Friday, July 30, 2010

One From Column John & One From Column Paul

Back to the Beatles.

With a major hat-tip to the amazing Beatle-obsessed Hey Dullblog, here are two Beatle-related items:

A 1999 interview with Jack Douglas, producer of John & Yoko's Double Fantasy album. Among the amazing facts -- Paul McCartney called the studio during the recording sessions; he and John were planning to get together to write songs together, but Yoko made sure John didn't get the message. (This is interesting in light of another report that John was supposed to come to New Orleans to work with Paul on the Venus & Mars album in 1975, but Yoko became pregnant and vetoed the idea.)

Speaking of Paul McCartney, Geoff Geis, has put together something he calls "Fast RAM" or "Ram on 45." The concept is simple as Geis explains: "My buddy Dan C proposed that people in the era of Ram were so drugged-out that slow music appealed to them more." So he recorded McCartney's Ram album at 45rpm instead of 33 1/3. And the results are surprisingly fun and entertaining. Check it out here.

Surely this is why the Internet was invented!

Updated: Commenter David pointed out that, in the comments to Geoff Geis' blog entry, commenter Alan Benard pitch-corrected the Fast RAM to be less chipmunky. You can hear (or download) the pitch-corrected first side here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Moment of Inception

A brief aside... back to the music tomorrow

No major spoilers... but this will probably make more sense if you've already seen Inception.

Now Inception is not the best movie ever made. Not by a long shot. But it may be the best movie ever made for a mass audience.

Even if you haven't seen the movie, you probably know something about it. You may have seen the trailers or heard your friends talking about it. You've probably seen the couple sitting outside the cafe as their physical world literally explodes around them. You've heard that it's about dreams. And dreams within dreams. And the dreams within dreams within them.

You may even think the movie is about lucid dreaming, going into other people's dreams, and creating dreamscapes. Hell, you might have heard that the plot involves manipulating a man who's inheriting a huge corporate empire to make him sell off certain key assets.

You may know that the movie deals with the nature of reality and the dangers tof not being able to distinguish between reality and dreaming (or, worse still, when deciding you'd rather live in a dream world than in the real world).

And the movie touches on all those things.

But that's not what it's about.

Sure, Leonardo Dicaprio lays out all sorts of rules about how this process works. (But then he breaks most of them.)

And there's something about Leo's wife and a dark secret in his past. And Ellen Page. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who has to be Timothy Hutton's son, no matter what anyone tells you).

But that's not the core of this movie.

And it's not a perfect movie. The balance between over-explaining things and creating an incomprehensible Vanilla Sky mush is off. And (aside from Dicaprio) none of the characters has enough depth. And the team's skills and character flaws don't come into play as strongly in the dreamworlds as they could. And some of the setups aren't paid off very well.


None of that matters.

Because that's not what the movie's about.

This is a movie about making movies. Or, to put it another way, it's a movie about what storytelling is and what it means.

The key moment in the movie might be when Page asks how someone can design a dreamscape that's realistic enough to draw the dreamer in. Dicaprio tells her (and I'm paraphrasing here) that details aren't important -- what matters is to set up the general framework and then make the dream emotionally powerful. After that, the dreamer will fill in the details and bring his own take to the dreamscape.

The plot plays out in a series of twists and turns in the movie, punctuated by breathtaking visuals. Like Dicaptrio, writer/director Christopher Nolan sets up a series of rules for his worlds and then gleefully and purposefully breaks most of them.

Because it doesn't matter.

In the very last scene of the movie, something extraordinary happens.

After the roller-coaster ride of the plot has mostly played out, there's one last thread that Nolan has to tie up. And that thread is far more important than any of the chase scenes or the exploding worlds, or the struggles with the bad guys. I promised no major spoilers, so I won't give away what the scene is (or what it may or may not mean).

And anyway, what exactly happens is not what the scene is about. And ultimately, not what the movie is about.

Everyone who watches that final scene will overlay it with his or her experiences, triumphs, disappointments, and desires.

And that's what matters.

Forget what the final scene is or isn't showing you.

Take care of the emotional response and the dreamers will fill in the details themselves.

The brilliance of Inception is that, in that final scene, the audience has an amazing, strong, shared emotional response that is palpable. The details can fade away (and you can leave the theater and over-analyze and over-intellectualize what specifically that final scene means), but what's left is a powerful emotion. The yearning. The wanting.

