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Archive for the ‘The Believer’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: MAHAN ESFAHANI-Tiny Desk Concert #970 (April 27, 2020).

I love the sound of the harpsichord but always assumed that one played the harpsichord in addition to the piano, like for extra flavor.  That may be true, but Mahan Esfahani is not only “the instrument’s most ardent advocate,” he is also hilariously cocky about it.

For this Tiny Desk,

Esfahani, who grew up near Washington, D.C., but is now based in Prague, chose a double manual harpsichord — meaning two keyboards. This one was built by specialists Barbara and Thomas Wolf in 1991, but is based on a famous French instrument from 1770.

The harpsichord is a beautiful but notoriously fussy instrument. After we wheeled one behind Bob Boilen’s desk, it took the bulk of an hour to get the tuning just perfect for the very first Tiny Desk harpsichord recital. Given that our guest was Mahan Esfahani we were willing to wait.

His set began with classics: a pair of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, which share the same key but couldn’t be more opposite in personality. With elaborate curlicue ornaments in both hands, the opening sonata “Sonata in D, K. 534,” presents a sober, regal outlook. Its partner “Sonata in D, K. 535” is a flamboyant rocker, with the hands chasing each other across the two keyboards like a cat and mouse.

Before the next song Esfahani makes some wonderfully funny comments about the superiority of harpsichord players.

He says people thing harpsichordists take piano pieces and transcribe them for the harpsichord.  No, pianists take enough of our music; we’re a much classier bunch than them.  We have our own music.

He also tells us that there are many modern composers making harpsichord music.

But he also tells us that there modern composers making harpsichord music.  Composers are the best people as we all know.  It goes composers then harpsichordists, I think, then everyone else.

Mel Powell was a jazz pianist who worked with Benny Goodman. he then became a composer of “proper music” (as it was called in the 1950s).  he studied with Hindemith but unlike Hindemith, he’s not boring.

Angular and slightly jazzy “Recitative and Toccata Percossa,” from 1951, is a tour de force in this artist’s hands. It drives home a point he likes to make — that while the harpsichord had its heyday in the 18th century, it’s still a vibrant instrument and very much alive. “There are over 50 modern concertos for the harpsichord,” he told the audience.

He closes with a lesser known piece by a famous composer.  After giving the proper pronunciation of Pachelbel, he tells that Pachelbel was good enough to teach Bach’s brothers.

Esfahani closed with a little-known chaconne by Johann Pachelbel. Its steady bassline and colorful variations were a pleasant reminder of the composer’s one-hit claim to fame, “Pachelbel’s Canon.”

I’ve never seen a harpsichord that looked like this before.  It sounded great.  I love that there are muted passages in the Pachebel piece–I’ve nevee heard a muted harpsichord before.  This was another great Tiny Desk.

[READ: May 3, 2020] “What to Watch During the Lockdown: Month 38”

I used to really look forward to Nick Hornby’s (mostly) monthly columns in The Believer. I’m not really sure what he’s been up to since, but it’s great to see a new column from him.

This one features his delightfully obscure references to entertainment and football.

My wife and I are apparently the only people who will come out of this quarantine with even more shows to watch than we started with.  We have so much to do during the day–house fixing, yard prepping, reading–that we barely watch an hour of TV a night.  And there’s about 35 shows that I would like to binge.

So, I appreciate this essay intellectually, but not on a practical level (even if it is hilariously absurd). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PEARL JAM-“I Believe in Miracles” (2003).

On December 2, Pearl Jam announced that their fan club holiday singles will be released to streaming services.  Their first holiday single was released back in 1991.  It was “Let Me Sleep (Christmas Time).” They are rolling out the songs one at a time under the banner 12 Days of Pearl Jam.

These releases are coming out as a daily surprise.

Recorded in Santa Barbara California on October 28, 2003 this is a song that the band has played many times live.  I actually forget that its a Ramones song because of how un-Ramones their version is.

They do play it loud and rocking, but this version is a quieter, acoustic version. It’s also kind of slow so you can hear all the words.

There’s two lengthy acoustic guitar solos (very different from the Ramones) as well.  And of course, Eddie sounds nothing like Joey Ramone.

Despite the different style of play, this cover is quite faithful to the original.  But this acoustic version is particularly cool and the crowd is really into it.

[READ: December 11, 2019] “The Wild Man of Mississippi”

This year, S. ordered me The Short Story Advent Calendar.  This is my fourth time reading the Calendar.  I didn’t know about the first one until it was long out of print (sigh), but each year since has been very enjoyable.  Here’s what they say this year

The Short Story Advent Calendar is back! And to celebrate its fifth anniversary, we’ve decided to make the festivities even more festive, with five different coloured editions to help you ring in the holiday season.

