Ever since I car remember, I’ve liked cover versions of songs. I imagine this grew out of my childhood discovery of Dr Demento and his protégé Weird Al Yankovic (and I remain a fan of his to this day). Hearing the blend of the familiar melody with new lyrics was always a treat, and then cover versions of songs are basically the converse: an unfamiliar arrangement of the older lyrics.

So I have been thinking about why some covers are more pleasing that others (to me: your mileage may vary), and I’ve been working on a rough taxonomy of the types of covers in service of that idea.

Type 1: the faithful re-creation. The example that always comes to my mind is Great White’s version of Led Zeppelin’s arrangement of the Joan Baez song “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” If you’ve heard Zeppelin, you know exactly what Great White is gonna do. These, for me, are the province of the bar band- You’re out with friends and it’s nice to hear something familiar, in pretty much the way you expect.

Type 2: change the style / genre. These are often done for comic effect (eg The Gourds “Gin and Juice” or Dread Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven“). Comic ones are fun, but I’m more interested in the serious genre adaptations. These are the mark of someone doing something interesting – ideally opening up a different perspective on the song while keeping it high quality. These range from Devo’s “Satisfaction” through Daze’s “Eleanor Rigby“.

Type 3: the replacement. Here, the cover version completely takes over the original, even to the point that the original artist will incorporate some part of the arrangement when s/he performs. The classic case of this is Hendrix’s arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower“.

So with those examples, here are some more recent covers I’ve encountered:

In the Air Tonight” by Nonpoint doesn’t quite gel- the genius of Phil Collins’ original was in the slow, steady increase of tension before bursting out with the most memorable drum fill ever. Nonpoint’s version is entirely too flat – there’s entirely too much going on to capture the rising tension, and the big fill feels more obligatory than cathartic. I’d call this a failed type 2.

On the other hand, Bad Wolves’ version of “Zombie” is a refreshing update of the original. Small lyric changes transform the song from being a historical time capsule about Ireland into a more global anti-war song – this, to me is when type 1 is done right: it’s respectful without being derivative.

And then you get Type O Negative’s version of “Cinnamon Girl“. I’m not quite sure what they were going for here; it’s somewhere between type 1 and 2, but done in such a way that it inspires nothing quite as much as wanting to go listen to the original Neil Young version.

The gripping hand, however, is holding Five Finger Death Punch’s version of “Gone Away“. This is such an improvement on the original that it’s hard to imagine how they uncovered this. FFDP created a delicate, emotional arrangement which revealed the brilliant song underneath The Offspring’s overly-flat version. This is type 3 at its finest.


A Fight Worthy of the King

Sarah and I went to see the 2015 Elvis’ Birthday Fight Club last night, and it was a return to greatness. We missed last year due to Roya’s impeding birth (although it turns out we could have made it). So now it turns out that we’ve seen 3 of the 5 so far, and only those odd-numbered years. Yep, we saw the chicken defeat Colonel Sanders (color commentary: “Col. Sanders is battering the chicken!”)

The show is a monument to dada and mockery, but done in a mostly good-natured manner. Two years ago, they ventured into the gross a bit overmuch, but they returned to form and stayed away from too much of the scatalogical humor. This year, one treat was the use of “Run to the Hills” as entrance music for one competitor.

The royal rumble with prior year’s contestants was particularly amusing (although I think the entrances were better than the actual fight). There is an encore performance this upcoming weekend, so I give no spoilers here, but merely state that it’s epic in a certain way. We didn’t win the velvet Elvis giveaway, sadly.


For Art’s Sake

Sarah and I went on our second actual date since becoming parents today – this time to see Tender Napalm at the Signature Theatre (the plus side of season tickets is the built-in date).

For the first time in my life, I actually walked out of a play while it was going on (about 1/3 of the way through). I’ve seen bad shows before – plotless, meandering craptastic shows, but this really reached a new low of “is my time worth this?”

The show is basically a man and woman trading obscene fantastic hate-filled stories at each other, while trying to maintain affected (lower class) British accents. I knew it was going to be bad when the opening phrase was “I could put a bullet between your lips”, but when it descended into abject (unfunny) farce was when the man said he’s shove a grenade up the woman’s c***. Lovely. And old news.

Seriously, go to 1:02 in Da Ali G show here. Yes, Sascha Baron Cohen wrote about “the terrorist who stuck a grenade up the queen’s poo***, and he’s got 48 hours to get it out.” Now, THAT was funny, and original, back when he did it. Now? Not funny, not original, not shocking.

Worse, the whole sex-as-violence metaphor is sooooooo tired. Haven’t we seen enough of this from actually good writers, say, JG Ballard, or James Tiptree Jr? This was old hat in the 90s. Heck, even Jane’s Addiction, in “Ted Just Admit It”, said

Camera got them images
Camera got them all
Nothing’s shocking
Showed me everybody
Naked and disfigured
Nothing’s shocking
And then he came
Now sister’s
Not a virgin anymore
Her sex is violent

That was 1988, for the record.