The emotional response that's more important than minor flaws in the plot or the characters.

And isn't creating that powerful emotional response what great storytelling is all about?

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Lot Like You and An Awful Lot Like Me

The Strike No One Knew About

After 15 years of a bad deal with Virgin Records (which the band didn't renegotiate when they had songs on the charts), XTC delivered Nonsuch in 1991.

The album was gorgeous -- combining their love of lush, nearly orchestral pop with catchy hook-driven rock songs. Like Mummer, it was reflective. Like Oranges and Lemons it had twitchy psychedelic songs. Like Skylarking, it had dense, sweet moments. And like every album they ever made, it had lyrics that would melt the heart of English Majors all over America.

Fans loved it. Critics compared it to Revolver and Pet Sounds.

And the album even had a few great videos -- like this one (which I literally saw for the first time four days ago).

Another terrific album that should have made XTC superstars.

And another terrific album that didn't make XTC superstars.

Frustrated by Virgin's inability to bring the band to the next level, XTC asked to be released from their contract. Virgin refused.

And then the band did something that was either very smart or very stupid. They went on strike.

But it was the 1990s... and there was an internet, but not like today's internet.

So almost no one knew they were on strike.

And, since the band hadn't toured since Andy Partridge's onstage meltdown a decade earlier, there was no way for fans to stay connected to the band.

Andy Partridge and company were stubborn -- so they waited out the record company (even reportedly taking day jobs at a car rental agency for a while), recorded a series of amazing demos and plotted their next move -- a double album with one record that rocked out and a second record that was mellower and featured an orchestra.

It took nearly a decade to get released from Virgin. By that time, relationships within the band were severely strained. To generate revenue to pay to finish recording, the band decided to break up the double album -- releasing one record first and the second a year or so later. Guitarist/keyboardist Dave Gregory wanted to thunder back with a rocking electric album that would thrill longtime fans. But Andy insisted the orchestral disc should come out first; Andy won the argument and Apple Venus was released in 1999. But in the process, he lost Gregory, who quit the band shortly before the electric album was finished. Andy and bassist Colin Moulding finished the second album themselves (Gregory had already recorded guitar parts for most but not all of the songs) and Wasp Star came out in 2000.

Both were great, but the band (if you could call Andy and Colin a band) couldn't build on the momentum. Andy announced plans to release a series of XTC demos, calling the project Fuzzy Warbles, but Colin moved and didn't give Andy his new address or phone number. So Fuzzy Warbles instead became a series of Andy Partridge demos (with a few songs featuring the whole band).

And XTC just faded away. A few years later, Andy admitted what every XTC fan had long feared: the band was defunct.

Maybe the strike went on too long. Maybe the group had just run its course.

All I know is that XTC should have been superstars. Many times over.

Need some proof? Let's begin...

Friday, July 23, 2010

Never Say Hello

Familiar, but a bit off

The phone rang and I grabbed it. No hello, no introductory small talk. Just "So I accidentally lit my underwear on fire."

Because she never said hello. And she never bothered introducing anything. Everything was now, everything was tumbled up together, everything was a continuation at 100 miles per hour.

And you had your choice: jump on and keep up or jump off and escape.

There was always a reason to whatever crazy thing she said. If you stuck around. If you unpacked it.

She was lighting a candle. In the bathroom. Where her underwear was drying. And the dog knocked the candle over. Knocked it to the floor. But it didn't go out. It lit things on fire.

Things like underwear. And magazines. And maybe her roommate's hash supply.

This was normal. This was how she lived. This was what you had to expect.

The other choice was exile. And you didn't want the exile.

Because it felt good to be part of the circle. One of the ones who'd get the phone calls. Rush to catch up to the insane stories that started in the middle and worked their way in all directions.

The outside was crowded. With exiles who'd never light their underwear on fire, either by accident or on purpose.

Long periods of silence would follow the calls. And then the next call, again starting in the middle as if no time had past.

"So the state trooper wanted me to crush grapes with my feet with him, but I said I'd rather take the ticket," she said. No warm-up, no windup, just the pitch.

And God help you if you weren't ready.

Why would the state trooper want you to join him in crushing grapes with his feet?

