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Archive for September, 2011

SOUNDTRACK: TOM WAITS-Closing Time (1973). 

This is the first official Tom Waits release.  There’s a couple “Early Years” collections which are really fascinating for how much he doesn’t sound like the 21st century Tom Waits, but these at least show glimpses of the man to come.  There are some songs on here that I knew of from different artists, and had no idea TW had written them  (Tim Buckley covered “Martha” the same year this came out (that’s pretty amazing), The Eagles covered “Ol’ 55” on their album the following year.  However, Van Halen’s “Ice Cream Man” is not a cover of Tom’s song). The funny thing about the record is how much he sounds like a late 70s lounge singer. How can an album as stripped down as this sound of an era? I don’t know, but it does. It’s also nice to know that his opening song “Ol’ 55” has had such a long life.

My wife does not like Tom Waits, but I think I could sneak this album past her.  You can tell that it’s Tom (before years of abuse to his vocal chords).  His voice is in fine non-gravelly form, just a little bass heavy.  And he is crooning to us.  He even has one of his sweet songs (“Midnight Lullaby”).  It’s hard (but not impossible) to imagine that this man would have turned into the man from Bone Machine.

As I was saying about the mid 70’s, the style of songs here could easily have been played on the same radio station as Springsteen (this album came out the same year as Greetings from Asbury Park–and Springsteen made famous “Jersey Girl” one of Tom’s early songs).  Indeed, many of these songs were covered by other artists.  The funny thing to me about the album is that although Tom is the pianist, I feel like the album is more focused on the trumpet (that muted trumpet seems to be everywhere (giving the album more of a jazzy feel than a rock feel).  And yet, despite this overall jazziness, “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love with You” and “Old Shoes (& Picture Postcards)” is a pretty straight-ahead folk song.  There’s also the beautiful ballad “Martha” played only on piano–such a gorgeous melody.  Perhaps the least exciting song is the instrumental ballad “Closing Time.”  It’s a simple piano melody with more trumpet.  There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not that inspirational.

I find that as I get older I like this album more (which is somewhat ironic since he recorded it when he was 24).  It’s tempting to say that the album–with its many styles–is unfocused, but Waits’ albums all seem to follow in this multiple-styles vein.  He’s not afraid to try something new (see his entire output since 1983).  But this one is a surprisingly straightforward album.  I can’t wait to see if Sarah likes it.

[READ: September 21, 2011] “Town of Cats”

Murakami is (in my limited experience) a master of the surreal. And yet for his more recent short stories, he seems to be switching into more of a story within a story conceit.  And that’s fine too, because the stories and the stories within the stories are clever and creative and still a bit surreal.

This story starts out a little awkwardly: at Koenji Station, Tengo boards a train with absolutely no destination in mind.  He can get off anywhere that he wants, he decides. He imagines going to the beach and enjoying a nice day.  But then he realizes that all along he has ben heading in one specific direction: to visit his father in a nursing home.  This is especially surprising for Tengo as he has not visited his father in over two years (and Tengo is his only relative).

As Tengo thinks back to his childhood, it is full of nothing but anger.  Anger that his father took him on his work (collecting fees for Japanese TV) every Sunday and that Tengo never had any chance for fun.  In fairness to Tengo’s father, Tengo’s mother died when Tengo was just a baby and his father had to take care of him as best as he could.  But there was no love, no warmth, no emotion.  And the more he thought about his father he realizes that that’s what his father was like–no intellectual curiosity of any kind.  Just work work work.

And yet Tengo can’t shake a memory from when he was only a year and a half or so of his mother standing near hs crib with a man who wasn’t his father kissing her naked breasts.  This memory has always been with him and he can’t help but wonder if his father really isn’t his father at all.  (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TOM WAITS-Live Glitter and Doom tour, Atlanta GA, July 5, 2008 (2008).

I downloaded this concert–which was recorded at the Fox Theater in Atlanta Georgia from NPR.  In the introduction, Bob Boilen says the concert is over two hours, but the page says (and the download comes in) at about 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is still plenty of Tom Waits.

This is a great show.  Although it focuses on the more recent albums, the show covers quite a span of his career: from Real Gone (“Hoist That Rag”) and Bone Machine (the album that introduced me to Mr Waits), all the way back to Heartattack and Vine (“On the Nickel”) and even three songs from Rain Dogs.

His band sounds great, tight as a drum, even playing Waits’ off musical assortments with no problem (is Casey Waits on drums Tom’s son?). There’s clearly some visual stuff going on that we are not privvy to here–the band has a good time towards the end of the set with some musical jokes.  And there’s some fun vamping and a number of good Waits stories (including the “pastika” one from the live album, see below).  He doesn’t play “Day After Tomorrow,” one of the most moving war songs I’ve ever heard, which I think is good.  It is so emotionally charged (unlike his other ballads which are moving but not quite so powerful) that I thin it would bring the whole set down.  Rather, this is more of a rumpus-filled show.  And we’re all the better for it. 

