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Archive for February, 2008

nabokov.jpgSOUNDTRACK: MICRODISNEY-Big Sleeping House: A Collection of Microdisney’s Finest Moments (1995).

micro.jpgMicrodisney was founded by Cathal Coughlan and Sean O’Hagan. These two then went on to form respectively, the Fatima Mansions and the High Llamas (and O’Hagan worked with Stereolab as well). If you’ve ever heard Fatima Mansions and High Llamas, you will not understand how these two ever worked together.

If you haven’t heard them, then let me explain. High Llamas play beautiful, multi-layered, somewhat orchestral extended pieces. Their CDs, including Hawaii hawaii.jpg and Gideon Gaye gideon.jpg are really beautiful. Meanwhile, the Fatima Mansions play angry noisy rock, and perpetuate the slogan “Keep Music Evil.” Viva Dead Ponies fatima.jpg is certainly recommended, if you can find it! Clearly, these men started in one place together and drifted apart. However, you can see the kernels of these future bands in Microdisney.

Microdisney was a small Irish band (clearly flying under the radar of Disney, as they never seemed to get sued because of their name). They wrote short, pretty songs that often had bitter, funny lyrics. Cathal Coughlan has a great crooning voice, and a striking speaking voice (when he speaks, rather than singing, during the songs). It gets taken to pretty far extremes in the Fatima Mansions, but in Microdisney, for the most part he sings quite beautifully. And, when you put his voice with O’Hagan’s music, the tunes are catchy, the melodies are infectious, and you find yourself singing along. It’s only when you start to listen to the words that you realize how off center Cathal is.

Like the amusing lyrics of “Town to Town”: “She’s nervous and her; Best friend is waiting, She’s trying to pronounce my name,” that catch you off guard. Then, when you start singing the super catchy chorus “When the daily parade of the troubles you made gets you down, Just consider the fate of the wide open space from town to town,” you get lulled in. Until the verse: “Get Olso, get Glasgow. Hit Bonn and hit Bordeaux, Fry Dresden, miss Dublin; Why don’t you call me?I’ve got nobody.” Then you realize what you’re up against.

This is a greatest hits collection of a sort. They released five or so albums that are pretty much unavailable here (even the greatest hits may not be available). But they’re worth checking out nonetheless. And remember: Keep Music Evil!

[READ: February 6, 2008] Transparent Things.

Everyone has a thing to say about Lolita, whether they’ve read it or not. I read Lolita about ten years ago and I was surprised at how good it was. (I’d been led to believe that it was basically just porn–which it isn’t–or that you couldn’t or shouldn’t sympathize with a pedophile–but you might.) A coworker at the time told me to check out Nabokov’s Pale Fire, which I did, and which I really really liked. It’s a weird book, full of literary fun, and lots of quirks. A good summary is available here.

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lethem.jpgSOUNDTRACK: NEIL YOUNG-Live at the Fillmore East (1970) & Live at Massey Hall (1971).

I came to the Neil Young ballgame much later than lots of fans. I’ve always more or less liked Neil, I really liked his Weld live album, and of course, I knew all of his classic rock, um classics. It was Sarah who really turned me on to Neil’s more mellow side, especially Silver and Gold. And, once you’re into the raucous and the mellow, well, that’s the whole oeuvre, pretty much.

So, I’ve been getting various records by him over the years. And there was so much buzz about these archival releases that I had to check them out. I’m not going to go into whether they were “worth the wait” (some complained about waiting twenty some years for these releases to get only 6 songs on the first one…but I wasn’t waiting terribly long for them, so I don’t care).

fillmore.jpgLive at the Fillmore East. This is a fun, rowdy little disc. I’m confused as to why it’s only 6 songs, as surely they would have played more at the time, but I’m not going to spend any real time figuring that out. The first two songs, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” and “Winterlong” are fuzzy, brief versions of these cuts. They’re a good opening in prep for the twelve minute “Down By the River.” Two more short songs, “Wonderin'” and “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” barely prepare you for the 16 minute “Cowgirl in the Sand” conclusion. I didn’t know that “Downtown” was a “Crazy Horse” song and not a Neil song. I’m not even sure where I know it from, but it was as familiar as most of his tracks. And it was interesting to hear one of the other guys sing the song.

This is Neil and Crazy Horse at their 1970s prime. They sound great, the extended tracks aren’t tiresome, and the quality of the recording is fantastic.

massey.jpgLive at Massey Hall. The same quality is evident on this recording as well. But this record is just Neil solo. It’s a more mellow affair, with the songs being pretty evenly split between acoustic guitar and piano. This disc has 17 songs on it and only one runs over 5 minutes (actually the closing “Dance, Dance, Dance” runs pretty long too, but it’s basically 2 and a half minutes of applause which Neil really should have cut).

What is most interesting/fascinating/cool about this recording is that so many of these songs, which at this point are rightly deemed classic, are heard here by this crowd for the first time. It’s really funny to hear a song like “Needle and the Damage Done” that doesn’t immediately generate a huge round of applause on the first note. You can hear the Toronto audience really listening to the songs. It’s pretty intense.

