Friday, October 28, 2005

I Snark the 80s

VH1 may have gone to the well too many times. Mo Rocca and Joel Stein are so impressed with their snark that they simply don't care if they have their facts completely wrong.

Someone needs to do a snarky show on snarky shows. And that someone is me. Please contact me through this blog, and we'll work out a date for taping. References available on request.

Love, hate ... nah, I love Tori Amos

I listened to an XM Artist Confidential with Tori Amos (when, oh when, will XM make its shows available on demand online?), and it was a reminder of why our favorite piano-playing redhead can be so amazing and yet so infuriating.

Of all the musicians who account for at least three songs in my iPod, she probably leads in the dubious category of "Absolutely Unlistenable Songs." Sure, Throwing Muses/Kristin Hersh have cranked out some off-the-wall stuff in their day, but they've never recorded a full-blown sonic insult like the output you get when Tori is in screech mode.

And she often says things that make you think she wandered out to the mental space inhabited by Stevie Nicks at her New Age height, then kept right on going into the great beyond. (Actually, we could blame other things.) When asked on the XM show about her creative process, she said something about magical pixies -- OK, not the exact words, but my brain was simply unable to process what she was saying -- who floated around with songs. So her job was to capture them and bring them to light. Or life? I have no idea, but if I see any little pixies trying to inflict the song Ieeee on us, I'm getting a flyswatter.

Then she turns around and says things that are so charming (she is indeed Southern, more or less), down-to-earth and witty that you wonder if all the pixie-ish stuff is an act. Or maybe just two sides of a person whose brain waves would flummox a supercomputer.

And she's so, so good on the piano. Listen to a couple of her live efforts on To Venus and Back, where she leads her capable band -- propelled by omnidimensional drummer Matt Chamberlain -- through some reworking of her older songs. She dances around with the hooks on Cornflake Girl and Precious Things like a jazz legend who happened to write Tori Amos songs.

Everyone wants to record and tour with Chamberlain these days, and yet he plays with Tori. That should tell you something.

So with Tori, I'll take the bad with the good. She may record one horrible album, then turn around with something that has 2-3 brilliant songs. Can't complain about that.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The fine line between clever and stupid

Perhaps music video director Samuel Bayer has become the Stravinsky of our day. He's taking artistic risks, to be sure, and some people are acclaiming him as brilliant.

I am not.

Love them or hate them, Bayer's videos for songs from Green Day's masterpiece, American Idiot are landmarks. He has raised the ante with each one.

I respect that. I don't like what he's done, and I think it's worth discussing why.

First up is Wake Me Up When September Ends, well reviewed at (OT: I'm impressed with the work Bill Lamb is doing at About.) I like the idea of setting the song to a story of a young kid going to war while his girlfriend frets back home, but the scenes between the couple are as overwrought as a Lifetime movie.

Next up: Jesus of Suburbia, not just a curiosity (a nine-minute punk song??!) but the heart and soul of the album. And Bayer has created another epic that is sure to get some critics swooning. (See it at MySpace if this link remains intact.)

The basic story is this:
  • Kid is a punk.
  • Kid's friends drink and smoke a lot, as magnified by Bayer's typical trickery with fast and slow action.
  • Kid has no trouble getting laid. (Memo to women like this: I know someone else has asked this, but why is it that so many well-meaning guys are sexually frustrated while guys like this kid just need to show up wherever there's beer and drugs? Really, we don't want to encourage these guys, and you're just one accident away from letting this guy's genes persist for another generation.)
  • After this goes on for a while, we see Kid at home. He and his mom don't get along. Something about the fact that she pauses in every conversation to take a dramatic drag on her cigarette and the fact that he's a complete and utter jerk.
  • Kid has a lot of Green Day posters on his wall.
  • Kid writes a lot of graffiti in a room in a convenience store.
  • As if we needed less reason to sympathize with Kid, we see him shopping and tossing things all over the store, making a big business.
  • Kid finds out the woman he slept with earlier (was it just one? I got confused) is sleeping with someone else. He gets mad, screams at her, cuts his hand, leaves a bloody handprint at the convenience store.
  • Kid goes home, grabs stuff, gets hug from Mom in between her nicotine fixes, pushes her away and leaves. Other kids in local punk community look sad. Or indifferent. Or stoned. Who the hell can tell?

It's interesting, yes. A lot of people would argue that the kid is only a total and complete bastard because he's from, as the song's last line says, a broken home.

But that distills a brilliant, complex song into a simple, questionable concept. In the song, we feel the guy's frustration, but we have no reason to hate him. We can empathize.

The video kills all empathy. The kid feels no empathy for anyone around him, and we're given no reason to empathize with him. Bayer's direction implies that we're supposed to root for the kid against the mom, but we're given no reason at all to think that way. The mom has provided a rather comfortable home for this kid, which probably means she has sucked it up after her own problematic past and is working hard for what's left of her family. (Either that, or Dad pays a ton of child support.)

The result is that Bayer has divided the audience. The brilliance of American Idiot is that everyone has had a reason to take it seriously. It's recognizably Green Day, but it breaks a lot of neo-punk rules. It's a strong collection of songs, no matter what you think of the genre. Bayer's video embraces the most anti-social wing of the punk movement, the folks that use suburban boredom and bumbling parents as excuses for everything they do.

And when it comes to using circumstances and upbringing as an excuse for anti-social behavior, the bizarre comedy Repo Man said it all (thanks again, IMDB):

Duke (dying after being shot in a robbery attempt): The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.

Otto: That's bullshit. You're a white suburban punk just like me.

And just like this kid, to whom everyone but his long-suffering mom would gladly say, "Good riddance."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Today's tribute

For a late civil rights leader and for a great show ...

Isaac: Apologize.
Dan: Why?
Isaac: Because it's the way things are done.
Dan: Well, sitting on the back of the bus is how things were done until a little old lady decided to do something about it. Frankly, I'm not impressed with the way things are done, Isaac.
Isaac: Danny, you know I love you, right?
Dan: Yes.
Isaac: And because I love you I can tell you this: no young rich white guy has ever gotten anywhere with me by comparing himself to Rosa Parks.

(Thanks, IMDB and Aaron Sorkin)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ow, my ears ...

