About That Bass

What do I need to learn bass guitar? A bass, obviously. But what kind of bass? And what else?

I asked myself those questions a month or two ago. How about an acoustic bass guitar? That would mean that I didn’t need an amp. I could spend almost all my first burst of money on the bass itself. At least as important, an acoustic would be consistent with my musical tastes, which tend toward the folky.

I went with an Ibanez AEB5E from Guitar Center. Guitar Center allows trying before buying, and there is a branch in Rhode Island, little though my new home state is. There’s also a branch in nearby North Attleboro, Massachusetts.

AEB stands for Acoustic Electric Bass. The E means that the instrument can be plugged into a bass amp: it incorporates a pickup and preamp.

All I needed, apart from the bass itself, was a means of learning bass. I went with a book: yes, one of those old-fashioned things printed on paper. To be specific, I got the Hal Leonard book.

Now, I should stop posting and resume practicing. More about the bass in future posts…

Scott Hutchison RIP

Scott Hutchison was Frightened Rabbit. That was the nickname given to shy young Scott by his mother. That was the name under which he started making music.

Frightened Rabbit became a duo when Scott was joined by brother and drummer Grant. Frightened Rabbit added members over time.

Midnight Organ Fight, FR’s breakthrough album, came out in 2008. The band recently completed a tour marking the 10th anniversary of the release. It is for me a truly great album. As Kieran Devlin recently wrote in The Guardian:

A classic heartbreak record, Midnight didn’t navigate the travails of young love and lust so much as trip over them and mutter an unnecessary apology.

Here’s an acoustic version of my favorite track.

Scott recently took his own life. Here are his last two messages to the world.

Be so good to everyone you love. It’s not a given. I’m so annoyed that it’s not. I didn’t live by that standard and it kills me. Please, hug your loved ones.

I’m away now. Thanks.

They are quoted by Stephen Thompson at NPR, along with some words from Scott’s family.

Now please, be good to everyone you love. And to yourself.

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: It’s Bad… in a Great Way

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (CXG) is my favorite current TV show. That might sound like much, given that we don’t have a TV, but please stay with me for a paragraph or two and perhaps a video.

The CXG is question is Rebecca Bunch, a lawyer who leaves a successful career on the east coast to move to West Covina, California, the home town of a guy she had a summer camp fling with years ago. That makes it sound as though the show focuses on Rebecca and Josh Chen (the guy from camp). But it’s about Rebecca and her many relationships: with boyfriends, colleagues, etc., and most of all with herself.

One of the distinctive things about CXG is that, a couple of times an episode, a character or characters burst into song, often busting out dance moves. I’ll include a few examples. First, at the risk of spoiling: Rebecca realizes that she has invested in romantic/sexual relationships at the expense of other aspects of life.

That’s from season three, which I’m currently watching on Netflix. It looks as though there will be a fourth and last season. The plan from the start was for a four-season arc. The show changes a lot over the arc.

One of the changes was the departure of Santino Fontana, who played one of Rachel’s boyfriends. I think he was superb in the show. Here’s one of his big numbers.

While Rebecca does not lack for contact of various kinds with guys, perhaps the second most important character in the show is her friend Paula, played by Donna Lynne Champlin. Here’s my favorite of her numbers.

CXG reminds me of Breaking Bad, in at least two ways. First, each is great, and would be on any list of my favorite TV shows of all time. I particularly admire the writing, but I shouldn’t neglect other aspects of the show.. Second, each is an ensemble show with a great lead. Bryan Cranston was incredible in BB, but Rachel Bloom co-created, stars in, sings and dances in CXG, co-writes scripts and songs…

I am crazy about this show. How about you?

Thompson Family Album

My father is one of the greats to ever step on the stage
My mother has the most beautiful voice in the world

ThompsonFamilyFrontThose two lines open the album Family. The writer is Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda.

Richard and Linda Thompson’s best-known song is the title track of I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, an album released forty years ago. If you want to hear “I Want to See…”, and have Spotify, my Thompson Family playlist starts with that track, and continues with half a dozen selections from Family itself.

To be specific, the playlist continues with Teddy’s above-quoted song “Family”. Teddy produced the Family record, and describes it as:

an album of new songs by Thompsons written specifically for this project. It started with the idea of each of us [Richard, Linda, Teddy, and his younger sister Kami] recording two tracks and then we added my nephew Zack and my brother Jack each doing one.

Eleven people, all members of the extended Thompson family, are credited with performing on the album. See the Thompson Family Album site for further facts, photos, links to the web sites of specific Thompsons, etc.

Linda may well have started singing “Bonny Boys” while you were surfing the Family site. (I’m assuming here that you are listening to the playlist, and that you didn’t desert this page for good.) It’s the third song on the playlist, and the third with lyrics that initially sound hopeful, or even positive, then mix in darker matter.

