Archive for December, 2010

SOUNDTRACK: SHARON VAN ETTEN-Tiny Desk Concert #91 (November 14, 2010).

I was introduced to Sharon Van Etten via NPR’s All Songs Considered, so it’s no surprise that they would have her on a Tiny Desk Concert as well.  I loved her song, “Save Yourself” more than I could imagine.  There was something about the way the intensity built and built that really blew me away.  The rest of her album is really enjoyable, but it has less intensity. It’s almost like an acoustic album.

So it’s funny that I find her Tiny Desk show mildly disappointing because it is also an acoustic set. In fact, it is just her and her guitar (and her singing partner who sings wonderful harmonies).

Okay, I shouldn’t really say disappointed because the set is quote good.  Her guitar laying is fine and her voice, he unique and slightly unsettling voice is in fine form here.  There’s just something about the stripped down nature that takes away that extra sparkle that I really love about the disc.  I imagine that if I hadn’t heard the whole CD first, I would have been blown away by this live recording.

The four songs (“Peace Signs,” “Save Yourself,” “One Day,” “For You”) are all from Epic, and they’re all really good.  It’s a nice accompaniment to the album, but I think the album is a bit better.

[READ: December 13, 2010] I Live Real Close to Where You Used to Live

Back in early 2009, McSweeney’s published Thanks and Have Fun Running the Country: Kids’ Letters to President Obama as a friendly kick off to the President’s new term. We’re now at the end of the second year of that term and the “Have Fun” part seems to be rather unlikely.  But just in time for the rise of Boehner, McSweeney’s has published this companion piece, letters to the rest of the Obama family.  And it is just as sweet, clever and at times odd as the first.

The kids from 826 National in several cities were asked to write letters to the first family.  It’s interesting to see how the different regions ask different questions, but perhaps more interesting is how some things seem to resonate no matter where the kids are from.  Two kids ask about Pokémon Black and White (this must be the hot new game).  Several kids ask how many rooms there are in the White House.  Naturally, several ask about her garden (what she has in it or what kind of fruits and veggies she likes).

But the most fun is the advice the kids give.  My favorite is the girl who says that her aunt thinks Mrs Obama should have one more child (but only if she wants to).

Sadder are the children who are clearly having a rough time.  One child talks about her parents’ separation, and another’s entire letter is: “Can you help my family? We’re about to lose our house. Make the world a better place. What is your favorite food?”  It must be tough to be a prominent person who clearly wants to help yet who is for the most part, impotent to do anything.

And for me that has to be the hardest part about writing to the first lady.  She has no clear “role.”  She’s a public figure and she advocates for good, but she can’t really “do” anything.  And that has to be hard to grasp.  Although judging by what the kids say, maybe they have no problem with it. (more…)


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SOUNDTRACK: ART BRUT Live from the 9:30 Club, November 29, 2007 (2007).

I’ve really enjoyed Art Brut’s two albums.  They are funny but they are not jokey.  They also rock really hard with wonderful, angular punk.

Sometimes I’ve felt the albums are a little bit…shall we say…perfect.  They are very tight and polished on record (which actually serves the records very well).  But I wondered what a live show would be like for them.

And I’m delighted to say that their live set is more shambolic than their records.  The shambolicness suits them very well, because they are clearly a lot of fun live.  As you might expect from the vocals on the records, Eddie Argos is practically a ringleader on stage.  He has playful funny banter; I love the way he introduces almost every song with “Are you ready Art Brut?”

I was also quite delighted with the way he introduced every band member with a song that he was the first musician on.  It allowed for spreading out the various interruptions of the music and really kept the flow.

Some of the guitar bits sound muddied (and I have to admit the recording level is a little lower than I would like–or maybe that’s the radio I’m playing it out of), but again, that adds to their punkier stylings.  But my favorite song “My Little Brother” sounds like it’s on fire!  The band plays it magnificent and the bass sounds amazing.  I was surprised that my second favorite song “Formed a Band” was more or less tacked on as a segment of the final track, but it works well in that location.