All in all, this is a great document of Waits’ live shows.  His voice sounds great and the band (including a few special guests) is fantastic. 

Later in 2009, Waits released Glitter and Doom Live, a document from this tour.  What’s nice in terms of this show is that the setlist is different for this show than it is for the album.  The album has songs from various venues on the tour, so you get different performances anyhow, but quite a lot of the songs are new here.  So even if you have the album, this is a unique experience.

Also, check out this amusing video interview:

[READ: September 20, 2011] “Dear Life”

This kind of piece is one of the reasons I don’t write about nonfiction that much.  How do you review someone ‘s life?  More specifically, how do you review a short excerpt about someone’s childhood (is this leading to a full length memoir?).  Nevertheless, I love Alice Munro, and this look into her childhood in Wingham, Ontario is fascinating.  I never really conceptualized that Munro is 80 years old.  She grew up with an outhouse and what seems like a one room schoolhouse.

What’s more interesting is that the town where she grew up more or less disappeared once people started building houses on the other side of the river (higher up the hill).  All but the poorest people moved to the new higher elevations, thereby evacuating the town and leaving only the tiny school left (the school she was so excited to get away from!).  Munro remembers many of the bad things in her life–getting whipped by her father for disobeying, walking to school and being teased and even not being allowed to go to a new friend’s house because the friend’s mother was prostitute!  But unlike in a full length memoir, Munro is able to skip past these memories pretty quickly by talking about how when she got older things were smoother (and the room where the whippings took place was converted into something else). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PEPPER RABBIT-“Alison” (2011).

Pepper Rabbit had NPR’s Song of the Day on September 19th.  “Alison” opens with a kind of circus organ pumping out a steady, thumping beat.  The beat continues until the quieter stated chorus: “You will know my name.”  The song is, as circuses are, light and bouncy with an air of the sinister floating all around it.  By the second chorus, we learn that “it’s all a game to get you to learn my name.”

The vocals are done in a kind of 70’s piano pop style–a bit high-pitched, a bit echoey– and they help to obscure exactly what’s going on.  But it’s the music that is so charming. 

Even if it’s unclear to me what the intention of the song is (stalker or just lost love) it’s a poppy ditty that will keep your toe tapping.  I’m looking forward to hearing more from them. 

[READ: September 14, 2011] Into the Gauntlet

And so the series ends. 

Or, actually, it doesn’t.  This isn’t really a spoiler because there are more books out in the series.  And I’m not going to say what happens at the end of this book, but for those of you wondering just what the heck is going on here with a Book Eleven coming out eight months after Book Ten, I’ll summarize (with no spoilers).  Book Ten ends the hunt for the clues–the goal is reached.  But at the end of the book, it is revealed that there’s another group, another family, who is also hunting for the Answer.  They hadn’t been hunting alongside the Cahill families, they were apparently watching alongside them waiting to see what would happen before setting their plan into action.  And thus….  Series Two.  

Book 11 is a kind of transitional book that fills in some back story on each of the families and shows Grace’s life.  I’m intrigued to read it, especially since most of the writers from the series contribute to it.

So Book Ten was written by the excellent author Margaret Peterson Haddix.  And this book comes in at 326 pages (over 100 pages longer than any other book in the series).  But Haddix earns her extra pages.  She totally breaks with the set-up of the series so far by following not just Dan and Amy but all of the branches of the family.  We actually get into the heads of all of the competitors (including Eisenhower Holt–who has feelings after all, Natalie Kabra–who is not quite as dim as she appears, and Ian Kabra–who might just be as evil as his mom).  Haddix also introduces a huge surprise in the beginning of the book–a surprise that may not have been such a surprise if I’d been reading the books close together but with this much remove from the early books, I was shocked!  And later on, when she doubles up on the surprise, it’s even more shocking! (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DINOSAUR JR.-Live at the 9:30 Club, Washington D.C. October 8, 2009 (2009).

This was one of the first shows I downloaded from NPR.  I’ve been a fan of Dinosaur Jr. since my friend Al turned me on to Green Mind back in college.

This is an amazing show created by the original Dino Jr. members.  This tour is in support of their second album since reuniting, Farm. This set-list is an outstanding mix of old songs, new songs, Barlow-sung songs and even some songs from when Barlow and Murph weren’t in the band.  (Green Mind is still my favorite album by them).

When the band reunited there was much joy, and I’ve said in reviews of the newer albums, I’m not entirely sure why.  I mean, Dino Jr has always been about Mascis, and it’s not like Barlow is such an unusual bassist (although Murph’s drumming is always solid).  I’ve nothing against Barlow (I love Sebadoh and Folk Implosion) or Murph, it just seems odd to get excited about having them back in the band aside from nostalgic reasons.