Which SNL performer committed a greater transgression against music -- Ashlee Simpson using a backing tape or Franz Ferdinand's apparent inability to tune guitars? Someone should assassinate their guitar tech.

(Andy by assassinate, I mean fire. Not looking to set off four years of trench warfare here.)

Friday, October 21, 2005

What part of "closest to the price without going over" don't you understand?

They're called "Price is Right rules" for a reason. And they're especially applicable when you're playing ... The Price is Right!

Price is Right is essentially a game of luck, aside from a few of the on-stage games in which people who play close attention to the grocery-store prices have an edge. When you're on "contestant's row," you're just guessing, unless you happen to have authoritative knowledge of the comparative value of various saunas and grandfather clocks.

But strategy matters. A lot. And it's sooo freaking simple that it's infuriating when people don't know it.

If you're the last person to bid, you have a huge advantage. You've heard three bids. Then you get to pick a range of prices while simultaneously eliminating one person, unless that person got it exactly right.

Let's say you're the fourth person, and the other three bids are as follows:

1. $950
2. $600
3. $700

If the number in your head was "$850," stop. Do NOT bid $850. Bid $701.

It's incredibly simple. If you bid $850, you win ONLY if the price is between $850 and $949. If you bid $701, you win if it's $725, $745, $770, etc.

Yet more than half of the people on contestant's row just don't get it. A lot of people understand the strategy of bidding $1 when they think everyone else has bid too much, but not that you should always bid $1 over one of the bids.

This week, I saw the worst bid I've ever seen. And it wasn't some young kid -- this woman had a T-shirt claiming she'd waited 53 years to be on the show (longer than its actual run, though not by that much). She had the last bid. She paused and asked what the last person bid, which is perfectly valid. The answer: $850. Her bid ... $849.

Yes, $849. Either she was really, really sure of that price and wanted to get the bonus money out of Barker's pocket, or she really screwed up.

The person who bid $850 won, by the way. So yes, karma exists.

XM in depth: Channel 11

Fortified by a listen to some "classic country" and some exposure to CMT, I was ready to dive right into Nashville, XM's country hits station. Well, technically, "Highway 16" is XM's country hits station, while this is "today's current top 40 Country hits." Anyone else think XM goes a little overboard in compartmentalizing its music database?

Bryan White, Someone Else's Star - Slow ballad with the fiddle and steel guitar shimmering as if to suggest a gentle waving motion. That backdrop and the tasteful piano fills are nice and pleasant, as is White's voice, but the lyrics drag this one down. Besides, they're about envy, and that's a deadly sin. Again, the red states listen to this stuff?

Paul Brandt, Convoy - Back to the '70s we go ... except that this is a cover version. Seemed very literal, though I haven't listened to the original in quite a while. (Let's see ... quick check of AllMusic ... yep, Erlewine says it "all too faithfully mimics" the original.) It's basically a song about taunting the police, National Guard and even "long-haired friends of Jesus," so AGAIN I'll ask -- these are the anthems of the red states? In fact, claims that the original is basically an anthem of blue-collar libertarianism, which seems a little at odds with the core values of Bush backers. And an ode to the CB craze, of course. Remember that?

Keith Whitley, When You Say Nothing At All - This guy sounds an awful lot like Randy Travis, which is not a bad thing. The song's a little flimsy but not grating.

Diamond Rio, Mirror Mirror - A guitar riff in search of a song.

Lila McCann, Kiss Me Now - "Get it over with ... I'll make it easy on you." OK. If I kiss you now, will you stop singing? Will the band do what it clearly wants to do -- break into a cover version of Afternoon Delight?

George Strait, The Chill of an Early Fall - I have absolutely no comment. It's a remarkably typical country ballad, with thin symbolism, a deep voice and ... you get the picture.

Emerson Drive, I Should be Sleeping - "I never knew there were such great movies on TV at 3 a.m." Good start. And not a bad song at all. Hand it to Barenaked Ladies, and you'd have a solid post-alt-rock hit. (And wouldn't you know it -- they're Canadian.)

Around here, the player stopped updating with the song titles. They came back on in time to catch Tim McGraw's Live Like You Were Dying, which I can't quite get into because if I were living like I were dying, I'd order pizza every night and call in sick to work.

So that's enough. I'll need to hear it all again on Highway 16 down the road, anyway.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Road trip

"A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it is by no means the most interesting." - The Doctor (Jon Pertwee)

"Am I living it right?" - John Mayer

Can you guess which of these was my yearbook quote in high school? Considering that John Mayer was even younger than his current audience when I was in high school, it's an easy call.

The Doctor Who quote, incidentally, apparently inspired a fictional Star Trek ship in a role-playing game. (As opposed to a real Star Trek ship)

Mayer's perceptive question was hanging in my head Tuesday, which was Day 2 of my vacation. I've always taken an odd approach to vacations. When I was in my early 20s and had my first taste of a week without work, I tended to do seat-of-the-pants driving with vague ideas of where I was going next. "OK, I'm spending Tuesday and Wednesday with a friend in New York, then maybe I'll call someone in D.C., then I think I'll go here and drive back home."

This week's vacation is along the lines of the one Jimmy James took in NewsRadio. I'm not going anywhere. I even showed up at the office one day, though I didn't unload any water coolers. I'm doing a few things that are hard to fit into a normal workday, like doctor's appointments and shopping for clothes.

But on Tuesday, I headed for the hills. For those who don't know the geography, the D.C. suburbs are in the foothills of the Appalachians, which means you can drive there in less than an hour -- unless all the people who LIVE in the mountains are commuting home from work or all the people who live in the suburbs are heading out there for the weekend, in which case it takes a couple of days.

So I had the roads to myself, more or less, through one of the prettiest areas on the East Coast. Naturally, I did everything wrong.

First of all, I didn't check to see whether the leaves were turning. They're not. It's all green.

The scenery is still nice, of course. Every once in a while, the side of the road opens up a bit, and you can peer into an open valley. In Northern Virginia, a valley means three things -- a lot of people shot at each other there almost 150 years ago, and developers are rushing to toss up homes that don't really fit the landscape. Still breathtaking views.

I had two things in mind. I wanted to get out and walk around, and I wanted to eat. I didn't accomplish either. I decided I had to find food before I stopped to walk around, and I didn't eat until I was almost home.

