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   SOUNDTRACK: WAXAHATCHEE-Tiny Desk Concert #321 (November 23, 2013).

Waxahatchee is pretty much Katie Crutchfield.  The band recently played a show near me and I wondered if it was a band or just her.

This might be as intimate as hearing Katie Crutchfield sing in her basement. That’s where she and her sister would play guitar, write and sing songs 10 years ago, when she was 14. Katie and Allison Crutchfield had a band back in Birmingham together, The Ackleys; these days, Katie performs as Waxahatchee, while Allison’s band is called Swearin’.

The songs Waxahatchee brought to the NPR Music offices aren’t just stripped down for this Tiny Desk Concert, this is Katie Crutchfield as Waxahatchee, spare and exposed; this is what she does. Sometimes there’s a drummer (her sister’s boyfriend Kyle Gilbride) and at other times another guitarist, her boyfriend Keith Spencer (both play in Swearin’), but even on Waxahatchee’s second album, Cerulean Salt, there are plenty of bare-boned songs. This is intimate music for an intimate setting, as we got to stand in careful silence, listening intently and capturing this frail and powerful performance.

And all of that is true.   These are pretty, quiet folk songs.  They are so quiet it almost seems like she doesn’t have her amp on—you can hear her pick striking against the strings.

To me the power of these songs is in the lyrics, and yet the music isn’t boring or simple either.  Her chords are always, if not interesting, then certainly spot on.  But I keep coming back to the lyrics.  Like the end of “I Think I Love You”

I want you so bad it’s devouring me / and I think I love you but you’ll never find out.

Her speaking voice is quiet too, and after the first song she admits, “This is one of the coolest things I have ever gotten to do.”

“Bathtub” has this wonderfully intense line:

And I tell you not to love me
But I still kiss you when I want to
And I lament, you’re innocent
But somehow the object of my discontent
And it’s fucked up, I let you in
Even though I’ve seen what can happen

The entire Tiny Desk Concert is only 9 minutes–which is simply too short.  I know that the Tiny Desk Concerts usually have bands play 3 songs, but when they are mostly short ones like “Tangled Envisioning” (not even 3 minutes), they could tack on an extra one or two.

[READ: August 30, 2016] Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543

Zach Weinersmith writes the daily webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  I supported the Kickstarter project for this book because it looked frankly hilarious.  The one thing I have to say off the bat is that I don’t love his drawing style.  There’s something about it that I simply can’t get into.  Even after two full books of these drawings, it just never gels for me.  But that’s fine. because I’m here for the jokes.  And they are awesome.

The book is comprised of the best religion-themes comic from the 13 years that SMBC has been around.  There’s also a whole slew of comics that are exclusive to this book.

We are greeted with this: “For these drawings, the part of God is played by a giant yellow disc.” (more…)

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  SOUNDTRACK: DAUGHTER-Tiny Desk Concert #313 (October 21, 2013).

Daughter is a quiet folk band (at least in this Tiny Desk Concert) in which two acoustic guitars (Elena Tonra and Igor Haefeli) and one drum (Remi Aguilella) play behind Tonra’s gorgeous, angsty vocals.

For all three of these songs, she sings delicate whispered vocals that are quite lovely, but also quite dark.

Like this line from “Youth” “Most of us are bitter over someone / setting fire to our insides for fun.”  I love the way Haefeli’s guitar harmonics sound like keyboards and how powerful the martial drumming sounds when it comes in.

“Landfill” opens with thudding drums (Mallets instead of sticks) which are louder and bigger and yet still feel gentle.  And yet, as the blurb says: The song is “achingly pretty and melancholy, the track builds to an absolute gut-punch of a line — “I want you so much, but I hate your guts” — that conjures a pitch-perfect mix of gloom, desire and hostility.”

They put out an EP and in 2013 released an album:

the lovely If You Leave, but Daughter was kind enough to resuscitate “Landfill” for this stripped-down performance at the Tiny Desk. As you’ll see and hear, that aforementioned gut-punch is a recurring specialty for the band: In all three of these sad, searing songs, singer Elena Tonra showcases a remarkable gift for coolly but approachably dishing out weary words that resonate and devastate.

Between these two songs, Bob asks if this is an awkward place to play, and she responds, “No, we’re just awkward people.”

