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Archive for the ‘Explorers’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: JLCO SEPTET WITH WYNTON MARSALIS-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #163 (February 2, 2021).

I was looking for some era-appropriate music for this post, then I saw this Tiny desk from Wynton Marsalis which hearkens back to big band but is very contemporary (just like this story).

Marsalis has been writing music about democracy and the call for justice for decades. “I hope that the social and political corruption and turmoil of these times cast a light on the individual investment required to maintain a libertarian democracy,” he wrote on his blog in January. “May the events of these times inspire us all to engage even more deeply in the rights and responsibilities we have as citizens.”  Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet recorded their Tiny Desk (home) concert at Dizzy’s Club, or what they call “the house of swing.”

The first of the three pieces is called “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matters),” a six and a half minute instrumental that  features tasty solos from just about everyone.

“Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matters),” [is] a bold statement about humanity and the consequences of racism. Marsalis says this piece — as well as the rest of the music on his new album, The Democracy! Suite — deals with the timeless human issues we see exacerbated during the times of the pandemic, like social challenges and matters of the heart.

It’s got a big swinging intro and then things settle down for individual moments.  First Walter Blanding plays a grooving tenor saxophone solo.  Wynton takes a bright trumpet solo.  Carlos Henriquez gets a little upright bass solo action and has a little back and forth with Obed Calvaire on drums.  I often wonder if these solos are written out, or if they follow a general guideline or if they are all improvised.

After a return to the main melody, Ted Nash gets a very different sounding alto saxophone solo after which Elliot Mason plays a ripping trombone solo.  Dan Nimmer plays a slightly dissonant piano solo before the band returns to the main theme and brings it all home.

The next two pieces of the suite run uninterrupted into each other.

“Deeper than Dreams” is a reverential piece Marsalis wrote for those who have lost loved ones during the pandemic. Marsalis … lost his father, the legendary pianist and jazz patriarch, Ellis Marsalis, to complications from COVID-19 last spring, and [he] speaks affectionately of “the times when our old folks come and sit with us in the spirit realm when we are sleeping.”

This piece starts slow and swoony. This time the solos are more duos.  With Marsalis and Nash playing together, then Blanding and Mason going back and forth and finally a piano and bass moment for Nimmer and Henriquez.

To close, “That Dance We Do (That You Love Too)” is playful and funky and inspires a hopeful message, one that Marsalis says is “for everybody who got out and got down during this time on behalf of freedom.”

This final piece opens up with a funky introduction.  Nimmer mutes the piano strings as he plays a sound that sounds like a guitar.  The bass brings in a funky rhythm and then the horns all go to town.  The biggest surprise comes when Blanding brings out a tiny saxophone that looks almost like a toy and yet he plays a wicked and wild solo on it.

Then Marsalis plays a muted raw trumpet solo–he gets some wild and crazy sounds.

Obed Calvaire never gets a drum solo per se, but his work throughout the songs is always interesting and complex with all kind of nice percussion and rhythm.

This was a really fun set.

[READ: March 15, 2021] Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem

I saw this book at work and thought it might be a reprinted Blaxploitation novel.  But in fact, this is an entirely new book.

I also didn’t realize that Matthew Henson was a real person.  I’m embarrassed not to know that but I see that it was almost by design that I didn’t know who he was.

Henson was an American explorer who was one of the first people to reach the geographic North Pole.  He was essentially partners with Robert Peary on several voyages to the Arctic over a period of 23 years.  [I’d never heard of Peary either, so I didn’t feel too bad about not having heard of Henson].  But unsparingly, upon the success of reaching the North Pole, it was Peary who received the accolades and Henson was dismissed as his helper or even his servant.  Henson received nothing for his work and wound up languishing until many years later when his work was finally recognized:

In 1937 he became the first African American to be made a life member of The Explorers Club; in 1948 he was elevated to the club’s highest level of membership. In 1944 Henson was awarded the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, and he was received at the White House by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. [He died in 1955].  In 1988 he and his wife were re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. In 2000 Henson was posthumously awarded the Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society.

So that’s the background.

In this story, Henson has come back from his expedition and has been making a name for himself as a kind of hero for hire.  It’s a wonderful conceit and a great way to get attention for a man who deserves more name recognition.  Also very cool is that the book includes Bessie Coleman, (the first African American and Native American woman to earn a pilot’s license–although she had to go to France to earn it since America wouldn’t give her one). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHIKA-Tiny Desk Concert #959 (March 13, 2020).

I’ve never heard of Chika, but she proves to be really fun and funny (while rapping some serious topics).

Her band is jazzy and stripped back:

Chika was also the first hip-hop act to anchor her set with just a Peruvian cajón instead of a full, hard-hitting kit. The surprisingly stripped-down performance allowed her lyrics, with all their nuance, to take center stage — and the result was remarkable.

In addition to the band, were her terrific backing vocalists

The impressive harmonies from Chika’s four backup singers brought all the feels right out of the gate.

She starts with “Industry Games.”  Lovely ooohs from the backing vocalists then David Levitan plays an echoing guitar (“both catchy and eerily haunting” that I found reminiscent of the Close Encounters melody).  Up comes that cajon with gentle thumps from Dominic Missana.  Then she starts rapping.

