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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: NEIL PEART-September 12, 1952-January 7, 2020.

When I was in high school, Rush was my favorite band, hands down.  I listened to them all the time.  I made tapes of all of their songs in alphabetical order and would listen to them straight through.

I still loved them in college, but a little less so as my tastes broadened.  But every new release was something special.

It’s frankly astonishing that I didn’t seem them live until 1990.  There were shows somewhat nearby when I was in college, but I never wanted to travel too far on a school night (nerd!).

For a band I loved so much, it’s also odd that I’ve only seen them live 5 times.  However, their live shows are pretty consistent.  They play the same set every night of a tour (as I found out when I saw them two nights apart), and there wasn’t much that set each show apart–although They did start making their shows more and more fun as the years went on, though).

One constant was always Neil Peart’s drum solo. It too was similar every night.  Although I suspect that there was a lot more going on than I was a ware of.  It was also easy to forget just how incredible these solos were.  Sure it was fun when he started adding synth pads and playing music instead of just drums, but even before that his drumming was, of course, amazing.

It was easy to lose sight of that because I had always taken it for granted.

I am happy to have seen Rush on their final tour.  I am sad to hear of Neil’s passing.  I would have been devastated had it happened twenty years ago, but now I am more devastated for his family.

So here’s two (of dozens) memorials.  The first one is from the CBC.  They included a mashup of some of Neil’s best drum solos:

But what better way to remember the drum master than with a supercut of his drum solos? From a 2004 performance of “Der Trommler” in Frankfurt, Germany, to a 2011 performance on The Late Show With David Letterman, to his first-ever recorded drum solo (in 1974 in Cleveland, Ohio), dive into nearly five minutes of Peart’s epic drum solos, below.

The best Neil Peart drum solos of all time.

I was only going to include this link, because it was a good summary, then I saw that Pitchfork ranked five of Neil’s best drum solos (an impossible task, really).  But it is nice to have them all in one place.

You can find that link here.

Starting in the 1980s Neil’s solos were given a name (which shows that they were pretty much the same every night).  Although as I understand it, the framework was the same but the actual hits were improvised each night.

Even after all of these years and hearing these drum solos hundreds of times, watching them still blows my mind.

  • “The Rhythm Method”
  • “O Baterista”
  • “Der Trommler”
  • “De Slagwerker,”
  • “Moto Perpetuo”
  • “Here It Is!”, “Drumbastica,” “The Percussor – (I) Binary Love Theme / (II) Steambanger’s Ball”

[READ: January 2020] Canada 1867-2017

In this book, Paul Taillefer looks at the most historically significant event from each tear of Canadian history.  And he tries to convey that event in about a page.  Can you imagine learning the history of your country and trying to condense every year into three paragraphs?

And then do it again in French?  For this book is also bilingual.

I can’t read French, but i can tell that the French is not a direct translation of the English (or vice versa).

For instance in 1869, the final sentence is:

This, in turn, signaled the start of the Red River Rebellion which would not end until the Battle of Batoche in 1885.

Neither Batoche nor 1885 appears in the entire French write up.  So that’s interesting, I suppose.  I wonder if the content is very different for French-reading audiences. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DANIEL NORGREN-Tiny Desk Concert #932 (January 3, 2020).

download (19)I feel like I’ve heard of Daniel Norgren, but I really don’t know anything about him.  In fact, when I first started playing this Tiny Desk Concert I was surprised at the kind of music this Swedish musician played because it was steeped in American roots music.

Daniel Norgren has been self-releasing his analog recordings for nearly a dozen years. At the Tiny Desk, he and his band sampled music from three different records.

For the first song, “Putting My Tomorrows Behind,” Norgren plays piano.  There’s a slow, simple drum beat from Erik Berntsson.  And when the chorus comes along, all four sing with gorgeous harmonies.  There’s a pretty bluesy guitar solo from Andreas Filipsson.

