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Willie's Off-Brand Web Journal: January 23-February 8, 2008

Sunday, February 3, 2008:

As part of a statewide scramble to cut spending on services to the public, the Maine Division for the Blind and Visually Impaired (a subsidiary of the Maine Department of Labor) has recommended discontinuing the $35,000 they annually allocate to Maine AIRS, where I work. That $35,000 amounts to just over a third of the station's total annual budget, but its suspension would be enough to kill the program, since there's virtually no fat to be trimmed from our operating costs. Les, the station manager, travelled to Augusta earlier in the week to defend us before the Appropriations Committee, and he tells me the committee members seemed to be in favor of keeping the program and he's optimistic, but there's no way to know how things are going to shake out until there's an actual vote in the Statehouse (one word?).

This discussion of program cuts wouldn't be necessary in the first place if the state weren't facing a $95 million budget shortfall this biennium. And the state wouldn't be facing a $95 million budget shortfall if our elected officials weren't total fucking morons.

Exhibit A--and really the only exhibit I think I need present--is that $28 million of that total can be attributed to a law, effective last May, regarding unused electronic gift cards. You see, many states have unclaimed property laws which allow them to recover a certain amount of money if electronic gift cards issued in their state expire and go dormant... provided the issuing corporation is also located in their state. For example, if I buy a $100 L.L. Bean gift certificate and it never gets used because my friendship with its intended recipient falls apart because I am in many ways insufferable, the state of Maine receives $60, since L.L. Bean is based in Maine.

Fine, okay, lots of states do this. However, Maine decided to take this law one step further. Someone proposed a law to require out-of-state corporations to pony up 60% of the value of dormant cards issued in Maine. The law passed, the legislators high-fived one another, they triumphantly inked $28 million into the state's biannual budget, and then they crossed their hands behind their heads, leaned back in their executive desk chairs, and waited for the checks to start blasting through the mail slot like astronauts through a malfunctioning airlock. Some of them chomped on fat cigars, I'm led to understand.

Problem is... these out-of-state corporations didn't respond to the invoices Maine sent out. At least, not with money. Some of them did respond with legal challenges to the law. The cash value of the legal documents themselves has yet to approach the anticipated $28 million, however, so Maine may have to go without this particular windfall. Now, that's a disappointment and an ego-popper, sure, but it's nothing we can't withstand. After all, it's not like we already wrote the $28 million into our budget as if we already had it in our hands or any--


I see.


Now, I consider myself a liberal, and I am proud to do so. By and large, I am very fond of publicly funded programs and services that help out those who need help in any capacity. I emphasize this because I don't want what I am about to say to come across as any sort of oversimplistic, ad hominem, "Democrats love taxes and I hate Democrats" right-wing rhetoric. I'm a big ol' lefty myself. However. Our Democratic governor, John Baldacci, does not understand what money is, or what it's for. Remember that Mr. Show sketch where the bankrupt former child star successfully sues the U.S. Treasury for not putting a warning label on money to explain that once you spend a dollar, that dollar is no longer yours? I could see Baldacci doing that, only he would not be successful. Failure is his thing.

Reining in spending, on the other hand, is not so much his thing. Even after it became clear that the state was going to be short $95 million, the state spent at least $10,000 on legal fees in an attempt to recover an original copy of the Declaration of Independence that was accidentally--but legitimately--auctioned off to a guy in Virginia. The State of Maine is already in possession of no less than three such original copies. [Confidential to Amanda: scroll to the bottom of that story to read Jessica Porridge's thoughts on the matter.] Also, last October, the Maine Turnpike Authority spent $26,000 to send five of its officials to the annual meeting of something called the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association in Austria. I would like to note that if you add up the costs of this conference and the legal fees to retrieve a superfluous copy of the Declaration of Independence, you have more than enough money to cover the state's annual contribution to keeping Maine AIRS on the air.

