Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Think It's Now Officially Safe To Gush About The First Trans Am Album

12 years after its release, I think it's finally safe to be a total fanboy about Trans Am's self-titled debut on Thrill Jockey. So here goes: Trans Am has always been wonderfully hard to pin down because they do the genre-bending tribute/parody thing, but nobody else does it with such a wicked sense of connoisseurship. They rip only the tastiest of musics, and they do it very well. I first heard this album in Nate Spainhauer's car while riding to the gas station to get something to drink after a show in Indianapolis. At the time, I didn't know nuthin about no minimalism or BTO or the Miami Vice soundtrack or whatever else they were referencing, but it sounded GOOD, ya know. It was recorded pretty no-frills by John McEntire (one of my faves, Tortoise, Sea & Cake, pretty much every good Chicago band from that era) back when everything wasn't quite so perfect, before the 'Tool changed everything. The snare drum distorts in a cool way, things don't have too much sheen, it's a very analog recording, when you put it on you can almost see the tape reels rolling in your mind.

They weren't too over the top or too funny on this one (OK, yes, one song is called "American Kooter"). But what the heck. I hereby declare that this album has withstood the test of time. FullerGoEasy approved for older women parties and gas station beverage runs.

Do Not Be Embarrassed by Your Boy Scoutingness

Although I was completely embarrassed to be in the Boy Scouts when I was in junior high and high school, I now realize that it had a pretty big effect on me, even though I never really advanced in the ranks, got a lot of merit badges, or came anywhere close getting my Eagle Scout. What I think is cool about the Boy Scouts is that they keep the gays away from our boys. Just kidding! Seriously though, what I do like about the Boy Scouts is the merit badge system, the idea that you are encouraged to try lots of things, to learn about them, to do them yourself, and to keep on improving and adding on to what's already there. I am now a person who likes to try lots of different things, and I honestly feel like my life better because of it.

Maybe it's not all just because of the Boy Scouts and merit badges. It could just be my family, the "be a Dixon" aesthetic (this usually meant "don't be a big complainer" but also later went on to mean "don't go down in that sinkhole, even if Phil Low offers you money to do it"), or the various activities we were made to/wanted to do.* My dad is certainly a bit of a renaissance man, he's good at lots of different things, and is always trying out new projects. But he's also an Eagle Scout, so I guess this argument has become kind of circular.

Needless to say, being in Boy Scouts was a significant part of growing up for me. The Mormon church is very into scouting. I'm not sure if scouting is so much like the church or the church is so much like scouting, but they be pretty good friends. Although I can't find any hard data on this, I'd venture to say that about 30% of all Mormon males over the age of 18 in the US are Eagle Scouts. Maybe even more, I dunno, Google has failed me on this one.

Because of the religious connection, I tend to associate experiences that I had in scouting with experiences that I had in becoming a spiritual person. There's probably a reason for this. After all, they took place at the same time, and a lot of times they were directly connected with each other. We had a scout leader named Steve Markham who we thought was pretty out-there at the time. We thought he was wacko in the same way that Daniel LaRusso thought that Mr. Miyagi was crazy for making him wax the car, sand the deck, etc. But just like Pat Morita in his award-winning (I assume, too lazy to check) role, he turned out to be a great teacher.

I remember one Sunday I came to church, and the other dudes had been on a camp-out the day before. I hadn't gone, either for some heavy metal reason or because of some orchestra contest (I know, it makes zero sense), I don't remember. But there was talk amongst the boys that some stuff had gone down. Some bad stuff, I heard that some of the kids really laid into this other kid, that they were making fun of him pretty bad or something. Well, Bro. Markham was also the teacher of the young men's class at church, and when we got together that day, it was pretty heavy. He laid it all out. He was very articulate. He read us some scriptures about how brethren in the church should treat each other (turns out it was D&C 88:133), and then he pointed out how what happened the day before was in contradiction of that. I don't really remember how he put it, but he told us that we should be doing better, and pretty soon almost everybody in the room was totally in tears, and we were telling each other "I love you." Teenage boys, for a moment being completely real. It was weird, and awesome.

