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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Whistle while you work

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

One of the perks of working from home is that if for whatever reason (and, let’s face it, if you’re in a procrastinative mood, any reason is good enough) you feel like a break you can take one. I don’t mean playing facebook scrabble, or checking the definition of a drupe on wikipedia, all the while trying to look busy and keeping a watchful eye out for your manager; I mean a proper break, maybe away from your desk or doing something not usually allowed in an office.

I’ve recently turned to the latter. Long-term readers (all 8 of you) will know that I have been accompanying an Irish fiddler on the guitar for about a year. Just before Christmas I got the urge to have a go at an instrument more traditionally associated with carrying the melody, so I got a tin whistle.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for every parent to campaign for their schools to teach the tin whistle instead of the recorder.

  1. It has a much nicer sound, particularly when placed in unskilled sounds
  2. It’s got a much more fun, unstuffy repertoire
  3. Last, but definitely not least, a tin whistle has no wrong notes on it! It has all the notes of the D or C scale on it (typically) and though you still have to hit the right ones to play a tune it’s much harder to sound as disastrously wrong as you can on a chromatic instrument.

But back to the point. My current preferred displacement activity from work is playing the tin whistle, and I reccommend any home-workers who read this to try it out. Just get yourself a whistle for a tenner or so, read brother steve’s website to understand tin whistle technique, listen to some tunes on youtube (Planxty are a good place to start as a lot of the pipe songs are in the same key as a standard whistle and not too fast to hear the notes), and try and copy them (or if you read music find the score on the session).

As a warning though, it does become addictive. For instance, during the writing of this post I’ve played two reels and a hornpipe.

And I’m about to have a crack at a jig.

Probably the best example of the sort of stuff I’d do

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

This blog is meant to do two things:

  1. Let the world know that I’m a decent front-end web developer
  2. Be the focus for a new doomsday cult

Number two is progressing nicely as no-one has gotten wise to my subliminal messages yet, but what of number one?

Let’s evaluate:

  • Design – it’s not finished yet (and never will be as I will hopefully do a redesign next month when I have a bit more time), which doesn’t look so good
  • Javascript, CSS, HTML – apart from mentioning the odd bug/annoyance there’s very little to show what I can do with these… aside from my jQuery plugins which hardly have pride of place either

Over the last few months I’ve come across a few blogs which, unlike mine, really cut the mustard when it comes to being an extended portfolio, putting mine to shame.

jasonsantamaria.com and dustincurtis.com are a little bit twitter generation for my liking, but one can’t deny that their blogs, where every article has a different design, are great examples of showing off on your blog.

But my favourite, which I came across today, has got to be www.romancortes.com. Most of his most recent posts feature him achieving visual effects which simply have to involve Flash… only they don’t, and in many cases achieve quite striking results without even using javascript; just pure CSS/HTML. As he himself admits, most of the demos aren’t much use in a practical website, but they’re still pretty impressive in showing what surprising visual effects can be achieved, and figuring out how he did them is quite a good test of your understanding of CSS. My favourites are the coke can and the old master.

Obviously, when you see that someone has managed to animate a rolling coke can using just one static image of a coke can label and some CSS, and after the initial wow has subsided, a Peep Show quote springs to mind:

Super Hans: I think this is probably the best example of the sort of stuff we’d do we’ve ever had.
Jez: Oh yeah. ’cause sometimes it’s really hard actually to do your own ideas

Do I have it in me to produce a more stunning showcase of what I can do? Who knows, but having just learned The Mason’s Apron on guitar I feel invincible!!!

The Crimea – more than just a war

Monday, June 1st, 2009

We’re often told that London is a very green city (by which I mean leafy, rather than environmentally friendly), and it is definitely one of its better features. In Amsterdam there are far fewer parks, and these are absolutely rammed on a hot day such as today. Whereas in London it’s easy to find a quiet spot to sit and read, here next to the Vondelpark the best I’ve achieved recently is a damp patch where wet dogs bothered me, and a spot beneath a tree weirdly covered in spider webs… which later revealed themselves to be colonies of caterpillars – COMPLETELY covering the tree (no exaggeration – it took a while to realise it wasn’t a prank involving lots of halloween fake cobweb), several of which had fallen and squirmed around in the grass next to me.

Which is why I’m indoors writing a blog post as opposed to soaking up the rays,  though it is on a subject which desperately needs sharing with the world.

