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Archive for the ‘Harper’s’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: NAO-Tiny Desk Concert #833 (March 18, 2019).

This was possibly my least favorite Tiny Desk Concert I have seen.  And it was endless.  It kills me when bands I like play short sets (often only three short songs) while shows like this push nearly 20 minutes.

Nao’s voice is a comic book character–underneath that comic book voice there’s a powerful voice, but it’s all wrapped up in this goofy–how can you take it seriously–nasally nonsense–and when she goes deep, it’s even more amusing.  Worse yet, her backing singers sound like bleating goats and sheep in the first two songs–single note: “baaa.”

And yet , clearly I know nothing because the blurb describes “Nao’s sophomore effort and one of 2018’s best albums.”

Just to top it off, the album is about astrology.

In astrology, your Saturn return is the time in life when Saturn goes back to the same spot it was at the time of your birth. As Nao explained during her appearance at NPR’s Tiny Desk, “It’s about leaving adolescence and going into adulthood.” This crossing of the threshold that happens around your late 20s to early 30s is the inspiration for Saturn

Maybe I would like the album more if her voice was drowned out in synths.

While Nao usually performs with synthy, electronic twinkles, her day at the Tiny Desk was stripped down by comparison. At times, her lyrics ring out with just a sparse guitar to carry them. Like a roller coaster of unexpected upheaval, Nao’s distinctive vocal range on this four-song set goes from bellowing and husky to soft and coy, often within the same verse. Be it the breezy, Brazilian funk of “If You Ever,” the hallowed harmony of “Orbit” (complete with prayer hands) or the valiant soul-searching of “Make It Out Alive,” it’s almost as if Nao duets with herself, answering her own questions, settling into her own quirks.

I listened to the show twice to see if I was wrong.  The first song is a bit catchy–I like the guitar lick from Ariel O’Neal.  In fact, focusing on her throughout the show is a highlight.

I also really like the part between the songs when she introduces the band, because she’s not singing–it’s a nice light jam.  I admit that it amuses me that she says “that’s my cousin Samson Jatto on drums–he’s not really my cousin I just wanted to say that.”

If she didn’t do the R&B warble, the opening of “Bad Blood” would be okay.  But the comical vocals just undermine anything serious.  And then the bleating starts.  I’m not sure if only Troi Lauren and Taylor Samuels are making the goat sounds, but it sounds like it’s coming from all around the room.

“Orbit is similarly okay to start with.   “Make It Out Alive” is the fastest song in the show, with some uptempo keys and bass from Joe Price and Henry Guy.

If it were one song on a mixtape, I’d skip it, but 20 minutes was a lot to take.

[READ: March 26, 2019] “Setting the World to Rights”

A powerful opening from this story: “All his life he lived on hatred.  He was a solitary man who hoarded gloom.”

And how about this: “Good people are afraid of hatred, and even tend not to believe in it.  If it appears before their eyes, they generally call it dedication or some such name.”

Those in the kibbutz believed the subject of the story (unnamed) was full of faith and dealt severely with the world–“We invested him with a halo of self-sufficient reticence.”  This halo afforded protection against gossip although the children called him ‘wicked Haman” and pointed fingers at him.

He works with machines and is efficient and hates waste. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACKLEIKELI47-“Money” Tiny Desk Family Hour (March 12, 2019).

This was the final show recorded at NPR’s SXSW Showcase.

The SXSW Music Festival is pleased to announce the first-ever Tiny Desk Family Hour showcase, an evening of music by artists who have played NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert, at Central Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, March 12 from 8-11pm.

Leikeli47 was the ninth and final Tiny Desk Family Hour act to take the stage at Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church during SXSW last week. So naturally, the charismatic, genre-smashing masked rapper closed NPR Music’s big night with as much intensity, joy and free-wheeling fervor as the moment required.

I hadn’t heard of Leikeli47 until recently when she did a Tiny Desk Concert.  I don’t know much about her except that she wears a bandanna over her face (with eye and mouth holes–it’s pretty impressive how well it stays on), because she’s about the music, not the cult of personality.

