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Archive for the ‘Simon Rich’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: WHITEHORSE-Live at Massey Hall (December 8, 2017).

I saw Whitehorse open for Barenaked Ladies a few years ago and they blew me away.  I really want to see them again.

When I saw them it was just the two of them and the magic of their interplay was what really impressed me the most.  For this special Massey Hall show, they have a full band.  But as Melissa McClelland explains:

This is the first time playing the Massey stage with a full band.  We wanted to … finally invite some friends on stage with us and play music.

Those friends include John Obereian on drums, Ryan Gavel on bass, guitar and backing vocals and on keys and bongos and guitar, the second best singer in this band Gregory MacDonald.  He replies, “Thanks to the second best guitar player in the band.”  I have seen MacDonald on tour with Sloan a bunch of times and he is awesome.

As to why they are a duo, she says

we knew that Whitehorse was always going to be just the two of us and that everyone would know that we are equal partners in the band.  But we didn’t want it to be a folk duo so we started brainstorming and bought looping pedals and a kick drum and a stomp box and we  found new arrangements and once we got it we were like Yeah!

The show opens with hand clapping from the band and the audience and then Melissa’s slinky bass intro to “Baby Whats Wrong.  Then comes Luke Doucet’s echoing Western guitar. Their voices are wonderful together and I love when Doucet sings in that weird telephone microphone.  He also plays a ripping guitar solo.

Luke introduces “Tame as the Wild Ones” by saying they needed to write a sexy song so “Melissa kicked me out and said she’d do it alone.  I go to the bar to get drunk and when I come home, she plays me this song.  And nine months later our son Jimmy was born.”  I love the way the bridge (or is it a chorus) builds and settles–that melody is just gorgeous.

“Pink Kimono” has a simple rocking riff and the two singers singing at the same time.   Doucet’s soloing is on fire in this song.

“Die Alone” is a showstopper.  A slow moody piece in which Melissa sings over a wash of synths.  The music so much build as just unfold as first Luke sings with her and then the band kicks in.  Wow can Melissa belt out a song.

“Downtown” is a celebration of how you can put hundreds of thousands of people in a city and for the most part everyone gets along.  It s got a great throbbing bass and some cool guitar scratching and riffs from Doucet.  It’s a bummer that they interrupt the awesome middle solo section with an interview, even if it is quite interesting.

After Melissa lays out how they wanted the band to sound, Luke says that when people ask him about what it’s like to do Whitehorse, he says

we were solo artists first but we had been involved with each others albums as singer or producer  or touring musician.

So in order to be successful

you have to hang out together for five or six years and play in each others bands and make eight albums together and then you have to go on tour as freelance/hired gun musicians working for Blue Rodeo or Sarah McLachlan and then you have to live together for five or six years and listen to music together and fight and then you have to get married and once you’ve done all these things and listened to 10,000 hours of music and dissected Tom Waits entire catalog and argued about which is the best Beatles record and had fights on stage about who is speeding up or slowing down and once you’ve done all those things together then start a band.

It certainly worked for them.  The only bad thing about this show is that it’s only 30 minutes.

[READ: January 24, 2019] Hits & Misses

It has been a while since Simon Rich published a collection of his stories.  This one was pretty enjoyable.  Overall, not as much fun as some of his previous collections, but still a lot to laugh at.  Rich tends to write what he knows, which is often a very good sign.  However, sometimes what he knows is limited to writing and filming, which tends to miss the everyman silliness of his earlier pieces.

Having said that there are still some hilarious pieces that anyone can enjoy and some pieces about writers that are very funny.

A few of these pieces appeared in the New Yorker, and I indicate as much, with a link to my longer review.

“The Baby.”  This was a highlight.  A sonogram reveals that their baby is holding a pen–he is going to be a writer!  But when word gets out that the baby is already getting a reputation AND representation, well, that baby’s writer father is pretty damned jealous.  Wonderful absurdity based on reality taken to its extremes. (more…)

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CV1_TNY_11_18_13Tomine.inddSOUNDTRACK: GoGo PENGUIN-Tiny Desk Concert #786 (September 14, 2018).

