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SOUNDTRACK: CHANCE THE RAPPER-Tiny Desk Concert #632 (July 5, 2017).

I first heard about Chance the Rapper from NPR–what Robin is talking about in the blurb below. I downloaded his free album and liked it enough.  But I didn’t think much about him beyond that.

So I was really surprised a year or sop ago to see him in a Kit Kat commercial and then to discover that he was apparently huge.  Like mega huge.  I know many people who have gone to see him with their kids, he’s that big.  I’m puzzled because his album Coloring Book is the one that came after the free one I downloaded.  How did he become famous?

Well, good for him.  He seems like a really nice guy.  He’s wonderfully calf and understated as he comes out.  He introduces everyone nicely, with special attention to the drummer, “my good friend, Stix.”

He says “I’m a big fan of the series.”  Bu then admits “I didn’t know it was actually actually in an office.”  How?  But he later mentions some performances that he likes, so maybe he just never thought about it.

The night before arriving for his Tiny Desk set, Chance performed for more than 23,000 people at Jiffy Lube Live, an outdoor theater in Bristow, VA. The sold out arena and amphitheater shows of his current tour offer a stark contrast to the first time I saw Chance in concert back in 2013. Then, he was a 19-year old upstart rapping and singing for a handful of people at a tiny club in Austin, Texas. A lot has changed since then, and quickly. Chance’s most recent mix tape, Coloring Book, was widely ranked among the best albums of 2016 (some called it a masterpiece) and featured collaborations with a cast of hip-hop luminaries, from Kanye West to Lil Wayne and T-Pain.

Maybe that’s how he got so famous.

He plays two songs.  The first is “Juke Jam.”  It’s got a cool 70s sound on the keys and some popping drums–I’m really taken with the drummer.  I didn’t notice until about half way through the song that the only instruments are the keys and a trumpet, which is pretty interesting.  Chance has an infectious smile as he raps/sings.

I didn’t love the song on first listen–it’s a little too smooth/r&b for me.  But on the second listen I rot to appreciate the words.  and how it’s kind of a sweet (but dirty) tribute to roller rinks.  I enjoyed this section:

All the kiddies stop skating
To see grown folks do, what grown folks do
When they grown and they dating

And the backing vocalists really bring it all home nicely.

Chance The Rapper knew he wanted to try a different approach for his Tiny Desk performance, so he decided to do something he said he hadn’t done in a long time. He wrote a poem. More specifically, he wrote a poem in the short time it took him to ride from his hotel in Washington, D.C. to the NPR Music offices. Calling it “The Other Side,” Chance debuted it in the middle of his remarkable set, reading from his notes written out in black marker on sheets of typing paper.

I really liked this poem.  It was real and it was funny.  He also didn’t read it in that awful coffee house style of reading that poets love these days.  And before starting, he says, “Forgive me, I haven’t written a poem in a long time.”

“I still have all the keys that are of no use to me,” he began. “They used to, though. On the other side was a mansion on a hill, complete with L.A. pools and fireplaces and a rim made specifically for people that lie about being six feet to dunk on.”

Chance didn’t get much further before he was interrupted by one of the hazards of performing in an actual, working office: a building-wide page for someone to call the mailroom. But Chance rolled with it, cracking a quick joke before starting over again.

After the announcement, he paused and said, it’s all right, I’ll start again.  Then he smiled and covered his mouth and said, “he’s like shut the fuck…no more poetry!”  He also tells everyone, “There’s humor in this poem so you can laugh at it. Unless it truly offends you.”

Chance’s poem “The Other Side” was sandwiched between an opening version of “Juke Jam” from Coloring Book and another special gift just for his Tiny Desk appearance, a moving cover of Stevie Wonder’s 1974 song “They Won’t Go When I Go.”

“They Won’t Go When I Go” (written by Stevie Wonder) is gorgeous.  He has Stevie’s vocal stylings down, but he makes them his own.  The music is really lovely-minimal and spot on.  And when the backing singers kick in, it  elevates his own singing even more.

I kind of thought he’d do more, but he really did a lot of interesting things in those 12 minutes.

As the credits roll, he says, “Give it up for Third Story.  Give it up for the Players of the Social Experiment and the beautiful Rach Jackson on vocals

Not sure which people are in which “group”. but here’s everyone: Chance The Rapper (vocals); Nico Segal (trumpet); Peter Wilkins (keys); Rachele Robinson (background vocals); Ben Lusher (background vocals); Elliot Skinner (background vocals); Richard Saunders (background vocals); Greg Landfair Jr., aka “Stix” (drums)

[READ: May 1, 2017] “My First Car”

I just don’t see the appeal of Joy Williams’ stories. This one absolutely feels like it is an excerpt and yet I am fairly certain it isn’t.  It also feels like a couple of stories wedged together, and I’m pretty sure it isn’t that either.

