Zeroes and Ones

Have you ever stopped to wonder why our society puts so much value on big, round numbers?  Especially when we’re talking about the passage of time?

The length of a day is set at how long it takes for the planet to spin about its longitudinal axis.  The length of a year is set at how long it takes for the planet to make one revolution around the Sun (give or take a leap day).  Most cultures have arbitrarily defined a “day” as 24 hours, even though we could have said there are five or ten or a thousand hours in a  day just as easily.  A year takes something like 365 and a quarter diurnal periods, give or take some leap-seconds.  Months can have 28, 29, 30, or 31 days.  Meanwhile, there’s 12 inches in a foot, 3 feet in a yard, 5280 feet in a mile, 16 ounces in a pound, 2 pints in a quart, and 4 quarts in a gallon. It’s all pretty arbitrary.  Thankfully, the metric system is based on far more sensible, less esoteric base-10 mathematics.  But we could have just as easily standardized on base-2 or base-16 or some other numerology.

Just like the metric system, our society puts a lot of emphasis on 10th anniversaries and 100-year centennials and 1000-year epochs.  There’s something about big round numbers that appeals to us, even though time scales are largely an arbitrary human construct.  It even carries over to our fascination with automobile odometers, thousands of dollars, millionth online customers, and so on.

A few events have transpired in the Craven Hermit household lately that rolled over the digits on various virtual odometers.  Previously I’ve bored you to death with details from various hikes around town.  Today’s 20.00 km walk (yes, I watched the odometer roll over on the way up the driveway) was fairly unexceptional, except to say that according to my Nike+ app I’ve now surpassed the 1000 km cumulative mark.  I picked up my Bluetooth token about 20 months ago, and I don’t always use it for every walk or hike, but there’s still something kind of neat about rolling over into quadruple digits.  When I finished my walk today, Paula Radcliffe even appeared in my headphones to congratulate me on my (dubious) achievement.  Which is nice, I guess, despite having only a vague idea who Paula Radcliffe is.

Well I know we should take a walk
But you’re such a fast walker, oh-whoa, well all right
I know where I’ll be tonight, all right
Outta mind, outta site

– Wilco, “Outtasite (Outta Mind)”, 1996

Today was a good opportunity to test out my new headphones.  I finally retired my trusty Sony in-ear buds; they survived an accidental ‘journey of discovery’ through my washing machine, but they don’t sound quite right anymore.  I picked up some new Klipsch s4i headphones on sale yesterday, and they sound really nice.  The bass is subtle but tighter than my Sony’s ever were, the midrange is clear, and the highs are crisp and precise.  With these new ‘phones, the acoustic guitar on The Shins’ “New Slang” actually sounded like a resonant wooden instrument.  The staccato guitar and percussion on Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” seemed to be coming from right inside my head.  Even the bleeps and bloops on Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator” were beautifully synthetic, just like Ralf and Florian would have wanted.  Not bad for \$80.

Meanwhile down at the local wetlands, the pelicans were having a field day chasing around a school of minnows.  So it was a good day for people and our feathered friends alike.

This blog has also experienced a milestone of sorts.  Early yesterday, the Craven Hermit blog experienced its 2000th unique hit.  This is pretty remarkable, considering that I have never really publicized this blog anywhere.  I sent a link to a half dozen friends of mine, people that I thought might be bored enough to occasionally spelunk the inner machinations of my musically-wired mind.  Other than an email here or there, this page was designed to lurk quietly in the shadows (much like its curator).

The vast majority of visitors to the Craven Hermit blog arrive via Google search.  Based on the spam I get, a fair number of my site’s visitors are mainly looking for opportunities to market boner pills to dysfunctional fifty-five year olds.  I think of these interlopers as the ‘One-and-Done’ crowd, because they must realize pretty quickly that this blog is actually about popular music.

Thankfully, a good number of the people that stumble across this site take a few minutes to poke around and see what’s up.  A few brave souls have even signed up to receive regular updates from my blog, which is pretty cool and really gratifying.  This form of communication sure beats shouting into a gale-force wind, which is kind of how real life feels for me sometimes.

In February, WordPress rolled out a new feature that shows which countries your visitors are arriving from.  Not surprisingly, Canada and the USA dominate the charts.  But in amongst the usual suspects, there have been visitors from exotic locales like Libya, Greenland, Cambodia, Sudan, Fiji, Belarus, and Djibouti.  Not to mention pretty much every country in the western hemisphere.  They come from many places where English isn’t even the predominant language and where popular music is a completely different kettle of fish than my local airwaves.  It makes the world seem like a much smaller place.

There’s no one rhyme or reason for why people check out my blog.  One of the most popular features is my monthly preview of upcoming releases.  The Charlie Brown themed blog seems to attract a lot of attention, mainly for the cartoon image.  My feature on Roger Waters’ tour for The Wall got a lot of hits from all over the world, which was fun.  Even those photos of my vinyl records bring people to the site.  If you ever have any suggestions or ideas for future blogs, please let me know.

