Walk of Life

We had a brief spell of excellent weather this past weekend.  Temperatures were well above normal for this time of year, probably influenced by the chinook conditions down south.  Sunny, warm, not too windy, not too icy – great conditions for a nice Sunday stroll.  Didn’t even need to wear gloves or a toque.

My neighbourhood has a nice network of trails.  Some wind around natural and/or constructed wetlands, some follow the pipeline corridors that criss-cross the county.  It’s fun to get out into fresh air and look for wildlife.  Most of the water birds have flocked off already, but I saw two pairs of blue jays and several chickadees yesterday.  They should be around all winter.

Heritage Hills Wetlands, 27-Nov-2011

The Nike + iPod gadget is a pretty fun little system.  You put an accelerometer in your shoe, and it communicates your telemetry wirelessly to your iPhone.  You can keep track of distance travelled, pace, and calories burned all while listening to your iPod.  I usually just put my iPod on ‘Shuffle All’ but you could easily create a walking playlist if you so desired.  I kind of dig the eclectic mix I get by shuffling all songs.

Meadowview Trail, 27-Nov-2011

Yesterday I got on a pretty good roll, and ended up covering 14.6 kilometres over 2 hours and 40 minutes.  The trails were, for the most part, clear and dry.  There were some icy spots and slushy spots around the wetlands and in the shade, but conditions were otherwise pretty close to ideal.  When I covered many of the same trails back in February, after a particularly bad thaw/freeze cycle, I could have put on my hockey skates and finished in record time – they were that icy.  My gore-tex shoes were more than able to handle the trail conditions yesterday.  Hopefully we get some reasonable weather all winter and I can continue to get out at least once a week.  Long walks are great for clearing your thoughts and getting your priorities organized.

Some of the songs that I remember coming up on shuffle yesterday:

  • “Wishful Thinking” – Joel Plaskett
  • “There She Goes, My Beautiful World” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
  • “Carbon Monoxide” – Cake
  • “Terrible Love” – The National
  • “Architects & Engineers” – Guster
  • “Tribulations” – LCD Soundsystem (probably coincided with a spike in my pace)
  • “Break Me Gently” – Doves
  • “No Cars Go” – Arcade Fire
  • “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” – Elvis Costello
  • “Moves” – The New Pornographers
  • “Private Universe” – Crowded House
  • “Still Is Still Moving To Me” – Willie Nelson
  • “How To Fight Loneliness” – Wilco
  • “Uprising” – Muse
  • “Second Son” – Elliott Brood
  • “I And Love And You” – Avett Brothers
  • “Infinity” – The XX

I quite like the variety of styles and genres you stumble into using ‘Shuffle All’.  It’s like tuning into a really cool radio station that is precisely on your wavelength.

Retail Therapy

Our shared pop culture references suggest that ladies like to go shopping for shoes when they’re feeling a bit down in the dumps.  It’s been awhile since I’ve had first-hand knowledge of this phenomenon, but I’ve been assured that it’s still true today.  I presume it doesn’t matter if the shoes are comfortable, practical, or reasonably priced.  The simple act of buying a new pair of shoes seems to act like retail therapy for some people.  And that’s cool.

For every well-meaning counter-culture ‘rebel’ out there imploring us to Occupy Christmas this year, there are five other people that are totally cool with purchasing a few trinkets to keep us company along the great road of life.  I’m fine with that.  I agree that consumerism is a slippery slope, and it shouldn’t be your raison d’etre.  However, it’s kind of silly to stomp your feet and insist that no one should ever buy anything non-essential.  If you absolutely must have a new pair of pumps, and you have the financial means to do so, then be my guest.  It’s really no different than me picking up a new power tool at Home Depot.  I think there’s a clear distinction to be made between conspicuous consumption and just living your life.

For me, procuring music is therapy.  And my new-found hobby is collecting vinyl.  In the short term, I am thinking about finding and re-purchasing all of my top twenty favourite albums on vinyl.  In the longer-term, I hope to pick up some new releases on vinyl, and go hunting for classics in the local used record shops.  Maybe my new hobby is really just a way of populating my own personal shoe rack.  Records may not be essential to life in the same way as health or shelter or food, but my life would be much less enjoyable without the simple pleasure of dropping a needle on vinyl.

Today is Black Friday in the USA, AKA the day after American Thanksgiving that marks the unofficial kickoff to the Christmas shopping season.  It isn’t celebrated as a big shopping event per se in Canada, but a lot of stores adhere to the spirit of Black Friday by offering specials on certain kinds of goods.  Today I popped into Blackbyrd Music on Whyte Avenue in that magical window between work and Friday afternoon hockey and picked up some gems at 20% off:

Radiohead’s Hail To The Thief:

Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot:

And the find of the day, Wilco’s new EP Speak Into The Rose on ultra-cool red vinyl:

I’m listening to YHF right now and I’m completely blown away by how much better it sounds on analogue than digital mp3s.  Yay for vinyl!  Wish you were here to share the experience with me.

