Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Hard Lessons -- B & G Sides Vol. 1

Back in the halcyon winter of 2004, before was overrun by Russian hackers, I wrote a glowing little review of a band that opened for Back in Spades and the Nice Device. Back in Spades didn't last long and last I heard Jackson Smith was touring with mom Patti. I think the Nice Device still exist, but I expect they'll be on hiatus as front woman Alicia tries to help revive the Von Bondies.

But that little band that opened has done alright for themselves... I speak of course of the Hard Lessons. Now of course I would never take credit for their success, having written that early good review... but of course I am the instigator, the emancipator of rock n' roll and I DID come up with all the good ideas in Star Wars. So I got that going for me.

Anyway, fast forward today and you'll find the Hard Lesson going strong and building a steady buzz and following through constant touring. Which of course means that many Detroit fans who've seen the band dozens of times are taking the trio for granted.

I have a feeling that's about to change with the B & G Sides series of singles, the first of which is being released by Quack!Media in conjunction with a Magic Stick show this Friday, November 23.

There will be a total of four singles, available on CD or vinyl. Each single features interlocking art work that forms a "bigger" picture. Similarly each single features a "B" song sung by Augie and a "G" song sung by KoKo... "Boy Side"/"Girl Side." All the songs will also be available as free downloads from their website beginning on November 23.

That's a lot of gimmicks, breaking up an ep or album of material into 4 collectible singles, free downloads, trading lead vocals on each side and a hipster mocking video on the near horizon.

Plus there is whole concept album vibe. Being as the subject of the songs is modern relationships told from male and female perspectives rather than a guitarist leading a revolution against a totalitarian regime OF THE FUTURE -- the whole thing looks to play out more like an amped up-rock-out version of Grease as opposed to 2112, but it is a concept none the less.

In typical fashion, the gimmicks are just wrapping paper for the Hard Lessons music. The first two songs in the series, "See and Be Scene" and "Don't Shake My Tree" are by far the best sounding recordings the band has done to date. They've written great songs in the past, but the team of producer Donny Brown (The Verve Pipe drummer?) and engineering by Tempermill Studio's Dave Feeny (Blanche, engineer on Van De Lear Rose and player of every pedal steel part in Detroit history) and Erik Maluchnik (Holy Fire and the terribly underrated Jarrod Champion Sleeps Till Dusk) have really found a studio sound for the band that at least to my ear breaths life and energy into the songs.

The lyrics are still clever and fun, the poppy harmonies propel each chorus skyward and as you'd expect there more than a passing nod to big '70's style guitars (harmonized riffs, feedback and bluesy chords bent with an inch of their life). But again, these songs have an added depth that some of their previous recordings have lacked. These are not songs that beg the classic excuse, "You really have to hear them live to appreciate it."

The whole point of a recording in general and especially the really the great lost (at least to Americans) tradition of the 45 single isn't so much to merely document, but rather to build something worthy of the relative permanence of vinyl, tape, plastic or binary code. It's a hard lesson to learn1, but one THL appear to have taken to heart.

Rating: 5/5


1See what I did there? With the reference? That's going in the good pile next to "Luke I am your father" and the Death Star.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

November 20 Notable Releases -- FOR THE CHILDREN!!!

Various Artists --
The Brit Box: U.K. Indie, Shoegaze, and Brit-Pop Gems of the Last Millennium. As you've no doubt notice, I'm not in mourning for the Compact Disc nor the record industry. However, I've been a little dismayed by the lack of interesting releases this fall. While there have been plenty of good albums released all year long, the traditional season of the major release has been pretty barren. Smaller artists traditionally avoid releasing albums during this period to get out of the way of the big guys, but this year the big guys have been largely replaced by an even greater number of repacked, re-released and often completely redundant best of collections. This little 4-disc package is redundant for many of those who've crossed over 30 -- but it does have the feel of the best compilations. Atlantic blues reissues sparked British Blues Rock and Nuggets had some influence on punk and then again on garage revival. I already hear a lot of bands with Shoegaze and Brit-Pop influences -- but then, I'd like to hear more and this collection could help inspire that in some impressionable 'yutes.

