Category Archives: Music

Little Drummer Boys

Now that we’re mired in the Season of Christmas, I have a confession to make. Of late, I’ve become something of a Scrooge over Christmas music.

I haven’t always been this way. Since I’ve been married, my wife and I have made a tradition of buying one Christmas album a year, and we’ve amassed quite a collection during our marriage. And it’s quite eclectic – I tend to like the quirky stuff like Captain Sensible’s One Christmas Catalog, and my wife is more a traditionalist. Starting on Thanksgiving, I’d slowly start to incorporate Christmas songs into my iTunes playlists, until by the final week it was 100%.

Single_Harry_Simeone_Chorale-The_Little_Drummer_Boy_coverThen a few years ago somebody at Clear Channel got the idea to stunt a Cleveland radio station by going 100% Christmas music starting a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving. It was kind of cool… but then the next year, everybody was hopping on the bandwagon, the stuff was everywhere and the Halloween costumes were barely moved to the clearance rack. That’s when I began the arcane practice of banging my head on the steering wheel during trips across the FM dial.

I became more and more enscrooged about it until this year. Maybe it’s because I’m no longer working in advertising, and therefore have not been writing about Christmas since July. Or maybe it’s because I no longer have to wake up to the stuff. But I’m back in the mood of voluntarily listening to Christmas music.

Now there are a couple of songs I don’t care for that will have me reaching for the iPod and dialing up my Jandek playlist. The 12 Days of Christmas is the worst holiday song ever, in my opinion, being tedious, repetitious, boring and… I don’t care. Not far behind it is The Little Drummer Boy.

But there’s a big difference between the two. That is, while I have yet to hear a version of 12 Days I like, there are some Drummer Boys out there I have become friends with. Thanks to my unscroogeness this year, and to a friend who apparently adores this song and has been posting versions of it daily on his Facebook page, I decided to come clean and do a countdown of my favorite versions of The Little Drummer Boy.

So here they are. And be warned: These are the only ones!

5. Mannheim Steamroller
Because they made it sound like prog. And I loves me some prog.

4. Dandy Warhols
To paraphrase something from another friend of mine, the Dandy Warhols are my favorite band whenever I’m listening to them. And you know that even though they’re singing this one, they don’t mean it.

3. Michael Franti and The Blind Boys of Alabama
Makes the story what it should be: a narrative. And the Boys bring it with gospel.

2. Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Who would’ve thunk it? This odd couple really works. And ever a sucker for multiple vocal parts, I like the intertwining of the two songs.

1. Miracle Legion
I love the stripped down arrangement and the odd harmonies. Who were these guys? And were their originals as good as this cover?

Happy holidays, and may all of your Scrooges be slight!

Update 12/20/2012: So today I am reminded of my sins. I was wrong. There is one version of The Twelve Days of Christmas that I like. But ONLY this one:

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Five Reasons Why I Don’t Do the Grammys

“And lo, all across the land there was a great ourcry,
with wailing and gnashing of teeth and shaking of fist,
for in the west it was the time of the gramophone,
and the people, while they were vexed at what they saw,
could not help but watch.

Once again we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Grammy Awards. I didn’t even know they were on until this morning, when I opened up Facebook and found several friends posting about the results in dismay. As if they couldn’t have guessed what was going to happen. Can the leopard change its spots, after all? What else do you expect from an event that, each year, gives Lady Gaga the chance to dress like an animal rights activist’s nightmare?

As a recovering Oscar addict, I know what it’s like to succumb to the allure of the cult of personality (to coin a phrase). But the Grammies have never held much allure for me, even though I’m big on music. Maybe it’s because they’ve never been big on the same kind of stuff I was.

But just for the sake of reference, here are five reasons why I don’t bother with this annual pat-yourself-on-the-back fest. Reading and acknowledging them is the first of twelve steps to freedom:

1) Any time any industry gives an award to itself, it is immediately suspect. They tend to be petty and incestuous. Trust me on this. I work in advertising, an industry that has nothing on Hollywood when it comes to giving one’s self awards. Also, I used to be able to vote for such an award in a different part of the entertainment field, and there wasn’t a year that went by that wasn’t filled with bile, backstabbing and brutality.

2011 Best New Artist Winner Esperenza Spalding. One of the rare years the Grammys got it right. Still, if I were her I'd be worried about my career.

2) 1979 – The band Taste of Honey – those perennial favorites – win the Grammy for Best New Artist. The losers that year? A bunch of folks you’ve probably never heard of: Toto, The Cars, Chris Rea and Elvis Costello.

