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second-best since Cantor

Month: October, 2016

Quick hits, October 2016.

Phish, BIG BOAT (2016)

Better than I initially thought (my initial review in its entirety: ‘Go see a Phish show’), but still an unevenly written, overproduced affair. I say all this with love, which has only deepened as they’ve aged into their nigh-miraculous midlife renaissance: Phish’s studio albums are a dicey proposition. Big Boat has the highest ‘dad rock’ ratio of the bunch — after the opening comic-rock number ‘Friends,’ you get four straight tracks suitable for shaking your cellulite on the grass while drinking thin American beer, and there’s two or three more waiting on the backstretch — but as always there’s a handful of interesting tunes mixed in: Mike Gordon’s ‘Waking Up Dead’ is less conventionally satisfying than ‘555’ off Fuego, but the perversity of building a song around the triumphant four-syllable wail ‘Vac-u-um-ing!’ appeals to me; Page McConnell’s ‘I Always Wanted It This Way’ goes to an enveloping indie-electropop place; and Trey Anastasio’s 13-minute closer ‘Petrichor’ is more smoothly integrated and richly textured than ‘Time Turns Elastic,’ which fans deride as jamless but which seems to me one of the best things Trey’s ever written. And honestly, a couple of Trey’s dad-rock tunes are pretty good: though ‘No Men in No Man’s Land’ is as disappointing as its unfunny titular joke (it’s a little better live), ‘Tide Turns,’ ‘Blaze On,’ and ‘Breath and Burning’ capture the unaffected sweetness and generosity of spirit which have characterized post-reunion Phish. Still, while Big Boat may well be a personal achievement for the band (though recent interviews have suggested some tension with producer Bob Ezrin), it’s just not a terribly compelling album.

Still, you can’t be disappointed. This thing they do onstage, no one’s ever done it better; we shouldn’t hold it against them that their albums aren’t their best work.

Steve Kuhn, TRANCE (1974)

If you’re a jazz fan, you probably have feelings about the use of the Rhodes keyboard: either you dig its mellow electro vibe and potential for signal processing, or you think it’s too diffuse and sonically inflexible for the job. In my experience, few listeners are truly neutral about the device — not least because its arrival correlated with the onset of jazz/rock ‘fusion,’ still a source of controversy in this maddeningly conservative discursive community. I love the Rhodes sound, but there’s a limit to its expressive capacity, and I recognize that the emotions it triggers in me have a lot to do with its cultural moment. And lately I’m starting to notice its…thinness.

Steve Kuhn’s Trance is very, very, very much a mid-70s electric/acoustic piano trio+percussion record. Ambient texture and largely static groove are the key objectives; New Agey drones and extended modal vamps never quite build a real head of steam (or more positively: they never interfere with the slow-moving sonic cloudwork). That said, it’s dreamy — not sleepy. Kuhn’s keyboard solos are fleet, the acoustic piano gets some heavy reverb, Jack DeJohnette’s drumming is Jack DeJohnette’s drumming, and the proceedings never get too wild or indeed too ‘interesting.’ As a progenitor electronic work, it’s very much bound to the norms of jaaaazzzzzzz; as a post-fusion jazz album, it’s spaced out in an appealing but not quite distinctive way. Its value, then, is in the subtlety and continuity of the playing: the way its pensive-meditations-amongst-the-fjords coolness and hypnagogic mood find expression through both the drifts of Rhodes and the percussive workouts (not to mention the brief Free breakdown on ‘Squirt’).

I found out only when I sat down to write this that Trance is a beloved ‘lost classic,’ a ‘hidden gem’ which didn’t make waves upon initial release. I don’t quite share this feeling — it feels to me like one more enjoyable Rhodes-touched album of the (ugh) ‘kozmigroov’ era of spiritual/psych/soul/funk/jazz fusion, that golden age from roughly A Love Supreme through disco. But I don’t begrudge anyone thinking this is uniquely or unusually fine music. The mid-70s were a killer time for jazz. Everyone has to learn sometime.

