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june 2004

Perhaps the Housemartins said it best: It's sheep we're up against.

Damn it, iTunes, I've still got twelve songs left on the gift certificate Doug gave me for my birthday, but you're not giving me anything good to spend it on. An exclusive remix from Petey Pablo? A new single from Celine Dion? Bah! Can't you talk P J Harvey or Wilco into giving up a couple of b-sides from their upcoming records? Or how about some live tracks from the Pixies or Modest Mouse?

I want you to have my money (or rather, Doug's money; you'll get my money once I'm done spending his). Please, please give me something decent to spend it on.

I think Steve Jobs has figured out how to control space-time, because when you drop your iPod, it falls in slow motion. It doesn't make the nasty smack on the floor any less jarring, but that second or two while the iPod is in the air feel like an hour at least.

Luckily, Jobs also anticipated that dimwitted humans would be clumsily handling these things, so he took the extra time to engineer some shock absorbtion into the elegant little case. No harm done.

It's pathetic that the monthly music insert from Entertainment Weekly called Listen2This is almost as good a music magazine as a whole month's worth of Rolling Stones. It's kind of like when I realized that, somewhere along the way, VH-1 had become a better channel for music than MTV. If there were a half-decent music mag out there, I'd subscribe in a minute, but they all seem much more interested in writing People-style fluff that is intended more to flatter the artist being profiled than deliver any useful or interesting information to the reader.

The good news: Creed has split up. The bad news: they're promising to pursue new projects with at least two new bands, which means that there will now be a few more groups emulating Creed's special brand of over-the-top anthems with heavy-handed christian overtones. The net result, I guess, is more Creed-like garbage than before, since these new bands will likely be even crappier than Creed was and there will be more of them. It would have been better if Scott Stapp had announced that he was retreating to a solitary life of monk-like reflection and silence (and NO SINGING), but I guess this is better than the announcement of a new Creed double album inspired by Mel Gibson's The Passion of Christ.

I loaded a couple of new CDs into iTunes over the weekend: the Decemberists' newest EP, The Tain (which has been out for months but which the local independent record store just started stocking last week) and the singles collection from Les Savy Fav, Inches. I like both of them a lot, although I wish The Tain was broken up into its five component tracks rather than burned together as a single long track. And I'm not quite sure I see the point of the six minute "Reformat" on Inches that consists of a dialogue between sailors on a submarine, which is followed immediately by the three minute live version of the same thing.

I also decided to load some of my higher rated discs into iTunes, anything rated a 10 or a 9 1/2 that I hadn't already ripped. A few of the albums that I added: Jane's Addiction's Nothing's Shocking, Morphine's Cure for Pain, Dinosaur Jr's Green Mind, Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet, the Clash's London Calling, the Police's Synchronicity, Helmet's Betty, the Pogues' If I Should Fall from Grace with God, House of Freaks' Cakewalk, Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville, Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out, the Pixies' Doolittle, Sugar's Copper Blue, Throwing Muses' House Tornado, U2's The Unforgettable Fire, Nirvana's Nevermind, the Violent Femmes' self-titled debut, and A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory. It's amazing that I've been listening to the iPod almost exclusively for my music for the last six months and I haven't before been compelled to load any of these into iTunes (curiously, it was the recent promos for the new season of Reno 911, which use Public Enemy's "911 is a Joke" as the backing track, that inspired me to load Fear of a Black Planet, which led me to rip other high-scoring albums that weren't yet on my hard drive). Every one of these discs is one of my all-time favorites; if I had to narrow this list down any further, I'd just have to pick them randomly out of a hat, because they're all equal in my eyes.

Yesterday I picked up P J Harvey's new one, Uh Huh Her. I like it a lot so far; the tone harkens back to Is This Desire? (dark and moody) and To Bring You My Love (loud and aggressive), which are my two favorite P J Harvey records, but the production is much cleaner than either of those efforts even though it still has a very raw edge (unlike the sterility that ruined Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea).

