Kids Incorporated and a member of the all-female trio, Wild Orchid.

I think about what a 15-year-old might find appealing about "London Bridge." Then I start thinking about the people that were 27 when Toni Basil's "Mickey" came out as a single. I would not be surprised if they wondered what the hell this was. Cheerleader-like shouts under a stomping rhythm mixed with a descending keyboard line -- is this real music? Well, it was a big, popular hit and you still hear it on nostalgia channels. I don't mind the song, but it's not one of my favorites of the '80s.

So I think about the ones that find "London Bridge" appealing now -- will these people speak highly of it when they're older? I don't know, but a part of me thinks this is just flimsy music pure and simple. This isn't meant to make you think about a lot and well, despite shifts in how the mainstream gets their music, this will always be a mass appeal kind of thing. Now I feel really thankful for personal CD players, car CD players and iPods . . .

Thursday, August 24, 2006

To the woods

As I watched Division Day and Birdmonster rip it up at the Double Wide last night, I couldn't help but think about the most recent Tapes 'n Tapes show in Dallas. Though these bands sound nothing alike, I thought about why I like them and why critics of music blogs don't understand. None of these bands have a style that can described in two to three words, but I choose the safe, vague and non-offensive term, indie rock. And by indie rock, I mean stuff that is actually made independently of what the passive mainstream wants right now.

If the opinions of bloggers are often made light of by certain writers and editors in the traditional media, then why are they caring to search for blog posts about bands through search engines like Technorati? Is there a true desire to get what the word is on the (virtual) street or is this just pure curiosity? Or is this just more ammo for when they review a show? I don't know, but if you're looking for flimsy hype from me about Birdmonster or Division Day, you're not gonna find it here. What you will find is a fan of both bands who really enjoyed their visit to Assassination City.

From where I was standing and with what I was hearing, Los Angeles' Division Day sounded much better live compared to their studio recordings. Not that their Mean Way In EP or Beartrap Island LP sound horrible or misrepresent the band -- their sound is more pronounced live. Of course you can apply that to so many other bands, but I noticed this especially with these guys. I especially took notice of how their loud and soft dynamics work incredibly well live. In other words, if the song was mellow or soft, you knew it was mellow or soft. If the song was loud and rockin', you knew it was loud and rockin'.

So what does Division Day sound like? Well, if you're expecting me to give a lame-ass recommendation of "If you like _______ and ________, then you'll love Division Day!", you're not going to find that here either. I can't really think of other bands to compare them to, but they definitely aren't reinventing the wheel. They have guitars, keyboards and drums playing melodic rock music that isn't challenging to the ears or offensive to good taste.

Now with Birdmonster, I have a slightly easier time describing their sound. Don't think I'm jerkin' your chain by saying there are elements of Americana/working class rock and fist-pumping post-hardcore in their songs. What may sound like ice cream on pizza, this is more like ketchup on scrambled eggs. Vocalist/guitarist Peter Arcuni does have some Born to Run-era Springsteen in his voice, but I'm a fan of the Boss, so that's not a problem for me. As far as the band as a whole, the kind of energy that they pull off reminds me of early Q and Not U. I'm talking spastic shouts, angular rhythms, locomotive guitars and some pretty catchy melodies too.

I know there are plenty of other bands out there that have this same approach to playing and promoting music, but it's always nice to experience this all in the flesh. Both Division Day and Birdmonster want people to hear their music, but they aren't going on a route filled with shortcuts. Sure, they would love to do their bands full-time, but just like the guys in Voxtrot, Tapes 'n Tapes and Figurines, they want to do this for the sake of playing good music, not fame. While I could whine about other younger modern bands made up of twerps who are duped into thinking they will be as big as U2 someday soon, I have to remind myself that not every young band thinks this way.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sentimental gentle wind/Blowing through my life again

A thread on '70s soft rock found on the Sound Opinions Message Board inspires today's post. I don't hide behind my love for the music of America, Jim Croce, Fleetwood Mac, James Taylor, John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Carole King and so on. This was the first kind of recorded music I ever heard when I was only a few years old. I've never shied away from the music and I still like it. But in the last few years, I realized that this music was hated in its day by hipsters, punks and the like. Now, this style of rock music is a non-ironic hipster favorite. Anyone else seeing the irony here?

Just like hipsters/indie rock folks dressing up like they were in Journey's "Separate Ways" video, what was once considered un-hip is considered hip in the modern sense. Of course this is ironic, but to me, this is a continuation of the cyclical nature of fashion trends and music tastes. In the case of '70s styled pop rock found in modern bands like Midlake and the Format, you're hearing a full generation difference. I can relate.

About a year or so ago, I spent a Sunday night with Chris, Tom and Tony on the Good Show. As a part of Guilty Pleasure Theater, Chris played a rich, laid-back song with organ, piano and multiple vocal harmonies. I loved what I was hearing but I had no idea whose song this was. Chris was surprised that I had never heard it -- it was Bob Welch's "Sentimental Lady." I had never heard of Welch's solo stuff or his work with Fleetwood Mac, but still I found the song incredible. But I had to think about where I was coming from and where Chris was coming from. I didn't have to suffer listening to this song over and over in its day. I didn't have to suffer being around people that I didn't want to be around who loved the song. I was coming to this with fresh ears. I get the feeling that this is where a lot of these modern bands are coming from too.

Before Michael Jackson released Thriller, one of the biggest all-time selling albums was Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. Hits like "Go Your Own Way," "Dreams," "Don't Stop" and "You Make Loving Fun" were inescapable radio hits in the late-'70s. You still hear these songs on the radio, but they aren't played as much as they were in their day. So for us that were born around the time that this stuff was all over the radio, we wouldn't understand the cynical back-biting between the preppies, jocks, stoners, punks and nerds. We were just trying to talk and roll over.

Now that we've been through the whole rig-ama-roll of high school and college dealing with the preppies, jocks, losers and so on, we're seeing older music in different contexts. Our opinions of the music that was popular in our high school and college days are probably going to stay the same for the rest of our lives. So when a younger generation comes along and takes a liking to something that we despised, we wonder what the deal is.

Somehow I think it's possible that there will be a day when Hootie and the Blowfish, Creed and Sarah McLachlan will be considered kosher with hipsters. A part of me gulps at the thought but another part doesn't care. With the exception of Kid Rock, Britney Spears and Creed, I never fully hated that kind of stuff, but I was certainly annoyed when boneheaded jocks would peel out of a parking lot blasting it. These were people I couldn't relate to, so the music that they took to was the stuff to repel from.

I think there is a big plus in younger generations finding older music: they are always going to see it in a different light. A fifteen-year-old hearing "Go Your Own Way" for the first time today will be hearing the song and the song alone. There are no puff pieces on the Internet talking about Fleetwood Mac's latest tour, the latest gossip on the band, how well their record is selling and so on. So, this trail of younger bands gravitating towards the soft rock sounds first found in the '70s makes sense. This is all a part of how music survives.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Manchild

A little over a month ago, I heard about the comics of Brian Walsby. To be honest, I wish I had heard about this guy sooner because I now have a lot of catching up to do with his work. Bifocal Media recently put out Manchild 2: The Second Coming, a collection of Walsby's comics from the last few years. Yes, he crams a lot of dialogue and exposition into every page. That can be rather daunting at times, but it's not like he's trying to fill up the page with filler. He just has plenty to say.

