Archive for the ‘Violence’ Category

McSweeney’s 49: Cover Stories: Contemporary writers reimagining classic tales (2017)

SOUNDTRACKBIG K.R.I.T.-Tiny Desk Concert #714 (March 5, 2018).

A while back I downloaded one of Big K.R.I.T.’s mixtapes and rather liked it.  Since then he seems to have become pretty huge and I feel like he has really expanded on his style.

K.R.I.T. sings/raps three songs from his new album.

4eva Is a Mighty Long Time, a double album in which he covers everything from blessings to depression while plumbing the carnal and spiritual depths of his own duality. All three songs performed here come from side two, titled after his birth name Justin Scott.

The first song “Mixed Messages” is really thoughtful.  He sings and raps

I gotta whole lotta mixed messages / in my songs am I wrong / to feel this way
I got me a lover but I still wanna cheat / I wanna be saved but its fuck the police
i never really liked the fake shit / but I’m attracted to the fake ass and fake tits
i really wanna sing but id better rap

K.R.I.T.’s backing band, which includes Burniss Travis II on bass and Justin Tyson on drums, also features on keys Bryan Michael Cox — the hitmaking producer and songwriter behind a slew of Billboard chart-toppers. Together, the trio delivers stripped-down versions of the latest thought-provoking material in Big K.R.I.T.’s catalog.

Introducing the second song, “Keep The Devil Off” he says his grandmother introduced him to gospel.  She brought him to church and “she would wake me up when i fell asleep saying wake up you gotta hear this.”  He sings beautifully.  And then the rapped verses are really well structured.

And when he stops to pay homage to his church-going grandmother before performing “Keep The Devil Off,” it’s clear that everything she instilled in him is keeping him alive, too.

Definitely in these times we need to keep the negativity away–keep the devil off.

His grandmother was clearly very important to him.

Big K.R.I.T. has kept her spirit alive through his music since his breakout mixtape, K.R.I.T. Wuz Here, which he released in 2010, the same year she died.  So it only makes sense that he would bring her with him for his Tiny Desk concert.

Halfway through his three-song set at NPR Music headquarters, K.R.I.T. stops to pull out an old-school tape recorder — the same one his grandmother would use to record him singing and reciting poetry as a child. “I have to feel like my grandmother was my first mix engineer,” he says before pressing play to reveal him and his brother as kids singing a duet of R&B crooner Donell Jones’ 1999 slow burner, “Where I Wanna Be.”

He plays the tape and cracks up listening to it.  He gets the audience to sing the refrain with his younger sell.  And then his grandmother introduces he and his brother as an R&B singer, “but I’m sticking with the rap thing.”

It’s a sublime interlude — one that resonated so strongly with K.R.I.T. that he had to start his last song, “Bury Me In Gold,” over to catch the proper beat. “I’m super emotional from this, too,” he says, laughing in a moment so genuine it was only right to leave it unedited.

He says “Bury Me in Gold” is not about gold really, it’s about having something so that in the event he gets to heaven he’ll give everything away.

He tells us to remember that peace of mind and your soul are more important than gold.

I’ve always enjoyed thought provoking rap and K.R.I.T.’s lyrics combined with his voice really work wonders.

[READ: May 29, 2017] McSweeney’s 49

It has been a long time (three years or so) since the previous McSweeney’s volume.  During that silence, the publishing house went non-profit and that seems to have taken up a lot of their resources.  They even address this a bit in the interdiction to this book.

But regardless of the reasons why, it is great to have them back.

As the subtitle says, this is a book of “cover stories.” What that means is a little vague–the contemporary writers model their story after a classic story.  I try to compare it to music covers, although in music covers the music and words are typically the same with some kind of variations.  Typically, the words are the same but the music is different.  I liked to flip this idea on its head for describing these stories in that the words are different by the music is the same.

Since I don’t know most of the original stories here I don’t know how similar these are to the originals–same character names?  Same ideas?  Same plot?  I don’t know.  And perhaps it would affect the way I read these stories if I was familiar with theory original pieces.  But without knowing them, these just turned out to be good stories from good writers.

Interspersed between the stories were poems and, in a wonderful commentary on our current shitty president and the cowardly house of representatives who on the day I finished this voted to strip 24 million people of health care, are comparisons of classic historical figures’ speeches with the petty garbled tweets of out current crap in chief.  Can we impeach this motherfucker already?  And send the whole lot of them to jail, please.  #ITMFA

As many McSweeney’s do, this one opens with letters.  And of course they aren’t really letters at all, even if they are addressed to McSweeney’s.  Many deal with cover songs, but a few are much more serious, political and right on.

WAJAHAT ALI writes from Camp FDR in Washington DC where he and his fellow prisoners were finally able to cobble together WiFi.  Ali explains that the Executive Order was inevitable the ban, the vetting, the registry were all just prelude. The need to protect against terrorism outweighs the individual rights and the rights of American Muslims…read the Supreme Court decision.

NICK JAINA writes about the Sept 23, 1970 episode of The Johnny Cash Show in which Ray Charles appears and plays “Walk the Line” and then “Ring of Fire.”  The letter states that the creator of “Ring of Fire” is actually mis-attributed.  The story is that June Carter wrote it after seeing a page in her uncle’s book of Elizabethan poetry.  But Johnny first wife claims that Johnny wrote it while drunk about a certain female body part: “all those years of her claiming she wrote it and she probably never knew what the song was really about.”  Then it reverts back to Ray Charles’ performance with an unseen band playing behind him–especially a great baseline–and as the song ends he lets out one last shudder and cackle like he just invented the orgasm.  “Johnny returns to the stage looking like a man who just watched someone have sex with his wife but was so in awe of how good he was at it that he could only thank him.”

