Saturday, February 28, 2009

I'd Buy Anything By...Nits

My "I'd Buy Anything" spree came to a temporary halt because I'd already mentioned Nits enough in this blog...was there anything else left to say?

Today I was listening to their latest album ("Doing the Dishes") and I realized that after thirty years of releasing albums, their music was still as fresh and wonderful as always...yet for all their fame in the rest of the world they've remained an isolated cult phenomenon in North America. What's up?

I really can't explain it. Many of their songs are 100% radio friendly. Henk Hofstede's Dutch accent is heavy but still totally decipherable. His lyrics tend to be a bit obscure and occasionally absurd, but apparently people don't care about lyrics anyway. So why does each Nits album contain half a dozen beautiful pop songs that only a handful of people on this continent will ever hear?

Since I can't answer that question, let's take a journey through their career. Here they are after releasing their first major-label album performing "Tent," back in their herky-jerky New Wave days. This was before keyboard virtuoso Robert Jan Stips joined and everything is in an almost frightening lockstep, but that was certainly a style they explored between 1979 and 1980.

Bassist/keyboard player Alex Roelofs left shortly afterward and was replaced by Stips, who added a sudden lushness to the arrangements: keyboards, keyboards, and more keyboards during an era when keyboards were kings. Here's 1984's "Mask," which suffers greatly from Jaap Eggermont's "Stars on 45"-style production techniques, but is still a wonderful little song.

In the beginning, both Henk Hofstede and Michel Peters shared the songwriting and singing duties, but eventually Peters left, and some would consider that a good thing; he tended to write haiku-like art-rock and his voice was a tad wheedly. Then along came bassist Joke Geraets and the four members struck a perfect balance of electronic rock, and this was also when Rob Kloet's drumming really came into its own.

Some would consider 1987 their career highpoint. It certainly spawned the only Nits single to make a dent in the North American charts: "In the Dutch Mountains" (turn up the volume for this one).

After Geraets left for medical reasons, the band experimented with orchestration and Philip Glass-style minimalism, then made a stab at the charts with a remarkably conventional album ("dA dA dA") in 1994. They'd also briefly added Martin Bakker and Peter Meuris to the mix. Here's one of the better songs from that period: "Homeless Boy."

Suddenly, Stips took Bakker and Meuris away so he could embark on a solo career, and us poor Nits fans were left wondering: could they continue? Hofstede and Kloet disappeared for a bit and came back with two of their best albums ever, recruiting new members Arwen Linnemann and Laetitia van Krieken for live and (eventually) studio work. I give you the lovely "Three Sisters" from the first of those albums, "Alankomaat."

But the next album -- "Wool" -- was a REAL shock. Jazzy, soulful, organic, and featuring backup vocals by Leona Phillipo, this remains my favourite Nits album yet. You can get the entire "Wool" concert on DVD, but here's a wonderful section: "The Wind, The Rain."

Robert Jan Stips just couldn't stay away. He eventually returned and it would seem that the other musicians became redundant, drifting away until only the core trio of Hofstede, Kloet, and Stips remained.

This hasn't stopped them from doing drastic reinterpretations of songs, however, often only a year or so after the original recordings. Here's a bombastic version of "Eifersucht" featuring full orchestra and Vera Van Der Poel, including a snippet of "Within You Without You."

Here they are today (well, last year) performing a stripped-down, almost "ragtime-folk" version of their latest single "No Man's Land."

If you aren't hooked on Nits by viewing these clips then you'll simply never enjoy them...and that's okay too! I don't understand why but to each their own.

Assuming you ARE hooked, the albums you should buy are "In The Dutch Mountains," their double-live "Urk," and "Wool." Their earlier works are a bit schizophrenic due to the Hofstede/Peters split, but the only albums you should REALLY avoid are their pretentious orchestral suite ("Hjuvi") and the Eggermont-massacred "Adieu Sweet Banhof." For fans only there are plenty of Stips side projects, and if you really love Kloet's drums, pick up his beautiful "Drumset with Dog."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Scattered Impressions of Injury and Recovery

I'm not an athlete and I don't take physical risks, but I've always had a disregard for the positioning and protection of my body. I might whine about painful shoes or a sore throat, but that only happens when I'm feeling self-absorbed or when the pain has become excruciating.

So it's galling -- but unsurprising -- that I've buggered up my right shoulder with a series of small injuries, boundary-testing, half-baked corrective techniques and general lack of concern. Over two months I progressed from an aching joint to acute tendon inflammation, atrophied muscles, and a possible cartilage tear. By gradually restricting the usage of my right arm to the half-dozen movements which don't cause me pain, I've managed to forget -- both mentally and physically -- how a healthy arm actually moves.

When I try to do certain everyday things with my right arm -- rotate my palm, put my hand over my stomach, reach to the right, or even THINK about putting it ANYWHERE behind my back -- I am met with either shooting pains or total weakness. The pain is bad but the weakness is just plain disconcerting...the muscles simple stop working. I begin to feel like I'm pushing my arm through a concrete wall, even though there's nothing visible in the way. I have, quite literally, withered my shoulder muscles.

An interesting thing about this injury is what it does to your sleep. I've gotten to the point where I finally CAN fall asleep without too much pain, but during the night my tendons strain and tense and bunch up, and by 3am I wake up in agony and have to do my exercises again. Then I sleep on the couch, whose shape keeps me in a position which doesn't hurt my arm too much.

The good news is that my ailment is relatively common and it is possible to fix it, but it takes a lot of time and work. I am amazed at the skill of my physiotherapist as she twists, shakes, and wobbles my skeleton and says "Aha, this is the exercise we'll do next." And after a week of exercising, that invisible concrete wall moves another few inches and I can bend my arm just a bit more.

