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Archive for June, 2011

SOUNDTRACK: MOGWAI: GovernmentCommissions: BBC Sessions 1996-2003 (2005).

It’s unlikely that Mogwai will ever release a greatest hits (well, someone probably will, but the band themselves don’t seem likely to do so).  As such, this compilation of BBC Recordings will certainly work well as one.

As I’ve mentioned many times, the BBC recordings are universally superb.  The quality of the recordings is unmatched.  And, typically the band takes the sessions very seriously.  The major different between these sessions and the official studio release is that the band is playing these songs live.  They are mixed well and sound great but they are live, so you can catch occasional subtle differences.

Mogwai, despite their seemingly improvised sound (all those noises and such) can recreate everything they do perfectly, and their live shows are tight and deliberate (except for the occasional moments where they really let loose).

The ten songs here span their career and are not played in chronological order.  This allows all of these wonderful songs to play off the tensions of each other.  And it shows that their later songs, which are less intense than their earlier ones, are still quite awesome and in a live setting don’t really lack for intensity after all.

The highlight of this disc is the scorching eighteen minute version of “Like Herod.”  The original is intense and amazing, and this live version allows them to play with the original in small ways, including allowing the quietness to really stretch out before they blow the speakers off the wall with the noise section of the track.

Even though I’m a fan of Mogwai, I don’t hear a radical difference between these versions and the originals.  Or should I say, it’s obvious which song they are playing.  There are some obvious subtleties and differences as befitting a live album, but unlike some live discs you don’t immediately notice that this version is “live.”

And that works well for both fans of the band (because as you listen and you hear the subtleties) and for newcomers–(because you’re not listening to weird, poorly recorded versions or versions that are for fans only).  And so, you get ten great Mogwai tracks.  Just enough to make you want to get some more.

[READ: June 11, 2011] The Burned Children of America

I found this book when I was looking for other publications by Zadie Smith.  This book kept cropping up in searches, but I could never really narrow down exactly what it was.  As best as I can tell, it is a British version of a collection of American authors that was originally published in Italy (!).  Editors Marco Cassini and Martina Testa work for minimum fax, an Italian independent publisher.  In 2001, they somehow managed to collect stories from these young, fresh American authors into an Italian anthology (I can’t tell if the stories were translated into Italian or not).

Then, Hamish Hamilton (publisher of Five Dials) decided to release a British version of the book.  They got Zadie Smith to write the introduction (and apparently appended a story by Jonathan Safran Foer (which was not in the original, but which is in the Italian re-publication).  This led to the new rather unwieldy title.  It was not published in America, (all of the stories have appeared in some form–magazine or anthology–in America), but it’s cool to have them all in one place.

The title must come from the David Foster Wallace story contained within: “Incarnations of Burned Children,” which is one of his most horrific stories, but it sets a kind of tone for the work that’s included within (something which Zadie addresses in her introduction): why are these young successful American writers so sad?  So be prepared, this is not a feel good anthology (although the stories are very good).
Oh, and if you care about this kind of thing, the male to female ratio is actually quite good (for an anthology like this): 11 men and 8 women.

ZADIE SMITH-Introduction
Zadie Smith was a fan of David Foster Wallace (she wrote a  lengthy review of the ten-year anniversary of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men which is republished in her book Changing My Mind), so she is an ideal choice to introduce this book.  Especially when she provides a quote from DFW’s interview in 1995 about how living in America in the late 90s has a kind of “lostness” to it.  With this in mind, she sets out the concerns of this collection of great stories: fear of death and advertising.

Zadie gives some wonderful insight into each of these stories. The introduction was designed to be read after the book, and I’m glad I waited because while she doesn’t exactly spoil anything, she provides a wonderful perspective on each piece and also offers some ideas about the stories that I hadn’t considered.  And it’s funny, too. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MOGWAI-Happy Songs for Happy People (2003).

