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anyaSOUNDTRACK: THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS-Holidayland (2001).

tmbg This was one of the first Christmas albums I bought, and i would have bought it regardless because it is They Might Be Giants.  As far as Christmas records goes, it’s pretty short: 5 songs in 11 minutes.

“Santa Claus” has a funky bass line and a snotty attitude. There’s loud guitars, a honking horn and plenty of NOTHING!  “Santa’s Beard” is an old super fun song, classic TMBG.
“Feast of Lights” is a simple song on toy piano and real piano, a Hanukkah-based kinda sad song with a bit of hope in the end.  “Careless Santa” is an upbeat song about Santa spoiling Christmas for him (cops are involved!). It has some loopy synth sounds and wild drumming at the end.

“O Tannenbaum” The only traditional song, this is a slow version.  It opens with horns in the vocal melody for the first minute and then John F’ sings in German for the final minute.

I’ve always enjoyed this admittedly slight holiday record.

[READ: December 18, 2014] Anya’s Ghost

Sarah was surprised to see that I’d brought this home because she read it for her YA contest this year.  She also liked it quite a lot.

Brosgol wrote and drew the book and I love her illustration style.  It is simple but very effective.  She draws a normal looking girl quite effectively (and the embarrassing underwear shot is quite funny).  But she also knows how to draw the skinny, “hot” girl and make her look sweet as well.  And lets not forget how well she conveys the ghost in the story, too.

Anya is in a private high school (which her mother can barely afford).  Anya’s family moved to America (from Russia) when she was little.  She learned to speak English and does not have an accent.  But she is nervous about being seen as a FOB (fresh off the boat).  And as such she avoids Dima, a new to America Russian boy who studies hard and is a real dork (and suffers accordingly).

As the book opens, Anya’s mother is making Сырники (Syrniki–fried quark (a dairy product) pancakes, garnished with sour cream, jam, honey, or apple sauce–YUM!).  But Anya is upset that she’s making yet another fattening food.  Now that she’s in America she’s not interested in her mother’s claims that “in Russia being fat meant you were a rich man.”

She takes a bag but throws it out on her way to school (travesty).  Then she meets her (only) friend Siobhan.  Siobhan is kind of bitter and a little nasty (but funny).  She is drawn very angrily though–she’s the one character I don’t like the look of.  When Anya doesn’t let Siobhan bum a cigarette, Siobhan gets mad and stomps off.  Anya goes off in the other direction and…falls into a hole. Continue Reading »

freedomSOUNDTRACK: CRASH TEST DUMMIES-Jingle all the way… (2002).

ctdEven though the Crash Test Dummies are often seen as a joke band or a one hit wonder (which I guess they are), I’ve liked them for a while (their earlier stuff a lot more than their later stuff, admittedly).  But it seemed like they’d have a fun take on Christmas music.

And it starts out in a comical sort of way with Brad Robert’s deeper-than-ever voice reciting about his life in Los Angeles, where it is warm and sunny at Christmas time.  I like that he rhymes 24th with up north.  The spoken section is quite loud in the mix (it sounds like he is right in your ear).  Unfortunately, that is the case when he starts singing too–he is uncomfortably loud in the mix and it sounds like he is holding back because of it–he doesn’t sound great and his voice sounds more comical than interesting.  Which is a shame because the music (with cheesey keyboards) is great.

Roberts sings lead on about half of the songs.  Ellen Reid sings lead on the other half except for a couple where they split lead duties.

The rest of Robert’s songs include: “Jingle Bells” (which is certainly comical–it sounds like a chain gang song with the “Hey!s” sounding almost like a prison chant).  It’s weird and cool though (even if his voice is once again too loud in the mix).  “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has his voice mixed much better–he seems to be really singing.  And this version–a loungey/jazzy rendition is much great fun.  “God King Wenceslas” sounds proper (with Reid’s close backing vocals).  It has a pretty penny whistle keeping the song going.

