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#MusicMonday: “Look At Where We Are” – Hot Chip

hot chip - in our headsWhen you hear these Indie Pop, or Art Pop, or Indietronica, or Electropop, or Synth Pop, or Alternative Dance – or whatever you would label hip wierdball dance bands like Hot Chip and Dirty Projectors with high-voiced male singers  the first thing you almost assuredly notice is their plastic elastic vocals. Just like the skinny-jean culture I loosely associate with their fans, husky(-voiced) boys need not apply.

(I would just call them “Pop” or “Dance” and let them duke it out for attention with Bruno Mars, personally. How they material differ from Paula Abdul I will never understand. But I digress.)

Yet, I don’t trust that we’re always hearing the authentic sound of a real voice singing. It is not just because these are genres that positively glisten with auto-tune. No, it more that as a rule I don’t trust that any vocal that sounds better than George Michael and not as good as Michael Jackson. That’s an uncanny valley that hardly any guy occupies. I’ve heard the subtle stuff you can do with gating and pitch correction and snapping to a click track.

(I actually once questioned Nate from Fun. about that on Twitter, and he swore his own plastic elastic vocals were achieved sans any tuning effects. This was before Some Nights, obvs.)

Then, last week “Look At Where We Are” from Hot Chip’s 2012 record In Our Heads shuffled onto my headphones. It’s such a nude song. A few synth burbles. A two beat kick-snare kick-snare drum loop. Completely unadorned electric guitar, so plaintive you can hear the pick and fingers on the strings. And the voice is right there in your ear. It is not a vacuum-sealed thing in a can. It is silken and easy, and you can hear the air surrounding it.

When all three elements line up, the song turns into some sort of Luther Vandross baby-making jam. Sure, we get some sampled vocals and synths later, but the point has already been made:

Hot Chip can do all of that bippity boopity dance stuff with the best of them, but they don’t need to do it. The best song on the LP is something any kid could do in their bedroom with the most basic instruments out there, yet any kid can’t.

Think it’s an illusion of the studio? Watch this nerdy dude in a sweatshirt who is Hot Chip’s singer deliver a perfect live version complete with the very minor vocal warbles at Coachella:

(Seriously, how freakishly great is his voice?)

Suddenly I find myself liking Hot Chip a lot better, even if they are an indie-art-electronica-indie-synth-pop-dance-indie-alterna-pop band.

Or, you know, A POP BAND, as it was known in 1987.

the one where the baby potty-trains herself

Hark, it is my first post about baby waste! Our baby is at least this chubby. Detail of the Cherubs Fountain at St Peter's Basilica or Basilica di San Pietro, Rome, Italy.

Hark, it is another post about baby waste, as they foretold! Our baby is at least this chubby. Detail of the Cherubs Fountain at St Peter’s Basilica or Basilica di San Pietro, Rome, Italy.

Of all of the challenges that fatherhood held in store for me, I felt the most trepidation about diapers. Luckily, my high-quality baby sensed my weakness in this area and toilet-trained herself to make my life easier.

Maybe I should start at the beginning.

Sure, no one takes a special delight in dealing with human waste (well, certain fetishists excluded), but I just don’t have the coping mechanisms in place for even the briefest of ordeals. Urine, at least, is typically sterile when it’s straight from the tap. The idea that poop might touch some part of my person was enough to cause an anxiety attack even before her birth. I don’t even do well with cleaning a toilet with a very long-handled and disposable brush.

Luckily, baby diapers are really not so hard to manage once you graduate from the initial “explosive bowel movements can happen at any time” phase. After a month or so of finding my footing with disposables so that I could whip them off and quickly … well, dispose of them … we graduated to cloth diapers. It took me a little while to come to peace with them using the same washing machine as all of my clothes, but as with everything else in my life I discovered and documented a multi-step coping process. With that in place, mostly they’re the same as normal diapers – you just roll them up, drop them in a smell-proof pail, and forget about the waste inside.

(Expansive cloth diapering made easy for people who just want to throw money at it without doing any crafting essay to come.)

Cherubs by Fiamiughi [?], Bologna. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

Cherubs by Fiamiughi [?], Bologna. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection.

Around the six-month mark, a new theme emerged. The problem was not #2, it was #1. For some reason, EV6 viewed the diaper coming off of her butt during a changing as a signal that NOW IS THE TIME TO PEE EVERYWHERE ZOMG GO FOR IT. If that baby had any liquid reserved in the nether half of her body, it was going to gurgle up and out in a matter of seconds once that tush was exposed to air.