When I was 17, after the fall of Britpop and the rise of Girl Power (OK Computer not only was a great fin-de-siecle album, it was also a great death knell for good, mainstream British music), I was forced to abandon the charts in search of better aural fodder. At this time I discovered some great bands whom I still love – The Delgados, Grandaddy, Mogwai, The Beta Band – but a possible standout was The Crocketts. They played angsty cowboy punk and, perhaps more importantly, they were from Wales (sort of), were Skinny and Wirey and nobody else had ever heard of them. They were my band. A painful moment for me was when I heard they were playing live in my hometown for the first time… about a week and a half after I left for uni.

A couple of albums later they disappeared… but I discovered yesterday that the Drummer and lead singer are  back (have been for about three years) as The Crimea. A very different sound to The Crocketts – less angst, more passion; less punk, more soulful – but a great band nonetheless. Reminiscent of Arcade Fire. And they offer their latest album for free on their website so by all means repay the favour and go and see them live as they’re supposedly breathtaking. I know I will be.

So, as I sit here contemplating if the time is yet right to retry the caterpillar and bikini infested park, I am happily listening to the return of a great band.

iSproggler – an elegant scrobbler for a more civilized age

Monday, May 25th, 2009

I like Last.fm. I really do, though I don’t use it as much as I used to, for trivial reasons (where I work at the moment my PC’s box is a tower on the floor, rather than on the desktop, so my headphones don’t reach). But despite not using the website to listen to music, I do still want it to record what I listen to, partly because when I do start listening again I want it to have up to date information on my music tastes, and partly because I’m a bit of a geek and like to check every now and then if Elliott Smithis still my top artist in figures as well as in esteem.

But Last.fm does have one major annoyance. The Last.fm software for scrobbling information about the music you play to the website is far more bulky than needs be. It contains a player (not really necessary now they’ve introduced the ability to play straight from the website), and also reminds you incessantly to download plug-ins for every mainstream media player you have, even if you only use one, and as you can’t uninstall Windows Media Player, this means a lot of updates of no benefit to you. It also requires updating very frequently and will remind you every time you start iTunes, thus disrupting the mood that put you in mind to listen to some music in the first place.

I needed something better. And I found it.

iSproggler is a little application developed by some Last.fm user(s) which is a bare bones sproggler for iTunes. If you set it to run when windows opens it will send all your listening data to Last.fm and nowt else. It’s reliable, discreet, uses a fairly small amount of resources, and most importantly never nags you to be updated; exactly what the Last.fm software should be like. Also it’s name, as I’ve just discovered, is rather humorous, be it deliberate or not.

It does however have one minor setback – every time you close iTunes it asks you to click OK, but even though this happens every time (as opposed to the Last.fm software reminding you to upgrade only until you upgrade it) it bothers me a lot less as it doesn’t delay my listening to the music I’ve decided would suit the moment.

To download it you need to join the iSproggler group, but it’s a small price to pay.

Bright eyes

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

Occasionally I come across a band I know I should like, but inexplicably don’t. And when that happens I desperately try and make it explicable.

Bright eyes are one such band.

I should like them because they play lo-fi folky American indie with rambling, cleverly rhyming lyrics, and sung by someone with a cracked, melodic though far from opera-standard voice. There are countless bands I love that share most or all of these qualities – Pavement, Grandaddy, Arcade Fire, Elliott Smith, Jim White, Lambchop, Ryan Adams and, at a stretch, The Flaming Lips, Devendra Banhart … and I could go on.

So why are Bright Eyes crap?

I only studied music until the age of 16 (though considered taking Music A-level, but was dissuaded by the reputation of the music teacher for being the musical equivalent of someone who’s read a lot but isn’t well-read, a reputation that was borne out the following Christmas when I listened to his choir deliver a stultifying performance of Gaudete Christus est natus to a load of pensioners who could probably have done without a further slowing of their heart-rates. (Incidentally, Youtube is full of godawful versions so maybe I was spoilt by the version my Dad had on tape when I was growing up. The version I linked to here may be a piss-take of monks with homoerotic overtones done by boys in hoodies, but the music they decided to have as the mime track is probably the best on youtube, and a damn site better than the bloody Mediaeval Baebes. Don’t people know it’s supposed to be an impassioned call and response?!))

But I digress. I only studied music briefly so can’t really analyse Bright Eyes in detail, and neither would I want to because, as I think I’ve already mentioned, they’re crap. But I think the main thing about them that annoys me is the lyrics. For instance:

So you nurse your love
Like a wounded dove
In the covered cage of night
Every star is crossed
By frenetic thoughts
That separate and then collide
And they twist like sheets
Till you fall asleep
And they finally unwind
It’s a black balloon
It’s a dream you’ll soon deny

“But what’s wrong with those?”, I hear you ask.