Need bigger numbers to satisfy your Swanson's Hungry Man appetite for financial mismanagement? You got it! Last summer, the Maine State Treasurer invested $20 million from the state's cash pool in an interest-bearing account that was to last 23 days. Twelve days into the investment, according to the Kennebec Journal, "the fund was downgraded from the highest possible rating by Standard & Poor's to junk status," and the funds were frozen. Effectively gone, for the forseeable future. Very bad luck, to be sure, but then the treasurer didn't tell anyone about the $20 million loss for three months. (From the same Kennebec Journal article: "[Treasurer] Lamoine also said that although the state initially thought [the fund] was based in Delaware, it is actually based in the Cayman Islands.")

Do you want to know the saddest part of all? (Those who don't, click here to stop reading.) If I got crammed back in time to 2006, knowing what I know now, I would still vote for Baldacci over any of the other jokers who were on the ballot. And there were four others. "Lesser of two evils" is a pathetic enough criterion for voting, "least of five evils" is borderline hopeless, but "completely worthless and still least of five evils"? I'm feeling a smidge cynical about the whole process. The word "unsalvageable" scampered through my head just now.

On another note, I'm rather in love with this letter to the editor of The Castine Patriot, from Elvira Bass of Penobscot, published on January 31: "What's happening to our paper currency? Seems like we belong to a fifth world country. My ones and tens are disintegrating so I went to the bank and asked them why this was happening. I was told that the treasury has changed policy. In the past, they said, when the bills got worn and torn they were sent back to Washington for new ones. Now Washington no longer accepts them and so they continue with these ragged, dirty bills. If they were so short of funds for printed money, why did the mint introduce that new nickel which I tend to confuse with the new quarter? Someone please complain to somebody."

CURRENT MUSIC: Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement.
Concerned but powerless.
This journal's post-Christmas entry got mentioned in the official My Therapy Buddy newsletter!
4:34 p.m.

Doot? | |

Tuesday, January 29, 2008:

Spooky obsessives will recall that, a year or two ago, I decided it would be fun to start collecting good used CDs to donate to my local library. I have fond memories of the Troy Public Library's impressive AV section, which introduced me to all sorts of neat indie-rock that I may otherwise have never bothered to investigate in the pre-Napster era, and I thought I'd enjoy helping the Bangor area develop a repository for that sort of thing. Naturally, this idea had lay fallow for awhile among my many other discarded plans, schemes, and goals, until it was resurrected this past Christmas, when my parents and grandma gave me some money for the express purpose of buying a bunch of cheap CDs for the liberry.

It really was a present for me too, since I got the euphoric fun of CD shopping. Though I may get all uppity about people who buy dozens of shoes or handbags just to buy them, I am a complete hypocrite, because I cannot pass up the opportunity to purchase albums I already own if I see them cheap enough. So the opportunity to have a purpose behind that sort of endorphin-spewing redundant shopping was, in itself, a very therapeutic gift. For this project, I set myself a five-dollar limit--shipping included--on any one album, and lots of discs came in well under that. (Though it did mean forgoing pricier records I'd really hoped to be able to include, like the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady and Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I still don't feel that I had to sacrifice quality for quantity, since there's no shortage of inexpensive grade-A albums out in the online ether.)

It turns out Wherehouse.com is a very good place to buy cheap used CDs if you're ordering several, because their shipping costs $3.49 for the first item and only $1.00 for each additional item. It's a better deal, by far, than the stupid shipping rates on Amazon and Half.com, where you're automatically charged around three dollars per CD regardless of quantity. And some of your CDs still arrive postage-due because the sellers are unscrupulous penny-pincers. Like miserly earwigs have.

Anyway, here's what I got on my li'l spree. I'm listing it all not as a smarmy press release about my philanthropic activities, but because I want to retain a list of what I've purchased so I don't duplicate any of these in the future, and I am more likely to remember posting it online than saving it as a random Word file. (I tend to abuse the "My Documents" folder by force-feeding it files that contain little more information than a Post-It note. Which I then forget about.) And more importantly, it's satisfying to type up lists of CDs! Don't you like typing up lists of CDs?

