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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE-“Killing the Name” (1991).

I was living in Boston when this song came out.  It was an electrifying shot across the bow of institutional racism–thirty years before that terms was on everyone’s lips.

This song was amazingly catchy and very vulgar.

It had few lyrics, but they were repeated over and over–a chant, a call to action.

Some of those that work forces
Are the same that burn crosses…
Well now you do what they told ya…
Those who died are justified
For wearing the badge
They’re the chosen whites
You justify those that died
By wearing the badge
They’re the chosen whites…

The song begins with a staccato opening, then some thumping bass and drums.  A cow bell and off goes the riff.  It’s as jagged and aggressive as angry as the lyrics.

The bridge is a pounding three note blast as the sections repeat.

Then comes a guitar solo.  One thing I remember distinctly when this album came out was that most of the talk was of Tom Morello’s guitar playing.  The album stated in the liner notes “no samples, keyboards or synthesizers used in the making of this record.”  It was an odd disclaimer, but with the bizarre sounds that Morello made, it was fascinating to wonder how he did it all.

The solo came at the four minute mark and, if radio wanted to play the song, they could fade it right there (that’s still plenty long for the radio).  But if they didn’t, then the chaos began, with crashing drums, and a slow build as Zach de la Rocha started quietly and got louder the simple but effective refrain

Fuck you. I won’t do what you tell me.

A band anda  room full of people chanting that song might just frighten the authorities a bit.

And that’s why in 2020, that song is being played a lot.

[READ: October 15, 2020] “On Defense”

A quote attributed to Dostoyevsky (who evidently never said it) is”

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.

This quote is in the visitor center of the Manhattan Detention Complex (known as The Tombs). De La Pava says The Tombs is “one of the most hideous places on earth.”

I have really enjoyed Sergio De La Pava’s fiction.  I knew that he was involved in the New York City court system (his novels were too detailed about the system for him not to be).  This essay is a non-fiction account of his time as a public defender (he is still in the system, and is now the legal director of New York County Defender Services).

It seems like the public defender is not always appreciated–he or she stands in the way of putting criminals behind bars.  But De La Pava’s experience (along with many of the accused) shows that he has the really hard but important task of keeping innocent people from unfair punishment. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: Æ MAK-“We Have It Right Here” (2020).

Æ MAK is Aoife McCann.  She creates a fascinating tapestry of music.  It feels classical and operatic and yet also feels very electronic and oddly poppy.

This song begins with muted xylophones -sounding electronic tones playing a pretty melody (which reminds me of Björk).

McCann’s voice comes in and lilts and flutters almost bird-like. She sings in English but with interesting emphases on words.

Her vocal delivery and melodies conjure Regina Spektor.

About halfway through the, until now entirely electronic song, adds some soft acoustic guitar and gentle bells.

The second chorus is almost all voice with simple percussion and a kind of Kate Bush vocal trill.

The electronics come back in and suddenly start getting fuller and louder–filling up your headspace with sounds as her voice echoes itself and adds other lines before building to a remarkably catchy ending.

There’s so much going on in this song even though it often feels very minimal.

And wait until you see her on stage.

[READ: September 21, 2020] On Contemporary Art

I have enjoyed Aira’s novels and was intrigued by this short essay about Contemporary Art.

The entire book is 60 pages and it includes and Foreword and an Afterword.  That jibes with the premise of the imprint itself.  Ekphrasis Press reprints works about visual art that are not meant to be academic in nature–but compelling as prose.

