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SOUNDTRACK: KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD-Polygondwannaland (2017).

KGATLW continued to amaze in 2017 with their fourth record of the year.  This record was given away for free in November–it was released under an open source licence—meaning the band did not sell copies of the album, but uploaded the master tapes online, encouraging fans to make their own copies and bootlegs of the album. They wrote:

Make tapes, make CD’s, make records.  Ever wanted to start your own record label? GO for it! Employ your mates, press wax, pack boxes. We do not own this record. You do. Go forth, share, enjoy.  P.S. If u wanna make cassettes I don’t really know what you would do.  Be creative. We did it once but it sounded really shit.

As of 2019, Louder tells us

They put the master tapes and artwork online, and indie labels all over the world filled their boots. According to Discogs there are currently 246 different versions of the album, coming in all sorts of shapes and sizes. There’s the label who released a triple vinyl 8″ lathe-cut edition of 101 copies. Australian label Rhubarb Recordings released an edition of 500 housed in a reflective silver foil laminated gatefold sleeve with psychedelic UV printing. Pocket Cat Records released a run of 20 with the grooves cut into blank laserdiscs. Aural Pleasure Records used a Kickstarter campaign to fund their edition of five “Glitter Lizard” LPs, with transparent blue and yellow vinyl featuring embedded glitter and “lizards.” It all got a bit crazy out there.

Conventional wisdom would say that obviously if they’re giving it away, it must not be very good.  But that’s the surprise (or not, given the quality out put of these guys)–this album is just as good as their others, and in many places better.  They really seem to have unified their sound for the bulk of this album, incorporating so many aspects of previous albums, but successfully merging them into a coherent whole.  There’s an epic song, a whole bunch of songs that segue into other songs, songs that refer to other songs, loud vocals, quiet vocals, flutes, harmonica, and it’s all wrapped up in an early Pink Floyd-era synth sound. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD-Flying Microtonal Banana (2017).

2017 was a massive year for KGATLW as they pledged (and kept that pledge) to release five albums in the year.  This was the first.

Flying Microtonal Banana starts with the same sort of relentless frenzy that Nonagon Infinity had.  Just witness the stomping, grooving repetition of “Rattlesnake,” a catchy, 7 minute song whose lyrics are primarily “rattlesnake.”

The difference comes in the title of the record.  It’s not banana, it’s microtonal.  The banana in question is the yellow microtonal guitar that Stu Mackenzie uses on the album (and live).  It’s a custom-made guitar modified for microtonal tuning, which allows for intervals smaller than the semitones of Western music.  Since the new guitar could only be played with similarly tuned instruments, the rest of the band got their gear tricked out with microtonal capabilities.

This gives many of the songs a distinctly Middle-Eastern sound.  As does the inclusion of the zurna, a wind instrument which is almost constantly loud, high-pitched, sharp, and piercing.  Not an inviting description, but the instrument adds some interesting sounds and textures to the disc.  “Rattlesnake” is so catchy, though, that the zurna just feels like one more component.

“Melting” lets up the intensity with a wonderful guitar/vocal melody and some great synth accents.  As the song grooves along there’s some cool sounds and textures throughout the vocals and background sounds.  The solo comes from a slightly distorted synth–the ever-rising melody is catchy but leaves you wanting more.  The microtones really come out in the middle of the song, where the guitar/vocal melody experiments with all the various microtones that their instruments could achieve.

“Open Water” has a ringing guitar melody and a sinister chorus about open water.

Open water
Where’s the shore gone?
How’d I falter?
Open water
Height of the sea
Will bury me
And all I see is
Open water

There’s a very cool microtonal guitar solo throughout the middle of the song.   When the zurna comes in it brings a whole new kind of tension.

The rest of the album is made up of shorter songs.  They don’t exactly segue into each other, but they do feel like a suite of sorts.  Except that each one focuses on a different style (not at all unusual for KGATLW).

“Sleep Drifter” is sung in a near whisper, almost comforting, as it follows the nifty rising chorus melody.  The interstitial guitar riff is really cool, too.  “Billabong Valley” returns to their Western style from earlier albums.  It is sung by Ambrose in his very different vocal style.  There’s a staccato piano and an interesting western-inspired microtonal riff.  “Anoxia” slows things down with a twisty guitar.  The zurna contributes to a trippy ending.

