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manner SOUNDTRACK: BEN GIBBARD-Tiny Desk Concert #251 (November 19, 2012).

benBen Gibbard is the voice of Death Cab for Cutie.  His voice is instantly recognizable and his melodies are surprisingly catchy.

This Tiny Desk Concert (they say it’s number 250, but I count 251) is just him and his acoustic guitar.  I didn’t know he did solo work, but apparently he does (in addition to being in The Postal Service and All-Time Quarterback).

Gibbard just released a solo album, Former Lives, which he’s said is a repository for material that didn’t work as Death Cab for Cutie songs; from that record, only “Teardrop Windows” pops up in his Tiny Desk Concert. For the rest, he draws from Death Cab’s most recent album (“St. Peter’s Cathedral,” from Codes and Keys) and, of all places, last year’s Arthur soundtrack (“When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street”).

As mentioned he plays three songs and his voice is so warm and familiar I felt like I knew these songs even if I didn’t.

I knew “St. Peter’s Cathedral.” It is a lovely song with very little in the way of chord changes.  But the melody is gentle and pretty.  And the song appears to be entirely about this church.  Which is interesting because the second song is also about a building in Seattle.  “Teardrop Windows” is a surprisingly sad song about an inanimate object.  It’s written from the building’s point of view as he mourns that no one uses him anymore.  And such beautiful lyrics too:

Once built in boast as the tallest on the coast he was once the city’s only toast / In old postcards was positioned as the star, he was looked up to with fond regard / But in 1962 the Needle made its big debut and everybody forgot what it outgrew

The final song “When the Sun Goes Down on Your Street” was indeed for the Russel Brand movie Arthur.  Somehow I can’t picture those two together.  It’s a lovely song, too.

I prefer Gibbard’s more upbeat and fleshed out music, but it’s great to hear him stripped down as well.

[READ: January 2017] “My Writing Education: A Time Line,” “The Bravery of E.L. Doctorow,” “Remembering Updike,” and “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz” 

I had been planning to have my entire month of February dedicated to children’s books.  I have a whole bunch that I read last year and never had an opportunity to post them.  So I thought why not make February all about children’s books.  But there is just too much bullshit going on in our country right now–so much hatred and ugliness–that I felt like I had to get this post full of good vibes out there before I fall completely into bad feelings myself. It;s important to show that adults can be kind and loving, despite what our leaders demonstrate.  Fortunately most children’s books are all about that too, so the them holds for February.

George Saunders is a wonderful writer, but he is also a very kind human being.  Despite his oftentimes funny, sarcastic humor, he is a great humanitarian and is always very generous with praise where it is warranted.

The other day I mentioned an interview with Saunders at the New York Times.  Amid a lot of talk with and about Saunders, there is this gem:

Junot Díaz described the Saunders’s effect to me this way: “There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital. But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”

These first three pieces are all examples of his love and respect for other writers–both for their skill and for their generosity.

“My Writing Education: A Time Line”

“My Writing Education” comes from a book called A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors.  Saunders’ mentor was Tobias Wolff.  And for this essay, his admiration takes the form of a diary.  (more…)

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6616 SOUNDTRACK: GLEN HANSARD-Tiny Desk Concert #225  (June 17, 2012).

glenWhat can I say about Glen Hansard that I haven’t said already—he’s a powerful singer and a great storyteller.  This is his second appearance on Tiny Desk (although his first solo) and his fourth or fifth concert on NPR.

With The Swell Season, they played for 34 minutes (a Tiny Desk Record).  And this Concert is no shortie either at nearly 22 minutes.

He’s playing songs from his solo album (on that same beat up guitar).   Although he is distinctly himself, without the band(s), he sounds a bit like Cat Stevens and sometimes like Van Morrison (and he looks like Gordon Lightfoot).

He sings rather quietly and then impressively loudly–powerful and passionate.  He is clearly into what he does.

“Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” is rocking folk song (he throws a coda of RESPECT at the end) in which he really belts out a few parts.  He’s got a delightful “La la la” middle section, and the overall melody is great.