Nine Inch Nails -- Y34RZ3R0R3MIX3D. Trent Reznor has long used his position, money and fame to push the buttons of the record industry. He put raw tracks of songs on the internet years ago and held contests for the best remixes of his work. This latest release, which itself is a remix album of Year Zero material from a wide range of musicians not typically thought of as remixers (Kronos Quartet, Saul Williams). He also includes here every track of Year Zero, which can be remixed in Garage Band if you have a Mac or with the included demo of
Ableton Live. Yes the internet will swim in shitty remixes, but somewhere out there, some kid will be able to de-construct the songs and reconstruct the techniques and learn something they could put to good use. This could also be a sign to other artists of something to sell a small, but hungry audience of consumers. Imagine buying every multi-tracked portion of Rumors, Abbey Road or Loveless -- yes it removes the mystery, myth and mystique, but don't rock stars care more about money anyway?



Thursday, November 08, 2007

Experiment on Your Friends (or Simple Psychology Experiments that Destroy People's Whole World View)

Here's a little experiment you can try on your friends.

Take a true lossless file and use iTunes or whatever you like to create an inferior version (160kps or whatever you like). If you are unsure of the source of your file, take a CD and rip a 320kps and a 160kps version.

This next part is critical -- make sure they are normalized to the same volume.

I'd also suggest that you use regular computer speakers or iPod style headphones and turn off any and all eq, and effects in your software, but that's really up to you... whatever you do, be consistent for each song (volume, eq, listener position).

Make a playlist that plays :30 seconds (arbitrary number, but why listen to the whole damn song?) of one file twice, and the same :30 of the second file once. Make sure that your subjects can't tell which is which by reading the file names or whatever, perhaps rename the three files with random letters (Q, F and J or something like that).

Have your subject listen to all three files and ask them to tell you which one is different. It's also a better design if you have yet a third person run the experiment who doesn't know which file is which and if you are out of the room or at least out of the subject's view. Repeat the experiment, ideally with at least 10 friends. If you don't have 10 friends or don't like letting people in your home, round up some tech friendly hobos on the street.

Random chance says 33% will get the right answer just by luck -- those people will take this not as sign of random probability but of their innate genetic superiority -- don't ruin it for them. If four or more of your friends can tell the difference -- congrats they did better than random chance. I'd still guess that more than 50% will get it wrong.

You could then ask them to tell you what files were the higher quality and lower quality files -- this is a more difficult question then just asking which was different as "better" is somewhat subjective. I'd expect the number to be even lower than before.

I stole this design from market researchers who have been running this experiment using Cola for almost 30 years -- subjects as a whole have done no better than chance and the experiment has been run literally thousands of times.

Incidentally, be prepared to have people hate you for this... people do not like being wrong.

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I don't believe you, and you're going to be mad

The format wars rage endlessly on but now it's less about mp3 versus flac or even the classic analog versus digital than it is about spitting out numbers and complaining about quality.

Sorry, but I'm calling bull shit on the indie audiophiles.

I challenge anyone to tell the difference between a a 320, 160 and 128 file played over a regular pair of computer speakers like the ones that come with your HP, Dell or Apple. (I realize most of my readers have perfect pitch and exceptional hearing, so I'll follow this post with an experiment you can try on lesser humans at a later date)

I'm not saying there's not an actual difference, because I believe it can be heard even by the average Joe -- but not on crappy computer speakers or headphones.

I'd also bet most people couldn't tell the difference on their iPod ear buds or with their Zune plugged directly into their car or into their Sony bookshelf systems above their TV.

I firmly believe part of the reason that so many people feel strongly about the differences is because they are consuming music from file sharing service where there is no quality control. Someone rips a CD with their crappy software and out spits a file, somebody else loads that into their version of iTunes, maybe converting it to another file format, sample rate, etc.

The kps Nazis are essentially trying to enforce some control -- but they kind of have it backwards -- the problem isn't all in the format or the files. 320 or lossless or whatever really is a signifier in the peer-to-peer world that the 'uploader' took a little more time and put a little more thought into the enterprise. But I'd argue that's its more a suggestion of the quality of the file rather than the guarantee of quality. The science behind the higher quality files is sound, but I don't believe most people have the equipment, the ears or the desire for it to make a difference.

