Wednesday, January 31, 2007

velveeta = still gross

Kraft is finally going to split off from Altria (aka Phillip Morris USA). According to the NYT, Altria and Wall Street expect this to offer yet another boon to the morally bankrupt individuals and ethically compromised mutual funds that invest in Big Tobacco. The NYT and tobacco PR execs took the opportunity to explain why tobacco, as an investment vehicle, is basically impervious to government regulation, litigation, public opinion, and health concerns. David Adelman of Morgan Stanley noted that "people like to's enjoyable and there's not an alternative product."

Well...that's just because you can't (yet) sell stock in living an extra 10 years. But, with all due respect to Adelman's market savvy, I don't agree that there's not an alternative product, and frozen dinners provide a poor analogy. For one thing, frozen dinners aren't just about food cost, they're about storage convenience, shelf-life, and preparation time. If frozen dinners become too expensive, people will certainly switch to another product, but only if it also possesses those other key characteristics.

It's the same with cigarettes. There's more too them than nicoteine delivery, obviously. There's a ritual/habitual aspect, and a social cache as well. I don't smoke, so that's just what I observe, but there may be (there likely is) even more there. Saying that there isn't an alternative product seems simplistic to me. To me, the market elasticity of cigarettes (that people will buy them regardless of price hikes) does less to demonstrate their addictive quality than it does to dramatize these intangible aspects. So, two conclusions:

1) I believe the addictive nature of cigarettes, as well as their other characteristics, could well be replicated in an alternative product.

2) The elasticity of cigarettes may be due in part to a hidden cost that hasn't made its way into public consciousness. Forget about the eleven minutes you lose each time you smoke -- getting treatment for heart disease or lung cancer is expensive.

Also a fun fact from the NYT article: I'd never heard of this Vice Fund before, but if you check out their website, it's pretty entertaining. Like they specifically set out to see how much morally reprehensible ideology they could cram into one website. Blech.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Music Misc.

1) Obviously I dropped out of band way too early. Doesn't it keep you up at night, the fact that you've never heard "Crosseyed and Painless" played by a marching band? No longer (check youtube for clips).

2) A sensible, jargon-free, clear, concise, non-polemic from Sean O'Hagan about the effect of digitization on our relationship with music. I take issue with the idea that digitization removes music from context -- the contexts just change, and digital contexts are anything but information-poor. But I agree wholeheartedly that the change in context produced by digitization, one of space, time, interface, etc., may well squeeze out elements of emotional investment that shape our long-term relationship with music. By the way, I get the hypocrisy in praising an essay for its lack of jargon and then cramming a ton of jargon into my response. Also, Sean O'Hagan may be Irish.

3) Generally when people research music and the brain, they try to fit music into our structural understanding of neurocognition and behavioral science. They want to know what music can tell us about those fields, and thus about how our brains work. For a refreshing change, Daniel Levitin concerns himself with the opposite (in my view). He's interested in what our brains and behavior can tell us about the remarkable cultural phenomenon that is organized sound. The NYT gave him his due at the end of last month, and the article's been stewing in my head for a while. See Levitin Lab and Levitin's website for more.

4) It was a weekend of chock-full of culture. We saw Babel, a film so depressing that it's "upbeat" plot involves a deaf-mute recovering from her mother's suicide...which, yeah, you bet, she witnessed. We also saw Ladysmith Black Mambazo in concert. They are apparently back from Outer Space.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Revolver (1966)

An excellent interview with Giles Martin on All Songs Considered prompted me to finally get back to these. Let me say that it has been a real struggle to fairly consider this Cirque du Soleil project. I mean, however much you dress it up, Cirque du Soleil is ultimately about transvestite clowns. The Magical Mystery Tour movie failed for a reason, after all. But I have to admit that Giles Martin is a very smart guy, and obviously possesses a talent commensurate to his father's. Based on the clips I've heard, the music is actually terrific. The staging appears to be a ridiculous skateboarding, breakdancing fiasco. Should have just been an album.

Anyway, Revolver.

Most Overrated: "Good Day Sunshine." This song has some wonderful rhythmic and harmonic divergences in the chorus, and an awesome fade, but basically it's lame enough that it seems like Paul wrote specifically for Kermit the Frog. It's cheesy enough to make "Yellow Submarine" seem mature and subversive. On an album with "I'm Only Sleeping" and "She Said She Said," it sticks out more than necessary. Overrated.

Most Underrated: "She Said She Said." Very easy choice. The correct genre title for this song (and its author, actually) would be "existential badass." It just destroys, but in this finicky way that's impossible not to love. I had a lot more to say about the structure of this song, and the meter-changes in the bridge, and the the brilliance of the verse melody, and the high dog-whistle organ mixed way in the back, and Ringo getting a fill in every verse to go apeshit -- but you can just listen to it.

