And the music plays on (very briefly)…

Today I was feeling all nostalgic up in the hizzy and dug out two old music players, my 7th generation iPod nano and a Sansa Clip. Here they be:

iPod nano 7th generation and Sansa Clip

The Sansa Clip is the older of the two. It was the first MP3 player I got for running and it worked well, being extremely light, compact and having a clip that let you easily attach it to your shorts, shirt or gorgeously braided hair. I believe I got it in 2009, the same year I started jogging (I ended the year by doing my first 10K run and can’t imagine I would have done so without musical accompaniment). The one downside is the storage was a mere 2 GB, so it could only hold a hundred or so songs–enough for a run, but not a whole lot of variety.

The iPod nano I got in 2012 and replaced a 5th generation one. It featured some nice improvements:

  • Lightning port instead of the 30-pin connector
  • Bluetooth, although I never actually used it
  • Super light and thin, yet sturdy in construction
  • 16 GB of storage, which couldn’t hold my entire music collection at the time but got close enough that I felt I wasn’t really missing anything I’d like to listen to while on a run
  • Built-in Nike+ app that no longer needed a foot pod to track steps/runs
  • It looks like an adorable miniature iPhone (running iOS 6, though it didn’t actually run iOS)

I used the nano (which was the last one Apple made, discontinuing it in 2017) until I switched over to using a smartphone to track runs, the first being an iPhone 5c. I quite liked it, though the touchscreen would go wonky when it got wet, making it less than ideal for soggy runs (not to be confused with having the soggy runs–ew). To be fair, the Apple Watch I now use has the same issues in the rain, although you can turn off the touch to prevent phantom taps and such. In the nano’s favor, it could transfer music about a billion times faster from my PC vs. transferring music from my phone to the Watch, a task that takes so long I have given up on doing it.

I kind of miss these dedicated single-purpose devices. Because they only did one thing*, the UI and buttons were very focused on driving that experience. This was especially appreciated for activities like running where you don’t want to fiddle with multi-level menus and excessive clicks.

Both devices still power up, as you can see from my pic. The Sansa Clip battery appears to be almost completely dead, though. It only stays awake for a few moments before warning the battery is low, even after charging. The nano is better, but even it looks like it would only last a fraction of what it normally might. Not surprising for something 10 years old. I wonder if the battery can be replaced? Hmm.

* Technically the iPod nano could do more than play music, as you could listen to podcasts, watch videos or look at photos, I didn’t do any of these things with mine, however.

The Hunter is a bad album and I like it

The Hunter album coverBlondie’s album The Hunter, released in 1982 and at the time thought to be their final album (the next, No Exit, wasn’t released until 1999), is regarded by many to be a stinker, an ungainly mix of styles and songs that don’t really hold together (Rolling Stone charitably describes it as “an offbeat stylistic jumble” more to be pondered than enjoyed). The band became so interested in making thought-provoking songs that it sounds like they aren’t having that much fun. Presumably the listener doesn’t have much fun hearing the results, either.

And yet I have been listening to the album a lot lately and I find it strangely irresistible. In some ways it’s a retread of Autoamerican, replicating a lot of the songs (Orchid Club = Europa, Island of Lost Souls = The Tide is High, The Beast = Rapture) and the experiments here don’t come off as well as they did on Autoamerican. “Dragonfly” is about a spaceship race (!), “For Your Eyes Only” is a rejected James Bond theme, “Orchid Club” sounds like the theme for a cheesy jungle adventure film from the 1940s. Mixed in with these are lighter pop songs like “Danceway” and the sweetly nostalgic “English Boys.” There is no coherence and many of the songs don’t quite gel,  lacking passion or vitality in some cases and in a few instances literally sounding as if a song was recorded in the wrong key. My favorite example is the Autoamerican B-side “Suzy and Jeffrey” which sounds like it was accidentally recorded at two-thirds the intended speed, though “For Your Eyes Only” also has a peculiarly sluggish rhythm to it. This is Blondie being dilettantes, more interested in experimenting than crafting the kind of catchy songs that propelled them to fame in the late 70s.

