Archive for the ‘Brendan Connell’ Category


SOUNDTRACK: MOBY-One Song, Two Days, Three Versions (Project Song: May 4, 2010).

Project Song was a nifty little show that NPR Music created.  The premise was that NPR would give a musician some prompts and a recording studio.  They then had two days to write and record a song.  I don’t know how much of the process was to be filmed, but presumably most of it. Then it would be edited down to a fifteen minute show.  The results are pretty cool and it’s a shame they only made five of them.

The fifth and (presumably) final one they did was about six months after the previous one.  This Project was offered to Moby.

Moby generally works alone in his New York apartment, but for Project Song, we asked him to bring along a collaborator. He picked Kelli Scarr, a Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter with a breathtaking voice. They arrived at NPR, a bit nervous and eager.

It takes weeks, even years, to write a song. NPR Music’s Project Song challenges musicians to do it in just two days. And every Project Song participant has worked right up to the last-minute — that is, until Moby.

He and collaborator Kelli Scarr finished their song in a little more than a single day. In fact, they had so much time left over, they recorded a second version of the song. And after that, they gave a small concert for the staff at NPR.

I kicked off the songwriting process by showing them a series of photographs and words. The surreal images came from New York artist Phil Toledano; you can see more of his work at NPR’s Picture Show blog. Moby and Scarr are both drawn to an image of a man in the woods wearing a trenchcoat. [Moby: “A disconcerting loneliness that I really like”].  There’s a brown briefcase on the earthen floor beside him, and his head looks like a glowing storm cloud.

Next, I gave them a series of words to choose from. Moby picked the word “flight.” Scarr chose “Sunday,” which Moby calls “the most depressing day of the week.”

Not too long after, Moby puts the card with the word “Sunday” printed on it, along with the photograph, on a nearby chair. He picks up a bass guitar and immediately starts playing a riff in the key of E. Turns out, this hastily played bass line would become the bedrock for their new song.

Just six hours later, the first of three versions of “Gone to Sleep” was recorded.

When he arrives he says he thought about cheating with chords ahead of time, but he likes the idea of jumping headlong into a project.  And as the blurb says, within minutes he’s got a bass line, some synths and drums.  Then a guitar line and more keyboard sounds.

Then they work on lyrics.  Moby says, “My favorite type of unsettling art is art that isn’t immediately unsettling.”  he cites the classic example of “Mack the Knife.”  You first hear it and it’s happy and then you listen to the lyrics and its terrifying.

The end of the video clip plays the whole song, guitar and piano and atmospheric.  Then over the closing credits they play a somewhat less atmospheric, gentler version of the song.  And then there’s the Tiny Desk which is altogether different.

It’s like Moby broke Project Song by making it seem too easy.

[READ: July 27, 2017] “Christina the Astonishing (1150-1224)”

I’ve read a few things by Vladez Quade, but this one is quite different from anything else.  It’s actually quite different form anything else I’ve read, period.  The closest author this reminded me of would be Brendan Connell, who likes to thoroughly investigate a historical character (real or imagined).

But this story is based on an actual; person:

St. Christina the Astonishing has been recognized as a saint since the 12th century. She was placed in the calendar of the saints by at least two bishops of the Catholic Church in two different centuries (17th & 19th) that also recognized her life in a religious order and preservation of her relics.

The story tells of her life from the point of view of her older sister and is written in a rather formal, almost canonical, style with section headings in an old style: “How She was Led Forth from the Body and How She Lived Again.”

The narrator, Mara, tells us that Christina lay dead in her coffin, a grave awaiting her.  Mara is sad, she loved Christina, “I see this now.  She was difficult, unknowable but I loved her.”

But at the same time she says that perhaps if they had hastened, outrun the melody.  If we’d only got those last words out, “He might have spared us our miracle.”

For indeed, the dead Christina not only rose bodily from her coffin, she levitated to the rafters. The narrator and her sister Gertrude clutched each other in fear. (more…)

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blueblue SOUNDTRACK: NICK BUZZ-A Quiet Evening at Home (2013).

quietIt seemed like Martin Tielli was done making music after his (so far) final solo album in 2009.  He has been focusing on (gorgeous) visual arts since then.  But then in 2013, Tielli along with Jonathan Goldsmith, Hugh Marsh and Rob Piltch recorded another Nick Buzz album (cover painting by Tielli)–possibly their last as well, but who knows.

This album is almost entirely mellow, with beautiful slow pieces and delicate singing and instrumentation–with some exceptions.  The biggest exception is the first song and single (with video) “The Hens Lay Everyday.”  It is unlike anything else on the album.  It is a weird, electronic fast song with pulsing beats and funny lyrics (and a crazy video).  It’s kind of a shame that it’s on this album because I want more music like that.  But the rest of the album is also wonderful in a very different way.  This song just doesn’t fit.