So it may come as a relief when the next song starts gloomily (“We still keep falling for the same old lies… times are tough”), rather than raising hopes, only to dash them. This song is Richard’s, and it works well on this album, with much of the family to joining in on the title line: “That’s Enough”.

It may come as even more of a relief that the next track on the playlist is an instrumental. Jack Thompson wrote “At the Feet of the Emperor”, and plays bass on it. Richard plays guitars, but the track reminds me more of Daniel Lanois than of any Thompson.

If you wanted relief from dark lyrics, you probably wouldn’t still be reading this, and you won’t have got as far as “I Long For Lonely” in the playlist. This cheerful ditty is written and performed by Kami and her husband, James Walbourne. It closes the album.

“Perhaps We Can Sleep” closes the playlist. It’s one of Linda’s two songs on the album, although Teddy co-wrote it, and played all the instruments.

The Family album can be viewed from many perspectives. It is certainly a clan collaboration. It was also, to some of the musicians involved, a competition to provide the best contributions to the album. Blending this competitive perspective with my own judgment, I declare Linda the winner. I consider “her” two tracks the two best tracks on Family; that’s why I included both in the playlist.

Here’s my own perspective on the Thompson Family. Richard Thompson is my favorite musician, and probably always will be. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight is my favorite album, and probably always will be. I am (to put it mildly) interested in the Thompson family. So there are many things about the Family that fascinate me. Is that Richard playing lead guitar on this particular track? How do the various Thompsons interact with other, musically and otherwise?

I sprung for the Deluxe edition, which at ~$15 includes the music CD, a DVD with a 15-minute “making of” mini-movie, a booklet with lyrics, credits, family snapshots, etc., and a foldout sleeve to contain those three items. (I should take a photo in the morning, when the light is good enough for my phone to get a quarter-decent shot.) It was excellent value for me, partly because I found the mini-movie moving and fascinating.

There are many things in the Family project that tie in with the ghosts of Thompson stuff past. Most of them are in the songs and performances. Then there are the other things. For example, there’s the remark on the sleeve (I presume by Teddy) that the family tree on the cover (and towards the top of this post) “does not illustrate how we are all related. We would have needed gatefold vinyl to even attempt that.” That reminds me of a certain double album I used to own on vinyl, with gatefold sleeve, part of which had a lovely illustration of the early Fairport Convention family tree.

Time to wrap this up. So, link again to the Thompson Family Album site. Point out that it includes links to online stores where you can buy Family in its various forms, with any affiliate money going (I assume) to the Thompsons involved in the project. Mention that the site also links to media coverage, including radio segments, but single out the excellent NY Times Magazine piece anyway. Sneak in, at the end of a paragraph, that the Family album is more likely to intruige those already pro-Thompson than to make new converts.

So, from my perspective, Family was a must-buy, and a good buy, but is not a great album. Feel free to share your perspective in the comments!

There's a Hole in My Spotify

I’m gradually putting together a Spotify playlist of 50 favorite tracks. I would be halfway through if every track I’ve tried to add was available on Spotify. But 5 of them are not. Here’s the missing handful, in what I perceive to be descending order of obscurity.

  • And Your Bird Can Sing, by The Beatles
  • Running Up That Hill, by Kate Bush
  • Walk Out to Winter, by Aztec Camera
  • As Soon as This Pub Closes, by Alex Glasgow
  • Sharon Signs to Cherry Red, by the Kamikaze Pilots (previous post, including the track itself)

You can find what was meant to be the 50-track playlist at Spotify. It currently has 20 tracks, not including the 5 I can’t include.

I’m surprised that 25% of my selections aren’t available on Spotify. I think I was hoping for something under 10%.

If you use Spotify (or another music service) what is your “unavailability percentage”?

NPR: It's Not Just For Radio Any More

When I listen to the radio in the car here near DC, I’m usually tuned to WAMU on 88.5. That’s one of the local NPR stations. For readers outside the USA, NPR stands for National Public Radio. That may be misleading: NPR is not run by the federal government (or by any government). Neither is it only about radio.

NPR is also behind one of my favorite music sites. NPR Music includes such features as First Listen, which previews albums in the week leading up to release. Although there are only a few albums previewed each week, there is usually at least one to which I’m looking forward (e.g., Shearwater’s Animal Joy) or that I enjoyed, but might not have listened to had it not been featured (e.g., Grimes’ Visions).

NPR relies to a large extent on contributions to fund its programming, on the airwaves and on the web. So I’m glad to say that I did get round to contributing recently. Or rather, when told that I was difficult to buy presents for, I suggested a donation to WAMU. What do I get for the $120 the present cost? A non-lousy t-shirt. And the knowledge that I’m helping to keep NPR programs, stations, and websites going.

