Theory Of Triangles, Stop Half Assing It, and Jon Brion

You know kids, in the 10 years I’ve been working at becoming a better engineer, you know what thought came to mind most often?

“Wouldn’t it be fucking awesome if I could do none of this work, never show up early or do any research, and just take a 1 hr workshop to learn everything I need to know?”

You know what happened next? I woke up and realized I had zoned out in the middle of an intersection and one of those delivery dudes on an electric bike was coming straight at me.

I was asked to do a “Cliffs Notes” type article about some engineering related matters.  And for some reason, it just hit me the wrong way.  It made me think of this “Everything Right Now Right Away” time we live in.  Maybe not even that, but just the lack of desire to learn to do something the right way.

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At the studio where I work, I often encounter people wanting to do things on the quick and cheap, who refuse to spend money to get it done.  The eternal rule, as we all know, is “Good Quick Cheap, pick Two” and this is certainly a rule to live by.  Technical things are complicated, regardless of the industry.  Video, audio, photography, graphic design, gardening,  it’s all in there.  Sure, there are ways to state things simply, but often a comprehensive guide is required.

Part of me wants to just blurt out:  “There really is nothing complicated to being an engineer. Just read an article somewhere, buy some shit at Best Buy, and you’re there! Also, don’t spend too much money, you really don’t want great gear, just buy whatever your cheap ass thinks looks cool. Also, be really mean to anyone who tries to hire you, that’s essential. Annnnnd you’re set! Get ready to start raking in the cash! OH YEAH.”

What happened to our desire to do things the right way?  What made us seek the shortest and quickest route to whatever destination we fell like reaching?

A few weeks back, I went to see Jon Brion at Le Poisson Rouge in the West Village.  Brion, an eccentric producer and composer, had scheduled a rare run of shows in New York.  It just felt like one of those occasions where you knew you were in the right place.  The stage was filled with instruments.  Synths looking wobbily, stacked on a grand piano, tons of guitars, a vibraphone, drum kit, it was all there.

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How long do you think it took this guy to become proficient on any of these instruments?  That’s not even mastering them as he has, just to be able to play them kind of well?  From the skill he exhibited, I’m going to guess CENTURIES.

People would call out requests, of any type, by any artist, and Brion would launch into them.  Very little preparation, maybe 10 seconds to think.  At one point, he moved to the vibraphone, uttered “um, how do I play this one on the vibes….”and proceeded to play a jaw droppingly beautiful version of “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies, A song which I must confess, I did not know previously.  He stumbled through it with some off notes, some mildly forgotten lyrics, but it was still perfect.

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This is no asshole looking for the easy way out, he’s challenging himself live in the moment, no net, no plans.  Just a completely blank slate, and some giant balls.  We left the show feeling so wonderful and energized, that a cheeseburger at Minetta Tavern seemed like the only thing to do.  A week later, it was announced that Brion would add one last show “…so why the hell not?” we thought.

This evening was even more whimsical, if possible.  Someone yelled “Tom Waits!”  someone else yelled “Blondie!”  So he played “Heart Of Glass” at the piano in Tom Waits voice.  He performed “Any Major Dude Will Tell You” with a vocoder, mellotron, and grand piano. We need to make this man the fucking president.

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There are Two things we should take from this situation.  First, if Jon Brion is in town, go to the show, I don’t care where it is or who you are.  Second, stop half assing things.  Some important person at one point, said something kind of like “do the best you can with what you have where you are, and if it doesnt work out eat a grilled cheese and watch American Pickers”  I believe that’s a direct quote.  But come on kids, stop looking for the easy way to create something.

There are a billion iPhone apps that can let you fart out some good sounds, but that doesnt mean what you create with those sounds will be any good.  Put the time in.  Spend the money.  If you have less of one, invest more of the other.  That’s my theory, someone back me up.

The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus Review: Tom Waits On Screen

Yes, I am aware its called I Blog What I Hear, but I see things as well as hear them, so this is going to blur the party line a bit, ok?  Jesus, relax already.  Christmas is an interesting time for those of us in the Jewish faith, “The Chosen People” as some call it.  There is NOTHING to do.  I don’t know how to express this is any other way.  Imagine going out, and EVERYTHING is closed.  You can’t get food, other than Chinese, you can’t buy anything, trains are empty, everything is just plain quiet.  Its an eerie feeling.  I greatly dislike it, and it has always been this way.