“Bird of Sorrow” is  much more mellow song.  It builds through some verses and allows him to belt out a few lines near the end.

“Come Way to the Water” has him on a 4 string tenor guitar.  Although it is quite clearly a Glen Hansard song, the guitar is much more timid sounding compared to his voice.  And it really does give the song a very different (darker) feeling.  In fact when it’s over, he says, “that was kind of depressing wasn’t it?”

“Lucia” is a “song he hasn’t finished yet” but he’s going to play it because “it’s a little bit happier.”  Although the lyrics are “Lucia, you’re letting me down again / Lucia, your heart’s not in it babe…. And if your heart’s not in it, then your heart’s not in it, babe.”  Not exactly a happy song.  But very pretty.

“The Song of Good Hope” is slower with no big powerful singing, but it’s really heartfelt and intense.

And as always, he is unfailingly polite and thanks everyone for listening.

My friend Jonathan says that he will always try to see Hansard live, and it seems like I should be doing the same next time he comes around.

[READ: January 12, 2017] “At Home in the Past”

The June 6 & 13, 2016 issue of the New Yorker was the Fiction Issue.  It also contained five one page reflections about “Childhood Reading.” 

As soon as I started reading this, I knew that Sarah would want to read it as well.  For although I have not, Sarah has read The Secret Garden, which is what Tessa Hadley is writing about here.

Tessa says that she didn’t own many books as a child–mostly she borrowed from the library.  But the ones she did own she read over and over and “some of them soaked in deep under my skin, composing my private mythology and shaping my mind.”

She says she had a Puffin paperback of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.  The cover picture of a dark-haired girl in a white coat standing among thorny bare rose bushes looks just like Mary Lennox is described in the book.

Although it was published in 1911, she felt no separation from the Edwardians.  She felt at home in the past and often preferred it to modernity, which seemed somehow inferior. (more…)

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6616 SOUNDTRACK: PATRICK WATSON-Tiny Desk Concert #221  (May 31, 2012).

pat-watsPatrick Watson is a Montreal-based singer songwriter with whom I was unfamiliar.  But he has received many accolades, including being nominated for the Polaris prize many times (and winning once).  It turns out that Bob Boilen also really likes him a lot. And I can see why.

Watson and his band make sounds that are quite unexpected (but are still melodic and pretty).  The first song “Adventures In Your Own Backyard” itself is amazing the way it unfolds.  The first sounds we hear are the drummer using a violin bow on Boilen’s Emmy statue (which I’m sure Bob was genuinely delighted by).  There’s two acoustic guitars and the violinist’s beautiful ooohs.  About one minute in, there’s a big drum sound as the drummer starts playing snare and bass.  And then the acoustic guitar is is put through some kind of filter to give it a very electric sound.  Once you get used to the acoustic guitar sounding electric and the electric guitar sounding acoustic, the violin comes in (sounding like a violin).  And then there’s backing vocals oohing until Watson comes back with more vocals, but this time through a microphone that is hugely distorted and mechanical-sounding (he and the violinist shared oohing duties and their voices get processed together).  All of this sounds like chaos and yet the melody is catchy and constant (and yes, the song ends with the drummer bowing that Emmy one more time).

Watson explains that for “Words In The Fire” the band was “nine hours north of nowhere” north of Quebec with these kids who invited them to a campfire party.  They had nowhere else to be so they went.   The kids requested a Bob Marley song, but they didn’t know any.  So they wrote this song.  For the start, it’s just Watson singing with the acoustic guitar.  Midway through the song, the percussionist plays a saw, giving it an eerie quality.  Despite the craziness of the first song, this song is delicate and pretty and Watson’s voice is high and sweet as well.

