Archive for the ‘Music’ Category.

When Our Brain's Expectations Fool Us

This video from one of the relatively small category of male sopranos creates a bit of dissonance at first.  We have certain expectations of male and female vocal ranges.  The automatically functioning parts of my brain keep telling me "lip sync" when it is not the case.  From this article

Of course this guy got some similar grief, though via a different set of assumptions:

Binge Listening 2013

I find it almost impossible to keep up with all the great music that has been enabled by digital distribution.  So I end up waiting for year-end best lists and then binge listening for a few days.  One of the lists I have come to trust as fitting my tastes pretty well is from LA writer and Coyote Blog reader Steven Humphries.  Here is his 2013 list.  I will echo that I really enjoyed the new Steven Wilson album,which I have had for a while based on his recommendation.  But I had never heard of Vertical Horizon and particularly enjoyed their album on the list.

By the way, this is not 2013-related, but if there are those of you out there who are 60's, 70's, 80's classic rock guys who struggle to engage with rap, a fantastic gateway drug is Girl Talk.  Their All Day album can be downloaded free.  This is the only modern album in my household that migrated from me to my kids rather than vice versa.

Prog Rock

I am always hesitant to recommend bands I have just discovered, at the risk of demonstrating my complete ignorance of a band everyone else has heard of.  "Hey, have you ever heard of these Led Zeppelin guys...."

Anyway, at the risk of such an outcome, I was searching for some 70's/80's style prog rock and found a band called The Mystery.  Prog rock fans might check them out if I am not the last person on Earth to hear of them.  Just as a taste calibration, I like a lot of different music but early Genesis and in particular the live album Seconds Out are among my favorites.

I am just emerging from a fairly obsessive phase over the last few weeks listening to Dream Theater and the related Liquid Tension Experiment almost to the exclusion of all else.

Prior to that I was digging through the John Petrucci and Al Di Meola catalogs.  Also exploring Steven Wilson at the recommendation of a reader.

Loved This

This will only really be compelling to Princeton grads out there, but I loved this video (HT Maggies Farm).

Almost certainly the only rap video ever that uses video from the P-rade.

Surgeon General: Hanging Out With Jimi Dangerous for Your Health

This time capsule of pictures of various music stars hanging out with Jimi Hendrix features a surprising number or people who died young.

Yeah, I am Sure Everyone Else Is Linking This Video Today. Deal With It.

Before You Buy Those Cheap Computer Speakers....

I have invested some decent (but not stupid) money on my home stereo, but I have realized I listen to my crappy computer speakers about 3 times more.

So here is the first step in my upgrade, a pair of powered studio monitor speakers.  At under $200 a pair, they are not that much more expensive than higher-end computer speakers.   These are built for near-field listening and sound much better than most computer speakers.  The one I chose are a tad large, but I have loved them so far, even without a subwoofer.  These particular units are cheaper at Amazon by $10 but Sweetwater has better selection and help choosing studio monitors.  Just make sure you have the cable situation sorted out -- most studio monitors take a special 3-prong balanced XLR input common in high end and pro audio but not in most consumer audio.  But you can easily find a number of converter cables.

If I keep listening at my computer, the next improvement step is an inexpensive DAC (which can correct a lot of mess in computer digital audio).

New Favorite Album

It's been quiet here, and nothing seems to get commenters stirred up like definitive opinions on modern music.

It's been a long time since I listened to an album multiple times in just a few days.  I really have fallen for the second album from the Liquid Tension Experiment.  Includes John Petrucci and Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater, another of my current favorites.  The album is all instrumental, lots of guitar, with a prog rock flavor.   If you like that, you might also check out the solo instrumental guitar effort of Alan Morse, of Spock's Beard.  More prog rock instrumental guitar, Morse on this album is almost the reincarnation of 70's Jeff Beck (e.g. There and Back).

Why Modern Music Sucks

Boy, do I sound like my parents with that headline, or what?

Apparently, two kinds of compression are changing the sound of recorded music.  The first is digital compression, such as we use to get a bunch of mp3's on an iPod.    I still buy CD's, and then rip them myself so I can control the bit rate and compression, but a lot of folks are buying mp3's online of all kinds of quality.  (I actually rip every CD twice -- once as a VBR MP3 for my iPod and once as a loss-less FLAC file for my home audio server).

The second type of compression, perhaps more insidious because it is impossible for the individual listener to control, is use of audio compressors that reduce the dynamic range of music - basically making soft parts louder and vice versa.    NPR discusses it here, via Flowing Data. While the second form of compression is as old as vinyl (the revenge of Phil Specter?) these two types of compression are related as apparently louder music gives more room to hide digital compression artifacts, so producers are compressing music and increasing loudness.

The best test I have of dynamic range is listening to music in a noisy car, say with the windows open.  Many classical disks can't be listened to this way, as the variation from soft to loud causes one to keep having to fiddle with the volume knob.  I have a few old rock disks that have the same kind of range  (some old Genesis albums come to mind) but most of my newer disks will play just fine in a loud car, probably meaning that they indeed do have much narrower dynamic ranges.

To some extent, this is counter intuitive to me given the prevalence of headphone listening, since headphones are great for listening to music with big dynamic ranges.  But what do I know?  I grew up listening to 8-tracks so it all is an improvement for me.

Here is a very good, succinct example of how compression works and why it makes music suck:

Favorite Live Album

One person's version of the Top 100 live albums.  My favorite, Seconds Out by Genesis, is not on the list.

