Tuesday, August 31, 2021

A Self-Contained Geekosystem

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for September, "Go Go Baby," brings together several flavors of dweebery in one astral conjunction of nerd-tastic dork-iment. 

The goal was to make something that could pass for a 60s French pop song. Unfortunately, our accents are the French equivalent of Dick van Dyke's Cockney accent in Mary Poppins. 

If you can see past that part, the true dweebery of this song is that the lyrics are all acrostics, and other than in the chorus, they are acrostics of TV and movie characters. This is not just geeky... it has its own self-contained geekosystem. 

This is easier to show then tell, so follow along with the pictures and enjoy/cringe!





















With warmest regards,
Zach

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Locomotive (Length and) Breadth

Dear Friends,

I think I'll do digest or two about the some of the musicians who have influenced me over the years. Just don't ask me who my favorite band is. If you do, I will hug you gently, kiss you on the hair, and tell you that I love all bands equally. 

But secretly, I probably do have an all-time favorite band... Jethro Tull. 

Stop rolling your eyes and hear me out. Most of Jethro Tull's classic catalog was recorded before I was born, but I discovered them in the mid-90s, when I was just getting into songwriting. And to this day, I am still trying (and failing) to emulate front man Ian Anderson's acoustic guitar technique and instrumental arrangements. The Hard Taco song for August is called "A Proper Send-Off," and while it is not the best example of this, there is certainly a Tull footprint in there. (Just one footprint, mind you, because Anderson only stands on one leg...) 

If you've never given much thought to Jethro Tull, here is everything you need to know. The band borrowed their name from an influential 18th century agriculturist and author. Identity theft requires 100% commitment, so the band also stole the original Jethro Tull's writings on agriscience and repurposed them for their album titles, song titles, and lyrics.






Tull has been credited with revolutionizing the landscape of British progressive rock through a relentless touring schedule. They also revolutionized the actual British landscape through a relentless plowing schedule. 

Their most popular song, Aqualung, was considered innovative when it was released in 1971 because it had exactly no flute in it. Jethro Tull had finally figured out the formula for commercial success that had eluded all of their prog rock contemporaries... the lack of any flute-playing whatsoever. But in the years that followed, Ian Anderson found himself unable to reproduce that formula, putting out album after album without noticing that he had peppered every song with ear-splitting flute solos. 

Album sales dwindled after the 1970s, but Anderson was able to capitalize on their brief success by selling the rights to his life story for a movie adaptation called The Karate Kid. 


In the last few decades, Anderson's singing may have deteriorated, but his flute-playing became more expressive. Now in his 70s, Anderson refuses to use his speaking voice during interviews, answering all questions with dynamic arpeggios and breathy trills while bulging his eyes out. 

With warmest regards,

Zach


Thursday, July 1, 2021

Summer Folk Tales

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for July is called, "Fighting Weight." I dug deep to find that special sauce that turns regular white music into white funk. 

Summer is for campfires, and a good campfire invokes memories of camp counselors telling stories on a dark night. In particular, I think about folk tales about anthropomorphic animals and the lessons they teach us. For this month's digest, I've written three such folk tale, and I hope one of these makes it to your summer campfire. 


The Ring of Life

One morning, a young farm girl awoke to learn that her father had butchered a baby pig that she loved. Her father, the farmer, looked all over for her, and eventually found her in the barn, weeping. 

"It's true that we eat the pig," he told her, "but when we die, our bodies go the earth and feed the grass. The horse eats the grass, and the horse's manure becomes the breeding ground for flies. Then bats eat the flies and leave their droppings on the field where we grow the soybeans that feed the pigs."

"So life is kind of like a big circle?" she asked, feeling somewhat comforted.

"Not really," the father continued, "You see, we also kill the horses to make glue. That glue is used to hold together the fuselage of the mid-sized aircraft that drop incendiary bombs on military and civilian targets. Most of the victims have insurance policies that pay out a settlement to their next of kin, who will just gamble the whole thing away, mostly on online sports betting. The top 10 gambling mega-corporations have a 98% market share, with over $40 billion in holdings."

"So... it's kind of like a lasso of life, rather than a circle?" the girl asked.

"Something like that," the farmer said, and handed her a plate of bacon. 


The Blackbird and the Blacksmith

Said the blacksmith to the blackbird, "I have weary legs and a weary back. Would that I could fly like you. But alas, my hairy arms are not built for flight."

Said the blackbird to the blacksmith, "I have weary wings and a weary beak. Would that I could walk the streets like you. But alas, my tiny talons are not built for long walks."

So they made a pledge. The blackbird agreed that she would grant the smith the power of flight for one full day. In return, the blacksmith would fashion strong and beautiful shoes for the blackbird as he had done for the horse, so that she could hike the earth without damaging her delicate feet.

