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Archive for the ‘Sufjan Stevens’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: SUFJAN STEVENS, BRYCE DESSNER, NICO MUHLY-“Mercury” (Field Recordings, June 8, 2017).

I love Sufjan’s Steven’s voice.  And this song, from the Planetarium project is just beautiful.  [Watch Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly And Bryce Dessner Play ‘Planetarium’ Track ‘Mercury’]  It opens with just the simple repeating piano melody and Stevens’ singing.  Eventually a guitar is added, playing complimentary melody.

Steven’s voice remains pure and powerful in this live recording. The viola from Nadia Sirota adds a lovely counterpoint to this song and leads it into the middle part which is minor keys and stings.

“Mercury” is the closing track off Planetarium, a song cycle about the planets by Stevens, Dessner, Muhly and James McAlister. The work was originally composed on commission for the Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven, and first performed there in 2012. Five turns around the sun later, Planetarium will arrive in recorded form on June 9 via 4AD. “Mercury” is one of the most intimate songs on the record, a quality that’s emphasized by its spot just after the 15-minute, ambient, electronic epic, “Earth.” Where the record’s other songs foreground synthesizers and spastic electric drum samples reminiscent of 2010’s The Age of Adz, “Mercury” largely rests on Muhly’s gentle piano work and Stevens’ beautiful vocal. Where once, in the original live performances, the song swelled to a cinematic rush on the order of Illinois, it’s now spare and elegant. Its warm intimacy is all the more apparent in the group’s live performance, which features Dessner of The National lightly doubling on guitar Stevens’ wordless refrain at the song’s close. Like many of the pieces on the record, its lyrics are a constellation of the cosmic, the personal and the mythological. The song, named for the messenger god, is a perfect musical setting for the feeling of having something dear carried away from you. “All that I’ve known to be of life / and I am gentle,” Stevens sings. “

I love hearing his voice live, because it’s so perfect on record and while this is in no way imperfect, it lets us see a bit of humanity.  Even if this recording isn’t in a field or even an unconventional space, it’s still quite lovely.

[READ: January 3, 2015] “Little Man”

I feel like it takes a lot if chutzpah to recreate a story that is familiar to everyone.  This is the story of Rumpelstiltskin as told from the point of view of the little man himself.

But the twist on it is that Rumpelstiltskin isn’t a strange psycho bent on stealing children.  Rather, he is a lonely man, with no hope of finding love or having a child of his own.  Indeed, the first section is taken up with the man’s desire to have a child and his belief that having a child is not like ordering a pizza, which is how many couples seems to take it.

The story is written in second person (you), so it is meant to be even more intimate. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MOSES SUMNEY-Tiny Desk Concert #678 (November 29, 2017).

I had never heard of Moses Sumney before this show.  And the blurb seems to anticipate this:

If you don’t know this Los-Angeles-based force of nature, and haven’t heard him on tour with James Blake or Sufjan Stevens or perhaps on albums by Beck or Solange, then this is your chance to watch one of the most thoughtful talents of today as he makes music that is outside the box but easy to relate and connect to.

I’m very curious to know what he did with Beck.

I found Moses’ voice to be mesmerizing–a gorgeous soaring falsetto that he seemed to effortless get to rise higher and higher.  But beyond that, the blurb talks about his lyrics:

Moses Sumney puts a great deal of thought into the heartfelt music he creates. On his debut album, Aromanticism, he was inspired by everything from the works of Plato and Aristophanes’ account of the origin of humanity to the Bible, particularly Genesis and the story of creation. It’s all in an attempt to understand human relationships and the sorts of couplings we tend to be drawn to.

He plays 3 songs in the 20 minute time frame.  I wanted to describe the first song, but Bob’s description is too good:

The concert opens up with Moses not behind my desk, but at the piano we keep in our office. As his team of sax, harp and guitar players set up, Moses sat at the piano and began to play “Doomed.” He had instructed the band, which had already perched behind my desk 40 or so feet away, to create a transition for him to walk from piano to desk, continuing one of the most inspired 8-minute stretches I’ve witnessed here at the Tiny Desk.

So he plays the pretty piano melody and sings with those gorgeous falsetto vocals for about a minute and a half.  Then he strolls (in his cape) to the desk.  He activates some looping pedals.  He plays a beat on the microphone and then Sam Gendel plays a cool modified sax solo.  After 2 minutes of set up, he sings again.  The beats are in full and Brandee Younger is playing some simple gorgeous harp and Mike Haldeman has some echoed guitar on top.  Meanwhile, Sam has switched to a synth and Moses is also playing some kind of synth.  The song builds beautifully and he sings in a  higher and higher register.  It starts to sound otherworldly with the harp and his voice and the loops going faster and faster.  And then the wall of noise abruptly ends and the final minute is delicate and lovely.

