13 September 2014

popping off to sleep

Over a year ago I started writing this post. I'm lazy, I suppose you could say, or I'm just not spending time the way I used to do so.

There was a time I'd sit up and type things like this when I wasn't sleeping (or couldn't). As I get older, though, I seem to want to get more sleep, and I've found a workable routine to get it (at least, for what I can control).

In short, I fall asleep to music*.

This is no ground-shaking revelation, I realize. Lots of people do it, and I really just felt like sharing how it works for me. In excruciating detail, so maybe if you need to fall asleep, read on.

When I get situated in bed, I put in one earbud, hit a button to get my mp3 player started, and usually I'll be asleep in twelve minutes or less.

I know it's twelve, because I almost never hear Lou Reed's "Perfect day", which kicks in just after Frente! finishes their rendition of "Let the sunshine in".

As an experiment I have embedded a video playlist of the tracks I use at the end of this post, but before that let me tell you a little more about them and how I settled on this (play)list. The idea is to provide me a consistent, repeatable thing to give my attention so that I am not otherwise distracted by stuff that isn't the same, night to night or room to room.

My requirements are somewhat specific. While in my youth I have at times fallen asleep at times to heavy metal (and once even Marilyn Manson's cover of "Sweet dreams", ironically – appropriately – enough), I find music that is too complicated (whether it be by samples or wild dynamic changes or other things) too distracting. Music that is too repetitive, on the other hand, isn't interesting enough and my mind can wander. So much for all of my Philip Glass and Brooklyn Bounce, I guess.

The sweet spot for music that is simple, but still interesting enough to keep me engaged as I nod off would seem to be pop songs, but not the mainstream, danceable autotuned garbage that no doubt fills the charts and radio stations I avoid**.

For a while I thought I'd found near perfection with the lighter songs of Paul Simon. In my opinion he is a great pop singer, possessing a simple, pure singing voice, with pleasant but fun songs to sing with it. For a while I used his Graceland to get to sleep, but as the weeks went on I found myself deleting one song after another, whether it was for the layered exotic instruments of "The boy in the bubble" or the distinctive percussion of "You can call me Al". I was particularly disappointed to let that one go, since I rather like that song, but hey, a guy's gotta sleep.

Last to go were the tracks he did with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, "Diamonds on the soles of her shoes" and "Homeless", which I had to remove since I really wanted to hear them, and apparently would stay awake to do so.

Now that I've not listened to it for long enough, I can level a few other complaints against the album. It's definitely a product of its time, with an often artificial sound from the synthesized instruments (and others that probably were the genuine article, but somehow post-produced into sounding so fake) that I just don't like that much. I think if I could find recordings of just him playing a guitar and singing by himself (or maybe with the African choir) that'd be just about perfect.

Older songs he recorded with Art Garfunkel didn't make my cut for how they were produced, I think. Or maybe they were too recognizable and catchy. Sadly it has been a long time since I made my selections that I've forgotten more specific reasons for what I don't use. The only other song I remember trying, and rejecting, was "The scar that never heals" by Jeremy Fisher, an artist I found on the old thesixtyone website (RIP). That song in particular sounds like something Simon might've put out if he were younger, and a bit edgier these days (I realize he's still making music, but falls into that indescribable trap all aging musicians seem to encounter, where their music gets slower and duller, somehow).

From thesixtyone (and for some reason, removed since) came something I'd otherwise not likely stumble across, "Fomba" by Modeste, one of a few musicians in the Malagasy genre. I looked up a translation of the lyrics once, but have long since forgotten what the song is about, but I think it's happy, since it's hard to get through the song without grinning a bit. I had it bookmarked on the site so I could cue it up when I wanted to brighten up my day, with just this singer and his guitar.

The beginning of my sleepytime playlist, though, is another song I probably wouldn't have encountered if not for the web, "Tomorrow" by Gianluca Bezzina from Malta. He was an entrant in the 2013 Eurovision song contest, an annual music contest the likes of which we just don't have here in the States, but is easy enough to find representative bits of it streaming here and there. "Tomorrow" may have gotten my attention for its insipid-sounding beginning rhyme (after the "oh oh"s) of "His name is Jeremy/Working in I.T..." but there's just something delightful about it that doesn't seem to overstay its welcome in just over three minutes for me, night after night.

