Archive for the ‘Tobias Wolff’ Category

indexSOUNDTRACK: LOS LOBOS “Sabor a Mi” (1978)

220px-Los_Lobos_del_Este_de_Los_Angeles_coverThe other song from the Los Lobos debut album that nick Hornby mentioned was ” “Sabor a Mí” a beautiful acoustic bolero.

The rhythm is slow and stately, with nice use of an upright bass.  The guitars sound great–very clean and precise with no fuzz or distortion or loose sloppy playing.  This is respectful playing of a traditional song.

The vocals are by Cesar Rosas and some are wonderfully romantic sounding.  The solos are really great too.

I’m glad that Los Lobos branched out into so much diverse music over their career, but their early traditional songs are lovely.

[READ: September 15, 2019] “The Most Basic Plan”

In this story a man has traveled to Florida to be with his dying mother.

There was no question that she was dying and he had made appointments at local funeral homes.  He was itching to get away–he didn’t want to be late on Friday, as it would need to be rescheduled on Monday.

He fed her ice chips–it was all he could do for her.  He looked through her things–her photos–and remembered the past.  But the present could not be halted.

He asked the young woman on duty to look after his mother.  She was new and was clearly afraid of his dying mother.  She resented him and he assured her that he would be back soon.

He had rented a car at the airport, but once he got out into the warm air, he returned the car and requested a convertible Miata.  It was overpriced and, given the occasion, maybe a little festive, but he appreciated it. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE ANGELUS-“The Young Birds” (2019).

Every once in a while I like to check in with Viking’s Choice on NPR’s All Songs Considered.  Lars Gottrich specializes in all of the obscure music that you won’t hear on radio.  For this month, he did a special focus on Patient Sounds. a small label based out of Illinois.

[UPDATE: At the end of 2019, Patient Sounds closed shop. I’m not sure if any of these songs are available outside of Bandcamp].

Lars had this to say about the label

Matthew Sage, who runs the label, knows that dynamic drone, jittery footwork, oddball drone-folk, hypnagogic guitar music and cosmic Americana can exist in the same space.

The second song of the week is by The Angelus.  Lars describes the song:

Redemption often comes at the hands of something bigger than yourself, but as The Angelus’ soul-rattling doom-gaze reminds us, the love of young children will make you humble.

This song starts with crashing heavy chords–cymbals and loud guitars.  But then it settles down to a groovy death riff.  The surprise to me was when the singer began singing.  He has a soft melodic voice which totally changes this from a heavy dark song into a kind of melodic slow heavy song.  The chorus is surprisingly heavy and even ends on a kind of positive mood.

[READ: September 1, 2019] “Class Picture”

This story surprised me because it started

Robert Frost made his visit in November of 1960, just a week after the general election.  It tells you something about our school that the prospect of his arrival cooked up more interest than the contest between Nixon and Kennedy.

If Nixon had been at their school, they would have glued his shoes to the floor.

This is quite a lengthy story and there are a lot of components.  Wolff fleshes out this school very well.  So well, in fact, that I could see this being developed into a novel [It is actually an excerpt from a novel]. Although for the purposes of this story, the plot is dealt with fully.

It also makes me wonder if such a school could actually exist.  Certainly not in 2020, but even in 1960?  Because this school exhibited pride in being a literary institution. Glamorous writers visited three times a year and the English masters carried themselves as if they were intimates of Hemingway.  The teachers of other subjects (math, science) seemed to float around the fringe of the English masters’ circle.

The tradition at the school was that one boy would be chosen to meet the famous author who was coming next.  This year it is Robert Frost.  Each boy would submit an entry (in the case of Frost it would be poetry).  The author himself would select the winner.  And these meetings were a big deal to everyone on campus.

The narrator is very excited but he knows that his poems are subpar–he writes fiction.  He was on the school’s literary magazine board so he was familiar with the other great writers in his class.  There were three.

George Kellogg was a proficient writer of poetry, although the narrator found the boring.

Bill White was the narrator’s roommate.  He’d written most of a novel already and his poems were impressive.

Jeff Purcell was the third.  He was also on the literary magazine and was quick to dismiss others.  Could that translate to his own writing?

The one detour from the poetry angle is about smoking.  The school forbade smoking but a lot of boys did anyway.  The narrator said he loved smoking.  He smoked in storage closets and freezers, steam tunnels and bathrooms.  He even went out for cross-country so he could smoke while running in the woods.

If you were caught smoking you were expelled.  It happened every once in awhile.  A person was sent home just before the Frost Poem deadline.  This made the narrator quit smoking on campus.