This song is fun and bouncy but the lyrics are so blah–money, money money.  I think the music is great, though–the TSA band jams nicely.  And Leikeli47 herself is full of fun and verve.

Backed by the four costumed players who make up The TSA Band (Timmy Manson Jr: drums; Justus West: guitar; Simba Scott: bass; Portier: piano, vocals). Leikeli47 exhorted the crowd to dance, sway, sing and snap along through a five-song set that just kept getting lighter and more infectiously sweet-natured. The budding star softened some of her saltier material in deference to the setting — “The Lord knows my heart,” she said through a visible smile — and closed out the night with “Money,” a springy and appropriately titled banger.

I don’t think the song is enough of a banger, frankly.

[READ: March 22, 2019] “Run Me to Earth”

It is 1977 after 7 years in prison, Vang and Prany were finally released after pledging loyalty to the country.  Their re-education was complete.

When they are released the guard explains that they are lucky to live where they do.  They will have jobs that will make them work hard–under the old regime we were not working hard enough…corrupted by the Japanese, the French, the Americans.

They are to be self-sufficient–providing for their village which will provide for the country.

When they were arrested–the guard wondered why they resisted so long–they both had their fingers broken.  Vang recovered but Prany lost the use of his left hand.  Now Prany was twenty-five.  Vang was almost 40. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: JOHN PAUL WHITE-“The Long Way Home,” Tiny Desk Family Hour (March 12, 2019).

These next few shows were recorded at NPR’s SXSW Showcase.

The SXSW Music Festival is pleased to announce the first-ever Tiny Desk Family Hour showcase, an evening of music by artists who have played NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concert, at Central Presbyterian Church on Tuesday, March 12 from 8-11pm.

I have recently been re-listening to The Civil Wars and re-remembered how great John Paul White is.  He’s playing near me in a few weeks, but I can’t go see him.  I do hope he comes back.

John Paul White is a Tiny Desk veteran two times over: He’s performed once as a solo artist and once as half of the decorated and now-defunct Americana duo The Civil Wars. So he was a natural to take the stage for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Family Hour.  The room felt at once packed and cavernous, with White perfectly suited to the setting. He’s got a voice made for high ceilings.

White is up on stage with just his guitar and his voice.  He plays a song that is about his love/hate relationship about the music business.

White introduced the song with a boast any artistically inclined parent will understand: “I want to do a song for you now that I’m really happy to say makes my kids cry.  It’s not easy. My kids are hard. I immediately felt guilty but knew I was going to record it for the next record. But “The Long Way Home” taps into greater universal truths than that, capturing the way even our most ambitious pursuits can feel like a mere stepping stone to the comfort of the everyday.

It’s a bouncy minor key song and you know it’s going to be a gut-wrencher.  The chorus: “I ain’t leaving, I’m just taking the long way home to you.”

Yikes, if all of White’s songs are as emotionally charged as this, maybe I don’t want to see him in person.  But his voice sounds fantastic.

[READ: March 3, 2019] “Sweet”

This was one-page and thoroughly confusing.

It begins: “Gregory Speen learns to not doubt himself and Mike Brenlan supports him wholeheartedly.”

Then we get small sections about Speen.

Speen can tell that a woman is cruel. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD-Paper Mâché Dream Balloon (2015).

After the imposed restrictions of Quarters (four songs each 10:10 long), Paper Mâché Dream Balloon goes for a change.  Actually, it goes for a lot of changes.

For this is an acoustic folk album.  It retains all of the psychedelia of their recent records but it removes the heaviness and harshness of those albums and focuses on the mellow.  The twelve songs are also quite short.  Only three songs are over three minutes.  There’s flutes and sitar (which actually isn’t that unusual for KGATLW).  And most of the lyrics are understandable (if not comprehensible).

“Sense” opens with strummed acoustic guitars and a melody from a saxophone or clarinet or both.  “Bones” has a lovely simple guitar riff (so catchy) and more flutes than you can shake a stick with holes at.  It’s immediately catchy and delightful.  “Dirt” ups the power some with slightly louder drums, but it is still fueled by flutes and gentle vocals.  “Paper Mâché Dream Balloon” maintains the high quality, pretty songwriting with a lovely flute melody and a much more uptempo (but somehow even poppier) chorus.