That question could never be asked. Or, more accurately, it could only be asked once. Then, immediate exile.

"I shot a bullet hole through my igloo and I need it fixed in the next 20 minutes before the temperature gets down past 40 below."

But how do you know you've been exiled?

"I dreamt you were haunting me after death. So I need you to do a pre-emptive exorcism of yourself."

What's the difference between exile and the long months of silences?

"I know I told you if I were an animal, I'd be a gazelle, but I just realized I'm really a limur."

And how long is her list anyway? How many people does she cycle through before she calls you back again?

"I was just at Starbucks in line behind Ben Vereen and I realized I'd always gotten him confused with Bette Midler."

And where does reality end and fantasy start with her? Certainly not at the same place as with normal people.

So, one day I got a voicemail. "I'm heading into the mountains and the mist is clinging to the peaks like a lovesick teenager. And it's so beautiful I want to cry. But I can't because the mountain goats are looking intently for any sign of weakness."

And I thought long and hard about what really counts as normal.

Then I called her back. But the number had been disconnected.

And the long period of silence began again. Familiar, but different.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Producers with Computers Fix All My Shitty Tracks

Eleanor had a weakness.

She loved guitar players.

It didn't matter what type of guitar or what style -- electric, acoustic, classical, jazz, fuzzed-out garage. She loved them all.

"Some girls like flowers and moonlit nights," she told me once. "All I need is the sound of strings being tuned."

And for years, she'd date guitarist after guitarist. Punk rockers, power poppers, jazzbos. Each and every one would break her heart.

And then one day, she met a guy who played piano. Poorly.

She said he made her laugh. Made her feel like she was the only woman in the world. And he'd tell her stories about far-away places. "This is progress," she told all her friends.

And we agreed -- it was progress.

I wish I could tell you that Eleanor stayed with the untalented piano player. But she didn't.

One night she dragged him with her to an Eric Clapton concert. He couldn't help but notice that Eleanor was transfixed by the solos.

She sighed as fingers moved up and down the fretboard. She moaned as whammy bars made the axe scream. And she screamed as notes came hot and heavy like they were being spit out of a Tommy Gun in a 1930s gangster movie.

It was like the guitar was calling out to her and her alone.

She and the bad piano player broke up a week later.

Eleanor flew to Chicago to see Clapton again. And then drove to Milwaukee.

And Eleanor wound up marrying a guy from the band that opened for Clapton.

Nope, not the lead guitarist. The piano player.

She didn't bother to tell us it was progress. But somehow we all knew.

PS: On the other hand, who knew that the producer with the power to turn down the "Suck" sliders and turn up the "Rock" sliders would turn out to be... Weird Al?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Grunge Kills Semantics

Or, why music in the 90s sucked, part 817

Hoping to follow in the footsteps of artists like Let's Active and Matthew Sweet (both of whom were inches away from superstardom), Will Owsley formed a powerpop band in Nashville with songwriter Millard Powers.

The band, who called themselves the Semantics, got signed to Geffen Records and spent years recording their first album with legendary producer Peter Asher. The band initially featured Ben Folds on drums, but he left to form his own band and was replaced by Zak Starkey, son of one Ringo Starr.

Power Pop nirvana, right? What could possibly go wrong? (Link for Gmail subscribers)

Well, Nirvana could go wrong. And did.

And the groundswell of grunge reared its head and crushed all the pop it could find.

Flannel and noise were in. Harmonies and jangly guitars were out.

By the time the band turned in their first (and only) album Powerbill, Geffen had lost interest. They dithered and eventually passed on the album.

So the band broke up. Amy Grant heard the album and hired Owsley to play in her touring band. He'd release a terrific solo album a few years later (coproduced by Millard Powers) and record and tour for years with Amy Grant and Shania Twain.

The Semantics record finally came out in 1996 in Japan, where it sold 20,000 copies with no promotion whatsoever.

Grunge would soon be over too -- but by then it was too late for the Semantics. The band was over and done with.

But at least they left behind some amazing music -- and an album that should've been a huge hit if record companies weren't tripping over themselves to chase the next big thing up to Seattle.

In a sad postscript, Owsley died a few months ago at age 44, an apparent suicide.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Diamond in the Back, Sunroof Top

Digging the Scene with a Gangster Lean...

