Three musical pieces

As an espresso shot of inspiration, this musical number (YouTube) which many many people forwarded me yesterday. What would be perfect is if I heard she'd started dating Paul the opera singer.

Also moving, also musically related, is Anvil! The Story of Anvil, a documentary about a metal band. Like many who come to this movie, I had not heard of Anvil, nor am I a metalhead. My first thought on seeing the trailer was that I wanted to see it but perhaps just on DVD given how far on the periphery of my interests it fell.

But I kept getting pitched to see it from UCLA film schoolers who raved about it, and given that it was only in LA for a one week run at the Nuart, and after reading a rave review by Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, I planned an outing to see it last night and invited a bunch of friends.

Just one person responded, in the negative, and the remaining radio silence I read as tacit declines, perhaps reacting the same way I did to the trailer. So I went by myself; once I saw the documentary, that seemed only fitting.

Anvil was a seminal metal band, and in the early 80's, people in that genre of the industry foresaw big things for them, but for reasons not entirely clear to me as an outsider to that genre, they slipped into obscurity while bands like Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer went on to fame and fortune (in the documentary, they are referred to as The Big Four, a bit of trivia that was news to me).

Lead singer Steve Kudlow is known to all but his family as Lips. The drummer's name is Robb Reiner, a coincidence that seems so improbable and perfect that I thought he might have changed his name at one point, but no, this is art and life together in a winking conspiracy. The two of them are the founders and soul of Anvil, and even now, in their 50's, bicker, make up, repeat, like an old married couple.

What always surprises me is how sweet all the people involved in heavy metal music seem to be, from the musicians with their face paint and outfits heavy on leather and endless waves of hair to the fans with their heads bopping and tongues hanging. Lips is the star of the documentary, almost childlike in his optimism. He and Sally Hawkins' Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky should get together, just to see if their buoyancy might generate a harmonic convergence that could bring about world peace.

Not that Lips doesn't have his moments of despair, but much of the wonder of this movie is watching him, on screen confronting his despair, and then setting it aside with what comes to seem a courageous perseverance and good cheer.

I can see why so many film students gravitate towards the story, as all who enter the arts confront the issue of "what price my art?" on a daily basis. The internet has made critics of us all, but it has not simplified the question of why people pursue art, and at what cost to themselves and their loved ones.

It's a touching story about which I will reveal little else other than to recommend it highly. See it if/when it makes it to your town. The director Sacha Gervasi, who wrote the screenplay for The Terminal and who is teaching screenwriting at UCLA Film School this quarter, showed up after the screening for an unpublicized Q&A. He was gracious and shared some intriguing stories:

  • Gervasi met Anvil when he approached them backstage in London and introduced himself as their number one fan. Lips said it was their first time in London and asked Gervasi to show them around town, leading to the humorous image of Gervasi, a young metalhead, leading Lips and Reiner through the Tate Gallery. Gervasi claimed credit for introducing Reiner to the works of Francis Bacon, a story that is less humorous when you learn, in the movie, that Reiner paints Edward Hopper-esque scenes with considerable skill.

  • At the screening at Sundance in 2008, a woman during the Q&A asked Lips if he'd ever considered what toll his pursuit of his music placed on his family, and Kudlow broke down and started crying, and then the woman started crying. And she said to him that at least he'd taught his son one of the most valuable lessons, and that was to never give up on his dreams.

Lastly, as part of our documentary launch at Hulu, we added a documentary I saw at Sundance years ago and loved, called DIG!. It shares some parallels with Anvil in its exploration of why artists do what they do.

Director Ondi Timoner, the only two-time Grand Jury Prize winner ever at Sundance, spoke to Hulu editor Rebecca Harper recently. One of the reasons this appealed to me more than many documentaries is that Timoner used one of the principal characters as a narrator, and not an unbiased, omniscient narrator. It's a twist that works, something Timoner spoke about:

Why choose to have Courtney narrate the film?

Courtney was a huge breakthrough for me. I'd attempted to tell the story without narration, but I needed an anchor. I didn't want omniscient narration; I wanted it to be a ride, a journey. So I woke up very pregnant in the middle of the night a month and a half before I finished. I called Courtney right away. He happened to be in Europe at the time, but he was flying into L.A. the next day. He didn't change any of my words; he was gracious and generous. I appreciate him for that.

