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Archive for the ‘Harper’s’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: CAFÉ TACVBA-Tiny Desk Concert #794 (October 12, 2018).

Back in the 1990s I was quite the fan of Café Tacvba (I was exposed to a lot of rock en Español in the 90s and Café Tacvba stood out).

I’d never seen them and wasn’t even sure they were still together.  So it was great to see them in this Tiny Desk Concert.[“the four principal members together for almost 30 years”].  I didn’t know much about them back then (their liner notes are all in Spanish).

As usual, lead vocalist Rubén Albarrán is a captivating central presence, evoking a sense of down-home camaraderie with his ever friendly smile that has become the band’s most outward image. Having seen the band play in front of dedicated fans in massive stadiums in Mexico City, it’s striking to see his movements limited to a few careful spins and dance steps while still managing to embody the intense energy of their music.

The first song is “Olita del Altamar” (“Waves from the High Seas”) from the group’s 2012 album El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco.   Albarrán says it is “dedicated to the sacred water–not for mining, not for fracking but for humans and all living beings.”

It’s essentially an incantation of the magic that transpired during their performance behind Bob Boilen’s desk. The lyrics sing of the comings and goings of waves, symbolic of the passage of time and fueled by the Mexican folk rhythm son jarocho, a favorite of the band’s since their start almost 30 years ago.

The song has a real folk quality.  Their instruments are all acoustic (two of those tiny Mexican guitars and a full-sized guitar).  There’s a delightful solo on the melodica. Despite the song’s poppiness, at one point Albarrán begins screaming happily away from the microphone and dancing.

They then fast forward to “Diente de León” (“Dandelion”), from their 2017 album Jei Beibi. It’s a majestic, stripped-down version that puts the emphasis back on the lyric, a plea for existential and environmental harmony using the metaphor of the weedy flower.

It’s a beautiful song with Albarrán’s voice at times gruff and at times soaring.  The addition of electronic percussion is a little jarring, but it is quiet and works well with the music.

The third song is one that I knew and it was great to hear it again.  Introducing “The Flowers,” he says, “When we play this live we ask the people to raise heir hands so we can see a beautiful garden of different colors, different perfumes.  if you want you ca try it, it’s free.”

Their song “Las Flores,” from their 1994 album Re, slips into the ska groove that attracted fans to rock en Español in general and to Los Tacvbas in particular, a beat that captures the adventurous musical energy that swept all of Latin America in the early 1990s.

Clearly this energy is what swept over me in 1994.  Once again that melodica solo is delightful.  But so is everything else about this song–the guitar notes, the upright bass and of course, Albarrán’s infectious singing.

Not all bands would end their set with a power ballad, though very few bands hold their audience’s attention and dedication like Café Tacvba. But that’s just how they close their set.

“Que No” is their latest single, a pretty ballad.  Once the full band kicks in, it’s got a fun beat (that upright bass really keeps he beat).  Albarrán’s once again steals the show.

[READ: January 31, 2018] “The Death of Lazarus Averbuch”

This is an excerpt from The Lazarus Project.  It is story set in 1908 Chicago and one that I wasn’t very interested in until the very end.  Read as a short story it takes way too long to get where it is going, but as a part of a novel its a nice build up to the climactic scene.

A scrawny young man went to the house of the chief of police.  The chief’s wife told the man the chief didn’t see anyone before 9 AM.  The young man leaves and says he’ll come back.  Chicago is cold, bitter cold, and the man is sick of being so cold.  He had a nice summer here and even a  lovely autumn day in October, but he want the cold to end.

He decides to go into a grocery store because of the smell of warm bread.  The owners suspect of the man immediately–his stomach growls when he smells the fresh bread.  Meanwhile, another man walks in and has a friendly chat with the owners. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: HASSAN HAKMOUN-“Balili (My Father)” (Field Recordings, June 11, 2014).

I didn’t know Hassan Hakmoun, but he is one of many West African musicians whose music I have come to really enjoy.  I absolutely love this song.

