Friday, October 27, 2006

two quick things...

Originally, to explain the uneven frequency of content on NewPlasticWeblog, I wrote a fairly unconsidered (and ill-advised, though no one advised me) comparison between the website and the movement to Free Mumia abu-Jamal. I'm kind of tired right now.

I'll just say that, given that the election season is upon us, I have to suspend posting until around Nov. 7th. You should all vote, but I'm guessing you will, so what you should really do is
a) volunteer with a legitimately progressive, well-organized GOTV effort, or b) make sure all your friends and family review the issues and get to the polls.

Anyway, two quick things:

1) On the bus back from Yo La Tengo (ca. 1:30AM), there was a burned-out acid case dude with long hair, mustache, denim, funky smell, etc. He rambled and rambled, accosting people in a friendly way, then turning sour, then back to friendly with no apparent prompting. His best line of the ride: (reading the placard on the window) "'No eating, drinking or smoking'...What the hell am I doing on this bus?"

2) I lost my wallet about, um, 2 months back? Still haven't replaced it. Instead, inspired by my brother-in-law, I'm using a thick rubber band. In my case, I got it from a bunch loose broccoli. So, twisted around my billfold and credit cards is a purple band that says "Organically Grown." I noticed this on the way up the stairs from BART and I thought to myself: "Bet your ass it was."

Monday, October 23, 2006

Yo La Tengo at the Fillmore 10/21/06

I love Yo La Tengo. How much? They beat out the Beatles, Percy Sledge, Springsteen, and everyone else as the song choice for the first dance at my wedding. With a cover of a forgotten disco song by George McCrae. That’s how good they are. Which explains why I’ll always see them live despite their tendency to do 15-minute-long feedback jams. Last Saturday was no different. Since I don’t yet own their new album – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass I was especially excited to hear the new material live.

why? opened the show, and they killed. The crowd was actually into the opener and disappointed to see them go, for a change. In fact it shouldn’t surprise me too much, since why? hails from Oakland, and the Bay Area certainly isn’t hurting for Anticon fans. Is there a succinct way to describe this band? They sound kind of like Lou Barlow fronting Steve Reich and Musicians. One dude plays drums and vibraphone simultaneously, one dude plays keys and guitar simultaneously, Yoni Wolf leads the group, plays organ, snare drum, and various little pitch/feedback boxes. He also beatboxes. They all sing and go crazy. Yoni Wolf is more or less what you’d expect from an Anticon member: he's Jewish, he loves hiphop but has better sense than to make it, he has a warped sense of language, and displays no respect whatsoever for genre boundaries. Hearing why? live was remarkable and unique, and when CDs come back into the budget I'll definitely buy the albums.

Yo La was their normal, withdrawn, awkward selves, but with a little more chattiness. Over the course of the night they proved -- as the new album title suggests -- that they aren’t afraid of shit. They opened with “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” not too much of a barn-burner but nice to hear. Georgia had kind of a raspy, unwarmed-up quality to her voice that coupled with Ira’s geeky rocking-out on the organ to crank the endearing quotient right up. But the show didn't really start until James launched into the monster bass vamp of “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” Holy cow, is that song menacing. Props to James for playing the same riff for 12 minutes without phoning it in, and props to Ira for making the various solo sections sufficiently different from one another while still getting across the overall message: “I Am Not Afraid of My Guitar and I Will Beat it to Death with My Hands.” After that, a happy detour for “Beanbag Chair,” segueing us into a piano section dominated by songs from the new album (which relies heavily on piano). They breezed through "I Feel Like Going Home" and “The Weakest Part,” pausing to channel Prince on “Mr. Tough.” Then into “Flying Lessons (Hot Chicken #1).” Not my favorite song but exhilarating to see live. The obsessive minor-key vamp gives Kaplan so much space to do crazy feedback solos. Also not my favorite thing, but for one night every year or so I’m willing to listen to a 4-minute feedback solo and Ira Kaplan's the guy to provide it.

