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Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: LITTLE BIG TOWN-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #91 (October 6, 2020).

Little Big Town is a country band that has been around for a while.  I feel like I’ve heard of them, but I’m not sure.

Evidently the band is really the four main singers, but they have added more touring members for this Concert.

They open with “Nightfall.” It has nice folkie guitar and Karen Fairchild sings with a strong folksinger style. The snaps from Hubert Payne’s drums really ring out in a cool way.  Thee upright bass John Thomasson adds a nice anchor to the melody.

I thought maybe they weren’t all that country after all.  But as soon as the chorus jumps in and the accents start flying–especially the high notes from Kimberly Schlapman–the country has come into the house.  The song is catchy though.

Up next guitarist Phillip Sweet jokes is the “most profound thing” they’ve done.  “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” opens with a surprise trumpet intro from Jacob Bryant.  Although songs about drinking are about as cliché as they come, the stompin,’ dopey tone is quite fun and Jimi Westbrook’s lead delivery sells it well.

They apparently use some songwriters known as the Love Junkies who came up with “Girl Crush.”  There’s some nice harmonies on this track.  You really can’t hear keyboard player Akil Thompson on the other songs, but his chords ring through here.  Westbrook puts down his guitar while Sweet plays.

They end with “Boondocks” their first hit about where they come from.  I like the bowed bass and Evan Weatherford’s slide guitar lead, but the thought of thousands of people stompin’ along to these lyrics is a tad disturbing.

[READ: October 5, 2020] Parable of the Talents [an excerpt]

During the COVID Quarantine, venerable publisher Hingston & Olsen created, under the editorship of Rebecca Romney, a gorgeous box of 12 stories.  It has a die-cut opening to allow the top book’s central image to show through (each book’s center is different).  You can get a copy here. This is a collection of science fiction stories written from 1836 to 1998.  Each story imagines the future–some further into the future than others. As it says on the back of the box

Their future.  Our present.  From social reforms to climate change, video chat to the new face of fascism, Projections is a collection of 12 sci-fi stories that anticipated life in the present day.

About this story, Romney writes:

I’ve ended this collection with a meteor.  An African -America woman born with “hyperempathy” must navigate the 2020as and 2030s in a hellscape formed by climate change disasters…  The reader is introduced to a rising demagogue whose slogan in “make America great again.”  Did that send chills down your spine?

At the time she was writing, however, it’s more likely she was inspired by the past than by the future.  When Ronald Reagan accepted the presidential nomination from the 1980 Republican National Committee, he gave a speech in which he promised, “For those who’ve abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.  Butler perceived the problems behind that phrase and used science fiction to explore how such a mindset could lead to history repeating itself, resulting in story that is even more powerful today than when she first wrote it.

I first looked at the date of 1998 and thought it was so current, not exactly realizing it was 22 years (and a lifetime) ago.  Without even reading the story, just reading the above paragraph, it’s pretty easy to see exactly what Reagan wrought.  He really was the beginning of the end for the country.

And Butler could totally read the writing on the wall.

Not much happens in this excerpt.  A farm is burned and most people killed. the refugees take shelter with the narrator at their farm/commune.

It’s the details below that are so chilling. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JAPANESE BREAKFAST-Live at Philly Music Fest @Ardmore Music Hall, Philadelphia PA, September 25, 2020).

I saw Japanese Breakfast back in 2018 at Union Transfer.  It was a really fun show.  Since Michelle Zauner is from Philly she really made the show personal. 

During the introduction to her set for Philly Music Fest, the announcer said that he’d been trying to get Japanese Breakfast to play this festival since it began.  So one good thing about the pandemic was that the band was still in Philly and not world touring.

We got to watch the band come out from back stage, take up their instruments and start “Diving Woman.”  This song has a wonderful, memorable bass line and a jamming guitar solo from her lead guitarist.

For this show she had the addition of Molly on violin.  Molly added so much to the upbeat and poppy “In Heaven.”

Michelle put down the guitar for “The Woman That Loves You,” a shorter song that was followed by the funkier “Road Head.”  This song is really catchy and has a very interesting slide sound from the bass.

It was funny to see her not playing the guitar because usually when she just had the microphone, she would interact with the crowd some.  But she only had the video monitor to look at.  Nevertheless, after the song she said “it feels great to feel like you have a purpose again.”

They played a new song–the first time the band played it together–called  “Kokomo Indiana” which is from the perspective of a love-lorn 17 year-old boy whose girlfriend moved to Australia for a summer exchange program.  It was a slower song with a slide guitar melody.

Michelle returned to the guitar for “Boyish” the catchy song from her old band Little Big League, with the chorus

I can’t get you off my mind
I can’t get you off in general
so here we are we’re just two losers
I want you and you want something more beautiful

Up next was “The Body is a Blade” with some slinky guitar lines.  After the song, someone triggered a sample of a crowd cheering, which was fun to hear and made Michele laugh.

Michelle put the guitar down again for “Essentially,” with a dynamite bass line that runs through the song.

Then she sat at the keyboard for the next song.  A new one called “Tactic.”  This is the first time she’s sat at the keyboard, “I feel very professional.” Her guitarist also played keys for this slow song.

She commented that it was lovely to see The Districts play–they are rehearsal space buddies and she felt it was surreal hearing them practice for the same show that her band was.