3) 1989 – For the first time, the Grammys give an award for best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. The winner? Not Jane’s Addiction. Not Metallica. The award went to… Jethro Tull. Now don’t get me wrong, I likes me some Tull, but Metal they ain’t. (When Metallica did win a couple of years later, they thanked Jethro Tull for not having an album out that year.)

4) 1990 – Best New Artist: Milli Vanilli. Enough said.

5) The Grammies are named after a useless and out of date piece of technology. Maybe they should be named after the Phonograph… the Phonies? Ooops. How about the Compact Disc? The Seedies! Oops again. Well, then they have to be renamed after their big bone of contention, the mp3. The “Mpties.” Well, maybe they should stick with Grammy.

The 21 Best Albums of the 21st Century

When the last decade ended, all of my Last.fm friends fired up their iPods and word processors to turn in their lists of the 21 best albums of the 21st Century. I wanted to do this too, so I fired up the Quantum Computer to do a peek ahead and determine what 21 albums truly would typify humanity’s musical efforts over the next century. Here are the results.

2001 – 2010

Illinois – Sufjan Stevens. The second album of Stevens’ “50 States Project” (which we know now turned into the “53 States and Two Planets Project”).

The Hazards of Love – Decemberists. We must not ignore this recording, which became the basis of the Margaretist religion in 2076.

2011 – 2020

Who Cares? – The Who. After Daltrey’s unfortunate demise in The London Catastrophe, Pete soldiers on with Pino Palladino, Zack Starr and Fee Weybill on vocals – proving that The Who was always about Pete anyway.

The Best of Dial-A-Tune (Volume 4). Being able to compose your own music on your cell phone and share it globally brought about the second collapse of the music industry. This volume is the most representative of why music should have been left to professionals.

2021 – 2030

Borg – Moby. After having the BioPort Implant in his brain, Richard Melville Hall had merely to jack in and think to create new music. This is the best of the 51 albums he created this decade.

Star Wars, Episode 7: The Wrath of Han – Soundtrack. While people complained that this score was derivative of the previous six, most folks were glad to see Lucas back in the director’s chair – although they’re doubtful he can finish the third trilogy before his 100th birthday.

2031 – 2040

4nick8 – StripHop. Rap and hip hop stripped melody from music, and StripHop stripped out everything else that remained. That music these kids listen to – it’s just noise. Literally.

The White Album – The Beatles. Once again, remastering the album in the DCI (Direct Cranial Inject) format brings out nuances that every other format in history somehow missed.

2041 – 2050

The Lyrical World of Walt Disney – Walt Disney. After finally having been thawed out and reanimated, Uncle Walt proves that he still has the power to touch the heart.

Wind Howls of the Martian Prairie – (Field Recording). Where the whole planetary ambient noise movement began.

2051 – 2060

Hammers and Boxes Being Thrown Down Stairs – Hammers and Boxes Being Thrown Down Stairs. Includes the evergreen hits 6th Floor of the Des Moines Public Library and TransmegaCorp Parking Garage, Eugene, OR (8th floor remix).

(Still) Stoned – Keith Richard. More rock and roll from the last surviving member of the Rolling Stones.

2061 – 2070

Wizards: The Centennial Hits Collection – The Who. The 1,348th compilation from the seminal 20th century band.

Songs From World War IV (Soundtrack) – Ken Burns, Jr. Another reason why the ’40’s were the decade of nostalgia.

2071 – 2080

Star Trek: The Musical – Soundtrack. The dazzling songs and score, as composed by the Andrew Lloyd Webber v. Stephen Sondheim Intralinear Emulator.

Device 227-1-A – Device 227-1-A. A landmark! The first all-machine recording, released by the first all-machine music distribution service.

2081 – 2090

The Long, Long, Long Note (Volume XXVII) – Brian Eno. In the latest of his posthumous releases, the eccentric musician surprised everyone by adding a second note during the seventh hour of this recording.

Superluminary – Michael Jackson. Supposedly the last of his archived recordings, this was a huge bestseller. In fact, it sold so well that three more crates of tapes were found after this topped the decade’s Quantum Being list.

2091 – 3000

Second Contact – Z!pf^!. While some accused this album of being a novelty of noise, the creatures from 51 Pegasi transcended their first album, which consisted of Frank Zappa covers.

