Archive for the ‘Gene Luen Yang’ Category

secretSOUNDTRACK: CLUES-Endless Forever 7″ [CST064] (2009).

  cluesClues was a band who played rock songs that fused a lot of different styles–often within one song.  They released one album which was fantastic and then basically went on hiatus (that was six years ago).  This 7″ was a tour artifact that Constellation has made available.

It has two songs–a band-made remix of one song from the album and a demo of another album track..

“Ledmonton (Endless Forever Version)” is an unusual but fun song with lots of different sections.  All of them sound unrelated to each other and yet each part is quite catchy and it works wonderfully as a whole.  This remix doesn’t change the song all that much.  It makes it a little softer and fuzzier.  “You Have My Eyes Now (Demonstration Version)” feels like a demo compared to the final version, but it’s really full sounding–just not as full as the album.

This release is more for completists of the band or, since they put out one album and disbanded, any fan of their recorded output might just enjoy this.

[READ: October 1, 2016] Secret Coders

Beloved artist/author Gene Luen Yang came back in 2015 with a new series called Secret Coders.

There is a kind of introductory section that implies the whole story is a lot more meta than it might at first seem–but it is not resolved yet so it’s hard to be sure of that.

The story opens on middle-schooler Hopper.  She is very unhappy to have moved to this new town and a new school.  In addition to missing everyone back home, the sh cool is decidedly weirdo.  There are birds with four eyes, the groundskeeper’s doors are locked and the custodian Mr Bee is really mean.   Plus the whole place looks haunted and there are huge numbers painted all over the buildings (but not in any actual order).

Hopper is pretty abrasive. In fact I’d say she’s downright unlikable–I find her rather offputting, myself.  Of course, she’s also unhappy and the first people that she meets make fun of her (and throw pudding at her), so she is quite snippy with people.  But she’s also not afraid to stand up for herself, which is cool.  When she learns who threw the pudding at her, she fights back–not realizing that the guy is a huge basketball player.  But he doesn’t fight her.  Rather, he chooses to walk away. (more…)

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shadowSOUNDTRACK: ANDERSON BRUFORD WAKEMAN HOWE-Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989).

The band with an amazing pedigree created a band with a preposterous name and an equally preposterous album title.  But who cares, right?  After the pop frenzy of Big Generator, why shouldn’t the “real” members from Yes (excepting Squire) form a band?  They even brought Bruford back (he has said that he didn’t realize all three other guys were part of it, he thought it was a solo recording).  Perhaps the most insulted person should be Tony Levin.  Not only did I not know he played bass on the album (Bruford brought him over from King crimson), but I can’t even hear him on it!  I have listened to this record a couple times recently and I can’t hear any bass at all.  It’s like the anti-Chris Squire album!

I remember when this came out I was pretty excited.  I remember drawing the album cover (look, kids, Roger Dean is back!), and I remember joking about the preposterous “Teakbois.”  But when I listened to it again (first time in probably twenty years), I didn’t recognize a lot, and I liked even less.

abwhThe album opens with “Themes,” a six-minute, three-part mini epic which should hearken back to Yes of old.  There’s an interesting slow circular keyboard piece and a pretty piano melody and then it gets funky, sort of.  About 4 minutes in, it changes to a new thing altogether but again the sounds are so…bleah,  the guitars sound pretty good (some great guitar work from Howe) while those keys just sound….  You know I said that Wakeman would never play the sounds on 90125 & Big Generator, but he went even blander on this song.

Track two is only 3 minutes long.  It’s dramatic and angry with some good keyboard sounds.  It’s probably the best thing on the album.

“Brother of Mine” is another three-part mini epic that runs over 10 minutes.  The guitar chords and style remind me of mid 80s Rush. There’s lots of interesting elements and the main verse reminds me of maybe early Genesis or Marillion.  Although the solo and other sections seem…obvious instead of groundbreaking.  The middle part is pretty good, with a very classic Yes feel.  But the final section sounds exactly likes something from a Disney movie, perhaps The Little Mermaid (which came out the same year).

