Monday, 30 November 2009

iTunes should not exist

I had a nerdy inspiration one night last week as I was falling asleep. I can't explain why at all, except maybe that I am perpetually looking for a music organizer with certain specifications that I can't find in any existing application. (More on that after.)

The inspiration was this: iTunes, and most other music player/organizers (e.g., WinAmp, doubleTwist, Windows Media Player) add an unnecessary layer to users' daily computing activities. Everything that they do can (or could with little programming or scripting) be done via folder actions in a file manager (i.e., OSX's "Finder" and Windows' "Windows Explorer"). The only difference is that dedicated music players make it all look so pretty. (That's mild sarcasm, by the way.)

Okay, so I'm probably getting ahead of myself. File managers could easily perform all of the basic and most (if not all) of the advanced functions of any given music player. It's just that the developers of these programs would have to integrate some of these advanced functions into the file manager rather than separating them as they are now. One might argue that including these advanced functions is unnecessary since not all people will use them, but this is completely a non-issue. OSX and Windows both come with music players pre-installed, and few people will ever remove them.

Let me clarify. The basic functions of the average music player include:
  • Playing music
  • Organizing music
These actions are of course more diverse than I want to make them appear. The first might mean playing audio from a CD, MP3s or other audio files, podcasts, streaming radio, shuffling, crossfading (or other effects), and so on; and organizing music includes sorting in various ways, searching your collection quickly, creating playlists, updating song information, &c. Also, people use iTunes and the like to fill their portable music players, to buy music, to rip and burn audio discs, to convert audio files to different formats, to look at visual accompaniments (visualizations), and even to share musical recommendations and files.

If you know a moderate amount about today's operating systems, you recognize that the file manager can already do pretty much all of these things without any added software. In fact, you might even have done some of these things yourself via your file manager: if you navigate to a folder containing music in OSX, and select a file, a "preview" window appears in which you can listen to the song and view some file-related information, along with the song's cover art, if available. It's much quicker than opening iTunes, but inefficient for listening to many songs. Still, the functionality is right there in Finder. Searching, too, is built into file managers: switch to your file manager, press Cmd/Ctrl-F, start typing the name of the song, artist, or album you want, and presto, all the songs with your criteria are on display, hopefully including the object of your search.

What else? Ripping and burning functions have been part of file managers for years; and only iPod users are forced to use iTunes to load music to their players (although with exceptions)—as far as I know, other music players allow users to drag and drop files from their file manager.

In fact, in some ways, file managers are more versatile than iTunes and the like. For example (and this is my desired specification I alluded to above), file managers commonly allow users to arrange their windows in much more diverse ways. I want to be able to look at my music in two side-by-side windows. Is that too much to ask! (As far as I can tell from this miniscule screenshot, WinAmp includes this feature; but the program isn's available for OSX. If anyone wants to offer step-by-step instructions on installing it with Wine, please let me know!)

Anyway, here's my vision for this infinitesimal fraction of the future:

A file manager "Music" window setting (like the "Filmstrip" folder option in Windows XP) that, when selected, would display the contents of a folder like a music management application. This new setting would be accompanied by a "Music" (or "Media") menu incorporating the features listed above. In other words, I don't want to click and open iTunes to get at my music (time-consuming, inefficient). I just want to open a folder that looks basically like iTunes and that will do all of the same things (quick, efficient).

I suppose there are reasons why this hasn't taken place yet; but I suspect that it's just status quo and marketing thinking. It's far easier to market a distinct application with a name than one that's simply there, doing its thing mostly invisible to the user—even if that program is free, which most music applications are. Also, if Microsoft and Apple maintain separate programs like iTunes and Windows Media Player, they can say they are adding clear value to their operating systems with these programs. Not so easy to say when there's no program to talk about.

Somebody tell me I'm wrong.
Read on..!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

VIVIV/Ken Reaume at Holy Oak, October 29, 2009

Ken Reaume has never disappointed me in the music department, either live or recorded. His immense talent, skill, and passion define his songwriting, although you might not know it from his humble stage presence. Nevertheless, his performances explode with subtle emotion and energy. But he doesn't just write songs, he crafts them, and his work is as fine as any other craftsman I know. Unfortunately, like many craftsmen, Ken has worked in relative obscurity for much of the time since he first put his name out there.

Amid a recent explosion of talent and success in folk and similar music in Toronto, too few have caught on to Ken. And it's a damn shame, because when it comes to the music and the shows, I've rarely seen a performer so poised and with such charisma—who can so easily captivate an audience.

