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SOUNDTRACK: LJOVA AND THE KONTRABAND-Tiny Desk Concert #611 (April 14, 2017).

Ljova and the Kontraband play a rollicking blend of gypsy music with a twist.

There’s a viola, an accordion, an upright bass and a hand drum.  And they play rollicking fast trad music as well as delicate sow ballads.

Ljova and the Kontraband embraces Western classical, jazz and an array of international styles including tango and Eastern European and Balkan folk music. These top-flight musicians, who hail from Russia, Lithuania, the U.S. and Switzerland, pile all of these sounds atop of each other with great glee, and emerge with creations that alight on totally new and exciting terrain.

The band is led by the composer, arranger and viola player Ljova (Lev Zhurbin), who comes by this musical eclecticism naturally: the Moscow native, who comes from a family heavily involved in the arts, has worked with an astonishingly wide and starry group of collaborators, including Jay Z, the Bollywood queen Asha Bhosle and cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. In this Kontraband setting, he and his bandmates (including Ljova’s wife, the preternaturally sweet-voiced, Lithuanian-born singer Inna Barmash) create performances of deep earthiness, fragile tenderness, ebullient humor and quicksilver shifts in texture.

“Love Potion, Expired” is one of those fast songs with twists and turns and all kinds of solos.  The middle section is practically a percussion solo by Mathias Künzli (from Switzerland).  While the strings and accordion are sort of fiddling away on a couple of notes, Künzli (on his box drum) plays a sophisticated solo on the box which also includes all manner of percussion–cymbals, clackers, shakers, finger cymbals and other things that clatter (he even includes his thigh at one point).

It’s followed by an appropriately wild accordion solo (and that instrument is gorgeous) by Patrick Farrell (from Michigan).  The song is played at breakneck speed and is really fun.

The second song introduces us to Inna Barmash (Ljova’s wife). She explains that “Ven Ikh Zol Hobn Fligelekh (If I Had Wings)” is a Yiddish folk song from Western Ukraine.  She says the beginning of the poem is translated as “If I had wings I would fly to you if i had chains I would pull you to me.”  It id played as pizzicato and strummed viola while Inna sings.

But the heart of their Tiny Desk Concert was the song “By the Campfire,” whose words have a long, strange history that goes back to the Middle Ages. The words originally come from 12th-century Germany; Ljova’s grandfather, a noted translator, translated this poem from German to Russian, which Ljova uses in his musical setting.

Barmash gave us her own English translation of this unsettling, stunning, and perhaps even prophetic text: “Lies and spite command the world / Suffocate its consciousness, / Truth is poisoned, dead is law / Honor killed — obscene extolled! / … And the wisdom of our days / Teaches theft, deceit and hate.”

There are a couple of parts to this song.  As it begins, the accordion sounds like flutes.  Barmash sings beautifully for a few verses.  And then in the middle she sings a long sustained note that seems to signal the band to start on a chaotic section with everyone playing things crazily for a few seconds.  Then she does another long note and the song turns into traditional Russian type of dance.  There are many parts and this song goes through all of them.

Before the final song Ljova apologizes for disturbing their lunch.  “Walking on Willoughby” was written by Patrick, it’s a fun, wild polka that’s seven minutes long.   There are many parts to this song as well.  At times the viola and accordion play off of each other.  There’s several opportunities from each of them to solo held together by that thumping bass by Jordan Morton (from Syracuse).

The middle slows down to a one two count as the accordion plays a disjointed sounding solo.  There’s even more after that as this song just spirals in all directions.

[READ: July 10, 2016] Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle

This appears to be the final book of the Lunch Lady series.  The book ends on something of a cliffhanger but to the best of my knowledge, no book has come out after this one.

But don’t be sad because this is a very satisfying conclusion.

As we left book 9, Lunch Lady had been fired.  She is so despondent that when the opening pages feature bad guys doing bad things, she’s not even there to stop them. It’s the fifth bank to be robbed in two weeks and Lunch Lady is just lounging about eating ice cream.  Egads!

But even worse, the school is a shambles–the superintendent has put a portrait of herself in every room (even the bathrooms).  Te teachers have been replaced by convicts, the principal has been replaced by Mr Edison who was put away in book 3 and even more shocking, Milmoe is being nice to them–he realizes he’s in over his head as student council president. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SINKANE-Tiny Desk Concert #610 (April 10, 2017).