Perhaps the most surprising thing was the “drum solo” at the very end.  I kept expecting Argos to tell him to knock it off.  It’s a great live show.

The end of the show includes an interview with Eddie Argos and the singer from The Hold Steady (Art Brut opened for them on this tour).  The questions are mostly for The Hold Steady, but there’s enough or an Art Brut fan to keep listening all the way through.

[READ: December 15, 2010] “Agreeable”

So this is the final work that I printed out from the New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen.  And this means that I am done reading short Franzen works (actually, there’s one other piece that was available in Harper’s but I’m going wait on that one for a while).  Starting sometime in 2011, (although not right away) I’m going to begin reading his novels.

So, I assume this story is also excerpted from Freedom.  It concerns the same character as in the previous short story, “Good Neighbors” although she is not yet Patty Berglund.  She is still Patty Emerson and is a jock in high school.  Tying this in to yesterday’s story, Patty was an outcast even in her own family.  She was taller than all of her siblings and was much more athletic and aggressive.  Her mother had little time for her (she loved her artsy other daughters) and her father, a defense attorney, was often too busy for her.

The interesting set up of the story comes when we see her as a young girl.  She is, as mentioned, an outcast in her own family, and it seems that her father is quite a joker, often at her expense.  As a defense attorney, her father deals with many clients who are guilty and he is not above mimicking them to his family.  And this carries over when it comes to Patty as well.  He mocks her intellectual gaffes in front of everyone. And it’s unclear whether this is an odd way of showing love or just a nasty thing to do (well, it is nasty, but it’s unclear if it’s a clumsy attempt at affection). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PHOENIX-Tiny Desk Concert #60 (May 18, 2010).

I’m really enjoying these Tiny Desk concerts.  They’re sort of unplugged, but even less so, because they just don’t give the band room enough for more than guitars and small accessories. If you watch the video, you can see that they are literally in someone’s office!

This set comes during Phoenix’s American tour of Wolfganag Amadeus Phoenix.  They play four songs: “Lisztomania” “Armistice” and “1901” from the album.  The big surprise at the end is a cover of Air’s “Playground Love” from The Virgin Suicides.  (I can’t confirm this, but the page notes say that Phoenix (or at least the singer) was involved with the original).  All four songs sound great.  Even though the album is very electronic and very keyboard heavy, these simple stripped down acoustic versions show how wonderful the songs are.  And of course “Playground Love” is a wonderfully unexpected treat.

[READ: December 14, 2010] “Good Neighbors”

This is one of the final two pieces by Franzen that are from the New Yorker.  This (and the other) is a short story that I am fairly certain is an excerpt from Freedom.  I believe that the main character of this piece is in Freedom, but I don’t know if this passage (or story arc) is in the book.  (I’ll be reading Freedom sometime in 2011).

It’s nice to get back to Franzen’s fiction after reading so much of his non-fiction; I am forever more of a fan of fiction than non-.  This story is about Patty Berglund and her family.  They were the first white family to move to the Ramsey Hill section of St. Paul, Minn.   Despite the abuse that her family took, they stuck it out and built up their home, investing their life into it and the community.

Slowly, the neighborhood grew more affluent (ie., white).  Yet for all of Patty’s pioneering work, she was never widely embraced by the new community members.   She was accepted, of course, and people wouldn’t say anything bad about her, but she never opened up enough  for people to feel they really knew her.

And that may be the moral of the story. (more…)

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One of the other Rock en Español bands I bought in the 90s was Aterciopelados (the hardest to pronounce).  Aterciopelados come from Colombia and they play a variety of styles of music.  They also feature a female vocalist (Andrea Echeverri) who has a great voice in a variety of styles.

The opening song “Florecita Rockera” is a heavy blast of punk.  “Suenos del 95” is a kind of a lite pop song.  “Candela” is a latin-infused song that sounds not unlike a more psychedelic Santana track.  And “Bolero Falaz” is a winning acoustic ballad.  Meanwhile “Las Estaca” is a sort of county/cowboy song that breaks into a fun rocking chorus.

