Sound memories

I’ve always found sense memories to be terribly interesting phenomena.

My most intense sense memory involves the texture and flavor of pancakes with butter and apricot syrup at a Perkins somewhere near what I think was Omaha when I was somewhere around the age of 7ish. I think we were coming home from a funeral for a great uncle and got caught in a plains blizzard on the interstate but in particular the warmth and sweet/tart/sweet/buttery flavor of those pancakes in a warm room at a table with my family is one of my most enduring and cherished memories. I often wonder if that is what I am trying to recreate when I go out with friends and family for dinner as an adult. There is something significant about the feeling of comfort, joy, and connection with my family in that memory that I can almost put into words.

While I have other taste memories (sweetbreads at Cosmos with Lauren) and certainly many visual memories (the synaesthetically “noisy” red backdrop to an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center with Heidi), many of the most emotionally intense sense memories are essentially audio cues centered around music. It’s pretty obvious to me that one of the reasons why music is associated with such strongly emotional memories is that for as long as I can remember I have always used music as a sort of proxy to structure my thoughts.

My brain, like almost anyone else’s as far as I can tell, is a fantastically active place. Thoughts do not occur in isolation so much as they occur in chains and groups alongside other chains and groups and emotion can be a component of those thoughts or sometimes more of a medium that the thoughts are moving through. When it is working well it’s a lot like a big pot of boiling pasta with the varying textures of the vaporizing water and the bobbling pasta shapes dancing around at the top of a startlingly clear medium that siphons off easily and quickly through my hands and mouth and body to manifest in the world. At it’s very worst it seems more like an impenetrable pool of magma that is painful to handle and flows exactly like the fire that it is. Searing and destroying everything in it’s path. Music allows me to sift the particulates in a cloudy medium and settles the roiling boil so that I can actually see what is going on rather than simply having to guess at the contents from the random stew at the surface.

My first music focused sense memory involves sitting in my dad’s car in the parking lot of Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids on a cool fall day with the sort of intense sun that makes it impossible to keep at a comfortable level between baking and chilled. We had just arrived but we were taking a few minutes to finish listening to one of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos on the radio before MPR had separate classical and news stations. It was one of the remarkably rare times I remember my dad sitting with the car off and the radio on with the volume up. I don’t know why we where there that particular time, though at a guess it was almost certainly to visit one of his parishioners who was in the hospital for one reason or another.

That example aside, it feels like many of the music memories are related to relationships, and romantic relationships more often than not. They Might Be Giant‘s album “Flood“, the song “Birdhouse in your Soul” in particular, for the interminable week it took me to call my first girlfriend up for a first date. Public Image Limited‘s song “Rise” and The Godfather‘s album “Unreal World” punctuates everything about the relationships with old friends during the summer between high school and college and the implicit and explicit transitions that where happening. Enigma‘s album “The Cross of Changes” for the new friends found at college shortly thereafter. Morphine‘s album “Cure for Pain” as the intensely stereotypical soundtrack for the breakup with my girlfriend from college. Midnight Oil‘s song “Been away too long” and the rest of the “Capricornia” album when Betsy left me that also signaled ends and beginnings to so very, very many things.

I think I can count myself lucky that it has happened often enough that I actually come to recognize that the memory is being formed while it is happening. It’s not a conscious effort, it just seems to be something that I do. Since I use music to organize the screaming mess in my head it is a very natural event for me. This has the obvious upside of proving that I have at least a glimmer of self awareness but also has the accompanying stark terror of the absolute unknown since I do not know what will end up being frozen in that crystal of amber when the moment has completed.

Whatever this piece of amber will contain, it’s soundtrack is going to be Sufjan Steven‘s album “Illinois“.

