Muscle Memory Liner Notes, Part 1

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

I released Western Blot's debut album Muscle Memory in November, so here are some notes on the recording process, song by song.

Track 1: ETC

There are a couple of stupid jokes embedded in the first song on Muscle Memory. One is that "ETC" is an acronym for the lyric "entirely too comfortable" and not the abbreviation for "et cetera," And of course "etc." would be a counterintuitive phrase to put at the beginning of something (and I'd never make a song with that title because there's no topping R. Kelly's "Etcetera").

There's also some semi-intentional bitter irony in opening the album with the lyric "patience is a virtue, well lately I don't know about that" because of just how long this record took to put together and release. It was always a strong candidate for the first track on the album, and as the years dragged on, it seemed right to open the record with a song about procrastination and missed opportunities. The recording of Muscle Memory spanned pretty much my entire twenties -- there's a bit on the album I recorded at 19, and we finished it up a bit after I turned 30. But it wasn't an epic Chinese Democracy effort of hundreds of hours of recording, there was a lot of just accumulating ideas here and there, letting them sit for a couple years, then coming back to them until they became real songs.

I've been intent on making music since I was 10 or 11 years old, when my mom's house got MTV and I went crazy for Guns 'N Roses and Pearl Jam, started playing percussion in school band, and filling notebooks with "lyrics" (I didn't have music to go with the words, but I was always writing words for "songs" with verses and choruses, never thought of it as poetry, and of course for many years most of it was hilariously bad). I got my first drum kit at 13 (and the kick drum from that set is what I still use today and played throughout Muscle Memory), and soon started playing in bands with my brother and friends. But we mostly just jammed or learned covers, and I learned that it's hard to really write songs from behind a drum set. I once threw my "lyric" notebook open for my bandmates to try and use but nothing ever really came of it.

I loved drumming and didn't particularly want to learn guitar, so in my teens I started to think that what I really needed was a keyboard. I'd start to love what a lot of new wave and classic rock bands had done with synths in the '70s and also some of the contemporary indie and punk bands were starting to use synths more at the time in the '90s, so for Christmas one year in high school I asked for a keyboard and my mom got me a Casio. And, like the kick drum I got at 13, that Casio is still what I use all the time and play all over Muscle Memory.

I got a Tascam 4-track in college and started to just record a lot of little keyboard ideas and just let them pile up. "ETC" was one of the first things I came up with where I had 2 different parts that I realized would fit together as a verse and a chorus. Around the same time, I wrote a draft of the chorus lyrics in one of my Towson University notebooks, but it would be years before I thought to put those words to that music. For a long time I just kept recording instrumental demos and writing lyrics but not really putting together music and lyrics successfully or recording my voice at all, I knew I wanted to write songs with lyrics but didn't particularly want to sing.

Around that time I befriended Mat Schulman (now Mat Leffler-Schulman), who was a few years older than me and finished college around the time I started college. We loved a lot of the same bands and went to shows together, he had a fan website for Soul Coughing and we went and saw them before they broke up, and he was a Prince fanatic who turned me onto a lot of Prince stuff I'd never heard before. Like me, Mat was a drummer who played in guitar bands but also dabbled in synths, and he made 3 albums under the name Mons full of weird spacey Brian Eno/Trans Am experiments with synths and drum machines. So I was really inspired by that and would make Mat tapes of my demos and made plans with him to record my stuff with him.

So around the time I was finishing college and playing drums in a weird metal band called Zuul, every few weekends I'd put my drums and my keyboard in my car and go down to Takoma Park and record with Mat at Olympus Mons Studio, which was in his basement. We recorded instrumental tracks for about a dozen songs, some were just just drums or drums and a single synth line, some were pretty complete arrangements. And then Mat moved into a new house with his wife Emily, and so we made a CD of rough mixes of those tracks before he packed up the studio

After we mixed down those Takoma Park demos, Mat ended up not setting his studio back up in the next house he moved into, and we didn't work on music again for a few years. I focused on writing about music and my freelancing career started to take off, so that took up a lot of the time I used to spend on making music. And then, Mat and his wife Emily decided to move to Baltimore and start a studio in Charles Village, and Mobtown Studios was born. I helped them paint some of the rooms, helped out with PR and various Mobtown projects and was really excited for them to get involved in the Baltimore scene and for Mat to realize one of his longtime ambitions. And eventually, after Mat got settled in at the studio and made it a viable business, he invited me to finish my record at a real studio.

We kept some of the Takoma Park recordings and kept adding to them for the final Muscle Memory tracks, but "ETC" was one song where we basically scrapped the entire Takoma Park version and started over. The original was pretty much the same without the intro and with minor differences in the outro, but it was a few clicks slower, mostly because I was really married to this syncopated bassline that wouldn't have worked at a higher tempo, and wound up with something that really sounded kind of slack and subdued compared to some of the other songs. I have a habit of trying to make songs as fast as they can be without them being so fast they feel rushed or fall apart, and one of the few times I didn't do that, it didn't work out, so louder and faster was generally the guiding principle for this project.

