Archive for the ‘William T. Vollmann’ Category


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All of the multilayered noise that was once orchestral and (some might say) precious has been replaced by a cacophony of gorgeous electronic noises.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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SOUNDTRACK: MOGWAI-Kicking a Dead Pig + Mogwai Fear Satan Remixes (1998).

This release came out soon after Young Team, when it seemed like Mogwai was just flooding the market.  It’s a remix album of a number of tracks from Young Team. And, when it was re-released it contained several mixes of the track “Fear Satan” as a bonus disc.

In general, I’m not a fan of remixes.  There, I’ve said it. Back in the flush 90s, when I used to buy a lot of import singles, I enjoyed the B-sides, but was always disappointed when there was a remix rack.  Some are fine.  Indeed, some are pretty good.  But for the most part you get a very long song that is mostly drum machine and sounds and noises.  And I know that they are designed for dancing, but I’m not a dancer, so despite how much techno I own, I’m very rarely thrilled to ge a remix.

Which is  as good a way as any to say that this is a pretty inessential disc, even for Mogwai fans. Even though Mogwai themselves throw a couple of remixes on there.  And for the most part, what we get are washes of sound.  Since Mogwai don’t really do lyrics, it’s not always very obvious what song the remixers are remixing.

  • Hood: “Like Herod” has some interesting staccato, which Mogawi typically doesn’t have.
  • Max Tundra: “Helicon 2” is primarily ride cymbal although a guitar motif does come in (with some pretty harmonics) eventually.
  • Klute: “Summer” (Weird Winter Remix). There’s nothing distinctive about this.
  • Arab Strap: “Gwai on 45.”  I actually expected a lot from this mix because Arab Strap are a weirdly wonderful band and the guys have worked with Mogwai.  But then, they’re not an exciting band–they’re very good, just understated.  And as a result, this remix is okay but nothing too exciting.
  • Third Eye Foundation: “A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters” (Tet Offensive Remix) is also okay.
  • Alec Empire: “Like Herod” (Face the Future Remix).  Alec Empire usually turns all of his remixes into super fast like 500 bpm noise explosions (just like Atari Teenage Riot). He doesn’t do that here, and the song just kind of melds in with the rest.
  • DJ Q: “R U Still In 2 It” has a vocal, but it is mostly one word repeated over and over.
  • Kid Loco: “Tracy.”  I liked this track more than many others.
  • Mogwai: “Fear Satan.”  It’s weird to me that you would remix one of your own songs, although I guess it’s fun.  I still like the original better.  And I’m fairly certain this one is different from the one on the next disc.

The four “Fear Satan” remixes are by:

  • Mogwai: delicate, the washes of sound are quiet and warm, and it really features the flute quite a lot. Although by the end, the feedback does come in.
  • μ-Ziq: remix is much more staccato. The washes have been removed.  There’s very little connection to the original.
  • Surgeon: remix begins electronically and builds as a slow wave.  It’s pretty much one note getting louder and louder until about a minute left when it changes tone.  It’s hard to imagine even calling this a remix.
  • My Bloody Valentine: at 16 minutes,  the MBV remix stands out for length. After about five minutes of interesting feedback squalls it shifts to a high-pitched noise, almost like a drill. After a few minutes of this it shifts into a very pretty electronic song.  By the end it’s a pounding heavy drum fill rocker.  Any resemblance to “Fear Satan” seems purely coincidental, but it’s a wild ride.

[READ: March 11, 2011] The Revolution Will Be Accessorized

I only heard about this anthology when I read the Sam Lipsyte piece from it.  I didn’t really like his piece, but the rest of the anthology sounded intriguing.  It was put out by BlackBook magazine, which I have a sort of vague awareness of, but couldn’t really say anything about (it’s some kind of counter-cultural fashion magazine or something).  But it seems like the counter-cultural aspect really lends sway here.

This anthology is a collection of short stories, essays and interviews.  There’s also an introduction by Jay McInerney

JAY McINERNEY-Introduction
He talks about BlackBook and the essays contained here. (more…)

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For Rid of Me, PJ Harvey jumped to the big leagues (relatively) by enlisting maniac Steve Albini as a producer.  And he takes the rawness of Dry one step further into a sound that is both raw and sharp.  He really highlights the differences between the highs and lows, the louds and quiets.  And man, when this came out I loved it.

Like NIN’s “March of the Pigs,” the opening of “Rid Of Me” is so quiet that you have to crank up the song really loud.  And then it simply blasts out of the speakers after two quiet verses.

“Legs” turns Harvey’s moan into a voice of distress, really accentuating the hurt in her voice.  And Harvey hasn’t lightened up her attitudes since Dry, especially in the song “Dry” which has the wonderfully disparaging chorus: “You leave me dry.”