So I have no idea why other reviewers seem to think this play has actual emotional depth, but honestly, I’ve seen more depth in puddles.

All this play has is shock value, and even that has worn out – it’s more a testament to boredom and ennui than it is to love stories.

not recommended.

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

Sarah and I saw the new musical Crossing at the Signature Theater tonight as part of our season package.

In this musical, nothing happens. Eight caricatures of various time periods interact by having conversations which are occasionally interesting but mostly superficial and vapid, while being prodded along by one narrator/angel. The frame of the musical is that these are people from different time periods who are interacting, but nothing special actually makes that particularly interesting, other than perhaps to say that people have in fact been people throughout the decades. Good insight, Einstein.

The music is effectively songs strung together, but they aren’t memorable. I saw it literally half an hour ago, and as a professional musician and someone who has seen oodles of musical theatre, I find next to none of it comes to mind, other than that the penultimate bit included a series where all of the characters are asking “will it end” and “how much longer” and the like, which is a terrible, terrible idea when the play is eighty-three minutes of nothing happening.. And then there is this dance-lit crescendo where the “angel” (in quotes due to lack of explanation) sings a forgettable number and holds a big note. All righty then.

Oh, if you ever wondered whether eighty-three minutes could feel like forever, the answer is yes.

This is worse than just being a show I didn’t like. I didn’t like Arena’s “Red”, but that show was competently done (I just found Rothko so unpleasant that I wished I hadn’t spent two hours in his company, and I have never cared for Rothko’s artwork anyway), and there have been other things that I didn’t like, but I understood why other people did. No, this is different. This is a bad, bad musical. This musical is Spın̈al Tap two-word-review bad. I can’t think of the last thing I’ve seen which is this bad.

I’ve been more moved by high school productions of Chess than this. Someone in Signature Theatre really, really should have watched this in development, and should have realized that it stunk. According to the playbill, it’s been in development for more than five years. Seriously? And in that time, they couldn’t have added a plot? Come on, there are nine characters in an eighty-three minute play. If you can’t have something happen, get rid of most of them, and have them interact in depth (à la Waiting for Godot).

They say that given infinite time, an infinite number of monkeys will eventually type all of the works of Shakespeare. Apparently this is what happens if you don’t have that.

Gimme Some of the Good Stuff

First and foremost, The Franchise is coming back to the DC night life, with our comeback gig scheduled for May 2 @ 8PM at the newly-opening Treehouse Lounge over at 1006 Florida Ave NE. W00t!

We’ll be doing a half-and-half set – about half old favorites, and half stuff from our forthcoming album Movers and Shakers. (Aside: remember when “groups of songs you buy on iTunes” were called “albums”? I liked that name…). We’re still finalizing the set list now…


Our Sedarim were good, although our first one went from 9 people to 5 people abruptly (all due to illness, boo!), and so we ended up with brisket and chicken soup coming out of our ears. Now, it’s good brisket and chicken soup, so that’s not a bad thing, but it was too bad that we didn’t get to see Sarah’s sister, our nephew, and a pair of dear friends. C’est la vie

We did have a few treats – the awesome cookies made by Rella – clearly, she wants to see more of me! Also, we had some fabulous wine: a 2011 hagafen pinot noir was my personal favorite, although a 2009 Chateau le Bourdieu Bordeaux Medoc and a 2011 Tishbi Cabernet Sauvignon were close contenders. A disappointment was the Yogev Cab / Petit Verdot blend, but it suffered from being cups 3/4 – it’s extremely tannic, and so is an extremely bad fit for drinking quickly without complimenting really, really heavy beef (and those cups were *after* the meal).

A surprise hit this year was Sarah’s marmouna from Foods of Israel Today (excellent book – everything in it is good) – she made it with serrano peppers, and it was hot in a way that very little Jewish cuisine is, and it was fantastic.


After all of the sturm und drang, we didn’t end up making any quinoa so far this year. Go figure. I’ll have to make some for the last days, or I’ll feel silly.

Fee, Φ, Foe, Fum.

Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the SoulPhi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul by Giulio Tononi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phi attempts much, and achieves most, but not all, of what it attempts. It is a masterful work. The first thing I noticed about it was that it was extraordinarily heavy – the paper is very thick, and there are a tremendous number of beautiful images and illustrations in every chapter.

Tononi’s approach here could be viewed as derived from a combination of Dante’s Divine Comedy or from Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach. For the first, our protagonist (Galileo) is led by a guide (in our case a great thinker rather than Virgil) to meet various people through history and on a quest to identify the je ne sais quoi that is consciousness. For the second, after each of the encounters, the author includes his own notes (à la the GEB dialogues) describing the relative success or failure of the chapter in a metatextual context, as well as identifying the accompanying illustrations.