I’d never heard of GoGo Penguin before, but I was blown away by this Tiny Desk Concert.

The band is a trio: piano, upright bass, and drums.  They play jazz, I suppose.  But there are elements that are prog-rockish and avant garde (none of which makes it not jazz, I realize) such that their music, while instrumental, is genre defying.

GoGo Penguin models closely the leaderless jazz power trio set in motion by forbearers in The Bad Plus, but you can also hear the drippings of electronica groups like Bonobo, and drum-and-bass foundations akin to Roni Size with a bit more acoustic rattle (Turner even fashions his own prepared drum accessories from rope, duct tape, and metal rings, which you can see resting atop his ride cymbal and snare. He tells me he usually has more, but he hasn’t made new ones in a while).

This trio found a way to wedge themselves in the middle of the Venn diagram that overlaps musicians and music heads. Among my colleagues at NPR, I witnessed expressions ranging from studious squints to closed-eye meditation, those in the room experiencing GoGo Penguin’s tunes like they would a collage: the fine details as valuable as the larger shape.

It’s true that Nick Blacka’s fretless bass maintains a very jazz sound and Chris Illingworth has the fluidity of a jazz master on piano.  But it’s pointless to try to define it when you could just enjoy it.

“Raven” was inspired by a dream Chris had of playing chess with a raven.  It opens with ringing piano notes and a bowed double bass.  Then Blacka switches to plucked high notes while Turner plays the cymbals. After about a minute the song kicks into high gear.  The piano hasn’t change, but the bass is pulsing quickly and the drums are playing a fast but quiet rhythm on primarily the snare, but with flourishes left and right.  And it’s all really catchy too.  The rhythm section anchors Chris’ melodic piano lead as the song careens to a close that hearkens back to the opening.

The next one is called “Bardo.”

During his setup, GoGo Penguin’s pianist Chris Illingworth asked if he could remove our piano cover to “access the inside” and, after a few rotations of a screwdriver, he soon handed me a long plank of black painted maple, which has no convenient place to rest in the NPR Music office. If you look closely at the piano innards during “Bardo,” you can see a strip of black tape stretched over a few strings, opposite Illingworth’s bobbing head. It mutes a group of strings, turning them into percussive jabs and dividing the instrument into more explicit rhythmic and melodic sections. What you can’t see: GoGo Penguin’s audio engineer a few feet to the left of frame, dialing-in reverb effects on the piano, which we heard in the room. These two elements, in tandem with bassist Nick Blacka’s precise canvasing and drummer Rob Turner’s charged and delicate pulse, have heavily contributed to the sonic identity of this trio – a signal to jazz jukebox listeners that, “Ah yes, that’s a GoGo Penguin tune.”

It is so neat watching him the piano but making distinctly not piano sounds.  I would have argued that it was a synth making those sounds (which I guess it sort of is).  But the fact that he can do that while also playing a pretty piano melody is great.  I love the way Blacka repeats a simple high note–sliding up the neck of the bass before returning to that incredibly low note that really grounds the song.  All the way through this, Turner is playing some great drum parts–great off kilter rhythms that marry the snare with the toms in complex patterns. And then ending the song by sliding his stick across the top of the cymbals to create a high-pitched squeak.

The final song “Window” opens with a kind of contemporary classical piano melody.  The drums and bass starts playing a great counterpoint and the song just takes off from there.  There’s a false ending where everything stops, just briefly before resuming once more. It’s never clear who to pay attention to during any of these songs, there’s all so fun to watch.

[READ: January 4, 2017] “The Book of Simon”

Simon Rich continues to write very funny, rather blasphemous stories.

