Archive for the ‘This American Life’ Category

[LISTENED TO: August 2015] The Organist

organistFor the second season of The Organist, they switched formats from the once a month 45-55 minute long amalgam of stories of last year to a one story an episode, once a week format.  The length hovers around 20 minutes now with some shows being much longer and others being much shorter.  It doesn’t make too much of a difference if you listen all at once as I did, but I can see that if you’re listening when they come out that a weekly podcast would be more satisfying.

However, they have also opted to have an “encore” episode every fourth episode in which they take one of the segments from an earlier episode and play it on its own.  How disappointing would it be to tune in and get a repeat?  And why on earth would they repeat things if all of the previous episodes are available online?  It’s very strange and frankly rather disappointing.  I mean, sure, it’s nice to have the new introductions, but it’s not like you’re getting some kind of special version when they repeat it.  It’s exactly the same.  And, boy, they tend to repeat some of my least favorite pieces.

Also the website now gives a pretty detailed summary of the contents of each episode, so you get a good sense of what’s going to happen. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE FLAMING LIPS-“Smoke on the Water” (2012).

There’s a new Deep Purple tribute album coming out shortly (is this the year of tributes?  what’s going on?).  Anyway, the lineup isn’t all that inspired, but I was curious to see what the Flaming Lips would do with that song

As with their recent reinterpretation of Dark Side of the Moon, this cover is respectful and utterly disrespectful.  Musically the song is pretty accurate. Well, the notes are the same.  But the style is very different, kind of wahwahed delicate chords–no heavy bass or anything.  But it’s the vocals that are the contentious point–he recites the entire song (which kind of works because it is a story) in a stilted, faux British accent.

The second verse has a very computerized voice singing an autotuned melody along with the recitation–sort of a harmony but not.  This voice continues through to the chorus (which the main vocals also simply recite).

I appreciate the Flaming Lips’ approaches to popular songs, but this version renders a big loud song kind of anemic.  Which is so weird because the last few Lips albums were so loud and bass-heavy.  I listened twice, I probably don’t need to listen again.

So, this is yet another tribute I won’t be buying.

[READ: August 22, 2012] Don’t Get Too Comfortable

I’m already making good on my promise to read more David Rakoff.  Indeed, as soon as I heard that he died, I put this book on hold at the library.  The strange thing about this book is that I feel like I read parts of it already.  I don’t feel like I read the whole book because some things were unfamiliar to me, and yet there was a strange feeling of déjà vu throughout the book.  But I looked in the front of the book to see where these essays had appeared and I don’t read any of the magazines where they initially showed up.  And while I like This American Life, I don’t really listen to it very often.  So either I read this book seven years ago or these pieces are inspirations for other pieces I have read (which is possible–two or three articles in here reminded me of things that A.J .Jacobs has since done).

So this collection of essays takes place during the early 2000s, George W. Bush’s first term (not the happiest time to be a gay Canadian living in New York).  But in addition to the first essay which is all about his quest for citizenship, it seems that Rakoff was now gainfully employed as a freelance writer.  Most of these essays seem to have been requested for magazines–like they sought him out to write them.  So his fame was clearly growing.  And, again, like A.J. Jacobs, he seems to have been picked as a guinea pig for certain pieces.   I don’t really know if this is a “genre” per se, I mean lots of un-knowledgeable people have gone into new experiences to write about them (insert inevitable David Foster Wallace reference here–but of course he wasn’t the first either).  But Rakoff’s subjects in the last couple essays seem to be closer to what Wikipedia calls Jacob’s “stunt” journalism. (more…)

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David Rakoff (1964-2012)

David Rakoff died Thursday from a resurgence of cancer.  For those unfamiliar with his work, think of darker, more cynical David Sedaris (did you think that was possible?).  The biggest difference between Rakoff and Sedaris is that Rakoff is Canadian.  And he is more of a world traveler.  I say this not really knowing anything about how much they actually traveled.  I mean, sure, Sedaris travels the world for book tours and such, but Rakoff actually lived in foreign lands.  Wait, you say, Sedaris lives in France.  Yes, but Rakoff lived in Tokyo (which automatically makes him more exotic).  And he actually knew Japanese (kind of) whereas Sedaris seems to have not learned any French in the years he has lived there–if his essays are to be believed.

All of this is by way of introduction to using Rakoff’s description of himself as a “New York writer” who also happened to be a “Canadian writer”, a “Jewish writer”, a “gay writer'” and an “East Asian Studies major who has forgotten most of his Japanese” writer.