Whatever set of circumstances led you to this site – thank you for taking the time to read what I have to say.  As I laid out in my original mission statement last October, I’ve tried to make this blog informative and entertaining and honest.  Hopefully that comes across in the words on your screen.

Oh, right, one last thing.  This is my 100th post!  Yet more arbitrary zeroes and ones to celebrate.

Bob Tells It Like It Is

One of the more insightful music blogs out there is written by Bob Lefsetz.  In truth The Lefsetz Letter is more than a blog, it’s a conversation about the music industry that has been going on for over twenty years.  Bob seems to be about as well-connected as an industry ‘outsider’ can be.  He is close enough to the industry to see the inner machinations first-hand, but far enough away to maintain some perspective.  Bob has a nose for what works in popular music, but his best asset is calling out the parts that don’t work.

Lefsetz recently gave the keynote address at the Music Matters conference in Singapore.  You can watch the interview on YouTube. It’s well worth the 45-minute investment of your time if you want to hear some fascinating stories about the state of the music biz.  I subscribe to most of the same theories as Bob – about the power of music as a social language, the death of terrestrial radio because algorithms do all the music programming, and especially his views on how concert promoters lie to the public about ticket pricing.

There are a couple of things that Bob touches on in this interview that differ from my perspective.  Bob is all about the immediacy of a ‘hit’ song – he’s completely uninterested in listening to something five times to ‘get it’.  Most of my favourite songs are songs that didn’t really grab me on first listen – they took time to set down roots and grow into my soul.  Meanwhile, a number of hit songs like “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne were catchy on first listen, but now I’d rather push sharpened pencils into my ears than listen to that saccharine bullshit ever again.  Maybe if Bob wasn’t bombarded by 500 new tracks a day, he’d have the time to absorb new sounds.  He has to live in the moment.  But for me, it’s about quality more than quantity.

The other spot where Bob and I differ is in the music consumption model.  Bob foresees a future where everybody is content to rent music via paid streaming services like Spotify.  In Bob’s world, why own music when you can download it from ‘the Cloud’ anytime, anywhere with an Internet connection?  Meanwhile, I’m a neo-Luddite.  I appreciate the portability of mp3s, but I still want to have a physical disc (CD or vinyl) on my shelf at home.  I love looking through record shops and buying something that I can hold in my hands.  I have an ongoing relationship with my record collection – I spend a lot of time organizing, cataloging, and researching.  I don’t think I could ever develop that kind of relationship with ‘the Cloud’.  But then again, I’m a neo-Luddite.  Long term, in the broader sense of the overall music industry, Bob Lefsetz is probably right.

He almost always is.

The Show Must Go On

In the wake of last weekend’s tragic incident in Toronto, Radiohead posted an update on their website Dead Air Space earlier today:

Hello everyone,

As you will probably have heard the roof over the stage collapsed at our show in Toronto killing crew member Scott Johnson and injuring three other crew members. The collapse also destroyed the light show – this show was unique and will take many weeks to replace. The collapse also caused serious damage to our backline, some elements of which are decades old and therefore hard to replace.

Whilst we all are dealing with the grief and shock ensuing from this terrible accident there are also many practical considerations to deal with & consequently we have to try and reschedule the following shows:

June
30 Roma Hippodrome Capanelle

July
1 Firenze Parco delle Cascine
3 Bologna Arena Parco Nord
4 Codroipo Villa Manin
6 Berlin Wuhlheide
7 Berlin Wuhlheide
9 St Triphon Carriere des Andonces

We aim to announce the new dates for these shows on Wednesday 27th of June and will also supply information on how to obtain refunds on tickets if you cannot come to the show on the new date.

We will start playing live again at Les Arenes Nimes, Bilbao BBK festival and Lisbon Optimus Alive festival.

We will make every effort to offer the fans the very best show possible under the circumstances – thanks for your understanding and support.

Unlike most of the posts on Dead Air Space, this one was unsigned so it’s difficult to tell whether it was from the band or their management.  I would be shocked if a posting this important wasn’t endorsed by the band prior to going live.  Regardless, it does alleviate one of my fears – that Radiohead would stop touring indefinitely.

I suspect the band was conflicted about the decision, much like Pearl Jam after the Roskilde tragedy in 2000.  The purely emotional thing to do would have been to scuttle the rest of the tour.  But as today’s posting hints, ‘practical considerations’ dictate that the show must go on in some modified form.  Signing up for a tour means making obligations to venues and promoters around the world.  Road crews and caterers and management and lighting designers and myriad others all rely on touring acts to put food on their tables.

At the end of the day, Radiohead are a band that depend on touring to make a living.  Touring supports record sales, and a successful tour builds momentum for the next record in a tidy cycle.  It also just so happens that acts like Radiohead bring untold amounts of joy and beauty to the rest of us.  The world would not be the same place without talented musicians sharing their talents.  Not even close.

