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SOUNDTRACK: MAHAN ESFAHANI-Tiny Desk Concert #970 (April 27, 2020).

I love the sound of the harpsichord but always assumed that one played the harpsichord in addition to the piano, like for extra flavor.  That may be true, but Mahan Esfahani is not only “the instrument’s most ardent advocate,” he is also hilariously cocky about it.

For this Tiny Desk,

Esfahani, who grew up near Washington, D.C., but is now based in Prague, chose a double manual harpsichord — meaning two keyboards. This one was built by specialists Barbara and Thomas Wolf in 1991, but is based on a famous French instrument from 1770.

The harpsichord is a beautiful but notoriously fussy instrument. After we wheeled one behind Bob Boilen’s desk, it took the bulk of an hour to get the tuning just perfect for the very first Tiny Desk harpsichord recital. Given that our guest was Mahan Esfahani we were willing to wait.

His set began with classics: a pair of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, which share the same key but couldn’t be more opposite in personality. With elaborate curlicue ornaments in both hands, the opening sonata “Sonata in D, K. 534,” presents a sober, regal outlook. Its partner “Sonata in D, K. 535” is a flamboyant rocker, with the hands chasing each other across the two keyboards like a cat and mouse.

Before the next song Esfahani makes some wonderfully funny comments about the superiority of harpsichord players.

He says people thing harpsichordists take piano pieces and transcribe them for the harpsichord.  No, pianists take enough of our music; we’re a much classier bunch than them.  We have our own music.

He also tells us that there are many modern composers making harpsichord music.

But he also tells us that there modern composers making harpsichord music.  Composers are the best people as we all know.  It goes composers then harpsichordists, I think, then everyone else.

Mel Powell was a jazz pianist who worked with Benny Goodman. he then became a composer of “proper music” (as it was called in the 1950s).  he studied with Hindemith but unlike Hindemith, he’s not boring.

Angular and slightly jazzy “Recitative and Toccata Percossa,” from 1951, is a tour de force in this artist’s hands. It drives home a point he likes to make — that while the harpsichord had its heyday in the 18th century, it’s still a vibrant instrument and very much alive. “There are over 50 modern concertos for the harpsichord,” he told the audience.

He closes with a lesser known piece by a famous composer.  After giving the proper pronunciation of Pachelbel, he tells that Pachelbel was good enough to teach Bach’s brothers.

Esfahani closed with a little-known chaconne by Johann Pachelbel. Its steady bassline and colorful variations were a pleasant reminder of the composer’s one-hit claim to fame, “Pachelbel’s Canon.”

I’ve never seen a harpsichord that looked like this before.  It sounded great.  I love that there are muted passages in the Pachebel piece–I’ve nevee heard a muted harpsichord before.  This was another great Tiny Desk.

[READ: May 3, 2020] “What to Watch During the Lockdown: Month 38”

I used to really look forward to Nick Hornby’s (mostly) monthly columns in The Believer. I’m not really sure what he’s been up to since, but it’s great to see a new column from him.

This one features his delightfully obscure references to entertainment and football.

My wife and I are apparently the only people who will come out of this quarantine with even more shows to watch than we started with.  We have so much to do during the day–house fixing, yard prepping, reading–that we barely watch an hour of TV a night.  And there’s about 35 shows that I would like to binge.

So, I appreciate this essay intellectually, but not on a practical level (even if it is hilariously absurd). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK BELA FLECK & ABIGAIL WASHBURN-Tiny Desk Concert #741 (May 11, 2018).

I know and like Bela Fleck.  I know and like Abigail Washburn.  I had no idea they were married.

A very pregnant Abigail Washburn points to Bela Fleck at the Tiny Desk and says “and just so you know, this is his fault.” I won’t spoil the video by telling you his response.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn are two American musical treasures. This husband-and-wife banjo duo write original tunes steeped in the roots of folk music. Their playing is sweetly paced with melodies interweaving through their intricate, percussive picking all while Abigail soars above it all with her discerning, yearning voice.

I also had no idea how political they are.

