Archive for the ‘Tom Bissell’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: ENDON-Through the Mirror (2017).

Endon’s Through the Mirror is one of the most punishing musical experiences I’ve ever had.  They opened for Boris a few months ago and their live show was incredibly intense.  It’s no surprise that their album is, too.

When I was looking at their merch, this guy came up behind me and said, that their debut album, MAMA made him want to kill himself.  But this album was different, more enjoyable.  I thanked him for saving my life.

Endon hail from Japan and call their music “catastrophic noise-metal.”

The first song is the five and a half-minute “Nerve Rain.”  It is, simply put, a wave of noise.  The guitarist plays a loud distorted guitar–very quickly.  Non-stop for 2 and a half minutes.  It is accompanied by fast pounding drums.  In the background there are all kinds of warbling electronic noises.  After two and a half minutes the noise ends abruptly.  It starts again exactly the same after a few seconds.  This continues for the rest of the song, stopping and starting at more frequent intervals.  It is relentless.  Somebody please put the entire Republican party into a room and play this at them for 24 hours.

The second song, “Your Ghost is Dead” introduces a singer, Taichi Nagura.  The drums are twice as fast, the guitar is also incredibly fast and when the singer comes in, he uses a complicated mix of cookie monster vocals, screams, wails and desperate lashing out.  I have no idea if there are any words to these songs or if he’s just making noise.  Sometimes he’s buried under the rest of the noise.  Interestingly there’s even a cool somewhat mellow guitar riff in the middle of this song–if you removed it from the noise surrounding it, it would be very catchy.  About half way through the song, the noise stops, the riff comes through clean and then Taichi Nagura can be heard crying.   And then it all takes off again.

“Born in Limbo” slows things down with an interesting drum beat.  But the bulk of the song is manipulated sounds and effects–primarily screams, from both tapes and the lead singer.  In fact Taichi Nagura’s screams are rhythmic and strangely catchy.  There’s a Mike Patton component to this song for sure.  The middle of the song even has a somewhat traditional (wailing) guitar solo.

“Pensum” is only 90 seconds long and it is 90 seconds of pummeling noise.  It’s followed by “Postsex” which is more of the same with extra focus placed on Taichi Nagura ‘s vocals which are varied and run through a gamut of pain.

“Perversion Til Death” is 10 minutes long.  It opens with some crazy fast drumming and a slow melodic guitar melody that’s more or less buried under a wall of noise.  This song is a lot slower and more ponderous than the others, with some heavy drums, squalling guitars and screamed vocals just done at a different pace.  Until the final two minutes which are just heavy pounding.

“Through the Mirror” has some interesting guitar ideas buried under a wall of squealing feedback.  Just before the song turns into a breakneck hardcore pace there’s a ten second respite with an interesting riff and nothing else.  And then pummel.  Around three minutes the noise drops away and you get super fast drums with some electronic sounds and Taichi Nagura all-out screaming but in that strangely melodic way again.  It lasts for about 30 seconds before ethe breakneck noise (and growling takes over).  The song slows down with him weeping as pleasant guitars take over.  While these pleasant chords continue playing through, he starts screaming at the top of his lungs in mortal pain.

“Torch Your House” ends this disc with a 9 minute epic.  The song begins quietly, with some pretty guitars and gentle washes of sounds.  They explore chords for about 2 and a half minutes before the drums and noise take over,  but the guitar solo is able to pierce through the wall of noise.  Taichi Nagura screams throughout in bursts, but the guitars stay largely guitar-sounding not noise-making.  Around five-minute the whole things turns into a rocking metal song.  For the last minute or so, it all mellows out with an acoustic guitar playing the melody.  Until the last 30 seconds when the noise returns over and a five-beat drum pattern as the song crashes to an end.

Musical endurance.

[READ: September 23, 2017] “Who’s Laughing Now?”

I have enjoyed most of Tom Bissell’s writing in Harper’s  He writes about a wide array of things, including entertainment.  A while back I read a lot of his older articles and it was enjoyable to read things hat were not current anymore.  And that may be why I didn’t enjoy this article as much.  It is too current.  Too painful.  I can’t believe he hasn’t been impeached yet.

Bissell suggests that trump and SNL were made for each other.  He was the rare novelty guest to have hosted twice.  Once in 2004 to promote The Apprentice and again in late 2015 to soften perception of a presidential campaign widely seen as alarming.  Some would accuse SNL of normalizing him after this (although his being a celebrity of three decades certainly had something to do with it).

Both Times he was on ratings were great so… who used whom? (more…)

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harpjulySOUNDTRACK: JERUSALEM IN MY HEART-Mo7it Al-Mo7it [CST093] (2013)

mo7So just what is Jerusalem in My Heart?  According to the Constellation records website:

Jerusalem In My Heart (JIMH) has been a live audio-visual happening since 2005, with Montréal-based producer and musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh at its core. Moumneh is a Lebanese national who has spent a large part of his adult life in Canada.  Moumneh is also active in the Beirut and Lebanese experimental music scenes, where he spends a few months every year.

but more specifically, what does it sound like?