Often I'm left standing at a machine with two handles at the sides, like an exercise bike for the arms. I have to pump away at it for ten minutes or so while staring at the single framed newspaper article hung on the wall, a story about a local boxer who benefited from physiotherapy. Each time I use this machine I pick one word from the article at random, and I read the article slowly until I find a word which starts with the same letter. Then I continue reading until I find another word which starts with the letter that the previous word ENDED with. I can do this three times before I'm ordered to use another machine, something more stimulating with pulleys and weights.

Sometimes a co-op student puts lubricant on my shoulder and rubs a small metal object over it, an ultrasound device which is incredibly painful when it somehow resonates the bone in my forearm. Once the physiotherapist wrapped a belt around her waist, then put my arm through the belt and rocked it back and forth as though she was comforting it. Unfortunately that caused my arm to freeze up in excruciating agony for several minutes -- a sensation I've previously described after slipping on ice or falling down while drunk -- so I don't think we'll do the belt thing again. When this "freeze up" happens it is followed by two days of dull ache in my bicep.

Usually, however, I leave physiotherapy with an extraordinary feeling of relaxed well-being. We always end with fifteen minutes of electroshock...well, they hook electrodes up to my shoulder and I gradually turn it up until my arm is jumping around like a fish in a bucket.

Today I made overtures to the Guelph hospital in order to get an MRI, since the therapist (and by extension me) is concerned that the cartilage in there is torn. Apparently it can take up to five months to secure an MRI so I have plenty of time to prepare myself for the giant needle they'll be sticking INTO my shoulder, though the figure-skating worker at the medical supply store told me that "there are ways to get in faster." She didn't tell me more...she just sold me six feet of rubber tubing for my daily exercises.

I also got an X-ray in a tiny, deserted, run-down clinic that appears to be run by a husband and wife comedy duo. I got undressed in a closet and then stood in a dark room in front of hundreds of pounds of equipment. The man put a rubber girdle on me and ran back and forth taking pictures, occasionally slipping them into a cupboard marked "Exposed." Terrible scrabbling sounds came out of this cupboard even though nobody was around. I turned to the left and came face-to-face with an enormous poster of a muskrat, the only decoration in the entire place.

The prognosis so far? Months of exercising, expensive physiotherapy appointments, and drinking WITHOUT falling down. In the meantime, frenetic drag shows at Club Renaissance are strictly verboten: quick-changes involving zippers between my shoulder blades and slipping dresses over my head are simply not going to happen. But I'll still be doing shows in Guelph near the end of March, since they're relatively sedate and I'm sure I can wrangle a dresser from the chilled-out organizers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Doomed Ticker Party

Seeing these happy, upscale New Yorkers playing "Ticker: The Wall Street Game" in the middle of 1929 rings my irony warning-bells, and also makes me a little bit sad.

Scrutable Poetry Corner: "Il Penseroso"

Ahh, beauty in the May 18, 1929 New Yorker.
Sad weird figures garbed in white,
With their headgears tall and fearful,
Faces drawn--druidic sight,
Seated dumb--not gay, not tearful.
How they scan unconscious mortals,
As they come and go again,
Crossing through forbidden portals.
Are they happy or in pain?
Do they plan the fate of nations,
Gathered round, this mystic seven--
Good or evil machinations?
Do they think of hell or heaven?
Do they ponder living? Dying?
Pestilence? The battle axe?
No, their thoughts are all on drying
Waves put in by Antoine, Saks.
"Antoine de Paris" -- originally Antek Cierplikowski -- was one of the more famous upscale hairstylists in 1920's New York. He claimed to have invented the shingle bob hairstyle, and therefore became the first of a long line of "celebrity stylists." has an interesting writeup about him here.

As for this poem it is credited only to "Bunny," but her real name was supposedly Eleanor W. Koehler. You may well ask "Who's that?" I haven't got a clue, but any bunny is a good bunny.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

UPhold's "Roade" Available Now!

My new CD ("Roade") is available on CD Baby here, if you'd like to listen to some samples and/or buy it for yourself! I'm particularly happy with how this one turned's been a long time coming.

The second half of the CD ("On Your Way Out") is dedicated to Eric Little, who long-term readers of this blog will remember. I still don't know the how's and why's of his death but I certainly miss him. Finally releasing "Roade" brings some measure of closure to me.

This is the first time I've dealt with CD Baby, and my experiences so far have been good. If you plan on using their distribution services yourself, however, keep in mind that they can't market you digitally without a UPC. If you don't want to spend a ton of money on your own code you can ask CD Baby to buy one for you...but it costs $40. Weigh the pros and cons for yourself, and consider the future of the independent CD-R.

As for the digital distribution aspect, I see that they're gradually sending "Roade" out to various companies, but it apparently can take up to three months for the product to be fully registered. So Napster, Lala, and Amazon, here I come!

PS: If you do plan on ordering it, do yourself a favour and take advantage of the $5.00's a great way to hear new (and desperate) artists cheap!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Coveting the 1920's Kitsch

Our generation does not have a corner on useless, kitschy are a few lovely and ridiculous items sold by Lewis & Conger in the May 18, 1929 New Yorker:

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...the ONE-LEGGED TABLE!

The One-Legged Table fits across the arms of your chair or settles comfortably down on your lap. One side of the top is padded soft--for cards. The other side is hard--for writing or what you will. Ours is finished in currant red. Also comes in apple green.
Red or green, I can't understand what advantage a ONE-legged table has over a FOUR-legged table, except that it falls over when you stand up.

And for those who love talking vegetables:

"GOSH! my figure absolutely ruined!" groaned the asparagus as it limply broke upon being fished out of a pot. Such tragedies simply don't happen if you use an Asparagus Boiler.
I have to admit that I don't own one of these myself.

