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Thursday, February 24, 2011

If I gambled I might try out this theory




First, a quick note about how gambling works. There are basically three types of gamblers: The everyday guys, the big fish and the sophisticated gamblers.

The everyday guy bets his gut and falls prey to all sorts of cognitive biases like confirmation bias. This guy is basically the cash cow that the books make their money on. They don't bet a lot of money, but there are a lot of them. Their bets are no better than guessing, and any time the books get you to that point, they will make their money. The everyday guy will bet on "his team". The bet is usually about a show of loyalty and maybe some sort of misguided belief that they know things that nobody else does, because they read an article that's freely available to the public.

The big fish is more sophisticated, he knows more about which team is likely to cover (or win, depending on the type of bet), but his problem is that he likes huge bets on single outcomes. He does better than guessing, by a little bit. However, he falls prey because if he wins big on one bet he'll just bet more on a subsequent win, until eventually he gets wiped out and has to start from scratch. You can only make money in gambling if you eventually remove money from your "gambling pot" and stop putting it back in the form larger bets. Because everybody loses at some point. For the big fish, it's not so much about making money, it's about the thrill of gambling. Sure, they love to win, but they love the adrenaline rush of the risk more than anything else. And to keep getting that adrenaline rush, you have to keep betting more and more. Also, for some reason they tend to get a bigger rush when they're betting for something instead of against something, so they tend to focus on things they think are undervalued and bet for them. This is a subtle, yet often important point we'll come back to later.

The sophisticated gamblers are those that pick and choose their moments carefully and always spread their risk by betting smaller sums on a LOT of games. They use a lot of statistics and will occasionally bet on games they know nothing about, if the statistics tell them so. These guys can actually make a living betting on sports, as long as there are enough common guys and big fish out there that the books still have to set the lines around them, and not the sophisticated gamblers. The sophisticated gamblers look at gambling as a science and tackle it in a very cold sophisticated way. Many don't even enjoy gambling, in fact they wouldn't be as good at it if they did. For them it's purely a job, they're no different than a market analyst. In fact many of them are former wall street quants.

So to make money gambling, you have to understand a few things:

1) lines aren't set so that the books equal the probability for each team to win. Lines are set to have equal money coming in as much as possible. Because this equals out their risk.
2) You need to find occasions where you think that big fish and regular guys will have some reason to overvalue one side or another and bet against that. You aren't betting against the teams, you're betting against the other gamblers.
3) Regular guys bet with their heart and common information. You can get a good idea of where they will bet based on which team has the larger betting fanbase and by reading popular ESPN articles.
4) Big Fish tend to be a little more sophisticated, mostly betting on things that they think are undervalued. For instance, in baseball they tend to bet on the team with the higher OBP.
5) Sophisticated guys tend to bet against things they think are overvalued.
6) Unless you bet for the joy of it, you want to be the sophisticated guy.

How do you find something that is overvalued? Usually you have to find some statistic that is highly correlated with a team's success, yet also highly unstable, that is not an easily repeatable skill and very much a product of luck.

Some examples:

MLB: batting average with runners in scoring position. For a long time you could make a killing in baseball by getting AGAINST the team with the higher batting average with runners in scoring position. It's been more or less statistically proven that hitting with runners in scoring position isn't really a repeatable skill. Teams almost always regress to what their overall batting average is, plus a couple of points (for reasons too numerous and complicated to go into here, most hitters are going to hit slightly better with runners in scoring position, not because of skill, but because of systematic differences in the situation). Yet hitting with runners in scoring position is highly correlated with success. You can still make SOME money with this approach, but not nearly as much as the good old days when the first thing that made someone like a player or team was clutch hitting.

NFL: Red Zone Offense and Defense. Unlike hitting with runners in scoring position, this is a valuable skill that some teams are going to be systematically better or worse at. However, it's still overvalued. This area is again highly correlated with a team's success, but it's also at least partially, if not primarily based on luck. You're isolating just a few moments in a game and giving them enormous importance in the outcome of the game. Any time this happens, it's often the case that the "skill" becomes overvalued. You can win a lot of games very simply by taking a team's redzone offense and defense rankings, adding them and then betting AGAINST the one with the better composite ranking. Hypothetical Example: Indianapolis v. Jacksonville (Indy 3.5 point favorite) Indianapolis is ranked 12th in red zone offense and 22nd in redzone defense. Jacksonville is ranked 23rd in redzone offense, but 3rd in redzone defense. Indianapolis' composite score is 34 v. Jacksonville's composite score is 25. Bet on Indianapolis. This may seem highly counterintuitive, betting on the statistically worse team, but remember, its not that you are betting on a team, its that you're betting against things that are overvalued. Red Zone offense and defense, being highly important to game outcome, yet largely based on luck, tend to be overvalued.

NBA: 3 point FG % defense. Again, this is a valuable skill, and skill has a lot to do with it, but again, luck has a lot to do with it as well, and it tends to be slightly overvalued when it comes to game outcomes because of how important it is to game outcomes, yet how relatively small the sample size is.

Early in the season, bet against teams with more rabid fanbases. Early in the season the big fish tend to lay low. There isn't yet a lot of information out there on which teams are better, making large single bets especially dangerous. Yet, there is some money to be made if you know how to bet against the regular guys, who are just as likely to bet early in the season as late in the season (excluding playoffs, where everybody bets more). Remember, regular guys bet with their heart, so it's often a good strategy to roughly gauge the rabidity and size of the fanbases and bet against teams whose fanbases vastly outpace their opponents. Early in a season, it's a pretty good idea to bet against the Cowboys in a matchup against the Jaguars. Whtever that line is, you can almost assure it will be slightly too high in favor of the Cowboys to bring in money for the Jaguars, but won't ever quite get "right" because of the Cowboys perpetually large, optimistic and rabid fanbase.