Jerusalem In My Heart (JIMH) is a project of contemporary Arabic and electronic music interwoven with 16mm film projections and light-based (de)constructions of space, exploring a relationship between music, visuals, projections and audience.  …   [The album blends] melismatic singing in classic Arabic styles and electronic compositions with contemporary electronic production. …  Moumneh’s voice has become a powerfully authentic instrument, [along with Saturated synths and the overdriven signals of Moumneh’s acoustic buzuk and zurna].

And what’s up with the title of the record?

The numeral 7 is pronounced like an h; all titles on the album are rendered in contemporary colloquial “mobile” Arabic (the transliterative characters used in Arabic phone texting).

Alright, now that that’s out of the way, the album begins with “Koll lil-mali7ati fi al-khimar al-aswadi (Speak of the Woman in the Black Robe)” which opens with an echoed voice that reminds me of the way a dance track might start.  But it quickly becomes clear that the singer is sing in Arabic and in a somewhat traditional manner (but with an echoed effect on the voice).  I don’t really know how Arabic music might be sung, but this is what it sounds like to me.  By the end of the track, some keyboards are added, echoing to the end.

The second track, “3andalib al-furat (Nightingale of the Euphrates)” is a 9-minute instrumental.  It opened with acoustic stringed instruments Dina Cindric playing the Rast Virginal on the banks of Al-Furat.  It is a beautiful piece, recorded outdoors with the sounds of birds and other animals contributing.  It never grows louder than these instruments.

And then this acoustic and mellow piece jumps into the very electronic sounding third song, “Yudaghdegh al-ra3ey wala al-ghanam (He titillates the shepherd, but not the sheep…).”   The opening riff is very late 70s Tangerine Dream-sounding.  I expected a lengthy instrumental, so I was very surprised when the female vocalist (I assume Malena Szlam Salazar) began singing in tradition Arabic style.  It’s a great mix.  Especially at the end as her voice gets more processed.

Track four, “3anzah jarbanah (Sick, Diseased Goat)” is a mostly a capella vocal song with Moumneh singing in his mournful keening voice.  He sounds pained as his voice has a slight echo to it.  After about three minutes a distorted keyboard plays behind the voice.  It has a distinctly 1980s sci-fi vibe.

“Ya dam3et el-ein 3 (Oh Tear of the Eye 3)”  is 5 minute-instrumental which I believe is done mostly by Sarah Pagé playing the Bayat Harp on the banks of Dajla.  Again birds are heard throughout.  These instrumentals are just lovely.

“Ko7l el-ein, 3oumian el-ein (Eyeliner of the Eye, Blindness of the Eye)” has a kind of solo opening on what I assume is the buzuk.  It’s fast and a little wild by the end with an electronic sounding synth line running in the background that more or less takes over the song.  The final track is ” Amanem (Amanem)” which has Moumneh’s vocals and a keyboard drone behind it.  It’s a rather mournful and spooky  vocal style and sounds likes he as about to cry.

Since I don’t really know what the album is about, the ending seems like kind of a downer.  But since I am exposed to practically no contemporary Arabic music, I found this to be a really interesting listen, and I wonder if it is in any way representative of contemporary Arabic music.

[READ: August 22, 2016] “My Holy Land Vacation”

I read this more of Bissell, not because of the contents, as I like Bissell quite a bit.  But I found myself strangely engrossed by this story of traveling to Israel with a busload of Conservatives.

Bissell says that he enjoys listening to right-wing radio.  He names a few hosts who I don’t know and then ends with Dennis Prager.  I don’t know him either, but he is the impetus for this article so there ya go.  Bissell describes him as the “patriarch trying to keep the conversation moderately high-minded” which sounds pretty good.

Prager is Jewish and his audience is largely Christian.  And in the summer he organized a Stand with Israel tour.  For about $5,000 you could go on an all-inclusive guided tour across the world’ holiest and most contested land.

Bissell provides some context that the religious right hasn’t always been fans of Israel.  Indeed my recollection is that the Christian right was very antisemitic.  But by 2002 conservatives were vested in the cause because of some common beliefs like forbidding abortion and being suspicious of Muslims.

When Bissell first saw Prager in person he admits to the man’s charisma.  Bissell talks about what is known as the Israel Test which is summed up “if you ever find fault with Israel, you’re horrible.”  Prager believes that all American parents should send their children to Israel between high school and college to let their moral compass be righted again.

