Known Johnson

November 29, 2006

Woe is them

Filed under: General — Tom @ 9:31 pm

Julia Roberts was on Oprah last night talking about how hard it is to be a “working mom with kids.” Yeah, let’s hear it, Julia. You know, I admit it, I like Oprah, usually, but there are times when her whole “woman of the people” mask falls off and it did last night when she was talking to Julia about doing something ridiculous during the summer and her thoughts drifting off every day to Julia doing some play night after night. She made some pitiful comment like “It’s got to be so hard working every day on the play and then having to come home to feed the twins.” Yeah, it’s pretty rough, doing those two hours of acting. How about you get up at 5:30 am every damned day, sit in traffic for over an hour, then sit at a boring desk in a dreary-ass cubicle* for 8 hours, then sit in traffic another hour, hour on the way home, make your own dinner, find some time to play with your kid, get her ready for sleep, and then have an hour or two of actual free-time? Every day. Do that and then tell me which life is harder. And I know my life is cake compared to lots of people’s. I only have one job. And I make a lot of money compared to many. I could have it so much harder. So I’m not really complaining here, not about my life. I’m just saying, I don’t want to hear any more celebrities tell me how hard it is to be a celebrity. Because I feel no pity for them. None.

*I have to admit that I do have a very spiffy window through which I gaze repeatedly throughout the day. The other two walls of the cubicle, however, remain dreary-ass.

November 27, 2006

Better check out a Zune soon . . .

Filed under: General — Tom @ 12:29 pm
. . . because it’s not going to last long. Alissa and I stumbled upon Microsoft’s “answer” (I’m trying to say that without a snicker now) to the venerable Ipod while at Target the weekend after it hit the stores and my immediate reaction was “Cool! I can try it out!” I really wanted it to be something bright and new that would change things and bring some much needed competition for Apple, but moments after starting to play with it, my brain was simply filled with frustrated half-sentences: “What the-? How-? Why is it-? How do you . . . ? What? I don’t get it . . .” And then my reaction settled on a very simple sentence: “This thing sucks.”Seriously – it sucks. Apple did something amazing with the Ipod: they made for one of the most incredibly simple user interfaces you could imagine in such a complex device. You don’t even have to think about it to make it work – there’s only one thing that might throw a new user off and that’s the scrolling wheel, and once you’’ve accidentally moved your finger across it, it becomes apparent what it does. The other four buttons are obvious – if you’ve ever used a VCR, tape, or CD player, you know those symbols. Zune, on the other hand, only has the two buttons plus something that looks like Ipod’s scrolling wheel, but it doesn’t scroll. Instead, you just have to click up and down and left and right – with no indication that this is how it works. Granted, you’d know this after looking at the manual, but the point remains that you didn’t even need a users manual to get this far with an Ipod.

What’s more, Microsoft’s implementation of this faux-wheel is ridiculous – this is how you navigate the items in your Zune. With the Ipod’s wheel, you scroll through your list, so if it’s hundreds of items deep, you just scroll fast and you’re through the list pretty quickly. With Zune? Click click click click click – I can’t type that word fast enough for you get the idea of how tedious this would get, but just imagine the clicking it would take to get from A to Z in a list of hundreds of artists or songs, especially if you’re browsing for one specific thing.

But that’s not all – there are many things I couldn’t possibly experience in my in-store trial that professional critics have now gotten a chance to say. I’ll point you to this one excellent article from the Chicago Sun-Times, and here are some of my favorite points both from the article and from others:

  • Zune is incompatible with Microsoft’s own Windows Media Player!
  • It also won’t work with Windows Vista when it comes out in a month – awesome planning, Microsoft!
  • You can’t buy just one song from the “Zune Marketplace” (Microsoft’s “answer” to the Itunes Store.) No, you have to commit to $5 worth at once, but when you’ve bought your 5 songs, you have 6.25 cents left over because Microsoft charges you 98.75 cents per song. Don’t think this is to save you the consumer any money – it’s to get you hooked on the Zune Marketplace because you’ve constantly got extra money tied up there.
  • You’re only renting the music you’ve paid for. Even if you’ve paid for it for 5 years, you’re still renting it. What happens when you stop paying for it? It stops playing. What a deal!
  • Even better, music you add to your library from your own CDs gets Zune’s proprietary bullshit Digital Rights Management added to it, as if you bought it from the download store in the first place. Meaning you can’t do anything you want with the music you’ve already owned for years, either.

