Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Requiem For A Shopping Mall

Check out this video.  I'm totally transfixed by it.

This seems like the perfect swan song for a shopping mall.  The ghosts of kids festooned with concert t-shirts (The Cars, The Police "Ghost In The Machine", Iron Maiden, etc.), bandannas tied around their knees, and Swatch watches on their wrists hang around in the doorways of long gone stores like B.Dalton, Pac-Man Palace, Spencers, and Orange Julius.  I'm glad the Golden Age of Shopping Malls is long past, but I'd be lying if I didn't feel a bit of nostalgia for those days.  It's true - I was a huge fan of Glendale and Castleton malls in Indianapolis - I was a child of the 80s.  While Castleton mall is still thriving (as far as I know), Glendale mall was converted into classrooms for a local school and an extension for the Indianapolis Public Library.  Like some sort of reformed criminal, Glendale is far more useful to society in its current form.  I have to believe that Castleton probably doesn't have too much time left.  Money keeps moving north to the suburbs and Amazon loves crushing bricks and mortar.

Let's not shed a tear for the death of this shopping mall.  Let's have a moment of silence, then get out before the mall cop hassles us.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Songwriting 101: Billy Bragg's "The Home Front"

"Songwriting 101" is a semi-regular feature in which an outstanding song or songwriter is showcased for lyrical excellence.  This time around, I'd like to look at Billy Bragg's "The Home Front".

"The Home Front" tends to organically pop into my head every time we have a mass shooting like the one in Florida.  (No, not that one; the more recent one.  I know - it gets hard to keep track of.)  Note that there's nothing in the lyrics that says anything about gun control or guns at all.  I think it comes to mind because Bragg does a phenomenal job of capturing the cowardice and nostalgia of our conservative friends and neighbors.  Again, he doesn't even use the word "conservative" in this song; and he is singing about his English countrymen. But it is easy for me to imagine two guys in their late 50s/early 60s lamenting the state of current affairs over the fence dividing their yards in their gated community.

I live in a very conservative state.  I know the mindset well - fear drives the decision making and overall worldview of many conservatives.  Even those who at one time had a distaste for Donald Trump now back him because "what if Hillary was in charge?"  W.W. II battles are the folklore they return to time and time again for inspiration; Vietnam, not so much.  Our nation's creation myths are as vivid as the Bible's, and they are used to prop up outdated and demonstrably disproven ways of governance.  Ideology becomes a useful blinder when you don't want to leave your comfort zone, or if you want to preserve your slice of the metaphorical pie for yourself.

"The Home Front" also works on a more personal level.  Domestic bliss is not all it's cracked up to be in this tune.  Flight becomes the fantasy that overcomes the rain in this song.  I find  myself rooting for the "lonely child" in this song.  I want him to run far, far away.

Yes, this song is easily adapted for the cowardice and lack of vision currently overwhelming the good people of this country.  You just have to tweak a few words here and there:  change "cheap beer and overtime" to "cheap gas and Polar Pops", for example.  I absolutely love the imagery in this song - further evidence that a few carefully selected details carry the message more vividly than the wide angle shot.  Read it and see if you agree.

"The Home Front" by Billy Bragg

Father mows the lawn and Mother peels the potatoes
Grandma lays the table alone
And adjust a photograph of the unknown soldier
In this Holy of Holies, the Home
And from the TV an unwatched voice
Suggests the answer is to plant more trees
The scrawl on the wall says what about the workers
And the voice of the people says more salt please

Mother shakes her head and reads aloud from the newspaper
As Father puts another lock on the door
And reflects upon the violent times that we are living in
While chatting with the wife beater next door
If paradise to you is cheap beer and overtime
Home truths are easily missed
Something that every football fan knows
It only takes five fingers to form a fist

And when it rains here it rains so hard
But never had enough to wash away the sorrow
I'll trade my love today for a greater love tomorrow
The lonely child looks out and dreams of independence
From this family life sentence

Mother sees but does not read the peeling posters
And can't believe that there's a world to be won
But in the public schools and public houses
The Battle of Britain goes on
The constant promise of jam tomorrow
Is the New Breed's litany and verse
If it takes another war to fill the churches of England
Then the world the meek inherit, what will it be worth

Mother fights the tears and Father, his sense of outrage
And attempts to justify the sacrifices
To pass the creed down do another generation
"Anything for the quiet life"
In the Land of a Thousand Doses
Where nostalgia is the opium of the age
Our place in History is as
Clock watchers, old timers, window shoppers