Moving seamlessly between rap verse and melodic hooks, Chika showcased her unusual tonality, multi-cadence delivery and vocal range, with an effortless, double-time lyrical bounce.

She has a fantastic fast flow (smiling as she goes).  It’s interesting hearing the gentle backing vocals that repeat her (sometime harsh) final lines.

She even starts giggling in the middle.  She explains later “I say ‘tightest around’ and they sing ‘hottest around’ and it is hysterical to me.”

Before the next song she says, “Everyone brings nice things to the Tiny Desk, like lights…  I didn’t bring anything, or so you thought.  I brought this Chapstick and I’m gonna place that right here.  Fuck anyone who underestimated me.”

She says that “Songs About You.”  No shade to anyone.  It’s not about y’all. its about you.  The song features more nice backing vocals and then a grooving bass line from Chris McClenny.

Before the third song she sends a shout out to her sister who is there.  “Shout out to our parents… genetics!”  She asks, “What kind of shows are you wearing?”  “Puma…”  “You should have been wearing ‘Balencies,’ which is the name of the next song. She pauses and waits for the laughter.  Then says, “I’m funny.  We’re not gonna argue about that.  You all didn’t want to laugh… something about that felt racist.”

The backing vocals are wild and weird as it starts, Danielle Withers sounds like a perfect loop of an eccentric vocal line.  It’s pretty magnificent–I really hope she goes somewhere with a distinctive voice like that (I see that she has sung with some pretty big names already).

The other singers are (l-r) Jabri Rayford; Darius Dixson and Rachel Robinson (she’s standing on a box).

“Crown” has some great lyrics

I got a habit of rapping ’bout tragic sh-
I think I’m just passionate
Tryna steer the way while in the dark
Hope I ain’t crashin’ it (Woah)
Now my little hobby turned to cashin’ out
Thinking ’bout who I’d be if I listened to doubt
Said I’d never do it, well look at me now

Okay
This is for the kids with depression
The one’s whose parental expectations got them stressin’ (Woah)
The one’s who would rather persevere, bust they ass, tryna make it ’cause-
They ain’t really livin’ in the present

The set ends, oddly enough with “Intro” which is a very quiet song.  Gentle guitars and  a quiet rap.

This was a really satisfying set.  her songs were short and to the point.  The lyrics were powerful and affecting and the music was a nice accompaniment.

[READ: April 2, 2020] Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier

Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks worked together on the awesome book Primates.  Now they are back sending some primates into space.

I just love Wicks’ artwork.  She manages to do such amazing things with such simple-seeming drawings.  Her eyes are (mostly) dots, the faces are almost all simple shapes and yet everything she draws is so expressive and conveys exactly what she wants.  It is a pleasure to look at anything she draws.

Ottaviani did a lot of research for this book (obviously) and the end is chock full of resources that you can look at to learn more.

As for the book itself, it is “told” by astronaut Mary Cleave.  It starts with young Mary being told (by the President) that she was too young for the Astronaut Corp.  The letter (from President Eisenhower) did not go on to say that no women were accepted into the Corp, she had to find that out herself.

She was already a practicing pilot at age 14, but that wasn’t good enough.  She then jumps over to another girl her own age over in the Soviet Union.  Valentina Tereshkova was jumping out of planes and training to be a pilot, because the Soviet Union did not have a sexist component in their system.

But in 1959, even though women like Jerrie Cobb were certainly (physically) capable of becoming astronauts, women simply weren’t chosen.  Jerrie Cobb and Janey Hart testified before Congress where sexism (and simple, painful examples are provided) ruled the day.  They were even shut down by Jacqueline Cochran, a director at an airline, who said women should not even be pilots because they get married and leave after two years. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JOYCE DiDONATO-Tiny Desk Concert #933 (January 15, 2020).

I was sure that Joyce DiDonato had performed a Tiny Desk Concert before, but I actually knew her from a gorgeous NPR Field Recording from 2015.

the last time we filmed the down-to-earth diva, she insisted on singing an opera aria at the Stonewall Inn, the iconic gay tavern in Greenwich Village.

DiDonato is an opera singer and her voice is amazing–she can soar and growl and everything in between.  But this Tiny Desk is not what you’d expect.  For although DiDonato sings in her beautiful operatic voice, the music the band is playing is anything but.

When opera star Joyce DiDonato told us she wanted to sing centuries-old Italian love songs at the Tiny Desk we weren’t surprised. But when she said she was bringing a jazz band to back her up, we did a double take. But that’s Joyce, always taking risks.  On paper, the idea of jazzing up old classical songs seems iffy. At the least it could come across as mannered and at worst, an anachronistic muddle. But DiDonato somehow makes it all sound indispensable, with her blend of rigor, wit and a sense of spontaneity.

The first song is by Alessandro Parisotti.  “Se tu m’ami” sets the stage for what this show is going to be like.  Gorgeous jazz with DiDonato’s impressive voice.

The musical formula for these unorthodox arrangements makes room for typical jazz solos while DiDonato molds her phrases to the flexible rhythms and inserts old-school trills and flamboyant roulades.

A cool trumpet solo from Charlie Porter takes a cool trumpet solo while DiDonato admires his skill.

