Thrice ~ The Alchemy Index Vols. 1-4

In an era where you can download whatever you want and music isn’t something you sit outside the record store and wait for anymore, it takes a lot for a band to create a tour de force that gets people out of their musical complacency and truly rock out. Well, like all acquired tastes — Thrice — might not do that for many people. But whatever you felt about them before the release of two double CDs over a six month span, you have to respect what they’ve created here.

I discovered them at the same time. Vol 3 & 4 were released last week, while Vol. 1 & 2 were released back in October.

They’re really just two albums (only six songs on each volume) on four CDs, but give them credit for the suspense factor. It’s very different than what they’ve released in the past. Nothing like Artist In the Ambulance or anything like that. It sounds way more like a combination of Thrice, 30 Seconds to Mars, A Perfect Circle and Coheed and Cambria. How is it ALL of those? It’s not. But if you combined them somehow, you’d get this output and it’d be….well, a pretty awesome feat.

Here are two reviews:

Fire & Water
Fire and Water start strong with the track Firebreather which doesn’t give you a chance to catch your breath from the moment you start it. Which frankly, is how it should be. The vocals don’t really lend itself to this style, but it at least sounds in theory like Thrice of olde, with amped up riffs and vocals. But it works, it also works on The Arsonist. But the best song on the entire collection of discs is a ditty called Burn The Fleet. It’s probably that way in my mind because it sounds like Thrice, but it’s also emphatic and fits the scheme of the album so perfectly.

I think the Water disc is where this album lost me a bit. It was too….well, it was just too much of a letdown after flying high on “Fire”. It’s good enough, a little too reliant on ambient noises and yet, thematically it works extremely well. It’s just a matter of what your ears are attuned to. Digital Sea and Night Driving were the two tracks I liked on the 2nd CD more than any others.

It’s not a bad collection of songs, it’s just two very different discs and until you get to hear Vols 3 & 4, you’re not really sure what they’re trying to do. It does, however, leave you wanting more.

[rating: 3]

Air & Earth
Air and Earth are Volumes 3 & 4 of the Thrice “Alchemy Index” series. It’s…an interesting contrast from Fire and Water for a number of reasons, as they take a far more airy approach. It’s stripped down and concise, doesn’t waste a lot of time on melodies and yet, it’s still focused as heavily on presentation as the first set of discs.

If you were riding high after Fire and Water, this one is stripped down to the elements. It’s still exquisitely done, from the precision of the guitar on like The Earth Isn’t Humming to the haunting beauty of a track like A Song for Milly Michaelson.

There is just nothing ordinary about these sets of tracks and there are more than enough songs to make it worth your while to listen to it from start to finish without skipping. Some critics might say they spent too much time trying to take the themes too literally, but I don’t see any signs of that really. It feels very intertwined with the first set of discs and while it might be a bit of a risk to take for a band that doesn’t have a huge following, it’s an auditory excursion throughout.

Good times.
[rating: 4.5]

Plus/Minus – Steal The Blueprints

Hey
I never thought I’d find
under layers of regret
the recognition of the time
before the boundaries were set
when the pages were left blank
the gold’s still buried in the soil
and you could’ve make a lot of noise
with no connection to the past

Do you wonder just what happened to
all the desire to carry on
without knowing where you are going?

Now it’s flavour of the month
with all the expectations met
before they strike a single chord
you can’t predict what you will get

Hey
Steal the blueprints and the maps
step the spade into the ground
strip the gold under the soil
let’s take a claim to the sound

Do you wonder just what happened to
all the desire to carry on
without knowing where you are going?

Portals aren’t solutions

Seth Meranda writes a heck of a post about so-called portal solutions. It’s a must read.

The institution was excited about this new tool, however they had one problem: current students weren’t using it. When the institution was asked why not, their response was: “The current students don’t know that this is where they are supposed to be. We need to spend more time, money and energy on converting the students.” (not verbatim, but the gist).

Wrong, they need to return the portal and reinvest time, money and energy into understanding what their students want.

We don’t have a portal solution where I work now, but my previous institution did. And I’ve seen rollouts of them at places I’ve consulted and in each case, the students hate them. They’re poorly thought out and while they offer the proverbial “one-stop shop” everyone is so giddy about, there are a bevy of reasons why they are panned by faculty and students alike.

They are poorly presented, they’re rigid and look nothing like the college’s web site. They can be clunky and hard to manage. As a web manager, they’re a real pain because they are usually run by IT, but contain web content like calendars and other modules. So they are redundant and need to be updated and managed or become obsolete.

He goes on to create a useful title that a buzzword PR person will steal and try to turn into something ridiculous like “blog coach”

We need to start navigating towards a more holistic, user-experience-centric approach. “Experience Architects” need to work with students (current and prospective) to determine online content and design. Student input needs to become the dominating impact on our future realignment strategies. The marketing team is no more in charge than the IT team, nor does registrar’s office have more clout than the housing department. The “Experience Architects” will hold the conversations with students, and both will work collaboratively.

The problem is universities and especially small colleges have yet to figure out what to do with web people. A lot of the content folks like me are in PR offices and we interface with the entire campus, with IT dealing with all of the technical issues.