I was impulsively going to pick up Sonic Youth's Sonic Nurse, even though I'm not sure if I liked Murray Street enough to buy its successor, but they hadn't unpacked the discs from the boxes yet, so I was able to put off my decision for another week at least. They still didn't have 50 Foot Wave, but I'm hoping that, like the Decemberists' The Tain, it will show up someday in the near future. And there's only two more weeks til A Ghost Is Born. I can't wait.

I think I'm done with Gomez and the Beta Band. I was in love with their debut albums (or in the Beta Band's case, their first three EPs, which were released stateside as a single CD), lukewarm on their sophomore discs (mostly because they were too much like their first records), and intrigued enough by the experiments on their third outings that I wasn't quite ready to give up on either of them. However, after purchasing Heroes to Zeroes (an inadvertently apt title), I've heard enough of the Beta Band, and barring blindingly glowing reviews from all quarters of the music press and 30 second clips that knock me across the room, I don't think I'll be picking up their next one. And as for Gomez, although the forays into sythesizers and electronic beats on their previous release, In Our Gun, did serve to liven up their technically brillant but increasingly bland faux folk-blues-rock, it didn't captivate me enough to ignore the mediocre clips I've heard from Split the Difference. So, farewell, Beta Band and Gomez. There were moments in your careers when it was possible that you were the best bands on earth, but those days are long past. If you think of something new, let me know; otherwise, goodbye and good luck. I'd still probably come to see you live, but I think I own enough of your recorded works for a lifetime.

I've been thinking a lot recently about how young and confused I still feel about even though I'm not that young anymore, but I haven't really been able to find the words to express it properly. I remember reading one of Kurt Vonnegut's autobiographical pieces when I was in high school where he talked about not being comfortable giving his children advice on life, because even though he was solidly past middle age, he still felt like he was trying to figure things out himself. I don't have any children yet to worry about, but that sentiment really strikes a chord with me; if human life expectancy was 1000 years, I might feel like I've progressed an appropriate amount in my years on earth so that by the time I reached 1000, it's possible I would have some clue about how the universe works.

Anyway. There are some lyrics in P J Harvey's "The Pocket Knife" from Uh Huh Her that resonates well with these thoughts:

I feel like I've just been born
Even though I'm getting on
How the world slips by so fast
How does anybody last?

So far I think this might be the best track on the record, but I can't tell if that's just because the lyrics really appeal to me (another pair of great lines: "How the world just turns and turns/How does anybody learn?"). Whatever. The whole thing is pretty good, and it will probably take up most of my listening hours until Wilco releases their new one (come to think of it, the title of that record, A Ghost Is Born, is also pretty germane to this discussion, but I'll save that analysis for another day).

We've been waiting 13 years, but it's finally here: a new song from the Pixies. It's called "Bam Thwok", and you can get it exclusively at the iTunes music store for 99 cents.

Unfortunately, it wasn't really worth the wait. At 2:35, it's short even for a Pixies song, but that's probably for the best. Kim Deal wrote it, so she sings lead, but that doesn't really do much to disguise the fact that it sounds a lot like a band trying really hard to rip off the Pixies without quite getting it right. Ten years ago, this might have made a cute Breeders b-side, but with the Pixies securely canonized and making new believers on every show of their reunion tour, expectations for this song were a little higher.

It's not so bad that you want to keep them out of the studio——if they have to crank out a few throwaways to get comfortable enough with one another to consider recording a new album together, I'm all for it. Let's just hope that if that happens Black Francis can bring back some of the intensity that's been missing from his recent solo efforts. We don't need another Dog in the Sand; we want another Doolittle. Or at least another Bossanova.

I'm interested in going to Lollapalooza this year, but I really only want to see the first day's worth of acts, which includes performances by Morrissey, Sonic Youth, P J Harvey, Modest Mouse, Le Tigre, Danger Mouse, Broken Social Scene, and the Walkmen, all of whom I would love to see in concert, even in an outdoor arena festival venue. On the second day, the only bands I'm interested in are the Flaming Lips and the Thrills (and possibly Gomez), but I don't think it would be worth the ticket price or having to sit through some of the other acts on the bill. It's hard to tell whether I'll be able to buy just a pass for the first day (it looks like you might be able to, but the venue closest to me is the only one that doesn't have the exact ticket information available on the web site yet——I hope that doesn't mean they've sold out already), but if I can spend less than $60, I think this might be a show worth attending.