Beginning with the second song, the album is a beautiful album of wonderful ballads.

“This is Not My World” is a delicate guitar song with simple keyboard washes.  Martin’s voice even sounds different on the song–I almost didn’t recognize him until the last few verses.  “Milchig” opens with a buzzy violin (that sounds almost like a fly).  Tielli did this song with The Art of Time Ensemble (it was called “Moglich”).  It has a gentle guitar and Tielli’s keening voice and spoken word–“he had given me ‘the relax.'”  There’s several sections in this song, and I especially like the slowly lurching middle section.

“Sea Monkeys” opens with some delicate chimes and underwatery sounds.  And once again, Tielli’s voice sounds different.  I love this peculiar song about ordering and “growing” sea monkeys.  He says he only wanted plankton or krill but during that evening, the sea monkeys started building their city, and after 4 and a half minutes, the song turns somewhat more sinister with a section about the Crustacean Monkey Queen.  The delicate music grows harsher and more mechanical sounding.  It’s pretty intense.  And it coincidentally relates to the book below.

“If You Go Away” has a vaguely Spanish guitar feel to it.  It’s a very delicate, slow ballad (I should have realized it was an old song written by Jacques Brel) with strummed guitar and gentle percussion.  It has a lounge feel as well (the romantic lyrics aid in that style).  It was recorded live with audience clapping at the end.

The mood picks up a little with the next song, “The Happy Matador.”  It’s played on acoustic guitar with flamenco-esque runs.  It’s a delightful song even if lyrically it’s a little dark.  “Eliza” is a darkly comic song with a kind of circusy feel.  It opens with accordion, adds a violin and basically makes fun of a woman named Eliza, with the great last line: “The only incredible thing about Eliza is the terrible terrible music she inspires.”

“A Quiet Evening at Home” opens with some strange noises like Circo did, but this is an older, more mellow album and they quickly give way to some pretty, delicate guitar chords.  About two and a half minutes of gentle chords are disrupted by a noisy saxophone and some manipulated spoken words.  This process repeats itself for about six minutes of mellow, slightly weird, but really enjoyable music.

“Uncle Bumbo’s Christmas” continues in that delicate vein, but this time with actual words.  It has gentle echoed guitar and some occasional strings.  It’s not exactly a Christmas song although the lyric “I love everything about Christmas, except Christmas” is decidedly ambiguous.  There’s beautiful overlays of vocals and guitar for the middle two minutes of the song before it resumes with a slightly more uptempo and much more catchy end section.  This song gets better with each listen.

“The House with the Laughing Windows” opens with a tinkling piano melody.  It hovers between ominous and dreamy.  I like the way the song gently, almost imperceptibly, builds over the course of its 4 and a half minutes.  And I love the way the guitars start playing louder as if the song is going to build to something bigger but it never quite does.  John Tielli plays theremin on this track.

“Aluminum Flies” is a slightly louder song which is much more meandering and ends with what I believe is the sound of windshield wipers.  The final song is the lovely “Birds of Lanark County.”  It opens with chickadees chirping and a beautiful delicate acoustic guitar melody from Martin.  Michele Williams sings lovely backing vocals.

It’s amazing how different this album is from Circo–same band members but an entirely different style, and a simply gorgeous collection of songs.

[READ: November 25, 2015] Blue on Blue

I had never heard of Quentin S. Crisp before (he’s not to be confused with Quentin Crisp, the British raconteur who died in 1999).  Except that I knew he contributed lyrics to the most recent Kodagain album.  But I received an advance copy of this book with Brendan Connell’s latest book (its publication date is December 15 (from Snuggly Books)).

This story was fantastic (in both senses of the word).

The story is told in 5 parts.  And what I loved about it was that the central part of the story is a fairly conventional story about love and loss, and yet the other four parts frame the story with an other-worldliness that is almost familiar, but not quite.

The story begins with the statement “I am a citizen of the ASAF, the Alternative State of the American Fifties.”  There’s a footnote attached which explains that the ASAF “ia an artificial history zone ‘reclaimed’ from sunken parallel time.”  This is a potentially worrisome beginning to a book to be sure, and yet the book does not go through any rabbit- or worm- hole, this is simply the set up for the story. (more…)

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jottingsSOUNDTRACK: マキシマム ザ ホルモン–“え・い・り・あ・ん” (2013) [MAXIMUM THE HORMONE-“A.L.I.E.N” (2013).

maxi2This Japanese band has gained some ground in the United States (having two of their songs used in the anime Death Note).  They are a heavy, heavy metal band which explores many different genres.

This song begins with a heavy metal guitar riff.  When the song proper starts, it is clearly a heavy song sing in Japanese.  The second vocalist (who screams like Yamantaka Eye with John Zorn) screams in an unmistakably Japanese way.  And at 1:15, the song slows down into a very heavy almost mosh.

