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[ATTENDED: September 6, 2019] Joanna Newsom

This was scheduled to be a busy concert weekend for me–three days, three shows.

I was glad the first one was a seated, relaxed show of Joanna Newsom playing her harp and piano.  The traffic into Philly was light, until I got into City Center.  I had planned to park on the street (you can find it sometimes), but I wound up driving on a street under construction behind a bus and I watched as the time ticked away.  Finally I grabbed the nearest parking garage and sucked up the $22 fee and then hustled over the theater and managed to get into my seat just as the lights dimmed.  Holy cow.

I had never seen Newsom before, and I suspect that I was quite lucky to see her on this limited run tour because I understand it’s her first solo tour in about 15 years–she’s usually accompanied by… someone else, I guess.  It was also her first tour at all in four years.  She said she was very nervous.  And she did make a few mistakes.  But she was always gracious and self-deprecating about them.  And considering she played about 200,000 notes that night, missing one or two isn’t the end of the world.

She came out to much applause.  I gather that her fan base is pretty intense (the kind who laugh and squeal at any comment the musician makes).  However, unlike other similar fans, these were relatively restrained (it was a rather formal setting after all).  But it was nice to be enveloped in so much mutual love.

The strange thing for me is that I didn’t really know any of her songs before this show.  I knew what she sounded like and I’m sure I’ve heard a song or two somewhere, but I was a Newsom novice.  I just knew it would be an excellent evening.  And so it was.

She came out on stage to thunderous applause.  She had on a beautiful floor-length dress, which–when someone asked her–she said was by California designers Rodarte.  And that they had made four dresses, one for each of her albums. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ZAYTOVEN-Tiny Desk Concert #828 (February 28, 2019).

I saw Zaytoven on the Gucci Mane Tiny Desk Concert and thought he was a good performer.  I didn’t expect that he woul det his own show.  So I wasn’t expecting all that much, but man, this is awesome.  And then I read why this show is the way it is:

Last month, Zaytoven arrived at Bob Boilen’s desk with a full band in tow with the intent of backing up his Atlanta friend and collaborator Future, who had dropped his latest album, The Wzrd, earlier that day. The plan was to translate the bass-heavy trap sound Zaytoven helped originate to real instruments with Neil Garrard on guitar, Bernard “TreWay” Lambert on drums, DJ Spinz and Elena on flute (for what would’ve been a live version of “Mask Off”).

So instead, we get this beautiful instrumental collection.  There’s three tracks that are kind of jazzy, but not exactly.  They’re pretty melodies with some great solo work from the electric guitar and lots and lots of flute.   The drums from Bernard “TreWay” Lambert are a mix of traditional and electric (with great sounds) and some nifty scratching from DJ Spinz.

Track one “Lay Up” has a ripping distortion-filled guitar solo from Neil Garrard.  But man, the real killer is the flute work.  It’s so effortlessly beautiful the way it floats around the song.  Elena Pinderhughes is just dynamite on this song and every one.

Introducing “Peacoat,” he says it feels it like jazz.  He also says he still plays the organ in church on Sundays and that he wants all of his songs to have soul.

“I wasn’t even allowed to listen to this type of music, let alone to be producing it,” he told me a little over a year ago in the church outside Atlanta where he plays organ every Sunday morning. He was remembering how conflicted he’d once felt as a young producer who’d grown up in the church to be playing his trade for street artists like future trap god Gucci Mane (who Zaytoven would later back on keys during his first visit to the Tiny Desk). “To be the godfather of the sound, it was almost embarrassing for me, like, ‘Hold on, bruh. This ain’t really how I was brought up. This ain’t really what I do.’ I’m a guy that’s in the church and I try to lead people more so that way.”

There’s some pretty piano and keyboards form Zaytoven on this song, and I like the subtle scratching throughout.

The final song “Mo Reala” is also great.  He says it’s got a church vibe.  It was his first single from the album with Future saying real things.  He’d ben producing since 2004, but Future helped him refine his piano work and his beats.  In addition to the great song itself, the flute and guitar solos are fantastic.  And again, I love the drums and scratching too.

I listened to the track with Future’s vocals on it and I didn’t like it half as much.

Zaytoven, if you read this, you should absolutely get this band together and record these songs just like this as instrumentals.  They are dynamite!  And no one is releasing music like this right now.  Get on it, man!

[READ: February 26, 2019] Cucumber Quest 4

Reading book 4 means that I am now caught up with the books that are currently out.  And that is terrible, because the series suddenly got really intense and really emotional.  And who knows how long I’ll have to wait until the next book!

When I first started this series, which is kind of a spoof on hero quests, I enjoyed it.  It made me laugh and had lots of funny and absurd twists.  I never expected to get so invested in the story of the Nightmare Knight and his explanation for why he is such a bad guy.