“Doom City” sounds like early Black Sabbath with deep notes and a strangely hippie tone with lots of echo.  Then it picks up speed and adds some wild zurna tones.  There’s even some high-pitched laughs giving an even weirder feel.  I love that the speed jumps between slow and ponderous and speedy and hurried. “Nuclear Fusion” has a staccato rhythm.  For this one, not only does the lead vocal follow the interesting guitar melody, but there’s a deep harmony voice following along as well.   I always love when they add organ sounds to the song, like this one.  And the deep voices as the beginning and end are pretty awesome.

The final track is the instrumental title song.  It explores all manner of microtonal solos both on guitar and zurna.  It opens with bongos and congos and just takes off from there with the screeching zurna melody.  It’s catchy and weird like t he rest of the album and it ends with the winds blowing things away.

That’s the banana itself on the right.

[READ: January 2019] Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore

I was attracted to this book because of the title.  I knew literally nothing about it, but the blurb called it a smart, twisty crime novel.  I typically don’t read crime novels, but I’ve had pretty good luck with books set in bookstores, so it seemed worth taking a chance.

And, wow, what a delightfully convoluted story.  It was absolutely full of surprises and puzzles.  In the past I would have tried to figure out he puzzles myself, but since the answers to the puzzles were given right after the puzzles were shown, I got lazy and let the book do the work for me.   And what a fascinating bunch of characters Sullivan has created.

Lydia Smith works at the Bright Ideas Bookshop in Denver.  She has been there for a while, but she’s keeping a low profile.  She grew up in Denver and had a reasonably good childhood.  Then, suddenly something horrific happened and she and her father moved into a remote cabin outside of Denver where neighbors were nowhere near.  Her father, who was once a loving librarian too a job at a county prison and became a hardened policeman.

The event is hinted at in the beginning.  In the middle we get a vivid description of her perception of the event.  The rest of the story unpacks it.

After living in the woods, Lydia left her father, without saying a word.  She returned to Denver and hadn’t spoken to him for years.

She loves the security of the Bright Ideas Bookstore.  The store is populated by the Book Frogs, old men mostly, who spend hours and hours here browsing books.  They are all eccentric in some respect, but they are harmless–and most are thoughtful.

But as the book opens, one of the younger Book Frogs, Joey Molina, her favorite one, hangs himself–right upstairs in Western History.  She tried to take him down, to save him, to do something.  But she was too late.  As she was trying be helpful, she saw that he had a picture in his hand.  It was a picture of her when she was a little girl.  A picture she had never seen before.

What a great opening chapter! (more…)

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[ATTENDED: February 20, 2019] The Well Wish

The Well Wish is a married duo (sometimes with a band).  They are from NJ and were picked to open for Lily & Madeleine at The Saint.

Because of a miscommunication with the woman at the door, I wound up missing almost their entire set (and I was a block away).

I saw two songs by them.   On the first one, singer Anya Schildge played keys while Patrick Angeloni played acoustic guitar.  For the second (and final) song, Schlidge switched to guitar.  They were accompanied by Lily & Madeleine’s cello played Shannon Hayden because their violinist couldn’t make it.

I really enjoyed their music and am quite bummed that I missed so much of their set.  There was a folk feel (complimented by the cello) but with pop sensibilities [their influences: Florence and the Machine, Radiohead, and Bonnie Raitt]. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MOUNTAIN MAN-Tiny Desk Concert #824 (February 13, 2019).

I had only heard of Mountain Man from an earlier Field Recordings Session on NPR–back in 2012!  Since then the individuals have all gone to different successes but they have reconvened for a new album and this Tiny Desk Concert.  We’ll also be seeing them at Newport Folk Festival this summer.

Mountain Man is endearing.  And they are so quiet.

Mountain Man is the perfect band for a Tiny Desk concert. These three women make the most intimate music; and behind the desk, the voices of Amelia Meath, Molly Erin Sarlé and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig were the stars. Adorned by only light, rhythmic acoustic guitar, they sing songs that conjure a simpler life: dogs, friends, moonlight, sunlight, skinny dipping, beach towels and sand.

