Thursday, July 30, 2015

Some Thoughts On Some 33 1/3 Books

I like the ‘33 1/3’ books, the series in which each volume focuses on a ‘classic’ album. You can read them in about a couple of hours, they generally have some interesting facts or observations about their chosen album, and each one is written in quite a different style.

In some cases the authors are perhaps a little too over-the-top in their praise of the album and/or band, and sometimes they draw some very long bows in their interpretations. Still, if the authors weren’t such fans of their subjects perhaps the series wouldn’t be as interesting.

There isn’t a great deal of consensus about which the best books in the series are, which may be a bad or a good thing to a reader, depending on your point of view. (A Pitchfork writer recently picked these titles.) Here are some thoughts I have on the books I’ve read to date.

Carl Wilson’s Celine Dion’s ‘Let’s Talk About Love’ is the most acclaimed book in the series, and rightly so. For the type of author that typically writes for the ’33 1/3’ series, Celine’s album would be a long way from being considered a ‘classic’ album. And yet it sold more copies than most of the so-called ‘classic’ albums that have been covered in the series. Why? I’m not sure the book ever really gets to the answer, but it’s a strong reminder that, for most people, pop and rock history doesn’t revolve around those cult albums that sold less than a million copies.

Big Star’s ‘Radio City’ (Bruce Eaton) has interviews with most of the Big Star band members and associated personnel, which makes it about as close to a definitive history of the making of that album as you can get. Band leader Alex Chilton in particular is interviewed at length. Critics and fans often bemoan that Chilton and Big Star never hit the big time, but the second half of this book reveals that there was perhaps an element of what may be considered self-sabotage contributing to Chilton’s lack of success.

Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ (Alex Niven) is a bit wrong-headed to me, though I enjoyed reading it nonetheless. The author tries to argue that Oasis’ lyrics should be seen as political, or more specifically as insights into the lives and struggles of the working class. I’m happy to accept that Oasis’ working-class lives at that point did fill out some of the detail in the lyrics, but I doubt that Noel Gallagher had many political motives when he wrote this album – more likely he was just putting words together that sounded good.

Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The Aeroplane Over The Sea’ (Kim Cooper) has been one of the more popular books in the series. It isn’t as remarkable as the sales made me thought, but it is certainly quite readable, and its lack of remarkability is actually interesting in itself. Neutral Milk Hotel is one of those bands that a fair amount of mystique has gathered around over the years, but this book brings their story back down to earth by depicting them as essentially just a band, albeit one with some excellent material, like hundreds of other bands littered across the United States.

Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’ (Daphne Brooks) is good, though it possibly suffers a little bit from hero-worship. I did like the fact that it was written by an African-American woman given my first inclination is to think that every book in this series is written by a forty-something white male typing next to his shelves of vinyl. This also plays into nicely into what I think is one of the better points in this book, which is that Buckley, in his cover versions, placed as much if not more emphasis on the works of female vocalists as the male guitar rock ‘canon’.

R.E.M.’s ‘Murmur’ (J. Niimi) is quite good. I didn’t realise drummer Bill Berry was such an important contributor to the early R.E.M. sound – portrayed here as at least an equal partner in the band’s decisions, if not more so. At the end of the book the author tries to transcribe what he thinks Michael Stipe’s often inscrutable lyrics may be.

Talking Heads’ ‘Fear Of Music’ is by Jonathan Lethem, who is the biggest name so far to write a book for the 33 1/3 series. That made me curious to read this, even though I didn’t know much about the album. For much of the book Lethem goes through the album track-by-track, and I listened to each track, often for the first time, as I came up to the relevant section. For me Lethem’s book did not stand out above the rest in terms of its quality or insight – Lethem is a novelist, not a music critic after all – but this still remains to me one of the most memorable books in the series. Passages like Lethem’s phonetic transcription of ‘I Zimbra’, and how the titles of ‘Life During Wartime’ and ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ stick out on the album track list remain ensconced in my mind. In this book Lethem recalls his experiences of when he first heard the ‘Fear Of Music’ album as a teenager, but mixes these in with his perspective of the album as an adult, though given that Lethem was probably a precocious kid it is sometimes difficult to tell which perspective is which.

Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ (Bryan Waterman) is the longest title in the series to date, clocking it at over 200 pages. Not as much about the album ‘Marquee Moon’ (though it does go through the album track-by-track near the end) as about the whole history of the band, and a fair chunk of the New York punk scene as well, its scope leads to its relative lengthy page count yet it almost never dragged for me. One thing I kind of learned is that, despite not being overly successful, Television were, if this book is to be believed, basically the central band in the New York punk scene of the mid-‘70s. Another thing: they were pretty guys, basically the ‘70s equivalent of those mid-‘00s pretty indie boy bands that kind of irked me, which come to think of it were probably taking both their sound and look from Television.

