Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I’ve been a long time fan of Tom Waits. Huge fan. When he comes out with a new album, I have to get it on release day. He’s got a stunning vision that gives each song a life of its own.

And, because I’m a guy, I have a certain appreciation for Scarlett Johansson too. She’s a beautiful, talented actress. And her voice! I could listen to her speak all day.

Combine the two: Johansson doing covers of Tom Waits songs, and it should be a winning combination. How could I resist?

I wish I would have, because mere words cannot convey how disturbing this album turned out to be. The hackish cover-art should have been a clue, but I failed to heed its warning.

First, I should give her a bit of credit – due anyone who appreciates Waits’ sometimes quirky and challenging work. But that’s where it ends.

I don’t know who should get most of the blame for this, Johansson or the producer. The whole album has this vocoder/harmonizer quality to it. Kind of an auto-chorus thing, but not very well done.

On every song.

I’m not sure if it’s because they thought her voice wouldn’t stand up on its own, or for some stylistic reason, but it turned out to be a distraction.

Anywhere I Lay My Head opens with an instrumental piece, “Fawn” from (Alice, 2002), which takes the simple, almost weepy original and turns it into something akin to a song from an old-time revival meeting crossed with a noise band.

The album also has one original track “Song for Jo,” in which I can see the inspiration. The song isn’t bad, aside from the auto-chorus, and it’s one of the only high-points on the album.

She does put her own touch on “I Wish I Was In New Orleans” (Small Change, 1976), and largely pulls it off. With sparse instrumentation, it has a certain lilting quality to it that actually works with the production style. In fact, it’s exactly what you would expect given her persona and the album concept. Unfortunately the song comes too late in the album (#8) to overcome the bad taste left by the songs leading up to it.

The next track, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” (Bone Machine, 2002), takes on a Blondie-esque, almost disco quality, but not in a good way. Debbie Harry can pull off the sultry, sexy, husky thing, but Scarlett has a few years to go and needs some material that might lend itself to the task.

The title track, “Anywhere I Lay My Head” comes from 1985’s Rain Dogs, and the album contains a smattering of songs from all over Waits’ work. Alice (2002), Big Time (1988), Orphans (2006), Swordfishtrombones (1983), Small Change (1976), Real Gone (2004), and the previously mentioned Rain Dogs are all represented.

I wanted to like it. I really did. But in the end, this one goes on the list of albums I’m mildly ashamed to own. Scarlett Johansson fans will be disappointed; Tom Waits fans will be pissed off.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Even though I may not totally agree with his politics, I’ve been a fan of Billy Bragg for many years. His songs are strong mix of punk, worker’s ballads, and the world at large that just have this certain appeal to me. Bragg played The Cedar a couple weeks ago and I took my friend Sherry to the show.

It was actually a pretty busy week: Association meeting on Tuesday, drinks with friends on Wednesday, Aimee Mann at the Zoo with Sherry on Thursday, Billy Bragg at The Cedar on Friday, then Stomp! at the Ordway on Saturday.

In the couple-dozen shows I’ve seen at The Cedar, this has been only the third where there were no chairs.

The first was Hoven Droven, a Celtic punk band at the Nordic Roots festival a couple years ago. The show started with chairs, but as the band got going people got up to dance. At first the chairs were (gently) shoved away from the stage, then quickly a bunch of people helped to stack them and put the chairs away properly. In under 5 minutes the floor was clear.

The second show was Konono No. 1, a percussion and thumb piano band from Africa. (Boy was that show loud!) They started the evening without the chairs so people could dance. The crowd really got hopping in sync with itself and you’d see this mass of heads bobbing into the air and back down again.

And then the Billy Bragg show. It was billed as limited seating, but I was surprised to find no chairs at all. I figured it meant the normal seating arrangement, but that there were more tickets than seats. I wouldn’t call Bragg’s music danceable – indeed, nobody really moved that much the entire show. However, the concert was sold out. With chairs The Cedar holds about 300 people but they must have sold 600+ tickets for this show. Standing room only in the truest sense.

