Monday, December 29, 2008

Nona Caspers again. 2008!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Scratchy Recordings

I have a confession to make. I love music that is scratchy and recorded on a single audio channel. I grumble whenever a new Nina Simone recording is "remastered" to sound clean and crisp. Much of the allure of old music is to hear it as it was heard when it first came alive. Not that I don't appreciate the clarity in hearing Nina's bold, husky tones and knowing all that scratchiness is in her voice, not the speakers, but some music just sounds better with audio scratches. It's true.

So when co-worker and avid Oxford American reader/subscriber Carl Hoffman* showed me the heavy tome that is The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, all I had to do was scan the table of contents to know this was all I wanted for Christmas.

Contributors include Tom Piazza, William Gay, Kevin Brockmemier, Michael Perry, Roy Blount Jr., Beth Ann Fennelly, R. Crumb, Rosanne Cash, Steve Martin, a poem by Billy Collins and a short story by Ron Rash.

It gets better! How about diverse artists and themes such as Iris DeMent, R&B, The Allman Brothers, Lynrd Skynrd, family, Doc Watson, rockabilly, Eartha Kitt, Blind Tom Wiggins, southern heavy metal, Bessie Smith, Leadbelly and the Banjo.

On second thought, if $34.95 is more like the kind of cash money you need for groceries or to get mom some trinkets for Hanukkah, there is another option. And this one includes two CDs with 55 tracks!!

For $9.99, you can pick up Oxford American's annual music issue. It's a special treat.

There is a six-page piece by Kevin Brockmeier about little known folk music duo Elton & Betty White. Betty was 31 years Elton's senior, but that didn't stop this interracial couple from wandering around Little Rock and then Venice Beach in bathing suits and sequins playing keyboard and ukulele while singing songs about sex and love, but primarily about sex. While you may snicker at songs titled "I'm in Love With Your Behind" or "Climaxation is a Sweet Sensation" or "Menopause Mama", the piece is full of biographical information, sentimental childhood discovery, but mostly it's a lot of heart and sweetness and light.

In "I Hate to See You Go" we hear the standard issue blues sound of Little Walter as he moans about his woman leaving him, how badly he wants her back while humming into his little mouth harp (aka harmonica). But something about the sounds he makes and the simple drum line underneath it all has your heart aching with Little Walter and longing to hear more. The writing that corresponds with this song is nearly as brief and mostly talks about what a musical genius Walter was and it seems that with all his hits, he still got lost behind names like Muddy Waters. Everyone knows Muddy Waters, but who is Little Walter? Interestingly enough, the new movie Cadillac Records features a fictionalized Little Walter and he may just get his name on the charts one more time.

Not everyone is from the era of "scratchy recordings"** as indicated in the essay by Downer Schwartz bookseller favorite Jack Pendarvis. Pendarvis stalks Neko Case and his telling of this brief foray into tour bus life with a messy-haired, t-shirt wearing Neko who complains about her e-mails being uninteresting, is spirited and delightful. There is also a brief piece on the depth and beauty of Neko's solo music as well, for those of you who want serious music writing as opposed to a travelogue that will make you giggle with glee.

If you need a sneak preview (whatever you do, DO NOT open the plastic covered magazine at a store to peek at the insides of the magazine unless you really plan on buying it), check out OA editor Marc Smirnoff's liner notes for both of the two CDs included with the issue. Read some of these snippets and you will run right out and pick this bad boy up, take it home, pour it a nice single malt scotch and cozy up with it in front of the fireplace.

While most of the music is "old", the writings and perspectives are still fresh and bright. This is music that will have you closing your eyes, tapping your toes, uttering a few intermittent "mmm mmms" and dreaming of warm breezes and tall glasses of sweet tea.

*A big thank you to Carl Hoffman for his passion and excitement, without which I wouldn't have the aduitory and reading pleasure I am currently experiencing with the OA Southern Music Issue. I owe you one!

