Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Cold Specks, Part I

One of the most unique and talented singers I've been listening to for the past five years is Cold Specks. In 2013 she collaborated with Moby on two songs for his Innocents album: "A Case for Shame" and "Tell Me." Her voice was haunting; her lyrics, sublime. The vocals on those tracks took my breath away. I felt as if I was hearing a voice from my childhood that I long ago forgot existed as a possibility.

I devoured everything by her. I bought her first album I Predict a Graceful Expulsion as well as all the B-side and one-off tracks I could find. These songs were damn beautiful--a constellation of doom-soul and goth-folk. "Blank Maps," for me, is the highlight of her early work.

That October I flew to Los Angeles for Moby's concert at the Fonda Theatre, where I saw Cold Specks perform her two songs with him. I was enraptured.

The following year she released Neuroplasticity, an album gushing with angular jazz forms restrained within listenable pop structures. Her collaboration with jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire on that album proved fruitful, and she sang a track on his album that was also released in 2014. Here is "A Season of Doubt."

In just the first two years of following her career, Cold Specks excelled in bizarrely disparate genres. While cutting her teeth on folk-leaning doom-soul, she's also shown herself an impressive lyricist, singer, and interpreter of trip-hop, electronica, soul, and jazz. She even provided backing vocals on Massive Attack's "Dead Editors." All of this sets the stage for her third album, 2017's Fool's Paradise.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet is one of my favorite music groups. I first saw them perform live in 1989 or 1990, and as the cliche goes, they changed my life.

I had studied music since I was a child. I am a classically trained pianist, and in high school and college, I played both oboe and horn. I knew classical music and could pronounce "Wagner" and "Chopin" correctly. But Kronos Quartet revealed the world of new music to me. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

I have since seen them perform multiple times, and I have many of their recordings. Sometimes I seek out a specific track or movement for a particular mood; other times I put on an album or my entire playlist and let what comes come, especially while I'm writing.

Here are my Top Ten tracks performed by Kronos Quartet according iTunes:
  1. White Man Sleeps #4, composer Kevin Volans
  2. Adagio, composer Samuel Barber
  3. The Beatitudes, composer Vladimir Martynov
  4. String Quartet #5, Movement I, composer Philip Glass
  5. Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished), Movement I, composer Vladimir Martynov
  6. Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished), Movement II, composer Vladimir Martynov
  7. String Quartet #5, Movement IV, composer Philip Glass
  8. String Quartet #5, Movement II, composer Philip Glass
  9. String Quartet #5, Movement V, composer Philip Glass
  10. String Quartet #5, Movement III, composer Philip Glass
I don't know this from experience, but I suspect that the top four tracks will get you laid, if that's your thing. At the very least, they can help set the mood for some sweet lovemaking. But that mostly depends on your own fuckability.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Memories of Uncle Bob

Last week we buried Uncle Bob. Despite the fact that the bar was ridiculously low, he was nevertheless my favorite uncle.

Two of my earliest memories are of him. I peed on him when my diaper was being changed. And I held him at gunpoint shortly after he returned from Vietnam.

Neither memory is quite real. Both are more like rememories: I remember remembering as a child peeing on Uncle Bob. And the gun incident was a story told repeatedly throughout my childhood, so much so that's it's embedded in my mind as if it were a memory.

My father's pistol was stored in the front closet of our home in Wichita. I was two and playing unsupervised. Blah blah blah. I pulled the gun on him. How's that for a homecoming after a tour of duty?

Perhaps my happiest memories are of Uncle Bob, of the summers we'd spend together at my grandparents' home in northwest Arkansas. I learned to be jealous of his attention when his son was born. In many ways I was always jealous of my cousin. But my cousin hardly registers at all in my memories of Uncle Bob.

In 1977 he gave me and my sisters LPs for Christmas. One of them was Fleetwood Mac's Rumors. I wasn't much into it at the time. But just a few years later my interest in Fleetwood Mac would soar when I rediscovered the album in high school.

I've been listening to those songs for forty years now. I still have that album. And when I listen to digital versions from the cloud, my mind still anticipates the skips and scratches that have been a part of that album, a part of my memories of that album, for forty years.

"Go Your Own Way" is, according to iTunes, my most played track from the album.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Leave No Trace

In writing reportage about the Polish People's Republic, Cezary Łazarewicz has written a universal book about the pathology of power. That this is a universal story, we can experience today as we watch the news about a boy killed a year ago at a police station.

Abuse of power, the officers' brutality, a conspiracy of silence, the attempt to sweep cases under the rug, and the punishment that never was–Leave No Trace, which describes the case of Grzegorz Przemyk, is about all of this. The same elements of pathology show up in the context of Igor Stachowiak's death at the police station. He was a twenty-five-year-old who in 2016 was arrested in Wroclaw's Market Square because he matched the description of a criminal who had escaped the police earlier. Though Przemyk's and Stachowiak's cases happened in different times and in different places, even in different dimensions, the mechanisms controlling them are the same.

In his excellent reportage Łazarewicz has focused on a thorough analysis of these mechanisms. The account of Przemyk's death and of what happened afterwards was a manifestation of the pathology of the PPR's power. Lazarewicz, to show these pathologies, concentrated on a thorough description of the events.

Leave No Trace is the result of meticulous investigative journalism that lays bare the subsequent phases of the so-the Grzegorz Przemyk case. Almost like in positivistic novels, the book begins with a detailed  description of the day Przemyk was beaten. The strong beginning is only a prelude to a double story, provoking anger and frustration in the reader.

Why double? Łazarewicz divides the book into two main themes that go back and forth but which are two distinctly separate stories. The first is the story of Przemyk's mother, Barbara Sadowska, a poet, anti-communist activist, and a victim of the communist system. The second thread clearly tells how the system first tidied up and later tried to cover up the high school student's death. And it was precisely this storyline that was so exceptionally and thoroughly examined and described by Łazarewicz.

What was most interesting was that Łazarewicz managed to discern in the sick system the human factor and it's huge impact (it really is an art when one's work relies primarily on documents), that the decisions made were hugely influenced by fear, shame, and the pettiness of the people who made those decisions during the various phases of the Przemyk case as it developed.

Read today in the context of Igor Stachowiak, Leave No Trace is not a hopeful read because it shows that it's not the system or form of government that's the greatest threat to society. Worse: it's the people.

[My translation from Polish of Rafał Hetman's review of Leave No Trace, which was awarded the Nike 2017 Literary Award.]