In the Foreword Will Chancellor, talks about how language can throw you off.  He recalls bring a child and seeing the Objects in the Mirror are Closer Than They Appear warning.  He wondered how objects and their appearances could diverge.  He continues that Aira suggests this gap between appearance and reality might be the origin of cotemporary art.

~~~

The main body of the book is Aira’s essay, translated by Katherine Silver.

He starts by saying he is a writer who looks for inspiration in painting.  He says that cave painters painted facts, but it took a person relating the adventure, the storyteller, to make the episode come alive.

As a lover of art, he subscribes to many art magazines, namechecking Artforum, Art in America, Flash Art, Frieze, art press and more.  He says the magazines look better every year but that their ability to convey art gets worse every year–they cannot properly convey what an art piece looks like.  You have to read the texts to see what is happening.

His essay concerns the Enemy of Contemporary Art who says that today’s

frauds who pretend to be artists depend on a justifying discourse to validate the nonsense they produce.

They say that contemporary art doesn’t speak for itself–that it needs critics to explain it. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: D12-“Bizarre” (2001).

Hornby said that this track, a skit on the D12 album, was “I think the single most dispiriting moment of my professional life so far this millennium.”  Which meant I had to see what was so horrible.

I didn’t want to listen to the whole D12 album because I basically agree with his sentiments, I just think he;s way over the top into curmudgeonland.

So this skit starts with guys talking about hos and general sex ideas.  Then a guy introduces Bizarre (one of the D12) to Cindy.  She asks about Eminem (which is pretty funny) and he says he doesn’t know who that is.  He starts hitting on her and then farts very loudly.  When she protests, “the fuck you didn’t” he says, “Girl chill out, that shit came from my soul.” Which also made me chuckle.

Then he farts loudly again and asks for a kiss.  And that’s pretty much it.

It’s juvenile and light-hearted (which is probably necessary given how dark and misogynistic the rest of the album seems).  But I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hear it more than once if you were actually listening to the album.

Nevertheless, you have to be a real curmudgeon to not enjoy humor in music.  And, given his reaction to Blink 182, I’m guessing Hornby likes his bands to be Sophisticated, only.

[READ: September 10, 2020] “Pop Quiz”

I have enjoyed recent essays by Hornby in which he jokes about being a curmudgeon.  But boy was he ever a real musical curmudgeon in 2001.

He says that back in July 1971, the top ten list included Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones, Whats Going On by Marvin Gaye, a live album by CSN&Y and Aretha Franklin Live at the Fillmore East.  He says even the most curmudgeonly critics probably gushed over this list.  [Let’s gloss over the fact that there were a lot fewer albums released back in 1971 and that record sales were pretty well determined by radio airplay etc–so you had a pretty set idea of what would be popular].

But now there are many different top ten lists, probably because most critics don’t like what’s on the actual top ten list.  Many of those critics from 1971 are still critics today.

He says there is literary, critically approved pop–Wilco, Lucinda Williams, Nick Cave–none of whom trouble the Billboard statisticians much.

But he was unfamiliar with most of the people on the top ten on July 28, 2001.  So he decided to listen to them all (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHRIS FORSYTH WITH GARCIA PEOPLES-Peoples Motel Band (2020).

This is a fantastic document of a band an an artist who are totally in sync with each other, making forty minutes of amazing jamming music.  I saw this combination of artists in New York City on New Year’s Eve and the set was spectacular.

I absolutely could have (should have) gone to this show.  It was recorded on September 14, 2019 at Johnny Brenda’s in Philly, a place I have been to many times.  I can’t recall why I didn’t go to this one.  But this document (while obviously shorter than the real set) is a great recording of the night.

Recorded September 14, 2019 before a packed and enthusiastic hometown crowd at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, Peoples Motel Band catches Chris Forsyth with Garcia Peoples (plus ubiquitous drummer Ryan Jewell) re-imagining songs from Forsyth’s last couple studio albums with improvisatory flair.