So far so good.  The first big surprise comes at 1:44 when the song is hijacked by a funk metal bass line and the follow up section is a less scary sounding but still heavy metal.

And then it’s back to the speed and noise once more, complete with a pause and a “Go!” and then a series of “He!y Hey! Hey!” metal chants.

maxiBut the real surprise comes at 3 minutes when the whole song slows to a sweet section with whispered vocals by the (female) drummer?  And then the entire song switches to a sweet song–delicate guitar and super sweet vocals with the new lyrics “Stop Stop Winny Upload.”  The boys come back in, but now they are playing along to this poppy (but guitar heavy) “Stop Stop Winny” section.

This runs on until the end of the song which has the band members conversing in Japanese (about what, I have no idea).

It is one of the most jarring songs I’ve heard, combing at least five genres in its 5 and a half minutes (and several of their other songs do this too (check out “Yoshu Fukushu”).

maxi3This is to say nothing of the video, which opens with the band playing in a live setting.  The  guitarist has long hair and a beard and sings the first verses.  The short-haired singer sings the really fast growly stuff and the bassist has a nifty side shave.

As the funk metal stuff starts, the band switches to a studio scene in which, why not, they all grow extra heads and limbs.

The Stop Stop Winny section switches from a segment with the drummer in a wedding dress singing gently.  And then the final section shows the band in a psychedelic set with little kids and balloons.

It’s fantastic.

[READ: November 13, 2015] Jottings from a Far Away Place

Brendan Connell has this new book coming out (on December 1st) from the wonderfully named Snuggly Press.  (I love that it says This is a Snuggly Book) on the title page verso.

Connell has written all kinds of books in his career but this one is something of a new style in his vast oeuvre.  The title word “Jottings” is a giveaway because so many of the parts of the book are very short–notations, indeed, jottings, that may or may not relate directly to the rest of the pieces.  I found the book a little challenging to read at first because of this.  However, when I wrapped my head around what was going on, it really gelled.  And when I read it a second time, with this in mind, it worked beautifully.

Connell has created a kind of labyrinth of a book in which some fragments lead to dead ends, but other fragments lead to longer stories.  And when you hit on the right path you are rewarded with a longer story that is as well written (Connell’s eye for detail is, as always, exceptional) as it is interesting.  But unlike the mythological labyrinth, there is no Minotaur if you take a wrong path–rather there is just a fragment that forces you to think about where it might belong. (more…)

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Connell Dr.Black jacketSOUNDTRACK: KODAGAIN-“King of Curls” (2014).

supernaturalWhen I looked for a picture of this book cover, I was connected to Connell’s blog which has links to many songs by Kodagain. After some more work, I learned that Kodagain features music by Saša Zorić Čombe and lyrics by Brendan Connell!

It was hard to find any real details about Kodagain (they have a media presence, but it is rather abbreviated), until I saw their soundcloud page which gives these nuggets of information

  • Kodagain formed in 1985 in Knjazevac, SE Serbia, where it’s hard to be alternative but easy to be alone.
  • Kodagain writes and records songs with English lyrics because English is more musical than Serbian.
  • Kodagain has a miniaturist approach to pop music, channelling influences from Henry Purcell, through Dean Martin, to Roxy Music, into short compositions combining a bubblegum-pop concern for melody with lo-fi experimentalism, resulting in songs as soulful as they are playful.
  • Many of the lyrics have been provided by the existing poetry of famous poets such as Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Chu-I Po (Bai Juyi), Lord Byron, Ogden Nash, Sara Teasdale, Louisa Stuart Costello and Robert Creely.
  • Since 2007, Kodagain has also been using … original lyrics from the writer Quentin S. Crisp; since 2012, Kodagain has similarly collaborated with the writer Brendan Connell.  Brendan Connell says: “My ultimate goal is to write a vast number of lyrics about natural wonders, public parks, lost watches, Indian villages, hidden love, birds, trees, mountain passes, fake Taoists, imperceptible colors, rhetorical mysteries, and flowers. Ideally these would be compounded into a ‘Guide for Modern Life’ which could be used to build better relations between workers and their bosses, the various sexes, and those whose religious beliefs differ.”
  • Their songs and videos can be found in generous supply on YouTube and SoundCloud. Albums include: Speed Up, The Nowhere Land’s Echoes, A Drink With Something In It, 000, Vranje, Letters From Quentin, Time to Get Ready for Love, My Fear of His Fear of Death, and Supernatural.

Since encountering Kodagain, I have become totally transfixed by them.  The melodies are simple and lovely and Zorić Čombe’s voice is gentle but wise.  Lyrically the songs are certainly all over the place, and most of the songs are under 2 minutes long.  The instrumentation is simple–usually a gentle guitar, steady drums and multi-tracked voices.