Radiohead, HAIL TO THE THIEF (2003)

Because they’ve been around for 20 years, and their last few albums have been ‘retrenchments’ and reflected their ‘maturation’ and so forth, the scale of Radiohead’s achievement is now easy to overlook — you can forget, or petulantly ignore, the fact that for several years around the turn of the millennium, Radiohead were one of the most interesting bands in and around ‘rock & roll.’ From The Bends through Amnesiac they were both unimpeachable pop songwriters and sonic experimenters and creators of increasingly dense avant abstractions, and when Hail to the Thief arrived in 2003, everyone I knew wanted to know what they’d come up with. Had they rediscovered guitars? Would it be pure electronic noise? Was George Bush the thief? It mattered, somehow.

And when the album was neither as dark/creepy/maniacal/foreboding as Kid A nor as majestically guitar-drenched as OK Computer nor as hermetically intimate as Amnesiac — when Thief was ‘merely’ an hour of effortlessly integrated proggish guitar-rock and electronic immersions and almost-not-quite dance beats and emotionally concrete but emphatically un-literal lyrics, merely a Radiohead album instead of the Radiohead album, it was marked down by the tastemakers as a bit of a disappointment, and that was it for Radiohead’s cultural moment. Four years later In Rainbows was a thinkpiece-ready media sensation for its pay-what-you-want delivery, but no one talked much about its music; nothing since then has made much of a dent outside of the music blogs.

But Hail to the Thief is about as fine a mid-second-act rock album as you could hope for. The Lovely Guitar Tunes (‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Scatterbrain,’ ‘I Will,’ ‘Sail to the Moon,’ ‘Wolf at the Door’) are among Yorke’s loveliest, the opening two uptempo headbangers(?!) are pure adrenaline, and the group’s experiments in computerized pop theatricality (‘The Gloaming,’ ‘Backdrifts,’ ‘Myxomatosis’) argue for the continuity of the band’s pre- and post-millennium styles. Ignore the morons who think of Radiohead as ‘pretentious’: they’re just serious, and you should be too. While you’re at it, ignore anyone who dismisses Thief as a disappointment simply because it’s a distillation and consolidation rather than a year-in-the-lab-at-night experiment like Kid A. The whiggish rock/pop historical outlook that hypocritically insists both on the guilt-free pleasure principle (good!) yet clings to the idea that a great should do something new — getting bizarrely angry at artists content to do something(s) well — is the most poisonous result of early rockcrits’ desperate status-seeking. If pleasure is enough, it’s enough.

Hail to the Thief turns a few new tricks, but in retrospect they don’t really matter, nor does the album’s ‘incoherence’ when compared to Radiohead’s brilliant run from The Bends through Amnesiac. What matters is: the work gets you someplace it alone knows about.

(Sidebar proposal: The last four tracks of The Bends would be the peak of any lesser band’s career, never mind the rest of the album, and the key change and final chorus of ‘Sulk’ are — for me, of course ‘for me’ — one of the most rapturously sad moments on record. Only the cheapness of the contrast effect in ‘My Iron Lung’ mars what is, to my mind, an otherwise perfect rock album. Still, not their ‘greatest’ work, right? It’s ‘only a near-perfect collection of songs,’ unlike OK Computer and Kid A, which ‘add up.’ Man, I used to spend hours talking this kind of shit.)

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From the annals of brilliant marketing…

My 6-year-old son and I were at Pandemonium Books & Games today, poking around the X-Wing/Pokémon TCG stuff. While my son cavorted and browsed, I complained to the guy at the counter: ‘Pokémon isn’t a very good game.’

‘Nope.’ He looked kinda bummed out by the game’s popularity. I don’t blame him. Pokémon is fine for little kids, but it’s not very rewarding for grownups.

Me, wistfully: ‘But I feel like Magic is a little over our heads.’

‘It’s not.’ He said this without the tiresome, clueless, aggressive insistence that tends to characterize nerd-store employees. This endeared him to me.