Their first tune, “Over the Divide,” was written at the height of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. They’d read a story about a Jewish, yodeling, Austrian sheep herder who helped Syrians out of Hungary, through the backroads that likely only sheep herders know.

Lyrical content aside, the music is just stunning.  The banjo is oft-mocked for its twang, but these two play such beautiful intertwining lines, it is just magical.   The opening melody is just jaw-droppingly lovely.

They each switch banjos to rather different-looking ones–deeper more resonating sounds

The second tune, “Bloomin’ Rose,” is a response to Standing Rock and the Dakota pipeline that is seen as a threat to water and ancient burial grounds. The intensity and thoughtfulness in Bela Fleck’s and Abigail Washburn’s music is why it will shine for a good long while, the way great folk tunes stay relevant over the ages.

But Abigail isn’t just banjo and vocals,

For the third tune, Abigail waddled over to a clogging board. And before she began her rhythmic patter, told us all that “my doctor said that what I’m about to do is ok! I have compression belts and tights on that you can’t see.” [Bela: so do I].  They then launched into “Take Me To Harlan,” another one of their songs from their 2017 album Echo In The Valley.

She says that they met at a square dance in Nashville, and she loves dancing and movement.  Bela plays and Abigail sings and taps for this jazzy number.  The middle of the song features a call and response with Bela on banjo and Abigail tapping [“Eight month?  No problem.”].

For the final song, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Abigail says it’s usually done in a perky bluegrass country style but they listened to the lyrics and decided it was not perky at all.  So they turned it into a different thing.  It’s a somber song with Bela on a relatively slow banjo (with a slide that he sneaks on near the end) and Abigail singing mournfully (she can really belt out a tune).

Although as Steve Martin pointed out, with a banjo almost everything is upbeat.

The parties at their house must be a hoot.

[READ: January 21, 2018] “Active Metaphors” and “Death By Icicle”

“Active Metaphors” is one of Saunders’ funniest pieces that I’ve read.  And whats strange about that is that it was an essay published in the Guardian newspaper.

There are two headings: “Realistic Fiction” and “Experimental Fiction”

“Realistic Fiction” begins with the narrator in a biker bar.  He overheard two bikers, Duke and StudAss discussing these two types of fiction. –they’d purchased their “hogs” with royalties from their co-written book Feminine Desire in Jane Austen.  There was some verbal sparring during which they threw Saunders out a window “while asking questions about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fallen American utopia.”

The narrator explained his theory of realism to them–everything happens the way it actually would and then suggests that maybe a central metaphor would help define things.  There’s an impotent farmer and every time he walks past the field, the corn droops.  An active metaphor like this helps the reader sense the deeper meaning of the story.

As they ride off with him on their hog, the bikers use some great professorial language–the end is hilarious. (more…)

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CV1_TNY_06_08_15_09.inddSOUNDTRACKKEVIN MORBY & KATIE CRUTCHFIELD-“Downtown’s Lights” NPR’S SOUTH X LULLABY (March 20, 2018).

I don’t know if Bob Boilen ever explained how he starte dto get people doing South X Lullabies, but here he explains why he started doing them:

In the midst of all the chaos that is Austin, Texas during the SXSW Music Festival, we seek moments of calm. And so one night, as the week was nearing its end, we made our way to the courtyard of St. David’s Episcopal Church, just a few blocks from the thousands of festival participants and onlookers. There we found a trickling garden-side waterfall, where Katie Crutchfield and Kevin Morby performed “Downtown’s Lights,” from Kevin Morby’s recent album, City Music.

I don’t know Kevin Morby.  I’ve heard of him, but aside from a Tiny Desk Concert, I’ve never explored his music.

“Downtown’s Lights” is a simple folk song.  He’s got a bit of a Bob Dylan delivery in what feels like a very deliberate folk song.  Katie Crutchfield is Waxahatchee who I’m excited to see in a few weeks.  Waxahatchee has been really rocking out the last few albums, so this folk song (and her Southern accent) stand out somewhat.