It was really hard to pick a song to talk about because there are so many.  But I decided to pick “King of Curls,” in part because the video is fantastic, and so are the lyrics

If I ruled the world
I’d call myself
The King of Curls

If I were king
I’d change damn near

If I ruled the world
My army wouldn’t fight wars
But rather eat chocolate bars
And move to the beat
In shorts
While my advisors wise
Would do jazzercise

(and that’s just the first part!)

Zorić Čombe’s voice sounds a bit to me like a smoother Jens Lekman (although that could just be the enunciation style).  I find his songs utterly enchanting.

And if you look on YouTube, you’ll find dozens of videos–most of which are masterpieces of found footage.

[READ: February 20, 2015] The Metanatural Adventures of Dr Black

About 7 years ago, I read a novella called Dr Black and the Guerrillia and I liked it quite a lot.  I liked that Connell created this character, with no apparent context (at least none given in the story) and that it was so amazingly detailed and “real” and yet so seemingly unreal–an unsatisfying word which Connell has corrected for me with the title of this collection–Metanatural.

This book is something of a collection of short stories about Dr. Black, but it is far more than that.  It collects some of the adventures that Dr. Black has been on as well as some of the patents and other ephemera and fashions a kind of narrative (although a very sketchy narrative) about the life he leads.

Before I even get to the “plot” of the book, I need to say just how much I enjoyed reading this book. I was absolutely captivated by Connell’s voice.  Over the years I have known that Connell was an accomplished writer with an unparalleled attention to detail and to choosing the precise word.  But somehow in the Dr. Black stories Connell’s details and specifics push the narrative to real heights.  Perhaps it is because Dr Black seems so real that when anything “metanatural” happens to him, it is entirely believable–drawing you into his exploits even further.  I really wanted to read more and more.

Having said all that, while this book is certainly his most accessible, it is still not light reading.  Connell challenges the reader with his extensive vocabulary, his lack of compunction about throwing in some obscure sections of text (that I won’t pretend I understood, but which didn’t bother me at all) and his willingness to defy reality, which may lose some readers.  But the rewards of the stories are worth it. (more…)

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chomuSOUNDTRACK: THE FAINT-“Help in the Head” (2014)

doom“Help in the Head” opens with an incredible amount of feedback and squalling noise–some of it natural and other parts sounding quite processed.  After ten seconds the song begins properly with a pounding drum and buzzing guitars.  The song is quite simple–a catchy melody that blossoms once the bridge kicks in (with some “oh ohs”).  The chorus is also simple and catchy, “I just meant you needed help in the head” with all kinds of fuzzy screaming swirling around.  A few minutes later, the song ends with more noise, just as it began.

The Faint has been around a long time and are on Saddle Creek records, home to Conor Oberst and his many bands (he was in an original incarnation of The Faint). The song has much in common with Oberst’s style of pop–simple melodies and very catchy structures, but it is so overlaid with noise and distortion that it takes it out of the realm of simple pop music into a pop music that is actually abrasive..

[READ: February 21, 2014] The Galaxy Club

Brendan Connell is back with his most daring book yet.  Daring, because it is so very different from what he usually writes.

I have really enjoyed Connell’s audacity in his previous books–whether it was the extensive research done into both cooking and history in Lives of Notorious Cooks (2012) or the brutality that religion can inspire in The Architect (2012) or his exploration into extremely transgressive behavior in Metrophilias (2010).  He has never been afraid to push the edge of the envelope into unexpected areas.  But what makes this book so daring is that it is, for the most part, pretty “normal.”  Book covers don’t typically indicate anything really, but this book cover, in sober black and white, really conveys the feeling of the book–gritty, small town, hardscrabble Southwest.

And yet despite the somewhat conventional nature of the story, there are also fantastical elements.  Each chapter is narrated by a different (sometimes recurring) character.  Some are narrated by “Those Underground,” and “Demon Taming Stick” and even “Prawn Dragon Colonel.”  But they are also narrated by normal folks.  Connell’s past work in creating manifold characters in his short stories really pays off for the number and divergent characters he has here.

The main characters are a man named Cleopatra–who claims to be the Queen of the Nile herself.  The Montoya family: Ibbie, Theodore and their son Blue Boy.  The Roybal family: Elmer and his aunt Ramona.  And a police officer named Alfonso Torcuato Southerland-Hevia y Miranda who claims to be switched at birth with Elmer–but he claims he bears no grudge. (more…)

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cooksSOUNDTRACK: PHISH-The Story of the Ghost (1998).

storyghostThe Story of the Ghost is one of the first Phish albums that I was aware of when it came out.  I remember buying it and liking it, especially the first few songs.  This is not surprising as the first few songs are much more electric and funky.  By the end of the album there’s a lot of mid tempo songs that feel like they’re somewhat incomplete—good ideas but the songs feel…unfinished?

