Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Ain’t No Brother Like the KID

In honor of Biz Markie, two tracks from one of my favorite albums.

“Intergalactic” from Hello Nasty (as opposed to the video version) ends with what sounds like Biz Markie demoing the style that the boys kind of ended up using in the song. (“Is that an echo?”)

Hello Nasty is easily my favorite Beastie Boys record, and it’s one of my top 10 of all time, so even if I’m mistaken and that’s not what was going on, nobody tell me. I like the memory better.

Biz Markie died last week, from severe complications from diabetes. The memorials I saw online all talked about his hit “Just a Friend,” but I’ve always thought about him in relation to Hello Nasty. That’s not back-handed or condescending. It may not be his album, but the album wouldn’t have become such a classic without him. He’s got such an outsized presence — or at least my favorite tracks — that in my mind, it’s a collaboration, not a guest appearance.

Maybe even more than “Body Movin'” and “Intergalactic,” I think my favorite track on Hello Nasty is “The Grasshopper Unit (Keep Movin’)”. On the Deluxe version of the album, there’s a neat outtake called “The Biz Grasshopper Experiment” that gives an idea how the track came together. You probably can’t go wrong if you’ve got an echo delay effect and Biz Markie as your hype man.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Groovies

If ever this country needed Cartoon Network to be cool again, that time is now

If I were to tell you that there’s a piece of music that’s running on a constant loop in the background of my brain, it’d be reasonable to assume that it’s the Innoventions Area loop from Epcot, or the theme from Space: 1999, or even Pump Up the Jam.

And those do frequently take over my capacity for thought for weeks at a time. But the one tune that lies, Cthulu-like, in the depths of my subconscious, waiting for its time to strike, is That Time Is Now by Michael Kohler. It was broadcast as a commercial bumper in the golden age of Cartoon Network, when all of us nerds of a certain age were so happy that a bunch of hipsters had gotten control of the Hanna Barbera and Warner Brothers libraries.

That remix of the Superfriends theme is what I heard in my head as a child, all the power and bombast and excitement of a show that simply didn’t warrant such cool music or Ted Knight voice-overs.

There were a ton of other impossibly cool ones, and it’s hard to pick a second favorite. The collage video warning that Atom Ant was the only thing saving us from nuclear annihilation? The impossible board game with Jonny Quest? The one that takes Josie and the Pussycats through various stages of music from the 60s to the early 2000s? I mean, their Betty Boop video for “Rolling” by Soul Coughing is what made me love the band.

But I think the one that made me feel like there was infinite potential for creative people to remix and re-imagine was Jabberjaw Running Underwater, with a song by the band Pain and a video re-imagining the Neptunes as hipsters on a lunchbox.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Feel the Flow, Here We Go

One song from Epcot Center and another song that captures how I felt as a 13-14 year old in Epcot Center.

The Universe of Energy pavilion wasn’t my favorite (although the pre-show with a film projected on rotating panels was mind-blowing to teen Chuck and hasn’t been matched since). But the “Universe of Energy” theme song has almost everything I love about early Epcot: undeniably early 80s, with that kind of inspiring instrumentation that made you feel like F Yeah with Exxon and American ingenuity, we can do anything wait what’s that about an oil spill?

I say “almost everything” because another of my favorite aspects of early Epcot was how 60s and 70s animation was still lingering in unexpected places: a Roman chariot turning a corner in Spaceship Earth, several scenes in World of Motion, and the “horror story” section of Journey Into Imagination. It made the park feel almost like a showcase for the Disney educational cartoons.

And to this unabashed nerd, it was like they’d combined Disney World and PBS into a full-sized version of 3-2-1 Contact that I could walk through. I’m definitely not anti-IP, and I’d prefer a movie-based attraction to a corporate sponsorship any day, but I do think it’s a little sad that when it came to Epcot Center, the edutainment nerds lost. It was inevitable, in retrospect, that entertainment would win out for people spending a ton of money on a vacation. (Especially since it should’ve been obvious to everyone, even in the late 70s, that Disney would never be willing to make the kind of recurring investment required to keep the educational material current and interesting). But at least it’s comfortably settled into nostalgia, which is both fun for aging nerds and profitable for Disney, so win-win!

Semi-New Song Sunday: Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka’s 2019 album is so full of epic, swelling soul that I wish I had more frame of reference to describe it.

I’d stumbled on the video to Michael Kiwanuka’s “You Ain’t the Problem” last year, and while I like that song a lot, I wasn’t enthused enough to dig any deeper.