The major key here to being a sophisticated sports gambler is realizing what you're gambling against. You're gambling against the other gamblers. Thus you must focus not on which team you think is better, you must gamble against what you think is overvalued by the other gamblers. Especially the regular guys and the big fish. You also have to realize that this only wins on average, and that your best bet is to find quality strategies and bet small sums on a LOT of games, rather than large sums on a few games. Statistics work best over large samples.

Of course the best strategy is not to gamble and invest your money in bonds and stable stocks with good fundamentals. But I digress.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Two Roomates Discussing Radiohead's The King of Limbs

Occam's Razor, as applied to dinosaur extinction

Wikipedia's page on theories of dino extinction is several thousand words long.

or we could consider:


I think Occam's answer is clear.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Album Review: Radiohead - The King of Limbs




Radiohead's latest offering is something akin to those days when you have a lot of things you are supposed to do, but you get caught up in a couple of things, do an amazing job on them and then kind of half ass the rest.

King of Limbs is short, 37 minutes total playing time. This is exacerbated by the fact that really this is a 4 song EP, with 4 generic ambient trance* beat tracks they slapped on the beginning to create a full album.

But boy, what a 4 song EP. To be clear, this is a continuation of Radiohead's general trend as these four songs could easily have been fit onto In Rainbows. They would have been amongst the better tracks on that album, which is impressive, since it was a very good album.

Putting 4 complete snorers to open the album would be risky for any band out there besides Radiohead, as I don't even think that Animal Collective would get people to listen to that 5th track if they had put those 4 to start. Yet, with Radiohead it's almost like a sort of joke where Thom is saying "you thought that was going to be what the album was like for a second, didn't you? And you were really worried about how you were going to justify liking this, nah dawg, I'm just playin' here is the real album."

When the actual physical album is released, it's supposed to go on two 10" vinyls, and I'm guessing the songs will be divided up 4 and 4**, which will mean that this really is a 2 EP album, where one EP is terrible and the other is brilliant.

I'd call the last 4 songs a mix of the better parts of Amnesiac and In Rainbows. Give Up The Ghost is ethereal in the best sense. Some breathtakingly beautiful stuff going on here. Because of how short the EP is (yes, I am going to obnoxiously refer to this as an EP), it's not a big deal that the thing is somewhat same-y, as it's hard to get tired of it in 16 minutes. Especially when it's that great.

*Apologies if I used the descriptive terms for that genre incorrectly, its not one that I am familiar with, never having been addicted to ecstasy and all.

** Or, alternatively we may have only heard half the album thus far, as the internet speculation is running. Until we receive something other than these 8 tracks I am going to treat what has been released as the entirety.

1st 4 songs: 58/100
last 4 songs 90/100



Thursday, February 17, 2011

Album Review - Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi



It took me about three weeks, but I really warmed up to this seductive self titled debut.

When I first started to get into the album, one of the first things I did was try to find out who the guitarist was, as the guitar playing was brilliant, perfect for the song, yet distinctive. To my astonishment, Anna Calvi is the guitarist. There is perhaps nothing sexier in the world than a great female guitarist and Anna Calvi backs that up, and then some.

Everything about this album screams sultriness. From her voice, to her John Barry like compositions, to her sultry guitar tone (Fender Telecaster through a Vox AC30) to her lyrics. This album isn't sex. This album is seducing you from across a room, dancing late into the night in a smoky jazz club, bringing you back to her place, making passionate love and then having you walk home at 4 AM confused about what just happened.

The music tends toward a combination of latin/flamenco-ish rhythm, jazzy guitar lines and very Shirley Bassey meets Nina Simone vocals.

84/100







Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Black Keys: A brief history and a mini-review of Brothers (why is it so great again?)



I've been following The Black Keys for quite a while now. My uncle, who I grew up with, is pretty tapped into the blues scene, they owned and operated a blues club for several years. They had heard tell of this duo of young guys doing a sort of Junior Kimbrough tribute type thing. Shortly thereafter we actually received an advance copy of The Big Come Up.

In these early years The Black Keys were copying a long tradition in blues music, the guitar/drums duo. This wasn't some new idea, like many seemed to think due to The White Stripes recent popularity. These older blues musicians had been doing this for nearly a century, not to accomplish some sort of "sound" but to split the small pot as few ways as possible. Typically the drummer was paid less than the guitarist/vocalist in such setups as well.

Not only were The Black Keys copying a traditional blues format, but Auerbachs guitar style was a watered down version of Junior Kimbrough (who the band has covered numerous times on several albums and released a tribute album to).

It was very good for a slightly fresh take on a traditional blues duo. However, white kids have been trying to play more or less traditionalist blues for a really long time. They were perhaps noticeable because the blues artists they were copying were relatively obscure blues artists, and most noticeably not Stevie Ray Vaughn, who most of the young white blues guys were (and still are) copying at the time. That being said, they were outright rejected by some of the more knowledgeable indie crowd because they were producing really straightforward blues rock. They were rejected by the blues traditionalist crowd because of their strict adherence to North Mississippi style blues, which wasn't particularly en vogue with the older white guys who controlled the blues traditionalist scene at the time (Chicago blues were and are the dominant style in that scene).

Thickfreakness saw them take large leaps forward as a duo. Patrick Carney became a substantially better drummer, Dan Auerbach became a much better guitarist and singer. Most noticeably their songwriting drastically improved and they stopped leaning on covers as much. They were still producing the same raw blues retrofits, but at a much higher level at this point. Auerbach finally revealed himself as a great crafter of simplistic, yet catchy guitar riffs. And his guitar tone was brutal in a good way. The downside was that The Black Keys didn't have very much sonic diversity up their sleeves and the songs could get "same-y" really quick. Any song off the album could sound great in isolation, but listened to as a whole and you found yourself eventually letting the album become background music, as everything quickly turned quite predictable.

