Monday, January 16, 2017

Top album from 2016—Kero Kero Bonito: Bonito Generation

Check out the album here
One thing I’ve noticed reviewing many 2016 best of the year lists is that beyond a few stand-outs (Beyonce’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table) and a few that get frequently mentioned (Rihanna, Chance the Rapper, Frank Ocean) there is very little consensus about what last year’s top albums were. Frequently, every top 10 list had a few albums that did not show up on any other list.

With this post, I will review one of my top albums of 2016 that I didn’t see on anyone’s list: Kero Kero Bonito’s sophomore album, Bonito Generation.

Kero Kero Bonito is a British band with lead singer Sarah Midori Perry and two producers Gus Lobban, and Jamie Bulled. Sarah is half-Japanese and sings and raps in both Japanese and English. The music, while influenced by J-Pop and British dance music, is really a thing unto itself.

While Kero Kero Bonito’s first album (Intro Bonito) was more about setting up beats, textures, and the hybrid Japanese/English delivery than songwriting, Bonito Generation makes a big leap forward into great, unpredictably-structured songs with memorable hooks and melodies. Further, the production is imaginative, varied, and keeps you guessing.

While the tone of the vocals may have a lot in common with a kids' album, many of the songs are actually for adults in an era where many young adults feel they are still trying to figure out life (“adulting”). I can understand that someone might find the vocal delivery annoying, but combined with the subject matter explored, for me it is endearing. Bonito Generation sets itself apart from 95% of pop music in having zero songs focus on romantic love—instead, the album presents a manual about how to go through life, all through unpretentious, catchy songs. There are songs about not wanting to get out of bed (“Waking Up”), moving away from home to the big town (“Big City”), hearing a great song on the radio (“Heard a Song”), trying to get a job (“Try Me”), taking breaks (“Break”), (over-)taking pictures (“Pictures”), and about keeping in touch with your parents (“Hey Parents”), among others. 

The best track is “Trampoline,” which takes a lowly kids' plaything and turns it into a metaphor for life’s ups and downs—and how you should not get stuck on the ups or the downs—all while just being the catchiest song of the year.

“Lapslap,” while not my favorite track, is probably the most experimental and fresh song on the album and continues to grow on me.

While the so-so rapping and English lyrics could have use a bit more effort—especially with the (lack of) rhyming—most of the time the non-sappy, straightforward delivery works well with the music and subject matter. While I recognize this type of hybrid British/J-Pop/kids-music-for-adults is not for everyone, it is exactly up my alley. I’d recommend checking Bonito Generation out.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Program notes: Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Once again, I have written some short program notes for an Oahu Choral Society concert, this time our Christmas concert, and I'm posting the notes here. Enjoy, and if happen to live on Oahu, please come to the concert this Saturday, December 10th at 7:30pm at St. Andrew's Cathedral in Honolulu.

Graphic designed by Katherine Fisher
What is the spirit of Christmas? At its center, it is a light in the darkness, finding hope where there seemed none, finding comfort and joy amid pain and sorrow. Is there a more natural reaction to finding a glimmer of joy and comfort than to shout and sing? Tonight we sing you good news, tidings of comfort and joy.

Tidings of Comfort

  • “O Nata Lux,” by Morten Lauridsen, is a beautiful sonic landscape depicting Christ as the source of light.
  • In “Lux Aurumque,” Eric Whitacre paints a peaceful, reflective nativity scene.
  • Arvo Pärt’s “Magnificat” is a spare version of the ubiquitous Latin text. Listen to the choir’s harmonies as they oscillate among stacked sonorities like a huge bell—what Pärt scholars call “tintinnabuli.”
  • Herbert Howells’s “Here Is the Little Door” is another nativity portrait, this time with the wise men, that paints the Christ-child against the bittersweet backdrop of war and death.
  • “Ave Maria (Angelus Domini),” by one-hit wonder Franz Biebl, depicts the hope-filled annunciation of Christ’s birth to Mary, with the choir playing the part of angels comforting and praising Mary.

Tidings of Joy

  • “African Noel” is an ebullient, joyous group sing inspired by African choral traditions.
  • “Christmas Day” is Gustav Holst’s atypical medley of four carols, all telling men on earth to rejoice at the birth of their Savior: “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen,” “Come Ye Lofty, Come Ye Lowly,” and “The First Nowell.” Listen as Holst stacks carols on top of each other.
  • John Gardner’s setting of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” a traditional English text, boils over with joy; and what better signals human joy along with singing than dance? However, we’re not sure exactly how anyone could dance to the changing rhythm of this music—there is a lot of musical complexity crammed into just over two minutes, and by the time you feel you are getting a handle on the rhythm, the carol is over.
  • “The Twelve Days of Christmas” tells a story of joyous gift-giving taken a little too far. Listen for how John Rutter’s arrangement keeps the numerous repetitions interesting.
  • We end the concert with Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, one of the most recognized expressions of praise and joy in the world.
We hope our singing tonight will provide you with comfort and joy and healing and hope during this holiday season.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Program notes: Writings Etched in My Soul

I sing with the Oahu Choral Society, and we are performing a Veterans Day/Remembrance Day concert this Friday, November 11 at 7:30pm at the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu. I volunteered to write the program notes and am posting them here, too.

