Archive for the ‘John Edgar Wideman’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: RED BARAAT-Shruggy Ji (2013)..

Red Baraat’s second album feels a lot bigger than their debut.  The production is bigger, there’s (even) more diverse sounds.  And there’s a lot more vocals album.

I enjoyed the brrrrrr ah! vocals, but I’m a little less excited by the rapping. Primarily because the lyrics are pretty lame (party type lyrics for the most part). But that doesn’t diminish from the music, which is super throughout.  It feels big and solid–evidently the band was recorded playing all together with only minimal overdubs.

“Hala Bol” opens with a wild melody and some singing “bol bol bol, hala bol–RAISE YOUR VOICE!–baby baby bol hala bol.”  The song is pretty long (as most of these are and the middle features the guys chanting all manner of things in possibly different languages.

“Tenu leke” opens with a celebratory “Brrrrrrrrr ah” and chants of  “hoy hoy hoy.”  There’s a wonderful uplifting sense to the melody especially when the song takes a breath and the notes spring forth once more.

“Shruggy Ji” opens with some slow, ominous horns for about 25 seconds and then the dhol, percussion, and drums kick it up into a furious meld of go-go funk, hip-hop, jazz, and South Asian groove.  The powerful funk makes way for a good-natured rap: “Move your body and shake those hips / just feel the rhythm all under your skin / drip drop the sweat / shruggy ji lets begin.”  Nothing exciting, but fun.  The rap in the second half is less successful although I’ve read that it’s meant to be all in fun, so I guess a line like “I’m gonna ask you some question like I was Biz Markee” is just comical.  About the song band leader Sunny Jain says, “We like to think of ‘Shruggy Ji’ as that shadow lurking next to us, waiting to take over when the night falls and move our body with no inhibitions.”

“Burning Instinct” has the kind of booty shaking vibe that make you wanna move.  The dueling horn solos add to the fun chaos that the percussion is creating.

“Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” has lyrics in Hindi (I assume) which seems to work better because I’m not trying to figure out what he’s singing about.  “Sialkot” opens with some thundering dhol paying and lots of “brrrr ahs!”

“Private Dancer” also features rapping party vocals over some slow rolling funk.  I love that it begins with someone shouting “yo, turn that dhol up!”   “F.I.P.” is full of more fun and dance and lots of call and response. “Apna Punjab Hove” has a bit of an upbeat  reggae feel and a smidge of klezmer for a change of pace.  It’s still dancing, just a different step.  Lots of chanting of “ah -ha” and the like.

“Azad Azad” is an album highlight.  It’s got great percussion and a fun riff from the horns and lots of chanting.  Unlike some of the more partying songs, this one is more political: “no borders, no walls, freedom [sings / dances / rings] through us all.”

“Mast Kalander” is a fun song which proves that the more nonsensical the lyrics, the better the party: “jump in the sauce / throw your hands up and go crazy.”  I love how it gets faster and faster as it progresses.”

“Aarthi”ends the album with a cool, jazzy melody.  The party is over and it’s time to go home so lets chill things down a bit.  I love that the song opens with what sounds like someone blowing into a bass saxophone and making vocals sounds at the same time.  It’s pretty cool.

The lineup remains the same as the first album:
Sunny Jain – dhol ; Rohin Khemani – percussion ; Tomas Fujiwara – drumset ; Arun Luthra – soprano sax ; Mike Bomwell – baritone sax ; Sonny Singh – trumpet ; MiWi La Lupa – bass trumpet ; Smoota – trombone ; John Altieri – sousaphone.

[READ: January 24, 2018] “Maps and Ledgers”

I haven’t really enjoyed the stories by Wideman that much.  So I wasn’t really looking forward to this one.  But it proved to be pretty straightforward and quite compelling.

As the story opens we meet a man who says that in his first year teaching at the university, his father killed a man.  The narrator was barely established in the school–he had no phone in his office–so the call went to the English Department chair’s office.  It was his mother, sobbing and blubbering.  He had told her to call there only in an emergency, which this was, obviously.

The chair was a southern gentlemen and he respectfully left the room once the narrator had been called down.

But the story isn’t just about him.  The narrator’s Aunt C got his father a lawyer.  Aunt C was a pioneer.  She had served as a WAC office in WWII and submitted applications for jobs through the Veterans Administration.  She managed to get a job in the city planners office before they realized she was black.

They did not convict his father–the victim was black after all.  But things got worse for him.

And this is when another one of Wideman’s stories gets confusing.