That's the first time I ever specifically remember feeling that a heaviness had been lifted, that good had been made from bad, or that maybe this is what Christ suffered so that we could feel. It was great, it was like we had been trained our whole lives to do something, but we didn't really get it. Just like how Daniel-san, after complaining about waxing and sanding and painting, finally throws blows with Mr. Miyagi and realizes that he has been training to be a karate man without even knowing it; I think that at that moment we all realized that we had actually been trained to be sensitive to things of the spirit, and we were now really feeling it. "Is what just happened repentance? Weird."

Connections to spiritual growth aside, there are some practical things that I learned from being in the BSA. For example, leatherwork, wilderness survival, basketry, woodworking, cooking, tent-pitching, fire-making, shadow-puppets (when they play the movie back of my life, please, oh please, let them fast forward through the "Shadow Puppet Theater" part at scout camp that one year), how to change a tire, a very funny joke about waking up with Vaseline on your butt, how to put on a skit (skit, not skirt), and how to just generally be a good citizen.

There's something kind of magical about the Boy Scout Promise too, now that I read it after ten years or so:

On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.
I mean, in theory, this still holds up pretty strong (although my interpretation of one's duty to country is probably more liberal than most). I especially like the idea of being mentally awake. The founding scoutsmen could have chosen other adjectives to come after the word "mentally" such as "mentally sharp" "mentally alert" or even "mentally awesome," but I think that awake is the best way to be, mentally. It kind of means that you are to be aware of and active in the world around you. The Boy Scout Promise is not an island on it's own, oh no. In fact, it references the Scout Law, which is a whole different game:
A Scout is:
  • trustworthy
  • loyal
  • helpful
  • friendly
  • courteous
  • kind
  • obedient
  • cheerful
  • thrifty
  • brave
  • clean, and
  • reverent
These are all good things, but as I read over them, I think to myself, "Did we really ever think that we were going to be all of these things?" It seems like a lot for teenagers to understand, don't you think? I don't ever recall feeling inadequate in my thriftiness or bravery (cleanliness, probably), but I guess the public recitation of these high standards could be viewed as our Karate Kid wax-on/wax-off training for bigger things we didn't quite comprehend just yet. Many years later, I get it, and I'm sure that it has an entirely different effect for adults to see kids saying these things, because they know that the path to a good life actually is in fact that simple when put in a few words, but quixotically hard to follow when it comes down to making it happen.

Maybe they should consider adding "persistent" and "not too hard on himself" to the list, just to make things seem a tad more doable.

P.S. Is it a surprise that two of my favorite living musicians, Alan Sparhawk and Daniel Smith, are Eagle Scouts? Dudes are prepared. To rock!

*This is interesting because today someone asked me if I ever had a rebellious phase. I think that at the time it was happening I wanted to believe that I was having a rebellious phase, when in reality it was probably pretty mild. But one example of "my dark years" that I gave was that at a certain age I was totally lamed out by the idea of going out and doing stuff with my family. If you know my family, then this will seem kind of puzzling, but there was this crucial point at which "Would you like to go out for ice cream?" actually became a question that required some deliberation. Yes, of course I would like ice cream, but this would entail going out with the whole family in the red Toyota Corolla and maybe being seen by someone, therefore crushing the image I had of myself as a tough metal kid (I know, it seems absurd, but at one point, I actually considered myself to be a tough metal kid). It just didn't seem to fit; in my mind a metal dude had no family, even though Metallica clearly thanked Kirk's mom, Mrs. Hammett in the liner notes of Master of Puppets, complete with the phrase "Stylin' Chili" in parenthesis after her name. I don't know CPR, but I do remember that. I remember thinking "What is this 'stylin' chili,' and does Mrs. Hammett make it for the Metallica boys when they come to visit?" I suppose if I did actually think that, that means that I knew that even metal gods had parents, but still, I was weirded out about going places with my family for a while there. Point being, teenagers embrace fears that are completely irrational. The other point being that in families there can sometimes be an incomprehensible border between wanting to do something and being made to do something. Example: "You have to come out to ice cream with us." Now, at 30 years old, I would like nothing better than to go out for ice cream with my family. I imagine that's what heaven will be like.

