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Archive for the ‘Funny (strange)’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: MAGOS HERRERA AND BROOKLYN RIDER-Tiny Desk Concert #849 (May 15, 2019).

Brooklyn Rider was on a Tiny Desk nearly a decade ago.  My main take away was how poorly it was lit.  I enjoyed them for their multicultural take on classical music.  For this Tiny Desk, they team up with Mexican singer Magos Herrera (whom I’ve never heard of).

When the intrepid string quartet known as Brooklyn Rider first visited the Tiny Desk nine years ago, no one knew what the musicians might play. They’re as likely to trot out an Asian folk tune as they are a string quartet by Beethoven, or one of their own compositions.

For this visit though, we knew exactly what was on tap. The band, fronted by the smoky-voiced Magos Herrera and backed by percussionist Mathias Kunzli, performed three songs from the album Dreamers, a collection steeped in Latin American traditions.

The versatile Mexican singer, who has never sounded more expressive, notes that these songs emerge from struggle.

She says, “Although there is a lot of light and usually I don’t sing that early, my heart is warm and expanding.”

The first song, Gilberto Gil’s bossa nova-inspired “Eu vim da Bahia” is “a tribute to his home state. He released it in 1965 as Brazil’s military dictatorship took charge.”  I love that between the heart-felt words, there is a gorgeous instrumental passage from the quartet (Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen: violins; Nicholas Cords: viola; Michael Nicolas: cello).

She says the songs transcend dark times with the values of their words.  Gil wrote the tune a year before the dictatorship was installed in Brazil

The atmospheric, flamenco-tinged “La Aurora de Nueva York,” composed by Vicente Amigo, has lyrics from a poem written by Federico García Lorca, the Spanish poet who wrote it while he was in residence in New York in the 1920s.  She says “A Poet in New York is my favorite book” and this poem is the most iconic poem from the book.  Her voice is smoky and impassioned.  There’s some wonderful pizzicato from the quartet.  There’s some lovely solo moments from the violins and some spectacular percussion sounds from Mathias Kunzli.

García Lorca, who fell to assassins during the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

The final track “Balderrama,” by the Argentine folk legend Gustavo Leguizamón, ruminates on a café which served as a safe haven for artists to talk about their work.

One of the members of Brooklyn Rider says that when they talked about this project, they wondered which songs to do.  Which would best represent beauty in the face of difficult circumstances–an antidote to cynicism.  What is most precious and beautiful to a culture.

This song and all of them certainly do that.

[READ: May 16, 2019] “The Presentation on Egypt”

I have enjoyed everything I’ve read by Bordas.  And I really enjoyed this one.  A story would have to be good if the apparent main character has your name and–before committing suicide–has to pull the plug on a brain-dead man with your son’s name.  [That was painful to read].

The story opens with Paul telling the wife of the brain-dead man that he is completely brain-dead.  Unlike on TV, he wasn’t going to magically snap out of it.  When the wife finally agreed to pull the plug and the main died, Paul went home, had a cigarette, and hanged himself.

Paul had a wife and a daughter (if either one had my wife or daughter’s name, I would have had to give Bordas a call).  Paul hanged himself in the laundry room, perhaps knowing that his daughter would never go in there. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BLACK PUMAS-NONCOMM 2019 (May 14, 2019).

A couple of years ago I had a pass to NonComm, but ultimately I decided not to go.  I had never been to World Cafe Live and, while it sounded like a fun time, it was just so many mid-week nights and lots of leaving early, that it sounded more exhausting than fun.

I have now been to World Cafe Live and I can imagine that the (less divaish) bands are hanging around talking to people (and radio personalities) which is probably pretty cool.

I love the idea of these sorta personal concerts, too.  But I have since come to see that they are 20-45 minutes tops.  Hardly worth driving 90 minutes (one-way) for.

But since the shows are streaming you can watch them live.  Or you can listen to the recorded version online.

Black Pumas was the opening band on the opening night.  They play and exciting and fun psychedelic soul.

It is hard not to be moved by Eric Burton’s powerful voice. Joining Burton onstage was production partner and guitarist Adrian Quesada, as well as a bassist, keyboardist, and two backing vocalists. The whole band moved as a unit, but each member added their own unique talents, making Black Pumas’ sound undeniably theirs.

