Star Trek (2009): Good Movie, so-so Trek

***SPOILERS BELOW***

***this post assumes you’ve seen the movie***

Star Trek Boldly Going

Star Trek has officially been “rebooted” in the form of a new feature motion picture. It’s like a new operating system and everything. I saw it last week and must say that I am duly impressed. I walked out of the theater having enjoyed two hours of solid film making. To be sure, it’s no Wrath of Khan. But the dialogue is well written with plenty of good lines scattered throughout. The acting is believable and the character portrayals aren’t so bad. The production value is sky high, with lots of little touches (especially sound) that bring a nice immersive feel to the universe presented. And the film’s opening sequence is among the most emotionally forceful of anything with the “Star Trek” name on it.

But it has its shortcomings as well. Oh, it’s good, and by any other title it may have been great. But as Star Trek goes, it leaves much to be desired. For one, there’s very little intellectual meat to be digested. After some really enjoyable character development (young Jim Kirk listens to the Beastie Boys* [Sabotage]) in the first act, the movie essentially becomes big-dumb-action flick, with one-dimensional villains that lack the nuance and human tragedy that embodies the adversaries in the Star Trek universe. There is no take-home parable or allegory or examination of the human condition, things that are at the very heart of the Star Trek experience. On top of that, parts of the premise really do strain even the considerable suspension of disbelief that Star Trek is afforded.

In true Trek fashion, here are some of my criticisms. I’ll try to avoid nitpicking and stick to the major ones:

  • While the opening scenes are great cinema, why the hell was Lt. Kirk’s 9-month pregnant wife aboard the Kelvin? There are rules about being on planes when pregnant as I assume there would be for space-faring *military* vessels.
  • I’m not sure how old anyone is supposed to be. Kirk is in his early twenties. Spock is already an officer and so is Scotty, so they’re both older. McCoy is also older, having had another life before Starfleet. Checkov is 17 (does that mean he was accepted into the academy at a younger age?).
  • The Narada, Nero’s ship, is a mining vessel. How it was able to outmatch the Federation fleet while orbiting Vulcan is a mystery to me. I would not expect a mining ship, whose primary purpose is to extract and transport ore to be well armed at all. Yes, it’s from 180ish years in the future, but it was also wandering the galaxy for 23 years without a homebase. To me this seems to equivalent of a modern supertanker and it’s crew of roustabouts with deck guns taking out Admiral Nelson’s Royal Navy.
  • As a side thought to that, why didn’t Nero just present his ship and its tech-from-the-future to the Romulan Empire, which could use the advances to conquer the galaxy? The Federation having to overcome that advantage actually seems like a decent platform to base this new alt-Trek around.
  • The whole last scene, ie the cadet-to-captain thing. Throughout the movie, Kirk isn’t even a commissioned officer. Yet upon graduation he’s given the flagship of the Federation? I don’t care how many planets he saved, there would certainly be dozens or hundreds of older, experienced superior officers more qualified for such a distinguished post, many of whom would probably resign in protest. Assign him to the Enterprise with a bump to full lieutenant until he gets some field experience, sure. But captain? Hardly.
  • Finally: Too much lens flare.

Overall, an enjoyable flick, if you’re not hoping to have your mind challenged and you don’t think too hard about what you just saw. This movie was a foundation however and I’m looking forward to seeing what the sequels will bring. Maybe our characters might actually “boldly go” somewhere. Also, everyone has been going on about how good the new cast seems to work, but for my money, the most compelling character in the film is Captain Pike. I wouldn’t mind seeing more adventures with him at the helm.

And oh yeah, I could probably write an entire paper on Abrams’ apparent disdain for Vulcans and their suppressed emotions and logical approaches to life: destroying the planet and “unvulcanizing” Spock by the end of the film while rewarding Kirk’s recklessness. But that’s a subject for another post.

*The Beastie Boys are huge Star Trek fans, so I’m sure they’re thrilled that young Kirk listens to their music.

Smart Playlist Idea: The Anniversary Playlist

Ever wonder what you were listening to three, four, five or even ten years ago? Or maybe you want to look back and wonder “have I really been listening to this album for that long?”.

Enter The Anniversary Playlist.