And finally, for the parents who wish they'd given birth to a Picasso painting:

Step-Pup boosts the youngsters up to the wash basin. His puppy face forms one end, his jaunty tail the handle. He's painted pink and has oilcloth around his middle.
Got that? You can't just picture that object sitting on the bathroom have to picture it in PINK.

This stuff is far worse than the long-distance grabbers and toilet-paper coseys *I* grew up coveting.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And After Mervyn Peake There Was...

For the last few weeks I've been going through old issues of Epic Illustrated, and I found myself intrigued by P. Craig Russell's adaptation of "The Dreaming City," part of Michael Moorcock's "Elric of Melniboné" series.

I'm a sucker for mopey antiheroes, so I ventured over to Old Goat Books. Imagine my surprise that Mr. Old Goat himself has long been a Moorcock fan, and he was happy to sell me his personal copies of the two-volume Elric omnibus, containing the original six "classic" books.

I've finished the first four ("Elric of Melniboné," "The Sailor on the Seas of Fate," "The Weird of the White Wolf," and "The Vanishing Tower"), and I'm absolutely charmed by Moorcock's imagination. The character of Elric may be a tad TOO mopey, and he may spend too much time rescuing princesses, but otherwise the Moorcock "multiverse" is a welcome surprise, providing endless opportunity for shock and invention.

Moorcock wears his Mervyn Peake obsession on his sleeve, spending a lot of his effort on environments, characters, and quests which juxtapose horror, adventure, and mystery. I find myself cringing while reading these novels, especially when a new bizarre and unexpected happenstance rears its (truly) ugly head.

Unlike Peake, however, Moorcock spends very little time on characterization, and the Elric stories are almost totally devoid of humour. For this reason they tend to be a bit sparse and tiresome after a while, betraying their origins as short stories or novellas. Each Elric tale seems doomed to span sixty pages and have only a single narrative thread.

What keeps me going -- besides the horrific stuff -- is the imaginative scope. With each chapter, Moorcock builds upon his mythology. Sometimes he brings in previous characters, locations, and motifs in order to revisit the history he's created. Sometimes he gives suggestions of a larger mystery which you suspect will never be explained. But most of the time he's wrapping the plot in layer upon layer of "multiverse:" his characters meeting and remeeting at various points in their divergent histories, their weaponry swapping around, their memories rewritten, their prophecies hinting at greater revelations to come.

This style seemed familiar to me, and then suddenly -- BAM! -- I realized it sounded an awful lot like Clive Barker's "Weaveworld." They share the same strengths and weaknesses and have the same general tone, and I'd be amazed if Barker wasn't at least somewhat inspired by Moorcock's writing.

Currently I'm reading "The Fortress of the Pearl," a novel that Michael Moorcock wrote much later to fill a gap within the original Elric series, and I'm pleased that his writing has improved IMMENSELY between 1977 and 1989. "Pearl" is a much more satisfying read and I look forward to eventually tackling his "Jerry Cornelius" stories.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Joy For the Very, Very Specific

There was a time when people with very specific interests might spend their entire lives looking for stimulation.

But those days are over! Thanks to the quick and widespread content-sharing capabilities of the internet, you can immediately find an extensive group which caters to your every whim and need.

It is my personal mission in life to fulfill as many of these needs as possible, while still maintaining a shred of decency. For instance, this picture has lead to a flurry of hits from a group devoted to "yellow clothes":


Their mandate is simple: "Yellow clothing. No nudity." And that's exactly what its 71 members get.

Far more popular (and predictably so) is this picture of me wearing cheap plastic handcuffs, which is frequently added to "women being handcuffed" pools like this one (work-safe last I checked, but I guarantee nothing for the future).


Otherwise, besides a terrible picture of me posing with a teacup dog, it's little surprise that pictures of me wearing boots often turn up in searches. Those whose photo collections contain a suspicious number of boot-shots (again, think before you click) seem particularly happy about this "broken boot" picture.

Broken Christmas Boot

My point? I guess I think that human sexuality is a wonderfully diverse thing, and it's lots of fun that I can pull a "double-fetish" now and then without ever even trying (though when Vanilla set up the handcuff shot she wisely predicted it would be popular).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Calling Out the Canned Midnight Special Performers

I'm finally watching the 1980 "Midnight Special" DVD and I'm having a rich experience that I'd never anticipated; in seeing the performances range sequentially from 1973 to 1980, I've gotten a sense of the changes in both music style and performance over that period.

My conclusions are by no means scientific -- each season of "Midnight Special" has been compressed to an hour's worth of performances by a small number of artists -- but I have watched the folk renaissance wane and disappear (Gordon Lightfoot, Janis Ian); the growth of disco out of R&B and funk into an increasingly glittery spectacle (from James Brown to Earth, Wind & Fire to Donna Summer to Amii Stewart); the mainstreaming of hard rock (AC/DC) and punk (Blondie); the slow death of glam into a more watered down style (Nick Gilder); and the sudden appearance of white guys with red suspenders and metallic hats, inflicting their humourless, spastic, disturbingly misogynistic dance routines on big-haired ladies with silver stiletto heels.

So, like, the '80s have arrived.

Most interesting, however, has been the evolution of canned performances, which have become increasingly more common and stylized, apparently paving the way for MTV.

Since I love spotting canned performances -- and since some people seem to never notice this sort of thing -- I present this handy guide for figuring out when your favourite '70s band is faking you out.


Straight Up: Everybody in the band is playing their instruments, the singer is really singing, and nothing significant has been added to the mix. This is obvious because the song doesn't sound exactly like the album, and nothing sounds totally perfect.

As an example, here's Heart playing "Crazy On You." It's all so improvisational, they're all looking at each other to keep the playing tight, the vocals are unprocessed and "real," it doesn't sound like the single, and...well, there's an ENERGY.

