A Tale of Two Mothers

2019 has seen two very promising releases in the Zappa Influence/Tribute genre, and it is only March! On one hand it is Liverpool’s Finest, The Muffin Men, aka the “Flab Four”. On the other is Michel Delville and The Wrong Object, Belgium’s answer to “What if you were very good at pretty much everything?” Both groups have been working at a high level for quite some time, and they both deliver the goods.

Roddie and the boys go first:

The Muffin Men have been at this game as long as anyone I can think of. They have hosted Jimmy Carl Black, Ike Willis, Denney Walley and many other guests at their tours and live shows. I was lucky enough to see both of these bands at the Moo Ah Festival in Corby, England, and I have seen the Muffinz at Zappanale as well. Both bands deliver an excellent live experience, but what about on repeat listening?

I sent some e-cash over to Roddie Gillard (£5 plus £2 P&P for UK, £2.50 for Europe, £3 for USA. paypal roddiemuf@hotmail.com and don’t be shy to round up that conversion for international shipping. That’s a steal.) for a copy of “(It’s All) Smoke and Mirrors – Live in the UK 2018“. What I got back was worth it, and then some. I know the Muffinz are heavy, as their incredible Fairies Wear Boots / Brown Shoes Don’t Make It mashup has proven to me already. This rekkid is heavy business in the same way. The band is tight, powerful, and funky in the way Zappa’s 1988 band would understand. They also sound like a much larger ensemble by keeping the arrangements tight, especially between keys and horns.

Opening with a super-tight Peaches is a good sign, and the album seems to just keep geting better (is that possible, I thought). The arrangements are more direct than some of the Zappa versions you might be familiar with, delivering a little more instant gratification. That is not a bad thing. As you stick with it you get to the meat of the CD which to me is Easy Meat / Village of the Sun / The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing… If you aren’t cranking the hell out of that I can’t help you. Nobody can. This is to my mind a benchmark of how it is done. In a world where shows are often poorly paid, poorly attended, and the travel is cramped and tiring, the Muffinz hit the stage with the goal to sound like they are playing Wembley (Anfield, actually!). Jumpy, Rhino, and Roddie have been the stable core of this band for so long that I have come to expect this kind of performance. Hearing them deliver on it, as I was not in the UK in 2018 [damn], is almost like being there. Some of the nuances are straight out of the Zappa catalog, while others are nods to the classics, often winking at the greats of the UK rock scene and beyond. It makes for a great record, especially cranked up as the soundtrack for a long drive. If you are still on the fence regarding what passes for bands playing the music of Frank Zappa this should burn the fence down. Get on with it!

Next up is a Mother of a Different Color, The Wrong Object’s Zappa Jawaka (order info at link) Michel Delville is the kind of guitarist I love to listen to. He can wear his influences on his sleeve and still sound like himself. His preference is to be in the ensemble unless coming to the fore is necessary. When he does he straight-up shreds. The Wrong Object is a powerhouse group, and while I am not genre/idiom dropping, they opeerate where eagles dare. Where many bands switch gears with a magician’s flourish, the Wrong Object method is more seamless, more compositional. The stylistic shifts happen at full tempo, on the beat. This is the kind of precision and composition I have heard in this context from Corrie van Binsbergen (Look her up, do it now) and very few others. All of that is on display with Zappa Jawaka, an homage to Zappa in a very progressive and modern fashion.

The Wrongs can drop your jaw with Zappa-authenticity, but they are also free to do that in many other ways. That freedom allows the band to play to their strengths and use the compositional framework as exactly that. There is an intent and a precision to this band, without sounding stilted or over-rehearsed. Make no mistake, this album gets very heavy. Not that I should have been surprised. Michel’s work with Tony Bianco in Machine Mass is not for the soft-prog-wallpaper crowd (pro tip: Machine Mass Plays Hendrix is a great disc).

