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Archive for the ‘Tiny Desk Concert’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: SHARON VAN ETTEN-Tiny Desk Concert #898 (October 7, 2019).

It was Sharon Van Etten’s 2010 Tiny Desk Concert that introduced me to her.  I was blown away by the songs from Epic.

When Sharon Van Etten made her Tiny Desk debut back in the fall of 2010 [with about fifteen people in the audience], her voice exuded fragile, gentle grace. Performing songs from that year’s Epic, she huddled around a single acoustic guitar with backup singer Cat Martino to perform a set of tender and evocative folk-pop songs.

Sharon released a couple more albums and then took some time away from music.  She returned this year with the appropriately named comeback single “Comeback Kid.”  The big difference was that now there were synths!

Cut to nearly a decade later. One of only a handful of artists to get a repeat headlining engagement at the Tiny Desk [that handful is getting bigger and bigger it seems]. Van Etten has spent the last few years purging her bucket list: She’s become an actress (appearing as a guest star on The OA), released a string of increasingly aggressive albums (the latest of which is this year’s synth-driven Remind Me Tomorrow), toured the world, performed on Twin Peaks, written music for films, become a mom, gone back to school and popped up in collaborations with everyone from Land of Talk to Jeff Goldblum.

I had no idea that these things happened.  So good for her, I guess.

It’s only natural that this Tiny Desk concert feels different; you can hear it before Van Etten and her band even show up onscreen. Its pace set by the ticking beat of a drum machine, “Comeback Kid” is in full bloom here, with a swaying arrangement that fills the room before Van Etten opens her mouth.

“Comeback Kid” is super catchy.  It sounds similar to the recorded version although a little smaller, perhaps.  There’s also a few extra keyboard flourishes from Heather Woods Broderick (who played the Tiny Desk as a member of Horse Feathers way back in 2009).  Charley Damski plays the synth washes that fill the room.  Sharon plays acoustic guitar and sings with serious intensity.

“You Shadow” starts with bass (Devin Hoff) and a drum machine (Jorge Balbi).  There’s no guitar on this track, but Sharon’s voice sounds great:

 the singer performs with considerable intensity here, seething through “You Shadow.”

She quietly thanks everyone and introduces the band.  This moment of thanks and appreciation in no way prepares you for the intensity in which she sings the set-closing “Seventeen.”

The song also starts with synth and bass.  Sharon sings but doesn’t start playing acoustic guitar until after the first verse.  Everyone adds gorgeous backing vocals for the chorus.  Then Sharon starts getting intense while singing.  Normally “la la las” are kind of upbeat, but she comes out of them with a fire as she sings “with a scream that slashes through the office air.”

Her voice almost breaks and she seems to be quite moved by the performance.  It’s really tremendous.

I admit that I like her earlier stuff better–the way she sang, the way her backing singers complimented her and the intensity of her music.  But after seeing her live this summer and now watching this, her intensity is still there–it’s just used more sparingly and appropriately.

The only downside to this Tiny Desk is that Heather Woods Broderick–who is an amazing backing vocalist–is pretty subdued here.  It’s appropriately subdued in this setting, but it’s a shame to not hear her in full.

Here (left) is a picture from Sharon’s first Tiny Desk Concert.

[READ: November 7, 2019] “The Flier”

This story was very cool.

I really loved the way the entire story totally downplayed “one of the most wondrous occurrences in the history of humankind.”

It begins with the narrator explaining that his wife Viki had invited their friends Pam and Becky over: “short notice–but there’s something we’d like to talk over with you.”

As he describes the meal he’s made, in quite a lot of detail, Pam and Becky arrive.  The narrator hears them talk about him and he acknowledges that his illness has made him small and light.

After the pleasantries are over, Viki says matter-of-factly that the narrator “has developed the ability to fly.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MOLLY SARLÉ-Tiny Desk Concert #847 (October 4, 2019).

Molly Sarlé was recently on a Tiny Desk Concert with Mountain Man (who I heard but didn’t really see at Newport Folk Festival).

During the Mounatin Man songs, Molly tends to have the high harmonies.  In this session, she doesn’t sing especially high–although her voice is quite delicate.  It’s hard to believe she was a back up vocalist for Feist, not because her voice isn’t lovely–it is!–but because she doesn’t seem to be a very powerful singer.