It’s usually a nice marriage, but it’s not an ideal situation where some schools don’t even have a web budget, but cobble together pools of money for different areas to create a web budget. There is no chief web strategist, no college web strategy and instead you just have lots of different people making up their own ideas about this nebulous thing called “the web site”.

A web-based solution would probably be the best first step for something like this.

While it’s understandable the worry about what registrars want and what people working at the institutional level want to “make their jobs easier” would be the soup de jour; when we’re talking about investing in students, it needs to be more than just a buzzword.

If more innovation, collaboration and assessment of what students need was being done, we’d be able to go a lot further along in creating useful applications and leverage the talents within our own walls a lot better than we do.

Making Album Cover Collages in Picasa

I like music more than the average bear and for my wallpapers I like to mix things up. It’s Friday, so let’s have a little fun shall we?

I was “inspired” by the Zune’s new software that has a background with album covers in the background.

I wondered “couldn’t I do that for my own computer?”

Well, you sure can.

First, download Picasa if you don’t have it.

Then download album covers and put them all in the same folder.

Open Picasa 2 and go to “Import” if it doesn’t actually automatically monitor the folder where you put your album covers. Import the folder into Picasa 2. From now on, when you add new art to that folder and reload the program, it’ll add them automatically.

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Then click on collage in the lower bottom sidebar after importing your pictures.
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After clicking collage, choose Picture Grid for type of collage and decide where you want to save it, by clicking on Location and deciding where it’ll be when you’re done (so you can find it after it’s made).
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Your collage is done now! Just save it as your computer wallpaper if you want.

I’ve uploaded a few of mine to give you an idea of what a finished product looks like. I usually “tile” them in Windows to spread them across the background.

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You can check out Sleevage for album covers. Or just go to BN.com, Amazon or others to get them. Amazon works better usually because theirs are larger and better photo quality.

Update: Here’s a program that you can download that will make collages from your last.fm profile!

Atmosphere ~ When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold

Atmosphere has never ranked atop my favourite indie hip-hop acts. I realize they are the darlings of NPR and the frozen tundra of hip-hop mecca of Minneapolis, but…I just could never into them beyond a few random tracks.

But I like the cleverness of the title and decided to delve in head first and see what we got out of it. I have to say that the album starts off rousing with Like The Rest Of Us. It’s the right way to start an album when someone skeptical is going to fire it up. It’s emphatic and doesn’t waste any time.

The beats on this album are decidedly low-grade and the production does distract from the output a bit, but even beyond that I have a hard time with Slug’s flow because he’s almost too emo-rap for me. He just kinda goes on and on. It must be a Minnesota thing, because I feel like all of the rappers that come out of there are too top heavy with their verbiage and it makes it hard to listen to them.

It might sound funny to say a rapper shouldn’t use too many words. But I’m just saying that if you do or if you have a tendency to bloviate as a rapper, you better come hard on every track or else, you’re gonna lose people or they’ll switch to the next song before you get your point across.

But back to the album, When Life Gives You Lemons… is a pretty good album. The beat on You is just begging to be sampled by someone and tracks like Painting, Yesterday, Me and Wild Horses are all solid riding tracks. Ant’s beats get better as the album goes on, but it’s still hit or miss and it seems that it’s all very dependent on how well Slug fits into the beat to determine whether whatever he’ll say after the first bar will take the track anywhere.

The best damn track on the album hands down is The Waitress. The thing I like about Slug A LOT is that he lets you know from the start whether he’s going to come hard and when he does, it’s no joke. The guy knows how to craft a tale built on stories of stale coffee, riding the bus late at night because you’re homeless or working double shifts to make ends meet rap. It’s built on what seems like authenticity of the first order. (Maybe Barack Obama needs to listen to this to connect with “working-class Americans”)

To do that in any sort of music is an accomplishment, to pull it off on a rap album is a coup. Pick this one up, k?

[rating: 4]

Nas, The “N-word” and the veneer of artistry

If you haven’t yet heard about it, Nas — the rapper — has decided to name his newest album Nigger.

That’s right. He’s going to blunt the word into irrelevance. Or so it seems. Is this a remarkable show of hubris from an artist or there something else at play here?

It’s actually pretty simple, I think. Nas will be accused of pushing the envelope and probably feels quite passionately about what he’s doing. But I’m not quite sure it’s all that complicated, really.

My suspicion is that he figures for hundreds of years, the word was used to dehumanize a group of people. Being a seemingly well read (if completely confused) guy based on his past body of work, Nas is clearly figuring that “I’d rather profit from the word, because that’s the ultimate sign of defiance.”

Cute. And the marketplace will reward and revile him at the same time. And the delicious irony of certain kids going to music stores to request the album probably will be worth the price of admission — provided it were charged — although no one buys music on wax or CD anymore.

So..it really doesn’t matter after all.

Here’s a single from the album. I won’t even tell you the title. It’s too annoying.