Not unlike The Muffinz “Smoke and Mirrors“, there is gold right in the heart of this disc. “This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich” gets the respect it deserves, which is much. And did I say Zappa Authenticity? Hell yes I did. This rendition is worth the price right there. The Wrongs gave me reason to do a double take with the spot-on vocal and arrangement. It also sets the stage for a divine and sublime Apostrophe / Chunga’s Revenge mashup. This recording is heavy where it needs to be, free where it needs to be, and frankly klezmer-esque where it makes all the sense in the world. While this album is a studio effort, it has the open feel and flow of a live recording. I don’t hear any telltale overdubbing or looping or effects. It is the sound I recognize from their live performances.

These two recordings display the Zappa legacy on two different stages. The Muffinz rock those small club stages across the UK and elsewhere. The recording needs to be played LOUD. It has that rock-club-recording grit to it and to my ears it just makes it better. The performances are not, however, simplistic and dumbed down. They are full of all the “eyebrows” a Zappaphile demands. There is no velvet glove, just the iron fist of power and precision. While it might sound like I am setting the Wrongs up as a more delicate Object, I am certainly not. This band delivers in a different manner, but not a less effective manner. You feel it in the way they game the Zappa system, lulling you into a feeling of comfort then dropping the hammer with something unexpected. Possibly more to the point: The Wrong Object sounds like The Wrong Object playing Zappa (I’ll be reviewing their new release Into The Herd very soon), where the Muffinz sound like Zappa and more Zappa!

You really want to see both bands live, and if that is not possible, listen to both records. [Updated for spelling and clarity on 19 March 2019. pb] Here are the lineups:

The Muffin Men – (It’s All) Smoke and Mirrors – Live in the UK 2018 – Ian Jump (Jumpy) guitar, vocals; Roddie Gillard – bass, vocals; Rhino – drums, vocals; Phil – keys, vocals; Michael – sax, vocals. Peaches en Regalia, Cosmik Debris, Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, City of Tiny Lights, Jones Crusher, Easy Meat, Village of the Sun, Pick Me I’m Clean, The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing, I’m The Slime, Advance Romance, Whipping Post

muffins-smoke-mirrors-back-1

The Wrong Object – Zappa Jawaka – Michel Delville – guitar; Pierre Mottet, bass; Laurent Delchambre – drums, percussion, samples; Marti Melià – tenor sax, clarinet, vocals; François Lourtie – tenor and soprano sax, vocals. Wonderful Wino, Mr Green Genes / King Kong, Big Swifty, This Town is a Sealed Tuna Sandwich / The Sealed Tuna Sandwich Bolero, Apostrophe / Chunga’s Revenge, Sleep Dirt, Wedding Dress Song / Handsome Cabin Boy, I’m The Slime

wrong-object-jawaka

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The Disclaimer

I’m not a music journalist. Thank me later. I detest the trend of comparing every band to some other band. It’s lazy. It is shorthand. It lets the writer off the hook, bypassing the need for deep thought ot deep listening.

What I write is largely reviews of music I have purchased directly from the artist. I know some of these folks personally, but I pay for the music whether it is downloads, CDs, concert tickets, whatever. If I think a recording is off, I’ll say so, but if I don’t like it I probably won’t waste my time writing about it.

Same for photography, food, travel, and anything else. Life is too short.

Let the Music Play

This blog has been dormant for quite a while, but my plan is to start putting up music reviews, and some longer-form pieces on learning, performing, and experiencing music.

Coming up very soon: A Tale of Two Mothers

We are all High Risk now

I’ve heard it all about Trump. I agree with much of it. He is all the bad things you think he is. He is a whirlwind of incompetence. All true. Not in dispute on my end. And yes, we should be very vigilant and very involved, because what he seems to be doing, primarily, is making people very uneasy about the future. But enough of the hot-takes and put-downs and emperor-has-no-clothes memes. It is time to put away the childish things. All the rants, all the ridicule, all the facepalm… all of it. Even if it is just for a minute.

