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Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: DANIEL CAESAR-Tiny Desk Concert #750 (June 4, 2018).

Boy I did not like this Tiny Desk Concert at all.  I don;t like Caesar’s voice, I don’t like his lyrics and I don’t care for the backing singers.

This would be why his three most-streamed songs have a combined 249,000,000 plays on Spotify alone.  I just do not like this kind of music.

And of course it went on for nearly 17 minutes. So I’ll let the blurb say nice things

Daniel Caesar [real name Ashton Simmonds] and his band had a clear vision for their Tiny Desk performance. While already confined to a small space, they opted to congregate at the piano, where producer and music director Matthew Burnett sat to create what feels like a fly-on-the-wall moment. We’re presented a purity that’s nearly impossible to capture on an album.

The years of training in church, fused with natural talent, is on full display. Supporting vocalists Camille Harrison, Danah Martin and Nevon Sinclair are in tow for the whole ride, providing some of the richest harmonies we’ve heard at the Tiny Desk. I found myself fixated on the playful manner in which the band members interacted with each other.

I will agree with the intimate nature of the show.  He’s leaning on the piano, largely unaware of the surroundings.  And the piano sounds good. I also won’t leave out Adrian Bent on drums.

They play three songs.

“Japanese Denim”  I hate the opening lyrics: “I don’t stand in line / I don’t pay for clothes; fuck that yeas.  But I would for you.”  Good grief.

“Get You” I like the acoustic bass by Saya Gray on this track.

“Best Part (feat. H.E.R.)” H.E.R. (Gabriella Wilson) has a nice voice and they sing well together: “You’re my water when I’m, stuck in the desert / You’re the Tylenol I take when my head hurts.”

[READ: January 12, 2017] “Seven People Dancing”

Langston Hughes died in 1967.  This story was written in 1961.  It’s fascinating how a word can change in 50 years.

The story begins by telling us that “It was Marcel’s apartment and he was a fairy.”  Given my daughter’s age and the prevalence of magic-related stories out there, and the fact that no one uses that word anymore, I certainly never thought he meant that Marcel was gay.

Also telling about the fairy: “Nobody esle was unusual in that regard.”  Also, that he had inserted a “de la” in his named Marcel de la Smith as an indication of French Creole origin.  Although he had never be to new Orleans.

So it was Marcel’s apartment and seven people were dancing–three couples and Marcel.  Six of these people were colored and one was white.  “Marcel was colored, a muddy brown and not good-looking…. His dancing was too fanciful to be masculine and too grotesque to be feminine.  But everything he did was like that, so it was very easy to tell that he was a fairy.”

Marcel gave parties to mixed couples which many places would not do.  And why?  He was an old fairy who had lost interest in uniforms.  In fact, his interest now was money. That was why he gave parties primarily for people who did not touch his heart.

A few paragraphs in and a narrator enters the story who comments “the reason I say ‘perhaps’ about the white girls is that I do not know the ultimate why of anything.”  Her name was Joan and Claude had brought her.  He had introduced her to Harlem in the first place.

Hughes has a fascinating way with words.

The other couples laughed and the laughter bounced, like very hard rubber balls, around the room, not like tennis balls but like solid hard rubber balls, and Marcel laughed, too. Marcel’s laughter was like a painter’s ground cloth that protects the furniture and anything else under a ceiling being painted.

One of the men was a very dark, very handsome hard-rubber-ball man of indefinite age, maybe young, maybe fifty, but too dark to tell. (I know that he was thirty-eight). The woman with whom he was dancing was the color of green tea in an off-white cup.

But he also repeats information a lot:

Seven people were dancing, three couples and Marcel. Midnight.

It was Marcel’s apartment, and seven people were dancing. Six were colored and one was white. Marcel himself was colored, a muddy brown and not good-looking. It was he who danced alone.

Marcel’s laughter somehow cleared the air of evil and left only the music and the seven people dancing, including himself.

Otherwise, why did the laughter ring out again, louder than the music, and bounce, like a dozen hard rubber balls, around the room after 2 a.m.,

And why did Marcel’s laughter stop being a ground cloth and start bouncing like a rubber ball, too, and a very hard one at that?

The “Oh, but” identified her as having been around at least a little in Harlem, and therefore the laughter bounced like rubber balls.

This story nears its end with the dark man saying how much he wanted to dance with the white woman.  And then there’s this paragraph which I don’t understand at all.

It was a Dizzy Gillespie record, and what it said without words summed up the situation pretty well. It was not that room but the world in that room that was in the record. The music was uranium, and those seven people, had they been super-duper spies, could not have known more about atomic energy—that is, its reason for being a mighty way of dying, “Oh, but I do” being a component.

Being fifty years old and startlingly out of date, this story was hard for me to parse.  Surely the mixture of dark and white people and a gay man must speak to something–I love how progressive it is.  But why the repeated rubber balls and why keep telling us it was seven people?  This was a short piece and there was so much was repeated.

The ending was comical but serious and again, it seemed really spare.

I’m not really familiar with Hughes, so I can’t even say anything by comparison to his other work.

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SOUNDTRACK BELA FLECK & ABIGAIL WASHBURN-Tiny Desk Concert #741 (May 11, 2018).

I know and like Bela Fleck.  I know and like Abigail Washburn.  I had no idea they were married.