This one begins with the story of Job, the righteous Hebrew in the land of Uz.  He had more faith in God than anyone.  Satan made a wager with God that Job would not be so faithful if his life was hard.  And so Satan made Job’s life miserable but still Job praised God.

Four thousand years later however, the Hebrews had become less religious.  Oh there were still bar mitzvahs, but the themes were about Broadway or sports and the parents would hire dancers to come and teach the children dances, may of which were sexually suggestive.

So Satan started gloating.

And by the 21st century he would lean in and say “What’s yup now?  Or even more aggressively, ‘Sup now?” And this put God’s self-esteem at an all time low. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHILLY GONZALES & KAISER QUARTETT-Live at Massey Hall (February 5, 2016).

Years earlier, Chilly Gonzales had signed a record deal in Toronto but it didn’t go well “because I wasn’t prepared for what the job of being a true musician was.  I didn’t really have a narrative.  I couldn’t draw people in and guide them.  I thought the music would be enough.”

He went to Europe–Berlin–taking the name Chilly Gonzales and creating this persona.  He wanted reassuring satisfying elements and surprising, uncomfortable elements.  He wanted to  take a page out of the rappers playbook–embodying superficiality and depth ant the same time ridiculousness and seriousness at the same time.

Toronto was like the place where lighting hit the lab and turned him into a supervillain.  The failure of the label is his origin story.

They play primarily instrumental compositions, but ones that are very different and unlike anything else I’ve heard.

“Green’s Leaves” is a staccato piece with great melodies from the Quartett and lovey piano sprinkled throughout.  It’s a short piece with a lot of beauty.

He tells the audience he thinks of the Kaiser Quartett (Adam Zolynski-violin; Jansen Folkers-violin; Ingmar Süberkrüb-viola; Martin Bentz cello) as the world’s most expensive sampler.  He tries to use them in ways that string quartets might not be used.

“Sample This” is a simple request to rappers or producers to feel free to sample this piece of music (and of course call my lawyer beforehand).   He says you don’t have to have a rapper to make rap music–it is an attitude.  He says, “see if you can rap along in your mind.  Imagine what a rapper might say over this.”

This song moves along prettily at a rapid pace.  As it reaches the middle it slows down to a gentle piano with pulsing low notes from the strings and just as it feels like it has hit the end, Joe Elory (I wish it was filmed better) gets up and thuds the drums for one loud beat as the song resumes and picks up the pace.

The fact that he ends the song with quiet piano melody and a rapper pose and says “bitch” is really quite funny.

He says that a sampler can contain the history of all recorded music.  The Quartet plays  a bar of “Eleanor Rigby” which he introduces as “Elizabeth Ridley by the Rolling Stones.” Then they play Joseph Haydn–the song we all know– but says he wants the gansta version–put it into a minor key.  Then they play the opening of Schoenberg’s “The Rites of Spring.”  When Schoenberg played it, it caused a riot.  The dissonance is something.  He jokes that that was the verse now here comes the catchy part (it’s the same).  Is this offensive to you?  Or is this offensive that I’m wasting so much time playing this terrible music “hashtag fuckscheonberg.”

He mashed all the above together to make “Advantage Points.”  The loud and quiet parts balance nicely and its really quite catchy.

“Supervillain” has lots of high notes on the piano before the strings kick in.  And then its a rap (!).  The lyrics are good but the flow is only okay.  It’s funny but not comic.  When it’s over he affirms: “So you like rap music when it is over a waltz beat.”

“Knight moves” is a fast piano piece that builds to some really fun rollicking piano and even adds (minimal) drums by the end.  As it moves along he starts playing very very fast and heavy, including more or less pounding on the low notes for a low rumble.

“Smothered Mate” has a kind of action movie vibe.  There’s also percussion for the whole piece.  Unfortunately, he speaks over it for the end:

In the pre-Drake era there were not a lot of reasons to think that Toronto was on the musical map.  But Charlie Parker and Neil Young  showed this hall had glamour you dint get in a lot Canadian venues.