 

Try this: Think about Trumpworld like you were having it explained to you by a financial advisor. Maybe your financial advisor, if you have one. He/She is likely very serious, very focused, and not a political blowhard. He can chat about either party with equal ease. He knows that filtering out the political background noise is essential to making good financial decisions. What would the Trump administration look like if you filtered out the stadium-volume politics? That is what good financial advisors do. The good ones are good because they can look at a proposition without getting too wrapped up in the writ-large politics of it. Trump is not a politician. He has no political background, skills, or even firm political beliefs. What he has done with his life is amass a personal fortune, and a key part of amassing a fortune is learning to lay off risk. If you play with big numbers and you can get someone to reliably take more risk than you take, you will reliably amass wealth at their expense. That’s how a guy who couldn’t make a casino work; who rolled craps on bottled water, vodka, and steaks (I guess American’s couldn’t get on board with those things); a guy who has cratered and declared bankruptcy at least four times (plus other sell-offs and bail-outs); managed to become the President of The United States of America: Laying off risk on potential voters.

 

That’s not all of it, of course. The other part of the Trump mystique is getting people to ignore or minimize the risk he are asking them to take. To make this sleight-of-hand work you have to either misdirect them about the degree of the risk, or you have to get them very focused on some other risk. The mark has to be so focused on that other risk that they overlook the obvious risks they are being asked to take by Trump. That is how you get investors to buy in, and it extends executives, staff, regulators, and whole governments. Reading the room and having a feel for what token of misdirection will be most effective is probably the one thing Trump is really good at. He proved it during the 2016 campaign. He routinely clobbered people with better, or better-formed, political platforms because he could play an arena full of potential voters in a way they couldn’t dream of. Prairie Home Companion, meet Tony Montana fronting Led Zeppelin.

 

The last tie-in to Trump’s success in 2016 is evangelism. Not just Christian Evangelical evangelism, but also the idea of a true believer who is all-in. Apple was showing their understanding of the concept’s power when they added “Mac Evangelist” to their org chart. Trump is a Trump Evangelist. The Best. The Smartest. The King of Deals. And so on… And that nauseating passage aside, Trump is pulling from both flavors of the word, almost equally. In a religious setting the risk is always outside, facing in, threatening the audience. The unbeliever. The heavy metal music. The gangsta rap lyrics. The [insert your favorite secular pleasure here]. The reward the religious evangelist offers is the safety of being inside, away and apart from the external menacing force. Trump knows this play like he knows the buttons on his TV remote. All he had to do is sprinkle in the barest soupçon of old time religion and the audience understood. Inside Good. Outside, Bad. Prosperity Gospel Politics brought to the Presidency.

 

And yet again, there is a huge risk component in Religious Evangelism. [“Again with the risk?” you ask? Yes. Stick with me for a sec] Think about it like your somewhat boring and outwardly apolitical finance guy would. Guys like Joel Osteen are just laying off huge amounts of risk on their flocks, and the house always wins. Trump is doing the same thing, but in his case the flock absorbing the risk is 350 million US citizens who are now finding out that the risks are high, they are real, and there is no way to mitigate them.

You want an example of what kinds of risk I am thinking of? Here ya go: You have rank amateurs running the departments of Housing, Energy, and Education. How do you feel about those three things? Pretty strongly, I’d imagine. If there is a bedrock to western civilization it is housing, energy and education. So who were “the best people” to guide these bedrock agencies? You have a guy who initially refused the job because he admitted not having any pertinent experience (aside from having lived in a house, I shit you not), running Housing. You have a guy with an Ag degree [full stop] in charge of our nation’s nuclear weapons and fissionable materials over at DOE. And lastly you have a woman with no professional education or education policy background in charge of Education… but who’s brother (Eric Prince of Blackwater fame) made a cool billion(z) leveraging the US population’s concept of risk in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, oh yeah, this: did anyone notice that her husband is the founder of Amway. Amway is basically a peak-risk-distribution effort. The company always takes on less risk than their franchisees. Always. The house always wins. Always.

 

So stop thinking about what a braying jackass Trump is. He was one before all of this started. Nothing will change. He will always be a braying jackass. Get over it.

