Saturday, October 31, 2009

Music search for the lazy

Google rolled out its new music search feature on Wednesday. Being as on top of things as I usually am, I got around to trying it out today.

The bad news: Google's integration of music into its search results isn't going to happen overnight. I looked for "I Can See Clearly Now" (Johnny Nash), "On Reflection" (Gentle Giant), "I'm So Tired" (Beatles), and "Her Diamonds" (Rob Thomas), and all I got for top results were a bunch of YouTube videos. To get to music Google has already ... indexed? web-crawled? databased? I'm not sure how this works ... I had to go to their landing page, where they helpfully provided examples of stuff you could actually find.

The good news: When it works, it's neat. A search for Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" brings up a handy play button labelled "Play song from" Click the button and it lets you play the whole song.

This part is key. The whole song. Not the 30 seconds that iTunes and some others dole out. Depending on which service comes up, you may only get the entire song once, an excerpt thereafter, but that seems fair enough. (It also makes me wonder why iTunes doesn't do this. If and the other iTunes competitors working with Google can negotiate better deals with the copyright holders, why can't a powerful player like Apple?)

I'm looking forward to the day I can punch any song title into Google and then listen to the song. And yet? A little voice inside my head asks me why I haven't been doing nearly the same thing already. has been around since 2007. Why did I, a music lover, not bother to find out that there are services that allow you listen to the whole song? Why, now that I know about this, do I suspect I'll still be going through Google to sample songs?

Because I'm busy. Because I'm lazy. And Google made it just that tiny bit easier.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What to write about

Sharon Goldman of Songwriting Scene posed a question to her real-life and online songwriting buddies: what's your take on political songwriting?

I wrote my first ever protest song not too long ago, so I read the responses with some interest. My favorite was this, from Fred Gillen Jr.

"I have learned, just for myself as an artist and songwriter, that it is not my job to decide what I am going to write about."

Huh. So it's not just me then?

My lyrics generally begin with one good line, some new way of expressing an idea. Both the idea and the expression of it tend to come more or less spontaneously. When it's interesting, I feel compelled to pursue it. Out of the 59 songs I've written so far, I can only think of one where I chose the topic before any words found me. Only one where I decided, "I want to write on the subject of X."

For some reason, I've always kind of assumed that my method of discovering topics by tripping over them (if you can call that a method) was mostly unique to me. I figured that at least some of the time, other songwriters sat down and thought about what they wanted to create before any actual creating happened.

What's your experience? When no one else is dictating what you're going to create, do you choose the topic, or does the topic choose you?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Right rhyme, wrong time

Awww, man.

I came up with the perfect sounding rhyme tonight. Then I realized that it would take my song in a completely different direction than I intended to go.

Sometimes that works out. Sometimes a different direction turns out to be interesting and serendipitous. Unfortunately, this time it was the wrong direction.

Oh well. Back to the drawing board.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Help me if you can, I'm feeling down

New research suggests that if you get people to pay attention to music with lyrics about helping people, they'll be more likely to help people. A Psychology Today blog has the juicy details.

Makes me wonder if I've been too subtle in my attempts at musical persuasion. I've written a few prosocial songs, to use the social psych lingo, but never anything that comes out and says, "Hey, be nicer to people! Right now!"

The study only compared neutral songs to those that blatantly call for help. They'd need to do further research to find out if a less blatant approach works too. I hope it does. Because otherwise, I'm going to have to try my hand at a "be nicer to people" song, and I don't know how to do that without sounding like a public service announcement.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ain't there one new song that can make me break down and cry?

Aaaaaaaalllllllllll night
She wants the young American
Young American, young American, she wants the youuuung American
I bopped my way through the produce section, appreciating Sunflower's musical selection. "Young Americans" isn't my favorite David Bowie tune, but it's significantly better than the blandness that usually comes out of a grocery store sound system.

"Music was better then," a Boomerish woman said to me, apparently noticing that I was moving to the beat. "They just don't make songs like that anymore."

I nodded and mmmm'd my assent, partially because I agreed with her, partially to be agreeable. Then I remembered something. I am a musician who makes music, not thirty years ago, but right now. As such, it is perhaps not in my best interest to encourage the view that our best days are behind us.

I dug a copy of our CD out of my purse and showed it to her. "We're trying to make music that's just as good."

"Oh! Neat," she said. Then she quickly made her way to some vegetables farther down the aisle.

She probably thought I was going to attempt to sell her the CD. Either that or she didn't want to engage the poor, deluded Gen-X musician whose stuff couldn't possibly be as cool as her generation's music.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Another thought on loudness torture

We have spent the past 30 years supporting causes related to peace and justice. To now learn that some of our friends' music may have been used as part of the torture tactics without their consent or knowledge is horrific. It's anti-American, period.
The fact that music I helped create was used as a tactic against humanity sickens me. We need to end torture and close Guantanamo now.
Tom Morello, Rage Against the Machine
Maybe I would feel differently about this if there were any chance that Cinder Bridge's music was on the torture playlist. Maybe. But I kind of wonder why these musicians are focusing on the music torture. As long as they're all getting together to protest, why not protest all torture? It's not like they're OK with waterboarding because waterboarding didn't involve their creative input.


