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SOUNDTRACK: ORQUESTA AKOKÁN-“Mambo Rapidito” (2019).

Since this story is about something shameful in Cuba, I thought I’d tie it to something that is wonderful in Cuba: Orquesta Akokán

Orquesta Akokán is a band comprised of Cuban musicians and “Latin music freaks” from New York.   They play the kind of Cuban music that filled New York nightclubs in the 1940s and 1950s.  As their website explains:

Robust, time-tested musical architectures of son cubano and mambo are honored and modernized through a synthesis of the rich compositional styles of Havana, New York, and beyond.

This song begins with a descending piano riff that quickly gives way to horn hits and a cowbell that doesn’t stop for the whole three minutes.

The main melody comes in as a swinging, wholly danceable riff with shouted refrains of “baile!”

Then lead vocalist José “Pepito” Gómez shows where the rapidito comes in as he sings an insanely fast vocal part ( I wouldn’t even guess what he’s saying).

The song is fun and swinging and should make everyone want to baile!

Then comes an awesome flute solo.  There’s a cool swinging instrumental sections in the middle before the call and response of the backing vocalists and Pepito.

Then a wild and cacophonous piano solo sprinkles the end of the song.  It is a ton of fun.  The NPR blurb says that

when globalFEST decided to host this year’s edition at New York’s Copacabana nightclub — a venue with a history that stretches back nearly 80 years and boasts a long association with Latin music — the festival’s organizers decided that Akokán had to be the first group they invited this time around.

Mambo!

[READ: December 23, 2019] Guantánamo Kid

This is a story of injustice.

Injustice at the hands of Americans.

Americans should be humiliated and outraged by this injustice.

Injustice that is utterly horrific to behold–and I suspect that this graphic novel holds back a lot of the really unpleasant details to make it readable.

This is the story of Mohammed El-Gharani, an innocent kid who was sent to Guantánamo Bay for seven years.

At the age of 14, Mohammed El-Gharani made money in the streets of Medina, Saudi Arabia.  His family was from Chad and, as such, he was treated like an outsider in Saudi Arabia.  He wasn’t allowed to go to school and the locals treated him badly.  He and his friend knew this was no way to make a living.

One day his friend told him that if he went to Pakistan he could learn how to fix computers.  He even knew people there who would put him up while he studied. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NEIL PEART-September 12, 1952-January 7, 2020.

When I was in high school, Rush was my favorite band, hands down.  I listened to them all the time.  I made tapes of all of their songs in alphabetical order and would listen to them straight through.

I still loved them in college, but a little less so as my tastes broadened.  But every new release was something special.

It’s frankly astonishing that I didn’t seem them live until 1990.  There were shows somewhat nearby when I was in college, but I never wanted to travel too far on a school night (nerd!).

For a band I loved so much, it’s also odd that I’ve only seen them live 5 times.  However, their live shows are pretty consistent.  They play the same set every night of a tour (as I found out when I saw them two nights apart), and there wasn’t much that set each show apart–although They did start making their shows more and more fun as the years went on, though).

One constant was always Neil Peart’s drum solo. It too was similar every night.  Although I suspect that there was a lot more going on than I was a ware of.  It was also easy to forget just how incredible these solos were.  Sure it was fun when he started adding synth pads and playing music instead of just drums, but even before that his drumming was, of course, amazing.

It was easy to lose sight of that because I had always taken it for granted.

I am happy to have seen Rush on their final tour.  I am sad to hear of Neil’s passing.  I would have been devastated had it happened twenty years ago, but now I am more devastated for his family.

So here’s two (of dozens) memorials.  The first one is from the CBC.  They included a mashup of some of Neil’s best drum solos:

But what better way to remember the drum master than with a supercut of his drum solos? From a 2004 performance of “Der Trommler” in Frankfurt, Germany, to a 2011 performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, to his first-ever recorded drum solo (in 1974 in Cleveland, Ohio), dive into nearly five minutes of Peart’s epic drum solos, below.

The best Neil Peart drum solos of all time.