As is often the case with Forsyth shows, the gloves come off quickly and the players attack the material – much of it so well-manicured and cleanly produced in the studio – like a bunch of racoons let loose in a Philadelphia pretzel factory.

Recorded and mixed with clarity by Forsyth’s longtime studio collaborator, engineer/producer Jeff Zeigler, the record puts the listener right in the sweaty club, highlighted by an incredible side-long take of the chooglin’ title track from 2017’s Dreaming in The Non-Dream LP (note multiple climaxes eliciting wild shouts and ecstatic screams from the assembled).

The disc opens with “The Past Ain’t Passed” a kind of noodling warm-up with three guitarists all taking various solo pieces and it segues into the catchy riff of “Tomorrow Might as Well Be Today.”  It’s a bright instrumental with a series of jamming solos all around a terrific riff.

Up next is “Mystic Mountain,” the only track with vocals.  It has a classic rock vibe and Forsyth’s detached voice.  The highlights of this nine-minute song are the riff and the soling.

The best part of the disc is the 20 minute epic “Dreaming in the Non-Dream.”  The studio version of this song is terrific with Forsyth playing some stellar riffs as both lead and rhythm lines.  But here with three lead guitarists Forsyth, Tom Malach and Danny Arakaki) the experimentation is phenomenal.  But it’s Forsyth’s wailing solo at 18 minutes, when he is squeezing every noise he can out of his guitar, that is the peak of the song and the set.

Also playing: Peter Kerlin: bass guitar; Pat Gubler: organ/synthesizer and two drummers: Cesar Arakaki and Ryan Jewell.

This is a great release and I’m pretty happy to have gotten the vinyl of it..

[READ: September 1, 2020] “Serenade”

I started reading this and thought it was a short story (the title where it says “Personal History” was blocked).  It seemed to be oddly written.  Then when I got to the paragraph where he talks about writing Love in the Time of Cholera, I realized it was non-fiction.

He says that Love is based around his parents’ own love story.  He had heard it so many times from both his mother and his father and he seemed to remember it in different ways, so that by the time he wrote the book he no longer knew what was the actual truth.

And what a fascinating and tangled story of love they shared. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FLATBUSH ZOMBIES-Tiny Desk Concert #64 (August 13, 2020).

download (93)I’ve never heard of the Flatbush Zombies, but I really like their chill rap style.  Musically the songs are groovy and complex and the live backing vocalists (l-r: Danielle Withers; Nayanna Holley; Stevvi Alexander) really flesh out the sound.

Plus, there’s three lead rappers who have very different vocal styles and combine wonderfully.

Most of the music comes from keyboardist Brittani Washington and bassist Robin Bramlett.  But its the live drums (Drin Elliott) that really punch these songs (the cymbals sound really sharp and clean).

You’ve never really experienced Flatbush Zombies if you haven’t been to one of their live shows. The hip-hop group’s knack for tearing down festival stages is well documented and the energy transfer between members Zombie Juice, Meechy Darko and Erick Arc Elliott and their crowds is ferocious to put it lightly. So when I heard that they were recording a Tiny Desk concert from home, I was curious as to if and how that energy would manifest in a confined space.

It’s fun watching the band perform in this socially distanced house–everyone is far apart but clearly jamming off of each other, and the camera(s) are all over the room.

The Zombies present themselves like we’ve never seen or heard. Stripped down versions of “when i’m gone,” fan favorite, “Palm Trees” and the brand new James Blake-produced “Afterlife” are almost completely different from the recorded versions.

This may be yet another instance where a Tiny Desk Concert brings out the best of a rap band.  I don’t know what their recorded versions sound like, but the live band is great.  If this is really the first time they’ve played together, it’s a testament to how good they can all play together.

“when i’m gone” song starts out with Zombie Juice rapping.  He’s got a soft but intense delivery that I really like.  The backing vocals are really lovely.  Erick Ark Elliott takes the second verse.   His delivery is also quiet.  But it’s the addition of Meechy Darko’s gravelly, intense rapping that sets the song apart.  There’s also a nice instrumental breakdown at the end.

Between songs, the guys introduce themselves.  Erik says he is Erik The Architect and Meechy says his government name is Dimitri Simms (which makes everyone laugh).