[READ: June 19, 2018] “Edison Labs, 1891”

This story goes in a direction I never expected and the anachronism of the humor is terrific.

Thomas Edison is working in his lab when his assistant, Jed, confesses that he screwed up again–he used centiliters instead of milliliters.  Which leads to a beaker exploding.

Edison believes that this boy is an idiot–useful only as a subject for medical experimentation.

Except for one other possibility.

He asked Jed to stand there in one spot.

Then he pulled over his new contraption, an apparatus made of metal and glass. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHASTITY BELT-Time to Go Home (2015).

Time to Go Home, the band’s second album is quite a large departure from the rawness of No Regerts.

It polishes some of the harshness of the guitar sound with lots of echo.  It’s more jangly.  The lyrics are still powerfully feminist but there’s no more Giant Vaginas–it’s more introspective.

“Drone” opens with cool guitars and a lovely melody–the guitars feel more significant.  And, more importantly, the bass and drums are more prominent, making the disc feel like a full band.

Lyrically the bridge offers a nice twist on ones: “He was just another man, tryn’a teach me something.”

And yet for all of the improvements, the song is kind of bland.  In part because all of those new sounds (which are great) kind of meld together a bit too much.  The same is true for the next two songs as well.  Although again the addition of lovely backing vocals on “Trapped” are also welcome.  The songs just aren’t that dynamic.

“Why Try” is a punky blast though, and returns to a blunt nihilism: Why try / Why do I try? / Why? / Alone and alive / Why can’t I escape my mind.  There’s some nice edgy jolts that keep the song interesting.

There’s also the two minute punk blast of “The Thing.”  “No one trusts anyone /
Everyone’s infected.”  It’s got fast guitars and death screams at the end.

Its with “Cool Slut” that the album seems to wake up a bit.  The guitar sound of the first album comes back with some of the sophistication of the newer songs.  Th guitar is clean and sharp, and the vocals are much louder and more direct.  It’s a great song and is something of Chastity Belt classic.  The video is great too (and not at all slutty, it’s more of a Friends opening credit spoof.

There are two songs on the record that have a really long outro.  “On the Floor” is 6 minutes long, but the song itself s really only about 3.  The final 3 minutes are a jam, but it’s kind of a bland jam, just repeating the same pretty guitar melody for three minutes.  “Joke” on the other hand, ends with a nearly 3 minute outro but it’s really successful.  There’s a guitar solo that meanders (it’s not great but it’s interesting) and half way through the end jam, the rhythm guitar gets louder and louder which keeps the whole thing fresh and interesting.  The song itself is a huge highlight of the disc, with a great melody and a really catchy chorus.  I love the way it slowly builds, first with drums, then a first guitar and then a second guitar.  It’s not often that one of the best songs is number 7 on the disc, but this song is outstanding (nad was great live).

Indeed, the last four songs are really terrific.

“Lydia” is sung by guitarist Lydia Lund.  Her voice is softer and the guitars are very pretty.  It sounds pretty different from the other songs, but it still retains that Chastity Belt feel.

“IDC” is a fun bratty song:

Is it cool not to care / I got drunk out of boredom / I did not want to be there /
I don’t care

Its a bit too long even at just 3 minutes with the endless repetitions of the title, but I like the way the end has the tape slow down all distorted.

The final song is the great “Time to Go Home.”  It builds slowly with slow chords and Julia’s laconic delivery.  But for the chorus, there’s a terrific pick up in speed and a great haunting backing vocal “oooh.”  The song is short but builds nicely to a crashing album end.

Between the two albums there’s a terrific diversity of materials.

[READ: March 25, 2016] “Day of Judgment”

I love Simon Rich.  He cracks me up every time.

The Messiah comes down to Earth in the middle of Manhattan.  He tells the world that everyone is saved and their pain is ending.

