Ai No Beat

Over at Spin, a look at the new single from the Japanese boy band Kis-My-Ft2, which was released in both rock and pop versions:

The dual release format makes a lot of sense precisely because the composition almost seems to have been built from the ground up for this express purpose — each version focuses on one part of the song, at the expense of the rest. Which is not to say anybody’s any better off as a result — the median age of the band members is a crisp 21 years, and consequently the rock version sounds like a hazy reflection of rock as understood by someone who grew up in the age of Shinedown: dramatic pauses, fluttering echoes and filters, doubletracking everything to death even when the riffs don’t actually want to go anywhere useful.


Bagpipe Buskers

The latest round of my busker field recording project Cast In Concrete features Scottish Octopus, a duo that combines bagpipes and drums.

Bagpipes are a deceptively powerful instrument, which you may not realize until you’ve heard them from a few feet away and/or had them overload your mics, but that also means they’re a fine counterweight for a drum kit. Combining them, at least in the manner these two do, also creates a strangely compelling time travel sensation, because although the pipes are well outside the comfort zone for most of the people who are going to end up reading this, a drummer like Morales can propel them along into something that could pass for modern, at least enough to survive outside period pieces and dramatized police funerals on Law & Order.


Chicken Little

When I was in high school, we were all addicted to AOL Instant Messenger, which allowed you to use small images as your account’s icon, sort of a 48-pixel precursor to today’s profile pictures on Facebook and elsewhere. Usually you’d just download something — fake “buttons” that contextually mimicked the visuals of the program were all the rage — but much to the amusement of my friends (or some of them, at least) I was handy with Microsoft Paint. Instead, I hacked together a rough self-portrait caricature by clicking on individual pixels at the 800% zoom setting, and then pulled a series of head swaps to create variations like the one you’re seeing here — bond.bmp. (The clear “crowd favorite,” as it were, certainly seemed to be turtle.bmp, but personally I was also quite fond of ninja.bmp, devil.bmp, and dead.bmp, as well as a special edition which I used during the week-long beach trip we took together right after graduation.)

Sorry about that clunky intro, but there’s no other way those images were ever going to see the light of day. Anyway, I’ve just written an enormous feature for Grantland, parsing through the catalog of the James Bond theme songs in anticipation of the release of the newest film Skyfall on Friday.

From the outset, the idea was to rate and subsequently rank the songs using more sophisticated logic than simply “which song is the best” — for example, in a wild break from most of the other music writing I’ve done, we consider and even award points for the complexity of the music theory underneath the pop surface.

But I’d been also closely reading New York Times political statistician Nate Silver’s articles for months, and as election night drew nearer, the extremism of his predictions for an Obama win (all since proven correct, as you are likely aware) created a firestorm of controversy in the mainstream news coverage. He was inescapable, and consequently more of his approach was absorbed into my own writing than I could have predicted. I soon found myself writing about music in a ludicrously academic and mathematical fashion.

Considered on its own, the strength of the song roughly corresponds with that first expectation of artistic unimpeachability, the idea that a secret agent of Bond’s formidable aptitude should not be introduced by anything less than the finest entry music. But the smoldering remains of the music industry do still like to chase after popular success, so we also need to consider the prominence, popularity, and reach of each song — for our purposes here, this is a rough amalgam of sales numbers, chart positions, eventual cover versions, and more generally the extent to which the song can stand on its own as an independent cultural allusion many years after its initial release. (This also acts as an automatic populist counterweight of sorts against what would otherwise be an isolated critical opinion for strength — please remember that as you’re composing your angry tweets about this article.)

Using two numbers allows us to measure intrinsic quality separate from widespread success, but those are already valid metrics for every song in existence, and we’ve not yet accounted for the fact that this is a Bond theme, and thus just the latest tiny piece of a high-profile long-running whole; let’s see what we can do about that. The cleverest of the Bond pop songs are undoubtedly those that seamlessly incorporate a very specific melody, known among Bond music enthusiasts as the “suspense motif” — this is the slinky chromatic line that kicks in during the main title music, after the horns stop. If you listen carefully, you can hear it in the background at the beginning of the verses in Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger,” for example. This is what everyone thinks of as “the James Bond theme.” Constructing your pop song around the mathematical constraints of the suspense motif is the most fascinating compositional approach, but there are also other ways to “sound like a Bond theme,” so we’ll simply assign a third score here for cohesion, which is the extent to which a given song cooperates with the rest of the series.