I follow "Fomba" up with Frente's saccharine-sweet version of "Let the sunshine in", popularized first by Pebbles and Bam-Bam on The Flintstones and then covered among a bunch of cartoon themes and songs back when that was the cool, alternative thing to do in the mid 1990s. It's an old folk song and there may even be better versions of it for my purposes, but I've been fond of this one probably since the first time I heard it (having found the compilation in the discount bin at the used CD store).

Likewise I have long liked Lou Reed's "Perfect day", bringing back memories of watching Trainspotting in high school and playing the soundtrack CD over and over. I'm usually asleep by the time this comes on, though.

And I almost never hear Maxence Cyrin's piano take on The Pixies song "Where is my mind?", best known for finishing out the film Fight club, as well as its otherwise electronic soundtrack. Well, the Pixies version, that is. Maxence's was one I found on youtube among a few of his other impressive covers, and one that's probably the most innocuous-sounding. He does a version of Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." that is downright haunting.

Anyway, here's a playlist of the songs, in videos of varying quality that may or may not still exist when you read this.

And now, technical notes. I use a generic 256mb mp3 player I ordered from Hong Kong in the days before the iPod. It has an SD card slot, and I could easily put a lot more music on it, but its shuffle features aren't great, and it has no sleep timer. I have other devices that would work better to randomize a bunch of music, but the advantage of this one is its reasonable battery life, simplicity to get started in the dark (I just need to hit the same button three times to start it, and it shuts off a minute or two after finishing the last song), and easy to operate controls for volume adjustments.

I've manually tweaked the volume of each track to be fairly consistent, and tuned all of them way down such that I need to strain to hear them slightly. Without anything to back it up scientifically, I assume that needing to make the extra effort to hear the quiet music helps keep my brain on task for listening, and prevents me from getting bogged down thinking. I'm no insomniac, but I have a tendency to be unable to fall asleep if there's something on my mind. Overall, what I've been doing with the music has been working well for me.

Now if only I could get the kids to let me go to sleep, and stay asleep, consistently. That's not so easy to fix...

* I think my dad has been doing this for years, but what works for him and what works for me are a little different. I think he changes up what he hears much more often than I do, and sometimes mixes in some talking stuff. My playlist has been the same for apparently at least a year and a couple months, if what I put in the draft for this was accurate then...

** At least, I assume it is. To my knowledge I have yet to hear any songs by Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Rebecca Black, or Miley Cyrus, and I really don't want to learn otherwise.

1 August 2006

new music month

August is New Music Month, at least for me. Over the last few weeks I've amassed what I hope will prove to be a fairly decent collection of new music. Now I just need to listen to it.

First of all, I joined eMusic.com with a 100-song free trial (email me and I'll give you the details - the regular one is only 25 songs). I was very methodical in my picks, making sure to have as close to that 100-song limit chosen before downloading a single track. eMusic gets a bad rap for not having many mainstream artists, but I was more than able to find albums I wanted and some that sounded intriguing*.

Before I mention the new artists I found, I was exceptionally pleased to see new releases from two groups I really like:

  • Comments of the inner chorus by Tunng. I was turned onto Tunng by an offhanded Warren Ellis blog mention, and have been hooked ever since, going as far as to track down their album as an English import. I didn't pay very much for it on eBay, but now I see that eMusic has it, as well as this new album I'd not known they'd released. Their music isn't for everybody, but I enjoy it thoroughly.
  • Last train to Mashville by A3. Well before gaining widespread popularity (and one-hit-wonderness) for the theme song to The Sopranos, A3 found their way into my collection from a discount bin. On their debut album they called their music "country acid house" and even that isn't broad enough a definition. Over the years they've put out a number of decent albums (including second-most-recent Power in the blood, available on the site though it is somewhat disappointing) but this one is a stripped-down, acoustic version of many of their hits, including a cover of John Prine's "Speed of the sound of loneliness" that sounds like a fair-to-middling country song they way they do it, but the fun's in knowing how they'd done it before. At least, for me.
  • Buildings and grounds by Papas fritas. Back in the days when I lived within broadcast distance of WLUW I listened to a lot of what most people would call "college radio" or perhaps "indie" while I drove to work and back. I'd hear something I'd like and write it down, hoping to look it up and hunt it down later. Many songs and groups I was able to find (for example, Belle and Sebastian) but many eluded me, including the song The way you walk by Papas fritas, which they would play at least once a week, seemingly to taunt me. I never saw the album on the shelves at the libraries, or used or new music stores, and I wasn't willing to shell out the cash to buy the rest of the disc, tracks-unheard. But now I have it, and access to their entire discography, thanks to eMusic. Now I only need to figure out if I still like their songs, I suppose.
  • Just like the fambly cat by Grandaddy. Grandaddy's another indie radio darling, though one that the libraries seem to buy. Here again is a new release I hadn't know about, and I doubt the library will pick it up anytime soon, my requests notwithstanding.