Do you use NPR? Do you contribute?

2011 Music

It’s mid-December, I think I have one review of the year post in me, and as you can see, that one review is of the year in music. So, on with remarks about music itself, and about how I access it these days.

I’m old-fashioned enough that I listen mainly to albums, rather than to say, playlists. Among many 2011 albums I enjoyed, three stand out. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key. If I had to choose a best, I would wonder what I meant by that, and decide that it was something to do with being likely to feature on best of the decade lists when they appear. Then I’d go for PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake. Cults’ self-titled debut is the third of my picks.

Each of these three is among the top 25 albums of the year as chosen by listeners to the NPR show All Songs Considered. I hope that doesn’t make me too predictable: at least none of my three was higher than number 20. NPR Music has been a big part of my listening this year.

If you like album of the year lists, check out Metacritic’s meta-list, derived from “year-end Top Ten lists published by major music critics and publications.” PJ Harvey and Bon Iver seem to have first and second place, respectively, sewn up. If you really like music of the year lists, check out Largehearted Boy’s list of online music lists.

So, how to listen to albums these days? When I buy an album, it’s almost always in the form of a download. It’s usually from Amazon, since I get an immediate download, further downloads if I need another copy, and access via a Cloud Player stream from pretty much any device I might be using. I also use Google Music, in a “let’s try the service out, and may as well have yet another copy of the album somewhere” way.

If I want to listen to a whole album without buying or even downloading it, I usually use Spotify. I use the free version, and so can’t run Spotify on my iPad or Android. Here’s a Spotify playlist, with a track from each of the three albums I mentioned above – plus “Suck It and See”, since that seems like a good sentiment with which to kick off a sampler playlist, and I like the Arctic Monkeys and their new album.

I wish I could review some live music, but I don’t get out to see much live music these days. Nevertheless, it was a good year to be a music lover.

Google Music: Initially Underwhelmed, But…

Google Music launched to a rather lukewarm reception. Don’t Be Too Disappointed By Google Music’s Lackluster Debut was the advice from TechCrunch. Here’s How Google Music Plans to Compete So Late in the Game was the slightly-perkier reaction from RWW. GigaOm was rather more upbeat:

The service mirrors smilar offerings from Apple and Amazon, with a unique social twist: Users will be able to share their purchases on Google+, giving their friends and followers a chance to listen (one-time only) to singles and complete albums for free.

So essentially it’s a music locker linked to an MP3 store (i.e. Android Market). We can browse, sample, and purchase. The browsing works fine. The sampling, not so much, when I tried it on iPad: the browser-based player seemed to think it was playing, but there was no sound. Playing is fine on the Windows/Chrome setup I’m currently using. The Google Music/Android Market apps won’t work on my Android phone, but then, not many recent apps work on a G1…

I tried music purchasing in two ways. First, I compared Android Market MP3 prices with Amazon. Amazon was usually less expensive; for example, Laura Veirs’ Tumble Bee is $9.49 in the DroidMart, rather than $7.99 at Amazon.

But I did already make one purchase from Android Market: Los Campesinos!’ Hello Sadness for $5.99. I’ll get round to making a Google+ playlist including tracks from this, and other music I own, soon. Right now, I’m uploading a lot of music from disc, while barely making a dent in the 20,000-track Google Music allowance.

I feel rather overwhelmed, in a good way, by the options open to the web-based music listener. I’m not blown away by Google’s offering right now, but will keep on comparing it with Amazon’s – and with Apple’s, and Spotify’s, and with other – and plan to post as I compare. I’m interested in your comparisons also, so feel free to post them as comments here.

Spotify Arrives – By Flying Pig?

I was among those who thought that flying pigs would arrive in the USA before Spotify did. Well, Spotify has arrived. The pigs probably did too, when I was too distracted by Google+ and SpotifyUSA to notice.

I’m using the free version right now, and liking it. The range of music is wide. The only thing I’ve been disappointed at not finding is the new Gillian Welch album.

I’m currently listening to Richard Thompson’s 1000 Years of Popular Music (which I really should have bought by now). The first thing I listened to was Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die (which I bought on iTunes, but promptly lost due to a computer accident and due to Apple’s ridiculous policy against re-downloading music one already owns).

Here’s what has most impressed me so far about Spotify. When this computer (old PC running Windows XP) lost its wireless connection, and I couldn’t get to my email, bank account, etc. in the browser, Spotify kept playing. It kept playing Radiohead’s Amnesiac (yet another album I should have bought by now).

So, I am impressed by free Spotify and am considering paying for one of the premium versions. I’m sorry to say that I have no invites to give out…