Known Johnson

September 19, 2006

I missed the memo

Filed under: General — Tom @ 4:24 pm

Early this morning I walked past a woman wearing a hat at work – already an unusual thing because I can’t recall ever seeing a woman at work wearing a hat. But that’s not what was so strange – it’s that the hat she was wearing was a pirate hat. “That’s an interesting fashion choice,” I thought as we passed. And then I saw another one. And another. And then a guy with a patch over one eye, and someone else with a hook for a hand. What in the hell is going on here?

Once I got on the internet, it wasn’t long before I discovered that it was Talk Like A Pirate Day, a day that seemed to exist only online a number of years ago but has migrated to the real world and has now pretty much ceased to exist online – you know how trends go – the cool kids jump on it, no one else gets it, then when it finally translates over to the “normal” people, the cool kids shun it like it never thrilled them to begin with. However, maybe they’re on to something – they only advocated talking like a pirate, not dressing like one. That’s just silly.


Overlooked Alternatives: Dave Douglas, The Devil And Daniel Johnston, Andy Partridge, Red Sparowes

Filed under: Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 8:19 am

Dave Douglas – Meaning and Mystery: What was once only available online is apparently now being released to brick-and-mortar stores, although I can’t imagine it’ll be too widely available outside of some specialty shops. As this is more of a “sequel,” for lack of a better word, to Strange Liberation, minus Bill Frisell on guitar and with Donny McCaslin replacing Chris Potter on sax, this isn’t a direct follow-up to last year’s amazing Keystone set and it doesn’t quite live up to the precedent set by that great album, but Douglas has been on a roll lately and it’s hard to say he really misses the mark. How is it in comparison to Strange Liberation? I’m an admitted Frisell die-hard, but I have to say that SL is not one of my favorites – and I think Meaning and Mystery is the better of the two.

Also newly available through Douglas’ Musicstem site is a new live set from Sweden that covers his Keystone material. If it’s anything like the Bimhuis set, it’ll be a must-have. Why not buy it from Douglas’ site and give the guy some extra money? (If you’re concerned about shipping, they’re fast!)

The Devil And Daniel Johnston (DVD): Some people are simply driven to their art, and some even through madness produce fascinating works of beauty. Such is the case with singer/songwriter (and artist) Daniel Johnston, who battles numerous psychological problems, not the least of which are devastating manic-depression and schizophrenia, to produce endearingly odd songs about lost love and struggles between good and evil. He’s an aquired taste, to be sure – Johnston sings with a lisping lilt that often defies rhythmic structure, but for those that can listen through his quirks, it’s clear that he’s singing from the heart.

This film follows Johnston in his hometown as he lives with his parents and creates his music and art, utilizing a lifetime’s worth of audio and film that Johnston and family and friends were lucky enough to capture. The documentary took the Best Director and Best Documentary (Audience Award) at Sundance and the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, respectively.

Andy Partridge – Fuzzy Warbles 7 & 8 and Collector’s Album pre-Order: XTC mainman Andy Partridge has been releasing pairs CDs of XTC demos for about three years now and is set to conclude the project with numbers 7 and 8, capping it off with a special box built to hold all 8 discs along with a book of essays by the man and an additional, shorter disc of leftover tracks. For big XTC fans these are a must-have – among the alternate versions, there are to be found a number of tracks that never made it to official albums, many of which you’ll be scratching your head as to why they didn’t. Overall, for the fan, they make a hell of a fun listening experience – these demos are, for the most part, a significant cut above most demos – neither too low quality to enjoy nor too similar to their official album brethren. And now’s the time to act – the previous discs have been knocked down to significantly cheap prices to make buying the whole set feasible. And if you’ve already bought any combination of the previous 6, have no fear as they’ve got you covered – you can buy any combination to fill your needs. There’s only one place to buy this set this way, however, and that’s at Andy’s official site – preorders for this set begin this week:

Red Sparowes – Every Red Heart Shines Toward The Sun: The second album from this instrumental metal quintet is a conceptual piece aiming at telling the the story of China’s great sparrow campaign, part of the Great Leap Forward. In the 50s, Mao Zedong initiated a pest-killing program that he believed would lead to much more productive harvests. Field workers would bang pots and pans to keep sparrows flying until they died. You can probably imagine the outcome – sure, it worked for one year, but then, with all the sparrows dead, locusts swarmed unabated and caused a great famine.

Anyway, high-concept or not, the music is instrumental so it doesn’t really matter, does it? Red Sparowes are a heady mix of the paranoid blast of Neurosis, Pelican, and Isis, minimalist repetitive pattern obsessions of Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, and even touches of 80s goth guitar hero Robert Smith of the Cure here and there – and manages to shoehorn in a complete metal oddity, pedal steel guitar. Their previous album, At the Soundless Dawn, has grown to be a favorite of mine over the past year – I sure hope this one will follow suit.

