Tag Archives: Music

Funky Monkey by The Vignola Collective (Advent Calendar day 8)

Album Art

Funky Monkey

The Vignola Collective

Gypsy Grass

Genre: Jazz

If I were ever being chased, I wouldn’t want to be in the sort of chase where the music
is scored by the same people who did the Chris Nolan “Batman” movies, or the “Bourne” saga, or God forbid the laptop-twiddlers who scored “Saw.”

No. I’d want it to be the kind where music like this is playing. Clearly, the composer would write this to accompany a sequence in which the likable but slightly uptight co-lead is nicely dressed for a semi-formal occasion and he’s being followed, and then pursued, by a big, muddy dog who just wants to jump up on him and cover him with pawprints and doggie kisses.

Or, a Mr. Bean-style rush across town to be on time for a dental appointment or return a library book before incurring late charges.

What I’m getting at is that getting chased in a movie is never fun when the pursuers have guns and big cars with squealy tires and they mean to kill you at worst or, at best, throw you into a dirty canvas sack, dump you off at a secluded warehouse, torture you for information about an operation or organization you know nothing about and then kill you.

“Funky Monkey” is definitely a track that goes well to lines like “Oh, Sebastian! You naughty, naughty doggie! My jacket is ruined now! Hah-ha-hah…stop licking my face, Sebastian! I’m scolding you, here! Ha ha ha!” You could loop it into the soundtrack under sounds like “bzzzzz-AIEEEEE!!!!-thwack-thwack-crack-RGGHHGGHH!!!!-chunk-chunk” but I dare say that the music would make it into a much different movie.

Try or buy “Funky Monkey” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Yup, that link is embedded with my associates code. If I’ve slighted you at some point in the past and you’ve been looking for a passive-aggressive way to get back at me, then you definitely shouldn’t follow that link because any purchases you make immediately afterward will result in my getting some Amazon credits.

Or maybe you should. I tend to spend those credits on silly things, like Gummy Fried Eggs. Them’s completely made out of corn syrup and will pitch me headfirst into an early grave. I’ll be dead and you’ll have an ice-cold alibi.

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: “The Lady Is A Tramp” (Amazon Advent Calendar day 6)

Album Art

The Lady Is A Tramp

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga

Duets II

Genre: Pop

Yesterday’s post covered the subject of “Being surprised that a famous person is good at doing something else besides the thing for which he or she is famous.” Today’s topic is about being surprised that the famous person is good at the thing they’re actually supposed to be good at.

I’m speaking, of course, of Tony Bennett.

I’m joking, of course.

I’m actually speaking, of course, of Lady Gaga. I admit without hesitation or qualification that I was wrong, wrong, wrong when I assumed that she was (at best) a mediocre singer. Why did I make that assumption? I dunno. I mean, she ripped off so much else from Madonna…

Okay, I apologize for that.

The actual explanation: I’ve only heard a few of Gaga’s songs and in each of them, her natural singing voice was tightly shrinkwrapped behind a wall of production trickery. Overprocessing is a big help to the mediocre singers — it putties in all of the lows and cracks in a performance — but when the lady can actually sing, heavy production also sands down the highs.

It might be a point of pride that causes a true vocalist to put one track on the album in which it’s just them and a microphone. I think it’s why many stage magicians wedge a selection of slight-of-hand tricks in between the Swallowing A Gulfstream Jet Trick and the Flaming Elephant Escape Illusion. Showbiz is showbiz, but it’s a point of pride to demonstrate that you have the sort of skills that come from dedication and hard work in addition to the sort of buying power that lets you bring in whatever hardware that a miracle requires.

Tony Bennett kicked it up a notch by singing a capella in his live shows…without even any assistance from a microphone. This here’s a crummy phone video but it was shot during a Radio City Music Hall performance. This is not a small venue:

I believe that this was shot in 2007. When Mr. Bennett was EIGHTY-ONE YEARS OLD.

EIGHTY-ONE!!!

Dammit, if ever there was a time when the HTML "BLINK" tag was 100% called for…

Onward. Yes. Please. More Gaga tracks like this one: the lady has some serious pipes and the track makes me want to seek out more of her music. If she ever released an “American songbook” album, I’d consider that a pretty quick 1-click.

Maybe in a couple of years, after she and her fans get itchy for her Next Thing. I did see her HBO concert special, and (yes) I thought there was too much staging and too much flash. Those things do a remarkable job of obscuring her talent. The show was all meat dress and no steak.

Allow me to make an overly-precious simile. There’s a restaurant up above Boulder, Colorado that serves all kinds of game. I used to eat dinner there once every year. I’d always order the oddest thing on the menu just on principle and the experience taught me something important. One year, I ordered emu. It arrived as a thick, grilled steak with very light seasoning. A little salt and pepper? Maybe.

One year, I ordered alligator. It arrived slathered in cheese and heavy sauces.

The clear lesson: terrific ingredients can stand on their own. If it’s something that Humanity was never meant to consume, the chef covers it in enough gunk that you can’t taste it at all.

So when I see a performer who works so hard at being so outrageous…yes, my prejudices get the better of me. I assume that it’s a crocodile quesadilla.

(Aside: Emu is heavenly. It’s truly a fusion of the best elements of red and white meat.)

Seriously, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. But that’s marketing for you. As a consumer, I’m not obligated to try out every song, movie, or TV show. I’m to be forgiven for applying what I’ve learned from past experience when deciding how to best invest my time and money, right?

Lady Gaga is more like Cyndi Lauper than Madonna. Lauper, too, had — and still has — an incredible voice and an outrageous style that might have caused some people to draw the wrong conclusion and turn away. But she had the advantage of coming on to the popular scene in the early Eighties, when audio production tools were still analog and a fantastic voice could still fight its way through whatever layers of spray-on gold and gloss that a producer attempted to slap on it.

This is Tony Bennett’s second album of duets and like its predecessor it helps expunge my memory of Frank Sinatra’s end-of-career “Duets” albums. Sinatra’s handlers arranged for a nice lineup of talent, but they all essentially performed karaoke to Sinatra’s pre-recorded tracks. Bennett’s duets are real, in-studio collaborations and it shows. “The Lady Is A Tramp” is one of the standouts; Bennett and Gaga really sound like they’re having a great time together.

Try or buy “The Lady Is A Tramp” on the Amazon MP3 Store. Anything you buy on Amazon after clicking the link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits. Which, I assure you, I shall spend on Lovely and Foolish Things.

Dudley Moore: “Lillian Lust” (Amazon Advent Calendar Day 5)

Album Art

Lillian Lust

Dudley Moore

Dudley Moore Ensemble

Genre: Jazz

Damn.

Damn, damn, damn.

DAMN.

Folks, I’ve just failed an OCD test.

(God-damn-it.)

As I was writing yesterday’s Advent post, it occurred to me that one of the 50 or so Advent Calendar candidates in my playlist would make an absolutely perfect selection for Day 5: “Lillian Lust.” It links back to the tracks from the previous three days:

1) It’s from a soundtrack, just like “Anything Goes” and “The Devil’s Concerto”;

2) “Lillian Lust” was composed for “Bedazzled,” which was directed by Stanley Donen. Yup, the same man who directed the “Moonlighting” dance sequence that was set to “Big Man On Mulberry Street”;

3) “Bedazzled” is about a deal with the devil, just like “The Devil And Daniel Webster.”

If you want to stretch it out just a little, it even connects back to Day One: I bought this track after seeing “Bedazzled” on cable, which is the same reason why I bought “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea.”