Then it as time for an old classic, the bouncy “Heft,” with a really nifty guitar line after the chorus.

During the quarantine, Michelle made a quarantine music project with Ryan from Crying.  The band is called BUMPER, and they released an EP called Pop Songs 2020.  She did a countrified version of the song “Ballad O” which was a look at both perspectives from Kenny Roger’s “Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”  Peter plays the slide guitar and the drummer sings the male parts.

She announced that her bass player Devon was going to get married (cue the fake cheers from the sampler) and so she was going to play a sing about marriage, “Til Death.”  This is the first song I’d heard from Japanese Breakfast many years ago and it always sounds great live.  The opening verse feels even more poignant today:

all our celebrities keep dying
while the cruel men continue to win

Then came a surprise cover: Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels.”  Musically it sounded spot on and I enjoyed her vocal take on it–not unusual or weird, just very differed with her voice instead of Roland Orzabal’s.  Then for the “da da da da” part at the end, three of The Districts came out (with masks on) to sing into one of the microphones.  It was a wonderful moment of live spontaneity (or not, but still) that is what makes live shows so much fun.

They followed that with a ripping version of “Everybody Wants to Love You.”  The drummer sang the backing vocals on this part to good effect.

Michelle took a moment before the last song to use her platform and say that of course “Black Lives Matter.  Not just saying it, it means marching and fighting.  Please vote.  We must work to defund the police and invest in our communities.”

That’s another thing I’d missed about live shows–bonding over good causes.

They ended with a “goofy” cover of a “Taste of Ink” by The Used.   I don’t know the song or the band, but it was a jangly bouncing song and the most rocking song of the night.

And then it was over.   While it was nice not having to drive an hour to get home, I still would have preferred to be there (although maybe not right now).

Diving Woman [§]
In Heaven [¶]
The Woman That Loves You [¶]
Road Head [§]
Kokomo, Indiana [new]
Boyish [Little Big League song]
The Body is a Blade [§]
Essentially [newish]
Tactic [new]
Heft [¶]
Ballad 0 [BUMPER song]
Til Death [§]
Head Over Heels [Tears for Fears cover]
Everybody Wants to Love You [¶]
Taste of Ink [The Used cover]

[§] Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017)
[¶] Psychopomp (2016)

[READ: September 24, 2020] “Sultana’s Dream”

During the COVID Quarantine, venerable publisher Hingston & Olsen created, under the editorship of Rebecca Romney, a gorgeous box of 12 stories.  It has a die-cut opening to allow the top book’s central image to show through (each book’s center is different).  You can get a copy here.

This is a collection of science fiction stories written from 1836 to 1998.  Each story imagines the future–some further into the future than others.

As it says on the back of the box

Their future.  Our present.  From social reforms to climate change, video chat to the new face of fascism, Projections is a collection of 12 sci-fi stories that anticipated life in the present day.

About this story, Romney writes

I first learned about Muslim Bengalese feminist and writer Begum Rokeya through a massive landmark anthology: Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Big Book of Science Fiction published in 2016. …  The story was first published in The Indian Ladies Journal in 1905…. She simply switches the roles of men and women in her Muslim society.  This may seem like a simple trick, but … writers of science fiction have long known that sometimes a switch on perspective is all it takes to illuminate truths that are otherwise obscure.

This story is pretty simple and straightforward.  A woman, Sultana, falls asleep.  She dreams (or is it real?) that a woman named Sister Sara has come to walk her through the streets of Darjeeling. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: clipping.-“Chapter 319″/”Knees on the Ground” (2020).

On June 19, clipping. released this excellent track, “Chapter 319.”

clipping. has often released music that is harsh and unpleasant (great, but not “pleasant”).  This song, removes a bit of the musical harshness to focus on the vocals.  It’s still abrasive and cacophonous, but it’s meant to be heard by a lot of people.

After a sample, Daveed Diggs raps over a rumbling bass line.

Left, right, left

How long can we holler when it ain’t no breath?
You keep killing fathers without no regrets
Then keep on countin’ dollars ’til it ain’t none left
So the streets gon’ keep on marching like
Left, right, left

The middle of the song adds some complicated drums and effects but the focus is the lyrics:

This march a foot in yo fucking throat to choke out
The whole assumption that you are here to protect … us
This government doesn’t respect … us
And somehow they seem to expect … us to accept
The power a piece of shit millionaire president wants to project

Diggs raps in a normal flow and then adds some remarkably fast verses.  But the spotlight comes with this section, repeated twice.  It is not the chorus, it is more of a hook, with the music pausing at the full stop.

donald trump is a white supremacist / full stop
if you vote for him again, you’re a white supremacist / full stop

Full stop.

The other song on this release is called “Knees on the Ground” which was originally released in 2014.

The fact that lyrically it could have been written in 2020 is a succinct testament to systemic racism in four minutes.

Six thumps that sound like someone pounding on a door are the only sound bedsides Diggs’ lyrics (and some sound effects).   The pounding is unnerving as you can imagine who is on the other side.

