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Archive for May, 2012

SOUNDTRACK: MOGWAI-Earth Divison EP (2012).

Oh wait, this isn’t the Mogwai EP.  What CD did I put in?

Holy crap, it IS the Mogwai CD.  And it opens with a beautiful piano and violin ballad called “Get to France.”  While it’s true that Mogwai has always been about melody (under the noise), I never expected this.  It sounds like a gorgeous soundtrack to a sad film.  It’s followed by “Hound of Winter” a gentle ballad of acoustic guitars and strings.  I know that Mogwai has a softer side, it’s just surprising to hear it all at once like this!

“Drunk and Crazy” is more like it.  It opens with a wall of guitar noise which…vanishes after about two minutes into a gentle, dark string section (strings are by Luke Sutherland of Bows and Long Fin Kille).  And while the distortion never entirely goes away (it’s evident in the piano), it is certainly pushed to the background until about 90 seconds later when it begins to overtake the track again.  It’s nowhere near as dynamic as their best stuff, but it really showcases what Mogwai can do in just over 5 minutes.

The EP ends with “Does This Always Happen?”  While it reintroduces electric guitars, it’s still a mellow song–a pretty electric guitar riff repeated while piano stabs and chords flesh out the tune and strings make it a fuller song.

None of  these songs will become “classics” (although Does This Always happen?” sounds the most like  a Mogwai song).  But it’s always great to hear them expand what they can do.   And these EPs give them a chance to show off some new styles.

To learn more about these tracks, read Stuart’s explanation of them at The Guardian.

[READ: May 25, 2012] “The Proxy Marriage”

I love Maile Meloy and I was crazy excited when I saw that she had a story in this issue.

Meloy writes stories that seem simple—they avoid a lot of the trappings of contemporary stories, indeed, they often feel like they are set in the past, even if, like in this one, they are very current.  Part of that is setting.  She tends to write about people and family interactions, which don’t require a time frame.  She also tends to set her stories in unlikely places—Montana, for instance, where not too many stories are set.  Of course, this one is set in Montana for a good reason.  It is the only state that allows double proxy marriage.  Which is what?  In a proxy marriage, if your beloved can’t make it, you can have a stand-in for him or her do the speaking and signing.  In a double proxy marriage, neither person is present but they agree to let proxies serve for them.  Why on earth would you do this?  Well, this is common in military cases, where one member is serving overseas and the other doesn’t live in Montana—this allows the non-military person to get all of the military benefits that a spouse is entitled to.  Since Montana allows this, and since this story is set soon after the 9/11/01 attacks, it all jibes.

But this story is really about unrequited love.  And I have to say, now that I’m an adult, that unrequited love sucks.  I mean, true it sucks when you’re in it too, but I hate stories that romanticize the idea that you should hold fast to the belief that this person who doesn’t  think about you that way will somehow come around. It happens a lot in stories (and always swells the heart) but when have you ever heard of it happening in real life?  Most of the time the person isn’t worth it , but realistically, once you have left school (it always happens in school) that person has found someone new and that’s the end of it.

This story’s unrequited lover is William, a shy awkward boy who plays the piano.  The girl he pines for is Bridey Taylor, with golden curls and dreams of being an actress.  William never asked her out.  Bridey was popular and other boys asked her out—and William suffered through every one.   But they were friendly—she sang while he played piano, and he helped her with school work.   Then the 9/11 attacks happened.  And this is where the story gets interesting.  Because although neither of  the main characters are not directly involved in the attacks, when the requests start coming in for proxy marriage, Bridey’s father, who was willing to perform them, asked William and Bridey to be the proxies. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE GREAT GAMBLE-Book One (2012).

My friend Matt has worked at a school in Pennsylvania for years. He wrote to tell me that a few kids who graduated from his school had formed a band and have released a CD.  It’s streaming (and downloadable) on bandcamp at their site.

I have lots of friends in bands, and I’ve listened to lots of demos, so I wasn’t expecting very much.  But the first thing I noticed when I listened was how good this sounds–professional and, yes, like a “real” album.  This isn’t just a bunch of guys jamming in their garage.  What makes this even more striking is that the music is heavy progressive metal–not something you just whip out in a quick take.  This is complicated, interesting music.  I’m hearing a kind of Dream Theater meets King’s X vibe going on.  And man, it’s really good.

This is multi-step heavy rock (complete with a synth player/violinist!). The only song that is less than 9 minutes is the 90 second introduction called “The Marketplace.”  Otherwise, we’ve got three songs over ten minutes and one over 16!  Who even knew young bands did stuff like this anymore?