I saw the pattern, I sensed an opportunity to complete the pattern, and I just couldn’t let it go. It’s like hearing someone tap “Shave…and-a-hair…cut…” and then he stops. You must tap “TWO! BITS!” Otherwise, you’ll be fitful, distracted and irritable for the whole rest of the day.

I can only score this experience as a failure of personal resolve. Sometimes, you sense that there’s a test in front of you and that your next choice is a crucial one. Are you a person of complex and subtle intellect and reason, a mature adult in full control of his behavior? Or are you a damp robot who can process a billion instructions per second but who on a kernel-level exists only to connect stimuli to the proper pre-defined responses?

“Lillian Lust” is a good tune. I wouldn’t have put it in the Candidates playlist if I didn’t like it lots and lots. It’s not my favorite track in the list of Advent Calendar candidates, but I probably would have posted it one way or another. That said, however…

Twoooooo bits!

Oh, well. I guess I should move on to the next step in my self-diagnosis.

(‘Scuze me while I make some adjustments to a bookshelf…)

A shelf of "Complete Peanuts" books, with one book out of chronological sequence.

Okay. So if I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and bite my lower lip for twenty minutes in the dark and then run down to my office to fix fix fix fix fix that, it’ll be the final and most damning proof that I’ve got a serious problem and I should probably address it chemically..

Here’s Dudley Moore performing today’s song on TV:

Three cheers for Moore. When a famous person proves to be talented in a second field (like during that episode of “Big Bang Theory” midway through the first season in which Johnny Galecki’s character plays the cello really, really well) isn’t it just a little bit like seeing Clark Kent turning into Superman? You had no idea that he had these…secret powers.

But when you see exactly how skilled Dudley Moore was as a musician — not just as a piano player, but as a composer and improviser — you realize it’s less like Clark Kent turning into Superman and more like Superman turning into Batman. Moore could easily have inhabited either role exclusively, and with exceptional success.

“Bedazzled” offers another peek at a kind of Satan that I really, really like. George Spiggott (played by Moore’s arch comic partner Peter Cook) has been at this gig for eons and he knows that the subtle approach is the most effective. There isn’t a whole lot of cackling and scheming about his methods. He’s collecting souls, but chiefly just to win a bet with God.

As for his efforts to turn human existence on Earth into a living Hell, he goes about it by filling our lives with relentless petty annoyances and by manipulating us into lowering our dreams and expectations. The Devil simply sees to it that we allow every restaurant to become like an Olive Garden and that most popular phone OS is Android and that “Twilight” book series becomes an international best-seller that spawns a series of moneymaking movies. Why bother summoning the galloping hordes of Hell’s armies? That’s just, you know, showboating.

This scene tells you everything you need to know:

Dudley Moore is Stanley Moon, a fry cook who’s sold his soul in exchange for seven wishes, which he uses to try to win the heart of a waitress he adores. Each wish goes awry, of course, and in between these scenes, as Stanley contemplates his next wish, Moon and the Devil build an odd friendship. Or maybe it can be described more accurately as a pleasant but superfluous owner/pet relationship.

It’s not much of a story, honestly. The real premise of “Bedazzled” is that any story framework that supports a nonstop interplay between Peter Cook and Dudley Moore for an hour and a half couldn’t help but be hugely funny.

The filmmakers were extremely correct in this supposition. “Bedazzled” serves as an almost nonstop showcase for one of the most uncannily well-matched comedy duos that ever existed. Like Laurel and Hardy, Pete and Dud’s comedy doesn’t come from two people being funny in the same space. The comedy is in the clubs that they pass back and forth.

Here’s what I mean. In honor of the holidays, check out Dudley Moore as the apostle Matthew interviewing shepherd Peter Cook, witness to the birth of Christ:

Buy “Lillian Lust” on iTunes. You don’t need to “try” it, do you? The video I linked earlier has the whole thing and it’s a nice, clean recording.

Yes, iTunes. It’s one of those rare tracks that’s available on one of the megamusic stores but not the other. “But Andy…I so look forward to clicking on an Amazon link so that the things I buy during that session lead to your getting a small kickback!”

Oh, you’re such a dear. Here, at least consider buying “Bedazzled” on DVD. Don’t worry: I’ve linked to the proper one, not the wholly-unnecessary 2000 remake with Brendan Fraser.

I’m sure that pointless remakes of successful movies are just another part of Satan’s subtle and cunning plan.

Elmer Bernstein: “The Devil’s Concerto” (Amazon Advent Calendar Day 2)

Album Art

The Devil’s Concerto

Elmer Bernstein

Bernard Hermann Film Scores

Genre: Soundtracks

Clearly, I have a big decision to make for Friday. My first two tracks in the Advent Calendar invoke the name of the Dark One right in the title. If I do that a third day in a row — and I do indeed have such a track in the queue — there might be repercussions that would be (1) unpredictable, (2) completely out of my control, and (3) an awesome design for either a mediocre 1981 heavy-metal album or the side of a custom Chevy van.

Well, that’s for tomorrow. For today, we have a lovely movie theme. It’s from the 1941 classic “The Devil And Daniel Webster,” in which Walter Huston plays what was probably the greatest movie Devil until 1980, which was when Peter O’Toole played director Eli Cross in “The Stunt Man.”

Which itself wouldn’t be matched until Jon Lovitz’s nuanced portrayal in 1986:

But I digress. Yes, this is the Devil we love and fear. Not the one who’s all horns and hooves and minions, not the one who stupidly appears during an incredibly ill-advised Spider-Man limited series to implement the dippy whims of the editor-in-chief in the daffiest way possible. This is the Devil who senses that ember of evil lurking inside all of us and then, with the slightest of effort and with the full consent of the damned, brings it out into the air where it can spark and flame.

WANT. It’s not just Internet-age shorthand signifying Strong Approval. It’s also the label on the button on the express elevator to Bad Behavior. Did Huston’s “Mr. Scratch” do anything that was actually evil? Really, all he did is hocus-pocus Jabez Stone into a bit of good fortune early on. The evil stuff that happens afterward is all on Jabez.

(I’m sorry. I must now Google to see if that’s a real name…)

(Okay, it’s one of them Old Testament names. That don’t make it any less weird, though. Folks, I’m not forbidding you to give your kid a Bible-ey kind of name. But please: stick to the Gospels. It gives the kid a fighting chance. A “Luke” never has to spell his name to a hotel receptionist and if he turns away from Christianity he can pretend he was named after the Skywalker, or the Cool Hand.)

“The Devil’s Concerto” is a solo violin piece and it consists of variations on an initial tune: “Pop, Goes The Weasel.” The first time the song is played through, it’s the same familiar melody that caused Curly to explode into a tornado of fist-flying fury.

(cf. “Punch Drunks,” 1934).

But the tune gets slightly more demented with each run-through until it’s finally very clear that the man playing this instrument clearly doesn’t have the best interests of the audience in mind. It’s measured, controlled chaos and it must be the most difficult trick for a composer (and a performer) to pull off. To break every rule, to suppress every time-honed instinct, and somehow manage to build a contraption that looks like it can’t possibly fly…but does. Great stuff.

Buy or try “The Devil’s Concerto” from the Amazon MP3 store. If you buy anything, I’ll receive a small kickback in the form of Amazon credits…which I promise to spend on fun and foolish things.

