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febSOUNDTRACK: D.R.A.M.-Tiny Desk Concert #595 (February 1, 2017).

dramI had never heard of D.R.A.M. before (even though apparently his song b”Broccoli” has sold 4 million records).  So I was quite surprised to see the start of this blurb:

We all love a good redemption story: We’re front and center to watch our heroes get knocked down, and then we cheer for them to triumphantly rebound. What we’re witnessing with Shelly Massenburg-Smith — a.k.a. D.R.A.M. — is the culmination of a story marked by resilience and stubborn strength.

Making a hit record in the music industry is extremely difficult, and in 2015, D.R.A.M.’s debut single “Cha Cha” was on the brink of exploding. It was getting played in clubs across the country and bubbling on the charts…. Then Drake’s “Hotline Bling” happened. The reports are conflicting as to the inspiration for the record, but there are glaring similarities in the sound of each. “Hotline Bling” was even originally billed as the “Cha Cha” remix by Beats 1, where the song made its debut. Needless to say, “Hotline Bling” practically swallowed “Cha Cha,” but D.R.A.M. didn’t whine about it. He went back to the drawing board, crafting another smash. “Broccoli” became one of 2016’s biggest hits while setting up the release of his debut album, Big Baby D.R.A.M.

We recently invited D.R.A.M. to NPR to lend us his jovial spirit and brighten our workday; after all, his primary aim is to spread love through music. He was jarred by the Tiny Desk setting for a moment before the cameras started rolling. He’s accustomed to touching every corner of the stage, but like a pro, he walked to the desk, activated his signature smile and bounced through various highlights from his catalog. D.R.A.M., whose name stands for Does Real Ass Music, wrote his first selection, “Cash Machine,” right after he’d received his first big music check.

The crowd beamed more with each performance, leading up to a climactic rendition of “Broccoli.” The energy is all fun and games, but his talent is no joke:”Broccoli” is nominated for a Grammy this year, right alongside “Hotline Bling.” A victory would provide a fitting end to this chapter of D.R.A.M.’s career, but regardless of the outcome, he’s already victorious: Far removed from the “Hotline Bling” shadow, he’s already creating bigger songs and more memorable moments, like this one at the Tiny Desk.

His band consists of D.R.A.M. (vocals); Rogét Chahayed (keys); Taylor Dexter (drums); Wesley Singerman (guitar).  And the video begins with him walking through the crowd toward the Tiny Desk.  Unlike most artists, he plays a whopping five songs!  And while he is, indeed, full of smiles and joy, i couldn’t help but think that he was almost a goof.  He practically seemed like a Saturday Night Live spoof of a rapper.

“Cash Machine” has lyrics like “I love it when you talk to me / my cash machine” and it is seriously all about how happy he was to get a lot of money.  It’s almost naive (except for all of the cursing).  He says that he hopes all the ladies like his second song because it was written for them.  And once again, the lyrics are so strangely innocent and almost naive.  The lyrics of “Cute” are “I saw you on your Instagram and I think you’re cute….  Girl we need to go out on a date / We can really do a little something / If it’s cool I’ll pick you up at 8.”  And the music is sweet and dreamy too.

He says that he’s from Hampton, Virginia, which explains “Sweet VA Breeze.”  He says it’s a song about when things were “a little more simpler.”  He raps about “sitting in the treehouse” with the rather puzzling bridge of “Real love, feel love, taste love, smoke love.”

The next song actually appears on Chane the Rapper’s record Coloring Book.  He introduces “Special” by saying that it’s “nice to put a little motivational message out there in the world.  There’s a lot of fucked up shit going on… if we’re gonna be frank.”  He’s got a nice singing voice on this one.  It’s a rather sweet ballad, with the nice sentiment: “Everyone is special / This I know is true.”

And finally we get to the big hit that I’d never heard. It is such a strange song and the delivery here is even stranger.  He sings the opening lines in an over-the-top delicate almost operatic falsetto.

In the middle of the party, bitch get off me
In the cut I’m rollin’ up my broccoli
Ya I know your baby mama fond of me
All she want to do is smoke that broccoli
Whispered in my ear she trying to leave with me
Said that I can get that pussy easily
Said that I can hit that shit so greasily
I’m a dirty dog, I did it sleazily

The room is cracking up by this time.

And more lyrics:

Couple summers later I got paper
I acquired taste for salmon on a bagel
With the capers on a square plate
At the restaurant with the why you got to stare face
To know I either ball or I record over the snare and bass
Rapper face, dread headed
Golden diamond teeth wearin’
They just mad cause I got that cheese, bitch, I keep dairy

The original song (I had to check it out) has this keyboard that sounds like a penny whistle–so childish and goofy. But I love the big throbbing bass line that comes after every line–almost unexpectedly late.

He’s surprisingly vulgar, but he’s so goofy that it’s hard not to like him.

