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SOUNDTRACK: LILA DOWNS-Tiny Desk Concert #590 (January 13, 2017).

This is yet another example of musicians, artists who are bridging the divide that certain politicians have been trying to wedge int our country.  Between the translated works of Zambra and the multilingual works of Lila Downs, it’s pretty obvious that cultural racism is just stupid.  #ITMFA

The blurb tells us

Downs has spent her career exploring the furthest reaches of Mexican folk music. With a voice that borrows heavily from opera, Downs performs the kind of full-throated mariachi singing that would fit right in at Mexico City’s Garibaldi Square — ground zero for mariachi.

She can also coax the most tender moments from romantic boleros. But Downs is at her best when she and her band gather all of those influences to create cross-cultural expression that breaks down musical barriers. Entertaining and inspiring, she’s as much a storyteller as a singer, and her between-song banter lays bare the Mexican soul, only to have it punctuated in song.

She plays four songs and dedicates the first “Humito De Copal” to “all the journalists in the line of fire.”

Even though this song has many components of traditional Mexican folk, the size of the bad (nine pieces) and the big sound she creates transcends folk and makes it sound really catchy for all.  I love it when midway through, the song takes off in a fun fast dancing section

She is really striking and her voice is amazing.  She’s also playing a cool scratchy/grater item.

“La Promesa” comes from a series of song about he ritual and the offering of the Day of the Dead.  She asks, “what does the homeland mean to us as Latin Americans as Mexicans and as Mexican Americans. It begins with a great electric guitar sound and cool organ accompaniment.  And then she sings in quite a low voice holding notes for amazingly long (about 18 seconds).  It turns into a bluesy song with a lengthy bluesy guitar solo.

The third song, “Viene La Muerte Echando Rasero” was written by a campesino, a farm worker, about rich and poor and young and old being taken by death.  He says “even hit men are going to die.”  She switches to a jarana, a small eight-stringed guitar-like instrument.  After a slow intro the song picks up a bit with a kind of reggae feel.  There’s already a big echo on the mic already but in the middle she cups her hands and gives the whole sound a much bigger echo.  It has a catchy ending with everyone singing along.

She introduces the final song, “La Patria Madrina” by saying “In Mexico, you wake up and put on the news and see a lot of depressing things and you wake up and hope today will be better…and it isn’t.  But despite all of this everything will be better tomorrow.”  It’s a slower song with more reggae sounds and dramatic flourishes.  This time there’s a kind of slide guitar running through the song.

The band consists of : Lila Downs (vocals, jarana); Paul Cohen (sax); George Saenz, Jr. (trombone); Hugo Moreno (trumpet); Marcos Lopez (seated percussion); Yayo Serka (seated drums); Rafael Gomez (electric guitar); Leo Soqui (jarana); Luis Guzman (bass).

[READ: August 28, 2016] “Reading Comprehension: Text No. 3” 

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Zambra’s works and this one is no exception.  I’m particularly intrigued by the “quiz” portion at the end of the piece which really takes the story in a different direction.

The structure of the story is similar to other stories I’ve read by him–I have to assume that he is being reasonably autobiographical about his youth and his life with the woman who would be his son’s mother.  If not then he has really appropriated this character.

A man is writing a letter to his son.  I loved the way the beginning started with the narrator telling his son to forget all of the thing that he has said or done: “mitigate my shouting, my inappropriate remarks, and my stupid jokes.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DESSA-Tiny Desk Concert #325 (December 9, 2013).

I had never heard of Dessa before.  Evidently she is a rapper, singer, poet and songwriter and is part of the Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree.  As versatile as she is, Dessa faced down a string of challenges in getting to the Tiny Desk. Near the tail-end of a tour — during which thousands of dollars’ worth of her band’s gear was stolen — her voice started to give out as she battled a bad cold. (Keep an eye out for her expression of relief at the completion of “The Man I Knew” in this set.) And, of course, Dessa and her band had to come up with ways to perform three songs from Parts of Speech in such a way that the drums and guitars wouldn’t drown out the unamplified voices of herself and singer Aby Wolf.