George Harrison: “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” (Amazon Advent Calendar 2011 Day 1)

Album Art

Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

George Harrison

Brainwashed

Genre: Rock

I’ve read epic tales of music hounds who search for rare and “lost” recordings as though these tunes were lost children, or violent criminals, or that one peanut M&M that you remember dropping under the sofa just before you started the movie an hour ago. Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar have written comics on that subject. Crumb was so obsessive about collecting old blues and jazz records that he’d often target a neighborhood of old people down south and go from door to door, asking if they had any 78’s they’d like to get rid of.

(Thus proving that there are elements to Crumb’s weirdness that go beyond looking for women of good, sturdy Eastern European stock and then asking them for piggyback rides.)

You might also think about the lonely but brave preservationists at the Smithsonian and the National Archives, keeping our cultural heritage safe for future generations. Good men and women, every last one of them.

I say this as a sheepish introduction to this track, which was one of my most-played acquisitions of 2011. How did I, Andy Ihnatko, intrepid musicological explorer, discover this wonderful piece of music?

Um…I saw it on that documentary of George Harrison that Martin Scorsese made for HBO.

Yes. I admit it. Often, HBO or some other entertainment conglomerate is responsible for introducing me to music. It doesn’t lend me a whole lot of “we are the 99%!” credibility, I admit. But I got the song and that’s really all that matters, isn’t it?

“Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” was written in 1931 or thereabouts, which falls somewhere in the final act of the popularity of sheet music as a means of music publishing. It’s hard to imagine this medium playing the exact same role in the 1800’s and early 1900’s as an MP3 download does today. If you grew up with a piano in the house, sheet music was that dusty stuff inside the bench that you’d pull out when it was time to prepare for a lesson. Back in the day, no, that’s how a hit popular song made its way across the country.

I wonder if that’s part of the charm of these tunes. They weren’t going to be just listened to…they were also going to be played. Or, rather, “performed.” The paper was nothing until it was placed on a little ledge at the piano and somebody in the house sat down and plunked through it.

How did those people relate to music? There couldn’t have been anything mystifying about it. To this day, Beatles fans and guitarists continue to debate about exactly what chord George Harrison plays to kick off “A Hard Day’s Night.” In 1900, the music is just an abstraction and every performance redefined it to the ear.

You also must have felt a tremendous sense of investment in the piece, as you trim bits that seem too hard or add little fills as the song becomes more familiar to your fingers and you see opportunities to amuse yourself.

You don’t get that sort of thing today. A slim percentage of tunes become “standards” in every sense of the word. You can go ahead and record “It Might As Well Be Spring” but you do so with the knowledge that you’re settling into a crouch at a starting line next to every great vocalist who ever existed and the listener can’t help but compare.

Otherwise? We don’t click into songs; we identify with performances. And learning how to actually perform a song that you like Just Isn’t Done.

One element in which we’ve come full circle, though: we’re back at the point where we tend to relate to music as individual tracks divorced from any larger context. Purists bemoan the fact that albums were designed not just as this specific group of songs, but as a presentation in a specific order. That somehow, Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is a different song when it comes up on Shuffle Play than when it comes after you’ve just heard “That Voice Again” and then walked across the room and flipped over to side 2 of “So”.

Want to learn “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea”? No sweat: here are the lyrics and chords, via the wonderful Ukulele Boogaloo site. I’m about a third of the way through it, myself; I’m at the point where I can play the verses and only start muttering “Crap, no, that’s not it…” when I get to the choruses.

George Harrison became a big fan of the ukulele later in life. One has to imagine that it was a much easier and relaxed leap than when he became curious about the sitar. For sure it was easy to travel around with a half-dozen ukuleles in the trunk of his car than it was to travel with a six-pack of sitars. The uke is a highly-social instrument and Harrison was a highly-social musician. The documentary underscores how much of Harrison’s music consisted of him wanting to get together with his friends and play. The documentary has Tom Petty telling the story of George dropping off several ukes at his house, just in case he’s ever over and wants to get another uke jam going.

I’m so glad that this recording made the final cut of Harrison’s final — yes, posthumous — album. It represents a kind of music that’s sorely unrepresented: strictly fun tunes that everybody can get behind. Sure, we need the kind where it sounds as though the Gods are riding down from the heavens on beasts of stone, intent to steal back Fire from humanity. But can’t we also have these lovely little plunka-plunka-plunka ones?

That said: I’d like to hear more about the relationships that Ted Koehler (the lyricist) had with the women in his life.

I don’t want you
But I’d hate to lose you
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea.

This is the sort of man that teary-eyed women used stand up and talk about during a taping of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” no?

Here’s the link to buy/preview “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” from Amazon. As usual, anything you buy after clicking this link results in a small kickback in the form of Amazon credits, which I promise to spend on foolish and wonderful things.

Amazon Advent Calendar 2011: The Preamble

And so, this is Christmas…and what have you done?

I can only speak for myself. I’ve done a little advance gift shopping. I’ve given a smidgen of thought to making photo cards this year (but if I were to actually follow through on that, I’d be breaking a beloved holiday tradition that I’ve kept up my whole life). Let’s see. I also gave the kitchen a good cleaning, though that was really just something I would have, and should have, been doing anyway.

And I’ve assembled a new iTunes playlist entitled “2011 Advent Calendar Candidates.” This is the time of year when I look through all of the music I bought since last November and think “Holy mother of Great Zarquon! Did I honestly buy nothing but zither music and Tin Pan Alley songs that in one way or another attack every flavor of immigrant known to angry, simple-minded men of the 1910’s and Twenties?”

Which then sends me off to buy some new music. Because although my annual Musical Advent Calendar is unabashedly and unapologetically a showcase of my taste and music and mine alone…well, why pass up an opportunity for a little spin control.

“Look at some of these selections!” one will hopefully marvel. “Such breadth! This Ihnatko fellow has a hunger for discovery and an enthusiasm for all kinds of music…not just the stuff that he liked when he was a kid!”

(Which is a pretty ambitious lie. Whenever I need to create the impression that I have any clue about current popular music, I just download the latest “Weird Al” Yankovic album and check out the source tracks for his latest parodies. Mark my words, children: twenty years from now, Al will still be doing song parodies and you will use that tip.)

Anyway. Yes: Advent Calendar time. Every day between now and Christmas, I’ll be recommending a new track that’s available for download on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Why Amazon MP3? Because at the moment, it’s still — marginally — the best store from which to make purchases. The selection and prices are damned-near identical to what you’ll find in the iTunes Store. With the Amazon MP3 Downloader app installed, your purchases automatically land straight into your iTunes library, just like an iTunes purchases.

And here’s the kicker: iTunes Match doesn’t care where a track comes from. If you’ve subscribed, iTunes simply notes that a copy of The Captain And Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” has appeared in your library, noted to its own shock and horror that this same track is also available via iTunes, and presto, it’s instantly available for play on your iOS devices with no syncing necessary.

Meanwhile, your purchases also appear in Amazon’s cloud locker and you can play ’em through a webapp or an Android app. So you get two additional wins over buying stuff from iTunes.

Oh, yes, and then there’s the fact that all of my recommendations are quietly embroidered with my Amazon Associates ID. Now that you mention it, I suppose that I will get a small kickback from all of your Amazon purchases during that visit. Couldn’t have been further from my mind, honestly.

Mmm…yes, I probably had your indulgence up until the point where I unwisely chose to end that sentence with the word “Honestly.” Please strike that from the record.

Let’s just put that unpleasantness behind us. I should simply say that I sincerely believe two things: first, that Amazon is the best place to buy music from at the moment, for the reasons I’ve already stated; and second, that by the time the holidays are over I’d really, really like to have earned enough credits for an iPad 3.

