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Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: BILL RIEFLIN (September 29, 1960 – March 24, 2020).

Bill Rieflin is a musician that I’ve known of for as long as I can remember.

He played with the Revolting Cocks and then, how I knew him best, as the drummer for Ministry.  I feel like his name appeared in dozens of places on the industrial scene.  He helped to create Pigface and even played with KMFDM (as a drummer and keyboardist).  He also played on the Lard albums and drummed with Nine Inch Nails and Swans.

With all of that industrial background it came as something of a surprise to hear that he was going to replace Bill Berry (as a hired drummer, not a band member) in R.E.M. (in live shows and on their last couple of albums).

He even played drums on Taylor Swift’s album Red (which is amusing given his later King Crimson connection).

He had been friendly with Robert Fripp since at least 1999.  Fripp played on Rieflin’s solo album Birth of a Giant and had worked with him in various projects through the years.  I didn’t know about that Fripp connection, so when I found out that he was going to be one of the three drummers in the 2014 King Crimson tour, I was really surprised.

I was also really impressed at his drumming and am now really happy to have seen him play.  When Crimson toured again in July of 2017, Rieflin had taken a sabbatical but was now back.  But since they had replaced him while he was away, he was now playing keyboards (which meant that Crimson now had eight members on stage).  When I saw them again in November 2017, Rieflin was once again on sabbatical.

I assumed it was for health reasons (why else do musicians take sabbaticals), but his cancer was kept under wraps. (He’d evidently been fighting it since 2013).

So at least I was fortunate enough to see him play twice before he died.

Here’s the second drummer that I know of to die of cancer in 2020.  Even while Coronavirus is getting the front page, cancer still does its dirty work.

[READ: December 2019] “Who We Are”

The December 2019 issue of the West End Phoenix focused on Indigenous People.  Most of the writers were Indigenous and the news stories shone a light on Indigenous issues.  Much of the presence of Indigenous peoples is seen through their art–whether through beads, paint or sculpture, the images are often quite striking.  The issue even included a “colour me” page with a striking image from Taylor Cameron, a 23-year-old Anishinaabe artist from Saugeen First Nation (I can’t find an image online).

The issue also featured two full page graphic short stories.

The first features very clean illustrations from Scott B. Henderson.  The lines are very crisp and yet the art is quite minimal, achieving a lot with very little.

The story is a true story. (more…)

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2020_03_16 (1)SOUNDTRACK: MOUNT EERIE-Tiny Desk Concert #944 (February 12, 2020).

maxresdefaultI’ve heard of Mount Eerie, but I didn’t really know that much about them. And when I say them, I really mean him, Phil Elverum.

Phil Elverum’s songs come full circle, swooping down like vultures and floating up like ashes from flames. Throughout his work in Mount Eerie and The Microphones, idealism comes up against realism, existence entangles with impermanence and love discovers new forms. So when he sings, “Let’s get out the romance,” in close harmony with Julie Doiron at the Tiny Desk, there’s a history going back nearly two decades to an isolated cabin in Norway where he first wrote the phrase.

I have never really enjoyed quiet, sad music.  It’s just not my thing.  So this Tiny Desk is definitely not my favorite.  Although I can appreciate the intensity of his lyrics and the beautiful way his and Julie’s voices combine.

They recorded an album, Lost Wisdom Pt. 2, last year.

the sparsely decorated, deeply felt album meditates on a heart still breaking and mutating, but also gently reckons with a younger version of himself. That refrain on “Belief” is performed here with only an electric guitar and a nylon-string acoustic bought in Stockholm during that Scandinavian trip many years ago.

“Belief” opens with quiet acoustic guitar and then the two of them singing together.  And it’s pretty intense:

Elverum remembers himself as a young man who begged “the sky for some calamity to challenge my foundation.” We then become the Greek chorus, witness to the unfolding tragedy: first, the death of his wife and mother to their child, the musician and illustrator Geneviève Castrée, in 2016; then the marriage to actor Michelle Williams in 2018 and their divorce less than a year later. “‘The world always goes on,'” Doiron sings in answer, quoting a Joanne Kyger poem, “‘Breaking us with its changes / Until our form, exhausted, runs true.'”

Doiron’s guitar contributions are so minimal, she doesn’t play for most of the song.   The song runs almost seven minutes and does seem to end mid-sentence.

