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Archive for January, 2018

[ATTENDED: January 31, 2018] Jen Cloher

Sarah and I saw Jen Cloher open for Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile.  But because of traffic and parking, we saw barely two songs by her.  Her set (like Barnett & Vile’s) was acoustic.  She announced that she would be playing at Johnny Brenda’s in January and that her set would be much more rocking.  She also teased out that Courtney would be playing lead guitar for her.  Those two details made me want to see the show.  And I’m really glad I went.

I hadn’t been to Johnny Brenda’s before.  I heard it was small and sight lines could be tough if you got there late.  This show was sold out but I must have gotten there early because I was almost right in front of the stage (I was behind a woman who basically took up three spots with how often she moved around).

After being pretty far from Courtney at the previous set I made sure to set up on her side of the stage.  And it was pretty electric when she came out to tune up he guitar.  I saw that Kurt Vile was hanging around off to the side of the stage too, although he didn’t come out or anything. (more…)

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[ATTENDED: January 31, 2018] Mia Dyson

I had never heard of Mia Dyson before this show.  She is a fellow Australian and old friend of Jen Cloher’s.  I arrived just after her set was underway (amazingly, this was my first time at Johnny Brenda’s, I haven’t quite sussed out parking there, yet).

Mia’s set was really enjoyable.  She has a kind of Bonnie Raitt/rootsy vibe.  As she was singing her songs and I was impressed with her vocal power, her guitar playing and the cool bass and drums parts these songs had.

I don’t really love roots music typically, but her set worked great live.  And the audience responded appropriately.  She even said that she had played Philly and never had a good show here, until this one. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FIRST AID KIT-Stay Gold (2014).

This album was also produced by Mike Mogis, who did The Lion’s Roar.  And with each new album, the “duo” of Klara and Johanna Söderberg grows bigger and bigger.  This album adds a full string section as well as a mellotron, vibraphone and lap dulcimer (these last three all thanks to Mogis.

“My Silver Lining” is an incredibly catchy, swinging song.  In addition to the cool strings and the lovely oooh melody, it’s that big bold “Woah oh” that really sells the song.  I also love the whispered vocals at the end the “try to keep on keeping on” is really cool and a very different sound for them.

“Master Pretender” has some interesting instrumentation–a bass clarinet in the first verse, fiddles and pedal steel in the second verse and striking lap dulcimer in the chorus.  It’s also the first instance of them cursing I think, “I always thought that you’d be here / But shit gets fucked up and people just disappear.”

“Stay Gold” a beautiful chorus sets this song apart, the melody is really great.  “Cedar Lane” is a slower song that focuses on the sisters’ harmonies in the beginning but the chorus inspires with those soaring falsetto notes.  But the biggest and best surprise of this song comes nearly 4 minutes in when the song shifts to an intense refrain of “how could I break away from you?”

“Shattered & Hollow” is a slower, more mellow song with an interesting percussion.  “The Bell” has some unexpected melody lines but soaring vocals, but it all coalesces wonderfully in the last minute “Can you hear the bell?” in great harmony.

“Waitress Song” is so wonderfully down to earth (if not depressing):

I could move to a small town / And become a waitress / Say my name was Stacy / And I was figuring things out / See, my baby, he left me / And I don’t feel like staying here tonight

I also love the way they sing this line in the folky style of the song despite referencing a very different type of song:

I remember the music / From the down stair’s bar: Girls, they just want to have fun

The way the ending of this song redeems itself with the cool lap steel and their ooohs as well as an uplifting ending makes this a surprisingly powerful track:

I could drive out to the ocean / And just stare in awe / I could walk across the beaches / And sleep under the stars / Our love would seem trivial and obscure / Now and never feel lost anymore

“Fleeting One” This song moves along really nicely with some amazing high notes in harmony.  “Heaven Knows” is their by-now familiar autoharp song.  Except that it also combines the rocking elements of the previous albums’ “King of the World” a shuffling guitar, stomping drums and great good fun. And while the last album had them shout FIRE! in the middle of Conor Oberst’s verse, this time they up the ante further by slowing things down and sing

Tell me what’s your story / do you think it’ll ever sell / and what’ll you do if it comes down to it / and it all goes…. STRAIGHT TO HELL!

“A Long Time Ago” ends the album as a dramatic piano ballad.  It sounds really quite different for them.

So this album builds on everything they’ve been working on, adding more and more sounds and getting their voices to sound somehow even better.

[READ: January 30, 2018] “The Boundary”

This story is from the point of view of a young girl whose family looks after a small cottage.  The cottage is in the Italian countryside.  Her family is not Italian (they are from very far away), and when they moved to Italy they first lived in the city.  The countryside is about as alien to them as they can imagine  And they don’t especially like it.

