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SOUNDTRACK: LAURA MARLING-Tiny Desk (Home) Concert #10 (April 16, 2010).

I have become a huge fan of Laura Marling over the last few years.  I was so looking forward to her solo performance this past March. It was one of my bigger coronavirus disappointments that the intimate show is not going to be rescheduled.

Marling has been doing regular guitar lessons about her own songs (her tunings and playing style is unique and wonderful to see demonstrated).  You can see the past (and future) ones here.

(While many artists have postponed the release of their new music in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Laura Marling rushed to change the release date of her album from late summer to April.

As of right now her album is only available digitally. The physical release is slated for summer.

On this Tiny Desk (home) concert, we find her in her living room, with an intimate performance of songs from her just-released record Song For Our Daughter. The album is an homage to a future generation of women and to Maya Angelou’s Letter to My Daughter, a collection of essays addressed to a fictional daughter. The warm, home setting makes room for Laura Marling’s extraordinary voice to shine.

“Held Down” has a lot of backing vocals and arrangements on the record and this stripped down version sounds amazing without it all.

“Strange Girl” demonstrates her deeper singing style in a fast and bouncy song.

“Song For Our Daughter” is a slower song, beautiful and thoughtful.

I just cannot get over how beautiful her voice is.  These personal performances almost make up for not seeing her live.

[READ: April 20, 2020] Mac B. Kid Spy: The Impossible Crime

This is the second book in a new series illustrated by Mike Lowery.  It begins

My name is Mac Barnett.  I am an author.  But before I was an author, I was a kid.  And when I was a kid, I was a spy.  An author’s job is to make up stories.  But the story you are about to read is true.

This actually happened to me.

It’s 1989 and Mac is at the mini golf course.  But he is there not for the mini golf but for the video games. He is playing Spy Master 2–the arcade update to the home game.  Mac was just about to beat the big boss–something no one else had ever done before.  People were cheering him on. Except for Derek Lafoy (who did not invite Mac to his birthday party in the previous book). Derek called him Mac Barn Head and chanted “Choke!”

But this book isn’t about video games, its about the Queen of England who called Mac at the golf course to tell him that she thought the Crown Jewels were going to be stolen again.  (In the previous book Mac helped rescue the Crown jewels for the Queen). (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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SOUNDTRACK: NEIL PEART-September 12, 1952-January 7, 2020.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best Neil Peart drum solos of all time.

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

You can find that link here.

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

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

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

[READ: January 2020] Canada 1867-2017

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

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

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

For instance in 1869, the final sentence is:

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

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

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SOUNDTRACK: PEARL JAM-“Santa Cruz” (1993).

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.

Pearl Jam released a song called “Santa God” the other day. This song also has Santa in the title, but it is not about Santa Claus.  It is indeed about Santa Cruz.

This song appeared on the b side of the band’s terrific take on the John Doe song “Golden State” (co-sung with Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney).

This song also has a folkie feel–acoustic guitars and multi-tracked vocals from Eddie.  It even opens with a harmonica!

It’s a delightful road song abut travelling to Santa Cruz:

Heading South a compass reads
Look at our speed, we’re going sixty-three
Look out the window as the trees go green
I look at them and they look at me
Got Neil Young on the stereo
He comes along whenever i go

It’s a really pretty song and deserves to get more airplay.  Frankly if Santa Cruz hasn’t used it their official anthem, the town leaders are fools.

[READ: December 9, 2019] “The Snow Man”

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 story, written over a hundred years ago, felt rather timeless.  Aside from a few word choices and spelling, this story could have been written this year.

It’s also amusing that it is a Christmas story but is actually about a thief doing a job on Christmas Eve.

He starts the remembrance saying that he has both good and bad reasons for remembering Christmas of 189-.  He’d had his eye on Wharton manor “as a crib worth the cracking” (being ahead of MTV Cribs by over 100 years).  This particular job ended his thieving career and set him on the path to good.

The narrator assures us he was never the mere midnight marauder who is supposed to “lurk under the bed until the family is asleep.”  He fancied himself better than that.  He never carried a weapon and trusted fortune to be his guide:

if i were dolt enough to walk into a trap or let another man’s wits outwit mine…I ought to yield him the palm like a gentleman.

