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Archive for the ‘Memoirs’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: ANIMAL MASKS-EP (2017).

Animal Masks is a band based out of Somerville, NJ (almost my home town).  They have an EP out (buy or stream on bandcamp), and it’s a great four song collection that melds a 70’s glam rock feel with a kind of 80s pop punk.

They are a trio and have the thick, meaty sound that trios do so well.  The disc doesn’t give a lot of details, but the band consists of Dave DeCastro, Dan Zachary and Ronny Day (not sure who does what).

The last three songs of the Ep have more of the punk edge–the songs are faster and shorter (“Tear It Down” is just over 2 minutes), but they are in no way hardcore.  There’s a distinct  major label Hüsker Dü vibe to these latter songs.

“Sad Day” has some nice harmonies in unexpected places and I love the gritty minor key guitars.  The chord progression in the bridge is also a nicely unexpected change up for an otherwise simple melody.  It’s a sweet touch to get a fuzzy wah wah sound in the second half of the (not at all flashy) guitar solo as well.  The “Ohhs” at the end of the song are pure Mould/Hart/Norton.

“Tear It Down” is a bit more upbeat (surprisingly given the “when everything falls apart, it’s time to tear it down” lyrics).  I love the thumping drums (and the screamed harmonies) in the chorus.  “Used By the Universe” is a bit muddier than the other songs–I can’t tell if it’s the same singer on all the songs–he’s harder to hear on this track.  He sounds a bit deeper, gruffer on this one.  There’s some great bass lines in this song, and once again, the drum has some great fills.

The glam comes to the fore on the first song, “For Real.”  The singer’s voice sounds a bit less snarly and the guitars are wah-wahed and echoey in a way they aren’t on the other three.  There appears to be some other kind of interesting overdub sound floating behind the guitars, which is a nice addition.  The song is slower, but I really like the way the drum plays a fast four beats in the middle of the chorus.

One thing that tickles me about this song is that the main body of the song has a chorus of “is it always… now or never” the “for real” of the title doesn’t come until after four minutes (the song is just under 5) with a coda that repeats “are you for real.”

I wish the recording was a little crisper, but that’s probably personal preference.  I definitely wish the drums were mixed differently–they sound kind of flat–which is a shame because the drumming is outstanding.  All of this just speaks to how great they probably sound live.

[READ: October 30, 2016] Cool Japan Guide

After enjoying Diary of a Tokyo Teen, I saw that Tuttle Publishing also put out this book. I got it out for Clark but wound up reading it before he did.

Abby Denson is a cartoonist (the other subtitle is A Comic Book Writer’s Personal Tour of Japan).  She and her husband (Matt Loux–who did the Salt Water Taffy stories) love Japan and Japanese culture and they travel there a lot.  So this is her personal guide book to visiting the wild world of Japan.

While it has some of the same features as Tokyo Teen, this book is far more of a guide book for travelers than a personal memoir of one girl’s travels. The book opens with a pronunciation guide (very helpful) and each chapter has a list of useful phrases and expressions all introduced by the very helpful Kitty Sweet Tooth.

Denson is quite thorough in this book.  Starting from before you leave–getting a passport, making reservations, getting rail passes, everything.  Even what to expect in each of the seasons.  Upon arrival there’s all kinds of fun things to see immediately–train stamps (you get a stamp for every station you go to) vending machines (and how to understand them) and even what kind of (apparently delicious) food you can buy on a train in the country. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SNAIL MAIL-Tiny Desk Concert #649 (September 15, 2017).

It’s always encouraging that young musicians are still picking up guitars and writing catchy and interesting songs.  I’d never heard of Snail Mail, but finding out that lead singer/guitarist Lindsey Jordan graduated high school last year is pretty cool.

I think that it helps to have some connections, though:

Jordan started Snail Mail at 15 and released the quietly stunning Habit EP via Priests’ in-house label last year. She’s quickly found fans in Helium and Ex Hex’s Mary Timony (who also happens to be Jordan’s guitar teacher) and just went on tour with Waxahatchee and Palehound.

They play three songs.  On one it’s just her, but on the first two, she is joined “by what’s become her consistent live band (drummer Ray Brown and bassist Alex Bass).”

“Slug” has a propulsive verse and a cool thumping bridge.  It’s an ode to a slug, in fact, but it also looks internally: “I have waited my whole life to know the difference and I should know better than that.”  I really like the way the song builds and builds and then drops out for a second for a few curlicues of guitar.