If you're a fan of punk rock and know a few things about its most well-known bands and labels, you're in for a treat with Manchild 2. As someone who's read a lot of stories about '80s punk rock, I get the sense that Walsby has too. Certain pages discuss and reminisce about SST Records, Black Flag and the Descendents in humorous ways. But that's not all that Walsby covers. Telling stories of old roommates and friends, there is genuine heart behind his work. Even if you don't get what's so funny about Greg Ginn reforming Black Flag for a cat charity, you probably know people like the friends talking about life in his "Nebraska" piece.

Out of all the stuff I've seen, I would say that his satire is probably his best work. As someone who likes the music and discussing it with people, I've found various aspects really ripe for satire. So, I find a lot of Walsby's stuff as being pretty dead-on hilarious. "Singer-Songwriter Straight Edge Hardcore!" features the typical X-on-hands guys intensely singing along with Randy Newman and Nick Drake instead of Gorilla Biscuits and Earth Crisis. "The Startling Adventures of Normal Looking Guy!" features a calm, nice guy who still prefers Joy Division over Interpol. He also tries to convince some mall punks that the Bad Brains are amazing, much to their puzzlement as blink-182 fans. Walsby even addresses those he's offended over the years in ". . . Past Comes Back to Haunt Me" (see it here).

I could be at the tip of the iceberg here with Walsby's work and the work of other artists and writers that are similar. I'll admit it: I'm not as active as I am with finding comics as I am with finding music. Hitting up a comic book store, I'm prone to see never-ending superhero stories, gritty noir tales and other tales of tripped-out fantasy more than anything else. Not that these kinds of stories are bad -- I'm just looking for something that speaks closer to me (like the works of Alex Robinson and Andi Watson). As much as I would love to dig for stuff, I'm just not a huge fan of being around the kind of comic book geekdom that trolls around comic book stores. The Internet may be a great place to hear about stuff, but still, if you want to experience the whole dig, you gotta get out there.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Here to Stay

As I was finishing up my latest round of reviews for Punk Planet last night, I took a listen to the latest Sound Opinions podcast. In lieu of the usual music news they do at the top of the show, Jim and Greg reviewed the new Outkast and Christina Aguilera records. While I cannot say I really care for either act, a sense of puzzlement came over me as they talked about Aguilera's new double-disc release, Back to Basics.

When was the last time you heard of a mainstream pop artist releasing a double album? I'm not talking a rock band like Smashing Pumpkins or the Foo Fighters who have a pop appeal. I'm talking those seemingly disposable pop tarts that sell sex sex sex and also serve as role models for pre-teens and teens alike. I cannot remember a single one, but there could be a few. Double albums often test the attention span of a listener and are more often than not found in the album rock genre. With so many songs on them, double albums usually fly over the head of the "I want it now!" mindset often found with young fans of pop music.

With Back to Basics, I wonder how this will play out for Aguilera's longtime fans. What will they do with such a vast number of songs? Will they take their favorite tracks, rip them into MP3s and burn them onto a single CD-R? That seems like a logical course of action . . .

Then there is this track entitled "Thank You" which ends the first disc. Consisting of bits of phone messages left by longtime fans, the gushing and the praises are overly-congratulatory. Putting this track on an album seems like a way of "giving back," but this comes across as cringe-worthy self-lauding. Maybe this would work as a free download on a website, but putting this on an album is rather ridiculous to me. As Greg put it best: "five of the most excruciating minutes you will ever hear on a pop record by a major celebrity ever in the history of recorded music." I couldn't agree more.

It's not like I'm not a fan of pop stars that have this kind of mass appeal. I still really enjoy a number of those big hits in the '80s from Pat Benetar, Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson. Those were artists that were smart, sexy and fun and they had a string of great singles. So when I saw this second generation of pop tarts selling sex in a rather trashy way with limp songs, I couldn't get into this. Though I think Aguilera's "Beautiful" is a great song, I have yet to be convinced that this kind of "dirrty" pop is worth my time. Now I'm starting to think that these pop acts are trying to age with their audience but aren't doing that great of a job. Maybe it's prime time for a third generation to come in and speak to the MySpace generation of teens.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Aiming for a target

Yesterday's post on Snakes on a Plane spawned a good discussion in the comments section. Well, something that captain groovy said got me to thinking about something else worthy of a blog entry. With trying understand the appeal of the film, the groovy one said, "you're not the target audience." This gets me to wondering about general advertising and marketing.

Even though I minored in advertisting/public relations in college, I've always wondered: if something is meant for a specific audience, then why is it advertised so prominently in areas that have a large and diverse audience? In other words, if Snakes on a Plane is not meant for me, then why can't I escape it?

Before I go any further, I must address why I care. If I'm trying to find stuff that is of interest for me, how come I have to wade through all sorts of puff pieces about Paris Hilton, Panic! At the Disco and Tom Cruise? I guess that's a part of the hunt, but why is there such a large volume of these kinds of things? I doubt interest is that high.

This thought process leads me to say this again: life doesn't exist just where the money flows. Where the money flows is such a small part of the story. I can't sit back and say something like all modern metal/hardcore sucks. Why? Because I know there are bands like Killswitch Engage and Converge out and about. I can say the same about movies. But how come movies, records, etc. with a specific appeal are promoted to find an audience in the mainstream?

Maybe I'm missing an essential implication with finding an audience: it's a big stab in the dark. With Snakes on a Plane, my guess is that New Line green-lit the film as a star vehicle for Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson has marquee value, so it's a guaranteed money-maker. But pair a great actor who can play a great bad-ass with a ludicrous concept of snakes on a plane and you have something that could kill most acting careers. Alas, I think Jackson's appeal has been raised even further. Yet the confusion remains with the mass appeal of these blasted snakes crawling around a plane.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Explain Yourself (SoaP edition)

Ever been around a group of people and feel like you're missing something because you're not in on a joke? For some, that can be an everyday part of life, but for others there are certain times when you just don't understand what the hell is going on. Well, I've been feeling the latter in the last few weeks mainly because of Snakes on a Plane.

From what I gather, people my age are attracted to the ludicrous nature of a film about snakes getting loose on a plane. There's something really funny about this concept, but they won't admit to why they think this is so funny. New Line Cinema has been led into thinking that people actually really want to enjoy this movie while people my age want something to laugh at. In other words, the same mindset that goes for "reality" shows wants to see Snakes on a Plane.