The funny thing about this is that I keep seeing commercials for Zune and all it shows is people swaying in parks and such but never the actual player. Oh, you might glimpse it in someone’s hand, but it’s rarely in focus enough to really see it. They’re marketing it as a lifestyle choice rather than a device, and that would be fine if it really did redefine people’s lives in such a way that made them seem so peaceful and happy, but that product already exists. Microsoft’s attempt at knocking it – Ipod – out of the marketplace with these ugly, old looking advertisements (seriously – they look like they were filmed in the 70s) is laughable at best, especially when the product they’re pushing is really just going to make its users quite angry at what it prevents them from doing and how difficult it makes what should really be very easy.

So, get out and check out a Zune. As the article suggests, it’s not going to be around long.

November 25, 2006

The Beatles: Love

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 4:07 am

It seems any “new” Beatles material is going to be greeted with the same reaction from die-hard fans: mostly derision, because whatever it is will surely be either leftover material parading as new or rehashes in the form of best-ofs. And then there’s Love, the odd concoction that straddles the middle ground between the two, both a best-of and something a bit new, if only because it never existed in this particular form before. And this is where the casual fans make out best – they can pick up something like Love and just enjoy it for what it is, rather than picking it apart before it even reaches store shelves, or just plain filing it away in the “failure” folder without even hearing it as many dedicated Beatles fans have because, as it is widely known, the Beatles music is holy and must not be touched! Do not touch! But touch it Sir George Martin and son Giles did, picking through the master tapes and finding the fortuitous moments of the Fab 4’s better known songs that achieved that beautiful kind of alchemy where two or more songs can morph into one.

Some may look at Love as a failure because it lacks radical, modern touches that made Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, which mashed up Jay-Z’s a capella Black Album with instrumental material composed from unauthorized Beatles samples, so controversial, but they’re missing the point: it doesn’t need to be. That’s not the purpose it serves. Love is, essentially, a greatest hits album with the spin of being a soundtrack of sorts to the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas. Rather than do something that would appeal only to the 18-34 set as, say, something along the lines of Danger Mouse’s creation generally would, Sir George Martin and son have instead done something that at least allows the music to breathe a bit of a new life without simply being a rehashed version of One from a few years ago while appealing to the widest possible audience. It’s not entirely new music, but it’s also not entirely old, either. What it is, at least, is a bit fresh and a different perspective from which to view the music of the Beatles. After hearing the Beatles at some point, day-in and day-out, for the past 40 years for most people in the Western world, why aren’t we all welcoming any change up to the sounds? Great as they are, it’s nice to hear something a little different once in a while.

Most of all, Love is simply fun to hear. Let go all the preconceived notions, drop all the pretense associated with the Beatles after 40 years of deification, forget their status, and Love flows like a bunch of great music, nearly non-stop from beginning to end. It’s hard to imagine any 80 minute stream of music having no stumbles, but Love manages to work – that’s the magic of the Beatles at their best, I suppose, but there’s more at play here than simply the magic of those great tunes they wrote so long ago. What really sells this set is what some have such a hard time with: the constant segues between songs, as if the whole album were nearly one long song. But buried in that mix are neat little nuggets for the Beatles die-hards – parts of songs that had been previously buried or parts that had never seen the light of day before, brought out by the Martins especially for this set. Love should be a treasure trove for the fans looking for new details to dig into.

What one can hope to get out of this, as a general Beatles fan, however, is this: the hope that these remixes are a glimpse of the future, a first strike perhaps, of the much-hinted at Beatles remastering campaign coming in 2007. If Love is any indication of what the old Beatles tapes can sound like after much tender restoration, the remasters will satisfy all but those audiophiles for whom anything other than the original, virgin vinyl is the peak of perfection. And I’ll go one further: I’m hoping that Love‘s remixing is a hint that the Martins and the remaining Beatles went back to the original master tapes and remixed the albums, not to try and erase their origins but simply to make them sound as clean and crisp as possible. That, surely, is a step that would have the longtime Beatles dedicated up in arms, but for most listeners, the songs, to steal a title from Led Zeppelin, remain the same. And, in the case of Love, that remains true for the most part. The listener gets a bit of the “quick medley run-through” in places as elements of this song or that song pop up here and there, but for the most part, the songs we all know and love are here in a fairly recognizable form, save for maybe “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which, for some reason, sadly loses most of its beautiful guitar for strings. But then there are really intriguing moments where things really gel just right, like when “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” suddenly morphs into “She’s So Heavy,” or the a capella album opener “Because,” that are practically goosebump-worthy. There are more of those than “Guitar,” thankfully.

