Sunday, July 31, 2005

Out of whack

Two examples of how we journalists have our priorities misplaced ...

1. We obsess over cable news networks as if everyone is watching them. The fact is, only journalists and bloggers -- plus a few assorted cranks -- watch these networks. Check out the cable Nielsen ratings. As of this writing, the top "news" show of the week was Fox's coverage of the John Roberts nomination, which scraped into the top 10 just below a rerun of The Waterboy.

2. In the early days of rock, the "payola" scandals were devastating. Today, we find that Sony gave a few illegal boosts on behalf of Jennifer Lopez, Good Charlotte, Franz Ferdinand, Jessica Simpson, John Mayer, Maroon 5 and Switchfoot ... and does anyone care?

Friday, July 29, 2005

XM in depth, Channel 4

The trouble with XM is that the choice is overwhelming. It's easy to flip around all the time in the hopes that there must be something better on some other channel. It takes some discipline to sit and try something new. And when it comes to radio, I don't have that discipline.

So I'm going through a little experiment. I'll go channel-by-channel through XM's music offerings, giving each channel an hour or 10 songs of uninterrupted listening (if I can stand it). We'll start at the bottom ... Channel 4, the 40s.

I've always been a "limited doses" guy when it comes to big band music, and that's the predominant fare here. Of course, the music all brings to mind some great old cartoons and some wartime nostalgia that somehow seeped into the consciousness of us Generation Xers.

And the XM call signal, done in a different style on each channel, is great here -- played on a clarinet with a bit of swing.

I heard more songs than I've listed here, but because songs were short in those days, they flew by quickly, and XM's online connection struggled to keep up with the song identities.

Here goes ...

Gene Krupa, It All Comes Back To Me Now -- Krupa was a great drummer, but the drums are pushed far into the background on this one. That's a shame. It's a rather dreary ballad sung by a guy whose voice drips with sap. (Hey, I'm cranking these out quickly -- excuse the metaphors.) The woodwinds play some adventurous progressions, and there are some pretty melodies in the bridges.

Mildred Bailey, I Go For That -- Gotta love a song that works in a reference to "Dubuque" because it fits the rhyme and meter. The horn-and-xylophone setting is a little corny, but the lyrics are clever. I'd love to hear a rapper do a cover version.

Guy Lombardo, When My Dreamboat Comes Home -- A muted trumpet plays a melody that sounds like an old spiritual before the singer takes over. Good sentimental song for wartime.

The Andrews Sisters and Vic Schoen, Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar -- I won't knock it for a title that wouldn't fly in today's more sensitive times. I'll knock it because it's just plain silly and full of obnoxious boasting that makes Eminem look modest.

Bob Crosby and His Orchestra, In a Little Gypsy Tea Room -- For some reason, I was picturing a smiling Elmer Fudd setting out on a hunt just before things went horribly awry. It's a bouncy little tune with the flute handing the melody off to other horns. Amiable, but forgettable.

Louis Armstrong, Lazy River -- After listening to a succession of guys trying to make up for the lack of character in their voices with excessive vibrato, Armstrong is a welcome relief. There are better Armstrong songs, but this isn't bad -- half ballad, half scat.

Frankie Carle, Sunrise Serenade -- And after a succession of songs in which the horns drowned out every other sound, this piano-driven tune is a welcome relief.

Dinah Shore, I'll Walk Alone -- Never been a fan. The background chorus is a little creepy.

Vaughn Monroe, That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) -- The oddest tune so far. It's a gospel tune with occasional swinging bursts from the horns, a string finale and some harmony vocals that overwhelm the lead singer's distinctive baritone.

Peggy Lee, Manana (Is Soon Enough for Me) -- Very nice change of pace with some prominent percussion and a cool, detached female vocal, albeit with some overdone Latin inflections. Forty years later, she'd have been a great lead singer for the Waitresses. Cool guitar solo, too. We'll close on an up note here.

Video counterargument

Kevin Maney, taking his cue from the book Everything Bad is Good for You, sees a lot of good in video games. I see the point about learning to find patterns, but I'm a little wary of the notion that kids who don't play games might somehow fall behind the curve. Is anyone else a little tired of tech evangelists telling us we have to be blogging, gaming, podcasting and surfing all day because everyone else is? Isn't that a little alienating?

On the other hand, it's hard not to be impressed with this blind gaming whiz. Time to update Pinball Wizard.

The circle of bias

Dan Mitchell's brilliant letter to Romanesko nails down the truth about most bias accusations:

The whole bias-spotting industry, left and right -- operates on the assumption that everybody in the world is a rank, simpleminded ideologue. I am more convinced every day that rank, simpleminded ideologues assume that everybody else -- perceived friend or perceived foe alike -- is the same as them. I guess it helps them make sense of a complicated world -- ideologues don't do nuance. They can't tell one shade of gray from another -- all is black or white. They are binary creatures.

