Monday, February 23, 2009

KQED Music: No More Tears

Every now and then, a piece of music will become indelibly linked to a specific time or place in our lives. The song that was playing when you first met. The album that got you through your breakup. The track that always seems to be playing on the jukebox of your favorite bar. The soundtrack to one long, golden summer. The tape your parents played in the car when you were a kid. "Songs are like tattoos," sings Joni Mitchell on "Blue," a lyric that's permanently inked somewhere on my soul. And it has plenty of company.

A few years ago, I went through a rough patch in my life that I only truly recognized when I started to get out of it. There was no sudden trauma, no terrible illness or accident, no single event that marked the beginning or even the end. Just a low period of my life I'm happy is in the past now. But somewhere in the middle of it, I came to rely on one album in particular to help keep me going: I Am a Bird Now by Antony and the Johnsons.

It's hard to describe Antony Hegarty's singing voice to people who have never heard him. Try to imagine a choirboy singing with the soulful depth of Nina Simone. It is strange and unique, like the sound of salted caramel ice cream. I loved it from the first moment I heard it, and it became a comforting companion to me. No matter how low I felt, hearing him sing, "I hope there's someone to take care of me," at the start of that album made me feel as if, even here, at the bottom of the well, I wasn't alone. And music is like that. An album might sell millions of copies, but it can still feel like it's speaking only to you. It was as if Antony himself was helping me get through my dip, even though I now know the same album has helped countless other people too.

After my life turned a corner for the better, I began to find the album painful to listen to. It had become an integral part of that difficult time, entwined with every emotion I was feeling back then. It was essentially ruined for me, and I began to fear that I had lost not just that one record but Hegarty's voice too. Would I ever be able to hear it the same way again? So it was with some trepidation that I greeted word of a new Antony and the Johnsons album and tour.

Thankfully, The Crying Light is a delight. "No one can stop you now," he sings at the start of this album's opening song, "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground," and for me it is the sound of a page turning, a new chapter beginning. The sorrow and heartbreak are still there, but now, once again, I can hear the positives in his music too. The delicate beauty and grace of "Another World" and "Dust and Water." The soaring, surreal musical flights of fancy on "Epilepsy is Dancing" and "Everglade." The self-assuredness of "Kiss My Name" and "Aeon." Indeed, there seems to be a confidence here that has replaced some of the darker doubts and fears of older tracks such as "Hope There's Someone." But that may also just be me.

And, if this new album has begun to renew my relationship with Antony and the Johnsons, then seeing them play San Francisco this month should help even more. Live, the emotional power of Hegarty's bittersweet voice only increases. But he is also a playful presence on stage, never letting the drama of the music weigh too heavily, injecting a little levity into proceedings now and then lest we forget ourselves and let the sadness drag us under.

Antony and the Johsons play Nob Hill Masonic Center as part of Noise Pop on Tuesday, February 24. Their new album 'The Crying Light' is out now on Secretly Canadian.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Career Has Cancer

As a writer and editor, I've been forced to face some hard truths about my profession lately. Basically, it's fucked. Regardless of the impact of the economic crisis, the publishing industry has been going through its own internet-generated shitstorm of change for some time now. And no matter which way you look at it, there seems to be dwindling amounts of money available for people like me.

The evidence is clear. I'm writing this for free, for example, a rate that is only marginally worse than some of my recent paid jobs. Shrinking income is nothing new for journalists, but when I started out in the mid-1990s staff salaries and freelance rates were contracting at an almost imperceptibly slow rate, mainly by failing to keep pace with inflation; now pay is crashing faster than a dropped brick.

Increasingly in the new media economy, the creators of content can't seem to make enough money, if any at all, from the content they create. What was once a proper job and a reasonable way to make a living is fast turning into a hobby.

There are lots of people out there trying hard to come up with a new business model for publishing that will change this, but so far they've failed. There is no iTunes for journalism, and the ideas designed to create one seem to range from the hopelessly idealistic to the plain dumb. Holding out for a solution like this is increasingly looking like hoping to be saved from a terminal disease by a miracle cure that hasn't been invented yet. It's a nice thought, but not a very realistic one.

Of course, these changes have been happening for some time now, so it shouldn't be so much of a shock. But it is. At first I wondered optimistically when things were going to take a turn for the better, and I looked for any encouraging signs of recovery, or at least remission. I got online, I started a blog or three, I embraced the new media revolution in the hope of not being left behind. But all the while the good jobs have been drying up, leaving more journalists chasing fewer jobs that are paying less.

Lately my thinking has changed, and I've found myself wondering about how long I should fight this. At what point should I simply give up and go do something else instead? My career has cancer. It has spread. The prognosis isn't good. But, like a smoker who keeps on puffing cigarettes even when he has to do it through a hole in his throat, I just can't give it up.

Originally published at Ludovician.com.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

It's Hard to Be Wealthy

When is the New York Times going to get it? In the midst of our current economic clusterfuck, almost no one is feeling sorry for the rich bankers who caused it. Well, except for rich bankers themselves and NYT hacks that is.

But today sees publication of the latest in the grey lady's series of poorly judged articles about poor rich folks, this one hilariously titled "You Try to Live on 500K in This Town." It's all about the harsh choices faced by top executives forced onto the breadline by President Obama's proposed limits on pay for incompetence:

"As hard as it is to believe, bankers who are living on the Upper East Side making $2 or $3 million a year have set up a life for themselves in which they are also at zero at the end of the year with credit cards and mortgage bills that are inescapable," said Holly Peterson, the author of an Upper East Side novel of manners, The Manny, and the daughter of Peter G. Peterson, a founder of the equity firm the Blackstone Group. "Five hundred thousand dollars means taking their kids out of private school and selling their home in a fire sale."
Apparently rich bankers also spend lots of money on designer clothes, big houses, and fancy cars. I mean, they're practically broke but for their stock options, property portfolios, and other valuable assets. And it's not like they caused the current financial shitstorm, is it?