“Ghost” has a funky guitar and drum section, it’s a song I’ve liked from the day I bought the disc.  But the real hit was “Birds of a Feather,” which has an amazingly catchy chorus.  This version (as opposed to the live one) is weird in that Trey is kind of whispering the vocals, but the guitar is ferocious.

“Meat” is a weird skittery song that sounds cavernous here.  The weird processed vocals are certainly something that keeps this song like more of an oddity.  “Guyute” sounds an awful lot like early Phish—like it has come from Gamehendge, it’s a nice return to old form.  It’s a great song with a really lengthy instrumental section.  This features one of Trey’s great extended pretty solos.

“Fikus” is a strange little song (2 minutes), with lots of percussion and a quiet bass line.  “Shafty” has got  some cool wah wah guitars, and is also only 2 minutes long, but it shows that there is a bunch of funk on the disc.  “Limb by Limb” is a fun if simple song that seems sparse until the chorus kicks in.  “Frankie Says” is a kind of circular song that is interesting but doesn’t really go anywhere.  “Water in the Sky” is a short piece but it is full of ideas—percussion, slide guitar, and nice harmonies.  “Roggae” is a fun little song with some fugue like vocals.

“Wading in the Velvet Sea’ is a very pretty song with very nice harmonies.  “The Moma Dance” is a funky wah wah guitared track which really comes to life live, although I like the way they reprise “Ghost” at the end.  The final track is called “End of Session,” it’s a very mellow little number (also less than 2 minutes) with organ and gentle guitars.  There’s a small verse of harmonies as the albums drifts off.

This album is one of the band’s less popular recordings, but i think it’s quite good.

[READ: October 30, 2013] Lives of Notorious Cooks

Brendan Connell is back with a book which demonstrates that whatever subject he writes about, he delves in deeply and with great relish.

Connell’s new book is, as the title says, a series of brief lives of fictional cooks.  There are 51 biographies in this book.  From Connell’s previous works and from the title, I expected that these cooks might be somewhat less than savory characters.  But Connell makes these chefs genuinely impressive—making delicious meals from both the finest ingredients or the lowest of items.

As with previous stories by Connell, the depth of his knowledge is impressive—he includes not only recipes but complete menus of feasts.  And as usual, his word choices are wonderful—exuberant when necessary, obscure if useful and always spot on.

Although I am normally inclined to make a comment about each “story “ in a  collection, this one really resists that.  There are not enough distinguishing characteristics between cooks for me to write enough about each one (without rewriting the book).  This is not in any way to say that each is not unique, but that they are all cooks, each specializing in a different food or style.  But rather than from saying “Agis cooks fish” it’s better to take this book as a whole rather than in pieces. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MASTODON-Crack the Skye (2009).

I’ve really enjoyed Mastodon’s previous records, and this one ranks way up there in intensity and songsmanship. There are 7 songs on the disc, with two over ten minutes long.  “Oblivion” opens with a great minor key chord plucked with single notes and a dropped E.  And when the vocals come in, they highlight the different vocals styles in the band–from a more screamy, almost punk voice to the more melodic/echoey voice of the chorus (kinda like Alice in Chains).  At about 4 minutes the solos play off each other wonderfully, both blistering and then melodic (with almost a Pink Floyd feel at one point).  “Divination” has some amazing guitar play both in the intro and the way the bridge soars with great guitar lines underneath the vocals.  “Quintessence” opens with furious drums and a great prog rock kind of guitar opener.  I love the way the bridge is a gentle (albeit fast) almost trippy section before the chorus bursts in with heavy, heavy chords and chants of “let it go let it go let it go”  It’s the kind of song where the parts work so perfectly together but which wouldn’t seem to.

“The Czar” is a four-part, ten-minute epic.  It opens with a creepy keyboard melody.  The first section is slow and heavy, and when part two comes in the guitars are loud and fast.  Part three has a great riff.  And the end has some gorgeous solos.  It amazes me that ten minutes can pass so quickly. It’s followed by the very heavy (lots of double bass drums) “Ghost of Karelia” the pretty much heaviest song on the record (with a nod to Voivod in the descending guitar solo about three minutes in).  “Crack the Skye” opens dark, but throws in some contradictory keyboard notes that lead to another cool extended guitar riff before jumping into a super heavy death metal verse.  This gives way to some more soaring vocals–the juxtaposition of these two vocalists is amazing.  Imagine the surprise then when the last third of the record has the vocals sounding completely robotic and phased–followed by a mess of guitar solos and concluding with some pretty guitars.