The set mostly comprised of songs from the band’s upcoming self titled debut, due June 21st.

“Next 2U” had some great keyboards and Burton’s impassioned vocals.  “Colors” showcased their ability to slow things down a bit and to lean into improvisation.  There was a grooving guitar solo and a cool keyboard solo.  There was even more grooving on “Black Moon Rising.”  I enjoyed Burton giving us the occasional falsetto “AH!” at the end of the verses.

I really couldn’t believe how young these guys turned out to be because their sound is really old-school, but with enough of a modern twist to keep it from being retro.

“Fire” opened with a cool guitar riff before backing away from the rock a bit to allow the big harmony vocals to really soar.

The final song “Etta James” was surprising because it was more like a Rock n’ Roll shuffle–a fast bass line running through the quick verses.   It’s when the soulful chorus comes in that Etta James surfaces both in the lyrics and in the soul of the song.   Although the scorching guitar solo brings the song back around to its rocking sensibility.

Black Pumas sound like a great live band that would be even more fun to see than to hear.

[READ: May 2, 2019] “Tax Niʔ Pik̓ak (A Long Time Ago)”

The July/August issue of The Walrus is the Summer Reading issue.  This year’s issue had three short stories and three poems as special features.

This story was written by Troy Sebastian / Nupqu ʔa·kǂ am̓, a Ktunaxa writer living in Lekwungen territory based in Victoria.  It’s not often that I read a story with a glossary, but it was very helpful, because this story uses a number of Ktunaxa words.

  • tax niʔ pik̓ak—a long time ago
  • Ka titi—grandmother
  • suyupi—white people
  • ka·pi—coffee
  • Kupi—owl
  • Ktunaxa ʔamak̓is—Ktunaxa lands

The story starts fairly simply, a long time ago.  Uncle Pat says that the suyupi have built a statue of David Thompson.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NEGATIVLAND-No Other Possibility (1989).

In the year that Helter Stupid came out, Negativland released this one hour video.  It is a visual approximation of a Negativland album.  Lots of cuts, lots of snippets of ads and songs and news broadcasts.  It’s mostly nonsense with some reality and some things that may or may not be reality.  Who knows?

It opens with a critical diatribe that scrolls over a test pattern.  The diatribe by Crosley Bendix criticizes everything that is (correctly) poor about the video and making up other things–the death of a stuntman.

After the opening credits, the video opens with David Willis’ mother watching TV.  On the screen is a clip from Dick Vaughn and his Jack-O-Lantern (more below).  Then she asks David for her cigarettes and the song from A Big Ten 8 Place is acted out hilariously.

After some clips from video games and a commercial for Marlboro, there’s a video for “Nesbitt’s Lime Soda Song.”  When the bee comes into the song, it turns into clips of David filming his family talking about bees and more (like his grandma looking in the fridge for potato chips which makes David laugh).

Change channels until The Dick Vaughn Show comes on and he brings out David Willis to light up a Jack-O-Lantern with 700 volts.

After a commercial from ZOTOS and Nation Hairdressers and Cosmetologists Association that tells women they have to look their best in order to get a job.  “Appearance and good grooming are essential.”

Then it’s time for Trick or Treat with David Willis who is dressed as E.T.

He talks about Halloween safety with 5 hand drawn posters.

  1. no fresh fruit–nails razors
  2. looks for holes or tears in wrappers–inject chemicals
  3. avoid homemade treats
  4. avoid weird, strange-looking people.
  5. if you bob for apples make sure your partners are not sick

Then some explosions with cars flipping.  A small video slowly evolves revealing a live performance of David singing the “Very Stupid” song from 10-8.   It is noisier and rocks pretty hard while David yells the lyrics: “1, 2, stupid ; 3, 4 dumb.”  The version slowly comes into focus as David roams the audience.  he even adds new lyrics: “1,2 urinate ; 3, 4 defecate ; 5, 6 fornicate ; 7, 8  seat be sate!”

After a text: “Earlier that same evening,” a car drives into the building under a scroll from Dick Goodbody raving about this beauty, “her name is Monarch Mercury Monarch.”

Followed by a commercial for the Monarch.

Then there’s a video clip of the fire in the Negativland recording building (which I think is true?).  They interview Mark Hosler who grabbed master tapes and studio equipment.  He tours the burned out building.

Then there’s interstitial questions of what people think about TV.