“Trapdoor” changes thinks pretty dramatically for this album.  There’s still a lead flute, but the melody has become kind of intense and minor key and the chanted “Trapdoor” chorus is reminiscent of earlier KGATLW freakout choruses.  But while the song stays restrained, it is still the loudest thing to be found here.  “Cold Cadaver” returns to that flute-y happiness (despite the title) and even features a cheerful “whooo” or two.  I love how the song stops and a very martial drum beat starts but the song never goes off the rails, it just follows along like before.

“The Bitter Boogie” is the longest song in the disc.  Although it initially seems as short as the others because it almost stops half way through.  But it slows down and then begins a new, pretty guitar melody and then a new vocalist comes in and continues the song.

“NGRI (Bloodstain) opens with a fast piano note (very rock-n-roll sounding) and some wailing harmonica.  But it’s all very friendly (until you start listening to the lyrics–no idea what NGRI stands for though (not guilty for reasons of insanity?) but the chanted “bloodstain” is a bit disconcerting.  There’s some wild drumming and a little sitar at the end, but it seems to serve more as a segue to the next song.  “Time = Fate” is a delightfully poppy ditty that seems to be related to “Time = $$$” although musically it doesn’t have any connection (aside from being a delightfully poppy ditty).

“Most of What I Like” is a sweet ballad (although the drums feel particularly distorted (and split between the two headphones) which leads to the final song. “Paper Mâché” is an instrumental which ends the album with a delightful flute melody and acoustic guitars.  It runs for about 2 minutes and is then followed by an incredibly speeded up something (the whole album backwards?) going faster and faster until it explodes.

It’s frankly amazing how many musical ideas this band has.  And the fact that they can pull of so many styles so well is a testament to their songwriting.

[READ: January 19, 2016] “Fox”

This is a story where animals are personified, but in which they also live in the “real” world, apparently.

The foxes are the adjudicators of the world.  The aunts run the den.  They sit upright, tails curled around their feet.  They are pretty animals and they enjoy being pretty.

Aunt Rob spoke the most.  She explained that all animals differ in their violent tendencies:  “The lions are racist, nervy.  They think everything south of Paris is Arab,  everything east of Poland is Chinese.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: KING GIZZARD AND THE LIZARD WIZARD-I’m in Your Mind Fuzz (2014).

Even though this record came soon after Oddments, this has been considered the first major release by KGATLW (maybe that’s because it was the earliest recording that was still in print (until the reissues).  This album is a major step forward in their psychedelic garage rock sound.

The first four songs are more or less a continuous suite.  Not really, but all four songs contain the same breakneck drum pace and rumbling bass line and each one segues into the next.

“I’m in Your Mind” has a simple guitar riff, lots of wickedly distorted harmonica and a catchy vocal line.  It segues into “I’m Not in Your Mind” which is a three-minute jam based around a guitar solo.  The tone has changed slightly, but only slightly.  The solo features the main melody from “The Streets of Cairo or The Little Country Maid” (which we in the States think of as the Egyptian song or the snake charmer song because it was in every cartoon from the 1950s). The end of the song features a bass rumble which segues into the intro to the classic KGATLW song “Cellophane” (where the lyrics are nearly all nonsense singing and the word “cellophane”–catchy as anything).  The quartet returns to the opening song with the reprise called “I’m in Your Mind Fuzz.”   The same guitar melody and tempo resume with a similar-sounding chorus.

A click opens the next song, “Empty,” which halts the fast-paced bass and drums and grows much slower.  With a new rhythm and a more staccato delivery, this song maintains the fuzzy sound and distorted vocals and adds, I believe, a flute.  It’s followed by the wonderful “Hot Water.”  It’s an uptempo song with muted delivery in the vocals and guitars.   It’s also got the simple chanted chorus of “Hot Water” all surrounding this cool 70s sounding melody.