In the end, Love is nothing radical or important, nor will it rank among the greatest Beatles creations out there. We may all have wished for the full-catalog remastering this Christmas, but this is a nice diversion in the meantime. One thing is for sure – Love makes it almost impossible to listen to the original, nearly 20 year old CDs without yearning for those remasters that we know are coming. It couldn’t be possible Apple Corps and Capitol planned it this way, could it? “It was 20 years ago today/Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play . . . “ Do I hear a marketing scheme being hatched? Hmm . . .

November 24, 2006

DGMLive posts free 1982 King Crimson show for download

Filed under: Music,News — Tom @ 5:25 pm

This is pretty cool, like a little Christmas present from Fripp & friends: the August 13, 1982 Berkeley, CA King Crimson show, which previously had been available as a Collector’s Club release, has been released on the DGMLive site as a free download.  The reason is that when this CC release came out, it quickly became apparent that there was a problem with the recording – it was at the wrong speed and therefore the music was at the wrong pitch.  That problem has been taken care of with this new version and in order to take care of the issue, they’ve just released the download for anyone who might need it and for anyone who never got around to ordering it, well, here’s a little present.  It may no longer be a particularly great representation of the quality of sound that can be found in the archives, but at least it’s a soundboard recording, right?  And, at a price of “free,” how much can you complain?

My only question is, what happens for those who have the defective first version of this show who cannot download this?  They’re probably few and far between, as the Crimson fans are a pretty internet- and computer-savvy set, but there are certainly a few who will be stuck without this update.

November 23, 2006

Dancing queen

Filed under: General — Tom @ 11:42 pm

Here’s our little one rocking out on a toy guitar and dancing to the results. Check out the killer Hendrix teeth-picking action she takes out on the guitar, too. It’s a good thing we didn’t have a lighter and some fluid around:

November 22, 2006

Overlooked Alternatives: The Beatles, Sufjan Stevens, John Wesley Harding, Tom Waits

Filed under: Music,News,Overlooked Alternatives — Tom @ 5:33 am

So here we are, two days before Thanksgiving . . . it’s basically the end of the new-release year as we know it. A few things will trickle out here and there for the next month or so, but for all intents and purposes, the real meaty goods are done after this week. The labels have saved up their big guns for this week – the Beatles’ Love (see below,) U2’s third best-of album, etc. – because they know these are all things that people can buy in a fit of desperation for those hard-to-buy-for friends and relatives to make sure there’s just enough stuff or at least something under the tree on Christmas morning. In other words, this is my way of saying that Overlooked Alternatives will be taking a little break for a while until the new releases start to pick up again, most likely in mid-January. You may see a short piece or two if I spy anything interesting in coming weeks, but I’m just saying “don’t expect anything.” I believe King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp is attributed to saying this, and I don’t know if it’s originally his, but I like it and often say it from him when I mention it – “Expectation is a prison.” I’ve gotten good at applying that to music, at least, but it’s probably a good idea to try and apply it to life, in general.

The Beatles – Love: My usual disclaimer: not in the slightest overlooked or alternative, but I just felt like mentioning it. Sir George Martin and his son Giles compiled this remix or mash-up, whatever you want to call it, of Beatles classics, for the Las Vegas stage show of the album’s name. It’s not your daddy’s Beatles, that’s for sure – purists are throwing a fit this, perhaps the most controversial release in their catalog (and we all thought the Yellow Submarine Songtrack was controversial? Psshaw! That was nothing!)

I won’t say much here about how I feel because I will probably have a review coming in the next few days or so, but I will say this: if you don’t have a surround-sound system and don’t plan on getting one, don’t spend your money on the more expensive set with the DVD-audio disc because that’s all that’s on there. If you’re adventurous and don’t think the original Beatles material is untouchable, you might have something real enjoyable to dig into here.
Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas (Box Set): I know what you’re thinking, if you know Stevens: “More?” We just got a second album of Illinois-related material out of the guy this summer, after last summer’s Illinois, and here he is, back with a freakin’ box set?! Settle down – this isn’t brand new material. Sufjan has been creating Christmas-themed EPs for family and friends for a few years now and has finally decided to cull it all together because they’ve been floating around the internet as crappy mp3s. He’s made it worthwhile – the box includes a 42 page book with an essay by “acclaimed American novelist Ricky Moody,” a couple more essays, a sticker, chord charts, and other dorky fun crap like that. And a cheap price tag under $20 or so. In other words, if you like Sufjan, he’s done everything he could to make this an intriguing package so you’ll give up your naughty illicit mp3s. Make Santa happy, give him a reason not to put coal in your stocking this year.

