Sunday, May 31, 2020

Isolation Report, Week #12

[You could also read the most recent report, or even start at the beginning.]

Well, as promised (threatened?) last time, I took a week off from bitching about the virus and did a normal long post last week.  So now I have two weeks to report on.  What’s been going on?

Well, both the Mother and I lost parental siblings: she lost her favorite aunt, and I lost my only uncle.  In her case, it may have been COVID-related; in my case, it definitely wasn’t.  In neither case were we able to attend the funerals, both due to enforced smaller funeral sizes and just having travel be way too much to deal with right now.  So there’s a bit of grieving going on, which doesn’t do much to lighten the mood.

A few days ago I finally had to buy gas for the first time since this whole thing started.  It was under $3/gallon, which is a price I haven’t seen around here for perhaps 10 years.  I spoke to a friend on the East Coast and he said he also had just had to buy gas for the first time in a while, and it was under $2 for him.  Wacky.  I guess that’s what happens when the price of oil futures goes negative.

Possibly the biggest news, though, is that our governor (among many others, I hear) has finally reopened things, at least partially.  Restaurants can now have people dine in, for instance.  On the face of it, this seems like good news.  But ...

We’ve always eaten out nearly every Friday: it’s our family night, and having a nice meal is typically part of that.  Occasionally we’d cook something special, but often it was eating out—if we were managing to be good, it would be the only time we’d so that week—and, every other Friday, which was payday, we’d almost always go to a decent restaurant and sit down to eat.  It’s become something of a ritual for us.

Well, we didn’t necessarily want to let the virus stop us, though of course going somewhere to sit down and eat was obviously out.  But I could still go out and pick up some food from somewhere: I have a mask (not a very good one, granted, but good enough), and I know how to wash my hands when I get home, and anyway the local restaurants could use the business, because they’re struggling just like everyone else.  So we’ve been picking a different local spot every week and ordering a decent meal and sometimes we get it delivered, but usually I go get it.  Mostly these haven’t been chain restaurants, but I don’t necessarily have anything against the chains, and franchise employees gotta eat too.

This Friday I decided I wanted a good Cobb salad, and one of the places that had a decent one on the menu was TGI Friday’s.  And it just so happens that’s the one we picked.  I haven’t been there in a long time, but, again: nothing against it.  It’s slightly generic, but the food is often perfectly lovely.  So we ordered, and I trekked out into the night, not even thinking about the fact that this was the first Friday—if not the very first day—in our county that restaurants were allowed to have actual customers inside.  Foolish of me.

When I arrived there, the first red flag was that the parking lot was full.  You don’t realize how fast you get used to everything being deserted all the time, but I sure noticed when it wasn’t, all of a sudden.  Then I come up to the front door, and there are at least 16 (yes, I counted) people hanging around, waiting to get in.  And I don’t mean hanging around in widely spaced groups: I mean, bunching up, two or three feet from the neighboring group, just chatting gaily.  I actually heard one person high-five another and say “feels good to be out again!”  The accompanying “woohoo!” that I’m hearing in my head is almost certainly a false memory, but that was the sentiment, for sure.

Inside, there were a few tables with signs reading “this space reserved for social distancing,” but I have to tell you: it still felt pretty packed.  Outside, I didn’t see any tables marked off that way.  All the employees had masks, but very few of the customers did: I saw perhaps 4 or 5 out of the dozens and dozens that were there.  Most disturbingly, to get inside far enough to attract the attention of an employee, I had to pass through the little waiting area ... you know, the roughly 6 x 10 foot area with a bench on either side where, under normal circumstances, you cram in to sit and wait to be called to your table?  Well, these were not normal circumstances as far as I was concerned, but this place was just as cramped as it would be on any Friday night before the pandemic: I counted at least eight people, no more than 2 masks, and additionally two infants, in car seats.  And I could not help but think to myself, what sort of maniac takes their INFANT out into a crowded place during a time when a serious virus is out in the world?  Sure, this virus is hitting children way less hard than most do, but, still ...

Look, I have spent a lot of these virus reports saying that I fear that we’ve gone too far with draconian measures and pointing out that, no, you’re not staying home because you may kill someone if you go out—that’s still completely hyperbolic and, actually, ridiculous.  It might appear hypocritical of me to now complain about people going out and congregating in mass numbers.  But I’m not backtracking on any of my previous statements.  Remember that I’m the guy who believes in balance.  Both of these extremes are bad, in my view.  Just because “never leave your house or you could KILL me!” is completely crazy doesn’t mean that “the governor said we can go and eat so let’s see how many people we can infect!” is any more sane.

