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SOUNDTRACK: LANG LANG-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #11 (April 17, 2020).

Lang Lang is a superstar pianist whom I have never heard of.  But I agree with the blurb that it’s neat to see a fantastic pianist playing at home.  He seems relaxed and loose.  And the camera angle allows us to see his fingers (and his whole swaying body) pretty clearly.

Here’s something unique: a chance to eavesdrop on the superstar pianist Lang Lang at home.

The 37-year-old pianist, who typically plays sold-out shows to thousands, says he’s taking his recent solitary time to learn new repertoire at home in Shanghai, China. And home is where he thinks we should all be.

He opens with Chopin’s calming “Nocturne No. 20 in C-sharp minor.”  I loved watching him slowly and deliberately play that last note.  It seems like he holds his finger above it for minutes, but it fits in perfectly.

Lang Lang’s latest passion is Bach – specifically the Goldberg Variations, a 75-minute-long cycle of immense complexity grounded in the composer’s durable beauty. Lang Lang offers the “18th and 19th variations,” pieces that in turn represent the strength of logic and the joy of the dance. It’s music, Lang Lang says, that “always brings me to play in another level of artistic thinking.”

These pieces are just magical.  Even if I don;t know them well, I can tell pretty immediately that they are Bach.  Lang Lang’s fluidity is wonderful, as is the way his whole body seems to be absorbing the music as he plays.

[READ: April 11, 2020]: Carnet de Voyage

From March 5 thru May 14, 2004 Craig Thompson was on an international book tour celebrating the success of his (fantastic) book Blankets.

This journal was his visual diary (no cameras were used, only his memory) of his trip.  His editors thought it would be interesting for him to document his trip (and it is).

He flies into Paris then a 2 hour plane trip to Lyon.  He draws pictures of where he has been and the people he has met (and some of their fascinating stories).  There’s some wonderful sketches of rooftops from hotel windows.

He does interviews for radio and magazines. He laughs that one of the photos shoots was in the streets of Paris, where he is all dressed up.  But really he’s a county bumpkin from Wisconsin. The drawing of himself as a glamorous guy and his bumpkin alter ego together is pretty hilarious.

On March 15 he left for Marrakesh, Morocco and this exotic location rally sets the stage for most of his artwork and what is sort of the only “plot” in the book.

He had also just broken up with his girlfriend which weighs on his mind quite a lot on the tour. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PEARL JAM-“Don’t Believe in Christmas” (2002).

On December 2, Pearl Jam announced that their fan club holiday singles will be released to streaming services.  Their first holiday single was released back in 1991.  It was “Let Me Sleep (Christmas Time).” They are rolling out the songs one at a time under the banner 12 Days of Pearl Jam.

These releases are coming out as a daily surprise.

Although yesterday’s song was full of Christmas cheer, this one is a rocking raspberry for Christmas.

It’s a pretty standard blues riff with the verses being just drums and vocals.  And it’s all about how last year’s Christmas was a real downer so he has given up on the holiday

I hung my stocking on a wall
I didn’t get a thing at all

It’s got the simple sing-along chorus:

I don’t believe in Christmas
I don’t believe in Christmas
I don’t believe in Christmas
’cause i didn’t get nothin’ last year

But as always, there’s a sly wink with all the bah humbug

Well i tried to get a little kiss
From a pretty little miss
She slapped me down and said “you jerk
Mistletoe doesn’t work”

There’s a nice guitar solo and then a surprising organ solo before the song wraps itself up in an tidy bow.

[READ: December 4, 2019] “The Unsupported Circle”

This year, S. ordered me The Short Story Advent Calendar.  This is my fourth time reading the Calendar.  I didn’t know about the first one until it was long out of print (sigh), but each year since has been very enjoyable.  Here’s what they say this year

The Short Story Advent Calendar is back! And to celebrate its fifth anniversary, we’ve decided to make the festivities even more festive, with five different coloured editions to help you ring in the holiday season.

No matter which colour you choose, the insides are the same: it’s another collection of expertly curated, individually bound short stories from some of the best writers in North America and beyond.

(This is a collection of literary, non-religious short stories for adults. For more information, visit our Frequently Asked Questions page.)

As always, each story is a surprise, so you won’t know what you’re getting until you crack the seal every morning starting December 1. Once you’ve read that day’s story, check back here to read an exclusive interview with the author.

Want a copy?  Order one here.