Onward!

Amazon to Apple: Oh, it is sooo ON!!!

Screenshot of Amazon.com browser window, showing the Cloud Player; foreground window is the Amazon MP3 Uploader, copying iTunes playlists into Amazon Cloud Drive.

Screenshot of Amazon.com browser window, showing the CloudPlayer; foreground window is the Amazon MP3 Uploader, copying iTunes playlists into Amazon CloudDrive.

This is why I love my job. Today, Amazon enabled two new features to their site: Amazon Cloud Player and Amazon Cloud Drive.

Cloud Drive is iDisk via Amazon storage, pretty much. You get 5 gigs of storage for free and can buy more as you need it. Your Cloud Drive can store anything…documents, photos, movies, music.

Cloud Player…lets you stream all of the music you’ve stored on your Cloud Drive. Annnnd everything you purchase via Amazon MP3 (from now on, anyway) is automatically added to your Cloud Drive and doesn’t count towards your storage limit. If you buy 100 gigs of Amazon MP3, you can play all of it for free without paying a dime. In fact, if you buy MP3s from Amazon, they’ll up your “regular” storage to 20 gigs anyway.

And there’s a helper app that’ll scan your existing iTunes library for music files that are compatible with the service. Click a button and all of it — or selected playlists — get uploaded to your Cloud Drive…even files you didn’t purchase through Amazon MP3.

The Cloud Player works through any web browser that supports Adobe Air. So: your Mac is in the club…but your iOS devices are out. But good news if you have an Android phone: the Amazon MP3 app will stream alllllll of your content just great.

Photo of the Amazon MP3 app for Android phones.

The Amazon MP3 app for Android devices...all of the music I've put into my CloudDrive is streamable. Even the stuff I didn't buy from Amazon!

I’ve already transferred four gigs of music to the cloud and yup, it works great. Any computer, anywhere there’s Internet, I get an iPod Nano’s worth of music. I’ve also downloaded the new Amazon MP3 app to my Android phone and…yup…there’s my music.

I tried opening the webplayer on my iPad and it warned me that I’ve got the wrong kind of browser. The player loads up, I can see my music, I can tap a Play button, it selects the track…but nothing happens.

iPad browser with the Amazon CloudPlayer.

You can visit your Cloud Player on the iPad, and it looks like it could be playing your music...but nothing will play. It seems to require Adobe Air/Flash.

Well, isn’t this very interesting!

I wrote a column last week about the new Amazon AppStore and how this signaled a start to some more direct and aggressive competition between Amazon and Apple as the elite seller of digital content and as the Great and Powerful Oz of your mobile experience. This is the second shoe to drop in that battle and there’s a centipede’s worth yet to come.

I’ve used this service for just a half an hour but yes, I already like it a lot. It’s a much simpler and more robust way to cloud-stream your online music purchases than anything else going at the moment. It’s a reason why I’ll continue to buy music from Amazon instead of iTunes.

And — God help me — it makes all Android phones that much more cool.

[Added: and to anyone who wonders where the money is for Amazon in this…you should think bigger. Think of the next Kindle as an entirely cloud-oriented media player. It always has ample local storage for books and a playlist or two, but it has an intimate connection with all of your Amazon purchases and can retrieve — or stream — any of them at any time. Someone deciding between an iPod Touch or a 7″ Kindle Color could be swayed by that kind of feature, couldn’t they?]

I’ve sent an email off to Amazon about any plans for an iOS player. I reckon they’ll make one if Apple will let them release it. Amazon’s always been about selling content, not operating systems and hardware and it’s always benefitted them to get the Kindle reader on as many devices as they can.

I actually first heard about this when I hit Amazon.com to buy a couple of things an hour ago. As soon as I saw it, and I set to work downloading things and uploading things and playing with it, I had to stop and think “Damn…I love my job. Apple versus Amazon is like Ali versus Frasier. This is two evenly-matched fighters and the outcome of their battle can only benefit consumers.

This is what I’ve been hoping for: a company with the skill, vision, clarity, and competence to truly compete with Apple. It wasn’t going to be Google. It was never going to be Google. I’m grinning at the thought of how high these two companies can push each other. What a great time to be a geek and to be alive.

“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues (Advent Calendar day 26)

Album Art

Fairytale of New York

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl

The Best of The Pogues

Genre: Pop

What’s your favorite Christmas-ish song?

Note the decisive use of the hyphenated suffix. If the lyrics include references to either the Batman or the Superman of this season (Santa and Jesus) then you can clearly file it under “Holiday.” Others, even some of the standards, are merely “seasonal.” I remind you, for example, that “Frosty The Snowman” is merely a winter-themed song. It only received its religious affiliations later in its life, when the last line “…I’ll return again someday” suspiciously became “I’ll return on Christmas Day.”

(Which was right about the same time when the Pledge of Allegiance became “One nation, Under God,” I think. Coincidence? Oh, absolutely. But I’ll change my tune if I’m ever booked to appear on a popular syndicated politically-themed radio show. Four hours is a lot airtime to fill and outrage, like methane gas, expands to fill the container into which it’s been introduced.)

Let’s also tip the hat to songs that simply use Christmas as a setting. There’s no real attempt to evoke the mood or the memory of the holiday. It’s just the day when These Things Happened.

I have two favorite Christmas songs. One secular, one very doubleplus not. The first tells a story of an event on Christmas Eve; the second talks about something that happened on Christmas Day. Both have the kind of lyrics that demand to be printed out and read as poetry.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrAwK9juhhY

Today is Christmas Eve. This is the day in the annual Musical Advent Calendar when I say “Screw it,” — maybe “sod it” would be more appropriate? — “I don’t care if this one’s a repeat from last year. It’s time for ‘Fairytale of New York’ again.”

There never has been, nor will there ever be, a better piece of music than this. I’m not saying that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos weren’t as good; I’m simply saying that when you compare it to this epic song about regret, loss, and longing you must ultimately conclude that these are two very different pieces of music.

I don’t think the thought “I’m someplace where I really don’t want to be” ever penetrates so strongly as when it hits you on Christmas Eve. And the root cause isn’t always something as harmless as “Uncle Gob has cornered me and he insists that it’s my duty as a concerned parent to buy one of his $1200 water filters,” either. You can always stop payment on the check as soon as you can get outside and find a signal on your iPhone. But when it appears to you that your life has been a flawless sequence of self-destructive choices and that your remaining decisions have collapsed down to “live” or “die”…well, not even the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or a tube of raw Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough can break you free.

That’s the spot that the narrator of “Fairytale of New York” is in. It’s hard not to take pity on someone who’s in jail on a night like this but still, it’s hard to actually root for him, either. But you’re keenly interested. After I hear this song I almost always visit the lyrics. I want to sift them for more clues to what’s happening with this guy.

He’s a drunk and a gambler and probably an addict. Is he learning anything tonight? Or is he distracting himself from his situation with delusions about a past relationship? Is he giving up? Does he have any hope for himself and the future? He spends part of the song reflecting on a time when he seemed to have the world at his feet. Do those memories encourage him, or do they only drive him deeper into depression?

And whatever happened to the woman? Clearly, she’s out of his life. That must have been a good thing for both of them. Is she spending that same day in her own version of the drunk tank? Or has she found some answers that continue to elude her former partner?

Would she be flattered to know that here, at his lowest point, he consoled himself with thoughts of her? Would she pity him?

Hmm.

