Thursday, March 30, 2006

Maybe if the melody is filled with both the pain and the ecstasy of loving me

I'll make another post about music, and this time I'll take a page out of Bill's book. I'll dig up a memory from the Eighties and share it with you, dear brilliant and scrupulous readers.

My '80s: Thomas Dolby

Many of us (at least those who are my approximate age) started to like music at a really glorious time -- the early '80s. It was the confluence of UK punk, this new-fangled stuff called "new wave", anthemic rock, and another new-fangled type of thing called "synthesizer pop". Just to name a few.

Arguably the most memorable artist to emerge from the early days of the "synth-pop" genre was Thomas Dolby (nee Thomas Morgan Robertson). Virtually an unheard of tactic at the time, he did a great deal of tinkering around in the studio to produce a multitude of synthetic sounds, which he combined with real instruments to make a one-man band. Today this is pretty common, and I would guess that Trent Reznor, Kurt Ralske (Ultra Vivid Scene), Marc Bianchi (Her Space Holiday) and Trevor HollAnd (HollAnd, Sea Saw) all site Thomas Dolby as a profound influence on their career path.

Anyway, back to the point.

I used to stay up, eagerly anticipating "The Top Ten at Ten" on G-105. It was 1983. I would vacillate between "Beat it" and "Down Under". Maybe "Every Breath You Take" would be my favorite for a few weeks. Or "Electric Avenue" (insert parody lyrics "We're gonna walk down to K-Mart to buy some shoes. They only cost a dollar") would tickle my fancy for weeks on end.

My sister had introduced me to the Violent Femmes, but I wasn't cool enough to "get it". I was 12, for cryin' out loud! I still had to have my music spoon-fed to me. However, I was beginning to be able to hear some idiosynchrosies and I was able to sort of understand why I liked what I liked. I just wasn't ready for something as outside the box as Violent Femmes.

One thing I wasn't privy to, though, was the glory of stereophony. I routinely listened to music on a cruddy little clock radio, or on my parents' stereo system, which, in hindsight was never wired properly.

So I was up late one night. Beyond bedtime, waiting for the "top 10 at 10". I discovered that I could foil my parents by listening to my portable personal cassette player and am/fm radio tuner, or what Bill referred to as "jogger". It was big and bulky. About the size of a 400-page paperback book. The cassette part of it had three buttons. Play, stop/eject, and fast forward. The only way to rewind a tape was to flip it over, fast forward, then flip it back over. Not that I had a lot of tapes, or that anyone knew of a better life, but that's just how it was. The radio part worked just fine, and listening to the radio with the headphones might have been my first serious exposure to stereophony. Like I say, my parents component system wasn't really hooked up properly, and they probably had the left channel speaker situated right beside the right channel speaker anyway. They didn't and still don't care about stuff like that.

I heard "She Blinded Me With Science" on the headphones, in its stereophonic glory and I was completely blown away. HOW? CAN? HE? DO? THAT? Not only was there a lot going on, but it was all the fuck over the stereo field. I didn't know that such a thing existed. In particular, there's an extended "drum" solo towards the end of the song that ping-pongs from right to left and with varying levels of intensity in each channel. I still remember the feeling I had when I realized what was going on.

For weeks, I would call the station, requesting the song so I could re-live that. I would listen to the "top ten at 10" and bask in the stereophonic goodness of Mr. Dolby's triumph.

Then it occurred to me. Why don't I just tape it, and then listen to it whenever I wanted? Well, the component cassette deck my parents had wasn't going to do the job. Either it didn't have a "line in", or the ancient amp/tuner didn't have an auxiliary "line out". Or my parents didn't care enough to set the damn thing up properly. I wasn't clever enough to figure it out, either. No problem, I thought. I'll just use the portable tape recorder. You know. Just like the one that Rerun used to make a bootleg of the Doobie Brothers concert. It weighed about 10 pounds and was roughly the size of a hard-bound Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. I'd hold it up to the radio, tell my sister so shut the fuck up for four minutes while I was recording, and it would be all good. Of course I could have gotten a ride to the mall and blown my allowance at Record Bar on a copy of The Golden Age of Wireless. But why would I do that when I could get my own copy from the radio for free?