But back to our heroes.

When they arrive in the Flower Kingdom, they are given the terrible news that the Kingdom does not have a Princess (our heroes need Princesses to sign a sword as art of their quest). What will they do? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PALEHOUND-A Place I’ll Always Go (2017).

Ellen Kempner’s voice is a bit louder in the mix so you can really hear the words despite the fact that she is still singing mostly in a whisper.

It’s a logical step from her previous album and every thing sounds a bit bigger and a bit better.

“Hunter’s Gun” is slow and a little creepy with the echo on her vocals and her whispered lyrics.  There’s also some great weird effects floating around in the background–especially by the end as the echo more or less takes over.

“Carnations” starts simply enough with a quiet chugging riff.  But the chorus is a wonderful–louder guitar with the guitar and vocals doing the same catchy melody.  It also has some great lyrics

They’re still in love with their ex
And I’m not feeling my best
This is a bad combination

‘Cause I’ve been dreaming I might
Just up and bail on this plight
And maybe go on vacation

Pack up my shit in the dark
And if the car doesn’t start
It spares us both conversations

“Room” is slower more acoustic-feeling.  It’s a sweetly romantic song with the lovely chorus line “She keeps me…  at night.”

“If You Met Her” starts out kind of sinister musically, but it has a really catchy chorus as well  It’s a wonderful song about breakup and new love perfectly summed up with this ending line

I’m with someone new
And I know that you would love her if you met her

The set up of rocker followed by slower song continues with  “Silver Toaster,” a loose, acoustic song that reminds of a snarky/simple Nirvana song (with a banjo solo!)

“Turning 21” has a big shoegaze guitar sound and a wonderfully catchy melody in the bridge.

“Flowing Over” mixes some good guitar lines and a rocking mid bridge section but its the oh oh oh oh section and the way it changes throughout the song that is the major hook.

“Backseat” opens with pulsing keys.  It’s a dark mediation that segues into the beautiful guitar of “Feeling Fruit, ” a pedestrian-seeming lyric that is much deeper and quite moving.

“At Night I’m Alright With You.” is a quiet moody song with a real Twin Peaks vibe.

These two releases are great but to really get to see how amazing Ellen is, check her out live.

[READ: January 23, 2018] “A Change in Fashion”

When I read this recently it sounded really familiar.  Clearly I had read it back in 2006 and it was so striking that I remembered it 12 years later.

And indeed, it is a memorable story, even if it’s not especially profound or funny–it’s mildly amusing and thoughtful.

Basically, this is an account of the way fashions changed after the Age of Revelation.  Girls and women were happily showing off their thongs but it was as if, after a half a century of reckless exposure, a weariness had overcome women…a disenchantment to invite a bold male gaze.

At first girls were opposed to it–it reminded them of old photographs in boring albums.  But soon it became stylish to wear dresses that brushed the floor–wearing lambskin gloves and rising collars. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BEDOUINE-Tiny Desk Concert #737 (April 30, 2018).

Bedouine has a lovely clear voice.  She’s a genuine folk throwback treasure, without being retro.  Her songs are remarkably simple and yet they are rich and almost enchanting.  There is something about the way she sings that makes you want to listen, to lean in and hear what she has to say.

Her guitar playing is also very pretty.  Again, a reasonably simple finger-picking style.  but it is simultaneously precise and warm.

I saw her live recently and she held an entire club rapt despite being an opening act for two much louder bands.  So who is Bedouine?

Azniv Korkejian is Bedouine, a singer and acoustic guitarist who echoes sounds from the 1960’s North American folk songwriters, but with vocal inflections that feel closer to Leonard Cohen than to Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez.  This is as spare as music can be – songs stripped to their essence and just gorgeous.

Azniv Korkejian was born in Aleppo Syria. Her parents were Armenian and she spent her childhood in Saudi Arabia. But a green card lottery win found her family moving to Boston and Houston. Eventually she made her way to Los Angeles with important time spent in Austin, Texas and Savannah, Ga. The name she chose, Bedouine, reflects the traveler, the wanderer in her.

She plays three songs, just her and her guitar.  The songs don’t diverge that much from each other.  She even jokes that the second song is a different song than the first one, she promises.

“One of These Days” is a pretty song that seems so optimistic because you can feel the smile in her voice as she sings.  But as with much of what she plays, there is a kind of melancholy to it.

“Solitary Daughter” opens with the same chord (and picking) but soon shifts textures. I love her delivery on this song in which she lets her voice drop a register and adds a kind of Laura Marling spoken word style to part of it.

