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SOUNDTRACK: AGNES OBEL-Tiny Desk Concert #598  (February 15, 2017).

Agnes Obel recently played a show near me, but it wasn’t until after I watched this show that I realized I should have gone to see her.

Agnes Obel, a Danish singer and writer of deeply alluring music, brought her work into what you could call its opposite — an office in the daylight. While the setting is a bit contrary to her carefully plotted, vocally dense songs, she mapped out a strategy which included her own reverb and monitor mix in the (successful, I think) hope of giving the Tiny Desk an aesthetic more suitable to these focused and powerful songs.

Obel plays three songs from Citizen of Glass alongside her band, keeping it sonically spare.  “It’s Happening Again” opens with fairly standard-sounding piano chords.  Then Obel’s voice kicks in and it’s unique–not weird, but with a cool almost detached delivery.  Accompanying her is a cellist and keyboardist.  They each sing backing vocals (along with a third backing vocalist).  When they all sing together, it is magical–sometimes creepy, sometimes beautiful.  The song builds to the end with all of the strings growing louder as the cello plays some wild, sliding sounds.  It is quite striking.

For “Golden Green,” the cellist switches to percussion (which is a kind of clacky ball that she throws in the air).  The main melody comes from the mellotron.  Once again when the backing vocalists kick, in everything is magical, especially the way the final note ends with a dramatic rise in pitch from all of the singers.

On “Stone,” the mellotron player switches to (electric) ukulele.  The melody comes from the uke and it is quite quiet until the chord when the cello and keyboard adds some deep bass notes that seem to overwhelm the room–quite dramatic and quite lovely.

[READ: December 1, 2016] Bandette Volume Three

Bandette Volume Three is just as much fun as books one and two.  It opens with Bandette getting shot at as she gives her little dog Pimento an important note for Daniel.  Daniel calls her and she proceeds to tell him about an upcoming heist (while she is still being shot at).  She says that there is a fabulous emerald on display.  An emerald that was once owned by Madame Presto: fabulist, mesmerist, woman of impudent morals.

And later that night (after she easily dispatches the bad guys) she goes to that special event and steals… a film about Madame Presto.

The next night several people (and a dog) are hit with sleeping darts from a new villain–Dart Petite. (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: DANA FALCONBERRY-Tiny Desk Conccert #292 (July 29, 2013).

This Tiny Desk Concert introduced me to Dana Falconberry:

Dana Falconberry’s songs are gentle, almost invariably delicate, sometimes mysterious and frequently feather-light. But her music’s sweet, intricate softness never stands in for strength: This is a confident songwriter, whether she’s ambling through six- and seven-minute epics (“Leelanau,” “Dolomite”) or chirping sweetly in the bouncy “Crooked River.”

The compositions on Falconberry’s most recent album, last year’s Leelanau, are sturdy enough to be stripped down for a space like Bob Boilen’s desk at the NPR Music offices. But each benefits immeasurably from the broad assortment of lovely flourishes she re-creates here with the help of five instrument-swapping backing players. What makes Falconberry stand out in a crowded field of singer-songwriters is her music’s unfailing impeccability, and this Tiny Desk Concert finds her and her crack band hitting every immaculately crafted mark.

I tend to agree with the blurbs, but this one really is spot on: delicate, impeccable, sturdy.  These are words I would absolutely use to describe these songs.  I would also use fantastical–not suggesting that there might be fairies floating around during these songs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one made an appearance.

“Dolomite” is a beautiful 7 minute song with many different sections.  Falconberry’s delicate (but not wimpy, it must be said) voice works perfectly with the capoed guitar she’s playing.  After the first verse, she’s joined by a cello, banjo and backing vocals, and the song builds.  Then after almost 2 minutes the bass and drums jump in and the song, while staying basically the same, gets a whole new feel (the bassline is staccato and unexpected while everything else is so smooth).  At around 3 and a half minutes the keyboards start adding these pretty little runs that make the song seem even more magical.  The middle of the song has the three female singers rotating through a  series of oohs and ahs as they make a cool-sounding fugue.

For “Crooked River,” the bassist switches to melodica.  Once again there’s a great sequence where each of the female singers sings one note in a very complex melody–it’s quite enchanting.  The cello is plucked giving the whole song a very different feel from the first.