The manor was well protected–a large wall and a winding drive kept it hidden from sight.  The wall was there more as a protection from the precipitous drop on the other side of it than to keep people out.  (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TAYLOR SWIFT-Tiny Desk Concert #902 (October 16, 2019).

Most Tiny Desk Concerts are from musicians that few people have heard of.

Not this one!

It’s hard to imagine exactly how it happened that Tiny Desk Concert managed to get Taylor Swift to play.  And to play with just a acoustic guitar and piano.  “It’s just me. There’s no dancers, unfortunately,” she quipped.

I have seen people already complain that Tiny Desk is supposed to be for unknown artists blah blah blah.  But I think it’s pretty awesome that a) Taylor Swift is a fan of NPR and Tiny Desk and b) that this show will bring more notoriety to Tiny Desk and potentially other bands.

Plus–I had no idea that Taylor Swift was not a studio creation–that she’s actually a real and thoughtful person who wrote her own music.

She talks confidently and casually about songwriting and she seems pretty genuinely pleased to be there.

As she settled in for her Tiny Desk, she looked out at the 300-plus NPR employees and guests. “Wow! This is a lot of people in a tiny office!” she said. “I love it!”

She delightfully says, “It’s great to be in DC.  You guys had anything exciting going on in the last couple of weeks?  Any possible changes in play?”

And, hey, she writes good songs, too.

I’ve never really listened to her music–although I love “Shake It Off.”  I haven’t actually heard anything of her new album so this was all new to me.

After introducing herself, she explained her objective: “I just decided to take this as an opportunity to show you guys how the songs sounded when I first wrote them.”

She talks a lot about each song and why she wrote them.

Opening with an acoustic rendition of “The Man,” from her 2019 album Lover, Swift delivered a critique of gender double-standards with a sense of humor (and a perfectly deployed hair toss), Leonardo DiCaprio name-check and all.

She says she has been thinking about the topic for many years and it was something she wanted to write about conceptually for a very long time because we have a bit of double standard issue in our society.  She wondered if there was a concise and catchy way to write a song about this?  So she decided to imagine what her life would be like if she said and did all the same things but if she was a man.

While not an original idea, she tackles it really well.  And I like that she’s using her platform to address the issue

I would be complex
I would be cool
They’d say I played the field before
I found someone to commit to
And that would be okay
For me to do
Every conquest I had made
Would make me more of a boss to you
I’d be a fearless leader
I’d be an alpha type
When everyone believes ya…
What’s that like?

And it’s really catchy too.

At the end of the song she gives her pick to a little one in the audience (to a room full of awws).  Then she switches instruments.

She talks about the process of writing songs–when something comes and its easy, that’s wonderful.  But most days you show up… and the idea doesn’t.  Then you have to know the craft of songwriting–you’re not always going to be inspired and that’s okay.

Turning to the piano for Lover‘s title track, with a smile, she explained the guitar-string scars of the song’s bridge.

She says that she has scars on her hands from playing guitar when she was young–when she played until her fingers bled or when a string snapped and cut her.  In your life you received all kinds of scars–emotional and physical and if someone is going to take your hand, they’d better take your hand scars and all.

It’s a pretty piano ballad and her voice is really pure.

After the song she removes her blazer to reveal a velvet top (she must have been very hot).  “You guys ever had costume changes at Tiny Desk?” She then finds three more guitar picks to give to three other kids, one of whom you can quickly see is pretty darn excited.

Picking up the guitar again for “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” Swift confronted a question that she says has haunted her career: What will you ever do if you get happy?

She receives this question over and over that “has the potential to seriously deteriorate my mental health.”  “What will you ever do if you get happy?  Will you just never be able to write a song again?    She says she used to reply that she started off when she was 12, she was writing songs about things she had no idea what she was talking about.  She wrote songs about heartbreak based on movies and books and character studies.  So she would say, “If stuff is going on in the world maybe she could hey inspiration from that.