I have literally never seen anything that made me want to go out and buy a car battery before this.

But now...

Gary Numan Plays "Cars" on 24 Cars:

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Frankie Goes to Stockholm

Back to the Future

Sweden's Elias and the Wizzkids get all retro in sound and vision (shot in glorious VHS) on this bizarrely compelling video. Which raises the question -- if you were a mad Swedish genius who could build a time machine and go back into the past... shouldn't you come back with something a little more than this?

Wouldn't you at least want to go run around in the 70s?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

More Dixon/Jones

Just a tad more...

Continuing the Don Dixon/Marti Jones jag of the past week, here's another double-shot of Don Dixon and Marti Jones.

Because great songs are great songs no matter how much (or how little) instrumentation they have, here's Dixon and Jones with a stripped-down live version of "Praying Mantis" (complete with instructions on the secret hidden chord):

And the full-band version of Marti's great cover of Bland Simpson's "Follow You All Over the World" (which, in a more just universe, would have made her bigger than Madonna -- and capable of better choices in movie roles):

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Craigslist Ads and the New Wave Songs That Love Them #4

Number 4 in a delusional Los Angeles-based series.

Rants and Raves

Every day I re-read your note. Then I call your old number.

Some guy named Frank answers and threatens to kill me.

If you read this, you'll know if Frank killed me.

But you won't read this. And he won't kill me.

So I'm gonna keep calling. Even though you're gone.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You Can Read My Circuit Diagram

I Need 50,000 Volts

England had a big rockabilly revival in the early 1980s. No one knows why.

And while everyone remembers the Stray Cats (who followed Chrissie Hynde to London to become stars when everyone in America was ignoring them), not a lot of people remember the Polecats.

Which is too bad.

Because they may not have been the most original band in the world (and the singer may have had the misfortune of sharing a hairdresser with A Flock of Seagulls), but they left behind one amazing blast of sheer pop mastery.

Sure, they were one-hit wonders. But man.... that one hit!

If you can listen to this without smiling or bobbing your head, check your pulse cuz you might just be dead. (In which case, you might require something with enough power to run a small defribilator...)

Sunday, July 4, 2010

I'm Not Moved by Your Artful Display

Another Alternate-Universe Superstar

In another 20 years, the phrase "wait by the phone" will seem as antiquated as crank starters for horseless carriages. When the phone goes everywhere, there's no waiting. And when the caller ID pops up all the time, there's no surprise about who might be on the other end. But even when that happens, "You Can Still Ruin My Day" by Jon Brion will be a great song.

I don't wait by the phone like I used to
I don't hope for kind words you might say
You don't prey on my mind like you used to
But you can still ruin my day.

The call comes, he tells me.

If you wait long enough, it always comes.

And you think enough time has gone by. You think the feelings aren't there anymore. You think you're over her.

But sooner or later the call comes.

And he pauses, sucking deeply on the cigarette he shouldn't have been smoking. Looking up at the ceiling and as if the meaning of life could be found there.

And it seems innocuous. Because by the time she makes the call, she's fine.

And maybe it doesn't matter for her.

He slides his legs out of bed. Determined to go outside. Willing the decades of cramps and pain away.

But the feelings never go away. You can't destroy them. It's like an emotional law of physics.

The feelings, they lurk around in your brain or your gut.

Waiting for the next time they can jump out and knock you for a loop.

If you're lucky, they change. Transform into something else.

If you're lucky.

He puts on a sweatshirt. Grabs the cane. Then shakes his head and carefully tips it up against the wall.

The ironic thing is you think you want the call.

You dream about it for months, years, decades.

Then, when it comes...

And he gestures with his hand. Some old-fashioned gesture that maybe meant something 50 years ago, maybe means something now, and maybe is the only thing to do when there are no words.

And I follow him out into the hallway. Out towards the sunshine of the terrace.

Not saying anything. Watching him grimace in pain. And knowing the pain in his legs is easier to bear than the pain in his heart.

In an alternate universe, Jon Brion is more popular than Madonna and Justin Bieber combined.

Here, he's known and loved as a record producer, songwriter, aficionado of melodic pop music. His Friday-night gigs at Cafe Largo in L.A. were legendary even if his own music (especially 2001's amazing Meaningless album), production work (for Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Elliot Smith, Robyn Hitchcock, Of Montreal, etc.), and film scoring work (Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and many more) failed to make him a household name.