“Am I in Heaven” begins as a folkie acoustic song.  It’s pretty gentle for about 45 seconds until it turns into a screaming and thumping rocker with all kinds of wailing—guitars, vocals, harmonica.  Then at 3 minutes it returns briefly to that original folkie melody until, once again, the loud rocking just overtakes the whole thing with psychedelic soloing.

“Slow Jam 1” slows things down a lot. “I need to slow my mind down” is the lyrical opening.   It is slow and hazy for a few gentle minutes.  “Satan Speeds Up” sounds like it might be an old lost psychedelic/metal song–a cool vibrato guitar riff and flutes play this excellent opening.  The verses are gentle–falsetto singing as the band chills out around it.

“Her and I (Slow Jam 2)” returns to that acoustic mellow sound, this time with some extra fuzzy notes sprinkled around the song.  After about a minute and a half (of the 8 minute song), the tempo picks up and there’s a cool guitar solo which returns a couple of times by the end adding harmonica and wah wah guitar.

This is a very cool album that really shows what KGATLW is all about.  At least until their next release.

[READ: February 18, 2019] “White Out”

This issue of Harper’s had two stories and I didn’t really enjoy either one.

This first one was written in Korean and was translated by Deborah Smith.  What I didn’t like about it was that I wasn’t sure if these nine short pieces were sections of a big story or individual (somewhat) connected stories.  Either way the blocks of text were all quite short and not always complete.

Frost
This tells us that she was born on a day of frost but her father chose seol, snow, as one of the characters for his daughter’s name.  I found that pretty interesting and would have liked to know more about that. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE HU-“Wolf Totem” and “Yuve Yuve Yu” (2018).

The HU are a band from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia who plays what they call Hunnu Rock.  There are four guys in the band: Gala, Jaya, Enkush, and Temka.

They have recently posted two videos online (after having been a band for about seven years).

Two of the men in the band play the morin khuur (морин хуур), or horsehead fiddle.  It’s a traditional Mongolian bowed stringed instrument. It is one of the most important musical instruments of the Mongol people, and is considered a symbol of the Mongolian nation.  The third member plays a shudraga, a three-stringed lute-like instrument which I suspect is being run through some distortion pedals.

Their instruments are beautiful with intricate designs on the neck and the heads.

Despite the traditional instruments, The Hu play very heavy music.  The shundraga appears to be playing some heavy chords, while the morin khuur play lots of cool solos.

The first song, “Wolf Totem” opens with what sounds like 1,000 thumping drums.  The morin khuur plays a bowed melody as the chanted vocals come forward.

The vocals are something of a guttural growl, but it makes sense as what you might think a Mongol leader might sound like.  There may even be some throat singing.

I also like that there’s an eagle call at the beginning and end of the song.

The fact that the video includes a host of leather jacketed motorcycle riders chanting the choral HU is pretty awesome.  And the Mongolian scenery is breathtaking.

The second song is “Yuve Yuve Yu.”  I’m mentioning the video first because it contrasts nicely.  It shows all the band members inside, playing video games, watching TV–very Western stuff.  But when they open the door of their flat, they find themselves outside on the plains.

The first guy steps outside to find his shudraga.  The riff is a but more substantial on this song, but only slightly.  It feels less like a call to arms and more like a song.

Although with a chorus (in Mongolian) of

Hey you traitor! Kneel down!
Hey, Prophecies be declared!

This seems more of a call to arms than the other.

There’s a cool sliding violin riff an instead of the guttural chanting there’s  a relatively high-pitched sung “doo do do” melody.

Both of these songs are quite cool, especially the accompanying videos.  The band has received some attention for the videos (which is how I found them).  They’ve even got their songs on bandcamp.

I’m curious to see if this will translate into somewhat mainstream success in the west.

[READ: January 10, 2019] “Whisky Lullaby”

This excerpt from a longer story is perfectly written–I loved the way it was presented and how the “ending” was revealed (it’s an excerpt, so not the real ending).

Hamid is a Muslim man living in Scotland.  He has recently married a Scottish woman, Ruqiyyah, who had converted to Islam a few years ago.  She was seeking a partner and he was seeking citizenship.