  • An old man complaining about sex on TV.
  • Teenage girls saying they like soap operas because of the sex.
  • A guy saying TV would be improved if they quit showing so many commercials.

Up next is Crosley Bendix (“Director, Stylistic Premonitions” played by Don Joyce) of the Universal Media Netweb has an insane piece about numerology, at the end of which he cries, “Thanks a million!

  • MTV has fine guys on it

Then comes Negativland “Fire Song” with Mark singing in the burnt house.

A series of ads for canned foods: tomatoes, grapes, yams, dog food over a muzak version of “Age of Aquarius.”

Then comes the religion portion of the show.  Another diatribe by Crosley Bendix complains of people always searching for more intense entertainment.  Since Jesus’s time.  In fact, The Last Supper is the crucial link-up of food and show business.

Then comes more live scenes of some crazy music and kids walking around in costumes who start shouting about ice cream and other food.

  • I don’t watch religious TV because I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Clips of preachers and then Pastor Dick comes out,

He tells some dad jokes like asking for coffee without cream and the waitress saying “you’ll have to have coffee without milk because we are out of cream.”

He brings out a racist ventriloquist dummy Enrico Gomez.  Then has everyone sing along with the Christian Youth Fellowship song from the album How Do You Spell Joy?

He has a Stop sign and asks everyone to clap along. Stop! [clap clap] And let me tell you what the Lord has done do me.  When he turns around the sign is a hand written note “fuck you pastor dick.”

Then comes the 5 eyewitness news team featuring Hal Eisner, with the video of the audio used in side one of the album Helter Stupid.  Don Joyce is interviewed.

As the video ends, there’s one more guy that they interview.  He says

TV is gonna make me famous one day.  When the interviewer asks how, the guy says

“you gotta know how to exploit the media.”

Was he a plant?  Who knows.  There is no other possibility, godammit.

Watch the whole video here.

[READ: April 25, 2019] “Attention Geniuses: Cash Only”

Woody Allen doesn’t seem to write much for the New Yorker these days.  I’ve found over the years that I rather like some of his New Yorker jokes and then others are just ho-hum.  Of all of the short “funny” pieces in the New Yorker, Woody tends to be able to pull off three pages better than others.

Although this one drags and often come across as an excuse to throw out pretentious references.

And yet he’s got some great turns of phrase:

Jogging along Fifth Avenue last summer as part of a fitness program designed to reduce my life expectancy to that of a nineteenth century coal miner

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NEGATIVLAND-A Big 10-8 Place (1983).

After the cut-and-paste craziness of the first two Negativland albums, this third one was a bit more thought through as a whole.  It’s still a bizarre pastiche of samples and sounds, but there’s a more unifying theme.  And a lot of cursing.

There are six tracks on the disc.  It opens with “Theme from a Big 10-8 Place.”   Many of the sounds that you’ll hear throughout the disc are sampled here, but the main point of this song is a simple drum beat and David speak/singing “very stupid, very stupid” as well as some other thematically appropriate lines.

One two stupid
Three four dumb
Five six idiotic
Seven eight seat bee sate
Very stupid very stupid very stupid very stupid!
I like Concord
And 180-G
I like Pleasant Hill
No other possibility

The track ends with fascinating instructions like, “I want you to put parakeet feathers into your television set if you’re watching MTV” and “I want you to trip over your grocery cart if you’re shoplifting from Safe Muffins.”

The bulk of side one is “A Big 10-8 Place –Part One”: 13 and a half minutes of samples placed back to back.  These include: A woman screaming “Tommy?”; a clip from what sounds like a butchering video (“the second thing that happens is that the butcher loses control”) ; car commercials (“then the door closes behind you in safe and secure comfort”) ; house shopping commercials and the piano from “Clowns and Ballerinas.”  After about 6 minutes the bad language comes in–insults from what sounds like a CB radio.

“Clowns and Ballerinas” is 90 seconds of a little girl singing the song “Clowns and Ballerinas” to a simple piano accompaniment.

“Introduction” brings David out as he prepares us for him to talk about 180 and the Letter G.  “In a few moments we’re going to be 10-8.”

