Saturday, October 15, 2011

What I'm listening to: Cass McCombs & Shara Worden

So I've fallen prey to not-writing-anything-for-this-blog-itis again (as have my co-writers) and you are left hanging about any music we're experiencing. My apologies.

Currently I can't get over Cass McCombs' "You Saved My Life" (MP3) which is . . . well, I don't even know how to explain it. Like a slow dance, written to his wife (?), about the effect she's had on him. This song stuck out to me since the first listen, and I can't stop going back to it.

Other than that, I've been putting Shara Worden on repeat, partly because she provides some great creative fodder for the novel I'm writing about disappearance and the underworld. Her voice is the ivory centerpiece of Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider, and it's absolutely affecting. The album is like a strange sister to Hadestown by Anais Mitchell--like some strange inversion of everything that album does. Hadestown is an ensemble that explores the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice in depression-era America; Penelope is a long monologue, Worden singing as the title character trying to get Odysseus to remember himself at the end of the weary journey in The Odyssey, set in modern times. The lyrics are fascinating and the arrangements beautiful. Highly recommended.

I think I'll be able to describe my experience a bit easier with some distance from the whole thing. I'll keep you posted.

Also, there's Worden's new album as My Brightest Diamond, "All Things Will Unwind". You can feel Worden's new life as a parent throughout: it's like a love letter to her new child, yet still very strange, very MBD-esque. I'm still not sure how I feel about it, but I made Chicken Tikka Masala listening to it the other night and started dancing randomly, so it's got something.

Here's an MP3 of my favourite song on the album, "Reaching Through to the Other Side" (MP3).

Keep on. Is there any new music that's affected you lately?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Un-Aesthetics: Sweeney Todd, Demon Barber

Sweeney Todd @ Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook IL
September 1, 2011

This blog is named “Aesthetic Experience” so I feel marginally bad posting about an un-aesthetic experience. But here it is, for your enjoyment or lack thereof.

On our first night back in Wheaton my junior year, my roommate Ryan showed me a filming of the original 1979 staging of Sondheim's infamous "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street". It was gross, offensive, and absolutely enjoyable. Len Cariou's portrayal of the psychopathic Sweeney was disturbing in his resolve, his vengeful strength incarnate in his forceful vocal work. Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett, the cheery cannibalistic sidekick who gleefully serves customers human meat pies, was and continues to be a highlight. I'm not one to sing musical numbers, but I do remember singing "A Little Priest" with my friend Steve in the car while waiting for our friend at the airport (I was Sweeney and he was Mrs. Lovett, of course).

*sigh* Mrs. Lovett

Tim Burton's 2007 rendition of Sweeney Todd was also quite enjoyable. Johnny Depp is an amazing actor, and with Alan Rickman as the lecherous Judge Turpin and Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett, it did some sort of justice to the original production, though I know it didn't satisfy the theatre snobs out there.

I know it's not right to say, but I think
Johnny Depp & H.B. Carter should just have an affair
just so Tim Burton will stop making movies with them.

At the end of Blade and Alyssa's wedding rehearsal dinner, the waiter approached us with a handful of tickets. "Would anyone like to see Sweeney Todd?" he asked. I raised my hand, and he handed me ten. "Take your friends," he said. Hey! Free tickets. That's pretty great, amirite? I got several other friends together and we tripped out to the Drury Lane Theatre at 1:30pm on a Thursday. I sent the others in and waited for the one running late, so I missed the first half hour. The sounds were there--the opening dirge, the loud whistle, so loud I heard it out in the foyer area reading my Salman Rushdie book.

"Yes, I swear the piss is fresh."

We came in during Pirelli's presentation of his piss-mixture. My eyes scanned the stage for Sweeney Todd--he was in this scene, wasn't he? After surveying the crowd, I realised with dawning disappointment that the rather eccentric looking man, spare-framed and gangly, was in fact the infamous Sweeney Todd. His disposition, his performance, everything about him, was anything but imposing. The man--Gregg Edelman--was eccentric. He was a bit strange. And he had none of the charisma Len Cariou brought to the role. His musical performance was more than wanting: there was no purpose to his movement, no hubris, no conviction. This was no hero of Sondheim's Victorian greek tragedy. His skin, pale, his eye odd, and indeed he swung his razor wide in "Epiphany". Perhaps too wide. Considering Depp's acting in the theatrical take:

Edelman flailed his arms horizontally, then occasionally diagonally, with a dead expression, off-tune, hardly a barber, much less a demon. It was disappointing to say the least. What should have been a passionate, defiant, hateful scene was more or less bland and uninteresting.

I wonder what Villainous Assistant meat pies taste like.