I wouldn’t have known she was sick at all, as her voice is pretty powerful.  She raps the first song, “Fighting Fish” (I love that it references Zeno’s Arrow)  I like the grooves of the music and the simple guitar licks.   But it sounds amazing when Wolf starts singing.  Wolf has a great voice.  For the second verse, Dessa speaks more than raps—if only they could both make better use of the mic.

For the second song, “The Man I Knew,” the two sing a duet quite lovely.  And I like the way they each seem to highlight the end of each others’ lines with a harmony note.  I can’t help but think that Aby steals the how a bit.  The guitar and bass have simple but delightful riffs.  And the middle part with the counterpoint is very cool

I like the guitar sounds of “The Lamb,” and Dessa’s voice is great on this one.

Her lyrics are somewhat aggressive but really spot on: “You’ve got a way with words / you got away with murder” and “They can sew your hands together but they can’t make you pray.”

I am curious to see what her full band sounds like because this stripped down version is really good.

[READ: August 28, 2016] “Vladivostock Station”

This story opened my eyes to something I was unaware of.  The narrator’s father was a Korean refugee from the second world war. After the war his father settled in Russia and had children with a local woman.  Evidently this was quite common, although I’d never heard this before.  So the narrator is half-Korean with a Russian name.  I’s never heard of such a thing.

But that’s not the point of the story at all.  Rather, it is the story about Misha and his old friend Kostya.  They have known each other for ages.  Kostya worked at Misha’s father’s hotel for many years, but the two lost touch.  In the meantime, Misha had become an employee of the railroad –he repaired the insides of older trains. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JOHN LEGEND-Tiny Desk Concert #320 (November 16, 2013).

Recently John Legend acquired some humorous publicity when his name was misspelled at the Golden Globes.  But his career has been pretty impressive up until now.  He has impressive collaborated with Jay-Z, Kanye West, and The Roots just to name a few.  Nevertheless, I didn’t actually know what he sounded like.  But clearly I’m the only one, because the room is just packed with people.

The blurb tells us that he “achieved the kind of statesmanlike musical-ambassador status usually afforded to artists twice his age. He is, in short, the sort of star who doesn’t usually perform behind desks in offices.”

Though he recently released a fine new album titled Love in the Future, from which “Made to Love” and “All of Me” were drawn for this set, Legend took special care to provide the backstory for “Move,” which he’d recorded for the soundtrack to 12 Years a Slave.  Legend executive-produced that soundtrack himself

For these three songs, he plays piano and sings in a very soulful and understated way.  “Made to Love” is a slow, pretty soulful ballad.  It’s quite romantic with the chorus: “we were made to love.”

He tells a very powerful and personal story relating to 12 Years a Slave for which he recorded “Move.”  The album version was recorded with U.K. musician Fink.  But here there is no piano, just a guitarist.  It has powerful lyrics.  The end of the song features a clapping section which seems strange for such a down-cast song.

The final song is “All of Me.”  It is a lovely song, especially when he gives that gentle falsetto in the chorus.  Legend really is quite the performer–understated and with a great voice.

[READ: September 5 2016] “Fiber Optics, Holy Places”

I haven’t read any Barrodale before.  I don’t know if her stories are typically cryptic, but I found this one to be very cryptic.

The story begins “after they made love…” he told Ema that he’d been reading an old book by Sloane Newam.  It’s a great book, although it ruined her career.  But he says, “she’s funny.  She reminds me of you.”  At the airport the next day, he gave her a copy of Sloane Newam’s memoir and said, “Read it and you will see.”

Although writing that book ruined Newam’s career.