There is an odd sense of enjoyment in watching failure and embarrassment as long as it's not us looking at our own failures and embarrassing moments. We say sincere stuff along with cynical and ironic things every day in verbal conversations. But when we put just the cynicism and irony in print (be it a blog, message board post, e-mail, etc.) the subtleties and tone get thrown out the window. That said, I'm convinced that people started blogging about Snakes on a Plane mainly to laugh it. New Line thought these bloggers were sincerely excited, thus allowing extra days of filming and a rating upgrade to an R-rating. The studio knows that this isn't Citizen Kane, but I think they've been easily led into thinking that people really want to see this film for sincere reasons.

Remember when The Blair Witch Project came out? People were buzzing about it because it was a much different horror movie that was pretty scary. People wanted to be scared and had a genuine interest in the film. With Snakes on a Plane, I sense there is no genuine interest. I sense the worst in all of us putting stock in a cinematic equivalent of our parents singing along to "Don't Stop Believin'" in the shower. Are we so desperate in trying to take our minds off our own faults?

Last night, I talked with some friends of mine who are interested in seeing the film and I wanted to hear their thoughts about why they want to see it. They see this as an event and know this is not going to be a really dense film. I'm sure I'm going to hear more thoughts like these tonight when I meet up some other friends. Yet in a case like this, trying to get real answers feels like dental surgery without sedation. This is just like having someone explain to you an in-joke that isn't really funny in the first place. The joke itself gets one of those "You had to be there to understand" kind of explanations. I grumble at this.

The closest answers I've read online so far are from some of my favorite writers. Chuck Klosterman did a great piece for Esquire a while back and Peter Travers' review appeared online today. Travers hit the nail on the head with his write-up, including the fantastic final line of: "SoaP is a movie of its time, best remembered not for its content but for its motherfuckin' marketing campaign." A part of me wishes others would write the multi-pronged truth instead of a "hee-hee/haa-haa" cynical idea of truth.

Sure, Snakes on a Plane is set to make a lot of money for New Line and theater owners. I get the feeling that like the pile of forgettable spooky thrillers that came out following The Sixth Sense, we're in for a bumpy ride for what's coming out post-SoaP. I'm hoping somebody will eventually fess up and say "it was all a joke."

Friday, August 18, 2006

"A lovely cheese pizza, just for me."

It's difficult for me to remember a time when I didn't eat pizza on a regular basis. On almost every Sunday, my family had either Godfather's Pizza, Pizza Hut or Papa John's when I was growing up. Yes, we tend to eat the same stuff every week and are loyal to the places we never get tired of.

When it came to toppings, pepperoni was usually the one one we had, while sometimes we would have meat or "supreme" flavors instead. Yet in the last couple of years, I've gravitated more towards no toppings at all. Yup, I'm a cheese pizza fan. However, the idea of a pizza with no proper toppings flies over the head of people. I wonder why.

I find irony with the cheese pizza critics I've known over the years as they are all overweight. These are people who always complain about being overweight and wish to shed some pounds. Yet they always want a few toppings (especially in the meat department) when they order a pizza. Now I haven't sworn off all toppings, but when I make pizza at home (now on a regular basis), I don't add any toppings. I don't feel like I'm settling for the plain stuff -- the taste of tomato sauce and cheese is completely fine with me.

The allure of cheese pizza for me is mainly out of not wanting to eat meat with every meal. I still eat meat, but not as much as I used to. I'm not trying to become a vegetarian -- I'm just trying to change things up in the taste department. Is there anything wrong with that? I don't think so, but I feel like I have to be defensive with people about it.

I also find irony in a society that frowns upon obesity, yet is constantly around things that can put you on an obese fast-track in no time. You have to have french fries with your hamburger. You have to have soda with that hamburger and french fries. You have to have a large size of popcorn at the movies. And you have to have one or more toppings with your pizza. But what all do you see advertised on the rags available at the grocery store's checkout stand (in addition to celebrity gossip and sex secrets)? How to lose weight with a drug, an exercise schedule or some other way.

I don't think I'm better than anyone else with losing weight. More than anything else, I just want to fit into my old clothes. I dealt with weight problems all throughout college and I'm now at a point where I've lost a lot of weight (maybe too much weight based on this picture taken last Saturday night). Yes, eating generally less and basic exercise have helped, but sometimes I feel like I'm in that movie Thinner. Yet with the occasional bowl of Moo-llennium Crunch, the occasional beer and the occasional trip to Double Dave's, I don't think I'm on Billy Halleck's track.

I don't know if this is a continuation of stripping down all of my life to the barest essentials, but I'm glad I still have pizza in the equation. I'm glad I don't feel cynical about pizza at this point because it's hard for me to not be cynical about so much other stuff in my life these days.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Indefinite hiatus

I've been thinking about how bands these days announce their break-ups. The phrase "indefinite hiatus" is most frequently used, but what does that really mean? In the case of Sleater-Kinney, some doors sound like they are open for possible reunions in the future. In regards to other bands that have used that phrase, some mudslinging has come out, implying that the doors are shut. Ex-members of At the Drive-In and blink-182 have made some rather choice words about certain other bandmates, but even with that, time only tells about these sorts of matters.

With blink-182, bassist/vocalist Mark Hoppus recently did a long-ass interview about the unraveling of the band. Pointing at choices and decisions dictated by guitarist/vocalist Tom DeLonge as a big reason, what was once a democratic band was now rotating around one person. This of course doesn't paint DeLonge in a very positive light, but then again, the guy dug his own grave with his words a few months ago. Making bold claims about his new band, Angels and Airwaves, in print (check out my post on this) and making himself out as a goofball onstage (here's a live review), DeLonge definitely looks like the bad guy here. I'm not seeing a reunion in the near-future.

So why is all of this intriguing to me? Well, I find it's interesting how bands unravel, just like in ordinary, everyday relationships. Rock stardom can really change people and break up solid foundations seemingly forever. However, growing up with bands who claimed they would never get back together, it always seemed odd whenever the band did get back together. Lawsuits and mudslinging make for great copy, but that stuff tends to be made light of when the band reunites. Be it Pink Floyd, the Pixies or the Eagles, the reunited bandmates will often say that time heals as they go about a reunion show or tour.

Is "indefinite hiatus" a way of being optimistic for a reunion or is it just a phrase that pulls a curtain over a nasty break-up? I don't know, but each band is different. I'm not one that pines for reunions, but I am glad to see what appears to be happy endings.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I'll have a Tall Vanilla Bean Frappuccino, a blueberry muffin and . . . a CD?

Something that caught my eye while I was at a nearby Starbucks last week was their ever-growing selection of CDs for sale. The coffee chain has been selling CDs for a few years now with their Hear Music catalog, but it wasn't until last week that I thought that the pairing was really odd. I can understand the bags of coffee beans and kitchen stuff also for sale, but why music too?

I'm still in the dark as to why the selling of lifestyles is more frequent than just individual products. This isn't just with Starbucks -- this is everywhere. Starbucks makes great coffee, tea and desserts, so what more can they accomplish by also selling music? Are they trying to up the ante with impulse buys? Sorry, but if I want to buy a CD, it's not going to be at a Starbucks.

