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Archive for the ‘Sarah Vowell’ Category

[LISTENED TO: March 2017] The Organist

organistAfter really enjoying The Organist in 2015, the season ended and I hadn’t heard that there were going to be anymore.  So I stopped looking for them.  And then the other day I got an email reminding me about recent episodes.  Well, sure enough there had been an entire season last year and they were already part way through this year’s season.

So I’m playing some catch up here.  But they are timeless, so it’s okay.

Each cast has a section in brackets–this text comes from the Organist’s own site.  The rest is my own commentary.

The Organist is a free podcast from KCRW & McSweeney’s.  As of this writing, they are up to episode 82. (more…)

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artofmcSOUNDTRACK: SUGAR-“Helpless” single (1992).

helplessI loved that first Sugar album and even bought the single for “Helpless” (back then singles were ways for record labels to get more money out of fans of a band rather than for people to pay for one song).  In addition to “Helpless,” the single contains three songs.  “Needle Hits E” is a poppy song–very Mould, very Sugar.  The song is a bright and vibrant addition and would fit nicely on Copper Blue.

The second track is an acoustic version of “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” which sounds wonderful.  Mould really knows how to record a 12 string guitar to make it sound huge.  “Try Again” is the final track.  It reminds me of The Who, especially the bass line at the end of each verse.  It’s a darker song (especially for his single which is so up).  But I love the way the acoustic guitar seems to make it build and build.  Then, some time around the two and a half minute mark, a feedback squall starts building.  It’s way in the background (and actually sounds a bit like squealing balloons).  It continues until the last thirty seconds just degenerate into full blown feedback noise–just so you know Sugar aren’t all pop sweetness.  All three songs were later released on Sugar’s Besides collection.

[READ: May 10, 2013] The Art of McSweeney’s

Sarah got this book for me for my birthday and I devoured it.  It answers every question I’ve had about McSweeney’s and many more that I didn’t.  It provides behind the scenes information, previously unseen pieces and all kinds of interviews with the authors and creators of the issues as well as The Believer, Wholphin and some of the novels.

The real treasure troves come from the earliest issues, when there was very little information available about the journal.  So there’s some great stories about how those early covers were designed (ostensibly the book is about the artwork, but it talks about a lot more), how the content was acquired and how the books were publicized (book parties where Arthur Bradford smashed his guitar after singing songs!).

The cover of the book has a very elaborate series of very short stories by Eggers (these same stories appeared on the inside cover of McSweeney’s 23).  For reasons I’m unclear about, the rings of stories have been rotated somewhat so it is does not look exactly the same–although the stories are the same.  The inside photo of the book also gives the origin of the phrase “Impossible, you say? Nothing is impossible when you work for the circus.”

The opening pages show the original letters that Dave Eggers sent out to various writers seeking stories and ideas that were rejected by other publications (and interesting idea for a journal). (more…)

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14

SOUNDTRACK: DEFTONES-Diamond Eyes (2010).

diamondBefore releasing Diamond Eyes, Deftones had two band crises. The first was that they didn’t really seem to like each other anymore.  The previous album was fraught with tension and they barely toured.  After deciding that they wanted to remain as a band, they were invigorated and made an album called Eros.  But during the recording, bassist Chi Cheng was in a car accident and was in a coma.  As of yet he has not fully recovered.  So they shelved Eros, hired a temporary bass player Sergio Vega and set about recording Diamond Eyes.  And for whatever reason, it proved to be one of their best releases so far.

“Diamond Eyes” opens with a heavy down-tuned guitar–very abrasive–until the chorus come in and it’s their most beautiful ones yet–with soaring keyboards and  harmonies.  And then the heavy guitars come back–it’s what Deftones do so well–beauty and ugly together.  Stephen Carpenter really shines, as always.  “Royal” is a fast song with a great harmonizing chorus.  “Cmnd/Ctrl” has a shocking low riff that explodes into a  bright chorus.  “You’ve Seen the Butcher” has guitars that seem almost untuned as the song starts.  But it morphs into a kind of sexy butt-shaking chorus.  And Abe Cunningham’s drums are, of course, fantastic.