And I like it! Listen to the first thirty seconds of the opening track “Orchid Club” with its tribal drums and monkey screeches. This is not a group interested in duplicating “Heart of Glass.” The album unsurprisingly flopped and the band split up.

But still, I can’t deny that “Danceway” is catchier than it deserves to be and “War Child” could be a great song with only a few tweaks, mostly related to the generally muddy production (a problem the entire album suffers from). “Orchid Club” is great because of its cheese.

Even the album cover is ridiculous, directly playing up the whole hunter angle, with Harry decked out in a giant pile of hair mimicking a lion’s mane and the other band members bedecked with tribal paint on their faces (and looking thoroughly nonplussed about it). It’s silly and yet it’s all part of what makes The Hunter work for me.

I can’t really recommend the album, but if you want to hear what happens when a group gains commercial success then largely turns it back on it to do their own thing, The Hunter is an intriguing listen.

Musical guilty pleasures: Everybody Wang Chung tonight

I remember the 80s for the giant hair and the music for its synthesizer obsession.

A lot of that music was sterile, stuff that sounded like it came from a factory, not actual humans. Sometimes this was even deliberate–witness Gary Numan’s work.

And then there was Wang Chung. They had a big hit in 1986 with the song “Everybody Have Fun Tonight.” I hated the song. I found it cloying, insipid, superficial. Most of all, it struck me as indulgent as the band inserted itself as a verb into the lyrics:

Everybody have fun tonight
Everybody Wang Chung tonight

I was 22 years old at the time. I was also a humorless twit because this song is great. It’s catchy as all get-out, it has kicking horns, the bridge is soaring, and it’s obvious–especially if you watch the video (don’t do this if you have epilepsy–seriously!)–that the band knew this was nothing more than a fun little confection.

I watch it regularly on YouTube. Or at least listen to it. I’m not epileptic but if I watch the video too closely I find I am suddenly not having fun tonight, I am about to hurl my cookies tonight.

Still, great song and given how utterly inconsequential the subject matter is, I count it as a musical guilty pleasure, one of about a hundred thousand or so that I have (my formative years musically were the 1980s, you see). I may come back and edit this post with more great fluff from the decade that mastered the art of fluff.

Albums or music I would like to see (but never will)

(Ignore for a moment that you can’t actually see music, unless it’s on a sheet.)

Nostalgia is fun, but sometimes it’s best to remember what was and not what might be.

  • A new Pink Floyd album featuring the Waters, Gilmour, Mason and Wright line-up. This won’t happen because Rick Wright is dead, for one, David Gilmour would never agree to it for another, and even if all four were around and agreed, I doubt they could recapture their best work. The dream is gone. I have become comfortably numb.
  • A new Alan Parson Project album. Not one of Parsons’ solo efforts, but a reunion between Parsons and his co-creator of the Project, Eric Woolfson. Woolfson died a few years ago and the closest the two came to working together again was when Parsons remastered their entire catalog. Given the time apart to each do what each wanted (Parsons toured with a live band, Woolfson staged original musicals), I think they might have produced something decent with a one-time reunion.
  • R.E.M. with the original Berry, Buck, Mills and Stipe. line-up. R.E.M. produced some great material after Berry quit but they also produced some of their most uninspired music, too and it was obvious at the end that Mills and Stipe were glad to leave it all behind. A one-off album with no obligations between the four of them, something that would be a fusion of their original sound–jangly Byrds-style rock–with the best of their more sophisticated later work would likely be a worthy listen.
  • An album of original material featuring the vocals of Barbra Streisand but written by a strong songwriter, not someone who would write timid or predictable pop schlock. Streisand has an amazing, powerful voice but her rare forays into pop music (Guilty, etc.) are undermined by material that is often pedestrian. I can’t actually think of a good fit here right now because I’m out of touch with much of the contemporary music scene, so insert your favorite songwriter here.
  • Another Simon and Garfunkel reunion. Just kidding. I would like to see some sort of Simon and Garfunkel-esque collaboration, though. For one half of this duo I nominate Mike Mills, former bassist of R.E.M.
  • I’m not sure I’d actually like to see this, but it would at least be interesting to behold what Billy Joel would have to say with 23 years having lapsed since his last album, 1993’s River of Dreams. Would he be an angry old man or merely cranky?