But then she really asked herself that question.  “Would I not be able to write break up songs?  I love break up songs!  They’re so fun to write.”  She says she had friends going through breakups and she was watching movie and reading books about breakups and these ideas came to her.  She woke up with heartbreak lyrics in her head and realized “It’s still here!”

Across the song’s run-on thoughts and relentless searching, Swift offered an answer: She’ll continue to excel at crafting superb story-songs.

I rather like her songs on acoustic guitar–even if I’m not much of a fan of break up songs.

Before the final song, “All to Well,” she talks about how she never googles herself–she recommends you not do it either.  But her dad does.  He sends her links to lists that people rank her songs (she finds it very nice that people care enough to do that).  When the Red album came out, she said there’s a song and “I’m the only one who loves this song this much–because it happens to me and its personal.”  But it turns out that this song tops everyone’s favorite list.  “I’m happy that my opinion lines up with your opinion on that.”

I actually didn’t know this song at all–I guess I am really isolated from pop music.

She says, “here’s a sad song about fall.”  It’s very pretty on piano and once again her voice is really great.  I really like the way the words unfold and then reflect back on themselves.  It’s a really wonderfully crafted song.

This Tiny Desk Concert may not introduce Taylor Swift to a lot of people, but it pretty much did introduce me to her music.  And I was really impressed.

[READ: August 19, 2019] Lost Empress

I loved Sergio De la Pava’s A Naked Singularity. It was complicated and funny and clever and bizarre and thoroughly engaging.

Lost Empress is even better.

There’s a story about a woman running a football team–and being overlooked because she is a woman.

There is a storyline about 911 operators, and the guy who transcribes them.

The third story is about a tough, smart guy who is in jail.  He is his own defense for trying to get out.  And he hatches a plan that involves stealing artwork, the Paterson Falls and the Super Bowl.

I enjoyed it in part because much of it is set in Paterson, NJ.  I grew up next to Paterson and the city has for most of my life been in a state of decline.  Despite all of the great things it has to offer (like the Paterson Falls! which get a shout out in this book), Paterson gets no respect.  This book doesn’t exactly aim to correct that, but it does give the city something cool–a football team.

It also jokes about “what the hell is up with Paterson?”  The city had once tried to rebrand itself in which they staged a contest  for “an official slogan for the troubled city.”  Proposals emerged: “the verifiably untrue, the unintentionally insulting/intentionally insulating, the so vague that sense fails to be created, the rhyme or alliteration for its own sake, and the technically true but not even conceivably relevant.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NICOLE BUS-Tiny Desk Concert #882 (August 21, 2019).

Nicole Bus is from Amsterdam.  Everything about her makes it seem like she has been around for a while.  Her style of music, her raspy voice (which makes her sound older than she is) and her choice of instrumentation (the horns and flute melodies sound old school).  But she is an emerging artist:

Nicole Bus’ sound is nostalgic. It’s reminiscent of vintage R&B, yet still feels current, and can transcend age and demographics.

Her style is R&B, but her singing style is far more reggae influenced.  It’s really fascinating.  The first song, “You,” opens with spooky piano from Eugene “Man Man” Roberts and slow horns from Chris Stevens (trumpet) and Aaron Goode (trombone). I love the addition of the flutes from Korey Riker.  More and more I can’t get over how good flutes sound in rock.  Her delivery is quite reggae until she lets out with her powerful raspy voice.  The song is really catchy.

Nicole followed by premiering a new song about women’s empowerment, “Love It.”  Drummer Mark Thomas starts with drums and then switches to hand drums.  Anthony DeCarlo adds acoustic guitar while Jasmine Patton sing high note backing vocals.  I love in the middle of the song when Eugene “Man Man” Roberts play a very 70s-sounding fill on the keyboards.  Riker adds more great flutes.

She ends the set

with “Mr. Big Shot,” an up-tempo banger mixing high-energy rhythms with ragga-influenced vocals.

Nicole plays acoustic guitar and there’s a cool, catchy four note bass riff from Ray Bernard that propels the song along.  Lamarcus Eldridge joins Patton for some great backing vocals.  This melody has been stuck in my head for days now.

I’d never heard of Nicole Bus, but I really enjoyed her set and her energy.

[READ: September 1, 2019] Paper Girls

This book turned out to be so much more interesting than I imagined.