He introduces the band and then says “we’re going to keep making noise.”  And then “hopefully no one’s printer goes off” (wonder if that happened).

“Quarrel” opens with him looping his own voice and then playing it faster and faster so it sound like a skipping CD.  Sam has picked up a guitar to pluck out notes (the head of his guitar is fascinating and I want to see it better).  Throughout the song Moses hits that looped vocal section for one or two seconds to add texture–it’s pretty cool.  The mix of that harsh(ish) electronic sound and the angelic harp is wonderful.

For the final song, “Plastic,” he removes his cape.  Everybody else leaves and he says “I want to make more room… for me!”  He picks up a guitar and says, “This is the end.  The bitter end.  Although for some of you, it will be sweet because it’s ending.”  It’s interesting how self-deprecating he is when his voice is so gorgeous.

This final song is much more jazzy with him playing interesting chords and singing to the guitar.  Overall it’s a bit less exciting than the other songs possibly because the last minute or so is just him repeating the line “my wings are made of plastic.”

But overall, Moses Sumney really impressed me with this set.  Right up to the end where he sinks slowly below the desk, to much laughter.

[READ: March 6, 2017] Wade and the Scorpion’s Claw

The Copernicus Legacy is a four book series.  But, in an interesting diversion, there are also two “extra” books inserted between the first two.  They are smaller and do not exactly affect the continuity of the main story, but they seem to delve into one character a little further (and there is some plot advancement).

Interestingly, Book One of the main series ends with Kaplans and their friends leaving Guam for New York.  The second book of the series opens with them in New York.  But this book, the first of the The Copernicus Archives, takes place between Guam and New York.  The big difference is that unlike the main books, this is told entirely from Wade’s Point of view.

En route to New York, the family has to stop in Hawaii.  They are in the airport for a while and they trust no one.  They are waiting for the flight to San Francisco when there are two notable people in the airport around them.  There’s a German man (you can tell by his shoes, Lily whispers) in a leather coat.  The kids don’t trust him and call him Leathercoat.  And then there’s a Chinese man doing acrobatics and other tricks to amuse some children while they wait. (more…)

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solomonSOUNDTRACK: RYAN KEBERLE & CATHARSIS-Tiny Desk Concert #393 (October 4, 2014).

keberleWhen Trombone Shorty played the Tiny Desk I said that I was surprised to see that the leader of the band was a trombone player.  Well, perhaps it’s not that unusual as Ryan Keberle is a trombonist as well.  But unlike many recent jazz performers, Keberle & Catharsis aren’t showing off. As the blurb puts it, “he’s not after any high-concept framing. He’s just targeting the sweet spot where a nifty arrangement meets a solid groove.”

This band plays pretty traditional jazz (complete with upright bass solos and everything). Although, interestingly, their first song is a cover of  Sufjan Stevens song (turns out that Keberle toured with Stevens).  “Sister” is my favorite of their three songs.  I really enjoyed when the full band kicked in after the intro riff from Keberle.  The band has a vocalist, Camila Meza, who mainly does wordless vocal sounds.  As the song nears its end she does sing lead vocals, and it’s quite pleasant.

Her vocals work pretty well for this song, but I didn’t like it is much later.  That could be because “Sister” is a catchy pop song, where the other songs are jazzy.  And I find her singing style to be a little lite-Fm for my tastes.

“Gallop” is a bit faster than the first song.  It moves along at a nice clip and then stops for a bass and drum solo–very very jazzy.  There’s a trumpet solo in the middle of song too (no trombone solos which is interesting, I guess).  The other guys in the band are Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Jorge Roeder on bass and Eric Doob on drums.

“Zone” opens with two contradicting three note riffs on both trombone and trumpet which is pretty cool.  Then the song settles down to just bass drums and voice and Keberle playing the melodica (beloved instrument of Tiny Desk Concerts) which works but sounds odd in the mix.  It seems like the song is going to end as the music fades to just bass, but it soon picks up again with anew trumpet solo.

I don’t love mellow jazz like this, but these players are excellent.