1001 Strings Play the Hits of Frank Sinatra – 1001 Strings. The history of popular music begins all over again.

Bonus (#21)

Hymns of Allegiance – Our Cyborg Masters. By law, this album must be on this list.

“And lo, Satan entered unto a land of the south”

Here’s a little bit of lunacy that I wrote for the journal of my Last.fm account. I thought it was neglected and decided to give it a run here. Enjoy!

The Book of Daniels, Chapter 13
1. And lo, it came to pass that people called on the Lord.
2. And because of those souls that which would be lost to Satan were saved, Satan did miss his quota.
3. But Satan, being clever, sought to complete his quota through trickery, and he said unto himself,
4. “Self, I shall go into the world, and I shall bargain with men for their souls,
5. And they being a foolish and proud lot, shall seek to take the bargain, but fail, and so I shall steal their souls.”
6. And so Satan went down into a land of the south, a place where nuts and soft fruit grow on trees, a land through which a great general once marched.
7. It was there that he came upon a young man whose name was John who was of fair countenance. He was a musician of great talent, and he played a small harp which he tucked under his neck.
8. Lo, Satan approached John, and he said unto him,
9. “I would strike a bargain with you. It mayest not be known to you, but I play the harp tucked under my neck as well.”
10. Satan showed John his harp. Behold, it was made of precious metal and inset with valuable gems. Satan said, “I see that you are of great talent, but I say mine is greater.
11. I propose a contest, and if your talent proves greater, you shall take my harp,
12. but if my talent proves greater, I shall take your immortal soul.”
13. John said unto Satan, “May the Lord forgive my pride, but I accept this challenge. You shall regret this challenge, O Satan, for there has never been one with such talent as I!”
14. And lo, all the angels sang,
15. “Oh, John, preparest thyself and thine harp of the neck,
For lo, these lands have been stricken, and Satan, he is a cruel master,
And should you prevail, you shall take Satan’s harp of precious things,
But woe to you if you lose, for it shall cost you your soul!”
16. Now Satan produced his harp of the neck, and he spake unto John, saying, “I shall begin.”
17. And thus he began to play, and when he did, his fingers, they were as flames and the sound he produced was as a great caterwaul.
18. And lo, his underlings began to play, and it sounded thusly.
19. Now when Satan was finished, John said unto him,
20. “O, Prince of Darkness, you have shown yourself adequate in my eyes! Now may the Lord forgive my pride, but if you will seat yourself, I will shew thee the proper ways of the neck harp.”
21. And lo, John did then play a selection of popular music
22. And the music did enjoin the listener to flee from fire,
23. And accused Satan of divining by use of the stars and planets
24. And observed the behaviors of barnyard animals
25. And queried an elderly crone about the nature of her guardian beast, and a youth was assured that it was indeed tame.
26. Now when Satan heard John play, his countenance fell, for he knew that a mere man had bested him.
27. He fell on the ground and laid his precious instrument before John and did not look him in the eye.
28. And John said unto Satan,
29. “Fouler of nations! If you want to get back that which is precious to you, return to me at any time.
30. For verily, I have already told you, thou offspring of curs, that there has never been one with talent such as I!”

A Nice Father and Son Thing to Do (Wife Included)

Tuesday evening I did something unusual – I was the opening act for my son.

Sort of.

Since my son has been in town to attend a series of weddings, my wife got the idea that we should all go to Muggswigz for Open Mike night. Natrually, this would entail his playing some songs off of his album and me playing some of my songs. Neither of us felt we were ready, but we had a few days to do some fever pitched rehearsing. Then I packed up my guitar and the keyboard I bought to do use in home recording (cheaper than a bass guitar and drum machine, and more versatile with all those voices inside it) and the three of us set off.

On the way we joked about who was going to open for whom. I also kept encouraging my son to plug his album, threatening to do it for him if he didn’t.

So we arrived at Muggs and dragged all the stuff in (guitar in case, keyboard and it’s attendant plugs and pedals, plus the stand) and settled in. I called Henry J to see if he wanted to come and play, too – in a conversation we’d had earlier, he’d complained that he hadn’t played out lately). He showed up without a guitar, just there to lend moral support for my son and I.

We got signed up. By the time we got to the sheet, the first four slots were open and five through nine had been taken. My son signed up for slot four, I took three, and an opening act was born. Then we waited.

