Archive for the ‘Children’s Books’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: VAGABON-Tiny Desk Concert #710 (February 23, 2018).

It’s always my favorite artists who play the shortest Tiny Desk Concerts.  August Greene was okay and it went 36 minutes but Vagabon didn’t even manage ten.  Neverthless, there’s something magical about Vagabon.  Her voice is unique, she brings a new perspective to indie rock and she seems pretty nice too.

Laetitia Tamko, the artist known as Vagabon, is a 25-year-old, Cameroon-born musician with a big, tenor voice just bursting with new musical ideas. Though all the songs here are about love, Vagabon also speaks proudly to black women on her 2017 album, Infinite Worlds. There aren’t a lot of black women in this bedroom studio community of independents, a community that, especially in New York, has welcomed her and where she mostly found stimulus and guidance.

Her pride shines bright in her smile and as well it should. For someone self-taught and who’s been playing for only the past four years, her arrangements are adept and thoughtful in an independent rock music scene that can often be lyrically lazy and texturally tepid.

Her album is quite big with loud guitars and crashing drums.  But in this Tiny Desk, it’s just her and her equipment (and a stellar bassist on the second and third songs).

For the first song “Fear & Force,” she plays electric guitar.  There’s some lovely picking and great chords before she sings in her unique voice–whispered and deep (so much deeper than her speaking voice).  I love that she is still picking as she uses her left hand to start the electronic drum machine that makes the song sound so big.  The album version gets really big in the middle but she keeps things quiet here.  The chorus is wonderfully powerful and elliptical.

“Freddy come back, I know you love where you are, but I think I changed my mind.”

I love the abrupt ending too.

We were also treated to a new song during this Tiny Desk performance called “Full Moon In Gemini,” which, coincidentally, was performed on the day of a total lunar eclipse in Leo – she warned us all to “watch yourselves.

It’s amazing to hear her sing so powerfully after her delicate speaking voice.  She introduces Evan Lawrence on bass and his live bass is a tremendous addition.  He plays great lines that really flesh out her playing.  I love the way the song ends.  She sings “I lay in my bed with you it fees so …  so … good,” and the drums and bass continue for ten seconds before she shuts it all down (having already grabbed her mug and taken a sip).

Before the final song she explains that she taught herself how to play these instruments about four years ago.  Since then she’s been “hauling ass.”

Vagabon’s poetry speaks to love. You can hear it in “Cold Apartment.” While she closes the Tiny Desk set with it, it was the first song she ever wrote and one that came to her during a difficult time in her life.

“And we sat on my cold apartment floor
Where we thought we would stay in love
Stay in love”

She says she finds it very gratifying to share it in this powerful way.  The song has a terrific guitar melody with an outstanding accompany bass.  This is all especially true during the bridge/chorus when the bass gets really low and works perfectly with what she’s playing.  I find it actually works even better than on record where the drums are terrific but kind of drown out the bass.

I really hope she comes back around for a tour soon.

[READ: December 30, 2017] Beyond the Western Deep 

Tabby brought this book home and thought I’d enjoy it.  Which I did.

It’s a story of war with rather cute animals drawn by Bennett

It opens with some story telling about the history of this land.  It looks almost like cave drawings chaos and endless nights of war.  Eventually a treaty was signed and the land was divided into four places.

The Ermehn were driven from ancestral lands and made to live in the Northern Wastes (they’re not happy about it).
The Canid established the Kingdom of Aisling and has the strongest army in the land.  They are ruthless and humorless.
The Felis built the crowing achievement city of Gair.
The Vulpin live in the desert kingdon of Navran.
Sungrove is ruled jointly by the Lutren and Tamian races

The seafaring Polcan are poised to invade Sunsgrove.

Confused? Me too. It’s a heck of a lot of backstory for what is a fairly short and simple first part. (more…)


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SOUNDTRACK: BETSAYDA MACHADO Y PARRANDA EL CLAVO-Tiny Desk Concert #707 (February 16, 2018).

How can you not love a band that is decked out in wonderful colors and whose only instruments are percussion?

I love the first song, “Santa Rosa.”  The chorus is super catchy and when they raise the note in the chorus on the “Oh! Santa Rosa” the song just soars.  Although Betsayda Machado sings most of the songs, this one opens with one of the men (in yellow) singing and I really like his voice, too.  I could even figure out the gist of the words.

And the percussion?  Two floor drums, 2 hands drums, shakers and that friction drum.  So cool.

So who are these folks?

