Archive for the ‘Karen Russell’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: GUSTER-Parachute Live from Brooklyn Bowl (2013).

In 2014, Guster released three CDs of them playing their early CDs live in their entirety (excluding for some reason their second disc Goldfly).  So this is a recording of their first album ‘Parachute’ performed and recorded live in concert at Brooklyn Bowl on December 1, 2013.

This album sounds quite different from the other Guster albums.  I don’t really understand what the difference is.  It sounds like Guster, but not exactly.  Is it that they both sing in harmony through most of the songs?  Is it that Ryan sings “better?”  Are the songs just more folkie?

Whatever the case, even after several albums that don’t sound like this album and nearly twenty years, the band jumps right back into it (the harmonies on “Window” are perfect, for example).

They aren’t the same three-piece they were back in 1994 (they have drums now for instance), but it all works very well.  They also aren’t terribly funny between songs.  Usually Ryan is pretty silly in a show, but they seemed to take it more or less seriously.

After “Dissolve” Ryan says, “we’re playing in a bowling alley I just realized.  Cool.”  You can hear someone in the crowd shout “steeerike.”

I know the guys have made jokes about their song “Happy Frappy” a few times when I’ve seen them, so it’s no surprise that before the song, Ryan shouts, “Alright its ‘Happy Frappy’ time, stoners.”  Although I have no idea what the song is actually about.

When the disc is over Ryan shouts, “Parachute the album–19 and a half years old!”

I think it sounds even better than the original.

[READ: June 2, 2018] “Orange World”

I love when a title gives you an idea but it is totally not the idea of what  the story means–and the new idea is even better than what you had imagined.

“Orange World” conjured up many things to me, but not the devil, not a woman nursing the devil and not a woman nursing the devil every night because the evil saved her baby’s life.

When Rae was pregnant she was worried about a lot of things: ABNORMAL RESULT, HIGH RISK, CLINICAL OUTCOME UNKNOWN.  When the third test came back, she started begging for anything to save her baby from the unknown.

Between 4 and 5 A.M. one night something answered and it promised the baby would be okay.

So what does this have to do worth orange world?  Well, “Orange World is where most of us live.”  It is a nest of tangled electric cords and open drawers filled with steak knives.  It’s a used crib  It’s compromises that could hurt the safety of your baby.  You take a shower with your baby and suddenly….

“Green World” is a fantasy realm of soft corners and infinite attention. The Educator say that Green World is ideal but Orange World is the reality.  Next week’s class is “Red World” and Rae doesn’t want to think about it.

Rae takes the baby doll.  Its head falls off and she steps on the blanket.  Sneaker bacteria: Orange World; decapitation: Red World.  The educator encourages her to go to new moms group. (more…)

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june9SOUNDTRACK: RODRIGO AMARANTE-Tiny Desk Concert #384 (August 23, 2014).

rodrigoI hadn’t heard of Rodrigo Amarante before this Tiny Desk Concert.  The photo of him–heavily bearded with a tiny guitar, simply didn’t prepare me for the beautiful rich voice this singer has.

Amarante is from Rio de Janeiro but now lives in Los Angeles (and has no discernible accent).  That tiny guitar is a ‘Harmony parlor guitar from the ’30s, known lovingly as “Butter.”‘

He plays four simply gorgeous songs (only marred slightly by the fact that he has to clear his throat a bunch of times).  Two songs are in English, one is in French and the fourth is in Portuguese.

The opening humming notes of “The Ribbon” are just beautiful and sound so lovely with “Butter” playing along.  When he starts singing, you simply get sucked into his warm enveloping voice.

“Mon Nom” is sung in French and the soft sound of the French sounds even better as he sings.  (Coincidentally, this song contains the word Aubergine, and a woman named Aubergine is the main character of today’s story).

Before the third song, he says he’s not used to these songwriter stools but declines a change.  “I’m Ready” sounds rather different from the other song in English.  He doesn’t sing radically different, but there’s something in his phrasing that changes the tone of the song.  I believe the end of the song is sung in Portuguese.

The final song, “Nada Em Vão” is sung entirely in Portuguese.  Before the song Bob asks if this is the most unusual place he’s played in, and he says he would “like to say yes….”  This song is much more quiet and subtle.  It’s also quite lovely.  And the way it ends is kind of a surprise too.

Amarante is a real find and seems like a super nice guy too. At the end of the show he stretches and says that it’s a nice way to start my day.

[READ: February 15, 2016] “The Prospectors”

I haven’t read much from Russell before so I was really surprised by a lot of things in this story.

