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SOUNDTRACK: OK Go-Tiny Desk Concert #278 (June 3, 2013).

I love OK Go’s music videos.  They are stupendous. I have watched all of them several times.  And yet I can’t remember a single song.  But that doesn’t diminish my appreciation for them.

When NPR was moving offices, they made a “Tiny Desk Concert” of the band proceeding from their old location to the new one.  And in OK Go fashion, they made a great video to go with it.  The music is live (I believe), even though they must have shot the footage hundreds of times.  It’s sort of a stop motion video, except that it’s not single frames but short 2 second clips spliced together.

You can watch as the old office is dismantled, as they walk through the halls to the moving truck.   As they play on the truck in the streets of D.C. and then as they enter the new building.  There are cameos from NPR colleagues: Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, David Greene, Guy Raz, Scott Simon, Alix Spiegel, Susan Stamberg and more.  There’s a hilarious moment with Karl Kassel who gives them a dirty look.  And then they march through the offices, the news room and into the new Tiny Desk location where they finish the song.

The song is fun and catchy and even has new lyrics that reference the NPR move.  It has to be seen to be appreciated.

And if you like figures here are some details from the shoot:

  • Number of video takes: 223
  • Number of seconds Carl Kasell spent in the elevator with OK Go: 98
  • Number of times Ari Shapiro played the tubular bells: 15
  • Number of days it took to shoot: 2
  • Number of cameras: 1

Incidentally, NPR and I are out of sync with our counting of Tiny Desk Concerts.  I can’t figure out what happened.  The reason mine is correct is because I have written down every concert and numbered them.  So I feel that for them one doesn’t count?  They say this was number 277.  Someday they’ll read this and we’ll get to the  bottom of everything.

[READ: April 1, 2016] No Mercy Vol. 1

Because of the way books are being handled at my work now, I don’t get to see as many books as I used to. So i was pretty delighted to get this graphic novel on my desk.  Even if I didn’t quite know what it was about, I wanted to read it.  And boy did I enjoy it.

I had no idea that the cast was a group of aspiring Princeton University students on a per-freshman trip to an underprivileged county (I like the t-shirts that say Building Bridges Helping Hands with a kinda Princeton P on the front.

We meet the cast in a cool way–each one steeping forward a bit in the crowd and giving a bit of information about themselves…mostly through text messages. Oh and I loved the way the opening colophon pages looked just like Facebook (or whatever) with a timeline photo and then on the right side–sponsored images with drawings of the author and the illustrators and an ad for an other Image comic by Alex de Campi called Valentine–genius layout idea.

There’s also a comment under the photo which says “OMG how sad, they were also young.”  So you know something bad is going to happen these poor kids. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: LAURA MVULA-Tiny Desk Concert #284 (July 1, 2013).

I don’t know Mvula’s music (I know her because her name is unmistakable and I feel surprised that her debut came out only 4 years ago).  The blurb talks about her big powerhouse soulful pop.  But that is not in evidence here at all.  As they say:

with the help of a small string section, she forgoes some of her flashier songs (“Like the Morning Dew,” “Green Garden”) in favor of Sing to the Moon‘s most brooding ballads.

“Father, Father” is almost entirely her singing and playing a very spare keyboard–with just a few seconds of string help near the end.  Her voice is quite lovely in what is practically an a cappella setting.

She introduces the second song by saying: “If we had the bigger band we’d do the more upbeat things.  I usually write in six-part harmony.  But it’s just the three of us so I’m going to do another more intimate one called ‘Diamonds.'”  There’s more strings on this song, which add to the song (the keyboard is quite thin, I fear).

The set ends with “She,” a song with a bit more complex keyboard parts which I rather like.  This song is my favorite, probably because it sounds the fullest.

The whole set is a little too mellow for my tastes, but I am curious to hear what her big poppy six-part-harmony songs sound like!

[READ: April 21, 2016] The Right Here Right Now Thing

I found this graphic novel at work. What was so funny about it is that the title is in English but the publisher is German.  I flipped through the book and saw the English dialogue so I decided to read it.  Imagine my surprise then that the first few and the last few pages are in German!

Google Translate is a good thing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do as well with idiom and vulgar phrases, and there are a few in this book.  But I got the gist.

Plus, quite a lot of it is wordless, too.

The story begins with hands putting drugs (I assume cocaine and pot from later sections) into a condom.  And then we see our heroine on the toilet…doing something.  Her plane ticket says Frankfurt-Krakau.  She says goodbye to the guy lying in bed and she heads to the airport. (more…)

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harpers-magazine-march-2017-4SOUNDTRACK: GALLANT-Tiny Desk Concert #594 (January 30, 2017).

Despite the impressive cred, I had never heard of Gallant.  I mean, check out these bona-fides:

When Christopher Gallant was featured in Forbes‘ 30 Under 30 list, the testimonial came from none other than Elton John, who said, “When I hear his voice, I just lose it.” The two even performed Gallant’s song “Weight In Gold” together back in September.

Gallant performed a stripped-down version of that hit when he came to the Tiny Desk earlier this month, and preceded it with another of his best-known songs, “Skipping Stones.” Written with Jhené Aiko, that tune radiates sultry intensity and passion; here, the talented Dani Ivory (who’s performed as a touring member of Imagine Dragons) sits in for Aiko.