It’s a very malleable story. You could just as easily interpret the lyrics to mean that he’d made it out, found a new source of hope, and from the safety of a better life he’s thinking back to the day when he hit rock-bottom and the only cheer he could find was in a ruined relationship.

That’s the hallmark of a truly great song. It was one specific thing when it was written and recorded but its final character and flavor is only assembled and defined by the palate of the person who hears it.

There’ve been a bunch of viral Internet creations where someone takes a self-portrait with identical composition and lighting every day of his or her life for years. That suddenly seems boring. The only thing the series will teach you about yourself is “You got progressively older and you tried out only two or three new hairstyles.” But what if you were to write about the same song — particularly one as potent as “Fairytale of New York” — on the same day every year? What would the next ten to twenty annual essays reveal about the path you’ve taken through life?

Changes in weight, beards and hairstyles are easy to spot. Your assessment of yourself, the world, and how the first thing relates to the second thing can only be tracked through close examination. I would dare say that the results could be far more revealing and mortifying than a temporary distraction into the world of mullets.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

For the record, I’m headed out to the first of about four or five different parties and gatherings over the next 48 hours. At the moment, I suspect that I’ll look back on this blog post and the only source of embarrassment will be the fact that back in 2010, I was using Amazon Associates links to get little kickbacks from my readers’ Amazon purchases.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

I might tsk-tsk and think “How cheap and exploitative!” early on. But then I’d remember the gorilla costume I ordered with the resulting Gift credits in 2011. And then every last lingering regret will be instantly dismissed.

“Carol Of The Bells” by Rush Coil (Amazon Advent Calendar day 25)

Album Art

Carol of the Bells

Rush Coil

8-bit Christmas

Genre: Electronic

You’re all very correct to think so highly of me, sensation-seekers. Not only do I have an unfailing moral compass, but I often subject it to abnormal magnetic fields just to test its unfailing-moral-compassness, so that I can then make adjustments, as necessary.

Witness this selection. Also witness the fact that the link goes not to the Amazon MP3 Store, but to iTunes. See, there was a differrent track that I wanted to recommend, but it hasn’t been formally published anywhere (more on this, anon). So I went off looking for something similar that I liked just as much, and I found this track by Rush Coil on iTunes.

Cool. Then I went to Amazon.com for the link. Alas, they don’t have it.

Were I the possessor of a fallible moral compass, I’d have chosen something else. “Screw you, the trusting reader of my work!” would have been the statement. “Don’t you feebs realize that the whole point of this Advent Calendar exercise is to line the velvet pockets of my Amazon account with gift credits, so that I may purchase things like a Novelty Electronic Yodeling Pickle without ever asking myself ‘Why the hell do I waste me money on crap like this’?”

But no. I assure you that the primary purpose of here is to share music that I actually, genuinely like. And the prime mover for choosing Amazon instead of iTunes isn’t the kickbacks (though they’re very, very nice. It’s because I know that anyone can click an Amazon link and hear the music sample and buy it without having to download and install a separate app. If it were an iTunes link, you could only do two of those three things.

Lo:

Listen to “Carol Of The Bells” on the iTunes Store.

Allow me to close off this meta portion of the post by confirming that my strength is as the strength of ten men, for my heart is pure.

Onward to the song itself. It’s been a slow build, but “chiptune” music (songs that sound as though they were being played by the soundchips in vintage game consoles) has steadily made its way from Novelty to Meme to a legitimate, established genre. And I can honestly say that I like this version of “Carol Of The Bells” on its own merits, not because it’s such an odd way to arrange and record a tune.

I guess the lesson is that “on its own merits” is a very, very complicated thing, even with more traditional music. Pandora.com has got it exactly right: there’s a molecular profile to every song that links it backwards to every song you liked before you heard this one, and forwards to every song you hear after it. And the metrics of this phenomenon go beyond tempo, instrumentation, and vocals. There’s also a sense of time and place.

“American Graffiti” was the first big pop-culture phenomenon that underscored how powerful the phrase “Gosh, this is just like the stuff I liked when I was a kid” is in influencing what we like as adults. It’s true that your favorite songs in high school and college will almost always remain your favorites as you enter your thirties and forties and fifties. They have their own merits, yes, but they’re enmeshed with other pleasant memories, like a wad of gum in a shag carpet.

(Bad simile, Ihnatko: a shag carpet is a pleasant memory for no man or woman. Except for those who owned a carpet store in 1972.)

This sort of reaction isn’t quite as mainstream as “This song was playing on the radio the night I first made out with the woman who would one day become my wife.” But “Oh, man, this is just like the game that I spent all summer trying to beat in high school!” works, too.

(Aside: and “Carol Of The Bells” is clearly the soundtrack to a “jink your spaceship up and down and left and right, and shoot at waves of attacking aliens” kind of game. Other chiptune songs are clearly “sidescroller combat games.” Games are so burned into your subconscious that you can even pick out the nonviolent “momentarily stun the cartoon lizards and pick up the flowers” games as well.)

Let’s not get mired in that junk, though. I like chiptune music because by necessity, it launches a very clean and no-nonsense attack on the melody. It’s why a four-piece jazz combo can accomplish things with a song that a spongy 40-piece orchestra can’t. Every instrument and every melodic line is front-and-center and there’s no room for extraneous flourishes.

I mean, I’d love to get a hold of the soundtrack to the “Batman” Game Boy game. I long ago gave my Game Boy and all of its carts to a nephew (your correspondent can be quite a dope). But a vid of this game is up on YouTube. The music is a little sparser than I remember it, but yup: I’d definitely buy this track if it were available anywhere.

Which brings us back to the chiptune track I wanted to recommend. It was an version of “Mele Kalikimaka” arranged by “Mafialligator,” a (god-damned) genius on Something Awful’s forums. He’s released four annual collections of Nintendo-ized holiday music, under the series title “A Very 8-Bit Christmas.”

The bad news: no, you can’t buy “A Very 8-Bit Christmas” on iTunes or Amazon.

The good news: it’s a free download, according to the descriptions on Something Awful.

The bad news again: …but there’s no new release this year. And the older releases are old enough that they’ve aged back behind Something Awful paywall.

So I’m in kind of a pickle, here. And not the electronic yodeling kind. I’ve located other download links for the albums. But are they legit? I dunno. I’m going to post one set of links here, because as near as I can tell the content is behind the Something Awful paywall only as a “it costs us money to host these files” sort of thing, and not because access to these tracks is an exclusive perq of Something Awful membership. I’ve also been unable to find any links to Mr. Mafiassassin’s own site.

Also: this particular page-o-links contains a whole list of chiptune Christmas music collections, not just the Very 8-Bit releases.

The Page Of Chiptune Christmas Links In Question.

But head straight to the “Very 8-Bit Christmas” links first. Did I say that I was going to recommend “Mele Kamikimaka”? I meant to say “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” No, wait: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas…”

Yeah, there are plenty of winners, here. Mafialligator has real skills as an arranger. He’s not just copying down notes from a simplified set of sheet music. These are true, polyphonic performances.

These tracks get plenty of airplay in my house during the holiday season. When I set up and decorated my Christmas tree this year, I was listening exclusively to an “8-Bit Christmas” playlist.

(Streamed to my Apple TV from my iPad via AirTunes.)

(My parents and grandparents would recognize the melodies and the phrase “decorated my Christmas tree.” The rest of that would have required extensive explanation.)