If you spot the things listed in the following categories, however, then your favourite band is putting you on.

Embellished: Most of the band is really playing and the singer is really singing, but they're playing along with a backing tape which includes horns, a string section, and/or vocal harmonies.

You can spot this if you hear horns or strings, but there is no horn or string section on stage. Keyboards in the '70s were far from reproducing those sorts of sounds, so a mysterious keyboard player cannot be responsible. You can also spot this if the harmony sounds TOO GOOD, and the people supposedly SINGING the harmony are just the band members.

If the harmony is being sung by dedicated backup singers, however, then there's more chance they're legitimate (but beware when two backup singers suddenly sound like four, and they don't do any apparent improvisation, and they overlap in a way that would be impossible for only two people).

You can also spot this if the drummer is wearing headphones, which means he's listening to the backing tape (or a click track) in order to stay in sync. Otherwise the drums are prerecorded and the drummer is just faking it, in which case he's NOT wearing headphones and he's hitting cymbals that you can't actually hear. When this happens, though, pains have been taken to make the drums at least SOUND live (as opposed to the next example).

Here's a good example: Golden Earring's "Radar Love." The vocals and guitar are certainly real, and the bass might be as well, but the drums, keyboards, horns, and most of the backup vocals are fake. The drummer ALMOST pulls it off but you can see moments where he gets it wrong. It's all most obvious near the end.

Singer Only: The band is not playing their instruments, but the singer is really singing along to a backing tape. You can tell this if the vocals sound a bit rough but the rest of the music sounds exactly like the studio version. Also if the instruments -- especially the drums -- sound double-tracked or otherwise produced in a way that wouldn't work live: particularly thumpy or whizzy, for example.

If the musicians don't seem to be paying any attention to each other when the song changes tempo, chances are they aren't really a live performance they tend to glance around to make sure they're all switching to the right beat at the right time. This is especially obvious at the end of songs which have those big synchronized "WHAM!" (wait for it...) "WHAM!" (one more time...wait) "WHAM! ... WHAM! WHAM! WHAM-WHAM-WHAMWHAMWHAMWHAAAAM" (waaaaait...) (waaaaait...) (waaaaaaaaait...) "WHAM!" endings.

This brings us to the BIGGEST (and most ridiculous) sign of a canned performance: if a song DOESN'T end with a synchronized "WHAM!" and instead actually FADES OUT, then nobody is playing, and I bet the singer isn't singing either (see below). There's a reason why live songs don't fade out: it's impossible, and even if somebody went through all the trouble to make it happen it would just look stupid.

In some cases they'll dispense with the artifice altogether and just put the singer alone on the stage. This is a dead giveaway. You don't go through the trouble of laboriously soundchecking a band just to hide them behind a curtain (though there appeared to be a trend for disco and R&B singers to sometimes put their bandmates in a dark, obscure area, maybe to make the singing and theatrical dancing more prominent).

Here's ABBA's "Mamma Mia" as an example. The "ABBA sound" was so treated and produced that it could NEVER sound that way live, but you can hear the way their live vocals stand out from the rest of the song. Amusingly, the men AREN'T actually singing.

Milli Vanilli: It's all pre-recorded and the singer is lip-syncing. This sounds EXACTLY like the single version, and the vocals sound far too smooth and "treated" to be live. The singer drastically changes the position and distance of her microphone with absolutely no change in the quality or volume of her vocals. She dances in a way that would otherwise leave her out-of-breath, or at least cause her to "hitch" occasionally. She doesn't improv or say "thanks" at the end.

Here's Olivia Netwon-John's "Magic." That is NOT a live voice, it is far too smooth and echoey, it's been sent through a half-dozen sweetening filters. It also sounds exactly like the single. A slightly more subtle example is Hall & Oates' "Kiss On My List," which again is far too slick and -- ha ha -- fades out at the end.


On "Midnight Special," this spectrum gradually shifted from the "Straight Up" to the "Milli Vanilli" area as the years went by. I wonder if the "studio sound" was getting harder to reproduce on stage, or if expectations were simply changing?

At the same time, the audience went from a huge auditorium full of real people sitting down, to a smaller selection of dancing club "characters" -- including, yes, a shiek -- in a way that seems to represent a shift of attitude...instead of the viewer joining an audience to watch a band perform live, it's become the viewer watching a stable of dancers, with a band in the background as an the viewer is just a dancer listening to the radio. A case of nightclubs and their frenetic, hyped-up subcultures killing the live band, maybe?

I assume the logical next step was "Solid Gold," which (to my memory) was just dancers performing to prerecorded hits without anybody from the band even being there.

And after that? I don't know. Any thoughts?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Something Gross on the Floor

Yesterday, Zsa Zsa peed on the basement floor, which she sometimes does for reasons known only to her. Fortunately the basement is totally unfinished so it isn't difficult to clean up...just cracked concrete floors and a lot of dust.

I went into the back part of the basement where the laundry tub is, and I picked up the mop bucket I keep next to the tub and filled it with water and bleach. After scrubbing down the floor, I returned to the tub and started emptying the bucket. While I was doing this I became aware that my toes were resting on something soft; I could feel it through my socks.

Thinking I was just standing on a leaf or something, I lifted up my foot and looked down...and saw that the soft thing was actually A MOUND OF SOWBUGS. Literally, a mound, about three inches in diameter and bulging up about three quarters of an inch. Sowbugs were crawling all over it, and some of the more perturbed ones were slowly gliding off in the disgusting way that sowbugs do.

I have nothing against sowbugs, but this was simply too horrific. It was like a sowbug tenement or a sowbug orgy. Plus I'd been resting my toes on them. My only thought was how I could kill them, so I did a relatively silly thing and poured bleach all over them.

