Tag Archives: music

The language of the music review

Assignment: Write a music review for the next ragtime performance you attend.

In a recent book review about “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” I quoted a neat passage by author Jess Walter that parodied the odd dialect of the music journalist. (“The state Senator’s speech ‘lumbered along like a fussy cover musician scatting a complex hook.'”) I like that passage because it acknowledges the unusual burden writers must place upon words to describe the qualities of sound.

I’ve been collecting music reviews that catch my eye, or my ear, or whatever piece of the soul is engaged by written descriptions of notes. I find the art a little amusing, as Walter does, and also rather beautiful. Not because it always works — some billows of words chosen by gabby reviewers defy understanding — but because I admire the discipline of defining one medium by using a completely opposite one. Like re-creating a solid by using only gas.

Here are just a few I’ve clipped and saved over the last year or so. They are examples of bravado and silliness and subtlety, sometimes successful, sometimes ridiculous, but all of them fun to observe in their natural habitat:

The Dead Weather, “Horehound” (reviewed by Greg Kot for the Chicago Tribune ; July 14, 2009)

(White’s) production and songwriting once again embrace a raw, fuss-free vibe, with robust guitar riffs and drums that force the action. The recording has a you-are-there immediacy, with dramatic swings in volume and density and touches of sci-fi keyboard atmosphere. … The music grinds and lurches, as if writhing through a fever dream or crawling through glass. It’s tense and claustrophobic, with Mosshart sounding appropriately misbegotten, while Fertita’s guitar jabs in and out. The low end positively vibrates at times, the rock equivalent of a gangsta-rap rumble.

Kot takes a poetic and kinetic approach. He uses concrete concepts like a “raw, fuss-free vibe” and “dramatic swings in volume” and he uses some very evocative descriptors (tense, claustrophobic, misbegotten, jab). He also likes to dare my imagination — maybe a bit much. How do “drums force the action”? What is a “you-are-there immediacy”? Who knows. I like reading those passages if only to marvel at what they could mean. He also really goes for it when concocting his similes. Saying the “writhing” music is “crawling through glass” lays it on a bit thick for my tastes, but bless him for swinging for the fences.

Here’s how another reviewer, Noel Murray of The A.V. Club, reviewed the same album the same day:

Even before The White Stripes broke wide, the alt-rock scene harbored a goodly number of loud, minimalist electric-blues acts steeped in echo, bash, and gothic misery. Jack White injected a necessary dose of wit and personality into the genre, laced with an understanding that while a bluesy sound is easy to replicate, a credible swagger takes a leap of imagination. … But about half of Horehound is very much in the same spook-boogie mode that’s been done to death by thousands of Allmans/Winters/Hendrix/Zeppelin-worshipping bar bands.

A more restrained approach. He too uses a lot of practical words (loud, minimalist, wit, bluesy) with words that make you work to visualize how they apply to music (credible swagger, “spook boogie”). I don’t know what that last phrase is, but it sure evokes something. Also, a really obvious way to describe an album is to compare it to the other bands it might remind you of. I don’t know if there’s some sort of music journalist code about how often to dip into the “Sounds like…” well, but they don’t have to hold back on my account. It works for me.

Florence and the Machine, “Lungs” (reviewed by Ryan Dombal for Pitchfork; Aug. 13, 2009)

Lungs is a cloud-headed introduction to Welch’s world, where It Girl hype, coffins, violence, and ambition combust on impact; it’s a platinum-shellacked demo reel drunk on its own hi-fi-ness. Instead of giving this gothically pale 22-year-old with megaphone vox some classy pop-soul to work with à la Duffy or Adele, Lungs takes the smorgasbord approach. Welch bursts mouth wide wide over garage rock, epic soul, pint-tipping Britbeat, and– best of all– a mystic brand of pop that’s part Annie Lennox, Grace Slick, and Joanna Newsom. A lesser talent might fall prey to such veering stylistic change-ups (cough, Kate Nash, cough), but Welch powers through, her ear-snapping alarm call of a voice making Lungs sound like the work of a courageous artist rather than a group of well-paid producers.

