Render Unto Jim…

I’ve had it with remixes.

We started to hear a lot more of them after Moby‘s 1999 album Play got so much, um, play. Today I heard several new remixes of classic Doors songs by the famous likes of Paul Oakenfold and The Crystal Method. Nowadays, indeed, most every time you search the Internet for a certain famous or “classic” song you find remixes.

I never liked ’em much, and now I’m really tired of ’em. So many of them merely set samples from the song over boring dance tracks. What’s bad about that is not the chopping up of the originals but the loss of the chord changes. If you’re going to call it a remix, it should be a re-setting of the actual song. If you keep the melody and remove the chord changes, it’s not the song. A melody and its underlying chords are interdependent, and if you take one of them away, it doesn’t matter what else you add, you’re still left with not-the-song. (I know, a song can be sung a capella. But in that case the listener’s mind supplies the chords silently, or makes them up if the tune is unfamiliar.)

I have nothing against sampling of the sort we typically hear in rap and other mainstream music, that is, re-using another artist’s materials to make a new artistic statement. Nor have I anything against interpreting an old song in a radically new way. What I’m tired of is being told, “Check out my remix of [whatever]” and finding it’s merely the original song disemboweled.

Not-So-Naughty Bits

Maybe it’s because I work in computers for a living and know firsthand the perils of Version 1.0 (of anything), but when it comes to technology, I’m no early adopter.

I’m a Mac specialist, but I learned to use OSX only when I had to support other OSX users. I’m a musician and a music fan, but I only checked out filesharing when I finally felt obligated to have an informed opinion about it. My wife and I were probably the last among our friends to get a DVD player, and we just bought our first digital camera.

We’re even waiting to have kids until technology can make sure they don’t come out depressed. 😉

I think I’m accelerating, though. I just downloaded my first BitTorrent file – a mere four years after the technology debuted.

No, I didn’t really need a collection of 700-odd music files contributed by this year’s crop of South By Southwest (SXSW) festival bands, though I’m happy to have it. And yes, someone could have collected all these MP3s on a single DVD and distributed it by old-fashioned mail. But that would have been a waste of plastic and postage. And more important, it would have been much less cool.

BitTorrent is a true P2P (peer-to-peer) technology. Shared files are served up from the users’ hard drives, not a central server. All you need is a lightweight piece of software and a small text file (the .torrent file) that serves as a pointer to the large file you wish to download.

There are BitTorrent “tracker” servers, but they do not host files; rather, they assist your computer to search the Internet for other computers that are sharing or acquiring the same file you want. (A new iteration called eXeemâ„¢ even eliminates the tracker servers.) Your computer joins the “swarm” and your client software starts to download bits and pieces of the file from its various sources and put them together on your hard drive. Simultaneously, your computer begins to “serve up” to other members of the swarm the bits it has already downloaded. “Seeding” is encouraged. “Leeching” is not.

I don’t expect to be using BitTorrent to download files that weren’t intended to be shared this way. To download files with BitTorrent you need to use a torrent client such as μTorrent to help you. I feel guilty downloading songs (though I’ve been known to do it), and I expect I’d feel proportionally guiltier downloading something much bigger, like a movie. Getting my feet wet by downloading a huge (2.6 GB) collection of music by artists of no doubt highly variable quality, most of which I probably won’t have time to listen to anyway, seems rather appropriate, in fact. I contributed to my first swarm, and I contributed to the argument that P2P’s legimitate uses justify its existence and necessitate its availability.

BitTorrent is an incredibly useful and clever technology. It’s being used to distribute magazines like this one, operating systems like Linux, jam band concert recordings (with the blessing of the artists), and, in commerce, as a way for folks with limited bandwidth at their disposal to distribute their digital products more widely than they otherwise could.

It’s also being used extensively for infringing purposes – notably, to share movies. But don’t do that. 🙂

A final note: I also tried downloading a small pornographic Torrent file. Purely for research purposes, you understand. But to view my downloaded file I had to go through such a rigamarole of digital red tape that I gave up. If the governments of the world really want to protect us from cybercrime and cyberterrorism, they should just ask those who run websites like and the rest of the Internet porn industry how it’s done.

More on the Moron

Shame on me. For all my complaints about Maureen Dowd, I somehow failed to notice that she was the only regular female columnist at The New York Times. For that, shame on the Times. In her column today Dowd points out that the Washington Post also has only one female regular.

The situation is actually worse than Dowd thinks, for the number of good female columnists at the inappropriately nicknamed “Grey Lady” is actually zero. Double shame on The Times. Her call for more female columnists is worthy of heeding. And I won’t deny there’s some truth to her complaint that

[w]hile a man writing a column taking on the powerful may be seen as authoritative, a woman doing the same thing may be seen as castrating. If a man writes a scathing piece about men in power, it’s seen as his job; a woman can be cast as an emasculating man-hater. I’m often asked how I can be so “mean” – a question that Tom Friedman, who writes plenty of tough columns, doesn’t get.

My personal observation is that this gender bias has been reduced since the advent of the blogosphere. Maybe the popularity of forums where men and women can post and comment on an equal footing, without having to worry about making a boss or editor happy, has encouraged more opinionated women to speak out (anonymity can be a benefit too), and maybe men are seeing that they can have heated discussions with female antagonists just as easily as they can with fellow men.