“Beauty School” is the first that doesn’t really start out heavy, it’s a got a gentle guitar intro and the first song where Vega’s bass is really prominent as a separate instrument and it creates a beautiful alternative song–great vocals throughout.  “Prince” brings in a lot of new textures to the album, including a clanging guitar sound and a great screamed chorus. “Rocket Skates” is one of my favorite songs on the record, it has a classic metal riff and the great screamed-beyond-comprehension chorus of Guns, Razors Knives and a weird little whoooo that ends the chorus.

“Sextape” is a surprisingly gentle song, opening with an echoed guitar riff and one of Chino’s most gentle choruses.  “976-Evil” has an echoey guitar and voices not unlike the Cocteau Twins.  “This Place is Death” has another great alt rock feel–a big song with bright guitars and dark lyrics.  I haven’t really mentioned Frank Delgado on keyboards and samples.  He’s been with the band since White Pony, and I feel like his presence was made notable on a few songs here and there.  But it seems like on this disc he really comes to the fore, adding new textures and sounds to the album which really fill it out.

[READ: March 12, 2013] McSweeney’s #14

After the colorful extravaganza of the Comics Issue of McSweeney’s #13, this book settles down into something more somber  The book is softcover and all white.  The cover depicts a cartoon of George Bush with both legs blown off and the caption, “I Am So, So Sorry.”  On the spine in small print: “We’re praying as fast as we can.”  It is the most context-full cover they’ve done yet and, nearly a decade away it seems like a rather mean cover, but if I remember correctly at the time it seemed apt and delicious, especially in light of the upcoming election.

Yet despite the overtly political cover, the content inside is not political or even thematic (although it is pretty dark stuff).  Nevertheless, the table of contents gives us a small joke when it says “To help you know which stories to read first, we have indicated with either a * or a † those that deserve special consideration from you, the reader.  If you see either a * or a †, do not miss that story.”  Of course every story has either a * or a † but they cleverly did not put any kind of pattern to the symbols.

The colophon explains that when they were in Ireland, they met an actual Timothy McSweeney.  He had been given a copy of Issue #3 and then promptly forgot about the magazine.  But when McSweeney’s was in Galway to do a reading at the Galway Arts Festival, Timothy (Ted) McSweeney traveled from Dublin to check it out (not a short trip).  This also resulted in a letter from Mr McSweeney which is actually quite funny.

There are also illustrations in the book, although they are small illustrations and are placed on the title of each piece in the book.  All of the illustrations are old, mostly coming from the 1800s, although one dates back to 1670.  They illustrations are all technical scientific ones and don’t have anything to do with the stories. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THURSTON MOORE-in studio at KEXP, March 11, 2008 (2008).

This interview was headlined ‘Thurston Moore: Not a “Real Guitar Player”?’ which is pretty funny.  The Sonic Youth guys have been defying conventional guitar playing for years.  And then in 2008 Thurston put out a solo album called Trees Outside the Academy, a beautiful delicate album of acoustic guitar songs.

The interview covers this very subject and concludes that maybe back when they started he wasn’t a guitar player, but now, 25 years later, he certainly is.  Moore is charming and funny and relates a very amusing story about being on the cover of Guitar Player and then embarrassing himself in front of one of his idols.

But this download is all about the songs.  Thurston (and violinist Samara Lubelski–who plays great accompaniment, but doesn’t really get any on air time to speak) play four songs from Trees: “Sliver>Blue,” “The Shape is in a Trance,” “Frozen Gtr” and “Fri/End.”  He sounds great in this setting, especially under close scrutiny.  I’d always assumed that there was a lot of improv in the SY guitar world, so to hear him play these (admittedly not difficult) songs flawlessly is pretty cool.  I actually wondered if he’d be hesitant (he admits the acoustic guitar is a fairly new thing for him), but not at all (although he says he screwed up on a chorus, but I never heard it.

It’s a great set and its fun to hear Thurston so casual.

[READ: April 14, 2011] “Farther Away”

The subtitle of this essay is “‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude.”  As with Franzen’s other recent essays, this one is also about birding.

