Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The comic strip Lio, playing fast-and-loose of late with the strip's original, no-dialog conceit, seems to have moved on to a new gimmick to keep the young people's attention: Bashing other, less hip comic strips. Lio's shenanigans on the set of For Better or for Worse delighted us all a few months ago, and today he turns his sights on that great, defender-of-marriage strip, The Lockhorns. Domestic violence has never been so hilarious.

Kudos to you, Mark Tatulli. Honestly, this made me laugh out loud more than any comic strip I've read in some time (Mary Worth excluded, of course).

Sunday, June 24, 2007

A list of fraudulent literary works attributed to living authors. Howard Hughes' "diary" is mentioned, of course, as is a joke book by Thomas Paine (Paul Collins, who wrote this piece, discusses Thomas Paine's voluminous writings from beyond the grave in his excellent book tracking Thomas Paine's post-mortem adventures, The Trouble With Tom, which I highly recommend), but I was most interested in the Dickens knock-offs, with titles like David Copperful and Oliver Twiss. It would seem that Thomas Peckett Press had mastered the promotional tactics of the porn industry, over a full century earlier. (I believe "David Cop-a-feel" is just a convenient stock punch line, and not an actual porn title, but I'm at work, and probably would be well-served by not looking that up just now)
Tom the Dancing Bug wins its third Association of Alternative Newsweeklies' best comics award. Check out some recent strips:

Loony Laws from Other Lands and Fun Book Facts

Corporate Characters Updated (the Frito Bandito is now enamoured with magical realism)

UPDATE: While I'm on the topic of comics, I should point out that "Classic Peanuts" ran some choice strips recently.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A couple songs from an Ortho Pharmaceutical Corporation in-house musical from 1970 celebrating the sales of contraception. The corporate musical features parodies of "There is Nothing Like a Dame" and "Makin' Whoopie." I just got around to listening to this, and it's just as delightful as I imagined it would be.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My great-aunt Pauline's cremains were delivered to the house this morning, to be buried shortly. My mother asked me to type of a few notes she wrote for the pastor, to prepare his remarks for the service. I thought I would share those notes here, in Pauline's memory:

Notes About My Aunt Pauline

She was my mother’s sister.
She was 85 years old.
She never married or had any children.
She never held a job outside the home.
She lived with and cared for her parents until they passed on.
She had a lot of friends and was always a person to come to the aid of anyone who needed help. She was especially good with older people, taking time to listen to them and including them in her life. Living to a ripe old age meant she outlived most of her friends, including Carl, her companion of over 50 years, and I know she was often lonely.
She had a love for all animals, especially cats. She was always taking in a stray cat. She would try to find them a new home. In fact, when someone had a cat they no longer wanted, they would drop them off at her home at times, which was a real problem. She would skimp on her own food to be sure the cats all ate. Her love of cats carried over into her habit of collecting anything with a cat on it. I mean anything (towels, rugs, throws, plates, etc.)
My favorite memories of my aunt Pauline are when I was a child (6 and up) and we would go up to Santa Paula for a weekend (our only vacation). Usually in late July, every year, we would get into the car on an early Saturday morning and drive to Santa Paula. Upon arrival my aunt would take my brother Bob and me under her wing. My brother was 6 years older than me and didn’t like me tagging along. Pauline never made me feel like a tag-along. She would always take us for a drive around town and then stop at the local A&W for root beer. It would be delivered to the car by a car-hop on roller skates. I loved it. Then after dinner she would take us to the drive-in movies. That was the only time I ever got to do anything like that. When we got back and it was time for bed, she would give her room to my parents and she would sleep with Bob and me in a small room in the attic made into a little bedroom. It was July and heat rises. That room was HOT! Aunt Pauline never complained and as a kid I never even noticed the heat: It was an adventure. The 3 of us slept in a small double bed. To make everyone fit, my Aunt and my brother slept with their heads at the head of the bed and I slept between them but with my head at the foot of the bed. It was so much fun we would laugh and talk half the night. Next day we would drive home and I would think about the next year and my visit to see my grandparents and my Aunt Pauline. I could hardly wait.
Aunt Pauline will be missed a lot; her kindness to others and her ability to bring a smile to everyone’s face. I know she will always hold a special place in my heart. She will always be a strong memory when I think back over my youth.
She was the one who always made me feel included.

