The saga of NBC's breakout hit "Heroes" is oddly inspiring. Remember back in the Fall of '06, everyone was excited about this new show, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." It's Sorkin Does SNL! What could go wrong? Like millions of TV viewers, I tuned in for "Studio 60," and then just left the TV on, discovering a kind of cheesy "X-Men" ripoff with an eye-rollingly bland and weirdly jingoistic title. And, like millions of viewers, by the third week, I'd stopped even turning on the TV til 9pm, completely exasperated by "Studio 60" and enthralled with "Heroes." I'm a sci-fi junky, for sure, especially if the World Hangs in the Balance, but "Heroes" had unusual charms for a network TV show: first of all, its ethnic diversity was unparalleled for prime-time, with multiple interracial romantic relationships, and significant portions of the show taking place in Japanese with English subtitles. After a while, I began to get the sneaking suspicion that the producers had chosen the title "Heroes" as a kind of cover—behind the vaguely 9/11-y protection of that word, the show was free to push the envelope.
Not that its first season was without troubles. The cast's diversity didn't extend to the gays, and what appeared to be a gay character seemed to suddenly re-enter the closet; plus, an extended subplot about a mother's "bad side" got kind of annoying. Its finale was also underwhelming, with the flying politician sacrificing himself to save New York City in a cheap "oops sorry I've been evil this whole time but now I'm real sorry" plot twist. But for sheer inventiveness, the series reached some amazing heights, most notably an episode set five years in the future, full of head-spinning unexplained situations and dystopian terror. Plus, hello: George Takei!!
Tonight, we pick up where we left off: Hiro's stuck, inexplicably, in feudal Japan, baddy Sylar survived, and a new bigger baddy is apparently on the way. "Heroes" is no "Buffy" (despite its superhero cheerleader subplot) and who knows if the series can survive the transition from ignored underdog to great white hope of a sinking network. But tonight at 9, I'll be tuned in.
NMEis featuring a British production combo, The Boilerhouse Boys, who got sick of nobody knowing who they were, and decided to craft a press release touting their supposedly new production technique that's specifically designed for the iPod. The previously-anonymous Boys say they analyzed early stereo recordings, as well as the compression effects of MP3 and Apple AAC encoding, to come up with their innovative strategy: turn up the treble!
'Poduction' works by giving a boost to the higher frequencies, copying Motown recording techniques. Now even the likes of Kaiser Chiefs are set to release a 'poduction' remix, reports BBC News. Explaining their method further, Ben Wolff, one half of The Boilerhouse Boys said: "All of those Motown singles were sent up to the technical department who would analyse it and send it back with recommendations on how to make it louder. They'd say 'add another tambourine, put in some footsteps', or whatever. "I don't think the average fan will necessarily be able to tell the difference", Wolff added, "but you'll know which one you like more, even if you don't know why."
Well, if I see a news story about the Boilerhouse Boys, now I know why. Anyway, the quality issue about mp3s is hard to pin down; compression methods vary depending on the encoder, and they've advanced significantly in the past few years. A "Variable Bit Rate" 128 kbit/s mp3 in joint stereo created using a current encoder can sound almost as good as a CD, depending on the song, and Apple's AAC encoding (used with songs you buy from iTunes) has always sounded pretty good at 128 kbit/s. But the Boilerhouse Boys are right that it's the high end where you can really hear the difference with a crappy mp3: a kind of crackly blockiness on the hi-hat, like the audio equivalent of a bad JPEG (see the spectrum analysis of an mp3 above). However, with most current recordings maxed out in terms of volume anyway (compare a new CD with one of your old Cure CDs or something), it's unclear how much louder any part can get.
The uncompressed audio on a regular CD is recorded at the equivalent of 1378 kbit/s; that means it has ten times the info of your iTunes AAC file, no matter how well it's encoded. And let's not forget vinyl records, whose method of pressing grooves into black glop has a resolution limited only by, well, the size and number of atoms in the glop. Now that's bit rate. I've always preferred the warmth of vinyl, and that's why I don't feel bad about grabbing free mp3s: if I really like 'em, I'll buy the record. But honestly, I probably lost about 30% of my hearing at a My Bloody Valentine show in 1992 that was like standing inside a fluffy pink jet engine, so who knows what things really sound like.
"Weird Al" Yankovic is famous for recording spoof versions of pop songs, but Ubiquity recording artist Shawn Lee doesn't merely spoof, he takes a song that was already good and makes it better. It's not so much ironic pranksterism as kickass, creative borrowing. Think of him as an artier, hipper version of Weird Al.
Shawn Lee's Ping Pong Orchestra, which releases Hits the Hits on October 9, changes the entire vibe and aesthetic of other people's songs. Lee turns Missy Elliot's "Get UR Freak On" into an ominous surf-guitar rant; Britney Spears' "Toxic" into an instrumental driven by sitar and flute melodies and hard, funky drum beats; and OutKast's hit "Hey Ya" into a swanky saloon diddy powered by accoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica.
