Monday, August 31, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #25

Stands for Decibels album coverImage via Wikipedia

Raise your hand if you knew of and loved any of the following bands: Flat Duo Jets? The Pressure Boys? Southern Culture on the Skids? The X-Teens? The Connells? Let's Active?

If these band names brought a smile to your face and memories of a gloriously jangly, irresistibly catchy, slightly off-kilter pop sound to your mind, then you, my friend, have known the joys of being immersed in the "Chapel Hill" sound. In many ways the lesser-known sibling to the Athens, GA sound made famous by bands like The B-52's, R.E.M. and the like, the Chapel Hill sound burst forth from North Carolina in the 1980s and swept across college radio in a wave of pop-based delight. For a brief period, it seemed as though anyone who lived in or moved to North Carolina was capable of picking up a guitar and making fantastic records. And, just as the band Pylon had been the initial model that all of the Athens bands tried to emulate in one way or another, so too did the Chapel Hill scene have its "blueprint band".

Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple formed The dB's way back in 1978. Their first single ("(I Thought) You Wanted to Know", credited to "Chris Stamey and The dB's") was released in the fall of that year, and quickly defined the band's sound: ringing guitars, upbeat tempos despite downbeat lyrics, and tight, Beatle-esque arrangements. They quickly became darlings of music critics everywhere on the strength of two solid albums, 1981's Stands for Decibels and 1982's Repercussion. These two albums (reissued on one CD in 2001) are must-haves for fans of power pop; not a bad song can be found on either.

Stamey left the band the following year, but Holsapple and the rest of the crew carried on. 1984's Like This continued in a similar vein, although a tinge of country began to creep into the mix and a clunker or two made the final cut. The final dB's album, 1987's The Sound of Music, has its moments but is overall fairly forgettable. By that time, the bands that worshipped at the altar of The dB's had passed them, and their time was done.

An excellent compilation of alternate takes and demo recordings, Ride the Wild Tom-Tom, was put together by Rhino Records in 1993, and is a worthwhile starting point for those wishing to take their first steps into the wonderful world of The dB's. In the meantime, here's this week's New Wave for the New Week entry, the seldom-seen video for the single "Neverland" (1982). A perfect distillation of what made The dB's so wonderful, it may be the most joy-filled break-up song you'll ever hear!

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Sites You Must Bookmark, Volume 2

There are three things that I am very proud of the fact that I have never done:

I've never drank a Snapple Beverage. Something about calling it "Snapple" that just makes me say "No thanks."

I've never seen a Jackie Chan movie. Look, I have unhappily been forced to sit through movies involving Pauly Shore, Adam Sandler, Jack Black, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal. All either inanely stupid un-funny people trying desperately to be funny or blockheadedly untalented "action heroes" trying desperately to act; in no cases have either group seen success. I'm not about to subject myself to a hybrid of such stupidity!

And the one that seems most polarizing among the folks I share it with: I never have, and never will, set foot inside a Wal-Mart. A quick bit of Googling on your part will lay out the evils of this soul-sucking corporation much more effectively than I can in a brief paragraph here, but that philosophical issue is not my only reason. There is a wonderful site out there sums up in hilarious fashion another of my reasons for refusing to patronize the establishment.

One friend of mine who does, on occasion, enter the Wal-Mart netherworld, has said that you see people in Wal-Mart who you see nowhere else in your community. "Where do they come from? Where have they been hiding?" he asks. People of Wal-Mart is a collection of photos, both culled by the site's creators and submitted by readers, of those people in their natural habitat, with appropriate - and gut-achingly hysterical - captions.

Do yourself a favor and bookmark this one right away. You'll either be laughing hysterically or shaking your head in utter disbelief. Or, like me, a little of both!

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Let's Help MSRuntheUS Win the Intel Vote for a Cause Contest on Facebook!