Happy Songs for Happy People follows up Rock Action with more sedate music from Mogwai.  In fact, while Rock Action was pretty mellow (with a few bursts of noise) HMFHP is even more mellow.

Although it does open with a rocking track: “Hunted By a Freak.”  “Hunted” is one of Mogwai’s best songs.  It opens the disc with a catchy riff, some cool synthesized vocals and great washes of sounds.  It’s great on record and even better live.  But starting with “Moses I Am’n’t” the album takes a decidedly more mellow approach.  “Moses” is a song of slow washes layered on each other. There’s interesting textural sounds on display, but not a lot of melody.  It leads to “Kids Will Be Skeletons,” another mellow layered song.  It has a simple melody with delicate (!) keyboard washes.

But just when you think Mogwai have gone all soft, “Killing All the Flies” adds some intense sounds to the disc. It is similarly structured to the earlier songs on the disc, although it has some rather happy-sounding guitar lines in it.  It also grows in intensity about two-thirds of the way through.

“Boring Machines Disturbs Sleep” (sic) is a short, quiet song with subdued vocals.  It’s followed by “Ratts of the Capital” the only really long song here (8 and a half minutes).  It opens in this more subdued vein (is that a glockenspiel I hear?), but by 4 and a half minutes all you hear is guitar–growing louder and louder.  There are solos buried in the noise that threaten to explode out of the speakers, but they ultimately seem to hold back a wee bit.

“Golden Porsche” mellows things out again with a very pretty, very simple song (almost 3 minutes of beautiful melody) that reminds me of the interludes in Twin Peaks.  “I Know You Are But What Am I?” opens with a tense kind of piano (with some slightly off chords).  They merge with pretty keyboard notes which counteract the somewhat sinister feel of the main riff.

The disc ends with “Stop Coming to My House” (Mogwai have always excelled at song titles).  It’s a very subdued track (quiet drums propel waves of keyboards) and as the songs continues, more and more waves layer on each other until it just all fades away.

I obviously prefer the louder, more raucous Mogwai tracks, so these two albums are not what I think of when I think Mogwai.  These two albums feel like the work of a more mature, more restrained band–as if they are deliberately trying to put constraints on their music to see what they can achieve.  But even if they are less intense, the songs are wonderfully structured and show a still show a great emotional range.

[READ: June 07, 2011] “Clever Girl”

This was a fascinating story and is yet another story by Tessa Hadley that I really enjoyed.  And it’s another story that I didn’t realize was set in England until the fourth paragraph, which opens “Mum unpacked.”

Anyhow, this story follows Stella, a young girl whose family moves to a small suburb that has recently been developed (trees were cut down and none newly planted).  Stella and her mother used to live alone together for many years, but recently Stella’s mom met Norbert.  They married and moved into this new suburban house.

The story is told in past tense about the events from Stella’s childhood.  But there are occasional moments where the narrator pops in and offers some moments of “grown up Stella” perspective–like maybe she could have been nicer to Norbert.  Grown up Stella realizes that Nortbert was really perfect for her mom (especially since she was an older woman,  with a grown daughter).  At the time, she thought that Norbert seemed okay, but the whole move has upset her sensibilities.  [I also love that Norbert is known as “Nor,” which is wonderfully contradictory.] (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MOGWAI-5 Track Tour Single (2001).

I usually am able to track provenance of my discs pretty well, but this one I am only largely certain came from my friend Lar (sorry Lar, the memory is not what it used to be).  But where else would I have gotten a CD from a Mogwai show if I’ve never seen them live?

This promotional bauble is a delightful collection of 5 songs (duh).  The first three are studio recordings that were pretty much unavailable elsewhere (I read some sit that explained where you could’ve gotten them beforehand, but let’s just say unavailable).  And the live tracks were also unreleased.