Her lyrics are wonderful mix of maturity and teenager (I do like the “my whole life bit,” but I really like this couplet from the next song “Thinning.”

I want to face the entire year just face down / and on my own time I wanna waste mine.
spend the rest of it asking myself is this who you are / and I don’t know it just feels gross.  (And her delivery of the word “gross” is wonderful).

From her reaction and this blurb, I guess the band is a bit louder than what they play here:

Because we often ask bands to turn down for the office space, she jokes, “I guess I don’t really know what we sound like because we’re so loud. Now we’re quiet and Ray’s using the mallets and my guitar’s all the way down — I was like, ‘We sound like this?'”

For the last song, the guys leave as she re tunes her guitar:

Jordan closes the set solo with a new song, “Anytime.” It is, perhaps typically for Snail Mail, slow and sad, but the alternate guitar tuning and Jordan’s drawled vocal performance gives this song about a crush an aerial motion, like acrobats sliding down a long sheet of fabric.

With just her and her guitar this song is far more spare and less bouncy but it works perfectly were her delivery.  I also like watching her bend strings with her third finger while playing a chord–she has learned some mad skills from Timony for sure.  I wish I had seen them open for Waxahatchee, that’s a bitchin’ double bill, for sure.

[READ: October 20, 2016] Diary of a Tokyo Teen

Sarah brought this book home and it seemed really fun.  It’s a look at Japan through the eyes of a girl who was born there about 15 years earlier but then moved to the U.S. with her family.  She is older and somewhat wiser and is delighted to have a chance to explore what is familiar and unfamiliar.

And it’s all done in a simple comic book style diary which she self published at age 17.

So Christine flies to Kashiwa, a small city outside of Tokyo to stay with her Baba and Jiji (grandparents).  She says the best reunion (aside from her grandparents) was with her favorite fast food chain unavailable in America: Mos Burger (you eat the wrapper because it would be messy to take it out of the wrapper).

What I love about this book is that unlike a more formal guide book, Christine is a typical teenager with typically American experiences.  So she notices that the people who work fast food are happy–or at least appear to be.  She’s also aware right form the start how trendy the other kids are.  And while an adult might not care, for a teen aged girl, that’ pretty devastating. (more…)

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[LISTENED TO: September 13, 2017] Believe Me

When I saw that Eddie Izzard had a book out I was pretty interested to read it.  I have loved his stand-up since 1997 or 1998 and I was lucky enough to see him on his Circle Tour (on the date they recorded it!).  I have been keeping up with his career and trying to see him in whatever he does (although I like my comedy more than drama and he has certainly made the shift towards drama in recent years).

I thought an autobiography or memoir by him would be pretty interesting (even if he claims to be boring).  But when I saw that he read the audiobook, I knew I had to give it a listen (even if it was 12 discs)!

Amusingly, there was a long delay at the library.  The lady at the counter (who is not the librarian–we librarians know the difference) said if I knew his voice, I could just read the book to myself in his voice.  It was an amusing thought, and I possibly could do that, ….yes, but Eddie’s voice is just so fantastic that it never would have worked properly.  Plus, he throws in easily an extra hours worth of footnotes and rambles that aren’t in the print book!  That’s right, an extra hour’s worth of nonsense if you do the audio.   True you don;t get to see the pictures, but it’s a fair trade-off.

Well the book finally came in and I had plenty of driving time to make short work of this 12 hours behemoth.  And I laughed and laughed.  And cried and cried.

Because while Eddie Izzard is an action transvestite (transgender, now) and one of the best stand-ups around, he is also an extremely warm and thoughtful person. He worked very hard to become the success he is.  And he has used his fame to do some absolutely wonderful things for humanity–including raising millions of dollars.  Not bad for an atheist who is sometimes in girl mode and sometimes in boy mode. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: HEM-Tiny Desk Concert #306 (September 28, 2013).

Hem is one of All Songs Considered‘s earliest discoveries. Back in 2002, we received a beautiful and unique album called Rabbit Songs. It was a homey, fireside kind of record, with a sound that could be called country or Americana, and the arrangements by Dan Messé made it feel quaint and warm. To top it off, there was singer Sally Ellyson, an untrained natural talent with an effortless yet breathtaking voice. Hem has gone on to make five more albums since Rabbit Songs; their latest, Departure and Farewell, finds the group still writing songs that feel as if they’ve always been there.