Introducing “Palm Trees” Erik says this is the first time you’ll hear this song in this way.  Meechy sings the first part with his deep gravelly Jamaican vocals.   For the second half, Zombie Juice raps in a kind of comical falsetto that I really like.

Meechy is a hilarious hype man, making all kind of hype sounds [Blap blap. gaboom, r-r-r-rah, bakka, bakka] as they introduce the band members.

The guys stand up for “Afterlife.”  Erik takes the lead and the other two guys back him up nicely.  There’s fantastic backing vocals on this song and it’s pretty clear that these guys are terrific live.

I really enjoyed this set and am looking forward to hearing more from these Zombies.

[READ: August 15, 2020] “All My Pronouns”

This essay kind of updates the prescriptivist/grammar article that David Foster Wallace wrote in Harper’s almost 20 years ago.

Anne Fadiman addresses the increased usage of they/their as both a singular pronoun and for nonbinary persons.

She explains that she is a classic prescriptivist when it comes to language and to life.  She sorted her M&Ms by color before eating them.  (Apparently 18% of respondents to a survey responded that they did this while 82% said “no, that’s weird”).  I think that’s weird, but I do go along with her on some other “splitter” attitudes.

She separates splitters vs. lumpers.  Splitters makes distinctions rather than finding commonalities.  Splitters don’t say you’ve seen a bird, or even a hawk, say a red-shouldered hawk.  Splitters enjoy organization; splitters enjoy grammar.

Splitters tend to be presciptivitsts–this is how people should talk.  While lumpers tend to be descriptivists this is how people actually talk.

Prescriptivists are called (usually by descriptivists) elitists, killjoys, curmudgeons, cranks, fussbudgets, old farts, usage nerds and grammar fascists.  Descriptivists are called (usually by prescriptivists) corrupters, miscreants, barbarians and vulgarians.

But now prescriptivists have to address the issue of the pronoun “they.” (more…)

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download (71)SOUNDTRACK: THAO NGUYEN-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #56 (July 28, 2020).

download (70)I have enjoyed a lot of music from Thao Nguyen and her band Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.  She plays an idiosyncratic type of indie rock that’s catchy but also quirky.  Although I haven’t heard much from her lately.

She plays three songs here and she talks a lot between songs.  What she has to says is both powerful and meaningful.

For her Tiny Desk (home) concert, Thao Nguyen opens with a somber version of “Temple,” the dance-oriented title track from Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s new album. The song is an homage to her parents, who were refugees of the Vietnam War. Thao sings from the perspective of her mother, honoring their hard-fought freedom and their hopes that their daughter is blessed with the ability to pursue her own happiness. She recorded it as a trio with cellists (and neighbors) Elisabeth Reed and Andy Luchansky. It’s a powerful rendition that celebrates, in Thao’s words, “being queer and being out in my career, something that being out publicly has caused a lot of turmoil and unrest in my own life.”

I hadn’t heard the original of “Temple” before this, but after, I had to give it a listen.  The recorded version is faster and a lot more dancey.  This spare version is quite striking and really brings the lyrics to the fore.  Thao plays the guitar and the addition of Reed and  Luchansky makes the song far more somber.  She said they created this version just for Tiny Desk “because you deserve nice things.”

She says she’s been reading about addressing anti-black racism in Asian and Vietnamese culture.  She has become more educated about what has allowed Southeast Asian refugees to settle in America. Black civil rights leaders, the Black Power movement for directly and informed change in immigration law and made it less racist.

We also hear “Pure Cinema” from Temple which has another interesting twisting riff that she plays quietly as she sings.  She also plays a slightly atonal guitar solo which is really interesting, too.

She ends with a mandolin version of “Departure” from her 2016 album, A Man Alive.  Once again there’s a cool riff and she does some really cool slides up the fretboard as she plays.  I’ve not heard mandolin playing like this before.  I’d love for her and Chris Thile to do a mandolin show together.

[READ: July 31, 2020] “Heirlooms”