Throughout the five minutes of this slow song, it feels like a piece of working-class Americana:

I hear myself saying, I’m doing fine
My life is a walk through the pines
But I’m sick and I’m tired, spending my time
Putting my tomorrows behind

The sky is big and white and I’m locked inside
Working all day with a frown
I guess I’m just a coward who would need to get fired
And banished from this town

For “Everything You Know Melts Away Like Snow” Norgren switches from piano to guitar.  This simple song runs 6 minutes with minimal lyrics.  But it has some lovely backing vocals and an interesting lead vocal melody that seems to go nicely with the guitar lines that are picked out.  As he played,

the bluesy Swedish musician kept his eyes tightly shut, as he seemed to tap into old souls to help conjure his tunes.  His body sway[ed] and writhe[d] as he and his band create[d] a dream state calming enough to slow the day’s hectic pace to a crawl.

Norgen takes the guitar solo on this song (mostly on the lower strings–a very bluesy kind of solo).  You’d swear this song came from an American band from the sixties.

You can’t really hear his Swedish accent (you can hear a fraction of it when he sings) until he introduces the band.  I also like that Anders Grahn plays the upright bass as Norgren is talking, giving everything they do a musical feel.

“Moonshine Got Me” is the oldest song he plays–it dates back to his 2011 EP Black Vultures.  The title sounds like Americana but the song also is not about “moonshine,” the liquor, it is about the actual moon shining. It’s over ten minutes long and opens with beautiful intertwining guitars–both he and Filipsson play different lines that feel like leads but which keep the melody perfectly.  His voice is the most aching on this song.

There’s a lengthy slow jamming middle section, in which both Andreas and Daniel take solos.  As the song slows, Daniel moves back to the piano and picks out a quiet melody to bring the song to a close.

[READ: January 6, 2020] “Linda Boström Knausgård’s Post-“Struggle” IKEA Trip

I don’t usually write about short pieces like this.  But this is about an author who I’ve recently read and whose new book I am quite interested in.  Plus, Linda Boström Knausgård is the ex-wife of Karl Ove Knausgård and she was written about so much in those books that I feel like I know her (fairly or unfairly).

This piece is, indeed, about Linda Boström Knausgård in an IKEA.  She is in New York for a book tour for her new novel Welcome to America.

It’s odd to feel you know things about a person when you have never met them and your only exposure to them is from someone else’s point of view.  There’s not a lot that Linda Boström Knausgård can do to get away from what we “know” about her.   But this little story does show her to be a bit more upbeat than the way she was left off in the novels.

It also made me laugh that the author of the piece felt the need to explain IKEA as “a notional store from Sweden.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SPANGLISH FLY-Tiny Desk Concert #931 (December 31, 2019.

Spanglish Fly is a pretty funny name for a band

Spanglish Fly [is] one of the true pioneers of the boogaloo revival scene happening on the East Coast. For about sixteen minutes, our little corner of the building was the hottest Latin dance club in D.C..

The band (eleven members at the Tiny Desk) combine two styles of music to create a great deal of dancing fun in these three songs.

There is something absolutely infectious about combining the deep groove of an Afro Cuban tumbao bass line with a conga marcha, while the horns answer a call-and-response with the vocalists, all in a confined space.

The first song “Bugalú Pa Mi Abuela” opens with some clapping and that familiar conga style of piano from Kenny Bruno.  It’s cool how the music jumps between this style and the grooving bass (including some cool bass slides) from Rich Robles.  This song gets you moving right away and has a trombone solo from Ric Becker.

The second song slows things down and is a bit more serious.  “Los Niños En La Frontera” has a slow burn of social consciousness.  It means “children at the border.”  And although the song is more somber, the musical is style rich and vibrant.  It opens with shakers from Paula Winter and cymbals and timbales from Arei Sekiguchi.  Then the piano jumps in with a call and response from the horns.  In addition to a lead baritone saxophone line from Stefan Zeniuk, there’s also Matt Thomas on tenor saxophone and Jonathan Goldman on trumpet.