Al Joseph plays lead guitar and sings lead vocals.  His guitar speed is very impressive and his vocals sound not unlike Dug Pinnick from King’s X (noticeable on the opening track, especially) .  Matt Weaver plays violin and keyboards.  The keyboards offer more than just a fuller sound.  On “Release the Kraken” they provide some cool sci-fi sound effects.  At about five minutes in, “Release the Kraken” slows down to a quiet middle section that really showcases Steve Michael’s drums.  And then comes the blistering guitar solo.  It’s followed quickly but a slight diversion and then a wholly different style of solo.  It’s really something.

If “Release the Kraken” wasn’t a good enough prog rock title, how bout “Legends of the Symmetria.”  This one has a very Dream Theater feel for the opening.  But the vocals sound very different–dual vocals with great low harmony.  There’s a cool pre-chorus (I guess) at about 3 minutes.  This song is definitely a heavy one.  At about 4 minutes, the song slows down into a pretty classical guitar section,where Chris Joseph on plays bass gets to show off a bit (although he seems to be the most understated of the 4 players).  There’s some great drumming at the end of the song, too.

“The Ghost of Three Reflections” is a slow builder of a song.  There’s some quiet parts (with beautiful harmonies) and a guitar solo that sounds clear and perfect (I’m hyping the production so much because it sounds so good).  The guitar solo section in this one strikes me as something that might suit two guitarists better–maybe two more different styles of soloing, but he pulls it off well, especially when by the end, he has shifted to a very different style, and the music changes along with it).  I love the bass section at the 8 minute mark, which reminds me of something Rush might have done back in the mid 70s.  The song kind of merges into “Breach At Fort Mycenae” which opens with the same kind of staggered sound as the end of the previous song.  The violin gets an airing in the middle of this song and it’s a cool treat.  I could definitely use more violin in these songs, although maybe little bits are a treat.  There’s a few times when I don’t like the production choices–maybe there needs to be a bit more music behind some of these solos so it doesn’t just sound like two players soloing against each other.

The disc ends with the big one, the sixteen minute, “The Sleepwalker Pt. 1 – Tears of Dagon” [I love that it’s a Part One and it’s 16 minutes long].  When the vocals kick in at about 3 minutes, the harmonies are gorgeous.  I love the bass guitar break at 5 minutes.  Although there’s something about the keyboard sound that I don’t like–maybe they’re not big enough?  But I love the crazy guitar solo at the 9 minute mark of this track (I’m a sucker for dissonant scales).

This is an amazing debut CD and I hope these guys go far (they’re going from Scranton to Boston for school, but I hope they can go further than that).  They are tight as a drum, stopping and starting perfectly, keeping all of the rhythms and time changes perfectly.  They really have done their prog rock homework.  The only gripe is as I’ve said, some sections don’t feel “big” enough.  If you’re going to write a 16 minute song, you don’t want sections that sound small–you want your backing guitars or bass guitars to be a little louder so it sounds like the song is still going.  But other than that, there’s not much room for improvement.

I downloaded their CD, (and yes, I paid for it…that will help with college, eh?).  But my real complaint is that on the computer, the album cover is awesome–if you look at it from an angle, there’s a whole scene behind the large logo (try it, it works here too).  But when you print it out, you lose all of that.  The images are there, but the effect is gone.  This is a band that calls out for full color packaging and maybe even a gatefold sleeve!  (The bottom of the cover says Ο υπνoβάτης which means The Sleepwalker).

Good jobs guys!  You’ve done NEPA proud!

[READ: May 15, 2012] Drop Dead Healthy

Sarah got me this latest A.J. Jacobs book for my birthday.  At first I didn’t think I wanted to read it because I feared what a book all about being in good shape would be—nagging, obnoxious, making me feel bad about my vices. But I should have leaned from all of my A.J. Jacobs experience that he is completely NOT about that.

Jacobs occasionally enters into preposterous forays of Self-Improvement.  In the first book of his I read, The  Guinea Pig Diaries, he tried various weird experiments to see what it was like to be a woman, radically honest, a unitasker, etc.  His other books have been about self-improvement.  He read the encyclopedia from A-Z, he did a year trying to live like out of the bible (I will get to these eventually).  In this book, he is on a quest to be the healthiest person in the world.

It’s an impossible task.  And, frankly, a foolish one.  But he decides he will take two years and focus on individual parts of his body one month at a time.  I’m going say right up front I feared that this book would make me feel bad about all the things I don’t do for myself.   But well, a) Jacobs is a funny writer, so at least you’re laughing.  b) Jacobs is either in bad shape or plays up his badshapedness so that the average person doesn’t feel too bad off.  c) He is so over the top in his quest that no one would ever think about doing all of the things, but we can take what he learned and apply little bits to ourselves.  What is nice is that he tries to get two if not balanced opinions then perhaps fringe opinions to balance out–trying one extreme then another to see which work.

