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feb SOUNDTRACK: LITTLE SIMZ-Tiny Desk Concert #599 (February 21, 2017).

simzI had never heard of Little Simz until I saw this Tiny Desk Concert.  Then a few nights later I was in Union Transfer and saw that she would be playing there in a few weeks.  Serendipity.  Although I still wasn’t going to go see her.

Simbi Ajikawo, who records and performs as Little Simz, first gained widespread recognition with the release of her debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Persons back in 2015. The British lyricist has been compared to the likes of Lauryn Hill for her self-reflective wordplay that shies away from the often braggadocios nature of mainstream rap music.

While on her first album Simz opted to tell stories that spoke of her childhood experiences (and the insight gained from them), on her most recent release, Stillness in Wonderland, she expands this notion of self-exploration by creating a world that pays ode to the childhood classic Alice in Wonderland. Much like Alice, Simz’s newfound success has taken her on a journey that’s leading her to discover a whole new world.

Accompanied by three members from the Brooklyn-based R&B group known as Phony Ppl [Matt Byas (drums); Omar Grant (bass) and Aja Grant (keys)], Simz performed a set of three songs off of Stillness in Wonderland.

Simz has a very thick British accent while rapping.  On the first song, “Poison Ivy,” she plays guitars and has good flow.  But I felt that the sung chorus were kind of flat.

She says that “No More Wonderland” is about being involved in the business and how being on the road is not what she thought it would be like.  Usually t his is a bad sign for a song, but she does some interesting things lyrically, all staying near the Alice in Wonderland theme.  She tells us the hooks pretty easy so join in.  And it is easy but it’s once again, rather understated.  But I do really like the bass sound.

I didn’t realize that the band wasn’t her band (they do a great job of playing her songs).  Before the final song, “Picture Perfect,” she tells them all that she really likes their hoodies (which have her album cover on them).  They laugh and say they’re very nice, and surprisingly affordable.  She tells a little more about the concept of the album.  This song is when she’s having the most fun and “it’s lit.”  I love the moment where everything stops and they go “grrrrrrrroooo.”

The three songs are a bit slow for me, but by thee nd she did win me over.  I do wonder what her show is like when it’s not Tiny.

[READ: January 19, 2017] “Comeback City”

This is an excerpt from a novel by Mackey.  The excerpt is quite short, so I actually found the description of the novel to be somewhat more interesting.  This excerpt comes from Late Arcade, the fifth installment in From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, a novel that follows the activities of a jazz group.

So this excerpt covers their arrival into Detroit.  It was their first time in the City and the it covers their thoughts about the city itself.   But the narrator “quickly found our expectations to see and say something about Detroit tan irritant, any summing-up or desire to sum up an affront.”

He says things cry out for comment or ridicule (like the immutability of the General Motors Building in contrast to the auto industry’s recent troubles.

But he says, and the band agrees,  that the area by the Detroit Institute of Arts is beautiful. Continue Reading »

jan2017SOUNDTRACK: BRENT COBB-Tiny Desk Concert #591 (January 17, 2017).

brentI don’t like country music.  I’ve found I’ve grown less fond of it in the last few months because a lot of country artists are crossing over but still bringing that twang that is like nails on a chalkboard to me.  I initially bristled against Cobb because he’s got that country twang in spades.

But he proved to be such an engaging and likable fellow–a funny storyteller and genuinely nice guy–that I found that I enjoyed his songs a lot more than I expected.

“Solving Problems,” is a song about a Sunday-afternoon bull session.  It’s an uptempo song with some enjoyable lyrics–the lyrics are what won me over, especially in his delivery: “Conversation covers everything and in between, from Grandpa’s health to marrying good girls.”

When the song is over he notes: “Y’all been having a lot of Southerners on here lately, whats up with that?”

The second song “Down In The Gulley” is a funny song–but not, you know, comical or anything.  He introduces it with a story about his uncle and his daddy.  When they were kids they were putting down pipes from a stream to head towards the pump house.  A few years ago (as in decades later), the sheriff saw these pipes and thought that they were running moonshine.  Well, he says, his Uncle Bubba is a great guy but her can be a little orn’ry, especially if you wake him up first thing in the morning accusing him of having a moonshine still.  So for the song he imagined what it would have been like if it was a moonshine still.   I really like the guitar work ion this song–really interesting melodies.

