Monday, December 29

One Track Mind: Pianos From Hell

X-pressions, the 1997 album from X-ecutioners, is what happens when a group of DJs decide that it's time to step out from behind the masters of ceremony and take the limelight. Pianos From Hell is what happens when those same DJs have the composition chops to leave a beat almost entirely alone for three minutes.  The neat thing is that by doing that, they put the turntablism in the listener's mind.  I couldn't help but think of the scratching I'd do over that beat while it played.  You know how pretentious jazz drummers talk about the space between the noise being as important as the noise itself?  yeah, that.

Thursday, December 18

One Track Mind: Frank, AB

I have a dilemma. I want this post to be about a track by the Rural Alberta Advantage, but something gnaws at my conscience.

Fraxas and I started out this project, One Track Mind, to automate our music-recommendation process. And, so far, it's working swimmingly. The tracks that Fraxas highlighted are all awesome, and I've assembled a playlist with all the posts so far. Listening to it is like drinking a tall glass of eclecticism made physical.

My dilemma comes from a long-debated issue that has faced music buffs from the early mists of time:

Single or album?

Fraxas and I are busy guys. We love to talk music. But the day is short, and thanks to certain sources, the pool of good music is deeper than I can ever remember. One track a week is a small commitment, manageable, digestible, and enough to ignite a decent conversation. As much as I appreciate a good album, we confine these blog posts to the subject of a single track at a time.

Critics, performers, and connoisseurs from all across the historical spectrum vary widely on this essential question. Some acts, such as Arcade Fire and Radiohead, insist that the album is a holistic experience, going so far as to prohibit the use of their tracks on compilations or to boycott music videos. On the other hand, to be blunt, most songs by most artists are terrible. By extension, the same is true of most albums.

Industry analysts agree that the true cause of Big Music's demise was its long track-record of releasing albums padded with filler. Given the public's short attention span and appetite for easily digestible singles, the rise of filesharing technology was only the catalyst for an overdue drop in album sales.

Now, I like singles as much as the next guy. I consider an album “good” if about half its songs are re-listenable. I don't take the extreme of deleting the tracks I don't like –-after all, HDD space is cheap-- but I'd consider a lot of my favourite tracks to be a Single experience. This would be true of most of my prior posts.

That's not to say I don't have my favourite albums. Radiohead's OK computer, Firewater's recent album the Golden Hour, and-- I'm not ashamed to admit it-- Achtung Baby by U2 are best experienced from the moment you press play. These are rare accomplishments that tower over even the selfsame band's remaining oeuvre, let alone the wider music world.

So here's my dilemma. Hometowns, the debut album of Toronto band The Rural Alberta Advantage, is one of the best I've ever heard. The whole thing hangs together like the Dude's Room before his carpet was peed on. It's Canadian Rock in all its thematic, heroic, unapologetic, anthemic, melodious glory, complete with lyrics that evoke geography and virtuoso, spare-kit percussion. What am I supposed to do? I can't pick out a single track to write about. It's too difficult. As pretentious as Arcade Fire and Radiohead are for their championship of the Whole Album, I'm afraid that I have to join their ranks in this case. Hometowns is 38 minutes of bliss. That's not a lot is it?

Okay, maybe it is. I will pick a track at random and blog about it in the only way that would be appropriate. Haiku.

Track Title: Frank, AB
Artist: the Rural Alberta Advantage
Album Title: Hometowns

Pizzicato first.
Cymbals rise towards chorus.
Heartbeat speeds, wordless.

Wednesday, December 17

One Track Mind: Stormy High

Yet Another independent rock band from eMusic's top 88 list (they make almost all my music recommendations these days), Black Mountain's a Canadian 70's-metal band.  At least, they are on In The Future, the only point of contact I've had with them.

The opening track of the album is a song entitled Stormy High.  I'm not sure what it's about - the lyrics are pretty vague - but the opening guitar riff is in 7/4, so they won immediate kudos for that. Then they won more kudos by extending the feel of classic metal - I'm thinking Sabbath vol 4, maybe pre-Wall floyd - through the entire track.  Guitar and bass mostly in unison on rising scale patterns, the keyboards acting more like percussion than anything else, drums that just keep on stomping forward, vocals that - despite the mildly cheesy female moan that surfaces in places - fit into the melody rather than wandering around it.

