July 29, 2010

Sticker Attack!

After parking at the office this morning, I looked back at my car and noticed something weird about my bumper. Amidst my family of bumper stickers were intruders. I have become the victim of a sticker attack.

Hello, I'm Illegible.

That thing in the middle seems to be a warped King of Diamonds. What it means or represents, I have no idea. Like the "Hello I'm..." sticker, it doesn't seem to convey any accessible information to an unhip layperson like myself and only serves to preach to already initiated. The imagery is pretty stereotypical and unoriginal, so there's no way I'll be able to look up what it is on the internets. Because I usually keep my car parked in front of a sneaker store that specializes in rare and vintage collectible sneakers, my guess is it probably refers to a skate company or a sneaker brand. I've never actually gone in the store because I'm completely disinterested in vomitaciously colorful thousand-dollar sneakers, so I may never find out what these stickers represent. Maybe I'll ask one of the European tourists that line up on the sidewalk waiting for the store to open. Wait, I mean crowd the sidewalks... Europeans wait in line.

If I sound angry here, I'm really not. I have a ton of stickers on my car already, so I'm not exactly concerned about spoiling the value of my bumper. Besides, Plowing Mud Forever stickers have been known to show up on quite a bit of public/government property and on plenty of bathroom walls, so I guess karmically, my property is fair game for vandals. In fact I used to entertain the idea of creating a "<---SUCKS" sticker specifically for the purpose of attacking other people's stupid bumper stickers, so I've just been beaten at my own game. I'm probably inviting trouble here, but I wish I was attacked by someone with a little more creativity. Not that a black and white solid text Plowing Mud Forever sticker is particularly clever, but at least our sticker is an invitation to something a little deeper beyond the surface (nice rationalization).

I guess the real question here, is do I take them off or leave them there until I find a better replacement?

July 15, 2010

But There Isn't any "Any" Key

The other night, the RoBeastress and I were preparing some spaghetti and meatballs on her stovetop. I was watching over the big black cauldron of pasta on the back burner, but it was a little too dark too see, so I pressed the "light" button on the overhead microwave. It was no surprise when the light came on upon pressing the "light" button...

... but something I never noticed before happened too--the microwave's LCD display lit up the word "Light."

Here it is when the light is off:

It's a good thing that word "Light" is there or else I would have no idea when the light was really on. Like in this case...

... I really have no idea if the light is on or not. Fortunately, I am able to check the display to confirm my suspicions. Why yes, the light is indeed on.

The "Timer" display I understand. "Vent" may be a bit questionable, but "Light" is just ridiculous. The only possible logic that I can come up with behind this superfluous feature is if the light bulb happens to burn out but you aren't aware of it and you are standing there pressing the button over and over but nothing happens and in all the commotion you start to wonder to yourself "Did I push that 'Light' button five times or six times?" but you have no way to confirm it.

Well, did ya punk?

I think I would prefer the have used their LCD technologies to make a random word or phrase to pop up, like "BISCUITS!" or "Good Morning Dave." Or "Lighten up tightwad."

Ok, I'm going to press my own "Vent" button off now.

July 14, 2010

Michelle Branch - "You Get Me"

Just a quick news update before we get back to our irregularly scheduled programming. I won't take full credit for this, but merely a few hours after I posted the first entry of my multi-part Michelle Branch series, she announced via Twitter that the record label has cleared her to release a new 6-song EP.  It will be called Everything Comes and Goes (which was the original name when it was set to be an LP) and will be released in the next "few weeks." I certainly hope so.

Let's now move forward back to the past behind us...

Spring 2002 - After listening to my folderful of mostly live Michelle Branch mp3s for a while, I eventually decided that I would commit to buying the album. If I remember correctly, Tunes in Hoboken did not have it in stock, so I picked it up at Sam Goody.  This was a time when I was listening to a lot of System of a Down, Fantomas, and Dillinger Escape Plan, so buying a contemporary "girly pop" album was quite a leap for me. It's not that I had anything against female vocalists--I did enjoy Sleater-Kinney and Melt Banana recordings--but I was never into any that were on Top 40 radio. OK, I did buy The Sundays' "Summertime" song which apparently hit #15 on the '97 UK Singles Chart, but that's Britannia, not Britney-Land. Here in the US, there was/is a very specific demographic associated with pop music, and I wasn't a screaming teenage girl outside of TRL studios.

