Monday, February 23, 2009

I'm not clever, but I own a cleaver. Does that count?

Because I'm not clever enough to come up with my own Facebook memes, but just wise enough to change them into my own lil' sub-meme. These are 16 albums that changed my life, and 9 that missed.

First - the Good 16.

16) Faithless - Outrospective. To say this is the best electronica band I've ever heard is an understatement. They make dance songs with meaning...or they make meaningful songs you can dance to. Either way.

15) XTC - Nonsuch. Not their best album, but very whimsical and surprisingly brilliant. It's amazing at how vital this album becomes with every passing year.

14) Kitchens of Distinction - "Strange Free World." You can listen to a million albums, but you will never hear a trio sound so incredibly rich. They do a Phil Spector-esque "Wall of Sound" but can do it on the quietest, loveliest songs. It took me a while to realize the lead singer/songwriter was a gay man, and suddenly all the love songs took on a different meaning. The songs were more than mere expressions of affection, but also of a man trying to come to grips with his sexuality in a world when other artists where still firmly in the closet.

13) Depeche Mode - Violator. Josh Grinnell was the biggest Depeche Mode fan I'd ever met. He was essentially an evangelist for them, as at the time, I didn't care for much of those new-fangled synthesizers. Gimme guitars or go home! I mean, I could listen to some stuff, like DM's "Music for the Masses" or Erasure, but I never had a "whoa..." moment with them. Violator was a giant "whoa..."

12) The Replacements - Tim. The Replacements are probably my favorite rock band, and I loved the way how they straddled between competence and drunken brilliance. I have never cared to listen to many of their albums, though. They always seemed to botch something. Three good songs and then something almost unlistenable. They didn't do that on "Tim."

11) Men at Work - Business as Usual. I bought this on vinyl. This was my second or third album I bought, but the oldest one that survives and is playable. I remember saving my dollar-a-week allowance for a month to buy this. The Christian bookstore by the Old Country Buffet in Annapolis used to be a record store. My mom used to take me on her shopping trips, and she wondered why I would be a monster in the toy store, yet calm in the record store. I guess I always knew. But this is the album that made me figure "Australians are pretty cool" and the fact I had more success as an actor in Australia than I ever did in the U.S. is directly attributable to Men at Work.

10) Shirley Horn - Shirley Horn, with Strings. A local DC woman who was essentially unknown outside her neighborhood, but a legend in the jazz/standards community. A former lover of Miles Davis, her songs played the role of the aging beauty still trying to hold on to strands of dignity and come to grips with her emotions.

9) The Killers - Hot Fuss. I was in Vegas a few times back in 2002. A comic friend of mine back then was getting married; I went to a big convention and expo, and I had a job interview. A friend had told me about this local band playing at some bar off the Strip. I remember thinking "these guys have a good sound, but suck live. I'll bet they're better in the studio." I was right. This album did not escape my CD player in my old Ford Focus for two months, at least.

8) The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds. If you've ever heard it, you'll know why. Amazing production values, great lyrics, incredible mood. That our generation knows them more for that tripe "Kokomo" is sad. They were this close to being better than The Beatles.

7) Prefab Sprout - Jordan, The Comeback. In 1991, I was looking for some good electronic angry music. Something industrial, like Front 242, or Skinny Puppy. I saw a postcard at Oceans II records in Annapolis for a British music dance party. On the list of bands were groups like New Order and Front 242. And Prefab Sprout. I had never heard of those guys, so I picked up "Jordan" out of the used bin. Paddy Macloon is the lead singer and creative mastermind behind Prefab Sprout. He is as industrial as I am a professional opera singer in Italy. But, you've got to have some serious talent to make a pissed off 18 year old go "damn..." with music that has nothing to do with industrial. The Sprouts have been one of my favorites since.

6) Kent - Isola. An album I bought completely based on the recommendation of the clerk at a record store in Des Moines. I was telling him that I'd heard a song on Iowa Public Radio (which, for all you who heap scorn upon my former state, was BY FAR the best alternative-indie-singer/songwriter stations I had ever heard) and tried to hum a bit of it. He goes "you're the third person to ask me that. I think it's these guys" - reaches for Isola - and hands it to me. I put it in my car...and promptly forget to listen to it for three months. When I do, I'm driving through Northern Iowa, it's 17 degrees, snowy, and kids are racing by on their snowmobiles. If there's ever been a better time to listen to a band from Sweden than during an Iowa winter...