Friday, December 12

One Track Mind: St. Lawrence River

Lee Mellor is on eMusic's list of non-American Country artists (He's Canadian by birth). The cover of his 2007 album, Ghost Town Heart, is a moodily-lit portrait of him looking scruffy and tired and shaggy and all dressed in black, like a city dude's impression of what a country singer should look like. He's got a slightly nasal voice, a strong understanding of the tropes and patterns of alt-country, and enough Canadianness in his lyrics that I feel a connection to him I probably shouldn't.  Case in point: the song St. Lawrence River. It's a catchy ballad about bad choices and redemption that could have been set anywhere with a few minor lyrics changes. I've never seen the St. Lawrence; I can find it on a map, to be sure, and I know what it is and why it's important economically and historically and culturally, but it's not home in any meaningful sense of that word.  And yet, listening to Lee, I feel like nodding. You will too - but whether it's a feeling of shared experience, or just moving in time to a really catchy piece of alt-country, is up to you.

One Track Mind: I Lived on the Moon

Last time, I posted a video that, if briefly, portrayed a father-son relationship touched by fantastical tragedy. Here's another song/video in that series, via a long-ago post from metafilter.

Track Title: I Lived on the Moon
Artist: Kwoon
Album: Tales and Dreams

A high-quality download of the incredible video is here. It's by the animator Yannick.

Watch, listen, react.

Thursday, December 4

One Track Mind: Transdermal Celebration

Track title: Transdermal Celebration
Artist: Ween
Album: Quebec

It is prudent to interpret the hipster-speak phrase "such-and-such are a band's band" as a warning that their music is inaccessible and impossible to appreciate from any rational perspective. Common examples: Radiohead, the Pixies. I love those bands, but let's not "Kid A" ourselves.

Ween is a band's band's band. They hop from one musical genre to another, all the while squirting virtuoso pieces of anti-serious songwriting, seltzer-like, into the clown-face of pop-culture. Once in a while, they record a straight-out pop-song that shows the world how easy it should be.

This video powerfully demonstrates that cartoons can be terrifying and poignant. Watch it when you have three and a half minutes to spare.

Friday, November 14

One Track Mind: Lovecraft in Brooklyn

Track title: Lovecraft in Brooklyn
Artist: Mountain Goats
Album: Heretic Pride

Whither H.P. Lovecraft? He of the overwrought, modern classical horror narratives, purveyor of all things "squamous" and "rugose?" He seems to be enjoying a minor renaissance among the net's intelligentsia, despite his bizarre proclivities towards eugenics and other outright violations of political correctness. Taste-makers from BoingBoing to MeFi peddle Cthulhu-themed tea-cozies and other mind-boggling, long-tail elements of niche hipster consumerism gone awry. Modern auteurs such as Mike Mignola and Guillermo del Toro borrow liberally from the fertile, feotid soil of ol' Howard Phillips' imagination, with admittedly entertaining results.

None of this excuses the truly execrecable aspects of Lovecraft's actual oeuvre, from his gender theories to his prose. And yet, despite his horribility, Lovecraft's stock continues to rise among present-day interwebbers. I can't explain it.

Now, something exists that might excuse these aspects of Lovecraft, and that is this song by the Mountain Goats.

H.P. Lovecraft, you can keep doing whatever it is you do, so long as you continue to posthumously inspire rock and roll such as this.

P.S. I like the double entendre of the song's rallying cry: "I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn." At first listen, I did not think of Lovecraft the Proper Noun, but rather "lovecraft" the possible neologism in the vein of "statecraft" or "songcraft." I feel like lovecraft in Brooklyn indeed.

Monday, November 3


There's a link on today's Penny Arcade to what Tycho aptly describes as 'a meditation on starting into Fallout 3'. It's about appreciation and immersion, and it brought me to a pretty weird realization about myself.

This entry aside (oh god the irony), I don't spend all that much time in self-reflection; I prefer to live my life over thinking about it, even to the extent of preferring to plan as little as possible and just let events and other people's desires guide my actions. I like to think of myself as pretty immersed in my own life. But when I play games, I'm almost always playing some sort of meta-game, looking for cheats and walkthroughs on wikis. (Scroll down a bit, or ctrl-F for that link text, to see what I'm talking about there.  It's important, and not just for what I'm talking about now.) Even single-player games, where there's no competition, so there's no reward for metagaming. Why do I do that? Why do I have such a hard time turning in a quest without my refer-a-friend buddy there so I get triple XP?  Why do I reload my Civ games when Imperial Japan goes to war with me because of a decision I made 4 turns ago, so that I can repair the timeline and not get involved in the conflict until I have tanks and they barely have musketmen? The few times when the rules and context of a game have made it difficult to metagame -- Prince of Persia's built-in metastory comes to mind, as do the few times I've played 4x games multiplayer -- I've almost always enjoyed the game more.  But I can hardly stop myself from turning to the web when I hit the slightest roadblock, or from urging my friends to use voice comm in MMOs.