Wow. I can’t tell if that’s some beat poetry escaping there (“Welch bursts mouth wide wide over garage rock…”) or just some note-drunk typing, but I admire this greatly. It helps that listening to Florence Welch (especially her waterfall of a song, “Dog Days Are Over”) fills me with a kind of heart-bursting enthusiasm, too. When you share the reviewers excitement, it’s hard not to go right along with their excesses. What is a “platimun-shellacked demo reel drunk on its own hi-fi-ness”? You might have your own picture of what that means (or no idea at all), but since I believe Welch’s music to be smart stuff that transcends its medium, I can’t blame the writer for trying to keep pace by transcending his.

Of course, not everybody likes this kind of grandiloquence. Webcomics creator Jeph Jacques had this to say about Gui Boratto’s “Take My Breath Away” album:

Whereas Chromophobia was like a strobe-light rave on the beach, Take My Breath Away is like a disco-ball freakout by the poolside. Wait that sentence is USELESS AND PITCHFORKY NEVERMIND

Basically this record is melodic, syncopated, accessible techno that doesn’t mark a significant deviation from Boratto’s previous work, but adds a slightly different flavor to the mix. Basically the record is worth buying/downloading/whatevering for the track “No Turning Back,” which is the single most epic thing Boratto has yet recorded. Yeah, the vocals are a little cliche, but JESUS when the main hook kicks in it’s a hell of an adrenaline rush.

This is how a non-journalist music-lover tells a friend about an album. Obviously I don’t agree that all aggressively poetic descriptions are USELESS AND PITCHFORKY, but when you really want to be clear why music is meaningful to you, it’s hard to beat communication like “accessible techno that’s not much different from their previous work,” and making special note of what you have to endure before the “adrenaline rush” kicks in.

Sometimes non sequiturs and free-association imagery can convey meaning more clearly than simple, declarative sentences. Read this phonovault.com description of the “Southern Gothic rock band” The Lobster Quadrille, then listen to a sample of their music. You’ll say, “Yes, that’s exactly the sound that I was expecting from that description.”

The Lobster Quadrille’s eponymous debut is a walk down willowed lanes and marshy backwaters, accompanied by pillars of smoke and flame. The album’s tracks drift from ante-bellum, southern socials through dark forests, consumptive sick rooms, and fantastic hells amid whispers of murder, sex, damnation, elation. The tone shifts from Old Testament dirge to roof-raising Satanic gospel and everything in between. Perfect accompaniment to dining, dancing, fornication, or drug use.

You can hear the washboards, reedy clarinets and woozy electric guitars already, can’t you?

Now, a trio of trips: The award for Most Crazy-Pantsed Similes (First Runner Up) goes to:

Mikael Wood, Entertainment Weekly (Sade, “Soldier of Love”; Feb. 12, 2010)

Beyond the surprisingly hard-thumping title track, the group’s first album since 2000’s Lovers Rock sticks faithfully to the lush quiet-storm sound … Given the singer’s still-incredible voice — imagine the world’s sexiest yoga instructor leading an epic om — that lack of evolution hardly presents a problem. Sade exhales peerlessly while the boys behind her fluff one heck of a sonic pillow. Weary bones, rest here.

The award for Most Crazy-Pantsed Similes (Grand Prize) goes to:

Leah Greenblatt, Entertainment Weekly (Ke$ha, “Cannibal”; Nov. 29, 2010)

Her herky-jerky rhymes still sound like they came from the bathroom wall of a reform-school kindergarten, and the beats are as el cheapo electro as ever. …Cannibal does have a sulfurous end-of-days whiff about it. As Armageddon parties go, though, this one should leave plenty of sweat and confetti on the dance floor. (Leah Greenblatt)

The award for Most Evocative Use of the Middle Ages to Review Death Metal (Booby Prize) goes to:

Monica Kendrick, Chicago Reader (Skeletonwitch. “Breathing the Fire”; April 29, 2010)

The low, mean chugging in the guitars and the demonic cracks in Chance Garnette’s voice both come out more on this record, and the extra coating of murk gives it a bit of the ominous feeling of an old blues 78. … Their NWOBHM underpinnings give them an infectious momentum, like a stampeding army driven forward by classic Saxon or Celtic Frost — it sounds like they barged straight through later trends like thrash and death metal, picking up influences from them the way a horseman on a battlefield might get spattered with gore.

