Archive | May, 2009

Murfins and Burgalinks

29 May

HanneWow.  Been a crazy couple-a weeks here in my neck of SF.  Tons of shows to see, performances to give, music to learn, and other music to write about and share. Additionally, politics keeps rearing its head, TV shows all came to an end, and I’ve started to actually think about using my long-dormant twitter account.  I KNOW. The internet hasn’t been letting me down, either – seems like everyone I read has been posting some great stuff.  Without further ado:

Time Sinks, Feral Minks, Friday Links:

Ash HandI thought that I was excited for Rami’s return to splatter-horror, but JA at My New Plaid Pants is more excited that I could possibly be.  He’s been posting something awesome and Rami-related for the past couple of weeks now, and it’s got me even more stoked to see “Drag Me To Hell” as soon as possible.  Also, to re-watch Evil Dead 2, which one of my roommates has never seen.  Life without having watched that movie?  Now that’s horrifying.

(Sorry, that was just awful.)

A week or so ago, Penny Arcade put out this gem about paying for higher bandwith from your ISP.  Haa, ha ha.  “When my bill comes, I’ll pay UP to the full amount.  Could be less!  Could be a lot less!”

The Sonia Show posts a final goodbye to the Haight.  Sheesh, I agree with so many things on this post… blerg to the haight.  Just all over it.  Especially the fake homeless high school kids, and the weirdos who make me feel guilty for not buying weed from them.  What the hell, man?  I love the Blue Front and Amoeba and Escape from New York, but still, this neighborhood can be such a chore.

If you have ever read Jacob’s recaps at TWoP, you NEED to read his recap of the season finale of American Idol.  The last five or six pages are so amazing, I can’t begin to find the words.  He’s the real deal, I’m telling you. I also just found out he’s on twitter.  Rock.

Escape ArtistThanks to Tiffany Z at Heist Jewlery for sharing pics from this awesome series from photog Sam Taylor-Wood entitled “Escape Artist.”  It is very cool, and reminds me that in addition to “Drag Me To Hell,” I also want to see “Up” this weekend.  That’d make for an interesting double-feature.

Speaking of Tiffanys, Tiffany M. at Muni Diaries posted a follow-up to her post from about a month ago regarding the giant-balls-having guy who takes up 2 seats on the bus.  This time, it’s in pictures.  Props to Tiff for going in all covert and getting the shots without the giant-sacked individual in question noticing.

Politics alert – I generally like Peggy Noonan, and this kind of op-ed is why.  Good stuff.  I’m a total ignoramus about the finer points of Sotomayor’s judicial record, but I can see that this is just one more chance for the GOP to stand up and act like a reasonable political party.  Think they’ll take the opportunity?  Hmm.  I wouldn’t bet on it.

Speaking of that, Sullivan thinks that the way that the Prop-8 ruling played out was for the best, politically.  I can’t say I disagree with him. I’m hoping that the new federal case doesn’t de-rail things, though.  Yikes.

SobatkaHooray for Summer Sepinwall!  Alan is doing another “rewind” of The Wire, a.k.a. The Best Thing In The History Of The Television And Indeed The World. This time he’s doing season 2.  Awesome.  These are so much fun, and even though I don’t have time to watch them again (though one day I will), I’m amazed at how many layers, and how much depth I missed the first time around.

Mindy Kaling is such a rock star.  She’s posted some new, hilarious stuff on her blog Things I Bought That I Love, most notably some pictures of her new boyfriend.  Considering how many times the search string “Mindy Kaling Boyfriend” has hit my blog in the last month, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that a lot of guys out there are very sad right now.

Last but not least – did anyone else forget that True Blood was coming back on?  And then, when reminded, get really excited?  I sure did.  The year or so since it went off the air has made me grow even fonder of it, and I’m really stoked for its return in a few weeks.  Joe at Low Resolution agrees, and put up this awesome post about paying tribute to what was kind of without question the most rad scene of the first season.  You rock, Lafayette; you better not be dead!

Hanne1

Have a lovely weekend!

New Music, Good Music

28 May

I’ve found that as a composer, my creative cycle goes sort of like this: writewritewritewaitwaitrestwritewriterestlistenwritewriterestrestlistenlistenlistenlisten.  Rinse and repeat.  I’m sort of at that very end part – my album is complete, and I’m working on getting that music onstage and out there, so I’m sort of letting the batteries recharge before tackling any new material.  And I’ve found that this time is the perfect time to listen to new music – so that’s what I’ve been doing.  Here are some of the albums I’ve been listening to (and loving) lately:

1) Andrew Bird – “Noble Beast”

andrew_bird-noble_beast-special_edition1I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is Bird’s most assured record to date (or, at least that I’ve heard). The songwriting is as focused as anything I’ve heard from him, his vocals freaking soar, and the little sounds that he gets, particularly on tracks like “Masterswarm” and “Nomenclature” are just awesome.  Little crinkley drum sounds, grooves built out of looped and manipulated clicks and clacks, all in service of creating an intimate groove that he can wrap his spectacular violin playing around.  It’s the latest step in his evolution as an artist, and just an amazing listen.  I’m going to go and get his entire back catalog, too – there’s some pretty great, eclectic stuff in there, and it seems to inform his current work in a really cool way.

2) Darren Johnston – “The Edge of the Forest”

Darren Johnston The Edge of the ForestI’ve known of Darren (and, more recently, actually known Darren) for a while now – he’s certainly a major presence on the SF jazz scene. I hadn’t really had a chance to hear him play until recently, when I caught his group Nice Guy Trio (Darren plays trumpet and leads the band, joined by Rob Reich on accordion and my buddy Daniel Fabricant on bass) at the Red Poppy Art House.  And DUDE.  Darren is a heavy player.  His phrasing is an absolute blast – rolling lines sequencing into one another, phrases as long as you please.  I got to take a listen to the rough tracks from the upcoming Nice Guys record, and it’s super good stuff – really melodic, with great playing.  Darren half-jokingly described it as his “populist effort,” and now that I’ve listened to his solo album, “The Edge of the Forest,” I can see what he’s talking about.  The material on “Forest,” while still accessable, is basically free-jazz – chord-less music anchored by some absolutely outstanding bass playing by Devin Hoff and Smith Dobson on drums. Sheldon Brown and Ben Goldberg contribute some ridiculous bass and Bb clarinet playing, respectively, and Rob guests on Accordion, as well.  The freedom of this playing on this record, the way the band splits into “mini-bands,” freely improvising off of one another… it’s so much fun to listen to.  One minute, Darren is going off with Devin and Smith (drums), the next Sheldon and Ben are playing a ripping unaccompanied clarinet duet through a chord progression of their own invention.  It’s really, really cool stuff. Darren tells me it’s going to get reviewed in Downbeat in August, which is exciting, because let’s face it – they’re going to like it.  You should get a copy.