The title was strangely puzzling and the cover had a kind of 1980s look to it.

It didn’t occur to me that “paper girls” meant newspaper delivery girls.

It’s coincidental that this book starts out with the main character, Erin, getting up at 4:40 to deliver papers since that’s almost exactly the same way as Middlewest in which Abel gets up at 4:30 to deliver papers.

Anyhow this story is quite different form that one because it has a cool feminist attitude, although it is also supernatural.

It begins with Erin asleep and dreaming of Christa McAuliffe in heaven.  Then she wakes up at 4:40 and gets ready to deliver the Cleveland Preserver.  It’s also November 1 (1988) as evidenced by The Far Side calendar (nice touch). The calendar has “hell morning” written on it.

Why?  Because at 4:40 on the morning after Halloween there are still hooligans roaming the streets.  One dressed as Freddy Krueger harasses Erin immediately.  But while he is giving Erin a hard time, three girls pull up on bikes and harass right back.  One girl uses some very inappropriate language which Erin (who goes to Catholic school) chastises her for.  The girl, Mac, waits for a thank you. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: IMOGEN HEAP-Tiny Desk Concert #859 (June 20, 2019).

I know of Imogen Heap from a song called “Come Here Boy” that she released way back in 1998.  It was stark and dramatic and somewhat sexual. In short, a quintessential 90s track.

Then she disappeared.

Well, she actually made an album with Guy Sigsworth as Frou Frou.  And then she disappeared a again.

Actually she didn’t disappear at all. She released a song, “Hide and Seek” which was mostly just her singing into a vocoder (and was quite transfixing.  It became a huge hit (which I didn’t know about because I didn’t watch The O.C.).

But in 2011, she started experimenting with these high tech gloves that allowed her to do all kinds of audio manipulation just by moving her hands.

She even says, some people know me because I am interested in block chain technology and some people know me for these gloves.  They don’t even know I make music they just know about the gloves.

But in this Concert, the gloves come last.

Up first is the first song that she and Guy Sigsworth have written together in 17 years.  “Guitar Song” (she tends to leave placeholder names, so that will likely change) is a quiet pretty song with a lot of, yes, guitar from Steve Jones.  It’s a simple melody fleshed out with keys from Sigsworth.  It’s really pretty and very catchy.

Up next is “Speeding Cars” which she says was a B-side that was never released as a single but which her fans really love.  Zoë Keating plays cello and Imogen says she has a terrific album of her own called Snowmelt and she hopes Keating gets her own Tiny Desk someday.  Tim Keiper is on drums and vast array of percussion.  Imogen is on the piano she has an excellent falsetto for this very pretty song.

Then she puts on the Mi.Mu gloves.

Imogen Heap not only has an enchanting voice but also the talents of a world-class audio engineer. She’s completely engrossed in a technology she’s helped to develop, one that makes it possible to alter sounds, create loops and compose tunes all with the wave of her glove-wearing hands. The high-tech gloves, now called Mi.Mu Gloves, were first shown at a TEDGlobal conference eight years ago. Her performances, with her sound-altering arm and hand gestures, resemble a summoning of spirits, a far more compelling live experience than what Imogen said used to look like she was standing behind her laptop checking email.

She gives a lengthy explanation and brief demonstration of these very cool loves.  Then it’s on to “Hide and Seek,” which she had re-imagined for the Broadway play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and which she says that if she doesn’t play people throw tomatoes at her.

It really sounds nothing like the original but it is amazing to watch her make the song with her hands waving around.

[READ: June 1, 2019] “The Maid’s Story”

This story introduces us to the Gersons, a family on vacation in a hotel. The husband is small and insignificant. But the wife is larger than life.  Both physically and in personality.

Hannah Kohl, the maid, was taken with Mr Gerson’s red brooch and when she went to clean the room later, she pocketed it.  As she did so, she promised herself it would be the last thing she ever took from a patron.

But Mrs Gershon walked in before the maid had time to close the jewelry box.  She told her it was costume and worth nothing but how could the maid have thought Mrs Gerson wouldn’t notice?

