Computers or music: Buckner and Garcia, Pac-Man Fever

[Buckner and Garcia: Pac-Man Fever]

I probably wouldn’t have remembered this album had I not spotted in a $1 bin at Sonic Boom Records. Given the shoddy condition of the record, even $1 was a bit steep. But I bought it anyway because, like any 8-year-old in 1980, I was enamored of Pac-Man, and “Pac-Man Fever” rode that zeitgeist to the upper reaches of the music charts.

I pleaded with my parents to let me get this album, but they considered video games no better than gambling machines. And they weren’t about to encourage anything that wasn’t practical or useful.

Pac-Man, however, planted a seed that pretty much resulted in the living I make today — computer programmer.

It wasn’t just about the thrill of gobbling up the pellets, powering up to eat the monsters and reaching even higher levels of skill. It was the artwork on the cabinet. It was the mechanics behind the game.

One of my siblings subscribed to a science magazine that featured Space Invaders on the cover, and it gave an overview on how video games work. There’s this grid, you see, and there’s some logic the computer calculates so when one object encounters another in that grid, the player earns a point and an invader gets vaporized. Or your ship goes kaboom!

I wanted to learn how to make that grid and those objects and those explosions.

But my parents could tell that if they bought me a computer to pursue that ambition to create my own video games, I would spend all my waking hours in front of that contraption. So they refused.

The video game boom eventually busted, and one day I wandered into the electronics section of the department store and was mesmerized by a miniature movie with music in the background. It was the same kind of movie I saw a few years back that fueled my craze for ABBA, only this time it was a band called Duran Duran. And the song was “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

Pac-Man Fever, like Uncle Vic’s “Space Invaders” before it, receded into memory. I don’t know if my parents were relieved that I wouldn’t take up gambling — remember, that’s what video games were in their mind — but instead, they bought a piano when I developed an interest in perhaps taking lessons.

They hoped I would learn songs from the Great American Songbook, the music of their youth. I wanted to be Nick Rhodes or Martin Fry.

So by thwarting my early interest in computers, my parents redirected that zeal to music, which would make them even more nervous a decade later when I declared music to be my major in college.

The Internet eventually steered me back into the world of programming, but it was Pac-Man that primed the pump. I somehow taught myself BASIC even without a computer, and I got solid B’s in the rudimentary programming classes in high school and college. The interest was there if the opportunities weren’t.

My parents’ prediction did come true. Once the Internet had its hooks in me, I’ve been parked in front of a computer ever since.

As for Pac-Man Fever, the album, I was quite surprised. Novelty albums usually aim for the quick laugh, but Buckner and Garcia have enough love for their subject matter to craft a set of tuneful songs. Synthesizers were still very much analog at that point, and new wave hadn’t yet made the jump from across the ocean. So instead you get some futuristic rock that serves as a pivot from Styx and Toto to Kraftwerk and the Human League.

 

Bruce Springsteen, the male performer straight guys would go gay for

[Bruce Springsteen - Born in the U.S.A.]

Armistead Maupin, through his fictional character Michael Tolliver, proposed the idea that each generation has a male performer straight guys would go queer for. “It was Mick Jagger for a long time,” Michael explains in Significant Others, “and now it’s Bruce Springsteen.”

The cover for Born in the U.S.A. does nothing to dissuade this idea. Springsteen’s jeans certain do his posterior justice, and the red cap could be mistaken for a handkerchief, which conveys some sort of code that modern day hook-up apps make obsolete. And the form-fitting white t-shirt? It’s the uniform of countless gay guys.

At the time Born in the U.S.A. was released, I wasn’t yet sexually aware enough to attach the word “homoerotic” to the cover’s unconscious vibe. Besides, “homoerotic” and “Bruce Springsteen” aren’t words strung together in sentences in, well, ever.

And yet, I was drawn to the cover despite the fact I really couldn’t stand all the radio hits Born in the U.S.A. spawned. Springsteen was the polar opposite of the new wave music that caught my fancy at the time. The effete sophistication of ABC, Duran Duran and Eurythmics rubbed against Springsteen’s middle American bombast.

Also, the title track of the album had that disturbing line about being “sent to Vietnam to go and kill yellow man.”