3) Hanne Hukkelberg – “Little Things”

Hanne+Hukkelberg+-+Little+ThingsIn my “Things that aren’t lame” post from a few days ago, I shared a video from this  Norwegian singer/multi-instrumentalist, and I gotta go the next step and talk a little about her album.  I actually have her first two, both “Little Things” and “RYKESTRASSE 68,” though so far I’ve had more of a chance to listen to the former than the latter. “Little Things” is a wonderful, special record, shiny, both warm and cold… it’s a brilliant listen. Hanne plays a ton of cool instruments, including keyboards, water sound effects, mouth effects, toy controllers, while her drummer, Erland Dahlen, plays all kinds of cool percussion tricks, including “eggs,” which probably means he was clicking two eggs into the mic.  On all of her records, electric tuners are barred from the studio, so all of her music is in tune with itself, and with her ears. God, do I love that idea. Hanne’s voice is enchanting, miked close and deep through the tubes, and the whole album just flies around the stylistic stratosphere, never content to rest in a single place for more than a little while.  There’s some really outstanding reed playing, too, and the way she arranges saxophones and bass clarinet on tracks like “Displaced” makes me really want to do something similar in the future.  I can’t recommend checking out her music enough.

4) Realistic Orchestra – “Symphonies from Down The Block”

2267301385-1Adam Theis’s Realistic Orchestra is pretty awesome; I believe we’ve been over that before.  Despite the title, this particular album isn’t the Hip-Hop symphony he performed at the Palace of Fine Arts back a little while ago (though I believe that a recording of that music is on the way).  What “Symphonies from Down The Block” is, however, is a really great big band record. A ton of slamming players (many of the same guys and gals from the expanded band that played the symphony) lay down some really cool stuff over the course of the disc, with some really fun guest appearances peppered throughout. I majorly dig “Fugata,” the accordion freak-out featuring Colin Hogan, as well as the sax feature “Dune Flume,” (great sax arranging!) and the live take of “Search.”  “Symphonies” is also a great way to familiarize yourself with the band before the recording of Adam’s full symphony is released.

5) Franz Ferdinand - “Tonight”

franz-tonightYou guys, this record is so much fun.  I’ll go ahead and say that Franz’s eponymous debut was one of the best rock records of the 2000′s, as close as a band can get to pitch-perfect from start to finish.  It was so much fun, so hook-y, and had such a great winking sense of humor.  And I think it’s safe to say that their second record, while pretty good, just didn’t quite match it.  But I’ve been having so much fun listening to “Tonight,” the band’s third release – made even more enjoyable by getting to see the awesome show they put on last month at the Fox..  It brings back so much of what made the band appealing, and shows signs of musical growth, as well.  My favorite tracks are the shuffle tune “Bite Hard” (hilarious lyrics), the totally badass synth part on “Can’t Stop Feeling,” and “What She Came For,” which features one of the most groovy introductions since “Stayin’ Alive.”  Put that tune on and walk down the street – I dare you not to strut in time to the music.  Also, it features “Lucid Dreams,” which is a real evolution for the group, and ends with one of the coolest instrumental breakdowns I’ve heard in a while.  I’ll leave you with the video for the super-rad “No You Girls.”  Bam:

There ya have it – lots of good new stuff.  And that’s not even mentioning other records that I still need to get and listen to, including the new one from The Decemberists, Queen’s “Night At The Opera,” and Mastodon’s new one.  And there’s always so much more that I don’t even know about!

Things That Are Not Lame

26 May
YesOnProp8

JFC already.

Blerg!  Not a shocker, I guess, but it’s now official: California is retarded.  Not so much about the court ruling, but the general existence of the constitutional amendment.  And not only just that, also the budget, the effing special election, the B-L-E-R-G.

Okay. I will now share some things that are not lame, do not suck, and don’t make me roll my eyes and gird myself in anticipation of more years of barf-tastic, wedge-issue-y fighting.

Deep breath… blue air in, green air out… and here we go.

1) A Giant Mixing Bowl Full of Cookie Dough

I made it yesterday, and, in accordance with the amazing new recipe I’m using, I’ll let it coalesce and chill for another 24-32 hours before baking into amazingness.  Aah, yes.  The sheer potential of the thing!  Lovely.  Also, that is indeed a bottle of Big Daddy IPA next to it, which makes everything even better.

photo

I chill, and then I cook.

2) Hamlet The Cat

I got to take care of the Fur-Monster this weekend while my sister was out of town, and he most definitely does not suck in any way at all.  In fact, I can confirm to you that, not only does he have great taste in the things that he loves, he is one of the most chilled out, people-loving Fur-Monsters I’ve ever known.

Hamlet The Cat

"Hello again, You."

3) Our Giant New Showerhead

After an afternoon of surprisingly satisfying work, not only is our apartment now incredibly clean, so is our bathroom!  And as if that weren’t enough, our awesome landlord came in this morning and replaced our broken shower head with this badass.  You guys, it is the size of my FACE.  Behold the glory:

Showerhead

"Look at the size of that thing!"

4) Hanne Hukkelberg’s Video for “A Cheater’s Armory”

Thank you so much to my listening-guru Russ Kleiner for telling me about Hanne Hukkelberg.  She is an amazing Norwegian multi-instrumentalist gal with the most georgeous voice, whose albums (I have the first two) are just crazy awesome.  Loaded with tiny clangs and whistles from her makeshift percussion instruments, each song sounds like a captured recording of a shattering crystal ball.  The only video I could find online is from her second album, “Rykestrasse 68,and it is so, so, so awesome.  Watch it all the way through, full-screen if possible.  And something about the story the video tells makes me think about our dumb state’s current Prop-8iness, and the nature of corrupt people-power vs. Real-Power, and whatever, just watch it:

See? Not everything is heartbreakingly dumb. Some things are actually quite wonderful. Now have fun at your local protest, stay safe, and let’s get girding.

Blue Rabbit @ The Independent

24 May
Blue Rabbit Onstage 2

Photo by Julie Bernstein, funcrunchphoto.com

Well, gosh.  Last night, I swung by The Independent (as some might recall, my favorite place in the whole city of SF to play a show) to catch a set by the wonderful Blue Rabbit.  You guys – this band is a seriously good time. Picture this, if you will: the stage is lit in deep reds and purples, framed on either side by a trio of feather and masque-wearing mannequins; the back wall is hung with giant silver streamers, and there are musicians everywhere.  A willowy girl is plucking and grooving on a Celtic harp on stage left, cello, drums, keyboards, and violin are to her back. Center stage stand three beautiful women, dressed in a blue strapless dresses, wailing their way through some positively unhinged vocal arrangements, dancing together like some sort of post-looking-glass version of The Supremes, smiling, clapping, and singing, singing, singing.

Okay, now picture that you just ran about a mile at top speed to get to the show on time, you’ve blown in the door right at the start of their set with no preparation for what, exactly, it is you’ll be seeing.  That was me.  My train of thought upon arrival was basically, “Whew, okay, I’m here, getting my ticket, dude is searching my bag, hate that, going in, there they are whaaaaaaa?”  And then I just stood there grinning for about 45 minutes while the band shook the place down.  Cool.