"We've only done one of the five basic torture groups. We've done blunt, but that still leaves sharp, hot, cold, and loud."
Faith, Angel
Ever since former vice president Dick Cheney said we needed to work the dark side in our fight against terrorism, torture has gotten a lot of press. Specifically, various methods of torture and whether they count as torture.

The latest "enhanced interrogation technique" to make the news? Apparently people in charge of such things at Guantanamo Bay blasted music at earthshattering decibels for hours or days to coerce and punish the prisoners. From the Washington Post:
“Sound at a certain level creates sensory overload and breaks down subjectivity and can (bring about) a regression to infantile behavior,” said Suzanne Cusick, a music professor at New York University who has studied, lectured about and written extensively on the use of music as torture in the current wars. “Its effectiveness depends on the constancy of the sound, not the qualities of the music.”

Played at a certain volume, she said, “it simply prevents people from thinking.”
Pretty sickening if you believe in things like due process, rule of law, and, you know, not torturing people. But beyond the obvious human rights issues, there's an interesting twist. A coalition of musicians has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. They demand to know which songs the Guantanamo staff used. Once they find out, their next move will be to "explore legal options."

OK. I get these artists not wanting their music to be used for crimes against humanity. I applaud their efforts to make it stop (though the Obama administration claims it already has). What I don't understand is how it will help to know if their own works were on the playlist. I'm no expert on copyright law, but I'd bet good money that they don't have the rights to determine how someone uses their music once they buy it.

I've scanned other articles on the subject since reading the Washington Post's, and I haven't found anything that answers my question. The closest I've come is this side note from a piece by Harry Shearer on HuffPo:
[I]f the musicians really want to get at the government on the use of music for torture, why not get ASCAP and BMI on the case? Where are the royalties for the semi-public (over PA systems) use of their songs?
Hadn't thought of that. Along those lines, maybe we could convince the Recording Industry Association of America to get involved. Forget a congressional investigation. If the RIAA finds out those guys illegally downloaded the songs they used to torture people, they're in BIG trouble.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The search (algorithm) for good music

Google is launching a music service. They're keeping quiet about the details until they make an official announcement next week, but it looks like they're aiming to compete with iTunes. From WA Today:
Google will launch music search pages next week and include ways for consumers to buy songs for download, according to people familiar with the matter.

The music pages will package images of musicians and bands, album artwork, links to news, lyrics and song previews, along with a way to buy songs, they said.
My first reaction was, that's nice, but iTunes already does all that. How will this be different?

Then I remembered my introduction to Google.

About a decade ago, I used AltaVista for all my searches. It worked. I was perfectly happy with it. A coworker used another search engine that she really liked, however, and she recommended that I try it. The name of that search engine was ... Dogpile.

I gave it a shot. Then I promptly went back to AltaVista. I had nothing against Dogpile -- their results were just as good, as far as I could tell. I just preferred what I was used to.

Meanwhile, I kept hearing about this new search engine called Google. One day I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Just like Dogpile, it seemed perfectly OK, but I couldn't really tell the difference.

Except that after I tried it, I never used anything else. And I didn't know why.

In retrospect, I think it was the clean design that hooked me. AltaVista was cluttered with all sorts of links below the search field that I never bothered with. Google had the logo, the search box, and a whole lot of whitespace.

So who knows. Maybe Google will offer a better aesthetic experience than iTunes. If not, maybe they'll at least be able to hook me up with some Beatles songs.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Nobody knows, particle man

Ooh, nice. Here's a Rolling Stone piece about They Might Be Giants and their breakthrough album, Flood.

Track by Track Guide to the Geek-Chic Breakthrough
Issued the first week of 1990, Flood was a landmark release in the evolution from college rock (the awkward handle for music like R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü that dominated university radio stations in the 1980s) to the alternative movement that defined much of the 1990s. Flood is still a hallmark in geek chic's rise, too: the Giants' two previous LPs proved a skinny guy with an accordion and a partner in crime wearing black-plastic glasses could rock a party.
The article is worth a read if you're interested in the technical details of how the band created its sound. Or if, like me, you've spent the last almost-20 years wondering about some of those lyrics.

One early morning when I was a senior in college, an urgent question kept me awake: What did the characters in "Particle Man" represent? Particle Man himself obviously stood for the downtrodden, but what about the benevolent Universe Man? Why did Triangle Man hate Particle Man? Why was Triangle Man called that?

This went on for a while until well-modulated, calm voice interrupted my thoughts. Maybe the song doesn't mean ANYTHING, it said. Thus reassured, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Turns out I probably wasn't that far off.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Invisible people on the edge

It's a familiar story these days. Dave Rhodes has been looking for work and not finding any, and his unemployment benefits have come to an end. Now he and his wife, Dorian, face homelessness if they can't make their rent.

