Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In the beginning, there was MTV

Everybody remembers that "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first video ever played on MTV, but it's interesting to look at which videos filled up the remainder of the first day (hat tip to Idolator). They relied heavily on the output of a small number of artists (Rod Stewart, Styx, and Cliff Richard (huh? really?) are just three of the acts that received multiple plays). They made a concerted effort to represent a good number of female artists and bands fronted by female singers (Pat Benetar, Blondie, the Pretenders). "Thriller" was still a couple of years away, so this playlist is looking a bit white. There are a number of songs (e.g. "Little Suzi's On the Up" by PhD, "Remote Control" by the Silencers) -- that I don't think I've ever heard of in my life (both band and song), although I was just seven years old at the time so it's not so surprising that I wouldn't be familiar with plenty of minor video hits from 1981. I should really play those videos for myself to confirm.

What was the best song played that first day? "Video Killed the Radio Star" is the clear winner for me, followed by "Angel of the Morning" and "Rapture".

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

First thoughts on Depeche Mode, "Sounds of the Universe"

  1. It's "Exciter: The Return"
  2. Sounds a bit too much like a collection of album tracks.
  3. Seems to come on stronger during side 2. Probably the mellowest Side 1 of their career.
  4. "In Chains" should be 15 minutes long.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Susan Boyle phenomenon

As of this writing (and I'd better type quickly before this sentence becomes inaccurate), Susan Boyle's audition from "Britain's Got Talent" has piled up a mind-numbing ~ 70 million Youtube views, spread amongst several different uploads, all of it in less than one week. She's completely dominating Youtube's "most viewed" charts -- it looks like one of those 1964 American pop charts that had the Beatles claiming all of the top spots.

Beyond the rags-to-riches aspect of the story (hopefully you're not too cynical to allow yourself at least a morsel of enjoyment out of it, and can find a way to temporarily detach yourself emotionally from the Cowellized stink of reality show pop culture in 2009. It's the story of dreams coming true and you get to watch someone transform herself from anonymous nobody into a huge star in matter of seconds. If you can't appreciate that just a little bit, then fuck you), most of the analysis has centred on whether all of this was staged. Depending on what story you want to believe, either the judges were in on the stunt, Boyle herself is a plant, or both, or none of the above. This looks set to become the Survivor Series 1997 of reality show controversies, as the debate over who knew what and when might very well stretch on for years, depending on the scale of Boyle's future success. But I simply don't understand any argument (on the part of the producers of BGT) for letting the judges know in advance, because in this sort of situation you'll never get a staged reaction that's any better than the one you'd get from legitimately surprising them. Besides, why go through that trouble to coax a specific reaction from the judges when it wasn't their reaction that would make the segment, it was the audience's?

For all of Simon Cowell's faults, there's no doubt that he appreciates the value of pop music in creating memorable moments, and to that end, he is usually quite good at spotting star power. It's the way he tries to artificially create these moments, or tries to manipulate them into $$$ that makes people hate what he's done to the music business. Watch Simon's face during that clip, and there can be little doubt that he knew that he was part of a genuine moment, and that's something that can't be faked.

Sort of a shame that Simon didn't offer up his "I've always said that it's not just about the voice" criticism (e.g. Clay Aiken, Taylor Hicks, many more) afterward ...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Phil Spector: murderer

If there is a positive element of this tragic story, it's the way that the case proceeded with a reasonable amount of dignity, without being swallowed up by a ridiculous media circus. This verdict has been six years in the making, and even though Phil Spector is hardly an A-list celebrity these days, the details of the case (B-movie starlet vs the cocaine-snorting gun-wielding former Tycoon of Teen) could have provided years worth of tabloid-worthy fodder. Hey, it's not like Robert Blake meant anything before he decided to murder somebody.

I suppose I should feel sadness or pity or anger about all of this, but I don't really feel anything at all. We've always known that Spector was nuts, so how does today's guilty verdict change anything? We're not talking about a beloved hero persona like OJ Simpson or Chris Benoit who woke up one day and caused our perceptions of them to change forever. Tales of Christmas cards laced with cocaine and of holding musicians hostage in studios at gunpoint might make for good rock and roll stories, but here in the real world, we know that a guy like that is nothing but a raging asshole bully who was lucky to have not been in serious trouble with the law a long time ago. When I first heard that Phil Spector was accused of murder, I wasn't the least bit surprised, and now that he's been found guilty (assuming we've heard the last of the story, and who the hell knows at this point) I'm also not the least bit surprised. Had he been acquitted I wouldn't have been too surprised either, and it still wouldn't have changed my perception of Spector too much. Rather than live out his life as a recluse in a big, gated, impenetrable mansion fortress, he'll live it out as a recluse in a big, gated, impenetrable jail. Again, has anything really changed?