My wife, bless her heart, showed great restraint. She loves to see us do this sort of thing and wants us both to do well at these things, and her tendency is to want to coach and offer advice beforehand. But son and I were so nervous that she didn’t. The only thing she did was, during the first open mike performer of the evening, she reminded me to take slow, deep breaths to relax. I did. It helped.

Since the last time I played out and wasn’t sure if I liked doing it, I’ve been playing in front of people more. I’ve done a couple of sound checks during shoots of Random Acts of Music tapings, and Henry J and I have jammed some – and during those times I realized that I was becoming less and less self-conscious and paralyzingly nervous before playing. All that and my fevered rehearsals paid off. When my time came and I got up to play, I didn’t have that paralyzing “hands of Jell-O” feeling that I’d been prone to earlier.

I also was playing more with my stage persona. I made a point to talk more between songs and tried to make the kind of witty comments that I throw in during conversations with friends. I should also add that I had earlier taken Henry J’s advice and rehearsed with a microphone so I could get used to singing into it.

All of this stuff paid off. This was a corner-turning performance for me. Going in I was convinced that playing out was not something I wanted to do. Now I think it’s something I can do. So new piece of advice from me: the rule is, if you’re going to play out, do it at least three times before you decide whether you’re going to keep it up or not.

I won’t bore you with the details (I’ve decided it’s not my place to review myself), but this was my set-list:

Wish I Were
One More Cigarette
Going to Texas #4

Finishing that, it was my son’s turn to play. We got the keyboard set up, and he was off. He was nervous at the idea of doing patter between songs, so he limited his comments to making a joke about being from the Twin Cities and the accent we all associate with that area. And yes, he plugged his album, too. He played three songs from Start:

Jazz & Vicodin
Wanda
This College Life

I don’t know if I’m qualified to review my son’s performance, either, but he did really well. This was a corner-turning performance for him, too. He said he didn’t like playing live, but I was passing on wisdom from Henry J about the importance of playing songs before an audience, and I think that helped convince him to try (plus the extra nudging from his mother!). After he played, he said he enjoyed it, and I think that like me, the terror in the idea of performing was gone (there’s still stagefright, but that’s another thing). And bless his heart, Henry J was only too happy to offer critique and answer my son’s questions about all aspects of the music biz – I think that helped.

A couple of notes about his performance. When he started, he really got people’s attention. I don’t know if it was because he was the only keyboard player that night, or if it was because of his unique style of songwriting. People who were out of line of sight stopped what they were doing and walked around a corner to see what he was up to. And during the rollicking Wanda the audience started to clap along – and it wasn’t started by me or my wife. That wasn’t something we would have thought of doing, and if we had, I’m sure he could have disapproved. But one guy waiting for his latte at the bar started in and poof! – everyone joined it. It was a really cool moment for him, I’m sure.

During the postmortem on the drive home, we realized we should have played something together. A while back ago, before his move to the Twin Cities, I gave him a primitive recording of Going to Texas #4 with the idea of him doing backup vocals on it. For that matter, I could have sung the extra parts on Jazz & Vicodin or Wanda. We also talked about dragging my wife into things – she sang on his recording of Ti Dot Matre, and she and I have been working on a cover of Carpet of the Sun by Renaissance.

Or for that matter, we could collaborate on some kind of song. But that’s a project best left to the next time he comes home.

Meantime, I’m thinking about a new set of songs to play at Muggs in the near future…

Smoooooooooth Jazz

When I was in college, one of my crowd was an aspiring jazz guitarist of considerable talent. And one of his guitar heroes was Joe Pass. Okay, I’m a few decades in coming around to my friend’s way of thinking, but here’s a video that shows why Pass is so revered. The fact that he’s playing with the redoubtable Oscar Peterson is mere icing on the cake.

Stage Persona Non Grata, or, Can I Find the Real Me?

One of my duties, so to speak, with Random Acts of Music is The Henry and Joe, a talk show starring Henry J and myself, done for his internet radio station, Random Acts of Radio. In this show, we roll tape (well, actually, spin hard drive) and talk off the top of our heads for around thirty minutes. Sometimes we even stay on the music-related topic that I introduce.

The most recent show we taped, #13, was about the seeming inability of American acts to write fun, upbeat songs. And somehow or another, while discussing this subject, we got onto the subject of stage names and the personae that go with them. Henry said he liked my stage name, Mr. Faust, and wondered aloud what kind of stage persona I was going to have.

I thought, good question. I thought I was just going to be me.

Then I realized something that might be the key to this near-paralyzing stagefright I’ve been dealing with when I get up to play.