And then he gets ready to take questions.  He points to Chris Matthews and tell him to ask a question.  And the same with Anderson Cooper.  And then he looks around and points and says “You have a question, Al Roker?”  And there’s a hushed silence over the crowd, because he was pointing to Al Sharpton. (more…)

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CV1_TNY_05_24_10.inddSOUNDTRACK: PASSION PIT-Tiny Desk Concert #248 (Ocobert 29, 2012).

passionPassion Pit surprised the heck out of me with this Tiny Desk Concert.  The album that two of these songs come from is full of loud, brash synthy anthems.  But they totally dial everything back with just two performers–a synth and a guitar.

The blurb notes that

Michael Angelakos is a fussy sonic craftsman: A keyboardist and singer who started out working solo on his laptop, he now makes fizzily catchy electro-pop that orbits around monster hooks.  Angelakos clearly saw an opportunity in bare-bones arrangements of his best-known songs — his 2008 breakthrough single “Sleepyhead” and two hits from this year’s Gossamer, “Take a Walk” and “Carried Away” — that he couldn’t explore with a full band.  With only his own falsetto, an electric piano, and simple guitar lines from Passion Pit’s Ian Hultquist, Angelakos gets to direct listeners toward his words, which blossom under scrutiny.

“Talk a Walk” is a poppy happy synth song.  An almost gleeful song about taking a walk.  Well, in this version, with everything stripped away, you get to hear just what a depressing song this actually is.  And when you hear this, you’ll never be able to hear that bubbly anthem the same way again.   It’s a rich, thoughtful sketch of an immigrant family’s experiences, expectations, dreams and disappointments.

Once my mother-in-law came
Just to stay a couple nights
Then decided she would stay the rest of her life
I watch my little children, play some board game in the kitchen
And I sit and pray they never feel my strife

“Sleepyhead” is from their 2008 album—their first hit, although I didn’t know it.  The keys are quiet and simple on this while the guitar plays the main riff.  It too is quite catchy.

“Carried Away” is also from Gossamer, and it’s another big, boppy sugary single.  This understated version does the same as the first song—you can really hear the words, but the melodies and catchiness remain, just much more quietly.

Even though these version are interesting and enjoyable.  I was mostly attracted to the sound of Gossamer, so I’ll stick with the originals.

[READ: January 25, 2017] “Your New College Graduate: A Parents’ Guide”

This piece is designed as a FAQ for parents on how to deal with their college graduate, once the commencement ceremony is over and “your child will be ready to move back into your house for a period of several years.”

This helpful guide answers questions about things like feeding:

Most college graduates are vegetarians and will become cranky or upset if offered meat. They also have irregular eating habits. Most prefer to skip family meals.

Or drinking:

Most require six to eight beers per night, plus occasional “shots” throughout the week.

(more…)

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ny2010SOUNDTRACK: ALT-J-Tiny Desk Concert #258 (December 17, 2012).

altjAlt-J is a peculiar band—lead singer Joe Newman’s voice is really unusual—and quit divisive as I understand.  But even the music is peculiar: “The band’s songs are wrapped in enigmatic textures, with swift shifts in arrangements inside every song and an oddness to the drums…that curious rhythm at the foundation of the songs reveals not a hint of cymbals.”

I can’t say I noticed that they were necessarily more spare at the Tiny Desk concert, but the blurb notes, “[Drummer] Thom Green plays mostly with a mounted tambourine and cowbell for the sorts of things a hi-hat would accomplish — that tick tick sound, with the snap of the sound coming from a small-bodied 10″ snare called a popcorn snare. The sparseness that happens in the absence of crashing cymbals leaves a lot of space in the music.”

I happen to really like the music behind this voice and I also find his voice… intriguing.  At first I wasn’t sure, but I feel like once I got sucked into the music, I enjoyed it all the more.

“Tessellate” has some great basslines and interesting keyboards.  Newman sings and plays an electric guitar in the most delicate way imaginable.  After the first song, there’s some amusement as he asks someone in the audience for the guitar (we don’t see it but there’s some chuckles about the person missing her big chance).