The first Mountain Man album came out in 2010.  The second Mountain man album came out in 2018.  This is Molly’s first solo album.  During the intervening years, she did a number of things (like sing backup for Feist), but was apparently never sure if music was her calling.  And yet her songs are personal and powerful.

The songs Molly Sarlé performed at the Tiny Desk are all from her debut solo album, Karaoke Angel. These songs aren’t frivolous–at the heart of Molly Sarlé’s songs are stories. Sometimes they feel like dreamy inner thoughts loosely connected.

She opens with “Human,” a song I knew from a different Mountain Man show on NPR (Tiny Desk Family Hour).

 It may simply be a breakup song; but its wisdom is in recognizing our individual flaws, being OK with them and even finding pleasure in being imperfect beings.

Although interestingly at the Family Hour, she said it’s about how “unfortunately easy it is to talk to god like he’s a man.”

The song is fairly simple–a pretty melody and a steady one-two snare/hi-hat (Austin Vaughn).  In the Family Hour, the song was just her and her gently strummed guitar with backing harmonies.  It’s really lovely.  This version has an absolutely wonderful bass line (from Brian Betancourt) that runs through it.  It doesn’t detract form the beautiful simplicity of the song, it adds a nice counterbalance and I can’t really tell which version I like better.

Bob also says, “She’s a captivating performer who sings as much with her eyes as she does her voice.”  That is so very true.  She looks out at the audience throughout the song, with a possibly inquisitive look.  He blue eyes piercing through the lovely melody.

It’s weird just how funny Molly is–she seems fairly serious, and her delivery is quite slow, and yet she has a  great (or wicked) sense of humor.

Before “Karaoke Angel” she starts looking at the tchotchkes on the shelves.  She

began her fascination with the multitude of objects shelved behind the Tiny Desk back when she sang with Mountain Man earlier this year. This time, with her own band, those objects left by others inspired a tale of a sweaty towel, an old lover and more.

The item, labeled “Betty’s Boob Sweat” leads to a funny story of dating a ember of Feist’s band and the sad aftermath when she could feel somewhat jealous of a sweat rag.

After telling this story she ends with this amusing non-sequitur:  “No one should have to see their ex-boyfriend’s sweat rag on an other woman’s clutch.  Life is painful and this song is called Karaoke Angel.”

Molly plays the main guitar chords (so gently) while Adam Brisbin plays a quiet wavery slide guitar part.  The song sways gently and Molly’s voice is just beautiful–unadorned and clear and very pure sounding.

For all the quietness of the song, the lyrics are pretty amusing too:

I walked into a bar and gave my heart away to the first stranger I met who could remember my name.
I got up on the stage and sang at the top of my lungs Its so easy so easy to fall in love.

Each subsequent verse is about a man in the bar

Mike walked over / he was picking up what I was putting down / he said honey I am only gonna disappoint you somehow / oh Mike quit talking to me like you’re saying something I didn’t already know / I can tell by the beauty / of the furrow in your brow / you’ve been anointed by disappointment / and it might even be something you like.

Before the final song “Almost Free,” Molly tells the shockingly sad origin of the song, but has to laugh, because what else can you do

Molly cleared her throat and said this song is “about my dad wanting to talk to me about committing suicide — and it turns out writing a song about your dad talking to you about wanting to commit suicide is a great way to shift the conversation, because now we just talk about this song.” Molly Sarlé laughed a bit about the absurdity and truth of it all and, with what I sense as holding back a tear, sang a powerful, personal song in an awkward, open office space.

It starts out with just Molly strumming her guitar and singing.  It seems so stark and exposed, that when the rest of the band comes in and the song almost rocks a bit (sounding like a jam band song) that it’s comes as a relief.

This is a quietly powerful Tiny Desk and really shows off how beautiful Molly’s voice is.

[READ: Summer 2019 and October 29, 2019] The Helios Disaster

This is a weird book, to be sure.  It was written by the then wife (now ex-wife) of Karl Ove Knausgaard.  But it is absolutely nothing like his books.  Linda has her own style and perspective that makes these authors miles apart.  This book was translated from the Norwegian by Rachel Willson-Broyles.

It opens like this:

I am born of a father.  I split his head.  … You are my father, I tell him with my eyes.  My father.  The person in front of me, standing in the blood on the floor, is my father. …The blood sinks into the worn wooden floor and I think, his eyes are green like mine.

How at my birth, do I know that?  That my eyes are green like the sea.

