Today’s Free Download – Ingrid’s Ruse

ingrid.jpgIn honor of Saturday’s show at the Heritage, here’s a taste of Ingrid’s Ruse, one of the finest bands around these parts. You’ll need to go to their MySpace page, where three out of four songs are available for download. My favorite is their cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” but “Dimming of the Day” (another Thompson selection) and “Everybody Knows” are also excellent (and free).

But don’t slurp up the complimentary stuff and leave! Come to the show Saturday and get your copy, or if you can’t make it, head to Bulls-Eye Records in downtown Bellows Falls and pick it up.

Shamus Martin, drummer, producer and record company mogul, emailed me a track list yesterday:

  1. Vincent Black Lightning 1952
  2. John Barleycorn Must Die
  3. The Dimming of the Day
  4. In the Pines
  5. Everybody Knows
  6. Matty Groves
  7. The Immigrant Song
  8. Surprise hidden track

Local Rhythms – Farewell, Ingrid’s Ruse

ingridsfinal.jpgThe good news is that Ingrid’s Ruse, one of my favorite area bands, is finally putting out an album. The bad news is that their CD release party, which happens this Saturday at the Heritage Tavern in Charlestown, is also their farewell show.

Real life calls many a talented musician home. Singer/guitarist Ingrid Ayer-Richardson earned a degree in mathematics, and an opportunity in Maine gave her a chance to put it to use. After a bang-up appearance at this year’s Roots on the River festival, she and husband Micah packed up and headed north.

Saturday’s show will be a bittersweet coda to a promising chapter in area music.

The roots-folk foursome formed in the summer of 2005, immediately winning fans with a sound that sat between the modern baroque of Richard Thompson and the easy pop of Fleetwood Mac. The band’s namesake was also its focal point, with a voice that could rise stealthily from the mist and suddenly engulf a room.

Ingrid had stopped by one of Ezra Veitch’s open mike nights at PK’s Tavern in Bellows Falls, and Ezra liked what he heard. They quickly put a band together; Veitch played bass and contributed some of his songs.

He and drummer Matt Parker eventually left, ace guitarist Josh Maiocco (who inherited PK’s open mike when Ezra left town last summer) and ex-Stonewall bassist Kam McIntyre joined up. Drummer Shamus Martin anchors the Ruse’s sound.

Martin runs Exsubel Records in Saxtons River, and he handled production chores for the record in addition to playing on it. Fans who buy the CD this weekend will also receive a copy of the final live show.

It will be great to hear them again after so long, and their unique interpretations of songs that range from Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” to U2’s “One,” along with the odd Nirvana or Joni Mitchell cover.

My favorite, though, is their gender-bending take of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” which paws like a cat at the opening, then roars to full speed like the über-motorcycle of the title. It’s the perfect distillation of Ingrid’s Ruse’s soon to be missed sound. Do yourself a favor, and join the hometown crowd to give them a good sendoff.

What else is on tap for the weekend? I’m glad you asked:

Thursday: A New Kind of Blue, Sophie & Zeke’s – Wm. Kinsella famously wrote, “If you build it, they will come.” They did, and now word is out about Thursday and Friday night music in downtown Claremont. This fine jazz combo, led by vocalist Emily Lanier, is the de facto house band Thursdays. Tomorrow, it’s bluegrass with the Spiral Farm Band, who gets more popular with every appearance.

Friday: Keith Hollis & The Po’ Boyz, Salt Hill – If you’re a fan of the Allman Brothers Band circa 1970, you’re going to love these guys. Hollis plays the Hammond just like Gregg, and slide guitar ace Cory Williams is a scary-good Duane disciple. How reliable is their pedigree? When Hollis was starting out, he played in a band with Elijah Blue Allman – yeah, that one. He’s even done the Leno show.

Saturday: Kurious, Claremont Opera House – Christian music has evolved (perhaps not the right word, I know) from the tambourine-shaking shiny happy people of yesteryear into something with a bit more, shall we say, teeth. Creed and Jars of Clay are good examples of this trend. Pennsylvania-based Kurious blends edgy, melodic rock with spiritual reverence, and does a pretty good job. This is a free with donations accepted show.

