Archive for the ‘My Brightest Diamond’ Category

[ATTENDED: May 10, 2018] My Brightest Diamond

I only knew about My Brightest Diamond because Shara Worden sang on The Decemberists’ Hazard of Love album.  She sings some pretty intense stuff on it, so I looked her up.  Well, it turns out that Shara has changed her name to Shara Nova.  But nothing has changed about her voice.

She is dramatic and operatic with amazing power.

I didn’t really know much about the band’s music, so when the lights went down and Aaron Steel sat at the drumkit, I waited for the rest of the band to show up on stage.

Then some synths started and I heard Shara singing.  But she wasn’t on stage.  I was still trying to figure out how close I wanted to get to the stage (experimenting with how close you had to be before the voice started getting lost) when I turned around and there she was singing in the middle of the floor.  (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: OKX: A Tribute to Ok Computer (2010).

OK Computer is one of the best records of the 90s.  Every time I listen to it I hear something new and interesting.  So, why on earth would anyone want to cover the whole thing?  And how could you possibly do justice to this multi-layered masterpiece?

I can’t answer the first question, but the second question is more or less answered by this tribute which was orchestrated by Stereogum.

The answer is by stripping down the music to its bare essentials.  When I first listened to the songs I was really puzzled by how you could take a such a complex album and make Doveman’s version of “Airbag,” which is sort of drums and pianos.  Or gosh, where would you even begin to tackle “Paranoid Android?”  Well Slaraffenland create a bizarre symphonic version that excises many things–in fact half of the lyrics are missing–and yet keeps elements that touch on the original.  But it’s an interesting version of the song and shows  a bizarre sense of creativity.  And that is more or less what this tribute does–it makes new versions of these songs.

Mobius Band make a kind of Police-sounding version of “Subterranean Homesick Alien.”  Again, it radically changes the song, making it a fast and driving song (although I don’t care for the repeated “Uptights” and “Outsides” during the verses).

Vampire Weekend, one of the few bands that I actually knew in this collection (and whom I really like) do a very interesting, stripped down version of “Exit Music, for a Film.  The “film” they make is a haunted one, with eerie keyboards.  Again, it is clearly that song, but it sounds very different (and quite different from what Vampire Weekend usually sound like).

“Let Down” (by David Bazan’s Black Cloud) and “Karma Police” (by John Vanderslice) work on a similar principle: more vocals and less music.  The music is very stripped down, but the vocals harmonize interestingly.  Perhaps the only track that is more interesting than the original is “Fitter Happier” by Samson Delonga.  The original is a processed computer voice, but this version is a real person, intoning the directives in a fun, impassioned way.  There’s also good sound effects.

Cold War Kids take the riotous “Electioneering” and simplify it, with drums and vocals only to start.  It’s hard to listen to this song without the utter noise of the original.  “Climbing Up the Walls” is one of the more manic songs on this collection, with some interesting vocals from The Twilight Sad.

There are two versions of “No Surprises” in this collection.  Interestingly, they are both by women-fronted bands, and both treat the song as a very delicate ballad.  Both versions are rather successful.  Marissa Nadler’s version (the one included in sequence) is a little slower and more yearning, while Northern State’s version (which is listed as a B-Side) is a little fuller and I think better for it.  My Brightest Diamond cover “Lucky.”  They do an interesting orchestral version–very spooky.

Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble (a side project of Chris Funk from The Decemberists) do a very weird electronic version of the song (with almost no lyrics).  It’s very processed and rather creepy (and the accompanying notes make it even more intriguing when you know what’s he doing).

The final B-side is “Polyethylene (Part 1 & 2),”  It’s a track from the Airbag single and it’s done by Chris Walla.  I don’t know this song very well (since it’s not on OK Computer), but it’s a weird one, that’s for sure.  This version is probably the most traditional sounding song of this collection: full guitars, normal sounding drums and only a slightly clipped singing voice (I don’t know what Walla normally sounds like).

So, In many ways this is a successful tribute album.  Nobody tries to duplicate the original and really no one tries to out-do it either.  These are all new versions taking aspects of the songs and running with them.  Obviously, I like the original better, but these are interesting covers.

[READ: November 5, 2011]  McSweeney’s #8

I had been reading all of the McSweeney’s issue starting from the beginning, but I had to take a breather.  I just resumed (and I have about ten left to go before I’ve read all of them).  This issue feels, retroactively like the final issue before McSweeney’s changed–one is tempted to say it has something to do with September 11th, but again, this is all retroactive speculation.  Of course, the introduction states that most of the work on this Issue was done between April and June of 2001, so  even though the publication date is 2002, it does stand as a pre 9/11 document.

But this issue is a wild creation–full of hoaxes and fakery and discussions of hoaxes and fakery but also with some seriousness thrown in–which makes for a fairly confusing issue and one that is rife with a kind of insider humor.