A very pregnant Abigail Washburn points to Bela Fleck at the Tiny Desk and says “and just so you know, this is his fault.” I won’t spoil the video by telling you his response.

Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn are two American musical treasures. This husband-and-wife banjo duo write original tunes steeped in the roots of folk music. Their playing is sweetly paced with melodies interweaving through their intricate, percussive picking all while Abigail soars above it all with her discerning, yearning voice.

I also had no idea how political they are.

Their first tune, “Over the Divide,” was written at the height of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. They’d read a story about a Jewish, yodeling, Austrian sheep herder who helped Syrians out of Hungary, through the backroads that likely only sheep herders know.

Lyrical content aside, the music is just stunning.  The banjo is oft-mocked for its twang, but these two play such beautiful intertwining lines, it is just magical.   The opening melody is just jaw-droppingly lovely.

They each switch banjos to rather different-looking ones–deeper more resonating sounds

The second tune, “Bloomin’ Rose,” is a response to Standing Rock and the Dakota pipeline that is seen as a threat to water and ancient burial grounds. The intensity and thoughtfulness in Bela Fleck’s and Abigail Washburn’s music is why it will shine for a good long while, the way great folk tunes stay relevant over the ages.

But Abigail isn’t just banjo and vocals,

For the third tune, Abigail waddled over to a clogging board. And before she began her rhythmic patter, told us all that “my doctor said that what I’m about to do is ok! I have compression belts and tights on that you can’t see.” [Bela: so do I].  They then launched into “Take Me To Harlan,” another one of their songs from their 2017 album Echo In The Valley.

She says that they met at a square dance in Nashville, and she loves dancing and movement.  Bela plays and Abigail sings and taps for this jazzy number.  The middle of the song features a call and response with Bela on banjo and Abigail tapping [“Eight month?  No problem.”].

For the final song, “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Abigail says it’s usually done in a perky bluegrass country style but they listened to the lyrics and decided it was not perky at all.  So they turned it into a different thing.  It’s a somber song with Bela on a relatively slow banjo (with a slide that he sneaks on near the end) and Abigail singing mournfully (she can really belt out a tune).

Although as Steve Martin pointed out, with a banjo almost everything is upbeat.

The parties at their house must be a hoot.

[READ: January 21, 2018] “Active Metaphors” and “Death By Icicle”

“Active Metaphors” is one of Saunders’ funniest pieces that I’ve read.  And whats strange about that is that it was an essay published in the Guardian newspaper.

There are two headings: “Realistic Fiction” and “Experimental Fiction”

“Realistic Fiction” begins with the narrator in a biker bar.  He overheard two bikers, Duke and StudAss discussing these two types of fiction. –they’d purchased their “hogs” with royalties from their co-written book Feminine Desire in Jane Austen.  There was some verbal sparring during which they threw Saunders out a window “while asking questions about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fallen American utopia.”

The narrator explained his theory of realism to them–everything happens the way it actually would and then suggests that maybe a central metaphor would help define things.  There’s an impotent farmer and every time he walks past the field, the corn droops.  An active metaphor like this helps the reader sense the deeper meaning of the story.

As they ride off with him on their hog, the bikers use some great professorial language–the end is hilarious. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SUPERORGANISM-Tiny Desk Concert #735 (April 25, 2018).

Superorganism came out of nowhere with the weird song “Something for Your M.I.N.D.” a weird hybrid of pretty much every genre.  Is was catchy and irritating at the same time.

I didn’t really think too much of them until I started hearing a but more about them.  And that their show at a small club in Philly sold out really quickly.  Then I learned more about the band and saw a live video performance and they seemed really interesting.

Are they a novelty band?  Sure.  But they are having a lot of fun, and that goes a long way with me.  Especially if the songs are catchy.

Why does it take 7 people to make simple, catchy pop songs?  I have no idea.  But they all seem to be important in their own way.

The multinational band of theatrically fun and talented musicians in Superorganism mix melody and mischievous with almost Seussian folly. In addition to the 20-plus inflatable whales they provided, the band requested via email that we provide “7 x Crunchy apples, 7 x cans of Coca Cola (or similar, as long as they are 330mls/12oz cans it doesn’t matter).” They added, “PLEASE NOTE THIS IS NOT A RIDER BUT PART OF THE PERFORMANCE.”

When the seven members of the band arrived and huddled behind my desk, they blew into straws, making percussive noises, used toy cars and radios for sound effects and added lots of handclaps. And in the midst of it all was Orono Noguchi, a small-framed, self-described “average 17-year old Japanese girl living in Maine.” (That’s from an email she wrote me last year). The band set up a couple of belt pack guitar amps for their Moog and electric guitar, along with a big Anvil road case to beat on for percussion – and then they sang about prawns.

The first song “The Prawn Song” really shows everything you need to know about the band (and whether they are for you or not).  Noguchi sits, sing/speaking deadpan lyrics.  The other six splash in buckets of water, blow bubbles in glasses, honk horns and clap a lot.  There’s also a lot of backing vocals.  And a guitar.  And the word?

“Oh, have you ever seen the prawn cause a world war?
Have you ever kissed a prawn; got a cold sore?
Have you ever seen a prawn kick off?
Have you ever seen a prawn in a pair of handcuffs, oh

You people make the same mistakes
Over and over, it’s really kinda dumb, oh
Slow learning is kinda your thing

You do you, I’ll do me / Chillin’ at the bottom of the sea and I say…

[Chorus]  I’m happy just being a prawn.

