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922 SOUNDTRACK: CORINNE BAILEY RAE-Tiny Desk Concert #565 (September 16, 2016).

cbrI don’t really know Corinne Bailey Rae.  Her name sounds familiar, but I don’t think she’s who I thought she was.  Evidently she won a Grammy a few years ago, but that doesn’t really help me.

For this Tiny Desk, she sings three songs.  She plays an acoustic guitar with a folky flair.  The rest of her group consists of an electric guitar, a keyboard and a box drum (I love those).

Rae’s voice is delightful and her backing band gives the songs a 70s soft rock feel.  It’s an interesting mix of sounds.

“Paris Nights / New York Mornings” is a catchy song based around her guitar.  It’s an upbeat song with some cool dramatic slow downs.  It sounds incredibly 1970s.

She says that “Hey, I Won’t Break Your Heart” is about falling in love with a person again, a second time.  And how you have to rebuild trust. It’s a slow ballad, although it builds into a kind of R&B song.  The interesting thing about Rae is that she always has a smile on her face.  She seems so happy during every song even when she sings, “I won’t break your heart like you broke mine.”

“The Skies Will Break” is about a point in your life when you think things are hopeless.  But you should just know that things will change.  It has a 70s keyboard vibe.  I really like the chord progressions of the chorus.  The fact that it’s her acoustic guitar that plays the loud chords of the chorus is pretty cool.

It has been about six years since Rae made an album, and it’s nice to have her back (even if I didn’t know she was gone).

[READ: March 8, 2016] “The Noble Truths of Suffering”

The story is about an American abroad.  He says he was speaking Bosnian and was in the American Ambassador’s house.  The house was ugly, built by a Bosnian tycoon.  But he decided that he needed more space, so he rented it out.

There’s a funny moment were the narrator sees the cultural attaché whose name is Jonah.  He says he mistakenly called him Johnny once and has been playing up that joke “Johnnyboy!” ever since.

This seems like a political story until we realize that the narrator is there to meet Dick Macalister, the author and Pulitzer Prize winner.  The narrator had received an invitation a few weeks ago.

I enjoyed that the invitation had reached his at his parents house in Sarajevo where he was briefly staying (he lives in Chicago). He couldn’t figure out how they knew where he was, but he had lots of wild speculative ideas.  He wasn’t going to go–he was trying to clear his head of Americans, until he read a little more about Macalister.  He had heard of him but hadn’t read him.  So he read some pullout quotes by the man and decided he was okay. (more…)

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pittanecSOUNDTRACK: VALLEY QUEEN-Tiny Desk Concert #546 (July 8, 2016).

valley-queenTypically, but not always, bands that play the Tiny Desk Concert are fairly established.  Valley Queen had only released a couple of singles on bandcamp when they performed theirs.

Bob Boilen had seen them at SXSW and was impressed enough to bring them in.

They play three sings that are bright and sunny all centered around Natalie Carol’s soaring voice.  Sometimes it feels like her voice gets away from her (could be the setting), but for the most part she sings wonderfully with a distinctiveness that I rather like.  At times, her voice sounds like an old English folk singer–dare I say unencumbered by precision.

The band plays a kind of light and breezy folk (the main guitar is a hollow bodied electric).  “In My Place” is a pretty song that really comes to life when the rest of the band adds their harmonies for the chorus. It’s really catchy with a lot of delightful guitar lines.  The way the song ends on a high note (literally) is pretty cool.

I also really like the way the bass is largely unobtrusive but occasionally plays some interesting lines that add some nice lines while the other instruments are jangling along.

I don’t quite understand what her accent is.  In the second song, Hold on You” there are moments where she enunciates in such a strange way.   This song is pleasant although somewhat unremarkable.

After the second song she says that they would have been jazzed just to take a tour of the place, so they’re really excited to be playing there.

The final song is more dramatic and instantly grabbing.  I love the chord progression of the chorus.  The way the chords bounce along as she sings that one word “Ride” and holds it for a long time.  I love the vibrato guitar sound which gives it a strangely 4AD quality.

My first listen through I wasn’t all that taken with these songs, but by a third listen I was really hooked.

[READ: November 18, 2016] A Mere Pittance

Back in 2014, I ordered all 16 books from Madras Press. Unfortunately, after publishing the 16 books they seem to have gone out of business (actually they are switching to non-fiction, it seems). They still have a web presence where you can buy remaining copies of books.  But what a great business idea this is/was

Madras Press publishes limited-edition short stories and novella-length booklets and distributes the proceeds to a growing list of non-profit organizations chosen by our authors.  The format of our books provides readers with the opportunity to experience stories on their own, with no advertisements or miscellaneous stuff surrounding them.

