September > August

Musically, this has been a much better month for new stuff than last month was.

First and foremost, I am adoring the debut album by The Week That Was, who write and record smart, hook-filled, vaguely prog-flavored songs anchored primarily with drums, piano and bass, topped with elegant touches of strings and occasionally guitars. A very impressive debut album: confident, bold and innovative.

I have also got Shall Noise Upon by Apollo Sunshine in heavy rotation. It’s a very eclectic disc, ranging from Beatle-ey psychedelia to wigged out screamy blooze over the course of a couple of tracks, with some noise-laden neo-folk flurorishes in between. Very ambitious, with a healthy sense of sprawl.

Lindsey Buckingham‘s new disc, Gift of Screws, is also masterful, which is pleasantly surprising, since I couldn’t stand his last disc, Under the Skin. He is such an amazing guitar player, and this album showcases that talent in both acoustic and electric settings. You can hear traces of his old band, Fleetwood Mac, throughout the disc, but they’re the better traces from older days, and not the more recent ones that involved Stevie Nicks croaking like a bullfrog on top of otherwise good material.

Jeff Hanson‘s Madam Owl is equally lovely, especially the instantly catchy and appealing “If Only I Knew,” which you can hear on his website, linked from his name. If you’ve never heard him, it’s worth a listen to hear his amazing voice: he’s a near pitch-perfect contralto, who sounds awe-inspiringly natural in his high range, without the strain that most counter-tenors and falsetto singers must dedicate to hit their upper notes.

I needed some good music after last month’s tune doldrums. Fortunately, I got it and then some.

New Fleet

Given my normal preference for blowing my model rockets up and not having them come home with me after a launch session, I was surprisingly bummed to have lost my most stalwart, dependable rocket last weekend. I would have been fine if it would have ended up flying off course and disintigrating in a mass of fiery cardboard and balsa wood, but it seemed such an ignominous, wimpy end for it to wind up on top of a tree. I’ve walked over there several times to see if wind has shaken it free, but its parachute and recovery shock cord are wrapped around boughs, and it’s not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. This weekend’s rains have no doubt gotten into the body tube, so even if it did come down, odds are it wouldn’t be usable or even displayable again.

Since it was such a crummy weekend, I decided to take a bunch of scraps and hulks and spare parts and whip up a new fleet of rockets, which you can see in the photo at right. The ones on the left and right will use the more powerful D engines, while the one in the middle is built for the standard B and C engines. The one on the right is probably the heaviest one I’ve built to launch, a chunky collection of five body tubes and thick fins. The one on the left is the opposite, a very light, very frail bird with tiny delicate fins that will either ride the big engine incredibly high and straight, or will be completely unstable due to the small margins of error in control with such limited control surfaces. These two rockets scream “launch pad disaster” to me, which makes me happy, because that’s more entertaining than “got stuck in a tree disaster.”

I only had one can of spray paint when it came time to give the fleet its new livery. Can you guess what color it was?

Incongruous Poetry, Part Nine: Cells

Miss Julizab Allers will live on forever
in dishes and beakers in researchers’ labs.
Her cells are immortal, they’re healthy and fertile,
in shimmering clusters they crawl ‘cross their slabs.

Aggressively spreading, they’re just like the cancer
from which they were cultured. As Julizab died
from lesions and tumors, the doctors spread rumors
of soft tissue samples which she could provide.

So instead of a patient, who might be reluctant,
the doctors could test their new cures on her cells,
they could treat them and kill them, make them lie still, then
grow more for the next batch of research as well.

Poor Julizab Allers was buried a pauper,
her grave dug and filled without marker or stone,
while her cells spread and flourished, exquisitely nourished
by wealthy old doctors who she’d never known.

Do we pity her plight? Do we take up her cause?
Are her friends and her family aware she’s alive
in those beakers and dishes? Were those her wishes?
That she would die, while her cancer survived?

(Copyright 2004, J. Eric Smith. Believe it or not, it is not fictional, though the name of the protagonist has been changed to protect the innocent and her family. “Julizab Allers” was originally a Woman of Spam name, but it was too good to use for doggerel).

Vitamin W

One of my deep cult musical heroes, Vitamin W, has popped up unexpectedly on last.fm, where you need to go hear him, and spread the word about his prescient blend of samples and grooves, which mapped out places that folks like Dangermouse ended up, but got there way sooner. Click here for Vitamin W’s last.fm page, and use his jukebox to listen to “Cybercreep” before you do anything else today, seriously. It is astounding to hear this song (my fave of his) and the others available there, all sounding just as timely and timeless today as they did when they were first crafted, nearly a decade ago. Good stuff, way under-appreciated. Do yourself a favor and hear what happens when you grind Kraftwerk, the Doors, Luna and Brian Eno together, and spread the results over a bed of big beats and police sirens. Awesome.

