Take Five: Rock Shop #9 – Design Shop

On Nov. 22, the ninth installment of Rock Shop took place at the Middle East Downstairs. This time, the focus was design – web design, graphic design, style, you name it. Design is not one of my strong suits, so I was interested to hear from a designer’s perspective what a client – in this case, a band, though the feedback was broadly applicable – should keep in mind when thinking about their visual branding.

The panelists — many of whom said they got into design by taking on such responsibilities for their own bands back in the day — included:

Aaron Belyea (Alphabet Arm)
Gary Hedrick (ElefhantWorks)
Liz Linder (Liz Linder Photography)
Marc Beaupre (Beagle Printing)
Marcus Ohanesian (Perfect Evolution)

As always, Rock Shop organizer Steve Theo of Pirate! moderated the discussion, which covered the following points:

Preparation: Ohanesian emphasized that the top thing they would advice a client to do to prepare for hiring a designer is to think about the project, not just how much it’s going to cost (that can be affected by variables ranging from content management to complex Flash programming). As Linder put it, doing it right the first time will get you where you’re going much more quickly — a good design is an investment in your future, so value the process. Ideally, said Ohanesian, the client brainstorms first, then calls a designer and brainstorms with the designer. Belyea echoed this, urging clients to do their homework and come up with a concept to share with the designer. It’s on the designers to balance their expertise with the clients’ desires.

Research: Hedrick likes to get in the client’s head, sometimes by pretend he’s in a band with them, just hanging out. He said he learns more from the first 10 or 15 minutes with a client by talking about completely unrelated topics. Belyea said he often asks bands who they would ideally tour with, to get a sense of where they want to push themselves.

Linder, the photographer on the panel, recommended that clients bring in reference images of things they like, as well as things they hate. The process should ideally arrive at the unique message that the client wants to communicate about itself. And if you don’t know what you want? “Try,” said Linder. “It’s all research.”

With bands, music is important. That is the main way they communicate who they are to the world. So, for designers, it is critical to become acquainted with their clients’ music. Belyea said, “We won’t work on a record until we hear the music.” “Music is key,” added Linder. “It’s why we’re all here.” Immersing in the music is part of building the relationship with the client, and achieving the goal of making the client look good.

Efficiency: They urged clients to look at the designer’s time as  a commodity not to be wasted — clearly communicate up front to the designer what you want and like and why you want and like it, rather than waste hours of time in back-and-forths over e-mail. In addition, Liz suggested that one person in the band should manage and own the design process, since not everyone in the band will agree on visual matters. As Hedrick put it, there are two types of bands: democracies and dictatorships. It is most helpful if the band can work as an organism, in order to get things done smoothly.

Branding: “Your band is your brand,” said Linder. An album is a mini-brand within a brand. With design, she added, you are trying to package brand awareness, since people are used to experiencing things at the brand level. The best clients are the ones who get that. Hedrick brought up a few examples from different points on the brand spectrum: Fishbone and Metallica, with their highly recognizable logos; Jane’s Addicition, which has a new brand with each new release; and Fugazi, which champions the anti-brand. Part of branding is a communicating a “feel” that lets people know that this is your band.

Bands, said Linder, should put as much attention into their visual branding as they put into their music, since you need to make an impact to stand out from the crowd. Linder said that if you have money to spend, spare the “cranes and elephants” in your music video and invest in a solid logo instead. “The masses are asses,” said Beaupre, all the more reason is craft distinctive brand awareness. One interesting example that came up a couple time is how powerful visual branding can bind otherwise temporal, ethereal media. When someone snaps a cameraphone pic of a great opening band, if they look at that pic later and see the band name on the drum kit, they can follow up and download songs, look for the band’s next live date, etc.


Take Five with Doug

This week, as we wind down for the holidays, I’d like to share some love for one of my favorite shows, Nickelodeon’s early ’90s classic “Doug.” While “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” (deservedly) gets a lot of attention for being the Nickelodeon show with the awesome soundtrack and house band, “Doug” has some pretty great music, as well — plus, they had The Beets, one of the coolest fictional bands ever.

Bangin’ on a Trashcan (a Doug original)

Killer Tofu (the Beets’ classic)

I Need More Allowance

Shout Your Lungs Out

Doug’s Secret Song (written for you-know-who)

And as a bonus: Yo Doug!

