“Coffeehouse Girl”

You know, after I thought about that last post, I realized Chris Mitra is kind of to blame for all this. I asked him several years ago if he wanted to form a cover band and he politely declined, saying he wanted to focus on writing and recording his own stuff. I thought, yeah, good luck with that. He then found a Craigslist posting for an 80s band looking for a singer and forwarded it to me, and the rest is history. (Chris later recommended a drummer, Kerwin So, who played with FT for almost a year — you’d think Chris was working on commission.)

But a few months after that, I asked, “How’s the album going?” totally thinking he would tell me that it didn’t work out and he should have done the cover thing with me — but instead he said “I’ve got eight tracks almost done but I’m looking for vocalists, do you want to sing on one of them?”And I didn’t have a lot of confidence but I said yes, I would be honored, and he could throw out the vocal if he didn’t like it.

But I was insanely jealous. He actually did it. He actually wrote his own stuff and got a CD together. And I went to the CD release party some months later, and even performed the song live once with his legendary live band, the Hungry Hungry Hippos. And I realized, I wanted all those things someday with my own songs. Not as a career move, not to “make it.” Just to have fun doing it and be able to say “I did it.”

So I hope I can finish what Chris started. Meanwhile, I have a teaser of what could be if I keep at it. With Chris’ permission, here’s me singing “Coffeehouse Girl” from ChrisFM’s 2003 album, Transmitting.

The Ballad of Songwriting

Well, it’s Sunday and I’m amazed that I spent at least a little time with most of the things on my vacation to-do list. Mass Effect, TV shows, books, Peggle, Palette-Swap Ninja, WoW, drums…a few 360 games got the shaft, as did the secret projects. But the thing I’m stoked about is that I finally made progress on songwriting.

I’ve been blocked for a while. I feel like I’m learning to walk, and I am frustrated that all around me people run. So I have spent a lot of the last few months considering what’s in my way, and finally pushed through it this week. I have a ton of song ideas — basically little stories I want to tell — but not a lot of riffs or chord progressions to go with them. Everything sounds like something else. But hey, you are dealing with a musical scale where the notes can go together any way you want them to, but certain transitions keep showing up as pleasing to the human ear. Of course other people will have found them. You can’t avoid that and I’m starting to believe you shouldn’t try to. After all, when I hear Fountains of Wayne or XTC and say it sounds Beatlesque, that’s not a criticism. That makes me want to hear more because they are putting together chords in a similarly pleasing, vaguely familiar way.

I am not ready to share anything yet, since the priority is simply writing them, not recording them (except for quick and dirty demos so that I don’t forget how they go — despite some theory classes, I can’t read music, let alone write notation). But I do like where it’s going and I feel like there’s a little momentum now. I have one written that I’d like to revisit and polish, then this new one that came together pretty quickly. And then it’s into the big pile of ideas where I think I basically have to start snapping parts together and see if they fit. It’s very Lego. You just keep swapping elements in and out until you have created something that you’re proud of.

Ninja activity

I have spent the majority of my time during this break working on two Palette-Swap Ninja songs. One will be released this week, and I’m laying down final vocals for it today. It’s a lot more complicated than I thought it would be so it has taken a lot more time — but I think it’s a good one. If you haven’t yet, you should pop over to http://paletteswapninja.com and hit the RSS feed. It will be released there.

The other probably next month — it’s part of something larger, or at least related to something larger, and as such the details are still being worked out. I can explain everything once its reason for existing has been released.

And when I get all that out of the way, I have a song or two to write.

Temporarily unemployed…

…and loving it! This is not a surprise nor is it a hardship; my company has enacted a furlough, which I really like much more than being laid off, so I have the next week off. At this stage in my stress level, when someone says the phrase “mandatory vacation without pay,” the only word I hear is “vacation.”

I took time off over Christmas and never got to do all the things I wanted to do, so my list of things that I’m looking forward to includes some of those. My to-dos include:

– Playing drums. I got a nice book of Beatles drum tabs for Christmas and never got a chance to try it out.

– Reading a book. I’m almost done with Soon I WIll Be Invincible and I am loving it. I’m gonna tear through it and dive into one of the other seven books in my pile shortly thereafter.

WoW. Duh.

Mass Effect. I wasn’t on the right wavelength when this came out, so I played a bit and skipped it. Fallout 3 showed me that I can enjoy long RPGs, so I’m picking up where I left off.

Pure, Peggle, Unreal Tournament III and a whole mess of other games I never got around to completing.

– Finishing the next Palette-Swap Ninja song. It’s close and it’s mostly in my court, so I hope to have a release out by next week.