By setting two simple Date Added parameters in a Smart Playlist, you can make a self-updating playlist of all the music you were listening to a given number of years ago. It makes a great little time machine.

Here’s one to get you started: 5th Anniversary Tunes.

Anniversary Playlist
click for full size

No matter how far back you want to go, you only need the Date Added selectors and a little simple math.

First selector: Date added is in the last XX months
This criteria includes every song you’ve added to your iTunes library in a given number of months. Since we’re talking years here, we need to multiply the number years by 12 to get the number of months. 5 years = 60 months. But since we want to have a slice that’s slightly older than 5 years, we add 1. So all music that was added in the last 61 months is added to the playlist.

Second selector: Date added is not in the last (XX – 1) months
But we don’t really want our playlist to include all the music that’s been added in the past 61 months, so we use this criteria to exclude everything that’s newer than 5 years old. This leaves us looking at a window of exactly one month from 5 years ago. As each day passes, the window moves and older songs drop away and are replaced with the more recently added.

Looking at my library, I see a number of songs from March 2004. It seems that it’s now been five years since I discovered Elbow (which makes me wonder the aforementioned “has it really been that long?”) as well as filled out my Stereolab singles collection. Also, Tortoise needs a new album. It’s been five years since the last one.

To adjust the window, simply change the number of months back to look. One year ago would be 13 and 12 months, six would be 73 and 72, and so on.

Wrongsmith collects the “best” of Songsmith

Total hat-tip to Webomatica for this.

The web is slowly filling up Songsmith “remixes” of popular songs.

It’s a program recently released by Microsoft Research that purports to make anyone and everyone a songwriter. Just select a musical style and sing into a microphone and the app will automatically generate accompanying music. Arrangements and chords can all be customized.

Of course it didn’t take long for enterprising users to figure out that Songsmith accepts pre-recorded vocals as well. Just isolate them from the original recordings, feed them into the program and customized the settings. Songsmith does the rest.

The results can be hilarious and a steady stream of new mixes are making their way to YouTube. The website Wrongsmith [which is no longer online, oct 2012] is doing a pretty good job of collecting the best of them.

Here’s a few of my favorites so far:

Michael Jackson – Beat It

Envisioned as a spastic techno carnival.

Queen – We Will Rock You

A calypso anthem.

Billy Idol – White Wedding

Bluegrass style.

To its credit, the program does a pretty decent job of staying on key and and tempo. Though it’s not perfect, it’s often “close enough for rock and roll.”

Songsmith is one of my new favorite things.

Tunequest Year in Review 2008

This year’s end summary is going to be a little shorter than in the past, for two principle reasons: 1) 2008 was a lot busier for me than recent years, so my opportunities to explore and listen to new music were more limited, and B) I spent a lot of the free time I did have listening to audiobooks and podcasts rather than music. Indeed, 2008 saw only 510 new songs added to my library (with 103 of them largely unlistened because they were added in the last two weeks), compared with 2051 new additions in 2007.

And looking back over the numbers and trends, it is clear that my musical year for the most part ended toward the end of summer, since that’s when the new additions and activity begin tapering off.

Let’s not mistake quantity for quality though. 2008 was not without its highlights. Here’s a look back at the best music I discovered in the past year:

Kelley Polar: Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens (2005); I Need You To Hold On While the Sky is Falling (2008)

love songs of the hanging gardens

In December 2007, I heard my first Kelley Polar song. In January 2008, the album that song appeared on (Love Songs of the Hanging Gardens) rocked my world. I wrote on tunequest:

it pulls at you with pulsing with heady rhythms, ass-shaking grooves and a surprisingly high level of singability. The aspect that strikes me the most however, is how the music simultaneously seems to sound sparsely populated yet vast and teeming with activity. A bit like the seeming emptiness the heavens above, which when looked at closely is full of magnificent detail.

i need you to hold on while the sky is falling

Following shortly on my discovery of Love Songs, Polar’s second album, I Need You To Hold On While the Sky is Falling, was released on March. While I was less ecstatic about it than I was toward Love Songs–it’s darker tone and more intimate feeling weren’t quite as compelling–I still found the album quite enjoyable. It’s even grown on me a bit since the original review.

Together, the albums made a significant mark on my musical year.

