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SOUNDTRACK: TASH SULTANA-Tiny Desk Concert #609 (April 7, 2017).

Tash Sultana is a force of nature.  I’d heard her song “Jungle” a bunch of times on the radio before seeing this.  I thought it was interesting and kind of catchy with some cool guitar work.  But it never occurred to me that Sultana was doing the whole thing BY HERSELF!

For this Tiny Desk, she recreates that song (and two others) entirely by herself with loops and loops and effects and all kinds of good stuff.

As “Jungle” opens, Tash plays the guitar chords and loops them.  And then she plays the opening riff.  And loops it.  And then more riffs on top and loops them.  She creates a huge sound for about a minute and a half.  Then when all that sounds good, she starts playing the drum machine.

It’s so much fum watching her dance around her little area (barefoot, mind you) tapping pedals and setting effects on and off.  And when she starts soloing, she’s got a perpetually big smile on her face just really enjoying all of the work she;s doing and the sounds she’s making.

She finally starts singing and she’s got two microphones–the chorus gets the second microphone which has a processor and echo to totally change her sounds.

And then towards the end of the song she starts messing around with a solo and has all kinds of effects at hand for whichever part of the solo she’s doing, including a wild, ass-kicking, classic-rock style solo that all mellows out into  sweetly echoed section and a gentle guitar ending.  The song itself isn’t that complicated, but holy cow she packs so much into its 7 minutes.

So who the hell is Tash Sultana?

This 21-year-old Maltese-Australian got a guitar from her grandfather when she was three, she says, and has played it every day since. It’s astonishing to watch Sultana’s fluidity on her instrument, like a natural extension of her body. (She also plays bass, saxophone, trumpet, flute and more, but kept it “simple” at the Tiny Desk.) I thought I had a lot of energy — watching her bounce from guitar to drum machine to two separate microphones — and then hopping barefoot from looping pedal to effect pedal as she builds her songs was exhilarating and exhausting.

She says she wrote “Notion” when she was having a difficult time with myself… and someone else.

It opens with that her singing “oohs” into that processed mic and it sounds otherworldly.  And then again she jumps around from guitar to drum machine looping more and more.  Although it’s interesting that most of the song stays kind of mellow.  Her melody is very pretty and her voice is great.  The only trouble is it’s kind of hard to understand what she;s singing.  But its fun that she’s singing some of the song without playing anything else (it’s all being looped) and how intensely she sings it.

After playing the song for some 9 minutes, she hits some pedals and the just takes off on a wailing guitar solo.

“Blackbird” is very different–it’s all played on acoustic guitar.  There’s no looping.  She says she wrote this while in New Zealand.  She was wandering and got lost in a cave.

But acoustic doesn’t mean simple folk song.  She plays some great riffs with her right hand while hammering-on with her left hand. The part around 19:15 is just fascinating to watch.  She must have an alternate tuning as well because when she plays opens strings it sounds great (and it’s 12 string as well, so it sounds even more full).

After singing a few verses she plays an incredibly fast section.

There’s just so much going on, and I have no idea if all of that is part of the songs or if she’s just going off into her own world.

I was so impressed by this set that I just got tickets to her when she comes to the area in a few weeks.

[READ: January 31, 2017] “Mo Willems’s Funny Failures”

I have never really written about Mo Willems, even though my family loves his books (I’ve even got an autographed copy of one of them).

The Piggy and Gerald books are wonderful first readers (and are fun for adults too) and Pigeon is the best bad-tempered character around.

Since I like Rivka Galchen and post about just about everything she writes, I wanted to include this here.  It is a biographical essay based on a few interviews she had with Willems. (more…)

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agathaSOUNDTRACK: VALERIE JUNE-Tiny Desk Concert #310 (October 12, 2013).

I enjoyed Valerie June’s —I found her voice to be unusual but enjoyable.   But I find her sound here to be kind of flat and disappointing.  Her guitar choice feels too quiet or something and her voice sounds too tinny—almost childlike.  I have a love hate relationship with singers with this kind of voice, and I’m afraid she comes down on the bad side.

But maybe it was something with the location, because the blurb says I’m wrong.

