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Archive for the ‘Darin Strauss’ Category

12SOUNDTRACK: FRANK OCEAN-“Bad Religion” (2012).

frankoI didn’t know anything about Frank Ocean until I started looking at all of the  Best Albums of 2012 lists.  He was on everyone’s list and was pretty near the top of all of them.  So it was time to check him out.

It  turns out that he’s affiliated with the Odd Future collective, whom I’ve talked about in the past.  But he’s also been on a lot of big name records.  Channel Orange is his debut album (that’s not a mixtape) and the big surprise seems to be that this song (which he sang live on Jimmy Fallon) is about a male lover.  And I guess that’s progress.

So Ocean sings a slow R&B style, and I have to say his voice reminds me of Prince a lot.  Which is a good thing.  I really like this song.    It has gospelly keyboards (but in that Purple Rain kinda way).  And a really aching vocal line.  It’s really effective and it’s really simple.  And I think that’s what I liked best about this song and others that I’ve heard–he’s really understated.  Crazy, I know.

Now I do not like R&B, it’s one of the few genres that I just don;t get.  And yet there’s something about this album (the tracks I’ve listened to) that is really compelling.  It’s not awash in over the top R&B trappings, and it doesn’t try too hard.  It’s just Frank  (not his real name) and his voice over some simple beats.  A friend of mine recently said that all of a sudden she “got” this album, and  I think I may have to get it as well.

[READ: December 30, 2012] McSweeney’s #12

At the beginning of 2012, I said I’d read all of my old McSweeney’s issues this year.  I didn’t.  Indeed, I put it off for quite a while for no especial reason.  Now as the year draws to an end, I’m annoyed that I didn’t read them all, but it’s not like I read nothing.  Nevertheless, I managed to read a few in the last month and am delighted that I finished this one just under the wire.  For those keeping track, the only issues left are 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 10, 38, (which I misplaced but have found again) and 42, which just arrived today.  My new plan in to have those first four read by Easter.  We’ll see.

So Issue #12 returns to a number of different fun ideas.  The cover:  It’s a paperback, but you can manipulate the front and back covers to make a very cool 3-D effect (by looking through two eyeholes) with a hippo.  The colophon/editor’s note is also back.  Someone had complained that he missed the small print ramble in the beginning of the book and so it is back, with the writer (Eggers? Horowitz?) sitting in Wales, in a B&B, and hating it.  It’s very funny and a welcome return.

As the title suggests, all of the stories here are from unpublished authors.  They debate about what exactly unpublished means, and come down on the side of not well known.  And so that’s what we have here, first time (for the mos part) stories.  And Roddy Doyle.

There are some other interesting things in this issue.  The pages come in four colors–each for a different section.  The Letters/Intro page [white], the main stories [pink], the Roddy Doyle piece (he’s not unpublished after all so he gets his own section) [gray] and the twenty minute stories [yellow].  There’s also photographs (with captions) of Yuri Gagarin.  And a series of drawing that introduce each story called “Dancewriting”–a stick figure on a five-lined staff.  They’re interesting but hard to fathom fully.

LETTERS (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: OKX: A Tribute to Ok Computer (2010).

OK Computer is one of the best records of the 90s.  Every time I listen to it I hear something new and interesting.  So, why on earth would anyone want to cover the whole thing?  And how could you possibly do justice to this multi-layered masterpiece?

I can’t answer the first question, but the second question is more or less answered by this tribute which was orchestrated by Stereogum.

The answer is by stripping down the music to its bare essentials.  When I first listened to the songs I was really puzzled by how you could take a such a complex album and make Doveman’s version of “Airbag,” which is sort of drums and pianos.  Or gosh, where would you even begin to tackle “Paranoid Android?”  Well Slaraffenland create a bizarre symphonic version that excises many things–in fact half of the lyrics are missing–and yet keeps elements that touch on the original.  But it’s an interesting version of the song and shows  a bizarre sense of creativity.  And that is more or less what this tribute does–it makes new versions of these songs.

Mobius Band make a kind of Police-sounding version of “Subterranean Homesick Alien.”  Again, it radically changes the song, making it a fast and driving song (although I don’t care for the repeated “Uptights” and “Outsides” during the verses).