I’ve heard of Sinkane but I didn’t really know much about them.  Not knowing what to expect, it was really fun to watch this show and see such diversity in the band.

Their music kind of defies categorization, which the blurb addresses:

Sinkane is the music of Ahmed Gallab — and such hopeful music it is. He grew up in London and has lived in Sudan and in Ohio and, these days, New York City. His band reflects his own love for music from around the world; you can hear a great New York jazz band in the rhythms of Sinkane, but you can also hear the influence of Bob Marley and the hypnotic repetition of Sudanese desert sounds.

“U’Huh”is the first song.  Ahmed says “You can help us out with this song you just have to say ‘u’huh.'”  The song is fun right from the bat.  The verses are catchy, with each line ending with “u’huh” (although singing partner Amanda Khiri  looks a little intent as she sings that affirmative line).  Ahmed sings with a surprising falsetto–which plays off against the repeated “u’huh.”

The song contains the Arabic phrase “kulu shi tamaam,” which translates to “everything’s great — it’s all going to be all right.”  And when it gets to the chorus, it grabs hold and won’t let go.

I love that there’s kind of reggae guitars (by Johnny Lam) and a surprising amount of acoustic piano (which you don’t hear all that much in reggae) from Elanna Canlas.  I also love that all of s sudden yo become very aware of all of the percussion, like a small triangle and cowbell and other things.  Those are all played by guest percussionist Reggie Pace from No BS! Brass Band.

“Favorite Song” opens with snaps /claps and a slinky guitar riff, a pulsing bass (Ish Montgomery) and a fun piano melody.  No falsetto for most of the main vocal lines and the great chorus “wont you play my favorite song….”

“Deadweight” has a cool dark riff on bass and guitar and the guitar uses a glass slide as well.  The bass and drums (Jason Trammell) are a great rhythm section.  Ahmed and Amanda sing a duet and they sound great together.  Then the whole band sings together.  I love that the piano plays little melodies that seem to be different from the rest of the song and yet work perfectly.  The guitar solo at the end comes as a surprise but it sounds terrific.

This is a fun, uplifting set from a really interesting band.

[READ: February 1, 2017] “Underground”

I really enjoyed this story quite a bit.  Although, as I think about it more, it almost seems like three unrelated episodes and makes me wonder if this is an excerpt from something bigger.

This is the story of Michael Salter.  Michael is forty-seven.  He’s recently divorced and even more recently come out as gay.  He has three distinct portions to his day.

The first is him at home with his most recent “boyfriend” Jeremy, a twenty-something guy he picked up on Grindr.  Michael is old-fashioned and formal.  He dresses beautifully (and has done so ever since he was little–learning to tie his own bow tie in school).  [There’s an odd line here “Mr. Collins, his Latin teacher, had taught him, and after an hour of practice Michael had the knot mastered along with a boner-size bruise on his backside.”  I have several possible ideas about what this means, but the “boner-sized bruise” just doesn’t make literal sense to me.]

Anyhow, Michael is a fancy older guy and Jeremy is a young stud.  Jeremy posts selfies all day and has thousands of followers.  Somehow this is part of his job.  At seven dates, Jeremy had become Michael’s most serious boyfriend.  And yet Michael is constantly checking Grindr, more in sheer amazement at the technology and the ease of cruising than for actually wanting to do anything. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DELICATE STEVE-Tiny Desk Concert #606 (March 24, 2017).

Delicate Steve is Steve Marion.  He plays instrumental music with great “vocal lines” that come from his guitar.

On record he plays everything himself, but for this concert he brought a backing band.  So the bass (Jessica Pavone) and acoustic guitar (Jon Wiley) play a fairly simple song structure while Steve plays gorgeous lead lines (often using a glass slide to create cool sounds and voices).  The drums area also particularly cool in these songs as drummer Max Jaffe really goes to down on the electronic drums he’s playing.

On the four songs, Steve has a Panasonic FM/AM Premium Stereo Cassette hi-fi, to plug his trusty custom guitar into.