ROBIN TERRELL talks about trumpmania in the Czech Republic from the perspective of a black woman, lesbian, child of civil rights activists, mother of a black man living in Prague.  The look in the eyes of people after the election: The U.S. is going to fuck us over again.  It stunned Europeans that the U.S. could generate someone fouler than Europe’s own crop of white male extremists.  She is now a refugee from her own country.  #RESIST #ITMFA

KIMBERLY HARRINGTON says she always believed that even in the darkest times humor has its place.  But lately she’s been bursting into tears rather than cracking a smile.  She hopes she can find things to laugh at–even death in these horrible times.

MARY MILLER says that for the longest time she thought her uncles wrote “Stagger Lee.”  Her uncles were musicians who wrote songs but also threw some covers into their shows.  She believed that “Stagger Lee” was one of theirs. She realizes that they are not famous and that no one will remember them–but she promises them that she will remember them.

RICK MOODY writes at length about Elektra’s 1990 tribute album Rubaiyat: Elektra’s 40th Anniversary.  I remember it coming out and I remember not getting it because it was too expensive. But Moody talks about what a great conceit this collection was to have contemporary artists cover classic songs.  He also talks about how the tribute album was quite popular in the 1990s (was it ever).  Some thought: He loves Bjork, but he thinks of the Sugarcubes as a cheeseball imitation of the B-52s (and that their “Motorcycle Mama” is pretty bad.  He mentions a few great tracks, like Kronos Quartet covering “Marquee Moon,” Metallica doing “Stone Cold Crazy,” and even a Howard Jones cover of “Road to Cairo” by the cult hero David Ackles.   But he says fully half of the collection is bad, some of it even awful–not worth its list price at the time but it has a great number of masterpieces on it.

Will Buttler (from Arcade Fire) wishes to make some amusing corrections: some errors during concerts, and apologizing for singing “I’m So Bored” with the USA because he is not.

ARIEL S. WINTER-This is an interesting philosophical question wondering whether or not Marty McFly actually created “Johnny B. Goode.”  How could he cover it before Chuck Berry had released the original.  As a child this blew her mind.  This facile beginning then goes on to say that before recorded music the notion of a cover didn’t really exist.  And indeed in the 1950s people recorded songs without concern for copyright.  It’s also true that when Chuck Berry plays Johnny B. Goode live, it’s not considered a cover of his original.  She concludes by that the Back to the Future is probably the first time she ever heard Johnny B. Goode.  So Marty McFly’s is the original to her (as it is to all the kids at the dance).  So in addition to a song having an original for the performer there is also an original for the listener.  Anyone who has loved a song for years before finding out that it’s a cover has had that experience.


This introduction talks about how the first time they did a “cover story” was in 1999 in issue 4.  Rick Moody covered Sherwood Anderson’s “The Egg.”  They had been planning to do an entire issue of covers as far back as two years ago and then things happened in the McSweeney’s universe to delay it.  And now : this issue is being born in a moment of racial, social and economic reckoning and imminent fascism…into a country that looks much different from the one in which it began, fronted now by a mean and disingenuous imitation of a president.   As such: Tucked between these thirteen beautiful renditions of thirteen classic stories are instances when a cover is not an homage but rather a perversion of its predecessor”  And by that they offer examples of eloquent speeches by former leaders and then tweets from our pervert in chief.

GARY BURDEN-excerpt from Nobody Knows (an autobiography)

Gary Burden created the cover images for this issue.  I had no idea who he was, but this autobiography tells me just how interesting a fellow he was.  He has been responsible for some of the most iconic album covers of the last 60 years!

These excerpt shows his origin story–he was 8 on December 7, 1941 and he has had vivid memories of WWII.  When he was 16 he joined the Marines.  But he was restless, got involved in bad things, was dishonorably discharged and got mixed up with even worse people (he says he can’t believe the things he did back then).  In 1964 he met “Mama” Cass Elliot. They spent a lot of time together and this opened him up to meeting all kinds of people: David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash.  Eventually he met and hung out with Jim Morrison and designed Morrison Hotel (a fascinating story that).  In one of the nicer things I’ve heard someone say he says that Jim was a real poet, someone who was unafraid of delving deeply into life irrespective of the personal cost.  Then he met Neil Young. He says that Buffalo Springfield has been his favorite band and then one day Neil came to Mama Cass’ house in his 1948 Buick Hearse.  He was also hanging around when CSN decided to become CSN&Y and then he and Neil became friends. and Neil sold him his house in Topanga.  Eventually he made the cover art for After the Gold Rush (and he gives a little story about the old lady there on the cover).  I’m kind of curious to read this whole book now, especially if it includes album covers.

EMILY RABOTEAU-“The Babysitter” after “Some Women” by Alice Munro
This is the story of a babysitter for Mrs Fagan.  She is a young girl and her employer is very rich and locally famous.  And quite eccentric (she went to East Africa and allegedly witness the Ark of the Covenant and then wrote a controversial book about it).  But in their town she was known as the white lady with black kids (Maya 3, Eddie 10 months old).  The story reflects back on the babysitter as child (she is now the same age as Mrs Fagan was when the babysitting began.  The babysitter’s mother is kind of jerk and is very sarcastic about this babysitting arrangement.  She is also a very strict Jehovah’s Witness, so when the narrator gets her first period rather than tell her mom, she just takes products from Mrs Fagan.  As the story opens Mrs Fagan’s son has just arrived and that changes the dynamic in the house.  How will Mrs Fagan take it when the narrator accidentally sets fire to the kitchen? I really enjoyed the way the end of the story plays on the notions of memories and the impact people have on others.