Why? Because in part, a lot of this music is still being ripped from CD at high rates of speed and have plenty of errors. Even many of mandatory kps people don't know what they are doing or take the care to check the files they create against the source.

Not to mention that most mastering engineers didn't work to the new formats in mind -- likely they also worked towards creating a CD. CDs, where much of this supposedly high resolution music is still sourced from has a relatively low quantization and sample rate (16 bit and 44.1 sample rate). Most music recorded digitally today is captured at 24 bit and 192 sample rate (although the sample rate in particular is definitely far from universal) and I'm told that this should lead to better CDs as well, though the format it self still has many limits. You can get a great sounding music file from a CD, but without processing it to fake it -- you can't add resolution, clarity or low and particularly high end transients that aren't there to begin with.

By contrast, I've heard many people say, "That Radiohead album sounds really good for 160kps files." No shit, they worked with Nigel Godrich and high-rent mastering engineers to make it sound good. I don't think they just through the mixes in iTunes or Win Amp and let them go out.

I think consumers can and should demand high resolution music, but that doesn't mean it will make most music sound better because the playback equipment simply won't translate the improved quality. Most people's car speakers, home stereos, computer speakers and iPod ear buds are not particularly high quality and they don't care -- the mass of content in my opinion fits with the mass of consumers.

The rock revolution was built on transistor radios and LP players with crappy built in-mono speakers. The iPod and the Walkman before it revolutionized music consumption, but arguably degraded the sound quality that proceed them. The stereo high-fi revolution of the late 50s and FM radio are arguably the only notable mass market improvements in recorded sound to ever take hold. LPs, cassettes and CDs were all considered to downgrade the sound quality that came before, though each offered greater conveniences to the user before completely unavailable. Each of these formats also got dramatically better as time went on and better techniques were developed.

But the bottom line is that convenience makes the world go round, not quality.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

I Came Up with All the Good Ideas in Star Wars

Check out this fantastic interview with RZA from Wu Tang I found on the website for British Mag Future Music about how he invented technology used now used by products like Final Scratch and others common to hip hop production.

You don't need to understand anything about technology, music production or Wu to appreciate this...

Just listen for stuff like,

"That was some real white boy shit."
"You gotta patent it in like 1000 countries."
"Our shit was good in 2000."
"Two million dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it ain't shit in the corporate world."
"I started Wu Electronics."

I could listen to stuff like this all day... can you even fathom Wu Electronics?

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What Can We Get Unnecessarily Upset About Now?

Apparently, the backblogs and angry emails have been read. The following is a statement Jasper, MCR and myself received from Anthony Morrow, Publisher of Detour last night.

After witnessing undue pressure put on bands, venues, sponsors, and
the fans, Detour has decided to postpone Rock City until summer 2008.
The festival will still feature the best in local Detroit talent
along with a slew of the national acts we love.

We're not in the business of warring festivals. We attempted to
broker a deal where both events could coexist, but this didn't work
out. Detour will not be a part of any event that divides artists and
their fans. We want people to play and attend our events and read our
site out of passion, or simply for fun, and not because they feel
like they have to take a side.

Thank you to the bands that agreed to take the journey and stand up
with us. We're saving a slot for you next summer.

And remember, if you're planning a festival in the coming months, let
us know so we can book something on the very same day.


Well folks there's basically two ways to look at this.

The optimist, the believer in democratic discourse and the power of the consumer would probably side with Fred "Sonic" Smith right now -- "people have the power."

The cynics, which ironically are many of the people participating in the democratic discourse would say, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

You can continue to speculate on the reasons why this decision was made, I've printed Tony's statement in its entirety and I don't know no more than you do.

