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Archive for the ‘John Kenney’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: SHARON VAN ETTEN-Tiny Desk Concert #898 (October 7, 2019).

It was Sharon Van Etten’s 2010 Tiny Desk Concert that introduced me to her.  I was blown away by the songs from Epic.

When Sharon Van Etten made her Tiny Desk debut back in the fall of 2010 [with about fifteen people in the audience], her voice exuded fragile, gentle grace. Performing songs from that year’s Epic, she huddled around a single acoustic guitar with backup singer Cat Martino to perform a set of tender and evocative folk-pop songs.

Sharon released a couple more albums and then took some time away from music.  She returned this year with the appropriately named comeback single “Comeback Kid.”  The big difference was that now there were synths!

Cut to nearly a decade later. One of only a handful of artists to get a repeat headlining engagement at the Tiny Desk [that handful is getting bigger and bigger it seems]. Van Etten has spent the last few years purging her bucket list: She’s become an actress (appearing as a guest star on The OA), released a string of increasingly aggressive albums (the latest of which is this year’s synth-driven Remind Me Tomorrow), toured the world, performed on Twin Peaks, written music for films, become a mom, gone back to school and popped up in collaborations with everyone from Land of Talk to Jeff Goldblum.

I had no idea that these things happened.  So good for her, I guess.

It’s only natural that this Tiny Desk concert feels different; you can hear it before Van Etten and her band even show up onscreen. Its pace set by the ticking beat of a drum machine, “Comeback Kid” is in full bloom here, with a swaying arrangement that fills the room before Van Etten opens her mouth.

“Comeback Kid” is super catchy.  It sounds similar to the recorded version although a little smaller, perhaps.  There’s also a few extra keyboard flourishes from Heather Woods Broderick (who played the Tiny Desk as a member of Horse Feathers way back in 2009).  Charley Damski plays the synth washes that fill the room.  Sharon plays acoustic guitar and sings with serious intensity.

“You Shadow” starts with bass (Devin Hoff) and a drum machine (Jorge Balbi).  There’s no guitar on this track, but Sharon’s voice sounds great:

 the singer performs with considerable intensity here, seething through “You Shadow.”

She quietly thanks everyone and introduces the band.  This moment of thanks and appreciation in no way prepares you for the intensity in which she sings the set-closing “Seventeen.”

The song also starts with synth and bass.  Sharon sings but doesn’t start playing acoustic guitar until after the first verse.  Everyone adds gorgeous backing vocals for the chorus.  Then Sharon starts getting intense while singing.  Normally “la la las” are kind of upbeat, but she comes out of them with a fire as she sings “with a scream that slashes through the office air.”

Her voice almost breaks and she seems to be quite moved by the performance.  It’s really tremendous.

I admit that I like her earlier stuff better–the way she sang, the way her backing singers complimented her and the intensity of her music.  But after seeing her live this summer and now watching this, her intensity is still there–it’s just used more sparingly and appropriately.

The only downside to this Tiny Desk is that Heather Woods Broderick–who is an amazing backing vocalist–is pretty subdued here.  It’s appropriately subdued in this setting, but it’s a shame to not hear her in full.

Here (left) is a picture from Sharon’s first Tiny Desk Concert.

[READ: November 7, 2019] “The Flier”

This story was very cool.

I really loved the way the entire story totally downplayed “one of the most wondrous occurrences in the history of humankind.”

It begins with the narrator explaining that his wife Viki had invited their friends Pam and Becky over: “short notice–but there’s something we’d like to talk over with you.”

As he describes the meal he’s made, in quite a lot of detail, Pam and Becky arrive.  The narrator hears them talk about him and he acknowledges that his illness has made him small and light.

After the pleasantries are over, Viki says matter-of-factly that the narrator “has developed the ability to fly.” (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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