I’m pairing music this year with some Christmas songs that I have come across this year.

This is the kind of story that I really like and J. Robert Lennon is an author I would like to read more from.

The story is a series of unrelated vignettes–each one a movie or video–described by a narrator who we don’t meet for a while.

The first one is of a corporate retreat situation–a trust fall of sorts.

Next is a boy rapping on the street.  He has a humorous accident mid-video. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE DIVINE COMEDY-“Don’t Mention the War” (2019).

The Divine Comedy contributed a song to the Amazon Prime series Modern Love.

I don’t know anything about the show, but I was delighted to hear a new song from Neil Hannon.

This is a much quieter songs than he has put out recently. It features acoustic guitars and strings and over a slightly bouncy melody, he gently sings.

Do you remember when? No I don’t either
All this remembering we’re none the wiser
It’s time to let go and say

The chorus is similarly bouncy but more nostalgic than happy.

Don’t mention the war
Don’t talk of those days
What good is it for?
Don’t mention the war
Let history lie
Kiss the old days goodbye
They’re no help anymore
Don’t mention the war

This song isn’t mind blowing (an apparently is a left over from something else). but it’s a delightful slice of chamber pop.  I’d like to think it might introduce him to a whole new audience who will love him, but realistically, I think it will get some nice plays on Spotify and that’s good enough.

[READ: November 29, 2019] “Hurricane Season”

Sedaris says that when you grow up in North Carolina, you know not to get too attached to a beach house. If this year’s hurricane doesn’t get you, next year’s will.  And so it was in 2018 that Hurricane Florence took away their house, the Sea Section.

While Hugh was devastated David could only think to mock the old fashioned hurricane names “they sound like finalists in a pinochle tournament.”  Where’s Hurricane Madison or Skylar? Category 4 Fredonté?

They were in London when the hurricane hit, so their friend, owner of the Dark Side of the Dune checked on their house for them.  The pictures made  the place look so tawdry he was embarrassed to share them.

Luckily for them they had purchased the house that’s next door to the Sea Section as well –preemptively avoiding a McMansion (eight bedrooms were common, spread over three or  four stories).  The place is ancient by Emerald Isle standards (vintage 1972).  But what you really didn’t want next door to you was a swimming pool.  All you hear is Marco Polo over and over. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SNARKY PUPPY-Tiny Desk Concert #913 (November 20, 2019).

I feel like I’ve been hearing a lot about Snarky Puppy lately.  So much so that I assumed they were a new band.  Wrong:

Snarky Puppy has been a force for a while now, earning the ears of millions for more than a decade.  The band started as college friends in the jazz program at the University of North Texas back in 2003. But the formative era came a few years later, after Michael League [bassist and bandleader] became a part of the gospel scene in Dallas and eventually brought the jazz students to church, where music plays a different role than it does in the classroom. In the pulpit, it’s a channel for spiritual healing, a communal experience between players and congregation. As an experiment, League pulled his jazz friends and his gospel bandmates into one ensemble, where the two groups bonded together and established ground-zero for building the sonic identity of Snarky Puppy

I also had an idea that (because the name sounds similar to Skinny Puppy) that they might be a, what, young bratty dark punk band?  Wrong again.

Their secret sauce? A long-simmered recipe of jazz, funk and gospel.  Thirteen albums later, you can still hear these gospel and jazz orbits crashing into each other.

Oh, and one more thing.  They only play instrumentals.

They’re a band whose lyric-less melodies are still yelled (sung back) to them at their concerts around the world, as a shared catharsis for everyone in the room.

I really couldn’t have gotten that more wrong.

The band plays two songs in this lengthy set.

The first is called “Tarova.”  It opens with a wonderful sequence of keyboards.  Shaun Martin plays the keyboards with that talk box thing (made famous by Peter Frampton).  He seems to be having a kind of call and response solo with Bobby Sparks.  Sparks has the most fascinating thing on his keyboard.  A very large whammy bar/lever that he is able to push really far down to bend notes far more than any keyboard I’ve ever heard.  It was so much fun watching him do this, I was very glad he was up front.

During all of this, “JT” Thomas is keeping time on drums.  The song proper jumps in with a fun funky riff with lots of trumpets.  Everybody gets to do something impressive in this song and there’s a bunch of solos as well.

I really like the middle funky section that’s mostly bass and keys.