[READ: January 14, 2017] “JB & FD”

When Wideman wrote this story I’m sure he had no idea that Frederick Douglass would be exhumed into public consciousness because Trump is an idiot.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed,” he said.  “Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and millions more black Americans who made America what it is today,” he continued. “Big impact.”

I miss Barack Obama for dozens of reasons, but this guy’s mangling of English is certainly a big reason.

Wideman does not mangle English, of course.  And yet I haven’t really enjoyed the stories I’ve read by him.  And this one proved to be even more challenging for me than his others.

The JB is John Brown.  The FD is Frederick Douglass.  And the problem is that I don’t know enough about either one.  Heck, I wasn’t even sure if they lived at the same time (I have since looked it up–they lived at the same time and admired each other).  But even with that background, this piece is just confusing.

It is broken down into several short numbered sections.

(1) is all about Douglass finding his glasses and having dread.
(2) begins as a letter to Douglass, with the comment that Douglass remembers no beard, not wearing one himself nor a beard on Brown’s gaunt face (but every picture of Douglas has him with a beard).
(3) sees Douglas watch himself step to a podium to discuss “The Woman Question” and then goes home and drops dead [this is historically accurate].
(4) is written from the I point of view, apparently written about John Brown and his upbringing.
(5) is in the first person from John Brown’s POV (I had to look up who had the sons with which names).  I believe it is a letter to Douglass.
(6) contains a letter written by Mahala Doyle and given to John Brown as she awaited execution.
(7) is of Brown’s trip to Kansas and his time in prison.
(8) has three parts. In 1856, a note from Mrs Thomas Russell.  In 1858 John Brown molts (“His feathers shed. A change of color”). In 1859, a letter to Brown (presumably from Douglass).
(9) My name is John Brown and I want my son to hear the story of my name.  In this section someone is dictating to “this good white lady” who is writing every word down to send to his son in Detroit.  And the entire thing is written in dialect.

Beyond that, I’m not sure if this was meant to be a historically accurate portrayal, an imagination of these two minds meeting or something else entirely.  I read it twice and never really “got it.”

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 doubledownSOUNDTRACK: JAKE SCHEPPS’ EXPEDITION QUARTET-Tiny Desk Concert #187 (January 19, 2012).

jakeJake Schepps’ Expedition Quartet is a somewhat unusual string quartet in that the instruments are violin and upright bass (normal) but also guitar and banjo.  And so the songs have a classical feel–melodies repeated in a fugue style, but with the prominence of the banjo, it feels more like a folk song.  The violin takes on a kind of fiddle sound.  And that’s interesting enough, but it’s the story of the music that they are playing which makes it even more fascinating:

About 100 years ago, Béla Bartók was traipsing through his native Hungary (Romania and Slovakia, too) with a bulky Edison phonograph, documenting folk songs and dances. There’s a priceless photo of the young composer, his contraption perched on an outside windowsill with a woman singing into the horn while anxious villagers stare at the camera. By 1918, Bartók had amassed almost 9,000 folk tunes. He made transcriptions of some; others he arranged for piano, while elements of still others found their way into his orchestra pieces and chamber music.

This was the country music of Eastern Europe, and its off-kilter rhythms and pungent melodies continue to captivate music lovers and musicians like Colorado-based banjo player Jake Schepps, who has recorded an entire album of Bartok’s folk-inspired music.

For this concert, with fellow members of Expedition Quartet — violinist Enion Pelta-Tiller, guitarist Grant Gordy and bass player Ian Hutchison, they played a Bartók hoe-down of sorts.

They play three pieces:

“Romanian Folk Dances: ‘Stick Game'”  Bartók (arr. Flinner).  This is a quieter piece with moments of bounce.  Indeed, Schepps doesn’t feel like the leader of this group because everyone shares the spotlight.  The guitar takes a lengthy solo–its got a very jazzy feel (which is a little weird on an acoustic guitar).  The violin takes a pizzicato solo, which is neat.  When Schepps finally does do a solo it’s not a showoffy banjo solo, it just fits in well with what everyone else is playing.

“For Children (Hungarian Folk Tunes): ‘Stars, Stars Brightly Shine'” Bartók (arr. Schepps).  This is a slower tune and it is much shorter as well—it doesn’t really lend itself to soloing.  Although the violin takes on the lead melody and it sounds mournful and beautiful.

“Mikrokosmos No. 78 / ‘Cousin Sally Brown'” Bartók / traditional (arr. Schepps).  Before this track, when someone tells Schepps that No 78 is his favorite of the Mikrokosmos, he says that he prefers 79.  The bassist says that 79 has gotten too commercial.  The end of the song has a tag of “Cousin Sally” a rollicking traditional dance number.  The four seems to play somewhat at odds with each other briefly and when they all rejoin for the end—it’s pretty great.