I haven’t mentioned the vocals yet because it’s in this song that both singers really demonstrate their power.  Jessenia Cuesta sings lead first but in the end Mariella Price takes over and sings a different, faster more intense style.  Their voices work together really well.  And as the song ends, Jessenia holds an impressively long note.

The final song is “a song about shoes.”

The horn ensemble work that drives “Boogaloo Shoes” is worthy of the song’s title, a name taken from the classic dance form that drove East Coast teens crazy in the 1960s. The percussion immediately causes hips to sway.

This song is sung in English and features some more of that great piano and even some yips and yells from the singers.  The chorus has a couple of really fun moments when Dylan Blanchard on the congas and Arei do fast drum fills.  Matt Thomas takes a pretty lengthy solo on tenor sax and the end features a spoken word in which Mariella tells us that they are putting the “you” in zapata boogaloo.  Jessenia Cuesta ends the song with one more great vocal turn.

It’s a really fun set and if your body is not moving during it, you must be dead.

[READ: January 6, 2020] “The Strangeness of Grief”

Recently, Michael Chabon wrote an essay about his somewhat ambivalent feelings about the death of his father.  Now it is V.S Naipaul’s turn to discuss this as well.

Naipaul’s father was forty-five or forty-six when he had a heart attack.  He was working for the Trinidad Guardian while V.S. was at school in Oxford.

Although his father was to receive half pay, he seemed unconcerned about the state of the family finances.  Indeed, the episode seemed to leave him with a lightness of spirit.  So he began writing comic short stories.  They were quite successful.  The BBC even asked V.S to read one of the stories in the “Caribbean Voices” program.  The amount they were going to pay him would be the amount it would cost for him to get to London from Oxford.  But when he told his father about the expense, his father decided to buy him a gift to show his appreciation. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JANN ARDEN-“Leave the Light On” (2018).

Jann Arden is a Canadian singer-songwriter who I know pretty much exclusively from her 1994 song “Insensitive.”  Arden has also made numerous media appearances over the years, including showing up on Corner Gas, Robson Arms and other shows that I haven’t seen.  She also appeared extensively on Rick Mercer Report (I found out by reading the book).

“Insensitive” is a slow song with a bit of mid-90s production.  The melody is catchy and the lyrics are great:

Oh, I really should have known
By the time you drove me home
By the vagueness in your eyes, your casual goodbyes
By the chill in your embrace
The expression on your face, told me
Maybe, you might have some advice to give
On how to be insensitive, insensitive, ooh, insensitive

Now, nearly 25 years later, Arden has other things on her mind.  I don’t know much about Arden, but evidently both of her parents suffered significant health problems in the last decade.  Her father passed and shortly after that her mother began a battle with Alzheimer’s as well.

“Leave the Light On” is a beautiful song about her mother.

A slow piano opens before Arden starts singing–her voice sounds wonderful–powerful and exposed.

I never pictured life
Alone in a house
Surrounded by trees
That you’d forget yourself
Lose track of time
Not recognize me

The bridge comes in with a harmony voice that shows even more pain.

Then the chorus kicks in and a song that could be maudlin or easily schmaltzy goes in exactly the right place to prevent that.  It shouts a sense of optimism that’s the only way people can keep going sometimes

A four note melody picks up the pace and uses a perfect parenthetical voice (the first voice is quieter, almost internal)

(Out of the dark)
I leave the light on
(In through the cold)
I leave the light on now
(Safe from the night)
I keep my eye on the road
(Good for the soul)
For when you come home to me

What is so compelling about the song is how musically understated it is.  While it could go big and heartbreaky with strings and over the tops effects, it stays quiet with the piano and a quiet electric guitar playing a melody deep in the background.  And really once the drums kick in, it’s almost like the drums are the only instrument–like Arden’s voice is the melody and the piano and guitar are there purely as support.