My father’s son, my youngest brother, convicted of felony murder. And years later my son received a life sentence at sixteen. My brother, my son still doing time. And my father’s imprisoned son’s son a murder victim. And a son of my brother’s dead son just released from prison a week ago. And I’m more than half-ashamed I don’t know if the son, whose name I can’t recall, of my brother’s dead son has fathered son or daughter.

Gets confusing doesn’t it?

Yes it does. (more…)


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SOUNDTRACK: FIRST AID KIT-The Lion’s Roar (2012).

This album was my first exposure to First Aid Kit and I immediately loved the harmonies and the dark but positive-sounding vocals.

I’m probably one of ten people on earth who doesn’t love Bright Eyes, but I love the production by Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis (with contributions from Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott and band leader Conor Oberst–maybe I need to re-listen to Bright Eyes).

The first song I’d heard was the opening cut “The Lion’s Roar.”  The song starts with a minor key guitar chord progression and “electronic flute.”  It’s atmospheric and a bit spooky-sounding, but when they come in with the chorus “And I’m a goddamn coward, but then again so are you” in wonderful harmony that is at times right on and other times kind of dissonant, it’s goose-bump-inducing.  Oh wow. what a moment

Pitchfork describes that electronic flute as “one deeply eerie flute tone that lingers throughout, floating in and out of scenes like a sly specter” and that’s pretty accurate.

It’s followed by “Emmylou” the most gorgeous country song I’ve ever heard, complete with pedal steel guitar and a wonderfully evocative chorus: “I’ll be your Emmylou, and I’ll be your June/ If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny, too,” (do watch them sing it to Emmylou Harris at an award ceremony and watch her brought to tears).

“In The Hearts Of Men” slows things down with some wonderful moments as the sisters sing the “la la las” throughout the chorus.  Once again, there’s surprisingly dark lyrics for two women around 23 and 21.  And speaking of dark lyrics, the pretty xylophone and guitar play a chirpy melody in “Blue” which has this stark and dark verse:

And the only man you ever loved / You thought was gonna marry you / Died in a car accident when he was only 22 / Then you just decided, love wasn’t for you / And every year since then / Has proved it to be true

Damn.  How does a song with that lyrics have a beautiful soaring chorus that is so uplifting and Abba-esque and yet again lyrically:

But you’re just a shell of / Your former you / That stranger in the mirror / Oh, that’s you / Why’d you look so blue?

“This Old Routine” features more of that uncanny, how are you only 21 years old lyrics sung with such beautiful harmony (and delicate mandolin sprinkled in):

This old routine will drive you mad
It’s just a mumble never spoken out loud
And sometimes you don’t even know why you loved her.
Well you look at her now, and you see why.

The second half of the song has strings and such, playing a simple five note melody.  There’s a moment near the end where the strings play that five note riff and its followed by the mandolin playing the same melody one step up and it’s just gorgeous.

“To a Poet” has a fast tight guitar melody.  As the song builds, a harmonium is added.  The chorus goes in a high register until the simple catchy end line: “There’s nothing more to it / I just get through it.”  The poet in question is Frank O’Hara

But Frank put it best when he said
“You can’t plan on the heart”
Those words keep me on my feet
When I think I might just fall apart

The string section ending is bit of a surprise since neither one of them palsy on it but it does add some nice texture to this song that has just grown from a tiny guitar to full orchestration over the course of 6 minutes.

That cool flute sound returns on “I Found a Way,” as it runs through the falsetto-filled chorus.  “Dance To Another Tune” slows things down for a while until the middle features another string section.  This time the sisters add their “bah bah bahs” to it and it sound terrific.

“New Year’s Eve” brings back the autoharp (you can really hear the plectrum zipping along the strings–something I’ve never noticed when others play it).  It’s a suitably quiet song with a gentle harmony on the final line of the chorus: “that’s what’s going to save me.”  And I love that no other instrumentation is added.

The end of the record is quite different from anything else.  “King of the World’ is a dynamic romp, easily their fastest, loudest, stompingest song.  It’s got a full band behind them and a vocal turn from Conor Oberst.  There’s all kinds of strings and mandolin tucked in the corners that peek out here and there.  There’s even horns which sound a bit like Calexico.

This album is just fantastic.  And their harmonies get better and more confident with each album.

[READ: January 22, 2018] “Writing Teacher”

I have not really enjoyed any of the stories I’ve read by Wideman.  This was the first one that I felt was on the right path to my enjoyment.  And then it kind of drifted away from me at the end.

It also features one of the things I hate most in stories–more on that in a moment.