But Springsteen himself? His contract had a rider that a gym went with him on tour. Countless pictures showed off his guns, and the “Dancing in the Dark” video made it a point to display his crotch.

It’s pretty amazing that an Internet search yields no beefcake photos of him from the 1980s. Recent pictures of Springsteen pretty much demonstrate the man takes care of himself.

I couldn’t admit it at the time, but Springsteen joined Huey Lewis, Sting, Simon Le Bon and Roger Taylor on the list of male figures stirring my pre-teen sexual awareness. But I couldn’t bring myself to overlook his music to acknowledge his placement on that list.

About three hours before writing this entry, Born in the U.S.A. became part of my vinyl collection. It’s taken 30 years.

What changed?

In 1995, Emmylou Harris entered my life, and with it, country music and its punk-inspired off-shoot, alt-country. If Springsteen had more twang and less literary chops, he’d be chumming it up with Brad Paisley and Blake Shelton.

In short, I’ve grown accustomed to songs Springsteen himself has inspired that listening to the original is no effort. “Glory Days” is playing on the record player as I type this sentence, and I distinctly remember thinking it exemplified what I dislike about Springsteen. Today, I realize I’ve written songs in the same style.

Of course what clinched the purchase for me was actually listening to the album on the streaming services. None of the annoyance from 30 years ago surfaced. In fact, I understood the album. Born in the U.S.A. was an album for grown-ups in the 1980s, not for teenagers. I hated it because it wasn’t meant for me.

And now, I can totally own that yes, I think Bruce Springsteen is hot. I can call out the cover of Born in the U.S.A. as being totally homoerotic. Most importantly, I can admit it’s a really good album.

Favorite Edition 2014: Year Final

[John Luther Adams - Become Ocean]

 

Something I didn’t anticipate when I moved from Austin to Seattle in 2012 was a classical music scene with an audience receptive to modern works.

Seattle Symphony Orchestra includes a number of commissions throughout its season, and a chamber series focusing on modern works turns the lobby of Benaroya Hall into an informal setting. I got to hear Steve Reich’s Different Trains as part of a chamber music festival, and Town Hall has brought in the likes of Alarm Will Sound, Roomful of Teeth and NOW Ensemble.

So the year-end Favorite Edition for 2014 reflects my rekindled interest in new music. It’s easier to indulge when even the record shops make it a point to separate modern music from the common era.

Continue reading »

Vinyl Find: Stephen Albert, Flower of the Mountain / Into Eclipse

[Stephen Albert - Flower of the Mountain / Into Eclipse]

A few weeks ago, I was flipping through the vinyl stacks at the Bellevue location of Silver Platters. This album by Stephen Albert caught my eye immediately.

I knew right away it was Nonesuch release. The typeface, the stark black and white photography, the clean design — the only other label with such a clear cover aesthetic is ECM. In fact, label president Robert Hurwitz worked at ECM before taking over Nonesuch.

I checked the back cover, and sure enough, there was a Nonesuch logo. Flower of the Mountain was released in 1987, the same year as Kronos Quartet’s White Man Sleeps and John Adams’ The Chairman Dances. But who was Stephen Albert? I hadn’t heard of him, and I know nothing of this album.

So I bought it without sampling it beforehand. Just one of those rash purchases.

Another remarkable aspect of this album is the title piece. “Flower of the Mountain” refers to Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses by  James Joyce. The Joyce estate can get pretty draconian protecting the author’s copyrights.

Albert, it seems, managed to secure permission to use this text, while the Joyce estate told Kate Bush no. So Bush ended up writing “The Sensual World”. Bush would later secure permission when she re-recorded the song and re-titled it … “Flower of the Mountain”.

Yes.

Albert’s Flower of the Mountain is a fairly genteel piece, decidedly tonal but not exceptional. It’s the accompanying piece, Into Eclipse, that steals the spotlight.

Into Eclipse has more sharp edges with a much more striking orchestration. It’s also the piece that is more readily available of the two. Into Eclipse can be found on Julliard Orchestra recording (New World 80381) and on an Eastman Music Nova album (Albany 192). By contrast, Flower of the Mountain is available only on this out-of-print Nonesuch release.