The 12 best reasons to buy Jonathan Coulton’s Thing a Week albums

In 2006 Jonathan Coulton released a song a week (hence thing a week) and ultimately put together all of the songs in a collection spanning four albums (for the younger, “albums” are a bunch of songs collected together that were originally available in quaint formats such as cassette tape and compact disc). You can (and should) buy them here: because they are funny, fun and “funny.”

Need 12 more reasons to buy these albums? Maybe you just like lists of songs? I’ve got both covered directly below.

  1. W’s Duty (samples of George W. Bush using the word “duty” set to a grungy beat. It’s funny because Bush consistently makes the word sound like “doody.” It’s also juvenile, which is precisely why it is funny)
  2. Shop Vac (catchy skewering of suburban life and the fan-made kinetic typography video is pretty good, too)
  3. The Town Crotch (a surprisingly warm reminisce about growing up in a small town and a loose woman with big hair)
  4. A Talk with George (the serious side of Coulton features George Plimpton telling you to live your life. There is no mention of Intellivision.)
  5. Re: Your Brains (obligatory [?] zombie song featuring lines such as “I’m not a monster, Tom/Well, technically I am”)
  6. Tom Cruise Crazy (good thing he’s not gay anymore)
  7. Famous Blue Raincoat (a mesmerizing cover of Cohen’s song that ups the tempo but remains haunting)
  8. Creepy Doll (effective use of spooky music/sound, complete with twist ending)
  9. Under the Pines (jaunty tale of a Leonard Nimoy/Bigfoot love affair)
  10. Mr. Fancy Pants (short, funnier than it should be–pants are just inherently funny, I think–and toe-tappingly catchy)
  11. I’m Your Moon (more hooks than Saturn has rings, this song about Pluto is weirdly touching)
  12. Pull the String (Coulton would probably be considered a “serious” artist if he put out entire albums of songs like this. I’m glad he doesn’t but equally glad he indulges himself with this kind of straightforward but compelling songcraft)

Anyone familiar with these albums will notice I only included one cover (“Famous Blue Raincoat”) because while most of the others are quite good (he sounds almost eerily like Paul McCartney on “I Will” and you’re probably wearing suspenders and have your pants hiked to your nipples if you don’t find his delivery in “Baby Got Back” amusing) his original songs are better. And “Don’t Talk to Strangers” is still a lousy song, even when being covered by Jonathan Coulton.

But enough with the negative. Go buy these albums, and if his website is offering plush dolls of George Plimpton and Bigfoot, buy those, too. Funny, intelligent and musically talented is a rare combination to be treasured–and rewarded.

Here’s the breakdown of songs I picked from each Thing a Week album:

  1. 1, 2, 3
  2. 4, 5
  3. 6, 7
  4. 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 (yes, I do think he saved the best for last)

Grandpa Buck releases another album

Peter Buck, the artist formerly known as the lead guitarist for R.E.M., has released his second solo album, Warzone Earth. Like his first solo album, this one is only available through indie record stores on vinyl. It’s the perfect gift for hipster dinosaurs, which I assume is the demographic here.

Perhaps we should be grateful he didn’t cut his teeth on the 8-track cassette.

More trips into the mine of music nostalgia without a canary

After picking up The Dream of the Blue Turtles and with more money sitting in my iTunes account it was inevitable that I’d go trolling for more music from my youth. My latest re-acquisitions, in order of re-purchase with the original release date:

  • Boney M, Nightflight to Venus (1978)
  • Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms (1985)
  • Roxy Music, Avalon (1982)

I’ll rate the quality of each re-purchase on a scale of 1 to 10 Neil Diamond sparkle shirts, with 1 being “I plead temporary insanity” and 10 being “Still awesome, I had the best musical taste!”

Sparkle shirt. Sparkly!

Boney M, Nightflight to Venus
This album came out in 1978 and I bought it on vinyl when it was new, making it one of my first-ever music purchases. This doubles as a handy excuse in case the album is awful.