Franzen explains that he is hot off the work of a book tour (for Freedom) and is looking for some solitude.  He decides to travel by himself to the island of Alejandro Selkirk, a volcanic mass off the coast of Chile.  The island is named after Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish explorer who is considered the basis for Robinson Crusoe.  As such, Franzen decides to travel to the remote island, decompress and read Robinson Crusoe while he’s at it.  The locals call the island Masafuera.

I haven’t read Robinson Crusoe as an adult, so I don’t know the ins and outs of the story.  Franzen has a personal resonance with the story because it was the only novel that meant anything to his father (which must say something about Franzen’s father, no?).  The upshot of what it meant to Franzen’s father was that his father took him and his brother camping a lot as a way to get away from everything.

However, for Franzen, on his first experience of being away from home for a few days (at 16 with a camping group), he had terrible homesickness.  He was only able to deal with the homesickness by writing letters.

When he arrives on Masafuera, Franzen’s writing really takes off.  He has some wonderful prose about this treacherous space.  Although he comes off as something of a yutz for relying on a Google map to learn about the terrain and for bringing an old GPS which has more or less run out of battery. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra-Kollpas Tradixionales (2010).

Silver Mt. Zion are back!  And they are noisy!

This disc continues their fine output of haunting, rambling epics.  The opener is a 15 minute slow builder called “There is a Light” and the finale is a 14 minute story called “‘Piphany Rambler.”  In between we have  a couple of multi-part tracks: “I Built Myself a Metal Bird” and “I Fed My Metal Bird the Wings of Other Metal Birds” which are some of the fastest tracks they’ve recorded.  The other “suite” is 3 versions (and spellings) of the title track.

The one consistent thing about Silver Mt . Zion (in whatever version of their name they employ) is that they write incredibly passionate music.  It’s often raw and it swells and ebbs with feeling.  I especially enjoy the (multiple) climaxes that fill all of the longer songs.  And when the band brings in the horns and the strings and the whole group sings along, it’s very affecting.

The one thing that I’m still not totally on board with is Efrim’s voice.  On previous releases, I bought it because he sounded very angsty, but I’m starting to think that the tenor of his voice just doesn’t work with the bombast of the music.  When the backing singers chime in, the sound is glorious, but I find his voice to be simply the wrong sound.  There’s a few parts on the disc where he sings in a lower, softer register, and I found them really moving.  I think if he sang all of the parts like that, they would impact the songs more strongly (and maybe even be more understandable).

I realize that the vocals are an essential part to the disc, and I definitely get used to them after a few listens, I just feel like the whole disc (and not just the music) would be amazing if Efrim used that deeper register more.

Nevertheless, the music is really fantastic, and if you buy the LP, you get some great artwork, too.

[READ: May 13, 2010] McSweeney’s 34

After the enormous work of Panorama, (McSweeney’s newspaper (Issue 33)), they’ve returned with a somewhat more modest affair.  Two slim books totaling about 400 pages  Each is a paperback. The first is a collection of short stories artwork, etc.  The second is  nonfiction work about Iraq.  Both books are bound together in a clear plastic slipcover (with a fun design on it).  [UPDATE: I cannot for the life of me out the books back in the cover.  They simply will not sit without ripping the plastic.  Boo!]

The first collection opens with a Letters column, something that we haven’t seen in years!  And, as with the old letters column, the letters are absurd/funny/thoughtful and sometimes just weird. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BLUE ÖYSTER CULT-compilations and live releases (1978-2010).

For a band that had basically two hits (“Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Burnin’ for You”) and maybe a half a dozen other songs that people might have heard of, BOC has an astonishing number of “greatest hits” collections.

Starting in 1987 we got Career of Evil: The Metal Years (1987), Don’t Fear the Reaper (1989), On Flame with Rock n’ Roll (1990), Cult Classic (which is actually the band re-recording their old tracks (!)) (1994), and the two cd collection Workshop of the Telescopes (1995).  There’s even Singles Collection, (2005) which is a collection of their European singles & Bsides.

This doesn’t include any of the “budget price” collections: E.T.I. Revisited, Tattoo Vampire, Super Hits, Then and Now, The Essential, Are You Ready To Rock?, Shooting Shark, Best of, and the 2010 release: Playlist: The Very Best of).