 

I am making the case that we start thinking about Trump as the guy who sees the entire US population as a risk-soak. His presidency is just like every other Trump deal: The less equity you have at buy-in, the more risk you gotta take. And over 95% of the US population does not have the required equity to hedge against Trump. We are faced with the prospects of backsliding on worker protections, civil rights, air and water quality, Social Security, healthcare, foreign relations, foreign economics, domestic economics, and the feeling that a world war is imminent. At the same time we are seeing Wall Street deregulated, energy corporations take over the EPA, and a massive increase in military posture and spending. The payoff is supposed to be a period of sustained economic resurgence. Last I checked the DOW was over 20,000. That was pre-Trump. At the end of eight years of G W Bush it was around 6,500. Talk about selling ice cubes to eskimos! There has been plenty of economic growth in the past 10 years, but it all stayed out in shareholder-land. The money was not used to create jobs, build factories, build coal-fired power plants, and club baby seals for fun and profit. It was used to pay the guys who had been exposed to the least risk in the first place. They are the people who bear the least risk of being without good housing, good healthcare, good education, clean water, affordable energy and good nutrition.

 

While the US Senate deliberates in secret over what version of Trumpcare can get 51 votes, think about the risk you are being asked to take on. Guys like Trump use risk as the basic measuring stick for every major decision. Maybe it’s time we all started doing the same.

An Old/New Photo Gear Mashup

As I divest from my Nikon APS/DX gear there have been some moments for reflection on what I actually want to be taking pictures with. The move away from Nikon was about size, weight, and handling. The Olympus Micro Four Thirds (M43) gear is a pleasure to use. It is light and has both a great electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a good tilting LCD display (some models swivel). So I can shoot eye-level, waist-level and overhead. Most of my photography has me doing all three and I don’t want to have a lot of lag (Live View, I’m looking at you) or a murky display or a display that doesn’t tilt both ways. Nikon is having some serious not-growing-pains as they stake out the DSLR market and can’t put out a mirrorless system that people want. See the previous post for a pre-mortem on that subject.

I enjoy manual focus photography, though I have become so used to Aperture Priority mode with easy exposure compensation adjustment that I only shoot manual in very specific circumstances. The OM-D and PEN cameras have a good focus peaking system and make manual focus easy enough.

But what about old-school manual focus? Well, I mated up a very nice non-AI Nikkor-P 105/2.5 that I picked up for a song on eBay to my E-M10 with an el-cheapo K&F Nikon (G) to M43 adapter. That would normally be a recipe for disaster since non-AI lenses can bust the aperture feeler on modern Nikon gear, but the adapter works like a champ!

 Olympus E-M10 w/ Nikkor-P 105mm F/2.5 non-AI @ 1/250sec f/2.5 ISO6400

Ben Bilello

In short: The Oly doesn’t use focus-peaking on a manual lens, but the EVF on the Oly is bright and clear enough to make manual focus a snap. It also deactivates the image stabilization, so it is really a throwback experience. On the plus side it meters in “fake aperture-priority mode”! You have to view at the aperture you want to use, and the camera sets an appropriate shutter speed. Even the exposure comp works.

 Olympus E-M10 w/ Nikkor-P 105mm F/2.5 non-AI @ 1/250sec f/2.5 ISO6400

Vance Provey

I’ll probably look for a similar AI or AI-S version, plus a wide, to use on my ancient D200 body as well as with the adapter to M43. The non-AI mount may not have bodged the sub-$20 adapter guts, but it will wreck the D200’s innards.

Why I left Nikon and went Mirrorless

This is a post in two parts, and conceptually this is Part 2. Stay tuned for Part 1, How Nikon could be the Next Kodak (if they aren’t careful).

A few years back I was feeling particularly hemmed in by the classic DSLR experience. I was happy with the images from my Nikon D300, but not happy with the “eye to the finder” mode of shooting. Among the reasons is that I am a former Rolleiflex TLR user, and waist-level viewing is very pleasurable. It is less “in your face”, it gives a more natural eyepoint on some subjects, and it doesn’t involve blocking your face with a camera body. I also shoot a lot of live music and event photos, and shooting overhead is better when you can look up and see a real-time preview.