MEGAN MAYHEW BERGMAN-“The Lottery, Redux” after “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
“The Lottery” seems like a pretty easy story to cover–I think everyone knows everything about it and it has been covered in things like The Hunger Games in their own ways.  I don’t know if this story references the original (with the redux),  for this story the people of the island of Timothy were exiled from America fifty years earlier for crimes against the environment.  They were gathering on July 27th, the day of the lottery.  And indeed the lottery is a death sentence, although it’s not entirely clear why.  Interestingly, the story is more about the girl chosen and what her life up to that point has been like.

ANTHONY MARRA-“The Tell-Tale Heart” after “The Tell Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
This story doesn’t diverge all that much from the original except for the wonderful modern twist on the beating heart.  It’s hard to say more without giving things away but I loved the modernization.

JESS WALTER-“Falling Faintly” after “The Dead” by James Joyce
I didn’t know all that many stories before hand, but I knew this one very well and this is wonderful homage.  It is not in any way rewriting the story–it’s a very different story, but it alludes to the Joyce story and directly mentions it and it is quite clear where the connection between them is.
Michael is a writer.  He is married with kids but has moved temporarily out to New York to write for this new police procedural.  The show is doing well and the female star is quite beautiful.  They bond over cigarettes–she is foreign and smokes like a European, he recently started again.  As stories like this tend to go, Micheal gets the wrong idea about this young, hot actress.  And given that she is not American she misunderstands the subtleties of his behavior (which isn’t very subtle admittedly).  But he wants her to know that his story is a tribute to Joyce’s “The Dead.”  When he talks about the dead she thinks he means real dead people and is pretty freaked out.  This leads to a restraining order and a police intervention–not how he thought his life in New York would go.  What doe sit have to do with “The Dead”?  Well they are standing smoking in the snow as it gently floats to the ground falling through the universe, faintly falling.

LAUREN GROFF-“Once” after “Wants” by Grace Paley
I loved the way this story started.  I saw my enemy at the beach.  With that as a groundwork we slowly learn just how this woman has an enemy (it’s an old boyfriend’s mother) and how they have grudgingly begun to respect each other decades after the two broke up. I really enjoyed this short piece.

ROXANE GAY-“Men on Bikes” after “Rape Fantasies” by Margaret Atwood
I can’t imagine what the original of this story is.  The actual story of this is pretty peculiar itself.  Basically, the men in town have all started riding bicycles everywhere.  It started when one of them was arrested for drunk driving.  He didn’t lose his license but his wife took it away from him.  He dug out a bike and began riding it.  She thought he looked ridiculous, but when another man had his license taken away, they began riding together.  It was quite a sight, although I’m not sure what the point of it was.

NAMWALI SERPELL-“Company” after “Company” by Samuel Beckett
I like Beckett, and I know that he can be confusing.  I don’t know what “Company” is about so I have no idea how it relates to it, but man I did not get this at all.

It was confusing and really long.  It is broken into many small sections which might be connected.  The first is about the brightening which happened although many people missed it. Then we learn about the ship which is electro epidermal, which is cool but not really explained  and then the story turns into a quest for melanin and just when you think it’s a sci-fi story, it becomes a story about race.  There is a pale man tied to a tree hitting a sack (pound pound).  There’s a lot of vomit.  If the white man inseminates even one person, finding pure stem cells is impossible.  Dark skin marked you as  lucky when the darkening came.  But then she says the mission is over.  There’s more vomiting.  A fellow is supposed to be invisible in the village but Pound sees him.  There’s more vomit, a section titled rape, where Pound rapes Lila every once in a while and then who the hell knows what happens at he end.

KIESE LAYMON-“And So On” after “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
Weeks ago 64 black folks changed the world.  You are the 11th.  Aside from the direct address to the reader the story is pretty straightforward and interesting.  Chanda Stewart was 8th, the narrators research assistant was 9th and Doug E., Chandra’s boyfriend was 1st.  They are at a fancy restaurant, Chandra, the narrator and you.  She swears that Doug is a porn star, but the narrator argues that having 1089 twitter followers and awkward consensual sex with a few white women filmed on an iPhone 2 in his fake Timberlands, blue knee brace and yellow wrist bands makes you a porn participant, not a star.  The story comes down to which side the narrator is going to choose.   sides or run for our lives.  Because while they were talking, Doug E. and about sixty young black kids were marching down the street.  To the school.  They each had an ax and a shovel.

MEG WOLITZER-“If You’re Happy and You Know It” after “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” By J.D. Salinger
I haven’t read this Salinger story in a long time, so I don’t really know how it connects to this, but I really enjoyed it.  I enjoyed the way that it was written which was a little confusing but in an intriguing way.  Set in a hotel on Miami there is the young woman in 609 who arrived with her new husband.  She’d sent him off to the beach.  We see her telling her parents that he is taking it easy, but they want to know if he is taking the Klonopin.  Later that night in the lobby, a four year old girl, Chloe, is in the lobby of that hotel watching a man play piano.  The man is a guest also and he is playing and really getting into it.  Another boy asks if he can play This Old Man and the player jokes about the boy calling him old.  But Chloe asks if he can play “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”  He says he might be happy but he may not know it. She is puzzled by that.  He says she is breaking his heart.  We soon realize that the pianist is the Klonopin man, and while things don’t get dark exactly, they certainly get strange.  And Chole’s parents have foisted her off on a poor babysitter the whole time.  This was one of my favorites in the book.

T.C. BOYLE-“The Argentine Ant” after “The Argentine Ant” by Italo Calvino
I can’t imagine what the original story is like, but this one from Boyle was really icky and really fantastic.  Its’ a fairly simple premise–a family moves to a rental property in Argentina, only to find that it is swarming with ants.  The ants are everywhere–even crawling all over their baby.  They run to the next door neighbor’s house only to see that they know about the ants and might have a secret weapon.  But mostly they just seem to be putting their furniture in jugs of water–presumably as a deterrent.  There is also an Ant Man who might be fighting the ants or who might actually be bringing more.  What is great about the way Boyle writes this is that the guy renting the house is working on an academic theorem that his wife thinks is rather frivolous.  And that tension underpins everything.

