Welcome Interstate Managers
I often find myself baffled by fads in pop music. I mean, I sort of understand how you end up with a million sound-alike bands once one band in a given genre scores a hit, but I can't fathom why the first hair metal band hit it big, or the first "boy band," or that whole disco thing.
Even more puzzling to me, though, is why some albums fail to sell. My favorite example of this would be 1965 by the Afghan Whigs-- that record just kicks ass, and should've sold a billion copies. Why it didn't, I have no idea.
Close behind 1965 in the "How was this not a hit?" category is Utopia Parkway by Fountains of Wayne. It's got everything you could possibly want in a pop record: big hooks, catchy tunes, witty lyrics, and suburban angst. And yet, it sank more or less without a trace, and the band was booted from their label. Go figure.
You've got to give them credit for persistence, though, as Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger (Williams alumni from the mid-80's) are back with Welcome Interstate Managers, which might just as easily be titled Utopia Parkway 2.0. They've updated the themes a little bit-- the angst is still suburban, but it's more a 9-to-5, corporate-tool kind of deal than the last album's Long-Island-mall-rat vibe-- but all the rest of the package is there: the big hooks, the catchy tunes, the witty lyrics ("It may be the whiskey talking/ But the whiskey says I miss you every day."). You can even draw some fairly direct parallels between tracks--"Fire Island" on this record is "Prom Theme" from the last one, "Little Red Light" is "It Must Be Summer," and "Stacy's Mom" is "Denise" re-tooled for the American Pie demographic. And, alas, "Supercollider" is "Go, Hippie." It's almost like they can't believe the last one didn't sell, either, and are putting it out there again.
It still works, too. The songs may be a hair edgier-- "Bright Future in Sales" is probably the catchiest song about self-destructive alcoholism that you'll ever hear-- but they're no less successful as pop songs.
I don't mean to suggest that it's all a re-tread, though. The mid-tempo ballads are a little sweeter-- "Hackensack" is a wonderful loser love song (think Pearl Jam's "Elderly Woman Behind a Counter in a Small Town," only with harmony), while "Valley Winter Song" is just plain nice-- and a few new sounds pop up unexpectedly. "Hey Julie" is a catchy little acoustic number that sounds like a "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" for the Office Space crowd-- you can picture frustrated cubicle dwellers sitting cross-legged around the copier singing along, passing a joint around the circle, and desperately hoping that there won't be a random drug test on Monday. The biggest surprise is probably "Hung Up On You," a surprisingly straight (and very good) country tune.
In the end, this isn't quite as good as Utopia Parkway-- "Halley's Waitress" and "Supercollider" just aren't very good songs, and some of the others are fairly forgettable-- but it's the best record I've bought in a good while. If you enjoy well-crafted pop songs, and are looking for something new to play while loafing around in the sun this summer, well, go buy this album. And while you're there, grab copies of Utopia Parkway and 1965, too.
(Also posted at Blogcritics, with spiffy links and stuff...)
Minor Mysteries and Navel Gazing
John Novak (who, by the way, has a review of Set This House in Order up, which, like the book, is worth reading) memorable termed his weblog a "shrine to the ego." It's an apt phrase, as there's inevitably some element of ego to this whole enterprise.
Like, for example, my habit of occasionally checking the two "ecosystem" "rankings" (Myelin and NZ Bear) of various weblogs. I sort-of justify this to myself by noting that this occasionally steers me to interesting places (such as the aptly named Odd Things in Pitt's Libraries), but then Technorati's Link Cosmos provides the same service (see, for example, The Future Is Retail, whose URL is great) without the "cooler than thou" overtones of the "ecosystem" versions, but there's an ego-stroking element to the "rankings" that makes those a little more fun.
(It's also interesting to note that the overlap between the three systems is far from perfect... I don't have the foggiest idea how they do these, but each of the three lists of inbound links for my site has at least one unique element not found in the others...)