[READ: April 13, 2016] Solomon’s Thieves

I had this book on hold for quite some time.  When it finally came in, I thought, hey this art looks familiar.  And then hey, this book is about the Templar knights, what a strange thing that First Second would have two book about the Templar Knights.   And then as I flipped through it I realized the author and artists were the same.  And for a split second I though, they wrote two books about the Templar Knights?

And then it came to me that the first part of Templar was called “Solomon’s Thieves.”  And that this is indeed the First Part published long before Templar actually came out in full.

So even thought I had read the whole of Templar not too long ago, I decided to read this as well   As far as I can tell it is exactly the same as the first part of Templar.  Although it’s possible that there are some minor changes, I wasn’t sure if things that I didn’t remember were just because I can’t remember everything, you know?

Perhaps because I had read the full book not too long ago, I really enjoyed this run though again.  Since everything looked familiar, it was fun to pick up on things I missed the first time, and to see how things made a little more sense once I could tell who everyone was and what their roles were (there is something to be said for re-reading).

I’m including what I wrote about the first part of Templar here because it’s the same, but if you want more about the whole book or background about the Templar Knights check out the full post.

As the story opens we see Martin, a Knight, looking longingly at a woman, Isabelle.  We learn that he had been “dating” her (or whatever they called it back then) and then one day he found out that she left to be married to the brother of King Philip.  So he joined the Knights.  As they march through the city, we see that they are drunkards and carousers.  They get in all manner of trouble.  And one evening they were heading back to Paris when suddenly the above dictum was established–all Knights were to be arrested.  And Martin is one of them.

But through some excellent machinations (and good fighting) he escapes.  And he soon joins together with a very unlikely band of merry men, including Brother Dominic (a real priest with the tonsure and everything) and Brother Bernard, a loutish drunken man who is not above thieving from people.  Martin is offended at the thought of working with him, and they wind up at odds with each other from the start.  Before the end of the first book, we see that they have a letter revealing where all of the Templar gold and jewels are hidden.

There’s a great bit of accounting work done in which the bookkeeper shows on his ledger that rooms were empty when in fact it appears that the gold was taken out on hay carts.  The bookkeeper, even under torture, swears he knows nothing of the fortune’s whereabouts.

Mechner tells a really exciting story with humor and sadness.  The fact that it’s linked to history is just a bonus.  Another winner for First Second and their #1oyearsof01 anniversary.

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[ATTENDED: December 7, 2015] Gabriel Kahane

2015-12-07 20.42.05After seeing Punch Brothers on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, I found out that they were playing at State Theatre in New Brunswick (a great venue that often has amazing bands, but also has seats so its, you know, dignified).

I found out the day before the show that the opening act was Gabriel Kahane.  I was under the impression that I had never heard of him.  Well, technically I had never heard of him, but I had heard him as he has done arrangements for Loudon Wainwright III and Sufjan Stevens.  And, it turns out he wrote a song that Punch Brothers sing on their new EP.

Anyhow, I got to the stage about one minute late, so I missed the proper introduction.  I walked in as Kahane was standing on stage with his guitar.  And what he played sounded…nice.  He has a pleasant voice and was playing interesting chords.

I anticipated 40 minutes of pleasant, if unremarkable, solo songwriting stuff.  Then he sat at the piano. (more…)

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bolano SOUNDTRACK: SUFJAN STEVENS Christmas Unicorn: Songs for Christmas, Vol. X (2010).

sufjan 10This is the final disc in the second Sufjan Steven Christmas box set.  It is comprised of mostly shorter songs except for the final one which is 13 minutes long.

Interspersed in the disc are three short instrumentals (under a minute each).  “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” “Angels We Have Heard On High” and “We Three Kings” are all pretty with flutes and minimal electronics.

The more traditional songs are “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” which sounds very much like a Sufjan song with some fun electronic sounds and orchestration and some unusual vocals.  “Up on the Housetop” features lots of drums and layered vocals. It is the standard version but tinkered with with in fun ways.  “We Need a Little Christmas” is a fun and traditional version with choral vocals.

The other three tracks are originals from Sufjan.  “Happy Karma Christmas” a slow track of mostly drums and echoed vocals. It reminds me of Beck’s discoey electronic moments.  “Justice Delivers Its Death” is based on the lyrics of “Silver and Gold” (from Rudolph) but it is a much darker song (obviously, given the title) and sounds nothing like it.