Love them or eyeroll them, those last three entries represent what I love best about music writing: the quest for the elusive metaphor. Whether or not you experience an epic om, a sulfurous reform school bathroom or the frickin’ gore of invading Saxons when you listen is entirely up to you. These writers found the words to capture the experience as best they could in a way that will never be more than imperfect. That’s where the wonderment of the art is. To me, it’s as if the moment you catch the leprechaun his magic begins to fade. (Yet if you never caught the little bugger to begin with, you would have nothing at all.)

Let’s close with a palate cleanser. I heard pianist Reginald Robinson for the first time on my local NPR station last week, and found myself sitting in my parked car until he finished his subtle composition, something that I could only identify as “modern ragtime.” He wasn’t playing relentless Scott Joplin-style ragtime, which can sometimes have a mechanical quality as if it’s being cranked out of organ grinder’s box. This bore the hallmarks of ragtime, while still embracing changes in tempo, dynamics and … and something softer that I’ll call tone for lack of a better music-writer’s word.

To save me, here’s the clear, unpretentious way that an accomplished jazz writer (Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune) described what he hears in Robinson’s work:

Robinson’s compositions, in other words, are not simply re-workings of familiar ragtime conventions and never were. Instead, Robinson has extended the definition of the genre, expanding its harmonic palette, enriching its rhythmic vocabulary, altering its underlying structure.

No unnecessary similes or over-reaching adjectives here. Do yourself a favor and listen to Robinson play the pieces I heard that morning, and see if you can agree he’s an artist who is “extending the definition of the genre.” Or maybe you’ll find he’s just a guy who plays a real sweet tune just like they used to.


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Drew’s “40 at 40” (part 1): A birthday celebration through music

Had a bit of a wingding this weekend as part of my 40th birthday celebrations. If you were so lucky as to attend, you walked away with a 2-CD set of my “40@40,” a reflection of all the songs over my life that are the most meaningful to me.

Not only do the songs come in the set, but you also get complete liner notes explaining my choices, which is really way too much information about tunes that, essentially, are about dancing your ass off and whooping it up.

If you’re curious at all about the way my mind works (and I understand if you aren’t; I barely am myself), then I share the selections here. First the introduction on the CD:

Tim Dohrer put the challenge in my lap: On my 40th birthday, choose 40 songs that make up the soundtrack of my life, the songs that had a lasting impact me across the years. The 40@40 challenge had only two rules: No more than two songs per artist; and be honest.

I, of course, bent the rules to my will. First, Talking Heads and David Byrne are not one in the same. Second, there’s such a thing as too much honesty. Play just about any Cyndi Lauper tune, and I can vividly picture the high school dance where it was played. But do I really want to memorialize the gawky anxiety of Homecoming? And do you really want Cyndi Lauper in your stereo?

This list is also a bit dishonest because it leaves out some crucial influences: copious amounts of Big Band jazz, the minimalist anthems of Phillip Glass, and classical, classical, classical. If were really being honest, I would kick things off with K-Tel’s disco-thumpin’ “Hooked on Classics,” which is truly what awoke 11-year-old Drew’s inner musical omnivore. Instead, we shall stick to pop rock here, because let’s face it, those tunes are the yellow bricks paving the road to the Emerald City.

And I’m as surprised as you are that, for a guy who doesn’t particularly care for dancing, so many of these songs are real shake-your-money-makers. Whether or not you like to shake what your momma gave you, I hope you enjoy this trip through time.

Tim pointed out to me later in the evening that there was a third rule: No songs from before the day you were born. As it turns out, I only really flubbed one, which you’ll see in tomorrow’s post of Part 2.

The select songs and their liner notes (click the link to hear them on Blip.fm!) :

1. Talking Heads: Road to Nowhere

The punky nerdy Heads were my college soundtrack. This song in particular. Why? Because my fellow marching band geeks and I built a giant hollow replica of the Northwestern Rock, put it on wheels and wired it for sound. This was the anthem blaring from our speakers as we pushed this beast up Sheridan Road to promote band recruitment. Sweaty hot inside our float, I thought: “College is great.”