“Birthright” starts off ominous with some interesting percussion.  Although all the percussion on this album is rather disappointingly electronic.  Not that’s there’s anything inherently wrong with electronic drums, it just seems wasted on someone as amazing as Bruford.  It feels vaguely like a Peter Gabriel song.  It’s pretty good but it gets a little melodramatic by the end.

“The Meeting” is a treacly ballad.  It sounds nice but is nothing special.  “Quartet” is the third mini epic.  This one is nine minutes and four parts.  The first part is folky and reminds me of Simon and Garfunkel.  Part 2 references tons of old Yes songs in the lyrics (which seemed to make reviewers of the album giddy) but which really just shows how weak this song is compared to those other songs.

elp“Teakbois” has got to be the biggest WTF recorded.  I’m all for bands embracing other cultures and it’s awesome that after Paul Simon released Graceland other bands added multicultural elements to their sound, but this 7 minute monstrosity sounds like AWBH went to the Caribbean and joined a tourist band.  I don’t know if they released many band photos for this album, but this songs makes it seem like this could have been their cover.  There is a chorus near the end of the song in which they sing “cool running” and I was relieved to find out that the film with that name came out four years after this song.

“The Order of the Universe” is another 9 minute, four-part epic.  Just thinking of this song makes me think of the closing credits for The Lion King (which came out five years after this at least) or something.  There are some interesting parts to it.  But the “Rock Gives Courage” section is dreadful and Anderson sounds like he’s singing a pop metal band

“Let’s Pretend” closes this album.  It’s only 3 minutes long and is co-written by Vangelis.  It’s a fine song, completely inoffensive.

So what is up with this disc?  Am I imposing a 21st century attitude on it?  Am I missing that it was actually really influential (on Disney songwriters anyhow) and that it’s not their fault that other people have poisoned the sound for me?  I understand that musicians change and grow, but with these four names, you’d expect something a lot bigger and better than this.

Maybe when I listen to it in another 20 years I’ll actually like it again.

[READ: May 10, 2015] The Shadow Hero

I really enjoy the stories that Gene Luen Yang creates.   And this one (which I later found out is actually meant to be an origin story of an already extant character) was really interesting.

The story begins in China.  In 1911 the Ch’ing Dynasty collapsed and soon after the Spirits who were born with China and watched over her had to decide what to do.  The Dragon, the Phoenix, the Tiger and the Tortoise came to a council.  Later, the tortoise left the country with a man who was too drunk to know why he was even on the ship he was sailing on.

Then we see that the story is told by a first person narrator when he says that his mother came to America a few years later.  She had high hopes of the prosperity and beauty of the country, but her hopes were dashed by the realization of the ghettos and slums of Chinatown.

His father (the drunk from above) owned a grocery store and Hank (the narrator) helped out.  His mother, the stronger-willed of the two was a driver for a rich woman and took no crap from anyone. (more…)

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nurserySOUNDTRACK: FRANK FAIRFIELD-Tiny Desk Concert #445 (May 29, 2015).

frankFrank Fairfield and friends Tom Marion (who plays mandolin on the third song) and Zac Sokolow (on guitar) play old-timey music (marches, polkas and mountain tunes).  Fairfield plays banjo and plucked cello (and apparently fiddle, although not here).

The first song “Tres Piedras” is an upbeat instrumental.  The second song “I Ain’t A Goin’ To Weep No More” was written by Harry von Tilser whose brother wrote “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”

The final song “Campanile De Venecia/Sharpshooters March” has an overwhelming Italian feel (that mandolin, I gather).  I like that Fairfield yells “take it, Tom” so that Marion will play a lengthy mandolin solo on the for the final song.  There’s also a “traditional” Italian melody in the song that I know more from cartoons than elsewhere.