These dear friends have known each other for more than ten years, since their college days in Vermont. They released their first album in 2010 called Made The Harbor and only recently had a follow-up with the pleasantly surprising, 2018 fall release of Magic Ship.

They play three songs.  “Rang Tang Ring Toon” has a two note guitar melody from Alexandra Sauser-Monnig.  While she plays, she sings the first verse.  Then the other two join in (that’s Molly Sarlé on the really high notes).  It’s a very simple guitar melody–so simple that when she plays a kind of solo (also very simple) it really jolts you out of the gentle melody.

There’s a true kinship that happens in this trio. Things get quiet, sometimes funny and playful or, at moments, awkward, especially when they talk about “savory oatmeal.”

It’s Alexandra who talks about the savory oatmeal (with wild mushrooms, fried garlic, poached egg and chives).  It was delicious–although Molly says, “I had a different thing.”

For “Moon,” Molly plays guitar.  Her playing is more strumming.  She sings very high and the others join in.  One fascinating thing about most of these songs is the nonsense syllables they sing.  Obviously the first song (just the title alone), but even this one has a refrain of:  “Dai dai dai dai dai dai dai dai.”

For the last song Amelia Meath (yes, of Sylan Esso) sings a capella.  Before the song she says she’d like to dedicate it to “all my NPR crushes–anyone who works at NPR who has looked me in the eye and asked me questions about myself.” The song starts with all of them humming.  Then Amelia sings and they accompany her with their hums until they all sing amazing harmonies.  It’s all so quiet and sweet, you just want to lean in to hear them better.

In the eight years between Mountain Man records, Amelia Meath went on to create Sylvan Esso with Nick Sanborn. Molly Sarlé, meanwhile, was in a meditation center in California — at a cliffside trailer in Big Sur — and worked on her own, beautiful solo album, which is due out soon. And Alexandra Sauser-Monnig worked with Hiss Golden Messenger, released her own music under the name ASM and has a new record coming as well.  There’s a tour about to happen, and hopefully they won’t vanish after that for another eight years. There’s no other band like them.

[READ: February 12, 2019] “The Confession”

The confession in this story is a rape.

The narrator is the rapist.  He can’t reveal his name or the rural village where it happened because his father is a feared and respected man and he doens’t want to bring shame on him.

The summer this happened, the boy says his father didn’t want him to be idle, so he was sent to the countryside for hard work with the villagers.  The villagers were illiterate and there was no electricity.  He was bored out of his mind.  The only entertainment was the story that the boys all told about a girl from the area who had been rejected by her clan because of her sexual behavior.

One afternoon he went with one of the older men to the plains to gather grass for the animals.  The man treated the boy with deference because of the boys father, but he did show him how to do the work efficiently.

Then they both saw off in the distance, a young woman crossing the plains.  They both imagined it was the girl from the stories.  So immediately the man ran up to the girl.  She didn’t react to the man–she was too tried to resigned to her fate,  He threatened to hit the her if she screamed and then he tore of the girl’s harem pants.  He then presented the girl to the boy like a gift. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JÜRGEN MARCUS-“Ein Festival der Liebe” (1973).

Schlager (see the end of the book entry below) has become a catch-all term for (European) inoffensive pop music.  But apparently in the 1970s it had a slightly different and more specific connotation/sound.  The more I dove into this explanation, the more confusing it became.  Until someone posted a link to this song.

It’s easy to see how people reacted against the music back when it was super popular–it is so safe and inoffensive as to be totally offensive to any one with artistic sensibility.  But now that pop music has become something so radically different, often aggressive and vulgar and very electronic, this kind of bland, fun sing along is actually charming and kind of appealing.

The chorus is easy to sing along to, you can clap along without anything complicated going on and it’s all happy and sweet (even the ahhs in the backing vocals are super happy).  The music is soft, even the little piano “riff” in the middle is obvious.  I love that the song gets a little “risky” in the end third with a “drum solo” and Jürgen singing a kind of tarzan yell, but it’s all returned safely to th end.

The video is spectacular with Jürgen’s brown suit, big hair and even bigger collars.   It’s quintessential warming cheese.  It’s the school of music that ABBA came from as well.  It’s Eurovision!