The format is a 5″ x 5″ square books that easily fit into a pocket.

Proceeds from Prabhaker’s book go to Helping Hands Monkey Helpers.

This story is constructed entirely in dialogue.  We never learn the names of our speakers and the location of one of them is a closely guarded secret.  The story is mildly challenging to read.  In part because its’ dialogue (it’s mostly easy to follow, but you always get parts where there’s silence or a number of Yeses in a row that tends to confuse the speakers–that’s quickly resolved, though), but also because one of the speakers is deliberately trying to obfuscate things. (more…)

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sweater SOUNDTRACK: ÁSGEIR-Tiny Desk Concert #397 (October 18, 2014).

asgeirÁsgeir Trausti Einarsson is an Icelandic singer songwriter.  He has a beautiful soft soaring voice.  He released his debut album Dýrð í dauðaþögn in Icelandic (it became the biggest-selling debit in Icelandic music history).  A year later he reissued it in English (with translation help from John Grant who was living in Iceland) as In the Silence and finally (the version I have, as a 3 disc set with the Icelandic and English discs as well as a selection of bonus songs.

“On That Day” is a pretty, guitar based song (Ásgeir plays the main melody line and has guitar accompaniment (and backing vocals) from his childhood friend Julius Róbertsson.

For the final two songs, Ásgeir switches to piano.  “Torrent” has gorgeous vocal harmonies. It’s interesting how much more deliberate this song feels–not quite staccato, but the piano chords don’t really ring out, letting each note stand on its own.

For this Tiny Desk, he stripped down the songs, getting to their core.  They’re not flashy, they’re just lovely.

The final song he plays, “Higher” is the first song on the record (interestingly “On that Day” is the final song on the record).  It has a very slow, delicate piano melody and is also soothing and beautiful.

And in a cool synchronicity at the end of the show Bob tells Ásgeir  that he’s playing at the same piano that John Grant played on a few months earlier.

[READ: July 2, 2016] Sweaterweather

Back in 2003, Sara Varon published her first book called Sweaterweather.  This collection includes all of the original 8 stories as well as a few more.  Each story gets a brief introduction from Varon which makes me like her even more (she’s quite funny).

Most of the stories are short(2-3 p[ages) and most don’t seem to have a title.  The contents page is actually thumbnails from each story.

When I first saw Varon’s style, I wasn’t sure what to make of it.  It is so innocent and childlike.  And I have really grown to love it–especially when these sweet animals characters (they’re pretty much all animals) tackle some intense feelings. (more…)

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mikesplace SOUNDTRACK: MONIKA-Tiny Desk Concert #528 (May 6, 2016).

monikaMonika is a superstar in her native Greece (her full name is Monika Christodoulou).  She is a charming woman with a big voice and a bigger stage presence.  She incorporates theatrical notions in her performance too (the fact that she has a shirt that looks like a mime’s kind of encourages that idea): “throwing” stars, flying, sleeping.

It is hard to believe that the blurb says used to sing sad songs, as she is so fun and bouncy.  But there’s this biographical note:

her recent transition from singer of sad songs to purveyor of upbeat jubilance came after she nearly lost her life in a boat fire; she had to swim eight hours in the dark to safety without food or drinkable water. These days, it’s all about a great band grooving, her joyful voice, and that infectious smile.

Wow.

She sings four songs.  The first, “Yes I Do,” opens with what I assume is a lyric about the then current moment: “24th of March has arrived and I think it’s Thursday?  Washington is beautiful out there but we don’t really care.”  It has a kind of circus opera feel.  And Monika’s voice is a marvel–powerful and beautiful with a good range.

monika2For the second song, “Shake Your Hands” she asks if everyone is ready to dance a little.  She climbs up on the desk and as she sings the slow opening, when she gets to the “I love you” moment, she sings without the mike and is as loud as when she uses it.  Once the song kicks in, it has a big disco beat: wah wah’d guitars and a funky bass line.  She encourages everyone to sing along: “Even if you don’t understand, just repeat, okay.”  The song ends with a very fun extended ending of staccato chords.

“Hand in Hand” has a kind of gospel quality (a big group sing along of the opening lines), although it is a brief, transitional song before “Secret in the Dark” begins.  She straps on a guitar for this final song which has a discoey riff and a fuzzy keyboard sound.  It’s really fun.

I’d never heard of Monika, but she seems like the kind of pop/dance star that would be really fun to see live.

