Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Links!

We're usually very light on links for Thanksgiving Week, but there's been a relative bonanza this year, so enjoy.

From Jonathan Arnold, and there's no other way to describe this than "ridiculously cute": Dinosaur Song.

From C. Lee, and this is both beautiful and striking: Tekken’s latest flipbook animation will leave you crying tears of gratitude.

From Matt Anderson, and well, soccer is important in France: France honours crazy pledges after Ukraine win.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is quite interesting, it's Ben Franklin’s Grave, Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia.

From Shane Courtrille, and this is scary: Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, and this is a great read: My friend Lee Harvey Oswald.

From Sirius, and this is fantastic: A musical instrument invented by Leonardo da Vinci... maybe (updated). Also, and this is relatively terrifying, it's A visual history of nuclear weapons testing.

From Katy Mulvey, and this is absolutely fascinating: The United (Watershed) States of America.

From Steven Davis, and this is spectacular: Chinese wood art breaks record for longest carving out of single piece of timber. Also, and these are intricate and amazing: Five Astounding Animal Automata.

From Richard Matsunaga, and this is surreal: See-through fish reminds us that nature is way, way weirder than we can cope with.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, and these images are fantastic: My technique for snowflakes shooting.

Finishing up, from Marc Klein, and this is a sad, sobering read: A Year After Jovan Belcher's Final Act, Friends Offer Clues to Tragic Downfall.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Child's Play

Thanksgiving seems like a good time to mention Child's Play, which has already reached $2.5 million in donations this year. Please hit the link to see participating hospitals, or you can donate via PayPal.

Console Post of the Week: The Xbox One Gamble

First off, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone in the U.S., and happy belated Thanksgiving to our Canadian readers (sorry--I miss it every year).

Microsoft is trying to do something in this generation that I'm not sure anyone has done successfully: create a mass market convergence device.

To discuss this, let's look at the other end of the spectrum first.

Two of my favorite consumer devices ever are the progressive DVD player and the Nintendo Wii. The progressive DVD player was pure genius, because it was a device that was entirely transparent to the consumer. If you had a TV with a component connection, then this DVD player would remove the interlacing on your existing DVD's, which greatly improved the picture. No new discs, no special settings, no instructions needed. Just put in a DVD and it worked.

They were highly successful, and why not? It required no education on the part of the consumer, but provided a tangible benefit. That's the sweet spot for a consumer device.

Now, let's move on to the Wii. It was a tremendous paradigm shift, for a console, but it was essentially self-evident. Play Wii Sports (included) for five minutes and you understood how the motion control worked. It was different, but it had a higher fidelity to real play than existing consoles, so it was actually far more intuitive to someone who'd never used a console.

Genius. And highly successful.

Now let's look at Xbox One, and before we do, let me just say that I do believe someone will, at some point, create a successful convergence device. However, in general, convergence devices have inherent obstacles to overcome.
1. Convergence devices are complicated, and consumers don't like complications.
The Xbox One can do all kinds of things--voice control, gesture control, controlling your cable box, video pass-through, and about fifty other things I'm not even listing. It's not a spaceship, but to mass market consumers (the people who went out and bought a Wii, even though they'd never owned a console before), it might as well be.

So if you buy a convergence device, but you don't want the convergence, why would you buy it, exactly? It's a given that you can buy "single functionality" cheaper.

However, this is where it could get very interesting. If Microsoft can lower the price of the Xbox One to reach parity with the PS4, then why not buy the One? Yes, the PS4 is more powerful in terms of games (that's beyond argument at this point), but the One still packs quite a bit of horsepower, and all that extra functionality is icing on the cake.

If you want to argue that the One is really already as cheap as the PS4, because the PS4 doesn't come with a camera, just don't. We're not talking about functional equivalency, we're talking about bottom-line price when someone walks into a store.

2. Convergence devices always have a weakness.
If you have a device with wide-ranging functionality, it's almost guaranteed that there will be an Achilles heel. Something isn't going to work, or it's going to work poorly. In the Xbox One, I think the Achilles heel is Kinect, even though Kinect is also, by far, the most interesting technology and functionality the console has to offer.

The amount of functionality offered via voice command is truly impressive, but that functionality is highly sensitive to the aural environment. Background noise? Recognition accuracy is going to go down, sometimes substantially. And I'm not talking about a wild party in the background--any noise at all can potentially be problematic.

So the voice recognition is the game changer, potentially, but it's also potentially the most frustrating functionality the console offers because of its accuracy rate.