As for the trip itself–the food is plentiful everywhere–embarrassingly so.  He doesn’t like many of the people on the trip.  And he and his wife have to remember to not act like New York liberals.  But the one thing that Tom and his wife (and the people he has grown to like on the bus) can agree on is that their guide David is “the tour guide to have while Standing with Israel.”

Bissell is pleased to hear that the locals are pretty even-handed about a lot of things, always trying to explain up how most of the citizenry–both Israelis and Palestinians want peace.  But the travelers are appalled at this even handedness.  They want partisanship.  A woman yells that there no way that Israelis are teaching their children to hate.  A soldier–a man who lives here–responds to her that he knows Israeli families who do raise their children to hate Palestinians.  She responds, “Respectfully, no.  Respectfully, no.”

Later when they go to Nazareth, their tour guide explains that Nazareth has pretty much always been Arab territory–they didn’t take it from the Israelis, but no one appears satisfied with this answer.

Eventually they go to a settlement and meet self-described “Israeli rednecks.”  The man was born in Cleveland and moved to Israel in 1961.  He is a rabble-rouser and makes Bissell uncomfortable.  Bissell has to leave the room during the man’s excoriations.  When he steps outside, he meets Pastor Marty who is also appalled at the belligerence.  Marty blames talk radio in general and wonders when the last time “anyone was forced to have a civil discussion with someone who thought differently.”

But the real crisis is aboard Bus Five–Bissell’s bus–because their beloved tour guide has been fired because of complaints.  And a whole section talks about the bus’ reaction to this.  They even form factions who want to Stand Up for Dave, and the de facto leader begins trying to find out who is for or against Dave.  The section is pretty fun and strangely exciting.

But the final section grows much more serous.  They visit Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust Memorial.

Soon the rest of the bus and its occupants are forgotten and Bissell simply thinks about this memorial and the thousands of dead.  And then he thinks of his own family–he and his wife left their relatively new-born daughter home with grandparents.

I expected that this essay would be full of some crazy people spouting crazy things.  And to an extent it was, but what I like about Bissell’s writing is how empathetic he is and how he can really convey different perspectives while retaining his own individuality.  The essay also  contained a lot of interesting information and had a surprisingly emotional ending–one that is far removed from right-wing radio..

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dec20133SOUNDTRACK: FRANKIE SPARO-Arena Hostile (VPRO Radio Recordings) [CST017] (2001).

sparo2I didn’t love Sparo’s debut album, but a year later while on tour with A Silver Mt. Zion (whom I do love) he went into a studio in Amsterdam to re-record some of those songs.  I’ll let the Constellation site tell you what this EP is and why I like it so very very much,

In January 2001, Frankie Sparo toured Europe with a Silver Mt Zion. Musicians from the latter group worked on new arrangements of songs from Sparo’s debut record My Red Scare, adding strings, organ and electronics to Frankie’s guitar and beatbox compositions. Some of the results were captured in a live studio performance recorded live to 2-track at VPRO radio in Amsterdam, where a feverish flu found Sparo in a ravaged, hallucinatory state – which only added to the dark magic of these recordings. The four songs on this EP are all first takes, beautifully recorded by the good people at VPRO. Along with 3 songs reworked from the debut album, the EP also includes a heartbreaking cover of the Rolling Stones’ “I Am Waiting”, which Sparo performed solo a number of times in concert.

“Diminish Me NYC” is great in this version with an off-kilter electronic arrangement and strings. “The Night That We Stayed In” which I singled out on the debut album has two violins, turning the song into an even cooler number (although the “throw your hands in the air” line seems moderately less comical now).  “Here Comes The Future” has an almost dance beat—a slow dance mind you, but still, a good one and ends with some organ waves.  And the cover of “I am Waiting” must be the slowest cover of a Stones song ever.  I don’t know the original, but I bet it sounds nothing like this.

I really like this EP a lot and it makes me want to like the debut album even more–if I had more patience with it.

[READ: April 15, 2014] 3 book reviews

noveltyThis month Bissell reviewed non-fiction three books.

The first is Novelty: A History of the New by Michael North.  In this book North argues that newness, that novelty, has always been a problem: “one of the very first ideas to trouble the consciousness of humankind.”  This dates all the way back to Aristotle who argued that nothing came from nothing; that everything came from something else.  Even the Renaissance, that period of great exploration and creativity was really just mimicking classics (hence the word renaissance).  The new tends to be looked at askance, so we get terms like “novelty act.”

North says that one thing which is genuinely new is our proclivity to turn everything into information as gigabits or as abstract knowledge.

I’m intrigued by the premise of this book but not enough to want to read it and frankly, Bissell doesn’t make it sound that compelling.