After three minutes they segue seamlessly into Salvator Rosa’s “Star vicino.”  This one features a piano solo from Craig Terry which he begins with a line from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  The song also features a muted trumpet solo with a few drum breaks for Jason Haaheim

My favorite moment in the set comes just before 6 minutes where she sings a beautiful lilting melody and then hits a growly note that I was sure was the trumpet until Porter played the same note on his muted trumpet.  It was very cool and kind funny.  Especially when she says

there’s no soprano in the world who could get away with that

Less than a minute later she runs through her enormous vocal range from low to very high to soaring.  It’s amazing.

She says that in the classical world, the standard is perfection–rarely achieved.  Young singers try so hard to get it perfect that they lose the “grease” as the jazz players say.  So this project was designed to put the swing back in these old love songs.

The third song she says is by anonymous, but it is credited to Giuseppe Torelli. “Tu lo sai” is a love song that says, “you have no idea how much I love you.  No matter how much you scorn me, I still love you,”  She says they giving this the Chet Baker treatment.  I’m not exactly sure what that means, but there is some wonderful trumpet work in this song.

It has a slow opening with piano and voice.  The other instruments slowly come in and there is a wonderful moment during Porter’s trumpet solo where she picks up the note from him and runs with it.

Bassist Chuck Israels (who has played with everyone from Billie Holiday to the Kronos Quartet) never solos but he keeps the whole enterprise running perfectly.

For the final song Francesco Conti’s “Quella fiamma” they bring out Antoine Plante on the bandoneon.  She says, “Yea we’re going to South America in a minute.”

Porter uses a different kind of mute which creates a unique sound.  Then the bandoneon comes in and the South American flair is complete.  There’s an incredible moment at the end of the song where Joyce just trills away–showcasing so much of what she can do.

As the blurb says, despite how great the band is

the star of the show is the continually amazing DiDonato, whose voice is certainly one of the great wonders of her generation. The flexibility of the instrument, the colors she conjures and her fine-tuned dynamic range are a few of the reasons she’s still at the peak of her powers. She looks and sounds like she’s having the time of her life.

I see that she sings in Princeton pretty often.  Next time she;s in town I will make sure to check her out.

[READ: December 20, 2019] The Raven’s Children

This story was fascinating in the way it started as a very real story, suddenly added magical realism and then turned into an utterly fantastical story.  And yet it all works perfectly well as an allegory of the oppressive regime under Stalin.

Not bad for a book with talking animals.

This book was translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and she brings this story to life.

Shura is a young boy living in Leningrad.  He lives with his mama and papa as well as his older sister and a little brother.  They live in an apartment building and he and his sister are lucky enough to have a room to themselves.  The amusing set up is that they have to walk through a wardrobe that their father set up to separate the rooms (he removed the back but you can’t tell from the front).  This weird construction actually saves them later in the story.

Shura’s friend is named Valya.  His parents don’t want him hanging out with Valya, but they like to do the same things, so he disobeys.  Today they are putting pennies on a railroad track.  They had been doing this for long enough that they can tell how heavy a train is by the way the resulting items come out.

On this occasion the train that went by seemed to be full of people.  People crammed into each car.  As it sailed past, a piece of paper sailed out.  Valya grabbed it. Neither of the boys could read very well but they could see some numbers on it.  Shura was sure that the paper was important and he desperately wanted it. But he didn’t know how to get it from Valya without making him want it more.

They walked home and by the time they got to Shura’s place, they were physically fighting.  Shura manged to snatch the paper and Valya threw a rock at him.  The rock smashed a window of an older lady’s apartment in their building.  Shura knew he was in trouble for the window.  But it was Valya’s fault.  Of course, he wasn’t supposed to be playing with Valya. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NEIL PEART-September 12, 1952-January 7, 2020.

When I was in high school, Rush was my favorite band, hands down.  I listened to them all the time.  I made tapes of all of their songs in alphabetical order and would listen to them straight through.

I still loved them in college, but a little less so as my tastes broadened.  But every new release was something special.

It’s frankly astonishing that I didn’t seem them live until 1990.  There were shows somewhat nearby when I was in college, but I never wanted to travel too far on a school night (nerd!).

For a band I loved so much, it’s also odd that I’ve only seen them live 5 times.  However, their live shows are pretty consistent.  They play the same set every night of a tour (as I found out when I saw them two nights apart), and there wasn’t much that set each show apart–although They did start making their shows more and more fun as the years went on, though).

One constant was always Neil Peart’s drum solo. It too was similar every night.  Although I suspect that there was a lot more going on than I was a ware of.  It was also easy to forget just how incredible these solos were.  Sure it was fun when he started adding synth pads and playing music instead of just drums, but even before that his drumming was, of course, amazing.

It was easy to lose sight of that because I had always taken it for granted.

I am happy to have seen Rush on their final tour.  I am sad to hear of Neil’s passing.  I would have been devastated had it happened twenty years ago, but now I am more devastated for his family.

So here’s two (of dozens) memorials.  The first one is from the CBC.  They included a mashup of some of Neil’s best drum solos:

But what better way to remember the drum master than with a supercut of his drum solos? From a 2004 performance of “Der Trommler” in Frankfurt, Germany, to a 2011 performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, to his first-ever recorded drum solo (in 1974 in Cleveland, Ohio), dive into nearly five minutes of Peart’s epic drum solos, below.

The best Neil Peart drum solos of all time.