5) Van Morrison - Moondance. One of my stepfather's only non-bluegrass recordings, but I nonetheless unfairly lumped this album into the category "If my stepdad likes it, it must suck." Thanks to Katie Craig, now Mrs. Bocock, I saw the error in my ways.

4) Barenaked Ladies - Gordon. It was refreshing to see musicians so talented, but yet so nerdy. Unlike the skinny Brits or the drunken Yanks, BNL back in 1992 were just five geeks from Canada who had like, maybe 10 fans in the states. That they were about 15 minutes away from being the one of the best-selling bands in Canada's history is important to note - they may have gotten more polished with money and fame, but they're still pretty dorky. Although they're not as vital as they used to be, they had a good 15 year run, and their newer music every once in a while hints at the madness they used to achieve regularly.

3) U2 - War. The album that made me thing that maybe politics and history do have a place in rock.

2) The Church - Seance. One of my bigger regrets in life was not being born and raised as a Maine sailor. Maine is a state best known for Stephen King and having a shit-ton of lighthouses. However, there is a ruggedness and bleakness to the terrain that is rather amazing. And, as a 16 year old vacationing with my aunt and uncle in Rockland, Maine, and bringing three tapes with me and my old Sony Walkman, there was no better soundtrack than Stephen Kilbey's voice, Marty Wilson-Piper's guitars and Richard Ploog's drums. Watching the fog roll in over a craggy landscape while "Fly" was Still gets me.

1) Trashcan Sinatras - Cake. The last album I bought in the 1980s, it came out just as the the entire political landscape was changing in Europe, and this album had exactly NOTHING to do with it. It wasn't political, it wasn't loaded with messages, it was simply perfect British pop made up by exceedingly talented Scots, perfectly produced, and blessed with some of the best wordplay ever put to tape. I've had this album for almost 20 years, and every listen gives some new little "ah-hah!" Been my favorite record since I bought it, and has yet to be dislodged.

10 that didn't...

9) Jane's Addiction - Nothing's Shocking/ Ritual de lo Habitual - The band wasn't bad at all, but I have never cared for Perry Ferrel's voice. Some of the songs are great, but, really, Perry Ferrell's screeching killed me. He was much more reserved in Porno for Pyros, and those albums, while not as urgent musically, are much less grating on my ears.

8) The Strokes - Is This It? I like this album a lot. I really do. Strange that I would say I really like an album, but still say it didn't hit. It was given so much indie hype, and was told that it would blow my mind. It didn't. It was good, no doubt, but, it unfortunately launched a spawn of horrific imitators that didn't have the talent or chops. Still, I do like The Strokes.

7) Dashboard Confessional - A Mark A Mission a Brand A Scar - Seriously? THIS is supposed to be an album? If I want to hear crying with guitars, I'll stroll into Guitar Center and show how badly a left-handed person can play a right-handed guitar.

6) Radiohead - Kid A. I can hear the "WHAT???" hipster indignity from here. I like what Radiohead was trying to do. I like the concept, and I appreciate the effort. However, OK Computer is weird, yet listenable. I didn't think it was as brilliant as some thought, but it's a fine recording. Kid A, however, is much harder to listen to, and is weird for the sake of being weird. I'd like to remind Radiohead that "The Bends" is a great album, and nothing to be ashamed of.

5) Linkin Park - pick one, any one. A friend of mine, whose taste in music is usually without reproach, fell head-over-heels for their first album. He extolled their virtues by saying "they don't cuss once!" Well, fuck it, maybe they should. Whine has no place in rock, son.

4) Rage Against the Machine - Rage Against the Machine - I get it, Zack. You're pissed off. You're not going to take it anymore. I've been there, bro. I feel for you. But you make better singles than albums. Sorry.

3) Pearl Jam - 10. I like the idea of Pearl Jam more than I like Pearl Jam. I never got into grunge rock anyway, but I liked Pearl Jam's kinda "no, really, we don't care" attitude. Vs. is a much better album than 10, but even then, I thought Eddie Vedder's singing kind of hurts my ears.

2) The Beastie Boys - License to Ill. This *should* have been perfect for me - a teenage boy looking for some rebellious outlet, and three punky Jewish kids from New York who rap about naughty things. Fantastic! didn't. It's a fine album, and I like it, but it didn't change my life like it did for others. Never quite connected like it should have.