This age we live in

Right now on Amazon, it costs more to purchase the MP3's for Neko Case's new album than it does to buy the CD and have it shipped to you. It's as if they're discounting the CD to compensate for the hassle of it's physical form factor taking up space in your home, having to be packed for your next move, etc. This is the opposite of what has been the rule to date, which is that it's cheaper to buy the digital good because they pass through the savings of foregoing shipping and handling of an actual good. neko case


Silicon Alley Insider reports with seeming surprise that Jeff Bezos is working in an Amazon distribution center for a week. That shouldn't surprise anyone--almost everyone at Amazon went to work in the distribution centers over the holidays for many years to help handle the spike in holiday orders (at the time, there wasn't enough temporary labor in any of the markets where the DCs were located to handle the seasonal volume surge, though in this economy it might be different). With increased distribution capacity and automation, such stints are no longer required annually, but when I left Amazon every new employee spent at least some amount of time working in customer service inquiries and the distribution centers. It was always part of being the world's most customer-centric company.


I'm with Khoi Vinh on this one: the SXSW badges, program, and maps this year were all but unusable. Not to minimize the difficulty of producing these with a volunteer team, but one thought on how to leverage some talent is to ask for help from one of the many participating design firms or panelists in exchange for prominent credits on the materials, and maybe some free advertising inventory. One's work would certainly reach a very chatty and influential crowd there.

Movie Theaters and CDs and MP3s as mere marketing tools

Sasha Frere-Jones reads in recent concert ticket bonus offerings the completion of the transition of recorded music from standalone product to mere advertisement for concerts.

If you buy a top-price ticket to one of No Doubt’s upcoming shows (between $50 and $150, roughly), you will receive a free download of the band’s entire catalogue. This makes sense, as touring is the one verifiably healthy part of the music business. Prince will release a new three-CD bundle on March 29, available exclusively at Target for $11.98. That may seem like a rollback to bargain prices of yesteryear (even though one of the CDs is by Prince’s protégée Bria Valente), but it’s more likely that Prince is seeing into the future—again. In 2004, he gave away a copy of his “Musicology

M83 and the LA Phil

Last night I attended a sold-out concert at the Walt Disney Concert Hall uniting M83 with the LA Philharmonic. Being a subscriber this season paid off as I ended up sitting dead center in the third row, Anthony Gonzalez's U-shaped bank of Macbook Pros and synthesizers directly in front of me. The program looked promising...

  1. The music of M83 (solo)

  2. Arvo Pärt - Fratres

  3. Debussy - La Mer

  4. M83 with the Los Angeles Philharmonic

...but though I love M83 and the LA Phil and the music of Pärt and La Mer, and though I think the acoustics at that venue are near perfect, as with your favorite foods it's not clear that the whole will equal, let alone surpass, the mix of the parts.

A valid concern, it seems, as the collaborative piece that concluded the concert was the least appealing of the program. Sean O'Laughlin, who arranged similar collaborations between the LA Phil and rock acts like Belle and Sebastian and The Decemberists, opted for a sort of earnest and straightforward melodrama that lacked the type of unique slow build of peculiar sonic landscapes that makes M83's music so appealing to us introverts. The collaborative arrangement featured a choir of women garbed in white, like nurses, a drum set, and overwhelming strings that left me unclear what Gonzalez was doing with his gear, so drowned out was his input.

As an event, though, it was an overwhelming success. I haven't seen the hall so full all year, the usual crowd of aged patrons replaced by a sea of what looked like hipsters dressed for prom. In this recession, an event that can bring in a younger audience and expose them to some classical pieces that are musical neighbors to a rock act they know is an event worth learning from. Having to read body language, always a dangerous task, I'd say half the orchestra bought into it and half had to strain to keep their eyes from rolling, but I find events like this more appealing than so-called crossover discs, with classical musicians playing with, say, Bobby McFerrin.

M83's solo set made good use of the acoustics of the space (aided by some aggressive lighting design), and I'm partial to Fratres and La Mer. It was a well-designed program. M83's work has always occupied prime real estate on my iPod, perhaps because it feels like an anthem of an introvert. Letting someone know you listen to M83 is like saying, "I may be quiet, but I contain multitudes."

Spider-Man, the musical

Titled Turn Off the Dark, with music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge and direction from Julie Taymor (Lion King), the Spider-Man musical will preview on Broadway beginning Jan. 16, 2010 and open officially on Feb. 18, 2010.

I can't help but picture a three melody ensemble piece: Neil Patrick Harris as Peter Parker, singing in his Spiderman suit, perched on the precipice of a tall building in NYC, Mary Jane (no thoughts who'd play her), many miles away, singing from a fashion catwalk where she stands as various assistants attend to her hair and makeup, and finally, Ewan McGregor as Eddie Brock, harmonizing from a NY city alley, as as Venom's inky black creeps across his skin and possesses him.


Yuja Wang, and my return to vinyl

Last Thursday I heard 21 year old Chinese piano prodigy Yuja Wang play Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto with the LA Philharmonic conducted by Charles Dutoit.

