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Archive for the ‘William T. Vollmann’ Category

harp marchSOUNDTRACK: RHEOSTATICS-Vertigo, Victoria British Columbia, (January 22, 2000).

vertigoOne of the things that I like about listening to Rheostatics live shows is that when they play a couple nights in a row, they play such different sets both nights.  In the two nights at Vertigo, they played 44 songs and only 5 of them were duplicated (all from the newest album and a song that was on the live album).  That is a fan pleasing band.

It’s hard to even say which night is better.  Night 2 had more deep cuts and yet, they’re not exactly rare tracks for them to play either.

Lucky’s notes for this one say that the band were given cell phone type gadgets and that Martin played with his throughout the show.  You can hear that as the set opens and Martin is goofing off with his.

Overall for these shows I found that the band was playing a lot of songs in a bit more mellow vibe.  It’s not the way I like to hear them, but I wonder what it was like live.  However, “King of the Past” one of my favorite songs was played too slow on this night, as was “Christopher.” And “Northern Wish” sounded quite different–it had an almost meandering quality to it. Even “Stolen Car” has a slow moody quality (which Martin agrees with).

But the band is clearly having fun.  On “Four Little Songs there’s a crazy drum solo.  And as it ends and “The Royal Albert” starts, there’s some odd guitar sounds which Martin describes as change falling in an elevator.

The stage banter is certainly fun tonight, especially the talk about Sean Brodie and ordering a pizza (which was terrible).

The final song is a great version of “Aliens.”   But before that they play a cover of Reverend Ken and the Lost Followers’ “The Midnight Ride of Red Dog Ray ” which is all about a guy who drove to Quebec when there was a beer strike in Toronto.

Here’s the original

Although I love the song choices in this set, I feel like its slowness makes me prefer the previous night’s set a little more.

[READ: March 2, 2015] “Invisible and Insidious”

Vollmann is one of the more prolific writers I know (or at least his one collection of works is over 3,000 pages).  I sort of have designs on reading his output but there’s so many other authors I like and Vollmann has so much out there that I think my best bet is to keep up with his writing when I see it and just let it go at that.

So he occasionally writes non-fiction for Harper’s.  And they are usually pretty dark and unhappy pieces about the state of the world–Vollmann is not afraid to go to dark places.  In this article he talks about living in Japan and he reminds us that not that long ago (March 2011) there was a tsunami and a huge nuclear meltdown in that country.  And how most likely we all assume it must have been fixed, since we don’t hear about it anymore.

I don’t wish to overwhelm with details–that’s Vollmann’s job.  But he does a few interesting things in Japan.  He explores locations that are off limits (or at least in the evacuation zone) and he talks to people who live and work in these areas.  He also (of course) has a dosimeter (which I assume must be pretty common in a radiated site).

The nuclear utility that monitors the plant, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has issued various information over the years, although none of it seems verifiable.  In August 2013, The Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority said the leak was re-categorized from level 1(anomaly) to level 3 (a serious accident).  And the Japan Times says a the radioactivity was about 100 times more than what TEPCO had been allowing to enter the sea each year before the crisis. (more…)

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Harpers-1404-302x410SOUNDTRACK: BECK-Midnight Vultures (1999).

midnightIt’s not entirely clear to me how serious Midnight Vultures is meant to be. The songs are all quite good musically, but they are so very different from anything Beck has done so far—and they have a sheen of R&B that at times feels like a parody (especially coming from someone like Beck, especially when the lyrics are included).  The music is definitely designed to party (when I first heard it I found it rather Prince-like), and while I didn’t really like it very much, i have since grown to relax and enjoy the funk.

“Sexx Laws” has horns that work very well as accents. And yet for all of of its party slickness, there’ a banjo solo at the end of it.  That’s the kind of party music Beck makes.  “Nicotine & Gravy” is a slinky song with a weird chorus: “I think I’m going crazy, her left eye is lazy, she looks so Israeli, nicotine and gravy.”  What is someone supposed to do with that?  “Mixed Bizness” is an incredibly funky song that reminds me a lot of Prince’s “Dance Music Sex Romance.”  “Get Real Paid” has female leads vocals and a funky but staccato style–it’s unlike anything Beck has done up to this point.  “Hollywood Freaks” stands out for the weird and some would say bad lyrics—it feels a little like old school Beck and out of place with this new funky dancey Beck.