So at Mobtown we started it from scratch, and I kind of had a eureka moment with the drums and came up with the snare fills on the chorus that give it this cool push and pull to the rhythm, and figured out a new bassline that worked well with the faster tempo. And it was one of the songs where Mat let me run the Casio through an amp and then mic'd the amp for the bassline to give it a nice dirty sound. My goal with the record was to really make a bombastic guitar rock album with no guitars, which meant always figuring out how to use distortion and mixing to give synthesizers the same kind of noisy attack that you get very easily with electric guitars, and Mat was really instrumental in making that a reality. I remember one day he put some filters on the synths in "ETC," which are most or all just my cheap Casio, and suddenly everything just popped so much more than it did the day I recorded it.

Mat listens to more instrumental music than I do, so I don't know if he ever really cared if I added vocals to the songs, but it was always my ultimate goal, and I write so much about rap that he kinda wondered if I was gonna put MCs on the song, but I always wanted it to be a rock record with sung vocals. And since I had very little ability or inclination to sing on the record myself, I settled on the idea to kind of make it a patchwork of different voices, and started thinking about local people from Baltimore bands that I might be able to ask.

I was working on a story about the short-lived Baltimore venue Lo-Fi Social Club once when I stopped by and one of the bands that was playing that night was called Vinny Vegas. And I was immediately struck by how great their singer's voice was, because even if you see a lot of awesome bands in tiny clubs, vocals are really their strong suit, so that always stands out. And I picked up an EP they had at the show. So when I was thinking of singers for the record, they came to mind, and I looked up their singer, Scott Siskind, and sent him an e-mail. "ETC" was really one of the easier songs on the album for me to sing and I could've used my own voice on it, but I knew it could be better with someone else on it (at one point we tried Andy Shankman on the song but didn't finish recording him, but he's sung it live many times now and sounds a lot more comfortable with it now than he did in the studio that day).

We recorded both of Scott's appearances on the album in the same night, and "Child Of Divorce" was kind of the delicate challenging one that we had to figure out first before moving on to the somewhat easier "ETC." I didn't write anything in the way of harmonies, but he ended up coming up with a great little backing harmony to add to the bridge. It's an odd song, vocally -- the first verse and the second verse each have a completely different meter and rhyme scheme, and the pre-chorus is an odd number of measures -- but Scott is so good and just nailed it.

The keyboard intro was one of the last things I recorded for the album. For a long time the song just started just hammering down on that one piano chord, kind of in homage to the beginning of the first Ben Folds Five record but also to the way a lot of old Neptunes productions would open with the first note of the song repeating 4 times. But as "ETC" became the clear candidate for the first song on the album, I felt like it needed something else at the beginning, so I took three bars from the pre-chorus melody and turned into an intro, kind of thinking of the way Bruce Springsteen's "10th Avenue Freeze-Out" opens with the horn riff from the bridge, and the way the E Street Band will stretch out and repeat that intro in concert, which I've been trying to do more and more with the "ETC" intro when we play it live.

Movie Diary

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

a) Spectre
So much of the press around this movie was about how Daniel Craig was openly was sick of playing James Bond that I kind of expected him to to just sullenly sleepwalk through the role and drag the entire thing down. So I was surprised that the moments of levity in Spectre are as effective as any of the Craig films, and that the whole thing is fun in kind of an on-the-nose way -- it opens with a bad guy toasting "to death!" and there is something inevitable yet totally justified and appreciated about Christoph Waltz being a bond villain and Monica Bellucci being a Bond girl.

b) Mr. Right
It's been over 20 years since Pulp Fiction inspired a wave of darkly humorous movies about the inner lives of hitmen, and for some reason it's still happening to some degree. This one is written by Max Landis, perhaps doomed by his name to forever make inferior "edgy" millennial versions of movies by previous generations, and is at least animated by spirited Anna Kendrick and Sam Rockwell performances before it kind of collapses into a far less charming Grosse Pointe Blank thing.

c) By The Sea
The Pitt-Jolie union began with them co-starring in a light, sexy movie about a faltering marriage, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and then it ended with a drab, depressing movie about a faltering marriage. I think they should've just made a sequel.

d) Creed
It still blows my mind that Wallace from "The Wire" is a bona fide movie star, I feel weirdly proud of Michael B. Jordan, just watching his career blossom into moments like Creed. I have a passing affection for Rocky movies and a weariness of boxing movies in general, but this movie really did a great job of breathing some new life into the familiar tropes of both, and by the end I was on the edge of my seat seeing how the final fight would end, they really shot and choreographed that fight incredibly well.

e) Sicario
Emily Blunt is maybe my favorite movie star out right now, and I thought it was badass that she got to star in this movie after producers had tried to change the screenplay's protagonist from a woman to a man. That said, outside of a couple of pretty gripping scenes, I didn't think much of it. 

f) Grandma
I enjoyed what a deliberately small scale, intimate movie this is -- it runs less than 80 minutes and basically covers one day in the life of 2 characters. And between this and "Grace And Frankie," Lily Tomlin is having a good run of playing lovably cantankerous hippie grandmothers. 