The narrator wrote a poem for the occasion but he didn’t think it was good enough.  So he decided to submit an older one on the off chance that Frost liked it.

I won’t spoil the winner, but Frost did come to the school and he read some of his poems aloud.  During the Q&A that followed a master asked a question.  Interestingly he misstated the title of the poem.  He called it “Stopping in Woods” which Frost corrected instantly to “Stopping by Woods on a  Snowy Evening”  The master continued the question asking about iambic lines  Frost says “Good for you, they must be teaching you boys something here.”

The boys all laughed and Frost seemed pleased–had he made a mistake about the master or had he known all along?  The boys were surprised to learn later that Frost was quite funny.

The end of the story shows the winner of the contest questioning the value of his poem.  He felt that Frost mis-read it and that perhaps he won for the wrong reasons.  Should he blow off Robert Frost?  Is he crazy?

I really enjoyed this piece and found myself thoroughly engaged.  If this is part of a novel, I would be very curious to read it.  Turns out it is an excerpt from the novel Old School.

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Generally speaking, I don’t like the blues.  I think it’s pretty boring music-wise, with most songs sounding vaguely the same, especially on record.  I would never go to a blues show on purpose.  However, if all blues shows were like this one from Kingfish, I’d go to a lot more.

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram a Mississippi guitar player has a lot of hype around him (XPN loves him) and while I haven’t enjoyed the songs they’ve played, this set was stunning.  And when you learn how old he is, it’s even more incredible.

Ingram’s otherworldly guitar playing and ridiculously rich voice make it hard to believe that he is only twenty years old. He is clearly aware of the absurdity of his talent given his age, as he sings “they say I got an old soul and I ain’t even 21.”

He opened with “Before I’m Old”, off his debut album Kingfish.  The song opens with a lengthy guitar solo and lyrics that are basically an autobiography.  When I was younger, I used to rate guitar players by their soloing skills.  I don;t do that anymore.  In fact I don;t really care if there are solos in songs these days.  But I do still enjoy a guitarist who can play a wicked solo live.

I don’t care much about the structure of “Before I’m Old” because it’s all about the jamming solo he plays.  The great part of the solo is the tone he gets.  It’s just him and a bassist (and a drummer), but it doesn’t sound like a bassist playing notes and a guitarist soloing independently.  His guitar is full enough that it sounds like a bigger band.

But his skills are really tremendous.  He seemingly casually busts out a minute and a half solo mid-song that is exciting and full of passion.  There’s basically two verse sin this five minute song which ends with a little nod to Jimi Hendrix.

Next came “Fresh Out”, which Ingram started solo. Eventually he was joined by his bassist and drummer, but his solo verse demonstrated that in a way, they’re just extras; he can carry this all on his own.

This is a slower, classic blues song about having no love.  But it’s all about the three and a half minute solo.  In the middle of it, he quiets everything down while playing a slow, moody passage while the band is almost silent, playing just enough to keep the song going while Kingfish jams.

The final song, “Out of This Town” is the one I’ve been hearing on the radio.  It’s catchy in a classic bluesy way, but I never thought much about it.  I do like the five note hook and pause just before he sings “out of this town” but otherwise it was just a blues song.

But this live version was a revelation.

Ingram stretched each of his tracks out, squeezing every last drop of possibility out of them. He stretched them so much that he was only able to fit three songs in his twenty minute slot. Like with the two before it, Ingram led “Out of This Town” into an explosive electric blues epic.

This song stretches out to 9 minutes, five of which are the guitar solo.  In the wrong hands, a five minute guitar solo can be an interminable wank-fest.  But Kingfish makes it interesting–you actually don’t want the song to star up again because the guitar is so good.  And yet, when his sings, his voice is deep and rich as well.

This show may even get me to enjoy the song more the next time I hear it on the radio.

[READ: June 1, 2019] “In the Hay”

This essay is a fascinating insight into manual labor, immigration and alcohol.  All in three columns of type.

In 1959, Wolff looked for summer work on the farms along the Skagit River near Seattle.  Wolff was fourteen and kind of small, so he worked at a farm for a bit and then moved on.  Then he met a farmer who paid him better and treated him well, so he settled in.

The more permanent field hands bucked hay, but Wolff was not strong enough to do that, so he hacked weeds or shoveled shit. He would pause from time to time, catching snippets of conversation on the wind.