In one part of the story, the narrator is asked by the caretaker of Mrs B’s Baby Village Day Care to look after the babies there.  She has no experience (except that she was once a baby) but agrees anyway.  Mrs B (Mr B is dead) needs to go pray for the world.

Mrs B had for some time wanted to go visit the great barrier reef.  To see it in its full bloom.  But then she found out that it was mostly dead.  She was made about that of course, so she was going to pray for the world. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RAVI COLTRANE QUARTET-Tiny Desk Concert #630 (June 26, 2017).

Ravi Coltrane is the son of John Coltrane–giant shoes to fill.  Indeed there’s quite a legacy in this band:

Yes, Ravi Coltrane is the son of the John Coltrane, one of the most famous and important jazz saxophonists and composers of all time. He’s also the son of multi-instrumentalist, composer and spiritual leader Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda. (In fact, all members of the band here are performing artists in their own right and come from artistically rich families; drummer E.J. Strickland is the brother of saxophonist Marcus Strickland; Adam Rogers parents performed on Broadway and Yunior Terry is Yosvany Terri’s brother, both heirs to Cuban music royalty.)

I don’t know anything else about Ravi Coltrane, so I’m going to let the blurb do the detailing:

The first song in the set, “Cobbs Hill,” was written by Coltrane’s good friend and colleague Ralph Alessi. Beginning with Yunior Terry’s funky and deliberate bass line, further enhanced by intentional drum rolls the 2/4 time signature, two beats per measure, captures a march-like proclamation. [Ravi plays the soprano sax on this one.  There’s a lengthy guitar solo in the middle of the song in which Ravi just relaxes, but it is primarily Ravi’s show].

The second song is Coltrane’s own composition, “Three For Thee”, a fan favorite from the 1998 Moving Pictures album; the original recording included Ralph Alessi on trumpet. Only 32 years old when that record was released, it could be taken as a sign of things to come: Ravi Coltrane, an old soul in a young body, mature and capable of creating work so robust and important. Almost 20 years later, hearing that music again here, even better, is affirming and a testament to Coltrane’s ever-evolving artistic journey. And E.J. Strickland’s opening drum intro couldn’t be more spunky; he teases the audience into the groove with effortless, intentional punctuations.  [Ravi is on tenor sax for this song.  There’s another lengthy guitar solo in the middle].

After this song, he thanks everyone and then points out that there is a two drink minimum.

Sadly there is no blurb for “Phrygia,” so it’s up to me.  I really like the main riff of this song.  And the middle has a groovy bass solo, which could be longer, frankly.  I like that the guitar plays some really delicate notes and phrases to accompany the bass solo.  After some good wailing, I like that they return to the main theme and then bring things down with some thumping bass and gentle guitars

[READ: August 20, 2016] “Four in Prose”

Back in 2009 Williams had 7 brief stories published in Harper’s.  My take away was: I would have not finished this work, except the whole thing was only two pages long.

These four pieces are also only 2 pages long.

The first is called “The Perverted Message” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ANTONIO LIZANA-Tiny Desk #614 (April 28, 2017).

I am fascinated by Lizana, but more for his voice than anything else.  Lizana’s singing voice/style sounds a lot like the lead singer of Gipsy Kings (musicians from Arles and Montpellier in the south of France, who perform in the Spanish language with an Andalusian accent).  Lizana is from Spain, but he has that same strained and fascinating delivery.  The blurb here hints that maybe that is just the style of flamenco:

In many ways, the traditions of flamenco and jazz could not be further apart, but in the hands of a few Spanish jazz musicians, these two worlds commingle and find common ground. Antonio Lizana is one such musician, both a saxophonist and vocalist with one foot firmly planted in each tradition. As a vocalist he has mastered the Moorish, note-bending improvisations that make flamenco singing so beguiling, while the fluidity of ideas he expresses as a saxophonist place him in the time-honored tradition of composing while playing.

Indeed, between jazz-like saxophone, Lizana sings flamenco vocals.  For these three songs, Lizana and Jonatan Pacheco (percussion) and Andreas Arnold (guitar) play quite a mix and it works very well.  The band is also quite multicultural as well as Andreas is from Germany and Jonatan is from Spain (and he plays a mean box drum).

“Airegría” is about 6 minutes long.  It begins with hims singing over the percussion.  It after a minute and a half that the guitar comes in and not until almost 2 and a half minutes before the sax comes in.  The guitar is kind of staccato while the sax is pretty fluid.

Introducing the band he says, “We’re very happy to be here playing.  We have today on the stage or on the desk…”

“Déjate Sentir” more conventionally jazzy sax but the main melody comes from his kind of scat singing.  Ad I find tat when the guitar kicks in I prefer him singing to guitar rather than playing the sax–I suppose traditional flamenco over jazz. But I can appreciate the sax too–especially when it seems to push aside the flamenco style for a bit.

“Viento De La Mar” is a smoother song with some pretty guitar and light jazzy sax.  My favorite moments comes in the middle with the chiming percussion and the big ending.

[READ: June 24, 2016] Big Bad Ironclad

How cool is this series?  It is so cool that this is the official author bio:

The spy Nathan Hale was executed in 1776.  The author Nathan Hale was born in 1976.

Nathan Hale is the author/illustrator’s real name and he uses the spy Nathan Hale as the narrator of his stories about history (or in this case the future–for the spy, that is).

The book begins on September 22, 1776 as Nathan Hale is about to be hung for treason.  The British soldier in charge of the execution is cross, but the executioner himself is kind of giddy because Hale is going to tell another tale.

After some amusing introductions, designed to antagonize the solider, Hale settles in to tell the story of the iron ships (iron doesn’t float!).

And thus he begins the story of the Merrimack and the Monitor.  The year is 1861 and Abraham Lincoln has just been elected.

Hale uses some very funny narrative devices to get some of the salient battle points across, like General Scott’s anaconda plan–surround the enemy and squeeze.  But how can they do that with only four, yes four, ships?

The North’s man in charge was Gideon Welles, nicknamed Father Neptune.  Stephen Mallory is in charge of the confederate navy–the executioner dubs him “sharkface.”  And in the most amusing nod to comics, Gustavus Fox (Foxy) is rendered as a fox (he’s a cute li’l fox). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DANILO BRITO-Tiny Desk Concert #618 (May 12, 2017).

This is a pretty great  introduction to the music of Danilo Brito:

After four chords, the notes start to fly — Danilo Brito and his four collaborators, three Brazilians and one American, are off like jackrabbits in front of a hound, having hustled their instruments to the Tiny Desk at the end of a North American tour.

Brito plays the mandolin, and boy how his finger fly.

Brito a 32-year-old mandolin player, made his first record when he was a teenager, plays a type of music called choro (pronounced “shore-oo”).  It’s said that choro started in the streets and back yards and made its way to the concert hall. Brazilian musicians of all genres have drawn on choro, from popular composer Antonio Carlos Jobim to Heitor Villa Lobos, one of the giants of Latin American classical music. Its literal translation from the Portuguese is “to cry,” but in Brito’s dextrous hands a better translation may be “crying out to be heard.”

They play five songs.  “Sussuarana” is just full of amazing finger work.  The pace is breakneck and exhausting.  How does he do it?.  There are two guitars (Carlos Moura (7-string guitar) and Guilherme Girardi (guitar)) playing chords and the mandolin zipping all over the place.  In the background, Lucas Arantes plays a small guitar called the cavaquinho and Brian Rice (the American) keeps the beat on the pandeiro.

Between songs he has a translator explain that they are playing “a little bit of Brazilian instrumental music.”  He says this style of music started around 1860, mixing jazz and classical and African music.”

“Lamentos” is a much sadder song (as you might imagine), but it is gorgeous.  For “Tica” Arantes and Rice step aside.  “Tica” is his own composition.  It is a waltz in two tempos.  There’s some wonderful lead lines that run up and down the instrument.  It’s fascinating that while his lines are still fast the rest of the musicians are at a slower pace.  There’s a lovely middle section of delicate guitar, but once it ends they take off again.

The next song is “Melodia Sentimental” it sounds like the soundtrack of a weepy romance film–heart string tugging.

Brito and his colleagues play their arrangement of Villa Lobos’ “Melodia Sentimental,” originally written for voice and orchestra.  What you’re actually hearing is a kind of formal Rodas de Choro, the circles of players who developed this music more than a century ago and have carried it on to the present.

Only — in the backyards, they don’t wear suits and ties.

The final song “Pega Ratão” is also an original piece.  It is short and never stops.  It is great watching his fingers fly.

[READ: June 12, 2016] One Dead Spy

How cool is this series?  It is so cool that this is the official author bio:

The spy Nathan Hale was executed in 1776.  The author Nathan Hale was born in 1976.

Nathan Hale is the author/illustrator’s real name and he uses the spy Nathan Hale as the narrator of his stories about history (or in this case the future–for the spy, that is).

This is the first book in the series so it begins with the historical Nathan being brought up to the gallows.  The people are all there to watch a hanging, but they are disappointed that the guy to be hung is a spy, not the arsonist.  And then Hale is brought up to the British soldier and the executioner (who looks at Hale and say “This is awkward”).

Hale mutters his famous last words: I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.  And as that happens a The Big Huge Book of American History comes down and swallows Hale and then lets him back out because he just “made history.” (more…)

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   SOUNDTRACK: WAXAHATCHEE-Tiny Desk Concert #321 (November 23, 2013).

Waxahatchee is pretty much Katie Crutchfield.  The band recently played a show near me and I wondered if it was a band or just her.

This might be as intimate as hearing Katie Crutchfield sing in her basement. That’s where she and her sister would play guitar, write and sing songs 10 years ago, when she was 14. Katie and Allison Crutchfield had a band back in Birmingham together, The Ackleys; these days, Katie performs as Waxahatchee, while Allison’s band is called Swearin’.

The songs Waxahatchee brought to the NPR Music offices aren’t just stripped down for this Tiny Desk Concert, this is Katie Crutchfield as Waxahatchee, spare and exposed; this is what she does. Sometimes there’s a drummer (her sister’s boyfriend Kyle Gilbride) and at other times another guitarist, her boyfriend Keith Spencer (both play in Swearin’), but even on Waxahatchee’s second album, Cerulean Salt, there are plenty of bare-boned songs. This is intimate music for an intimate setting, as we got to stand in careful silence, listening intently and capturing this frail and powerful performance.

And all of that is true.   These are pretty, quiet folk songs.  They are so quiet it almost seems like she doesn’t have her amp on—you can hear her pick striking against the strings.

To me the power of these songs is in the lyrics, and yet the music isn’t boring or simple either.  Her chords are always, if not interesting, then certainly spot on.  But I keep coming back to the lyrics.  Like the end of “I Think I Love You”

I want you so bad it’s devouring me / and I think I love you but you’ll never find out.

Her speaking voice is quiet too, and after the first song she admits, “This is one of the coolest things I have ever gotten to do.”

“Bathtub” has this wonderfully intense line:

And I tell you not to love me
But I still kiss you when I want to
And I lament, you’re innocent
But somehow the object of my discontent
And it’s fucked up, I let you in
Even though I’ve seen what can happen

The entire Tiny Desk Concert is only 9 minutes–which is simply too short.  I know that the Tiny Desk Concerts usually have bands play 3 songs, but when they are mostly short ones like “Tangled Envisioning” (not even 3 minutes), they could tack on an extra one or two.

[READ: August 30, 2016] Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543

Zach Weinersmith writes the daily webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  I supported the Kickstarter project for this book because it looked frankly hilarious.  The one thing I have to say off the bat is that I don’t love his drawing style.  There’s something about it that I simply can’t get into.  Even after two full books of these drawings, it just never gels for me.  But that’s fine. because I’m here for the jokes.  And they are awesome.

The book is comprised of the best religion-themes comic from the 13 years that SMBC has been around.  There’s also a whole slew of comics that are exclusive to this book.

We are greeted with this: “For these drawings, the part of God is played by a giant yellow disc.” (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: DAUGHTER-Tiny Desk Concert #313 (October 21, 2013).

Daughter is a quiet folk band (at least in this Tiny Desk Concert) in which two acoustic guitars (Elena Tonra and Igor Haefeli) and one drum (Remi Aguilella) play behind Tonra’s gorgeous, angsty vocals.

For all three of these songs, she sings delicate whispered vocals that are quite lovely, but also quite dark.

Like this line from “Youth” “Most of us are bitter over someone / setting fire to our insides for fun.”  I love the way Haefeli’s guitar harmonics sound like keyboards and how powerful the martial drumming sounds when it comes in.

“Landfill” opens with thudding drums (Mallets instead of sticks) which are louder and bigger and yet still feel gentle.  And yet, as the blurb says: The song is “achingly pretty and melancholy, the track builds to an absolute gut-punch of a line — “I want you so much, but I hate your guts” — that conjures a pitch-perfect mix of gloom, desire and hostility.”

They put out an EP and in 2013 released an album:

the lovely If You Leave, but Daughter was kind enough to resuscitate “Landfill” for this stripped-down performance at the Tiny Desk. As you’ll see and hear, that aforementioned gut-punch is a recurring specialty for the band: In all three of these sad, searing songs, singer Elena Tonra showcases a remarkable gift for coolly but approachably dishing out weary words that resonate and devastate.

Between these two songs, Bob asks if this is an awkward place to play, and she responds, “No, we’re just awkward people.”

For “Tomorrow” there is a beautiful ascending guitar melody and loud drums.  I really like the way the guitars play off of each other–even though they are both acoustic, they sound very different and complement each other nicely.  Like in the wonderful melody at the end.  Despite how pretty the song was, apparently she was unhappy with it saying “a bit ropey, that one.”  I hadn’t heard that before, but evidently it means “unwell…usually alcohol related” so that’s pretty funny.

[READ: August 30, 2016] Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543

Zach Weinersmith writes the daily webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  I supported the Kickstarter project for his book Religion: Ruining Everything Since 4004 BC and this book was part of my funding level.

I was more interested in the religious comics, but I am tickled by how funny the Science comics are.  Weinersmith knows a lot of science (or at least scientists) and make some really funny jokes about the subject.

The one thing I have to say off the bat is that I don’t love his drawing style.  There’s something about it that I simply can’t get into.  Even after two full books of these drawings, it just never gels for me.  But that’s fine. because I’m here for the jokes.  And they are awesome. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: HEM-Tiny Desk Concert #306 (September 28, 2013).

Hem is one of All Songs Considered‘s earliest discoveries. Back in 2002, we received a beautiful and unique album called Rabbit Songs. It was a homey, fireside kind of record, with a sound that could be called country or Americana, and the arrangements by Dan Messé made it feel quaint and warm. To top it off, there was singer Sally Ellyson, an untrained natural talent with an effortless yet breathtaking voice. Hem has gone on to make five more albums since Rabbit Songs; their latest, Departure and Farewell, finds the group still writing songs that feel as if they’ve always been there.

Bob is quite right about the feel of this band, the drums are actually foot stomping and piano tapping, and that makes the band sound like they are siting around cozy room with friends.   And then there’s her voice.  There’s nothing specific about it that stands out, and yet it really does.  Her voice feels incredibly warm and welcoming, making you want to stop and listen.  And perhaps it’s something about the recording which makes everything feel soft (but not muddy) and warm.

And even in the songs themselves, it feels like friends hanging out.  During “Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing” they say “go George” as the intro to the bass solo and then “go Heather” for the violin solo.   “Tourniquet” has some great lyrics, between the alliteration at the beginning and the great metaphor of the song, I was so taken with the lyrics that I didn’t even realize how pretty the melody was:

Brooklyn, I’m broken — I’m breaking apart
Oh Brooklyn, your bridges are bound up in light —
Every artery’s clogged as you pull the belt tight —
And this tourniquet turns even tighter until
Traffic comes to a standstill

When the song suddenly takes off near the end (but only briefly) it really elevates the song which was already delightful.  Introducing the final song, “Seven Angels” she says they are excited to be there, playing in this format.  She says the song can be seen as a lullaby–she likes to sing it for her sister.  She says she doesn’t write the songs but she can pretend this one is hers.

It’s hard to imagine this band playing a venue much larger than this one–they seems right at home in a small space.

[READ: July 31, 2016] Stop Forgetting to Remember

This is a fascinating story about the comics artist Walter Kurtz.  I know very little about Peter Kuper, but I gather that this is sort of his life but written as an autobiography of somebody else.  (For instance, Kurtz was born on the same day as Kuper).

The back cover blurb also states how daring it was for Kurtz to write all of this –showing the embarrassing details, etc.: “My spouse would have killed me!”

This book is a collection of “stories” (not sure if they were ever published separately) that are joined by the narrative thread of Kurtz telling us about his life.  And the “occasion” for this reflection is the pending birth of his first child.  He is freaking out a bit–when he was young he never wanted kids, and then maybe he was cool with it, but recently he’s become terrified again.  He’s particularly afraid because he’s engaged with the world and he sees that as each month goes by, things get worse: AIDS, global warming, overpopulation, famine, wars (and that’s just 1996). (more…)

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