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Archive for the ‘Christopher Monks’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: KANYE WEST-My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010).

Before buying this album I really only knew of Kanye West as a loudmouthed guy who tweeted a lot and told off George Bush.  But then everyone was raving about this album (Pitchfork gave it a 10 out of 10!).  So I decided to check it out.  And I can’t get over how great an album it is.

Now I’m going to start this review by mentioning a few things I dislike about rap as a genre.  1) I dislike all of the “guests” that appear on a record–I bought the album because for you, not your friends.  2) I dislike excessive use of “unh” and “yeah” at the beginning of a track; when you have nothing to say–let the backing music flow, save your voice for actual words.  3) Rap is still terribly misogynist and vulgar–I’ve nothing against vulgarity per se (I do have something against misogyny) but excessive use is lazy, and it stands out much more in a rap song since you’re saying the words not singing them.

The Kanye West album is guilty of all three of these things, and yet I still think it’s fantastic.  The first reason is because it goes beyond a lot of rap by introducing real musical content into the songs.  This is not an “all rap is just a beatbox” dismissal of rap, it’s an observation that rap tends to be more about the lyrics and the musical accompaniment can get kind of lazy.  West’s songs have (beautiful) choruses, strings, and samples that augment the rest of the song, as opposed to samples that ARE the song.  And Kanye West’s voice is great.  His delivery is weird and twisted, a little cocky but more funny, with a twisted attitude that is really cool–and to my rather limited palate of rappers, it’s original.

The opening of the disc “Dark Fantasy” has a chorus singing “Can we get much higher” which is catchy and cool (and is used in the promo for The Hangover 2).  The switch from this opening to the rapping works well (aside from the FOUR “yea”s).  Although I don’t love the yeahs, I love his delivery, and that he occasionally ends lines with these weird “hunh” sounds, that are wonderfully emphatic.

The guests start showing up on track 2, but even the guests can’t detract from the excellent guitars of the song (and the cool solo). And I’ll say about the guests that I like some of them, but for the most part I’d rather hear Kanye.

“Power” samples King Crimson’s, “21st Century Schizoid Man”; anyone who samples King Crimson is alright with me.  But to use it so perfectly, to make it part of your song is real genius.  It works musically as well as within the overall concept of the album.

“All of the Lights” (with the pretty piano intro) features scads of guests including John Legend, The-Dream, Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Fergie, Kid Cudi, Elton John (!), and Rihanna.  I can hear some of these people but not Elton John (why would he agree to be on a track where you can’t even hear him?).  It is a beautiful pop track nevertheless.

“Monster” is a monster of tracks with yet more guests (I like that some of these guests break with the typical guest, like Bon Iver (!)).  And I really like Nicki Minaj’s verse.  [I’m not familiar with her work at all (in fact I keep wanting to say Minja instead of Minaj) but her verse with the wonderfully crazy vocal styling she displays is weird and cool and very powerful–I would like to check out her solo album, but the samples I heard weren’t that interesting].  It also has a great repeated chorus of being a “motherfucking monster.”

It’s followed by the even more catchy “So Appalled” (with FIVE guest rappers–some of whom I’ve never heard of but who do a good job.  I love Cyhi da Prince’s lyrics: “I am so outrageous, I wear my pride on my sleeve like a bracelet, if God had an iPod, I’d be on his playlist”  or  “So call my lady Rosa Parks/I am nothing like them niggas baby those are marks/I met this girl on Valentine’s Day/fucked her in May/she found out about April so she chose to March” or this line, “y’all just some major haters and some math minors.”

“Devil in a New Dress” opens with a bunch of “unhs” (which I dislike) but this is nice ballad in the midst of all of the noise (and it has some clever lyrics).  It morphs right into “Runaway” one of the more audacious singles I can think of.  The piano melody is so simple (a single note to start) and the lyrics show Kanye as a loser in relationships.  It’s a surprisingly thoughtful song for a song with a chorus that goes: “Lets have a toast for the douchebags, let’s have a toast for the asshole; a toast for the scumbags every one of them that I know.  You been putting up with my shit for way too long…runaway fast as you can.”  It gets even more audacious when you realize the last 4 minutes of the song are a solo with distorted voice.  And the video…the video is 35 minutes long!