Some people have a knack for going anywhere and finding a good place to eat. I don't have that knack. It was harder in this case because McDonald's and Subway apparently have some sort of duopoly over all the main roads.

I saw a place called "Doc's BBQ" around 1 p.m., and I still regret that I didn't stop. There's good barbecue and bad barbecue, but you don't know until you try. (Barbecue reviews are always sketchy. Some people like having big chunks of fat on a bun, some prefer actual food.)

This isn't entirely my fault. This area is known for certain types of restaurants -- big chains, smaller chains and pretentious places that offer $25 entrees for Tom Sietsema to rip apart with excessive snootiness in the Post magazine section. We don't do simple food, which was a staple of the North Carolina towns in which I once I lived. If something is any good, it becomes a small chain. A good example is Glory Days, a sports bar with pretty good food, and I saw one advertised. But when I pulled into the shopping center, I found that the ad was actually a "now hiring," not "now open for feeding wayward travelers." That's a hazard of driving through a fast-growing county. They build the rows and rows of townhomes first, then fill in the gaps with places to shop and eat.

Around 2:30, as I was heading toward home, I found a "British Pantry and Cafe." It looked so quaint and charming that I just had to stop. But the "reservations suggested" cafe looked like it wouldn't offer anything speedy. The little shop was intriguing, but I wasn't going to buy much. ("Look, honey, I went to the mountains I got butter!" "We already have butter." "Yeah, but this is Scottish!")

I wound up getting a "Smarties" bar, which had chocolate, smarties (basically, M&Ms) and "popping candy." The "popping candy" was a bit like the old Pop Rocks that were unfairly accused of killing Mikey. Kind of a strange sensation in my mouth. A little stranger in my empty stomach, which was breaking out in active revolt upon finding that the first solid food I'd introduced in seven hours was so explosive.

I finally found acceptable food at Boston Market, which was only slightly more exotic than going to the Chipotle at a different location than my usual Chipotle. It wasn't bad. Then I hopped back in my car and found that I was back in what could be described as "home" in about two more minutes of driving.

So am I living it right? Probably not.

But was it a fun trip. Sure.

Monday, October 17, 2005

This is vacation?

I'm off this week, but somehow that means I'm busier than normal.

So no epic post today, but a few random thoughts:
  • To the person who came here using the search terms "stacy's mom porn," I'm sorry to disappoint.
  • To the person who came here using the search terms "fountains of wayne stays mom," I think you're looking for "Stacy's Mom." Not "Stay's Mom."
  • Had VH1 Classic on in the background today and caught the Talk Talk video for It's My Life. Not only is this video notable because it's one of the first in which a lead singer (at least, I think it's the lead singer -- if I had more time, I'd do the research) appears but doesn't actually sing.
  • Also on VH1 Classic today: The Hooters' All You Zombies, which appears in my 50 Worst ... book but actually is a pretty good song once you get past the novelty of a guy yelling, "Yeah, they were the Israelites." Interesting that the same crew went on to write One of Us for Joan Osborne.
  • Also also on VH1 Classic today: Perhaps the best song of all the protest/benefit offerings from the '80s -- Artists United Against Apartheid's Sun City. As points out, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more diverse group of artists on one song. It opens with a harsh Miles Davis trumpet blast and Run-DMC kickin' it old school, then tosses in Pat Benatar somewhere along the way. Let's repeat ... Miles Davis, to Run-DMC, to Little Steven (who put it all together) ... to Pat Benatar. Less surprisingly, Bruuuuce and Bono (bearded for the only time I can remember) sing with their trademark conviction, both taking the line "We're stabbing our brothers and our sisters in the back." Then it's a little more surprising to see Bonnie Raitt, Lou Reed, Afrika Bambaataa, Ruben Blades, Joey Ramone and Bob Dylan pop into the fray at random times. The video is a little awkward in the way it tosses in random shots of people singing in the studio who apparently couldn't make the video shoot (OK, Benatar could've been busy, Peter Garrett can't just fly on a whim from Australia, but can someone explain why Daryl Hall was in the studio? John Oates was in the video shoot! I have a healthy respect for the mustache man, but it's not a good sign if you can get Oates but not Hall.) Musically ... it works. Surprisingly so, much like Run-DMC's pioneering rap-rock efforts of that period.

And finally, our volleyball team is still unbeaten, having upset the best team in the league. No idea how we did it. Smoke and mirrors on the cold sand.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Working blue in a red state

I haven't continued my XM country channel survey, but I have had more exposure to country music. Sort of.

At my gym, someone has been tuning one of the eight TVs to CMT, the country channel. This is actually a bit of an improvement over having six or seven of the TVs assigned to "news" channels, and it's an improvement over the reruns of The Practice favored by some anonymous exerciser.

I take my iPod to the gym, so I'm not listening to any of the TV screens. But whoever likes CMT also likes closed-captioning. And let me tell you -- if you've never seen country music videos while reading captioned lyrics, you haven't lived.

The themes of the videos are as follows:
  1. Let's drink!
  2. Hey, we're drinkin'! Cool!
  3. Hey man, better play country music while we're drinkin'!
  4. I like country music!
  5. I like you, too!
  6. Let's make love ...
  7. Now that I'm sober, I'm going to describe making love to you in graphic detail. In case that's too subtle for some viewers, we'll fill in the gaps in the mental picture with the video.
  8. Hey, you're making love with someone else.
  9. Now that you're making love with someone else, I'm going to reminisce in graphic detail.
Seriously -- if these videos were on MTV, we'd have hearings on Capitol Hill. We see mobs of people singing about drinking, couples in slow-motion foreplay and afterplay a la Chris Isaak's Wicked Game video, and the occasional bit of drunk driving.

We're told these days that country music is one of the factors in the red state-blue state divide. That may be so, but this proves that the "red" tent is spacious, like a wedding reception tent in which the minister chats calmly at one end while things get rowdy at the other. In country circles, it's even OK to express admiration for France -- Bordeaux takes its place alongside Milwaukee and other areas of alcohol production in the video for the aptly-named tune Alcohol (no, not the wry Barenaked Ladies effort by that name).