Adult.: Anxiety Always
Air: Premiers Symptomes EP
Air Miami: me. me. me.
Camper Van Beethoven: Key Lime Pie
Camper Van Beethoven: New Roman Times
Clinic: Walking with Thee
Elvis Costello: This Year's Model
Dead Milkmen: Beelzebubba
Dead Milkmen: Stoney's Extra Stout (Pig)
Disclaimer: The Airbag's Lipstick Kiss (oh shut up)
The Golden Palominos: This is How It Feels
Grandaddy: The Sophtware Slump
Koester: The High Highs the Low Lows
Lincoln: Lincoln
Barbara Manning: Barbara Manning Sings with the Original Artists
Barbara Manning: 1212
Andrea Maxand: Paper Cut EP
Meat Puppets: No Joke!
Moby: Play
Mocean Worker: Mixed Emotional Features
Mouse on Mars: Niun Niggung
Northern State: Dying in Stereo
Pernice Brothers: The World Won't End
Pixies: Doolittle
Radiohead: OK Computer
R.E.M.: Lifes Rich Pageant
Rinocerose: Installation Sonore
Salako: Musicality
Shonen Knife: Let's Knife
Sloan: Navy Blues
Snowpony: The Slow-Motion World of Snowpony
Solex: Pick Up
Soul Coughing: El Oso
Sparklehorse: Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot
Stereolab: Dots and Loops
Super Furry Animals: Rings Around the World
Matthew Sweet: 100% Fun
The Virgin-Whore Complex: Stay Away from My Mother
Jim White: Wrong-Eyed Jesus!
XTC: Nonsuch

I dropped them all off at the library earlier today, and the librarian wasn't quite sure what to do with them, so I guess the library director is supposed to call me. I'm holding out hope that she will be so moved by my generosity--and unimpeachable taste!--that she will create a special part-time "music acquisitions" position for me, and I'll get paid to write grants and spend other people's money on the CDs that I think the library should have. That seems realistic.

#     #     #

CURRENT MUSIC: Dusker by Kiln.
Taking out the garbage.
3:24 p.m.

Doot? | |

Wednesday, January 23, 2008:

It's mix-CD tracklist season again, so here's Also Sprach Zenthura: The Best I've Heard of 2007, and my sporadically informative write-ups for each song contained therein. If anyone would like a copy of one of these CDs, just e-mail me and I'll send you one. Furthermore, I really enjoy reading other people's tracklists and write-ups of this sort, so if you'd like to e-mail your own "best of 2007" mixes to me, I'd appreciate it. In fact, I'll post 'em on the site! Where else can you get your writings posted on the Internet, preserved in glorious, vibrant Times New Roman?

The annual disclaimer: I haven't even heard all the 2007 albums that I'd like to hear, let alone all the year's notable albums. Runners-up for this tracklist include "Slush Bunny" by Twink, "Vertebrae by Vertebrae" by Bjork, "To Heal" by Underworld, "Challengers" by the New Pornographers, and assorted goodies from Iron & Wine's The Shepherd's Dog. (I thought about opening the disc with a bit from Paul F. Tompkins's stand-up disc Impersonal because that sucker invariably cracks me up, but cooler heads prevailed.) I really don't even like most of my descriptions for the songs, now that I look at them, but they're written, so they're going to get posted.

Also, the most recent reader comment I received called me "a total tin-eared asshole," so please correct for that as well.

1: !!!- "Myth Takes" (2:24) Forsaking the bloated song lengths that previously overfished their ponds of inspiration, !!! (pronounced "exclamation points") are paragons of efficiency on this brief rhythmic contraption. Only the spy-flick guitar comes close to an actual melody: Nic Offer breathlessly whispers over a squalling feedback loop and a menacing bassline that thwacks and swerves, barely grazing any notes. "Myth Takes" is a rapidly advancing beat battalion, and you'd be dancing even if they weren't shooting that gun at your feet. From Myth Takes.

