Archive for the ‘A.J. Jacobs’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: THE FLAMING LIPS-“Smoke on the Water” (2012).

There’s a new Deep Purple tribute album coming out shortly (is this the year of tributes?  what’s going on?).  Anyway, the lineup isn’t all that inspired, but I was curious to see what the Flaming Lips would do with that song

As with their recent reinterpretation of Dark Side of the Moon, this cover is respectful and utterly disrespectful.  Musically the song is pretty accurate. Well, the notes are the same.  But the style is very different, kind of wahwahed delicate chords–no heavy bass or anything.  But it’s the vocals that are the contentious point–he recites the entire song (which kind of works because it is a story) in a stilted, faux British accent.

The second verse has a very computerized voice singing an autotuned melody along with the recitation–sort of a harmony but not.  This voice continues through to the chorus (which the main vocals also simply recite).

I appreciate the Flaming Lips’ approaches to popular songs, but this version renders a big loud song kind of anemic.  Which is so weird because the last few Lips albums were so loud and bass-heavy.  I listened twice, I probably don’t need to listen again.

So, this is yet another tribute I won’t be buying.

[READ: August 22, 2012] Don’t Get Too Comfortable

I’m already making good on my promise to read more David Rakoff.  Indeed, as soon as I heard that he died, I put this book on hold at the library.  The strange thing about this book is that I feel like I read parts of it already.  I don’t feel like I read the whole book because some things were unfamiliar to me, and yet there was a strange feeling of déjà vu throughout the book.  But I looked in the front of the book to see where these essays had appeared and I don’t read any of the magazines where they initially showed up.  And while I like This American Life, I don’t really listen to it very often.  So either I read this book seven years ago or these pieces are inspirations for other pieces I have read (which is possible–two or three articles in here reminded me of things that A.J .Jacobs has since done).

So this collection of essays takes place during the early 2000s, George W. Bush’s first term (not the happiest time to be a gay Canadian living in New York).  But in addition to the first essay which is all about his quest for citizenship, it seems that Rakoff was now gainfully employed as a freelance writer.  Most of these essays seem to have been requested for magazines–like they sought him out to write them.  So his fame was clearly growing.  And, again, like A.J. Jacobs, he seems to have been picked as a guinea pig for certain pieces.   I don’t really know if this is a “genre” per se, I mean lots of un-knowledgeable people have gone into new experiences to write about them (insert inevitable David Foster Wallace reference here–but of course he wasn’t the first either).  But Rakoff’s subjects in the last couple essays seem to be closer to what Wikipedia calls Jacob’s “stunt” journalism. (more…)

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My friend Matt has worked at a school in Pennsylvania for years. He wrote to tell me that a few kids who graduated from his school had formed a band and have released a CD.  It’s streaming (and downloadable) on bandcamp at their site.

I have lots of friends in bands, and I’ve listened to lots of demos, so I wasn’t expecting very much.  But the first thing I noticed when I listened was how good this sounds–professional and, yes, like a “real” album.  This isn’t just a bunch of guys jamming in their garage.  What makes this even more striking is that the music is heavy progressive metal–not something you just whip out in a quick take.  This is complicated, interesting music.  I’m hearing a kind of Dream Theater meets King’s X vibe going on.  And man, it’s really good.

This is multi-step heavy rock (complete with a synth player/violinist!). The only song that is less than 9 minutes is the 90 second introduction called “The Marketplace.”  Otherwise, we’ve got three songs over ten minutes and one over 16!  Who even knew young bands did stuff like this anymore?

Al Joseph plays lead guitar and sings lead vocals.  His guitar speed is very impressive and his vocals sound not unlike Dug Pinnick from King’s X (noticeable on the opening track, especially) .  Matt Weaver plays violin and keyboards.  The keyboards offer more than just a fuller sound.  On “Release the Kraken” they provide some cool sci-fi sound effects.  At about five minutes in, “Release the Kraken” slows down to a quiet middle section that really showcases Steve Michael’s drums.  And then comes the blistering guitar solo.  It’s followed quickly but a slight diversion and then a wholly different style of solo.  It’s really something.