I was only going to include this link, because it was a good summary, then I saw that Pitchfork ranked five of Neil’s best drum solos (an impossible task, really).  But it is nice to have them all in one place.

You can find that link here.

Starting in the 1980s Neil’s solos were given a name (which shows that they were pretty much the same every night).  Although as I understand it, the framework was the same but the actual hits were improvised each night.

Even after all of these years and hearing these drum solos hundreds of times, watching them still blows my mind.

  • “The Rhythm Method”
  • “O Baterista”
  • “Der Trommler”
  • “De Slagwerker,”
  • “Moto Perpetuo”
  • “Here It Is!”, “Drumbastica,” “The Percussor – (I) Binary Love Theme / (II) Steambanger’s Ball”

[READ: January 2020] Canada 1867-2017

In this book, Paul Taillefer looks at the most historically significant event from each tear of Canadian history.  And he tries to convey that event in about a page.  Can you imagine learning the history of your country and trying to condense every year into three paragraphs?

And then do it again in French?  For this book is also bilingual.

I can’t read French, but i can tell that the French is not a direct translation of the English (or vice versa).

For instance in 1869, the final sentence is:

This, in turn, signaled the start of the Red River Rebellion which would not end until the Battle of Batoche in 1885.

Neither Batoche nor 1885 appears in the entire French write up.  So that’s interesting, I suppose.  I wonder if the content is very different for French-reading audiences. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: WONDERFUL ESCAPE: Birds (2018).

I was looking for a bird song collection to pair with the book.  I found this 20 minute collection on Spotify.  It turns out that Wonderful Escape has many releases of nature sounds.

I haven’t listened to any of the others, but it strikes me that this recording was made by a person with a microphone who didn’t really know what birdsong CDs sound like.

Normally a bird sound recording is meant to be soothing, a “wonderful escape” if you will.  This recording feels like a hastily compiled collection of nature songs.  I would say it’s cash grab, but I doubt there’s much money to be made in posting bird songs to Spotify.

This collection starts out with “Crowes at the Cemetery” (no idea why Crowes has an e in it–there’s no jam band in sight).  These crows are raspy and rather unpleasant.  They are certainly telling us to eff off.  There’s also a long stretch in the middle with no crows at all.  This seems rather odd for a three minute track.  The end of the track has some church bells which I assumed was from the cemetery but which seems to be the natural segue to “Birds at Saint Birgitta Church.”  This track is much calmer.  The twittering and pretty call of birds sounds rather distant though.  Its really not until 2 and half minutes that you hear some really pretty birdsong up close.  Did the bird just happen to land near the microphone?  It also seems very likely that the recording equipment has just moved to the other side of the cemetery because you can hear those same crows from track one in the background.

Track three is called “Birds at the Graveyard” which I suspect is the same graveyard as the above cemetery since you can still hear the crows in the background.  There is some melodious bird song throughout.

This track differs quite a lot from the similarly named “Birds at the Cemetery” (seriously, did they just walk around the building for 20 minutes?).  The sonic quality is very different.  The cemetery sounds less crowded and the birds are less frequent and further away.  This one actually has a more somber feel, which seems weird to say about a field recording.  For the final thirty seconds or so there’s hardly any birds at all.

The next track is “Birds in Village Park,” so at least there’s some kind of place mentioned.  There is a vast array of birdsong in this track, although it is all very far away and seems once again to be dominated by crows.  Halfway through there’s a raspy sound that sounds more mechanical than avian, but I suspect it is a bird chitting.

The penultimate track is called “Birds Swedish Countryside.”  This makes me wonder if all the recordings are in Sweden, but who knows.  It starts out promising with some interesting noisy birds but once again, it is very quiet in the middle.  Then the noisy birds appear to fly over the recording equipment, getting noisy and then quieter again.  This is a pretty cool treat because it changes things up.  But the majority of the track it sounds like the birds are trying to avoid being recorded.

The final track title seems like a joke.  It is called “Birds Way Out in the Countryside.”  And like all the other tracks, it sounds like the birds are way out in the countryside and we are behind a fence unable to get into the countryside.

