Known Johnson

January 31, 2008

I have a very nice can

Filed under: General — Tom @ 9:04 pm

That’s what Alissa said, and she should know. Oh, fine, she was talking about the can I painted today in Painter, my first endeavor with both the tablet and the program itself.

Can

It’s rough, yes, but I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing, so I think it came out pretty okay for a first time. And, no, the cast shadows aren’t quite right, but it’s also unfinished. It’ll have to remain that way for the time being.

I’d write more, but, honestly, Lost is pretty much all tonight is about. I have to get all of my duties done early so we can watch it uninterrupted.

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January 30, 2008

Heaven’s in here

Filed under: General — Tom @ 11:45 pm

I’ve got my brand new Wacom Intuos tablet sitting by my side as I write this. I installed it a couple hours ago and got to play around with it for a bit, then let the mind-blowingness of it settle in while we watched tonight’s installment of “make fun of huge egos/the misguided,” AKA American Idol. Don’t worry – last year’s experiment in which I actually watched the whole damned season will not be repeated. It wasn’t torture. No, it was something worse, in a way. It was a sort of silent, meaningless soul-sucking loss of time. This, for a handful of nights, is at least entertaining. And then it’s over.

Anyway, as I expected, I got nothing of any value done, but I did find that it was much easier to pick up than I expected. In fact, it’s addictive. Far more rewarding to use than a mouse. It is exactly the must-have for designers and artists that everyone says it is. I’ll hopefully have something productive done after a day playing with it tomorrow. Maybe I’ll even be brave enough to reveal it here . . .

The Final Breakdown: Favorites of 2007

Filed under: Best of 2007,Music,The Breakdown — Tom @ 5:48 am

What a strange year. Unlike most years, when I find myself all over the place musically, this year found me focused on a small collection of albums that repeatedly drifted into my ears. I’m not like this – I’m not one of those people that sits back and says, “What a crappy year for music this has been,” but when I look back on 2007 for truly notable music, I simply come back to a small handful of my very favorite releases where most years find me struggling to pick which ones were my favorites. Not so this year – it’s pretty cut and dried.

Are they artistically important? In some cases, yes, but does it really matter? What matters most to me, at least, is that the albums are ones that I’m going to be coming back to year after year. If they’re not groundbreaking, earth-shattering redefining examples of music, so be it. This list, in a way, is a prediction of sorts – I am attempting to predict the albums that are going to have staying power with me, at the very least. And, who knows, maybe in a few years we can look back and these albums will have withstood the test of time for many others. I’m pretty confident they will, in fact.

Rock/pop

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky: Opening with the gentle guitar of “Either Way,” a film begins to unreel in my mind. The black screen, the titles, and then Jeff Tweedy’s soft, scratchy voice crackles out “Maybe the sun will shine today” just as a scene of the open road is revealed. That’s what Sky Blue Sky is to me – road music, an escape, transportation away from the everyday nothingness that often drives us insane. And, more than any other piece of music, escape is exactly what I did with this album since it came out earlier this year.

Wilco may have taken a quiet and calming turn here, but there’s so much more going on. The music is subtle, revealing layers of intricate, thoughtful, and sometimes downright weird stuff going on underneath the top coating of amiable, easy-going tunes. Listen close and it’s impossible to ignore jazz guitarist Nels Cline’s contributions, or the unusual drumming that Glenn Kotche lays down behind the band. These elements take Sky Blue Sky from simply being a good album to being something that needs to be listened to again and again. It’s an instant modern classic rock album – a rarity these days.

Crowded House – Time On Earth: Sometimes you just can’t hear things right. Or maybe it’s just me. I don’t know – whatever the case, that happened here. Time On Earth eluded me for months after its release. As expected, given my love for Neil Finn’s songwriting, a few songs grabbed me quickly, and that’s exactly the problem with the album. Some of these songs were so good that they eclipsed all the others. In their brilliant light the album as a whole slipped away from me. I fell into a bad rut. I heard it in chunks – “this” little group of songs was great, “that” little group of songs was good, and others, well, I just didn’t care for. The whole didn’t jell – and this was unusual for me. I usually love an album or I don’t. Something was wrong here, and I began to think it wasn’t the music.