“Night Time” has a bit more “music” and fewer  effects (relatively), but still a lot of handclaps.  It’s catchy and quieter than their usual frenetic songs (being about nigh time).  But there’s still some fun quirk in it (especially the end).

Then they play “Something for Your M.I.N.D.” (and not their new single “Everybody Wants to Be Famous,” which surprised me).  There’s a Beck’s “Loser” aspect to the lyrics of this song.  Once again for a seven piece band, their music is surprisingly minimal.

And they do actually use the apples in this song.

There is much fun to be had with all the songs and I can’t decide if Noguchi’s deadpan makes things even more fun or if I just want to assure her that it’s all okay.

I bought tickets to an upcoming show of theirs because who even knows if they’ll be around in a year, so enjoy them while I can.

[READ: April 25, 2018] “Treatments”

I often feel like Robert Coover’s writing consists of him getting an idea, writing it down as it comes to him, editing it for spelling and then releasing it.

This is actually three short pieces here and each one is a “treatment” for a terrible/absurdist take on a clichéd movie.

“Dark Spirit” is a surrealist twist on the Beauty and the Beast Tale.  I love when Coover puts in a nugget that makes you go, woah!, like “The industry is obsessed with this hackneyed tale, once inflicted upon young virgins to prepare them for marriage to feeble old buzzards with money.”  Woah, that blew my mind.  It seems so obviously true, and yet I never heard it put that way before. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DAN AUERBACH-Tiny Desk Concert #726 (April 4, 2018).

Everybody loves Dan Auerbach, but I’m just lukewarm on him.  I could never get into The Black Keys and the Arcs were okay.  I will say that I absolutely love the final song they play here today and didn’t realize it was him.  But I think I dislike the style of music he makes not the quality of the songs.

Dan brings his Easy Eye Sound Revue to the Tiny Desk. It’s an abundance of gifted musicians who have all played with a long, long list of legends, including Elvis, Don Williams and John Prine. …  The small band for this stripped-down version of the “Revue” is fleshed with Dante Schwebel on guitar and Russ Pahl’s resonator guitar sounds.

Midway through the four-song set (that includes tunes from his 2017 album Waiting on a Song), Dan introduces a powerhouse: the seasoned but relatively unknown blues-and-soul singer Robert Finley. The husky voiced gentleman, with a giant smile and magical charisma, is heart-winning and heart-warming. It’s remarkable that this legally blind singer is only now getting the attention he deserves….  Robert Finley and Dan Auerbach released [an album] at the end of 2017 called Goin’ Platinum.

In the recent Tiny Desk Concert from fellow Nashville musician John Prine, [he told a tale] of writing songs with Pat McLaughlin in the morning, going to town for some meatloaf and then recording the song by day’s end. Well that’s Pat on the mandolin here in this Tiny Desk set. His playing is both astonishing and low-key.

The Review plays four songs

“Waiting On a Song” is a folk song with a country feel and a slide guitar solo on that resonator guitar.

“Never In My Wildest Dreams” feels like an old cowboy song complete with what is almost cowboy yodelling from Schwebel.

“Get It While You Can” features Robert Finley on vocals.  It is the traditional song and Finley does a great job, singing with gusto and making clear some lyrics that I never heard before.  His voice is pretty great too.

“Shine On Me”  This song is irresistible even if it sounds exactly like a Travelling Wilbury song.

It’s just a matter of time before he hits on a genre that I really like, I’m sure.

[READ: January 5, 2018] Haynes Explains Americans

This book came across my desk and it looked pretty funny.

There was no author name on the cover, but inside it mentions that it is written by Boris Starling.  I’d never heard of him, but I looked him up and found that he has written seven crime novels and that his first, Messiah, was notable for its fast pace and high levels of gore.  He has written a bunch of other stuff too, including several (at least 12) of the popular ‘Haynes Explains’ series of tongue-in-cheek mini-manuals.

So this is written as a manual (based on a stripdown and rebuild).

It is written very much like a car manual: “the aim of this manual is to help you get the best value from the American.”  It includes lots of pictures of car parts with labels for other things.  It’s a good mockery of the manuals .

Normally I enjoy a good mockery of Americanisms.  We are ripe for parody.  But this book feels just too easy. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KATIE VON SCHLEICHER-“Mary” NPR’S SOUTH X LULLABY (March 29, 2018).

I had never heard of Katie Von Schleicher.  I don’t know what the rest of her music sounds like.  But this ballad sounded a lot like Cowboy Junkies.

This is a pretty, sad song.  her voice is lovely, but the thing that I enjoyed the most was watching her guitarist Adam Brisbin play high notes and then a cool tumbling style of playing low notes.

This was recorded at the Spire Studio Tour Bus (basically a camper trailer, parked on Cheer Up Charlie’s lot, with brilliant recording gear, amps guitars) It’s the quietest song from Katie Von Schleicher’s magnificent 2017 album, Shitty Hits.

Katie Von Schleicher wrote to me just after this filming to tell me more about “Mary.” “I’ve been teaching a songwriting class and it’s funny now to break these things down into craft and intention,” she says via email, “but I do feel that writing to a person’s name is a really tender practice, one that can unlock kindness and a conversational tone. If speaking to a part of yourself, personifying it, singing warmly, you can spare your faults and self-criticisms by speaking as if to another person [and] maybe even take your own advice. As much as they’re personal, I’m also trying to get close to some of my favorite things, which also include Randy Newman’s ‘Marie’ and Raymond Carver’s short stories (so full of conversation). For me, ‘Mary’ is a place and time rather than a person, childhood and youth and the strange space I’ve found in going back to the house where I grew up in Maryland to make records now.”