Here's the fact that should (but won't) make the bias industry finally quiet down: Most journalists-- and I have known hundreds -- aren't particularly political. Not even politics reporters. They have opinions -- just like regular humans do -- but generally, they are far more inquisitive than they are ideological.


It may be hard for some to believe, especially those who spend a lot of time slinging opinions online, but plenty of people don't stake their entire identity on their political beliefs. Someone might be an Episcopalian first, a computer programmer second, comic book reader third, soccer fan fourth ... and Democrat-leaning voter 40th.

Bias accusations are hurled at academia just as they are at the media, and they usually miss the mark for this reason -- journalists and professors are people who want to learn, then pass on what they've learned. Those who would try to do the latter without the former end up being pretty bad at the job. In the media, sadly, those people are rewarded with talk shows. In academia, they're generally shunned, which is why academia is so alluring for jealous journalists.

Monday, July 25, 2005

More lyrical analysis

Finding one analysis (see below) of Close to the Edge wasn't enough. I stumbled upon a painstakingly detailed annotation of the lyrics, concentrating specifically on spirituality.

It's a bit ambitious to sum up all of these points in a blog post, and I'd be lying if I said I understood it all. I did an academic paper in my Philosophy and Music class that was somewhat similar to the first analysis -- I used Sting's The Soul Cages to demonstrate the use of themes that disappear and recur to link songs that also have a lyrical tie. But this one's on a different plane.

Give the second one a chance. It's a strange read at first -- the writer seems a little hyper as he points out his spiritual kinship with Yes' Jon Anderson, a bit like an overenthusiastic tour guide showing prospective students around a college campus, or perhaps Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek pontificating about Jim Morrison's status as a shaman.

As I understand it, the message of Close to the Edge (at least as interpreted here) is that we should only keep one foot in this world and one foot in the spiritual world, which we encounter at the "edge." All the petty distractions of the world melt away -- they have to -- as we seek God. And it's not enough to know God's name, which really tells us nothing. Add it all up, and it's almost enough to make me revive my flirtation with Unitarianism.

It also explains to me another reason why parents tend to return to church after spending their early single years drifting away. The reason most people give is that they want their kids to have a religious grounding. But I think it's also because parenting makes us more spiritual. We feel like we're part of a flowing lifeforce, the river or the "cord" described in Close to the Edge. Since becoming a parent, I've found that being around kids and other parents is an uplifting experience for me. This song explains why.

I also wonder if there are any songs today that could merit this level of scrutiny. Even newer Yes music doesn't seem to have deep meanings wrapped in many layers woven into a complex work of art.

But some people are trying to find that meaning, and on that note, please check out this annotation of Gwen Stefani's Hollaback Girl.

(I have seen some hostile reaction to this amusing piece of work, claiming that Hollaback Girl is a vital feminist statement. After reading the spiritual themes of Close to the Edge, I think Gwen is pushing an exclusionary form of feminism that doesn't allow those of a Buddhist orientation -- including Zen-ified Christians and Unitarians -- to take part. A follower of Zen or Buddhism would neither talk shit nor care whose shit Gwen is referring to.)

"I'll come to where YOU work and heckle YOU!"

Though I'm severely disappointed in podcasting as a medium so far (for the last time, it's not "Tivo" for radio -- any half-decent downloadable audio like the vast offerings at the BBC would qualify as "Tivo" -- it's basically a printer for audio, and amateur podcasts are frankly excruciating), I can highly recommend the podcast (or any other way you want to listen) of the public radio show Studio 360, a quirky look at arts and entertainment.

This week's show is a doozy. It's a look at the role of critics in modern society, opening with a hysterically profane voice mail from Ryan Adams to a critic who dared to pan his oh-so-perfect show. The problem is obviously personal, Adams rants, because the music is "too (bleep)ing good."

Well, then. Someone's obviously pretty impressed with himself.

I have no set opinion on Adams, and I'd almost be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Mr. Awesome and his minions didn't respond to interview requests, so (bleep) them.

There but by the grace of God ...

So I was watching the Sesame Street episode in which the often-irritating Richard Kind conjures balloons for Snuffy to float into the sky, and I was thinking that the dissonant, sci-fi background music for Snuffy's visit to thinner air sounded like the black-hole sequence of Rush's Hemispheres. Then, of course, I thought: "I am one of the biggest geeks in the world. How in the world did I ever manage a somewhat normal life? I even have a kid! (Yes, that's why I was watching one of Sesame Street's worst recent episodes.)"

