Music: short‐term, disappointing and excellent

record album covers

Music falls into many categories. I’m not referring to genres but rather to human appreciation of musical works.

The broadest way to describe the value of how one appreciates music is shelf life. How long will you enjoy a piece of music?

Three categories, from worst to best:

  1. Loser: Listen once and you don’t need to hear it again.
  2. Ephemeral: When you first hear it, you like it. You listen again, over and over. Much later, you hear it and wonder what the attraction was.
  3. Timeless: These works stand up to multiple listens for your whole life. (You may need to take a break from time to time, but when you come back years later, you still enjoy the album.)

1. At one time, U2 was one of my favorite bands. The Joshua Tree is an amazing album.

Zooropa is not good. U2 failed when they released that album in 1993. Their previous work was majestic and melodic. Zooropa was experimental, and not all experiments succeed.


2. Jefferson Starship was a late 1970’s revamp of Jefferson Airplane, a seminal San Francisco band that started in 1965.

While Jefferson Airplane broke new ground, Jefferson Starship tried the formulas of their era to make catchy tunes designed to receive as much radio play as possible. Those melodies caught my ear enough that I listened over and over to Red Octopus.

Then, after a break of more than fifteen years, I listened again. I couldn’t even listen to the whole album. The songs were bathed in a syrupy pop sound that made me nearly choke.


3. Little Feat was one of my very favorite bands during my late high school years. I first heard The Last Record Album in a high fidelity stereo shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Ambient swampy sounds seemed to come from every corner of the room, even though that expensive sound system had just two (large) speakers. Melodies went all over the place and blended soulful longing with weird perspectives on life that I still don’t understand.

After I saved up a bit, I went to a record store and bought that album. I still have it.

I’ve listened to that album from its creation in 1975 until now. And I still love it.

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Feeling guilty on a Saturday

No one else was home.

That meant I could stream the crazy music I enjoy, at volume, without bothering anyone.

And then I started to feel guilty.

Not about the music I was listening to…  but about the luxury of being able to listen to music in a house with no shared walls.

I remembered living in Kenya — when I felt guilty about having a microwave oven, knowing that it represented about ten times the average monthly wage of many around me.

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Not everyone

rhythm-discovery-centerWe all love to make assumptions.

When we are at a busy intersection and see someone holding a sign asking for money, we assume they lack employment and a solid place to live.

When we see an older person in a car going 20 m.p.h. below the speed limit, we assume they are challenged in all that by takes to manage a 4,000-pound vehicle.

When we hear someone singing next to us and they can’t carry a tune, we assume — well, what do we assume?

I can definitely carry a tune — I’m close to having perfect pitch. However, I cannot carry a beat, for the life of me.

One of the most challenging aspects of living in Africa for five years was dancing in church. (Dancing is part of worship in Kenya, at least in many of the churches we attended.)

Since I can’t carry a beat, I can’t dance. I can’t clap and sing at the same time.

So the Rhythm Discovery Center is not the place for me. And I disagree — not everyone has rhythm.

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The lost bet

100-dollarsDuring my last year of college, I made a bet with my roommate, Brian Wells. I bet him $100 that within ten years, I would be more into classical music than rock music.

After ten years, my tastes had not shifted. I still listened to way more rock music than classical.

That’s the only bet involving money that I’ve ever made.

That wager came out of my growing love for classical music. My design degree meant many long late nights working on assignments that didn’t require brain engagement. Listening to records with headphones took some of the tedium out of my all‐nighters. For the sake of variety, I listened to the widest selection of music that my budget would allow.

One month, my university had a record sale at the student center. I picked up two records that I quickly fell in love with — Mozart’s 40th & 41st symphonies and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

I listened to both records enough that I memorized every musical phrase. And I spun the Four Seasons so many times that I cannot listen to it today.

Mozart’s 40th Symphony contains the highest form of musical expression I have ever heard — the slow‐moving Andante movement. The string section comes in slow and builds to a peak of energy that brings tears to my eyes.

Because of my deep love for that piece, I thought that my tastes would shift to embrace more classical than rock.

Alas, the easy accessibility of rock has maintained the lion’s share of my attention — compared to the more complicated and longer classical works. (Think steak vs. candy.)

My tastes still span the gamut of all but mainstream music. But there are parts of every genre that I hate with a very deep passion. Today, the vast majority of my listening time is devoted to quirky alternative rock. There’s always something interesting and new to be found.

Brian never collected his $100. I lost touch with him after he experienced significant painful life events. If you know where Brian is, tell him to give me a shout.

I’d love to pay up.

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Your hobby has become a job

AURORA is a young musician from Norway. She’s kind of a modern Enya.