g) The D Train
I didn't even hear of this movie until I watched it on cable, but apparently last year it had "the 15th worst opening for a wide release film of all time." I thought I was just watching this amiable, unremarkable comedy about a high school reunion, with Jack Black playing the insecure nerd and James Marsden as the cool jock, but then in the first act it kind of took a surprising twist when they fuck. Unfortunately the rest of the movie kind of fails to really do or say anything funny or substantial about that plot point and it just becomes this weird flailing movie that is neither a regressive gay panic comedy nor a love story or really much of anything. 

h) The World According To Garp
A few years ago I read the John Irving novel and had kind of a love/hate relationship with it and often thought about how such a deliberately overstuffed book must've made for a strange movie. So it was interesting to finally watch it. I really never could visualize Robin Williams as Garp, though, and really very little of the casting worked for me, I definitely prefer the book, even if I still have issues with the book. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Last night I went to the "Stand For Standing Rock" benefit at DAR Constitution Hall and saw Dave Matthews, Graham Nash, Neko Case and Ledisi perform, and wrote about it for Rolling Stone.

(photo by Kyle Gustafson)

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Western Blot's debut album Muscle Memory is out on Bandcamp today. I worked on this album on and off for many years, playing every instrument and writing the lyrics, some of which were sung by folks from various Baltimore bands (Andy Shankman of Jumpcuts, Kathleen Wilson of Thee Lexington Arrows, Scott Siskind of Vinny Vegas, and Shawna Potter of War On Women). My old friend Mat-Leffler-Schulman recorded, mixed, and co-produced the record at Mobtown Studios, and the album artwork features sculptures made by Donald Edwards, photographed by my wife, Jennifer German-Shipley. This was a big passion project that I've waited a long time to share with people, I hope you check it out.

The album release party is on December 9 at Reverb.

TV Diary

Monday, November 21, 2016

a) "Search Party" 
I'm not a fan of TBS's whole thing of piggybacking on the Netflix "bingewatching" trend of making whole seasons of shows available all at once. But they put "Search Party" on demand today and I had a day off so I ended up watching about half the season, it's pretty good. They go a little thick on the 'annoying NYC millennials' thing in the pilot -- in the first five minutes of the show, the characters go to brunch, tweet, and play ukulele. But after they settle into the mystery that drives the plot, it becomes pretty fun. I liked John Early's episode of "The Characters" so it's cool to see him get a big role like this, he's responsible for a lot of the show's biggest laughs, and Alia Shawkat is kind of a perfect straight man for all the odd things going on. and always has great hair and adorable outfits.

b) "Undercover"
I watched the first episode of the 6-part BBC miniseries about a lawyer trying to exonerate a death row inmate, it was pretty bleak, don't know if I'll go back to it.

c) "Good Behavior"
I feel like this is one of those shows about a brilliant, creative character, in this case a con artist, that actually needs some brilliant, creative writing to actually work, and the pilot really just failed to pull that off.

d) "Mars"
This show's mix of documentary and dramatization is interesting, and it is exciting to think about the idea that humans could be going to Mars in our lifetime. But the dramatized parts mostly felt like a less compelling version of that Matt Damon movie.

e) "The Crown"
As period pieces become more and more common on television and the production values and attention to detail become lavish and impressive, I have a harder and harder time giving a damn about how well a show can depict 1947 England or whatever. John Lithgow as Wiston Churchill is a good choice, though.

f) "Stan Against Evil"
I love John C. McGinley and always thought he deserved to have a bright career in comedy after being improbably great in "Scrubs" all those years. So I'm pleased that, after a couple years on that stupid "Ground Floor" show, he's finally wound up with a promising star vehicle, created by Dana Gould (an underrated standup and a staff writer from the silver age of "The Simpsons"). The first couple episodes have gotten off to an odd, slow start but it's starting to grow on me as they give McGinley more dialogue, and it kinda feels like this show is doing a better job of translating the tone of the Evil Dead movies to a series than "Ash vs Evil Dead" itself.

g) "Jon Glaser Loves Gear"
This is a show on TruTV where Jon Glaser basically satirizes reality shows about cool guys doing cool adventurous stuff, so of course there's a lot of meta jokes and awkwardness and arguing. I enjoyed it, but not necessarily something I'm in a rush to keep watching.

h) "Desus and Mero"
It's weird as a Twitter user to be, I guess, proud of these guys for climbing out of the social media cesspool and becoming actual TV stars? I was skeptical when they did crap like "Guy Code" but it obviously worked because they ended up with their own show on Viceland. It's pretty good, something that I can flip over to if both "The Daily Show" and "Conan" are on commercial breaks. But I can never shake the feeling that Desus could actually write or create something really good if he wasn't glued to all these improv-driven projects with a less creative partner who tweets and speaks in all caps.

i) "Wolf Creek"
The 2005 film Wolf Creek was an extremely grisly, frightening horror flick about a killer in the Australian outback, one place where you can really genuinely might not be able to run for help. It was a memorable movie, but turning it into a series, with John Jarratt reprising his role as the killer, is kind of an unpleasant idea since it asks you to just live in that bleak world for a while instead of visiting it for a couple hours. He kills a whole family, including a child, in the first few scenes of the show, and then it kind of becomes about this girl looking for him and trying to avenge her family, which is a good way to turn it into a series, but I dunno, I'm not real into it.

