Monday, November 30, 2009

Things You Can Remind Me of the Next Time I Start Acting Like I Know Squat About Music

  • I sat down last week to fill out WXPN's year-end survey, but ran into a minor problem while trying to list my 10 favorite albums of 2009: I've only actually heard 3 albums that came out this year -- Phoenix's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (great), the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love (pretty good, considering I don't really like the Decemberists), and the Flaming Lips' Embryonic (I love the Lips, but boy oh boy, I didn't like that album). I also bought Everything Goes Wrong by Vivian Girls, which has been in my car for several months but is yet to make it into my CD player. Truthfully, this isn't so unusual, since I typically wait until the year-end lists come out before I catch up on the previous twelve months of music, but still...
  • Maybe I'm not alone on this one, but it wasn't until a few days ago that I realized -- after wondering for the better part of a decade -- why Jay-Z calls himself Hova. It's Jay-hova, like Jehovah, right?

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Nordic Menace is Threatening Our Beloved American Holidays

I just found out that the Philadelphia Thanksgiving Parade is now sponsored by IKEA rather than Boscov's.

I suppose it's only a matter of time before our traditional celebrations of Pilgrims and turkeys morph into a bizarre ritual involving allen wrenches and cheap bookcases named FÄRNOT. Until that awful day comes to pass, though, Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What I Learned Today

Back in 2001, Ricky Jay appeared in a commercial for Bob Dylan's Love and Theft. It should not surprise you to learn that playing cards are involved.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Live Every Week Like It Was Shark Week

Wow, this Miami Shark flash game is just crazily entertaining. Though-provoking, too. After all, who's to say that a shark couldn't jump out of the water and eat the Concorde?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another Halloween Night, and I Ain't Got No Costume

As usual, it's All Hallow's Eve and I find myself not dressed up with no place to go. Still, as in years past, I've managed to come up with one fairly decent costume idea, though it's best suited for the ladies. So to my female readership: go ahead and steal my last-minute idea of dressing up as the Utz girl. I mean, how easy is that? Red T-shirt, lots of blush on your cheeks, big red bow in your hair, a sly grin, and your hand in a bag of chips. Just be sure to credit me when you get the inevitable compliments.

Meanwhile, Francesco Marciuliano, writer of Sally Forth, came up with an idea so obvious, I'm surprised it never occured to me: dress up as a character whom no one ever saw! Charlie from Charlie's Angels is just one example; it could also work with Maris, Niles's wife on Frasier, or the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

Update: So, yeah -- of course the costume ideas start coming fast and furious in early November. These ones are not only easy, they're unbearably snobbish as well!
  • Young Antoine Doinel - all you need is a turtleneck, plaid coat and, if you're going the extra mile, a stolen typewriter.
  • Death - white face paint, a black robe with hood, chess set
  • The lead characters from Breathless - For him: snappy coat and tie, fedora. For her: skinny jeans, pixie haircut, New York Herald Tribune T-shirt.
What's that? Why yes, I do spend an inordinate amount of time browsing the Criterion Collection's website! However did you guess?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Other Meats For Uplifting Gormandizers

I suppose it's inevitable that a review of DBGB Kitchen and Bar, a Manhattan restaurant near the late CBGB, would inspire the New York Times' new food critic to let out his inner punk rocker. Two separate Ramones references in the headline and first line of the review? Check.

He does deserve extra credit for a less-obvious Talking Heads line, though.

(Also: a restaurant with a sausage-centric menu? I'm all revved up and ready to go.)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I Wonder Which Songs They're Gonna Play When We Go...

The '59 Sound, the breakthrough album from Jersey punks the Gaslight Anthem, completely snuck up on me last year; I don't recall hearing anything about the band before they started appearing on year-end best-of lists. And it's the rare album that actually lives up to the hype, an almost maddeningly consistent group of songs in what is possibly my favorite sub-genre: frequently anthemic rock music with smart, allusive lyrics (see also: the Hold Steady, Drive-By Truckers).

Seeing them live, though, offered a reminder that this was first and foremost punk music (and also a reminder that in all my years, I had never been to an actual punk show). At the sound of the first chord, the crowd around me pressed forward and the limbs of a crowdsurfer nearly knocked the glasses off of my face, and I decided to beat a hasty retreat further back from the stage. Even that wasn't entirely safe, though, as I was only a couple of yards from a circle of moshers. This was a far cry from the way I had previously experienced the band's music: through headphones, with the lyrics booklet in my hand. Under the circumstances, I preferred the slower, quieter numbers, since I could focus on the show and worry less about some dude knocking me over. The highlight of the evening was a hushed, singalong rendition of "Here's Looking at You Kid," although the album-closing "Backseats" and a cover of Tom Petty's "Refugee" were close runners-up.

The Gaslight Anthem most likely have pomade on their tour rider.
They also have the most bad-ass kick drum you're likely to see: that's John Shaft and Charles Bronson.

Considering that they share a name with a mystery spoof written by Neil Simon, I kind of assumed Murder by Death would be a fairly lighthearted opening act. Imagine my surprise, then, when the lead singer turned out to have mutton chops and a Nick Cave baritone, singing songs about, well, murder and death (words like "dust" and "whiskey" are liable to pop up in the lyrics) and whose backing band included a cello player. There were some die-hard fans in the audience; the guys on either side of me seemed to know every word, and both seemed to think that the only proper way to sing along was with their hands extended towards the heavens and head thrown back like a howling wolf.

Murder by Death's choice of cover song: Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)". What's that, Wikipedia? You say that song was originally recorded by Cher? Thanks, Wikipedia! You're the best!
The Loved Ones are local kids, and as such they were received enthusiastically by the hometown crowd. I'd be lying if I said I remembered any of their songs, though they did play a version of Conor Oberst's "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)." A lucky audience member guessed the song before they played it, and was thus rewarded with a swig of the Jack Daniels bottle that the frontman kept nearby.