“No Futuro” starts as a slow balald and builds and builds to a heavy rocker.  I would have liked this song to go a bout a minute longer to get really crazy.  The rest of the disc works within this broad framework: ballads that turn into heavy rockers (“De Tripas Corazón”), hints of punk and latin accents.  And then there’s a song like “Colombia Conexión” which reminds me a bit of The Dead Milkmen: simple sparse verses with heavy punk choruses.  Meanwhile “Pilas!” is straight ahead punk.  The final song “Mujer Gala” has some ska-lite aspects as well (and I have to say that it seems like No Doubt may have been inspired by them).

Although for all of the different styles of music, the disc is really a venue for Echeverri’s voice.  She’s not a rocker or a screamer and she could easily sing pop ballads, but because she chooses to sing over so many styles, she really showcases the multifacted nature of her voice.  She can hold a note for quite a while and although she never really shows off, it’s clear that she’s got a powerful voice.  She even sings beautifully over the punkier tracks, never devolving into a scream, but never losing her edge either.

Aterciopelados is a hard band to pin down (especially with this one disc).  Of the rock en Español bands, Aterciopelados had one of the longer lifespans.  They released several albums with very different styles.

El Dorado suffers from weak production, some more highs and lows would really makes the listening experience better, but it’s a solid disc overall.

[READ: December 10, 2010] The Insufferable Gaucho

This is a collection of five short stories and two essays.  Two of the short stories appeared elsewhere (which I read previously).  This is the first time I’ve seen the essays translated into English.  The fabulous translation is once again by Chris Andrews, who really brings Bolaño’s shorter books to life.  They are vibrant and (in light of The Savage Detectives, this is funny) visceral.

“Jim” is a four page story which focuses very specifically on a man named Jim.  As the story ends, we see Jim locked in an existential struggle.  For such a short work, it’s very powerful.

“The Insufferable Gaucho” (which I had read in The New Yorker) was even better after a second read.  I find this to be true for much of Bolaño’s work.  He tends to write in a nontraditional, nonlinear fashion so you can’t always anticipate what is going to happen (quite often, nothing happens).  In this story, a man in Buenos Aires, feeling that the city is sinking, heads out to his long neglected ranch in the country.  He spends several years there, slowly morphing from a cosmopolitan man to a weather-beaten gaucho who doesn’t shave and carries a knife.  But there is much more to the story.  The countryside is virtually dead: barren, wasted and overrun by feral rabbits.  The rabbits offer an interesting metaphor for the wilderness as well.  His interactions with the few other people he encounters are wonderfully weird, and the ending is thought-provoking.  It’s a wonderfully realized world he has created.

“Police Rat,” is that strangest of Bolaño stories: a straight ahead narrative that works like a police procedural.  I assumed from the title that it would be something about a metaphorical rat in the police force.  Rather, this is a story about an actual rat who works on the rat police force.  Bolaño spends a lot of time setting up the story (details are abundant) making it seem like perhaps there would be no plot.  But soon enough, a plot unfurls itself.  And although the story is basically a police story, the underlying reality behind it is fantastic and quite profound.  The story is beyond metaphor.

“Álvaro Rousselot’s Journey” was published in The New Yorker.  This story was also better on a second reading.  In many ways this story is a microcosm of Bolaño’s stories: a man goes on a quest for an elusive man.  Unlike the other stories, he actually catches up to the elusive guy.  But, as if Bolaño were commenting on his other stories, actually catching the guy doesn’t really solve the crisis.

This basic premise is that a writer believes that a filmmaker is stealing his ideas for his films (even though he is from a different country).  But more than just the simple plot, when Álvaro Rousselot leaves the comfort of his homeland things change fundamentally within him.

“Two Catholic Tales” is, indeed, two tales.  I had to read this piece twice before I really “got” the whole thing.  There are two separate stories (each story is a solid block of text but there are 30 numbered sections (which don’t seem to correspond to anything so I’m not sure why they are there).  The first tale is of a young boy who desires to be like St. Vincent, with designs for the priesthood.  As the story ends, he is inspired by a monk who he sees walking barefoot in the snow.  The second tale (we don’t realize until later) is about the monk himself.  It rather undermines the piousness that the boy sees.  On the second reading I realized just how dark of a tale this turned out to be.  It’s very good.