So why hadn’t I encountered Albert till now?

It turns out Albert died in a car crash in 1992. His career was on the rise up till then. Two years before Nonesuch released Flower of the Mountain, Albert earned the Pulitzer Prize for his Riverrun Symphony.

Vinyl find: The 1-4-5s, Rock Invasion

[The 1-4-5s - Rock Invasion]

Travis Higdon ran Peek-a-Boo Records out of an office we both worked at during the late ’90s. At first, I found that misappropriation of office resources distasteful. Then, the office politics pissed me off, and I thought Travis could have done more to misappropriate office resources.

But meeting him introduced me to his band, The Kiss-Offs, who attracted quite a bit of buzz in the Austin music press. The band’s debut album, Goodbye Private Life, became one of my favorites in 1999. They split up after releasing a second album, Rock Bottom, in 2001.

Peek-a-Boo had a pretty nice roster around that time. The Prima Donnas were reviving the ’80s at a time when everyone shat on the ’80s. Silver Scooter was a proto-Death Cab for Cutie with a bassist who really, really dug New Order’s Peter Hook.

But I missed out on the band Travis formed before the Kiss-Offs: The 1-4-5s.

A few months ago, a used LP of the 1-4-5s’ Rock Invasion showed up at Jive Time Records. I hadn’t thought about Travis or Peek-a-Boo in years till I saw that LP. I didn’t buy it right away because, as usual, I was cash-strapped. But it did afford me some time to find an EP Peek-a-Boo released called “Unsafe at 45 RPM“.

I’ve made my distaste of garage rock known, but I don’t mind garage rock from people I admire. So I eventually picked up Rock Invasion.

It’s fast. It’s bratty. It’s lo-fi. It has “rock” in the every song title on the album.

It’s fun.

I particularly liked how there was a hidden track … on vinyl. Given the space constraints of an LP, the songs on Rock Invasion are pretty compact if a portion of groove real estate can be devoted to a gap of silence.

I can hear hints of the Kiss-Offs in the 1-4-5s, but the songcraft that would mark Travis’ later bands is not on display here. The 1-4-5s, like their name suggests, kept things rustic. At the tempos they played, there was no time for complexity.

 

Looking ahead: MONO, … Trail of Dead, U2

[MONO - Rays of Darkness]

I forgot to include a few titles from the last round-up.

U2, Songs of Innocence, Oct. 14

Yeah, I’m old enough to have actually downloaded this album from the iTunes, and yes, I know exactly who U2 is. Giving away an album for free can really backfire if the album in question doesn’t spur a fan to buy a physical copy. I may drop the cash because Songs of Innocence is better than No Line on the Horizon. Unfortunately, it’s as forgettable as anything the band has produced since the end of the last century.

MONO, The Last Dawn, Oct. 28
MONO, Rays of Darkness, Oct. 28

I’m rather glad MONO has finally realized that their orchestral sound can only go so far, and I look forward to hearing the reportedly rawer sound. But two albums?

… And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, IX, Nov. 4

What can I say? I’m a sucker for the grandeur.

Fugazi, First Demo, Nov. 11

As a latecomer to Fugazi, the news of a release of music I’ve so far not yet encountered is pretty much equivalent to saying it’s a new album.

And these releases just hit retail:

John Luther Adams, Become Ocean

Part of me was really tempted to catch the premiere of this work by the Seattle Symphony, but I’m not as familiar with John Luther as I am with John Coolidge. NPR First Listen previewed the album, and skeptic though I may be of accolades — including a Pulitzer — this one was well deserved.

yMusic, Balance Problems

I think my fascination with New Amsterdam Records has cooled off a bit, but the label still grabs my attention from time to time. This collection includes pieces by Nico Muhly, Timo Andres and Sufjan Stevens. What? No Bryce Dessner or Richard Reed Parry?

 

eMusic pivots again, says goodbye to major labels

[eMusic]

Not even a few hours after I posted an entry about why I choose to own my music do I see my point demonstrated.

eMusic announced it would return its focus on independent music, thus taking major label content out of its catalog. WEA-distributed labels have already been taken down. Universal and Sony albums are still listed on the site, but no time table has been given on when those titles will disappear.