For “Tomorrow” there is a beautiful ascending guitar melody and loud drums.  I really like the way the guitars play off of each other–even though they are both acoustic, they sound very different and complement each other nicely.  Like in the wonderful melody at the end.  Despite how pretty the song was, apparently she was unhappy with it saying “a bit ropey, that one.”  I hadn’t heard that before, but evidently it means “unwell…usually alcohol related” so that’s pretty funny.

[READ: August 30, 2016] Science: Ruining Everything Since 1543

Zach Weinersmith writes the daily webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.  I supported the Kickstarter project for his book Religion: Ruining Everything Since 4004 BC and this book was part of my funding level.

I was more interested in the religious comics, but I am tickled by how funny the Science comics are.  Weinersmith knows a lot of science (or at least scientists) and make some really funny jokes about the subject.

The one thing I have to say off the bat is that I don’t love his drawing style.  There’s something about it that I simply can’t get into.  Even after two full books of these drawings, it just never gels for me.  But that’s fine. because I’m here for the jokes.  And they are awesome. (more…)

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Frank Conniff–Twenty Five Mystery Science Theater 3000 Films That Changed My Life in No Way Whatsoever (2016)

tvfrankSOUNDTRACK: TA-KU & WAFIA-Tiny Desk Concert #576 (November 6, 2016).

Ta-ku & Wafia are Australian, and I knew nothing else about them.  So:

The chemistry between Australian singer-producer Ta-ku and his fellow Aussie singer-songwriter Wafia becomes apparent the instant you hear their voices intertwined in song. On their first collaborative EP, (m)edian, they draw on their individual experiences to touch on subjects like compromise in relationships as they trade verses and harmonize over hollow melodies.  With production characterized by weary low-end rumbles and resonant keys, the two float above the music, playing off each other’s harmonies.

Although the blurb mentions a few bands that the duo sounds like I couldn’t help thinking they sound The xx (although a bit poppier).

“Treading Water” especially sounds like The xx.  Both of their voices sound really close to that band (although Wafia’s high notes and r&b inclinations do impact that somewhat).  It’s funny that they are just sitting there with their eyes closed, hands folded singing gently.

“Me in the Middle” is another pretty, simple keyboard song with depth in the lyrics and vocals.

Introducing, “Love Somebody,” she says its their favorite on their EP and he interjects Go but it now, which makes her giggle.  Her voice is really quite lovely.  I could see them hitting big both in pop circles and in some alternative circles if they market themselves well.

[READ: November 10, 2016] 25 MST3K Films that Changed My Life in No Way Whatsoever

As you might guess from the title, Frank Conniff was involved with MST3K.  He was TV’s Frank and, as we learn from this book, he was the guy who was forced to watch every movie first and decide whether it could be used for the show.  This “job” was created because they had watched a bit of Sidehackers and decided it would be fun to use.  So Comedy Central bought the rights (“They paid in the high two figures”) and then discovered that there was a brutal rape scene (“don’t know why I need to cal it a ‘brutal’ rape scene any kind of rape ,loud or quiet, violent or Cosby-style, is brutal”) that would sure be hard to joke about (they edited it out for the show which “had a minimal effect on the overall mediocrity of the project.”

The book opens with an FBI warning like the videotapes except for this book it stands for Federal Bureau of Incoherence because the document contains “many pop culture references that are obscure, out of date, annoying and of no practical use to anyone.”   So each chapter goes through and explains these obscure references for us all. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: HEM-Tiny Desk Concert #306 (September 28, 2013).

Hem is one of All Songs Considered‘s earliest discoveries. Back in 2002, we received a beautiful and unique album called Rabbit Songs. It was a homey, fireside kind of record, with a sound that could be called country or Americana, and the arrangements by Dan Messé made it feel quaint and warm. To top it off, there was singer Sally Ellyson, an untrained natural talent with an effortless yet breathtaking voice. Hem has gone on to make five more albums since Rabbit Songs; their latest, Departure and Farewell, finds the group still writing songs that feel as if they’ve always been there.

Bob is quite right about the feel of this band, the drums are actually foot stomping and piano tapping, and that makes the band sound like they are siting around cozy room with friends.   And then there’s her voice.  There’s nothing specific about it that stands out, and yet it really does.  Her voice feels incredibly warm and welcoming, making you want to stop and listen.  And perhaps it’s something about the recording which makes everything feel soft (but not muddy) and warm.

