Monday, October 3, 2016

Sting Appreciation Day ’16: Review of 'Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police'

Every October 2nd (Sting’s birthday), I try and watch a Sting-related movie—usually a concert. This year, I decided to watch Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, a relatively new documentary, released on DVD in 2015. Can’t Stand Losing You is really a memoir of Andy Summers, the guitar player from the Police, based on his book memoir One Train Later (2007). Interspersed with Summers’ narrative of his time with the Police in the '70s and '80s is footage of the 2007 Police reunion tour. So really today ended up being more of a Summers appreciation day instead of a Sumner appreciation day, but that's okay with me.

There are elements of what you’d expect in a Police documentary—origin stories for the bleached blonde hair, the aviator sunglasses, and "Roxanne"; and lots of footage of live concerts. But the movie gives a different perspective than Sting’s own memoir, Broken Music (2003)—Summers emphasizes the collaborative nature of the creative process of the Police, who did much of the production for their albums themselves, but also how this creative process sometimes devolved as Sting took more and more of the creative power. There is some critiquing of Sting and acknowledgement of the contention, though mostly without vitriol (the biggest critique comes from the editing and juxtaposition of Sting's own Police-era interviews).

What Summers chooses to focus on, though, is a tale of alienation that ran its course over the lifetime of the band. Not only the alienation of the Police from each other, but Summers from his second wife, Kate. In some ways, the title (which has to be a song title) is not so much about losing the band, but losing himself. It seems to be scripted as cautionary tale of what might happen with too much drugs, sex, money, and egos.

Other extras are scattered throughout the film, such as a 2007 Summers strumming his guitar while making coffee or running into a karaoke bar in Japan where someone is singing “Every Breath You Take.” And of course there are copious amounts lots of Summers’ black and white photography (he’s a frequent exhibitor).

Can’t Stand Losing You is not a critical or "serious" documentary. The movie was made for fans, or possibly just because Summers wanted to tell his own version of the story. I would have appreciated more critique and viewpoints; the only interviews were Police-era and mostly focused on Summers. And those old Police interviews could have used some analysis—it’s really hard when to tell when they telling the truth or lying (especially Copeland). I also would have liked more treatment of the creative process (especially Summers’ part in it), which seems to take a backseat to touring, Summers’ personal life, and concert footage. But it was still interesting to get another perspective (I still have not seen Stewart Copeland’s version).

One final note: I saw the Police reunion tour when it came through Salt Lake City in 2007. We had some cheap seats and I was very disappointed with the sound system, which I’m still a little angry about. Besides the bad sound quality (I think it was just the speakers close to us), what I do remember is that Sting and Copeland did not look especially happy to be there—but Summers was on fire. He took extra-long solos and exuded energy, even though he was the oldest on stage by 9 years. In both the concert and the film, I could see that he missed the Police and was sad the band split when they did. Even though Summers is the least flamboyant of the trio, his contributions to their success should not be underestimated, and
Can’t Stand Losing You gives him a voice, albeit a somewhat shallow one.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Behind the scenes calling into a music radio show

What I talked about on Sound Opinions. Buy the album here.
This week, I got a chance to call into Sound Opinions, a public radio show produced by WBEZ in Chicago and featuring Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, two rock critics, who review popular music Siskel-and-Ebert style, interview artists, or deejay themed shows about the history of rock music or other special topics. For those who have not tried calling into radio shows, what follows is a behind-the-scenes take on what goes into the final on-the-air 2-minute radio spot. Then, I'll write what I should have said on the show.

On Wednesday, Sept. 7, a week-and-a-half before the show would go up, I saw a tweet from Sound Opinions asking for emails if someone had a band or album we think was overlooked this year. I emailed in with my selection, Fictionist’s Free Sprit EP, and got a response back in a few days from the show’s production assistant, Alex Claiborne, who asked to set up a pre-interview for Monday, Sept. 12. She called at the appointed time and asked me to just talk about my pick; I think she was simply judging whether I had something to say and would sound good on radio. Even though it was a pre-interview, I was extremely nervous and had to stop several times and calm myself down. I must have sounded at least a little interesting, however, because after we talked, she set up a time to do the real interview with Jim and Greg the following Wednesday, Sept 14. After my nervous pre-interview, I realized I needed to be a little more prepared for the real thing, so I wrote down some things to say. When the day came, Alex called a few minutes earlier than expected (I was ready), and then put me on the line with Jim and Greg, who asked me about my breakfast (it was noon their time but 7am in Hawaii) to check my levels and complained that I should be “climbing a palm tree to pick a pineapple” instead of eating granola. Then the tape was rolling. Jim and Greg proceeded to ask me questions about my pick of a musical “buried treasure.” I didn’t have good answers to some of their questions. I also ignored that the song I was talking about wasn’t new music at the release of the EP—it was recycled from Fictionist’s recent eponymous album (reviewed by me here) and packaged with some new music to drum up more publicity. At some point, Jim and Greg played at bit of the track, which I heard tinnily through the phone. After some more chatting about the music, they asked me to repeat something I had said when apparently my cell phone was not coming through. Then Jim and Greg passed me back to Alex, who told me she’d send me the link when the show was up. The whole phone call took a quick 7 minutes.