This is the story of a writing teacher.  He is reading and reviewing a story by a student, Teresa McConnell who, “wants to help other people.”  The story “wishes to save the life of its main character, a young woman of color, a few years out of high school, single, child to support, no money, shitty job, living with her mother who never misses an I-told-you-so chance to criticize her daughter’s choices.”

What I hate most in stories comes a few sentences later: (more…)

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febSOUNDTRACK: D.R.A.M.-Tiny Desk Concert #596(February 1, 2017).

dramI had never heard of D.R.A.M. before (even though apparently his song b”Broccoli” has sold 4 million records).  So I was quite surprised to see the start of this blurb:

We all love a good redemption story: We’re front and center to watch our heroes get knocked down, and then we cheer for them to triumphantly rebound. What we’re witnessing with Shelly Massenburg-Smith — a.k.a. D.R.A.M. — is the culmination of a story marked by resilience and stubborn strength.

Making a hit record in the music industry is extremely difficult, and in 2015, D.R.A.M.’s debut single “Cha Cha” was on the brink of exploding. It was getting played in clubs across the country and bubbling on the charts…. Then Drake’s “Hotline Bling” happened. The reports are conflicting as to the inspiration for the record, but there are glaring similarities in the sound of each. “Hotline Bling” was even originally billed as the “Cha Cha” remix by Beats 1, where the song made its debut. Needless to say, “Hotline Bling” practically swallowed “Cha Cha,” but D.R.A.M. didn’t whine about it. He went back to the drawing board, crafting another smash. “Broccoli” became one of 2016’s biggest hits while setting up the release of his debut album, Big Baby D.R.A.M.

We recently invited D.R.A.M. to NPR to lend us his jovial spirit and brighten our workday; after all, his primary aim is to spread love through music. He was jarred by the Tiny Desk setting for a moment before the cameras started rolling. He’s accustomed to touching every corner of the stage, but like a pro, he walked to the desk, activated his signature smile and bounced through various highlights from his catalog. D.R.A.M., whose name stands for Does Real Ass Music, wrote his first selection, “Cash Machine,” right after he’d received his first big music check.

The crowd beamed more with each performance, leading up to a climactic rendition of “Broccoli.” The energy is all fun and games, but his talent is no joke:”Broccoli” is nominated for a Grammy this year, right alongside “Hotline Bling.” A victory would provide a fitting end to this chapter of D.R.A.M.’s career, but regardless of the outcome, he’s already victorious: Far removed from the “Hotline Bling” shadow, he’s already creating bigger songs and more memorable moments, like this one at the Tiny Desk.

His band consists of D.R.A.M. (vocals); Rogét Chahayed (keys); Taylor Dexter (drums); Wesley Singerman (guitar).  And the video begins with him walking through the crowd toward the Tiny Desk.  Unlike most artists, he plays a whopping five songs!  And while he is, indeed, full of smiles and joy, i couldn’t help but think that he was almost a goof.  He practically seemed like a Saturday Night Live spoof of a rapper.

“Cash Machine” has lyrics like “I love it when you talk to me / my cash machine” and it is seriously all about how happy he was to get a lot of money.  It’s almost naive (except for all of the cursing).  He says that he hopes all the ladies like his second song because it was written for them.  And once again, the lyrics are so strangely innocent and almost naive.  The lyrics of “Cute” are “I saw you on your Instagram and I think you’re cute….  Girl we need to go out on a date / We can really do a little something / If it’s cool I’ll pick you up at 8.”  And the music is sweet and dreamy too.

He says that he’s from Hampton, Virginia, which explains “Sweet VA Breeze.”  He says it’s a song about when things were “a little more simpler.”  He raps about “sitting in the treehouse” with the rather puzzling bridge of “Real love, feel love, taste love, smoke love.”

The next song actually appears on Chane the Rapper’s record Coloring Book.  He introduces “Special” by saying that it’s “nice to put a little motivational message out there in the world.  There’s a lot of fucked up shit going on… if we’re gonna be frank.”  He’s got a nice singing voice on this one.  It’s a rather sweet ballad, with the nice sentiment: “Everyone is special / This I know is true.”

And finally we get to the big hit that I’d never heard. It is such a strange song and the delivery here is even stranger.  He sings the opening lines in an over-the-top delicate almost operatic falsetto.

In the middle of the party, bitch get off me
In the cut I’m rollin’ up my broccoli
Ya I know your baby mama fond of me
All she want to do is smoke that broccoli
Whispered in my ear she trying to leave with me
Said that I can get that pussy easily
Said that I can hit that shit so greasily
I’m a dirty dog, I did it sleazily

The room is cracking up by this time.

