There are times when I think that it would be best to sometimes cut myself off from the world and go live on a square of land somewhere with my wife and dogs and try to grow and hunt all my own food. For a variety of reasons, this past month has been one of those times, which is pretty much the major reason I haven’t posted anything here for over thirty days now.

I’m not the type of person to rant (okay, sometimes I do), but just in case I’m looking at my site about five years down the road and wonder what my problem was, here are just a few of the things that made me want to get off the grid…

  • Pet Food Recall – Fortunately we feed both of our dogs Canidae (which I highly recommend), but the fact that such a high-scale food contamination got through the system makes me think that the FDA doesn’t have very good controls in place. In the past couple days, they’ve expanded their probe and it seems that contaminated gluten may have made it into human food as well. Whee!
  • Virginia Tech Shooting – Anytime a shooting takes place, it bums me out, but as someone who works on a University campus, this one hit home a little closer. The news coverage (and how much attention was given to the murderers tapes) made me ill and hate our broadcast media even more. At least I rarely watch television.
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma – I’ll write more about this when I’m done reading it (which should be soon), but I will say that it’s the most enlightening (not always in a good way) book that I’ve read in some time. It’s already started to make me think even more about what I eat (when I already thought I ate well to begin with).
  • Kurt Vonnegut Jr. RIP – I think I can safely say that Vonnegut was one of my favorite authors. There are others at the top of the list that I love for different reasons, but there was something about how Vonnegut captured the joy and absurdity of the human condition that really made him unique. One of the only writer/musician/artist deaths that has truly made me really sad.

There are plenty of other things that haven’t exactly added to me wanting to embrace the world, but at the same time I haven’t exactly coiled up into a ball and been unproductive either. As has been the case for large parts of the past year, I’ve been working on music when I get the chance, and I’m closing in on review number 2000 over in my music review section. To celebrate, I’m doing some things over there that are kind of fun (including giving away music and putting up mixes for download), so please do check that out.

I’ll end this with one of my favorite Vonnegut quotes, and I will be back in less than a month.

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” – Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

The Ghost Map by Steven JohnsonI picked up The Ghost Map for TG as a gift awhile back and she had read it and highly enjoyed it. After finishing a book on World War II, I decided that I needed something a bit lighter, so of course I turned to a book about cholera epidemics in England in the nineteenth century.

Okay, so it’s not exactly light reading, but nothing like millions upon millions of bodies being ploughed asunder, so I decided to check it out.

I hadn’t read anything by Steven Johnson before, but after zooming through The Ghost Map, that will probably have to change. As mentioned above, the focal point of the book is about the cholera epidemics that ravaged England in the 1800’s, but it goes off in so many directions (in well-written ways) that it feels like a real smorgasboard of information. Johnson not only talks about the triumphs of science over superstition, but population density and city planning, information design, sociology, and just plain history of the actual events as well. He weaves all of these things together in logical, and even entertaining ways, introducing the “heroes” of the story and following the arcs of their discoveries like a thriller in some ways.

Like most great books that I’ve read, information comes at you in digestible amounts and about a variety of different angles. It was only the second book I finished this year, but got me excited about reading more again.

The Second World War by John KeeganAs I’ve mentioned many times before on this site, my knowledge of world history is seriously lacking and I’ve been trying to somewhat remedy that situation by reading different books to fill in the gaps that my education thusfar has left gaping open. I’d read The First World War by John Keegan later last year and thought it was a great condensed history, so I decided to follow it up with his book on World War II.

Just like his other book, this one was both fairly concise and at the same time absolutely packed to the seams with information. It literally covers all the facets of the war, including all the major and minor ground battles in Europe and Africa and all the naval battles in the Pacific and everywhere else. The politics leading into the war and during the war are covered as well, although obviously not as much as they would be in other books.

Reading through the book and refreshing my somewhat sketchy history on the subject, the thing that really stuck out to me were the technological advances made in such a short amount of time that would tip the balance in one direction and then back in another. In several cases the Germans hung on to battles beause of their superiority in terms of tanks, but once the American war machine was kicked into full gear, it was pretty much a matter of time before it ground down the enemy.

Of course, it goes without saying that the human loss was astounding. I think part of the reason that it took me so long to finish the book was that I was once again reminded in detail how many people died on all sides. In combination with my general pessimistic view of world events, I could only manage a certain amount of pages per day without feeling kicked in the stomach several times.

