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Archive for the ‘Jonathan Lethem’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: PHONY PPL-Tony Desk Concert #829 (March 4, 2019).

This is another case where a band I’ve never heard of gets four songs and twenty minutes.  It’s petty to be bugged by that, but when band I like sometimes play 9 minutes, it’s a bummer.  However, by the end of the 20 minutes this jazzy, rocking r&b band won me over.

Phony Ppl is from Brooklyn.  They are fronted by an incredibly happy and smiling guy named Elbee Thrie.  In fact everyone seems really happy and full of energy

Phony Ppl is a group that emits a vigorous energy on and off stage. In this case, the spirit was exchanged between the band and the NPR staff from the moment they gathered behind the desk and gave a zesty greeting.

I thought they seemed very confident for a new band and it turns out they’re not new at all.

The Brooklynites formed in high school and stand out as one of a handful of R&B bands in the industry that makes eclectic choices in fashion and lyrical narratives. Their fifth full-length, 2015’s Yesterday’s Tomorrow, was praised for the way the band seamlessly melds jazz, R&B and hip-hop.

The songs are certainly jazzy (with a near-continuous sax from guest Braxton Cook).  If he’s a guest I wonder if I would enjoy them more without the sax.

They opened with “Compromise,” a highlight from Yesterday’s Tomorrow, and locked into an up-tempo pocket as if it was a second skin.  Midway through, during a quiet part where he claps along, Thrice says that the song’s “about meeting somebody at the wrong time” he says midsong.  There’s some awesome fuzzed out guitar solos from Elijah Rawk.  And I like when Rawk and bassist Bari Bass star swinging back and forth in sync, just enjoying themselves.

From there, they wove in three more songs, including two from their latest project, mō’zā-ik.

Thrice says that “One Man Band” is very special to him.  Hopefully you can feel it and I don’t have to explain why.  The middle sees a shift to reggae chords with some grooving bass and some delightfully gentle piano from Aja Grant.

“Cookie Crumble” features a kazoo solo that sounds a bit like a muted trumpet.   And by the final song, (uno mas, uno mas) “Why iii Love the Moon” they have totally won me over.  I love the way he interacts withe everyone on hand–“oh wait, she’d not ready.”  “You ready yet?”  “Oh she;s ready, we can play now.”

Maybe it was the nice backing vocals from drummer Maffyuu or the amazing moment when Cook and Rawk played the same solo on guitar and sax at the same time.  It was a great moment of synergy–they sounded amazing together.  And they totally won me over.

[READ: March 4, 2019] “The Starlet Apartments”

This is the story of a couple of young men fresh out of Yale.  The narrator was working for F.S.G. in New York City. Then he got invited by an old classmate, Todbaum, to move out to Hollywood to work on scripts–for projects that were already vetted!

The narrator, Sandy was delighted with the arrangement.  They lived in the Starlet Apartments a classic thirties two-story complex with a swimming pool. They drank a lot and tried to pick up women,  They fancied themselves great writers.  They wrote a ton and sold none.

After a few month, Sandy heard from his younger sister.  She had just graduated and wanted to come out to L.A. (anywhere but home).  He imagined having an attractive woman with them would only help their chances. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GEORGE LI-Tiny Desk Concert #782 (August 31, 2018).

Is it a showstopper if it is your first song of the Concert?  That’s the question I asked while I marveled at George Li playing every single note on the piano at the same time (it seemed) during the opening piece by Horowitz.  The show did not stop, and he played two more beautiful pieces.

George Li is a 23-year-old American pianist.  He began lessons at age 4, and at 10 gave his first public concert. Five years later, he snagged the silver medal at the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Last fall, he released his debut album on a major label and these days he’s playing with many of the world’s major orchestras while touring the globe. He just graduated from Harvard where he studied English literature and piano, in a hybrid program with the New England Conservatory.

That first piece was by Li’s idol Vladimir Horowitz: Horowitz: Variations on a Theme from Bizet’s Opera Carmen.  

To honor Horowitz, Li begins his Tiny Desk recital with the master pianist’s electrifying reboot of a theme from Bizet’s opera Carmen. Li describes it as an “insane knuckle-buster.” Just watch his hands blur during the fiendish interlocking octaves at the explosive climax.