Vampire Weekend, one of the few bands that I actually knew in this collection (and whom I really like) do a very interesting, stripped down version of “Exit Music, for a Film.  The “film” they make is a haunted one, with eerie keyboards.  Again, it is clearly that song, but it sounds very different (and quite different from what Vampire Weekend usually sound like).

“Let Down” (by David Bazan’s Black Cloud) and “Karma Police” (by John Vanderslice) work on a similar principle: more vocals and less music.  The music is very stripped down, but the vocals harmonize interestingly.  Perhaps the only track that is more interesting than the original is “Fitter Happier” by Samson Delonga.  The original is a processed computer voice, but this version is a real person, intoning the directives in a fun, impassioned way.  There’s also good sound effects.

Cold War Kids take the riotous “Electioneering” and simplify it, with drums and vocals only to start.  It’s hard to listen to this song without the utter noise of the original.  “Climbing Up the Walls” is one of the more manic songs on this collection, with some interesting vocals from The Twilight Sad.

There are two versions of “No Surprises” in this collection.  Interestingly, they are both by women-fronted bands, and both treat the song as a very delicate ballad.  Both versions are rather successful.  Marissa Nadler’s version (the one included in sequence) is a little slower and more yearning, while Northern State’s version (which is listed as a B-Side) is a little fuller and I think better for it.  My Brightest Diamond cover “Lucky.”  They do an interesting orchestral version–very spooky.

Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble (a side project of Chris Funk from The Decemberists) do a very weird electronic version of the song (with almost no lyrics).  It’s very processed and rather creepy (and the accompanying notes make it even more intriguing when you know what’s he doing).

The final B-side is “Polyethylene (Part 1 & 2),”  It’s a track from the Airbag single and it’s done by Chris Walla.  I don’t know this song very well (since it’s not on OK Computer), but it’s a weird one, that’s for sure.  This version is probably the most traditional sounding song of this collection: full guitars, normal sounding drums and only a slightly clipped singing voice (I don’t know what Walla normally sounds like).

So, In many ways this is a successful tribute album.  Nobody tries to duplicate the original and really no one tries to out-do it either.  These are all new versions taking aspects of the songs and running with them.  Obviously, I like the original better, but these are interesting covers.

[READ: November 5, 2011]  McSweeney’s #8

I had been reading all of the McSweeney’s issue starting from the beginning, but I had to take a breather.  I just resumed (and I have about ten left to go before I’ve read all of them).  This issue feels, retroactively like the final issue before McSweeney’s changed–one is tempted to say it has something to do with September 11th, but again, this is all retroactive speculation.  Of course, the introduction states that most of the work on this Issue was done between April and June of 2001, so  even though the publication date is 2002, it does stand as a pre 9/11 document.

But this issue is a wild creation–full of hoaxes and fakery and discussions of hoaxes and fakery but also with some seriousness thrown in–which makes for a fairly confusing issue and one that is rife with a kind of insider humor.

But there’s also a lot of non-fiction and interviews.  (The Believer’s first issue came out in March 2003, so it seems like maybe this was the last time they wanted to really inundate their books with anything other than fiction (Issue #9 has some non-fiction, but it’s by fiction writers).

This issue was also guest edited by Paul Maliszewski.  He offers a brief(ish) note to open the book, talking about his editing process and selection and about his black polydactyl cat.  Then he mentions finding a coupon in the phonebook for a painting class  which advertised “Learn to Paint Like the Old Masters” and he wonders which Old Masters people ask to be able to paint like–and there’s a fun little internal monologue about that.

The introduction then goes on to list the 100 stores that are the best places to find McSweeney’s.  There are many stores that I have heard of (I wonder what percentage still exist).  Sadly none were in New Jersey.

This issue also features lots of little cartoons from Marcel Dzama, of Canada. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NEIL YOUNG-Trans (1982).

By most standards this Neil Young album is a disaster.  It’s so bad that despite updating his entire catalog and releasing all kinds of bootleg concerts, he has never issued this disc on CD in the States.  So, just what’s so awful about this disc?