When “Belief” suddenly ends, seemingly in the middle of a thought, Elverum’s eyes search the room. The audience responds with applause, but a version of this dynamic plays out everywhere he’s performed for the last three years — long silences broken up by tentative claps, nervous laughs struck by grief and absurdity.

The second song, “Enduring The Waves” is only three minutes long.  He begins it by speak/singing “Reading about Buddhism” and I wasn’t sure if it was a lyric or an introduction.  It’s a lyric.  This song features Julie and Phil singing seemingly disparate lines over each other until their final lines match up perfectly  The construction of this song is really wonderful even if it is still a pretty slow sad song,

“Love Without Possession” Julie sings the first verse and after her verse, Phil starts strumming his guitar in what can only be described as a really catchy sort of way.  They harmonize together and Doiron includes minimal electric guitar notes.  This is my favorite song of the bunch.

[READ: March 13, 2020] “My High-School Commute”

Colin Jost is one of the presenters on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update.  I think he’s very funny and has a great sarcastic tone.  Although, I have to agree with the title of his new memoir: A Very Punchable Face.

This is an amusing essay about his daily commute to high school, in which he took “a journey by land, sea and underground rocket toilet.”

His grandfather always told him about the value of an education–protect your brain! was his constant refrain.

It was his brain that got him out of Staten Island.  It got him into a Catholic high school called Regis* *Regis Philbin was named after my high school but went to Cardinal Hayes High School which was full of kids who beat the shit out of kids who went to Regis.

Regis is one of the best schools in the country and it is free–tens of thousands of kids apply for 120 spots. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RAVEENA-Tiny Desk Concert #921 (December 9, 2019).

Raveena’s music is so soft and delicate, so Lite-FM that I hated listening to it.  But once I watched the video and gave it my full attention, it was another story.    Because Raveena is full of 70s trippiness, delightful psychedelia and a lot of love.

From the moment Raveena Aurora stepped into NPR’s Music Department and looked at the Tiny Desk for the first time, she was ready. The Queens, N.Y. singer-songwriter and her team showed up early (which rarely happens) to meticulously arrange her stage props of homemade mushrooms and flowers, in the already endearingly cluttered space. These extra touches were meant to make clear that this performance would be all about community and safe spaces.

Her three songs are warm and enveloping.  I’d never have guessed they were born of pain.

“A lot of my music talks about growing out of these really traumatic experiences,” Raveena told the audience once the cameras started rolling. “And if you’ve ever gone through something similar that I talk about in my music, I just want you to know that in this space that we’re in, you’re extremely, extremely loved.”

She plays three songs from her debut album Lucid.

This includes “fan-favorite single “Honey,”” “Bloom” and “Still Dreaming”

Once again I am amazed to hear that a musician has a following and I’ve never heard of her.

Raveena herself is very sweet and loving and the music feels warm and echoey.   There’s delicate guitars from Tiana Ohara and twinkly synths from Cale Hawkins (who plays music while she speaks, as if she is speaking from a dreamy otherworld)  And of course, drummer Tyler Newson on drums keeps everything smoothly.

She is assisted by two backing vocalists, Gayathri Menon and Ada Obieshi who add a ton to her sound, although Raveena’s voice is really quite pretty.

 the rising star cultivated her range by growing up on Minnie Riperton, Sade and Asha Puthli, India’s ’70s disco queen

But my favorite person to watch was bassist Aaron Liao.  He is in a state of bliss.  So much so, that it inspired a comment on You Tube (I usually don’t watch these on YouTube, preferring the NPR site and I almost never read the comments, but this one stood out).

My man on the bass is a whole vibe by himself.

And Liao even wrote back:

AYEE!!! Thank you!! I have the best job in the world

I love how much this set won me over once I settled down and paid attention to it. Go Raveena!

[READ: March 1, 2020] “Ring of Fire”

I was interested in this essay because I’ve had similar calls (as most people probably have) but it never even occurred to me to ever answer unknown calls from California.

Kisner says that his parents live in California, so an unknown number in California could be an emergency.

But when he answered, he heard he voice was clearly a recording.  The man said “First they deceived you, then they oppressed you.”  It sounded like a Pentecostal preacher.  “There is a person keeping you in this situation.  Press the numerical option 1; press 1 now.”