Before the final song Bob asks if she has had any desk jobs.  She says she has had her fair share.  “I currently have a desk job…I hope. We’ll see when I get home.”

For Leelanau, the keyboardist switches to accordion, and there is prominent banjo and delicate melodica.  The verse is really quite catchy, and after the verse there is a gently rocking section where everyone joins together–it bursts forth in contrast to the rest.  It is repeated a few times throughout the song, and each one is more fun than the previous.  The middle has a kind of slow break down with the cello scratching and the melodica and accordion sounding like they are running out of breath.  Dana even hit’s Bob’s gong.  The accordion is even “breathing” without making a musical note.  The song returns to that super catchy verse and jam section and just as you think its going to fade to an end, there’s very cool chime that echoes and then a huge buildup to the conclusion.

I was so entranced by Falconberry’s music that I need to hear more of it.

[READ: September 19, 2016] Bandette 2

Two years ago I wrote about Bandette Volume 1: “The book was very exciting and sweetly charming as well.  I’m looking forward to Volume 2.”  And I waited and waited for it to come out.  I even saw Vol 1 the other day and wondered when we’d get volume 2.  Well, apparently this has been out since 2015, but the library just acquired it.  So I’m happy to say it’s not my fault it took two years for me to get around to reading it.

Even though I didn’t exactly remember how book 1 had ended, Tobin & Coover added a helpful “Previously” section to get us caught up.

The wit and charm of the first book is back in spades. Bandette continues to be seemingly immune to the world around her–she says what she wants and does what she wants and no resistance will get in her way–whether it is verbal sparring or her uncanny gravity-defying stunts.  Her love of chocolate remains as well, of course.  And the tone retains that agelessness.  It feels like this book could have been written in the 1950s but for the cell phones and scooters.

Chapter One reminds us that Bandette is a civilizan as well  She has dark hair and a love of pastries–she even gives the bakery owner priceless urn (from where) as payment for the delicious sweets. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK
: BATHS-Tiny Desk Concert 300 (September 4, 2013).

I was unfamiliar with Baths and I am impressed by their busy-ness in this set.  There are only two guys playing, both play with various computer gadgets and then switch to keyboards and guitars.  They layer more and more music on this fairly dancey and very electronic sound.

Baths, a.k.a. Will Wiesenfeld, plays mysterious and textured electronic music. When Wiesenfeld came to the Tiny Desk, I expected contemplative tones and a laid-back performance; he does, after all, call his project Baths. But what sets him apart from the vast majority of like-minded performers is that his music doesn’t get buried behind the buttons or lost in a hypnotic glaze.

Wiesenfeld is an extrovert live, and at the Tiny Desk, he sounds vibrant and compelling as he performs songs from this year’s Obsidian. His partner Morgan Greenwood, an accomplished music-maker in his own right, keeps the music dense but frees up Wiesenfeld to sing with few distractions; there’s a mind-meld between the two that’s undeniable. They’re not accustomed to playing in the light of day, but they enchant in this perfect introduction to their work.

Wisenfeld’s vocals are a lot of wordless sounds (ba ba ba, na na na) that get looped and mixed around.  He sings in a rather high register, especially when making the looped sounds.

“Miasma Sky” builds with layers upon layers of sounds and vocals.  The sounds are manipulated in great ways with those little knobs and sliders. And just as you think it’s going to end with a series of delicate synth and guitar notes, he begins looping them which create the building blocks for the rest of the song.   It’s primarily keyboards and glitchy drums until the end.

“Phaedra” begins with some heavy drums and them playing around with all their gadgets.  This is a fast, pumping, dancing song.  Greenwood sings backing vocals in an equally high register.

“Ocean Death” has deep thumping drums and an opening with lots of na na nas and la la las in a textually rich soundscape.  It all fades down o just drums before building back up again.

[READ: July 9, 2016] Ruins

Seven years ago I read a book called Diario de Oaxaca, a sketchbook by Peter Kuper that I really enjoyed.  When I grabbed this book of the shelf the other day I didn’t realize it was the same guy.  But I can see that that sketchbook informed this excellent graphic novel.

The Diario covered his two-year stay in Oaxaca where he drew a lot, studied insects (and saw the monarch butterflies) and experienced both chaos and contentment.