But let me give you some conspiratorial thesis statements to run with.
  • All the band's asked to play Rock City showed up at the plush Royal Oak offices of Detour and in a show of solidarity forced the mighty media mogul to sign the Magna ROCK!
  • Hamtrack vowed to legalize the smashing of Loftus's passenger side window, in addition to the Loftus driver side smashing law already on the books.
  • The Majestic Complex doesn't even really exist, it's all a dream matrix-stizz... also you just pooped in your matrix tube.
  • Paycheck made them an offer they couldn't refuse... free matching track suits with BFF embroidered on them.
As you were Detroit, bitter, alone and on your couch seven nights a week.
I kid, I kid.
You know I love you guys.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

November 6 Notable Releases

Jay Z --
American Gangster [EXPLICIT]. Taking a page out of the "I'll smack you in the mouth I'm Neil Diamond" playbook, the retired hip hop mogul gives us an album of jams inspired by the new Denzel Washington pic. TURN ON YOUR HEART LIGHT!!!!

Sigur Rós --
Hvarf/Heim. The most popular item on Icelandic Coney Island menus, the Hvarf (a sheep's bladder stuffed with live smelt) is typically served with a side of Heim (more smelt). Most tourist would do well to ask if the traditional Sigur Rós (bulls eyes cooked on a volcanic steam vent) accompaniment could be served on the side rather than squeezed into the patron's open mouth by a ritualistically crippled busboy. (ed note: Most of this information taken from Wikipedia)

Rick Springfield -- Christmas With You. If you don't let Rick stay with you it's just another Noel at the Motel 6 with the three wise men, Jack, Jim and Johnny explaining to the ice machine why he could "never find a woman like that."


Friday, November 02, 2007

All the Kids At School Are Talking About It!!!

This has the distinct flavor of a lame episode of Happy Days. Imagine the split screen with Richie on the phone with Webvomit and Ralph on the phone MotorCityRocks... the phone calls then balloon across the screen all Bye Bye Birdie stizz.

The main difference is instead of phones, it's blogs and no one actually speaks with each other.

Of course I'm speaking of the game of chicken Detour and the Metro Times have initiated with each other; both have scheduled local music "festivals" or "showcases" on the same weekend in March. Bottom line, I don't really care who planned their's first or who pissed who off -- it'd be nicer if one event rescheduled to a different date.

Since I have a feeling that isn't going to happen (but no real reason good reason to suspect that) lets take a look at the players.

On one side you have the guy who put together the past Blowouts and who started a website, hiring away the music editor of the Metro Times in the process. The Detour crew is also just coming off a successful launch party that was sort of a smaller version of the newly announced Rock City event.

I don't know what the Metro Times has on their side beside the name recognition of their publication and the Blowout event. Maybe they'll be able to put together a great list of bands in addition to the bars of random metal bands, country bands and terrible bands that all bring some friends to see them. But as I recall most of the cool kids skip these bands and bars on their way to see the side project of Pas Cal's bass tech (they have a bass tech, right?)

My initial reaction is that Blowout won't have good bands that aren't at the Detour event (or at least good bands that I haven't seen 5 times). I say this in part because Detour has Loftus and is run by a guy who's nickname is "Tony Blowout" -- I have this sense he knows how to run one of these events and has a connection or two. I think there is a question as to whether or not the Metro Times even has personnel to organize, plan and pull of this event -- its not out of the realm of possibilities, but they've got to prove it.

Success factor two, the whole issue of my personal laziness (I know I'm not alone here). As much as I like Blowout and trying to remember where the Stanislaws Proletariat Hall of One Legged Veterans is located and not confusing it with League of Undersea Masovian Mariners (hint the later has port holes!!), I am more likely to commit to the Majestic Complex, even if seeing a band in the Garden Bowl blows the entire Detroit’s Defying the Law Bicycle Club after a particularly long and sweaty ride.

Success factor 2.5, the Garden Bowl venue and sound experience may be roughly on par with the LUMM, and while I like Smalls, the New Dodge and even the double stage thing at the Knights of Columbus, the Magic Stick and Majestic are very comfortable and very good places to see and hear shows.

Maybe I'm jumping the gun, but my initial reaction is that Detour's Rock City going to put a hurt on Blowout and it's cool factor may not recover.

Unless of course Fonzie shows up and tells the squares in charge to straighten out their differences before he straightens them out for them.

That Fonzie... he's cool.

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