“Peaches & Cream” is another Prince-inspired track and is super catchy.  It has backing vocals (very high pitched) that sounds a lot like Beck, I just can’t imagine he’s doing them).  “Milk & Honey” is a 70s style rock song, less dancey but with all kinds of funky effects  “Beautiful Way” and “Pleasure Zone” are okay–the party seems to be ending a little here.  But the disc ends with “Debra,” which is super fun.  Beck sings in an incredible (for him) falsetto.  The song is about a ménage a trois. It is meant to be humorous (I hope) about a guy picking up a girl in his Hyundai.  But it sounds so much like Flight of the Conchords, that it’s hard to even consider it seriously in retrospect.

There is a very lengthy silence before our “bonus” track, which in this case is about a minute of fast drums and spacey noises, then some lounge music and some crazy voices.  Again, not worth the wait.  So I’m mixed on this one.  As with a lot of Beck CDs it seem like your own mood determines whether you’ll enjoy this one.

[READ: March 17, 2014] “The Grave-House”

I’ve read more of Vollmann’s non-fiction than fiction, so I really wasn’t sure what to expect with this short story.  And I did not expect a man who is in a house which is trying to eat him.

As this story opens, with once upon a time, the narrator has built a house by himself.  But since it was not paid for, it was condemned to be knocked down.  So instead, he bought a house with all the furnishings—it was all paid for.  But as soon as he decided to go outside, the house refused to let him. (more…)

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harper septSOUNDTRACK: PHISH-Lawn Boy (1990).

220px-Lawn_Boy_coverFor what I consider a guitar dominated band (Trey Anastasio is certainly the frontman), the early Phish albums have a lot of piano dominated tracks.  It’s not the guitar is absent but the piano is mixed quite loudly which gives these songs a slightly different emphasis than when they are played live.

Also was with many songs on Junta, “Reba” feels slower than the live versions.  It also has some funny backing vocals (a common occurrence with these early songs).  “My Sweet One” is a lot more honky tonk than the live versions, which often feel almost barbershoppy.  In “Split Open and Melt,” the vocals are done in a very funny mumbly way (with weird background vocals).  There’s also horns (crazy horns) and female vocals –giving it  vaguely R&B feel.

“The Oh Kee Pa Ceremony” (for origins of the phrase, check out this) is a live favorite that’s a fun and funky guitar solo (with a retro feel) and in this version there is much laughing and carrying on in the background).  “Bathtub Gin” opens with the crazy seemingly out of tune piano that they do live (although not as much).  There’s more funny voices on the chorus and crazy sound effects throughout.  Earlier Phish were a lot sillier than later Phish.

“Run Like an Antelope” also has crazy sound effects and it’s funny how I forget that the song is almost entirely introductory guitar solo wailing.  It’s not until 8 minutes that we get to the “rye rye rocco” section and the actual “run run run” part.   In this studio version, the “set your gear ship for the heart of your soul” section is spoken so quietly.  And the song is not quite ten minutes long.  “Lawn Boy” sounds clean and jazzy in ways that it doesn’t live.  And “Bouncing Round the Room” sounds a lot like the live version.  It’s a little slower, with a few more details thrown in.

Overall, Lawn Boy is a great early Phish album, with every song being a success.

[READ: October 3, 2013] “Life as a Terrorist”

William Vollmann was a suspect in the Unabomber case.  All because a “concerned citizen” alerted the FBI about his fiction.

This sounds utterly crazy, but it is true.

Vollmann has written about all kinds of things, both fiction and non-fiction.  For his non-fiction, he has traveled extensively, to Afghanistan and other places where terrorists reside.  So when he was detained upon reentering the United States from Yemen, he didn’t think too much of it.  But when he was detained a second time, years later–for seven hours and treated like a criminal–well, that got him mad.  And he used the Freedom of Information Act to see what the FBI had on him.