But my amazement at my own ability to procreate was short-lived, because I happened to stumble upon this account (oddly, written by two people) of a progressive-rock fan finding music for his wedding. He ponders Jethro Tull selections, the Yes epic Close to the Edge and Genesis -- Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The musical differences in the couple are apparent:

Good Lord. How can I marry this woman? She doesn't even own any songs in 5/4.

To be fair, this guy(s) has a great sense of humor about his own favorite genre of music. In fact, for all the supposed pretentiousness of prog-rock fans, I find they laugh easily about the music.

"Games People Play"? No, no, no. A marriage consecrated by the Alan
Parsons Project will end in divorce. I read that somewhere.

It's a fun read.

Of course, I hadn't realized Close to the Edge was allegedly about suicide, so I wound up reading a lengthy academic analysis of the piece that's frankly over my head. And I went to grad school. So maybe the joke's on me.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Not this side, the adjacent side

In perhaps the surest sign that the spirit of the '60s are dead, the Doors of the 21st Century (basically two of the three surviving Doors, plus Cult singer Ian Astbury and a drummer who may or may not be the great Stewart Copeland) can't use the name any more. The other Door, drummer John Densmore, got together with various relatives of Jim Morrison to put a stop to it.

Densmore is said to have declined the project because of hearing problems, but there are a few questions on the subject.

Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to sensationalize the present

London has survived a devastating fire, various outbreaks of civil violence, plague, torturous bombing by the Nazis and years of IRA bombs. It has incorporated new waves of population over centuries. And yet the Washington Post Outlook section wastes space on this petty piece of nihilism suggesting that the whole enterprise is doomed because a couple of idiots strapped bombs to themselves.

Yes, Joel Kotkin cites plenty of historical precedent on his own, but I think the fall of various Central American cultures and the fall of Rome are a little less relevant than London's recovery from all manner of misfortune in the more recent centuries.

Kotkin has intriguing ideas about how technology can decentralize the population. I spent the first 28 years of my life in mid-sized towns, and I think it's great to see them revitalized by new opportunities. But that's no reason to push aside all the advantages of "urban" life -- downtowns with character, thriving marketplaces not contained within the walls of an exurban Wal-Mart ... and yes, mass transit.

One reason London can survive so well is that is has so much mass transit that a few terrorist strikes can't possibly take down the whole system. Just look at the Tube map, then consider how many buses and commuter trains run in addition to all that. In fact, London is already the sprawling complex of multiple centers that Kotkin describes here.

Someone tell the Post not to bug me with this depressing nonsense on a Sunday morning.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The brilliance of Jon Stewart

From an interview on NPR's Fresh Air:

STEWART: These political parties ... are basically dedicated to figuring out how to gain the system. And they have found, I think, the real vulnerability in our media. And they are exploiting that loophole.

The vulnerability is twofold. One is the pace at which the 24-hour networks have, so it's sort of their deadline pressure. And the other is that the anchors are not versed in an expertise of news; they are TV people. And so those two together form sort of a conspiracy of a non-aggression pact, if you will. And it allows these talking-point robots, operatives from different political parties, to go on these shows and basically lay it out there without question. And it's done to influence people through repetition.

HOST: So deceptive content never gets challenged, nobody ever gets to the bottom of it.

STEWART: I wouldn't say "never," but the prevailing sense is that if it is challenged, it's in print and a week later.

If you happen to listen and want to skip ahead to this segment, start around the 14-minute mark.

Friday, July 22, 2005

XM - Xtended Mediocrity

One thing about XM's gigagargantuan music collection is that you end up hearing the "extended dance mix" of songs. I'm not sure if people still do "extended dance mixes" in this day and age because I've never been one for clubbing, and I'm sure no one's downloading this crap to their iPods.

Twice on XM, I've heard the classic '80s oddity AEIOU Sometimes Y by the band that loves the alphabet even more than Cookie Monster, EBN-OZN. And twice, I've heard the extended dance mix. That means roughly 80 more repetitions of the little synthesized bass line and the ... well, the other synthesized lines. Let's face it -- the music in this song is just there to provide a couple of interludes in the guy's amusing story of picking up a Swedish woman who was having cappucino but decided, though she was high at the time, that things were getting a little too intense on the first "date," so she takes off and only has a chance to call him because he was, in the best phrase of the song, "feeling cavalier," and she calls him so he can scoff "Huh! Do I want to go OUT!" before she apparently takes him back to her place and does something -- can't imagine what -- to make him start chanting "Lola, Lola" until we all wonder what kind of name "Lola" is for a Swedish woman. I guess "Ingrid," "Hanna" or "Moerskedjsvik" wouldn't fit the meter.