If you're charging people more because your device has kitchen sink functionality, it needs to do everything well, and that's extraordinarily difficult. It's much easier to do one thing tremendously well than ten.

3. Convergence devices have historically sold poorly.
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that almost all mass market convergence devices have been financial busts, and often on an epic scale. If you looked at that commercial landscape, it would take a large amount of hubris to defy history and make another one.

Microsoft did, though. I can understand why, too--there's so much additional revenue to be had from selling services/products as extensions of the added functionality. And you can argue that it's this revenue that makes a convergence device today different from the failures of the past. If you use this line of thinking, the box just represents a revenue stream, and why wouldn't you pack as many potential revenue streams into the box as possible?

Do I buy that argument? No. I do, however, see it's appeal. It's devastating on a white board.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Musiquarium, Featuring The Left Banke (part two)

Chris returns today with part two. This is a great story and a terrific piece of writing, so thanks to Chris.

With a full album released, The Left Banke set out again on a bigger tour, meant to take in all areas of the country. George Cameron was settled in on drums and the group was finally starting to find some cohesion as players with live shows starting to come together a bit. Their burgeoning musical skills were aided when the Beach Boys invited them on tour to fill an opening slot. Allowed to use that bands professional PA gear and monitors, the Banke could finally hear themselves sing and play onstage and began to tighten up their sound considerably.

While opening for the Beach Boys, perhaps Michael Brown discovered that Brian Wilson--a musical hero of his--no longer toured with that group. Brown loathed playing live and thought that sounded like a grand idea. He told the rest of the band that their best move would be to find a keyboard player to tour with, and he--Brown--would head back to New York and work up new material. Faced with little choice, The Left Banke granted Browns wish and the bands teenaged composing genius headed back home, replaced for touring by a new pianist.

Smash Records was still keen for the group to try to get another hit in the vein ofWalk Away Renee, and the bands manager, Harry Lookofsky, was eager to comply. Finding out that Michael would be staying around New York and working up new material while the band toured, someone--either father or son or both--came up with an absolutely dreadful idea.

Michael Brown had finished a couple of new songs, and his father Harry was eager to get them recorded. Problem: The Left Banke were committed to tour dates around the country and were on the road. Solution: bring in an entirely new group of fellows, christen themThe Left Bankeand record those songs and have Smash release them. Lookofsky hired a group of young musicians and brought in a young, frizzy-haired folk singer named Bert Sommer to sing the lead vocals on the two new songs, “Ivy Ivy” and “And Suddenly”. Another player on these songs was a bright-eyed guitarist named Michael McKean...years before hed be known as Lenny onLaverne & Shirleyor David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap.

Ivy Ivyisnt a bad song, and started to sell reasonably upon release. Sommers voice sounded pleasant enough, but also lacked something. Steve Martins greatest asset as a singer was how convincing his dramatic, keening tenor sounds, the way it conveys a true-believer innocence that simply isnt there when others sing the same material. In the case ofIvy Ivy, if fans didnt notice that the band on the single wasnt really The Left Banke, out on tour Finn, Cameron, and Martin certainly did and were understandably livid. Returning to New York, they hired a high-powered entertainment lawyer who sued everyone involved in the ad hoc,Ivy Ivyversion of the group. Smash records--chagrined and rather angry in their own right--pulled the single.

A judge ruled that Finn, Cameron, and Martin were therealLeft Banke and had the rights to the name and they quickly parted ways with Harry Lookofsky. Oddly, Michael Brown also fell out with his father about this time. Rather than form a unified front, he was eager to get out from under that parental influence and wanted to put things right with the rest of the band. It is a measure of how much the group--particularly Finn and Cameron, if not Martin--had grown in their admiration of Browns composition gifts that they not only welcomed him back, but also set about recording what they hoped would finally be the big follow-up hit toRenee. They even put Brown in the producers chair.

For his part, Brown had cooked up an idea that would invoke some similar ideas to the groups first hit single. He liked the idea of using a rather exotic girls name in the title, and thus came up with a song called “Desiree”, co-written with Tom Feher providing lyrics. An almost absurdly complex song with key and time signature changes, shifting string and horn parts, and a vocal that required Steve Martins voice to run wildly through multiple octaves, its crazy to think that anyone could have conceived of the song as a hit. Predictably it did very little on the charts, but with that being said, there are few songs from that era that can matchDesireefor being sonically fascinating. If the way Michael Brown packed an entire symphony into a three-minute song guaranteed dismal chart performance, the song at least stands as one of the finest moments of The Left Banke on record. Sadly, withDesireegenerating no new momentum, the mercurial Brown had had enough. He left the band (almost) for good.