NPR’s Bob Boilen recently interviewed AURORA. She had a very wise thing to say while talking about the life of an artist or musician… when your hobby becomes your job, it can be both a blessing and a curse.

That immediately reminded me of my short career as a radio DJ. Every Friday morning, I played three solid hours of my very favorite tunes. Occasionally, I had to cover the next DJ’s shift, which meant six solid hours of my favorite tunes. By the end of those sorts of shifts, I didn’t want to hear any music for the next several days.

I’ve always loved music, but too much of a good thing can be more than a boy can handle.

So I never made music my career.

Similarly, I love cars. But selling them for a living would take the joy out of it.

What’s the thing you loved and never made your career?

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Auto‐Tune

speaker in a ceiling

Why not make things better than what real life offers?

That’s the idea Andy Hildebrand applied to sound when he was working for Exxon. His technology has been applied to alter the sound of a tune so that the pitch is always perfect. But like many good things, it can be overdone. A tune can be altered to sound like a robot is singing.

Many popular musicians love this technology. When applied minimally, it can improve a musician’s ability to hit a note properly. When applied to the maximum, it will produce that robot effect.

And I get to hear robots every day. The building I work in has a Muzak music subscription service, and they chose the Auto‐Tune channel to play all the time — in the halls and in the bathrooms.

Thankfully, Auto‐Tune does not intrude into my office. Never shall it pass those doors.

(And I’ve written about this before. It’s a subject that is near and dear to my heart.)

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When good songs become bad

Hearing a song over and over can ruin a perfectly good song.

As I visited Kinko’s today, I heard a song that I’d be happy to never hear again for the rest of my life.

sir-paul-mccartneyPaul McCartney is definitely one of the most talented musicians of the last 50 years. But every song he has written and sung has not been a masterpiece. (Very few musicians have that capability!)

Band on the Run is not my favorite song by Sir McCartney. Even when it became a world‐wide hit on the radio, I didn’t enjoy it very much.

So when the Kinko’s playlist featured that song, I nearly ran out of the store screaming. (Well, not really.)

Can we have a world‐wide moratorium on certain songs? Please?

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Dreams

I love dreams. I rarely remember them, but when I do, and when they’re interesting, I enjoy telling Heather about them. If I have time, I like to write them down.

Saturday morning very early, I had this dream…

the band Quasi

I was supposed to play drums for my favorite band, Quasi. We were to perform at a small outdoor festival, kind of like on a gazebo in front of a medium‐sized picnic. I was panicking, since I don’t play the drums. But in my dream, I could play them at least a little.

I asked Sam Coomes if my son could play instead of me. (And Jay can play the drums.) We were in the middle of negotiations when the dream faded. So I’ll never find out if Jay played drums for Quasi.

The irony of the dream is that Quasi has an amazing drummer. (Janet Weiss is my favorite drummer.) So why would Sam be asking me – or Jay – to play the drums?

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On musical creativity

james-and-carlyJames Taylor has produced more than 16 albums that sound relatively the same. He gets bored too,* but he doesn’t need to break out of that mold to stay alive. I truly like his sound, but it has not changed much over the many years he has been a musician.

Some artists are limited by their creativity and others seem to have a bottomless fount.

Thom Yorke is the leader of the English group, “Radiohead,” that produced some very popular music during the 1990’s and 2000’s. Thom’s solo albums are weird. He went from almost mainstream pop in Radiohead’s early years to excursions down various trails of weirdness. My theory is that he was bored delivering what the masses wanted. (I like that weirdness, at least part of the time. And he stretched music in new ways that it needed to be stretched.)

There are countless musicians who have not created even one good song. A few of those have become rich making their sound available to the masses. There is no accounting for taste. And I’m glad everyone’s taste is not like mine.

* The James Taylor song, “That’s Why I’m Here” is referred to part of the way into Sylviebead’s blog post.

Photo is Creative Commons licensed, via Peter Trudelle on Flickr.

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Local Food and Local Music

The Bell JarI know some people that are really into local food. And the reasons to eat food grown locally are good:

- You’re saving a ton of fossil fuels, since the food has not been flown from South America or Africa.

- It’s probably fresher.

- You’re supporting local farmers.

Why not apply the same principles to local music? By asking the bands you see to drive all over the country, they are using a lot more fuel than local musicians do in bringing their art to you.

Obviously, this analogy breaks down.If you restrict your diet to only local food, in many parts of the world, you’ll never taste a mango or a papaya. And with music, if you’re an American, you’ll never hear the rich sounds of many British bands.

I do want you to come out to support your local musicians. (The band is The Bell Jar. Local to my town. And good.)

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