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wildrobot efterklangSOUNDTRACK: EFTERKLANG-Tiny Desk Concert #270 (April 8, 2013).

Efterklang is a Danish group whose recent album Piramida took its members to an abandoned mining town between the North Pole and Norway. There, they recorded sounds of empty oil tanks, old pianos and pretty much anything they could strike or record.

That blurb made me think this would be a noisy chaotic Concert.  And yet despite the found sounds, their music is really peaceful and lovely.

“Dreams Today” builds on a series of echoing keys and guitar notes.  After nearly two minutes the singer sings a series of high “ahhs and oohs” until the vocals officially kick in.  And then the whole band starts playing a series of fast looping notes while the percussionist plays some water bottles and mugs.  The songs builds and builds, with a steady bass keeping the melody strong and then just as it seems it should turn the corner into a new section, it abruptly ends, leaving you wanting much more.

Before the second song, “Danish Design” they explain that they “never went public” with this song. They played it once before in a huge power plant in Copenhagen.  It was a big room–very reverby (if you can say that).  The office is a very different place and they want to compare how it sounds.   They also sampled the worlds northernmost grand piano for this song.  They were in Piramida, a ghost town in the arctic.  The song begins with slow notes from the sampled piano while the keys play pinked notes. The singer sings in a baritone that is quite lovely.  When the loud drums kick in it’s quite a shock to the mellow music.  The song is only a bout 2 and a half minutes and, once again, it ends just as it seems like it might soar into something new.

“Alike” is from their previous album.  It opens with keys and percussion (all kinds of things like a fork on a mug).  They sing in harmony for much of the song.  It doesn’t use much in the way of guitar or bass (the bassist is keeping time with a pair of scissors and then a beer bottle on a step stool) until the end of the song when the guitar chords kick in fast (but not too loud).  It’s the longest song but the way it builds slowly it feels like it could go on for much longer.

This Tiny Desk really made me want to learn more about this interesting group and to hear more from them.

[READ: April 20, 2016] The Wild Robot

I love Peter Brown’s picture books.  I think Chowder is absolutely genius and The Secret Garden brings me to tears each time I read it.  So I was pretty excited to read this novel–his first.

It’s quite a fast read (with about 70 chapters all about 3 pages long) and lots of pictures.  The blurb on the book said that a robot woke up on a remote island. She has to learn to survive from the animals. And once she starts to feel comfortable, her past comes back to haunt her.

And that is a fair summary of the book.  The plot is very simple, but Brown adds a lot of details and a lot of characters to make the plot interesting. (more…)

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2008_03_24-400SOUNDTRACK: MILAGRES-Tiny Desk Concert #198 (February 27, 2012).

milagresI hadn’t heard of Milagres before this set.  Bob mentions how they are a band with many layers of music–practically a wall of sound.

The big sound of Milagres is built from small, simple elements: the boom of the kick drum, the clack of the claves, the repetitive tap-tap-tapping of a piano. This is a band of selective minimalism — which, in the end, somehow gets me thinking about the big sounds Phil Spector made. It’s all about attention to detail, and Milagres is a band that cares.

And yet for this Tiny Desk:

Frankly, I worried more when the band’s list of gear didn’t include a single amp and its members said they didn’t need to use our keyboard. They came armed with a red toy piano, an autoharp, a shaker egg, a melodica, a glockenspiel, a few acoustic guitars and not much else.

But in the end, that same attention to detail made this a great Tiny Desk Concert. In spite of the tiny sound, the songs were big and strong — delicately built, yet sturdy enough for the emotive sounds of Kyle Wilson’s voice.

Wilson’s voice is kind of  loud whisper, but the band, with all of their funny gear sounds really full and the elements come together very nicely.