“Afria Talks To You” is a great rocking song (the drums are particularly booming) and the backing music plays some big chords while Steve makes some great soloing throughout. I particularly love that his solos are just showing off, they are genuinely enjoyable melodies.

“Winners” has a delightfully upbeat almost cartoony sound for the first melody, before it switches into a really groovy sound (there’s also a middle section that sounds an awful lot like “Mrs Robinson” (think: “Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,” even the bass is the same), but the rest of the song is quite unique and really fun.

“Tomorrow” is a slow groovy song with some fun bass to start with.  Then there’s a great guitar line on top.  I really love the way these songs all seem to have so many things going on in them.  The middles section turns into a different type of song entirely without sounding like it’s disconnected.  There’s also some kind of synth coming through–although maybe its just his guitar making extra sounds?

Introducing the final song “Night Life” Steve says “We took all the words out because Bob said there were no microphones”.  This is perhaps the simplest melody of all of the songs.  But it doesn’t take away from the quality of the song overall.  The end is very funny because you know it’s supposed to end on a chord but he halts it without playing it….it just hangs there feeling unfinished.

He jokes, “we’ll play that chord next time.”  You hear Bob say “we gotta wait five years?”

Instrumental music can be a challenging prospect, but Delicate Steve makes incredibly catchy songs that don’t suffer in any way from a lack of words.

[READ: July 8, 2016] Lunch Lady and the Video Game Villain

Book 9 opens with Lunch Lady saving the day with some deadly honey mustard.

But this book is all about elections. And video games!

Turns out that Hector is distracted from running for student council president because he can’t find his X Station Mobile anywhere.  But he needs to focus on the campaign because bully Milmoe is running and has already spent a ton of money on banners and cookies and everything else that makes elections so much fun.

But beyond the elections, there’s a lot happening in the school.  A lot of electronics are missing although we see Gavin Computo has a new e-reader (and he’s rather smug about it).

News is also out that the new superintendent Eliza von Grindheimer (not Betsy DeVos) will soon be revolutionizing the schools.  She will be investigating their school soon. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RED BARAAT’S HOLI CELEBRATION-Tiny Desk Concert #604 (March 13, 2017).

Red Baraat is one of a few bands who have now made a second appearance on Tiny Desk.  This return is to celebrate Holi.  And celebrate they do!

I’m not really sure how to categorize Red Baraat’s music.  They are based around a traditional drum (the dhol) and yet they play a kind of jazz with lots of brass, but they also use a guitar and lots of percussion.

In the first song “Sialkot” they march through the audience playing the music until they get behind the stage. Once they settle in, the guitarist is using a bow (making some very cool sounds) and in the middle of the first song he’s all over the whammy bar.

So what does the blurb say:

Red Baraat’s fusion of bhangra, go-go, hip-hop and jazz is driven by frontman Sunny Jain’s percolating playing of the dhol, a double-sided drum which forms the rhythmic lattice of support for their boisterous horns and guitar. And though Red Baraat graced the Tiny Desk five years ago, we had to have Jain’s band back to celebrate Holi, the Hindu festival of color, of good over evil, and the coming of spring. Usually you’d see the dusting of brightly colored perfumed powders strewn in the air, covering bodies and clothing. The notion of doing that in the office was a fun thought, but the band (with my nudging) opted instead for confetti cannons and passing candied treats. It made for quicker cleanup, but their uplifting spirits lingered on, giving us a chance to shake off the final days of winter and demonstrating why music is so essential to the soul.

The second song is “Zindabad.” I love watching the sousaphone player who is really into the music.  And there is so much great percussion from the two drummers.

“Bhangale” opens with some super fast chanting from Jain and then some really fun chanting from everyone.  There’s so many cool moments in between the main horn playing where the guitarist is just playing these wild noisy guitar sounds. And then some really fast guitar solos.   There is so much chanting and singing amid the music that the joy is infectious.

  I had listened to the final song “Se Hace Camino” without seeing the title and I thought that they were singing in Spanish, which they apparently are.  This song has an almost ska feel, it’s so fast.  And again the fun is infectious, especially when the confetti starts flying all over the room.

I need to get involved in a proper Holi celebration next year.