– Songwriting. I have taken the last few months to really think about what I want to do and I’ve given myself permission to fail. So I am setting myself a goal of three songs — not necessarily recorded, but written and performable if Kat asks. I have a lot of partial ideas and little riffs and I am happy to have this opportunity to put them together into cohesive wholes.

– Watching some movies and TV shows that I have missed.

– Working on two secret projects that I’ve been chipping away at for months now. No better time, really.

Technically, I suppose I could try to score some freelance work…but why create more hassle? I’m going to be plenty busy.

Watchmen: The Review

It’s good. It’s not great but it’s certainly not the disaster that some reviews made it out to be. It was more or less what I expected it would be: respectful, glossy, and co-dependent.

Spoilers ahead.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think the film can stand on its own, but I didn’t expect it to, so I was not disappointed. A lot of the negative reviews I’ve seen felt it was sterile, that the characters didn’t breathe, and basically didn’t work as a movie in its own right. I think that’s a valid criticism (though Slate’s review struck me as someone who came in biased against Snyder and got what they wanted). It was, in some regards, like a high school play, or one of those murder-mystery dinner parties: Here is the script; follow the stage direction, and it will all resolve by the end of the night. And that sounds like a negative criticism, but it really isn’t. It just felt like everybody had their marching orders, so those orders were followed. Maybe a better analogy is a collection of action figures suffocating in the packaging — they definitely look like you’d expect, but everybody involved is a little afraid to take them out of the packaging and play with them, for fear of them losing their value. And I’m not even angry about that, because I wanted them to stay as true as possible; I wanted to see the book’s characters, not someone’s interpretation of the characters.

After seeing the film I am not sure why anybody who is not into the book would want to see it; it’s like an accessory. I certainly was unable to take it as anything but a reflection and interpretation of the novel.This is not an independent statement; I don’t think it should be, nor was it designed to be. This is Zack Snyder holding the camera steady for Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

And for some reason I got really choked up through the whole thing. Seeing things unfold, watching these characters come to life, having my strings pulled with music cues…Kat pointed out that I have a lot more invested in all things Watchmen than I was aware of.

The good:

I think the story was pretty much intact. Yes, Black Freighter was missing (but I never really got it anyway); yes, the Bernies were basically there for a cameo. I was sad to see less about, say, Dr. Long, and we don’t see old Hollis Mason beyond one scene. But for the core story about the six main characters? Well done. Too talky, too slow, too plodding? Not for me. I wanted the details they offered.

Seeing the Gunga Diner and the news vendor…awesome. The fact that I could say many lines before they were spoken made me happy. This film was fan service, and I was served.

The new ending worked. I didn’t think it would, but it turned out that Veidt solved the problems of not just US and Russia, but Dr. Manhattan as well — gave him a reason to be in exile and stay gone. And as a fan, I appreciated seeing it called SQUID.

Rorschach was pitch-perfect. Brooding, terrifying, pathological. You could empathize (I could anyway) but not sympathize. Jackie Earle Haley needed to do a fantastic job or the fanboys would kill him on opening day. I believed it, and the prison scenes were brilliant.

Ditto Dr. Manhattan. I expected a different vocal treatment — booming and otherworldly — but the soft tones simply underscored his emotional detachment. Very well played. I bought the action figure. (I am part of the problem.)

The bad:

Veidt was an embarassment. Wrong actor (too young and slight), wrong look (bad costume), wrong voice (what’s with the vaguely Eastern European lisp?), wrong interpretation overall. No charisma. Veidt is supposed to be George Clooney and Brad Pitt in one, a beloved but cunning public figure. He so loved the world he had to destroy part of it. But the love was missing. I got no sense that he felt any emotion about his plan; it played out with all the passion of a mathematics problem. Remember the triumphant “I did it!” page at the end of the comic? It was conspicuously absent from the film, and I think it was because this Veidt simply didn’t have emotions. Psst — that’s Dr. Manhattan’s job.

To go along with fake Veidt, we got fake Bubastis. I wish they had started with an actual cat and then added CGI.

Sally Jupiter was not old or world-weary or alcoholic enough. I could tell I was watching a young actress in old makeup trying to play someone else’s mom. They should have simply gotten two actresses; I missed the gravity.

The sex scene in the Owlship came off like a porn comedy. It was supposed to be arty and steamy but with the Leonard Cohen song and the too-obviously-built-up flamethrower bit, it just didn’t belong. Could have shown less and said more.

“Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance? Maybe it’s fine, but it does not belong as the end credits song. You get this tidy end shot on the crank file journal, knowing it contains the extremely intense story you’ve just seen, and then a fucking frat party breaks out. Go back to Dylan or something with emotional resonance. Even that Smashing Pumpkins track from the trailer would have been better.

Ultimately it neither enhanced nor detracted from what the book was, is, and will be. Alan Moore is right: the book did and does awesome and subtle narrative things that a movie can never do. Things like the supplementary material and the symmetrical visuals and the seemingly superfluous TV chatter filling you in on key backstory plot points as if they were throwaway words in the panel — that stuff was never going to be achieved on film. If you are seeing the film without reading the book, I’m going to tell you to read the book. If you have not seen the film, I’m going to tell you the read the book. If you’ve done both, we can have a very long conversation wherein I bore you to tears with my full-frontal nerdity.

But I have no fanboy rage about the movie, It is what it is, it knows what it is, and for all that, it’s pretty darn good.

The Karaoke Saga

Sorry, this one’s more about computer stuff than actual singing. If you just want the answer to “how do I burn MP3+G files to a CD+G disc that I can use at a karaoke bar?” you should skip to the end. The answer lies there.

Karaoke is what gave me the confidence to audition for a band, and while I didn’t much like to do it when I was actually IN the band — it felt like doing a job for fun on the weekend — as long as it’s a novelty, I like going back and doing it now and then. When I fell hard for Jonathan Coulton I was thrilled to see he sold karaoke tracks for his stuff — the original masters, just with the vocals removed. I quickly bought about 25 tracks. Now all I had to do was get them from my PC to a CD that would play in the karaoke machines at my karaoke hangout, Bel Mateo Bowl.

There are several hurdles involved in what seems like it should be a pretty easy process. Among them: Convert the files into a format that will play as a CD+G disc; find a CD burner that can actually burn CD+G discs; then actually be able to test that disc to make sure it worked. I figured armed with the burning Swiss Army knift that is Nero, this would be no problem.

No. While Nero should have worked for me, it didn’t, or I didn’t use it correctly. Turns out that there is no dominant commercial solution to this problem, and much of the key software is created by tiny indepedent companies scattered around the globe. Also, much of it has not been updated since 2004. The one big solution I kept finding, Power CD+G Burner, didn’t work in trial mode. Other people said it worked great for them. I tried it on two computers with four completely drives between them. I gave it every opportunity. I even looked on the Mac side, figuring everything is easier on Mac, but based on the forums, it’s like Apple users have never heard of karaoke before. “Is that on iTunes?” Sigh.

So, step one, I had to combine the MP3/CDG file tandems into a single BIN file (with a matching CUE) — more or less building the structure of a CD on my hard drive, then burning it in one shot. I found some sketchy-looking program with the catchy title of MP3+G Tools 4 that purported to do that conversion, and it was free. I got my BIN and burned it. It didn’t work…but I didn’t find out unilt I got to the bowling alley and tried to sing “I Crush Everything.” Oof. I gave up.

I came back to it again thinking there had to be a way. My BIN/CUE files were fine, two discs’ worth of songs (in alphabetical order — but you don’t sing karaoke albums, so who cares) ready to go, but was it my disc? My burner? My computer? I started testing all kinds of software and drives in different combinations, killing about 12 discs in the process. Ultimately I found Alcohol 120% did the trick; it actually has a karaoke CD+G burning mode.

Also, of the four drives at my disposal (including Kat’s fancy new dual-layer DVD external drive), only one worked. My PC’s secondary optical drive is a rather old IDE-based DVD burner — TDK DVDRW880N — which just happens to be one of the handful of drives that not only reads the CD+G layer, but writes it as well. It’s the writing that’s the tough part, it turns out. And it wouldn’t write at higher speeds; I’m livin’ large writing at 4x. I should be done Sunday.

I know they work because I hooked up our crappy little IKTV karaoke player, which we got at Fry’s ages ago. It is lousy, but I know that if the discs play on this thing — and the professional discs we’ve bought do — then they’ll play anywhere. So I’m listening to instrumental versions of “When You Go” and “I’m Your Moon” in the background as I type this. And now that I finally have it running, I’m burning a few copies for friends (which, yes, is perfectly legal for JoCo’s music, thanks to the Creative Commons license — I intend to follow his example with the songs I write).

So…if you want to convert MP3/CDG files to actual playable discs: Make sure your drive actually supports writing (not just reading) the CD+G layer, because that’s the tricky bit. Then use MP3+G Tools 4 to make BIN/CUE files and Alcohol 120% in its Karaoke mode to burn. You’ll skip all the hassle I went through, and isn’t benefitting from other people’s suffering what the internet is all about?

