Monday Morning Music: Elliott Carter, “March”

In a parallel lifetime, I would’ve stuck with music. This was my favorite piece in my senior percussion recital, though I didn’t play it nearly as well as this guy. Also, Duke didn’t devote a lot of money toward percussion equipment, preferring instead to stock up on medieval instruments no one actually plays, so I used two pairs of gym socks as my mutes.

I was terrified for months before the recital about the passage that starts around 1:45 in this video. Then I nailed it, playing it as well in performance as I ever did in rehearsal.

Of course, no one knew that — unless someone was intimately familiar with the piece or was following the sheet music, I could’ve just waved my arms and banged things around, and no one would’ve known the difference. And my internal satisfaction at getting this right died quickly when I turned around and flubbed a few notes in a marimba solo.

Maybe I made the right career choice after all. But nothing I do today is quite as cool as what this guy posted to YouTube. Enjoy.

Cable punditry: The vast wasteland

The big news among those who follow such things: Kathleen Parker, a thoughtful and occasionally illuminating newspaper columnist, has been ousted from CNN’s ill-conceived Parker Spitzer.

We have plenty of backstage gossip and some accusations of sexism, the latter especially pointed because remaining co-host Eliot Spitzer is the guy who left office in a prostitution scandal. (The woman in question also embarked on a journalism career of sorts.)

What now for CNN, which sometimes manages to cling to its old reputation as a fair-minded news-gathering organization with an industry-leading Web presence and international credibility? Will they shun the ratings wars with Fox and MSNBC and stick with actual journalism?

Nope. Spitzer stays, and TVNewser tells us he’ll be joined by such luminaries as E.D. Hill, the former Fox-ite who mused over the possibility that Obama’s fist bump was a terrorist signal.

So if I wanted a TV pundit career, which is far more lucrative than all this work and research, should I say something idiotic or do something idiotic? And can we convince Ted Turner to buy back CNN?

Progressive music (or, how to annoy Radiohead fans)

My Twitter feed is a funny thing. I can mention something important in soccer or the other sports I cover, and no one responds.

But this morning, I made an offhand Tweet triggered by a dreary Radiohead song I heard yesterday: “Anyone else think Radiohead has spent 10 years desperately trying to drive away its audience?”

I didn’t think it was so controversial. Radiohead’s releases through the past decade, starting with Kid A, have been either “challenging” or “infuriating.” Abruptly shifting from searing, tuneful guitar rock to electronica is perilously close to Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, of which Stephen Thomas Erlewine says, “There has never been a clearer attempt to shed an audience.”

Like Dylan, Radiohead seemed to struggle with the burden of expectation. Like Kurt Cobain, they didn’t ask to be the voice of a generation. Exorcising a few demons with some electronic experiments isn’t the worst way to deal with the situation.

Some artists come back from the experience and fare well — Dylan released his masterpiece Blood on the Tracks just five years after Self Portrait, and he rebounded from a confusing religious phase in 1983 with Infidels.

Other artists haven’t destroyed their old popular image quite so dramatically. I once told a friend of mine that Indigo Girls “rock.” He was surprised to hear that, being more familiar with their old two-guitar, three-chord music. But he changed his mind after hearing a few songs from their 1997 album Shaming of the Sun, which includes the cranked-up Scooter Boys and Caramia, which sounds like the Great Lost Yes Song. (Another recommended download: Tether, from 2004.)

Some of my Twitter friends agreed with me, including some who never agree with me about anything. The best comment was from Steve Sirk: “They know that whatever they do will generate a tidal wave of rote fawning, so why bother being good anymore?”

Others weren’t so pleased, accusing me of wanting bands to stick with “palatable rock for the mainstream.” GingeFC: “so you’re saying that a band should never evolve or grow musically? That’s boring.”

In my defense, I immediately tossed up the argument that I’m a Rush fan who stuck with them through various keyboard experiments that drifted far afield from their power-prog roots. I’d also point out that I’m still buying Suzanne Vega music, and she’s not doing anything as commercial as Luka or Left of Center anytime soon.