In other news, the Fillmore got rid of their ice-cream sandwich desert…very sad, but I had apple pie. Highlight of the evening: me getting back to the floor, mouth full of apple pie and ice cream, just in time for Ira blast the intro to “Sugarcube.” I almost cried, because the sentiment of “Sugarcube” – trying to do better, or at least do whatever’s necessary to make someone happy – just resonates with me. It was one of the harder parts of growing up into a man and husband (so to speak). Doing what’s “objectively” right (or imitating the concerned nice guy on TV doing what's "right") is one thing, and I did that unfailingly for my first 3-4 relationships. It takes a lot more courage and risk to actually look at your own behavior, acknowledge the aspects of it that prevent you from being happy, and commit to change. Which isn’t to say that I’m an expert, just that I first heard this song around the same time I was trying to figure out how to be together with (as opposed to just in love with) Camille. So the song gets to me.

Then they played “Tom Courtenay,” which I love equally but I haven’t even bothered to learn the lyrics to (beyond the first and last few lines), so double good for me. One of my favorite Yo La Tengo tricks: Ira Kaplan singing over his own shrieking guitar squall, while Georgia and James hold the rhythm and harmony together. The end of “Tom Courtenay” offers an awesome example of this, with Ira repeating “I’m thinking about the needle” over and over. Have I mentioned how much I love Ira Kaplan? Yeah, I have.

The set proper closed with “The Story of Yo La Tango” [sic] and “Blue Line Swinger.” Live, “The Story of Yo La Tango” is damn near unlistenable because it’s so loud and screamy. I love the lyrics, though, and I suspect that (as with “Cherry Chapstick”) a very beautiful acoustic version is floating around somewhere. Actually, if I’m being honest, I know there’s some kind of acoustic version because Yo La Tengo appeared for about 15 seconds on the Gilmore Girls, playing that song. I didn’t watch the episode, I found it on Youtube. Really. I've watched Gilmore Girls, I admit, but it's not like I watch it. I already married into a family of smartmouth women who talk too fast -- why would I voluntarily watch one? Anyway, I think plays this tune so loud and squall-y because they want the audience covering their ears, scowling, leaving the venue, etc. They have cred to maintain.

“Blue Line Swinger” was perfect, and I mean perfect. It's such a unique song. The intro purposely turns off the crowd, with the endless organ loop and drum pageantry. Over time, the chord change gets burned into your head until you don’t even notice it. And the audience gets so used to hearing Ira’s guitar squeal and Georgia whanging away out of time that even people who know and love the song (like me) give up any hope of it improving. Then, when the beat finally kicks in and the organ loops line up with the drums and guitar, and James starts powering the low end, the wave of relief cannot be described. A good approximation would be "Woooooo!" Then Georgia starts singing the sublime melody, and you can never understand the lyrics when she sings, so it's fine for them to devolve into “Ba-ba-ba-dah” and ultimately fall apart. For that special feeling of having your brain put through a washing machine, buy Electro-Pura or just download “Blue Line Swinger.”

First encore: the theme from the new movie Old Joy, which Yo La Tengo scored, “Demons” from I Shot Andy Warhol, and a blistering cover of Bob Dylan’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” which is a lame song (and it rips off the Beatles verbatim) but they put it over.

Second encore: A bad song by Stoneground (I don’t know anything about this San Francisco band from 30 years ago, and there appears to be a reason for that), “My Little Corner of the World,” and a heartbreakingly beautiful version of “Take Care.”

Third encore: “Big Sky” from Yo La Tengo’s first album Ride the Tiger. This song, like the others on that album, is almost good but not quite. It still made the diehard fans happy, though, and the fans like me who only listen to the band's good material got a timely reminder that almost-good Yo La Tengo’s still better than the rest.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Most Overrated: “And I Love Her.” This is supposed to be an early McCartney masterpiece, because of the melody and the complex harmonic structure. Yeah. Well, that’s all fine, but the lyrics suck. They suck so hard. People want to overlook this because a bunch of the early Beatles hits have simple/repetitive lyrics, but take note: there’s a difference between simple and bad.

“From Me to You” = simple

“And I Love Her” = defective

The faux-bossa thing does not help, and the crappiness of the lyrics make the song more boring than it should be given the harmonic interest. It’s actually a pretty boring song. Siegfried Baboon (aka Robert Anwood) of The Truck Drivers Gear Change suggests that the Beatles added that bizarre modulation for the guitar solo in order to make sure that George would definitely be awake to play it.

