Thursday, December 28, 2006


I enjoyed the movie on one level. Certainly I thought Jennifer Hudson's and Eddie Murphy's performances were remarkable. And, as musicals go, this one was far better than most, and some of these songs could have legitimately stood on their own as great soul tracks from Motown or Stax.

But I guess I'm just not a musicals kind of guy. I admit that I'm not consistent about this. I'm just going by my gut reaction, and there's no logic to it. For some reason, I can watch rock 'n roll bands with painted faces, shooting fire out of their mouths or spitting blood, and just shrug it off and think, "Yep, just another normal day in Heavy Metal Hell." But when somebody switches from dialog to song in a play or movie, my mind can't make the transition. It was actually more difficult for me with Dreamgirls because many of the song lyrics were so pedestrian, and actually sounded like normal speech. The effect was something like this to my ears:

Diva (pleadingly): "Honey, would you pick up a pound of pastrami on your way home from work tonight?"

Boffo Tenor (with bravado): "Sure, right after I drop off the dry cleaning."

I just never want to sing about these things, and I'm always amazed when people do. I have similar problems with opera, although at least people are singing the whole way through, albeit in those sometimes boring recitatives that string the story along between the arias.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Do They Know It's Christmas?

Nope. Not the poor, starving children in Africa. Not the movers and shakers in corporate America, either, where December 25th means it's almost the end of the year, and the end of the year means new budget allocations, and the chance to wrap up old projects before those new budgets go into effect. Remind me to breathe starting next week, which I'm hoping will be free of corporate American work. In the meantime, I'm chained to a computer keyboard for the duration of my waking hours.

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Receiver -- Decades

A pox on Radiohead. Although they were far from the first to attempt it, the marriage of electronica and indie rock heard on albums such as Kid A and Amnesiac has launched a veritable Radiohead Wannabe invasion, with countless insecure creeps crooning their angst-filled lyrics against the dissonant gurgle of synths and sci-fi spaceship blips and beeps. I probably receive one album per week that roughly fits those parameters.

So a new one showed up earlier this week -- Decades, by Columbus, Ohio's The Receiver. And it very quickly set itself apart from the morose, scowling pack. The Receiver are two brothers, Casey and Jesse Cooper. Jesse plays drums; Casey plays almost everything else, which includes synths, organ, piano, and bass. One Pastor Anthony Rogers plays cello.

So why should you care? For several reasons. First, Casey is a fine composer. And "composer" really is the operative word here. Decades is an album that needs to be heard as a whole, if only to hear the way Casey weaves his motifs in and out through the various songs. He's adept at the kind of symphonic post-rock synthesis that bands such as Godspeed You, Black Emperor and Sigur Ros work to perfection. Second, Jesse's drums, which are very much the product of a human being and not a machine, offer some much needed warmth and humanity to these lovely but icy soundscapes. Finally, Casey does a very credible Thom Yorke imitation -- a little more breathy than our Alienated Hero, but full of quiet passion and intensity.

The song lyrics are fuzzy odes to fading memories and disconsolate loss. They could be about God, a girlfriend, or a pet guppy. No matter. The Receiver's debut album is both challenging and lovely, and I can't wait to see what icy terrain they travel next.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Nick Cave and Danny Cohen

Yesterday the U.S. Postal Service was good to me and dropped off new albums from Nick Cave and Danny Cohen.

Nick's new band, called Grinderman, will release their debut album in April. The music is actually a throwback to Nick's early band The Bad Seeds -- not too surprising since the Grinderman guys are all alumni of that band (as well as The Cramps, The Triffids, and Dirty Three). Given the pedigree, it shouldn't be too much of a shock that the music is loud, raunchy, primal blues punk, not unlike Iggy and the Stooges, but with a far more literate songwriter fronting the whole ramshackle mess. The first single is called "No Pussy Blues" and goes "I bought her a dozen snow white doves/I did her dishes in rubber gloves … but she still didn’t want to, she just never wants to.” Okay, that doesn't sound all that literate. But it has a certain universal appeal.