This was amusing at first, mostly because EV6 is so incredibly chubby that she looks like some sort of Rubenesque cherub meant to be cast in plaster, peeing off of the side of an Italian fountain. She never failed to giggle maniacally while it happened.

That got me through the first 10 or 15 sopping wet diaper changes. Then I got a little frustrated. Really, EV6? You couldn’t have done that five seconds earlier when the diaper was still beneath your chubby bottom, or twenty seconds later into a new one?

At wit’s end and running twice the amount of laundry to compensate for all the soiled stuff, we ordered a potty she wouldn’t topple off of. I mean, why not? If I could even point her at the darn thing in time it would save a lot of soggy trouble.

Then a magical thing happened. After I rushed EV6 from the pad to the potty in the first few changes, she stopped her reflexive peeing and just waited for the potty. In fact, on many occasions she stopped wetting her diaper entirely and just saved it up for the inevitable potty trip. Then, realizing she vastly preferred the constant dry diaper over an routinely damp one, she began to signal her need to visit the potty while she was still dry.

The first few times this happened I had no idea what she was trying to tell me. It’s not like I was trying to teach her potty-training. There was no established routine or special sign language vocab. I was just avoiding getting hosed down like a front-row audience member at Sea World during changes. Meanwhile, she devised this whole language of little grunts, claps, and sleeve-tugs to indicate her potty-readiness.

I wish you could have been there the day I figured out what she was telling me. Mind: blown. I had always mocked the idea of “elimination communication” as a whacky excuse to hold your baby over a chamber pot every five minutes, yet this little cherub taught me how to communicate about elimination.

If that was the whole story it would be awesome enough. Yet, that is not the end. No. This baby got even more awesome all on her own. Because, you see, though the focus of this exercise was never #2, suddenly she also began hold them for the potty. I have not dealt with a smelly diaper in months.

Like, twenty minutes ago – hilariously, midway through writing this post – we were laying on the couch, and she was like, “Yo, father, potty me.” And I said, “What? Are you sure? We were just there half an hour ago. Aren’t you comfortable here? Aren’t we snuggling?”

She proceeded to stare directly into my eye, mash one fist into an open palm, and grunt at me, as if to say, “You better take this mother-smooshing baby to the mother-smooshing potty RIGHT NOW.”

Up she went with a totally clean, dry diaper. Back we came, having deposited a stink-bomb into the potty rather then earmarking it for the washing machine.

I’ve never been down for this whole “babies are miracles” nonsense, but in this particular instance this baby has been miraculous.

she’s with the band

As evidenced by that last post, E and I elected to stay in for New Year’s Eve.

We originally planned to join some friends for what turned out to be a tremendously awesome party, but once E’s mother volunteered to visit for the night with her brother in tow we realized we had the opportunity to enjoy our own house for 24 entire hours while two totally other people entertained our baby.

(To put things into perspective, last time we had a fleet of family visit us I spent the better part of a night mopping AND I LOVED IT.)

(That’s not a baby-related change – I’ve always loved mopping.)

Since the entire point of holidaying at home was to avoid leaving the house, and since EV6 enjoys music and dancing, I asked bro to bring his Rock Band setup along with him. (I, of course, eschew all shitty plastic instruments that are not actually synthesizers, so my only participation is singing and occasionally playing an actual guitar, which works out even better for me now that I’m covering a pretty significant chunk of these sorts of tunes with Smash Fantastic.)

Thus, on New Year’s Day, we began a run of five-starring any songs left uncovered from our epic renditions of Summer 2011, when we had three microphones on mic stands for harmony and were ranked something like 18th in the world at the entire Bruno Mars catalog and could make the chorus of “Love Game” sound like something performed by the Andrews Sisters.

EV6 was digging it for a while, since from her perspective behind the TV it seemed like she was enjoying a command all-singing, all-dacing performance. Between her chubbiness and her need for us to constantly dance for her pleasure, she’s more and more resembling Jabba the Hutt. It’s impossible to get anything done that cannot be disguised as a command dance party.

However, she began to flag just as we hit the heavy belting stage of our setlist. Bro and I exchanged nervous glances between every song. Was the music lulling her to sleep or keeping her awake? We didn’t want to put her off her downward spiral to slumber, but each successive monster rock song hit I sang could be the one to rouse her.

(Keep in mind that I can be heard singing unamplified over a full drum set. I’m not saying that’s an ideal arrangement, just that my unadulterated singing voice is potentially louder than several hundred dollars worth of wood, metal, and reverberating polymer blends.)