Ellen Reid has a great voice and I love hearing her sing.  But in the first two songs she sings lead on in this disc she sounds like she is singing too slowly.  “O Little Town of Bethlehem” especially sounds like the music is going to pass her up at any minute.  I also don’t like the country vibe of the song.  “In the Bleak Midwinter” is also (intentionally) slow, which I don’t like.  Perhaps I just don’t like this song (although I do think the melody is lovely).  “The Little Drummer Boy” is beautiful and Robert’s bass backing vocals are perfect.  “Silent Night” is done in a countryish style, but I like this version.  Although normally this song can make me cry, this version absolutely does not–too honky tonkish.

The final song, “The Huron Carol” is quite formal and proper–just Reid and a piano opening the song.  It sounds very holy, very pretty.  When Robert’s bass backing vocals come in, it adds more depth to the song.  And it’s a lovely way to end.

[READ: October 30, 2014] Freedom

I read this a couple months ago and then got so caught up in reading other things that I never got around to posting about it.  And that’s a bummer because I really liked the book a lot and I fear that I won’t remember everything I wanted to say about it.

I had read a couple of excerpts from the book in the New Yorker (quite some time ago).  They were helpful in grounding the story for me, but they didn’t prepare me for the breadth of the story.  It follows one family, the Berglunds, through several decades, focusing on each of them in great detail as they navigate through the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and a smidge of the Obama years.

The Berglunds are a liberal family.  They were among the first white families to move onto their urban street in St. Paul, Minnesota (after white flight to the burbs).  Patty is a charming (some say smug) homemaker and Walter is a lawyer (public defendant, naturally).  They have two kids, Jessica and Joey.  Patty dotes on Joey to an embarrassing degree (Joey is embarrassed by it, Jessica is infuriated by it and even Patty is kind of embarrassed when she really thinks about it).  At the same time she is rather neglectful of Jessica.  Naturally, Jessica becomes quite the success (loves reading, committed to the environment), while Joey rebels and finds all kinds of ways to disappoint them and make money.  (This isn’t a bad thing, but the family has plenty of money and Joey doesn’t need to (especially not the way he goes about it).  Not to mention Walter and Patty are not into the money for money’s sake thing.

The book opens that there was some “news” about Walter. He and Patty had moved to Washington DC two years earlier.  He clearly did something bad (we won’t find out until much later).  But that serves as an introduction to the Berglunds.  And then we go back to see them, years earlier, settling into St Paul. Continue Reading »

profSOUNDTRACK: THE BLUE HAWAIIANS-Christmas on Big Island (1995).

blue ha I was to get this disc used because I already knew one of their songs and I thought that a surfing Christmas album would be fun.

So I was pleased to add this to our collection.  But upon listening to it, I learned that while I enjoy surf guitar instrumentals, I do not enjoy the Hawaiian style of music popularized by Elvis.  This album features both of these types of songs.

The songs that I like include these instrumental surf guitar renditions: “Christmas Time is Here” (the Peanuts song); “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bells” (the guitar is a little too untamed for my liking in this version).  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is a good instrumental, but there’s a very lengthy middle section that makes the song too long.  “We Four Kings (Little Drummer Boy)” is my favorite track on the album and the one that made me look into more from them.  It’s a great surf guitar rendition of “We Three Kings” with some excellent tribal drumming as a segue into a surf version of “Little Drummer Boy.”

The vocal songs are fine, they’re just not my style.  “Jingle Jangle” and “Blue Christmas” are just way too Elvis-y for my liking (we actually just watched some of Blue Hawaii so it’s in my head).  “Big Island” stars with Hawaiian style drums which I like, then it turns into a kind of blues song.  “Mele Kalikamak” is my favorite song with vocals, probably because of its nontraditional nature (to me).  It ends with about 20 seconds of waves breaking.

“Enchanted Xmas” ends the disc with some Western sounding guitars and some cool wordless backing vocals.  It gives the whole thing an eerier (or enchanted) feel.  Pretty cool.

So something of a mixed bag, but a great album to select tracks for a fun Christmas mix.

