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[LISTENED TO: July 2017] The People of Sparks

After finishing up The City of Ember this summer, with that promising cliffhanger-ish ending, I was pretty excited to listen to book two.

Holy cow did I hate this book (until the end).  I blame the combination of DuPrau’s writing and Wendy Dillon’s excellent vocal work.  Because as soon as the book started, the sorta main character Torren quickly became the single most irritating character in fiction.  He is bratty.  He is incredibly whiny.  He is a really mean.  And he is unchecked by adults.  Perhaps we are supposed to feel sorry for him, but he is so incredibly unlikable and does such horrible things that I don’t see how one could.

I imagined that this book would pick up where Ember left off–Mrs Murdo finding the note and rallying the city together to come and meet Lina and Doon in the new place.  I imagined a lengthy first part where the characters try to convince the mayor and gather their stuff and eventually work their way out.

But no.  The book begins in the city of Sparks.  Horrible brat child Torren is sitting on a windmill (not sure why they have these windmills if they don’t harness the energy) and sees people marching across the empty land.

Soon enough Lina and Doon are introducing the 400+ Emberites to the 300+ people of Sparks.  The leaders of Sparks: Mary, Ben and Wilmer meet to decide what to do with this huge influx of people. (more…)

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[LISTENED TO: July 2016, July 2017] The City of Ember

I enjoyed this book when we listened to it the first time and I enjoyed the graphic novel as well.

But I couldn’t remember enough about the audio book to post about it so I listened to it again.  And what was so interesting this time was how much it sounded like an attack on our current political situation:

A greedy pig in charge of a country; sycophants as his cronies; keeping as much as possible for themselves and allowing the richer to get richer while the country falls apart; shutting down truth; imprisoning dissenters and just to top it off, the mayor is a large man with very small hands (seriously).  The only real difference is that the mayor speaks eloquently and has a big vocabulary.

I absolutely loved the reading by Wendy Dillon.  She has quite distinctive voices for the main characters and some of the secondary characters have wonderful details about them that keeps them individual–the mayor wheezes, another character smacks his lips together, Clary speaks slowly and deliberately almost with a stutter.  It’s wonderful.  And the sound effects, while not necessary, are a nice addition.  Although they are fairly infrequent and can be surprising if you forget about them.

So what’s the story about? (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK:  CHICANO BATMAN-Tiny Desk Concert #612 (April 17, 2017).

In the blurb for this show, Felix says that he was sol by their name.  And I am too.  It’s a great name.  And yet it is not entirely useful in terms of musical style.  But he summarizes pretty nicely:

a sound that perfectly captures dark lounges, quinceañera dances, car shows and backyard parties.

That lounge sound is completely evident with the keyboard tone–old fashioned and bachelor pad-like.  But this is no bachelor pad music, because behind the keys are some groovy and at time funky bass (from Eduardo Arenas) and some cool guitar wah wahs (from Carlos Arevalo) and more.

Holding it all together is Gabriel Villa on drums and then on keys and guitar and vocals is Bardo Martinez.  Martinez sings in such a cool, laid-back manner.  It’s often a gentle falsetto but it always feel like he is just chillin’ and singing these groovy songs.

And they also wears suits with bow ties.

“Freedom is Free” is a delicate and groovy song with lots of wah wah guitar and a cool echoing guitar solo.  It’s also got a great bass line.  The song is sweet and catchy with a great wah wah build up at the sudden ending.

“Friendship (Is A Small Boat In A Storm)” has been quite popular on the radio here and man is it catchy.  The loungey organ and vocals are a great start, but the way the chorus just burst forth after the first verse–the backing singers (Nya Parker Brown and Piya Malik) hit the marks perfectly and then the staccato guitar riffs after that.  Its irresistible. (Parker Brown and Malik are from the band 79.5 and have been touring with them).

The ladies leave for the final song, “Jealousy.”  There’s a great funky bass line and fun drums before the song turns rather mellow.  I love the between chorus riffs.  Although I find the main song a little too slow, it probably works well between faster songs.

And they are all so polite and charming, I’m sure I’d enjoy seeing them live.

[READ: February 20, 2017] “The Prairie Wife”

I recently read another story by Sittenfeld in the New Yorker and really enjoyed it.  And this one was not only great and wonderfully written, it was full of surprises.

It’s hard to write about without giving away some of the surprises because they were so good.

But here’s a spoiler free attempt.

Kirsten is married with two kids.  The family has a routine and it involves Kirsten waking up and getting the boys up in time for school.  But lately she has been using her morning time to look at Lucy Headrick’s Twitter feed. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DELICATE STEVE-Tiny Desk Concert #606 (March 24, 2017).

Delicate Steve is Steve Marion.  He plays instrumental music with great “vocal lines” that come from his guitar.

On record he plays everything himself, but for this concert he brought a backing band.  So the bass (Jessica Pavone) and acoustic guitar (Jon Wiley) play a fairly simple song structure while Steve plays gorgeous lead lines (often using a glass slide to create cool sounds and voices).  The drums area also particularly cool in these songs as drummer Max Jaffe really goes to down on the electronic drums he’s playing.