There’s a short bit near the end of the song that is a real gut punch though.  After a short guitar solo, she sings following the guitar, “do you know my name, do you know my name?”

Dang.  It’s a starkly beautiful song.

It also showcases what a great songwriter she is because she is apparently a truly fun person to hang out (according to Rick Mercer).

[READ: December 2019] Rick Mercer Final Report

I read The Mercer Report: The Book over ten years ago.  I had been a fan of Rick Mercer Report on Canadian TV (we used to be able to get Canadian satellite down here).  As an introduction to that book I wrote

Rick Mercer is a great political comedian.  He puts all American political commentators to shame. I’m sure that much of this difference is the way Canada is structured. There seems to be so much more access to politicians there than in our system.  While politicians do appear on our TV shows, on the Mercer Report, Rick goes white-water rafting with the head of the Liberal party. Rick has a sleepover at the Prime Minister’s house.  For reasons I can’t fathom, all of these politicians agree to hang out with Rick even though in the next segment he will rant about their incompetence.

It’s these rants that were a highlight of his show.  Every episode, he would stand in an alley and go off for 90 some seconds about the issue of the week.  His rants are astute, funny, and right on the mark.  He takes aim at all sides by ranting against incompetence and hypocrisy.  The only disappointing thing is that since this book covers the lifetime of the show and some of the topics have appeared multiple times, I guess it shows that his rants didn’t accomplish their goals.  But they made us feel better, anyhow.

The book is organized in reverse chronological order, with the final rants (April 3, 2018) coming first.

Topics in the final year included how run down the Prime Minister’s residence is.  Justin Trudeau said “The place is filled with mould and lead–I’m not raising my children there.  Typical Liberal.”  Also payday loan sharks; the Paralympics (Mercer was a huge supporter) and technology. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LOS LOBOS-Tiny Desk Concert #929 (December 18, 2019).

One of my favoirte Christmas songs is “Donde Esta Santa Claus?” so I’m always pleased to hear someone play it (it’s not overplayed yet).  I didn’t realize that this Tiny Desk Concert was a Christmas themed one, so when Los Lobos opened with this song, I knew it had to go on Christmas Day.

The band called up tunes from the Latin holiday song book, straight from their recently released, first-ever Christmas album, Llegó Navidad, a bilingual collection of songs from across Latin America and the U.S.

Imagine my surprise to read this about my favorite Christmas song:

They kicked it off with an obscure novelty hit that was once popular in Latino households in the Southwest, “¿Dónde Está Santa Claus?” It was originally a lushly orchestrated affair that is now a “lowrider oldie.”

The percussion is in full effect on this song with Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez on drums, Marcos Reyes on congas and Louie Perez on a washboard type scratcher.  The song features a cool baritone sax solo from keyboardist Steve Berlin and a little acoustic guitar solo from singer Cesar Rosas.

David Hidalogo on 12 string electric guitar takes lead vocals on the new album’s title cut, “Llegó Navidad.” The song

is actually a classic from the Fania Records catalog originally performed by the Puerto Rican composer and singer Ismael Rivera. Los Lobos retains its pan-Latin callout to holiday celebrations across Latin America, set to a slow burning montuno groove.

There’s some cool low notes from the baritone sax and Hidalo’s gentle voice over the top.

For the third song, “Christmas and You” Louie Perez plays a jarana and Hidalgo sings lead.  It’s interesting to me that I am more familiar with Rosas as the lead singer.  I wonder how many songs he actually sings.

The band adds a David Hidalgo and Louie Perez original to the Latin holiday songbook with “Christmas and You,” a plaintive ballad about desperate loss that we would easily call a carte vena (vein cutter). The great Mexican essayist Alma Guillermoprieto once wrote that it’s not a real Mexican party “until someone cries,” and this song does the trick.