No matter which colour you choose, the insides are the same: it’s another collection of expertly curated, individually bound short stories from some of the best writers in North America and beyond.

(This is a collection of literary, non-religious short stories for adults. For more information, visit our Frequently Asked Questions page.)

As always, each story is a surprise, so you won’t know what you’re getting until you crack the seal every morning starting December 1. Once you’ve read that day’s story, check back here to read an exclusive interview with the author.

Want a copy?  Order one here.

I’m pairing music this year with some Christmas songs that I have come across this year.

I know Jack Pendarvis exclusively from McSweeney’s issues–particularly from the Letters columns–and The Believer.

I’m a little sad to say that overall my impression of his writing is not great.  I wrote this a long while back:

Pendarvis writes my least favorite piece in The Believer.  His monthly column Musin’s & Thinkin’s is a faux hillbilly column that is purposefully absurd and in my mind really really forced.

However, I did enjoy some of his short stories, which seem to be, not exactly parodies, but anachronistic tales that play around with the expectations of formula.

This story continues in that vein.

The titular Wild Man of Mississippi is an author and he is very much aware of his persona as The Wild Man of Mississippi.

As the story starts he is heading to near the Canadian border to read to a college class.  He couldn’t fit into his peacoat and had his tailor move the buttons: “an identifying feature of peacoats seemed to be the faraway buttons.  Well, fuck that.”

The tailor was late and thanked him for his patience.  How presumptuous to think he had patience.  After several other small indignities, he is booked on American Airlines–not his first choice. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: THE LEMON TWIGS-Tiny Desk Concert #694 (January 17, 2018).

I first heard The Lemon Twigs on All Songs Considered and found their albums to be quite a lot of retro pop fun.

So it’s no surprise they wound up  at a Tiny Desk Concert, although this one is in support of an EP which I haven’t heard yet.

Bob Boilen notes: It’s as if brothers Brian (20) and Michael (18) D’Addario fell from the sky, victims of a transporter beam gone awry in 1971, and landed here at my desk with guitars in hand.  It was almost eerie seeing two young adults at my desk who look an awful lot like I and many of my friends did back around 1970. It’s uncanny, almost as if Brian and Michael have been somehow shielded from the 21st century

I really loved the production excess on The Lemon Twigs’ album, so I was a bit taken back at this stripped down version (no drums!).

At this Tiny Desk Concert, the layers of sound found in The Lemon Twigs’ recordings are stripped away, which makes the lyrics more noticeable, words that at times feel destined for a Broadway stage.  It’s fair to say that the strength of The Lemon Twigs is in the songwriting and the way they layer their recordings with their multi-instrumental talents. I love what they do, not as nostalgia but for its explorations of melody, harmony and lyrics that are memorable. Even stripped down, they are a whole lot of fun.

After the surprise of the stripped down sound wore off, I really started to like these songs for what they are.  Amusingly all three songs were written by Brian, which Michael is somewhat snarky about.

“Beautiful” is a delicate ballad with Brian singing and playing acoustic guitar.  The addition of simple electric guitar licks and backing harmony vocals really elevates the song.  Despite the pretty melody, the lyrics are rather dark

He concludes that it all is a dream
Can’t accept that sometimes a life is just destined for pain
I can’t do anything
I am nothing
Our lives are meaningless
Swim in the sunshine

But there’s a surprise twist at the end: I am nothing / I’m no one / It is wonderful

“Why Didn’t You Say That” is far more upbeat with bouncing piano.  It sound s bit fuller with the piano chords and a full electric guitar (chords and a solo).  The addition of some minor chords adds a dramatic twist to this mostly happy sounding song.  I enjoyed him sliding his pick up the strings at the end for an extra bit of noise.

Because their album is called Do Hollywood, I had it in my head that they were from California.  But hearing Michael talk, they are clearly from Long Island.  Especially when he jokes that they’re doing another one of Brian’s songs.  Brian says, “you’re the spokesperson.”  Michael says, “You’re so quiet.  Is something wrong?”  Brain brightly responds, “everything’s right!”  After some silence, Michael says, “No, I’m fine” to much chuckling.

“Light and Love” ends the set back on the acoustic guitar with some nice falsetto vocals.  The ending is a bit sloppy, but in a charming way.

Evidently when they play live, they do have a full band.  I’d be interested in seeing them live, but not as a stripped down project–I like their production too much.

[READ: October 5, 2017] “September All Year Long”

I have enjoyed many stories from Etgar Keret.  This is the first one I’ve seen illustrated.

