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   SOUNDTRACK: WAXAHATCHEE-Tiny Desk Concert #321 (November 23, 2013).

Waxahatchee is pretty much Katie Crutchfield.  The band recently played a show near me and I wondered if it was a band or just her.

This might be as intimate as hearing Katie Crutchfield sing in her basement. That’s where she and her sister would play guitar, write and sing songs 10 years ago, when she was 14. Katie and Allison Crutchfield had a band back in Birmingham together, The Ackleys; these days, Katie performs as Waxahatchee, while Allison’s band is called Swearin’.

The songs Waxahatchee brought to the NPR Music offices aren’t just stripped down for this Tiny Desk Concert, this is Katie Crutchfield as Waxahatchee, spare and exposed; this is what she does. Sometimes there’s a drummer (her sister’s boyfriend Kyle Gilbride) and at other times another guitarist, her boyfriend Keith Spencer (both play in Swearin’), but even on Waxahatchee’s second album, Cerulean Salt, there are plenty of bare-boned songs. This is intimate music for an intimate setting, as we got to stand in careful silence, listening intently and capturing this frail and powerful performance.

And all of that is true.   These are pretty, quiet folk songs.  They are so quiet it almost seems like she doesn’t have her amp on—you can hear her pick striking against the strings.

To me the power of these songs is in the lyrics, and yet the music isn’t boring or simple either.  Her chords are always, if not interesting, then certainly spot on.  But I keep coming back to the lyrics.  Like the end of “I Think I Love You”

I want you so bad it’s devouring me / and I think I love you but you’ll never find out.

Her speaking voice is quiet too, and after the first song she admits, “This is one of the coolest things I have ever gotten to do.”

“Bathtub” has this wonderfully intense line:

And I tell you not to love me
But I still kiss you when I want to
And I lament, you’re innocent
But somehow the object of my discontent
And it’s fucked up, I let you in
Even though I’ve seen what can happen

The entire Tiny Desk Concert is only 9 minutes–which is simply too short.  I know that the Tiny Desk Concerts usually have bands play 3 songs, but when they are mostly short ones like “Tangled Envisioning” (not even 3 minutes), they could tack on an extra one or two.

[READ: August 30, 2016] Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543

Zach Weinersmith writes the daily webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  I supported the Kickstarter project for this book because it looked frankly hilarious.  The one thing I have to say off the bat is that I don’t love his drawing style.  There’s something about it that I simply can’t get into.  Even after two full books of these drawings, it just never gels for me.  But that’s fine. because I’m here for the jokes.  And they are awesome.

The book is comprised of the best religion-themes comic from the 13 years that SMBC has been around.  There’s also a whole slew of comics that are exclusive to this book.

We are greeted with this: “For these drawings, the part of God is played by a giant yellow disc.” (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: DAUGHTER-Tiny Desk Concert #313 (October 21, 2013).

Daughter is a quiet folk band (at least in this Tiny Desk Concert) in which two acoustic guitars (Elena Tonra and Igor Haefeli) and one drum (Remi Aguilella) play behind Tonra’s gorgeous, angsty vocals.

For all three of these songs, she sings delicate whispered vocals that are quite lovely, but also quite dark.

Like this line from “Youth” “Most of us are bitter over someone / setting fire to our insides for fun.”  I love the way Haefeli’s guitar harmonics sound like keyboards and how powerful the martial drumming sounds when it comes in.

“Landfill” opens with thudding drums (Mallets instead of sticks) which are louder and bigger and yet still feel gentle.  And yet, as the blurb says: The song is “achingly pretty and melancholy, the track builds to an absolute gut-punch of a line — “I want you so much, but I hate your guts” — that conjures a pitch-perfect mix of gloom, desire and hostility.”

They put out an EP and in 2013 released an album:

the lovely If You Leave, but Daughter was kind enough to resuscitate “Landfill” for this stripped-down performance at the Tiny Desk. As you’ll see and hear, that aforementioned gut-punch is a recurring specialty for the band: In all three of these sad, searing songs, singer Elena Tonra showcases a remarkable gift for coolly but approachably dishing out weary words that resonate and devastate.

Between these two songs, Bob asks if this is an awkward place to play, and she responds, “No, we’re just awkward people.”

