12 August 2009

The Long Goodbye

It shouldn't be surprising, or upsetting, that Brooks & Dunn have announced that they are dissolving the most successful duo in country music (if not all of music). The last single they released to radio featuring lead vocals by Kix Brooks was "South of Santa Fe" from the If You See Her album back in 1999. It stalled at #41 on the charts. Concert-goers have found Kix's portion of the set repetitive as a result, tiring over the last decade of hearing "Mama Don't Get Dressed Up for Nothing" because there's nothing to take its place in the repetoire.

Ronnie Dunn has, in recent years, appeared as a guest vocalist credited by himself; in years past, non-album tracks of theirs credited the duo even when the contribution was restricted to vocals from just one of the two of them. Kix has taken over the American Country Countdown radio show and become a board member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Perhaps more significantly, ever since Sugarland became a duo they're stranglehold on the Duo of the Year awards has been usurped.

So, what now? Well, next month they release a 2-disc, career-spanning hits collection, #1's...and Then Some, including their current single, "Indian Summer" and another new recording. 2010 will see what is being billed as their final tour. Dunn seems poised to break loose as a solo act, while Brooks appears to be settling into a life that doesn't revolve around the stage. It's difficult to imagine either having as much success in the Male Vocalist category as they have had together as a duo, and yet as they near their 60's in the next few years it's hard to imagine them maintaining the same pace they've kept up for nearly twenty years regardless of what they do at this point.

Ultimately, of course, as a fan I can only thank Tim DuBois for having the idea of pairing the two once upon a time. Their Neon Circus & Wild West Show tours were an absolute blast and they've turned in some of the most crank-it-up worthy songs of their generation--from "Ain't Nothing 'Bout You" to "Brand New Man," from "Play Something Country" to "Rock My World (Little Country Girl)," it's been a wonderful ride.

Around the World in…a Handful of Samplers

I don’t know about you, but I love free music.  I’ll listen to pretty much anything at least once, and for the price of free I can afford to find out I don’t like something.  Amazon currently has a plethora of free digital samplers and I have downloaded a handful of them.  Most of them are from lesser-known independent labels trying to gain exposure for their up-and-coming talent, but what interested me were the few international music samplers.  I have no way of knowing just how representative these recordings really are of the music scene in different countries; I may be hearing their All-American Rejects, or I might be hearing their Milli Vanilli.  I just don’t know.
In any event, the samplers vary from about six songs to ten, with eight songs being the common length.  These would be perfect for the commute to and from work; get away from the monotony of commercial radio for thirty minutes and head to a different part of the world entirely.  The international-themed samplers currently available are:
  • Rough Music Guide World Music Sampler
  • VP Recordings Reggae Sampler
  • Music from Croatia
  • Far Out Recordings – Brazilian Music Sampler
  • Celtic Sampler Summer 2009
  • Six Degrees Free Indian Music Sampler
In case you’re not interested in traveling the world, perhaps you’d prefer to travel back in time.  In that case, there are also a handful of other samplers that may be of interest:
  • X5 Golden Voices
  • X5 Jazz
  • Savoy Jazz 1959 Sampler
These samplers contain recordings by Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Edith Piaf and others.  Between the three samplers, there are 13 songs waiting to be heard, perhaps again; perhaps for the first time.
Two other samplers I would currently recommend (the price being right and all) are the Amazon Comedy Sampler and the Romantic Nights Sampler.  As with most contemporary comedy, the sample tracks contain a lot of explicit language and you might not find them all funny; I thought it was very hit-or-miss, but fans of the Comedy Central brand of humor will probably be more satisfied than I was with the represented comics.

10 August 2009

What Would Willie Do?

As we struggle to endure the woes of the economy, one might consider looking to Willie Nelson for guidance. The Red Headed Stranger has, after all, lived quite a life and made it through all kinds of trials--from being born during the Great Depression to several divorces, from service in the Air Force to founding Farm Aid and from being sued by the I.R.S. to being a public proponent for the legalization of marijuana. And yet, when I ask myself, "What would Willie do?" I see an obvious answer that isn't necessarily applicable to everyone else:

Keep working.

No one in modern music comes close to Willie's output. Just through the end of this month alone, Willie will have released five albums. In February, he released a collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel. That was followed in March by a collection of live recordings from the "Last of the Breed" Tour with the Wheel, Merle Haggard and Ray Price, as well as a stripped-down re-issue of several of his vintage RCA recordings. Tomorrow, Lost Highway releases a 17 song compilation of cuts from Willie's releases for the label and two weeks from now he will make his label debut for Blue Note Records with American Classics, a spiritual successor to 1978's iconic Stardust.