The three studio tracks, “Close Encounters,” “Drum Machine” and “D to E” are very pretty, rather delicate instrumentals.  I would say that they are uncharacteristic of Mogwai, except that Rock Action was a pretty mellow album.  Nevertheless, even for Mogwai these are especially mellow and pretty.

The final two tracks are live: “You Don’t Know Jesus” is from Rock Action, and this live version is a bit more dramatic than the album release.  The final track is the amazing “New Paths to Helicon (Part II),” a song which never suffers from a lack of drama.

This is a pretty great tour artifact.

[READ: May 30, 2011] “Trade”

I was a little skeptical of this Simon Rich piece because I find that sports metaphors don’t always pan out, especially for a (somewhat) longish comedy piece.  But Rich manages to make the whole thing not only funny but also fit within the confines of the metaphor.

For this is the story of a breakup told as if it were a baseball trade.

Josh is traded by his girlfriend Kate.  He is devastated; he thought he was doing very well on her team.  But when he speaks with his brother Craig (who offers condolences and a trade story of his own), he realizes that his relationship numbers were not up to stuff.   But Josh is really devastated when he finds out who he was traded for (when he meets the man to exchange Kate’s apartment keys). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MOGWAI-Rock Action (2001).

After all of Mogwai’s releases over the years (and all the various compilations and imports and whatnot, it’s hard to believe that Rock Action was only their third proper full length release.

I just recently learned that the song “Dial: Revenge” has vocals by Gruff Rhys from the Super Furry Animals (the lyrics are in Welsh, apparently so that it would sound like gibberish to most of the English-speaking audience (SFA released a wonderful album sung entirely in Welsh, called Mwng).   This song is a very delicate  piece which reminds me in some ways of later Mercury Rev (Rock Action was produced by Dave Fridmann who produces Mercury Rev).  It’s got a soaring “chorus” and strings.

“Sine Wave” opens the disc with some heavily distorted noises that seem to be fighting with some echoed guitar notes.  The song feels different from other Mogwai songs but it doesn’t really sound different–it’s clearly Mogwai.  “Take Me Somewhere Nice” is perhaps the most conventional song Mogwai have done.  It has a verse/chorus structure and even has whispered vocals–that follow a melody.  The biggest surprise has to be the strings that overlay the top–they’re a bit disconcerting at first, but it quickly shows how well the band can pull this off.  It’s followed by something of a continuation of that song with the 59 second “O I Sleep,” a simple piano track with Stuart’s whispered vocals over the top.

“You Don’t Know Jesus” falls into more typical Mogwai territory.  It’s a 9-minute epic which somehow build and builds even though it feels like it’s all crescendo–until the last few moments trail off into quiet notes.

The one minute “Robot Chant” is more noise, but it leads into the surprisingly upbeat “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong.”  This is a faster track, which builds for over 9 minutes.  The middle part slows down so you can really hear the synthesized voice over the proceeding.  You can eventually hear the banjo as well.

The disc ends with the pretty ballad, “Secret Pint.”  It’s a simple piano based song (with lyrics). The recording is very clear (you can hear all of the dynamics of that opening cymbal).  While it could never be a hit, it easy certainly their most accessible track.

Rock Action is a different kind of Mogwai album: slower, more deliberate, with conventional music structures but which is in no way a commercial record.  It’s also less dramatic than albums (or EPs) past.  If you want soaring epic Mogwai, this is not your album (even the 2 nine-minute songs aren’t as dramatic as previous songs), but it’s a welcome addition to Mogwai’s repertoire.

[READ: May 27, 2011] “M&M World”

I didn’t know that there really is a M&M’s World in Times Square, but apparently there is.  And it sounds like a nightmare!

Anyhow, the story begins with Ginny agreeing to finally take her kids to M&M’s World.  Her girls are Olivia and Maggie and they have been dying to go to M&M’s World forever.  The kids march down the street, looking in all the shop windows until they finally reach the destination.