Graphic designed by Katherine Fisher

Often, feeling intense emotion leads humans to open their mouths and sing. This act of deep expression further solidifies those words and feelings in our hearts. Few human events produce a greater variety of intense emotions—pain, suffering, loss, hope, joy, and triumph—than war. This program presents some of these war stories and the emotions that come with them, not just tragedy and loss, but also hope, peace, and resolution. We hope that these selections allow for positive reflection on the human experience for this Veterans Day (or Remembrance Day, as November 11th is celebrated in many countries).

The Holocaust (also often called the Shoah, from the Hebrew word for catastrophe) is one of most brutal and hard-to-comprehend tragedies of war in modern times. The selection for the first half of the program, the Holocaust Cantata, presents stories from Nazi concentration camps. The inspiration, texts, and basis of the music for the cantata come from materials found in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archives. Musical movements alternate with spoken stories drawn largely from the life of Irena Augustyñska Kafka, a Polish Holocaust survivor. For many European Jews, as well as individuals from other ethnic and cultural groups imprisoned in concentration camps during this time, song was an escape and refuge. In the words of the cantata’s narrator, “I can honestly say that singing saved my life.” While the cantata portrays the stories and suffering of those in concentration camps, it also highlights life-affirming choices made by those same people—to dance, to fight, and to make music.

The Chamber Choir’s selections deal with human struggle. “MLK,” originally from U2’s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire and later arranged for a cappella voices by the King’s Singers, features a gentle yet strong lullaby melody with sparse accompaniment that shows the contrasts of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and his struggle for peace. “Even When He is Silent,” by Kim Arnesen, is a statement of faith in the midst of struggle. The anonymous text was found written on a concentration camp wall after World War II, and Arnesen portrays in the music the glorious brightness of hope in defiance of a dismal present. Paul Aitken’s setting of “Flanders Fields,” from the famous 1915 poem written by Canadian soldier-poet John McCrae in the midst of World War I, may seem at first to be solely about the struggle of war, but the text is also a plea to survivors to move on—but not forget. The setting gives a profound voice to the dead, betraying an urgency for us, the living, to commit to honor the sacrifice of those who have passed on. Finally, Moses Hogan’s setting of the traditional spiritual “The Battle of Jericho” is about a struggle-turned-triumph through one man, Joshua of the Old Testament, obeying divine instructions. Hogan’s masterful arrangement creates a call-and-response battle between the groups of singers, culminating in a grand musical depiction of the tumbling walls.

The next four selections in the program look forward to a future without war. “The Mansions of the Lord” (from the movie We Were Soldiers) is a triumphant hymn that envisions a peaceful rest at the end of the struggle. Srul Irving Glick’s “The Hour Has Come” is a heartfelt invitation for mankind to come together amid pain, banish hate and suffering in favor of love, and see each other finally not as enemies but as family. The next two selections praise the leaders necessary to reach this post-war goal. “Benedictus,” from Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, delivers a fragile melody with a fragile message: “Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.” “The Last Words of David,” one of the most popular works of Randall Thompson, depicts such a leader, but instead of being defined strength, the desired leader is compared to morning sunlight on growing grass—someone who builds rather than razes. After a bombastic introduction, the piece slowly becomes more calm, concluding with an almost-whispered “alleluia.”

The final selection of the evening is Peter Wilhousky’s iconic arrangement of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a thrilling evocation of the coming of Christ crossed with the fight for the freedom of slaves during the American Civil War. Listen for the organ imitating battle trumpets and the quiet, contemplative men’s verse in the middle of triumphant, full choruses.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Sting Appreciation Day ’16: Review of 'Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police'

Every October 2nd (Sting’s birthday), I try and watch a Sting-related movie—usually a concert. This year, I decided to watch Can’t Stand Losing You: Surviving the Police, a relatively new documentary, released on DVD in 2015. Can’t Stand Losing You is really a memoir of Andy Summers, the guitar player from the Police, based on his book memoir One Train Later (2007). Interspersed with Summers’ narrative of his time with the Police in the '70s and '80s is footage of the 2007 Police reunion tour. So really today ended up being more of a Summers appreciation day instead of a Sumner appreciation day, but that's okay with me.

There are elements of what you’d expect in a Police documentary—origin stories for the bleached blonde hair, the aviator sunglasses, and "Roxanne"; and lots of footage of live concerts. But the movie gives a different perspective than Sting’s own memoir, Broken Music (2003)—Summers emphasizes the collaborative nature of the creative process of the Police, who did much of the production for their albums themselves, but also how this creative process sometimes devolved as Sting took more and more of the creative power. There is some critiquing of Sting and acknowledgement of the contention, though mostly without vitriol (the biggest critique comes from the editing and juxtaposition of Sting's own Police-era interviews).