He rummaged around the shelf behind the counter and brought out two ‘Welcome Deck’ boxes. Each contained two playable 30-card mini-decks. He handed them to me.

I was touched, not realizing that these are in fact the cleverest imaginable promotional items. The first taste, as they say, is free…

He said to come on back after we’d tried them out, and he’d rustle up the others (there are five such Welcome Decks, one for each of the game’s Land types).

As it happened, my son and I ended up visiting my wife — she’d spent the day working alone in her office, because she’s both (1) extraordinarily devoted and attentive toward her clients, genuinely desiring to help them out of a jam, and yet also (2) a terrifying obsessive — and didn’t go home to get the Pokémon decks we’d planned to bust out this afternoon.

So we gave Magic a spin, using these little 30-card single-color (or -colour) decks.

It was his first game, my third, though I’ve read a lot about it over the years.

It’s weird to think that the two greatest tabletop games of the 20th century — Magic and Dungeons & Dragons — are published by the same company.

(Yeah yeah, Cosmic Encounter and Advanced Squad Leader and Third Reich and Dominion and Bridge and blah blah blah. We can argue about this some other time.)


NOTE: The rules insert in the Welcome Deck is totally inadequate if you’ve never actually played or watched the game before. The 16-page basic ruleset PDF, eminently googleable, will suffice for beginners. The comprehensive ruleset runs to more than 100 unnecessary-for-normal-people pages.

Revisits: The Slip, Dave Matthews, Grimes, Radiohead.

Listening again to some discs I’d put aside, trying to hear something new in somethings old.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

An immersive piece of intoxicated tinkerer’s psychedelia which I dismissed too quickly in favour of the immediately accessible Art Angels. It still feels a bit like student work, which is to say there are moments of obvious Technique and an abashed quality throughout — if you’re willing to write the words, why not take the next step and sing so’s we can actually make them out? — and this is very obviously a Somewhat Muddled but Affecting Drug Album where Art Angels (the (minor) breakout pop hit) is an enthusiastic celebration of clarity, and perhaps sobriety. Yet the best songs (visions?), like ‘Genesis’ (my favourite and my wife’s), bring gal-pop narrativity to spacey electronica in a lushly trippy style, engaging the senses instead of making sense or settling for sensation. A strong argument for making the dancefloor and the chillout room all one big space, or maybe one very small one. And though the bespoke knob-twiddling of EDM still strikes me as the midpoint of a slippery slope down to shared-isolation consumerist hell, there’d be a place for Grimes in a world that still valued accident and the unfamiliar. For her sake I’m glad she’s off speed, though it’s a very small but real letdown that her next album won’t be a trip like this one.

The Slip at High Sierra Music Festival, 9/6/98

In their early incaranation, one of the small handful of worthwhile ‘jam bands’ — they combined schmind-schmexpanding hippie wandering with proper jazz language, and in the late 90s their considered engagement with electronic tools opened up new vistas. (Afterward they took a turn to electronica-touched indie pop, which brought them more attention; by that point I’d fallen off the radar somewhat.) They were astonishing live, passionate and spiritually intense but with actual existing chops. All three members are superb players, and Boston was their adopted hometown, so catching them at an all-night MIT basement show or burning up the Paradise was always a special experience. In those days drummer Andrew Barr took off for a few months of apprentice drumming in Mali, and came back with new old knowledge, playing with devotional fervor. I don’t know whether that was before or after this feelgood festival set, which is bound to be more affecting if you’re already up on the band. Excellent ‘Yellow Medicine’ here after a bunch of festival jams, but the career highlight is ‘Honey Melon,’ a gorgeous tune off From the Gecko that’s lifted by fiddle and didgeridoo into unself-conscious exultation. The set overall is less essential than I used to think, but the final two tunes, more than a half-hour in total, are the truth. I miss this band so much.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