This is a weird field recording to be sure.  And there are far better nature sound tracks out there.

[READ: December 31, 2019] Effin’ Birds

I saw an ad for this books and asked for it for Christmas.  I loved the idea of a beautifully illustrated book of birds which tells you exactly what they are really thinking of you.

Every page has illustrations from John James Audubon’s Birds of America or Thomas Berwick’s History of British Birds.  These are lovely mostly black and white reproductions, with a few plates in color.

The book begins

Have you ever listened to the melodic chirping of birds and wondered what they were trying to communicate?

Advances in machine learning over the past ten years have allowed for detailed scenario analysis of birds and their songs, and multiple computer-driven studies* that compiled years’ worth of audio and video recordings came to an astonishing conclusion: most of the time, birds are just saying “Fuck off.”

*I made these up because this book is fake — but keep that as a secret between you and me and the handful of other nerds who read footnotes,

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: POCHONBO ELECTRONIC ENSEMBLE-“Where Are You, Dear General?”

One thing the book does not mention is this song which is played every morning in Pyongyang at 6AM.

There’s a clip of the song being broadcast in front of Pyongyang Station here.

In this clip, the music is creepy and empty, played through exterior speakers and bouncing off of government buildings.  As one person commented, if this music had a color, it would be grey.

This recorded version, by North Korea’s most popular act, is a little different.  It’s much warmer with soft synth not unlike synthy new age from the 70s/80s.

Here’s some detail about the creators of this music (according the BBC):

The Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble were formed by Kim Jong-il in the early-80s and were the first North Korean band to use electric guitars, synthesisers and saxophone, drawing on Korean folk music, but also Chinese, Soviet and, to a smaller extent, Western pop. They take their name from the 1937 Battle of Pochonbo, in which a group of guerrillas were led by Kim Il-sung in an attack on occupying Japanese forces (yet, despite this, they have toured in Japan). They’ve released over 150 CDs.

After 2 minutes of spacey intro, the vocals come in–a big chorus of voices asking “Supreme Headquarters. Where are you? Lead us to you.”

At 3 minutes the lead vocals come in, sung by Hyon Song-wol.  The music stays much the same (with echoing sounds and trippy synths) but Hyon Song-wol’s voice soars over the top and is quite lovely as she sings unabashed propaganda wonder where their supreme general is and when he will keep them warm and safe.

For a longer essay about this mysterious wake up alarm, check out this article from nknews.

[READ: December 29, 2019] Pyongyang

I really enjoyed Delisle’s A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting.  It was very funny and I really liked his drawing style.  Delisle has written several other books (published by Drawn & Quarterly) and I was really excited to see this one come across my desk (it’s a 2018 printing although it doesn’t look like there’s anything added).

The introduction by director Gore Verbinsky sets the stage for what this book is.  In 2001, Delisle was allowed into North Korea to work on an animated cartoon for two months.

In animated movies, there are “key frames” which are sort of the highlight moments.  In between these key frames are where the North Korean animators draw–the in-betweens.  Canadian and Europeans (and some American) directors then supervise the completion–often trying very hard to get the animators to understand simple Western ideas.

Verbinsky says that Delisle “reduces the amplitude to get underneath the narrative and break down a belief system into something infinitely relatable.  He looks at the daily life of people existing in these “in-betweens” and looks at the citizens who “exist in a bubble of fear.”

The book was translated by Helge Dascher.

Delisle’s self-portrait character is a simply drawn man with a big nose, tiny eyes and a very expressive face. As the story opens he is at customs where they ask about the book he brought (1984–with a funny scene about that later) and his music Aphex Twin.  His driver picks him up from the airport–you don’t go anywhere in North Korea without an escort.  Delilse is shocked that the driver is smoking in than air conditioned car with the windows closed:  “Great.  I can’t breathe and I’m cold.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SHARON VAN ETTEN-“Silent Night” (2009).

There’s been quite a lot of songs coming out for Amazon Soundtracks lately.  This Christmas song comes from Eric Paschal Johnson’s short film The Letter.