Every Saturday a new family comes to stay in the cottage.  And those people love the countryside, can’t stop talking about how great it is.

The girl who looks after the cottage is familiar with the routine.

There’s usually four of them–two parents two kids. The girl shows them around, shows them the mouse poison and tells them to kill the flies at night because their buzzing will wake them up in the morning.

As the guests settle in, she pretends to ignore them, but she always watches–especially when they leave the screen doors open.  Since the cottage is so close, she can hear everything the family says. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FIRST AID KIT-The Lion’s Roar (2012).

This album was my first exposure to First Aid Kit and I immediately loved the harmonies and the dark but positive-sounding vocals.

I’m probably one of ten people on earth who doesn’t love Bright Eyes, but I love the production by Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis (with contributions from Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott and band leader Conor Oberst–maybe I need to re-listen to Bright Eyes).

The first song I’d heard was the opening cut “The Lion’s Roar.”  The song starts with a minor key guitar chord progression and “electronic flute.”  It’s atmospheric and a bit spooky-sounding, but when they come in with the chorus “And I’m a goddamn coward, but then again so are you” in wonderful harmony that is at times right on and other times kind of dissonant, it’s goose-bump-inducing.  Oh wow. what a moment

Pitchfork describes that electronic flute as “one deeply eerie flute tone that lingers throughout, floating in and out of scenes like a sly specter” and that’s pretty accurate.

It’s followed by “Emmylou” the most gorgeous country song I’ve ever heard, complete with pedal steel guitar and a wonderfully evocative chorus: “I’ll be your Emmylou, and I’ll be your June/ If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny, too,” (do watch them sing it to Emmylou Harris at an award ceremony and watch her brought to tears).

“In The Hearts Of Men” slows things down with some wonderful moments as the sisters sing the “la la las” throughout the chorus.  Once again, there’s surprisingly dark lyrics for two women around 23 and 21.  And speaking of dark lyrics, the pretty xylophone and guitar play a chirpy melody in “Blue” which has this stark and dark verse:

And the only man you ever loved / You thought was gonna marry you / Died in a car accident when he was only 22 / Then you just decided, love wasn’t for you / And every year since then / Has proved it to be true

Damn.  How does a song with that lyrics have a beautiful soaring chorus that is so uplifting and Abba-esque and yet again lyrically:

But you’re just a shell of / Your former you / That stranger in the mirror / Oh, that’s you / Why’d you look so blue?

“This Old Routine” features more of that uncanny, how are you only 21 years old lyrics sung with such beautiful harmony (and delicate mandolin sprinkled in):

This old routine will drive you mad
It’s just a mumble never spoken out loud
And sometimes you don’t even know why you loved her.
Well you look at her now, and you see why.

The second half of the song has strings and such, playing a simple five note melody.  There’s a moment near the end where the strings play that five note riff and its followed by the mandolin playing the same melody one step up and it’s just gorgeous.

“To a Poet” has a fast tight guitar melody.  As the song builds, a harmonium is added.  The chorus goes in a high register until the simple catchy end line: “There’s nothing more to it / I just get through it.”  The poet in question is Frank O’Hara

But Frank put it best when he said
“You can’t plan on the heart”
Those words keep me on my feet
When I think I might just fall apart

The string section ending is bit of a surprise since neither one of them palsy on it but it does add some nice texture to this song that has just grown from a tiny guitar to full orchestration over the course of 6 minutes.

That cool flute sound returns on “I Found a Way,” as it runs through the falsetto-filled chorus.  “Dance To Another Tune” slows things down for a while until the middle features another string section.  This time the sisters add their “bah bah bahs” to it and it sound terrific.

“New Year’s Eve” brings back the autoharp (you can really hear the plectrum zipping along the strings–something I’ve never noticed when others play it).  It’s a suitably quiet song with a gentle harmony on the final line of the chorus: “that’s what’s going to save me.”  And I love that no other instrumentation is added.

The end of the record is quite different from anything else.  “King of the World’ is a dynamic romp, easily their fastest, loudest, stompingest song.  It’s got a full band behind them and a vocal turn from Conor Oberst.  There’s all kinds of strings and mandolin tucked in the corners that peek out here and there.  There’s even horns which sound a bit like Calexico.

This album is just fantastic.  And their harmonies get better and more confident with each album.

[READ: January 22, 2018] “Writing Teacher”

I have not really enjoyed any of the stories I’ve read by Wideman.  This was the first one that I felt was on the right path to my enjoyment.  And then it kind of drifted away from me at the end.

It also features one of the things I hate most in stories–more on that in a moment.

