Thursday, April 24, 2014

Band Review: Andrew Joslyn and Passenger String Quartet

I can't make this a typical review.

When Andrew Joslyn first followed me on Twitter, I wrote down Passenger String Quartet for the band to review, but with his name. (That's my normal procedure for when I am followed by a band member rather than by the band itself.)

The tricky thing is that so much of what is done, both by Andrew on his own and by the Passenger String Quartet, is supportive in nature, that characterization becomes pretty difficult.

Just searching for the music to listen to is its own trick. For example, on Spotify under artists there is Lerin Herzer and Andrew Joslyn together, and Passenger String Quartet. However, under Kris Orlowski you also find Joslyn and the Quartet in album titles.

Under Portfolio on his site, Joslyn does a good job of listing different projects, but there is so much to listen to, and so varied, that it defies normal review attempts.

So instead I will just provide some appreciation, and direct you to a video:

I responded most to the collaborations with Kris Orlowski, perhaps because of previously being immersed in that music for a different review:

In this case, I think "Waltz of Petunia" is a really good example of how the supporting instruments add to the song. The song could have been recorded without, but would it be as charming?

I also think there is a good argument for why exposure to classical music is important, because it provides a foundation that enriches contemporary music. As instinctive as music can be, knowing more, and having more to work with, helps.

These musicians can make your song better.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Take On Me

"Take On Me" by A-ha, has been enjoying a bit of a resurgence lately. In 2012 it became a battle cry for the Washington Nationals baseball team, in 2013 it was sampled by Pitbull and Christina Aguilera for "Feel This Moment" (featured prominently in The Lego Movie trailer), and it was also featured in a Volkswagen commercial that also mimicked the video.

That has led to more various articles talking to the former band members. One with singer Morten Harket made me think, when he said what the video did was allow people to pay attention to the song. It was a good song, but people didn't latch on to it on one listen.

I thought of it differently then. I knew the song had been released twice previously without gaining any traction, and that it was the release with the classic video that made the difference, but I hadn't really thought about why.

I am much more aware now that some songs require multiple listenings before you appreciate them, but I would not have expected "Take On Me" to be one. That one segment should work as a pop hook. Maybe timing was an issue too, but the video worked.

For me, I know it was not just the video, based on the number of times we went through Hunting High and Low and Scoundrel Days. (After that they did not focus on the US as much, and I did still get some of their later albums, but it was different.) That being said, the video had a huge effect on me.

I could not even tell you if the local radio stations were playing A-ha before. My first glimpse of them was the video, but it was just a clip in a commercial. I wanted to see it so badly, just based on that glimpse, but it never came on when I needed it. Suddenly I caught it one night while babysitting, and the parents came home before it ended. So yes, I totally appreciate how the internet allows me to call up things instantly now.

I do think the rotoscoping aspect was something that drew attention. The live photography was attractive, as was the band, and simple storyline worked. The drama followed the music nicely. You can try and analyze all these points, and you do learn things by doing it, but also sometimes there is just magic. It captured a moment, and it worked for the band.

The music landscape is different now, and things don't always work the same way, from what is necessary to reach your audience to what budget you will have to do it, so we'll spend some time on that over the next week or so. For now, it's good enough just to appreciate a classic video from a magical time:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Videos that I don't like

The three videos that I mentioned loving yesterday ("Take Me Home Please", "My Own Worst Enemy", and "I'm Not Okay") were not just videos that I have liked over the course of a long life of watching music videos, but they were also three that I used to play together. I played them along with a fourth video, except I didn't like that video that much, and was only playing it to hear the song. That song was Alkaline Trio's "Mercy Me":

I love this song, but I don't really care for the video. It is inventive and visually interesting, and the images don't really take away from the song. Obviously the favorites mentioned had strong humorous elements, but there is some humor here too. I don't have any clear reason for not liking the video; it just doesn't do it for me.

There may be a tone mismatch. While I say the images don't really distract from the sounds, at the same time, the images don't have the same energy. Also, there may be kind of an "uncanny valley" effect going on, where they look almost natural, but not quite. That mismatch can repel people. (This may also be my some people find clowns off-putting.)

I'm leaning more toward the aesthetic issue, because as I look back on the various videos that I hated, and would refuse to watch, with a lot of them it was that there was something ugly or gross about them. This included George Thorogood ripping off his face to reveal robot parts in "Bad to the Bone", the Spitting Image puppets in "Land of Confusion" by Genesis, squished hands and residual tentacle slime in Greg Kihn's "Jeopardy", and the clay forming images on and around Peter Gabriel's head in "Sledgehammer".

