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Archive for the ‘Conor Oberst’ Category

[ATTENDED: February 10, 2018] First Aid Kit

I first heard First Aid Kit from a Tiny Desk Concert back in 2012. I was immediately transported by their harmonies. And by the fact that the office looks dark and like they are the only ones in it (Bob, if you read this, if anyone deserves a second Tiny Desk it’s these two–maybe one with lights on!)

I also knew that Sarah would love them, which she did when I put “Emmylou” and “The Lion’s Roar” on a disc for her.  Then we bought the album and she’s become a bigger fan than me.

They played XPN Fest in 2015, but our first year at the Fest was 2016, so we didn’t have an opportunity to see them live until now.  Understandably, this show sold out pretty quickly, but I was quick on the draw and got my tickets right away.

When we got to Union Transfer there was a long line to get in (that ever happens!) And then there was a long (very orderly) line to get merch.  We knew we had to get one of the gorgeous posters which were of somewhat limited supply–although I saw at the end of the show that  they still had some, so I guess poor Sarah didn’t have to carry it all night long.

We were still pretty early and got a good location. The first wonderful thing about the crowd was that they were all short–except for one guy who was literally a foot taller than everyone else (he was very nice and a future librarian and was not in our way).  And unlike some of the more intense shows I’ve been to, nobody pushed his way up front at the last minute.  The crowd was courteous and polite (and even though it was sold out it didn’t feel cramped (maybe half the people had the flu)). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FIRST AID KIT-Stay Gold (2014).

This album was also produced by Mike Mogis, who did The Lion’s Roar.  And with each new album, the “duo” of Klara and Johanna Söderberg grows bigger and bigger.  This album adds a full string section as well as a mellotron, vibraphone and lap dulcimer (these last three all thanks to Mogis.

“My Silver Lining” is an incredibly catchy, swinging song.  In addition to the cool strings and the lovely oooh melody, it’s that big bold “Woah oh” that really sells the song.  I also love the whispered vocals at the end the “try to keep on keeping on” is really cool and a very different sound for them.

“Master Pretender” has some interesting instrumentation–a bass clarinet in the first verse, fiddles and pedal steel in the second verse and striking lap dulcimer in the chorus.  It’s also the first instance of them cursing I think, “I always thought that you’d be here / But shit gets fucked up and people just disappear.”

“Stay Gold” a beautiful chorus sets this song apart, the melody is really great.  “Cedar Lane” is a slower song that focuses on the sisters’ harmonies in the beginning but the chorus inspires with those soaring falsetto notes.  But the biggest and best surprise of this song comes nearly 4 minutes in when the song shifts to an intense refrain of “how could I break away from you?”

“Shattered & Hollow” is a slower, more mellow song with an interesting percussion.  “The Bell” has some unexpected melody lines but soaring vocals, but it all coalesces wonderfully in the last minute “Can you hear the bell?” in great harmony.

“Waitress Song” is so wonderfully down to earth (if not depressing):

I could move to a small town / And become a waitress / Say my name was Stacy / And I was figuring things out / See, my baby, he left me / And I don’t feel like staying here tonight

I also love the way they sing this line in the folky style of the song despite referencing a very different type of song:

I remember the music / From the down stair’s bar: Girls, they just want to have fun

The way the ending of this song redeems itself with the cool lap steel and their ooohs as well as an uplifting ending makes this a surprisingly powerful track:

I could drive out to the ocean / And just stare in awe / I could walk across the beaches / And sleep under the stars / Our love would seem trivial and obscure / Now and never feel lost anymore

“Fleeting One” This song moves along really nicely with some amazing high notes in harmony.  “Heaven Knows” is their by-now familiar autoharp song.  Except that it also combines the rocking elements of the previous albums’ “King of the World” a shuffling guitar, stomping drums and great good fun. And while the last album had them shout FIRE! in the middle of Conor Oberst’s verse, this time they up the ante further by slowing things down and sing

Tell me what’s your story / do you think it’ll ever sell / and what’ll you do if it comes down to it / and it all goes…. STRAIGHT TO HELL!

“A Long Time Ago” ends the album as a dramatic piano ballad.  It sounds really quite different for them.