On her flight home, he gave her a copy of the memoir.  Confusingly, in the next sentence, Barrodale writes: “Halfway through the novel [it said memoir above], while flying over Missouri, she came to a fight between Sloane Newam and her boss.”

But I did really enjoy this bit:  While flying she says to the person next to her: “It’s pretty, huh? Out the window.  It’s Missouri. Get it? Mis-uh-ry? Misery. It’s like — I’m so happy, I’m over misery — Missouri.”  And this reaction: “The woman seemed embarrassed and turned away herself.”

Ema bought both books on Amazon, on for a penny, the other for $109.

The first book was about her lifelong affair with a married man…something that Ema could relate to.  But she thinks that made her guy never read these novels, something seems off. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ANDERSON .PAAK & THE FREE NATIONALS-Tiny Desk Concert #557 (August 15, 2016).

I had heard so many great reviews of  Anderson .Paak but I didn’t really like his album.  But I love this Tiny Desk—there’s something great about this live set.  First off, I love that he’s on the drums–and I love Paak’s drumming—all high hats and rim shots and total funk.  Especially when he starts tapping with his fingers on the snare.  And I really love the funky sound of the keys and the bass.

For this Tiny Desk, they reworked three cuts from Malibu,

Guitarist Jose Rios and bassist Kelsey Gonzalez inject a hard-rock edge into the Hi-Tek-produced “Come Down.”  He opens this by saying, “This song is appropriate since its like a sauna in here right now.”  (The opening lyrics are: Y’all niggers go t me hot.”  It is fun and funky and a great opener.  At the end, he asks the bassist: “What is that song about, Jose?  Coming down off of what?  Substances?  That’s what you into?”  “No. Naw.”  “I like water myself.”

The second song “Heart Don’t Stand A Chance” features a lot of keyboards.  It’s a slow, groovy song.  Much more soulful than funky.

“Put Me Thru” is really funky.  He says “This song is about Jose’s ex-girlfriend.  She still your ex-right?”  “Yea.”  When it ends he jokes Tiny Desk, Big Heart.

Normally bands play 3 songs, but everyone is so into the set that they get to play one more.  “What else y’all wanna play?  Should we do requests?” Someone shouts, “Suede”  And he shouts, “OH!  I though this was a more cultured, mature….  So you all like being called bitches over here?”  He cautions, “I talk a lotta shit on this song, is that okay?”  We’ve never done this song like this.  He asks Jose, “Go over the notes. You know the chords?”  “It’s only a loop—only two chords.”  They all laugh.

“Suede” is a super funky, pretty vulgar song.  But .Paak is so charming, it’s hard to criticize.  Especially at the end of the show when he says, “That actually my mom’s favorite song.”

[READ: September 5, 2016] “Let’s Go to the Videotape”

This was a fascinating story about a widow who submits a video of his child to Americas Funniest Home Videos.  His son, Gus, was riding a bike for the first  time.  As he was going along, he hit a rock and flew over his handle bars into the bushes.  His helmet pulled down over his eyes.  Nick kept filming, seeing that he wasn’t hurt.  And then Gus looked up and said “Daddy, am I okay?”

Nick sent the video to some friends and they all thought it was very funny.

The video had made it to the finals and they were in the studio watching the other finalists’ videos.  And then it was their turn.

Gus was very uncomfortable–mostly because of his clothes but also because of the attention. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: RO JAMES–Tiny Desk Concert #583 (December 5, 2016).

I’d never heard of Ro James, but he reminds me a lot of Prince (never a bad thing).  He sings a kind of R&B that is more than R&B, like Prince.  Although he sings mostly in an almost rapping style, he has an admirable falsetto.  But when he starts really singing, he’s got a great roughness in his voice–just like Prince.  And the blurb tells us that it’s okay that he sounds like Prince:

Lots of us try to be cool, but the trick has always been in the subtleties; they’re what allow us to walk that thin line between cool and corny. Enter Ro James.