Ratatat – LP3 (2008)

ratatat lp3

It should be of no surprise to long-time readers that Ratatat’s third LP made a big splash around here. Released in early July, LP3 rocked up my charts, becoming the most played artist, album and songs of the year.

With its simultaneous expansion of both guitar and keyboard sounds, the album pretty much ruled my summer.

The Breeders – Mountain Battles (2008)

mountain battles

After six years since their last album, The Breeders typified the idea of pent-up demand. The band has consistently ranked near the top of my favorites, which makes it frustrating that it spends long hiatuses between releases.

It’s made all the more frustrating by the album’s short length, approx. 36 minutes. But those 36 minutes are pure gold. As I said in my original review, the band’s “low-key, basement fuzz brings with it an inviting warmth.” The buzz and good feeling I got from this record’s release was capped off by finally, after 14 years, catching the Breeders in concert in June.

Stereolab – Chemical Chords (2008)

Stereolab is another perennial favorite around tunequest and a new album is sure to be listened to with much delight. Chemical Chords was no exception. The groop took a slightly different approach to this album, consciously creating shorter, simpler, more poppy songs than in the past. The result is a refreshing buoyant, dare I say happy, feeling from a band that has traditionally been cool and detached. Happy looks good on them, as I noticed when the band swung through town in September.

Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye (2006)

Before picking up So This Is Goodbye, Junior Boys had long been on my radar. It was the opening band at a show I went to four years ago and they piqued my interest then. But it wasn’t until I happened across the record on eMusic that I finally checked the band out.

I was not disappointed. So This Is Goodbye is fantastic album. Expertly produced and crafted, the smooth electronic tones have an intimate, downtempo feel that borders on melancholic. It’s almost a rainy day album, except that it’s got too much shine behind it.

Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble – Music for 18 Musicians (2007)

This album arrived late in the year, just before Thanksgiving, but it packed quite a wallop.

Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians is a notoriously hard piece to perform. So it is something of a shock to see this, and pardon the bluntness, “no name” orchestra release what is probably to best rendition of it ever recorded. Written in 1974-1976 and focused largely on Reich’s fascination with harmonics, Music for 18 Musicians creates cyclical, trance-inducing soundscapes that mesmerize and fascinate the ears and mind. Grand Valley State’s recording is the first made in surround sound and it is a thing of sublime beauty that is quite an accomplishment.

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There you have: tunequest highlights from 2008. There’s always great music out there and although 2009 is shaping up to be just as busy as last year, here’s hoping I have to to discover some of it.

Smart Playlist Idea: My Favorite Nostalgia

I’ve been having so much fun with a new iTunes Smart Playlist for the past month that I’ve just got to share it. The basic premise is to relive my entire musical history in rough chronological segments, with the goal of drifting through the highlights of the various eras of my musical life. Contemporaneous songs are grouped and played near each other, creating a nostalgic soundtrack to your life.

It’s proving to be a fun trip down memory lane as I associate particular songs with particular moments, like that 10th Grade state science fair trip (powered by grunge supergroup Mad Season), Christmas vacations, the first mp3 I ever downloaded, that first year of college (where my early pop-rock leanings begin to mix with my discovery of electronic music), that first Stereolab track and other sundry milestones.

As I’ve been working my way through the playlist for about a month, each day ha brought great tunes and great memories.

Before we get going, some initial statements about the playlist though:

  • For best effect, you should have a fairly significant musical history. Mine stretches back seventeen years and just going through “the best” songs it’s taken me about a month to listen through the first six of them. The slowness is part of the journey for me though.
  • Chances are, if you have a long music history, you also have a rather large library. Part of the fun that I’m having with this project is the anticipation as I wonder what song will be played next. So, while a large library isn’t necessary for this project, it will be more fun if you have a large pool to draw from.
  • I keep bringing it up, but yes, this works best when the songs in your iTunes Library have the proper Date Added: the date you actually acquired the music, not just the date you added it to your iTunes Library. It’s the backbone of the playlist, really. If you’ve been building your iTunes Library since it came out in 2001, you should be good. If you’ve been collecting music longer than iTunes has been around, see how to back-date your songs. It’s tedious, but worth it.
  • A considerable portion of the songs in your library should be rated. The goal of this playlist is not to listen to every song in your library, but only your favorites from past to present. The star rating is how we filter all the best tunes.