Sunday: Kaki King, Iron Horse – Prestidigitation with a guitar master. Known for her percussive guitar styling, reminiscent of Ani DiFranco and La Guitara cohort Patty Larkin, she’s made a couple of changes this time around. She’s singing for the first time, and plugging in with a band. With a reputation that’s already earned her the title “Queen of the Guitar” in some circles, this could be her moment.

Tuesday: Lisa Rogak, Canoe Club – An area writer who is best known for biographies of famous people like “Da Vinci Code” writer Dan Brown and the late low carbohydrate diet guru Dr. Robert Atkins. Like Stephen King, she uses music to unwind. Unlike the Down East Bard, she prefers eclectic jazz and smart classical to garage rock. That’s a perfect fit for the Hanover supper club crowd.

Wednesday: Bo Diddley, Lebanon Opera House – A member of the second class of performers inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, the man with the square guitar has been making music for over 50 years. Famous for the rhumba beat in songs like “Mona” and “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger,” he’s joined at the Opera House by blues ace Alvin Youngblood-Heart and the soulful Ruthie Foster.

Hands-On With Sansa Rhapsody

sansarhap.jpgThe new line of Sansa Rhapsody portable media players represents the strongest challenge yet to Apple’s market supremacy.  One of the iPod’s key strengths is its’ integration with the iTunes Music Store.  The Sansa devices, ranging from the 2 GB E250R to the 8GB 280R, are built to work seamlessly with Real’s Rhapsody music subscription service.

The Player

The Sansa Rhapsody is slightly shorter and somewhat thicker than a comparable iPod Nano, but it’s packed with more features.  A built-in voice recorder and video playback capability, for starters.  It’s light but substantial, with a scratch-resistant steel back and smooth matte black front.  The interface mimics the iPod’s click wheel, though the arrow buttons are separated from the raised ring used to navigate through selection lists.   Best of all is the small menu button at the bottom left of the keypad, used to quickly return to the top level; it’s also an on/off switch.

The screen is bright, and the main interface looks like the Mac’ OS X “dock,” with icons inflating like balloons as they move into the select position.  It’s neatly organized; most users will be navigating it easily within minutes.  The only complaint is that backing up from choices isn’t quite as easy as moving forward.

Rhapsody Channels

The player’s main innovation is integration with Rhapsody Channels, genre and artist-themed playlists designed to encourage musical discovery.  The player comes standard with a few already built in, and its’ easy to add favorites.  Each channel contains up to 200 songs, which are discarded after they’re played.  Synchronization with Rhapsody adds new tracks.  If you want to save a song for later use, it’s a click away.  Tunes can be added as subscription tracks that expire when the monthly credit card charge stops, or purchased outright.

Once a song is added, it’s immediately available on the device.  Upon computer synchronization, it’s placed in the music library.  So far, the Sansa Rhapsody is the only player to offer this kind of on-the-go functionality, though some integrated portable satellite radios let users click on songs and sync to a PC.

Channels can explore a certain theme, like alt-Country, Classic Rock or Acid Jazz, or present like-minded music for fans of particular groups.  The Rolling Stones Channel, for example, included selections from Bo Diddley, Humble and Eric Clapton, along with a healthy dose of Stones.  If a certain song offends your sensibilities, you can skip it or use the player’s rating system to ban it from ever being played again.

DNA is the new DRM

Another interesting element introduced with the Sansa Rhapsody is Real’s new Digital Rights Management (DRM), known as Rhapsody DNA.  Unlike Apple’s DRM, which only works on iPods, songs with DNA DRM will work on other players.

Playing encoded songs on DNA-enabled devices like the Sansa Rhapsody enhances the user experience with additional metadata such as album artwork and artist notes.  This information adds particular value to the Channels feature.  When the Small Faces’ “Itchykoo Park” came on, a quick click revealed a mini-band biography and the song’s release year.

Digital music often provides a bloodless listening experience, all bits and no bite.  Real DNA’s metadata doesn’t supplant liner notes and CD booklets, but it illuminates the experience better than anything offered by any content provider to date.