I will admit it flat-out: I'm not a regular Starbucks customer. I've been to Starbucks three times this year and two of these times were for meet-ups. The atmosphere is great for meet-ups with friends, so I hope to go back to the place in the future. The third time was to save my ass from falling asleep at the wheel as I pulled an early-morning marathon shift split between two cities that were thirty minutes apart. Each time, the black tea I had was great, but still, I'm not a regular inhabitant of the place. In other words, I'm really in the dark as to what their motives are with selling something else other than orally-consumed products.

When I walk into a Starbucks, I definitely get a yuppie-ish kind of vibe. I don't think I'm abandoning punk rock ideologies by going to a place like this, but it's definitely not a place I'm going to hit up everyday. With this kind of vibe dripping out of the place, I'm assuming that they're trying to tap more into the yuppie lifestyle with selling music. The place even has an XM channel devoted to them, playing (from what I remember) a lot of good, old-time jazz. Yet what more are they gaining by selling those Artist Choice collections along with a grab-bag of popular albums?

Every few months, Rolling Stone will publish an article about how CD sales keep decreasing during every sales quarter. The overall tone from the major labels is total despair, despite the monumental increases in MP3 sales. The selling of individual MP3s isn't the kind of moneymaker that individual CDs can bring, so there is still considerable panic. How Starbucks fits into this makes me wonder: are we heading towards a day and age when CDs are more likely to be found in a place like Starbucks rather than a chain store that sells electronics?

I highly doubt that CDs and vinyl will vanish completely from stores, but seeing as how outlets like Best Buy have greatly reduced the number of CDs that they carry, I think CDs are about to become specialty items, just like vinyl has been for almost twenty years. I don't care how much of an old fogie I sound by saying this, but having MP3s on a hard drive is not the same as having songs on a proper, non-CD-R CD. CDs are way less disposable documents than a few megs of virtual space.

Maybe Starbucks is being really smart about where the music industry is heading. Yet for me, when I want to talk to a clerk about music, it doesn't seem like the most apt place. I like seeing the regular guys and girls at the local CD stores who rave about music, because they treat music as more than just a product. This isn't background music for them. This isn't the soundtrack to a mass-marketed lifestyle. You could say this is a losing battle, but as long as they're around, I'll come in and give them my time and money. With Starbucks, I have my own completely different reasons for patronage.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

My Aim is True

As incredible as Elvis Costello's early material is, I am very miffed at the news that his first eleven albums are going to be reissued on CD again. I wonder now: can you reissue something too many times? Whatever happened to reissuing something once until vastly superior technology is available? Do the record companies think we're that stupid with re-releasing stuff after only a few years?

I thought I hit pay dirt when I got Rykodisc's versions of Costello's first four albums. Bonus tracks were on every CD and even a rip-roaring live concert CD came with a box set. Well, then Rhino got the rights to the records and did a kick-ass job of remastering and reissuing all of his albums up to All This Useless Beauty. Each album came with pristine sound, a bonus disc of material and fantastic liner notes from Mr. Costello himself. What more could us Costello fans want? Apparently more, according to the powers that be at Universal.

I don't know if Rhino's versions of the first eleven albums will go out of print now that Universal has taken over, but I flat out refuse to buy these new reissues. I'm totally fine with my Rhino double-disc remasters of My Aim is True, This Year's Model, Armed Forces, Get Happy! and Greatest Hits -- how can you convince me that I need these newer ones?

Remastering and repackaging albums have been a tricky ploy for some time now. I'm sure my friend Merritt knows a few things about all the times David Bowie's catalog has been reissued in the last decade. The rarities included on these packages are what the die-hard fans want, so why does this feel like abuse? Do the labels think we're completely stupid and don't remember when definitive reissues come out?

I've heard that U2 will be releasing another 'greatest hits' package this holiday season. Let's see, the last time U2 issued a greatest hits package, it was before How to Dismantle An Atom Bomb came out in '04. Now this new package is coming out in '06, what more could we possibly get that wasn't on the separate Best of 1980-1990 and Best of 1990-2000 collections?

It's one thing for a label to reissue some crappy mall emo band's album a year after it came out, but I'm talking about acts who have stood the test of time. Elvis Costello's music is still as fresh as it was in the late-'70s (the same with Bowie and U2), so when is enough truly enough? What about all sorts of other artists that have yet to receive the deluxe reissue treatment? Is it too much to ask for Tom Waits' or Neil Young's back catalogs to get the reissue treatment once?

Monday, August 14, 2006

Vacation (all I ever wanted)

With school starting today for many area schools, the most frequently question asked is "What did you do on your summer vacation?" I'm sure there will be at least a mention of a trip out of town in addition to other things. For me, five years post-college, what constitutes a summer vacation is more a matter of a few hours or a couple of days than anything else. I don't mean this is a pity party way; I'm just realizing some stuff with my life now versus my life before.

Over the weekend, I made a quick day trip down to Round Rock, a suburb that is 25 miles north of Austin. The reason was to see a writer friend of mine and interview him for the book. At one point in our talk, I realized, "This is my summer vacation." Five hours out of town, in addition to a weekend trip down to Houston for a birthday party in June, and this is it for a summer vacation. Then I started thinking about what summer vacation is for and whom it is best suited for.

Make no mistake: I've had plenty of days off this summer. However, the number of things I'd like to go out and do are challenged by tight budgets, the summer heat and being constantly on call with work. To save gas, I haven't gone out unless it was for a necessary matter. Be it work, a show, grocery shopping or a walk, I stay at home as much as possible. I did get a chance to hit up the Modern one day and that was great, but the thought of going to something like Six Flags is out of the question. Activities like these are just not fun when you want to be by yourself.

When I think of a textbook definition of a vacation, I think of a couple to a handful of days in a place that is not considered your home. You do all the touristy things in town, like visit monuments and take tours. For me, I'll do the touristy things, but not all of them.

When I visited Chicago last October, I wanted to go to Millennium Park a few times and I did. I passed by the Sears Tower a few times because Nick was working down the street from it. The most thrilling stuff for me was our show at Beat Kitchen, visiting the offices of Punk Planet and the AV Club. That's not typical touristy stuff, but I don't think I can be satisfied with just doing all touristy stuff.

Ever since I've been out of college, I've wanted to visit a coastal town like someplace in North Carolina. I'm talking lighthouses, rocky beaches and bed and breakfasts. However, when I think when would be a good time to visit, it just so happens to be during hurricane season. So I scratch that one off the list.

The biggest stumbling block is working within the confines of a tight budget. I don't have the cash nor the desire to go gambling in a place like Atlantic City, Las Vegas or even Shreveport/Bossier City. I don't really have a disposable income at this point and am not at all hot on being in debt. So, my days off are often spent in front of the computer editing, in my recliner reading a book or magazine and general sitting around with Juliet. This is what I want to do, but sometimes I think this is the only stuff I can do.

I will say this: back when I was in middle school and high school, time away from school was a must. Being in environments where there weren't tardy bells, threats of getting detention or outside marching band practices were nice. I always looked forward to this kind of time off and was amazed at the amount of time off I got in college. There was fall break, spring break, government holidays and a month-long holiday break. That stuff was really relaxing during that time, but I didn't realize how bad internal stress and anxiety were plaguing me then.