“Hard to Stay” starts out nicely, but when the band adds the lovely “ooohs” during the first verse it sounds amazing.  And you can hear all of the instruments perfectly balanced—the authoharp, the melodica and then the xylophone.  Couple that with some lovely lyrics

All the leaves are glowing green / as the seasons rage all the birds seem to sing in the key of A

“Halfway” opens with a toy piano—which doesn’t sound cheesy.  Wilson hits lots of delicate falsetto notes that work perfectly with the piano and xylophone.  The chorus “Halfway, halfway, I could be halfway” is all sung in gentle falsetto.  And then add more of those beautiful ooohs during the second verse.  I also really like at the end when he keeps playing his chords higher and higher up the neck–getting kind of noisy–until it all abruptly stops

“Glowing Mouth” opens with shaker and melodica and again, the sound is nice not cheesy.  he sings wonderful falsetto “haaas” in the middle and the autoharp returns with the great sound.   He play a simple but pretty riff on the acoustic guitar as the song ends (its fun to watch his fingers playing it close up).

The band really won me over with their sound here and now I’m very curious to hear what they’re “supposed” to sound like.

[READ: January 27, 2017] Y’all Torture Me Home”

I am astonished that this essay had to be written at all back in 2008.  But I am even more upset that now, 8 years later, issues of torture are being considered again.  Really the only word that should be coming up regularly is impeachment.

When I was in college I wrote a humorous piece for my college newspaper that was all about Deconstruction.  There had been a debate going back and forth about it (seriously), with the people who were opposed to it saying that it led to a belief that nothing had meaning–which could cause a spiritual crisis.  (Ah, the 90s).

Since no one was winning this argument, I jumped in with my piece which was all about “de construction” at “da University” (our school was expanding and there was orange construction fencing everywhere).  It was hailed and enjoyed (at least by one of the professors in the philosophy department).

I bring this up only because Saunders takes a similar mis-understanding approach in the essay, which, sadly, is timely once again.  His piece begins:

I was overjoyed that Congress refused to override President Bush’s veto of a bill outlawing the washboarding of prisoners, a technique that some have described as torture—a ridiculous notion if I’ve ever heard one.

[After you unpack the negatives, the ruling was that “washboarding” can continue]

And thus begins Saunders detailed account of his own experience with being washboarded. (more…)

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rand SOUNDTRACKPISTOLERA-Tiny Desk Concert #199  (March 1 2012).

pistolPistolera is the brain child of a woman from Brooklyn who wanted to showcase music made in Mexico. [RESIST THE WALL].

The motivation was a longing for Mexican music on the part of the band’s principal songwriter and lead vocalist, Sandra Velasquez, a California native who was studying music in New York. Her solution: to form a band that played the music of her youth.

Sandra plays acoustic guitar and sings.   She is accompanied by a five string bass, accordion, electric guitar and percussion.  She has a delicate voice and sings everything in Spanish.

“Polvo” is pretty song.  She plays a lovely finger-picked guitar while everyone else adds flourishes to flesh out the song–never overpowering her voice or guitar.  The song has a louder moment with some oh oh oh ohs before growing quiet again.  It ends as prettily as it began with the delicate finger picking.

“Ponle Frenos” means put on the brakes.  She wrote this after having her first child when she realized that she needed to rest from time to time.  It is upbeat and bouncey with a reggae feel in the verse.  And there’s a fun refrain of what I hear as “beep beep beep.”

“La Despedida” is the final song, appropriately translated as “The Goodbye.”   This song feature “the symbol of the dessert,” the donkey jaw.  It is a quiet and slow ballad with bongos as the featured percussion.  There is great work from the (mostly unseen) electric guitar–nothing fancy but adding great textures and melodies over the main acoustic guitar.  He also adds a beautiful, lonesome-sounding guitar solo.  About 3 minutes in, the percussion starts playing the jaw bone along with the bongos.  He just hits it with his fist to make the rattle sound,  And then, she walks “off stage” with her guitar—standing in the audience watching.  And then the accordionist puts her instrument down and walks off—leaving just bass guitar and percussion. Then the bass departs.  After the last chords ring out the guitarist leaves just the bongo and donkey jawbone.  After a measure or two, he gets up and walks through the audience with the jaw.  It’s a great ending to the set.

It’s wonderful hearing music from other cultures, especially one that is so close to us, yet which we tend to spurn.  RESIST THE WALL.