September 18, 2006

A simple lesson in child economics

Filed under: General — Tom @ 11:17 pm

We should have learned from the cats. Buy them toys and they ignore them. Set down one thing with no intention of it becoming a toy and that’s instantly what attracts their attention. The same thing apparently applies to children.

Tonight Amanda made a toy out of the basket that ferries clothing to and from the laundry room and then, as I peered over the edge at her playing in it, I too became an impromptu toy. With deep intent in her eyes, she stood up, approached me, and began lightly smacking me upon the top of my bald head with her open-palmed hands: just as the basket became a playpen, daddy became a drum.

September 15, 2006

Everybody stares

Filed under: General — Tom @ 3:42 pm

I stopped to grab a quick lunch today and had to walk past a man who appeared to be a bum being arrested near the entrance. I sat down with my food, facing away from the scene and instead watched the others in the restaurant as they gawked, seemingly incontrollably, at the action going on outside. One woman was fascinated, barely able to eat her meal, turning completely around in her seat to face backwards so she could see out the window behind her, leaning a bit to see around a part of the building blocking her view. Another trio of eaters kept a loud running commentary on the events and, when the man was finaly loaded into the police car, the more obnoxious of the three proclaimed, after shoving a bit of food off to the side of her mouth, how he’s off free room and board and three free meals a day, then laughed a few times.

All I could think was that maybe we should give the guy a little privacy. Bum or no bum, and I don’t know what he did to deserve being arrested, maybe he deserves at least a few last minutes without being under scrutiny before being whisked away where that’s all he’ll be.

And then it occured to me that, in my effort to avoid staring at the scene of a man in an unfortunate low moment in his life, I had inadvertently done the same thing anyway. I had focused all my attention on a bunch of people relishing their own low moments, and had judged them on it, and hated them for what I saw in them.

September 14, 2006


Filed under: General — Tom @ 11:38 pm

I drive past this dude all the time on my way home from work. I have no idea what his deal is, but it’s kind of fascinating – he walks around, dressed all in black, hauling this big wagon with religious stuff in it, carrying a shield, up and down one of the busier streets in Phoenix, apparently everyday. Today I noticed that affixed to the side of his wagon in lovely fake plastic gems was the address Once I went there, I knew I had to share . . .

Tip for dealing with his site: use Firefox with one of the many image-zoom extensions available. Dude apparently doesn’t know how to resize his images! Also, only page 1 has links to his other pages, so you’ll have to go back even if you see a link on another page.

September 12, 2006

Ipod hits 80

Filed under: General — Tom @ 1:07 pm

How excited am I that the Ipod has finally hit my must-buy capacity of 80gb? Real friggin’ excited! That’s double what I can carry now, meaning about 2/3 of the music I have ripped in my Itunes drive at home. That means a LOT less time spent removing stuff to make room for other things that I “have to” have on there – because I never know what each day’s mood will have me wanting to listen to.

And what’s more, Apple’s finally answered the prayers of music geeks everywhere and gotten rid of that annoying gap in the playback between songs – that’s right, with this new Ipod, concerts and segueing songs will finally play the way they were always meant to play: seamlessly!

And although I’m not really into games, I have to admit that I’m a tiny bit excited to be able to buy Pac Man and Tetris for the Ipod from Itunes. I know the big Apple announcement today was supposed to be mostly about the movies from Itunes, but really, who cares – we’re talking about a 2.5″ screen here. I have no interest sitting and staring at a screen that size for hours. But I’ll play a game on a screen that size . . .

Overlooked Alternatives: The Black Keys, Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian, Branford Marsalis Quartet, The Mars Volta, Mastodon, Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau, REM, TV On The Radio, Yo La Tengo

Filed under: Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 9:52 am

Man, what a week of releases this week is turning out to be. Apparently if you’re a music freak, Christmas is coming about two and a half months early, because Santa apparently is making an early delivery today. Why so much stuff is crammed into the release schedule on this one day, I can’t imagine. I’d better get started on this or it’s going to take me all night to get this typed up . . .

The Black Keys – Magic Potion: Every genre seems to get reinvented every so often. Jazz had its renewal a few years back, and now the blues seems to be burbling under again, what with the White Stripes having been so successful the past few years. But the White Stripes got nuthin’ on this (also) duo of guitar and drums. The Black Keys reach back into the blues’ swampy past to pull at the greasy, grimy roots and get something good and gritty. This is the kind of stuff you always hear modern guitarists talking about listening to, but you never hear a whole lot of proof in their own music that they actually listened to anything beyond some old Zeppelin records. The Black Keys actually deliver.

Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar: I really can’t tell you much about this – I’m just intrigued to see something new from free-jazz pioneer Ornette. All I know is that the material on this was taken from recent live dates with his son on drums, Denardo, and bassists Greg Cohen and Tony Falaga. Your guess is as good as mine as to the rest.

Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian: I have been a big proponent of jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s explorations into Americana for quite a long time now, but I have to admit that I’m really excited to see this trio set getting him back to hard-core jazz again. There just comes a time when maybe it’s best to get back to where it all began, and it seems that right now might that time.

Following on the heels of the very successful (music-wise) East/West live album, which found Frisell straying back into jazzier territory with his Americana-based material, this album pairs him with his long-time associate, drummer Paul Motian, with whom he’s recorded a number of albums, but never together with bassist Ron Carter. Hopefully this won’t be a one-off.

Branford Marsalis Quartet – Braggtown: Could it be that the labels waited until fall to release their jazz albums? I’ve been asking myself many times lately if I’ve simply fallen out of love with jazz, or has it been a terrible year for the genre? Maybe it’s simply been a terribly slow year, as it appears that this week begins an introduction of a number of jazz releases throughout the fall.

I find Marsalis hit and miss, but I’m always intrigued to hear what he’s up to.

The Mars Volta – Amputechture: After Frances the Mute, I honestly wasn’t sure if I particularly cared where the Mars Volta was going next. I found the album completely misguided – or maybe unguided is a more fitting word – and a sonic mess, as if the band simply threw together every chord progression and half-song idea they could muster, then stretched everything out for as long as possible with ambient drones when they ran out of ideas. I have to give them credit, however – they sure tried everything they seemed to have in their collective suggestion box.

This time around, however, they’ve tightened things up a bit. Oh, don’t worry, things are still ridiculously overblown – that’s part of their appeal – but at least there seems to be some sense of direction going on in this one. I don’t need prog-rock to necessarily make sense – but I do need it to sound like it made some kind of sense to the band themselves. And on that front, Amputechture seems to mean something to them, and it’s far, far stronger than Frances the Mute for it.

Mastodon – Blood Mountain: Would it be overkill to just go ahead and say “metal album of the year”? Maybe, but maybe not. Somehow, they’ve done it again – turned out yet another amazing, mind-bending, just plain weird album of metal virtually unlike anything else out there now or ever before. What’s more, it doesn’t really sound like Remission or Leviathan – and neither of those two sounded much like each other, either – yet it is decidedly and unmistakeably Mastodon. Few bands’ names are as particularly suited to their sound as Mastodon – they’re that heavy.

Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau – Metheny/Mehldau: This is one of those pairings that could either be a match made in heaven or be a regrettable, embarassing mess. Luckily, from the little I’ve gotten to hear of this match of jazz guitarist Metheny and pianist Mehldau, it’s the former, and it pulls equally from each’s strong points.

REM – And I Feel Fine: The Best Of The IRS Years 1982-1987 (Collector’s Edition): REM’s early and best material is finally getting the remaster treatment it has long deserved. Of course, we won’t see the remastered albums for a while, as Capitol isn’t dumb enough to give up on holiday and nostalgia sales of a best-of and then double up on the income by unleashing deluxe editions of the original albums with lavish packaging and lots of extra tracks. And, of course, fans can’t be without this, either, because the label was wise enough to compile a version with an extra 21 tracks worth of outtakes and rarities that should sate their appetite for new stuff, should the remastered tracks not be enough to part money from their wallets. And, really, for only a few dollars more, it’s just not worth buying the stand-alone best-of and pass up this “Collector’s Edition.” I’ll bet that none of these tracks find their way onto the remastered albums next year, either, making this a must-have.

TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain: Guaranteed to be a very, very strong contender for album of the year on many lists – you read it here. TV On The Radio has grown immensely from their first, very impressive debut album, and I (and others) think this may be the time for them to really turn heads. I’ll be disappointed if they don’t.

An unconventional combination of the sound of early solo Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, and touches of David Bowie with hip-hop and minimalist post-rock sensibilities of today, TV On The Radio doesn’t really sound like rock per se, yet doesn’t sound so esoteric that their music is a turn-off. Instead, the stew of sound they concoct is mesmerizing. It’s just so different that you can’t help but be fascinated. There aren’t many things going on in rock that I can point to and say with confidence that people will look back on in 20 years and still look at as an important musical statement – the days of those moments happening with any frequency are long over – but this is one of them.

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass: While TV On The Radio might be the best album of the year, this has to be the best album title of the year.

Yo La Tengo “took it down a notch” on their last couple of albums, and while I can appreciate their quieter side, my favorite album of theirs is I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One because it mixed their renowned tendency to go jazzy and explore with plenty of moments where they just cut loose and wailed on their instruments – and the last couple were notable for very little of that. The reviews I’ve been reading suggest that, 9 years later, they’ve finally found those distortion pedals again and have given us another album like I Can Hear, so I’m pretty excited to see what this album has to offer.