Tononi’s prose is lyric – far more than any writing about neuroscience has any call to be – and bears re-reading. His central thesis is that phi (Φ) is a measure of irreducible organized consciousness, and that a substrate such as a brain is required for consciousness (of high Φ at least) to exist. He begins by examining many possible ways brains can fail, some more tortured and hellish than others, and showing their effects on the consciousness of the individual (and perhaps unwittingly on the people around them).
He does a masterful job unravelling the challenge posed by the question “can a camera be conscious?” and shows that while only a single neural complex may be necessary to fire to recognize that it is “dark”, “darkness” can only be understood in relation to being not-anything else: not hot, not round, not pointy, not red, not salty – and that this unstated exclusion is the difference between the person in a dark room and a photodiode.

There are missteps: there is a chapter where Tononi admits his inspiration was Kafka’s The Penal Colony, and that chapter is as disturbing as the Kafka, although mercifully shorter. I think that Tononi could have gotten to the same points regarding the nature of pleasure and pain without resorting to horror and evil, but perhaps he tried and failed. I am not sure whether the book would have been better without that chapter, but it certainly would have been prettier.

The great fault to my mind is that for a book which includes the word “soul” in the title, they are inadequately treated – they seem little more than little more than more personable versions of the consciousness in Tononi’s view. He sees them as evanescent, brilliantly illuminating during life, and then winking out in a breath with the destruction of their host. This is disappointing to me: I would have hoped that there would be a greater distinction – perhaps that the soul is the part which would live on after the substrate has been vanquished. Or, to put it in Tononi’s terms, if there is a God, because by definition He does not cease to exist, then all of those Φ would continue in His sight. Tononi does not make that argument, but it would not have been out of place coming from one of several characters (not in the least Galileo).

The fault and the misstep do not make this book anything less than a masterpiece. I first got it from the library, and will buy a copy so that I can re-read it at leisure. I could not recommend this more highly.

View all my reviews

Can I play with [Katniss]?* (spoilers below the ===)

I had had The Hunger Games on my “to read” list for a long time – I had seen a quick synopsis, and it sounded great. Then it started to get more attention, and I heard things like “If you liked Twilight. you’ll LOVE this,” which was a humongo-turnoff, so I put it out of my mind. Sarah read and devoured the books, and she’s normally a slow reader, so I looked at that as a vote in favor, but then again she did actually *like* Twilight, so it was still a mixed vote. When the movie came out, she and I saw it on opening day (!) in good seats at the Uptown (!!) and it was excellent. So it got back onto my list to read.

I figured that it would be a good airplane read, so I picked it up from the library last week when I found out I’d be going away. Well, I was wrong about one thing – I couldn’t wait for the flight, and finished it within about 30 hours of starting, which then left me extremely hungry for the remainder of the series. Happily, the airport bookstore had used copies of the other two, and I made equally short work of those.

These are excellent books – they are everything that a “classic” juvenile novel (in the tradition of Robert Heinlein) is supposed to be: thought-provoking and challenging, rip-roaring, and extremely relatable. To really talk about the book requires spoilers, so if you haven’t read it, go read it and come back: I’ll still be here.

===========Spoilers Below!==============================

Welcome back. The libertarian sensibility of the overarching story is appealing to me – that the biggest enemy is the government, and that the government would think nothing of drafting its children for gladiatorial combat is a classic SF extrapolation of the evils of the totalitarian states of the 20th century. I particularly like the book-not-movie-Tolkien-style demonstration of how being in and complicit to warfare changes a person for the worse – even a just war is still dehumanizing. Apparently the revolution will be televised.

I didn’t catch until it was pointed out that the name of the country, Panem is Latin for “bread” (my old teachers are certainly shaking their heads at the schoolboy fail there), but I should have – certainly the Roman allegory is played up in the dystopian environment.

I thought that Collins did an excellent job of making Katniss appealing and competent without any of the hyper-competence which is all too common in much fiction (Harry Potter, I’m looking at you) – her failures and mistakes are the teaching moments which allow her to grow, and allow us the readers to be brought along in the narrative. Collins did abstract the world – as far as we know, there aren’t any countries other than Panem: if there were, why wouldn’t district 13 (or the capitol for that matter) have enlisted aid?

There was one blind spot – the books had a complete absence of religion, which calls out for an explanation. During all of the other oppressive regimes in human history, religion has been one of the things to which the subject population has turned – think of American slaves singing spirituals, or of the various folks who rebelled against the USSR or currently against China – religion ends up being a non-state-based force (not always for the good). It’s possible that Collins didn’t want to go into it in the context of a YA book (in much the same way that there is no sex, although there are oblique references to it), or it’s possible she’s making some larger point, but if the latter is the case I would not consider the point fully made.