Red Baraat is: Sunny Jain (dhol, vocals); Rohin Khemani (percussion); Chris Eddleton (drums); Sonny Singh (trumpet, vocals); Jonathan Goldberger (guitar); Jonathon Haffner (soprano sax); Raymond James Mason (trombone); Steven Duffy (sousaphone)

[READ: July 6, 2016] Lunch Lady and the Picture Day Peril

As Book 7 ends, Hector has a huge zit on his nose.  And picture day is coming up!  But before we can get to the photographic evidence, Lunch Lady has to stop the bad guys from stealing people’s lunch money–from an ATM.

But back to the Breakfast bunch.  Both Hector and now Terrence are covered in acne.  An it’s picture day.  The student council president tries to give everyone makeup for the photos, but Dee wants nothing to do with it.  It turns out that lots of kids are covered in acne so they start blaming the greasy food from lunch lady.  She rightly points out that the “link” between zits and greasy food is just a myth.  But clearly something has caused this outbreak.

The photographer comes into school and she is chic and fabulous. She loves meeting the “guybrarian” and fawns over lunch Lady’s look. (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: GARY BURTON-Tiny Desk Concert #318 (November 9, 2013).

Gary Burton has been on a Tiny Desk Concert before with Chick Corea.  I really enjoyed Burton then, and I enjoyed him even more this time.

Burton is a vibes player and he and guitarist Julian Lage play a delightful jazzy set.

I love the sounds of vibes already, but I really love the playing method—two mallets in each hand, spread to play a chord in each hand.  Its mesmerizing.

The first song is called “Out Of The Woods.”  The guitar is pretty and a delicate accompaniment.  Half-way through the guitar gets a solo and it’s interesting that the vibes seems to fade a bit even though he’s still going strong.

The second song “Remembering Tano” is dedicated to Arthur Piazollo, the master, whose nickname was Tono.  It has a very different feel with a mellow guitar solo at the end.

When Bob asks him about his playing style, he agrees that “4 sticks doesn’t look possible.”  But he explains that the vibes look like a piano keyboard, but the  advantage of this instrument is the visual impact it has for listeners.   He says that early xylophone players in 19-teens an 1920s played with four mallets a fair amount and then it went out of style.  He started playing in 1949 when he was 20 yeas old.   He grew up ion a farm town in Indiana by himself and when he played, it sounded empty so he needed harmonies.  Hence, four mallets.

The final piece was written for the show and is called “The Tiny Desk Blues.”  And it is fun and bluesy 3 fun and bluesy with a great vibes solo in between some nice guitar solos.

Vibes are definitely my favorite jazz instrument.

[READ: July 5, 2016] Lunch Lady and the Mutant Mathletes

As forewarned in Book 6, the Breakfast Bunch is serving a punishment for bailing on a field trip (true, it was to solve a crime, but such is the life of a secret super hero).  Their punishment is to join the mathletes team.

Before that we get a short episode of Lunch Lady foiling the bad guys from stealing ice cream from a family.  It’s the first time I’ve had to wonder if it’s the same bad guys every time.  From their reactions, I they are.

Lunch Lady feels bad that the kids are forced to join the mathletes so she makes cookies for the team.

While things are going on with the mathletes we see that angry janitor Mr Kalowski is more angry than ever. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: STEVE GUNN-Tiny Desk Concert #299 (August 31, 2013).

Steve Gunn is a fascinating guitar player:

his work mostly stems from a bushy, overgrown definition of what we often call “Americana,” with a healthy understanding of the La Monte Young drone.

Grateful Dead and J.J. Cale certainly reside in the rubber-band bounce of “Old Strange,” a song that keeps the groove mellow, but will suddenly pop with water-drop elasticity. “The Lurker” comes from a much longer solo guitar version that originally sounded like one of Roy Harper’s acoustic epics, but with Gunn’s trio, it becomes a back-porch barn-burner.

For this concert, Gunn and his band play two 9-minutes songs.  They center around his guitar work which yes, has a drone, but the main focus are the Americana riffs that he plays with precision.

“Old Strange” opens with a lengthy guitar passage that shifts after 2 and a half minutes to a slow folky kind of style.  The song seems like it will be an instrumental but 3 and a half minutes in he begins singing. His voice is deep and he sings a kind of narrative story.  It’s quite mesmerizing.   “The Lurker” is a slower, more mellow jam.