So the extended dance mix in this song struggles mightily to fill the void between verses. When you're remixing roughly four notes from a synthesizer, there's only so much you can do. At some point, there's a bit more to the story, but it's forgettable. And at some random point, the guy screams for a really long time. Not a fun rock scream like in Won't Get Fooled Again, but an intense horror-movie scream, as if delaying gratification with this hot Swedish chick and being unable to understand why because her language has more vowels than his is roughly akin to being stuck in a torture device of the Spanish Inquisition or perhaps waking up from a near-death, permanently scarring experience only to be told that Amidala is dead.

I can't blame EBN-OZN or their producers for making the mix. But I can ask XM why they play this version more often than, you know, the good version.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Video games: Entertainment or lifestyle?

While I waited to cross the busiest street in my town on foot (no, it's not some bizarre form of social protest -- this is a somewhat pedestrian-friendly town that just happens to have a busy highway as its "main" street), I stared at the display of a video games shop. NCAA Football '06 is out! I remembered that it must have been about this time last year that I walked in to buy Madden '04 for the PC.

"Oh, but Madden '05 comes out next week," said the guy behind the counter.

"That's OK," I said with a smile. What I didn't say -- as a grown-up (or "grown-ass man," in the famous words of Eddie Johnson, who was 20 at the time), I don't have the time to get $39.99 out of a complex video game. But $9.99 for a game that's going to be "out of date" in a week? Sure, I can spare that. I still enjoy the very occasional game, and I'll keep playing as long as Michael Vick is still in the league. Then I'll wait until Madden '16 is on sale for 15 Euros.

So pardon me while I slip into Grumpy Old Man mode ...

In my day, video games were entertainment. You had to go to an arcade to play any of the good games, so only the neighborhood stoners had time to get really good at them.

The games didn't require much by way of instruction. Move the joystick to avoid those guys? Sure. One button for "shoot" and one for "jump"? OK. One for "pass," one for "shoot" and then a third option? That'll take a couple of tries, but I'll catch on.

I've covered this territory before, but in time it takes to get the controls down pat for a game today, you could learn the guitar riff for two or three classic rock staples. You could develop a competent backhand. You could even read a whole freaking book.

And all of these things -- except learning the video game -- had long-term benefits. You'd get some exercise, learn something or expand your musical skills.

Is that more worthwhile than mastering Madden? Let me put it this way -- which is more cool, being able to play Johnny B. Goode while holding the guitar above your head a la Hendrix or being able to find Marvin Harrison in the flat for a 20-yard virtual gain? The answer is the former, which means I'm cooler than a lot of kids today. And if you could see what a geek I was in high school, you'd know how sad that really is.

The lesson here is that life is too short to learn something useless. Guitars are guitars, and the riffs I learned in high school yesterday (OK, many years ago) will entertain my kid tomorrow. That move you learned after 500 hours of playing Grand Theft Auto will be out of date when the next version comes out.

(I say this as someone who has learned many useless things. I'm more likely to remember my sixth-grade locker combination than anything I learned in "symbolic logic," a math class posing as a philosophy class in college.)

The occasional bit of entertainment? That's what video games are for. And a simple game combined with a social environment is great -- ask the Golden Tee folks.

(Now if only can only convince my kids of this when they're old enough to demand computer time.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter!

I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books. This is a shameless attempt to drive up traffic.

While I'm selling my soul for traffic -- Harry Potter character dies.

(I have no idea if any character dies in the new one. I couldn't name one Harry Potter character. Oh wait -- Harry Potter. There we go.)

I don't mean to put on one of these "too hip to participate in pop culture" veneers. I just don't have time to read 600-page books on fantasy worlds. I just finished America (the book from The Daily Show), and I still haven't seen the newest Star Wars, though I am vaguely aware that Anakin suffers serious injuries.

But because I'm a parent, I'm up to speed on the new Sesame Street season, so feel free to discuss.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Emasculation and wasted youth

Had a good discussion today with a co-worker whose witty blog included a little insult she hurled at some indie rockers. (UPDATE: She said it's OK to link.) Let's just say that if these folks were asked "Are we not men?" these guys couldn't just shrug it off and answer "We are Devo."

I asked her if this meant she was sick of the whole "emo" thing. She said she was sick of emo guys, not emo music. I argued that she couldn't have one without the other, telling her I put aside my dreams of being a classic rock guitarist because, well, I didn't live the lifestyle.

Then I combined my two biggest interests -- music and parenting:

ME: I blame parenting for the whole "emo" thing. These kids are too coddled to spend all day in the garage picking through Jimmy Page and Alex Lifeson riffs. That's why we have no great guitarists today.

HER: What breeds good guitarists?

ME: Boredom. I was a really good guitarist my junior and senior year of high school. What else was I going to do? Today, kids just isolate themselves with their video games. they might get to Level 49 of whatever game they're playing, but they'll never be able to hack their way through the Comfortably Numb guitar solo like I did.