Whatever the cause, I believe Dowd is wrong about bloggers. Female bloggers may not equal their male counterparts in numbers (yet), but the female contributors to the blogs I follow (such as the multiblog Blogcritics and the wide-ranging Making Light) are at least as vociferously opinionated as the men.

As for her audience, Dowd notes that although she gets a lot of mail from male readers wanting her comments on their opinion pieces but that “women hardly ever send their own rants.” I suspect that’s because the women are too smart to waste their time corresponding with an intellectual pipsqueak like Dowd. Maybe it’s only men who’ll waste their time reading and reacting to the poor writing and unclear thought processes of such a pundit-wannabee. Only men – like, um, me. Hey – did I just prove my point, or refute it? Hmm…

CD Review: The Matthew Skoller Band, These Kind Of Blues!

The Matthew Skoller Band makes solid, harmonica-heavy, Chicago-style blues. Skoller’s husky voice, like Stevie Ray Vaughn’s, contrasts nicely with his ace band’s smooth (but mercifully un-slick) arrangements, while his virtuoso harp playing lends both pathos and sheen to many of these mostly original tunes.

This, the band’s fourth CD, opens with a couple of straightforward rolling-blues numbers, but moves on to a more interesting musical statement in what I think of as the “lyrical” blues mode with the unabashedly political “Handful of People.” Over a swelling two-chord obbligato in the gloomy key of A Minor, Skoller indicts the Bush Adminisistration for wars and social inequity. Whatever your politics, this is good blues, but right-wingers beware: you might have a hard time tolerating these lay-it-on-the-line lyrics.

However, by “lyrical blues mode” I’m not referring to lyrics – though they are important in this as in nearly all styles of blues – but rather to that sweet and passionate musical idiom that was fashioned out of blues basics starting in the 1960s by icons like B. B. King, James Cotton, John Mayall, and Jimi Hendrix in his “Wind Cries Mary” mode. Skoller’s mastery of this difficult mix of earth and sky, muscle and mind, make him more than just a talented musician and writer.

The title track is a straight-ahead rock-and-roll blues of a type any tight band could do, but when Skoller and Co. slow down for the soulful “Let The World Come To You,” they come to the real heart of the album. Decorated by wonderfully subtle Hammond organ from Sidney James Wingfield, flavored by Brian Ritchie’s cooing shakuhachi (a Japanese wooden flute I’ve never before heard in blues), and featuring a scintillating guitar solo by either Lurrie Bell or Larry Skoller, this six-and-a-half-minute epic has got a little of everything in perfect measure – even some gospelly backing vocals. It’s a real slow-blues treasure.

“Wired World” is a funny complaint about being too reachable. Though it’s not about love, it seems almost a tribute to the Vaughn Brothers’ “Telephone Song.” (The hooky “Julia” also has that sunny Stevie Ray Vaughn style.) But “Stolen Thunder” is the CD’s standout uptempo track. The lyrics seem to refer to a talented friend who’s wasting his life in a world of drug dealing. The single chord and insistent beat evoke musically the frustration and hope laid bare verbally in the chorus:

I wonder if I tried could I save him?
Ya think if I tried I could save him?

The answer, one fears, is no. But the refrain sure stays with you.

“Down At Your Buryin'” is a James Cotton cover where Skoller and his band show their ability to adapt a dark and angry country blues to their own style, with a wailing, almost unearthly harp solo from Skoller, very earthy piano from Johnny Iguana, and the welcome return of that ghostly shakuhachi.

The CD closes with a drawling, hip-hop remix of “Handful of People” by rapper J.A.Q., who’s right down with Skoller’s politics. The remix was an inspired idea, an interesting change that still goes down smoothly with the rest of the album.

Highly recommended for all blues fans.

Reality Bats

The use of performance-enhancing substances by baseball players and other athletes raises ethical, legal and medical questions aplenty. Angry sports columnists like this one are having their say, as are athletes past and present. But commissioner Bud Selig’s announcement that baseball won’t be modifying its record books based on revelations about steroid use reminds us that this is an existential matter as well.

If someone cheats and sets a home run record, it isn’t quite like cheating at poker. The artificially enhanced slugger really did hit that many home runs, unfair advantage or no. Should we simply consider steroid and hormone use as an evolutionary change in the game, like harder balls or smaller ballparks, as Mike Schmidt seems to be suggesting? A pitcher who pitches in a hitter-friendly ballpark, for example, is going to give up more homers. That’s an accepted reality of a game that doesn’t have standardized ballparks, and it’s just too bad for that pitcher that his circumstances will be reflected in his record; analysts and fans will note it informally, but the record books won’t.

Using steroids is unfair in a fundamentally different way, however. If you take steroids, having bigger muscles than the other guy isn’t a matter of luck any more than it’s a matter of hard work. It’s clearly cheating. What a Pandora’s box would be opened, if authorities like Selig decided that record books should be rewritten! But what an open sore of unfairness remains if they’re not! We will always have seen the games we’ve seen, but what was their meaning? What reality will the record books, not to mention our memories, reflect?