The setting for this show was new to me—and relatively new to the neighbourhood. Holy Oak is a café and bar transformed from a storefront in a diverse and run down section of Bloor St. W., near Lansdowne Ave. I had no idea what to expect going in, just surprise that another entrepreneur has decided to bring another hip space to the area (also new: 3Speed, Starving Artist, and Disgraceland). At first, I find it to be an underwhelming space. Maybe because it's night, the place doesn't seem to know quite what it is. It's all painted white and the lighting is uneven, but the atmosphere didn't appear to bother any of the few patrons. It reminds me of Montréal quite a bit, though, which pleases me a lot. My companions, Danijela, Jen, and Elly, wanted couches, but I think the space is just too small.

And it's quiet. The acoustic ceiling tiles (presumably held over from one of the place's previous lives) seem to absorb most sounds that originate from inside, and some kind of excellent sealing around the windows and doors prevents any noise from entering via the street. Without looking out the window, I hardly felt I was on a busy stretch of Bloor. It wasn't rush hour, but this place was really quiet. Still, they serve a good Americano, and various other refreshments went over well at our table. I can imagine spending a sunny autumn afternoon there, working by the window, or even just people-watching. But that's not why you're reading is it?

I mention the atmosphere because it had a part to play in the show itself: first, as I mentioned, the place was super-quiet, which was great for listening, but made every non-musical (e.g., audience) noise stand out and between-song talking awkward; second, because the place is a coffee house, with few seats, and something about the place made it feel strange as a musical venue—there's definitely no place to go if you want to have a conversation while a performance is happening. (But in fairness to everyone, only about 15 people attended the show, and a bigger crowd would change the dynamic of the place entirely.)

But on to the interesting stuff!

Ken played a shortish set, maybe ten songs, and most of it was new.

"Hiatus" is brooding, with a stomp beat, and a step away from the Leonard Cohen influence that I heard in his recent (but not new) stuff. Despite, the song consisting only of voice, guitar, and foot stomps, I hear a lot of things going on in "Hiatus". The song's repetitive picking creates a hypnotic rhythm that never quite reaches beyond the droning bass beat, and the whole thing feels a bit like shoegazer folk. The live version lacks the harmonies of the recording, but I didn't find it missing in performance.

"Sapling" could hardly be different. It's an uptempo strummed number—a significant departure from his usual arpeggio work. It shows much richer influence and range than anything I've heard from him before. It's so simple, but it evokes a full on rock'n'roll assault with only a Spanish guitar and a voice. The melody (and harmony in the recorded version) is like something Lennon and McCartney could have written, and Ride (along with a hundred others) would have stolen. Truly remarkable and new, and yet fully VIVIV.

In performance, there's no ignoring Ken. Sometimes his shows are well attended and other times not, but at all times, his audiences pay attention and notice. This show was no exception.

He says he'll be releasing a new record early in the new year. When he does, you'll probably be able to get it through his MySpace or Facebook pages. You can get his past releases at Zunior.com.

Also, he's playing at Holy Oak again this Saturday, November 21. Don't miss it!
Read on..!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Beautiful songs: Stoned (Out of My Mind)

It seems that there was a time in the early 1970s when "stoned" was an adjective that meant something like "happy" or "blissful". But then maybe it meant "confused" or "trippy". I think I can say honestly that I don't know.

"Stoned Love" is one of my favourite Supremes songs. It's mature and understated pop soul with a subtle hook and a curious theme. Overall, a lovely song, though more of a groover than a dancer. But that's not the song this is about.

This is about a song called "Stoned (Out of My Mind)", and I would understand if you've dismissed it as simply a weird psychedelic soul song in praise of marijuana. But it's not—as far as I can tell. It's one of the smoothest soul love songs I've ever heard, by one of the smoothest soul groups of the era.


I first heard the Chi-Lites (those are two long "i" sounds) courtesy of the Crooklyn soundtrack, which features the familiar song, "Oh Girl". You might also recognize the brilliant funk tune "Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)", which Jay-Z sampled for Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love"—thus demonstrating their strength across the soul spectrum. And if I remember correctly, a talented artist named Hammer covered the popular ballad "Have You Seen Her?" back in my early teens.



So, I'm not sure what "Stoned" is supposed to mean, but I know there's more to "Stoned (Out of My Mind)" than a gimmicky title. This is a Heartbreak Song. That's clear from the very beginning. There's barely a hint of a story here, but if there's a real woman behind this song, I don't pity the author. If all Odes to Cheatin' Women were this smooth, they would be worth the heartache.

Still, the ultra-smooth production and the mid-tempo rhythm belie the troubled head behind the words; and combined they create a bittersweet moment that makes it easy to sympathize. And it's got terrific soul lyrics like these:
Baby, when I found out you were lyin'—
Playin' around and connivin'—
Undesired tears I was cryin';
'Cause sugar coated lies I was buyin'.
This is one of those songs that grabbed me despite it not being a real dancefloor filler. I mean, it's danceable, but it's not middle-of-the-night, prime time funky. It hasn't got a driving beat, a compelling bassline, a break. Instead, it has terrific horns, solid and subtle rhythm, and stunning, simple, and clear melody and harmonies. In a strange way, it reminds me of David Bowie's "Sound and Vision"—in style, sound, and structure.