2. Men at Work: Overkill

Man, I so wanted to go to the Men at Work concert when they played Timberwolf right up the road from Cincinnati in 1983. But my mother was not ready for me to succumb to the empty promises of rock and roll, and she denied my parole. I sulked, and she tried to cheer me up by showing me the tepid concert review in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It did not cheer me up. This version was recorded years later by Colin Hay, and makes a nice update from the original.

3. Creedence Clearwater Revival: Bad Moon Rising

CCR is real America. Their music never feels stuck in one era, and is always unassailable. This tune was on the “American Werewolf in London” soundtrack. Great movie.

4. Eagles: Hotel California

A warhorse of a standard, and many performers are sick to death of it. Who cares? I would listen to it over and over in my room, feeling spectral and all-knowing.

5. Jim Croce: You Don’t Mess Around with Jim

Even though this was my brother’s music, my father took a shine to it. This tune reminds me of riding in his 1976 Pontiac Grand Ville convertible, listening to Croce on the 8-track car stereo.

6. Soft Cell: Tainted Love

Do you remember a 2006 Levi’s commercial with ER doctors singing “Tainted Love” in time with beeping monitors? I had completely forgotten this song until that moment, and it transported me to 1981, taping Casey Kasem off the radio.

7. INXS: What You Need

What a bass line! Good for gawky high school dancing.

8. Peter Gabriel: Shock the Monkey

Oh, Peter. You’re so wonderfully weird and inscrutable, especially this ambiguously euphemistic tune.

9. Queen: Flash’s Theme

OMG OMG OMG you guys … 1980 Drew was SO IN LOVE with the “Flash Gordon” movie, right down to the flying spaceships with visible wires. Queen belongs on this list with just about any of its songs, but the confluence of nerd metal and cheeseball sci-fi makes this peppy theme a perpetual must on my list. As Freddy Mercury sang: “King of the impossible!”

10. Oingo Boingo: Nasty Habits

[I can only find this live version on Blip.fm]

God bless Danny Elfman and the forces that keep his eerie, quirky tunefulness thrumming in the public ear. “Weird Science” was my first choice here, but it made the disc run long, so “Nasty Habits” is a happy, funny (kinky) second.

11. Thomas Dolby: She Blinded Me with Science

Yes! More nerd rock! Dolby is just having too much fun here. The fun compounded for me when “Science” became a killer arrangement for high school pep band. Great to listen to and to play.

12. Talking Heads: (Nothing But) Flowers

The 1988 “Naked” album was on steady play throughout college on my cassette deck alarm clock (my only source of music those days). Choosing just one from this album was a struggle.

13. The B-52’s: Dry County

The “Cosmic Thing” album is best known for “Love Shack” and “Roam,” but for me, it’s the bouncy boredom of “lazy days” that has always stuck with me. You can really feel the roots of a local band singing about what they know.

14. Murray Head: One Night in Bangkok

I could never get my head around the notion that this tune came from a Broadway musical, “Chess.” This idea, plus the mix of sounds and odd narration, held me pretty rapt.

15. David Byrne: A Million Miles Away

[Inconceivably, Blip.fm does not have this tune on file anywhere in its near-infinite digital warehouse.]

The “Uh-Oh” album: fantastic from top to bottom. Choosing just one was tough, but this tune gets the nod because of the lyric, “I ain’t gonna work here no more.” When I was slogging along in my first stultifying corporate gig, I hummed this tune non-stop to keep my spirits up.

16. Barenaked Ladies: Call and Answer

[Can only find this live version with Alanis Morisette on Blip.fm. Weird omission!]

This band is always an enigma, playing around between gimmickry and masterful tunesmithing. Not that I mind the former, but “Call and Answer” is definitely the latter, a real building-up of emotion with a relentless drive behind it. Listened to this album a lot in the days winding down to fatherhood.

17. Aretha Franklin: Think

First introduced to me through the “Blues Brothers” soundtrack. It was the beginning of my lasting love of strong women who don’t take no shit.

18. Madonna: Respect Yourself

[Not! On! Blip!]

The “Like a Prayer” album thumped through the air on every floor of my college dorm. The more I listened, the more I realized that underneath the bubblegum and the stunts lurked real musicality.

19. Paul Simon: Under African Skies

I really think music historians will hold “Graceland” on a special shelf a hundred years from now. Laced with the African vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the entire album blew my little mind. I could have chosen any tune for this list.