Blue Rabbit is based in SF – they’re led by composer, songwriter, and singer Heather Anderson, who is joined on vocals by Arami Reyes and Sarah Rocklin. None of the three could be deemed the “lead singer,” and there is this chemistry thing going on with them… Heather’s humor, Arami’s huge smile and huger voice, Sarah’s understated style, suddenly busting out with a powerful lead… it really works. Eah Herren is the aforementioned willowy Celtic-harpist, sorta like River Tam with mad harp chops, joined by Kristin Harris in the back with the cello cranked.  Tim Galida and Kevin Weber added some Y Chromosomes (and some great playing) on keys and drums respectively, along with Adam Willumsen on violin and a special guest sax performance (which will always score points with me) by Martin Blank. Considering that the band doesn’t have a bass player, Tim did a great job of filling out the bottom end, and Kevin killed on drums!  I’m not sure if it was his own kit he was playing on, but his bass drum was the size of a backyard trampoline, and added a throbbing, undulating sound that really worked with the band’s vibe.

Okay, so I liked it – here’s the real challenge.  Can I describe the music to you?  Can I dance ever so carefully about the architecture?  Well, hmm. Obviously, the best way to get a feel for what Blue Rabbit is all about is to listen to the tracks they’ve got on their Myspace page, or pick up a copy of their record, Separate. It is getting harder and harder to describe most of the interesting music I’ve seen lately, the paradox being that that music is precisely the stuff I’d love to be able to describe!  The band just doesn’t fit on any universally accepted spectrum… like, if there’s a ten-point scale, with one being “Does Not Sound Like Cat Stevens,” and ten being “Sounds Like Cat Stevens,” then Blue Rabbit would be “Tangerine.”  So I’m going to try to describe their sound a different way.

Ahem. Please bear with me here: Blue Rabbit sounds like the best episode of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” ever.

Eah Herren

Photo by Julie Bernstein, funcrunchphoto.com

Wait, wait, don’t leave, I swear this is going somewhere better than last time. While watching their set, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was hanging out in The Bronze.  You remember how, on that show, a few times each season, the Scooby Gang would go to that club, and some spooky cello band would be playing spooky cello rock about love and death and other shit that matched up with whatever me-me-me drama Buff was going through at the moment?  Well, Blue Rabbit is like the coolest version of that possible. Like, remember when Aimee Mann played, and then she was all, “I’m sick of playing these vampire towns”?  It’s like that. You remember Dingoes Ate my Baby?  Blue Rabbit is like that band, if their music was completely different and every band member was Oz. Throughout their set, I was half-expecting to see David Boreanaz over in the corner looking broody and tortured.

Okay, back on track. To overuse alliteration, Blue Rabbit’s music is a chaotic but controlled cacophony – vocals fly all over the place, sometimes coming together in harmony, sometimes wandering apart, cartwheeling through the tessitura. I get the sense that a lot of the string and harp parts were orchestrated on the fly, with a minimum of pre-performance scoring.  At the very least, it sounds that way, which speaks to Heather’s mastery of avant-garde arranging. As a writer who is a bit of a control-freak, orchestration-wise, it’s exhilarating to hear a band be so free about it with such satisfying results.  What’s more, the band’s tunes rarely fall into familiar chord progressions or melodic contours – they manage to build their songs to a climax without relying on the standard musical language to do so. I could write some kind of provocative, fake-deep thing here about how dude bands climax in a completely different way than chick bands, but I think I’ll leave that particular depth unplumbed.  Still: interesting.

To watch Blue Rabbit perform is to be perpetually off-balance, unsure of where you are and how you got there, hoping the band will eventually set you back down when they’ve tired of twirling you about. Take a listen to their tunes, and go catch them live – just be sure to bring some garlic and holy water to ward off any vampires who might be in attendance. This is serious music approached with whimsy, loaded with tricksy, idiosyncratic writing and performed with charisma to spare.

They thrill, they charm; their grace disarms. In short: they rock.

Buffy and Angel

Last Night’s Show @ Red Vic Sessions

23 May

Red Vic SessionsWell, that was certainly fun.  Last night, Nervo and I did our first local show in support of “The Exited Door” – we played a set of acoustic tunes at Ronnie Cato’s Red Vic Sessions in the Haight, and damn, it was fun!  I’m not sure I’m prepared for how much of a blast it’s going to be to perform this material for people – it was super, super good times.

Ronnie’s nights at Red Vic Sessions are really cool – he’s been doing it for a few years now, and we’ll definitely be back!  There’s a really low-key, listening-room vibe to the whole thing, which is great (particularly for all the miked looping – nothing worse than getting some drunken bargoer whooping in the middle of your loop every time), and, well, it’s ten minutes from my house.

The night featured quite a few acts, starting out with Brenda Xu and Marie Haddad, two singer/songwriters on tour from San Diego.  Brenda opened, playing some nice, minimalist tunes on guitar while accompanied by Ben Kent on the Cajon.  I love that instrument so much – Maria Schneider uses one on the tune “Journey Home” from her album Allegresse, and it’s just the warmest, grooviest sound.  Ben used his as a sort of all-in-one drumming solution, and it really added to the tunes.  Brenda had a really great vibe on stage, and was a pleasure to watch – her vocals (and melodies) had just a touch of Aimee Mann, which is never, ever a bad thing.  I also enjoyed Marie’s music – dramatic, Tori-inflected piano music with lots of rolling chords, and Marie’s really strong vocals.

After they finished, Keith Sheppard played some tunes, and also sounded quite good – he played some really groovy guitar parts, which I enjoyed.  He’s got a band called Sheppard’s Crook, which I could totally see. After that, Sandra B played, and dude – she is a true original. For real – check her out. Meandering, indulgent tunes (I mean that in the best way), dramatic, highly effective use of dynamics, and a voice that’ll knock your socks off.  She really made an impression, man – it was totally cool. Totally weird.  I seriously enjoyed it.

The Attracted were after that, and brough in a full band setup (albeit with a micro drum-kit), and rocked through some really funny songs.  Jesse Dyen leads the band – he sounds a bit like Elvis Costello, and writes meta-rock songs (that is, songs about having a band, and touring, and getting sick of each other, and breaking up).  Cool stuff.  Mike Chase was the last act before us, and put on a strange, funny show that was part cabaret, part original songwriting – at one point he sat at a toy piano and belted his way through a couple of covers (Monkees, maybe?). He wouldn’t be out of place at a Cock-Ts show at Annie’s, maybe alongside, like, Lamb and Uni and her Ukulele.  Always nice to stir some Myspace jokes into our angsty songs, I always say.

Then Nervo and I played.  Our set included the same tunes we did a couple weeks back at the SF 48-Hour Film Festival Showcase, with a few notable additions.  One tune, called “The Darkened Street,” was a very acoustic-y tune about dying.  Like, it would fit in the genre acoustic music?  I wrote it a long time ago, when I was going through the phase that most songwriters go through when they decide that writing a song about how fun and wonderful death probably is would be really deep.  It was also right after I discovered the I | III7 |vi | IV progression, and man, I milked the crap out of it.  Anyway, it was the first time I’d ever performed the tune, and it went well.

Shoshana T-Shirt

Shoshana moves in mysterious ways.