An intense middle section has this quickly rapped verse:

Brown boy sitting on his knees with his eyes shut
Hands behind his head fingers woven pinkies up
Saying he ain’t even doin’ nothing what you want T
hey threw him on the ground when he called them all punks
Retro blue and white Jordans tongues out
Over the black jeans cuffed just the right amount
To make them bunch by the calves how he like
Just ran out of boxer briefs so he wearing tighty-whities
With a white t-shirt and the breeze catch it just so
Pressing it tight against his chest so the red hole
Is getting wider and the blood is soaking in the fabric
And pooling on the ground he looks down automatic
And the dark pavement gets darker when it’s wet
He’s losing balance slow with his hands on his head
So his face hits first and his eyes go dead
And the air is sucked out of the world with his last breath

Then the pounding comes back for another verse.  The chorus has some eerily quiet echoing chords as he recites:

Keep your knees on the ground where they belong.

It ends with noise and static.

Proceeds from the sale of the song go to organizations for racial justice.

[READ: July 20, 2020] Stamped

This book has been on the top of everyone’s recommended lists for being proactive about understanding systemic racism.

I didn’t quite understand what the subtitle meant by a remix, but the acknowledgements explain that Kendi wrote his book Stamped from the Beginning as

a history book that could be devoured by as many people as possible–without shortchanging the serious complexities–because racist ideas and their history have affected us all. But Jason Reynolds took his remix of Stamped from the Beginning to another level of accessibility and luster…that will impact generations of young and not so young people.

Reynolds is a multi-award-winning author of books for children.  He is also a teacher.  He knows how to write a compelling story.

I haven’t read Stamped form the Beginning, but this remix is outstanding. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BENEVENTO/RUSSO DUO-Best Reason To Buy The Sun (2005).

I’ve become a huge fan of Marco Benevento over the last few years.  When I saw that he was releasing these earlier records with Joe Russo (of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead) I was intrigued.

This set up is indeed a duo.  It’s just Russo on drums and Benevento on all manner of keyboard sounds.  (There are a couple of guests later in the record).  The sound is really full–Marco’s low end is fat and heavy and never wavers no matter what melodies he plays.

This album is all instrumental and there’s quite a lot of diversity in the sounds.  Most of the songs are relatively short (around the 4 minute mark), but a few do stretch out.

The disc opens with “Becky” which has a great funky bass and drums.  There’s some typically weird sounds from Russo’s drums to start (showing that he’s not only going to be keeping time) and a nice distortion filter on the keys.  “Welcome Red” starts with accordion!  It morphs into a slow grooving song with a pretty melody that’s accompanied by bells.  “Sunny’s Song” is brighter and bouncier with a pretty main riff on the keys and the bells.  Half way through the song gets bigger and it rocks harder with lots of cymbals.  Smokey Hormel adds some guitar to this song.

“Vortex” is slower and trippier with a kind of ice-skating rink vibe.  Eventually the song kind of takes off into an outer space sound.  “9×9” pushes past the six minute mark with a slow melody that’s accented by sprinklings of trippy sounds.  There’s some really dynamite drumming in this song.  By the end, it takes off, really rocking as it segues into “Scratchitti.”

On “Scratchitti,” Skerik plays some horns and Mike Dillion adds percussion (it’s impossible to know what he is playing that Russo isn’t).  This is the first weird song on the record.  It’s off kilter with noisy funk (Skerik is all over the place).  Although it does have a really catchy melody and a great bass sound from Marco.  There’s a middle section where things stretch out nicely turning kind of spacey–a trait for this album.

All three guests appear on “Three Question Marks.”  It’s a piano-based song and is jazzy in a kind of free jazz, everybody soloing kind of way.  Midway through the song Marco plays the strings of his piano, making a kind of harp sound before Russo (and Dillon?) get a drum solo.  With about a minute left, the song turns into a manic freakout with Skerik’s wailing sax and Hormel’s wailing guitar both fighting for dominance.

MIke Dillon appears on “Bronko’s Blues” which is slow and jazzy with a 1970s style keyboard solo.

The disc ends with “My Pet Goat” which is a slow jamming song that runs about 15 minutes.  Skerik, Dillon and Hormel all appear.  The first 8 minutes are slow chords over a fast syncopated drum pattern.  About half way through, there’s a pause and the second half of the song picks up with a new slow section based around some big bass notes.

I enjoyed this album a lot and thought it was really fun.  It’s a solid record of catchy, but not poppy insturmentals with a jazzy feel despite not being a jazz album.

There’s a bonus track–a 9 minute version of “The Three Question Marks.”  This is a big jamming monstrosity of a song. I don’t really recognize the original in it, but then I don’t think the original is all that recognizable.  This song has lots and lots of drums in it.

[READ: September 1, 2020] “The God of Dark Laughter”

This story is quite dark and it is written in a style that makes it feel much older than it actually is.

It listen as a report from a district attorney who is investigating a grisly crime.  The introduction to the report says

I make the following report in no confidence that it, or I will be believed, and beg the reader to consider this, at least in part, my letter of resignation.

Two boys found a dead body.  They were not innocent children–they had been killing squirrels and were covered in blood–but even they were disturbed by what they found.  The body was dressed like a clown and was surgically mutilated.

Only two weeks earlier the Entwhistle-Ealing Bros. circus had left town, so the D.A. called the circus owner to see if they knew of a missing performer.  The owner would check, but he wanted the D.A. to know that clowns have unsuspected depth–who knew what hey might get up to..