[By the way, The Truck Drivers Gear Change is an excellent website about songs that use the clichĂ© of half/whole step key changes to keep them interesting. Lots of Barry Manilow, but don’t worry, no audio clips so it’s worksafe]

Most underrated: This is something of a toss-up, because “If I Fell” has all the harmonic and melodic complexity of “And I Love Her” with actually great lyrics, plus it’s underplayed, no question. But I guess “underplayed” is different from “underrated.” So the most underrated award goes to “I Should Have Known Better.” A better title for this song would be: “I Should Have Been Released as a Single.” Three things I want to say about this song:

1) The dissonance between the harmonica line (w/F-natural) and the D-F#-A dominant chord gives an unmistakable edge to the song. It gets even better when John uses F# to get to the end of the first verse, and just barely avoids superimposing it over the harmonica F-natural at the beginning of the second (“Oh-Oh I…never realized what a kiss could be”).

2) The bridge is perfect. Unlike the verse, which stays pinned securely to one note, it jumps all over the place harmonically (including the huge jump into falsetto in the middle). Even better, and this is something you only notice subconsciously (or at least, I only notice subconsciously – I didn’t realize it before reading Alan Pollock’s notes) – the second time through John’s vocal isn’t double-tracked. So, on repetition, it sounds both more intimate and more insistent.

3) Best scene in Hard Day’s Night, hands down.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

With the Beatles (1963)

Most overrated: The whole album. The production is great, as are the performances, but the album is mostly filler and covers. It's overrated because it sold incredibly well, and has an unforgettable cover (the four Beatles, unsmiling, faces half in shadow). Unfortunately, "All My Loving" is the only original that lives up to the quality of the previous album. Their rendition of "I Wanna Be Your Man" is a little tame, and comes off even more so given that the Rolling Stones released an earlier, scratchier, more desperate version that makes the song feel like a Keith Richards composition even when though it isn't. If you buy all the Beatles albums, you will play this one the least frequently, guaranteed.

Most Underrated
: "Please Mister Postman." Like most Beatles covers of black music, this version is a little stiff. In fact, the Anthology editors chose to place footage of this song immediately following George Martin's commentary on the substandard quality of song choice on With the Beatles. But the song obviously doesn't suck, and the performance -- though slightly stiff compared with the Marvelettes -- absolutely kills. It really does. Lennon did the vocal, and I suspect that his affinity for the voice of Ronnie (soon-to-be) Spector began right around this time. "Be My Baby" had come out earlier that same year, and you can hear it in his inflection. The intro stamps the song "Beatles," because no one else has the goofy sincerity you hear on the handclaps and shouts of "Wait!," plus the aforementioned stiffness which you have to love because they're still cutting loose and doing their best. The best part of the song comes (of course) in the breakdown: "You gotta wait a minute, wait a minute, oh yeah, you gotta wait a minute, wait a minute, oh yeah..." In that moment -- and this is a tribute to both the songwriting team and the Beatles' performance -- "Please Mister Postman" achieves the classic Motown transcendence wherein a desperate plea for love transforms into a celebration of hope itself, the original object of affection all but forgotten. If that's a little high-minded, what I'm talking about here are songs like "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "Oh, Girl," etc. Also good: "Po-whoa-whoa-ostman."

Monday, October 16, 2006

hotel workers should fire me

So here’s the deal. I have some trouble concentrating at work. Especially now, when the exact parameters of my job have become gauzy and vague. So I’ve decided, rather than learning to discipline myself, to try to focus my goofing-off time into something marginally more productive than watching Ronaldinho clips on Youtube. The key word here, as you’ll soon see, is “marginally.”

Having quoted Chuck Klosterman in the last post, I started thinking about one of his finer (and more stupidly titled) columns, “Give Me Centrism or Give Me Death.”
It presents, for no real reason, the Ten Most Accurately-Rated Bands of All Time. Folks who know me would probably guess that my favorite part of that article was his assessment of the Beatles:

4. The Beatles – The Beatles are generally seen as the single most important rock band of all time, because they wrote all the best songs. Since both of these facts are true, the Beatles are rated properly.