Later that week, and closer to the other end of the musical spectrum, I went to see St. Vincent and Andrew Bird. During the show, I came to the somewhat disappointing realization that, while I don't dislike either of those artists' musical output, I don't love a great deal of it either. It was fun, though, to see the virtuosic Bird effortlessly switch between violin (often creating on-the-fly tape loops to accompany himself), xylophone, guitar, vocals, and whistling. His stage setup was also impressive, with stacks of vintage-looking amps and oversized gramophone horns, including one two-headed monster of a Victrola that spun around during certain songs.

Oh, and if the guy to my right who kept shouting "Fake Palindromes!" between songs happens to be reading this: Try not to be such an asshole in the future, OK?"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Closing Time

Call it a Murphy's Law of concertgoing: if you spend weeks debating whether you want to shell out the money for tickets to see Leonard Cohen at the Spectrum (because, on the one hand, you'd feel like you're squandering an opportunity if you didn't see Mr. Cohen while he's touring for the first time in years, but on the other hand, you're skeptical that a large arena is the ideal venue to see him, sandwiched as he is between multi-night farewell shows by Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam), the show will end up moving to the Tower at the last minute (which would be an awesome venue, but is small enough to have completely sold out).

Sunday, October 11, 2009

What I've Seen: Nosferatu the Vampyre

If you're in the market for a filmed version of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Werner Herzog's 1979 Nosferatu the Vampyre is but one choice among many: F.W. Murnau's silent Nosferatu (of which Herzog's film is a remake/homage), Tod Browning's version with Bela Lugosi, and Francis Ford Coppola's strangely cast and over-the-top but visually spectacular adaptation -- and those are just the ones that I've seen. And if all you're after is the basic plot -- real estate agent sells city home to Transylvanian count, vampire moves west with designs on the throat of said agent's wife, bloodsucking ensues -- pretty much any of them will get the job done.

But then, nobody goes into a Werner Herzog movie just to see a plot unfold. They go for the director's audacious, go-for-broke style. So it was disappointing to find that the beginning portion of Nosferatu is mostly missing that Herzogian quality. There's nothing necessarily wrong with it, but it feels like an attempt to make the movie that Murnau would have made if he had access to late-20th century technology: with color, sound, movable cameras, location photography, and an atmospheric score from Krautrock band Popol Vuh. As Johnathan Harker (played by Bruno Ganz, perhaps best known as the actor in all of those YouTube videos of an irate Hitler) slowly makes his journey to Dracula's castle, I was ready to dismiss the film as an unnecessary retread.

Ah, but when the Count himself finally appeared onscreen, it was a different story. Frequent Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski is such a sinister presence that it's difficult to be anything less than transfixed when he occupies the frame. Kinski wears the same ghoulish makeup that Max Schreck wore in the original, and also copies Schreck's stiff-backed, slow movements (although he is also capable of quickly scurrying around, like the rodent he so closely resembles). It is also, at times, a surprisingly understated performance, as Kinski plays Dracula as a lonely creature tormented by his immortality. For better or for worse, the modern trope of the angst-ridden vampire has some of its roots here.

The film doesn't really start to get going, however, until Dracula arrives in Wisborg (the film's analogue to London in Stoker's novel). Beginning with unbroken shot of the ship carrying the vampire drifting slowly and eerily through a canal, this is where it felt like Herzog finally diverged from his source material and indulged in his own whims. As townsfolk keep dying mysteriously and everyone fears the Plague, Herzog sets many hauntingly apocalyptic images in the town square: lines of casket-carrying pallbearers (shot from above to look like centipedes), livestock roaming freely among the dwindling survivors, and a group holding a self-described last supper as hundreds of rats swarm at their feet (Herzog's fascination with animals is evident -- edited into the film are several slow-motion clips of a bat in flight). The film improves right until its final scene, where unexpected comedy and a bleak twist mingle side by side.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Internet Argument of the Week

This epic, incredibly vitriolic comment thread at Philebrity proves that people wearing snuggies and going out to drink is the most controversial issue facing the world today.

It was pretty nice outside this week, wasn't it? Then why is everyone so cranky?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

More Songs from Pandora

I've been around a while, and during that time I guess I've heard Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" a couple hundred times. But it was always the live Budokan version. It wasn't until earlier this week that I heard the studio version, and holy hell I would never have guessed that this was the same band inspiring an arena full of excited Japanese girls.

Dig that honky-tonk piano solo!

While that's a pleasantly unfamiliar take on a familiar song, this next revelation made me question everything I thought I knew about the universe. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Tom Waits:

Obviously, this was before he switched to a diet consisting entirely of unfiltered cigarettes, cheap whiskey, and the occasional piece of sandpaper.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pandora Rocks

I've known about the internet radio site Pandora for years, but never really spent a lot of time listening to it until recently. It's quickly become one of my favorite things in the universe. Without it, I would still be completely unaware that the following things existed:
  • An album of mellow My Bloody Valentine covers
  • A (damn catchy) song about the cult TV show The Prisoner
  • An answer song to Sam Cooke's "Bring It On Home to Me"

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Ah, Technology: Part II

Dear Al Sharpton,

I'll admit that I don't use Twitter, and I (thankfully) have not been to a lot of funerals in my life. Even so, I think I know enough to say that one should not generally post Twitter updates at a funeral. Emily Post might have something to say about that.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ah, Technology

So I use Google Calendar to remind myself of upcoming concerts, movies, and other such things that I might be interested in checking out. I never had any problem with it until the other day, when I tried to add an entry for a screening of 28 Days Later, and Google's software assumed that I would be busy for the next four weeks.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Woman That I Love, She Got a Prizefighter's Nose

I have no idea if Patton Oswalt has any inside information about Bob Dylan's private life, but the image he presents in this story is just too funny to be false:
My friend told me he was at Bob Dylan’s house years ago, and Bob Dylan was complaining because too many of his kids were getting nose jobs or something, and he was on the phone saying “I ain’t paying for any more noses.” So like Bob Dylan is this radical, amazing songwriter, but he still has to bitch about his kids and yell at them.

(The rest of that interview is absolutely worth reading as well. I love that Patton's a true geek's geek, always unashamed to rave about the things he loves.)