j) "Timeless"
With all the high concept sci-fi shows thriving on TV right now, I guess a time machine show is inevitable. But this just a goofy NBC show where they go back to famous moments in history, and the pilot where they go back to the Hindenburg explosion had some really paltry visual effects. It's nice to see Malcolm Barrett from "Better Off Ted" in a network show again, but he has to play the black guy who goes back in time to the more racist past and it's just really uncomfortable how they wink at that idea as kind of a comedic device.

k) "Westworld"
I like this show but I'm also kinda treating it like "Lost," where I'm just watching and taking the story one scene at a time and letting the internet obsessives come up with their theories of where it's all headed. I am kind of impressed by how much they've been able to make me empathize with the characters that are robots, although I guess it helps that they have such a high caliber cast. Every time there's an extremely emotional scene with the hosts, I think about whether the dramatic score is actually being played for the guests to hear, like a video game. It's nice to see Jimmi Simpson get a meaty role in something this high profile, been rooting for the dude since "Breakout Kings."

l) "The Exorcist"
I liked this show from the beginning but was skeptical that it would ever grip me as much as the movie. But in the last few episodes it really grabbed me, even before the big reveal that the story basically takes place in the same narrative as the film and isn't a 'reboot' after all. Hannah Kasulka is doing a great job with the role of the possessed girl, the scenes where she has visions of 'The Salesman' are creepy as hell (although I miss 'Captain Howdy' being the nickname for the demon).

m) "Speechless"
I found this show likable right away, but more and more I think it's becoming one of the most laugh-out-loud new comedies this fall, Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie are really becoming one of those great sets of sitcom parents that are hilarious and inappropriate but also seem like real, genuine caring parents.

n) "The Good Place"
Another one of my favorite new shows that's been coming along well, the reveal with Manny Jacinto's character really kinda injected a grew new dynamic into the show when I wasn't sure how much mileage they'd get out of the initial dynamic between the characters.

o) "Red Oaks" 
I watched the whole first season of this last year and it left very little impression, so I thought I'd dip my toe in for the 2nd season, but it's still just incredibly an unfunny bag of '80s coming-of-age cliches. Even starting out the new season in Paris didn't really change any of that. It's weird that Steven Soderbergh, Hal Hartley and David Gordon Greene are involved with something this cheesy and bland.

p) "You're The Worst" 
The third season just wrapped up, and I like the way they kinda brought things to a head with the 3 couples on the show in the finale. But the really impressive episode was the one before that, which took place in a wedding and had several really long uninterrupted shots of the camera following multiple characters from room to room, it was really one of the more ambitious things I've seen a comedy do lately. Also I'm glad that Kether Donohue is finally getting some of the press she deserves. 

q) "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"
I enjoyed the undercover plot at the beginning of the season, but I'm glad they didn't draw it out too long and are back to 'normal.' That night where "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "New Girl" both had crossover episodes with each other was pretty pointless and anticlimactic, though. I guess the bar for sitcom crossover episodes is not very high, though.

r) "Drunk History"
This season has been pretty good, I'm so glad they brought Paget Brewster back, she's really one of their best drunk storytellers.

s) "American Horror Story"
This was the first season of "American Horror Story" that I actually finished, and I kinda wish I hadn't. I had a feeling that the narrator/reenactment structure would eventually have a twist, but once they did it halfway through the season, the whole thing got way less interesting to me and just turned into a "Blair Witch" found footage horror thing, and then the finale was just a barrage of stupid meta jokes.

t) "Shameless"
After 6 seasons that each ran from January to April every year, Showtime decided to speed up the "Shameless" schedule and put season 7 on in the fall. I think it's kind of a terrible idea, an aging show that's running out of ideas should probably take more time between seasons to put more thought into it or make you miss it instead of going back-to-back, but oh well. I just kinda watch it out of habit at this point. I'm almost bummed they passed up a chance to finally kill William H. Macy's character, I don't know how much more ridiculous and evil they can make him.

u) "Saturday Night Live"
I'm kinda torn between staying pissed at "SNL" for having Trump host last year and becoming a part of this whole awful effort to normalize his hateful candidacy and wanting Alec Baldwin to keep coming on the show and pissing Trump off. The Dave Chappelle episode was pretty great, but the whole thing with Hillary Clinton singing Leonard Cohen was just the corniest zeitgeist mashup ever.

Monthly Report: November 2016 Singles

Thursday, November 17, 2016

1. Mary J. Blige - "Thick Of It"
Mary J. has had so many signature songs that are either about her personal heartbreaks or the triumphant moments when she overcomes the drama that I've wondered if people have developed an unhealthy attitude about, like, celebrating her misfortune. And that seemed to be confirmed recently by the extremely creepy way many reacted to the news of her divorce, and how much that seemed to drum up interest around her new single. But it is her best single in a while, with DJ Camper bringing a bit of the regal sound of his biggest hit, Tamar Braxton's "Love And War," to a cathartic Jazmine Sullivan lyric. Here's the playlist of favorite 2016 singles that I add to every month.

