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SOUNDTRACK: alt-J-Tiny Desk Concert #613 (April 24, 2017).

Alt-J have been reduced to a trio.  And their sound has gotten even more delicate and almost pastoral.

Bob Boilen loves Alt-J, and that’s why they’ve been invited back for a second time.  He explains:

As the primary booker of the Tiny Desk Concerts, I have this self-imposed rule: No artist can come back for a second visit unless there’s something wholly different about what they’re doing. The first time alt-J played the Tiny Desk, in 2012, they came as a four-piece; electric guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. They were a pretty new band, their album had been out a few months and they were playing in clubs for a couple hundred people, not much more.

In the five years since the band visited it has found quite a few new fans. When I heard cuts from the newest album Relaxer a few months ago I flipped and tried to think of a way to bring them back. So I wrote them, saying I’d love to have them again but that it would have to be wholly, out-of-the-box different. I told them I’d hire a brass band, an African kora player if need be, a string section… They took up the challenge. They told me to find a cellist and two violinists.

I wrote to my friend Carol Anne Bosco, a cellist, who turned out to be a huge fan of the band and helped find two violinists for the performance. About four days before the performance the band sent the string parts, written by their friend Will Gardner.

On Monday morning, the English band met the American string players and they all gathered behind my desk. As they worked their way through a first pass at “Three Worn Words,” I noticed them and relieved — alt-J had actually never heard the string arrangements, this was the first time. They sounded beautiful. By noon, NPR employees and friends gathered around my desk to witness this astonishing concert from alt-J, including two new songs and two old favorites. Magic.

“3WW” is the first single and it sounds very different.  The song opens with a lengthy instrumental, and then the keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton sings lead.  It sounds quite a lot like an old English balladeer song.  Then standard lead singer Joe Newman takes over.  His unusual voice is especially recognizable but the song still stays quite mellow until the moment where the strings burst forth …but just for a bit until they sing the practically whispered, “I just want t love you in my own language.”

“In Cold Blood” sounds a bit more like their old style with a very interesting drums pattern from Thom Green: lots of fast snares and toms.  The synths feel almost Ren-Faire like.  There’s also a fun section of “la la las.”  I only wish I knew what they were singing about.

“Warm Foothills” is primarily piano and strings.  There’s a very delicate falsetto vocals (and even a whistle).  All three of these songs are new.  It’s interesting to realize that these songs won’t sound like this anywhere else or on record because they have the strings only for this show.

They then say they’re going to play something from their first album, to mutters of pleasure and when he says “taro” there’s a whoop or two and Joe jokingly goes “Yes!!”  This is a quiet guitar-base song and the strings really bring out elements of it.

alt-J are certainly a weird band but they have slowly won me over.

I happened to check Wikipedia about the band and found this interesting tidbit (veracity in question of course): “The band’s unusual sound stems from the fact that due to living in student halls, where noise had to be kept to a minimum, they were unable to use bass guitars or bass drums. Thom Sonny Green suffers from Alport syndrome, a rare genetic disease which causes hearing and kidney failure. As a result, he is about 80 percent deaf.”

[READ: March 8, 2017] “Crazy They Call Me”

I usually love everything that Zadie Smith does.  But this story didn’t do very much for me.

It is a kind of inner monologue of Billie Holiday.  I’ve always liked Holiday’s voice but I don’t know much about her life.  Like I didn’t know that Billie Holiday wasn’t her real name–which was Eleanora Fagan.  But I don’t think that that’s what made me not love the story much.

I assume this story takes place near the end of her life “you certainly don’t go out anyplace less than dressed, not these days.”  She is saying goodbye both to Elenora Fagan and even to Billie: “There is only Lady Day.”

Lady Day is mostly thinking to herself about her life. How she doesn’t really like other women, is mostly a man’s lady. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NONAME-Tiny Desk Concert #608 (April 3, 2017).

Noname (born Fatimah Warner) is a wrapper and crooner.  her voice is pretty and her demeanor is infectiously upbeat.  Although I don’t really love her songs, I find her attitude infectious.

The blurb says

It’s in the way she’s able to muster a smile while performing a heartbreaking tale of abortion. It’s those sometimes bleak, melancholy lyrics over brilliant, colorful production.

“Diddy Bop” is a strange mix of gentle music (delicate guitar lines from Brian Sanborn meld with synthesized flutes) and rather vulgar lines:  There’s a line “you about to get your ass beat” and lots of “my niggas” thrown around.  Phoelix (bass) sings a verse as well.  The song is only two minutes long.

After it she says she has watched many Tiny Desk Concerts and she “Just wants to be as good as T-Pain.”

The second song is actually a medley.  It begins with “Reality Check” and then segues into “Casket Pretty,” and “Bye Bye Baby.”

She says “Reality Check” is her most straightforward song, but “it would be shitty if you were like ‘damn that made no sense either.'”  I normally speak “in like, scramble-think, so hopefully you guys follow it.” “Scramble-think” refers to the clever metaphors she weaves in detailing the many ways she’s dodged destiny.

Akenya Seymour (keys, vox) takes a verse in this song and Phoelix gets some backing vocals.

“Casket Pretty” is quite an evocative expression but she repeats the lyric an awful lot during the song.  The drums by Connor Baker are interesting throughout the set, but especially in this song.

She says that “Yesterday” is her favorite song on the tape.  It’s the first song she made.  It’s vulnerable and honest and she was surprised how much people liked it so she decided she had more sadness and vulnerability for her album.

[READ: January 20, 2017] “Constructed Worlds”

I enjoyed this story very much.  It is the story of a girl who is off to Harvard.  The story is set in the early 1990s–in the time of Discman and the beginning of e-mail.  It even opens with the fascinating line:

I didn’t know what e-mail was until I got to college. I had heard of e-mail, and knew that in some sense I would “have” it. “You’ll be so fancy,” said my mother’s sister, who had married a computer scientist, “sending your e-mails.”

The girl, Selin, has been hearing all about the World Wide Web from her father. He described that he was in the Met and one second later he was in Anitkabir in Ankara. (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: SARAH JAROSZ-Tiny Desk Concert #324 (December 7, 2013).

I know Sarah Jarosz’ name from somewhere (anything spelled like tha I’ll remember), but I’m not sure where.  It turns out that Jarosz plays awesome bluegrass.

Perhaps I’d heard of her because of her youth:

The singer and multi-instrumentalist first surfaced as an 18-year-old wunderkind with the release of 2009’s Song Up In Her Head, which generated the first of what will likely be many Grammy nominations; now a grizzled 22, she’s out performing songs from her fine new third album, Build Me Up From Bones.

performed with the aid of fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist . All

“Over the Edge” has a great riff.  It starts out with Jarosz’ guitar (which is an 8-string guitar: twinned four string, so almost like a bass and yet strummed).  She’s accompanied by a plucked cello (by Nathaniel Smith).  And then her voice comes in: distinctive, raspy and really lovely.  But it’s after the first verse when the guitar and cello both play that fast 8 note riff that the song really kicks into bluegrass territory. In the middle of the song, it’s fiddler Alex Hargreaves who throws in some great bluegrass fiddling lines.  It’s swinging and rollicking and really fun.

“Build Me Up from Bones” is more folk sounding—her voice is beautiful and the melody of this song (which she plays on that 8 string guitar) is outstanding.  There’s a cool alt-folk tone to the song, especially in the bridge.  The cello is bowed, giving a rich sound before the violin (rather than fiddle) solo comes in.

For “Fuel The Fire” she switches to banjo.  This is a great bluegrass song and that banjo sounds great.  I’d love to see a double bill with her and Punch Brothers.

[READ: November 12, 2016] Gunnerkrigg Court 3 [23-31]

I really enjoyed book 2 of the series and was pretty exited to see that book 3 was already out–in fact books 4 and five have been released, too.  This book collects Siddell’s online series–for frame of reference, this book ends with chapter 31 and as of May 2017 he is up to chapter 62 online.

I loved that Chapter 23 started with a totally different style–looking like a kind of sci-fi epic (and called Terror Castle of the Jupiter Moon Martians). But we quickly learn that this new look is a simulation–a kind of test for the main kids.  But it’s very poorly made and they solve the mystery almost instantly. This plot leads to a couple of interesting revelations.  That Parley has a thing for Smitty (everyone can tell but the two of them), and that Jones is becoming a fascinating and enigmatic important character. Reynard is also even funnier with his comeback “I think you detect a hint of shut your face” which Anni responds to with “Hah, Katerina must be helping you with your comebacks.”

The simulation room also allows for us to learn more about the origins of Reynard and Coyote. (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: ASHLEY MONROE-Tiny Desk Concert #317 (November 3, 2013).

Ashley Monroe is a country singer.  She’s part of the new way of female country singers, most of whom I don’t really like.

But some of the folks at NPR music love country, so I’ll let the blurb do the talking for me:

The title track from Like a Rose tells an optimistic story of survival, the ambivalent ballad “You Got Me” chronicles ill-advised romantic obsession, and, of course, the Top 40 country hit “Weed Instead of Roses” functions as a playful, fun-loving mission statement. Speaking of “Weed Instead of Roses,” which closes this charming performance, Monroe says the straitlaced [Vince] Gill insisted upon the song’s inclusion on Like a Rose — even going so far as to declare it a condition of his producing the album. The guy knew what he was talking about, both in his support of the song and of Monroe herself.

“Like a Rose” is almost comical in how stereotypically country it starts out:  “I was only 13 when daddy died /Mama started drinking and my brother just quit trying.”  Good lord.  At least it has a positive message.

She says that the melody for “You Got Me” came to her in her sleep and woke her up.

“Weed Instead of Roses” is a song she wrote as a joke when she was 19.  She says her grandpappy first heard the lyric as “give me weeds as well as roses” and he thought that was right on because the weeds are just as important as the roses.

The song is definitely fun (and funny) but the whole set is way too twangy country for me.  And IO find her back up guitarist/vocalist to be even more whiny/twangy than her.  Yipes.

[READ: February 26, 2015] Gunnerkrigg Court 2 [15-22]

I was originally mixed on Volume 1 of this series, but I jumped right into this one and loved it from start to finish (even if I admit to not understanding everything that was going on).

The book, which compiles chapters 15-22 and some extras, doesn’t begin with any kind of recap, so you kind of have to catch up as you go along.

We meet the fairy from beyond the river who was turned into a girl.  She is very upset that her friend is no longer friends with her.  She assumes it’s because of her hair (which is now long).  In an amusing sequence, she believes that if she cuts her hair short and spiky she will be friends again (with some other girl).  She is delighted to learn she can cut her hair and it doesn’t hurt (then she attempts to cut off her finger).

But these cute one-off chapters are strategically placed between the more serious arc, which involves the awesome looking Muut (an owl head on a hunky man’s body) and the introduction of a short-haired woman who might be a teacher and who goes by the name Jones. She is a wise woman and an amazing fighter (she shows off by beating a man wielding a sword while she is unarmed). (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: SHOVELS AND ROPE-Tiny Desk Concert #304 (September 16, 2013).

This Tiny Desk Concert starts with the most fun opening of any—the duo of Shovels & Rope brought their dog along, and as they are warming up, the dog roams around, getting pet by people and sneaking treats.

As the blurb notes:

But once Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent showed up, the office quickly lost sight of the approaching performance, as the murmurs began: “There’s a dog in the office there’s a dog in the office there’s a dog in the office!” You could practically see our coworkers’ brains short out from a combination of cognitive dissonance and canine adoration.

I’ve enjoyed Shovels and Rope’s punky folky country music, But I didn’t know much about them:

As endearing as our new friend was, Shovels & Rope soon won back the crowd’s attention [with] the husband-and-wife duo’s mix of rowdy folk-rock and rootsy balladeering. After opening with the plaintive ballad “Carnival,” the South Carolina duo ripped through one of its signature rockers — “Birmingham,” during which the pair held eye contact sweetly while singing in unison — before closing with “Bad Luck,” a clattering gem for which the two swap instruments (he on guitar, she on drums). The song, originally from a Michael Trent solo album, most recently appeared on a deluxe version of Shovels & Rope’s 2012 debut, the winning and appropriately titled O’ Be Joyful.

The band’s music is definitely steeped in country and yet there’s something about it that I like—they have country spirit without all the twang—or perhaps it’s just the gorgeous harmonies that elevate it above pedestrian country fare.

“Carnival” is a slow, sweet song.  She plays guitars, he plays keys and he gets a harmonica solo.  For “Birmingham,” he jumps up and switches to drums. And it’s amazing how much power that simple drum beat puts into these songs.  This is a hootin’, hollerin’, country stompin’ song.  There’s a punky element to it- sort of an X vibe (although I think its more like The Knitters than X) with their voices mingling.

As that song ends, they switch places–he takes guitar she takes the drums.  Before starting, he asks, “Where’d our dog go?  Anyone got a line on a hound dog?”  She jokes, “If your ham sandwich is half eaten?”  Then corrects: “He won’t half eat it, he’ll get it all.”

The final song “Bad Luck” is a big stompin’ fun song. There’s simple loud punky drums and she hollers the vocals for extra fun

The dog even gets an on-screen handshake at the end (and then the duo shake each others’ hands, too).

[READ: July 30, 2016] The Metamorphosis

I’ve been enjoying the art of Peter Kuper lately.  So I found a few of his older books, like this adaptation of The Metamorphosis, which is pretty great.

I don’t know if this is meant to be a complete telling of the story.  I’ve read it a few times, but I don’t know all of the details.

I liked that he clearly doesn’t include all of the dialogue or text–it’s not a comprehensive version of the story.  Rather, he uses a the art to move the story along.

The cockroach is drawn in Kuper’s very blocky, very robotic style–it’s cool and creepy.  But not bug-creepy just inhuman-creepy.

As the book opens, he flashes back to his life and job as a traveling salesman .  He hates the work–it is exhausting–and if his parents didn’t need the money he would have quit a long time ago.

But while he’s thinking all this he realized that he is late for work.  He tries to get up and that’s when the limitations of being a cockroach really hit him.

His supervisor comes to tell him that he is fired because of poor performance and when his family sees him, they are disgusted by him.

Only his sister Grete treats him kindly–bringing him scraps of foot (real food at first and then rotting food, since he is a bug). We learn that in the family only Grete and Gregor are close–their father is distant and cold.  The father is really annoyed at Gregor the bug still being in the house–how do they even know he is that creature or if he is even still “in” there.  He throws an apple at Gregor and it gets embedded in his back (ew).

Without Gregor’s income the family must take in lodgers, who are bossy and inconsiderate  Gregor wants them out but when they see him, they freak out and storm out without paying.

Can a story like this find any happiness at the end?  Well, sort of, in a very unexpected place.

Even though this is primarily a visual work, it really conveys the horrors of the original in a very clever way.

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