2. Electric Six- "Down At McDonnelzzz" (4:01) At this rate, I fully expect the Electric Six to appear on every one of these annual mixes until I get bored and stop. They're awesome and I'm running out of ways to say it. Here, we've got a piano hightailing it, then giving way to ironic-macho guitars, and Dick Valentine's lyrics bringing the gigglies. This time, it's an admission that an impromptu party in the McDonal--er, McDonnelzzz parking lot just before closing time may not be ideal from the night crew's perspective. But too bad, 'cause parties happen when and where parties have to happen. From I Shall Exterminate Everything Around Me That Restricts Me From Being the Master.

3. Apples in Stereo- "Sunndal Song" (3:31) Following a five-year hiatus, these torch-bearers for nostalgic psychedelic pop returned with a dizzyingly unbalanced ratio of flourishes to solid ideas. Their comeback was still more than welcome, though, if only for this friendly, life-affirming bit of pure musical joy. Between Hilarie Sidney's typically hooky melody and Robert Schneider's overachieving production (complete with vocoderized backing vocals), this could give OutKast's "Hey Ya" a run for its money as the decade's most sustainedly lovable bit of ear candy. I'll get back to you in a few years. From New Magnetic Wonder.

4. Datarock- "Fa-Fa-Fa" (5:08) Like some sort of dance-punk Harry Turtledove, Datarock powers up the "what if" machine to envision a Talking Heads single bridging the gap between the clinical guitar patterns of More Songs About Buildings and Food and the sleep-deprived panic of Fear of Music. The result is a propulsive, fluid bit of rock archaeology- complete with David Byrne-style staccato yelps- that still sounds as trendy as !!! or LCD Soundsystem. From the otherwise so-so Datarock Datarock.

5. Northern State- "Away Away" (3:35) I was a big booster of white-girl rappers Northern State even through their largely charmless Sony debut, 2004's All City, so it was nice of them to make my job easy again on their first album for Mike Patton's Ipecac label. The best of many laid-back spoken/sung party tracks on Can I Keep This Pen?, "Away Away" is an ambivalent kiss-off built around a bassline that also recalls Talking Heads; this time from the Speaking in Tongues phase. (Northern State's singing voices, meanwhile, get a lot of comparisons to Luscious Jackson, but I can only vaguely remember what that group sounded like. These girls tend to stick to one- or two-note themes that remind me of Beck, though, if that helps.) I am particularly enamored of the way it sounds when Hesta Prynn corrals her strident Long Island accent into a melody. From Can I Keep This Pen?

6. Mark Prindle- "FASTCLEANS" (1:49) Accusations of favoritism are understandable (if anyone wants to bother), since Mark is a good friend, but man alive, can he write a catchy, catchy, offensive song. "FASTCLEANS" was the code Mark typed into his digital 16-track to identify this series of distortion-free guitar lines when he initially recorded it... but when it came time to write lyrics, it also served as inspiration: "We're a fancy laundry service/We're called 'The Fast Cleans'/We'll clean your clothes in 30 seconds/Thanks to our magic beans/Our magic beans have powers like none you've ever seens [sic]/They bounce around and sparkle dust to clean your stinky jeans." Appropriately enough, the joke only gets filthier from there. From Smilehouse.

7. Mr. Hudson & The Library- "Too Late, Too Late" (3:08) "Post-Strokes Britpop reggae" might sound off-puttingly fancy and calculated, but these guys make the combination seem as organic as a hemp shopping bag full of spelt. It's got a nifty arrangement, too, with sensible horns adding oomph throughout, and keyboard runs and handclaps making their bow just toward the end of the track. From A Tale of Two Cities. (Thanks to Oleg for the recommendation.)

8. Cassette- "June" (1:40) Not since Dump's A Plea for Tenderness have I heard a homemade four-track instrumental that I found... well, even memorable, let alone this calmly affecting. It starts off with a bloopy ascending theme that sounds like it's culled from some guileless '70s PBS station identification announcement, and halfway through, a comforting guitar sunburst appears. It's hardly a "should've been a hit" masterpiece, but it's a gorgeous interlude that I'd be loath to lose from this tracklist. From Beautiful California.

