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Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: LYDIA AINSWORTH-“Afterglow” NPR’S SOUTH X LULLABY (March 23, 2017).

I was unfamiliar with Lydia Ainsworth, but I was instantly struck by the setting of her lullaby.

We asked Lydia Ainsworth to perform in Raum Industries’ Optic Obscura installation. Surrounded by dim, long-hanging optical fibers that look like an infinity room of cat’s whiskers, she sings a stripped-down version of the slow-burning “Afterglow,” accompanied only by an upright bass and light percussion.

I’m not sure what the original song sounds like, but this version is moody and intense.  The upright bass opens the song as Lydia’s whispered, sensual vocals come forth.  She has a beautiful voice and it is especially haunting in this setting.  It reminds me a bit of someone else although I can’t decide who.

The starkness of the silence when she stops singing is intense.  And I really like the way the song ends, not abruptly exactly, but rather unexpectedly.

[READ: March 21, 2016] T-Minus

Jim Ottaviani did the amazing graphic novel Feynman, and in the blurb about him in that book, it said that he also wrote T-Minus.  Coincidentally I had just brought T-Minus home for Clark and I to read.  He read it quickly and said it was very good.  It took me a little longer to read (I’m sure he didn’t read all the details) because Ottaviani jam packs this book with interesting facts.

As the title says, this is about the race to get a man to the moon.  It begins 12 years before the actual date occurred.  And it toggles back and forth between the United States and the Soviet Union.

On the margins of many pages there are drawings of all of the various attempts each country had to get a rocket into the air.  The drawings show the design and then at the bottom it states the duration of the flight, the date and some other details.  The USSR’s first rocket (1957) lasted all of 20 seconds before exploding.  The U.S’s first rocket lasted about 7 seconds.

We meet a handful of people who were instrumental in the design and origination of these rockets.  (Ottaviani explains that many of these people are composites of real people involved–if he wanted to include everyone, there would be 400 people in every panel). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DESSA-Tiny Desk Concert #325 (December 9, 2013).

I had never heard of Dessa before.  Evidently she is a rapper, singer, poet and songwriter and is part of the Twin Cities hip-hop collective Doomtree.  As versatile as she is, Dessa faced down a string of challenges in getting to the Tiny Desk. Near the tail-end of a tour — during which thousands of dollars’ worth of her band’s gear was stolen — her voice started to give out as she battled a bad cold. (Keep an eye out for her expression of relief at the completion of “The Man I Knew” in this set.) And, of course, Dessa and her band had to come up with ways to perform three songs from Parts of Speech in such a way that the drums and guitars wouldn’t drown out the unamplified voices of herself and singer Aby Wolf.

I wouldn’t have known she was sick at all, as her voice is pretty powerful.  She raps the first song, “Fighting Fish” (I love that it references Zeno’s Arrow)  I like the grooves of the music and the simple guitar licks.   But it sounds amazing when Wolf starts singing.  Wolf has a great voice.  For the second verse, Dessa speaks more than raps—if only they could both make better use of the mic.

For the second song, “The Man I Knew,” the two sing a duet quite lovely.  And I like the way they each seem to highlight the end of each others’ lines with a harmony note.  I can’t help but think that Aby steals the how a bit.  The guitar and bass have simple but delightful riffs.  And the middle part with the counterpoint is very cool

I like the guitar sounds of “The Lamb,” and Dessa’s voice is great on this one.

Her lyrics are somewhat aggressive but really spot on: “You’ve got a way with words / you got away with murder” and “They can sew your hands together but they can’t make you pray.”

I am curious to see what her full band sounds like because this stripped down version is really good.

[READ: August 28, 2016] “Vladivostock Station”

This story opened my eyes to something I was unaware of.  The narrator’s father was a Korean refugee from the second world war. After the war his father settled in Russia and had children with a local woman.  Evidently this was quite common, although I’d never heard this before.  So the narrator is half-Korean with a Russian name.  I’s never heard of such a thing.