Sometime later they found the clown’s effects.  He had been living in a cave near by.  The cave smelled terrible.  Among his effects, they found clown makeup and clothes as well as some intellectual books including one in German by Friedrich von Junzt.

The D.A. went to the library to research this von Junzt fellow.  There was nothing in the card catalog for Von Junzt–not surprising for a small town–and no reference materials mentioned him. But there was a word in von Junzt’s book that stood out.  When he saw it again in another book, he had to put them together.

With the help of a dictionary the D.A. started clumsily translating the book which was written around 1895.  He learned that in Northern Armenia there were two competing cults.  The first supported Ye-Heh, the god of Dark Laughter.  They viewed the world as a cosmic hoax–the world was terrible but you had to laugh about it.  The descendants of this cult grew paler and some believe that the idea of white face for clowns comes from this cult.  The other cult worshiped Ai the God of Unbearable and Ubiquitous Sorrow.  They also believed the world was terrible bit that you should cry about it.  They set about killing all of the Ye-Heh believers.

As a man of the law, he had always followed the principles of Occam’s Razor, but this made him question everything.

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download (89)SOUNDTRACK: BORIS-Archive Volume Two “Drumless Shows” (2005/2020). 

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In early August, Boris digitally released six archival releases.  Volume Two is called “Drumless Shows” and that’s what it contains.

I tend to think of drummer Atsuo as the leader of the band–he’s the mouthpiece after all. Plus, he’s the most larger than life of the three.  And, his drum sound is huge.

To have 46 minutes of drummless Boris music is quite a change.  It is, as the blurb says, the beginning of Drone Metal history.

Originally released in 2005 from the US label “aRCHIVE”, limited to 600 copies which sold out immediately. Includes 2 songs recorded live from Boris’s 1998 studio album “Amplifier Worship” and 1 song from “Early Demo”, all arranged for a drumless performance. The beginning of Drone Metal history in 1997.
(Reissued as part of Archive 1 on March 5, 2014. Limited to 1,000 copies)

The first of two songs from Amplifier Worship is “Huge” which was also on Archive 1 (this version was recorded at Nagoya Music Farm 9th Aug 1997).  It is 17 minutes long and is very different sounding without the drums.  It’s all drone with one of the instruments sounding almost like a didgeridoo.  After ten minutes echoing screamed vocals comes in but the drone remains.

The final two songs were recorded at Koenji 20000V 8th Aug 1997.  “Mosquito” was also on Archive 1.  It was three minutes there, but it is stretched out to 17 minutes of slow pummeling chords and guttural noises from Atsuo (I assume).  After ten minutes Atsuo starts chanting slowly with the thumping chords.  The final chords echo and feedback as they segue into

“Vomitself” also from Amplifier.  This track is only 12 minutes of drone.  About six minutes in the melody changes briefly before reverting back to the original sound.  For the final two or so minutes, squealing feedback brings this archive to a close.

Takeshi: Bass & Vocal ; Wata: Guitar & Echo ; Atsuo: Drums & Vocal.

[READ: August 12, 2020] Peep Show

Thirteen years ago I read Braff’s The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green and really liked it.  Then I forgot all about him.

This book was nothing like his more whimsical first novel.

It is set in the mid 1970s.  The main character is David Arbus, a seventeen year old high school student in New Jersey.  His main interest is photography.  He has a younger sister, Debra, whom he loves very much.  But his parents are something else entirely.

David’s father owns “real estate” in New York City.  This means that he owns The Imperial, a burlesque theater where women strip for money.  But this is the 1970s and men don’t just want tame strip shows anymore–they want to see everything.  They want porn flicks.  They want peep show booths.  They want sex toys.

But David’s father doesn’t want any of that.  He wants his business to stay “classy,” even though all of his friends and partners think he’s crazy for passing up the opportunity to make a lot more money.

David is aware of his father’s business although Debra is not. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KT TUNSTALL-“Wash ya Hands” (2020).

KT Tunstall has been on my radar a lot lately (I think she’l l have about five posts about shows I’m not going to).  Turns out that she released a special COVID-19-related song called “Wash Ya Hands.”

It’s not a great–but it is danceable and funny–for a song that’s all about a message.

The music starts kind of menacing (which is appropriate I suppose) with some swelling strings.  But it’s all about dancing and washing your hands.

Lyrically it’s pretty straightforward and easy:

Here’s the rules you have to follow
Wash your hands while you can
Keep on following the plan
Keep your fingers off your face
Keep your distance, give a wave
Call your fiends that you love
Shout out who you’re thinking of
If you gotta cough don’t be dumb
And don’t forget your thumbs.

Those last two lines fall flat, for sure.

However, the video is pretty cute and it’s full of kids dancing around (and the song is clearly for them).

The middle breakdown section is interesting with strings and lots of percussion, including water droplet sounds.

The end adds a bit more fun when the song moves up a step and the lyrics continue:

Wash your hands while you dance
in your favorite underpants.

It’s a positive message in a negative time.  Remember: all you’re spreading is love.

[READ: July 4, 2020] Becoming RGB

Why is is that children’s (graphic novel) biographies are so good?  Is it because they can focus on all of the important things in a short amount of space?  Is it because it is written at a levy that is easy for anyone to understand?  Whatever the reason, this biography of the amazing Ruth Bader Ginsburg is fantastic.  The illustrations from Whitney Gardner are great too–clean and informative.