[READ: March 28, 2018] “The Intermediate Class”

I really enjoyed the way this story used the set up of the foreign language class as a way to explore feelings and sentiments that are too hard to express.

Kiril’s mother wondered why he would want to take a German class now, why spend his time with “lazy old American housewives.”  His mother didn’t approve of his taking German back in college either.  He majored in computer science and had no time to waste.  Plus, he was a native English speaker (unlike her who was til trying to learn it).

Kiril has shown up to the Intermediate German class a little late, but the class was welcoming.  There were four people in the room: a woman with an Afro, Wanda; a pale thin woman, Morgan; a Latino man, Alejandro; a sunburned, angry white man, Arthur.  There was piano playing from behind a wall in the class.   It stopped and a man and a young woman came out.  The woman was Claire, a student in the class.  The man was the teacher.

He said he would ring a bell and they would only speak in German afterward.  When the bell rang the atmosphere changed.  (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RED BARAAT-Bhangra Pirates (2017).

Although Red Baraat’s first two albums were good, this one leaps beyond the other two.  Perhaps its the addition of the guitar–bringing a(nother) new element to their sound.  Or perhaps it’s that the whole thing just sounds so much bigger.  Half of the songs were recorded live at KEXP which might explain the fresh (and live) sound.

And as one review puts it

Clearer production makes it easier for each of Red Baraat’s chosen musical styles to stand out as they blend together. Jazz, funk, and rock and roll all play important parts on Bhangra Pirates, and it’s clear early on the album, even to newcomers, that Red Baraat is less about sticking to a genre than to doing what makes the whole band – and the whole audience — have a genuinely great time.

It’s here in their discography that I get a little confused.  Before this album, they put out an album called Gaadi of Truth which features about half of the same songs as this one.  There’s also something called Big Talk which seems to be a remix album of sorts.  Talk  is available from their bandcamp site but Gaadi is not (although it did get full on reviews when it came out).

There’s a tremendous riff that opens “Horizon Line” and the moody guitar drones really balance it out nicely.  Plus the dhol and the rest of the percussion sounds really clear–much more obvious than on the past two records.

“Zindabad” opens with a Middle Eastern guitar riff .  After a horn fueled intro the main riff kicks in.  And then the vocals come in.  No idea what they’re singing about and that’s all the better–it’s fun to chant along.  The riff after the first verse is another great brassy one.

There’s some big guitars that open “Banghra Pirates,” and once the song starts the vocals come in.  There’s lots of get your body moving sentiment and then some other words which who knows what they are, but rhythmically they’re great.   The middle has a great heavy almost metal chugging of chords for a nice slow down before the party starts again.

“Tunak Tunak Tun” is a song they recorded on their debut album.  It’s even better here.  It’s a cover of a song made popular worldwide by Daler Mehndi (and how much fun is the original).  “Rang Barse” opens with what sounds like a sitar although it’s not listed in the instruments.  “Bhangale” features guitars from  Delicate Steve.  There’s some great chanting up front that sounds like “Bhangale ooch oolay wah wah wah.”

“Gaadi of Truth” opens with a big guitar and some very cool effects (particularity on the sousaphone which has a cool underwater sound).  The middle has some interjections: “horn please” bwaaaaaaaah  “horn please” bwaaaaaaah.  There’s a pretty wild and noisy guitar solo too.

“Se Hace Camino” adds Spanish/Latin music to their reprtoire.  The song is sung in Spanish and English: “we make the road by walking.”  “Akhiyan Udeek Diyan”  goes through many different sounds and styles over its 6 minutes, ultimately with a fast rollicking pace before ending.

“Layers” ends the dis with an upbeat almost poppy instrumental.  It’s sweet with a kind of call and answer from the horns.  It’s a delightful ending to a party disc.

The lineup is largely the same, although they’ve added the guitarist and have changed a few members:

Sunny Jain – dhol & effects/vocals; Rohin Khemani – percussion; Sonny Singh – trumpet/vocals; Ernest Stuart – trombone; Jonathan Goldberger – guitar (all tracks except 5,10); Delicate Steve – guitar (track 5); MiWi La Lupa – bass trumpet/vocals (tracks 3,5,6,8-10); Chris Eddleton – drumset (tracks 1,2,4,7); Tomas Fujiwara – drumset (tracks 3,5,6,8-10); John Altieri – sousaphone & effects (tracks 3,5,6,8-10); Jon Lampley – sousaphone & effects (tracks 1,2,4,7); Jonathon Haffner – soprano saxophone (tracks 1,2,4,7) / alto saxophone (tracks 3,5,6,8-10); Mike Bomwell – soprano saxophone (tracks 3,5,6,8-10) / baritone saxophone (tracks 3,10);  not on this recording: Arun Luthra – soprano sax ;   Smoota – trombone.

[READ: March 6, 2018] “The Poltroon Husband”

I tend to like Joseph O’Neill stories–there’s usually something in the style and the structure that is pretty enjoyable.

And that was true for this one.  I wasn’t blown away, but I really enjoyed it and there were some parts that I enjoyed a lot.

