Monday, October 26, 2009

Recommendations Technology Considered in the Context of Shows, Man

Back in the olden days, I was in a touring band. We played shows all over – toured the US a whole lot of times, Japan once and the UK once. The first time we went on tour, we'd been together for two years, had just released our first 7”, and the Internet was still a bunch of newsgroups for Mountain Dew-swilling techies with dial-up connections. If you were a band that no one knew, you were at the mercy of whoever put an eighth-page ad in MRR. Not unsurprisingly, we ended up playing a lot of shows that didn't make sense – say, with hair-metal pre-post-grunge bands in Spokane, or with a punk/funk band and a goth band at a pizza restaurant on an Apache reservation in Arizona.

We learned from the mistakes we made early on, and as the years went on our network got bigger and our shows got better. After we released an album or two, there were kids in some places that knew who we were and would put together a reasonable bill to fit us on. Also as time went on, our music became a kind of dialogue with the other bands we liked and who we thought were doing interesting things – so there began to be more of a context within which our music could sanely exist.

For us, the best shows were always in the small towns. Places like Bemidji, MN, or Kirksville, MO didn't have a lot of bands come through (“You're the first band to play here since Whitesnake!”) so our show could be the biggest event of the season for the local kids. We rarely had good shows in bigger cities like Chicago – there was too much for people to do and an obscure art-punk band that wasn't on Kill Rock Stars always got lost in the shuffle. Thinking about how it went for us, with our niche music and poorly promoted tours, sheds some light on the idea of one kind of music recommendations technology in the pre-dawn of the current age.

Rock shows are recommendations, and anyone who's been to a few will tell you that a well-thought-out bill can make you see all the bands in a different light, make you love a band you thought you hated or give you an experience whose all is greater than the sum of the bands' individual awesomenesses. If you're a kid in a tiny town, putting together a bill is easy – you get your friends' bands (say it's 1998 – that would be a metal-hardcore band, something twee or emo [in the late-90s sense – the bands were more Hot Water Jaw Music-breaker than Panic! At the Chemical Romance then] or both, and a long-haired kid with an acoustic guitar), and the greatness or lameness of the experience comes not from the jarring juxtaposition of musical aesthetics but from the chance for everyone to be there and see the freaks that showed up from out of town. In a city, sub-scenes have the opportunity to coalesce around various sub-genres – there's basement punk, basement noise rock, all-ages hardcore shows in clubs and Elks lodges, indie rock shows in bars for the hipsters – and lots of opportunity to make a complementary bill with bands that fit together in interesting ways, with a corresponding increase in the risk of screwing it up and making a show that's no fun for anyone.

There are lots of reasons for going to a show, and those reasons seldom boil down to purely musical considerations. This is true no matter what the scene – I could write this same essay about classical music, the status-consciousness of the concert attendees, and the specific pressures that shape the programming of orchestras and chamber groups. In real life and online, people form groups based on appreciation of similar sounds; a venue that usually books bands you like, a friend setting up a show, or the presence on a bill of a band you wanted to see will get you out, and once you're there, when the sound waves vibrate the air, the experience thus colored by the promoter, booking agency, bartender, sound guy, tall dude blocking your view, girl in leather pants standing three people over distracting you from the band, city commissioners that passed the smoking ordinance forcing you out into the cold, and everyone else that conspired to make it is a big, fat recommendation engine. It's other stuff too, but there's no way I'd have, say, a The Bangs record if it weren't for the operation of that system.

So when Frances went nuts in the B and C sections the other day, and I sat staring at the four records she had picked out for me, unable to understand how the FPE had failed to deliver a reasonable set of options, it suddenly hit me – she's a tiny booking agent, and those four bands happened to be in town that day, and she put together a genius bill that would bring out the punks, the post-punks, the math rockers, the noise rockers, the real people who fall somewhere in between those marginally useful categories, all their friends and dates, the hangers-on, the underage beer drinkers, the cops...

In a strange coincidence, all the bands on the bill are performing complete albums, faithful to the original studio versions; also of note is that they are being performed by the members who originally played them, which actually entails at least one person returning from the dead for the duration of this essay – only possible at a Halloween show.