Danny Cohen, whose new album is called Shade of Dorian Gray, is one strange but strangely appealing dude. I loved his last album We're All Gunna Die, and after one listen, the new one does not disappoint at all. Danny sings in a craggy baritone that wanders in and out of pitch, and writes long, rambling, discursive odes about '50s TV shows and women who lock themselves in the bathroom for days on end. He offers three songs about death ("Death Waltz," "Rigor Mortis," and "Beneath the Shroud" -- the latter loosely based on "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch"). His primary musical accompaniment is church organ and drunken Salvation Army band. Just your standard Top 40 fare. I suspect this one could end up on my Best of 2007 list. We'll see. It will be released on February 6th.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Baby's First Metallica

The resourcefulness and general oddity of marketeers never ceases to amaze me. Lately I have been the recipient of not one, but two new CDs especially designed to introduce our youngest headbangers to the arcane world of rock ‘n roll. First it was Blues Clues and Veggie Tales. Then it was Mozart and Bach for the baby Einsteins. Now it’s Metallica and The Beatles, presented in nice, colorful, eye-catching packages and cute little storybooks.

What self-respecting parent wouldn’t want to pick up a copy of Rockabye Baby: Lullaby Renditions of Metallica for little Thor or Ozzy? These are recognizable renditions of “Enter Sandman,” “Master of Puppets,” etc., but they are presented as soothing lullabies. Even better, there are instructions for how to transform the packaging into a precious Heavy Metal Mobile to hang over baby’s bed. I am not making this up.

The Beatles CD, which hasn’t yet been released, features moderately-known indie rockers and has-beens such as Marshall Crenshaw and Grandaddy singing famous Lennon/McCartney tunes, accompanied by a children’s choir. The accompanying wooden story book (wouldn’t want baby Ringo to rip the pages) features handy little Life Lessons that mom and dad can read aloud to the little moptops as they listen to the stirring sounds of “Magical Mystery Tour” (here’s a helpful suggestion: it’s coming to take you away, but it’s probably best if the toddlers don’t hear that; read those Life Lessons loudly) and “All You Need is Love.”

I should note that there are also lullaby kiddie renditions of Pink Floyd, Coldplay (as if the originals weren’t good enough), Radiohead, Led Zeppelin, Tool, Nirvana, and The Cure. But I haven’t heard them. I’m tempted to pick up the Nirvana just to hear what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” would sound like as a bedtime nocturne. At any rate, here we are now, entertain us. And the marketeers have done their best.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tim Buckley

Tim Buckley is the finest singer of the 1960s. That will raise some eyebrows (including mine, if I think too hard about it), and it's maybe a little exaggerated given the rarefied company of other contemporary artists such as Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, and Van Morrison. But the point is that everybody knows Aretha, Otis, Marvin, and Van, and almost no one knows Tim Buckley.

Which is too bad, because his voice was a force of nature, and his music was as restlessly creative and searching as any music released during that incredibly fertile decade. You want to discover the template used by sadsack romantics from Nick Drake to Elliott Smith? Listen to Tim Buckley or Goodbye and Hello. You want to hear jazz magically ported to the folk idiom? Listen to Happy/Sad or Blue Afternoon. You want to hear a guy who was as avant-garde and "outside" as Ornette Coleman or Captain Beefheart? Listen to Lorca or Starsailor. You want to hear one of the great soul albums of the early '70s? Listen to Greetings from L.A. And if you want to hear it all merged and taken to dizzying soulful heights, listen to Dream Letter, maybe my favorite live album ever.

The guy had a four-octave range, he oozed soul, and his early ballads ("Once I Was" just slays me, after all these years) were heartbreakingly lovely. That's a pretty great combination, enough to convince me that there's at least minor heartbreak in the fact that his music is all but forgotten today.

Oh yeah ... Tim's son Jeff was (yes, sadly, was) pretty great, too, and his debut album Grace is frequently listed in the Top 100 Albums of All Time lists that curmudgeonly critics like to compile. But here's the deal: Tim was better. You owe it to yourself to check out his music.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Holiday Roundup

Two new Christmas albums and one old favorite.

Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas

You’ve got to be at least a little suspicious of a man so enamored with exclamation points. Here, everyone’s favorite banjo/oboe player offers sprightly holiday originals such as “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!,” “Come On! Let’s Boogie to the Elf Dance!,” and “Get Behind Me, Santa!,” and more traditional exclamatory fare such as “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” In spite of such decidedly insistent titles, the music is often quiet and contemplative.

It is what it is: five years’ worth of Sufjan screwing around, not trying too hard, and making holiday music for his family and friends. But when you’re a certified indie superstar, your every festive fart must be released to the demanding public. The end result, captured on 5 EP-length CDs here, is wildly uneven, sometimes dreadful, and occasionally brilliant. But the brilliance ultimately wins me over. For every half-assed, under-rehearsed song (and there are a lot of them here), there are stunning arrangements of “What Child is This?” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Even better, Sufjan understands that the light of the stable shines brightest in the darkness, and the darkness is reflected in both the choice of traditional carols (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” with its minor-key melody and mournful longing) and in the sometimes disarmingly honest originals such as “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” which, in spite of its ponderous, exclamatory title, is one of the saddest Christmas tunes written since Joni Mitchell wanted to skate away on a frozen river. In the end, and despite my aversion to the kitsch, I have to pronounce it as Pretty Good!!!

Various Artists – Oy to the World! A Klezmer Christmas

Only one exclamation point in this one. There is the star of wonder, and then there is just plain wondering: in this case, about a Christmas album recorded by Jewish klezmer musicians. So I am left to wonder.

But what is here is an absolute delight: classic Christmas carols (“Deck the Halls,” “Away in a Manger,” “Carol of the Bells”). Originals with titles such as “Santa, Geh Gezunder Heit” (Yiddish for “go in good health”). Wailing clarinets. A quote from Nino Rota’s “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” interjected into the middle of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” A surf instrumental haphazardly appended to “The Little Drummer Boy.” Fans of Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole should probably cover their ears. But for irreverent, and decidedly non-stereotypical fare, this is both as traditional and as odd as it gets.

George Winston – December

Have you ever noticed that people who are attracted to the Druids – New Agers and Metal Heads – are generally into crappy music? Most reviews will tell you that December is a New Age album, and that George Winston is a New Age pianist. And that pains me because it’s a label that conjures visions in my mind of people listening to blissed out, boring Jazz Lite as they meditate at Stonehenge. In other words, Druid lovers.

So let me detonate the stereotype. Druids would not like this music. New Agers wouldn’t really like it, either. It’s lovely all right, but in places it’s complex and knotty, and Winston’s originals zig when you expect them to zag. They are consistently surprising, and the improvisation he employs, particularly on well-known classical pieces and carols such as Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” reflect the heart of a restless experimentalist. Operating somewhere near the nebulous intersection of folk and jazz, Winston created a work of stark, minimalist beauty, and twenty-five years after its release, December sounds as fresh and vital as ever. This is still my favorite holiday album, and if you own only one non-New Age/Druid Fest release, this should be the one.

Gibbering Idiot Unable to Operate Word's Most Intuitive Machine

Well, you know, these things never go entirely smoothly. At least they never do at the Whitman house.

We bought the three-year extended warranty. Given our current track record, it just seemed like a wise thing to do. So in attempting to register the warranty and ensure that we were covered, I discovered that I needed something called an Apple ID. Okay, no big deal. So I went to the Apple support site and attempted to create an Apple ID. The first three times (all after re-typing name, address, phone, and some nineteen-digit alphanumeric monstrosity whose purpose I forget, etc.) were unsuccessful. Somebody had already claimed the Apple IDs I coveted. The fourth time I was able to create a unique Apple ID. Swell. I was then able to use my Apple ID to link to the correct page, and register my iMac. Except I couldn't make it happen. The serial number of the machine is on the back of the machine, as well as on the box. I checked them both, and they were both clearly labeled as "Serial Number." Same number. Cool. That's the number I entered when prompted to do so. I checked and double checked and triple checked. The error message told me that the serial number wasn't recognized. So ... sometime this evening I'll attempt to talk to a real human being and get my iMac registered. The entire process, up to this point, has only taken, oh, about an hour and fifteen minutes. And we still don't have an official extended warranty.