Scatter! They locomoted in all directions, radiating out from the mound, scrambling over each other like rioting football hooligans. Some were merely specks on the floor, and others were half an inch long. Caring not for young and old, I followed them with the bleach bottle, splashing here and there.

I don't know if it actually killed them. In retrospect I should have taken one of the paint cans down there and just rolled it over them, but the sound would have been unbearable. There are lots of spiders down in the basement, but it's obvious they aren't doing their job.

PS: I was shocked to learn that sowbugs are not actually insects...they're "terrestrial crustaceans" and they breathe through gills, which is pretty amazing. That's why they always hang around water. It's also why they're so awful.

Misery Loves Company

Right now I am in so much awful pain, that only the pain of others can help me. So I present "Charlie the Abusive Teddy Bear."

It's so terribly evil.

PS: Since the above video is such a fitting tribute to the upcoming "Family Day," I feel it's necessary to also celebrate Valentine's Day. Here's the advice program "Two Hot Girls in a Shower" with their tips for celebrating with the one you love.

The Cat Altruism Experiment

I studied Psychology at University, so whenever I come up with a hypothesis I feel that I need to test it, otherwise it's just some subjective thing which may or may not be true.

Tonight was my first night of fun debauchery in almost a month. Finally free of bronchitis and supposedly with my "Rotary Cuff Tendonitis" on the mend, I went to Club Abstract and had a really fabulous time.

The booze was helping.

But then I slipped, pinwheeled my arm, and -- OH HOLY COW GODDAMN! -- the pain! I spent a few minutes trying to ease the terrible electric chunking killing pull-out-the-tendon agony in my right arm, and then I decided it was probably time to go home. No more fun for me.

Still drunk (even so as I write this) I lay on my living room floor. I did the exercises I'm supposed to do to ease my agony. I lay there wondering...would my cat recognize how much pain I was in, or would she be totally selfish?

Now let me be clear that Zsa Zsa -- my cat -- is dying. She's still happy and possesses a "love of life," so I can't justify putting her down, but she really is reaching the end of her long career as best friend and ultimate comfort.

But still, I thought I MIGHT be able to elicit some sort of altruistic response from her. As I lay on the floor in a dense cloud of pain that I cannot even begin to describe, I called out to her: "Help me, Zsa me!"

I said this several times. Each time I said it, she would circle me, stare at me, then wander into the kitchen where her food dish was. Then she'd return, I'd say it agian, and she'd wander back to the kitchen.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bob And Rose Concluded

When I wrote my original post about the TV series "Bob and Rose," I'd only watched half of it.

I finished the other half tonight and I am floored.



That's not to say there weren't any false notes in the final episodes -- I count two, and one of them was unfortunately the final shot of the program -- but that doesn't matter. You never get perfection out of a TV show, but "Bob and Rose" is the closest I've ever seen.

Blossom Dearie

Rest in peace, Blossom Dearie. You were hip, but not weird, and I notice you never wore a beard.

Disappointed Consumerism: The Transparent Hard Sell of VV Brown, Plus Regina Spektor

Last November, friend Annissa sent me a link to a video by up-and-coming artist VV Brown. The song -- "Crying Blood" -- was not a sad ballad about my cat's eye infection, but was actually a fun little tune that was making a bit of stir on music blogs:

I thought it would be a good drag number to learn so I went online to purchase it, but -- huh? -- the single wasn't scheduled for release until 2009.

It seems to me that, at the time, I read that the single was being delayed "in order to create interest." I didn't think about it much -- I didn't have a wad of cash to spend anyway, and I figured that if the song stuck in my head I'd get around to buying it when it came out.

Today I found myself wondering, "What about that VV Brown song?" So I looked on iTunes and discovered...nothing. Not a peep. I finally found my way to the Island Music store and the baffling information that the single -- in all of its myriad forms -- will not be available until March 11.

So I thought, what? The song is finished. The video's been online for months. The remixes are available for download, so the delay isn't apparently due to the Dust Brothers being too busy dusting. No, the only reason I can think of is..."in order to create interest."

I understand that most products -- movies, video games, gadgets -- are released at strategic times in order to maximize their consumer impact. That makes sense when you've invested lots of research and development time -- and therefore need maximum return -- or you're in a highly competative environment where you need to clobber your competitors with a single rollout or your board of directors kicks you out.

But this is a SINGLE. It's a relatively small part of VV Brown's supposed future output. The video has already appeared online. Singles are NEVER delayed for months...

...unless this is Island Record's way of generating HYPE. Us consumers are supposed to be tantalized by the opportunity to finally buy this song, waiting patiently until the big day arrives. They've dangled the video in front of us and then said "You like it? Wait for it. Chuckle."

For this reason I decided not to buy the single. I felt bad, thinking that perhaps VV Brown was a brilliant indie artist being unwittingly manipulated by her label...and then I noticed the way that her press releases are written, all establishing how mavericky her writing and composing style is. It all sounded so "Vanilla Ice," a carefully coordinated campaign to establish her "cred."

This, to me, is a total backfire. It appears to be a blatant attempt at "going viral." It's like your grandfather telling you that if you clean your room he'll give you an apple, and then asking you "What do you hip cats rap about these days, bro?"

I hate being given such a clumsy hard sell. I hate when people try to hype by using some form of anti-hype. And after viewing VV Brown's annoying and frankly subnormal "blog" -- a pop-up window without any facility for making comments -- I decided I can live without her music.

Maybe I'm selling her short. Maybe she's a talented artist simply bursting with a genuine creative impulse.

Or maybe she's somebody that a talent scout at Island Records picked up because he thought she could "rap with the hip cats, bro, using that internet thing," as long as they could prepare her and the world for each other.

Bonus: Regina Spektor

I've just discovered this wonderful song ("Fidelity") which I imagine everybody's already heard to death. It's new to me at least.