Having said that, the band sounds amazing (and yes, Barlow does get to sing on “Imagination Blind”).  What never really came across to me until hearing all of these great songs live was that Mascis has always been a great pop song writer.  These songs are catchy as hell. But Mascis buries them under loud squalling guitars and a voice that is almost whiny, almost off-key, a total slacker voice.  (But you’ll notice it is never actually off-key.  He must work very hard at that.)

By the nd of the show Mascis chastises the audience for not moving (we obviously can’t see what they’re doing), saying he forgets that people don’t move in Washington, D.C.  But during the encore break, NPR host, Bob Boilen, points out that Mascis himself doesn’t move either–he just stands in front of that wall of Marshall stacks (Boilen wonders how he can hear anything anymore).  And looking at the pictures it’s comical the way he looks, surrounded by amps.  The picture above doesn’t fully do it justice, but check out the extra photos at the NPR page.  And while you’re there, listen to this show. It is amazing.  For a total slacker, Mascis can rock a guitar solo like nobody’s business.

[READ: July 20, 2011] The Best American Non Required Reading

I’d been meaning to read this series for years (yup, Eggers fan), But I have a hard time starting “collections” because I feel like I’d rather be reading a novel.  Nevertheless, I have most of these Nonrequired books, so it seemed like I should dive into one and see what it was like (I don’t think the year really matters all that much–some of the articles are topical but most are not exactly).  Then Sarah said this would be a great book to read on vacation because it’s all short essays, and she was right.  It was perfect for late nights when I wanted something to read but didn’t feel like getting involved in the novel I was reading.

DAVE EGGERS-Introduction
Eggers’ introduction is actually a partial short story about kids who go swimming in pools around town. It reminded me of the opening of Life After God by Douglas Coupland, but of course, lots of kids did that so I’m not saying it was “lifted” from DC.  The story “ends” (it doesn’t really end so much as stop) with an interesting scene between two unlikely kids who get caught.

After this story Eggers includes these three notes about the collection: It’s not scientific, It’s alphabetical, and We had a lot of help with this.  Of the three, it’s the middle one that’s most useful because Eggers says that you shouldn’t necessarily read them in order just because they are printed this way: “In the first half of this collection, you get a good deal of hard journalism, primarily about war and refugees, from Afghanistan to the Sudan, followed immediately by a number of less serious pieces, about malls and Marilyn Manson.  We didn’t group anything by theme , and won’t be offended if you skip around.”  This was good to know (not that we needed the permission of course), but yes, the beginning of the book is pretty heavy. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JUNE TABOR & OYSTERBAND-“Bonnie Bunch of Roses” (2011).

Two artists that I have heard of for years but who I have never really listened to. This was described in the NPR music review as something The Decemberists might sing.  And indeed, it has a very Decemberists feel to it (which makes sense as this is a traditional song and, evidently, Tabor has been a master of this style for years.  ( I had no idea her voice was so deep–it adds a nice level of malice to this song about Napoleon.

The band is tight as they play this rollicking, dark shanty and Tabor’s voice is haunting (do I detect a similar style to Linda Thompson?) as she sings these lyrics of loss.  The music builds and builds as the song reaches its climax, but what’s neat is that Tabor never really changes her tone.  She is matter of fact, despite how sinister the music becomes.  It’s a very cool song.

I did some research and found out that tabor and the Oysterband got together in 1990 for the album Freedom and Rain, which was a collection of traditional songs as well as covers of Richard Thompson, The Velvet Underground, The Pogues, and Jefferson Airplane (I can’t believe that album is pretty well out of print–it sounds amazing).  This collaboration is more or less a follow-up, with more traditional songs and covers of PJ Harvey, Joy Division and others.

I’m really looking forward to listening to this disc and to what will certainly be the triumphant re-release of their first disc collaboration quite soon.

[READ: September 14, 2011] Storm Warning

Book Nine in the 39 Clues series made me feel like a kid again.  I started reading it when I got home from work and I stayed up till way late in the night to finish it.  Unlike when I was a kid, though, I am really suffering for staying up so late last night.

Storm Warning was written by Linda Sue Park, the first woman to write in the series.  And, appropriately, this is a very female-centered book.  We learn a lot about Nellie (finally, her story is explained!), the story focuses somewhat more on Amy than on Dan, there’s more evilness from Isabel Kabra, but most importantly, the clues lead them to two important women in history. 

They head down to the Caribbean–although they are undecided about whether to go to the Bahamas or Jamaica (Dan wants to go to the Bahamas to go to the greatest water park in the world: Oceanus–which is really the Atlantis Water Park) but Amy believes the answer is in Jamaica.  Dan convinces her and they decide to go to the Bahamas and the water park for a few hours of fun.  But the crazy thing is that before they even bought their tickets to the Bahamas, Nellie went into the bathroom and Dan received a message that the Holts were on their way to the Bahamas too.  Could Nellie be ratting them out?