And even in the songs themselves, it feels like friends hanging out.  During “Walking Past The Graveyard, Not Breathing” they say “go George” as the intro to the bass solo and then “go Heather” for the violin solo.   “Tourniquet” has some great lyrics, between the alliteration at the beginning and the great metaphor of the song, I was so taken with the lyrics that I didn’t even realize how pretty the melody was:

Brooklyn, I’m broken — I’m breaking apart
Oh Brooklyn, your bridges are bound up in light —
Every artery’s clogged as you pull the belt tight —
And this tourniquet turns even tighter until
Traffic comes to a standstill

When the song suddenly takes off near the end (but only briefly) it really elevates the song which was already delightful.  Introducing the final song, “Seven Angels” she says they are excited to be there, playing in this format.  She says the song can be seen as a lullaby–she likes to sing it for her sister.  She says she doesn’t write the songs but she can pretend this one is hers.

It’s hard to imagine this band playing a venue much larger than this one–they seems right at home in a small space.

[READ: July 31, 2016] Stop Forgetting to Remember

This is a fascinating story about the comics artist Walter Kurtz.  I know very little about Peter Kuper, but I gather that this is sort of his life but written as an autobiography of somebody else.  (For instance, Kurtz was born on the same day as Kuper).

The back cover blurb also states how daring it was for Kurtz to write all of this –showing the embarrassing details, etc.: “My spouse would have killed me!”

This book is a collection of “stories” (not sure if they were ever published separately) that are joined by the narrative thread of Kurtz telling us about his life.  And the “occasion” for this reflection is the pending birth of his first child.  He is freaking out a bit–when he was young he never wanted kids, and then maybe he was cool with it, but recently he’s become terrified again.  He’s particularly afraid because he’s engaged with the world and he sees that as each month goes by, things get worse: AIDS, global warming, overpopulation, famine, wars (and that’s just 1996). (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: ALSARAH & THE NUBATONES-Tiny Desk Concert #584 (December 9, 2016).

The Tiny Desk Concerts have introduced me to a ton of bands I’ve never heard of before.  They’ve also introduced me to styles of music I’ve never heard before.  Alsarah and the Nubatones play music inspired by her home country of Sudan.  But I believe she (they) include pop elements to make the music more accessible (and danceable).

And this Concert was great–I listened to it over and over.

The instrumentation is all fairly simple: Rami El Aasser plays all kinds of percussion.  I love the sound that he gets out of that hand drum.  Brandon Terzic plays an amazing oud and  Mawuena Kodjovi’s bass holds the whole thing together in an incredible way–something that I think this traditional music lacks.

But most important are the singers’ voices.  Alsarah sounds great by herself but when she and Nahid harmonize, it is enchanting.  Especially in the chorus of the first song, “Ya Watan” when their voices work together so perfectly

But what’s Alsarah’s deal?  The blurb is really helpful:

When singer Alsarah left her native Sudan, she was just a child who’d shown an interest in music. She’s said it served as her coping mechanism during a subsequent transition to life here in the U.S. That passion led her to a university degree in ethnomusicology.

It also drew her to musicians who were passionate about the intersection of culture, music and migration. Together, their one-of-a-kind expression has been called “East African retro pop.” But that tag only scratches the surface: In their hands, the music pulses, breathes and comes alive with a mix of tradition and contemporary influences.

I don’t know what the song names mean, but I love “Ya Watan.”  The song is really catchy, but when the bass did a big slide at the end of the middle slow section to announce the final part, I was hooked.

I have no idea why there’s a 3 in this titular word, but that makes me even more intrigued by “3roos Elneel.”  Before the song she says (in perfectly unaccented English), “I’m going to tell a story because I think I can do whatever I want.”

She says that the song is inspired by “girls music” performed at wedding ceremonies in Sudan.  But she tries to merge it with an old myth.  The Nile River would flood every season because the gods were angry and lonely.  So the Sudanese people would sacrifice the most beautiful maiden in the village.  But she wonders what happens after she goes in the river.  And what happens next season when there’s a new girl–that’s a lotta wives.  So, she likes to think there’s trade off.  You go in to the river and do 3 months as a Nile god bride and then you swim off.  Maybe the bottom of the Nile is full of ex-Nile-god-divorcees giving birth to mermaids.  Yes, she claims mermaids as a Nubian invention.