This story felt a lot like an excerpt.  I often wonder if pieces in the New Yorker are excerpts–usually when a story doesn’t feel like it ends properly.  This one actually ended pretty satisfyingly, but it just felt like there could be a lot more.

So this is an excerpt from Washington’s forthcoming novel Memorial.

I had read a story from Washington back in January that I really liked.  I’m not sure if that story is also from the novel, but it features a main character who is similar to the one in this excerpt.

The narrator is a man named Ben.  His boyfriend Mike has just left for Japan to be with his dying father.  Although the same day that Mike left, Mike’s mother Mitsuko came to visit.  This is not, apparently, a coincidence.

So this excerpt shows Ben trying to cohabitate with his boyfriend’s mother whom he has never met before.

Ben is angry at Mike.  Both because he has left his mother here, but also because Mike’s father left him for Japan when Mike was a teenager.  Mike hadn’t heard from him in over a decade, but he rushed off to him. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACKTHE FLAMING LIPS-“My Religion is You” (2020).

download (75)This is another new single from The Flaming Lips’ new, more mellow album American Head.

This song starts as a piano ballad about various religions.

It’s not the most profound song but it’s chill

Yeah, Buddha’s cool
And you’re no fool
To believe anything
You need to believe in
If Hare Krishna
Maybe it’s the
Thing for you
Hey, that’s cool

The chorus kicks in with big fat synth notes that almost feel sinister, but really aren’t.  Wayne explains that he doesn’t need religions, because his religion “is you.”

I don’t need no religion
You’re all I need
You’re the thing I believe in
Nothing else is true
My religion is you

There’s a pretty guitar solo and the end of the song is an interesting mix of scattered drums and quite synth noises.  It’s not their best song for sure, but it grows on you.

[READ: June 2020] That’s Not How You Wash a Squirrel

David Thorne is an Australian smart ass.  This is his fifth collection of previously unreleased emails and essays.

The foreword of this book is written by Holly Thorne, David’s wife.  And it is hilarious.  The Foreforeword is him arguing with her about whether she will write the Foreword–but only if she doesn’t say something mean about him.

So she writes things like

Davis does have a stressful job but let’s be honest, he’s not clearing landmines.  Even on my worst days I’m not half the diva David is.

After writing some more hilarious paragraphs, you see in a different font:

David is very brave, I once saw him flick a snake off the patio furniture with a stick.

In the Postforeword, he complains about her foreword.  That he comes off like a fuckwit and that there is no mention of the snake.  (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LUCINDA WILLIAMS-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #55 (July 27, 2020).

I don’t really like Lucinda Williams.  Her voice really bugs me. I don’t know if she always sang like this but this sort of drunken drawl just hurts my head.

I know that she’s a legend and everyone loves her, but I have a hard time getting through her songs.  And that’s a shame because her lyrics are great.  Well, maybe not her lyrics, but her sentiments.

Because the lyrics to “Bad News Blues” are not great.  It’s a pretty standard blues song in which she lists all of the bad news that she has around her.

Bad news on my left
Bad news on my right
Bad news in the morning
Bad news at night

The only thing interesting about this song really is the bluesy lead guitar work from Stuart Mathis.  Otherwise, it’s a blues song.

“Big Black Train” is a slower bluesy song about not wanting to get on board the train that’s barreling towards us.  Wow, her singing the chorus really hurts my ears.

“You Can’t Rule Me” is on the radio a lot and I’ve been turning it off when it comes on.  It’s obviously a song of empowerment but I can’t stand the drawl of her voice.  Although once again Stuart’s lead is pretty tasty.  In fact the guitar work from both of them is great throughout.

The set ends with “Man Without A Soul” and this is the song that made me think more highly of her.  Musically the song isn’t much.  In fact, it sounds pretty close to “Bog Black Train” in the chorus.  But its’ the words that are impactful.

It’s pretty clear who this song is about:

You’re a man without truth
A man of greed, a man of hate
A man of envy and doubt
You’re a man without a soul
All the money in the world
Will never fill that hole
You’re a man bought and sold
You’re a man without a soul
You bring nothing good to this world
Beyond a web of cheating and stealing
You hide behind your wall of lies