The videos that don't take place in a bedroom generally take place in a country bar. (One variant: A guy dreams that he's in a bedroom with a beautiful woman but wakes up on the couch with his golden retriever.) These bars are all apparently smoke-free, and all the women look and dance like the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. The men are all scruffy and good looking along the lines of Teri Hatcher's guy in Desperate Housewives ... Mike? Plumber guy?

Shania Twain apparently has an aversion to such places, though. In her video, the guy she's singing about is strutting through a country bar. But Ms. Navel appears only on the bar's TVs. That has to be a blow to her secondary-road street cred.

Gretchen Wilson, on the other hand, has the common decency to be in the country bar as both a performer and a customer in the funniest video I've seen in years, All Jacked Up. (I was listening to Soundgarden at the time, but I later gave it a listen on CMT's site.)

Wilson checks in at the bar, drinks more than she anticipated, winks at a guy, gets punched out by the guy's "10-foot-2" girlfriend (who has a beard, kind of like the mom in a bunch of old Madness videos), can't find the keys to her truck, grabs a tire iron to knock out the window, gets a friend of hers to drive and smashes the truck into the bar. Now that's an evening.

On stage, the other Wilson (dressed in a different T-shirt) sings while her band takes shots and swigs, setting down their beers or tossing away their shot glasses just in time to play the next riff. I guess they start to doze off on the job -- by the end, a couple of little people have attacked the guitarist's gonads, Hank Williams Jr. is playing guitar and Kid Rock is singing Wilson's last line.

Hey, I didn't say it made sense.

As you could tell from the XM review, I've never been much of a country fan, and I don't think that'll change. I liked this video better with the sound off, though Wilson has a voice that works pretty well for the material.

But after seeing these videos, I see the appeal. They're selling a lifestyle in a far different way than, say, the Jonatha Brooke tunes that played on my iPod while I watched the next video, which was something like "Don't go lovin' on nobody who ain't gonna give you lovin' like the way I was lovin' when you were lovin' me" or some other such Mobius-strip reasoning. I don't even drink, but the notion of getting "jacked up" in a country bar while I watch Mrs. MMM and Gretchen Wilson slug it out over me is ... OK, I'm getting carried away.

Basically, CMT is selling a country lifestyle, and MTV is selling a hip-hop lifestyle. That's no contest. The country lifestyle is more affordable, for one thing -- you can wear a flannel shirt and pair of blue jeans that costs a hundred or so less than the post-FUBU pseudo-sports wear that looks like it was designed by a bunch of elementary school kids. All rappers these days apparently have pools designed not so much for swimming as for gazing at their reflections. In the hip-hop world, you might occasionally have to put a cap in someone's ass; in the country world, the worst that could happen is getting punched out and waking up the next morning with the dog.

I've always veered toward high-falootin' music with some artistic pretensions, and I've never been much of a party guy. If I were, I'd probably load up on a bunch of '80s and early '90s pre-grunge alternative and campy retro stuff. But if my iPod and boomboxes all broke, leaving just a TV with no Music Choice channels, I'd pick CMT over MTV.

Bottom line -- in hip-hop, people look like they're partying for revenge. In country, they're just partying.

Monday, October 10, 2005

XM in depth: Channel 10

(On an unrelated note, my current must-hear song is Up to the Roof by Blue Man Group & Tracy Bonham. The verses are driven by the same staccato percussion tubes that you see in the Blue Men's Pentium ads, making the loud guitars in the chorus that much more powerful. Bonham sells the drama perfectly, sounding like she's yearning to escape and has just stumbled upon the way to do it. Great stuff.)

So we've finished off the decades, and now we're hitting the umpteen XM channels in which they subdivide genres like a bunch of dieters sharing one slice of pie. The four or five alt-rock channels (depending on your definition) will wait for a few weeks. Today, with some trepidation, we hit the country channels.

"We've dimmed the lights, thrown some sawdust on the floor, and brought the honky tonk back to life," says the XM description of Channel 10, America. I don't even like the Stones' Honky Tonk Woman, so this could be a rough ride. But I'll keep an open mind ...

George Jones, Small Y'All: Kind of a country version of Paul Simon's 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover ... "Don't it make you feel like a jerk, Kirk." Your basic three chords-plus-bridge on a thick-toned electric guitar with a piano reinforcing the beat, a fiddle playing the occasional fill and a slide guitar generally irritating everyone.

Paul Overstreet, Daddy's Come Around: Did I change stations? The bass is actually funky, and I heard some '80s synthesizer sounds. OK, there's the slide guitar, and the lyrics are typical country -- matter-of-fact storytelling with the occasional bit of cleverness ("more than the locks have changed ..."), all about a woman telling a man to straighten up and fly right. Not bad. Kind of fun, actually.

Terri Gibbs, Somebody's Knockin': I swear I've heard this song. Minor key, bit of a blues feel, some gospel-styled background vocals and piano riffs. confirms that this was a crossover hit in '81 and says Gibbs, a blind woman from Miami, returned to gospel music soon after. This isn't a bad song, but I feel like I'm cheating. Isn't this supposed to be traditional country, not country-tinged adult contemporary?

Waylon Jennings, Drinkin' & Dreamin': He actually says "drink 'TIL I'm dreaming" in the chorus, and that gives you some idea of where he's going with this. Sounds like a Jimmy Buffett setting, which isn't a compliment. And it's even less successful for Waylon than it is for Buffett. I think I could listen to Waylon in an actual honky-tonk setting.

Johnny Cash, I Walk the Line: A classic. Very simple setting -- a guitar picking out single notes over a scratching sound. (Probably a washboard, not a hip-hop DJ.)

Hank Williams Jr., Ain't Misbehavin': Coincidentally, the Monday Night Football pregame just ended. This is definitely cheating -- it's a show tune, for crying out loud! Fats Waller piano tune with lyrics written in 1929. Hank does a nice job with it, but geez, this is country? That's like filing Wynton Marsalis' classical trumpet work under "jazz" because his last name is "Marsalis."

Joe Stampley, Everyday I Have to Cry: Here's a philosophical question. Do you have to sound like your liver is begging you to put down the bottle to be an authentic honky-tonk singer? This guy doesn't pull it off. He's about as believable as Tori Amos rapping. (I'm assuming -- Tori hasn't tried that to my knowledge, and I shouldn't give her any ideas.)