Last week, I shared with you the story of Ashley Kumlien and her efforts to to raise awareness and donations for Multiple Sclerosis research by running across the country, from San Francisco to New York City, over a six-month period beginning next March. Ashley is currently working to find sponsors for this run, and has been nominated in Intel's Vote for Cause Contest, being run on Facebook. The winning cause will receive $50,000 in co-branded advertising, which would go a long way in helping.

If you are currently on Facebook, I again urge you to help out. It costs you nothing but a moment of your time each day next week to cast a vote for MSRuntheUS, Inc. Become a fan of MSRuntheUS here, and check out the videos Ashley has posted and will be posting explaining how to help.

Voting begins this Saturday, August 29, and continues through Friday, September 4. Each person may vote once each day, but you must be a fan of Intel Vote for a Cause and add their voting application to do so. You can become a fan here.

And please, spread the word to your friends on Facebook. Let's help Ashley win this contest, and then cheer her on as she runs the US for MS next spring!

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Monday, August 24, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #24

1981 UK/US release (Chrysalis Records)Image via Wikipedia

Quickly - how many bands can you name who feature a classically trained oboist? If you said "Icehouse!" give yourself a hand.

Iva Davies, known for his mega-mullet and for crooning some for the schlockiest Top Forty drivel this side of John Oates (who co-wrote one of Icehouse's biggest American hits, 1987's "Electric Blue"), was pretty much single-handedly Icehouse. Singer, songwriter, producer, keyboardist - and, yes, able to rock an oboe - Davies took his band from Australian obscurity to worldwide MOR radio success in the late '80s. So why am I writing about a band who made their fortune peddling mainstream fluff? Because of one album and, more specifically, one fantastic song which remains one of the catchiest, most wonderful blasts of synth-pop from the New Wave era.

Icehouse began life in the late '70s under the name Flowers. Based out of Sydney, Australia, Flowers originally was a fairly straightforward bar band. Synthesizers were becoming more and more accessible at the time, and Davies took to the plinky electronic sound quickly. Flower's debut album, 1980's Icehouse, was a bright, shiny slab of synth-based, hook-filled delights, and with the major record labels searching the world over for their piece of the New Wave pie, it wasn't long before Chrysalis Records came calling with an international record deal.

One catch: the band had to change their name. Seems there was also a British band at the time calling themselves The Flowers, and Chrysalis did not want any confusion. So, in 1981, Davies and his band were introduced to the world as Icehouse, with the album of the same name remixed and re-released, with all references to the previous band name gone.

Some seeds of Icehouse's eventual wimp-rock sound are evident in a few of the album's tracks, but the strength of the three singles released from Icehouse make this album, a must-have for fans of early synth-pop: the eerily ethereal "Icehouse" (yes, they seemed to really like that word...), the shimmering "Can't Help Myself," and this week's NW4NW entry, the exuberant "We Can Get Together."

Sporting a nifty "real life vs. animation" video years before everyone oohed and ahhed over A-Ha riffing on that visual theme, and loaded with some of the catchiest hooks around, "We Can Get Together" remains one of those songs that leaves most folks scratching their heads wondering why it wasn't a massive hit. But it was roundly ignored by commercial radio, and saw minimal airplay on MTV. Icehouse seemed destined to fade from the map.

Six years later, Davies reinvented his band, grew his hair out to Michael Bolton-esque extremes, and ratcheted up the "sensitive guy" factor, and finally hit the big time with songs like "Crazy" and "Electric Blue." For those of us who knew Icehouse back when, this new Icehouse was a great disappointment. Thankfully, we can pull out that one wonderful album and remember the good version of the band.

So here is this week's New Wave for the New Week entry, Icehouse's "We Can Get Together." Enjoy!

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Friday, August 21, 2009

Run Ashley, Run!

Multiple Sclerosis is a terrifying thing. MS is a disease in which a person's immune system begins to attack his or her own central nervous system, resulting in any or all of a wide spectrum of neurological issues ranging from physical debilitation to loss of vision to loss of speech to loss of cognitive function. At its worst, MS leaves its sufferers virtually trapped within their own bodies.