It opens with a woman, Aubergine, on a chairlift riding up the side of a mountain.  The woman and her friend Clara were expecting to go to a party at the peak.  The two women had met a man calling himself Eugene de la Rochefoucauld.  They had waited for Eugene at the bottom of the chairlift for an hour, then (after dubbing him Mr No-Show) they set up the chairlift by themselves.

Imagine my surprise to find out a few paragraphs in that they are heading up Mt. Joy, the miracle of the New Deal.  This story is set in WPA times, and they are going up the mountain to see the beautiful new hotel. (more…)

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dec2014SOUNDTRACK: TOM BROSSEAU-“Will Henry” NPR Lullaby SXSW (March 17, 2015).

tbFrom March 17-March 21, the SXSW festival raged on. And my friends at NPR Music were there so I didn’t have to be. In past years they have had a nightly recap of their favorite shows of the day. This year they upped the ante by inviting a musician to sing a lullaby.  Most of these lullabies occurred in some unexpected outdoor location at 2 or so A.M. after a long day of music.

Tom Brosseau was the first up. He has a long history with All Songs Considered, and he was game to play a song he has never recorded–a murder ballad about Will Henry.

Brosseau has a delicate voice. And with just him and his acoustic guitar (and the sounds of bird and traffic, this is a delightful lullaby.  Even if the words are a murder ballad.

The song is pretty consistent in its simple musical pattern, so that at around 3 minutes when he runs a riff, it’s quite stimulating.

Check it out here.

[READ: March 23, 2015] “Beeper World”

This issue of Harper’s featured five essays (well four essays and one short story) about “Growing Up: five coming of age stories.”  Since I knew a few of these authors already, it seemed like a good time to devote an entire week to growing up.  There are two introductions, one by Christine Smallwood (who talks about Bob Seger) and one by Joshua Cohen who talks about the coming of age narrative.

Russell’s essay is all about growing up in the age of beepers in Florida. For her 14th birthday she received a Motorola beeper.  She says the beeper was an evolutionary adaption for teenagers.  [I for one am not that much older than Russell, but I missed the whole beeper phenomenon and found them incredibly silly].  Before she turned 14 she was a solitary person but the beeper was a way to get hee out and mingling with people (more…)

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jun9SOUNDTRACK: FOXYGEN-We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic (2013).

foxyI had no idea this was Foxygen’s third album (they have a new album out this week as well).  I had only heard of this because of NPR.  And I was delighted with the band’s utterly retro feel and sound–so much retro that it is almost too much.  But they do it with such flair that it works.  Indeed, the whole feeling of this album is one of sampling all of recent music history–with elements thrown in haphazardly (but effectively) and really celebrating a whole 60s/70s vibe with a sprinkling of modern technology.

“In the Darkness” is a 2 minute piano heavy track with horns, big swelling vocals chorals and all kinds of joy.  “No Destruction” though is where the retro sound really shines.  Sounding like a Velvet Underground track with a sweeter singer (who is no less blase).  Except that the chorus rises into a glorious hippie happiness.  It also features funny lines like the deadpan, “There’s no need to be an assshole you’re not in Brooklyn anymore.”

“On Blue Mountain” opens with a kind of Flaming Lips vibe (deep morphing voices counting down), but Sam France has a much higher pitched voice as he sings the slow intro.  Once the song kicks in faster, the real hippy vibe (combined with some Rolling Stones and some girlie backing vocals) kick in.  There’s even a big friendly chorus (that reminds me of “Suspicious Minds”).  After almost 4 minutes, the song shifts gears entirely into a raucous sing along  (with what sounds like a children’s choir).

After the manic intensity of “Mountain,” “San Francisco” emerges as a sweet delicate flute filled hippie song.  This was the first song I heard by them and I loved it immediately–the simple melody, the delicate (funny) female responses, the swelling strings. it was delightful.  “Bowling Trophies” is a weird little less than two-minute instrumental that leads to the glorious “Shuggie.”  “Shuggie” is the least hippie song on the album and screams more of a kind of French disco pop, with some wonderful lyrics.  The chorus is just a rollicking good time and the wah wah synth solo is terrific.  At three and a half minutes the song is just way too short, although it seems that anything that last longer than 4 minutes will shift gears into something else eventually anyway.

“Oh Yeah” brings in a staggered kind of sound, with some interesting breaks and stops.  It also inserts some doo-wop into it.  I love how the end once again shifts gears into a “freak out” with a wild guitar solo and fast drums.  The title song is fuzzy and distorted (the vocals are nearly inaudible).  It’s fast paced but still very retro sounding (Jefferson Airplane?) except for the modern electronic and guitar breaks.  And of course, the last minute is entirely different from the rest of the song, as well.

The album ends with “Oh No 2,” a five-minute track that begins as a slow swelling almost soundtrack song.  Indeed, when the spoken word part (“I was standing on the bed, birds were landing on my head”) emerges later on, it comes close to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which is not a bad thing), including the piano outro (with slightly out of tune voice).