He Breaks His Categories Down thusly: stomach (eating right, the perfect food), the heart, the ears (the quest for quiet), the butt (avoiding sitting too much), the immune system (germs), genitals, nervous system, lower intestine (better bowels), adrenal gland (lowering stress), brain, endocrine system (removing toxins), teeth, feet, lungs, skin, inside of the eyelid (sleep), bladder, gonads, nose, hands, back, eyes, and skull.  Each category is designed to be a month-long workout of that organ/item–some things he keeps doing after the month is over making his workout regime something like 5 hours a day.  And at the beginning of each month he lists the stats for what he accomplished.

I’m not going to talk about all of his body parts, but I will mention a few that i enjoyed the most. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SISKIYOU-Keep Away the Dead [CST083] (2011).

I really enjoyed Siskiyou’s first album. This album updates the sound and makes it a bit bigger.  And yet somehow the album still sounds fragile.

The album is full of songs that are catchy, but not really easy on the ear.

The first song reminds me of Arcade Fire.  Something about the ringing guitar and crescendos.  But the recording feels more like a demo, much more intimate that Arcade Fire.  “Where Does That Leave Me” is an even more spare number, just vocals and guitar although it slowly builds.  “Twigs and Stones” is the first song that sounds like the bulk of the album—where Colin Huebert’s vocals really come to the fore.  His vocal style is loud and verging on the whiny (again, like Arcade Fire).  This song also has a lot of other instruments that percolate to the top—reminding me of older Mercury Rev.

“Revolution Blues” is the standout track for me, it’s incredibly catchy (and fun to try to sing in his eccentric voice).  The accordion and the minor key intensity is really powerful.  I guess it’s a shame that it was written by Neil Young, then (although the Siskiyou version is much better).  “Dear Old Friend” is a more country sound (which for me is shorthand for slide guitars), but it keeps the same style and feel as the other songs.  “Fiery Death” is the first song where percussion makes itself known very loudly.  It’s a cool introduction of loud thumping.  “Sing Me to Sleep” is a 2 minute lullaby and “Dead Right Now” is a 2 minute coda that ends the album nicely.

The disc is short (about 30 minutes) but a lot of emotion and craft is packed into it.  It’s really enjoyable.

[READ: May 24, 2012] “Sweet Dreams”

I’m always disconcerted when a story is in English but is set in another country.  Well, that’s not exactly right.  When it seems like it’s set in another country because the author is from that other country and he or she is writing about that other country without specifying it (usually because it is translated).  It’s very Amerocentric, but perhaps everyone thinks a story is set in their town unless told otherwise.  So I didn’t realize that this story was originally written in German (it was translated by Michael Hoffman), but it felt like it was taking place in Europe.  I actually guessed France, until later on it was revealed to be Switzerland.

There’s something cool about stories that are written elsewhere, especially if you don’t know the place well, it allows for almost anything to happen.  A couple riding a bus in Europe doesn’t mean the same thing as a couple riding a bus in, say Tallahassee.  But having set up that distinction, this story is about love.  And love is universal.

The story is written from the point of view of Lara, a shy bank worker.  She has been dating Simon for several months and they have recently moved in together.  They should be in the first bloom of love—on their own for the first  time (they never felt comfortable fooling around at their parents’ houses)—but her shyness in particular won’t loosen.  She doesn’t like him to see her naked, and they are very reserved in their love-making.  And from the start Stamm places a dark tone over the story.  The get a place in the town that he likes but it’s pretty run down.  He hadn’t brought much to the apartment, and he seems critical of some of her purchases.  He even comments that “forever is a long time” when she says that the towels she bought will last forever.  And then on the bus, a man, dressed in a long black coat stares at Lara over and over.  It may be innocent, but it’s still disconcerting.

When they get home, she takes a bath (she won’t let him in the bathroom) and asks him to go to the restaurant downstairs to buy a bottle of wine.  She finishes the bath and he’s not back yet, so she reads the paper.  Which is full of more grim news.  When she reads about a dead body found in the lake nearby and since we know she doesn’t feel comfortable about the restaurant downstairs, we know something bad has happened. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: COLIN STETSON-Those Who Didn’t Run (10″ vinyl) [CST084] (2011).

This 10″ vinyl contains two more of Stetson’s amazing bass saxophone solo monstrosities.  Each is over ten minutes.  And while ten minutes can be a bit much to take for one of these songs, the music is so powerful and so jaw dropping to listen to that, frankly he could play for days (and maybe he actually could) and I’d enjoy it.