And more lyrics:

Couple summers later I got paper
I acquired taste for salmon on a bagel
With the capers on a square plate
At the restaurant with the why you got to stare face
To know I either ball or I record over the snare and bass
Rapper face, dread headed
Golden diamond teeth wearin’
They just mad cause I got that cheese, bitch, I keep dairy

The original song (I had to check it out) has this keyboard that sounds like a penny whistle–so childish and goofy. But I love the big throbbing bass line that comes after every line–almost unexpectedly late.

He’s surprisingly vulgar, but he’s so goofy that it’s hard not to like him.

[READ: January 14, 2017] “JB & FD”

When Wideman wrote this story I’m sure he had no idea that Frederick Douglass would be exhumed into public consciousness because Trump is an idiot.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed,” he said.  “Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and millions more black Americans who made America what it is today,” he continued. “Big impact.”

I miss Barack Obama for dozens of reasons, but this guy’s mangling of English is certainly a big reason.

Wideman does not mangle English, of course.  And yet I haven’t really enjoyed the stories I’ve read by him.  And this one proved to be even more challenging for me than his others.

The JB is John Brown.  The FD is Frederick Douglass.  And the problem is that I don’t know enough about either one.  Heck, I wasn’t even sure if they lived at the same time (I have since looked it up–they lived at the same time and admired each other).  But even with that background, this piece is just confusing.

It is broken down into several short numbered sections.

(1) is all about Douglass finding his glasses and having dread.
(2) begins as a letter to Douglass, with the comment that Douglass remembers no beard, not wearing one himself nor a beard on Brown’s gaunt face (but every picture of Douglas has him with a beard).
(3) sees Douglas watch himself step to a podium to discuss “The Woman Question” and then goes home and drops dead [this is historically accurate].
(4) is written from the I point of view, apparently written about John Brown and his upbringing.
(5) is in the first person from John Brown’s POV (I had to look up who had the sons with which names).  I believe it is a letter to Douglass.
(6) contains a letter written by Mahala Doyle and given to John Brown as she awaited execution.
(7) is of Brown’s trip to Kansas and his time in prison.
(8) has three parts. In 1856, a note from Mrs Thomas Russell.  In 1858 John Brown molts (“His feathers shed. A change of color”). In 1859, a letter to Brown (presumably from Douglass).
(9) My name is John Brown and I want my son to hear the story of my name.  In this section someone is dictating to “this good white lady” who is writing every word down to send to his son in Detroit.  And the entire thing is written in dialect.

Beyond that, I’m not sure if this was meant to be a historically accurate portrayal, an imagination of these two minds meeting or something else entirely.  I read it twice and never really “got it.”

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harpnovSOUNDTRACK: BEN SOLLEE-Tiny Desk Concert #141 (July 11, 2011).

solleeI’d never heard of Ben Sollee before this Tiny Desk and I’m a little surprised by that–he seems like the kind of musician I’d have run into somewhere.  For this set (I have no idea what his sets are usually like), they are a trio.

Sollee plays cello  and sings (!), Phoebe Hunt plays violin and sings backing vocals and Jordan Ellis plays drums (in this case one of cool those snare drum boxes).

But despite the strings-dominated sound, the songs feel very rock-oriented.  Although as the blurb says, they are kind of genre defying.  Each song has a very different feel.

On “Hurting” Sollee opens with some great big plucked bass notes from the cello.  Then Sollee switches between plucking and bowing the cello.  And that transition really impacts the overall sound, making it sound like more than a trio.  The violin plays some accented notes and then some big long notes (like the cello).  But it’s the drums (brushes on the box) that add a lot of character to this song.  Sollee has a good strong voice and it fits the song well.

“Captivity” is about being in prison (he wrote it after watching a documentary about a maximum security prison) both physical and metaphorical.  For this song he strums (in an interesting, folky way) the cello.  He plays some bass notes while strumming the rest of the instrument–it’s a great sound.  And I love how different this sounds from the first song.  Once again the percussive sounds add so much.

“The Globe” about the Globe Theatre and how it was burnt down twice.  So he wrote a story about a frustrated loverboy burning it down.  The song names checks some of Shakespeare’s characters and while not comical is kind of funny too.  Musically the song is great with builds and sudden stops.  It’s also quite funky at times, with all kinds of different rhythms from the cello and violin as well as the percussion (which in this case is hand claps).  He says that they’ve been having fun playing it live and that really comes through.  I really like the sounds that Sollee makes from the cello at the end of the song.