I was only going to include this link, because it was a good summary, then I saw that Pitchfork ranked five of Neil’s best drum solos (an impossible task, really).  But it is nice to have them all in one place.

You can find that link here.

Starting in the 1980s Neil’s solos were given a name (which shows that they were pretty much the same every night).  Although as I understand it, the framework was the same but the actual hits were improvised each night.

Even after all of these years and hearing these drum solos hundreds of times, watching them still blows my mind.

  • “The Rhythm Method”
  • “O Baterista”
  • “Der Trommler”
  • “De Slagwerker,”
  • “Moto Perpetuo”
  • “Here It Is!”, “Drumbastica,” “The Percussor – (I) Binary Love Theme / (II) Steambanger’s Ball”

[READ: January 2020] Canada 1867-2017

In this book, Paul Taillefer looks at the most historically significant event from each tear of Canadian history.  And he tries to convey that event in about a page.  Can you imagine learning the history of your country and trying to condense every year into three paragraphs?

And then do it again in French?  For this book is also bilingual.

I can’t read French, but i can tell that the French is not a direct translation of the English (or vice versa).

For instance in 1869, the final sentence is:

This, in turn, signaled the start of the Red River Rebellion which would not end until the Battle of Batoche in 1885.

Neither Batoche nor 1885 appears in the entire French write up.  So that’s interesting, I suppose.  I wonder if the content is very different for French-reading audiences. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RONG-“Shrugging at the Dearth of Discourse” (2019).

Every year Lars Gotrich publishes his list of favorite music in an NPR podcast called Viking’s Choice: The Year In The Loud And The Weird.  I always listen to these songs because I’ll never hear them anywhere else (he mostly seems to scour bandcamp for unknown music.

One that he especially liked was by the band Rong from Boston.

He says:

Just bonkers. Boston’s Rong channels the joyous chaos of Japanese punks Melt-Banana and the aggro skronk of Brainiac with a tad of Deerhoof’s weirdo-pop hooks, in what sounds like a swarm of bats fighting a comically large industrial fan… and the bats win. Dissect the noise and you’ll find some truly athletic guitar interplay, held together by a sturdy rhythm section and Olivia W-B’s vocal acrobatics.

This song starts out with Olivia screaming quickly and almost inaudibly while the drummer thrashes away on every surface nearby.  There appears to be two guitars each playing their own riff that seems irrelevant to anything else. It’s a chaotic statement that will likely make most people turn the song off.   After 30 seconds one of the guitars plays a riff and at 35 seconds the riff is actually really catchy and Olivia sings along with it.  Wow.

And the song is not even one third over.

After a few more rounds through similar styles things really slow down around 1:45.  It is just bass and drums and vocals for a bit before two separate solos happen at once.  About five more parts occur before the song ends at 3:11.  This includes a riff that is repeated a few times and a absolutely berzerk ending.

That’s the first of 8 similarly eclectic and, yes, bonkers, songs.  Finding the melody and connections between the parts is rather strangely rewarding.

Incidentally, the final track on the album is called . ༼ ༎ຶ ෴ ༎ຶ༽   In a bigger font, that’s:

༼ ༎ຶ ෴ ༎ຶ༽

[READ: Summer 2019] The Long Cosmos

The “Long Earth” Tetrology is complete.

This was a series that was pretty much impossible to end.  I mean the very premise is that there is unlimited exploration to be had in the various “Earths.”  So how do you end it?  Well, really you end it by following the main protagonist of all of this, Joshua Valiente to his logical conclusion (or something like that).

This book also serves as a kind of reconciliation for many of the estranged characters, but, thankfully does not resurrect any dead characters (well, except for Lobsang–whatever he may be).

The Foreword to this book answers a question that I had: If Terry Pratchett died in 2015, did he have anything to do with this book which came out in 2016?  Baxter explains that indeed, he and Pratchett had created drafts of the final three books by August 2013.  Terry and Stephen worked on the book together as late as autumn 2014.  Then Baxter dealt with final editorial and publishing stages.  So that makes me happy.

I am, as always with this series, puzzled as to what Terry’s contributions were to the books.  I haven’t read anything else by Baxter, so I don’t know if this is a Baxter book with Pratchett sprinkled in or if it’s a combination of their writing styles   The one thing is that this series is never really all that funny (with one huge exception later).  Not to say that Pratchett had to be funny, but it was certainly what he was known for.  Maybe I’ll try a Baxter book one of these days to see just what his works are like.

But back to the concluding chapter of this long series.

This book opens with the invitation: JOIN US. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FALHA COMUM-“Film Do Mundo” (2019).

Every year Lars Gotrich publishes his list of favorite music in an NPR podcast called Viking’s Choice: The Year In The Loud And The Weird.  I always listen to these songs because I’ll never hear them anywhere else (he mostly seems to scour bandcamp for unknown music.

One that he especially liked was by this band Falha Comum, a duo from Brazil.

He says:

The Brazilian post-punks scaled down to a duo, but opened a festering third eye. The psychedelic noise receptors of a previous decade (think Raccoo-oo-oon and Gowns) run throughout Rakta’s Falha Comum, but in levels below, the sinister grooves and cackled reverb inhabit a life all their own with primal incantations to spirits unknown.

