Archive for January, 2011

SOUNDTRACK: PORTLANDIA: “Dream of the 90’s” (2011).

This is song that I think of as the theme song for the show Portlandia. (I’ve only seen the one episode so far so I don’t know if it is or not, but if it isn’t, it should be!).  This song is so indicative of the show that, if you like the video, you’ll likely enjoy the show too.  Portlandia is written by and stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney).

Although this song is meant to be evocative of the 90s (the chorus is “The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland”), musically, it’s not a 90s-era song (despite the comment that flannel still looks good in Portland).  It is actually a keyboard-only song, kind of discoey (dare I say Pet Shop Boysish?).  It’s a simple musical motif, with a catchy chorus and spoken verse, but really you listen for the lyrics:

Remember the 90s when they encouraged you to be weird?

Portland is the city where young people go to retire.

It’s like Gore won, the Bush administration never happened….  Portland’s almost an alternative universe.

It’s all tongue-in-cheek (with a surprisingly catchy chorus).  But, oh to dream.  Sleep ’til eleven…

Watch the video here.

[READ: January 24, 2011] “Always Raining, Somewhere, Said Jim Johnson”

This second Harper’s story suffered from a similar problem as the previous one.  This story felt like several snippets that never tied together.  In any way.

We see a student at the Iowa writer’s program (this sent up red flags immediately for me–not a story about being in  writing program).  And we read a lengthy section about rain.  Except it’s not really about rain, it’s about a pub in Iowa City.  And the concreteness of it is very cool.  You can really see and smell the bar.   The bartender’s routine is so exact you can win bets on when he’ll finish.   He ensues that everything is tidy and that everyone gets the hell out.  Cool, I’m with you.

Then there’s more rain and the narrator and a guy named Rich crash at Rich’s place.  Rich’s wife, Liz is also there and we learn a word or three about her.  And then the narrator starts really checking out Liz, who is completely naked on the bed with Rich.  And there’s some interesting intense moments where he thinks he’s caught.

Then we jump to another bar scene and some pretty funny comparisons between Liz and Gayle Sayers.  These come from the titular Jim Johnson who is apparently dead by the above scene.  (You don’t have to know who Gayle Sayers is to get the joke, I don’t think.  But if you don’t know who he is, he was a football player).



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SOUNDTRACK: THE DECEMBERISTS-“The King is Dead Live from Portland” on OPB (Oregon Public Broadcasting) (2011).

NPR loves The Decemberists, and so do I.  Not only did NPR stream their new album before it came out, they are also showing the audio and the video of this hour-long concert of the band playing The King is Dead start to finish.

I haven’t really had time to digest the whole album yet, but I am quite fond of it.  I’ve listened a few times and it’s very different from their previous releases, it has a much more folk/country feel (with harmonicas!).  And from what I can tell this live set is quite faithful to the recording.

Interestingly, when they played the entirety of The Hazards of Love live (also available from NPR), they played that entire epic album straight through with no chatter in between.  This live set is much more cordial and relaxed (like the disc itself), with some amusing delays and chatter between tracks.  (There’s an amusing reference to the lyrics of the new IFC show Portlandia).  There are tuning and tech malfunctions, and everyone plays along very nicely.  It really shows the difference between the two albums and how adaptable the band is.

Much has been made of the fact that Peter Buck plays on the album, and I have to say that the live mixing of “Down By the Water” makes it sound even more like R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” (that guitar, wow).  But it’s the country and bluegrass really comes out in this setting.  Sara Watkins’ violin really stands out.  They also mention the band’s side project, which I’d not heard of before now.  The band is Black Prairie and features Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee and Nate Query (I guess Colin Meloy is  real taskmaster that they needed to escape?).

The middle of the set is an interview with the OPB DJ (unnamed as far as I can tell) and Colin Meloy.  They talk about Hazards and the new one.  And at the end of the set there’s a Q&A from the audience (hear of Jenny’s wardrobe malfunction!).

But stay until the end because they also play “We Both Go Down Together.”  It’s a great, fun, loose set.

[READ: January 23, 2010] “The Hare’s Mask”

One of the fun things about vacations for me is that I bring all the magazines that have been idling around my house and I read them during down time.  So, I grabbed all of the magazines that were unread or half-read and put them in my suitcase.  After long days at Disney, when the family crashed, I took the time to finish those final pages.

I often find myself falling very far behind on my magazine reading, but I was delighted that after this vacation I was totally caught up (except for the 4 that awaited me when I got home).  This Harper’s story (and the next post) were the only stragglers from the trip.