She then argued that kid-friendly rock events were bringing kids into music at a younger age. I countered that it was a fleeting thing, that songs are now disposable items among thousands in a kid's iPod. She raised a different point -- that "kid-friendly" events are taking the rebellion out of music.

And that puts me back to a question I've never managed to answer. Do you have to be a rebel to make any worthwhile music?

Sure, some good music is based in rebellion -- at the very least, most good musicians break a few rules within the music industry. Yet I always have a bit of skepticism about rebellion rock. They're so often like the Goth kids in South Park -- so nonconformist that they end up conformist. That's where we stood after several years of "alternative" rock -- these guys weren't "alternative" when they were just fifth-generation Pearl Jam ripoffs. Most hip-hop suffers from being so self-consciously rebellious that it forgets to include any of the elements that make music interesting -- melody, good lyrics, a bit of musical drama, etc.

And these days, the kids are concentrating too much of self-conscious rebellion and not enough on the music. They don't need more tattoos. They need to sit with their guitars until they come up with some riffs that give us a reason to give a damn.

All that said, I know there's something to be said for having a certain edge. You could put me in front of a drum kit for a thousand years, and I'd never nail the fill from ZZ Top's LaGrange. I haven't consumed enough alcohol and pursued enough women within the state of Texas to get that Frank Beard feel. I could probably do some note-perfect renditions of some Hendrix tunes back in the day, but I never, ever sounded anything like Jimi.

But at least I can't blame my parents for that.

Great TV quotes, Part 38

(OK, I haven't done the other 37 yet, but I'll get to them.)

This is from what might be the greatest Family Guy to date -- the Renaissance Fair episode.

DRILLMASTER: You love the Middle Ages, don't you?

PETER: Sir, yes Sir!

DRILLMASTER: The concept of a geocentric universe gets you sexually excited, doesn't it?

PETER: Sir, yes Sir!

DRILLMASTER: You wanna make 16th century mathematician Johannes Kepler your BITCH, don't you?

PETER: Sir, yes Sir!

One of the best sight gags in a Family Guy comes later, when the Fair's resident floozy asks Peter to take a gander under her frock. Peter disappears for a moment and returns with a gander, which lets loose a nice "honk!" as Peter nonchalantly tosses it up her skirt.

The jealous Black Knight, voiced by Will Ferrell with a metallic echo, arrives on the scene. "Madeleine! Go wait in the Hyundai!"

Reasons to like Anna Nalick

The young singer-songwriter behind Breathe (2 a.m.) played in a Rush cover band, according to her bio. Excellent.

Political blogs suck

In one of the earliest M*A*S*H episodes, the dentist with a guitar -- who never quite made it as a recurring character -- explains to Hawkeye and Trapper how to deal with Frank Burns. The Frank Burnses of the world are indestructible, says our singing dentist friend. You can't change him; therefore, you must change the environment. In this case, it means getting rid of an ammo dump that drew the attention of incompetent bomber pilot Five O'Clock Charlie and led to the unit getting an anti-aircraft gun. (Inexact quote follows ...)

"Take away the dump, and you take away the gun. Take away the gun, you take away Frank's motivation and the menace is gone."

These days, thanks to the blogosphere and certain misjudgments by my colleagues in the media, we're handing out anti-aircraft guns to the Burnses of the world. Case in point: This Washington Post Magazine piece that takes the interesting premise of getting a far-left blogger and a far-right blogger to tour Washington together.

David Von Drehle is one of the Post's better writers, and his follow-up chat today was the lively yet reasonable read I expected. I don't blame him for taking such an interest in the sociology of today's partisan divide (see his previous work). From an academic perspective, it's fascinating. But from a real-world perspective, it's irritating.

Picture it this way -- I love the History of Britain series. I could watch it over and over again. But would I want to go back in time and be an archbishop who crossed the king? Probably not. It's great from an academic perspective, but it's also nice to shut off the DVD player and know that going to church on Sunday without being beheaded on Monday is my choice.

Von Drehle makes some good points. I happened to read a book on the Aurora in grad school, and it is indeed compelling proof that mud-slinging irrational argument is part of American history. Fair enough.

But it's still a generalization that Americans love to argue. Americans also like to be left the hell alone, and I'd argue that tendency outweighs the whole "argument" thing.

What's especially sad about the people involved in this is that they think they're doing something noble. This isn't rational debate. This is pure hate. Getting kids to "debate" along those lines isn't teaching them to think, it's teaching them the verbal equivalent of kickboxing.
And we in the media are ascribing a political extreme to everyone and everything, whether it fits or not.

One example: There's a media-bashing book out these days on "South Park conservatives." But South Park isn't so much a right-wing show as it is a deft skewering of ALL political extremes. As Randy Marsh says, "Please, for your own sake, fart in moderation."

