XM in depth, Channel 4

The trouble with XM is that the choice is overwhelming. It’s easy to flip around all the time in the hopes that there must be something better on some other channel. It takes some discipline to sit and try something new. And when it comes to radio, I don’t have that discipline.

So I’m going through a little experiment. I’ll go channel-by-channel through XM’s music offerings, giving each channel an hour or 10 songs of uninterrupted listening (if I can stand it). We’ll start at the bottom … Channel 4, the 40s.

I’ve always been a “limited doses” guy when it comes to big band music, and that’s the predominant fare here. Of course, the music all brings to mind some great old cartoons and some wartime nostalgia that somehow seeped into the consciousness of us Generation Xers.

And the XM call signal, done in a different style on each channel, is great here — played on a clarinet with a bit of swing.

I heard more songs than I’ve listed here, but because songs were short in those days, they flew by quickly, and XM’s online connection struggled to keep up with the song identities.

Here goes …

Gene Krupa, It All Comes Back To Me Now — Krupa was a great drummer, but the drums are pushed far into the background on this one. That’s a shame. It’s a rather dreary ballad sung by a guy whose voice drips with sap. (Hey, I’m cranking these out quickly — excuse the metaphors.) The woodwinds play some adventurous progressions, and there are some pretty melodies in the bridges.

Mildred Bailey, I Go For That — Gotta love a song that works in a reference to “Dubuque” because it fits the rhyme and meter. The horn-and-xylophone setting is a little corny, but the lyrics are clever. I’d love to hear a rapper do a cover version.

Guy Lombardo, When My Dreamboat Comes Home — A muted trumpet plays a melody that sounds like an old spiritual before the singer takes over. Good sentimental song for wartime.

The Andrews Sisters and Vic Schoen, Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar — I won’t knock it for a title that wouldn’t fly in today’s more sensitive times. I’ll knock it because it’s just plain silly and full of obnoxious boasting that makes Eminem look modest.

Bob Crosby and His Orchestra, In a Little Gypsy Tea Room — For some reason, I was picturing a smiling Elmer Fudd setting out on a hunt just before things went horribly awry. It’s a bouncy little tune with the flute handing the melody off to other horns. Amiable, but forgettable.

Louis Armstrong, Lazy River — After listening to a succession of guys trying to make up for the lack of character in their voices with excessive vibrato, Armstrong is a welcome relief. There are better Armstrong songs, but this isn’t bad — half ballad, half scat.

Frankie Carle, Sunrise Serenade — And after a succession of songs in which the horns drowned out every other sound, this piano-driven tune is a welcome relief.

Dinah Shore, I’ll Walk Alone — Never been a fan. The background chorus is a little creepy.

Vaughn Monroe, That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) — The oddest tune so far. It’s a gospel tune with occasional swinging bursts from the horns, a string finale and some harmony vocals that overwhelm the lead singer’s distinctive baritone.

Peggy Lee, Manana (Is Soon Enough for Me) — Very nice change of pace with some prominent percussion and a cool, detached female vocal, albeit with some overdone Latin inflections. Forty years later, she’d have been a great lead singer for the Waitresses. Cool guitar solo, too. We’ll close on an up note here.

Video counterargument

Kevin Maney, taking his cue from the book Everything Bad is Good for You, sees a lot of good in video games. I see the point about learning to find patterns, but I’m a little wary of the notion that kids who don’t play games might somehow fall behind the curve. Is anyone else a little tired of tech evangelists telling us we have to be blogging, gaming, podcasting and surfing all day because everyone else is? Isn’t that a little alienating?

On the other hand, it’s hard not to be impressed with this blind gaming whiz. Time to update Pinball Wizard.

The circle of bias

Dan Mitchell’s brilliant letter to Romanesko nails down the truth about most bias accusations:

The whole bias-spotting industry, left and right — operates on the assumption that everybody in the world is a rank, simpleminded ideologue. I am more convinced every day that rank, simpleminded ideologues assume that everybody else — perceived friend or perceived foe alike — is the same as them. I guess it helps them make sense of a complicated world — ideologues don’t do nuance. They can’t tell one shade of gray from another — all is black or white. They are binary creatures.

Here’s the fact that should (but won’t) make the bias industry finally quiet down: Most journalists– and I have known hundreds — aren’t particularly political. Not even politics reporters. They have opinions — just like regular humans do — but generally, they are far more inquisitive than they are ideological.

Bingo.

It may be hard for some to believe, especially those who spend a lot of time slinging opinions online, but plenty of people don’t stake their entire identity on their political beliefs. Someone might be an Episcopalian first, a computer programmer second, comic book reader third, soccer fan fourth … and Democrat-leaning voter 40th.

