Tag Archives: Music

On this day, and all the days to come

Some images, sounds, and words to lift darkened spirits and bolster the courage we’ll all need in the days and years ahead. There may be occasional updates. Feel free to make suggestions in the comments.

“We the People” Protest Art
By Shepard Fairey, Jessica Sabogal, and Ernesto Yerena, for the Amplifier Foundation. Download hi-res versions and find out more here.

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Thea Gilmore, “Start As We Mean to Go On”
A song of joyful resistance.

Beyoncé, “Superpower”

Staceyann Chin, “Racism”
The spoken-word artist delivers a blistering call to arms.

Ursula K. Le Guin, always necessary, offers a meditation:

A Meditation

The river that runs in the valley

makes the valley that holds it.

This is the doorway:

the valley of the river.

~

What wears away the hard stone,

the high mountain?

The wind. The dust on the wind.

The rain. The rain on the wind.

What wears the hardness of hate away?

Breath, tears.

~

Courage, compassion, patience

holding to their way:

the path to the doorway.

And from her famed National Book Awards speech:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries — realists of a larger reality.

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

Rebecca Solnit, from “Hope in the Dark”

Anything could happen, and whether we act or not has everything to do with it. Though there is no lottery ticket for the lazy and the detached, for the engaged there is a tremendous gamble for the highest stakes right now. I say this to you not because I haven’t noticed that this country has strayed close to destroying itself and everything it once stood for in pursuit of empire in the world and the eradication of democracy at home, that our civilization is close to destroying the very nature on which we depend — the oceans, the atmosphere, the uncounted species of plant and insect and bird. I say it because I have noticed: wars will break out, the planet will heat up, species will die out, but how many, how hot, and what survives depends on whether we act. The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as of the grave.

Turn your head. Learn to see in the dark. Pay attention to the inventive arenas that exert political power outside that stage or change the contents of the drama onstage. From the places that you have been instructed to ignore or rendered unable to see come the stories that change the world, and it is here that culture has the power to change the world. Often it appears as theater, and you can see the baffled, upset faces of the actors onstage when the streets become a stage or the unofficial appear among them to disrupt the planned program.

Stories move from the shadows to the limelight. And though the stage too often presents the drama of our powerlessness, the shadows offer the secret of our power.

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Just a spark, enough to keep me going

An unexpected death hit me hard a little over a year ago. I had just discovered Paramore and was listening a lot to this song at the time, and it became a sort of anchor in my grief. I find myself turning to it again.

Thanks to Hayley Williams and Paramore for keeping a light glowing, against the dark.

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The best review of Sunday in the Park with George ever

And one of the best songs from the show:

Another stellar rendition here.

(h/t Sara Bareilles)

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How to be a Demon Barber 101, by Stephen Sondheim

My god. What television show did this come from? Here’s Stephen Sondheim himself giving a master class on his music (“My Friends” from Sweeney Todd in this particular clip) to aspiring theater actors; the performances are far from perfect — these are students, after all — but Sondheim’s unpacking of the song to reveal the perfect marriage of lyrics to music to the psychology of the character is nothing short of absolutely breathtaking.

And here’s the incomparable George Hearn (with Angela Lansbury) perfectly executing (ha!) the song as Sondheim envisions it:

Hearn also gives an outstanding concert performance of it here with Patti LuPone. I know many theater buffs think that Len Cariou best embodied the character; fair enough, but, just as Doctor Who fans gravitate to one actor or another as “their” Doctor, I suppose George Hearn is “my” Sweeney.

In any case, no matter what the cast or the production, the twisted beauty of Sondheim’s creation itself always shines through: sharp, cutting, painfully brilliant, and soaked in crimson — like a silver razor dripping precious rubies.

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Badass female rock n’ roll, cont’d: Listening to Halestorm and Hunter Valentine

Oh yeah.

And here’s Lzzy Hale and Halestorm rocking out on an original:

Here’s Canadian band Hunter Valentine squeezing every ounce of goodness from my favorite descending chord progression:

Another Hunter Valentine track, with possibly the best power choruses this side of Hedwig:

And speaking of Hedwig, it’s fantastic to see that Lena Hall — whom I gushed over in an earlier post — is rising through the ranks on Broadway: now she’s playing Yitzhak alongside Neil Patrick Harris’ titular transsexual in the revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, taking on a role made essential by Miriam Shor’s indelible vocals. Here’s hoping this leads to Hall getting much-deserved recognition on her own terms.

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“Let It Go” conquers the world

There’s the “official baby version” that slays with cuteness. There’s the hilariously (yet beautifully) sung homage from members of Pentatonix. There’s the toddler who was delightfully warbling the chorus on infinite repeat during my recent visit to the Museum of Natural History. This song is absolutely everywhere, and now here it is yet again — the mighty “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen, sung in 25 languages from the film’s various international versions:

4/13 Update — And here are the women behind the voices:

If I despised this song I’d be completely miserable by now. Good thing, then, that I love it: it’s a perfectly-written anthem of self-acceptance and liberation that isn’t tied to any specific emotional relationship (unlike, say, Taylor Swift’s declarations of independence from boyfriends du jour). No surprise, then, that it’s been embraced by folks of all ages as a talisman in their own struggles against fear and shame, their own myriad journeys towards confidence and fulfillment. Just a pop song? Well, yes. But music and culture snobs scoff at the power of pop songs at their peril. This one sticks to the ears, lifts the heart, and dares us to be brave, and I think it’s here to stay.