The lesson is that you evidently won’t lose money making a BOC collection.

I don’t know that any of these collections are any better than the others.

The 2 CD one is for completists, but for the most part you’re going to get the same basic tracks on all of them.

And, although none of them have “Monsters” for the average person looking for some BOC, any disc is a good one.

Regardless of the number of hits they had, BOC was tremendous live.  And, as a result, there have also been a ton of live records released.  Initially the band (like Rush) released a live album after every three studio albums. On Your Feet or On Your Knees (1975) Some Enchanted Evening (1978) and Extraterrestrial Live (1982) were the “real releases.”

Then, in 1994 we got Live 1976 as both CD and DVD (which spares us nothing, including Eric Bloom’s lengthy harangue about the unfairness of…the speed limit).  It’s the most raw and unpolished on live sets.  2002 saw the release of A Long Day’s Night, a recording of a 2002 concert (also on DVD) which had Eric Bloom, Buck Dharma an Allan Lanier reunited.

They also have a number of might-be real live releases (fans debate the legitimacy of many of these).  Picking a concert disc is tough if only because it depends on the era you like.  ETLive is regarded as the best “real” live disc, although the reissued double disc set of Some Enchanted Evening is hard to pass up.  Likewise, the 2002 recording is a good overview of their career, and includes some of their more recent work.

If you consider live albums best of’s (which many people do) I think it’s far to say that BOC has more best of’s than original discs.  Fascinating.  Many BOC fans believe that if they buy all the best of discs, it will convince Columbia to finally reissue the rest of the original discs (and there are a number of worthy contenders!) in deluxe packages.  I don’t know if it will work, but I applaud the effort.

[READ: October 2009-February 2010] State By State

This is a big book. And, since it’s a collection essays, it’s not really the kind of big book that you read straight through.  It’s a perfect dip in book.  And that’s why it took me so long to get through.

I would love to spend a huge amount of time devoting a post to each essay in the book.  But, well, there’s 51 (including D.C.) and quite a few of them I read so long ago I couldn’t say anything meaningful about.  But I will summarize or at least give a sentence about each essay, because they’re all so different.

I’ll also say that I read the Introduction and Preface last (which may have been a mistake, but whatever).  The Preface reveals that what I took to be a flaw in the book was actually intentional.  But let me back up and set up the book better.

The catalyst for the book is the WPA American Guide Series and sort of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.  The WPA Guides were written in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration.  48 guide books were written, one for each state.  Some famous writers wrote the books, but they were ultimately edited (and many say watered down) by a committee.  I haven’t read any of them, but am quite interested in them (and am looking to get the New Jersey one).  Each guide was multiple hundreds of pages (the New Jersey one is over 800).

State By State is written in the spirit of that series, except the whole book is 500 pages (which is about 10 pages per state, give or take).  And, once again, famous writers were asked to contribute (no committee edited this book, though).  I’ve included the entire list of authors at the end of the post, for quick access.

So I started the book with New Jersey, of course.  I didn’t realize who Anthony Bourdain was until I looked him up in the contributor’s list (I’m sure he is thrilled to hear that).  And his contribution was simultaneously exciting and disappointing,.  Exciting because he and I had quite similar upbringings: he grew up in North Jersey (although in the wealitheir county next to mine) and had similar (although, again, more wealthy) experiences. The disappointing thing for me was that Bourdain fled the state  for New York City (and, as I now know, untold wealth and fame (except by me))  I felt that his fleeing the state, while something many people aspire to, is not really representative of the residents of the state as a whole.

And that dissatisfaction is what I thought of as the flaw of the book (until I read the Preface).  In the Preface, Matt Weiland explains that they asked all different authors to write about states.  They asked some natives, they asked some moved-ins, they asked some temporary residents and they asked a couple of people to go to a state for the first time.  In reality, this decision makes for a very diverse and highly entertaining reading.  In my idealized world, I feel like it’s disingenuous to have people who just stop in to give their impression of an area.  But hey, that’s not the kind of book they wanted to compile, and I did enjoy what they gave us, so idealism be damned.

For most of the book, whenever I read an essay by someone who wasn’t a native or a resident of a state, I assumed that there weren’t any famous writers from that state.  I’ve no idea if that played into anything or not.  From what I gather, they had a list of authors, and a list of states (I was delighted to read that three people wanted to write about New Jersey-if the other two writers ever decided to put 1,000 words  to paper, I’d love to read them (hey editors, how about State by State Bonus Features online, including any extra essays that people may have wanted to write).

From New Jersey, I proceeded alphabetically.  And, I have to say that I’m a little glad I did.  I say this because the first few states in the book come across as rather negative and kind of unpleasant.  Alabama (written by George Packer) comes across as downtrodden, like a place you’d really have to love to live there.  Even Alaska, which ended up being a very cool story, felt like a veil of oppression resided over the state (or at  least the part of the state that Paul Greenberg wrote bout.)  But what I liked about this essay and the book in general was that the authors often focused on unexpected or little known aspects of each state.  So the Alaska essay focused on Native fisherman and the salmon industry.  Obviously it doesn’t do justice to the rest of that enormous state,  but that’s not what the book is about.

The book is meant to be a personal account of the author’s experiences in the state. (more…)

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back coverSOUNDTRACK: HÜSKER DÜ-Metal Circus EP (1983).

HuskerDuMetalCircusAfter the insane hardcore mess of Land Speed Record, this EP is a bit of a change.  It’s still pretty hardcore, but now you can tell that the noisiness of the guitar is deliberate.  Bob Mould is playing around with multiple layers of feedback and distortion to create a wall of noise that sometimes hides, sometime accentuates the overall sound.

What strikes me as odd in retrospect is that I think of Bob Mould as one of alternative rock’s poppier songwriters.  And yet when you listen to this disc the two poppiest (which is a relative term to be sure) tracks are by Grant Hart.

The first two tracks are fast and furious.  But what separates them from 4 x 4 hardcore is, mostly Greg Norton’s bass.  He’s all over the place.  There’s also some diversity within the songs themselves (a little guitar squeal in “Deadly Skies”).

“It’s Not Funny Anymore” (Hart’s song) is surprisingly upbeat (with guitar harmonics) and is not quite as noisy (although it’s still pretty noisy, and is not going on the radio anytime soon).

The next two track are more of Mould’s screamy hardcore.

The longest song (4 and a half minutes) is also by Hart. “Diane” is a creepy song about abduction and murder (yet with something of a  singalong chorus).  I actually know the Therapy? version better because I had listened to that disc a lot when it came out.  But the Hüsker’s version is even creepier.  Wikipedia says it is about a real incident (which makes it less creepy than if Hart has made it up, I suppose).

It ends with Mould’s least hardcore song, although the guitar solo is pretty insane.

And then it’s over.  7 songs in twenty minutes.  That’s nearly half as many as on Land Speed Record.  You can see the songs changing already.  Just wait till the next disc!

[READ: June 29, 2009] McSweeney’s #5

McSweeney’s #5 plays with cover ideas again.  On this one, frontthe cover idea is actual different covers and slipcovers.  The book is hardcover, with three different cover designs.  It also has 4 different slipcover designs. The colophon explains that if one wanted one could have requested for free) each of the cover designs because they did not intend to make people buy multiple issues.  Click on the covers to see them enlarged on flickr (all images are copyright McSweeney’s).

This is the Koppel front cover.

I will quote from the McSweeney’s site their description of the covers:

As many of you know, the new issue of our print version is out, and by now is in most stores. This issue is a hardcover book, and features four different dust jackets. One dust jacket has on it a man who seems to be suffering from terrible skin lesions. The second cover looks very much like the cover of Issue No. 1, with the addition of a medical drawing of a severed arm. The third cover is blank, with all of its images hiding on the back. Hiding from the bad people. The last cover is just red. Or, if you will, simply red.

In addition, under each dust jacket is a different cover. One features pictures of Ted Koppel. One features new work by Susan Minot. And a third features a variation on the second cover, described above, though this version is legible only with aid of mirror. This inner cover also is featured under the red dust jacket.

I was quite surprised when I took the slipcover off mine, (more…)

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