But there’s also a lot of non-fiction and interviews.  (The Believer’s first issue came out in March 2003, so it seems like maybe this was the last time they wanted to really inundate their books with anything other than fiction (Issue #9 has some non-fiction, but it’s by fiction writers).

This issue was also guest edited by Paul Maliszewski.  He offers a brief(ish) note to open the book, talking about his editing process and selection and about his black polydactyl cat.  Then he mentions finding a coupon in the phonebook for a painting class  which advertised “Learn to Paint Like the Old Masters” and he wonders which Old Masters people ask to be able to paint like–and there’s a fun little internal monologue about that.

The introduction then goes on to list the 100 stores that are the best places to find McSweeney’s.  There are many stores that I have heard of (I wonder what percentage still exist).  Sadly none were in New Jersey.

This issue also features lots of little cartoons from Marcel Dzama, of Canada. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: COLIN STETSON-New History Warfare, Vol. 2: Judges [CST075] (2011).

When you learn that Stetson played saxophone for Tom Waits, it makes perfect sense.  The middle of the second song, “Judges” sounds like the instrumental break for any of Waits’ newer songs.  Of course, once Stetson starts really wailing you realize that Stetson doesn’t need Waits’ lyrics to tell a story. With just one big-assed bass saxophone, Steston can say quite a lot.  He plays with circular breathing, meaning that he doesn’t have to stop to take a breath, he breathes in through his nose and out through his mouth at the same time (this is of course impossible).  The bass saxophone weighs some 20 pounds and is massive and Stetson makes it sound like everything from an oil tanker to a field of runaway horses.  Oh, and he also has pretty melodies and songs that sound longing.

This disc is part two of a trilogy, but this is the first of his records that I bought (thanks to a release via the folks at Constellation–I wonder if they will redistribute Pt 1).  There is a story that runs through these discs, although honestly, I’m not entirely sure what it is.  But that doesn’t matter to me, what matters is Steston’s amazing skills.

There are evidently a couple of overdubs on this disc, but for the most part it is just him and his saxophone (and 24 microphones).  The microphones were placed all over the room, on the instrument itself (to pick up the clacking of the keys) and even on his throat (when he makes those “voices muffled by a pillow” sound, that’s the throat mike picking up voice–singing while he is playing (which is impossible)).

The album features a couple of spoken word sections by Laurie Anderson, whose clipped, non-inflected voice gives this otherworldy music an even more otherworldy feel.  And there’s two songs sung by Shara Worden.  Other than that, it’s just the man himself.

Prepare to be amazed by this man’s talent.  But also prepare to be a little frightened by what you hear.  This is not timid music by any stretch.  There’s some scary stuff on this record, especially if you listen in the dark.  More especially if you listen loud (which you absolutely must do to hear all the nuances).  On first listen, this may sound like a noisy jazz record, but the more you get into it, the more amazing it becomes.

[READ: October 11, 2011] Moby Dick-in Pictures

Matt Kish has accomplished an amazing thing.  He has drawn a picture a day (more or less) to accompany every page of the 552 page paperback version of Moby-Dick.  He takes a small passage from each page and renders an image for it.  One thing this book is not is an illustrated version of Moby-Dick.  It doesn’t purport to be.  You won’t get the whole story from this book.  It’s not a cheat sheet for high school students.  If you haven’t readMoby-Dick, this will give you a taste for the story–almost like a preview for a movie.  And hopefully it will compel people to read the original.  If you have read Moby-Dick, this is a wonderful companion.  Not only will the pictures give you fascinating insights into the story (and into Kish, of course), but seeing sentences excised from the book to stand alone makes you aware of the book in ways you just aren’t when you’re reading it as a novel.

Kish admits he is not an artist, which while not false modesty, is certainly selling himself short.  He has an awesome style of illustration.  I am especially excited by his vast pictures with small details (lots of pages where there are small circles with lines in them or, for instance, the details on Queequeg’s face) and when he uses bold lines to create vast, weighty iconic pictures.  Here’s one example of his awesome use of multiple straight lines.  I mean, it’s gorgeous.

But I also love the whole conceit that an artistic shortcoming for him has turned out to be an absolute boon.  Kish says he cannot render the human form and so he made the conscious decision to make the seamen more like avatars than people.  It’s daring and a little odd, but it works wonders.  I admit that I was a little less than excited by the very first page of the book–I was disconcerted by Ishmael and his utter lack of features. (I actually like the way he is rendered later in the book better–call it an artistic growth).  But by the time her gets to Queequeg, or the  gorgeous Tashtego  it’s obvious that his decision was genius.  Just take a look at the marvel that is is Ahab (left).  First off, the colors are amazing.  As are the details of the whale in the corners.  But look at him–he’s a metal machine–shiny and tough–part ship, part whale.  Look at the awesome shading and detailing of the blue “coat” that he’s wearing.  He’s even got the badge of Moby-Dick on his belt!  And then there’s the pegleg–the most beautifully drawn pegleg ever.  It’s really stunning.

