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Hmmmm…

February 12, 2006 Leave a comment

Three posts a week is excessive. I just don’t have the time. We’ll try backing off to two. One on Wednesday, and one on Sunday. Starting this coming Wednesday.

No post for Friday. No post for today. Well, not including this one.

Categories: Uncategorized

If We Weren’t So Alike, You’d Like Me a Whole Lot More…

February 9, 2006 Leave a comment

In response to the record stores being sold out of the new Mastodon album (which is, in actuality, a rerelease of their debut EP and four new songs), I had a day long moratorium on writing. And something happened last night. Yes, the Grammys were last night. In that light, today’s review is:

U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Yes, the album is almost a year old. But it won five Grammys last night. So I figured it’s worth a shot. Also, I actually own this album, as opposed to the new Mastodon.

U2’s 2005 release is more than simply another U2 record. That would have been reserved for Rattle and Hum or Zooropa. U2’s evolution has followed a more-or-less block format. There’s that first bit, Boy through War, in which they were the young, impudant freedom-fighters. Then came The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Rattle and Hum. This block came out of the obvious influence of years of American touring. But even U2 realized that they were quickly becoming a one-trick pony. After a break they released their German-influenced Achtung Baby, Zooropa, and Pop. Then we got All That You Can’t Leave Behind. And now How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Apparently U2 equate success with long album titles. Or the public does, because these two albums were two of U2’s biggest sellers to date. ATYCLB is a carefully constructed pop album, though, aside from a couple cuts.

How to Dismantle… takes the sound of ATYCLB and turns it into a rock album. Yes, How to Dismantle… is a pop record, with cuts like “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own”, but it’s got just as many flat-out rockers. Far more than their older albums, in some cases. Things like “Vertigo” and “City of Blinding Lights” would never be on something like, say, Pop. Or October, for that matter. Yes, the punky attitude on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb is wholly unlike the attitude on their earlier albums. But the same U2 pomp and arrogance is there. “Love and Peace or Else”? Can’t get much more arrogant than that.

The production is somewhere between the slick sheen of ATYCLB and the expansiveness of The Unforgettable Fire or The Joshua Tree. No claustrophobic techno mixes here. Just enough grit to be relavent and punky in the time of The White Stripes and Jet. The guitars crackle, the bass pounds and thumps, Bono’s voice is far less pronounced than on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. I think with the refining of digital technology, the next album or two from U2 will sound a little more refined, though. Just a predition. The only thing that’s really lacking in fidelity in my opinion is the sound of the sequenced drum bits and/or the synth parts. Especially compared to some of the better electronics production on 90s albums.

This album has spawned a few big, big singles, and probably has a couple more left in it. The virtual inescapability from “Vertigo” is obvious, and both “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own” and “City of Blinding Lights” won Grammys. I’d keep my eyes open for “Love and Peace or Else” still, and “Original of the Species” is already out there, even though I still don’t particularly like that song. “All Because of You” is big as well. There’s a reason this album has one of the best collective ratings of all the albums I have in iTunes.

Of course, with all those great songs, there’s got to be a clunker here and there, and some of the last half falls short when put up against the other songs on the album. “Yahweh”, while having a good melody, is overwraught and pretentious. “A Man and a Woman” just doesn’t do it for me. The falsetto, delivered by the Edge, I assume, is just annoying more than anything. In fact, just about all of the songs past “All Because of You” are pretty mediocre.

What U2 really excelled at on How to Dismantle is their ability to connect with the energy of their own audience. Even the successful ballads by the band, like “One” or “With or Without You” tap into a feeling, a stream of consciousness of the listener. They tap into it, and they demand attention, because they connect with the listener. When U2 fail (at least commercially), it is because they are failing to do that. Zooropa and Pop weren’t failures because they were bad songs, it’s because the songs didn’t capture the engergy of U2, and they lost that powerful dynamic–the drive of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr., the swagger of Bono, and the calculated brilliance of the Edge.

Now, the first time I heard this album was when vh1.com was streaming it the week before its release. I originally dismissed well over half of the album; it was “too much like All That You Can’t Leave Behind, not enough Edge guitar delay on it.” But upon subsequent listenings, more and more details popped out to me. There’s one little bit on “Sometimes You Can’t Make it on Your Own”, in which Bono is repeating the chorus, and singing up to the line “Best you can do/is to fake it”. There’s a bit of literary irony here in the delivery. Bono has long since lost the keening tenor of the early days, destroyed by cigarettes and alcohol. So in the 90s he started singing in a falsetto voice, or the high-pitched, “head-voice” singing that permeates the later U2 records. “Falsetto” literally means “false”… or fake. In a line that he’s working up to a falsetto pitch on the word “fake”, he suddenly decides to attempt the pitch in full voice… leading to a ragged, ugly crack.