I know Peter Gabriel is supposed to be this genius with a storied career and a string of pop masterpieces, but really, all I need from him is Us. Nothing else in his catalog really appeals to me, but man, I love that record.


Mixtape: 1987

Track 3
Saint Julian
Julian Cope

Julian Cope originally made his mark on the British music scene with the Teardrop Explodes, an early 80s postpunk britpop band with strong stylistic and personal ties to Echo and the Bunnymen (Cope and Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch were in a band together at one point). The Teardrop Explodes had several hits in England, but they never made much of an impact stateside, and in the midst of recording their third album, Cope decided to break up the band and go solo.

The album that resulted from this, Fried, found Cope at the height of his borderline-psychotic, LSD-influenced glory: in addition to album art showing Cope crawling around naked with a giant tortoise shell on his back, the record also featured songs like "Reynard the Fox", which features allegorical, hallucinigenic retelling of an onstage incident where Cope cut open his stomach with a broken microphone, and "Bill Drummond Said", a sweetly venomous diatribe directed at a former bandmate. (Oddly enough, Cope would get even weirder after swearing off drugs and settling down to become a devoted father, but you'll get to hear more about that as we moved forward in the Year Mixtapes.)

No matter what the subject matter, however, the songs on Fried were brimming with the pop sensibilities which Cope would continue to refine over the course of his 80s solo career. These impulses found their apex in Saint Julian, which is packed with tight, catchy pop constructions that should have made him a star. It is still a wonder to me how this record failed to make more of an impression on the American charts; it finally brought Cope recognition on college radio, but that should have just been the beginning. "World Shut Your Mouth" was already a big hit in England, along with "Eve's Volcano", and except for the closing track, the operatic "A Crack in the Clouds", every track on this record is a candidate for a radio single.

I picked "Trampoline" more or less on a whim; it seemed to be a good segueway between the arena guitars on Sinead O'Connor's "Mandinka" and the oddball pop of Game Theory's "We Love You Carol and Alison". It still sounds great after all these years, and it's still fresh because no one else who came after Julian explored this particular tributary of the guitar-pop sound. Julian would go on to release several of my favorite records of the 90s, but never again would he produce an album as flawless as Saint Julian. The record is apparently out of print now, but you would do well to look for a copy on eBay; if Saint Julian were released today, bands like Franz Ferdinand and the New Pornographers would be scrambling back to the studio to figure out how to rip off his sound. As it is, they merely owe Julian a thus-far unacknowledged debt.

Sleater-Kinney is a great band to listen to while mowing the lawn.

Either I'm doing something very wrong or the Griffin iTrip is not nearly as cool and useful as its supporters have made it out to be. But I did gloss over the instructions pretty quickly before trying to use it in my rental car yesterday, so perhaps more testing is in order.

Dang it. Good thing I didn't buy my tickets yet. Of course, if everyone who's been putting this off had gone ahead and pulled the trigger, maybe it wouldn't have gotten canceled.

The iTrip worked a little better yesterday, but I'm still not sure it's reliable/high quality enough to replace the tried and true car cassette adapter. I'm reluctant to invest a few hundred dollars in getting one of those specialized stereos that has inputs for the iPod (I'm not sure if they have been released yet, but a couple of companies announced them and expected to have them available sometime this summer), but I also can't conceive of going back to having to listen to one CD at a time from a selection of only a couple of dozen out of my collection of hundreds. This is all academic at this point, since both of our cars still have a cassette player, but we're going to get a new car pretty soon, and I don't think any car has a factory stereo with a cassette in it anymore. Steve Jobs said recently that Apple is working on better ways to make the iPod work with car stereos; well, Steve, let's get moving. I'm hooked now, and I can't go back to a commute without access to a substantial portion of my music library.