ALICE SOLA KIM-“One Hour, Every Seven Years” after “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury
Again I don’t know the original, but this story was great, and also weird. The weird part is that the story seems to start over multiple times. And that’s because there is a kind of time travel component to it.  The title refers to how often the sun comes out on Venus.  There is a girl, the main character, named Nargit. She was born on Earth and so she saw the sun.  The other kids are pretty angry at her for it (as if it’s her fault).  They are abusive to her, and the time travelling is the girl’s attempt to protect her younger self.  Many things go wrong but they bring about different results.

CHRIS ABANI-“Sleepy” after “Sleepy” by Anton Chekhov
This story was pretty horrific.  Kemi, a sixteen year old black girl who is now an orphan is working for a white family.  The family has two little children, one of whom is a baby.   The family is horrible to Kemi.  Pretty unrelentingly horrible.  Kemi is tired and never gets a break and the baby cries all the time.  She can’t soothe the baby and the family blames her for her failures.  Her exhaustion builds and builds until you pretty much know the ending several pages before it happens.

TOM DRURY-“The Yellow Wallpaper” after “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
I know the original story although not super well.  But this version feels almost exactly the same. I honestly can’t tell what the difference is (without having re-read the original again to compare).   Jane and John are renting a place on an island for the summer.  John thinks Jane is not strong and keeps her hidden away in a room with yellow wallpaper.  He more or less runs everything in her life until she starts seeing people through the wallpaper.  You know things can’t go well from there.


REBECCA LINDENBERG-“Having a Coke with You” after “Having a Coke with You” by Frank O’Hara

MATTHEW ZAPRUDER-“Poem for Keats” after “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

STEPHEN BURT-“A Nickel on Top of a Penny” after “Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca” by César Vallejo

BRIAN TURNER-“The Metaphor Program” after “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

STEPHEN BURT-“Roofers” after “The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop

MATTHEW ZAPRUDER-“Poem on the Occasion of a Weekly Staff Meeting” [the first two lines are taken from “A Poem on the Occasion of the Consecration of Sandford and Shippon Churches” by Rev. F. Wilson Kittermaster, 1855]

STEPHEN BURT-“Suspense” after “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane

KEVIN MOFFETT-“Second Wonder”-a monologue that will air on The Organist.
I found this puzzling at best.

PATTY YUMI COTTRELL-excerpt from Sorry to Disrupt the Peace
I read this book not too long ago.
This except was about two young children who invented a game called “Confession” in which the boy confesses his real or imagined sins to his sister.


The comparison quotes are called Great Speeches from History vs. the Tweets of Donald J. Trump:  I can’t bring myself to write any of the jerks tweets.

Mahatma Gandhi from the “Quit India” speech, 1942 vs. a Feb 4 2017 tweet

Abraham Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address” 1863 vs. a Feb 18 217 tweet (about fake news)

Martin Luther King Jr from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” vs. Feb 21 2017 (crowds planted by liberal activists)

Frederick Douglass from “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery” 1852 vs. Feb 6 2017 (negative polls are fake news).

Franklin D. Roosevelt, inauguration speech 1933 vs. Jan 22, 2017 (including all my enemies)


The bad thing about this issue is that the last four or five stories were all real downers, making it a pretty tough slog.  But I loved the idea, and I liked that they found the time and space to point out how stupid trump sounds and looks and is.

For ease of searching, I include: Cesar Vallejo


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SOUNDTRACK: ANNA MEREDITH-Tiny Desk Concert #713 (March 2, 2018).

I have never heard anything like this.  From sound to melody, to intensity, to instrumentation, this whole thing just rocked my world.

The melody for “Nautilus” is just so unexpected.  It opens with an echoed horn sound repeating.  And then the melody progresses up a scale, but not a scale, a kind of modified scale that seems off kilter just as it seems familiar.  The cello plays it, the guitar plays it, the sousaphone (!) plays it.  And it continues on in like fashion until only the high notes remain and then a menacing low riff on sousaphone cello and guitar breaks through–a great villain soundtrack if ever there was.  While everyone plays this riff, Anna returns to the keys to play the modified scale.

Meanwhile, the drummer has looked like he’s asleep behind his small kit.  And then 3 anda half minutes in he wakes up and starts playing a loud but slow rhythm.  The guitar begins soloing and as it fades out that main riff begins, now with a simple drum beat–not matching what anyone else is playing, mind you.  The sousaphone (which must have an echo on it or something and the cello pick up the low menace and it seems like everybody is doing his and her own thing.  But it all works amazingly.

So just who is Anna Meredith?

Anna Meredith was a former BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra Composer in Residence. Two of the three songs performed here come from her 2016 release called Varmints.

Bob Boilen was also impressed when he first saw Anna Meredith live:

I first saw this British composer a year ago, in a stunning performance at the SXSW musical festival. It was one of the best concerts of my life. The music I heard sent me into a state of reverie. If music could levitate my body, this is how it would sound. It carried me away and thrilled my soul. I was giddy for days.

Now, I know this isn’t music for everyone. … But if you know and love the music of Philip Glass, King Crimson or Steve Reich — music that’s electrifying, challenging and sonically soars and ripples through your body — then crank this up.