As is the tradition, I woke up Christmas Day with nothing to do, and decided this is the year to go with tradition.  This is the year, not to break the mold, but to fit into it!  Ladies and Gentlemen, I saw a movie.  After calling every person I could imagine would not be involved in family shenanigans, it was determined that I would be braving the streets solo.  I’ve only seen one other solo movie in my life, this was while living in LA.  I drove to a sketchy part of downtown, to a weird looking mildly abandoned theater to see the Moog Movie.  I was one of 3 people in the theater, and it was fantastic.  IF you have never seen this movie, netflix that up.  Bob Moog truly believed in what he did, and made an interesting spiritual connection with the electronic instruments he built.  Anyway, this was an overall positive experience, So I was ready for round 2.  So on Christmas Day, I braved the rain and disgusting slush, and went to see The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus.

Much mythology has surrounded Parnassus long before it was ever released.  This was Heath Ledger’s last film, he died halfway though the filming.  With nowhere else to go, and the money quickly running in the other direction, director Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame)  called upon his friends Johnny Depp, Collin Farrell, and Jude Law to fill in for the role, with only minor rewrites.  But all this is just Hollywood trivia.  What I was concerned with was the role of The Devil.  Not A Devil….The Devil.  Played by none other than Tom Waits.  Up until now, Waits has had a few minor film roles.  He played Renfield in Braham Stoker’s Dracula, Had a walk on in The Fisher King, another cameo in Wristcutters, and probably a few others, what am I, IMDB?  But this is by far his most significant.
EXCLUSIVE:  Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus Still Shooting
The first thing I noticed about this film was Gilliams Python style animation.  It was the soft focus style of drawing (think the giant foot in Holy Grail) that most defined his signature style.  His films have a unifying look as well.  He does this one camera move in every film.  Its kind of like a shakey wrap around shot, he uses it in the hotel check in scene of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (one of the greatest films ever made) as well as all over 12 Monkeys.  Visually, Gilliam never fails to disappoint.  Its no Baron Munchausen (one of the other greatest films ever created) but it certainly is exciting to look at.  His fantasy sequences have the look of the greatest and most psychedelic school play you could ever imagine.  The sets are incredibly detailed and real.  My least favorite thing about the films of the last 10 years is the heavy reliance on CG.  Gilliam embraces this, yet details the sets with enough actual substance to fully bring you in, rather than just admire some shit done with computers.

But you don’t come here to listen to that type of talk, no.  We all knew this post would really be about the greatest man to grace the earth and beyond, Tom Waits.  Now, my undying love for Waits aside, he OWNS this role.  There was no better choice for the mythical devil role, named Mr. Nick,  than Tom Waits.  Every step is a little dance, he puts soul into every word.  Every scene he acts in is like hearing a spoken word Waits piece.  Have you heard “What’s He Building In There?”  off Mule Variations?  It’s just like that. Of all the great stage performers, Waits may be among the most believable.  It seems he never breaks character.  One advantage a musician has over a stage or film actor, is that everyone believes the persona they adapt.  Not for one moment would you question the fact that Keith Richards is a heroin addled vampire, but what if that was just some persona he adapted?  Whereas looking at Brad Pitt in Fight Club, you can kind of tell he’s putting it on a bit.

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Lets talk specific scenes.  By far, the best, is the dance sequence.  The basic theme of Waits’ character, is that he’s always there to make a bet with Parnassus, ready to take advantage of him in his weakest moments.  When it looks like he will inevitably win one of these bets midway through the film, he takes Parnassus’ daughter by the hand and says “Dance with me baby!”  and they go into a surreal ballroom sequence.  Its like the dream sequence of Big Lebowski.  They display serious moves, old school tango style.  The runner up would be, the first introduction of Waits, where he visits Dr Parnassus hundreds of years ago when he is a monk in an ancient temple.  Waits enters with a cigarette holder and a clarinet type contraption, and proceeds to suck the voice out of every monk chanting an ancient tale, in an attempt to prove that the world continues, even if no one tells its story.  Amazing.  A bird then shits on his hat, but that is neither here nor there.