Valerie June is a singular performer with an array of singing styles. Sometimes she’s channeling an old male voice; at other times, she channels a younger woman or even a child. Her music is steeped in tradition. The striking Tennessee singer — on its own, her hair could pass for sculpture — can sing the blues or gospel or country or a blend that sounds like nothing else. She learned how to sing during 18 years of church, but the “old man’s voice” comes from deep inside in unexpected ways. Prepare to be surprised, and to become Valerie June’s newest fan.

During “Workin’ Woman Blues” I couldn’t get the melody of Steely Dan’s Do It Again out my head.  It’s something about her vocal delivery–although clearly the music is very different.  It’s unusual that the first line of “Rain Dance” is the same as Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love”—intentional I’m sure.  And the way she sings the lyrics very differently than the original also unexpected.  But the whole presentation of her voice and guitar sounds like an old timey black and white cartoon–Popeye or the like.

She’s very chatty before the final song.  She talks about love and then says there’s a lot of cute babies here today.  This is my cute baby: a tiny banjo made in Memphis.  It is a very tiny banjo.

Of the three, “Somebody To Love” is my favorite song, although she does get a little crazy on the chorus.  I’m most intrigued by the electric foot pedal that appears to simply be an electronic drum stomping thing.

[READ: August 15, 2016] Agatha

In high school I had to read And Then There Were None.  I really liked it, but I never read anything else by Agatha Christie.  I’m a snob who doesn’t read mysteries, true.

But I’ve always been intrigued by Christie.  So I was thrilled that I found this graphic novel biography at work.

As many of these graphic novels tend to be, this one was French and recently translated to English (by Edward Gauvin).  I was fairly certain that I had seen the work of the artist in a previous comic, but Alexandre Franc is new to me.  As are the writers Anne Martinetti and Guillaume Lebeau.

This is a great biography–it is told with flair and excitement and throws in a lot of details about the creation of her most famous novels (without spoiling any of them). And, in a very clever conceit she “talks” to Hercule Poirot throughout the book–allowing her to narrate things without it seeming strange or flat.  And, even better, Poirot is a jerk to her–perpetually jealous and unhappy with her.  It’s a great technique. (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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SOUNDTRACK
: BATHS-Tiny Desk Concert 300 (September 4, 2013).

I was unfamiliar with Baths and I am impressed by their busy-ness in this set.  There are only two guys playing, both play with various computer gadgets and then switch to keyboards and guitars.  They layer more and more music on this fairly dancey and very electronic sound.

Baths, a.k.a. Will Wiesenfeld, plays mysterious and textured electronic music. When Wiesenfeld came to the Tiny Desk, I expected contemplative tones and a laid-back performance; he does, after all, call his project Baths. But what sets him apart from the vast majority of like-minded performers is that his music doesn’t get buried behind the buttons or lost in a hypnotic glaze.

Wiesenfeld is an extrovert live, and at the Tiny Desk, he sounds vibrant and compelling as he performs songs from this year’s Obsidian. His partner Morgan Greenwood, an accomplished music-maker in his own right, keeps the music dense but frees up Wiesenfeld to sing with few distractions; there’s a mind-meld between the two that’s undeniable. They’re not accustomed to playing in the light of day, but they enchant in this perfect introduction to their work.

Wisenfeld’s vocals are a lot of wordless sounds (ba ba ba, na na na) that get looped and mixed around.  He sings in a rather high register, especially when making the looped sounds.

“Miasma Sky” builds with layers upon layers of sounds and vocals.  The sounds are manipulated in great ways with those little knobs and sliders. And just as you think it’s going to end with a series of delicate synth and guitar notes, he begins looping them which create the building blocks for the rest of the song.   It’s primarily keyboards and glitchy drums until the end.

“Phaedra” begins with some heavy drums and them playing around with all their gadgets.  This is a fast, pumping, dancing song.  Greenwood sings backing vocals in an equally high register.

“Ocean Death” has deep thumping drums and an opening with lots of na na nas and la la las in a textually rich soundscape.  It all fades down o just drums before building back up again.

[READ: July 9, 2016] Ruins

Seven years ago I read a book called Diario de Oaxaca, a sketchbook by Peter Kuper that I really enjoyed.  When I grabbed this book of the shelf the other day I didn’t realize it was the same guy.  But I can see that that sketchbook informed this excellent graphic novel.

The Diario covered his two-year stay in Oaxaca where he drew a lot, studied insects (and saw the monarch butterflies) and experienced both chaos and contentment.

This fictionalized account of the story places two characters into a situation that sounds similar to what he experienced, but with enough difference to keep it purely fictional. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: STEVE GUNN-Tiny Desk Concert #299 (August 31, 2013).

Steve Gunn is a fascinating guitar player:

his work mostly stems from a bushy, overgrown definition of what we often call “Americana,” with a healthy understanding of the La Monte Young drone.

Grateful Dead and J.J. Cale certainly reside in the rubber-band bounce of “Old Strange,” a song that keeps the groove mellow, but will suddenly pop with water-drop elasticity. “The Lurker” comes from a much longer solo guitar version that originally sounded like one of Roy Harper’s acoustic epics, but with Gunn’s trio, it becomes a back-porch barn-burner.

For this concert, Gunn and his band play two 9-minutes songs.  They center around his guitar work which yes, has a drone, but the main focus are the Americana riffs that he plays with precision.

“Old Strange” opens with a lengthy guitar passage that shifts after 2 and a half minutes to a slow folky kind of style.  The song seems like it will be an instrumental but 3 and a half minutes in he begins singing. His voice is deep and he sings a kind of narrative story.  It’s quite mesmerizing.   “The Lurker” is a slower, more mellow jam.

[READ: September 3, 2016]: Beatrice

I have read a couple of books from Dixon through McSweeney’s.  I didn’t know much about him then and I still don’t, but I recalled liking his stuff pretty well.  And this book was short so I thought I’d give it a look.

This book is told in a fascinating style–a kind of stream of consciousness in the mind of the main character, but through really close third person.

The book details the encounter of the main character Professor Philip Seidel (there’s a joke about this name, as Seidel means mug) and a woman named Beatrice.  Beatrice was a student of his some 25 years earlier.  She has stopped at his house to deliver some food in condolence for the recent passing of his wife.  She knows about this because she is now a professor where he taught her, although he had retired a few years back.

She brought some food and also wanted to tell him that he was her favorite teacher back then.  She had studied German and wasn’t allowed to take fiction courses until she completed her requirements.  She loved his teaching method and loved how encouraging he had always been.  She has clearly been keeping tabs on him–she has read some interviews he gave–and she definitely knows a lot about his life.

When she leaves he briefly wonders if maybe she’s interested in him now that the are older.  But he puts that out of his mind. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JOSHUA BELL & JEREMY DENK-Tiny Desk Concert #567 (September 30, 2016).

After hearing a pianist and then a violinist, it was fun to hear a duet of the two.

Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk are masters of their crafts.  Although I did not know that:

Bell and Denk have been chamber-music partners for 10 years, and they’re a bit wound up on Brahms these days. They’ve released a new album, For the Love of Brahms, and they’re performing the music, along with that of Brahms’ friend Robert Schumann, in concerts.

They play three pieces, two Brahms, and one Schumann.  And they all sound spectacular.

Brahms: Violin Sonata No. 3, IV. Presto agitato
“You gotta love Brahms,” Joshua Bell says, a little short of breath. He’s wiping sweat from his brow after the big rock ‘n’ roll conclusion to the composer’s D minor Violin Sonata. Bell and the astute pianist Jeremy Denk play it with all the turbulence and tenderness Brahms demands, and it’s an invigorating way to open this Tiny Desk concert. [I love that the focus jumps back and forth from violin to piano, with interesting riffs and trills from one then the other.  I also love the way the melodies seem to creep around and sneak up on us].

Schumann: Romance, Op. 94, No. 2
Contrasting with the fiery Brahms, Schumann’s Romance, Op. 94, No. 2 unfolds like a song without words. Bell makes his 1713 Stradivarius sing, capturing the bittersweet tone of the music. When the theme comes around for the second time, he lightens bow pressure for a more intimate, almost whispered disclosure.

Brahms (arr. Joachim): Hungarian Dance No. 1
Another of Brahms’ close friends figures prominently in Bell and Denk’s final offering. Violinist Joseph Joachim was something like the Joshua Bell of Brahms’ day, as well as the man for whom the composer wrote his Violin Concerto. Joachim’s gift to Brahms was creating piano and violin arrangements of the composer’s Hungarian Dances.  Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 1, powered by a sweeping theme and chugging piano topped with pearly descending runs, whisks you to a smoky café where gypsy fiddlers battle for supremacy. Starting off on the low G string, Bell’s tone is as rich as dark chocolate, the feeling a touch wistful.  [I really love Hungarian dances.  It seems like every composer’s take on Hungarian music is excellent.  I love how the violin plays a very simple yet dark melody and the piano sprinkles in all of these descending notes in a fairly dramatic scale.  And then of course as all the dances do, it speeds up, careening around in wild abandon and fun.  Wonder what made Hungary such a lively place].

[READ: June 13, 2016] Lunch Lady and the Author Visit Vendetta

I rather like that the Lunch Lady books are sequential and mildly dependent on each other. Of course you can read them in any order you like, but reading them in the proper order allows you to see some continuity between books.

In the previous book, Dee mentioned that the author of the Flippy Bunny series was coming to the school. And in this book he does.

The kids are super excited that Mr Scribson is going to be there to read and sign books.  He is something of a primadonna though as he is upset that the reading will be taking place in the gym.  After his presentation, he signs books, but when Hector brings him a very old copy of the book Scribson says “I don’t sign opened books.”  Hector who has always love the Flippy Bunny books is devastated). (more…)

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jan2017SOUNDTRACK: DECLAN McKENNA-Tiny Desk Concert #588 (January 3, 2017).

declanI only know Declan McKenna from NPR’s coverage of SXSW last year.  He played a SOUTH X Lullaby of the third song in this set.

And although he looks a little different, his singing style hasn’t changed.  He has an interesting delivery–with notes that sound like they crack as he sings.  But he is in total control.

The blurb notes:

It’d be easy to look and listen to this young English singer and think he’s just another sensitive songwriter with a guitar, singing about his troubles. But Declan McKenna writes about a much bigger world than you or I might expect from a singer who only recently turned 18. He came to NPR this past summer, a bit nervous but passionate. He stripped down three of his songs to their musical essence, and the power of their words eclipsed the hooks for which they’re equally known. “Bethlehem” tackles religion:

Because I’m in Bethlehem
I’ve got a seat in heaven
And though I’m heaven sent
I can do as I want and you don’t have the right to choose

McKenna’s most famous tune, “Brazil,” is a song about football, money and poverty that also touches on religion.

But even without the blurb, his music pretty well speaks for itself.  “Bethlehem” begins slowly, with him singing in a deeper voice but when he gets to the chorus his voice starts to break in his trademark way.  And as the song moves on he shows off a strong falsetto as well.  He opens “Brazil” with a little guitar flub which makes him laugh before he starts again.  The song sounds very much like other versions I’ve heard—his vocal style is all deliberate.  The chorus is so catchy (whatever it’s about):

I heard he lives down a river somewhere
With 6 cars and a grizzly bear
He got eyes, but he can’t see
Well, he talks like an angel
but he looks like me.

And I love how after all of this catchy stuff, he throws in a third section that is even catchier than the rest:

I wanna play the beautiful game while I’m in Brazil
Cause everybody plays the beautiful game while in Brazil
It’s all you’ve ever wanted, and it’s all that you want still
Don’t you wanna play the beautiful game out in Brazil?.

It’s practically a different song.  But so good.

This is the first I’ve heard “Isombard” (which I looked up afterward and is much more synthy).  He says he’s never done this acoustic before. He describes the song as being “somewhere between baroque pop and riff rock so it doesn’t translate easily.”  It’s got a very pretty melody and his slower singing style.  The song is also catchy and I’m surprised he hasn’t caught on a bit more yet.

[READ: January 17, 2017] “A Window to the World”

The narrator tells us that there were two writes at the Yiddish Writers’ Club in Warsaw.  Each of these men had talent and earned a reputation but then seem to have been silenced forever.

The two men were Menahem Roshbom (who had written three novels before he was 30) and the other was Zimel Hesheles (who had written one long poem at the ages of 23).  Since then, nothing–Roshbom was now in his 50s and Hesheles in his late 40s.  The two played chess and although Roshbom was a better player, he would always lose patience near the end which would cost him the match.

Roshbom had taken to journalism.  He was a chain-smoker and he carried on with women, mostly from the Yiddish theater.  He had divorced three times and was currently with another man’s wife.  By contrast Hesheles was small, reserved and silent.  He was poor but came to the club every day at noon and left at 2 when others came for lunch. (more…)

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