2. OneRepublic - "Kids"
I have begrudging respect for Ryan Tedder, I tend to think of him as an adult contempo hack, but he's written a fair number of songs I really enjoy, including a few OneRepublic hits. I kinda wish he'd given this song to someone better, but it works with his voice.

3. Zara Larsson - "Ain't My Fault"
Zara Larsson of Sweden has released nothing but bangers this year, I don't even know how much I like her voice but I can't knock her track record. This song is produced by MNEK, her British duet partner from her breakthrough "Never Forget You," but it feels a little more in step with U.S. pop, almost like it could be a Rihject.

4. Fifth Harmony - "That's My Girl"
I'm glad this got picked as a single, that stupid watered down Mad Cobra interpolation was a lousy choice for the last single. Like most Fifth Harmony songs, it feels somehow behind the times, but it makes a good use of one of those once-trendy horn loops that helped propel "Worth It" up the charts.

5. Maxwell - "1990x"
I'm still kinda coming to grips with just how much I like blackSUMMERS'night but this song has grown on me a lot, he's really mining an interesting mix of 'live' elements and synths, the drums just sound fantastic.

6. Young Thug - "Digits"
I almost always prefer Young Thug when he's produced by London On Da Track, and so I was gratified that this Slime Season 3 track started to get some radio spins after the release of the London--free JEFFERY.

7. Niall Horan - "This Town"
One Direction has kind of split into these factions of the obvious solo stars (Zayn and Harry) and the capable songwriters who seem to be maneuvering more into a behind-the-scenes role (Liam and Louis), and I wasn't sure where Niall would fall into that. So I was pleasantly surprised that he released a solo single, which captures a lot of the charm of downtempo folky One Direction, even if he's really not one of my favorite voices and I miss the harmonies the group would've brought to this.

8. The Struts - "Put Your Money On Me"
British rock is so proudly stagnant that I almost kind of respect how shameless bands like The Struts are, who seem to pick up right where Australia's Jet left off in making lazy but catchy glammy riff rock.

9. Pitbull f/ Flo Rida and Lunchmoney Lewis - "Greenlight"
For nearly a decade, Pitbull and Flo Rida have been these kind of parallel Florida titans of pop rap blockbusters, but the first time they released a single together, 2013's "Can't Believe It," it surprisingly flopped, and this second time together doesn't seem to be doing much better. I like this one, though, it has a nice bassline.

10. Colbie Caillat - "Goldmine"
A couple weeks ago, I heard two new songs called "Goldmine" in the same day, and really liked both of them. One was by Jeezy, one was by Colbie Caillat.

Worst Single of the Month: Judah & The Lion - "Take It All Back"
I twisted up my face in skepticism the first time I heard this song, which opens with banjos and mandolins over a drum machine. And then I got to the second verse, where the guy actually sings "The people, they're dancin' along, they're dancin' along to the mando and some sort of hip hop beat" and it became legendarily awful.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

On December 9th I'm gonna have a Western Blot album release party at Reverb in Baltimore, and one of my other bands Golden Beat will also play. The Western Blot single "Sore Winners" is out now, album on the way soon.

Movie Diary

Monday, November 14, 2016

a) The Witch
This was well made and, like any worthwhile horror movie, had a tense score that elevated a few tense scenes from eerie to spine-tingling. But I felt like the movie's restraint and dedication to realism and historical accuracy ultimately didn't serve it that well as horror, and it ultimately felt kind of dry and bleak and uncomfortable in its violence, which I'm sure was deliberate but just didn't work for me.

b) How To Be Single
This is one of those breezy romantic comedies that is far too aware of rom-com conventions but ends up simply cataloging them more than inverting or satirizing or commenting on them. Probably the closest thing it gets to being funny is the Anders Holm/Alison Brie plot, but even there Holm basically plays Barney Stinson.

c) Tumbledown
A pretty charming dramedy with Rebecca Hall as the widow of a beloved folk singer and Jason Sudeikis as a guy writing a book about her husband. The movie dealt pretty interestingly with the intellectualized cult of death in popular music and how fucked up it is for the people who have to actually deal with such a death, but it also managed to be fairly light and charming, with Joe Manganiello doing a terrible Australian accent.

d) Carol
I've never been a huge Cate Blanchett fan but this was definitely a movie that she carried with considerable force (and wasn't in service of an otherwise shitty movie like Blue Jasmine). After a while it kinda felt like a rambling melodrama, though, I admired it more than I really felt it.

e) Joy
I feel like I will forever be watching David O. Russell movies and trying to figure out if he's talented or a hack or something in between. But I think what I realized watching this and (the much better but still not worth its acclaim) American Hustle is that he's a filmmaker who loves the sound of people arguing but doesn't know how to write dialogue that actually justifies or redeems all the loud yelling scenes. The fact that this was kind of a lavish biopic about a lady who sold a mop on QVC kind of made it intriguing and unique but I felt like the movie's marketing that tried to vaguely sell it as a more generically inspiring story really flattened the best parts, which actually got into the nuts and bolts of her success.

f) Shaun The Sheep
I just love everything Aardman Animations does, my son has watched the "Shaun The Sheep" series a ton and the movie did a great job of kind of stretching out the show's charm over a feature-length story. 

g) Everyone's Hero
Really weird movie my kid watched on TV that I never remember coming out in theaters, where a kid befriends a talking baseball (voiced by Rob Reiner) and a talking bat (voiced by Whoopi Goldberg). Who gave this the green light? 