It may also include the faces morphing in Godley & Creme's "Cry". I'm not sure that it does, because morphing has been used in a lot of other videos and not bothered me. I think maybe the problem was that I didn't like the song that much, which kind of leads to one of my most hated videos of all time, "Ebony & Ivory", by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.

I did not start out hating "Ebony & Ivory", but then it started stalking me. The climax was when I came home from school one day and turned on the television. It was on MTV, so I switched to VH1, and it was there too. I turned off the television and switched on the radio, and it was there too. Obviously with all of that switching I had already started hating the song, but that was the clearest sign of its level of infiltration.

Just two years earlier I remembered not minding that songs got overplayed, because they were songs I liked. Why did I hate this one so much? I think the issue is that it's not a very good song.

I hate saying that, because I'm in favor of racial harmony, but if we are going to address such an important topic, can we do a little better lyrically?

We all know that people are the same wherrrrre EVer you go
Side by side on my pi-an-o keeeeey-board, oh Lord why don't weeeeee?

Cake gets away with having the lyrics mismatch the tempo, but they're edgier. I think it's a bad song, and in small doses you can overlook it, but over and over again it could actually increase racism and desires for segregation. And Stevie Wonder, I know you can and have done better.

I have been re-watching these videos before writing, and one thing I remember from some kind of "I Love the '80s" special was them talking about music video cliches, and that if you didn't know what to do there were a few standbys like curtains blowing in the wind. Guess how "Ebony & Ivory" starts?

So maybe it's easier to make a lazy video for a lazy song, but there's one other video that really bugs me. This is the one where everyone will know my judgment can't be trusted, so I guess it's good that I saved it for last. I'm not a big fan of "Thriller".

I never got into Michael Jackson. I tried, because it sure felt like everyone else loved him, but eventually I just accepted it. Because I did not really like his music, I never grew to love any of his videos, but I would still watch them, except for "Thriller".

Part of this is the ugly/gross thing, which keeps me from enjoying zombies. Beyond that, looking back at it now, I feel like the song does not serve the video. The length is monstrous, but very little of the footage actually has the song playing, and playing the song over those segments would not feel right.

There are things that are interesting about it. The opening segment does definitely hit some points for harking back to the '50s creature features, and we use some of the dolly tracking shots that we associate with the '70s - it hits some of the right notes - it just takes too long, and it feels like with too little purpose. Whether that is more of a John Landis issue or a Michael Jackson issue, or just an issue of them collaborating, I don't know.

Most likely their goal was to make something really cool, rather than thinking specifically about what the music video would do for that song. The song did end up being very popular, and Michael Jackson made a lot of money, so it's hard to argue with success. I still don't like it.

Nonetheless, tomorrow we will spend some time on the purpose of music videos.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Three favorite music videos

To start off this segment on music videos, I decided to start with open gushing. I am not necessarily saying that these are the three greatest music videos of all time, or that they are my top three favorite videos ever, but I love them a lot. As we get into why I love them, that will launch the broader discussion, but today will be only praise.

"My Own Worst Enemy", performed by Lit. From their album A Place in the Sun, the video was directed by Gavin Bowden and released in June 1999.

There are several strong points here. You do get a sense of the band as they are, watching them perform in the lounge. You also get to see them as - I guess the issue is really that they are retro, but the initial thought is that they are nerds - nerds who are great bowlers. That gives them an underdog plot, because they enter the alley to people giving them the side-eye, but their amazing skills win them acceptance and admiration, and then they get to go party.

This classic storyline builds in a manner congruent to the buildup of the song, with the bridge coinciding with the most impressive bowling footage, climaxing with a ball joke that would be funny anyway, but is more so because some band members are clearly so much more comfortable with/skilled at it than others.

It's bittersweet too, because Allen Shellenberger is gone, and I can never not remember that when watching, but part of that is that coverage of the band is pretty well balanced too. You get to see everyone doing their thing, and not just the lead singer.

(To be fair, A. Jay Popoff in this video is where the term "bedroom eyes" suddenly clicked for me; so THAT's what it means.)

"Take Me Home Please" by Reggie and the Full Effect. I don't know the director, but it was the second release off of Songs Not to Get Married To, from 2005.