Sure, you might say, the live cuts were just taken from a tour he was doing anyway and the Naked Willie album was nothing more than un-editing thirty year old recordings. And the Lost Highway compilation just collects previously issued songs (with three previously unissued tracks for good measure). Maybe, but who else would even bother with such releases?

More importantly, perhaps that's the lesson. So many artists spend years crafting a 10-14 song album, mixing and re-mixing, tinkering and re-writing, and then if the sales aren't overwhelming the project is dismissed as a failure. Are any of Willie's albums multi-platinum blockbusters? No; those days are over, it appears. And yet, when one considers his legacy, one cannot avoid the ever-expanding discography. New fans can be forgiven for being overwhelmed; even if you managed to screen out the off-label collections of his recordings, it's daunting to find a starting point. Willie seems to be well past the point of even caring if his fans even know about his latest release, much less worrying whether its sales are high.

Instead, he simply keeps turning them in every few months and leaving it to the critics, fans and history to determine what was and what wasn't a standout entry in his discography. Perhaps then, we as a society should take a page from Willie's playbook and stop trying to perfect everything we do. Maybe we should just take our ideas and run with them, and let what works work and what doesn't, fall away.

"The Song" - Poem

Another poem? Really? 'Fraid so. I wrote this one en route to Our Deck Down Under in Daytona on vacation. I had the idea earlier in the day of using a song as a metaphor for a failed romance, and on the way to get some grub the lines practically wrote themselves. I revised several lines for the published version, but the general idea is still intact.

I know "real" poets wouldn't resort to such a pedestrian metaphor, and their compositions wouldn't rely on prose to the extent that I do. My response? Get over yourself. I simply had an idea that wasn't big enough to meet the demands of even a vignette, so I made it a poem. I have no delusions that I will engineer an overthrow of the poetry world, so feel free to continue ignoring my dalliances with your precious art form.

Click here to read for yourself.

09 August 2009

A Personal Soundtrack

Having explored the iTunes Essentials collections, and been particularly reflective (if not outright nostalgic) of late, I have recently begun sequencing mixes based on the music of different phases of my life. Currently, there are five discs in the collection. The first three cover music from my childhood through high school; the remaining two discs collect music that I recall hearing a lot while working at Cracker Barrel.

It's been kind of a fun project for me. When my brother and I were kids, we had a biweekly ritual where our mom would take us to Louisville on Sundays. Sometimes we'd go shopping, often to a mall where the idea wasn't so much to actually buy anything as it was to while away an afternoon and get birthday and Christmas gift ideas. My mom is one of those people who began Christmas shopping on December 26th, so she would take notes all year long. Sometimes we'd go see a movie, though it was always something marketed toward families with young children. I still have a distinct memory of being taken to Showcase Cinemas to see E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial during its original run, and I remember feeling left out of conversations at school because classmates had gone to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which was not presented as something my mom wanted to see, nor did she want us to see).

Regardless of where we went, we took a portable cassette recorder deck with us. I know today's kids won't believe there was a time before satellite radio and cars that sync with iPods, but we had a Ford Fairmont and the only music it played was the radio. Nothing against radio, but we as a family really weren't that into mainstream radio. I grew up on 50s and 60s oldies (mom thought music took a turn for the worse in the 70s), and it was actually my younger brother who brought country music into the mix. We got cable around the time of our parents' divorce, and I recall many an occasion when he would turn up the volume on our TV as far as it would go whenever the music video for Dwight Yoakam's "Honky Tonk Man" came on throughout 1986 and 1987.

It was in 1986 that I first owned music of my own. Mom surprised me one afternoon with the cassette release of The Transformers: The Movie - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Many a Sunday afternoon found us playing that tape on our portable deck in the car. Perhaps I should be impressed by my mom's tolerance for indulging me, but instead I look back and I'm impressed by her good taste. Hey, Stan Bush rocks!

The Transformers started my lifelong interest in soundtrack releases, even though it would be another three years before I would feel compelled to own another. It was 1989, and Batmania swept the nation (if not the entire world) and I was no exception. I had to have Prince's Batman - Motion Picture Soundtrack. At the time, I enjoyed "Partyman," "Trust" and "Batdance," and the other six songs did very little for me. I have since come to value it as something of a guilty pleasure. The Danny Elfman score release, though, was an eye-opener for me. I had enjoyed Vince DiCola's instrumental tracks on Transformers, but I had never considered that anyone would want to own an album of just instrumental music from a movie before. Of course, I had to have it and so began a love affair with scores.