This is what the album looked like when I bought it:

It would later be changed to this version:

Why? Maybe the leather and smog was supposed to convey a toughness to set it apart from squeaky clean pop? She looks considerably younger in the "blue" version, even though that's the photo used in later versions. Is it to appeal to younger fans? And are the studs on her belt that assure you she's a "PRO," made to appeal to the adult set? I don't know. My guess is that they probably just changed the first cover because it doesn't really look like Michelle in real life. In fact, it looks more like Vanessa Carlton, whose album, Be Not Nobody was hot around the same the time of the cover change. Regardless, you get both versions of the cover with whichever version you purchased, so go debate your preference on your own time.

 The first thing you notice inside the album is that Branch had a hand in writing all of the songs--5 on her own, 3 with the help of the producer John Shanks, and the remaining 3 with Shanks and other songwriters. "You Get Me" is one of the tracks with outside collaboration, in this case professional songwriter Shelly Peiken and singer-songwriter Abra Moore. Peiken, I'd never heard of, but has written tunes for youngens like Mandy Moore, Britney Spears, and Cristina Aguilera, and oldies like Meat Loaf, Joe Cocker, and Celine Dion. She's also written "Bitch" by Meredith Brooks, a song that I have tremendous hatred for, but that's another story. Abra Moore I remember having a song in the late 90's called "Four Leaf Clover" that didn't leave much of an impression on me at the time. Shanks also has a writing credit for "You Get Me."

Unfortunately, I have no idea how the collaboration came to be, since I have no sources for this series other than Wikipedia and my memory (If any relevant parties would like to come forward and share, please stop laughing at me, and do so). I don't know if this was instrumental written by one person, then polished by another, then arranged by another, and lyrics added by the fourth, or if they all sat in a room together and wrote together. Reading over Abra Moore's career story and listening to "Four Leaf Clover" for the first time in ten years, I'm thinking it may have went down like this:

Moore had a modest hit with "Four Leaf Clover" but despite a Grammy nomination, didn't quite close the deal commercially. She started working on a follow-up which was probably in her style, but the label didn't see a hit single anywhere and convinced her to either collaborate with Peiken, or to try one of her already-written tunes. Moore's record deal and major label LP eventually fall through, and the song is either never finished or released. Fast forward a few years to Michelle Branch's debut album production process... the label (Maverick) wants a few more solid tracks to round out the album. Shanks might have gotten a handful of label-approved demos or he had a pile sitting around on his hard drive waiting for the right artist, but at some point it gets offered to Branch. Abra Moore (and to some extent Shelly Peiken) was affiliated with the Lilith Fair set, which had a degree of influence over Branch, so there's a clear match. She writes new lyrics, or changes some of the existing ones to fit her style, and there you have it. Obviously I'm making a million assumptions here, but as the song says "In my imagination/anything goes."

A decade later, "Four Leaf Clover" really isn't a bad tune. I'm not familiar enough with Abra Moore's work enough to be able to pick apart "You Get Me" and figure out who wrote what. To be completely honest, "Four Leaf Clover" fits better into the scheme of the classic Michelle Branch structure than "You Get Me." It's got a strong acoustic guitar opening riff that continues throughout most of the verses while other instruments and vocals are added. There are a couple brief changes, and a shitload of choruses at the end. "You Get Me" is put together with chord progressions instead of riffs, and the different sections work together, but are very much separate. In fact, the only thing the two songs have in common are a drum machine and a guitar solo.

I think the highlight of this track for me is the expressive bass playing. Everything else is fairly mechanical. To me, it just doesn't fit as the second song of the album. It certainly serves to break up the "Everywhere" and "All You Wanted" monsters, but it's too much autopilot too soon. Don't get me wrong, it's a nice song--just too safe. "Something To Sleep To" (which appears later on the album) accomplishes the same tempo goal as "You Get Me," but has more energy, and more importantly, more drama. Most Michelle Branch songs are about unrequited love, but "You Get Me" doesn't fit that theme. I believe it may have originally been intended as a single (I swear I saw it featured on an album cover sticker) but that never happened. Maybe if it were called "You Don't Get Me," things would have been different...

July 9, 2010

Stalking Vanity

If you follow me on Twitter, you're probably aware that I sit in a fair amount of traffic. The only bright side of this is that it allows me to photograph kooky license plates without putting my life in danger.