“Exactly!”, I respond, “Nothing!!!”. They’re flawless. The whole song is flawless. Every line throws a new, pertinent, and frequently unexpected image at you, and they all interconnect and build on each other perfectly. I wish I could still write lyrics as consistently good as that.

And that’s what’s wrong. It’s too consistent. It’s incessantly, blood-thiningly earnest.  I feel like screaming at them “For God’s sake, please throw in a line that sounds deep but probably means nothing, so I can get away from this feeling of listening to overwhelmingly competent, sensible words. Or write something trashy and throwaway. But please, please stop trying to be taken so seriously!!!”

The music too has a similar feel. There’s very little risk taking. It’s lo-fi American indie by numbers. And it’s so good it’s crap.

As a footnote, their website also tells you what screen resolution it is best viewed at. Turgid.

My advice – have a listen to Pavement

DADGAD = Dead good

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

I mentioned the other day I hadn’t experimented with alternate tunings for playing Irish guitar, Well, all that has now changed, and I am sold on DADGAD tuning. Yes, you can pretty much only play things in the key of D, but then again, who cares when it sounds so lucious. And as you barely need to use any fingers to play a chord you can free your hands up to do some nice intricate twanging jangly stuff.

Below is the result of me playing around for a bit, trying to emulate to some degree the wonderful picking of Steve Baughman. That’s the other great thing about the tuning – it really is easy to play something passable.


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An Irish chord armoury for standard tuning

Saturday, May 16th, 2009

The Hacketts busking in AmsterdamFor the last 6 months or so I’ve been one half (rhythm guitar) of an Irish acoustic duo, now proud to go by the moniker The Hacketts (named after the malevolent Father Ted character, Father Jack Hackett. In fact, we could try and play Tedfest this year). 6 months ago I had barely listened to any Irish music, and that which I had heard I hadn’t listened to critically in order to understand what makes the music tick. My impression of Irish music was that it was a load of twiddle-de-dee tweeness.

How wrong I was.

It has a great range of moods and styles, from sombre reflective refrains to fired-up dances. When I first started playing the music I think my guitar playing was somewhat inadequate to the task; I mostly played ordinary open chords in standard tuning, and have since found out that open D tuning and Irish tuning (DADEAE) are far more common.

I’ve not yet made the jump to new tunings, but have discovered (for want of a better word) new chords which add a new dimension to playing irish rhythm guitar in standard tuning. Every time I discover a new chord I go to town on it, using it wherever I can, but after a while it calms down, and only remains seated in the places where it really works well.

For the benefit of others, here are those chords:

  • Very open D : 5-0-0-7-7-x (sometimes with open top e, or fretted on the 5th)
    Great for really opening up the sound when playing a rousing dance (can also be adapted for Dm)
  • High open A: 0-0-11-9-10-9
    Works really well with the chord above
  • Em/G: 3-x-5-4-5-3
    Mostly I use it to have a more interesting bass line running through when moving through a  chord progression
  • Open 3 string E5: 0-7-9-9-0-0
    Moodiest chord in the west
  • Various open G’s: 3-5-0-0-0-x, 3-2-0-0-0-0, 7-5-0-0-0-x, 3-5-5-4-0-x
    So many Irish songs are in G or D that it pays to have a bit of variety to throw in
  • Open bass A : 5-0-7-6-5-x
    Again, a great chord to go with the Very open D
  • Open bass Am: 5-0-7-5-5-x
    Again, a very moody sounding chord
  • Sus2 bar chords: eg 5-5-7-7-5-5
    I hate playing A -shape major bar chords, so this helps me avoid them, as well as adding a nice jangly sound which almost always sounds good
  • C9: x-3-2-0-3-0
    I can’t claim credit for this one as Mike uses it all the time, but once you start using it a normal open C chord (unless playing in the key of C) will sound flat and uninteresting in comparison

A few good men

Monday, May 4th, 2009

Un-self-effacing though it may be, I consider myself to be a pretty decent busker. So much so that we decided to turn the very positive responses we’ve been getting lately by recording a CD and seeing how it sells. Which didn’t work out according to plan due to a multitude of technical difficulties.

But, still being in a musical mood, though having left my guitar at Mike’s, I will instead list my favourite ever buskers (to the best of my recollection).