We needn’t have worried. We are raising a rock baby who is completely unphased by loud sounds. After all, EV has been sitting in on full band rehearsals (wearing ear protection) since she was two months old. She went out somewhere in the Ks through Ls, stayed down when I had to move my microphone stand into the kitchen to sing Maroon 5 without it bleeding into the other mics, and did not rouse until after an appropriately rousing rendition of Whitesnake’s “Here We Go Again.”

If you don’t believe that’s a spectacular feat, you should invite me over to sing some hair metal tunes while you’re taking your next nap.

a crucial mission

There were fourteen minutes left on the timer.

“I can do this,” E said. “Ten minutes to finish, three whole minutes to carefully get to the second floor and back, one minute to spare.”

“And when have you ever known this to take ten minutes?”

“Oh, it takes you longer?” She remarked a little “hmph” to herself and set about her initial task. I could not help but watch her progress out of the corner of my eye with the rest of it glued to the screen and its ticking clock. She performed her duty steadily, just as I do, but a little more delicately. Her hands are more deft. Marching band member versus rocker. One of us has subtler fingers.

Subtlety has its applications. We were five minutes in and, though it did not look like she was halfway done, she also had not blown it all by being too forceful. That’s why she was the one doing the doing and I was the one doing the watching. I forced my eyes back up to the clock, as if the weight of my stare on E’s fingers might burden them down in her task. Hers always seem impossibly delicate to me, even though I have seem them hammer nails and move earth. Years ago I hardly could believe the one would bear the weight of my ring, but there it was glittering at the edge of my vision.

The clock ticked. We both watched the screen in silence as it panned across crowds of people breathing the same cold air as we were breathing but miles away. It was not going well for the woman the cameras were currently focused on, her fists pumping against the night as if trying to piece the dark and cold and slip away.

She let out a pained howl. The crowd cheered politely. Eleven minutes in, now, and just three minutes left. E was not finished.

“You aren’t going to make it.” My voice was still husky from all the commotion earlier in the night. “You could just stay.”

“I’ll be fine,” she mouthed back to me as she adjusted her grip.

Two minutes. I looked down to see E had finished, but she had yet to make a move. If it was me, I would be moving. Better to put things into motion. Pull the pin out, let the grenade lend you some urgency.

Seventy-five seconds. How long just to climb the stairs? E began to shift her weight, gathering her feet below her. Sixty. The count began. Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight. She rose, balanced, and crossed the room to the stairway with the stride of a dancer or a cat. All arches and flexed muscles, power hidden beneath lithe grace.

She disappeared through the archway. I hardly heard her on the stairs. Maybe she chose not to climb them after all. Maybe she had resigned herself that she wasn’t going to make it, and was just watching me as I watched the numbers close in on zero. Forty-two. Forty-one.

Twenty. Still enough time to descend the stairs and fit her body into the seat beside me, neatly filling the negative space. One day you stop being your own unit and the way you hold yourself starts to suggest the people that are meant to be surrounding you.

Ten. Nine. Eight. I stopped expecting her face to emerge from the arch at the front of the room. Seven. It was fine. Six. The mission was what mattered. Five. Four She would come back when she could come back.

Three. Two. One.

It was not the first new year that we would not open with a kiss, but at least the baby was asleep.

E returned at 12:02, blithe to the fact that her walk up the stairs with a limp, milk-drunk baby had taken the full three minutes she originally prescribed after draining the bottle rather than the fifty seconds she gave herself.

“Did I miss it?”

“No, it’s still 2014.”

“So I missed it. The ball.”

“They didn’t even show the ball. Just lots of awkward kissing. No more of that woman’s caterwauling, thank goodness. I’m surprised it didn’t wake her while she was drinking her milk? She’s down?”

“Totally out.”

We did not kiss. E whisked into the kitchen, in search of the champaign. Then we watched the Koi channel while everyone sipped champagne until I turned into a pumpkin at 12:58.

Happy New Year!

A Philly Education

Last night on Twitter the hashtag #PhillyEducation was trending. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a topic to be proud about.

I have been following Philly’s school funding drama enough to know that teachers and administrators have been laid off throughout the district even if I can’t explain exactly the source of the budget shortfall. Yesterday their absence was felt by students and parents on the first day of school. I saw tweets about schools with just one guidance counselor, rooms in new charter schools with no desks because no one had put them together, and this one:

It all makes me think back to a September 15 years ago. I was starting my senior year from a new commute, because my mother and I moved from the depths of Southwest Philly to rent a house just off 2nd street in South Philly – almost the entire width of Philadelphia – .

I remember looking at a lot of houses and apartments that summer, but they all failed one major test. No, not my present-day test of how loudly I could play my guitar before the neighbors complain. Back then, the test was if I could get to my public high school at 17th and Spring Garden on my own via SEPTA by only making a single transfer.