Then they dropped their bombshell. I can still remember the first time I heard Rubber Factory. It was everything The Black Keys had been, but tighter, more catchy and more sonically diversified. Instead of just being neo-blues standard bearers, they were a real Rock and Roll force to be reckoned with. Auerbach had grown to incorporate several different guitar styles and tones throughout the album, and even played fiddle and lap steel at times. Carney had perfected his brutal at times, but often very syncopated drumming style. The biggest leap forward was they had learned to write more than one song. A prior criticism of the band was something along the lines of "that one song they wrote was great, they just rewrote it 13 more times." Here they ventured from the stark, hypnotic When The Lights Go Out to the catchy, funky Girl Is On My Mind, to the sweet Lengths. Instead of being a weak shadow of their influences the band had transcended their influences to be something that while derivative, was great in its own right. The album was generally critically acclaimed, except by Rolling Stone, who gave it a mixed review. The album put the band out there in the indie scene solely by its undeniable brilliance. But it didn't get them all the way out there. A lot of indie hipsters still didn't really like them. They were far too traditionalist and sounded sort of like a lot of the music their parents liked.

The duo then tooled around for a couple of years, releasing a tribute album to Junior Kimbrough called Chulahoma and another album called Magic Potion, which was good, but certainly not of the level of Rubber Factory. The band was treading water at this point and was losing a lot of the momentum that they had built up with their steady ascendancy with their first three albums. Then they got their big break.

If one man could be called The Coolest Person In The World in 2008, it was probably Danger Mouse. He had built incredible amounts of credibility in both the popular music world and the indie rock world. His most revered work was a never released mashup album he compiled of The Beatles' White Album and Jay-Z's Black Album, called (oddly enough) The Grey Album. In fact not that many people have ever heard this album, but the idea sounded like perhaps the coolest thing in the history of the world to many, and the fact that evil record companies had suppressed the album only further built Danger Mouse's legend. So in 2007, when a collaboration with Ike Turner fell through due to Turner's unfortunate death (it's a tragedy that Ike Turner will be forever remembered as just the guy who beat Tina Turner. With all his flaws he was a truly great musician.), Danger Mouse agreed to produce the band's next album. All the stars were lined up for The Black Keys to burst upon the scene and conquer the world.

The unfortunate problem was that the album was not very good. Attack and Release screams of being forced. You might call it the equivalent of a 16th century arranged royal wedding, in theory its a great idea bringing together two giants from different worlds, it makes a lot of people happy, but in actuality the two don't really work together. It received near universal mixed reviews, mostly by publications that desperately wanted it to be a great rock record and save rock and roll music. And it just wasn't. Danger Mouse didn't understand The Black Keys and The Black Keys didn't really get what Danger Mouse was after either. It came off as an aimless record devoid of the brutal, "we're taking over the world" mentality that permeated Rubber Factory so effectively. Most notably Carney's take no prisoners drumming style seemed to be neutered. The album had its moments, but as a whole it fell really flat.

However, what the album did was get their name out there. If indie kids love anything, it's the idea of an unusual collaboration. You'll often read Kanye West reviews by indie blogs where the only thing they ever seem to mention was who he collaborated with or sampled. The sign that they worked with Danger Mouse, and that Danger Mouse was willing to work with them, was an affirmation to many, in and of itself. Even if the resulting album wasn't all that great.

So you now had a band that were indie darlings, yet their current album wasn't really good enough to quite earn them fame yet. A band with a reputation, with a few good/great albums out there, that just needed to give the indie world something to like.

Enter Brothers. A very good album, with great packaging. An album that was introduced right as both the indie world was primed to like the band and popular culture had began to be inundated with 15 second clips of the band's past hits. (this reaffirms two points about The Black Keys, they sound fantastic in 15 second clips and they are sellouts that somehow get a pass for it, not that there's anything wrong with selling your music, but why do they get a pass while Moby was skewered? Also of note was that almost all the songs on those commercials and movie trailers were from Rubber Factory) Somehow the confluence of all these factors led to the album being massively overrated. It was a good album, to be sure, but it wasn't their best album, by a long shot. It certainly wasn't as good as other albums in 2010. Yet many outlets pegged it as their album of the year and it won a Grammy for Alternative Album of the Year.

The album was simply a mixing of the less inspired moments of Thickfreakness and Rubber Factory. I defy anyone to listen to Brothers back to back with Rubber Factory and tell me that Brothers even remotely holds a candle. The album lacks the rawness that the best moments on Rubber Factory had. It lacks the tenderness of The Lengths. Auerbach seems much less inclined to just go for big moments, vocally or with his guitar. His tone seems more subdued, less raw. And the songs aren't as well structured, catchy or compelling. There are certainly moments, again, but none of the highs are as high and the album runs into that "same-y" rut that their first two albums did. But yet it's by far their best selling album and most critically acclaimed.

What we can see here is that the confluence of so many factors: the packaging of the album, the band's exposure on commercials, movies, The Colbert Report, indie blogs, etc and their traditionalist mass appeal combined with their recently found indie cred. These all combined to create an unstoppable tour de force, regardless of whether or not the album is actually great instead of just good.

Rating for Brothers: 79/100

Friday, February 11, 2011

10 Books That Changed The Way I Think About Things

These 10 books aren't necessarily my 10 favorite books of all time, though some of them would be on that list. These are the 10 books that most fundamentally altered the way I think.