In this world, we've got to settle for the occasional song that squeaks through on his film work, his great live shows, and the hope that he'll someday get around to releasing the follow-up to Meaningless.

By the way, I'd be much obliged if anyone from the alternate universe where Jon Brion is a superstar could slip me a live recording of the shows he must have done with the supergroup he must have assembled (which most likely includes Robyn Hitchcock, Don Dixon, Scott McCaughey, and Marshall Crenshaw). Thanks.

Bonus: "Walking Through Walls," another great song from Meaningless, this one co-written with Grant Lee Phillips (and featuring great call-and-response vocals and a dash of profanity). Listen here.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Song for the Internets

And my lovely DSL provider.

It wouldn't bother me so much that their tech support is never helpful if they'd only stop reading their infernal scripts that talk endlessly about offering "excellent service."

And when they tell me there's no direct line to US-based Tech Support... well, that's just a lie.

Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of incompetent techs in the US, but no one from my ISP's outsourced tech support islands in the Phillipines or India has ever solved any problem I've had. Literally, they keep you running around in circles for 20-30 hours until you insist on escalating the issue to the US-based techs... and at least then there's a chance.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Taking the Dork Bullet

I took the dork bullet for Don Dixon.

I’ve always wondered if it’s possible to meet someone famous and not seem like a dork.

I’m not talking about when you work with famous people (in which case you’re collaborators or at least colleagues and there’s less inequality). No, I’m talking about when you meet someone and you’re the fan and they’re the artist.

It’s always made me feel weird.

What can you say?

I’m a big fan. Well, obviously.
I’m your biggest fan. A) Creepy, and B) probably not true.
I love your work. Better, but it drips of phony show-biz.
I loved XX. What, you don't love anything else they did?

So I generally try to avoid the situation. Because, no matter what I say, I feel like a dork.

But when Don Dixon rolled into town a couple summers ago, I took the dork bullet.

If you don’t know, Dixon was one of the hot producers of the 1980s, bringing what’s now called “jangle pop” to the masses. Dixon, along with Mitch Easter, produced the first couple of REM albums, along with records from Marshall Crenshaw, Dumptruck, Marti Jones, the Smitherens, Chris Stamey, Kim Carnes, Hootie & the Blowfish, and many, many more.

He was also a great songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, sometime member of the Golden Palominos, and a singer with an intensely emotional voice. For years, he was part of the legendary band Arrogance and, after REM’s success, he signed as a solo artist with Enigma.

For his first album Most of the Girls Like to Dance But Only Some of the Boys Like To, he wrote, arranged, and performed everything. It's a great record, anchored by one of the finest singles that should've topped the charts (but somehow didn't).

After producing the first Marti Jones album, Dixon married Marti Jones. For a while, they were the King and Queen of alt-rock, superstars in waiting. It was just a matter of time. (The Chi-Town Budget Show, a live album they released together around that time, remains an absolute joy.)

In the early 90s, I saw Dixon and Jones several times. Small venues, packed houses, great shows.

But the superstardom never quite happened. Dixon continued recording and performing (as well as doing producing gigs -- rumor has it, he was tapped to produce Nirvana's Nevermind, but lost the gig when he asked for too much money), but grunge took over and jangle pop fell out of favor.

In an alternate universe, Don Dixon may have been a superstar, but here he faded from prominence. Never quite gone, but nowhere near as almost-famous as he'd been in the 80s.

And then, years later, I saw a notice that Dixon and Jones were playing in L.A. I bought tickets and dragged my friend Tom with me to the concert. Great show, amazing music, small but devoted audience. (Link for Gmail subscribers.)

I brought my vinyl of Most of the Girls Like to Dance... with me. Afterwards, I waited patiently on line and got him to sign it. I shook his hand. I thanked him for the great music he'd made (and produced), told him how much it meant to me, and shook his hand. It was dorky, but I meant every word.

And then I went to get Marti's autograph. On my way out, Dixon called out to me by name and waved. (Maybe it's okay to be a dork as long as you're a sincere and grateful dork.)

All the way home I thought I couldn't have taken the dork bullet for a nicer or more talented guy.