From what I've read of the book, the author goes beyond the sensationalistic title and admits as much. I doubt his fans will give the same admission -- see the sadly predictable discussion at Amazon.

This is why South Park is frankly a superior form of communication than blogs and books. South Park conveys a message that couldn't be conveyed in any popular blog -- don't take yourself so damned seriously. ALL of you. On both sides -- ALL sides. Of ALL arguments. That means those of us in the media and those of you making millions bashing us with specious arguments.

And that means ALL of you writing political blogs, especially those of you drinking the red or blue Kool-Aid. Seriously, get a life. And fart in moderation.

Monday, July 11, 2005

MMM Hall of Fame: The Reality of My Surroundings

Rather than wait for Spin to come down from the mountain with its Top 50, I'm embarking on a new regular feature -- the Mostly Modern Music Hall of Fame. I'll focus mostly on albums, giving them proper due before the art form fades, but I'll mention the occasional single or catch-all band entry.

(Speaking of albums: I heard on a BBC program today that, in the U.K., sales of CD singles have dropped. No surprise in the age of downloads. But vinyl sales are up. Yes, vinyl.)

I'll try to distinguish between albums that are truly great and those that just caught me at the right time.

So let's start ..

In college, I lived in a happy dorm full of people who didn't mind spending Saturday nights watching Saturday Night Live together. And so we watched as Jeremy Irons introduced a band known to most of us only by reputation -- Fishbone.

My dormmates, bless their hearts, got one glimpse of Angelo Moore in his striped suit and cane, and that was enough for them. I was pretty much on my own in watching it, vaguely aware that everyone else had tuned out. Didn't matter to me. I was genuinely stunned.

They were a little much to take for some people, I suppose. Some people aren't as amused as I am by the tendency of ska-influenced bands to have one guy roaming around the stage with no apparent role in the band other than to shout the backup vocals on occasion and perhaps play trumpet. Angelo belted out the chorus to Sunless Saturday, yelled "Special K" to introduce Kendall Jones for the guitar solo, and did a front flip. Well, three-quarters of a flip. He landed smack on his back. Hope he had some padding in that suit.

But these guys weren't doing antics for antics' sake. They had something to say. I was so willing to listen that I ran out and bought the CD.

Fourteen years later, I'm still not disappointed.

Fishbone takes the Nuke Laloosh approach -- they announce their presence with authority. Fight the Youth starts with a swirling guitar lick quickly joined by the band in the best funk-metal groove this side of Motley Crue's Dr. Feelgood. Then the singer -- in this case, I think it's keyboardist Chris Dowd -- gets it started:

And now another story of stolen faith and tragic glory
They claim to be your friends but all the while they taunt you with lies ...

And back to the guitars to build us back up to the chorus, which is a clever interlocking of different voices singing slogans ... "Fight the youth - the youth with poisoned minds," "Ignite the truth," "Restore sight to the blind."

It's a masterful whirlwind. And that's just the first song of 18.

Some of the "songs" aren't fully developed -- they're mere interludes. There are four separate takes called If I Were a ... I'd ..., and there are a couple of brief instrumentals called Asswhippin' and Deathmarch.

The album title fits. It's a complex, intermittently funny and devastating look at the world around the guys in the band. So Many Millions gives them the album title and shows the frustration: "I cannot get over legitimately the reality of my surroundings ... I cannot grow up to be the president where only drug dealers own Mercedes Benz." Housework has the subtext of life with a single parent who works, but it's a merry romp through the oppression of daily chores.

Things get a little more menacing with Behavior Control Technician, which concludes "sheltering will restrict your baby's mind." Pressure is where the merry-go-round goes out of control into a masterpiece of controlled chaos.

In the middle is a two-parter that won't make your iPod playlist for work or driving but is strong artistically. Junkies Prayer is a creepy spoken-word duet with Angelo mimicking an addict and someone else sounding like a preacher laying the smack down -- they both start with "My pusher, who art in the crack house / Hallowed be thy bitches and hos," but they eventually take their own pathes before seguing into the ironically light Pray to the Junkiemaker.

The uplifting single Everyday Sunshine, which has the requisite shoutouts to God, lifts the mood a bit shortly before the two sex songs, Naz-tee May'en and Babyhead. The latter two are probably the weakest songs on the album, but I understand why they wanted to flesh out the picture a bit -- the neighborhood may be frustrating, but it has its charms.

Those Days Are Gone is the most introspective song on the album, and I've found that it sticks in my head even if it isn't a flat-out rock anthem like most of the other songs. It's almost a blues song, lamenting the way jealousy and envy have torn things apart.