There have been probably hundreds of recordings of “Silent Night,” one of the few Christmas songs that I feel should not be tampered with. It’s a beautiful song and if done right can be incredibly moving.

Sharon’s version is really fascinating to me.  It’s not especially traditional.  Indeed, it feels very contemporary.  The music is a kind of throbbing bass note, almost like a slow, dance song.  It pulses and changes pitch, but all quite slowly.

And yet, the song doesn’t feel like a dance song.  Sharon doesn’t sing it like a pop song at all.  Rather, she sings gently in a deep register–very earnestly.  After a verse, a second vocalist comes in and adds some dreamy backing vocals.

For the third verse, a simple drum rhythm is added.  The song is now much fuller than when it started and yet it’s not all that different.

It’s really quite a lovely update to the song and an all around excellent version.

[READ: December 14, 2019] “Natural Light”

This year, S. ordered me The Short Story Advent Calendar.  This is my fourth time reading the Calendar.  I didn’t know about the first one until it was long out of print (sigh), but each year since has been very enjoyable.  Here’s what they say this year

The Short Story Advent Calendar is back! And to celebrate its fifth anniversary, we’ve decided to make the festivities even more festive, with five different coloured editions to help you ring in the holiday season.

No matter which colour you choose, the insides are the same: it’s another collection of expertly curated, individually bound short stories from some of the best writers in North America and beyond.

(This is a collection of literary, non-religious short stories for adults. For more information, visit our Frequently Asked Questions page.)

As always, each story is a surprise, so you won’t know what you’re getting until you crack the seal every morning starting December 1. Once you’ve read that day’s story, check back here to read an exclusive interview with the author.

Want a copy?  Order one here.

I’m pairing music this year with some Christmas songs that I have come across this year.

This story played around with linear reality in a number of ways.

It opens with the narrator telling us her mother is dead, but that she keeps getting emails from her.

She wanted me to know that a small penis size was not an indictment against my future happiness….  She needed some money for an emergency that had unfolded, totally beyond her control, somewhere at an airport in Nigeria.

The narrator could not bring herself to flag the spam.

She also continued to wear her wedding ring even though they had been divorced for a year.  Her husband had said more than once “I can’t imagine t he man who would have an easy time living with you.”  There are a few instances where the ex-husband comes up in the story which really flesh out what’s happening.  The ring wasn’t a hope for reconciliation.  Rather, it was a reminder that her unhappiness was not only a chemical dysfunction. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE DIVINE COMEDY-“Don’t Mention the War” (2019).

The Divine Comedy contributed a song to the Amazon Prime series Modern Love.

I don’t know anything about the show, but I was delighted to hear a new song from Neil Hannon.

This is a much quieter songs than he has put out recently. It features acoustic guitars and strings and over a slightly bouncy melody, he gently sings.

Do you remember when? No I don’t either
All this remembering we’re none the wiser
It’s time to let go and say

The chorus is similarly bouncy but more nostalgic than happy.

Don’t mention the war
Don’t talk of those days
What good is it for?
Don’t mention the war
Let history lie
Kiss the old days goodbye
They’re no help anymore
Don’t mention the war

This song isn’t mind blowing (an apparently is a left over from something else). but it’s a delightful slice of chamber pop.  I’d like to think it might introduce him to a whole new audience who will love him, but realistically, I think it will get some nice plays on Spotify and that’s good enough.

[READ: November 29, 2019] “Hurricane Season”

Sedaris says that when you grow up in North Carolina, you know not to get too attached to a beach house. If this year’s hurricane doesn’t get you, next year’s will.  And so it was in 2018 that Hurricane Florence took away their house, the Sea Section.

While Hugh was devastated David could only think to mock the old fashioned hurricane names “they sound like finalists in a pinochle tournament.”  Where’s Hurricane Madison or Skylar? Category 4 Fredonté?

They were in London when the hurricane hit, so their friend, owner of the Dark Side of the Dune checked on their house for them.  The pictures made  the place look so tawdry he was embarrassed to share them.

