Aimee Mann’s ‘Bachelor No. 2‘.

Right around the time she did the Magnolia soundtrack, I fell hard for Aimee Mann’s solo career. Something about the place I found myself in my life combined with the smart and scathing songwriting she’s so great at just broke my brain in the best way and I was infatuated. Ever since, I’ve studied her successive albums and pored over every note, every chord change, every sardonic and heartfelt lyric. Her music’s changed the way I think about songwriting in a way that few other influences can claim.

Bachelor No. 2 (Or, the Last Remains of the Dodo) is quite possibly the canonical collection of songs that exemplifies the best parts of her craft. There are a ton of songs among the albums that followed that absolutely crush me, but the set that appears on Bachelor is so perfectly organized that it defies understanding. From start to finish, it swings poppy hooks tempered with the gravity of lyrics that paint pictures from the cheeky to the utterly melancholy. The vocal tracks are layered in such exquisite ways and the songs move along at a perfect pace, carrying you to the end of the album without even realizing how you got there.

She’s an incredible artist, and continues to release fantastic work. But Bachelor is the album I return to time and time again to wallow in a perfect sadness, surrounded by brilliant song structure and melodies. I was listening to it again today for the millionth time and wanted to put some thoughts down on it. If you appreciate great songwriting, it’s worth your time.

Apple Music and ownership.

There’s been a ton of discussion about the technical differences between iCloud Music Library and iTunes Match, since Apple is keeping both products around (at least for the time being). The core issue seems to lie with the way tracks are delivered back to you from the cloud depending on how and when you uploaded them.

iTunes Match (iTM) provides a storage locker and retrieval service that delivered DRM-free tracks back to you on demand. iCloud Music Library (iCML), as part of Apple Music, based on its pricing structure, appears to be delivering DRM-wrapped tracks when requested for offline access. This is an obvious move on Apple’s part, as it doesn’t make sense for you to download and keep DRM-free versions of tracks you didn’t actually buy for all time, the way it allowed you to “upgrade” your low-quality rips with iTunes Match. However, if you go all in on iCML and upload your entire catalog, dropping iTM, if you don’t keep local copies of those tracks, when you go to re-download them, you will receive DRM-wrapped versions. Which… will cease to work (as I understand it) should you cancel your Apple Music subscription.

Kind of a crappy solution. But crappier is the fact that it’s not exactly clear how and when this happens unless you really think about it. Keeping a local copy seems to be a safe play, though, and this whole thing only seems to become problematic if you have no local copy to fall back to.

What I’ve chosen to do (and I assume this will be ok for me) is:

  • Keep my local full library copy (already uploaded to Match and stored in iCloud) at home, on a NAS, attached to a Mac mini, and backed up in a bunch of places. This library will no longer be synced/uploaded with any Apple cloud service.
  • I have a full library copy in iCloud now, which I assume will remain as long as I continue the Apple Music subscription (which I plan to). I’m assuming this because I’ve completely disconnected that Mac mini and signed out of iCloud, and all my music is still showing up through Apple Music, having enabled Music Library.
  • I plan to cancel Match this September, which will remove my ability to re-download DRM-free versions of my music, but it’s a non-issue since I have multiple safe, offline copies anyway.
  • If I buy new music (unlikely since I don’t buy much to begin with anymore, and with AM, I can listen to whatever I want) it will automatically be available in iCloud.
  • I will then download the purchased music through iTunes on that “safe” Mac mini and store it in that offline local library.

This way, as long as I maintain my Apple Music subscription, I have a full library copy in iCloud along with everything else. If I cancel, I have the ability to re-upload a known good copy from my archive, at any time, to any service. Hell, I could even run a server again at home if I feel like it, which I did for years.

This stuff is crazy confusing, and it’s unsurprising Apple isn’t making a fuss about it. They’d probably love for it not to be so labyrinthine, but music licensing is nothing if not arcane. The safe play seems to be pretty simple: don’t delete your local library if you can help it. Stick a good copy on a hard drive somewhere and forget about it if you have to. But hang onto it in at least one good way, just in case, and have fun with the new goods.

Like anything else relating to computers, backing up your stuff always pays off.

Things I like this week, volume 4.

OmniFocus for iOS
I’ve been using OmniFocus on and off for years. It’s such an amazingly powerful platform for task management, but it comes with a learning curve. But once you get it, it’s seriously transformative in how you think about your time.

The Omni Group has been going through a process of making all its apps universal and OF got the treatment last week, bringing feature parity to iPhone and iPad. This new version of the app is absolutely fantastic. It adds some new customization abilities, and if you go Pro, you can do some seriously advanced stuff from anywhere now, including your phone.