At midnight, all the agents…

So Watchmen opens tonight at midnight. I’m not sure when I’ll get to see it this weekend, as the film’s opening unfortunately coincides with shipping the magazine. Early reviews are split between “perfect” and “dreadful.” Seems the folks who don’t like it feels it fails as a film, but since I’m actually expecting little more than a retelling of the book, maybe I won’t be disappointed.

I’ve entertained myself in the meantime with some of the more creative fan creations:

The Saturday morning cartoon version of Watchmen is the best blasphemy I’ve ever seen.

Maybe the film won’t be the best, but this student-made fan film is hard to watch and will make Snyder’s film look good by comparison, at least.

I was a big fan of the online comic PvP for a while until I got tired of Scott Kurtz’s arrogance; it was one of those cases where the creator overshadowed his creation and changed my feelings about it. He was also dismissively apathetic when I interviewed him for GamePro – which, as a fan trying to do what I could to get the word out to a mass audience about his cool project, hurt. However, his multi-part Ombudsmen tribute is brilliant.

And this alternate ending to the comic is a brilliant in-joke, but only if you know the book and recognize the protagonist here.

    If you have more, post ’em below. If not, go read the debate on GamesRadar where I was asked to defend the existence of the Watchmen XBLA game. I wish the game didn’t have to happen, but I at least see that someone tried to make it make sense, so I defend it on that level. That’s not an endorsement, and I still have’t paid my $20 to download it.

    The whole cultural even of Watchmen actually coming to theaters is still extremely surreal to me. This will be a weird weekend.

    An open letter to BNL

    Dear Ed, Tyler, Kevin, and Jim:

    Hey, I’m really sorry to hear about Steve leaving the band. I have been a fan since Gordon and I actually interviewed two of you on the press tour of Maybe You Should Drive, so I can appreciate what a big deal this is.

    I know you’re going to continue on as a four-piece, but let me just blurt this out: I can be the new guy. I can handle the stigma. And if Steven really left because he wasn’t getting enough songwriting love, that’s not a problem. My songwriting output is meager; if I can help with one cut per album, that would be a huge victory for me.

    And I almost joined you once already. A few years ago I applied to be on a VH1 show (or was it MTV? I don’t remember) where fans competed in a reality show to join their favorite band on stage and sing one of their biggest hits. I got called, then they said no because I was too far away or something, then they called back a few weeks later and begged me to send in a video because they really thought I was perfect — I was singing in a cover band, I had been a fan of BNL for years, and I had experience in front of cameras. It was exciting and scary and a near miss. I didn’t get on the show because I had not yet memorized “One Week.” Rather than lead VH1 on, I was honest in my video and said I was reading the lyrics but could learn them by the next week. They passed, but now I have my integrity, and you have an opening.

    It certainly makes sense on paper. Steve is 38. I’m 38. Steve is white and full of pop culture nonsense. Hey, me too. Steve lost weight; I am more like “Steven Page Classic” weight. I’m everything but Canadian, and I am willing to to relocate and apply for citizenship. (I was just up in Vancouver for business; it was lovely.) I have my own gear and you can hear some of my recent stuff over at Palette-Swap Ninja. (I’ve got a live sampler from my Fast Times days, too.) And I can learn “One Week,” but I really only need to learn half, since Ed does all the fast parts, and I know he knows it.

    Look, let’s just jam and see if the vibe is there. I’d say call me, but you probably don’t have my number, so just leave a comment. I’ll track your IP or something.

    Love,
    Dan

    Gibson Grabber II…fail

    Remember the Gibson Grabber bass? No? Chances are if you do, it’s because it showed up in one of the Guitar Hero games as an unlockable bass. Design-wise, it’s pretty clearly a response to the Music Man Stingray (visually) and the dominant, no-frills Fender Precision (electronically). Slightly ugly, somewhat superfluous, and no competitive threat, it was only made for two years before slinking back into the shadows.

    Well, until Gibson decided to reissue it in a limited edition of 350 pieces and jack the price up to $3000. I understand it’s a very limited run and the pricing reflects that, but…well, I suppose the marketing team had to find a way to turn “this bass was a flop” into “a classic, well-kept secret.” Still, at this price and with this little collectible flash (black and black? That’s the best you could come up with? Even the originals were a distinctive natural), I think the Grabber II is destined for the same fate as the original Grabber: Semi-obscurity.

    Better to make it a production model for Epiphone and let the next generation call this ugly duckling their own, I think. Then again, if they like it, they’re just going buy an original for $800, tops. So…Gibson fail.