Rippin’ Records

Death is pretty final, I’m collecting vinyl
I’m gonna DJ at the end of the world

R.E.M., “I’m Gonna DJ”, from the 2008 album Accelerate

My musical coming-of-age happened while cassette tapes were king and compact discs were first entering the scene.  Tapes were fun; they were small & pocketable, sounded okay, and they were great in the car or your Walkman because they didn’t skip.  As a rust-on-tape technology they eventually wore out, and if you weren’t careful the tape could come flying off the capstans and all over the floor of your ’81 Ford Granada.  Thankfully, all you needed to fix a testy tape was a six-sided pencil and a bit of patience to rewind the spools.

CDs are fine.  The sound quality is generally excellent if they have been mastered correctly.  Skipping was a HUGE problem for portable CD players at first.  It wasn’t until oversampling technology came along that CDs were worth putting into cars and portable music players.

Of course, the musical world spins on mp3s and other electronic file formats today.  The concept of music on a physical medium is quickly going the way of the dodo bird and John Tesh’s career.  However, there’s a funny little secret about the music industry – vinyl is making a HUGE comeback.

For now, the fraction of people collecting new vinyl is really small.  And truth be known, it will probably always be a niche market.  However, vinyl sales are up something like 40% since this time last year, and it’s not just contrarian hipster douchebags with bed-head, bad beards and berets driving the comeback.  I think a lot of hardcore music listeners are looking for a change from the sometimes harsh sound and emotional frigidity of downloaded mp3s.  It’s also great to see large-format artwork on store shelves again.

Many of my favourite artists are releasing their new albums simultaneously on CD, iTunes, and vinyl, often in 180 gram audiophile quality and double-gatefold sleeves.  They aren’t cheap, but it puts the fun back into shopping for music.  It’s also a riot to sit around on a Friday night spinning platters of plastic and reveling in the unique sound of a well-mastered record.  It’s even cool to have to flip the record over every 20-ish minutes (hey, you have to get up to refresh your drink anyway).

I picked up my first turntable about a month ago.  I did my research, picked a price point that would give me excellent fidelity at a manageable cost, and bought a Pro-Ject Audio Systems 1 Xpression III Classic in a lovely olive wood finish.  The hi-fi salesman showed me that it can be upgraded if I really want to get crazy, but the quality of the stock components are all first-rate.  So far I’m really happy with the machine.

My Turntable

Everything is completely manual. You even have to take the platter off and move the belt from the small sheave to the large one to switch from 33 to 45 rpm (very old-school cool).

Usually when you buy a new LP today, it will come with either a digital download or a CD copy of the album.  Wilco are putting out all of their records on vinyl through their website, and they typically come with a CD.  The download code or extra CD is handy because it makes loading the album into iTunes a snap.  It gives you total control over your music collection; sit at home and listen to vinyl, or take your mp3s with you in your pocket wherever you go.  The experience vs the convenience.  However, the old ‘classic’ vinyl records, and even some new albums, don’t come with an electronic backup copy of the music.  I’m looking at you, Los Bastardos de la Coldplay.  So what to do if you want to take your vinyl with you on a walk around the neighbourhood?

I picked up a device called a U-Phono UFO202 at amazon.ca, from a company called Behringer.  It’s a device that takes the left and right channels of low level output from your turntable, boosts it to line level, then transmogrifies the signal to a digital bitstream.  It can also grab line-level signals directly (cassette players, CDs, DVDs, etc.) if you’re so inclined.

Plug that into your computer’s USB port, run a program like Audacity, and rip your records to hard drive.  Audacity gives you the power to balance the volume levels, eliminate clicks and pops, separate each side of the album into individual tracks, and edit the ID3 tags.  After a little playing around, I was able to make a digital copy of Mylo Xyloto.  It worked out pretty well.

Now I’m looking forward to ripping some of my parents’ old vinyl to mp3.  Chances are pretty good I’ll start exploring the local record shops for my own vintage vinyl, too.  Who knows what kind of out-of-print gems I’ll discover.

New hobbies rock!

Music Challenge Day 30 – Your Favourite Song From This Time Last Year

And so, my friends, we have come to the last day of the challenge.  I have been saving a very special song for this occasion.  There are several other days on which it would have been an excellent candidate, but I thought I should go out in style.

The National are a marvellous American band that are likely off the radar of most music listeners, but are a huge favourite of those that know their work.  They garnered significant alternative music press acclaim with their 2007 album Boxer, especially the standout single “Fake Empire”.  And, true, Boxer is a wonderful record.  But in my humble opinion, I think The National really raised their game to another level with the 2010 album High Violet.  I loved High Violet so much that I bought the CD, then bought the expanded-edition double-CD when it came out, then bought the double-gatefold vinyl version last month on the way home from buying my new turntable.  If their label releases it on 8-track tape or wax cylinder I’ll probably buy the damn thing again!