When the song is over he says “you were really listening.  Listening crowds make me nervous–all as you want as an artist is for people to listen to you but when they do it freaks you out.”

The third song “Country Bound,” is one that he didn’t have anything to do with its creation.  His family members were writing this song when he was 5.  It reminds me a lot  of John Denver and it’s my favorite song that he plays.  It’s his my favorite of the set.  It features a bouncing solo from J Kott, whom Cobb jokingly calls “our bass player/lead guitarist.”  In addition to Cobb and Kott, there’s Steve Smith on the drums.

He was only planning to do three songs, but he says “we can do more or not.”  Someone says one more.  He smiles and says “it’s up to you [presumably whoever introduced him] if we have time.  I don’t even now who the guy [who said “one more”] is, he might not even work here.

The final song is the sobering “Shine On Rainy Day.”  It’s a slow ballad and a thoughtful one.  “While he weaves plenty of wit into his lyrics, Cobb can devastate just as easily: ‘Ain’t it funny how a little thunder make a man start to wonder, ‘Should I swim or just go under?'”

[READ: January 15, 2017] “The Sad Fact”

This is an excerpt from Cusk’s novel Transit.

This story begins in a very modern way: “an astrologer emailed me to say she had important news concerning events in my immediate future.”

The spam message went on to say that the information was causing her great excitement and for a small fee, she would share this with her. But “the sad fact was that in this era of science and unbelief we had lost the sense of our own significance.”  The narrator knows it is spam: “it seemed possible that the same computer algorithms that had generated this email had generated the astrologer herself:  she was too obviously based on a human type to be human herself.”  And yet…

A friend of hers has said that so much of our language has been culled by computers that faux humans often feel more substantial than the original. Continue Reading »

jan2017SOUNDTRACK: DECLAN McKENNA-Tiny Desk Concert #588 (January 3, 2017).

declanI only know Declan McKenna from NPR’s coverage of SXSW last year.  He played a SOUTH X Lullaby of the third song in this set.

And although he looks a little different, his singing style hasn’t changed.  He has an interesting delivery–with notes that sound like they crack as he sings.  But he is in total control.

The blurb notes:

It’d be easy to look and listen to this young English singer and think he’s just another sensitive songwriter with a guitar, singing about his troubles. But Declan McKenna writes about a much bigger world than you or I might expect from a singer who only recently turned 18. He came to NPR this past summer, a bit nervous but passionate. He stripped down three of his songs to their musical essence, and the power of their words eclipsed the hooks for which they’re equally known. “Bethlehem” tackles religion:

Because I’m in Bethlehem
I’ve got a seat in heaven
And though I’m heaven sent
I can do as I want and you don’t have the right to choose

McKenna’s most famous tune, “Brazil,” is a song about football, money and poverty that also touches on religion.

But even without the blurb, his music pretty well speaks for itself.  “Bethlehem” begins slowly, with him singing in a deeper voice but when he gets to the chorus his voice starts to break in his trademark way.  And as the song moves on he shows off a strong falsetto as well.  He opens “Brazil” with a little guitar flub which makes him laugh before he starts again.  The song sounds very much like other versions I’ve heard—his vocal style is all deliberate.  The chorus is so catchy (whatever it’s about):

I heard he lives down a river somewhere
With 6 cars and a grizzly bear
He got eyes, but he can’t see
Well, he talks like an angel
but he looks like me.

And I love how after all of this catchy stuff, he throws in a third section that is even catchier than the rest:

I wanna play the beautiful game while I’m in Brazil
Cause everybody plays the beautiful game while in Brazil
It’s all you’ve ever wanted, and it’s all that you want still
Don’t you wanna play the beautiful game out in Brazil?.

It’s practically a different song.  But so good.