And I find it quite a relief from the pop schlager of today.  This song was given example of contemporary German schlager:  Helene Fischer “Atemlos durch die Nacht”.  Her delivery is inoffensive by the music is so contemporary and dancefloor that it doesn’t feel anywhere near as delightful as the 1970s song,

[READ: February 9, 2019] How to Be German

I saw this book at work–the German side–and it looked like it might be funny.  I wished I could read more than the very little German that I know.  And then I flipped the book over and discovered it was bilingual!  Jawohl!

This manual is a very funny book about being German.  It was written by a British ex-pat who moved to Germany many hears ago and has settled down in the country he now calls home.  The book gently pokes fun at German habits but also makes fun of his own British habits and cultural components.

I studied German for one year which makes me in no way qualified to judge the quality of the humor or the accuracy of the cultural jokes.  The book does a very good job of cluing the unfamiliar in on what he’s talking about.  Although there are about a dozen exceptions where no context is given to the ideas that he’s talking about, which is quite frustrating, obviously.

I’m not going to go through all 50 of these ideas, but there are some that are particularly good and some that I found especially funny. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NATE WOOD – fOUR-Tiny Desk #818 (January 16, 2019).

This Tiny Desk opens with a flurry of keyboard noise followed by a flurry of rums.  When the camera pulls back we see that all of that noise is made by one person–Nate Wood (who also starts playing bass after about a minute),

I have seen a number of one man (and woman) bands over the years and it is always amazing to watch.

Unlike some of them though, Nate Wood doesn’t loop anything   He’s playing live drums and live bass at the same time.  And his drumming is not standard snare-bass, he’s got a lot of (relatively) complex percussion going on.

His bass playing is also really solid–using only one hand while he plays drums.  Again, it’s not simple two chord melodies, he’s doing proper bass lines.  The synth notes do appear to be on a kind of trigger, but he is actually playing most of the notes, in between drum hits.  Watch around the three-minute mark of “Rabbit,” while he plays the bass with his left hand, hits the snare and cymbals with his right hand and taps out melodies on the keys with that same hand.  His feet meanwhile are stomping out the bass drum and hi-hat (and there must be some kind of foot pedal switch involved).  And the amazing thing is how effortless he looks.

“Rabbit” is an instrumental, but he introduces the next song by saying, “This one is called ‘Better if You Try’ and there will now be singing (!)”.

So who is this guy?

Nate Wood says he only wishes he had more limbs, noting only the limitations of his physical body, rather than his ability to multitask. In his latest project, Nate Wood – fOUR, Wood’s brain splits attention between four synthesizers, an electric bass and a drum kit, all while singing about futurism. He’s his own engineer and roadie, too, who drove himself from Brooklyn to our D.C. office and quietly set up his gear, alone.

His setup is made possible through a long road of ergonomic trial-and-error that includes the precise height of the keyboards, the instrument sequencing and a wearable microphone to minimize physical demand and maximize as many possibilities as he can fit within arm’s reach of a drum throne. It’s a feat of ingenuity, especially considering Wood plays all of fOUR’s tunes in one take. No backing tracks. No overdubs.

“Better If You Try” has a cool bass riff and echoing keys.  It must be said that his singing isn’t anything special, and I find myself tuning out while enjoying the music.

I have to disagree with the final paragraph of the blurb:

But while it’s a thrill to see the multi-instrumentalist wizardry here, his music is perhaps best appreciated with eyes closed. Nate Wood pulls us into an industrial, neon dystopia with tunes that stand alone as headphone music without the accompanying visuals, meticulously crafted and with precise execution. This isn’t novelty music. You’re hearing (and seeing) a mastermind songwriter and mad scientist at work. Just look at that lab coat!

I don’t find his music all that compelling by itself.  I do love the excellent echoing electronic sounds from his bass on the final song.  And I do like the more sinister edge “They’re Coming” gets.  Thematically, “They’re Coming” is interesting enough, but the lyrics are sci-fi standard and when I listened without watching I kept thinking–how is he doing that?

[READ: January 18, 2019] New Shoes

It’s funny that I read this book right after Peter & Ernesto because while they are very different, they share an amazing number of similarities.