Other members of the cast were more than tolerable, however. Liz McCartney gave a fine impression of Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Lovett, and Kevin Gudahl was convincing as Judge Turpin (though some heavy-handed directing made his contemptible lechery more of an eye-roller than it ought to have been). George Andrew Wolff's Beadle was hilarious and just the right mix of disgusting. When he wasn't attempting a Glasgow/Dublin/Faux-Scottish accent, George Keating's Pirelli was charmingly, alarmingly, endearingly effeminate.

"I swear, dearie: Innocence is overrated."

Yet these were minor graces in what seemed to be a breathless and tired reproduction. Jonah Rawitz, playing young Tobias, spent most of his numbers out of breath, as did most of the cast. Acting was ham-handed and lacked nuance, and Heidi Kettenring, playing the "Beggar Woman" was singing in a key all her own.

"Please, sir! Teach me how to sing!"

The set--adequately described as an "abbatoir" by one reviewer--was great, and went down without a hitch. For one of my friends, who had never seen Sweeney Todd before, this production was great. Sweeney Todd is by far my favourite musical, and the caliber of the music is evident despite the obvious tarnish here. Even a mediocre effort can yield a something, though the upsetting series of high school productions say otherwise.

Compare to Angela Lansbury's iconic--though here somewhat frenzied--performance (here with George Hearn rather than Len Cariou)

Some Sweeney is perhaps better than none, and I don't regret going, especially considering that the after-show meal at Culvers yielded a thirty minute conversation with friends exclusively deciding which of our friend group would fit in which Hogwarts house. Oakbrook, congrats for trying, but get a better, more in-tune cast if you want to do Sondheim's dark masterpiece some justice.

srsly folks it's not hard to act deranged when you have a razor in hand

*Images used without permission. Please don't sue me.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Bon Iver, Bon Iver (Take Two)

Bon Iver

I tracked down a low-quality leak of Bon Iver’s self-titled album near the start of May. My internet connection was terrible—it was Southeast Asia—and I was sort of walking around packing, organizing for my move back to the US while I waited the requisite hour for the album to download. I wasn’t a fanboy of For Emma, Forever Ago despite the high playcount in my iTunes library, but I was intrigued, perhaps more by the thought of having the album several weeks in advance than by the album itself.

DSC09987 3

(My Living Room in Pakse) 

It was midmorning when I put the thing on, and I didn’t know what to make of it. “Perth” thundered out of my speakers and I was suddenly hooked. Really? This was Bon Iver? It didn’t sound myopic or frozen: it sounded like something full-grown, rich, green. It was warm where For Emma was cold; the affect here had expanded to become epic yet still personal. It was a Justin Vernon who finally sang in Hadestown, Orpheus who’d learned to trust others to sing the rest. The sound cut an easy path through my mind for the next half hour as I scurried through the house displacing boxes, organizing the last of my stuff. “Beth/Rest” made my jaw drop. I stopped and sat down on the couch laughing, thinking “Really? He actually wrote this song? Is this even happening?” It’s eighties melodrama at its absolute best—every time I hear this song I have to suppress the desire to redefine my relationship with whoever’s closest. It’s the least “Bon Iver” song on the album, but that doesn’t keep it from sounding amazing every time. And I mean. Every. Time. IMG 0030

(Colorado Summer) 

I recently began tagging albums according to their season in my iTunes library. M. Ward’s Transfiguration of Vincent is summer because of its warm, earth-yellow tones. Sonya Cotton’s fall-leaf album Red River is an obvious choice for autumn. I try to step back and really let the music’s tone and verve determine the choice of season rather than when I came to the album. I can’t place Bon Iver’s latest, though. It’s a warm, kind cycle of songs, but I couldn’t tell you which season they describe most. Justin Vernon lays waste to Halloween; he sings about iced highways and one-pieced swimmers. Is the album art winter defrosting to spring or a vibrant summer? I can’t decide.

IMG 0027

In the end, I have to throw these classifiers out because this is, for me, one of those rare albums that I think—and hope—will be relevant in each season. Barbara calls them “life albums”. I’m such a geek that I’ve even made a list of these life albums—cycles of music that I keep picking up no matter the season or year, no matter how long ago I discovered it.