Most Americans know that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the tiny woman on the Supreme Court.  She’s been there for a long time and she is steadfast and true–very much unlike the two jokers who were recently appointed.

But aside from that, what do most of us know about her?  Well, for me, that was a big “not much.”

Her real name is Joan Ruth Bader.  But there were three Joans in her kindergarten class so she went by Ruth (everyone called her Kiki anyway). She grew up in Brooklyn.  She was left handed and the school forced her to switch (which she refused to do).  It was the first of many time she bristled at what a girl was supposed to do.

Ruth’s family was Jewish and they listened to the horrors of the Nazi progression on the radio.  Her grandparents immigrated from Russia and Australia years earlier assuming they could escape prejudice in America.  But Antisemitism was alive in New York.  As was racism and sexism.

And yes, it’s still here–somehow more vocal than ever.

But RBG saw it and wanted to do something about it.  She was inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt who said that “cruelty is a double-edged sword, destroying not only the victim but the person who indulges in it.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: M. WARD-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #39 (June 25, 2020).

I don’t really know all that much about M. Ward. I was supposed to see him live on many occasions that never panned out (I think at least three shows were either cancelled or I couldn’t go).  But then I did get to see him live at the She & Him Christmas show.  I was really impressed with his guitar playing in that set.  And I’m even more impressed in this set.

He opens here with two beautiful finger-picked songs.  The first is “just” an “Instrumental Intro.”  I don’t know if it’s an actual song or just an improv, but it’s terrific (with nice harmonics).  It segues seamlessly into “Duet for Guitars #3.”  I’m not sure how you play a duet with just one guitar but it, too, sounds wonderful.

His tuning is nonstandard for all of these songs, which somehow makes them more chill and pretty.  His playing is effortless and really fun to watch.

For me, M. Ward would be the perfect artist to sit next to while he played his songs, perhaps on a couch in a small room. And that’s pretty much what you get with this Tiny Desk (home) concert. We see M. Ward in the lounge of BOCCE, a recording studio in Vancouver, Wash.

I didn’t really know his singing voice, but the blurb sums it up nicely:

That tender wispy-rasp in his voice and flowing acoustic guitar make M. Ward a musician I’d want to hear up close.

He explains that he took requests from various social media for this set.  He plays four requests and one new song.

Ward’s delivery reminds me of Sandro Perri, although a little more conventional.  “Chinese Translation” and “Requiem” are softly strummed songs and his vocals are mostly deeper with an occasional high note added in.

In between the requests he plays a new song.

Those songs fit so well with music on his new record, Migration Stories, from which he plays “Coyote Mary’s Traveling Show.”

This song sounds a little different in style–a more traditional bluesy style, I guess.  Then it’s on to

 comforting and memorable older tunes like “Poison Cup” (2006)

for which he switches to a different guitar–this one smaller (and presumably tuned differently).

Then it’s back to the first guitar for “Voice at the End of the Line” (2003). There’s some really lovely guitar work in this song.  I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to see him live but maybe one of these opening gigs will actually happen someday.

[READ: June 22, 2020] “Grief”

This story is about genocide and how to cope with it–especially if you are far away from when it happened to your family.

The narrator found it worse that no one would say the word genocide, just wry observations like “weird stuff goes on in your country.”  She had not given up hope that he mother, father, brother, sisters, her whole family back in Rwanda might still be alive.

In her homeland, the word was

gutsembatsemba, a verb, used when talking about parasites or mad dogs, things that had to be eradicated, and about Tutsis, also known as inyenzi—cockroaches—something else to be wiped out.

A Hutu classmate once told her he  had asked his mother who those Tutsi people were that he’d heard about and his mother said, they were nothing–just stories.

The narrator tried to get in touch with her family but heard nothing.

Finally, she called her older brother in Canada.  He told her that he was now the head of the family.  She received a formal letter in June confirming the deaths.  Why didn’t she have a photo of any of them? (more…)

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waljuneSOUNDTRACK: KEVIN DEVINE-“Freddie Gray Blues” (2016).

a1265312378_16This week, Rough Trade and Bank Robber Music released a compilation on bandcamp called Talk – Action = Zero: A Compilation Benefitting Black Lives Matter.   On one day they raised $12,000 for Black Lives Matter, which is pretty fantastic.

The record features 100 songs, a majority of which are previously unreleased and some of which seem to have been written in the past week.

This Kevin Devine song is not new.  In fact, it has been recorded twice.  First with a band on his Instigator album and then reimagined as an acoustic song on his We Are Who We’ve Always Been record.  The acoustic version is included on the compilation and it really allows you to hear these lyrics.

It’s depressing that he wrote this song four years ago after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black American man who was arrested by Baltimore Police for allegedly carrying a switchblade on April 12, 2015.

Gray fell into a coma in the back of a police van and passed away on April 19.  An investigation found that the arresting officers failed to follow safety protocols “through acts of omission” due to the spinal injuries Gray received during the police transport, which led to his death.  The six police officers were not convicted but faced various charges from second degree-murder to manslaughter.

Here it is four years later and the song is just as relevant and fits in this compilation all too well.

The lyrics are straightforward, the melody simple.