[READ: April 1, 2016] Mike’s Place

Somehow I missed that word in the subtitle: True.  I didn’t realize that this was a true story until the very end.  The story was really good before I knew that and it makes it even more amazing after I found the truth.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, John Baxter (Jack), a filmmaker has come to cover a story.  He goes into a local bar called Mike’s Place for a meal.  He is greeted warmly and is told that there is live music every night of the week.  They proudly state that Mike’s is a place where people of all stripes comes to congregate and do anything but talk about politics.

It turns out that there are already people making a documentary about the subject who John came to cover (Marwan Barghouti) so Jack  decides to give up. (more…)

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photoSOUNDTRACK: WILCO-Tiny Desk Concert #508 (February 23, 2016).

wilcoAs far as I can tell, Wilco is the first band to be invited back for a Tiny Desk Concert (there was a stated rule that no one would come back twice, with some people skirting that by coming with another band).  Laura Gibson was invited back since she was the very first attendee, but since Wilco’s newest album has been so successful, it seems somehow fitting that they get invited back.

And perhaps in honor of that, while their last performance was noisy and raucous, this one is decidedly more mellow—with all acoustic instruments.  But that doesn’t mean it’s quiet and calm either.

For the first song “The Joke Explained” from Star Wars, they used banjo, acoustic bass, hollow bodies electric guitar (w/ slide), the ever-present melodica and muted drums (w/shakers).  And it sounded great.

For the second song, the older “Misunderstood” everybody seemed to switch instruments.  Tweedy switched guitars, the acoustic bass became an acoustic guitar, the hollow body became a slide guitar.  Nels Cline’s slide guitar brings so much to the song by doing seemingly so little.  I love how this simple, sweet song has a wild middle section–a crazy breakdown with noisy cymbals and drums–drummer Glenn Kotche is fantastic–and everyone else playing some crazy high-pitched notes until it all settles back down again.

Tweedy has another guitar for the third song “I’m Always In Love” and the melodica is back.  There’s xylophone keeping the melody.  And as with all of these songs, Tweedy sounds great and the backing vocals add wonderful harmonies.  Cline plays a wonderful slide solo, too.

Before the final song and there’s another guitar change for Tweedy, and he says that after this song, “you guys need to get back to work solving this Trump problem. Figure it out! Its weird!”  They play “Shot in the Arm,” another great old song.

The band sounds excellent—a wonderfully full sound even without amplification. I am really excited to see them his summer.

There’s also a nifty video showing “Misunderstood” with two 360 degree cameras so you can see what goes on in the audience during a Tiny Desk Concert.  Check it out.

[READ: February 7, 2016] The Photographer

I loved Guibert’s book Alan’s War, in which he took the words of Alan Cope and put them to an amazing graphic novel.  Well, he is back again doing the same thing with the words of famed photograph Didier Lefèvre.

Didier Lefèvre died in 2008, but before he died he left a legacy of amazing photojournalism.  That includes this trip to Afghanistan which he took with the team from Doctors without Borders.

Alexis Siegel translated this book again, and he offers an excellent introduction which not only explains Lefèvre’s life, it also gives context for everything tat these men and women were up against in that war-torn region.

As mentioned Guibert draws out the story that Lefèvre told him.  But this book is different from Alan’s War in that it also uses the photos that Lefèvre took.  Guibert fills in the gaps where Lefèvre, didn’t or couldn’t, shoot.  And there was a lot he couldn’t shoot. (more…)

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SlewisOUNDTRACK: BEN FOLDS-Tiny Desk Concert #507 (February 16, 2016).

benfolds I’ve liked Ben Folds for many many years.  He’s funny, he’s amazing live and he plays a mighty good song or two.  He’s the kind of artist you say, Has he really not done a Tiny Desk Concert before? (He did an episode of Live from Daryl’s House after all).  But he’s finally here to bang the hell out of their piano and curse up a storm.

He plays several songs from his new album So There, which is  a collaboration with the sextet yMusic.  I haven’t actually listened to the record much because I gave it to Sarah and haven’t grabbed it from her pile yet.  Since there’s no strings for this Tiny Desk, these songs sound just like normal Ben Folds songs–clever lyrics, fun piano and unexpected twists.

The first song is “Phone in a Pool,” one of his rollicking stompers.  It’s catchy and fun to sing a long to and after one listen, you’re right there with him in New Orleans throwing a phone in a pool.  Midway through the song, he forgets the words and just starts laughing: “In a world where you get applause for fucking up.”  And then he makes up a verse about forgetting the words.