I’ve only read one of Rakoff’s three books, Fraud.  And about that I said: (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RUSH-“Headlong Flight” (2012).

A new single from Rush came out on Thursday.  And it’s seven minutes long!  Yeeha!  It’s also really heavy.

It opens with a cool bass riff and then thundering guitars.  This song continues in the heavier, grungier sound from Vapor Trails.  The middle section sounds distinctly Rush (late 80s style), and Geddy’s voice hits some pretty high notes.

There’s a brief extra section with a spoken word part–I’ve not been able to make out what it says, but the instruments (especially the great guitar sound) is fantastic behind it.  That’s followed by a great solo from Alex (that hearkens back to his wild solos from the 70s).  Geddy throws some cool bass fills–although he’s not showing off as much as he might).  And, of course, Neil is doing some cool drum things through the song–little fills and whatnot–and he sounds like he’s pounding the hell out of the drums.

Here’s the video

[READ: April 14, 2012] Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

As I mentioned yesterday, I bought a book to have David Sedaris sign it, but decided the wait wasn’t worth it.  This is the book I bought.  It very excitedly claims to “with one new story” which I thought was funny both in itself and also because I hadn’t read any of the other ones (I gather they are from This American Life, although they’re mostly too vulgar to have read on the radio).  It also has illustrations from Ian Falconer, who is the guy behind Olivia, the children’s book series.

Anyone who has read David Sedaris essays knows what to expect–funny, presumably exaggerated stories about his family and loved ones.  Indeed, the stories that he read from during the show were just that–dark and funny and about his loved ones.  So imagine my surprise to find that these were all short fictional stories about animals!  No Sedaris’ are harmed in this book.

All of the animals are behaving like people, so Sedaris’ caustic wit and attacks on hypocrisy are all in play.  However, because they are animals, Sedaris can go much much further with them.  Matt Groening said that he could get away with a lot more social criticism because The Simpsons were cartoons; the same applies here.  Indeed, these are some of the darkest stories that I have ever read from Sedaris.

Some of them are kinda funny, but most of them left me mildly bemused at best.  Because while they seem to be a kind of laugh-at-the-recognition-of-our-foolish-behavior (as done by animals), really they are preachy and seem generally disappointed in us.   And who wants to read that?  It basically seemed like an opportunity for Sedaris to make fun of things that he doesn’t like about people.  But he knew it would be obnoxious to makes stories about people acting that way, so he made them animals instead.  And perhaps he thought that would make it funnier.  At times this was true, but not very often. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACKMETRIC-Fantasies (2009).

I was hooked by the song “Gold Guns Girls.”  I liked it so much, I bought the disc, and I was absolutely not disappointed.  This disc reminds me of all of the best things about late 90s alt rock (one of my favorite musical periods).  There are echoes of later period Lush, or of Garbage or some other slickly produced commercial alt-rock.

I’m led to understand that this disc would merit cries of sell-out from older fans (their earlier stuff it a bit rougher, I gather), and yes, this is a pretty commercial release, but I don’t mind.  The songs are all top-notch: great songwriting, catchy choruses, wonderful production.  And there’s something slightly uncommercial about the lyrics which I think is what keeps this album from being too slick for its own good.

I have listened to this disc dozens of times at this point and I never get tired of it.  And, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t go back and get some of their earlier releases too.

[READ: May 15, 2011] Fraud

I’ve seen Rakoff on the Daily Show, and his name has been cropping up in various places lately.  So I decided to read his actual published work to see what he was all about.

Fraud is his first book.  It is mostly funny, although it also dwells on serious matters by the end of the book.  In many ways Rakoff is like a slightly wilder, slightly edgier version of David Sedaris (the two have a long history of friendship and working together, so this may not be totally surprising).

I’m not going to compare him to Sedaris in any meaningful way, just to say that there are similarities of temperament and style; I don’t think either one of them is hilarious, but that I enjoy both of them and often laugh pretty hard at their material.

I’m also not going to review each essay in this book.  It seems to be constructed in a vague sort of narrative arc.  Well, actually, the second half of the book has the narrative arc (I suspect that the essays that were published previously were modified slightly and that the new essays allude to some of the incidents mentioned there.