The camera zooms in on his hands and it’s still impossible to see what chords or notes he is playing.  But it is very impressive to see how high he lifts his hands between notes.  Wow, what a piece.

He then moves onto Liszt.  Liszt is also a composer who makes pianists tremble.  Although the first piece by Liszt is quiet and beautiful, the second one shows off more of Li’s amazing chops.

Then it’s two pieces by the ultimate monster pianist, Franz Liszt. The Consolation No. 3, with its gently flowing, long-lined melody and diaphanous ornaments, reveals the poetic side of the composer….

Liszt: Consolation No. 3 is just lovely the way it floats and soars through the melody.  Although even a fairly “simple” opening does involve using his right hand to play the bass notes.  I love that his left hand is playing this soothing melody while his right hand is constantly seeking out new variations on that melody.

But that’s nothing compared to Liszt: La Campanella in which from the angle of the camera it’s impossible to see what his right hand is doing the way it moves so quickly.  He borrowed themes from the Caprices of Paganini, “they’re all extremely difficult, of course.”  La Campanella means the bells and you can hear the high notes that keep repeating.

the rip-roaring La campanella begins with a single tinkling bell that multiplies into a wild cacophony of trills and scales, ending in what Li calls “a big bang.”

He talks about the bells building and building, adding new notes and octaves over the course of the four minutes.  And you can hear those high notes (I imagine it sounds amazing on a grand piano).  And just as you get 12:38 he starts doing this trills up at the higher register of the piano.  He gets both hands involved and it’s nearly 30 seconds of massive finger workout.

It’s exhausting just watching him.

Li is no doubt used to playing grand pianos, and the blurb wonders…

when Li revealed his Tiny Desk setlist, one thought came to mind: How will these powerhouse showstoppers sound on an upright piano? The music he intended to play, by Franz Liszt and Vladimir Horowitz, was designed for a real, 7-foot concert grand piano – the kind they used to call “a symphony orchestra in a box.”

Turns out, there was nothing to worry about. Li’s technique is so comprehensive, so agile, so solid, that instead of making our trusty Yamaha U1 quake in fear, he made the instrument sound several sizes larger, producing glorious, full-bodied colors and textures.

While I love seeing musicians shine while playing impossible pieces, technical virtuosity is nothing without feeling.  And Li’s music is full of feeling as well.

[READ: January 3, 2016] “A Gentleman’s Game”

I always think that I like Jonathan Lethem’s stories, but I’m not really sure that I do (I’ll have to read back and see what I thought of previous stories).  But he always writes about things that I don’t expect.

Like this story.  It is set in Singapore and is about an American who has settled there and becomes a very good backgammon player.

The exotic setting is enticing, I suppose, but the story is really about two men who knew each other who engage in a contest to see who can win.

Bruno grew up in Berkeley, CA.   But when he was old enough he left and has never been back to the States.  He has been in Singapore for a long time and he is shocked one day to see Keith Stolarsky, a former schoolmate, walking up to The Smoker’s Club, a typically underground and unknown-to-tourists-club. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHILLING THRILLING SOUNDS OF THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1964).

The cover during Phish’s 2014 concert was of this album.

Apparently many people grew up with this record.  I personally didn’t know it, but if you read the comments (don’t read the comments!) on any YouTube clip of the album you will see how popular it is.

Wikipedia describes it as  intended for “older children, teenagers, and adults” released by Disneyland Records (now known as Walt Disney Records). The album was mainly composed of sound effects that had been collected by the sound effects department of Walt Disney Studios. The album was released in several different forms. The album was first released in 1964 in a white sleeve, with a second release in 1973 with an orange sleeve. In both versions, the first side contained 10 stories narrated by Laura Olsher, complete with sound effects. The second side contained 10 sound effects meant for others to create their own stories.