The final track is “Christmas Unicorn.”  It’s a sweet song with funny/thoughtful lyrics.  After three minutes it turns into a nice instrumental.  At the four minute mark a new refrain begins. It sounds like the song is going to fade to end, but it doesn’t. At 6:30, drums come back in and the song takes off with more singers and a fugue style of interweaving vocals.  At 7:36 a new melody is introduced which is, Joy Divisions’ “Love will Tear Us Apart.” They incorporate that into the fugue vocals and it works very well.  It’s a strange song and very unChristmassey, but it’s very cool and quite catchy by the end.

I don’t enjoy this second box set as much as the first, since it is so unChristmassey, but it has some really interesting songs on it.

[READ: December 13, 2014] Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations

I don’t often read biographies about authors I like, but once in a while one will catch my eye.  I knew Maristain’s name from Bolaño’s last published interview, so I was curious what she would do with this collection.  It was translated by Kit Maude, and I am also curious about some of the words that Maude chose to use (the word savage/savages comes up an awful lot when not referring to The Savage Detectives).  But overall it was an easy, quick read.

As the subtitle suggests, Maristain has compiled a loose biography of Bolaño based on interviews with others.  Some are interviews that she has conducted and others are previously existing interviews that she has cobbled together.  The people interviewed are primarily his family and his fellow poets/novelists/friends.

Bolaño was born April 28 1953 in Santiago de Chile.  Soon after, they moved to Valparaiso, and then other smaller towns in Chile. In 1968 they moved to the Mexico City because of his mother’s asthma (although he never set foot in Sonora, the scene of the crimes in 2666). They lived close to the Olympic park and were within walking distance of the Olympic torch during the 1968 Olympics.

He had a difficult upbringing, with his parents splitting up and his mother moving out and taking his sister with her.  Roberto, meanwhile, stayed with his father.  They eventually had a falling out and Roberto went twenty years without seeing him.  His father was a boxer and an opinionated man, and there are lots of quotes from him in the book.

In 1977 Bolaño left Mexico for Spain (and never went back) and that’s when we start getting into his publishing history. (more…)

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 locke2SOUNDTRACK: SUFJAN STEVENS and FRIENDS present Let It Snow! songs for Christmas vol. 9 (2009).

sufjan 9 Disc 9 of the series is a return to the old style after the freakout of Vol. VIII.  It’s only 21 minutes long and features a number of fun Christmas Carols (done as only Sufjan can do them).

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas” sounds traditional with harps and bells.  “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (this is the first time he’s done Santa-centric songs) has fun group singing (which reminds me a bit of Peanuts).   There’s lots of layers of voices, and it’s almost chaotic, but not quite.  “The Sleigh in the Moon” was written and sung by Cat Martino.  It’s a slow pretty song.

“Sleigh Ride” is old school sounding but with some modern effects thrown in too.  It ends with a whole mess of silly sound effects.  “Ave Maria” has such a beautiful melody that it’s a shame he messes with it here. I don’t really care for this version.  “X-Spirit Catcher” has a nice melody.  It’s an upbeat fun song but it gets kinda weird near the end with overlaid vocals sounds.  “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” also has a very unexpected melody–it’s minor key and sad.  It’s a weird way of dealing with the song but it’s very pretty in its melancholy (this is melody he can mess with).  “A Holly Jolly Christmas” also has a tinkered melody.  This time just a tweak, but it’s surprising.  The music sounds like a calliope.  “Christmas Face” ends the disc.  It’s a sweet song, only 40 seconds long. It was written and sung by Sebastian Krueger.

It’s fun to have the Christmas albums of old back from Sufjan.

[READ: December 12, 2014] Locke & Key 2

I enjoyed Book 1 of this series so much I couldn’t wait to read Book 2.  And book 2 not only did not  disappoint, it was even better than the first.

The book opens with the ghost from the well (who goes by Scout, although he is now known as Zack) hunting down an old teacher who seemed to recognize him (from when he was Luke a generation ago).  But this murder gets the police involved, especially when they see that the professor fought back and left some evidence.  But Scout’s real problem is with Ellie and her son Rufus.  She keeps calling him Luke (instead of Zack) and seems to be making his reemergence very difficult.  But at the same time, he knows he needs her so he can’t get rid of her.

Zack is also getting quite friendly with Tyler.  Tyler seems to be adjusting fairly well,  He can’t stop thinking about his father (understandably) but he seems to be making friends (of questionable quality, naturally).   His mom is looking pretty haggard, though, what with everything going on.  And to make things worse, Duncan, the guy who has been helping out around the house and cooking them good food (he’s related in some way although I don’t know how exactly) is ready to head back to Provincetown.  This means bad food ahead for the Locke family.