My mistake was assuming that this was music you could full appreciate from a couple of singles. While checking out the whole spatial audio business, I saw that the album KIWANUKA was given the Dolby Atmos treatment, and I listened again. This really demands that you sit back and give the whole album a listen, because it’s an experience. Songs flow into each other, call forward and back to each other, pick up bits of melody; it feels like an epic, swelling concept album, with its amazing string arrangements throughout.

It’s undeniably a kind of homage to early 1970s soul, but it doesn’t feel like just a throwback or a pastiche, but a contemporary album building on that music. It actually makes me wish I listened to more soul, so that I had a better frame of reference than just What’s Goin’ On? and the Grand Theft Auto soundtracks.

“Hero” is another powerful song from the album, with a powerful video, but to me it makes it feel a little bit “smaller” than it actually is. As if it were little more than a callback to earlier music, instead of part of a new album that should itself be influencing musicians 50 years from now.

One song where the video does help, in my opinion, is “Home Again” from his 2011 debut album of the same name. (Which is a good bit lighter than KIWANUKA, and also pretty fantastic). It’s kind of a visual indicator of what the music is doing: taking a fairly straightforward and repetitive base and layering these fantastic arrangements on top of it to make something epic. Don’t make the same mistake I did, and assume that everything great about Kiwanuka’s music can be contained in a few singles.

Space (I’m Somewhat Skeptical About)

Some observations about Apple Music’s push for spatial audio

(Image of a Brazilian lion who wants more space from Nick Park’s brilliant Creature Comforts short)

If you subscribe to Apple Music, you’ve already been bombarded with invitations to try out their new support for Dolby Atmos/spatial audio. It’s been available for about a month at this point, but I’m only just now investing the time to put on some headphones and check it out.

My take so far is that it’s not nearly as earth-shattering as Apple’s making it out to be, but when it does work, it’s pretty neat. One thing that I’ve heard people say repeatedly is that it’s hit or miss: on some songs, it sounds great, but it can actually make others worse. I’d agree with that somewhat. I don’t dislike it enough to turn off the feature, but I do think that on some tracks, it lets vocals get lost in the mix and can make some other parts have less impact than on the stereo version.

My hearing isn’t all that great, but I’d still say that I can tell that there’s enough difference to make a difference on more tracks than not. Also: it’s one of my pet peeves that whenever anyone on the internet is reviewing a feature like this, or some piece of audio equipment, they always make sure to qualify their review by saying that they’re not an audiophile. They do it because they know somebody is going to barge onto the comment sections making themselves out to be an expert, pointing out some extremely esoteric thing that the manufacturers or the engineers or whoever got horribly, embarrassingly, devastatingly wrong. We all need to stop entertaining those opinions, because those people are not the target market for 99% of this consumer-grade audio equipment.

Anyway, tangential pet peeve aside, my hearing tends to be pretty lousy. But I felt like these tracks (mostly from Apple’s suggested “Made for Spatial Audio” playlist) stood out:

  • “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5
    Michael’s vocals are a little muted compared to the stereo version, but it felt more like being in the middle of a live performance, and I’m sold on the opening piano & bass riff alone.
  • “Don’t Know Why” and “Seven Years” by Norah Jones
    Consensus seems to be that jazz does particularly well under Dolby Atmos, and both of these feel like being at a live performance. (I already said “Seven Years” is my favorite track from that album, but “Don’t Know Why” is the famous one).
  • “Moanin'” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
    “Song for my Father” by Horace Silver
    I’m not a big fan of jazz in general, but these are two of my favorite songs, and I think you can tell the clearer separation of the different parts, and it helps everything feel more “present.”
  • “Mystery Lady” by Masego & Don Toliver
    I’d never heard of this artist, but he must be on Apple’s list of Artists To Promote. I don’t have a non-Atmos version to compare it to, but I really like this song and the rest of the album.
  • “BOOM” by Tiesto & Sevenn
    Never heard of them, either, and this feels like a novelty song. Like a “Where’s Your Head At?” for today’s generation. But it’s pretty great as a loud, dumb demo of the spatial audio.
  • “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow
    I’ve liked this song (and the rest of the album) ever since it came out, and I don’t care who knows it. The remix feels kind of unnecessary, but it’s pretty neat how it separates the percussion and hand-claps from everything else. The other, non-Atmos tracks from the same greatest hits album illustrate the difference in the mix, since in those it does sound like the entire band was crammed together around one of two microphones.
  • “Not Dead Yet” by Lord Huron
    This is kind of a boring track from their most recent album, to be honest, but it’s a good example of what a sound engineer can do if they get creative with the mix. Parts seem to move around in 3D space, coming to the center to take prominence, and then fading out to the back left or back right. It’s a little like the Ghost Host in the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion, if he were an alt-country musician.
  • “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra
    I think the effect is a little subtle compared to the stereo, but it’s noticeable — everything seems to be positioned more like an actual orchestra, so the woodwinds sound to me distinctly separated from the french horns, which are separated from the trumpets, etc.
  • “Jessica” by The Allman Brothers Band
    Honestly, I don’t know if the spatial audio makes a bit of difference on this track, but I like this song and I liked getting another chance to hear it on headphones.