This whole album could just be an obnoxious rip off of old timey sounds, but instead it’s more like a fun reference point for those who know the music and just a fun good time for those who don’t.  And at something like 35 minutes, it never overstays its welcome.

[READ: September 17, 2014] “The Bad Graft”

This year’s Summer Fiction issue of the New Yorker was subtitled Love Stories.  In addition to all of the shorter pieces that were included in this issue, there were also four fiction contributions.

This was the final story in this issue and, sadly for me, it was the one I liked least.  It has three sections: I. Germination; II. Emergence; III. Establishment.  And while I enjoyed (mostly) section I., I really didn’t enjoy the turn the story took once it entered section II and the “plot” emerged.

The story opens with two young (actually not that young) lovers traveling towards Joshua Tree.  This couple is madly in love and are basically eloping.  Except, of course, that they don’t want to ever get married, so it is a symbolic elopement.  On their first date they had decided to run away together.  They left their homes in Pennsylvania more or less unannounced, took all their money and drove to the desert.

Andy and Angie, for that is what their names are, prepared well with Andy having, among other things a large knife (note to Chekovians).  After a few days they are startled to discover how expensive this road trip is.  But they are undaunted because they are in love.  Of course, they are also exhausted and perhaps a little on edge.

When they arrive at Joshua Tree, it is 106 degrees.  The park ranger informs them that they have arrived in time to see the yucca moths do their magic with the trees.  he calls it, the ‘pulse event.”  The entire range of Joshuas is in bloom and the moths are smitten.  This sounds exciting but it is also sad, as the Joshua Teees may be on the brink of extinction and this massive blossoming is like a distress call.

With all of this set up, it is a total surprise when half way through the section, the story informs is that “This is where the bad graft occurs.” (more…)

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5.20SOUNDTRACK: PAT METHENY-“Mastema” (2013).

Itap-cd-cover don’t know all that much about pat Metehny.  I know he’s a jazz guitarist held in high regard by some and in less high regard by others.  This song is Metheny playing a John Zorn composition–indeed, it comes from an entire album of Zorn covers called Tap: John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Vol. 20.  I have been a huge fan of Zorn for decades, and yet some time ago I had to stop following him–his output is just too huge.  So this Book of Angels series by the Masada String Quartet is unfamiliar to me.

Knowing what I do about Zorn, this piece is quite an interesting statement–it’s got a lot of the wildness that Zorn throws into his music, but it’s also got the pretty melodies that Zorn writes as well as the Jewish melodies that saturate the Masada albums.

Strangely enough this song reminds me more of Frank Zappa than John Zorn.  That may have to do more wbecause it’s a guitar and not a sax, but it also has something to do with the bass guitar that is playing along–it’s got a very Zappa sound to it.

I feel like I’d rather just listen to Masada, but I’d have to really compare the two to see how this holds up.  It’s a pretty wild guitar workout though, if you like that sort of thing.

[READ: May 16, 2013] “Vision Quest”

The five brief pieces in this week’s New Yorker are labeled as “Imagined Inventions.”  And in each one, the author is tasked with inventing something.

Karen Russell is the first of the five authors whom I did not recognize (although I have read a few short pieces of hers in the New Yorker).  She describes her last invention, which was for the seventh grade science fair. It was called the Roller Solar Cream—she poured sunscreen on a roll-on deodorant stick.  It got a C+.  So she explains that she’s not much of an inventor, but she’s going to give it a try.  She also states that she doesn’t know how any of these inventions would work, nevertheless she proposes four.

Number 1 is a “Trapster” for social situations.  The original trapster is an app to alert you to speed traps and the like (I’ve never heard of that).   Her app would alert you when you are heading into a socially dangerous situation (be careful what you say around this person, her dad is famous).  Number 2 is called “Last Wishes Glasses” which upon wearing allow you to know what your dead relative would actually think of your plans/ideas (“she would have wanted it this way” is no longer needed).  I have to admit I find this invention to be pretty nonsensical.  Number 3 is the one I like most.  It’s called “Baby Roshambo” and it’s a program that allows you to see what a baby’s life will be like depending on what name you give him or her—see how Ashley, Bubbles, La’Dynasty and Gertrude would turn out differently just because of their names.


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SOUNDTRACK: PHISH-“In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” (2010).

My friend Jay sent me this clip of Phish covering Neutral Milk Hotel’s wonderful song.  He was at the show and sent me a link  to the YouTube video.

The original of this song is wonderful–always sounding like it’s going to collapse in on itself but never actually doing so.  It is full of angst and emotion and after the first listen, where you say, “is he really going to sing the whole thing like this?” you are totally hooked.