I found myself presented with a few opportunities where I couldn’t focus on the music like I normally do. When I opted to listen to a playlist I’d created that mixed things up just a tiny bit by throwing in two b-sides to mirror the tracklisting of the vinyl version of the album, I realized that all of the songs were powerful and beautiful. That little change created a new terrain out of the familiar, somehow, and I could hear the album anew. The clouds parted, as they say, the light shone down from above, and the haze cleared, illuminating what is a powerful collection of songs dealing with love, death, and the state of the world.

We can argue if we want about whether they’re truly Crowded House songs or “just” more Neil Finn songs. That’s what some are doing. But in the end, does it matter? I’ll take more of either.

Rush – Snakes & Arrows: While it may not quite be the wild and crazy effort that producer Nick Raskulinecz promised, it is a solid, enjoyable effort. If anything, it suffers mainly from the band’s attempts at covering so much ground. Where they had formerly been so focused on a “sound” for each album, this album is all over the place, picking bits and pieces from all over their catalog. It makes for a fun listen, but not an especially focused listen when you’re in a particular mood. What I respond to on this album, more than many other Rush albums, are drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics, which seem to be misunderstood by many as the words of a very bitter man about a very cold world rather than what I believe them to be, which is one man attemping to show that while there are terrible events of every kind taking place, there is beauty and belief and justice to be found if we would just trust in each other. A unified message of hope ties an album of loose ends together in a fantastic way.

Radiohead – In Rainbows: Even after only a few months with this album, it’s hard for me not to look back on their catalog and think of the high points as OK Computer, Kid A, and In Rainbows. Somehow, after years of really doing their own thing, going their own way, which kind of means that they had a bit of a “Spinal Tap Jazz Odyssey for a new generation” thing going on for some, they veered back to territory closer to OK Computer and the prettier parts of Kid A and made a bunch of really beautiful songs. Sure, there are lots of bits of experimentation here and there, but where it used to take the front seat, it’s now more background, with melody upfront. Part of me wants more of the weird, angular, gritty stuff, because I loved that, but when they make music this compellingly lovely, it’s impossible to deny wanting more.

Blackfield – II: Guitarist and vocalist Steven Wilson seems to have split his pop sensibility off from his “other” band, Porcupine Tree, so they could focus more on delving into darker subjects with heavier music, using Blackfield, his project with Israeli singer Aviv Geffen, as an outlet for his more, um . . . “upbeat” material. I say upbeat in quotes because it’s hard to call it that, exactly, since the songs are still filled with tales of heartbreak and personal woe, but in comparison to the pure angst experienced in recent Porcupine Tree material, where societal ills are front and center, it does indeed feel lighter. Here is where Wilson and Geffen allow their catchiest, most beautiful harmonies to emerge, even while turning out some of the year’s best hard rock – if “Epidemic” is not one of the best straight-up rock songs of the year, something is wrong.

The Shins – Wincing the Night Away: Maybe it’s a “sophomore slump” of sorts to some – despite it being their third album – since their big break came with Garden State a few years back when Chutes Too Narrow was all the rage. Will they really change your life? I think a lot of people thought they would and are holding this album to that standard. This is not that album. In fact, it’s an album made for the people who scoff at such notions and wanted something beyond more of the same from the band. It’s mature pop, darker, weirder, a little off-putting – a decided step away from the candy-coated elixir of their first two albums that hooked so many, and it’s exactly the kind of move a band needs to make to stand the test of time. I, at least, hope to see many more Shins albums lining the shelves of my CD rack.

Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger: Adams has regained the focus he had with Heartbreaker and Gold and turned out one of the strongest sets of music in his career here. What came through after a few spins for me, what grabbed me, is that behind the usual country tinges was a little swagger found in soul and r&b that I hadn’t really noticed before. It’s not pronounced, but it’s there nonetheless.

Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet: It might be easy to go on and on about the themes of isolation that waft through Blank Planet‘s lyrics, but for me, it’s all about one thing: the music. Honestly, sometimes the lyrics are a little pedestrian and it’s not like this isn’t a topic that hasn’t been covered a million times before. They’re simply excuses for Steven Wilson to lay down some of those gorgeous harmony choruses. But back to the music – Wilson cranks things up a bit here, and, as I said above, he seemingly has split off the pop-side of the band to Blackfield so Porcupine Tree can focus on the darker, heavier, grittier, weirder stuff. And we get it all – “Anesthetize” expands to nearly 18 minutes in basically two movements and features some of the heaviest, fastest playing the band has ever done, and then is followed by one of the prettiest songs they’ve ever done, “Sentimental” (which features the memorable riff from In Absentia‘s “Trains.”) The album is nothing if not an intense song-cycle of despair.

Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau – Quartet: This is one of those pairings that could have gone either way. Two extremely strong, vibrant leaders in their own right getting together and turning out an album where they simply butt heads for an hour or so and nothing transcendent happens, or, simply put, magic. Luckily, it was the latter, and even more luckily for us, our hunches were true that there was a second offering coming with the full band backing the two.

David Torn – Prezens: I have used the word “alien” to describe David Torn’s guitar work so many times that I’m afraid to say it anymore. And yet I can find no other words that adequately convey the qualities in his sound and style without picking that one. His is an utterly alien sound. No one, I mean no one sounds like him. He manages to take things that sound like an amp dying and turn it into sheer beauty – and he purposely makes these sounds, mind you – and then he twists them just enough so that nothing about it sounds “pretty” but manages to sound right. He is one of few guitarists that I willingly label “genius” and it’s because he focuses so little on being a guitarist and rather intends to simply be a musician. There are no blazing solos or fretboard runs in his music – just searingly weird landscapes of tones and textures.

Mörglbl – Grötesk: Don’t even bother: it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a weird band name they use because it sounds funny. And that, in itself, should tell you something about this band – they’re French and they have this kind of sense of humor. Add in the fact that guitarist Christophe Godin plays like the lovechild of a bizarre mating of Mike Keneally, Frank Zappa, and John McLaughlin and you’ve got some pretty weird territory. Zappa asked, “Does humor belong in music?” That question could be appended with the phrase “instrumental music.” They don’t descend into Keystone Kops-like moments, but it is clear that the intent of their music is serious fun, and there’s an element of humor. In fact, there are times when I laughed to myself at the often ingenious approaches the trio takes to music. Not necessarily “funny ha-ha” but “funny clever.”

Grant-Lee Phillips – Strangelet: Every time Phillips puts out an album this happens: it comes out, I love it, and then it just falls into my routine. Whatever it is about Grant-Lee Phillips, he somehow has the right gearing to mesh with the gearing of my life with nary a hitch. And therein lies the rub: he gets forgotten. Strangelet popped up earlier this year and slipped right into my listening for a while, becoming a quick fave, and then just became part of the background. When I began thinking about the year’s releases again, suddenly I realized that this album came out this year, not much longer ago even though it feels far more familiar than that. Phillips’ music is that tired cliche of comfortable old shoe – it fits perfectly and feels good, but goes neglected until you really think about it. Don’t neglect this album.

Michael Brook – BellCurve: After the disappointment I felt with 2005’s RockPaperScissors, I would never have expected this “remix” album of that material to not only stand on its own but be as strong as it is – nor be a favorite of the year. And yet . . . BellCurve takes the strongest elements of RockPaperScissors and re-molds them with very different, much more suitable backing music, and, except in the case of one song, does away with all of the vocals that, frankly, cluttered up what most people are tuning into Brooks for in the first place: his beautiful guitar work. The result is a far more pleasing album that ranks with his fantastic Live at the Aquarium and Cobalt Blue releases, rather than down with the confused murk, say, of Albino Alligator. (In an incredibly stupid and frustrating move, the CD is only available for sale at Barnes & Noble. The album may be downloaded from Itunes and Amazon, however, if files are your thing.)