It’s really difficult to explain The National’s sound in mere words.  It seems to draw from alternative country, alternative rock, folk, and even chamber music, but that doesn’t do justice to their unique sound.  The music is definitely not love-at-first-listen; songs by The National reveal themselves slowly over several listens, but then bond to your DNA and never let go.  They prefer to play in the shadows with shades of grey, not in broad daylight with primary colours.  At first the songs seem brooding, melancholy, and maybe even droll or depressing.  I’m not a musician, but I would guess this has something to do with the keys they write in and the downbeat rhythms they tend to employ.  The lead singer’s desolate baritone voice surely plays a role as well.

What I adore about The National, and particularly the songs on High Violet, is that they are more than just pretty melodies and engaging rhythms.  It’s like how great food is about more than just flavour – it’s also about texture and presentation.  Or imagine a piece of fine wood furniture – the finely-polished surface and handsome curves merely serve to reveal the gorgeous grain of the wood below.  There are a lot of ingredients at work simultaneously, and the end result is much greater than the sum of its parts.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JVp7C5vzMgw

My favourite song at this time last year is the second-last song on High Violet.  In fact, “England” is still on a very short list of my favourite songs today.  This song is a master class in slowly building from a quiet introduction to a spectacular climax.  It’s the musical equivalent of throwing a couple of logs on a nearly-extinguished campfire and watching the embers grow into a roaring conflagration.

The words to this song, like many on High Violet, are almost willfully obscure but they seem to paint a portrait of a desolate man who has been abandoned by the love of his life.  There’s a definite sense of longing and resignation that is amplified by the bittersweet melody, the horns, and the slowly-rising rhythm section.  My favourite lines are obfuscated gems like these:

Someone send a runner through the weather that I’m under for the feeling that I lost today
Someone send a runner for the feeling that I lost today

Put an ocean and a river between everybody else, between everything, yourself, and home
Put an ocean and a river between everything, yourself, and home

You must be somewhere in London
You must be loving your life in the rain
You must be somewhere in London
Walking Abbey Lane
I don’t even think to make corrections

The story is incomplete.  We can’t really tell if his lover left on her own accord, or if he drove her away, or if some other circumstance split them apart.  But the depth of his sorrow and grief is unmistakable.

The greatest triumph of “England” is that it somehow captures the cathartic joy of hitting rock bottom, of knowing that there’s nowhere else to go but up.  It’s not as simple as wallowing in self-pity; it’s more like realizing that the painful moments in life will eventually make the jubilant moments seem even better.  I went through a really tough period at this time last year.  In retrospect it wasn’t one big life-changing event that set me off, it was more a confluence of many seemingly small things, all at once.  “England” was the song that reminded me that I wasn’t the only person who felt lost and abandoned and miserable; it was the light at the end of my tunnel.

Ultimately, I think it’s healthy to keep in touch with both ends of the spectrum of emotions.  It is what makes us feel human.

And with that, dear friends, I bid you adieu (for now).

Music Challenge Day 29 – A Song From Your Childhood

This is a lot easier than yesterday’s challenge.  I still can’t think of a song that makes me feel guilty.

The earliest song that I can remember hearing as a child and really liking was “Our House” by Madness.  To the best of my knowledge, my family didn’t own this song on vinyl or 8-track or cassette.

Special note to any readers under age 25: vinyl and 8-track tapes and cassettes were physical media that used to be quite popular for distributing recordings of music.  Once upon a time, music couldn’t be downloaded; people were actually expected to suffer the indignity of putting on pants, going to the mall, and buying a copy of an album.  It was a very quaint era.  Ask your parents about it some time!

Anyway, back to “Our House”.  I don’t remember exactly where I heard this song, but it must have been a radio single at the time, probably around 1983.  In retrospect, it’s no surprise that this song resonated with me.  The melody is more infectious than influenza, the ska-pop beat is unusual, and the subject matter and accents are charmingly British.  The way the song changes keys from time to time also gives it a really clever sense of circular, perpetual motion.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p4RWBCEFRo

The Allmusic Guide (www.allmusic.com) for Madness Presents The Rise & Fall makes a good argument for how this Madness album tidily fits into a continuum of records like The Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society (1968) and Blur’s Parklife (1994).  I completely agree; all of these albums present vignettes of work-a-day British life via upbeat, strongly melodic songs.  I think Kaiser Chiefs might be making the modern day equivalent to these albums.  The Motown disco horns on “Our House” are even more colourful than early 1980’s wallpaper, and the vocal melodies and counter-melodies are sublime.  A lot of musical trends have come and gone in the interim, but this song still sounds like a hit almost three decades later.