I then had the rest of the day to rethink every part of the conversation, coming up with what I should have said. Which I did—by 5pm, I had produced a much better version of the conversation in my head.

Finally, Friday morning, Sept. 16, I got an email from Alex that the show was up, and I went and listened to it. As expected, the producers had edited it down, taking out all the “mm” and “uhh”s and the questions that didn’t lead anywhere. They also reordered a lot of things—the first thing you hear from me is actually the last thing I said (which makes more sense than when I actually said it). There were even a few things I didn’t remember I said. In the end, though, the final result is fairly flattering to both me and them, though I realized listening to the two other listeners’ calls Jim and Greg took that they were definitely not as excited about Fictionist as the other two bands suggested. But at least they were interested enough to talk to me about it (or maybe it was just Alex who was interested). Here's the link for the final show. My bit starts around minute 31:

If had a do-over, this about what I would say about Fictionist’s EP Free Spirit that I didn't get to say right:

My favorite track from the EP is the title track, "Free Spirit." It's a well put together, exciting track with catchy melodies. The band does a great job of varying the music when each section of music comes back; it's always at least slightly different. Sometimes, the music returns very different—I just realized this week that the ethereal, clock-like outro comes from the pre-chorus. There's an earnestness and emotion in the main singer's voice as he sings about giving his partner a choice to leave the relationship, a theme that is not common in pop music. What really gets me is how the verse starts and stops but then the chorus picks up and rockets forward, helped immensely by the percussion. I get goosebumps every time.

As seen in “Free Spirit,” I think Fictionist’s songwriting is one their strengths. Each song is tightly-knit and captivating. Robbie Connolly and Stuart Maxfield have a kind of Lennon-and-McCartney thing going, collaborating and sharing songwriting credits while also trading off vocals. Also like the Beatles, the other band members write an occasional song. Not many bands have that much talent.

I haven’t seen them live since they changed their name to Fictionist, and if I wasn’t living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I would try and go to their concerts. You can see some live studio performances on their website that are pretty exciting. Of course, they recently lost their keyboard player, so it is unclear to me how they are handling performing these songs without him; I’m curious how they are getting around that. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to find out someday.

Meanwhile, I hope they do start playing festivals! They deserve it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sarah Jarosz’s Undercurrent—solid effort with bright spots

[Guitar, banjo, mandolin, or octave mandolin not pictured]
[Guitar, banjo, mandolin, and octave mandolin not pictured]
One of my recent regrets is that I only discovered Sarah Jarosz last year, from an album that came out in 2013.* Because of this regret, I made sure to purchase her new album, Undercurrent, right when it came out in late June.

Jarosz is not only a great mandolin, guitar, and banjo player, but she has a very emotive voice and writes most of her material. She actually doesn’t even play the normal mandolin on this album, splitting most tracks between octave mandolin and guitar. 4 of the tracks are just her and a guitar. Most of the time, Jarosz is equally captivating with just a guitar or mandolin as with a band, delivering captivating intimate performances; although I think more songs with more instruments would have made this a better album.

The hands-down standout track of Undercurrent is “Green Lights”; from beginning to end, the songwriting and production transports to an optimistic place. The lyrics effectively mix the mundane and the cosmic, with long notes and phrases underpinned with driving rhythm. Jarosz makes the genius decision of making the first chorus wordless. “House of Mercy,” another standout, has the opposite feeling of “Green Lights”—instead of opening up because of relationship, the character is closing up, with short phrases, rhythms that start and stop, and a controlled-yet-angry vocal delivery. “Everything to Hide” (the track from which the album gets its title) also is notable for its unconventional structure and confessional, candid lyrics.

Some of the songs are more forgettable than others, short on nuance or number of ideas necessary to sustain interest. Then again, there is only so much you can fit in 2 minutes and 30 seconds. While I don’t think Undercurrent is quite up to the level of Build Me Up From Bones, it is a solid album and recommended.

*I mentioned in a previous post that it was a rare case in which Amazon’s suggestions worked, though the album was suggested over and over again before I actually tried it out.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Artists want to reform DMCA, but is problem deeper?