The Phish version evens a lot of that angst out.  It’s a strange thing to say about Phish, but they make this song far more commercial.  They turn it into a pretty ballad.  And that’s kind of a shame since the original is so iconic.

In Phish’s defense, this is part of one of their sets (they unveiled a new cover on every day of the tour), and it’s not like they are trying to record a definitive version of it or anything.  So they make it into a Phish song–with a long solo and everything.  And the solo sounds like a total Trey solo.  I’m not sure what songs surrounded this one, but it sounds like it fit perfectly into their set.

As the folks at Stereogum say, “If you’ve always felt “Aeroplane” needed more guitar solo, this is your lucky day.”  For me what it did was make me want to listen to the original–and that’s never a bad thing.

[READ: June 5, 2012] “Quests”

This essay opens up with a history lesson.  In the early nineties, Pizza Hut sponsored the Book It! program to promote reading.  For every ten books you read you got a free pizza.  Well, it turns out that they either still do this or they do it in a modified form because my son has been getting these free pizza coupons all year.  Of course, we live in New Jersey, where the pizza is plentiful and delicious (there are at least 4 excellent pizza places within ten minutes of our house).  And you’d be a fool to eat Pizza Hut, even if it is free.  My son is pretty bummed about this, because of course he wants to redeem his prize.  And I suppose one day we’ll let him do it, but it would painful.  I actually don’t even know where a Pizza Hut is by us.

But that’s got nothing to do with Russell’s essay.  She realizes the truism that there is no greater pleasure than reading for pizza.  Because it’s not just reading for escape and fantasy, now you’re a breadwinner. Literally.  Russell’s genre of choice was fantasy (Terry Brooks in particular–I love that she realizes later in life that he took his ideas from Dresden and Hiroshima and how it blew her mind). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: STARS-In Our Bedroom, After the War (2007).

I listened to the latest Stars release on cbcradio3 (they had been streaming it there).  I liked it but I didn’t love it.  So I went back to the predecessor to see if I still liked Stars as much as I recalled liking them.

And I do, indeed.  The vocals are split between the gorgeous, delicate Amy Millan and the earnest Torquil Campbell.

“The Night Starts Here” is a beautiful track and “Take Me to the Riot” is a stellar, catchy song with a rousing chorus.

In fact, the disc plays nicely back and forth with dancey tracks (like the discoey “My Favourite Book”) and more delicate tracks (like the delightful “Midnight Coward”.)

“The Ghost of Genova Heights” sounds not unlike Prefab Sprout (with another dioscoey sound).  While “Personal” is sad song about Personal ads (or the people in them, anyhow).  It’s the most downbeat song on the disc, and it acts as a nice breather for what’s to come.

There are a couple of simple piano songs, like “Barricade” which veers towards over the topness, but stays on the good side of it.

“Window Bird” has a great surprise twist in: after some delicate “forget, forget” whispers, a rocking bridge pushes its way in.  The disc ends with the almost closer: “Today Will Be Better I Swear,” which, with its musical diminutions would make an excellent end to the disc.  Although the closing song (the title track), makes for an excellent coda.

The Stars folk know their way around a delicate and catchy melody.  And their lyrics are strong too.  This is definitely a favorite disc of the last few years, even if, as Sarah points out, it’s not as rocking as I normally like.

I’ll probably check out The Five Ghosts, but I fear it will be hard to live up to this disc.

[READ: July 31, 2010] “The Dredgman’s Revelation”

Karen Russel is another of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40.  And this is a story that I wouldn’t normally read.  (I don’t have much of an affinity for depression-era fiction).  So I’m glad I said I would read all of these authors, as it exposed me to something new.

This story is about Louis Thanksgiving Auschenbliss.  Louis was born in a foundling’s hospital.  The story of his birth and the origin of his name are very enjoyable.  In fact, I would have wanted to read the story more if it started with this segment, rather than the stuff about the dredgeman (although I admit that the placement works much better dramatically).

Louis was eventually adopted by the Auschenbliss family, who treated him as if he was worse than an animal.  He was forced to do chores with virtually no rest for most of his young life.  But Louis never complained, he did what he was made to do, despite the abuses.  Until he’d had enough.  And then he left.

He found work as a Dredgeman in a Florida swamp.  The Model Land Company was digging a canal, and Louis was delighted to find work, even if it was work that every other man hated.  Because of Louis’ terrible family, he felt that anything, even dredging, was better than what he had been through.  And even though the crew thought he was weird for being so happy, he felt a kind of bond with them.

And so Louis is sad when the job ends.  But he quickly finds work with another company in an even more depressing, bug infested swamp.  The people aren’t as nice, but he’s still happy.


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