The opening act was a guy named C. R. Avery. He did this beat-box, hip-hop, spoken word thing that was just great. I had to buy his two CDs after the show. If you’ve ever heard Kid Beyond before you’ve got the general idea, but with a bit more focus on the words than the beats and the looping.

Billy came out and it was just him and a couple guitars. One electric and one acoustic. He did several songs from the his latest album, Mr. Love and Justice, with a healthy dose of old stuff interspersed. I got to hear most of my favorites, including “Sexuality” and “The Space Race Is Over.” It was a really good show.

At one point, switching back from acoustic to electric, Bragg made a remark about amplification and apologized that I was getting the brunt of it standing there straight in front of his main stage amp. I just smiled, pointed to my ear plugs, and told him it was no sweat; I was getting a great show and couldn’t have picked a better spot about 6 feet off center right against the stage.

After the show he came out and signed autographs. He took the time to talk with everyone in line and come my turn he apologized again for the amplifier placement. I said he shouldn’t apologize, I knew what I was getting into by standing there. I have earplugs and could still hear every word, it just took the edge off. Sherry had helped me grab the set list from the stage, which he gladly signed and tried to point out the one or two spots where songs got added.

Then I asked him to autograph a couple CDs I had brought with me. As I handed them to him, I remarked that they were two of the old ones (not the oldest, but William Bloke and England, Half-English.) He started signing them, and asked “Who are they?” Confused, I looked and realized what had happened. He had written “To the Old Ones, “ and signed the first one.

Unable to make something up on the spot, I explained that I had said “Two of the old ones,” figuring he would just sign them and be done with it. Completely embarrassed, Billy remarked that after a show there is often no brain filtering information between ears and hands, so he’ll often just write whatever someone says because he’s talking with them at the same he signs stuff. “I’m just as likely to write ‘To the git that makes a terrible cup of coffee’ if someone said at the right time.” We all started riffing on “To the Old Ones” a bit, including my friend Kathy who was next in line, and eventually someone (I think it was Kathy) said “To the Young Ones.” The Young Ones was a British sit-com that played on MTV for a while here in the US. A bit more joking around and that’s what the second CD now says: “To the Young Ones, Billy Bragg.”

It was time to go, but I got a picture with Billy and he apologized again for the autograph mixup. I said it was no trouble at all. In fact it was great! Usually it’s just a signature, or “To Michael” at most – as if anyone would be fooled into thinking Billy and I were drinking buddies. These two CDs, “To the Old Ones” and “To the Young Ones” are now truly special. Not only do they have some good music on them, but I have a story to go with them.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

After my TwitterBerry review (it’s only O.K.), a friend suggested trying TinyTwitter by…well…TinyTwitter it seems. You can get it for Windows Mobile Pocket PC, Windows Mobile Smartphone, as well as older and newer Java enabled smartphones (MIDP 1.0 and 2.0).

This one seems to have gotten almost everything right. The main screen is your friend timeline. It shows them in reverse chronological order (newest at the top) with their respective icons and it shows the whole tweet. Moving between messages is easy, just scroll down the list to work backwards in time — no selecting necessary. In fact, if you select the message, it will show you a details screen, but you’ll find that everything was right there on the main screen in the first place.

Sending a reply is easy too. Just highlight the message, pop up the menu (with either select or the menu key on my Blackberry Pearl), and choose reply. It automatically fills in the @username part and you’re good to go.

The entry screen is otherwise straightforward. What more do you need than a place to type your message and hit send? There are two things I would like to see and really they’re just minor changes:

  1. When replying to someone else’s tweet, put the cursor after their @username so you can just start typing. It’s annoying to have to scroll over first. One could argue that leaving the cursor at the start makes it easy to fill in an instruction (d for direct message, follow or nofollow to control your friends list, etc.), but 99% of the time I’m not doing that. Generally replies are intended not only for whom they are directed, but the “room” at large.
  2. Add a character counter. The first line on the update screen only says “What are you doing?” (the ever-present Twitter question); there’s plenty of space to add a character counter so you know how much space you have left. Or use some of the other screen real estate, it’s not like 140 characters is going to fill things up.