Excited by someone who seemed truly original and interesting, I bought the "Begin to Hope" album. Some of it's quite good, but I find the majority to be awfully...well, Tori. And I'm referring to all those songs I skip on "Little Earthquakes" and "Under The Pink," the solo piano numbers with pretentious stream-of-consciousness lyrics.

They're totally different from the finely-crafted brilliance of "Fidelity." I wonder if, once again, I've been duped by a carefully-manufactured single.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Itis Family

Good golly, my apartment is just stuffed full of healthiness.


I went to the Urgent Care Clinic when I lost half my hearing last week, and the doctor cheerfully informed me that I was suffering from bronchitis. I've never had it before and I don't even feel like I have it now -- no wheezing or rattling or anything -- but that's why He's The Doctor.

After rushing me through the diagnosis and prescription, the doctor asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a technical writer. He then launched into a spiel about product design which lasted at least ten minutes, and I'm not exaggerating.

He said that products should require no documentation whatsoever. He said we need to spend money on better human interfaces. He pulled a Blackberry out of one pocket and an iTouch out of the other, and proceeded to describe all of their features and differences (pretending the iTouch was his iPhone, which he didn't have on him), concluding that the iPhone was perfectly engineered and that even his autistic son was capable of using it.

It was difficult to get a word in, but I did my best. I explained that simple products with single workflows require little or no documentation, but software is rarely like that, and the more flexible a product is the more documentation it requires. I explained that everybody has a different level of competence and background knowledge. I explained that his iPhone appeals to a very different market than his Blackberry, generalized to "hip consumer" versus "conservative businessman." I also wondered if his autistic son would be able to understand all the options for interfacing the iPhone with different products or use all of its options without a manual, but I was sort of afraid that would sound belittling.

Plus there were people in the waiting room who'd been sitting there for over two hours, waiting for an available doctor.

Anyway, I'm on these horse-pill antibiotics and ephedrine decongestants, which are NOTHING like the nightclub drugs they can supposedly be turned into, but they do sometimes give me goosebumps. My hearing has returned, but when I blow my nose I sometimes hear a weird squeltching noise.


A different doctor -- from Waterloo Sports Medicine -- has diagnosed me with acute rotator cuff tendonitis, which means that a tendon inside the bony part of my right shoulder has become terribly inflamed. He described it as "a simple problem that's very difficult to fix," and said it came about "through a series of trivial mishaps all coming together." Those mishaps included slipping on the ice, bashing it against a wall, reaching too far behind me, learning to play the bass, and putting on an insane outfit three weeks ago that involved multiple zips and buttons in the middle of my back.

Today was my first day of physiotherapy. It's incredible what these people know about bones. I have to do a few exercises which involve lying down and lifting an umbrella, and she even told me how I can sleep without waking up in pain every hour: lie on my back with a pillow on my stomach, my right arm resting on the pillow.

This sounds good but it's like having a chubby person lying on me. A chubby person wearing cordouroy.

That's why I'm up right now writing this. Totally changing my sleeping positions -- which I've no doubt had since I was, well, a toddler -- will take some getting used to.


On Friday, Zsa Zsa's right eye began to leak. That eye has always tended to get a tiny bit crusty, but now it's literally dripping water and -- if we're lucky -- little streaks of pus. I tried to treat it with cotton balls dipped in hot salt water (thanks mom!) but that hasn't helped, so today we went to see the vet.

The vet was less concerned with her eye than she was with Zsa Zsa's well-documented kidney problems. I was like, "Yeah, I know, she's on a swift decline with no solution short of an organ transplant, and the next step will no doubt be to put her to sleep...but what about her GROSS EYE?"

Conjunctivitis, predictably. Twice a day I'm squeezing little lines of goop onto her eyeball, which is less disturbing than it sounds. What's most disconcerting is the way the goop oozes out of the tube ENTIRELY ON ITS OWN VOLITION, as though it were alive. Also disconcerting was the bill.

Russell T. Davies, The Writer's Tale, Doctor Who, Bob and Rose

I like the new Doctor Who series. Sometimes I even love it. At other times, however, I hate it. And the things I both love AND hate usually come down to the show's writer, producer, and script editor, Russell T. Davies.

He's written some of the worst episodes of the show, and many of his more bombastic ideas have come under criticism, but there's no doubt that the actual TONE of the show -- that is, the underlying approach and feel of every single thing that happens -- is pretty darn brilliant...and Davies controls that portion of the program with an iron fist. And when he actually pulls off one of his more audacious stunts, you can only sit in awe.

If I simply loved or hated him I'd have had no reason to buy "The Writer's Tale", but I was SO CURIOUS to know what goes on in his after considerable delay and hardship (not to mention cost), I managed to track it down.

It's a collection of emails exchanged between Davies and journalist Benjamin Cook, all written during the development of Doctor Who's fourth season. Much of the book is Davies agonizing about scriptwriting. Responsible for the program's highest-profile episodes, Davies is under immense pressure to come through with scripts that are on budget and on time, but he simply can't bring himself to write until the deadline has almost passed. In the meantime he's responsible for editing -- and often completely rewriting -- the scripts for other episodes, and also overseeing the show in general.

"The Writer's Tale" is an enlightening book in many different ways. Fans wondering why certain decisions were made can get an uncomfortably close look at Davies' scriptwriting process, from the first collection of ideas -- usually gags or momentous climaxes -- to the filming and editing. You begin to understand how those wonderful and stupid moments made it into the show.