[READ: January 27, 2017] “I Was Ayn Rand’s Lover”

This story was written near the election of Obama’s first term when Paul Ryan was a weasel with bad ideas but little power.  Now, sadly he is a weasel with worse ideas, no spine whatsoever and access to a lot of power.  But this essay is at least a fun way to make fun of him.  It begins like this:

Many of my Republican friends have said to me, “George, why are you voting for Barack Obama?” They assume it is because I believe in his radical socialist agenda of being fair to everyone, even the poor. But that’s not it at all. I could actually care less about the poor. We have some living near us, and pee-yew. They are always coming and going to their three or four jobs at all hours of the day and night. Annoying! No, the reason I am voting for Obama is more complicated.

The reason is that back in 1974, when he was just 17 and she was an internationally famous author, he and Ayn Rand were lovers: (more…)

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index SOUNDTRACK: LYLE LOVETT-Tiny Desk Concert #257 (December 10, 2012).

lyleLyle Lovett was the first country musician I ever enjoyed.  And that came mostly from his Large Band recordings.  Lovett, while clearly of the country ilk, is a different kind of country—perhaps it’s because his country comes from Texas.  He is not afraid to bend genres and sing about whatever is on his mind (with a great, unique voice that eschews country flavors.

For this tiny desk it is just Lyle and a fiddle by Luke Bulla.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Lyle is his sense of humor. He doesn’t write funny songs, but some of his songs are funny.  And he himself is very funny–very deadpan–which he demonstrates amply here.

And, according to the blurb, he’s also rather humble

Lovett not only showed up at NPR Music’s offices without an entourage, but also booked his Tiny Desk Concert himself, emailing us out of the blue to express his interest. (Our reply: “We would only agree to have you perform a Tiny Desk Concert if it’s under any conceivable circumstance.”)

So it’s appropriate that Lovett would open this performance at the NPR Music offices by performing “Cowboy Man,” the first track on his 1986 debut: He may be a music-industry veteran, but in many ways, he’s starting over. With a fresh-faced accompanist in fiddler and backup singer Luke Bulla, Lovett gives a loose, engaging performance that feels like both an introduction and a victory lap.  He follows “Cowboy Man” with two songs from 1989’s Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, so this is no mere promotional appearance.

He’s charming right up front.  After the “Cowboy Man,” which sounds great, he looks up and laughs, “thank you very much,” with a sense of wonder.  He starts right into the second song and then stops and stop again and then says “I just about got it.”  He plays the melody for a few bars and the violin comes in and they play a few bars together and then, I gather, Lyle screwed up because he kind of smiles over at Luke and then stops playing and says “you sure you want to play that?”

Everyone laughs, some tension is broken.  And he looks up at everyone.

“This is…it’s kinda weird, right?”  Someone shouts out “Good weird!”  He laughs, “Good for sure, no question.”

Then he picks up a CD off the desk and says, “Just one of those chance meetings.”  He holds up the CD, “Iris Dement, she was just right here.”  To much laughter.  Stephen, who booked the show shouts, “We’ve got all those inventoried, so don’t even think about it.” Which cracks everyone up.

Then he tells a story about meeting Iris’ daughter  He asks them is they know about the Cayamo Folk Cruises.  No one replies so he says “It’s a popu….it’s not that popular.”  He says it is a festival on the water (it must have been one of the first music cruises).  He describes it and says its fun a deal.  And then stops and says “I don’t know why we’re talking about it.”  Then they remind him about Iris Dement’s daughter.

His story about her is very funny, told in a great deadpan way:  I saw this cool chick, about ten years old, leaning against the elevator.  Wearing skinny pants and a hat.  She looked at me in that skeptical way, and I said, so you in a band?  She rolled her eyes, gave me a sideways look.  She said, No.  So I said, Well, you oughta be.  She said, My mom’s in a band.  Who’s your mom?  She said Iris, just like that.  She was cool.

Finally starts playing “If You Were To Wake Up” again and jokes, “Pretend like this is going well.”  It is, the song is very pretty with gorgeous violin.

The final song is “Good Intentions”  He looks at Luke and says. “Play it just…do it however you want.”  Lyle starts the song,  “It’s a sunny day in Sunny…” and he stops and looks at Luke and says “Don’t mess me up anymore, alright?”  To more laughter.  It’s one of his great songs–jazzy and with swell lyrics.  There’s even a plucked violin solo.