(Winter in Wausau) 

Along with seasons, there are images I associate with each album: images that denote place, state of mind, memory. I wrote a while back about Shearwater’s The Golden Archipelago and how it denoted the South Pacific for me. I see some of my favourite images of the Midwest, Wisconsin, duck-call lakes and reeds in Chris Kiehne’s Pray For Daylight, and long lazy trailer park summers in the National’s Alligator. I don’t yet have this for Bon Iver; I’ve walked desert paths in Colorado, and I’m sure I’ll see a number of snow-scapes that resonate, but I wonder if this album didn’t come to me a little too early—I wonder if this is something I’ll be carrying to Mongolia, if it will invoke the wind and plains more than anything else. Time will tell, I guess.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bon Iver, Bon Iver

Sometime between my initial addiction to Bon Iver in early 2008 and now, the band got itself rather famous. I still refer to the band as “he” (as in Justin Vernon), which is beyond mistaken, as Bon Iver is comprised of a boatload of musicians nowadays, or so I hear. At any rate, For Emma, Forever Ago is a desert island record of mine—a record of which I will never grow weary, and which accompanies many happy memories of very specific days in very specific places. And so I find it quite fitting that Bon Iver’s latest, Bon Iver, Bon Iver (curse those journalists who call it simply Bon Iver) is, for me, bound up inextricably to very specific days in very specific places.


On June 19, dear friend Kristie and I departed L.A. for Dublin, Ireland. For five days, our group of fellow students took up residence at Glencree Centre for Peace & Reconciliation in the countryside of County Wicklow. A couple of days into the trip, when all three of my roommates were taking an afternoon snooze, I in my wakefulness plugged my newly-acquired Klipsch earphones (snob alert) into my boyfriend’s iPod and listened to Bon Iver, Bon Iver in its entirety. Although my noise-canceling earphones provided measly defense against the loud squeaks that emanated from the beds at Glencree upon slightest disturbance, a big part of me loves that even now I cannot listen to the album without hearing the echoes of those Irish bed squeaks.

A few days later, as our coach bus approached the ancient monastic city of Glendalough, and then a few days after that as our van sped across the northern coast of the island, Bon Iver inevitably provided the soundtrack. Even now, when “Towers” comes up on shuffle in my apartment in California, all in my mind turns to a rush of greens and blues and greys and the reflection of my rain jacket splashed across the bus window.


Near the end of July, boyfriend Dave, friend Cody, and I travelled across the desert to Las Vegas for an Avett Brothers concert. Cody is a fellow appreciator of things Bon Iver, so naturally the new album garnered a few plays on the car stereo. Vegas, with its endless strip of factory outlet malls, fast food chains, $3.99 steak buffets, nudie shows, hot desert air, and all manner of indulgence could not be further removed from Ireland. Want to teach a child what the word “antithesis” means? Take her on a trip to Ireland, then to Vegas. Boom, word explained.

Somewhere amid the flood of not-so-positive emotions brought forth by my boyfriend’s spending habits and our friend’s texting-while-driving habits, I found in Bon Iver, Bon Iver an odd yet welcome antidote to the ridiculousness of road-tripping to Sin City to see a band I’d already seen twenty-two times.


How odd, that an album filled with song titles like “Calgary” and “Lisbon, OH” and with a song like “Holocene,” in which Vernon sings of particulars—Milwaukee, 3rd and Lake, Lip Parade, Christmas lights—transports me to places very unlike those and very unlike each other: Ireland and Las Vegas. Or perhaps it just goes to show that the good artists are the ones who eschew vague appeals to “the universal” in an effort to embrace more fully “the particular.” After all, it’s in the particularity of holding a Compline prayer service in a German cemetery in rural Ireland with thirty-five people and thirty-five thousand midges, of riding in a Vegas-bound Honda Fit alongside a young man steering the car with his knees and in front of a young man with a penchant for Lacoste shirts, that we are able to catch, however near-sightedly, glimmers of the universal, of the little foibles of human nature that make life so interesting. Oh, and it sure doesn’t hurt to listen to some Bon Iver along the way.

--Barbara (posted on her behalf by duke)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lead or Radiation Poisoning?: Ink Spots

With descriptions of Bon Iver’s self-titled album forthcoming (word is: you should listen to it if you haven’t) I’m wondering what to recommend. Or whatever it is that we do.

In all truth, I’ve sort of lost my hipster-cred since working overseas. What am I listening to, then? Ink Spots. 1930s-50s Radio fuzz. Maybe it’s M. Ward’s fault that the AM radio sound is so perfect. Or maybe it’s the fault of the Fallout video games.
Can you believe the apocalypse sounds like an old-timey radio group? I’m totally serious here. If there’s one thing the designers got right when dismantling Washington D.C., it’s that they threw American culture back to the days of lead-based paint and white picket fences, to Stepford wives and golly-gee schooldays.

My obsession with Ink Spots may also stem from my grandparents’ fiftieth anniversary earlier this summer. I found myself in Iowa, in charge of putting together a slideshow of old photos of my grandma and grandpa, a book-keeper and truck-driver who have made their house a kind of central meeting point for my family. Whenever we’re in transition, we seem to end up back in North Richland Hills Texas, for a little while or longer. They’re an amazing couple, and I’m in awe that they’ve stayed together for so long.