A man and his wife move from Phoenix to Flagstaff.  They build a house there from shipping containers (I love that details and I’d love to see what it looks like). He tells his wife that it is going to be their “final abode.”  Jayne doesn’t like this designation.  But he defended the merits of the phrase with “an argument from reality.” Jayne said he was using “an argument from being really annoying.”

He says that abode means a residence, of course, but it comes from an Old English verb which means To wait.  Abide comes from the same root.

One night they are in bed and Jayne hears a noise.  They listen, hear a few more noises and what sounds like a cough  However, “although the house has two stories and numerous dedicates zones…only the bathrooms are rooms.  Otherwise the house comprises a single acoustical unit.  Often a noise made in one zone will sound as if it emanated from another.” (more…)

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McSweeney’s 49: Cover Stories: Contemporary writers reimagining classic tales (2017)

SOUNDTRACKBIG K.R.I.T.-Tiny Desk Concert #714 (March 5, 2018).

A while back I downloaded one of Big K.R.I.T.’s mixtapes and rather liked it.  Since then he seems to have become pretty huge and I feel like he has really expanded on his style.

K.R.I.T. sings/raps three songs from his new album.

4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, a double album in which he covers everything from blessings to depression while plumbing the carnal and spiritual depths of his own duality. All three songs performed here come from side two, titled after his birth name Justin Scott.

The first song “Mixed Messages” is really thoughtful.  He sings and raps

I gotta whole lotta mixed messages / in my songs am I wrong / to feel this way
I got me a lover but I still wanna cheat / I wanna be saved but its fuck the police
i never really liked the fake shit / but I’m attracted to the fake ass and fake tits
i really wanna sing but id better rap

K.R.I.T.’s backing band, which includes Burniss Travis II on bass and Justin Tyson on drums, also features on keys Bryan Michael Cox — the hitmaking producer and songwriter behind a slew of Billboard chart-toppers. Together, the trio delivers stripped-down versions of the latest thought-provoking material in Big K.R.I.T.’s catalog.

Introducing the second song, “Keep The Devil Off” he says his grandmother introduced him to gospel.  She brought him to church and “she would wake me up when i fell asleep saying wake up you gotta hear this.”  He sings beautifully.  And then the rapped verses are really well structured.

And when he stops to pay homage to his church-going grandmother before performing “Keep The Devil Off,” it’s clear that everything she instilled in him is keeping him alive, too.

Definitely in these times we need to keep the negativity away–keep the devil off.

His grandmother was clearly very important to him.

Big K.R.I.T. has kept her spirit alive through his music since his breakout mixtape, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, which he released in 2010, the same year she died.  So it only makes sense that he would bring her with him for his Tiny Desk concert.

Halfway through his three-song set at NPR Music headquarters, K.R.I.T. stops to pull out an old-school tape recorder — the same one his grandmother would use to record him singing and reciting poetry as a child. “I have to feel like my grandmother was my first mix engineer,” he says before pressing play to reveal him and his brother as kids singing a duet of R&B crooner Donell Jones’ 1999 slow burner, “Where I Wanna Be.”

He plays the tape and cracks up listening to it.  He gets the audience to sing the refrain with his younger sell.  And then his grandmother introduces he and his brother as an R&B singer, “but I’m sticking with the rap thing.”

It’s a sublime interlude — one that resonated so strongly with K.R.I.T. that he had to start his last song, “Bury Me In Gold,” over to catch the proper beat. “I’m super emotional from this, too,” he says, laughing in a moment so genuine it was only right to leave it unedited.

He says “Bury Me in Gold” is not about gold really, it’s about having something so that in the event he gets to heaven he’ll give everything away.

He tells us to remember that peace of mind and your soul are more important than gold.

I’ve always enjoyed thought provoking rap and K.R.I.T.’s lyrics combined with his voice really work wonders.

[READ: May 29, 2017] McSweeney’s 49

It has been a long time (three years or so) since the previous McSweeney’s volume.  During that silence, the publishing house went non-profit and that seems to have taken up a lot of their resources.  They even address this a bit in the interdiction to this book.

But regardless of the reasons why, it is great to have them back.

As the subtitle says, this is a book of “cover stories.” What that means is a little vague–the contemporary writers model their story after a classic story.  I try to compare it to music covers, although in music covers the music and words are typically the same with some kind of variations.  Typically, the words are the same but the music is different.  I liked to flip this idea on its head for describing these stories in that the words are different by the music is the same.

Since I don’t know most of the original stories here I don’t know how similar these are to the originals–same character names?  Same ideas?  Same plot?  I don’t know.  And perhaps it would affect the way I read these stories if I was familiar with theory original pieces.  But without knowing them, these just turned out to be good stories from good writers.

Interspersed between the stories were poems and, in a wonderful commentary on our current shitty president and the cowardly house of representatives who on the day I finished this voted to strip 24 million people of health care, are comparisons of classic historical figures’ speeches with the petty garbled tweets of out current crap in chief.  Can we impeach this motherfucker already?  And send the whole lot of them to jail, please.  #ITMFA

As many McSweeney’s do, this one opens with letters.  And of course they aren’t really letters at all, even if they are addressed to McSweeney’s.  Many deal with cover songs, but a few are much more serious, political and right on.