Well, as I said, I went ahead and selected an iTunes track even though the link won’t win me a single sou in associate-link kickbacks. But if you’re really keen on kicking my back a little, or you’re just wondering if I was making up that thing about the Yodeling Pickle:

Yodelling Yodel Pickle TOY Novelty Retro Gag Gift

This link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. And after you click it, all of your Amazon purchases will result in a commensurate percentage of the final tally coming back to me in the form of gift credits. The fact that I was well aware of the existence of this consumer item indicates the fine, fine ends to which I will be applying these credits.

“You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Kasio Kristmas (Amazon Advent Calendar day 24)

Album Art

You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch

Kasio Kristmas

Kasio Kristmas

Genre: Holiday

Here’s a song with real crossover appeal. And not that weak kind of crossover either, where a longtime fan of a quirky, iconoclastic performer eagerly buys her first mainstream release and is bewildered to find that all of a sudden, she’s covering both Ann Murray songs and the Misfits tattoo on her forehead.

Nope, I mean “crossover” in the sense that this is a Christmas song arranged like a spooky Halloween tune. You know that scene in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” where the Grinch snips the pieces for his Santa suit out of a set of red curtains? Okay: substitute “the flayed skin of a still-living human victim” for “curtains” and you’ve got the idea of this version.

Well, close enough, anyway. It provides excellent value for money in that you can start playing this in mid-October and not give it a rest for two whole months.

I’ve suddenly realized that the same could be true of a Grinch lawn ornament. It just seems like too much bother to decorate the house for just a couple of weeks, to say nothing of the expense and all of the storage problems. I could certainly get behind a decoration that you can keep on your lawn for a quarter of the year.

It wouldn’t be perfect. I’d still have to stow the Grinch’s Santa suit until “Gosh, you still have your Halloween decorations up?” transitions to “Gosh, you’re already putting up your Christmas decorations?” But if you’re willing to stretch it all the way to “When are you going to take those Christmas decorations down, Andy?” I could be covered through February.

Listen to “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch” on Amazon MP3.

As always, Amazon music links on this site are embedded with my Amazon Associates code. Everything you purchase after clicking it results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I assure you: they shall be spent joyously and foolishly on fun things.

“The Spirit Of Christmas” by Ray Charles (Amazon Advent Calendar day 23)

Album Art

That Spirit of Christmas

Ray Charles

The Spirit of Christmas

Genre: R&B/Soul

How many Christmas songs can there be, do you reckon?

And I’m not throwing my hands in the air and whining that there are too damn many of them. I’m saying that there seems to be a fixed number of Christmas songs that we’re willing to accept, in the same sense that in baseball, you’re limited to a 25-man active roster and a 40 man expanded roster. And whenever there’s a hot new left-hander whom you want to bring up from the minors, you’re forced to send a broken-down left fielder back to Indiana to work at his cousin’s Volkswagen dealership or perhaps testify at some kind of hearing.

Is it…fifty songs? Whatever. There’s definitely a ceiling to it. It’s not as though every year, we become aware of more and more Christmas songs. “The Hanukkah Song” explodes and from that point on, some old standard that was scrabbling for survival gets dropped from our consciousness, never to return. All I can say is that it’s a good system. I don’t think anyone would deny that when “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” finally pushed “Stuff An A-Bomb In Hitler’s Stocking, That Nasty Nazi Rat” off into oblivion in 1949, it was a long time coming and a positive step forward in healing the wounds of war.

What are the chances of a song like “The Spirit Of Christmas” becoming a Holiday standard? It’s forced to knock timidly on the back door and hope that this is the year when we’re all finally sick of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” I think I heard it twenty times before I actually bought it. I bet you’ve heard it, too. I think it’s even possible that you’ll be able to place it, once you hear the sample.

Yes, it’s from the “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” soundtrack. You hear a snippet of it while Clark is trapped in the attic, and is watching 30-year-old home movies. It’s a lovely, (mostly) secular tune that underscores the basic concept that whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s nice that there’s this spot on the calendar during which people are at least supposed to try not to act so much like d***s.

And it’s from Ray Charles. He’s like Johnny Cash in that his performance makes any song hard to date. What a sneaky tactic. This song is good enough to displace any of the lesser tunes on the Christmas Roster. I bet the composers were hoping that everyone would just assume that it was already a classic.

I’m willing to forgive. It’s quite a solid tune.

I’m curious about when it was written, though. The first name on the list of contributing songwriters is Mable John, who has a decades-spanning history with Ray Charles (as a Raelette and then as the director of these same Raelettes). Was it written especially for Ray Charles, maybe? It sure sounds like it. There are a handful of other versions of “The Spirit Of Christmas” rolling around but none of them truly distinguish themselves.

It’s a great tune for the “cooldown” phase of the holiday. Its tone is a little too solemn to be heard over the din of a Christmas party or the unwrapping of presents, but it’s still not the best choice for the “C’mon Everyone…Let’s Take A Moment To Be, You Know, Kind Of Solemn And Stuff, Okay?” part of the proceedings. But it’s the perfect thing to send to the AirPlay speakers in the living room while you contemplate a room full of torn wrapping paper and decide to have another gingerbread donut instead of cleaning it up right away.

Listen to “That Spirit Of Christmas” on Amazon MP3.

Sing it with me: “As always, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. All purchases you make after clicking it will result in Amazon sending me a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. Which, I assure you, will be spent foolishly.”

“Christmas Time Is Here” – Amazon Advent Calendar day 22

Album Art

Christmas Time Is Here (Vocal Version)

Vince Guaraldi Trio

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Genre: Holiday

We’re at Kringle Minus 6, people! Clearly it’s time for me to stop diving deep into the back-catalogues and give up any attempt to make myself seem like the Ahmet Ertegun of my generation. Although yes, admittedly, inserting a reference to one of the 20th century’s seminal discoverers and promoters of musical talent is definitely a nod towards hipness. It’s a fair cop.

But look, we can’t waste precious minutes arguing over my desperate need to mask my own straight-from-squaresville tastes! We’ve got limited time left to talk about Christmas songs! So screw it: I’m going obvious. Yes, it’s That Song We All Love from That Christmas Special We Can’t Even Pretend We’re Sick Of.

Don’t think I don’t know what just happened. You’re on the Internet and you’ve just read a blog post in which the author has made a definite statement of some kind. You’re like a largemouth bass who’s just seen a jelly worm at the end of a Red Devil spoon lure splash down in front of you. You just have to snap at it, even as your rational brain says “No good can possibly come of this.” You’ve already clicked the “Reply” button and pasted in a mockingly dismissive LOLcat that you encountered on a gaming board a few days ago, haven’t you?

Fine. I know you have to keep proving to yourself that you ride at the gates of dawn and that your likes and dislikes cannot be predicted by any Earthly king. I suppose that this video clip does absolutely nothing for you, then.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Are we agreed that “Christmastime Is Here” is a tough, tough song to cover? It’s so indelibly associated with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Plus, it’s perfect for a children’s chorus: it feels as though it was written and arranged to ensure that it can be sung well by 24 middle-schoolers whose vocal abilities range from “she’s good enough to become a serious student of vocal technique” all the way to “that one, with the hair: we’ll just give him two red sticks to bang together.”

That’s not a slam against the song, mind you. I mean, dammit, this song works. It seems as though the only way you could ruin it is by trying to turn it into a showcase of anybody’s talents as a singer, arranger, or producer. Would any singer — even an American Idol finalist — accept and implement the direction “Don’t think. Just sing”?

