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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, September 14, 2002

Busted Stuff

Yeah, fine, I'm about a month late in writing a review of this record. The thing is, it's taken me about this long to get enough of a read on this record to say anything halfway coherent.

The Dave Matthews Band is one of the great instrumental outfits around, especially if you agree with the prescription of some forgotten reviewer, who suggested that Matthew's singing is best regarded as another instrument. Pay attention to just the sound, not the meaning of the words, and the songs are lovely, but think too much about what the words mean, and you risk being distracted from the tune by the fact that, well, Matthews isn't any great shakes as a lyricist. There are exceptions to this rule, of course-- the sweetly sodden "Grace is Gone" is good both lyrically and musically, and may be the best combined effort they've managed-- but by and large the lyrics tend to read badly and are redeemed only by Matthews's often otherworldy voice.

In terms of the singing, though, this record is relatively restrained. I don't know if this is a creative choice, or if Matthews has started to lose some of his vocal range through constant touring and the hard drinking that forms such a big part of the back story of this album. Most of the songs seem to be sung in a slightly lower register than those on past albums, and also tend not to swoop dramatically from one end of his range to another. For the most part, they still work, but an unfortunate side effect of this is that they tend to sink into an undifferentiated mass. It's an album that's easy to listen to (distinct from "easy listening," thank you very much), but hard to separate into individual tracks. Hence the long lead time needed to write about it. Even now, there's a block of three songs ("You Never Know," "Captain," and "Raven") in the middle of the album that I couldn't begin to identify.

The songs that do stand out are mostly very good, though. "Grace is Gone" might be the best track on the album, but "Digging a Ditch," "Where Are You Going," and the title track are all solid. "Grey Street" is as close as they can really come to "rocking," but subject to the "sound, not words" rule above, is a good tune. The only distinctive misfire is "Bartender"-- saying this is sure to draw the ire of the jam-band faithful, but its desperate straining for Significance ("Bartender, please, fill my glass for me/ with the wine you gave Jesus that set him free/ after three days in the ground") is reminiscent of the worst psychadelic twaddle of the Doors and the Grateful Dead, and the music can't distract me from the godawful lyrics.

(Having mentioned them in a Dave Matthews review, it's worth a brief aside about the Grateful Dead and jam bands in general. I like a lot of Grateful Dead material, subject to one simple rule: they were a great band, when they played songs, and even when they strung long instrumental passages together to get from one song to another (the usual "China Cat Sunflower/ I Know You Rider" combo being a good example) but the free-form, experimental, "Derek Smalls on the bass-- he wrote this" improvisational stuff was, for the most part, unlistenable crap. And it was lousy because they forgot what, to my mind, is one of the key rules of improvised music: you can't all improvise at once.

(Most really great improvisational music takes place within certain constraints-- when Miles Davis or John Coltrane were making it up as they went, the drummer wasn't. Somebody in the band needs to bear the responsibility for keeping time, and keeping everybody else in the same ballpark. The completely free-form thing produces occasional moments of brilliance, but only for those brief instants when the whole band happens to wander into the same time signature, or integer multiples thereof. So you get snippets of song emerging from a long mass of material that sounds like the output of five different people in neighboring apartments playing one part of a song they're listening to on headphones. Hence the correlation between the ingestion of massive quantities of drugs and hard-core Dead fandom...

(I haven't been subjected to as many live Dave Matthews tracks as I have Dead bootlegs, but for the most part, Matthews and his band seem to realize this. When they "jam," the rhythm section mostly plays it straight, or failing that, Matthews keeps time himself (he plays more like a rhythm guitarist anyway). The results are a lot better than the Grateful Dead "jams" I've heard (and the "Kit Kat Jam" on this record is a decent enough tune)-- Matthews runs afoul of a couple of other Grateful Dead Rules ("Songs reaching for Cosmic Significance tend to suck" and "Jam bands don't ROCK"), but this aside is nearly the length of the rest of the review, so I'll shut up now...)

All in all, this is a much better effort than their previous album, and probably better than Before These Crowded Streets as well. The only flaw is that, as noted above, the individual songs don't really jump out at you as songs in their own right. But then, I'm not sure that's really what I'm looking for from the Dave Matthews Band-- realistically, this album is pretty much exactly what I'm looking for from them. If you already like the band, well, you don't need me to tell you to buy this. If you didn't like them before, you won't like them now, so save your money.