The songs feel like they leaped out of a 78 record (even Fairfield’s voice seems suitably “old” on “Weep” (although it appears that they were up playing late last night so he may not quite be up to par).

This was a fun Tiny Desk by an artist I’d never encounter anywhere else.

[READ: January 21, 2015] Nursery Rhyme Comics

This is a collection of Nursery Rhymes as drawn primarily by First Second artists.

The 50 nursery rhymes includes here are the traditional rhymes which remain unchanged.  So this was an opportunity for these artists to draw interesting visuals to accompany the traditional stories.  Some artists stayed traditional, while others went in a totally new direction.

It was fun to see that while I knew most of the nursery rhymes, there were quite a few that I didn’t know.

I always wanted to get a  collection of nursery rhymes for my kids when they were younger, and I feel like I never got one that would have been as satisfying as this one. (more…)

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primeSOUNDTRACK: YOUNG FATHERS-Tiny Desk Concert #442 (May 19, 2015).

youngfatherYoung Fathers may have the shortest Tiny Desk Concert ever.  It’s only 4 minutes long.  I know that these are edited down from the full show, but wow.

Young Fathers evidently sing a kind of hip-hop, but in these two songs they don’t really rap very much and are more soulful.  The members met in Edinburgh but are from distant exotic locales like Ghana and, um, Maryland.

Something must have happened with their technology.  As the blurb says, “Full-on drums and electronics weren’t going to happen on this day.”  So they chose a simpler path.

They sing two songs virtually a capella.  I don’t know any of the members’ names, but there’s one singer for “Am I Not Your Boy” (the guy in the photo above).  He has a soulful voice (more or less R&B) and there’s a simple keyboard backdrop.

On “Only Child” there are three vocalists, each taking a turn with a verse.  It is surprising that the man who sounds Jamaican (the first singer) is white.  The final vocalist raps, and then all three harmonize very nicely over the final chorus.

Bob Boilen raved about them when he saw them live.  I’m not all that impressed, as they sound like any other R&B band to me, but a four-minute sampler isn’t all that much to go on.

[READ: February 12, 2015] Prime Baby

I’ve enjoyed just about everything that Gene Luen Yang has done.  But I had no idea that a) he wrote a serialized comic strip and b) that it appeared from 2008-2009 in the New York Times Magazine!

It’s interesting to see these strips presented in one strip per page format.  But far more interesting is the very strange direction that this story goes in.

It begins with the main character, a boy named Thaddeus K. Fong.  He is a reasonably selfish young man with a penchant for saying things to get him in trouble.  (He calls himself a martyr for truth).  And then his parents have a baby.  And his whole life is upended.

The baby girl only says the word, “ga.”  His parents say that everyone develops in their own time, but he is not convinced.  And one day, when he learns about prime numbers in math class, he realizes that his sister only says “ga” in increments of prime numbers.    That is kind of interesting, but even more interesting is when his math teacher says that NASA has theorized that if aliens were to make contact with us it would be through prime numbers. (more…)

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animalSOUNDTRACK: THE BOTH-Tiny Desk Concert #346 (April 7, 2014).

bothThe Both is a mini-supergroup of sorts featuring Aimee Mann and Ted Leo.  I don’t know too much about Ted Leo, but I do know a lot about Aimee Mann.  I was curious to hear what these two sounded like together (this Tiny Desk was recorded before their album was released and was one of their first public performances together).

They play four songs, and I feel like they sound very much like Aimee Mann songs.  I never thought of Aimee Mann as having a terribly distinctive voice, but I guess she does.  And her voice and melody lines over these simple songs sounds very much like her own.  Since I don’t know much about Ted Leo, I don’t know exactly what he adds to the songwriting.  His voice is good (he can hit some high notes) and his guitar playing is minimal but very effective.