It was easy for me to just listen to the song without watching the video, which I do fairly often, but I kept coming back to watch the video because of the break-dancing. If it was something that I could do at all, I might be less impressed, but even the moves that Reggie does, which are clearly intended to be more comedic than impressive, are beyond me. I am especially impressed by that little scissor and dip thing the antagonist does around 2:20, but also a lot of it is just gravity defying.

(For convenience I am going to refer to James Dewees at the keyboard in the blue tracksuit as Reggie, and James Dewees in the long black wig at the dance-off as Paco.)

So, I would watch the dancing, but then I would start noticing the individuals. There is one blonde girl (not the pig-tailed one) who does not really seem to be watching in one shot, so I noticed that and thought she was not really into the dancing, but then on a different viewing, she is doing the dancing too. Maybe she was just thinking of something else right then.

So then I started thinking about the individual people and realized that even though you could theoretically just gather a bunch of people who are good at dancing and let them use their own personalities, they are taking on characters, because at times you can see some of them break character.

For example, Paco seems to have two closer friends in this, and since they both wear headbands I will have to refer to them as the cooler one and the nerdier one. The cooler one at one point looks like he is about to crack up, but the nerdy one is consistently nerdy. Is he a more focused actor, not acting, or did the camera just never catch him?

Ultimately the video concept is pretty simple, but the video ended up being one that I find endlessly intriguing.

"I'm Not Okay" by My Chemical Romance, off of Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. Directed by Marc Webb, filmed in August 2004.

Let me say that I am very fond of the original video, for its glimpses of Matt, and Gerard brandishing Sting, and Ray doing the same head bouncing that he does in the updated video, which is my signature move when I do it for karaoke. The first video is good, but the second is a masterpiece.

Yes, it has more oral jokes than I would normally go for, but it builds up and follows a path that is appropriate to the song while being something the audience can relate to. In the opening, where you get to hear the voices of Ray and Gerard, and that dialogue is totally real. It's not even "making it" that he wants, but he can't articulate what he does want, only he does know there is something that he wants. That is adolescence.

Again we cut between performance and underdogs. I will say that Frank in the chemistry lab reminds me a little of the Ramones' "Rock N Roll High School", in that my first thought was "Don't let them have unsupervised access to chemicals!" but that is a very small part of this video. It builds an idea of what school is like for the parties involved, and the final sequence is full of great images: Frank's weary look of resignation as Gerard is tackled, Gerard wind-milling on the way to his own sadly ineffective retaliation, and then Ray and Frank making the tackle happen, with Mikey getting in a last shot. Teamwork!

There have been things I have wondered about. For example, in that 2-man tackle, does it make sense to have the fairly short one go for the top of the target, and the kind of tall guy go for the base? The mascot goes down, so I guess it works. Was Mikey really heading to the final confrontation with only a croquet ball? No, he has a mallet later. Okay, that makes more sense. And then for that confrontation, I would generally expect lacrosse players to be tougher than croquet players, but croquet equipment seems like it could do more damage. Seems dangerous.

I actually didn't get into a lot of scuffles when I was in school. It may be obvious. I just know that this video rocks.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Band Review: Hydra Melody

Hydra Melody is an alternative rock band out of San Antonio, Texas. I've been listening to them via their web site and Soundcloud. Soundcloud has more tracks available, but I prefer the condensed version that you get on

While often soft and plaintive, with strummy guitars, I like them best when they are rocking harder. For that reason I need to call out "Rubix", which I have only found on Soundcloud. The intro starts with a no-nonsense drumbeat, then adds some less down to earth synthesizer, and as guitars and vocals comes in everything balances right, and you get an interesting song that you can listen to many times, knowing it is still saying more.

I can't really compare them to anyone else, as they pull in different threads. The piano on "Pros And Cons of Self-Liberation" sounds a little honky-tonk, but the rest of the song really isn't. They may be more intellectual than most bands.

The live videos seem to be funkier. I'm not sure whether that is primarily song selection, or just a different facet that engineering didn't pull out when they were recording, however, they do have some live dates coming up, and some of those dates are with TEAM, which should be a good line-up.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Band Review: David Paige

David Paige never really coalesced for me. I feel bad about that, but after several listens I think I understand why.

On his Facebook biography he states "a sound that rocks harder than pop and is more accessible than much of today's alternative rock". I think it straddles that space in between awkwardly.