A brief keyboard/bells solo from Berlin keeps the holiday spirit in the song.

For the final song “It’s Christmas Time In Texas,” Hidalgo picks up the accordion and the bouncy bass from Conrad Lozano makes this a fun polka style holiday song.

The party ends by sending everyone home, dancing with “It’s Christmas Time In Texas,” a song by the great Tex- Mex troubadour, Freddy Fender. It’s a Los Lobos scorcher, complete with accordion and good times that would get even abuelita dancing.

The Tiny Desk holiday shows are always fun, I wish there were more.

[READ: December 25, 2019] “A Hint for Next Christmas”

This year, S. ordered me The Short Story Advent Calendar.  This is my fourth time reading the Calendar.  I didn’t know about the first one until it was long out of print (sigh), but each year since has been very enjoyable.  Here’s what they say this year

The Short Story Advent Calendar is back! And to celebrate its fifth anniversary, we’ve decided to make the festivities even more festive, with five different coloured editions to help you ring in the holiday season.

No matter which colour you choose, the insides are the same: it’s another collection of expertly curated, individually bound short stories from some of the best writers in North America and beyond.

(This is a collection of literary, non-religious short stories for adults. For more information, visit our Frequently Asked Questions page.)

As always, each story is a surprise, so you won’t know what you’re getting until you crack the seal every morning starting December 1. Once you’ve read that day’s story, check back here to read an exclusive interview with the author.

Want a copy?  Order one here.

I’m pairing music this year with some Christmas songs that I have come across this year.

Yes, this is the creator of Winnie the Pooh.  I didn’t know he wrote essays, but I definitely want to read more after this.  This essay appeared in Milne’s 1920 collection If I May and it rings true almost 100 years later in nearly every way. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE DIVINE COMEDY-“Don’t Mention the War” (2019).

The Divine Comedy contributed a song to the Amazon Prime series Modern Love.

I don’t know anything about the show, but I was delighted to hear a new song from Neil Hannon.

This is a much quieter songs than he has put out recently. It features acoustic guitars and strings and over a slightly bouncy melody, he gently sings.

Do you remember when? No I don’t either
All this remembering we’re none the wiser
It’s time to let go and say

The chorus is similarly bouncy but more nostalgic than happy.

Don’t mention the war
Don’t talk of those days
What good is it for?
Don’t mention the war
Let history lie
Kiss the old days goodbye
They’re no help anymore
Don’t mention the war

This song isn’t mind blowing (an apparently is a left over from something else). but it’s a delightful slice of chamber pop.  I’d like to think it might introduce him to a whole new audience who will love him, but realistically, I think it will get some nice plays on Spotify and that’s good enough.

[READ: November 29, 2019] “Hurricane Season”

Sedaris says that when you grow up in North Carolina, you know not to get too attached to a beach house. If this year’s hurricane doesn’t get you, next year’s will.  And so it was in 2018 that Hurricane Florence took away their house, the Sea Section.

While Hugh was devastated David could only think to mock the old fashioned hurricane names “they sound like finalists in a pinochle tournament.”  Where’s Hurricane Madison or Skylar? Category 4 Fredonté?

They were in London when the hurricane hit, so their friend, owner of the Dark Side of the Dune checked on their house for them.  The pictures made  the place look so tawdry he was embarrassed to share them.

Luckily for them they had purchased the house that’s next door to the Sea Section as well –preemptively avoiding a McMansion (eight bedrooms were common, spread over three or  four stories).  The place is ancient by Emerald Isle standards (vintage 1972).  But what you really didn’t want next door to you was a swimming pool.  All you hear is Marco Polo over and over. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CARLY RAE JEPSEN-Tiny Desk Concert #918 (November 25, 2019).

It has been eight years (!) since Carly Rae’s ubiquitous “Call Me Maybe” took over the airways.  In those eight years I have grown to like the song and think of it fondly.