10) Tortilla Flat - John Steinbeck

I got this as a 13th birthday present from an aunt. The book was paired up with Of Mice And Men, which is much better known. I can only guess that this was done to make the book thicker, because the publisher did some study on the optimal thickness for book sales, and the relatively short Of Mice and Men couldn't be stretched into that thickness. I found Of Mice and Men to be kind of trite and not all that interesting. Tortilla Flat was another story entirely though. The book has a lot to say about how we fit in our friend groups,our motivations in life and more than anything else it really illustrates the humanity of us all. You come away from the novel caring deeply for relatively unremarkable characters that you wouldn't think twice about in real life. This book probably made me a more compassionate person.

9) The Things They Carried - Tim O'Brien

Read this at 17 and it probably shaped my views on war more than any other book. Namely that it's stupid and usually isn't necessary.

8) The Diamond Age - Neal Stephenson

I read this last year. A lot of different themes are covered here, very little of which actually has to do with science fiction. The book is mostly about relationships in all their myriad forms. The relationships we have with our friends, relatives, those in power, those "below" us, with society and with ourselves.

7) The Chronicles of Narnia - C. S. Lewis

Like a lot of kids I read them when I was 12. I don't think I can really say exactly how they influenced my thinking, just that they have.

6) The Man Who Knew Too Much: Steven Turing and the Invention of the Computer - David Leavitt

I don't think this book is particularly well written, but the story of Turing is enough to drive just about any biography. Alan Turing did more to defeat Hitler and save his country (Britain) than any other single person in the whole world. More than Eisenhower, more than anybody in Band of Brothers. Turing nearly singlehandedly broke the Enigma coding machine that the Germans used to send coded messages. Of course this wasn't going to beat Hitler all by itself, but in so doing, Turing probably saved more lives than can be fathomed. Yet, after the war he was condemned for being unashamedly homosexual. Threatened with chemical castration, he took his own life. He also invented the computer, more or less. How this changed me was to further cement the idea that societally/religiously received ethics are often pure evil. Because one man's happiness disgusted some, he was condemned. The very man that had basically saved the whole country was condemned by that country.

5) The Great Transformation - Karen Armstrong

This book can probably be credited with me not being a militant atheist, while at the same time cementing a lot of disdain I have for the way a lot of religion is practiced and invoked.

4) The Blank Slate - Steven Pinker

Really shaped my thinking on the human mind, and how it works. Which is kind of a big deal.

3) Complexity - Mitchell Waldrop

To me, this book is about what makes things interesting. Things that don't change much are too boring, things that change too rapidly are just static. Things that ride the thin line of complexity is where all the magic happens. Profoundly shaped my views on intelligence, humanity, aesthetics and just about anything else you can think of.

2) Freedom Evolves - Daniel Dennett

This book was almost like a clarification of things I already thought. It really focused what I feel about free will and what we are.


1) The Christian Bible - Various (or God, depending on your views)

Living in a Western culture, even when The Bible isn't directly influencing your thought, you're usually thinking in reaction to it. For any person brought up in a Western Culture, to say that The Bible isn't their single largest influence is probably folly. You cannot help but be influenced by it. Regardless of if you are an Atheist, the most devout of Christians, Jewish or an agnostic.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Quick review - Two albums not to buy: Adele - 21 & James Blake - Self Titled

Seemingly, you couldn't get more different than James Blake's self titled debut and the new Adele album, 21. But in fact they have a lot in common. They're thoroughly mediocre albums covered up by "gimmicks".

In Blake's case, its the stark voice with odd phrasing and eclectic instrumentation. The album is very weird, but somehow not interesting. A lot of people will mistake this for profundity. It's not, it's just weird, yet boring music. A rare feat indeed, but rare for good reason, nobody wants to make music like this, and perhaps nobody should.

55/100

Adele covers over an album of thoroughly boring songs with an amazing voice. Call it Whitney Houston syndrome, an all world vocal talent that can outright stop you flat on your feet with the right song, that is unfortunately condemned to singing songs that a singer with a lesser voice would recognize as near awful. I give her credit for trying to write her own songs, but just give it up dear. Find a really brilliant songwriter and write maybe 1-2 of your own songs. 19 showed promise that she may one day become a good songwriter, 21 showed that she probably doesn't have it in her. Chin up though darling, neither did Aretha Franklin, she just had the good sense not to try.

60/100

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Album Review - Good Old War - Good Old War

Good Old War - Good Old War


Recommended if you like: Dr. Dog, The Beatles, syncopated pop drumming, extensive use of vocal harmony, acoustic guitar riff based songs

Good Old War are a difficult band to understand why they're not more popular in the indie pop scene. They seem to be reviewed overwhelmingly positively whenever they are reviewed. They seem to run in the right sorts of circles. However, they don't get the publicity that similar type acts do. Part of it may stem from their seeming lack of deference to the conventions of the indie pop aesthetic or the indie scene's ethos in general. The problem being they seem to very earnestly want to make good music. If there is one major no-no for indie cred, it's seeming like you're actually trying to make good music. You're supposed to seem like some super genius that rolls out of bed, has a mic setup and just sings some parts and then plays some guitar.

Good Old War don't fit this mold, which is perhaps why they're an odd mix for the indie pop scene, despite looking the part and having all the correct superficial affectations of a proper indie pop band. The good thing is that the music is all the better for it. Good Old War craft their songs in a way that most indie bands are too lazy, unable, or unwilling to do. They have a keen ear for arrangements and how parts fit together and don't like imperfection for imperfection's sake. Playing you music well? What a refreshing and novel idea!

