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Month: January 2011

Blondie – Autoamerican

Blondie – Autoamerican

The album Autoamerican by Blondie contains some good examples of popular musical styles in the beginning of the 1980’s. It has disco (“Live it Up”, “Do the Dark”), a rap song (!; “Rapture”) that includes the often used line “hip, hop, and you don’t stop”, songs that sound like the B-52s (“Walk Like Me”), and a genuinely popular reggae/ska hit in “The Tide is High”. It is not a boring album in the sense that there are some interesting musical choices in a (nearly) instrumental opening in “Europa” and a incongruous 30-second intro into “Angels on the Balcony”.

An aside about the cover: I don’t care to figure out which band member it was, but one of them was relegated to being depicted on the album cover as white pants, a black shirt, dark hair, and no facial characteristics. Sure, Blondie deserved to be up front, but if I were that last guy, I’d feel a bit insulted at being completely anonymized.

Because it isn’t boring, and has the several of the contemporary musical styles represented, and the songs are generally entertaining, I think this album is a good one. So I will recommend to my readers that they check it out!

My next album review will be in two weeks because next week’s top-10 chart has no albums that I have not already reviewed.

Last Week: Steely Dan – Gaucho

In Two Weeks: REO Speedwagon – Hi Infidelity
Steely Dan – Gaucho

Steely Dan – Gaucho

I am of two minds about Gaucho by Steely Dan. In one mind, I think the melodies are entertaining and high quality, combining Jazz, Funk, Rock and R&B. The instruments, drums, and lyrics are very tight, a result of the perfection demanded by the band. This forced the production of the album to take two years. In the other mind, I dislike the manner of the vocals. The vocalists, including a previous nemesis Michael McDonald in a backup role, do things that annoy me. Imagine Yogi Bear trying to sing, and that is what I hear in my head when I listen to this album. Unnecessary pitch bending and weird transitions from a nasal- to diaphragm-driven voice.

I am a few months into this project, and I am observing that nearly all of the music I’ve liked I had heard previously. I think that this is natural for a few reasons. First, I seek out music I like over music I dislike, meaning that the albums I’ve listened to that I disliked never entered my mind because they are in a genre I generally dislike. Of course, I couldn’t have truly known I disliked them until I listened to them, but there is some personal selective effects going on. Second, and this is definitely inflating the value of my own opinions (so throw some salt over your shoulder), but it seems that music I dislike has proven itself over time to be less popular and inferior to music I do like. When was the last time you heard a Yoko Ono song on the radio? Or a Barbra Streisand song from Guilty? However, Bruce Springsteen is still making records and selling out arenas, and AC/DC is still selling records and getting airtime.

If you can get over the vocal style of this album, or indeed if you even like it, I would recommend this album for its melodies. However, that is a very qualified recommendation. Listen at your own risk.

Last Week: Neil Diamond – The Jazz Singer

Next Week: Blondie – Autoamerican
Neil Diamond – The Jazz Singer

Neil Diamond – The Jazz Singer

The album The Jazz Singer by Neil Diamond is the soundtrack to the 1980 film remake of the 1927 film adaption of the 1925 broadway musical. The 1980 film has a very low rating as judged by the critics, so I’m not going to bother seeing the movie myself. Diamond’s performance was so poor that this movie is Neil Diamond’s only acting credit on IMDB.

There is an interesting parallel with this film+soundtrack and the 1992 flim+soundtrack The Bodyguard. The Bodyguard, like The Jazz singer, starred a successful singer (Whitney Houston) making her acting debut. The Bodyguard gets somewhat higher reviews than The Jazz Singer, but they are still far from positive. Like The Jazz Singer, the soundtrack for The Bodyguard did well – so well that it is the best-selling soundtrack ever. It appears that for a class of musicians (notably not rappers, of which many have made a successful transition), acting is not amongst their artistic skills. Neil Diamond and Whitney Houston made best-selling albums for their movies, but apparently they ran out of creative ‘juice’ and fell flat as actors.

Despite its economic record, I find this album bland enough that it is difficult to form any kind of opinion about it. Which is probably not a good thing, unless you’re in the mood for music that blends easily into the background. So, my recommendation is to skip listening to this album. Here’s a look twelve years into the future: you can skip The Bodyguard soundtrack, too.

Last Week: John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy

Next Week: Steely Dan – Gaucho
John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy

John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy

It is easy to imagine a teen movie plot as follows: A group of guy friends are having an amazing time during summer break. Pretty girls are everywhere and always interested in them, and every night is an adventure. Life is good. But then, one of the guys starts dating a girl who all the others despise. The others can’t see what is so great about her. She has destroyed the group dynamic, and offers no redeeming qualities that they can discern. The group attempts to break up the pair to no avail (with plenty of hijinks along the way), but by the end of the movie she has proven her worth in some grandiose and unlikely way.