Openers Blind Idiot God, from St. Louis via Brooklyn, set the tone; they're playing their self-titled first album. It's only 10 and nobody's shown up yet, but the promoter is eager to get the show going because the neighbors complained about the noise going too late at the last few shows, and he doesn't want the cops showing up this time. And anyway, the first waves of kids are walking in the door, nodding their wussup nods and claiming their presence on “the list”. So yeah, Stupid Blind Goat or something. What's the deal with these guys anyway? Sweaters? Really? Is this “college rock”? Hey wow – they're metal! Wait – is that metal? Umm. I think this rocks. Whoa. Now they're on some kinda King Jammy-Jam vibe. I don't get this at all. Hey, is that girl in the leather pants into them? Ok, yeah this is kind of good. I think I'll get the album. What the hell is that on the cover – an eye-monster? Did Leather-Pants Girl see me buy it?

The second slot is the secret weapon – it's the meat of the show, the glue that holds the rest together, but lots of people miss it usually; it's actually the ease with which it's overlooked that gives it such power. With no one paying attention, and half the crowd still drinking out back, a band that plays second has a chance to be the background noise that creates the atmosphere. Today this slot belongs to Cinemechanica, from Athens, GA, who will be playing their first album, The Martial Arts. Athens is a college town, and it gets reinvented every few years, but it's probably destined forever to be associated with its more famous musical children of the 1980s (I speak here of Oh-OK and the Georgia Satellites, naturally) and the 1990s (Bubba Sparxxx and Japancakes). Two of my favorite bands, Harvey Milk and Jucifer, both started out in Athens as well; really, this town rivals Jamaica in terms of the disproportion of its musical notoriety to its size – and none of these scenes inform Cinemechanica's music at all. They play a tightly coiled series of labyrinthine songs, guitars harmonizing in dissonance, drums and bass cacophanizing organizedly, almost politely, and screamy vocals fitting snugly in their appointed slots. It's like a musical spaghetti junction; an expertly plotted mess. They have packed the noise of the last 20 years of underground rock into their van and driven like Jehu to get it into eMusic's catalog, where technology provided by a little startup called MediaUnbound recommended it to me. A bit of a convoluted path to get the LP into Frances's hands and thence to my turntable for the show today, but it could have been no other way.

On a four-band bill (the perfect number for a rock show, if you ask me), the coveted slot in underground rock is the third. By the time the fourth band sets up and is ready to play, the train has stopped running and the crowd has thinned out considerably. An astute programmer will often recognize this, and put the draw on third; even if no one stays to see out-of-towners that no one's heard of, at least they'll get paid, and it's not like keeping a huge crowd in your basement till 2am does anyone any good if there's no beer to be sold. This brings us to the Circle Jerks, who are offering their first album, Group Sex. Holy. Crap. What was that? They played for like 10 minutes and this kid almost ripped my ear off! Seriously though, all preciousness aside, what a great record – Frances has awesome taste for real. So many high points, not a single moment wasted. The tossed-off guitar riff that opens “Back Against the Wall”, an epic 5 seconds that negates the entire prog era; the anthemic explosions of “Wasted” and “Red Tape”; the way Keith Morris finds ten different line readings for the word “ass” in “World up My Ass” (but the first one is the best – probably my favorite recording of anyone saying “ass”, ever); the breakdown in the middle of “What's Your Problem” – budduhbudduhbudduhbump. Budduhbudduhbump. Three bars of juggajuggajuggajuggajuggajuggajuggajugga, then THRASH! Pity the unlucky fools that have to play after the Circle Jerks.

Today that duty falls to Chrome, and it's a good thing a lot of people left. Theirs is not a crowd-friendly noise. The setlist is 3rd from the Sun, the final album they released with the classic lineup of Helios Creed and Damon Edge, and from the big-eyed, space-spawned hell-bug on the cover, through the impenetrable, alienating processed guitar and sub-bass-drone grooves to the hellishly low-pitched vocals, it's all too much for a casual music fan. I don't want to know what they are singing about, but I do get the feeling that it's all the same to them if the room's cleared out. They appear to be making music because if they don't release it this way it will claw itself out of their abdomens, The Thing-style, with all kinds of guts and blood and organs and stuff, and everyone will be all scared and have to run away and it will feast on the drunk dude that totally passed out by the furnace.