And I find that I have much more to say about my trip and my magazines than about this story.  I feel like it was meant to be profound, and it certainly had the ingredients for profundity, but it failed to move me.

Perhaps it was the metaphor of tying fishing lures, which I don’t care about. Perhaps it was the rabbit killing, which was heart-string tugging, but was more distasteful than anything else. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PEARL JAM-Backspacer(2009).

In 2009, Pearl Jam came out with Backspacer, a 36 minute album of short songs (most are under 3:30, with three approaching the 4 minute mark).

It’s tempting to call this a return to form, but the songs have a lot more bite and punch than the tracks on Ten (which were fast, but were often quite long with lengthy guitar solos).  Overall, the album feels like a fun album, a good chance to let their hair down (those who still have any) and rock out.  And on the opening four tracks they rock really hard.

“Gonna See My Friend” is a furious blast (and the guitar solos are tucked into the verses for maximum expediency).  “Got Some” slows the pace incrementally, and there are some interesting sparse sections where just the guitar plays.  “The Fixer” has a catchy “yeah yeah yeah” bridge which seems like a perfect fit for concerts.  And “Johnny Guitar” is another hard rocker, but it features a mid section that is a major departure from the other songs: a quiet section with bass and scratchy guitars.  It lasts but a moment but it lets you know the whole album won’t be heavy and furious..

Because even though the disc seems like it’ll be all punk, “Just Breathe” is a mellow acoustic song that sounds like it came from Vedder’s soundtrack for Into the Wild–complete with strings.  “Among the Waves” starts out similarly mellow, although it has some big choruses, and sounds like the most typical Pearl Jam song.  And “Unthought Known” is kind of a mix of these two–a big arena song with pianos, swelling verses and a guitar solo

But just when you think the rest of the album is going to just mellow out, “Supersonic” rips the pace back up.  It’s a fast rock song not unlike “Spin the Black Circle”.  Then there’s a return to the mellower songs (despite the title) with “Speed of Sound.” It starts off with an interesting minor chord progression, but returns to the upbeatness of the rest of the disc for the choruses.

“Force of Nature” introduces a wah-wah (!) and a killer chorus.  And the last song “The End” is a gentle acoustic guitar song (like “Just Breathe”) which ends the disc on a quiet note.  This isn’t a classic album, but it is good and it’s a lot of fun.  And it has a bunch of songs which will remain concert staples for a number of years.  And for those who like Pearl Jam’s poppier side, it’s an intriguing re-introduction to the band who has been out of the spotlight for some time.

[READ: January 13, 2011] The Guild: Vork

I love The Guild.  It’s a very funny and very clever show.  I also enjoyed the first comic book, especially when it turned out to be not a retelling of the show, but a sort of prequel to it.  This issue is a one-shot that focuses on Vork (played by co-author Jeff Lewis).

And in the way of One-Shots, this story is a cute and fairly amusing story about Vork’s home life.  Vork lives with his grandfather, a ninety-something year old guy who is full of vices (smoking, drinking, porn) and who lives his late years to the fullest (there’s a very funny scene of him at a rave).  His grandfather stresses Vork out to no end and he winds up taking it out on his Guild-mates (even more than usual).  And they’ve basically had it with him.  So they ask him, no tell him, to get out of the Guild.  (more…)

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Many years ago I bought Imogen Heap’s debut album because it was described as being similar to Tori Amos’ work.  I think that it’s really closer to someone like Heather Nova, but regardless, it was enjoyable, with her cool voice that had an unexpected falsetto thing that I rather liked.

I promptly forgot about her, although the single “Come Here Boy” stuck with me.  I was recently turned on to Frou Frou somewhere even though this album came out almost ten years ago.  Since a decade is a long time I can’t recall if 2002 was the time of this sort of music or not (well, Dido came out in 1999, so maybe this was the tail end?)

Anyhow, this album plays nicely into the continuum of slightly more complex than normal pop songs sung by a woman with a cool if not unique voice.  Heap provides the vocals, and I suppose the most notable quality is her breathiness.  She seems to be able to sing in a whisper, which is pretty neat and, again, there’s that falsetto which doesn’t seem to get higher so much as otherwordly.

She’s an excellent match for Guy Siggworth who creates music (at least I assume he did the music, I’m not sure how it was divided exactly) that is interesting and electronic but also soft and welcoming.  Despite the fact that the music is obviously a dude with a keyboard, his choices are not electronic and dancey, they are more enchanting (although they are also very catchy and dancey).