For the rest of The Left Banke...well. Theres a scene in the movie That Thing You Do, when the band just sort of spontaneously falls apart, and thats sort of what happened here. The remaining members of the band found themselves without a manager, without their ace songwriter, and a future very much in doubt. Everything had turned to ashes.

It was at this point that Tom Finn stepped up and took charge of things. He found them new representation, convinced Smash Records to agree to recording a new album, and started booking studio time. He brought Tom Feher back to assist on lyrics, and then even set his own hand to writing songs for the first time in the group.

The resulting album was called The Left Banke Too. Improbably, it might actually have better all-around songs to recommend it than the bands debut with the hit singles. While the record does have two Michael Brown compositions inDesireeandIn The Morning Light(that latter song recorded in the same session with the former), most of the songs were composed by Finn, Cameron, and Martin with an able bit of assistance from Feher (who was now more or less in the band, on keys and guitar) on lyrics. The group enlisted a number of young session musicians in the recording as well. Deciding they needed to fill out the harmonies a bit more, Finn brought in an ambitious young drummer with a good set of pipes to add backing vocals and some tambourine to a few songs. That fellows name was Steve Tallarico...whod later sell a few records in his own right as Steven Tyler of Aerosmith.

The Left Banke Too can be a bit of a challenge to listen to as an album. One thing that Smash Records insisted on was that the band use producer Paul Leka, whod had a hit withGreen Tambourineby the Lemon Pipers. Leka dismayed the band by insisting on inserting interstitial bits of nonsense psychedelic noise between each of the tracks on the record. It was a dreadful idea then, and still sounds awful today. However--split out from that goofy nonsense, the individual songs on the record are magical. In a first for the group, the lead singing duties were shared amongst the three singers, and that actually turned out quite well.

For instance, on the opening track “Goodbye Holly”, its George Cameron taking the lead vocals on a song that--had anyone in 1968 heard it--shouldve been a massive hit single. Finn handles lead vocal duties on his own gorgeous song “Nice To See You”. Listening to those tracks today, it becomes easy to hear why The Left Bankes vocal harmonies were so special--the three singers in the band had nearly identical voices and in the days before multi-tracking and overdubs became commonplace, it gave the group an advantage few could touch. The record also lays to rest the notion that The Left Bankes signature sound was all Michael Brown. Tracks likeNice To See You, “My Friend Today”, “There’s Gonna Be A Storm”, and “Sing, Little Bird Sing” unmistakably possess the groups signature sound, but were written without any contribution from Brown. (Singin particular may be the most gorgeous song a group specializing in beautiful songs ever did. Steve Martin's vocal is just astonishing and lovely.)

The Left Banke Too didnt sell, and Smash Records had had enough. One of the final original recordings by the group was a Coca Cola radio spot recorded by a friend and fan of the band named Ralph Affoumado. The jingle is so hilariously Left Banke-ish, it may have all been an elaborate parody. Suffice to say that it is the only Coke commercial ever with the lineLonely hours alone go much faster/Things go better with Coke.You can almost picture Emily Dickinson daintily chugging down a soda on her fainting couch while listening to it.

After that, The Left Banke went their separate ways, and thats the end of the story. Or not. When Michael Brown had left the group, he put together a new band called Montage that failed to find an audience. Finn stayed in the music business as a studio producer and engineer. Cameron and Martin--to hear Cameron tell it--just got drunk a lot together. In 1971, a producer coaxed all four original Left Banke members back together to record a couple of songs for an X-rated movie called Ultra Violets Hot Parts. Improbably, the two songs The Left Banke came up with for this dubious undertaking are terrific--”Love Songs In The Night” and “Two By Two” are wonderful updated iterations of The Left Banke sound. Unfortunately the sessions were a disaster with Martin and Brown bickering constantly and the band recorded no more. The two songs were released on the soundtrack album, with the record company inexplicably deciding to credit them to Steve Martin instead of The Left Banke.