So this album builds on everything they’ve been working on, adding more and more sounds and getting their voices to sound somehow even better.

[READ: January 30, 2018] “The Boundary”

This story is from the point of view of a young girl whose family looks after a small cottage.  The cottage is in the Italian countryside.  Her family is not Italian (they are from very far away), and when they moved to Italy they first lived in the city.  The countryside is about as alien to them as they can imagine  And they don’t especially like it.

Every Saturday a new family comes to stay in the cottage.  And those people love the countryside, can’t stop talking about how great it is.

The girl who looks after the cottage is familiar with the routine.

There’s usually four of them–two parents two kids. The girl shows them around, shows them the mouse poison and tells them to kill the flies at night because their buzzing will wake them up in the morning.

As the guests settle in, she pretends to ignore them, but she always watches–especially when they leave the screen doors open.  Since the cottage is so close, she can hear everything the family says. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: FIRST AID KIT-The Lion’s Roar (2012).

This album was my first exposure to First Aid Kit and I immediately loved the harmonies and the dark but positive-sounding vocals.

I’m probably one of ten people on earth who doesn’t love Bright Eyes, but I love the production by Bright Eyes’ Mike Mogis (with contributions from Bright Eyes’ Nate Walcott and band leader Conor Oberst–maybe I need to re-listen to Bright Eyes).

The first song I’d heard was the opening cut “The Lion’s Roar.”  The song starts with a minor key guitar chord progression and “electronic flute.”  It’s atmospheric and a bit spooky-sounding, but when they come in with the chorus “And I’m a goddamn coward, but then again so are you” in wonderful harmony that is at times right on and other times kind of dissonant, it’s goose-bump-inducing.  Oh wow. what a moment

Pitchfork describes that electronic flute as “one deeply eerie flute tone that lingers throughout, floating in and out of scenes like a sly specter” and that’s pretty accurate.

It’s followed by “Emmylou” the most gorgeous country song I’ve ever heard, complete with pedal steel guitar and a wonderfully evocative chorus: “I’ll be your Emmylou, and I’ll be your June/ If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny, too,” (do watch them sing it to Emmylou Harris at an award ceremony and watch her brought to tears).

“In The Hearts Of Men” slows things down with some wonderful moments as the sisters sing the “la la las” throughout the chorus.  Once again, there’s surprisingly dark lyrics for two women around 23 and 21.  And speaking of dark lyrics, the pretty xylophone and guitar play a chirpy melody in “Blue” which has this stark and dark verse:

And the only man you ever loved / You thought was gonna marry you / Died in a car accident when he was only 22 / Then you just decided, love wasn’t for you / And every year since then / Has proved it to be true

Damn.  How does a song with that lyrics have a beautiful soaring chorus that is so uplifting and Abba-esque and yet again lyrically:

But you’re just a shell of / Your former you / That stranger in the mirror / Oh, that’s you / Why’d you look so blue?

“This Old Routine” features more of that uncanny, how are you only 21 years old lyrics sung with such beautiful harmony (and delicate mandolin sprinkled in):

This old routine will drive you mad
It’s just a mumble never spoken out loud
And sometimes you don’t even know why you loved her.
Well you look at her now, and you see why.

The second half of the song has strings and such, playing a simple five note melody.  There’s a moment near the end where the strings play that five note riff and its followed by the mandolin playing the same melody one step up and it’s just gorgeous.

“To a Poet” has a fast tight guitar melody.  As the song builds, a harmonium is added.  The chorus goes in a high register until the simple catchy end line: “There’s nothing more to it / I just get through it.”  The poet in question is Frank O’Hara

But Frank put it best when he said
“You can’t plan on the heart”
Those words keep me on my feet
When I think I might just fall apart

The string section ending is bit of a surprise since neither one of them palsy on it but it does add some nice texture to this song that has just grown from a tiny guitar to full orchestration over the course of 6 minutes.

That cool flute sound returns on “I Found a Way,” as it runs through the falsetto-filled chorus.  “Dance To Another Tune” slows things down for a while until the middle features another string section.  This time the sisters add their “bah bah bahs” to it and it sound terrific.