The new candy store

At this point I think the inherent advantage of acquiring recorded music solely through the means of traveling to a brick and mortar storefront, perusing the incredibly over complicated system to locate likely albums that I might like to purchase, physically bringing the stack of shiny plastic to the cashier with my own hands and whatever other means I can come up with in the moment, watching as each barcode or price sticker is laboriously tallied, and finally handing over a suitable bundle of paper or small plastic card which may or may not be returned with a large bag containing the shiny plastic I took such pains to collect is that is is not an easy process. I have to have the time and energy to get the store. I have to have enough patience to be able to defeat whatever myopic intelligence designed the system to hide the items that I want from me. Most importantly I have to think about the entire process as I go through it which makes me more likely to think about things like, “Can I afford this?”.

It is that last bit that worries me the most with Amazon.com‘s new MP3 Download service. So far I’ve only purchased three albums and I wonder if that isn’t just the taste that I need to go wildly into debt if I don’t keep my wits about.

I have experimented with various music download services at various points and had highly varied experiences with the multitude of them. There is something about the simplicity of Amazon’s execution of the concept that has finally gotten through to me that this is really finally possible.

It certainly has it’s downsides. It currently only runs on Windows, not that I run anything else right now and by the same token it should not actually be too difficult for them to port their client application to just about any OS given how simple it is. Relatively small selection of “only” 1 million tracks (or there abouts) which sounds like a lot but really means that only a small number of the many songs that you might want to buy may be available. Still has a couple of quirks being fairly early in beta though there has already been one client update since release which fixed the only problem that I’ve run into personally.

About that problem: As I mentioned I have purchased three albums from the service. The Cinematic Orchestra’s “Motion”, Skalpel’s self titled album, and Sufjan Stevens’ “Illinois” which turned out to be my first and only cause to contact Amazon’s tech support. I initially sent an email message through their web interface but did not get any reply after 30ish hours so I used the web interface to have them call me (neat trick) and talked to someone very nice who couldn’t quite help me because the tech support for the download service wasn’t quite open for business at 7:30AM CST on a Tuesday. When I finally called them a half hour later a very nice person fairly immediately re-authorized the download links for me and I was able to finally get the album and I’ve been listening to the audio CD I burned immediately all day since. Turns out the new client was likely the reason why I could download the album this time, though neither I nor the tech support guy had any good reason why that might be so. I suspect it has something to do with the rather whimsical and extensive names given to the tracks of this particular album since they’ve been giving some of my other applications some trouble too.

Some of the people who might read this might think that having trouble with one third of my purchases so far is a good example of how new and untried the service is, but I would actually say quite the opposite. The first attempt was utterly perfect and gave me good reason to try it two more times. The client setup is relatively painless, even in Vista with UAC enabled, and the neat little touch of automatically adding the downloads to my iTunes library meant that I could start listening immediately without having to go look for what the client had done with the files. I’m a savvy enough computer user that really that isn’t actually a problem for me, especially given how difficult it can be from other services, but not having to worry about little details like that makes me really think this is ready for everyone, not just those who sometimes wander over near the bleeding edge.

Supposedly they are marking the downloaded files so that if the files show up on a P2P network later they know where they came from, but I’m not honestly worried about that since I don’t participate in any of that. Otherwise they are pure MP3 files with appropriately pre-populated tags and even embedded cover art. I can, and have, used them any of the multitude of places that I use mp3 files.

I honestly think this is finally it. Give it a try.

Last Train Home

I think I spent about 10 hours listening to live music yesterday. It might have been 11, but it’s hard to remember precisely at this point. There is one particular good, and one particular not-so-good observation I have from yesterday however.

Good: SPF30 sunscreen, applied early enough, does actually keep me from roasting my skin and repeating last year’s idiocy of getting a burn on my knees bad enough to make walking painful.

Not-so-good: The last run on the LRT from the Nicollet Mall station leaves at 1:18am. I had thought I had seen that the last train was at around 2:30, but it turns out that is the last train heading into town, not out. However cabs seem to be quite plentiful at even that time and are not actually hideously expensive when there is a good driver who doesn’t try any shenanigans and takes you exactly the route you would have told them.