P.P.S. Made in Japan V. 3 is live. Be sure to watch the Maywa Denki videos.
Also, can anyone explain to me why all the text below a blockquote goes single-spaced? Sorry the formatting on this one is horrible, but anytime I do anything to a chunk of text, everything below it gets single-spaced. It's real bad.

Friday, February 22, 2008

NASCAR-Shaped Veggie Trays - Finally!

They are finally here. NASCAR fans no longer have to feel like total wusses like back when they were forced to eat vegetables from round trays, if they ever even ate them at all.

Nascar-Shaped Veggie Trays-Crop

It's like yes, but no, but yes, but no, but, yeah. Ya know?

Also, let's hear it for David Orr's new bloggie. Dude's on fire.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Yes, My Friends They Are Excellent Singers

Also, Made in Japan Vol. 2 is up. Prepare to go ga-ga.

Monday, February 18, 2008

King of Kong: Good and Evil, Pure and Simple

One thing was clear from watching the documentary King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters:

Never before have I so clearly hated one character and loved the other. Except here's the thing, they're not characters, they're real people. I mean seriously, is Billy Mitchell for real? You could not make up a more ridiculously perfect, despicable character. Steve Wiebe just seems like a funny weird uncle or something.

But really, this movie was great. "FIVE OUT OF FIVE STARS!" <-seriously, you must click this link. This young YouTube star (Pruane2Forever, aka "Sexman" [fear not, he is about the furthest thing from sex possible, trust me]) will be a conquistador of the fertile land that was your mind. His videos bring entertainment to new, embarrassing levels.

But anyway, King of Kong. My favorite line was when that girl who was Steve Wiebe's student said "The science teachers at this school are weird!"

Friday, February 15, 2008

Nerd Dream: Fulfilled? I Got Boing-Boinged

It's weird to see your own name in print when you aren't expecting it, but yeah... There I was, scrolling through the Boing Boing updates on Bloglines, and "whaaa?!" As if writing the Made in Japan column wasn't enough fun, it's nice that it got noticed by what may be considered the #5 most popular blog on the internet (or #1, if you go by number of fans). I guess it's a good thing for me that they're suckers for all things Japanese over there at B.B., and that they seem to be in cahoots with the Make posse, otherwise my writing would just contribute to being another pointless blog, causing static in the blogosphere.

As the wise sage James Mann once said, "In the future, everyone will have their 15 megabytes of fame." I suppose mine has come.

Anyway, I'm done talking about my small accomplishment. Mainly, I wrote this so my mom would be proud of me. You know how parents like to think their kids are the best thing in the world, even if they might actually be more like a modern-day Chris Peterson...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tres Canciones

Tonight it is so incredibly cold outside. It's nice though, to be inside, to look out the windows at the new coat of snow. It makes me wonder if angels get cold when they are out helping people. To look down at the snow through the window in a heated house with all the lights out, it feels kind of angelic.

Here are some thoughts from tonight. The second one's a remake, but the others are newsies.

I heard you might need Flash for these to work. If you have a Commodore 64 or 128, then that might be a problem.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Writing About Yourself in the Third Person

Writing About Yourself in the Third Person, or How I Got Hired to Blog (or really, just post links and write blurbs about them).

Through a strange twist of events (the way so many things seem to happen these days), I have somehow landed myself a gig writing a weekly column for the Make Magazine blog about stuff from Japan. As part of my introduction to the readership, I had to write a little blurb about myself in the third person. If you've ever had to do this, then you know how weird this can be. What do you really say about yourself? Who cares, right? In addition to trying to make myself seem qualified to write this column, I had to try to make it interesting and to have a sense of humility. I've subscribed to their blog for a while now, and I have seen other new writer introductions (obviously written by the people themselves, and with even weirder pictures than mine, if you can believe that), and I tried to remind myself that IT REALLY DOESN'T MATTER. Nobody really cares, in the grand scheme of things. It's hard to remember that sometimes, ya know.

Anyway, so my column is called "Made in Japan," and I do a weekly showcase of links to interesting DIY projects from Japan. In a way, it's a dream job, because it combines things that I am already interested in, it doesn't involved actually going anywhere to do the work, and it hopefully won't take up too much time. Plus, it's kind of fun. I have been a subscriber to the paper version of Make for a while now, and I can honestly say that I anticipate every issue as if it was a tasty meal.* It is a fun day when I see it in the mailbox. The only other magazine that I think I would be more honored to work for would be Arthur, but I don't really have any skills that I could offer them, since I don't know any shamans, and I only own like four noise tapes. It would also be cool to do something maybe for Wired, or Modern Drummer. Those would be cool too.