But it’s coming down
Yeah, it’s coming down
You’re a man without shame
Without dignity and grace
No way to save face
You’re a man without a soul

She says she wrote this to shake people up and wake people up.  I don’t know if it will do either, but I hope some people’s minds are changed by it.

[READ: July 31, 2020] “The Lottery”

This issue of the New Yorker is an Archival Issue.  It’s weird to me that at a time of unprecedented everything, the magazine would choose to have virtually no new content.

Except that the articles in it are strangely timely.

Calvin Trillin (he was writing in 1964?) was on a flight that Martin Luther King, Jr. was on and he overheard a white preppy-looking post-college boy who disagreed with King (believing that King was advocating violence and was therefore unChristian).  It was a remarkably peaceful conversation even if the boy never saw King’s point of view.

The second article is about Black Lives Matter with the subtitle “A new kind of movement found its moment.” What will its future be?”  But this article was written in 2016 and it ends “Black Lives Matter may never have more influence than it has now.”  How wrong that was?

And then there is the Shirley Jackson story, originally written in 1948.

I read this story in sixth or seventh grade and it has stuck with me all of these years.  I remember being rather blown away by it in school, thinking it was one thing and then realizing it was something else entirely.

I have not read it since. I felt that I didn’t really have to read it because it stuck with me so much.  But I’m glad I did re-read it, because although some details were still there, I had forgotten some pretty intense stuff.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LOS BITCHOS-“The Link is About to Die/Turkish Delight” (2020)

linkdieThis is Los Bitchos’ most recent single.  The cover has the same style as their previous one which makes it seem like an album is in the works.  Although it has been nine months between releases.

“The Link is About to Die” really fleshes out the band’s sound.  It opens with some funky percussion–bongos and cowbells–before the groovy bassline introduces the guitar melody.  There’s discoey synths on this track too.  There’s even a surf-sounding echoing guitar slide straight out of the beach.  This song even features a percussion solo. It’s still clearly Los Bitchos, but the new elements are a fun treat.

“Turkish Delight” is slower with a more reggae feel in the bass.  The funky percussion is still there, perhaps even more pronounced. About two minutes in a new guitar sound in introduced which changes the feel of the song and makes it that much more interesting.I’m really looking forward to them putting out a whole album. 

[READ: July 14, 2020] “Big Skies, Empty Places”

This issue of the New Yorker has a series of essays called Influences.  Since I have read most of these authors and since I like to hear the story behind the story, I figured I’d read these pieces as well.

These later pieces are all about one page long.

Annie Proulx says that her biggest influence is the landscape of the hinterlands.  She writes about rough weather, rural people living in isolation and with the decisions of the powers in distant urban areas.

She does not do this for nostalgia, but rather she likes imagining histories. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LOS BITCHOS-“Pista (Great Start)/Frozen Margarita” (2019).

pistaThis was Los Bitchos’ second release of 2019.  This one had a decidedly different look on the cover.

This single has two songs.  The first, “Pista (Great Start)” opens with whooping–a party is in full swing.  Musically, this is a great mix of cumbia and reggae with a smattering of Taureg in the guitar sound.

The song feels like they are partying in the desert no doubt drinking the title of the next song.

Although “Frozen Margarita” comes in at a quieter pace.  There’s a grooving bassline and a slinky lead guitar line.  It’s a very pretty piece.

[READ: July 14, 2020] “Johnny Tremain”

This issue of the New Yorker has a series of essays called Influences.  Since I have read most of these authors and since I like to hear the story behind the story, I figured I’d read these pieces as well.

These later pieces are all about one page long.

This essay later appeared in Saunders’ book The Braindead Megaphone under the name “Thank You, Esther Forbes.”

Saunders talks about his school days in Catholic school when Sister Lynette was a nun that he fell in love with.  He imagined her leaving the church for him (he was in third grade, but whatever). (more…)

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