Bissell connects this attitude about newness and novelty to the rock world (and rightly so).  Where we (well, some people) value novelty and criticize anything that is derivative.  Which leads to the second book (another one I don’t want to read but for different reasons).  Beatles vs. Stones by John McMillian.  The Beatles were arguably the most original band ever since no one did what they did before them.  And then, bvssarguably, the Rolling Stones came along and did just what the Beatles did a little bit afterwards.

Some easy examples:

  • The cover of the Rollings Stones’ first album is compositionally similar to the cover of The Beatles’ second album.
  • A few months after the Beatles released their ballad “Yesterday,” the Stones released their ballad “As Tears Go By.”  (The song was recorded earlier but was initially dismissed as not Stones enough).
  • After the Beatles used a sitar in “Norwegian Wood,” the Stones used one (in a different way) in “Paint It Black.”
  • And quotemaster himself, John Lennon, once said, “Everything we do, the Stones do four months later.”  [The Stones did still released some great music after The Beatles broke up, of course, even if now they play nothing they wrote after 1981 on tour anymore].

And this Lennon quote is typical of this book which is a gossipy casual look at the differences between the Beatles and Stones [Beatles when you’re writing, Stones when you’re jogging; Beatles when you’re alone, Stones when you’re with people).  But in addition to comparisons, he includes scenes like when the Beatles attended a Stones show and when Jagger and Richards were at Shea Stadium for The Beatles’ arrival.

There are many similarities between the bands, although the biggest different seems to be that the Stones never really became friends, while The Beatles were friends till the end.

Of course, the Stones has always been cooler than the Beatles, which is a nice segue into Bissell’s third book: The Cool School: Writing from America’s Hip Underground by Glenn O’Brien.

coolschoolO’Brien’s thesis is the seemingly obvious one that “cool” is not a new thing–that early tribes doing war dances had cool people playing syncopated drums in the corner.  But he is not arguing about coolness, he is collecting “a louche amuse bouche [that must have been fun to write]…a primer and inspiration for future thought crime.”  The book includes works by the likes of Henry Miller, Delmore Schwartz, LeRoi Jones and Eric Bogosian.  I like some of these guys, but as soon as I see them assembled together, I know I’m not going to be going anywhere near this book.

Bissell says that there is some cool stuff here: Miles Davis writing about Charlie Parker for example, but most of the cool seems to be trying too hard.  Like the “charmlessly dated” Norman Mailer piece, “The White Negro.”

I appreciate the way Bissell sums up what comes through from the book: “to be cool…is to make the conscious choice, every step of the way through life, to care about the wrong damn thing.”

It is comforting to come away from one of these book reviews without wanting to read anything.


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  9SOUNDTRACK: UNIVORE-“Vampire” (2013).

univoreI never watch the ads that come before Youtube videos.  But this came on as an ad and I was utterly mesmerized by it.

I didn’t even know what it was for.  Turns out that Univore is a band and “Vampire” is one of their songs.  The 1 minute ad video was actually the whole thing.

It’s got a simple buzzy synthesized riff, backing vocalists singing “Oh yea” when appropriate and an occasional deep voiced man saying “vampire.”  The video is of an older gentleman (who a little research suggests is Marco Casale) dressed like a vampire running around a small green space on a campus.  The whole video looks like it took 15 minutes to film.  It is weird and wonderful.

I still know nothing about Univore, which may be for the better, but I did enjoy this video.

[READ: April 6, 2014] Grantland #9

I’m surprised that there aren’t better cover images online for these books.  For #8 i had to use one with a big flash in the middle of it and this one is the illustration from the Grantland website.  The books are quite pretty so why uses these pale imitations?

So this issue proved to be a lot better about weird typos and “we just took this from the web and pasted it and never bothered to check to see if there was anything weird” problems.  So thanks for at least running it through Spellcheck.  The only other thing left is to either remove the lines that talk about attached links/images if they are not there or to include the url or make up a tiny url (but that would be actual work!).  Oh, and please make sure all of the footnotes are included.

I have given up on ever finding out how these things turned out several months after the fact–I’ll just happily live in ignorance of reality there.

This issue was taken from during basketball’s downtime which was a nice change (even though the still managed to talk about basketball).  There was more pop culture and some wonderful articles about team nicknames and mascots–something I absolutely love.  So this is one of my favorite issues overall.  (more…)

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dec2006SOUNDTRACK: HILMAR ÖRN HILMARSSON & SIGUR RÒS-Angels in the Universe (2000).

angelsThis disc often gets placed in the Sigur Rós discography even though it really isn’t one of their records. It is a soundtrack to the film Angels in the Universe, and it is primarily music composed and conducted by Hilmarsson.  There are 17 tracks on the disc and he is responsible for 15 of them.  The remaining 2 are indeed by Sigur Rós, but if you have the “Ny batteri” single, you’ve already got the two songs.