Monday, June 18, 2007

If you bought tickets to see Kelly Clarkson, you're out $3.75 in Ticketmaster fees. The sad thing is, Ticketmaster has earned such a reputation for evil, my initial reaction wasn't, "How unfair!" but rather, "Only $3.75?" Though if you paid extra for the priviledge of printing your own tickets (that fee always baffles me), you're out that fee, too.

To be fair, I recently bought tickets through one of Ticketmaster's indie competitors, and while the fee was more reasonable, I was disappointed to note that their fee, also, was non-refundable in the event of cancellation. Perhaps it's not the ticketing agent's fault the concert was cancelled, but it seems like this is the sort of regrettable situation in which a company would like to foster goodwill, not sour people on the concert experience in general.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

As I mentioned previously, I did attend the Pipette's concert at the Casbah last Sunday, though I have been remiss in discussing it here. I suppose that's because I had such a good time, and there music was so fluffy and fun, that trying to pin things down with words can only spoil it. But why let that stop me?

Smoosh was the Pipette's opening act, and while I wasn't familiar with their sound, I was curious to see just what they could do. Their backstory made them sound like the female Hanson, which disturbed me, as I thought Hanson was the female Hanson. But it turns out Smoosh is just Hanson's non-union indie-rock equivalent. A touch of Sleater-Kinney, perhaps, in their sound, and they covered a Bloc Party song, if memory serves, so that might give you some idea what they're about. Oh, and they're six years old and a zygote, respectively (actually, they're 15 and 12, joined on guitar for a few songs by their 10-year-old sister). So, yeah, young family group, that's their hook, but even if you take that away, they weren't bad at all, and the drummer was pretty crazy. I don't profess to be an expert on drumming (the difference between good from bad drumming, I can hear; the difference between good and great drumming is often beyond my rhythm-deprived ears), but I think she'll go places. Smoosh's web site has some samples, but they don't really do them justice.

So Smoosh started things off on a high note, but the night, of course, belonged to the Pipettes, and they did their thing with aploom. Lot of energy, lot of fun. Yeah, some of the songs start sounding alike after awhile, and none of the new stuff really grabbed me in a unique way, but that's okay. Some of my favorite songs were even better live (it will be many a moon before someone flushes another song as infectious as "Pull Shapes" into my life), and I gained a new appreciation for songs I've never been as excited about ("Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me", for instance). I have a soft "no dancing in public" rule, and with good reason (people usually intervene when I attempt to get down, putting a spoon in my mouth lest I swallow my tongue). I'll certainly waive that rule for a particularly catchy song or two, but for the Pipettes, I was shaking my proverbial booty from beginning to end. A great show, and the most fun I've had at a concert in some time.

So, yeah, the Pipettes rock. Their new album, which was actually available here for some time through eMusic (which is how it got the coveted #2 slot on my best albums of 2006 list), is getting a proper American release next month, and their new EP is in stores now. Oh, and did I mention they're easy on the eyes? Ah, Rosay... And when you check out those pictures, scroll down to see Smoosh's drummer getting all Animal on those drums.

Here's an interview with the Pipettes. Gives a little context to just what role the various parts of the band play in the creative process. And there are videos to be found on the intertubes:
"Pull Shapes"
For reference, here is the scene from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls which inspired the "Pull Shapes" video:

The sound's lousy on this one, but it shows Smoosh dancing with the Pipettes, and I thought it was sweet (this didn't happen at the Casbah; security banished those under the age of majority to the street when not performing):

Fabchannel has an entire Pipettes concert available for your streaming pleasure:

You can also download their recent San Francisco show (there's also a clip of Smoosh available there).

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Lou Pearlman arrested in Bali, facing fraud charges. If you squint a bit, you can pretend Karl Rove's being hauled off to jail. Hell, you don't even really need to squint.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Ah, 1975...a simpler time, when one could market a board game like this with a straight face: Seriously, does the phrase "ball-buster" in its colloquial sense really not go back to the mid '70s? I have to think this is an intentionally racy ad campaign, because otherwise an enraged man screaming "you're a ball-buster" at his wife seems an odd way to sell wholesome family fun. Actually, any way you slice it, it just doesn't seem right. I suppose it was just a flawed marketing campaign, and that's why I'm not playing Virtual Ball-Busting on the Xbox tonight.