Am I starting to get mired in nostalgia, here? God, I hope not. I’m at least thirty years too young and have been in several wars too few to get nostalgic about anything. And yet this song puts me right back in my parents’ living room, having counted down the days to the Charlie Brown Christmas airing for two weeks. It also puts me right back on a stage at the far end of a middle-school gym, standing on a folding metal riser, trying to pick out my grandparents in the audience while the music teacher gets more and more frustrated by her ability to make all of us focus, and getting closer and closer to losing it right there in front of the principal.

Well, it’s Christmas. It’s the appropriate time to stare out the front window at the snow and feel a little Wistful about things. And it’s at least more genuine if you get nostalgic about a (rightly) beloved Christmas special instead of, say, caroling door-to-door. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a part of my actual childhood. It isn’t someone else’s memory of a Traditional Christmas. I’m glad I have memories of lying on my belly on my parent’s forest-green carpet, instead of freezing my butt off singing about the arrival of the Christ child to a neighbor who was too polite to say “Didn’t you see the mezuzah nailed to my door frame when you stepped up to ring the bell?”

Listen to “Christmastime Is Here” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Continuing another Beloved Holiday Tradition, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, all of the purchases you make during that session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. I promise to spend them joyously and foolishly.

“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone (Amazon Advent Calendar day 21)

Album Art

Feeling Good

Nina Simone

Feeling Good Hit Pack

Genre: Vocal

Most of the popular cover hits are songs that have already been nationalized by our socialist cultural system. Nobody “owns” it and everybody’s free to do their own thing with the song, free of preconceptions.

But some songs become the iconic property of one performer. Don’t record your own version of anything that Janis Joplin had already made into a major hit, for example. It almost never turns out to be a wise move. Previous soul singers poured the concrete for “Piece Of My Heart,” but it didn’t fully set in the public consciousness until Joplin put down the whisky bottle and picked up the microphone.

It’s not even a taste issue, honestly. It’s about pre-programming. There’s nothing wrong with a talk show set in which the guest sits to the right of the host’s desk instead of the left. And yet…yeah, everything’s wrong with that. This show could feature the ghost of Johnny Carson interviewing Jesus Christ, who’s there to plug his upcoming Comedy Central roast plus deliver some important tips on how to prepare for the upcoming armageddon. It wouldn’t matter. I still couldn’t focus on his instructions on what to do when the ground beneath my feet dissolves into a pool of fire until he moved to the other side of the desk.

Similarly: anybody who tries to do “Piece Of My Heart” has to deal with the simple fact that for at least the first minute, my brain will be thinking “But that’s not Janis Joplin.”

It’s not your fault, Ms. American Idol Finalist. It’s my fault. Until you fail to do anything constructive with it, at which point I will option-click on Pandora’s “Thumbs Down” button until the icon switches to a different finger, and then I’ll make my full displeasure known.

“Feeling Good” is somewhere in the middle. Even if you don’t know who Nina Simone is, you associate the song with this performer and this specific recording of the tune, where the singer is backed by heavy orchestration that keeps a certain reverent distance from the vocals. But there’s been no shortage of terrific covers of the song.

I bring this up because today’s selection was going to be the version that Muse released last year. I love it, but ultimately I recognized that what I really love is the Virgin Atlantic ad that used it for the soundtrack:

Yeah, it’s sexist. But it’s well-done sexism. I’m willing to give it a pass, in the same way that I’m willing to overlook the Italian-American stereotypes in “The Godfather” but not the ones in the old Olive Garden commercials.

No, when you see this ad, you’re not offended by the imagery. You want a goddamn gin and tonic. And you want to have sex with a goddamn enemy double-agent. And you want to goddamn track down a goddamn Russkie rogue general who’s stolen a ****ing nuclear missile and kill that sonofabitch with an iPhone and a camera battery and an pack of gum that click together to form a pocket-sized magnetic railgun that propels slugs at hypersonic speed!!! **** yeahhh!!!!!!!

(pant pant pant pant)

So you see what I mean. It’s a lovely cover song, don’t get me wrong. But when I listen to it without the visuals…yeah, it’s not as satisfying. Muse’s intense, 007-driven interpretation is out of sync with the lyrics. Also: I always do a half spit-take when a random verse of a song inexplicably uses the “old-timey recording/radio broadcast” audio treatment. It has a real “Hey, what does THIS button in Garageband do?” impact.

I guess it just demonstrates how high the stakes can be when you try to do a cover of an established song. If Muse’s version was the first time you’d ever heard “Feeling Good,” you’d think it was a killer production. But then you see what others did with the exact same ingredient and what once seemed Fab now seems…well, just sort of okay.

And yes, a second slam against The Olive Garden is implied within that last sentence. I leave its extraction to you, the reader, as an exercise.

Listen to “Feeling Good” at the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, my Amazon Associates code is embedded in that link. If you click it, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will result in a small kickback to me in the form of Amazon Gift Credits…which I will spend on heroically silly things.

“Creep” by Scala & Kolacny Brothers (Amazon Advent Calendar day 20)

Album Art

Creep

Scala & Kolacny Brothers

Creep – Single

Genre: Alternative

You’d like to think that your musical tastes are fair, pure, and shrewd. You’d like to believe that you simply have an ear for good music and that if you applied a controlled, peer-reviewed scientific protocol for evaluating a song and deciding whether or not it’s worth ninety-nine cents to you, you’d find that the same input data would draw the same results every time. You’re not swayed by the fads of the day or by whatever mood you happen to be in at the time.

But of course, that’s rubbish. The tracks in your music library are the residue of that one specific moment in time when the song seemed to make sense to you. If you’re lucky, most of those tracks will continue to justify their places in your playlists and they’ll receive continued play. Inevitably, though, you’ll find yourself scrolling through the whole library and asking yourself “Why the hell did I buy this Celene Dion track?!?” and then the whole Incident will come rushing back to you.

(Lesson learned: if you agree to dog-sit your friend’s adorable terrier for a whole month, you should plan on a short period of emotional vulnerability after you give him back. It only lasts until you stop expecting little Corby to leap up at you and lick your face every time you come back home.)

(Shut up.)

And that’s just your personal life. You’re also being influenced by the culture at the time and by the trends that are controlling all of the popular music. For example, each generation’s youth-oriented anthems have had a slightly different response to a parent’s question “Why didn’t you go to school today?”

The 50’s: “I was way, waaaay too drunk.”

The 60’s: “Your generation went to school every day…and look how you screwed up the whole planet.”

The 70’s: “…Huh?”

The 80’s: “**** you and your ****ing corporate mother****ing manipulative bull****. I don’t have to ****ing go to school if I don’t ****ing want to. Did I say ‘**** you’ already? I feel like I haven’t said that. Well, my apologies if I’ve covered that ground already.”

The 90’s: “Because I’m stupid and I’m ugly and everybody hates me and I’m probably just going to kill myself next week anyway so what’s the point?”

When Radiohead released “Creep” in 1992, I was probably right in the middle of their target demographic. But I rejected it completely. Nirvana had proven that Self-Loathing Mopiness was extremely marketable. Dozens of labels noticed this. By the time “Creep” was all over the radio I’d had enough of that kind of music. Fortunately, music companies aren’t technically required to destroy all copies of every track that’s no longer a Top 100 hit. “Creep” resurfaced this year as the soundtrack of a brilliant teaser trailer for “The Social Network.”