“Four Fingers” is a surprisingly catchy song played on an acoustic guitar with a whistling solo.  The vocals are smooth and clean and the lyrics are almost creepy but are actually funny:

I am a man, a man with two fingers
A man with two fingers on my hand
I am a man, a man with two fingers
But that doesn’t count my middle finger, my index finger, or my thumb.

Then comes “180-G: A Big 10-8 Place –Part Two” a 16 minute pastiche of David telling us how to get to 180 and the Letter G.  There’s cut up music behind them with choice lines like this:

Okay people we are 10-8 and the number is 180 and the letter is G.  There is no other possibility.

But before you get onto the bridge, around one big turn, you’ll come up to the place where the sex chemicals burned up.

First of all it’s very important that you turn on your AM radio. Set it to 1010 on your dial, and let the radio frequency energy from K-101 overload your little tuner until it distorts very highly [crazy extreme distortion] . And right at the point of that extreme distortion, there’s the big chairs. I’m not exactly sure, but I think that’s where all the sewer water from Oakland goes.

my favorite ham radio repeater station — that’s WR6 Automatic Bowel Movement.  And any of you who are into jamming, keep talking, keep jamming, because I’ll be listening on my scanner radio, and just maybe…you’ll be on the next album.

And just before you get to the top of the hill, you’ll notice the green slime oozing out from under the house at 180 and the letter G.

I repeat, you’re gonna have to shoplift the HR Steam Cleaning System from Safe Muffins.

About half way through it turns more jazzy (with guitars and bongos)

The door opens automatically, and the first thing you see is the orange carpet inside 180…and you’ll see the dog juice, the horrible dog juice all over the orange carpet at 180 and the letter G.

And then comes another well-known section from Negativland, a lengthy argument between David and his mother about where he put her cigarettes.

“I think I’d like to have a cigarette now. Where are my cigarettes, David?”
“They’re on top of the refrigerator.”
“I looked on top of the refrigerator. They aren’t there. will you please tell me what you did with my cigarettes?”
“Maybe you left them in the car.”
“I haven’t been in the car all day. You must have put them somewhere and I can’t find them. You better tell me now or I’m going to really get mad.”
“Oh yeah, I think I know where they are. They’re in back of the TV set, where all the parakeet feathers are.”

It’s all crazy and bizarre, but it’s kind of fun as a fractured narrative.

[READ: April 19, 2019] “Le Mooz”

This story is set in Ojibweg land.  Margaret has survived three husbands.  Nanapush has survived six wives.  They got together, “they were old by the time they shacked up out in the deep bush.”

They were both heated and passionate–both in love and in anger, “they made love with an amazed greed and purity that astounded them.  At the same time it was apt to burn out of control.”

To survive their passions, they rarely collaborated on any task, finding solitary work was more productive for both of them.  One day Margaret came swiftly home.  She beached the boat and was running up shouting “Le Mooz!”

Nanapush was sleeping and was irritated to be awoken by the yelling.  But if there was a Mooz, a moose, that would be meat for them for a long time. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE CALIDORE STRING QUARTET-Tiny Desk Concert #843 (April 22, 2019).

Whenever I hear a wonderful string quartet, I yell at myself for not listening to more classical music.  I’m not sure why I don’t–I just like my rock too much I guess.  But these 18 minutes of strings are really fantastic.  And I’m adding The Calidore String Quartet [Jeffrey Myers, violin; Ryan Meehan, violin; Jeremy Berry, viola; Estelle Choi, cello] to the list of quartets I particularly admire.

The blurb is great for unpacking what’s going on, so I’ll let it do just that.

The [string quartet] genre was born some 250 years ago and pioneered by Joseph Haydn, but composers today are still tinkering with its possibilities. Consider Caroline Shaw. The young, Pulitzer-winning composer wrote the opening work in this set, First Essay: Nimrod, especially for the Calidore String Quartet [back in 2016].

Over a span of eight minutes, the supple theme that opens this extraordinary work takes a circuitous adventure. It unfolds into a song for the cello, is sliced into melodic shards, gets bathed in soft light, becomes gritty and aggressive and disguises itself in accents of the old master composers. Midway through, the piece erupts in spasms that slowly dissolve back into the theme.

I love the pizzicato on the cello–there’s so much of it, from deep bass notes to very high notes.  Including the final note.

Their new album explores composers in conflict.  In the case of of the next song, loveless marriage.