This fictionalized account of the story places two characters into a situation that sounds similar to what he experienced, but with enough difference to keep it purely fictional. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PINEGROVE-Tiny Desk Concert #582 (December 2, 2016).

I recently saw Pinegrove live and it was a great experience.  Although it was only a few months after this Tiny Desk Concert, it’s pretty amazing how different the band sounded during these two shows.

Pinegrove are sometimes referred to as having a country flair.  And they certainly do here (they really didn’t when I saw them–they rocked pretty loud and hard).  For this set, the guitar is often slide, the banjo is prominent and the songs are quieter.

But rather than countryside (which would not have attracted me at all), I like the term that the blurb uses:

The New Jersey group’s sound feels fresh and scrappy at the same time.

Evan Stephens Hall and drummer Zack Levine, who’ve been friends since they were 7, form the core of Pinegrove: Evan Stephens Hall (vocals, guitar); Nandi Rose Plunkett (keyboard, vocals); Zack Levine (drums, vocals); Adan Feliciano (bass); Sam Skinner (banjo, guitar); Josh Marre (guitar, vocals).  I was delighted to hear that (Hall and Levine’s dads play music together, too (in a band called Julie’s Party)).

It’s interesting that they play two older songs and only two from Cardinal, the album that was garnering most of their attention.  The first two are earlier tracks

“Need” is a slow folkie song that begins quietly but after a minute bursts into a wonderful full band sound (they sounded really full when I saw them too).  Many of the Pinegrove song are short–this one is only 2 minutes.  “Angelina” is a pretty rocking song (live it was a really rocking).  It appears to have been a new song recorded for their release of their collected works.  Here its a solid catchy song but is again only a minute and half long–barely getting started when it ends.

There’s a strange edit cut after this song before “Old Friends” starts–not sure what it means (what did they cut?)  But they launch right into “Old Friends” and its notable opening.  This snog is just outstanding the way it feel like there’s no real melody in the beginning, but it’s all there and quite subtle.  And then there’s the powerful chorus where it all comes together.  This version is really quite different–prominent banjo, a slide on the acoustic guitar and outstanding backing vocals.  They even do a cool thing with the ‘as if I needed a reminder’ section in which it goes an octave up–which I like quite a lot.  “Waveform” is a slower song on Cardinal (and seems even slower here–I love how they play off their surroundings).  The harmonies are really great on this one.

The whole set is a great introduction to the band, although seeing them live is a very different experience again.

[READ: June 20, 2016] Awkward

Sarah brought this book home as well and it looked fun.  And so it proved to be.

The title is a little overused at this point but it proves to be rather accurate for the story.  It follows Penelope (Peppi for short) as she starts her first day at a new school.  While in the hallway, she trips over her own feet in front of just about everyone.  There is much laughter until a boy comes over to help her.  But as soon as he does there is even more laughter as the mean boys chant that “Nerder found a new girlfriend.”

She was utterly humiliated and acted out in the worst way possible–she got mad at the boy who helped her.  She pushed him away and shouted Leave Me Alone!  And as she looked back she says “I will never forget the look on his face.”

The story quickly jumps to weeks later.  She has some friends n the art club, where she feels very comfortable, but she is still really sorry about what she did to this boy.  She wants to say she’s sorry to him, but she can’t bring herself to do it. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ALSARAH & THE NUBATONES-Tiny Desk Concert #584 (December 9, 2016).

The Tiny Desk Concerts have introduced me to a ton of bands I’ve never heard of before.  They’ve also introduced me to styles of music I’ve never heard before.  Alsarah and the Nubatones play music inspired by her home country of Sudan.  But I believe she (they) include pop elements to make the music more accessible (and danceable).

And this Concert was great–I listened to it over and over.

The instrumentation is all fairly simple: Rami El Aasser plays all kinds of percussion.  I love the sound that he gets out of that hand drum.  Brandon Terzic plays an amazing oud and  Mawuena Kodjovi’s bass holds the whole thing together in an incredible way–something that I think this traditional music lacks.