U.S. Premiere Of Concerto For Ping Pong

At first, I thought this was just sort of novel/nifty.  Then I listened to it.  It's great - nice build up and drama.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Concert Review: The Bad Plus

Who:  The Bad Plus
When:  Friday, January 26th, 2018
Where:  The Jazz Kitchen, Indianapolis, IN
The (Not So) Short Take:  Man, I'm so, so glad I went.  First, take a look at my totally unobstructed view from table twenty:
I could use the stage as a foot rest if I wanted to - I was that close.  The Jazz Kitchen is, as its name insinuates, a functioning restaurant.  Food is served during the performance; in fact, I was annoyed to learn that there was a $15 purchase minimum.  I got a Coke and an $11 slice of cheese cake.  The cheese cake was almost worth that much - it was goddamned good.  I only ate half of it because I'm tubby though.

I digress.  There was no opening band, and the Bad Plus came on stage right on time.  From the minute they started, I knew this was going to be a great show.   Orrin Evans (their new pianist) plays with all the power of his predecessor Ethan Iverson; yet I found his playing slightly more accessible than Iverson's.  I'm not sure why that is - I think Evans was more prone to just pound the keys when the song called for it as opposed to playing the meandering, atonal parts that Iverson is known for.  Indeed, there were times when the piano rocked on its legs.  I began to wonder if it would fall apart.

Bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King continue to surprise me.  Just when I think King will run out of ideas to capture my interest, just when I think he's reached the edge of expressiveness that a basic drum kit can offer, he does something completely surprising.  He is a force to be reckoned with - we all knew that - but his playing is far more dynamic then I remember.  And he is equally capable of playing with a great deal of finesse.  Anderson's tone was great, as was his playing.  Playing with his eyes closed, you get the sense he's truly interpreting the song, letting it run through his body before emerging from his fingertips onto the strings of his bass.  He also served as the evening's MC, stopping every three songs or so to announce what they had just played as well as who wrote it.

The chemistry of the band seems to be coming together nicely.  Based upon the glances exchanged during songs and the smiles/laughs between songs, they gave me the sense that their communication is already pretty sharp, and that they legitimately enjoy each other's company.  They even seemed to surprise each other while they played: an occasional astonished look would go across their faces when a song shifted gears in an unexpected way.  It was absolutely delightful to watch.

At first, I was pretty disappointed that they played only an hour and fifteen minutes with no encore.  I sort of took it personally; as though they were interested in showering back at the hotel and moving onto a more interesting, more cosmopolitan city.  (I'd call that standard issue Midwestern damage.)  It later occurred to me that the show may have been short because they didn't play any covers, and because they didn't play any compositions by Ethan Iverson.  If that's the case, I think it's a good call.  It's better to have a short, killer show than to play the tunes of a band member who left under acrimonious circumstances.  That would certainly put a damper on some of the joy I witnessed onstage.

I apologize for not having more photos to post.  The dude that works at the Jazz Kitchen and introduced the band asked us not to take photos.  I planned on ignoring that; but when I saw during the performance that everyone was abiding by the request, I chickened out.  It also would've been very hard for me to snap photos unnoticed.  I was right in the front; there was no way to conceal it.

After first checking with the band's management and the venue itself, I had also taken my four track recorder to record the show, but left it in the car.  I decided I just wanted to "live in the moment"; I figured I try to track down a bootleg after the show.  I'm not sure if it was a good call or not.  It may have been a great recording given my unobstructed proximity to the band.  On the other hand, it might have been dominated by the piano and the woman at the table behind me who was loudly pouting because her date kept shushing her between songs/during quiet moments in the songs.  I guess I'll never know for sure if the recording would have turned out.  C'est la vie.

Conclusion:  As much as I love the Bad Plus's studio recordings, this band was clearly meant to be seen live.  They rely on absolutely no gimmickry to get their songs over - no zany stage banter, no crowd participation, no light show, no instrument effects, etc. -  and yet they still blow me away.  The unbridled, pure energy and absolute musicianship of the band can't be overstated.  I can't wait to see them again.  And I can't wait for their next album.  If they continue on their current trajectory, the humdrum recordings of "Made Possible" and "The Inevitable Western" are long gone.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Freak Basses: The World Beyond Fender

To call the Fender basses (or Fender-styled basses) ubiquitous might be the understatement of the century.  While there are thousands of custom bass shops out there making amazing instruments, the Fender Precision and Jazz basses are what most folks imagine when they think of bass guitars.  And there are a multitude of these basses that are variations on the basic Fender theme, changing only in building materials, electronics, and finishes.  Despite the galaxy of options, The Fender basses have remained essentially unchanged since their creation in the mid 1950s/early 1960s, and not without good reason:  these basses are design masterpieces.