After the great time I had on Friday, I was excited to get back downtown and I arrived in time to see the Apple Valley High School Jazz Ensemble 1 who seemed to be a pretty decent high school big band, but was not quite what I was looking for at that point in the day so as soon as I heard the main stage start up I headed down there and was quite glad that I did. Bill Crutcher and Work In Progress had started their set and played a great mix of stuff. I have to say that I have a weakness for good vibraphone playing and despite the only good seating available at this time being the acres of baking concrete in the hot early afternoon sun it was great to hear someone of his caliber playing. The rest of the band was also very good and it’s too bad they didn’t have a slightly better position on the schedule.

I stuck around for the MITY performance and was fairly impressed with a fair amount of it. In particular one of their pianists sounds like he might have a promising future, and already has a distinctive image with a wild mane of long curly hair. I popped back to the Dakota Foundation stage for the last half of the Kelly Rossum Quartet who is always good. I had managed to remember to get cash, so I got two of his CDs for a bargain price as well.

Then it was dinner at Masa on the street. I had the Puerco Veracruzana and a Mayan Margarita. The salsas served with the chips are exceptional, and the pork was very good, but the Mayan Margarita was very slightly disappointing in that I had been hoping for something a bit more understated and delicate than the seize-my-mouth-with-both-hands experience that I got. Toned down a bit I think it would be a great drink but as it stands it’s just too much. Or maybe I’m just pining for the only really truly amazing margarita I’ve ever had, at Chapultepec in Chicago a couple of years ago. Next time I’ll try the Sangria Blanca instead since that was the other option I had been thinking off. (While I’m talking about Masa, it is both great and a little strange to see a restaurant of that caliber with a To-Go menu on their website. Yet another reason to miss working downtown.)

Finished dinner in perfect time to get a good seat for Paul Stubblefield, who I felt kind of bad for. He’s obviously a pretty good entertainer, but the crowd just didn’t seem to be working for him. Though maybe my use of the word “Entertainer” is kind of telling since he did come across as a classic Las Vegas lounge act. That does have it’s place, but maybe not at a Jazz Festival at prime time. He did have a split set with 19 year old sax phenom Alex Han and I can’t help thinking that I’m not the only one who might have rather seen a full set from Alex in the first place. He’s intensity and improvisation skill had some of the crowd on their feet a couple of times and with Taylor Tanner, Gordy Johnson, and Kevin Washington playing rhythm they were a shoe-in for an encore that was fantastic.

After that it was a fairly quick setup for Charmaine Neville to come out and top it all off the right way. I had not known she could do that sort of Louis Armstrong impersonation, and she used it to pretty good effect. Not quite enough to make it a gimmick but enough to show what sort of range she’s got. Her band was absolutely stellar too, and I’m really glad that she has them warm up the crowd with a song before she gets on stage.

After that it was a quick walk up to the Dakota where I caught the end of Willie West and the festival jam session over an order of the really tasty french fries, which the Dakota serves with an excellent Bearnaise sauce. It was pretty obvious that people were thinking along the same lines I had been when the last combo on the stage included both Grace Kelly and Alex Han. After trading solos with the rest of the band for the first 20min, Kevin Washington finally goaded them into doing an improvisation duet that was exactly the kind of music I had been hoping to hear staying up for the jam. Trading licks like they did was a great end to the evening and the right note to go home on.

My armchair observation: Grace Kelly needs the polish that Alex Han has developed over the 5 years that he’s been playing to be a great musician, but Alex needs to work on the stage presence that Grace has already gotten to be a great entertainer. I’m fairly certain that All Grace needs is time to develop the polish, but I wonder if Alex will ever look really comfortable speaking to the crowd on stage.

Off to day 3, which should be full of really great latin jazz on the main stage.