The sentiment of that song is erased by the next one, “Hell of  a Life”.  It opens with a great distorted guitar riff and lyrics about sex with a porn star.   “Blame Game” is a surprisingly honest song about being nasty to your girlfriend (“I’d rather argue with you than be with someone else”).  It features a sample of Aphex Twin’s (!) “Avril 14th”.  And it’s quite a sad but lovely track.  It ends with a very long skit by Chris Rock.  I like Chris Rock, but this dialogue is kind of creepy because the woman who Rock is talking to (about the great sex she gave him) seems to be a robotic sample–why not have an actual woman talk to him?

The final track, “Lost in the World” has a lengthy intro by an auto-tuned Bon Iver.  It’s one of my favorite tracks on the disc, especially the end, where the processed vocals get even weirder but accent the beat wonderfully.  This track morphs into what is the actual final track, “Who Will Survive in America” which is basically a long recitation from Gil-Scot Heron.  It works great as an album closer.

So, despite several things I don’t like about the disc, overall, it’s really an amazing release.  And I can overlook the few things I dislike because the rest is so solid.  I can’t decide if it’s worth looking for his earlier releases.  How can they live up to this one?

[READ: May 6, 2011] McSweeney’s #37

This is the first McSweeney’s book where I’ve had to complain about the binding.  The glue peeled off pretty quickly from the center cover.  Fortunately, the back cover held up well.  I’m guessing it’s because there’s an extra book tucked into the front cover which prevents the book from closing nicely when it’s removed.

But aside from that, the design of the cover is very cool.  It is meant to look like a book (duh), but actually like a 3-D book, so the bottom right and top left corners are cut on diagonals (this makes for a very disconcerting-looking book inside–with triangles cut across the top).  The artwork inside is also cool.  In keeping with this appearance, each two page spread looks like a book with a spine drawing in the gutter of the pages).  And the bottom of each page has lines making it look like the bottom of a book.  (The illustrated margins are by SOPHIA CARA FRYDMAN and HENRY JAMES and there are interior paintings by JONATHAN RUNCIO).

The front matter is wonderful.  Although it gives the usual publishing information, the bulk of this small print section is devoted to counteracting all the claims that the book is dead.  It offers plenty of statistics to show that not only are the public reading, they are reading more than ever.  The introduction also goes a long way towards arguing against the idea that people are reading less now than in the past.  When was this “golden age” of readers?  There’s also the wonderfully encouraging news that 98% of American are considered literate.

This issue opens with letters. (more…)

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createdSOUNDTRACK: ONE RING ZERO-As Smart as We Are (2004).

orzI had this CD sitting around my house for about 4 years.  I had received it as a promo disc from Soft Skull Press (along with several other books on CD) and I just never put it on.  Then one day I was going through all these promos to see if any were books I wanted to listen to.  It was then that I actually read the disc label and saw that it was a band with lyrics written by some of my favorite authors.

I liked the disc so much I wound up buying it because the packaging is truly cool.  It’s a little booklet and it features an interview with the band and some really cool insights into how the songs came about, how they got the writers to submit lyrics, and the cool fact that One Ring Zero became McSweeney’s house band, accompanying writers during their weekly readings.

One Ring Zero is comprised of two guys (and guests).  And for this disc they split the tracks in half and one of them wrote melodies for 8 songs and the other guy wrote melodies for the other 8.  I’m not sure that I could tell the song writers apart by their styles, though.

But sure, the lyrics are probably great, but what does the band sound like?  Well, in the introduction, they are described as specializing “in the sort of 19th century, gypsy-klezmer, circus-flea-cartoon music you mainly hear in your dreams.” And, yep, that is a good summary of things.  The band uses water pipes, claviola, slide whistle and a theremin (among other homemade instruments).

And so, as with other McSweeney’s things, I’m going to list all of the lyricists with their titles.  But lyrically it’s an interesting concoction.  The authors were asked to write lyrics, but not necessarily songs.  So some pieces don’t have choruses.  Some pieces are just silly, and some pieces work quite nicely.  But most of them are really poems (and I can’t really review poems).  They’re fun to read, and it is fun to see what these authors made of this assignment.

PAUL AUSTER-“Natty Man Blues”
A rollicking opening that lopes around with the nonsensical lyrics, “There ain’t no sin in Cincinnati.” This one feels like a twisted Western.

DANIEL HANDLER-“Radio”
A supremely catchy (and rather vulgar) song that gets stuck in my head for days.  “Fucking good, fucking good, fucking good…”

DARIN STRAUSS-“We Both Have a Feeling That You Still Want Me”
A Dark and somewhat disturbing song that is also quite fun.