The settings are easy to access and fairly straightforward. I’m not sure why there isn’t one “settings” area with sub-sections like most Blackberry applications, but the full menu is only a tiny annoyance. In the UI Settings you can turn on/off images, tell TinyTwitter to play a sound when you get a new direct message, and disable the last tweet ticker at the bottom of the main screen.

Under Sync Settings, there are similarly few choices. Just how often you want TinyTwitter to fetch updates. Never, 4 (the programmer’s favorite), 15, 30, or 60 minutes. I’d like to see this become more flexible, allowing for any user-selectable time here.

Finally there’s a section for Font Settings where the choices are small, medium, and large. Not that this choice actually seems to do anything. I haven’t experimented enough to see if this is an artifact of my overall Blackberry settings (I tend to use a pretty small font) or just something goofy about TinyTwitter, but I can live with it.

The final weird thing is that direct messages don’t show up in your friend timeline, but rather you have to go to a special screen called “Inbox” to see them. The Inbox also shows any replies sent your way via the normal @username thing. Kind of strange, but I can live with it.

It may seem like I’m nit-picking TinyTwitter to death, and perhaps I am, but it comes from love. In just a few days I’ve grown to really like TinyTwitter and would highly recommend it. At least on my Blackberry it completely kicks Twitterberry’s butt. That whole IM and RSS reader combo thing I was doing before? What on earth was I thinking!

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Just today I finally thought to look for a Blackberry app to do twitter updates. A quick Google search brought me to Twitterberry by Orangatame (http://www.orangatame.com/) so I decided to give it a go. Until now I had been using a combination of Twitter’s Gtalk interface and Newsclip, my RSS reader of choice.

Twitterberry has potential, but it’s not quite there yet.

The friend timeline has a nice layout that shows people’s icons and is a handy interface to see what’s going on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t show the whole message either on-screen or when the individual tweet is highlighted. You have to select the message (just hit the select button or press enter), but then there isn’t a way to move between messages. It’s back to the list, then pick the next one to read. At least you can do replies and direct messages right from that list.

The update screen (where you write your own tweets) is straightforward. Just a blank screen and a character counter– something my IM client doesn’t do.

The config is minimalist. Just user name and password. The software doesn’t even auto-retrieve timeline updates, which is a big disappointment.

Another irritation is that Twitterberry doesn’t do anything to keep track of where in the stream you last fetched and download everything since then. It also only shows the last 20 updates, which is a major bummer when you follow more than a couple people and they tweet even a modest amount.

Overall, it’s not bad, but there is much room for improvement. It’s not even a 1.0 version (0.6 actually) and it’s free, so I can’t really complain too much. It will be interesting to see where Twitteberry goes in the future.

Updated 2345 PM: expanded the review slightly to include a couple extra notes.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

OK, so here’s the deal: I won tickets to the recent Barry Manilow show in the Twin Cities.

No kidding.

I was at my dad’s place for Christmas and he had the radio tuned for a local adult-contemporary station. (Hey, not my choice, but not my radio either.) They were doing a Songs of the 70’s thing, heavy on the disco and easy-listening classics of the decade. I didn’t catch the prize at first, but they had a trivia thing and the question was “What kind of car did Dantanna drive in the 70’s TV series Vegas?” After a quick discussion with the room at large, I casually called the radio station and actually got through.

The DJ repeated the question and I gave her the answer and I won! Actually, she gave me a second chance on the color because I had everything else spot-on (It was a red Thunderbird convertible, by the way.)

I’m not usually the winner. I don’t win the lottery, I can’t guess the number of jelly beans in the jar, and I’m never caller #10. Yet here I was, the proud owner of two Barry Manilow tickets. I didn’t even know when or where the concert was, I had to look it up.