Their voices work nicely together, and that moment when you hear someone yelling, it almost sounds like a wolf howling.

“Downtown’s Lights” is a song of comfort and prayer for someone who is down and out in the city, and this version, with Katie singing — and the sounds of the city echoing in the background — is wistful and peacefully perfect.

[READ: April 13, 2016] “Two Emmas”

Back in June of 2009, The New Yorker had their annual summer fiction issue.  Included in that issue were three short essays under the heading of “Summer Reading.”  I knew all three authors, so I decided to include them here.

This essay was about Roger Angell’s summer home in Maine.

He says that on late February nights his mind often returns to his family’s cottage in Maine and the books that are on its shelves.

Those books have been there for as long as he can remember, and have been read and re-read every summer.  The list is interesting:

Good Behaviour [Molly Keane], Endurance [Alfred Lansing], Framley Parsonage [Anthony Trollope], Get Shorty [Elmore Leonard], Daisy Miller [Henry James], Dracula [Bram Stoker], Butterfield 8 [John O’Hara], Goodbye to All That [Robert Graves], Why Did I Ever [Mary Robison], Oblomov [Ivan Goncharov], The Heart of the Matter [Graham Greene], Sailing Days on the Penobscot [George Savary Wasson], The Moonstone [Wilkie Collins], Possession [A. S. Byatt], Morte d’Urban [J. F. Powers], Quartet [Jean Rhys], Emma [Jane Austen] and dozens more. [I have to chime in and say that this sounds heavenly].

He says that fat books like Martin Chuzzlewit [Charles Dickens], Orley Farm [Anthony Trollope] and the Forsythe Saga [John Galsworthy] were saved for a tedious week of Down East fog. (more…)

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austenSOUNDTRACK: SOAK-Tiny Desk Concert #459 (August 3, 2015).

soakSoak is Bridie Monds-Watson.  I hate to mention this, because it’s not the focus, but it is impressive that she’s only 19.  And her voice is really lovely.

I recently bought her album Before We Forgot How To Dream, and it’s really good.  The arrangements are complex and thoughtful.  And the album is beautifully orchestrated.  So this stripped down performance shows that she’s not all about production.

Her voice is pretty heavily accented and is almost a mumble, but not quite–it’s the kind of quiet voice that makes you lean in to hear.

The opening track, “Sea Creatures” (an amazing single) sounds pretty with just the acoustic guitar (I prefer the album version, but this is a really neat rendition).  For “B a noBody” and “Wait” she switches to an electric guitar.  It’s got a cool echo effect on it, but it is still quiet and hushed.

She says that she’s nervous playing at the Tiny Desk, but that looking around at all the CDs and poster it “feels like my bedroom.”  This is another delightfully intimate performance behind the Tiny Desk.

Bob Boilen did an interview with her a few weeks ago and she really won me over with her musical knowledge and sense of humor.

[READ: June 4, 2015] Jane Austen

This book also comes from the series called Life Portraits.

This is a very brief (128 pages, but mostly one sentence per page) biography of Jane Austen.  But the real “selling” points of the book are the beautiful illustrations/paintings by Nina Cosford.  They are lovely watercolors which do a great job illustrating whatever detail is listed on the page.

We get basic birth details–born Jane Austen on 16th December 1775.  She grew up on a farm with six brothers and one sister.  There’s even an illustrated family tree.

Her parents turned their farm into a boarding school so she knew lots of children.  But it was her cousin Eliza, a fantastic woman married to a European Count who spoke French and wore continental fashions who became Jane’s lifelong friend.  With Eliza around, all the girls  talked about marriage and money.  (more…)

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textsSOUNDTRACK: MANATEE COMMUNE-“Wake” (Tiny Desk Contest Runner-Up 2015).

manateeLast week, a Tiny Desk Contest winner was announced. This week, All Songs Considered posted ten runners up that they especially liked.  And I want to draw extra attention to a couple of them.

I know very little about these bands, so I assume that Manatee Commune is just this one guy doing some pretty electronic music (with some live flourishes on top–but not looped apparently).