  1. These are the best strings I’ve heard on a rock album. I don’t love all of Jonny Greenwood’s film work, which at times has seemed to me to be more ‘interesting’ than beautiful, but there’s no denying his ambition — or, at this point, his mastery. Remember how folks gave Beck props for hiring his dad to do (gorgeous) string arrangements on Sea Change? This isn’t an additive process like that: Greenwood’s textures, acoustic and electronic, are essential to the structure of each piece. The second verse of ‘Burn the Witch’ — a statement of intent and show of force — features string backing of extraordinary subtlety and beauty, even while the rest of the arrangement cruelly weaponizes the string section. Subtlety isn’t exactly a rock’n’roll virtue, but listen closely to the way heavily processed samples of Thom Yorke’s moaning/humming turn out to be models for — or fore-echoes of? — the avant string part that poisons the back half of the song.
  2. Yorke has always done a brisk side business in haunting solo acoustic ballads: ‘Desert Island Disk’ continues a line running back through ‘Give Up the Ghost,’ ‘Faust Arp,’ ‘Go to Sleep,’ ‘Exit Music (for a film),’ and ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ — songs which have sometimes grown in performance to include full-band accompaniment, but which at heart are guy-with-guitar songs. Indeed, Yorke & Greenwood’s two-guys-with-two-guitars shows are perfect showcases for the songs they’ve crafted together, just as Dave Matthews’s duo shows with Tim Reynolds are an ideal showcase for his own underpraised songwriting work. ‘Desert Island Disk’ features spare synth backing and hushed work from the whole band in its final minute, but it’s a reminder that Yorke, all by himself, is a major talent. So’s the next track, which sees Yorke singing in unplaceable character as supplement to an extended uptempo not-exactly-dance tune. You can’t say Yorke’s never been better — go listen again to ‘Sulk,’ a song he refused to sing after its release partly because of The Big Feelings, though I suspect the demands it placed on his tenor were too great anyway — but he’s never gone further in, lyrically or vocally.
  3. Some American rock critics hate it when a British band puts out a masterpiece. Not just Christgau; his resentments are just easy to see. (Go read the Dartmouth grad’s U2 and Radiohead reviews if you don’t believe me — the best of our record reviewers is more chip than shoulder, there.) Americans are often suspicious of subsequent British invasions. And Radiohead, especially on this album, are very British (English, duh) indeed, trafficking in a pastoral unease that a nation needs 2,000 years of continuous local anxiety to work up to. As I tried to get at in a review I wrote of Adam Roberts’s superb SF novel Bête, I think the essential thing about American imaginary landscape is that our monumental geography predates Euro colonization — America was ancient before whites arrived, and it stretches so far in both time and space that its chief function is to make people feel small and/or (falsely) humble. But Britain itself is ancient — older than Christianity — and British fantastika seems to me to treat the mysteries of the land as understandable in terms of permanent residence rather than latecomer settlement — America has mountains and rivers and resentful natives, Britain has stone circles and fairy rings and ley lines and resentful Britons. The video for ‘Burn the Witch’ drives home this difference: when Americans go on about witch trials, they do so in tiresome moralizing tones, to tell a just-so story about {$intolerance_du_jour}. But the Wicker Man? Guy Fawkes? Spring-Heeled Jack? Now we’re into something else, free now of childish didacticism. The nightmarish somber-cheeriness of the ‘Burn the Witch’ video has no precise analogue in American culture. Or so it seems to me.
  4. Moon Shaped Pool came out two weeks after Beyoncé’s Lemonade, but without Lemonade‘s built-in pressure to have the correct opinion about it (Beyoncé is now the Significant musician, about whom Opinions must be had and shared; Radiohead’s just a band). Of the two albums Lemonade certainly goes further beyond everyone’s previous sense of the artist’s capabilities, or at any rate her interests — we all knew Beyoncé was a tremendously talented singer, and it’s not as if she wrote the music or (underwhelming except to autobiographically interested fans) lyrics. Moon Shaped Pool sounds like Radiohead moving further down a path they’d opened several albums ago, making more-than-ever complex and subtle use of familiar elements like aforementioned strings, disquieting electronics, Yorke’s alien voice, etc.; it’s the most emotionally mature thing they’ve ever put out. ‘Band gets better at the things they’re uniquely good at’ is a nice story, but younger cultural critics don’t have time for it. There’s no hook, no novelty. Radiohead are old news. Well, if we’re only giving credit for achievement and not potential or indeed Significance, then the old news is still news: Radiohead are the more musically and indeed lyrically ambitious than Beyoncé (and just about everyone else in pop or rock), and while Yorke’s vocals occupy a much narrower emotional envelope, he relies less on cliché and formula.
  5. Not for the first time, I find myself privileged to grow old/young alongside artists who were once said (dismissively, sensationally) to speak for their time, but who were always and only (it turns out) speaking for themselves.
  6. It’s beautiful.