I’m known among my people for having varied musical tastes and I’ll listen to nearly anything. I’m not big on modern rap or country and I know precious little about classical or Jazz, but I usually peg Manilow as an easy-listening artist. Let’s just say that easy-listening normally come somewhere further down the list. Somewhere above new age (rhymes with sewage) but below heavy metal.

Somehow I felt compelled to go. After all, everyone can name at least three Barry Manilow songs off the top of their head and in addition to his own recordings he’s written tons for other bands. Plus he’s known to be quite the showman. While I might not appreciate it as much as other people, the concert was not going to suck. Heck it’s possible I might even enjoy it.

The show was at Xcel Energy Center (some time I should share my thoughts about corporate sponsored venues) and the tickets were pretty decent. Not on the main floor, but 12th row about half-way back from the stage. The place is usually a hockey arena, so if front edge of the stage was about 20 feet in front of the goal, my seats were about even with the far blue-line. They turned out to be great sight-lines.

I had to invoke some Google-Fu to remember the name of the opening act, Brian Culbertson. With 33-year old Brian on keyboard and trombone, his dad on trumpet, plus a drummer, guitarist, bass player, and another guy on keyboards; he’s described as a Smooth Jazz act. Ugh. Smooth Jazz. As it turns out they weren’t bad, but pretty unremarkable; which is my complaint about most Smooth Jazz. Think Kenny G crossed with John Tesh, but somewhat less somnolent. Their last tune was a kind of funk number that was pretty good.

Then it was Barry-Time.

This tour was called Music and Passion, the premise being music through the decades, 40’s on forward, with stories from his life and plenty of his own songs interspersed throughout. He had an 11 piece orchestra, plus guitar, bass, drums, percussion, backup singers, keyboard, and his own piano. The light rig was huge, with at least 4 arms jutting out 30 feet over the audience, three video screens, and a pair of LED curtains that they could change colors and display patterns on. Even the stage was something else. It had a multi-tier band riser that split in the middle for Manilow to make his entrance, a trap door in the middle for his piano, and a mini-terrace/elevator that he used to come down to the front row.

We left early, just after Copacabana, so I don’t have a full set list, but here goes: Miracle; Daybreak; Somewhere In the Night; This One’s For You; A medly of some boogie-woogie thing (Jump Shout was one of the lines?), Chattanooga Choo Choo, then back to the boogie woogie thing; Moonlight Serenade; When Can I Touch You?; Bandstand; I Made It Through the Rain (mixed with an early music story); Can’t Smile Without You; Looks Like We Made It; Who’s Been Sleeping In My Bed?; Even Now; New York City Frame of Mind; a story about Vegas vs. home vs. other cities; Come (Baby I Love You); Yesterday (the Beatles tune); Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You; Where Did Our Love Go (sung mostly by the backup singers); Mandy; I Write the Songs; Copacabana…

If it weren’t for the free tickets, I’m not sure I would have gone. The seats were expensive by my standards, $77 up to $248 (before fees) through that national seller we all love to hate. That said, I have to admit it was a good show. While it wasn’t transcendent I honestly enjoyed myself and I’m glad to have gone. I think that Barry’s fans got their money’s worth.

I took lots of pictures, including the one above, which I hope to have on-line soon.

Sunday, 07 October 2007

In the interest of saving you some time: there’s a good reason they were giving it away on the street — it was awful. Read on if you absolutely must know more…

As I left the Crowded House show a little while back, there was someone outside The Orpheum handing out CDs. The disc was by a guy named Rich Shapero, whom I had never heard of before.

Once home I did the usual cataloging and importing so I could listen to it on the drive to work. Now I wish I hadn’t bothered because it’s 35 minutes of my life (5 for the import, 30 for the listen) that I will never get back. Normally I wouldn’t count the listen due to the multitasking factor, but it was so bad I wanted to run my car off the road just to make his music stop.

Putting aside the histrionics for a moment, the disc wasn’t absolutely and completely without merit. The third track, “Where Am I Bound?” was pretty good, but it had the misfortune of being surrounded by the rest of the album.