There has to be a middle ground here, people.  I hope we find it soon.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Snaptone Glimmerbeam I

"All I'm Sayin', Pretty Baby"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

When it comes to music, I don’t actually care that much for instrumentals.  I like to be able to sing along to my music—despite not being very good at it—and it not having any words sort of puts a damper on that.1  Still, there are quite a few places where downbeat instrumentals can land in my mix universe: if they’re dark and somber, they go on Shadowfall Equinox (which is almost entirely instrumentals); if they’re dark and trippy, they go on Smokelit Flashback (which is typically anywhere from a third to half instrumental); if they’re dark and creepy, they go on Phantasma Chorale (which is composed mostly of songs that, even when they have vocals, don’t have intelligible words).  But what if they’re upbeat instrumentals?  You know, the sort of song you might like to listen to as you snap your fingers, walking along in the summer sunshine, pleased with the warmth on your skin and the world in general ...

Well, in that case, they go on Snaptone Glimmerbeam.

One of the first instrumentals I can remember really digging from my album collection was Faith No More’s “Woodpecker from Mars.”  The great thing about this tune is that it feels like, at any minute, Mike Patton will launch into some cool-ass vocals.  He never does, of course, but the song rocks anyway.  Next in that vein was Hot, by Squirrel Nut Zippers.  This is an utterly amazing album, which I’ve talked about before,2 but I don’t know if I properly explained how good it is.  “Life-changing” would be only mildly hyperbolic here.  It includes not one but three instrumental tracks, the best of which is almost certainly “Memphis Exorcism.”3  It rollicks along, almost demanding that you snap your fingers in time with it.

But the honor of being considered the mix-starter I give to Combustible Edison’s “Vertigogo,” which is the opening music for the movie Four Rooms.  In fact, that soundtrack is almost entirely composed of Combustible Edison, who do a sort of retro-exotica with a lot of jazz and lounge leanings.  They’re only about 80% instrumental, once you leave the sounddtracks and get into their actual albums, and some of Miss Lily Banquette’s vocal numbers are quite stunning.4  But it all started with the Four Rooms soundtrack, which is a cornucopia of bridges, as we’ve heard several times in this series.5  But the opening theme is longer and more upbeat and just way too fun not to put somewhere.  Thus it gave me the idea to combine it with the two tracks above, give it the opener slot, and thus this mix was born.  Fun side note: the only songs on the Four Rooms soundtrack which are not by Combustible Edison are two by Mexican band leader Esquivel, one of which is so awesome that I threw it in here as well.

Which brings us to electronica.  I never dug most electronica: techno can be fun for about a minute and a half (which is when I start to get sick of it), house and D&B are often too loud and chaotic for my taste, and EDM can be awfully esoteric.  And what they all have in common: nearly all of it is quite repetitive, and I don’t dig that.  Except ... well, ambient and other forms of minimalist music can be repetitive, and trip-hop can be repetitive, so perhaps I’m painting with too broad a brush.  What’s the difference?  Well, obviously, all those electronica forms are strongly upbeat, while the ones I like are way more downbeat—hell, a lot of ambient doesn’t even have a beat.

So I quickly learned that there’s one form of electronica that I do like, quite a lot: downtempo, sometimes called “chill.”  Of course, after (at time of writing) 5 volumes of Smokelit Flashback and 7 of Shadowfall Equinox, this is probably not news to you.  A lot of downtempo is instrumental (as is a lot of ambient), and that’s lovely.  Most of it finds its way to one of those two mixes.  But, every once in a while, a solidly downtempo album will have a more upbeat track on it.

Now, don’t get me wrong: “upbeat” downtempo is only upbeat in relation to other chill tracks, obviously.  But, still, what am I to do with them?  Assuming they’re good enough to go somewhere, they certainly won’t fit on either SFb or SfE.  So, here they are.  The two most obvious choices were probably Bonobo’s “Kong” and “In the Bath,” by Lemon Jelly.  Both are amazing downtempo artists that we’ve seen on Smokelit Flashback6, Paradoxically Sized World7, Cantosphere Eversion8 and Moonside by Riverlight9  But “In the Bath” is a bit of silly fun that wouldn’t fit on any of those, while “Kong” is not so much upbeat as just smooth and happy-making.  Both work well here.

Other downtempo artists and tunes I thought worked well here are Amon Tobin, who brings us “Keepin’ It Steel,” which is sort of the chill version of industrial; “Something for Madeleine” by the Karminsky Experience Inc, which gives us a rolling beat punctuated by organ and trumpet; and A Forest Mighty Black, whose “Fresh in My Mind” is too good not to appear somewhere, and, while still pleasant, is a bit more mellow and thus makes a great closer.

For a more freeform, jazz-like approach to instrumentals, there’s a few great options that I had to throw in.  Banyan, the solo project of Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins, is sort of psychedlic jazz.  They give us “Lovin’ Them Pounds,” with some great clarinet, trumpet, and bass by Mike Watt (formerly of the Minutemen).  Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, most famous for doing the theme to Kids in the Hall, are more of a bass-heavy guitar band, with strong surf rock leanings.10  “They Don’t Call Them Chihuahuas Anymore” [sic] is a fairly typical outing for them, and it leads beautifully into the somewhat bizarre sound of Gary Sredzienski & the Serfs, who fully embrace their surf music sound and combine it with, of all things, polka.  “A Good Looking Cossack!!” is, in my opinion, about the best example of their sound, sounding just a little bit like both at once, without ever really sounding like either.  Finally, Smokey Bandits11 are here with the very first tune of theirs I ever heard: “Holidays in the Sun.”  It’s great, happy tune that I’m glad to finally have somewhere to put.

Another solid instrumentalist, Chris Joss puts out songs that sound like they ought to be in movies—I don’t think I can describe it any better than that.  In particular, he’s quite eclectic, and few of his songs sound the same.  I think I first heard “Count the Daisies” (which showed up on Paradoxically Sized World I) on my old cable provider’s “zen” channel (the source of many great finds, and I was sad to see it go).  Then I picked up the album and found gems like “Magic Tubes,” which ... well, I don’t think I can adequately describe it.  There’s a lot going on in this song, which you really have to check out.

Snaptone Glimmerbeam I
[ All I'm Sayin', Pretty Baby ]

“Vertigogo [Opening Theme]” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
“Lovin' Them Pounds” by Banyan, off Anytime at All
“Memphis Exorcism” by Squirrel Nut Zippers, off Hot
“She Walks on Fire” by Royal Crown Revue, off Walk on Fire
“Mexican Sausage Link” by Chingón, off Mexican Spaghetti Western
“Holidays in the Sun” by Smokey Bandits, off Debut
“Sentimental Journey” by Esquivel, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
“Keepin' It Steel (The Anvil Track)” by Amon Tobin, off Supermodified
“Something for Madeleine” by The Karminsky Experience Inc., off The Power of Suggestion
“Magic Tubes” by Chris Joss, off Teraphonic Overdubs
“In the Bath” by Lemon Jelly, off [EP Compilation]
“Kong” by Bonobo, off Black Sands
“They Don't Call Them Chihuahas Anymore” by Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, off Sport Fishin'
“A Good Looking Cossack!!” by Gary Sredzienski & the Serfs, off Cruisin' the Creek
“La La Love You” by Pixies, off Doolittle
“Woodpecker from Mars” by Faith No More, off The Real Thing
“Rock & Roll, Part II” by Gary Glitter [Single]
“Mick's a Hippie Burning” by Big Audio Dynamite, off Megatop Phoenix
“Lost in the K-hole” by The Chemical Brothers, off Dig Your Own Hole
“Fresh in My Mind” by A Forest Mighty Black, off Mellowdramatic
Total:  20 tracks,  74:11

Now for the less likely candidates.

I can’t even tell you why “She Walks on Fire” by Royal Crown Revue is on this mix.  It’s not instrumental, first of all.  Not even sorta-kinda instrumental like “La La Love You” is.  Perhaps it’s because the words are so irrelevant to the music—they’re completely unnecessary, and, once you start paying attention to them, sort of silly.  So definitely don’t pay attention to them.  Consider them just another instrument that comes together to give this song a peppy, expansive feel.  (Which the words totally don’t support, by the way: yet another reason to just ignore them.)

This also explains why the only truly non-instrumental song on the volume doesn’t provide the volume title.  “La La Love You” by the Pixies does.  And it’s not really instrumental either, but, since it only has about 3 or 4 lines repeated over and over, I don’t really think of it as truly vocal either.  But it’s an absolutely amazing track, for sure.

Robert Rodriguez’s Chingón, with their spaghetti western æsthetic, may also seem like an unusual choice here, but I think they work perfectly well: I’ve already referenced Four Rooms, which features one segment directed by Rodriguez, after all.  “Mexican Sausage Link” is a short tune with some fine mariachi-style guitar work as well as some lonely trumpet, and it flows beautifully after the Latin-flavored “She Walks on Fire.”

Big Audio Dynamite’s insanely good album Megatop Phoenix is probably most useful for its plethora of bizarre bridges between songs; I stole two for Cantosphere Eversion, and I’m stealing another one here: “Mick’s a Hippie Burning” is really four or five different things all jammed together, and yet they flow, and then flow beautifully into “Lost in the K-hole” by the Chemical Brothers.  In a similar vein to what counts as “upbeat” for downtempo being a good fit here, what can be considered “downbeat” on an album primarily consisting of acid house also works out to just about the right tone for this mix, and I’ve always considered this track somewhat psychedelic, but in more of an optimistic way than a mellow one.

Finally, I’ll mention the “guilty pleasure” of the set: Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll, Part II,” which is these days commonly associated with live sporting events.  I never quite got that.  I don’t think of it as a football song or anyhthing like that: it’s just a fun track that makes you happy.  I suppose you can use it to be happy while watching sports if that’s your bag.  But I think it can be much more than just that.

Next time, I think we’ll finally go back to the 80’s.


1 Although I will happily “sing” the guitar parts, trumpet parts, or any other bits I can find.
2 E.g. on Salsatic Vibrato I.
3 Althought the other two are great too, and we’ll probably be seeing them on future volumes.
4 As I’m sure we’ll hear in the fullness of time.
5 Specifically, on Phantasma Chorale and Salsatic Vibrato.
6 Lemon Jelly had two tracks on SFb I and II, while Bonobo was on volume V.
7 Bonobo appeared on volumes I and II.
8 Lemon Jelly on that one.
9 Bonobo showed up on MbR II.
10 Although, amusingly, they’ve constantly rejected that label, even specficially titling one song “We’re Not a Fucking Surf Band.”
11 Who I talked about most extensively on Paradoxically Sized World V.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Isolation Report, Week #10

[You could also read last week’s report, or even start at the beginning.]

This week ... well, honestly, it’s been pretty much exactly like last week.  Which is sort of the problem, I suppose.  I would appreciate it if time would move forward.  But I don’t think that time is predisposed to accede to my idle wishes.

The never-changing sameness we seem to be stuck in doesn’t lend itself to much in the way of news, and I’ve already philosophized as much as I care to.  I may even stop doing these reports weekly; perhaps I can go back to my previous habits of long post / short post, with the short posts being these “isolation reports.”  But I can’t make any promises: these are uncertain times, and who knows what tomorrow may bring?

In a vague attempt to make this post not entirely worthless, I’ll let you know some of the things I’ve been watching to try to keep my mind off the fact that our country is in the midst of a crisis without anyone even remotely competent in charge:

  • The Mother and I finished up Altered Carbon season 2 [Netflix] this week.  She said it was perhaps even better than S1.
  • I started on the final season of Blindspot [Hulu].  Honestly, these last few seasons haven’t lived up to the promise of the first two (or even one), but I’m a fan of Ashley Johnson (and her character), and it’s only half a season to find out the ending of the whole saga.  So I’m sticking with it.
  • I watched the entirety of McMillion$ [HBO] this week.  When I first saw a commercial for it, I was intrigued, and then I saw that it was 6 one-hour episodes.  And I was like, interesting story, maybe, but does it really need 6 hours?  But it actually turned out to be pretty good.  Documentaries are normally not my bag, but I enjoyed this one.
  • The kids and I started on season 2 of The Hollow [Netflix].  If you dig animation that’s kid-friendly without being dumbed down, this is not too shoddy.
  • If you’re looking for more of a “here’s what we’ve been doing during the quarantine” type thing, the first episode of McElroy and McVarney came out this week.  Being two folks who I find entertaining anyway, it was a no-brainer for me.
  • There was a new “Narrative Telephone” this week.  (See virus isolation week 8 for a bit more on what that is.)
  • If you happen to like actual play D&D (or maybe just want to give it a try), there’s a new series of D&D parents and their kids all playing together which I’m finding pretty entertaining.  It’s called Roll in the Family, and there are five episodes so far [1 2 3 4 5].  I think there will be one more next week and that will wrap up the storyline.  The DM is top-notch, and all the younger players (and almost all the older players) are damned entertaining.  Plus, it’s for charity.

That’s all I’ve got for you this week.  Perhaps next week, I’ll take a break from all this virus talk.  Maybe.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Isolation Report, Week #9

[You could also read last week’s report, or even start at the beginning.]

This week the Slack channel at work informed me that I was going on PTO.  You see, the work calendar connects to the Slack and, when there’s an all-day event, it announces it the day before around 6pm.  So, paydays, company holidays ... and people’s PTOs.  Helps us remember that so-and-so is going to be out for a few days.

In this case, I was completely caught off guard.  PTO? what for?  Finally, I worked it out that The Mother and the smallies were supposed to be going to Great Wolf Lodge for a homeschooling conference (slash vacation), and I was going to take a couple days off from work to just chill out at home.  But, you know, those plans were made a long time ago ... as of now, there’s no conference, no Great Wolf Lodge, and no need for PTO.  It’s a bit of a sad reminder that, you know, even though this interminable situation seems unchanging from week to week—to the point where it’s super easy to lose track of what day it is—time still is marching on, and more and more of our lives are being eaten up by this crisis.

Will it be over soon?  There are rumblings of reopening various things, but that’s primarily because our moron-in-chief seems to think that killing his voters is preferable to having them upset at him.  Who knows? maybe he’s right.  For the rest of us sane humans, though, it doesn’t seem like this ordeal is going to be over any time soon.

On the plus side, we’re gaming pretty regularly now.  I still have my two campaigns going, my eldest is up to two as well, and this week my youngest suggested that she’d like to try running a game.  At 8 years old, I’m sure she wouldn’t be the youngest GM ever, but surely in the ballpark.  We’ll see how serious she is about it.

Other than that, not a huge amount has changed.  The Mother’s sister had her baby, so that’s taken up some of her attention.  Sadly, she also has an aunt who’s in the hospital and not expected to make it.  This is an older woman, so the sickness is not coming as a shock or anything, but the fact that no one can visit her in the hospital is quite depressing.  And, if she does die, they will likely only allow a fraction of her family to attend the funeral.  It’s not clear if the illness is related to the ongoing virus or not, but respiratory failure is a component of the illness, so it’s certainly possible.

But, other than that, we continue to solider on, taking the good with the bad.  Hopefully we’ll last another week before having to return to the grocery store, and we’ll likely keep eating a lot of takeout and not nearly as much produce as we should.  But we’re together, and safe, and I’m sure there are plenty of folks in the world who are in worse situations than we are.  So we’ll be thankful for what we’ve got and hopefully things will return to some sense of normalcy before too long.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Isolation Report, Week #8

[You could also read last week’s report, or even start at the beginning.]

Not too much new to report this week.  I’m just going to give you a couple of pairs of links: one in the serious category, and one in the fun category.

First, the serious.  Now, the first thing I’m going to tell you is, always be suspicious of Internet links about the coronavirus (or anything else, really), and I certainly don’t except myself.  I’m going to be fully transparent here: I got this link off Facebook.  But, more specifically, I got it from my cousin, who works in healthcare (originally in admin, but I believe she’s now an X-ray technician).  So apply as much salt as you like.  I personally find it to be fairly balanced between conservative and liberal viewpoints, but I urge you make that determination for yourself.

The original article is by a doctor-turned-statistician, who was also involved in helping model the 2008 financial meltdown, so he knows a thing or two about getting burned by faulty computer models.  It’s a bit thick, though, so, if you’re not a statistician, you may appreciate the video version, by a different doctor, which attempts to condense the info into a format more friendly to the masses.  Or watch and read both, as I did: it’s totally worthwhile, in my opinion.

Next, the fun.  As you know, I’ve become somewhat of a fan of actual play D&D videos, and the biggest of those (and probably my second favorite) is Critical Role.  Now, a lot—nearly all, in fact—of these types of games are played online, so they weren’t terribly impacted by the current situation.  But CR is one of the few that’s always done in person, around a table.  So they can’t play right now, and, like everyone else these days, they’re looking to do something to keep themselves from going crazy (and to keep their fans engaged).

Their solution?  They call it “narrative telephone”: one of them tells a story, recording a video of it, then sends it to another member of the group.  That person can watch the video only once, then they have to record their own version of the story, which is sent to the next person, and so on, until the eighth and final member tells their version, which is of course barely recognizable as the original.  Now, they tell these stories as their D&D characters, but this is not actually D&D, so if you were thinking you wouldn’t like it because you don’t dig the game, never fear.  Just relish how each person takes the story farther and farther off track, and then watch the whole group listen to each version and give each other shit about how badly they messed it up.  Trust me: it’s hilarious whether you know anything about D&D or not.

There’s only 2 episodes up so far, but hopefully they’ll keep doing them.  It’s the hardest I’ve laughed so far during all this.

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for you this week.  Perhaps more next time.