He looks at me.  At my shining armour.  He lifts his hand.  Touches my cheek with it.  And I lift my hand and close it around his.  I want nothing but to stand like this with my father and feel his warmth, listen to the beating of his heart.  I have a father.  I am my father’s daughter.  These words ring through me like bells in that instant.

Then he screams.

His scream tears everything apart.  I will never again be close to him.

She removes her armor, puts down her lance and flees the building.  The neighbor, Greta, says she will help the girl, while the police come and investigate the commotion.  When Greta asks the girl what she wants, the girl says she wants to go to her father.  But Greta says that Conrad doesn’t have any children.

What is going on? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TINY DESK PLAYLISTS (2019).

As on October 1, NPR has started the Tiny Desk Playlist page.

As of today there are 9 Playlists on the page.  I’m not going to comment on them, as I’ve already posted about all of these shows (except CHAI as of now).  I might disagree with some of these lists, but whatever the case they are a good introduction to Tiny Desks if you haven’t already seen one.

5 Tiny Desk Concerts That Will Literally Make You Cry
• Julien Baker (read more)
• Yusuf/Cat Stevens (read more)
• Bernie and The Believers (read more)
• Rev. Sekou and The Seal Breakers (read more)
• Barbara Hannigan (read more)

The 5 Most Uplifting Tiny Desk Concerts
• Lizzo (read more)
• Superorganism (read more)
• Fragile Rock (read more)
• Dan Deacon (read more)
• Mucca Pazza (read more)

The 5 Wildest Tiny Desk Concerts
• Gogol Bordello (read more)
• Red Baraat (read more)
• The Cristina Pato Trio (read more)
• George Li (read more)
• Dirty Three (read more)

The Best-Sounding Tiny Desk Concerts, Vol. 1 [selected by “the guy mixing the performances and bopping his head along just off (and sometimes on) screen” Josh Rogosin].
• Monsieur Periné (read more)
• Andrew Bird (read more)
• Nick Hakim (read more)
• Tedeschi Trucks Band (read more)
• PJ Morton (read more)

The Best Of The Very Beginning Of Tiny Desk Concerts
• Laura Gibson (read more)
• Vic Chesnutt (read more)
• Tom Jones (read more)
• Thao Nguyen (read more)
• Dr. Dog (read more)

The 5 Best ‘Before They Were Stars’ Tiny Desk Concerts
• Brandi Carlile (read more)
• Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals (read more)
• Adele (read more)
• H.E.R. (read more)
• Mitski (read more)

Tiny Desk Trick Or Treat: Our 5 Favorite Concerts In Costume
• Neko Case’s Halloween Special (read more)
• Blue Man Group (read more)
• Mucca Pazza (read more)
• CHAI (read more)
• Preservation Hall Jazz Band (read more)

#ElTiny: The Best Latinx Tiny Desk Concerts, Vol. 1
• Natalia Lafourcade (read more)
• Jorge Drexler (read more)
• Juanes & Mon Laferte (read more)
• iLe (read more)
• Café Tacvba (read more)

Lianne La Havas’ 5 Favorite Tiny Desk Concerts
• Tank And The Bangas
• Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals
• Noname
• Tamino
• Mac Miller

[READ: October 28, 2019] “God’s Caravan”

This story opens with boys crouching in the dirt shooting marbles.  I assumed it was set in the 1950s, so I was surprised to see that the boy knew of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk.  But it is set in Memphis, Tennessee–“Soulsville the black part.”

Earl was kicking butt and winning marbles left and right when the boys heard an ice cream truck trundle up.  But this was no ice cream truck.  Rather it was a van and it was playing “I’ve come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.”  On the side of the van, painted in “blood of Jesus” red were the words “God’s Caravan.”  The speakers then broadcast “When I say, ‘Ride or die’…you say ‘Amen.'”

The voice said “Ride or Die” and Earl and the other boys all shouted back “Amen.”

The door opened and there was the pastor, dressed in black judge’s robes.  He said he had sweets for their hearts. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: SUMMER WALKER-Tiny Desk Concert #902 (October 18, 2019).

I have never heard of Summer Walker.  This is who she is:

A 23-year old singer-songwriter with an uncensored pen and brown-liquor vocals, Walker has become something of a patron saint for colored girls who’ve considered bossing up when heartbreak is too much. With the release of her official studio debut Over It, she made history last week by racking up the biggest streaming week of any female R&B artist ever. Meanwhile, the first lady of upstart label Love Renaissance (LVRN) is lowkey leading a sonic revolution in Atlanta that’s turning the trap capital back into an R&B town. Her team was equally insistent on tricking out the Tiny Desk space by hanging lights that brought a diffuse glow to Walker’s creative set.