On the supernatural front Bode has found a new key and this one lets you see inside people’s heads (I adored the way it was drawn, and won’t spoil it).  (more…)

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superSOUNDTRACK: SUFJAN STEVENS Christmas Infinity Voyage: Songs for Christmas Vol. 8 (2008).

sufjan 8Back in 2008, a Vol. VIII of Sufjan’s Christmas recordings was leaked on the internet.  It was called Astral Inter Planet Space Captain Christmas Infinity Voyage-Songs for Christmas Vol. VIII and I talked about it here.  When his official release came out volume 8 was similar yet different from the leaked one.  The song tracks were almost identical, but the versions (and lengths) were rather different.

The leaked version of the disc has this track listing:

Angels We Have Heard on High  5:00
Do You See What I See  4:59
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear   :48
Christmas in the Room  4:50
Good King Wenceslas  2:15
Joy to the World  7:49
The Child With the Star on His Head 13:15

And the official version has this track listing

  Angels We Have Heard on High  4:04
Do You Hear What I Hear  9:14
Christmas in the Room  4:32
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear    :48
Good King Wenceslas  4:18
Alphabet St.  1:36
Particle Physics 1:04
Joy to the World  5:25
The Child With the Star on His Head 15:13

So what’s the difference

 

“Angels We Have Heard On High”—The leaked version has a lengthy warbling keyboard introduction and is the real song.  The official version is an original song based on the hymn.  I like the way the opening melody changes expected direction in mid line.  I also enjoyed the “oh ho ho hos.”  This is pretty much the only traditional sounding song on the disc because the rest get pretty unusual electronic treatments

“Do You Hear What I Hear”  The leaked version (with a different title) was autotuned and slow (and only 4 minutes).  The official version is also autotuned, and is filled with electronic percussion. It quickly goes weird and crazy, but I like it.  It’s 9 minutes long and the last five minutes are a crazy freakout of autotuned nonsense.

“Christmas in the Room” is a song about being alone with someone you love for Christmas—pros and cons (although there seems like a lot sadness in the song). The autoharp is pretty though. [The leaked version is a bit louder with electronic music rather than autoharp].

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” in both version this is a short (less than a minute) electronic version of the traditional song.

“Good King Wenceslas” is also crazy and electronic with lots of strange inserted sounds and lines from other songs.  [The leaked version is only 2 minutes and while still electronic is far less crazy].

“Alphabet St” continues some of the nonsense in Wenceslas—lyrics about being sexy. “Particle Physics” is also 1 minute long of space sounds that merge into

“Joy to the World” is also slightly off-sounding (with lots of different instruments). It starts kind of pretty but goes really wild with the electronics and the autotune and by the end it’s just crazy electronic freakout.

“The Child With the Star on His Head” opens the official version with someone saying “desperately seeking Santa take 3.”  Despite it being super long (in both version) the song itself is really quite pretty.  It’s very Sufjan with great falsetto and an unexpected melody.  The two versions are similar in construct but after the opening few minutes they diverge pretty radically.  At around 5 minutes an electronic sounding, totally fuzzed guitar solo begins and it adds a very strange element to it—a kind of psychedelic outer space sound, which doesn’t quite fit the mood. [Interestingly, in the leaked version, the solo is pretty much the same notes, but it is far less spacey and effects filled.  It has more of a classic rock guitar solo (kind of David Gilmour-ish]. The solo lasts longer in the new version too.   That pretty much accounts for the two minute discrepancy.  The rest of the song plays out mostly the same, although again, the leaked version is kind of pretty and sweet (with la las and a horn solo) while the official release is all electronic and gets crazy here and there.  The end of the song is a denouement–horn based in the leaked and all electronic in the official.

I’m not really sure which release I prefer, because the electronic stuff is really kind of wild and fun (although not very Christmassey).  But the leaked version is really quite nice.

[READ: December 11, 2014] Superfuckers

I know Kochalka mostly from his children’s books, which are weird and warped and really really funny.  Most of them seem to star his son’s head imposed on his weird cartoon style (so funny).

So imagine my surprise to discover a book of his called Superfuckers.

Superfuckers is a “collection” of “issues” of the “series” Superfuckers.

It opens with issue #271 (from 2005).  And within five or six panels, we get every single curse word you can imagine from our “superheroes.”  Indeed, they really don’t “do” anything.  They just sit around and yell at each other (calling everyone gay or slut or some such), get high (on a staggeringly odd number of things) and plot to take over the gang. (more…)

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