I’ve been thinking what an odd anomaly it is. After all, I’ve gotten up to speak in front of churches, civic clubs, classrooms, and skeptical clients and held forth on a number of topics. Sometimes I’ve had notes, other times not. Especially when I talk about writing. I just turn on my mouth and go. And though I have butterflies before hand, they leave when I get up and start speaking.

Ditto when I lead singing at church. Some butterflies, but nothing that doesn’t leave when the job starts.

And ditto ditto when I’m on stage in a community theater production. The worst jitters I get are opening night, and while I might be jumpy before going on for a big scene even on closing night, I always manage to go out and mostly get the job done.

So why the case of shakes that gets so bad that I can hardly strum?

I think Henry inadvertently hit on something when he asked me what my stage persona is.

I don’t have one.

See, in all of the other situations, I know who I am or what my mission is. I’m Joe Faust, an Elder in the Church, giving a lesson or leading the congregation in worship. I’m Joe Clifford Faust, author, spewing out information about writing. Or I’m somebody else – Norman Bulansky or Victor Velasco or Bob Ewell, and my job is to make the audience cry or laugh or hiss.

But when I’m out there with my guitar, well… in the words of the Firesign Theater, Who am us, anyway?.

I guess it’s just me. Joe. With a guitar.

I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before. At Church I have a goal in mind, and in every other situation I am technically somebody else. No wonder I’m scared. I don’t know how to be just me in a situation like that.

So I need to be somebody else. I need a stage persona.

That shouldn’t be so hard. Look at Johnny Cash – the Man in Black. Look at both David Bowie and Madonna, both of whom went through stage personae like they were tissues (facial or bathroom, take your pick). Ever seen David Byrne in Stop Making Sense and then seen an interview with him? In the former he commands the stage, in the latter he’s jittery and awkward, and doesn’t make eye contact with the interviewer.

The odd thing is, I might have been subconsciously reaching for something like this but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And it might have even started with everything I went through trying to pick out a stage name.

However, I’ve had other things trickle through my mind over the last several months. I went through a period where I thought about getting a hat to wear on stage. I have a ton of baseball caps – I thought about wearing a different one every time I play. But that idea didn’t click for me (although I do wear them a lot – maybe wearing one would be too much me on stage). But I couldn’t find anything else I liked that wasn’t stupid (Pith Helmets) or that weren’t being used by others with great success (Berets and Fedoras and Pork Pies).

I thought about clothing, but I’m not exactly a clothes horse or someone with an extensive wardrobe. About the only thing I could do would be wear all gray – I gravitate toward that color. But that would kill my wife, who (no doubt, correctly) thinks I look better in other colors.

Quite by accident, I realized that every time I have played Muggswigz, I have appeared with a different guitar. No. That could get ridiculously expensive, and I’d never get it past the aforementioned wife.

After the incident taping The Santa Song, I theorized that wearing sunglasses might obstruct my view of the audience and make me less fearful. But that’s kind of silly, too, I think (and again my wife would complain because I’d be covering up what she calls my expressive eyes).

(It occurs to me that if I got a divorce, I could become this grey-wearing, fedora-topped guy in sunglasses playing all the coffeehouses – but I’d no doubt be miserable as a result – the classic tortured artist, I suppose. On the other hand, maybe that’s the problem. I’m basically a happy guy. Maybe I’m not tortured enough. Perhaps my wife and I could start shooting heroin together like the Cobains.)

Probably the best thing I could do is just keep playing in front of people and learn how to be myself in the process. I’m not sure I like that idea. I’ve gotten rather used to the idea of being someone else in situations like that. And I had no idea how prevalent that has been in my life until now. I am thinking of the personality change I underwent when I ended up getting married to a gregarious girl from Ohio. I went from being outgoing to much more the quiet observer. I explain it this way: when our personalities started to click, I let my wife be outgoing for me because I realized that inside of me was an introvert who was just dying to stay in.

And now that introvert is supposed to get up on a stage with a guitar and be himself while playing songs for people. Especially since I’m not sure who the real me is.

Heh, yeah. That makes sense.

About as much sense as leading worship service. Or being in plays.

Well, they say that introverts have a switch they flip to be able to do things like this. I obviously have one for Church Leader, Actor, and Guest Speaker. I just need to find the one for Singer Songwriter and learn how to trip it.

It’s got to be there somewhere.

And if I can’t find it? Then I’m going to write a letter to David Bowie and see if he has any unused personae laying around.