Week-long summer vacations are great for families, but what about those that don't have families or the kind of cash to throw around for one of those? There are no plans to go river-rafting, horseback riding or visit Disney World for me, so just like I normally do, I create my own sense of entertainment. But I won't lie: those aforementioned activities are fun, but feel like they are not in the cards with my current station in life.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Wrath of Sanity

In the documentary Dirty Old Town, which profiles Ted Leo & the Pharmacists while on tour for Hearts of Oak, Leo mentions that he is a vegan. When I heard him say that the first time, a lot of odd memories came back to me. When Davey Havok from AFI told Rolling Stone and AP about his favorite vegan desserts, those memories came back again. To me, hearing about that stuff now is purely from a personal stance, but I remember when talking about that stuff was more of a banner than anything else.

When I was getting into pop-punk and hardcore, openly discussing your personal stances was a huge deal. There was a sense of "I'm better than you" with decisions like choosing not to drink alcohol, supporting animal rights and how involved you were with "the scene." I could be totally off here, but from what I've seen, this younger generation of punk and hardcore fans isn't all wrapped up in that stuff.

In 1997, as I was discovering bands like Snapcase, Lifetime, Pennywise and Lagwagon, I was on a few list-serv e-mail lists. Discussions about new records and live shows would be brought up, but there were plenty of immature debates about straight edge, religion and punk rock too. Certain people lived for these confrontations, but I wasn't one of them. Looking back on what I saw, I just see these as attempts in finding a voice.

The ideas that Ian MacKaye sang about in "Straight Edge" and "Out of Step" were strictly from the angle of addressing those who liked getting drunk, smoking pot and sexually fooling around. There was a sense of kinship with being straight edge, but followers really ran the idea into the ground. Tacking on stuff like being a vegetarian, not smoking anything, not having any sex and supporting animal rights, the messages really clouded the overall presentation. For the bands that didn't make a huge fuss about strict personal politics and beliefs, I felt a kinship with them more than the other ones.

With modern day bands singing more about sadness and love, I have yet to see a lot of bands wave their personal politics around. Anti-Flag and Rise Against are some of the exceptions and I'm sure there are plenty of debates on message boards about their stances. For what I've gone through and seen, I really don't have time to read that crap anymore. I haven't heard much of Anti-Flag's music and have Rise Against's first three albums. It's not really the kind of stuff I like to listen to, but it's not bad. How straight someone like Tim McIlrath or Justin Sane is isn't a swaying vote for me with listening to their music.

I have no problem with wanting to share your personal politics and beliefs. However, I roll my eyes at those that feel their politics and beliefs are right for everyone. I choose to not excessively drink, but I'm not about to read the riot act to someone who does. I might say I have a "clear mind" because I'm not drinking, but I wouldn't be thinking clearly if I was acting all uptight about it.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Introduction

For a few years, whenever I would hear about a blockbuster-selling band from the '70s, I wondered how big they were in the general listener's mind in those days. I could look at Billboard chart positions and they could tell me something, but nothing more than rankings. Asking someone who views music as background stuff and someone who views music as an active thing are going to generate vastly different responses. In the case of the latter, asking someone who was really taken with punk rock during this time, chances were very good that I would hear grumbles and moans about a band like Chicago, Fleetwod Mac or Journey. Well, thanks to my blogging friend Jeff, I'm finally getting some explanations that aren't masked by sighs and eye-rolling.

This week, Jeff posted The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chicago Part 1. A few weeks ago, he posted The Complete Idiot's Guide to Journey. Both guides were written by readers of his site and both did great jobs in describing what they liked and disliked about their albums. Instead of vomiting out bad times and vibes while these bands ruled the airwaves, both writers vividly described their fandom in sincere ways. There were no shrugs or low-speaking endorsements of guilty pleasure-dom. These were written by longtime fans, but not in cheerleading or mud-slinging ways. Reading these guides were a very nice change of pace and spawned sighs of relief on my end.

In reading a number of books and articles by some of my favorite contemporary music critics, most paint all '70s/'80s Top 40 music as wretched bile. I'll agree with some of their opinions, but not all of them. They have their ways of painting a very unbalanced look at the past and this tends to feel like the final word. For example, a 19-year-old who found more favor with the New York Dolls than James Taylor in 1976 is probably going to still speak highly of the Dolls today. Painting the music of James Taylor, John Denver, Fleetwood Mac and Chicago into the corner of the enemy, I'm not going to get a very balanced view. So I think about what I'm doing now with modern popular bands and have to catch myself. Since taste in music is so cyclical and its significance is always being revised for the modern day, I want to keep a clear mind on matters.

I am very guilty about talking about the sociological aspects of popular and underground music, but I cannot stress enough that this is all just music at the end of the day. I may never find any merits in the music of Hawthorne Heights or Fall Out Boy, but I try and understand that there are people who do. I'm not going to fault a 15-year-old for liking Panic! At the Disco's music, but I will scoff at the sight of this person trying to be cool by dressing up like a mall punk. I will scoff at this person for wearing lots of eyeliner and designer "vintage" clothes. I will be befuddled by this person screaming whenever someone like Adam Lazzara or Chris Carrabba screams off-key. Of course these sights cloud the enjoyment of music, but strip all of that stuff away while you listen in your car or in your house and still, it's just music.

I don't mean to make light of music in itself, but discussing the general sociological significance can become a boring pissing contest after a while. Sure, I'll moan and groan with my friends about a moronic statement made by a member of Panic! At the Disco, but I'm not about to say their music is irrelevant for everyone. We might not find any merits in this music, but that doesn't mean it's meaningless in general.

If Jeff is still doing his Idiot's Guides in ten or fifteen years and hosts ones for Fall Out Boy and Hawthorne Heights, I'll probably not download the songs hosted in them. I will be curious as to what the writer says about the music's impact on him or her. Just like the people who loved the Dictators and hated Pink Floyd in the '70s who couldn't understand Rancid or face to face in the '90s, I have to remember where I, along with everyone else, came into the picture. We're not born with a sharp wit and eye for what's good and not good, so we gotta start somewhere.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Choosing Death

Last year, copies of Albert Mudrian's Choosing Death: The Improbable History of Death Metal & Grindcore often caught my eye at the various Borders I frequent here in town. Thinking that this was going to be an analysis of the doomy side of the music, I passed on even taking a peek at it. Well, after reading an interview with Mudrian in Punk Planet, I thought I should at least skim through some pages. With Borders sending out their 20-30% coupons out to me every other week, I thought what the hell and bought the book after liking what I skimmed through.

With the two large stacks of unread books I have on my shelf, I decided to pull out Choosing Death and finally read it. While people may scoff at the idea of reading about extreme music, this is not a book about trying to convert people to the music. Rather, this is about the process behind the music. To me, that's the meatier side and usually way more compelling than talking all about the music.