But there is a whole different world of crazy basses out there to explore.  I thought it would be fun to check out some of the ones on the fringe.

The Ashbory Bass
About:  This is arguably the first freak bass.  I've owned two; and to some extent, I regret getting rid of them.  Originally distributed by Guild guitars, they were eventually branded/sold under the DeArmond name, which is in turn owned by Fender.  They are no longer made; and so far, I haven't found any used ones for sale online.  The strings available for this bass now are much better than the silicon strings that are typically found on an Ashbory bass.  They would probably would sound better, feel better, and wouldn't stretch as much.  Without the Ashbory bass, there would be no Kala U-Bass, Gold Tone Microbass, or any other of a whole host of rubber stringed travel basses.
  • Portability.  This thing is only slightly longer than my forearm.  You could literally put this in the sleeve of your coat to transport it.
  • Unique look.
  • Innovative design - learn more about it here.
  • Solid sound with a little knob tweaking to boost the bass a bit.
  • Affordable.  If you pay $200 or over for this bass, you're paying too much.
Don't Like:
  • Silicon strings.  Some users had to put baby powder on their hands before playing due to the tacky, somewhat sticky surface of the strings.  And because the strings stretch and stretch and stretch and stretch, it was pretty hard to tune.  Like I say, this might be a moot point since there seem to be better strings on the market these days.
  • Even with better strings on it, this thing is going to be a pain in the neck to tune at first.
Conclusion:  A fun bass if you don't mind working with it a little to get the sound.  One primary motivator for me getting rid of mine was I always wanted it to work right out of the box.  Instead, I spent a ton of time trying to tune it and mess with the tone controls on the bass and on my amp, trying to get more bottom end.  The piezo pickup is not awesome, but you can get this to sound the way you want if you have even just a little patience.

Stash Bass:
About: Look at this thing.  Do you really need to ask why it made the list?  Not only is the body shape outlandish, not only is it made of stainless steel, but the goddamned neck is a broom stick.  But when you watch the demos, it sounds pretty traditional.  This is good. 
  • It's probably durable as fuck.  I bet you could drive nails with this thing.
  • It eschews all traditional styling and building materials.
  • In a weird way, the neck would seem to make ergonomic sense.  It looks like the action is really low.  Don't know for sure - would have to play it.
  • I suspect the sustain is outstanding on this due to the once piece metal neck.
  • If you've ever rocked out with a broom or rake, this probably won't feel that weird to you.
Don't Like:
  • I'm not sure you can justify the price tag on these basses.  I'm guessing the parts are made through some automated process and then it's assembled by hand.  It seems like producing it would be relatively cheap.
  • It's sort of ugly.  I guess I like it mostly, but I think I would've styled it a bit differently, so this isn't a major complaint.
  • In watching some of the demo videos, it seems that the strings hit the body a lot, making this "ting" sound of metal hitting metal.  If that can't be addressed, this seems like a major oversight.
  • I bet if you played this while naked, you'd freeze your balls/vagina off.
Conclusion:  Obviously, I can't write too much about this without having played it.  One thing's for sure, if you want to be noticed, play this bass.  Then hang it on your wall next to your modern art.  It won't look out of place out of all.

Gittler Bass:
About:  The Gittler bass makes the Stash bass look positively conservative.  I mean, at least the Stash bass has a fingerboard (sort of).  The website touts the Gittler's "minimal" design, and they're not kidding.  There's not much to this bass, and it's unusual building materials and appearance demand attention.
  •  I'm getting a bit repetitive, but it's different, and different is good.  I mean, how many interpretations of a Fender Jazz bass do you really need to see before they all look the same?
  • LED lights for markers.
  • Light and portable.
  • Easy to care for.
  • Probably pretty durable.
  • They're coming out with an upright bass soon.  If you've hauled an upright bass to a gig in an economy car, you'll know why this is exciting.
  • If you look closely in the Police's "Synchonicity 2" music video, you can see Andy Summers playing the guitar version of this bass.
Don't Like:
  • This seems like design just for design's sake.  I really can't think of a practical reason for this bass's design at all.
  • The cheapest bass on their website is slightly less than $8,000.  You'd think with all the money they saved by being "minimal" that they'd pass the savings on to us.
  • If you look closely in the Police's "Synchonicity 2" music video, you can see Andy Summers playing the guitar version of this bass.  And it looks sort of stupid.
Conclusion:  This bass makes me curious.  I'd love to play one, but maybe when no one is looking (see "Synchronicity 2" video).