I didn't just pick up music from groups I recognized, but I'll write about the other tracks I downloaded once I've given them a few more spins.

* Pun intended.

9 January 2006

when 'worth watching or reading' isn't saying enough

Permit me to again point you toward All Consuming. While it allows members to designate books, albums, and movies as "worth consuming" or "not worth consuming" (or, neither, though that's not the way it's supposed to work), but that two -state system (well, three) isn't enough for my tastes. Some stuff is not not worth consuming, in my opinion, but I'm not so fond of it to actually claim it to be actually worth consuming.

I'm not willing to commit, I guess.

But some stuff I watch and read and hear is, in fact, well worth watching or reading or hearing, and I'm not afraid to say so. So that's when I use the easy-to-use tagging capabilities of the site, and have tagged such master works "fantastic". That link leads to a list of some twenty or so of them, and I'm working on a way to find all of the others. I've added Batman begins to the list (so bowled over by it as I was by it), and it's just one among a good many other movies and books that I've enjoyed consuming recently.

So I'm still not playing favorites, but I'm willing to show some favor and shower the superlatives. I may yet develop a heirarchy, from "crap"* to "adequate" and so on, up to "excellent" and with "fantastic" or perhaps something superior at the top. But not today. I'm willing to pick just the topmost for now.

* And you can find a list of the ones I deem to be "crap" in a similar, easy fashion. Like clicking "crap" in the previous sentence, or this one.

25 September 2005

everything's connected

Based on an offhand recommendation from somebody at work, tonight as I washed the dishes I watched Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. I hadn't heard much about the movie before, and frankly never added it to my list because it sounded mindless, and was written and directed by the 'auteur' behind Dude, where's my car, which I have not yet seen. That movie has been described to me as equally hilarious and stupid, and, well, I just haven't gotten around to checking it out yet.

On the Harold and Kumar DVD is included the trailer for Festival express, the 33 years overdue documentary about the 1970 Canada train that shuttled Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, The Band, the Flying burrito brothers, and others between three massive concerts and the jam sessions and parties and liquor store raids in between. I mention this because part of the trailer is scored with the Dead's "Casey Jones" (a song obviously inspired by the trip), which I had inexplicably running through my head for a number of hours two days prior. Ooooh, spooky.

While we're on the topic of music, however, I must give credit to Harold and Kumar for finally letting me hear the lyrics of "Let's get retarded" by the Black-eyed peas*. You could well recognize this song, as it is largely the title phrase repeated over some catchy beats over and over again. I'd heard it every week at work during our weekly lobby meetings to announce how well the business was doing, and I'd taken the lyrics to say "Let's get things started" or something similar. Never once had I thought that our company's co-presidents would use a song about getting wasted as a lead-in for a meeting.

Speaking then of bureaucracy (well, I guess I was), I also watched The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and Stanley Tucci. Stanley's one of those actors whose name is immediately recognizable even if his face or his films are not. At least, he was to me. For many a year I've had Joe Gould's secret on my list of films to watch, and I think it was probably because Ian Holm was in it. Oddly enough I happened to see it at the library today, as I often have, since it doesn't seem to get checked out very much. Every time I see it I consider watching it, but the few times I glance at the covers I put it back, not wanting to see a period piece or a sappy drama. Well it turns out that Stanley stars in it and directs it. Go figure. I'll probably watch it soon, as Stanley does a pretty good job in Terminal. Also on my list is 1996's Big night, his directorial debut, and I'm pretty sure I'd added that because Tony Shaloub is in it.