Ask where he’s from, and James will say, “Everywhere.” He spent his childhood and teenage years from Germany to New York, and from Hawaii to Indiana. Rosie Gaines of Prince’s New Power Generation is his aunt, so James comes by his coolness honestly. In 2013, James independently dropped his EP, Coke, Jack And Cadillacs. His debut album, Eldorado, exemplifies that cool. It’s a hazy ride that explores love, lust and other vices without the lovey-dovey clichés. The album always feels current, even as his slick wordplay and acoustic vibe could easily slide it into a ’70s or ’90s hit list.

James and his band [Marlon Lewis (drums); Greg Moore (guitar); Eric Whatley (bass)] recently stopped by the NPR Music offices to play two tracks that seem tailor-made for a Tiny Desk concert, as well as a deconstructed version of his club jam from Eldorado. His falsetto falls right in the pocket with the lead guitar of his breakout hit, “Permission.” This new arrangement of his follow-up single, “Already Knew That,” maintains the bounce of the studio version, but the restrained arrangement allows listeners to follow the playful words much better. In between songs, he asks, “Y’all hot, or is it just me?” — at which point a few in the audience immediately giggle and emphatically agree while fanning themselves. Ro James is still the coolest.

There’s not much more for me to add except that I was won over by him.  He describes “Already Knew That” as when you find somebody you like and their playing games with you: “you already knew that you want me as much as I like you.”  I was amused by the title of this song (which is the same as a Korn song and plays of a joke that we used to tell in grade school about what these letters stood for: “A.D.I.D.A.S. (All Day I)”: all day I dream about sexing you.  And yes, he was pretty hot in all that leather.

[READ: September 12, 2016] new television

In continuing with my publishing pieces from Rivka Galchen, here’s a piece about TV.

In this essay, Galchen reviews the miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a show that I would never in a million years watch.  When the nonsense with Simpson happened the first time, I may have been the only person in American who deliberately did not tune into the slow chase.  I chose any channel that it wasn’t on. And all through the trial I tried my best to ignore everything.  Which wasn’t easy.  And now years later, it has all come back again.  And I still don’t care.

Despite my lack of interest in the show and spectacle, I did enjoy Galchen’s analysis.  I liked her comparison of the treatment of Marcia Clark to the treatment of Hillary Clinton in this election season (and we see how that turned out). #ITMFA.

Likability is about wealthy good-looking celebrities, but the most villainous character is police officer Mark Furhman, the detective who was caught on tape saying some pretty awful things about minorities.  In a real life twist that seems obvious, he’s now a regular guest on Fox News. (more…)

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harpers-magazine-march-2017-4 gucciSOUNDTRACK: GUCCI MANE-Tiny Desk Concert #585 (December 12, 2016).

Usually when someone is popular I have heard of him or her.  So I’m always surprised when someone gets a Tiny Desk Concert and I don’t know them (especially given his story).

Gucci Mane sounds kind of familiar, but I don’t think I’d ever heard of him before.  So what does the blurb say:

Gucci Mane’s smile makes you feel like there’s still some good in the world. He’s really earned it, and that thing is infectious. We asked him to come to NPR because we wanted to be a part of the victory tour he’s been on this year: In the past six months or so, Gucci Mane was released early from the federal penitentiary; he proposed to his girlfriend on the kiss cam at a Hawks game, and she said yes; he’s releasing a total of three albums, all over which he celebrates his newly committed sobriety; he and Courtney Love look like they get along; and he remade “Jingle Bells.”

In this Tiny Desk concert, Gucci Mane performed with just his longtime producer and friend, Zaytoven, on piano. Their version of stripped-down is a minimal backing track and plenty of church-groomed trills. They performed with the understanding that everyone in the room knew their songs — one from 2009 and two from this year — and knew that this performance would represent a surreal dip into a parallel universe where ingenuity is rewarded, snobbery is gone and love is real. Gucci Mane agreed to this unlikely set as a gesture to those people — for remembering his work while he was away, and for cheering on his resurgence, his health, his charm and his singular nature.