The following summer he returned bigger and strong and he joined the hay crew.  The crew was four people: Wolff, Clemson, the farmer’s nephew and two Mexican brothers, Miguel and Eduardo. (more…)

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manner SOUNDTRACK: BEN GIBBARD-Tiny Desk Concert #251 (November 19, 2012).

benBen Gibbard is the voice of Death Cab for Cutie.  His voice is instantly recognizable and his melodies are surprisingly catchy.

This Tiny Desk Concert (they say it’s number 250, but I count 251) is just him and his acoustic guitar.  I didn’t know he did solo work, but apparently he does (in addition to being in The Postal Service and All-Time Quarterback).

Gibbard just released a solo album, Former Lives, which he’s said is a repository for material that didn’t work as Death Cab for Cutie songs; from that record, only “Teardrop Windows” pops up in his Tiny Desk Concert. For the rest, he draws from Death Cab’s most recent album (“St. Peter’s Cathedral,” from Codes and Keys) and, of all places, last year’s Arthur soundtrack (“When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street”).

As mentioned he plays three songs and his voice is so warm and familiar I felt like I knew these songs even if I didn’t.

I knew “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” It is a lovely song with very little in the way of chord changes.  But the melody is gentle and pretty.  And the song appears to be entirely about this church.  Which is interesting because the second song is also about a building in Seattle.  “Teardrop Windows” is a surprisingly sad song about an inanimate object.  It’s written from the building’s point of view as he mourns that no one uses him anymore.  And such beautiful lyrics too:

Once built in boast as the tallest on the coast he was once the city’s only toast / In old postcards was positioned as the star, he was looked up to with fond regard / But in 1962 the Needle made its big debut and everybody forgot what it outgrew

The final song “When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street” was indeed for the Russel Brand movie Arthur.  Somehow I can’t picture those two together.  It’s a lovely song, too.

I prefer Gibbard’s more upbeat and fleshed out music, but it’s great to hear him stripped down as well.

[READ: January 2017] “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” “The Bravery of E.L. Doctorow,” “Remembering Updike,” and “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” 

I had been planning to have my entire month of February dedicated to children’s books.  I have a whole bunch that I read last year and never had an opportunity to post them.  So I thought why not make February all about children’s books.  But there is just too much bullshit going on in our country right now–so much hatred and ugliness–that I felt like I had to get this post full of good vibes out there before I fall completely into bad feelings myself. It;s important to show that adults can be kind and loving, despite what our leaders demonstrate.  Fortunately most children’s books are all about that too, so the them holds for February.

George Saunders is a wonderful writer, but he is also a very kind human being.  Despite his oftentimes funny, sarcastic humor, he is a great humanitarian and is always very generous with praise where it is warranted.

The other day I mentioned an interview with Saunders at the New York Times.  Amid a lot of talk with and about Saunders, there is this gem:

Junot Díaz described the Saunders’s effect to me this way: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”

These first three pieces are all examples of his love and respect for other writers–both for their skill and for their generosity.

“My Writing Education: A Time Line”

“My Writing Education” comes from a book called A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors.  Saunders’ mentor was Tobias Wolff.  And for this essay, his admiration takes the form of a diary.  (more…)

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TNY 8.25.08 cvr.inddSOUNDTRACK: BIG THIEF-Tiny Desk Concert #562 (August 29, 2016).

bigthiefBob Boilen absolutely loves Big Thief’s debut album (it made his top ten this year).  I think it’s really good, but I don’t quite love it the way he does.

But I think their first song, “Masterpiece” is really a great song.  And in this Tiny Desk Concert, they play it with a slightly different feel.  It seems to allow the sounds of the guitars to come through a little more.  Like the album, though, the harmonies are wonderful.

When the video started, the camera focused on just Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek, and since the first song starts with just the two of them I wasn’t even sure of the whole band was there.  They are, although it’s odd how isolated the rhythms section looks in this video.

“Paul” is a mellow song with a strangely subdued and yet catchy chorus.  It’s kind of funny to watch Buck Meek really getting down to what is a fairly mellow track–although his guitar parts are pretty cool blasts of music.

“Lorraine” also get a mellow treatment here.  For this version it’s just her singing and playing the guitar.  It works very well in this Tiny setting and her voice really shines.

[READ: March 1, 2016] “Awake”

This story is about a college Economics major who just can’t get enough sex.

Well, that’s how it starts anyhow.  Richard is lying in bed next to Ana.  He moves in close behind her, hinting.  But she moves away quickly (she is actually asleep, so that’s a reflex).  He is annoyed although he shouldn’t be–I mean they did it twice already that night.