Surprisingly, it is not. Despite the silly title track (which is literally about a “night flight” to Venus) the album as a whole holds up quite decently, even if it is very much a product of its era, when disco was at its commercial (and artistic?) peak. The harmonies are sweet and though the songs often border on the bizarre (“Rasputin” celebrate “Russia’s greatest love machine”) they are just as often catchy. You will probably never hear a funkier version of “King of the Road.”

Bonus: I first bought this album on vinyl, which is now popular with hipsters and audiophiles but is otherwise a niche format. The iTunes album art is a photo of the CD case. CDs are also rapidly becoming obsolete in this age of digital music, so it seems somehow fitting that the cover of this musical relic is of another musical relic (May 17, 2022 note: original link broke, I have subbed something that is close to it):

7/10 Neil Diamond sparkle shirts

Dire Straits, Brothers in Arms
This was one of the first CDs I bought, and it is of (pop) cultural significance in a couple of ways. It was the first CD to sell over a million copies–the format had debuted only two years earlier), it was such a giant success it basically ended the band and the hit “Money for Nothing” got banned in Canada because of the following lyric (which is delivered by the song’s narrator, a working class slob who ain’t exactly, y’ know, cultured):

Look at that faggot with the earring and the make-up
Yeah buddy, that’s his own care
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot, he’s a millionaire

The best part is the ban happened in 2011, 26 years after the song was released. The ban was later lifted. Details in this Wikipedia entry.

The album holds up very well. This is Dire Straits not only at its commercial peak but its artistic peak, as well. The songs–often sprawling on the CD version–are played with confidence, moving effortlessly between irreverent, rollicking and meditative. There’s a folksiness to much of the work that never feels forced. There is a timelessness to most of the tracks that lifts them above much of the material that dominated the pop charts in the mid-80s. Kids may wonder what all the talk about MTV playing music videos is all about, though.

8/10 Neil Diamond sparkle shirts

Roxy Music, Avalon
This album was introduced to me several years after release by a friend. I was not familiar with Roxy Music and have never bought any of their other albums (the friend picked up some of Bryan Ferry’s solo work).

Avalon is one of those albums where everything came together in the right way at the right time. A lot of people who may be able to name Avalon as a Roxy Music album might be challenged to even name another the band put out (Avalon was their eighth and final album). This was the culmination of their smooth, adult-oriented rock sound and in a way they had nowhere to go after this, so the dissolution of the band following the Avalon tour makes sense.

To say this album is smooth is an understatement. The music washes over you like a gentle surf, lush synthesizers sweeping across the aural landscape, accented by guitar, keyboard and saxophone that complement but never intrude or dominate the sound. Ferry’s vocals are delivered just as smoothly, his voice often rising into a dreamy sort of falsetto as he warbles about the tragedies of love.

Somehow the production manages to avoid sounding fey or slick, perhaps because of the earnestness (I almost want to say conviction) Ferry brings to the material.

While there is nothing really comparable to Avalon in today’s pop music scene (that I’m aware of) the album still doesn’t sound dated to me. It is its own thing and a wonderful, lush thing it is.

8/10 Neil Diamond sparkle shirts

On balance, it appears I had decent musical taste 25-30 years ago. I’ve still got money in my iTunes account and have been casting back to other albums of yore I haven’t re-acquired. I may have another to re-review soon™.

The reacquisition of my youth continues: The Dream of the Blue Turtles

Many years ago when I was fabulously poor (I was living downtown, I was urbane, young and almost hip but perpetually in low paying jobs or between the same) I sold off a whole pile of CDs because there was a store a few blocks from where I lived that would buy them for $5 each. Back then $5 was a couple of meals or more if you played your budget just right.

In the following years I have reacquired many of those CDs and there’s only one I can immediately think of that is still missing: Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits, also known as The First CD Everyone Bought. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a fine album, I just never think about it.

It was just by happenstance that I ended up claiming back another lost disc, Sting’s debut solo album The Dream of the Blue Turtles. I came across a reference about a new Sting album coming out and thought it had been quite awhile since his last, looked up his discography on Wikipedia, read notes on his first few albums and remembered that the light and catchy “All This Time” was featured on the otherwise Very Serious The Soul Cages. I mean, just look at the album cover. It’s all art and stuff:

The Soul Cages album cover

I don’t even know what that’s supposed to be. I’m calling it Picasso’s Tent. Also mysterious is why this album (and only this one among Sting’s) is not available on the Canadian iTunes store.