The decision to offer major label content back in 2009 sparked a lot of controversy among eMusic users, and it even resulted in a number of labels such as Merge and Beggars Group leaving the service.

I was most interested in the WEA catalog since a lot of the artists I like are signed to WEA labels. WEA was one of the last to sign on with eMusic, and now, they’re the first to go.

I had been saving this month’s quota to use on Sept. 30, when Nonesuch is scheduled to release new albums by Steve Reich and Nico Muhly. Well, that plan is shot to hell.

I signed up with the service in 2006, when iTunes still locked its files with DRM and Amazon was months away from launching its own music download store. I used eMusic as a way to preview albums before I made any decision to buy a physical copy.

The tenor of the site changed drastically when it started offering major label artists. The accounting system changed from credits per download to dollar amounts per album. Slowly, I found myself getting less for the same price I’d been paying.

In the past, I could download 50 files per month. Now, my subscription can net me half that number.

I realized a few months ago that eMusic had become a Columbia House for digital downloads. My subscription was just enough to get me an album or two every month.

But I’m a budget-conscious listener, and eMusic had consistently undercut iTunes and the Amazon MP3 Store on catalog titles. The only thing cheaper would be to buy a used CD. In some cases, even new CDs were cheaper than eMusic. Those bargains are now on their way out.

I plan on keeping my subscription because I’m still part of eMusic’s target audience — indie music fans. But the download market is declining, and this pivot may not come in time to rescue eMusic.

UPDATE, 09/30/2014, 07:58: The New York Times reports Oct. 1 will be the last day major label titles will be available on eMusic.

 

Why I choose to own in an era of subscriptions

[My Google Play Listen Now Library]

A few months ago, I downgraded my Spotify subscription and started one with Google Play’s Listen Now. I was never a heavy user of Spotify, and honestly I found the desktop application poorly designed.

Google Play’s 20,000-song upload library pretty much clinched it for me, since my collection contains music that would be otherwise inaccessible to the streaming services.

I use streaming services as a way to preview music before I decide whether to own it outright. That puts me in a generation where ownership is a viable option. (In other words, I’m old.) I hear tell of an entire generation of listeners for whom their music experience begins and ends with streaming services.

For as much breadth the streaming services provide, I wouldn’t put my entire trust in their reliability. I’m not talking about bandwidth — I’m talking about rights holding and licensing.

A number of artists restrict the availability of their music online. John Zorn’s Tzadik label sells only through iTunes. AC/DC isn’t available anywhere. Metallica exclusively licenses through Spotify.

And what the rights holders give, they can also take away. When eMusic started offering major label content, I downloaded the self-titled debut album by the Stone Roses. A few weeks later, the album disappeared from the site’s catalog.

And if all the digging through record bins has taught me anything, there are vaults of material that will probably never see the light of day. How will I listen to Last Exit’s Iron Path on my iPod? By recording it straight from my vinyl copy.

On many occasions, my hunt for a particular piece of music forced me to seek out a physical copy. Self-titled albums by Animal Logic and Yano Akiko can only be had through used bins.

If my listening habits hewed closer to the mainstream, streaming services would probably have me more than covered. They don’t.

Recorded music is a business, and while the overhead in stocking a digital album is low, labels aren’t going to release product that they don’t perceive will sell. I have the unlucky habit of listening to just those kinds of recordings, and I always assume the services out there will have large gaps where my interests are concerned.

So I’m going to continue to acquire music in whatever forms they come. Streaming services are one such avenue, but for me, they can’t be the exclusive ones.

 

The ones that nearly got away: Idlewild, 100 Broken Windows

[Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows]

Before the Internet allowed listeners to try before they buy on a massive scale, music stores would set up listening kiosks for shoppers to sample a few select albums.

Of course, spots on these kiosks were available to labels who could pay for them, but I didn’t know that at the time. Given the quality of some of these selections, I could very well intuit they weren’t there solely on their merits.

100 Broken Windows by Idlewild was such a purchase. I had been living in Austin for three years at that point, and I hadn’t quite weaned myself off of Tower Records yet.