Mandy Barnett, Three Days: I'm picturing an American Idol audition in which Simon struggles to say anything. The song itself -- with random key changes apparently thrown around in a desperate attempt to stir up something interesting -- is insipid; the singing is worse. I was actually relieved to hear the slide guitar solo.

Charlie Daniels, Uneasy Rider: "With Hank Jr. blaring on the radio," the one-time controversial commencement speaker at UNC Wilmington tells a tale of driving around for no apparent reason. Then he ends up in a bar that sounds like a punk bar first but apparently is a gay bar. (How many gay bars have punk bands and guys who look like rejects from the Sex Pistols. Gay guys have fashion sense, dumbass.) So, of course, a guy puts his hand on Daniels' knee and touches off a brawl. You know, Charlie, I'm not gay, but I think the words "Don't flatter yourself" are appropriate here.

(At this point, I'd like to plug the Marshall Tucker Band's Fire on the Mountain, which happened to pop up on iTunes while I was finishing up this post. Maybe it's not traditional country, but it's a damn good song, and I needed a reminder that there's better music in this genre, broadly defined.)

Johnny Lee, Cherokee Fiddle: Why is a song called Cherokee Fiddle dominated by an overbearing slide guitar? It hardly matters -- this song is every country cliche thrown into one song. Never have so many references to whiskey sounded so gratuitous. Lee, incidentally, was once married to Dallas star Charlene Tilton. Coincidentally, I saw Tilton last week on my weekly Match Game viewing, enduring the paw-happy flirting that would be inappropriate today.

Highway 101, (Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes: Gotta love a country band with a guitarist named ... wait for it ... Jack Daniels. Seriously. And it's a serious improvement over the last four songs. They rock a bit, the guitars trade sharp solo lines, and the singer ain't bad.

Willie Nelson & Ray Price, Run That By Me One More Time: Something wrong with the production in the duet parts -- it sounds like Willie's only singing every other note. Maybe he was a little out of it, but he sounded fine in the verse. The lyrics sound like they were written 100 years ago, but it's a good performance. The steel guitar player knows his place (that is, in the background), and the fiddle solos aren't bad.

John Conlee, Years After You: Another genre-buster. This could have passed for a John Waite song until the guy started singing. Waite, frankly, would have done a better job with it. It's a better song than Missing You, but it's a vocal style mismatch akin to having Kanye West sing Throwing Muses.

Gary Stewart, Your Place Or Mine: Iyyyy thinnnnnkk hhhheeee'ssss ooovvvverrrdoinnnnng thhhhhe vvvvvvvvvibbbraaaatttttoooo ...

Merle Haggard, Someday When Things Are Good: A slow, sad one in a major key that lends a bit of dignity to Haggard's tale of woe. Nice bit of melancholy.

Mickey Gilley, You've Really Got A Hold On Me: The guest star of many a late '70s/early '80s TV show (Fantasy Island twice -- once as himself, once not!) has a nice voice, but I think this song was written as an artificial intelligence experiment by a mainframe computer in the '70s.

Tanya Tucker, The Man That Turned My Mama On: Speaking of the '70s, this is straight out of the crossover era -- big tom-tom fills, bit of a swaggering attitude that would have fit on BJ and the Bear or some other show involving truckers with a heart of gold, fists of fury and perfect hair. I tease, but this isn't bad.

Dick Curless, Rattlesnakin' Lady: The guitar plays a standard boogie-woogie piano riff, which is a cheesy effect in itself. The soloing is pretty good. The song is not.

Gatlin Brothers, Sure Feels Like Love: Has it been an hour? I'll hang in for one more.

Conway Twitty/Loretta Lynn, Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man: Yeah, this isn't so much "traditional country" as it is "country music as played on '70s variety shows in which the singers acted out the song because it's just so cute." Bouncy bass, silly lyrics, all the usual stuff.

Dolly Parton, You're the Only One: Guitar sounds a lot like George Harrison. I'd listen to Dolly singing Beatles tunes. Early Beatles would work best -- I can't see her getting into Mean Mr. Mustard or Revolution. The spoken section kills this song, which is a real shame.

Ronnie Milsap, I Wouldn't Have Missed It For the World: A solid crossover song, with a solid country beat supporting a dreamy mix of guitar arpeggios, harmonica and spacey keyboards. No complaints with the lyrics or vocals. (FWIW, this is the second blind musician of the hour -- that I know of.) We'll wrap it here.

So this wasn't so bad. I heard a couple of classics and a lot of songs that put me right back in my parents' living room watching a bunch of bell-bottomed folks on TV. All I needed was someone responding with "I'm a little bit rock and roll." Which I am.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Good news

I've often said that the A section of a newspaper is an examination of how life doesn't work, while the Money, Sports and Life sections are examinations of how it does.

After picking up BBC's Focus magazine on a whim and killing a long Metro ride with it, I'm inclined to add science news to the latter category.

Sure, Focus had a few stories about the things that can harm us -- global warming, hurricanes, etc. Those cheering for economists to trump scientists may complain about the prominence of these issues, but at least one essay proved that they're not towing any sort of party line.

Besides, that was hardly the point. The magazine was full of everything from entertaining puzzles (the feature story on Sudoku and magic squares) to a look at how science is improving our world. I had no idea Raytheon was working on affordable missile defense for commercial air traffic. I had no idea Japanese scientists had developed robotic exoskeletons to help people walk as their bodies decline. (Anyone else wonder if Six Million Dollar Man was prophecy, not fiction?) I didn't know much about the role Arthur C. Clarke played in proposing satellite communications.

Focus is a bit pricey, but it's a good read. And it makes me wonder why we in the media don't pay more attention to this sort of thing rather than the daily disaster. (Yes, I know today's a bad day to write such a thing because we have a legitimate disaster in Pakistan and India, but most days, that's not the case.)

Live blogging off SNL

OK, so it's the big occasion -- Ashlee Simpson returning to the scene of the crime ...

Oh, wait ... isn't that Jewel? No? It's really Ashlee Simpson? Oh. Seriously, it's not Jewel? OK.

It's as if her hair has gone hip-hop but her face and fingernails have gone Goth. And she's singing a power ballad. She has every '80s demographic covered, I guess.