Whether located in California, Florida, England or Sweden, fans of this music had a way of finding each other. Long before the Internet was in place but well after the postal service was, trading cassette tapes and writing letters was how these guys corresponded. They had to really search for this stuff as this hybrid of hardcore punk and metal was not for everyone, even in the general punk and metal audiences.

Bands like Napalm Death and Morbid Angel, along with the Earache label, were major parts of the genre, so it makes sense that they are extensively profiled. There are quite a few other bands listed and profiled in the book, but they're evenly spaced out. I didn't feel inundated nor did I feel like I was in the dark because I didn't know all the main differences between Immolation, Repulsion and Carcass. This is a book that covers a lot of stuff, but it thankfully doesn't get buried in a formula that feels like I'm reading an encyclopedia.

For some people (including me prior to reading the book), a book on this topic which doesn't cover bands like Slayer, Metallica or Iron Maiden would sound crazy. However, after actually reading the book, I realized this is about bands who were just starting when those heavyweights were putting out their most seminal work. Choosing Death looks at the rise of death metal and grindcore from an underground level to something considered worthy of release by major labels. The time period is rather brief (from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s), but a lot of ground is covered. Other books could spend just a few pages covering the highlights of this time period, leaving out crucial ideologies, philosophies and personal stories in the process.

I'm not about to rush out and pick up records by any of these bands, but I get a lot of mileage out their stories. There is never a point where Mudrian goes into the "Unless you're a fan, you wouldn't understand" attitude, but he never goes for the lowest common denominator either. What I found really cool was with the final chapter, which talks about the modern day effects of the genre. Sure, there are the quotes that talk about how great the old days were, but there are plenty of other quotes that have a lot of hope for the younger bands. Giving some mention of the physical effects of playing such extreme music was a nice touch too.

Choosing Death may not change your opinion on metal music itself, but if you need further proof that it doesn't matter when or where, inspiring music can be made at any time or place. Whenever I hear people bitch that there is just no good music out there today, I echo something Kyle told me: "The people who say that there's no good music out are totally just not looking hard enough."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Cross Me Off Your List

Let me get something out of the way right away: I still do not care for Hawthorne Heights' music. It is still the epitome of the cheeseball mall emo that today's "kids" who "don't know any better" buy. That said, I'm totally behind them on their decision to leave the label that brought them to the masses: Victory Records.

Airing dirty laundry in public never really looks good, but in this case, there is some stuff that the public should know about. To be honest, a part of me is relieved that this dam has burst and the flooding has begun.

A few months back, on the eve of the release of HH's "highly-anticipated" new record, If Only You Were Lonely, there were some rather questionable acts suggested on trying to make the album debut at number one on the Billboard Top 200 album charts. A written manifesto circulated supposedly from the band about how important this placement was for rock music in general. Plus, there were some tactics suggested on how to prevent another major release that week (R&B artist Ne-Yo) from debuting at number one. Turns out the band denied such claims and said that Victory made the manifesto and signed it in the band's name. Word from Victory owner Tony Brummel was that the manifesto was a "joke," but the story broke into a few news outlets (namely, MTV News and Punknews.org) with a lot of skepticism. Something smelled really fishy.

If Only You Were Lonely did not debut at number one -- it debuted at number three, selling a reported 114,000 copies in its first week. Since then, the record has sold well, videos have received nice airplay and the band has played sell-out shows all over the place. Great success right? Well, according to the band, this whole experience has been very bittersweet. For us on-lookers, we're seeing something that could really shake things up with Victory's image with their current audience.

During the week the album came out, Kyle did a nice summary of the goings-on between the label and the band. I echo his sentiments about Victory, an independent label that is trying to take on the major labels by becoming a label that is worse than a major label. "These tactics and hype nullify Victory's indie-vs.-major battle," he wrote. "If an indie’s copying a major’s business aggression, the line between the two disappears. You can’t wave the indie flag, then tell your street teamers to hide CDs. Or proselytize about rock’s superiority to other music."

Why should I care about all this ugly stuff from a label that usually puts out crappy records by crappy bands and occasionally releases something great? Without going into too much detail, there is personal vindication of seeing a person be taken to task by people that have been abused possibly the most by him. Taking square aim at Brummel, Hawthorne Heights now joins a long line of former bands and label employees who have complaints about how he runs his business.

In a long statement on the band's website, here is probably the quote that gets me cheering for Hawthorne Heights:
You may be wondering, why now? Why did they wait three years before saying something? Why did they sound happy in that interview??? Like being in an abusive relationship, we let certain things slide as we were afraid, as many of the bands on Victory are, to stick our neck out for fear of being "beaten," in this case represented by the threat of not being promoted as has been the case with certain bands on the roster. We're done being abused. The reasons stated above represent the final straw in a huge pile of hay that broke our backs.

All this time that Hawthorne Heights has been putting out music, I've wondered how could guys my age write such flimsy mall emo songs and claim they're being serious. Well, despite that, I'm glad that they have their heads on straight and are taking action. Being in an abusive relationship is never good, but so many people stay in them as they know exactly where the abuse is coming from. The thought of being ripped to shreds by imaginary, but possible situations in their heads is way worse. This is something we all struggle with, so I'm pretty darn inspired by Hawthorne Heights' decision to put their foot down and move on.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hotter than a match head

Plenty of reviews of this past weekend's Lollapalooza are online. Blogs like Chrome Waves, Can You See the Sunset from the Southside? and Muzzle of Bees share their experiences while Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis gives his full wrap-up today. That's just a sampling, but in this sampling I notice something that would drive me bonkers with seeing these kinds of festivals: too many bands playing all at once in very hot conditions.

Let me upfront about this: I've never been to an open-air concert festival in my life. I saw a few all-day Buzzfests in the late-'90s and those were marathons under the hot sun while bad bands outnumbered the good ones. The one and only time I went to the Warped Tour, rain was in the forecast, so instead of playing in the parking lot, all of the bands played inside Astro Arena. I'm saying all this because what I'm reading about with these open-air festivals makes me stay away from them -- very far away.

I've lived in Texas for almost twenty years now. Yes, I know it gets very hot here in the summer, but heatwaves and droughts still suck. This summer, the most I go out during the day is to pick up the mail. Just five steps from my door to my mailbox is enough exposure to the heat to make me race back inside. I'm under shade, but still, the heat and humidity are tough to deal with. So when I hear about festivals like these, I think of being in that feeling for hours upon hours.

No matter how much water I drink or how much sunscreen I have on, open-air festivals seem to have more of a discomfort level than a comfort level. Yes, Lollapalooza and Pitchfork's festival were in Chicago (where it's not 100+ everyday), but it was still sunny and hot. Then there's the Austin City Limits Festival, the now annual event in Zilker Park every September. Texas weather is usually cooler then, but it's still in the 90s.

My point is this: these festivals seem too costly (monetarily-wise and physically demanding-wise) for me. Why should I pay so much for something to feel like a fried egg in a sea of other fried eggs? Nevermind the cost of travel, food and lodging -- the tickets themselves cost a bundle. How can you convince me this is a good time at this price?