The album is like a few things and nothing else that I’ve heard.  There’s elements of krautrock–but not sterile and efficient, more groovy and cool, with a warm bass and seemingly wild, improvised vocals.

This particular song is 7 minutes long and opens with a spoken word section (presumably in Portuguese).  There are synths and screams behind the speaking and then everything starts pulsing as the vocals echo and echo.   The music–a simple repetitive drum and bass (I guess) line, keep a terrific groove going while on top, the high notes (vocals and other synths) skitter and flit about.

Midway through, the song goes through a phase shift–it sounds like it’s been transported somewhere else, and that’s when the bass gets cleaner and the vocals grow a bit more intense.  But the groove remains.

Somewhere around 6 minutes, the groove changes slightly–a brief shift in notes suddenly gives the song a brief moment of extra melody.  The following keyboard frenzy keeps it from getting too comfortably melodic though.

It’s an unexpectedly interesting and cool record.

[READ: Summer 2019] The Long Utopia

This was the fourth book in the Long Earth series.  I brought it along on vacation thinking it would be a fairly slow and leisurely read like the others—something I didn’t mind putting down and picking up a few days later.  But this book changed that pattern entirely.  It was fast paced and quite exciting and my favorite book of the series so far.

The previous book about the Long Mars seemed to be more than anything else, a distraction.  Not a lot happened, although there were some cool ideas in it.  The one big thing that book 3 did that effects book 4 is the cable/elevator thing—which I still don’t understand [see yesterday’s post about book 3].

This book also introduces a new concept in Stepping.  Typically Stepping is described as moving left or right, east or west through the Earths.  But suddenly, in this one world, it seemed like a person could move…north.  Into an entirely different world—night instead of day:  “No stars exactly, it was like he could see the whole galaxy…from outside.”

This book is set in 2052.  Protagonist Joshua Valiente:

will be 50 years old. He has been stepping for 35 years and has been all over the Long Earth.  But some things are still unsettling—things that he can feel in his bones or his head.

The reason for his feelings date back to 2036 in New Springfield.  Cassie Poulson had been digging a basement for her house when she hit some kind of opening.  Not a cave or anything natural, but some kind of manufactured tunnel or the like.  When she poked her head in,  what poked back was a humanoid metal beetle.  Obviously she freaked out and covered up the hole. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FIRE-TOOLZ-“mailto:spasm@swamp.god?subject=Mind-Body Parallels” (2019).

Every year Lars Gotrich publishes his list of favorite music in an NPR podcast called Viking’s Choice: The Year In The Loud And The Weird.  I always listen to these songs because I’ll never hear them anywhere else (he mostly seems to scour bandcamp for unknown music.

One that he especially liked was by this band Fire-Toolz.  He says:

When I try to describe the simultaneously fantastical and obliterating sounds of Fire-Toolz to folks, I usually throw my hands up — not out of frustration, but from awe. Angel Marcloid has clashed New Age synthscapes, clubby raves, jazz fusion and metal shrieks for a few years now, but Field Whispers (Into the Crystal Palace) goes beyond the mash-up, into an idiosyncratic master’s pure creation.

The album credits indicate: Angel Marcloid: voice, drums, electric & acoustic guitar, fretless bass, virtual studio technology, field recordings, circuit-bent junk, composition, lyrics, recording, production, mixing, mastering.

The only other musician is Ian Smith: who plays what can only be described as a smooth-jazz saxophone solo.  Oh, and her cat, Breakfast, gets a vocal turn.

I have listened to some of the whole record, (a lot of tape manipulation on track 2), but nothing sums up the project like the first song, “mailto:spasm@swamp.god?subject=Mind-Body Parallels” (yes, that’s the title).  In 2 minutes and 11 seconds, she includes more genres than I can name.  And the amazing thing is that unlike other artists who squeeze many genres into one song (there are those who do this well and those who do not), these shifts feel at once hairpin but also natural. 

The song starts with a skittery electric melody that almost sounds like digital pipe organ.  It’s very new-agey, but with heavier drums than you might expect.  The quiet death metal growling is certainly unexpected, but somehow it doesn’t feel out of place (and is low enough in the mix to feel more like another sound than vocals–I have no idea what she’s saying).

After the first verse the music shifts to a kind of jazzy new age followed by a punishingly fast electronic drum and a scorching heavy metal solo and the song devolves or crescendos with inhuman growls.

Welcome to 2020!

[READ: May 2019] The Long Mars

I found the first book in this series rather compelling–almost surprisingly so given that it’s not a fast-paced book and, to be honest, not a lot happens.

But it was really well written and the things that do happen are compelling and fascinating.  And I couldn’t wait to read more.

In the first book:

A man creates an invention (The Stepper) which allows one to step into a parallel world that is next to ours.  There are a possibly infinite numbers of parallel worlds in each direction (East or West).  The worlds that are closer to ours are almost identical to our Earth (known as Datum Earth).  The further you go, the greater the differences.  But none of them have experienced humanity before Step Day (aside from earlier hominids).

The main character is Joshua Valienté.  Joshua is a natural “Stepper.”  He doesn’t need the device to Step from one word to the next, nor does he feel the nausea and other side effects that most people feel as they travel.  Most of the book follows his exploits.