That all said, how do we create this wondrous playlist? It’s actually a very simple couple of selectors.

Making the Smart Playlist

Start a new Smart Playlist and add the following criteria:

nostalgia smart playlist selectors
click to enlarge

My Rating: 5 stars
This makes sure only your favorite songs enter the playlist.

Last Played is Before {today’s date}
This selector initializes the playlist. Any song played before this date is eligible for inclusion. And songs are automatically removed from the playlist after you listen to them.

(Optional) Playlist is masterPlaylist
I use a master playlist to make sure my tunes are on the up and up. It filters my library so that only songs that are properly tagged, with correct date added, etc are included in other playlists. If you don’t have or want a master playlist, you can leave this selector out.

Finally,
Limit to XX items selected by Least Recently Added
This is what really makes the Smart Playlist work. The number you use for XX really depends on the size of your library and how large a “slice of history” you want to listen to at any given moment. I keep mine between 50 (when I’m listening in iTunes) and 100 (when I’m out with my iPod for the day). The Least Recently Added selector adds the earliest songs (according to Date Added) to the playlist and automatically replaces played songs with the next earliest ones.

Using the Playlist

The most effective way to use this playlist is via iTunes’ Party Shuffle Up Next feature (Party Shuffle is no longer part of the latest versions of iTunes). What I like about this method is that as songs are removed and replaced from your nostalgia playlist, the new songs become immediately available to Upnext, allowing for some really smooth musical transitions. The downside is that you’re chained to iTunes for all your listening.

But you can take that playlist on the road via iPod (or iPhone). It works just like any other playlist. Keep in mind though, that for the true “river of time” experience, try not to listen to the entire playlist in a single sitting when mobile. This has the effect of creating a hard break in the listening by completely clearing out all the oldest unplayed tunes, then replacing them with the next batch of songs. It divides the experience into chunks rather than the “smooth river” that I find so appealing. My solution is to listen to, at most, half the playlist during any given session. That way, when go to update the playlist, the new songs are intermingled with the unplayed ones.

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Well there it is, the most fun I’ve had with a playlist in quite a long time. Hopefully, your nostalgic adventure will be as rewarding as mine has been.

Clair de Lune, visualized

Here’s a pretty neat visualization of Debussy’s best known work, Clair de Lune from the Suite Bergamasque. It was composed in 1903 and is quite famous.

Though I generally prefer string arrangements of this piece, this solo piano version is more faithful to the author’s original intent. Plus it’s easier to visualize and still sounds pretty cool. Enjoy.

This music and video was put together by Stephen Malinowski and his Music Animation Machine. You can find more performances on his YouTube page and more information on his website.

A tunequest wordle

Wordle is a neat little tool I discovered over the summer. It takes blocks of text and turns it into a picture highlighting the most commonly used words. More common words appear in larger type. You can input text by copy and paste, by pointing it toward a rss feed, or by giving it a del.icio.us username to analyze. When it is finished, it presents you with an attractive graphic that you can stylize by changing the layout, font and color scheme.

With a few moments to spare this afternoon, I decided to run my iTunes Library through it, to see what words appear most frequently in my song titles. I did this by exporting my library to a tab-separated text file, opening it in a spreadsheet and copying all the song titles into Wordle. In total, it was more than 58 thousand words and it took several moments for my iMac to paste all of them into the Java applet, but I was quite surprise to see Wordle itself chew through the list without any delay.

Below are is the result:

A lot of generic music terms, like ‘title’, ‘mix’ and ‘theme’ as well as a good representation of classical music. If I really wanted a qualitative look, I could always edit out those common words, but for now I think what I have is pretty cool.

Get your own Wordle.

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Side note: Frequent readers may have noticed that my writing frequency has slowed to barely a trickle as of late. The reason being that I’ve re-entered college to pursue a second bachelors degree I’m changing fields. So between a full time job and ten credit hours at a school an hour’s drive away, I find myself with very little time for hobbyist writing. That said, I’m unwilling to completely abandon the site. My output may be at a trickle, but it’ll still there. So keep that feed reader fired up for the occasional return of tunequest.