If “Release the Kraken” wasn’t a good enough prog rock title, how bout “Legends of the Symmetria.”  This one has a very Dream Theater feel for the opening.  But the vocals sound very different–dual vocals with great low harmony.  There’s a cool pre-chorus (I guess) at about 3 minutes.  This song is definitely a heavy one.  At about 4 minutes, the song slows down into a pretty classical guitar section,where Chris Joseph on plays bass gets to show off a bit (although he seems to be the most understated of the 4 players).  There’s some great drumming at the end of the song, too.

“The Ghost of Three Reflections” is a slow builder of a song.  There’s some quiet parts (with beautiful harmonies) and a guitar solo that sounds clear and perfect (I’m hyping the production so much because it sounds so good).  The guitar solo section in this one strikes me as something that might suit two guitarists better–maybe two more different styles of soloing, but he pulls it off well, especially when by the end, he has shifted to a very different style, and the music changes along with it).  I love the bass section at the 8 minute mark, which reminds me of something Rush might have done back in the mid 70s.  The song kind of merges into “Breach At Fort Mycenae” which opens with the same kind of staggered sound as the end of the previous song.  The violin gets an airing in the middle of this song and it’s a cool treat.  I could definitely use more violin in these songs, although maybe little bits are a treat.  There’s a few times when I don’t like the production choices–maybe there needs to be a bit more music behind some of these solos so it doesn’t just sound like two players soloing against each other.

The disc ends with the big one, the sixteen minute, “The Sleepwalker Pt. 1 – Tears of Dagon” [I love that it’s a Part One and it’s 16 minutes long].  When the vocals kick in at about 3 minutes, the harmonies are gorgeous.  I love the bass guitar break at 5 minutes.  Although there’s something about the keyboard sound that I don’t like–maybe they’re not big enough?  But I love the crazy guitar solo at the 9 minute mark of this track (I’m a sucker for dissonant scales).

This is an amazing debut CD and I hope these guys go far (they’re going from Scranton to Boston for school, but I hope they can go further than that).  They are tight as a drum, stopping and starting perfectly, keeping all of the rhythms and time changes perfectly.  They really have done their prog rock homework.  The only gripe is as I’ve said, some sections don’t feel “big” enough.  If you’re going to write a 16 minute song, you don’t want sections that sound small–you want your backing guitars or bass guitars to be a little louder so it sounds like the song is still going.  But other than that, there’s not much room for improvement.

I downloaded their CD, (and yes, I paid for it…that will help with college, eh?).  But my real complaint is that on the computer, the album cover is awesome–if you look at it from an angle, there’s a whole scene behind the large logo (try it, it works here too).  But when you print it out, you lose all of that.  The images are there, but the effect is gone.  This is a band that calls out for full color packaging and maybe even a gatefold sleeve!  (The bottom of the cover says Ο υπνoβάτης which means The Sleepwalker).

Good jobs guys!  You’ve done NEPA proud!

[READ: May 15, 2012] Drop Dead Healthy

Sarah got me this latest A.J. Jacobs book for my birthday.  At first I didn’t think I wanted to read it because I feared what a book all about being in good shape would be—nagging, obnoxious, making me feel bad about my vices. But I should have leaned from all of my A.J. Jacobs experience that he is completely NOT about that.

Jacobs occasionally enters into preposterous forays of Self-Improvement.  In the first book of his I read, The  Guinea Pig Diaries, he tried various weird experiments to see what it was like to be a woman, radically honest, a unitasker, etc.  His other books have been about self-improvement.  He read the encyclopedia from A-Z, he did a year trying to live like out of the bible (I will get to these eventually).  In this book, he is on a quest to be the healthiest person in the world.

It’s an impossible task.  And, frankly, a foolish one.  But he decides he will take two years and focus on individual parts of his body one month at a time.  I’m going say right up front I feared that this book would make me feel bad about all the things I don’t do for myself.   But well, a) Jacobs is a funny writer, so at least you’re laughing.  b) Jacobs is either in bad shape or plays up his badshapedness so that the average person doesn’t feel too bad off.  c) He is so over the top in his quest that no one would ever think about doing all of the things, but we can take what he learned and apply little bits to ourselves.  What is nice is that he tries to get two if not balanced opinions then perhaps fringe opinions to balance out–trying one extreme then another to see which work.