The maid is very apologetic.  She begs not to be ratted out and pleads with the woman.  She says her eight-year-old son has polio (“So did our president, but Eleanor doesn’t go around stealing jewelry).

Mrs Gerson asks where Hannah is from–Wroclaw Poland.  In the camp? No, her father moved them before.  And the hotel owner’s second cousin helped them.  Then Hannah did something unexpected–she opened up to Mrs Gerson about her travels and her life.

Mrs Gerson diagnosed her as a kleptomaniac (she compulsively stile things she didn’t need).  But she was mostly concerned about the boy, Isaac.  She insisted that he receive proper care for his polio  The doctor Hannah’d been going to was an elder in the old country synagogue who showed no evidence that he knew anything about medicine  He said the polio would clear up and go away on its own.

The new doctor was in Manhattan, a lengthy trip for Hannah and Isaac.  Mrs Gerson said they could stay with her family when they traveled in.

The doctor gave many recommendations and said that Mrs Gerson was paying for it all.

The Gerson children were uninterested in Isaac until he told them a story about people dying at the hotel.  They found his story (which was partly made up) to be engrossing.

After dinner Mr Gerson excused himself and left the two women to talk.  Mrs Gerson pulled Hannah on to her lap  She soothed her and stroked her head but soon the stroking became sexual.  This made Hannah very uncomfortable and she froze, enduring the touches which gave her revulsed pleasure.

Hannah and Issac went to Manhattan twice a month.  Each time, the same thing happened.  Mrs Gerson never said anything about it, but it happened nonetheless. It was especially upsetting because Hannah very much liked Mrs Gerson otherwise. She was funny and bold and seemed genuinely interested in their health and prosperity.  And Hannah would put p with anything for Isaac;s welfare.

Soon, Issac was deemed just about normal;–one more visit would do it.

One night, Mrs Gerson revealed that all of their money was her husband’s–her family is as poor as Hannah’s. Nobody least of all Mrs Gerson really understood why Bert chose her.  Plus, he always knew that Mrs Gerson liked girls better.

Bert wants things to be easy.  So Mrs Gerson does everything—raises the kids, takes care of family affairs.

The thing with wives is they can leave. Mothers can’t.

Finally Mrs Gerson declared that she loved Hannah.

Hannah grabbed her things and Isaac and left.

When Hannah returned to the hotel, she was called to the office and informed that a guest said that Hannah had stolen from them.  They had to let her go.

What could Hannah possibly do?

 

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SOUNDTRACK: KATE CARR-“The Ladder Is Always There” (2018).

At the end of every year publications and sites post year end lists.  I like to look at them to see if I missed any albums of significance.  But my favorite year end list comes from Lars Gottrich at NPR.  For the past ten years, Viking’s Choice has posted a list of obscure and often overlooked bands.  Gottrich also has one of the broadest tastes of anyone I know (myself included–he likes a lot of genres I don’t).  

Since I’m behind on my posts at the beginning of this year, I’m taking this opportunity to highlight the bands that he mentions on this year’s list.  I’m only listening to the one song unless I’m inspired to listen to more.

Kate Carr creates Field Recordings.  But she then manipulates them into soundscapes.  This track, “The Ladder Is Always There,” has an incredibly sinister tone–and that title doesn’t help.  The recording was done on or under the water and the sounds I hear include a tuned radio (or something), a vacuum cleaner going back and forth (clearly not), electronic receptors beeping, birds modified (or maybe recorded from underwater), dripping water, breathing, clanging, seagulls and waves crashing.

Gottrich describes whats she does as “not only mapping bodies of water and landscapes in field recordings, but engaging with the environment as an active participant.

It is certainly strange to listen to something that you could (in theory, but not in actuality) go out side and hear for yourself.  Even if you could go outside and hear this, there’s no way it would be curated in this way.  So while this is indeed listening to nature, Carr has sculpted nature into an aural exercise that’s really engaging.

I’ve listened to a few more pieces on this disc and while none are quite as engaging as “the ladder” none are dull either.  I can’t decide when I would most enjoy listening to this.  Sitting a lone in my car at lunch time with my eyes closed or in bed by myself later at night.  Even listening at work is strangely intoxicating.