When there’s a cheesy black curtain, you know that it is either hiding something or covering something up.

Manatee Commune’s setting looks like he’s trying to hide something.  He plays it up by having furniture in front of the curtain which is slowly removed.  And then we learn what he is hiding—it’s a pretty magnificent reveal

The song is pretty cool too. It’s electronic (I’m not sure how it’s all playing–I don’t know much about electronic equipment these days). But the drums sure seem live when he bangs on them.  (And I enjoyed the way he discards the sticks when he is done). The live violin at the end is also a nice touch.

The song is interesting, although it’s not my favorite.  This is one where the video really sells the song.

[https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qdtVdqbenw]

[READ: January 3, 2015] Texts from Jane Eyre

Sarah brought this book home from the library.  When I first heard about it a while back I thought it was a re imagining of Jane Eyre as text messages.  And I thought that was a really lame idea (and honestly isn’t the Jane Eyre trend over yet?).

That’s not quite what this book is though (note the subtitle).

Rather, it is a collection of imagined text messages between two (or more) characters from famous classics (and some non classics) of literature.  Knowing the originals helps tremendously, although sometimes even just knowing what the originals are about will do enough to make the jokes funny.

But the thing I found was that even though I fancy myself a well-read person who has read many of the stories, I didn’t always “get” what the joke was about.  I mean, I could tell obviously from the conversation what they were talking about, but I couldn’t always connect it to the story.  So basically this book made me feel really dumb. (more…)

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harpoctSOUNDTRACK: THE DECEMBERISTS, LAND HO!, BOBBY KNIGHT RANGER, LETTERS TO CLEO and more on PARKS AND RECREATION (April 24, 2014).

unityLast night, in the season finale of Parks and Recreation, the Pawnee/Eagleton Unity concert finally happened.  And, despite them never talking about who would be at the concert, the final show list was surprising and maybe not so surprising.

To see the Decemberists play live was a huge surprise and was totally wonderful (and to see Jenny Conley on keyboards looking healthy was very nice) especially since they have been more or less on hiatus for a time.  Although maybe it shouldn’t have been such a surprise since Michael Schur directed a Decemberists video a few years back.

Ginuwine played a song as well (I don’t actually know him), and it shouldn’t have been a surprise because in a past episode it was revealed that character Donna is actually Ginuwine’s cousin.

Then came Letters to Cleo.  This was a surprise because they’ve been broken up for years and, aside from a hit were never really all that big (I was huge fan and saw them live once).  Although it was not a real surprise because Ben has been seen wearing an LtC shirt from time to time on the show.  Seeing him sing along to the chorus (off stage) was great.  I also just read that the drummer from LtC is the drummer in Andy’s band Mouse Rat.

Next was Bobby Knight Ranger, a hilarious visual joke of three members dressed like Bobby Knight (with really fake white wigs) who, played nothing but “Sister Christian” for their set.  At the end of their set they threw chairs.  It was a weird throwaway joke that was very funny.  It was made even funnier when during the credits it became clear that Bobby Knight Ranger was actually Yo La Tengo.  This is just surprising as I don’t know any connection there, but in my experience Yo La Tengo are game for anything.

Land Ho! finished the night.  Land Ho!, if you follow the show is Pawnee’s biggest band (fronted by Wilco dude Jeff Tweedy (!)).  They played a song and then Mouse Rate (and others) jammed with them for a holographic tribute to Li’l Sebastian (a running joke that I think is way overplayed and yet which makes me laugh every single time)..

I was so delighted to not know who was playing before hand because every band was a fun surprise.  But seriously, did these bands all fly in just to play one song?   Surely they must have done a few songs for the crowd.  And if so, I think it would behoove Parks and Rec to get a CD out of songs from the Unity Concert (including some solo Johnny Karate songs as well.

The episode itself was also quite good.  While I didn’t care too much for the Tom’s Bistro segment (most of the jokes were pretty obvious from the get go), it was nice to see so many old characters make a cameo.  In fact, with the concert and the old characters and the tidy wrap up, it felt more like a series finale than a season finale.