With his collection of vintage instruments (a 1940s Clavioline, a 100-year-old Marxophone zither, and a 1900s Dulcetone), random assortment of covers—and talent—these songs are as funny as they are meticulously-performed. Pop this CD in at a stuffy wine and cheese party and see who's first to notice something is awry.
Galactic's hip-hop-influenced 2007 CD From the Corner to the Block is further proof that I have seriously misjudged this band. A few years ago, having heard only a few songs and met plenty of hippie-ish fans, I was quick to write Galactic off as a jam band.
Don't get me wrong; the New Orleans-based funk-rock-jazz-fusion band, with its abilities to stretch songs out with extended solos and their ability to swing back and forth effortlessly between mid-volume funky pockets and loud, sustained sections of rock energy make them very jam-like.
But From the Corner to the Block is something else entirely. Songs on the CD average about three-and-a-half minutes, and have definitive verses, choruses and bridges. Guest hip-hop MCs like Lyrics Born, Mr. Lif, Boots Riley, Lateef the Truth Speaker, and Gift of Gab anchor the songs and make this album a veritable who's-who of today's (mostly Bay Area) hip hop artists. And listening to tracks, it sounds like everyone had a helluva good time making the album. The artwork, a stylized, brown-toned sketch of people walking through what looks like an artist's rendition of the French Quarter, is a nice touch also.
When interviewed about collaborating with Galactic, the deep-voiced Jurassic 5 MC Chali 2Na said, "I'm shocked, but yet I'm not surprised. It's a no-brainer. When we were in practice, it felt good, it felt right."
Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure's self-titled 2006 debut spawned a 2007 remix album that I can't stop listening to. I play it at work, on BART to and from work, and at night doing Google searches for God-knows-what.
The remix album, UFOs Over Bamako, takes the effectiveness of the original's West African rhythms, conga-heavy beats, sweet but somber vocal hooks and spacious, acoustic simplicity and works it into a mix that bounces with intensity; an earthy, full sound that more DJs should be spinning at dance clubs. The use of electronic beats and digital sound effects doesn't kill Farka Toure's vibe; it takes it to a level that is less contemplative and more stylized, more beat-heavy and less spacious. The resulting remix is a combination of folk and electronica that could easily have been awkward but instead is a great piece of musical blending—and bending.
Vieux Farka Toure is the son of Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Toure, who until his death last year was one of Africa's most internationally-recognized musicians. There's a story that during a visit to Bamako, Mali in the late 1960's, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and John Lee Hooker introduced Ali Farka Toure to the blues. He eventually toured Africa, Europe, and America, and in 1992 earned a Grammy for Talking Timbuktu, which he recorded with globe-trotting American guitarist Ry Cooder.
Just as his father was fascinated by the African roots in American blues music, Vieux Farka Toure's remix CD embraces the global connection between African rhythms and reggae, certain elements of club music, and electronica.
A Connecticut teacher has been forced to resign after he gave a copy of Dan Clowes' "Eightball #22" to a 14-year-old female freshman student. The English teacher gave the student the comic book as part of a "make-up" assignment and not as part of regular curriculum. The comic contains mature subject matter, for sure: references to rape, various sex acts and murder, and a naked woman. That is, a drawing of a naked woman. While the feelings of the student about the situation are not explained, the parents are letting everybody know how they feel:
The girl's father, who asked that his family remain anonymous because it has already been the target of criticism, described the graphic novel that English teacher Nate Fisher gave the student as "borderline pornography... it's not even like a gray area," the father said. "It's clearly over the line."
"I personally don't ever want him teaching again," he said. "There is nothing that he could say that would account for this. That poor judgment is something you can't take back."
Apparently the student has now been the target of ridicule (and perhaps even threats) because the teacher was quite popular, which is pretty easy to understand, considering he assigned a super-cool comic book as make-up reading.
Why is it that this kind of overreaction or censorship always seems to happen in the most ironic way possible, to the works of art that are actually the least harmful in the ways they're being accused of? The "Eightball" subplots that eventually became the acclaimed graphic novel (and film) Ghost World are told from the point of view of young women, and not only are they complex and heartfelt, they're also empowering in the best sense of that overused word. They bring up the tribulations of young womanhood without condescension or whitewashing, and when I read them, my first thought was "my little sisters need to read this." I think they can handle a drawing of a boob. At this point I guess it shouldn't be surprising that nuanced, honest work raises hackles while truly moronic, pornographic pablum seeps into children's brains from TV or advertising without protest. But just once, couldn't backwards, hypocritical parents like these get somebody at MTV fired for "The Hills" instead?
Jay-Z's new single, "Blue Magic," gets played on the radio, ends up on the intertubes.
UK combo Keane follows Coldplay's lead in the "drum up interest in our new album by announcing it's influenced by something incongruous that people actually like" sweepstakes, saying rapper Dr. Dre may influence their new album. Drummer Richard Hughes posted on the band's website that "there's a lot of interesting stuff coming out of America ... I've been listening to people like Dr. Dre for a long time... we're going to try and do something different."