Bias accusations are hurled at academia just as they are at the media, and they usually miss the mark for this reason — journalists and professors are people who want to learn, then pass on what they’ve learned. Those who would try to do the latter without the former end up being pretty bad at the job. In the media, sadly, those people are rewarded with talk shows. In academia, they’re generally shunned, which is why academia is so alluring for jealous journalists.

More lyrical analysis

Finding one analysis (see below) of Close to the Edge wasn’t enough. I stumbled upon a painstakingly detailed annotation of the lyrics, concentrating specifically on spirituality.

It’s a bit ambitious to sum up all of these points in a blog post, and I’d be lying if I said I understood it all. I did an academic paper in my Philosophy and Music class that was somewhat similar to the first analysis — I used Sting’s The Soul Cages to demonstrate the use of themes that disappear and recur to link songs that also have a lyrical tie. But this one’s on a different plane.

Give the second one a chance. It’s a strange read at first — the writer seems a little hyper as he points out his spiritual kinship with Yes’ Jon Anderson, a bit like an overenthusiastic tour guide showing prospective students around a college campus, or perhaps Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek pontificating about Jim Morrison’s status as a shaman.

As I understand it, the message of Close to the Edge (at least as interpreted here) is that we should only keep one foot in this world and one foot in the spiritual world, which we encounter at the “edge.” All the petty distractions of the world melt away — they have to — as we seek God. And it’s not enough to know God’s name, which really tells us nothing. Add it all up, and it’s almost enough to make me revive my flirtation with Unitarianism.

It also explains to me another reason why parents tend to return to church after spending their early single years drifting away. The reason most people give is that they want their kids to have a religious grounding. But I think it’s also because parenting makes us more spiritual. We feel like we’re part of a flowing lifeforce, the river or the “cord” described in Close to the Edge. Since becoming a parent, I’ve found that being around kids and other parents is an uplifting experience for me. This song explains why.

I also wonder if there are any songs today that could merit this level of scrutiny. Even newer Yes music doesn’t seem to have deep meanings wrapped in many layers woven into a complex work of art.

But some people are trying to find that meaning, and on that note, please check out this annotation of Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl.

(I have seen some hostile reaction to this amusing piece of work, claiming that Hollaback Girl is a vital feminist statement. After reading the spiritual themes of Close to the Edge, I think Gwen is pushing an exclusionary form of feminism that doesn’t allow those of a Buddhist orientation — including Zen-ified Christians and Unitarians — to take part. A follower of Zen or Buddhism would neither talk shit nor care whose shit Gwen is referring to.)

"I’ll come to where YOU work and heckle YOU!"

Though I’m severely disappointed in podcasting as a medium so far (for the last time, it’s not “Tivo” for radio — any half-decent downloadable audio like the vast offerings at the BBC would qualify as “Tivo” — it’s basically a printer for audio, and amateur podcasts are frankly excruciating), I can highly recommend the podcast (or any other way you want to listen) of the public radio show Studio 360, a quirky look at arts and entertainment.

This week’s show is a doozy. It’s a look at the role of critics in modern society, opening with a hysterically profane voice mail from Ryan Adams to a critic who dared to pan his oh-so-perfect show. The problem is obviously personal, Adams rants, because the music is “too (bleep)ing good.”

Well, then. Someone’s obviously pretty impressed with himself.

I have no set opinion on Adams, and I’d almost be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Mr. Awesome and his minions didn’t respond to interview requests, so (bleep) them.

There but by the grace of God …

So I was watching the Sesame Street episode in which the often-irritating Richard Kind conjures balloons for Snuffy to float into the sky, and I was thinking that the dissonant, sci-fi background music for Snuffy’s visit to thinner air sounded like the black-hole sequence of Rush’s Hemispheres. Then, of course, I thought: “I am one of the biggest geeks in the world. How in the world did I ever manage a somewhat normal life? I even have a kid! (Yes, that’s why I was watching one of Sesame Street’s worst recent episodes.)”

But my amazement at my own ability to procreate was short-lived, because I happened to stumble upon this account (oddly, written by two people) of a progressive-rock fan finding music for his wedding. He ponders Jethro Tull selections, the Yes epic Close to the Edge and Genesis — Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. The musical differences in the couple are apparent:

Good Lord. How can I marry this woman? She doesn’t even own any songs in 5/4.

To be fair, this guy(s) has a great sense of humor about his own favorite genre of music. In fact, for all the supposed pretentiousness of prog-rock fans, I find they laugh easily about the music.

“Games People Play”? No, no, no. A marriage consecrated by the Alan
Parsons Project will end in divorce. I read that somewhere.

It’s a fun read.

Of course, I hadn’t realized Close to the Edge was allegedly about suicide, so I wound up reading a lengthy academic analysis of the piece that’s frankly over my head. And I went to grad school. So maybe the joke’s on me.