The Calidore players also chose music by the quirky Czech composer, Leoš Janáček who, in 1913, set one of his operas on the moon. He wrote only two string quartets but they are dazzling. The opening Adagio, from “String Quartet No. 1, ‘Adagio'”, is typical Janáček, with hairpin turns that veer from passionate romance to prickly anxiety.

This piece is much more dramatic with powerful aching chords ringing out.

Reaching back farther, the ensemble closes the set with an early quartet by Beethoven, who took what Haydn threw down and ran with it. The final movement from Beethoven’s “String Quartet Op. 18, No. 4, Allegro – Prestissimo” both looks back at Haydn’s elegance and implies the rambunctious, even violent, risks his music would soon take.

2020 is the 250th anniversary of his birth.  They are celebrating by playing all of his string quartets in various cities.  He says that this piece is the most exiting part.

I love the trills that each instrument runs through in the middle of the song.

All of these pieces sound amazing.

[READ: April 22, 2019] “Cut”

This story started out is such an amusing way:

There’s no good way to say it–Peggy woke up most mornings oddly sore, sore in the general region of her asshole.

But it’s not an amusing scene at all.  It burns when she uses the toilet and she finds blood in her pajamas.

She could see a cut but only when using a hand mirror while she was crouched at the right angle.  But even so, her groin “was that of a middle-aged woman and not as strictly delineated as it once had been.”  Nevertheless, whenever she looked for it she always “paused to appreciate the inert drapery of her labia.”

The cut was there, but it seemed to migrate.   She tried to look it up online, but only found porn.  Adding Web MD brought back porn in doctor’s offices.  And adding Mayo Clinic introduced her to people with a fetish for mayonnaise. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: NEGATIVLAND-Negativland (1980).

Negativland was (is?) a weird “band” who released absurdist sound collages.  Their purpose was culture jamming and they created quite a stor throughout their “career.”    The band was more or less created by David Wills (born 1954) also known as “The Weatherman”.. He was a cable repairman when he joined the group with a then-teenage Mark Hosler (1962) and Richard Lyons (1959-2016) also known as Dick Vaughn, Dick Goodbody, and Pastor Richard Seeland.

Their first record came out in 1980 and had twenty untitled tracks.  The “songs” were mostly sound effects, radio broadcasts and home recordings. There was some original guitar and drum machine, but mostly it is just collage.

About the tracks:

[SIDE 1]

1. You can hear a spoken word news announcer in the background as a guitar line comes in followed by a drum machine.  Then comes a woman (David’s mother, I believe ) reciting “This is Negativland.”

2. A ticking clock with a pretty guitar melody and then increasingly loud table saws (one in each ear)

3. A drum machine with a spoken word announcer.  This blurb comes from a fan on YouTube:

The man speaking, Mitch Werbell, worked for U.S. covert operations. At the time, (late 70s) there was a big problem with urban terrorism in Argentina. They had threatened to kidnap Coca-Cola reps in Buenos Aires. Werbell is explaining (on the ABC TV show 20/20) what he told the terrorists would happen if they tried, when he was hired to go help the executives escape the area.

4. Horns playing single notes.  It abruptly ends with ringing alarms

5. Guitars (electric and acoustic) playing and echoing.  This is the longest track at almost 5 minutes. Lots of spoken words among the trippy sounds and boopers.

6. Drum machines and noises and then after a violin line comes the most famous early phrase from NegativalndL “Seat Be Sate” (Play Black Sabbath at 78).  The “poem” is soon taken over by noise and a looped spoken word.

7. A menacing static noise and very sci-f sound effects couple with a German language instruction tape.

8. Static noises and de-tuned acoustic guitar strumming as someone sings a bit

9 A looping string of interesting sounds–booper, waves of sound and a clip o kids singing and then Don’s family speaking, all looped into a rhythm.  Finally a classroom rule about silent E

10. Drum machine with a whispered singing vocal and a catchy guitar riff with (of course) lots of distorted noises.

The lyrics:

Cara mia, why
Must we say goodbye
Each time we part
My heart wants to die
Darling, hear my prayer
Cara mia fair
Here are my arms
You alone will share

All I want is you
Forever more
To have, to hold
To love, adore
Cara mia mine
Say those words divine
I’ll be your love
Till the end of time

My cara mia
My cara mia
My cara mia

[SIDE 2]

11. French speaking and the an a loop of an older man saying “everything’s going fine, no trouble just get set and get going. Amen.