It’s funny to read this blurb and all of the glowing praise and “fan favorites” for a person I’ve never heard of and whose debut album came out the week before.  And yet, apparently she is in high demand.

For an artist who rarely grants interviews and admittedly dreads the public spotlight — despite an Instagram feed that clearly shows off her humorous, exhibitionist flair — Walker’s Tiny Desk is revealing. In the span of 15 minutes, she performs fan favorites (“Session 32,” “Wasted,” “Riot”) and the song that made Drake hop in her DMs, “Girls Need Love,” before ending with current single “Playing Games.” Even behind the bright lights and oversized eyeglass frames, her unadorned soul shines through.

I’m quite delighted with how restrained this entire performance is.  I don’t know if her recorded songs are similarity stripped bare (I assume not) but I really like how understated and chill this is.

For the first song, “Session 32” Summer plays guitar along with Elijah “Jah” Whittingham as she sings quietly.

Seconds before the cameras started to roll, Summer Walker showed just how much she was willing to sacrifice for her day at the Tiny Desk: She clipped her nails. It wasn’t an aesthetic choice but a pragmatic one. Not even her love for a fresh set of bedazzled acrylics would get in the way of her strumming the soul out of her six-string Fender electric.

The songs fills out nicely with a gentle bass from Stox and simple drums from Remey Williams.  By the end of the song there some twinkly keyboards from Slim.wav and in 2 and a half minutes, the song is over.

Summer puts the guitar away for the rest of the set (was it worth cutting her nails for less than 3 minute of strumming?) and just sings.

“Wasted” is a bit more slinky and sultry, with a groovy bass and some piercing electric guitar lines.  This is probably the fullest song complete with her backing vocalists.  And yes it makes me smile that her name is Summer and one of the backing vocalists is named Autumn (with the unlikely last name: Autumn Tuesdae) while the other is Angel White.

The third song, “Girls Need Love” is the one that made “Drake hop in her DMs” (whatever that means).  It doesn’t sound all that different from the other songs until you listen closely to the lyrics.  Never has a verse like this sounded so gentle and sweet:

I just need some dick
I just need some love
Tired of fucking with these lame niggas baby
I just need a thug

Girls can’t never say they want it
Girls can’t never say how
Girls can’t never say they need it
Girls can’t never say now

It’s hard to believe that the woman who sings this is actually quite shy

“Look, I’m really freaking excited to be here but I have social anxiety like a mother******,” Walker told the NPR crowd at the end of her set, barely mumbling the expletive in an attempt to censor herself. “I’m freaked the hell out, I’m sweating, but this is so exciting for me.”

After band introductions, she introduces “Friend”

The guitar wasn’t the only thing she’d brought with her from Atlanta. In her lap sat “Friend,” the pink stuffed animal who no doubt provided a bit of emotional support during a five-song set that forced the shy enigma out of her creative shell.

I really enjoy that “Riot” is just her and Jah’s electric guitar.  Similarly her singing is understated.  There’s no over-the-top R&B caterwauling–she just sings really nicely.  I hope that her singing style will inspires more singers to sing like her–dial it back, huh?

And it’s less than two minutes long.  Amazingly, all of the songs are short.  The first three songs were finished in 8 minutes.

The final song “Playing Games” fills out the sound again.  Even though everyone seems to kick it up a notch, it is still understated.

I found that I really liked Summer Walker quite a lot.

Out of curiosity, I listened to the recorded version of “Riot” and was delighted to find that it is indeed 2 minutes long and is just her voice and one guitar.

Understated beauty.

[READ: October 23, 2019] “The Bunty Club”

I continue to really enjoy Tessa Hadley’s stories.  Even though nothing ever really “happens,” I love the depth she gives her characters.

This story was a little different because the narrator inhabits all three sisters at one point or another and we see through all of their eyes for a time.  Although it is really Serena’s story.

The story opens on Serena, the youngest sister.  She is awake before the other two and is enjoying the garden which is “much more lovely now than when it had been scrupulously cared for.”  The house they were in is a stolid Victorian villa.  They had all grown up in this house but had outgrown it.

The eldest sister Pippa and the middle sister Gillian were in the house, reliving some childhood incidents.