For “Tomorrow” there is a beautiful ascending guitar melody and loud drums.  I really like the way the guitars play off of each other–even though they are both acoustic, they sound very different and complement each other nicely.  Like in the wonderful melody at the end.  Despite how pretty the song was, apparently she was unhappy with it saying “a bit ropey, that one.”  I hadn’t heard that before, but evidently it means “unwell…usually alcohol related” so that’s pretty funny.

[READ: August 30, 2016] Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543

Zach Weinersmith writes the daily webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  I supported the Kickstarter project for his book Religion: Ruining Everything Since 4004 BC and this book was part of my funding level.

I was more interested in the religious comics, but I am tickled by how funny the Science comics are.  Weinersmith knows a lot of science (or at least scientists) and make some really funny jokes about the subject.

The one thing I have to say off the bat is that I don’t love his drawing style.  There’s something about it that I simply can’t get into.  Even after two full books of these drawings, it just never gels for me.  But that’s fine. because I’m here for the jokes.  And they are awesome. (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: BLUE MAN GROUP Tiny Desk Concert #566 (September 26, 2016).

This Tiny Desk Concert is probably the most fun right from th get go.

It opens with three men in blue marching through the NPR offices.  They go through backstage places, grabbing items.  The go through the DJ booth and even interrupt Corva Coleman’s weather forecast.

They even pull Bob away from his desk as they set up.  And then we see the blue men in action.

I remember seeing ads for Blue Man Group when I worked in Manhattan decades ago.  But I never actually saw them (something i regret).  And indeed, I’m not the only one who remembers their humble beginnings:

Josh Rogosin, our engineer for the Tiny Desk, first saw them in their early days, some 25 years ago at New York’s Astor Place Theatre. He told me how the Blue Men would retrofit some of their theatrical magic — including their custom-made instruments, confetti cannons and streamers — to fit this small desk space.  instead of installing their entire signature PVC instrument, what ended up behind the desk was about a third of it. On the right side of the desk, their Shred Mill makes its internet debut: It’s a drum machine triggered by magnets that changes rhythm depending where they are placed on the home-made variable-speed conveyor belt. They also invented something called a Spinulum, whose rhythmic tempo is controlled by rotating a wheel that plucks steel guitar strings.

So the guys, covered in blue (closeup cameras suggests to me that they are wearing gloves and masks?) play a number of home-made instruments (you can read a full description on the instruments below).  In addition to thw home made instruments, there is a Chapman stick bass guitar and a conventional drummer.

And they sure do get some cool sounds out of these items.

“Vortex” has its melody on the PVC pipes with the spinumlum and once the song really gets going in the middle, with the stick playing a cool melody and the cimbalon playing a sweet plucked melody, it’s really quite a pretty song.

For “The Forge,” the stick plays some cool scratchy melodies while two guys play the PVC tubes (I like that there’s a mirror mounted above them so you can see what they’re doing).  The cimbalon is put to good use in more pretty melodies.

“Meditation for Winners” is hilarious.  They play an old scratchy record with a really intense guy doing intense meditation.   They play really catchy music behind it.  They go into the audience and grab people to breathe in and out, and stretch.  Or doing dragon breath.  Then they chant a positive affirmation “I am the best at being relaxed.”  The way the meditation goes from Namaste into something else is pretty great as are the confetti cannons.

This makes me wish I had seen them 25 years ago even more now.

[READ: February 15, 2017] Chew: Volume Twelve

This is the concluding arc to the amazing (and disturbing) series Chew.  It covers issues 56-60 and includes Demon Chicken Poyo.

Chapter 1 begins with an introduction to Tony Chu, Cibopath.  By now we know who he is and what he does–he eats things (or people) and knows the history of whatever he just ate.  We are reminded that the only food that he does not get a psychic sensation from is beets.

The end of the previous book showed the death of Mason and his instruction that in order to save the world Tony must eat him.  Tony does not want to (obviously) but he must.  But the joke is on him because the last thing that Mason ate before killing himself was a big plate of beets–meaning he is totally blocking Tony’s abilities and that Tony will have to suffer through Mason’s long and tedious explanation of everything (this makes Colby crack up, which is quite funny). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: OKKERVIL RIVER-Tiny Desk Concert #311 (October 15, 2013).

I had first heard of Okkeervil River a few years ago, but I never really knew much about them.  I assumed they were a folk band.  Then a few years back I first head “Down Down the Deep River” and loved it.  I had some idea that the band was maybe a duo, so I was surprised to see this rather large 6 piece band–two acoustic guitars, 1 electric guitar, keys, trumpet and drums.