Anyway, I've noted for a while that Indepundit consistently shows up in the stats on the ranking sites, linking specifically to an archived post from last summer. I wondered about that for a while, but figured the extra link was helping maintain my "Flappy Bird" status, so it wasn't worth worrying about.
Curiosity eventually got the better of me, and I went to see where the links were coming from. It turns out, he has a rotating selection of masthead quotes, one of which is me calling him "lower than pond scum." It's probably childish of me to want that corrected to the original phrase, "lower than the slime that pond scum scrapes off its shoes," but I guess it was edited for space reasons. Anyway, he hasn't updated the site since last December (a "farewell to all this" message is still there), so I figured that was that.
Of course, my other ego-stroking outlet is checking the referrer logs for steelypips.org (which are mostly swamped by Kate's Nethack pages, making it hard to find out who links to my site), where I noticed a puzzling thing: That link generates hits. On a regular basis, even. The Indepundit site hasn't been updated in six months, and yet month after month, people keep finding their way to my site via that taunting banner quote.
Who are these people? How are they ending up there, let alone here? Are there space aliens out in the Oort Cloud reading Instapundit with a four-month light-propagation delay?
The College's Commencement was this past Sunday, raising the eternal question of why academic processions always seem to involve bagpipes. The graduation procession at Williams also was led by bagpipers, for no clear reason. Then again, Maryland's graduation featured a choir singing the sinister "O Fortuna" bit from Carmina Burena, giving the impression that somebody was going to be burned as a witch, or bloodily dismembered for treason, so perhaps bagpipes are an improvement.
Of course, this past weekend was also the occasion of my tenth college reunion, which made for a weird collision of pseudo-academic pageantry and nostalgia. It was particularly difficult to avoid comparing this year's graduation to memories of my own, ten years back. (Ten years ago, it rained...)
I didn't make it back in time to play Oxbridge and parade around in academic robes (Saturday night stretched well into Sunday morning, and I just didn't see myself getting up at six to make the drive back...), which was a mixed blessing-- Sunday was not a day to be sitting in the sun in black robes, particularly not with a hangover, but I do enjoy the pageantry, even if I hate the hats. Missing the speeches was a definite bonus, as the scheduled commencement speaker was Fred "Mister" Rogers, who died a couple of months ago. Whoops. He was replaced by a number of people talking about him, and, really, one "beautiful day in our neighborhood" joke (in the President's closing address) was too damn much.
The really striking thing was how much of a difference knowing people makes. I went to the whole ceremony last year, but it was my first year, and I hadn't had any seniors in my classes, so there wasn't much of an attachment there. This year, I had all the senior physics majors twice (once as coordinator of the senior research program, and once in my optics class), and was a lot closer to them. It made the whole thing much more meaningful to actually know some of the people picking up degrees (indeed, that's why I made the trip back in time for the end of the ceremony...).
Anyway, that's done, and they're off, which means two major life-changing transitions: the seniors are off to do whatever it is they'll do now that they're not in college any more (one of my thesis students has a job interview today...), and I'm making the transition back into Research Mode. I've got two students working for me this summer, who started on Monday, and are busily trying to get up to speed. Meanwhile, I've got a month-old referee request, a grant I'm supposed to review, final grades to turn in, and I'm hoping to get a little time to write up some of the results that the recently departed seniors generated... Blogging will probably be light for a while.
If You Look to Your Left, You'll See We're Now Passing Korematsu, Coming Up on Dred Scott...
The DC Appeals Court upheld the practice of secret detentions in terrorism cases, making a strong bid to be included in the 2099 list of "Worst Court Decisions Ever." A steroid-maddened Jim Henley has a long piece about it, and still manages to sound too calm and reasonable. I'd be angrier myself if it weren't so depressingly predictable.
A hundred years from now, the people of a better nation will look back on us much the same way we look back on the Americans of the early 1800's, and puzzle over what, exactly, we could've been thinking.