The song begins with a call and response. It sounds rather traditional.  But after a few lines, the song stops with a four-beat clap-along section.  And then everything shifts.  First the bass plays a cool riff then the oud joins in with some fast playing and then the percussion makes it utterly danceable.  There’s even a cool oud solo.

The first section of “Fulani” is the chorus repeating the word Fulani over and over (in call and response style), but it’s done in wonderfully melodious fashion, including a catchy stop start section with more clapping.

The song is really great and I love the way all the instruments are able to make the song fade out.

This music was totally captivating.

[READ:January 27,2017] Beautiful Blue World

Sarah brought this book home and read us a little bit of it and I decided I had to read it, too.

The part she told us about was about a girl taking a test to see if she would be useful for the army.  But it was no ordinary test, it was more like Bletchley Circle–puzzles and observations more than facts.  That sounded great.

What she didn’t tell us was the general set up of the story.

So, this story feels like a World War II story, with a country like England being attacked by a country like Germany.  But what makes this book special is that these are not the countries. The countries are called Sofarende (the attackees) and Tyssia (the attackers). But despite these countries having fantastical names, the story feels very real.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PATTY GRIFFIN-Tiny Desk Concert #282 (June 24, 2013).

I have Patty Griffin’s first two albums—I like her folkie sensibilities and her voice which I tend to think of as a little unusual.  And yet it’s not unusual here at all.  She sings powerfully and beautifully.

For this Tiny Desk Concert she’s playing some from her then new release:

she takes care to balance the exquisite mourning of “Faithful Son” — and the sweetly somber “That Kind of Lonely,” which Griffin describes as “a song about finally letting go of your delayed adolescence” — by closing her set with the playfully bawdy, kindly celebratory “Get Ready Marie.” Inspired by a favorite photo of her grandparents, the song finds Griffin viewing two complicated lives with the generous, hopeful eye she’s been casting on her subjects for three fruitful decades now.

She opens with “Faithful Son.” I love how the middle of this has a cool section where the two acoustic guitars (played by Griffin and Dave Pulkingham) face each other and strum hard for a bit.  The problem for me with this song is that the baritone guitar (played by Craig Ross) is either out of tune or the Ross hits a few wrong notes.  Since it resonates a bit louder than anything else, it’s really noticeable.  The accordion (played by John Deaderick) isn’t loud enough either.

“That Kind Of Lonely” is, as noted, a song about finally letting go of your delayed adolescence.  It’s a pretty, quiet number.  A good contrast to “Get Ready Marie.”  She says she is always picking on her family for stories.  She says she got this idea from a photograph of her grandparents taken just after they wed in the 1920s.  Her grandmother is looking at the camera like maybe she made the biggest mistake of her life and her grandfather (who looks really handsome) looks like he can’t wait to get his hands on her. They had a wild relationship—plates were lying.  This is a comic bawdy song that sounds like a traditional drinking song with some great lyrics:

No this isn’t the end of our story
No our marriage stuck like a habit
But I had a good hunch, when she kissed me a bunch
She could do other things like a rabbit

It’s in ¾ time and the accordion is louder here and it all sounds terrific.  It’s hard to believe that she’s been playing for 30 years, but she sure sounds like a pro.

[READ: March 26, 2016] Persepolis 2

I found Persepolis to be an amazing book.  A peek inside a regime that was sort of mythically wicked during my childhood. Marjane’s personal story was interesting of course, but I enjoyed seeing just what was happening in this world that seemed so mysterious when I was growing up.

This sequel is a little less exciting because it is more or less about a lonely teenager in Europe.  I think if the first book wasn’t so groundbreaking, this one wouldn’t feel as disappointing.  Her story is interesting and her experiences are story-worthy, but compared to the first book this one is the awkward teenage years.

We see that Marjane’s being sent to Europe didn’t go quite as planned.  She stayed with her mom’s friend.  But the friend fought with her husband all the time and their house was not a happy one. They felt that they couldn’t look after Marjane so they sent her to boarding school in Vienna–Marjane didn’t speak German. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: BILLY BRAGG-Tiny Desk Concert #281 (June 17, 2013).

I really like Billy Bragg.  Not necessarily all of his music, but I like a lot of it and I certainly love what he stands for.  If you like his instantly recognizable voice (which I do), then just about anything he does sounds good.  But no doubt some songs are catchier than others.