In a description of Good Old War, you obviously must begin with their vocals. Keith Goodwin is the principal singer. Goodwin has a more or less unremarkable voice tone wise. That's not to say it's not a great voice, it's just not remarkable in the sense of a Bon Iver, for example. He could be any indie pop singer tonally. However, he is an excellent technical singer, with a solid if not excellent tenor range. His vibrato is very subtle to the point of almost not being there, which requires him to sing dead on pitch every time (wide vibrato allows you to miss your pitch by a good margin), which he does. In fact, I don't believe that a more distinctive voice would work with Good Old War's songs. Because of the vanilla nature of his tone, it allows him to layer his vocals effortlessly upon the other vocalists of the group.

Tim Arnold and Dan Schwartz could likely be amongst the better front men of any other group, as both have excellent vocal ranges themselves and strong, but again, tonally unremarkable voices. As all three singers have rather unremarkable voices, tonally, where does the spark come from? The spark comes from the vocal melodies, counterpoint lines and harmonies. It's a somewhat remarkable thing these days to actually have a band write great parts, and not just try to cover up rather boring melodies with remarkable vocal tone. Amos Lee, for example, has an incredible voice, but sings over some of the most boring melodies you'll find. Good Old War, by virtue of not being able to just wow you with their voices must write great melodies and parts for their vocals. That's why their music is so refreshing and why people always immediately think of The Beatles, another band with unremarkable tonal voices, but a fantastic feel for vocal harmony and melody.

Instrumentally, they have a tendency to sparse, but fully formed instrumentation. In an overwhelming majority of their songs, you'll find acoustic guitar. All three members play acoustic guitar at times, but Dan Schwartz is the principal guitarist. If the primary element to Good Old War's sound is the vocal parts, Dan Schwartz's understated, yet perfect for the song guitar parts are the secondary ingredient. One could perhaps mistake Schwartz for a guitarist without major chops if you're not listening carefully. While his parts are understated and he seems to disdain the "look at this badass guitar solo" mentality, his parts, when examined more closely, reveal an incredible complexity and understanding of how music works and fits together. And when the song requires it, he can absolutely rip, as evidenced by the riff he plays in Get Some around the 1:32 mark. Even though this is an incredibly difficult technical guitar line, it fits right in the song and doesn't scream of virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity. The more you listen to Good Old War's albums, the more you appreciate the subtle brilliance of the guitar work.

The third major element to Good Old War's sound is Tim Arnold's drumming/percussion. In a band, a drummer serves two purposes: to keep the band in time and to create a rhythmic drive. Arnold's drumming tends towards the latter role, far more than the former. This isn't to mean that the band is out of time, as they're always on beat, it's that because the instrumentation is so comparatively sparse, there aren't a lot of instruments that the drummer needs to keep in time. And the musicians are good enough to stay on time without a steady hit the 1 and 3 beat from the drummer anyway. His style therefore tends toward heavy syncopation and subtle use of polyrhythm. His drumming is as much of a lead instrument at times as Schwarts's guitar, and in fact, at times the two reverse traditional roles, with Schwartz's guitar being mostly a time keeping instrument and Arnold's drumming playing lead lines. This gives their a music a rhythmic feel very different from traditional pop music. Arnold will also play accordion at times, to broaden up the tonal palette of the band. It's not a significant part of the band's overall sound, but does add significantly the feel of certain songs.

If you'll notice, Good Old War doesn't have a dedicated bass guitarist. Some songs eschew the bass entirely, some have its duties filled by the acoustic guitar or keyboards. Some have a very straight forward "play the root note on the beat" type bass. When there, the bass is usually so "root note, straight on the beat" and subtle that it's actually hard to pick up that it's there at all. Live, the band usually doesn't have a bassist. Sneaky Louise is one of the few songs on the album with an identifiable, strong bass line. Which perhaps is one of the reasons why it sounds so different from other songs on the album, despite being structurally similar.

Arrangement wise, the band tends towards making heavy, heavy use of counterpoint and harmony, to extents that very few current bands do. This leads to their songs often being heard as more of a successful piling of parts on top of one another than anything else. Each instrument often has its own story to tell. When listening to Good Old War's songs, it's often fun to listen to the same song several times back to back, trying to isolate a different instrument or voice each time, listening for the distinct flavor each piece adds, and then listen to the whole song together as an overall piece of music. You'll often be left with an awe inspiring sense of how the song was put together.

If the band has one weakness, its that at times they may be too subtle for their own good. Many times the most interesting parts are covered up a bit, which can make some songs seem a bit less interesting than they actually are. For instance, on the ninth track, While I'm Away, the primary melody line is perhaps the most boring part of the song, yet you have to listen very hard to pick up on the acoustic guitar work and percussion, which is where the real magic happens in the song. The band's greatest strength is their reliance on melody, but it is may well be their only major weakness as well, as when the melody doesn't soar the song can come away uninspired, despite the fact that there are a lot of interesting parts that, if put more upfront, could carry the song.

As an album, maybe the only thing left seriously wanting on this effort is a truly catchy song like Coney Island from the band's debut effort, Only Way To Be Alone. That isn't to say that the album is devoid of spectacularly great songs, because it's not. Those songs just aren't catchy in the same sense. I feel the album could have benefited from one song with a more identifiably catchy "big" hook. Even if that's not their thing. It's a minor squabble and on another album I may not have mentioned it at all, but I almost felt like I had to pick something out that keeps this from being an absolutely perfect record and that's about all I could find.

As to those aforementioned standout tracks, I'd label That's Some Dream, My Own Sinking Ship, I Should Go, Here Are The Problems and Get Some as the standouts, in roughly that order.

