Music

Greengrass, Volume 6 (a Spotify playlist)

Greengrass, Vol. 6

Listen to this playlist on Spotify.

This week’s Spotify playlist is a mostly-fiddle-driven instrumental set. Although the orchestration is somewhat focused in this regard, the scope is quite diverse, both geographically—with tunes from America, Ireland, Scotland, and even Norway—and temporally, running the gamut from ancient traditional tunes to contemporary acoustic.

“N.M.I.” – We begin with an instrumental from Sean Watkins (of Nickel Creek fame). This jazzy tune starts with a theme on the violin that’s later picked up by the soprano sax. After that, Sean has a chance to jam, and then he lets everyone else have a turn.

Arcady “Paddy Ryan’s Dream, Fahy’s”, etc. – Nice mid-tempo set from an Irish group founded by De Dannan’s Bodhran player Johnny McDonagh.

“Trip to Sligo” set (Dervish) – A set of reels starting with with “Paddy Fahy’s” on fiddle and flute, then the other musicians join in for “Andrew Davies'”, and finally “Tomín O’Dea” adds accordion and bodhran. I’m impressed at how Dervish can use traditional instruments and traditional tunes and it still ends up sounding like rock and roll before the end.

“Flippen [The Flip]” (Punch Brothers) – Speaking of rocking out with traditional instruments! This is from P.B.’s new album. In general, the new album isn’t my favorite, as there are too many “songs” and not enough great instrumental tunes like this one. But there are a few, so I will take this opportunity to appreciate one of them. (They also do a great cover of Radiohead’s “Kid A”.) I nominate this tune for the Grammy for best bluegrass instrumental.*

“Wrong Foot Forward” (Flook) – Great piece from a great UK celtic band. Unfortunately, they’re no longer in business. This track comes from their last album, Haven, recorded in 2005

John Ole Morken, Norwegian fiddler, from his solo album. Norwegian fiddle technique is heavily influenced by the drones of the Hardanger fiddle, just as Scottish fiddle music is influenced by the drones of the Highland pipes. They came to a similar sound by drawing from two different sources of inspiration.

“Big Country” (Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, and Béla Fleck) – This is a Béla Fleck composition also recorded by The Flecktones, but this acoustic version comes from Meyer’s album Uncommon Ritual. Any time you get Meyer and Fleck involved in something, you know it’s going to be a masterpiece.

“The Star of Munster” (Martin Hayes) – This is a short solo fiddle version Hayes recorded on his self-titled solo album. I also have a recording of Kevin Burke playing this tune.

“The Banks of Spey/Brenda Stubbert’s Reel” (Alasdair Fraser & Paul Machlis) – To Scotland!

“Montgomery Ball” (Aubrey Haynie) – Haynie is a young Nashville session player who has won several awards. (By young I mean he’s around my age…)

“The Leaning Tower” (Béla Fleck & the Flecktones) Celtic-inspired fusion tune. Warning: requires math skills! This comes off their ambitious 2003 3-disc concept album. It’s a pity the rest of the album isn’t like this. Apparently people found the concept tiring.

“Seg” (Nils Økland) – Økland is a Norwegian Hardanger fiddle player who is a major influence in Norwegian ethnomusicology. His music is a fusion of traditional, classical, improvisation, and contemporary composition. He recorded this album in an empty medieval church on the coast of Norway just across the North Sea from the Orkney Islands.

“Niel Gow’s Lament for His Brother” (Richard Greene) – Greene is a Grammy-award-winning American fiddle player and newgrass pioneer. On this album he tries his hand at celtic music. (I think the album should be re-released with a less pretentious cover and title. I think people can record celtic tunes without pointing out how hard they’re trying.) Greene’s take on this tune reminds me of a classically-trained violinist pulling the piece out as an encore in the recital hall, Fritz Kreisler style. But if you don’t read my Greengrass liner notes you probably won’t notice…

I’d like to hear from you. If you have some favorite tunes you’d like to see featured, drop them in my Spotify inbox and I’ll give them a listen.

* I know this track is a repeat from volume 3, but it’s just so good!

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Music, Technology

Here’s a tip for users of iTunes and Spotify: Use Last.fm too!

Last week’s iOS 5.1 and iTunes 10.6 updates seem to have fixed most of the issues in iTunes Match. My previous argument about Apple shooting themselves in the foot still stands, historically, as they’ve likely missed out on income opportunities due to the long delay, but I think the service is finally suitable for prime time.

However, after using Spotify a great deal over the last several weeks while I waited for the update, I still find Spotify indispensable. It beats iTunes in the areas of song discovery, sharing, streaming, and song queuing. I don’t think it’s an either/or competition like we thought it would be, and I recommend them both, together. Last.fm is the app that bridges the gap.