Newman switches to acoustic for “Something Good” (which I think of as the Matador song).  He plays this guitar a lot louder than the electric.  But once again the melody is quite unusual–very catchy and unexpected (and he can sing in quite a deep voice compared to his rather high normal singing voice.   And speaking of high voices the keyboardist does some really impressive falsetto notes in this and the first song.

Then they pass the bass over and the audience member gets “another chance.”  Bob jokes that they may ask her to play it next.  For the final song “Matilda,” the bassist switches to guitar and Newman is back on the electric.  His voice is so strange on this song.  It’s almost like he is singing internally to himself rather than externally to the room.  I love the drum rhythms that play under the song.

I didn’t realize there were no cymbals, but that does make a lot of sense as there are no “exclamations” to the rhythm, just a steady, interesting beat.  When their album came out in 2012 I wasn’t sure about them, but I think they’ve won me over.

As the Concert ends, they are very gracious.  When Bob says “Thanks for doing this,” he replies, “Thanks for having us. It’s the first time we’ve really played in an office.”  Which is a funny thing to say out loud.

[READ: January 23, 2017] “Who is Alex Trebek?”

I was looking through all of the pieces that Simon Rich has published in the New Yorker.  Most of them have been collected in his various books, but there were a couple that hadn’t.  This is one of them.

In his book Last Girlfriend on Earth, he has a short piece called “When Alex Trebek’s Ex-Wife Appeared on Jeopardy!”  This story is written in the same style–consider it a companion piece.

The focus this time is on Trebek himself.  And I really like the amusing way Rich sets it up: (more…)

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booksSOUNDTRACK: YO LA TENGO-Tiny Desk Concert #271 (April 15, 2013).

y-o-la-tenI’ve enjoyed Yo La Tengo’s music for years and years.  I have many of their records, although I’d never consider them a favorite band. They’re just a reliable band I like.   This Tiny Desk Concert sees the venerable band in acoustic format (with no drums!).  Ira Kaplan sings and plays guitar, drummer Georgia Hubley sings backup and bassist James McNew plays an acoustic 12-string guitar.

Yo La Tengo has a lot of diversity in their records.  And even here, their songs sound quite different.  I had never before considered that on “Is That Enough” Kaplan sounds like someone out of A Mighty Wind (Harry Shearer perhaps?)  I also never considered how much they sound like The Velvet Underground (which I guess others have, but I especially noticed when Hurley sings her slow song).  McNew also adds some lovely high-pitched harmony vocals (compared to Georgia’s deeper harmonies).

After the first song, Kaplan says, “You in the back will never hear this one”  They start “Tears Are In Your Eyes” from their 2000 album (and I can’t help but hing that McNew’s 12 sting is out of tune).  Georgia sings and sounds incredibly like Nico on this song.

It’s strange how Ira keeps whispering to Georgia (you can kind of hear him) throughout the song–the microphone is really sensitive.

“Ohm” is one of my favorite songs from their album Fade. Its simple, but with some great harmonies and I love the way the song–which is fairly straightforward–goes up an octave during the “say goodnight “ part.  That little melody shift really makes this song wonderful.  And it sounds terrific here.   I also love how the end is a repeating of the same chord and chanting vocals while Ira plays a wild (but acoustic) guitar solo.

I’ve never really considered seeing Yo La Tengo live (they tour all the time), but maybe I should.

[READ: January 23, 2017] “Don’t Be Evil”

Before Simon Rich started writing longer pieces for the New Yorker, his Shouts & Murmurs pieces were usually pretty short–and he crammed a lot of funny into that short space.

This piece is all about Google.  It’s kind of one-note, but it’s still pretty funny.  And its brevity prevents it from wearing out its welcome.

So it begins with him saying how much he loves the Google Dictionary feature.  It’s really convenient, but sometimes the results can be strange.  Then he gives some examples: (more…)

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