The album begins with "Good", an instrumental piece that takes it's name from the first part of the band's name, which in turn takes it's name from putting together the three band members last names (GOODwin, arnOLD, schWARtz). In this short little piece you get a sense of their compositional ethos. This is VERY heavy counterpoint and syncopation. Then they throw some pretty vocal harmonies on top. Even though this isn't a particularly noteworthy piece, in and of itself, it is notable in what a departure it is from the band's previous effort, Only Way to Be Alone. There the first track was perhaps the albums' strongest track, Coney Island. I believe this is one of many indicators of a shift in the band's confidence. On their debut, the band was a bit unsure of themselves and their abilities at times, or at least with how they would be received. So they felt they needed to start the album with their best material, because they weren't sure that a potential listener would get to track two if track one wasn't stellar. Here the band seems confident in their music and craft to the point of saying "wait for it, because we know you will, because it's that good."

This segues right into one of the better tracks on the album, Here Are the Problems, so they didn't make you wait that long. The song features a very heavy drum beat and a lot of pauses. The verses are sang in three part harmony at times and at times with an underlying vocal "ah" line. The structure is verse, prechorus, verse, prechorus, bridge, prechorus, chorus, instrumental verse outro. The chorus isn't repeated and only stands out as the chorus by way of its soaring faux key shift. It's not repeated and you have to wait until the end, and even then a brief pause before it hits, but when it does, its near magical, despite being a pretty simple melody. The trick here is in the payoff and the song's structure, if the chorus had come in earlier, or been repeated, it perhaps wouldn't stand out as much. Lyrically, the overall very sad lyrics are contrasted starkly by the very upbeat major tonality. If the lyrics are just read on their own you would come away with a feeling of a relationship that has fallen apart. However, the music leads you to believe that the subject still feels that there is hope that these are only problems to be worked through, not the death knell of the relationship, like the lyrics on their own account indicate. Which one is the true account? Is the relationship doomed or is there a sliver of hope? The listener is left with a sort of delicious ambiguity.

The next song, My Own Sinking Ship, seems to answer this ambiguity. This is perhaps the most single-esque song on the album. It's somewhat telling that the band has the song that is most like a single be a response to another song. It seems to indicate they view themslves as an "album oriented band" that may have a few singles, but are mostly about the whole picture the album paints. The song seems to be an answer to the previous, in that the two lovers seem to be in the process of reconciling. Problems still obviously exist, and there is an underying tone of sadness in parts. However, the chorus is one of resolution in the relationship and forgiveness of the transgressor. The chorus says "oh it's the last time we'll fall in love / it's the last try to break apart / you are not to blame." Ambiguity still exists though, because the author could just as easily be saying "this is the last time I'll go through this, if it doesn't work this time, we're done." The song also has one of the most simple, yet new and refreshing takes on a love lyric I've heard in "Can't remember your last smile / I think I made it happen though / Then I took you off to work once more / But I just want you, I just want you / I just want you here." Such a simple lyric, but I can't recall another that sums up this exact sentiment in such a starkly beautiful way. Musically the song mirrors this ambiguity, with sad sounding verses and sweet sounding choruses. In the first song the ambiguity was accomplished with music that conflicted with the lyrical content. Here the ambiguity is achieved by having the music match the lyrical content, but having two competing sentiments in both.

Next, on Making My Life, apparently our star crossed lovers have again fallen apart and again we have our author begging for a reconciliation. This song stands out in a number of ways. It's the first song that is completely unambiguous, the couple has broken apart and the author desperately wants his love back, though he seems to probably realize it won't happen. Musically, it has a substantially stronger driving African type polyrhythm with a lot of rolling guitar riffs that underlie the melody. It makes good, though not particularly notable, use of the band's trademarked vocal harmonies. The track is good, not great. The chorus is kind of catchy, but not quite catchy enough. The parts are pretty, but not quite pretty enough. The rhythm is interesting, but not quite interesting enough. That isn't to say that I find fault with the song, not every song can be, or perhaps even should be, a standout. For filler, it's excellent and it helps push along the narrative that the album opens with.

Next up with Old, we get another short instrumental type break song. It's kind of a weird delta blues influenced guitar riff, mixed with African polyrythms and Poppy vocal harmonies saying "we're fine" on top. It serves to set up the resolution to the narrative portion of the album with the next song...

On That's Some Dream, we have our author finally fully getting the picture that he needs to move on. Musically, the song is one of the more conventional songs on the album, yet stands out with a great sing along chorus. The song maintains both musical and lyrical ambiguity, because the song quickly alternates major and minor chords throughout the verses and the lyrics can be taken two opposite ways. They can be taken to be that the author realizes that he will eventually be okay and that's a dream he can look forward to, or they can be taken as being totally for the benefit of others, and that the author is actually completely 100% broken and that being okay is "some dream." Lyrically, it reminds me very much of Pearl Jam's Alive, where I think fans will often just hear the chorus and take them in a very happy way, whereas the actual meaning is much different. On the last chorus, one of the harmonies jumps to an even higher harmony, to great payoff effect.

Sneaky Louise is kind of a simple, in some ways silly little song about a transgressing daughter/sister, sang from the point of view of the brother. The song features a really pretty, big chorus melody with great harmonies and counterpoint background vocals at the end. It's not a very serious song, yet its very fun, despite its rather dire actual lyrical content.