12. Warbled distorted vocals of a man and woman reciting the Hail Mary.

13. A family scene with people talking over a news broadcast (WCBS news time).  You can hear David saying “It’s not alive, Drew.”

14. Some more kids talking with all kinds of jammer sounds over them.  The final line has a woman saying “Reading the book by the seamen within would be very helpful.”

15.  Blues on an acoustic guitar (pretty well played) although by the end the solo is out of tune and crazy.

16. Boopers and outer space sounds.  Multiple radio broadcasts overlapping including one about a bedpans in hospitals.  And a joke ( I can’t guess the comedian, but he sounds a bit like Bob Goldthwait or Les Claypool, but it obviously isn’t) “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on earth.”  The punchline is obscured then the laughter come in.

17. A slow drum beat and random noises on a guitar

18. A family scene David’s mother talking about the affordability of buying meat by the pound.

19. A low deep siren sound followed by this dire message from the Emergency Broadcast Network: “The office of civil defense has issued the following message “this is an attack warning” this is an attack warning.  An attack warning means an actual attack against this country has been detected.  Then there’s David inviting Everett to a barbecue that afternoon.  It’s followed by some audio from the American Airlines 191 plane crash from 1979.  This segues into a family scene where the dad is telling a joke about cannibals.  A man walked among cannibals with cases of Pepsi.  The cannibals drank the Pepsi and ate the man.  All except his thing.  When they were later asked why they didn’t eat his thing, they sang, “Things go better with Coke.”

20. The final track states, “Now hear how a real parakeet should sound.”  Then a woman says good morning and then a crazy raspy voice repeats here.  The album ends with this oscillator sound that my parents had in the 1970s–a kind of looping really fake bird chirping.  No idea why they had it.

This actual release of this record was accomapnied by all kinds of original magazine clippings and artwork. And the CD came with pins and other cool things.  It’s a weird artifact from the dawn of culture jamming.

[READ: April 20, 2019] “The Glass House”

I decided it would be interesting to go back to the year 2000 and to read all of the New Yorker stories up to the present.  I think as of now I have read through 2005.  By the time I have finished (next year, I’m sure) I’ll have 20 years of stories read.

This story is set during the Civil War.  The main character, Will, has just enlisted.  His brother, Sam, was killed at Bull Run and Will came to take his place.  His Captain was very happy to have him because Sam was a brave and well-liked man.  But Will, as he himself would admit, was neither of those things.

After Sam’s death, the Captain intended to go to Sam’s house personally to pay his regards to their family.  Had Sam’s mother seen the Captain, she would have spit on him.  But before that could happen, Will decided to enlist.  He forged his mother’s signature and didn’t tell anyone when he left. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GRUFF RHYS–American Interior (2013).

Gruff Rhys was (is?) the singer and composer in Super Furry Animals, a fantastic indie-pop band from Wales.   After several years with SFA and several solo albums, Gruff decided to do something a little different.  Actually, everything he does is a little different, as this quote from The Guardian explains:

“The touring musician can feel like the puppet of consumer forces,” he writes, bemoaning the way that “cities have now been renamed ‘markets’ and entire countries downgraded to ‘territories'”. So, over the last five or so years, he has come up with the idea of “investigative touring”: combining the standard one-show-a‑night ritual with creative fieldwork. In 2009, he went to Patagonia to trace the roots of a disgraced relative called Dafydd Jones, and the Welsh diaspora in South America more generally, and played a series of solo concerts, as well as making a film titled Separado!. Now, Rhys has reprised the same approach to tell another story, and poured the results into four creations: an album, another film, an ambitious app, and this book – all titled American Interior, and based on the brief life of John Evans: another far-flung relative of the singer, who left Wales to travel to North America in the early 1790s.

So yes, there’s a film and a book and this CD.  This album is a delightful blend of acoustic and electronic pop and folk.  Rhys’ voice is wonderfully subdued and with his Welsh accent coming in from time to time, it makes everything he sings somehow feel warm and safe (even when it’s not).   Rhys creates songs that sound like they came from the 1970s (but better), but he also explores all kinds of sonic textures–folk songs, rocking songs, dancing song, even songs in Welsh.