All of the looping also went off without a hitch – The Armelodica(TM) made another appearance, and I’m getting pretty used to having it attached to my arm.  Happy Pants danced happily around, coaxing the shy sweatshirts out onto the floor.  In addition to using it for a lot of the looped orchestration for Exited Door tunes, Nervo and I had a solo battle over a vamp in “Shoshana” that was pretty damn fun/hilarious.  At least for us.  I’m not sure how much everyone in the audience liked watching me blast air through a hose while sloppily hittling little plastic keys, but they at least seemed to think it was funny.

Massive thanks to everyone who came out – it was great to see so many new faces in the audience, as well as some familiar ones from shows past!  I hope you all had as much fun listening as we had playing.  Also, thanks to Jason Blair for keeping things running smoothly, managing the sound, and generally for being a cool guy.

And as much fun as last night was, we’re only going to be ramping things up from here on out – Nervo and I will be taking our duo show around the Bay Area while in SF starting June 20th at BrainWash Cafe, I’ll be adding Lindsay, Dan, and some other instrumentalists to the acoustic group.  With the extra musicians, we’ll be able do to even more tunes off of the record, all in preparation for our first plugged-in, full-band show at the Rickshaw Stop in September. In other words: Exciting times await.

Have a great Saturday, thanks for reading!

Things I Am Loving Today

22 May

1) Full Jar of Papalote Salsa

Hmm, I’m kind of hungry… not sure what I could eat…  I’ll go over to the fridge, I guess?  Okay, going over to the fridge, opening the door, andHELLEEEEW there!  Full Jar of Papalote Salsa, I had completely forgotten you were in there! What a completely random happenstance! I totally hadn’t been dreaming of your rocking, spicy deliciousness all day, thinking endlessly about twisting off your lid, gently tipping you over a small bowl (bowl #15, actually), and dipping chips into you over… and over… and over again.  Er… what?  What was I saying?  Um, yeah, I had totally not thought of you in ages, not since that sort of awkward time I professed my love for you in the newspaper. It’s nice to see you!  How have you been?  Yeah?  You have? Hahahahahahaaahaoh, Full Jar of Papalote Salsa, you’re so funny!  I had forgotten how much you make me laugh.  It’s so nice to talk like this.  Hey, what’s this here?  Oh, sorry!  I just thought you had something on your lid.  Thought I’d get it off.  Here, let me make sure that your lid’s screwed on tightly enough… hmm…. seems a bit loose, let’s see what happens if I just twiiiist it a litttle…. hmm, maybe a little bit moooore.. twisttwistpourpournom nom nom nom nom.

Sigh. Oh, why try to hide it?  I love you, Full Jar of Papalote Salsa.

Papalote Salsa

It's hard to play it cool when you're so spicy.

2) My New Ludwig(TM) Brand Xylophone

Lately, I find myself out gazing at stars, playing guitars, like someone in love!  In love with whom, you may ask?  In love with you, My New Ludwig(TM) Brand Xylophone!  Because when I’m playing those guitars, I’m missing a certain sound, something high and ringing, a perfect something special to put on top of all the buzzing strings, looping melodicas, hooting clarinets… something like you.  Some say that the internet is no place to find love, but I think we did just fine, don’t you?  I can still remember when I first laid eyes on you, My New Ludwig(TM) Brand Xylophone. You were selling yourself on Ebay, and I knew right away that something about you was different. Some might say that it was merely that you were $10 cheaper than the other Ludwig(TM) Brand Xylophones, but you and I both know it was something more.  Sure, you’d had a hard life, being banged on by student musicians, and when you finally arrived at my door, you had some dents and scratches… but that made me cherish your shining, ringing, wounded heart all the more.  After a little TLC, you’re as good as new, ready to accompany me onstage and add your crisp, chiming color to my compositions.  And for that, for your humble, 2.5-octave brilliance, I simply adore you.

IMG_0630

Cmaj7 | E7/B | Am7 | Am7/G | D7/F# | F7#11 | Em7 | A7...

3) Fishsticks

I don’t care if the world laughs at me – I love you, Fishsticks!  I love you so much – your salty, processed deliciousness… I could eat you all day long.  For some reason that I don’t understand, people may snicker at my love for you, but that does not mute it in the slightest!  Fishsticks in the morning, Fishsticks in the evening, Fishsticks at suppertime – if all of the world could just eat a big fat Fishstick, then it would be a happier, more satisfied place!  I could dip you, a Fishstick, in dill, in mayonnaise, in ketchup, or even in my other love, the Full Jar of Papalote Salsa, and you’d still be but a variation on the same delicious, frozen treat.  Fishsticks, I will love you until the day I die. I just don’t get why everyone is laughing at me.

fish_sticks

I am a GENIUS, and the VOICE OF A GENERATION. I can have any type of food I want, and I choose you.

The Decemberists @ The Fox Theater

21 May
3014169534_9e5114c008

Hardly Strictly Folk.

Last night, there were any number of various activities in which I could have partaken.  I could have been watching Kris Allen win American Idol (my verdict: not a huge surprise, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer dude.  Bonus: now, Adam doesn’t have to record that heinous “Bounderies” song).  I also could have been seeing the amazing Tornado Rider at the Red Devil Lounge (I’ve been wanting to see this band for some time now – their lead singer, Rushad Eggleston, is a madman with a cello strapped across his chest).  But, in the final hours of the afternoon, my roommate got a call offering her two free tickets to the sold-out Decemberists show at the Fox in Oakland, and she asked if I’d like to go.  And in the words of the ever-wise Winston Zeddemore, “Ray, when someone offers you free Decemberists tickets, you say YES!” So off to the Fox we went.

An hour and some well-orchestrated BART-wrangling later, we arrived at the theater minutes before the Decemberists began their set. And, dude. They have gotten better.  Maybe it’s the theater – I felt the same way about seeing Franz Ferdinand there last month – I had enjoyed The Decemberists well enough when I saw them at the Warfield in support of The Crane Wife, but last night’s performance was in a whole other league.

Though really, is no mystery as to why this show was so much better – it’s the new material. The band performed their new album, “The Hazards of Love,” in its entirety, featuring several new musicians, most notibly Becky Stark and the awesome Shara Worden, both on vocals.  I haven’t yet heard the record (I know!), but just from seeing it live, it’s clearly their best, most exciting material to date.  What’s more, it’s exciting to see someone doing something that is so close, in many ways, to The Exited Door… scripted vocals, sung by several vocalists, one each representing light (Stark) and Dark (Worden)… the drama and theatrical bent of the whole thing, as well as the audience’s enthusiastic response, had me really inspired.

decemberists_hazards

Well, I'll be getting this.

So, yeah.  The new material is really, really great.  Super dramatic, mostly through-composed, with recurring themes and some seriously butt-rocking passages.  When, in the second set, the band returned to play through tunes from their back catalog, the contrast couldn’t have been clearer.  Those songs are great, and the band’s roots in folk and Americana will always be a grounding presence, but clearly, Colin Meloy has his eyes set on something much larger, both thematically and sonically, and if last night’s first set was any indication, he is achieving it.