But there's more to it than just, ahem, living up to expectations. Everyone knew that Kurt Cobain was a suicidal gun-toting lunatic, but his suicide was shocking all the same. Except that Cobain was an extremely public figure -- even if he didn't want to be -- and the truly shocking thing wasn't that he pulled the trigger (or was capable of such an act), it was that one of the world's most famous rock stars was able to simply disappear for days before ultimately killing himself. Spector's life has been led behind airtight doors for so long, it's almost like him and everyone around him ceases to be a real human being, instead they're all like characters in a movie, and we're absolved from having normal feelings about anything that happens to them.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Blender's most overrated

Blender is ceasing publication, but at least they're going out with a few interesting lists! I'm sure you're thinking, "no, not another boring best/worst list", but this one is pretty cool -- Blender's 33 most overrated in rock.

Choices like "texting from concerts to say 'I'M AT A CONCERT!!1!1!'" and "winning American Idol" haven't been around long enough to become boring and/or overrated and/or hopelessly cliche. It's annoying when people who used to be into music as a teenager (but not now, or simply buy new music from the same bands they liked as teenagers) claim that music just isn't as good these days, but those people are fairly easily dismissed because even they know that they're ignorant about what's being recorded these days and are therefore not well suited to properly contextualize (although they probably won't admit that). But "the music from before you were born" might be the most overrated, because not only has this practice been around forever, but it's hardcore music fans who are most guilty of this (and I'm not exonerating myself by any means). Being hardcore fans, we're easily obsessed with the bands and scenes that we never had the chance to experience, and we try to make up for it by immersing ourselves in that band/scene to the extent that we convince ourselves that we know what it was like to have really been there, and proceed to bore/annoy all our friends with our enthusiasm for this.

I'm even getting bored with all the endless reissues from random proto-[fill in genre name] bands, because isn't this just another type of "before our birth" fetishism?

The Steve Angello-Paris Hilton fiasco seems both underrated and overrated. This sort of thing almost never happens, at least not this spectacularly, and certainly not involving someone as stupid and dislikeable as Paris, so in that sense it's underrated. But turning it into a running joke and elevating Angello to deity-DJ status feels like a bit much.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Yeah Yeah Yeahs have blown my mind

In other words, "It's Blitz!" is incredibly good, much better than I would have ever expected. Before this album, I'd pigeonholed them as the prototype three star band, you know, a band that you can count on for five or six great songs per album (including a couple of absolute scorchers that ensure you'll stay faithful to them for the next couple of albums at least), plus some filler that will round out the album, style-wise. Rank that album at 3/5 stars, not great but certainly solid.

This album has been acclaimed as a drastic departure from the sound of the first two YYY's albums, but really it's just natural evolution for the band, provided you assume that they were meant to evolve along the same path as Blondie (and it makes perfect sense, doesn't it?) That means we're entering the "Autoamerican" era, as shown by the outstanding one-two opening punch of "Zero" and "Heads Will Roll". But they haven't just taken the same old gutterpunk numbers and disco-fied them, they've also become a great ballads band, and no, I don't mean mid-tempo rockers like "Maps" or tongue-in-cheek efforts like "Modern Romance", I mean real, gutwrenching power ballad tracks. "Runaway" is fine, albeit a bit cloying and OTT, but "Skeletons", "Little Shadow", and "Hysteric" are flawless, with a screen composer's sense of dramatic build and sweet release.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

J. Viewz @ Barby

My first thought, as I chugged down some beers during the long wait before the start of the show, was that it takes some balls to play a weekend gig without an opening band. Only a band that was fully confident in their frenzy-making abilities would do something like that, I thought while waiting for the venue to slowly fill up.

J. Viewz are a tight, slick outfit, with Jonathan Dagan (aka J. Viewz) and drummer Yoni Halevi acting undoubtedly as the co-captains of the performance. Dagan operates the laptop-driven wizardry that sequences the set, and also handles lead guitar, turntables and cheerleading duty, while Halevi's powerful, seamless drumming anchors the complex array of rhythms and sounds in the band's music. I personally prefer J. Viewz's more downtempo, house-influenced material, but it's clear that based on their live setup and more recent releases that they prefer to go the jazz/funk route. Although the songs leave plenty of room for improvisation, I feel that the sequencing holds them back a bit, because naturally it's hard to improvise while also relying on pre-programmed backing tracks.

The makeup of the audience was also suspended between a couple of extremes, mixed between people who came to dance and get with the funk, and people who came to observe and appreciate (i.e. jazz fans). J. Viewz are getting away with a perilous but fascinating balancing act and so far they're succeeding, but it'll be interesting to see how long they can keep this up.