“American Exterior” is a 30 second intro with 8-bit sounds and the repeated “American Interior” until the piano and drum-based (from Kliph Scurlock) “American Interior” begins.  It’s a catchy song with the repeated (and harmonized) titular refrain after each line and it’s a great introduction to the vibe of the record.  It’s followed by the super catchy stomping “100 Unread Messages” which just rocks along with a great chorus.  You can see Gruff “composing” the lyrics to this in the book.

“The Whether (Or Not)” introduces some electronic elements to this song.  It’s basically a great pop song with splashes of keys and some cool stabs of acoustic guitar.  “The Last Conquistador” and “The Lost Tribes” are gentler synthy songs, as many of these are.  “Liberty (Is Where We’ll Be)” returns to the acoustic sound with some really beautiful piano.

“Allweddellau Allweddol” (English translation: Key Keyboards) is the only all-Welsh song on the record and it romps and stomps and is as much fun as that title suggests it would be.  There’s even a children’s choir singing on it (maybe?).

“The Swamp” is a simple electronics and drumming pattern which leaps right into “Iolo” one of the most fun songs on the record.  It’s a nod to the Welsh poet who inspired but backed out of Evans’ expedition at the last-minute but also a rollicking good time with the chanted “yoloyoloyoloyolo” and great tribal drums from Kliph.

The end of the album slows things down with “Walk Into the Wilderness” a slow aching ballad and the final two animal-related songs.  “Year of the Dog” is kind of a mellow opus when it is joined by the instrumental coda “Tiger’s Tale.”  Both songs feature goregous pedal steel guitar from Maggie Bjorklund.

Gruff Rhys is an amazing songwriter.  He could write the history of an obscure Welshman and still get great catchy songs out of it.  And that’s exactly what he’s done here.

[READ: December 2018] American Interior

How to explain this book?

I’ll start by saying that I loved it.  I was delighted by Rhys’ experiences and, by the end, I was genuinely disappointed to read that Evans’ trip didn’t pan out (even though I knew it didn’t).  The only compliant I have about the book is that I wish he had given a pronunciation guide for all of the welsh words in there, because I can’t even imagine how you say things like Ieuan Ab Ifan or Gwredog Uchaf or Dafydd Ddu Eryri (which is helpfully translated as Black David of Snowdonia, but not given a pronunciation guide).  But what about the contents?

The subtitle gives a pretty good explanation but barely covers the half of it.

Here’s a summary from The Guardian to whet one’s appetite for Rhys himself and for what he’s on about here:

[John] Evans was a farmhand and weaver from Waunfawr on the edge of Snowdonia, who was in pursuit of something fantastical: a supposed tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans said to live at the top of the Missouri river, who were reckoned to owe their existence to the mythical Prince Madog, a native of Gwynedd who folklore claimed had successfully sailed to the New World in 1170. In 1580, this story was hyped up by Elizabeth I’s court mathematician and occultist John Dee (born of Welsh parents), in an attempt to contest the Spanish claim to American territory. Two centuries later, with the opening of new frontiers, talk of a tribe called the Madogwys and “forts deemed to be of Welsh origin” began to swirl anew around Wales and North America, and became tangled up in the revolutionary fervour of the time, along with a radical Welsh spirit partly founded in nonconformist Christianity.

All this was moulded into a proposal made by a self-styled druid named Iolo Morganwg (“a genius”, but “also a fraud of the highest order”, says Rhys), who “called for the Americans, in the light of Madog’s legacy, to present the Welsh with their own tract of land in the new country of the free, so that the Welsh could leave their condemned royalist homeland”. Morganwg stayed put in Cowbridge, near Cardiff (the site of his “radical grocery” shop is now occupied by a branch of Costa Coffee), but Evans was inspired by his visions, and eventually set sail.

Rhys goes on a “journey of verification”, following Evans’s route from Baltimore, through such cities as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and then up the Missouri river to the ancestral home of the Mandan tribe of Native Americans, who had been rumoured to be the Welsh-speakers of myth, and among whom Evans lived, in territory argued over by the British and Spanish. Along the way, he does solo performances built around music and a PowerPoint-assisted talk about Evans’s story, keeps appointments with historians, and also tries to glimpse the America that Evans found through the cracks in a landscape of diners, what some people call “campgrounds”, and Native American reservations.

The Guardian’s review also talks about why the book works: (more…)

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