Take Five: The Drive-By Edition

After spending half of October in hotel rooms in Ohio and Nevada, I’m still adjusting to having both feet back on the ground. Of course, having both feet back on the ground doesn’t mean that they are still; they are doing a lot of running around. That said, come Friday, we will always pause to Take Five.

Around the Web

Killing Radio Stars

I’ve got a few neat videos to share with you. First, my friend Tim asked folks to blog about videos they love and why. (Here’s my response: the Fully Sick Rapper.) My friend Andy responded to the challenge with a really creative offering: The Battle of the Album Covers.

On Wednesday night, I saw one of my favorite bands, Girlyman, live at Club Passim. They invited the group Coyote Grace up on stage to perform “Young James Dean,” a powerful song about identity and acceptance which Ty Greenstein says was inspired in part by the book “The Last Time I Wore a Dress“. With all of the attention being paid to the bullying of gay teens lately, I thought I would link to the video that Margaret Cho created for this song.

Lastly: The rent is too damn high!



Since I’ve been so out of the loop, I haven’t had a chance to consume (or even purchase, really) any new music. So the last new album I really got into is a bit old. My apologies. But it’s really good! The Love Language‘s “Libraries” recalls what I fell in love with about bands like The Kissaway Trail and Wild Light: earnest, melodic, and rich tracks, which founder Stuart McLamb calls “emotional fight songs.” And, of course, they’re on Merge.

Check out this video from the making of “Libraries”:

And here is a live performance of “Nocturne” on KEXP:

Second Thoughts

Photo by Chris Devers

On Oct. 26, Billy Ruane – a legendary patron of the Boston music scene – passed away at the age of 52. Much, much, much has been said about Ruane (here’s a great tribute by the Phoenix, and a selection of remembrances from local musicians). But all agree that he was an unstoppable force,  omnipresent (and sometimes, too present) in Boston’s music culture for nearly 20 years. My friends Sam and Brad shared some heartfelt remembrances of their own.

Next Wednesday, there will be an epic concert for Ruane’s birthday, drawing the likes of Buffalo Tom’s Bill Janovitz, Chris Brokaw, Mary Lou Lord, Tanya Donelly and others to the Middle East (and, in a unique joint arrangement, TT the Bear’s). It will surely sell out, and it will surely be memorable.

I think a lot of my friends perceive me as someone who is locked into the Boston music scene, but I don’t entertain any such delusions. In truth, I had never heard of Billy Ruane before he died. But while I did not know Billy while he was living, I have gotten to know him posthumously through the memories of those who sold him tables’ worth merch, took (or avoided) his phone calls, endured his sloppy kisses and got caught up in his whirlwind of devotion. Even in death, Ruane’s tradition of enhancing the lives of those around him continues.

Take Five: Five from the Archives

Back in 2004-2005, I wrote for Splendid, which billed itself as one of the first online music publications (founded in 1996). It was a great experience — every week, I reviewed three CDs, ranging from new releases by Le Tigre and the Fiery Furnaces to CD-Rs packaged in hand-crafted cardboard sleeves. Each album got an equal shot, and my favorite feedback was when a musician whose album I panned would write me to say that while he disagreed with my review, he could tell that I gave the album a fair listen and appraisal. I interviewed artists such as Jens Lekman, Iron and Wine and Matisyahu, and I got the incredible opportunity to attend and cover SXSW in 2005.

But some of my favorite writing at Splendid came for the Guilty Pleasure and Essential Album columns. This week, I wanted to revisit five of my favorite Splendid columns, paying a little tribute to the site where I got my start writing about music.

Guilty! Pearl Jam – No Code

Ah, “No Code,” I have such a soft spot for you, brilliant and flawed as you are. I think my assessment of it as brilliant but unbalanced holds up today.

No Code is a starkly serious album. Vedder and his bandmates moved on from the angry and introspective Ten and the morbid and experimental concept album Vitalogy, to arrive at No Code, which is alternately unforgiving and tender, contemplative and caustic. This is undeniably a very personal album, not unlike its three predecessors, but it somehow feels more vulnerable than they did. Vedder, you can tell, really wanted to earn his Neil Young and Bob Dylan badges on this one. His attempt, admittedly, is hit-and-miss. More

Essential: Brendan Benson – One Mississippi

For a while, Brendan Benson was mine — I felt I had rescued him from the bargain bin as a baby from the reeds. Even at the time I wrote this love note to his spurned major-label debut, when he released his comeback “Lapalco,” he was still flying a bit under the radar. That couldn’t be farther from the truth today — and I couldn’t be happier for him (even though I am not a fan of the Raconteurs).