Retrieval Monkey Failure

A couple of months ago, I wrote about beefing up two of my model rockets to increase the likelihood that they would blow up, either on the pad or (better yet) at the summit of their flights. I finally had the right combination of factors line up today to launch them: a clear sunny day, no wind, and Katelin being at home to play Retrieval Monkey, my right-hand primate who chases rockets down after their launch and brings them back for their next journeys.

We launched the smaller grey rocket first. Something went wrong pretty quickly with this one: I suspect one of its fins snapped off under the strain of the larger rocket engines, as it did a couple of quick end-over-end flips then shot off at about a 45 degree angle to the northeast. It cleared a row of houses, but we lost sight of it after that, though we thought we might find it in the road or a front yard when we got over there. I opted not to send Retrieval Monkey after that one right away, since I didn’t want to tire her out too soon.

We then moved onto the larger, black rocket. This is the third modification I have made to this one, and I have launched it at least a dozen times. We racked it up on its launch pad, pushed the button, and got a picture perfect, beautiful flight, straight up, nice parachute deployment, ideal landing in soft grass some 50 yards from the launch pad. I didn’t send Retrieval Monkey after that one either, since it didn’t involve much running or distance, but rather ambled over and recovered it myself.

We decided to give it one more quick launch, and declared that if it survived, it would be entitled to an honorary retirement shelf in my office. Once again, a picture perfect launch, and an optimal parachute deployment. But, then, gusts of wind aloft! Rocket drifting! Run, Retrieval Monkey, Run! I thought we were going to get it, but at the worst possible moment, a gust carried it straight to the top of the tallest tree within a mile radius of our launch site, literally.

There’s no climbing or shaking that one down, so when the wind or rain eventually bring it back to earth, some lucky bypasser will inherit a damned fine rocket, tested and proven worthy under intentionally rigorous conditions. I thought we might find the grey rocket on our way home but, alas, Retrieval Monkey’s tracking sense wasn’t up to the task, so when we made it back to the house, we were rocket-less.

I think I might need to promote Retrieval Monkey to the Dignitary’s Viewing Gallery next time.

Thursday Things (Mostly About Bowie)

1. I’m reading a great (for music nerds) book called Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town by Thomas Jerome Seabrook. The book covers the creation of David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy (the albums Low, “Heroes” and Lodger), as well as Iggy Pop’s Bowie-collaborations The Idiot and Lust for Life and Bowie’s film work of the period (The Man Who Fell to Earth and Just A Gigolo). I watched The Man Who Fell to Earth again last night (it’s directed by Nicolas Roeg, one of my alltime faves) for the first time in twenty-plus years, and was struck by what an evocative piece it is, especially having listened recently to those Berlin albums, especially Low and “Heroes”. Those albums offer music from the future, the sorts of things that Bowie’s alien character in the film might have created, and the anomie and dislocation that define the film and those albums are clearly cut from the same cloth, one apparently woven from the fabric of Bowie’s drug-induced psychosis at the time. Harrowing stuff, all around.

2. And speaking of Bowie, my fave albums of his are the aforementioned Berlin Trio, plus Station to Station and Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), in large part because those albums feature the utterly astounding rhythm section of Dennis Davis (drums), George Murray (bass) and Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar). These guys were so good, and so cool, and so soulful, that the magic of those albums often hangs on the weird balance of three spectacularly gut-punching American musicians working massive grooves on behalf of a pair of pointy-headed intellectual white Englishmen (Bowie and Brian Eno) and their Brooklyn Tuff producer, Tony Visconti, plus various lead guitarists. I can’t speak highly enough of their work, and I think that Bowie’s decision to drop them after Scary Monsters is one of the greatest avoidable musical misfortunes of that era. (Alongside Ian Anderson’s decision to cut John Evan and Barriemore Barlow out of Jethro Tull, and Paul McCartney’s decision to disband Wings).

3. And speaking further of Bowie, would it be weird if I confessed that his song “Joe the Lion” (from “Heroes”) is one of my permanent background earworms? When my brain is semi-engaged, it tends to pick lines of certain songs and loop them until I decide to think about something else and knock the mental Muzak out of its groove. The segment of “Joe the Lion” that gets stuck in my head over and over again is the eliptical first verse, featuring these words “Joe the Lion went to a bar, a couple of drinks on the house and he said ‘I’ll tell you who you are, if you nail me to my car.'” I also have segments of Public Enemy’s “One Million Bodybags” and “Burn Hollywood Burn” and The Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” that feature regularly in my brain’s background noise. That probably would be weird to confess, wouldn’t it? Uh, forget I brought it up.

4. Not speaking of Bowie . . . hmmm . . . . I guess I don’t have anything else to discuss. Ta!