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Portmanteau Clever By Half

It took me the better part of a week to figure out what Slate's new aggregation feature's name was supposed to mean. Is it the superlative form of Slate (as in slate, slater, slatest)? A strangely spelled contraction of "Slate list"? An attempt to piggyback on the popularity (?) of Gothamist, Phillyist, and other similarly named blogs?

It finally hit me that it's a combination of "Slate" and "latest." At least I think it is.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Using Up the Leftovers

Quick! Here's a bunch of stuff I was too lazy to write about earlier in the week!
  • Ever since Eric Bruntlett's game-ending feat on Sunday, I've been fascinated by the history of the unassisted triple play. It occurred seven times between the years of 1909 and 1927, which would certainly make it uncommon, but frequent enough that you wouldn't expect it to become one of the rarest events in baseball. I mean, in 1927 it happened on two consecutive days! Then, almost as if it were feeling overexposed, the unassisted triple play seemed to have gone into a self-imposed exile for 65 years, emerging only briefly in 1968. It wasn't until Mickey Morandini in 1992 that the UTP finally felt comfortable enough to reappear, and since then it's made another six appearances. I'm not enough of a baseball fan to understand what accounts for that massive gap between the twenties and nineties. Rule changes? Several generations of lousy infielders? One of those whimsical baseball curses? It's quite baffling.
  • I think I'm spending a little too much time on certain internet message boards: after leaving a congratulatory note on the Facebook page of a friend who just got engaged, I felt a small sense of accomplishment that mine was the first comment.
  • More perils of the internet: I recently read a spoiler that revealed the ending of Martin Scorsese's upcoming Dennis Lehane adaptation Shutter Island. I don't know what pisses me off more: the fact that the movie and book may have been ruined for me, or that the big twist is exactly what I figured it would be.
  • Lastly, I feel ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Ellie Greenwich before Wednesday, when news broke of her death. Little did I know that she had a long list of songwriting credits, including many of producer Phil Spector's most indelible hits. "Then He Kissed Me" is, for my money, just about the perfect distillation of what a pop song should be (and, to continue the Scorsese theme, the soundtrack to that classic scene in Goodfellas), and "Be My Baby" ain't that far behind it. With his recent murder conviction (and long history of bizarre, often violent behavior) it's a bothersome thing to call oneself a Phil Spector fan, but have no such reservations about calling myself an Ellie Greenwich fan.

Monday, August 24, 2009

It Is Not Tony's Custom to Go Where He Is Not Wanted

So, when did former sitcom star and possible Philadelphia teacher Tony Danza
start to look like the Mystery Man from Lost Highway?

And who will be the next Taxi alumnus to use our fair city as the backdrop for his wacky exploits? Call me crazy, but my money's on dark horse Andy Kaufman.

I Even Fell For Your Stupid Love Song

And now, Jersey punks singing Kelly Clarkson songs:

Since, as the saying goes, three makes a trend, I'm upset that I couldn't find any other videos that fit the category. The Misfits, Patti Smith: I'm looking in your direction.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I Didn't Even Have to Use My AK

So a couple of days ago, Philebrity posted a link to Snacks and Shit, a blog that does nothing but comment on absurd rap lyrics, and it is truly hilarious. While going through their archives, I checked to see how much they had written on Ice Cube's song "It Was a Good Day," but was disappointed to see that it only merited one post. You see, a week or so ago, I was listening to that track a few times a day, and while it's a killer song, it's got quite a few lines that baffle me. To wit:
  • "Get me on the court and I'm trouble / Last week, fucked around and got a triple double" Yeah, it's not that original to point out how ridiculous it is that Ice Cube is keeping detailed personal statistics during a playground basketball game (unless he brings his own scorekeeper along?). Moreover, how annoying must it be to be one of Cube's friends? First you've got to put up with him talking up his acheivements like he's his own Sportscenter highlight reel. Then, he wins all of your money playing craps. By the time he's yelling "Domino!" I feel like the other guys sitting around the table are like, "Yo, Cube, don't you have two or three girls you could be having sex with right now?"
  • "It's ironic / I got the brew, she got the chronic" I think that even Alanis Morissette would have to file that under "Not at all ironic."
  • "And my dick runs deep, so deep / So deep put her ass to sleep" Uh, I'm not sure just how that works, but I'd just as soon not dwell on it.
  • "I even saw the lights of the Goodyear blimp / And it read 'Ice Cube's a Pimp'" Who on earth would purchase ad space to relay that message? Fess up, Cube: you bought that yourself, didn't you? I understand you probably got a bargain price, seeing as the blimp is flying over South Central after midnight, but it still reeks of desperation.
However, one piece of information does check out: it is possible to get a Fatburger in Los Angeles at two in the morning.

My New Hero

Originally uploaded by granitepics

Saturday, August 1, 2009

XPoNential Music Festival - We Could Stick Around and See this Night Through

Aaaand we're back, with part two of the 2009 'XPN Fest coverage!

Before we get into that, though, I feel like I should make note of the biggest difference from previous festivals I attended: the insane crowds. I seem to remember being able to wander over to the second stage throughout the day and still find a spot of grass to sit with a decent view of the stage. Not so this year, when the previously ample grass quickly became just a mass of people on lawn chairs and picnic blankets. Annoying for me, to be sure, but more people buying tickets is certainly a good thing overall.Well, another day, another opening slot by a local artist whom I only know by name. In this case, it was Andrew Lipke. I only caught the tail-end of his set, but it was a little louder than I was expecting.Wow, the kids in Perkasie sure seemed to be having a great time. Their music isn't easy to categorize, although their blurb on WXPN's website calls it "vaudeville folk," which I suppose is as good a descriptor as any. There was lots of dancing, foot-stomping, washboard-playing, and I have to say that their energy was contagious.Donna the Buffalo was the jammiest band I saw play the festival and, not coincidentally, the one that bored me the most. Please, don't waste a perfectly good Bo Diddley beat by stretching it out to epic length and playing a string of nondescript solos over it. The audience seemed heavy on the aging hippie demographic, though, so I guess this wasn't supposed to appeal to me anyway.

