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Archive for the ‘Nick Hornby’ Category

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: AIMEE MANN-Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo (2000).

Aimee Mann writes really pretty (often sad) songs.  From seeing her play live (in person and on video), she is very upright when she plays.  And I feel like this uprightness comes forth in her music.  She is very serious–not that she isn’t funny, because she can be–but that she is serious about songcraft.  Her songs, even when they are catchy, are very proper songs.  I don’t know if that makes sense exactly.

It also means to me that most of her music sounds similar.  She has a style of songwriting and she is very good at it.  For me, it means that a full album can start to sound the same, but a few songs are fantastic.

“How Am I Different” opens up with a super catchy melody and a guitar hook that repeats throughout.  “Nothing is Good Enough” is a bit slower and less bouncy.  But “Red Vines” brings that bounce back with a super catchy chorus (and backing vocalists to punch it up).  The piano coda is a nice touch.

“The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist” starts slow but adds a cool guitar riff as the bridge leads to a catchy, full chorus.  “Satellite” slows things down as if to cleanse the palette for “Deathly.”

Now that I’ve met you
Would you object to
Never seeing each other again

The chorus is low key but the verses have a great melody.  It stretches out to nearly six minutes, growing bigger as it goes with a soaring guitar solo and better and better rhymes.

“Ghost World” has some wonderful soaring choruses while “Calling It Quits” changes the tone of the album a bit with a slightly more jazzy feel.  It also adds a bunch of sounds that are unexpected from Mann–horns, snapping drums and in the middle of the song, the sound of a record slowing down before the song resumes again.  It’s probably the most fun song on the record–unexpected for a song with this title.

“Driving Sideways” seems like it will be a slower downer of a song but once again, she pulls out a super catchy intro to the chorus (with harmonies) as the rest of the chorus trails on in Mann’s solo voice as we hang on every word.  It ends with a tidy, pretty guitar solo.

“Just Like Anyone” is a quiet guitar song, just over a minute long.  It’s a surprisingly complete song and shows that not only can she pack a lot into less than 90 seconds, she should do it more often.

“Susan” is a surprisingly boppy little number that bounces along nicely on the two-syllable rhythm of the title character.  “It Takes All Kinds” slows things down with piano and gentle guitars and “You Do” ends the album with Mann showing off a bit of her falsetto.

This is in no way a party album, it’s more of a quiet autumn day album.  And it’s quite lovely.  Thanks, Nick, for reminding me of it.

[READ: May 20, 2019] “It’s a Mann’s World”

Nick Hornby wrote High Fidelity and became something of a musical expert because of it.  As such, he wrote a half a dozen or so musical review sections for the New Yorker.

This was his first and, as one might guess from the title, it is about Aimee Mann.

He begins by talking about the British magazine Mojo and how every month they ask a musician what he or she is listening to.  He says that many musicians of a Certain Age seem to have abandoned rock and roll and are listening more to jazz or classical.  They are doing this “for reasons I can only guess as: Prokofiev! Ellington! Take that Hanson and Wu-Tang Clans fans! ”

These performers seem to suggest that pop music is dead.  Much in the way that people say fiction is dead.  Meanwhile good, talented musicians continue to make albums that people continue to listen to and good talented authors continue to write novels that people continue to read. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SELFISH CUNT-“Britain Is Shit” / “Fuck the Poor” (2003).

I had not heard of this band until reading about them in yesterday’s Nick Hornby essay.  He didn’t name them, but he mentioned a review in which the band were described as combining ‘the hammering drum machine and guitar of controversial 80’s trio Big Black and the murky noise of early Throbbing Gristle.”

The band was formed in early 2003 by Martin Tomlinson and Patrick Constable, and was noted for provocative lyrics, aggressive stage shows, and electronic-influenced rock.  In 2004, The Guardian placed Selfish Cunt at #40 on its list of “top 40 bands in Britain today.”  They broke up in 2008.

This was their first single.  It surprises me that both of these songs are over three minutes long as they seems like they would be about 45 seconds.

“Britain is Shit” opens with a fast electronic drum beat with jagged guitar stabs and shouted vocals.  Big Black is an excellent touchstone.  After a few verses, all the music drops out except for the drum machine–it’s quite a bold musical statement (not to mention the lyrics).  A ringing guitar chord keeps the semblance of melody going.  The lyrics resume:

Are you having fun / when war is on
put your kettle on / cause the war is on.
Britain is shit / it’s full of lies
white men start their shit / in their shirts and ties.