[READ: December 15, 2014] The Professor’s Daughter

From the team who brought us Sardine comes this very different kind of story.  Interestingly, in this book, it is Sfar who wrote it and Guibert who drew it.  And I have to say I like it a lot more than the Sardine books (both in content and drawing style).

The story is quite unexpected.  As it opens, a young lady (in Victorian times) is seen stepping out with, well, with a mummy.  It turns out that he is Imhotep IV and she has taken him from his holding spot and is going about town with him.  (And no, it isn’t all a dream.  At least I don’t think it is).

They go out for tea (which makes him tipsy).  He causes all manner of mayhem, including offending someone who slaps his face and challenges him to a duel.  Later when the police come, the professor’s daughter takes matters into her own hands (which only makes the situation worse!).  A man is killed and the mummy is the suspect (which leads to a few very funny scenes). Continue Reading »

rich nameSOUNDTRACK: AN OLDE WORLD CHRISTMAS (European Holiday) (1990?).

olde worldWhile yesterday’s Norwegian Christmas album was awesome, this one falls very very short.  The premise of the album is so promising: Christmas songs from around the world.  There are Spanish, French, English, German, Scandinavian and Italian songs here!

Well, the problem is that this entire record was recorded (apparently) by one guy on a keyboard with five preset sounds.  It is so disappointing.  I mean sure it’s pretty (sort of).  But there is no sense at all that these are different countries’ songs.

For instance, “Angels We Have Heard on High.”  Who knew that that was originally a French song?  Not me.  And in no way does this keyboard instrumental version of “Les Anges Dans Nos Campagnes” convey that it is anything other than “Angels We Have Heard on High.”  How about the fact that we get “O Tannebaum” instead of “O Christmas Tree”?  Well, without words, what’s the difference?

So, there are pianoish sounds and harpsichordish sounds and a flute-ish sound.  And this would probably be a nice thing to put on as you were falling asleep on Christmas Eve and wanted visions of synthesized sukker plomme dancing in your tête.  Thank goodness I got it for 99 cents.

[READ: December 16, 2014] What in God’s Name

When I grabbed Simon’s Rich’s last story collection, I also grabbed this novel, assuming that, you know, it would be hilarious.  And it is.

This story is set in Heaven, Inc.  The CEO, God, is more interested in watching NASCAR than actuality attending to any miracles or crises on earth.  In fact, we learn that Earth was created primarily to produce Xenon, and that humans were just a pet project of some angels.

Angels, yes.  The entire story is written from the point of view of some angels working in heaven.

We meet Craig who has been in Miracles for a few years.  And there’s a new addition to the team Eliza who spent many years working in Prayer Intake but really wanted to move up to Miracles because it just sounded so much more interesting.

One of the best parts about the story is the way Rich envisions angels performing small miracles every day–adjusting the world without transgressing any of God’s major laws (gravity, physics, that sort of thing).  When an angel goes too far (like when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 pints in a game because God liked him and the angel wanted to impress Him), that angel gets punished.  So I loved watching the convoluted ways angels did things to make people act or react.  Small things to help avoid getting a paper cut or assist in catching a fish. Continue Reading »

novocSOUNDTRACK: BUKKENE BRUSE-The Loveliest Rose (2002).

bruseI’m not entirely sure how I came to own this disc.  But I’m so glad I do.  This is a Christmas album from one of Norway’s traditional ensembles (pronounced: BUH-kayna BREW-sah).  They have been around since the 1990s and have toured extensively around the world.  This is their only Christmas album.  It was recorded in an Oslo church.

The album features four players on some great traditional instruments: Arve Moen Bergset – vocals, violin & Hardingfele; Annbjørg Lien – Hardingfele & nyckelharpa; Steinar Ofsdal – flute; Bjørn Ole Rasch – pipe organ.

The album is a wonderful collection of music.  I prefer the instrumentals, although Bergset does have a lovely singing voice.  What I found most interesting is that the sound of the music conveyed many non-Norwegian feelings.  I heard some Irish sounding traditional music and even some Native American (the flute in the final song).