The song builds to a moment when everyone stops–after a two second pause which makes everyone clap, they resume with a great percussion solo from Nate Werth.

When the song ends, League introduces everyone and says who soloed.  He jokes, “That’s what you;re supposed to do in jazz, right, say who soloed n case anyone was confused that there were solos going on.”

Then he addresses the crowd.  He says that most people there are employees and family and an abundance of interns.  He wants to turn the cameras around for a minute (only one or two turn around) and force you into a musical rhythmic experiment.  Turns out that

Seconds before we hit record, Snarky Puppy’s bandleader, Michael League leaned in to ask if he could “do a little crowd work.” I suspect he waited until the last second on purpose, but it’s been easy to trust this band when they have an idea, judging by the three Grammy Awards they get to dust off at home after every tour run.

What resulted was a Tiny Desk first: League divided the audience into two sections, one side clapping out a 3/4 beat and the other half a 4/4 beat, creating a polyrhythm that I’m sure a handful of coworkers didn’t feel so confident trying to pull off. But this band pulls you in with simple instruction and a little faith.

League says, “we’re going to a polyrhythm because things have to get nerdy and unenjoyable.”  The crowd does admirably well with the two rhythms going on.  They are aided by Nate Werth on percussion who is really amazing (not necessarily here, but in the two songs).  I believe that they are creating 7/4.

The audience is warned that this polyrhythm will be used in the second song “Xavi,” dedicated to their friends in Morocco.

The song opens a funky bass and a lovely flute melody from Chris Bullock.  Then after a short guitar lick by Chris McQueen the whole band jumps in with a really funky melody.  The riff is taken over by two trumpets Justin Stanton (whose trumpet has a mute) and Jay Jennings (no mute) and Chris Bullock who is now on sax.

I was going to say you really don’t hear much of the violin in this set as it gets kind of melded with everything else.  Then mid way through the song, Zach Brock takes a wild and, often, effects-riddled solo in the middle of the song.  It might be my favorite part of a set that has many highlights.

The clapping part is used twice.  In the first one, the band is kind of quiet and the clapping is aided with great percussion from Werth and another lovely flute.

The guitar and bass in this song are fantastic even if they are never entirely prominent.  There’s also a very cool keyboard solo from trumpeter Justin Stanton.

Then the clapping comes around a second time.  During this one, there’s a guitar and keyboard making all kinds of sounds while the drums keep hitting everything, there;s more percussion and a little more flute.

The whole set is tremendous fun.  Totally not what I was expecting and so much better.

[READ: August 15, 2019] The Idiot

I grabbed this book because I had written down the author’s name as someone I wanted to read.  I also got a kick out of the title (and the obvious allusion to Dostoevsky).

I started the book and enjoyed it and then realized that I had read an excerpt from this story already.  And that is why I had written the author’s name down.

This book was written as a kind of response to her first book.  In an essay in The Guardian, she explained that:

In her first book, The Possessed, New Yorker journalist Elif Batuman complained that as an incipient novelist she was always being told to eschew books and focus on life. Literature since Don Quixote had been seen as false and sterile; disconnected from lived experience. After years as a graduate student of Russian literature, she decided to challenge this by writing an account of her own haphazard attempt to live with and through books.

Of the excerpt I wrote quite a lot (and quite a lot that almost gets left behind after the excerpt): (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KATE BUSH-“Under Ice/Waking the Witch” (1982).

A lot of the music I listen to is weird and probably creepy to other people, but I don’t necessarily think of songs as appropriate for Halloween or not.  So for this year’s Ghost Box stories, I consulted an “expert”: The Esquire list of Halloween songs you’ll play all year long.  The list has 45 songs–most of which I do not like.  So I picked 11 of them to post about.

Esquire didn’t pick this song, but the inclusion of Kate Bush yesterday reminded me of this pairing of songs which I find incredibly creepy–especially late at night wit headphones.

This comes from side two of the Hounds of Love album.  Side Two is a suite or a story called The Ninth Wave.  Kate makes full use of sound effects and vocal panning so that you can hear the voices all around your head as they whisper, call or threaten.

The side begins with the gentle “And Dream of Sheep” which shows a young woman falling asleep (later we find it’s not as innocent as it seems).  This segues into “Under Ice” which begins with slow string notes that sound like someone skating.