They work wonders as a team, and if you miss this sort of not-pure pop album (circa 2000), this is a great disc to pick up.  Heap’s voice may be one to get used to, but I find it far more engaging than the autotuned voices circa 2010.

A couple of stand out tracks include: “Must Be Dreaming” which has some especially nifty effects that make the song stand out.  The most Björkian song “Psychobabble” also offers cool sound effects which take it well out of the pop realm (her voice is particularly cool on this track).  And “Maddening Shroud” is probably the best poppy song I’ve heard in a long time.

[READ: January 11, 2011] “The King of Norway”

In my mind Amos Oz is a capital-A Author, somehow promising Thoughts.  Maybe it’s because he writes in Hebrew.  Maybe it’s because of the mystical name Oz, but he seems like a Prophet or something.  And in that respect, I suppose I am simply not full of Grace enough to get the Point of this story.

I know that it is utterly unfair to hold this man up to these made up standards, especially since I’ve never actually read him before.  But that’s all moot, because I feel like there’s more to this than meets the eye and I am just not that interested in finding out what.

It’s utterly coincidental that tonight we watched the first half of A Serious Man (which also features Hebrew prominently), but I am suffused with Jewish thought this evening.  (I enjoyed A Serious Man a lot more than this story, by the way). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACKLOS CAMPESINOS! Live in studio at WEXP, July 31, 2008 (2008).

For this brief in studio performance Los Campesinos! play four songs from their debut album Hold on Now, Youngster.  The band sounds great in this setting.  I don’t have this album, so I don’t know if they deviate at all from the originals, but the live versions are tight and very effective.

The interviews are informative and rather gushing (I’ve never heard a DJ kiss the ass of a performer in such a nice way before…and the band seems really flattered by it…it’s all very sweet).  The DJ also has a funny conversation about their tendency to scream in their songs.  (It’s cathartic).

What I didn’t notice so much on Romance is Boring was how many different lead singers the band has.  With these four songs, there are enough lead vocalists to show a lot of diversity (and a lot of screaming, too–“don’t read Jane Eyre!”).  And, as one might expect if you know their later disc, the lyrics are smart, funny and wicked.

The difference between Romance and Hold On, seems to be that the band were much punkier on this early disc, and that all comes out in these live tracks.  And the songs are all short: 3 minutes and under.  They really pack a lot in here.

[READ: January 13, 2011] Voyage Along the Horizon

Most of Javier Marías’ books are translated and released through New Directions. But for reasons I’m unclear about, this book, Marías’ 2nd novel, was published by Believer Books (an imprint of McSweeney’s).   I haven’t read any of Marías’ other novels, so I have no idea if this is similar to any of the others (there’s a Q&A at the back of the book which suggests that this is typical of his earlier novels), but it absolutely makes me want to read more by him.

What I loved about this story first off was the sense of distance we received from the main story itself.  (Marías is Spanish, but this is a technique employed by Roberto Bolaño (Chilean) extensively…. Obviously, others do this as well).

The set up of the story is this:  1) An unnamed narrator has a party at his house.  At this party, two individuals, Miss Bunnage and Mr Branshaw (or is it Bragshawe?–he never learns) discuss author Victor Arledge.  Miss Bunnage is a scholar of Arledge and Mr Branshaw has in his house an unpublished novel that investigates the disappearance of Arledge and why he stopped writing.  And so, Branshaw invites Bunnage and the narrator to his house the next day to have the novel (called Voyage Along the Horizon) read to them.

2) So, the next morning, the two go to Branshaw’s house where he does not let them see the book, preferring rather to read the novel aloud (which gives us essentially 3 levels of remove from the action of the story).  That’s a long way to go before you even get to the meat of the book. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RAFTER: “No Fucking Around” (2010).

This song made one of The Onion’s AV Club voter’s Top Ten lists this year. The  description was interesting enough that I had to go check it out.

Rafter is on Asthmatic Kitty, home of Sufjan Stevens, so I assumed the disc would be intriguing, if nothing else.  The song starts out with an overly autotuned (practically mechanical) voice repeating the title.  From there the song slows down with some interesting lyrics.   As the reviewer said, it strips dance music to its barest essentials.  This trend seems to be kind of popular lately, and I’ve noticed that when it works, the rests are very catchy, (when it doesn’t it’s boring as all get out).

Now, I first listened to the song with the video (see below) which I love.  So I’m not entirely sure how much of my enjoyment of the song is predicated on the video.

However, I’ve now listened to it several times and my enjoyment grows with each listen.