“Fuck the Poor” is quite similar.  A simple drum machine beat with loud distorted guitars as the only musical element.  The lryics:

Fuck the poor / make war

sung in a heavy British accent,  After the first verse a second guitar chimes in with a guitar riff on top. and more distorted guitar.  The melody doesn’t change.  The song ends in a cacophony of noise.

These songs aren’t original (although combining the sharp electric drum with punk guitars is pretty novel) but they are provocative.  Evidently their live show was quite something.

A 2004 thread on Drowned in Sound describes the live show

I saw them last night, not sure if they could live up to the hype. I went with an open mind but thinking they might not pull it off.

But fuck me. They pulled it off. They fucking rocked. The singer was incredible, hypnotic, acrobatic, snarling, wearing a ripped up catsuit and eye makeup, prowling round the crowd and singing in people’s faces, coming on to all the straight boys, singing in the girls’ ears… like some kind of crossover between iggy, rotten and … grace jones or something. he threw himself around, doing these balletic poses, completely confident and… fucking ace.

Songs? yeah, there were some, they were loud and good. Britain Is Shit is the best anti war song I’ve heard. Fuck The Poor is an anthem. And, one more time, for the record, when he says those vile things like “bang bang another nigger dead” it’s not his own opinion, it’s the voice of someone else – soldier, politician, whoever. It’s a PROTEST not an advocation. come on, haters, get with the fuckin programme.

I think racist types are not really going to latch onto Selfish Cunt because Tompkinson is one of the most obviously gay frontmen i’ve ever seen, and i doubt many racist bigots are particularly accepting of gay people… and i honestly think that the disdain with which he spits out the lyrics make it pretty obvious that there’s something more going on than just the straight lyric.

Of course, you’ll never get a song on the radio with a name like that.

[READ: June 3, 2019] “The Male Gaze”

I enjoyed the tone of this story although the main character was a bit of a puzzle.  She is sophisticated and aware of the male gaze, but seems willing to succumb to it anyway.

Phoebe is a young, sexually active New Yorker: “sometimes she felt like hot shit, sometimes just like shit.”

The first section of the story is called The Most Important Artist of the Post-Second World War Period.

At a party, Phoebe meets Pablo Miles who approached her and says “you’re very fuckable.”

Of all the affronts!  But Phoebe knew the game and made big eyes at him and said “Do you really mean it?” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MARAH-Kids in Philly (2000).

After reading about Marah in Hornby’s post I decided to listen to their Kids in Philly CD.

I totally get why Hornby likes them and I can absolutely imagine what their live show would be like.

They’ve absolutely got the whole Springsteen vibe–good time rock and roll with close harmony backing vocals.

There’s a harmonica instead of a saxophone (I prefer the harmonica) on “Faraway You: and there’s even xylophones like on Springsteen’s Christmas song on “Point Breeze.”  The horns (and the chanted “come ons”) do appear, this time on “Christian Street.”

“It’s Only Money Tyrone” slows things down with slinky groove and a sound that’s less bar-band.  “My Heart is the Bums on the Street” feels like a quieter Springsteen song–classic rock with gentle vibes and a clap-along feel.  Although I suppose like he sounds more like Craig Finn than Bruce Springsteen.

“The Catfisherman” is a stomping honky-tonking song with an Aerosmith vibe.  “Round Eye Blues” slows things down with a simple melody (in the vein of U2s “With or Without You”).  It also recycles all kinds of early rock n roll lyrics into its own melody, which is fun.

“From the Skyline” has a great guitar riff/solo running through it with a bit more distortion thrown on top.  “Barstool Boys” sounds a bit like The Replacements’ “Here Comes A Regular” only with banjo.  “The History of Where Someone Has Been Killed” adds some acoustic guitar while “This Town” keeps the mood with a quiet album ender.

I am genuinely surprised that this band wasn’t more popular.  They would seem to push a lot of classic classic-rock buttons.

I only wish I had some idea why they chose that name.

[READ: June 15, 2019] “Rock of Ages”

After reading Hornby’s 2000 review of Marah I found this 2004 review of Marah.  Since I had seen that they later did a tour together, I was curious what this lengthy review would be about.  It’s about seeing Marah live and lamenting that a band this good should have to resort to “passing the hat” for tips.