Bragg played a Tiny Desk Concert in 2016 with someone else as part of a duo.  I’d listened to that one first, but I liked this one more.

For this one he is accompanied on the first two songs by dobro player C.J. Hillman.

Bragg talks a lot–he has many lengthy stories between songs–and he’s pretty much always funny or thoughtful.  He introduces the first song by saying that moving into a new building always has troubles–you’ll always need someone to fix things up.  With that, his first song is called “Handyman Blues.”

It’s a great story song.  I especially like this line:

Don’t be expecting me to put up shelves or build a garden shed / but I can write a song about how much I love you instead.

It’s amusing that in the next song workers actually interrupt his song.  They were “met with lot of hammering on our rooftop by some real handymen as they put the finishing touches on NPR’s new home.”

For the second song they

channeled the spirit of legendary American folksinger Woody Guthrie, with whom Bragg collaborated — albeit posthumously, in Guthrie’s case — when he took Guthrie’s unsung words and set them to song with the help of Wilco. Here, he takes a song Guthrie himself co-opted and altered: a gospel tune (“This World Is Not My Home”) he’d turned into an anthem against inaction.

Bragg introduces this song as saying he took it over when the U.S. was having the debate about universal health care.  He says that people still face all the same problems that this classic song talks about–people losing homes to banks or families struggling to make ends meet.  But the middle verse is about a wife who dies on the floor for want of proper health care.  Bragg says that that doesn’t happen in his country anymore and it’s hard for people in his country to imagine that a generous country like the US still hasn’t resolved that issue (and five years later things are even worse with Trumpcare–#ITMFA #RESIST).

Guthrie called the song “I Ain’t Got No Home (In This World Anymore”).  After he sings a verse, the hammering starts and they pause the song to wait for the work to finish before he re-starts the song.  In the meantime they talk about what his band should do in Washington.  Someone says the National Archives and he jokes the Nashville Archive?  He says that they really enjoyed Nashville.  Then he mentions the National Archive to CJ and says

We can find out how the Americans started the war of 1812.  (chuckles).  I just played Annapolis, they’re still sore about it over there.  Never mind who won the war but who started it.

It’s another nice story song.  The dobro works perfectly with it.

“Sexuality” is the only song on this set that I knew.  It’s an old favorite that is serious and funny as well (and very progressive for when it was written).  It sounds terrific and is super catchy.  Although he comments that the acoustics aren’t that great in this new building–there’s not much bounce back off the walls “for those of us who technically aren’t great singers.  But for those of us who are buskers like myself, it’s not bad.”

Introducing the final song, “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” he says he read an article on the BBC about a kid who proved that economics professors were wrong and the article commented that “the trouble with economics is that no one knows nothing anymore.”  He says that had just written a song with that same name, so he’s with the zeitgeist.

He also interjects that there will be pedants–“and there are one or two who listen to NPR, I’m sure” who will write in to say it should be ‘no one knows anything any more.’  But the first thing they teach you at songwriting school is that alliteration trumps grammar.

And then he starts strumming “Sexuality “and says “Oh, I’ve just played that.”

“No One Knows Nothing Anymore” is a nice folkie, very-Billy Bragg song–good melody and really good lyrics.

At the end, as the camera fades to black he says “Chris, pass the hat around.”

I’m so happy that Billy Bragg is still making music.

[READ: March 26, 2016] Persepolis

This graphic novel is legendary, and I’m embarrassed it has taken me 13 years to read it.

Persepolis is a memoir of a young girl growing up in Iran during the 70s and 80s.  I appreciated the contextualizing introduction in which she explains the history of the country.

The introduction lays out a basic outline of the history of Iran and the Middle East (that goes all the way back to B.C years).  She explains that Iran has always been a rich nation and has constantly been under attack.  When oil was discovered, the West came calling.  Great Britain wielded a powerful influence over Iranian economy.  During WWII, Iran remained neutral but then was invaded by the west.

The Prime Minister of Iran (not the Shah) nationalized the oil industry in 1951 which led to an embargo and a coup organized by the CIA.  The leader, Reza Shah was succeeded by his son, Mohammad Reza Shah–known simply as the Shah of Iran.  The Shah stayed in power until 1979 when he fled to escape the Islamic Revolution.

She says that since the Islamic revolution Iran has been associated with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism, but she knows that this is far from the truth.  And that’s what inspired her to writ this book.

(more…)

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