So there ya go, here's the introduction, and here's the first installment. Check it.

P.S. Am I doomed because I used an emoticon in my first post? Hmmmmm.

*The phrase "looking forward to ____ as if it were a tasty meal" comes from Ben Bussell, who I'm told used that phrase to describe how much he looked forward to going to Andy Hollinden's class "The Music of Frank Zappa" at Indiana University. I also took this class from the legendary Andy Hollinden, and I think the tasty meal analogy is pretty much right on. But... what if the meal consisted of a Burnt Weenie Sandwich. That's the name of a Zappa album. Weird, huh?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

西岡兄妹 - The Twisted Harmony of Nishioka Kyodai

The brother and sister team of Nishioka Kyodai (西岡兄妹) create vivid, living images. Their stories are like dreams, floating and vaguely familiar. Beautiful and destroyed, all at once.

It's like, I wanna wallpaper my room with it. Even the weird freaky stuff.



These are scans taken from their book ぼく虫 . (Boku-mushi = Me Bug? Bug Me?)

There's relatively little information out there about them, even in Japanese. I guess they are kind of mysterious. Apparently they look like this. Their Japanese Wikipedia entry says they've been at it since 1989. Their stuff has mostly been published by Seirinkogeisha (青林工藝舎), the publisher who also published most of Mimiyo Tomozawa's work (you know, the artist who did those two Jim O'Rourke record covers and stuff). So, they're down with the cool kids.

Not to be a buster, but I don't see this coming out in English anytime soon. But if you are reading this, Nishioka Kyodai, then 英語訳の本を出すんであれば、私、喜んで翻訳します。

Although most people seem to put them in this category, I wouldn't even really call what they do manga in the traditional sense, just because aside from the text, there is nothing about it that really shows signs of being Japanese or following the usual comic book style. It's as if they have invented their own visual language out of something completely unfamiliar.

I wonder how that works, collaborating the way they do. Is one the DJ and one the rapper?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Ridiculously Good Song - Subtle "Middleclass Stomp"

I liked this song when it came up on I even pressed that button that says "love." Yeah. But then I saw this video. So wonderfully weird, especially after seeing what they look like live.

Although it's pretty polarizing, I've always liked Doseone's voice, it's just so strange and nasal. I thought he was stellar in Them(selves) and I liked what I had heard of Clouddead. I think his lyrics are brilliant. And then Jel from Them is in this band too (he's the guy playing the sampler beats live with his fingers) and I really like his stuff too, his beats are "abstract," for lack of a better term. But this video, this just takes it to the next level. They look totally bizarro yet sound very talented. They look like a band from another planet. I know I keep talking about music from other planets, it's probably very weird, but I just really dig on this stuff. When I hear this song I picture some weird futuristic city inhabited with people with Doseone hair. Abstract rap guys started hanging out with Jethro Tull fans. It's wild.

I know it's late at night, but I think maybe I should move to Oakland and try to get in on this weird thing they have going on out there. I'll have to get a puffy shirt or something first though.

P.S. This band kind of reminds of that band that does the "Do the BIM" song from that movie The Apple. That band was from the future too.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

This Year's Super Bowl National Anthem Was Lip-Synced

I'm pretty sure this year's Super Bowl national anthem was lip-synced. This is funny, considering that Jordin Sparks was on American Idol, a show that is supposed to be about being a fearless singer. Maybe that's why the camera was rarely on her throughout the whole song. Is that better or worse than last year's Billy Joel Auto-Tune fiasco? Not sure.

The first thing that cued me to the possibility of a lip-sync was that her voice sounded like it was coming from a condenser microphone in a recording studio. This was not the sound of a hand-held wireless dynamic microphone being pumped out into a stadium PA, even it were a direct feed from the board. It was simply too crisp and too compressed to be live sound. The fact that the sound quality was too good and too tight-sounding made it very unbelievable.