He says

Philadelphia rock ‘n’ roll band Marah is halfway through a typically ferocious, chaotic and inspirational set.  My friends and I have the best seats in the house, a couple of feet away from Marah’s frontmen, Serge and Dave Bielanko.  The show ends triumphantly, as Marah shows tend to do, with Serge lying on the floor amid the feet of his public, wailing away on his harmonica.

What I love about them is that I can hear everything I ever loved about rock music in their recordings and in their live shows … because they are unafraid of showing where their music comes from, and unafraid of the comparisons that will ensue

This show was at a small pub in England.  Which seems a shame since a few months earlier (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: STEVE EARLE-Transcendental Blues (2000).

I’ve never really liked Steve Earle’s music.  For some reason I always thought of him as a kind of outlaw country.  But the review of this album from Hornby made me want to check it out.  And while there are certainly country music trappings, this is a solid fun rock record.

Earle’s voice isn’t what I thought it was (or wasn’t was it is now)–it’s much softer and much higher than I imagined.  So what’s going on on this record?

“Transcendental Blues” has a great distorted guitar riff running opposite the throbbing bassline.  Earle’s voice sounds like a cross between Dylan, Petty and (anachronistically) Kevin Devine.  “Everyone’s in Love with You” sounds like a rocking R.E.M. song with a very 90s vocal style and even a reverse guitar solo.

“Another Town” sounds like a song that I’ve heard a million times (but I haven’t).  It’s a simple pop song with a crazy catchy melody and it’s barely 2 minutes long.  “I Can’t Wait” slows things down a bit with a real poppy Matthew Sweet-vibe.

“The Boy Who Never Cried” is a dirgey song, slow and story telling.  It has strings with a slightly Middle Eastern feel.

“Steve’s Last Ramble” is a stompin’ song with full on harmonica introduction (which makes it seem even more Dylan).  “The Galway Girl” is a mandolin-based stomper while “Lonelier Than This” is a quiet, sad song.

“Wherever I Go” is only two minutes ling and has a country feel, even though it’s not that different from the other songs.  The guitar solo is totally early Beatles, but the lyrics are pure country:

I could drink corn whisky ’til my brain goes soft
I could run this highway ’til my wheels come off

The harmonica returns on “When I Fall” the start of a trifecta of country songs.  His drawl really comes out here, possibly because of his duet partner (Steve Earle’s sister, Stacey Earle, a country singer in her own right).  It’s a shame this song is so long as it’s my least favorite.

“I Don’t Want to Lose You Yet” is a simple country pop song (the twang remains).  Although “Halo ‘Round the Moon” is a softer song with a gentle shuffle beat.  “Until the Day I Die” continues with the old school country/bluegrass style with a big ol’ banjo intro, close harmonies, and a fiddle solo.  You can imagine a jug solo, hand clappin’ and a hoedown in a live version.

“All of My Life” rocks out again, with some loud bass and distorted guitar, which I desperately needed after those last few songs.

The disc ends with “Over Yonder (Jonathan’ Song).”  From songfacts:

This song is about the execution-by injection of Jonathan Nobles, which Steve Earle witnessed. The alt-country star told Mojo magazine May 2008 about it: “I don’t recommend it. I befriended Jonathan for several months beforehand. Then I saw the execution and later brought his remains to England for burial according to his wishes. But the execution was incredibly toxic to me. It’s hard. You can’t believe it’s really happening. I remember afterwards I thought, ‘did I black out and miss it? I let Jonathan down.’ Then the blank filled in… it was the shock… I realized exactly what I’d seen. I can’t see myself doing it again. I’ve absorbed enough death. And I still work hard against the death penalty.”

So I’m still on the fence about Earle, but I did enjoy this record much more than I thought I would.  Thanks, Nick.

[READ: June 15, 2019] “Alternative Earle”

I am aware of Steve Earle and I really like his lyrics.  I don’t love his music though–too much country in the alt-country.  Although Hornby describes it as Nashville folk and rock n roll hybrid.  But man, his lyrics are great.  I wish I liked him a bit more especially after reading this review.

Hornby is a passionate music lover and anything he likes sounds great when he describes it.

The album in question is Transcendental Blues (and in the photo Earle’s beard is much shorter than it is now).  As of 2000, Earle has been married and divorced six times (to five women–4 and 6 were the same person). In 1994 he was imprisoned for possessing narcotics.  This sentence ending years of heroin addiction. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACKALI AWAN-NonCOMM (May 15, 2019).