It’s funnier (and a little touching) in context, but it's wishful thinking. The Beatles are overrated – a fact which John Lennon took great pains to point out as time went on. Of course they're overrated. They’re also underrated, or at least some of their catalogue is. Which brings me to the diversion at hand: I’m going to try to channel my laziness into the inconsequential exercise of discussing the most under- and overrated songs on each album. Just to be clear, this is a useless pursuit. So if Blogger has a mechanism to clear out its dead weight, its driftwood blogs dragging down passengers on the information superhighway, NewPlasticWeblog will probably be gone before I get to Revolver.

Anyway, without further ado:

Please Please Me (1963)

Most Overrated: Such an easy choice. “Love Me Do” is not a good song. It’s drivel. I wasn’t alive, but I think it was universally recognized as drivel then. The harmonica saves it from being unlistenable, but it remains wildly overrated (and, I would think, a little embarrassing for the surviving members, or at least Paul, since Ringo only plays tambourine on the album version). If you ever see footage of a live performance, or a “live” studio performance where their guitars aren’t even plugged in, they do sort of sell the song on cuteness, but it’s still boring and basically bad.

Most Underrated: “There’s a Place.” I think this was one of those tunes that made musicologists of the time think The Beatles were up to something fishy. Verse chords so bright and sunny, then they keep veering into startling harmonic territory. It has that slightly asymmetrical harmonica riff, and the stuttering start. It’s also too short for a real chorus, but it doesn’t need one because all the energy (and background harmonies) goes into the verse. I remember right around the time when Nas’s Stillmatic came out, I got tired of hearing it and Nelly on constant rotation in the dorm, so I used to open our windows and blast this song when the college tour groups came through the J.E. courtyard.

Comments welcome as always.

Monday, October 09, 2006

I'm nothing if not uninformed

(c) Chuck Klosterman.

It seems that the Stills album, Without Feathers, is indeed a reference to the Woody Allen book. And moreover, that shouldn't have been too hard to catch, since they also have a song on their first record called "Love and Death" -- named presumably after the Allen movie.

By the way, Love and Death is definitely underrated. It's a little annoying, but the more you know about Russian literature, the less annoying it gets (I'm told -- I know some, found it funny, my dad knows more, finds it hilarious). The last scene, where the main character blissfully dances away with the Grim Reaper to the "Troika" from Lieutenant Kije, is an uncharacteristically liberating moment. If you've been assigned to read Anna Karenina for college, I recommend getting that movie to lighten things up a little. Also good, the planetarium scene in Manhattan. Wait, all the scenes in Manhattan.

[Chuck Klosterman's quote in the title refers to a Dixie Chicks concert review in which he described Natalie Maines as "chunky" with an "odd sense of fashion," only to discover after the fact that she was pregnant]

Friday, October 06, 2006

Stills @ The Independent 10/5/06

We went back to our old neighborhood last night to see The Stills at The Independent, which is tied with CafĂ© du Nord for best live music venue in San Francisco (no fries, but better sound & stage). Camille and I have loved the Stills since 2003, about six seconds into “Lola Stars and Stripes.” Wait, that’s not accurate. She’s loved them since then, but at the time they released Logic Will Break Your Heart (their debut) I was engaged in an aggressive boycott of New York haircut bands. So I dismissed them like so much unnecessary conditioner.

You remember that era. Strokes, Hives, Vines, Doves, etc. I had this suspicion that, despite the improbable catchiness of Is This It?, these bands had no shelf life and secretly sucked. And I didn’t want to get too invested. It also really bothered me that Rolling Stone would “predict” some band like The Vines to be "the next big thing," then two months later would put them on the cover – like, See, we were right! It's always been that way -- just in the past, I'd had the time and inclination to investigate the music and figure out what I felt was actually good, separating it from the garbage. Now, even though I still have no time, I've got better sources. But then, I had to give up on pop music altogether. Anyway, I was right about the shelf life of all those bands, but wrong to lump the Stills in with them. For one thing, they’re from Montreal. They only look and sound like a New York haircut band. And, really, they don't sound too much like that -- their record was produced that way (in Brooklyn, no less), and they were certainly marketed in that way, but it doesn't fit well. They don't fit well with the slightly more recent Canadian invasion either, but no one fits these labels in the first place, and there's no such thing as a metropolitan music "scene" anyway, so forget I said anything and let's move on.