Earlier this month, 180 artists sent an open letter to Congress in the Washington Post to reform the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) stating the copyright no longer allows artists to earn a living. While there are multiple issues, the main complaint here is against Google and their company YouTube, which these artists feel are exploiting their creations at their expense. You can read a summary of these issues here at the Guardian, which mostly revolve around how advertising revenue is collected.

While YouTube could certainly reform their practices, there’s a bigger problem here that will be harder to solve. Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen Blog points the problem out after examining similar circumstance happening now in the publishing industry: “The fundamental contributor to the erosion of copyright is the expectation for 'free information.' This is an expectation the large technology companies have been happy to set and users have been happy to adopt.” In other words, in the past few years, people have been trained that writing, music, news, etc., should be given out for free. This feeling is understandable (of course we want free stuff!), but it is also doesn’t help the system that creates the art, especially the content creators lower down the pecking order. To illustrate his point, Anderson tells a personal story about presenting a new publication idea to a focus group. Here is what the focus group said about the new product:

"They felt even the rough prototype was superior to its competitors in the market, and they trusted us to execute to that level. The enthusiasm was palpable. When we asked them what they’d pay for it, they unanimously agreed they would not pay for it. They expected to receive it for free—somehow."
Now, I like getting free stuff, too. But it is deeper than that—we've been trained to think that beautiful, complicated, useful systems and products somehow pay for themselves by just existing. This type of free model, in various forms (for example, the "freemium" approach), might actually work for some companies, but obviously is failing for some markets. The real solution to shoring up the failing the artistic (and journalistic) economy is for us to cough up the money and pay for things that we use and like.

It’s that simple. It takes a lot of work to put together music and we shouldn’t expect to get it for free. Quality takes a lot of work and we shouldn't expect it to appear for nothing. I know, easy to say, but hard to do. But it is something that we all should just swallow—even celebrate—and content providers should expect it, too, and make the process of contributing easy. Otherwise, there's a chance that the stuff we enjoy will just disappear.

What do you think? How do you think we can change the expectations?

Monday, June 27, 2016

Birdsong and music

I hear these guys, called alternately a Brazilian, South American, or red-crested cardinal, outside my window every morning. Their song sounds like an ornamented descending mi-re-do. From Mike's Birds under a CC license.

As I've written about on this blog before, I personally love birdsong and often try and identify birds by the sounds they make (though I am not anywhere near as good as this guy). If you are also interested in birdsong and its connection with music, I recommend listening to this 30-minute radio program recently produced by the BBC and part of the series “The Listening Service”:

Although the title of the program (or should I write “programme”?) is “is birdsong music?”, BBC reporter Tom Service instead spends most of his time answering the question: “how has birdsong been used in Western classical music throughout the years?” Though it is not the stated question, it is also a good question, and of course Service does an excellent review on the music of Messiaen, a 20th-century French composer who spent much of his career translating birdsong in to concert music.

Personally, I’ve found Messiaen’s birdsong-inspired music difficult to listen to, somewhat because it was an attempt to take something we don’t understand and try to create some order on it without changing it too much, resulting in very static-sounding music. Birdsong, though, is something that humans often feel like we should understand, because it is all around us and has influenced the way we write music ourselves. But, as this program makes clear, we don’t know birdsong's purpose, and what’s more, we don’t actually hear it very well: “Birdsong is too fast, too high, for us to understand.” While I disagree slightly with the reasoning the program presents as to why this is the case (size or heartbeat really doesn’t make a difference; the speed of audio wave sampling is much more important), it is true that besides not understanding what birdsong means, we can’t even hear it or reproduce it very well.

Instead, birdsong “becomes translated by us” into music. I think this is why I, like Service, enjoy Vaughan Williams’ “The Lark Ascending,” even if it has very little to do with the actual sounds a lark makes—he uses bird-inspired sounds and creates a symbol of the peace and freedom of nature, but doesn’t try to re-create it.

When Service finally get the to the question (“is birdsong music?”) in minute 25, he hasn’t really analyzed the issue, or even defined the terms in the question, but just dismisses it as “false”, even when no proof has been made against at least some birdsong being music to birds (why wouldn’t attracting a mate be artistic?). Still, it is an interesting listen and I would recommend it, especially to anyone fascinated by birdsong.

One more caveat: While I don’t particularly like author Bernie Krause’s metaphor of the great animal orchestra, especially the comparison with taking the strings out of Beethoven 5th, I do understand what he’s saying about birds filling communication niches—animals using sounds to communicate have to differentiate from other animals, so that their message can get across. Which is kind of like orchestration, except formed by competition and instead of consonance. So, kind of the opposite, actually. (I don't think Service really likes the idea, either.)