Lest you worry that she couldn’t translate it to the Tiny Desk (she says they normally have 23 suitcases full of crap so this has been an exciting challenge to squeeze in here)

Out of nearly 700 performances at the Tiny Desk, this is simply the most exhilarating one I’ve experienced. The instrumentation is unusual, with pulsing bass sounds produced by a wonderful combination of cello, tuba and electronics. It’s all rhythmically propelled by an astonishing drummer and Meredith pounding a pair of floor toms. And much of the repetitive melody is keyboard-and-guitar-driven that morphs and erupt with earth-shaking fervor.

The second song, “Ribbons” is quieter.  It’s and new song and it has vocals.  Her vocals aren’t great (“hard when you’ve got the voice of a five-year old boy”) but the melody she builds around it shows that her  voice is just one more instrument (albeit saying interesting words).  Actually, that’s not fair, they are just so different from the noise of the other two songs that it feels very faint in comparison.

It opens with a quiet guitar and electronic drum.  And slowly everyone else joins in.  A nice string accompaniment from the cello (Maddie Cutter), bass notes on the sousaphone (Tom Kelly) and even backing vocals from everyone.  By the third go around the drummer (Sam Wilson) is playing the glockenspiel.  By that time the song has built into a beautiful round and the quietness of her voice makes complete sense.  As the song nears its end, Sam has switches to a very fast but quiet rhythm on the floor tom.

She introduces the band and wishes a happy birthday to guitarist Jack Ross.  She says this is a great present as “so far all we’ve gotten him is an apple corer, the gifts have been a bit low grade.”

They make some gear switches, “we have a bit of a logistics problem with all our gear we can’t quite afford to bring enough glockenspiels, we pass the pure crap glockenspiel  around ans everyone gets to go ‘my turn!'”

“The Vapours” opens with a wonderfully wild guitar riff–fast and high-pitched and repeated over and over.  Anna Meredith adds waves of synths and then in comes the sousaphone and plucked cello.  Then fast thumping on the floor tom propels the song along.  The song slows a bit a Anna plays the clarinet (!).  The song dramatically shifts to some complicated time signature while Anna plays glockenspiel.  After a few rounds, while this complex guitar riff continues the drum and sousaphone start playing a pretty standard beat the contradicts everything else that’s going on and then Anna just starts pounding the crap out of some more toms.

All through this there are electronic sounds adding to the chaos and I have no idea who is triggering them, but it’s really cool.

The end is almost circusy with the big sousaphone notes and yet it’s like no circus anyone has every heard.  When the camera pulls back and you can see everyone working so hard and yet smiling ear to ear (especially Maddie), you know this is some great stuff.

The end of the song winds up with a hugely complicated tapping melody on the guitar and everyone else working up a huge sweat.

I couldn’t get over how much I loved this.  I immediately ordered Varmints and checked her touring schedule.

How disappointed was I to see that Anna Meredith had played Philly just last month and has now gone back to Europe!  I do hope she comes back soon.

[READ: August 30, 2017] McSweeney’s 48

For some reason, I find the prospect of reading McSweeney’s daunting.  I think it’s because I like to post about every story in them, so I know I’m in for a lot of work when I undertake it.

And yet I pretty much always enjoy every piece in each issue.  Well, that explains why it took me some three years to read this issue (although I did read Boots Riley’s screenplay in under a year).

This issue promised: “dazzling new work; a screenplay from Boots Riley with a septet of stories from Croatia.”


GARY RUDOREN writes about using the Giellete Fusion Platinum Razor every day for 18 days and how things were good but have gotten a little ugly.  On day 24 he had a four-inch gash under his nose.  Later on Day 38 it was even worse–a face full of bloody tissue squares.  By day 67 he is writing to thank McSweeney’s for whatever they did perhaps it was the medical marijuana but now his face is baby butt smooth even without shaving.  He wants to change the slogan to Gilette Fusion the shave that lasts forever. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: VAGABON-Tiny Desk Concert #710 (February 23, 2018).

It’s always my favorite artists who play the shortest Tiny Desk Concerts.  August Greene was okay and it went 36 minutes but Vagabon didn’t even manage ten.  Neverthless, there’s something magical about Vagabon.  Her voice is unique, she brings a new perspective to indie rock and she seems pretty nice too.

Laetitia Tamko, the artist known as Vagabon, is a 25-year-old, Cameroon-born musician with a big, tenor voice just bursting with new musical ideas. Though all the songs here are about love, Vagabon also speaks proudly to black women on her 2017 album, Infinite Worlds. There aren’t a lot of black women in this bedroom studio community of independents, a community that, especially in New York, has welcomed her and where she mostly found stimulus and guidance.

Her pride shines bright in her smile and as well it should. For someone self-taught and who’s been playing for only the past four years, her arrangements are adept and thoughtful in an independent rock music scene that can often be lyrically lazy and texturally tepid.

Her album is quite big with loud guitars and crashing drums.  But in this Tiny Desk, it’s just her and her equipment (and a stellar bassist on the second and third songs).

For the first song “Fear & Force,” she plays electric guitar.  There’s some lovely picking and great chords before she sings in her unique voice–whispered and deep (so much deeper than her speaking voice).  I love that she is still picking as she uses her left hand to start the electronic drum machine that makes the song sound so big.  The album version gets really big in the middle but she keeps things quiet here.  The chorus is wonderfully powerful and elliptical.

“Freddy come back, I know you love where you are, but I think I changed my mind.”

I love the abrupt ending too.

We were also treated to a new song during this Tiny Desk performance called “Full Moon In Gemini,” which, coincidentally, was performed on the day of a total lunar eclipse in Leo – she warned us all to “watch yourselves.

It’s amazing to hear her sing so powerfully after her delicate speaking voice.  She introduces Evan Lawrence on bass and his live bass is a tremendous addition.  He plays great lines that really flesh out her playing.  I love the way the song ends.  She sings “I lay in my bed with you it fees so …  so … good,” and the drums and bass continue for ten seconds before she shuts it all down (having already grabbed her mug and taken a sip).