Download the Last.fm scrobbler to your machine, or use the CloudScrob app if you’re using iTunes Match, and it will count your iTunes/iOS plays, too. Spotify also scrobbles. You can input your Last.fm username and password to your Spotify app, on the computer or your mobile device, and it will tabulate your Spotify plays. Spotify also has a new embedded app platform, and there is a Last.fm app, which will let you import playlists to Spotify based on your Last.fm charts and recommendations. For example, you can import a playlist of your top albums of the last 3 months. It’s not identical to the “Top 25 Most Played” in iTunes; it’s actually better since it will include the new music you’ve discovered on Spotify as well as the top albums you’ve been listening to (recently) from the extensive library you’ve built up over the last 15 years. Plus, the fact that Last.fm’s Spotify app keeps your greatest hits in the context of the albums is kind of cool. It’s like a small effort to preserve the album format in spite of the digital age.

Last.fm in Spotify

The Last.fm app inside Spotify. Note the "Add as Playlist" button.

There’s also a page on the Spotify website with links to some tools for creating playlists, including Playlistify.org which can build playlists from Last.fm data and import them into Spotify. Unfortunately, their “top tracks” playlist only imports your 50 top tracks of all time (like the iTunes “Top 25”) rather than for a certain chart period. Another thing you could try is manually creating top-40 lists in Spotify, using Last.fm charts as a reference. This would actually give you more relevant lists than an iTunes smart playlist, since Last.fm charts specifically focus on the number of plays a song has had during the selected time period (instead of all-time play counts), and you’ll have the freedom to tweak it to your liking. This is useful to consider if your tastes have adjusted themselves in the last few years.

Note that if you use smart playlists in iTunes based on the last time you played a song, your “Last Played” times won’t be updated if you play those songs from Spotify. You’ll have to evaluate for yourself whether this “order by staleness” rotation of your music collection is still going to continue to work for you in this new digital music era. Personally, I think I’m going to embrace song discovery, and utilize the “Most played albums” list to balance it all out with favorites from my library.

Happy listening!

Update: Once you sign up for Last.fm, add me as a friend!

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App Reviews, Music, Technology

With Spotify, we are all Cameron Crowe

After years of operating in Europe, Spotify launched in the US in the summer of 2011 on an invitation-only basis, much like the way Gmail and Google+ began, before later becoming open to all who want to sign up.

I had resisted Spotify for several months. I had so much invested into iTunes over the years, with large play counts, thousands of tracks, and playlists of all sorts. I didn’t want to go overboard with streaming, since there isn’t good coverage in the town where I live, and I had been trying to save money wi AT&T’s basic data plan. Also last summer, Apple had announced details about iTunes Match service, and it was much cheaper.

However, after months of using iTunes Match, even after a couple software update from Apple, the service is very buggy, and the parts that don’t have bugs are completely stripped down. Genius doesn’t work in the cloud. Last Played doesn’t work either, and play counts are sporadic. Even Smart Playlists, one of the oldest features that made iTunes different from other players, don’t work right in the cloud.

By removing these features for users who activate iTunes Match, they are training them in a way to use their cloud library in a way that’s different from the way they’ve gotten used to it. And therefore services like Spotify suddenly seem more attractive. When you compare iTunes (not Match) with Spotify, there are a lot of pros on the iTunes side. But when you move to the cloud, all of the iTunes pros go away and actually move to the “con” column, and suddenly Spotify looks more attractive. Apple shot themselves in the foot with iCloud and thereby put a billion-dollar revenue stream in jeopardy.

So I stuck my toe in, and after a single day of use, I jumped in with both feet. I also signed up for Last.fm, so I now have my play counts stored in the cloud, by a third party, as a way to get around the fact that my iTunes play counts aren’t updating correctly, and I can also get additional credit for those songs I listen to in both iTunes and Spotify.

Spotify is a really amazing service. It’s like having all of your friends CD libraries in the same house, and everyone constantly coming over for listening parties, and then you all make mix tapes for each other for the drive home. And it’s as if one of those friends owned their own record store so you always had access to new music, or old music you just don’t have on your shelves. We no longer have to depend on soundtracks from Cameron Crowe or John Cusack for great compilations. With Spotify, now everyone can be Cameron Crowe or John Cusack!

With a larger library now open to me, I have decided to leverage my experience as a fiddler to create regular playlist series I am calling “Greengrass.” It’s a fusion of Celtic and bluegrass music, assembled with an ear to blending one track with the next, so that despite the diversity of styles, you end up with a feel for the unity of the genres throughout the set. It’s almost like something you’d hear on weekend public radio, but influenced by my progressive tastes. I really hope it goes somewhere. I’ve published two volumes so far on Spotify but I don’t think I have any subscribers yet. Tomorrow I’ll post a link to volume one.

Update: The old scroll-wheel iPods used to have an “On-the-Go Playlist” feature that would allow you to queue up music on the fly, without interrupting the song you were already listening to. Apple discontinued this feature in their iOS devices. But the Spotify app has a “queue” feature that is even more useful than OTG, because you can queue up songs while you’re already listening to a playlist, and when the queued songs are finished, the remaining songs from the playlist you were on before will continue. Brilliant!

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App Reviews

BlogPress iPhone app review

Downloading BlogPress was my last-stitch effort to save my Blogger blog. So much of my online activity revolves around my iPhone that my blog has suffered in recent years, since Blogger doesn’t have a mobile version. I can post drafts via email, but they always end up with funny line breaks, and emailed pictures have not been importing properly.