That said, reading the book also made me want to read more in-depth books on different facets of World War II, which I plan on doing at some point in the future.

As if it hasn’t been abundantly clear, I’m going through a period in my life where I’m feeling the need to say very little. My mind is busy with plenty of activities, and while I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like (still working on a historical book about WWII), this year (and really the past two months or so) have been spent staying on task pretty well. I’ve even managed to somewhat stick to my very loose resolution of wasting less time on the internet while I’m at home in the evenings.

Adding to this feeling has been a fairly cold snap in the weather that we’ve been having. The winter as a whole hasn’t been brutal by any large measure, but we’ve gotten just enough snow and cold that I’m especially inclined to want to sit at home in the evenings with dogs on my lap and a glass of wine beside me while I work on writing/mixing/etc.

I’ll snap out of it once the ice falls off my fingertips.

As a rather serious music collector, I know that I can’t be the only one with this problem, but it’s something that has bugged me a little bit each of the past time I’ve put CDs onto my shelf and into my collection.

I often wonder when I’ll simply have the chance to listen to not only a particular piece of music again, but the CD by it, and the CD by that, and the crate of records sitting on the floor by them all. Compact discs have now been in the commercial marketplace for over two decades now, and even many modest collectors I know have aquired five hundred or more CDs in their collection. On the more serious side of things, I also know people with between 5,000 and 10,000 CDs in their collection.

Although my collection falls far, far below the 5,000 mark, I still cannot comprehend when I’ll have a chance to actually sit down and listen to a good portion of my actual collection. I have a lot of music in my iTunes library and my 20 GB iPod is almost full, but shuffle is the best way to sample the collection and even then it’s only a sampling. Sometimes I simply get a bit bummed out looking at things in my collection that have been neglected, trying to give face time where I can by grabbing something when I’m running out the door to drive the car somewhere.

Not only that, but in addition to what I already own, I’m listening to new music weekly (probably 5-10 new albums minimum), so my actual time to devote to older albums is dimished as well. I know lots of people who download at least as much music and have external hard-drives full of 25,000 songs or more. Listening to a collection that large would take non-stop play (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) for well over three months (assuming 10 songs per album) just to hear every song, and once again, that doesn’t include anything new added to that collection in that time span.

Am I going to have to wait until retirement to hear some of my collection again? Will I even like some of it by then? Do I need to take a break from new music for awhile? Help me out here people…

It’s taken some time to come to terms with it, but it seems that I’ve always been a much better singer in my head that in real life. I was kicked out of choir in junior high because the teacher said that I was tone deaf. This was no problem with me, as it allowed me to take two periods of art class, my favorite at the time.

Later on in high school, I decided to go out for choir again, and under another teacher I actually found that it was something I really enjoyed. My last two years of school, I even took part in swing choir (along with full choir), wearing the goofball cumberbund, bow-tie, and all. Yes, it was all very cheesy and I’m sure that if I saw videos of myself from those days I would cringe, but my teacher was pretty open-minded and let my overzealous friends and I actually choose a lot of the songs we’d sing. We picked semi-obscure songs created from William Blake poems and to this day I can rattle of lines like “Tyger, tyger, burning bright / In the forests of the night / What immortal hand or eye / dare frame thy fearful symmetry” in the same melody we sang them in roughly 13 years ago to date.

In college, I gave up on choir because everything got much more serious than I wanted to be, but I found myself drawn to and imitating singers like David Gahan and Morrissey in my spare time (away from the ears of anyone near). On the drives to and from college (5 hours each way), I’d sing myself hoarse while alternately simply having fun letting loose and trying to keep myself awake on the long stretches of road.

Post-college, the first band that I was in didn’t force the issue too much. Our first release was largely instrumental and lyrics were both buried in the mix and/or filtered heavily, turning them into what was basically another textural element rather than something most people would consider a full-on vocal recording. Our following EP had one vocal outburst from myself, and despite lots of practice and many, many takes, it’s still something that I was never quite happy with. A couple friends who heard the song stated that they preferred the instrumental tracks on that short release, solidifying the view in my head that my vocals somehow killed the momentum of the title track.