As the survivors regroup to begin picking up the beer cans and start to heat up a late-night, post-show burrito, it's time to zoom slowly out... Conclusions! The FPE has freed my mind this time, liberating the concept of recommendation from the shackles of technology, the while allowing me to indulge nostalgia and invent the perfect rock show. Yet another triumph for the little engine that could.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Yes

In my last post I mentioned limitations to the FPE, but I didn't mention any specific problems except for the height issue. Another problem has brought itself to light recently.

Frances' little fingers lack the dexterity to reliably pick one single record from the shelf, and her little arms lack the strength to push the heavy records aside to pull a single record out. Thus, FPE picks are heavily weighted towards records at the ends of rows, and those that don't have the weight of other records resting on them.

That means some of the likeliest picks are smack in the middle of the Yes section.

This time around, I'm evaluating two Yes albums: Time and a Word (for which Frances was tasteful enough to select the British version, featuring an alternate cover with a Naked Lady on it) and Tormato. I am very, very grateful that she didn't pick Yessongs--but, it being a triple album, maybe the strength limitation of the FPE was on my side in this case.

Why do I even have a Yes section? The short answer is Buffalo 66. I can't remember a single thing that happened in this movie--all I have is a vague memory of a sense of ire crescendoing over the course of 90 minutes to a peak brought on by the preciousness of its auteur. That and a scene of an uncomfortable dinner with parents--oh I guess I did remember something. Way to go, Gallo.

There are two Yes songs in this film. One is "Starship Trooper", which plays in a pivotal scene involving some gimmicky camera work with a bullet (shoot, I remembered something else - well, really it's because of the Yes song), and whose profile is not helped at all by its appearance in this (or I suspect any) film. The other is "Sweetness", a gorgeous and uncharacteristically subdued early-career song that plays over the credits. Before this film came along, I had subscribed to the general feeling among my peers that Yes is "pretty lame". That dude's high nasally voice, the ridiculous lyrics, overblown songs that go nowhere and take 20 minutes to do it... After I heard "Starship Trooper", I revised my opinion to one summed up in an IM I made earlier today after playing Tormato for the first time in seven or eight years:

Matt Pakulski: oh man
Matt Pakulski: oh man
Matt Pakulski: Yes is pretty awesome



To enjoy Yes, you need to be aware that they are going to take you to some ludicrous places, that these are not necessarily places you think you'll want to go, and that it's all about that ridiculous up-front bass playing. Wakeman the keyboard player gets a lot of attention for his huge setups and ability to play a keyboard as well as your average classical pianist, but without that bass they would be Starcastle (yes, I have a Starcastle section too. Yes, I'm glad it's in the S's that Frances can't reach). Anderson's is not a voice that I particularly like the sound of, but it completes the sonic palette and occasionally provides effects that make you glad their vocalist isn't, say, Greg Ginn. Also Anderson's the chief songwriter, especially on the early records--but I think the actual songs (catchy syncopated vocal melodies wrapping around preposterous lyrics about celestial beings and the like) are much less interesting than the arrangements. For me, this group is all about those high highs--the two or three minutes in the middle of side one of Relayer (the mid-point of the side-long "The Gates of Delirium") where the guitar and bass melt the universe; the crashing waves of love at the climax of "Close to the Edge"; the part in "Starship Trooper" where they rush you to the edge of a cliff and then cast you into the eternal void. I can do without the many boring and/or awful bits--the classical indulgences they allowed Wakeman; the blissed-out, go-nowhere final movement of "The Gates of Delirium"; the ever-lazier reliance on a single ridiculous idea to carry an overlong composition that became their chief M.O. starting sometime in the late 70s.

Time and a Word is from early in their career, and they still sound hungry. This album is from before Wakeman joined the group with his cumbersome organ collection, so the sound is dominated by original organist Tony Kaye's B3, the always-awesome bass of Chris Squire, and Tony Cox's exciting orchestral string arrangements. At four tracks per side, the songs are concise for Yes, making for a less exhausting listen than some of their more bloated opi (Tales from Topographic Oceans, a double LP with four songs total, comes to mind as a diagram of real Yes excess [exYes?]).