20. Enya: Orinoco Flow

In 1989 I got hit by a car, which broke my arm and required two surgeries. Somewhere in the middle of this I had four wisdom teeth pulled. The point is, I was on a lot of painkillers. And this Enya tune warbling endlessly in my headphones played a kind of ethereal shepherd that tethered my altered consciousness to this plane and kept it from floating into the land of fever dreams and imaginary friends.


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The Musical Reckoning Cometh: Your favorite tunes vs. your Most Played

Filmmaker Edgar Wright made a fascinating observation in a recent blog post: “If you were asked to come up with your ten favourite songs, I would lay money on it not being exactly the same ten as your most played songs on your iTunes.”

What? Surely not. Granted, not all my favorite tunes are on my iTunes, but still, there must be some correlation, right? So I took the Edgar Wright Challenge and looked at my Most Played list … and was amazed. Not necessarily in a good way.

First a caveat: I tend not to select specific tracks to listen to in iTunes, but to let the DJ function shuffle them for me as I work. Not always, but usually. Also, my numbers look a little low, thanks to a complete hard drive re-install in the last year, and more recent tendency to listen to blip.fm instead of my own iTunes selections. In other words, this is a pretty limited sample size, and possibly statistically insignificant. But it starts to paint a picture. My tastes are hinted at, but not nearly as eclectic and intellectual (read: snooty) as I might have liked.

Responsible for 20 percent of my top 10 most played, apparently.

Responsible for 20 percent of my top 10 most played, apparently.

1. “Send Me On My Way,” Rusted Root. (9 plays) Wow, OK. I love Rusted Root, but this is far from my favorite tune of theirs. I tend to get enough of it after years of frequent re-viewings of Ice Age with the little ones. (Which is a surprisingly durable movie.) Still. Hunh.

2. “Strange Overtones,” David Byrne and Brian Eno (7 plays) Great song. Their collaborative album “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today,” is a masterful “We still got it” statement from Byrne and Eno.

3. “Scherzo No. 3: Presto con fuoco in C-sharp minor, Opus 39” Chopin (played by Emmanuel Ax) (7 plays) I call up these recordings of Ax playing Chopin a lot, but am stunned that the most-played tuned isn’t Scherzo No. 1, which is the world’s most brain-melting display of piano virtuosity. To me, No. 1 is the ultimate creative expression of all time, not just from the mind that conceived it but from the fingers that can play it. (Listen to a recording of Scherzo No. 1 here — it’s not Emmanuel Ax but it’s still blistering.) Of course, No. 3 is no slouch either, and it’s welcome in the top 10.

4. “Rain,” Rusted Root (7 plays) That’s more like it. Not my top Rusted Root favorite (that would be “Food and Creative Love“), but a great example of this band’s eclecticism and wit.

5. “Istanbul,” They Might Be Giants (7 plays) A great song in its own right, and it gets extra play with kids in the house.

6. “Goody Two Shoes,” Adam Ant (6 plays) Whoa. Really? Really? I … I had no idea. I can’t even pin this one on the kids.

7. “Call and Answer,” Barenaked Ladies (6 plays) The entire “Stunt” album gets a lot of replay in my house because lately it’s what Youngest Daughter and I will play when we’re tidying up the house together. “Call and Answer” is probably my favorite song on the album.

8. “Who Needs Sleep?,” Barenaked Ladies (6 plays) Perhaps it gets more repeat play for its thematic relevance in my life.

9. “Make Me,” Famous Tomorrow (6 plays) Ha! Really? This is not a commercially available tune, but an amateur theme song for the soundtrack of an amateur film I only marginally helped make with old amigo Will Carton. (My contribution? Shuttling the youth talent to the set.) “Make Me” is an entry in Joss Whedon’s open casting call for short films to appear on his Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog DVD. In DHSAB, a half-baked villain seeks entry in the Evil League of Evil, so Whedon asked fans to film other villains seeking admittance to the League. Make Me’s application didn’t get selected for the DVD, but thanks to the Internet, it lives on. I don’t know where Will found his guys to do the theme song, but it’s pretty hilarious.