After listening to the album Double Fantasy by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, I think this movie plot almost describes what happened to the Beatles when Yoko Ono met John Lennon. The Beatles had a really great thing going: hit album after hit album, adoring fans, and any woman they wanted. But when Yoko Ono came on the scene, things went sour, and the group became dysfunctional. The other three did not like the effect Yoko was having on John, she distracted him and pulled him away from the group. Except there was no happy ending, and the Beatles disbanded. Unlike in Hollywood, not all guys are shallow and can tell when a woman is a bad influence on one of their friends (also, in real life friends do not stay friends forever).

In short, Yoko Ono is a talentless singer with a little girl’s voice who performs songs terribly. I suppose her physical artwork might be better (which is what she was doing when she met John), but that is the kind of art she should have stuck with. As far as I can tell, on this album the songs are either sung only by John or Yoko, but never together. John’s songs range from merely OK to quite good and memorable. In between are Yoko’s songs, which are like audible sandpaper. Maybe John was an evil genius and realized that placing his songs next to Yoko’s songs would make his songs sound that much better, but I suspect this was not the case. Love can be stupid.

The reason this album is high on the charts is that just a little over 30 years ago, in early December, John was killed. Before that, the album was poorly received and wasn’t getting much traction in sales or on the radio. It is unfortunate that it took his death for the album to reach #1, but that is what happened. It is testament to his popularity that the album sold so well, despite Yoko’s presence on the album.

Below are the notes I took listening to this album, verbatim. I can’t make it any more pleasant and polite than this:

1 – good, you’ve heard it before.
2 – awful. terrible. pornoaudioic.
3 – bleh
4 – Terrible. Yoko again. Wow.
5 – John again, so not terrible.
6 – voice reverb/echo on Yoko, double terrible. “moving on” sounds like “looking on” with the “L” dropped. Speech impediment, or ESL?
7 – dreamy and OK, but not stellar.
8 – good, quality, you’ve heard it before.
9 – more ono, more suckage.
10 – OK, John.
11 – pointless, useless voice trembles, awful falsetto (Yoko, of course)
12 – about/to Yoko, but it’s by John, so it’s OK
13 – best Yoko because she is hidden behind the music.
14 – Ugh. Yoko.

It is always easier to write a negative review, and who-boy, this week was easy! I think I never quite understood just how awful Yoko was until I listened to this album, and now I think I have a better understanding of why everyone blames Yoko for the end of the Beatles. They did have some right to be angry, and that is one of the emotions I felt listening to this album. If you want to listen to this album, skip any and all songs by Yoko, and listen only to John’s, some of which are worthwhile.

Last Week: The Police – Zenyattà Mondatta

Next Week: Neil Diamond – The Jazz Singer
What Earning a PhD Does to Physical Activity

What Earning a PhD Does to Physical Activity

Above is a plot showing how many hours I have logged on my Garmin GPS devices since I got my first one in April 2005. This is mostly cycling, but also walking, running and some hiking. However, this is not a true measure of my physical activity over this period because it is missing data. Up to late 2007, I was active on the velodrome, and I didn’t bother using my GPS there. In the last year, I’ve tried to walk to school more often, and for the most part I haven’t used my Garmin on those walks. But it does capture the majority of my physical activity, which is road and mountain biking, where I always use a GPS.

In green I’ve over-plotted a linear fit to the data. I have chosen a linear fit as it shows the overall trend in the clearest way possible. For some reason, June 2006 shows zero hours, which I believe to be wrong. I can’t believe I did nothing at all during any summer month in 2006. Therefore, for purposes of the fit, I have given that month the average hours of the four bracketing months.

Even knowing that lots of data is missing from both the front- and back-ends of the figure, it is still clear what the overall trend was. Down – down significantly from nearly 30 hours a month five years ago to just above 10. There of course is a great variability from month to month, but the fit shows clearly the overall trend of what trying to finish graduate school does to physical activity.

I find the lack of patterns interesting. Some years, I really struggled to stay active during the late fall, which makes a certain amount of sense when weather and schoolwork is factored in. However, other years it apparently didn’t affect me at all. The bounce in hours since October 2010 makes sense because that’s when I graduated, but the two months in 2010 with 25+ hours is confusing. I can’t remember how I achieved that!

Nerd time: I made the figure in Python using matplotlib and numpy. Excel is for suckers!