There’s two or three songs that he says something like, “I just wrote this song last week.” There’s also the really fascinating introduction to “A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold Suite.” I’ve never much like “A Man Needs a Maid” but when he explains the context for writing it (that he’s making a musical (and whether that is true I have no idea) and you can hear the orchestral version playing along in your head) it actually WORKS! The only confusing thing is that he busts into “Heart of Gold” in the middle of the song, and no one bats an eyelash because no one has heard it before!

It’s a really cool collection of songs. I’ve not heard Neil banter so much on record before, and he sounds so YOUNG. It makes sense to hear him write and sing “Old Man” since he wasn’t an old man at the time.

It’s hard to pick one or the other because they are so different, but I think for historical value Massey Hall is the winner. Plus, you get the home town crowd cheering every time he mentions Canada.

[Read: January 28, 2007] This Shape We’re In.

This is a strange little book. It’s about 55 pages. I had never read any Jonathan Lethem before, and since this book was cheap from the McSweeney’s store I thought I’d give it a shot. And boy is it strange. The pun of the title is that the characters are indeed in a shape. (more…)

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maynard.jpgSOUNDTRACK: MONSTER MAGNET-4 Way Diablo (2007).

4way.jpgMy friend Matt and I saw Monster Magnet open for Aerosmith in Scranton, Pa many many moons ago. We had never heard of them, but were really impressed by their set. I especially enjoyed the song he introduced as “I Know Life’s a Bummer, Baby, But That’s Got Precious Little to Do with Me.” (Fact is, I was sold by the title alone). This song would of course be “Bummer” from the Powertrip album. That album became the soundtrack of our summer.

Evidently Dave Wyndorf, the singer, had a life threatening drug overdose not too long ago, and, much to my delight, came back from his experience pretty well unchanged, at least as far as his lyrics go. He’s still out in space, with a cock made of vinyl, amongst other fascinating details. Although perhaps the most fascinating thing for me was to find that he’s over 50 years old. Whoo hoo indeed!

This new album rocks just as hard, is just as trippy as the last few records (the first few ones were actually more trippy and less metal) and still really really catchy. There must be something in the water in beautiful Red Bank, NJ, because Wyndorf knows how to crank out a stellar album. It took me until 2008 to get this record, even though it’s a 2007 release, but I would say it was one of the best of 2007. Even the instrumental “Freeze and Pixillate” is fantastic. It comes near the end of the album and seems to revitalize it, as the three tracks that follow are some of the best on the disc.

So, really, how to describe the record? It’s a metal record for its bass heavy sensibilities, but it also grooves really well, and probably just falls into a heavy rock category more than metal. (And they cover a Rolling Stones song “2000 Light Years from Home,” so that shows you some of their influences, anyhow). They’re often referred to as stoner metal, and that’s probably got to do with the weird lyrics he writes: “Like a stone God, I drink from the moon.” Probably the real selling point of the band, though, is Wyndorf’s voice. He doesn’t scream, although he can from time to time, but he’s got a great mellow singing voice; even when the music is fast and furious, his voice remains calm and, okay, I admit, sorta stoned.

There’s really not a bad song on the record, and even though none could match the majesty of “Bummer” I’ve been listening to it over and over again.

[READ: January 10, 2008] Maynard and Jennica.

I saw an ad for this book in The Believer. This was the first time The Believer had accepted ads, and they promised the ads would be for books we would find interesting. At this point, the ads have been only for books, and I have in fact read several of them already. But at the time of the ad for Maynard and Jennica, I wasn’t sure what I thought about them doing ads. Well, I am now all for it. Maynard and Jennica was a great, great read. (more…)

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mc25.jpgSOUNDTRACK: SIGUR RÓS-Hvarf-Heim (2007).

hvarf.jpgSigur Rós put on one of the greatest live shows I’ve seen. There was nothing “special” about it , in that there were no real pyrotechnics, there was just a very simple film playing on a screen behind them, but somehow they took over the small theater I saw them in…I can’t remember which one, maybe The Limelight in NYC…and I had a tremendously trippy experience. Normally, I’d chalk this up to the surrounding smoke, but this time it was definitely the music. The high notes, the swirling tunes, the coda to a sing in which the singer snag into the pickup of his guitar (a very weird thing to see), and then used some of his guitar effects on his voice; wow. I actually had to sit down after the show.

If you really let it, a Sigur Rós CD will totally envelop you. There are many layers of lush strings and harmonies, and the Icelandic/nonsensical lyrics push it over the edge into an otherwordly realm.
But what do they really sound like? My blasphemous answer is they sound like Coldplay if you pushed Coldplay to the furthest edges of their sound. If you put acid in the Coldplay CD you’d get Sigur Rós. I have a friend who loves Coldplay and I burned a copy of the second Sigur Rós album; however, I’ve no idea if she liked it…great story huh?