Every few months I’d check to see if a new blogging app had been added to the App Store that might fulfill my needs, but I was never happy with what I saw. I had noticed WordPress had its own iPhone app, and was just about ready to make the switch when I discovered two things: BlogPress and the MovableType2Blogger conversion utility, which I could use to finish migrating my old blog.lorddesign.net blog over to Blogger. My MovableType CMS had been offline for a while, I think because my web host had upgraded to newer servers and moved my site around. But I was able to get them to fix it so I could export my old blog posts for conversion. That ever-pending task of migration was finally completed, so when I think of my blog, I can now think if new things rather than what’s left to do with the old.

There are now two apps I use for mobile blogging, depending on how long I expect it to take me to complete a post: BlogPress and Evernote. Evernote is great because I can access it on my phone, on my Mac or PC or in a web browser. I use it for projects that require a lot of research and are going to take several drafts to complete, where I know the final draft is going to have to be posted from a computer with a lot of copying and pasting. But for shorter posts or ones I want to attach iPhone pictures to, BlogPress works great. It can even be used to save drafts online so you can work on them later. I should also mention my wife downloaded the app too, and it seems to have helped revive her blogging as well, since it’s a little difficult to get your laptop out sometimes when you have a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old running around screaming all day.

There are a few issues with the app. There’s a lame margin at the top of the editing window (see screen shot). Also, if you try to put a photo at the top of your blog, it seems to insert an empty line of text before it. Also, when you’re typing and the cursor goes below the onscreen keyboard, the editor doesn’t automatically scroll to keep the cursor in view. This also happens if you’re multitasking. An additional feature that would be nice to have would be WYSIWYG editing, with the ability to select a block of text and then apply a size change or font variant.

Posted from my iPhone

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App Reviews, Technology

Essential iPhone Apps

My dad caved in and got an iPhone 3GS when the price dropped to $50. So, I thought I had better get him a list of my favorite apps to keep him from drowning in the endless chasms of the app store, and someone on Facebook asked me to share the list, so here it is.

First is Evernote. It’s probably the most useful app I have. They also have desktop versions for Mac and PC. You can use it for journaling and song lists and all kinds of other things. I use it for composing blogs, project planning at work as well as task lists. Take a picture of a whiteboard and the text is searchable.

Speaking of task lists, I like Egretlist, which lets you use Evernote for task lists even though the iPhone version of Evernote only allows plain-text input. It also integrates with the calendar for reminders.

Next would be the Apple Remote, which lets you control your iTunes on your computer.

Pandora is a cool app which streams custom radio stations based on your preferences. It’s also great for discovering artists you didn’t even know you liked. It can play in the background like the iPod app while you do other things. If you stream over 3G, watch out for data limits if you’re on the 200-MB data plan. Incidentally, the AT&T myWireless app will help you keep track of your usage.

iMovie lets you edit movies and even provide a soundtrack.

iBooks – Even if you don’t want to pay for books, there are a lot of free ePub books you can download, and it also let’s you save PDFs and bookmark them so you can pick up where you left off.

ESV Bible, by Crossway, is an awesome free Bible. The interface is elegant and beautiful, and it lets you enter notes and highlight. It’s also the best English translation so far.

Facebook, of course.

Trillian lets you connect to multiple IM networks, and provides notifications if someone tries to talk to you when the app isn’t open.

Skype – even though your 3GS doesn’t have a front-facing camera, you’ll still be able to chat and make/receive voice calls. It will also stay on in the background so people can call you as long as you’ve logged in since your last reboot, I believe.

Google Latitude will allow Mom to see where you are, if you’re out and about, and it will also allow family members to see how far away you are when you’re on your way for a visit.

Hipstamatic is my favorite cool toy camera app. We’ve even ordered some prints and they’ve come out great.

Star Walk identifies constellations via “enhanced reality,” as you point the camera around, using GPS and the compass.

Gas Cubby for mileage tracking.

PayPal – lets you check your balance and send money. If there’s another user with an iPhone you can exchange funds by bumping your phones together.

AuctionSniper (I made this!) – automatically bid at the last second on eBay auctions to get them at a lower price than with a bidding war.

Runkeeper is one of my favorite apps. It uses GPS to track your runs and calculate your speed. The pro version is free through the end of the month, so get it now even if you don’t think you’d use it that often.

Guitar Tools by Planet Waves – tuner, metronome, chord finder, etc. Very cool.

Dragon – for dictation

As far as games go, my 3 favorites are Infinity Blade, Flight Control, and Tetris. There’s a lot of hubbub about Angry Birds, but I haven’t yet succumbed…

Sent from my iPhone

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Equipment: iPhone 4, LED flash. Touched-up with CrossProcess.

Parenthood

Baxter, cross-processed

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Crossway just released the ESV for the iPhone. I have stuck with their web-based mobile-optimized version because it’s better than any of the other native iPhone versions in the app store. But this new one is amazing and elegant.

App Reviews, Technology

ESV for iPhone from Crossway

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