This is a sobering look at how the justice system in its zealotry to protect us can actually do far more harm than good, at least to innocent individuals. Vollmann uses this as the basis of his essay which looks at the omnipresent Unamericans: those who would attack without provocation and intimidate the weak. (more…)

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yitaSOUNDTRACK: WXPN (88.5 Philadelphia) xpnand wxpn.org online-Prog rock Marathon (2012-??).

Every January, Dan Reed plays a prog rock marathon on WXPN.  This year I was able to enjoy portions of it.  I rather wish the playlist was still available (you can search, but only by artist), because I’d love to rave about the tracks they played (like the live “Supper’s Ready.”)

I was delighted by the great mix of songs they played and (as I learned from reading this book) I was surprised by how many prog artists I didn’t even know.

In 2014 I’ll be listening again and maybe this time I’ll copy the playlist to document what I’ve missed.

[READ: July 7, 2013] Yes is the Answer

This book was sitting on a cart outside of my cube.  I was intrigued by the title (it didn’t have that trippy cover, so I didn’t know what it was).  But “Yes is the Answer” was calling me.  Especially when I looked at the cover and saw that the cover had an excerpt from a William Vollmann story in which the protagonist plays In the Court of the Crimson King (track 5) for Reepah and watches her face as they band went Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!.

Quoting Vollmann (from The Rifles), playing King Crimson?  What could this book be?   Then I saw the subtitle and I knew I had to read it all.

I’m not going to review these essays because that would be like making a radio edit of a side long track, but I’ll mention the band the author focuses on and any other relevant details. (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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SOUNDTRACK: BOOKWORM-Jeffrey Eugenidies: The Marriage Plot (December 1, 2011) (2011).

Since “Just Kids” mentions  Eugenides’ book, and since Eugenides happened to appear on Bookworm at around the same time as I read this article, it seemed like a good pairing.

Obviously, from the title of the episode you can tell that this is all about Eugenides’ new book, The Marriage Plot.  Michael Silverblatt raves about this book like no other book I have heard (granted I haven’t listened to all that many episodes of Bookworm, but still).  In fact while listening to this episode, I put The Marriage Plot on hold at the library.  I always planned to read it but figured I’d just get around to it some day.  Now I feel more of a sense of urgency.

They talk at length about the state of marriage in the 21st century.  Not as in its decline but in how it differs so much from classic literature in which women had to get married by 21 or risk spinsterhood.  Eugenides set out to write a book about people getting married without having the trappings of classical literature.

It sounds wonderful.

The reason I mention this interview at all is because in the article below, Hughes talks about contemporaries of DFW using DFW as the basis for a character in their books.  So, in Franzen’s Freedom, there is character who is very much like DFW (I haven’t read Freedom yet so I can’t say). 

And in The Marriage Plot, there is a character who resembles DFW.  When I read the excerpt of this story in The New Yorker, I had to admit he did seem an awful lot like DFW–a tobacco chewing, bandanna wearing philosopher.  Eugenides had been mum about it for a while, but now, under the gentle nudging of Michael Silverblatt, he comes clean. 

He admits that there are some characteristics of DFW in the character.  However, he says that he didn’t know DFW all that well and the character has been kicking around since he went to college (long before he knew DFW).  Tobacco chewing was rampant at Brown in the 80s apparently.  But it’s a nice revelation and it ties in very well with the article.

You can listen to the show at KCRW.

[READ: December 7, 2011] “Just Kids

I have always grouped together certain authors in my head.  When there were a bunch of Jonathans publishing, I kind of lumped them together.  I think of Mark Leyner and Bret Easton Ellis in the same breath.  It’s fairly common, I suppose.  But I never really thought of David Foster Wallace in terms of a group of authors.  He seems so solitary that it’s funny to even think of him as having friends.   But according to Hughes, many of today’s established authors prove to have been a part of a kind of nebulous writer’s circle.  A kind of 1990’s update of Dorothy Parker’s vicious circle.  But more insecure.