UPDATE: The OED traces "ball-buster" back to 1954, and "ball-busting" to 1944, though it seems to have really come into its own in '74 or so. In fact, a 1975 citation describes the term as a "graphic, forceful expletive," which makes its use in a television commercial the same year a bit odd. I'd say it's some sort of dry-witted parody, but apparently it ran during the Super Bowl.

Don Herbert, AKA Mr. Wizard, dead at 89.
"Crazy" on the theremin:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

I bashed mTraks the other day, and mTraks still has potential to turn things around, so it's only fair I also share my opinions of a site I think is pretty much doomed: Lala. You may have heard of Lala from its days of facilitating the trading of compact discs, or you may have seen the news stories last week about the latest addition to their business offerings: Unlimited free streaming music, with the hope of selling you DRM-free music downloads, sent directly to your iPod.

I must admit, I was intrigued, and excited, when I first heard this news. Warner Bros. is said to be prepared to start selling DRM-free tracks on Lala in a matter of weeks. And the music locker and online streaming aspects of the new service were interesting, too (in a nutshell, you upload your music to Lala, and can stream that music as much as you want, and can also stream any music from music labels that have an agreement with Lala). My first disappointment came on learning that transferring songs from Lala directly to your iPod isn't an optional service, but a requirement; songs purchased are sent directly to your iPod, and cannot be stored locally on your PC. This I don't like. In multiple interviews, Lala's founder, Bill Nguyen, points out that customers like to own their music, rather then rent it. Call me crazy, but one part of ownership of an mp3 file is the concept that I can put it on my computer. Yes, I can still hear it, in streaming form, through Lala, but I wish to listen to all the music I own through iTunes; why should I have to change my listening habits to fit your business model?

My aggravation at the inability to download files to my computer is but one aspect of the main problem with Lala: They brag that they are iPod-compatible, but they are making you give up the iPod/iTunes link to use their service. To transfer purchased music to your iPod, you have to use their software. Seeing as the free iTunes for Windows software was an integral part of Apple's marketing push for the iPod, letting Windows users like myself experience the joy of iTunes (iTunes sold me on the iPod), why does Lala think most iTunes users would willingly give up what is, for the most part, a fantastic music player for whatever they've come up with? I've found their plug-in software works okay for streaming music from their website, but once I try to access my music locker, my computer system slows to a crawl and becomes rather unstable. After first reviewing their new way of selling music downloads, I thought I might buy songs from them, then use one of the many available iPod-hacking computer programs to get the songs onto my computer. But now that I've experienced their software a bit, I can say with confidence there's no way in hell they're getting anywhere near my iPod. Indeed, the knowledge that they want to get their grubby mitts on my iPod encourages me to not even use their streaming music offering.

Which is probably fine by Lala, I doubt they want another freeloader running up their licensing fees, with no intention of purchasing anything. But I'm sure some people will be interested in their streaming audio offering, so let's take a look at it. I've availed myself of MP3tunes' music locker (formerly called Oboe, though they seem to have dropped that name), and when I reviewed Lala's similar offering, I wondered if the struggling company was doomed. I don't think MP3tunes has to worry. Both services allow you to stream music you own on any computer, but MP3tunes requires you to upload each and every file, while Lala only requires you to upload songs if the song isn't already in their database. This should be a huge advantage to Lala, as it took about two weeks of intermittent uploading to get all my music into my MP3tunes locker. But in practice, Lala's uploader doesn't work much better. I don't know how many of my songs were already on Lala, but it took about 15 hours to upload the music that wasn't found, and yet somehow less than half my music ultimately made it to Lala. No idea why that is.