“You Can’t Help Me Now” sounds a lot like an Aimee Mann song, so it’s nice to hear Ted come in on the second verse, to change it up a bit.  “Milwaukee” sounds a lot like a Beautiful South song to me–the way the verses are sung and the way the chorus comes in, there’s just something that sounds very much like the way Paul Heaton writes songs (this is a good thing).  “No Sir” is a rather different song from the others.  It  features some great echoey guitars to open and has a loud ringing guitar solo.  The verses still sound like Aimee Man (that has to be unavoidable), but the choruses change things up.

“The Gambler” sounds like a jointly written song.  It’s a bit more raucous and highlights both of their strengths.  Overall, the music isn’t the most exciting but I’m not really sure what else would have come out of this pairing.  Obviously, if you like Aimee Mann, you’ll like The Both.

What’s most interesting to me is seeing Aimee Mann play–she is so causal (she barely changes expression and hardly opens her mouth when she sings) and she stands up so straight and calm.  Check it out here.

[READ: June 26, 2014] Animal Crackers

I’ve mentioned Gene Luen Yang’s books before–I’m very fond of him.  So I was thrilled to see a new book by him.  Except that this isn’t new, my library just happened to get it now. This book was published by Slave Labor Graphics in 2010, but these stories are much older than that.  In fact, the back of the book has a note from Gene in which he explains that the first chapter of this book was actually the first story he ever created.

And what a story it is.

The book is actually three interlocking stories.  Two longer stories: “Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks” and “Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order.”  And a brief interlude called “Sammy the Baker and the M.A.C.”  You know they are interlocking because Gordon appears in the Loyola story (and because they both stick cable TV cables up their nose at some point), and because Sammy appears in the Gordon story.

In the first story Gordon is a bully.  He and his buddy Devon find the King of the Geeks each year in school and “crown” him (with super glue and old underpants).  They think this is very funny and plan to do some more devious things to him later that day.  Of course, when Miles, King of the Geeks gets home, his mother is very upset (naturally) and plans to call the police.  But the only thing that he cares about is his father.  Whose only comment is to wonder how he wound up with such a sissy son.

Gordon wakes up in the middle of the night with a pain in his nose.  It turns out to be a space alien (the aliens learned that humans use so little of their brains that they can store data in our brains for use later).  The only way that Gordon can help with this problem is by sticking the coaxial cable in his nose.  Which he does.  And the little alien dude explains what he has to do.  Which is, of course to go to the King of the Geeks (whose brain they are also using) to find the instructions for how to evict the spaceship.  But as they try to exchange the proper information, Gordon gets all of the Geek King’s memories.  And suddenly he feels really bad about what happened. (more…)

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boxersSOUNDTRACK: ANDREW W.K.-Tiny Desk Concert #37 (November 30, 2009).

wkWhen I saw Andrew W.K. on the list of Tiny Desk players I was intrigued to say the least. W.K. is a maniac.  His first album was packed with full throttle, really dumb party anthems.  Later he made an albums of… piano instrumentals.  Then he became a motivational speaker.  He’s done children’s shows and he recently did an anthem for an internet cat.  He even played drums for 24 hours straight–setting a world record.  So who knew what to expect.

Well, I didn’t expect two lengthy piano improvisations (quite pretty, if a little scattered).  Holy cow, does he attack that keyboard!  The improvs are really unexpected–meandering and interesting (mostly), especially at the end where they kind of decay.

Then he plays a keyboard version of “I Get Wet” which sounds almost symphonic especially compared to the pummeling version on the record.

He ends with a faithful cover of “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” made famous by Linda Ronstadt.  He sings in a proper voice and if you didn’t know it was Andrew W.K., it would be a pretty normal song.

Nothing like what I expected, this is a most unusual (and slightly awkward–for a motivational speaker, Andrew seems a little distracted) Tiny Desk.

 [READ: February 19, 2014] Boxers & Saints

Gene Luen Yang is a wonderful artist and storyteller.  He has written several books that I’ve enjoyed quite a lot.  This is a two volume set that is meant to be read together (although each story is more or less independent).  I assume that Boxers should be read first since Saints has an epilogue, at least that’s the order I read them.