Now you’re also noticing that there’s all kinds of diagrams behind Ahab.  Kish used to work at a bookstore and he hated seeing old pages of books thrown away (he has since become a librarian, which makes sense–although as I librarian I learned that librarians are actually quite cavalier about throwing away old books once they are beyond use).  So he brought these pages home.  And, given the density of the layers of meaning in Moby-Dick, he decided to draw his pictures on these old pages.  So on virtually every page you can see something in the background.  Most of the time they are these circuital diagrams, which are wonderful. But there are several drawings where the found pages are pages of text from books.  And I have to say if these were serendipitous findings then he has amazing fortune.  Some of the pages tie in so perfectly it is wonderful.

Like the page that is headed “Cetology” and is from what, a textbook on whales?  Or several other pages that I wish I had taken notes on, because they were really wonderfully chosen.  He even has a drawing on a title page of Moby-Dick. I have to ask, did he really find that or did he buy it for the project? (more…)

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catsSOUNDTRACK: THE DECEMBERISTS-The Hazards of Love (2009).

hazardsI first played this disc a few times without really listening to it, just to get a feel for it.  And I was surprised by how heavy it sounded.  The harshest moments of the disc really stood out to me, and I was quite surprised, as I think of the Decemberists as more folky than this.

But when I finally sat down and listened, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the disc overall.  I have yet to understand the complete storyline (the lyrics are printed in a near impossible to read size and color, so I’ve had to rely on what I could pick out.)

The disc is a concept album.  It tells the story of  Margaret who falls for a shape shifting creature of the forest and, I think, their offspring as well.  There’s a jealous forest queen involved, and, of course, the Rake–although I’m not exactly sure how he fits in–but more on him in a moment.

In addition to some “celebrity” guest vocalists (Robyn Hitchcock and Jim James of My Morning Jacket sing backing vocals), for the first time on a Decemberists disc, Colin Meloy doesn’t sing all of the lead vocals.  The two women characters’ parts are sung by two singers I don’t know: Becky Stark (of the band Lavender Diamond) and Shara Worden (of My Brightest Diamond).  And when the queen (Shara Worden) sings, she’s pretty angry. She creates one of the harshest sounds I can think of by the Decemberists.

Interestingly, that song, “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” also contains one of the most beautiful passages that the Decemberists have done.  “The Wanting Comes in Waves” part of the song has an uplifting chorus, a wonderful melody and a beautiful sing-along.  Meanwhile, the “Repaid” part has some harsh, angular guitars and when the Queen repeats “repaid!” for the third time, the hair will stand up on your arms.  (Of course, the song then repeats the beautiful part once again…phew…and it is reprised at the end of the disc, because how could you NOT include that passage again?).

This record also features the catchiest song about infanticide that I know of.  “The Rake’s Song” rocks, and yet as you’re singing along to the simple but catchy chorus of “Alright, Alright, Alright,” you realize that the Rake has just killed all of his three children so that he can have a life as a free bachelor again.  (Revenge does come at the end).

And that revenge comes in one of the 4 versions of the title song.  What starts as a simple folky ditty (in Part 1) “singing, oh ho, the hazards of love,” morphs (in Part 2)  into a rocking track, then (in Part 3) a track with a children’s choir (my least favorite track on the disc–it works with the story, but I don’t care for the kids voices, really) and (finally) a haunting epilogue.

This is The Decemberists’ most striking album to date.  It is a bold attempt to alienate just about everyone, and yet I believe they have pulled off something just shy of a masterpiece.  The harshness of some of the songs still makes me a little uneasy (at least when listening with the kiddies), but the rewards are ample, and they really do fit perfectly with the plot.

I never expected the Decemberists to venture into prog rock territory but since they embraced it fully, they really pulled it off.  I do still need to get in and read the lyrics though, just to get all the details straight.  (They are legibly printed here).

[READ: June 1, 2009] Cat’s Cradle

This is the first “well-known” Vonnegut book I’ve read (not counting Slaughterhouse Five, which I’m going to re-read soon for the first time in fifteen or so years).  I’d heard of this book but never knew what it was about.  And, boy, trying to summarize is pretty tough.


Because Vonnegut invents an entire new religion and a fictional island on which to practice it.  And his characterization of the whole thing is so complete, that it is utterly believable.  And that’s only half the book.

So, let’s try this: John, the narrator decides to write a personal biography of Felix Hoenikker, the Father of the atomic bomb. Okay, so we know we are on somewhat fictional ground, and yet it is sort of based in reality.  Fine. (more…)

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