That, then, really is the end of the line for The Left Banke story. Michael Brown spent much of the 1970s in and out of bands, his deteriorating mental state keeping him from being able to avoid wearing out his welcome. He was in the group Stories, but left by mutual accord before that group recorded its big hitBrother Louie. His most cohesive musical effort was with some Kansas City musicians in a band called The Beckies. The single record they made is a lost classic. Songs like “One Of These Days” and “Fran” are easily recognizable as Michael Brown songs on first listen. Unfortunately for this group, Brown was briefly self-admitted to an institution before their record came out and the label pulled the promotion budget as a result. (The rest of The Beckies sort of morphed into a group called Shooting Star, who did enjoy a great deal of FM radio airplay in the Midwest in the late 1970s.) Meanwhile, in 1978, Finn, Cameron, and Martin were coaxed back together by a producer whod heard some songs Finn had written. The three recorded what they thought were scratch reference demos of a dozen songs, only to find out that the producer was releasing the unfinished songs as a proper album. Listening to that record—called Strangers On A Train--its clear there are some good ideas present, but overall the less said about thisreunionthe better.

Throughout the years, credit for the sound of The Left Banke has swung wildly. Originally, anything written about the group made it sound as if the band was simply Michael Brown and Steve Martin with some other guys along for the ride. Thats horribly unfair to Cameron and Finn, who by all evidence contributed a great deal to the songwriting, musicianship, and vocal sound of the group (That evidence is absolutely on full display with The Left Banke Too lp.) By the same token, the formidable skills of Michael Brown should not be downplayed too much. While Brown could be notoriously difficult to work with at times, there are just as many tales of him being a willing and cheerful collaborator, and his gift for writing amazing melodic hooks is unassailable. What seems obvious in retrospect is that much of what was mistaken for awkwardness and petulance at a young age with Brown were likely early signs of a far more serious and very real mental illness. Tom Finn speaks of Brown today with the kind of curmudgeonly affection of an older brother for a difficult but much-loved younger sibling.

And so...really this time, thats that. Cameron straightened himself out and in 2010 started playing and singing with some musically inclined friends. They discovered that Tom Finn had set up a Facebook page for The Left Banke to answer numerous fan inquiries. The two, whod remained friends, decided to play some songs together. Eventually they began morphing back into The Left Banke again.

One problem with putting a rock and roll band back together when the principal members are in their 60s is facing the reality that not everyone is up to the task. While Tom and George were ready to go, Finn describes Steve Martin-Caro (whod adjusted his name in deference to the comedian) as unable to participate forphysicalreasons. Michael Brown occasionally sits in for a few songs with the band, but for his health (which has stabilized nicely) thats the limit of his participation. Still, when youre The Left Banke and respected modern bands like Belle & Sebastian are calling you a primary influence, finding an ace group of musicians to work with isnt too difficult. The real coup for the group, however, was to uncover a fellow named Mike Fornatale.

Fornatale is by all evidence something of a late-blooming music prodigy. A fan of the band, he observed on the Facebook page that things were happening towards reuniting and wrote Tom Finn to say that if a guitarist and backing vocalist was needed, he was interested. Left Banke lyricist Tom Feher had actually heard Fornatale sing, and vouched for his ability to do a fairly strong imitation of Martins original lead vocals, and so that was the gig offered by Finn. What worked out even better was their new lead singer having the talent to write charts for a small string section to accompany the band at live gigs.

The band, fronted by Fornatale but with Finn and Cameron playing key roles, currently plays a decent number of gigs in the New York area and close by. Finn describes Michael Brown as havinghundredsof unreleased demos for great songs at his home, and says the band would love to record them at some point. For now, however, perhaps the best exclamation point on the long and winding career of The Left Banke happened in December of 2011, and is as good a place as any to wrap this up.

Old friend (and Coke jingle arranger) Ralph Affoumado stayed in the music business. Affoumados career took off as a musician who worked in both commercial and academic endeavors, and he founded the Drama Cantorum choir at the prestigious Tisch School For The Arts at NYU. When he heard The Left Banke were forming up again, he had an idea to have his choir perform with the group on the two songs he felt were a perfect match for such a full blown arrangement. The band thought that sounded great. In December of 2011, some absolute magic happened when “Desiree” and “Walk Away Renee” were both presented in a breathtaking fashion that does each majestic song justice.

An excellent career anthology of the group called There's Gonna Be A Storm: The Complete Recordings is available through standard digital channels and streaming services. For whatever reason, Michael Brown has blocked digital versions of the remastered re-releases of the group's two proper albums, but perhaps that's for the best in the case of The Left Banke Too. The Anthology actually has every song from the two albums, minus one track from each...and none of Paul Lekas between-track nonsense.

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