This is the first I’ve heard “Isombard” (which I looked up afterward and is much more synthy).  He says he’s never done this acoustic before. He describes the song as being “somewhere between baroque pop and riff rock so it doesn’t translate easily.”  It’s got a very pretty melody and his slower singing style.  The song is also catchy and I’m surprised he hasn’t caught on a bit more yet.

[READ: January 17, 2017] “A Window to the World”

The narrator tells us that there were two writes at the Yiddish Writers’ Club in Warsaw.  Each of these men had talent and earned a reputation but then seem to have been silenced forever.

The two men were Menahem Roshbom (who had written three novels before he was 30) and the other was Zimel Hesheles (who had written one long poem at the ages of 23).  Since then, nothing–Roshbom was now in his 50s and Hesheles in his late 40s.  The two played chess and although Roshbom was a better player, he would always lose patience near the end which would cost him the match.

Roshbom had taken to journalism.  He was a chain-smoker and he carried on with women, mostly from the Yiddish theater.  He had divorced three times and was currently with another man’s wife.  By contrast Hesheles was small, reserved and silent.  He was poor but came to the club every day at noon and left at 2 when others came for lunch. Continue Reading »

CV1_TNY_05_24_10.inddSOUNDTRACK: PASSION PIT-Tiny Desk Concert #248 (Ocobert 29, 2012).

passionPassion Pit surprised the heck out of me with this Tiny Desk Concert.  The album that two of these songs come from is full of loud, brash synthy anthems.  But they totally dial everything back with just two performers–a synth and a guitar.

The blurb notes that

Michael Angelakos is a fussy sonic craftsman: A keyboardist and singer who started out working solo on his laptop, he now makes fizzily catchy electro-pop that orbits around monster hooks.  Angelakos clearly saw an opportunity in bare-bones arrangements of his best-known songs — his 2008 breakthrough single “Sleepyhead” and two hits from this year’s Gossamer, “Take a Walk” and “Carried Away” — that he couldn’t explore with a full band.  With only his own falsetto, an electric piano, and simple guitar lines from Passion Pit’s Ian Hultquist, Angelakos gets to direct listeners toward his words, which blossom under scrutiny.

“Talk a Walk” is a poppy happy synth song.  An almost gleeful song about taking a walk.  Well, in this version, with everything stripped away, you get to hear just what a depressing song this actually is.  And when you hear this, you’ll never be able to hear that bubbly anthem the same way again.   It’s a rich, thoughtful sketch of an immigrant family’s experiences, expectations, dreams and disappointments.

Once my mother-in-law came
Just to stay a couple nights
Then decided she would stay the rest of her life
I watch my little children, play some board game in the kitchen
And I sit and pray they never feel my strife

“Sleepyhead” is from their 2008 album—their first hit, although I didn’t know it.  The keys are quiet and simple on this while the guitar plays the main riff.  It too is quite catchy.

“Carried Away” is also from Gossamer, and it’s another big, boppy sugary single.  This understated version does the same as the first song—you can really hear the words, but the melodies and catchiness remain, just much more quietly.

Even though these version are interesting and enjoyable.  I was mostly attracted to the sound of Gossamer, so I’ll stick with the originals.

[READ: January 25, 2017] “Your New College Graduate: A Parents’ Guide”

This piece is designed as a FAQ for parents on how to deal with their college graduate, once the commencement ceremony is over and “your child will be ready to move back into your house for a period of several years.”

This helpful guide answers questions about things like feeding:

Most college graduates are vegetarians and will become cranky or upset if offered meat. They also have irregular eating habits. Most prefer to skip family meals.

Or drinking:

Most require six to eight beers per night, plus occasional “shots” throughout the week.

Continue Reading »

ny2010SOUNDTRACK: ALT-J-Tiny Desk Concert #258 (December 17, 2012).

altjAlt-J is a peculiar band—lead singer Joe Newman’s voice is really unusual—and quit divisive as I understand.  But even the music is peculiar: “The band’s songs are wrapped in enigmatic textures, with swift shifts in arrangements inside every song and an oddness to the drums…that curious rhythm at the foundation of the songs reveals not a hint of cymbals.”