And that last bit is key: honestly, if somebody told me that this was all just a psychological experiment, and there wasn’t actually a remix involved, but just a placebo effect combined with listening to audio on better headphones, I wouldn’t be mad. It’s been an invitation to listen closely to music again, instead of just having it on in the background.

I wouldn’t say it’s a bold new future for music, but it’s a good excuse to enjoy some music, and all it takes is a pair of headphones.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: A Complete Bee

This Tuesday Tune Two-Fer’s all about whatever makes you happy

There’s a new song out by the Go! Team, from their upcoming album Get Up Sequences Part One. It’s called “A Bee Without Its Sting,” and it’s joyful.

I’ve got to admit that it feels a little bit like Go! Team videos are being generated by a neural network at this point: they’re a mish-mash of Cooper Black, video and photocopier artifacts, film footage of bodegas and other city scenes, and people playing instruments in front of a green screen. But I don’t care a bit, since it’s all such a positive energy that I don’t even feel self-conscious using phrases like “positive energy.”

The only thing that could improve it, of course, is replacing the Sting. Here’s the Tantric Dad himself singing “Little Something” with Melody “What If Eartha Kitt but Super-White?” Gardot. I wish I could get past my snobbery about music like this, because I am almost-50-enough and white enough to genuinely like it, but I still can’t jettison the idea that I’m supposed to be at least a little bit embarrassed for liking it. This seems like music that affluent straight white people in their mid-50s have sex to. Like right after the end of the Cialis commercial, they get out of the tubs, open the doors of their Lexus parked nearby, and just crank this shit out while they start doin’ it. Happy Tuesday!

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Brothers and Sisters!

How long has it been since you’ve seen the video for 1987 dance hit “Pump Up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S? I’m betting it’s been too long, and you’ve forgotten that the video is actually pretty rad, with tons of old space race footage and NASA visualizations.

After you watch that, wind things down with one of my favorite songs by actual brother and sisters: The Von Trapps doing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” with Pink Martini. Put the needle on the record when Debussy goes like this:

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Music for the Hottest Girl in School

Music that transports me to a place where I’m hot and moist and can still taste fish and chips

Today I’m back on my bullshit about how much I like Epcot. Specifically: the Illuminations fireworks show, still one of the best things Disney’s ever done. The last time we went to Epcot, I got to see it, knowing that it was my final time seeing it, and I just cried and cried as I said goodbye to what felt like 20 years of my life.

Any obsessive fan can tell you that the appeal of Illuminations wasn’t just the fireworks, but the whole experience. In that way, I imagine it’s like Burning Man for middle-class suburban white people. (Or in other words, Burning Man). Even before the narrator blows out the torches all around the lake, there was an electricity as people walked around the World Showcase to find a good spot to watch the show. All set to early 2000s new age world music, composed in an environment where Gregorian chants set to electronic beats were played on popular radio. Most memorable is probably “Our Life” by Uttara-Kuru, from the album East Wind.

For years, I just assumed that if these songs never appeared on an official Disney album, there’s no way I’d be able to have recordings of them. But then I remembered the internet exists. A playlist by Timothy McJilton on Apple Music compiles most of the songs from the Illuminations preshow, and there are countless others on streaming services and YouTube.

That’s how I know that the song I’ve always known as “Holy Shit The Fireworks Are About to Start” is actually called “Gaviotes” by Hevia, from the album Tierra de Nadie.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: To Be On a Green Screen In The Summertime With My Love

The Art of Getting the Band Back Together For the Purposes of Selling Out to Hollywood

It’s always seemed weird to me that Art of Noise weren’t more of a video band. It seems like they’d be all about making experimental, genre-defining videos, and Close (To The Edit) is up there with “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and “Billie Jean” as defining the music video era.