Some DSLR’s have live-view and an articulating display. I thought I had it figured out with a D3200. It was a very affordable way to hang a newer and more friendly body off of my existing DX glass. It was also light, had decent live view, a decent LCD display, shot HD video. The other side of the coin is that I was still lugging a heavy kit (17-55DX, 70-300VR DX, and a 35mm f/1.8 normal lens). The body was a little lighter, but not enough to make a day walking around the city any easier.

As I perused the camera landscape I saw that Olympus and Panasonic were making cameras with a newly spec’d “Micro Four Thirds” standard. As well, these cameras depend entirely on the sensor to provide the preview. Some have an electronic viewfinder (EVF), and all have a nice bright display (most articulate for waist level and overhead viewing at a minimum). Good glass was available, and the cameras were well received by the finicky photographic press. I took a walk over to my local Brick and Mortar (Camera Bar in Hartford, CT) and checked out the cameras in-person.

Rant on.

I did the right thing and bought my camera, a Olympus E-M10, from Camera Bar. I have been known to browse in person and buy on-line, but not for purchases where I have picked their brains and gotten some good non-pushy advice. YMMV, but I’m happy I did that. I’ve bought other cameras and accessories there, and will continued to do so. Good folks deserve my business.

Rant off.

The point of all this is that Nikon just announced that the DL, their anticipated entry into the mirrorless game, is being scrapped (the weak-selling 1-Series is not a factor here). I think they made the right move but for the wrong reason. What they should do (IMO, selfishly) is design a mirrorless camera that accepts their DX-mount lenses, which are affordable and often excellent, and ditch the swing-up mirror. A swing-up mirror is an anachronism in a camera for anything other than a few specialized pursuits. Of course it made sense at the birth of the DSLR. These cameras were built using existing 35mm film bodies and had digitals sensors swapped in where the film plane/pressure-plate had been. It allowed the big SLR makers to leverage their investment in SLR technology. Sensor technology was in its infancy, so asking the sensor to stay on all the time, as well as provide output to multiple displays, was a bridge too far.

For all the advances in DSLR technology, and those cameras continue to be excellent performers for both stills and video, what exactly is the mirror doing in a camera like a Nikon D7000 Or a Canon 5DMKII? My feeling is that it is truly vestigial and an annoyance for most users. These cameras have sensors that are clearly capable of running full tilt all day. Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror? Or more specifically: Why have a mechanical swing-up mirror in every level and every price range? (If you think Canon has fared any better in catching up with mirrorless tech… read THIS)

One of the advantages of the mirrorless generation is that they can use a shorter focal distance (the distance from the lens flange to the film plane), allowing a shallower and smaller camera body. But there is another advantage is the lack of a mirror mechanism. Entry-level gear like the Nikon D3200 I experimented with have a mirror mech with an expected MTBF of 50-100,000 actuations. Most could probably outlast that by a bunch, but then again most entry-level cameras will never see that many shutter presses. A professional or prosumer camera might be good for 150k actuations. Still, that’s a lot. But I’m not sure it is ever anything other than a noisy inconvenience in a consumer camera.

So that is where a company like Nikon, an also-ran in the story of mirrorless cameras, could really clean up and deliver something better than they currently provide without actually developing a new camera system and without the question of “do we throw yet another freakin’ lens mount into the alphabet soup that is modern photography equipment?”. Nikon should transition to a Mirrorless DX camera to supplant/continue the already good/great 3xxx series. Hell, you could reflex the light path 90-degrees with a fixed mirror/prism and gain a shallower body while still using the DX flange distance… just sayin’….

I wish I could have thrown in on an upgrade to my D300 and gone on loving the Nikon DX experience. But now that I have a few years of mirrorless under my belt, and my Nikon gear has languished (actually being passed on to my nephew) I can say with confidence that I am not ever going back. I could end up moving to Sony or Fujifilm and their excellent mirrorless products, or I could upgrade my E-M10 when the time is right, or maybe another Micro 4/3 body like Panasonic/Lumix… But no. Not going back.