How do I just let the stories happen, and not worry about the man behind the curtain?

Wednesday, October 29

Media, Messages, Equality thereof, importance of the former to the latter

Ian posted a meditation on the importance of media to messages today. Of course, Mr. McLuhan comes to mind (although his point was more about which of media and messages is more worthy of study than anything else). The choice of medium is an important one for any message; announcing a product with a press conference is different from announcing it with a press release, which is different from announcing it in an advertisement. Heck, this blog would be a different place if it had black text on a white background, or red rather than lime green titles. And you can alter the perception of the words 'I love you' any number of ways, depending on your choice of body language and tone of voice.

I'm tempted to see all this from an anthropological/biological perspective, to return to my constant theme of our monkey brains being way more important than we think they are. How fine is the line between being a good communicator and being manipulative? How much of that distinction is based on mastery of the parts of the message we normally call 'media'?

Thursday, October 16

One Track Mind: DLZ

Dear Science,

Let's not be humble. We both know what you are: the most successful attempt to systematize and organize knowledge in the history of the Universe. Your method is madness, your technique impeccable. You drive my life; I live your drives. You dot my eyes and tease my cross.

Science, sometimes I wish you were more than the realization of my thoughts. Other times, I feel that my thoughts are the realization of your wishes. There are no other times, because time itself is an illusion. Thanks for that one. I.e., Thanks for that identity element, so long as we're talking about the multiplication operation. If the subject is addition, I guess I should say thanks for that zero.

Is free will neutral? By that, I mean to ask, is free will free of charge? I mean, is it balanced? Am I?

Here's where I sign off. Off with my sign! I am neither positive nor negative. I am nothing.


P.S. I will leave the rest to TV On the Radio, as expressed in DLZ:

Never you mind
Death professor.
Your shocks are fine,
My struts are better.
Your fiction flies so high,
Y'all could use a doctor
Who's sick, who's next?

Tuesday, October 7

One Track Mind: Float

Artist: Flogging Molly
Album Title: Float
Track Title: Float

Melodic, melancholic Irish bar rock is always good, isn't it? Well, Maybe. This review on Sputnikmusic nails the album pretty well. Money quote:

As sea-faring analogies go, Float definitely fits the description, but only just. Despite the conspicuous absence of a Nathan Maxwell pirate shanty, or an instrumental, that might have injected its middle ranks with some welcome momentum, Float is rescued from abject tedium by the deep, poetic lure of the subject matter and a couple of genuinely outstanding compositions in ‘Float’ and ‘(No More) Paddy’s Lament.’

Fortunately for Flogging Molly, this track has enough reeling violin, drunken banjo spirit, and emotional resonance to almost redeem the whole album. The song wouldn't feel out of place lilting from the open, beckoning doors of the Irish pubs of my youth. Pour yourself a pint, listen to this song, and imagine yourself on King Street.

Thursday, October 2

One Track Mind: My Favourite Book

My Favourite Book is track 4 on Stars' 2007 release, In Our Bedroom After The War. It's a female-vocalist love song with a soft-pop aesthetic: light, thin drums, syrupy organ playing 7ths on the downbeat, flute backup, strings on the bridge. It's as mushy as you'd expect it to be and as universal as any love song. Romance. Long walks on the beach at sunset. Holding hands in the grocery store. Typical Stars.

One Track Mind: Rooks

Song Title: Rooks
Artist: Shearwater
Album: Rook

The AV Club is hosting the song in its review of the album here. Go listen. But first, one comment and a few warnings.

Comment: Shearwater is, by far, my favourite band with an ornithologist front-man.

Warning: That front-man is also a member of ingratiating indie darlings Okkervil River. Don't hold that against him; in fact, let that bump the latter band up a few notches. It worked for me; after thoroughly enjoying this album by Shearwater, I want back to Okkervil River after dismissing the "The Stage Names," and I don't regret it. Their follow-up, "The Stand Ins," is even better, but don't tell my hipster friends I think so.

Warning: Falsetto. Get your eardrums ready for some high-pitched male vocals. Don't let the similar, embarrassing vocal efforts of the Dandy Warhols, Beck, or David Usher taint you with prejudice. It works here, against all odds.