They fade into the final epic, the 13-minute “The Last Baron,” which is one of my favorite metal songs.  It opens with some great guitars and some really cool singing.  The vocals soar, the bass plays a great melody.  There’s a great heavy instrumental section but it keeps returning to the wonderful rising vocal melody line that will get stuck in your head for days.  It’s an amazing end to a great album.

The disc also comes with a DVD that’s all about the recording of the album.   I watched a few minutes and it seemed kind of fun, so I hope to watch it more soon.

[READ: June 17, 2012] The Architect

In the past, Connell’s books have explored all manner of depravity. His books were violent, often sexual and dealt with an otherworldliness that may or may not be internalized. Despite all of this transgressive material, his work was never schlocky, especially his later pieces which show an amazing growth in topics, word choices and imagination.

Connell’s previous books The Life of Polycrates and Metrophilias featured short stories that dealt with all manner of topics.   In Metrophilias, the stories were very short, and it allowed Connell to really explore an idea to its fullest without having to make a “book” about of each one. The short length also allowed him to make the words choices and descriptions more effective.

All of the benefits are reaped in this book, a novella.

Although I enjoyed Connell’s previous longer works, I really loved the way this story started with one idea and stayed with it. Some of his other books are a bit more episodic, which worked for those stories, but in this one, we’re in one place and we are pretty much going to stay there.  And that focus makes this story all the more powerful.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is Connell’s scholarship (both real and fake). For this book is a celebration of Dr Peter Körn (1849-1924), visionary and spiritual scientist. As the story opens, four members of the Körn Society are discussing plans for the new Meeting Place, a central location where all members of the Körn society can gather. They are disgusted by the pedestrian, commercial and rather offensive submissions that they have received for their building—a building that should reflect the spiritual visions of Körn.

Dismayed at the architects who have submitted, one of the members of the Society, Maria Venezuela tells the other three that her nephew Peter De la Tour will soon be arriving with something special.  Peter brings them a book of architecture designs by Herr Nachtmann.  These designs are bizarre and wonderful–organic, amoebic, gravity-defying gorgeous monstrosities–exactly the kind of thing the Society is looking for.  Although one member feels that they are impossible to build, the others are firmly on board.

The challenge then is to find the man. There is some history about the man himself–his genius in and out of school followed by his utter inability to have his work taken seriously by the establishment.  He even had one of his more ingenious ideas stolen by the very teacher who said it was terrible.  And so, when Peter finds him, he is little more than a drunk at the end of the bar.

Yet his ego has never been diminished, and when he is presented to the Society he dismisses their concerns and even tells them that he will not wait for their decision–they have 30 minutes to say yes or he walks.  They agree and he begins working on his masterpiece.

The Society loves the sketch–they know it will be expensive, but Nachtmann promises fast work, effective designs and world-wide acclaim.  Amazingly, he delivers.  He works his men hard.  All through the spring and summer and into the fall, the men work carelessness and the building rises at a phenomenal rate.  Even if it seems to be growing larger than designed. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: HELIUM-The Dirt of Luck (1995).

Mary Timony fronted Helium for a few years.  In that time she was recognized as something of a guitar wizard–not in her speed and flash, but in the weird sounds she conjured from the instrument.

She also had very peculiar musical sensibilities (these songs are quite odd) and a cool feminist attitude.  This album features the amazing song “Superball” (one of the best songs of the mid 90s–check out the video and watch the guitarist playing the strings with a screwdriver!  Man I miss the 90s) as well as a number of unpolished gems like “Medusa” and “Pat’s Trick” (the dual vocals are very cool and the dispassionate “oh oh oh” is very interesting, plus I love the lyric about “long-ass curly hair”).

Her singing style is often quite slacker-y, like in the opening of “Medusa”–she’s not always audible, and she often seems like a kind of buzzy sound more than a voice.   She sounds like she’s singing from very far away–seemingly powerful and yet quiet at the same time.

But combine that with the cool scratchy/noisy guitar sounds she gets and she’s pulling off a very cool combination (think Dino Jr without the hooks and killer solos).

Like “Baby’s Going Underground” features some crazy shoegazer guitar washes for most of its 6 minutes which really changes the pacing of the record.  There’s also the great “Skeleton,” a riff so cool that Sonic Youth used it for “Sunday.”

She also has a way with haunting melodies as on the piano  instrumental “Comet #9” and on “All the X’s Have Wings” which sounds very medieval. I think of Timony as a guitarist and yet there is there are lots of keyboards on the album too–mystical keyboards that are fascinating and seem out of character with the guitars, but actually work quite well.   But the prettiest song is “Honeycomb.’  It’s a sweet song with a wonderful melody.  It is followed by the ender “Flower of the Apocalypse” a guitar-based instrumental that is mostly feedback but is also surprisingly melodic.

Helium had mild accolades back in the 90s.  They released a couple of albums and then Mary Timony went solo.  It’s nice to have her playing now with Wild Flag.