In closing

I’d like to take this opportunity to offer my thanks to readers of Overlooked Alternatives and its offspring piece, The Breakdown. As has a tendency to happen, life has started to impinge upon my time to devote to writing this and keep up with reviewing music and, you know, having a life. While I enjoy getting to explore the new releases every week, I’d really rather put my time into actually reviewing recently released albums rather than simply speculating about them. The opportunity arose recently to join forces with Glen Boyd and Mark Saleski on Blogcritics’ weekly New CDs piece and I jumped at the chance. I won’t be a weekly presence on the list but I will contribute when the beacon of new music that needs a spotlight lights up the sky. Suffice it to say that I will be there more often than not. It’s not “goodbye,” it’s just, you know, “see you in a bit. I have to run out to the store for some bread. Do you need anything?”

January 29, 2008

Is it strange?

Filed under: General — Tom @ 3:01 pm

I canceled an upcoming CD I had preordered at Amazon just a bit ago. They make you tell them why you don’t want it. I filled out the box with the words “I NO WANT.”

I may start preordering things just to cancel and send them weird things. Maybe I’ll write a serialized short story via text box. I did that with the yearbook in high school one year. If you could somehow get all of the yearbooks that I signed together, you’d have a very odd story spanning many yearbooks. Well, okay, a handful of yearbooks. But it was an odd story.

But, hey, it’s better than the stupid song lyrics the one dumbass left me one year. I’ll never understand what possessed him to write that, of all things. This is the same kid who bought a remote control car that I had built, then came back hours later crying that he wanted his money back, HAD TO have this money back, and that his dad was going to beat him or some such nonsense. Well, maybe he was going to beat him, I don’t know. I know I wanted to. I know he was faking – no actual tears but plenty of “sobbing” going on. All sales are final! I think he wanted his money back to buy drugs. His act worked. My parents made me give him his damned money back. And then that little shit goes and writes that stupid song in my yearbook. Permanent record, man. And in my yearbook. He got no story in his yearbook.

January 28, 2008

Monday all over

Filed under: General — Tom @ 4:19 pm

A couple weeks back, after I got my new earphones, I considered selling the lower-end models of the same brand that I have, but I never did anything about it. This morning, about three miles down the road on the way to work, I thanked myself for not doing that. I left my brand new earphones on my desk in their big box (put in there for safe keeping while moving my computer around last night) and drove off without them this morning. These will simply be my permanent backups.

The rain has abated, hard to believe. It felt like it was never going to stop. Our yard was flooded past the edge of the house, which is very unusual. We have built-in water run-off areas in the yard and water tends to pool there when it rains heavy and hard like this, but it’s never looked like this before.

Shortly before bed last night I pulled the trigger: I bought another Wacom tablet, this time from Provantage. This has been eating at me for a couple weeks and I spent much of my online time this weekend watching auctions on Ebay and trying to find the lowest-priced retailer (that seemed legit, I mean.) After realizing that most people were buying the tablet I wanted on Ebay for nearly full price, it didn’t make much sense to go that route and miss out on the two-year warranty, so I gave up on Ebay. Amazon was out, again, and NewEgg was full retail price, but Provantage gave me basically the same price I got on the one that turned out to be a sham a couple weeks ago. So hopefully by the end of this week or maybe early next week I’ll have a new toy to play with.

Along with that I took a chance on one of those “too good to be true” things on Ebay – the full Corel Painter X (which complements a tablet so well) for a mere $40. The seller swears it is a full-retail version, not a knock-off nor an academic version, and his feedback backs it up. We’ll see. If it turns out to be a fake, I’ll simply file a complaint with Ebay and Paypal and get my money back. No loss in trying on this one.

And now I can start all over again. It’s exciting but daunting. I fear I’m going to suck at this, but I’ll be taking it to work to use during down time so that should really help with the exposure to the new medium. I’ve lost a lot of my feel for natural medium being so digitally-dependent and this is as close as it gets on the computer, at least in this price range. I’m used to doing things a very certain way and with the combination of not only the tablet, which is a whole new way to create, but Painter, which is a program I’m not familiar with, it’s really new territory. Depending on how brave I feel, you may get to see the (possibly rotten) fruits of my endeavors here . . .