Kate’s voice is deep, slow and echoey as she sings about skating on the ice.  You can hear a voices calling, but she doesn’t heed them:

I’m speeding past trees
Leaving little lines in the ice
Cutting out, little lines in the ice
Splitting, splitting sound
Silver heels spitting, spitting snow

and then in a more tremulous voice (with great watery sound effects) followed by a chorus of voices:

There’s something moving under
Under the ice moving
Under ice through water
Trying to
It’s me
Get out of the cold water
It’s me
Something
It’s me
Someone, help them

The two minute song segues into “Waking the Witch” which opens with a whispered “Wake up!” and an early morning wake up call while voices from all over the headphones try to get you to wake up–some more gently than others.

After a minute or so of this the song becomes an intensely scary four minutes.  A voice of someone, pleading, but garbled and cut up–perhaps under water? It is a nightmarish attempt at communication when a deep scary male voice states (with Kate singing the parenthetical)

You won’t burn (red, red roses)
You won’t bleed (pinks and posies)
Confess to me, girl (red, red roses, go down)

With a pretty melody, a voice whispers Spiritus Sanctus in nomine.  It cuts to another chopped up and manipulated voice praying “Bless me, father, bless me father, for I have sinned.”

The deep voice returns in accusation:

I question your innocence
She’s a witch
(Help this blackbird, there’s a stone around my leg)
Ha, damn you, woman
(Help this blackbird, there’s a stone around my leg)
What say you, good people
(Guilty, guilty, guilty)
Well, are you responsible for your actions?
(This blackbird)
Not guilty (help this blackbird)
Wake up the witch

As the four minutes fades off, we hear a helicopter flying through the air and a man shouting

Get out of the waves!
Get out of the water!

The story continues from there and gets a bit more positive, but man, the cinematic detail of this is staggering. Apparently she was finally able to stage this suite when in 2014, she performed her first concerts since 1979.  I would have loved to have seen that.

[READ: October 23, 2019] “The Distributor”

Just in time for Halloween, from the people who brought me The Short Story Advent Calendar and The Ghost Box. and Ghost Box II. comes Ghost Box III.

This is once again a nifty little box (with a magnetic opening and a ribbon) which contains 11 stories for Halloween.  It is lovingly described thusly:

Oh god, it’s right behind me, isn’t it? There’s no use trying to run from Ghost Box III, the terrifying conclusion to our series of limited-edition horror box sets edited and introduced by Patton Oswalt.

There is no explicit “order” to these books; however, I’m going to read in the order they were stacked.

This has been quite possibly my favorite story in any of the Ghost Boxes.

Richard Matheson wrote I am Legend and many episodes of The Twilight Zone and this story was the epitome of dark suburban paranoia come to life.  It is also scarily timeless and, aside from some of the words used in the story, could easily have been written today. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THOM YORKE-“Volk” (2018).

A lot of the music I listen to is weird and probably creepy to other people, but I don’t necessarily think of songs as appropriate for Halloween or not.  So for this year’s Ghost Box stories, I consulted an “expert”: The Esquire list of Halloween songs you’ll play all year long.  The list has 45 songs–most of which I do not like.  So I picked 11 of them to post about.

I knew that Thom Yorke had scored the soundtrack to the film Suspirira.  I didn’t know that the film was a remake, or that the band Goblin scored the original or even what the film is about.

Esquire said that Yorke’s “Suspirium” was the creepy Halloween song from the record, but I don’t find it any more creepy than any Radiohead song–his vocals are so unmistakable that it’s all Radiohead to me.  However, this instrumental later in the soundtrack is definitely a creepy piece of music.

It opens with synthy twinkling that sounds more like scraping metal. Then a thin echoing synth melody takes off.  The sound of that melody morphs and shifts, growing louder and quieter and changing shape before returning to that original sound again.  After two minutes splashes of discordant keyboard sounds pop in and turn into various other sounds.

The song continues to move forward with a slow bass and atmospheric sounds.  It starts to get more tense around the four minute mark as more jagged sounds stab the air.  At nearly five minutes, drums come out of nowhere.  They lend a beat to the sounds, but the beat is frenetic and as unsettling as anything else and it just adds to the cacophony.

Then at around 5:45 everything abruptly gets turned off and sharply fades out except for some echoing sounds.

It seems over but for the last 30 seconds a pulsing wall of loud grunting seems to slowly creep out of the silence.

Shudder.