This is the story of a writing teacher.  He is reading and reviewing a story by a student, Teresa McConnell who, “wants to help other people.”  The story “wishes to save the life of its main character, a young woman of color, a few years out of high school, single, child to support, no money, shitty job, living with her mother who never misses an I-told-you-so chance to criticize her daughter’s choices.”

What I hate most in stories comes a few sentences later: (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ST. VINCENT-Tiny Desk Concert #693 (January 22, 2018).

The new St. Vincent album is not very guitar heavy.  There are guitars but they are often very processed soundings.  And there’s very little in the way of shredding.

On tour, she has been playing acoustic guitar versions of some of the songs for VIP guests.  I was curious what kind of Tiny Desk Concert St. Vincent would do.  And I am delighted that she chose to do the acoustic show here (even though a set of old and new stuff with just her and the acoustic guitar would be amazing).  As Bob says:

Whenever I imagined a St. Vincent Tiny Desk Concert, it was always going to be loud and electric.

I recently saw St. Vincent live, but getting to see her up this close, it’s really amazing just how long her fingers are.  This lets her play some really interesting chords.  So here she is with just her acoustic guitar, playing three songs from MASSEDUCTION.

Annie Clark stood at my desk, in front of a few hundred-plus NPR employees and close friends, and hit us hard with her un-amplified voice, unplugged guitar, her checkered wardrobe and most importantly, her songs.

“New York” is wonderful to hear on guitar as the album version is all piano.  I love the way the simple back and forth chords of the chorus are replaced by the really interesting and complex chords of the verses.

“Los Ageless” sounds so very different in this version.  Rather than the full on dance version, this opens with a plucked guitar chord structure and some cool fast guitar solo-ettes.  It is remarkably different from the slick production of the album.  The chorus which is powerful and wonderful on record is slowed down and almost quiet here–a very different take on this great song.  One that really shows off her voice, too.

After telling the NPR staff that she listened every day, she says she has one question “She heard that underneath her sensible button down Terry Gross has full sleeves of tattoos.”  Bob: “All true.”  “That’s what I figured.  Terry goes hard.”

“Slow Disco” ends the album and it too is very different here.  It really showcases her voice, especially at the end.  The acoustic versions don’t really show off her mad guitar skills, but they do show some interesting chords structures.  I wonder if after her next album, if she returns to a more guitar-based sound, if these songs will get a new treatment live.

It’s fascinating to see her swaying as she plays these songs because live she is stock still, unmoving and statuesque,  Bob also notes:

This stripped-down set is more about emotion, more about a one-on-one connection, and that’s the bravery. To come out from the lights and the effects, leaving the laptop sync behind, pulled me into these songs in ways both the album and her live show hadn’t.

You can hear similar acoustic versions (as well as an interview) from World Cafe.

[READ: January 9, 2017] “Texas”

This is the first story I’ve read by Gates.  It is about Garver, a sixty-three year old painter and how his life has changed since his wife left him to move to Italy.

His children wished he’d had a better attitude, but who were they to talk.  William, his oldest, had actually graduated, with a degree in marketing.  Emma had gotten pregnant in her sophomore year and was a stay at home mom in Texas.  Marianne had finally straightened out enough to hold down a job at an animal shelter near Burlington.

He still lived in the huge house that his children grew up in.  He still had payments on it.  And he was too young for social security.  But he needed money.  So he decided to rent out the big house and live full-time in his studio out building–which was four-season ready and even had a mini fridge that he installed when he and his wife stopped speaking. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FIRST AID KIT-The Big Black and the Blue (2010).

Following their debut EP, Johanna and Klara Söderberg recorded a full length album, this one also produced by their dad.

This album feels a little bigger, a little fuller, overall. I’m sure the drums help, but also the guitar feels enveloping.  The biggest development is how terrific the sisters’s voices sound together.  They have really gotten their harmonies (including falsetto) totally in sync.

“In the Morning” has nearly one minute of gorgeous a capella harmony until a simple but interesting guitar motif comes in–and the powerful harmonies continue.  “Hard Believer” is acoustic guitar and Klara’s solo voice until the chorus when Johanna’s harmony adds heft to the song.  More instruments follow as well–mandolin shows up here and there.

“Sailor Song” opens with an autoharp, normally a jokey kind of instrument, but it works very well with their voices.  When the song launches into a 1-2 stomp, a nod to some of their country love, it really takes off.  “Waltz for Richard” is, indeed, a waltz with knock-out harmonies in the chorus.