Walbert describes the store in all of its bustling glory–and given her details I’ve no doubt it’s exactly as she describes: busy, crowded, noisy, overstimulating. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TINDERSTICKS-Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009 [CST077] (2011).

Constellation Records just released a 5 disc box set of Tindersticks movie scores.  Fans of the band will know the soundtracks for Nenette et Boni and Trouble Every Day which were released years ago.  Those are included here, along with four other soundtracks (on 3 discs).  The entire set includes Nenette et Boni (1996) White Material (2009), 35 rhum (2008), Trouble Every Day (2001) and two solo soundtracks: Stuart Staples’ score for L’intrus (2004) and Dickon Hinchliffe’s score for Vendredi Soir (2002).

As with most Constellation releases, this one is packaged beautifully.  The box is lovely with an opening for the top cover to show though. Each disc gets a cardboard sleeve with a cool still from the film.  And the booklet that accompanies the set is bilingual with lots and lots of still from the films and a cool interview with Denis and members of the band.

I have never seen any of Denis’ films.  So I was confused that some of these scores were only half an hour.  I thought maybe they were short films.  But indeed they are not.  35 Shots of Rum is 100 minutes for instance, even if the soundtrack is a third of that.

I’m going to review each score shortly, but since I’ve already discussed Nenette et Boni and Trouble Every Day, I’ll just put links to them.  In the meantime, the scores are really beautiful and moving.  Tindersticks are a very cinematic band to begin with, so it’s no surprise that they would make good soundtracks.

And the booklet is really interesting, showing how the band was introudced to Denis in the first place.  She loved the music of ‘My Sister’ and asked if she could use it for a film.  They said, well, maybe we can make a soundtrack for you instead.  And they began working together.  The combination proved so successful that they have scored virtually all of her movies since.  I really must get around to watching them some day.

In the meantime, I can just imagine what they are like from the music.

Here’s the opening credits for Trouble Every Day

[READ: June 24, 2011] Five Dials: Your Valentine’s Day Card

This Five Dials special issue doesn’t appear on the Five Dials home page.  I only found it while reading their news feed.  It’s not an issue per se.  Indeed, all that this valentine’s card is is one poem from Joe Dunthorne, and a cool cover illustration from Sophia Augusta. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GOGOL BORDELLO-East Infection (EP Extra) (2005).

I learned about Gogol Bordello from some live shows available on NPR.  I enjoyed their sets so much I decided to check out their albums as well.  And I love them.  The albums are full of frenetic energy (they give Sarah agita, she says).  But everything that I love about fun, spirited, gypsy music is present here.

The band is essentially a band of gypsies, headed by wonderfully-mustachioed Eugene Hutz.  And their live show (as demonstrated by the included video) is a wild circus of fun (curtains and dancers and fire buckets and bowling pins and musicians jumping out of boxes), it’s like a wild party.  The video is for “Never Young Again” which would appear in full on their next album. It’s a fun song that reverses the age-old lament of wanting to be young again.  But mostly you watch this for the live footage.

This EP is probably not the best place to start as an introduction to Gogol Bordello (but it was really cheap so I bought it first).  Although it does offer many of the different aspects of Gogol’s music.  The EP features 6 songs and the video.  The songs are intense, hyper, crazy and wonderful.  “East Infection” opens with some nonsense lyrics (“Lee lee lee lee lee, la la la la la”) and morphs into what may be more nonsense, although there’s actual lyrics here.  “Ave B.” (which is also on their following album Gypsy Punks) is a more acoustic-based song, but it still has loud parts to it.

“Mala Vida” is a cover of a song by Manu Chao.  This version is a super fast punky track sung in Spanish (despite Eugene Hutz’ origins in the Ukraine, he has lived in Brazil for years and sings many songs in Spanish).  The original is very similar in temperament, although GB version is a bit more frenetic.

“Copycat” is the odd track on the disc, it’s a kind of dub track with big fat bass and a very slinky sound.  It and “Mala” were produced by Steve Albini.