This was the situation a couple weeks back:

The RoBeast Crime Lab cleaned up the photo a bit so you can see the vanity plate on the Yukon:


My initial thought (besides what I think of these new fugly New York plates) is that it means "Would Kill For My Kids." The flames on the Yukon logo say to me that this person is obviously not above self-destructive arson, so what would stop them from homicide? Most parents take the martyr route and simply say "I would die for my kids," but I guess here in NYC, parents are taking a more active approach.

Is that really what it means though? The RoBeastress assumed it meant "Work For My Kids."  Well, what about "Weak For My Keds" or "Wok For My Kidneys"? "Workform? Yuck! Demilitarized Zone!" 

The danger of these vanity plates is in the interpretation. The RoBeastress' mother recently told us a cautionary tale of a colleague of hers with a vanity plate that said "NV NO1." He was trying to convey a positive humble message--"Envy No One." But, she wondered, what's stopping people from reading the exact opposite intention--"Envy Number One"?

 All I have to say to that is "Andrew W.K. Formica Dragonball Z!"

(I'll be back on the Michelle Branch train later on today.)

July 2, 2010

Michelle Branch - "Everywhere"

I've been tossing the idea around of getting more into writing about music here. I was considering sticking to the Top 40 pop chart for the sake of relevancy, but then I thought it might be better to choose an artist and go in depth rather than just skim a genre. Call me crazy, but I found myself listening to Michelle Branch the other day, I realized she should be the subject of this series.

Why Michelle Branch? Well, I've been following her career for quite a while now, and I definitely consider myself acquainted with her body of work. It's also not a tremendously large catalog, so even if this turns out to be a disaster, it will be over before I know it. I feel like she's not an artist that is often written about or given much credit in the pop or rock world, so that makes for a good subject. It's also an unusual time in her life right now, as she has an new solo album recorded, but her label has stalled on releasing it for at least a year now. Finally, today is her 27th birthday, so I'm seizing the serendipitous moment and going for it.

I haven't really worked out the logistics yet, but I believe this will look like a track-by-track analysis of her catalog. It might get technical, or critical, or softball, or it might just be filled up with anecdotes. It might end up being a better analysis of my taste than her work, who knows? Regardless of how it ends, I know where it's going to start--with the song "Everywhere."

"Everywhere" was the first song I had ever heard by a young musician from Arizona named Michelle Branch. It's the probably the first song of hers that most people have heard and for many, the only one. It wasn't until early 2002 that I heard the song on the radio, even though it had already hit its peak on the pop charts in late 2001. Nobody ever really accused me of being too on top of things.

Those days I was waking up at 4:30 AM to drive to work 75 miles away. I was sleep deprived most of the time and a bit out of my mind. When I got bored with my mix tapes, I would flip around the radio until Howard Stern came on. I usually put on oldies stations or the Seton Hall metal station WSOU. If I was feeling weird, I could sometimes catch reception from the experimental Princeton station. Back then, I rarely ever put on a Top 40 station because it was mostly dancey garbage. But one day I caught "Everywhere" and was instantly hooked.

When I realized I was often flipping to different pop stations hoping to catch it, I decided to seek it out online. I had (and still have) this thing about illegal downloading, so when I booted up my AOL (yeah, I really had AOL for a while), I downloaded an alternate version of the song. It was the "Acoustic" version of the song, which I believe was the vocals and acoustic guitar tracks separated from the original studio non-acoustic version. Though I now prefer the full version, that acoustic version was what I listened to most in the beginning. Plus, it made catching the radio version even more of a treat.

"Everywhere" starts with some subtle, yet confidently arpeggiated acoustic guitar chords battling a dinky drum machine. The vocal melody comes in strong and tips the balance of the track in favor of organic sounds then eventually morphs into heavier, full band performance. The song soon takes a break from being choppy and picks up some backup vocals. There's a quick pause to soak it all in and then the gigantic chorus explodes.

That chorus is a big and important one. It's been on compilations and in movies and commercials (though surprisingly never "you're everything I know that makes Maybelline"). It pretty much set the stage for her--a stage that shows her at times rebelling against the song, its formula, and its consequences, and other times embracing and chasing its success. It's the "Smells Like Teen Spirit" of the 00's teen pop era. I think. Maybe I'm making all this up.

Anyway, I like the song, especially the second half of the second verse where the chords change up. They appear again later as an alternate ending to one of the last choruses. Those parts really punch it up as an intelligent and slightly more complex pop tune and give jerks like me something to not complain about. While it's unabashedly a Big Chorus song, there are plenty of dynamics within the verses and bridges to keep things interesting. All right, I gotta go do some stuff. See you next time?