Ology, Gallant’s 2016 debut, is up for a Grammy — for Best Urban Contemporary Album [it lost to Lemonade] — and another of its falsetto-driven highlights opens this three-song set. On the record, “Bourbon” is produced with a funky, old-school, Prince-like drum track, but here, a steady drum beat grounds the hypnotic song just as well, if not better. Best of all, “Bourbon” gets a welcome bonus at the Tiny Desk: a guest rap by Saba, a charismatic rising star and frequent Chance The Rapper collaborator.

The musicians for this set are: Gallant (vocals); Wes Switzer (bass); Dani Ivory (keys, vocals); Dylan Jones (guitar); A.J. Novak (percussion); featuring guest rapper Saba in “Bourbon.

I don’t really like R&B all that much, but I can certainly appreciate a great voice and man does Gallant have one.  On “Bourbon”his falsetto is really really impressive.  And Saba has an incredibly fast flow.  And on “Skipping Stones,” again, he has such an amazing falsetto.  I don’t know what the recorded version’s female singer sounds like, but while Dani Ivory does a fine job, she really can’t compete with him.  And on “Weight In Gold” he hits some amazing high notes with ease.

[READ: February 21, 2017] “Dona Nobis Pacem”    (means grant us peace)

This story has an epigram from Plato’s Republic in which someone asks Sophocles about his love life, if he can still make love to a woman.  Sophocles replies: “Shush man, I am very happy to have escaped from that–as happy as a slave who has escaped from an insane and heartless master.”

The title of the story “Dona Nobis Pacem” means “grant us peace.”

This story is written as an address from a sixty-two year old divorced professor of philosophy to a 58-year-old widowed member of the faculty.  They have known each other for many  years.  Her husband died two years ago and since then the two of them have holidayed togetehr a few times.  Their vacations have been primarily to Italy or the Alps or, as in the current vacation, to the Aegean shore of Turkey and the Greek Islands.

They often shared a room–their vacations were amicable and pleasant.

And then in Bergama, their hotel had but one bed. They reluctantly agreed to share the bed.  And that’s when things changed. (more…)

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80SOUNDTRACK: LAWRENCE BROWNLEE-Tiny Desk Concert #308 (October 5, 2013).

Sometimes it makes sense tome when I don’t know a Tiny Desk Concert performer.  Lawrence Brownlee is an opera singer and therefore way outside of my comfort zone.  So what do we know about Brownlee?

These days, Lawrence Brownlee spends most of his time on the stages of the world’s great opera houses. That’s where you’ll find him singing Rossini and Donizetti. His supple, strong, high-flying voice can negotiate the tightest hairpin turns with grace and elegance; that, and his ability to command the stage as an actor, has won Brownlee the praise of critics worldwide.

But as much as he excels at opera, there’s a special place in Brownlee’s heart for African-American spirituals. Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Brownlee sang gospel music in church, and now he’s returning to that tradition by releasing a new album, Spiritual Sketches — and singing selections from it here in the NPR Music offices.

Brownlee bases much of his operatic success on his sturdy church-music grounding. “I would say that the flexibility I have with my voice is in large part because I sang gospel in church,” Brownlee told NPR in 2007. “It’s a lot of improvisational singing with a lot of riffs or runs.”

The spirituals might be well-known, but through Brownlee’s voice, they shine in new, occasionally jazz-inflected arrangements by Damien Sneed. “There Is a Balm in Gilead” floats in a newly contemplative mood with the addition of a few blue notes and chromatic touches, while the spunky piano line Justina Lee plays in “Come By Here” seems inspired by great stride players like James P. Johnson.

But the heart and soul of this concert is “All Night, All Day,” a performance that swells with a potent combination of tenderness and operatic horsepower. The song speaks of a protective band of angels — angels that Brownlee told the audience are watching over his 3-year-old son Caleb, who’s just been diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder.

“It’s called ‘All Night, All Day,’ but I’ve renamed it ‘Caleb’s Song,'” Brownlee says. The soulful vocalisms with which Brownlee closes the song are gorgeous and tinged with anguish.

I don’t have much more to add–that was a thorough blurb.  His voice is indeed amazing.  But equally surprising is how gentle his speaking voice is–if you heard him speak before singing, you’d be leaning in to hear him talk and then he would blow you away with his singing voice.

A couple things about the pianist: He tells us that this was the first time that Justina Lee had seen the music for these songs (she plays it wonderfully).  But also that the piano sounds rather flat and spare compared to the fullness of his voice.  Was this a microphone problem?  It was just kind of strange.

But otherwise, this was a beautiful set.

[READ: August 20 2016] Around the World in 80 Days

I have never read Around the World in 80 Days.  I really enjoy Verne’s stories, I’ve just never read the novels.  So when I saw this adaptation, it seemed like an interesting place to start.

I don’t know how complicated the original story is but this adaptation makes the story seem fairly simple (except for the intentional complications, of course).

So the play starts with an introduction to Phileas Fogg–an insanely punctual man. We watch him do the same routine three days in a row.  Each day he leaves his house, plays whist (wins) and then returns home. On the third day, however, he has to fire his valet because the tea is not at the required 97 degrees.

He still goes to play whist of course but he is stopped by a man named Passepartout who wishes to be his new valet.  Passepartout has worked for exhausting/questionable people in past and he is looking forward to working for someone as calm and regular as Fogg. (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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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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