9. Feist- "My Moon My Man" (3:45) Leslie Feist revs up her sexiest runway stomp and lets it fly on this stunning slinker. Just when you think you might get bored of the Keren Ann chanteuse act, though, the chorus arrives with a whoosh of murmured harmonies and a double-time piano to keep things buoyant. From The Reminder. [NOTE: I cut, like, three seconds of ambient noise off the end of this track so it would all fit on a CD. Sue me.] [NOTE: Ms. Feist, please do not literally sue me.]

10. When- "Filthy John" (4:04) Twenty years into his recording career, Norwegian artist Lars Pedersen has either graduated or regressed- depending on your level of self-conscious eccentricity- from making expressive, black-humored tape collages to this year's collection of twinkly Beatles/Go-Betweens pop. "Filthy John" is the best of the bunch by a hair: crisp guitars and harmonies abound, with a glint of Dave Fridmann-inspired keyboard texturing. Oh, and it's about a guy named John, not... yeah. From the excellent Trippy Happy.

11. M.I.A.- "Jimmy" (3:29) Armed with an old-timey drum machine and some Bollywood string samples, hip-hop rebel leader M.I.A. goes beyond her usual agreeable inscrutability on this song, which is so transcendently unique that it hurts to have it stuck in your head, itching to get out. She still speaks in typos and text message shorthand, daring you to read literal meaning into her juxtaposition of her boy crush and the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda, but she presents her natterings with such sincere yearning that... surely she's saying something, isn't she? From Kala.

12. Bat for Lashes- "Prescilla" (3:34) Natasha Khan, who records under the name Bat for Lashes, spends a lot of time cribbing some of the best attributes of Cat Power, Rasputina, and Tori Amos, without any strong musical identity of her own coming through yet. Still, this is a well-constructed and memorable tune indeed that hopefully presages smart albums to come, and I admit to handing out an additional 25 points for the use of an autoharp in the rhythm guitar role. From Fur and Gold.

13. Blonde Redhead- "Spring and By Summer Fall" (4:17) Blonde Redhead's biggest selling point, ordinarily, is Kazu Makino's weirdly misty singing, but it's guitarist Amadeo Pace (apparently) whose voice gallops its way through the dustcloud of guitars here. Both vox and guitars hammer away on single notes for beats or bars at a time, creating a sense of urgency from very few elements, but not in an angry punk way. (Blonde Redhead's tourmates, Interpol, are the easiest comparison I can think of.) It's the sound of drunkenly clambering aboard a subway in an unfamiliar city and trying to regain your equilibrium by resting your forehead against the icy cool of the window, hoping not to be pushed over the edge by the disorienting trails of lights careening past. From 23.

14. Of Montreal- "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse" (3:18) In 2007, Kevin Barnes continued his obsession with turning Of Montreal into a zippy electro-glam dance-pop outfit, resulting in this album highlight, a flashing Chuck E. Cheese playland of Whack-a-Mole synths and vocal lines that leap gaily into the ball pit. Its lyrics also happen to comprise the best trapped-by-depression monologue I've ever heard in a song; if the music weren't so damn cheery, it would be impossible not to bawl as Barnes pleads with his neurotransmitters, "Chemicals, don't strangle my pen/Chemicals, don't make me sick again." (Also, don't miss this song's costume-happy video directed by Homestar Runner creators The Brothers Chaps.) From Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

15. Meat Puppets- "Enemy Love Song" (3:24) The first Meat Puppets album in a decade to feature both Kirkwood brothers doesn't hit the classic, baked expansiveness of their Meat Puppets II/Up on the Sun era, or even the fecundity of their early-'90s major-label second wind, but it does house a cluster of unexpected slackass beauts like this track. Typical of Curt Kirkwood's snide humor, "Enemy Love Song" takes an indefensibly lame arrangement (the cheap chorus effects on the guitars sound like Phil Collins gone reggae) and transforms it, via the brothers' deadpan harmonies, into something you'll feel stupid humming for weeks. From Rise to Your Knees.