I have loved Lyle and his Large Band, but I also like him in this small duet as well.

[READ: January 21, 2015] “Youngthing”

Boy I hated this story.

It is the story of a young Somali thug (nicknamed Youngthing) who has been conscripted into a the Shabaab-led insurgency.

He is sent on a mission for the insurgents.  He is meant to secure (steal) a house for the group.

He doesn’t pay attention, winds up going to wrong place and inadvertently “captures” the wrong house.

There is an innocent old man living there.  We see the story from the man’s point of view we see for half of the story; we see it from Youngthing’s point of view for the other half).  The old man doesn’t realize the trouble he is in right away.  He even manages to convinces Youngthing that everything will be okay. (more…)

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tny 12.08.08.indd SOUNDTRACK: DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS-Tiny Desk Concert #573 (October 24, 2016).

drivebyI have never listened to this band.  Their name turned me off right from the start, so I’ve never given them a chance.

I never even knew exactly what they sounded like.  And I’m still not entirely sure if this is what they typically sound like.  But this set is full of mostly uptempo folk rockers that explore some pretty intense subjects.

The first two songs are sung by Patterson Hood with his gravelly voice.

I am somewhat surprised to see that there were two Tiny Desk Concerts in a row with the word Umpqua in it.  But while Blind Pilot’s “Umpqua Rushing” is about a relationship, Drive-By Truckers’ “Guns Of Umpqua” is about the horrific shooting at Umpqua Community College in rural Oregon last year.

There’s apparently always been a serious political current in their music, but it’s been somewhat hidden. But for this album, they started writing songs that address what’s going on right now.  For “What It Means,” he explains, “I wrote this song a couple years ago. I’d honestly be really happy if it was just outdated and something we could leave in the past, but that’s certainly not the case right now.”  It is about the killing of young black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.

The final song “Once They Banned Imagine” is sung by Mike Cooley who has a much deeper voice.  He says this song is “about things staying the same, and not necessarily in a good way.”  This has more of a country feel, but with some pretty piano.

I wouldn’t say I’ve become a fan, but I’m far more open to their music than I was before hearing this Concert.

[READ: March 14, 2016] “Waiting”

This is only the second Amos Oz story I’ve read (this was translated by Jill Sand D’Angelo and Amos Oz).

It is very simple story, in which not a lot happens (hence the title).

Set in the old village of Tel Ilan, this story follows Benny Avni, the head of the District Council.  He was a considerate man and was well liked by the people of the village.  As is stated any times, “he walked pitched forward, with a stubborn gait, as if he were fighting a strong headwind.”

Benny was sitting in his office in the afternoon when a knock came at his door.  A man named Adel brought him a note from his wife.  Adel has seen her sitting on a bench in the park.  The note cryptically said “Don’t worry about me.” (more…)

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TNY 11.24.08 cvr.fnl.indd SOUNDTRACK: BILLY BRAGG & JOE HENRY-Tiny Desk Concert #571 (October 17, 2016).

bragg-henryI don’t really know who Joe Henry is (although I see that he has released 13 albums).  I’ve heard his name mentioned a bunch of times, but I can’t really place him to any specific music.  Billy Bragg, on the other hand, I know very well.

The two recorded an album this year.  And the NPR blurb is pretty interesting:

Earlier this year, Billy Bragg and Joe Henry set off on a journey. They boarded a train in Chicago, bound for Los Angeles. Each time the train stopped for more than 20 minutes in cities like St. Louis and San Antonio, they’d grab their guitars, hop off, find the waiting room and record an old railroad song. The result of this journey is an album called Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad.

Their voices sound very different and as a result they play off each other very well.

The duo used Lead Belly as a jumping off point for much of this music.  Bragg explains that the jumping off point for this music is a book he has been working on about when British pop music went from being jazz influenced to being guitar led.  In 1956 Lonnie Donegan became the first Briton to get into the charts playing the  Lead Belly song “Rock Island Line.”