[READ: October 18, 2019] “Bayou de la Mère”

Just in time for Halloween, from the people who brought me The Short Story Advent Calendar and The Ghost Box. and Ghost Box II. comes Ghost Box III.

This is once again a nifty little box (with a magnetic opening and a ribbon) which contains 11 stories for Halloween.  It is lovingly described thusly:

Oh god, it’s right behind me, isn’t it? There’s no use trying to run from Ghost Box III, the terrifying conclusion to our series of limited-edition horror box sets edited and introduced by Patton Oswalt.

There is no explicit “order” to these books; however, I’m going to read in the order they were stacked.

I am familiar with Poppy Z. Brite, although I’m not sure exactly how.  Perhaps I am just familiar with the name because it is so unusual.  (It’s a pseudonym of course).

I always assumed Poppy was a woman, but indeed, Poppy is a man.

This story is also not particularly scary.  It is more of a story about the relentless hands of religion–which can indeed be scary. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: 47SOUL-Tiny Desk Concert #884 (August 26, 2019).

I had never heard of 47Soul and, surprisingly, the blurb doesn’t give any real background about the band.  So I had to turn to Wikipedia.

47Soul is a Jordanian Palestinian electronic music group.  The band’s first album, Shamstep, was released in 2015 and they are one of the main forces behind the Shamstep electronic dance music movement in the Middle East.

So what the heck is Shamstep?

Shamstep is based on mijwiz (a levantine folk musical style) and electronic dance.  ‘Sham’ refers to the local region of “Bilad al-Sham”, and ‘step’ refers to dubstep. The band’s music is also associated with the traditional dance called Dabke.

So, that’s a lot to take in, especially if you don’t know what half of those words mean.

The blurb does help a little bit more:

Shamstep is the creation of 47SOUL. At its heart is Arab roots music laced with dub, reggae and electronic dance music, including dubstep. It’s positive-force music with freedom, celebration and hope for the people of the Sham region (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).

47SOUL play three songs and their instrumentation is pretty fascinating.  Three of the guys sing.  They also play bass drum (Walaa Sbeit); darbuka– a small hand drum (Tareq Abu Kwaik); guitar (Hamza Arnaout) and synthesizers (Ramzy Suleiman).

So what do they sound like?

Well, the first song “Mo Light” opens with some very synthesized “traditional” Middle Eastern music.  It sounds like an electronic version of traditional instrumentation.  The guitar comes in with a sound that alternates between heavy metal riffage and reggae stabs.  The three singers take turns singing.  Walaa Sbeit is up first singing in Arabic.  Then there’s a middle section sung by Tareq Abu Kwaik who is playing the darbuka and an electronic drum pad.  His voice is a bit rougher (the Arabic is quite guttural).  Meanwhile Ramzy Suleiman adds backing vocals and seems to sing loudest in English.

For the next song, Tareq Abu Kwaik does the narration while introducing Walaa Sbeit:

“Is it ok if I do a little dance on your desk?” asked 47SOUL singer and percussionist Walaa Sbeit on first seeing the Tiny Desk. I thought a minute, went under the desk, tightened the bolts, stuck some splints of wood under a few of the uneven legs and (feeling reassured) gave him the nod. It would be our first traditional Middle Eastern Dabke dancing atop the Tiny Desk and the first sounds of Shamstep (a kind of electronic dance music) behind it.

The dancing involves a shocking amount of deep knee bends!

“Don’t Care Where You From” opens with a cool synth rhythm and then sung in English.  It’s fun watching Walaa Sbeit walk around with the bass drum slung over his shoulder as he does some dancing while playing.  The song is one of inclusion

Well you might be from Philly (?) or Tripoli / from the mountains or from the sea
maybe got the key to the city / don’t mean anything to me.

They don’t care where you’re from, it’s where you are that counts.

47SOUL’s message of equality, heard here at the Tiny Desk (and on the group’s current album, Balfron Promise) is meant for all the world. This is music without borders, mixing old and new, acoustic and electronic from a band formed in Amman Jordan, singing in Arabic and English. It’s one big, positive and poignant party.

It segues into “Jerusalem” with the controversial-sounding lyric: “Jerusalem is a prison of philosophy and religion.”  The middle of the song had an Arabic rap which sounds more gangster than any gangster rap.  The end of the song is an electronic dance as everybody gets into it–clapping along and banging on drums.

It’s pretty great. I hope they tour around here, I’d love to see them live.