While Lapalco is a fantastic album, One Mississippi deserves the buckets of belated accolades that lack of promotion unfortunately denied it in 1996. That random guy on the Ben Folds Five newsgroup sure knew what he was talking about. As pop-rock’s mid-90s reign was about to yield to the late-90s boon of boy bands, One Mississippi rose and set like an unnoticed sun, the warmth of which would not be appreciated until several years later. More

Essential: Weezer – Pinkerton

I never would have dreamed back in 2005 that Weezer would come around to embracing this album with a tour and a reissue, but that’s where we’re at. And for a generation more acquainted with recent Weezer (comparative) shlock, this is a very good thing.

Songs like the Blue album‘s “The World Has Turned and Left Me Here” and “No One Else” are more fully realized on the disarmingly confessional tracks “Why Bother?” and “No Other One”. There’s a simple explanation as to why this is the case. Pinkerton is remarkable for its honesty, not only lyrically and emotionally, but also musically. It is not a perfect album in the classic sense; it is an uncut gem, still clinging to imperfections fashioned by soil and pressure. But that’s part of its natural essence, its intrinsic perfection. It is self-sufficient, requiring little or no enhancement from that which was naturally begotten in the songwriting process. This truth shines through in songs like “El Scorcho”, where it appears that Rivers’ interior monologue was set to tape with lines like “How stupid is it? / I can’t talk about it / I gotta sing about it / and make a record of my heart.” More

Guilty! Third Eye Blind – self-titled

A friend tweeted a lyric from “Motorcycle Drive-By” the other day, and I swooned a little. That song is a real treasure, in my estimation. I tweeted back my approval, and another friend chimed in to share his, as well. This heartened me to no end. Third Eye Blind is often derided as crappy college rock, and I confess to not being a huge fan of their follow-up efforts to this album, but I remain an ardent devotee of this album, however uncool that may make me — but at least I know I’m not alone.

So, what is it about this reflective rocker? Is it [Stephan] Jenkins’s foray into a quieter, less [Elmer] Fudd-like vocal range? Is it the gentle, plaintive plucking that accompanies his hushed tones? Is it the oomph of a powerful and defiant chorus like “And there’s this burning / Like there’s always been / I’ve never been so alone / And I’ve never been so alive” (or is that just the VD talking again)? Could it be that of the album’s 14 tracks, this one resonates with the most authenticity and energy? It’s probably all of the above — even in spite of its Dawson’s Creek-like final lines, which evoke pensive paddling. “Motorcycle Drive By” is probably 3EB’s only defense against the “middling rock band that got lucky” argument, and it’s a powerful one. But maybe I’m just a sucker for a catchy, uplifting rock song. More

Essential: James – Laid

Freshman year of college, I borrowed this album so often from my floormate Jenny that she eventually bought me my own copy for Christmas. It was also one of the first albums that Rick and I bonded over. This is an important record for me personally, but it’s also one of the best of the 90s, hands down.

And that’s the most important thing about Laid: all of these songs are significant. None of them are throwaways. From “One of the Three”‘s heaviness to “Laid”‘s roll-the-windows-down mood, these songs all speak, and speak true. Part of the reason I love this album so much is because of how it speaks to me. It reminds me of all that is fragile and precious, of all that is lost and can be lost, but also all that we have. More

Take Five: True Confessions About Phil Collins

When I was little, I had a strange affinity for the music video to Phil Collins’ “Do You Remember?”

Perhaps it was because it was a story of young love, and at that age I could identify with the affection between the paper boy and the neighbor girl. And, of course, I’m a giant, ballad-loving sap to begin with. Either way, that is the earliest date to which I can trace back my abnormal attraction to the work of Phil Collins.