WAJAHAT ALI writes from Camp FDR in Washington DC where he and his fellow prisoners were finally able to cobble together WiFi.  Ali explains that the Executive Order was inevitable the ban, the vetting, the registry were all just prelude. The need to protect against terrorism outweighs the individual rights and the rights of American Muslims…read the Supreme Court decision.

NICK JAINA writes about the Sept 23, 1970 episode of The Johnny Cash Show in which Ray Charles appears and plays “Walk the Line” and then “Ring of Fire.”  The letter states that the creator of “Ring of Fire” is actually mis-attributed.  The story is that June Carter wrote it after seeing a page in her uncle’s book of Elizabethan poetry.  But Johnny first wife claims that Johnny wrote it while drunk about a certain female body part: “all those years of her claiming she wrote it and she probably never knew what the song was really about.”  Then it reverts back to Ray Charles’ performance with an unseen band playing behind him–especially a great baseline–and as the song ends he lets out one last shudder and cackle like he just invented the orgasm.  “Johnny returns to the stage looking like a man who just watched someone have sex with his wife but was so in awe of how good he was at it that he could only thank him.”

ROBIN TERRELL talks about trumpmania in the Czech Republic from the perspective of a black woman, lesbian, child of civil rights activists, mother of a black man living in Prague.  The look in the eyes of people after the election: The U.S. is going to fuck us over again.  It stunned Europeans that the U.S. could generate someone fouler than Europe’s own crop of white male extremists.  She is now a refugee from her own country.  #RESIST #ITMFA

KIMBERLY HARRINGTON says she always believed that even in the darkest times humor has its place.  But lately she’s been bursting into tears rather than cracking a smile.  She hopes she can find things to laugh at–even death in these horrible times.

MARY MILLER says that for the longest time she thought her uncles wrote “Stagger Lee.”  Her uncles were musicians who wrote songs but also threw some covers into their shows.  She believed that “Stagger Lee” was one of theirs. She realizes that they are not famous and that no one will remember them–but she promises them that she will remember them.

RICK MOODY writes at length about Elektra’s 1990 tribute album Rubaiyat: Elektra’s 40th Anniversary.  I remember it coming out and I remember not getting it because it was too expensive. But Moody talks about what a great conceit this collection was to have contemporary artists cover classic songs.  He also talks about how the tribute album was quite popular in the 1990s (was it ever).  Some thought: He loves Bjork, but he thinks of the Sugarcubes as a cheeseball imitation of the B-52s (and that their “Motorcycle Mama” is pretty bad.  He mentions a few great tracks, like Kronos Quartet covering “Marquee Moon,” Metallica doing “Stone Cold Crazy,” and even a Howard Jones cover of “Road to Cairo” by the cult hero David Ackles.   But he says fully half of the collection is bad, some of it even awful–not worth its list price at the time but it has a great number of masterpieces on it.

Will Buttler (from Arcade Fire) wishes to make some amusing corrections: some errors during concerts, and apologizing for singing “I’m So Bored” with the USA because he is not.

ARIEL S. WINTER-This is an interesting philosophical question wondering whether or not Marty McFly actually created “Johnny B. Goode.”  How could he cover it before Chuck Berry had released the original.  As a child this blew her mind.  This facile beginning then goes on to say that before recorded music the notion of a cover didn’t really exist.  And indeed in the 1950s people recorded songs without concern for copyright.  It’s also true that when Chuck Berry plays Johnny B. Goode live, it’s not considered a cover of his original.  She concludes by that the Back to the Future is probably the first time she ever heard Johnny B. Goode.  So Marty McFly’s is the original to her (as it is to all the kids at the dance).  So in addition to a song having an original for the performer there is also an original for the listener.  Anyone who has loved a song for years before finding out that it’s a cover has had that experience.

INTRODUCTION BY THE EDITORS

This introduction talks about how the first time they did a “cover story” was in 1999 in issue 4.  Rick Moody covered Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg.”  They had been planning to do an entire issue of covers as far back as two years ago and then things happened in the McSweeney’s universe to delay it.  And now : this issue is being born in a moment of racial, social and economic reckoning and imminent fascism…into a country that looks much different from the one in which it began, fronted now by a mean and disingenuous imitation of a president.   As such: Tucked between these thirteen beautiful renditions of thirteen classic stories are instances when a cover is not an homage but rather a perversion of its predecessor”  And by that they offer examples of eloquent speeches by former leaders and then tweets from our pervert in chief.

GARY BURDEN-excerpt from Nobody Knows (an autobiography)

Gary Burden created the cover images for this issue.  I had no idea who he was, but this autobiography tells me just how interesting a fellow he was.  He has been responsible for some of the most iconic album covers of the last 60 years!

These excerpt shows his origin story–he was 8 on December 7, 1941 and he has had vivid memories of WWII.  When he was 16 he joined the Marines.  But he was restless, got involved in bad things, was dishonorably discharged and got mixed up with even worse people (he says he can’t believe the things he did back then).  In 1964 he met “Mama” Cass Elliot. They spent a lot of time together and this opened him up to meeting all kinds of people: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash.  Eventually he met and hung out with Jim Morrison and designed Morrison Hotel (a fascinating story that).  In one of the nicer things I’ve heard someone say he says that Jim was a real poet, someone who was unafraid of delving deeply into life irrespective of the personal cost.  Then he met Neil Young. He says that Buffalo Springfield has been his favorite band and then one day Neil came to Mama Cass’ house in his 1948 Buick Hearse.  He was also hanging around when CSN decided to become CSN&Y and then he and Neil became friends. and Neil sold him his house in Topanga.  Eventually he made the cover art for After the Gold Rush (and he gives a little story about the old lady there on the cover).  I’m kind of curious to read this whole book now, especially if it includes album covers.