So what’s the deal with this band and the name?

At first blush, Okkervil River is obviously a good rock ‘n’ roll band, but listen closely — especially to its lyrics — and you’ll hear a great rock ‘n’ roll band. The group has been making sharp, thoughtful music since the late ’90s, with the first of its seven albums coming out a dozen years ago.

The songs in this Tiny Desk Concert are from The Silver Gymnasium, a record inspired by the childhood of 37-year-old singer-songwriter Will Sheff; he grew up a bespectacled, crooked-toothed redhead in the small New Hampshire town of Meriden. His lyrics are drenched in specific memories, pop-culture references and youthful insecurity.

The stories pop a bit more in this acoustic set-up for Okkervil River, but they rock plenty hard in concert and on their albums. If you’ve missed the past dozen years of this band, start here and then work your way back through its catalog. The Stage Names is my favorite, but nothing disappoints.

[The band takes its name from a short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya set on the river in St Petersburg].

As it turns out the band is more rocky than folky–even if they are heavily acoustic.

“On a Balcony” a catchy swinging folk rock song.  The addition of the trumpet after averse is really cool.

Before “Pink Slips” Sheff switches guitars with the other guy–then laughs because the strap is set wrong.  Someone says, why not just switch straps?  Which they do.  Bob asks him about the strap correlation and he says: I don’t like the Paul McCartney disconnected cerebral height but I don’t like the grunge-Kurt-Cobain-I-cant-reach-my-guitar thing.  He likes a happy medium.  Then they ask about his shirt–it’s by Winsor McKay, the comic artist.  He says he always loved him, then he saw the Tom Petty “Runnin’ Down a Dream” video which imitates McKay.  It was a like a dream come to life, so he thought he’d make shirts of artists he likes and sells them with his merch.

“Pink Slips” has a kind of slacker melody with a lot of words—and here you can really hear the sophisticated lyrics that Bob talks about.  And the backing vocals sounds terrific.  After the song he says No one has caught the Kevin Costner references in that song. (Waterworld and The Postman).  He also notes that Tom Petty plays himself in The Postman.

“Down Down the Deep River” is so catchy, although this version is very different from the recorded version—more folky less keyboardy.  I really like the keyboard/horn melody and the great backing vocals.  And the claps are super fun.

[READ: July 8, 2016] Chew: Volume Eleven

Book Eleven covers issues 51-55.  And it features the death of two major characters!

Chapter 1 opens with the cryptic panel TWO YEARS LATER.

It shows Chu Chu’s bestselling cookbook being taken out of the best seller display and being replaced by Amelia’s EATERS series.

Then we flash up to heaven where Tony’s deceased sister Toni catches us up to speed briefly before getting called to bed by Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan (I love the bed scenes, they are so funny–the way Guillory draws the sheets so snug…).

Next we move to the White House where the annual Easter Egg hunt has been replaced by a Platypus Egg Hunt (with a platypus that looks quite similar to another famous cartoon platypus).  How I wish this was a commentary on the Trump Easter Egg Fiasco #RESIST.

Next we flash to Olive working in the White House kitchen.  It is through Olive’s lightning fast reflexes she is able to stop an assassination attempt of the President.  And their fast work has promoted them to full-fledged agents with the FDA.  Sadly for Olive, she is assigned to work with Ginny who is pretty nutty.  But some flash forwards show just how well they work together.

The next chapter shows the early history of Savoy.  His wife died in the avian flu epidemic which put him on the path to finding the truth about it.  But when he offers his services, a Senator is quick to shut him down–which doesn’t make Savoy very happy. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TYPHOON-Tiny Desk Concert #314 (October 26, 2013).

As the show begins, you hear Bob inviting all the short people up front.  Bob suggests the band could organize something like that at their shows: Height night–order everyone as they come in where to stand, that way everybody meets different people and people who never get to see a show in their lives could finally see.  The lead singer says he hates to go to shows for that reason (he seems quite short), although the drummer is way over 6 feet tall.

I first heard Typhoon from NPR, where the song “Young Fathers” was strange, somewhat disjointed and incredibly catchy.  I loved the full band sound and big backing vocals.