Bob is quite right about the feel of this band, the drums are actually foot stomping and piano tapping, and that makes the band sound like they are siting around cozy room with friends.   And then there’s her voice.  There’s nothing specific about it that stands out, and yet it really does.  Her voice feels incredibly warm and welcoming, making you want to stop and listen.  And perhaps it’s something about the recording which makes everything feel soft (but not muddy) and warm.

And even in the songs themselves, it feels like friends hanging out.  During “Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing” they say “go George” as the intro to the bass solo and then “go Heather” for the violin solo.   “Tourniquet” has some great lyrics, between the alliteration at the beginning and the great metaphor of the song, I was so taken with the lyrics that I didn’t even realize how pretty the melody was:

Brooklyn, I’m broken — I’m breaking apart
Oh Brooklyn, your bridges are bound up in light —
Every artery’s clogged as you pull the belt tight —
And this tourniquet turns even tighter until
Traffic comes to a standstill

When the song suddenly takes off near the end (but only briefly) it really elevates the song which was already delightful.  Introducing the final song, “Seven Angels” she says they are excited to be there, playing in this format.  She says the song can be seen as a lullaby–she likes to sing it for her sister.  She says she doesn’t write the songs but she can pretend this one is hers.

It’s hard to imagine this band playing a venue much larger than this one–they seems right at home in a small space.

[READ: July 31, 2016] Stop Forgetting to Remember

This is a fascinating story about the comics artist Walter Kurtz.  I know very little about Peter Kuper, but I gather that this is sort of his life but written as an autobiography of somebody else.  (For instance, Kurtz was born on the same day as Kuper).

The back cover blurb also states how daring it was for Kurtz to write all of this –showing the embarrassing details, etc.: “My spouse would have killed me!”

This book is a collection of “stories” (not sure if they were ever published separately) that are joined by the narrative thread of Kurtz telling us about his life.  And the “occasion” for this reflection is the pending birth of his first child.  He is freaking out a bit–when he was young he never wanted kids, and then maybe he was cool with it, but recently he’s become terrified again.  He’s particularly afraid because he’s engaged with the world and he sees that as each month goes by, things get worse: AIDS, global warming, overpopulation, famine, wars (and that’s just 1996). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PATTY GRIFFIN-Tiny Desk Concert #282 (June 24, 2013).

I have Patty Griffin’s first two albums—I like her folkie sensibilities and her voice which I tend to think of as a little unusual.  And yet it’s not unusual here at all.  She sings powerfully and beautifully.

For this Tiny Desk Concert she’s playing some from her then new release:

she takes care to balance the exquisite mourning of “Faithful Son” — and the sweetly somber “That Kind of Lonely,” which Griffin describes as “a song about finally letting go of your delayed adolescence” — by closing her set with the playfully bawdy, kindly celebratory “Get Ready Marie.” Inspired by a favorite photo of her grandparents, the song finds Griffin viewing two complicated lives with the generous, hopeful eye she’s been casting on her subjects for three fruitful decades now.

She opens with “Faithful Son.” I love how the middle of this has a cool section where the two acoustic guitars (played by Griffin and Dave Pulkingham) face each other and strum hard for a bit.  The problem for me with this song is that the baritone guitar (played by Craig Ross) is either out of tune or the Ross hits a few wrong notes.  Since it resonates a bit louder than anything else, it’s really noticeable.  The accordion (played by John Deaderick) isn’t loud enough either.

“That Kind Of Lonely” is, as noted, a song about finally letting go of your delayed adolescence.  It’s a pretty, quiet number.  A good contrast to “Get Ready Marie.”  She says she is always picking on her family for stories.  She says she got this idea from a photograph of her grandparents taken just after they wed in the 1920s.  Her grandmother is looking at the camera like maybe she made the biggest mistake of her life and her grandfather (who looks really handsome) looks like he can’t wait to get his hands on her. They had a wild relationship—plates were lying.  This is a comic bawdy song that sounds like a traditional drinking song with some great lyrics:

No this isn’t the end of our story
No our marriage stuck like a habit
But I had a good hunch, when she kissed me a bunch
She could do other things like a rabbit

It’s in ¾ time and the accordion is louder here and it all sounds terrific.  It’s hard to believe that she’s been playing for 30 years, but she sure sounds like a pro.