  • Didgeridoo d’n'b
    A French guy I saw a few weeks ago in Amsterdam beat-boxing drum-n-bass music down a didgeridoo.
  • Didgeridoo Elvis
    An Aborigine who busked all day in Melbourne. In the morning he would be dressed in head to toe Elvis garb, but after lunch he would be in little more than a loin cloth and body paint and playing the didgeridoo.
    (I shoudl say at this point that I don’t even really like didgeridoos).
  • Paul Simon remixed
    In York a bored busker, midway through a standard rendition of Mrs. Robinson, suddenly yelled out “It’s the remix!” and then continued to play the song in something like a ska style.
  • Slide guitarist blues-man on the tube
    Often used to play in the tunnel between the Central and Northern lines at Bank. Used to sing with a great incomprehensible blues yelp.
  • Story seller
    In Melbourne, dressed in a horrifically green t-shirt, she would write an A4 page’s worth of story for you on a topic of your choice.
  • Electric fiddle Lemmy
    A guy in Chester who plays classical music on the electric fiddle, looping countless different parts and using effects pedals to from time to time summon the lead guitar sound which befits his Motorhead look.Here he is:

Any to add to the list?

A tale of two Apples, part 2 (or, having your iCake and eating it)

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

As I was saying, iTunes is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it is way out in front of the media player competition (even more so with the new addition of iTunes Genius), but on the other it’s cursed with Apple’s megalomania.

Today the subject of my ire is that only iPods sync with iTunes’ completely non-standard way of handling playlists and the like. While the new iPod shuffle is pretty cool (though for the size of the thing you’d expect it to have more storage), I’ve never been a fan of the iTunes design – the scroll-wheel is over sensitive in my humble opinion. Also I don’t think I’ve heard anyone applaud the amazing battery life or good value for money iPods offer. And finally, if the battery runs out which – if the iPod is designed as well as everyone likes to think it is – should be well before the thing breaks, you have to send it back to Apple to get the new battery fitted.

Ridiculous.

So I have always stayed clear of iPods, favouring cheaper and more flexible mp3 players instead. First of all I went for the on the face of it iPod clone, but in fact much clunkier, Sandisk Sansa, which broke after little more than a year. At the time I also synced using a bit of free software I can’t remember the name of, and which wasn’t very good anyway.

In its second iteration my iPod abstention has fared better. The mp3 player I have is none other than a sony walkman. Annoyingly, like most mp3 players these days it has the ability to play videos, which I and surely many others don’t want. But minor gripes aside, the simultaneous discovery of Musicbridge, a handy piece of software which takes all your playlists etc. from iTunes and copies them over to windows media player (which, in keeping with windows tradition, is a piece of software which gives you the freedom to choose what hardware you use with it), has led to a golden age of having my iCake with some Sony-icing on top.

A tale of two Apples, part 1

Monday, April 27th, 2009

I’m not the world’s biggest Apple fan. I’ve written a couple of times of the annoying usability glitches in the so-called design gurus’ software, but by and large their software is very good, so it’s not this that inspires my dislike of the company.

My number one gripe has always been the control freakery; how their all-encompassing design ethic means that they seem hell-bent on making you choose 100% Apple or 100% competitor. A great example of this is that the Apple USB extension cable my friend got that had a little dimple in it, meaning it could only be used on Apple products (though this could be fixed with a pair of pliers).

But this attitude continues into their software. The only Apple software I use is iTunes, quite simply because it’s brilliant. This brilliance has just gone up a notch with the introduction of iTunes Genius, which is excellent at building a playlist of songs to go with any song you select. It’s better than Last.fm‘s similar functionality, and it’s better than a number of iTunes plug-ins I’ve tried over the years. And I love it when computers/the internet manage to predict your preferences (Amazon‘s recommendations is still the best ‘web2.0′ idea on the web I reckon).

For instance, I’ve just set up a genius playlist based on Rodeo Town by The Kills, who have a female singer. Probably about 75% of the songs in the genius playlist also have female vocalists. I’m not saying this is necessarily desirable in a playlist (though it’s sounding pretty good so far), but being able to identify features such as that in order to get similar tracks is quite a useful feat. I look forward to the day when you can tweak options before generating the playlist.

But I digress – I was supposed to be dissing Apple!

My gripe with the new genius feature is that you have to sign in to iTunes store – giving up your credit card details – before using it. This effectively puts it out of reach of anyone without a credit card. And all because Apple want to make as many users’ purchase of music as quick and one-clicky as possible. Yes, they provide an excellent piece of free software, but any service demanding your credit card details when not absolutely necessary is taking a liberty I feel. iTunes store should offer to save your credit card details if you want to, but they shouldn’t force you to. Coupled with the fact that Genius has a built in ability to recommend music from the iTunes store, and is therefore a surefire money spinner anyway, it just makes Apple seem like controlling, money-grabbing ghouls.

Nice new feature though.