Ali Awan is a Philly native and WXPN loves him.

Ali Awan‘s whole set was drenched in sound, and yet the crowd always seemed eager for even more.  The Philly artist and his six-person band opened his NONCOMM set with the bombastic “Be a Light.” The track, which Awan just released a surreal video for, highlights the band’s ability to make a lot of noise.

Like the rest of the set it features rocking guitars and a retro feel including backing “doo doos.”

Three guitars, one played by Awan himself, didn’t feel like enough for “Pick Me Up”, a bright cut off Awan’s new EP.

“Pick Me Up” is he ridiculously catchy track that WXPN has been playing so much.  The bouncy chorus is unforgettable.

The combined power of the rest of the ensemble added even more of the energy that the crowd craved. Everything Awan and co. did sounded like a lot, but purposefully so, making every ounce of noise feel valuable.

“Citadel Blues” has a bouncy repeated “beat beat beat beat” followed by a cool downward guitar riff.  His songs sound familiar–old school jangly distorted guitars with an updated retro soubnd.

The 26-year-old’s unique psych rock stylings enraptured everyone in attendance. There seemed to be as much jumping and dancing on stage as there was off stage, especially during the gripping “Citadel Blues” and “Beyond The Valley”.

Awan closed out the set with “Rubble and the Memories” which was so full of energy the “bah da das” could barely be contained in the song.

No doubt Ali Awan would be a fun performer to see live.

[READ: May 1, 2019] “Pain in My Heart”

While looking through back issues of the New Yorker, I discovered that Nick Hornby had written a number of essays for them.  Not as many as I imagined he would have, but at least a handful.

In this, his first piece for the New Yorker (as far as I can tell), Hornby combines his love of music with his humor at being disappointed by his heroes.

He starts by citing an old R&B lyric that he’d always liked:

I’d rather be blind, crippled, and crazy / Somewhere pushing up a daisy / Than to let you break my hear all over again.

But then an “over-analytical” friend asked why he had to be blind, crippled and dead.  Surely just being dead would get the job done. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PHOEBE BRIDGERS-Tiny Desk Concert #677 (November 27, 2017).

Phoebe Bridgers has an incredibly delicate voice.  And yet despite its delicacy it is also really powerful (as evidenced by the note she holds at the end of “Motion Sickness”).

I know the original of “Motion Sickness” which has a big raw guitar and a powerful chorus.  Her entire sound is stripped down here, with just pianist Ethan Gruska and violinist Rob Moose accompanying her on her quiet guitar.

Together, they celebrated the occasion with languid renditions of three of the album’s best songs: the sad and seductive “Demi Moore,” a drastically muted “Motion Sickness” and a piano-driven take on Bridgers’ first-ever single, “Killer.”

“Demi Moore” has some interesting synthy sounds accompanying Phoebe’s gentle guitar.  I really like the way the violin is playing somewhat unsettling notes rather than gentle accompaniment.  I cannot figure out what this has to do with Demi Moore, though.

As noted, “Motion Sickness” is very different.  It’s a little less catchy somehow (I really like the contrast of the guitars and her voice on the original).  But the song sounds really pretty this way (and I am charmed at the way she seems to be smiling throughout the song).

She describes “Killer” as being about murder.  It includes an unsettling conversations about Jeffrey Dahmer and Bridgers singing without her guitar.  It’s a stark piano song that really lets you hear how pretty her voice is.

I’m very curious to know what she typically sounds like live.

[READ: May 13, 2017] My Brilliant Friend

In what I thought was the final issue of The Believer (it went on hiatus for a couple of years), Nick Hornby says he really enjoyed My Brilliant Friend.  So I decided to check it out (since it’s part of a series and was compared tangentially to My Struggle, I decided to keep a running tally of pages just in case I decided to read all four of these books).

I haven’t read a ton of Italian writers, I gather.  And while that doesn’t really impact the quality of the story (or the translation by Ann Goldstein) the book does talk about locations that I’m pretty unfamiliar with.

Evidently there is intrigue about the identity of Elena Ferrante (the name is a pseudonym).  I didn’t know that until after I read the book and looked up to see how many more books there were.  Ferrante (I’ll go with she, because why not) has written four books in this series and three other books with out her identity being discovered.  I suppose the reason her identity is interesting is because this book seems to be autobiographical.  Of course what do you call an autobiography by a pseudonym? (more…)

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