The Hilmarsson tracks are large airy string pieces (I don’t know the film or anything about it, but it makes it seem rather sad). There are some tracks in the middle that deviate somewhat–some drums and occasional bass, but for the most part the music sounds like a string score to a film.  Pretty, but not exceptional.  At no time does Sigur Rós play with the other performers.

It’s the last two track s that are by Sigur Rós.  “Bíum bíum bambaló” is a slow piece that begins with mostly percussion.  Apparently it is an Icelandic lullaby and their version is quite different from a lullaby.  By the end of the song, when the whole band kicks in it rocks really hard and proves to be a great song.  The final track, “Dánarfregnir og jarðarfarir” was a theme used for death announcements on Icelandic radio (whatever that means).  I love the way it builds from a simple melody into a full rock band version and then back again.  It’s very dramatic.  These songs are both really enjoyable.  I like them a lot.  But I’d just stick with the single.

[READ: November 9, 2013] “The Secret Mainstream”

This article was in Bissell’s book Magic Hours, which I read a while ago.  I recognized some of the material in the article, but not all of it, which I find disconcerting that I forgot so much.

This article is (as the subtitle states) all about Werner Herzog, a filmmaker whose films I have never seen.  Herzog is notorious both for his films (he has made over 50) and for his behavior (some rumors of which are true, others are not).

Bissell wonders what historians would make of our civilization if they based their understanding on Herzog’s work.

He also goes through many of Herzog’s film, starting with Fata Morgana, Herzog’s first overt confounding of the feature film/documentary boundary.  It is neither narrative not strictly factual.  In truth, what Herzog does is make a hyperrealized truth.  For instance, in a film about a blind woman he created images and had her say they were images she remembered).  David Lynch is a fan of Herzog and you can see elements of Herzog in Lynch’s filams (so maybe the adjective Lynchian could be Herzogian.

What Bissell is saying (and Herzog confirms) is that Herzog is an artist, not a journalist.  He is also quite funny.  The story about the 32 pound rooster and the two foot horse is very very funny.

And while Herzog takes his films seriously he doesn’t really plan them.  He says he doesn’t anticipate what his next project will be and he also doesn’t spend a lot of time working on his films.  Woyzeck (1979) was shot in 18 days and edited in four.  He also took less than a month to make Grizzly Man (probably his best known recent film).

And yet for a film like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), a film about Spaniards searching for El Dorado and slowly going mad, Herzog’s crew and cast nearly went mad themselves.  Klaus Kinski, the lead actor has this to say in his autobiography: “I absolutely despise this murderous Herzog… Huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes, gobble up his balls, penetrate his asshole and eat his guts.”  Herzog himself says that he helped Kinski write that and many other anti-Herzog sections of that autobiography.

Bissell cites The White Diamond (2004) as one of Herzog’s best films (it is a documentary about Dr Graham Dorrington a researcher who wants to film Guyana from an experimental blimp.  Or The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974) which is about competitive ski jumpers and shows jump after jump after jump landing badly. Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) is about the escape of a pilot from a prison camp in 1966.  He has Dieter open and close his door three times before entering because “most people don’t realize how important it is to have the privilege that we have to be able to open and close the door.  That is the habit I got into and so be it.”  Which is moving and impressive and totally false.  Dieter doesn’t do that in real life.  But Dieter understood what Herzog was going for and believed in the truth of it even is it’s not strictly true.  Herzog calls it the ecstatic truth.

I don’t recall how I felt about Herzog after reading this the first time, but I am certainly thinking about watching a bunch of his films.

Some recommendations from the article:

  • Fata Morgana (1970)
  • Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)
  • Aguirre:  The Wrath of God (1972)
  • The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974)
  • The Enigma of Kasper Hauser (1974)
  • Strozek (1976)
  • Woyzeck (1979)
  • Fitzcarraldo (1982)
  • Lessons of Darkness (1992)
  • Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
  • Grizzly Man (2004)
  • The White Diamond (2004)
  • Wild Blue Yonder (2005)
  • Rescue Dawn (2006)—which Herzog was working at the time of the article and which had a fairly large budget (for Herzog) of $10 million.  He even has name stars in it (Christian Bale, for one).  Bissell makes it sound very interesting, and certainly fascinating to watch being filmed.

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jan2006 SOUNDTRACK: KURT WAGNER-Tiny Desk Concert #6 (October 8, 2008).

kurtI have never been a big fan of Lambchop.  It’s just not my kind of music—a little too slow for me.  But I really enjoyed Kurt Wagner in this Tiny Desk performance.  His guitar playing I really beautiful (I loved how he hit the high note on Bob Dylan’s  “You’re a Big Girl Now.”  He plays three Lambchop songs and two covers.

Wagner is from Nashville, and he has an air of Southern propriety about him–apologizing for taking up everyone’s time at work.  He sounds great doing the Dylan song, which I suppose is no real surprise.  The first Lambchop song is a pretty ballad called “Slipped Dissolved and Loosed.”