“Into Giants” opens with some lovely guitar intros and lots of harmonies.  This song is especially fun to watch because the five of them are all squeezed in behind the desk and seem more crammed than before.  Watson even has to move out of the way to let the violinist take her solo.  The whole band sings in a big folksy chorus “started as lovers don’t know where it’s gonna end” with appropriately big bass drum sounds.  The song seems like it’s going to end with Watson’s oooohing, but with a minute left, the song picks up again, with Watson playing a cool riff on the keyboard.  He even gets out that distorted mic again to build the song back up.

I love watching a Tiny Desk by someone I don’t know and immediately falling for a band.

[READ: January 12, 2017] “The Book”

The June 6 & 13, 2016 issue of the New Yorker was the Fiction Issue.  It also contained five one page reflections about “Childhood Reading.” 

Matar’s story is quite different from the others.  He says that his earliest memory of books is being read to, not actually reading.  Many of the classics were read to him: One Thousand and One Nights, and the Arabic literary renaissance of the twentieth century.   But there were hardly any books for children in the house.

He says that during his life he has had a passionate affair with books in English and Arabic.  And he makes this wonderfully succinct comment about youthful reading: some books were “undeserving of my youthful fervor, a few … I encountered at the wrong moment, [but there were] plenty of others that still light up rooms inside me.”

But, for him the book that affected him the most if one that he hasn’t read.  He doesn’t even know the title or author. (more…)

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6616 SOUNDTRACK: DANIEL JOHNSTON-Tiny Desk Concert #224 (June 11, 2012).

danDaniel Johnston makes me uncomfortable.  I find his music to be simple and his voice isn’t very good.  And yet he is beloved by so many other people.  The fact that he is schizophrenic makes me worried that there’s some kind of exploitation going on.  But who knows.  He has had rather a lot of (relative) success.

The blurb tells us

Johnston has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and he’s been institutionalized, but these days he travels and performs. It’s amazing to see and hear a spark of candor in what he does, all while he’s shaking like a scared child. There’s an odd sort of curiosity to watching Johnston perform, but it’s easy to root for him: He’s endearing and sloppy and unmistakably talented.

He and his guitarist Friend McFriendstein (actually Shai Halperin who plays under the name Sweet Lights) play four songs.

“Mean Girls Give Pleasure” is a pretty funny fast romp.  “Sense of Humor” is a slower song.

Between songs, they show off Johnston’s book Space Ducks.  There’s an iPad app and video game which is “Much beter than checking out Starbucks on yelp.”

“American Dream” is a clever song that’s full of monsters as metaphors.  “True Love Will Find You In The End” is a pretty, uplifting song.

His songs are short and unadorned, and surprisingly catchy.  But I don’t think I’d ever listen to him intentionally.

[READ: January 12, 2017] “Uninhabited”

The June 6 & 13, 2016 issue of the New Yorker was the Fiction Issue.  It also contained five one page reflections about “Childhood Reading.” 

Young says that when he was in fifth grade he read Robinson Crusoe (not the abridged version) in one weekend.  But he wasn’t showing off.  He saw an image or cartoon of the book and picked it for a book report not realizing how massive the actual book was.  He delayed until Friday for a report due Monday and thus had to cram in an entire novel.  He did the same thing with Gulliver’s Travels, “Who knew Gulliver met more than just Lilliputians?”

But he says that these masterpieces didn’t seem that different from non-fictional travelogues like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, the gory account of the U.S. bombing of Japan.

Crusoe is apt because he says he felt shipwrecked when they moved from New York to Topeka, Kansas.  (more…)

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6616 SOUNDTRACK: YANN TIERSEN-Tiny Desk Concert #219 (May 21, 2012).

yannYann Tiersen scored the soundtrack to Amélie.  But he also writes and sings lovely chamber-pop music.

The first song “The Gutter”  opens with Tiersen playing a swirling violin melody accompanied by an acoustic guitar, a ukulele and keys.  Tiersen doesn’t sing, but the lead singer’s voice is yearning and delightfully accented as well.  (No names are given for the rest of the band).  I liked the way the song built in intensity even while his voice retained that quiet style of singing.

For the second song, “Monuments” everyone switches around.  Tiersen plays a lead 12 string acoustic guitar, the ukulele player is on keys and all four sing harmony lead.  You can tell that Tiersen is not American because of the way the word “Monuments” is sung “all monYOUments…” which adds an exotic flavor to the song.  The delicate keyboard sounds float nicely over the acoustic guitars.

They stay with this lineup for “Tribulations.”  The singer from the first song and the acoustic guitarist sing lead.  And everyone else joins on harmony.  “The Trial” opens with the four singing a beautiful “ooh” in harmony.  Then the other three sing a complex backing vocal while Tiersen sings lead.

There’s some really lovely melodies in this concert.

[READ: January 12, 2017] “Where is Luckily”

The June 6 & 13, 2016 issue of the New Yorker was the Fiction Issue.  It also contained five one page reflections about “Childhood Reading.” 

Having a child is like rereading your own childhood.

Galchen has a young daughter and that daughter has a some favorite stories.  One is a Moomin (which I love), another is a Piggy & Gerald.  Galchen says that if you read children’s book enough times, “they start to seem like Shakespeare.”

But she says that her daughter doesn’t read in a linear fashion.  “What happens next” doesn’t seem to cross her mind.  She reads them more like eternal landscapes: “In that sense, nothing is happening, and she reads for that nothing.” (more…)

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6616 SOUNDTRACK: CHUCK BROWN-Tiny Desk Concert #217 (May 16, 2012).

chuckI’m puzzled by a few things with this Tiny Desk Concert.  The first is a note that This story originally ran on Sept. 28, 2010.  The second is the note that Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-Go music, died Wednesday. In 2010, he brought his full band to the NPR Music office — and put on a party like no one else.

That isn’t confusing in itself, but I have to wonder why it took them two years to air this concert, which is quite a fun rave up.  Are there other shows they didn’t air?

Okay, so I had no idea who Chuck Brown was.  And the blurb anticipated that

The name Chuck Brown might not mean a whole lot to people outside the Washington, D.C., area. … In D.C., Brown is widely known, even revered, as the Godfather of Go-Go, a title he’s held since the late ’70s. Though he started out as a jazz guitarist, Brown invented go-go, a style that incorporates funk, jazz, R&B, hip-hop and dancehall, and has mostly stuck with it ever since.

So, Go-Go, huh?  I never heard of that either.

No one in D.C. can really explain why go-go hasn’t traveled beyond the city’s environs — we love it here, it’s all over our commercial R&B and hip-hop radio stations and, at least when I was in high school, a go-go in a school’s gym was the most packed party of the weekend. Chuck Brown is a local hero. A few days after he played our offices, Brown and his whole band played at the Redskins’ stadium for the halftime show.  So to have Brown play a corner of our office — not a 90,000-capacity football stadium — was like a dream come true for a lot of NPR staffers. Sweat started pouring immediately, between the 11 musicians (that’s congas and a stripped-down kit; saxophone, trumpet and trombone; two backup singers and a rapper) and all the go-go-heads in our building.

Brown played four songs for about 25 minutes.

Go-go is mostly about the groove, though, and Chuck Brown just settles in and leans back. He showed up looking like a million bucks in a vest, Dior shades and his signature hat, and then he did what he does best — get the crowd on his side and hand its members something to dance to.

Go-go is based on a syncopated beat and the use of congas in addition to drums.  So “Senorita” is like a combination of reggae salsa and 50s singing (I can’t help but think he sounds like Frank Zappa when Zappa does his rather funny voice).  The song is slow but smoldering and fun to sing along to.  There’s a Santana guitar vibe too.

“Chuck Baby” is the hip hop element of his music.  His rapper is not very inspiring though.  She seems a little stiff.  And the song is a little flat when he’s doing the call and response–he sounds cool and seductive and they sound more bored than “naughty.”

Before the third song everyone starts chanting “wind me up chuck!” which he lets everyone know www.windmeupchuck.com is his website. “Wind Me Up!” / “Bustin’ Loose” starts with lots of call and response.  “Bustin’ Loose,” is a funky song with very James Brown accents and everyone singing the refrain: “Gimmethebridgenow, gimmethebridgenow.”  The song has been a hit in D.C. since 1979.  The backing vocalist on this song feels a bit looser (apparent as she sings “I feel like bustin’ loose).

The crowd was yelling out requests, too: “Chuck Baby” and “Run Joe,” a go-go cover of the Louis Jordan song.  “Run Joe” / “It Don’t Mean A Thing.”  “Run Joe” has a Jamaican flair “Policeman is on the premises.  What is he doin’ here?”  His guitar playing is really inspired throughout the set, but especially at the end of this song.   He does a lot of playing the same melody as he sings.  The song segues into a version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” in which he slips in “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that go-go swing.”

This set was really a party.  And Brown was just full of energy.

[READ: January 12, 2017] “Surrendering”

The June 6 & 13, 2016 issue of the New Yorker was the Fiction Issue.  It also contained five one page reflections about “Childhood Reading.” 

This reflection beings with Vuong explaining that his family moved to the U.S. from Vietnam when he was two.  He was an ESL student from a family of illiterate rice farmers who saw reading as snobby.

When he entered kindergarten, he found himself immersed in a new language.  He quickly became fluent in speech but not in the written word.  In fourth grade his class was given an assignment to write a poem in honor of National Poetry Month.  Normally his poor writing skills would mean that he was excused from such assignments.  He would spend time copying sentences out of books in the classroom.  But this time he decided to be ambitious and write a poem. (more…)

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922 SOUNDTRACK: CORINNE BAILEY RAE-Tiny Desk Concert #565 (September 16, 2016).

cbrI don’t really know Corinne Bailey Rae.  Her name sounds familiar, but I don’t think she’s who I thought she was.  Evidently she won a Grammy a few years ago, but that doesn’t really help me.

For this Tiny Desk, she sings three songs.  She plays an acoustic guitar with a folky flair.  The rest of her group consists of an electric guitar, a keyboard and a box drum (I love those).

Rae’s voice is delightful and her backing band gives the songs a 70s soft rock feel.  It’s an interesting mix of sounds.

“Paris Nights / New York Mornings” is a catchy song based around her guitar.  It’s an upbeat song with some cool dramatic slow downs.  It sounds incredibly 1970s.

She says that “Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart” is about falling in love with a person again, a second time.  And how you have to rebuild trust. It’s a slow ballad, although it builds into a kind of R&B song.  The interesting thing about Rae is that she always has a smile on her face.  She seems so happy during every song even when she sings, “I won’t break your heart like you broke mine.”

“The Skies Will Break” is about a point in your life when you think things are hopeless.  But you should just know that things will change.  It has a 70s keyboard vibe.  I really like the chord progressions of the chorus.  The fact that it’s her acoustic guitar that plays the loud chords of the chorus is pretty cool.

It has been about six years since Rae made an album, and it’s nice to have her back (even if I didn’t know she was gone).

[READ: March 8, 2016] “The Noble Truths of Suffering”

The story is about an American abroad.  He says he was speaking Bosnian and was in the American Ambassador’s house.  The house was ugly, built by a Bosnian tycoon.  But he decided that he needed more space, so he rented it out.

There’s a funny moment were the narrator sees the cultural attaché whose name is Jonah.  He says he mistakenly called him Johnny once and has been playing up that joke “Johnnyboy!” ever since.

This seems like a political story until we realize that the narrator is there to meet Dick Macalister, the author and Pulitzer Prize winner.  The narrator had received an invitation a few weeks ago.

I enjoyed that the invitation had reached his at his parents house in Sarajevo where he was briefly staying (he lives in Chicago). He couldn’t figure out how they knew where he was, but he had lots of wild speculative ideas.  He wasn’t going to go–he was trying to clear his head of Americans, until he read a little more about Macalister.  He had heard of him but hadn’t read him.  So he read some pullout quotes by the man and decided he was okay. (more…)

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