And finally, it's Sunless Saturday, a blistering reminder that things are supposed to be better than this.

It sounds angry and dark, and it does indeed offer a bit of primal scream therapy for those of us who occasionally need it. But I think the underlying theme is power. "Look at us -- we're seven guys with different interests who sometimes sound like we're playing different songs. But we can come together to make these great songs. So what can YOU do?"

It's inspiring. And perhaps that's why I wish it had a bigger audience. My dormmates missed the message. I've also heard from people who hear the word "Fishbone" and have a knee-jerk reaction: "Ska? I can't listen to that?"

Fishbone also failed to stick around to follow up their masterpiece. (See the Wikipedia history.) Kendall Jones made one of most mysterious band departures in music history -- maybe he was in a cult, maybe not, but the attempt at deprogramming went horribly awry (various other links suggest duct tape, a stun gun and other legal action were involved). Chris Dowd, whose bright spirit seemed to put him as the McCartney of the band, was next to leave. Then the drummer known as "Fish" left. (No, the band didn't drop "Fish" from the name to continue as "Bone," though this does raise the Beavis and Butthead question: "How do you fire Van Halen from Van Halen?") They're still around, and I'm sure they're great live. But it's a shame they're not still intact to revel in this one.

Finally, more comments on Spin's Top 100

Or not. They've only listed the bottom 50, and they're still doing all sorts of self-congratulatory commentary on it. Bottom line: I don't get Spin, and I mean that two ways -- I don't subscribe to it, and I don't get it. They're like the slackers in The Simpsons' Homerpalooza episode who don't even know if they're being sarcastic any more.

So I'm not bothering to comment on the rest.

Instead, I'm starting a new feature ... now ...

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Tribute to London

I've always loved England, and I've always loved London. Today, I love them even more.

The mistake the terrorists have made is this -- they have struck people who are resilient and determined to ensure their civilization endures. The trains are already starting to run again. The Underground, sprawled out and better equipped to deal with this sort of thing than the typical U.S. system, will survive.

London has suffered great tragedies in its past. The fire. The plague. Bombings during World War II. IRA terrorist attacks. It survives as the greatest city in the world because its people insist upon it. They're not prone to histrionics. They know how to pull together to restore the routines that London residents and tourists cherish. The restoration of daily routine will be a great comfort to all.

I've seen the city in mourning -- by coincidence, my first visit to London fell on the same weekend as Princess Diana's funeral. The entire city shut down to mourn. And then rose again.

I'm confident today that the message of resilience London will send in the weeks and months to come is greater than any message the terrorists think they've sent.

The best revenge is living well. Over here across the Atlantic, I'll raise a glass in tribute to those who've been lost, then another to those who take that sweet revenge.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Why I don't understand Rob Thomas ...

Matchbox 20 should make any list of the worst 20 bands of the past 20 years. Yet when you pair Rob Thomas with Carlos Santana, he's not bad. And when you pair him with Stevie Wonder, he rocks. (Check here and seek Higher Ground.)

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Feed the world?

Classic critique of Live8 from someone who lives in one of the corners of England that didn't have an all-African lineup performing this weekend: "Ok I may have missed the point. I watched it for a bit and my conscience feels a lot better. Presumably I don't have to do anything else now to help Africa.. except depose Mugabe on my next trip."

This in a nutshell is why I often suffer from England envy. The English don't feel the need to go into histrionics about every little thing. Their humor is often understated unless it's over-the-top absurdity. They're less prone to see a ban on loudspeaker prayer as "kicking God out of public schools." They see value in subtlety.

As an amateur sociologist (like Shavlik Randolph, I declared for the draft but wasn't picked), I think a big difference between England and the former colonies over here is that the English are a bit more collectivist in their thinking. That's a mindset forged over history, especially when the nation suffered together and triumphed together in two world wars -- sure, the U.S. played a noble role in each war, but we didn't see losses on the same scale, and we didn't have bombing raids in New York or Washington.

We may perceive the English as snobs, and sometimes they are. (I converse with a lot of soccer fans -- yes, there's a lot of condescension in those circles.) But they also have the humility of seeing themselves as part of a greater whole. We've never had that here.

And perhaps that's why the Band Aid song that started the whole charity kick was called Feed the World, while the U.S. response was called We Are the World. Feed us? I guess the buffet at the USA for Africa session was pretty good.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Live 8 - classic

The Live 8 lineup seemed to be full of people who were around the first time Bob Geldof pulled together something like this. Some may complain, but I think that's fair. It doesn't take much to get 20-year-olds interested in a poverty-related protest -- if you can't appeal to their youthful idealism, tell them babes will be involved -- but Geldof and company clearly want to appeal across the demographics here.

Besides, anyone over the age of 30 had to be thinking, "Pink Floyd? Together?"