Before the final song she explains that she taught herself how to play these instruments about four years ago.  Since then she’s been “hauling ass.”

Vagabon’s poetry speaks to love. You can hear it in “Cold Apartment.” While she closes the Tiny Desk set with it, it was the first song she ever wrote and one that came to her during a difficult time in her life.

“And we sat on my cold apartment floor
Where we thought we would stay in love
Stay in love”

She says she finds it very gratifying to share it in this powerful way.  The song has a terrific guitar melody with an outstanding accompany bass.  This is all especially true during the bridge/chorus when the bass gets really low and works perfectly with what she’s playing.  I find it actually works even better than on record where the drums are terrific but kind of drown out the bass.

I really hope she comes back around for a tour soon.

[READ: December 30, 2017] Beyond the Western Deep 

Tabby brought this book home and thought I’d enjoy it.  Which I did.

It’s a story of war with rather cute animals drawn by Bennett

It opens with some story telling about the history of this land.  It looks almost like cave drawings chaos and endless nights of war.  Eventually a treaty was signed and the land was divided into four places.

The Ermehn were driven from ancestral lands and made to live in the Northern Wastes (they’re not happy about it).
The Canid established the Kingdom of Aisling and has the strongest army in the land.  They are ruthless and humorless.
The Felis built the crowing achievement city of Gair.
The Vulpin live in the desert kingdon of Navran.
Sungrove is ruled jointly by the Lutren and Tamian races

The seafaring Polcan are poised to invade Sunsgrove.

Confused? Me too. It’s a heck of a lot of backstory for what is a fairly short and simple first part. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BIG DADDY KANE-Tiny Desk Concert #708 (February 19, 2018).

I remember Big Daddy Kane, of course, although I don’t think I knew any of his songs.  As far as I can tell, Kane hasn’t released an album since 1998.  But his voice sounds great and he seems pretty content to rap his old hits.

The smooth operator, Big Daddy Kane, still emits that same palpable swag he did as a lyrical heartthrob during his heyday. He strides into the room and fully commands it with his presence.

One of the greatest to ever bless the mic, Big Daddy Kane treated Tiny Desk to an office block party in the true essence of hip-hop.  Kane, aka Dark Gable, was a breakout member of the seminal Juice Crew in hip-hop’s golden era during the latter part of the 1980s. He popularized quick-cadence flows and multisyllabic rhyme schemes.

He performed a short set of classics, including “Smooth Operator,” “Ain’t No Half Steppin’,” “Raw” and a bonus freestyle. Through his warm, engaging and devilishly self-effacing style, the pioneer used an interlude between songs to address the intergenerational divisiveness defining rap today and the importance of fans of all ages supporting whatever they like, while “focusing on what’s positive and keeping that in the spotlight.”

The Concert opens with a great drum beat and a funky bass line for “Smooth Operator.”  The rather wimpy keyboard riff with the sax is kind of a wasted opportunity to give fuller sound to this song.

It’s interesting that Kane–whose voice still sounds deep and full–keeps the old songs with incredibly dates references like “Freddy Krueger walking on Kane Street.”

Mid song Kane says, “stay right here Ben… gonna make this into a family affair.  Are there any smooth operators out there?”  They sing the riff.  Then, “Let me see whats happening behind me.  Jay Dub (John Williams) on sax, is he a smooth operator?”  He is.  Kane tells him to “Make yourself at home” with a good solo.

While that solo is going on, he says “certain members of the band just can’t wait till their turn (looks at keyboardist who had been playing with the solo).  He says, “He’s been with me a long time, he’s the baby of the crew we call him J Minor (Judson Nelson)–most places we play he’s not supposed to be there, he’s not old enough. If I ask you to play like a grown man, how’s that sounds, baby?  He plays a smooth solo.

Kane: “I forgot there was another verse.  I was having so much fun looking at them.”

We should keep this party going.  I saw a couple of these people looking at their watch.  Some of you all might be on lunch break I don’t want to mess it up

“Ain’t No Half Steppin” starts off with simple sax and some more dated lines:  “Friday the 13th, I’m gonna play Jason.”  (Rappers loved horror movies back in the day).  He gets the crowd into it: “Say it like it’s 6’o clock Ain’t no half steppin’.”

“Let me hear you once more…  I lied, just one more time y’all.”

After the song he says, “I’m enjoying myself.  This is all right for real I might fill out an application for a job here next week.  this ai’iiht.”

“I’m gonna do one more song and then were gonna shut it down and this ain’t got nothing with y’all getting back to work, I’m starting to get hot in here.”

A great drum beat starts off “Raw” which is followed by that crazy squeaky sax.  And there’s this one last pop culture line: “The rhymes I use definitely amuse better than Dynasty or Hill Street Blues.

Mid-song, a cool faster drum beat is added–I love the snare sound Matt Lambert gets and then the whole band kicks of for a great riff on bass and sax to end the song–it’s a shame it ended there as it was really taking off.

People don’t want him to leave, so they do a freestyle.  A cool slide bass line from Benjamin Geis and staccato piano.  It’s my favorite music of the show.  And the speed of his freestyle rap is really impressive.  And he (virtually) drops the mic and is off.

It’s a great old school set.

[READ: Summer 2017] The Long Earth

I have read nearly everything that Terry Pratchett has written (I kind of drifted a bit towards the end, but I’ll catch up eventually).  Anyway, I was in the bookstore in Bethlehem, PA and saw this book.  It’s a series I’ve known about but didn’t know very much about.  I decided to check it out to see what it was all about.  I don’t know very much at all about Stephen Baxter except that he’s a hard science fiction writer, meaning he focuses as much on the science as he does on the fiction.