On the second song “Hobo’s Lullaby” Henry explains, the railroad is a mythic poverty–railroads conjure a romance in all of us even if we’ve never ridden a passenger train.  As they start, Bragg hasn’t re-tuned his guitar.  He says it’s always him who messes up.  But he usually plays solo, so “If I put something in the wrong key I just sing it in that key and hope no one notices–fortunately my audience… no one comes to hear me sing.”

As they are about to start, he says, “Sorry mate it was a beautiful intro.”  Henry looks at him and says, “It was,” to much laughter.

Before the final song, Henry says he was listening to Lead Belly since he was 15.  “Midnight Special” was a train that ran past Sugarland Prison in Texas.  The story was if the train’s light shined on you as it swept across the yard, that you would be the next to get paroled.

Even though these songs are old,

This concept record could be seen as a nostalgia trip, but both Bragg and Henry will emphatically say that it’s not. These songs and this journey celebrate the modern railroad as a major economic engine and a still-vital form of transportation.

[READ: March 10, 2016] “Ghosts”

Danticat often writes about Haiti and the troubles that arise there.

This story is set in Bel Air–the Baghdad of Haiti. Children in the neighborhood enter art contests by drawing posters that say “It’s not polite to shoot at funeral processions.”

The protagonist is Pascal Dorien.  He is a good kid who tries to stay out of trouble.  His parents own a small restaurant which has the unfortunate location of being in the heart of gangland (his family lives in a nearby town which is a little safer).  Luckily for them (sort of) the gangsters who make the restaurant their evening hangout are kind to the family and think of their place as their haven.

The family originally sold pigeons (both live and as meat) but then the gangsters started buying them to use in a ritual which involved drinking the pigeons’ blood mixed with evaporated milk.  His parents hated this and eventually stopped selling the bird.   Nevertheless the money they made for this ritual allowed them to expand and make even more money.  Which they hoped would allow their children to flee Haiti for safer locations. (more…)

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nySOUNDTRACK: THE SECRET SISTERS-Tiny Desk Concert #563 (September 12, 2016).

secretsisThe Secret Sisters are, in fact, Lydia and Laura Rogers, two sisters from Alabama.  They sing pretty folk/country or even traditional songs and have wonderful harmonies.

“Tennessee River Runs Low” is from the point of view of the river (and is really quite delightful).  It comes complete with an “oh de oh de oh de oh” section.  The music is pretty simple (just a little strummed guitar) and their wonderful voices.

After the first song she says that she has seen lots of Tiny Desk Concerts and they’re thrilled to be there.  It’s more spacious than you might think.  They could square dance there–except they can’t square dance.  She says that it feels kind of like being a zoo animal.

The second song is “a super duper sad song.”  Since their previous record came out they have both gotten married–to different men, she clarifies.  (Well, they are from Alabama, they joke).  They don’t know what to write about anymore–who wants to hear happy songs?

“You’ve Got It Wrong” is indeed a sad ballad–a very pretty, very traditional sounding country song.  Their voices really sell it.

Before the final song, she says that “if you want to be happy and in a good mood don’t ever come to one of our shows.”  They only play downer music. She explains that  they grew up singing gospel in a church that had no musical instruments.  It was only their voices and no solos or choirs.   She didn’t realize they were learning how to sing at church–that’s where their harmonies come from.

So they are doing an old gospel number, “Flee as a Bird.”  The melody of the verses its wonderful–the kind I’ve never heard in a church song before.

I would never see these guys in concert, but fora Tiny Desk, their songs were quite lovely.

[READ: March 7, 2016] “A Spoiled Man”

This was a lengthy story that seemed to speak to the futility of life.

There were a lot of details which made the story really interesting, but as I think about summarizing it, I realize that the story is bombastically a man lives, succeeds, fails and dies.

Fortunately Mueenuddin tells a lovely winding story that shows just how much a man’s life can change.

The story is set in Islamabad and the main character is Rezak, “a small, bowlegged man with a lopsided, battered face.”  He is outside of the mansion of a local man who has recently married an American woman.   The woman proves to be a nice person who genuinely seems to enjoy her new life.  In Pakistan.  And people liked her as well.

Rezak tried to make himself useful around the mansion. Despite his appearance, he is a strong man and he does wind up helping the workers.  At the end of the day they invite him for dinner, but his pride makes him refuse. (more…)

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