Get Some is perhaps the only proper rock song on the album, with a heavy backbeat that drives the song throughout, which sits in stark contrast to Tim Arnold's normal drumming style. Additionally, two complementary acoustic guitars playing more riffs than straight rhythm, panned hard right and left, drive the verses. At 1:32, a very rhythmic, very technically difficult guitar riff just explodes. It's not a solo per se, because its too directly related to the rhythmic structure of the song, but its fantastic, without sounding show off-y. Lyrically, the song is also a departure from the typical formula thus far, in that these lyrics don't seem to be firmly about anything in particular, just there to create a feeling. The feeling they seem to be trying to convey is "get some", which although that's the album title, the actual words don't appear in the song at all. It's great to see a songwriter (or songwriters) be able to write in the two predominant styles of our time, the storytelling style and the purely emotive style. This portends well to the band's future.

While I'm away goes into fun poppy mode, with a really interesting melody. Rhythmically it has almost a four on the floor, disco, driving feel at times, but with a lot of stops and percussive flourishes to keep things interesting. The band again slips effortlessly from counterpoint to direct harmonies. The band tends to approach harmonies with an eye towards moving the voices to follow the chord changes and suggest harmonic ideas that wouldn't be there without the vocals. This is much more complex than most bands who sing in harmony, those bands seem to think in terms of "lead, high and higher harmony", here Good Old War think in terms of how the voices play over the chord changes and shifting them around for different effect, that takes a lot of talent to pull off as effortlessly as these guys do. Lyrically the song is of the "I'm on the road away from you and I miss you and you're awesome and I'll be home to see you soon" vein that is really overdone in music. It's inevitable that this type of song is overdone, as it is perhaps the defining aspect of the touring musician, they can't help but write this type of song. As Chris Robinson said in Wiser Time "ask me "why another road song?" / funny, but I bet you never left home." At least we can forgive this lyrical retread here a bit easier, when it's done with this much skill.

Woody's Hood Boogie Woogie is a fun, silly little boogie song. That is, rhythmically it uses a boogie rhythm, as Good Old War's tour of all the different ways you can syncopate a beat continues. There's not a whole lot to the song, it's fun but relatively unremarkable, outside of some exceedingly fine percussion work and a few very subtly great guitar parts. Lyrically, the song seems to be about someone hearing of a tragedy (losing his lover and his child in the same day) and the realizations it brings on the otherwise unaffected author. The author seems to realize that we need to live lives our way, because we'll all get burned some day. Nothing particularly revelatory here, but its still a solid little song.

My Name's Sorrow is a hauntingly beautiful song. Lyrically the theme is analogizing proverbs, music and the seasons to three aspects of life, bad things happening, feeling out of place and constant change, respectively. Instrumentally, its one of the more simple songs, but yet still very good in that regard. The haunting nature comes from the interplay between the vocal melody and the acoustic guitar. There is a very subtle, almost difficult to hear accordion in the background to help ground the harmonic structure. It's the only song on the album that makes no use of vocal harmony at any point.

World Watching is a solid track, but is perhaps the weakest track on the album. It has a pretty melody, but not much else to help carry it. It has some of the most straightforward guitar playing and percussion on the album and the harmonies are good, but not good enough to carry it to the heights of the rest of the album. That isn't to say its bad by any means, just that it's filler, but filler of the highest quality.

To finish off the album, there is a two track suite, comprised of I Should Go and Thinking of You. While these are technically two separate tracks, they are typically played together when the band plays live and stand together musically to the point of sounding like different parts of the same song. I Should Go is an extraordinarily beautiful song, sung in harmony over the entirety of the song. The vocal melody is laid over a riffy rhythm guitar type figure and syncopated percussion and a bass drum that hits the 1 of every bar only. Thinking of you is more or less a textbook example of counterpoint vocal to end the song, even though, again, its technically listed as a separate track.

War is the final piece and is a gentle acoustic guitar track that puts a nice little bow on things.

On a whole, this album presents a step forward for the band, without losing their way. The opening suite of songs that detail an expansive relationship narrative is far grander than anything they have attempted in the past lyrically. Musically they exhibit an understanding of musical structure that is unparalleled in the indie pop world. They're a much more musically confident band in their abilities. The fact that they self produced this gem is mind boggling. They're a band with the ability to do just about whatever they like, but yet maintain a clear vision of what it is they want to accomplish. There could be a better single type song on the album, but the album stands up well without an obvious single anyway.

I really look forward to their next album, which, by the way, they just announced they have began work on via their Facebook page today. In my estimation this is the best pop band going today, and you'd be well advised to get on the train.

90/100



http://goodoldwar.com/category/news/

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Gomez - We Haven't Turned Around - way back review


Every now and again I'm going to review an album or song from a good while back. Some of these will be pulled from old reviews I did, some will be new, as the mood strikes me. This is the first from this series, and is pulled from a full album review of Liquid Skin by Gomez I did several years ago.



We Haven't Turned Around is a truly, breathtakingly, hauntingly, beautiful song. This is one of those songs where everything about it is absolutely perfect. Usually a song can delve in to useless schlog with the addition of a cello. Generally, its just a sellout move and only serves to detract from the song. But occasionally, on a truly beautiful song, it makes the song. And that's the case here.

Quite possibly if Ben Ottwell was born to sing a single song, it was this song. Its never clear exactly what the lyrics are about, but they fit so perfectly with the mood of the song that it doesn't really matter. The lyrics aren't there to tell a story, they're there to convey pure emotion and they do that perfectly. A lot of bands would have opted for more underwhelming percussion on such a beautiful song, but Gomez rightly let Olly do his thing and it paid off with beautfully complimentary drum lines that interact just right with the rest of the instruments and the song as a whole.

Musical moments just don't come much better than the crashing return to the chorus at 3:47. You wouldn't think that a heavily distorted guitar could fit so well, but it just does. There are a lot of elements about this song that should be too over the top or that just don't fit, but amazingly everything is just right. For a band that self-produced this album, the fact that everything is just perfect is a true testimony to their talent.