You may be wondering what made it so horrible, and while I assure you your time has been wasted with that thought, I’ll try to explain.

The music, possibly intended as some hybrid of Barouque, folk, and rock/pop, came across more as disjointed noise separated by the brief respite of 2 seconds of quiet between tracks. The lyrics were insupid like bad high-school poetry. The mix-down lacked dynamic. It was just bad, bad, bad.

If you have taken the time to read this far, I’m sorry. If you ever run into Shapero, tell him he owes you the 5 minutes it took to read this review. While he’s at it he can cough up the 35 minutes.

At least it’s clear why they were giving it away out on the street.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

I’m positively flying right now — in a good way. I just got back from the 4th Lavay Smith show in 2 days and it was amazing. Some highlights, since I’m hoping a more thorough review will come later:

  • The shows were every bit as wonderful as I expected.
  • Front row seats for all four shows.
  • At Tuesday night’s second show, Brian Setzer was in the audience and did a sang a couple songs with the band.
  • I was able to talk with him a bit after the show and got a picture with him.
  • Tuesday I invited a friend to the second show and they loved it.
  • Wednesday I invited a couple friends and they really loved it.
  • I got my pictures with Lavay and “Cousin” Danny autographed.
  • Chris (piano and band leader), Lavay, and Danny recognized me right off.
  • Lavay talked to me a bit from the stage at several of the shows. (She’s positively gorgeous and an absolute sweetheart!)
  • She asked me to do her a favor during the second show on Wednesday since it was Mark’s (tenor saxophone) birthday. At first I wasn’t able to do it because the kitchen at the club was closed, but the waiter I asked was able to hook me up.
  • I got a song on the set list for the 2nd Tuesday show: “Busy Woman’s Blues”
  • Lavay dedicated a song to me: “Big Fine Daddy” at the 2nd Wednesday show.
  • Chris is a great guy too! I brought my group photo from the Rossi’s show two years ago, go the first couple autographs on it myself, then he ran around and got the rest for me. That was HUGE!
  • Mike Olmos (trumpet) was the first one I caught to sign it. He asked if I could email him a copy. I gave him my spare (I always print two) and a Moo-card and said to send me an email and I’d forward him the digital copy.
  • In among all the other stuff I had to do Wednesday, I was able to pick through my Tuesday photos, make the edits, get a couple prints done, and burned a CD for Lavay. She and Brian Setzer were dancing during one of the songs and I got a great shot so I printed that and gave it to her with the CD, which had the photos from the Tuesday night show† with touch-ups and sized to make 8x10s. She loved it and couldn’t wait to show the dancing photo to her mom.

That’s all for now, but suffice today I walked away with a giant grin on my face and a bounce in my step that will last for a week.

† I told Lavay that they were welcome to use the photos any way they wanted (and included the same info in a readme file on the CD). Promo photos, Web site, posters, whatever. All I requested was a photo credit, nothing more.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Count me among the converted. My photo workflow has just made a huge shift for the better all with one piece of software: Noise Ninja.

To explain: I love Photoshop. It’s one of two programs that keeps me from switching to Linux full time.† I use it for all of my photo editing and while I may not be a power user, I get the job done. Traditionally I did noise reduction within Photoshop — a sometimes desperate series of selections, unsharp-mask, maybe another filter or two, then more selecting and filtering. It was a nightmare, often taking several hours for the noisier images.

Finally, after seeing it mentioned in so many workflow examples on various photography Web sites I read, I gave Noise Ninja a test drive. In under 60 seconds I took the image on the left and turned it into the one on the right (look at the brim of my hat and my forehead‡):

I’m serious, under 60 seconds having never used the software before. Imagine what would happen I knew what I was doing!

† Yes, I know about GIMP — but GIMP’s interface bites. The other piece of software is 3rdPlanIt. ‡ The dark spot on the crown of my hat isn’t noise, it’s wear because I (naughty naughty) grab it by the crown all the time.