All three sisters were back in Fern Hall because their windowed mother was recently hospitalized. They were taking turns to drive the forty five minutes to the hospital. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MANDOLIN ORANGE-Tiny Desk Concert #882 (August 23, 2019).

Mandolin Orange is one of my favorite new band names.  It’s funny and clever and tells you a lot about the band.

I so wish I liked them more.

In fact, their music is really lovely.  I guess it comes down to Andrew Marlin’s voice.  It really don’t like it.  Indeed, Emily Frantz’ backing vocals are delightful and if she sang lead I’d like them a lot more.

But clearly I am no judge, because their recent album (their sixth) was #1 on the following Billboard charts:

Heatseekers, Current Country, Bluegrass and Folk / Americana with Top 10 Entries on 5 Additional Charts.

So don’t listen to me.

Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz made everything seem so easy, pulling a few acoustic instruments out of their car and, in no time, huddling around a single microphone behind the Tiny Desk. With that, Mandolin Orange was ready.

Interestingly, “Golden Embers,” the first song that Mandolin Orange plays, doesn’t actually have a mandolin in it.  Rather, Frantz plays the violin while Marlin plays guitar.  I couldn’t get past his voice so I didn’t really hear the words beyond “it’s like an old friend,” but apparently he

sang about his mom being carried away in a hearse.

Yikes.

It’s the second song, “The Wolves” that features Marlin on mandolin and Frantz on guitar.  I liked this one a bit more perhaps because he seems to be speaking more than singing and that’s more palatable to me.  This song

 is a story song that … tells a tale on an older woman’s life, the “hard road” she’s taken and that feeling of wanting to howl at the moon when all is finally right.

The last track, “Wildfire” comes from their 2016 album Blindfaller.  He sticks with the mandolin as he sings about Civil War.

The lyrics to this song are pretty great

 It’s a song with a wish that the Civil War would have left racism to rot on the battlefield, and yet it still rages like “wildfire.” It’s a sobering message presented with a gentle tone.

And so I love their name, their music and their lyrics.  I just can’t get past his voice.  But what do I know.

[READ: October 14, 2019] “Are You Experienced?”

The title of this naturally made me think of Jimi Hendrix.  And I was correct to think this.  For this story concerns hippies about to shipped off to war.

Although Billy doesn’t know he is soon to be shipped of to Vietnam.  In fact, as the story opens, he is dropping acid with his girlfriend Meg near Lake Michigan.  Billy had hung a “Keep On Truckin'” poster on the wall.  The poster eventually started dancing, trying to lure her in.

Billy was always full of schemes.  He told her about his Uncle Rex and Aunt Minerva who had been farmers but had moved to Lansing.  He knew that Rex had a box of cash in his attic.  Rex doesn’t have the heart to spend the money because it came from the soil and “he lost his farm a few years back and he’s still not over it.” (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: 47SOUL-Tiny Desk Concert #883 (August 26, 2019).

I had never heard of 47Soul and, surprisingly, the blurb doesn’t give any real background about the band.  So I had to turn to Wikipedia.

47Soul is a Jordanian Palestinian electronic music group.  The band’s first album, Shamstep, was released in 2015 and they are one of the main forces behind the Shamstep electronic dance music movement in the Middle East.

So what the heck is Shamstep?

Shamstep is based on mijwiz (a levantine folk musical style) and electronic dance.  ‘Sham’ refers to the local region of “Bilad al-Sham”, and ‘step’ refers to dubstep. The band’s music is also associated with the traditional dance called Dabke.

So, that’s a lot to take in, especially if you don’t know what half of those words mean.

The blurb does help a little bit more:

Shamstep is the creation of 47SOUL. At its heart is Arab roots music laced with dub, reggae and electronic dance music, including dubstep. It’s positive-force music with freedom, celebration and hope for the people of the Sham region (Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).

47SOUL play three songs and their instrumentation is pretty fascinating.  Three of the guys sing.  They also play bass drum (Walaa Sbeit); darbuka– a small hand drum (Tareq Abu Kwaik); guitar (Hamza Arnaout) and synthesizers (Ramzy Suleiman).

So what do they sound like?

Well, the first song “Mo Light” opens with some very synthesized “traditional” Middle Eastern music.  It sounds like an electronic version of traditional instrumentation.  The guitar comes in with a sound that alternates between heavy metal riffage and reggae stabs.  The three singers take turns singing.  Walaa Sbeit is up first singing in Arabic.  Then there’s a middle section sung by Tareq Abu Kwaik who is playing the darbuka and an electronic drum pad.  His voice is a bit rougher (the Arabic is quite guttural).  Meanwhile Ramzy Suleiman adds backing vocals and seems to sing loudest in English.

