Thursday, April 27, 2006

The empires strike back

As an antithesis of my last post on Google’s attempt to equalize the flow of information through the internet, NPR reports on how internet service providers are musing over the idea of creating tiered access to the internet, effectively providing slower and faster lanes for webpages to get to one’s computer. Large companies that would be willing to shell out a premium expense would get a higher priority and quicker load times to their consumers. A non-audio version of this topic can be found on the New Yorker.

Some may argue that offering newer, better features is a part of capitalism. If a company makes a better car, they should have the right to charge a higher price, and I agree with that. But abolishing the current "network neutrality" just doesn’t seem to fit in the same category as luxury cars. The proposed system would most likely give large corporations more power and allow the ISPs to exert too much influence. Libraries don’t offer better library cards that let you get more access to books than regular library card holders.

The revolutionary aspect of the internet is that is an open field. Anyone with a computer and internet access can (in most cases outside of China) get the same information as anyone else in the world. But broadband companies want to change that because they want more money. They try to justify it through other reasons, but their lust for more is so apparent that there’s no way to hide it. If they weren’t making any money then I could see the rationale that they need to be compensated for laying the pipelines and maintaining the servers, but everyone pays for the service already, and at monthly intervals. They’re creating a need solely so that they can provide the solution, which is despicable.

Monday, April 24, 2006

This is not a music blog

I loved hearing that several cities such as Philadelphia are taking on the ambitious and philanthropist goal of providing city-wide wi-fi in order to bridge the "gap on internet inequality". Imagine wanting to surf the internets on your laptop and not be constrained to your home or coffeeshops. I really enjoyed how Austin was virtually wi-fi everywhere and am a bit surprised at the lack of access in New York.

Now, true to its namesake, Google ups the ante exponentially by announcing Glo-fi which would provide free internet access all over the globe. Details are sketchy and scarce so I’m not sure how extensive or reliable their network would be. A lot of people are questioning how they plan to do this, but Google has pulled off some amazing feats before.

Aside from the logistical hurdles, I wonder how Google will pull this off politically. Opening the gates to free information is very utopian, but I see major resistance to come from established internet providers and countries like China, well known for its censorship of what its citizens can access.

Google is starting to look like a commercial juggernaut (hello, Microsoft?) but its programs have always been pretty top notch and its goals beneficial. I’ll cheer Glo-fi on for now, but I’ve got my eye on you, Google.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Better Tea

This week the Fiery Furnaces released their latest album, Bitter Tea and played at the Bowery Ballroom.

Much like how Radiohead’s Amnesiac related to its sibling, Kid A, Bitter Tea is mined from the same collection of songs as its predecessor Rehearsing My Choir but attempts to be more user friendly. I wasn’t sure what to expect since "user friendly" isn’t exactly in this group’s repertoire. The result turns out to be somewhere in between Rehearsing My Choir and their masterful Blueberry Boat. Even songs that are pretty straightforward for the band, such as Police Sweater Blood Vow would be pretty outrageous for most other groups. The duo never clings to standard time signatures and the songs seem to wobble and teeter on the edge of collapse, but that’s also what makes them sound so vibrant.

What’s curious about the album is that toned down versions of two songs are tacked on to the end of the record. I suspect this may have been the result of concessions with nervous record label execs, but who knows. While others may find relief in being able to hear more traditional, less crazy music, I didn’t find either track to be of anything worthwhile. After experiencing the entire album of their unbridled exploration, these versions sounded so meek and flat. It was almost a premonition of what the Fiery Furnaces would sound like if some major record label tied them down and cut their balls off.

Yeah, I was sort of hoping for a bit more of that Blueberry Boat magic but that’s probably not realistic or fair. It’s good that the band so fearlessly treads into strange, new lands. Listening to them takes work, but part of the appreciation for them comes out of that effort.

Now, on to the live show...

I saw the Fiery Furnaces at the last Austin City Limits Festival but it’s always hard to judge a band at a venue like ACL. It’s hot, the sound quality is totally different and they only get about 45 minutes to show off to tons more people. So this time around I didn’t know what to expect.