Monday, November 07, 2016

My latest playlists for The Dowsers: Mary J. Blige rap collaborations, an overview of all 4 of Meek Mill's Dreamchasers mixtapes, and the best of D.R.A.M.

Saturday, November 05, 2016

The debut 4-song EP by my new band Woodfir is up on Bandcamp now. I played a show with Reda and Tim's old band Blood Horses a couple years ago, and Tim and I had been playing together and working on music for a while, which initially took the shape of the short-lived Maris Vera, which played one show last year, and now Woodfir. These are the first 4 songs we've finished, recorded and mixed by Doug Bartholomew and mastered by Mat Leffler-Schulman. I'm proud of it, I feel like each song is pretty distinct from each other. We played our first public performance last night, at a birthday party in Baltimore, and our first 'official' show should be happening soon.

TV Diary

Friday, November 04, 2016

a) "People Of Earth"
A sitcom about people who believe in alien abductions could go in a lot of directions, most of them not very promising, but I've really enjoyed the first 4 episodes of "People Of Earth." It kinda splits the difference between being an empathetic look at the personal problems of people who are obsessed with aliens and a wacky show about real aliens by taking this weird psychological, ambiguous approach on whether Wyatt Cenac's actually been visited or is just falling into the obsession himself. I don't know how long they can keep delving into both directions and keep it funny and interesting, but so far it's pretty good.

b) "Last Squad Standing"
This is a goofy reality show on Oxygen where three groups of friends live in a house together and jump through hoops to be the best 'squad' that wins a cash prize. I mainly watched the first episode because one of the groups is from Baltimore, and includes the pretty good local rapper Starrz, but the whole thing is really really stupid even by reality TV standards.

c) "Chewing Gum"
This British show is very entertaining and driven by a big personality, in some ways it reminds me of two other recent shows, "Fleabag" and "Insecure," that I look more. But that's not to say "Chewing Gum" is bad, it's pretty charming, but after a couple episodes I haven't really found myself hooked yet.

d) "Good Girls Revolt"
"Good Girls Revolt" is based on a book about women working at Newsweek in the '60s, but for whatever reason there's a weird mix of real and fictionalized details in the show -- the magazine is 'News of the Week' and some names have been changed, but some of the characters are real people, including Nora Ephron, who's played by Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep's daughter). I like the cast, but I dunno, something about the writing and the production values, it just doesn't really feel like it captures the era that well, and other shows like "Mad Men" and "Masters of Sex" have already tackled sexism in the '60s in prestige TV pretty recently so it doesn't feel particularly fresh or novel.

e) "The Great Indoors"
I saw Joel McHale on Colbert recently promoting this show, and they joked about how "Community" always lost in the ratings to CBS shows and how he kind of went 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em' and went and did a CBS sitcom. And it really is just the cheesiest, hackiest formulaic generational divid laugh track comedy, where McHale is the snarky Gen X guy versus a bunch of soft coddled millennials, including one played by the McLovin kid. It's really sad that McHale felt like he needed to go do a show like this, while his "Community" co-stars are off doing more interesting shows for FX and Netflix.

f) "Goliath"
There's ostensibly nothing wrong with Billy Bob Thornton's performance in "Goliath," but I think I'd like the show more with a different lead. The show has enough of a 'white male prestige drama antihero' vibe as it is, but whenever I see Thornton play a sexy cynical badass in something like this or Pushing Tin I just get the sense that that's how the guy really sees himself. I'm only 2 episodes in, and the 2nd episode featured the now incredibly cliche "shocking" scene where a character is abruptly hit by a car. Still, I really like the ensemble (particularly Molly Parker, Tania Raymonde, and Dwight Yoakam), and I'm intrigued by the story, which reminds me enough of better shows ("Terriers," "The Night Of") to keep me watching.

g) "Aftermath"
This SyFy show is about a family fleeing some kind of mysterious unexplained apocalypse, and what's most interesting about it is that so far there are no real rules. There's crazy weather phenomena, people acting possessed, fucking dragons flying through the sky, such a huge variety of weird shit happening that you really just don't know what will happen next. That set, the visual effects are just okay and I don't really care about the characters, so I'm not too hooked, I think my wife is into this show more than I am.

h) "Notorious"
Much like "Bull" is based on Dr. Phil's old job, this show is based on the life of someone who works in TV, a cable news producer, and it just feels like networks are dredging up whatever they can turn into a formulaic sexy drama. Kate Jenning Grant has a lot of fun in the show camping it up as this glamorous conceited TV host who hangs out with Puff Daddy, but the protagonist is her earnest producer played by Piper Perabo, so the show is kind of a drag, I'd enjoy it more if it was about Grant and let the show biz satire aspect of the show have a little more teeth.