Not a great deal is really known about the causes of MS, and at present there is no known cure. Continued research has helped the medical community become better at treating patients with MS, but current treatments still only manage symptoms. More work needs to be done to pin down the causes and finally find a cure, but this work requires funding.

I care about MS because, once upon a time, I was tested for it myself as my doctor tried to help me find the cause for inexplicable numbnesses, discomfort, and pain I was experiencing, and still do on occasion experience. We've never been able to determine exactly why I have the symptoms I do (although we feel certain stresses, combined with depression and OCD, both of which I have been diagnosed with, are the most likely culprits), but I was fortunate in that my test for Multiple Sclerosis came back negative.

Many others are not so fortunate. According to the National MS Society, almost half a million people in this country live with MS, with nearly 200 new cases being diagnosed weekly. Worldwide, there are estimated to be almost 2.5 million cases. In June, I posted here about Exene Cervenka's announcement that she had been diagnosed with MS. I know the fear I experienced waiting for my test results; I cannot imagine how someone feels upon receiving the news that their test had a positive result.

Recently, a high school classmate posted a link on her Facebook page to the website of an non-profit organization, MSRuntheUS Inc. MSRuntheUS is, in reality, one person. Ashley Kumlien decided she wanted to do something to raise both awareness and, hopefully, donations, for MS. Her mother, Jill, has been battling MS for the past 26 years, and is Ashley's inspiration.

Ashley is a avid runner, with a specific love for long-distance running. She has taken it upon herself to run quite a long distance indeed: 3,200 miles! Starting in San Francisco, CA, Ashley intends to spend about 6 months running an average of 20 to 30 miles a day, 6 days a week, until she has crossed the country and arrived in New York City. She hopes her efforts will help raise funds through both sponsorships and donations - funds that can be used in MS research.

Toward that end, she created MSRuntheUS Inc., set up her website, and set up a Facebook page so that people can follow her progress. She also hopes folks will help her non-profit win Intel's Vote for a Cause campaign on Facebook, where the winning non-profit will receive $50,000 in co-branded advertisement. If you are on Facebook, you can help her garner enough votes to take the prize. It's best to let Ashley herself explain that process, so please become a fan of her page and watch the videos she has there explaining how you can help. (If you are not on Facebook, please go to Ashley's website to learn about other ways you can support her cause.)

When I learned of Ashley's efforts, thoughts of my own brush with MS and the folks I have known personally who struggle with the disease compelled me to want to help spread the word. I hope you will all consider helping out in any way you can, whether through monetary donation, helping Ashley gain the votes she needs to win the Vote for a Cause contest, or by spreading the word to as many people as you can. No help you offer is too little.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #23

One of New Wave's more stylish Canadian exports were Maurice & the Clichés. Formed in Vancouver in 1978 by Maurice DePas, Paul Wilson-Brown and Gary Westlake, Maurice & the Clichés quickly became darlings of the local club scene. They were known for their fairly elaborate multi-media stage shows, and within a year, their self-titled debut album was out and word of the band began to spread beyond Canadian borders.

By 1982 they were signed to Los Angeles-based RMS records, and in early 1983 the album C'est La Vie hit the shelves. From it came the band's best known song, this week's New Wave for the New Week entry, "Soft Core."

Wickedly funny, highly stylized, and irresistibly catchy, "Soft Core" became a huge favorite on college radio and dance club playlists. Maurice & the Clichés' moment in the spotlight was a brief one however. They chose not to create a video for the single, an unwise choice in the midst of MTV's ascension to the height of its promotional powers. As such, the single, and the band, faded quickly from memory.

A third album was recorded but never released, and the world heard no more from Maurice & the Clichés until 2006, when the retrospective Flogging a Dead Horse was released, including tracks from both LPs and a fair amount of the unreleased material. The later stuff is hit-and-miss and the earlier stuff is good but primitive; "Soft Core" was the absolute pinnacle for this band.