I know this choice is semi-blasphemy for other old Genesis fans, as this was in the early days after Peter Gabriel left and Phil Collins had just taken over as lead singer.   I like a lot of the old Gabriel-era work, but for me this was the band at its peak, still playing all of its original prog-rock work but with a little more polish and less, uh, wackiness with Collins out front rather than Gabriel.   The band was at that inflection point before it slid downhill from rich, complex, challenging music to polished but thin and mediocre pop songs  (roughly the same transition we have had to watch Springsteen go through), a transition that is certainly related to Gabriel's departure.

Update: By the way, the purpose of this post was not to try to establish some musical moral high ground.  In looking back on the post, I fell in the trap of snobbily turning my nose up at certain works.  Shouldn't have done that.   I don't grok Bob Dillon and get irritated with those who look down their nose at me for that, and I try to avoid doing the same.  So I will say it is perfectly OK if you don't "get" early Genesis and prog rock.  In fact, it probably makes you normal.  70's prog rock can be, frankly, inaccessible for those who did not grow up on it.

However, if you like old Yes, Jethro Tull, ELP and the like and haven't ever heard Seconds Out or some of the albums it is based on (Trick of the Tail, Wind and Wuthering, Lamb Lies Down on Broadway) it might reward you to check it out.

OMG, This Is Different

Concert Review: Sarah Brightman

I took my wife to see Sarah Brightman last night in Glendale, AZ.  For those who do not recognize the name, she is most famous for playing Christine in Phantom of the Opera, which was essentially written for her by her husband at the time, Andrew Lloyd Weber.  She made an appearance at the recent Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies singing from on top of that big ball-thing.

Her solo career defies characterization.   The two concerts I have seen are a mix of pop/rock remixes (e.g. "Dust in the Wind", of all things),  new agey sounding stuff, opera, and Broadway.  A couple of notes on this concert:

  • Brightman seems to be a bit of a flake.  Her costumes can be downright loony  (think Bjork at the Academy Awards in the swan outfit).   Her stage backdrops all seem to be taken from 1970's Yes and Genesis album cover art.  Her staging is often odd, which leads to some numbers that are really cool and some that I found myself laughing out loud at  (the swimming sequence was cool, as was little Red Riding Hood in the forest).   It was like she was auditioning for her own show in Vegas.
  • In most shows she has one or two male tenors to sing duets with her.  This always tends to be the best part of the show.  She gets top talent here, and, like as not, if you see a guy singing with her this year he probably will be famous next year.  We saw a guy named Mario Frangoulis who was freaking amazing.
  • I really have to criticize the song selection.  Way too much new agey stuff that really didn't seem very challenging.  All I could think of on these songs was that her singing them was like driving the kid's carpool in a Ferrarri.  Because at the end of the day, with the right material, she has a really heart-stopping voice.  But only 3-4 songs really pushed the envelope.

Concert Review: Trans-Siberian Orchestra

If it's almost December, it must be time for the Trans-Siberian Orchestra tour.  My son describes them as the "rock electronic Christmas band," and that is as fair a label as any.  Many tend to compare TSO to Mannheim Steamroller, the other band that has created a niche for themselves with modern takes on Christmas music, but TSO tends to skew more towards heavy rock than Mannheim Steamroller.  I think TSO is similar in many ways to Emerson Lake and Palmer, both with their tendency to cover classical songs as well as their flirtations with pretentiousness in some of their productions.  For those unfamiliar with TSO, probably their most famous work of late was "Wizards in Winter," parts of whose music video I think was included in a beer commercial last year.

My son and I got tickets to the concert because we had a couple of TSO albums (we tend to like the instrumentals and think less of the vocals).  What we had not realized is that TSO has quite a cult following.  Most of the folks around us in the audience had been to 3,4,5 or more of their shows.  Many go every year, in a ritual similar to how other folks might go to the Nutcracker every year.

There is no doubt that TSO delivers value to its fans.  We saw their second show of the day (!) and they played for a full three hours.  Members of the band at different points went all through the audience, down aisles and up stairs while playing some of the final tunes -- far more intimate contact than you will get in most other bands.  The key band members all were present after the show in the lobby for a meet and greet with their fans. 

OK, so what about the show?  Well, I was a little disappointed.  To be fair, their leader had a knee injury which forced him to play sitting down, and this tended to reduce some of the band's energy.  The music was generally good to very good.   The keyboard solos and the high-energy songs at the end were terrific. 

The problems were twofold.  First, the opening half of the show was stitched together with a narration that was just painful.  The poetry was Touched by an Angel meets Dr. Seuss.  It was a Night Before Christmas crossed with LA noir.  It just did not work for me, and I know it was weak because my 14-year-old son was laughing at it.  We both thought we were watching Spinal Tap 2.

The other problem is one that TSO fans will call me out for, but the light show through all the songs was just too much.  Don't get me wrong, I have never, ever seen anything to rival the floor show here - 6 trillion lights on the fastest-changing programming I have ever seen, zillions of lasers, flames, more flames, a ten-minute snow storm, band members descending from the sky, band members ascending to the sky, etc. etc.  You can get an idea of about 1% of it with this video  but any digital camera image of the show is worthless because the ccd can't possibly keep up.  Seriously, this video grossly understates the full effect.

The problem was that my eyes could not keep up either.  I have walked away from concerts thinking I had a perforated ear drum, but never before thinking I had a burned-out optic nerve.  My son said he needed to wear eye-plugs.  90% of the effects would have been OK had it not been for the direct audience facing lights at about 6 trillion candle power they kept insisting on flashing in my face.  Anyway, we both are quite experienced with loud, heavy metal concerts and we both walked away with a headache from this one.

Anyway, it was interesting and I am glad I went.  And I may even go back next year, but I will be prepared - I am bringing my RayBans next time.

Election Day Music