With the ever-present tether to the Internet, one can only expect metadata quality to improve.  Sansa routinely updates the player’s firmware, adding new functionality to the device.

Priced to Move

Prices for the players range from $139 for the 2 GB (500 song) E250R, which costs 10 dollars less than a comparable iPod.  The E280 is priced the same as an 8 GB Nano.   Feature for feature, however, the Sansa leaves the Apple player in the dust – though the inclusion of an FM radio makes no sense at all.

Currently, the Sansa players are only available through Best Buy.  The big box retailer is bundling a store-branded version of the Rhapsody music service with a two-month trial to entice customers.  The player’s free content, which fills up half the device, syncs fine with other versions of Rhapsody.

There have been many pretenders to Apple’s throne since the iPod was introduced six years ago.  Microsoft’s wireless-enabled Zune player, along with a dedicated music service, is due next month.  The Zune Marketplace may be the player’s undoing, though, as content bought there won’t work anywhere else.  Apple, for its part, also insists on keeping iTunes songs exclusively tied to the iPod.

By opening their new players enough to work with other services, and allowing Rhapsody content to work with other devices, the Sansa Rhapsody performs a neat balancing trick.  Loyalty is rewarded with an improved user experience – but it’s an added benefit, not a requirement.

Drugs, Debauchery & (Some) Music

exilebook.jpgExile On Main Street

A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones
by Robert Greenfield

A Book Review

The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main Street” has a reputation like a fine wine: the older it gets, the better it seems.  The double album got mixed reviews when it came out in 1972 – Melody Maker called it their best, while Rolling Stone magazine dismissed it as a promise undelivered.  These days, it routinely makes all-time Top 10 lists (including Rolling Stone’s).

Robert Greenfield’s new book shows that it was a small miracle that the record was even made.  The times described in “Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones” contain enough debauchery, drugs, crime and intrigue to kill most bands.  Were it not for Mick Jagger’s money-lust and Keith Richards seemingly indestructible body, their experiences in their recording studio-cum-party castle in the summer of 1971 likely would have.

The Rolling Stones were then, like many rock stars of the time, British tax exiles – economic refugees living in France.  They planned to make a record and quickly follow it with a moneymaking U.S. tour.   Their search for a suitable location led to Villa Nellcote, Richards’ rented mansion on the French Riviera.  Having the wayward guitarist always on site, so the reasoning went, would make it easier for him to show up at the sessions.

The denizens at Nellcote consumed cognac by the case, hashish by the brick, and heroin by the pound.  Richards and common-law wife Anita Pallenberg arrived clean and within weeks had onerous drug habits.  Not that anyone gave it a second thought, as most of the residents were equally plagued, or eventually became so.

When the band finally got around to making music, they were up against not only the stupor of drugs, but also the oppressive humidity of a brutally hot summer.  Recording in a basement with sweaty walls, guitars routinely fell out of tune mid-song.  A single small fan, the inspiration for “Ventilator Blues,” blew the dank air around.  Richards and Jagger came and went sporadically.

Throughout, the band avoided the police.  Richards threatened a harbormaster with a pistol after a fender bender; a police captain’s daughter nearly overdosed in Nellcote.  The band’s lackeys paid off gendarmes and politicians whenever trouble found them.

Eventually, they were in one scrape too many and beat a hasty retreat for Los Angeles.  Once there, engineers Andy Johns and Jimmy Miller mixed and re-mixed, turning “Exile on Main Street” into a ragged masterpiece.  L.A. is Act Two to Nellcote’s Act One, and some of the scenes there are positively surreal.  In one, Johns tells Jagger that he can’t imagine what  “All Down The Line” might sound like on the radio.  Minutes later, Keith, Mick, Charlie and Johns are in a limousine listening to the song, courtesy of a helpful station DJ:

“’And Mick said ‘what do you think?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, man.’  And he says, “we’ll have Stu play it again.’ ‘Stu, have ‘em play that again.’  Sure enough, here it was again.”

Eventually, they re-mixed the entire album.  Says Richards, “you know how it is, the more you mix, the better it gets.”

Band manager Marshall Chess, who had once packed and shipped American blues records to the teenage Mick Jagger from his father’s Chicago record label, then flies the masters to New York.  Five years later, Chess flees the band to save his own life, and doesn’t see them again for another 21 years.