Finally, My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ (Mike McGonigal) had for me two interesting points about the making of this album. One, there is not as many guitars on the album as you may think (and a lot more vocals). Two, there is not as many band members on the album as you may think either.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 17 2015

After its 138-point win against Carlton, Hawthorn now has almost 50 ranking points, meaning that the rankings consider the Hawks an eight-goal favourite against even an average AFL side. Such a rating is quite high, but it is not even the highest in the five-year history of these rankings. Geelong had over 50 ranking points after it won the 2011 Grand Final. On a more cautionary note for the Hawks in the same year Collingwood had a rating that was around 45-50 for most of the season, peaking at 56, before it was thrashed by Geelong in Round 23, and then beaten by the Cats again in the Grand Final. Also though I did not do these rankings in 2009, St. Kilda would have rated very highly throughout that year, as would have Geelong in 2008, both of whom finished runners-up. A high rating puts you less ahead of the pack if you have another team that is right up there with you – this season West Coast is highly rated as well, and are considered the best chance of pulling off a Grand Final ‘upset’.

It is getting reasonably packed in the middle of the rankings, with only three goals separating third-placed Fremantle from twelfth-placed GWS. The Dockers have won enough games that they will almost certainly finish in the top four, despite dropping off in form in recent weeks. Port Adelaide is perhaps too far back to make a strong tilt at the finals, but many of the other teams in that range should be in for a tight jostle for finals positions as we move toward the season’s end.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Benefits and Costs in Cricket of Not Enforcing A Follow-On

Once again, in the second Test of its current series against England, the Australian cricket team did not enforce a follow-on that was available to it. As a nervous Australian supporter, worried about the possibility of either English rain or a couple of dogged batsmen, this yet again infuriated me. It seems that Australia have abandoned the follow-on ever since they were beaten after enforcing it by India in 2001. Former Australian captain Ricky Ponting rarely enforced a follow-on, and current Australian captain Michael Clarke has never enforced it.

Is it better to enforce a follow-on or not? One main reasons I’ve heard for not doing so is to give your team’s bowlers a rest. Another is to not bat last, when runs are usually harder to make, in the event that the other team is able to catch up to your score. The main reason for enforcing a follow-on is to finish the match more quickly, particularly if there is not a great deal of time in the match left.

While batting last is a little nerve-wracking only three teams have ever won in over a century of Test Match cricket after being forced to follow on. This is out of over 300 teams that have been forced to follow on, meaning that, Australia’s fears of Kolkata aside, less than 1 per cent of teams that have enforced a follow-on have lost. On the other hand your chance of losing if you bat again is probably remote as well. You will most likely get a 400-plus run lead, and from there your chance of losing is very small.

So the more important consideration in one’s choice about whether to enforce a follow on is your chance of drawing, or not winning, the match. In cases where a follow-on has been enforced, draws have occurred in about one-quarter of cases. When Michael Clarke has not enforced a follow-on available to him the Australians have typically won, so I’d say, my nerves aside, he actually hasn’t hurt his chances of winning that much through his practice.

Therefore, it seems to me what the decision really comes down to is when it is best to give your bowlers a rest. (More cynically, it may also come down to match attendance figures.) Should you try and finish the match early and give them some more rest before the next match? Or should you give them a break mid-match? Nightmares of Kolkata aside, it seems that the Australians prefer the latter option. Which I guess is fine by me now … until it costs them a win anyway.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 16 2015

Is the AFL 2015 Premiership a ‘one-horse race’? Well, nothing is ever a ‘one-horse race’ as long as there is a ‘second horse’, but yet another Hawthorn premiership is looking very likely at this stage.

According to these rankings the Hawks are at about two goals better than the next highest-ranked team, the West Coast Eagles. A match-up between those two teams on Grand Final day though would be played at the MCG, giving Hawthorn an estimated two more goals advantage, bringing its advantage up to about four goals in total.

Everyone else? Considerably more of a longshot. Both Sydney and Fremantle are about five goals back, meaning they would both be rated seven goal underdogs in an MCG Grand Final matchup versus the Hawks. The highest rated Victorian teams, Collingwood and Richmond, are five to six goals behind Hawthorn. And those two teams would likely have to negotiate some difficult interstate trips during the finals before they could make it all the way to the end.

I’m deflated by this. I’m seen seven Hawthorn premierships in the thirty years I’ve been following football, which is more than enough. I’d even throw my support behind West Coast if it stood the best chance of ending the Hawthorn monotony.

P.S. I'm been on holiday the past few days, hence the later than usual posting of this week's rankings.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 109

ECONOMICS/POLITICS: French economist Thomas Piketty believes that Germany has no right to lecture Greece about its debts.