This now gives us three scores instead of one for each of the Bond pop songs — roughly speaking, we now have separate numbers for each of those words: “Bond” (Cohesion), “pop” (Reach), and “song” (Strength). From these we can calculate an overall average which we hope will better reflect the effectiveness of each theme song using more reasonably balanced criteria than a simple gut reaction.


This continues apace for five thousand words. It’s easily one of the most demented things I’ve ever written, and I’m delighted that Grantland was willing to entertain it anyway.

Mean Storm, Meaner Pencil

New York’s transit system has been eviscerated by Hurricane Sandy and none of the subways are running in a sensible fashion, which is precisely why I made a point of meeting up with the wonderful singer and cellist Lenna Pierce for an underground recording session. This one is a bit weirder than usual.

That voice, man. It’s like something echoing out from history itself, like it should be trained on weighty Celtic spirituals instead of the inconsequential love songs that typically concern us mortals. The cello all but disappears here, buried unceremoniously by the futility of trying to keep up.


On a related note, I’m also thrilled to have finally snuck in a silly little contribution at The Awl, which for my money is the greatest editorial property on the internet at the moment. Hopefully next time I’ll graduate from barebones rankings of the downed subway lines for everyone to argue about into doing some actual writing.

But by all means, continue doing the horsey dance

Over at Spin, we debunk the notion that listening to “Gangnam Style” in any way qualifies as global cultural awareness by pointing you toward “Bloom,” a wonderful new jam that is handily beating Psy on the Korean pop charts.

Korean rapper PSY’s runaway smash-of-smashes “Gangnam Style” has long since graduated to such a level of worldwide Internet saturation that Korean pop listeners have decided it’s time to move on. Son Ga-In is by far his most exciting successor yet; she clearly wants you to have fun, but there are no dances that frat boys will be doing on Halloween, and no shots of anyone rapping on the toilet.

Have you seen my blog posts about CMJ? Y/N

New York’s annual CMJ music festival is happening again this week. I’ve written about it before via short reviews of the litany of concerts held across the city, but this time I wanted to focus on the awesome daytime programming hosted at NYU before the shows commence each evening. So, for the Village Voice, a series of mock flow charts which help* you pick the right discussion panels to attend (* = they do not actually help).

Update: these broke with the latest site relaunch :(

Tuesday, October 16
Wednesday, October 17
Thursday, October 18
Friday, October 19

A few interesting footnotes here:

First, we considered putting the charts together as giant image files, which is how this sort of thing is usually done, but eventually I successfully pitched the idea of building the charts right on the web page. This makes for a much more pleasant user experience, since traversing the decision tree is just like scrolling through an article without any cropping or resizing weirdness, and the content can be highlighted and copied just like any other text. It also reconfigures itself much more cooperatively for viewing on mobile devices than a static image file would.

In a way, it’s pretty simple — essentially, we just created a whole bunch of divs and applied tons of inline CSS to them, most notably setting the background images and the padding to create the illusion of interconnected lines and arrows flowing between them. This is generally frowned upon as a web design practice, but for a single-use scenario like this it actually works quite nicely, because I didn’t have to add any external stylesheet files to the CMS and it’ll remain remarkably stable as the Voice’s site evolves in the future.

But man, that’s a lot of inline CSS! For example, generating single box to put a question in requires all these rules (many of which are duplicated because they get split across a parent and child div):

width: 500px; min-height: 150px; padding-top: 70px; background:url(“6.png”) no-repeat center top; background-color: #F9FFB2; padding: 20px; border: 1px solid #333399; text-align:center; margin: 0 50px 0 50px; font-style: italic;

Worse yet, since it’s all stored in an inline attribute, this would need to be repeated in full every time you want to generate a box of that type. And if you later need to change something — say, the images aren’t lining up quite right, or you need more vertical space for text — you’d have to go back and manually fix every instance. So in order to make this easier, I wrote a little set of scripts in PHP which dynamically applied the CSS while looping through the content I wrote for the boxes. I’ve done a fair amount of both writing and coding over the past few years, but it was really neat to finally have a project in which both were so tightly woven together.