[READ: August 27, 2019] Submarine

I saw this book on the shelf and was attracted by its busy cover.  I also thought the authors name sounded familiar.   And so it was.  I have read some of Dunthorne’s poems in Five Dials magazines.

This was his first novel.  And it sounded unusual.  The back cover had this excerpt:

I used to write questionnaires for my parents. I wanted to get to know them better.  I asked things like:

What hereditary illnesses am I likely to inherit?
What money and land am I likely to inherit?

Multiple choice:
If you child was adopted at what aged would you choose to tell him about his real mother?
a) 4-8
B) 9-14
C) 15-18

Dunthorne is from Wales, which made this story a little exotic as well.  It is set in Swansea, by the sea (where people surf!) (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ARI LENNOX-Tiny Desk Concert # 895 (September 25, 2019).

I had never heard of Ari Lennox.  And I assume I will never hear of her again after this show.

I gather she is popular and respected, but as soon as I heard the sounds that came out as the first song opened, I knew I’d never be listening to her again and when she sang in her sweet R&B voice “Why not tell me all the mother fucking things” several times, I knew she’d never get played on the radio.

So who is Ari Lennox?  The blurb is surprisingly unhelpful.

Earlier this Spring, Lennox staked her claim not only on J. Cole’s Dreamville imprint as the sole female artist but also in the upper echelon of R&B with her debut album, Shea Butter Baby.

I don’t know who J.Cole is either, but I guess I’m supposed to.

Turns out that cursing is in no way atypical for her.

Her nuanced but explicit — and sometimes lyrically graphic — approach to seemingly surface-level emotions and situations immediately struck a chord with fans.

The lyrics are particularly disarming because the music is mostly smooth twinkly keys from Chris Worthy with simple drums and percussion from CJ Trusclair and Stanley Banks Jr.

In between songs, she seems very sweet complimenting the women in the audience and just being genuinely pleasant.  Then she made me laugh with this comment

I know you’re here and a little young but this next song is called “Pussy Pop.” [pause] Jesus.

I don’t know if the first song “Speak to Me” gets airplay, but there’s no way “Pop” does with these lyrics

Pop this pussy
For you tonight
Will you promise? Baby
Won’t you make a promise?
That you’ll make me your wife

If you really love me
I’ll fuck you good
Fuck you good, fuck you good

She gets some vocal help from Dave James, although I’m not sure who he is either.

“New Apartment” is up next.  She introduces it saying, “I need you to bust it up for me, seriously everyone 50 and up I need you up front bustin it.”  Musically it’s a bit more interesting with a cool bass line from Jerome Lawrence.  The middle of the song features a very funny call-and response as she tries to get the NPR crowd to sing along:

Everybody say “Get the fuck out” which they do.  Then she goes on “Get the fuck out my apartment.  Fuck that shit that you’re talkin’.  What the fuck is you talkin’ about?”  The audience does sing along but they are subdued, as usual.  She jokes, “Don’t be shy.  Are you all religious?  Whats going on?”  At the end of the song she says, “You all are so sweet and holy.  Thank you so much for stepping outside of your comfort zones and cursing with me.”

“Shea Butter Baby” is my favorite song.  It’s got a rocking Prince vibe with a great guitar solo from Taylor Gamble.  She says, “I made it for my sexy brown queens because we’re sexy and fun.”  Midway through the song she steps back and says, “Now welcome J. Cole, y’all.”  The room goes silent apparently in huge anticipation until they realize she is joking and everyone laughs loudly.  I guess J.Cole is a big deal.

But whatever, it’s a funny moment and she certainly won me over.  So I wish her well as long as I don’t have to hear her music again.

[READ: July 2, 2019] Scooter Girl

I loved Chynna’s Blue Monday series.  I started getting the individual issues of Scooter Girl when it started, but I feel like I may have never gotten them all.  I did however get this collected book.  The interesting thing is that I thought I’d like to read it again, but when I started treading it I realized that I must have never read it at all.    I certainly didn’t recognize very much of it if I did.  In fairness, this was 14 years ago, but I doubt that this story would have vacated my head entirely.

So I love everything about Chynna’s “deal.”  I love her drawing style–her nods to manga in a westernized story.  I love her taste in music (she’s the reason why I started including “soundtracks” in my post in the first place., because all of her scenes have them.  (Although this soundtrack in no way accompanies this story).  I also love reading about the whole mod scene (and that she make it seem so much bigger than I assume it actually is).  I also love that her women are kick-ass.