The middle third is just stunning

I don’t need the walls
to bury my grave
I don’t need your company
to feel saved
I don’t need the sunlight
My curtains don’t draw
I don’t need objects
to keep or to pawn
I don’t want your pity
Concern or your scorn
I’m calm by my lonesome
I feel right at home
And when the wind blows
I get to dancing
My fun is the rhythm of air
When it’s prancing

“Nice and Quiet” is an intimate love song, but one tinged with sadness.  It has such a charming and sweet melody, which really sums up her music pretty well.

[READ: March 5, 2018] The Prince and the Dressmaker

Jen Wang is back with an outstanding book.  I absolutely love her drawing style.  The look of her dressmaker, Frances, is just adorable.  I love her clothes, I especially love her face, which is cartoony but not caricature-y.  The prince’s nose is huge but not overtly comical and adds a distinctive element to the story.

But what makes this book stand out even more than the art is the story.

The Prince is holding a ball.  When the scene pans back we see horse-drawn carriages.  In other words, the time is sort of nebulously olde.  The women are dressed fancy, with petticoats.  There is much stress around town because all the young women wish to go to the ball.

A woman storms into a couture shop with a mud-covered dress.  Her daughter decided to play in the dress and it is ruined.  Can then makes something for her in time?  Frances is available and the owner gives her the job. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: A DIFFERENT KIND OF CHRISTMAS (1994).

This is one of the first alternative Christmas albums I bought.  I don’t listen to it that much because I tend to think it’s not that good (the cover is pretty uninspired).  But there’s actually quite a lot of good stuff on this.

SYD STRAW-“The Christmas Twist”
I’m happy to report that the “twist” is not some dark storyline, but an actual dance of The Twist.  Syd has written a Twist and it’s fun and dancey with plenty of Christmas lines to sing along to.  It’s a great opening track.

SHONEN KNIFE-“Space Christmas”
Shonen Knife does what they do best–short fast punky pop songs.  This one about a space Christmas, of course.

NRBQ-“A Christmas Wish”
I know this from the She & Him version.  I didn’t realize I had the original.  It’s sweet and cute with a really catchy and lovely melody in the “people all over the world” line.

BRUCE COCKBURN-“Mary Had A Baby”
This is one of those call and response songs that is very repetitive and goes on for too long.  If it was shorter it would be fun.

The dB’s-“Home For The Holidays”
This is kind of a stomping country song. It’s got a cool stomp stomp in the middle.  At under 3 minutes it’s just right.

SHELLYAN ORPHAN-“Ice” [NSFC]
I love the vocals and the song is quite pretty.  But this song is a downer (I don’t like Christmas anymore) and at over 5 minutes is not really good Christmas party music.

FISHBONE-“It’s A Wonderful Life”
Man I love this song.  It’s a super fun and dancey ska song that cites It’s a Wonderful Life and is just full of fun and pep.

POI DOG PONDERING-“Mele Kalikimaka”
It’s funny to hear this Hawaiian song done in this New Orleans brass style.  It’s a fun song regardless of who is doing it.

T-BONE BURNETT-“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”
This opens as a pretty instrumental version of this song on acoustic guitar and violin.  Lovely.  The vocals are fine, but I’d have preferred it with no words–the instrumentation was really striking,

TIMBUK 3-“All I Want For Christmas” [NSFC]
I really disliked Timbuk 3 back in the 1980s.  But I find their strange deliver to be reminiscent of X and I’m quite attracted to their style.  I like this song a lot. Although I can’t endorse a Christmas song about WWIII.  And I suppose lyrically, it’s a bit naive.  But the music is fantastic.

DAVE EDMUNDS-“Run, Rudolph Run”
I don;t know that anyone can get me to enjoy this song. Certainly not this vert standard version of it.

SHAWN COLVIN-“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”
Shawn has a lovely voice and this song is delightful.  It’s a simple piano version with some gentle accompaniment.  Interestingly, this does not appear on her own Christmas album (see the 24th), probably because it might be too upbeat–she does get a bit carried away, vocally, by the end.

So there’s nothing stellar on this disc (except Fishbone), but it’s a solid collection of alternative versions of songs and a few solid originals.

[READ: October 19, 2017] Pashmina

I wanted to love this book so much.  It has so many awesome elements.  The black and white to color juxtapositions are wonderful.  The colors are gorgeous and Chanani’s drawing style is simple but charming and effective.

And I think wanting to like this book as much as I did is why I wound up not enjoying it as much as I wanted.

And that’s because it feel like there’s a lot left out of the book–I wanted it to be twice as long.

This story is about Priyanka, a young Indian-American girl.  She is raised by her mother (and knows literally nothing about her father–her mother won’t say a word about him). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: HANSON-Tiny Desk Concert #659 (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: 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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