So uploading is a hassle, and while I'm willing to put up with the hassle for MP3tunes, which primarily serves as a backup service (for me, at least, the streaming aspect is incidental), I'm not willing to deal with the trouble just to listen to streaming music (with mediocre fidelity) through Lala. And I don't think too many others will, either. Which might be good news for Lala, which has forecast owing $140 million in royalties over the next two years. If the service bombs, maybe they'll lose less money. But who can say? If they manage to make deals with more record labels, so that the whole uploading thing becomes irrelevant, maybe they truly can lose $140 million. But when losing $140 million is the upside, I'd say your business plan has problems.

They make bar codes and late fees sound so naughty (and don't get me started on the first editions...):

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Punch-Out!!: The Movie:

Saturday, June 09, 2007

I started to write about Pink Martini's new album, but ended up whining about a perfectly good company that has been kind enough to sell music without DRM. I should at least take a moment to mention the new album that led me to try out that site.

I'll start out with the worst I can say, and get that out of the way: I'm not certain, but this could be the worst Pink Martini album to date. I can't say that definitively, because at least Hey Eugene! is more consistent than Hang On Little Tomato. "The Gardens of Sampson & Beasley" is just about the only Pink Martini song I really don't like (rhyming "sadness" with...um, "sadness," that's just not right). But while Hey Eugene! doesn't have a bad song on it (and I disagree, mostly, with the criticism of the title track, but more on that later), it does start to feel, not boring, but a bit rote, predictable.

But it might not be fair to criticize Pink Martini for being predictable, when what they are being is predictably eclectic. Am I really describing an album that contains a song like "Dosvedanya Mio Bombino" rote? I think the problem is, Pink Martini, as wide-ranging as their influences are, still manages to craft a distinct sonic signature. When we had to wait seven years between albums, the return of their distinct sound was welcomed. This time, the wait was only two-and-a-half years, and now I'm whining that this album sounds too much like their other work. I'm an ingrate.

So there, now I'm beating myself up for saying something bad about this album. But I should clarify, when I say Hey Eugene! is their worst album, I am comparing it to two of my all-time favorite albums. I absolutely adore Pink Martini, and Sympathique is a monumental achievement. And while Hang On Little Tomoto isn't consistently genius, 95% of it is still damn good. And while I just haven't been able to get as excited by Hey Eugene! as I was when I first heard the other albums, I must say the songwriting is stronger on the new album, with the vintage songs and the new material merging seamlessly (they always did, musically, but the lyrics were usually a giveaway of the band's original material).

Of course, that seamless quality is destroyed by the title track, about a guy who didn't call vocalist China Forbes back after meeting her at a party (note to Eugene: What the hell is wrong with you?!). I've noticed the reviews have been pretty universal in pinpointing that track as the weakest moment on the album. I would disagree, though it's certainly not the best song here, either. On this album, Pink Martini is inspired by Hollywood, Japan, Peru, Egypt, France, Italy, Russia, and more. If they want to be inspired by New York hipsters for one song, why not? The song might hurt the fantasy of the album, the exotic realms, detached from time. But even if you're brought back to the here and now for a few minutes, in that here and now, you're listening to a Pink Martini album. It doesn't get much better than that.

UPDATE: I created a Pink Martini playlist, with an emphasis on the new album, plus some stuff I like from the other albums. Enjoy!

Pink Martini released their new CD, Hey Eugene! on May 14th. I was, of course, quite eager to give it a listen, but having trouble finding the CD for much below $15. Which I would gladly pay, but knowing the album is $9.99 on iTunes, I didn't want to pay that much of a premium to get the album in a non-optimal format (I'd much rather download music than rip it from CDs, though Pink Martini is one of those increasingly rare instances when I would have liked to have something physical to embrace). And iTunes has yet to roll out iTunes Plus for indie record labels, so Hey Eugene! still comes with DRM. And knowing that it would most likely be available in the future without DRM for the same price, I decided I could wait. After all, I'd heard many of the songs performed live.

But after a little bit of searching, I discovered the album was available now, sans DRM, from mTraks, a new digital music store based right here in San Diego. The album was available for $9.99, or for the same price, you could subscribe, and get 30 download credits. As there was no commitment, I went ahead and subscribed, downloaded the album, and still had 18 credits available, for 18 more songs. I got the new Pink Martini album at an amazing price, and had a chance to try out a new DRM-free music store, so I could report on my experience here.