Despite the title, most of the cuts had nothing to do with haunted houses or witches or ghostly spirits. Featured were such situations as an ocean liner hitting rocks, an idiotic lumberjack, a man crossing an unsafe bridge, someone lighting a stick of dynamite and a spaceship landing on Mars. Also, there are tracks with several examples of cats, dogs and birds (similar to “The Birds”) becoming enraged for some reason, as well as a skit about Chinese water torture. In addition, some of the screams were taken directly from the scene where Miss Havisham catches fire in the 1946 David Lean film Great Expectations.

The full track listing is

  • “The Haunted House” 3:00
  • “The Very Long Fuse” 1:28
  • “The Dogs” 1:13
  • “Timber” 1:45
  • “Your Pet Cat” 0:49
  • “Shipwreck” 1:39
  • “The Unsafe Bridge” 1:21
  • “Chinese Water Torture” 2:02
  • “The Birds” 0:46
  • “The Martian Monsters” 1:41
  • “Screams and Groans” 0:57
  • “Thunder, Lightning and Rain” 2:01
  • “Cat Fight” 0:37
  • “Dogs” 0:48
  • “A Collection Of Creaks” 1:54
  • “Fuses and Explosions” 1:11
  • “A Collection Of Crashes” 0:45
  • “Birds” 0:33
  • “Drips and Splashes” 1:18
  • “Things In Space” 0:53

Nothing is especially scary–although maybe for a kid, as many adults claim to have been really frightened by it.  Everything is quite over the top, especially the screams and cat howls and dog snarling.  Even the stories are a little silly, although having them in the second person is pretty genius.

But things like “one night as you lie in your lonely room in your stone hut on the moors…”  (What?).  And the Martian one.  Just keeping with continuity: if “you,” meaning me, went on the trip, then I couldn’t hear the crunching as it ate me.  Or the silly voice saying “I wonder what that was.”

And the less said about the horribly racist Chinese Water Torture the better.  I mean, the opening is bad enough: “The ancient Chinese were a very clever race” but the end of the song is really awful.  But if we can look past that, the rest of the record has fun with sound effects and is generally pretty enjoyable.

During the John Congleton interview, he also talks about this album and says (at 40:28) “the speakers are 180 degrees out of phase to make it sound extremely stereophonic.”  He says now as an engineer it is totally painful to listen to.  Bob says it sounds like it comes from the back of your head.

[READ: October 15, 2017] Half-Minute Horrors.

The premise of this book (edited by Susan Rich) is simple: how scared can you get in 30 seconds?  To me, the answer is actually not very.  I guess for me fear builds over time.  It’s hard to get genuinely frightened over something that just suddenly happens (unless it is just trying to frighten you quickly, of course).

Having said that, I enjoyed this book a lot (look at the list of authors!).  I liked the arbitrary goal of writing a scary story in a paragraph or two (or more).  And some of them were really quite creepy.

I was originally going to point out which ones I felt were the most creepy, but there are so many stories, I kind of lost track.  So instead, here’s a rundown and a brief summary. (more…)

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concavityStarting this month, Matt Bucher and David Laird, scholars and fans of David Foster Wallace have created the first regular Podcast devoted to Wallace.  And the intro and closing music is from Parquet Courts’ “Instant Disassembly” which is also pretty cool.

This introductory episode serves as an introduction to Bucher and Laird, their love of Wallace’s work, and what they hope to do in future episodes.

Matt Bucher lives in Texas, not far from the Ransom Center where the Wallace archives have been settled (he assures us that he moved there before the site was selected). David Laird is from Kelowna, in British Colombia (4 hours east of Vancouver).  The claim to fame of Kelowna is the mythical lake monster Ogopogo.  But in Infinite Jest, a character is spoken of as being addicted to a thick apple juice that comes from BC.

Bucher also runs Sideshow Media Group which published Elegant Complexity, Nature’s Nightmare, and Consider David Foster Wallace. He says he and his brother founded the press because no one would publish Elegant Complexity, and he felt it needed to get out there. (more…)

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CV1_TNY_04_07_14DeSeve.inddSOUNDTRACK: JOHNNYSWIM-Tiny Desk Concert #352 (April 28, 2014).

johnnyIt was with this Tiny Desk Concert that I was able to get the numbers of the more recent ones.  They proudly announce that this was the three hundred and fiftieth TDC.  Which is pretty hard to believe.  They have almost a year’s worth.  And it seems lately that they have been putting them up at the rate of more than one a week.  How;sa guy ever supposed to catch up?