And, SPOILER ALERT UNTIL THE VIDEO CLIP OF LETTERS TO CLEO PASTED BELOW: I though that their meld from the scene in the office on the third floor with the sly tag of three years later was a stroke of genius.  I have been a little down on this season because I thought it was getting a bit overdone with Leslie’s failures and whatnot. I actually wanted her to get the hell out of Pawnee.  But the compromise of how she stayed made sense for the show (if she didn’t take that job I was done with the show).  I was also not looking forward to a year of Leslie being pregnant (the triplets thing was also lame to begin with).  So the fact that it was all utterly skipped over–the pregnancy, the baby problems, the sleepless nights, even the fact that we didn’t have any awkward transitions in the job and that Leslie is just settled into her new job was excellent.

I also loved that Ben and Leslie were off to do something interesting (with Ben in a tux) with no explanation–what a great cliffhanger.  Kudos for one of the best season enders I’ve seen in a long time.

[READ: April 24, 2014] “The Gifts of Anna Speight”

This was a confusing story.  Well that is because it is an excerpt from a novel and therefore doesn’t stand on its own.  But I don;t know if it was just the excerpt they chose, but I found it not very compelling at all.

The story is told in second person, with Sylvie telling “us” what she knows about the Wibletts Institution.  Sylvie knew someone whose son resided there.  He suffered from PKU, a recessive disorder associated with seizures, mental retardation and blue-green urine.

There are so many layers of storytelling involved here that I was quite confused as to just who was who when Jess was suddenly interested in the story of Bob Germen.  Germen’s son is the above mentioned resident.  She wants to know about Bob’s son.  First we learn that Jess knew a lot about literary figures with disabled or retarded siblings or children and later we learn that she has a special needs daughter, Anna.

But most of the excerpt talks about the literary figures. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ULVER-A Quick Fix of Melancholy (2005).

This EP came two years after Teachings in Silence (with a movie soundtrack and “greatest hits” collection in between).  This first track, “Little Blue Bird” is a simple soundscape with echoey keyboards.  When Garm starts singing, his most emotional side comes through (even if I really can’t understand him most of the time).

“Doom Sticks” belies its name and the EP title by being somewhat upbeat.  There are kind of squeaky keyboards that pulsate through the track.  After about a minute and a half, distorted drums keep a martial beat.  But it quickly morphs into a twinkly section that makes me think of the Nutcracker or some other kind of Christmas special.

“Vowels” is similarly upbeat (the music on both of these two tracks has a vaguely Christmastime feel somewhere in there–not that anyone would think these were in any way Christmas songs, or maybe it’s because I’m listening in mid-December).  For this, we get a return of Garm’s choral voice: deep, resonant and hard to understand (although I undertsand the lyrics are from a poem by Christian Bok).   But the poem quickly makes way for some dramatic staccato strings. 

“Eitttlane” begins with some menacing keybaords and staccato notes, creating a feel of a noir movie.  But when the vocal choir comes in, it gets even more sinister.

These Ulver EPs are really true EPs–stopgap recordings for fans.  Their larger works tend to be more substantial, but these EPs allow them to play around with different styles.

[READ: December 1, 2011] “Laureate of Terror”

Two authors I admire in one article, how about that!  In this book review, Martin Amis reviews Don DeLillo’s first collection of short stories and gives a summary of DeLillo’s work.

Amis opens the article by undermining my plans for this blog.  He states point blank than when we say we love an author’s works, we “really mean…that we love about half of it.”  He gives an example of how people who love Joyce pretty much only love Ulysses, that George Eliot gave us one readable book and that “every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from.”  Also, Janeites will “never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park and Persusaion).  [I still hope to read all of the books by the authors I like].

Amis says he loves DeLillo (by which he means, End Zone, Running Dog, White Noise, Libra, Mao II and the first and last section of Underworld).  And he also seems to really like The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories,(well, much of it anyway), DeLillo’s first (!) short story collection

His main assement is that these pieces are a vital addition to DeLillo’s corpus.  (more…)

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