10. “Anduril,” Howard Shore, “Return of the King” soundtrack (6 plays) OK, sure. It was great music for a great film. But why the song about the sword?  I would have thought that the track with the most replays would have been the one for that tag-team string of mountainous bonfires. Aw yeah, remember that? That was sweet. I think I’ll go listen to it now.

Thanks for the introspection, Edgar Wright. Now get back to finishing  the Scott Pilgrim movie!


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Exploding marching band chic and the rise of the Capital-N Nerd

Also: This guy is the father of my daughter's friend. That makes her giggle.

I love that we live in an age where all things that used to be nerdy have been subverted and reprogrammed into something cool and hip — or at least ironic and hip, which is even better.

So it has been with comics. (Look at the size of the San Diego Comic Con; it’s where Hollywood goes with its hat in hand to find out what it should be doing next.) So it has been with sci-fi and fantasy. (Lord of the Rings brings home the Oscar! Harry Potter brings home everything else!) And now, so it has become with marching bands.

Yeah, marching bands. And I’m not just talking about stories of scrappy underdogs determined to make it all the way to the top of a college drumline. (I’m referring here, of course,  to the 2002 movie Drumline.) No, last night my kids and I took in a free concert of local “circus punk marching band” Mucca Pazza. Ironic and hip. Even better.

Mucca Pazza is the kind of mad experiment that, I imagine, begins with a couple of good friends on a fire escape deck, a cooler of Coors, a mild buzz, and someone saying, “What if…”

What if you made a jazz-funk-fusion band with marching band instrumentation?

What if you augmented that sound with violins and accordions and electric guitars and mandolins?

What if you grasped that marching band motif with both hands and milked it like an engorged Guernsey udder?

What if you channeled the spirit of a real marching band — High school! Athletic boosterism! Friendships bound through common hardship and esprit de corps! — and used it to fuel some cracked-out performance art of the highest exuberance?

After you asked enough of those questions you’d arrive at this answer:

Mucca Pazza at the Hideout Block Party, Chicago, Sept. 2008; photo by undergroundbee.com

Mucca Pazza certainly lives up to its billing as “circus punk,”  though I might quibble on emphasis, calling it instead a woozy fusion of Sousa, ska, klezmer, punk and funk, arranged by Danny Elfman in a Hungarian bordello and conducted by the ghost of Frank Zappa in a Marrakech bazaar. And as you can see, Mucca Pazza doesn’t so much play its music as sling it like hot hash. Their performance goes past high-octane all the way to pure diesel, from the mix-and-matched horn players prancing a deranged New Orleans funeral parade, to the crew of cheerleaders pumping their pompons, high-kicking their sneakers, and weaving high-energy mischief across the stage and through the crowd like a platoon of four-color Kokopellis. Seriously, Red Bull, consider this a prime sponsorship opportunity.

(Mucca Pazza pix by undergroundbee.com)

(Mucca Pazza pix by undergroundbee.com)

Mucca Pazza represents my favorite realm of expression, both love letter to and parody of something iconic and nostalgic. “We loved the old times,” Mucca Pazza seems to say, “but they were ridiculous too, eh? Well, what the hell. Watch what I can do!”

I consider this the logical conclusion to, the inevitable destination of, marching band music. All marching bands are comprised of a certain special kind of individual: lovers of music and mischief, oddballs, darkly comic, esoteric but earthy, fans of spectacle, traditionally untraditional, not suited for the football field (but game enough to play a key role on one every autumn Friday) — what the folk duo Small Potatoes calls “eclectomaniacs.” I can say this lovingly as a former band geek myself. (First trumpet, Greenhills High School, ’84-’87; Third trumpet, Northwestern University Marching Band, ’88-’91 and, yes, former NUMB Spirit Leader; Go Cats!) Nutjobs like us pour our hearts into our passions, and who cares what anyone thinks. For band geeks, one of those passions effectively disappears on the day we graduate from college, so it stands to reason that someone out there found a way to return to the joy of making rowdy, football-field-sized music on big, blatting horns. Marching bands as a music have been static for decades; marching bands as a movement just took a Great Leap Forward.

Good for you, band geeks. Blow, horns, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow! For the rest of you, catch a Mucca Pazza show sometime if you’d like something a little different in your musical diet.