John Wesley Harding – A Bloody Show (DVD): I’ve seen him called the British Elvis Costello and it makes sense – he’s an incredibly literate-sounding songwriter, peppering his songs with witty observations that would do the original Angry Young Man proud. Unfortunately, I honestly have very little to report on this DVD as there’s not much info out there to be found – it was shot at Bumbershoot in 2005 and it’s “with friends.” But I wanted to point it out because I like the guy’s music and I know there are others out there who do too.

Tom Waits – Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers, & Bastards (Box Set): This is enticing: a three-disc set of rarities of all types from Waits’ long and varied career. Waits did one better than simply throwing together whatever ramshackle, haphazard rarities he had – if he didn’t like whatever shape they were in, he rerecorded the songs so they would best represent the material. Maybe some fans may have wanted to hear the originals, but those who simply want to hear the songs will probably be in for a real treat – rather than having to dig through hours of wavering audio quality, the set should flow like regular albums, made all the better because the discs are broken up with a rough style guide. The set’s already garnering rave reviews as not only a great box but one of Waits’ best outings – how many boxes of rarities do you read that about?

November 19, 2006

(Probably) The last hurrah

Filed under: Music — Tom @ 10:17 pm

I went to Tower Records for what was most likely the last time ever today.  I just felt a need, like it would be the last time as holiday shopping took over for personal shopping and time slipped away, not to mention their quickly dwindling selection would soon remove any interest for me.  So off I went, and I was greeted by signs announcing “40-60% off.”  Excellent.

Like the previous two times, however, I found myself hounded by the feeling that, even at 40% off (the discount on CDs) there were bigger savings to be found elsewhere for most things.  So I walked around empty-handed most of the time.  Occasinally I picked up a few things, wandered around with them in my hands, then found my way back to their section as my senses came to me again and reminded me that I just wasn’t dying for whatever it was I had in my hand.  My goal was simple: if it wasn’t a huge bargain, it had to be something I really, really wanted.  I wasn’t going to be one of those people that bought simply because it was on sale.

So I grabbed three of the remastered Stevie Ray Vaughan albums (at less than $8 each after the discount!) and, with blues on the mind, I headed over to the blues section to see if I could uncover any gems.  Blues is a genre my dad has always been into and for whatever reason I’ve never properly explored – instead I went off into jazz – and I always mean to check it out further.  When I got to the section, I  found that I could span the whole thing with both of my outstretched arms.  Pretty sad.  I dug through the little they had, but there wasn’t much other than what you’ve seen a million times before in any decent store’s blues section – a LOT of Susan Tedeschi (as good as she is, I’m looking for a little more vintage than that.)  I settled upon the John Lee Hooker segment and dug in as it actually had a little meat and ran across one title, It Serves You Right To Suffer, priced at an intriguingly worrisome $6.99 before the discount (it would be $4.20 after!)  I thought at first this must be one of those grey-area European compilation/bootlegs, but no – it’s released on MCA records, a legit US release.  I stuck it in with the SRV discs and headed to the counter.

$30 I was heading home, fully knowing I’d probably never set foot in Tower again.  Don’t mistake this for being too sad – Tower did this to themselves with absolutely ridiculous prices.  $18.99 for any single, domestic-release CD is a ripoff.  What I will miss is the selection that Tower had.  They were the only place in town that carried a lot of the titles that I looked for, and when it came to jazz and, yes, blues, few other places could match them (despite today’s poor showing, they usually did have a pretty good selection.)  And on older product, they usually did have pretty competitive prices.  But I can’t be too sad to see them go knowing and happily admitting that 75% of my own purchases are now done online, 90% of those from Amazon because they blow away the competition with prices, availability, and performance.