We all remember doing this as a kid. You had to patiently wait for the moment your song came on. Most of the time, the first few seconds of your song was cut off. To avoid this, you had to be lightning-quick with your reflexes, or have the benefit of the deejay giving you a heads-up. The sound quality was going to be a little shoddy since you were recording at ambient level, complete with all the background noise and normal room tone. However, we didn't know any better, and it was 1983 anyway.

My plan had worked (or so I thought, anyway). I recorded the song, and now I could listen to it whenever I wanted, at the forceful touch of a single button. Ahhhhh. Technology! I proudly told my parents and my sister about this song that I love and how cool it is that the drum solo goes in the left ear, then in the right ear, and back and forth and louder and softer, and how head-swimmingly awesome it was. And how I had so cleverly and masterfully taped that very song from the radio. I urged them to gather 'round to listen to the brilliant song that I was about to play for them.

As you've guessed by now, I didn't have a firm grasp on how recording in stereo works. My "copy" of "She Blinded Me With Science" was not only muddy (at best), but lacked the stereophonic goodness. It was indeed a monophonic mess. I was monumentally upset, to say the least. However, I was convinced that there was something wrong with the radio station. My plan was perfect, so it couldn't have been my technologically retarded attempt at recording. It had to be the radio station. Maybe they forgot to broadcast in stereo. Yeah. That had to be it.

I used a brand new cassette and tried it again the next night. Naturally it yielded the same results.

I never did purchase a copy of "The Golden Age of Wireless", and I quickly forgot about that song thanks to Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz". In fact, I haven't given much thought to the matter until I decided to undertake this project.

Note: I can't be sure that "Puttin' on the Ritz" came after "She Blinded Me With Science", but that's my recollection.

now playing:

50 Foot Wave Golden Ocean

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I might walk home alone, but my faith in love is still devout

As promised, I'll share with you some questions I have about Rod Stewart's 1971 smash hit "Maggie May". In the week of my birth, the song, which was on Every Picture Tells a Story, reached #1 on the Billboard charts. It stayed there for several weeks, and ended up being Billboard's #2 song of the year.

Before I get into it, I'd like to make it clear that I think it's a great song.

However, I'm a little bugged by some of the lyrics.

Take, for example, the opening line:

Wake up, Maggie. I think I've got something to say to you.

The rest of the song goes on to enumerate the reasons the protagonist has for leaving his Mrs. Robinson.

Here's my beef with that: You don't wake somebody out of a deep slumber and say "I think I've got something to say". If you wake someone up, you best have a damn good reason. And although this turned out to be a good reason, it should have been prefaced with something more like -- "Wake up Maggie. I've got some bad news for you", or better yet, just leave the "I think" part out and say "Wake up Maggie, I've got something to say to you". He needs to be more certain, more forceful.

In the second verse, he says
I laughed at all your jokes. My love you didn't need to coax

My issue with this is that it's awkward, even clumsy wording. And don't even start with the "but it's done in the interest of the rhyming scheme", because the rest of the song has very few rhyming lines. It could have gotten away without that clumsiness.

Later, there's just a poor choice of words:
...But you turned into a lover, and mother what a lover..

It's already a bit icky because it's pretty clear that the protagonist is having an affair with a much older woman. Then, he chooses the word "mother" as emphasis preceding "what a lover". Where some folks might say "Holy Mackinaw! What a lover!", or "Golly! What a lover!", he says "Mother! What a lover!". As if we weren't already slightly creeped out, the word "mother" puts a whole new Oedipus-like spin on it.

But then the kicker is the final line:
Maggie I wish I'd never seen your face // I'll get on back home one of these days

One of these days? After all that, after waking poor Maggie up, all he has to say is "I'm leaving you, but not today".