Second, please also note the awesome visual design work by my friend John Bylander, who first brought the rough demo charts I sent him to life with subtle color and typography tweaks, and then cobbled together image files late into the night.

And finally, a nod to my sources of inspiration for this: former Village Voice music editor Rob Harvilla, who back in 2007 wrote about the rapper Mims using diagrams to thunderous acclaim, and then in 2010 covered the CMJ panels with a series of snarky comments not unlike my own Q&A content here. And then there’s also the extensive timeline of future events from sci-fi movies as compiled by the Awl, where a close examination of the markup helped me figure out how best to approach the CSS here.

See you next year, I hope.

Gotham’s Reckoning

Today the Village Voice has some tremendous new developments which you should go read about, but meanwhile Spin has also posted my newest piece on foreign pop. This time I focus on the remix of “One Day/Reckoning Song” by Israeli folk singer Asaf Avidan, on top in half a dozen European charts and strongly reminiscent of Cat Power, whose tremendous new album you should go listen to.

Concrete Casts

Lately I’ve been lax about posting all the individual installments of my Village Voice column, in which I roam around New York City with a portable recording setup trying to turn performances by buskers and street musicians into tangible MP3s for music fans. This should catch you up:

Baby Chan-Chan-Chankapana

The second installment of my new Spin series on foreign pop hits looks at “Chankapana,” an excellent contemporary disco single by the Japanese boy band N.E.W.S.

As the the arrangements grow more elaborate, there quickly approaches a limit beyond which the phrase “boy band” seems unjustly dismissive. We’re well past that point here, so once you’re done swooning you can also find your way to a reading that’s at least slightly more mature.


Need A Bigger Blog

In my first piece for Grantland, the new sports and pop culture site from Bill Simmons and ESPN, I help commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week extravaganza by rounding up all the cornball shark attack movies available on Netflix Instant.

2-Headed Shark Attack

The students are ferried to a nearby island to wait out the repairs, but fresh blood attracts the titular monster again, who proceeds to pick them off one by one — er, two by two. When earthquakes start causing the island to sink down into the ocean, the remaining survivors suddenly remember the ending from Jaws and blow the shark apart using a barrel of gasoline that conveniently happens to float by. The climactic final battle actually unfolds twice — once for each head.


It’s No. 1 Somewhere

I’m starting up a new recurring feature for Spin Magazine called It’s No. 1 Somewhere, in which we’ll look at pop songs which are doing well on the foreign charts but wholly ignored in the United States. The first installment ran earlier today — it’s about Ukrainian dance-pop singer Svetlana Loboda and the ways in which she seems to logically follow from Lady Gaga and Shakira — but since we just sort of hit the ground running with it, I’m thinking perhaps I should use this space to provide a little introduction or explanation. Or a mission statement, even?

“World music,” though in a way it feels like a term so broad as to be useless, has gradually become actually quite restrictive, since it’s mostly attached to traditional folkish forms that can sell out Carnegie Hall once a year but aren’t really getting any attention at the clubs and radio stations back at home. I mean, I absolutely adore Tinariwen, but they’re also a prime example of how the marketing of the world music genre can preclude mainstream reception for a great band even as it builds a focused and enthusiastic audience out of other people. Truth is, in many cases what’s actually bumping from the car stereos elsewhere is not aesthetically all that different from what we listen to here, except that there might be a language barrier. But so what? It’s not like we’re listening to Ke$ha for her lyrical insights.

This then means that there’s an extremely accessible pop middle ground between those two worlds that’s being largely ignored simply because western audiences are too busy sorting through their own overabundance of musicians and media files. I think we can use chart performance in other parts of the world as a sort of qualifier, a red flag indicating that we should take a break from all this navel gazing — that is, anything that 80% of Nigerian teenagers love should at least briefly register as a blip for us over here. We’re hoping to help connect foreign artists that are poppy enough to immediately feel accessible and familiar to the receptive audiences who won’t mind filing them right between Adele and Beyoncé. Both these groups are already out there, but they’re having trouble finding each other.

At the end of 2011, UCLA doctoral student Patrick Adler compiled a geographic distribution of the bands represented in Pitchfork’s “Best Songs Of The Year” list. Even though I really enjoyed many of those tunes, his terrifying chart speaks for itself.

This is bullshit, and I want to help fix it. Won’t you join me?