I didn't dislike her before her SNL appearance. As far as disposable pop goes, her stuff wasn't as bad as most. I'd feel sorry for her if ... well ... if she wasn't begging us to feel sorry for her.

The main thing I wanted to see with Ashlee was whether the drummer who hit the wrong button was still employed by her. Didn't seem to be.

The rest of show really isn't that good. I liked the fake ad, but the most of the sketches have had really thin premises. And Horatio on Weekend Update? I defend SNL most of the time, but they're limping out of the gate this year.

Oh, and Harriet Miers doesn't remind me of my mom. She reminds me of Mrs. Landingham from The West Wing.

Friday, October 07, 2005

100 and counting

Here are the first 99 posts of Mostly Modern Media (formerly Mostly Modern Music) in a nutshell:

- 100 things about me: 1-34, 35-67, 68-... uh ... oops ... guess I'd better write that

- XM radio channel reviews: 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s (and I can't forget my head-scratching over their overplayed extended dance mix of EBN-OZN)

- MMM Hall of Fame: Fishbone's The Reality of My Surroundings

- What I'd have on my rider if I were a big-shot musician

- The world's whiniest blog

- My dream TV network

- Why Blender blows. And so do political blogs. And so do my fantasy baseball teams. But Live8 did not.

- Sentimellencamp

- How Simpsons Homer-vs.-Marge episodes have declined

- Chipotle and the decline of Western Civilization

- Dane Cook vs. Tom Cruise ... frankly, Katie's better off with the former. I'd be oh so happy if the kid turned out to be Dane's.

- Concert prices that don't make sense

- Joni Mitchell, overrated. Molly Hatchet, underrated.

- Great bass lines

- The same Richard Posner piece with comments from October in which I'd forgotten the comments I'd made in August, providing ample evidence for senility or schizophrenia. Or both. (Cue Larry Miller: "You've just spend 30 minutes arguing FOR artificial turf.")

- Video games as surrogate wives, and bad ones at that

- Emo, emasculation and learning to play the damned instruments

- All I ever really need to say about media bias (except that I forgot to link to Andrew Cline's primer demonstrating that the discussion about such things is oversimplified, and I left out Matt Welch's brilliant Reason piece that concludes "the hunt for ideology becomes an ideology." Or, as Vaclav Havel is quoted in the same piece: "Why bother with the never ending, genuinely hopeless search for truth when a truth can be had so readily, all at once, in the form of an ideology or doctrine? Suddenly it is all so simple. Think of all the difficult questions which are answered in advance!"). OK, NOW that's all I ever really need to say about it.

- And last but certainly not least, a lyrical comparison of the spiritual themes in Yes' epic Close to the Edge and Gwen Stefani's tale of cheerleading and fruit, Hollaback Girl.

Thanks to both of my regular readers and those of you who stumbled here by searching for "sexy Jenna Fischer" (hey, I'm smitten as well), "lizard king," "gabe kaplan," "Rachael Ray" or "curious george picture overhauls."

XM in depth, Channel 9

Finally finishing off the decades and thankful that I'm as far as I am -- Sussudio was on the '80s channel.

Inner Circle, Sweat: I'm not much of a reggae fan. This one didn't change my mind.

Enigma, Sadeness, Pt. 1: Hmmmm. Every once in a while in the early '90s, I found myself going through a Clannad phase, in part because I had a couple of friends who attained some sort of advanced blissful state whenever they listened to weird fusions of bland pop and Irish mystic music. (I wonder if they wound up liking the Corrs, though they leaned too heavily toward the "bland pop" end of things.) Anyway, Enigma is no Clannad. I think it's basically the kind of music pseudo-intellectuals put on in the background when they want to get kinky.

Ben Folds Five, Brick: I like a lot of Ben's stuff, and I know this is his one big hit. For some reason, I don't like this one. It's not as if it's his sellout song -- a heartfelt piano ballad about the emptiness of getting an abortion in North Carolina isn't exactly your typical Top 40 cash-in. The lyrics adequately convey complex emotions, just as they do in many of Ben's best. Maybe the piano riff plods a little too much? I don't know. It's a song I respect but don't really like.

Los del Rio, Macarena: I have to admit I always feel a little inadequate when hearing this song, or at least happy that I'm not single. The singer, who sounds cute but also sounds 17 at most, says, "If you're good, I might take you home with me." My problem is that I couldn't do the dance. It's a weird mental thing -- I can memorize complex operations, but I'm clueless when it comes to remembering dance steps. But the old guys singing this crap did the dance just fine. So they'd be the ones going home with the 17-year-old singing so happily that we shouldn't worry about her boyfriend. That's depressing, and more than a little creepy.

No Mercy, Where Do You Go: Another from the genre of music I like to call "dance crap."

Snow, Informer: Wow, I picked a great hour to listen, didn't I? At least this one has some camp value. A-licky-boom-boom indeed.

(Incidentally, I see that one of the country stations is playing Travis Tritt's Strong Enough To Be Your Man. Is that an answer to Sheryl Crow? You know, Travis, she's taken.)

The Outfield, For You: I once read a great review of the Outfield that marveled at their talent and hook-writing ability but lamented the clumsy, misogynist lyrics. ("Tony Lewis' singing shames what he is forced to convey," is one phrase I remember.) This isn't one of their hits, but it's one of their better efforts lyrically. Not saying much, but this is the best song of the hour so far.

Everything but The Girl, Missing: Now associated with Chris Kattan's classic "Mango" character, but it's a memorable song of longing in its own right.

Inner Circle Live @ XM, Bad Boys: "Springfield cops are on the take / but what do you expect for the money we make." Why have I heard this band twice in an hour? Is this really representative of the decade? Didn't I like this decade? You know -- peace, prosperity, adulthood, meeting the love of my life, etc. To be fair, this isn't a bad effort. Most reggae songs live and die by the way the bass and drums play around the beat, and this one lives.

Blind Melon, No Rain: Out of respect for the dead -- or at least the guy's daughter -- I won't describe how much I hate this song.

Monica & Brandy, The Boy Is Mine: No, I am not listening to this. I miss the '40s.

Elton John, Club at the End of Night: Sounds vaguely familiar. Not bad, but I doubt I'd be wanting him to skip Goodbye Yellow Brick Road to play this one if I ever shelled out the cash to see him live. The mewling synthesizers drag this one down.