So I’d never heard of Johnnyswim before.  The band is comprised of husband and wife Abner Ramirez and Amanda Sudano.  They sing duets mostly but he seems to have the main voice.  And it is booming and powerful.  They have been street buskers and they have a great chemistry with each other and the audience (she says she wants to have his baby someday).

The two start as duo then for the last song the full band comes out.  And their third song with the full band “Diamonds,” is a big catchy uplifting anthem that could be absolutely huge, especially with the big sing along oh’s.  And yet the thing is, I don’t really like their voices.  I completely understand the appeal of catchy sings like “Home” and “Falling For Me,” but I just didn’t really enjoy them.

I imagine their songs will be in soundtracks this summer and I’ll get tired of hearing them.  But for now, they’re just not my thing.

[READ: June 6, 2014] “Pending Vegan”

I enjoyed most of this story because it deals with issues that I think many carnivores (at least those who are relatively sensitive) deal with—how do you eat animals but also like animals.  And yet this is not a preachy story.  I also liked it because it is set at Sea World, a place that the narrator (and many people) find questionable (at best) with regard to its animal care.

The protagonist, Paul, is taking his family to Sea World even though he really doesn’t want to go.  His wife thinks its important for their kids to see the animals before they are all gone. Paul is also quitting the antidepressant Celexa, which his therapist (a very funny, inappropriate man who says things like “black folks and Orientals”) says will make him see a lot of bad things (like bums and pickpockets) wherever he looks.

We also learn that in his own mind, Paul has changed his name to Pending Vegan.  It was a bit of a mortification but something that he felt was a step in the right direction (even if he still ate what he wanted).  He of course doesn’t know how to explain this name change to anyone (especially his daughters).  And of course, he doesn’t know how to explain the questionable (at best) behaviors at Sea World.  But he toughs it out for his family. (more…)

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44SOUNDTRACK: WNYC SOUNDCHECK GIG ALERTS (2009-).

soundcheck There are so many places to listen to free music.  But i prefer places where you can (legally) download free music.  So here’s a place I’ve just discovered: WNYC Radio’s website which features a section called “Gig Alerts.”  The feature talks about a different interesting band playing that night (in New York).  After a small blurb, there is (almost always) a free downloadable track.   There’s twenty listings per page and 86 pages.  Do the math and that’s a lot of songs.

The feature covers virtually every genre, although there is a preponderance of alt- and indie- rock (mostly lesser known bands).  If you are interested in new (to you) music and in exploring different artists, this is a great resource for a ton of free music.  So, check out Gig Alerts here.

[READ: May 20, 2014] McSweeney’s #44

I was pretty pleased with myself when I got caught up on the McSweeney’s issues.  But I remember wanting to take a break when this one came in.  I now see it has been almost a year since I read the last issue.  So the break was too long and now I have three issues to catch up on again.  Sigh.  But this one proved to be a great issue to return on.

This is a pretty quintessential issue of McSweeney’s.  It’s got letters, some fiction, a special section dedicated to Lawrence Weschler (which includes a lot of art), and a cool, interesting section of plates with full color art.  It’s also got an interestingly designed hardcover with a kind of raw cardboard in the back, a slightly raised colorful section for the spine and then a further raised section for the giant 44 on the front cover.

LETTERS (more…)

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42SOUNDTRACK: IRON MAIDEN-Iron Maiden (1980).

Steve Harris was on That Metal Show recently.  Harris is the baimssist and primary songwriter for Iron Maiden and has been since their first album in 1980.  When I was in high school Iron Maiden was my favorite band hands down.  I had all their albums, I had all their singles, all their hard to find British vinyl 12 inch singles, even a few pictures discs.  Wonder if they’re valuable?

Every album was an epic event for me–I even played “Rime of the Ancient Mariner “off of Powerslave to my English class (not telling anyone it was 13 minutes long).