Since no video was ever made, there is none to share with you. Still, it's such a great song that it must be shared - making this our first audio-only NW4NW. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Own "Special Comment"

Hi BillImage by Travelin' Librarian via Flickr

Let me start here: I don't like Keith Olbermann. Nothing personal against the man; I have never met him. He may be a great guy if you get to know him. But as far as his current role as host of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann, I find him to be bombastic, overbearing, self-obsessed and hypocritical.

At the same time, a part of me wants to like Olbermann. In his days across the ESPN desk from Dan Patrick many moons ago, he and Dan were easily the most entertaining, most knowledgeable sports commentators on the air; I never missed their show. He is obviously a bright man, quick-witted and, at times, honestly very funny. He is an outstanding speaker, able to use the language almost as a musical instrument.

Yet his skills are used, sadly, to perpetuate the ongoing partisan divide in this country. He is nothing more than the Left's version of Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly, constantly stirring the pot and fomenting anger and disdain among his audience against the Right. I dislike Olbermann for the same reasons that I dislike Limbaugh, O'Reilly, Beck, et al.: they each contribute mightily to the "us against them" mindset that we find ourselves in nowadays - a mindset that does our country far more harm than good.

But, in Olbermann's case, there's something more. It's the fact that he refuses to admit his role, that he does not see himself that way, but rather as some sort of messianic second coming of Edward R. Murrow, that causes me to want to kick my television in any time I watch his program. His pomposity is simply unmatched, and simply unbearable.

Yet I watch, partly because I keep hoping I'll find redeeming quality in his presentation, partly out of the "train wreck" factor ("What kind of idiocy is he going to spew tonight?"). I watch for as long as I can, until I can take no more and must turn the channel.

So it was that I found myself watching last night. I tuned in at about the halfway mark, and so was able to grit it out to the end of the program, and I'm sorry I did. Last night, Olbermann delivered another of his histrionic "Special Comments," extended editorials he prepares when something particularly goads him. You can read the transcript of last night's Special Comment here.

Again, I want to enjoy Olbermann's work. From a strictly linguistic angle, his Special Comments in particular are damn near poetic in their rhythm, structure, and evocative use of his extensive vocabulary. In content, however, their disingenuous, often factually inaccurate assertions and questionable leaps in logic drive me right up the wall!

If Olbermann is able to use his widely viewed soapbox to wax linguistic against those who get his dander up, then I hope he (and you, my readers) don't mind if I step up on my considerably smaller soapbox and, in the style of the self-appointed Master, vent my Olbermann-induced dander.

As promised, my own "Special Comment":

Mr. Olbermann, if this is, as you suggested in the opening lines of your Special Comment Monday evening, a "terrible time in American history," rest assured that you, sir, are culpable as surely as those folks you chose to call on the carpet.

Yes, you, Mr. Olbermann. You wield your Special Comment as though it were King Arthur's sword, a weapon so powerful and mighty as to only be employed in times of dire need, when the skies are bleakest with despair, and you the only one who can remove it from the stone in order to wield it. Armed, obviously, with your intelligence, skill in speaking, and penchant for the overly dramatic; armed, obviously, with your knowledge of cultural and literary touchstones; and armed, obviously, with Roget's Thesaurus, you drive your verbally acrobatic blade through the heart - what you must believe is the very black heart - of those you demonize. Indeed, you are so driven to rid the land of your enemies that you are nearly brought to tears as you speak of their heinous misdeeds, nearly brought to alarm as you consider where the roads they pave may lead, nearly brought to frenzy by your anger so strong that you spit out their names rather than speak them civilly. It is so convincing an act that those who blindly follow you, sir, are pulled into the visceral maelstrom even if they don't quite understand all the big words.

is an act, isn't it Mr. Olbermann? Your outrage, your fervor, your nearly bursting into stage tears; it must all be done to drive home the seriousness of your message. You know just as well as Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and Beck that you can't rally your troops through factual reporting and thoughtful critique alone. You've got to let them hear the sizzle before they'll buy the steak, right Mr. Olbermann? You've got to make them FEEL it, you've got to find their hot buttons, you've got to sell it. And, just like Peter Finch as Howard Beale in the movie Network, you've got to convince them to "go to the window, open it, stick [their heads] out and yell 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!'"