Occasionally the music didn’t quite rock as hard as it wanted to… there would be a guitar riff or figure, or a drum fill that just wouldn’t hit quite as hard as the music suggested that it should.  If I had to point to the culprit, I’d say that in terms of their equipment, attitude, and execution, they’ve yet to make the shift from prog-folk to prog-rock.  This isn’t really a complaint, per se – they sound great, and occupy a unique stylistic zone, which is cool.  And it would actually be a bummer if they came out there with, like, Muse‘s gear (I mean, I can’t imagine Meloy rocking a Manson Guitar, you know?) But all the same, a few of the darker, rocking sections could have rocked me a bit harder.

And while we’re talking about rock – let me say a few words about Shara Worden. Well, maybe just one word – Rad.  Shara is the band’s new secret weapon, an unhinged, devilish performer, slinking around the stage in a micro-mini and bare feet, limbs akimbo, wailing into the mic like some serpentine chanteuse of the river styx.  Awesome.  I immediately recognized her as the lead singer of the band that had been touring in support of The Decemberists last time around (a little googling reminded me that their name was My Brightest Diamond), and I remembered loving her then, too.  Honestly, at that show, her music, Buckley-tinged freak-out rock with wild, wailing vocals, did more for me than The Decemberist’s set.  It’s a really good sign that Meloy, realizing what a killer she was, wrote her into the band’s next album.

The show ended on a low-key, humorous note, with an encore in which Meloy (who has never reminded me more of a reedy-voiced Garrison Keillor) leading members of the band through an in-audience reenactment of the Donner Party Tragedy. It was really funny, down-to-earth, and a great contrast to the intense dramatic highs reached in their first set.

I don’t know where the group’s evolution will end them up – who could?  Their next album could very well be an acoustic reinterpretation of, like, Canturbury Tales.  What I do know is that they appear to be continually improving themselves, fearlessly embracing their own musical evolution, and as a result, their next show will almost certainly be even better than last night’s.  I’ll sure be there.

December3

…Or, I’ll Just Write a Bit About Idol

20 May
adam-lambert2

Wouldn't it be cool if this guy won American Idol?

Jeez, that last post I wrote on Glee is a bit humbug-y, huh?  Sorry about that, World.  I guess that Tuesday Night TV Night just went long, and I was le tired, and for whatever reason, the overly-analytical joy-killing side of me took over. I still agree with most of the points I made, but also I bet the show’s going to be awesome.  I mean, it featured an A Capalla version of the Austin Powers theme!

Anyway, I wanted to write a second about the American Idol final performances – basically, I thought that each singer won one round, and that the final song sucked to a degree heretofore unseen in the world.  Kris’ take on “Ain’t No Sunshine” was absolutely killer, and managed to somehow top Adam’s “Mad World,” which is no small feat.  I love “Sunshine,” too, such a cool song, and Kris really rocked it.  However, his acoustic jam on “What’s Going On” was weak sauce – way to smile your way through lines about war killing people, dude.  Plus, well… it just couldn’t compare to the rockingness of Lambert singing “Change is Gonna Come.”  It was just rad to see Adam perform that song for a lot of reasons, and his awesome gayness is only a part of it.  Actually, Jacob at TWoP has a great take:

Without Danny to push against, it’s like he’s singing for everybody, and not just half of everybody. Whatever Kris does, he could have sung exactly this same song and it wouldn’t mean anything much different; either way it’s like, “Today is a really nice day and I’m glad we survived.” You know That whole foot pain is not a fact of life, life is much better than that thing. I keep waiting for the bad shit to show up and it keeps not happening. Maybe that’s for tomorrow. Maybe Rihanna will come and somebody will yell something inappropriate, or something.

So, yeah – they both had one great performance (and really, Adam had two), and either guy could win and I’d be happy.  Kris will sell a ton of albums, and Adam, provided he gets the right stage director and producer, will sell out his world tour.  The episode didn’t knock my socks off, but I like each contestant so much that it was fun to watch them take the stage one more time.

But can we talk for one more second about Kara?  I said it last week, and I’m saying it again – it is time for her to go.  Not only did she once again go out of her way to make us all feel uncomfortable (So jabby!  So forced!), she also wrote what has to be the worst coronation song in the history of American Idol. (Actually, second-worst – Joe R. put up an awesome ranking of coronation songs in terms of awfulness, and Taylor Hicks’ song gets the bottom honor, which, yeah, that’s about right).

It managed to sit in a horrible register for both singers (Adam was belting right in his break, so he actually sounded like he was straining, and Kris was way above his comfortable register) and be about as wretchedly cliched and harmonically boring as a song could possibly be.  Does this just happen if you live in LA too long? Any semblance of creativity and non-hackiness just goes right out the window? The people who worked on this tune were supposed to be “good” songwriters, professionals…  I mean, I think she wrote it with three people, for fuck’s sake!  I don’t need to hear the next great Sufjan composition or anything, but they could’ve at least written a memorable chorus. Enough of you, Kara.  Ca Suffit. Go back to whatever it was you were doing before January.

Last thing – I know I just said that I’d be happy no matter the outcome, but still: Lambert for the win!!

tatra-mountains-zakopane

Fly back over the mountains to the clouds of your dreams, Kara. Sheesh already.

To Glee Or Not To Glee?

19 May
Glee

...that is the question.

I dunno.  I thought that the pilot for Glee was pretty good, I guess. It certainly had its moments (the grass-spraying guy from “Emerald Dreams” was amazing, the A Cappella music cues were killer), but I also thought that a lot of the writing felt forced and that the pacing was BANANAS.

Example time – I love Jane Lynch to death, but the waterboarding joke?  A) Didn’t make sense,  B) Was, I thought, a little bit tone-deaf and C) As a result of A and B, came off as the writers trying too hard.  Which was a major bummer, since it was the first line of the show.  Fail.

For every enjoyably wonky character grace-note (“Don’t go in the christmas closet!”) there was at least one played “Grey’s Anatomy is for pussies” or “Sassy black girl wants to be Beyonce” joke.  People, we have all seen Arrested Development.  We also watched Pushing Daisies.  We can do better.

As for the pacing – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a pilot that required such a dramatic “reset” after its climax. At the episode’s end, suddenly every character has found the courage to follow his or her dreams, the show choir went from sounding merely surprisingly good to being balls-out fantastic (they clearly invested in a good reverb unit and an auto-tuner) while accompanied by their amazing wheelchair-bound guitarist friend and his ridiculously burning studio (whoops, I mean, “Student”) jazz band.  And their final performance took place while every single person who said they couldn’t do it (the coaches, the football player, etc.) happened to be watching them… did I miss something?  Where did all that come from?  Where are we going to go now?

Bring it On

Are we here?

I think that part of the problem is that they haven’t made up their mind on the nature and elasticity of the show’s reality.  Hear me out – basically, there are three clear influences at work in Glee, each with its own distinct laws and reality.  Towards the more reality-based end of the spectrum are “Election” (grim realism masked by darkly whimsical curlicues) and, slightly closer to the center, “Bring it On” (basically rooted in reality, though with heightened banter).  Firmly to the “fantastical” side rests the third influence, “High School Musical” (characters sing and dance in the middle of their everyday routines).  Most of the pilot felt like “Election,” which I really liked, but the entire last fifteen minutes felt totally Efron-tastic, and that made things confusing.

High-School-Musical-2-92

...or here?