The song is such a natural fit for Facebook and the rest of the social-networking experience that it seems incredible that nobody had ever used this song that way before. Just look at the lyrics:

I don’t care if it hurts,
I wanna have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul

I want you to notice
when I’m not around
You’re so very special
I wish I was special

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doin’ here?
I don’t belong here

See what I mean? Facebook and Twitter and the rest aren’t inherently good or bad. I reckon that most of its users regard it as simply part of a balanced breakfast of social interactions. Facebook is the bowl of Choc-O-Berry Cookie Blasters in the middle of a tray of fruit, milk, juice, whole-grain toast, and a small plate of liver.

But too many people use it as a shabby, last-ditch outlet for the fundamental human need to say things and feel as though people are listening to you. Nobody knows your name at work and you’re certain that if you quit today, the new guy could sit through a training video and then do your job just as well. Or maybe you’re a kid, and your older sister with the drug problem and your younger brother with the good grades get all of your parents’ attention.

Whatever: Nobody ever interrupts you on Facebook. And at any given moment, no matter where you are, you can thumb a few buttons on your phone and see that there are 18, 32, 71, 139 people listening to everything you say.

That’s not really a good thing. “I want you to notice when I’m not around” is the line in the song that resonates so well with how social networking can be abused. Virtual communities are so attractive because they’re just so easy. You might even have 100,000 Followers on Twitter. That’s a thrillingly high number and isn’t it lovely that they sometimes say nice things to you?

But what have you done for them?

Aha: that’s the point. These people notice when you’re not around and they make you feel Special. But they’ll never phone you at midnight to ask if you could meet them at a parking lot 40 miles away and jump-start their car. They’ll never ask you to help them move. They’ll never come to you for support when someone they love is terribly sick and they’re scared. You’ll never be required to sit on the opposite side of a table at a restaurant and help them walk through a decision to end a relationship that isn’t working out.

When you’re in the middle of doing nothing at all, do you find yourself thinking about these people?

When you say or do something selfish via Facebook and you wind up hurting someone — and it doesn’t matter that you were simply careless and thoughtless — do you have to acknowledge your actions and deal with the consequences?

World Of Warcraft allows you to battle powerful people and creatures in close combat. But it’s all fake; there’s no chance of getting hurt. Facebook is a fantasy game of a different sort. It simulates social interaction, while removing all of the personal risk as well as most of the consequences of your behavior. That’s what makes it such a shabby substitute for the real thing. It’s not enough to want others to notice you and hear you. The goal is to give as good as you get.

The movie trailer brought “Creep” back to my attention at a time when that kind of song wasn’t part of a popular trend. I think my larger problem, though, was with the song’s original arrangement. It was laid out like a traditional rock song, which didn’t work for me. You can’t sing about how lonely and cut off from Society you are when you’re clearly surrounded by musicians and standing in front of 3,000 screaming fans, can you?

Further, it’s too aggressive. The lyrics are profoundly self-loathing and the anger should be all inward, not out.

I much prefer the solo, acoustic version, which came out on a reissue of “Pablo Honey” recently. This one comes across more like a problem that the singer thinks he’ll never solve, as opposed to the reason why he ordered all of those guns off of the Internet.

This third version in the “Social Network” trailer is haunting. Despite my earlier protestation that this song shouldn’t be performed by a whole band, “Creep” displays some powerful shading when it’s sung by a choir of young women. One person singing about loneliness is sad. A dozen or two people singing those lyrics at the same time can be profound. It illustrates the irony of the problem. Your feelings of being completely disconnected and cast out from society only underscore how human you really are. Everybody feels that way.

I’d like to believe that if any of these singers were able to shake themselves out of their self-loathing long enough to look around and see the other people in the room, maybe someone would say to another “OMG! You’re a creepy loser whom nobody would ever like? Me too!!! We should totally hang out!!!!”

(And then maybe the next tune would be something from “Mary Poppins.”)

Listen to “Creep” by Scala and Kolacny Brothers on Amazon MP3.

As always, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates ID. If you click it, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I swear to God I won’t spend them on anything necessary or sensible.

“And I Wonder?” by The Slackers (Amazon Advent Calendar day 19)

Album Art

And I Wonder?

The Slackers

The Question

Genre: Alternative Rock

Maybe the most sophisticated version of the Turing Test for any given technology is actually the simple question “Is it capable of helping us and screwing us at the same time?” Then and only then can we say that a machine is truly Human.

“And I Wonder?” is one of the songs I bookmarked last night on Pandora while working away from the house. It’s good stuff: peppy, with a ska/rocksteady sort of vibe. I also have a lot of affection for music that clearly wasn’t beaten to death by heavyhanded production. I could believe that this group just set up some mismatched microphones in the apartment of whichever band member had the most-sympathetic neighbors and then they recorded it on someone’s MacBook in just three takes.

When I got home, I looked through everything I’d bookmarked and I bought the track after another listen. This morning, I did a quick Spotlight search on it, just so I could drag it into a couple of different playlists, and that’s when I saw the other copy that I’d bought from another store a couple of years ago.

See what I mean? In the old, analog days I didn’t have anything like Pandora, which can extrapolate an endless stream of new music that’s likely to please me, after I name just a single artist as a starting point. Thank you, digital music! But back in the Nineties, by the time I wound up at a CD store I’d forgotten all about that great song I’d heard on the radio or at a party. I was unlikely to buy anything at all. And I certainly couldn’t buy something so quickly that I wouldn’t realize that I already owned it. So go to hell, digital music!

But I could never stay mad at you, Pandora. It seems like I only discover new music in three different ways: via Pandora, when it’s used as a soundtrack to something (such as a TV show or a YouTube video), or when I occasionally go out on Twitter and say “Recommend a song. One song only, please.”

Pandora offers discoverability and vocabulary. You’ve sampled “And I Wonder?” and you liked it. It occurs to you that a lot of the music you like is kind of similar. How do you Google for “music has kind of the same thing going on as this other song right here?” You have no idea how to describe it.

Pandora gives you the opportunity to turn to the side of the box the song came in and read the list of ingredients:

Features Of This Song:
ska roots
a subtle use of paired vocal harmony
mild rhythmic syncopation
a busy horn section
major key tonality
electric pianos
classic rhodes sound
subtle use of acoustic piano

So if you memorize that list and then walk into a city record store and tell the clerk “I’m looking for music with ska roots, a subtle use of paired vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation…” you’ll definitely not come across looking like some hick who buys most of his songs from QVC in the form of windup music boxes shaped like porcelain clowns.

It’d be fab if other aesthetic tastes worked this way. I’ve only ever drunk two beers that I liked enough to finish off, and wines are a real scattershot sort of thing. If I’m trying to find a soda pop I like, I know how to describe it. I can say “I like colas with natural sweeteners, a slight acidic tang, and a slightly peppery aftertaste. I hate citrus-flavored sodas.”

But if I enjoyed a glass of wine at a restaurant, I have no idea how to describe it to a clerk at a wine store. “Glass bottle,” I’ll say. “It was definitely in a glass bottle. The label had something like a horsie on it, or it might have been a dragon wearing a saddle.”

It works out for the best, I guess. When you walk into a wine shop and look like a blatant ignoramus, the clerk knows he’s not going to get more than twelve dollars out of you. You’re clearly not as vulnerable to the upsell as everyone who tries to bluff their way through the transaction by overconfidently misquoting phrases they heard Paul Giamotti’s character use in “Sideways.”

Listen to “And I Wonder?” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, this link is tagged with my Amazon Associates ID. Click it, and any purchases you make during that session will result in my getting a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. I swear to God that I won’t spend those credits on anything sensible.