I’m talking Freddie Gray blues
I’m talking what happened to you
You were just 25
When they ended your life
When “to serve & protect”
Meant break your leg, snap your neck
Meant to kill you, to sever your spine
No matter what, there’s no good reason why

Devine also speaks from personal experience because of his family’s association with the police:

When I’m talking these killer cop blues
I’m kinda talking my family to you
See, my dad was a cop
And his dad was a cop
And my uncles were cops
And my cousins were cops
I’m partly here because of cops
And I love all those cops
And I know not every cop
Is a racist, murdering cop
But this is bigger than the people I love
The system’s broken
Not breaking
It’s done

And then, like any white person who is an ally, he realizes his position.

I’m talking white privilege blues
I’m talking confession to you
I don’t know what it’s like
To be afraid all my life
Looking over my shoulder
Behind each officer, a coroner
Entrenched inequality
No access, no empathy
Crushed in stacked decks
Institutions & death
This is not my reality
I’m afforded the luxury
Of shaking my head
I shut the screen, go to bed
I can turn off what you never can
And watch it happen again and again (and again and again and again and again, and again).

[READ: June 5, 2020] “Rookie”

I can’t get over how many stories there are about tree-planting, something that I feel like no one in the States ever does but which seems to be a rite of passage in Canada.

Every story talks about how horrible it is.  You can make a lot of money if you can put up with the conditions.  The cold, the backbreaking work, the pressure, living in a trailer or hotel for months.  Although you could make $10,000 in two months if you were good. And, pretty much everyone there let the drugs and drink and sex flow.

There’s always people who thrive and can plant 4,000 trees a day (at 9 cents per tree) called highballers.  While a rookie is lucky to plant 1,000 (which would mean breaking even after camp costs, like food).

In this case the highballers are Skye and Jen who seem to be a couple.  The rookie is Jake and the story is mostly about him.  Jake is a religious twenty-something.  He is God-fearing and serious.  He intended to go tree-planting with his friends from Bible College.  Elmer was the group leader and they would keep tabs on each other to make sure they didn’t smoke, do drugs or have sex.  Jake decided to join up, but by that time, Elmer’s crew was full, so he wound up with another crew in Ontario. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NICK HAKIM-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #12 (April 22, 2020).

I had a mixed reaction to Nick Hakim”s Tony Desk, although the blurb writer says he loved it.

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite Tiny Desk concerts, Nick Hakim’s 2018 performance sits near the very top. He and his four bandmates reset the bar for intimacy at the Desk with their hushed groove.

Hakim plays three songs from his upcoming album WILL THIS MAKE ME GOOD

from the corner of his dark bedroom with a keyboard, guitar and stacks of audio components.

His vocals on all three tracks are quiet and echoing, as if he is whispering down a long hall.  In fact all of the music sounds muted and soft, with a feeling of hazy smoke floating around,.

“QADIR,” is a haunting dedication to a fallen friend.  He plays guitar–mostly slow muted echoing guitar chords.  When the song ends, he activates a mini applause effect box which is pretty funny.

He takes a few loud slurps from his drink and gives a big “ahhh,” before starting the next song. For “GODS DIRTY WORK” he switches to the keys.  His singing style is exactly the same, although the song may be a little slower.

He adds a little more fake applause and then a somewhat creepy echoing laughter as he switches the drum beat for “CRUMPY.”

Honestly, all three songs sound a lot alike and seems really slow and hazy. It’s weird how upbeat and smiling he is, in contrast to the music.  I wonder how he makes everything seem so quiet.

[READ: April 15, 2020] Nicotine

I really enjoyed Nell Zink’s two other novels, but somehow I missed this one entirely when it came out.  I couldn’t imagine what it was about with that title and boy I never expected it to go where it did.

I actually had a slightly hard time getting into the book. That may have been because it was Quarantine and it was hard to ficus or it was because the opening of the book was so puzzling.  And yet by the end I was totally hooked.  But the beginning:

A thirteen year old girl stands in a landscape made almost entirely of garbage, screaming at a common domestic sow.

Then a white man comes and takes the girl away.  Her name is Amalia. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KIRILL GERSTEIN-Tiny Desk Concert #958 (March 11, 2020).

I can’t really keep track of classical pianists. There are so many who are truly amazing.  But I love hearing them.  I also like it when they have a good sense of humor, which most of them seem to have.

The last time pianist Kirill Gerstein was at NPR we gave him a full-size, grand piano to play in a big recording studio. But for this Tiny Desk performance, we scaled him down to our trusty upright. “What will you ask me to play the next time,” he quipped, “a toy piano?”

Even if we had handed him a pint-sized instrument, I’m sure Gerstein could make it sing. Just listen to how Chopin’s lyrical melodies, built from rippling notes and flamboyant runs, flow like a song without words in Gerstein’s agile hands.

What sets Gerstein apart?  Perhaps its his connection to jazz.

The 40-year-old pianist, born in Voronezh, Russia, taught himself to play jazz by listening to his parents’ record collection. A chance meeting with vibraphonist Gary Burton landed him a scholarship to study jazz at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. At age 14, Gerstein was the youngest to enroll at the institution.

He opens the set with Chopin: “Waltz in A-flat, Op. 42.”  It is fast and amazing with some slow, jaunty parts.  Near the end, wow, doe he pound out those bass chords.