i) "This Is Us"
"This Is Us" is the runaway network hit of the new fall shows, I guess because it works so hard at pushing emotional buttons that a sizable number of viewers just can't resist its calculated charms. I've tried watching it a bit beyond its mildly likable pilot, but I dunno, I'm just not feeling it, especially the jumps between the past and the present necessitated by the premise, which have meant Mandy Moore and Jon Huertas occasionally showing up caked in bad old-people makeup. There was a scene in last week's episode, however, where Mandy Moore sang Little Feat's "Willin'," which was even more surprising and surreal than hearing the song in "Roadies" over the summer.

j) "Ash Vs. Evil Dead" 
This show is fun for what it is, but it always feels like less than the sum of its parts. I almost wish they didn't have much better visual effects than the original movies, it's a good example of how modern CGI makes things blander. 

k) "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" 
I watched the first season of this show by myself, increasingly realizing that my wife would love it. So a few weeks ago I introduced her to it, and in the space of a week she binged the entire season, which was a good excuse for me to rewatch it and hear all the songs again. The second season's off to a strong start, the new theme song isn't as good as the first one, but I respect that they're probably going to change it every year, And I like how they've kinda culminated the relationship with Josh in a less than ideal way that gives the story somewhere to go. 

l) "Empire" 
I've kinda settled into accepting that "Empire" will never be as entertaining or essential as it was the first season, but it's still fun to put on in the background. I get very confused by the mix of music industry reality and fantasy, though -- like, there was a scene where Lucius meets with Birdman, who plays himself, and French Montana, who's playing some guy named Vaughn. Also, it cracks me up every time they refer to 'The Black And White Album,' like they say that phrase ten times an episode. 

m) "The Strain" 
The third season of "The Strain" just concluded and it's been renewed for a fourth and final season, and now that I know that I'm well past the halfway mark I feel like I'll probably stick with the show until the end. But man, I really don't care what happens on this show now. So little happened this season that even the action-packed finale wasn't that exciting. At one point I felt like Kevin Durand's character could've been kind of a fun character to root for but they really stopped doing anything interesting with him. 

n) "Years Of Living Dangerously" 
I never saw the first season of this NatGeo series about climate change, but the second season premiere was hosted by David Letterman, so I had to check it out. I mean, I'm kind of glad that Dave seems to be just enjoying his retirement and not clamoring to stay in the spotlight, but it's nice to see him do a little something, going to India and interviewing regular people about something serious. Cecily Strong was the co-host of the episode, and I sometimes found it distracting that she speaks seriously in a cadence that is extremely close to her The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party character from "SNL." 

o) "Black Mirror"
I watched the first episode of "Black Mirror" a couple years ago and kinda felt like the show wasn't for me. But I gave it another try with the new season, and watched a couple of the more widely praised episodes. "Nosedive" felt, well, very on the nose to me, and "San Junipero" was a bit more enjoyable because it was a love story with some interesting twists and kind of an optimistic conclusion. It's funny how divisive this show is, though, people will whip out "you wouldn't say that to Rod Serling" so fast if you criticize it.

p) "The Daily Show"
The idea that an election year would give Trevor Noah a chance to come into his own didn't quite pan out, at least in terms of Samantha Bee and some of the other late night hosts kind of upstaging "The Daily Show." But the show has been pretty damn good lately, and Michelle Wolf is a great addition to the correspondents, her latest segment was just insanely funny.

Monthly Report: October 2016 Albums

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

1. Meek Mill - DC4
It's hard to complain about how long the wait's been for DC4 considering how recent his last album was, and that Meek has spent a lot of the time since then on house arrest. But I've been pretty impatient for it since he first started posting snippets last October and released 8 songs 'from' the mixtape in January, because honestly, I knew he could bounce back from the Drake beef with the right record. And what I like about DC4 is it kinda ramps the tempos and the intensity back up after Dreams Worth More Than Money was a little slower and more restrained than it probably should'e been. But the more aggressive overall sound of DC4 helps the midtempo stuff like "Shine" and "Blue Notes" stand out more. Most of the albums I've listened to this year are in my 2016 albums playlist.

2. SiR - HER EP
SiR is a west coast R&B singer who's guested on some TDE projects, co-wrote a Jill Scott single, and released a really solid album last year. This 6-song EP creeps a little further toward something radio-friendly, which is fine by me, I'd love to see this guy become a mainstream star. His frequent collaborator, Baltimore's D.K. The Punisher, is on this project too, happy to hear more of his production.

3. Lady Gaga - Joanne
As someone who really loved pretty much all of Born This Way and even parts of ARTPOP, I was pretty optimistic about Lady Gaga's inevitable commercial decline and/or 'mature reinvention' period would still produce some good music whether or not she mounted a chart comeback. "Perfect Illusion" is so completely awful, though, that I lowered my expectations for this album, to the point that I was pleasantly surprised by the strong opening run. "A-YO" and "John Wayne" in particular make a good use of the campy synthetic Americana vibe she's mining on this album. But the album's 'dressed down' authenticity move feels kind of theatrical in its own way, she never stops singing in character, you picture her making those goofy claw hands while she sings in that exaggerated style she always has.