**"The Oxford American covers old music...mainly...though not exclusively. I would feel badly, I hope, if our looking back contributed to people ignoring great contemporary music. <...> My point is, simply, that there's room for a publication or CD that focuses on scratchy recordings. It's called variety."
-from Editor's Box: Baby I Love You by Marc Smirnoff, OA #63

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


by Sarah Marine

I’ve never been good at sports. I just don’t have that athletic gene. The closest I get to deliberate exercise is spending Sundays behind my sewing machine, facing the television, watching football. I mean, I still think about resurrecting Umbros (my friend Vanessa has)- but I haven’t been cool enough for fashion since like 2006. Cool enough for sports? Never. So there you go.

There’s a scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall that goes as such:
Wife: What is so fascinating about a bunch of pituitary cases trying to stuff a ball through a hoop?
Woody: What is fascinating is that it's physical.
That’s basically my argument…also everyone following the same rules.

The Encyclopedia of Surfing by Matt Warshaw

I have an ongoing, undeterrable obsession with surfing. It was set off by viewing the phenomenal by-Netflix-only sci-fi surf drama, John From Cincinnati, furthered by the fact that my landlord/downstairs neighbor surfs all year round on Lake Michigan, resulting in a basement littered with wetsuits and surfboards and then ultimately sealed by my purchase of the Encyclopedia of Surfing. Further reading has included Gidget.
In brief, the Enyclopedia is a goldmine of seminary facts about wacked out goofy-footed Aussies, dodging sharks and hazing grommets, mini reviews of surf movies, descriptions of waves everywhere from Indonesia to Oman to Imperial Beach. What holds my interest most recently in this huge book is the cataloging of coastline by these people. I mean, they’ve journeyed to Pakistani coastline, been confronted by groups of armed men and come away to tell that they found a young Pakistani boy living in a seaside shack, who would ride the tide on a piece of driftwood. Well, they’re probably lying, but anyway…

Sportscape by Paul Wombell

This monster from Phaidon has been a remainder at the Downer store for awhile- 20% at 29.99. It’s a collection of sports photography dating back to the early 20th Century. The evolution of the sports through integration, league regulations, technological advances and the rise of the celebrity of athletes in respective sports is subtly catalogued here in photographs. My favorite photos are the old boxing ones because “My god how does somebody just let someone else punch them in the face, for fun?” Really, it’s an important question. I also enjoy the shots of runners at the finish line.

The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac
presented by FreeDarko

I dedicate this section of the blog post to my manager Doug James because I’m a suck-up and also because he coaches sports and likes basketball and things. This book wins not only for being a beautiful nod to an American sport dying in popularity but also because it takes chances with its topical and visual presentation of these basketball legends and outstanding newcomers. It includes charts gauging the level of anger to the number of points scored for one player, style guides for others and an overall highbrow modern take on the NBA and its players. Kind of makes me wish I had saved that Shawn Kemp Supersonics basketball card I was for some reason so fond of when I was eleven. Anyhoo, the book has also inspired a challenge which places Jordan and I against Doug- a 6’4” life-long athlete. We told him he has to play with his arms tied to his sides…its only fair.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

underrated, cheap, pretty (great gift books)

this is my list of books that they (probably) don't have yet. "they" being the person you still can't quite decide what to get. better yet, they're all pretty cheap - at most $16. EVEN BETTER YET, they're all damn pretty - so you know that even if they hate the book (philistines) they can find it attractive, and their "Thank You" will be sincere.

furthermore, all of these books are available at the Downer Ave shop RIGHT NOW! (for a limited time, i'm sure). so:

Machine by Peter Adolphsen ($15)

will i ever stop talking about this book? no.

it's beautiful, interesting, short, slightly quirky, original, and perfect for giving away.

for: anyone who loves life for the small and seemingly inconsequential coincidences that connect everyone. fans of Northern European fiction. anyone who likes interesting things.