My ethics

I've always felt that ethical theories were needlessly complex and tried to explain a lot of things that don't need to be explained. Rather than go through my various problems with famous ethical systems I will lay out mine.

I will start from my belief in game theory and its power to explain human interaction. I believe firmly that any ethical theory that attempts to have humans act "better" than game theory predicts is simply irrelevant. Because we won't. Humans will always do what is best for them.

This would seem to be a very Randian view of humanity and in some sense very hopeless. However, I also believe that humans are uniquely capable of shaping what we value. We are to some extent authors of our desires. With hard work, I can learn to appreciate classical music and value it and pursue it.

Where this comes into play with ethics and game theory is the valuing of making others happy or harming others.

I believe that there are not good or evil actions, only good or evil value systems that create the desire to pursue those courses of action. It is my belief that an evil value system is one that places a positive value on the harming of others, more or less Schadenfreude.

So, for instance, the holocaust was evil, not because of the killing of the Jews, but because the action stemmed from a positive value being placed on the harm of the Jews. Was Hitler more evil than the every day anti-semite who would kill all Jews if he only had the means? I don't think so. Both actions (the done action and the undone action) stemmed from the same evil value system. An evil value system can also stem from placing a negative value on the happiness of others, that is spite is evil. Stealing a letter meant for your sister from her friend, simply to keep her from the joy of reading it, because you don't like to see her happy, is evil.

Good actions are those actions that stem from placing a positive value on the happiness of others. That is, buying my girlfriend flowers, simply because I like to see her happy (not because I think it will get me something later) is a good action because it comes from a good value system. Similarly an action may be good because it stems from a value system that places a negative value on the harm of others. That is risking your life to save another is a good action, if it was done out of genuine care for another's well-being and not for the notoriety.

Neutral actions are those done with no real regard for the harm or happiness of another. That isn't to say that they are completely selfish in the traditional meaning of the term. You can do great things for ethically neutral reasons. If for instance you donate to the poor solely to impress a girl, that is an ethically neutral action. I believe this is the natural, default state of human interaction, the ethically neutral state.

Applying this to game theory, we will look at the central problem to game theory, the prisoner's dilemma.

In the prisoner's dilemma, two individuals are given a choice of two courses of action, for our purposes, we will call them cooperate or take advantage. If each actor chooses to cooperate, lets say they both get a benefit of 10. If they both take advantage, they get 0 benefit. If one cooperates and the other takes advantage, the cooperator will get -5 and the one that takes advantage will get 15. Looking at this, we can see that no matter what the other person does, it is always in your interests to take advantage. If the other person cooperates, you get the bounty of 15. If the other person takes advantage, you at least avoid the negative 5 by yourself taking advantage, and at least get 0 instead of -5.

We can see here that the problem is that when neither person cooperates, they both are stuck with getting 0, when if we could only bind them to cooperate, they'd get 10 each.

This is the most well known problem in game theory, and perhaps the primary reason governments should exist (its my contention that true libertarians are otherwise smart people who don't understand game theory). How it applies to our ethics is by asking the question "what if we could actually make both parties value helping he other party, just for its own sake?"

What if we could change those numbers so that cooperation gets a +5, just because you value helping your brother? Then the math completely changes. Then mutual cooperation confers a benefit of 15 for both. If one person takes advantage and the other cooperates, the cooperater gets 0 and the person taking advantage gets 15. If they both take advantage, they are both stuck at 0. Here, we can interestingly see that its not longer always in your interest to take advantage. By changing the value system, you've made it possible that both will choose to cooperate and thus confer maximum benefit to all.

Robert Wright hypothesized that humanity has been going in this sort of direction throughout history in his book non-zero, the logic of human destiny. His account may be a bit pollyanna-ish, at times, but overall it very much makes sense.

So it is my belief that to lead an ethical life, you should seek to value the happiness of others in all your actions. You should seek to rid yourself of the delight in the harm of others, whenever you may come across it. You should seek to be saddened by the harm of others, whenever you come across it. You should seek to be lifted up whenever you come across another in better spirits than you may be. This will make you a happier person, and make everyone else happier at the same time. Truly a win-win situation, what game theory calls a positive sum interaction. Any ethical theory that is much more complicated than this misses the point.

One more last try at this

so over the years, like I suspect a lot of people, I've tried and failed to maintain a blog. I always start with a flourish and then just eventually lose interest. Looking over them, I think my flaw was that I always tried to blog about something. I tried to blog about baseball, I tried to blog about music, I tried to blog about economics. I tried various mixes of topics. In the end I inevitably would go through a phase where I wasn't interested in whatever the topic was. I absolutely LOVE music. But I do go through periods when I don't really care all that much, or other interests predominate. Or maybe I'm even trying to write music and I don't have time to write about other people's music. The other topics I tried to blog about were even more inconsistent.

Why did I try to blog this way? Because most of the blogs I read and enjoy are written on a single topic. Most of the popular blogs are written this way. I guess I was trying to blog in order to interest other people like me in reading my blog. Which I think was the mistake. The whole reason I always start blogs is because I want to say things. I don't particularly care if others listen or not. So this blog will be just that. Me saying things. Whatever I want, regardless of how many people I think it will attract.

That's not to say I wouldn't love for people to respond and talk about the things I write, because I really would. I love conversation and while this is written for me, I'd also selfishly like to converse with others about the things I will be writing here.

Philosophically I've always tried to lead as open of a life as possible. To a certain extent I believe that you're not living right if you feel you must hide things from people. So I am getting the things I think about out there, in the hope that it makes me feel more at ease and open with who I am, and just maybe have a few more people understand who I am.

As to the topics you're likely to see expect a lot about music, sports, and my own sort of mish-mashed together philosophy.