Hassan Hakmoun’s music is very much rooted in his homeland. Born in Marrakesh, he is from the Gnawa community, whose ancestors were brought from West Africa to North Africa as slaves in the 15th and 16th centuries. Gnawan music and dance, which are central to their spiritual tradition, fuse Muslim mysticism with sub-Saharan traditions in rituals meant to heal the body and lift the soul.

This Field Recording [On a Magical Mystery Tour with Hassan Hakmoun] has a different component to it–it is (so far) unlike any other one.

When we plan Field Recordings, we usually look far and wide to find off-the-beaten-path locations for filming musicians. But a unique opportunity presented itself when a duo called Wanderlust Projects — designers of “transgressive placemaking experiences” for urban explorers, usually in abandoned or otherwise places — invited us to come along on an adventure.

Wanderlust invited a crew of intrepid New Yorkers to accompany the fabulous Moroccan musician Hassan Hakmoun and his band on a mysterious day trip. So we piled into a van with the musicians, and off we all went to points unknown. After a long morning being driven to our secret destination — with no one but the organizers knowing where we were heading — we arrived upstate at the stunning Widow Jane Mine.

Along with providing spectacular visuals, the mine proved to be an oddly fitting location for Hakmoun and his musicians. The Widow Jane is a limestone mine that once supplied cement for such landmarks as the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. Capitol. Hakmoun’s music has found its fullest flower in New York with a highly transnational lineup of nomads.

The song opens with Hakmoun playing a fast riff on his instrument.  I cannot believe that they don;t say what it is–is it homemade?  is there one string or more?  how does he get such a great sound out of fit?).

He starts playing what will be the song’s main riff–a cool fast melody with some counterpoint loud notes.  The percussionist sings along , the flutist plays a solo of sorts and then after about a minute, the drums kick in and the song just rocks.

His band includes

Percussionist Chikako Iwahori is originally from Japan; guitarist Raja Kassis hails from Beirut; flutist Bailo Bah comes from Guinea; and drummer Harvey Wirht is from Suriname.

The sound is incredible.  Whether the caves enhance the music is unclear, but it sounds wonderful there.  The song is about 8 minutes long.  There’s not a lot to it–the riff is repeated almost throughout, but there are great variations throughout. The flute solo, the guitar solo or when he starts stomping his feet on the limestone while wearing bells on his ankles–it adds a great new component to the music.

This is just fantastic.

[READ: January 19, 2018] “Sprawl”

This is an excerpt from Dutton’s novel Sprawl (getting a reprint in 2018).

It’s a little hard to tell what the novel is about from this excerpt but I loved the whole take on suburbia that the export displays.

The excerpt is full of letters, presumably written by the same person (it’s unstated).

The first one is to Mrs Barbauld and is designed as a re-orientation to the neighborhood.  It is a bit confusing so I’m moving on.

The narrator is talking to us, I suppose as if setting the ultimate example: (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BRODY DALLE-“Dressed in Dreams” (Field Recordings, July 15, 2014).

For this Field Recording [Brody Dalle: Raging Into the Light], Brody Dalle plays in an Indian Restaurant!  I fancy myself a knowledgable punk fan, but I’ve never heard of Brody or either of her bands.

Throughout her career, punk icon Brody Dalle has embraced her aggressive side. Best known as the lead singer of The Distillers and Spinnerette, Dalle has a sandpaper- and velvet-tinged voice that speaks to rebellious young punks who are curious about the world yet vulnerable to its sharp edges. “I’ve never understood why there was such a fuss about aggressive women in music,” Dalle says. “To me, aggression is a human instinct. … I’ve felt provoked for most of my life, especially as a child. I guess I’ve carried those feelings into my songs.”

So it was a pleasant surprise that Dalle was open to the challenge of crafting a stripped-down version of her song “Dressed in Dreams.” An anthem about getting back up when you’ve been kicked down, the song is personal to Dalle: After overcoming addiction, she almost immediately faced a brutal bout of postpartum depression. “I had a hard time getting myself up and running before I wrote this record,” she says. “I felt worthless. I was embarrassed and lost.”