And these days, what is “palatable rock”? I’m not sure where to find actual rock on the radio or even on these 200-channel Web-streaming services. I’d have better luck finding a Web radio station that plays Nigerian folk music than I would finding a station that plays Paul McCartney’s 21st century work. If Radiohead released The Bends today, would it get any airplay, or would some Adult Alternative radio programmer gripe that the guitars are too loud at the end of Fake Plastic Trees?

Given the state of rock radio, I’m not sure being experimental is any less risky than being traditional. If you’re not U2, you’re not getting played today if you’re over 40 and play electric guitar. (Dave Matthews usually plays acoustic. See, I anticipate counterarguments.)

So what’s my problem with Radiohead? I suppose, as I hear their 21st century output, I hear more pretension than melody. Rush kept writing musical hooks, no matter how convoluted the arrangement got. Radiohead seems to think they’re too commercial.

And lyrically? Yeah, you’re alienated. We get it.

So I’ll give the new one a chance, just in case they’ve done a Yes-like turn back into interesting musical and lyrical territory. And ultimately, I admire Radiohead for taking risks. But the audience has to realize that, sometimes, those risks don’t pay off.

Monday Morning Music: Steve Miller Band, “Fly Like an Eagle”

Steve Miller has a lot of memorable and memorably flawed songs. The Joker invented the word “pompatus,” which remains undefined. Take the Money And Run rhymes “Texas” and “facts is.” Abracadabra rhymes “abracadabra” and “grab ya.” Jet Airliner has a non sequitur synthesizer intro that segues into an unadorned run through the rhythm track, as if trying to teach teen guitarists the chords before launching into the song itself.

But before we sum up Miller’s career as a classic party-rock guy (nothing wrong with that), we have one song that that stands out as a true work of art:

Musically, it’s an impressive fusion of blues guitar licks, a shuffle beat and synthesizers. The synths are necessary, not obtrusive, transforming the song into a dreamscape. It’s a fantasy, or perhaps a blues prayer.

And that’s the perfect setting for the lyrics, basically summing up Miller’s wishes to meet children’s needs and house the homeless.

It’s a beautiful song. And timeless. It’s as relevant today as it ever was.

The video is fairly typical 1970s stuff, filmed before people really explored what they could do with video. It has a couple of psychedelic effects and Miller laboring with a double-neck guitar for some reason. Feel free to shut your eyes.

The topsy-turvy TV season

This TV season is proof that we shouldn’t give up on solid comedies just because they get stuck in a rut. They all have ups and downs.

The stock report:

Saturday Night Live: The cast has slowly evolved into one of the best in the show’s 3.5 decades. Bill Hader is the glue guy, like Phil Hartman or Dan Aykroyd before him, capable of filling almost any role. The female cast, still empowered from the Tina Fey era, includes versatile talents such as Kristen Wiig and Nasim Pedrad. Andy Samberg brings the viral video, Seth Meyers is a solid Weekend Update anchor, and the supporting cast is deep.

The Simpsons: Erratic in recent years, sure, but sometimes first-rate. Fine example: Tonight’s episode with Marge’s hair.

Family Guy: Suffering through its worst season. Brian has been transformed from the voice of reason on the show to an irredeemable prick. Seth is indulging his love of musicals, old films and Star Wars films into bland shot-for-shot remakes in which the writers simply forget to write jokes.

The Office: Up and down. The last two weeks, centering on Michael and Holly, have been terrific. On the downside, Jim and Pam have been pushed into the background. (What is it with these shows and the voice of reason?)

30 Rock: Always erratic. Frankly, I’ve never forgiven them for dumping Rachel Dratch from the original cast. But they usually manage to have a few memorable lines.

Community: Brilliant. Not every week, because they take a few risks and occasionally miss. But again, that’s the point.

So that’s why I have no patience with the “Oh, SNL hasn’t been good since Belushi/Hartman/Ferrell/Fey left” or “I can’t watch The Simpsons any more” crowd. They’re just confusing cynicism with intelligence.