Anyway, back to how I reacquired The Dream of the Blue Turtles. I watched the video for “All This Time” which is perhaps uncharacteristically silly for Sting then noticed a link to “Fortress Around Your Heart” from Turtles. I started watching that, instantly remembered how much I lurved the song, went to Itunes, saw it was under $10–impulse buy territory– and bang, re-bought the album.

Having given it a few listens for the first time in many years the album is not quite as jazzy as I’d remembered, though there are a number of jazz-influenced songs. At the time of its release (1985) jazz was strange and alien to me, so that was probably a good thing. As it is now, I find it adds texture to what is otherwise a very finely crafted pop album and the next logical step in Sting’s maturity as a songwriter. The lyrics are more sophisticated than The Police’s last album Synchronicity and the appeals delivered and causes raised have a more personal tone to them. It’s a good album and I’m glad I have it again.

I’m still not sure I want to re-commit to buying Prism’s Armageddon again, though.

I am musically unhip

The current issue of The Georgia Straight has a story on the Top Albums of 2011. Almost without exception I am not only unfamiliar with the albums, I’ve never even heard of the performers. Looking through each critic’s selection (nine critics, ten albums each), here are the artists I actually recognize:

  • Tom Waits
  • Jay-Z and Kanye West
  • Paul Simon
  • Foo Fighters
  • George Thorogood & the Destroyers
  • The Jeff Healey Band
  • Wilco
  • Tori Amos
  • Björk
  • PJ Harvey

I have never owned an album from any of these people. Actually, looking over the list I’m surprised that there were that many names I recognized. Still, with 90 picks, I only recognize 10 artists, cementing my place as musically out of touch. Hey, I bought an Animal Collective album last year, that has to count for something, right?

R.E.M.’s greatest hits: their version and mine

R.E.M. has released their final album, a compilation that for the first time covers their five albums with I.R.S. as well as the 10 they recorded for Warner. Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage 1982-2011 also includes the obligatory new tracks (three, in this case) to lure completionists into buying the double disc set — a tactic that worked better before the ascendancy of digital music. Now an R.E.M. fan can just buy the bonus tracks separately. Record executives somewhere are shaking their fists over that.

Here’s the total list of tracks via Wikipedia. As one would expect of a retrospective, it covers the band’s entire career and includes all of the singles/hits along the way. It’s also clear — since the band chose the tracks themselves — that they have a few personal favorites (Automatic for the People gets four tracks).

They picked 40 songs so I’m going to do the same and pick my favorite 40 songs and see how our lists compare. Like R.E.M., I’ll pick at least one track from every non-compilation album, including the Chronic Town EP released in 1981 (30 years ago, egad).

  1. Stumble (Chronic Town)
  2. Sitting Still (Murmur)
  3. Catapult (Murmur)
  4. Pilgrimage (Murmur)
  5. 7 Chinese Bros. (Reckoning)
  6. So. Central Rain (Reckoning)
  7. (Don’t Go Back to) Rockville (Reckoning)
  8. Pretty Persuasion (Reckoning)
  9. Feeling Gravity’s Pull (Fables of the Reconstruction)
  10. Maps and Legends (Fables of the Reconstruction)
  11. Begin the Begin (Lifes Rich Pageant)
  12. These Days (Lifes Rich Pageant)
  13. Fall on Me (Lifes Rich Pageant)
  14. Cuyahoga (Lifes Rich Pageant)
  15. The Flowers of Guatemala (Lifes Rich Pageant)
  16. Finest Worksong (Document)
  17. Exhuming McCarthy (Document)
  18. It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine) (Document)
  19. World Leader Pretend (Green)
  20. Orange Crush (Green)
  21. Losing My Religion (Out of Time)
  22. Texarcana (Out of Time)
  23. Nightswimming (Automatic for the People)
  24. Find the River (Automatic for the People)
  25. Crush With Eyeliner (Monster)
  26. Bang and Blame (Monster)
  27. New Test Leper (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
  28. Bittersweet Me (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
  29. Electrolite (New Adventures in Hi-Fi)
  30. Suspicion (Up)
  31. At My Most Beautiful (Up)
  32. Daysleeper (Up)
  33. Imitation of Life (Reveal)
  34. Leaving New York (Around the Sun)
  35. Man-Sized Wreath (Accelerate)
  36. Supernatural Superserious (Accelerate)
  37. Discoverer (Collapse Into Now)
  38. Uberlin (Collapse Into Now)
  39. Oh My Heart (Collapse Into Now)
  40. It Happened Today (Collapse Into Now)