[READ: September 3, 2016]: Beatrice

I have read a couple of books from Dixon through McSweeney’s.  I didn’t know much about him then and I still don’t, but I recalled liking his stuff pretty well.  And this book was short so I thought I’d give it a look.

This book is told in a fascinating style–a kind of stream of consciousness in the mind of the main character, but through really close third person.

The book details the encounter of the main character Professor Philip Seidel (there’s a joke about this name, as Seidel means mug) and a woman named Beatrice.  Beatrice was a student of his some 25 years earlier.  She has stopped at his house to deliver some food in condolence for the recent passing of his wife.  She knows about this because she is now a professor where he taught her, although he had retired a few years back.

She brought some food and also wanted to tell him that he was her favorite teacher back then.  She had studied German and wasn’t allowed to take fiction courses until she completed her requirements.  She loved his teaching method and loved how encouraging he had always been.  She has clearly been keeping tabs on him–she has read some interviews he gave–and she definitely knows a lot about his life.

When she leaves he briefly wonders if maybe she’s interested in him now that the are older.  But he puts that out of his mind. (more…)

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 SOUNDTRACK: MIRAMAR-Tiny Desk Concert #593 (January 27, 2017).

Miramar is from Richmond Virginia, but they play beautiful bolero music.

When the members of Richmond, Virginia’s Miramar first heard the music of Puerto Rican composer Sylvia Rexach, they were intrigued that she wasn’t as well-known as other popular bolero writers. So they came up with an album’s worth of her songs to cover, and have been wowing audiences across the country with their exquisite renditions of her songs.

When they pulled into NPR to play behind Bob Boilen’s desk, Miramar’s members made time stop with a performance that swept us off our feet, ably backed by friends of theirs from Richmond who played gorgeous string arrangements behind the band. So turn the lights down low, clear out the living-room carpet and find your dance partner for this one.

What is it about bolero music?

Some say you have to have loved and lost to appreciate the beauty of the bolero. Since its inception in Cuba in the early 20th century, the music has been designed for thoughtful and emotional consideration of the joys and pains that come with loving someone so intensely, it becomes like a religion to adore that special someone (an actual bolero lyric).

They play four songs: “Sin Ti” (without You) opens with some great Spanish guitar and shakers (which sound like water).  The song slowly builds and then the two singers come in.  Rei Alvaresz and Laura Ann Singh sing beautifully together.

The rest of the band includes: Marlysse Simmons Argandoña (piano, organ); Hector Barez (percussion); James Farmer (bass) and Sebastian Cruz (guitar).

“Estatua” (Statue) is faster and more upbeat.  The large string section is put to full use here. (With strings provided by Ellen Riccio (violin); Treesa Gild (violin); Kimberly Ryan (viola) and Schuyler Slack (cello)).  I love when she is singing “te creo” and he is singing low vocals underneath her.  The strings add wonderful drama to this mournful yet beautiful song.

“Urgancia” (Urgency) has some very cool organ sounds—very retro 60s swinging (almost soap opera)–sound.  But in addition there’s beautiful guitar and their great vocals as well.   The first three songs were all originals

“Tus Pasos”  (Your Footsteps) is by Sylvia Rexach–the inspiration for everything they’ve done.  It is a sweet, romantic, old-fashioned sounding love song.

[READ: July 6, 2016] Lunch Lady and the Field Trip Fiasco

I’ve been really enjoying the way the events of the previous books lead to the follow-up.  So you actually should read these in order, which is more fun anyway.

Our opener shows masked men robbing a grocery store–Lunch Lady is able to stop them with fizzy soda.

But the plot of this book is the field trip that was foreshadowed in the previous one.  The Breakfast Bunch is excited to go, except that Hector forgot to get his permission slip signed.  So Dee (who is increasingly more sarcastic as the books go on) forges the signature–who will know?

Lunch Lady and Betty are bored because everyone is going to the field trip–there’s no lunch today.  But when Mrs Palonski learns that her chaperone can’t come she reluctantly agrees to let Lunch Lady come along.  (Betty tells her to go and have fun even though she sighs when she’s left all alone).  Of course Mrs Paloski is worried that Lunch Lady never stops talking (which proves to be an ironic worry). (more…)

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