Dosi.io

Monday, April 29th, 2013 at 1:04 am

target

I spent the past few days at the weekend-long competitive coding marathon that kicked off the 2013 edition of TechCrunch‘s annual Disrupt NY conference. Thanks to the mighty Niles Brooks and Kenneth Chen, we now have Dosi.io, an extension for Google Chrome which automatically adds additional tech industry intel to the professional networking profiles on LinkedIn — repositories on GitHub, history on AngelList, etc.

I think it’s pretty cool! But it’s not just me: TechCrunch wrote it up, and CrunchBase awarded it their big prize — they’ll be flying us out to Berlin in October to compete in the Disrupt Berlin hackathon. I can’t wait!

A Man, A Plan, Canal Street, Panamah

Monday, April 22nd, 2013 at 1:13 am

panamah

Head on over to Spin for a quick look at Panamah, an electronic pop trio who sound quite a lot like The xx.

Even fans of the xx would have to concede that there’s a strict formula in play in their music — sparse percussion, simple chord progressions implied more than stated, and most importantly the hypersexual whispered interplay between dueling vocalists. “Børn Af Natten” proceeds along at a tempo that’s just a hair too fast for the xx, and this has the effect of tempering the depressing sinking feeling that emerges from the spaces between the beats.

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Keep Sailing

Thursday, April 18th, 2013 at 6:45 pm

monica-juliet

Who’s up for a little time travel? I’ve been a little under the weather so this time we dig into the archives for my my busker recording project with the Village Voice — I recorded Monica Bethelwood and Juliet Biemiller ages ago but the segment never ran, and I’ve always felt guilty about letting such an excellent song get buried by our hassles on the editorial end.

Bethelwood told me she’d just returned from California, and given the hobo-folk vibe I was quite content to just assume that she hitched a ride on a rusty freight train. (One of her songs was called “Hubba Hubba Hobo,” actually.) She has since set up shop in North Carolina; “I moved to Asheville with 20 dollars in my pocket,” she told me recently, so I like to think she now travels between her gigs doing tarot card readings riding atop a rickety old mule.

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How To Destroy How To Destroy Angels

Thursday, March 7th, 2013 at 4:15 pm

how-to-destroy-angels

I reviewed the new album by Trent Reznor’s new band for Spin.

The aspirations here are lofty, as always, if less reflective than your average NIN lament; the songs swell, bobble, and even leak from the seams under the pressure. It’s not just that Maandig’s petite vocals always feel incidental; Reznor himself and his signature tortured whispering are dwarfed as well, because the real star is his production expertise, which reaches new heights of maturity here even when all else fails.

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Sail Away

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013 at 12:39 pm

stefan-fink

Another round of my busker recording project with the Village Voice, this time featuring the delightful Stefan Fink:

He’s surprisingly young. This is a natural consequence, of course, of singing old-soul Appalachian folk; the MTA has up-to-the-minute arrival times posted on the LED signs overhead, and finally now also delivered via a new iPhone app, but songs like this emerged at a time when we were still dreaming up the concept of time zones to help with scheduling trains, none of which were underground at the time. Also, he is sporting a mean beard.

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When That Sandwich Slides Out Of You In A Week, Look At It

Friday, February 1st, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Last night NBC aired the final episode of 30 Rock. The Awl and I would like to hit you with every spoiler in one efficient listicle.

Maura Magazine

Monday, January 28th, 2013 at 11:02 pm

Goodness, I can’t believe I’ve neglected to mention this for so long. We’re already four issues in, but I’m the main geek behind the web presence for Maura Magazine, a new digital weekly for iOS devices helmed by the amazing writer and editor Maura Johnston. She fielded my pitches at the Village Voice for a while, and you may have also read her work at a number of other wonderful publications.

This is her new experiment in small-scale direct journalism. Using an infrastructure provided by my fellow geeks at 29th Street Publishing, she publishes a handful of long-form stories each week which are pushed to a custom app loaded on the iPads and iPhones of her eager subscribers, each of whom pays a buck or less per issue, with payments automated via iTunes. Writers get paid, readers don’t have to deal with ads, everybody wins.

There’s been more coverage of this than I’d care to outdo here, so let me just refer you to some of the other guys:

As for the site, a lot of the heavy lifting is being effortlessly handled by WordPress, but I’m still really excited about a lot of the things happening in the custom functions I wrote — these are among the coolest WordPress ideas I’ve ever come up with. I don’t want to go into too much detail since we’re not openly sharing the plugins yet, but in a nutshell, the paywalls are dynamic, and you will start to see them move and react as we continue to charge along here. For example, this past weekend one of the articles was temporarily unlocked to match the HBO schedule.

And, as with my last attempt to merge tech with editorial, a hearty shout out to my good friend Buster Bylander, who jumped in with his amazing visual design sense once I was done fiddling around with the code for generating the content loops. We are both very proud of this. Please subscribe!

Ai No Beat

Monday, December 10th, 2012 at 8:20 pm

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.

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Bagpipe Buskers

Wednesday, November 21st, 2012 at 1:15 pm

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.

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Chicken Little

Thursday, November 8th, 2012 at 4:38 pm

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.

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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

Friday, November 2nd, 2012 at 5:58 pm

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.

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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

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012 at 3:08 am

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

Friday, October 19th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

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).

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

Saturday, September 15th, 2012 at 3:32 am

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

Thursday, August 16th, 2012 at 5:04 pm

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

Thursday, August 16th, 2012 at 4:50 pm

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.

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Need A Bigger Blog

Monday, August 13th, 2012 at 12:22 pm

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.

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It’s No. 1 Somewhere

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012 at 9:47 pm

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 histogram speaks for itself.

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

Rubber Balls and Liquor

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012 at 5:18 pm

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.

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Cool, Dope, Excellent

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012 at 12:09 pm

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.

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