“New Year’s Eve” brings back the autoharp (you can really hear the plectrum zipping along the strings–something I’ve never noticed when others play it).  It’s a suitably quiet song with a gentle harmony on the final line of the chorus: “that’s what’s going to save me.”  And I love that no other instrumentation is added.

The end of the record is quite different from anything else.  “King of the World’ is a dynamic romp, easily their fastest, loudest, stompingest song.  It’s got a full band behind them and a vocal turn from Conor Oberst.  There’s all kinds of strings and mandolin tucked in the corners that peek out here and there.  There’s even horns which sound a bit like Calexico.

This album is just fantastic.  And their harmonies get better and more confident with each album.

[READ: January 22, 2018] “Writing Teacher”

I have not really enjoyed any of the stories I’ve read by Wideman.  This was the first one that I felt was on the right path to my enjoyment.  And then it kind of drifted away from me at the end.

It also features one of the things I hate most in stories–more on that in a moment.

This is the story of a writing teacher.  He is reading and reviewing a story by a student, Teresa McConnell who, “wants to help other people.”  The story “wishes to save the life of its main character, a young woman of color, a few years out of high school, single, child to support, no money, shitty job, living with her mother who never misses an I-told-you-so chance to criticize her daughter’s choices.”

What I hate most in stories comes a few sentences later: (more…)

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boilenSOUNDTRACK: ANGEL OLSEN-Tiny Desk Concert #333 (January 27, 2014).

angelBob Boilen has liked Angel Olsen for some time, so when she did her Tiny Desk and most of us had never heard of her, he was already a fan.

Olsen plays a long set but with four songs.

She sits very still, strumming with her thumb and singing kind of low–not unlike Sharon van Etten.  The first song, “Unfucktheworld” is only two ans a half minutes.  The second song, “Iota,” is a little longer.  She sings in an affected almost falsetto style, although the guitar remains very spare.

Between these songs, she is coy about the title of the new record although she is quick to say the first word of the title “burn.”  Later she admits that the final song contains the title of the album, if we wanted to spend time figuring it out.

I marvelled at how high the chords were that she played on “Enemy,”  She seems to eschew any bass for this song.  This one is five and a half minutes long and is just as slow as the others.

Before the final song they talk about whether this is the most awkward show she has done.  She says everyone is very alert–and indeed you can hear utter silence between songs.  But then they talk about the storm outside (and potential tornado) and how this show may never air if the storm is really bad.

“White Fire” is an 8 minute story song.  She does use the whole guitar for this one, which has many many verses.   Since I don’t really know Olsen’s stuff that well, I don’t know if this was a good example of her show or a fun treat to hear her in such an intimate way.

[READ: May 10, 2016] Your Song Changed My Life

This site is all about music and books, but you may be surprised to know that I don’t really like books about music all that much.  I have read a number of them—biographies, autobiography or whatever, and I don’t love them wholesale. Some are fine, but in general musicians aren’t really as interesting as they may seem.

What I do like however, is hearing a decent interview with musicians to find out some details about them–something that will flesh out my interest in them or perhaps make me interested in someone I previously wasn’t.  Not a whole book, maybe just an article, I guess.

I also really like Bob Boilen. I think he’s a great advocate of music and new bands.  I have been listening to his shows on NPR for years and obvious I have been talking about hundreds of the Tiny Desk Concerts that he originated.  I also really like his taste in music.  So I was pretty psyched when Sarah got me this book for my birthday.

I read it really quickly–just devoured the whole thing.  And it was really enjoyable. (more…)

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freedomSOUNDTRACK: CRASH TEST DUMMIES-Jingle all the way… (2002).

ctdEven though the Crash Test Dummies are often seen as a joke band or a one hit wonder (which I guess they are), I’ve liked them for a while (their earlier stuff a lot more than their later stuff, admittedly).  But it seemed like they’d have a fun take on Christmas music.

And it starts out in a comical sort of way with Brad Robert’s deeper-than-ever voice reciting about his life in Los Angeles, where it is warm and sunny at Christmas time.  I like that he rhymes 24th with up north.  The spoken section is quite loud in the mix (it sounds like he is right in your ear).  Unfortunately, that is the case when he starts singing too–he is uncomfortably loud in the mix and it sounds like he is holding back because of it–he doesn’t sound great and his voice sounds more comical than interesting.  Which is a shame because the music (with cheesey keyboards) is great.