So how does this pair–a hard science writer and a comic parodist of fantasy work together?  Well, honestly the story is much more Baxter than Pratchett. Although since I haven’t read any Baxter, I guess I can’t say that legitimately, but it’s definitely not very Pratchetty.

Well, maybe some of the character interactions are kind of Pratchetty, but certainly not like any of his Discworld characters.  As with any co-writing experience, I wondered how this story was constructed.  So I found an interview with Stephen Baxter from around the time they finished writing the fourth and final book

How did the idea for the Long Earth series come about?

The whole thing was basically Terry’s idea. He’d started work on this project and short stories set in this world back in the ’80s but he got stuck with it.  He wanted to have a very human, level way to access these words. You don’t need to get there on a rocket ship, you can just walk in.  At the same time, the vision for the end was going to be out on a galaxy somewhere.

We’d known each other for years and [about] five years or so ago at a dinner party, Terry [said he] was going through his archives looking for unpublished short stories and things like that and he came across an aborted project from about 30 years ago.  We were just talking about that and it just struck me as immediately a great idea because it’s so simple and yet it’s got endless possibilities.  By the end of that [party] we already had the storylines and Terry was going to send me the material.

Terry was having trouble seeing so Stephen did the typing and then “We fixed each line and each scene together.”

So that’s that sorted.

Baxter also says “it just struck me as immediately a great idea because it’s so simple and yet it’s got endless possibilities.”

And that is the truth.  The story can be summed up pretty easily. (more…)

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The plan was that after 25 years, Boris would retire.  They recorded songs for Dear, but then toured the anniversary of the album Pink.  This inspired them to write more songs, and somehow through all of that, Dear was created (with apparently enough music for two more albums).

Then they toured Dear (a tour I was lucky enough to see) and are still going.  Who knows if they are done.  Who knows if this is their final album.  Either way, this is a doozy.

10 songs and 70 minutes (on the U.S. release), Dear specialized in slow droney heavy songs.  The album opens with seven smacks of a drum before loud heavy chords signal the beginning of “D.O.W.N -Domination of Waiting Noise.”  The vocals are loud but just loud enough to add to the overall drone sound.  Things slow down further with “Deadsong” a deep bass drone with whispered, rather spooky/demonic vocals.

Despite the drones there are moments of catchiness (relative).  “Absoluego” is a faster, downtuned song with a big shouted chorus and “Beyond” is a quiet, moody song featuring Wata on vocals.  About 90 seconds into the song there is blast of metal guitars and drums that lasts for 30 seconds or so before fading out.  When it happens again, one of the guys starts singing too, a faster heavier, catchier melody.

“Kagero” opens with a low rumble.  Eventually a slow, heavy guitar comes in with near falsetto singing.  “Biotope” has a steady pulsing bass drum through the track.  The guitars are slower with an occasional plucked string that resonates. This song even has some ooohs in it.

“The Power” has my favorite Boris riff since “Tu la la.”  It’s got six notes all of which are strangely menacing and yet catchy at the same time. This was a great song to see live.  “Momentio Mori” is slow and menacing with cool echoed/chorused vocals–there’s an Alice in Chains vibe to the vocals.  With about a minute left, the song slows down and grows quiet almost as a lead in to the 12 minute “Dystopia -Vanishing Point.”  This song opens with two minutes of warbly accordion (I loved watching Wata play this part live) and some thundering drums.  It all fades away into some quiet ringing guitars and whispered vocals.  This continues for a few minutes as waves of guitars are added.  And then at 7 minutes the loud guitars and drums blast forth and Wata gets to do a screaming solo for the final 4 minutes.  She is still soloing as the song abruptly ends and switches to the final track.

“Dear” opens with those low downtuned guitars echoing.  I love that the guitars simply slide up to a very high note and hold it until sliding back down.  There’s a muffled chug on the low chords while the heavily echoed vocals ring out.  The song continues like this, a mountain of low rumble, for 9 minutes until it starts to consume itself–feedbacking and disintegrating until it sounds like all of the plugs are pulled.

There’s not a lot of diversity on this disc, which resembles some of their earlier music.  I’m very curious to see what they do next.

[READ: February 9, 2016] “The Republic of Bad Taste”

This story (it feels complete and not like an excerpt, although the title seems unlikely as a short story title) was 20 pages long in this issue of the New Yorker.  That’s one of the longest pieces I’ve seen in the magazine.

And it covers a lot of ground.

Like how does an at-risk-youth counselor agree to commit murder?

It begins by introducing us to Andreas Wolf in East Germany circa 1987.  He is a disaffected youth, an atheist with a super libido and he has found employment at the church on Siegfeldstrasse.  Andreas felt the whole regime was ridiculous.  In fact he felt that a lot of things were ridiculous.  The Republic was just so German that it couldn’t even go after misfits unless it was by the book.

His “job” at the church was as a youth counselor.  He was surprisingly good at it. In part because he really didn’t care and in part because he himself was almost at risk.  He wasn’t really at risk because his father had a good position with the government, but they had more or less disowned him (aside from agreeing to make sure he never got into real trouble).  Plus, he was pretty good-looking so many of the at risk girls found him attractive–with all that implies.

He took advantage of this.  He found that his monetary reward was so pitiful that a reward in beautiful girls made up for it.  At the same time, he did have some scruples.  He never had sex with anyone underage or anyone who had been sexually abused.  What a guy. (more…)

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 SOUNDTRACK: THE CROSSRHODES-Tiny Desk Concert #704 (February 9, 2018).

Who knew there was explicitly Christian rap?  I mean, obviously there must be. But I never expected to hear it, especially not Christian songs that used the n-word and the f-word.