This was, however, the third band to play an accordian after They Might Be Giants and the Hold Steady, which goes to show what a diverse instrument that can be.Eric, one-half of Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby, is English? News to me!With Steve Forbert and the Windfall Prophets, we once again have a performer with an enthusiastic crowd and a single song that I recognize. He sounded kind of like he was slurring his words when he talked between songs, which was kind of amusing.I'll admit that I don't remember much about Serena Ryder's set, except that she mentioned a previous gig where it was "pissing rain," and then said that it was OK to say that because the language guidelines passed out to the artists said it was fine to say "piss" as long as it did not refer to bodily functions. This answered a question that I've always had, which is whether people performing live on the radio get a detailed list of what they can and can't say without incurring FCC fines. Guster went one step further and posted the whole memo on their Twitter. It's surprisingly -- and hilariously -- thorough.Speaking of foul language, the only knowledge I had about John Wesley Harding was that David Dye had once played his song "July 13th 1985," then had to apologize for not reading the lyrics ahead of time and letting "fuck" and "shit" go unbleeped. Anyway, it turns out that I really like this guy! He's got it all: an English accent, amusing anecdotes and banter (he remarked that he was doing a meet & greet later, which is unusual for him because he usually meets or greets, but rarely both), clever songs, and a singing voice that sounds a bit like Elvis Costello. He also brought Amy Rigby & Wreckless Eric onstage for a song, because those Brits all know each other or something.

(Oh! One more thing I like about John Wesley Harding: he calls his band the English UK, in a self-aware nod to the English Beat and Charlatans UK and any other British bands that have to change their names when they arrive in the States.)I only stuck around for a couple of songs, but I must say that the music of Gandalf Murphy is not nearly as dire as I was expecting it to be, considering that he's a guy named Gandalf who claims to hail from a imaginary country called Slambovia.
Aimee Mann got an extremely enthusiastic reception throughout her performance, and she seemed genuinely touched by all of the affection. She said at the beginning that she was doing a semi-unplugged thing, with two backup musicians switching among several instruments depending on the song, and she also said that she would be playing songs that she didn't typically play live. I love Aimee Mann, I really do, and she seems like such a genuinely nice, down-to-earth person, but I just wasn't really into her set. I think part of my problem is that I like her best when she's working with Jon Brion, and when you take away those lush arrangements, it robs the songs of a key element. Sorry, Aimee! I'll try to see you some other time and see if that works better for me.
My knowledge of Peter Bjorn and John doesn't go much deeper than their hits, which tend to be fairly mellow. Beyond that, I remember reading about a troubled set at this year's SXSW festival, so my expectations were fairly low; I thought that at best it would be a pleasant trifle, and at worst it would be a train wreck. Turns out that I had "Nothing to Worry About" (see what I did there?). Most of PB&J's songs rock harder than I would have expected, and in concert they turn into windmilling, stage-stalking rock gods. The highlight for me (and for most of the other people close to the stage, I'm betting) was during "Young Folks," when Peter jumped off the stage and sang most of the song while walking around in the pit.

No day of outdoor music would be complete without a torrential downpour, though, and dark clouds began rolling in as the roadies were setting up for Peter Bjorn and John's set. Fortunately, it didn't cut their performance short, even though by the time they left the stage it was the familiar mix of rain, wind, and lightning that I knew so well from the previous night. It was an unwelcome interruption, but it passed quickly, and the show did go on.
Here's a tip for any funk/R&B/soul bands out there: you can pack your set with as many original songs as you like, but as long as you open with a great cover of "I Want You Back," the audience is going to think you're the greatest thing ever. Take a lesson from The Revelations featuring Tre' Williams, who did just that. Their songs weren't bad, but nothing stuck with me the way those opening bars from the Jackson 5 did.

Guster is one of those bands that, at some point between when I entered college and when I graduated, became extremely popular with a certain subset of people. Unfortunately, that subset seemed to have a great deal of overlap with people who were huge fans of Dave Matthews, so I have always looked at them with a certain degree of skepticism. Seeing them live, though, has mostly cured me of that apprehension. I actually do enjoy the handful of Guster songs that I know, and the fact that they weren't jumping-off points for tedious jams was refreshing. (The band did briefly break into an intentionally tuneless improv for a little while, with the lead singer joking that this was what improvisation sounds like by people who don't know how to play.)

The music could not be much more different, but the surrounding me at the show reminded me a lot of the die-hard Hold Steady fans I'd encountered the previous night. Here were people who had memorized lyrics sheets and were enthusiastically singing along, and familiar with rituals that were foreign to me, like tossing ping-pong balls onstage. The fact that all but the most devoted fans had left during the storm lent the event a degree of intimacy that is extremely rare at a large outdoor festival, and being close to the stage, surrounded by the happy members of a tribe to which I did not belong, was a surprisingly joyous finish to my weekend.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

XPoNential Music Festival - We Knew That We'd Arrived at a Unified Scene

Last year I was underwhelmed by the lineup and skipped the whole thing, but last weekend I was back at Wiggins Park in Camden for WXPN's annual summer festival. As usual, I had both my camera (now with video capability!) and a sack full of devastatingly snarky put-downs. Actually, not so much the second part; as I was watching most of the performers, I realized that my comments could be boiled down to (1) I'm not really familiar with this singer/band, and (2) they are pleasant enough, but not especially memorable. To avoid repeating this point ad nauseum, I'll try to keep things nice and short.
Ah, the first Main Stage set of the day, which seems to always go to a local artist whose name I have heard a thousand times, but couldn't hum one of their tunes to save my life. This year, it was Sharon Little. Her band was well-dressed.
I don't think I'd ever heard of East Hundred before. I thought that they sounded a bit like Interpol, but it's hard to hold that against them since it's not like Interpol is doing a lot with their sound these days.
I was surprised by how early Yeasayer's set was scheduled; I remember "2080" getting some pretty heavy airplay last year. Then again, they did seem to fall off my radar rather quickly. If I had to guess, I'd say that since their sound is sort of reminiscent of TV on the Radio, they were filling a niche that disappeared once Dear Science was released in the fall. Anyway, their set was pretty good, and made me want to check out the rest of All Hour Cymbals. One highlight for me was that one of their two drummers (who was wearing a backpack for some reason) was, as far as I can remember, the only person I've seen play a drum kit while standing up. Judging by the amount of pale skin showing on the lead singer, though, I'd say that this is a band that is not accustomed to playing outdoors in the mid-afternoon.