========Spoilers End here============================

All in all, these are fabulous, worth reading, and exceedingly thought-provoking.

* Paraphrased from Iron Maiden.

Next (Time I) Fall

Sarah and I went to see Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall in Bethesda last week. The theme of the play is the clash of religious differences in a relationship. The specific case is a gay couple, one of whom is a young, idealistic, religious Christian, while the other is older, anti-religious, and extremely cynical.

Sarah had picked the show, so I knew a grand total of nothing about it before we arrived. When she told me the theme when we arrived, my heart sank a bit: Washington is an extremely secular area, and religion tends to be dealt with as an extremely harsh caricature is most of the modern theatre i’ve seen. Add to that the fact that it’s a gay couple, and I figured we were in for a few hours of beating up on religious strawmen.

Happily, my expectations were not met.

There are some of the same old tired arguments for and against Christianity were dredged up (in my opinion, the anti-arguments were a lot more tired), but viewed in the context of character development, they make sense. Of course they would have had some fights where those tired arguments were used – neither of their characters is supposed to be exceptional at argument, after all. The real center of the play was not the argument regarding who’s right: it was about the emotional conflict that their difference caused.

Nauffts did a masterful job holding this up from several perspectives – there were plenty of pointed anti-religious sentiments – but the thing that blew out my expectations was that he acknowledged the tremendous anti-religious bias which is rampant and endemic in some places. It’s fascinating see religion being treated as much of (or possibly more than) a “closet” issue than sexuality – and I certainly think that this reflects modern experience and sensibilities (in DC at least).

I was pleasantly surprised, and would give this play a strong recommendation. Definitely good work from the Round House.

A good nap spoiled

Sarah and I saw Red at the Arena Stage tonight, and it received a standing ovation from the majority of the crowd present.

Personally, I thought it was a poorly written, nearly plotless play about an unlikable, pretentious artist. The play dripped with condescension toward those who disagree with whatever art fad is currently in fashion, and both lauded and legitimized the view that only the artist can determine the “proper” customers of his (or her) art.

I know little about the real-life Rothko, although I know that I do not like his work – the vibrancy, pulsing, and other terms which are usually applied to it is utterly invisible to me. When compared to his contemporary René Magritte, Rothko’s deficiency becomes painfully obvious. However, if he was as unpleasant as this play makes him seem, then I’m particularly surprised that anyone was willing to give him the time of day, much less treat him as part of a new artistic vanguard.

Sarah thought the play was somewhere between “ok” and “pretty good,” so she had a significantly higher opinion of it than it did, but she likewise was surprised by the ovation.

Given the audience’s reaction, I can tell that my opinion is in the minority (singularity?) on this. Whether this is me expressing my philistinic lack of cultured appreciation or describing the emperor’s nakedness is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

*נכנס יין יצא סוד

I’ve been a relatively temperate wine aficionado for several years, but only developed the taste after starting to keep kosher. I initially liked the sweeter wines – like Baron Herzog’s white zinfandel (whose label boasts “hints of cotton candy”) or the assorted moscato d’astis (closer to a wine cooler than they are to champagne). Eventually I graduated up to a more complex palate (i.e. wine that is good with dinner rather than dessert), and have preferred a nice dry red wine (preferably pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, or tempranillo varietals or blends) over the alternatives.

For a few years, there was a small not-quite-synagogue-based wine club – we jokingly styled ourselves the “Georgetown society for the promotion of inebriation” and would have blind tastings. The person who could identify the most wines was the winner, who received the acclaim of the rest and then had to host the next tasting. Oodles of fun, but eventually things changed – Sarah stopped drinking alcohol, so these events got a lot less pleasant for her, and some of the regulars moved away, so the whole thing basically petered out.

So I’ve settled down into a nice comfy rhythm involving inexpensive table wines. But then a friend of mine who was a wine guy from before he kept kosher told me that he was on a quest for a non-mevushal Bordeaux. I had encountered plenty of mevushal ones, and they were pretty good to my uncultured palate, but his opinion was that the heating process wrecked the delicate balance of the flavors, rendering those wines more disappointing than not.

So this piqued my curiosity, and I set about looking for non-mevushal Bordeaux wines, and I found a few. Most were out of my price range by a factor of 2-3, but one happened to be below $20: the Château La Chèze 2002 was around $19, so I got a few bottles. I now see what this friend was talking about: this Bordeaux is vastly more complex and delicate than the mevushal varieties that I’ve tried, and it was an absolute delight. I don’t have an educated enough palate to even know what all of the words the wine people use mean, but this seemed to change flavor both between sips, and also while it was on my tongue. If a good pinot noir were Newtonian physics, then this is quantum electrodynamics.

I suspect that more of this will be in my future.

*Eruvin 65a – “wine comes in, and a secret departs”