My judgment: mTraks could be a useful service in the future, but right now, I'd say it lacks any edge over the competition. The website isn't particularly easy to browse, and despite their supposed emphasis on community features, musical recommendations were essentially non-existent. Searching for specific artists is easier, but I was annoyed by "false positives," when an artist turns up in a search, yet further clicking reveals they are not available on the service. But without strong community features, finding artists any way other than direct searching is futile. The community aspect may improve when they have more users, but gaining that user base may be difficult when eMusic has them beat on pretty much every point. They may have an advantage in their hybrid model, as they sell individual tracks and albums as well as subscriptions, but with a subscription available for the price of an album, I assume most people will do what I do, subscribe, download, and cancel. Now, if they can offer a compelling reason not to cancel (I was open-minded), this might be an effective and less costly way of attracting customers than eMusic's free trials (which have led to allegations of creative accounting). But from what I've experienced, I see no incentive to stick around. The next time there's an indie album I would like, that's not on eMusic, I might check out mTraks. But I don't see myself becoming a regular customer.

But hey, it's a beta, things could improve. But given the singular lack of buzz, I don't give this one a huge chance of success. A Google blog search on "mTraks" only gets 119 hits. Half of these hits are variations on mTraks' press release (excluding the perfectly natural and not-at-all-PR-talk phrase "killer social music community" brings the hits down to 60), and I haven't really been able to find any blog posts with paying customers discussing their experiences. And I'm afraid this post won't win them any awards.

Which wasn't really my intention. I didn't set out to bash mTraks, just discuss my experience (actually, I intended to discuss the new Pink Martini album, but I've digressed enough that I think I'll save that for another post). If you're looking for something eMusic doesn't have and mTraks does, mTraks is probably your best bet for buying said product. And if you're into the music released by the labels that created mTraks, Cafeteria Records and Naked Jain records, which I believe focus on punk music (feel free to correct me on that), then you should have no trouble finding music here. But in its current beta state, their press release's claim of being a "killer social music community" isn't backed up, and I see no reason not to stick with eMusic.

And a final note: What the hell is this? It's the first page that comes up on Google Blog Search when searching for mTraks. It's the mTraks press release, but with a byline and author bio, clearly trying to fool someone into thinking it's a news story, not a press release. How does this work? Did mTraks pay them to promote their press release in this misleading manner, or does this California Newswire site just reprint press releases to develop cheap content and sell ads? I call shenanigans on whoever's responsible. Oh, and now I see the second hit is a link to another website in the same family, same text, but now, instead of Cindy Holden, the author (excuse me, the site explains the name is the "editor/author") has become Jesse JJ Jame. How about that? I'm guessing from the Neotrope Interactive Network's home page that this is just some lame promotional tool for companies that can't generate real buzz. The desperation doesn't bode well for mTraks' chances.

Banjo player sought in hootenanny spree.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Mixed-Up World of Ross Bagdasarian. I just learned today that Bagdasarian, aka David Seville, also played the role of the pianist/songwriter in Rear Window. Ain't that something?
Fluxblog on the Pipette's recent NYC appearance. I'll be seeing them at the Casbah this weekend, very exciting.
I am proud to highlight this video of Yma Sumac, for whom I have nothing but respect:

Monday, June 04, 2007

My great-aunt Pauline died last night. We got a call recently that she wasn't doing too well, but apparently things were looking up, until they weren't. I believe she was 86, but I may have to correct that number. In the interest of protecting the privacy of others, I will not go into the larger family drama playing out, except to say that my life is becoming a Jeff Foxworthy joke, and that the expression "the nut doesn't fall far from the tree" troubles me more and more.

CORRECTION: She was 84.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The other day, I speculated that Colbert would approve of Lou Dobb's leprosy comments. Getting caught up on my TV viewing, I see he's already tackled the issue:

Okay, so this is where there was supposed to be a video embedded from the Comedy Central website, but the first video I put up was the wrong one, and now I can't find the right one. So you'll just have to use your imagination. Hey Viacom, maybe you should spend less time suing YouTube and try to make your web site barely functional.