The pipe organ sounds amazing and the fiddle, especially on “Father Fiddled on Christmas Eve” is fantastic.

Nine of the songs are traditional, the rest are written by the band, aside from St. Sunniva, the opening of which comes from ELP’s “Karn Evil 9, 3rd impression (I kid you not–it is quite stripped down here).

I really love this non-traditional traditional Christmas album.  I’m including the track listing mostly because I wanted to have all of this Norwegian in a post.

  1.   A Child Is Born in Bethlehem «Eit barn er født i Betlehem» (3:18) [great flute and a surprisingly catchy hallelujah]
  2.   Lullaby for Julie «Lullámus» (3:15) [great sound of the Hardanger fiddle which has two drone strings]
  3.   Spirit of the Grove «Haugebonden» (5:14) [a gorgeous melody]
  4.   Christmas Eve «Juleftan» (3:38) [unusual fiddle sounds and an unusual and captivating melody]
  5.   My Heart is with Jesus «Mit Hjerte Altid Vanker» (6:32) [the pipe organ really elevates this song]
  6.   St. Sunniva «St. Sunniva» (3:44) [organ and fiddle together in this Irish sounding song]
  7.   A Little Child So Pleasant/In the Sweet Christmas Time «Et lidet barn saa lystelig / I denne søde juletid» (7:20) [beautiful flute and solo violin]
  8.  Father Fiddled on Christmas Eve «Så spela far juleftan» (3:02) [that cool, unusual fiddle is back]
  9.  The Loveliest Rose has Been Found «Den fagraste rosa er funni» (2:35) [the voice is really great on this one]
  10.  Christmas Gangar «Romjulsgangar» (3:22) [beautiful fiddle and flute dance with some unusual sounds from both instruments]
  11. For Such Generous Gifts «For saadan’ mildheds gaver» (2:53) [a New Year’s tune that is rather haunting, I must say]

[READ: December 14, 2014] Novocento

In continuing with my obsessive reading of all things Baricco, I had to interlibrary loan this book from Johns Hopkins.

Novocento is confusingly titled because that is the Italian title as well and although it is a number (which could be translated) in this book it actually refers to a person, which would not get translated–so look carefully for the English edition (done by Oberon) and wonderfully translated by Ann Goldtsein).  It was designed as a play (and this edition is the play).  However, it is a one man monologue (with music ion the performance), so it doesn’t “read” like a play.

The book is 56 pages long.  They have also made a movie out of it (called The Legend of 1900, not just 1900 which is a different movie).  Amazingly the movie is 170 minutes (Italian version) and 120 minutes (international).  That must be a lot of music.

The story is simple, Novocento, as he is called, was born on a ship–an ocean liner that transported people primarily from Europe to America in the early 20th century.  His parents were undoubtedly lower class and left him on the piano aboard the boat (we don’t hear their story at all).  One of the crew finds him and names him Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon Novocento.  Danny Boodman is the man who found him, T.D. Lemon was on the side of the box he was left in and Novocento was the year. Continue Reading »

[ATTENDED: December 14, 2014] John Oliver

oliverI have loved John Oliver for a long time.  I have been delighted to see him go from the British guy on the Daily Show (when he replaced Jon Stewart, he was really fantastic) to the British guy on Community and now the British guy with his own HBO show (which I have never seen since I don’t get HBO).  When I saw that he was doing standup in New Brunswick I had to go.  Our friends Eleanor and Liz went with us and we had a lovely night in good ol’ New Brunswick (strangely enough there was literally no one in the parking garage where we parked yet every restaurant was packed).

Sarah and I were worried that the stand up would reference his show, but it didn’t.  It was topical and funny and weird and funny and political and funny and very very funny.