(This is where I went to watch Illinois, who I missed last time I was here. Apparently, though, I didn't take any pictures of them, so it's pretty much like it never happened at all.)
I first became aware of Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three back in '06 when I heard their superbly catchy "Cindy It Was Always You" (co-written, strangely enough, by crime novelist/The Wire scribe George Pelecanos). I was surprised to see that Wynn himself is a bit older than I pictured him, and some rudimentary Googling reveals that he's had a career that stretches back to the early 80s. Those extra years didn't slow him down, though, as Wynn and his band turned in the most rock'n'roll show I'd seen thus far in the day. His guitarist was especially animated, at one point thrusting his guitar towards one of the amps and playing the feedback like a theremin. Steve was also the first (but not last) performer that I saw use the massive bank of loudspeakers stacked in the pit as an extension of the stage.Hey, are you a moderately talented local band looking to upgrade from the second stage and your crummy time slot? Just invite Kevin Bacon to join your band! It certainly worked for the Bacon Brothers. It's not really like these guys are worthy of great derision, but let's be honest: they wouldn't attract a crowd of nearly the same size if one of the members were not the star of Wild Things and Tremors. Heck, I went to see them in college just to say I was one degree away from the guy. But you've gotta give them credit for gaining the legitimacy that eluded Dogstar or 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. They also brought some Mummers onstage for their final song, which was a nice touch, even if you couldn't really hear them.

(OK, couple things I just learned on Wikipedia: 30 Odd Foot of Grunts changed its name in 2005 to The Ordinary Fear of God, and the Bacon Brothers are also a trio of feared Canadian gangsters.)

Here's the thing about Pete Yorn: I only own his first album, and aside from that I only know one of his songs ("Crystal Village"). And while I wouldn't rank musicforthemorningafter as one of my favorite records, every time I listen to it I find myself surprised by just how strong an album it is. Hearing those songs performed live (along with a great New Order cover), surrounded by some highly devoted fans, may have permanently recalibrated my opinion of him. Who knows, I might even pick up a second CD.

When I was actually at the show, I thought that his bassist (the guy at the right in that photo) looked a lot like Christian Bale, though I may have been wrong.
There's not a whole lot of overlap between stuff I liked when I was 9 and stuff I like today, but my affection for They Might Be Giants has remained a constant. I admit that I haven't paid as much attention to them in recent years, and while I'm probably not going to be picking up any of their children's CDs anytime soon, I certainly can't begrudge them the Grammy awards and (probable) sales figures that those projects have netted them. Judging from their set, their kiddie music is just as hooky and fun as the rest of their catalog, just with more educational lyrics (though even that's not such a big switch; this is, after all, a band that has taught me much about James K. Polk, James Ensor, dead uncle Allotheria, and the allegory of the people in the cave by the Greek guy). As with Pete Yorn, TMBG is one of those performers I tend to undervalue, until I realize that I know almost every song word-for-word, and once the band left, that there were a good half-dozen more songs that I wish they'd had time for. Plus: confetti cannons!Okay, enough of this prelude. The real reason I went to this thing was to see The Hold Steady, one of my favorite contemporary bands and, by all accounts, a group of tremendous performers. I overheard the haters out in force throughout the day, talking about how overrated the band was and that they sucked live, so I was nervously preparing myself to be disappointed. And in the end, I was a fairly let down, but it had nothing to do with the guys onstage.

So how is seeing the Hold Steady live different from listening to their albums? Well, musically, it's pretty much identical (albeit much louder, of course). This isn't a band that opens up their songs with extended solos or lots of vocal ad-libs. Rather, the Hold Steady live experience is defined by other things. First, there's keyboardist Franz Nikolai (above, in the snazzy white suit), he of the trademark mustache and between-songs mugging. On top of that, there's the hilarious vision of lead singer Craig Finn, a man who looks like more like a CPA than a rock frontman, strutting around the stage like Mick Jagger, gesturing and mouthing words at the audience, and singing his lyrics with such passion that you can see the spit flying out of his mouth. Perhaps the most memorable thing about this show, though, was being crowded among hundreds of die-hard fans who know every word to every song, and are not at all shy about belting them out. It's hard not to have a good time when you're surrounded by other people who are having a tremendous time.

So why the disappointment? Well, as the band played, the weather got more and more ominous, with rain starting to fall and the wind starting to blow. This all culminated during Tad Kubler's awesome guitar solo in "Lord, I'm Discouraged," as the wind sent leftover confetti swirling through the air, and the audience members had their hair blown back as though they were cartoon characters facing an extremely loud rock concert. It was an incredible moment. To give you an idea of how wild things were getting, here's a clip of the end of that song, plus the intro to "Hornets! Hornets!" Check out the rippling banner behind the stage, the debris blowing past the camera, the rain streaking across the spotlights, the wind noise, and the insane fervor of the crowd:

Sadly, after that song was over, the show had to be shut down due to some approaching thunderstorms (The storms never materialized, but I certainly don't fault the folks in charge for taking the cautious route). The band had already played for about an hour, and would probably have only had about thirty more minutes before the noise curfew went into effect. Still, it was sad to see a show that great end even a minute early.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Big Tees

Today's theme, around which I will construct a trio of bullet points: T-shirts!
  • Kottke recently wrote about Threadcakes, a website devoted to making cakes based on Threadless T-shirt designs. This achieves that delicate balance between brilliant and ridiculous.
  • And speaking of Threadless, I came across this shirt after I watched George Melies's classic silent film "A Trip to the Moon" on Monday night. I'm not crazy about the execution, but the concept is pretty cool.
  • Anyone looking to make me a late birthday present? I've decided that I want a shirt with a picture of the late founder of the Paris Review with the text "PLIMPTON AIN'T EASY." Alternately, I've always wanted a shirt that says "META IS MURDER," but I'm not sure what an appropriate image I could use with that one (maybe another shirt). I'd do this myself, but I have no idea how to print things on fabric.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

You Simply Cannot Hide From the Ugly Truth

The ads I've been seeing for that upcoming Katherine Heigl/Gerard Butler romantic comedy certainly don't make it look like anything special. (Men and women are different in some ways, and may have outlooks that are at odds with one another! Why, it's almost as if these two sexes are engaged in some sort of battle!) They have, however, reminded me that I haven't listened to Altered Beast in a really long time.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Oh, I'd Like to Visit the Moon...