And to have it illustrated by Novgorodoff  is pretty great too.   She uses her watercolor and pen style to create a feeling of lightness within heaviness.

The story talks about NW: nice weather, the status symbol for wealthy families.  As the ads say:

If you lived in Arctic Greenland and the snow and grayness were driving you crazy, swipe your credit card and they’ll set you up with ‘a perfect autumn day in Cannes’ on your balcony every day of the year

Novgorodoff illustrates this with a man drinking an umbrella drink on his balcony–a ray of sunshine beaming down on him while a blustery cold wind is blowing in the gray night sky. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PHOEBE BRIDGERS-Tiny Desk Concert #677 (November 27, 2017).

Phoebe Bridgers has an incredibly delicate voice.  And yet despite its delicacy it is also really powerful (as evidenced by the note she holds at the end of “Motion Sickness”).

I know the original of “Motion Sickness” which has a big raw guitar and a powerful chorus.  Her entire sound is stripped down here, with just pianist Ethan Gruska and violinist Rob Moose accompanying her on her quiet guitar.

Together, they celebrated the occasion with languid renditions of three of the album’s best songs: the sad and seductive “Demi Moore,” a drastically muted “Motion Sickness” and a piano-driven take on Bridgers’ first-ever single, “Killer.”

“Demi Moore” has some interesting synthy sounds accompanying Phoebe’s gentle guitar.  I really like the way the violin is playing somewhat unsettling notes rather than gentle accompaniment.  I cannot figure out what this has to do with Demi Moore, though.

As noted, “Motion Sickness” is very different.  It’s a little less catchy somehow (I really like the contrast of the guitars and her voice on the original).  But the song sounds really pretty this way (and I am charmed at the way she seems to be smiling throughout the song).

She describes “Killer” as being about murder.  It includes an unsettling conversations about Jeffrey Dahmer and Bridgers singing without her guitar.  It’s a stark piano song that really lets you hear how pretty her voice is.

I’m very curious to know what she typically sounds like live.

[READ: May 13, 2017] My Brilliant Friend

In what I thought was the final issue of The Believer (it went on hiatus for a couple of years), Nick Hornby says he really enjoyed My Brilliant Friend.  So I decided to check it out (since it’s part of a series and was compared tangentially to My Struggle, I decided to keep a running tally of pages just in case I decided to read all four of these books).

I haven’t read a ton of Italian writers, I gather.  And while that doesn’t really impact the quality of the story (or the translation by Ann Goldstein) the book does talk about locations that I’m pretty unfamiliar with.

Evidently there is intrigue about the identity of Elena Ferrante (the name is a pseudonym).  I didn’t know that until after I read the book and looked up to see how many more books there were.  Ferrante (I’ll go with she, because why not) has written four books in this series and three other books with out her identity being discovered.  I suppose the reason her identity is interesting is because this book seems to be autobiographical.  Of course what do you call an autobiography by a pseudonym? (more…)

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5dials34SOUNDTRACK: MATT HAIMOVITZ & CHRISTOPHER O’RILEY-Tiny Desk Concert #426 (March 14, 2015).

matthThere’s no introduction or fanfare for cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley’s Tiny Desk set.  They just start right in with a romping Beethoven piece.   I don’t know these two, but the notes say the duo has a new album out called Shuffle.Play.Listen., in which music by Stravinsky and Astor Piazzolla mingles with Cocteau Twins and Arcade Fire.  There’s no contemporary music in this set, but it’s very cool nonetheless.

The Beethoven piece sounds alive and wild and very modern.  The Glass piece is slow and beautiful  The final piece is lively and playful (with hints of darkness).  It introduced as reminding O’Riley of a scene in The Unbearable Lightness of Being when Daniel Day-Lewis gets a quickie.

It’s especially fun to watch how animated Haimovitz is.  The set list:

  • Beethoven: Cello Sonata No. 4 in C – IV. Allegro vivace
  • Philip Glass/Foday Musa Suso: The Orchard
  • Leoš Janáček: Pohádka – II. Con moto

[READ: April 6, 2015] Five Dials 33 Part II

After several themed issues of Five Dials we get back to the ones that I really like–random things thrown together under a tenuous idea.  It’s got some great authors and a surprising amount of large scale doodles–full page scribbles and some drawings that go from one page to the next (which works better online than in print).  Some of the giant illustrations also are fun–they are of jokey images like a memory stick that states I have only memories.  The art was done by JODY BARTON.