And that’s why I was so disappointed in the ending of this story.

I was particularly disappointing because in Nabiel Kana’s introduction he says:

Ultimately, though, it’s he unexpected that makes Scooter Girl such a special story.  You think you’ve got it all worked it.  You think you know what you’re in for.  You’re wrong.

But I wasn’t surprised or wrong.

Everything about his story says these two people hate each other and they are obviously going to fall in love by the end.  And (spoiler alert) that’s what happens.  And that’s why I was so bummed.  Not because people shouldn’t fall in love, but because Ashton Archer is such a shit, such a horrifying man, that there’s no way Chynna should have allowed her amazing protagonist to fall for him.  Certainly in the #metoo world, this story would never fly.

The story begins with the King’s Classic.  This is a huge scooter rally in San Francisco: top mods and die-hard scooterists, whose main purpose was impressing everyone around them…themselves above all, of course.  Cut to some classic Chynna scenes of mods–beautiful boys and girls dancing, making out, and sitting on scooters.  Her art is always wonderful.

Then we meet Ashton.  Ashton is the greatest thing in town.  He hooks up with who he wants when he wants.  He has sex with women and tosses them aside.  But he is so groovy and wonderful that no one elver seems to catch on.  They just want him to spin records for them.   He tells us that the men in his family (the Archers) have always been this magnetic.  His grandfather had an affair with Clara Bow, Constance Talmadge and Louise Brooks.   The family is smart, charismatic, attractive, and rich.

Then a girl on a silver special rode up, her name was Margaret Sheldon.  She looked at Ashton and he was suddenly a clumsy idiot.  He actually crashes his bike in front of her.  Obviously he is upset by this but he gets a lot of sympathy in school the next day.  Until he sees that she has started school there too. As soon as he tries to talk to her he falls down the stairs.

We don’t really know what she thinks about this guy who continually falls on his ass or his face in front of her until we see her overhearing one of his mates ask him if he ever goes out with the same girl twice “only if she gives amazing head.”  They also say that the new girl has got a nice mouth on her.  Clearly she is pissed.  She immediately goes to the girls room and rats out what she just heard.  And the slaps come fast and furious.

As he becomes persona non grata at school, he decides to flee and heads off to San Diego (as you do in high school).

Four years pass and he’s got his mojo back.  He’s spinning in San Diego and is doing great.  Until he sees her on the dance floor.  Did she follow him?  Is it coincidence?  Well, all of his flubs come back–this time jeopardizing his spinning career.

He decides that he’s going to get closer to her to find out ways to torment her.  He befriends her brother.  Her brother is a cool guy, not too happy about hanging out with Ashton.  But they soon find that they have some things in common and actually become friends.  Bu the whole time, Ashton is messing with her stuff–hiding her keys, popping her tires, causing irritations.  But every time he tries to do anything around her he gets messed up big time.  His mojo has vanished.

He goes to visit his grandpa in the nursing home.  His grandpa tells a lengthy story about an Arhcer who lived 400 years ago during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  The Archer man was a stud of course, but when the women got wise to him, they put a curse on him.  That curse lives to this day when a woman from that family comes around.  His grandpa says the only solution is to kill her.

And so, strengthening his resolve, he deices he will kill her.   Of course all the attempts go horribly wrong.  So he decides to hire someone to do it for him.  This guy is a local drug dealer with a reputation (the reason he has such a bad reputation is quite hilarious).

Of course this doesn’t work and even more bad things happen to Ashton.

After all of this what on earth could he possibly do to make her fall for him at all?  It’s probably not worth the revelation.  Which is a shame because the individual scenes and the strength of Meg up until then is pretty fantastic.

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SOUNDTRACK: iLe-Tiny Desk Concert #874 (August 3, 2019).

It’s not very often that you hear a song that is all percussion.  But the first song of this set is only percussion and (Spanish) vocals.

iLe is a singer in the Puerto Rican band Calle 13.  Her most recent solo album Almadura:

is filled with metaphors and allegories about the political, social and economic conditions in Puerto Rico.

When vocalist Ileana Cabra Joglar and her band visited the Tiny Desk, they’d just arrived from the front lines of the historic demonstrations taking place in Puerto Rico. Two days earlier, they were part of a crowd of tens of thousands who were on the streets calling for the resignation of embattled Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. (Rosselló recently stepped down, effective August 2.)