But that’s not the point of the story at all.  Rather, it is the story about Misha and his old friend Kostya.  They have known each other for ages.  Kostya worked at Misha’s father’s hotel for many years, but the two lost touch.  In the meantime, Misha had become an employee of the railroad –he repaired the insides of older trains. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MATT ULERY’S LOOM-Tiny Desk Concert #312 (October 19, 2013).

When a jazz band (or really any band) is named after a person, it’s always fun to try to guess who that person is in the band.  The first song “Coriander”  starts out with some trumpet notes and a kind of intro melody that’s played by both the sax and the trumpet.  And then about a minute and a half in, the keyboards take over, with a great cool 70s jazz/funk sound (the keys sound is my favorite part of this band).  And then of course behind all of this is the constancy of the drummer and the upright bass.  So, which one is Ulery?

I never would have guessed that he’s he bassist.  For his job in this band is basically to hold everything together.  The horns are doing their own thing, the drummer is doing all kinds of cool syncopated jazz beats. And the keys are just soloing like mad.  I don’t know if it’s because the bass isn’t very loud in the mix (it’s really isn’t), but his presence is almost not really there.  At the 4 minute mark of “Coriander,” the whole band drops away and the keys pick up a cool riff and then the horns chime in and eventually the bass comes back in.  I think he’s just not loud enough because watching him, it sure looks like he’s doing a lot more than what I hear.  And yet he’s never flashy.  As I say, he’s the ground, not the star.

When he speaks he’s rather quiet as well.  He says he loves NPR and gives a shout-out to his local Chicago station WBEZ.

Then they launch into the second song “My Favorite Stranger”  in which the keyboardist has now switched to accordion (a pretty pearly white and red affair).  I really like when the bass clarinet takes over the melody for a bit.  The accordion acts like drone with the trumpet taking most of the leads (although I love when the bass clarinet gets to run those same leads as well).

And for some background on Ulery:

The Chicago bassist Matt Ulery writes beautiful music in an unpretentious way. It’s intricate stuff, with interlocking parts and segmented structures. It often borrows from Eastern European scales, orchestral tone colors, folky textures. (On his backpack, he sports a SXSW patch from when he toured with a rock band called In Tall Buildings.) But it doesn’t sound like calculus class, as in some other ambitious works of modern jazz. It never seems to stray too far away from pretty melody over undulating rhythms, and that deceptive simplicity sets it apart.

Last year Ulery put out a grand two-disc set of music you might call “chamber jazz.” By A Little Light had strings, orchestral horns and singers — the whole nine yards. But he has also long done lavish on a smaller scale with a band called Loom. A rejiggered quintet lineup (note: Matt Ulery, bass; Marquis Hill, trumpet; Geof Bradfield, bass clarinet; Rob Clearfield, keyboards/accordion; Jon Dietemyer, drums) produced this year’s Wake An Echo, which the band brought to our office during a brief summer tour.

[READ: December 14, 2014] Tetris

I really enjoyed Box Brown’s take on Andre the Giant.  I really wasn’t sure what a book about Tetris could contain.  I mean, I love the game, but what’s there to say about it?  Well, it turns out, quite a lot–250 pages worth, in fact.

Beyond the game itself, Brown talks a bit about the history of video game development, including a bit of the history of Nintendo. But then he gets into what happened when people started to get addicted to those little falling blocks.  Who knew that Tetris had such a convoluted history?

The book starts off (in Brown’s wonderfully simple drawing style) with a picture of Alexey Pajitnov, the creator of Tetris and his friend Vladimir Pokhilo.  Alexey says he has been thinking about the pentomino puzzle. (more…)

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TNY 8.25.08 cvr.inddSOUNDTRACK: BIG THIEF-Tiny Desk Concert #561 (August 29, 2016).

bigthiefBob Boilen absolutely loves Big Thief’s debut album (it made his top ten this year).  I think it’s really good, but I don’t quite love it the way he does.

But I think their first song, “Masterpiece” is really a great song.  And in this Tiny Desk Concert, they play it with a slightly different feel.  It seems to allow the sounds of the guitars to come through a little more.  Like the album, though, the harmonies are wonderful.