He has picked up a few times and the messages are not the same, but they are similar.

After the message different voice says if you’d like to continue, press 1 if you’d like to no loner receive these calls press 4.

He knows he should press 4 (or maybe he shouldn’t) but he wants to press 1 to see what happens. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHAI-Tiny Desk Concert #904 (October 23, 2019).

What sounds like circus music plays as four women dressed in hoods with colorful bangles run out behind the desk and start dancing.

The lyrics begin: C-H-A-I.  CHAI.  We are CHAI.

The choreography continues for about a minute and a half when they take off their robes to reveal the four of them wearing matching pink and orange outfits.

The quartet made its grand entrance wearing hooded pom-pom outfits, with loosely choreographed dance moves, while the band’s song “This Is CHAI” played boombox style. It felt adorable. But once the hoodies came off, revealing their matching pink, crop top uniforms, the serious fun began.

In yet another example of how the best Tiny Desk Concerts are unfairly short, this super fun and adorable set is not even 11 minutes long.

Although CHAI does manage to play 4 songs in that time.

My face hurt from smiling so much! That’s what I remember most about CHAI’s Tiny Desk. CHAI is a sweet, colorful blanket of joy. These four women from Japan — twin sisters Mana and Kana, along with Yuna and Yuuki — are on a mission to expand the conventional notion of what we think of as “cute” or “kawaii” as it’s called in Japan.

They open with “Hi Hi Baby.”  Yuna plays drums while Mana and Kana start singing.  Then Yuuki starts playing the bass–a fast rumble while Mana and Kana keep singing (and doing choreographed arm gestures).

Their voices are high and they are decked out in pink.

CHAI’s music leans punkish, and the outfits quite pinkish. The songs played at the Tiny Desk come from both the band’s 2017 album Pink and the 2019 album appropriately named Punk. The group’s lyrics bounce back and forth from Japanese to English, often in the same sentence.

For “N.E.O.” Yuna sits at the drum kit and plays a cool, complex pattern while Yuuki’s bass brings in a great low funky riff.  Kana adds some guitar licks as they sing in a kind of staccato style (in harmony).

The song ends and the three of them raise their arms and say We are CHAI!

“Fashionista” is one of these songs where you can tell it’s Japanese and English.  There’s big thumping bass as the vocals kinds of whisper the lyrics.  I don’t know what they’re saying–except the chorus “we are fashionista.”  There’s some cool chunky guitar and a great sliding bass (their bass sound is terrific).  Mid-song Kana plays guitar by itself while singing before the band jumps back in together.

Before the last song.  They introduce themselves:

I’m Mana and I’m Kana and we are twins!   Same face!  Same face!
I’m Yuna and I’m Yukki.  We are … not twins.

CHAI chose “Future” for the final song, with more lyrics to brighten my smile and the smile of those around me.

“This is just my FUTURE!
This song about us forever!
Are you ready?
Never seen before!
It’s just what I imagined!
Come on!”

For “Future” Kana plays a futuristic synth sound while Yuuki plays a slow, low bass and Yuna hits the drums and percussion with her hands.

I’ve been looking forward to this Tiny Desk and it did not disappoint.

[READ: March 1, 2020] “Unbuttoned”

This is a another essay about Sedaris’ father.  Sedaris’ father is 96 and quite frail.

David himself was in the hospital about to undergo “a pretty disgusting procedure: in a few hours’ time, a doctor was scheduled to snake a multipurpose device up the hole in my penis” when his sister called to say that their father was dying.

The urologist said the device had a camera that showed what was going on inside: There’s your sphincter!

He says his previous exam like this involved his prostate

I’m fairly certain it involved forcing a Golden Globe Award up my ass.  I didn’t cry or hit anyone, though.  Thus it annoyed me to see what he English radiologist who’d performed the test had written in the comment section of his report: “Patient tolerated the trans-rectal probe poorly.”

They bought next-day plane tickets for the U.S.  En route DAvid learned that his father had been taken out of intensive care and sent back to his Assisted Living Facility.

When his father woke up, David said “I figured you’d rally as soon as I spent a fortune on last-minute tickets.”  He said he knew “that if the situation were reversed he’d gave stayed put, at least until a discount could be worked out.” (more…)

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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 #928 (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 #927 (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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