[READ: December 27, 2013] Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down

I keep expecting the quality of the jokes in the Wimpy Kid books to decline.  But rather, this book was not only hilarious, but it worked really well as a book, too.

What I mean is that, I know that the Wimpy Kid series is online and that Kinney does a new story every day (or at least he did , I don’t know if he still does).  These books had always been taken from the online site (and I assume they still are).  But somehow, this book has jokes that circle back to jokes earlier in the book.  There’s at least a half a dozen callbacks which makes this book more than just a collection of diary entries…it’s a perfectly contained unit with a satisfying ending.

(more…)

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onfgoingSOUNDTRACK: MUCCA PAZZA-Tiny Desk Concert #419 (February 10, 2015).

Evmucca2en though I said that the Dan Deacon Tiny Desk was the most fun to watch, it is a close tie with this one from Mucca Pazza.  Mucca Pazza are a 23 piece band comprised of a huge horn section, violins, guitars, percussion, an accordion and even cheerleaders.  The group dress like a marching band (but everyone with a different colored (often ill-fitting) outfit).  The cheerleaders use caution tape as pompoms and do prompts between songs.  They tip their hats when songs are done.

They have been around for ten years (and have four albums out).  For this cramped Tiny Desk, they play four instrumental tracks (23 people and no vocalist!): “Subtle Frenzy” “J’accuse” “Dirty Chompers” and “Holiday on Ice.”

The songs are fast and fun and while there is an obvious marching band feel, they aren’t really marching band songs.  The electric guitar and strings tends to undermine the machine band tendencies (even if the xylophone adds it back).   Indeed, the electric guitars add a cool and sometimes disconcerting sound, like the guitar solo on “J’accuse” which is done on a teeny tiny guitar with a slide.

I love the melody of “Dirty Chompers”–such a fun song.  And “Holiday on Ice” is chock of full of the mayhem you might expect from the description of this band. The middle section slows down somewhat and sounds a little demented (in a good way) It also really highlights the different components of the group–with different horns playing different scales and the trombones keeping the main somewhat menacing riff consistent.

mucca 1So there’s a kind of Balkan Brass band element underpinning all of this–but there’s also discord and rock and psychedelia.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many people having so much fun before.  Their full stage show must be a riot.

You can watch the Tiny Desk here and listen to a full show (with a video of one song) here.

[READ: April 10, 2015] Ongoingness.

This book was excepted in Harper’s in December. I read the excerpt just a few weeks ago.  And then when I saw someone request it at work I found our copy and, since the book was short, decided to read it at lunch before sending it off to the requester (such power I wield!).

In my post about the excerpt, I said that I couldn’t imagine how there could be much more than the excerpt and that I wouldn’t want to read a lot more of the book.  Well, it turns out that the book itself is a brief 96 pages and the bulk of those pages are only a few lines.  So a rough count would suggest about 36 pages altogether–an easy to read at lunch request.  And that’s good, because if this book were 400 pages it would be either obnoxious or really tedious.

But at this length, it’s an interesting and enjoyable look at memory and life and how much we should be concerned about remembering. (more…)

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dec2014SOUNDTRACK: AURELIO-Tiny Desk Concert #424 (March 7, 2015).

aurelioAurelio is from West Africa.  He plays a nylon stringed guitar (finger picking and chords) and is accompanied by traditional Garifuna musicians and an electric guitar.  The Tiny Desk blurb says he “weaves together intricate layers of acoustic guitar to capture the polyrhythms of West African and the Caribbean.”

He sings in what I assume is Garifuna.  He is not young and his voice sounds like it.  From his chat, I believe he may also have been mayor once.

They play three songs: “Lándini,” “Funa Tugudirugu,” and “Nari Golu”  The guitar solos are (surprisingly to me) provided by the electric guitar while the acoustic keeps the rhythms.  The maracas and drum (box) keep the beat.  This is my introduction Garifuna music, which doesn’t sound too different from any other music (except the vocals of course).

[READ: March 22, 2015] “Keeping Time”

I’ve read somethings from Manguso before, in particular her McSweeney’s book of flash fiction.

This is an excerpt from a book called Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.  At first I found the entry a little annoying.  “I started keeping a diary twenty-five years ago.  It’s 800,000 words long.”  Manguso basically got into a frame of mind where she felt like she had to record everything–the perpetual loop of recording things as they happen and then recording how you feel about when you are recording them.

She says “I couldn’t face the end of a day without a record of everything that had ever happened.”  The fact that this was 25 years ago certainly predates the live bloggers and the daily diarists who tape everything. And it is interesting to see that her rather unhealthy obsession has been around longer than the technology allowed for it.

Manguso says she didn’t want to miss anything and by writing it down it was proof that she hadn’t.  She says that “the trouble was that there was so much I failed to record.” (more…)

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