Dave Matthews Band, Before These Crowded Streets (1998)

DMB’s best album, so f’ing what, but also a good album on its own terms — so good that even the terrible early Matthews tune ‘Halloween’ can’t ruin the vibe. It helps that ‘Halloween’ is sandwiched between ‘Stay,’ a perfect gospel-tinged bit of danceable pillowtalk pop, and ‘The Stone,’ an extraordinarily tense rhythmic experiment which makes the case for Carter Beauford’s hi-hat as pop music’s 1998 MVP. The antic/rustic/pastoral interludes help the album cohere, as do the beyond-the-call Kronos Quartet and producer Steve Lillywhite. The inclusion of pianist Butch Taylor (who joined the band full-time around this time) seems inevitable — rounding off the percussive guitar/bass/drum texures and varying the sax/fiddle atmospherics. Matthews writes great little songs without strong melodic identities, which suits his improvisatory dude-with-guitar style but means his Band needs to deliver a lot more than background. Thankfully they do: Crowded Streets is both a topologically varied and a sonically unified album, democratic in spirit but with a coherent shared sensibility.

You’re under no obligation to take Matthews and his Band seriously; despite their early popularity and surprising staying power they’re not exactly essential artists, and Matthews’s songwriting tends toward diffuseness. In my 33-1/3 book on Phish I called him an ‘intuitive savant,’ and I stand by that — his stripped-down acoustic duo shows with soulmate Tim Reynolds showcase his oddball folk-pop experiments, and he’s written a handful of unassailable tunes in that mode (‘So Damn Lucky,’ ‘Bartender,’ ‘Jimi Thing,’ and ‘Warehouse’ come to mind, and I have a soft spot for ‘Christmas Song’). But his batting average isn’t high enough for the canon, c’mon. I take issue with Robert Christgau’s tired ‘bland as a tofu sandwich’ snobbery, not least because some well-made tofu sandwiches have kicked this carnivore’s ass all over the place (and I find DMB’s integrated-in-every-sense funk/folk/jazzgrassish pop sound pretty interesting), but there’s no denying that Matthews has never made ‘dangerous’ music, whatever you take that to mean.

And his lyrics are, worryingly often, just terrible.

Still, Crowded Streets shows how much room there is for experimentation within DMB’s radio-friendly mid-90s hedonism template. The songs move, the singer digs deep, the band passes the energy ball with casual expertise, and the sound belongs to them alone. Overlook them if you like, no one cares. Dismiss them if you like — but listen first. Listen, if you have a minute, for what so many of us heard back then.

Campaign inspiration.

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Nightmares of mine.

Heros quest dangerousplace1

Lately, insomnia.

Of a peculiar sort: I fall asleep reading with the light on around 9:30pm and wake up ‘refreshed’ at 2:30am. Most nights I’m in and out of sleep, or at least half-awake hallucination, for a couple of hours after a prolonged period of tossing/turning — and then up for good by 6am.

Three nights ago I slept seven or eight straight hours and was so happy when I woke that I cried.

Two nights ago, back to the usual.