EMILY RABOTEAU-“The Babysitter” after “Some Women” by Alice Munro
This is the story of a babysitter for Mrs Fagan.  She is a young girl and her employer is very rich and locally famous.  And quite eccentric (she went to East Africa and allegedly witness the Ark of the Covenant and then wrote a controversial book about it).  But in their town she was known as the white lady with black kids (Maya 3, Eddie 10 months old).  The story reflects back on the babysitter as child (she is now the same age as Mrs Fagan was when the babysitting began.  The babysitter’s mother is kind of jerk and is very sarcastic about this babysitting arrangement.  She is also a very strict Jehovah’s Witness, so when the narrator gets her first period rather than tell her mom, she just takes products from Mrs Fagan.  As the story opens Mrs Fagan’s son has just arrived and that changes the dynamic in the house.  How will Mrs Fagan take it when the narrator accidentally sets fire to the kitchen? I really enjoyed the way the end of the story plays on the notions of memories and the impact people have on others.

MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN-“The Lottery, Redux” after “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” seems like a pretty easy story to cover–I think everyone knows everything about it and it has been covered in things like The Hunger Games in their own ways.  I don’t know if this story references the original (with the redux),  for this story the people of the island of Timothy were exiled from America fifty years earlier for crimes against the environment.  They were gathering on July 27th, the day of the lottery.  And indeed the lottery is a death sentence, although it’s not entirely clear why.  Interestingly, the story is more about the girl chosen and what her life up to that point has been like.

ANTHONY MARRA-“The Tell-Tale Heart” after “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
This story doesn’t diverge all that much from the original except for the wonderful modern twist on the beating heart.  It’s hard to say more without giving things away but I loved the modernization.

JESS WALTER-“Falling Faintly” after “The Dead” by James Joyce
I didn’t know all that many stories before hand, but I knew this one very well and this is wonderful homage.  It is not in any way rewriting the story–it’s a very different story, but it alludes to the Joyce story and directly mentions it and it is quite clear where the connection between them is.
Michael is a writer.  He is married with kids but has moved temporarily out to New York to write for this new police procedural.  The show is doing well and the female star is quite beautiful.  They bond over cigarettes–she is foreign and smokes like a European, he recently started again.  As stories like this tend to go, Micheal gets the wrong idea about this young, hot actress.  And given that she is not American she misunderstands the subtleties of his behavior (which isn’t very subtle admittedly).  But he wants her to know that his story is a tribute to Joyce’s “The Dead.”  When he talks about the dead she thinks he means real dead people and is pretty freaked out.  This leads to a restraining order and a police intervention–not how he thought his life in New York would go.  What doe sit have to do with “The Dead”?  Well they are standing smoking in the snow as it gently floats to the ground falling through the universe, faintly falling.

LAUREN GROFF-“Once” after “Wants” by Grace Paley
I loved the way this story started.  I saw my enemy at the beach.  With that as a groundwork we slowly learn just how this woman has an enemy (it’s an old boyfriend’s mother) and how they have grudgingly begun to respect each other decades after the two broke up. I really enjoyed this short piece.

ROXANE GAY-“Men on Bikes” after “Rape Fantasies” by Margaret Atwood
I can’t imagine what the original of this story is.  The actual story of this is pretty peculiar itself.  Basically, the men in town have all started riding bicycles everywhere.  It started when one of them was arrested for drunk driving.  He didn’t lose his license but his wife took it away from him.  He dug out a bike and began riding it.  She thought he looked ridiculous, but when another man had his license taken away, they began riding together.  It was quite a sight, although I’m not sure what the point of it was.

NAMWALI SERPELL-“Company” after “Company” by Samuel Beckett
I like Beckett, and I know that he can be confusing.  I don’t know what “Company” is about so I have no idea how it relates to it, but man I did not get this at all.

It was confusing and really long.  It is broken into many small sections which might be connected.  The first is about the brightening which happened although many people missed it. Then we learn about the ship which is electro epidermal, which is cool but not really explained  and then the story turns into a quest for melanin and just when you think it’s a sci-fi story, it becomes a story about race.  There is a pale man tied to a tree hitting a sack (pound pound).  There’s a lot of vomit.  If the white man inseminates even one person, finding pure stem cells is impossible.  Dark skin marked you as  lucky when the darkening came.  But then she says the mission is over.  There’s more vomiting.  A fellow is supposed to be invisible in the village but Pound sees him.  There’s more vomit, a section titled rape, where Pound rapes Lila every once in a while and then who the hell knows what happens at he end.

KIESE LAYMON-“And So On” after “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
Weeks ago 64 black folks changed the world.  You are the 11th.  Aside from the direct address to the reader the story is pretty straightforward and interesting.  Chanda Stewart was 8th, the narrators research assistant was 9th and Doug E., Chandra’s boyfriend was 1st.  They are at a fancy restaurant, Chandra, the narrator and you.  She swears that Doug is a porn star, but the narrator argues that having 1089 twitter followers and awkward consensual sex with a few white women filmed on an iPhone 2 in his fake Timberlands, blue knee brace and yellow wrist bands makes you a porn participant, not a star.  The story comes down to which side the narrator is going to choose.   sides or run for our lives.  Because while they were talking, Doug E. and about sixty young black kids were marching down the street.  To the school.  They each had an ax and a shovel.