So, anyhow, this collection, Hvarf-Heim, is a two disc set of rarities and an unplugged live performance. The rarities are nothing too different from a typical Sigur Rós collection. Which is not to say that they’re not great–they are–they’re just nothing out of the ordinary for them, more of a boon for collectors. It’s really the love album which is what stands out. I wondered, after seeing them fully plugged in, what an unplugged version of the band could do. What you find out is that the melodies are really strong, and the otherworldlyness comes not from studio trickery or something else, but from the excellent songcraft and the soaring vocals.

They use strings to play the swells that the songs usually contain, and the strings do a great job. The recording definitely sounds unplugged, but it still retains that otherworldly sound. There’s definitely something in the Icelandic waters that produces such wonderful music.

[READ: January 31, 2008] McSweeney’s #25.

This issue of McSweeney’s sees a return to the less audacious format. It is a smallish book with an overlaid cover of two different materials. The only color components of the work are a series of horses painted by. The series is called Horses say What and each story has a cover page of a beautiful horse.

And since this volume is all about the stories, so will this review, then, be.

CONNOR KILPATRICK-“Yuri”
This story of a Russian man who comes to work at a paper plant and befriends a slacker employee is very, very manly. It seems to be full of robust men, like Yuri who are fearless, until that fearlessness catches them off guard. The story is slightly off kilter in that the narrative watches the main action from something of a distance, which makes the story more compelling. The main plotline, such as it is, is pretty simple, so it’s really the oddness of the storytelling that makes you want to finish it.

STEVEN MILLHAUSER-“The Tower”
This is a cool story investigating the reality behind constructing the Tower of Babel (it never explicitly says that, but it is a tower that reaches heaven). It is neither mocking nor reverend, but it looks very much at the logistics that would be involved in creating such a tower. This is not to imply that it is a funny story, for it is not, it is actually a little sad, but it makes for a good look at the human condition.

EMILY ANDERSON-“Love, The Frontier”
A series of diary entries propels this story of a contemporary woman leaving the city (Boston) for the frontier. She buys some oxen and starts roughing it, all in search of love. Some funny anachronistic moments but I felt they were used so sparsely that the jokes were not as strong as they could have been. I the story wasn’t meant to be funny, then it just left me a little flat.

JOYCE CAROL OATES-“Magda Maria”
This is a sad love story. The unnamed narrator is madly in love with a seemingly mythical character named Magad Maria. In the beginning of the story she is a beautiful, mysterious woman who is beholden to a brute of a man named Danto. Through the course of the story Magda’s life grows grimmer and grimmer, yet the narrator continues in his unyielding love. While not the most original of storylines, the storytelling was very compelling and really made you want to see what was up with this mysterious woman.

DAVID HOLLANDER-“The Naming of The Islands”
I didn’t like this story at the beginning. It was a nautical story about sailors being allowed to name the islands that they “discover.” It seemed to be just a simple story of conquest. However, as the story progressed, we learn that the islands are in fact a surreal collection of little islets. Each one proves to be progressively more bizarre and frustrating to the starving, dehydrated sailors. Although in reality this was a depressing story, the inventiveness of the crazy islands made the story very enjoyable to read despite itself.

ALEXANDER MACBRIDE-“The Ape Man”
A funny (strange) short story about a man who is switched at birth with a dead ape’s child. The two, who are in some respects stepbrothers, both grow to be kings in their respective cultures: the man in the ape culture and the dead ape baby in the kingdom of the dead. Like I said, pretty strange.

KENNETH BONERT-“Peacekeepers, 1995”
This was the longest story by far in this collection. It concerns a Canadian journalist named Henry as he is sent to Bosnia to cover the peacekeeping mission. As soon as he arrives, he befriends a soldier called Pigeon. Pigeon’s advice gets Henry in grave trouble with the locals. While trying to figure out what to do, Pigeon “helps” him some more. His entire stay in Bosnia, less than 24 hours turns into a whirlwind of violence, hallucinations and utter mistrust. This would have been a subject I wouldn’t have cared about, but the story was really gripping, with a surprising climax. I was a little disappointed that it didn’t “end” per se, but the story itself was great.

TERRY WRIGHT-“The Butcher, The Baker”
A one page story/poem/ramble. I read it three times and am still not sure what to make of it.

CHLOE HOOPER-“A Death in Custody”
This is a follow up to a story in Mcsweeneys #21. It is yet more depressing information amount racial inequities in Australia. A ray of hope is presented but is ultimately shot down. The realities of this area are staggering.

PADGETT POWELL-“No Empress Eyes”
This was a surreal little story about a girl who loses her horse “No Empress Eyes” and then falls in with a boy who wants to create a new harvester that will spare the lives of the deer who happen to be in the fields. The farm boy’s family takes in the girl, and they live in a cave together. Surreal, indeed. It didn’t leave to much of an impression, although I did enjoy the boy’s discourse on trying to save the deer. In fact, I’ll amend my opinion to say that I enjoyed his half of the story but not so much the horse part. Fortunately it was only 5 or so pages.

[For ease of searching I include: Sigur Ros]

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