Sunday, 06 May 2007

I was indisposed the last few days, so it took me a couple extra to actually get this posted.

The last couple times Roger Clyne has come to town, we’ve been blessed with Saturday night shows. This time we were most fortunate in that May 5th was on a Saturday this year and Roger was coming to town. His Cinco de Mayo shows are reported to be something else.

Rogers merch guy was the first opener and he did a great job. He’s got an album of his own and while it’s a bit lighter than Roger’s stuff, it’s still very good. Jason did a bunchk of stuff from the CD and a couple new ones rounded out his 30 minute set.

The second band was a group called Shurman, a 4 piece from California. They’ve toured with Roger before and seem to have a pretty respectable following in their own right. They did about a 60 minute set that tended more toward rock than the Sowthwest twinge of the Peacemakers. I didn’t pick up a CD although I should have.

I don’t know what time Roger and the boys took the stage, but it turned out to be everything I love about an RCPM show.

There were 29 songs on the set list, which I’d guess ran about 2 hours. On paper it reads as follows: Hello New Day, Mexico, Counterclockwise, Noisy Head, Maybe We Should Fall In Love, Tell Yer Momma, Mexican Moonshine, Contraband, Wanted, Bury My Heart at the Trailer Park, World Ain’t Gone Crazy, Banditos, Plenty, Feel Alright, Down Together, Winter In Your Heart, I Don’t Need Another Thrill, Bottom of the Bay, Jack vs. Jose, Wake-Up Call, Andale, Green and Dumb, Junebug In July, Who Let the Goon Squad In, Girly, Mekong, Leaky Little Boat, Lemons, Nada

After the show I got a chance to hang with each of the guys for a few minutes. When I talked to Roger, he asked if there was something I’d like to hear on the set list. Unable to collate the list in my head fast enough, I said “God Gave Me A Gun” which I’d love to hear live. He said they’d see about doing it one of the next couple nights.

I don’t see it as a promise, but it would be cool. We’ll just have to see in Des Moines tomorrow night.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Since I’m a bit of a fan of the Sau Paulo sound and of The Dakota, I sort of decided at the last minute to take in the Céu show. It was only $12 and I didn’t have anything else going on, so why not?

I’ve talked about The Dakota before, so I’ll skip most of the detail except to say this: avoid the mezzanine seats unless you can get along the railing. That means 210-219 are quite good and 220-229 are decent. Sadly that means 230-239 are pretty bad. The sound in those seats is great, that,a never a question at The Dakota, but the sight lines are terrible.

I was originally scheduled to see Céu at the 9PM show on Wednesday, but scheduling concerns meant they were only doing one show each night instead of two. I opted for the the Tuesday show rather than a refund and ended up at #230. I could see the top of her head, shoulders up on the bass player, and the backdrop. That’s it.

</complaining>

There must be something in the water in Brazil, because their musicians are, without exception, absolutely stunning. Céu was certainly no disappointment.

The only way I can describe the Céu’s music, and really the Sao Paolo sound, is to say Brazillian chill-out, mixed with Jazz, afro-beat, and gorgeous, velvety-rich vocals. If you don’t love it after the first listen, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.

Céu herself sounds much like Bebel Gilberto mixed with I can’t quite decide who. Regardless, the result is positively mesmerising. She has a voice I wish could sing me to sleep every night.

She was joined on stage by 5 musicians; there was the bass, keyboards, drums, percussion, and a DJ. I have to say that’s a first for me, seeing a DJ on stage at The Dakota.

The show was absolutely great, although I’m reminded of my only other complaint about The Dakota: the shows tend to run short. A typical show there is just over 60 minutes where most of the other stuff I see is 75-90 minutes for the main act plus 30-45 for an opener.

For $12, even with the crummy sight-line, it was more than worth it. I still managed to get a couple pictures during the show, as well as an autograph and picture with Céu after the show.

I did pretty well for a last minute, on-a-whim kind of thing.