ECONOMICS/POLITICS: The numbers behind Hillary Clinton’s economic vision.

BASEBALL: Some suggestions for what should determine home ground advantage in the baseball World Series other than the All-Star Game. I think I agree with the preferred suggestion.

CRICKET: An appreciation for the mostly unappreciated Australian cricketer Shane Watson.

SOCIAL MEDIA/FILM: Why is social media so obsessed with minions?

Book Review: Go Set A Watchman – Harper Lee

This week Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set A Watchman’ was released, which is the much-anticipated companion to her best-selling novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. Reactions have been mixed: some reviewers have claimed it is an even better novel, or at least more complex, than ‘Mockingbird’, while other reviewers have labelled it disappointing.

For me it is not as good as ‘Mockingbird’, although if you are looking for something to read you could do worse. In ‘Watchman’, the heroine of ‘Mockingbird’, Jean Louise (Scout), returns to her hometown after twenty years away, and discovers that her father Atticus is a bigot who opposes the integration of black and white Americans. As a plot, I didn’t find it nearly as engaging as the ‘black man accused of raping a white woman’ court case plot of the first book. (Though I should admit that I haven’t read ‘Mockingbird’ for about twenty years, so my recollection of it is definitely hazy.)

The main characters are also less engaging as well. Scout’s brother Jem – an important offsider in ‘Mockingbird’ – has died. Scout’s character is possibly more filled out, though it means that to some extent her character comes to dominate the novel in a way it didn’t in ‘Mockingbird’, in which I recall her being as much an observer of the events around her. And Atticus … Atticus’ character – the man who defended the accused black man in ‘Mockingbird’ – seems so changed that it feels like a different character. No-one who reads ‘Watchman’ will be able to think of ‘Mockingbird’, or the movie that was made of the book, in the same way again.

Almost as disturbing for me though as the change in Atticus’ character is a line said by Jean Louise as she argues with her father about his bigotry. “Your ends my well be right–I think I believe in the same ends …’ she says. What does this mean? Does she also think that blacks and whites should not be fully integrated? Perhaps I have misinterpreted the comment. But if not it seems to cast a disturbing shade upon the whole enterprise of ‘Mockingbird’, which has for years been seen as one of the best and most definite denouncements of racial prejudice ever written.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Williams Wins Wimbledon, Again … Which Tennis Grand Slam Tournament Has The Highest Concentration of Winners?

This year Serena Williams won the Wimbledon Championships for the sixth time. It seems that quite a few players have won Wimbledon a lot of times. Martina Navratilova won it nine times. Steffi Graf won it seven times. Serena’s sister Venus won it five times. On the men’s side, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have won it seven times each.

But then it seems like you can win the French Open a lot of times too if you’re good on clay. Rafael Nadal has won that tournament nine times. Bjorn Borg won it six times. Chris Evert won the women’s singles seven times, and Graf got six titles.

Although maybe the Australian Open is the ‘easy’ Grand Slam tournament to win if it suits your game – after all, Novak Djokovic won it for the fifth time earlier this year, and Serena Williams won it for the sixth time. Or as Bill Simmons once noted, maybe tennis just lends itself to a player being completely dominant.

So which Grand Slam tournament has had the most dominant players, i.e. the highest concentration of winners? To measure this I calculated a concentration measure known as Herfindahl-Hirschman Index for each of the Grand Slam tournaments in the Open era (1968 onwards). The higher the index, the more concentrated the winners have been. The results were as follows:

Men’s singles: Wimbledon: 0.078, French Open: 0.075, US Open: 0.060, Australian Open: 0.052.
Women’s singles: Wimbledon: 0.101, US Open: 0.075, French Open: 0.069, Australian Open: 0.066.

So Wimbledon has the highest concentration of winners for both the men’s and women’s singles. I’ve noted above the main winners: in the men’s singles Sampras, Federer and Borg have won 19 of the 48 titles; in the women’s singles Navratilova, Graf, and the Williams sisters have won 27 titles between them. If you look at the combined totals of the top three or four winners for the other major tournaments they each lag behind those numbers.

Wimbledon – the most traditional, prestigious of Grand Slam tournaments. But also the most uncompetitive as well.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 15 2015

This past week I have been reading over and referring back a few times to MatterOfStats’ blog post simulating the finalists for 2015. As a Tigers supporter I am somewhat comforted, and slightly nervous, that Richmond was given an 81 per cent of making the finals after Round 14. That aside, MatterOfStats’ assessment of the most likely finish for each team seems about right to me.