The blurb notes: The group from Portland, Ore. crafts rock anthems like emotional tidal waves, propelled by the stories of frontman Kyle Morton. His deeply personal tales are often full of grief and loss. But just as often they celebrate and praise life’s simple wonders. Morton himself is a very grateful (and lucky) man who writes songs as if he were living on borrowed time. That’s because a random bug bite when he was a child left him with a monstrous case of Lyme disease that led to multiple organ failures. Morton’s own father donated a kidney to save his son’s life.

I love when Bob gets excited by a band, as when he talks about Typhoon:

At 27, with a backing band of a dozen musicians, Morton and the rest of Typhoon are making some of the most poignant pop tunes around. We’ve been following this group for a few years now, but Typhoon has never done anything quite like what you can hear on its latest album, White Lighter. The songs are by far the best arranged and most compelling of the group’s nearly 10-year run.  Somehow everyone in Typhoon not only managed to fit behind the Tiny Desk, but also managed to shine in this performance.

The opening of “Young Fathers” is so distinctive, the way the chords start and then pause completely for a second before starting again. When I first heard the that opening section, I was hooked.  The drama is still here in this Tiny Desk, although it’s acoustic so a bit less so.  But the backing vocalists sound great.  The whole band is really tight and it’s impressive that a dozen or so people can be and so quiet when they need to be.   And then singing in harmony and loudly!  Mid song the sound drops out and the two women sing a quick and gentle melody. As the song gets near the end all of those clappers and singers pick up their horns and add a cool melody.

“The Lake” has a simple and beautiful melody all the way through.  I also really like the guitar’s sliding low/high “solo.”  When the vocals join in singing some ooohs, it’s quite lovely.  The end of the song slows down to some staccato horn blasts,  almost martial, which leads to a dramatic ending.

The final song is the surprisingly named “Dreams of Cannibalism.”   There’s another gentle guitar introduction with some cool drums and cymbal buildups.  Once again, there are some dramatic moments where things grow quiet and it’s just him and his guitar and then he gets to belt out the lyrics (his voice is so interesting–raspy and powerful with a slight Oregonian accent).

I’ll leave the last word for Bob: “If you’re looking for music that touches your heart, that helps you appreciate the everyday, sit back and get ready for Typhoon to carry you away.”

[READ: July 8, 2016] Chew: Volume Ten

Book Ten covers issues 46-50.  And it open with Poyo in hell.  He has everyone there running scared.  Although there is a Disclaimer: “this doesn’t happen.”

Tony is furious with Colby and refuses to work with him.  So instead he is paired up with D-Bear.  Their first assignment is to look into a destructive candy scene. A CEEOSAKARER who can turn anything with glucose and fructose into machinery.  He appears to have gone insane and destroyed a town with gummi tanks and a jaw-breaker cannon.  And his message was about the coming dominance of E.G.G.  But he proves to be under the spell of the MINTHAMPERIOR who can hypnotize with peppermint candy.

D-Bear turns out to be a surprisingly good detective, and they work well together, even taking down a VECTUCIBORUTARE who can produce a noxious eruption (A fancy-assed word for “burps”) based on the age of what he eats.  But then Tony gets news that Mason has escaped from the hospital and taken Tony’s daughter Olive and Tony’s wife Amelia with him.  That’s the last straw.

Book 3 opens with FDA director Mike Applebee and special agent Cesar Valentino returning to duty.  The doctors have each been given one mechanical enhancement.  Caesar’s is a big claw while Mike’s is more… dramatic. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SUPERCHUNK-Tiny Desk Concert #309 (October 7, 2013).

I’ve been a fan of Superchunk for years and I was excited to hear this Tiny Desk Concert.  Superchunk is a band full of manic energy.  Sorta punk, sorta poppy but mostly just fast, catchy songs.  So I was a little surprised to see them play an acoustic set for this concert.

I appreciated some context for this show from the blurb:

 The North Carolina band got its start in 1989, and here it is in 2013, with a new record called I Hate Music that demonstrates an undying passion for punk-fueled story songs with catchy phrasing. The band recorded its 10th album with a lineup that has held for most of its history: Mac McCaughan on guitar and vocals, Laura Ballance on bass, Jim Wilbur on guitar and Jon Wurster on drums.

At the Tiny Desk and on tour, it’s a shame not to have Ballance in the fold — her hearing problem worsens on tour and in loud venues — though Jason Narducy fills in admirably here. This set in the NPR Music offices includes songs from I Hate Music and 2010’s Majesty Shredding, but the group also digs deep to perform a song from 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In. All in all, it’s a joy to have Superchunk translate its electric sound to acoustic instruments in such an intimate way.