The first few essays of the book are the funnier ones (insert joke about Woody Allen’s early funny movies here), and they stick more to the idea of Rakoff as a “Fraud.”  In them, Rakoff, a Canadian ex-pat (he’s from Toronto), somewhat neurotic, gay, New York Jew goes to different locations where he is an atypical person and then reports on them. (more…)

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[LISTENED TO: November 18, 2010] Consider the Lobster

This was the final audio book that DFW read.  As with Brief Interviews, this is a collection of selected, unedited essays [actually it says “Text slightly edited for audio, with changes approved by the author.”  I don’t know these essays verbatim, but it seems like the changes simply acknowledge that this an audio essay and not a written one].

The only problem with the entire package is how few essays were selected.

I don’t know if it’s because this collection was recorded later and DFW felt more comfortable reading or because DFW had more fun reading these essays or that these essays lend themselves to more animated reading, but this collection is absolutely stellar.

The audio book includes

  • Consider the Lobster
  • The View from Mrs. Thompson’s
  • Big Red Son
  • How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart

and, sadly, that’s it.

Not included are (more…)

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[LISTENED TO: October 20, 2010] Readings

This (all too brief) collection of readings by David Foster Wallace includes several excerpts and a few shorter pieces.  I’ve noticed that there seem to be more and more videos (audios) of DFW reading on YouTube.  If I had time I would try to gather all of these videos (or even just try to watch them), but for now, I’ll stick with what’s at the David Foster Wallace Audio Project.

The Consider the Lobster reading is an excerpt from”The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”.  I’d never heard him read this piece before and it is a fascinating look at the events of 9/11/01 from Bloomington, Indiana.  I haven’t read the piece in a few years and it was quite affecting to hear him read it aloud.  The introduction was also interesting because he mentions that this is the quickest piece he has ever written (I wonder how many drafts he was able to do in that short period). (more…)

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back coverSOUNDTRACK: HÜSKER DÜ-Metal Circus EP (1983).

HuskerDuMetalCircusAfter the insane hardcore mess of Land Speed Record, this EP is a bit of a change.  It’s still pretty hardcore, but now you can tell that the noisiness of the guitar is deliberate.  Bob Mould is playing around with multiple layers of feedback and distortion to create a wall of noise that sometimes hides, sometime accentuates the overall sound.

What strikes me as odd in retrospect is that I think of Bob Mould as one of alternative rock’s poppier songwriters.  And yet when you listen to this disc the two poppiest (which is a relative term to be sure) tracks are by Grant Hart.

The first two tracks are fast and furious.  But what separates them from 4 x 4 hardcore is, mostly Greg Norton’s bass.  He’s all over the place.  There’s also some diversity within the songs themselves (a little guitar squeal in “Deadly Skies”).

“It’s Not Funny Anymore” (Hart’s song) is surprisingly upbeat (with guitar harmonics) and is not quite as noisy (although it’s still pretty noisy, and is not going on the radio anytime soon).

The next two track are more of Mould’s screamy hardcore.

The longest song (4 and a half minutes) is also by Hart. “Diane” is a creepy song about abduction and murder (yet with something of a  singalong chorus).  I actually know the Therapy? version better because I had listened to that disc a lot when it came out.  But the Hüsker’s version is even creepier.  Wikipedia says it is about a real incident (which makes it less creepy than if Hart has made it up, I suppose).

It ends with Mould’s least hardcore song, although the guitar solo is pretty insane.

And then it’s over.  7 songs in twenty minutes.  That’s nearly half as many as on Land Speed Record.  You can see the songs changing already.  Just wait till the next disc!

[READ: June 29, 2009] McSweeney’s #5

McSweeney’s #5 plays with cover ideas again.  On this one, frontthe cover idea is actual different covers and slipcovers.  The book is hardcover, with three different cover designs.  It also has 4 different slipcover designs. The colophon explains that if one wanted one could have requested for free) each of the cover designs because they did not intend to make people buy multiple issues.  Click on the covers to see them enlarged on flickr (all images are copyright McSweeney’s).

This is the Koppel front cover.

I will quote from the McSweeney’s site their description of the covers:

As many of you know, the new issue of our print version is out, and by now is in most stores. This issue is a hardcover book, and features four different dust jackets. One dust jacket has on it a man who seems to be suffering from terrible skin lesions. The second cover looks very much like the cover of Issue No. 1, with the addition of a medical drawing of a severed arm. The third cover is blank, with all of its images hiding on the back. Hiding from the bad people. The last cover is just red. Or, if you will, simply red.

In addition, under each dust jacket is a different cover. One features pictures of Ted Koppel. One features new work by Susan Minot. And a third features a variation on the second cover, described above, though this version is legible only with aid of mirror. This inner cover also is featured under the red dust jacket.

I was quite surprised when I took the slipcover off mine, (more…)

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