Add on top of this is the large amount of acts on the bill. Reading blog reviews where the reviewer only had time to see one or two songs by one band and then had to make way to another stage for another band, I put myself in his or her shoes. If Wilco were playing around the same time that Ben Folds and Death Cab for Cutie were playing elsewhere on another part of the park, I'd be in a major pickle. Asking me to decide between acts like these is almost as difficult as choosing between children. I don't want to miss anybody I want to see, but I don't want to just get a small sampling and feel like I had to move on.

Maybe my perspective is very skewed or maybe I'm too hard-headed about this, but for the price of all this stuff, I wonder if there are people that feel a little gipped by these kinds of festivals. Maybe I should actually go to one of these and decide for myself, but with various obstacles in my way, this isn't going to happen any time soon.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Pay attention

One of the really cool things about Lost is this: if you're paying close attention to matters like quotes, character arcs and familiar faces, you'll be rewarded. Well, what if the same close eye to detail was applied to shows like Jose Luis: Sin Censura or Secretos Houston?

A few weeks ago, while watching Jose Luis, I noticed a familiar face as a guest. Months before, there was an episode where the same reaction shot was inserted over and over again. The shot included a light-skinned, young Hispanic woman in the audience looking rather startled. This shot was used about five times in the same show and I found this to be rather hilarious.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago and here comes out this scantily-clad guest walking around like she's in Dolemite's entourage. Looking a little closer, I realized that this guest was the same person that was in the audience in the other episode. Nevermind all the staged hidden camera shots, I wonder how often they recycle people on the show.

On a recent episode of Secretos, the "climactic" confrontation scene looked more like a scene out of an Ed Wood film. Confronting a troubled teen involved with gangs and drug dealing, he looked like he was in the middle of a fight when the Secretos crew showed up. The deal was, instead of what was supposed to look like blood on his face looked more like lipstick. Sure, this was funny to me, but what's scary is thinking about the numbers of people that think this is real.

These shows are not like WWE wrestling where exaggerated entertainment is greatly implied. Then again, there are no claims that the stories are true or the guests are not acting. That's the problem with "reality" shows. If you film fictional matters in a documentary style, people think this is real life. As Nick Lachey told Rolling Stone a few months ago, when your life becomes a reality show, it ceases to be reality.

Friday, August 04, 2006

I'm Not a Loser

A few weeks back, the Onion posted some of their archival stories on their front page. One of them hit really close to home in addition to making me laugh:
History of Rock Written By The Losers
September 17, 2003

BOSTON—Fifty years after its inception, rock 'n' roll music remains popular due to the ardor of its fans and the hard work of musicians, producers, and concert promoters. But in the vast universe of popular music, there exists an oft-overlooked group of dedicated individuals who devote their ample free time to collecting, debating, and publishing the minutiae of the rock genre. They are the losers who write rock's rich and storied history.

Read the rest here.

Yes, plenty of people who have written some of the most comprehensive books on the on-going story of rock 'n' roll have earmarks of loserdom. However, seeing what I've seen with some writers I've talked to and read about, we're not the losers. Like how we were in high school and college, we're the invisible people. You know, the ones that have friends, but not many. We're known but not too known. We're not picked on as much as others. In other words, we're there but don't immediately stick out in a crowd.

I think about my own life as I continue working on a book that chronicles a part of music history that really means a lot to me. I don't go out that much and tend to spend a lot of my personal time by myself. I love being around friends, but I definitely need personal "me time." While it would be nice to hang out with friends a little more often for longer periods of time, I figure that my friends are too busy to hang out/talk for too long. We're busy people, but I still have all this free time on my hands. To be honest, too much "me time" is not as great as you'd think.

Feeling like I should utilize this free time as much as I can doing something that makes me feel good, I write. I could spend this same time screaming at TV shows I don't really care for or I could do something that I really want to do. This kind of space is where so many bands are formed and I've applied the same idea to writing.

Is this way of life pure loserdom? I don't think so, but I think I understand those that think it is. I'm not the most gregarious, outgoing kind of person compared to people I know and have known. When I go to bars to see a band play, I'm there squarely for the music. If I run into people I know, I talk to them and we have a great time. The way I see it, the appeal of seeing a band play brought me out there and whatever comes with it is cool, but not a mandate.

Common characteristics I've seen with my favorite writers (like Greg Kot, Jim DeRogatis, Chuck Klosterman and Michael Azerrad) involve them being really active with music and its culture. Whether it's playing in a band or bopping their heads while a band plays, they aren't pedestrians. They have this desire to get to the root core of where the music they love comes from. The search can be long and laborious for others, but if you're that interested in something, you keep digging and digging and it never gets old.

A major issue I've had to unlearn is reading too much into matters. Traditional film school criticism can make you read way too much into stuff and well, that carried over into music criticism for me. I've found that more people, whether they make films, paint or play music, live in the moment and aren't thinking about the future historical context of what they're doing. However, put a band's story in the hands of someone coming strictly from a hindsight perspective and coincidences sound intentional. Things become really cut and dry. Well, I can't settle on telling stuff in black and white. Life's too gray to cheapen it into black and white matters. Since we tend to remember things from the past in how they matter over time versus what actually happened, I try to set the record as straight as possible.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Element of One

Unless it was a band like Pantera, Metallica or Corrosion of Conformity, metal was prime for spoofing in the mainstream during most of the '90s. Just watch any Beavis and Butt-head episode and you'll probably understand the gist of such ridicule. "Liquid fingers" guitar solos, double-kick drums, operatic vocals, long, permed hair, Dungeons & Dragons-like imagery; you name it, it was looked down upon. These are really silly things, so it's nice to hear and a see a band that is nothing of the sort that is considered metal. Also, it's nice to see a band that isn't in the "this is the heaviest record of all time!" sweepstakes or trying to be tougher than tough. I'm talking about Killswitch Engage.

After hearing nice mentions about the band for a couple of years, I finally got around to listening to their stuff thanks to a post on Eric's blog. Featuring a new original that (hopefully) will be on the band's next record and a cover of Dio's "Holy Diver," I felt compelled to check out more of their stuff. Watching some of their live stuff on YouTube and placing their DVD, (Set this) World Ablaze, on the top of my queue on Netflix, I had plenty of stuff to see how much time I'd want to devote to this band. Well, I wouldn't say I've become a metal freak, but I'm definitely now a KSE fan.

Listening to the band's music, especially The End of Heartache, and watching their DVD, I think about why this band stands out for me. In my eyes, too many heavy bands are all about playing up an image of toughness or darkness to sell to people. Heavy music is great to an extent for me; I can only handle so much dissonance and loud pounding before I want to listen to something else. With KSE, they effectively incorporate elements of classic metal (the guitar squeals, the double-kick fills, the half-time breakdowns), hardcore metal (the guttural screams, shifting rhythm sections) and warm melodies (you know, actual singing, poppy guitar lines and vocal harmonies).