My original list had too many songs (five from Lifes Rich Pageant alone) so I culled a few to get down to 40. I found it especially difficult to pick only a handful of favorites from Murmur, Reckoning and Lifes Rich Pageant — each of these albums are remarkably lean, each song equally worthy of inclusion. A big surprise was finding four songs from Collapse Into Now. Although it sounds drastically different than something like Murmur recorded 28 years earlier, it’s perhaps R.E.M.’s most thoughtful and mature work, but free of the pretension and torpor that afflicted lesser efforts like Around the Sun. It is, in other words, one of their best albums.

Comparing R.E.M.’s list to mine, we overlap on 18 songs, roughly half and we both matched on at least one song from every album. And looking over the official listing I see they included “Bad Day” from the In Time compilation album. Cheaters. It’s a worthy song, though, so I could probably find some song to punt in order to squeeze it in.

Notably absent from my list are some prominent hits like “Stand”, “Shiny Happy People” and “Everybody Hurts”. I’m not one of those who hates R.E.M.’s silly songs nor grinds my teeth at their ballads but I felt in each case there were other songs on each album that resonated more for me (even if they were ultimately overplayed, like “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”, the song that was my R.E.M. gateway drug).

And now a bonus list, my picks for R.E.M.’s best five albums (they released 15):

  1. Lifes Rich Pageant
  2. Murmur
  3. Automatic for the People
  4. Reckoning
  5. Collapse Into Now

It’s fashionable to think of Automatic as overrated and over-serious but I still appreciate that the band produced a richly dark meditation on mortality that expanded their musical palette with confidence (and was more successful than the various experiments of Out of Time). The simple beauty of “Nightswimming” and “Find the River” lift the album significantly.

The worst album? That would have to be Around the Sun. It’s perhaps the most personal album, nearly all of the songs centering around relationships, but the pacing and energy of the songs never picks up. It’s the musical equivalent of a car stuck in second gear. Even the allegedly peppy songs like “Wanderlust” never generate much heat. The musicianship and vocals are fine throughout but they are in service to songs that are ultimately dull (“Leaving New York” is a solid opener, though). While Up and Reveal also had their share of so-so songs, neither album falls into the slumber of Around the Sun.

R.E.M. calls it quits

This story on R.E.M.’s official website announces that the band is amicably splitting up after 30 years together. So it turns out Bill Berry quitting did break the band up, as he had feared it might, it just took 14 years longer than expected!

As I said on Quarter to Three’s forum, this makes me sad but it’s not too surprising. They seemed to be drifting since before Bill Berry left the band in 1997.

They did their ‘rock’ album in 1994 with Monster, a deliberate change-up from their previous sound but the follow-up to that album, New Adventures in Hi-Fi felt at times like an awkward blend of the two previous albums, Automatic for the People and Monster, suggesting the band was unable to settle on a direction.

Once Berry left they got more experimental and production-heavy, with dense arrangements that were pretty much the antithesis of their IRS records. There was some good stuff in there but some of it felt labored or worse, was forgetful. The latter albums also felt (to me, anyway) as if an individual band member drove each one — Accelerate was Buck’s album, Around the Sun was Mills’, Up was Stipe’s, there was a sense that the group no longer shared a vision, they just worked agreeably together.

I quite liked Accelerate, their self-described attempt to stay relevant. In all the years since 1986 it’s the album that most recalls my favorite, Lifes Rich Pageant. In retrospect it was a penultimate last hurrah.

Still, 30+ years is a hell of a run.

And I’ll admit, I’d pick up a Mike Mills solo album.