Roberts sings lead on about half of the songs.  Ellen Reid sings lead on the other half except for a couple where they split lead duties.

The rest of Robert’s songs include: “Jingle Bells” (which is certainly comical–it sounds like a chain gang song with the “Hey!s” sounding almost like a prison chant).  It’s weird and cool though (even if his voice is once again too loud in the mix).  “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” has his voice mixed much better–he seems to be really singing.  And this version–a loungey/jazzy rendition is much great fun.  “God King Wenceslas” sounds proper (with Reid’s close backing vocals).  It has a pretty penny whistle keeping the song going.

Ellen Reid has a great voice and I love hearing her sing.  But in the first two songs she sings lead on in this disc she sounds like she is singing too slowly.  “O Little Town of Bethlehem” especially sounds like the music is going to pass her up at any minute.  I also don’t like the country vibe of the song.  “In the Bleak Midwinter” is also (intentionally) slow, which I don’t like.  Perhaps I just don’t like this song (although I do think the melody is lovely).  “The Little Drummer Boy” is beautiful and Robert’s bass backing vocals are perfect.  “Silent Night” is done in a countryish style, but I like this version.  Although normally this song can make me cry, this version absolutely does not–too honky tonkish.

The final song, “The Huron Carol” is quite formal and proper–just Reid and a piano opening the song.  It sounds very holy, very pretty.  When Robert’s bass backing vocals come in, it adds more depth to the song.  And it’s a lovely way to end.

[READ: October 30, 2014] Freedom

I read this a couple months ago and then got so caught up in reading other things that I never got around to posting about it.  And that’s a bummer because I really liked the book a lot and I fear that I won’t remember everything I wanted to say about it.

I had read a couple of excerpts from the book in the New Yorker (quite some time ago).  They were helpful in grounding the story for me, but they didn’t prepare me for the breadth of the story.  It follows one family, the Berglunds, through several decades, focusing on each of them in great detail as they navigate through the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and a smidge of the Obama years.

The Berglunds are a liberal family.  They were among the first white families to move onto their urban street in St. Paul, Minnesota (after white flight to the burbs).  Patty is a charming (some say smug) homemaker and Walter is a lawyer (public defendant, naturally).  They have two kids, Jessica and Joey.  Patty dotes on Joey to an embarrassing degree (Joey is embarrassed by it, Jessica is infuriated by it and even Patty is kind of embarrassed when she really thinks about it).  At the same time she is rather neglectful of Jessica.  Naturally, Jessica becomes quite the success (loves reading, committed to the environment), while Joey rebels and finds all kinds of ways to disappoint them and make money.  (This isn’t a bad thing, but the family has plenty of money and Joey doesn’t need to (especially not the way he goes about it).  Not to mention Walter and Patty are not into the money for money’s sake thing.

The book opens that there was some “news” about Walter. He and Patty had moved to Washington DC two years earlier.  He clearly did something bad (we won’t find out until much later).  But that serves as an introduction to the Berglunds.  And then we go back to see them, years earlier, settling into St Paul. (more…)

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regifterSOUNDTRACK: CONOR OBERST-Tiny Desk Concert #367 (June 23, 2014).

conoI’ve never been a fan of Conor Oberst (or any of his many bands). I really don’t like his voice, which I admit sounds sometimes like Paul Westerberg, but I’d just rather listen to Paul Westerberg. But one nice thing about watching the Tiny Desk Concerts is that it gets you to focus on a band for fifteen minutes to really see an artist perform.

I still don’t really like Oberst’s voice, but I like his song construction and he seems like a very nice guy. On this current tour, Dawes is his backing band and for the Tiny Desk Concert Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith from Dawes accompany him. And I think they really help the songs grow.

“Time Forget “ is certainly a catchy song and when Dawes kicks in it sounds really good. “Double Life” features a little too much of just Oberst (his voice is really quite wavery at times here—he says it’s early to be singing), but the parts with Dawes are fuller and meatier. “Zigzagging Towards the Light” has very weird backing vocals from the Goldsmiths–I find them unsettling almost like ghosts.   Although Oberst’s voice sounds better here and by the end the song they come together very nicely. “Artifact #1” is a nice collaborative song (I feel like Dawes’ contribution makes the song really shine).