Maybe we weren't meant to look that closely at the lyrics. At the end of the day, though, I still think it's a great song.

now playing:

Chris Bell I am the Cosmos

dear, i fear we're facing a problem

I've written at length on these pages about the "Two fer Tuesday" game that is played at work.

To refresh the memory, the "classic rock" station plays twofers all day long. We guess what they're playing for points. During the first song, you guess the second song for one point. During the second song, you guess the next artist for two points. Sometimes the games are high-scoring. Sometimes they aren't.

Lately, I've been having serious issues with the appropriateness of the twofers.

They've always been known to follow a song like "Sunshine of Your Love" with "Tears in Heaven". This isn't technically a twofer since the former is by Cream, and the latter an Eric Clapton solo joint. However, this has been generally acceptable. It's also pretty common, so we know that we should expect a Clapton/Cream changeup from time to time. I can't say I'm crazy about it, but like I say, it's generally accepted.

However, they've gotten a little out of hand lately. Tonight, I had to call bullshit two times.

First was with Queen. They played "We Will Rock You", followed by "We are The Champions". Okay.... Time for the next band, right? Wrong! "Bohemian Rhapsody". For fuck's sake! This isn't a threefer. "We Will Rock You" and "We are The Champions" are DEFINITELY separate songs. They first appeared on 1977's News of the World as songs #1 and #2, respectively, and are always packaged on "Greatest Hits" records in back-to-back fashion. As separate songs. It's not as if I'm splitting hairs here. These are different songs. But, just as they do with Pure Prairie League's "Fallin in and out of Love With You" and "Amie", radio stations will treat the two songs as if they are one. In a court of law I would win my argument that "We Will Rock You" and "We are the Champions" are different songs, but in practical every day life, I'll have to give that one up. I'm not happy about it, though.

The other thing that I had to call "bullshit" on was when they played "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" as the first song of the twofer. So I'm thinking they'll go with a pure Stevie Nicks twofer and follow it with "Edge of Seventeen". However, I know it's possible that they'll cheat a little and go with Fleetwood Mac on the back end, so I guessed "Riannon". None of the above. They cheated A LOT by playing Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" next.

I'm willing to grudgingly concede the Queen thing, but I won't let this one go. This is complete bullshit. Although Petty co-wrote and provided some vocals for "Stop Draggin'", it doesn't appear on his record. It's on Nicks' "Bella Donna". I suppose this paves the way for them to play Dire Strait's "Money for Nothing" followed by "De Doo Doo Doo, De Da Da Da" and call it a Sting twofer.

Horse shit!

Up next will be some questions I have about Rod Stewart's brilliant "Maggie May".

now playing:

Echo & The Bunnymen Echo & The Bunnymen

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

If all your wishes in the world come true, you'd be as good as new

Monday night, I went to Chapel Hill to see Camera Obscura, who were playing at the Local 506. This is a band that I fell in love with when they played two summers ago at the Merge Records 15th year anniversary festival.

I bought Underachievers, Please Try Harder on the spot, and I used it to get me through some really tough times in the following weeks. I was managing a restaurant that opened one day after the end of the Merge Festival. I was working 16 hour days, seven days a week for two weeks solid. I was a complete wreck. I would take solace, though, in coming home after those horrible days, taking a long hot shower, and relaxing with Camera Obscura. I was actually quite miserable back then, but I always felt better listening to CO.

When I saw them on the schedule of Cat's Cradle sponsored events, I almost shat myself. I sort of filed it away, and then I actually almost forgot about it.

A couple of weeks ago, I turned my friend Bill on to Camera Obscura, and we talked about going to the show. Of course we also talked about going to Mogwai, but I chickened out at the last second and missed a hell of a show. Since Bill opted for dinner with the missus and an important dinner guest, I'll do my best to give a concert review. For my money, though, his reviews are far better than I could ever do.

It was a shitty shitty night last night. It was about 35 degrees and raining pretty hard. My friends and I got a cheap dinner beforehand, where I ran into the girl I went to prom with 17 years ago. As I've commented on these pages before, I run into her about once a year, and it's always cool. However, it always reminds me of what a douchebag I was. This is a whole other story, but because I wasn't emotionally ready for any kind of relationship, I pushed her away. About a year later, I realized I had fucked up badly, but it was too late.