Swing the night away

This weekend is the final half of the Twin Cities Hot Summer Jazz Festival, which has quite a few local and national jazz acts performing on mostly free stages in and around Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. I have been to at least some portion of each of the last four festivals and have been looking forward to this year’s event. I was a little disappointed to note that the festival is a fair bit smaller than it has been in the past, with only a single free stage on Friday night in Peavey Plaza, and two free stages Saturday and Sunday. In comparison, two years ago I remember there being five stages running all day on Saturday and Sunday.

For the most part I have been going to the parts of the festival that I have been able to get to by myself but this year I was fortunate enough to remember to invite my dad early enough that he might not have fully booked his schedule yet, and so he and I had a grand evening last night enjoying the festival and each other’s company.

The day started out somewhat mixed when I ended up having significant car trouble from what has turned out to be a bad tank of fuel. I had stopped at a new Biodiesel pump on the southeast corner of 66th St and Portland Ave in Richfield on Thursday afternoon and not driven much after filling most of the tank. Friday morning on the way into work I noticed that the car was performing very sluggishly and the exhaust was both extremely thick and smelled quite intensely of burning something and the nice people at West Side VW where quite surprised that the engine was able to do much with whatever had been sold to me as fuel. Still, emptying the entire system, clearing the lines, a new fuel filter, and at least some cleaning of the fuel pump will hopefully get things running fine sometime today.

In any case, this did change plans somewhat as I would not be able to meet my dad at my house as had been planned, but it was not a huge deal for him to pick me up at work, and from there were went to my place and took the LRT into downtown for the festival, only an hour later than we had hoped and unfortunately having missed Ginger Commodore. Neither of us had managed to have dinner yet so when we arrived were quite hungry and while it might have been interesting to stay for Dan Kusz‘s set on the main stage, the song they were performing wasn’t nearly as interesting as the possibility of food so we popped into Brit’s for a good meal.

Well sated, and having had a chance to talk, we were lucky enough to came out just in time to see the third act for the night, Grace Kelly. Being 15 she definitely lacked some of the polish and long experience that I often see on the main stage, but she made up for all of that and more with raw talent and vivacious dedication to her sax playing, as well as her singing, and even managed to surprise with a couple of tunes she had composed herself.

The last main stage set was the one that I had been looking forward to and Barbara Morrison was even more fun this year than last. Getting to hear her is such a treat with her fabulous stage presence and wicked humor between songs it makes for a great way to end the night. The dancers tend to come out of the woodwork during her set as well and getting to watch some great swing dancers bopping along to the music just made it even more fun.

While somewhat tempted to stay out for the jam session at the Dakota, we decided we had better start heading home since there was still an hour before the jam would even start and it had been a pretty full day. On the way home we did decide to take a slight detour and stopped for adult malts at the Town Talk Diner. Dad had the Mint Condition, my usual favorite, while I tried the Silly Rabbit. I don’t know that I would have it twice, but I can say that it was the living embodiment of an alcohol infused version of the bottom of a bowl of Trix cereal on a Saturday morning watching cartoons. That particularly sweet, sticky, creamy, but slightly grainy flavor and texture are iconic enough to bring back memories though I’m pretty sure it was Kix in my family instead of the extra-sugared Trix.

Looking forward to today’s line-up and I going to stay up for the jam session tonight. I’m always looking for friendly faces so give me a ring if you’re in the area.

Update: Thoughts from day 2 here.

First Person Singer

While a bit unfortunate that it is not longer, Opera Slinger turns out to be unreasonably fun for such an odd premise: Using the classic WASD first person control scheme, get your character into the spotlight before the competition and then sing your heart out. It’s only one level, and just four songs with some pretty corny lyrics so it plays out in less than 10 minutes. I did find navigating the opera house to be a bit more problematic than I would like, but I imagine running it a couple more times would solve lots of those issues.