All of the above said, the past two weeks or so have been spent recording vocals. It’s the vague musical project that has been in the works for over a year now, and quite a leap given my somewhat uneasy past experiences with my own voice. With every single song there’s now an acclimation period, where I literally have to waste at least ten takes just getting used to the sound of my own voice in the mix, and usually many, many more after I re-listen to recordings with fresh ears and hear even more things that bother me. Instead of masking everything in filters or burying them in the mix, vocals have become a focus of tracks instead of a quiet textural element. It’s a heck of a lot of fun, but a bit frightening as well.

It’s all sort of a new experience, even though I’ve been through some of it before. Standing in a room with my computer and/or one other person knowing I have as long as I need to get it right is completely different than standing out in the middle of a big empty studio space while five people stand behind glass and give pointers and the clock ticks on a four hundred dollar day. In some ways, though, that ability to endlessly re-record has forced me to become an even more harsh critic of myself as I rediscover the limitations in my (admittingly not so great in the first place) vocals and then try to play on what strong points there are.

At several points during the process, I simply wondered if the whole vocal thing should simply be scrapped and songs should be taken back to instrumental form, but at some point along the way a breakthrough or two happened and now vocal tracks simply feel “right.” I’d get laughed right out of the room at an American Idol audition, but I guess time will tell whether these things sound as good to everyone else as they do to me.

In the time since I last updated (which was many moons ago), I had a nice long holiday break in which I both relaxed and got a lot of things done. I thought about posting here a couple times, but didn’t really end up feeling like it.

One of the things that I did in the past three weeks was move my office/”studio” from the living room of our house into a room upstairs. We finished remodeling a room after a couple months of work, and I decided that an actual desk and chair would suit me better than sitting with my legs at awkward angles under the coffee table. The new space is very comfy, with hardwood floors (and rugs for sound dampening) and walls that are painted mocha with a faint blue-grey ceiling. It’s very cozy and seems to be working out much better than my cluttering sprawl in the living room.

I’ve had a record sleeve frame for some time now sitting in the basement with a Johnny Cash record in it, but figured that the new studio called for something new. I decided to let the patron saints of electronic pop music watch over me and in a completely unintended touch the artwork actually matches the walls nearly perfectly.

Oh, and music has been worked on. Yes it has.

New office and studio

So, I was tagged by Mr. Elastique a couple days back, and instead of being my usual curmudgeonly self, I decided I would do my first ever meme. Whoot! Or something. The theme of this one is apparently quite simply 6 things about myself that people might not know about me.

  1. My left-front top tooth is fake. I have a small titanium rod that goes up into my jawbone and this fake tooth gets much colder than all my other teeth in the winter. It’s a really odd sensation.
  2. During the summer before my senior year in college, I had a stretch where I worked 63 days in a row (two different jobs). At this same time, I was also heavily into running and in those 63 days managed to log just under 350 miles (and a sub 5-minute (4:46) mile on a bet with myself).
  3. During my junior year of college, my roommate and good friend and I ran for student body president and vice president on a write-in campaign. We started it out as a joke to make fun of the process, but actually got more serious about things and in only two weeks managed to come in second place (not too far behind the winners, and ahead of one ticket that was actually on the ballot).
  4. I’ve had 8 surgeries in my life (9 if you include the tooth implant), but have never broken a bone.
  5. I am more than kind of a sports nut (both participating and watching).
  6. I have a list of every book (165 and counting) I’ve read including page numbers (44960 and counting) since 1998.

In the true spirit of a meme, I’m going to tag Mouser and Brett. Whee!

Even though our dogs are about as spoiled as it gets, they sometimes still act very, very needy. One of their biggest frustrations is not being able to sit on someone’s lap all the time. They will paw at your leg sometimes, and if you still don’t pay attention, they will stand up between your legs and try to get your attention. Here’s a good picture of Zoey doing just that, and giving her best sad face in the process…

Zoey dog

Back when I was in college, I wrote a music and entertainment column for the campus newspaper for three of the four years that I was there. At the end of each year, I’d devote a single column to picking out my favorite album artwork, because as a music lover, the artwork and packaging has always played a large role in how I perceive the music that I listen to. Granted, I can enjoy albums that have poor artwork, and on the other hand dislike albums that have amazing artwork, but it always seems a little more special to me when it seems like the artist (or label) put some time and thought into designing the packaging. In this age of trading MP3s and iTunes, it sometimes feels like it’s going to turn into a lost art, but I still have a deep appreciation for some fine album artwork.