Sorry for the digression. Anyway, it was a shitty night, and I felt like ass. I've been fighting off some sort of illness, and I've been sleeping really poorly because I was having lengthy coughing fits at about 2:30 in the morning. My whole head was aching, and I was also a little grumpy on top of that. BUT..... we were going to Camera Obscura. So without further ado (or as my friend Kevin says "adieu"), the review.

When we arrived, the warmup act was on. A Raleigh band named Schooner. At first, they reminded me of Pavement, but later on they reminded me a little of what we decided was Sparklehorse. However, I wasn't really into them. At first glance, it seemed like the typical Local 506 show -- oversold, smoky as hell and hotter than a thousand hells. However, upon further review, it was only the back of the room that was packed. We worked our way up to the front, where there was plenty of wiggle room. Just a few minutes later, Schooner was done with their set.

Camera Obscura opened with a song I didn't recognize. It had a polka/oom-pa/waltz feel too it, and it wasn't bad, but I didn't care too much for it. They transitioned into "Teenager", which imediately made me giddy. Despite the nasty weather, despite my grouchiness and illness, I was HAPPY.

Following that, they played four new songs in a row. The new record will be out in June, and I'm guessing all those songs will be on the new record. I've gotta say that they sounded fantastic. For the rest of the night, it was mostly new stuff, with a little Underachievers and a very little "Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi".

The new songs feature a lot of different percussion, and more than one of them had a motown-y feel. Actually, this isn't new for them, but it seemed more prevalent last night. One of the new songs had this really neat three-part guitar harmony at the end that seemed more like Glasgow 1992 than Glasgow 2006, but I'll take it any day of the week. And twice on Sundays.

About halfway through their set, they got real chatty. My soft spot for a female Scottish accent is well known, so I was digging it. However, Tracyanne wasn't doing much of the talking. Either way, I think it's cool to listen to Scottish people talk. It's hot on a woman, and "cool" on a man. Oh c'mon! Do you really think that Sean Connery would be "cool" if he wasn't Scottish?

Apparently, this was one of only three American cities they're playing on this "tour". They did the SXSW festival in Austin, then the 506, then on to the Knitting Factory. That's it. So we were really lucky to have them. They'll be back in July for a more extensive tour, and you should all go when they come to your town.

They closed their set with "Suspended from Class", which actually didn't sound all that great. Don't get me wrong. I still liked it, but it sounded really flat. The rest of the show wasn't like that, but that one song was.

I didn't really mean for this to happen, but on the way out of the venue, I stopped to say "nice show" to Carey and Lee, and ended up chatting with them for a few minutes. They seemed like awfully nice folks.

I might have talked myself out of going to the show because of the weather, and because I felt like ass. I'm really glad I didn't. Except for a two minute span where I lost my cool, I had a really good time. CO were great, and the new songs kind of blew me away. I can't wait for the new record to come out.

now playing:

Yo La Tengo And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

you get the car, i'll get the night off

So here's another brief thing about Scrabble's new OWL2.

I've already (sort of) explained how words get in the OWL in the first place.

I get a lot of questions about the rules of Scrabble play. Although it is a general rule of thumb that foreign words and proper names are not allowed, there are many proper names that are allowed because they have other meanings.

Foreign words sometimes are in the American vernacular so long that they make it into our dictionaries of record. Once that happens, they are fair game for Scrabble.

For this same reason, words which were originally trademarked brand names of products, over time, become generally accepted as the word to describe the product itself. For example, velcro. The term VELCRO (all caps) is a registered trademark of Velcro Industries, but the word velcro (all lower-case) has been generally accepted as the generic term for a hook and loop fastener. As these brand names become gerericized over time, it upsets the companies associated with the product bearing the name because it is tantamount to losing a bit of their copyright protection. The product itself is still protected. The nomenclature isn't.