It’s a good time to let your Nerd Flag fly. As Retort-regular Desert Son pointed out in the comments section recently, when John Hodgman can call the Leader of the Free World a geek, we are truly living the “Revenge of the Nerds.”

John Hodgman addressing President Obama in teh name of nerds everywhere. Hilarious, must-click viewing. Especially if you know hwt that hand gesture means.

John Hodgman addressing President Obama in the name of nerds everywhere. Hilarious, must-click viewing. Especially if you know what that hand gesture means.


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Because everyone has *something* to say about Michael Jackson

It’s not that the death of the King of Pop had been particularly impactful to me. I listened to his music back in the day, enjoyed the videos, the dancing, the ever-growing freakshow around his personal life. Didn’t own the glove. Can’t relate to fans who now say they’ve lost a “family member.” (Really? A family member? Like, a family member who makes you uncomfortable at Christmas gatherings and whom you and your siblings are staging an intervention for?)

And the coverage! Wow — I mean I know it’s SOP for major media outlets to put celebrity deaths at the top of the news report, but haven’t these last few days felt out of all proportion? As funny, funny Web cartoonist Justin Pierce said:

Since this has happened, I have not seen any news about the brutal post-election violence in Iran, the intense bombings in Baghdad or the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan.

Thank you Michael Jackson, for finally bringing peace to the Mideast.

‘Zactly. But I’ve discovered some interesting things in the wake of this media brouhaha. First, my children had never heard tell of Popmusica Rex, and wanted to know who this odd-looking boyman was. Thanks to YouTube, we were able to have an educational evening revisiting all the old music videos. (The face-morphing “Black or White” got the most requests for repeat viewings.)

I was surprised at how evergreen Michael Jackson remains. The tunes, the dancing, the imagery — it all held up, and was just as enjoyable all these years later, for me and the kids.”Thriller,” still rocks, sure, but “Bad”? “Billie Jean”? Good grief, “Remember the Time”?

But here’s something else: Our evening of media intake opened Pandora’s box of parody for my children. Because right alongside all those Michael Jackson vids on YouTube were the Weird Al Yankovic spoofs of “Bad” and “Beat It” (“Fat” and “Eat It”).

Also features "I Think I'm a Clone Now"

Me and the kiddies howled in tandem, a four-part harmony of hilarity. “He’s … he’s making fun of it!” cried Oldest Boy, who apparently has lived nine years without satirical influence. I know, I’m ashamed of me, too. I mean, come on, you’re living a cloistered, unlivable life if you’ve never encountered and appreciated:

How come you’re always such a fussy young man
Don’t want no Captain Crunch, don’t want no Raisin Bran
Well, don’t you know that other kids are starving in Japan
So eat it!

When watched back to back, real video and spoof video, the experience couldn’t be any more fun. The kids were picking up on all the details of the originals (the ripped-off grate that spews air, the solo dance on a diner counter) that got riffed in the spoofs. They couldn’t believe someone was allowed to make fun of someone else this way. They’ve been drilled for years on treating other kids right, having manners, making other people feel bigger, not smaller — and here’s this guy earning a living making fun of people. His parents are not yelling at him. He is not in jail.

I think my children all grew up a bit that day. They may never be able to moonwalk, but they sure as shootin’ will grow up knowing how to find the ridiculous in the sublime.


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The Big Blipper

The inexhaustible Sam Bennett introduced me to Blip.fm while I was at Ludorum, and it has been my Internet radio of choice ever since. It’s so easy to get started, and in a minute, you’re either listening to songs you know and love, or songs you’ve never heard before. Either option can be rewarding, especially when it’s instantaneous and effortless.

With Blip, you can spin tunes just to please yourself, or you can style yourself as a digital DJ for all the other listeners logged in at that moment. All songs you “blip” get posted on a scrolling, ever-updating list on the home page. Listeners are either logged into this page (and thus listening to a diverse array of tunes from ABBA to Zappa) or into a page that aggregates the playlists just of your own favorite DJs.

Be your own personal Wolfman Jack.

(Where does all this music come from? Here’s the only answer I can muster: Somewhere out there on The Internets, people have uploaded tons of music onto tons of empty servers. Who are these people? Where are these servers? I cannot say. But because it seems exclusively a volunteer effort, the catalog of blippable tunes is quite incomplete in places, redundant in others, and occasionally creatively spelled.)