(Illustrated by Stephane Jorisch)

the classic Lewis Carroll poem re-issued and beautifully illustrated. Jorisch's illustrations are striking and eccentric, they perfectly compliment the tone of the poem - nonsense fun-loving frivolity with an undertone of tragedy (and a dash of chivalry).

for: everyone who's anyone.

a little known gem of the Vonnegut collection. Kurt works with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, using induced near-death experiences, to conduct interviews at the pearly gates with historical figures such as Hitler and Shakespeare.

for: Vonnegut fans. champions of legal euthanasia. anyone interested in alternative knowledge of history. anyone who has a smart sense of humor.

the most comprehensive book about the intricacies that are really important to the most ULTIMATE sport. this book will tell you everything you need to know about the players and the game, and it's written in a style perfectly suited to the attitude necessary to excel in Ultimate (namely, with a superb frivolity).

for: college students. sports fans. anyone who is a stickler for the rules (it'll help them get over it).

a small and fully illustrated guide to creating all kinds of snow structures. whether you're enjoying the snowfall in the comfort of your own backyard or stranded in the freezing tundra, without a hope of surviving the bitter cold, frostbite already nipping at your nose, with nothing but the clothes on your back and a makeshift shovel of stone - this book has all the information you need to enjoy whatever time you have left.

for: boy scouts. adventurers. that kid who keeps begging you to build them a clubhouse. eskimos. paranoid schizophrenics.

the Oxford "Very Short Introduction" series is a beautiful thing full of even more beautiful things. think of all those times you didn't learn about something you were interested in, because you didn't have an adequate introduction, and kick yourself for each one. Oxford will save you from many bruises.
this book provides a biography, major works, his role in the French Revolution (and the budding sexual revolution) AND it provides a bibliography of further titles to pursue, if you want to learn more.

for: those interested in French history, the history of sexuality, or history in general.

this book is the first collection of The Perry Bible Fellowship in print, it contains the musings of a twisted, original, unflinchingly fantastic mind. the illustrations range from the essentially simplistic to the gloriously grandiose but all contain a childlike glee that may mislead the unwary. this is certainly not a child's book.

for: lovers of graphic humor. people who laugh at "inappropriate" moments. fans of the absurd. YOU!

so now that you've found something for everyone, go out and enjoy yourself a little! don't wait until christmas eve to realize that the holidays don't need to be so stressful.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


by Sarah Marine

Now that you know who won all the awards, who made all the top lists, I present you with a group of titles that you should read instead.

Farewell Navigator by Leni Zumas, Open City Books
This is a sharp-tounged debut collection offering voice to an eerily aloof bunch of riff-faff. Leni Zumas tells of an unsettling America, one to run away from, one in which the least fortunate walk around bleating in the dark confusedly, but in the end, try to find their way back.

As A Friend by Forrest Gander, New Directions Press
A debut novel from an established poet, this book pries into the suffocating tendencies of obsession. Revolving around Les, Clay and Sarah narrate an unsettling tale of the man, his magnetism. An actor everyday, Les plucks at the obsessive, envious parts of people, inspiring in them startling emotive effects.

Everywhere All the Time: A Deschooling Reader, ed. Matt Hern, AK Press
Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft and Design by Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl, Princeton Architectural Press

The Robot and the Bluebird by David Lucas
The Trouble with Dragons by Deb Gliori
Wonder Bear by Tao Nyeu

Primitive Mentor by Dean Young, Pitt Poetry Series
Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Literature, ed. Julia Mickenberg, New York University Press
Acme Novelty Library #19 by Chris Ware, Drawn and Quarterly

Jordan v. Machine

Our first (!) in a series of moving, talking book reviews brings Jordan in a steel cage match vs. Peter Adolphsen's Machine.

Who will win? Watch to find out.
(Hint: I haven't seen Jordan in a week...)
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