“Strange Uncles from Abroad” is to me a very typical GB song: lots of violin, lots of dah dah dahs and a great melody.  It has a total gypsy feel, and goes through some loud and quiet moments.   The final track, “Madagascar-Roumania (Tu jésty fáta)” is the longest track by far (6 minutes).  It sounds like a demo and lacks the punch of the rest of the disc, but it showcases the softer side of the band (and yes there is one).

So, maybe this EP is a good place to start after all.  It’s certainly not throwaway material.  And the EP cover alone is pretty outstanding.

[READ: June 14, 2011] Five Dials Number 10

This is the issue of Five Dials that introduced me to the publication.  It is a special issue devoted to the memory of David Foster Wallace.  The entire issue is comprised of the eulogies given at the DFW memorial.  [The details are a little sketchy here…I’m not sure if these are all of the eulogies or just the eulogies from well known people.  I’m not even sure who would have been in the audience for this memorial.  The notes say “These tributes were given on 23 October, 2008 at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, New York University” and yet the Jonathan Franzen entry says “here at Pomona.”  So… details are sketchy].  Nevertheless, the tributes are heartfelt, informative and very moving.

Of course, I’m not going to ‘critique’ them, I’ll just try to summarize them.  But really, they’re all worth reading if you’re a fan. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: WEEZER-Death to False Metal (2010).

This is a fascinating release.  I assumed it was a quick cash in of unreleased tracks.  And yet it doesn’t sound like a bunch of tracks from different eras thrown together.  A little digging reveals that it is sort of a collection of unreleased tracks.  The ten songs here were written over the band’s career but were either never finished or were finished but never released.  According to various places online, Rivers edited and manipulated the songs (and maybe re-recorded some?) to make them all sound current (and like they’re from the same time).  Thus he considers this to be the follow-up to Hurley.

The album is full of poppy songs (“Turning Up the Radio” has FIFTEEN people listed as composer on Allmusic–the true sign of a pop juggernaut).  There’s a couple of slightly heavier songs, “Blowin My Stack” has a big shouty chorus and “Autopilot” has a very electronic kind of sound.  But perhaps the most notable track is the cover of “Unbreak My Heart.”  That song came out in 1996, so one assumes that this version must be at least ten years old, because why would someone make a cover of an old pop hit from fourteen years ago?  It’s quite good, though, as Weezer covers tend to be.

If you like Weezer, this isn’t a throw away.  The songs are just as good as their other recent records (which means they’re not as good as their early ones, but are still poppy).  If you don’t like Weezer this will do nothing to change your mind.

Although I am amused by the album cover design that they chose for this title (which is a tribute to the band Manowar, obviously), I think a better cover would have been Weezer in loincloths.  Can you imagine Rivers Cuomo brandishing a giant sword?

[READ: May 21, 2011] “Medea”

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya had a story in The New Yorker recently.  The fact that she has one here as well can only mean she has a book coming out (although a quick look at Amazon does not indicate that she does).

The opening line says, “This is an awful story…”  And it’s true (not in the sense of being bad, but in the badness that it contains).  Petrushevskaya tends to write very dark stories (dark fairy tales is how they’re mostly categorized), and while this is not a fairy tale, it is certainly dark (and as with most of her stories, it’s quite short).

It’s a fairly simple story: the narrator hops in a cab and complains about how her seventy-three year old grandmother called for a cab to pick her up at a certain time but it never came–and never even called to say it wasn’t coming.  This meant she missed her plane, and the people waiting for her missed her and basically the whole day (and a lot of money) was lost because of a cab.

The cabbie didn’t have anything to do with that, but he tells her that it could be worse, and proceeds to launch into a story trying to outdo her story.  They jockey for position in terms of terrible stories (a woman whose baby dies on vacation–and that’s only the beginning of her problems) until finally he talks about himself. (more…)

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