I picked up A Ghost is Born (if you didn't know that this is the title of Wilco's new record, you probably came to this site by accident and you probably won't be back), but I haven't really had a chance to listen to it yet. I already know that I like it (but not as well as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) because I've been listening to a streaming version of it on the band's web site for the past month or so. I think the iTrip will get a break tomorrow; since I'm not going to listen to anything else anyway, I might as well have the high-quality CD version on the commute instead of compressed files played over the FM band.

I really don't much care for the rental car I've been driving for the past few days (my car is in the shop getting repaired after being hit by a drunk while it was parked), but I thought I was going insane when it seemed to be automatically adjusting the volume of the stereo based on the speed I was driving. Once I got over 20 MPH, the volume level increased, and then would increase again every additional 10 MPH. For the first couple of days, I didn't really notice the speed correlation (I thought it was just the vagaries of the FM signal coming out of the iPod/iTrip), but yesterday I was listening to a CD and there shouldn't have been any interference. I was dangerously obsessed with figuring this out on the ride home, allowing the car to drift down to 40 or 50 MPH and then accelerating slowly so I could pay attention to the volume increase points.

It seemed to be pretty consistent, but I still didn't really believe that it was happening; who would design such a feature, and for what purpose? But then I did a little poking around on the internet and found a feature called "speed compensated volume", which seems to be exactly what I was experiencing. It doesn't seem to be specific to any particular car company, but Pontiac, which makes the rental car I was given, is among those manufacturers that feature this on some of their models.

It's supposed to keep your volume constant despite additional road and engine noise as you increase your speed, and at first glance I guess this might not seem like a bad idea. But in reality, I found that the amount that it increases the volume is off, so that if you set the level you like when you are below 20 MPH (before it has made any adjustments), it will be far too loud when you are driving at 60 MPH. Conversely, if you set it to the proper volume level at 60 MPH, you can barely hear it when your speed drops down to 20 or 30 MPH. Maybe it works for some people, but they should give you the option to turn it off easily (like with a simple, clearly marked button, rather than some arcane programming sequence that involves several of the controls on the stereo). It almost drove me crazy before I figured out what was going on, and now that I know for sure, it's probably going to drive me even more crazy.

I don't think the iPod is going to work out in the new car, at least not right now. I've finally found a couple of decent stations for the iTrip to broadcast on, but it needs a clear line of sight with the car antenna, and the way the new car's dashboard is designed, there's just no way to do this without putting the iPod in a place where it is likely to get thrown around the car on a hard stop. I will probably play around with attaching some velcro to a hidden, unused portion of the dash where the iPod's case can be securely attached, but the past week has been far too hectic for me to consider such DIY solutions. So for now I've just gone back to carrying a dozen CDs in a little case in the glove compartment, which isn't nearly as fun as carrying 5000 songs with you in a little metal box the size of a pack of cigarettes, but right now I just want to listen to some high-quality music on the new car's speakers without any hassles.

Later this summer, Alpine is supposed to come out with a new system that can incorporate the iPod into your car stereo, and I'm going to go talk to the guys at the local car customization shop to see if there's anything I can do in lieu of such a system, but I'm not overly optimistic, especially because I expect any solution to cost a few hundred dollars and I'd much rather save up for a new G5 than spend additional money on the car just I can use my iPod in it. I can still use the iPod at work, and while mowing the lawn, etc., but I'm going to miss having it in the car. I know it's just temporary, but I don't know yet if it's a-couple-of-months temporary or sometime-next-year temporary.

Bands that I like that use a saxophone enough to keep one on staff: Morphine, the Psychedelic Furs, the Pressure Boys, Fishbone, and...I guess that's it. Maybe Poi Dog Pondering? I really like "Never Say Never" by Romeo Void, but the rest of their catalog doesn't do much for me. I was sure there would be more than this, but I've looked over my collection twice and no one is jumping out at me.

There is no point. I was just curious.

I know I'm not supposed to think this anymore after the Volkswagen ad, but Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" really is a great little song.