Before the second piece he says that it hasn’t been heard on a recording yet–it’s a newly written piece by Thomas Adès.  Two lovers want to hide in the closet and … sleep with each other.  They emerge dead in the morning, so its lascivious and morbid and a very beautiful piece.

The Berceuse for solo piano was written for Gerstein by Thomas Adès, adapted from his 2016 opera The Exterminating Angel. The work, both brooding and beautiful, receives its premiere recording at the Tiny Desk.

It is slow and beautiful, full of sadness and longing.  Until the end when the bass comes pounding and rumbling, full of ominous threat and dread.  And listen to how long he lets those last bass notes ring out!

Up next is a piece by Liszt who I am particularity fond of (even if I only know a few of his pieces).  Gerstein says that Liszt is perhaps the greatest composer that ever touched the instrument.  There are several hundred not famous pieces.  This is a late piece called “A quick Hungarian march.”  Technically it’s called “Ungarischer Geschwindsmarsch”

Gerstein follows by dusting off a truly neglected – and quirky – Hungarian March by Franz Liszt. To my knowledge it’s been recorded only once.

It is jaunty and spirited until the middle where it goes back and forth between fast runs and bouncy melodies.

Since I hadn’t read about his jazz background the first time I listened to this concert I was really surprised when he said he’d be playing the Gershwin-Earl Wild standard “Embraceable You” which he says is for dessert at this lunchtime concert.

Gerstein’s jazz background is still close to his heart. Which brings us to his lovely-rendered closer: Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” arranged by the American pianist Earl Wild.

Like all master performers, Gerstein gives you the illusion that he’s making it all up as he goes along, even though the virtuosic transcription is intricately mapped out. And somehow, he makes that upright piano sound nine feet long.

It really does sound like he is working on the fly–playing beautiful runs. It’s hard to imagine transcribing and learning all of those notes instead of just improvising them, but that’s what make a great pianist, I guess.

[READ: November 2019] The Abyss

I saw this book at work and thought, a turn of the 20th century Russian author writing about the Abyss?  What’s not to like?

I had not heard of Leonid Andreyev, perhaps because much of his work has not been translated into English.  He died in 1919 and is considered “the leading exponent of the Silver Age of Russian literature.”

This book was translated by Hugh Aplin and it is remarkable how contemporary these stories sound (aside from obviously nineteenth and twentieth century details).

Bargamot and Garaska (1898)
Bargamot was a policeman–a big, thick-headed policeman.  His superiors called him numskull.  But the people on the streets he looked after were quite fond of him because he knew the area and what he knew he knew very well.  This story is set on Easter Saturday night.  People would soon be going to church.  But he was on duty until three o’ clock and he wouldn’t be able to eat until then. The day was going smoothly and he would soon be home until he saw Garaksa, clearly drunk, heading his way: “Where he had managed to get sozzled before daylight constituted his secret, but that he had got sozzled was beyond all doubt.”  Bargamot threatened to send Garaska to the station, but Garaska talked to him about the festivities of the day and was about to present to him an egg (a Russian custom).  But Bargamot’s rough handling smashed the egg.  This story turns surprisingly tender and sad, with a rather touching final line.

A Grand Slam (1899)
This has nothing to do with baseball.  It is about a card game called Vint, which is similar to bridge.  For six years these four people have been playing it: fat hot-tempered Maslennikov (whose name is Nikolai Dmitriyevich, we find out about five pages in) paired with old man Yakov Ivanovich and Yevpraksia Vasilyevna paired with her gloomy brother Prokopy Vailyevich.  Dmitriyevich desperately wanted a grand slam but he had been paired with Yakov Ivanovich who never took risks. Ivanovich was very conservative and never bet more than four–even when he ran an entire trick, he never bet more than four–you never know what might happen. They speak of news and local happenings (like the Dreyfus Affair), but Dmitriyevich stays focused on the game because his cards are lining up for a Grand Slam.  As he goes for that last card, he falls out of his chair, presumably dead.

Silence (1900)
This story is divided into sections.  Fr. Ignaty and his wife need to speak with their daughter Vera. They have a fight and Fr. Ignaty refuses to speak to her any more.  Soon enough she goes out and throws herself under a train [I would hate to be a train conductor in Russia].  In Part II silence has fallen over the house.  In Part III he tries to talk to his wife about his feelings and his sadness over their daughter, but she remains silent.  In the final part, Fr Ignaty finally breaks down.  But is it the silence that has gotten to him?

Once Upon a Time There Lived (1901)
Laventy Petrovich was a large man. He went to Moscow for someone in the city to look at his unusual illness.  He was a silent and morose man and he specifically asked for no visitors.  The hospital assigned Fr. Deacon to him.  Fr. Deacon was another patient, unfailingly positive.  He and Petrovich were at opposite sides of the spectrum.  But even as it became clear that Fr. Deacon was deathly ill, he remained positive.  Until Petrovich told him that the doctors said that Fr. Deacon has a week to live.  There was also a young student who was daily visited by the girl he loved.  They liked Fr deacon and did not like Petrovich. I’m not sure if the ending is a surprise, but it is certainly sudden with happiness doled out in very specific ways.