Luckily, Dalle was able to use her songwriting as a way to fight back. Earlier this year, she released Diploid Love, her first solo album, and she says she happily embraces her day-to-day life as a working rock mom and wife. As Dalle set up her gear at New York City’s Panna II, we noticed the way the chili-pepper strands that covered every surface of the restaurant bathed her in a weirdly fierce yet serene red light. They provide a nice little visual metaphor for the way raging against the darkest points in life can help bring you into the light.

I love the fuzz she gets on an acoustic guitar.

But I have since listened to the recorded version and I like it a ton more.  The extra guitar really helps make what is an otherwise simple and repetitive song far more interesting.  Her voice also sounds a lot better on the record.

But the weirdest thing is how long this song is.  The Distillers songs were proper punk songs, last about 3 minutes or less.  This one, running over 4 doesn’t have enough variety to sustain that length.

[READ: February 5, 2018] “A Failure of Concern”

I wrote this about a Ben Marcus story published in Harper’s in 2011:

It goes on for several pages.

There is some degree of amusing shock value in the way he speaks … but as with much of what I’ve read from Marcus, I feel like I could have read half of this and gotten enough.

No explanation is given for the problem (and, fair enough, it is only an excerpt) and anyway, by the end, I didn’t really want one.

And I feel exactly the same about this story.

The nutshell story is that the narrator’s father and a lodger in their house are both missing, possibly murdered.  There is a detective there looking for clues.

The narrator is a lunatic, a mental case, and idiot, a deviant, a murderer, something, whatever.  The narrator gets common quotes and facts wrong. The narrator seemed to hate both his father and the lodger and seems likely very guilty. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SEVYN STREETER-“It Won’t Stop” (Field Recordings, August 6, 2014).

The blurb for this song totally cracks me up (especially 4 years removed) because not only did this song not seep into my collective consciousness, I’ve never heard of it. Nor have I heard of Sevyn Streeter.

Although it is funny that just last week my wife and I were utterly mocking people who name their child a number–what else did George Costanza tell them to do? And how misspelling it like this is even worse.

Anyhow, here’s the blurb:

In the spring of 2013, songwriter and R&B singer Sevyn Streeter released a song called “It Won’t Stop,” which she’s called her “baby.” Over the year and change that’s followed, the song has sunk into our collective consciousness through commercial radio play and a music video viewed more than 35 million times, and on the recommendation of a growing group of critics and fans. The lyrics are vernacular, warm, unpretentious, while the performance demanded by the music is not for the meek. Away from a studio — and air conditioning — in a New Orleans boxing gym, Streeter executed with muscle and grace.

Having mocked the blurb, the song itself is pretty.  I’ve no idea what the original sounds like, but this version is done with just two acoustic guitars–one of whom seems to be playing some bass melodies from time to time.  Streeter sings and warbles all over the song and does those R&B quivering notes that I hate, but she does have a nice voice.

But damn is this song long.  Why is a pop song five minutes long?

It’s neat that they filmed this Field Recording [Sevyn Streeter Knocks Us Out] in a boxing gym–how on earth were they able to eliminate all of the ambient noise?  It almost seems like it’s not live.

[READ: February 8, 2018] “Microstories”

This is a collection of flash fiction pieces which may or may not be connected.

Rain
Never ending rain seemed to be the truth until the day he was born.  While everyone was delighted for him that he never had to experience it, he lived with regret that he would never have the chance.

Divorce
He is dressing for his grown up daughter  What a strange thing to have to do–how infrequently he sees her, how should he look.  No idea what happened at the end of it though?  An earthquake? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CÉCILE McLORIN SALVANT-Tiny Desk Concert #790 (September 25, 2018).

The blurb talks about Cécile McLorin Salvant’s punk roots.  This made me thing that their might be some rough elements in these songs.