All that said: Ink Spots was all over that slide show. They’d put together a mix of their favorite songs and sent it in (under some ruse—they had no idea we were putting together an event). Seeing them, surprised, in a railway-house-turned-party-hall, with that music, with pictures of them young, aging, growing, was something special.

Having grown up overseas, I’ve lived in a world where TV was far away, where furniture was decades past its prime, and sat around reading racially-insensitive comic books from the fifties. I can just imagine turning on a radio years back to hear Bill Kenny’s soft voice drift out and turn the world to a hazy yellow. I can see parents I might’ve had dancing in the kitchen in slow time to this music. I can see a whole other world where time mattered less, where life unfolded at a less frenetic, less worried pace.

Of course, I can also imagine myself tramping across radioactive wastelands fighting for survival, with nothing to keep me company but a lonely radio with 3-Dog and the Ink Spots. Same difference, right?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Concert Review: Yuja Wang at Hollywood Bowl

Event: Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 + Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 5

Soloist: Yuja Wang, piano

Conductor: Lionel Bringuier

Orchestra: L.A. Philharmonic

Venue: Hollywood Bowl

Date: 2 August 2011

Seats: Section H, Row 20 (“super seats”)

I do not play any instruments. I have not plumbed the intricate depths of music theory. I cannot tell you which recording and whose performance of such and such piece of classical music is the “best.” (Though a musically inclined friend of mine is convinced I have relative pitch.)

I do know one thing, however. Sergei Rachmaninoff composed music that, for me, constitutes the golden standard of aesthetic experiences. And so it should come as no surprise that when Rachmaninoff is being played in my vicinity, I’m there.

My boyfriend Dave accompanied me on this our first visit to the Hollywood Bowl, an outdoor venue situated in the hills of Hollywood. Its stage has hosted everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elton John (ala 5 grand pianos spelling E-L-T-O-N) to Dolly Parton. In the summertime, the LA Philharmonic Orchestra migrates to the Bowl from the usual venue, Walt Disney Music Hall. All of that is to say: I was beyond excited see one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, the “Rach 3” performed in such an unusual setting.

When 24-yr-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang walked onto the stage in a tiny, firecracker red dress and 4-inch gold stiletto heels, gasps of delight (and of horror from the snooty types) emerged from the audience. Yeah, she’s hot, and she knows it. But how the heck was she going to pull off playing one of the most technically demanding piano pieces ever composed whilst wearing precious little clothing? Well, she did it... and she did it well. Of course I ‘bout died (in the good way) the instant she began tickling the keys, as the opening measures of the first movement are what drew me to Rachmaninoff so many years ago.

Wang demonstrated a strong yet elegant command of the keyboard—she managed to make even those thunderous, dramatic chords near the end of the first movement seem like child’s play. Of course, some folks in the audience clapped between movements (a pet peeve of mine), but otherwise it was an A+ experience from beginning to end. The famously epic finale was indeed quite epic—especially when Wang immediately leapt from her seat upon firing the final note. The audience showed their appreciation with a lengthy standing ovation. My favorite part? The fact that Ms. Wang did not take herself too seriously. She approached the Rach 3 with appropriate respect and sensitivity, allowing the piece to speak for itself. I think Ms. Wang knew that, in the end, even her itty bitty red dress and glitzy shoes could not overpower the profound beauty of this beloved piece of music.

Following the intermission, the L.A. Phil performed a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 5thSymphony. Unfortunately, a very distracting “ticking” noise was emanating through the speakers during the performance, perhaps a feedback issue? But at that point, I didn’t really care, for I finally got to see the Rach 3 performed live.

Photo credit: Los Angeles Times

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Timber Timbre

Everyone I know hates Timber Timbre. I don't know why, exactly. Spend time with this song and let it seep through your every pore. In my opinion, this is the perfect halloween music (accompanied by Sixtoes). Not that it's really that close to Halloween. On my way to the second largest Ikea in North America I saw a Halloween store open, its banner fluttering in the breeze like a flag in hell. So, in my opinion, creepy music is a year-round thing.

I've got some great memories walking down autumnal Wheaton on Halloween weekend 2009, letting Timber Timbre float along behind me. The experience was surreal, and I swear I saw a ghost on the walk, floating just behind this one tree on Madison. The elaborately decorated yards, the jack o'lanterns--everything about it was Halloween, and purely Halloween.
Is it Taylor Kirk's weirdly sensual baritone or the Inland Empire-esque lightshow that makes this little gem of terror so effective? I'll let you decide. Either way, I'm digging into the new album as I write this. And it's digging back. Like with zombie claws. And uh, stuff.