MEG WOLITZER-“If You’re Happy and You Know It” after “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” By J.D. Salinger
I haven’t read this Salinger story in a long time, so I don’t really know how it connects to this, but I really enjoyed it.  I enjoyed the way that it was written which was a little confusing but in an intriguing way.  Set in a hotel on Miami there is the young woman in 609 who arrived with her new husband.  She’d sent him off to the beach.  We see her telling her parents that he is taking it easy, but they want to know if he is taking the Klonopin.  Later that night in the lobby, a four year old girl, Chloe, is in the lobby of that hotel watching a man play piano.  The man is a guest also and he is playing and really getting into it.  Another boy asks if he can play This Old Man and the player jokes about the boy calling him old.  But Chloe asks if he can play “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”  He says he might be happy but he may not know it. She is puzzled by that.  He says she is breaking his heart.  We soon realize that the pianist is the Klonopin man, and while things don’t get dark exactly, they certainly get strange.  And Chole’s parents have foisted her off on a poor babysitter the whole time.  This was one of my favorites in the book.

T.C. BOYLE-“The Argentine Ant” after “The Argentine Ant” by Italo Calvino
I can’t imagine what the original story is like, but this one from Boyle was really icky and really fantastic.  Its’ a fairly simple premise–a family moves to a rental property in Argentina, only to find that it is swarming with ants.  The ants are everywhere–even crawling all over their baby.  They run to the next door neighbor’s house only to see that they know about the ants and might have a secret weapon.  But mostly they just seem to be putting their furniture in jugs of water–presumably as a deterrent.  There is also an Ant Man who might be fighting the ants or who might actually be bringing more.  What is great about the way Boyle writes this is that the guy renting the house is working on an academic theorem that his wife thinks is rather frivolous.  And that tension underpins everything.

ALICE SOLA KIM-“One Hour, Every Seven Years” after “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
Again I don’t know the original, but this story was great, and also weird. The weird part is that the story seems to start over multiple times. And that’s because there is a kind of time travel component to it.  The title refers to how often the sun comes out on Venus.  There is a girl, the main character, named Nargit. She was born on Earth and so she saw the sun.  The other kids are pretty angry at her for it (as if it’s her fault).  They are abusive to her, and the time travelling is the girl’s attempt to protect her younger self.  Many things go wrong but they bring about different results.

CHRIS ABANI-“Sleepy” after “Sleepy” by Anton Chekhov
This story was pretty horrific.  Kemi, a sixteen year old black girl who is now an orphan is working for a white family.  The family has two little children, one of whom is a baby.   The family is horrible to Kemi.  Pretty unrelentingly horrible.  Kemi is tired and never gets a break and the baby cries all the time.  She can’t soothe the baby and the family blames her for her failures.  Her exhaustion builds and builds until you pretty much know the ending several pages before it happens.

TOM DRURY-“The Yellow Wallpaper” after “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I know the original story although not super well.  But this version feels almost exactly the same. I honestly can’t tell what the difference is (without having re-read the original again to compare).   Jane and John are renting a place on an island for the summer.  John thinks Jane is not strong and keeps her hidden away in a room with yellow wallpaper.  He more or less runs everything in her life until she starts seeing people through the wallpaper.  You know things can’t go well from there.

POETRY:

REBECCA LINDENBERG-“Having a Coke with You” after “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara

MATTHEW ZAPRUDER-“Poem for Keats” after “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

STEPHEN BURT-“A Nickel on Top of a Penny” after “Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca” by César Vallejo

BRIAN TURNER-“The Metaphor Program” after “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

STEPHEN BURT-“Roofers” after “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop

MATTHEW ZAPRUDER-“Poem on the Occasion of a Weekly Staff Meeting” [the first two lines are taken from “A Poem on the Occasion of the Consecration of Sandford and Shippon Churches” by Rev. F. Wilson Kittermaster, 1855]

STEPHEN BURT-“Suspense” after “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane

KEVIN MOFFETT-“Second Wonder”-a monologue that will air on The Organist.
I found this puzzling at best.

PATTY YUMI COTTRELL-excerpt from Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
I read this book not too long ago.
This except was about two young children who invented a game called “Confession” in which the boy confesses his real or imagined sins to his sister.

~~~~~

The comparison quotes are called Great Speeches from History vs. the Tweets of Donald J. Trump:  I can’t bring myself to write any of the jerks tweets.

Mahatma Gandhi from the “Quit India” speech, 1942 vs. a Feb 4 2017 tweet

Abraham Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address” 1863 vs. a Feb 18 217 tweet (about fake news)

Martin Luther King Jr from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” vs. Feb 21 2017 (crowds planted by liberal activists)

Frederick Douglass from “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” 1852 vs. Feb 6 2017 (negative polls are fake news).

Franklin D. Roosevelt, inauguration speech 1933 vs. Jan 22, 2017 (including all my enemies)

 

The bad thing about this issue is that the last four or five stories were all real downers, making it a pretty tough slog.  But I loved the idea, and I liked that they found the time and space to point out how stupid trump sounds and looks and is.

For ease of searching, I include: Cesar Vallejo

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