The point of this is that many words associated with trademarked products or companies have found their way into the OWL. There are many new ones, including "velcro", "fedex", "frisbee" and "kleenex". There were already many in the previous OWL, but the only one I can think of off the top of my head is "xerox".

Over time, this becomes an issue because there is no longer any association with the product and the company that trademarked it. For example, few people probably know that "aspirin" was a registered trademark of the Bayer company. Now it is a completely generic term. Or that "escalator" was a registered trademark of the Otis Elevator Company. Although Bayer had other factors working against it, both companies failed to police their own trademarking and saw their name become the generic name.

I could go on for hours about the legal ramifications of this, but this was really just to point out that these words are now acceptable plays in tournament Scrabble.

now playing:

Morrissey Bona Drag

Thursday, March 02, 2006

what would frank lloyd wright say?

Yesterday was a pretty big day. No, I didn't get a raise, or win the lottery, or land a hot new girlfriend.
It was the day that the new Official Tournament and Club Word List (2nd edition) (affectionately called OWL2) became the official arbiter for word validity in official Scrabble play. The OWL was published in 1998 and had been the adjudicator since then.

The OWL, and OWL2 (available only to members of the National Scrabble Association) differs greatly from Official SCRABBLE Players Dictionary (available from any bookseller) in many ways. First, the OSPD contains definitions, and is laid out differently. Inflections and pluralizations are listed under the main word, which sometimes is more confusing than helpful. For example, one of my favorite Scrabble words is SENARII. In the OWL2, it's just listed as is. The OWLs are simply alphabetical word lists. No definitions. In the OSPD, you have to find SENARII listed with SENARIUS as its plural. You would learn that it's a type of greek lyric poetry. This kind of dictionary-style listing probably causes many words to be overturned even when they are valid. Believe it or not, we're not the least bit concerned about definitions in tournament play. It's only helpful to know forms of speech so we might know whether we can add an -s or an -ed or an -ing. Do we really care what a word means? No. I think it's safe to say that for 30% of the words I play, I have no idea what they mean.
Another key difference between the OWLs and the OSPDs is that the OWLs include words that may be deemed "offensive". In club and tournament play, for example, many cuss words and/or ethnic slurs are legal. They're just words. Certain types get offended by the use of certain words, but they're just words. For example, I once had to play the word CUNT in a tournament against a middle-aged lady. She was visibly upset by the word, but it was my best play, and it is legal. Nothing personal. Just a word. Most players understand this and don't get bent out of shape.

So the big question is, how do words get included? What makes Scrabble dictionaries different from normal dictionaries? Every language has its own Scrabble dictionary, and there are two different for the English language: OWL is used in North America, while a different dictionary, SOWPODS is used in the rest of the English-speaking world. In the case of OWL, in effort to be considered the ultimate authority on word adjudication, the dictionary committee (no, I'm not making that up) compiles words from five major dictionaries. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary(currently the 11th edition), Webster's New World Dictionary (currently the fourth edition), Random House College Dictionary, The American Heritage Dictionary, and Funk & Wagnalls College Dictionary. Actually, I don't think F&W is used anymore, as it is no longer a dictionary worth its salt. That could easily be a whole other post, but I'll just let it go. Anyway, all words that appear in at least two of the "major" dictionaries are set to be included in OWL. The OSPD simply omits words that could be found to be offensive.

Why the fuss? OWL was eight years old, and the American lexicon has changed a lot since then. There are a few thousand new additions to the OWL2, including five new two-letter words, 41 new threes, 126 new fours, 289 fives, 540 new sixes and 901 new seven-letter words.

Here's the thing, though. One of the new sevens leapt right out at me. PIZZAZZ. Sure, that's a good word. Why not? It's been in Webster's for a long time. Look at the word, though. Four Zs. It's unplayable. The game only has one Z and two blank tiles. The word could never be played. Same with PIZZAZZES and PIZZAZZY, which are new to the list.

There are at least eight new q-without-u words, making that list grow from 21 to at least 29.

I've got a lot of work to do.

now playing:

Elliot Smith XO