[READ: November 11, 2011] Five Dials Number 21

This is the first issue of Five Dials that I was ready to read when it was sent to me (I’ve been all caught up for a while now).  So that’s pretty exciting!

I was tempted to say that i enjoyed this issue more than other issues, but I have enjoyed most Five Dials issues equally.  But this one is definitely a favorite.

CRAIG TAYLOR–A Letter from the Editor: On Turning 21 and Thinking About Rock Stars and Greece.
The magazine introduction jokes about them now being legal to drink in the U.S. and also about now being old enough to run for M.P. in England.  He also tells us about their “new” section Our Town, which has vastly expanded in this issue.  He also explains that there are many rock stars on hand to give the magazine tutelage (authors that the rock stars enjoy) and three short stories.  He ends with a notice that they have gone to Greece where they are gathering material for Issue 22. (more…)

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I’ve liked Black Flag since I bought Loose Nut on vinyl way back when (1985, the year punk broke for me).  And those four bars were iconic to me even before I had heard a note (although I just learned they are supposed to represent a flag waving).

And this is where their legend really took off.  So a few things I never knew about this album until I looked them up recently.  1) That’s Rollins on the cover punching the mirror.  2) He didn’t really punch the mirror (it was smashed prior and the blood is fake).  3) I knew that Black Flag existed for a while before Rollins’ arrival and that they’d had a series of singers before him.  But I didn’t realize what a their first EP (Nervous Breakdown–Keith Morris on vocals) came out in 1978, their second EP (Jealous Again–Ron Reyes on vocals–credited as Chavo Pederast (he left the band in the middle of a live show, so they changed his name to that rather offensive one)) came out in 1980.  Their third EP (Six Pack –Dez Cadena on vocals) came out in 1981.  Rollins joined a few months after that and Damaged–their first full length–came out in December 1981.

“Rise Above” is a wonderfully angry song.  The gang vocals of pure empowerment work so well with the chords.  It’s still effective thirty years later.  “Spray Paint” goes in the other direction: rather than an uplifting, catchy chorus, it’s a deliberately angular chorus that’s hard to sing along to (even for Rollins).

“Six Pack” represents the more “popular” side of the band.  And it is a wonderfully funny single.  I just can’t decide if it’s serious or ironic (see also “TV Party”).  These two dopey songs are great to sing along to and are simply awesome.  (Fridays!)

The rest of the album turns away from the lighthearted tracks.  “What I See” is a really dark moment on this album.  And the negativity is unusual especially given Rollins’ later penchant for lyrics about fighting back.  True, Rollins didn’t write these lyrics.

“Thirsty and Miserable” is a blast of noise with some of Ginn’s first real guitar solos (which Guitar World says is as one of the worst guitar solos in history…and I say really? that’s the solo they pick?  Ginn has done some pretty outlandishly bad solos over the years…of course the whole list is questionable at best).  “Police Story” is a simple but effective description of the punks vs cops scene at the time.

“Gimme Gimme Gimme” seems childish, but that’s clearly the point.  “Depression” is a super fast track.  (Trouser Press considered Black Flag America’s first hardcore band).  “Room 13” is an odd musical track, with pretty much no bass.  It’s just some roaring guitars and drums and Rollins’s screams.  This track stands out because Chuck Dukowski’s bass propels most of the songs here.

“No More” sounds “typically” hardcore: very fast with the chanted chorus of “No More No More No More No More.”  “Padded Cell” is also fast (and is pretty hard to understand) except for the “Manic” chant, but the following track “Life of Pain” features what would become a signature Greg Ginn sound…angular guitars playing a riff that seems slightly off somehow.  Compelling in a way that’s hard to explain.

It’s funny that a band that plays as fast as they did also released some pretty long songs. “Damaged II” is almost 3 and a half minutes long.  It has several different parts (and a pretty catchy chorus).  And the final song “Damaged I” is a kind of crazed rant from Rollins;  It’s one of his scariest vocal performances; he sounds really deranged.  Especially when it sounds like he just cant think of anything else to say so he just screams maniacally.  But his vocals are mixed behind the music as if he’s trying really hard to get heard.  There’s very little else on record like it.

It’s a wonderful end to an intense disc, and the beginning of a brief but powerful career.

[READ: March 25, 2011] The Life of Polycrates

I’ve been reading Connell for a few years now.  In fact, the first time I posted about his work came with a blistering dismissal of his story “The Life of Captain Gareth Caernarvon” in McSweeney’s 19.  That story is included here, and upon rereading it, I learned two things:

  • One: context is everything.
  • Two: I was totally and completely wrong in that original review, and I take it back.

But before I explain further, some background about this book.  This is a collection of eleven stories, eight of which have appeared elsewhere.  Unfortunately there’s no dates of publication included so I don’t know how old any of these stories are.