I know I’m not supposed to be this way. I’m supposed to eschew Collins-led Genesis in favor of Gabriel-led Genesis (which I do appreciate). I’m supposed to forsake Phil because of his latter-day Disney schlock (which I do renounce) and dismiss the rest of his catalog as soft rock garbage. But when confronted with true talent, enduring songs and a stellar collection of music videos, there’s little I can do to resist. All I can do is sing along (and since some Collins hits have recently entered my list of karaoke standards, that is exactly what I do).

Phil Collins was the sleeping giant of the 1980s. While other artists may have been flashier or more chart-topping, Collins and his cunning pop sensibility — whether solo or fronting Genesis — modestly amassed a slew of hits that over time became standards. He helped define the 80s power ballad with songs like “One More Night,” “Groovy Kind of Love,” “Hold on my Heart” and “In Too Deep.” He got us snapping our fingers with “Sussudio,” “Don’t Lose my Number” and “Invisible Touch,” thinking with “Another Day in Paradise,” “No Son of Mine” and “Land of Confusion,” chuckling with “I Can’t Dance” and “Jesus He Knows Me.” Sure, there are songs that don’t do much for me, like “Two Hearts,” “Easy Lover” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” but given the number of winners, that’s a small percentage. I’m convinced that everyone must have at least one Phil Collins song that they like.

Phil Collins, of course, enjoyed the height of his popularity during the glory days of the music video, and he embraced the medium wholeheartedly, never taking himself too seriously and often amping up the narrative or entertainment factor. From the epic and warped puppet video for “Land of Confusion” and the international-themed clip for “Take Me Home” to the dog’s eye view in “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven” and the dream sequence of “I Wish It Would Rain Down,” Collins and Genesis always went all in when it came to videos.

So, why this post? While I have always had an abiding enjoyment of his catalog, my Collins karaoke fervor has given me reason to revisit it and truly appreciate the quality and depth of what he accomplished. Thus, I am becoming an evangelist. I want to rescue Phil Collins from the slag heap and get him the respect he deserves for his accomplishments. To that end, I’d like to post some of my favorite Collins songs and videos, sharing why I like them so much and giving you a chance to revisit them as well. And I’d love to hear your favorites in the comments.

Take Me Home

(Solo) Earnest and heartfelt, but less wispy than a ballad, with an awesome globetrotting video. Noteworthy: this song plays over the intercom at the departure gates in Las Vegas’ airport. In the same vein…

Follow You Follow Me

(Genesis) The delightful wash of keyboards that envelops this song, one of Genesis’ first mainstream hits (1978!), really make it stand out.

Something Happened on the Way to Heaven

(Solo) Lately, this is one of my favorite songs to perform in karaoke — I performed it once on a lark and it stuck. The video is so odd — no one seems to care that this dog is wandering around their set, peeing and crapping and eating their food. The show must go on, I suppose.

Land of Confusion

(Genesis) This video is still awesome, still bizarre– though sadly, the song is still ringing true in some respects. Either way, this video was an amazing application of the form,  using puppets from the UK show “Spitting Image.” It’s a shame it had to go up against “Sledgehammer” in the 1987 VMAs. But, come on, “Sledgehammer.”

Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)

(Solo) Ah, yes, my go-to karaoke ballad. You know, some of the best and most defining songs of the ’80s came from the soundtracks of utterly unmemorable movies. Here is a case in point.

I Wish It Would Rain Down

(Solo) In this vignette, Collins portrays a rehearsal pianist who gets his chance at playing lead in the big show, and while singing his song he dreams of stardom. Also, this video features Jeffrey Tambor as the neurotic director. Oh, right, the song — classic Collins balladry, with Eric Clapton shredding on the guitar and a chorus of “oooohs” raining down behind Collins’ voice.

Jesus He Knows Me

(Genesis) I will admit that, while I like this song, I’m adding this one purely for the video. It’s sharp, snappy and highly entertaining. It comes off of 1991’s “We Can’t Dance,” the band’s last major album, which also spawned the great tracks “No Son Of Mine” and the infamous “I Can’t Dance.” After this album, both Genesis and Collins began to enter the twilight of their careers, but they sure as hell went out with a bang.

Want more? You can buy Phil Collins’ greatest hits or Genesis’ greatest hits (affiliate links).