When the video started, the camera focused on just Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek, and since the first song starts with just the two of them I wasn’t even sure of the whole band was there.  They are, although it’s odd how isolated the rhythms section looks in this video.

“Paul” is a mellow song with a strangely subdued and yet catchy chorus.  It’s kind of funny to watch Buck Meek really getting down to what is a fairly mellow track–although his guitar parts are pretty cool blasts of music.

“Lorraine” also get a mellow treatment here.  For this version it’s just her singing and playing the guitar.  It works very well in this Tiny setting and her voice really shines.

[READ: March 1, 2016] “Awake”

This story is about a college Economics major who just can’t get enough sex.

Well, that’s how it starts anyhow.  Richard is lying in bed next to Ana.  He moves in close behind her, hinting.  But she moves away quickly (she is actually asleep, so that’s a reflex).  He is annoyed although he shouldn’t be–I mean they did it twice already that night.

So instead of thinking about sex he decides to think about something else.  But what? (more…)

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dasha SOUNDTRACK: SACKVILLE-The Principles of Science [CST007] (1999). 

sackvilleFor Sackville’s only release for Constellation Records, they created a short disc of great folk with a hint of art rock

“Gold Dust” is a catchy uptempo folk song with some nice violin melodies as accents.  It’s a catchy number with Levine’s vocals sounding once again kind of like the guy from Social Distortion singing a mellow folk song.  The chorus has nice backing vocals added.  “Water” is a mellow song with, again, a beautiful guitar and violin melody.  The vocals have a great distinctive melody over the top.

“Blue Lips” has a kind of saloon sounding quality in its piano and a super catchy violin riff that runs through the song (and informs the vocal line).  I really like the lyrics on this one: “If memory serves me well…I may forget your name but not your face…unusual face.”  This song is only 3 minutes and it is over way too quickly.  “Four Alarm Fire” is a slow, evolving song coming in at nearly 7 minutes.  It opens with some quietly played guitar and a bass line that seems to be quiet but soon plays and interesting line that propels the song (albeit slowly).

The title song picks up the pace with a pretty guitar and piano melody.  The catchiness of the chorus “this light will disappear like breath on a mirror” is a great ending to this quiet disc.

Their final album of odds and ends, Natural Life, is available to stream on bandcamp.

[READ: June 20, 2016] A Year Without Mom

This book is a graphic novel (mostly) about a year without mom.  This is actually a memoir from Tolstikova about the year in her life when her mother left Moscow to study in America.  Dasha was 12 years old in 1983 and her mom was an advertiser in Russia.  But she didn’t like the kind of advertising she did.  She had applied to a Masters program in America and was accepted.  And soon enough she packed up and shipped out.

Dasha was to stay in Moscow with her grandparents.

In August she and her grandparents went to the country for a writers retreat.  Other kids would be there, too.  Her grandparents encouraged her to play with them but Petya, the leader is an anchor on a children’s TV show and his mother is a famous actress herself–it’s an intimidating scene. (more…)

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2008_04_21-400SOUNDTRACK: HIGHASAKITE-Tiny Desk Concert #376 (July 25, 2014).

 highkiteFor some reason, some bands play a Tiny Desk Concert that is very short.  It’s especially disappointing when the band is unusual and interesting like Highasakite.

They play only two songs (for a total of 8 minutes), but they cram a lot of interesting sounds into these songs, including a flugabone.  Kristoffer Lo plays that mournful horn and Ingrid Helene Håvik compliments the yearning with words that are mysterious and somewhat dark.

For “The Man on the Ferry” the song opens with the horn playing mournful notes while the percussionist plays a tiny steel drum and Håvik plays a kind of autoharp.  There’s the fascinating lyric: “It made the Indian in me cry.”  (It’s especially interesting since the band is from Norway).

Håvik has an inflection something like Björk’s (although her singing style is very different) and there are some delightful harmonies.