Sole Inhabitant, but not lonely

My autographed copy (#219!) of Thomas Dolby‘s “The Sole Inhabitant” concert DVD arrived in the mail today from CD Baby and I spent a really great evening getting through the contents despite a couple of little flaws in the package.

The main content is the concert from September 28th 2006 at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston. Being a big fan of Thomas Dolby’s music means that it was worth it just to hear some great live arrangements of several of his classic songs, but the video presentation by Johnny DeKam really made it fun to keep my eyes open instead of just blissing out to the music. Using several cameras, video effects, and sometimes the video footage that accompanied the live music, the imagery is very suitable and comes off as very professional even though there is obviously very few people behind the production. The concert itself is presented in two formats: with the introductions between songs, and without the introductions between songs. I tend to like to hear what a performer has to say as much as what they play so I stuck with the version with introductions and was not displeased. The concert is fairly well constructed and moves well between numbers. The monologue’s between tracks are to the point and show an old hand to the stage successfully getting his sea legs back after being ashore for an awfully long time.

Also on the disc are several extras: “Rig Voyage” is a portion of a presentation given to students at the venue, “Building a Song” is a narrated clip from the TED 2006 conference, and “Studio Interview” is exactly as billed. “Rig Voyage” was a pretty interesting look at the content of his current hardware setup and some notes about the equipment he started his career with. “Building a song” was a nice, if quite short, version of something he also does in the show but with a simple narration that helps follow along with the technique. It is also the only video on the disc that is shot in widescreen but unfortunately is inexplicably fairly grainy. There are also a couple of small audio glitches that almost ruin the clip. I’m not sure if those are from the source material or the disc mastering but I actually went to the trouble of verifying it on several players and machines and they were present every single time. “Studio Interview” is a pretty good interview with Thomas Dolby talking about his careers in music, business, and family and manages to not quite say anything concrete about where he plans to go in the future except that there will be more music which is probably all that we really need to know at this point.

Besides the audio glitches in “Building a song” there are a couple of flaws in the mastering of the disc that make for some slight irritation with the packaging. When all of the extras are played, instead of returning to the menu the disc stops. On two of the players that I tried the disc on hitting Play after an extra finishing stopped the disc starts the “Concert (with intros)” track instead of bringing up the main menu which means an extra button press to get to that menu so you can see something else. I also found the low end of the sound to be a bit spotty sometimes making my subwoofers do their jobs and other times sounding decidedly empty in that range. Still, I’ve certainly seen worse and the disc as a whole is functional if more rough than I had expected.

There’s plenty here for a fan, and it’s probably worth watching for someone into electronic music and/or 80’s pop, but if you don’t count yourself in any of those groups I can’t see it keeping your interest.

But only a little guilty…

As a birthday present for my sister this year I got tickets for her and I to go see the Barenaked Ladies play at the Xcel Center in St Paul last night. The show was pretty good, though I have to admit that I was a bit more excited about (and happy at the performance of) the opening act than I was was of the headliner. Mike Doughty was in fine form and did a great job warming up the crowd with some of his solo work as well as a couple of Soul Coughing tunes, though no one sitting near us really seemed to know who the heck he was. I really need to make more of an effort to see him do his own show the next time he’s in town.

Anyway, Barenaked Ladies also had a very good show and I did enjoy it very much. My sister and I have had an on-going strong discussion (because it’s not serious enough to be an argument) about whether BNL was as fun on stage as their fellow Torontans, er, Toronto-ans, um, band from Toronto Moxy Fruvous. Well BNL does a good show, but they’re nothing close to Moxy Fruvous on stage. Definitely fun, don’t get me wrong, but not nearly the quantity of digressions, ad-libs, and other wacky types of stuff that happens at a Moxy Fruvous show.