So instead of thinking about sex he decides to think about something else.  But what? (more…)

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jun9SOUNDTRACK: BUDGIE-“Breadfan” (1973).

budgieI am pretty much wholly ignorant of Budgie. I know this song “Breadfan” because Metallica covered it back on one of their covers EPs. I really Metallica’s version, but since that was pre-internet, I was never able to explore Budgie more.  And then I forgot about them.

Well, just the other night, WXPN played “Breadfan” (as part of a 70s power trio segment) and I was shocked at how high-pitched Burke Shelley’s voice was (the comparisons to Rush are apt).  And I was also surprised at how heavy this song was.  While Black Sabbath had certainly been releasing heavy albums up until this time, this song introduced a much faster element.  And there were only three members in the band!

What’s also interesting is the prog rock leanings in some of their songs, like the middle of this one.  The fact that Roger Dean did this album cover and that they have a 10 minute song on this album seems to lean towards prog rock as well).

Time to dig deep in to the Welsh band’s catalog, I think.

[READ: June 17, 2014] “Beautiful Girl”

This year’s Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker was subtitled Love Stories.  In addition to the two graphic stories, we have a series of five personal essays which fall under the heading of “My Old Flame.”  I like that all five writers have slight variations in how they deal with this topic.

Wolff surprises (me anyhow) by saying that when he was fifteen, he cut off the last joint of his left ring finger.  This piece of information just sort of lingers there until the end of the story.

Because he then talks about how he never really had a girlfriend.  In sixth grade he and his friend Terry would meet Terry’s cousin Patty and another girl in the movie theater and they would pair up and make out (clearly Terry did not make out with his cousin).   But they pairings were never seen in public and never went on a further date.

But later that winter his family moved to the Cascades, where the elementary school had all of four rooms.  There were ten kids in his class and nine were boys.  The one girl, Nevy, drove them all crazy. She favored one then the other but her real love was horses not boys. (more…)

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CV1_TNY_07_08_13Hunter.inddSOUNDTRACK: AGAINST ME!-True Trans EP (2013).

trueThis EP (free for a limited time) contains two acoustic songs from punks Against Me!  (The gentleness of the acoustic songs is belied by this stark cover).  I have an older Against Me! album which I like and which is quite punky.  But since that album the lead singer Tom Gabel has gone through gender reassignment surgery (and his fans mostly stayed with her, which is pretty awesome).  Their newest full length Transgender Dysphoria Blues is due out in the future and this is a little acoustic taste of what’s to come.  Both songs appear to be about his transition.

The first one, with the interesting title of “FuckMyLife666”, is an upbeat song (musically), while lyrically it is a song to someone—possibly himself?  It’s about avoiding regrets and embracing a new life.

The second song is a big darker (musically) although it does have a big bright chorus with the final line of: “Does God bless your transsexual heart?”  It’s very very catchy and I find myself singing that rather awkward line to myself during the day.

I’m not sure exactly what the future has in store for Against Me!, but it seems like Laura Jane Grace is planning on keeping the music coming.

[READ: July 15, 2013] “All Ahead of Them”

This story opens with a misunderstanding—at least that’s what we hear Bud saying into the phone.  He quickly looks for an excuse to get off the phone and then starts playing with the cigarettes that he found in the hotel drawer.  (He promised he’d quit smoking after the wedding which was just six days ago).  We also quickly learn that the misunderstanding has to do with his new wife and that it proves that she is a liar.

Of course, his wife, Arden, has a history of changing the truth (as many of us do).  Even her name, which he thought was so artistic-sounding, is fake.  Well, it is real now, but she was originally call Nedra (after her father’s mother) and she reversed the letters.  This of, course hurt her father, who loved his dear mother, and who refused to call her Arden—even during his wedding toast.  She hadn’t even told Bud that she had changed her name until moments before he met Arden’s father—and only as a preparation that her father wouldn’t call her Arden.

The original Nedra’s story is pretty interesting in and of itself.  She was a beautiful and talented singer, although her day job was as a music teacher in a Buffalo high school.  She was arrested for selling marijuana (during the brutal Rockefeller laws of the 1970s) to other teachers.  She was given 25 years in jail.  After three of those 25 years, she hanged herself.  Arden’s father was very young when this happened and he never really got over it (as can be expected). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KISS-Paul Stanley (1978).

