Archive for February, 2008


Coverage: Stars, ‘This Charming Man’

February 26, 2008

One of the recurring themes in Daniel J. Levitin’s book, This Is Your Brain on Music, is the the centrality of expectations, both fulfilled and violated, in our experience of music. We have expectations at the level of individual phrases (whether chords are resolved or not, say), at the level of the song structure, the genre, and the overall sound (why Western music sounds different from say, traditional Chinese music). This probably goes a long way towards explaining why most of us need to hear a song a few times for it to ‘register.’ But it occurred to me, reading this book, that there is another important area of violated or fulfilled expectations, and that’s the existence of cover versions of songs. Cover songs – good ones, anyway – combine pleasing familiarity and pleasing novelty in a neat little package.

At a more intellectual level, Rosie Swash, of the Guardian Unlimited’s Music Weekly podcast, talked about the three factors that make for a good cover version: the element of surprise; history or meaning; and the cover artist making the song their own.

So welcome to Coverage, an intermittent feature on this blog, in which I post some of my favourite covers. Enjoy!

Stars – This Charming Man [original version by The Smiths]


Read: This is Your Brain on Music 

February 21, 2008

This is Your Brain on Music

This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
Daniel J. Levitin

When I was in graduate school, I mentioned within earshot of a professor that I probably know more about alternative and independent music from 1980 onwards than I know about anything else. The professor insisted that I must know more about my doctoral thesis, but I couldn’t agree – when I think about the thousands of songs I can recognize within a few bars or can sing or hum along to, to say nothing of the masses of ancillary information like band names, albums, song titles and who dated whom, the sheer number of terabytes in my head dedicated to music is staggering. But the really astonishing part is that I’m not unusual. Everyone is great at remembering music. This is the book that explains why.

Written by a platinum-selling music producer who went to graduate school to study cognitive neuropsychology, This is Your Brain on Music addresses the cognitive underpinnings of the remarkable human facility with music. Daniel J. Levitin starts with a brief, lucid introduction to the fundamentals of music theory, and then goes on to discuss how we discern rhythm and harmony, how the brain processes music, and how we remember songs, ending with a discussion of the evolution of ‘the music instinct.’ Levitin shows how these processes are complex and highly distributed, involving regions of the brain ranging from the most primitive (the cerebellum) to the prefrontal cortex, the seat of higher reasoning. Throughout the book, Levitin is clear but doesn’t oversimplify, and he alerts you to the many, many open questions that remain in the field. This is a great book for anyone who’s given any thought to how we think about music.


website [includes hundreds of musical samples that are referenced in the book]


Advance warning: my guest DJ slot on WMBR

February 17, 2008

wmbr sticker

WMBR, MIT’s community radio station, has one of the coolest member premiums ever – you can come in and DJ part of your favourite radio show. I made a donation to them in their fall fundraising drive, and I’ll be heading in to the studio to be a guest DJ on their morning show, Breakfast of Champions, on Thursday, March 6th, 2008, from 8:30 to 9:30 am EST. Keith, the Thursday BoC host, was kind enough to orient me to the station and let me spend a couple of hours perusing CDs in the stacks (pant, pant) yesterday afternoon, in preparation for my on-air turn.

WMBR homepage (link to streaming audio at upper right of page)

Breakfast of Champions: site, archives


22 Short Films About Ted Nugent

February 12, 2008

Actually, just one, but it’s a beaut. Ted Nugent expresses his hatred of keyboards in exactly the fashion you’d expect from him.

Linked to from this article about Hot Chip‘s favourite synthesizers (one of which, the Casio VL-Tone, features prominently in the Nuge’s film).

[thanks, rob!]


Concert notes: Dan Deacon at MassArt

February 3, 2008

[Massachusetts College of Art and Design; January 31st, 2008]

Dan Deacon brought his Ultimate Reality Tour to MassArt on Thursday night, for a pretty low-key show, as this signage on a nearby bus shelter sugests. The video art was fun, especially for aficionados of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies (we clocked all three Terminators, Predator, Total Recall, Junior, and Kindergarten Cop). Unfortunately, Deacon’s headlining gig was a bit of a disappointment; the sound wasn’t amazing, and it was cut short by a Silly String-confiscating campus cop. The fun surprise of the night were openers Big Digits, whose dance-oriented electro filled the Pozen Auditorium with a pulsating mass of sweaty art-school kids.

Dan Deacon’s blue shirt

Incidentally, Dan Deacon’s favourite blue concert shirt is starting to look pretty threadbare; if anyone knows where to get another teal shirt with a psychedelic colourburst of tropical birds on the front, maybe he’d be willing to trade in the original.


The Mountain Goats take on Super Tuesday

February 2, 2008

NPR‘s Weekend America invited The Mountain Goats to write and perform a song for Super Tuesday. In true John Darnielle style, it’s a bitterly humorous meditation on politicians as vampires, with a dash of Revelations thrown in. As he says, “Things tend to be more interesting if you take them to extremes….You could be a really good political satirist…[but] I write little emotional psychodramas… I will vote for the person who comes closest to what I think is right, but I don’t like and trust any of them.”

The Mountain Goats Do Super Tuesday (lyrics and streaming audio)