Then I started looking at her lips, which was hard to do, because the cameras hardly ever actually showed her singing (her bad job of lip-syncing was probably the impetus for this production decision). When I could see her lips, they were cutting off at different times than the sound. Also, she didn't appear to be "pushing" on notes that would require extra vocal effort. I'm sure she did actually sing it, but not at the Super Bowl. Her lip-syncing was poor.

Tom Petty's halftime show, however, was definitely NOT lip-synced and was quite good. It just goes to show that when you invest in making old-guy rock your entire life, it still sounds good when you are an old guy. Dude was thinking ahead! Seriously, even while performing on top of a giant neon flying-V guitar stage at the Superbowl for a crowd of what appeared to be mostly sorority girls, it was impossible to deny that Tom Petty is an incredibly classy fellow who has recorded timeless rock songs.

Nostalgia vs. Reality: a Cap'n Jazz Video

Cap'n Jazz, circa 1995 or so. This won't mean much to most people, because I think that I discovered Cap'n Jazz at a time when I realized that songs could really be from where your heart is, and that a feeling can transfer to other people through the medium of song. Because of that, it might be a "you had to be there" kind of nostalgia.

But allow me to talk about how wonderful this video is, and then I will tell you why I suspect that it might be hard for bands this weirdly great to come along in the future.

So, this song: A lot of the music that I listened to 12 years ago, I'm not that into, or when I hear it, I just think, "eww, I have certainly progressed since then." But this song in particular is still really exciting to me. Maybe it's because it never was recorded in the studio, the only versions of it floating around are live recordings. We're left with this raw, jagged version of their vision.

Seeing the video is impressive in a very different way, because the members of Cap'n Jazz are very very young. They just look like the kids that delivered your newspaper. There's Tim Kinsella, wearing a Reece's shirt, and little Davey von Bohlen, before he went bald and started that way less-cool band The Promise Ring. People always say that Cap'n Jazz was a very influential band in the formation of the emo sound, and in terms of pedigree, that is certainly true (Davey went on to do The Promise Ring, Mike Kinsella went on to do Owen, American Football, etc.), but I think that musically, their influence may have been felt, but not heard. There were hardly any bands after them sounded like they did, and certainly there were no bands that sounded as good, as weirdly and wonderfully wrong as they did. I think what really happened is that Braid was influenced by Cap'n Jazz, and lots of people ripped off Braid and The Promise Ring. Braid, The Promise Ring, etc. were not as weird and were lyrically and musically quite a bit more palpable to the cardigan-clad masses. Anyway, the point of belaboring this issue of their influence on "emo" is all but lost, since what is called "emo" these days is (musically anyway) pretty disassociated with what this style used to describe.

I think one of the main reasons that nobody really pulled off sounding like them is because these guys actually had chops. They certainly aren't just playing power chords on those guitars. The drumming is authoritative and powerful, and the singing is completely original and actually pretty in tune, despite the "pitchiness" of Tim Kinsella's voice being a major gripe of many boring fans of boring music. He's like the Tom Waits of 1995. Nobody likes Tom Waits because his voice sounds "right." He was inventing his own way of singing. I guess I really like music where they don't fully grasp what it is that they're doing. If they were to figure it out, it would all crumble up into itself in insignificance.

I read once that Cap'n Jazz really wanted to sound like this local band that they worshiped, but that it turned out that this band just was trying to sound like Dinosaur Jr. Within two "generations," there was a band that sounds nothing like Dinosaur Jr. but that sounded like something completely fresh and different. They were listening to local bands, and getting influence by local music that was happening around them. It was like a genetic mutation that resulted from musical inbreeding, but instead of it being a toothless child with blue skin, it was a really great band. I guess that's why I always kind of worried about the whole "iPod generation" thing that seems to be happening. It gets harder for real, "tribal" (in the case of Cap'n Jazz, these "tribes" were groups of kids in the suburbs of Chicago) music to come about if every kid has access to the "best" of music history on their computer. I have a hard time thinking that a band like this could be born today, that a band of such youth and originality could come along and be so surprising, just because these days it seems like being surprising is harder to pull off than "bringing back the sounds of [insert name of 'classic' band or genre here]." Part of this is the fault of music critics. So much of what I read isn't really music criticism, but is just describing what the music sounds like by comparing it to other music. That's where a lot of this uncreative referentialism comes from. Historically, rock music journalism, and record reviews in particular, were about describing how the music felt, and wasn't just a tagging exercise like it is in so much of today's music journalism.