Image-wise, these guys don't take themselves too seriously. They are serious and sincere about the music they play and how they play it, but they aren't about putting on flimsy, teen angst-like fantasies in the process. Guitarist/vocalist Adam Dutkiewicz reminds me of the Vandals' Warren Fitzgerald, aka, a spazzy sort of guy that is also insanely talented and smart. Dutkiewicz's stage antics take the piss out of tough-guy metal posturing and they never get to a point where they diminish the quality of the show.

If I had to pick one member that sets the band apart from everyone else, it would be vocalist Howard Jones. This dude can sing in all sorts of voices and he doesn't wimp out when it comes to the warm melodic stuff. He does have a sense of soul in his voice while so many screamo nerds sing their nose and hope that AutoTune will make their voices come off somewhat in key. Jones is a powerful singer and has a tone that isn't heard from that often in metal. Too many singers want to sound like Cookie Monster all the time and never try to branch out.

Metal, like a lot of genres, is a genre that is incredibly limiting. There is a degree of sub-atomic heaviness that must be held intact in order for it to be considered metal. There is a broad range that singers must sing in to be considered "brutal" to be considered metal. KSE is not on a path that strays too far away from the metal path, but they are definitely on their own path.

People I know don't understand how I can get into bands like KSE and Converge. Well, as much as I am a melody freak, I've always appreciated music that kicks a lot of rhythmic ass while also having some strands of catchiness too. The impact of these bands goes a little deeper for me beyond the music itself. Just like how bands like the Minutemen and Hot Water Music mean to me, bands like KSE and Converge are about being yourself more than anything else. When they mean "be yourself," they mean be who you are (warts and all) and not try to ape someone else for the sake of trying to be cool or fit in. This serves as a nice reminder that, as goofy and atonal metal can be, not all ideas behind it are.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

After the Eulogy

In the last few days, Punknews.org has reported on two break-ups of bands that were once considered poised for major stardom, but they never achieved such. Today, Acceptance announced they are calling it quits while Boy Sets Fire announced they are breaking up on Monday. I could not call myself a big fan of either band, but they've been on my mind since the news broke for a few reasons.

I may be totally off here, but if I recall correctly, Boy Sets Fire was one of the first few bands that had songs that either used guttural singing over abrasive metal/hardcore or whiny/emo-ish singing over poppy stuff. Sometimes the two extremes would mix, but more often than not, they were showcased in completely separate songs. Sometimes this would be cool, but other times this would make me laugh in a non-congratulatory way.

Boy Sets Fire was a very politically-driven band. They wanted to spread their outspoken ideas to the most amount of people as possible, so the lineage of labels they were on makes sense. Releasing their debut album, The Day the Sun Went Out, on Initial Records, they would release splits with Coalesce and Snapcase and later find themselves on Victory Records and Wind-Up Records. Their Victory-released After the Eulogy was well-received, but their Wind-Up-released Tomorrow Come Today just fell flat on deaf ears. When your highly-touted "major label debut" comes with a sticker that says that the label believes in artistic expression but doesn't agree with the views expressed on this particular record, you're in trouble.

Boy Sets Fire has plenty of room to feel bitter. Reading their bio on their page, I can't help but feel for them. They were going down the path that so many bands go down in hopes that they aren't gonna get screwed or passed over. Well, the tough reality is that this is something way more bands go down than the ones that don't.

With Acceptance, I remember the three-fourths page advert in Alternative Press boasting rather bold claims about this band. Poised to be "the next big thing" by either Spin or NME (I can't remember), Acceptance had all the right cards in their favor. Their record, Phantoms, came out on Columbia Records, they had Matt Pinfield as their A&R man and had a really polished sound that sounded crafted for a large audience. Lead single "Different" was an iTunes free download of the week and being the curious guy that I am, I downloaded it. The song is not bad, but it's definitely something that sounds like it was labored over for mass mall appeal. Instead of puppy-dog scream/sing mall emo, this sounded like a crossover between Train and Jimmy Eat World. Hey, at least it's not something strictly for "the kids."

Why I bring up these bands is because I've realized something. These were bands that I heard hurrahs about in their time and now that they're done, the responses are more in the vein of "Who?" and "So what?" than anything else. So much can be placed into the talking up of a band and this only makes me more suspicious of today's up-and-coming bands. This is especially of note with how they are marketed.

A full-page advert in the latest AP talks up a band who, in the words of Absolute Punk, has the "potential to be the next Cartel or the Academy Is . . ." Now hold up: Cartel and the Academy Is . . . are just now getting started in the minds of the mass-marketed "underground" in the mainstream. A baby band in a field of toddlers that is poised to be as great? What? But here's the really funny thing: the name of this band is All Time Low. That's about as funny as Cute is What We Aim For.

The point of all this rambling is that the media tends to overplay up stuff for the sake of a gaining an audience. That's nothing new, but seeing the cold shoulders of people when a once-poised-for-stardom band breaks up, I wonder how affective, truthful and sincere advertising and publicity really are.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Love goes out the door when money comes innuendo

I can be so clueless about song lyrics. As I've said before on this blog, Radiohead's Thom Yorke could sing his grocery list and I wouldn't realize it until I read the lyrics. I'm always listening for the melodies and not trying to see if the lyrics make any sense. Well, it's recently come to attention that an AM gold hit that I grew up on is about one thing and one thing only. "This song is about daytime lovemaking," as legendary broadcaster Ron Burgundy says in his version, "the naughty type."

The song I'm referring to is "Afternoon Delight" by the Starland Vocal Band, a pop rock staple of the '70s. You still hear this song all the time, but here's the rather "Huh?" factor: parents complain all the time that there are so many sexual overtones in the modern music their children listen to while they make light of all the sexual references in the music they grew up on. Well, sorry, I ain't buying the "It was a different time" excuse anymore.

In the case of "Afternoon Delight," let's look at a couple of lines that leave nothing to the imagination:

Why wait until the middle of a cold dark night
When everything's a little clearer in the light of day

and
Thinkin' of you's workin' up my appetite
Looking forward to a little afternoon delight.
Rubbin' sticks and stones together makes the sparks ignite
and the thought of lovin' you is getting so exciting.

Growing up, I never pictured daytime lovemaking when I heard this song. As a matter of fact, I always thought this song was about having an afternoon snack at a picnic with fireworks shooting off in the sky. Well, just like the realization that Bryan Adams was not singing about the summer of 1969 in "Summer of '69," some imaginations get changed over time.

I know there are subtle ways and not-so-subtle ways about talking about sexual innuendo. Sometimes no innuendo is implied at all. I'm still convinced that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is really about holding a person's hand. "Dancing Queen" is about a young dancing star. "Beat It" is about not fighting. Yet a song like "Go All the Way" by the Raspberries is about one thing and one thing only.

Am I missing something here, or were these songs ever thought of as controversial in their day? I know of plenty of songs that were controversial in their day because of supposed drug or sexual overtones ("Puff, the Magic Dragon" anyone?), but these days, they're thought of as totally harmless. Now I'm not trying to sound like some moral analyst here, but come on, why do parents flip out about a modern song that sings about "the nasty" while they are perfectly fine with "Afternoon Delight"?