The Black corporate has a ship with an entity known as Lobsang who claims that he was a human reincarnated as artificial intelligence.  Joshua is sure that Lobsang is a computer, but Lobsang’s human skills are uncanny.  This ship has managed to Step as an entity, meaning everything in the ship can go with them.  Normally you can only bring what you can carry (aside from metal).

The novel more or less is an exploratory one with Joshua and Lobsang Stepping through millions of Earths.  Not a lot happens, but the novel never grows boring.  The interactions between Joshua and Lobsang are often funny.  And the writers have infused the Earths that they stop in with just enough differences to make each stop strangely compelling (this must be Baxter’s hard science leanings).

I found the second book less compelling on a story level, but no less compelling on a conceptual level.  There was still some cool stuff going on.

Joshua Valienté has settled down in a town called Hell-Knows-Where.  He has a wife, Helen, and a child, Daniel, and lots of regrets about what happened at the end of book one.  He is embedded with the rest of the community.  They show off what a successful community can be way out in the Long Earth.  It is more or less cut off from Datum Earth, which means that everyone needs to work for the community to survive.  Since trust and companionship are key to survival, people don’t really try to take advantage of others and crime is pretty much nonexistent.

This independence is a major concern for the governments of Datum Earth.  In fact, some of the more thriving distant communities (like Valhalla) want to declare independence from Datum Earth altogether.

Another issue is human (or alien) rights.  The trolls from the first book have become a part of most communities at this point.  And yet, the way they are treated seems largely dependent on who they are with.  Some are welcomed like family members, other are treated like animals, slaves or worse.   And the mistreatment of a mother and son troll are what set a series of events in motion.   Maggie Kauffman is a new character introduced to speak on behalf of the trolls.  Before their otherwise peaceful nature gets pushed too far.

Another plot line (and there are quite a few) concerns Roberta Golding, a young genius who goes on an exploratory mission with the Chinese.  The Chinese are exploring the “East Earths” (most of the other travelers went West).  Roberta is an odd child, who anticipated jokes and therefore finds nothing funny. She is cold and emotionless.  Her story remains unresolved by the end of the book.  But her crew managed to get to Earth East 20,000,000 with the crew.

When Sally tries to get Joshua involved in an adventure once again, he is reluctant, but Helen is the one who spurs him on–as long as she and Dan go with him. This adventure is a bit of backtracking, though–an attempt to use Joshua’s name and status back on Datum Earth–where he is not welcomed by everyone.  He tries to prevent the government from harming trolls–because he knows what is at stake if the trolls grow angry.

In their adventure, they also encounter a race of beings known as Beagles.  It is a pretty dark and disturbing world, with Joshua getting tortured and Sally and Monica being the only things keeping him from a brutal death.   There’s a lot of brutality now, which is not unexpected given the reality of the situation, but it does often seem rather harsh

That’s a lot of summary to prepare for Book Three.  But book three does continue the saga, just another twenty years or so later.

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SOUNDTRACK: BLACK PUMAS-NonCOMM 2019 (May 14, 2019).

A couple of years ago I had a pass to NonComm, but ultimately I decided not to go.  I had never been to World Cafe Live and, while it sounded like a fun time, it was just so many mid-week nights and lots of leaving early, that it sounded more exhausting than fun.

I have now been to World Cafe Live and I can imagine that the (less divaish) bands are hanging around talking to people (and radio personalities) which is probably pretty cool.

I love the idea of these sorta personal concerts, too.  But I have since come to see that they are 20-45 minutes tops.  Hardly worth driving 90 minutes (one-way) for.

But since the shows are streaming you can watch them live.  Or you can listen to the recorded version online.

Black Pumas was the opening band on the opening night.  They play and exciting and fun psychedelic soul.

It is hard not to be moved by Eric Burton’s powerful voice. Joining Burton onstage was production partner and guitarist Adrian Quesada, as well as a bassist, keyboardist, and two backing vocalists. The whole band moved as a unit, but each member added their own unique talents, making Black Pumas’ sound undeniably theirs.

The set mostly comprised of songs from the band’s upcoming self titled debut, due June 21st.

“Next 2U” had some great keyboards and Burton’s impassioned vocals.  “Colors” showcased their ability to slow things down a bit and to lean into improvisation.  There was a grooving guitar solo and a cool keyboard solo.  There was even more grooving on “Black Moon Rising.”  I enjoyed Burton giving us the occasional falsetto “AH!” at the end of the verses.

I really couldn’t believe how young these guys turned out to be because their sound is really old-school, but with enough of a modern twist to keep it from being retro.

“Fire” opened with a cool guitar riff before backing away from the rock a bit to allow the big harmony vocals to really soar.

The final song “Etta James” was surprising because it was more like a Rock n’ Roll shuffle–a fast bass line running through the quick verses.   It’s when the soulful chorus comes in that Etta James surfaces both in the lyrics and in the soul of the song.   Although the scorching guitar solo brings the song back around to its rocking sensibility.

Black Pumas sound like a great live band that would be even more fun to see than to hear.

[READ: May 2, 2019] “Tax Niʔ Pik̓ak (A Long Time Ago)”

The July/August issue of The Walrus is the Summer Reading issue.  This year’s issue had three short stories and three poems as special features.