The melody of the second song “Since Last Wednesday” is familiar to me.  Or the combination of steel drum and horn is just really compelling. It’s fascinating to watch the guitarist wield his horn in one hand while holding the guitar with the other and singing harmonies.  The song is also kind of mysterious (that horn again) with the lyrics:

He would never do graffiti or vandalize that house. And he would never be caught spray painting on those people’s walls. But no one has seen or heard from him since last Wednesday.

As the song progresses some really dark lyrics crop up, all under that beguiling melody.

The blurb lists some of their other titles: “Leaving No Traces,” “I, The Hand Grenade,” “The Man on the Ferry,” “Science & Blood Tests” which really says quite a lot about this interesting band.  I definitely want to hear more than eight minutes from them.

[READ: February 20, 2016] “The Repatriates”

I was fascinated by this story because I hadn’t really heard of the phenomenon of Russian emigres returning to Russia because they felt the conditions were better there than in America

The story starts by telling us that Grisha and Lera’s marriage has dissolved.  In 1994 Grisha’s visa had been processed and he was brought to America by Hewlett-Packard.  He found it demeaning and like servitude ans as soon as it was up her quit and got a new job with Morgan Stanley–building market models for mortgage traders (for those of us who doesn’t know what that is, it’s not rally that important).

But Grisha felt empty.  He said there as no spirituality in America (even though he himself was not spiritual)

Eventually Grisha started travelling back to Moscow (they had not been able to sell their apartment there, so he had a place to stay). He would visit old friends and make news ones.  He started going more frequently.  And then one of his trips lasted for two months. (more…)

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425 SOUNDTRACK: JULIA HOLTER-Tiny Desk Concert #523 (April 22, 2016).

Jjuliahulia Holter also has a theatrical style although her touchstone would be someone more like Regina Spektor (I found a similar style in their delivery).

“Sea Calls me Home” has a cabaret style in her delivery and songs structure.  She plays piano with a small band of upright bass, violin and drum.  I really like the sound (and solo) of the violin later on in the song.

“In the Green Wild” has a very jazzy feel with the upright bass playing a jazz line and the drums playing a jazzy rushed sound.  The violin plays some random high almost dissonant notes that work very well.  For the beginning, Julia doesn’t play piano, she sing-speaks kind of like Laurie Anderson—including the unusual intonation and emphases.  The rest of the band sings backing vocals that are higher and ethereal.  About half way in, she begins playing piano and the song settles sown a bit. The way she sings is unusual and a little unsettling—she looks up at the ceiling more or less the whole time.  Her piano notes are simple and I like the way she plays without looking at the keys.

After that song she speaks briefly.  Her personality is pretty nonexistent–she doesn’t smile or even seem to look at anyone. She sounds rather bored as she says okay we’ll play another song.  Thanks for listening.  That turned me off of her music a bit.

The final song, “Betsy on the Roof,” is the longest, about six minutes long.  It sounds similar to the first one–theatrical and somewhat operatic.  There’s a story in the song, but my favorite part is the middle where she sings a scale up to the roof and then the band rocks out.  The end of the song is fascinating as she sings her nice melody and plays atonal tones on the piano.  I enjoyed t he theatricality of this music a lot, but I would have preferred not to see her performance.

[READ: June 10, 2016] “Waiting for the Miracle”

This is the story of Vadik and his arrival in New York from Moscow.  It was a snowy day as he landed at J.F.K.  Despite the snow blanketing the skyline, it was still exciting. as he descended.  He had just received his work Visa authorizing his stay in the U.S. for three years.  He was staring work in Avenel, NJ.

His friend Sergey, who lives in Staten Island, came to pick him up.  All that Vadik wanted to do was explore the city–walk aimlessly and see what happened, but Sergey wanted to take him to his house.  And Sergey’s wife Vica wanted to see him too–in their past Vadik and Vica had been an item although and Sergey stole her away.  Vica made dinner for him and so he agreed to go to the Island.

On the way to the house, the most improbable thing is that Sergey is listening to a Leonard Cohen CD and singing along.  (Vadik likes Sergey and admits that he is still handsome, but his voice is terrible and has always been terrible.  And it’s especially bad especially for Leonard Cohen.  I say this is improbable because Cohen’s music appears later in the story  too. (more…)

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