The result was a bit surprising. I had imagined the duo to be moody, shoe-gazing and shy. But they ended up being quite the opposite. Eleanor has to be the most polite rock chick ever and Matt seemed to be having a blast on stage. As if like just another fan (on stage), he would watch Eleanor sing and a huge grin would spread across his face.

The band powered through over fifteen songs in just over an hour but they weren’t speeding through the tunes because of apathy. I think the frantic pace is consistent with their nature. The song arrangements sounded closer to the album versions than when I heard them at ACL. The contributing factor was probably due to the fact that Matt chose not to bring his keyboard to the concert. Listening to the songs performed with a more traditional instrument arrangement (guitars, bass and drums) gave a glimpse of what the Fiery Furnaces would be like if they weren’t such mad scientists in the studio. Their songs translate pretty well into the format but I think I missed hearing the other elements.

Like the Beta Band, the Friedbergers create their sound with patterns and textures, whether it’s alliterated word-play or repetitive riffs. The problem is that that technique didn’t come off as well through the fuzz and distortion of amps and speakers on stage. So they relied on rocking it out on guitars, which wasn’t a bad thing.

I was impressed with Matt’s guitar skills but the band wasn’t exactly the tightest sounding live act I’ve ever heard. Yet unlike the Stills, the looseness seemed to play as a strength. Their albums are quite elaborate and crazy and I think meticulously trying to recreate them live just wouldn't fit with the spirit of this group.

One interesting incident tonight was when the two people next to me reached onto the stage and snatched a setlist out from under Matt’s feet before the concert was even over! I could easily read the astonishment and annoyance on his face. I wonder how disillusioning it would be to find out that your fans are thoughtless, rude assholes. Some of them anyway.

This looks to be an active year for the Friedbergers so here’s hoping for a few more New York shows and maybe an album or two!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Stop and Gotan

Four down, one to go! Gotan Project catches me by surprise by releasing their new album, Lunatico, next week on April 11!

You can check out samples of each track on their website, but I’m resisting the temptation. I want to savor the sonic splendor next Tuesday.

This discovery just made my day.

Changes are no good

Last night I attended the second of two shows by the Stills at the Mercury Lounge. There is a lot of apprehension in the fanbase because of the shake-ups in the band roster. I have to say that after seeing the show, that apprehension is justified.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by seeing other bands put on amazing shows such as Radiohead, Gomez or Thievery Corporation. These bands put out very polished albums but their live acts take them into a whole new spectrum of energy and sound. After these shows, bands like Weezer and Franz Ferdinand sort of bored me, not because they couldn't play live, but the songs sounded like carbon copies of the album. They still sound decent but not to the echelon that I’m used to.

So when I get to see the Stills, I’m disappointed at the muddy, loose sounds they make. The qualms over Dave Hamelin (former drummer, now co-lead vocalist) are valid. He just doesn’t have the vocal range or strength to carry most of the songs. I don’t think he was as bad as portrayed by the Crackers, but he wasn’t that good either.

That said, I’m not going to completely condemn this new strategy. Tom of Gomez has always contributed a few lead vocals on their albums, but early shows revealed an almost painfully off-key voice. Over the years, with either training or practice from constant touring, I’ve noticed that Tom has become a much improved, if not great singer. I was very moved by his solo waltz-version of Sweet Virginia at the Hiro Ballroom.

What really surprised me about the Stills concert was how shaky Tim Fletcher’s vocals were. I actually thought that he was off-key more often than Dave was. The addition of keyboards and horns seem like an attempt to mask these deficiencies. The Stills are looking more and more like a studio band.

So I’ll check out their new album when it comes out, but hearing some of the songs last night, I didn’t notice any evidence of progression from their phenomenal debut album. Logic Will Break Your Heart was one of the best albums to come out in the past few years. It has mature themes and sounds that seem to be completely lacking in their new work.

I’m wondering how much that has to do with the departure of their lead guitarist, Greg Paquet. Sure the face and voice of the band is still there but think how different Radiohead would be without Jonny Greenwood. Thom Yorke will always be the heart of Radiohead but much of the sound is created by Jonny, and I’m thinking this was the case with the Stills.

So have the Stills have lost that mature, dark sound only to replaced it with more pop and probably generic music? I’ll wait for the new album before I make a final verdict, but it’s not shaping up too well.