Could we be witnessing an unlikely resurgence of interest in Kate Bush? Two pieces of evidence: one, on a recent trip to local record emporium Amoeba, I bought a CD copy of The Dreaming (to replace a warped vinyl copy, in order to write this piece) and the clerk said "Hey, we're selling a lot of these lately." I said, "What? Kate Bush?!!" And he goes, "Yeah, a couple just today." I was completely baffled, until watching TV that night, when I happened upon exhibit number two: a Kate Bush song, "This Woman's Work," is being used to promote an upcoming episode of "CSI."
Accordingly, the song jumped into the iTunes Top 100. Weird! As the zeitgeist turns away from one Bush, is it turning for solace towards another? If so, I hope people don't forget The Dreaming, a shockingly strange album that may be the dark star around which the Kate Bush solar system rotates. Released 25 years ago this week, The Dreaming was Bush's fourth album in five years, but the first she produced herself, making it a sort of statement of intention, and that statement is "watch out."
The singer had burst onto the UK scene in 1978 (at age 19), hitting #1 with her comparatively accessible single "Wuthering Heights." While she didn't entirely escape the cynical marketing techniques of the music industry (her label notoriously used a publicity photo that emphasized her, uh, voluptuous bosoms) Bush forged a path on The Dreaming that's hard to imagine any of today's young female singers taking. While the album features a variety of guest musicians, it revolves around Bush's use of the Fairlight synthesizer, whose sound has aged surprisingly well; its imitation trumpets and violins have unique depth and timbre, and Bush wrangles the instrument like a pro. Her production work is all the more astonishing considering the pre-Pro Tools era: track five, "Leave It Open," features at least three unique vocal effects, including a thick flange, a thin, sped-up reverb, and a flashy reverse-echo that zooms in from the right to the left channel. Try it on headphones, it's hella weird. And yes, that voice, one of the more impressive in pop music, or anywhere. While her mannerisms are easily mockable, they're never show-offy; on the contrary, in almost every song, she's willing to push her vocal chords to extreme lows, gravelly shouts, piercing hollers, all in service of the song. Like her beloved Fairlight, her voice is a malleable instrument, a tool for making sounds; this is a singer who makes Bjork look like Ashlee Simpson.
Opening track, "Sat In Your Lap," alternates between 3/4 and 2/4 time; the title track trips along in 6/8; didgeridoos, bongos and even a bouzouki make appearances; this is one kooky listen, for sure. So it's surprising how simple and, in fact, childlike the central element of the album turns out to be: a piano, played in basic, loping chords, like a waltz or a march. It's with this familiar, comforting motif that Bush balances the album's eccentricities, like a children's story that uses the conventions of genre to introduce the surreal and fantastic. Appropriately, Bush's awe-inspiring collection of singles, The Whole Story, was one of my favorite albums as an insufferable 15-year-old; it's hard to separate how much of my feeling for her music now is nostalgia for my early adoration, or unbiased present appreciation. I think it can be both. For an artist whose career contains multiple masterpieces, The Dreaming is where she took control, an exhilarating moment where she aimed her career straight into uncharted territory.
Hey, those guys are stealing my idea for a mash-up album! Oh wait, if you made the original I guess it's not stealing. Billboardreports the no longer boyish (if basically beastly) Beastie Boys are planning to release a remixed version of their instrumental album, The Mix-Up; artists tapped for inclusion on the new mix include rapper M.I.A., former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker, and visa-denial poster child Lily Allen. In other words, as Adam "MCA" Yauch said, "a bunch of British people."
No word on whether the vocalists will be contributing existing a capellas or writing new material for the album, either would be interesting I guess, although it'd be hard to make The Mix-Up more boring. Perhaps the band were inspired by The Beastles, the multiple-album project from Boston's DJ BC?
Pitchfork, like it or not, is at the center of the indie-rock whirlwind. The music site has been credited with launching the careers of Arcade Fire, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and more; a good review can create a fan base (hello, Girl Talk) or push you off the map (too many to count). And yes, we're aware that music criticism is a traditionally male enterprise (just as indie rock is), but Gawker points out today that the male-to-female ratio over at the Fork may be even higher than you'd suspect. In an accounting of the genders and names of reviewers on 10 days of four random months, they found that reviews by guys named Mark always outnumbered reviews by women of any name, usually by at least 2-to-1. For instance, in March of 2007, out of 50 sampled reviews, there were two by women, and ten by dudes named Mark. Well, what can I say: dudes named Mark like bands named Animal Collective.
People love to hate on Pitchfork, but you have to know how to read it: ignore their snarky, sub-3.0 reviews, meant to make a point of some sort; don't feel bad if one of your favorite CDs gets a 5.3; but always, always search out and listen to things they like. Overwhelmingly male (and Mark-y) or not, it's hard not to celebrate a home for such in-depth music criticism of usually-overlooked artists. I just wish they weren't becoming the judgemental high school clique that I'm sure oppressed all of them in actual high school.