But most important are the singers’ voices.  Alsarah sounds great by herself but when she and Nahid harmonize, it is enchanting.  Especially in the chorus of the first song, “Ya Watan” when their voices work together so perfectly

But what’s Alsarah’s deal?  The blurb is really helpful:

When singer Alsarah left her native Sudan, she was just a child who’d shown an interest in music. She’s said it served as her coping mechanism during a subsequent transition to life here in the U.S. That passion led her to a university degree in ethnomusicology.

It also drew her to musicians who were passionate about the intersection of culture, music and migration. Together, their one-of-a-kind expression has been called “East African retro pop.” But that tag only scratches the surface: In their hands, the music pulses, breathes and comes alive with a mix of tradition and contemporary influences.

I don’t know what the song names mean, but I love “Ya Watan.”  The song is really catchy, but when the bass did a big slide at the end of the middle slow section to announce the final part, I was hooked.

I have no idea why there’s a 3 in this titular word, but that makes me even more intrigued by “3roos Elneel.”  Before the song she says (in perfectly unaccented English), “I’m going to tell a story because I think I can do whatever I want.”

She says that the song is inspired by “girls music” performed at wedding ceremonies in Sudan.  But she tries to merge it with an old myth.  The Nile River would flood every season because the gods were angry and lonely.  So the Sudanese people would sacrifice the most beautiful maiden in the village.  But she wonders what happens after she goes in the river.  And what happens next season when there’s a new girl–that’s a lotta wives.  So, she likes to think there’s trade off.  You go in to the river and do 3 months as a Nile god bride and then you swim off.  Maybe the bottom of the Nile is full of ex-Nile-god-divorcees giving birth to mermaids.  Yes, she claims mermaids as a Nubian invention.

The song begins with a call and response. It sounds rather traditional.  But after a few lines, the song stops with a four-beat clap-along section.  And then everything shifts.  First the bass plays a cool riff then the oud joins in with some fast playing and then the percussion makes it utterly danceable.  There’s even a cool oud solo.

The first section of “Fulani” is the chorus repeating the word Fulani over and over (in call and response style), but it’s done in wonderfully melodious fashion, including a catchy stop start section with more clapping.

The song is really great and I love the way all the instruments are able to make the song fade out.

This music was totally captivating.

[READ:January 27,2017] Beautiful Blue World

Sarah brought this book home and read us a little bit of it and I decided I had to read it, too.

The part she told us about was about a girl taking a test to see if she would be useful for the army.  But it was no ordinary test, it was more like Bletchley Circle–puzzles and observations more than facts.  That sounded great.

What she didn’t tell us was the general set up of the story.

So, this story feels like a World War II story, with a country like England being attacked by a country like Germany.  But what makes this book special is that these are not the countries. The countries are called Sofarende (the attackees) and Tyssia (the attackers). But despite these countries having fantastical names, the story feels very real.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SKINNY LISTER-Tiny Desk Concert #286 (July 8, 2013).

I had never heard of Skinny Lister.  And that’s kind of a surprise because their music fits right in with the group folk rock of bands like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers–they could be huge!.  Back in 2013, they were a newish band and Bob Boilen explains where he first heard them.

I was coming back to my hotel during SXSW 2013 in hopes of grabbing a short nap when I saw Lorna Thomas winning the hearts of a gathering crowd with her flirtatious, cheer-me-up style of singing and dancing. Then my eyes and ears found a punkish band with accordion, upright bass, guitars, and vocals from Dan Heptinstall. I couldn’t leave, I never napped, and I fell head over clicking heels for their reels and jigs and whatever else they tossed our way.

When it was done, I shook their hands, gave them high-fives and hugs, and handed them my card. Months later, they showed up at my desk early in the day bearing lots of beer, some mysterious alcohol in an even-more-mysterious jug, and an assortment of instruments. After watching this Tiny Desk Concert, when you’re ready for more and you can’t find Skinny Lister playing your local pub, you can check out its debut album, Forge & Flagon — it’ll tide you over until the band makes it back to your town.

As the set opens, Lorna Thomas has a giant flagon of that mysterious liquid.  She explains, that it is a flagon and that she learned the proper technique of drinking it over the shoulder.  Which she demonstrates to us.  Although she can’t “play” it.  But that’s where their album title The Forge & Flagon comes from.  They play three songs which really showcases their range.