Warning: at 1:43 in this song, a pounding bass drum and a triumphant trumpet line enter after a dramatically descending melodic theme in the vocals. Like the unabashed guitar solo in a Dinosaur Jr. Song, it may cause you to take notice and stop working.

Friday, September 26

Atwood on Harper, via Oz

Oz pulled an Atwood quote on Harper today that made steam come out my ears.  Go read it.

I call Godwin. This is ridiculous. Did you seriously* just call Harper a dictator? Did I really just hear you do that? Yes, it's true that dictatorships suppress dissent -- that's the fucking definition of 'dictatorship' -- but this particular excerpt stinks of some overly self-important whiner having to shell out for the top-shelf stuff herself when she's off telling the French how wonderful they are rather than having the taxpayer foot the bill.  OK, maybe that's a bit reactionary of me.  But it does seem like Atwood is overreacting quite a bit - nobody's in jail, nobody's even threatened with jail.   Her overreaction weakens her criticism of a cut to arts funding by leaning on the threat-to-democracy angle rather than the more obvious (to me anyway) angle of the importance of Canadian art over the market's desire for it. 

I do think Canadian art is important.  I think it's good for our government to support it, because there are valuable pieces of art -- paintings, theatre, music, books, among many others -- that won't be made if there aren't grants to support them, because there's not enough of a market here for them.  I disagree with the Conservatives' decision to cut arts funding.

But I disagree more with Atwood's knee-jerk reaction to it.

One Track Mind: Pick Me Up, Beyond, Dinosaur Jr.

I'm not familiar with Dinosaur Jr.'s oeuvre; in fact, Beyond is my first listen to the band past a few 30-second clips of avant-garde noise I turned off before they finished back before music was easy to find. I'm happy I took the plunge and bought Beyond, because Pick Me Up - the 3rd track on the album - has one of the best stadium hooks I've ever heard in this kind of distortion rock.

In fact, the whole album has a Shakespearily familiar feel; Dinosaur Jr. captures the essence of the distortion-rock sound so completely (mostly by being one of its originators) that listening to them is a little like reading Hamlet and learning where those cliches came from.

Thursday, September 25

One Track Mind: Inaugural post

Welcome to One Track Mind.

Fraxas and I have challenged each other to blog about one musical track per week. The queue of our mutual music recommendations grows ever longer, and we need a way to manage the quality glut. This feature of the (soon to be resurrected) Shiny Things Distract Us web-log will be a regularly recurring laser-guided smartbomb of taste-making tuneage.

If a track appears here, it may be good, it may be bad, but one thing is certain: one of us wants the other to hear it. So let's drop the puck... now.

Track title: Death Watch
Artist: Alias
Album title: Resurgam

Fractured guitar notes clip at a striding rhythm. The melody explodes on the scene like a UFO tractor beam punching through the clouds. Alias calls to mind the triumphant moments of Boards of Canada's The Campfire Headphase.


Friday, September 12

Blind Men and Elephants

Everyone's heard the hoary old tale of the 4 blind men, the wise man, and the elephant. Here's a decent crib:
Four blind men encounter an elephant. One grabs the leg and is convinced it's a tree trunk. One holds the tail and thinks it's a whip. Another touches the elephant's trunk and decides it's a hose while the fourth man pats the side and is sure it's a wall.

The wise man tells them, "All of you are right."
Ha, ha. roffle roffle, oh isn't that wise, things aren't always what they seem. What that story doesn't tell you is that the wise man can't see either.

He just happened to grab the elephant's dick.

Thursday, April 17

The Legend of Linux

Now that Brother Angus has told us the legend of C, it's time to gather around THIS GUY HERE and listen to the Legend of Linux.

About 15 years after the Univac guys built Unix on C because it was a funny, funny joke, computers had gotten smaller and easier to buy and not nearly so likely to have chainsaw arms. Not that they were friendly yet or anything, but at least they would talk to you without you sacrificing a goat first and lighting some black candles. And this one guy from Finland named Linus Torvalds, who was at the time (1) a student with practically no sense of humour and (2) deeply unimpressed with the operating system his computer came with, decided to write his own operating system. He wanted it to be kinda like Unix only instead of being for very very expensive computers that you had to hire guys with beards to run for you, it would be for small, pretty cheap computers that you had to be a guy with a beard to want to run yourself.