[READ: March 26, 2016] Persepolis 2

I found Persepolis to be an amazing book.  A peek inside a regime that was sort of mythically wicked during my childhood. Marjane’s personal story was interesting of course, but I enjoyed seeing just what was happening in this world that seemed so mysterious when I was growing up.

This sequel is a little less exciting because it is more or less about a lonely teenager in Europe.  I think if the first book wasn’t so groundbreaking, this one wouldn’t feel as disappointing.  Her story is interesting and her experiences are story-worthy, but compared to the first book this one is the awkward teenage years.

We see that Marjane’s being sent to Europe didn’t go quite as planned.  She stayed with her mom’s friend.  But the friend fought with her husband all the time and their house was not a happy one. They felt that they couldn’t look after Marjane so they sent her to boarding school in Vienna–Marjane didn’t speak German. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BILLY BRAGG-Tiny Desk Concert #281 (June 17, 2013).

I really like Billy Bragg.  Not necessarily all of his music, but I like a lot of it and I certainly love what he stands for.  If you like his instantly recognizable voice (which I do), then just about anything he does sounds good.  But no doubt some songs are catchier than others.

Bragg played a Tiny Desk Concert in 2016 with someone else as part of a duo.  I’d listened to that one first, but I liked this one more.

For this one he is accompanied on the first two songs by dobro player C.J. Hillman.

Bragg talks a lot–he has many lengthy stories between songs–and he’s pretty much always funny or thoughtful.  He introduces the first song by saying that moving into a new building always has troubles–you’ll always need someone to fix things up.  With that, his first song is called “Handyman Blues.”

It’s a great story song.  I especially like this line:

Don’t be expecting me to put up shelves or build a garden shed / but I can write a song about how much I love you instead.

It’s amusing that in the next song workers actually interrupt his song.  They were “met with lot of hammering on our rooftop by some real handymen as they put the finishing touches on NPR’s new home.”

For the second song they

channeled the spirit of legendary American folksinger Woody Guthrie, with whom Bragg collaborated — albeit posthumously, in Guthrie’s case — when he took Guthrie’s unsung words and set them to song with the help of Wilco. Here, he takes a song Guthrie himself co-opted and altered: a gospel tune (“This World Is Not My Home”) he’d turned into an anthem against inaction.

Bragg introduces this song as saying he took it over when the U.S. was having the debate about universal health care.  He says that people still face all the same problems that this classic song talks about–people losing homes to banks or families struggling to make ends meet.  But the middle verse is about a wife who dies on the floor for want of proper health care.  Bragg says that that doesn’t happen in his country anymore and it’s hard for people in his country to imagine that a generous country like the US still hasn’t resolved that issue (and five years later things are even worse with Trumpcare–#ITMFA #RESIST).

Guthrie called the song “I Ain’t Got No Home (In This World Anymore”).  After he sings a verse, the hammering starts and they pause the song to wait for the work to finish before he re-starts the song.  In the meantime they talk about what his band should do in Washington.  Someone says the National Archives and he jokes the Nashville Archive?  He says that they really enjoyed Nashville.  Then he mentions the National Archive to CJ and says

We can find out how the Americans started the war of 1812.  (chuckles).  I just played Annapolis, they’re still sore about it over there.  Never mind who won the war but who started it.

It’s another nice story song.  The dobro works perfectly with it.

“Sexuality” is the only song on this set that I knew.  It’s an old favorite that is serious and funny as well (and very progressive for when it was written).  It sounds terrific and is super catchy.  Although he comments that the acoustics aren’t that great in this new building–there’s not much bounce back off the walls “for those of us who technically aren’t great singers.  But for those of us who are buskers like myself, it’s not bad.”

Introducing the final song, “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” he says he read an article on the BBC about a kid who proved that economics professors were wrong and the article commented that “the trouble with economics is that no one knows nothing anymore.”  He says that had just written a song with that same name, so he’s with the zeitgeist.

He also interjects that there will be pedants–“and there are one or two who listen to NPR, I’m sure” who will write in to say it should be ‘no one knows anything any more.’  But the first thing they teach you at songwriting school is that alliteration trumps grammar.

And then he starts strumming “Sexuality “and says “Oh, I’ve just played that.”