Does this mean that kids should be cut off from hearing a lot of music so that the bands they form won't be so damn derivative? Of course not, that would be absurd. But if this true and great organic musical innovation that I am jonesin' for comes from the perfect mixture of natural aptitude PLUS musical naiveté, then maybe there's something to that. Quien sabe.

Anyway. Cap'n Jazz, they're still impressive after all this time. They kind of sound like they discovered a musical monolith from another planet, and that is exactly the way I like it.

P.S. (But really, why am I talking like this? The pattern of music that is "revolutionary" clearly shows that it comes out of nowhere despite people like me constantly declaring that rock and roll is dead once and for all. Something new and amazing will come along, don't worry. These youngsters have a knack for making that happen. I have faith.)

P.P.S. I gotta stop this late-night, multi-paragraph blogging. I wake up the next morning and worry that I wrote something totally boring or out of line.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Mysterious Octave

I love thinking about octaves. The fact that humans are able to recognize octaves, I think that it hints at the notion that humans are in fact supposed to somehow understand the order of the universe. If you think about octaves hard enough, they will blow your freakin' mind!!

Who'd have thought that there might be important clues pertaining to the mysteries of human cognition in music? Yeah, music, the same stuff that people get down to at bars. "Achey Breaky Heart" is an example of music. Who'd have thought that in the most basic unit of music there are cosmic truths? Actually, a bunch of people did. But yeah.

So octaves... A note of exactly double the frequency as the note before it will sound like an octave, or that the human ear perceives both notes as being essentially "the same." That's the best, most eloquent definition of the octave, as being "the same, but higher." It sounds obvious, but if you think about it, what's going on there is pretty amazing. So, what that means, basically, is that inside our ear, we have a measuring device that can tell us whether or not a wave flapping, say, 400 times a second, is also flapping 800 times a second, and when it does, we perceive the two frequencies as being very similar. Not the same notes, but being the same in essence. We are somehow naturally tuned-in to the doubles and the halves of these frequencies that come into our ears, with a great deal of accuracy.

You hit middle C on a piano, then play the C one octave above it. The (most simple) frequency of the first note will be half of the second. But why do these sound the same in essence? It turns out that the mathematics involved in these frequency relationships informs much of how we perceive all of the other notes in between these octaves as well, but what is the benefit of the human ability do divide sound up and categorize it in this way? We don't see color that way, and it also has wavelengths. Hmmmm...

This might be late-night rambling, but I really think that what octaves tell us is that everything is connected, recursive, relative, and eternal. Does this mean, for example, that when we reach the edge of the universe, we actually have ended up on the opposite side (like when you went over to that opening on the right in Pac-Man, how you showed up on the left, headed the same direction)? No, I don't think that it is the same place, but it is perhaps very similar in essence (and why are you trying to get to the edge of the universe, anyway?). Like sound frequencies, there are no bounds to how high or how low something can be, but that what concerns us is the way in which those frequencies are used in context to each other. Do you feel what I am saying here?

[If I were explaining this on my imaginary talk show, I would be laying on a floating beanbag made of clouds, with my hands hanging out over the edges. Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" would play softly in the background, and diagrams would pop up on a screen made of Fruit Roll-Ups.]

Seriously though. Octaves. Just sit down on your favorite instrument and play a few. Think about what they mean. Think about what they tell you. Close your eyes and truly feel it. I really think that it's evidence that humans have the capacity to perceive things with an elegant sense of relativity. We are able to perceive things in their essence, and not just their various quantities. How cool is that?

This means that we don't so much worry about whether a sound is happening at 440 Hz or 880 Hz, because who cares, they're both A's. It's time to rock! Is this why music is so powerful?!

P.S. It turns out that monkeys also experience octave equivalency (although I'd like to find out just how they have proved this), so until I have proof otherwise, that means that everything I have said about humans here applies to them as well. I hope you are OK with that.