But I guess it’s not all that surprising that not many videos followed, since they didn’t really make hit songs. There was probably little money in trying to promote them. What is surprising to me, though, is just how corny their other videos are. Such a gap between the wryly comic avant garde artists I picture when listening to the albums, and the almost-“Superbowl Shuffle” levels of awkwardness in the videos.

Which culminated in the video to their cash-grabby theme for the movie Dragnet. This movie was forgettable even by late 80s standards, but it feels like Dan Aykroyd was still riding off Ghostbusters‘s surprising popularity, so Hollywood was eager to throw tons of money at it to force it to become A Thing. And while I don’t know it for sure, it seems apparent that Art of Noise were still riding off their version of the Peter Gunn theme with Duane Eddy, and someone involved with the movie asked them, “could you give us another one of those, please?”

What’s remarkable to me about the video is just how it’s such a pure example of its species; it’s like the platonic ideal of a Hollywood sell-out musicvideomercial. A random (no doubt studio-mandated) assortment of video clips from the movie, with a track containing dialogue samples from the movie, here mixed with callbacks to the band’s most well-known video.

It’s so brazen that I wonder if AoN at the time thought of it as satire. Whether it was or wasn’t, they still got the last laugh. I would’ve completely forgotten that Dragnet the movie existed — it’s so non-essential that even now, as I’m writing about it, my brain is trying to erase any memory of it — if Art of Noise hadn’t included the theme song as the first track of their second-best album, which I’ve listened to hundreds of times.

Update 5/29/2021: Okay, over the past few days, I’ve been rethinking my surprisingly hostile reaction to the “Dragnet” video, which now seems pretty dense. I mean, of course they’re in on the joke; “The Art of Noise has gone Hollywood” is the entire joke. It’s not particularly subtle.

Also, I found out that Zbigniew Rybczynski, director of the “Close (To The Edit)” video, directed this one as well, so it’s more like an artist playing off his own work than a studio capitalizing on an artist’s work. I’m not sure why I thought that a movie studio making a purely crass piece of marketing would go to the trouble of getting the original performers in a semi-obscure art-pop video to goof off with green screen effects.

Regardless, my over-thinking the whole thing was pretty dumb, which annoys me, because it’s exactly the kind of simple-minded “Stick it to The Man! Only I can see how the exploitative system really works!” nonsense I spend so much time complaining about.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: 1984 Anti-Eroticism

I’m still not exactly sure how any of us survived being teenagers in the 1980s.

It’s alarming how many people either don’t know or don’t remember — or refuse to remember — the video to Billy Ocean’s “Loverboy”. It exists, it happened, and if we go on denying it, we’ll never recover as a global society.

Actually, even though it’s just bonkers and more than a little off-putting, I love that the video exists. I feel like the TV-headed aliens were genuinely novel; it was at least he first time I’d seen anything like them. It’s tempting to say “they don’t make ’em like that anymore!” but that would be a lie. This might be the biggest gap between inexplicably weird video to straightforward pop song ever, though.

Looking back on the early 1980s, I’m kind of surprised that 12-13-year-old me survived it without becoming even weirder than I already am. Everything seemed unnecessarily sci-fi or post-apocalyptic (Star Wars and Mad Max/The Road Warrior over-saturated 1981-1985 even more than the MCU has done in the present), and oddly sexual and dirty. Not dirty like “naughty” but dirty like actual dirt.

In particular, Russell Mulcahy-directed videos for Duran Duran around this time, like Union of the Snake and The Wild Boys, hit me right in the adolescence. They were a blur of scaffolding and leather and abs and eye make-up. Watching Simon LeBon tied up on a windmill made me feel like the villain in Hunchback of Notre Dame watching Esemeralda dance.

But I mean, Duran Duran was supposed to be 80s sexy; that was their whole schtick. You don’t really get a feel for how bizarrely sexualized early-80s music videos were unless you see something like Hall & Oates’s “Adult Education”, with its post-apocalyptic wedding ceremony and John Oates looking very angry that he didn’t get to wear a shirt. I’m pretty sure that this video had the most naked person I’d ever seen up to that point. But it was like seeing Michael Douglas’s gratuitously bare-assed flank in Romancing the Stone: I thought “even as a ridiculously confused and horned-up 13-year-old, there is nothing I can do with this image.”