Although I am always more interested in indie rock than dance and pop, occasional a pop song or a dance song will grab me and make me listen. LCD Soundsystem has had that effect, as has Daft Punk.  I’m not sure if this whole album is as interesting, but I certainly enjoy this song.

Shame that I’ll probably never hear it without going to YouTube.

[READ: January 11, 2011] “The Years of My Birth”

This story impressed me both for its unexpected emotional pull and its twist (in a sense) ending.

When the story opens, we learn of the narrator’s birth: she was an undetected twin who was, for lack of a better term, squished by her brother.  When she came out, the doctor said she would likely have birth defects; her mother, when asked if they should try to save the baby, shouted “No!”

But the nurse had already ensured the baby’s survival.  The baby was disfigured, with a misshapen head and twisted legs, but she appeared mentally normal.  And yet, since her mother had already rejected her, (and times were different then), the nurse, a Native American woman, took the baby home and raised her as part  of their family.  She even nursed the baby since she was already nursing a young girl at home.

The Native American family tended to her, working on re-shaping her head (with massages) and mending her legs (with stretching), and she found herself thriving (reasonably).  Her adoptive family was very supportive and although her closest-in-age sister once said she’s never get in trouble because she was white, she formed a very tight bond with all of her adoptive siblings. Her brother even nicknamed her Tuffy because he knew she’d get a nickname eventually and he wanted to give it to her.

Tuffy lives a quiet, modest life, never making to many attachments, for fear of getting hurt.  Nevertheless, she always felt a kind of ghostly presence in her life.  She knew it was her twin, although she didn’t know where her brother was physically, what he looked like, or even what his name was.   But their bond, or whatever it was, was always there.

And then one day out of the blue, she get as a call from her “mother.”  She wants to connect.  So Tuffy meets her for dinner and the truth comes out (just like a recent plot of 30 Rock): her twin needs a kidney.  And your heart goes out to her.  For so many reasons.

The last section of the story, though, reveals the depth of the character that Erdrich has created in Tuffy.  Because even though she knows that this family has done nothing for her, she has this connection to her twin.  Her family discourages her from contact with her “mother,” but Tuffy feels drawn to help.  Even though she knows she owes them literally nothing, she starts to think that maybe she got the better deal in life.

And then we find out why he needs the kidney, and our feelings gets even more complicated.  And when she finally meets her twin, things go in another direction altogether.

I was really surprised at how complex this short (4 page) story was.  I was riveted, and as I mentioned, emotionally torn.  It’s a great piece.

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SOUNDTRACK: LOS CAMPESINOS! Live in studio at KEXP, July 31, 2008 (2008).

For this brief in-studio performance Los Campesinos! play four songs from their debut album Hold on Now, Youngster.  The band sounds great in this setting.  I don’t have this album, so I don’t know if they deviate at all from the originals, but the live versions are tight and very effective.

The interviews are informative and rather gushing (I’ve never heard a DJ kiss the ass of a performer in such a nice way before–and the band seems really flattered by it–it’s all very sweet).  There’s also some fun comments about their screaming tendencies.

What I didn’t notice so much on Romance is Boring was how many different lead singers the band has.  With these four songs, there are enough lead vocalists to show a lot of diversity (and a lot of screaming, too–“don’t read Jane Eyre!”).  And, as one might expect from the later disc, their earlier lyrics are smart, funny and wicked, too.

The difference between Romance and Hold On, seems to be that the band were much punkier on the early disc, and that all comes out in these live tracks.  And the songs are all short: 3 minutes and under.  They really pack a lot in here.

[READ: January 6, 2011] The Facts of Winter

This book is, apparently, an elaborate joke.  It is set up as a book written by French author Paul Poissel.  But unlike the other things that Poissel wrote (his most famous and lasting works were written after this book), this is a collection of dreams.  Specifically, it’s a collection of dreams from random unnamed people in France, circa 1841.

The book is laid out with the original French story on the left page and the translation on the facing page.  I don’t know French, but my minimal French comprehension leads me to think that the translations are accurate.

So, each entry (most about a half a page, some stretch to two pages) is a recounted dream. I didn’t count how many dreams there were, but there’s more or less one a day from January to March.  None of them are outlandishly crazy or dirty or anything like that, but they are amusing to read.  There is a preponderance of canoes in the dreams.

After the dreams we get a lengthy Afterword (which all told, may be longer than all of the dreams combined).  The Afterword details La Farge’s work while translating and learning more about Poissel.  It is rather funny and goes into all kinds of personal details about La Farge and his ex-girlfriend as well as the friend he met in the city of Aix who takes him to all kinds of old ruins. (more…)

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