“Heavy Storm” has some great music–a slight departure form the standard strum, and it’s quite engaging with their voices.  “Shot Down” opens with a harmonium (or accordion). It turns into a pretty, slow piece with spare piano.  It mind-boggling to think that these two songwriters were just 19 and 17 when they were writing lyrics like

And I remember how you told me
All that you wanted to do
The dream of Paris in the morning
Or a New York window view
And I can see it now you’re married
And your wife is with a child
And you’re all laughing in the garden
And I’m lost somewhere in your mind

“Josefin” is a pretty song with layered harmonies over a simple one-two bass rhythm.   “A Window Opens” has a great waltz rhythm and a cool guitar melody.  And “Winter Is All Over You” has s lovely spare guitar melody with Klara’s voice soaring over it.  (I love the aaaaahh section, it is really gorgeous).  “I Met Up With A King” is one of my favorite songs on the disc.  The delicate flute and their close harmonies are just beautiful in this spritely song.  I also love the way they sing “Thank Gawwwwwwd” in an almost aggressive style with the rough note that they hold a lot longer than expected.

The disc ends with a delicate pastoral “Wild of the River” a delightful folk song.

While it’s true that each successful album gets bigger and better, this is a wonderful debut full length, especially if you like their folkier style.

[READ: January 9, 2018] “Foreign-Returned”

Hassan works in Connecticut.  He and his wife had moved from Pakistan when he had gotten a job in Manhattan.  But he was let go and before his Visa coul run out, he quickly got a new job in Stamford.  It was quite a come down.  And despite the huge savings in rent, the place they lived was nothing compared to Manhattan.

He had been in Stamford for eight weeks, with his own desk and everything, when a young woman, early 20s, was introduced at his workstation.  She would be sharing space with him.  Her name was Hina and she was also Pakistani.

She had computer manuals, a velvet-covered Quran and wore a scarf.  He found her rather annoying. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FIRST AID KIT-Drunken Trees EP (2008).

First Aid Kit is a band made of sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg.  When they released this debut EP, Johanna was 18 and Klara was 15.  It was produced by their dad and made a big splash in Sweden.  When they uploaded a video of their cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” (included on the reissue of this disc) Fleet Foxes linked to it and raved about it and that brought them more attention.

This album feels homemade in the best way.  It feels quiet and cozy–like a family sitting around a fireplace playing guitar and autoharp (their dad was in a band as well, and he plays on the album too).

“Little Moon” opens with a lengthy spoken section (over a pretty melody).  The sisters start singing in harmony after a minute and the song is cute (the ra ra ra ra section is a little jarring).  “You’re Not Coming Home Tonight” has a surprisingly grown up sentiment:
Yeah you cooked his dinners
You raised his children
Still he’s not satisfied
He says “I’d rather switch with you
You don’t know how hard it is
To work from 9 to 5”

But the heroine of the story leaves the man and sets off on a new life.  “Tangerine” is a bit less empowering–and it sure seems like there was some kind of domestic trouble at home (although there doesn’t seem to have been): “I’m not going to beg just say please, please, please / Be good to me.”

“Jagadamba, You Might” this is a darker, slower song, and like the first song they sing “Jagadamba” as a kind of syllabic sound which is strangely jarring.

“Our Own Pretty Ways” is the fullest sounding song with a flute and a prominent two-step.  “Pervigilo” features an organ and runs over 5 minutes.  It’s a pretty song and while never striking, it doesn’t overstay its welcome either.  “Cross Oceans” has a loud (for them) bass and drum rumble.  It hints at a direction they would explore more but ultimately deviate from.

The addition of “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” is a treat as their harmonies are really striking in the chorus–the way they know when to harmonize and when to keep the harmonies a bit more distant.  It’s really striking.

The album is a strong beginning.  They are certainly still finding their way, but it’s a pretty and fun recording.

[READ: January 8, 2018] “Whoever Is There Come on Through”

My brief exposure to Colin Barrett suggests that he writes about Ireland and drugs.  This story is about Ireland and drugs.

Eileen is waiting for her friend Murt at the bus depot.  He has just gotten out of rehab.  The first thing he asked was who won the U.S. election.  “Whoa,” he said flatly.

They have been friends–very close, but never more than friends–for a dozen years. When they were sixteen, he confessed to having a crush on her, but she said they should just be friends.  A few weeks later he we into the hospital for the first time.  She naturally blamed herself, but he assured her that she was just one of a bunch of causes.

When he arrived at her car he asked her to take him to his Uncle Nugent’s.  He talked a bit about his current state and then asked to go to McDonald’s.  He ordered two Happy Meals and then wondered if they ever ask adults who order Happy Meals if there is a child with them.  Murt says he is tired, which automatically raises red flags for Eileen, but she didn’t want to be too pushy with him. (more…)

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