Here’s how to get blipping in 15 seconds flat:

1. Sign up in a jiffy. Make up a name, enter an e-mail. I know, I hate registering for things, particularly giving out my e-mail. But you have a back-up address for spammy registrations like this don’t you? There you go.

The only hard part: An awesome DJ name

2. Answer a few questions about your musical tastes. You’ll be instantly matched to other DJs who have similar (or similar-ish) preferences.

3A. Camp out on the “Public” page and listen to what every other blipper is currently throwing out there. (The results will be fun, if jarringly mismatched.) OR…

3B. Camp out on your “Home” page which features just the blips from your list of “Favorite” DJs. (It’s just a simple click to add and subtract DJs from this cohort.) OR…

3C. Become a full-blown DJ. Blip your own personal playlist by searching for artists or titles.

Did the girl know it was true? Did she???

You can even try searching for concepts. Experiment with say, moon or June and goggle at the blunderbuss of options firing back at you. When you’ve made your selection and want to blip it, you can include a little chitchat — just like a drivetime DJ! You get a Twitter-sized field to type a message, about enough to convey a little snark or sentimentality. You can also reblip tunes you hear from other DJs, or direct your messages at your listeners — just like a Casey Kasem Long Distance Dedication!

This one's going out to Tina in Sheboygan with love from Chi-town Shane.

With Blip, I’ve been introduced to many new wide, green pastures of music I never would have stumbled into otherwise. Lots of DJs hail from other countries (a strong Brazilian contingent, it seems, or maybe that’s just the bias of the algorithm that made my Favorites list) but wherever they’re from, they’re all plugged into their local music scene. How else would I have heard Minnesota indie band Best Friends Forever, a joyfully unpolished trio of quirky rockers? They’re my Fun Find of the moment.

If you tune in to Blip, add Woohoodrew to your Favorite DJs, and I promise to send out an LDD in your honor. Until then, keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.

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The Internet Symphony

And a-one and a-two...

I’m a little late to this party, because apparently the YouTube Symphony Orchestra debuts today at Carnegie Hall, and I’ve missed all the wind-up. It’s an amazing accomplishment of the Internet age, one of those things that justifies all the zany, brainless things the Internet is used for otherwise. Let me see if I understand what’s going on here:

1. YouTube and the London Symphony join forces on a project to “create the world’s first collaborative orchestra” and to demonstrate “the power of music as a shared global language.”

Yes! Because it is on the Internets, someone MUST be wearing a Stormtrooper mask.

2. Then composer Tan Dun pens his peppy Internet Symphony exclusively for this project. YouTube posts a video of a conductor (I believe it’s Tan) conducting the movement called “Eroica” so collaborators can follow the correct tempo and pitch.

True story: My sophomore year at Northwestern, I marched an entire football season with playing trumpet with one hand because my right arm was in a sling. Because THAT'S HOW BAND GEEKS ROLL, PUNKS!

3. People from all over the world go ape submitting videos of themselves performing the piece — every part, on every instrument imagineable. You Tube throws them all together in a glorious mash-up video. Seriously, I think I see one woman playing the singing saw. Another guy looks to be playing mixing bowls. (I love this video, by the way. First of all it’s a brilliant editing job to make so many, many, many of the contest entrants a part of the final product. Also, the sight of all these earnest musicians on their grainy little videos performing their hearts out in their family rooms and bedroom sound studios … well, enthusiasm is addictive, and I find it inspiring. )

What the heck IS that thing? Is it what Upper West Side cops give Julliard students when they pull them over for DUI?

4. YouTube members vote on their favorite audition videos. (Looks like the videos got weeded first, thankfully, before viable candidates could be voted on.)

5. Which brings us to today: Winners gather together in New York to perform at Carnegie Hall.

What a magnificent use of technology. Creation is often an ivory-tower exercise, and performance the domain of a select few. This project opens up possibilities for so many people to be a part of the process, even the ones who don’t perform on stage today.

Congrats, YouTube. I just thought you were a respository for Mentos/Diet Coke videos, but you really proved me wrong today.


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