Oh, actually, wait a minute ...

Originally published at Ludovician.com.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Chow: Drink Beer, Save the Planet

You probably don’t need another excuse to be thinking about beer on a Friday afternoon, but over at Salon, friend of CHOW Andrew Leonard reports on the fabulous news that Sierra Nevada Brewing Company has partnered with the inventor of a home-ethanol-making system to turn waste from the beer-making process into ethanol fuel for cars:

"I've had a lot to be thankful for in 2009, but the notion that draining a six-pack of Sierra Nevada Pale could help deliver the United States from its parlous state of foreign oil dependence is a bounteous gift so great that I might have to consider whether, perhaps, just maybe, there is a God."

Proof of the Almighty? Not quite. For that, we'd need to discover some way for the bacon-producing industry to do the same thing.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Chow: Manhattan Maple Mystery Solved

New Yorkers finally discover the source of that strange, sweet smell: New Jersey.

New York's Daily News reports that after several years of searching, the source of Manhattan's mystery maple syrup smell has finally been tracked down to a New Jersey food additives plant processing fenugreek seeds.

While we're happy that this sweet story of phantom pancakery can finally be finished off, there is a downside to the news: It means an end to Gothamist's amazing maple maps and its readers' colorful conspiracy theories about the causes of the unearthly odor.

Some of our favorites (in no particular order):

  • "I thought it was my own sweet bo at first!"
  • "Is it ... a fleet of cabs that runs on Aunt Jemima?"
  • "We thought ... it was [my friend's] neighbors doing something kinky."
  • "You do realize it's the cops testing air dispersion patterns so they can be prepared in the event of a chemical or biological attack, don't you?"
  • "Must be a lot of flatulent tourists from Vermont in town."
  • "It is a Jewish Bolshevik attempt to take over the upper west side ... Note this is only a theory of mine. Nothing definite yet."
  • "Holy crap! I thought it was my neighbors! They are weirdass cooks."

And possibly the finest piece of wayward syrup speculation, from a user appropriately named Jesus Christ:

"The smell is SHIT! seriously it's the Dept of sanitation's time of cleaning out septic tanks. Now if you are close to it it smells like total ass droppings but if you are like far away like 5-10 blocks away the diluted smell is similar to maple syrup."

JC, listen to us: It's time to switch to a different brand of sweet breakfast condiment.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

KQED Music: Loch Lomond - Trumpets for Paper Children

Prejudice is never an attractive trait, but sometimes it's completely unavoidable. Forgivable, even. One such instance might be when an act describes itself as a "chamber folk ensemble," an unfortunate choice of words that screams "band geek" almost as loudly as naming your Portland, Oregon band after Scotland's largest lake says "geography dork."

But you shouldn't allow these minor (albeit troubling) details to stop you from giving Loch Lomond a chance to redeem themselves. After all, you have very little to lose: the band's new EP Trumpets for Paper Children is available as a free download from Hush Records, and it would be unwise for any of us to let our assumptions get in the way of a free lunch in these grim economic times. And taking this small leap of faith will bring rich rewards. Sure, the music skirts the fringes of pretension in places, momentarily reinforcing some of the preconceptions and fears you might have started out with, but there is more than enough invention and imagination packed into these five tracks to compensate.

That "chamber folk" tag is most likely an attempt by the band to distance themselves from the far more dreary "alt folk" albatross they may have been lumbered with otherwise. And to be fair to the band, their songs do feel almost orchestral at times. Lush strings sweep in around moments of quieter acoustic introspection, perhaps most notably on "Field Report," which quickly builds from its understated, stripped-down introduction into a lush landscape of sound. But to characterize their music is merely "folk plus classical" is to ignore other, equally compelling parts of a much more complex equation. These include the idiosyncratic vocal flourishes of lead singer Ritchie Young, the band's gloriously ramshackle rhythm section, and even the surpising inclusion of a singing saw on at least two songs on this EP.

Perhaps "circus folk" would be a more appropriate description. The songs certainly tumble and swoop, while Young's voice acts as ring leader for the multitalented cast of performers he has gathered around him (their numbers vary, but the band is currently performing as a seven-piece). Together they conjur up a joyful sense of youthful innocence and wide-eyed magic, one that suggests endless possibilities, unconstrained by such earthly concerns as dull conformity or cynical calculation.

The lyrics reflect this too, with colorful imagery occasionally evolving into strange stories and streaks of playful surrealism. "I never learned to spin plates on sticks," Young intones at the start of "Bird and a Bear," before proceeding to demonstrate his masterful ability to juggle words and phrases instead. Unexpected, certainly. But it's amazing what surprises can lie in wait when we put aside our prejudices.

Loch Lomond's 'Trumpets for Paper Children' is available as a free download from Hush Records. They play San Francisco's Rickshaw Stop as part of Noise Pop on February 28, 2009.

By Keith Laidlaw. Read this article in its original setting here.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Blog: The terrible curse of the shrinking pint

When you order a pint of beer in Britain, you know exactly what you'll get: a pint. But depending on where you order one here, it will vary in size from a full British pint, through a standard 16-ounce US measure, all the way down to 12 fluid ounces or less – which isn't much bigger than a half pint back home.

To compensate for serving smaller drinks, some sneaky bars even use special glasses with thicker sides and a heavy bottom that look and feel like the real thing, except that you run out of beer unexpectedly quickly ...

Read the full post at Strange Things Will Happen.