Also, the song contains an excellent transcription of my internal monologue during English class at Yale:

"Even though you know what you know
I know that I'm ready to leave
And you're making me feel like I've never been born."

Friday, January 19, 2007


The RIAA, once again demonstrating an unexplored capacity for willful ignorance, is now attempting a crackdown on mixtapes. Someone needs to explain to them that, from time to time, social, technological, or cultural developments by their very existence simply nullify certain applications of the law. Traditional copyright is not going to work for digital content, and people who deal with these issues as a matter of course discovered that a long time ago. But the music industry, despite its ostensible involvement in creating and defining the cultural vanguard, spends most of its time studying how to cash in on existing trends, instead of studying (or attempting to shape) the culture of subsequent consumer generations. So instead of reading the signs and designing a delivery system that would protect its assets, the music industry followed a "wait and sue" policy (I came up with that independently -- kind of disappointing to find out it's a widely-used phrase).

That was dumb.

For example, a careful (or even superficial) study of mixtape consumers would immediately reveal what the Times article points out: "part of the fun involves hearing rappers remake one another's songs and respond to one another's taunts; a great mixtape captures the controlled chaos that hiphop thrives on." Mixtapes have the potential to be incredibly lucrative, as any of those guys selling $5 CDs on the street can tell you. But, obsessed with shoring up a doomed section of copyright law, the RIAA decided to arrest DJ Drama. It's not going to work, it's not a deterrent.

Imagine how much the Big Four/Five would have made directly on online sales if they didn't have to enter expensive contracts with mediators like Apple et al. This will turn out just the same. The record companies have already missed the boat on mixtapes, and if/when they do figure out a way to enter the real mixtape market (DJ Clue doesn't count), they will likely do so in compromised, water-down fashion that won't make them much money.

By that time listeners will have moved on to someone or something else -- which the RIAA will immediately try to sue, or arrest.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Albums I Bought and the Albums I Said I Bought...

As part of my family's new budgeting process, I don't buy music anymore, really at all. See, the the only places I want to buy music are Amoeba, Rasputin, and Aquarius records, and I don't appear to possess the willpower necessary for me to buy fewer than 10 cds at a time. I used to have that kind of money because I spent literally nothing on anything else (I have been clothes shopping 3 times in the last 9 years), but now, instead of living in a dorm with Stanford graciously paying the bulk of my Yale tuition, I live in San Francisco and I've chosen the lowest paying job in my field, in preparation for the most expensive education available.

So no new CDs since some time in early 2005. And due to our environmental & energy concerns, plus the glorious move that put us two blocks away from BART, I don't listen to the radio in the car anymore. Given a choice, I'd rather see live music than buy another CD to add to the 1200 I'm still struggling to file. As a result I can't in good conscience make a "Best of" list for 2006 because I have only the vaguest notion of what went on, musically speaking.

But who cares. Here's my best of list, from the extremely limited perspective of someone with just enough time to invest in music he already likes.

Rainer Maria - Catastrophe Keeps Us Together. Well, apparently, catastrophe only kept them together just long enough to record and tour this album. Man, did that bum me out. The last time I saw them live it was at San Francisco's crappy Bottom of the Hill, where the sound and food compete for least appetizing aspect of the overall experience. But the album is wonderful, improved by its flaws (much like the band), and very hard not to fall in love with (much like the band's bassist and lead singer, Caithlin de Marrais). Incredible lead single, surprisingly affective acoustic numbers, Kyle Fisher's remarkable ability to shred a guitar wistfully (?) -- it all adds up to Rainer Maria. It's nice, and rare, for music to be actually affirming. Punk, Gospel, Beethoven, and "Getting Better" are a few examples that come to mind, but I'm surprised at how infrequently music will make you feel better about the future (as opposed to simply feeling better about the present). "I've got a plan/I'm gonna find you/at the end of the world," sings De Marrais on the album's phenomenal lead single. It's possible I'm just a sucker for the prospect of lots of time with a pretty redhead in a post-apocalyptic bomb shelter.

Walkmen -
A Hundred Miles Off. This album disappointed folks who were expecting and hoping for another Bows + Arrows. That includes me. But, though it's not as good as the impossibly appealing Bows + Arrows, it succeeds at hanging together better and annoying me less. The Walkmen are like Robin Williams -- very good, but annoying at the extremes. The last album alternated between cuts that simply capture your whole being for 3 minutes ("No Christmas While I'm Talking," "The North Pole," the title cut, and of course "The Rat") and ones that appear to have been created with the intention of irritating us crosseyed. A Hundred Miles Off gives up the epic in favor of the effortless, which means I'll listen to it less frequently, but all the way through. Highlights include "Louisiana" (which has a distinct flavor of nightime barbecue outdoors), "Emma, Get Me a Lemon," which is about what it says it's about, and "All Hands on the Cook," which is about nothing, but Hamilton Leithauser does make a series of bizarre requests in the bridge, including a request to "stop talking to the neighbor's dog." The real star of the album is Matt Barrick, the preternaturally gifted drummer and expert in timbres, textures, and straight whaling on his trap. The lame lyrics of "Emma, Get Me a Lemon" only really work because of the music's subtext: "Emma, you might as well get me a lemon because, according to these drums, I'm about to be burned alive by a Polynesian cargo cult."