The next few months will be very difficult for them, but I’m very glad that Radiohead have decided to forge ahead.  It’s likely the best way to honour their fallen friends.

News Update:  A tragedy occurred at Downsview Park in Toronto, ON yesterday.  While about a dozen crew members were setting up Radiohead’s stage for a large outdoor gig last night, the roof of the stage collapsed.  According to media reports, one person was killed and three others were injured by the falling debris.  Alan Cross’s blog is reporting that the deceased is 33-year-old Radiohead drum tech Scott Johnson.  It’s an unspeakably dark, heartbroken time for the band, their closely-knit crew, and the music industry in general.

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Last weekend, Radiohead put on one of their typically epic performances at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, TN.  For a brief time, the entire gig was available up on the web in high-definition glory.  Poking around today, I notice that the festival has blocked the 2-hour 20-minute complete performance video.  However, a few individual songs are still available, three of which are linked below… for now.  It’s enough to give you a vicarious sense of the majestic power and ethereal beauty that makes Radiohead the best band working today.

I dearly wish these guys would officially release a nicely-shot blu-ray concert film.  It would make my whole frickin’ year.  Maybe the lack of an official video is meant to preserve the mystery and exclusivity of needing to see them live in concert.  But in this day and age, with amateur video splashed all across the internet and bootleg video releases popping up in mass-market stores, perhaps there aren’t any more secrets.

The complete Bonnaroo setlist was:

Bloom
15 Step
Kid A
Weird Fishes / Arpeggi
Staircase
The Daily Mail
I Might Be Wrong
The Gloaming
Separator
Nude
Morning Mr. Magpie
Identikit
Lotus Flower
There There
Karma Police
Feral
Idioteque

First encore:
You and Whose Army?
House of Cards
Supercollider
Bodysnatchers
Everything In Its Right Place (w/ True Love Waits)

Second encore:
Give Up The Ghost
Reckoner
Paranoid Android

Going to Graceland

All too often, the re-release of the records of yesteryear is a cheap, cynical cash-in.  Record companies exploit the imagined nostalgia for days gone by, re-selling the public 10th and 20th and 30th anniversary issues of mediocre, forgettable albums.

Thankfully, this is decidedly NOT the case with the re-release of Paul Simon’s landmark album Graceland.  Originally released in 1986, Graceland received the deluxe re-issue treatment for Record Store Day 2012.  You might see a remastered CD + DVD reissue of this album the next time you’re at your favourite record store, and I’m sure it’s excellent.  I recently picked up Graceland in its 180-gram vinyl incarnation, and promptly fell head over heels in love all over again.

Lead-off song “The Boy In The Bubble” has been back on my musical radar for awhile, thanks largely to Peter Gabriel including a very stripped-down version of it on his recent Scratch My Back album.  In concert, Gabriel introduces his version of the song as a lively number that’s had all the African blood drained out of it, exposing the miserable white man at the core.  On Graceland it comes across as an overcrowded bazaar of influences – equal parts township jive, Senegalese grooves and effortless western pop melodic motion.  Hearing this song leap out of its grooves in 2012 made me a fan all over again.

Each subsequent track is another, richer fold of musical tapestry.  The title track is a perfect road-trip song, echoing back to the songwriter that brought the world “America” all those years ago.  Who hasn’t sat up late at night, ruminating on turns of phrase like:

And she said losing love is like a window in your heart
Everyone sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow

“I Know What I Know” must be among the bounciest tunes that Rhymin’ Simon has ever committed to recording tape.  I defy anyone to listen to the brilliant chorus and not have it lodged in their heads for the rest of the week:

I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep in the back of my head

Impossibly, “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” ups the ante even further, integrating Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s wonderfully poetic harmonies into the mix.  The song is ostensibly about New York City, but musically sounds half a world away from the concrete jungle.  SoHo by way of Soweto.

“You Can Call Me Al” was the big hit from the record, aided in no small measure by a cameo appearance by Chevy Chase in the video and synth and horn sections that are more infectious than the Ebola virus.  The sinewy bass line and pennywhistle solo also dig down straight towards the funk centre of your soul.

I personally think the crown jewel of Graceland is the choral genius of “Homeless”.  I won’t even try to describe this song in words – they simply don’t do it justice.  But those glorious Zulu voices – they will follow you around like a lost puppy for days:

Homeless, homeless,
Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake

Simon undeservedly took a lot of flak for the world music influences on Graceland, particularly the South African connections.  The western press accused him of appropriating another culture’s melodic structures for personal gain.  Others vilified Simon for breaking the unofficial cultural rules of apartheid.  At the end of the day, with the benefit of a quarter-century of hindsight, all Graceland really represents is a glorious intersection of American and African musical idioms.  The songs still resonate with listeners all these years later not because they’re gimmicky or exploitative, but because they’re utterly fantastic songs.

Sometimes records deserve the deluxe reissue treatment so that a new audience might discover them all over again.  Graceland is one of those records.  It will make you dance, make you love, and make you think.