Barenaked Ladies, It's All Been Done: Indeed it has. Always a fan of the clever Canadians, and this romp through time is always a good listen.

See, they made some good music in this decade. You just have to listen to XM for an hour to hear a couple of minutes of it. Or go to your CD collection.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

What would you have backstage?

I stumbled into a collection of artists' performance riders at The Smoking Gun, and it is by far the funniest, most interesting stuff I've seen on that site. Quick roundup:

There's a lot of booze and beer, yes, but almost everyone has Gatorade.

There are brands of non-alcoholic beer BESIDES O'Douls and Sharps? (The Monkees)

Def Leppard seems awfully regimented. And somehow I can picture "VID SUTHERLAND" in my head -- bald, mustache, thin sideburns, sunglasses, perhaps prone to riding a motorcycle backstage.

The jokes are obvious on the Ashlee Simpson rider, but I like the gentle teasing of her sound crew.

I also must find out what a "tactile transducer" is.

Of course, she and her band eat like they're in high school.

What weighs 68,500 pounds? KISS and their gear, including a 50-foot-high rigging to "fly" Paul Stanley to the front of the house.

The Pixies don't need that type of rig, but please provide a NEW deck of cards. And after dinner, it's time for "desert."

After reading a bunch of demands from whiny vegans, I gained a bit of respect for Creed's anti-tofu stand.

How does Cowboy Junkies lead singer Margo Timmins stay so thin drinking non-diet soda and whole milk?

From the "ewwww" department, though I'll give them points for reading the paper.

And a classic from Guns 'N Roses, where Axl needs his Wonder bread and Dom Perignon (silly Axl -- you're supposed to serve Korbel with Wonder bread) and the band is happy with its "assortment of adult magazines."

I always wanted to be a rock star, and I'm reaching the point in my life where it's safe to say it won't happen. But here's a look at what might've been ... things I would've included on my performance rider:
  • Rye toast
  • My very specific kind of orange juice -- enriched with calcium and vitamin D, no pulp. Actually, anything with no pulp, since store's supplies of the calcium/vitamin D Minute Maid can be erratic.
  • Please don't call me by my real name.
  • Access to a swingset. OK, that's optional.
  • Pizza, one night a week only. Pepperoni.
  • Burger night, one night a week.
  • Two short words, one hyphen: Wi-fi. Secure.
  • Sure, I'll have some Gatorade.
  • No tofu, no mushrooms. No mayo on my sandwiches. No peanut butter on my chocolate.
  • Yellow bananas.
  • Hotel must not be too fancy.
  • Backstage crew not allowed to wear Yankees caps.
  • And finally -- North Carolina venues must serve barbecue.

Book review: The Progress Paradox

My advice to those who want to read this Gregg Easterbrook book: Skim. He beats you over the head with so much statistical detail that it's easy to read 15 pages and say, "Whoa, he's still on that point?"

If you skim, you can save yourself some repetitive reading and get to the point. And it's worth it.

We're a melodramatic society. Some folks even think we're living in the end times, citing the hurricanes, the terrorists and the occasional bout of disease. They're forgetting that our grandparents and great-grandparents saw two world wars, storms we couldn't foresee on radar, and smallpox as a fact of life rather than a vague threat.

And that's Easterbrook's point. Life is better today than it's ever been, any way you look at it. And believe me, he looks at it every way imaginable. The "paradox" is that we think life is getting worse, and we're letting ourselves be unhappy.

Easterbrook, a thoughtful religious man in addition to a sociopolitical writer and NFL humorist, takes things a step further, suggesting a way out of our self-induced psychosis. In a neat synthesis of stats, spirituality and Greek philosophy, he suggests that we would be happier if we would act more selflessly. Quit fretting about getting ahead in the rat race, he suggests, and do more to help those in need. After all, we're making progress helping the less fortunate and should be encouraged to do more.

The argument isn't flawless. Easterbrook's thoughts on psychiatry overlap uncomfortably with Tom Cruise's, and he's a bit overbearing in lambasting our consumerism. Not saying he has to be a true believer in supply-side economics, but he should at least address "trickle-down" theories before dismissing consumption as evil.

On a personal level, he doesn't quite address the things that keep me from being fully happy. I know life is better now that it ever was. My fretting comes from two areas. First, that I'm not taking full advantage of the fact that I'm living in the best time in history. Should I be making more of a contribution given the advantages of health and comfort? I didn't even have to fight a war as all my immediate ancestors fought.

Second, addressed in passing in the book -- the more you have, the more difficult it is to maintain, and the more you fear losing it. Today, I live in a nice house in a beautiful neighborhood. It is, in many respects, a wonderful reward for toiling through the last couple of decades. On the other hand, it's a bear. I have a lot of responsibilities around the house and in the yard. The latter already isn't as nice as it was the day we moved in. The former is slightly better, but we had to shell out some money to make that happen.

But Easterbrook's message of life's improvement, which should be obvious but isn't, is too important to ignore. Besides, where else will you learn we've made progress not only in life expectancy, infant mortality, food supply and every other thing you'd expect, but also in cutting down on lawsuits? Apparently, they were more prevalent in years past because we didn't have neat and tidy town codes. Who knew?

Why media critics so often miss the point

Richard Posner is a frustrating writer because he has moments of brilliant insight but otherwise doesn't convey any sense of knowing his topic. I picked up his book Public Intellectuals because the thesis as I understood it -- that academics need to do a better job of sharing their expertise in day-to-day life -- sounded great. What I read of the book wasn't awful, but it's been relegated from the top of the nightstand to the lower drawer.

(A full list of the lower-drawer books is at the bottom of this post.)

I don't know exactly what possessed me to go back and read Posner's take on the state of the media, which The New York Times published a few months ago. A few weeks later, we saw something I don't think I've ever seen -- the Times published a response letter (one of several) ... from its own editor. And he said just about everything I would have said.

Posner puts himself on solid ground, showing that he doesn't buy the party line one way or the other. One beautifully expressed thought: "The public's interest in factual accuracy is less an interest in truth than a delight in the unmasking of the opposition's errors."