“Trawlerman” is a rollicking fun song with lots of bawdy singing.  It’s a party atmosphere with a really fun rowdy chorus of “haul away haul away.”  After the song, Lorna drinks from a bottle of beer (which is almost empty).  remember this is like 10AM.

“Colours” drops the tempo down a bit.  It is a mellow but pretty song.  It’s a song about the sun coming out–something that doesn’t happen very often [in England] but when it does we have to cherish it and then write songs about it. The accordion player (it’s actually a melodeon) switches to a mandolin.  The song builds to a fun conclusion with the mandolin shouting “here we go!” as the end takes off on a chorus of “flash before us.”

“Rollin’ Over” continues that wild rollicking vibe.  I love that it starts with raucous guitar playing and then a cool melodeon riff to start out,  This is a fast peppy song with an infectious chorus.

I fins it interesting that the guys are dressed kind of town—sleeveless shirts and sleeveless denim jackets (the bassist is covered in tattoos) and yet Lorna is in a very pretty dress.  As the concert ends, she takes a swig from the jug straight on and says “that’s the other way to do it.”

I was trying to figure out just who was in this band.  But there were personnel changes aright around this show.  The only people I’m pretty sure of are

  • Dan Heptinstall – lead vocals, guitar, and stomp box (July 2009–present)
  • Max Thomas – melodeon, mandolin and vocals (July 2009–present)
  • Lorna Thomas – vocals (July 2009–present)
    • Then I’m sorta sure:
  • Sam “Mule” Brace – guitar, concertina, vocals
  • Michael Camino – double bass and vocals

Then, according to the Wikipedia site in the fall after this show they added a drummer, but honestly I’m not sure they need it, as their guitar playing is already percussive (what with that stomp box and all)

[READ: April 17, 2016] The Oopsatorium

I love Shaun Tan. His works are funny and often absurd.  And his drawing style is consistently fantastic,

When I saw this book at work, I was immediately struck by the great name.  And when I saw that underneath the title it said Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, I assumed that this was going to be a hilarious collection of failed inventions.

And it is, sort of.

Tan has created a book which melds truth and fiction.  The Powerhouse Museum is real.  The inventions in the book are actually in the museum, (there are photos of a dozen or so cool contraptions).  However, Mintox, a strikingly original but spectacularly unsuccessful inventor and author of the never published Eat, Pray, Invent, is fictional. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LYDIA AINSWORTH-“Afterglow” NPR’S SOUTH X LULLABY (March 23, 2017).

I was unfamiliar with Lydia Ainsworth, but I was instantly struck by the setting of her lullaby.

We asked Lydia Ainsworth to perform in Raum Industries’ Optic Obscura installation. Surrounded by dim, long-hanging optical fibers that look like an infinity room of cat’s whiskers, she sings a stripped-down version of the slow-burning “Afterglow,” accompanied only by an upright bass and light percussion.

I’m not sure what the original song sounds like, but this version is moody and intense.  The upright bass opens the song as Lydia’s whispered, sensual vocals come forth.  She has a beautiful voice and it is especially haunting in this setting.  It reminds me a bit of someone else although I can’t decide who.

The starkness of the silence when she stops singing is intense.  And I really like the way the song ends, not abruptly exactly, but rather unexpectedly.

[READ: March 21, 2016] T-Minus

Jim Ottaviani did the amazing graphic novel Feynman, and in the blurb about him in that book, it said that he also wrote T-Minus.  Coincidentally I had just brought T-Minus home for Clark and I to read.  He read it quickly and said it was very good.  It took me a little longer to read (I’m sure he didn’t read all the details) because Ottaviani jam packs this book with interesting facts.

As the title says, this is about the race to get a man to the moon.  It begins 12 years before the actual date occurred.  And it toggles back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union.

On the margins of many pages there are drawings of all of the various attempts each country had to get a rocket into the air.  The drawings show the design and then at the bottom it states the duration of the flight, the date and some other details.  The USSR’s first rocket (1957) lasted all of 20 seconds before exploding.  The U.S’s first rocket lasted about 7 seconds.

We meet a handful of people who were instrumental in the design and origination of these rockets.  (Ottaviani explains that many of these people are composites of real people involved–if he wanted to include everyone, there would be 400 people in every panel). (more…)

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