OK, so I officially have MOON FEVER. All this business about the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission has me geeked like I'm nine years old again and reading about NASA for the first time. Kottke's giant Apollo 11 post is pretty thorough, so I'm just gonna link to that and suggest that you play around over there for a while. As for me, I plan to check out the recently reissued For All Mankind on Turner Classic Movies tonight.

I've been wasting a lot of time recently reading up on the various space missions on Wikipedia, and it's become clear to me that there's a ton of stuff that I had no knowledge of. For example: the Fallen Astronaut memorial left on the moon in 1971, the Apollo 15 postage stamp scandal which involved Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise, and the moon trees grown from seeds that were taken on Apollo 14 (one of which is in Washington Square; I know what I'm doing next time I'm in the city).

Also did you ever stop to think that people have walked on the damn moon? Crazy.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the icon that Google street view is using today.

Friday, July 17, 2009

And That's the Way It Was

Legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite died today at the age of 92.

I'm too young to have any personal memories of Cronkite's nightly presence on television, but I have lately been thinking of two very famous moments in which he, when on the air, briefly took off his glasses during very emotional news. One was a moment of tragedy:

The other, a moment of triumph:

I've never lived in a world where people hadn't walked on the moon, but that giddy "Oh boy!" Cronkite lets out is probably how I would have felt watching the landing that night.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Spin the Black Circle

Last weekend was the summer edition of R5 Productions' Punk Rock Flea Market, meaning that it's been approximately one year since I started compulsively buying vinyl (and about 3 months since I was able to listen to it). Between the big event at the Starlight Ballroom and the Philadelphia Record Fair at Penn's Institute of Contemporary Art the previous day, I went a little bit crazy. That's both the beauty and the curse of buying records; it's easy to find a lot of cheap stuff (the most I spent on any one item was $10), but even at $4 a pop, those things start to add up.

I try to limit my purchases to albums that I know (or expect) that I will actually enjoy listening to. So, while it's tempting to pick up anything with a hilarious cover, I mostly pass up those opportunities. Here's a wistful look back at the things I didn't buy:

Trek Bloopers
- A whole album of Kirk, Spock and all the rest flubbing their lines: who wouldn't love that? And check out that cover art, which features Spock (inexplicably) licking a lollipop.

Hulk Rules - I had just recently come across the hilariously overwrought song "American Made" in the A.V. Club's list of hyperpatriotic songs. I doubt the rest of this musical tribute to Hulk Hogan can measure up, but you never know.

I'm in You - The cover of this Peter Frampton record has been a favorite of mine for a while now. Where to begin? The smoldering look he's giving the person holding the album? The buttonless, patchwork pirate blouse? The gratuitous crotch shot? Or the cringingly matter-of-fact sexual title, positioned so that it looks like it should be contained in a speech bubble coming out of Pete's mouth?

Monday, July 6, 2009

...And That's When My iPod Died

It's a Two-fer, um, Monday.

And now, for something completely different:

Friday, July 3, 2009

Deeper Into Movies

So Netflix added a new feature recently, where instead of just rating movies or genres, you could specify how much you like certain storylines, sub-genres, or films from a particular decade. I decided to try this out yesterday, since the site hasn't had any recommendations for me these past few weeks. Their recommendations algorithm must have reached the same level of frustration in figuring out what I want that it took me over two decades to perfect.

Some of the categories are fairly amusing in their own right; there must be someone out there who really loves movies about boating (not swashbuckling maritime adventures, mind you, but movies about the sport of boating). And, on the other end of the spectrum, there must be people who don't enjoy movies about monkeys.

The real puzzler, though, is the examples they give your for each category. Here, for instance, are the six movies chosen to exemplify alcoholism (and really, who doesn't love a good flick about alcoholism?):
Yeah, I'd say that sums up the many faces of addiction rather nicely: fighting, talking to giant invisible rabbits, suicidal despair, and Dudley Moore.

Also, I really don't think Netflix knows what a screwball comedy is:

Another good one that I didn't bother to get a screenshot of: the summer camp category, which includes the drama-nerd movie Camp, the fundamentalism documentary Jesus Camp, Daddy Day Camp, Friday the 13th, and Wet Hot American Summer, a group of movies that, aside from their setting, have nothing else in common.

...And That's When My iPod Died

Massive Attack - Safe From Harm

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

How a Jeopardy! Audition Really Feels

As alluded to in my previous post, I went up to New York City yesterday. The purpose of my trip was [drumroll] to participate in a contestant search for the popular game show Paris Hilton's My New BFF Jeopardy! (the exclamation mark is the show's, not mine). I had sort of been through this before, having taken part in a tryout for the College Tournament nine years ago (holy crap, I just used the phrase "nine years ago" in conjunction with "college"). Those, however, were the days before the online test, so the first order of business was a 50-question written test that was then scored, prompting all but a handful of the highest-scoring hopefuls to be dismissed (in case you're wondering, I did make it past that step). Nowadays, though, the online test has supplanted that step, meaning that if you get an invite to audition, you won't be unceremoniously booted just after you begin.

The 50-question test still exists, though, presumably to weed out anybody who faked their way through the test using the help of other people in the room or incredibly fast Googling skills. The test itself was fairly easy (although I was forbidden to to divulge any of the questions under pain of death) and I think I only got maybe 4 or 5 questions wrong. The thing about being in a room with other Jeopardy! fanatics, though, is that everyone else got only 4 or 5 questions wrong as well.