The roots of the music of Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo extend to the Venezuelan slave trade, and while the vocals are in Spanish and not an African dialect, the instruments the group plays date back more than 500 years.

The large bamboo cylinders, the djembe-like drums and the large friction drum together create a symphony of interlocking polyrhythms that was unlike anything I’d heard. Machado’s vocals soar over the unrelenting rhythms, and when she harmonizes with the other singers, it creates a choir-like display of African call-and-response vocals.

When discussing African-influenced music from the southern hemisphere, we often focus on countries like Brazil and Cuba, places where the folk music eventually made its way into popular music. Afro-Venezuelan culture and music is rarely featured or even acknowledged outside of the country. As you’ll see in this video, that should change once music fans take in the beauty of Machado’s voice and the power of her historical message.

“Alaé Alaó” is much more somber, but the percussion is incredible–three men playing bamboo sticks against bricks–the details of what they do are fascinating.  The song starts to pick up with bongos and other hand drums as the guy starts singing again.  During the middle of the song one of the women goes out dancing on the main floor with some of the crew.  This can only lead to more dancing.

“Sentimiento”  The guy in yellow sings the beginning of the song and then Betsayda comes in.  The friction drum is back along with all the shakers and percussion.  I love the way they all stop perfectly at the end.

The band includes: Betsayda Machado, Nereida Machado, Youse Cardozo, Blanca Castilo, Adrian “Ote” Gomez, Jose Gomez, Oscar Ruiz.

[READ: November 20, 2017] Science Comics: Dogs

I have enjoyed every Science Comic that has come out, but this might have been my favorite.

In addition to being about a great topic: dogs, it was also updated with a ton of new information that I had no awareness of.  On top of that there’s a ton of scientific information about genetics, evolution and natural selection.  To top it off, it’s narrated by an adorable pup named Rudy who loves a tennis ball.

Once Rudy drags his owner to the dog park, Rudy can tell us all about dogs.

He explains that all dogs are from the species lupus, and yet look at how different all of the breeds are.  So Rudy rushed back to 25000 BP (before present). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ALICE SMITH-Tiny Desk Concert #700 (January 31, 2018).

I had never heard of Alice Smith before, which I guess isn’t totally unsurprising given the blurb:

For those not familiar, Smith made a big splash among true-school heads in 2006 with the release of her debut album, For Lovers, Dreamers, and Me. That record, whose title is a play on “The Rainbow Connection,” brimmed with an arcane magic, and it created a legion of lifelong fans.

Smith’s live performances usually highlight songs from For Lovers, Dreamers, and Me, her 2013 album, She, and her repertoire of cover songs. But for her Tiny Desk performance, Smith gifted us with three stunning song premieres that left the room entirely in her thrall.

Smith’s voice is great (although I found the voice of her backing singer, Kristin Brooks, to be even prettier.  I don’t think you could hear the other backing singer, Chauncey Matthews, at all).

Since the blurb talks about each song, I’m just adding my comments at the end

The first song, “Mystery,” feels like walking into the home of that friend of yours who is clearly more worldly than you, where there’s always a cool breeze, no matter the season.  [I really liked the low-key nature of this song].

The second song, which is so new that it doesn’t have a title, exudes the liminal uneasiness of being out of tune with yourself. The wisdom of the song draws from the notion that the top of Maslow’s pyramid is found within. [Alice’s voice is really nice in this catchy, rather conventional R&B song].

The closing “Something” is an undulating soul search that attacks and recedes like a cloudy beach morning. Smith was unabashedly in her pocket here, alternating between falsetto, tremolo and touches of jazz. This dash of Broadway at an office cubicle is what makes the Tiny Desk series so special.  [This sounds very Broadway in the beginning. I didn’t care for all of the keening and whooping near the end though].

So I am clearly not a true-school head (nor do I know what that means).  But I did think her voice was quite nice.  She introduced the band at the end, first name only.  The blurb has their last names, but didn’t include guitarist Frank at all: Dennis Hamm keys, Greg Clark drums.

[READ: November 5, 2017] All’s Faire in Middle School

I really enjoyed Jamieson’s Roller Girl.  It was a great story and it featured roller derby!

I was excited to read this story, but I was a little concerned that Jamieson was going to try to shoehorn in a conceit that Middle School is like the Middle Ages or something.  Well, I needn’t have been.  Jamieson does something that might be even cooler than Roller derby–she sets her story at a Ren Faire!

Imogen and her family work at the local Ren Faire and have done so for years.  Her father is a part- time actor (and pool salesman) but his passion is being the bad guy at the Ren Faire.  We meet a whole cast of characters who work the Ren Faire.  Some stay put and only work there, but others travel and work the circuit.

But Middle School is also in the title.  It’s not just that Imogen is going to middle school.  Up until this point she has been home-schooled.  So she is starting middle school and school at the same time! (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BARBARA HANNIGAN-Tiny Desk Concert #698 (January 26, 2018).

It has been some time since Tiny Desk has had a classical singer.  As with many classical Tiny Desks. I like to let the knowledgeable NPR person tell us what’s happening.  But I’ll say that her voice is stunning and although I don;t understand the German, it’s pretty fascinating stuff.

The night before this Tiny Desk concert, extraordinary soprano Barbara Hannigan and her accompanist Reinbert de Leeuw gave a beautiful and intense recital at Washington’s Kennedy Center. The songs, all in German, came from a heady period in Vienna, when music was transitioning from the swells of romanticism to the uncharted waters of modernism. Four of those songs make up this Tiny Desk performance. The bonus here is that these impassioned dispatches become even more intimate.

[Hannigan tells us that they will play four songs all from amazing moment at beginning of 20th century when music just started to depart from harmony as we know it.  It sounds tonal but it is representing the end of all things].

Consider the opening song, Alexander Zemlinsky’s “Empfängnis” (Conception). The harmonies are sweet, but almost too rich, like overripe fruit, when Hannigan sings lines like, “Und wie ich sehend meine Arme breite” (And as I open my arms with longing). You can hear the end of a musical era.

An indefatigable champion of new and modern music, Hannigan (who is also a conductor) has given the world premieres of more than 80 pieces. The voice is simply gorgeous — silvery, buttery-smooth throughout the registers, with crystalline top notes emerging from thin air and charged with emotion.

[Hannigan tells us that Alma Mahler (Alma Schindler) married Gustav Mahler and was the most beautiful, intelligent girl in Vienna.  She was Zemlinsky’s student (and probably more), but she married Mahler and he said there was going to but one composer in the family.  The next song was written when she was studying with Zemlinsky].

In Alma Mahler’s “Licht in der Nacht” (Light in the Night), Hannigan taps into the mysterious sparkle of a little yellow star twinkling through black skies as de Leeuw’s piano explores wayward harmonies. Hugo Wolf’s “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (Only One Who Knows Longing) is a hymn to the yearning heart. De Leeuw explains that the key of G minor, in which the song is written, never materializes. It’s all about the longing for G minor.

[Hannigan says that for the Scoenberg piece, poet Richard Dehmel wrote the words.  He was an important poet put on trial for obscenity for his work Woman and World.  Even though he seemed to be talking about reflections in water the imagery was beloved to be quite obscene.  In this song, Jesus is singing to Mary Magdeline, saying “give me your comb and sponge I want to be close to you.”  It is very erotic].

The final song, “Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm” (the first music by Arnold Schoenberg to grace the Tiny Desk), offers a double dose of sensuality. Hannigan’s beautiful middle register and creamy phrasing paint the scene: Jesus asks Mary Magdalene for her comb because it will remind him every morning that she once kissed his hair. Hannigan calls the song “erotic” and she delivers on that feeling when, at the end, she cries out the name “Magdalena” with a lustrous, silken tone, touched with anguish.

It’s quite something.

  • Alexander Zemlinsky: “Empfängnis”
  • Alma Mahler: “Licht in der Nacht”
  • Hugo Wolf: “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt”
  • Arnold Schoenberg: “Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm”

[READ: November 20, 2017] What Happened at Brent’s

This little book came to my desk at work and it seemed like a charming diversion.  The only problem with it is that it is set on Hallowe’en and I read it at Thanksgiving (and am now posting about it around Valentine’s Day).

Aside from some of the mannerisms and the language, this book could very easily have been written today and could easily be staged today.

The play is 31 pages (running time 75 minutes).  There are ten characters in the play, all but one are played by children.

Set on Halloween night, a group of 8th graders are having a party.  There are four girls and three boys.  The fourth boy is on his way shortly.  The children are all aflutter because their favorite actress Rita Rose is filming a movie in the town nearby.  They are all infatuated with her and think she is the best. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DANIIL TRIONOV-Tiny Desk Concert #691 (January 12, 2018).

It has been quite a while since there had been a classical pianist on Tiny Desk.  And man, what a return.  Trionov is just stunning and he makes some of the more complex piano pieces in musical history seem easy.

NPR’s Tom Huizenga has written a splendid blurb which I’m putting here because he covers far more than I could:

When we invited Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov to play a Tiny Desk concert, we rolled out the big guns. In place of the trusty upright, we wedged a 7-foot grand piano behind Bob Boilen’s desk in preparation for the artist who The Times of London called “without question the most astounding pianist of our age.”

That’s a pretty lofty claim, but watch and judge for yourself. His performance here is extraordinary. Still in his 20s, Trifonov seems to have it all: jaw-dropping technique and interpretive skills beyond his age. He’s also a composer — the night before his NPR visit, he played his own knuckle-twisting piano concerto at the Kennedy Center here in Washington, D.C.

But for his Tiny Desk show, Trifonov focused on Chopin, beginning with the mercurial “Fantaisie-Impromptu” in C-sharp minor, a work that mixes sweeping melody, turbulent passion and wistful repose. Hunching close over the keyboard with feline agility, Trifonov’s slender fingers glide effortlessly. He coaxes the instrument to sing tenderly in the slow central section.

Trifonov follows with a pair of short tributes to Chopin by his peers. Robert Schumann’s “Chopin” accentuates the lyrical side of Chopin, filtered through the German composer’s forward-looking harmonies, while Edvard Grieg’s “Hommage à Chopin” offers volatility, lovingly rendered.

The smartly programmed set is capped with more Chopin, but with a nod to Mozart: the finale from a set of variations based on an aria from Don Giovanni. It gives Trifonov a chance to display his lightness of touch, plus a few pianistic fireworks. Smiling, he treats the tricky filigreed runs and hand crossings as if it were a child’s game. Look closely and you can see the piano shake.

So Trifonov plays four pieces.  The middle two are quite short.

Chopin: “Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66”  This is one of my favorite pieces.  The fast part is jaw-dropping and the slow part is achingly beautiful.  His fingers flow over the keys like he was simply petting a cat.

Schumann: “Chopin. Agitato” (from Carnaval)  Trifonov says Schumann wrote a tribute to Chopin called “Chopin,” which was a portrait of the man.   This is a quiet, delicate piece and it is so much fun to watch his hands float seemingly weightless above the keys.

Grieg: “Hommage à Chopin, Op. 73, No. 5”  This tribute focuses on the more stormy and turbulent aspects of Chopin’s faster work.  It slowly builds in intensity with very fast finger work.

Chopin: “Variations on Là ci darem la mano‘ (from Mozart’s Don Giovanni) – Coda. Alla Polacca”  Chopin wrote a variation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  This is the finale. There are some amazingly intense runs up and down the keys in this piece as well. And again a lot more bouncing around with his left hand to high notes.

This was a tremendous Tiny Desk Concert.

[READ: December 13, 2017] Crafty Cat and the Great Butterfly Battle

I really enjoyed this third Crafty Cat book.  Anya continues to be an unreasonable character (and I want someone to stand up to her!), but her awfulness allows for some good humor and good setups in this book.

The book opens with Crafty Cat saving an ant after dusting it with glitter (the ant now feels pretty special).  But then it’s soon time for Birdie to get to school.  She tells us that they are picking roles for the class play about butterflies.  Everyone is supposed to pick a bug they want to be:  “Be creative in your choices, we don’t need ten ladybugs.”  Birdie confesses that she is going to be the butterfly she has even crafted a small model of the wings that she can make.

Then Evan shows up.  He rescues a glittery ant from the sidewalk (that was amusing)  and then reveals that he is going to be an ant for the play.  When Birdie says she’s going to be the butterfly, Evan has reservations.  When they enter the school we see 10 students all wanting to be the butterfly–especially Anya.  And image HER surprise when other kids want to be the butterfly–which is her role, after all. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JULIEN BAKER-Tiny Desk Concert #690 (January 10, 2018).

Julien Baker joins a handful of artists who have now made a second appearance at a Tiny Desk Concert.  (If they start inviting artists back regularly, they’ll never get ANY work done at the NPR offices).

I was quite enamored with Baker when I watched her first Tiny Desk Concert.  And I was totally smitten with her when I saw her open for The Decemberists.

Julien plays three songs here.  I’m intrigued that in the blurb Bob says “I reached out to ask if she would be willing to do something different this time around.”

It makes it sound as if she’s going to do some kind of dance/electronica show.  But I guess the difference is that last time, she just played electric guitar and this time she mixes up instrumentation and adds a violinist.

The first two songs, “Hurt Less” and “Even,” were accompanied by Camille Faulkner, with Julien on piano for the opening tune and acoustic guitar on the second.

If Julien Baker sounds delicate with just her electric guitar, she’s twice as delicate on piano.  But her voice sounds exquisite–powerful, honest and a little raspy, adding a slight edge.

I love seeing her sticker-covered acoustic guitar as she sings on “Even”:

Putting my fist through the plaster in the bathroom of a Motel 6 / I must have pictured it all a thousand times / I swear to God I think I’m gonna die / I know you were right / I can’t be fixed, so help me

She tends to play her guitar a little louder than the piano, so this one is a bit more dynamic.  The violin adds some aching sounds over the top.

I love that she plays each song in a very different style:

For the final song, Julien put together an arrangement of “Appointments” that begins on electric guitar, which then was looped as a backdrop to her on piano and voice.

It’s always fun watching someone loop guitar melodies.  And I like that she continues to loop long after it seems like the looping is done.  This allows for some of her gorgeous ringing chords.  They continue to ring out as she plays the piano.  It’s even cooler that she can stop parts of the guitar looping while she is completing the song.

All along her voice, which seems so delicate when she starts proves to be really powerful, especially during “Appointments” when she builds to a powerful high.    When I saw her live, she held a really long note that was quite impressive.  Don’t be fooled by the quietness of her music, Julien Baker rocks.

[READ: October 27,2017] Threads of Blue

This is the sequel to Beautiful Blue World, a book I really enjoyed.

In the first book, Mathilde’s country of Sofarende was being attacked by Tyssia.  She was sent to a special location to work on the war effort–they needed precocious children and she was picked for her empathy.  As the book ended, Mathilde followed her empathy and, while their encampment was under siege, released a teenaged prisoner of war because she felt that he was a good person who was just caught up in the war.

This act caused her to leave her group (and her best friend Megs) and to miss the conveyance to safety.

As this book opens, Mathilde wakes up on a boat that is bringing her to the country of Eilean.  She has secret documents and an order to be secretive.

The book picks up right where the previous one left off (I could have used a slight refresher, honestly). (more…)

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This EP is a collection of some B-sides and Outtakes from their fantastic album Birds Say.  There are five songs, included a stunning cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979.”

The other four songs are the lovely “Whippoorwill” punctuated by scratches from the mandolin and guitar at the end of each line.  Lead vocals seem to be from Auyon, but there’s very rarely one lead vocalist here.  And just when you think the song is a pretty folk song, the end gets bigger, with a cool bass line and louder harmonies.

“Fourth of July” is all about harmonies and a propulsive chorus.  And “Open Door” is almost a capella.  The only music for a time is the scratching of Harris Paseltine’s guitar strings as a rhythm while all four sing beautifully.  This song is faster than many of their others and even features a whistling solo.  There is some minimal violin on this track but it really feels fully a capella.

“Blow the House Down” is an old song (from their debut–when they had a drummer!) reissued here as a foursome.  What’s notable about it is that vocals are supplied almost exclusively by bassist David Senft.  Rather interesting humming bass backing vocals are supplied by everyone else.  It ends with a wailing (for them) noisy solo from Don Mitchell’s electric guitar and Auyon’s violin (it’s even more intense live).

The final song is their terrific cover of “1979.”  I’ve always thought the music for this song was wonderful.  But hearing their version of it I realized how much Corgan’s voice kinda ruins the song.  Hearing these guys harmonize the verse is pretty great.  But hearing them sing full-out on the chorus “I don’t even care” is utterly gorgeous.  Their version is the gold standard for this song now.  It’s a great EP (and three of the guys signed it for me!).

[READ: November 5, 2017] Castle in the Stars

This gorgeous graphic novel was originally published in French and was translated by Anne and Owen Smith.

The title is an intriguing one and while initially confusing, it makes perfect scene when you realize the book is about ballooning: “1868: The Age of Progress, an era of industry… beyond the blue of the sky, where the cold freezes the breath, where the air disappears…the mysetry begins.”

For this story is not just about ballooning, it is about The Secret of Aether.

The story is about young Seraphin. As the book opens, his mother is going into the balloon. His father is yelling at her that she is crazy to go up in the is weather (gorgeous ominous clouds fill the full page). He tries to guilt her into not going.  But her balloon is equipped with a bulb that will light when it gets to the aether, which is her quest.  Then she is up in the air writing in her journal.

She rises to 12,000 meters but… nothing. She’s about to give up when at 12,900 meters the bulb shines brightly and then explodes.  She found it! And she is never seen again. (more…)

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