But more importantly, the book is simply about HOW RUSSELL T. DAVIES WRITES, regardless of the fact that he's writing "Doctor Who." Benjamin Cook is constantly asking probing questions -- "How do you make the audience care about a character?" and "How do you write dialog that sounds natural?" -- and instead of replying with pithy (but vague and useless) writer's workshop responses, Davies REALLY, REALLY EXPLAINS IT. He positively AGONIZES over the answers. I've come away learning more about the actual process of writing than I ever got from those "Creative Writing" courses I took in university.

It helps that Davies writes excellent emails. They're essays in themselves, and usually very fact, they come out sounding like the characters in "Doctor Who" itself. He's also an accomplished illustrator, so the book is full of the sketches he drew of various scenes while he was writing the scripts.

Throughout the book, Davies constantly refers to the way he wrote his other shows, the ones before "Doctor Who." Curious, I went to the local video store to see if they had anything...and I was fortunate to stumble across "Bob and Rose."

Holy cow, this show is amazing.

Besides the great actors and straight-forward direction, you've got a truly original storyline: a woman (Rose) who is dissatisfied with her long-term boyfriend ends up befriending a gay man (Bob) who is equally dissatisfied with his mating prospects. Spontaneously, and almost accidentally, the two of them have sex...

...and all hell breaks loose. Bob has a quietly insane female friend who sabotages all of his promising relationships, for fear that he'll care about somebody other than her. Rose breaks up with her boyfriend and decides not to move away from home, where her mother has just invited a decidedly shady man to live. Most importantly, Bob is gay...but he sees something in Rose that is more attractive and offers more kinship than anybody else he's ever met. How can Rose deal with his ambivalence? How can their friends deal with the fact that they're going out? Will Bob's rabidly gay-activist mother accept that her son, for whom she's thrown herself into the cause of worldwide equality for all homosexuals, a woman?

The show is ingenious. Davies simply knows how people behave, and the actors portray these behaviours to perfection. He has a knack for perfect-pitch dialogue and zinger pronouncements that suddenly sneak up on you and make you (literally) shout "HOLY SH*T!" It has the perfect balance of comedy and drama, sociology and is in my eyes, as of the third episode at least, The Best TV Show I've Ever Seen. Ever.

So if you know something about Davies' personality then you understand the problem with "Doctor Who." He loves the science fiction, but he also loves people and reality and the everyday stuff that all of us do. In "Doctor Who" he feels a need to cram all that stuff into 45-minute episodes that somehow gel...sometimes they do, and sometimes you end up with aliens that fart.

It doesn't help, too, that Davies seems to be surrounded by "yes men" who are too in awe (or afraid) to tell him when something DOESN'T work. He acknowledges this a bit in "The Writer's Tale," and coupled with the ridiculous workload and responsibility that the show saddles him with...well, it's no wonder that he's quitting now.

Previous to reading the book and watching "Bob and Rose," I was just happy that Russell T. Davies would no longer write for "Doctor Who," leaving behind a legacy, a fan base, and a story arc that a more disciplined writer (Steven Moffat) could inherit.

I'm still happy about that...but now I'm eager to see what Davies comes up with next. I think that with a less schizophrenic format and a brand new start, he could come up with something amazing. And now that he's famous, maybe shows like "Bob and Rose" will be appreciated.

PS: The show's funniest moment so far. The desperate female pack go to a straight bar in order to pick up men. One of the women yells "There's a man in a rabbit suit!" A ridiculous man on the dancefloor -- who is indeed wearing a scruffy rabbit suit -- pouts at the women and flips his floppy ear.

All of them go "Awwwwwwwwwww," as though this were just the cutest thing.

Well, you have to see it yourself. Like so many moments in the show, it speaks volumes in a simple, ridiculous scene.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

One of the Grand Moments of 1976

I'm still watching those "Midnight Special" DVDs, and now I'm on 1976, which appears to be the year of the piano-playing frontman.

It's all fine and good, but after watching the over-the-top antics of Tom Jones and the multiple cocaine orgasms of Donna Summer, I found myself knocked flat on my butt by Janis Ian's "At Seventeen."

This is the first song on the DVDs that I don't remember at all, and it made me cry. Wow.

UPhold Update: "Roadbird"

A brand new UPhold song, and it's actually FUN! It even has a cowbell.

"Roadbird" is a drastic remix of part two of "The Road To Avondale," which will be available on the new "Roade" CD in just a few days. Last year I thought it would be interesting to make danceable versions of all the "Roade" songs, but now that I've moved to the new computer that would be very inconvenient and difficult. Plus these sorts of reworkings take an awful lot of energy.

So "Roadbird," currently, is the only one, but I think it's a bit of a gem. You can hear it at the Listening Station.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

"The Gods of Times Square"

I've just watched an amazing documentary called "The Gods of Times Square." For five years prior to 1994, a guy named Richard Sandler just walked around Times Square with his video camera, filming the preachers and the homeless people who virtually lived there before Disney swept them all away.

Besides just filming the routines and interactions in the area, Sandler does his best to draw these people out. What makes this documentary unique is that he doesn't ask them about their lives or their hardships. He doesn't approach these people from a political, social, or racial perspective. Instead, he just tries to get them to describe their religious beliefs, and he gets some amazing stuff on camera.

Some of the people are very uncomfortable about being questioned, either because they don't like to address complex issues or because they want to keep their message impersonal. Some of them also assume that he's going to make fun of them. But others simply spill out their thoughts in endless chunks, as though they'd been waiting all their lives for somebody to provoke them.

I don't know what kind of selection bias Sandler had when he picked his subjects, but most of the people are slightly insane. They're articulate and interesting, but you can very easily see the point where their logical, articulate thoughts slip away into paranoia and magic.

Other people -- particularly the Jews in the "Mitzvah Tank," the "white man is the devil" activists, and many of the calmer Christians -- appear to be more "fiery" and "driven" as opposed to insane, though there's no doubt a fine line between the two.