Take Five: Music Hack Day

So, in case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a nerd. Yes, I’m a music nerd and a web nerd. But I also have a healthy appreciation for the more techie side of things — perhaps it comes from doing a large portion of my growing up on a BBS and being friends with numerous programmers over the years. While my early indulgence in HTML and CSS didn’t serve as a gateway drug into actual programming, I can still understand the principles and appreciate what goes into some quality hacking.

That said, when I realized that this year’s Music Hack Day would auspiciously fall during my one free weekend in October, I knew I had to be there, bad cold be damned. The stated goal of the event is “to explore and build the next generation of music applications,” which gets me right in the core of my geeky heart.

While the developers spent the whole weekend hacking (and not so much sleeping), I only showed up for the demos on Sunday afternoon. In just over an hour and a half, the hackers sped through 2-minute Ignite-style presentations of their hacks — 40, altogether. Here are some of the video highlights:

DIY Cee-Lo Video

Toscanini Gestural Control Interface

PseudoConvolver (playing the bass with your voice, and vice versa)

Some of my favorite hacks (full list):

  • sQRatchLive – A scrobbler that not only tweets what’s playing currently, but generates a QR code that can be projected on a screen so people can buy the song.
  • On The Fly – dynamic setlist generator
  • hazMash – Create your own mashups!
  • Scrobbyl – Allows you to scrobble tracks from vinyl, cassette and CD
  • MusicSeeder – Music recommendations based on your Facebook “likes”
  • TwitterPlay – “TwitterPlay takes the top Twitter trends of the day, searches for songs with those keywords as lyrical content, and generates a playlist based on those results.”
  • Danceability Index – This one was really cool. You can invest in the stock market based on the danceability of popular songs. “Dancing without moderation suggests a peak of irrational exuberance,” said hacker Joe Rothermich. Awesome.
  • Jennie’s Ultimate Road Trip – Create a road trip itinerary based on music recommendations.
  • Show Preview – Helps you determine whether you should come early to see an opening act you’ve never heard of by aggregating band info and song clips.
  • Twitter for Music – A way of publishing “disposable” music in the form of tweet-sized (60-90 second) clips. People can follow or unfollow.
  • WeJayy – a collaborative realtime playlist generator.

The creativity, ingenuity and stamina on display were amazing. The event was organized by The Echo Nest, a company I’m proud to say is based in Somerville, which develops platforms for music app development. Many of the apps above were built using various elements of The Echo Nest API. The list of additional sponsors is quite impressive, as well.

Much like Rock Shop Boston, events like this are helping fans and musicians alike enter a new era for the music industry. Can’t wait to see which of these hacks makes it into the next release of iTunes… or hell, becomes the next iTunes.

Take Five: The Cal Ripken Edition

So. I’ve kept up my weekly Take Five publication schedule on Safe Digression for MONTHS. And I’m not about to let a Friday wedged between two out-of-state conferences (plus a cold) stop me. This post may not be as in depth as past ones, and I honestly have not had time to listen to the new music I’ve been collecting, but I did want to share some of my favorite links from the past few weeks:

Around the Web

In the News

New Music

Killing Radio Stars

A new category for video fun! Here is a reimagining of the “Mad Men” theme song, incorporating Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” alongside RJD2’s “A Beautiful Mine.”
Also, via the folks at xtranormal: Oh Hell, I Married an Indiepop Girl.


If you know me, you know that I love karaoke. It’s the Leo in me — I love performing in front of a crowd. Combine that with a love of music and a penchant for singing, and karaoke is tailor made for me. Who needs alcohol? Just give me the mic.

In the past, when attending karaoke nights, I tended to exist in a state of eager excitement until it was my turn, unable to wait to grab the mic and hog the crowd’s attention for a few minutes. But this past week, when I was in Cincinnati for a conference with the best people ever and we organized a karaoke outing, I found myself more than content to sit back and watch friends new and old take the stage and rock the mic, from standards like “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and “Baby Got Back” to awesome versions of “The Israelites” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” Here’s a group singalong to “Yellow Submarine”:

Maybe I’m growing up. Maybe I was just in awesome company. Either way, it was an amazing time of mostly hanging out in the crowd, dancing like a fool and cheering on my friends. And that’s what karaoke is about — good times and good people.

So, next time you’re in Cincinnati, head over to Hamburger Mary‘s for karaoke. Tell ’em HighEdWeb sent you.