Well, mostly it’s awful as a Neil Young disc.  Meaning, if you like Neil Young (either flavor: country/folk or hard rock/grunge) this disc is a big fat HUH??  Neil Young has gone all synthy?  And not just synth but computerized synthy–sometimes his voice is utterly like a computer.  It’s a travesty, it’s a shame, it’s an incredible surprise.  Unless you listen to it without thinking of it as a Neil Young record.

But after all that introduction, the biggest surprise is the first song.  You’ve been prepped for this weird album full of computer nonsense and you get the fairly standard (if a little dull) rockabilly type music of “A Little Thing Called Love.”  It’s a pretty standard Neil Young song for the time.  Hmm, maybe the album isn’t that weird.

Well, then comes “Computer Age” and the keyboards kick in.  Interestingly, to me anyhow, this is the year that Rush released Signals.  Signals was the album where Rush fans said Woah, what’s with the keyboards guys.  Similarly, “Computer Age” makes you say, geez, was there a sale on keyboards in Canada?  The keyboards are kind of thin and wheedly, but the real surprise comes in the processed vocals (Rush never went that far).  The vocals are basically the 1980s equivalent of auto-tune (no idea how they did this back then).  Because the song is all about the computer age it kind of makes sense that he would use this weird robotic voice.  Sometimes it’s the only voice, although he also uses the computer voice as a high-pitched harmony over his normal singing voice.

“We R in Control” sounds like it might be a heavy rocker (anemic production notwithstanding) until we get more computer vocals.  Again, conceptually it works (its all about the dominance of CCTV), but it is pretty weird as a Neil Young song.

And then comes yet another shock, “Transformer Man.”  Yes, THAT “Transformer Man,” except not.  This original version of the song is sung entirely in a processed super high pitched computer voice that is almost hard to understand).  The only “normal’ part of the song is the occasional chorus and the “do do do dos.”  It sounds like a weird cover.  Sarah, who loves Neil Young, practically ran out of the room when she heard this version.

“Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher)” continues in that same vein.  Musically it’s a bit more experimental (and the computer vocals are in a much lower register).  Although I think it’s probably the least interesting of these songs.

Just to confuse the listener further, “Hold On to Your Love” is a conventional poppy song–no computer anything (aside from occasional keyboard notes).  Then comes the 8 minute “Sample and Hold” the most computerized song of the bunch and one of the weirder, cooler songs on the disc.  It really feels like a complete song–all vocodered out with multiple layers of vocals, not thin and lacking substance like some of the tracks.  It opens with personal stats (hair: blonde, eyes: blue) and proceeds through a litany of repeated “new design, new design” motifs.

This is followed by a remake of “Mr Soul” previously only on Decade.  This is a new vocodered-harmonies version of the song.

The biggest failure of the disc to me is “Like an Inca” it’s nine minutes of virtually the same guitar riff.  The chorus is pretty wonderful, but it’s a very minor part of the song itself.  It is fairly traditional Neil song, I just wish it were much shorter.

So, this travesty of a disc is actually pretty interesting and, for me, pretty enjoyable.  Most of these synthy songs sound kind of weak but I think that has more to do with the production of the time. I’d love to hear newly recorded versions of these songs (with or without the vocoder) to see what he could do with a great production team behind him.

Trans is not a Neil Young disc in any conventional sense, but as an experiment, as a document of early 80s synth music, it not only holds up, it actually pushes a lot of envelopes.   I’m not saying he was trying to out Kraftwerk Kraftwerk or anything like that, but for a folk/rock singer to take chances like this was pretty admirable.  Shame everybody hated it.

[READ: July 5, 2011] Five Dials 19

Five Dials 19 is the Parenting Issue.  But rather than offering parenting advice, the writers simply talk about what it’s like to be a parent, or to have a parent.  It was one of the most enjoyable Five Dials issues I have read so far.

CRAIG TAYLOR & DIEDRE DOLAN-On Foreign Bureuas and Parenting Issues
I enjoyed Taylor’s introduction, in which he explains that he is not very useful for a parenting issue   That most of the duties will be taken on by Diedre Dolan in NYC.  They are currently in her house working while her daughter plays in the next room.  His ending comment was hilarious:

Also, as is traditional at most newsweeklies, someone just put a plastic tiara on my head and then ran away laughing at me.