As with a previous issue there is a page of contributors and “The Unable to Contribute Page.”  These are journalists unfairly imprisoned (see more at cpr.org).  The Table of Contents is back, along with the FAQ: (more…)

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beelievrSOUNDTRACK: BECK-“Beercan” (1994).

I beercanhad forgotten how much I liked “Beercan” as a song until I played Mellow Gold again.  It’s incredibly catchy, has some wonderfully weird elements (like the sample of the girl saying “I’m Sad” over flamenco music), and deserved to be heard more.

The B-sides for this single really run the gamut of everything Beck does.  The first track “Got No Mind” is a reworking of “Pay No Mind.” It’s done as a very simple folk song.  The words are largely different and the music is played differently, but the chords are the same.  It’s an interesting conceit to redo a song almost entirely like that.  The second song “Asskiss Powergrudge (Payback ’94)” is just a dirty slow abusive song. The guitar strings are totally muted, just making noise.  The vocals are slowed and sludgy.  And it’s just heaps of abuse.

“Totally Confused” is also on the “Loser” single and is such a pretty, mellow folk song (with Anna and Petra from That Dog singing backing vocals).  And the final song, “Spanking Room” is just a pile of sheer noise and feedback.  It is loud and crazy and goes on for some 5 minutes.  There’s a “bonus” track of which I have learned is called “Loser (Pseudo-Muzak Version).” It’s Loser sampled and played behind some weird keyboard “muzak.”  It sounds like it was done live in a small club.  Really weird.

[READ: February 28, 2014] Some Instructions

This little booklet came with the Believer 2014 Art Issue.  It is called “Some Instructions.”   It is inspired by George Brecht, a Fluxus artist who is credited with creating the written form of performance art (called the “event score”).  Brecht was bored by didactic instructions in art so his creations were utterly open to interpretation.  The example they give is his “Three Chair Events” which is in its entirety:

  • Sitting on a black chair. Occurrence.
  • Yellow chair.  (Occurrence.)
  • On (or near) a white chair.  Occurrence,

–Spring 1961

This is the kind of thing that I think i would have enjoyed in college, being pretentious an d obnoxious, now I realize it is just navel gazing and (in many of the examples below) barely even thought out.  You can kind of see what Brecht was getting at (although why he needed to do more than one or two is beyond me), as a kind of thought-provoking questioning of what we know of as art.  But some of these below are just, well, stupid. (more…)

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   judySOUNDTRACK: EDWARD SHARPE AND THE MAGNETIC ZEROS-Tiny Desk Concert #32 (October 26, 2009).

I haedve recently begun to really enjoy Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (watch those e’s people).  Interestingly, I have gotten into their song “Home” which is actually from 2009 and is included in this Tiny Desk Concert.

There is no Edward Sharpe. Sharpe is the alter ego of singer Alex Ebert.  Ebert and Jade Castrinos form the core of this expansive ensemble.  There are ten people in the band making this the largest (and judging from their appearance, smelliest) Tiny Desk Concert to happen yet.  There are a few guitars, accordion, bongos, drums, keyboards and lots and lots of singing

Everyone seems very happy in the band, especially Castrinos, whose bliss is either delightful or disturbing to watch here.

“Janglin'” opens with the whole lot of them bopping along to the janglin song.  Alex Ebert has a folky, husky voice.  There’s lots of shouted “heys” and a fun, nearly-bass vocal section where they all sing “Mag-ne-tic-zeros.”  “Home” is a wonderful song with a catchy whistle and a fun horn section.  The catchiness of the chorus is undeniable.  And this live version is infectious.  The final song, “40 Day Daydream” is a big rambling piece.  There’s a moment near the end that allows Ebert to sing unaccompanied and you can hear that his voice is quite nice.

I always enjoy seeing performers having fun and it’s clear that these Zeros are doing just that.

[READ: January 3, 2014] Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation

I considered the idea of writing only about tiny books in February.  (I have a number of tiny books that have come along recently and I thought February would be a good time to read them all).  Of course, it’s already the 11th, so there goes that.  But I can still do some, right?

So this little book (6.5 x 4.5 inches, 77 pages) is the full (and enhanced) interview with Judy Blume and Lena Dunham.  The excerpted version appeared in the January 2014 issue of The Believer.  For this book we have the full interview (I assume) and the authors were given a chance to add comments to the interview afterward.

What we get here is Dunham, more or less a fangirl of Judy Blume, talking to her idol.  But Dunham is not just fawning, she is direct and inquisitive and they seem to hit it off immediately, which makes for a great interview.  Blume talks about her phobias (thunder, loud noises).  And their fear of the blank page.  And we also learn of Blume’s writing and daily routines (which are very different from Dunham’s). (more…)

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