The Simpsons – Songs in the Key of Springfield

Released in the spring of 1997, Songs in the Key of Springfield is the first album to feature music that appeared on The Simpsons. The songs span from seasons 2 through 7, with the earliest song being Tony Bennett’s Capitol City from Danicin’ Homer and the latest being In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida sung by church-goers from Bart Sells His Soul.

(Though technically a version of the Itchy & Scratchy theme appeared in the first season episode Krusty Gets Busted, the recording included on the CD is from 2nd season’s Itchy & Scratchy & Marge. Similarly, the Treehouse of Horror theme used on the CD is from season 5, but a version of it was used in season 2.)

At nearly an hour long, the album distills some of the best and funniest music of the franchise’s history. Classics such as the Stonecutters’ song, the Monorail Song, the Oh, Streetcar! and Stop the Planet of the Apes musicals, and Tito Puente’s tale of uptempo retribution: Señor Burns never fail to get me singing along.

The highlights for me however, are the nine excellent renditions of the Simpsons’ theme sprinkled throughout the album like toppings on a donut. These versions take their inspiration from the topic of an episode and rework, sometimes radically, the show’s familiar exit music into various styles and tributes. My favorites, just for their sheer creativity, are the Big Band, Afro-Cuban and Australian versions, as well as the “Dragnet” homage. Big kudos to show composer Alf Clausen for those.

There’s not a bad song on this record (though Lisa’s ‘Round Springfield jazz eulogy to Bleeding Gums Murphy can be grating). While listen to Songs in the Key of Springfield, long-time fans will wax nostalgic for the show’s finest days, from when The Simpsons truely was the best thing on T.V. This music goes a long way to cementing that reputation.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Tunequest rating: 8.8

Surprisingly though, the album appears to be out of print and not available for digital download. Amazon offers the CD via third party sellers as well as bundled with Go Simpsonic (the sequel album). iTunes doesn’t offer it at all.

The Stonecutters’ Song, which explains all of history’s great mysteries:

Smart Playlist Idea: Eldest Tunes (that need attention)

This is a fun little playlist.

In my last Smart Playlist example, I showed how to create a list of the most recently added songs that had not reached a certain play count. Today’s list takes the opposite tack: what are the oldest songs in the library that haven’t been played a certain number of times. I call it “Eldest Tunes” and it is a great way to give attention to songs in your library that have, for whatever reason, found themselves neglected. I’ve found it to be particularly good for reminding yourself just how much you loved those songs of yesteryear.

Before I continue though, I have to point out that if you started your music collection before July 2002, then this playlist works best if you’ve back-dated your library’s Date Added field.

Setting the playlist up is actually ridiculously easy. Here’s a screen shot of mine:

Playlist is tunequest

Songs must be in my master playlist. If you haven’t set up a master playlist, then you can leave this criterion out.

Play count is less than 4

This number is arbitrary and can be whatever you want. In my case, I want to find songs that have been played 0-3 times. When a song reaches 4 play counts, it can no longer appear on this list.

Last Played is not in the last 3 months

This is a recycling mechanism. If, like in my example above, you’ve set your threshold to 4 and then listen to a song that only has 1 play count, the count increases to 2 and the songs stays on the playlist.

When I first put this playlist together, I found that I was listening to the same songs over and over again for that reason. It was taking multiple listens to rise above the 4 threshold that I had set. So I added this rule that says once a song has been played it is “embargoed” for 3 months, giving other songs an opportunity to be heard.

Finally, the last two criteria:

This is the actual engine of the playlist. Limit your playlist to the number of songs you want, but make sure you select least recently added. That least recent part is why it’s important to have accurate info in your Date Added fields. iTunes uses the date in that field to determine which songs will go on this playlist and in what order.

In my case, the oldest songs that currently appear on my Eldest Tunes playlist are from Primus’ Pork Soda and Blind Melon’s debut. I originally bought them over the summer 1993 (backdated in iTunes), but I’ve hardly listened to them in the past few years, so their play counts are low. But now that I’ve seen that they’ve been under-appreciated for so long, I can take steps to give them them proper consideration.

As for your playlists, I wish you happy listening!