That's what I like about having such a long list (over four hundred films long), the fact that I often forget why a certain one is on it and get the thrill of figuring it out while watching. Of course not every movie I watch is on my list before I see it; such was the case with The last shot, in which, coincidentally, Tony Shaloub appears.

His scenes aren't the high point of that film, but they aren't its lowest either. It's an adequate Hollywood farce, more or less, but doesn't seem to make much of its potential. The story is about a fake film production to cover a mob crackdown, and it turns into a fable about compromising one's vision and selling out and cashing in and filming a movie called "Arizona" in New England.

Matthew Broderick actually looks like a grownup, for once, but that might just be the beard talking. Alec Baldwin doesn't impress as much as he could as a starry-eyed FBI agent finally seeing his chance to do something big. The rest of the cast fails to make much of an impression as well (except in small bits, such as Toni Collette providing a drug test urine sample while chatting in a restaurant). Prominent for the lack of prominence is Calista Flockhart as a foul-mouthed struggling actress who takes small animals hostage to get her way at least twice. I think that her doing this is the old hackened phenomenon of the tv actor trying to escape typecasting as a popular, wholesome character, but she comes off as more annoying than startling or eye-opening.

On the other side of the cliché is Neil Patrick Harris's appearance in Harold and Kumar, as himself. Not only is he a former wholesome character trying to expand his reperitoire, his character is expected to be as nice as Doogie Howser and this allows him even more of a free hand to mess with the protagonists and the audience. He reappears later in the film and neatly ties up his little plot tangent, and satisfyingly so (for us and for the guys onscreen) and overall it works. Yes, it's a stunt, and one as blatant as Dustin Diamond's uncredited cameo in Made (as himself, the guy who played Screech on Saved by the bell) and just as well incorporated into the plot.

So did I like any of these movies? I'm not sure. Harold and Kumar go to White Castle made me laugh a number of times and brightened up what would otherwise been dull dish-washing. It has funny moments, but they don't gel into something of significance, unlike, oh, Office space, for example. The boys aren't Cheech and Chong reincarnated, and fail to overcome the limitations of the road movie, drug movie, and mismatched buddy films all in one shot.

The Terminal also made me laugh, and at more sophisticated jokes. It too falters, relying on too many neat little touches or strays too far from plausibility, but everybody involved puts so much into it to make it nevertheless watchable and enjoyable. Knowing Andrew Niccol had a hand in writing it helped me understand the inclusion of some of the film's scenes that were too quirky to be believable, but Spielberg and Hanks handle them more masterfully than Al Pacino and Niccol himself did with the clunky, dull and totally unbelievable S1m0ne from a couple years back. Niccol's an interesting writer, but in smaller doses and concepts not quite so high. Still, I think I liked it, and I'll probably watch it again someday, if for nothing else but the rich performances and the impressive set construction that doesn't distract from them at all.

I've probably seen The last shot the only time I'll watch it. My track record with Hollywood farces and insider jokes is spotty at best. Of the ones I can list off the top of my head:The Player, Get Shorty, Swimming with Sharks and The Big Picture, I wasn't particularly enamored with any of them. There are better movies about making movies, but that would be a whole different topic to address. Perhaps another time.

* The Peas are at the forefront of the so-called 'crunk' genre of music, revolving around partying (i.e. smoking marijuana), getting drunk, and having fun. While I am certianly fond of that last one, and occasionally have partaken of the previous item, I haven't ever smoked up or smoked out or partied or whatever the kids call smoking pot these days. While I seem to be able to enjoy drug-reference movies on some level (Half baked was funnier than Harold and Kumar), what little bit of crunk I've heard has no appeal to me at all**.

** Moreover the popular crunk appropriation of the term 'retarded' to mean 'drunk and/or high' is at the same time offensive and disappointing. In addition it brings to mind the reprehensible Saturday night live sketches starring Jimmy Fallon and Rachel Dratch as idiot teenagers with a camcorder and a crush on each other. In every sketch, many times more than once, they play-insult each other with "You're retarded" in a stupid accent before making out. I do not like to be reminded of these sketches.