And so the smith stayed awake for three nights, forging shoes for the blackbird. On the morning of the fourth day, he attached them to her talons, and they fit perfectly. But the iron was so very heavy. "I can neither walk nor fly," said the poor blackbird.

And now it was time for her to fulfill her promise to the blacksmith. She lighted a candle that would burn for one full day, no more and no less. "As long as this flame lives," she told him, "you will have mighty plumage that can carry you to the heavens."

No sooner had she said those words then the blacksmith sprouted luxurious feathers. He took flight at once. He glided to the top of the highest church and out over the sea. But he was brazen as he was careless, and flew too far to see that the candle had burned down. As the flame died, his wings retreated into his hairy back, and he fell to the earth, crippling his hairy legs. "I can neither walk nor fly," said the poor blacksmith.

But the blackbird could still flap her wings, stoking the blacksmith's fires. And as she did, the fires spread from the forge to his hairy arms, burning off all the hair. And blackbird laughed her ass off, because he looked ridiculous with hairless arms.


The Great Bear

If you ever go for a hike in bear country, the Park Ranger may tell you to wear a bell on your ankle to ward off bears. But can a little bell really frighten a full-grown grizzly bear?

The Athabascans of Alaska tell the story that there was once a Great Bear named Shesh Desna. She was so big that when she stood on her hind legs, Mount Denali itself would cower in her shadow.  When Shesh Desna was hungry, she would take giant bites out of a glacier. When she was thirsty, she would drink an entire volcanic lake. And when Shesh Desna roared, a whole forest of spruce trees would tremble in fear and drop all of their needles at once.

The brown bears of Alaska were all her children, and she promised them they would never go hungry. 

"How can you promise this," they asked, "We are not as large as a mountain nor as fearsome as a volcano. The salmon are plenty, but they are nimble and easily swim away from us. Is there no prey that is slow enough for us to catch?"

"There is," said Shesh Desna, "And I will make it so you can find it easily, for it will announce its presence with a gentle jingle jangle. This sound shall be your dinner bell."

And with that, Shesh Desna transformed herself into a friendly-looking Park Ranger. To this day, she travels from park to park, counseling tourists to wear bells. She also encourages them to buy "bear spray," which is actually just a rebranding of Silly String. For Shesh Desna knew that firing Silly String at an attacking bear is a hilarious way for a hiker to spend their last few moments.

With warmest regards,

Zach


Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Happy Wedding, So-and-so and Whats-her-face

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for May is called, "God and Amazon." I set out to create something reminiscent of the theme music to Stranger Things, but the song was a rebellious teenager and had different ideas for itself. It just wanted to hang out with the stoner crowd, wallow in angst and wear Pink Floyd T-shirts. I don't know what to do. We try so hard for our songs, but I guess that sometimes we just need to give them space and hope they eventually find their own way. 

One of my academic mentors, Jim Albers, once told me that I shouldn't put a lot of effort into creating anything new unless I can use it at least five times. It takes hours to research for a presentation, make slides, and practice the delivery, so if you only give the presentation once, you haven't gotten a good return on your investment. The trick is to repurpose it for different audiences and tinker with it, so it gets better over time.

I have tried to take that advice at work, and to a lesser degree outside of work. While I still record an original song every month, there is one song that I have recycled EIGHT times. Today, we're going to meet that 8-headed hydra, the Happy Wedding Song. 

1. "Happy Wedding, Molly and Paul"- 2005

Here is how the story starts. I was invited to two out-of-town weddings on the same weekend, and I had to choose between the friend I was closer to and the friend whose party was more likely to be fun. I went with the latter, because bad decisions make better stories. Afterwards, I tried to make it up to the couple I jilted by writing them a wedding song, burning it onto a CD and mailing it to them. Here is that song: 



2. "Happy Wedding, Joanna and Zach" - 2006

Later that year, my cousin got married, and I forgot to send her a present. When my family brought this to my attention, it was already 2006, and I was both RACKED and WRACKED with guilt. So, I modified the lyrics to the Happy Wedding song to be about my cousin and her husband and mailed it to them on a CD-R. 