Many others weren’t so fortunate and, as Greenfield notes pithily, “died before they got old.”  In a somewhat bitter postscript, he recounts the fate of the book’s cast of characters.  He spends too much time deriding the band’s incredible avarice.  They are most certainly sell-outs, Jagger in particular, and deserve the criticism; it just doesn’t belong in this book.

Although sloppy in sections, Greenfield presents a vivid portrait of the rogues, drug dealers, sycophants, mistresses, servants and occasionally even the musical supporting cast that swirled around the world’s greatest rock n’ roll band.  One wishes he’d done a better job with the basic facts – he cites “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as a standout track from Sticky Fingers when it wasn’t even on the album, and he places Altamont 14 months after Woodstock.  Even casual fans know they happened four months apart.

But with so many hazy recollections and conflicting stories swirling around the gestation of one of rock’s greatest albums, his foggy memory can perhaps be forgiven.

Local Rhythms – Google Buys YouTube

googleyoutube.jpgWith Google’s purchase of YouTube, a company that started as a garage full of servers with no clear business plan is now an office building full of servers, 60 cramped employees, $1.65 billion in Google stock – and still, no clear business plan.

But the deal fortifies the young upstarts against a copyright poison pill of the sort that cut off Napster at the knees in 2000; Google’s experience promises a way out of the lawsuits threatened by big record companies. As for future profits, one also expects the Internet’s biggest success story can lend their magic to produce enough ad revenue to justify what many considered an impossible price tag as recently as last week.

What does it mean for consumers? That’s harder to pin down. For the time being, not much will change for YouTube. There will be more ads, but that was happening already. Viral videos like “Lazy Sunday” and webcam soliloquies with dubious production values and microscopic audiences should continue to fuel YouTube’s enormous popularity.

The real value down the road – and the likely impetus for Google’s purchase – comes from deals done prior to the sale which cleared the use of content from major record labels, beginning with Warner Music Group. Someday, YouTube will reach its goal – to host every music video ever made, and then some.

Social networking sites like YouTube and MySpace have replaced old outlets like MTV and radio as a source for new music. One by one, old media is getting on board. The price tag Google paid indicates that they intend to make $150 million a year. The revolution starts now.

This doesn’t mean that television is dead. Technology should improve the thing it’s making obsolete, and Internet video is a long way off from displacing the ever-growing living room screen. Getting a high-def movie on demand from Adelphia or DirecTV is much easier than downloading it. The quality’s better, too.

YouTube provides a way for bored teens to show off for their friends, and an even better vehicle for three-minute music clips, talk show highlights and extreme news. But more than that? I don’t think so, at least not in the immediate future.

Here’s what is happening in the next few days around the region:

Thursday: Last Kid Picked, Anchorage – The last big bash of the season in Sunapee Harbor features a local band approaching its 10-year anniversary. They had an exciting evening recently when Robert Randolph caught their set at the Rusty Nail and joined them for an impromptu jam session. Quite a big deal when you consider that Randolph jams with Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews on his latest album.

Friday: Zebra Junction, Bistro Nouveau – After a few quiet weeks, music returns to Bistro in the form of an adventurous duo with roots in the Claremont area. Stylistically, I’d describe them as Gonzo Americana, perhaps, with elements of jam band and blues. Shawn “Flitz Alan” Palmer plays everything from harmonica, a bucket with rivets, and a 1929 banjo-ukulele. His cohort, guitarist Micah Lundy, scratch mixes with a Playskool tape deck. Fun stuff.

Saturday: Fat Angus, Royal Flush – AC/DC fans will love this. Fat Angus is a dead ringer for the rockers from Down Under, right down to the horns on Dave McCarron’s head. Springfield’s home for live music is consistently presenting shows on Saturdays. Stonewall is due in a few weeks, along with house band High Wire.

Sunday: Great Big Sea, Capitol Center for the Arts – I certainly didn’t see anything like them in “The Shipping News,” but Great Big Sea brings a different kind of Newfoundland with its music. They stay true to their Celtic roots while injecting thoroughly modern elements of pop and country. They’re also appearing Friday at the Lebanon Opera House, with Irish phenoms Lunasa opening.