“No One Knows Nothing Anymore” is a nice folkie, very-Billy Bragg song–good melody and really good lyrics.

At the end, as the camera fades to black he says “Chris, pass the hat around.”

I’m so happy that Billy Bragg is still making music.

[READ: March 26, 2016] Persepolis

This graphic novel is legendary, and I’m embarrassed it has taken me 13 years to read it.

Persepolis is a memoir of a young girl growing up in Iran during the 70s and 80s.  I appreciated the contextualizing introduction in which she explains the history of the country.

The introduction lays out a basic outline of the history of Iran and the Middle East (that goes all the way back to B.C years).  She explains that Iran has always been a rich nation and has constantly been under attack.  When oil was discovered, the West came calling.  Great Britain wielded a powerful influence over Iranian economy.  During WWII, Iran remained neutral but then was invaded by the west.

The Prime Minister of Iran (not the Shah) nationalized the oil industry in 1951 which led to an embargo and a coup organized by the CIA.  The leader, Reza Shah was succeeded by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah–known simply as the Shah of Iran.  The Shah stayed in power until 1979 when he fled to escape the Islamic Revolution.

She says that since the Islamic revolution Iran has been associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism, but she knows that this is far from the truth.  And that’s what inspired her to writ this book.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DONNY McCASLIN-Tiny Desk Concert #589 (January 9, 2017).

Donny McCaslin’s band was responsible for the jazzy music that propelled David Bowie’s final album.  As the Tiny Desk blurb says:

David Bowie had long wanted to make a record with a jazz band, and on Jan. 8 of last year, he realized his dream with the release of Blackstar. Two days later, he was gone. Donny McCaslin’s band helped him make that record, and now, a year later, we pay tribute to Bowie and Blackstar by bringing McCaslin’s band

As a bandleader and sax player, [McCaslin’s] put out a dozen albums, the most recent of which is Beyond Now, with musicians Tim Lefebvre on bass, drummer Mark Guiliana and keyboardist Jason Lindner.

Beyond Now was recorded after Blackstar, features a few Bowie covers and stretches the band’s own usual boundaries. For this Tiny Desk concert, you can hear an extraordinary group playing extraordinary music — including an instrumental version of “Lazarus,” from Blackstar.

The band plays three pieces.  “Shake Loose” is 7 and a half minutes.  The music is great behind the sax—dramatic and interesting.  I think I just don’t care for the sound of saxophones as much these days, because I love the bass thumping and the great sounds from the keys but the soloing doesn’t excite me.  I love in the middle of the song that there are really cool spacey sound on the keys.   And the whole middle section where it’s the keys playing weirdo stuff and the drums keeping a groovy jazz beat–that’s awesome.

So I may be the only person in America who has not heard the whole of Blackstar.  I actually don’t even really like the one song I did hear (I don’t care for the jazzy parts).  So I can’t compare this six-minute instrumental version to the original of “Lazarus.”  I love that the keyboard is playing a very convincing grungy guitar sound.  I’m not sure if the sax is doing a vocal line or just playing around, but I love the music for this song a lot.

“Glory” is about the glory of the creation of the beautiful world that we live in “that will hopefully be intact as we move forward.”  This is an 11 minute song with all kinds of great swirling keyboard sounds.  I really like this song—the bass and keys together are great.  And either I’ve grown more used to the sax or its mixed a little lower, but it works so much better with the music.  About three minutes in there’s a lengthy trippy mid-70s Pink Floyd echoing synth solo.  Which is pretty cool.  So overall, I really enjoyed this set.  And maybe I need to go give Blackstar a listen.

[READ: March 25, 2016] Around

I really enjoyed Phelan’s Bluffton.  The story was interesting and I really enjoyed Phelan’s artwork–subtle with delicate coloring and very thin, expressive lines.

This book also contains Phelan’ wonderful artwork and the story (or stories) are also really interesting.  For this is a book about three remarkable journeys around the world.

Phelan gives a fictionalized (but accurate) history of the adventures of Thomas Stevens (Wheelman in 1884), Nellie Bly (Girl Reporter 1889) and Joshua Slocum (Mariner 1895).

I hadn’t heard of the two men and I found their stories quiet fascinating.  I knew of Bly’s journey but I didn’t know all of the details and I found it equally interesting. (more…)

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