Are they really supposed to be that good, or was that final performance a sort of “Musical Moment” of heightened awesomeness? If it was, the show needs to be clearer about it.  And if they are actually that good, then what, exactly, does their coach need to teach them?  I mean, they weren’t just “much improved,” they were perfect!  What fun is it going to be to watch studio-perfected, autotuned singers and a jacked-up, overproduced band play the part of the scrappy underdogs?

Okay, okay… crap, I’m totally sucking the fun out of life, and don’t want to sound like I hated it or something, since that’s really not the case. It was fun, and I’ll watch it in the fall (I’d watch it for Jane Lynch alone). But I did think that there were some significant problems.  I swear my heart isn’t made of coal (I loved Pushing Daisies!  So much!), and I was ready to totally love Glee, too – It just came across as unsure of its tone and a bit of a tryhard.

Last thing – I must protest the egregious manner in which Fox gave away practically every scene of this episode the ads running up to the premiere.  Seeing so many scenes dozens of times robbed them of their charm, which is rough, since I’m doubtless being far harder on the show as a result.  What’s worse, Fox went and did the same thing again at the end, showing practically the entire first season in the post-episode teaser!

‘TF, Fox? That was beyond the pale – I mean, show some funny jokes, sure, but you gave away some huge plot points, and for what?  Grrrr. That does not make me feel gleeful.

Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival

18 May
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No one's ever off-sides, huh?

Last week, I wrote a post detailing some basic techniques I use when writing for student ensembles.  The last item on the list, and possibly the most important, was “Always Do Something Awesome.”  This year, my band’s “something awesome” was a re-arrangement of a Lyle Mays tune called “Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival.”

Today, I learned that apparently, “Suma Foosball” is a real thing – ten people line up on either side of a large foosball table and take each other on.  Which sounds.. well… awesome! In an effort to learn more about it, I googled “Suma Foosball,” and while I didn’t find anything but references to the Mays tune, I did come across a recently-uploaded YouTube video of a performance of the piece.  For the longest time, it was impossible to find a recording of that song online, so it’s great that it’s up now!

It’s a pretty fun version, performed by the Karlis Vanagas Big Band – they sound great!  The arrangement is the original one (no wah-wah violins, harmonicas, or string quartet breakdowns here), but it still gives a pretty fun demonstration of what makes the tune so cool.

Check it out:

Murfins and Burgalinks

16 May

Smokin’ Hot Weekend Links:

in-a-row

"Hey! Hipster boy! We're gonna fuck you up!"

Last night I saw The Cock-Ts at El Rio – I hadn’t seen the group in a little while, and man, they’re so much fun.  I bet that they’ll be performing at Annie’s pretty soon, and I highly recommend going out. I love the new one, “Be! Aggressive!  Pa-ss-ive Aggressive!”  Ha!

You heard it here eighth – Dollhouse is indeed getting renewed.  Well, that’s pretty cool.  As I predicted, the show indeed got a whole hell of a lot better in the back end, though weirdly enough, I’m not totally thrilled with the news that it’s coming back.  Hmm.  I can’t figure out why… maybe the premise just seems so challenging?  Anyway.  Here’s hoping that they don’t just go back to one-off “imprint of the week” plots in season two, and that they find a way to make a musical episode. Like, the star of an off-Broadway musical is threatened, so all of the dolls have to have singing, dancing imprints to catch the killer!  Wait, they already sort of did that in the first season, and it was the worst episodes ever.  Well, shit.  I guess “Once More, With Feeling” only strikes once.

Joe R. over at Low Resolution posted this tribute to The Band-Aids of Almost Famous a while ago, but I kept forgetting to link to it here.  I loved this post, just as I loved the movie, and agree wholeheartedly that regardless of her recent trespasses, Kate Hudson’s performance in it bought her a lifetime of free passes from me.  Even thinking about it gives me raging nostalgia for an era that I never even experienced… it’s, like, Bittersweet in a Bottle. Love.

Carmen Staaf (she of the incredible new album) was recently featured in a New York Times article about her apartment building, which appears to be some sort of magical Never-Neverland haven for jazz musicians, overlooking Prospect Park.  Wow.  I dare you to read this article and not want to live there.

Whoda thunk that in order to get my most blog-hits ever in a single day, all I had to do was post a picture of Jack from Lost getting kicked in the nuts? Todd VanDerWerff at The House Next Door wrote an awesome analysis of the finale that goes into, like, Battlestar-level analysis of symbolism.  It speaks to the hugely increased quality of the program that this sort of post is now possible.  What’s more, Todd agrees – Sawyer finally giving Jack’s nads the boot = an unqualified win.

the-road-illustration-0609-lgThe trailer for the upcoming film adaptation of Cormac’s The Road is out, and while it features a little too much Hollywood disaster shit for my taste, palate-wise, it looks spot-on and terrifying. I predict that Viggo is going to be fucking brilliant in the lead role.  What’s more, Esquire published an early review that has me really excited for the film to come out.  The money quote is at the end:

But there was not a single stupid choice made in turning this book into this movie. No wrongheaded lyric tribute to the novel. No moment engineered simply to make you jump. The terror of it is in a normal world made vacant.

Awesome.

In world news – my sister told me about this article a while back, right after it came out, but I didn’t have a chance to read it until recently.  You guys, Dubai is all sorts of fucked-up.  Wow.  Read for yourself – honestly, this is some shit, both fascinating (the fall of the city) and horrifying (the enormous slave-class).

Kirk B2B Ad

Memories!

Last but not least, it’s early May in San Francisco, do you know what time it is?  Bay to Breakers time!  Dispite the best efforts of the sort of assholish Chronicle (and, to be fair, the similarly assholish drunks who’ve been sneaking in, getting wasted, and pissing all over the city for the last three races), the race is going to be, as always, super fun.  It’s gonna be a hot one, too. Note to self: Sunscreen and a big, floppy hat.  Maybe I’ll dress up as Mick Dundee or something.  Anyway, I’ll be there, and so will you (probably).

Also, I will use this excuse to leave you with this blast from two years past – will there ever be a better Footstock than Footstock in 2007?

No, I do not think there will be:

The Best Part Of The “Lost” Season Finale

14 May

Without question:

Jacks Nuts1

Jacks Nuts2

Jacks nuts3

jacks nuts4

Jacks Nuts 5

Jacks Nuts6

Jacks Nuts 7

Yarp!

14 May

Hot Fuzz Yarp

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Idol Top Three: Well, That Was Weird

13 May
2843590_846ec822-6231-4ee2-a8e4-0400719fa93e-kara1

I said, "Good night!"

We’ve now reached the point in the Idol season when the show becomes a bit less enjoyable for me, when all the “see you in the finals” predictions, the favoritism, the repetitious praise or criticism all come to a head, leaving the show so far up its own ass that it no longer feels like a competition at all. Everyone just seemed so tired last night… it’s too bad that they always blow the endgame like this.

And while there may or may not have been an air of desperation around Gokey’s dancing on his first tune (my verdict: quite desperate), there was most assuredly a deep stink of it around the show itself.  Here’s a program that used to be able to fit nine performances into an hour and that now, in what is clearly an effort to suck every last insanely jacked-up advertising dollar out of its sponsors, has become so bloated that it can’t even fit six songs without going over the hour.