He Breaks His Categories Down thusly: stomach (eating right, the perfect food), the heart, the ears (the quest for quiet), the butt (avoiding sitting too much), the immune system (germs), genitals, nervous system, lower intestine (better bowels), adrenal gland (lowering stress), brain, endocrine system (removing toxins), teeth, feet, lungs, skin, inside of the eyelid (sleep), bladder, gonads, nose, hands, back, eyes, and skull.  Each category is designed to be a month-long workout of that organ/item–some things he keeps doing after the month is over making his workout regime something like 5 hours a day.  And at the beginning of each month he lists the stats for what he accomplished.

I’m not going to talk about all of his body parts, but I will mention a few that i enjoyed the most. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RHEOSTATICSStatic Journey Volume 2: Melville (2008).

At this stage, I realized just what the fine creator of this box set has set out to do: he is basically recreating the Rheos’ discs with live tracks, demos and other cool things.  Initially I assumed that everything would be chronological (live concerts only from that tour, for instance).  But he has gone beyond that simple task and is selecting the best version he can find.  So a concert from, say, 2007 which features an awesome recording of a track from Melville will follows a track from a show circa 2000.  It’s a very cool way to experience the disc.

And of course, if there isn’t an available live track, he plays the album track.

All of this cool stuff is supplemented with interviews, stage banter introducing tracks (even if the banter is not from the same show as the track).  The live versions on this disc are spectacularly smoking, and the songs sounds fantastic.  And, there’s enough jamming on these tracks so you can see the band really let loose.

Interestingly, I am finding this an excellent way to get reintroduced to the album.   There’s something about an amazing live track that really lets you appreciate the quality of the song.

I’m totally hooked on this box set.

[READ: January 4, 2009] The Guinea Pig Diaries

This was another surprise Christmas gift from Sarah and it was another great one.  I’ve enjoyed AJ’s (as he calls himself in the book) experiments in Esquire.  The book contains at least three experiments which I’d already read in Esquire.  There are some minor changes to the stories (most of which are designed to have them fit in with the general narrative of the book).  But even if you’ve read them (and one of them goes back to 2005!) there’s a Coda at the end of each one with a sort of follow up to the experiment that was not included in the article.

The experiments include (read more about them on his site, but only after you finish all of this!):

My Life as  Beautiful Woman
My Outsourced Life
I Think You’re Fat
240 Minutes of Fame
The Rationality Project
The Truth About Nakedness
What Would George Washington Do?
The Unitasker

Jacobs is a very funny writer.  He is neurotic and constantly trying to improve himself.  And so, he undertakes these fairly absurd tasks is an attempt to make his life better/easier/less stressful/more awesome. (more…)

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worstMental Floss has been one of my favorite magazines for about four years now.  It only comes out every two months, but it is just chock full of all kinds of weird information.  Sarah and I fight over who will read it first.   And then later we say, Oh, I read somewhere about X, and the other will say, yes, I saw it in Mental Floss too.

A bunch of friends and I used to do the Mental Floss Quiz of the Day which is good random trivia fun.  And I think that’s how I learned about the magazine.

So the magazine is designed to be read in easily digestible nuggets.  None of the articles are overlong.  Even the cover article, which tends to run for several pages, is broken down into bite-sized sections.  And each and every article makes you go, Huh or WOW.

The magazine even starts out great.  On their copyright page they list their errata which they call Mental Flaws.  And their corrections are just as funny as the rest of the magazine.  I think they had one issue with no Flaws and they were very excited about it.

mistakesNext comes the ubiquitous letters.  This also contains the occasional feature of Readers and Their Famous Friends, which shows pictures of readers celebrities (pretty much the only celebrities they ever talk about).  This is followed by the letter from the editor.  Neely Harris (I have yet to determine if Neely is a boy or a girl and I’m not going to look it up either, somehow it’s more fun trying to imagine) is very funny and always sets a good tone for the magazine. (more…)

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