He posted about it on what passed for an internet back then, and decided that the best way to get people to use his new friend (LOOK MA I BUILT MYSELF A FRIEND that's nice dear, now eat your porridge) would be to give it away. And not just give it away, but give it away so hard that the people he gave it to had to give it away as well.

Giving something away that hard is called 'GPLing it'. You can call it copyleft too, if you want, but don't because you'll embarrass us.

So it turns out that giving away something as useful as an operating system is a good way to make friends with people who think it's impressive to give away an operating system, so now Linus has a lot of friends and people who want to be his friend because they're impressed with him. And he can yell at them if he wants, and all they can really do is yell at other people because if they make Linus angry he'll tell them they're bad and they'll be banished to neverland or something, I don't know I never figured that part out.

And that's why Linux is Linn-ucks and not Line-X, because Linus says his name Linn-us. And that's why it's still no good for people who don't have beards, because it's written mostly by a guy who only wants to be friends with people who are like him, who might have made up their own operating system if he hadn't beaten them to it.

Now someone tell the story of Apple!

Tuesday, April 1

Metareview: Philosophy of science in kids' films

This review by Mary Elizabeth Williams earns five stars. Why? She concludes with the following observation:

The film is no overcaffeinated Narnia-like religious allegory, though. Horton and the mayor aren't hearing things. When the burden of proof falls to each of them, they scramble to produce hard evidence. And it's a nice touch, one not in the original story, that the first person to believe the mayor is a scientist. "Horton" may owe a debt to the notion of childlike belief, but any movie that fills Whoville with ladders that look like DNA strands and shows sound waves pulsing through the atmosphere is a movie that celebrates reason. It's probably not a coincidence that it's from the creators of the "Ice Age" films, which gave pretty wide latitude to Darwinism.

When scientists and skeptical thinkers are portrayed as pooh-pooh killjoy wet-blanket snotty/snobby wrongheaded villains in just about every Hollywood picture, that's really nice to hear.

Thursday, March 27

Lore on iPods

This blog has forged several links to the inimitable comedic stylings of the great Lore. This week, he outdoes himself in an article about finally joining the "International Order of Dancing Silhouettes."

I want useful playlists. I want "Tori Amos songs that make a damn lick of sense." I want "Beck songs where the rhythm track doesn't sound like he's throwing Ben Wa balls at an armadillo." I want "Nick Cave songs that aren't explicitly about bleeding to death."


Wednesday, March 26


A titan of the advertising industry died recently, and of course metafilter has a comment thread about it. The comments, predictably, fall into two rough categories: "holy crap ads suck" and "I'm in advertising, ripping on me is lame and boring, you're the one with the problem if you can't make rational decisions in the face of advertising".

I'm in the first camp.

But I'd like to think that my position is a bit more nuanced than "I don't like watching ads"; in my opinion, modern advertising is immoral because (1) it manufactures demand, thereby distorting the market and (2) it does so by exploiting human irrationality.

Advertising is a necessary part of a market economy, because without information about what products are available consumers can't send price signals to manufacturers effectively. The problem starts when advertising stops being about adding information to the market ("this product is available, here are its features, this is its price") and starts being about distorting the demand curve ("here's my stuuuuuuffff, you know you waaaaaant it"). I'm not a libertarian free-markets-solve-everything kind of guy who'd tell you that all market distortions are bad, but I do think that markets are a very good way to distribute goods effectively and that distortions to them should be examined carefully and allowed to happen only if doing so improves society as a whole. Demand-manufacturing advertising doesn't improve society. The money spent on bottled water and meaningless tchotchkes and $40 T-shirts would be better spent elsewhere, on products for which demand doesn't have to be manufactured. The economic activity generated by the business model of "create a product, then create demand for that product" only rarely advances society.

The advertising industry, to the extent that it displays any conscience at all, tends to think that those two business models (create product, manufacture demand & analyze demand, create product) are equivalent; they make arguments like "If you the consumer have some sort of psychological problem where you can't stop yourself from buying Acme Co's Air In A Tube (New, improved, fresher!) because you saw an ad for it, that's your problem". But it isn't your problem if Acme Co's ad agency has enough understanding of psychology to use sex and fear and other subconscious mechanisms to sell you air in a tube. Or, even worse, to aim the ad at your kids, who are not capable of rational thought (that's why we don't let them vote or decide what to have for dinner, right?).

As long as ads are aimed at children, as long as luxury SUVs are presented as necessary, as long as the difference between "want" and "need" is blurred on purpose, I'll think of advertising as immoral.