What’s worse, the judging continues to be a big problem, as I mentioned two weeks ago.  Since then, it’s become clear that Kara DioGuardi needs to go – her comments on the performances were utterly divorced from reality, be they blind favoritism (Gokey, Lambert) or bizarre criticism of her own song choice (Kris).  And worse than that, she’s just not pleasant to watch – she seems to have ramped up the intensity of her spiel, and is coming off as so abrasive, phony, and, yes, desperate to prove her cred that it’s really tough to take her seriously as an adjudicator.

I think that perhaps it’s because she’s reading her own press.  Three or four weeks ago, I totally wouldn’t have said that Kara was that big a problem.  Sure, she didn’t say anything particularly worthwhile, but at the same time, she wasn’t as off-putting as she’s been. That all changed during and after rock week, the aftermath of which, despite it having been perhaps the most entertaining top 4 in the show’s history, was hard on everyone except Lambert.  And Kara came off as the lamest of all, with her “whoop whoop” hand motions, studded leather jacket, and money quotes about how “Cryin’” and “Crazy” are “Early Aerosmith” and how Adam Lambert should start a career in the “’70′s Rock, 80′s Glam Rock, Nine Inch Nails” genre. And just like they ate Danny Gokey alive for his angel-killing screeching on “Dream On,” the internet people devoured that shit, which couldn’t have been fun to read about.

(Speaking of internet people, I really have to recommend EW.com’s Idolatry videos. Thanks to Joe R. at Low Resolution for linking to them, and my sister for realizing how great they are – I wouldn’t normally find the time to watch something like this, but they’re pretty hilarious!  The level of Gokey-hate is really cathartic, and Kristin Baldwin, with or without her glasses, is a riot.  Who is this girl?)

In short: I think that everyone left on the show, contestants and judges alike, is far too self-aware, too “in their box,” and too content to stay there to make for very compelling performances.  And I thought that last night’s performances, with one exception, bore that out.  And bored me to tears.

Thoughts on the individual performances, after the break:

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Monday’s Person I Want To Be

11 May
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Sometimes, the Bear gets you.

This Monday, as I contemplate work as a composer outside of my own personal projects, I find myself thinking – in what mediums would I, personally, find the greatest satisfaction?  And, though “Movies” used to be the holy grail for all aspiring composers (well, outside of “Premiering at Lincoln Center” anyway), I have to say that for me, the most rewarding two mediums in which to work would be television and video games.  Television offers the chance to let your writing evolve over time, to really work with the themes for various characters and settings, and to get really creative on an episode-by-episode basis.  Video games, on the other hand, are a creative medium still in its infancy, and therefore offer unlimited potential for experimentation and change. Only one guy I can think of has got his foot squarely in both doors, and while that can’t be a comfortable position to hold for an extended period of time, master composer Bear McCreary makes it look easy.

As any regular Murfins reader knows, I am a big fan of Bear’s.  I first became aware of him, as did most of the rest of the planet, through his fascinating, idiosyncratic work on the TV program Battlestar Galactica.  From my first viewing, it was clear that this was a sci-fi show like no other, and the rippling, tribal themes, orchestras mixed with Taiko drums, sitars, and bagpipes, only heightened the show’s differentness.  For a couple of seasons, I watched the show, unaware of anything beyond the fact that the show’s composer had a weird name (“Bear” is up there with W.G. “Snuffy” Walden in the pantheon of TV Composers with memorably odd names).  Then, somewhere near the start of the third season, I learned about Bear’s Battlestar Blog, and with it, gained significant insight into the dude.

Bear's Battlestar Blog

Basically, Bear's Blog is Brilliant.

The amount of depth in McCreary’s blog cannot be overstated – here is a man who truly cares about music, who thinks about it endlessly, and who takes extra time out of his (no doubt insanely) busy schedule to write about it at length, to share it with his fans and fans of the shows he works on.  You can lose hours reading about his process, the techniques he used to make the sounds that so effortlessly evoke the atmosphere of BSG.  His post on the final season’s episode “Sometimes a Great Notion” is so brimming with content and insight, not only into the creation of the music, but into the show itself, that it should practically be required reading for serious Battlestar fans.

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No Country For Old Jews

9 May
yiddish-policemen-book

Read this book.

Don’t ever let it be said that Hollywood never gets novels right.  Last night, I (finally) finished the last 100 pages of Michael Chabon’s spectacular The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which had laid unopened on my bedside table for several months.  I just didn’t want it to end, and couldn’t quite bring myself to read to that last page.

Though I knew even before finishing that this was a truly special book (I even ranted a bit about it a few months back), now that I’m done, I’m going to go ahead and say that it was one of the most thoroughly enjoyable reading experiences I’ve had, straight through the last page of the story and into the book’s glossary of yiddish terms.

And in contrast to the somewhat meandering conclusions of most of Chabon’s other (wonderful) work, Yiddish Policemen ends with an exhilarating exclamation point – I was expecting to finally reach the last page and feel sad that my journey with these characters had ended, and instead, I found myself pumping my fist with a “Hell yes!”

What’s more, the whole time I was reading, it was clear that this story, this kosher noir set in a fictional land of Rebbes and Black Hats, of Verbovers and Rudashefskeys, where no one’s loyalties are set in stone and everyone’s packing a sholem… that under the proper guidance, this world would transition seamlessly to the silver screen.

So, upon finishing, I looked up who would be making the inevitable film adaptation, wondering who could possibly be up to the task… and really, it should have been obvious.  I mean, what filmmakers could tackle a realist noir set in an alternate version of the present, filled with murder and deceit and shocking violence? A painstakingly created universe populated with wonderfully strange, larger-than-life characters whose language is as twisty as it is brilliant?  Who could pull something like that off?

That’s right.  The flippin’ COEN BROTHERS have been signed on to write and direct the film.  I cannot tell you how freaking pumped this makes me. Really, the only way you can understand is if you go and get this book and read it now.  For real, you’ll thank me.  Not only will you get to read one hell of an amazing book, you’ll also be prepared for what will almost undoubtedly be the best films of 2010.

I can’t imagine a more perfect fit for this story, for these characters, than the Coens, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a movie to come out.

SF 48-Hour Film Festival Showcase

8 May

48 Hour Film ProjectLast night marked my first-ever show in support of “The Exited Door.” For it, Dan Nervo and I went down to Redwood City to play a showcase for the attendees of the San Francisco 48-Hour Film Festival. Hosted by Vincent Lowe, the event was dubbed “Music For Filmmakers,” the idea being to connect local musicians with local filmmakers in the hopes that some collaboration would ensue.

We were the first of four groups to play. Nervo and I worked out a short, 4-song set that opened with my looping tune “Happy Pants,” then went on to “No Crow, Scarecrow,” a new original instrumental called “North Kinser,” which featured Dan, and closing with “If You’re Feeling Out of It.”