(Looking at the fine print in a BlogCritics email, I see that I'm contractually obligated as a wannabe reviewer to note that this album grew out of the famous "Lillywhite Sessions" demos that were circulated on the Internet for a couple of years. As I've never heard those versions of the songs, I can't say anything useful about the comparison, but there's your obligatory review factoid...)

(Also posted on BlogCritics.)

Posted at 9:40 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Hey, I Know Them

So, I'm sitting here doing the Saturday morning blogroll/ writing of long blog posts, with the soundtrack provided by the "Americana" channel on the digital cable (no commercials, no annoying DJ's, and a good variety of stuff in the twangy-roots-rock/ vein). An upbeat honky-tonk sort of tune comes on, and sounds pretty good, so I check the song information (another nice feature of the digital cable music channels). It's by The Domino Kings, who, oddly enough, were the late-night band at a friend's epic wedding reception two years ago this month (starting up at 1 am, playing upstairs in the old firehouse where the reception was held). I didn't know they had an album out (turns out it's their third-- shows what I know...), but I guess it's time to swing by Amazon and get a copy...

I'm even more impressed with the music selection, now. Though if The Honky Tonk Chateau show up next, I'll have to assume the music is being picked in Springfield, MO...

Posted at 8:22 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Thursday, September 12, 2002

Life's Too Short

Classes start today, so blogging is unlikely before the weekend. The first day or two of the term is always impressively chaotic.

I've returned the settings more or less to normal, and dropped a few people from the blogroll. I haven't read Sullivan or Den Beste in a month or so, and I think I'm happier that way, and the annoyance of reading Instapundit lately has risen above useful levels, so I dropped him, too, so as not to have that link hanging there tempting me. It's not like they don't get linked from blogs I still read, after all...

I may replace them with a few less irritating links, but I really shouldn't. And I have to go fret about being under-prepared for my classes now, so, maybe later.

Posted at 8:11 AM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Posted at 8:47 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

Special Relativity, Migraines Linked in Assistant Professors

This one's for Brad DeLong, who liked the last bit about Special Relativity so much (it'll be a little technical; I apologize to my non-physicist readers):

Most people have heard of the famous "twin paradox" in Special Relativity, where one twin is sent off in a rocketship to Alpha Centauri (or wherever) , and returns to find he's younger than his stay-at-home sibling. A colleague gave me an article (S. P. Boughn, Am. J. Phys. 57, 791 (1989)) yesterday that presents a really weird variation on this.

Take the twins ("Alice" and "Bob", say), put them both in rocket ships, separated by some large-ish distance. Give them synchronized watches, and at a set time, have them both accelerate in the same direction, along the line between their ships (that is, Bob accelerates toward Alice, who accelerates away from him). They both accelerate until they run out of fuel (the ships are identical, and carry the same amount of fuel), after which they coast at a constant velocity. They're now back in an inertial frame, and both in the same frame.

At that point, they find that Alice is older than Bob. How much older depends on how fast they're going in their new frame, but time has run slightly faster for the twin in front than the twin in back, despite the fact that they have each undergone exactly the same acceleration, and wind up in the same inertial frame.

The key point is that spatially separated clocks can that are synchronized in one inertial frame will be out of synch in any other frame. Two observers at different places won't agree on what time it is. This is presented as an explanation of the "gravitational redshift," an effect usually attributed to General Relativity, which affects the atomic clocks used in GPS satellites.

Stranger still, I think this means that time will run differently for observers on opposite ends of a single (very long) accelerating spaceship, though there's some stuff in the paper that still bugs me.

Relativity is weird.

Posted at 4:31 PM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Monday, September 09, 2002

A Moment of Silence

The run-up to the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks has been inescapable on tv and radio, and in the "blogosphere" and half against my will got me thinking about what I would post on that day. It's such a big deal, and has cast such a long shadow over the past year that I almost felt obliged to try to sum the whole thing up in some way. Then I read the lead story in the Onion last week, and decided what I'm going to post on September 11th.


Not one word.

In fact, to the greatest degree possible, I'm going media-free on Wednesday-- no papers, no tv news, no weblogs. Definitely no weblogs.

As a nation, and as a culture, we're really, really bad at solemnity and self-reflection. We veer wildly between the inappropriate and the cloying, between manufactured attempts at portentousness, and cringe-inducing bouts of grief-pimping. This is an occasion that doesn't deserve either, but will be buried in both.