The whole album can be boiled down to that one word. Sometimes, even the biggest band in the world can go at something honestly and come out making something ugly. Most of the album is great, but some of it is composed of bad decisions. But, like “fake”, I’m sure the decisions were deliberate; they thought they were good ideas at the time. I’m sure one day we’ll be getting an apology for some of the worse songs on the album. If there’s anything U2 has the humility to do, it’s admit when they’ve been wrong. I think one day they’ll see some of these songs as less than perfect.

But the ones that are… man. They’re perfect.

Late… or never?

February 7, 2006 Leave a comment

As you may have noticed, I didn’t get a post up yesterday. That’s because I was out of town this weekend, so I was unable to see a movie for the post. However, I learned a bit of news, so I may write up a post for Tuesday, to make up for Monday.

So next time you read this, you might just be in for a surprise.

Categories: Uncategorized

Caution: Contents hot!

February 2, 2006 Leave a comment

The Washington Post is reporting that a man named John Patterson, from Louisiana, is suing Apple for its iPod music player in San Jose, California U.S. District Court. He says that it is capable of producing up to 115dB SPL (or sound pressure level—the physical loudness of sound and how much air it moves.) It is unlikely that anyone would ever need to turn up to 115dB SPL. Why?

120db SPL is right around the level of a jet engine taking off. 120dB SPL is generally regarded as the “threshold of pain” by audiologists, because it is the level that most people are feeling actual physical pain. Some people have higher or lower levels. But that fact leads me to is this question: If it hurts you at that level, why don’t you turn it down?

Sometimes it’s inescapable, as in a rock concert or workplace. But in those places, we usually have safeguards. Rock concerts have engineers that are paid to keep levels at a tolerable level, but with the idea that everyone can hear it, so it’s got to be loud to a point. Most knowledgeable engineers try to keep it below 95dB SPL. The workplace has a thing called OSHA, an organization that says if you absolutely must be around loud machinery, then you better be wearing hearing protection, or your employer will get hit with a fine and you’ll probably be going home for a while.

Furthermore, there are dozens of musicians who speak out against hearing damage. Notable among them is Pete Townsend, guitarist for The Who, whose own deafness/tinnitus was caused by drummer Keith Moon putting to much explosive in his drum for a pyro stunt in a show, and has been aggravated by playing guitar at ridiculously high volume (because that’s the only way old tube amps made distortion). William Shatner also has tinnitus (which is characterized by a permanent ringing in the ears, of any pitch, but usually a mid-to-high frequency), also caused by a pyro explosion. Tinnitus is usually caused by one of two things: sudden exposure to an extremely high SPL sound, or long-term exposure to moderately high level sound. Many, many news articles have been written about the potential for hearing loss associated with headphones (not just from the iPod, but any form of headphone from a high-output source), and Apple’s own iPod owner’s manual spells out the damage that high SPLs can have on a consumer’s ears, and it ought to be plastered all over any portable music player. To single out Apple is unfair and irresponsible.

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “defective” as “a) imperfect in form or function, or b) falling below the norm in structure or in mental or physical function”. By its construction, the iPod is not defective. It does what it means to do, and it most likely falls in line with most other devices on the market. It is not the means by which the music is delivered–i.e., the iPod–it is the personal choice of the consumer as to how loud they want to listen to something. Earbuds are more likely to cause damage over normal car or stereo speakers, but their impact over traditional headphones is negligible. But in the end, it comes down to the simple fact that high SPLs from any source cause ear fatigue and/or hearing loss. Every time you decide that something that previously was loud enough is now no longer the same apparent level, it’s because your ear is becoming fatigued. The more you turn it up, the more damage you’re doing. And you are the one turning it up… not Apple. The iPod does not have a set volume level. You can turn it down at any time.

An interesting thing to note is that, buried in the article, there is the admission that “Patterson does not know if the product damaged his hearing… But that’s beside the point of the lawsuit, which takes issue with the potential the iPod has to cause irreparable hearing loss.” That’s like suing gun manufacturers because guns could be used to kill someone, suing McDonald’s because they make fatty foods, or, I don’t know, suing the government because they might kill you by starting a nuclear war. No, let’s hope there’s a judge in San Jose that tells Mr. Patterson that he did it to himself, and it’s no one’s fault but his own. If this lawsuit goes through, and it does become a class-action suit, as Patterson intends, then millions of people will frivolously claim their chunk of cash, and they will effectively destroy the iPod, and potentially Apple. This is simply a case of someone being greedy and trying to take a bite out of the front-runner in the industry. The lawsuit is frivolous and must be stopped.