This story was written by Troy Sebastian / Nupqu ʔa·kǂ am̓, a Ktunaxa writer living in Lekwungen territory based in Victoria.  It’s not often that I read a story with a glossary, but it was very helpful, because this story uses a number of Ktunaxa words.

  • tax niʔ pik̓ak—a long time ago
  • Ka titi—grandmother
  • suyupi—white people
  • ka·pi—coffee
  • Kupi—owl
  • Ktunaxa ʔamak̓is—Ktunaxa lands

The story starts fairly simply, a long time ago.  Uncle Pat says that the suyupi have built a statue of David Thompson.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO-Tiny Desk Concert #834 (March 20, 2019).

I feel like I’ve been hearing Alejandro Escovedo’s name for years, and yet I know very little about him.

I assumed he was a kind of folkie guy.  So I was pretty surprised by the loud sound he brought to the Tiny Desk.  And even more surprised to read

The musician, who once opened for the Sex Pistols … seemed to appreciate the difference between being pelted with spit and debris by punk rock fans and being showered with loving appreciation in the NPR Music office.

Escovedo came  in a leather jacket and a large band.  And even though I thought they were loud, apparently they intended to be louder.  They even started the show with “one for the money, two for the show, three to get ready and four Go Alejandro!”

Escovedo and his backing band known as Don Antonio set up behind the Tiny Desk, their first sounds were blistering loud. That’s when we broke the news: We wouldn’t amplify Alejandro’s voice. We got a slightly sullen look from the band; but despite the toned-down volume, they were all still amped up.

A little research into Escovedo, though shows that he has, indeed, played folkie/alt-country music.  But that his sound has evolved over the years.

Escovedo pulled the three-song set from The Crossing, the most recent chapter in his ongoing odyssey and a typically hard-rocking, literate saga about two teenagers looking for their American Dream of rock and roll and beat poetry.

“Teenage Luggage” opens kind of quiet with one guitar and quiet drums, but soon enough a sax and keyboards are added, then comes some bass and the second saxophone and the roaring lead guitar.  As Escovedo sing/speaks his story.  Then comes the catchy chorus:

You think you know me, you’ll never know me you’re just a bigot with a bad guitar.

By the end, everyone is rocking out with mini solos from Perinelli on saxophone and a raucous guitar solo from Gramentieri

The close quarters of the Tiny Desk allows for a kind of backstage insight into the musical and visual interplay between Escovedo and the veteran Italian band Don Antonio [Antonio Gramentieri: vocals, guitar; Denis Valentini: bass; Matteo Monti: drums; Nicola Peruch: keyboard; Gianni Perinelli: tenor sax; Franz Valtieri: baritone sax]. Lead guitarist Antonio Gramentieri is the perfect foil for Escovedo, who adds a heavy dose of edginess to the sound with his power strumming.

“Something Blue” is slow with a dominant organ sound (reminiscent of Bob Dylan).  It sounds like an old-school rock song and his delivery sounds more than a little like Warren Zevon.

He says that “Sonica USA” goes out to Don since Wayne Kramer from the MC5 played on this.  It has a great raw rock feel with Escovedo’s punky vocals and the chanted chorus of “Sonica USA.”  The soloing section is great with the two saxophones playing on top of Gramentier’s wailing solo.

It’s a really fun garage rocking set.

[READ: Summer 2018] The Long War

I found the first book in this series rather compelling–almost surprisingly so given that it’s not a fast-paced book and, to be honest, not a lot happens.

But it was really well written and the things that do happen are compelling and fascinating.  And I couldn’t wait to read more.

In the first book:

A man creates an invention (The Stepper) which allows one to step into a parallel world that is next to ours.  There are a possibly infinite numbers of parallel worlds in each direction (East or West).  The worlds that are closer to ours are almost identical to our Earth (known as Datum Earth).  The further you go, the greater the differences.  But none of them have experienced humanity before Step Day (aside from earlier hominids).

The main character is Joshua Valienté.  Joshua is a natural “Stepper.”  He doesn’t need the device to Step from one word to the next, nor does he feel the nausea and other side effects that most people feel as they travel.  Most of the book follows his exploits.

The Black corporate has a ship with an entity known as Lobsang who claims that he was a human reincarnated as artificial intelligence.  Joshua is sure that Lobsang is a computer, but Lobsang’s human skills are uncanny.  This ship has managed to Step as an entity, meaning everything in the ship can go with them.  Normally you can only bring what you can carry (aside from metal).

The novel more or less is an exploratory one with Joshua and Lobsang Stepping through millions of Earths.  Not a lot happens, but the novel never grows boring.  The interactions between Joshua and Lobsang are often funny.  And the writers have infused the Earths that they stop in with just enough differences to make each stop strangely compelling (this must be Baxter’s hard science leanings).

At the end of the book, the anti-steppers attempt a massive, deadly protest.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GRUFF RHYS–American Interior (2013).