Last night — last night the almost-usual. No return to sleep after the 2:30 awakening.

On the plus side, I’m getting some reading done in the middle of the night. I’m nearly finished with Charles Mann’s expertly assembled (if slightly repetitive) 1491 and have gotten into the more than slightly repetitive middle section of Graves’s Greek Myths.

On the minus side, insomnia.

Here’s how I ruined any chance of getting back to sleep tonight: I thought about the alleged string of recent clown hoaxes. Do you know? You know: idiots dressed as clowns hiding in the woods in order to mess with people.

You almost want to blame it on Trump or global warming.

In the dark in bed I imagined myself riding my bike and coming across an idiot dressed as a clown. I imagined myself jumping off the bike and beating the clown to death. I imagined myself on a bike path, and riding up to some jogger asking them for help because a clown was walking slowly imperturbably after me. I imagined that person, my last hope, turning into a clown, and then everyone else on the bike path transforming too.

Then I decided I wasn’t likely to sleep, and it was time to go downstairs and talk to you.

hungry wolves are not to blame

I opened the good ol’ reliable ~/Downloads folder to find a subfolder called ‘dragon wars,’ which contains a copy of a computer game I used to play as a kid. It came out in 1989. This is what the world once was: the credits page at the front of the manual lists one programmer, two designers, one visual artist, two producers, a design consultant, a music designer, Boris Vallejo on cover art duties, and two people writing the manual.

More people worked on the user manual than programmed the actual game.

How is this possible? I’ll tell you: the manual contains 19 pages of instructions and a map, followed by 23 pages of ‘Dragon Wars Paragraphs’ — read-aloud text which constitutes the bulk of the description offered by the game. You couldn’t play, in other words, without several thousand words of this sort of thing:

137) Bound in chains upon this lonely Isle of Woe you find the dark queen Irkalla, Mistress of Magan. The chains are made of enchanted silver, and she is unable to move. “Topsiders!” she snarls when she sees you. “It’s always the same. The water level rises, your toilets back up, and everyone rushes to the Underworld for help! Well, I have problems of my own, as you can see. That filthy halfbreed Namtar chained me here, and gave the key to the one creature who owes me no favors.”

Irkalla regards you. “Perhaps you could be of some use,” she says, her tone suddenly becoming incredibly seductive. “Find the Silver Key and” (etc. etc. etc.)

The programmer’s Afterword, which follows the warranty at the end of the manual, begins: ‘Imagine my surprise when my boss told me I had to create a top-notch fantasy role-playing game in four months and four disk sides…’

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I didn’t make it very far in Dragon Wars as a kid. Looking at this image I remember the Jail Keepers, and I remember the game having a certain austere quality which — historical note — characterized so many early fantasy/SF computer games for primarily technical reasons. (The magnificent desolation and loneliness of the hugely influential Zork games, say, isn’t just an aesthetic choice; in a text adventure, crowds of NPCs don’t play quite right.) I didn’t know the word ‘austere’ then, but I knew Zork, which was a lot better than Dragon Wars. Though maybe if I’d finished…?

Now it’s 5:52am. Yesterday I wrote a long forum post but didn’t share it — as I finished up I realized that I was in danger of becoming a person who shares long forum posts. After closing and saving the file I realized that’d happened ages ago; spirit crushed, I retreated to bed, where…well, you know how the story begins.

The OSX Terminal.

The vast majority of Mac owners probably never fire up Terminal.app, which is a pity: some of OSX’s power comes from its BSD underlayer. The command line is your way the core of OSX, and even with underrated tools like Automator available, some tasks are only feasible right at the command line.

Folks who code on Macs, meanwhile, have long known Apple’s Terminal as a nonideal CLI.

Craig Hockenberry begs to differ, offering the most detailed rundown of Terminal’s handy GUI integrations, clever keyboard extensions, and assorted hidden features that I know of. That’s 9,000 very useful words from 2014.

See? The Internet isn’t just a sociopathic hellscape! Only mostly.