“She had not always been Ruqiyyah, she once was someone else with an ordinary name, a name a girl behind the counter in the Bank of Scotland might have.”

As the story opens, Ruqiyyah is holding a bottle e of Johnnie Walker.  It is his Hamid’s bottle and she shouldn’t know about it.  She is very unhappy about the bottle.  Being an intense convert plus being Scottish, she takes things like this far more seriously than he does.  He knows it is wrong, but in the grand scheme of things, drinking (instead of writing his PhD thesis) is pretty harmless compared to black magic, adultery, abusing your parents.  This was human weakness and wasn’t Allah all-forgiving? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: CHAPEL OF DISEASESong of the Gods” (2018).

At the end of every year publications and sites post year end lists.  I like to look at them to see if I missed any albums of significance.  But my favorite year end list comes from Lars Gottrich at NPR.  For the past ten years, Viking’s Choice has posted a list of obscure and often overlooked bands.  Gottrich also has one of the broadest tastes of anyone I know (myself included–he likes a lot of genres I don’t).  

Since I’m behind on my posts at the beginning of this year, I’m taking this opportunity to highlight the bands that he mentions on this year’s list.  I’m only listening to the one song unless I’m inspired to listen to more.

Even though Lars is all over the place with the style of music he loves, he tends to return again and again to metal, especially lately doom metal.  It is fitting that Chapel of Disease ends the set.  Lars has introduced me to a lot of really heavy music often with growly vocalists.  But Chapel of Disease, despite their name does not sound like that exactly.  The vocals are deep and kind of growly but they are audible (for the most part) (and sound like they come from miles away).

This song is seven minutes long and opens with an almost middle-eastern sounding quiet guitar intro.  After 20 or so seconds, the main riff enters and sounds even more Middle Eastern, but when the bombastic bass and drums come in and the song turns from pretty guitar to heavy metal, that riff becomes a total classic rock song.  After 2 and a half minutes, the vocals come in, and honestly they are a little too low and growly for the music.  They almost feel like an afterthought for the music they are making.  At least the chorus (where that riff comes back) is easy enough to understand.

The guitar solo is actually quite pretty and understated–the whole song kind of pulls back a bit until we hit about 5 minutes when then real metal shows up and the raging solo and double bass drum take the song to a heavier point than they’ve hit thus far.   By 6 minutes, in true classic rock fashion it returns to the riff and the chorus and they play us to the end.

Lars calls this “Death-metal Dire Straits” and then immediately says “No, wait, come back!”  I don’t really hear the Knopfler guitar but I’ll allow it.  I totally agree with him that on their

third album Chapel of Dissease embraces ’70s hard-rock swagger, proggy sorcery and, most surprisingly… fluid melodicism… all atop death-metal growls and chugged riffs. There’s no reason why this should work, and it’s a testament to Chapel of Disease’s heavily worn record collection, as the group now raises fists and beer to the storm.

There’s only 6 songs on the album and none are shorter that 6 minutes.  It’s a cool change form typical death metal.

[READ: January 6, 2019] “Train Dreams”

This is an excerpt from a novel, which means that the ending is not as open-ended as it seems.

Xiao Yuan was a teacher but now she mostly took business trips as an administrator.  While she is setting up her train’s bunk for the night, a man settles in across from her.  He is Dr. Liu and he sells herbal and non-herbal medicines.  As they lay down in bunks that faced each other, Xiao Yuan put out a pocket watch, a small digital clock and a radio next to her pillow.

Dr Liu was made restless by her timepieces–he sensed an evil aura from the woman across from him.  He got up to switch bunks but Xiao Yuan immediately asked him what he was doing.  She said it was 2 in the morning “Do you want to die?  You’ll be taken for a criminal and arrested.  What a hick…”

She laughed as Dr Liu looked at her and he saw her tuning her radio.  It regularly reported the time but each instance stated it was eleven PM.  Dr Liu knew he could not sleep so he lay wake until Xiao Liu asked him about his job.  She hated Chinese medicine, believing it was mystical and always associated with sex.  But she found herself agreeing with a lot of what Dr Liu said.

She then conceded that she was controlling the radio with her thoughts. (more…)

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