“Rub Til It Bleeds” is a simple song that opens with a few guitars and drums but in true Albini fashion it turns into a noisy rocker.  “Man Size Quartet” is a creepy string version of the later song “Man Size” (I’ll bet the two together would sound great).  And the wonderful “Me Jane” is a great mix of rocking guitars and crazy guitar skronk.   Albini really highlights the high-pitched (male) backing vocals, which add an element of creepiness that is very cool.

For me the highlight is “50 Foot Queenie”.  It just absolutely rocks the house from start to finish.  The song is amazing, from the powerful…well…everything including the amazing guitar solo.  “Snake” is a fast rocker (all of 90 seconds long) and “Ecstasy” is a song that feels wrung out, stretched to capacity, like they’ve got nothing left.

It’s not an easy record by any means, but it is very rewarding.  This is a CD that really calls for reamastering.  Because it is too quiet by half, and could really use–not a change in production–just an aural boost.

[READ: end of February and beginning of March] A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

This is a collection of 7 essays that DFW wrote from 1990-1996.  Three were published in Harper’s, two in academic journals, one in Esquire and the last in Premiere.  I devoured this book when it came out (I had adored “Shipping Out” when it was published in Harper’s) and even saw DFW read in Boston (where he signed my copy!).

click to see larger

[Does anyone who was at the reading in Harvard Square…in the Brattle Theater I THINK…remember what excerpts he read?]

The epigram about these articles states: “The following essays have appeared previously (in somewhat different [and sometimes way shorter] forms:)”  It was the “way shorter” that intrigued me enough to check out the originals and compare them to the book versions.  Next week, I’ll be writing a post that compares the two versions, especially focusing on things that are in the articles but NOT in the book (WHA??).

But today I’m just taking about the book itself. (more…)

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Sharon Van Etten caught my attention with the song “Don’t Do It,” which I love.  The rest of this album doesn’t have the intensity of that song, but rather, it gets under your skin with some great songs and interesting and subtle textures.

There’s only seven songs (running time just over 30 minutes), so “epic” is kind of a joke.  But she packs a lot into these songs.  The opening two songs are about 3 minutes each, and they are great alt-folk songs, especially “Peace Signs.”  They are sparse but effective.

“Save Yourself” adds more instrumentation, including a slide guitar.  But it’s the harmonies that really make the song great.  “DsharpG” is a cooly brooding song that never wears out its 6 minute length.   And “One Day” also has major potential to be a hit.

Of course for me the highlight is still “Don’t Do It” which gives me goosebumps with each listen.

What’s really impressive about the disc is how on the surface it seems like a simple folk album and yet every song has subtly different sounds and textures to makes this a really complex recording.

[READ: February 16, 2011] “Homeless in Sacramento”

Vollmann wrote a lengthy piece about death in the November issue of Harper’s.  Now, four months later, he’s back with an 18 page (!) article about homelessness. Now, normally I wouldn’t read an article about homelessness, because, well, because its a major bummer, but also because there isn’t anything that I can do about it and it doesn’t seem like there’s much new to say about it.

But I decided recently that I was going to try to read Vollmann whenever I encountered him, since it was unlikely that I’d ever go back and read his vast output.  So, here I am.

Vollmann does, in fact, manage to say something new about the homeless.  He begins by explaining that the house he bought had a vacant lot next to it.  And he has been tacitly encouraging homeless people to sleep there when they need to.  He has learned to like many of them and he finds that the frequent users have become “friends”–as much as you can in that situation. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: STEREOLAB-“Everybody’s Weird Except Me” (2010).

I was able to listen to another track from the upcoming Stereolab album Not Music.  This song is just fantastic.  It’s a faster, uptempo track.   Laetitia’s voice is backed by some other female singers (I wonder who they are, is it just Laetitia multitracked?).  And the propulsive beat is infectious.  The backing track of the music sounds like their earlier experiments with “space age” sounds.  Yet the guitar over the top is warm and inviting.

The song drops out at about the 90 second mark and offers a very cool respite from the bopping around that the song is doing.  After the break, the song seems to jump back and forth between this new mellow bit and the bouncy earlier part.  It’s a great track and a welcome opening to their last CD before going on hiatus.  Because, yes, according to the information on the NPR page, Stereolab is going on hiatus.

This CD is full of songs that were created around the time of their previous disc Chemical Chords, and it’s also packed with mixes, remixes and seemingly alternate version of some of those songs.  I haven’t heard the whole disc but it sounds like they’re going out with a winner.

[READ: November 15, 2010] “A Good Death: Exit Strategies”

I’ve mentioned before about my reader-relationship with Vollmann–I feel that I ought to read a lot more of him, yet I haven’t brought myself to do it (those books are huge!).  Nevertheless, I’ll keep reading the new pieces that I stumble upon.

So this piece is a nonfiction essay.  I’m tempted to say it’s more personal than the other pieces that I’ve read because it concerns the death of his father.  Yet from the little Vollmann I have read, it feels like he takes all of his writings very personally and invests himself pretty much bodily into them.