The amusing thing about this 10″ is that when I played it on my record player, I didn’t know what speed to play it at.  And, since the whole platter is full of bass saxophone blasts, and all of the percussion is clacking from the saxophone, I honestly couldn’t tell what speed it was supposed  to be played at.  It wasn’t like a song with vocals or anything.  And the first song I played was the B Side “The end of your suffering ” which is played on a low alto sax–meaning it’s higher than his usual stuff, so the 33RPM actually sounded like it might be right!

After knowing the proper sound (you can stream the music here), it’s funny to hear the slow version–which just sounds meaner and angrier (especially around the 6 minuite mark of “Those Who Didn’t Run,” when he’s really hitting some crazy notes.  But I was so intrigued by the slow version that I went back and listened to both sides at the slow speed, just for fun.  In the dark.  By myself.

[READ:May 22, 2012] “About the Typefaces Not Used in This Edition”

This seemed like a perfect piece to put next to Rivka Galchen’s piece about the future of paper.  This is listed as a short story, and in a way it is, although not in any conventional sense.  This was published in 2002, long before Safran Foer’s book of cut up text, Tree of Codes was even conceived, so it’s obvious that he has been interested in type, in the way words play off of each other, in the way words appear on the page for quite some time.

This short piece (two pages) discusses the eight fonts that the editor chose not to use for publishing “this book.”  I don’t know if this references a specific book or not, although he does include character names and broad concepts from “the book”: Henry, Elena, an unsafe wooden bridge, the last word is “free,” and many times the words, “I love you.”

The typefaces are: (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE FLAMING LIPS AND HEADY FWENDS Walkthrough (2012).

This is not a review of the album, because I haven’t listened to it all yet.  This is a link to a hyper video in which Oklahoma’s Wayne Coyne rambles on and on about the new Flaming Lips Record Store Day 2012 album.

For a lead singer and frontman, he seems strangely uncomfortable here–barely looking at the camera (unless, as the comments say, he’s stoned).   He explains all of the details of the album and who they’ve collaborated with.  He also explains about the super rare and crazy expensive ($2500.00) vinyl that will contain the collaborator’s blood mixed into the vinyl.  Ew.

There’s not much in the way of samples of the music, but with just a few clicks around you can find a bunch of the songs.

And no, I didn’t buy the $2500.00 version.  Although since I see that they are already selling for $75 on ebay, I wish I had purchased an extra copy of the regular version.

[READ: May 1, 2012] “The Future of Paper”

This Land is an Oklahoma-based publication with a lot of content online. It is inspired by Oklahoman progressive thinkers (the name comes from Woody Guthrie).  It’s a pretty neat online resource, with all kinds of good articles (and a TV show apparently).  Rivka Galchen is on the Editorial Board.

This is the final article by Rivka Galchen that I have uncovered.  I don’t really know what this is—although the fact that it was also collected in The Last American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, helps to discern more of its intention.  When I say I don’t know what it is, I don’t mean I’m completely ignorant, what I mean is, it’s a strange little meditation to get published.

I enjoyed the opening in which the avian flu is eventually transmitted to paper cranes and then ultimately all books.  For this is how the books died. (more…)

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[ATTENDED: May 18, 2012] Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus

The last time I saw Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was in the mid 70s.  My parents took me two years in a row (and I still have the program books somewhere to prove it).  I didn’t realize that the circus was still around, to be honest.  I knew about all of the other circuses, but RB&B&B (what an awkward name) seemed like maybe it just went away.  Well, that is not the case—apparently once you have kids who are old enough to enjoy it, the circus comes to your town.

Or more specifically, to Trenton.  We thought about going to the show back in March when it was in East Rutherford and Newark but that seemed too far (and pricey).  When it came to Trenton (which was actually further than we anticipated) and I could get tickets for $15/ea, that was all I needed to hear.

If anything was worth $15 it was this circus.  Indeed, the joy we got out of it was worth much more than $15.

If you’ve been following along here, you know we’ve been to a number of circus-type shows over the last few months, so we are jaded circus-goers at this point.  But this show was called Dragons, and that’s hard to pass up, especially if you have a soon to be 7-year-old boy (and you used to play D&D).  When as the show opened and several performers came out with dragons attached to the front of Segways, I knew this was going to be fun.  And that it wasn’t the circus from 1977.

And yet, it kind of was.  Because once the circus proper started, it had all of the elements of circuses of yore:  elephants, tigers, trapeze artists, springboard jumpers, hoops of fire and more.