Wing Bass:
About:  The wing bass is a cutting board with strings designed for working musicians to take with them anywhere to practice.  It does away with the bottom eleven frets of the bass, allowing the player to essentially play on the high part of the neck.

  • Portable as hell.  This makes my U-Bass look like an upright bass.
  • I think this instrument would live up to it's billing as a great tool for practice.  I seldom play the upper registers of the neck, so this would be a good way to familiarize myself with that relatively unknown territory.  I think it would also make my playing more precise.
  • The build quality and electronics seem top notch.
  • Some of the testimonials I've read find some players mentioning that they bought this instrument for practicing, but ended up liking it so much that they record and/or gig with it.
Don't Like:
  • The fact that you're essentially playing the top half of the neck means the bottom end isn't awesome.  You can't get terribly horribly deep, at least not on the classic model.  (Another version of the Wing has a little bit of a neck, so it might be a bit better.)
  • The $800 price tag would be hard to justify unless you really were travelling a ton.
Conclusion:  This is a pretty cool bass.  The lack of the lower notes sort of bugs me; but if I had one, it would indeed get used.

The Czech Ease Travel Bass:
About:  This is essentially an upright bass with the bottom cut off.  This allows it to maintain that distinctive, natural upright bass tone while making it easier to travel with.

  • Very pretty and traditionally styled.
  • Lots of build options, high quality build.
  • Endorsers include people like Esperanza Spalding and Chris Wood - people that you actually know, people that have a great sound.
  • Keeps the great looks and sound of an upright bass without maintaining the size.
  • This bass now comes with a lot more options (like a plywood bass) than it used to.
Don't Like:
  • Nothing that I can think of.
Conclusion:  One day, when I have the money, I may have to make one of these things mine.  There are a ton of cool electric uprights that would fill the need for a more transportable, tough upright.  But few of them sound as good as the Czech Ease.

Other interesting basses:

Monday, January 22, 2018

This And That

Hey y'all!  There's been some cool sonic stuff going on in my life to help me get through these cold, dark months.  I figured I'd share them with you because I'm pretty excited.