And then, after Somewhere in Time, I just stopped listening to them. Almost full stop.  I did manage to get the first four albums on CD, but the break was pretty striking.  I actually didn’t know that they’d had personnel changes in the ensuing years.  I’d vaguely heard that Bruce Dickinson  left, and that others followed, but I don’t think I quite realized that they were back to their big lineup these days.

Anyhow, Harris was so earnest and cool that I had to go check out some of their new stuff. Which was okay.  I’d need more time to digest, but then I had to listen to the first albums again.

And wow I had forgotten how much the first Iron Maiden album melds punk and prog rock into a wild metal hybrid.  There’s so much rawness in the sound and Paul Di’Anno’s vocals, not to mention the speed of some of the tracks.  And yet there’s also some epic time changes and starts and stops and the elaborate multipart Phantom of the Opera….  Wow.

The opening chords of “Prowler” are brutal.  But what’s surprising is how the second song “Remember Tomorrow” is a lengthy song that has many ballad-like qualities, some very slow moody sections–although of course each chorus rages with a great heavy riff and a blistering solo.  On the first two albums Paul Di’Anno was the singer.  He had a fine voice (it was no Bruce Dickinson, but it was fine).  What’s funny is that Bruce does the screams in “Remember Tomorrow” so much better in the live version that I forgot Paul’s vocals were a little anemic here.

However, Paul sounds perfect for the rawness of “Running Free” a wonderfully propulsive song with classic Harris bass and very simple metal chugga chugga riffs.  And this has one of the first real dual guitar solos–with both players doing almost the same riff (and later Harris joining in on bass).

“Phantom of the Opera” is the band’s first attempt at an epic multi-secton kinda-prog song.  It opens with a memorable, if slightly idiosyncratic riff and some wonderfully fast guitars/bass.  There’s a great slow bit that morphs into an awesome instrumental soloing section with bass and twin guitars playing a wonderful melody.

“Transylvania” is an instrumental that is challenging but probably not one of the best metal instrumentals out there, although again when Dennis Stratton and Dave Murray play in synch solos it’s awesome.  This track segues into “Strange World” a surprisingly trippy song (with effects that seem like keyboards but which aren’t).  It’s slow in a “War Pigs” kind of way, but it doesn’t entirely break up the album, because there are other slow bits on the disc.  It is a little out of place though.

Especially when “Sanctuary” blasts forth.  True, it wasn’t originally on the album (in the UK), but man, blistering punk or what!  “Charlotte the Harlot” was always one of my favorite songs (it taught me what a harlot was after all), it’s quite proggy, with a lot of stuttered guitar work and a middle section that features some loud and complex bass.  The disc ends with the by now almost immortal “Iron Maiden.”   A great raw riff opens the song, a harmony guitar partners it and the band blasts forth.  Who even knows what the lyrics area about, the song just moves and moves–There’s even a great chaotic bass/drum break in the middle.  And listening to the guitar noises in the solos at the end.  Amazing.  It’s quite the debut.

[READ: June 7, 2013] McSweeney’s #42

I have made it a point of (possibly misguided) pride that I have read every word in every McSweeney’s issue.  But this issue has brought that to an end.  As the title states, there are twelve stories in the book.  But there are also sixty-one authors writing in eighteen languages.  And there’s the rub.  One of my greatest (possibly misguided) shames is that I don’t speak any other languages.  Well, I studied Spanish and German, I know a few dozen words in French and I can read the Greek alphabet, but none of these would help me read any of these stories.  So, at least half of this book I didn’t read.

But that’s kind of the point.  The purpose of this book is to make a “telephone” type game out of these stories.  Stories are translated from one language to another and then re-translated back into English.  The translators were mostly writers rather than translators and while some of them knew the second language, many of them resorted to Google Translate or other resources to “read” the story.  Some people read the story once and then rewrote it entirely, other people tried to be as faithful as possible to the original.  And so what you get are twelve stories, some told three times in English.  Some versions are very similar and others are wildly divergent.

I normally write about the stories in the issues, but that seems sort of beside the point as the original stories were already published and were selected for various reasons (and we don’t even see any of the original stories).  The point here is the translation(s).  So, in a far less thorough than usual way, I’ll list the contents below. (more…)

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