January 27, 2008

Rain, rain go away ye bastard

Filed under: General,Migraine — Tom @ 9:37 pm

It began raining sometime last night and hasn’t let up once. Not once. It never stopped raining this entire day. I’m not exaggerating – there has not been a point in this entire day when there wasn’t water falling from the sky. That is extremely unusual. I like rain. We don’t get that much of it here in Arizona. But I like rain where it falls and makes things wet and shiny and the air smell like ozone and then it goes away, and the sun peeks out from behind the clouds. I don’t like when the day is just grey-blue. It’s miserable, and that’s kind of how the day felt. I could never make it in a place like Seattle.

Regardless, it was a productive day. I went out and got a couple of air filters for the cars and replaced both the engine and cabin air filters . . . well, I replaced my engine air filter because the one I got for Alissa’s car turned out to be the wrong one. Stupid book at Pep Boys listed two filters for her Accord. I grabbed the second one for no apparent reason and it turned out to be wrong for no apparent reason. And after all that damned work – Honda doesn’t make it easy like some other manufactures do to replace air filters. You know, a few nice clips and it pops open. No, they’ve got screws and then some screwy orientation where junk is attached that keeps the filter cover from moving. It was a job and it shouldn’t have been. I blame this on Honda’s ridiculous desire to keep owners coming back to them for service. I don’t like doing these jobs myself, but I know for $15 I can do this in 15 minutes. Sure I’ll be a mess, but it’s a lot cheaper than having them do it. As for the cabin air filter, this is always a nice service – it takes 2 minutes and is very easy, and the end result is clean, fresh air that flows a lot faster. (And, believe it or not, I ordered those filters online – it was far cheaper to order two and pay shipping than to buy both and get them locally. That’s kind of sad, but it’s reality.)

Then I hung up a couple of very clever devices. If I had any idea what they were called, I’d tell you, but I’ll just have to describe: they simply hold your handled yard tools (rakes, brooms, shovels, etc.) by pressure exerted with a little rolling wheel that moves up against the handle, so many different sizes can be handled easily. It’s a very handy way to clean up a messy bunch of tools like I have and took about 15 minutes to install. Bought ’em at Costco if you’re looking for them for about $6 (for two!)

I also installed my new CD/DVD writer tonight, which, so far hasn’t panned out at all. The drive came with a SATA data cable but unfortunately did not come with a 4-pin molex to SATA power converter cable, leaving with an unusable new drive in place of my old unusable drive, and now a second unusable drive because I messed up the heirarchy by removing the master (the old, bad drive) and didn’t make any changes to my back-up drive. Nevermind – I know this is all geek speak. Suffice it to say that I can’t do much of anything when it comes to CDs or CDRs/DVDRs until at least tomorrow evening if I get the proper converter cable. Sigh – it never ends with computers.

We took Amanda to Cold Stone Creamery last night where she got a little cup of strawberry ice cream with M&Ms mixed in. She didn’t quite get the “mix in” concept and picked out the M&Ms by hand to eat separately. She enjoyed it, however, and, as they say, it all ends up in the same place anyway. Feeling adventurous, I had my first chocolate ice cream in about 18 months last night. I got a waffle bowl with chocolate and Reese’s peanut butter cups. It was everything I hoped it would be.

For those keeping track, I’m pretty sure I can confirm that chocolate does not trigger migraines but an unusual craving may be a warning sign. Friday I came home from work with chocolate on my mind and it simply would not let me go. I avoided it and, in fact, avoided caffeine, just to see what would happen. Wouldn’t you know it, in the middle of the night I awoke to the alarming flashing of lights in my head, and later a typical, but not awful migraine ensued. No chocolate, no caffeine, but still a migraine. Eat what you want, people, it’s not food that’s causing these things. Face the likely fact that some of us are just susceptible to something, perhaps hormonal, that causes migraines, while others never get them.

Eh, I had more to say, but honestly I just want to go sit down. Today is over.

January 26, 2008

Boys will be boys

Filed under: General — Tom @ 11:09 pm
darth01.jpg

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January 25, 2008

Succulence of ham

Filed under: General — Tom @ 3:23 pm

I don’t like ham. But that’s beside the point. It’s a funny meat. Pork.

Does anyone remember a series of AM/PM Mini-Market commercials from the late 80s or early 90s that starred Ruth Buzzi and Arte Johnson from Laugh-in, in the characters they respectively made famous?