“Literature + Illness = Illness”
This is the first non-fiction by Bolaño that I have read.  It is a meditation about his terminal illness.  The essay is broken down into 12 sections about Illness. They range in attitude from the realization that when you are gravely ill you simply want to fuck everything to the fear that grips you when you finally accept your illness.  Despite the concreteness of the subject, the essay retains Bolaño’s metaphorical style.  Each subdivision is “about” an aspect of illness.  “Illness and Freedom,” “Illness and Height,” “Illness and Apollo,” “Illness and French Poetry.”  But it’s when he nears the end and he’s in a tiny elevator with a tiny Japanese doctor (who he wants to fuck right there on the gurney but can’t bring himself to say anything), and she runs him through his tests showing how far advanced his liver failure is, that the reality of his illness really sinks in.

“The Myths of Cthulhu” is the other essay in the book and I have to say it’s the only thing in the book that I’m a little frustrated by.  About midway through, he reveals that this is a speech and I wish that an introductory note would have given context for this speech, or indeed, indicated whether it was really a speech or not.

One of things that struck me about it (and also about “Literature +Illness=Illness” is how frequently he is unspecific about his research (and just never bothered to go back and fix it).  For instance:

For books about theology, there’s no one to match Sánchez Dragó.  For books about popular science, there’s no one to match some guy whose name escapes me for the moment, a specialist in UFOs.

Because I don’t know his non-fiction and I don’t have context (and I’ve no idea who Sánchez Dragó is) I don’t know what to make of that unspecific recommendation.  As for Sánchez Dragó, in the speech he’s noted as a TV presenter (Wikipedia confirms this).  But why the uncertainty in a written piece?  Laziness or deliberate commentary?

This essay has many elements of local information that are completely lost on me.  However, by the end, he brings it back to folklore and literature.  He also makes some biting criticisms of George Bush, Fidel Castro, Penelope Cruz (!) and Mother Teresa. Actually, I’m not sure if he’s mocking Penelope Cruz, although he is definitely mocking Mother Teresa.

The ending is general moaning about the state of Latin American fiction.  Even though I didn’t follow all of what he was talking about, there’s something about his delivery which is so different from his fiction. It’s honest and fast and kind of funny and enjoyable to read.


This may be something of a minor work, and yet the stories are really wonderful and are certainly a treat to read.  The essays definitely need more context, but it is interesting to finally have a chance to read the “real” Bolaño.

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I learned about this song when John Lydon was a DJ on NPR’s All Songs Considered.   His collection of songs included Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid,” Jimi Hendrix’ “All Along the Watchtower” and Planxty’s “The Well Below the Valley.”  The other song was this Dudley Moore/Peter Cook number from the movie Bedazzled (the Brendan Frasier movie was a remake which Lydon says was a travesty compared to the original).

This song is wonderfully bizarre.  It’s got a groovy 60’s beat with female singers seducing Peter with their come on lines.  And after each line from the women, Peter deadpans a line about how disinterested he is.  As Lydon says, the best couplet is:

THE GIRLS: You drive me wiiiiild
PETER: You fill me with inertia.

Obviously the song is comic, but the music is cool and slinky and fun in a completely retro sort of way.   I’m only disappointed that I’ve never heard it before.  Thanks Mr. Rotten.  Oh, and I see the soundtrack just got a reissue!

Hear the song (and all of Lydon’s) DJing here. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126559893

[READ: December 9, 2010] “On the Show”

I don’t really care about carny stories (and yet I’m surprised by just how many there are).  But this story was interesting because of the twist that sucked me into the carny.

The story opens with the narrator describing his carny boss.  And what I loved about this set up is that the carny boss is a tough-guy, braggart, asshole.  [He knocked out Steve Martin on the set of one of his movies].  And the stories are wonderful precisely because we hear them through the ears of the narrator who thinks this guy is full of shit.  I realize that I dislike tough guy stories in general, but you could tell me a tough guy story and have the guy he’ talking to say he’s a jerk and I’ll think it’s okay.  Call me the anti-Hemingway.