But these songs sound akin to old-fashioned-sounding jazz standards (even if she wrote them recently) in the vein of Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn.

The nod to punk seems to come in the vaguely erratic piano which verges on atonality at times.  And yet:

From listening to McLorin Salvant’s exquisite performance here, I also couldn’t tell that when she was 15, she was listening to Alice in Chains, sported a Mohawk and was into what she calls “radical feminist punk stuff,” as she told NPR after the performance. “Sometimes I still really like Bikini Kill, and I still have my little Pearl Jam grunge moments.”

What can be heard in each song is a seasoned jazz singer with a vast vocal range, meticulous technical execution and a superb classical vocal foundation, which actually began when she was just 8. Her background in classical piano is evident in the inventive harmonic and melodic construction of the first three songs heard here; all are romantically themed McLorin Salvant compositions from her third album, For One to Love, recorded in 2015. The record won her a 2016 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

“Fog” opens with some striking minimalist almost atonal piano playing.  The song veers through many different tones and styles throughout its five plus minutes.

About “Look At Me” she says, “This was originally called “‘Friend Zone’ which is a zone I know so well.”  The piano is delicate–twinkling–as she sings about being the friend when she wants more.

She says the next song is called “Monday,” “Lets see if I remember the lyrics.”  After introducing Foster, he comments, “I just learned this on the train here, so bear with me.”  This is notable because there is a lengthy, lovely piano instrumental part in the middle.

After a hog, Foster leaves and McLorin Salvant prepares for the last song.

McLorin Salvant closes with “Omie Wise,” an American folk song that tells the tragic story of murder victim Naomi Wise and her husband and killer, John Lewis:

Then pushed her in deep waters where he knew that she would drown
He jumped on his pony and away he did ride
The screams of little Omie went down by his side.

Feminist themes are common in McLorin Salvant’s music, and while “Omie Wise” addresses gender-based violence, she says she sings difficult songs like this to address an important historical legacy. “We don’t sing to our kids and we don’t know any of our folk music anymore,” McLorin Salvant says. “But like all of the history of race songs, coon songs, minstrel music, music from Vaudeville, all of that is like, ‘No, we’re not going to address that — that’s too ugly.'”

This song is especially powerful sung a capella and even more so when it is heard on the weekend that that piece of excrement Kavanaugh is having his Supreme Court hearings.

[READ: January 19, 2018] “Admiral”

T. Coraghessan Boyle is an incredibly prolific writer.  He writes about a huge variety of topics as well.  Some of his stories are down to earth and realistic while others, like this one, are based in a near-future fantasy.

The premise of this story is simple and not all that far-fetched (especially in 2007).  A rich couple has cloned their beloved dog, an afghan named Admiral, for $250,000.  They want to raise this dog exactly as the first Admiral was raised.  They believe in the cloning to create an identical dog, but they also believe in the nurture aspect which means they need the girl who dog-sat for him to do everything exactly as she did all those years ago.

That girl, now a woman, was recently laid off and needs some cash. So when Mrs Striker called and told her she had an opportunity, Nisha said… why not?

She returned to the house where she hadn’t been in four years but which was such a large part of her childhood. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: WILD BEASTS-A Simple Beautiful Truth” (Field Recordings, October 23, 2014).

I don’t know if there was an initial mission statement for Field Recordings, but I feel like this one fits my model of Field Recordings perfectly.  For this Field Recording [A ‘Beautiful Truth’ In A Beautiful Bar], NPR brought a band into Grand Central Station to play a song.

Of course, they can’t have the band play in the middle of Grand Central Station (well they could and that would be awesome–but not if they want a lush version of the song, which they do).  So they had them play in The Cambell Apartment, a bar tucked into Grand Central Station. What?

You can be 10 feet from The Campbell Apartment, a bar tucked into the corner of New York’s Grand Central Station, and not have any idea it’s there. The office of a member of the New York Central Railroad’s Board Of Directors in the 1920s (and later a storage closet and a jail), the room is intimate in spite of its 25-foot ceilings and the enormous leaded-glass window that faces Vanderbilt Avenue.