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What I’ve been listening to

Happy 2014! Here’s a grab-bag of music, new and old, that I’ve been jamming to lately:

Lake Street Dive

I’ve loved these guys ever since stumbling onto their viral “I Want You Back” and “Faith” videos, and they absolutely have the talent and the original material to back up the growing buzz. My wife and I attended their December concert at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and — with all respect to all the other musical acts we’ve seen in the last year, including the great Elton John and Sara Bareilles — this show blew them away. No light shows or pyrotechnics or mega-decibel speakers; just a sweating SRO crowd, and a three-piece band steeped in jazz and soul and Motown and dripping with talent, and Rachael Price’s glorious golden pipes. Here’s an in-studio performance of one of my favorites — but if you like this in the slightest, you owe it to yourself to see them live onstage, where they burn even brighter:

Dessa

Smart music that’s very reminiscent of the fiercely intelligent wordplay and spiky melodies of Ani DiFranco. I’m a fan of “Fighting Fish,” which is, to my knowledge, the only rap song that features Zeno’s arrow paradox in the chorus (though, since Dessa is apparently a philosophy major, I probably shouldn’t be surprised). And I love “Skeleton Key,” which, among other things, seems to be a tough-but-melancholy meditation on code-switching and the ability to fit in everywhere (and therefore nowhere):

Over the Rhine

Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist have said that their sad, sweet, and utterly lovely music is “Christ-haunted,” but as an atheist I don’t really care; Over the Rhine’s songs are full of poetry, of regret and longing and hope, of the small sorrows and graces of everyday living that Springsteen mines so well. Their double album Ohio, in particular, has been on repeat in my stereo, and gives off a Cowboy Junkies Trinity Session feel, which is no bad thing at all. You can listen to this album (and others) in its entirety on their website, where you can check out the lyrics as well. Try “Ohio,” “Long Lost Brother,” and “Bothered,” though you really can’t go wrong with any.

The Sing-Off

Yes, The Sing-Off, the NBC reality show that pits a cappella groups against each other for a chance to win a recording contract and $100,000. Thing is, the competing groups are really, really good. And, surprisingly, so are the judges: Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men, Sara Bareilles (last season) and Jewel (this recent season) make smart, constructive comments that are actually useful in helping the contestants hone their craft. The groups also open each show with joint performances and engage in musical “battles” that feel more like collaborations than vicious contests, and the feeling of genuine community and camaraderie between contestants is a real joy to see.

Here’s everyone, kicking off the show with a mashup of songs by the band fun.:

And there are so many other excellent performances to check out. See high school group Vocal Rush blowing the roof off with Delta Rae’s “Bottom of the River,” country group Home Free doing justice to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” (and having hilarious fun with Filipino boy band The Filharmonic in a sing-off battle featuring the theme from Caddyshack), a multigroup performance of Florence and the Machine’s “Shake It Out,” and much more. (As of this writing, the entire fourth season can be viewed for free on Hulu.)

Pentatonix

This five-voice group has only gotten better and better since winning the third season of The Sing-Off. You’ve probably seen the viral video of their visually and musically stunning Daft Punk medley, but here it is again, because it’s awesome:

And check out their chops on their live version of Calvin Harris/Ellie Goulding’s “I Need Your Love.” Even better, their original songs — like the club-ready “Natural Disaster” and the quietly devastating “Run to You” — stand up to any of their much-celebrated covers. I’ve always maintained that the only way modern a cappella groups can break out of their “cover band with a gimmick” niche (as enjoyable as it may be) is to shine as original artists performing original material; Pentatonix seems to be well on its way.

Delta Rae

Vocal Rush’s take on Delta Rae (see above) turned me on, belatedly, to this band — whose passionate folk-slash-rock-slash-Americana sound can go dark and twisted, as on “Bottom of the River,” or soaring and hopeful, as on “Morning Comes” — and I’ve been enjoying the sibling harmonies of Ian, Eric, and Brittany Holljes (plus Elizabeth Hopkins) ever since. Here’s Brittany leaving scorch marks on the stage with “Fire”:

Also worth hearing: their smoldering take on Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”

Henry Butler

A bit out of left field for me, but a feature on WNYC turned me on to Henry Butler and his astonishing piano playing:

Check out his take on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” as well.

And finally (for now):

The songs from Disney’s Frozen

If you haven’t seen the film, see it. If you love Disney, see it. If you don’t love Disney’s schmaltzy boy-gets-girl, true-love’s-kiss stories, definitely see it, because it is Not That, and it unexpectedly and delightfully passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors.

And the songs are all just so, so good. Veteran Broadway composers Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez skillfully balance cleverness with heart, and Frozen’s musical numbers are real gems: “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” starts cute and then breaks your heart in under three minutes, and “Love is an Open Door” has vocalists Kristen Bell and Santino Fontana doing a fun rapid-fire exchange of lines. But the powerhouse song, of course, is the hugely moving “Let It Go,” which Idina Menzel knocks out of the park:

And the year’s just getting started! If this is a taste of the music 2014 has in store for me, bring it on.

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