We flashback to how this narrator, who we don’t know all that much about, got here.  Turns out the flashback is about twelve hours ago (which is also pretty funny).  The narrator is a young college kid who was home for the summer.  His stepfather really doesn’t like him and they have a huge fight (which gets physical) so he runs off and, yes, joins the circus. (more…)

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I bought this disc when I was living in Boston and I immediately fell for it.  I seem to recall I was doing a lot of driving at the time, and this mix of extreme metal, orchestral accompaniment and twinned vocals was very captivating.  It was also really fun to play very loud on a dark highway.

I’d read a very good review of this disc that claimed it was a big step forward in styles of thrash/black metal (and if you Google reviews for this album they are pretty universally great).  The disc is exemplified by the track “To Mega Therion” which is almost entirely a full choir singing what I guess is the chorus.  The verses are populated by a guy screaming in a guttural voice who is answered by an almost mechanically twinned voice which sounds great but is even harder to understand.  Follow this with a beautiful piano (!) solo not unlike something Randy Rhoads put together for Blizzard of Oz, and add a pounding double bass drum all the way through (truth be told the album could be a little heavier in the bass) and you get a crazy mix of styles which is catchy and creepy at the same time.

It’s hard to match a song like that.  And, admittedly, the band doesn’t quite manage to do so, but the rest of the album keeps up this orchestral death metal throughout.

Reading about Therion has taught me that this album is something of  touchstone for a new genre of metal, called variously symphonic or operatic metal (I suppose we have this to blame for the Trans Siberian Orchestra?).

In addition to the choirs and guitars there are a lot of keyboards. They are disconcerting when you’re thinking death metal and yet really they add an even fuller sound, even if at times they are not as grand or powerful as anything else.  At times the album seems cheesey, but that may have more to do with thirteen years distance than the music itself.

Anyone who has seen The Exorcist knows that choirs can be spooky.  And when you mix it with the heavy guitars and guttural vocals, you get a really cool sinister yet catchy (and possibly uplifting) album.  There are certainly a lot heavier albums, but this one is pretty stellar.

[READ: Summer of 2010, finished December 12, 2010] Lords of Chaos

My brother-in-law gave me this book for my birthday this year.  I was familiar with it as it is fairly well-known in heavy metal circles as a fascinating read.  And so it was.

This book is basically a history of black metal in Norway and how some bands’ antics went beyond music into burning churches and even murder.  The authors present a pretty neutral account of the story.  They let the main participants (criminals) have their say and the interviews don’t comment on their answers, they just let them tell their side of the story.  The authors also know a lot about the music scene.  Of course, in the end, the authors (thankfully) disapprove of the violence.  It makes for an interesting and somewhat conflicting read. (more…)

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Happy Chrimbus everybody!

I wondered long and hard if I should have a special Christmas post this year.  Last year I posted about my most favorite and least favorite Christmas songs.  And this year I thought about posting about my favorite Christmas special episodes, but we didn’t watch that many this year, so that may have to wait until next year.  Then I wondered if I should write about a Christmas book, or if I should completely ignore the holiday.  Or maybe write a wholly inappropriate book review (no, that I saved for tomorrow).

Well, leave it to Tim and Eric and solve my dilemma for me with their Chrimbus special.

Chrimbus is Dec 5, so technically, this is not the right day to celebrate, but since this is the first year of Chrimbus, I wanted to get the word out on that other holiday that happens in December.

When Tim and Eric introduced Chrimbus on the Jimmy Kimmel show (watch part two of the interview below), they explained it is a “lunch holiday” celebrated during the lunch hour.  The highlight of Chrimbus is when Winterman comes.  Winterman inspects your Chrimbus bush.  If your bush is trim and wet, Winterman will give you a present.  Part One of the interview features their core-strengthening exercise routine.

But watch Part Two below to learn about Chrimbus.


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