This book is set in a fictional, animal-dominated version of Guyana.  The epilogue says that Sara and John visited Johns’ family in Guyana where she took hundreds of pictures as inspiration.  You even see the house that inspired her main character Francis’ own house.

Francis is a shoemaker–he always wanted to be one.  And he is hugely successful.  People come from all over for his amazing shoes. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BUDDY-Tiny Desk Concert #815 (January 9, 2019).

Buddy is a pretty upbeat rapper from Compton.  He’s dressed in yellow, he laughs a lot.  he plays a groovy kind of gentle raping.

The same soulful hybrid of rapping and singing that compelled Pharrell to sign him as a teenager found Buddy stretching L.A. hip-hop beyond its typical gangsta narrative, while dancing with his dreams and shaking off his demons.

So it’s funny that the blurb is all about the drama of his Tiny Desk.

When Buddy, a preacher’s son from Compton, turns to me with eyebrows raised on the elevator ride inside NPR’s corporate headquarters, it’s hard to tell if the question that comes next is in preparation for his performance or pure provocation.

“Can we smoke in here?!” he asks with a grin that elicits stifled laughter from his bandmates and a few newsroom journalists along for the ride. It’s a blunt request, even from a self-professed “weed connoisseur,” and it kicks off one of the most dramatic Tiny Desks in recent memory.

That drama doesn’t happen until midway through the 11 minute set, and we don’t actually see it.

He starts “Legend,” which is really only an introduction.  He asks everyone to sing “Legend.”  You all got to say this, Legend.  You there in the glasses, you gotta say that shit Legend.

Everyone wants to be a legend, as far as I’m concerned, it’s my turn.

“Trouble On Central” is a song about aspirations and dreams, but being stuck.

Buddy is clearly a natural at this.  He’s also an alumni of actress Wendy Raquel Robinson’s Amazing Grace Conservatory, an L.A. program known for steeping inner-city kids in the performing arts. Between the two, he earned his dramatic chops early.”I’m so used to being in front of an audience of people,” he tells me, “just doing my thing and not really caring about it.” He’s definitely not afraid of the camera. In fact, he’s one of the rare Tiny Desk guests who stares directly into it throughout much of his set, performing for the camera in the most literal sense.

I did think it was odd how often he looked at the camera, and I see that most people don’t

“Hey Up There” is where the controversy arises.

So when Buddy proceeded to fire up a blunt midway through his set, we had to stop the show and ask him to put it out before re-recording his song, “Hey Up There.” (Smoking is not allowed on NPR property.) The performance was still lit,

“Real Life S**t”  has a sweetly sung “la da da da da” backing vocal which he joins in on from time to time.  He raps mostly and throws in some fast rapping at the end of a verse, but mostly this is a groovy song.

While onstage drama kept Buddy a safe distance from the streets, he still experienced the kind of coming-of-age struggles that shaped his personal and political outlook. On “Real Life S**t,” the opening song on his album and the last song in his Tiny Desk set, he conveys that reality with raw sentiment for the sitting President in lyrics straight from the record: “Fuck Donald Trump and that Nigger’s son.”

At first I didn’t think too much of Buddy’s set but after another listen, I enjoyed his whole attitude.  It would have been fun to see him light up and what reaction it caused.

[READ: November 1, 2018] Check Please Book 1

This was a fun, fully enjoyable graphic novel about hockey–with the typical First Second quality, of course.

Like many books lately, this one started as a webcomic and you can read all of this book and more online. (but print is better).

The story follow Eric “Bitty” Bittle as he goes off to college at Samwell University.  Ukazu went to Yale and Samwell is meant to be in the ECAC league just like Yale and Princeton.  Bitty came to hockey through figure skating.  He is quite tiny, especially compared to the other players.  He also bakes a lot of pies.  And, we learn soon enough, Bitty is gay.  Fortunately for our hero, he went to a school that is very tolerant (his coming out story is very funny).

His hockey team also has a star player Jack Zimmerman.  Who?  Jack Zimmerman is the son of the legendary Bob Zimmerman who has won more awards and trophies than you can count.  But Jack was anxious trying to live up to his legendary father and he took anxiety medication for it which ended up with him in rehab and presumably no career.  But he found a home at Samwell. (more…)

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