The other thing I’m fascinated about is Connell himself.  I’m not the kind of reader who wants to know a ton of details about the author, but I like a little bit of bio (or a photo) when I read someone.  The only bio that is consistently presented about Connell is that he was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I’m fascinated by this because so many of his stories are set in Europe.  So I have concocted a master biography about Connell’s life and how he has lived and toured extensively in Europe, studied theology (and found it wanting) and investigated all of the world’s darker corners.

It’s this latter aspect that really altered my perception of Connell’s writing.  I’ve liked the last few things that he’s written, but I fear that I was not looking at him through the proper lens.  And this relates back to bullet point one above.

Connell writes in a world not unlike H.P. Lovecraft–a world that is unconventional, dark and more than a little twisted.  And yet, unlike Lovecraft, there is very little of the fantastical in his stories.  Rather, his characters reside in our own world (with a little chymical help from time to time), but they are all real.  They’re just not characters most of us choose to associate with.  So, reading that first story in McSweeney’s, where it was so different from all those others, I found it really distasteful.  In retrospect, I’m not going to say that it is meant to be distasteful, although some of his stories are, but it was certainly not a pleasant story by any means.

The other fascinating thing to note about this book is that all of the stories are written in short, Roman Numeraled segments.  So the title story has 35 segments.  But even some of the shorter ones has twelve or thirteen segments (sometimes a segment is just a few lines long).    I actually enjoy this style (especially when the segments introduce something totally new into the story–which many of these do). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MARTIN TIELLI-“We didn’t even suspect that he was the poppy salesman.” (2001).

Martin Tielli’s first solo disc is a proper solo release: it’s almost all him on acoustic guitar and his gorgeous alto voice.  I hadn’t listened to this disc in a while and I was delighted by how much of the disc I knew so well.

Te opening track, “I’ll Never Tear Your Apart” is deceptively simple: harmonic’d guitars and his gentle voice.  There’s a great video to go with it here.  That is followed by the wonderful “My Sweet Relief” which sounds like a great Neil Young folk song: great verses an a strong chorus.  Lyrically, though, it is all Tielli.  “Double X” highlights Tielli’s beautiful acoustic guitar work (and his dark lyrics).  “Voices in the Wilderness” is another delicate song (which opens with a sound that reminds me of Led Zeppelin’s “The Rain Song,” although in no way is the rest of the song like that. This song also (mis)quotes Rush very nicely: “‘If you choose not to be free you still have made a choice,’ said a high and squeaky voice.”

“Farmer in the City” is the only track that Tielli didn’t write.  It’s a nearly 8-minute song by Scott Walker.  I don’t know the original, but Tielli’s version is a bit too meandering to be really satisfying (although it fits in with the album style quite nicely).  It comes across as an atmospheric song more than a song proper.

It’s followed by the delightful “World in a Wall” which uses mice in the wall as a metaphor for a broken relationship (with wonderful detailed lines like: She’s like a mouse, I know she’s around It’s a gnawing sound. Leaves little brown poohs from a little pink bum.”

This is followed by the odd rocker “That’s How They Do It in Warsaw” (which features a woman speaking Polish–no idea what she’s saying).  It’s coupled with a slightly less rocky but still loud track “How Can You Sleep?” (which makes another fun musical allusion, this time about Guided by Voices).

“She Said ‘We’re On Our Way Down'” returns to the more ethereal sounding songs (although this has some great guitar tricks thrown in).  Like the bulk of the album, the song seems to eschew melody but then a gorgeous guitar or vocal line shines through and really sounds brilliant.  “From the Reel” is a beautiful, aching little ditty.  And the disc ends with the odd, seven minute “Wetbrain/Your War.”

There is a really wonderful review of post-Rheostatics work here at The Ohs.  He’s pretty harsh on the Bidiniband (although I haven’t heard the disc proper, just the live concerts that toured it, so I can’t say for sure) but his assessment of Tim Vesely is spot on (I love the idea of a Canadian Wilburys) as is his review of this disc.  I particularly like the Mary Margaret O’Hara comparison: Achingly beautiful but in need of an editor from time to time.

[READ: November 1, 2010] “The man who saw grey”

One thing I have really come to appreciate about Connell’s stories over the years is that he is not afraid to deal with dark aspects of humanity that many people would rather not think about.

The thing that surprised me about this story is that, in the past, Connell has used very specific language, one might even say two-dollar words (some of which I had to look up), to convey his ideas.  But in this story, he largely refrains from such language, keeping the language down to earth and familiar, much like his protagonists.

So this is a fairly simple story: a man hits his head and can thereafter only see in shades of grey.  What makes the story much more interesting than that simple plot is that the protagonist is a painter (well, his hobby is painting, in reality he is an administrator at the DMV). (more…)

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