It’s fascinating to see Mac sing so close up—you’d never expect that voice to come from him.  “Out Of The Sun” is so mellow.  I have I Hate Music, but I don’t actually know the original very well.  “Digging For Something”  I know this song well. I like the original of this so much that I find the slower acoustic version a little less fun than the original rocking version.  And yet it is still supercatchy and fun.  I love that the drummer has his wallet on the drum head—muffling the snare?  “Animated Airplanes Over Germany” is a great fun old song, I was really surprised when they started playing it and it sounds great regardless of the speed.  “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” is a fun catchy song from their news album and it is well served acoustically.  Although the song title is pretty odd and I never could figure it out.

I’ve never seen Superchunk live and I assume I never will, so while this is a good look at the band, it probably doesn’t really capture their full live show experience.

[READ: July 8, 2016] Chew: Volume Nine

Man do I like this series.  It is so gross and yet so compelling.  Book Nine covers issues 41-45.  And it features a lot of Poyo!

I hate reading these books so far apart because it takes me at least an issue to get up to speed and by the time I’m flowing with the story again, it ends!

Chapter 1 opens with The morning after in Las Vegas.  And as Tony Chu is being woken with news of an emergency, we see that he and Amelia are in the honeymoon suite having just gotten married.  Then we flash back to the day before at the FDA convention.  Chu is being hailed as a hero, except by Director Applebee (who still hates Chu).

And then we flash to a bar in which Tony & Amelia are drinking together and Applebee and Colby are drinking together.

Tony answers the phone and hopes to not have to go on assignment.  Why not send in Poyo! (he is on special assignment–double splash pages–vs Unisaurus Rex).

Tony is called downstairs where everyone is covered in deadly fudge.  And we meet Professor Anazani, the FDA’s lead Armavictologist–he deals with weaponized food.  But this attack is not from the egg cultists, it is from the Collector.  Tony quickly solves that case and is even more of a hero much to Applebee’s eternal consternation.  The final page ends with a hilarious surprise. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: AGNES OBEL-Tiny Desk Concert #598  (February 15, 2017).

Agnes Obel recently played a show near me, but it wasn’t until after I watched this show that I realized I should have gone to see her.

Agnes Obel, a Danish singer and writer of deeply alluring music, brought her work into what you could call its opposite — an office in the daylight. While the setting is a bit contrary to her carefully plotted, vocally dense songs, she mapped out a strategy which included her own reverb and monitor mix in the (successful, I think) hope of giving the Tiny Desk an aesthetic more suitable to these focused and powerful songs.

Obel plays three songs from Citizen of Glass alongside her band, keeping it sonically spare.  “It’s Happening Again” opens with fairly standard-sounding piano chords.  Then Obel’s voice kicks in and it’s unique–not weird, but with a cool almost detached delivery.  Accompanying her is a cellist and keyboardist.  They each sing backing vocals (along with a third backing vocalist).  When they all sing together, it is magical–sometimes creepy, sometimes beautiful.  The song builds to the end with all of the strings growing louder as the cello plays some wild, sliding sounds.  It is quite striking.

For “Golden Green,” the cellist switches to percussion (which is a kind of clacky ball that she throws in the air).  The main melody comes from the mellotron.  Once again when the backing vocalists kick, in everything is magical, especially the way the final note ends with a dramatic rise in pitch from all of the singers.

On “Stone,” the mellotron player switches to (electric) ukulele.  The melody comes from the uke and it is quite quiet until the chord when the cello and keyboard adds some deep bass notes that seem to overwhelm the room–quite dramatic and quite lovely.

[READ: December 1, 2016] Bandette Volume Three

Bandette Volume Three is just as much fun as books one and two.  It opens with Bandette getting shot at as she gives her little dog Pimento an important note for Daniel.  Daniel calls her and she proceeds to tell him about an upcoming heist (while she is still being shot at).  She says that there is a fabulous emerald on display.  An emerald that was once owned by Madame Presto: fabulist, mesmerist, woman of impudent morals.

And later that night (after she easily dispatches the bad guys) she goes to that special event and steals… a film about Madame Presto.

The next night several people (and a dog) are hit with sleeping darts from a new villain–Dart Petite. (more…)

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