I also basically didn’t realize that Carly Rae was still making music.  Of course, she’s not all that prolific either–she has put out two albums since the album that featured “Call Me Maybe.”

I don’t know if she still has the same pull as she did back then.  I don’t know if this pop sensation is as big a draw as Taylor Swift was (I expect not).  Although evidently she is still beloved.

In 2012, Jepsen’s No. 1 hit “Call Me Maybe” was inescapable, and her 2015 album, E-MO-TION, made her a critical darling. An extremely high proportion of NPR employees also happen to be fans of the pop star; despite the nonstop impeachment hearing coverage happening just down the hall, Jepsen commanded a considerable and captivated crowd at the Tiny Desk.

The three songs she plays at this Tiny Desk are nowhere near the earworm that “CMM” was.  But there is something very sweet about how happy she is singing these certainly catchy songs..

From the moment Carly Rae Jepsen arrived at NPR HQ for her Tiny Desk concert, she brought an obvious sense of joy. Take, for example, her sound check: Working with her band of longtime collaborators, she seemed downright delighted, beaming at the musicians as she gave notes after each meticulous run-through. It’s that attention to detail that has helped build her a devoted fan base ready to make memes of her every move.

All three songs are from this year’s Dedicated album.

“Now That I Found You” is certainly the catchiest of the three.  There’s a cool, slightly funky guitar riff (from Tavish Crowe).  The whole song has more of a disco vibe (in the bass from Adam Siska) and there is something delightful about her breathy whispered vocals.  She doesn’t do the trills and vocal acrobatics that pop singers are prone to.  Midway through the song, everything drops out except for the piano (from Jared Manierka) and some lovely backing vocals (from Sophi Bairley) then the end takes off as a big dancefloor banger.

Introducing “Want You in My Room” she says, “This is the most direct, to the point song that we’ve ever been a part of performing and I’ve been a part of making.”  I was impressed to learn that her band was made of “longtime collaborators.”  But I also got a kick out of the way she seemed a bit shy describing the song as “a real come hither song.  You’ll see what I mean.”

It’s amusing that she says this is the most direct song that she has written.  It is kind of explicit, and yet compared to the rest of the pop world, it comes across as endearing.  Indeed, even if she does exhibit “Smiling swagger” I’m won over by her apparent innocence.

The song has a fun snare drum opening (from Nik Pešut) and a big “Hey” in the opening.  The chorus sounds a lot like something else but I can’t place it, but it is fun to hear her sing (and get into)

On the bed, on the floor
(I want you in my room)
I don’t care anymore
I wanna do bad things to you
Slide on through my window
(I want you in my room)
Baby don’t you want me too?

The pretty yellow plaid jacket comes off for the final song “The Sound,” a pretty song that starts as a ballad and gets bigger by the end.  This song didn’t leave much of an impression on me.  Perhaps since they were “modulating the album’s sparkling pop-disco vibe to fit our sun-filled office,” the hooks went away on that track.

Amazingly, her set is only 10 minutes long (one of the shortest ones I can think of).  And she doesn’t even do “Call me Maybe”!

It’s also frustrating that with such a short set they don’t even show they little joke at the end that you can hear everyone laugh at.

But I came away from this concert with more respect for her.  I might just have to listen to her critically acclaimed album after all.

[READ: October 21, 2019] Machines Will Make Better Choices Than Humans

When you look up books by Douglas Coupland, you will find all manner of tiny books.  Most of them have content published in similar form elsewhere.  But its not always obvious how edited the pieces are.  And frankly, the things he writes about are often so similar that it’s not always easy to know if this is an essay you’ve read before.

This book, published by V2 in Rotterdam is 37 pages in very large font.

The cover image as well as the texts on pages 13 and 19 come from “Slogans for the 21st Century”

The three are:

  • Machines Will Make Better Choices Than Humans
  • I’m Binge Watching My Data Stream
  • My Data Stream Doesn’t Judge Me

(more…)

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