You know what I realized? I don't want to see tearful remembrances of lost loved ones, broadcast to an audience of millions of strangers-- it's ghoulish and tacky. I don't want to see cloying video tributes to fallen police and firefighters, lists of names and family photographs flashed on screen to a carefully-chosen soundtrack-- the impromptu memorials that sprang up in September and October of last year were wrenching to see, but the addition of pop music and slick production pushes it from touching to sickening; it's the commodification of grief. I definitely don't want to see that goddamn video clip of the plane disappearing into the second tower-- I've seen that often enough on the back of my eyelids; I don't need it on my television any more.

I don't want to see any of that stuff-- why should I inflict my smaller version of it on anybody else?

More than that, though, I realized I just don't have the breathtaking arrogance, the monumental hubris, the mind-bogglingly colossal sense of self-importance needed to think that anything I have to say on the matter could possibly matter. What do I have to say that would have any meaning to somebody whose husband, wife, father, mother, child, friend, or second cousin was on one of those planes or in one of those towers. I didn't know anybody in the towers, or on the planes-- what reminiscence of mine can possibly be worth sharing with them? Yeah, I remember where I was, and what I was doing-- do you think they care? The attack ruined my week-- it shattered their lives.

And the only thing worse than the self-aggrandizing "sharing" by people who have nothing to say is abusing the memories of the dead for cheap political points. The "blogosphere" will no doubt be full of people waving the bloody shirt of 9/11, and howling for vengeance against Iraq, or Saudi Arabia, or whoever the villain of the week is. For this one day at least, I'll have no part of it.

The cry of the "blogosphere" hawks will surely be some variant of "remember why we fight." Yeah, thanks, I'd almost forgotten. The last three hundred and sixty-odd days have been spent beating the war drum, folks, it's not like we didn't notice. We've had a full year of yapping and barking and baying from the dogs of war-- could we get one day of peace and quiet to remember the dead with something approximating dignity?

You want to commemorate the event? Spare me the video tributes and the photo essays and the commemorative blog posts. Boycott the 9/11 commemorative industry-- turn off the tv, recycle the paper, unplug the computer and go outside. Buy a cop lunch. Buy a fireman a beer. Go to church, light a candle and pray.

Posted at 7:30 AM | link | follow-ups | 14 comments

Sunday, September 08, 2002


The new, re-formatted, review-intensive issue of Rolling Stone arrived yesterday, and I was flipping through it this morning trying to decide what I think of the new approach (short version: I approve of the idea of reviewing and rating 100+ albums per issue, but I think it's cheating to have 48 of them be re-issues, with a whopping 22 old Rolling Stones albums on the list...). Leafing past the worthless classified section, an ad caught my eye, mostly because everybody in the picture was fully clothed (unusual for the back pages of Rolling Stone):

Virtually any job you can imagine is available within the CIA, plus some you can't imagine. As the premier agency responsible for political, social, economic and technological intelligence worldwide, the CIA has never offered more exciting and challenging career opportunities for new employees than now.

An agency with our wide scope of duties needs a work force with the rich diversity offered by the multicultural nation we serve.

This is especially true today when the dynamic global community is changing faster than ever before.

I don't know what's more disturbing-- the idea that the best ad copy the CIA-- the CIA, for God's sake-- can come up with is this bland, adjective-noun-dot-com gibberish ("dynamic global community"?), or that they've paid to put it in the back pages of Rolling Stone. I mean, the ad directly beneath it offers to "Increase Breast Size... Guaranteed!" while the facing page hawks "The #1 Sex Toy Catalog," offering massagers, "mood makers," "passion kits," and "lubricants."

Do they think of a career in intelligence as an impulse buy? Isn't that an oxymoron? Is there somebody out there reading this and thinking "You know, I could use some bigger hooters an a passion kit, but how to pay for it?... I know! I'll become a spy!" Should this person really be a secret agent?

Better yet, they include some qualifications to the original offer:

Because of our national security role, applicants must have US citizenship and the ability to successfully complete medical examinations and security procedures, including a polygraph interview.

(Ignore for the moment the fractured grammar that makes it sound like they'll only hire doctors who happen to be security experts) and:

An equal opportunity employer and a drug-free work force.

Again, this ad is in Rolling Stone, for Christ's sake. The cover story is about a stoned-to-bejeezus garage band, and attributes the lead singer's demeanor to the fact that he "smokes an ungodly amount of pot."

Yeah, this is going to be a powerful recruiting tool for the CIA...

Posted at 9:40 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

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