The twist: They have nowhere to go. Dorian is sick. She has ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, and chemical sensitivities. Homeless shelters don't accommodate chemical sensitivities. Even if the people who ran them knew they should, I doubt they could afford to.

So, Dave came up with a plan. He's selling sidebar space on his blog.

For $20, he'll put your badge on the bar for 30 days. He'll link the badge to your business website, blog, Twitter account, or whatever you want.

Details here.

They have a few days to come up with $850. After a few days they'll be hit with an additional $500 fee.

If you've ever considered advertising on the web -- or even if you never have -- now's a great time. Dave doesn't guarantee fabulous results, but I tell you what. If you put a badge up, I'll click through to your site.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A biomarker, and a bit of vindication

For years, many doctors have claimed that ME/CFS, aka "chronic fatigue syndrome," isn't a real disease. Despite patients' insistence that they aren't imagining their pain, that they aren't just depressed or lazy, physicians who take their symptoms seriously can be very hard to find.

Doctors, meet xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus.

According to the Wall Street Journal:
Researchers have linked an infectious virus known to cause cancer in animals to chronic-fatigue syndrome, a major discovery for sufferers of the condition and one that concerned scientists for its potential public-health implications ...

Like HIV, XMRV is a retrovirus, meaning once someone is infected, the virus permanently remains in the body; either a person's immune system keeps it under control or drugs are needed to treat it. The virus creates an underlying immune deficiency, which might make people vulnerable to a range of diseases, said Judy Mikovits of the Whittemore Peterson Institute and one of the lead authors on the paper.
The full article is here.

Oh, sorry, that link takes you to a "subscriber content preview page," doesn't it. If you don't feel like plunking down money to read the article, there are others in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and many more.

I couldn't resist quoting the Wall Street Journal, though. Why? Because a little over a decade ago they printed an opinion piece in which they argued that people with this disease have a "deranged sense of victimization." That they're in it for the oh-so-lucrative disability payments.

Perhaps the WSJ will print a long-overdue retraction. I'll be right over here, holding my breath, waiting for that to happen.

Snark aside, this really is big news. The findings could lead to better treatment. Or, you know, any treatment. They could also lead to an incredibly useful diagnostic tool (great news not only for people with ME/CFS, but also those who have other neuro-immune diseases, like Lyme, which are sometimes misdiagnosed as ME/CFS).

It doesn't mean these researchers will discover a cure tomorrow. It doesn't mean the bigotry will disappear overnight. Still, it feels like there's something new in the air. Something like progress. Something like hope.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Art, wine, dogs

Sunday's gig went well. The turnout for Art and Wine for the Weimaraners was good, even if you only count the two-legged attendees.

I think this is the only art show I've ever been to that was open to dogs.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes and she's gone

Lucy O'Donnell Vodden died on September 22. She was 46.

You have no idea who that is, but you've heard of her, kind of. In nursery school, her buddy Julian drew a picture of her and showed it to his father. His father asked what he had drawn. Julian replied, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

You know the rest.

I heard this story sometime in middle school and reacted with some amount of skepticism. Inspired by a picture by John Lennon's kid? No way. Got to be about LSD. Well, and maybe it was, but the drawing was real, and so, it turns out, was the girl.

Lucy Vodden battled lupus, a neuroimmune disease, for 15 years before finally succumbing. By the time she died she was housebound and very sick. Unfortunately, it took a while before she got the correct diagnosis; lupus sufferers can do better if they receive treatment early on.

Full story at

Thanks to LupusVoice for passing this along. Here's hoping for happier news next time around.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Art and Wine for the Weimaraners

Doggie!Ooh, look at this. The Arizona Daily Star has designated Art and Wine for the Weimaraners -- at which we will play -- as one of this week's "hot 5 events."

AZ Nightbuzz

This is essentially last week's gig with a twist. In addition to the art by Carolyn Anderson and musical accompaniments by Kevin McCalix and Cinder Bridge, the event will raise money for rescue dogs.

The fundraiser is Sunday, October 4, from 3 to 6 p.m., at Gallery 801, 801 North Main, Tucson, Arizona. Admission is a donation of $5 or more to Arizona Weimaraner Rescue. Mutt Lynch Winery will offer samples of their award-winning wines, so be sure to designate a driver. If you missed last week's opening, come join the festivities.

Thinking is overrated

For days I'd been on the cusp of finishing the chorus to my song in progress. Just one word and I'd be set. The word didn't come at the end of a line, so it didn't even need to rhyme with anything.

I thought real hard, trying to will the word into my awareness. When that didn't work, I continued to think real hard. Sometimes I furrowed my brow. No dice.

Here's what happened when I enlisted Ron the Drummer's help during rehearsal.

Me: "Hey, Ron. What's a word that means 'brief,' with two syllables, accent on the first syllable?"

Ron: [thinks for a moment] "Brief ... two syllables ..."

Me: "Yeah, you know. Like 'fleeting.'"

My brain is weird.