The band killed. Like every other mainstream popular rock band right now, The Stills are five white guys, aged 25-28 in suits/ties/formalwear of some sort, with camping hair. Left to right:

A guy who was too French for the Strokes, a guy who was way too French for the Strokes, fat Steve Caton, and my 13-year old cousin Benjie. [aka Tim Fletcher (Vocals/guitar), Olivier Corbeil (bass), Liam O'Neil (keyboards), and Dave Hamelin (Vocals/guitar)] Drummer Julien Blais isn’t pictured – but that’s fine. During the show Camille summed him up fine: “He’s kind of cute…wait, I can’t see him.”

You have to hand it to this band, though. They understand the difference between a song formula (boring) and a song recipe (tasty!), they know that it’s easier to rock out to simple melody & complex harmony, and they play tight new-wave arrangements in a loose, bombastic manner. Best of all, when their lead guitarist left, their drummer switched to rhythm guitar and took over half the vocals while their lead singer/rhythm guitarist switched to lead and made space for a new voice. It’s rare to have multiple lead singers of the same gender, and especially rare for the singing lineup to change three years in. What’s even more rare is when the less-attractive, less charismatic singer with a dorkier voice gets to sing a larger percentage of the songs on the sophomore album. But we loved him. He wasn’t totally comfortable on the guitar, so at first, due to his awkwardness and concentration, Camille starting referring to him as the “boy genius” of the band. It made sense later when we found out he’s not the regular guitarist or singer. It gave the band a more democratic feel, which is always nice.

They started with “It Takes Time,” from their new album Without Feathers (no idea whether they named it after the Woody Allen book or not – probably not). Great, but just a warm-up for “Lola Stars and Stripes.” Three years ago I would have thought the Kinks had mined that name for all its catchy singability, but obviously the Stills found unexplored potential. It’s impossible not to like that song. The follower, “Gender Bombs,” tried a lot harder to be dark and unlikeable, but since everyone in that club plays Smiths and Galore when they’re doing dishes, no luck there. Other highlights from the old album included “Yesterday Never Tomorrows” with sparkling keyboards, “Love and Death,” and a propulsive, snarly “Changes are No Good,” which Dave Hamelin (aka “Boy Genius” or “Teeny Weeny Rock Star”) prefaced by saying: “I wrote this one about a party that I wasn’t at, and wasn’t happy about it.” Camille leaned over to say “Yeah, cause you were at Hebrew school.” Buuuuuuuuuurn!.

About halfway through the show they announced that they were about to blow our minds, then revved up “Retour a Vega” and Tim Fletcher (who's hot enough as it is) started singing in French. Macy's panties department instantaneously made $900.

The songs from the new album got enthusiastic treatments too, which I always like to see. Nothing’s worse than a band that doesn’t commit as hard to its new material because of the crowd’s unfamiliarity. “The Beginning” had that bright, sunshiney epic feel, and their intense delivery of “Helicopters” helped bring out the lyrics’ lurking paranoia. I love lurking paranoia:

So keep this song
Till you catch diseases
And wait them out
Till the tundra freezes

Helicopters are chasing
Animals through the fields
Helicopters are chasing
Our spirits into the sea.

Can't front on a song about helicopters chasing animals through the fields, especially when it's set to soaring harmonies in a coda that makes you scared and elated at the same time. Good stuff. Also good: the rollicking guitar/drums/tambourine version of “Oh Shoplifter,” which offers a completely different take from the Smiths on that five-fingered art.

All in all, excellent show by a band with just a little more talent and depth than their hype would suggest. Don’t miss them if they’re coming to your town.

Monday, October 02, 2006

photoshop monday...

Some music-related fucking around on Photoshop:

Inspired by what I thought was a hilarious comment on a Youtube clip.

I love Yo La Tengo, and I really love Ira Kaplan, aka the Jewish Jimi Hendrix.

And, following a discussion last week with my coworker Matthew, some commentary on how much Audioslave has let us down: