Sunday, September 28, 2008

The World's Most Confusing Discography

Last time out, I went on about how completionist music collectors like me (although I'm either a bit lapsed or beginning to recover) like to be able to identify what they need for a complete collection of an artist's work. First all the original official releases, then any compilations with recordings different from the aforementioned albums, then into the real rarities and unreleased stuff (which is where torrents and trading websites shine).

For my money, the Ventures have the second most confusing catalogue in the world. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of collections with similar titles from a variety of dubious sources have muddied the waters to the point where it's hard to tell where any given recording originally came from or when a collection is complete.

I've found one artist whose discography is even more confusing. Making matters worse, this artist, unlike the Ventures, is compelling enough to make me (and a lot of other people) want to hear his entire output.

Larry Norman, who died recently at age sixty, is widely considered to have been the first real Christian rock-and-roller. He's had tribute albums to his work recorded, there are plenty of websites dedicated to him (no links because there are too many to choose from; feel free to Google to your heart's content in a new tab), and pretty much everybody who's aware of him respects his work immensely.

That said, the man's catalogue is a nightmare, and it's largely his own fault.

A web search for "Larry Norman discography" will get you plenty of hits, and I've read the first several pages' worth. None of them seem to be comprehensive enough to satisfy. One of the best I've seen is the two-part PDF version by Dougie Adams, available for download here, but even it doesn't go into enough detail and seems to be missing a lot of releases that I've seen.

Larry suffered a severe head injury in 1978, which he later blamed for some of his subsequent professional decisions. From the early 1980s onward, dozens upon dozens of officially sanctioned Larry Norman compilations and live albums were released, sometimes with one or two new studio recordings tacked on. Even on those without new songs, there were endless variations in the recordings - edits, remixes, and even alternate takes were included without acknowledgement. Trying to figure out a list of Larry's officially released, studio-recorded songs is almost impossible, and trying to figure out where to find the initial release of each such track is even worse.

Here's what I'm still hoping to find: a Larry Norman discography that's arranged chronologically by year (Larry often pumped out several releases per year; I'm not worried about what order they came in within the year) that lists each album track-by-track, with notes on the recording. Something like, "Album Title: 1. (Title of song) - Studio recording, first release. 2. (Title of song) - Studio Recording, originally released on (album title, year). New remix. 3. (Title of song) - Live version. (source if available, even if it's just something like "Probably from 1988 tour"). 4. (Title of song) - Studio recording, originally released on (album title, year). Same version.", etc.

There are plenty of sources for this kind of information for many major artists, Bootlegzone being the gold standard. I'd love to find one for Larry Norman. Hopefully one of his rumoured biographies will actually be published and include something like this. I'd also just like to read a thorough biography of him. He was a very interesting guy. Deeply flawed, perhaps, but then he never claimed otherwise.

Basically, I'd like to know when I've got at least the original studio version (or best live version, if Larry never recorded or released a studio take) of each song. I don't need as many minor variations of each song as Larry saw fit to release.

Making matters worse, from the earliest days of his career Larry was pretty casual about minor details like the names of songs and album lineups. The same song may have different titles on different official releases, and albums got re-released with variant mixes and edits, or even different song lineups, throughout his career. Just because you have all of Larry's albums doesn't mean you've got all the music, if you know what I mean. It may depend which version of each album you have.

I'm not giving up hope of finding this sort of information. I'm also not going to do what I would have done not so long ago and decide to start compiling it myself. I came in late to the Larry Norman party, only really taking an interest in the wake of news coverage about his death. I'll leave the serious research projects to the guys - and let's face it, they will be guys - who have spent years poring over the intimate details of Larry Norman's recorded output.

Enough rambling. Here's another picture from our our recent church-sponsored afternoon of trap shooting.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The World's Second Most Confusing Discography

I've been a music collector since I was a small child. If I was interested enough to pursue an artist's work, then I usually wanted all of it. Every album, B-side, remix, foreign release bonus track, studio outtake, home demo, live version, and cover version by other artists. For starters.

The Beatles were always my primary obsession. I still collect their work, and even after more than thirty years, I don't have it all. At least, I don't have it all in properly catalogued and indexed form, as my obsessive-compulsive geekhood demands.

The Internet made my quests immeasurably easier. Rather than having to find fellow obsessives with whom to trade cassettes that got worse with each generation removed from the source, Napster and its brethren allowed me to connect anonymously with collectors all over the world.

I've lost most of the passion I once had for this. The mania is no longer so manic. However, I'd still like to "finish" the Beatles collection. Several years ago I started a spreadsheet that was intended to index every Beatles recording. Song name in one column, version (release, demo, outtake, live, etc.) in another, source (the album or bootleg where it could be found) in another. That project quickly proved too huge for my liking and I abandoned it. I didn't regret having done so once I found Bootlegzone, whose Songs Encyclopedia serves more or less the same purpose.

This is one of the greatest things about the Internet. No matter how obscure your interest, there's a community of people out there who share it.

I had long envisioned an index of Beatles recordings fashioned after Kochel's index to the works of Mozart (those "K" numbers you often see after the title of Mozart works). A unique identifier would be applied to each version of each recording, allowing collectors to assemble complete sets with no duplication. Once again I found out that has already been done, at least in part. For instance, recordings from the January 1969 Get Back sessions have index numbers beginning with "GB". For an example, see here. What I haven't found yet is a source that completely explains, and preferably lists, the entire Beatles index system.

I will never amass my complete Beatles collection. For one thing, over the past several years, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have each toured extensively, and there are recordings floating around of multiple shows from each tour. Even I don't want them all, since they tend to be carbon copies of one another. One good quality recording from each tour, plus a copy of any deviations from the standard set, is enough.

Several years back I told a friend of mine who shares my interest in Beatles recordings that I intended to start trying to compile chronological sets of as complete a collection of recordings as available. I never got too far with it, mostly because I found out about a couple of more serious attempts at doing just that from people with better connections and / or more time on their hands. Way Beyond Compare and the Come Together Project (which may be defunct, since I can't seem to find any good links for it) are both making much better progress than I ever did. The latter has only released one CD and seems dead in the water as far as I can tell, but that's still far more than I accomplished.

Some people think the Beatles have a complicated discography. Even the truly obsessive sometimes look over what's available in the bootleg trading community, throw up their hands, and stick with a copy of 1. Maybe it's because I spent far too long immersed in it, but I have no problem navigating the sea of Beatles outtakes, live versions, and alternate mixes.

However, the Beatles aren't the only group with which I've gone too far for reasonable people. I have scarily exhaustive collections of both released and unreleased material by many other artists, including Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, Weird Al Yankovic, King's X, Billy Joel, The Choir, The Who, Van Halen, and more.

There are some exceptions to my completionism. For example, I have most of his earlier albums, but I haven't found any of Elton John's work since the early 1980s interesting enough to keep.

Even more rare is a group where I'm actually satisfied with a compilation (blasphemy!) and maybe one or two "essential" albums. The group I'm talking about in the title of this post is one such group - but one whose catalogue puzzles me.

My Dad has always liked the Ventures, and as soon as I got old enough to put records on the turntable myself, the two Ventures albums that he owned (The Ventures Play Telstar and a live album recorded in Japan whose name escapes me - based on the Ventures album titles I know, it was probably something on the creative level of "The Ventures Live In Japan") went into heavy rotation.

I still like the Ventures, and while I've heard quite a lot of their massive body of work, I see no real need to have a collection that runs much deeper than a good compilation or two. (Plus for nostalgic reasons, I'd also want copies of the two albums that Dad had.)

Therein lies the confusion. The Ventures have the second most confusing discography I've ever seen. I like to be able to tell the difference between original albums, compilations, and live albums. In the case of compilations, I like to be able to identify whether each song is the "standard" release - i.e., the same as what you get on pretty much any other album containing that song, including its original album release - or a variant. If it is a variant, I like to know what's different about it (new recording, live version, remix, edit,. etc.).

I wouldn't be surprised if there are literally hundreds of Ventures compilations, most of which are simply titled "The Ventures" or some variation of the words "Best Of" and / or "Greatest Hits". They're present on every discount rack in every department store in the world, and seem to be on dozens of different labels. This makes me question the legality of most of those releases, but someone with a bootleg collection as extensive as mine is in no position to quibble over such matters.

And good luck trying to figure out whether the versions on any given Ventures collection are original recordings, remakes, or other variations. Even if you can find an online listing of the exact CD in your hand (you'll probably need to search by catalogue number), you almost never get any substantive information on the source recordings.

It's fortunate that I don't feel driven to compile a complete Ventures collection. I suspect that trying to identify a comprehensive listing of their officially released tracks alone - the basic starting point for a completionist - would drive me crazy. A few fifteen-track compilations - most of which include the same dozen or so base tracks - will do just fine.

Up next: the only artist I've ever seen with a more confusing discography.

Can you stand the suspense?

Enough rambling. Here's another picture from our our recent church-sponsored afternoon of trap shooting. The man lining up his shot is my pastor, and the other fellow is a club representative who came along to help us figure out which end of the gun goes bang. Since nobody wound up in the emergency room, he did an excellent job.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Another Reason Why People Don't Talk To Me

Hey, kids! It's time for Another Reason Why People Don't Talk To Me!

"Well, thanks for your input, Dick."

"I prefer Richard."

"I didn't know your name was Richard."

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of the structure from which we did some of our shooting.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Freedom Of Expulsion

My favourite graffiti to write in washroom stalls: "It smelled like this when I got here."

Speaking of public washrooms, George Michael was just arrested in another one. You'd think he would have learned by now to hold it until he gets home.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of some of the guys at our recent church-sponsored afternoon of trap shooting. Buckle up, kids, we're starting another photo series!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Yes, I'm being lazy again and rationalizing it as efficiency.

Before I get into just copy-and-pasting what I wrote somewhere else, a quick plug: my friend Homeschooler just updated her blog for the first time in too long for my liking, with a thorough post on educational philosophy. I'll admit that I haven't fully digested everything she wrote just yet, but my first-pass reading makes me think that it's excellent. Oddly enough, I think I agree with everything she wrote (I said "Amen!" aloud a few times while reading), which may well be a sign of the Apocalypse. More discussion of her post another time, perhaps - and probably in her comments section, then re-posted here.

I recently commented on a post over at The Screaming Pages, one of my fellow New Brunswick Blogroll members.

The original post was about media coverage of, shall we say, poorly considered statements to or about Aboriginal Canadians by Canadian public officials. Some examples were discussed. One of them was an MP's assistant, Darlene Lannigan, reminding an aboriginal protester that if he would like to speak to the minister, he should try showing up sober.

Another was a former MP, Ricardo Lopez, stating that all of Canada's Aboriginal peoples should be relocated to Labrador, where they couldn't bother anybody.

The third was more interesting to me. Referring to the 1990 Oka situation, Simon Bedard said, "Everyone was scandalized because I said: ‘Send in the Army and let’s clean this up once and for all!’ But maybe we should have done that because 17 years later, it’s still the same thing. If anything, it’s worse."

What he actually said back in 1990 was, "You go in there with the army, then you clean up all that. Fifty dead, 100 dead, 125 dead, that would put it out. We bury it and life goes on."

These are, of course, generally considered to be racist statements. However, here's what I wrote in the comments thread (with one typo fixed. Scavenger Hunt for Valuable Bonus Points - find the typo in the original post!):

I don’t see where Mr. Bedard’s comments were racist. He didn’t advocate slaughtering aboriginal peoples; he advocated use of military / police force against terrorists. He correctly noted that doing so may have prevented more terrorist activity years later in the same place for the same reason. The behaviour of the terrorists, not their skin colour of ethnicity, was the issue.

The colour / ethnicity of the criminals in question here is only an issue for those who choose to see such matters as more important than a person’s behaviour. In other word, for racists.

Full disclosure: I’m a WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant). I can’t claim any minority status that’s recognized as such by most people. I can guarantee you that if I got a few of my similarly-genetically-endowed friends together and we all put on masks, carried prohibited-class firearms around, blocked public roads, made threats of violence, and threw rocks at police officers, tanks would be rolled over us or snipers would take their shots in short order. And rightly so.

I don’t care what a terrorist’s ethnicity is. I care that they’re a terrorist (and the behaviours I described qualify by any reasonable definition). For law enforcement officials to treat some offenders differently than others due to ethnicity is far more racist and far more offensive than Mr. Bedard’s statement.

That said, if there’s a way to resolve a situation without killing people, then by all means it should be pursued. I’m glad no slaughter was necessary. However, I would be perfectly happy to have seen those 50, 100 or 125 people arrested, tried, and convicted and still sitting harmlessly in prison cells if guilty.

No way would I try to defend Mr. Lopez, though. Dumb, bad, morally offensive thing to say. Or even think.

As for Ms. Lannigan - also a dumb thing to say, but I don’t know that it’s worth as much fuss as has been made over it.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of my sister-in-law's dog coming in to browse the Psychology section of our bookselves.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Revivalist Redneck Rampage

(UPDATE: I just fixed a typo in this one that drastically altered the meaning of a sentence. Normally I don't point out my frequent corrections, but this was a doozy that completely reversed what I meant to say. I'll point it out when it shows up, several paragraphs from now. Look for another stretch of italics.)

There are several reasons why I chose the church I attend, and that decision is reaffirmed on a regular basis.

At first, of course, I started attending this particular church for what's probably the most common reason: I had a friend who went there. (There's a lesson there for us Evangelicals.) That friend was the one who originally made me realize the difference between nominal Christianity and genuine faith. It was only natural that he steered me toward his own church, and that I made it my own.

My continued attendance there has not been due to habit or blind adherence, however. After starting to attend there and realizing that genuine faith must be fed and continue to grow, I went away to university. Over the next few years I got a degree in religious studies (with an emphasis on Biblical studies), attended several different churches from a few different denominations for anything from a single visit to extended periods, and took a correspondence course from the Knights of Columbus in Roman Catholic theology that purported to be the equivalent of the first year of seminary theological training undertaken by Catholic priests.

So, it's fair to say that I'm equipped to critically evaluate that first church. I'm not a motherless duckling who imprinted on the first football that was dragged by.

When I came back from university, I took a long hard look at the church I had previously attended. There was a new pastor, and some changes in the membership from when I was last there. For one thing, the friend who originally invited me had long since moved away.

After much prayer and consideration, I stayed. I evaluate a church on one basis only: whether the word of God is proclaimed and taught there. I don't care what kind of facilities, programs or music they have. I don't particularly care whether the preacher is dynamic. Those things are all fine, but ultimately I don't care about anything except whether the doctrine that is proclaimed from the pulpit and (probably more importantly) in the Sunday School classes, home Bible studies, and inevitable committee meetings is true to Scripture.

My church fits that bill. Unity in essentials but liberty in nonessentials is a great philosophy for a congregation. The first essential is an answer to the question of whether the Bible is to be taken seriously as God's word. Most modern churches answer no, implicitly or explicitly. My church has answered yes. Our next essential follows, and is very simple: having answered yes to the first question, what we consider "essential" is to be determined solely by Scripture.

I don't expect my church (meaning here the people who comprise the congregation, including the pastors and deacons, who are not "above" the rest of us) to be perfect. I'm certainly not. However if doctrine were ever preached or taught there that was contrary to Scripture, and after discussion it was defended and adopted as an "official teaching", I would be gone in a heartbeat. I don't think that will ever happen, because I expect that the vast majority of our members and adherents feel exactly the same way.

All this is preamble to another reason that I love my church. Yesterday we held an official, church-organized-and-endorsed men's event: a trap shoot and barbeque.

Seriously, how can you get more redneck, in the best possible sense of the term, than a bunch of conservative Christians (that's "Bible-thumpers" for those of you in blue states or red provinces) going out in the woods to fire shotguns and eat red meat? Note that this was unapologetically a men's event; the ladies weren't invited along. Not that we would have turned any away if they'd decided to show up, but we're politically incorrect enough to expect that none of them would be particularly interested. (My egregious typo was in the previous sentence. The first word was accidentally rendered "Note", as opposed to "Not". That obviously completely changed the meaning from what I intended.) Similarly, when a "crafts night" or somesuch is held at the church, it's promoted to the ladies. Speaking as a male, I've never been offended by my exclusion.

About 16 of us came out (including a few visitors who accepted invitations). A good time was had by all. To my surprise, I actually managed to hit several targets. I think I fired 25 rounds all told, and probably hit on about half a dozen of them. Considering that until today I hadn't actually fired a gun in the last three decades or so, and that I'd never fired a shotgun, I don't think that's too bad.

I hope we have another of these sometime; at the very least, it should become an annual event. Since we're probably the only congregation north of Mississippi or so to do this sort of thing, it would be a shame to let the opportunity slip away.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of me taking down a clay pigeon. This is a screen capture from my digital camcorder, and after the capture and resizing for upload it may be hard to tell, but trust me: in the original full-size jpeg, you can clearly see small chunks of the shattered target in the sky. Too bad you can't see smoke coming from the barrel, which is the only thing that I think could make this picture any cooler.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Reading Log - Deep Magic

As usual, I have a stack of completed books backed up to write about. This one's overdue from the library, though, so it moves to the top of the pile.

Deep Magic is an "advanced" strategy guide for Magic: The Gathering players, published in 1996. This criticism (if it is one) is probably completely unfair, but the book is hopelessly outdated by this point.

At the time that Charles Wolfe and George Baxter wrote this book, there weren't many sources of good information for Magic players who wanted to dig more deeply into the game. There was the official Pocket Player's Guide, published by Wizards of the Coast (pretty much all the players in my area carried a copy), and that was about it. The Internet hadn't become the ubiquitous source of all information that it is today.

Like most serious players, I devoured every bit of Magic theory and analysis that I could find. Duelist, Inquest and Scrye always got pored over, cover to cover (although the last was far more useful as a card price guide than a source of play information). There were a few books published to cash in on the game's growing popularity, and Deep Magic was one of the best-known and most respected.

I actually preferred a larger volume that I seem to remember being called Targan's Tome or somesuch. It had several interesting play variant outlines, including a map-based epic format called Campaign Magic that I never quite got around to trying. It required a lot of commitment from a fairly large play group, which proved impossible to organize. I didn't keep that book, and now I can't seem to find any mentions of it online. Remembering the exact title or author would probably help, but they're lost to me now, the neurons repurposed to the storage of Jerry Reed trivia.

As for the book at hand, which I was surprised to find stocked by my local library system: it was a fine guide at the time, but now reads like a computer magazine from the 1980s (many of which I also re-read occasionally). It seems primitive and shallow by modern standards. For many players at the time, though, this book was their first introduction to "card advantage", here called "card economy" (strategic terminology hadn't stabilized yet).

Far too much of the book is taken up with deck lists, but deck lists were far more highly valued in the days when most players weren't online yet. As Magic made the transition from fad to mature ongoing and evolving hobby, books like this died out. The game is simply too dynamic for a traditional book to address in depth. Magazines took over for a time, only to be supplanted by the Internet.

I took this book from the library because since my wife and I are playing Magic sometimes (although not much lately), I figured I might as well refresh my knowledge. As it turned out, the book was entertaining on a nostalgia level, but for information relevant to the game as played today, I'll stick with my daily visits to the official Wizards website. Their site was recently redesigned, and as far as I can tell pretty much all the readability and utility were deliberately removed. However, if you skip the flash intro page and go straight to the daily article index (which is where I linked above), you can still find some actual content. You just need to work a little harder at it than before the redesign.

As a historical artifact from the long-lost days of twelve years ago, Deep Magic is well worth reading. If you're a relatively new Magic player it's still worth a look, but advanced players are better off sticking to the web these days. It would be interesting to see Wolfe and Baxter publish an updated edition, but since any updated edition would again be obsolete within a few months, it's probably never going to be economically viable.

Some other recently-finished books currently on the Reading Log stack, already read with writeups hopefully coming soon: Cannery Row (John Steinbeck), Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2004, The Lottery (short story collection by Shirley Jackson), Essential Spider-Man Volume 4, The War Against Boys (Christina Hoff Sommers), and a few books by C.S. Lewis. I like to mix things up.

Enough rambling. Here's another picture of my living room floor. And some wrapping paper and a foot (perhaps just-unwrapped).

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pleasant Dreams And Contradictions

Here are two recent conversations I had with my son.

The first was when I went in one morning to wake him up. Small children share a trait I had previously only noticed in dogs: when you wake them up, they're genuinely happy to be awake, and especially excited to see you there.

Seeing my son's grin, I asked if he had a good sleep. Of course. I asked if he had any nice dreams, and again he answered in the affirmative. Then I made the mistake of asking what he had dreamed about.

"There were alligators, and they were all over you. And they ate you all up!" He was downright gleeful.

"Oh, my," I answered, "that doesn't sound nice at all."

"No, it's OK," he assured me. "They left your feet!"

Oh. Well, I guess that's all right then.

The second conversation took place not long afterward. My son and I were in the computer room; he was playing something on one computer, and I was using the other. "Hello Goodbye" by the Beatles was playing.

After the song ended, my son turned to me, and sounding quite puzzled, said, "So... he says yes, but he says no?"

"That's right."

"And he says goodbye, but he says hello?"


After a pause, "So.... who wins?"

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a shoe and some ever-popular concrete.

Monday, September 15, 2008

If You Laugh At This, You're A Bad Person

I love it when editors don't do their job. From an otherwise very nice story in the Edmonton Journal about a small town welcoming the return of RCMP services, presented without further comment:

In Sachs Harbour, people wave with all five fingers when they see the police.

It's a nice change to be welcomed by a community and its children, some of whom beg the officers to handcuff them, just for fun.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of blocks, a bus, and a foot.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Question For Isolationists

It will come as no shock to anyone who's ever read this blog that I occasionally have political disagreements with my co-workers. And that's fine; I work in a pretty big office. If there's someone who I really just shouldn't get into discussions with, I can usually manage to avoid doing so.

Second, we're not there to discuss politics, we're there to do our jobs. As in most workplaces, the majority of our work is not so mentally engrossing as to preclude lots of side conversations as we toil away at busywork, though. Political discussions happen here and there, but they never get to become the major focus of the day. If they start to get distracting, then they usually come to a quick halt as we refocus on whatever we're actually getting paid to do.

Finally, everyone there is an adult. Unlike the loonies discussed here and here, almost everyone I know is mature enough to realize that people can disagree while remaining friendly. I've been very fortunate in that I've only ever worked with two people with whom I wouldn't have a political conversation, quite probably including some spirited debate. One of those was, and probably still is, a habitual liar that I wouldn't interact with at all for any reason unless absolutely necessary once I came to understand what he was.

The other, with whom I never had an actual political conversation, was a parrot of whatever Oprah or The View last told her to say. When she saw Fahrenheit 9/11, she spent several days telling anyone who passed by her desk (I wasn't one of them, but I was within earshot) that "George Bush should be in prison." When asked why, she didn't quite know, but Michael Moore said so. I was tempted to point her to Fifty-nine Deceits in Fahrenheit 9/11, but I had no illusions that she would read it. I just left political matters alone with her, and we got along very well.

All this preamble is for a story about a conversation I had a few weeks ago. The Canadian election had not been called yet, but the rumblings were definitely in the air.

One of my co-workers is a very nice fellow with whom I get along well, but we're on opposite ends of the political spectrum. One of his more insightful political comments: "The only good Republican is a dead Republican."

He was talking about how he expected some sort of terrorist attack, or at least warnings of same, during the runups to the elections in Canada and the U.S. He clearly thinks these events are staged, presumably to benefit conservative candidates.

I disagree, but I can understand his viewpoint. I see things slightly differently, and par for the course for a liberal / conservative dispute, there's actually some evidence for the conservative view. Instead of pro-military political parties faking (let's be blunt) such things to scare people into voting for them, which is certainly possible and probably has happened from time to time, it's entirely feasible that instead, terrorists time these things for an election season to scare people into voting against the candidates who will try stop them. Utterly illogical, certainly, but effective when people vote based on emotion rather than logic. The terrorist message is: "Elect anyone who opposes us and you'll get more of the same." The unspoken flip side, of course, is that unless we elect candidates who will oppose terrorists, they get free rein and we're guaranteed more of the same eventually. The decision is whether to fight the terrorists now or live under their tyranny later.

Sadly, the tactic has worked on at least one high-profile occasion, when Madrid was bombed in 2004. The conservative candidate lost that election precisely because of having stated a willingness to stand up to terrorists. The Spanish people, to their shame, took the bait.

Anyway, our conversation went from there. He offered some paranoid conspiracy theories about "conservative fearmongering", and I sarcastically said something along the lines of, "You're right. There are no bad guys in the world. And those planes were probably flown into the World Trade Centre by some Baptists who wanted to scare people into accepting Jesus."

That set him off onto one of his other pet topics, the injustice of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. He's repeatedly on record as being against both (he's the same person I was talking to / about in this post). He started in about how Iraq had no direct involvement with September 11th.

I assured him that he was correct. In fact, the only times I've heard anyone say that Saddam Hussein was directly involved with the attacks are when leftists claim that the Republicans said so, usually fabricating some quotes in the process.

There were many good reasons for the U.S. to go into Iraq. Noncompliance with the terms of the 1991 ceasefire, the reasons cited in the 1998 resolution calling for regime change (spearheaded by noted Republican warmonger Bill Clinton, who had the intelligence to sign it but not the courage to follow through, leaving it to Bush to finish his job), the discovery of admittedly small amounts of chemical weapons (and if you want to discount those, ask yourself if you'd be willing to have them stored in your basement), and most of all the fact that Saddam Hussein was a violent thug who terrorized his neighbours and slaughtered the people of his own country. Any claims that things have gotten worse in Iraq because of his removal boil down to cries that at least the Axis powers kept the trains running on time.

My colleague grew as exasperated with me as I was with him, saying that military solutions are not the answer.

My reply: "You should be grateful that there are people who think like me, because they're what keep people who think like you alive."

I don't know if he was more shocked or offended. "I don't need your protection!"

"No, you don't need my protection. And good thing, too, because I'm a scrawny wuss who probably couldn't shoot straight. I said, 'people who think like me'. But you and I both need protection. It's provided by the people who go the extra mile, put on the uniform, pick up the gun, and get on the plane."

Confounded, he decided not to address my actual point, and went back to the theme that U.S. and Canadian forces shouldn't be in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how life is now much worse for the people of those countries.

"Really?" I asked, "Do you think life was much better for young women under the Taliban? Big fan of clitorectomies, are you? Or for the people taken into Hussein's rape rooms or fed into his wood chippers?"

Judging from his insubstantive response, apparently those sort of things were none of anyone else's business. The rest of the world should not have interfered.

Rising to the bait, I said, "Yeah, you're right. Who cares what happens to people way over there? It's not like they have real feelings. They speak different languages than us, and some of them even have different colour skin, so they can all die and we shouldn't care, right?"

He refused to answer this. Justifiably, perhaps, because I freely admit that I was being as over-the-top offensive as I could be, in hopes of breaking through the naivete and making the point. It may not sound like it, but I'm not interested in "winning arguments". I'm not even sure that human nature generally allows for such a thing. I'm interested in getting people to think about their positions and beliefs. Hopefully by doing so, they'll learn something. This is probably foolishly optimistic.

I decided to push it one step further, which brings us to the question I was referring to in this post's title: "Were we right to intervene in Europe during World War II, and to try to stop the Holocaust?" By "we" in that sentence I mean the North American Allied forces, i.e., the U.S. and Canada. (I didn't want to interrupt the actual written question with that explanation.)

At the time that we (as defined above) went into Europe, Hitler wasn't much more of a direct and immediate threat to North America than Hussein was in 2002. If the Internet had been around then, I'm guessing we would have seen lots of Code Pink-style protesters writing whiny posts about how what was happening to Polish Jews was none of our concern. "No blood for Hebrews!"

My friend did lots of sputtering about how that question is completely different from what we had been talking about. I said, " 'Completely' is too strong, but you're right, it's different. Feel free to assume that it has nothing to do with our discussion, and just answer the question on its own terms. Yes or no. Were we morally right to go into Europe, or not?"

He never did answer me.

"Isolationists" should be ashamed of themselves. I plan to ask this question from now on whenever I hear someone start in about how Iraq and Afghanistan should have been left to their own devices. If I ever get a reasonable answer, I'll let you know.

Just to bring some scripture in here, because I always like to bring in Scripture whenever I can (in addition to offering far more wisdom that I can muster up on my own, Biblical quotations are a great way to make secular humanists turn amusing colours):

Rescue those being led away to death;
hold back those staggering toward slaughter.

If you say, "But we knew nothing about this,"
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?

-Proverbs 24: 11-12, New International Version

Enough rambling. Here's another picture of a river.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Album Review - Saudades De Rock

I'll cut right to the chase: Extreme's new album, Saudades De Rock, is terrific. I've listened to it almost continuously for nearly three weeks now without getting a bit tired of it. It contains Extreme's usual Beatles and Queen influences, but the shadow of Led Zeppelin looms largest of all over this one.

It's definitely a rock album. There are a couple of quieter moments, but for the most part this album is meant to be played loud. Even the slower numbers veer toward power ballad territory, but not in the sense of sounding like clich├ęs. They have a definite drive to them.

Before getting into the music, I'd also like to note that this album includes three-fourths of the original Extreme lineup - the same three-fourths that had appeared on their last album and most of their tours in the interim (Extreme frequently played one-off shows and brief overseas tours here and there during their hiatus, never quite coming back into the reunion spotlight). Bassist Pat Badger is back in the fold, after a nasty feud with his former bandmates had left him on the sidelines for a while. I'm always happy to see anyone reconcile like this, musician or not.

Possibly the best news: there is no More Than Words clone on this album! I repeat, there is no More Than Words clone on this album! (Actually, Extreme have never done anything resembling a clone, but the general public always expects one from them.)

Let's take a look, track by track.

1. Star - the opening track is also the lead single. If "singles" even exist anymore. Lead video? Lead download promotion on iTunes? Whatever you call it, it's the track that's being shopped to radio via promo CDs. So I hear - I haven't listened to more than five minutes of radio since I was on the air myself back in my university days, and even then I never listened to anyone else's show. But I digress.

Star is an upbeat, commercial-sounding track that demonstrates right off the bat that Extreme haven't forgotten about big Queen-style vocals. It stops just short of being too commercial for my liking, ranking somewhere around Hip Today in that respect. It's probably a bit too progressive for the mass market to latch onto.

Lyrically, Star covers much of the same ground as Hip Today and Kid Ego. It's about one of Cherone and Bettencourt's favourite subjects, the fleeting nature of fame and prestige. The last lines are chilling, the final words phased to have an ethereal, descending quality:

Don't look down as you're hanging on for your life
Though you're better off dead than alive
Then they love you forever
There's nothing celebrity worshippers like better than a dead idol.

2. Comfortably Dumb - this one has Jimmy Page written all over it, with an obvious nod to Pink Floyd in the title. It sounds like one of the best hard rock numbers that Led Zeppelin never released. This one's about information overload and how some people shut down and choose willful ignorance over the pressure of thinking. Cherone is pretty well known as a conservative / libertarian thinker, so this is a surely a theme that's near and dear to his heart.

Par for the course for Extreme, there's plenty of humour to be found on this album. For my money, this track, while not the funniest overall, has the single funniest lyric passage:
What, When, Why, Where, How come?
Who cares?
Knock knock, who's there?
No one.
How come?
Who cares?
3. Learn To Love - there may be some irony in the fact that this sounds like it could have been the best song on Van Halen III. It sounds even more so because when Cherone gets into the upper reaches of his vocal range, he sounds like Sammy Hagar. This song has Gary at the top of his range; frankly, I think it might have sounded a bit better if the chorus had been pitched lower so he wasn't straining so much.

It opens with a fast single-note riff that sounds like the band could switch into Cynical (from Waiting For The Punchline) at any second. Yes, "Cynical" had a longer variant title printed inside the case, but for linguistic purposes I'll stick with the shorter, printable title that appeared on the back cover. The riff sounds even more like Led Zeppelin's The Wanton Song, if someone put their Physical Graffiti LP on the turntable at 45 RPM speed. (Readers under 35, ask your parents - or maybe grandparents - what that means.)

4. Take Us Alive veers into country rock. Don't worry, it's not as bad as that may sound - in fact, it's very good. It's played tongue-in-cheek, along the lines of Led Zeppelin's Hot Dog but without stepping over the line into parody. Sorry about the repeated Zep comparisons, but they're simply unavoidable when discussing this album. That's a good thing. The guys in the band are clearly having a great time all over this album, but this is the track where it shows the most.

5. Run - this track is blues-based hard rock, with more of Extreme's trademark big vocal harmonies. The track is so good that it took me a few hearings to notice that the drum pattern (bass on 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4, plus a steady open-closed high-hat pattern) played throughout is straight from the disco era.

6. Last Hour - this is one of the power ballad numbers, starting off slow and quiet but building in intensity as it goes. I find it quite similar in feel to Year To The Day, a number Gary recorded with Van Halen. Again, Gary sometimes gets out into the rougher areas of his range, but remains in control. One reason that I didn't like Waiting For The Punchline as much as some fans did was that Gary seemed to be tunelessly screaming on too much of that album, Naked being the nadir.

The guitar solo, which is fantastic as usual, starts off with some atmospheric echo effects, which I can't remember Nuno having explored much to date. Like Comfortably Dumb's title, it makes me think that the guys in Extreme spent some of their time off listening to Pink Floyd.

The buildup of Last Hour also clarifies why I still enjoy Extreme so much, including this album. Most of what I listen to is at least a couple of decades old. The "newest" artists whose work I enjoy, as figured from looking at the date of their debut album, are the Wallflowers and Matchbox 20, both of which owe much of their style to the music of earlier eras. The next newest, working back, would probably be Barenaked Ladies (although I haven't liked much of their work since Stunt) and Extreme, which means going back about twenty years.

I try listening to newer stuff sometimes, often by trying out various-artists compilations. I usually can't make it through very many tracks in a sitting before my ears simply get tired. This sensory fatigue is caused by two factors: the arrangement and the mastering. Most younger bands have no sense of dynamics. There's no buildup to their songs - the entire sonic spectrum is filled to the brim from the first note to the last. Then, the track is mastered to remove any volume variations that might have crept in. If you open up most newer rock songs in a program like Audacity that "shows" the sound waves, they'll look like a solid wall. Older, well-mastered songs have visible peaks and valleys.

The members of Extreme understand the concept of peaks and valleys. When your song starts with all the knobs cranked to eleven, you've got nowhere to go. You need quieter passages if the louder passages are to have any impact. Last Hour is a great case in point.

7. Flower Man - this is one of my favourites, largely due to its message. Or at least what I think its message could be.

On the surface, the lyrics seem to be a scathing rebuke of pacifism in the face of evil. Gary sounds like he has no patience whatsoever for people chanting "Give peace a chance" (the phrase is specifically quoted) in regards to what the military sometimes needs to do.

There's a possibility that the song is satire - Extreme has certainly expressed pro-peace sentiments in the past, both directly and through satire (Warheads, Peacemaker Die, and Rest In Peace come to mind). However, even in their satire, there was some ambivalence (" 'Make love not war' sounds so absurd to me / We can't afford to say these words lightly"), perhaps acknowledging that sometime unpleasant tasks have to be carried out. One of the great farcical tragedies of the modern era is the widespread belief, epitomized by high-profile Democrats in the U.S., that negotiation with thugs can yield results. Saddam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Robert Mugabe, Osama Bin Laden - these are not people who respect(ed) words. Talk to them all you like; all you will do is embolden them.

Unlike most of Extreme's satirical songs, though, Flower Man never takes a moment to wink at the listener. If it's a joke, then the band are certainly committed to it. Gary's acknowledgement in the liner notes, "Gary Cherone would like to thank the Soldier Samaritan serving overseas", certainly indicates that he understands and appreciates what the military (specifically the U.S. military, but they have allies, including Canada, who are also engaged) is doing.

It could all be a put-on, but I doubt it, and I prefer to think it isn't. We could use a good "Hippie, shut up!" song by somebody not wearing a ten-gallon hat.

Musically, it's an uptempo rock song, with some similarities to Nuno's solo "Two Weeks In Dizkneeland" but with much more controlled vocals. Back in the days when I ran a comic shop, I always had the stereo on, and Nuno's album often made the playlist. Invariably, if a "civilian" Mom / wife / girlfriend happened into the store, Dizkneeland would be the next song up. Hearing Nuno savagely scream "Help me!" over and over does not reassure a lady who's already uncomfortable about having ventured into The Court of the Crimson Nerds.

8. King of the Ladies - this is the overall funniest track on the album. It's a midtempo funk groove; many reviewers have described it as having a rap / hip-hop feel, but I don't hear it that way. That might be because I don't like rap or hip-hop, so I don't have much of a frame of reference for the genre. In any case, this might be my favourite track on the album, so if it has any rap influence, it's not much.

Nuno sings a lot of this one, and the feel reminds me of Fallen Angels from Schizophonic. The lyrics are full of eighties references, as the speaker tells how he would be a really smooth operator with high school girls if he could go back in time, retaining his adult sophistication. Which would get creepy if we thought about it for too long, so let's move on.

9. Ghost - this is a piano-based number that starts off slowly but gathers steam. It's got a seventies progressive feel, with a piano break in the middle that brings Wind And Wuthering-era Tony Banks to mind. A "radio edit" of this song appears on the Star promo CD, so hopefully it'll get some radio play.

10. Slide - this one is about, of all things, racing. "Sliding" apparently refers to skidding or "drifting" around turns. This is a pretty straightforward funk song, in the vein of Decadence Dance, and features my favourite backing vocals on the album (the glissando "" under what would be the chorus if the structure were more conventional).

11. Interface - this is a guitar ballad (strummed chords, not More Than Words plucking style) that was originally recorded by Dramagods, one of Nuno's four (!) bands during Extreme's hiatus. (Yes, I know that Dramagods was pretty much Population One with a new name. Don't care.) Nuno did the vocals himself on the original, and provides harmonies on this version. As much as I like Nuno's singing, this version with Gary taking the lead is vastly superior. It has the prettiest melody on the album by far (which is a compliment - I realize that with my normal snark levels, it can be hard to tell sometimes), and the potential to be a huge hit if the guys can get any promotion these days.

12. Sunrise - this is another love letter to Led Zeppelin. It would have fit in perfectly on III Sides To Every Story, or Houses Of The Holy for that matter. This one should dispel any doubt as to whether they chose their new drummer wisely. He can certainly channel John Bonham effectively. (These are getting much shorter because I'm hoping to finish up before Extreme's next album.)

13. Peace (Saudade) - this is the kind of big piano ballad that can't go anywhere except as the last track on the album. It's probably the least interesting song here for my money, but still a worthwhile effort.

Overall, this album is a solid home run. The band is in terrific form, and they sound like they're having fun being back together. If you've ever enjoyed any of Extreme's work (and if all you know are More Than Words and maybe Hole Hearted, then you really don't know them), you'll probably love this one. Hopefully it'll do at least well enough for them to keep going!

Enough rambling. Here's another picture of a river.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

I Am Wikipedia

This story was in the pipeline anyway, but the passing of Jerry Reed brought it to the top of the list.

This, like many of my stories, is both a True Story From One Of My Jobs and quite possibly Another Reason Why People Don't Talk To Me. As regular readers may have surmised, I don't much leave the house through the week except to go to work, and there's no shortage of reasons to avoid talking to me. In fact, doing so is highly recommended, not least by me.

This tale takes us back to my days working beside Alex in the IT department of a large office. The majority of our staff did not have Internet access on their desktop computers. Officially, for security reasons, the IT staff didn't have it either.

Officially. In practice, when your job is guarding the henhouse, you can have all the drumsticks you like.

So, it wasn't unusual for employees to come into my office (actually, the windowless, concrete-walled room in the basement where Alex and I sat surrounded by piles of electronic debris) to ask for something to be looked up online. "Bet-settler" should have been included somewhere in my position title.

To avoid attracting attention - there were other people monitoring the firewall logs, and excessive traffic could have been noticed - I sometimes tried to dissuade people from wanting things checked online. Fortunately, my squandered youth and largely-squandered adulthood has left my skull stuffed with vast amounts of utterly useless information, so I can often answer trivia questions without going online. Today was one of those days.

On a side note, I was once discussing the concept of "trivia" with a friend. In debating the utility of having a wide variety of superficial information at hand, I said that you never know when a specific factoid might come in handy. My exact words were, "Sometimes trivia becomes useful."

My much wiser friend replied, "Ah, but as soon as it becomes useful, it ceases by definition to be trivia."

Back to that day in our concrete bunker.

An employee came in, asking me to "check something on Wikipedia" for him. First I asked what he wanted to know.

It happened that a conversation in the next room had turned to the stars of days gone by, and the question was: who were the main members of the Rat Pack?

I rattled off a list of all of them except one. I knew I was one short, but the name wouldn't come to me, so I turned to Wikipedia and found that the missing name was Peter Lawford. (The fellow who came in had already known all except Lawford and Joey Bishop.)

Then it got weird. Our visitor asked, "OK, one more thing: who played the Snowman in Smokey and the Bandit?"

Without hesitation, I replied, "Jerry Reed."

It felt surreal, almost like an out-of-body experience. Even as I spoke, I had absolutely no idea where that information came from. I haven't seen Smokey and the Bandit, or had any interest whatsoever in it, since perhaps seeing it on TV in the early 1980s. Had someone asked me two minutes earlier, I'm certain that I would have had no idea who Jerry Reed was, or even that there was a character named Snowman in the movie. But when I was asked the question, there it was.

This is why my brain has no capacity for remembering things like my wedding anniversary or my own birthday (which I have honestly forgotten on at least one occasion, needing to check my driver's licence while filling out a video rental club's membership form). All my neurons are occupied with data concerning the films of Hal Needham.

Amused by my obvious shock, my co-workers laughed, and Alex said, "Who needs Wikipedia when you're around?"

Trying to regain my composure, I replied, "I am Wikipedia."

There remains one crucial difference, though: I am very rarely altered by anonymous editors.

Enough rambling. Here's a picture of a river.