The litmus test was that I had to be able to stay in the Philly school district.

That high school, J.R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, is a public “magnet” school that accepts the top students from throughout the city. It has spent the last two decades perched atop the state’s high school rankings – yes, even above private schools. That’s partially due to the caliber of the students it accepts, but everything to do with the talent and dedication of the staff that develops those students.

I started high school super-smart but uninterested with most subjects. I graduated with an A- average and a huge scholarship to college. Four AP classes and my advanced French skills allowed me to skip almost entire year of course credits at Drexel, which allowed me to start with classes in my own major and to complete minors in theatre and music (and very nearly history). My guidance counselor made sure of that. I learned public speaking skills by becoming a Peer Counselor to kids on the topics of health and sexuality, mentored by my Health teacher. I knew I was interested in theatre because my Biology teacher was also a theatre director, and spent three years nurturing my performance skills until I could hold the stage as a lead. I was interested in a music minor so I could record a third demo CD in Drexel’s studio, having recorded my first lo-fi attempt at home as a senior project with our choir teacher as an advisor. I applied for my job at RJMetrics because I’ve spent a decade teaching myself PHP and MySQL based on programming skills I learned in an elective class my freshman year – I had never had access to a computer before then. I write today because I wrote all the time then, and submitted to an extracurricular school literary magazine every quarter, and because teachers constantly forced me to submit my work to be published outside of school – and it was, repeatedly.

None of those opportunities will be available at Masterman today, or anywhere else in the Philadelphia School District.

This morning I walked into work carrying the same backpack that accompanied me to my first morning as a senior fifteen years ago, but also with a lifetime of skills and experiences built upon a foundation learned in Philadelphia’s School District. I was lucky enough to attend a magnet school, but the real point is that I wanted to learn and I was in an environment where there were many teachers who were happy to oblige.

I’m scared for the students of Philadelphia today, because if Teairah’s tweet is any indication, wanting to learn is no longer enough of pre-requisite to achieve success in the Philadelphia school district.

An Epilogue to The New 52

BATWOMAN_25Here lies the epilogue to my grand experiment of reading DC Comics’ 52 new titles when they launched two years ago this month – and a tiny lesson on customer lifetime value.

Last week the big story in comics was that multiple Eisner Award winner J.H. Williams was walking off DC’s critical hit Batwoman, along with his co-writer W. Haden Blackman. Williams is also the illustrator to DC’s upcoming hotter-the-the-sun Sandman Overture with literary rockstar Neil Gaiman.

Not coincidentally, Batwoman is one of just two DC ongoings I am still reading (the other is Animal Man).

Mmany outlets tried to make the big story of the walkout that DC Comics ordained that we would never get to see the titular character – a lesbian – marry her new fiancee Detective Maggie Sawyer on panel. Given DC’s dalliance earlier this year with anti-gay champion Orson Scott Card writing a Superman story, many (not just comics) news outlets slanted their stories that the Williams walk-out adds more fuel to a fire of DC’s low opinion of GBLT characters and fans.

That may have yielded some extra hits and comments, but that’s not the real story behind the sudden resignation. If you read into Williams & Blackman’s statement, you’ll see the real issue is that DC won’t commit to a story for long enough that they can build up to it – which is exactly why I went from reading 52 title two years ago to 1 as of next month:

Unfortunately, in recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series. We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc’s origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman’s heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.

jh_williams_01While the final straw was the fizzled marriage plot, it was the ongoing interference that broke the camel’s back. Hints of this were visible over three months ago, when Williams tweeted his disappointment in his longstanding Killer Croc plans getting co-opted for another writer to write a one-shot of the character for Villains’ Month.

DC relaunched their entire publishing line to try to establish new (or: bigger) buying habits with a wider group of readers, of whom I was one. I read all 52 books in September 2011, and at least 26 of them that October. I was really excited to see so many distinct stories and new characters, and I would have gladly kept up with many of them.

However, one-by-one, my favorites got picked off – Resurrection Man and Frankenstein to low sales, Stormwatch to a complete reboot, Birds of Prey and Demon Knights to creator changes, and Batwing to a new direction. It seemed like the only books I enjoyed were the offbeat ones no one loved, or the books DC was certain needed a big change.

Note the distinct lack of their core superhero IP on that list; I largely disliked the first story of this books, with a few exceptions (Flash, Batgirl, Green Lantern Corps). And, even if I adored them, it wouldn’t matter – hardly a single book has survived past twenty issues with a consistent writer/plotter aside from Scott Snyder directing Batman, Gail Simone on Batgirl, and Brian Azzarello on Wonder Woman. (Superteam Buccellato and Manpul just announced they are leaving Flash.)

The end result is that I went from reading 52 DC comics 24 months ago to just 1 as of next month. DC’s reboot won them my money and attention in the short term, but my lifetime value as a customer grew less and less as I dropped books, and now will continue to accumulate only a measly $2.99 per month. They lost me in the long-game of increasing revenue.

Meanwhile, in that same time period Marvel has grown my readership from just X-books to all but two books in their entire publishing line of main continuity stories. They have me reading characters I am an avowed non-fan of – like Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Daredevil, and Captain America – just on the strength of the creators and the bold stories being told. I’m happy to commit to that because even when creators change during a run the story direction tends to be largely preserved. My the slope of my cumulative lifetime value line keeps getting steeper and steeper. I’m about as valuable of a customer as they can have – traditionally known as a Marvel Zombie.

I’m just one customer, but I have to believe there’s a greater trend to be found in that example.

Is there a common moral to be found for DC comics between Williams walk-out and my trailing off? I’d say the stories are one and the same – DC doesn’t have faith in their creators to tell stories. That isn’t about characters getting married – Marvel only boasts one major marriage in their line. It’s about telling interesting stories that evolve but never distinctly end.

#MusicMonday: “We Can’t Stop” – The Postmodern Jukebox

cyrus-we-cant-stopContinuing the theme of “traumatic experiences” from last night, earlier this summer I had the distinct experience of viewing the gloriously random trainwreck that is the video for Miley Cyrus’s comeback single, “Can’t Stop” (which this weekend I had verified to me by an actual beach-going teenager as “the song of the summer, because ‘Blurred Lines’ is so overplayed”).

It was early or late or I was half-watching teevee or something, so I remember having the sound turned very low. My watch was purely for the aesthetics of the piece (or, I suppose, the lack thereof). Yet even a whisper of the song left an imprint on my brain. It only took one more listen to get the “la da dee da dee” refrain irretrievably stuck in my brain, and after watching the second glorious visual trainwreck that was Miley’s MTV Music Video Awards performance I also was stuck with the throaty “we can’t stop” chorus.

We’re talking 24/7 under-the-breath singing here. Constant subconscious replay. Ultimate earworm.

At that point I broke down and bought the damn song, and here’s what I realized: it’s actually a pretty interesting song. If you just treat the lyrics like the gibberish they are and listen to the arrangement, it has many interesting little hooks in it – the real performance of the chiming high piano notes, the thrumming fuzz bass, the “la da di” vocal hook, and the way it all evaporates into a brief vacuum at the top of a chorus before it enters on the repeat.

It’s just that the flat, Rihanna-aping vocal production sucks all of the air out of Miley’s performance and makes it joyless and robotic on the whole. (And, note that writing team Rock City actual pitched this to R before Miley sunk her grill into it.)

Enter Scott Bradlee and The Postmodern Jukebox. Yes, I know they are all over the internet already. No, I don’t care. Have some more.

The magic of the Bradlee version of the song is that it strips away all of the obvious differentiators I mentioned above and somehow emerges with an even catchier song.

First off, I am a total sucker for anything Motown, and the raw doo wop blend of unison and harmonies from The Tee Tones is a welcome throwback.

Second, the time signature – Postmodern Jukebox is in 6/8. For the non-musicians among you, just tap along to it. You’ll find you’re tapping in two sets of three – 1-2-3, 1-2-3. You can’t really make the argument that the original song contains this feel, yet after hearing it in the cover I can track that steady pulse in the original as notes in swing time.

Third, the vocal. I’m not just talking about the syrupy swoop of Robyn Adele Anderson’s vocals, which runs a lovely counter towards the trend of all retro-style singers having that taffy catch in their voice like Adele or Duffy. It’s her melody that’s distinct. She hews pretty close to the original on the verse, just adjusting for the time signature and – you know – actual singing. Then she breaks out in the “la da di,” transforming the earwormy sing-song of the original into an actual song-worthy melody that allows her to blossom into a brief crescendo on “doin’ whatever want.”

And, they do all this with the ridiculous lyrics about big butts and lines in the back room intact – the only difference is now we’re dancing with “Miley,” rather than “Molly.”

I’ve always said that a good song can be stripped down bare. This cover of “We Can’t Stop” isn’t exactly bare, but it had to be stripped down to the basics of the chord changes and melody to build it back up to this point. The fact that it’s even more catchy without the trappings of modern studio production just proves what lovely bones the song has.

Not every song on the radio right now would survive the transition – certainly not the tuneless “Blurred Lines.” Buy the Postmodern Jukebox version now!