Part of what I mean when I say it just grabbed me is that I don't really have a story to go along with it. I didn't grow up with it. I've only known the song for maybe ten years. And while I've included it in playlists and mixes over the years, and turned friends onto it, "Stoned (Out of My Mind)" has never really attached itself to any particular event in my life; although I often think of it and hum or whistle the tune. Off the top of my head, I can't even recall more than two or three lines from the song.
I was just a backseat driver in a car of love—
Goin' wherever you take me.
Okay, I've got it. Here's the story: I can't be sure of when it happened, but I can say that "Stoned" was one of the early songs I downloaded via Napster or whatever else I was using at the time. I'm almost certain that I was living on Huron St. The internet offered me exposed to a whole world of music, most of it in the soul and R&B veins. This also coincides with my early DJing career and probably my most creative music-writing period—the rise and fall of The Sound of Circles! But "Stoned" rarely made it into the club, and it didn't seem to inform my songwriting. It was a private thing—almost a dream—that I wanted to let everyone know about, but I just couldn't figure out how.

"Stoned (Out of My Mind)" remains a staple of my DJing, and when I sat down and listened to the song to finish this review, I had several insights into it that I'd never considered before, so I guess it doesn't matter if it ever fills a dancefloor. And maybe all the title and chorus mean is that the author is so distraught at learning his woman was cheatin' that he's getting stoned out of his mind. Whatever, just listen and feel the bittersweet.

I've hidden some humour in the above. If you find it, please let me know.
___

Baby, when I found out you were lyin'—
Playin' around and connivin'—
Undesired tears I was cryin';
'Cause sugar coated lies I was buyin'.

I was just a backseat driver in a car of love—
Goin' wherever you take me.
Don't know why I put up with the pain;
'Cause nobody else could make me.

You got me goin' (Stoned out of my mind)
You got me goin' (Stoned) Hey, hey (Out of my mind)
You got me goin' (Stoned out of my mind)
You got me goin' (Stoned) Hey, hey (Out of my mind)

When you led me to the water I drank it.
Man, I drank more than I could hold.
When you took my mind and body,
You know you wanna take my soul.

Where can I run?
Where can I hide?
Who can I talk to?
Tell me what, what can I do?

When you got me goin' (Stoned out of my mind)
You got me goin' (Stoned) Hey, hey (Out of my mind)
You got me goin' (Stoned out of my mind)
You got me goin' (Stoned) Hey, hey (Out of my mind)

Hee...you got me goin' (Stoned out of my mind)
You got me goin' (Stoned) Hey, hey (Out of my mind)
Been around with every guy in town (Stoned out of my mind)
Funny but I just can't put you down (Stoned out of my mind)

You got me goin' (Stoned out of my mind)
You got me goin' (Stoned out of my mind)
Read on..!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A clean desk is a productive desk

Yesterday, I was inspired to clean my desk in order to finish off my workyear on a high note.

Okay, I was fed up of the cat hair and bumprints all over the place, and my keyboard had reached a critical level of greasiness.

Here are the results.

Before:


After:


You might not notice a large difference between the two, but the before picture doesn't come close to portraying the coating of cat fur that my desk had attracted, or the depth of the pile of papers under the indeterminate stuff and wires at the left side.

The main culprit:


Of course, the mess didn't even come close to reaching the proportions here!

As you were. Read on..!

Monday, 2 November 2009

More thoughts on laptop DJing (in response to...)

Recently I wrote a post for BlogCampaigning on my experience transitioning from a vinyl DJ to a laptop DJ, which, from personal comments, appears to have been generally well received. But the only comment anyone actually posted on the blog was quite negative and passively critical. Initially, I wanted to tell the semi-anonymous commenter where to go, but I decided to take the high road, thanking the fellow for his post and offering a very brief apologetic response.

I was wrong. I've thought about it, and I now recognize that that person's comment was uninformed and thoughtless, and I had no reason to apologize. I don't want to insult him, and I hope this response doesn't simply come off as petty. I have a far more appropriate response in mind, and it is basically a brief description of the nature of entertainment media today.

In his passive-aggressive note, the commenter appears to make three points:

1. DJs who use iTunes (or similar software) don't deserve to entertain club or bar crowds.
2. Whatever happened to DJs who can match beats by simply listening to songs (as opposed to using software to digitally and automatically beat-match)?
3. DJs today suck.

Check out the post at BlogCampaigning.com Read on..!
 
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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.