The band Wild Beasts does not in any way live up to their name.  There’s hardly anything wild or beastly about them.  They play a kind of new wave, almost old-time music (Roxy Music-ish): “The band’s sound — from the street-urchin-inspired lyrics of its early songs to the new-wave synths woven through its latest album, Present Tense — arrived fully intact via time machine.”

“A Simple Beautiful Truth” has a delicate synth line and loud electronic drums.  It wouldn’t make sense in Grand Central Station.  I’m not entirely sure it make seen here, but the band’s overall vibe does make sense in this old-timey bar.

[READ: October 10, 2017] “A Report on Our Recent Troubles”

This story is indeed written as a report.  The recent troubles are a euphemism for the rampant suicide that has struck a village.

But because the story is written as a report, it has a formal, detached tone that really allows for much thinking about suicide.  The suicide is so rampant that families have moved away, leaving those who remain to deal with their shattered existence.

The town was once pleasant–connected to the city and culture and yet with a rural sensibility.

They the undersigned are reluctant to look for one thing that changed everything but they can’t help but note that when Richard And Suzanne Lory killed themselves, things seemed to change.  Each in their early fifties, happily married and with lots of friends.  They killed themselves and left no note. An investigation turned up no scandal.

Two weeks later a 74-year-old retired high school math teacher killed himself.  He had been diagnosed with cancer of the liver.  This was less scandalous and almost understandable. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN-“Believe in Love” (November 6, 2014).

I had never heard of Jon Batiste and Stay Human until he became the bandleader and sidekick on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

It’s always fun to read about a famous person from before they were famous.  But this blurb doesn’t say much about him (that’s him in the yellow suit and melodica).  But the story about this Field Recording [Jon Batiste Leads A Private Street Parade Atop A Fort] was too good not lead the whole thing in.

Jon Batiste is from New Orleans, where a street parade might assemble around the corner on any given day. Evidently, he likes a good walkabout: He’s liable to lead his band at a guerrilla concert in the New York City subway, or out of a venue, or — as he did at the Newport Jazz Festival — off stage and into the audience.

After playing a set at Newport, he and the Stay Human band kept walking. They walked past the backstage trailers, through the quad stage and up onto an overgrown rampart of Fort Adams — the 190-year-old edifice that houses the festival. After a long day of travel, interviews and a headlining performance, they were there to give us a special and private encore.

The song they played, “Believe in Love” which is upbeat and pleasant.   It is a pretty New Orleans-inflected  (must be the sousaphone bass) poppy/jazzy song.  It’s a lovely understated song, with simple instrumentation: Jon Batiste, voice/melodica; Eddie Barbash, alto saxophone; Barry Stephenson, bass; Ibanda Ruhumbika, tuba; Joe Saylor, tambourine; Jamison Ross, cowbell/backing vocals.

The keyboardist and bandleader calls his portable performances “love riots”: attempts to generate instant community through music.

I love at the end, before they finish, they simply turn around and walk off (even the upright bass), still paying as the music fades from the microphone.

[READ: October 9, 2017] “The Proposition”

This story is about a successful immigrant to Toronto.  His success is more or less everything he hoped for himself, but he wishes he had just a bit more.

Roman Berman had, like many Jews, migrated to this area of Toronto and because he was successful, he was always asked for various avenues of help.  He wanted to sell his old car, but before he could, a friend called and asked if he would sell this car to Svirsky.  So he waited in his office, but of course Svirksy (who bought a lemon of a car previously) did not show at the appointed time.

Berman was sympathetic to his plight but still angered about the delay.  But he knew that when he first arrived he was also looking for help from anywhere.  He worked very hard to get hat he had–and still worked very hard–to the point of irritating the people he relied on for referrals.  But it was necessary if he wanted to provide a good life. (more…)

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