I'd never heard this piece, nor had I heard much about Wang. She emerged from the wings in a fire engine red strapless dress, but the outfit was the flashiest part of her performance. She's all business on the piano, and she was as impressive a pianist as I've heard in a long time. From my seats along the first violin side of the concert hall, I could only see her back, but it was clear her fingers were flying all over the keyboard from one end to another, and her long, slender, but toned arms pulled a huge sound from the belly of the instrument. Technical mastery, a command of musical phrasing, she showcased it all, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation.

The program concluded with Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade, one of the first classical pieces I remember my father playing for me when I was young, one of the first orchestral pieces to imprint itself in my memory. I can't think of many pieces more evocative, of another time, another land, and a timeless mythological tale. In so many movie scores I hear the musical lineage of Scheherazade and picture thick, crimson curtains sliding open to reveal a Technicolor panorama unfolding on screen.

As a side note, I've bought a turntable and am going back to vinyl. Cue obvious mid-life crisis/aging jokes, but for music I really love, CDs don't offer quite the sound I want (don't even start in on MP3s), and the selection in the SACD market is poor to nonexistent. I loved playing my dad's LPs when I was a kid, I love the big album cover art, and I love that crackle when the needle drops onto the vinyl: it generates a timeless Pavlovian anticipation.

Let me know if you have any recommendations as to good stores to buy vinyl, either online or in the LA area.

Animal Collective

Finally got my hands on the new Animal Collective album Merriweather Post Pavilion. Critics have fallen all over themselves to praise it, and now that I've heard it, I can add my acclamation. This is an album that needs to be played loud.

The track that will hook you is "My Girls" and it's currently available at their MySpace page. Don your headphones and crank it up.

The vinyl is backordered already, and I'm anxiously awaiting my copy. What I'd really love is to hear them at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where I saw a similarly big-sounding Grizzly Bear last year.

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Yeah, we put a ring on him

I was watching an ABC interview with Beyonce last night, and she was asked about how it felt to sing "At Last" at one of the balls for Barack and Michelle's dance, and Beyonce said it was hard to answer because she was tearing up just thinking about the moment, and then she did start crying and gushing about Obama like a teenage girl, and I confess I teared up a bit because, well, damn, our awesome President is awesome.

Here's that Beyonce interview:

And here's that first dance. Watching it feels like being at the best wedding ever.

Onward into 2009

There's this shot in The Wrestler, a steadicam shot behind Mickey Rourke as he walks through the back offices of a grocery store out to the deli counter. It echoes many other shots in the movie, from better times for Randy "The Ram" Robinson, and the visual reference is unmistakeable and poignant.

But just in case you're oblivious, the sound designer slowly mixes in the sounds of a raucous wrestling crowd chanting his name, just as he hears it when he prepares to walk out through the curtains at a wrestling event. It rises to a crescendo just as he's about to walk through the hanging plastic flaps out to the deli counter.

I wish they'd had the restraint to leave the shot as is and leave out the audio clue. What was an understated and lyrical moment is transformed into something overly sentimental, and I felt that way about many instances of the score in the movie which is otherwise shot in an unfussy, documentary style.

Besides that, though, it's a very moving film. You don't just feel for Randy "The Ram" Robinson but for Mickey Rourke who is nearly unrecognizable, at least to me. This is the guy from Diner and 9 1/2 Weeks?


The Israel Consulate is using Twitter to manage their message during this military campaign against Hamas. It's a challenge, trying to communicate complex messages with a 140 character limit, as many organizations are learning while trying to use Twitter for unmediated communication with users. Lots of URL shorteners and common online abbreviations are used, lending an oddly casual air to what are serious messages.

Two perhaps adventitious consequences of this medium: the character limit forces a concise and often more forceful statement of a message, and users who write you are forced to adhere to the character limit also, so it's a level playing ground.


Jay-Z crossed with Radiohead = Jaydiohead (from DJ Minty Fresh Beats)


A movie trailer that is just one scene, perhaps not truncated or edited down from what appears in the movie itself? Effective.


Given NYC's economic dependence on the finance industry, you'd expect Manhattan real estate to have taken a disproportionate beating in this recession.

In fact, New York's real estate market is proving more resilient in this downturn than that of other U.S. cities.

Today’s Case-Shiller housing price figures indicate that New York City’s prices dropped 7.5 percent in the last year, while prices in Los Angeles declined 27.9 percent. Nationwide prices dropped 18 percent. New York is the only major metropolitan area with prices that are still 90 percent above prices in January 2000. According to National Association of Realtors data, New York is the only city in the continental United States, outside of San Francisco Bay, where median sales prices remain north of $500,000.

Despite Wall Street’s suffering, the New York area’s unemployment rate, 5.6 percent in the latest figures, is lower than that in many other major cities. The comparable unemployment rate for Los Angeles is 8.2 percent. The comparable number for Chicago is 6.4 percent.