He is a charming and funny guy, joking about a few things (like working in an office) and then discussing about one of his songs, “National Talk Like a Pirate Day” (which is not as funny as the title might suggest).  Another song is titled “Sharing a Gibson with Martin Luther King Jr.” (and Wagner waves a fan of MLK Jr. (from a funeral home-(?)) to start the song.

The final song is a Don Williams song called “I Believe in You.”  I’ve never heard of him (and neither had anyone else in the studio).  It’s a really enjoyable, sweet song, and there’s a funny moment when sirens go past and he comments that at least they are in tune.  I still don’t think I’ll be listening to a lot of Lambchop, but I really liked this Tiny Desk show.

[READ: October 8, 2013] “Improvised, Explosive, & Divisive”

Two years after writing about his trip to Vietnam, Bissell returned to another war zone.  This time going to Iraq to get embedded (I suppose that’s the technical term for what he did) with some Marines at Camp Taqaddum in Iraq (17 miles from Baghdad).  This was during the Iraq war (and the Bush presidency), after Mission Accomplished, when the military was searching for a strategy for what to do in the situation.

This article shows interviews with Marines and makes assessments about our then current plans (such as they were) for how to extricate ourselves from a seemingly hopeless situation.  After Mission Accomplished the war went from a “war” to “stability and support operations against an insurgent element” or what is called MOOTW (military operations other than war).  And Bissell acknowledges that it barely seems like any resembling war in Iraq where the soldiers are headquartered.  They cannot drink alcohol, have sex or view pornography (they are trying to remain respectful of their host country), but at the same time they play softball and go to the gym, wear Co-Ed Naked Camel Watching T-shirts and have a Baskin-Robbins ice cream stand.  Not to mention DVD, video game consoles and Coke for sale in the PX.

Some of the article is technical—a side of the fighting that most readers probably don’t know. Like that the troops must be fully protected (and the vehicles as well) just to travel the relatively short distance between camps. (more…)

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feb2003SOUNDTRACK: LAURA GIBSON-Tiny Desk Concert #1 (April 22, 2008).

gibsonI have enjoyed many of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts over the years.  And while I was listening to an All Songs Considered show, it was mentioned that there have been over 200 shows (I believe it is now over 300).  And I realized that I had missed dozens of good ones.  So, being the kind of person I am, I decided to start watching/listening to them all.  I don’t typically watch most of them as they’re usually not very visually interesting–they’re fun to watch for a minute or so, but most of the artists are there to sing, not to do visual entertainment.  So usually I just listen while doing something else.

I toyed with the idea of writing about one a day until I was done.  But the logistics of that made my head hurt.  So instead, I will write about them all over the course of however long it takes.  (And since they don’t post one every day, I will catch up eventually).

Laura Gibson had the first ever Tiny Desk show, and there’s some notable things about the show itself.  First, look how empty Bob’s shelves are!   And the camera work is a little wonky, I think.  I also enjoy how they introduce this performance without a clue as to whether there would be more of them!

I had never heard of Laura Gibson before listening to this.  She plays simple but beautiful guitar (I enjoyed watching how confidently she played the chords and individual strings).  But the big selling point is her voice.  Her voice is very quiet (this was the impetus for the Tiny Desk concept–they saw her in a club and the crowd was too loud for them to enjoy her so they invited her up to their office).  But her voice is also slightly peculiar (in a very engaging way), which you can especially hear on “A Good Word, An Honest Man,” where she is practically a capella.

She sings four songs: “Hands in Pockets,” “A Good Word, An Honest Man,” “Come by Storm,” “Night Watch.”  The sing-along at the end of the last song is really pretty–shame the audience wasn’t mic’d.  All four songs are beautiful and slightly haunting–her delivery is so spare you kind of lean in to hear more.  She currently has three albums out, and I’d like to investigate her music further.

[READ: October 31, 2013] “A Comet’s Tale”

Despite the fact that this article talks about and more or less guarantees the end of the world by asteroid or comet it was incredibly enjoyable and staggeringly informative.

Bissell begins by talking about the Biblical Apocalypse and how in 1862 Premillennial Dispensationalism (premillennialism is the belief that Christ will return before setting up his millennial kingdom and dispensationalism divides up the Bible and human history into various eras or dispensations, based on how God deals with humanity) was smuggled into the Americas and it has never left.  Fully 59% of Americans now believe that Revelations will come to pass (although what that could possibly literally mean is another question).  [Incidentally the book is not called Revelations, it is Revelation or more specifically Revelation to John.  And all of that numerology (666) must mean something right?  Well, yes, it means that the Ancient world was obsessed with numerology. The bible makes great use of the trick of predicting the future by describing the past.