Tuesday: Suicide Girls Burlesque Show, Pearl Street – First of all, don’t bring the kids to this one. Taking their name from either “Fight Club” or an INXS song, they embody a kind of female empowerment designed to tick off people like the Rev. Donald Wildmon. They call themselves “the most fun you can have with 7 girls, 6 firearms, and 5 bottles of chocolate sauce” – and a few guitars. Punky, edgy and not for the squeamish.

Wednesday: The Churchills, Green Mountain College – The Gorge at Withey Hall hosts a band prominent for contributing songs to television shows. Sort of YouTube before it was cool. I like them for their well-crafted pop gems like “Unpopular” and “I’m A Sucker For A Girl In Uniform,” which bubble over with Beatlesque energy. The infectious “Sometimes Your Best Isn’t Good Enough” is now the theme song for “Juvies,” new reality show on MTV – you know, the network that used to show videos.

Wired News – Rhapsody 4.0 Review

sansareal.JPGWired News has a comprehensive review of Rhapsody 4.0 and the Sansa Rhapsody MP3 with embedded firmware. Some highlights:

  • Smarter playlists
  • Faster song transfers
  • Better song license management
  • Best Buy partnership
  • Easier drag and drop to device
  • Listening history blogging

The service is designed to enhance music discovery, which I think will improve Rhapsody’s standing and the stature of subscription schemes as well. What I don’t know yet is how reliable the song feeds are – the algorithm is the key.

Sansa Rhapsody’s Tasteful Imposition

sansarhapsody.jpgWalter Mossberg looks at Sansa’s Rhapsody-integrated player today. I generally like his columns, but he has a tendency to draw a bead on one or two features and focus on them. With the Sansa Rhapsody, it’s the annoying inclusion of 500 or more “free tracks” on the device. It’s designed to leverage the song discovery functionality, which is the key differentiator between it and other players, the iPod Nano most prominent among them.

Mossberg winges about the entire concept:

Personally, I found the preloaded music more of a hassle than a boon. It included both canned playlists and channels — preprogrammed radio stations. They featured numerous artists and genres I didn’t like, or actually hated, and I was forced to delete most of them and replace them with music I wanted to hear.

Before I could do this, however, I was amazed to find that Rhapsody wanted to keep adding its own choices to my player. The minute I plugged it into my PC, the service began downloading 73 songs of its own choosing to the Sansa, to “refresh” the choices that came on the device. Real says it plans to change this behavior to ask users first whether they want such a refresh.

I agree that Rhapsody should devise a way to pare down the genre list. Kanye West and Kenny Chesney aren’t often going to show up on the same favorites playlist, why pair them on a PAD, free or otherwise? But I’m intrigued by the referral engine’s usefulness on the portable player, as opposed to services like last.fm and Goombah which, good as they are, are tied to the desktop.

A genre checklist at startup would solve this problem easily. On first sync, launch a Sansa Rhapsody Preferences sub-application with a handy checklist. Whatever genre a user unchecks is removed from the device. Limit it to Rhapsody-To-Go content so tracks selected by the user aren’t deleted.

Of course, this opens up a whole range of possibilities for improvements. What if the Sansa Rhapsody analyzed the user’s listening habits at first synch and built a smart playlist from them? How about partnerships with streaming services that don’t sell subscriptions like last.fm, Mercora or Pandora that leverage usage habits and turn them into referral playlists?

Unfortunately, Mossberg’s too stuck on the song-stuffing problem to explore these issues. The rest of the piece is, unsurprisingly given his history, devoted to form factor. The Sansa Rhapsody is thicker than the Nano, that’s a problem, but it has a bigger screen and a replaceable battery – with a shorter life.

I’m interested in paradigm shifts, and find the discussion of a quarter inch here, and third of an ounce there tedious. How will it change the way I interact with my music? Do that first, then make it fit on the head of a pin – please.

Rhapsody’s explanation of the song list is worth reading – link.

By popular demand, here’s a screen shot of how to delete a song from the player:

rhapsody.jpg