This story is about the Boxer Rebellion.  I knew literally nothing about the Boxer Rebellion, so for those who don’t, here’s Britannica: (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE SWELL SEASON-Live at the Newport Folk Festival, August 1, 2010 (2010).

This is the second show by the Swell Season that I downloaded from NPR (even though it is not chronologically second).  The Newport Folk Festival proves to be an excellent venue for Glen Hansard and The Frames.  For yes, in this show, The Frames play with them.  A (very brief) history: Glen Hansard was the red-haired dude from The Commitments (yes, seriously).  After that movie, he started The Frames and they were HUGE (in Ireland and Czechoslovakia).  They even released a record with a few songs that appear in the film Once.  Then Glen met Marketa and formed The Swell Season, which was really just the two of them.  And they recorded a couple of those Frames songs for their debut album.  And then they made Once, and they rerecorded some of those songs for the Soundtrack.  So you can get quite a few versions of a couple of these songs.  The Swell Season was originally just the two of them.  But as of late they’ve been playing with the Frames as well.  So it’s like a full circle, sort of.

The big opens space of Newport, combined with a rowdy but appreciative crowd prove a perfect venue for them.  Glen is in wonderful storytelling mode, regaling the crowd with funny introductions to songs (that was Elijah!) and dealing with an overzealous fan (who I believe calls Glen a red-headed bastard–out of love: Hansard replies “I liked you for about two comments…I’ve been wanting to play here forever, you’re kind of wrecking my day….  I’m kidding”).

But it’s the music that is so good.  I’ve thought that he sounds not unlike Van Morrison, and this version of “Low Rising” that opens the set brings out the Van.  Its’ really outstanding.  The really makes some of the songs rock out, too, like when he burst into a chorus of “Love Reign O’er Me” during the otherwise mellow “Back Broke.”  Also, the full band version of “When Your Mind’s Made Up” is tremendous–when the band is rocking out and then stops on a dime for that final “So” I am blown away every time.  And yet, despite the presence of the band, some of their solo songs are the most striking.  Marketa’s, “If You Want Me” holds the crowd rapt.  And Glen’s emotionally gut wrenching “Leave” is stunning–and a little hair-raising.

Interestingly, when you download the show (by subscribing to NPR podcasts), you only get 43 minutes, rather than the entire 62 minutes of the show.  I assume they didn’t have the rights to give us the covers that the band played.  They open the set with Tim Buckley’s “Buzzin’ Fly,” and he plays Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” while they tune some strings and they rock out Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (this furthers my assertion that there’s a Van Morrison connection here, although I didn’t know this was played live until I streamed the concert.

The Swell Season seems like an awesome band to see live.

[READ: August 21, 2011] Level Up.

Gene Luen Yang is also a wonderful storyteller.  His book American Born Chinese is fantastic.  This is another slice of life story, although I suspect it can’t be true about himself (well, I mean there are angels that do his laundry so obviously it isn’t true).  But I don’t know a thing about him personally so maybe he is a video game champion and a gastroenterologist as well as a novel writer.

Anyhow, the story is a fairly simple one: When Dennis is six years old, he sees a Pac Man video game console and he is instantly hooked.  The problem is that his parents want him to be a successful student–specifically, they want him to become a doctor–so there’s no fooling around with video games.  He gets good grades in school.  But when his father dies, he finally feels free to get a video game console and he finds himself playing more video games than studying.  And by the time he gets to university he actually flunks out.

His mother doesn’t learn about this disgrace because before he can do anything more drastic, the aforementioned angels threaten the dean of admissions until she lets him back into school.  They angels (who came to life from a card his father had given him) then monitor him carefully, doing all of his chores for him while ensuring that he studies his brains out.  Which he does.

And he gets into med school! (more…)

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