“Happy Pants” went off without a hitch – I was a bit nervous about opening with my big looping number, since I’d never actually performed it with a live PA.  Fortunately, everything went according to plan – while I’m sure there will come a day in which the looper starts to feedback, that day was not yesterday.  It was tricky, energy-wise, to open the entire evening with a tune that is that much of a high-wire act, but fortunately, everything went well.  I used The Armelodica (TM Daniel Fabricant) to create a loop of the string hook from “No Crow, Scarecrow,” and even managed to adjust for an incorrect pedal setting without really giving away the fact that I had messed up, or stopping playing.  The tune went quite well.

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Arranging: Writing for Student Ensembles

6 May
kirk-lab-band

Good Times.

This past Sunday, my band at The Urban School of San Francisco gave our Spring concert, and it was, by all accounts, a crashing success.  The group I direct there is the beginning group, dubbed the “Lab Band” – the idea is that students develop their skills in my band before graduating to the Advanced Band, led by Urban’s head jazz director, Scott Foster.  This kind of hierarchical setup works really well, both in motivating students to improve, so that they can move up, and allowing those who are just starting out on their instruments not to feel overwhelmed in the early goings.

And believe me, we have a LOT of students who are just starting out on their instruments.  A good number of kids arrive at Urban with musical training, but most of them play rhythm section instruments – guitar, piano, drums, or bass.  In order to keep our jazz program functioning, it’s necessary to get kids to switch to horns – brass is in the highest demand, but sax is also cool.  Scott is really good at convincing the students to switch – once they’re on new instruments, my challenge is to keep then engaged on the new axe long enough to get a hang of playing it.  We’ve been doing a good job of retaining students each year, and as a result, our program’s depth belies the small size of our student body.

I’ve found that the best way to get the most out of everyone is to do my own arrangements for the group for each performance.  This is made all the more necessary by the fact that my group is increasingly filled out by non-standard instrumentation (this year, we’ve got marimba, violin, flute, and harmonica).  By using a few tricks to keep the parts accessible, as well as writing to the strengths of each individual musician, I’ve had great success leading the group through performances of challenging, exciting repertoire that, without the creative re-arrangements, we’d never have been able to play.

I thought I’d share a few basic concepts and tricks that I use.

1. Write to Your Players’ Strengths

This one maybe goes without saying, but the most important thing in arranging for student groups is to get familiar with the skill level of each of your players and write to that level.  It worked for Duke, right?  In my band this year, I have a really strong sax section, particularly my lead alto player, while my brass section are all in their first or second years on the instruments.  The trick was to write challenging material for the saxes while giving the brass just enough to keep them engaged and improving, but to focus their material on pads and long tones so that they could get better at playing in tune.  For example – in our winter concert, I put together an arrangement of “In A Mellow Tone” that featured a notey, tricky sax soli, accompanied by punchy brass hits and pads.  It went off without a hitch.

2. Don’t Be Afraid of Unison

tank

The high school set's most-adored minor blues.

Last year, we performed Yoko Kano’s “Tank!”, the opening song from the anime series Cowboy Bebop.  That tune is burning fast, and features some really fast-fingering from the reeds.  The band pulled it off with aplomb, and a big reason was the amount of unison in the arrangement.  When arranging for a professional big band, I would usually use a good deal more complex and cross-sectional voicings, even on a tune as harmonically simple as “Tank!”. For the Lab Band, however, I found that by putting the lower voicings in unison with the lead, we got a pretty massive sound on the melody, and the less well-seasoned players could hear their parts played throughout the band by the lead players.

3. Only Feature Your Strongest Soloists

There is a tendency in jazz band to want to feature everyone – I try to stay away from that, featuring only my best soloists, players who have been on their instruments for a long time and feel comfortable getting up and improvising.  The end result of this is that our performance never drags, and the younger players don’t have to feel stressed, nervous, or forced to solo.  What’s more, new instrumentalists have something to shoot for, someone to listen to and emulate, and can feel confident in tackling their role in the performance.  Rehearsal is a totally different story – that’s when it’s good to get kids improvising and letting lose, but on stage, I tend to leave it to the players who are actually comfortable being in the spotlight.

4. Gradually Increase Brass Ranges Over Time

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Groovy.

One potential pitfall inherent in writing for individual players is that they’re never challenged.  That is to say, the upside of this technique is that they always sound good, but the downside is that the material is never something that they have to reach for, or work hard to be able to perform.  This is something that I’m addressing slowly, and really trying to get a handle on – I’m in my fifth year directing at Urban, and am only now getting a feel for the progression that I should be fostering, particularly for my brass players.

I usually start kids out playing easy, low tones – both trumpet and trombone players don’t get anything above a written C (trumpets in the middle of the staff, Trombone above the staff).  By the end of their first year, trumpet players should be comfortably up above D in the staff, maybe even up to G; second years past G to A’s and B-flats (always good for those #9 voicings in a G blues).  Trombonists don’t need to focus on their range as much as just increasing their mobility; I don’t try to push it too far above the clef, instead focusing on adding some eighth-note runs to my arrangements later in the year.

5. Always Do Something Awesome

mongolian-snapshot

The name says it all.

Maybe this one also goes without saying, but everyone wants to do something rad onstage.  Students will learn jazz, learn the language, and challenge themselves, but they’ll only want to do it (and you’ll only really have a good time directing them) if you make sure that every concert, they get to do something that is awesome.  Not “Wow, we are playing this jazz standard quite well” awesome, but actually awesome.  My (amazing) high school band director, Janis Stockhouse, had this down to a science.  In fact, my “something awesome” for this past concert was a chart that I got from her, Lyle Mays’ “Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival.”

I re-arranged the tune specifically for my group, making it into a violin feature and adding a string quartet, borrowing some players from the Urban Chamber Ensemble.  It was a real showstopper, in no small part because the chart was tailored very specifically to the strengths of my players. But really, more than anything else, the reason that the tune went off so well was because, well, that song is awesome.  Past arrangements of “Watermelon Man” (featuring a ripping harmonica solo and a groovy marimba/vibes/pizzo strings intro), Seu George’s “Carolina,” and the aforementioned “Tank!” were also galvanizing tunes that made everyone, myself included, want to put in the extra work to really kick ass.

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I’m planning on coming up with a more coherent, detailed, and easily-implemented method for this type of arranging, but those five basic ideas are a start.  I’m sure that some of the more prolific arrangers of student-oriented charts (Mark Taylor and Gordon Goodwin come to mind) have a plethora of their own techniques, as well, and I am very interested in finding out if they’ve written at all on the subject.

I think this sort of approach is a big deal. The explosion of interest in jazz education, coupled with the high-level arranging training at the disposal of today’s jazz educators, make it clear that while pre-fab Kendor charts will always be a worthwhile (and time-saving) resource for jazz educators, we and our students stand to gain far more by creating original arrangements, tailored to the strengths of the individual musicians in our bands.  Time is, of course, a huge factor for full-time band directors, but a possible work-around would be for directors to hire local arrangers to write music specifically for their student groups.  We’re out here, and we’re surprisingly affordable!

Used creatively and with an eye (and ear) for our students’ abilities, ensemble-specific arrangements allow jazz educators to awaken young instrumentalists to the joys of musical performance while helping them to improve and prosper regardless of their prior level of  musical training.

me-and-the-lab-band

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