On the four songs, Steve has a Panasonic FM/AM Premium Stereo Cassette hi-fi, to plug his trusty custom guitar into.

“Afria Talks To You” is a great rocking song (the drums are particularly booming) and the backing music plays some big chords while Steve makes some great soloing throughout. I particularly love that his solos are just showing off, they are genuinely enjoyable melodies.

“Winners” has a delightfully upbeat almost cartoony sound for the first melody, before it switches into a really groovy sound (there’s also a middle section that sounds an awful lot like “Mrs Robinson” (think: “Look around you all you see are sympathetic eyes,” even the bass is the same), but the rest of the song is quite unique and really fun.

“Tomorrow” is a slow groovy song with some fun bass to start with.  Then there’s a great guitar line on top.  I really love the way these songs all seem to have so many things going on in them.  The middles section turns into a different type of song entirely without sounding like it’s disconnected.  There’s also some kind of synth coming through–although maybe its just his guitar making extra sounds?

Introducing the final song “Night Life” Steve says “We took all the words out because Bob said there were no microphones”.  This is perhaps the simplest melody of all of the songs.  But it doesn’t take away from the quality of the song overall.  The end is very funny because you know it’s supposed to end on a chord but he halts it without playing it….it just hangs there feeling unfinished.

He jokes, “we’ll play that chord next time.”  You hear Bob say “we gotta wait five years?”

Instrumental music can be a challenging prospect, but Delicate Steve makes incredibly catchy songs that don’t suffer in any way from a lack of words.

[READ: July 8, 2016] Lunch Lady and the Video Game Villain

Book 9 opens with Lunch Lady saving the day with some deadly honey mustard.

But this book is all about elections. And video games!

Turns out that Hector is distracted from running for student council president because he can’t find his X Station Mobile anywhere.  But he needs to focus on the campaign because bully Milmoe is running and has already spent a ton of money on banners and cookies and everything else that makes elections so much fun.

But beyond the elections, there’s a lot happening in the school.  A lot of electronics are missing although we see Gavin Computo has a new e-reader (and he’s rather smug about it).

News is also out that the new superintendent Eliza von Grindheimer (not Betsy DeVos) will soon be revolutionizing the schools.  She will be investigating their school soon. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MAREN MORRIS-Tiny Desk Concert #602 (March 6, 2017).

Maren Morris is hugely successful, but I had never heard of her.  It turns out that

Four days before the 26-year-old strolled into NPR’s offices, she’d pulled off a mighty duet with Alicia Keys during the 59th annual Grammys ceremony and taken home the evening’s award for Best Country Solo Performance.

Despite the “big, crossover-friendly gestures on her major-label debut,” she’s out of my musical area.  But I can see why people like her–she has major pop leanings in her delivery and its sprinkled with pop country that everyone seems to like.

And that first song is really fun.  Of course, the music sounds so much like Steve Miller’s “The Joker” that that may be why it feels so catchy.  There’s a weird almost hip hop delivery to the song despite its obvious country bass.  I mean check out the words:

Boy I’d be rich, head to toe Prada
Benz in the driveway, yacht in the water
Vegas at the Mandarin, high roller gambling
Me and Diddy drippin’ diamonds like Marilyn
No I wouldn’t be covered in all your IOU’s
Every promise you made me would have some real value
‘Cause all the little lies rolling on your lips
Is money falling from the sky (ka-ching, ka-ching) shit I’d be rich

The blurb continues:

She’s cultivated a soulful, irreverent pop-country aesthetic that trades in trucks, bros and beer for a vintage Mercedes, female friendships and boxed wine — and which owes much of its charm to details that shine in a stripped-down setting. Take, for instance, the cash-register ka-ching that punctuates the chorus of the oh-so-sick burn “Rich,” or the intimate, after-hours raggedness in her voice as she sings of jaded heartache in “I Could Use A Love Song.”

So I can respect that.

“I Could Use A Love Song” feels country but her delivery has a massive pop song styling (that’s the crossover appeal, I guess).

She jokes that this is the quickest show she’s ever done.  She sounds genuinely shocked that she won a Grammy the other night.

The final song “My Church,”  is very country sounding (that bass) and singing that she “cussed on a Sunday.”

It’s my least favorite of the three.  I particularly dislike the R&B inflections at the end which puts my two least favorite musical genres together.

But overall she is adorable and charming and she looks to be about 12 years old up there with those two larger musicians supporting her.  And even if I won’t listen to her, I wish her success because she seems really sweet.

[READ: January 11, 2017] “Most Die Young”

I enjoyed this story quite a lot.  I loved how it was structured and the surprising twists it had.

The title comes from a statement by Professor Cruze: “young” means under the age of 38.  Cruze was referring to a Malaysian tribe known as the Pawong.  The Pawong, she explained, have no defenses or weapons.  They are an easy target.  It doesn’t even occur to them that they could respond to attackers.

The narrator first heard about this tribe from her ex-boyfriend Glauber (Glauber is a name, in case you’re wondering).  He mentioned the Pawong tribe as an insult to her saying that she was ruled by fear and could be made a God of the Pawong tribe.

Professor Cruze explained that shyness, fear and timidity are highly valued among the Powang.  To be angry is not to be human; but to be fearful is. (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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