I’ll speculate in Part 1, the prequel, about how things could really go sideways for Nikon if they screw this up and decide that they can be the torchbearer for traditional SLR technology.

P

The Real Work Begins

Today’s news includes the introduction of a bill to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency. To some it sounds like a great idea, to many more it sounds insane. We know, without doubt, what happens in the absence of a regulatory structure. When environmental protections are removed the profits are taken by corporations and the costs payed by the public in the form of adverse health effects and lowered standards of living. There is absolutely zero evidence that corporations will invest in pollution controls in the absence of regulations and an enforcement mechanism. Sure, the outright elimination of the EPA is overly simplistic and considered a longshot, but the Trump administration and the 115th Congress have shown that they will enact rule changes and sidestep protocols to get their way. So who knows.

It is right in line with today’s statement from Steve Bannon where he touted the importance of Trump’s moves to begin a “deconstruction of the administrative state”, which he pointed out was being achieved through the appointment of individuals from the private sector to key Cabinet positions where they can move to eliminate federal regulations.

I want to rant about how I have been in the environmental protection game for 30 years, and how we have made so much progress toward supporting businesses and away from the old cops v. robbers mentality. We as a nation have spent the past 60 years recovering from unchecked polluters. To unlearn that lesson and take the progress in our public health conditions for granted is a grave mistake.

But I have to point out something more fundamental: This is the same old GOP game where the banks, billionaires, corporations, and political insiders get paid in full and up front. The public is, as always, waiting for something to trickle down. And we know that they used the word “trickle” for a reason. It is important to set expectations as low as possible.

The hypocrisy of the Trump cabal is hidden behind their outrageous acts, their racism and thinly veiled white supremacy, their careless approach to international affairs, and dot dot dot. What I opined about in the days immediately after the election has been exactly the case: generals in all intel, security and civilian military posts; Goldman-Sachs running the financials; Billionaire donors, corporate raiders, and incompetents running the agencies.

Meanwhile the Trumps and their friends will never live in proximity to a water supply polluted by coal waste, or live downwind of a coal plant, or miss a National park turned into a stripmine, or get sick from pipeline spill fumes, or be the victim of a cancer-cluster. Their retirement savings won’t vanish like a fart in the wind when an unregulated bank fails and there is no federal insurance backing it. Their health care is a fraction of a percent of their income, not 35% or more. Their homes are not in danger of repossession when the next mortgage crisis inevitably happens. And the list goes on.

Deeper, the hypocrisy and cynicism is even worse. The talk about the fallacy of global warming is chapter and verse to them. Meanwhile their massive real-estate investments are secured by even more massive reinsurance companies that backstop insurance on expensive waterfront properties like Trump’s beloved Mar Y Lago. Reinsurance companies pioneered climate modeling because it helps them assess risk and more accurately value the assets they were insuring. That applies to coastal properties as well as less obvious locations like Manhattan and San Francisco. They will make sure that the private sector continues to make good use of climate models for covering their asses while the public policy the other 99.9% depends on is prevented from using it on an “idealogical basis”.

Inside every one of Trump’s military, security, and agency picks there is a common thread of private investors getting paid up front. Private prisons working with ICE/CBP, Private education companies under DeVos in the Department of Education, Trump’s own corporation (a massive customer of public housing grants) under Carson at HUD, Law firms lining up to support Pruitt’s dismantling of the EPA, and the list goes on.

As a citizen we are under a type of assault that we have not seen, ever, in world history. Our government is using information bombardment to make sure that nobody can focus adequately on one issue while in a whirlwind. The confusion is being compounded by the Trump administration’s constant attacks on the press, the public’s eyes and ears. This info carpet-bombing is having it’s share of success. Everything from the elimination of PBS to the rising spectre of a nuclear first strike, when a rudderless commander in chief needs an easy solution to a complex problem, are real concerns and all equally possible. Meanwhile we watch as a time-share hustling mobster disassembles the greatest democracy on earth.

The list will continue to go on. It is up to the citizenry of this country to call a spade a spade and demand accountability from our representatives, focus on the issues we know best, and do what we can to make a real difference.