As the show ends, Oberst presents to Bob Boilen an even Tinier Desk which is very funny, and Oberst says he regrets wearing the heavy coat (which does look uncomfortable).

[READ: July 5, 2014] Re-gifters

This was an interesting story about a young girl, Jen Dickson, who has two things going on in her life: lust for a boy and an upcoming Hapkido competition.

Jen (real name Dik Seong Jen, but Koreans put the first name last so it becomes Jen Dickson or Dixie as her friends call her) is excellent at Hapkido—she is intense and channels her anger and energy into her Ki.  At least she was until she fell for classmate Adam.  Now suddenly Adam is all she can think about and her Ki has gone out the window. Sadly for her, not only doesn’t Adam know she exists, she wasn’t even invited to his birthday party—and everyone was invited to his party.  Jen’s best friend Avril helps her out through most of this—they’re in hapkido class together and hang out all the time.   Avril describes Jen’s personality as spiky.

Jens’ family is not rich, but they value Hapkdio as a traditional sport, so they are willing to pay for her lessons, especially since she is so good.  Her mom makes jewelry and sells it at a local market. One day, when delivering the jewelery she is harassed and called all kinds of racist names by some street thugs. Surprisingly, one of them, Dillinger, comes to her rescue, telling his boys not to pick on the little girl. He sends her running (even though she was about ready to fight). While at the store she sees a beautiful Hwarang Warrior figure. It costs $199, and there’s no way she can afford it.

These stories converge in a painfully obvious way. There is an upcoming Hapkido competition. The entry is $100, so her father gives her the money. Then, it turns out that her invitation to Adam’s party was put in the wrong locker at school. She thinks the warrior would make a great present for Adam, so she uses that tournament money and her own money to buy this $200 item (gasp!). (more…)

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chomuSOUNDTRACK: THE FAINT-“Help in the Head” (2014)

doom“Help in the Head” opens with an incredible amount of feedback and squalling noise–some of it natural and other parts sounding quite processed.  After ten seconds the song begins properly with a pounding drum and buzzing guitars.  The song is quite simple–a catchy melody that blossoms once the bridge kicks in (with some “oh ohs”).  The chorus is also simple and catchy, “I just meant you needed help in the head” with all kinds of fuzzy screaming swirling around.  A few minutes later, the song ends with more noise, just as it began.

The Faint has been around a long time and are on Saddle Creek records, home to Conor Oberst and his many bands (he was in an original incarnation of The Faint). The song has much in common with Oberst’s style of pop–simple melodies and very catchy structures, but it is so overlaid with noise and distortion that it takes it out of the realm of simple pop music into a pop music that is actually abrasive..

[READ: February 21, 2014] The Galaxy Club

Brendan Connell is back with his most daring book yet.  Daring, because it is so very different from what he usually writes.

I have really enjoyed Connell’s audacity in his previous books–whether it was the extensive research done into both cooking and history in Lives of Notorious Cooks (2012) or the brutality that religion can inspire in The Architect (2012) or his exploration into extremely transgressive behavior in Metrophilias (2010).  He has never been afraid to push the edge of the envelope into unexpected areas.  But what makes this book so daring is that it is, for the most part, pretty “normal.”  Book covers don’t typically indicate anything really, but this book cover, in sober black and white, really conveys the feeling of the book–gritty, small town, hardscrabble Southwest.

And yet despite the somewhat conventional nature of the story, there are also fantastical elements.  Each chapter is narrated by a different (sometimes recurring) character.  Some are narrated by “Those Underground,” and “Demon Taming Stick” and even “Prawn Dragon Colonel.”  But they are also narrated by normal folks.  Connell’s past work in creating manifold characters in his short stories really pays off for the number and divergent characters he has here.

The main characters are a man named Cleopatra–who claims to be the Queen of the Nile herself.  The Montoya family: Ibbie, Theodore and their son Blue Boy.  The Roybal family: Elmer and his aunt Ramona.  And a police officer named Alfonso Torcuato Southerland-Hevia y Miranda who claims to be switched at birth with Elmer–but he claims he bears no grudge. (more…)

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