Luckily for them they had purchased the house that’s next door to the Sea Section as well –preemptively avoiding a McMansion (eight bedrooms were common, spread over three or  four stories).  The place is ancient by Emerald Isle standards (vintage 1972).  But what you really didn’t want next door to you was a swimming pool.  All you hear is Marco Polo over and over. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MEREBA-Tiny Desk Concert #919 (November 27, 2019).

Who the heck is Mereba?

Very few artists get to return to the Tiny Desk, and fewer still return twice in the same year. But after contributing background vocals behind the desk for Dreamville artist Bas in early 2019, we invited Mereba back for a solo set that puts her eclectic, major-label debut The Jungle Is The Only Way Out into sharp focus.

As with many singers I’ve never heard of, I’m not sure if these songs sound like this on the record or if they are more dancey.  I do quite like the simple, organic sounds that accompany these songs.

The stripped-down soundscape Mereba achieves live with her four-piece band is equally dreamlike here, drawing from influences as wide-ranging as the many places she’s called home (Alabama, Philly, North Carolina, Atlanta, Ethiopia). As she pulls from genres as seemingly disparate as folk, rap and spoken word, her set reflects the years she spent perfecting her craft on live stages in Atlanta cafes and clubs, where she attracted the attention of the indie creative collective Spillage Village  before joining them in 2014.

She sings three songs and recites a poem (all on the album).

When “Black Truck” started I thought she sounded exactly like Alanis Morissette.  The way she says “and I said world would you please have some mercy on me” sounds very uncannily like her.  The song is a quiet, mellow piece that starts with a simple bass line (including some harmonics) from Chris James and guitar washes that turn into a nice picked melody from Sam Hoffman.  After a minute or so, Aisha Gaillard plays a simple drum beat and the song kicks into higher gear.

Through all of this, the backing vocals from Olivia Walker were just beautiful.  The end of the song turns into a kind of rap as the guitar and bass fade out.  I say kind of a rap because Mereba is also a poet and she has more of a poet’s delivery than a rapper’s delivery.

For “Stay Tru” the guys switch instruments and the bass takes on a slightly more lead role.  But this song is also very mellow.  Mereba’s vocals sound a bit more Jamaican in his song.  Midway through, James switches to violin and Mereba plays keys which adds a whole new texture.  I didn’t like this song as much because the chorus is kinda lame with a lot of repeating of “cut the bullshit, this time” sung in a sweet voice.  It also seems to drag on for a really long time (although it is very pretty).

“Dodging The Devil” is a poem she wrote when things just didn’t seem to be going right.  After a couple of verses, a quiet guitar line fills in the background.

On the last song, “Kinfolk,” Mereba plays the main guitar line while Sam plays single soaring notes.  The song kicks into gear with a simple guitar riff and some prominent bass.

I really enjoyed this set.  I thought the music was beautifully restrained and her voice distinct enough in each song to show such a range of sounds.  It’s always nice to be surprised by a new musician.

[READ: November 15, 2019] Cursed

I saw this book in the new YA section at the library.  I was attracted by the cover and fascinated by the “soon to be a Netflix Original Series” sticker.

I have known of Frank Miller for years.  I’m sure I’ve read graphic novels by him, although I don’t know if I’ve read Sin City (maybe a long time ago?).  Mostly he drew superhero comics which is not my thing.  Turns out I really don’t like his artistic style in this book (at least for the way he draws the heroine–I rather like the way the bad guys are drawn).  If the series was in any way designed to look like the art in the book I don’t think I’d watch it.

But the story itself is petty darn good.  It took me a while to read it for some reason. I guess maybe the opening was a little slow because there’s so much going on it takes awhile to really get settled in this universe.

But the description of the story is pretty intriguing: Whosoever wields the sword of power shall be the one true king.  But what if the sword has chosen a queen?

For this is a story of Arthurian legend with many many twists.  My knowledge of Arthurian legend is surprisingly minimal.  I love the story and I know the main participants, but there is a lot of information in here that I didn’t know about–or even how much Wheeler is making up. (more…)

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