3. "Happy Wedding, Parkie and Joe"- 2006

A few months after that, I had to turn down a wedding invitation to take my neurology board examination. By this point, musical apologies had become second nature. I don't think the recording of this one survived, but here are the lyrics:




So Parkie got married to a guy I'd never met
In the wedding of the century that none shall soon forget
And I missed it for some stupid test, a move I now regret
I had to chew my fingers off 'cause I was so upset
I had to chew my fingers off 'cause I was so upset

So happy wedding Parkie and Joe
The fact we missed it tops the list of things that really blow
And it's not just that we came in late, we didn't even show
But if you have another one, I swear to God we'll go

So happy wedding Parkie and Joe
Your love's a solid victory for Cupid's mighty bow
For it's stronger than a wildebeest and sweet as cookie dough
And richer than a chocolate cake or even Ross Perot

So happy wedding Parkie and Joe
The next time we're in Georgia we'll swing by and say hello
First we'll tour the Jimmy Carter house then come and see your show
And visit the High Museum where they keep Whitney Houston's fro

So happy wedding Parkie and Joe
We haven't even seen your face since five long years ago
Now we wish you all the happiness that marriage can bestow
And we love you more than Jesus does (It's true... he told me so)


4. "Happy Wedding, Adriene and Jon"- 2012

Once you get into your mid-30s, wedding invitations inevitably slow to a trickle, so I didn't find an occasion to auto-plagiarize the song for the next six years. This time, it was for a wedding party toast rather than an apology. I don't really like to perform original music in front of a live audience, so this video is a bit of an anomaly.



5. "Happy Wedding, Russell and Dawn" - 2013

The next year, my brother-and-sister-in-law were married. Maybe I performed this version live? I don't remember, but I don't seem to have a recording of it. And since Dawn sort of rhymes with Jon, I was even able to reuse a couple of the lines from the prior iteration.  




So Russ is getting married, and by now I hope you’ve met 
His fiancé, who is currently both Jewish and brunette
And despite the fees to Match.com which put them both in debt
The groom and bride have DIY’d the greatest wedding yet
The groom and bride have DIY’d the greatest wedding yet

So happy wedding, Russell and Dawn
The bride will be a vision in her ivory chiffon
And in previewing the slideshow I can see why Russ was drawn
It wasn’t long ago she was a shiksa and a blonde 

The wedding will be charming, so we thank you in advance
We can notch another victory for internet romance
For Dawn, we hope that every day with Russ provides a chance
To fidget with your hair a lot and photograph some plants
To fidget with your hair and photograph some boring plants

So happy wedding, Russell and Dawn
Your nuptials have raised the bar for weddings from now on
If marriages were condiments then yours would be Dijon
It's the most romantic thing since Princess Leia married Han

So here's to all the special things your marriage has in store
A life of love and joy and Kurasawa films galore
And you will find each other cute for fifty years or more
Which in my book would qualify as being way hard core
Which in my book would qualify as being way hard core

So happy wedding, Russell and Dawn
Enjoy your trek to Reykjavik, have fun, goodbye, so long
To Iceland, that’s the country Russ’s play is based upon
Which makes me glad that Thorstein didn’t take place in Iran

So Happy Wedding, Russell and Dawn
You’ve bought so many books, your bank account is overdrawn
But Russ gets paid to act, there’s always that to fall back on 
Like when he did a touch of soft-core porn for Wild Swan

So happy wedding, here’s to Dawn and Russ
A marriage never lasts, they say, if only built on lust
But yours is built on love of cats, on Melville and on trust
So [RADIO EDIT], I’m sure that you’ll adjust


6. "It's Your Bat Mitzvah, Scarlett Avalyn"- 2018

Why limit yourself to weddings, when there are so many life cycle events begging to be celebrated in song? We serenaded Scarlett with a personalized toast at her Bat Mitzvah party. Thanks to Kelly Cameron for finding this video on her phone after I published this digest, so I could re-release a live music version! 






7. "Happy Wedding, Andy and Coleen"- 2020

My cousin Andy tied the knot in a small private ceremony in Napa Valley during the pandemic-soaked summer of 2020. We were driving to visit my parents on the day that this video was "due," so we pulled over into a parking lot off the highway and perched the phone in hatch of Lauren's car to record this.  




8. "It's Your Bar Mitzvah, Malcolm David L." - 2021

Finally, we had Malcolm's Bar Mitzvah (and party) virtually this year, so Lauren and I sang this into camera eye of the computer at which I am now facing. 




So that's all eight versions so far. If anyone has an audio or video clip of the missing ones, please send them my way!

Meanwhile, I'll just keep biding my time until I get invited to a funeral of someone whose name has four or five syllables.

With warmest regards,
Zach

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Jimmy Fallon Ruined My Month

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for May is called "Praise the Lo-Fi." 

I put a lot of effort into trying to make mediocre performances sound good and fake instruments sound real. For this song, I went the extra mile to try to make it sound bad again. Surprisingly, it is much harder to make something sound under-produced than to make it sound over-produced. Go figure. 

We made a few more Marvel-themed parodies this month, and I want to take a minute to complain about this first one, "We Didn't Stop with Hydra," which is exactly what the world needs... another parody of "We Didn't Start the Fire."  