You do it in small ways night in and night out, don't you Mr. Olbermann? By demeaning those who represent opposing views; by giving them diminunizing nicknames such as "Comedian" Rush Limbaugh, "Billo the Clown," and "Coultergeist;" by smugly sitting in judgment of those you declare "Best" and "Worst" Persons in the World (and how telling that your Bests are really nothing more than another round of Worsts). In doing so, you imply that you, sir, and by default, your followers, are somehow better, more civilized people. You imply that you, sir, and by default your followers, take the higher, more thoughtful road than these obvious heathens.

But, sadly, the opposite is true. You are no better, sir; no more civilized, no more thoughtful; you do not take a higher road. Instead, you hypocritically wallow in the same muck, employing the same tactics of fear-mongering, alarm-sounding hyperbole to whip your supporters into a frenzy as the tactics you decry the targets of your venom for using. Perhaps you veil it less thinly, but not by much. You shame Limbaugh for comparing President Obama to Adolph Hitler, yet you freely compare Sarah Palin with the participants in a racist lynch mob, somehow making the leap from her unfortunate "Death Panel" Facebook comment to that comparison - a comparison not based in any logical thought progression but based merely in the need to make sure your followers get mad as hell! You mock Bill O'Reilly and Lou Dobbs for not being able to "let go" of their arguments with you on their programs, yet you remind us with excruciating clockwork-like regularity of how many days it has been since President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished." You, sir, are no better than they.

You are correct about one thing, Mr. Olbermann. This
is a terrible time in American history. It is a time when I find myself fearing the road we as a nation are traveling. It is a time of some the sharpest, deepest divisions in values, morals, and beliefs that I have ever seen in my 42 years. It is a time when I see the country I love being torn asunder; a time when it seems we can accomplish nothing because the partisan rift has become so deep and wide as to seem incapable of being bridged; a time when the mantra on either side seems to be that of the Hatfields and McCoys: "If'n ye ain't fer us, ye must be agin us!"

And you are also correct, sir, when you call the names of the Palins, the Becks, the Limbaughs, and others as those who should be held accountable, at least in part, for the bile that is ever eroding that partisan rift further. Though it may not seem like it based on what I have said so far, I am no apologist for the Right. I do find their tactics of fear-mongering and panic-inducing hyperbole as distasteful as you claim to.

But, Mr. Olbermann, I suggest that you take a good long look in the mirror, for you too, sir, are partially to blame. You too, sir, use many of those very same tactics while simultaneously decrying them. And, to paraphrase your own words, if someone is hurt at one of these Town Halls, pro-Reform, anti-Reform, or, most likely, as these things tend to play out in real life, sir - if the hurt befalls an innocent bystander - you will have contributed to the harm.

If you truly wish to bring about a change, a healing, in this country, I beseech you, Mr. Olbermann, to reconsider the way in which you are doing it. Sadly, however, I suspect that is not your goal. After all, you have your job to do, and that job is to get ratings. Because, sir, ratings equal dollars for that parent company you work for, don't they? And therein lies another similarity between you and those you demean, another measure of your hypocrisy: at the end of the day you too, sir, are beholden to a corporate boss, just as those you call out for serving their corporate bosses over serving the greater good.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #22

Cabretta album coverImage via Wikipedia

Willy DeVille passed away on Friday at the age of 58, less than a month after doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer.

Willy's band Mink DeVille became fixtures on the fledgling mid-70's New York Punk Rock scene by scoring a regular gig at CBGB's in 1975. Their sound epitomized that early NYC-punk vibe that was more heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground than, say, The Stooges or The MC5. In fact, Willy's vocals on early singles like "Let Me Dream if I Want To (Amphetamine Blues)" and "Spanish Stroll" sound so strongly like Lou Reed that it's almost scary.