Gruff Rhys was (is?) the singer and composer in Super Furry Animals, a fantastic indie-pop band from Wales.   After several years with SFA and several solo albums, Gruff decided to do something a little different.  Actually, everything he does is a little different, as this quote from The Guardian explains:

“The touring musician can feel like the puppet of consumer forces,” he writes, bemoaning the way that “cities have now been renamed ‘markets’ and entire countries downgraded to ‘territories'”. So, over the last five or so years, he has come up with the idea of “investigative touring”: combining the standard one-show-a‑night ritual with creative fieldwork. In 2009, he went to Patagonia to trace the roots of a disgraced relative called Dafydd Jones, and the Welsh diaspora in South America more generally, and played a series of solo concerts, as well as making a film titled Separado!. Now, Rhys has reprised the same approach to tell another story, and poured the results into four creations: an album, another film, an ambitious app, and this book – all titled American Interior, and based on the brief life of John Evans: another far-flung relative of the singer, who left Wales to travel to North America in the early 1790s.

So yes, there’s a film and a book and this CD.  This album is a delightful blend of acoustic and electronic pop and folk.  Rhys’ voice is wonderfully subdued and with his Welsh accent coming in from time to time, it makes everything he sings somehow feel warm and safe (even when it’s not).   Rhys creates songs that sound like they came from the 1970s (but better), but he also explores all kinds of sonic textures–folk songs, rocking songs, dancing song, even songs in Welsh.

“American Exterior” is a 30 second intro with 8-bit sounds and the repeated “American Interior” until the piano and drum-based (from Kliph Scurlock) “American Interior” begins.  It’s a catchy song with the repeated (and harmonized) titular refrain after each line and it’s a great introduction to the vibe of the record.  It’s followed by the super catchy stomping “100 Unread Messages” which just rocks along with a great chorus.  You can see Gruff “composing” the lyrics to this in the book.

“The Whether (Or Not)” introduces some electronic elements to this song.  It’s basically a great pop song with splashes of keys and some cool stabs of acoustic guitar.  “The Last Conquistador” and “The Lost Tribes” are gentler synthy songs, as many of these are.  “Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be)” returns to the acoustic sound with some really beautiful piano.

“Allweddellau Allweddol” (English translation: Key Keyboards) is the only all-Welsh song on the record and it romps and stomps and is as much fun as that title suggests it would be.  There’s even a children’s choir singing on it (maybe?).

“The Swamp” is a simple electronics and drumming pattern which leaps right into “Iolo” one of the most fun songs on the record.  It’s a nod to the Welsh poet who inspired but backed out of Evans’ expedition at the last-minute but also a rollicking good time with the chanted “yoloyoloyoloyolo” and great tribal drums from Kliph.

The end of the album slows things down with “Walk Into the Wilderness” a slow aching ballad and the final two animal-related songs.  “Year of the Dog” is kind of a mellow opus when it is joined by the instrumental coda “Tiger’s Tale.”  Both songs feature goregous pedal steel guitar from Maggie Bjorklund.

Gruff Rhys is an amazing songwriter.  He could write the history of an obscure Welshman and still get great catchy songs out of it.  And that’s exactly what he’s done here.

[READ: December 2018] American Interior

How to explain this book?

I’ll start by saying that I loved it.  I was delighted by Rhys’ experiences and, by the end, I was genuinely disappointed to read that Evans’ trip didn’t pan out (even though I knew it didn’t).  The only compliant I have about the book is that I wish he had given a pronunciation guide for all of the welsh words in there, because I can’t even imagine how you say things like Ieuan Ab Ifan or Gwredog Uchaf or Dafydd Ddu Eryri (which is helpfully translated as Black David of Snowdonia, but not given a pronunciation guide).  But what about the contents?

The subtitle gives a pretty good explanation but barely covers the half of it.

Here’s a summary from The Guardian to whet one’s appetite for Rhys himself and for what he’s on about here:

[John] Evans was a farmhand and weaver from Waunfawr on the edge of Snowdonia, who was in pursuit of something fantastical: a supposed tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans said to live at the top of the Missouri river, who were reckoned to owe their existence to the mythical Prince Madog, a native of Gwynedd who folklore claimed had successfully sailed to the New World in 1170. In 1580, this story was hyped up by Elizabeth I’s court mathematician and occultist John Dee (born of Welsh parents), in an attempt to contest the Spanish claim to American territory. Two centuries later, with the opening of new frontiers, talk of a tribe called the Madogwys and “forts deemed to be of Welsh origin” began to swirl anew around Wales and North America, and became tangled up in the revolutionary fervour of the time, along with a radical Welsh spirit partly founded in nonconformist Christianity.

All this was moulded into a proposal made by a self-styled druid named Iolo Morganwg (“a genius”, but “also a fraud of the highest order”, says Rhys), who “called for the Americans, in the light of Madog’s legacy, to present the Welsh with their own tract of land in the new country of the free, so that the Welsh could leave their condemned royalist homeland”. Morganwg stayed put in Cowbridge, near Cardiff (the site of his “radical grocery” shop is now occupied by a branch of Costa Coffee), but Evans was inspired by his visions, and eventually set sail.

Rhys goes on a “journey of verification”, following Evans’s route from Baltimore, through such cities as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and then up the Missouri river to the ancestral home of the Mandan tribe of Native Americans, who had been rumoured to be the Welsh-speakers of myth, and among whom Evans lived, in territory argued over by the British and Spanish. Along the way, he does solo performances built around music and a PowerPoint-assisted talk about Evans’s story, keeps appointments with historians, and also tries to glimpse the America that Evans found through the cracks in a landscape of diners, what some people call “campgrounds”, and Native American reservations.

The Guardian’s review also talks about why the book works: (more…)

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