I gave a few tracks on the album a quick slice test — no more than 15 seconds for the first few tracks — to see if it would appeal to me, and luckily enough, it survived scrutiny. So I brought it home.

The album grew on me the more I listened to it, but part of me couldn’t quite picture myself being an Idlewild devotee. The band hit all the right points for me — lots of guitars, a singer with British brogue, a set of catchy songs — but I could sense I wouldn’t need more than one or two albums from them.

I had semi-consciously decided that if money got tight, 100 Broken Windows would be destined for a used CD bin. In 2002, money did get tight — I got laid off when the dot-com bubble burst, and the few bucks I got for the CD went toward petty cash.

At the same time, I knew the album wasn’t so bad that I never wanted to hear it again. So I ripped it before I let it go, then shelved the CD-ROM in the closet.

Fast forward 12 years later …

My rediscovery of vinyl spurred me to re-evaluate those decisions to let items in my collection wander off. I pulled out the CD-ROMs housing albums I sold for cash — 100 Broken Windows included — and gave them another play.

Yeah, I was dumb.

I may have never been destined to be an Idlewild fan, but I couldn’t deny being a fan of 100 Broken Windows. The album lost none of the appeal in the years since I first encountered it. To be honest, I’d find myself craving to hear “A Little Discourage” from time to time.

The album even got a reissue in the UK, supplemented with b-sides and extra tracks. I just settled to find a used copy for fewer than $5.

100 Broken Windows wasn’t the only victim of my short-sightedness. Maná’s MTV Unplugged, John & Mary’s The Weedkiller’s Daughter and Sugababes’ One Touch were albums that I liked more than I realized at the time.

At the time I sold them, I tried to picture whether ambivalence would set in years down the line. I gambled that my feelings for them would change for the worse and used that supposition to justify culling them from my collection.

They turned out to be bets that I lost.

 

The ones that nearly got away: Last Exit, Iron Path

[Last Exit - Iron Path]

John Zorn’s Naked City set me on an expedition to find as many degrees of separation from the band as I could. Tower Records published a magazine that one year included a supplement about a festival in New York City spotlighting the downtown New York scene.

From there, I learned about Robin Holcomb, Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte, Marc Ribot — too many names to explore and not enough cash to get them all. And the Honolulu stores wouldn’t have carried these esoteric albums anyway.

When I learned about Last Exit, I thought, “Will this band give me a fix till whenever Naked City make a new album?” All that I read about the band — guitarist Sonny Sharrock, drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, saxophone player Peter Brötzman and bassist Bill Laswell — led me to believe that they would rock you the fuck out much like Naked City did.

So I picked up a cassette of Iron Path, the only studio album the quartet would record and the only album released by a major label. I might have played through it a few times, but Iron Path lacked the thing that my unsophisticated teenage ears required — hooks.

For all its chaos, Naked City was a pretty melodic band. That’s not the case with Last Exit. These guys are intense, and they can bring on a mighty mean noise that never flies completely into anarchy. But hummable, they are not.

Iron Path didn’t survive one of the regular purges I made to fund other music. That would have been some time in the early ’90s.

The next time I encountered Iron Path was in 2003. A customer at Waterloo Records asked me whether the store carried it. I had actually heard of the album, which surprised both of us.

I wouldn’t think about Iron Path till recently, when I ran across an album titled Strange Meeting by a band called Power Tools. This trio consisted of Bill Frisell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson. I had never heard of Power Tools, and seeing Jackson’s name in the credits reminded me of Last Exit.

Many, many months later, I would find a sealed copy of Iron Path on vinyl for what could be considered an obscene bargain. Of course, I snatched it.

The problem with precocity is sometimes premature development can be mistakenly conflated with complete development. Yes, I was the audience for an album like Iron Path, but no, not at the age of 17. 29, perhaps. 35, maybe. But not 17.

The album is playing on the turntable as I write this sentence, and I’m enjoying the hell out of it — far, far more than I did approximately a quarter of a century ago. I wanted the wrong thing out of Iron Path the first time around, and I wrongly let it go.

It’s back in my life again, and it’s a pity that it can’t be in yours without a hefty outlay of cash. Used copies for the CD go for exorbitant prices, and the streaming services don’t have it. That pretty much leaves us with YouTube.