You can hear the whole disc and more at her bandcamp site.

[READ: December 29, 2018] “Plante’s Ferry”

Apparently, I’ve read a bunch by Jess Walter although I don’t have much recollection of his stories.

This one is set in an unnamed place in the unspecified past.

The narrator explains that Bonin liberated the Scots’ pelts and then the two of them rode the lower trail until they arrived where the Frenchman ran a ferry across the river.

He hopes they were not followed, but they are not going to slow down.  They must get across the river.

The ferry is not cheap and since they are being chased because of Bonin’s action, the narrator wordlessly insists that Bonin pays his fare too. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ST. VINCENT-“Savior” (2018).

St. Vincent has morphed from guitar goddess (with her own signature guitar) into a  synthy pop goddess (of sorts).  Her last album Masseduction sounded like it eschewed guitars altogether (it didn’t, exactly).  When I saw her live, she played guitar on every track (and was the only performer which was pretty awesome) but it rarely sounded like a guitar (which was cool in its own way).

So Masseduction was quite different from her earlier guitar-heavy albums.  It even featured a song based around the piano.

Now Annie Clark has reissued Masseduction as Masseducation (which is how I and many other people read the other title originally) and has more or less traded in the production and synth for piano.

The new version “pairs Clark’s resonant voice with Doveman’s Thomas Bartlett on piano. Intimate and focused, the reworked songs were performed and recorded in two days at Manhattan’s Electric Lady Studio. A handwritten letter by Clark sets the scene for this process: “Thomas and I faced each other — him, hunched over a grand piano, me, curled on a couch.”” [from NPR].

One thing that Masseduction showed was how fantastic Annie Clark’s voice is.  I’m not sure if I never noticed that her voice was great because I was focused on so much else or if she didn’t showcase it as much, but she hit and held notes that were really quite impressive.

“Savior” originally featured a slinky guitar line with bits of wah-wah on it (slightly porn-y to be sure, especially given the topic of the song).  The bridge picked things up and with each subsequent verse more and more was added (backing vocals, big drums and sound effects).  When the song reached the third part, the “pleeeease” it totally soared.

This new version opens with a muted piano, rather than slinky guitar.  The music seems to accentuate the words (which seem much more kinky in this version).  The song doesn’t build like the previous one did, although the switch from muted piano to deep bass notes is surprisingly effective.  The “pleeeease” section totally subverts the previous version.  Rather than getting big and powerful, the song actually grows quieter, more pleading.  It’s a cool twist on the same music/words.  And I like that you can hear the spoken words at the end of the song (which you really couldn’t on the original release).

This stripping of the production really makes you focus on the words (which were sometimes lost on the full album).  Annie must be pretty pleased with the ones she wrote.  I’m curious what this will do to the rest of the album.

[READ: January 7, 2017] “Vespa”

This is the story about Mark and his Vespa.  He loved his Vespa.  It allowed him a lot of freedom yes, but he also loved the look of it.

It also took him to see his girlfriend, Yasmin, in Manchester.  They were in love (and were even engaged on Facebook!).  He parked the Vespa at her school where it would be safe–even though she didn’t go to school on Fridays.

She told him to take a bus to an empty house where they could make love.  She had been there before.  (I like the way that detail was just tossed in there).

Later that day, when they went back to the school, his Vespa was gone. (more…)

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[LISTENED TO: September 2017] The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy complete radio series

The history of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is almost as convoluted as the story itself.

Douglas Adams (with help from John Lloyd) wrote the radio story in 1977.  It aired in 1978.  A second season aired in 1980.

Adams wrote the novel based on the radio series in 1979.  And then the second book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe in 1980.

Then they made the TV show.

Apparently Adams considered writing a third radio series to be based on Life, the Universe and Everything in 1993, but the project did not begin until after his death in 2001.  The third, fourth and fifth radio series were based on Life, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish and Mostly Harmless which were transmitted in 2004 and 2005.

It’s interesting and a little disconcerting how different the radio play is from the story of the book. There are a lot of similarities of course, but some very large differences.

The first series obviously leaves a lot out from the book, since the book wasn’t written yet. (more…)

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