“Inclusions” is an a capella song.  He says they’d been working on it in the van on the way down.  I expected a simple song, but they have wonderful harmonies as well.  For percussion, Phoebe is rattling a can of cacao nibs. (There was recently a very funny cacao nibs joke on Brooklyn 99, otherwise I’d never have heard of them–I like that Sollee beat Brooklyn by five years though).

This was a wonderful find and I definitely want to hear more from Sollee–I’m curious to see what he gets up to in the studio.

[READ: January 10, 2016] “The Hanged Man”

November was a dark month for stories in Harper’s.  This story along with the one I posted a while back from John Edgar Wideman both deal with suicide.  This is an excerpt from War, So Much, War, and it opens with a man cutting down a sack which was hanging in a tree.

The sack contains a body–“his face was white, his tongue black, his lips purple.”  When he cuts down the sack, the body’s head hits a rock and the protagonist is worried because the body is actually alive and he’s afraid it is now damaged.

The body doesn’t speak for a long time. But when it does it is angry that the man has cut him down. (more…)

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novSOUNDTRACK: LIZZ WRIGHT-Tiny Desk Concert #116 (March 14, 2011).

lizz Lizz Wright is a gospel singer with a lovely voice.   For some reason she only has two songs here (the editing makes it seem like she does at least one more).

I don’t know Wright at all, but the blurb gives context: Raised on church music in Georgia, Wright is well-versed in the freedom songs of Sweet Honey in the Rock, without whom none of the music here would exist; “I Remember, I Believe” is by that group’s leader, the great Bernice Johnson Reagon, whose daughter Toshi Reagon (Wright’s best friend) co-wrote “Hit the Ground.”

“Hit the Ground” is upbeat and lively.  Whereas “I Remember, I Believe” is far more powerful, but much slower.

Sadly for me, I don’t really like gospel music, especially the slower songs like the second one here.  So I didn’t love this Tiny Desk, but I can certainly appreciate how good a singer she is.

[READ: January 15, 2015] “Williamsburg Bridge”

I don’t know anything else by John Edgar Wideman, so I didn’t really know what to expect with this story.

I certainly did not expect a long (rather dull) story about a man on the Williamsburg Bridge contemplating suicide.

There were some beautiful passages and phrasings here, especially the reflections on Sonny Rollins, but man, this thing just seemed to go on and on. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PORTLANDIA: “Dream of the 90’s” (2011).

This is song that I think of as the theme song for the show Portlandia. (I’ve only seen the one episode so far so I don’t know if it is or not, but if it isn’t, it should be!).  This song is so indicative of the show that, if you like the video, you’ll likely enjoy the show too.  Portlandia is written by and stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney).

Although this song is meant to be evocative of the 90s (the chorus is “The dream of the 90s is alive in Portland”), musically, it’s not a 90s-era song (despite the comment that flannel still looks good in Portland).  It is actually a keyboard-only song, kind of discoey (dare I say Pet Shop Boysish?).  It’s a simple musical motif, with a catchy chorus and spoken verse, but really you listen for the lyrics:

Remember the 90s when they encouraged you to be weird?

Portland is the city where young people go to retire.

It’s like Gore won, the Bush administration never happened….  Portland’s almost an alternative universe.

It’s all tongue-in-cheek (with a surprisingly catchy chorus).  But, oh to dream.  Sleep ’til eleven…

Watch the video here.

[READ: January 24, 2011] “Always Raining, Somewhere, Said Jim Johnson”

This second Harper’s story suffered from a similar problem as the previous one.  This story felt like several snippets that never tied together.  In any way.

We see a student at the Iowa writer’s program (this sent up red flags immediately for me–not a story about being in  writing program).  And we read a lengthy section about rain.  Except it’s not really about rain, it’s about a pub in Iowa City.  And the concreteness of it is very cool.  You can really see and smell the bar.   The bartender’s routine is so exact you can win bets on when he’ll finish.   He ensues that everything is tidy and that everyone gets the hell out.  Cool, I’m with you.

Then there’s more rain and the narrator and a guy named Rich crash at Rich’s place.  Rich’s wife, Liz is also there and we learn a word or three about her.  And then the narrator starts really checking out Liz, who is completely naked on the bed with Rich.  And there’s some interesting intense moments where he thinks he’s caught.

Then we jump to another bar scene and some pretty funny comparisons between Liz and Gayle Sayers.  These come from the titular Jim Johnson who is apparently dead by the above scene.  (You don’t have to know who Gayle Sayers is to get the joke, I don’t think.  But if you don’t know who he is, he was a football player).


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