16. Ween- "Your Party" (4:08) Ween's one consistent motif throughout their career has been their embodiment of all manner of sleaze, from redneck misogynists to Mexican gang members to Prince, and "Your Party" is their most inspired characterization in years. It's a thank-you note written to the host of a wife-swapping party, presented in the sort of yuppie smooth-jazz style you would expect to be playing on the stereo as the keys are tossed into an oversized brandy snifter. Special guest saxaphonist David Sanborn gamely squeals and flails like a member of the Saturday Night Live house band, and even the nonchalantly leering way Gener breathes his vocals ("The wife and I thank you very much") is hysterically creepy. From La Cucaracha.

17. The Other Leading Brand- "Island of Misfit Sound Collagists" (4:19) Copyright-shredding soundscape technician Mike DeFabio (my friend and musical collaborator) followed up his genius-level samplectronic opus Milkshake x Infinity with a far less immediate and far moodier collection. The entire album is loosely gathered around the impossibility of success on any number of fronts, and this track covers employment woes. As someone who spent most of the year looking for work, let me tell you that the insistent claustrophobia of this song is very accurate in terms of representing the job-hunting process and the fear of failure that only increases with each passing second of parsing and over-parsing your resume. The Kevin Spacey tirade (lifted from Swimming with Sharks) is well placed, but my favorite part of the song is the way Mike manages to recontextualize the iconic intro to Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" as something so sinister that it simply should not be. From The Importance of Being Awesome.

18. Crowded House- "Pour le Monde" (5:10) Speaking of... Following the suicide of original drummer Paul Hester, Crowded House reunited for a fine, contemplative album that, in some ways, serves as an extended epitath for the man. "Pour le Monde" is the most wrenching of the bunch, focusing on how suffocating the world can feel to someone who can't shake off the sorrow. Neil Finn proves that, ever since "Don't Dream It's Over," he's only been honing his gift for breaking your heart with the casual turn of a vocal line. From Time on Earth.

19. Arcade Fire- "My Body is a Cage" (4:47) Amanda says I'm wrong for not including this album's "Intervention" instead. She makes a good argument, but it's countermanded by the fact that she is, by definition, wrong for not sharing my opinion, and I far prefer this song's bleak, gallows-march build-up to a theatrical wad of pipe organ-sodden anguish. There's a bit of major-chord release at the end, but by that point, you're too exhausted to be uplifted. From Neon Bible.

20. Radiohead- "Videotape" (4:39) Thom's speaking from beyond the grave on this one, through a suicide note preserved on videotape (a dead format- get it?). My interpretation is that the narrator had already made the decision to off himself in the near future, but he then had a remarkably nice day and decided to move the timetable up, either because life thereafter would be anticlimactic or because continuing to live after experiencing a moment of pure love means you run the risk of having that love damaged or distorted. It's a selfish and futile strategy for preserving things as you want them to be preserved. The arrangement is starker and simpler than any Radiohead song since "Hunting Bears" (if you count that one), but it's as haunting as you'd hope, with a few nagging piano chords and percussion consisting mostly of a simple drum flam run through a delay effect that keeps falling out of time with itself. From In Rainbows.

21. Japancakes- "Sometimes" (5:38) The instrumental collective Japancakes closed the year with the flummoxing decision to release a song-for-song remake of an album whose accumulated plaudits have more to do with its inimitable (and pricey) production than with its songs: My Bloody Valentine's genre-defining dreampop masterpiece Loveless. On this particular cover, sleigh bells and a steel guitar stand in for the original's fleecy layers of fuzz, and it's still a total knockout. The song's patient beauty could have sprung from any Yo La Tengo album of the past decade, but what it really does is subtly underline the transporting emotion of Kevin Shields's songs that made his mile-long queues of effects pedals relevant in the first place. From Loveless.

CURRENT MUSIC: This thing.
Q: How many punk rockers does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Trick question. Punk rockers can't change anything.
11:00 a.m.

Doot? | |

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