I’d never heard of The Crossrhodes, so here’s what the blurb says

Witnessing The Crossrhodes perform at the Tiny Desk instantly snapped me back to their early beginnings, just a few miles away from NPR headquarters. In 2001… the Crossrhodes stepped on stage. Week after week, the band passionately performed original material that jumped between society’s woes and their own love lives. Word eventually spread outside of the D.C. area and one-half of the group, Raheem DeVaughn, landed a record deal.

DeVaughn went on to achieve R&B superstardom, earning two Grammy nominations, while the other half of the group, Wes Felton, has remained a pillar of D.C. culture, excelling as both a musician and actor. They reunited and released their first album in over a decade last year. Footprints on the Moon recapitulates and magnifies the ideals they conveyed in the early 2000s with a hyper-focused sense of urgency.

Poet, Raquel Ra Brown opened the show with a poem.  After her introduction, and they were the band is dressed, I expected to hear more of a gospel sound, not for him to start out by going “yo, unh.”

“Footprints on the Moon” seems to be inspirational, but what’s with this lyric:

They lyin’ bout them there two white feet
That landed on the moon a year after they killed King

And again, the songs are fairly pious and you get this couplet:

The only topic of discussion is who they touchin’
Or who they buyin’ or who they fu**in’

Sure there’s politic on the song, but where is this music going?

“How You Gon’ Fall” has a pretty great chorus but the verses are again, pretty rough

cops shot 30 rounds in 15 seconds
4 month old baby in the rear section
another mother gotta call the reverend
a dead daughter, sister, veteran
now the media posing all the questions
slandering the victim pointing out aggression
somehow the angel of god kept the baby protected
coz grandma prayed beyond the pictures and necklace

The tautology of “Praying Prayers” is surprisingly catchy .  It’s probably my favorite song of the bunch

“America” has some well thought out complaints about the country, and it ends with the last few bars of the National Anthem.  I like that they took a knee during that part.

As the show ends, he gets everyone to chant, “I got the power, you got the power, we got the power; that’s power to the people.”

Overall, there was some good stuff in this set. Not my thing but I can certainly appreciate most of it.

[READ: September 21, 2017] “Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950”

So the crux of this story is that a fist fight between two men brings a man and a woman together.

How delightful.

The story is written in a thoughtful manner, but it is still just about two dumb drunks fighting.

Inexplicably, James Sutter, in a bar, leans over and says–as if to no one–I hate Okies. Frannie Begara challenges him to a fight outside.

So they go out in the dark (the streetlight frames their ring).  Each man has his fan base ringing behind him. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: GEORGE CLINTON & THE P-FUNK ALL STARS-Tiny Desk Concert #697 (January 24, 2018).

George Clinton is famous for being from outer space and for bringing the funk.  That was a pretty long time ago.  He’s now 77, but he still has the energy and the passion, although it is weird to see him looking so…normal.

He’s just got on a cool coat–no colored dreadlocks, no dresses or sequins.  But he still holds a room’s attention.

P-Funk’s lineage runs 50-plus years. From The Parliaments to Funkadelic to Parliament Funkadelic to the P-Funk All Stars, George Clinton has conducted the mothership as a reliable father figure. When he commands you to “put a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip, and come on up to the Mothership,” he’s presenting to you the first law of Funktonian physics. We at NPR pledged our groovellegiance when he and his P-Funk All Stars touched down to bless the Tiny Desk.

I love that Clinton has kept the spirit and familial nature of P-Funk alive all these years:

Clinton has brought his own bloodline into the most recent lineup of P-Funk: His grandchildren are the newest backup singers, while another grandchild serves as tour manager. Though this was a much smaller outfit than their traditional stage shows — no horn section, no dancers, no Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk — the extended family was also in full effect. Garrett Shider on rhythm guitar, filling in for his late father, Garry Shider, aka Starchild. Even original trumpeter Bennie Cowan, who still tours with the group but didn’t make it to the Tiny Desk, typically plays alongside his son Benzel on drums. Blackbyrd McKnight and Lige Curry cement the foundation as elder statesmen who’ve been rocking with Clinton since 1978.

They play three songs.  I don’t know how much Clinton sang back in the day–was he the lead singer or just a bringer of the funk?  But in “Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On” most of the vocals are chanted and sung by the backing vocalists (Tonysha Nelson, Patavian Lewis, and Tairee Parks).  Clinton is more like the hype man–getting everyone worked up, clapping and making noise.  Rhythm guitarist Garrett Shider takes a lead vocal, keeping the funk going.  The song is big and the riff is great and the funk is entirely in the house.  Dwayne Blackbyrd McKnight plays an awesome funky guitar throughout the Concert.

“One Nation Under A Groove” is a more mellow (relatively), smoother song.  I love the guitar sound, and there’s some suitably funky and retro-sounding keyboards from Danny Bedrosian.

“Give up the Funk (Tear the Roof off the Sucker)” is the real classic.  Clinton is really into this one–dancing and clapping and the bass by Lige Curry and drums by Benzel Cowan are terrific.

He may not have the interstellar look, but Clinton still has the funk.

[READ: October 25, 2017] Birthright: Volume Five

This is the first Birthright volume that I didn’t love.  There was a lot of demon head ripping off and tentacles and splatters.  Fire and blood and gore, but not a lot of coherent action.

It started out quite good with Rya’s back story. We see her as a baby on a battlefield being rescued by, of all creaturs…an orc.  He told her of the prophecy to defeat Lore.  And then she met young Mikey and “knew that the prophecy was a load of razorbeast dung.”

Then we see Mikey quickly develop into the man he is–and then disappear.  It was rumored he was killed but then Kallista gave away that he was still alive.  That made Rya really mad. (more…)

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