Bissell pulls back from the bible to look at planet Earth “the most ambitious mass murderer in the galaxy.”  He then lists all the atrocities that have happened from natural causes to all species in the history of the planet.  But even recent tragedies (which seem to only happen to people in far off countries says the westerner) are only by happenstance happening there.  Between overpopulation and global warming we are preparing for our own apocalypse.  Although we also mustn’t look too crazy like in The Late Great Planet Earth (which still sells around 10,00 copies a year).  In that book Hal Lindsey predicted the end of the world but also the rise of a single world religion, a Soviet Ethiopian invasion of Israel and the obliteration of Tokyo, London and New York.  But astonishingly, Lindsey also worked for the Reagan administration, much like Tim LeHaye (famed “author” of the Left Behind series) was co-chairman of Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential campaign.  Apocalyptos have way too much power in this country.

But even if we weren’t preparing for our own doom, there would still be space items to do it for us. Like 1950DA an asteroid that has near-missed the earth fifteen times and may just not miss us in the future. (more…)

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dec2000SOUNDTRACK: FLY ASHTRAY-“Also Muffins” (2013).

flyRecently I was thinking to myself that I don’t hear much music that is just weird anymore.  It could be that I am exposed to it a lot less than I used to be (when I was music director at my college station I received all kinds of crazy stuff) or maybe people just don’t do unconventional music as much.  This latter option seems very unlikely give the preponderance of cheap home recording equipment.  But bands that are not exactly novelty acts, but who are just totally out there (and amazingly used to get album releases).

And then my friend Paula forwarded me this absolutely weird song from Fly Ashtray.  Not only was I delighted to hear a weird song, I loved how good it was.

“Also Muffins” starts with big sloppy guitars and a piercing guitar riff which is simple but slightly off.  This goes for about 20 seconds before a staccato decrescendo brings the riff to a halt.  This fun chaos is repeated three times. It’s a crazy wonderful punk intro.

Then at a minute an a half the song turns almost folkie, with strummed acoustic guitars.  The band starts singing together (in no-part harmony) about how good their delicatessen is (they also sell muffins).  They all seem somewhat flat in their delivery, as a deliberate let down from the frenetic earlier section.  Then for part 3, an electric guitar comes back in with a kind of great alt 90s solo and a series of fast chords.  I love this section a lot.

The final section comes in and opens with another simple riff that is at once catchy even if the last note is flat.  It is fast and vaguely sinister (with a kind of siren sound in the background) and with some skittery guitars and an occasional bass element thrown in.  This last part lasts for over a minute and then the whole song fades out.

The video is low budget and fun and gives a kind of explanation to the music, although I have found that i enjoy it without the video as well.

And visit the band’s website.

[READ: November 1, 2013] “All is Vanity”

This is not an actual article by Bissell, it is one of those “annotation” items in Harper’s in which an advertisement or press release is critiqued.  in this one they analyze an Xlibris ad.

Bissell was an editor at Henry Holt (and may still be) when he wrote this.  And he is snarky from the start (as the Annotation always is), emphasizing the “Publishing Services Provider” and noting with numbers why Xlibris is a foolish vanity project.

“70 percent of the books the company has sold have been bought by their own authors.”

And how in general

“90 percent of the half-million [books] written each year remain unpublished.” (more…)

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april 2002SOUNDTRACK: PHISH-The Siket Disc (1999).

siketThis is an (almost) entirely instrumental disc.  It’s exactly the kind of thing that people think of when they imagine Phish—long jams with no structure.  But unlike some of their more frenetic jams, this is a kind of enjoyable chilling out disc.  The compositions are actually select excerpts from the long-form improvisations of the “Ghost Sessions.”

There are 9 songs and most of them are short.  Except for “Whats the Use” which is an 11 minute track with a very cool guitar riff (that reminds me again of Frank Zappa) and some cool accompanying keyboard sounds.

“Me Left Toe” is about 5 minutes and has a nice build up within  it.  And “The Name is Slick” is a bit more staccato and less smooth than the other songs and it holds up for 4 minutes.

Most of the other songs are short jams (with 4 tracks being about 2 minutes or less).  Although there are a couple of weird, nonsensey tracks like “Fish Bass” which is just a weird series of noises.  Or “Quadrophonic Toppling” which has some spoken words (just the title repeated) as does “Title Track” which has the repeated word “Siket”and laughing.  “Insects” is a little unsettling as well.

“The Happy Whip and Dung Song” is 5 minutes long and, despite some weird effect on the keyboards, feels like a full song.  “Albert” is a short, pretty, gentle ballad.  It’s a nice ending to this disc.  While this is by no means an essential Phish disc, it is an interesting insight into their recording process and is as I said, a good chill out album.