Arte Johnson Ruth Buzzi

I think about this often because, well, for seconds (I’ll start with this first because it’s less funny) no one ever knows what I’m talking about, and first, because it had one of my all-time favorite lines, delivered by Johnson’s Tyrone F. Horneigh to Buzzi’s Gladys Ormphby – something about “the succulence of ham, the tightly-packed sausage,” which, of course, elicits a vicious beating from Gladys’ handbag.

And I can’t find it anywhere. I’ve found a couple of minor references to it but never the actual commercials themselves, and I just can’t believe someone didn’t archive these things. Of all the crap that people saved on tapes, all the dumb commercials that have wound up archived for future generations to ignore, somehow these escaped?

No matter how dumb things seemed to have been, at some point in your life you’re going to want to see it again. And no matter how advanced we get and no matter how big and easy storage gets, one factor will always figure into things: most people forget to save the little things that truly marked our generation. So while we’re all obsessing over making sure our TV-on-DVD reflects the exact shows we saw because we think that’s going to be important to remember this time, the things that really reflected “our now” are the most easily ignored – ads, commercials, etc. Few things respond as quickly to public whimsy as ads do and commercials are a little glimpse of what society was truly like at any particular time. Sure, they’re glossed up and polished, but taken as a whole, it’s very easy to see where a society’s interests lie.

Maybe the commercial I’m looking for is long gone, but think what it represented – those weird times where things were strangely provocative, yet there were still so many taboos. That that commercial even made it to air is kind of surprising given how suggestive it is, but perhaps that’s why it is goes unrecognized when I mention it – maybe it did get pulled because it was offensive. In a way, things have gotten so safe that I don’t think anything like that could even air today. So, in effect, maybe with a commercial like that disappearing, that represents what we’ve lost.

Hammer of the gods

Filed under: Music — Tom @ 12:35 pm

I stumbled upon a treasure trove of John Bonham studio outtakes from the 1979 In Through The Out Door sessions. Just the man and his monstrous drums. Seriously fascinating for people who dig drums – and not just drum solos but actual drum tracks. It’s also pretty funny listening to him vocalize while playing.

(Found over at Filmoculous. And, yeah, I have to check out that David Lee Roth isolated-vocals thing, but I can’t get to it at the moment.)

January 24, 2008

SCAMAZON!

Filed under: General — Tom @ 7:44 pm

As you may recall, last week ScAmazon sent me the Wacom Intuos graphics tablet I’ve been coveting. As it turns out, some little freak swapped out their smaller 4×6″ tablet for the surprising much larger 6×8″ that was in the box and sent it back to Amazon as a return. They either didn’t bother to check the package and decided to resell it again (a problem in itself) or knew it was the wrong item and opted to see if I was paying attention (which basically amounts to fraud. Of course, I caught this within seconds and was on the phone to Amazon to see what could be done.

UPS authorization received, box re-packed, and shipped, and I heard no more. I figured it had to arrive yesterday or maybe today, knowing how UPS Ground shipping goes, and checking my tracking numbers shows that it arrived yesterday. But no refund for me. So I sent off an email to Amazon and waited all afternoon for some information only to get the very annoying news that it will likely take a week or more to get the refund, but could take as long as FOUR WEEKS. Come on, give me a break. I’m expected to pay for this in order to get it. Why shouldn’t they be expected to pay me back when they get it back? I realize someone could conceivably scam them on some returns, but they do retain the power of the credit card and the law, and it also appears that they don’t even pay attention to what you return. So why should I have to wait? I’m a little peeved, to say the least.

Not to mention that a CD I’ve had on order with them, which I ordered weeks ago, and they’re saying it won’t ship until the middle of next week. It came out this Tuesday. I saw it in a local music store yesterday. Other online music stores have it available to ship right now. Normally I could cancel and just buy it locally, except Amazon is holding my order hostage. I can’t make any changes to it because, as they claim, it’s “processing to ship,” or however they put it. Now, how in the hell can something process to ship if it’s not going to even move until next week? So, screw it, I bought it today and enjoyed the friggin’ hell out of it on the way home today. What did I find when I got home? An email from Amazon saying that the CD shipped. Of course. Anyone want the latest Super Furry Animals album?

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