This is arguably the crown jewel of the VH1da-Vision catalog, and it is also represents one of my lowest moments in the last year. 

Allow me to expose the magnitude of my shame. First off, I couldn't take on this project until I finished watching all the Marvel superhero films and Disney+ shows. So that alone was probably 50 hours of research. On top of that, I spent close to 15 hours working on the lyrics, and about 30 hours recording the music and editing the video, most of which was spent finding and trimming movie clips from YouTube. 

So in the middle of this pointlessly backbreaking effort, I went to YouTube to find a clip from the original Billy Joel video. The second thing that came up in response to my search was "Avengers: Endgame Cast Sings We Didn't Start the Fire." 

And my heart dropped into my pelvis. 

Jimmy Fallon and his Tonight Show flunkies did a video parody of the same song... about the same thing. Not only that, but they had the the actual Avengers cast singing it. And here I am, countless hours deep into my own sad version which, by the way, does not feature original singing and dancing by Robert Downey Jr. and Paul Rudd. 

And I'd like to go on record at this point to mention that I have always hated the original song, so humming the melody in my head over and over again was already a kind of torture. 

So now I had a choice. I could throw in the proverbial towel (knowing that the most poignant proverbs are about towels), hang my poor head in shame, or... 

I could make the best damn Avengers-themed parody... no, the Best. Damn. Overall. Parody of "We Didn't Start the Fire" that the world has seen in 30 years.   

This was going to be a big lift, but a journey of a thousand towels starts with one towel. The problem is, some hack publishes a new spoof of "We Didn't Start the Fire" every 90 minutes or so. There are versions about Star Wars, Star Trek, Donald Trump, video games, Manga, SpongeBob, The Simpsons, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, and even My Little Pony (I'm serious). And, of course, there are countless versions trying to encapsulate world events not covered in the original song. Somebody even wrote a meta-parody about how often the song is parodied.

It's like the Aristocrats joke. Everyone in this business has to do a version, and every version makes you feel awful in a completely different way. 

So here is mine. Let me know if you agree it is the best ever. If I can get 10 views on YouTube, I will know I will consider that a victory. 

And here are the other two we did this month. I defy all you My Little Pony fans to create fan-art to the tune of "Two Princes" and "Milkshake," even if they do sound like good names for ponies.   




With warmest regards,
Zach

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Much More Magical Marvel Movie Music

Dear Friends,

I never thought I'd miss the hustle and bustle, until all we had was hustle. But after a long bustle-free year, it's finally starting to feel like we are on the home stretch. Inch by inch, we are returning to the places, people, and activities that we have missed, and it's exhilarating. It's like starting to walk again after your broken foot has been in a boot. It's tentative at first, but you know that you'll be able to run again soon, and just hope that your body remembers how. The new Hard Taco song, "When I Smell the Barn," tries to capture this sense of anticipation. 

My family and I have continued to work on Marvel movie-themed parody videos. While I stand firmly against all flavors of musical snobbery, the parody is undoubtedly the bottom rung of on the ladder of musical artistry. It is the lyrical equivalent of the Dad Joke, often equally worthy of a groan as a chuckle. But like a good Dad Joke, it is easily accessible and may be enjoyed more than once. I'm particularly proud of this first one, whose thumbnail image speaks to its... accessibility.







With warmest regards,
Zach

Monday, March 1, 2021

Scrapbooks, WandaVision, Iron Man

Dear Friends,

The Hard Taco song for March is called "Scrapbooking." Lauren and I dipped our toes in the gluey waters of decorative album-making when Scarlett was a bambino. We bought a poofy scrapbook, scissors that made triangular cuts, and plenty of fungible sticker letters. Each garish page told a different chapter in the story of Scarlett's journey from energetic fetus to meconium-coated newborn to chubby cherub in a portable bathtub. 

Fifteen years later, I can't remember if this was supposed to be ironic or not. It is certainly cute, and I love revising the baby pictures. I just can't tell how earnest we were when we labelled one of the pages LOUNGIN' or when we made a tiny green envelope to hold part of her umbilical stump. The song "Scrapbooking" imagines where we would be today if we kept going down that rabbit hole. 

But this month, we are introducing a new endeavor that is, in some ways, akin to scrapbooking. It's called VH1da-Vision.  The title is a mash-up between the music video channel VH1 and WandaVision, the Marvel superhero show that pays homage to several decades of sitcom tropes. VH1da-Vision imagines a channel that plays music videos from different eras, all of which are actually Marvel-themed parodies. Just go with it. 

So to kick things off, we have two videos. "Wanda Wall" sets the stage, and "A Jericho, Idiot" harkens to the opening scenes of the first MCU movie, Iron Man. Enjoy!






With warmest regards,
Zach