1) Nivana - Nevermind. Sorry to all those who worship at the altar of Kurt Cobain, but this is one of the most overrated albums of all time. He was truly a talented guy - his uncredited work with Hole proves that he could make crap sound great - but this album was not life-changing. Fuzzy amplifiers, sloppy lyrics - they weren't doing anything I hadn't heard from my stepbrother's old band, and I thought they sucked too. Nirvana sounded more vital on "Bleach" and more sincere on "Unplugged." Never mind.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sick of Unemployment. Can't Wait to Get Unemployment

It's been six weeks since I last went to work at the Pentagon. I was let go as of January 1st, and even though the economy is pretty much collapsing around us, I was confident I'd find a job quickly.


I was laid-off because I did not have a security clearance. The company I worked for knew I didn't have one, knew I needed one, but never put me through for one. Thanks? Any old citizen can not get a clearance; you need to be sponsored by an employer or Government agency. As of January 1, the agency I supported enacted a rule stating that everybody on the computer network needed a clearance, whether the employee had access to secure information or not. So, I was given my walking papers.

It's weird leaving a job. For however brief a time it was, a place of employment becomes that Second Place - it's not home, but you sure spend a lot of time there. You put up decorations in your cube. Carve out a little spot in the fridge for your lunch. Stash some snacks in your drawers. Constantly bang your knees against a horribly-placed keyboard tray.

In the case of my office at the Pentagon, I guess it's because I miss the people. I was very blessed to have met some great folks in my nearly 4 years of contract work. And the people I worked with at the Reservation even more so. A good mix of eager young guys, fresh from school and the retail world, and world-wearied gents with a good eye for detail and memories full of good tales.

And then, poof, it's gone.

I got my notice of being laid-off on December 22, 3 days before Christmas and during my vacation to Florida. Now, the employer KNEW about this change in requirements for the network for at least 5 months, but neglected to tell anybody about it. And when do they decide to notify anybody? Oh, I don't know - 6pm during a week when half the building is on vacation.

Let me give any employers a couple words of advice. First off - did you know it's a violation in many states to lay somebody off over the phone? Such procedures need to be done either in person or in writing. That was told to me by somebody who does HR for a world-wide management firm. Hmmm. Interesting. I did not know that. I got a phone call. Second - if you need to lay somebody off over the phone, don't let some dingbat Valley-Girl wannabe bimbo who only got her job because she's got two boobs and half as many brain cells be your Turk. "Like, I guess, you could like, um, consider this to be like your two week notice!" is not a good phrase to hear, especially when said by a giggling young woman who makes the wasted-sperm retards with pretty teeth and ugly acting on MTV's "The Hills" look positively Mensa-like in comparison. When it comes time to give separation, you need somebody to deliver the news who's more Frasier Crane than Brendon Frasier.

I applied for unemployment assistance from Virginia as soon as I was able to do so legally, back in January. Contrary to popular belief, you do not apply for unemployment in the state you live in, but the state you worked in. As I physically worked in the Pentagon, and, the last time I checked, the Pentagon was in Virginia, hence, I applied for assistance from the Commonwealth.

One small problem - my erstwhile employer, Chronos Systems, despite having a scores of employees based in the Pentagon, does not pay Virginia Unemployment Tax.

Now, as I'm trying to get my security clearance, I'm trying to be as legal and forthright as possible on all my doings. To that end, I followed the letter of the law, and applied for benefits in the state I worked, Virginia. However, even the oh-so-qualified administrative and management staff at Chronos fell into the misconception that I should have applied for Maryland benefits...which, ironically enough, the State of Maryland said "You worked in Virginia, go to them."

Virginia, to its end, has been attempting to get me some money before they investigate Chronos and further delay my benefits. They have applied for a Multi-Jurisdiction Claim, where MD, VA and DC pool together funds for those employees who work in multiple locations across the region. Hopefully that will free up some funding, and I'll get some cash flow coming in again.

As it is now, I'm cashing in an old money market account back from Iowa, which should give me another two months to live on. Hopefully I'll get those funds in the next week or two.

Otherwise, let me simply say this - I am not a sentimental cat. I am fully aware of the business of being in business. Being laid-off is about dollars, not personality. And sometimes, those cuts need to be made at bad times. However, I find it amazing that a Government contractor can openly violate basic employment law; can be completely clueless in the procedure for obtaining a security clearance; would blatantly lie to Federal Government personnel about staff levels and competencies; and would also lie to State Government personnel trying to get a laid-off employee even a base level of economic safety.

Where does this leave me? Out of work and with ZERO income.

Anybody got a job for me? I work cheap.