"Are You Ready" starts out with a strong beat, but it feels like it never fulfills that promise, but instead wimps out. On "Inside Out" at times it reminds me of Del Shannon's "Runaway" and at other points of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" by the Animals. Both of those songs have their points, but I am not sure they're compatible.

Some of that may be personal preference on my part, so it's not necessarily a reason not to try him out. There are good listening options on his web site or via Soundcloud. My favorites were probably "In The End" and "Learn To Love You", which had a really good intro. Probably listening to the four tracks mentioned will give you a good idea of whether the music will work for you or not.

It's intriguing to think about whether the different styles can be merged better, or if he should come down more squarely in either pop or rock, or that maybe it works but is just not for me. I will say that my issues are just with the song structures, but execution is well-done.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Okay, so who killed the video star?

No one should be too surprised to find out that money was involved.

The following video does have language bleeped out, but there is a lot of it, and the attitude is a little abrasive. It also makes me laugh and has some truth in it, so watch if you want to:

There is a factor that was not mentioned in the video but that still played a role, relating to advertising dollars. When MTV initially launched, people watched for the novelty alone. There would be videos you loved and videos that you didn't, but it was all so new that people would tune in. There would still be some influence by demographic issues and time zones, but people tuned in. That level of fascination couldn't last.

While from one point of view every video was an ad - promoting the song, album, and band - the channel still needed advertisers. Advertisers buy in blocks, but if you don't know who is watching when, or that they don't have a motive to switch away any time a lame video comes on, it's hard to feel confident in the investment.

Programming still provided some answers to this. Some times of day would have a theme instead of random videos. That's how we get "Yo MTV Raps", "Club MTV", "Headbangers' Ball", and "120 Minutes". (I assume VH1's "Pop-Up Video" filled a similar role, though I don't remember them having a lot of shows.)

They did other shows too. I loved the game show "Remote Control", got into "The Monkees" enough to go to their reunion tour (which I doubt would have happened without MTV airing the shows), and once they started airing "Monty Python's Flying Circus", my friends and I started quoting it a lot. I never got into "The Young Ones" but it didn't bother me that it was on.

None of this was awful so far. The turning point is widely recognized as the debut of "The Real World" in 1992, launching a craze of annoying shows depicting horrible people doing stupid things (for fun, mix and match those nouns and adjectives), but which many find fascinating and they are often quite inexpensive to shoot.

Since the station was generally getting music videos free, any shooting expense for any series should have been less attractive than the free music videos, but I think there are a few factors that came into play, based on my own experience.

The truth is I had sort of already left MTV behind. In 1992 I was in college, and I could go down to the basement and probably find the right channel on one of the two communal televisions, if no one else was already watching something different, but it didn't happen that often. Then I was on my mission, and not watching any television.

I did try again, in August 1994, and it didn't appeal to me. I saw grunge and rap, and everything had kind of a nasty edge. I know the bands that I did like made music videos, but maybe I didn't have time to wait around for them. There was work, and finishing college, and always something that needed to be done.

The music changes, and what's in style changes . In the video when he says what artists they would be playing today, he is absolutely right. There was briefly a channel (I think it was a VH1 spin-off) that was playing old videos from the '80s. We did tune in and watch it for a while, but still, who has time for that? So maybe some of that nostalgia is not only for watching music videos, but for having enough free time that watching random videos is a reasonable use of time, and for being the desired demographic. Once your tastes were hot contemporary, and now they are oldies. I can sympathize with that.

Videos may still be free, but the record labels do not have the budgets that they did. That point about the phones being shown in every video, and being the reason that the video is paid for, is completely true. I can think of awkward phone placement in videos by at least two of my favorite bands, and they aren't even particularly new videos. Frankly, that's weird; shouldn't there be more than one type of product that can benefit from product placement? Why is it always phones?

Regardless, needing product placement is a budget issue, and it is one that came from people no longer buying music. Again, record companies were too slow to adapt, the amounts of money were ridiculous for what the labels actually did, and Napster was a huge missed opportunity.

I have written about that before. If I have something new to say, it will work it's way out, but for the next phase I want to focus on music videos themselves. What do they do and what can they do? Which ones work, which ones fail, and why? I have been planning on doing this since at least last June. (I have reasons to believe Frank Iero is my spirit animal, but if not, it's probably a tortoise.)

So, lots of video links coming up. For now, here are some previous posts, and the books that influenced them, and influenced this post.

Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, by Steve Knopper

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum