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diaSOUNDTRACK: JAPANESE BREAKFAST-Tiny Desk Concert #662 (October 25, 2017).

I had it in my head that Japanese Breakfast was a weird band–psychedelic or wacky indie or something.   And maybe they are.  But certainly not here.

For this concert, the band is all acoustic (except for the electric bass).  For the first two songs there is a sting section.  Interestingly, the string section is Rogue Collective who also performed with Landlady on a recent Tiny Desk.   [Landlady’s Adam Schatz told Zauner that the Rogue Collective make pretty great Tiny Desk partners].

So the blurb corrects me about the band, describing their music as having “gauzy, astral synths.”  Those are clearly not present here.

As Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner writes sparkling, opulent dream pop about grief and love (and, occasionally, robots). After releasing its debut album, Psychopomp last year, the band returned with this year’s stunning Soft Sounds From Another Planet. Where Psychopomp, written in the immediate aftermath of the death of Zauner’s mother, zeroed in on the experience of Zauner’s grief, Soft Sounds widens her aperture, featuring paeans to her coping mechanisms, ruminations on crooked relationship dynamics and said sci-fi robot fantasy.

“Boyish” aches with sadness (“your boyish reassurance is not reassuring”).  The melody (her guitar and Deven Craige’s bass to start) is lovely and heartbreaking.  Then the strings really punctuate the sentiment of these great lines.  And there’s some great backing vocals from drummer Craig Hendrix.

If you go to her don’t expect to come home to me.
I can’t get you off my mind /I can’t get you off in general
I want you and you want something more beautiful
I can’t get you off my mind / you can’t get yours off the hostess

I love the opening lines to ‘Till Death,’ which really sums up the end of 2016:

all our celebrities keep dying / while the cruel men continue to win.

She says the song is about marriage (and then chuckles).  The blurb says she sings “as she often does, in a way that strains her voice to the crackling, taut edge of heartbreak.”  This song is really lovely–the melody is a knockout.  The piano and bass start the song.  After the first verse the strings come in and Hendrix adds more backing vocals.

I love a song that ends with this final line:

PTSD, anxiety, genetic disease, thanataphobia

Everybody leaves for the final song, “This House.”  Except Hendrix moves from drums to piano.

Another great lyric opens the song:

This house is full of women
playing guitar cooking breakfast
sharing trauma doing dishes
and where are you

The song describes moments in love that are more fearful labor than bliss, the hazy space where commitment, confusion and longing intersect. Like much of Japanese Breakfast’s music, the performance shows Zauner looking unblinkingly at fear and pain, daring us to do the same.

Interestingly, for this concert, Rogue Collective has a different lineup.  They are a trio: Alexa Cantalupo (violin) and Natalie Spehar (cello) are back but Kaitlin Moreno (violin) is there while Livia Amoruso (violin) and Deanna Said (viola) are not.

In a cool footnote, the blurb says “The Collective practiced with Japanese Breakfast the day before the Tiny Desk, and was a featured guest later that night at the band’s D.C. show.”

I enjoyed this Concert a lot and will have to give a closer listen to their new album.

[READ: March 1, 2017] El Dia Mas Largo del Futur

This book came across my desk at work and I loved the look of it right away.  I can stumble through some Spanish books, but imagine my delight to see that this one had no words at all!  It is a wordless graphic novel (novela gráfica).

I especially liked the look of it because it reminded me in some ways of Chris Ware–very detailed, incredibly crisp lines, and really pleasing shapes.  It is also very dark, like Ware’s work.

But the comparison ends there.  This story is set in a dystopian future where violence is the norm, where robots can be easily programmed to kill and where love seems an unlikely prospect.

And NOW, after having read it, I have just learned the total history of this book.  It was originally written in French as Le Jour Le Plus Long du Futur.  Varela is from Argentina.  It has also been published in English as The Longest Day Of The Future by Fantagraphics books.  So even though I felt proud about “reading” the book in Spanish, I could have just found it in English too.  Well, I’m keeping with my original post, so….

You can see more details of the book from the publisher website.

But here’s what the site says (in Google-translated English, no the irony is not lost on me): (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THUNDERCAT-Tiny Desk Concert #659 (October 18, 2017).

I had never heard of Thundercat.  Except I probably have:

Thundercat, born Stephen Bruner, is willing and able to shape-shift to fit into just about any box you show him — he just won’t stay in there for long. Whether fusing his talent for jazz while a bassist with punk legacy act Suicidal Tendencies or as a member of Snoop Dogg’s band — maybe running a little too far with a solo here and there — the focus seems to eventually drift his way.

After releasing two brilliant solo albums, he was plucked to work on what eventually became one of the most important works of art released this decade: Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. Capitalizing off of the new exposure, he quickly released the EP The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam. That was followed about two years later by Drunk, his most solid project to date.

I didn’t know what to expect in the days leading to the performance, but I was hoping to get what I thought a Thundercat experience would be like. All boxes ended up checked: He arrived wearing a neon pink hoodie with his signature logo plastered about, kickboxing shorts, white chancletas, playing a Nintendo portable gaming console. He and his bandmates Dennis Hamm (keys) Justin Brown (drums) and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson (violin), all master musicians in their own right, polished off some bacon croissant sandwiches and proceeded to give us three of the best of what Drunk has to offer.

Overall, Bruner sings with gentle falsetto.  Most of the lyrics are pretty funny, with some pointed lyrics.  But the really impressive thing is that he is playing a six string bass and getting all kinds of great sounds out of it.

I love love love the bass sound that he gets on all of the songs.  And I love that he throws in some fascinating solo moments where he does these incredible runs up and down the fretboard.

The bass is sort of watery on the first track “Lava Lamp.”  It opens with him picking out the melody on chords and some delightful backing ooohs.  The violin is electric and plays these really trippy synthy sounds.

The second song “Friend Zone” opens with watery rubbery chords from the bass and then a great funky bass line while the keys play.  The lyrics are really quite funny:

I’m your biggest fan but I guess that’s just not good enough /
is it because i wear my hair weird or because I like to play Diablo

The next time you call me / I’m just gonna sit and stare at the screen /waiting for the call to end.

If you’re not bringing tacos / you should just turn and walk away.

There’s some really cool squeaking violin notes that add a wonderful texture to overall piece.  And of course, there’s some great fat bass riffs

The chorus goes: “no one wants to be in the friend zone.”  As the song ends, he chuckles.

The final song “Them Changes” has even cooler sounds from the bass.  There’s echo and flange and it sounds like three people playing.  It’s really great, particularly the amazing bass runs.  The violin also has a really trippy echo on it.

Bruner’s bass is tremendous.  And I’m really curious to check out more from this guy.  (In fact, just listening to a few songs from the album, it’s pretty wild).

[READ: January 27, 2017] “‘Borat’: The Memo”

George Saunders is not afraid to attack injustice.  Sometimes he does it with humor.  Sometimes he does it very subtly.  And sometimes he does it in an incredibly unsubtle fashion (but still with humor).

It is clear that Saunders was completely offended by the movie Borat (this is not a timely posting about this piece I know).  But he wasn’t upset simply because Sasha Baron Cohen did rude things or was a little offensive.  He was offended at the very essence of what this movie did.

Disclosure: Sarah and I think the scene where Borat asks a stock boy what this is and the answer is “Cheese” over and over is absolutely hilarious.

So, how does Saunders deal with this movie?  By offering some suggestions for the DVD extras. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: HANSON-Tiny Desk Concert #658 (October 16, 2017).

It should come as no surprise that Hanson has been around for 25 years.   What comes as a surprise is that not only are they still together, but that they have been together all of these years and have a huge fan base.

As the blurb notes:

The audience for Hanson’s first Tiny Desk concert could be cleanly sorted into two distinct camps: the curious and the committed. The curious were the ones who’d inquired about whether the band would play its 1997 smash “MMMBop” (answer: nope), or wondered what Isaac, Taylor and Zac Hanson have been up to since the ’90s (answer: touring constantly, putting out records, starting their own label, raising families, launching a music festival, developing a line of Hanson Brothers-branded “MMMHops” beer). As for the committed? They were psyched.

For this Tiny Desk Concert the boys (who are now men) play some catchy piano based pop songs.  And their vocals harmonies are frankly, outstanding.   After Taylor mutters “to the bridge, y’all” on the first song 2010’s “Thinking ‘Bout Somethin'” the three of them hit some absolute gorgeous notes.

The middle of the song features a clap along and afterwards Taylor jokes about it: “So um, it’s okay to clap if we ask you to.  I love how you guys are like ‘can we clap?’  You’re the most obedient audience we’ve ever seen.”

They say that 20 years ago “Mmmbop” came out He notes: “that was obviously big” [chuckle].   But Taylor says the key song was on our second record.  It helped us connect with our fans and it’s called: “This Time Around.”

Issac sings the second verse and I have to assume that his voice has dropped quite a bit since they recorded that song.  (Well, actually he was 16, so maybe not.  But Taylor was 14 and Zachary was 11 (which means he started playing with them when he was 6!)).  This song has a classic blues vibe that if you didn’t tell me was Hanson I would have thought it was a lost song from the 70s, maybe.

Zac teases Taylor: “Look at you sweating at your Tiny Desk.”
Taylor: “It feels like a show now, I’m taking things off.”
Zac: “That’s not something we do at a show–you’re sending the wrong message.”

They say that the final song is a perfect message for our band, for this time in our career, for this time in the world–a positive true message about everybody’s place in the world.  Sometimes you need to be reminded that you were born to do something nobody else is going to do.

It’s two guitar and big harmonies.  I like the falsetto moments in the bridge in particular.

I can’t say I’ve become a fan of the band, but I have a lot more respect for them and will no longer think of them as that band of little kids.

As the show ends, Taylor says, “We’ll see you for Christmas, everybody.”  And then a to be continued…

[READ: August 31, 2011] “Black Widows”

This short piece deserves an introduction because it is unlike anything else that Saunders has done in the New Yorker

SKETCHBOOK illustration by Pierre Le-Tan, in the style of Edward Gorey accompanied by a George Saunders poem in the style of Edward Gorey…  The illustration depicts four women and a man near a fire place in the living room of a manor house or castle. The figures in the illustration are wearing fashions from recent collections by Balenciaga, Marc Jacobs and Rochas. The poem describes the people in the illustration.

Okay, got it?  Should you want to see the illustration, click here. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PARAMORE-Tiny Desk Concert #655 (October 2, 2017).

I had always thought that Paramore was someone else (although I don’t know who).  I thought they were a pop punk band.  And maybe they were.

But this six-piece incarnation of the band is not pop punk at all.

Indeed, the blurb says, Paramore

captures the moment between rapture and its comedown, the glitter wiped away, left with skin rubbed raw. It’s a record, more than a decade into the band’s career, that not only exposes the sparkling pop that’s always lit Paramore’s songs, but also deals with the ache of growing up and growing apart.

The first song “Hard Times” opens with a keyboard line that sounds vaguely like steel drums.  It makes me smile that Logan MacKenzie’s keyboard is about six inches long. There’s slices of jagged guitar, but the chorus is pure pop.  The drums (Zac Farro’s drum machine) have an Afro-pop texture and Joseph Howard’s bass plays a few sliding moments that seem very dancey.  Although I do like that the song ends with another jagged guitar chord.

Singer Hayley Williams has a really lovely voice.   Before the next song,  “26,” she say that the new songs are dancey and happy but this song is the most transparent in not covering up the emotions of the record.  Hope we don’t bum you out too much.

The song is simply a gentle echoed guitar from Taylor York and William’s exposed voice.  And the blurb assures us that Paramore’s quieter songs have never quite shown this depth of understated devastation and determination.

Bummed or not she does encourage everyone in the office to sing and dance along, unless that’s awkward.

The final song, “Fake Happy” has synth drums and more of those steel drum keyboard sounds.  The blurb says it’s a soaring anthem to expressing your truest self (and calling out those playing pretend).  There’s a groovy bass line and minimal dancey nods.  There’s some interesting guitar sounds from both Taylor and Justin York.  I like this song, although she tends to fall into some vocal pop trappings that I don’t like, especially in the middle section.

[READ: February 2, 2017] CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

I have been really enjoying George Saunders.  I had considered reading all of his published pieces in the New Yorker.  And then I realized that they were probably all collected in his books, right?  Well, yes, most of his pieces have been collected.  Although for this book, his first, there was only one New Yorker story, “Offloading for Mrs Schwartz.”

When I read In Persuasion Nation many years ago, I remembered thinking that Saunders is supposed to be very funny but that his stories really aren’t.  And now, after reading so many things about his generosity and kind spirit, I was expecting to get more of that from these stories too.  But in both cases, I feel like Saunders was a very different writer.  While there is certainly humor in these stories, it is very dark humor and is often surrounded by characters who are incredibly cruel.  It makes these stories rather hard to bear sometimes. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ANIMAL MASKS-EP (2017).

Animal Masks is a band based out of Somerville, NJ (almost my home town).  They have an EP out (buy or stream on bandcamp), and it’s a great four song collection that melds a 70’s glam rock feel with a kind of 80s pop punk.

They are a trio and have the thick, meaty sound that trios do so well.  The disc doesn’t give a lot of details, but the band consists of Dave DeCastro, Dan Zachary and Ronny Day (not sure who does what).

The last three songs of the Ep have more of the punk edge–the songs are faster and shorter (“Tear It Down” is just over 2 minutes), but they are in no way hardcore.  There’s a distinct  major label Hüsker Dü vibe to these latter songs.

“Sad Day” has some nice harmonies in unexpected places and I love the gritty minor key guitars.  The chord progression in the bridge is also a nicely unexpected change up for an otherwise simple melody.  It’s a sweet touch to get a fuzzy wah wah sound in the second half of the (not at all flashy) guitar solo as well.  The “Ohhs” at the end of the song are pure Mould/Hart/Norton.

“Tear It Down” is a bit more upbeat (surprisingly given the “when everything falls apart, it’s time to tear it down” lyrics).  I love the thumping drums (and the screamed harmonies) in the chorus.  “Used By the Universe” is a bit muddier than the other songs–I can’t tell if it’s the same singer on all the songs–he’s harder to hear on this track.  He sounds a bit deeper, gruffer on this one.  There’s some great bass lines in this song, and once again, the drum has some great fills.

The glam comes to the fore on the first song, “For Real.”  The singer’s voice sounds a bit less snarly and the guitars are wah-wahed and echoey in a way they aren’t on the other three.  There appears to be some other kind of interesting overdub sound floating behind the guitars, which is a nice addition.  The song is slower, but I really like the way the drum plays a fast four beats in the middle of the chorus.

One thing that tickles me about this song is that the main body of the song has a chorus of “is it always… now or never” the “for real” of the title doesn’t come until after four minutes (the song is just under 5) with a coda that repeats “are you for real.”

I wish the recording was a little crisper, but that’s probably personal preference.  I definitely wish the drums were mixed differently–they sound kind of flat–which is a shame because the drumming is outstanding.  All of this just speaks to how great they probably sound live.

[READ: October 30, 2016] Cool Japan Guide

After enjoying Diary of a Tokyo Teen, I saw that Tuttle Publishing also put out this book. I got it out for Clark but wound up reading it before he did.

Abby Denson is a cartoonist (the other subtitle is A Comic Book Writer’s Personal Tour of Japan).  She and her husband (Matt Loux–who did the Salt Water Taffy stories) love Japan and Japanese culture and they travel there a lot.  So this is her personal guide book to visiting the wild world of Japan.

While it has some of the same features as Tokyo Teen, this book is far more of a guide book for travelers than a personal memoir of one girl’s travels. The book opens with a pronunciation guide (very helpful) and each chapter has a list of useful phrases and expressions all introduced by the very helpful Kitty Sweet Tooth.

Denson is quite thorough in this book.  Starting from before you leave–getting a passport, making reservations, getting rail passes, everything.  Even what to expect in each of the seasons.  Upon arrival there’s all kinds of fun things to see immediately–train stamps (you get a stamp for every station you go to) vending machines (and how to understand them) and even what kind of (apparently delicious) food you can buy on a train in the country. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SNAIL MAIL-Tiny Desk Concert #649 (September 15, 2017).

It’s always encouraging that young musicians are still picking up guitars and writing catchy and interesting songs.  I’d never heard of Snail Mail, but finding out that lead singer/guitarist Lindsey Jordan graduated high school last year is pretty cool.

I think that it helps to have some connections, though:

Jordan started Snail Mail at 15 and released the quietly stunning Habit EP via Priests’ in-house label last year. She’s quickly found fans in Helium and Ex Hex’s Mary Timony (who also happens to be Jordan’s guitar teacher) and just went on tour with Waxahatchee and Palehound.

They play three songs.  On one it’s just her, but on the first two, she is joined “by what’s become her consistent live band (drummer Ray Brown and bassist Alex Bass).”

“Slug” has a propulsive verse and a cool thumping bridge.  It’s an ode to a slug, in fact, but it also looks internally: “I have waited my whole life to know the difference and I should know better than that.”  I really like the way the song builds and builds and then drops out for a second for a few curlicues of guitar.

Her lyrics are wonderful mix of maturity and teenager (I do like the “my whole life bit,” but I really like this couplet from the next song “Thinning.”

I want to face the entire year just face down / and on my own time I wanna waste mine.
spend the rest of it asking myself is this who you are / and I don’t know it just feels gross.  (And her delivery of the word “gross” is wonderful).

From her reaction and this blurb, I guess the band is a bit louder than what they play here:

Because we often ask bands to turn down for the office space, she jokes, “I guess I don’t really know what we sound like because we’re so loud. Now we’re quiet and Ray’s using the mallets and my guitar’s all the way down — I was like, ‘We sound like this?'”

For the last song, the guys leave as she re tunes her guitar:

Jordan closes the set solo with a new song, “Anytime.” It is, perhaps typically for Snail Mail, slow and sad, but the alternate guitar tuning and Jordan’s drawled vocal performance gives this song about a crush an aerial motion, like acrobats sliding down a long sheet of fabric.

With just her and her guitar this song is far more spare and less bouncy but it works perfectly were her delivery.  I also like watching her bend strings with her third finger while playing a chord–she has learned some mad skills from Timony for sure.  I wish I had seen them open for Waxahatchee, that’s a bitchin’ double bill, for sure.

[READ: October 20, 2016] Diary of a Tokyo Teen

Sarah brought this book home and it seemed really fun.  It’s a look at Japan through the eyes of a girl who was born there about 15 years earlier but then moved to the U.S. with her family.  She is older and somewhat wiser and is delighted to have a chance to explore what is familiar and unfamiliar.

And it’s all done in a simple comic book style diary which she self published at age 17.

So Christine flies to Kashiwa, a small city outside of Tokyo to stay with her Baba and Jiji (grandparents).  She says the best reunion (aside from her grandparents) was with her favorite fast food chain unavailable in America: Mos Burger (you eat the wrapper because it would be messy to take it out of the wrapper).

What I love about this book is that unlike a more formal guide book, Christine is a typical teenager with typically American experiences.  So she notices that the people who work fast food are happy–or at least appear to be.  She’s also aware right form the start how trendy the other kids are.  And while an adult might not care, for a teen aged girl, that’ pretty devastating. (more…)

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Frank Conniff–Twenty Five Mystery Science Theater 3000 Films That Changed My Life in No Way Whatsoever (2016)

tvfrankSOUNDTRACK: TA-KU & WAFIA-Tiny Desk Concert #576 (November 6, 2016).

Ta-ku & Wafia are Australian, and I knew nothing else about them.  So:

The chemistry between Australian singer-producer Ta-ku and his fellow Aussie singer-songwriter Wafia becomes apparent the instant you hear their voices intertwined in song. On their first collaborative EP, (m)edian, they draw on their individual experiences to touch on subjects like compromise in relationships as they trade verses and harmonize over hollow melodies.  With production characterized by weary low-end rumbles and resonant keys, the two float above the music, playing off each other’s harmonies.

Although the blurb mentions a few bands that the duo sounds like I couldn’t help thinking they sound The xx (although a bit poppier).

“Treading Water” especially sounds like The xx.  Both of their voices sound really close to that band (although Wafia’s high notes and r&b inclinations do impact that somewhat).  It’s funny that they are just sitting there with their eyes closed, hands folded singing gently.

“Me in the Middle” is another pretty, simple keyboard song with depth in the lyrics and vocals.

Introducing, “Love Somebody,” she says its their favorite on their EP and he interjects Go but it now, which makes her giggle.  Her voice is really quite lovely.  I could see them hitting big both in pop circles and in some alternative circles if they market themselves well.

[READ: November 10, 2016] 25 MST3K Films that Changed My Life in No Way Whatsoever

As you might guess from the title, Frank Conniff was involved with MST3K.  He was TV’s Frank and, as we learn from this book, he was the guy who was forced to watch every movie first and decide whether it could be used for the show.  This “job” was created because they had watched a bit of Sidehackers and decided it would be fun to use.  So Comedy Central bought the rights (“They paid in the high two figures”) and then discovered that there was a brutal rape scene (“don’t know why I need to cal it a ‘brutal’ rape scene any kind of rape ,loud or quiet, violent or Cosby-style, is brutal”) that would sure be hard to joke about (they edited it out for the show which “had a minimal effect on the overall mediocrity of the project.”

The book opens with an FBI warning like the videotapes except for this book it stands for Federal Bureau of Incoherence because the document contains “many pop culture references that are obscure, out of date, annoying and of no practical use to anyone.”   So each chapter goes through and explains these obscure references for us all. (more…)

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