A Robbery in the Offing (1902)
That night there was to be a robbery and maybe a murder.  A man, alone with his thought is scared by nearly everything–he is very jumpy because he is the one about to do the robbery.  The man was frightened by a noise until he saw it was a little puppy.  The puppy was shivering and the man tried to frighten him to get him to go home. But the puppy seemed too ignore him.  So began the battle of wits between a big strong man and a tiny freezing puppy.  Imagine a man with a robbery in the offing worrying about a little puppy.

The Abyss (1902)
Two young lovers went for a walk.  Zinochka was 17 and very much in love.  Nemovetsky was 21 and similarly in love.  They wandered into an area they didn’t recognize and happened upon three men.  The men punched Nemovetsky and knocked him out then they chased Zinochka . When he came to, he found her body, naked but still alive.  This was a hard story to read.

Ben Tobit (1903)
This was one of the first stories in the book that I really really liked.  It is set on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.  On that day, Jerusalem merchant Ben Tobit had a terrible toothache.  Ben was a kind man and did not like injustice, but it was hard to be kind with this much pain.  His wife tried to help by giving him various medicines (like purified rat droppings). She then tried to distract him when the thieves came trudging past on their way to the crucifixion site.  It distracted him somewhat but mostly didn’t interest him.  She said, “They say he healed the blind.”  He replied, “If only he’d cure this toothache of mine!.”  The next day he felt better and they walked to the site to see what they missed.

Phantoms (1904)
Yegor Timofeyevich had gone mad so his relatives collected money to send him to a clinic.  He knew he was in a madhouse but also knew that he could make himself incorporeal and walk wherever he wanted.  He was exceedingly happy. There was a patient who would continually knock on any locked door.  He would walk through all the unlocked doors but when he got to a locked one he would knock and knock and knock.

There was a doctor’s assistant the hospital named Maria Astafeevna, whom Yegor was certain liked him.  He thought very highly of her.  But another man Petrov could say nothing nice about her.  He felt that she was like all women: debauched deceitful and mocking. This attitude upset Yegor tremendously.  Maria was actually in love with Dr Shevyrov. But she hated that he went to Babylon–where he drank three bottles of champagne each night until 5 AM.  She imagined that one day she would ask to be his wife bit only if he stopped going there.

The man Petrov was also terrified of his mother, believing that she had bribed officials to lock him up. He would become hysterical when she would visit.  It was only Yegor’s assurances to her that her son was a decent man that made her feel okay.

Most days things went on exactly the same, the same faces, the same conversation and the same knocking.

The Thief (1904)
Fyodor Yurasov was a thrice-convicted thief.  While on the train, even though he had plenty of money, he stole a gentleman;s purse.  As he tried to blend in, he imagined everyone thought he was an honest, young German (he came up with the name Heinrich Walter).  But when he tried to be civil, everyone ignored him.  Some were downright rude to him.  Later when he hears that the gendarme are looking for someone, he assumed it is he.

Lazarus (1906)
This story looks at what Lazarus’ life was like after he came back–appearing a few days dead and with a shorter temper.  People understood and forgave him, but still.  Soon, however, people began to avoid him and claimed that all of the madmen in the village were people whom Lazarus had looked upon.   It’s such an interesting (if exceeding dark) tale that no one bothered to investigate before.

A Son of Man (1909)
As Fr. Ivan Bogoyavlensky grew older he grew more disatisfied with his role in life.  He wanted to remove his surname and replace it with a five-digit number (The church elders assumed he’d gone mad).  He then bought a gramophone and listened only to stories of Jewish and Armenian life.  His wife hated it and it drove their puppy mad (?!).  Indeed he kept trying to get the puppies to listen to the gramophone and they consistently went crazy and eventually died.  The church sent a deacon to help Fr Ivan through this but he the deacon and Fr Ivan butted heads immediately.  Fr Ivan began mocked everything about their religion.

Incaution (1910)
A priest arrived at a railway station and saw a steam engine for the first time. There was no one around, so he climbed aboard.  It wouldn’t be dangerous to flick some switches and pull some levers.  Would it?

Peace (1911)
A dignitary was dying and an devil–an ordinary devil–came to his bedside offering him eternal life in hell.  The man didn’t want to suffer but the devil said that suffering was terrible until you got used to it and then it was nothing.  The devil makes a stronger and stronger case if only the man would take this pen and sign.

Ipatov (1911)
Nikolai Ipatov was a rich merchant who went bankrupt. Soon he became silent and despondent.  The local priest chastised him saying that the house of god was a house of joy.  He refused to let the merchant back in until he grew happy again.  Which he didn’t.  Eventually his children took over the situation and and put his house up for sale.  But when someone came to look at the house, they heard Ipatov’s moaning and grew existential realizing that a man without guilt could still be afflicted this way.

The Return (1913)
The narrator had been in a cell n St Peterburg for three years because of a political incident.  His wife, who was supposed to be waiting for him in a hotel room had stepped out with another man.  He hired a cab to follow them.  They kept driving around and around, some streets seeming to stretch on endlessly.  Then the cab driver told him that they had been at the same intersection many times.  He finally arrived at the gate and when he banged on it, who should open the gate but his prison guard.

The Flight (1914)
Yury Mikhailovich was an experienced pilot.  Twenty eight flights and no troubles.   He always felt, “If I crash, I crash, nothing to be done about it.”  Despite everything he had on earth, he longed to be up ion the sky…possibly forever.  It’s incredible that Andreyev wrote a story like this in 1914!

 

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