For the next song, Tareq Abu Kwaik does the narration while introducing Walaa Sbeit:

“Is it ok if I do a little dance on your desk?” asked 47SOUL singer and percussionist Walaa Sbeit on first seeing the Tiny Desk. I thought a minute, went under the desk, tightened the bolts, stuck some splints of wood under a few of the uneven legs and (feeling reassured) gave him the nod. It would be our first traditional Middle Eastern Dabke dancing atop the Tiny Desk and the first sounds of Shamstep (a kind of electronic dance music) behind it.

The dancing involves a shocking amount of deep knee bends!

“Don’t Care Where You From” opens with a cool synth rhythm and then sung in English.  It’s fun watching Walaa Sbeit walk around with the bass drum slung over his shoulder as he does some dancing while playing.  The song is one of inclusion

Well you might be from Philly (?) or Tripoli / from the mountains or from the sea
maybe got the key to the city / don’t mean anything to me.

They don’t care where you’re from, it’s where you are that counts.

47SOUL’s message of equality, heard here at the Tiny Desk (and on the group’s current album, Balfron Promise) is meant for all the world. This is music without borders, mixing old and new, acoustic and electronic from a band formed in Amman Jordan, singing in Arabic and English. It’s one big, positive and poignant party.

It segues into “Jerusalem” with the controversial-sounding lyric: “Jerusalem is a prison of philosophy and religion.”  The middle of the song had an Arabic rap which sounds more gangster than any gangster rap.  The end of the song is an electronic dance as everybody gets into it–clapping along and banging on drums.

It’s pretty great. I hope they tour around here, I’d love to see them live.

[READ: August 27, 2019] Submarine

I saw this book on the shelf and was attracted by its busy cover.  I also thought the authors name sounded familiar.   And so it was.  I have read some of Dunthorne’s poems in Five Dials magazines.

This was his first novel.  And it sounded unusual.  The back cover had this excerpt:

I used to write questionnaires for my parents. I wanted to get to know them better.  I asked things like:

What hereditary illnesses am I likely to inherit?
What money and land am I likely to inherit?

Multiple choice:
If you child was adopted at what aged would you choose to tell him about his real mother?
a) 4-8
B) 9-14
C) 15-18

Dunthorne is from Wales, which made this story a little exotic as well.  It is set in Swansea, by the sea (where people surf!) (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: TAYLOR SWIFT-Tiny Desk Concert #901 (October 16, 2019).

Most Tiny Desk Concerts are from musicians that few people have heard of.

Not this one!

It’s hard to imagine exactly how it happened that Tiny Desk Concert managed to get Taylor Swift to play.  And to play with just a acoustic guitar and piano.  “It’s just me. There’s no dancers, unfortunately,” she quipped.

I have seen people already complain that Tiny Desk is supposed to be for unknown artists blah blah blah.  But I think it’s pretty awesome that a) Taylor Swift is a fan of NPR and Tiny Desk and b) that this show will bring more notoriety to Tiny Desk and potentially other bands.

Plus–I had no idea that Taylor Swift was not a studio creation–that she’s actually a real and thoughtful person who wrote her own music.

She talks confidently and casually about songwriting and she seems pretty genuinely pleased to be there.

As she settled in for her Tiny Desk, she looked out at the 300-plus NPR employees and guests. “Wow! This is a lot of people in a tiny office!” she said. “I love it!”

She delightfully says, “It’s great to be in DC.  You guys had anything exciting going on in the last couple of weeks?  Any possible changes in play?”

And, hey, she writes good songs, too.

I’ve never really listened to her music–although I love “Shake It Off.”  I haven’t actually heard anything of her new album so this was all new to me.

After introducing herself, she explained her objective: “I just decided to take this as an opportunity to show you guys how the songs sounded when I first wrote them.”

She talks a lot about each song and why she wrote them.

Opening with an acoustic rendition of “The Man,” from her 2019 album Lover, Swift delivered a critique of gender double-standards with a sense of humor (and a perfectly deployed hair toss), Leonardo DiCaprio name-check and all.

She says she has been thinking about the topic for many years and it was something she wanted to write about conceptually for a very long time because we have a bit of double standard issue in our society.  She wondered if there was a concise and catchy way to write a song about this?  So she decided to imagine what her life would be like if she said and did all the same things but if she was a man.