4. Pretenders - Alone
Chrissie Hynde spent the last few years writing and releasing songs outside of the Pretenders umbrella for the first time in her career (first with J.P., Chrissie & The Fairground Boys and then on the 2014 solo debut Stockholm), so I was kind of wondering if Pretenders would just become a touring act. Of course, as with many later Pretenders albums, Martin Chambers isn't even involved, so it's all a little arbitrary, but Chrissie Hynde can do what she wants, and in this case she wanted to do loose, conversational songs over spare bluesy rockers producer by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. I like the whole vibe of the album, just this 65-year-old rock god who's been married 3 times talking about how she's good just being alone now.

5. 2 Chainz - Hibachi For Lunch EP
2 Chainz was already having an incredibly good year after Daniel Son; Necklace Don a couple months ago, so I didn't expect him to follow it up so quickly with 7 more songs. It's so short that I dunno if it leaves as much of an impact, but between the songs with Gucci, Quavo, Ty Dolla $ign and Future, it feels like he's just throwing out so many potential hits to keep his momentum going. It's great to see an MC who seems to take himself lightly really step up the quality of his records like 2 Chainz has this year.

6. JoJo - Mad Love.
JoJo's 3rd album came out just a few days before the 10th anniversary of her 2nd album, which is a pretty amazing illustration of just how long someone can get stuck in career purgatory even after getting their career off to a strong early start. A lot of Mad Love. is the usual sound of a former teen star showing how cool and grown up they are, which can be be a little tiresome, but she has a good voice and the songs are occasionally memorable. "Music" is an affecting opener and "Honest" captures a particular idea so succinctly that I feel like it should be a single. This album, which has a Wiz Khalifa guest verse and a song called "Vibe," is like a more fully realized version of the kind of 'edgy Top 40' that the new Tove Lo album, which has a Wiz Khalifa guest verse and a song called "Vibes," is going for. They both even sing in the same kind of exaggerated pouty babydoll voice.

7. Daya - Sit Still, Look Pretty
I feel like Daya has already been kind of sidelined as the bridesmaid of the new crop of sensitive alt-pop heroines who've come out in the wake of Lorde that includes Tove Lo and Alessia Cara and Halsey -- even when Daya sang a huge Chainsmokers hit, it quickly got upstaged by a bigger Chainsmokers hit sung by Halsey. But Daya is doing pretty well considering that she's not on a major label, and this album has an earnest charm. All six of the songs from her 2015 EP are reprised here, and I'm amused that one of the new songs is called "I.C.Y.M.I."

8. Jeezy - Trap Or Die 3
It's been interesting to see Jeezy and Gucci Mane release new albums a couple weeks apart, given their very different parallel careers over the last 11 years. Gucci's Woptober is still riding the wave of excitement about his return from prison as kind of a beloved folk hero, while Trap Or Die 3 is capitalizing on nostalgia for Jeezy's multiplatinum early days. Ultimately, both albums are minor entries in their respective careers, but while Woptober fails to build on the momentum of Everybody Looking with some really muted, forgettable songs, Trap Or Die 3 is at least pretty spirited and loud and gives me some of that classic Jeezy anthem feeling, and there's a run of really nice, surprising beats in the middle of the album with "Bout That" and "Let Em Know."

9. NxWorries - Yes Lawd!
Anderson .Paak isn't really that famous yet, but of all the up-and-coming rappers (or rapper/singers) out right now, he seems to be the one who provokes the most hyperbolic 'future legend' predictions from people that like him. And when you look at the sum total of his talents and connections -- drumming and rapping at the same time at the BET Awards, appearing all over a Dr. Dre album and then releasing this funky little side project on Stones Throw -- it's easy to get caught up in his potential. But honestly, I didn't find much to love in Malibu, and this album is quite a bit more enjoyable, but largely because Knxwledge cycles through to a new beat every couple minutes and never lets the momentum let us. .Paak gets to show off his versatility and have a lot of fun on here, but I'm still not especially impressed with his singing or his rapping by itself, and his personality just comes off really smug and unlikable.

10. Nightime Sunshine - Nightime Sunshine EP
I really loved the Boston band Apollo Sunshine, and since they broke up a few years ago, one of the band's two primary creative forces, Sam Cohen, has kept busy with Yellowbirds and a solo record and lots of session work, but the other, Jesse Gallagher, had kept relatively quiet. So I was happy to see recently that Gallagher released 4 songs from a new project, Nightime Sunshine (and that Apollo Sunshine's amazing first two albums have finally hit streaming services). The opener "Song About A Song" is a little too clever for its own good but overall this is a promising project and it's good to hear his voice again.

Worst Album of the Month: Green Day - Revolution Radio
My Green Day deep album cuts playlist was a nice excuse to go down memory lane with a band whose peak years have, I think, aged pretty well. But man, Billie Joe Armstrong's trajectory from a snotty, funny author of peppy punky anthems to a humorless middle-aged scold is positively Sting-like, the 2012 album trilogy brought back a little of the old Green Day attitude but now they're back to trying to make American Idiot happen again and it's just a total drag.