For Christmas in 1978 or so, my parents gave me a guitar which was signed from “Paul Stanley.”  I knew it wasn’t (and was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a drum set), but that’s the guitar I learned how to play on.  And Paul Stanley (while not the god that Ace is) is still a charismatic player.  But I didn’t really like this solo album that much when it came out.  My order of preference at the time was Gene>Ace>Paul>>>>>>>>>>Peter.  But sometime in college I reassessed this album and have regraded it as my favorite of the four and it even ranks higher than many of the Kiss albums.  (Seeing him live on a club tour certainly helped).

Paul is in great voice.  And I guess because Paul sang on so many different types of Kiss songs, he doesn’t seem out of his element here.  The chruses are more of him rather than backing vocalists (like the other guys used, although he does use some).  And the production is not too far away from the sound of Kiss at the time (certainly more polished than it should be but not as weirdly polished as Gene’s). 

 The opening of “Tonight You Belong To Me” is a wonderful acoustic intro and the song itself has a great riff and a wonderful solo.  The chorus is intense and strong.  “Move On” is something of a lesser song (it seems too choppy), but I love the quiet break in the middle.  “Ain’t Quite Right” is a cool minor key ballad.  It’s a bit 70’s-sounding, but there’s some interesting stuff going on.  The solo is again quite cool (Bob Kulick, brother of future Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick does duties here).

“Wouldn’t You Like to Know Me” is a pretty standard upbeat Kiss song.  It’s followed by “Take Me Away (Together As One)” one of the great slow-building ballads that turn into a rocking chorus that Kiss does so well.  Paul practically whispers the verses but he belts out full strength in the loud part (not so much a chorus as just a loud part).  It’s one of my favorite songs.  “Wouldn’t You like to Know Me” is the kind of song that Kiss would play in the late 80s (full of outrageously cocky lyrics like “Girl you know, I’ll be leaving in the morning; you got to get what you can”), but there’s enough grit in this version to make me like much more than say, “Lick It Up.”

“Hold Me Touch Me (Think of Me, When We’re Apart)” is the flip side of Kiss’ cockiness, the sweet sentimental side.  Paul can croon like the best of ’em on this song.  “Love in Chains” also sounds like a typical Kiss rocker (except for the cool drum fill in the chorus).  I think I don’t like Paul’s singing in these stripped down choruses–I like it when his voice soars.  “Goodbye” has a cool typical Kiss riff in the bridge, which I like quite a bit.  And the chorus soars with a very simple guitar riff.  A perfect mid-tempo Paul song–it even has an unexpected third part that sends the song into a brief minor chord phase before returning to the happiness of saying goodbye to someone.

Still my favorite of the solo albums.

[READ: October 8, 2011] “Stealing Fire”

There were four one-page pieces in this week’s New Yorker under the heading “Sticky Fingers.”  Each one was about theft in some way (this being the money issue, that ‘s a nice connection).

As I said for Patti Smith, I felt like the tone of these articles was all set, but Wolff totally changes the concept behind these stories.  He wasn’t the thief–well he was–but  the theft came from a parent not from a store.  When Wolff was growing up, he coveted his father’s gold lighter.  He even took up smoking just so he could use it (there’s a lesson for you). (more…)

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I have the latest Yeasayer album (which got huge praise in 2010), but not their first album from which all of these live songs come.  These songs sound so very different from the 2010 songs that I have a hard time believing it’s the same band.

These songs have a rhythm-heavy, almost percussive feel to them (maybe like Adam and the Ants).  And their lead singer sounds a bit like the singer from Duran Duran.  The songs are all electronic sounding and are not easy listening by any means, but at the same time they are not discordant or noisy.

My favorite part of the show, though, was when they thank NPR and David Dye.  One of the guys says that his sister taught David’s daughter and the other band member quickly jumps in to say that that’s a boring story.  It’s quite amusing.

I really like their new album, and I’m a little cool to these earlier songs.  The band sounds good live, but I just couldn’t really get into these songs.  Although after a few more listens, I recognize some catchy bits.

There’s an interview at the end which is quite informative, explaining how the band creates their music (they enjoy the creative process more than the touring process).  In one instance they talk about sampling a rehearsal section and then cutting it up and reworking it into a new song.  So basically, Yeasayer are a bunch of studio geeks playing around.

[READ: March 18, 2011] “Her Dog”

This was a very short (barely two page) story that packed an amazing amount of story into such a short space.

As the story opens we learn that Victor is her dog.  When Grace and Joe bought Victor together, Joe made it clear that the dog was all hers (he didn’t want a dog).  And although she did all of the work (even walking him in the rain when she had a cold), they also walked Victor together at the beach on the weekend.  And then (with no explanation), Grace died and Victor was Joe’s dog.  (All of this in the first paragraph!) (more…)

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