But there’s something to be said for the satisfaction of walking away from a store with a purchase in your hand that you’ll never get from online purchases, be they physical media or downloads.  I’ll never get the same feeling I got today leaving Tower with that relatively unknown entity of the Hooker disc, popping it into my CD player, and driving home to find that I’d stumbled upon something amazing.  No package arriving in the mail or set of files downloaded can deliver the satisfying feeling that CD gave me as I pulled out of the parking lot listening to one of the best damned blues CDs I’ve ever heard in my life.

November 17, 2006

Frank Zappa: Trance-Fusion

Filed under: Music,Reviews — Tom @ 9:40 pm

Listening to excerpted guitar solos is like viewing abstract art – it’s a glimpse of something that doesn’t necessarily have to make sense in the general definition of the term. Were we talking about most guitarists, an album of extracted solos would likely be a pretty dreadful proposition, but when it comes to Zappa, it truly is art – and it’s truly abstract.

Few guitarists possess the skill or prowess to make their solos for the same songs sound entirely different from performance to performance, but that’s just what Zappa set out to do.

Like a good artist, Zappa utilized the same tools day after day but, unlike most of his contemporaries, he never relied upon a preconceived solo for each song on tour. Instead, working like a painter, he tosses notes on his canvas in splishes and splashes, gesturing in broad strokes that created new compositions from his starting point songs. The results, sometimes slashing, as in “Butter Or Cannons,” the chugging of “Ask Dr. Stupid,” or the delicate, thoughtful tinkling of “After Dinner Smoker” and “Finding Higg’s Boson” showcase the many textures and moods Zappa was capable of creating. That the solos are as imaginative and fascinating as songs themselves speaks volumes for the creativity of the man.

But these are not songs per se – there are no traditional structures to hang onto, no choruses, few repeated elements, and little in the way of predictibility. That Zappa would prefer it if you just allow these solos to just “be” is probably an understatement – they stand on their own, but Trance-Fusion really works best as a whole statement, best taken in one sitting where, instead of feeling like 16 naked solos, the album is allowed to unfold like a suite, progressing from one movement to the next.

For an album created out of unplanned guitar excursions from such a master of 6-string expression, why does it seem so surprising that it comes together so satisfyingly as a finale when the applause of closing track “Bavarian Sunset” fades out? Perhaps, to return to abstract painting, it makes more sense that instead of an end, it’s simply that the canvas has only finite space, and at some point the artist must splash out those last drops of paint in just the right spots in just the right way, maybe not to the point that it feels finished, but that it just feels right that here is the end now.

The jokes just write themselves

Filed under: General — Tom @ 1:21 pm

I’m only going to indulge in one . . . “This gives ‘Dora the Explorer’ a whole new meaning.”

It overtakes me

Filed under: General — Tom @ 9:12 am

I am thoroughly of the belief that time is slowing down as I approach my week off. I’ve taken the three days off before Thanksgiving so as to make a full week away from work, but in doing so it seems that the work-related time-space continuum has expanded to fill in the empty space that will be next week. In its place have been meeting after meeting and projects that wind up going nowhere because my fellow coworkers are also trickling out of the office for similar full-weeks (or longer) off of work for the Thanksgiving holiday, leaving me with little to do that would make the time go by faster – and yet, somehow, I still manage to have actual work to do. Just not the kind of work that makes the day speed by.

I continue to be amazed that freeways, those non-stop segments of pavement and concrete that are supposed to shuttle us to and fro without the hassle of stopping, manage to befuddle drivers so regularly that I can now count on having to apply my brakes to the point of coming to a complete stop, and sitting that way, multiple times on my daily commute. That these roads only go one direction seems to make things even more difficult, somehow – it’s as if people get confused at some point and just decide, “Well, this isn’t taking me where I want to go, so I’m going to randomly make a right turn . . . NOW!” and plow their car into the one next to them. The system is relatively simple – parallel lines don’t converge – so if you want to merge, you check your mirrors and make your move when you get an opening. It’s that “checking” thing that people don’t seem to have down. I’m not sure why, other than laziness – not that I’m entirely free of laziness, either. But you’d think when we’re only asked a few things on a freeway that we could at least accomplish those without fail. People die because of this laziness.

And a final note: when you’re molding a 1/2″ thick layer of cream cheese onto your bagel, don’t frown at the guy putting butter on his. It’s not like cream cheese is the healthy choice, and certainly not a 1/2 pound hamburger patty’s worth of it.

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