“Not a Fan” is a slower song with a beautiful piano melody and biting, funny lyrics (get your T-shirt signed, fangirl).

“Capable of Anything” is a fast, romping song.  He says on the record the vocals are very quiet, so he’ll see what he can do.  After a run through a verse he stops and realizes that he has knocked the piano out of tune.   And when he bangs on the keys at the end, its easy to see how.  There’s some really fast piano work (and you can hear him stomping along).

he says he’ll play some old songs.  He asks for a song and someone shouts “Emeline,” which he immediately starts playing.  And then about a verse in, he gives some story behind the song.  He says that when he was a kid 8 or 9, he wrote earnest songs, but when he was a teenager he wrote “cool”s songs like “Having Two Dicks is Cool.”

And then he started using songwriter vernacular, words you only use in pop songs, “why’d you make me cry, girl?”  Why do people do that? When he was 18 or 19 he started to write songs that were more natural, like Emeline, the first song he was proud of–using the word “stupid” or a money analogy–and which he still loves playing.

He’s willing to do more songs and asks for requests saying which ones he can or can’t do.  And then Bob points out that he’s going to miss his plane if he does more than one song.  So he chooses for everyone and plays an amazing version of “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces.”  he says it can probably be done and will put the rest of the piano out of tune.  And he’s not kidding.  He really pounds the heck out of that thing–how does his own piano manage?

The song is bouncy and fun and he even jokes with the lyrics near the end.

It’s an amazing, invigorating set and has me really excited to see him this summer.

[READ: February 28, 2016] Lewis and Clark

In 2014, Bertozzi made the excellent Shackleton graphic novel.  But three years earlier he had created another historical graphic novel, this one about Lewis and Clark.

Like Shackleton, it aims to be truthful but not comprehensive.  Bertozzi himself explains that it is not meant to be a replacement for the scholarly recounting of the journey.  Rather, he hopes to show the “experience” of the journey.

The book doesn’t really include any historical context, so in a brief summary:

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Jefferson commissioned a group of U.S. Army volunteers under the command of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his close friend, Second Lieutenant William Clark to explore the territory.  Their journey lasted from May 1804 to September 1806. The primary objective was to explore and map the newly acquired territory, find a practical route across the Western half of the continent, and establish an American presence in this territory before Britain and other European powers tried to claim it.The campaign’s secondary objectives were scientific and economic: to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and establish trade with local Native American tribes.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: mohawk CHELSEA WOLFE-Tiny Desk Concert #506 (February 12, 2016).

chelseaI know Chelsea Wolfe from my fiends Liz and Eleanor who are fans of her. I have her album Pain is Beauty, which is atmospheric and gothic and reminds me of Siouxsie and the Banshees.

For this Tiny Desk, she strips away all of the band and noise and plays just her electric guitar (with some major fuzz) and sings (with some looping as necessary). I’m especially intrigued that one of her strings seems to be ever so slightly out of tune, which brings a really interesting tone to her echoed guitar playing.

Her voice is really pretty.  On the record I’d been trying to think who she reminded me of.  I hears Some Siouxsie Sioux, but in this set it’s someone else and I just can’t quite place it.

“Maw” really showcases her voice as she sings a lot of lines that soar, ever so briefly, and her voice sounds really powerful.  There’s a whole goth kind of tone going on with her low guitar and her echoed voice.  I especially like the end of the song where she wordlessly sings as her guitar echoes to a close.

She doesn’t talk between songs.  And immediately she begins “Crazy Love.”  This song has a beautiful melody and great singing but with a  very dark overarching feel.  I saw that her music was described as “doom folk” which certainly makes sense.

I like “Iron Moon” best.  The slow riff in the beginning and the way her voice seems to want to crack but never does, it’s really powerful.  And the way she always sounds great while she hits those big notes.  It’s a great set and a rather unique sound for her.

It’s also nice to hear her talk at the end, just to know that she actually spoke to the people there.

[READ: February 27, 2016] Journey into Mohawk Country

Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert was only twenty-three in 1634 when he ventured into Mohawk territory in search of the answers to a pressing question: where were all the beaver skins that the Indians should have been shipping down the river?  And he wrote a journal of his experience of traveling into the future-New York State in the dead of winter accompanied by the delegates from the Mohawk tribe.

George O’Connor has taken van den Bogaert‘s diary and used it word for word (after being translated by Charles T. Gehring and William A. Starna in 1988) to create a visual representation of this journey.  I know O’Connor mostly because he is the editor of First Second’s Fables and Fairy Tales collections.  I gather he is also an illustrator, although this is my first exposure to him. (more…)

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