The theatricality was quite spectacular both old school (the ringmaster and clowns) and new school (remote controlled (I guess) platforms and floating screens to project pictures).  And, yes it was all about Dragons–the ringmaster sang a long over the top song about being a dragon (I think–the sound was really quite poor).  And they explained the four qualities of being a dragon (or maybe the four qualities you needed for the dragon to come out?  That’s what seemed to happen anyhow).  Each of the four qualities (Courage, Strength, Wisdom, Heart) was represented by a color and, tenuously, by the performers in a certain section.

And I cannot keep straight who exemplified which quality so, as my memory allows, here’s what we saw. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ESMERINE-La Lechuza [CST080] (2011).

This album is a wonderful surprise.  I had not heard of Esmerine before this CD (they have put out two previous records on a different label).  All I knew about them was that violinist Becky Foon (who is all over the Montreal scene and who is really good) was one of the founders of this band.  So I expected some epic instrumentals ala all of the Constellation Recordings bands that she has played with (Godspeed, Silver Mt Zion, etc).

I was delighted by the opening fast marimba notes of “A Dog River”.  I’m not sure if the marimba can play minor key notes, but the melody that co-founder Bruce Cawdron plays is uplifting and mesmerizing.  When Becky adds her strings, it takes on a new element–a kind of wistfulness.  Then at nearly 3/4 of the way in, some loud guitars come in to give the whole song a feeling of urgency.  And all the while it is very filmic.  It’s a wonderful opening.  “Walking Through Mist” is a much slower piece, and the marimba adds contextual pacing–they’re still not minor key or sad marimba notes, but they are not as uplifting as on the first track.  “Last Waltz” introduces a vibrato’s piano as the primary instrument.  It is at once unsettling.   It’s also the first of three songs with vocals.  The vocals work well on this song–they fit the mood perfectly–especially the wordless singing at around 4 minutes.  But I have to admit that I like the instrumentals better.  The same can be said for “Snow Day for Lhasa” (another song with vocals) which I find a little too slow to be impactful (it actually reminds me of a very slow version of Broken Social Scene’s “Lover’s Spit”).

“Trampolin” introduces a harp and some vibrant percussion.  It’s uplifting and feels like a perfect song for a theatrical dance company to perform to.  “Sprouts” is an uplifting new-agey sounding track.  By itself it might veer uncomfortably into the new age scene, but amidst the songs of the album it works very well.  “Little Streams Make Big Rivers” returns to that slower sound from earlier.  But this song is short and feels like a slow building march.  By the half way mark when the drums kick in, the song is unstoppable.  The album proper ends with “Au Crépuscule, Sans Laisse” a slow filmic song that returns the album to the quiet sound it was toying with earlier.

I mentioned Lhasa earlier.  Lhasa was a Canadian singer who had international fame (from my own experience, I know that X-Files creator Chris Carter wanted to go see her live–I know this because I was friends with his assistant and she told me the tale of trying to find tickets for this show).  I checked out her stuff but it wasn’t for me.  Anyhow, Beckie and Bruce were supposed to tour with Lhasa for her 2010 album, but sadly, she died of breast cancer (at 37, Jesus), right after the album came out.  So this album is dedicated to her.  The final song “Fish on Land” is a previously unreleased version of a Lhasa song that was made with Bruce and Beckie.  I wish I liked it more, but as I said, she’s not my thing.

I absolutely love the instrumentals on this album and I’m going to have to check out their earlier releases, too.

[READ: May 24, 2012] “Referential”

This story is like a kick to the stomach.  When you’re lying on the floor.  After you’ve thrown up.  And I mean that as very high praise indeed.

You know you’re in for trouble when the story opens: “For the third time in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable gift for her deranged son.”  We quickly learn that the woman’s son was fine until he was about twelve years old when he stopped brushing his teeth and began muttering to himself.  By then Pete had been dating the woman for about six years.

Pete and the woman had been coping with her son’s placement in the institution for over three years now.  There were so many rules they had to follow when visiting the boy–almost nothing could be brought in for fear of its being used as a weapon–even the homemade jam was taken because it was in glass.  Similarly, the woman has stopped wearing accessories, as a kind of solidarity–she would just have to remove them anyway.  She is now aging naturally and (she fears/admits) not very prettily.  An amazing slap in the face comes at the end of the first section with this amazing sentence:  “‘To me, you always look so beautiful,’ Pete no longer said.”  [Ouch!].

Pete has lost his job and is clearly unable to handle the strain of her son any longer (there’s a wonderfully painful scene where the boy asks Pete why he hasn’t come to visit lately). (more…)

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