Right from the start, it was clear what was on iLe’s mind in her song “Curandera” — “I am a healer / I don’t need candles to illuminate / I bring purifying water to cleanse / Removing pains so they never return” — as congas and percussion shook the room with an Afro-Caribbean beat.

This is the song in which all of the band members play percussion–primarily congas although Ismael Cancel is on the drum kit.  While everyone plays congas, it is Jeren Guzmán who is the most accomplished and who plays the fast conga “solo.”

In the chorus of the slow-burning “Contra Todo,” iLe sings about channeling inner strengths and frustrations to win battles and remake the world. Her lyrics are rich with history, capturing the spirit of the streets of San Juan even as she stood, eyes closed, behind the Tiny Desk. Her entire performance is a startling reflection of this moment in Puerto Rican history.

“Contra Todo” has a rich deep five string bass from Jonathan Gonzalez and two trombones (Joey Oyola and Nicolás Márquez). Two guitars (Bayoán Ríos and Adalberto Rosario) add a kind of percussive strumming and a quiet song-ending riff.  Jeren Guzmán plays the congas with mallets, something I’ve never seen before.

By the time iLe and her band launched into “Sin Masticar,” they’d already captured the full power of protest, as their musical arrangements raged with the intensity of a crowd joined by a shared cause and pulse.

“Sin Masticar” has a super catchy chorus, perhaps the best way to get people involved in a protest.

[READ: August 2019] Midnight Light

Two years ago Dave Bidini co-founded The West End Phoenix, a newspaper that is for people in Toronto’s West End.  It’s print, it’s old school, and it’s pretty awesome.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to the West End, but I find the writing and the content to be interesting and really enjoyable.

It’s no surprise that Bidini has worked in journalism and loved and hated it.

I’ve always loved newspaper: the smell of the ink and the rough of the newsprint weighted in my hands, their broadsheets flapping like Viking sails.  When I was a kid, our family read them all–the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The Sun, and before that The Telegram–at the kitchen table with each person drawing out whatever they needed: comics, sports, business, entertainment (and yet never Wheels, the Star’s automotive supplement).

He started writing before he picked up a guitar.  When he was 11 he submitted a poem about a hockey player to The Sun‘s “Young Sun” section.  It was accepted and he won a T-shirt.

In 1991, he was asked to write a regular column for a Star satellite weekly called Metropolis.  The day his first piece was to be in print he waited at the nearest newsbox for the delivery man.

But he had no stamina and fewer ideas and he was eventually let go.  Which led to writing books.  But he still wanted to write for the paper and then he remembered: Hey, Yellowknife had a newspaper.

This book is about journalism.  But it’s also about the Canadian North.  And while the journalism stuff is interesting–and the way it ties to the North is interesting too, it’s the outsider’s perspective of this region of the world (that most people don’t even think about) which is just amazing to read about–the people, the landscape, the conditions.  It’s fascinating. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: UMM KULTHUM (أم كلثوم‎‎)-“It is Too Late” (Fit al-ma’ ad) (1967).

I picked this song because it is mentioned in the story.

I don’t really understand the song and I didn’t really understand the story, so I guess it all fits.

Umm Kulthum was an Egyptian singer, songwriter, and film actress active from the 1920s to the 1970s. She was given the honorific title Kawkab al-Sharq (كوكب الشرق, “Star of the East”).

The version of the song that I found is 27 minutes long with three sections.  I can’t find anything useful in the way of translation (even of the title) which means “It’s too late” or “The rendez-vous is over.”

There are several parts to this song, although it is so traditional it is hard for me to determine them.  I also have a hard time understanding why her voice is so remarkable as she doesn’t really “do” very much.  She seems to have a limited range although with a lot of stamina.

Perhaps there is a different standard of excellence in Egyptian music.  Although I do understand how in the story she hears the song in the cab and calls him and he seems to take a Panadol then lays down and relaxes before turning on the radio and the song is still on.

[READ: June 1, 2019] “The Tortoise and the Hedgehog”

This is an excerpt from Sweileh’s novel Remorse Test.

It was translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright.  The original won an award for literature in 2017.

I include this last part because I found this story really hard to follow and even harder to enjoy.

It is written from the narrator to “you” and wonders what “remorse” is. (more…)

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