My only complaint is that Waits had no songs on the soundtrack.  Come on, how cool would a musical sequence be, with The Devil on lead vocals and piano? I sight Shrek 2, when the used “Little Drop Of Poison” for the bar sequence, and Captain Hook sings the Waits parts.  Overall, the movie was not the best I have ever seen. The story did drag a little bit, and it felt a bit long, despite the powerful cast and beautiful imagery.  But lets hope Gilliam gets some ideas from this, and casts Waits in the lead for his next project?  Lets hope so.

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There’s Nothing Wrong With Norah Jones

Lets talk about Norah Jones.  There are lots of opinions floating around out there about Miss Jones.  Yes, she’s easy to dislike.  Probably because your mom owns Come Away With Me, and you’ve straight up gotten sick of it.  She’s easy to dismiss as elevator jazz, watered down pop, whatever.  But I am here to fight you on this.  And I will do so to the death.  Well, maybe not to the death, but at least until we both get thrown out of whatever venue we are in at the time.

I did not like Come Away With Me.  I don’t know, I just didn’t get it.  And also some family members played it constantly on repeat, which put it out of the question.  In college, while working for the school’s radio station i got a copy of Feels Like Home, and again, I just didn’t get it.  I don’t know, it didn’t really connect with me.  Sure, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson of The Band played on a track, but i was not blown away.  This relationship continued for a while.  I tried to keep an open mind, I didn’t actively dislike her, maybe she just seemed like a nice person, I don’t know.  It changed definitively one night when I accidentally saw her perform.

Ryan “I’m Most Likely Completely Out Of My Mind But Have Flashes Of Genius” Adams was doing 3 nights at Town Hall, and I chose the 2nd.  For good old Ry’, this was not the night to attend.  He wore platform moon boots, had a little pony tail on the top of his head, and played strictly recent material.  The surprise of the evening was an unannounced band called The Little Willies.  This group consists of a few New York songwriters, playing old country tunes, notably Willie Nelson songs.  Leading the group was none other than Miss Jones.  I maintained an open mind, thinking maybe things would change…they certainly did.

To say her voice was like an angel coming down and cooking you dinner while giving you a back massage would be putting it lightly. I doubt there has ever been a more beautiful voice on earth.  Town Hall is renown for its beautiful acoustics, you could hear her actual voice, rather than simply the PA recreating the sound, so there was no sonic trickery going on.  As we know, I love for an opening band to surpass the headliner, and this was one such case.  I was hooked from here on out.  This was intensified after I learned the track “The Long Way Home”  on her Feels Like Home record was written and suggested to her by none other than Tom Waits.  They don’t sell cred like that at Wall-Mart.

Again though, her Not Too Late album just didn’t connect with me.  There was a definite Waits inspired track, “Sinkin’ Soon” but it was no “Long Way Home”.  Last year I heard of another group called Puss N Boots, playing the Mercury Lounge, opening for Mikael Jorgenson of Wilco.  This group was just a trio of girls, 2 guitars and a Bass, featuring Norah, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper (who played bass with Crazy Ry Adams.)  So, i figured, why not.  Maybe Town Hall was just all acoustics, and nothing to back it up.  Well, I was proven wrong dear Norah.  They played a few country group vocal covers to start, Jones on electric guitar, not too exciting.  As soon as they broke into “Cry Cry Cry” by Johnny cash, and she took a lead vocal, it was apparent that the business was serious.  If she tried out for American Idol, she would get through the thousands of rounds and win hands down.  (god, I’m sorry for that Idol reference, but its just the truth)  They then covered “Jesus Etc” by Wilco, and my heart was officially won.

Norah Jones at the Mercury Lounge
Norah Jones at the Mercury Lounge

Anyhoo, some word was floating round the ol interwebs about the new Norah Jones album being inspired by Mule Variations- Tom Waits epic masterpiece from the late 90’s.  Now, these are serious accusations being thrown around.  She hired the same engineer and producer, a cast of the same musicians (including my 2 favorite guitar players, ironically mentioned in the last post, Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel)  In addition to studio ace drummer Joey Waronker (Beck, Air) to even out the crew.  Now Norah, you’re just playing with my emotions.  The real key is….how does it sound?  Well, I just watched this clip from Letterman, thats none other than Smokey Hormel on guitar, and correct me if I’m wrong, but is that Joey Waronker on drums?

Its got some indie sounds happening.  Less pop, more drive, so far….I think our ‘In Person Only’ relationship may be on its way out?  I’m going to buy the album tonight when I get home, and we will continue this discussion further.