By the time the 90s rolled around, I'd largely gotten out of country music. I can't say why, necessarily, other than to say there was very little that interested me at the time. (Odd, given that the fabled Class of '89 was just underway with its inauguration of a new aesthetic, and given how big a fan I have since become of most of those artists.) During my middle school years (late 1990 through early 1993), I favored MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. To this day, it remains a personal victory that I managed to get my openly racist dad to give me Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em on cassette for Christmas 1990. Mom objected to several of the lyrics to Ice's songs, but I somehow managed to own not only his To the Extreme debut, but the now-forgotten Extremely Live and even the soundtrack to Cool as Ice.

The rest of those years were marked, musically at least, by soundtracks. In fact, aside from Hammer and Ice, the only mainstream release I owned at all was Bryan Adams's Waking Up the Neighbours--and the truth is, I only wanted that because it contained "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Sure, I owned that soundtrack, too (Michael Kamen's score is good, and I've always hated the way it was presented on the soundtrack release).

In 1991, I saw a teaser poster for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and decided I wanted to see it. Being the person I am, I boned up by going back and renting the previous five Star Trek movies and watching the TV episodes. Naturally, I had to have the soundtracks, and I remember distinctly that I got my first CD player for Christmas 1991. It was a Sony boombox, and the first CD I ever owned was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith.

CD technology fascinated me. For the first time, I could hear an entire album all the way through without having to switch sides, or even wait for the auto-switch feature to finish playing one side and begin the other. I could play any song I wanted by going directly to it and, best of all, I could shuffle a disc and hear songs out of sequence! So began my fascination with mixes, which take songs out of context and put them in a new one.

Throughout my high school years, most of my music listening was confined to soundtracks. In 1995, we finally got a movie theater in my small hometown and what had previously been a flirtation with films became a full-blown affair. That same year I discovered James Bond (just in time for Pierce Brosnan's debut in GoldenEye), and more soundtracks found their way into my library. Eric Serra's score doesn't hold a candle to the John Barry years, but I've always had a soft spot for it because it was my first. Plus, I loved Tina Turner's title song.

My senior year of high school, a friend introduced me to George Strait's Carrying Your Love with Me at a time when I was struggling with insomnia. I found I was able to fall asleep listening to the album and immediately bought a copy for myself. He then challenged me to go out and buy all of Strait's discography. Strait's debut album came in 1981 and he maintained a release schedule of an album a year--plus a few hits collections and a Christmas album along the way. It took me a while, but I eventually did it and I have maintained a complete George Strait library ever since.

I was always somewhat fascinated by Garth Brooks, dating back to my brother playing his eponymous debut album as an excuse to sing along with "Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)" so he could cuss. I'll never forget watching This Is Garth Brooks! on TV with my brother at our dad's house. Other than baseball, I can't think of anything the three of us were all interested in watching. After Strait brought me back to country music, my first visit was to check in on Garth and I was caught up on his (admittedly much smaller) discography in time for the release of his Sevens album in November 1997.

As I mentioned, there are two volumes of music collecting songs that were predominant when I worked at Cracker Barrel (from April 1998 through August 2000). The "Front of the House" disc contains country music; the "Back of the House" disc is comprised of Top 40 pop/rock stuff from the stations that played regularly in the kitchen. There is currently a gap between the high school years and the Cracker Barrel years, from June 1997 through April 1998. I'm not sure if I'll do anything with that sliver of time or not; I did work at Wal-Mart for six or seven months during that stretch. Maybe I'll do something with it later.

Ultimately, it's just been fun for me to revisit my youth in song. Even though the songs might be playing on my iPod, when I hear "The Touch," I'm back in that Fairmont with the tape deck on my lap in the passenger seat. "U Can't Touch This" makes me smile at my victory over my dad in 1990. I'm still excited at having unwrapped my first CD player when I hear "The Mountain" from Star Trek V. There are countless other memories, and it has been something of a catharsis to work on this personal project lately.

The Onus Is on You, Mr. Record Man

See if this sounds familiar. Consumer spending is down, and rather than have the folks at the top of an industry re-adjust to a less stratospheric income, they whittle away the jobs of underlings and reign in the business's activities. Yeah, it could be any industry right now, but the music industry has had a head start on the economic meltdown. In many ways, it might be the perfect microcosm for understanding how misguided many of our business leaders have been these last several years. I'll leave that to the economists, though.