Things get VERY interesting when the fiery characters interact with the crazy ones. In the picture above, a street preacher is trying to get a "Jesus pledge" out of a man who says he's a "substitute teacher" who "raps with the kids" in the Bronx. The preacher is doing a straight-forward attempt at conversion, but the "teacher" keeps sticking his tongue out in a disgusting way and shouting "No, I can't say that...I love the carnal sins, I love Satan's kinky ways!"

Sandler doesn't seem to make any judgements about any of the people he interviews, though it's obvious there are some he likes more than others. He's particularly interested in James -- a recurring character who appears deliberately difficult and contrary when questioned -- and Jimmy, a shy, attractive guy who believes that Jesus lives inside him and will work through him to marry Madonna and release a hit album.

But somehow it's not a freak show. I found myself empathising with the tortured thinking of the crazy people and -- to some extent -- respecting the sheer drive and honesty of the straight-forward preachers. Part of this is because the documentary is completely without music or narration and somewhat crudely edited, with a very flat trajectory and no apparent purpose. It gets a little tiresome at almost two hours, but somehow it works. It feels more raw than most documentaries.

The most significant moment comes at the very end. Sandler is filming Jimmy, who is being gently harassed for money by a babbling homeless guy named Rog. Jimmy, for all his crazy convictions, seems almost sane and noble as he does his best to dissuade Rog while still being nice to him. Afterwards he turns to Sandler and says "Could we please put the camera away and just have some coffee and talk, like normal people?" And with this one statement he elevates himself over Sandler as well; he knows better than the filmmaker how awkward and artificial the documentary-filming process is. Somehow, for one second, he's more normal than anyone. If for nothing else, the entire film is worth it for that moment alone, and Sandler sensibly fades to black on that note.

Here's a clip that seems to have been cut out of the documentary (I haven't watched the "bonus" disc yet, so maybe it's included on there). This captures the overall style of the editing, but it's much more confrontational than anything in the actual film...Sandler and this woman (Brenda Milliner) are actually taunting. Either she somehow managed to push his buttons in a way that nobody else did, or he edited this sort of thing out of the film itself.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Whining, Pain, Fury, Midnight Special

After almost two weeks of a really bad cold, on Tuesday I started feeling really good...I was getting healthy again!

That night I caught the flu, or something similar. Then today, while walking up my stairs, I slipped on some ice and pinwheeled my damaged right arm, and I was literally paralyzed with was like somebody had run over it. I couldn't even breathe and everything went white-hot around me.

I stumbled upstairs and got into the shower so I could spray some high-pressure warm water on it, and while I was washing my hair...I lost the hearing in my left ear. It's some congestion-related thing.

And all that time -- while I was stumbling up the stairs in absolute agony, and standing in the shower trying to figure out what had happened to my ear -- the cat was WHINING. She wanted me to put some water in the tub so she could drink it. I suddenly realized that she has NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER in my state of mind.

I don't just mean that she doesn't comfort me when I'm upset -- I would never expect that from a cat -- but she doesn't even know when I'm ANGRY. She has no idea when I need to be left alone. Standing in the shower, listening to her whine with my one good ear, holding my blazing and limp arm with my one good hand, I realized that my cat doesn't have any interest at all in my behaviour, except when I'm making her happy in some way.

So I became furious, and when I opened the bathroom door and she came bouncing in out of some futile desire to drink out of the tub, I sprayed her with the shower hose. Pain can really distort your character.

Of course I felt terrible afterward, and if she gets sick I will never forgive myself. After tracking her down to her hiding place I toweled her off and tried to make her feel better. But even now -- when my pain and frustration has dulled to a pulsing throb -- I can't shake the sudden realization: my cat does not have the LEAST CONCEPTION of how I behave, let alone how I feel.

What got me through my blue funk was a good dose of another kind of funk: the "Midnight Special 1974" DVD. Besides a few stinkers -- David Essex, Golden Earring, Neil Sedaka -- the DVD was full of goodness,, how did I EVER forget Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis?"

I LOVE this wonderful song! I don't think I've heard it since...well, 1974, possibly. "Send your camel to bed," I mean, jeez.

But the best performance BY FAR was by B. B. King and Gladys Knight, in what appears to be a bit of an improvisation for her:

She is SO beautiful and genuine. Those eyelashes! I think it's time I gave her music a closer listen. If I ever get my left ear back.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

UPhold Update: "Humpback 44"

One of the first things I did when I got my old eMac and my lite version of Logic Audio 6 was attempt to cover one of my favourite songs: "Forty-Four No More" by The Residents. It was going pretty well, but eventually I had to conceed that I lacked the processing power (and the voice) to really do it justice.

The song sat around for a few years while I worked on other things, and then suddenly -- on May 14, 2008, to be exact -- I decided to eviscerate it. I slowed it down, removed everything except the rhythm track, and turned it into a workout for my new ESQ-1 and old Akai sampler.

I've finally polished it up, and you can download and listen to it here: "Humpback 44 (Parts 1 and 2)."

When I got my NEW editing system I swore that I'd abandon this "recorded at the bottom of a swamp" production style, but I'm afraid I really, really like it. I love piling melodies and sources upon each other and washing them in so much reverb that they become little more than a huge undifferentiated sludge. Maybe I shouldn't write it off quite yet.

Incidentally, I have a few more of these long forgotten projects that have yet to be rescued from the old eMac, many of them dating back to spring 2004. The problem is that they all rely heavily on plug-ins from "Pluggo" and "Mode" which I'm not willing to purchase for a second time. As a result -- like "Humpback 44" -- they'll all ultimately sound very different from what I'm working on now.

PS: The new CD, "Roade," is ready to go. Tomorrow's the day for printing the covers. There's still a bit of work to be done on the label/distribution side, but that stuff's comparatively easy for me.