The album explodes out of the box with the smoking "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed". It's a Richie Havens song, and I'm ashamed to say I'm not familiar with the original, but I think it's a fair guess that they've punched it up a bit. It flirts with actually rocking, in the blues-based sense, making it a comfortable introduction to Yes for the timid. From there on out, it's a satisfying album, each song allowed adequate space to develop a few ideas, no aimlessness, and no annoying tracks--the side-closing anthems “Sweet Dreams” and “Time and a Word” (sides one and two respectively) border on annoying but fade out before wearing out their welcomes. My other two favorite songs are the lovely “Clear Days”, barely two minutes and all strings in a fresh arrangement accompanying Jon Anderson's who-knows-what-he's-on-about lyrics, and “Astral Traveller” [sic] with its dark, dissonant vocal hook.

Tormato. A real head-scratcher, even for these guys. We'll start with the cover, designed by prog go-to artists Hipgnosis – apparently a combination of a tomato and a tornado. Why? Is it explained by any of the songs? Nope. By the time of this album's release in 1978, Yes had already dealt bombastically with the end of time and the birth of various new orders over the course of several vinyl juggernauts and arena tours. Presumably they were living some kind of rock star thing, with groupies and drugs and stuff--their previous album Going for the One had been the first to move in a pop direction, and this album seems like more of the new easier-to-swallow Yes.

As with Time and a Word, the opening number rules the planet. “Future Times / Rejoice” hits you with that Squire blonk and straight-up joyous marvel: “In the fountains of the Universe / Sits the boychild Solomon...” After this, unlike on Time and a Word, they veer badly off course. “Don't Kill the Whale” (unbelievably, a Top 40 hit) delivers on its title: “We will judge all who came / In the wake of our new age to stand for the frail / Don't kill the whale / CETACE!”

Double-you. Tee. Eff.

On further reflection, it occurs to me that “save the whales” was a cause in the 70s and 80s, so I guess this song was topical (and now dated) rather than being evidence of complete mindlessness on the part of Yes [mindlessYes?]. If we needed evidence of mindlessYes, though, it should suffice to remember the cover of this record. A tomato. And a tornado. A man, with some knives or something. Nonsense. Side one doesn't improve after this, the remainder being devoted to the insufferable Wakeman piece “Madrigal” and the appalling “Rejoice, Rejoice”. Seriously guys, this song is so unrelentingly ugly, what were you thinking?

Side two is a bit of something else. They have remained in la-la land, but kept their wits about them enough to chart a listenable path. The first two tracks, “Arriving UFO” and “Circus of Heaven” are the type of cheesy total insanity that could only have been made by Yes in 1978; a marvelous achievement. I love the end of “Circus of Heaven”: “On the dreamy ground we walked upon / I turned to my son and said / 'Was that something beautiful, amazing, wonderful, extraordinarily beautiful?'”, answered by a guest vocal from Jon's kid Damion, saying, “Oh it was ok, but there were no clowns, or lions, or tigers, no bears, no candy-floss, toffee apples, no clowns.”

Indeed. No clowns. Easy for you to say, Damion.

The final two tracks are certainly worth more than a cursory mention (well “Onward” isn't really; it's inoffensive and somewhat pleasant anyway), but I tire of this exercise, so I'll simply say that I also love the opening moments of “On the Silent Wings of Freedom”: the bass and drums casting about, sounding like nothing so much as when my band used to arrive at practice and start warming up, playing some crap and not listening, just getting the ice out of the fingers.

There you have it. Tormato. Not as consistent as Time and a Word, but more fun for sure. The verdict on Yes: their mind-boggling pretension takes them right over the top into silly land. I love them. Did I ever want to listen to either album again? Not at all. They both put a big stupid grin on my face though, so it appears that the FPE is doing its job. I need to make some tweaks to the engine though so I don't have to keep writing about Yes. Maybe a baby weight-lifting program at the Y. For now, I've shifted the Y section a bit so the weight is off the Neil Young records – maybe next time I'll be in for some thoughtful country-inflected classic rock stomp.