I imagine this lil’ publicity stunt will irk his base more than it’ll provoke actual dialogue. But he’s not concerned with that. After all, it’s all about ‘moving units’. (that’s selling albums for the uninitiated.) At it’s best, the whole scheme is intellectually lazy. His peers in the ‘rap game’ will defend their use of the word to their graves, are just going to be enabled by this. Copycat albums from southern rappers will follow, with gratuitous use of the world sprinkled liberally as if it were sugar in my oatmeal. It would’ve been far more clever to call the album HNIC or something else. At least then, it’d have a small sliver of wit involved.

But nope. no such cleverness or creativity is to be found in the era of

Perhaps one of the best things that could come from this is that people will hear the word enough that they’ll be disinclined to use it. Not because “words hurt”, but instead because there are a myriad of other words that would be far more productive and would expand the ways in which those inclined to say it could express themselves. It would be pretty hilarious if it could induce rappers to engage in contests to see who can use bigger words in their tracks. Or use them in the proper context. Is that what this is all about anyway, expression?

No one complains about rock lyrics, because they don’t matter. Rock music doesn’t take itself very seriously, even when the artists are serious about their craft. Hip-hop at its core is all about the verbal jousting and wordplay. The verbiage is the frosting AND the cake. Sure, great beats help. But the words will sell a track in the end. The double standard might suck, but it is what it is. And with hip-hop having gone pop, the bar isn’t anywhere near it used to be. It’s much less a hurdle now and merely a puddle to avoid on the way to stardom and infamy.

SEO, Authenticity and The Wizard of Oz

Most of us know the story of The Wizard of Oz and the Tin Man had no heart. But what about your web site’s content?

Too many consultants fool their clients into believing that search engine optimization (SEO) is more important than what information than the soul of the content once the eyeballs arrive. It’s foolhardy to think that by simply rigging your copy and meta tags to drive search traffic your way that your site will magically be propelled to the top tiers of your market and that legions of people who were “looking for you” will be routed your way.

The whole SEO craze is based on two fundamental untruths:

1) That there millions of people out there searching for you who can’t find you because when they Google you, you’re not at the top of the list.
Guess what? At some point, you quickly realize that there are only a few spots atop a Google search. Someone is bound to be on Page 2. Yes, it would be very cool is someone thousands outside of your market would be induced to visit your site to make a purchase or learn more about your institution, depending on what it is you’re offering them.

But do the people in your own neighborhood know what you are doing? Once you’ve branched out from that starting point, it’s far more important to cultivate the areas where you are dominant, versus trying to stretch your arms to reach places that you’re not naturally able to reach. In some cases, you get help from special events or speakers who give attention to your institution.

At that point, it’s where content needs to shine. Do you think Wiley College really capitalized on The Great Debaters movie with Denzel Washington? It’s doubtful that look at their site they really have any sort of web strategy at all, opting instead for “we have to have a web site, because everyone does”

I call that the “slumlord web strategy.”

At that point, SEO might not have mattered nearly as much as having a web site put together that would put them in a position to capitalize on all of the attention.

The questions it raises are more prescient than the answers. When your institution gets it one shot in the spotlight, how will you capitalize? Why is your institution still using print materials to drive people to the web site, rather than using the web site to drive people to your campus? Whether virtually or in real time, the more eyeballs you engage, the better off you are.

2) That more traffic is a good thing and will result in more sales.
Really? Is it that easy? It reminds me of the old business plan fable that “if we just capture 1% of the U.S. population, our product will be a hit.” Well good luck selling to 1% of the population. What happened to doing what you do well? What happened to authenticity?

If we’re talking about higher education, institutions need to do a better job of knowing who they are. No marketing company can tell you who you are better than your people can. They might be too mired in the institution to really get a fresh look at it, but the consultants should be bringing out your strengths and giving people seeds that will bear fruit long after the consultants have come and gone.

I realize that with the sometimes overly collaborative, input driven world of higher education that it works a lot better to bring an outsider in to tell you what you ought to do. But do you notice how often marketing campaigns across time lack cohesion? If you look at some institutional materials over a 5-10 year period, it might be possible that it looks like materials for 5-10 different schools.

While this might be endemic more to budget, materials and presentation, the web offers you a platform to provide information in vibrant, dynamic ways. This isn’t rocket science, but when you consider that newspapers — who should understand presenting information better than anyone (until you work at one how untrue that is) — are just starting to figure out how to leverage the information tools at their disposal now, you can understand why it’s come slowly for other markets.

The bottom line is this: If you don’t know your soul, neither will anyone else. You have to engage your audience in authentic ways if you want to break through to them. All of the traffic in the world means nothing if when you get your chance to shine, what you have to say isn’t compelling, interesting or authentic.

Site redesign, more news coming soon…

If you read the site, you’ve noticed the design has changed. As much as I love baseball (and yes, the pictures were mine), I felt that maybe it was time for a little change. So I’ve jettisoned that look. I’ve also changed the name of this blog as a result. I wanted a name that still sounded like “me” without sounding too top heavy or buzzword-like.

Reading, Writing and Big Ideas is pretty much spot on. I’m also in the midst of updating my personal site and blog, because it was long overdue.

I am sitting on another announcement that’ll be official tomorrow and at that point, I’ll share it. Until then, stay tuned.