Sadly, he still takes some of the cranks too seriously, especially on the right. Why dismiss Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? as "hyperbole" while taking partisan hacks Bernard Goldberg and Brent Bozell seriously? I think Alterman's a partisan hack, too, especially after reading his juvenile smearing of well-intentioned blogger Brendan Nyhan. But Alterman often manages to back up his arguments with actual research instead of mere perception -- just check out his letter in the same collection of responses above.

At times, it's hard to believe the same person is writing every paragraph in this piece. He shows, quite accurately, that journalists preserve "objectivity" by presenting two sides to arguments that really don't have two sides. Then he adds this clunker: "(A)lthough individual blogs have no warrant of accuracy, the blogosphere as a whole has a better error-correction machinery than the conventional media do." I don't buy it. Myths are allowed to proliferate and take root in the blogosphere, in part because bloggers and commenters spend a lot of time talking past each other.

Posner misses the mark by the widest margin in his conclusion: "(T)he increased polarization of the media provides a richer fare than ever before."

No. No, no, no, no.

Consider the history of cable news. CNN once featured a vibrant international news-gathering organization. To an extent, it still does, though you have to tune in for a major news event or check CNN International to see it. Fox realized you didn't need such an expensive organization to make money with cable "news." Just crank up the pundits and hire a bunch of people to wear their hearts on one sleeve and snark on the other. In the small pond of cable news (compare the ratings of prime-time cable news with NPR's Morning Edition -- or even American Idol, which is undoubtedly more important in American culture today), they became a big fish.

CNN, to my horror, has started copying Fox. Their anchors are "looser;" their reporters more emotive. The result is a bit like watching white suburban kids copping a gangsta attitude -- it's a bad copy of a bad idea.

The "journalists" who shout, grimace and strike poses are winning. The journalists who do the vital work of helping us understand our world are losing.

That, to me, is hardly "richer."

As promised, the rest of the bottom drawer:
  • The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society, by A.L. Rowse. I should get to this one. The History of Britain series made me wonder how Britain made so much progress despite being overrun by various violent usurpers.
  • The Unfinished Presidency, by Douglas Brinkley. A look at Jimmy Carter and his productive quarter-century since leaving office.
  • Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam. Should get to this one, too.
  • The Crusades: A Short History, by Jonathan Riley-Smith. It's not that short.
  • And finally, Eric Alterman's What Liberal Media? Do I really need more polarization in my life?

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Today's little-known fact

Not only is the venerable diet soda TaB still in production, it is currently available in Botswana.

Why the Donnas need gay roadies

Adam Carolla explains.

Slight name change and marital news

Nearly 100 posts in, and I've finally realized what I should've named the blog all along. I write about music maybe half the time, but when you add in my comments on TV and journalism, it's all "media." So I can keep referring to it as MMM (still not sure if "Triple-M" would work as my hip-hop name), and most people will never even notice.

No, I'm not changing the URL, so there's no need to fret about bookmarks or my Atom feed.

And speaking of name changes ... OK, not really, since I doubt a name change will be involved in this particular wedding: Time for 30something men everywhere to mourn -- Rachael Ray is married. Maybe now I can read her latest cookbook, which seemed uncomfortably like Jacqui Maloof's Booty Food minus the actual details about how to get your boyfriend to come home from work in the middle of the day by slipping a nude photo into his briefcase. Do people actually do that? Man, I need a briefcase.

Books on the nightstand

I might blog a little less in October and November because I've been reminded that words can also be published to flattened-out sheets of wood pulp called "paper," and that this "paper" can be bound into books, which inspire writers to do substantial research and spend time on the craft of writing.

Here's what I plan to read by Thanksgiving:

- Finish Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox, which is weighed down by an overreliance of stats but contains an important message -- despite the sensationalism of the media, life is better today than ever, any way you look at it.

- In a semi-related vein, it's Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. I've long insisted that The Simpsons is a better reflection of today's society than the news media, so this should be right up my alley. (Speaking of alleys, I really should get back to Bowling Alone at some point. Yes, you can groan now.)

- You: The Owners Manual, by a couple of doctors, as seen on Oprah's "poop" episode. Nice to get medical advice by a couple of guys who've probably seen Beavis and Butthead on occasion. Of course, the first thing I learned is that I should be having sex at least 87 times a year. No wonder Beavis and Butthead had such poor health habits. (Incidentally, my "RealAge" is 28.5 even though I eat too much red meat. Who says you can't be under 30 again?)

- Bob Dylan's Chronicles Vol. 1. Just curious to know what would make a publicity-shy guy like him suddenly open up.

Yes, I'll review all of these on the blog when I'm done. Give me time.

We're awake -- now what?

Green Day's Wake Me Up When September Ends is deservedly popular, despite a heavy-handed video and perhaps a bit of overexposure. I like the metaphor of lost innocence.
From a literal standpoint, I disagree with the title.

Sure, this month has sucked in a lot of ways, mostly because we've had two nasty hurricanes that have caused the displacement of an entire city and a crushing loss of faith in government to do the right thing on any level. There are still a couple of things related to Katrina that I can't discuss -- I have to get the images out of my mind. Aside from that, I've had a work project every bit as frustrating as that of an engineer working on an underfunded levee.

But in the "life goes on" vein, September is a month to cherish. The air turns cool but not cold, cleansing the air of its dampness. The sky seems more colorful. Birds that spent the last few weeks in Canada return to the backyard. And speaking of yards, we finally get a slight reprieve from mowing and pruning duties.

October and November can be nice, but the days grow colder and shorter. The advantage of March over September is that we know April, May and June are to follow.

This September went by much too fast. Perhaps part of it was that we were too obsessed with the news to look away from the TV sets for long. Part of it was work. And part of it was that the whole summer was too short thanks to cranky weather that persisted through April and May, even into June. We were robbed of our warm spring days. I think all the hot air stayed in the Gulf of Mexico to spawn killer hurricanes.

And now, it's definitely fall. People around me are already catching colds. The heat in our energy-inefficient house has been running for the last two nights. Leaves are piling up in the front yard.

I'll try to keep on the bright side. I have about 50 birds in the backyard at the moment all singing to thank me for refilling their feeder and the birdbath. We're expecting a beautiful weekend. Our neighborhood is pretty in winter, as we discovered upon moving in last year. Work will soon change.

Besides, it's hockey season.