  • My beloved Bushman "Jenny Pineapple" ukulele has been repaired.  My wife gave me this ukulele for my 38th birthday; I've had it for eight years.  I play it almost everyday and have come to really appreciate its sound, playability, and appearance.  And because it was from my wife, it has become a deeply cherished item.  (Photos of the uke can be found in this old blog entry.)  I don't recall exactly when - we'll say five years ago - a crack appeared mysteriously in the top.  I was pretty sure that one of the kids did it, but neither child fessed up to it.  It is possible one of the cats knocked it off its perch on our piano; but not very likely.  It could be a crack from humidity, but for some reason, this also seems unlikely.  Whatever the cause was, I always got a little sad every time I saw it; and though the string tension of ukuleles are very low, I always worried that the string tension would eventually pull the bridge off the top of the uke.  It was something I've been meaning to get fixed for years.  Well, I recently pulled the trigger on those repairs, sending it to Bloomington String Instruments for repair.  I'll level with you:  the cost of the repair ($60) probably exceeds the value of the instrument, but you don't choose the ukes you love, they choose you.  And I love this ukulele.  I've gotten it back, and Lucas at BSI did a phenomenal job and he had it back to me the day after I gave it to him.  You can't detect the crack unless you're looking for it; same if you run your hand over the top.  This is something I've wanted to get fixed ever since it happened, so I'm delighted to scratch it off the "to fix" list.  Not a moment too soon, either:  Lucas told me that the brace under the bridge (on the inside of the uke) had come off.  This means that indeed, at some point, the bridge would have separated from the top, rendering the ukulele useless.  Glad to have my baby back, glad she's still singing.
  • One of my favorite bands is coming to town, and I'll be thereThe Bad Plus seldom stop in Indiana, but they'll be at the warm, intimate Jazz Kitchen this coming Friday, and I'm stoked.  Reid Anderson is a monster on bass, and the group is touring to support a new album with a new piano player (Orrin Evans).  Their new album ("Never Stop II") is the best one since "Prog" which is saying something since that's such a great album.  Evans' playing still manages to be cerebral (that's music writer speak for noisy and abstract) without being inaccessible.  There's a warmth to his tone that I really like as well.  While I'd like to see the bands compositions and Anderson's bass playing to return to its former in-your-face aggressiveness, there's time for that later.  I don't see how this show could not rock.  Can't.  Wait.
  • Bessie's getting a strange new bridge.  In December of 2017, my daughter accidentally rolled my upright bass onto its face; a traumatic event that seemed to happen in slow motion as I watched helplessly from the kitchen.  The loud "POP" of the bridge breaking brought me back to the tragic "now" of that moment.  She was sufficiently contrite and I forgave her quickly; but the fact remained:  Bessie was out of commission.  After getting the go ahead from my accountant (read: my wife), I began researching a little on adjustable bridges.  I had been interested for a very long time in bridges made from non-traditional materials, and I narrowed my search to the Arcotech Fiberlight graphite bridge and the Deuce Bridge.  Both bridges were light, but tough; and both bridges promise to make my bass louder and cleaner by more efficiently transferring the energy from the string vibrations to the top of the bass.  Both bridges were reviewed favorably in bass forums and gear websites I checked into.  Ultimately, I went with the Deuce because of its unique footing which makes it much more stable than a traditional bass bridge.  Because it has wood feet and the part that supports the strings is wooden, it is a bit easier for a luthier to work with as opposed to graphite.  Additionally, the Deuce has a pretty nifty system for securing a piezo pickup should I ever buy one.  After first hearing from Deuce that they were out of business, I later heard back from the owner - he had decided to do another limited run in February. I know - this sounds like a scam, but everything checks out.  So Bessie should be back in action sometime in March.  I'll keep you posted on how she feels and sounds. . . 
  • New in the stable: the Kala U-Bass.  The Kala U-bass is the third travel bass I've owned; the last one was the Gold Tone Microbass.  After messing with a Kala in a local music shop, I was smitten.  It combines two of my favorite things in the world: ukulele and bass.  It's portable, which means I can take it on vacation or hell, even in my bike pannier.  To get it, all I had to do was trade the Mircobass and a classical guitar I had sitting around, then pay the sales tax (which worked out to $25).  It was a steal.  So why get rid of the Microbass, which is a pretty decent bass as well?  Well, I think it's better to tell you why the Kala is a nicer bass:
    • It's acoustic (as opposed to the solid body Microbass).  Though it's not super loud, I can jump right in on acoustic jam sessions.  
    • The action is better.  Though I might have been able to address it by messing with the bridge and truss rod, the Gold Tone always buzzed when notes were fretted.  It sorta drove me crazy.
    • The sound of the U-Bass when plugged in is infinitely better. The bottom end is large and clear; it's nice and "bassy".  The Microbass had an awful pickup; I could never get enough bass out of it.  It had paper-thin tone.
    • The fit and finish is better on the Kala.
    • Onboard tuner - woo hoo!  No more misplacing tuners.
She's a beauty.  I'm taking suggestions for names, btw.

So lots of good stuff going on!  I'll have some more to report on the U-Bass and the upright after she's repaired.  But for right now, I'm pretty happy with the sonic happenings in my life.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Fat Friday Feature: Louis Johnson On Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'"

The Fat Friday Feature is a semi-regular post that showcases a great bass part.  Today, I'm going to explore Louis Johnson's bass on Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin'". 

Louis Johnson is one of the giants in the bass world, yet it is criminal how few people (including bass players) actually know him by name.  For better or for worse, he's one of the fathers of the very popular slap bass method.  You've definitely heard his work - "Strawberry Letter #23", "Get On The Floor", "Billy Jean" - because he was the go-to bass player for producer/composer Quincy Jones. Louis was earning a steady pay check.  Like a lot of players showcased in the Fat Friday Feature, there's probably a hunnert bass lines I could showcase by him.  But I like how this one snuck up on me - he definitely and anonymously got on my radar backing the guy with the second best beard* in rock n' roll:  Michael McDonald.

"I Keep Forgettin'" has a groove that creeps up on you.  I love how the bass line is so tightly locked in with the bass drum.  And because he was an early adopter of the now legendary Musicman Sting Ray bass, he cast a particular well worn tonal mold that is still quite popular today.  Indeed, it is one that I'm quite familiar with - I own a 1977 Sting Ray, which was only the second year they were made.

I also love that there are all sorts of little bass "Easter eggs" - nimble fills that sneak up here and there when you least expect it.  But Louis Johnson's playing, helped in part from the drumming from that guy from Toto, takes a song that otherwise is pretty sucky and makes it memorable.

 *-The best beard award going to fellow yacht rocker Kenny Loggins.