RICK MOODY-“Kiss Me, You Brat”
A delicate twinkly piece sung byguest vocalist Allysa Lamb *the first female vocalist to appear) .  Once the chorus breaks in, it has an almost carnivalesque tone to it.  This is the only song whose lyrics were written after the music.

LAWRENCE KRAUSER-“Deposition Disposition”
A twisted song that works as a call and response with delightful theremin sounds.  It has a very noir feel.

CLAY McLEOD CHAPMAN-“Half and Half”
This is a sort of comic torchy ballad.  Lyrically, it’ a bout being a hermaphrodite (and it’s dirty too).  Vocals by Hanna Cheek.

DAVE EGGERS-“The Ghost of Rita Gonzalo”
This has a sort of Beach Boys-y folky sound (albeit totally underproduced).  But that theremin is certainly back.

MARGARET ATWOOD-“Frankenstein Monster Song”
This song begins simply with some keyboard notes but it breaks into a very creepy middle section.  It’s fun to think of Margaret Atwood working on this piece.

AARON NAPARSTEK-“Honku”
This song’s only about 20 seconds long.  It is one of a series of haikus about cars, hence honku.

DENIS JOHNSON-“Blessing”
The most folk-sounding of all the tracks (acoustic guitar & tambourine).  It reminds me of Negativland, somehow.  It is also either religious or blasphemous.  I can’t quite be sure which.

NEIL GAIMAN-“On the Wall”
A tender piano ballad.  The chorus gets more sinister, although it retains that simple ballad feel throughout.  It’s probably the least catchy of all the songs.  But lyrically it’s quite sharp.

AMY FUSSELMAN-“All About House Plants”
An absurdist accordion-driven march.  This is probably the most TMBG-like of the bunch (especially when the background vocals kick in).

MYLA GOLDBERG-“Golem”
This song opens (appropriately) with a very Jewish-sounding vibe (especially the clarinet).  But once that intro is over, the song turns into a sinister, spare piece.

A.M. HOMES-“Snow”
This song opens as a sort of indie guitar rock song.  It slowly builds, but just as it reached a full sound, it quickly ends.  The song’s lyrics totally about twenty words.

BEN GREENMAN-“Nothing Else is Happening”
This song has more of that sinister carnivalesque feel to it (especially when the spooky background vocals and the accordion kick in).  The epilogue of a sample from a carnival ride doesn’t hurt either.

JONATHAN AMES-“The Story of the Hairy Call”
This song has a great lo-fi guitar sound (accented with what sounds like who knows what: an electronic thumb piano?).  It rages with a crazily catchy chorus, especially given the raging absurdity of the lyrics.

JONATHAN LETHEM-“Water”
This track is especially interesting. The two writers each wrote melodies for these lyrics.  So, rather than picking one, they simply merged them. It sounds schizophrenic, but is really quite wonderful.  The two melodies sound nothing alike, yet the work together quite well.

[READ: Some time in 2004 & Summer 2009] Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans

This was the first collection of McSweeney’s humorous stories/pieces/lists whatever you call them.  Some of the pieces came from McSweeney’s issues, but most of them came from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

The humor spans a great deal of categories, there’s some literary, some absurd, some nonsensical and, most amusingly, lists.  The back of the book has an entire selection of lists, but there are also some scattered throughout the book as well (I don’t know what criteria was used to allow some lists to be in the “main” part).

As with the other McSweeney’s collections, I’m only writing a line or two about each piece.  For the lists, I’m including a representative sample (not necessarily the best one, though!)

Overall, I enjoyed the book quite a lot (which is why I re-read it this year).  There are puns, there are twisted takes on pop culture, there are literary amusements (Ezra Pound features prominently, which seems odd).  It spans the spectrum of humor.  You may not like every piece, but there’s bound to be many things that make you laugh. (more…)

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jokeSOUNDTRACK: FRIGHTENED RABBIT-Midnight Organ Fight (2008).

rabbitMy friend Jarrett introduced me to this band.  He rather casually called it his favorite album of the year, so I figured it was worth checking out.

Frightened Rabbit are a group from Scotland, and they play a sort of disaffected folk.  Although that’s not a wholly accurate description because they do kick in the drums and louder guitars.  So, yeah, they don’t sound anything like Belle and Sebastian.  This is complemented by the lyrics which are somewhat bitter or aching.