By 1980, Mink DeVille was a band in name only; the third album released under that name, Le Chat Bleu, saw no original band members but Willy himself contribute. Willy had moved towards a more Sam-Cooke-via-Southside-Johnny sound, and was beginning to cast an eye towards mainstream acceptance.

The closest he got was on his first album under his own name, 1987's Miracle. That album included the song he recorded for the movie The Princess Bride, "Storybook Love," for which he received an Oscar nomination. But, despite hobnobbing with Mark Knopfler and other like-minded musicians, true commercial success eluded him.

Willy continued to record and play live through the end of 2008, when his health began failing. He had contracted Hepatitis C, and it was during preparation for treatment of that disease that his pancreatic cancer was discovered.

In his honor, I have chosen 1977's "Spanish Stroll" as this week's New Wave for the New Week. RIP, Willy.

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Sunday, August 9, 2009

Helping Out on a Local Level

We all rely on our local firefighters, police, EMTs, etc., to be there if and when we are faced with emergency. How often are we there for them when they are in need of assistance that we might be in a position to offer?

Daniel Klotz, Social Media Strategist at PA-based website company YDOP ("Your Dream, Our Project"), co-host of the Lancaster-based Beards Over Babies podcast, and fellow blogger, has launched a campaign to do just that. His simple challenge to his fellow Lancastrians is to find 130 people who are each willing to join him in donating $10 a piece to help buy some new weight-training equipment for the 28 professional firefighters who work out of Fire Station 1 at 425 West King Street here in Lancaster.

In his most recent blog entry, Klotz explains the impetus for this campaign:

"Brent Colflesh of NxtBook Media sometimes works out at a commercial gym during his lunch breaks with some firefighters from Fire Station 1 in Lancaster city, and he told me about a crummy situation:

If you’re a volunteer firefighter, most gyms will give you a free membership. If you’re a professional firefighter, most gyms will not.

That stinks. What’s more, the firefighters of Station 1 work shifts of 10 to 14 hours at a time. They practically live out of the station. When they’re there, they can’t leave except on a call."

I know that I am fortunate to have readers from all over, but I also know that a large segment of my readership is local. It is you local readers whom I ask to seriously consider donating what you can to help out. Your donations will go towards the purchase of training equipment customized for the firehouse, pictured below:

You can read more at Daniel's blog here, or donate securely using either PayPal or credit card through the widget provided below.

Thanks for helping out on this very worthwhile local cause.

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Monday, August 3, 2009

New Wave for the New Week #21

Cover of "Mood Swing"Cover of Mood Swing

Boulder, Colorado's contribution to the New Wave scene, The Nails, are another one of those one-hit New Wave wonders. They were the band that gave us the wonderfully salacious, just-this-side-of-vulgar "88 Lines About 44 Women," a song that has become something of a staple of retro New Wave playlists over the past two decades.

Propelled by an insistent bass line and what sounds like a pre-programmed Casio keyboard rhythm track, "88 Lines About 44 Women" is exactly that: a series of descriptive couplets about the women in the singer's life. Some seem forced to keep the rhyming scheme in place, but most are skillfully written, funny, and so descriptive that you may find yourself saying "I KNOW a girl like that!" Indeed, back in my college days, it was something of an amusement to come up with our own "88 Lines" couplets about the women we knew.

There never was a proper promo video for the song, although one of the original band members, singer Marc Campbell, created his own clip for the song just this year. You can see his creation on The Nail's official website here. For the purposes of this post, since there was no clip at the time, you can listen to the song here:

The Nails were not without videos, though. Their wonderful 1984 album Mood Swing spawned two clips, one for "Home of the Brave" and this one, for their spot-on cover of The Hombres' 1967 hit "Let It Out (Let It All Hang Out)." The Nail's version uses only the parenthetical title, "Let It All Hang Out," but otherwise stays true to the original.

So here is The Nails' video for "Let It All Hang Out," and, as a bonus, a chance for you to hear the original to compare. Enjoy!

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