On to the next step, which is a mock game. A mini-version of the familiar game board is projected on a screen, and three people at a time take hold of the buzzers and answer questions (or, uh, question answers to be more specific). They don't keep score, so the purpose is really to get a sense of what sort of contestant you would be. I was in the last trio to play, which was actually a relief, since it gave me a chance to observe what everyone else was like before I had to go myself. I think I acquitted myself fairly well in this segment; I managed to buzz in a few times, didn't get anything embarrassingly wrong (last time I tried out, I foolishly said that Prince was from Milwaukee) and, perhaps most importantly, the producer never had to remind me to speak up.

Next came the interview portion, which was my biggest worry. Some of the other people in the room were a lawyer who represented plaintiffs in Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits, a teaching artist who had taken part in a taping of Def Poetry Jam, and a children's TV writer who had just been nominated for a Daytime Emmy. Compared to that, my tales of juggling and my paltry record collection didn't seem that impressive (not that they ever really did). Fortunately, the interviews seemed to follow the same format: they would ask about your job, ask about what you do in your free time, ask about one of the personal facts or anecdotes that you listed ahead of time, and ask what you would do with the money if you won. From that I was able to plan a few sentences ahead of time for each prompt, and while I might not have said anything memorable, I at least avoided any awkward silences.

So that's basically the gist of it. I think I came across pretty well (though there were a few people in the room who seemed like they would certainly be invited to tape the show). I'm now in their contestant files, which is good for the next 18 months. If I haven't gotten a call by that point, I guess that's my cue to start all over again.

  • No, Alex does not show up at these things. He said hello to us in a short video, though.
  • I though I was impressive because I'd tried out once before, and then found out that one of the other people at the audition had tried out four times (some of the repeat auditioners almost sounded like they were old friends with the people from the show). Likewise, I thought it was notable that a co-worker of mine was almost a contestant, until I met people whose wives or grandmothers had actually appeared on the show.
  • The aforementioned TV writer used to work on Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? which prompted a discussion of what current game shows are worth watching. Turns out the Jeopardy! people are fans of Cash Cab.
  • Of the five pieces of information that I submitted, the one I had to talk about was my Quizzo playing. Unfortunately, the question only concerned whether I was better or worse at trivia games when I've been drinking, so I didn't get to shout out to the Pre-Teen Pregnancy Pact or describe the larger-than-life personality of Irish John.
  • This is only tangentially related, but the contestant search ended at around 5:30, and I was looking to get a bite to eat and maybe a beer before my train ride home. This proved easier said than done, since it seemed like 75% of the drinking establishments in Midtown Manhattan are corporate touristy chains, and the rest looked like obnoxious sports bars or cookie-cutter Irish pubs. Eventually, I walked past one windowless generic-looking bar just off of 7th Avenue, less than a block away from Madison Square Garden. "Sure," I thought, "this place looks like a dive, but I'm sure when I open the door it'll be crawling with hipsters." Except on the inside . . . it still looked like a dive, or at least a quiet, unassuming shot-and-beer joint. There was a grandfatherly bartender, and maybe 5 other people sitting at the bar, mostly reading the paper or concentrating on a certain syndicated quiz show playing on the TV. I have no idea how a place like that stays in business, given that it's occupying some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
  • And while I'm critiquing New York: Times Square + summer + tourists = HOLY SHIT.

...And That's When My iPod Died

I finally got the old girl working again, but my train ride to and from New York yesterday gave her multiple chances to freeze up.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Oh, Zoidberg, at last you're becoming a crafty consumer! I'll take eight!

For a limited time, Amazon MP3 has 99 Essential Chants on sale for the low, low price of 99 cents! That's only a penny per chant! Act now!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mom and Dad, Where Did You Go Wrong?

You know what's kind of depressing? I have have become the sort of person who is highly amused by webcomics with jokes about fonts.

(You know what's even worse? I was once thinking of starting a blog devoted to my endless frustration with Papyrus.)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Speaking in Acid Tongues

Walking onto the stage at the Mann Center Friday night, clad in a white suit that matched both his bandmates and his hair, David Byrne approached the microphone and took a few moments to chat up the audience. Before a single note was played, he thanked everyone for coming out, acknowledged opening act DeVotchka, and invited the crowd to take photos if they wanted (while kindly pointing out that using a flash was likely futile for those of us in the cheap seats). It was an adorably awkward introduction that seemed like it was better suited for open-mic night at a coffeehouse than an amphitheater show by a post-punk godfather.

The setlist drew from Byrne's collaborations with Brian Eno, including last year's quite good Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, the pioneering, sample-heavy LP My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and the albums that Eno produced for the Talking Heads. I'll leave you to guess which of those selections got the biggest response from the audience. (And I certainly don't mean for that to be an indictment of the crowd's collective taste: do you want to argue with songs like "Once in a Lifetime," "Burning Down the House" or "Life During Wartime"? Didn't think so.) I was happy that Fear of Music, my favorite Talking Heads album, was well-represented by "Wartime," "I Zimbra" and "Heaven." Byrne introduced the latter song by saying that he was attempting to write a song with verses that sounded like Neil Young, a fact that will make it impossible to ever hear that song any other way.

I'll admit that I've never seen Stop Making Sense (cue jeering), so I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Byrne as a the performer. The fact that he had a trio of white-clad dancers might have seemed out of place had I not heard about them beforehand. I was amused though, by the extent to which Byrne himself joined in the fun: at one point, one of the dancers slid between his legs, then later, one leaped over his back. Also a cute touch: "Life is Long" is perhaps the only song I've seen performed from a swivel chair.


Less than 72 hours after seeing a fifty-something, white-haired man perform in a large Fairmount Park amphitheater on a rainy, unseasonably chilly night, I was seeing a thirty-something, redheaded woman perform in a small Chinatown club on a hot night. Jenny Lewis was the headliner this time around, but half of her backing band were opening the show under the name Farmer Dave. Have you ever heard the sloppy, impromptu cover songs that Yo La Tengo plays during WFMU pledge drives? Yeah, it was sort of like that.

Deer Tick was more to my liking. Judging by their name, I had assumed that they were some mellow, backwoods country group, the sort of animal that survives by sucking the blood of Fleet Foxes or Band of Horses. In reality, they play straightforward, dirty rock 'n roll that never overstays its welcome. Though they hail from Rhode Island, lead singer John McCauley's gravelly voice reminded me a lot of Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. The band had enough fans in the audience to entertain some requests at the end of their set (which also included some pretty rockin' John Mellencamp and Ritchie Valens covers).