And speaking of lyrics, the first song that I wanted to sing along with most was “Keep Yourself Warm” and then I realized that the chorus is “It takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm.”  There’s also a very pointed use of the mother of all C words, in another song, too.  And I’ve had that song in my head for about three days now.  But I absolutely cannot sing the song at work or at home, or, well, anywhere except in the car when I ‘m by myself.

This all leads me to wonder, Do bands save their best songs to fill with curses or am I just 8 years old and I listen to the song with curses the most?

The one thing that has troubled me about the record is that at times the singer can sound like the guy from the Counting Crows.  And the Counting Crows are probably the band I hate the most in the universe.  But I just focus on the Scottish burr which lessens the Durwitz effect, and then I can enjoy the disc again.

[READ: Summer 2008] The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes

This is a collection of humorous vignettes that are, if not about books exactly, certainly literary in nature.  If you like your humor to be bookish, then this is a great, funny collection.  It starts with the cover itself, as it is printed backwards and upside down w(the cover above is actually on the back).

Many of these pieces are very short (some are a page, even some more are just a few sentences.)  Plus, there are so many pieces that I’m not willing to write all that much, just a one-line summary (that I will try to make funny without giving away the punchline).

I thought about indicating in some way which ones I liked best or some kind of rating system, but that just seems extensive and cruel.

Most of these pieces came from McSweeny’s online, and I’m sure many of the pieces are still available there, but I’m not going to do all the work for you.  And it’s funny how many jokes there are about: James Joyce, Kafka, Homer and children’s books!

Oh, and authors: I started to include all of your names in my Categories, and then it just got too overwhelming.  But if you want to be added, just drop me a note!

Click here for the egress: (more…)

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yourlifeSOUNDTRACK: PORTISHEAD-Third (2008).

3rdThis is probably one of the spookiest albums I’ve heard in a long time.  And, boy, do I love it.

Portishead has been away from the music scene for about ten years.  They’d had a couple of hits, sort of gloomy trip hop all held together by Beth Gibbons’ otherworldly voice (“Nobody loves me, it’s true, not like you do”).  But frankly, after ten years I wasn’t even sure if I cared about Portishead anymore.  And then, I heard the songs!

Beth Gibbons’ voice sounds even more ghostly than before.  And the noises that Geoff Barrow and Adrian Utley make are totally beyond the pale.  Some of the music sounds like pieces from a late night horror movie.  Take the bizarro verse music of “Hunter,” guitar chords stretched beyond recognition alternating with a keyboard riff straight out of “Revenge of the Cheapo Zombie Monster.” Or the aggressive soundtrack of “Machine Gun,” in which Gibbons sings over a musical piece that is more or less an electronic drum that sounds like a machine gun.  It’s pretty intense.

But just when you think the whole disc is nothing but uneasy listening, they thrown in the beautiful acoustic simplicity of “The Rip,” a simple acoustic guitar playing over Gibbons’ sultry voice, or “Deep Water” a minute and a half of old timey ukulele music.  Of course, these songs are bookeneded by two creepy tracks: “Plastic” in all its eeriness, and “We Carry On” some of the most unusual sounds ever to be called music (aside from Einsturzende Neubauten, of course).

Somehow all of the unsettling sounds work wonderfully together.  And, although I haven’t processed all the lyrics yet, previous Portishead albums would lead me to believe that things aren’t very peachy in Gibbons’ world.  And yet, despite that, I find the album very uplifting and not at all depressing.

Maybe every band should take ten years between records if it yields results this great.

[READ: November 16, 2008] The Ultimate Game Guide to Your Life®

I used to work with the author of this book.  Perhaps a dozen or so years ago, Christopher (just Chris back then) Monks and I worked at Wordsworth Books in beautiful Cambridge, MA.   When I learned that he was writing for McSweeney’s (and has since become the editor of their online website) I was very impressed and happy for him and not at all jealous or seething with envy at his wonderful, picturesque life in the Massacusetts suburbs.  But, more to the point, when I read his works, and his website, he displayed humor that was in little evidence at work.  (Talk about compartmentilization…).

Anyhow, he recently sent a generic email to everyone who has ever written him to say that he has a book out (and would we all go buy it, please).  Well, I’m always game to help someone who over the years I have come to consider a former co-worker. (more…)

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