I resist Parenting magazines, from Parents to Parenting to Fretful Mother, they all offer some sound advice but only after they offer heaps and heaps of guilt and impossible standards.  So I was delighted to see that Five Dials would take an approach to parenting that I fully approve of.  Dolan writes:

Nobody knows what works. Most people just make some choices and defend them for the next 18 to 50 years – claiming nurture (good manners) or nature (crippling shyness) when it suits them best.

And indeed, the magazine made me feel a lot better about my skills (or lack) as a parent. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BLACK MOUNTAIN-Live at the Rock n Roll Hotel, Washington DC, February 19, 2008 (From NPR) (2008).

I’ve really enjoyed the two Black Mountain CDs that I have (I’ve yet to hear their debut). Their blend of psychedelia and Black Sabbath is always interesting, especially when singer Amber Webber adds her great harmonies (and leads) to the proceedings.

So it’s astonishing that Webber herself is the sole reason that I can’t listen to this show.

The band sounds great.  The musicians are right on, and the energy is good. But I can’t imagine what possessed Webber to sing the way she does.  At the end of every sung line, she ends with a vibrato that is not so much vibrato as it is staccato.  I thought it was an odd affectation to increase the psychedelicness of the first song, but she does it on every track, even when she sings lead!

Holy cow, is it ever annoyin-in-in-in-in-ing.

There are tracks when she doesn’t participate, and those are fine.  There’s also a song that is mostly instrumental and that sounds great.  But as soon as she starts singing, the whole thing goes downhill.  She doesn’t sing like that on the records, so what ever made her think that was a wise choice for a live show?   To add a really obscure reference, she sounds not unlike Diamanda Galás during her Plague Mask recordings–but that was an operatic style befitting her over the top recording.  It simply doesn’t work here.

Even Bob Boilen, normally an ecstatic reviewer of the shows he hosts seems put out by them.  He says that the band never set up a rapport with the audience.  That’s not exactly true as they do thank everyone for coming out on a Tuesday night.  But there didn’t seem to be a lot of warmth shared between everyone.

Stick to the studio albums!

[READ: March 19, 2011] Half a Life

This book is a memoir by novelist Darin Strauss.  And it opens with the fairly shocking revelation: when he was 18, he killed a girl.  She was a fellow classmate in the grade below his.

He and some friends were driving to a of social event (they were all sober).  She was riding her bike with some friends on the same road.  He saw her, but he was in the left lane, so he wasn’t too concerned and then suddenly she swerved over two lanes and into his windshield.  She died soon after.

He was completely absolved of all blame: police, eyewitnesses, even her family (oh my god, her family), everyone agreed that it was not his fault at all, there was nothing he could have done.  And yet, as he puts it, because of where he was, a girl is now dead.

The rest of the book details how, at 18, one can learn to cope (or not) with the unthinkable.   He has to finish school and prom with all of the kids in his small Long Island town who know that he killed a classmate.  He also can’t stop thinking about her and wonders how he can go on with his life when she won’t be able to do the same.

It’s an emotionally riveting story and I was utterly empathetic.  Not that I’ve had any kind of experience like that, but (especially) now that I have children, I can’t imagine how I would react to such news.  And since Strauss is a sensitive individual I can imagine at how that would eat away at you forever.

By the second half of the book, something newly unthinkable has happened; her family is suing him for $1 million.  Which he obviously doesn’t have.  This trial–and remember he has been exonerated by everyone–lasts on and off for 5 years, all during his college.  And, of course, this isn’t something you tell people–he doesn’t want anyone at college to think of him as a killer–so there’s pretty much no one he can talk to.

The events of the story happened in the 80s.  Strauss has gone on to be a succesful novelist (although I hadn’t heard of him before this book). He also has a family of his own.  Writing this book was his way of trying to cope with this incident that really defined his life.

It’s hard to say much more about the book.  It is really powerful and a simply horrifying thing to consider.  Strauss is a very good writer who never plays for sympathy (he even sides with her family in the beginning). The book is also a remarkably fast read.  Many of his chapters are one or two paragraphs, and you can finish it in a couple of hours.  But that’s also because the story is so gripping.

For ease of searching I include: Diamanda Galas

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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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