I’ve reviewed all of the below albums on my music review site (except the Shedding, which will be upcoming), and the following (ordered from top to bottom) releases may or may not be included in my forthcoming favorite albums of the year list…

Benoit Pioulard - Precis
Benoit Pioulard – Precis
Although this was just released in the CD format, there’s something about the cover photography and typography of this album that reminds me of an old LP from the 70s. It reminds me of a dream that I once had where I was following someone at dusk on a hot summer day and I could never quite catch up to them and see who it was…

Tortoise - A Lazarus Taxon
Tortoise – A Lazarus Taxon
Swiss police officer Arnold Odermatt’s post-accident photographs provide haunting and yet oddly serene (no victims or blood) artwork for this set of Tortoise b-sides. Considering the title of the release (which refers to an organism disappearing from the fossil record, only to re-appear later), the devoid-of-humans artwork is perfect.

Keith Fullerton Whitman - Lisbon EP
Keith Fullerton Whitman – Lisbon EP
The hyper-saturated cover shots on this EP perfectly capture the feel of a foreign land as seeing it for the first time. Colors seem more vibrant, even smells that may be familar seem somehow more exotic, and sounds (accents, life in general) prick your senses and make you feel a little more alive for having experienced them. This artwork captures that invigorating feeling and makes me want to go overseas again.

Joanna Newsom - Ys
Joanna Newsom – Ys
It’s totally Ren Fest, yet there’s something about this cover that beguiles me a bit. Maybe it’s because I would enjoy having someone paint me to see how it would turn out, but like great portrait paintings, her eyes seem to follow you wherever you go. Combined with a lovely embossed sleeve (that reminds me of a fancy book slipcase), the overall packaging for this one is a gem.

Venetian Snares - Cavalcade Of Glee And Dadaist Happy Hardcore Pom Poms
Venetian Snares – Cavalcade Of Glee And Dadaist Happy Hardcore Pom Poms
Ha! And you thought this list was going to be all pretty pictures and fuzzy wuzzies! I can’t quite explain my enjoyment of this cover, other than that it seems to bring out the inner gore-hound in me. It’s one of those insanely-detailed cover art renderings that makes me look closer when seeing it from a distance and then feel weird when I crack a smile after realizing it’s a couple cows getting vivisected by a Rube Goldberg-like device. I’m a vegetarian, but I honestly have nothing against cows.

Phonophani - Phonophani
Phonophani – Phonophani
This isn’t even the best work from Kim Hiorthoy (my personal fave of his is probably the Scorch Trio – Luggumt album), but there’s something about this blob of bright gradients that tickles the fillings in my teeth. I remember damn near filling notebooks (I was obsessed with blobs of color) with similary-shaped crayon drawings when I was about 10, and it’s like he read my mind and updated it with a digital touch.

Triosk - The Headlight Serenade
Triosk – The Headlight Serenade
Depending on my mood when I’m looking at it, this cover can take on totally different feelings. The first time I looked at it, it reminded me of being out in the countryside and seeing the grass sway before I turned off the car lights and sat on the hood to look at the stars. Another time I looked at it, it made me think about evil things lurking just out of site. A great, mysterious photo.

Shedding - What god doesn't bless, you won't love; what you don't love, the child won't know
Shedding – What God Doesn’t Bless, You Won’t Love; What You Don’t Love, The Child Won’t Know
A bat-like, but seemingly benevolent creature rises above the mist while schooners with horse / rabbit / dog-like creatures float on a sea of their own tears. Further panels are just as odd and whimsical, and the artwork is just the right amount of light and dark, playful and creepy for this sprawling, found sound ambient release.

Glissandro 70 - S/T
Glissandro 70 – Glissandro 70
A lo-fi, discarded paper and glue reconstruction of the old-school West End disco label sleeve, the light-hearted and ramshackle feel of this sleeve seems to fall in line perfectly with the music contained within.

Arthur Russell - First Thought, Best Thought
Arthur Russell – First Thought, Best Thought
There’s really nothing mindblowing about this one, but the color combination and simple artwork just really seem to fit the feel of the release. Easily the most “unfinished” batch of work culled from Russell’s archive, the baby blue background and sketchy, line-art feel of the slipcase cover just feel right. They’re also sort of a lighter facade to the more melancholy photos that comprise the artwork within the jewelcase. A nice juxtaposition that is perfectly in line with the music (disc 1 starts out with lighter, almost improv pieces before turning into more droning, expansive work).

(for more album artwork appreciation from 2006, check out Elasticheart’s list)

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