They also didn’t sing any songs in French. What kind of Canadian band is that, eh? ;-P

The really cool part of the show for me though was that while perusing the merchandise table prior to the show they had a sign up the “Barenaked on a Stick LIVE!” USB key for $25. The details are this: They record the entire show off of the boards and dump it to an MP3 file. They they copy that MP3 file and a PDF with the set list off to fifty USB keys and hand them out as soon as duplication is complete after the show. The two very, very tiny little issues that I have with this:

  1. There is exactly one MP3 file that has the entire show so it can be a bit unwieldly to listen to. So I’ve spent a bit of time today listening to the file in Audacity and spliting out tracks as I come to them. (Thus the post title…)
  2. It doesn’t include the opening act. Completely understandable but it would have been nice.

Overall it’s a really cool idea and it’s been fun to listen to. I’m trying to decide if it’s a good idea to get the albums they have available in this form or not though.

Live in Switzerland

I just finished my third listen through of the new live album from Mama Digdown’s Brass Band, titled “Ascona”.

I think my only complaint with the album is that it is kind of front loaded. I usually don’t have quite this much trouble remembering what I just heard after the middle of the album when I listen to it straight through. The early tracks on the album are really, really incredibly good and the last half of the album is only really good but for some reason slightly less memorable.

Still, excellent listening for anyone who enjoys Second-Line Brass Bands or New Orleans style Brass Bands, whichever we are calling them this week, and actually a decent introduction to this style of music if you have any interest in finding out more. Mama Digdown’s has consistently been more easily progressive than some of the more adventurous bands like Rebirth Brass Band or Youngblood Brass Band. I think part of that is, as a friend put it after listening to Youngblood’s “Center. Level. Roar.”, that Mama Digdown’s is consistently more “tight” than many of the other bands doing relatively similar music. (Though, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve asked him to give Mama Digdown’s a listen so I don’t know that he’d agree with this assessment.)

The “tight” component of this style of music I find to almost be related to how much hip-hop influence is present. The more hip-hop influence the less “tight”, or really loose I suppose, and when it really works the song sounds like an utterly beautiful accident. A sort of musical embodiment of serendipity. The problem is that when it doesn’t work the song can sound just plain sloppy. As much as I really enjoy hearing them and think they are a pretty decent local party band, Jack Brass Band can kind of epitomize the sometimes heard habit of letting the lack of talent be heard as that lack of being “tight” and really what keeps them from being really good. A hard line to walk some times and I think going for “tight” first and then working for the “loose” sound is a generally better plan.

Lively recording

One of my most favorite local artists is Nachito Herrera. His consummate skill and amazing talent just blow me away whenever I get to hear his work.

Case in point: I’m listening to “West Side Latin Jazz” from Live at the Dakota Vol. 2. The level of energy that so fully saturates every single note of the song is striking, but is almost nothing compared to the layers of texture that make this song almost the anti-thesis of saccharine. One of the elements of latin jazz that has always drawn me is the use of multiple percussion instruments. So hearing Shai Hayo on timbales (?) and Gordy Knudtson on the more usual drum set throwing around their increasingly more frenetic variations of the main theme in the alternating percussion solos near the end of the track is just pure heaven.

Besides, how can you not like a form of music that takes the cowbell seriously.

Is it Mr?

[Listening to: Magoo by Drums and Tuba from the album Mostly Ape]

I don’t think I’ve posted recently about how much I like the band Drums and Tuba. I’m reminded of it since the track Magoo from the album Mostly Ape came up in my usual shuffle mode listening. Finding myself typing in time to the music while writing some code is kind of an odd experience. It is exactly the sort of song that grabs hold of your lizard brain and begins to reprogram you to move and breathe in it’s own time until the first horn solo comes through and sets you free to figure out what the hell is going on before the capturing riffs come back just like a fairytale piper to lead you back out of your own head.

While quite a bit of D&T’s music can be quite impenetrable to those who don’t like to be challenged in their music listening, this track in particular shows off exactly how well composed, challenging, and yet so incredibly listenable their music can be.

Experimental? Hell yes. But approachable. Appreciable.