The article bookends with Jeffrey Eugenides.  In 1983 he and Rick Moody drove to San Francisco with the intent of being writers.  Five years later with no written works, Eugenides moved to Brooklyn, alone.  In that same summer, Jonathan Franzen was in Queens, also feeling alone (even though he was married–unhappily) and desperate for friends and peers.  And then Franzen got a fan letter from David Foster Wallace (that’s after he had written Broom of the System, but before Girl with Curious Hair) praising The Twenty-Seventh City

Franzen and DFW became friends.  To this friendship was added William T. Vollman, and David Means, also Mary Karr (whom DFW dated) and Mark Costello (who co-wrote Signifying Rappers with DFW).  Later they would connect with Eugenides, Rick Moody and Donald Antrim.  (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SUFJAN STEVENS-The Age of Adz (2010).

Sufjan Stevens has released a bunch of albums of beautiful orchestral rock.  It is multi-layered and complex with classical elements and all kinds of cool instruments.

And this album starts out with a beautiful acoustic guitar melody and Sufjan’s delicate vocals.  Although it is a far more stripped down song than usual, “Futile Devices” seems like it is heading in the standard direction.  But anyone who heard Sufjan’s Christmas album number VIII knows that he has been having some fun with electronics.  And they show up with a vengeance on track two, “Too Much.”

All of the multilayered noise that was once orchestral and (some might say) precious has been replaced by a cacophony of gorgeous electronic noises.  The beginning of the song reminds me of the sounds in Skinny Puppy’s “Stairs and Flowers” (how many Sufjan Stevens reviews mention Skinny Puppy?).  The song is nothing like Skinny Puppy once the vocals kick in–it’s catchy and delicate–but those electronics underpin the whole thing, bringing his pastoralia into the twenty-first century.  When I first reviewed this song I didn’t like it but once you get absorbed by Sufjan’s world, it’s an enticing place to be,

“Age of Adz” takes this electronic nonsense even further with an 8 minute brew of strange sounds and choral voices.  But he always manages to throw in some catchy parts, no matter how strange the song gets.

For me one of the highlights of the disc is “I Walked” it features one of my favorite Sufjan things–falsetto vocals in a beautiful but unexpected melody.  And this song has them in spades.  “Now That I’m Older” has a very disconcerting sound–his voice is slowly warbled and mournful.  It’s a beautiful melody that is alienating at the same time.

“Get Real Get Right” returns to his earlier style somewhat (there’s more layers of music, although the electronica is still in place).   “Vesuvius” is a beautiful song and “All for Myself” is another of those great falsetto tracks that I like so much.

“I Want to Be Well” eventually turns into a manic electronic workout in which he repeats the chorus “I’m not fucking around.”

But nothing compares  to “Impossible Soul” a twenty-five minute (!) multi-part suite of electronic chaos.  It’s a fantastic song complete with autotune (used to very cool effect), repeated swelling choruses (it’s like a Polyphonic Spree tribute), electronic freakouts, and acoustic comedowns.  All in a positive, happy message.  I can’t stop listening to it.  “It’s not so impossible!”

Sufjan continues to impress me.

[READ: November 10, 2011] McSweeney’s #9

After the excesses of McSweeney’s #8, I was excited to get to the brevity (and urgency) of McSweeney’s #9.  This one is a paperback and looks like the first couple of issues.  The cover is mostly text with a hodgepodge of phrases and pleas.  You get things like: Thankful, Emboldened, The (Hot-Blooded/Life-Saving) Presumption of (Perpetual/Irrational (or More Likely, Irreducibly Rational) Good Will, Efflorescence, Our motto this time: We Give You Sweaty Hugs,” Alternative motto: ” We Are Out Looking,” GEGENSCHEIN (no more), and the promise: “We will Do Four This Year.”

This is the kind of issue that makes me love McSweeney’s.  There are some wonderful short stories, there are some nice essays and there are some dark moments all centered vaguely and tangentially around a theme.  There are some great authors here, too.

The back cover image is called Garden Variety by Scott Greene and it’s a fantastic painting.  You can see it here (navigate through the 2000-2004 paintings, but I have to say I really like the style of all of his work.

There are no letters and no nonsense in this issue.  So let’s get to it. (more…)

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