I particularly note that MOS has West Coast’s most likely finish as second, with a 27 per cent chance of finishing first. The Eagles this year are a monster team. This week they knocked over Adelaide by almost ten goals, and even though one may speculate that the Crows’ performance this week was somewhat affected by recent events the Eagles have still put together a string of impressive performances in recent weeks. They are not too far off challenging the Hawks for the top ranking spot. West Coast may have got well beaten by cross-state rivals Fremantle earlier this season, but I’d be willing to bet that when the two teams meet again in a month’s time the result is likely to be a lot different.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Wooden Finger Five - July 2015

5.Lady’s In Trouble With The Law – LA Priest

Late of the Pier was one of the better short-lived bands of the late 2000s, with great tracks like ‘The Bears Are Coming’ and ‘Random Firl’. Singer Sam Dust has now gone on to release music under the name LA Priest. Apparently he has been working with New Zealand singer Connar Mockasin, and man, does it sound like it! ‘Lady’s In Trouble With The Law’ has exactly the same ‘70s lounge room feel that we’ve come to expect from Mockasin’s own work. (By the way, I think I saw Connar Mockasin standing nearby in front of me at the Laneway Festival after he performed this year. He’s astoundingly short if it was him; his lady friend seemed a good few inches taller.)

4.Dreams – Beck

After dissing Beck following his Grammy win for ‘Morning Phase’, Kanye West reportedly admitted that he had heard the album and quite liked it. Maybe that’s because it reminded him of his friend Bon Iver. Anyway, ‘Dreams’ has a beat that is more like what I expect Kanye would be used to, harking back a little to Beck’s ‘Midnite Vultures’ era, but with a bit of the picked-acoustic, bird-at-the-window ‘Morning Phase’ feel as well. Sexxlaws is back, baby!

3.Waves – Miguel

I’m not a big R&B fan at all, but I do like Miguel’s latest album. It’s a bit of a cliché to think of R&B artists as sitting in the back of a car, sunroof open, beach in the background. ‘Waves’ however is like the perfect soundtrack to that type of image. The chorus ‘I wanna ride that wave’ seems like all that every LA tune has ever wanted to say; Miguel though somehow delivers the line with more cool and depth than your standard ‘at da club’ vocalist.

2.Silk – Wolf Alice
1.Bros – Wolf Alice

The recent NME review of Wolf Alice’s album called it ‘the debut of the decade so far’. Since I can’t recall a better one I agree. Wolf Alice are like a My Bloody Valentine if the latter hadn’t hidden their tunes behind a wall of distorted guitar.

There are plenty of tracks that are of the same high quality as ‘Silk’, but I wanted to highlight that one because it’s the one – apart from the one below – that has stayed in my head, and is a definite change of pace from the rest of the album. Whereas most of Wolf Alice’s tracks settle into a (compelling) groove, the vocals on ‘Silk’ change up every few lines, with some bits – e.g. ‘At least you’re not boring’ – still feeling like a mild surprise even when you’ve heard the song a few times through. It’s a good sign the band know how to craft a track, and not just play downstrokes repeatedly until four or five minutes are up.

NME, in its current Wolf Alice frenzy, termed the album’s second track ‘Bros’ a Proper Festival Anthem, after it got a good reception at Glastonbury. While I haven’t experienced it myself I imagine that standing in a grassy field high on your favourite happy drugs does feel a bit like this track. The lyrics also make you want to drape your arm over your friend’s shoulder: ‘Oh, I’m so lucky, you are my best friend/Oh, there’s no one, there’s no one who knows me like you do’. It makes one long to be twenty-two with long hair again. (Note: my hair at twenty-two was not that long.) But even at thirty-five I am more excited about Wolf Alice’s music than any other band this year, despite my initial antipathy towards them. (Wolf Alice - ?! Sounds like a hippy-dippy millennial band … ) Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

AFL Power Rankings: Round 14 2015

There were two events in the AFL this past week that made my eyes widen and let out an exclamation of shock when I first heard about them (the revelations of drug use at the Gold Coast Suns was not one of them). The first was the death of Adelaide Crows coach Phil Walsh. This led to the Adelaide-Geelong match scheduled for this week being cancelled, which in turn had a whole bunch of other implications. In terms of these rankings I have given both teams zero ranking points for the week. That pulls both teams’ total ranking points down a bit as they both have positive overall ratings, but it seemed the best way to account for this unusual event. Geelong’s points also take a hit from one of the teams that it recently thrashed being substantially downgraded …

What has happened to Essendon? Ranked seventh here after Round 3 this season, the Bombers have lost almost five goals worth of ranking points since, including two goals worth this week after losing by over 100 points to the Saints. St. Kilda has now gained more ranking points than any team this season, while only Carlton has lost more ranking points than Essendon (and we know what happened to the Blues’ coach as a result of their poor form). The Bombers are now considered here to be a bottom-five team, and may sink even lower on the rankings if this weekend was an indication of where they are heading.