Mike Relm --
Radio Fryer. This is a cheat, as he actually released it in 2005. But he's Mike Relm. I love this man and his music. I'm pretty sure that, given the chance, my wife would leave me for him because he's that talented and charming. Which, writing it now, sounds like a compliment to me, but you know what I mean. If I had to pick a highlight from this 70 minute mixtape wonder, I don't know what I'd choose. "Relm and Josie," which pits the cheesiness of Outback against the cheesiness of pre-Cube NWA? "Amadeus is Passing Me By?" "Ain't Goin' Out Like Linus?" They're all good. Mike Relm succeeded in translating that remarkable capacity of live DJs -- making you enjoy a song more than you ever had before -- to what is, essentially, a very accomplished and complex blend tape. The only thing I could recommend higher than buying this album would be seeing him live.

Yo La Tengo --
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. I haven't bought this for myself (see above), but between downloads, the live show, Youtube, etc. I have a pretty good idea. Basically it's this decade's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One. I said most of the relevant things in the review (linked), and in photoshop, but in case you didn't know, Ira Kaplan does feedback solos like he's plugging the meter.

Jay Dilla --
Donuts. Jay Dee's aesthetic sensibilities are so acute, he can make an aimless, incoherent beat tape like Donuts into a masterpiece. Sometimes Jay Dee was lazy, and sometimes his ability to effortlessly replicate styles led to some pretty generic production. But Donuts plays like the best of Slum Village or Common's fourth album -- by turns sloppy and finessed, exposed and submerged. It's like he's saying: "Here's everying you can do with hiphop production -- except you probably can't." R.I.P.

Smoosh --
Free to Stay. Smoosh will win you over. Is that a guarantee, you ask? I'll put it this way: if you don't fall in love with the opening single "Find a Way," then you probably won't like the way you look either. I saw these young women live last year, and the fact that I willingly stood in a group of 14-year old hipsters and their chaperones (along with, doubtless, the assorted pedophile) should speak for itself. Damn is this band fun.

Roots --
Game Theory. Foregone conclusion.

Why? --
Elephant Eyelash. Also from 2005, but started getting a lot more heat in 2006. So, so many reasons to love this album. "Crushed Bones," "Waterfalls" (which, though not a cover of TLC, is now the best song with that title, something I thought TLC had pretty well locked down), "Rubber Traits," "Gemini (Birthday Song)," the album is just stuffed with bizarre, unique, disturbing music that sounds something like what you know but not quite. Kind of Daniel Johnston, kind of Pharcyde, kind of Laurie Anderson, kind of Smile outtakes -- impossible to describe. See them live, get the album.

Afro Reggae -
Nenhum Motivo Explica a Guerra. Speaking of music that sounds like nothing else. The cultural politics of this music is pretty complex -- seeing Favela Rising may help significantly, but you still need to draw your own conclusions about the medium and the message (which requires babelfish unless you speak Portuguese -- and that won't help too much because it's insanely fast hiphop and may include fairly specific slang from Vicario General). Great album, hard to listen to frequently, but overwhelming (in a good way) when it comes to atmosphere and scope.

Arab Strap -
The Last Romance. Also foregone. I love this band, and the newest album is just packed to the top with bitterness, humor, resentment, desperation, resignation, and hushed lyricism. What they do best. Surprisingly, there are more "upbeat" tunes on this one than on any previous, including an undeniably happy closer in "There is No Ending" (my nominee for Best Song of 2006). Lots more thoughts on the album and the band in an earlier review. Probably don't go buy this album if you're easily depressed by music. Or buy this one, but don't buy any of the others till you're ready to hear Aidan Moffat ask for "something to wipe with."

That's all. Maybe 2007 will be the Year of Buying Albums from Last Year. Looking forward to it.

reference help for the title)

Thursday, January 04, 2007

photoshop thursday

Inspired directly by what I find to be a hilarious observation on Weapons of Class Instruction:

       Andre Benjamin                 Andre 3000

           Walter Benjamin                                 Walter 3000

Alternate title: "Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." (And Camille, being a newly-minted critical theory geek, would want me to add the more accurate translation -- " the Age of its Technological Reproducibility."