The company has also been terrific and transparent about assisting with upgrades, free Pro unlocks for previous users, and rebates for folks who’ve already purchased parts of the suite. The people at Omni truly care about their users, and it shows in every interaction, and shines through in the choices they make for their software.

OmniFocus for iOS / OmniFocus for Mac (MAS) / OmniFocus for Mac (Omni Store)

Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
I’ve written about how much DCFC’s Plans means to me. I love many of their other recordings, but some didn’t quite land with me in the same way. Could be a product of timing, mood, or almost anything else, but I don’t love everything the way I love Plans.

Kintsugi has some potential. I’ve listened to it a few times since picking it up last week, and I keep coming back to it. I’m still in the phase where I’m listening for patterns and things I like in the music more than the lyrics, but it’s good. Really good.

Plans / Kintsugi on iTunes

Things I like this week, volume 3.

Here’s a few things I’m enjoying this week.

Carousel by Dropbox
When Carousel launched, I’ll admit I was underwhelmed. I have a lot of pictures stored in Dropbox, and they’re all neatly organized into folders (big surprise there, I’m sure). Initially, Carousel’s performance seemed lacking with massive libraries, and the app would pick up images from throughout your Dropbox, with no way to specify which folders to use. The option to proactively pick a “photos” directory is still missing, but the app did get the ability to hide entire folders from the web. Previously, it was possible to hide individual images from the iOS app, but now if you visit on the web, you can right-click to select an entire folder to disappear as well. There’s also a “flashback” feature which we’ve seen with other photo services before, but which is a nice addition since I used it last. This stuff, plus some nice speed enhancements, which make it very usable with my large library, have given me a reason to throw it a second look.

Amazon Music with Prime Music
Another app that’s improved over time is Amazon’s music offering. While the title evokes a Microsoftian naming convention, the app’s UI has gotten a little better over the past few months, and the Prime streaming service, while nowhere near as comprehensive as Spotify, Rdio, et. al., has improved a bit as well. It still lacks the super deep catalog of those other services, but I have been pleasantly surprised at what I did find as I browsed. The curated playlists and recommendations are pretty good (for me at least), and it’s gotten more fun to use, with some swipe controls to move through the different sections of the app. If you’re a Prime member, it’s worth taking another look. If you have little kids, there’s a ton of great music on there that you can stream and add to your library for free.

The freedom of a captured moment.

I’ve been a musician since I was in fourth grade and was handed a violin. It’s always been a part of who I am and how I think about myself. I taught myself to play guitar, bass, and later drums because I was curious and had the time and willingness to learn. During my college years and the years immediately afterward, I spent a great deal of time writing, recording, and performing music. For a lot of reasons (avoidable post-adolescent turmoil chief among them, I’m sure), it was a primary focus in my life. 

As I’ve grown older and taken on more responsibilities, a home, a family, and a demanding career, I find less time to play than I used to. I enjoy it just as much, and try to keep my chops up, but the fact of the matter is that I simply don’t have the time to sit for a few hours and work through ideas in the same way I did when I was 25. I’m ok with this, mind you–I love my family and everything that’s changed in my life for the better–but time is still working against me.

I often find myself feeling really guilty about this. I tell myself that my spare time should be spent working those muscles out, staying in shape. But maybe I just want to read. Or play a video game for a few minutes. Or just stare off into space and breathe, whatever. I feel like I should be playing music more. But when I try to unpack that, I guess it means going into my studio, working on songs, recording them, mixing, polishing, and having an end-product. That’s what I feel guilty about–that it should all be leading somewhere.

What I’ve finally realized is that this comes down to nothing more than a miscommunication from my 25-year old brain to my current one. Back then, I had time to play for pleasure, but I had lots of time to work, too. I could spend four hours in front of Pro Tools because I had four hours to spend. Now, I sit down to play, find a few chords that I like together, capture them in whatever tool I’m using on my iPhone at the time, and probably never return to them. They’re saved, but presumably only to be revisited in a cursory way at best, and for a moment, like lazily flipping through snapshots.

Here’s the big epiphany for me, though: this is totally ok. I’m sketching in a notebook, little doodles here and there, sitting for a minute and drawing something in my field of vision. I’m not painting the Sistine Chapel, or drafting the Constitution. I’m sketching. Not consciously setting out to make a thing, just… sketches. Polaroids, not elaborately framed and time-lapsed landscapes. 

I keep notes, folders, files of all these little ideas. I listen to them from time to time. I like them all in some way. They needn’t grow into anything more, just the way your idle circles traced on the back of an envelope while you’re waiting on the phone don’t need to grow into a full art installation. It’s a moment, depicted in aural brush strokes, captured and stored. The weight of the activity is gone, only the pleasure of creating remains. I can’t believe it took me so long to see it. And I can’t wait to enjoy those fleeting moments with my guitar a little more now, without a second thought.