[READ: October 28, 2013] “Eternal Winter”

I had never heard of the Aral Sea before reading this article and I am surprised that I haven’t and I’m shocked by what has happened there.  Near the city of Karalpakistan (no connection to Pakistan), near Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, lies the Aral Sea. It was once the fourth largest body of water on Earth, larger than lake Michigan.  It is now shrunk by approximately 74%.

It was through the Soviet Union’s thirst for development and “progress” that canals were built which diverted water away from the Sea.  This effectively slowly dried out the lake (which the Soviet Union knew would happen).  The Soviet Union also dumped insecticides and toxic waste into it, rendering what is left of the sea bed largely poisonous. Anything that is not poisonous is heavily salinated making it worse than useless.  And to make it worse (if that is possible), the windstorms that frequently occur simply pick up the toxic dirt and dust and blow it all around the land.  Without the water, the temperature soars in the region–often reaching 120 degrees.

One of the reasons for the diversion of the water was cotton.  Cotton is a thirsty crop and it was discovered that Uzbekistan was well suited to the climate for the crop.  They just needed more water.  And so in the 1950s, the Amu Darya river was diverted away from the Aral Sea and into the Uzbekistan deserts.  And cotton flourished there.  Then in 1960, the Aral Sea began to shrink. (more…)

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ornerSOUNDTRACK: PHISH-Hoist (1994).

hoistI always think of Hoist as a kind of goofy album because of the way they are dressed on it (and the crazy cover).  But it is absolutely not.  Indeed, opener “Julius” sounds like a ZZ Top song.  In fact, every time they’ve played it live I assumed it was a cover.  It is less restrained in the live setting, because this version has more acoustic guitar.  There’s even backing vocalists and horns.  “Down with Disease” has that great watery bass, but the song (which sounds good) here is a little stiffer than the live version.  It also has something of an R&B feel (with backing vocals) even if the guitar is certainly not R&B at all.  It bleeds right into “If I Could” a pretty harmony-voiced mellow song.  The big surprise comes from the Alison Krauss vocals–she gets a solitary line or two and then harmonies.  The song is very pretty but the strings are overkill.

“Riker’s Mailbox” is indeed a reference to the Star Trek character, although the 30 second burst of noise is pretty hard to explain. Nevertheless, the trombone is played Mr Riker himself, Jonathan Frakes.  It jumps into the rocking “Axilla, Pt. 2” which is usually a little faster live (I like the sloppier crazier live version better). There’s some vulgar dialogue in the middle of the song.

“Lifeboy” is a mellow acoustic song that builds from just guitar.  Lyrically it’s interesting: “God never listens to what I say…and you don’t get a refund if you overpray.”  It folds into “Sample in a Jar,” which is just as good here as any live set.  “Wolfman’s Brother” ahs horns thrown on top and some interesting sound effects.  Although overall l don’t like this version nearly as much—I don’t care for the horns or the backing vocals plus in the live version they emphasize the bruh of brother more which is cooler.  (Although I do enjoy the weird “Shirley Temple” line at the end).  “Scent of  Mule” opens so strangely with crazy guitars and a thundering drum.  The singing is very silly (with silly voices) and has a very twangy style (complete with banjo and yeehah).

“Dog Faced Boy” is a sweet (but weird) acoustic guitar number.  “Demand” is a ten minute song which I don’t really know at all.  It has a strange, staccato style riff.  At 2 minutes in, a car starts and after a commercial on the radio the driver pops in “Split Open and Melt” (a nod to “Detroit Rock City,” perhaps?).  This goes on until 9:30 at which time there’s a car crash and choir of angels (sick!).

I don’t car for the horns and R&B flavoring of this album, but the song selection is really quite good.

[READ: September 24, 2013] Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

I read about this book in Tom Bissell’s reviews recently.  He really made it sound like an interesting book.  So when I saw that we had just received a copy, I grabbed it and brought it home for the weekend.

There are 52 short stories in the short book (which is less than 200 pages).  Some of the stories are very short (1 page) with a few coming in at 5 or 6.  The 1 page stories are like flash fiction but they seem to be more of snapshots than actual full stories and they seem like they might be diary entries or something. The fact that a number of them are italicized with dates at the end make them seem like a selection from the same person rather than individual stories.

The stories are set all over the world, although they tend to focus on Chicago and Boston.  They are pretty universally dark with themes of death and loss permeating the collection.  And yet despite their overall negative feeling, the stories aren’t really depressing, exactly.  Bissell described the narrators as like someone telling a story about someone telling a story.  And that is true and that distance seems to take some of the edge off the stories.

But what’s impressive is the consistently strong and powerful writing.  The way that Orner is able to convey so much with such few words.  Some stories are just a scene, others are a whole lifetime.  But either way they are all really gripping.

I wasn’t going to write about each story, but it would have nagged at me if I didn’t, so here’s a few words about 52 stories. (more…)

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