So, let's get this out of the way first: Jenny Lewis looked very pretty, wearing mom jeans and one of the T-shirts from her merch stand. (Refreshingly, the crowd seemed quite respectful and refrained from shouting out any creepy comments) And her band, for which I had so little affection in their previous incarnation, sounded much more professional this time around. I haven't heard most of Acid Tongue, her most recent album, but I can honestly say that I didn't hear a bad song all night. The highlight for me, though, was when most of her band left the stage and she performed "Trying My Best to Love You" and "Silver Lining," which, stripped of its glossy production, became a showcase for Ms. Lewis's gorgeous voice. [Removed in editing: rambling story about the first time I heard the song "I Never" and how it, like, changed my life.]


So I saw two really good performances by artists that I admire. Ah, but it can never be that simple can it? As usual, there were some circumstances unrelated to the actual music that kept me from fully enjoying the shows.

As I mentioned, I was in the cheap seats for David Byrne. What bothered me was just how empty those seats were. My entire row was pretty much deserted, and there were vast open spaces in the rows in front of and behind me. It's not that I enjoy being crowded, but I felt more like I was in a porno theater than watching a rock show. It's easy to stand up and cheer when everyone around you is doing it; its a bit more awkward when you're practically in a library.

The opposite was true at Jenny Lewis -- that place was fucking packed. No, this one was my fault, as I forgot the golden rule of standing-room-only gigs: once a band is on stage and you've left the bar area, you do not go back! Spreading your drinking out over the evening will result in you watching the show from the back of the room, which is exactly what happened to me. It wasn't that bad, since it was quite a bit cooler the farther you got from the stage (though, on the other hand, the noise from the fans that were providing that breeze could be heard during the quieter moments).

No, the biggest problem here was that I was constantly distracted by the guy in front of me. He did not dance. He did not (from all appearances) sing along. He didn't bob his head, or tap his foot or even so much as applaud during the entire set. What possesses someone to buy a ticket to rock concert and then act as though they observing an art exhibition? Unless you are on rumspringa and this is your fist exposure to the devil's music, there is no excuse for such behavior.

And They Go Tweet, Tweet, Tweet, Tweet, Tweet Like Little Birds

  • I thought DeVotchka's score for Little Miss Sunshine was one of the best parts of that movie, but I found it hard to care about their opening set. I have to respect them, though, for throwing out a whole lot of stuff that I should have loved, like a sousaphone, a theremin solo, and a cover of "Venus in Furs" that disposed of everything from the Velvet Underground's recording but the lyrics.
  • Introducing one song, Jenny Lewis said that it was about catching the clap from Lindsay Lohan, but then quickly took that back. Those crimson-haired former child actresses gotta look out for each other.
  • I stopped by the afterparty at the Troc balcony in the hopes that Jenny would show up, I would charm her with my wit, and she would immediately invite me to follow her around on tour. That, um, didn't happen. I did regret that I didn't stick with my music lessons, though, when I saw her Napoleon Dynamite lookalike bassist chatting up two of the cuter girls there.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Ownage in 140 Characters

Shaq and Ashton are both wack as fuck; I just found out that Zodiac Motherfucker is on Twitter. For someone whose schtick is so limited, I swear this guy keeps getting more and more hilarious.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Dancing Mania, 2009 Edition

The quality's not great and it's shaky as hell, but this is so much better than all those viral videos of elaborately choreographed "spontaneous" dance sequences in public places.

I am making it my mission this summer to single-handedly start dance parties wherever I go.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Things I Learned from Cartoons

So I've been reading the strange, strangely amusing webcomic Achewood recently. It's pretty much the definition of an acquired taste, and one which I'm still in the process of acquiring. I was skeptical of it at first, but this strip, in which a character named Charley has travelled back in time (yeah, I'm not entirely clear on that point either) and nearly causes a riot by introducing the nacho, made me a believer. What can I say? I'm a sucker for people who talk old-timey and go into an exaggerated panic at the sight of anything unfamiliar.

Except it turns out that such a panic may not be that exaggerated. Soon after reading the strip, I learned that mass hysteria gripped London in 1797 after a man walked outside wearing a top hat. John Hetherington was arrested and charged with:
“appearing on the public highway wearing upon his head a tall structure having a shining lustre and calculated to frighten timid people.” According to contemporary reports, people booed, dogs barked, women fainted, and a small boy suffered a broken arm after a crowd formed around the hapless Mr. Hetherington.
The fiendish culprit was fined and top hats were banned in the city for a half-century afterwards. Seriously, there is nothing I don't love about this story. The writers at The Onion can only dream of writing archaic police blotters that are so amusing.

In other cartoon news, fans of Futurama will recall that Philip J. Fry is a proud dropout of Coney Island College (Go Whitefish!). But did you know that 100 years ago, there actually was a Coney Island College? Actually, it wasn't a real college so much as a clever way for an amusement park to get around blue laws by calling itself an educational institution and having its workers dress in caps and gowns.

Amusing Coincidence of the Day

There's a play currently being performed at the Prince Music Theater with the title Let's Pretend We're Married.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Double Feature

A couple of recent developments in movie-watching options that I just became aware of:
  • The film website The Auteurs curates a monthly "film festival," which consists of a selection of Criterion titles. Which are available to stream to your computer. For free. May's almost over, but if you hurry you can catch a half-dozen essential documentaries.
  • Those of you living in Delco might be interested in Cinema 16:9, a new movie theater/video rental that somehow snuck into Lansdowne recently. There are a coupld of drawbacks: the schedule of films seems to focus on recent DVD releases, and 35mm snobs will probably not approve, but on the other hand, it's not like repertory houses are a dime a dozen in this (or any) economy.
(While I'm on the subject of movies, I'll mention that The Room is screening for free this Saturday at Space 1026 in Philadelphia. Be there with your spoons and footballs, and don't forget to study up on the rules.)