The show opened with an Indian woman stand up.  Nothing is more thankless than being an opening act for a comedian.  For starters, we didn’t know there would be an opening act.  Then we didn’t find out until we saw in tiny letters on the tiny marquee in the foyer that there would be an opening act.  And we pushed through the doors so quickly that I never saw her name.  And of course they announced it, but I don’t remember what they said her name was.  And even worse I can’t seem to find it online anywhere (searching for “Indian female comedian” did not help believe it or not).  And we never got a program (if it was indeed listed in there).

But she was very funny.  Her jokes were observational with some delightful nearly whispered punchlines that undermined her set ups.  She did an amusing but about drug store receipts.  There was a funny bit about going to customs in Australia and having to explain her occupation of “comedian.”  But a lot of her jokes were about making it in New York City.  There was a rather amusing dog poop joke and a very funny human poop joke.  The human poop joke was more about apartment hunting with a hilarious and disgusting premise that she claimed was a requirement for living in a new apartment (it was hilarious whether true or not). Continue Reading »

bolano SOUNDTRACK: SUFJAN STEVENS Christmas Unicorn: Songs for Christmas, Vol. X (2010).

sufjan 10This is the final disc in the second Sufjan Steven Christmas box set.  It is comprised of mostly shorter songs except for the final one which is 13 minutes long.

Interspersed in the disc are three short instrumentals (under a minute each).  “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “We Three Kings” are all pretty with flutes and minimal electronics.

The more traditional songs are “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” which sounds very much like a Sufjan song with some fun electronic sounds and orchestration and some unusual vocals.  “Up on the Housetop” features lots of drums and layered vocals. It is the standard version but tinkered with with in fun ways.  “We Need a Little Christmas” is a fun and traditional version with choral vocals.

The other three tracks are originals from Sufjan.  “Happy Karma Christmas” a slow track of mostly drums and echoed vocals. It reminds me of Beck’s discoey electronic moments.  “Justice Delivers Its Death” is based on the lyrics of “Silver and Gold” (from Rudolph) but it is a much darker song (obviously, given the title) and sounds nothing like it.

The final track is “Christmas Unicorn.”  It’s a sweet song with funny/thoughtful lyrics.  After three minutes it turns into a nice instrumental.  At the four minute mark a new refrain begins. It sounds like the song is going to fade to end, but it doesn’t. At 6:30, drums come back in and the song takes off with more singers and a fugue style of interweaving vocals.  At 7:36 a new melody is introduced which is, Joy Divisions’ “Love will Tear Us Apart.” They incorporate that into the fugue vocals and it works very well.  It’s a strange song and very unChristmassey, but it’s very cool and quite catchy by the end.

I don’t enjoy this second box set as much as the first, since it is so unChristmassey, but it has some really interesting songs on it.

[READ: December 13, 2014] Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations

I don’t often read biographies about authors I like, but once in a while one will catch my eye.  I knew Maristain’s name from Bolaño’s last published interview, so I was curious what she would do with this collection.  It was translated by Kit Maude, and I am also curious about some of the words that Maude chose to use (the word savage/savages comes up an awful lot when not referring to The Savage Detectives).  But overall it was an easy, quick read.

As the subtitle suggests, Maristain has compiled a loose biography of Bolaño based on interviews with others.  Some are interviews that she has conducted and others are previously existing interviews that she has cobbled together.  The people interviewed are primarily his family and his fellow poets/novelists/friends.

Bolaño was born April 28 1953 in Santiago de Chile.  Soon after, they moved to Valparaiso, and then other smaller towns in Chile. In 1968 they moved to the Mexico City because of his mother’s asthma (although he never set foot in Sonora, the scene of the crimes in 2666). They lived close to the Olympic park and were within walking distance of the Olympic torch during the 1968 Olympics.

He had a difficult upbringing, with his parents splitting up and his mother moving out and taking his sister with her.  Roberto, meanwhile, stayed with his father.  They eventually had a falling out and Roberto went twenty years without seeing him.  His father was a boxer and an opinionated man, and there are lots of quotes from him in the book.

In 1977 Bolaño left Mexico for Spain (and never went back) and that’s when we start getting into his publishing history. Continue Reading »

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