I can’t say I noticed that they were necessarily more spare at the Tiny Desk concert, but the blurb notes, “[Drummer] Thom Green plays mostly with a mounted tambourine and cowbell for the sorts of things a hi-hat would accomplish — that tick tick sound, with the snap of the sound coming from a small-bodied 10″ snare called a popcorn snare. The sparseness that happens in the absence of crashing cymbals leaves a lot of space in the music.”

I happen to really like the music behind this voice and I also find his voice… intriguing.  At first I wasn’t sure, but I feel like once I got sucked into the music, I enjoyed it all the more.

“Tessellate” has some great basslines and interesting keyboards.  Newman sings and plays an electric guitar in the most delicate way imaginable.  After the first song, there’s some amusement as he asks someone in the audience for the guitar (we don’t see it but there’s some chuckles about the person missing her big chance).

Newman switches to acoustic for “Something Good” (which I think of as the Matador song).  He plays this guitar a lot louder than the electric.  But once again the melody is quite unusual–very catchy and unexpected (and he can sing in quite a deep voice compared to his rather high normal singing voice.   And speaking of high voices the keyboardist does some really impressive falsetto notes in this and the first song.

Then they pass the bass over and the audience member gets “another chance.”  Bob jokes that they may ask her to play it next.  For the final song “Matilda,” the bassist switches to guitar and Newman is back on the electric.  His voice is so strange on this song.  It’s almost like he is singing internally to himself rather than externally to the room.  I love the drum rhythms that play under the song.

I didn’t realize there were no cymbals, but that does make a lot of sense as there are no “exclamations” to the rhythm, just a steady, interesting beat.  When their album came out in 2012 I wasn’t sure about them, but I think they’ve won me over.

As the Concert ends, they are very gracious.  When Bob says “Thanks for doing this,” he replies, “Thanks for having us. It’s the first time we’ve really played in an office.”  Which is a funny thing to say out loud.

[READ: January 23, 2017] “Who is Alex Trebek?”

I was looking through all of the pieces that Simon Rich has published in the New Yorker.  Most of them have been collected in his various books, but there were a couple that hadn’t.  This is one of them.

In his book Last Girlfriend on Earth, he has a short piece called “When Alex Trebek’s Ex-Wife Appeared on Jeopardy!”  This story is written in the same style–consider it a companion piece.

The focus this time is on Trebek himself.  And I really like the amusing way Rich sets it up: Continue Reading »

[ATTENDED: March 10, 2017] Strand of Oaks

Back in December I saw Strand of Oaks at Boot and Saddle.  It was just Tim Showalter and Jason Anderson and they were great.  It was very intimate, it was the third night of a three night stint and everyone was loose and having fun.

At the show, they were selling tickets this March appearance at Union Transfer–which was going to be the whole band.  So I decided to get a ticket that night, for a good comparison.

While waiting for the band to come on, I wound up talking to a bunch of people who were huge fans.  I found out that his previous keyboardist was Eliza Hardy Jones who has since gone solo rather successfully–she was evidently at XPNFest last year, when we were there.  One lady told me that the last time she saw Strand of Oaks, Showalter stage dove right where she was standing (which is where I was standing).  The guy she was with said that last time he saw them, they opened with “Cinnamon Girl,” and they talked about how this was a hometown show and he would go all out–especially since the venue was far more filled than the previous time. Continue Reading »

[ATTENDED: March 10, 2017] Twin Limb

I had never heard of Twin Limb when they opened for Strand of Oaks.  So I was pretty surprised to walk in on them setting up and to notice a giant accordion on the left side of the stage.

And then on the right side of the stage, facing the accordion was the drumset.  In between was a guy with a guitar.

Twin Limb is the creation of Maryliz Bender (drums, vocals) and Lacey Guthrie (accordion, vocals).  I’m not sure exactly what they sounded like initially.  But a year or so after they formed, they teamed up with Kevin Ratterman (sampled sounds, guitar) and their sound evidently changed pretty dramatically.

I don’t know what it was before, but it was fantastic when I saw them. Continue Reading »

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