While not an original idea, she tackles it really well.  And I like that she’s using her platform to address the issue

I would be complex
I would be cool
They’d say I played the field before
I found someone to commit to
And that would be okay
For me to do
Every conquest I had made
Would make me more of a boss to you
I’d be a fearless leader
I’d be an alpha type
When everyone believes ya…
What’s that like?

And it’s really catchy too.

At the end of the song she gives her pick to a little one in the audience (to a room full of awws).  Then she switches instruments.

She talks about the process of writing songs–when something comes and its easy, that’s wonderful.  But most days you show up… and the idea doesn’t.  Then you have to know the craft of songwriting–you’re not always going to be inspired and that’s okay.

Turning to the piano for Lover‘s title track, with a smile, she explained the guitar-string scars of the song’s bridge.

She says that she has scars on her hands from playing guitar when she was young–when she played until her fingers bled or when a string snapped and cut her.  In your life you received all kinds of scars–emotional and physical and if someone is going to take your hand, they’d better take your hand scars and all.

It’s a pretty piano ballad and her voice is really pure.

After the song she removes her blazer to reveal a velvet top (she must have been very hot).  “You guys ever had costume changes at Tiny Desk?” She then finds three more guitar picks to give to three other kids, one of whom you can quickly see is pretty darn excited.

Picking up the guitar again for “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” Swift confronted a question that she says has haunted her career: What will you ever do if you get happy?

She receives this question over and over that “has the potential to seriously deteriorate my mental health.”  “What will you ever do if you get happy?  Will you just never be able to write a song again?    She says she used to reply that she started off when she was 12, she was writing songs about things she had no idea what she was talking about.  She wrote songs about heartbreak based on movies and books and character studies.  So she would say, “If stuff is going on in the world maybe she could hey inspiration from that.

But then she really asked herself that question.  “Would I not be able to write break up songs?  I love break up songs!  They’re so fun to write.”  She says she had friends going through breakups and she was watching movie and reading books about breakups and these ideas came to her.  She woke up with heartbreak lyrics in her head and realized “It’s still here!”

Across the song’s run-on thoughts and relentless searching, Swift offered an answer: She’ll continue to excel at crafting superb story-songs.

I rather like her songs on acoustic guitar–even if I’m not much of a fan of break up songs.

Before the final song, “All to Well,” she talks about how she never googles herself–she recommends you not do it either.  But her dad does.  He sends her links to lists that people rank her songs (she finds it very nice that people care enough to do that).  When the Red album came out, she said there’s a song and “I’m the only one who loves this song this much–because it happens to me and its personal.”  But it turns out that this song tops everyone’s favorite list.  “I’m happy that my opinion lines up with your opinion on that.”

I actually didn’t know this song at all–I guess I am really isolated from pop music.

She says, “here’s a sad song about fall.”  It’s very pretty on piano and once again her voice is really great.  I really like the way the words unfold and then reflect back on themselves.  It’s a really wonderfully crafted song.

This Tiny Desk Concert may not introduce Taylor Swift to a lot of people, but it pretty much did introduce me to her music.  And I was really impressed.

[READ: August 19, 2019] Lost Empress

I loved Sergio De la Pava’s A Naked Singularity. It was complicated and funny and clever and bizarre and thoroughly engaging.

Lost Empress is even better.

There’s a story about a woman running a football team–and being overlooked because she is a woman.

There is a storyline about 911 operators, and the guy who transcribes them.

The third story is about a tough, smart guy who is in jail.  He is his own defense for trying to get out.  And he hatches a plan that involves stealing artwork, the Paterson Falls and the Super Bowl.

I enjoyed it in part because much of it is set in Paterson, NJ.  I grew up next to Paterson and the city has for most of my life been in a state of decline.  Despite all of the great things it has to offer (like the Paterson Falls! which get a shout out in this book), Paterson gets no respect.  This book doesn’t exactly aim to correct that, but it does give the city something cool–a football team.

It also jokes about “what the hell is up with Paterson?”  The city had once tried to rebrand itself in which they staged a contest  for “an official slogan for the troubled city.”  Proposals emerged: “the verifiably untrue, the unintentionally insulting/intentionally insulating, the so vague that sense fails to be created, the rhyme or alliteration for its own sake, and the technically true but not even conceivably relevant.” (more…)

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