And that’s not all – I’ve left a lot out that I know others might be interested in:

Justin Timberlake
John Mayer
Barenaked Ladies
Bob Seger
Los Lobos
Mouse On Mars

I simply can’t cover it all, nor do I even want to (some I obviously don’t care about.) Gotta draw the line somewhere. Like I said, Christmas is a-coming, but why everything had to be dumped onto today, I can’t imagine.

September 5, 2006

Overlooked Alternatives: Iron Maiden

Filed under: Music,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 1:59 pm

Iron Maiden – A Matter Of Life And Death: There’s no simple way to put it – Iron Maiden is a huge part of my musical life. I found them – they found me, maybe – in that sweet spot in every heavy metal fan’s life, that period of waffling confusion that hovers around your 16th birthday. You can’t really go anywhere, you can’t really do anything – you’re just there, waiting for something of consequence to happen.

Late summer, 1988: I had just gotten my permit for my driver’s license – not much else was going on in my life, but I was discovering metal . . . and that’s all I really needed to keep me busy. I’d already found one significant landmark album – Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime – and I apparently needed another one.

When you’re a dorky fifteen year old with no interest in sports of any kind, about the only kind of group interaction I had was riding my bike to the mall with a couple of friends, where we’d struggle to find something to do. Eventually, we’d make our way across the street to a smaller strip mall where a Wherehouse records was buried between a Circle K and some hair salon. This was my music world at the time – not long before I found the somewhat limited world of indie music stores I had access to, but back in the days when a place like Wherehouse could actually be counted on to have a fairly decent selection of music. Those days seem a much longer time ago given the sad state that large corporate-chain music stores fell into early in the 90s.

Cruising the stacked rows of cassettes in the Wherehouse, you’d find them arranged like tiny books in a weird, shiny, plastic library. There was always the occasional cassette case turned face-forward, displaying its artwork, usually with a sale tag displayed below. Running my fingers across the alphabet of artists – and I still do this to this day – I would peruse what was still there and what was new. That particular day, something stood out – that blue cover, with the sea rippling below that decrepit half-torso’d character holding what seemed to be a baby in a womb, complete with umbilical cord that somehow had fingers attaching itself to the larger character’s exposed ribs. What IS this?! Iron Maiden?! I knew the name, of course – how could I not? They were evil, everyone knew that. You know, “666, the number of the beast!” Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son. That just reeked of evil, and I had to check it out.

I grabbed the cassette off the rack and immediately flipped it over. Ooh, cool, I thought – it was one of those cassettes with the wrap-around cards so the artwork covered the entire back. That meant, to me, anyway, the band was a class-act. And it was a clear cassette! Another plus! No one really wanted those lame off-white cassettes in the cheap-feeling black cassette cases – what you really looked for were the cool clear cassettes with the white printing. Oh, sure, they got beat up pretty quickly, but for a short while, that crystal-clear plastic was the thing you obsessed over. CDs have their clarity and relative sturdiness and vinyl has its warmth and vast artwork, but cassettes had the cool factor of a miniature, bonafide gadget going for them. While there’s much I won’t ever miss about cassettes, I will say this: shake a CD or a record and tell me if you hear little plastic parts clinking and rattling, or try stuffing one into a pocket to take along on a car ride.

Amongst the ice and the water of the artwork, the titles immediately grabbed my attention – “The Clairvoyant,” “Infinite Dreams,” “The Evil That Men Do,” all these things intrigued me. In the back of my mind, I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, as I always try to do – “they really aren’t evil, right? They’re not devil worshipper, right?” But being a teenager in high school, I’d heard all the rumors, that people around school who were into things Satanic were into Maiden and other bands like them. It didn’t help convince me otherwise that there was a book that looked suspiciously like a Bible buried under ice in the corner. Regardless, I kept the tape gripped in hand until I got to the counter, where I nervously made my purchase and sped home to find out what I’d gotten myself into.

Needless to say, I got myself in pretty deep – 18 years later, I’m still into them. I even tried a couple of times in my twenties to convince myself that I had outgrown Iron Maiden. I found out the hard way that just isn’t going to happen – Iron Maiden is a part of me, and I am a part of what’s kept Iron Maiden around, several times it seems as I’ve bought remasters and special editions and boxsets and DVDs, and now A Matter Of Life And Death, the band’s 14th studio album (10th with Bruce Dickinson on vocals.) It’s not likely to topple any of the band’s finest moments from any fan’s mind, but as long as it follows in the footsteps of 2000’s Brave New World and 2003’s Dance Of Death, it’ll be another fine release they, and we as fans, can be proud of and listen to and actually enjoy frequently – something few other metal bands this far along in their career can claim.

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