On the flight down, they grill her about what’s going on.  But what happens is that for the first time in the series, we get into Nellie’s head.  Not completely, but we get to hear her thoughts.  So we know that she’s still hiding some truths, but she reveals that she has been working for Mr McIntyre and reporting to him about all of the family’s moves.  She was well paid for her services and she knew that there would be danger, but she had no idea exactly what the kids would be getting up to.  Dan and Amy are stunned.  They are betrayed and furious.  [I have to say I think they totally overreacted–Nellie saved their asses many many times along the way].  They agree to let Nellie come along with them but they’re not going to share any plans with her. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: REAL ESTATE-“Beach Comber” (2009).

I found this song through a fascinating series of clicks.  Yesterday’s song from Real Estate was a pick for Fall.  And next to it was a link entitled Ridgewood, N.J., Why Here? Why Now? I grew up right next to Ridgewood and I spent a lot of time there as a kid.  So it’s pretty exciting to hear that there’s a mini-music scene happening there.  With Senses Fail, Vivian Girls, and Real Estate coming from Ridgewood and Titus Andronicus coming from Glen Rock, Bergen County is totally hip (even my hometown of Hawthorne seems to be considerably cooler than it was when I left ten years ago–there’s a coffee shop!).

Back back to the song.  I don’t enjoy this track quite as much as yesterday’s song from their new album.  It’s missing a little of the fuzz that I really enjoyed from “It’s Real” (I find the picked guitar a wee bit too clean for my tastes).  Indeed, for me, “It’s Real” is a small change but a giant leap sonically.  Neverthleess, the verses and chorus are really quite pretty.  And yes, the song does feel very summery and beachy.

Because they’re from my neck of the woods, I’m giving them the very curious distinction of having their song paired up with a letter from Issac Newton.  Imagine the search results that will bring people here.  Imagine, crazier still, that an image search for this Letter from Newton could produce their album cover.  Woah.

[READ: September 15, 2011 (three hundred and thirty-nine years after publication!)] Letter to the Publisher

What better way to start off a Sunday than with a letter from Issac Newton?  Yes, this is really an article from Issac Newton.  And it’s available pretty freely just by searching for the title words, although JSTOR has a nice searchable version of it available.  (This is the final JSTOR article for a while, after this it’s back to the 21st century).

What I especially loved about this letter was that the “long s” is used throughout the letter (like the word Congrefs in the bill of rights–see right).  It makes it a challenge to read, but that is by no means the only challenge.  According to the introduction, this letter contains “some more suggestions about his New Telescope, and a Table of Apertures and Charges for the several Lengths of that Instrument.”

And if you think that the wording of that is ungainly, try reading the letter itself.  (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: REAL ESTATE-“It’s Real” (2011).

Right from the start, the combination of the fuzzy guitar picking and the whacking drums was a major draw for me.  Finding out that these guys are from Ridgewood, NJ (a town away from my hometown) was a little icing.

This is a charming little pop ditty.  It propels along at a nice clip, it’s got a catchy chorus and it makes me feel warm and sunny.  And for all of that it’s not even three minutes long. That’s a nifty little trick.

Interestingly, in NPR’s discussion of the song, the guys play the song “Easy,” but for some reason the full length song is for “It’s Real.”  And I actually like “It’s Real” more, so good for the mix up.

[READ: September 15, 2011] “The Patented Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich”

I actually read this Gastronomica article before the other one, but this seemed like a good Saturday subject.  This article is the kind of thing I don’t normally write about.  I read a bunch of non-fiction and for the most part I don’t bother ever posting about it because, really what’s the point of summarizing a nonfiction piece.  Most of them I don’t have an opinion about, I just say hmm, interesting.  But since I’m doing some special articles that were pointed out to me from JSTOR, I’m going to include this one for historical amusement (even if unlike the hobo memoir, this article is less than ten years old).

Anyhow, this brief article looks at the patented Smucker’s Uncrustable Sandwich.  At the time, these were novel, but now they are ubiquitous.  Smucker’s had taken two discs of white bread, filled them with an inner casing of peanut butter and then stuffed the PB with a splooge of jelly.  It’s the shell of PB, which keeps the jelly from touching the bread and the crimping method to squish the breads together that really seal the patent.  And, I admit, that despite the mockery they received for patenting a PB&J, I think they did hit on some novelties and have earned their unique status.

But the article proceeds to tell how other companies tried a similar idea and were summarily sued.  So Shih unpacks the patent to see what Smucker’s has protected and how a lawsuit might be avoided (in short, Smuckers covered their bases really well (as you’d expect from a corporation), so it’s unlikely that a mom and pop PB&J machine will withstand the scrutiny).  (more…)

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