Yes, they were, and they were pretty good.

Let's be clear -- Roger Waters is a stubborn old crank. It's tough to blame David Gilmour for taking the Pink Floyd banner and running with it after Waters checked out. Gilmour suffered through Waters' growing megalomania in the late '70s and early '80s, and he deserved a lucrative turn as sole frontman.

But you had to be happy for Waters on this day. He always fell into the cynical idealist camp -- those people who want good things to happen but see conspiracies preventing them. He was clearly thrilled to be there for the cause, and he deserved to take an honorable bow with his old band.

I've read that Waters' singing was shaky on Comfortably Numb, but I don't buy it. On The Wall, Waters wasn't singing as much as he was playing a character (played in the creepy movie, coincidentally, by Bob Geldof). From what I heard (I had left the TV and was in the car with XM by that point), he was his old self. And that's what the song requires. Well, that and one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, dutifully rendered by the masterful Gilmour. That brought back memories of my high school guitar-playing days, sitting out in my room trying to get those deceptively quick licks down.

The BBC reviewer, who seems to be even more of a classic rock hound than I am, wasn't impressed with The Killers, Snow Patrol or Velvet Revolver. I was. A lot of performers in this atmosphere are too tentative, but not Weiland and the ex-Gunners, who flat out rocked. The Killers and Snow Patrol just came out and showed why they're two of the best young bands around. The Killers were moving and powerful.

(Incidentally, the Guns N Roses Web site is a little ... dormant.)

Sting and The Who were amazing. Sting's Driven to Tears was an appropriate song choice played with an urgency that had to get the crowd going. As for The Who -- when did Pete Townshend start playing such sharp guitar fills? He always viewed himself as the rhythm guitarist while late bassist John Entwistle played "lead." (Incidentally, I just downloaded another great example of this style -- a version of White Room in which Clapton sticks to the chords in the verses and lets bassist Nathan East cut loose.)

Over in Philly, I thought Def Leppard showed a nice bit of spirit, and I have to say I hope I age as well as Phil Collen. Sarah McLachlan was, in a word, lovely -- she looked fantastic, with that mix of elegance and friendliness that few can project, and her solo versions of Fallen and World on Fire were more compelling than the studio version. Bringing out Josh Groban to join her on Angel was a nice touch; I don't know much about the guy, but his voice meshed very well with Sarah's.

Some of the things I heard on XM were awful. Travis should never, ever, ever again attempt to sing the Bee Gees.

MTV proved itself to be utterly incompetent. I know the joke for the last 10 years is that they don't play music any more. It goes beyond that. They're not interested in music anymore. They spent most of the time yapping ... perky young ignorati going on and on about what a wonderful event they were ignoring.

The worst offense ...

Imagine that you're watching The Who power through Won't Get Fooled Again. Pete Townshend is hanging onto that chord as the keyboards kick in. The crowd is waiting for the drums to rev up for Roger Daltrey's climactic "YEEAAAAAHHHH!!" ...

... and MTV cuts back to its young idiots.

Yes, that's right. They skipped the definitive moment of one of the most essential songs in rock history.

I'm sure the BBC, which I monitored a little bit, did better. They also had a video feed from what must have been the smallest Live 8 show, the all-African lineup at Cornwall. That's an odd choice -- a bunch of African musicians in the remotest corner of England. But it seemed pretty cool from what I saw.

So will anyone get the message? Hard to say. From the Web chatter I saw, it seemed that a number of people assumed they were asking for money. But they weren't.

I am a little surprised that this isn't more controversial, though. Joining this cause isn't a no-brainer. But perhaps it's not so much the specifics of debt relief and foreign aid as it is the more general sense of harnessing idealism. That sounds naive, I know, but even snarky libertarians such as The Economist are seeing some useful ways to spend money in Africa. The closing sentence of their editorial on African aid (which, curiously, doesn't mention Live 8) is eloquent: "Cynicism is only the most common form of naivety." I'll have to remember that when dealing with those who mistake cynicism with intelligence.

Beyond poverty relief, I think it's reassuring to see a worldwide effort for the cooperative aspect. When I did some research on Moscow today, I was thoroughly depressed -- the Russian news agencies seem to be reviving the Cold War rhetoric for some reason. The message of an event like this is that people can be more powerful than their governments. Maybe our governments hate each other, but we don't have to do so. Besides, I think one unifying force in the world today is that we all hate our governments, don't we?

The concert was, of course, too much to watch at once. I'm sure XM will be playing plenty of highlights over the next few weeks, and the BBC should have it on their on-demand radio player. Sounds good to me.

(Housekeeping note: Posting on this blog is going to be a little slow for the rest of the summer. Lots to do, and I'd like to spend some time away from the computer.)