Then there is the mystery of attempting to set up email accounts that will, in theory, allow us each to have email addresses ending in There is a nice, handy, friendly wizard that walks us through the process. And we (as in three of us, who all attempted this) have invariably ended on the last screen with the message, "Unable to create email account." How informative. I have no idea what we're doing or not doing to end up with uncreatable accounts. We seem to have a special knack for these types of things.

We have an external hard drive (where virtually our entire digital lives are backed up) that seems to be recognized some times, but not others. Who knows why? Not me.

Then there is iTunes. All our music files reside on the external hard drive because I didn't want them hogging the (formerly limited) hard drive of our former PC. Now that we have a 500GB hard drive it's not a big deal, but since they're already on the external drive, I'd prefer to keep them there. Except iTunes doesn't recognize the fact that we have, between three of us, roughly 60GB of music files on the external hard drive. iTunes comes up, and is as pure and blank as a fresh snowfall. On the occasions when I can actually navigate to the external hard drive, the directories where I know, where I am absolutely positive, our music resides, show nothing in them. This is not good, and there is, of course, no way to go from the iPod to iTunes, which would help us resolve this little dilemma. It only works the other way.

I am a reasonably intelligent guy. I have three college degrees. And I hear all the marvellous tales of how intuitive iMacs are, how they virtually run themselves, and I end up feeling like a gibbering idiot.

I have yet to install Age of Empires III, but I'm hoping that the process will go smoothly. After a night like last night, all I really want to do is conquer the world. Maybe I'll get around to it this weekend.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

iMac Daddy

So yesterday we bought this. We went with the 24" display and upgraded the memory to 2GB. Otherwise, we went with the standard iMac, which in and of itself is pretty cool.

Setup took all of about, oh, three minutes. We had to connect a mouse and keyboard to the back of the computer, and plug the Roadrunner cable into a USB port, but the overall experience basically entailed taking it out of the box and plugging it in the wall.

I've never seen such a sleek and cable-free design. It's very cool. And that 24" display is truly dazzling.

Then it took my picture. I set up my account, was momentarily puzzled by an onscreen notification to smile, and then was surprised by the fact that my grizzled visage actually appeared on the screen. I'm not sure if I like this, but there you go. With an internal microphone and an internal camera, I am apparently ready to teleconference myself and podcast myself to the world. Look out.

We decided not to go the Parallels route (at least for the time being). We did buy the Mac version of Office, and old docs created with MS Word opened without a hitch. And I bought Age of Empires III. If I cannot literally take over the world, I can at least now virtually do so.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Mac Daddy?

The Dell, which is less than three years old, appears to be headed for the Great Computer Scrapyard in the Sky. It's currently being examined by the Computer Doctors at MicroCenter, where I suspect they will tell me that it is so badly hosed by viruses that they will need to wipe the hard drive clean and start again. It's been running verrrrrry, verrrrrry sloooooowly (as in it takes five minutes to launch an application). Very, very strange things happen when it is running (Windows Explorer disappeared; how does that happen?; and my brand spankin' new external hard drive isn't recognized anymore).

Maybe it can be repaired. But frankly, I'm so sick of viruses, spam, adware, etc. that I'm about ready to play Elvis and shoot the @#$% thing. We pay relatively big bucks for the usual suite of firewall, anti-virus, anti-spam, anti-adware stuff, and none of it seems to do any good.

So ... we may be ready to make the big move to Apple. Yes, I know what some of you are thinking. But we stayed with Dells because it was relatively easy to move files back and forth between work, which is (and always will be?) a Windows world, and home.

So let me solicit your advice, particularly those of you who are Apple devotees:

1) Viruses are virtually non-existent on Apple computers. True or false?

2) The latest Apple models can run Windows applications? True or false? (This is still a huge consideration in my world.)

3) If the answers to 1 and 2 are true, which Apple desktop in the $2K - $3K range would you recommend? Thanks for your help.