What's going on? Economist Edward Glaeser attributes it to faith in the city's talented citizens and concentration of said people.

New York still has an amazing concentration of talent. That talent is more effective because all those smart people are connected because of the city’s extreme population density levels. Historically, human capital — the education and skills of a work force — predicts which cities are able to reinvent themselves and which ones are not. Those people who are continuing to pay high prices for Manhattan real estate are implicitly betting that New York’s human capital will continue to come up with new ways of reinventing the city.


The first album of 2009 that's gathering critical buzz and mp3 blog lust: Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion


The statistics behind the B.C.S. are not just inscrutable but fundamentally flawed.

Statistically, the system is such an abomination that at least one expert — Hal S. Stern, a professor of statistics at the University of California, Irvine — advocated that no self-respecting statistician should have anything to do with it. In an article published in The Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports two years ago, he wrote that the B.C.S. computer rankings serve as little more than a confirmation of the results of the two opinion polls the system also uses to create its rankings. The people who run the computer rankings, he noted, have never been given any clear objective criteria to design their programs, and they are not allowed to use the score or site of a game in their calculations. Stern urged a boycott, a refusal by the community of statisticians to lend credibility to a system he regards as scientifically bankrupt.

In the end, it comes down to money.

“The six big conferences don’t want to share money with the smaller conferences,

Janelle Monae at Dakota Lounge

Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, a few of us self-declared LA refugees went to check out the opening party for Dakota Lounge, formerly Temple Bar, in Santa Monica. I wanted to catch Janelle Monae who I'd seen perform at the Viper Room previously.

Though we had to stand outside in line for a bit, we managed to get inside before her set began. Despite our late entry, we managed to walk right up to the front of the stage for her set.

Janelle Monae

Just as in her set at the Viper Room, Janelle was a dynamo on stage. At one point, I looked down at my camera to adjust the settings, and WHAP! Something hit me in the face. It was her white sportcoat, which she'd flung into the crowd.

Janelle Monae

Afterwards, we were at the bar grabbing a drink when she walked out. Someone saw us looking her way and asked if we'd like to chat with her. Turns out he was her manager.

I showered her with effusive praise. She thanked me and said, "Keep me in your prayers."

I had her manager snap a photo of us with her.

Meeting Janelle Monae

Morning Becomes more, or less, Eclectic

Nic Harcourt has left Morning Becomes Eclectic. It will be strange to not hear his voice on the radio each morning on KCRW.

Currently, Harcourt is serving as a music supervisor on The CW's "90210."

"It’s expanded my musical palate, to be honest with you," Harcourt says. "You can sort of get known as the cool guy at KCRW, but at '90210,' you have to find songs that will turn on an 18-year-old girl. So what we’re doing with that show is featuring artists like Rihanna, Pink, Lady Gaga and people like that. At the same time, we’re putting cool stuff in where we can. We had Stereolab in last week’s show."

Hah. Aw, Nic, Rihanna is not cool stuff?


It's a bit hard to tell many of the new online music services apart, from Pandora to to iLike and so on. Lala adds a bit of a twist. It's a streaming music service that lets you play any of its 6 million tracks once for free, and $0.10 to unlock it for unlimited future online playing. The twist is that it will also search your own music library, and if any of your tracks are in its 6 million track library, those will be unlocked for unlimited online streaming as well. So instead of having to keep your home computer on all the time to act as your music server, you can save some electricity bills and just stream your music from lala through a browser.

It's one step closer to the universal music locker online, an idea which has seemingly been batted around for years now. The main problem right now is that 6 million tracks is not that large a selection for anyone with reasonably diverse musical tastes, so it's far from an endgame. But the concept is appealing.


I went to the re-opening celebration concert for the Hollywood Palladium tonight. Jay-Z performed with an assist from DJ AM and a special guest cameo by T.I.

Between songs, mid-concert, Jay-Z stopped to talk politics. He's clearly an Obama supporter, and he offered his "homeboy" some advice (paraphrased from memory):

"I shouldn't talk about this...but f*** it, I'm an American citizen. Free speech and all that. If I were to give my boy some advice on how to deal with homegirl -- you know, 'you betcha' -- I'd tell him..."

And he jumped straight into "99 Problems":

"If you're havin' girl problems i feel bad for you son

I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one"


Sasha Frere-Jones discusses Timbaland in this week's New Yorker.

When you hear a rhythm that is being played by an instrument you can’t identify but wish you owned, when you hear a song that refuses to make up its mind about its genre but compels you to move, or when you hear noises that you thought couldn’t find a comfortable place in a pop song, you are hearing Timbaland, or school thereof.