Instead, I'm taking a moment to address a controversial issue: piracy. Now, no one needs to lecture me about the negative impact that piracy has on the artists, the labels and the whole industry. I have, in fact, been rather outspoken in my support over the years of the RIAA's efforts to date to defend recording artists from file-sharers. However, I have recently stumbled upon a gray area. It has been there from the beginning, of course, but I'm just now reaching it myself so bear with me if this all sounds repetitious to you.

I have been rebuilding my music library over the last year or so, thanks to Half Price Books where I can regularly rescue a CD from the clearance section for the cost of downloading a single song. Sometime last year, I found the score album for Tomorrow Never Dies there for just $3.00. I grabbed it firstly because it's a James Bond soundtrack I didn't already have, but I was also conscious of the fact that it has been long out of print and regularly goes for anywhere between $50 and $100 on eBay. Why? Supply and demand; there was such a low expectation of demand when it went into print a decade ago that not many were pressed. Ergo, those of us who are Bond collectors or happen to be soundtrack collectors, flock to this title whenever we get the chance. In point of fact, this copy is the only one I have ever seen in person.

This got me to thinking, though, about the other James Bond fans who want to hear this music but can't. Wouldn't this be the perfect release for file-sharing? Whether I paid $3.00 to Half Price Books or $100 to an eBay seller, David Arnold (the composer) won't see one penny of the transaction because it's a secondary market sale; the original inventory has long since sold through, meaning all the royalty money to be had off this release has already been made. Now, Tomorrow Never Dies is entirely relegated to the collector market, where the seller is entitled to keep 100% of the sale price.

So, if I were to upload Tomorrow Never Dies and share it, other than the fact that I do not have the legal right to do so, what would be the economic impact? Ultimately, the only thing would be that the $50-$100 secondary market price would fall. And even that's speculation, because most of the people who would even be interested in such a release would prefer to have a tangible original rather than a digital clone. It would suffice and sustain such a fan until such time as he or she could purchase the original, but I don't know that sharing this music would really even deflate the collector market price much.

Ultimately, then, if the RIAA and involved parties wish to earn every last cent from Tomorrow Never Dies, it seems to me that they need to spend money to make money. In today's digital age, where the record labels have lived in fear of music being distributed digitally, it seems to me that they have entirely missed an opportunity. Surely it is far more reasonable for record labels to keep music "in print" digitally rather than manufacturing CD's and expecting vendors to clutter their limited rack space with a title for which there are so few potential buyers. All they need to do is put this music for sale on iTunes and then not only will they diffuse the argument in favor of sharing Tomorrow Never Dies, but they might just make some money in the process. Not everyone who wants this release can be as lucky as me to find it for a mere $3.00, you know.

Note to the RIAA: I have not, nor do I intend to, actually share this or any other music. Mostly because I'm too lazy to go to the trouble of uploading it, but partly because I agree that the copyright system must be protected. I trust, though, that my point is made that there is a responsibility on the part of the suppliers to meet demand.

06 August 2009

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

My wife and I have been working on "going green" for a while now, and we were thrilled to discover our county has resumed operating a recycling center. My grandmother has been doing some major cleaning and so I made sure to nudge her in the direction of taking a greener approach to her purge than just discarding everything into the trash. Her being 71 years old (and schooled in the arts of manipulation), I've been recruited to help her with some of her project lately, including loading up the recycling and taking it.

Among the items we've taken yesterday and today are: a bin full of plastic bottles that has been accumulating for about a month now; some flattened cardboard boxes; a handful of old phone books and several electronics items. We still had the record player/stereo system from when we owned the consignment shop, and even though the speakers still work and it will play cassettes, the phonograph is the only reason I ever wanted it and that part died about a year ago. We had two VCR's collecting dust and three portable TV's that are now paperweights thanks to the digital conversion. It was actually kind of sad to discard the small Samsung that had been in the kitchen since I was a child, but it was manufactured in December 1983 and there isn't even a jack for a DTV converter to plug into it. The nice thing is that I know there are many people who scavenge the center, so there's a chance someone with some know-how might make use of these things before they even get recycled. I hope so.

At the risk of exaggerating, I will say that this is easily among the most physically demanding activities I've done in months. Partly, this is because of all the lifting and carrying from the house, to the van, to the recycling center. Partly, though, it's because of the heat and humidity, and I know my Crohnies appreciate what the heat can do to one's guts. I once had a much higher tolerance for the warmer months, but the last few years I have longed for Autumn a bit more each August.

Still, it has been rather rewarding to exert such levels of energy. It's actually made me feel something that has been absent for quite a while, and that's a sense of being useful. It may not be much in the grand scheme of things, but every little bit helps. Whether discussing the green effort or one's self-image, I think that's true and I am here to testify that it has been healthy for me.