So, this piece, as I said, is sort of about the death of his father.  He died just a few months ago and Vollmann wants to find out a number of answers about death: should he be afraid of it, will he suffer, what should he expect?  So he interviews several “experts” in different fields:  coroners, funeral directors and many religious people of different faiths (Vollmann and his companion/translator are agnostic).  He’s given a vast array of answers, some of which are comforting to him and others just kind of piss him off. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BUILT TO SPILL-There is No Ememy (2009).

I’ve liked Built to Spill for quite a few years (I first encountered them on Perfect from Now On), but they always hang just below my radar when I think about great albums.  Nevertheless, many of their songs have landed on compilations I’ve made.

I listened to this disc a few times when it came out and when I popped it in again today I couldn’t believe how well I knew the whole album and how much I really, really liked everything on it.

This may in fact turn out to be my favorite BtS disc.  It isn’t radically different from other releases of theirs, but there’s some ineffable quality that seems to raise the whole disc above the fray.  The total package is fantastic.  The first few songs are quite short, just over three minutes each (which is surprising after the release of the live album which had so many extended songs and solos (a 20 minute cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer”).

Of course there are a few extended jams as well.  Four songs are over six minutes long (and three of them make up the last four tracks, so the disc does to tend feel a little heavy at the end–although “Things Fall Apart” has a horn solo (!) and “Tomorrow” has some unexpected time changes).  But the first long song, “Good Ol’ Boredom” has a great chugging riff that hold ups to the six minutes very well.  The nearly seven minute “Done” has a wonderfully effects-laden end section. The solo is pretty lengthy, but the backing music/sounds keep the whole thing interesting.  Of course, there’s also “Pat” a two and a half-minute blast of punk abandon.

Doug Marsch has a pretty high voice, but it never grows whiny or annoying, and in fact, it has a kind of gravitas to it.  And it is more than matched by the full band sound on the disc.  Martsch’s lyrics are also wonderfully unexpected [“Is the grass just greener because it’s fake?”].

BTS has made a great album and I’m going to have to revisit their back catalog too.

[READ: November 14, 2010] “Twilight of the Vampires”

This was a banner issue of Harper’s (I’ve felt kind of down on the magazine lately, but it made up for itself this month).  We have the Lydia Davis/Flaubert stories, a lengthy piece by William T. Vollmann and the cover story about Rupert Murdoch (which I won’t be posting about).  In fact, normally I don’t post too much about non-fiction (recent obsessions notwithstanding), but this particular piece was by Téa Obreht, one of this year’s New Yorker 20 Under 40.  Obreht had barely had anything published when they selected her, and so I figured it would be easy to keep tabs on her.  So here’s a nonfiction to add to her two stories.  (And it’s about vampires!)

Obreht is originally from Russia (her family is apparently still there).  As the essay opens, she is going to meet her mother in Belgrade for their trip to Serbia.  Their ostensible reason to travel to the Balkans is to find out about vampires.   (But when her mother injuries herself before the trip is about to commence, it convinces her mother that the whole trip is possessed by devils).

But why travel to the Balkans in search of vampires when her adopted homeland of America is overrun by vampires right now?  Because as she relates, our vampires are rather different from theirs. (more…)

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While I was looking around for Jonathan Franzen pieces in the New Yorker, I stumbled upon the first 20 Under 40 collection from 1999.  Since I had received so much enjoyment from the 2010 version, I decided to read all of the 1999 stories as well.  It was interesting to see how many of the authors I knew (and knew well), how many I had heard of but hadn’t read, and how many were completely off my radar.

I initially thought that they had published all 20 authors in this one issue, but there are five stories (including Franzen’s) that were just excerpted rather than published in full.  And I will track down and read those five in their entirety.  But otherwise, that’s a lot of fiction in one magazine (a few of the stories were quite short).  And it features a cover by Chris Ware!

So here’s the list from 1999.

**George Saunders-“I Can Speak™”
**David Foster Wallace-“Asset”
*Sherman Alexie-“The Toughest Indian in the World”
*Rick Moody-
“Hawaiian Night”
*A.M. Homes-
“Raft in Water, Floating”
Allegra Goodman-
“The Local Production of Cinderella”
*William T. Vollmann-
“The Saviors”
Antonya Nelson
-“Party of One”
Chang-rae Lee-
“The Volunteers”
*Michael Chabon-
“The Hofzinser Club” [excerpt]
Ethan Canin-
“Vins Fins” [excerpt]
*Donald Antrim-
“An Actor Prepares”
Tony Earley-
“The Wide Sea”
*Jeffrey Eugenides-
“The Oracular Vulva”
*Junot Diaz-
“Otra Vida, Otra Vez”
*Jonathan Franzen-
“The Failure” [excerpt]
***Edwidge Danticat-
“The Book of the Dead”
*Jhumpa Lahiri-
“The Third and Final Continent”
*Nathan Englander-
“Peep Show” [excerpt]
Matthew Klam-
“Issues I Dealt with in Therapy” [excerpt] (more…)

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