Rubber Balls and Liquor

Hey, you guys are already reading The Billfold, right? That’s the new blog about financial matters brought to you by the folks behind The Awl — essentially, interesting writing about money from people who mostly don’t have any. My new piece there is mostly numbers, though, since I’ve just vaguely quantified how much I’ve paid for liquor over the years.

This works out to just under $0.98 for each of 77 shots at 1.5oz/45mL, although I rounded down because you might accidentally spill some of it after having a few rounds. Before crunching the numbers I’d always thought of drinking at home as an endeavor of negligible cost, but at a buck a shot I guess that’s not really true—especially if you’re drinking along with friends, which is really how you should be approaching it whenever possible.


Cool, Dope, Excellent

I adore Jewish rapper Aesop Rock‘s free-associative babble, and his new album Skelethon is excellent, so I was delighted to interview him for Rolling Stone:

Your lyrics are often abstract and verbally dense. Are there limits to how far you’re willing to take that?
To me, it seems more realistic to my thought process when things feel a little scattered in the lyrics. Being disjointed is not that abstract of a thing when I think about how my brain works – I feel like it’s almost more realistic. That’s how my brain works. I have a mission for the day, and I try and complete it, but my brain kind of pinballs around. I think it’s more abstract, in a way, to go out of your way to put all that into some order.


Squarepusher interview

I have an interview with the mighty Squarepusher, jazz bassist and musical programming geek par excellence [PDF], in issue #89 of the wonderful audio production magazine Tape Op.

Do you feel that you program like a musician or play like a programmer?

People will talk about “playing with feeling,” but what someone might describe as “feeling” is a particular kind of idiom to me. There are guidelines, and the people who do it most convincingly would probably brush away any kind of suggestion that they’re following guidelines. For a while I was trying to extract that – I was trying to play like a robot, with no feeling whatsoever; to extract all conventional idioms and make it sound totally mechanical, like a sequencer. One of the first things I did in order to achieve that was [record at half-speed and then speed it up], because it completely interferes with human fallibility regarding timing. The whole thing just goes unnaturally tight. That was governed by the influence of programming on my playing, but it’s not the only example. My album Hard Normal Daddy was an example of the process going the other way, trying to program like a player.


Tape Op is awesome, so if you do not already have a free subscription, please sign up immediately. Squarepusher is also awesome, of course; if you have no idea why I’m so excited about this, start with the material I collected in the cheat sheet addendum.

See you there, Mayor Bloomberg

It’s time once again for the Blip Festival, about which I have written far too many times already, so this year I took a step back and used it as a way to more generally discuss the ongoing conversion of music into a heavily technical endeavor.

When his predecessor first took office, even basic familiarity with a Web browser was considered the exclusive domain of geeks, but Mayor Bloomberg kicked off his 2012 with a tweet resolving to learn programming. Facebook built an empire from thumbs-up clicks, as evidenced by last week’s IPO. The march toward the future might be relentless and inescapable, but sometimes it’s still easy to overlook the largest strides. Music is likewise an increasingly technical game, from creation to promotion to distribution. Which brings us to this weekend’s Blip Festival, the annual celebration of retro video games and one of New York’s geekiest music events.


Jon Benjamin Has A Drum Machine

I attended a variety show at which noted cartoon voice actor H. Jon Benjamin performed, sort of, as the musical guest.

Since the brilliant FX spy cartoon Archer might be intended as a vicious Aqua Teening of intelligence agencies and our decade of national security hysteria, you have to wonder whether lead voice actor H. Jon Benjamin may have been trying to do the same to overly serious electronic music when he took the stage last night as the musical guest for Elna Baker and Kevin Townley’s popular variety show The Talent Show. Or maybe he’d giggle a bit at the idea of his goofy show spawning such a pretentious opening line—and wouldn’t that be glorious, with his fantastic baritone.


Playing For Change/Tips

My NYC field recording project Cast In Concrete found a kindred spirit in Mark Johnson of Playing For Change, who travels the world facilitating collaborations between otherwise disconnected buskers and street musicians. He was kind enough to share with me some of the insights he has picked up over the years.

“It occurred to me that the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio, not in the studio. And what New York City can teach you is that the best music and great art, it’s just everywhere. People always say to me, ‘How do you find all these musicians?’ And the truth is, by showing up. Great music is everywhere, so those people that show up are the ones that get to find it.”