Gucci does the three songs, “First Day Out,” “Waybach,” and “Last Time,” all accompanied by Zaytoven, easily my favorite stage name and the absolute highlight of this show for me.

Gucci Mane’s flow is a kind of slow drawl.  It’s kind of charming and engaging.  I find it really strange that he’s rapping over himself (I guess).  But it’s so stripped down that it’s weird to hear his backing track so clearly.  But that live piano totally make the show fantastic–Zaytoven has some amazing chops.

[READ: February 21, 2017] “Sinking Ships and Sea Dramas”

The introduction to this story was pretty fascinating.  This piece is an except from a manuscript in progress inspired “in part by lines from the work of Ben Lerner, the poetry editor of Harper’s

This was translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole.

I’m not sure what Lerner wrote that inspired this, but this “cycle” consists of 6 ruminations on death and the sea. (more…)

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harpers-magazine-march-2017-4SOUNDTRACK: GALLANT-Tiny Desk Concert #594 (January 30, 2017).

Despite the impressive cred, I had never heard of Gallant.  I mean, check out these bona-fides:

When Christopher Gallant was featured in Forbes‘ 30 Under 30 list, the testimonial came from none other than Elton John, who said, “When I hear his voice, I just lose it.” The two even performed Gallant’s song “Weight In Gold” together back in September.

Gallant performed a stripped-down version of that hit when he came to the Tiny Desk earlier this month, and preceded it with another of his best-known songs, “Skipping Stones.” Written with Jhené Aiko, that tune radiates sultry intensity and passion; here, the talented Dani Ivory (who’s performed as a touring member of Imagine Dragons) sits in for Aiko.

Ology, Gallant’s 2016 debut, is up for a Grammy — for Best Urban Contemporary Album [it lost to Lemonade] — and another of its falsetto-driven highlights opens this three-song set. On the record, “Bourbon” is produced with a funky, old-school, Prince-like drum track, but here, a steady drum beat grounds the hypnotic song just as well, if not better. Best of all, “Bourbon” gets a welcome bonus at the Tiny Desk: a guest rap by Saba, a charismatic rising star and frequent Chance The Rapper collaborator.

The musicians for this set are: Gallant (vocals); Wes Switzer (bass); Dani Ivory (keys, vocals); Dylan Jones (guitar); A.J. Novak (percussion); featuring guest rapper Saba in “Bourbon.

I don’t really like R&B all that much, but I can certainly appreciate a great voice and man does Gallant have one.  On “Bourbon”his falsetto is really really impressive.  And Saba has an incredibly fast flow.  And on “Skipping Stones,” again, he has such an amazing falsetto.  I don’t know what the recorded version’s female singer sounds like, but while Dani Ivory does a fine job, she really can’t compete with him.  And on “Weight In Gold” he hits some amazing high notes with ease.

[READ: February 21, 2017] “Dona Nobis Pacem”    (means grant us peace)

This story has an epigram from Plato’s Republic in which someone asks Sophocles about his love life, if he can still make love to a woman.  Sophocles replies: “Shush man, I am very happy to have escaped from that–as happy as a slave who has escaped from an insane and heartless master.”

The title of the story “Dona Nobis Pacem” means “grant us peace.”

This story is written as an address from a sixty-two year old divorced professor of philosophy to a 58-year-old widowed member of the faculty.  They have known each other for many  years.  Her husband died two years ago and since then the two of them have holidayed togetehr a few times.  Their vacations have been primarily to Italy or the Alps or, as in the current vacation, to the Aegean shore of Turkey and the Greek Islands.

They often shared a room–their vacations were amicable and pleasant.

And then in Bergama, their hotel had but one bed. They reluctantly agreed to share the bed.  And that’s when things changed. (more…)

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