What Summers chooses to focus on, though, is a tale of alienation that ran its course over the lifetime of the band. Not only the alienation of the Police from each other, but Summers from his second wife, Kate. In some ways, the title (which has to be a song title) is not so much about losing the band, but losing himself. It seems to be scripted as cautionary tale of what might happen with too much drugs, sex, money, and egos.

Other extras are scattered throughout the film, such as a 2007 Summers strumming his guitar while making coffee or running into a karaoke bar in Japan where someone is singing “Every Breath You Take.” And of course there are copious amounts lots of Summers’ black and white photography (he’s a frequent exhibitor).

Can’t Stand Losing You is not a critical or "serious" documentary. The movie was made for fans, or possibly just because Summers wanted to tell his own version of the story. I would have appreciated more critique and viewpoints; the only interviews were Police-era and mostly focused on Summers. And those old Police interviews could have used some analysis—it’s really hard when to tell when they telling the truth or lying (especially Copeland). I also would have liked more treatment of the creative process (especially Summers’ part in it), which seems to take a backseat to touring, Summers’ personal life, and concert footage. But it was still interesting to get another perspective (I still have not seen Stewart Copeland’s version).

One final note: I saw the Police reunion tour when it came through Salt Lake City in 2007. We had some cheap seats and I was very disappointed with the sound system, which I’m still a little angry about. Besides the bad sound quality (I think it was just the speakers close to us), what I do remember is that Sting and Copeland did not look especially happy to be there—but Summers was on fire. He took extra-long solos and exuded energy, even though he was the oldest on stage by 9 years. In both the concert and the film, I could see that he missed the Police and was sad the band split when they did. Even though Summers is the least flamboyant of the trio, his contributions to their success should not be underestimated, and
Can’t Stand Losing You gives him a voice, albeit a somewhat shallow one.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Behind the scenes calling into a music radio show

What I talked about on Sound Opinions. Buy the album here.
This week, I got a chance to call into Sound Opinions, a public radio show produced by WBEZ in Chicago and featuring Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, two rock critics, who review popular music Siskel-and-Ebert style, interview artists, or deejay themed shows about the history of rock music or other special topics. For those who have not tried calling into radio shows, what follows is a behind-the-scenes take on what goes into the final on-the-air 2-minute radio spot. Then, I'll write what I should have said on the show.

On Wednesday, Sept. 7, a week-and-a-half before the show would go up, I saw a tweet from Sound Opinions asking for emails if someone had a band or album we think was overlooked this year. I emailed in with my selection, Fictionist’s Free Sprit EP, and got a response back in a few days from the show’s production assistant, Alex Claiborne, who asked to set up a pre-interview for Monday, Sept. 12. She called at the appointed time and asked me to just talk about my pick; I think she was simply judging whether I had something to say and would sound good on radio. Even though it was a pre-interview, I was extremely nervous and had to stop several times and calm myself down. I must have sounded at least a little interesting, however, because after we talked, she set up a time to do the real interview with Jim and Greg the following Wednesday, Sept 14. After my nervous pre-interview, I realized I needed to be a little more prepared for the real thing, so I wrote down some things to say. When the day came, Alex called a few minutes earlier than expected (I was ready), and then put me on the line with Jim and Greg, who asked me about my breakfast (it was noon their time but 7am in Hawaii) to check my levels and complained that I should be “climbing a palm tree to pick a pineapple” instead of eating granola. Then the tape was rolling. Jim and Greg proceeded to ask me questions about my pick of a musical “buried treasure.” I didn’t have good answers to some of their questions. I also ignored that the song I was talking about wasn’t new music at the release of the EP—it was recycled from Fictionist’s recent eponymous album (reviewed by me here) and packaged with some new music to drum up more publicity. At some point, Jim and Greg played at bit of the track, which I heard tinnily through the phone. After some more chatting about the music, they asked me to repeat something I had said when apparently my cell phone was not coming through. Then Jim and Greg passed me back to Alex, who told me she’d send me the link when the show was up. The whole phone call took a quick 7 minutes.

I then had the rest of the day to rethink every part of the conversation, coming up with what I should have said. Which I did—by 5pm, I had produced a much better version of the conversation in my head.

Finally, Friday morning, Sept. 16, I got an email from Alex that the show was up, and I went and listened to it. As expected, the producers had edited it down, taking out all the “mm” and “uhh”s and the questions that didn’t lead anywhere. They also reordered a lot of things—the first thing you hear from me is actually the last thing I said (which makes more sense than when I actually said it). There were even a few things I didn’t remember I said. In the end, though, the final result is fairly flattering to both me and them, though I realized listening to the two other listeners’ calls Jim and Greg took that they were definitely not as excited about Fictionist as the other two bands suggested. But at least they were interested enough to talk to me about it (or maybe it was just Alex who was interested). Here's the link for the final show. My bit starts around minute 31:

If had a do-over, this about what I would say about Fictionist’s EP Free Spirit that I didn't get to say right:

My favorite track from the EP is the title track, "Free Spirit." It's a well put together, exciting track with catchy melodies. The band does a great job of varying the music when each section of music comes back; it's always at least slightly different. Sometimes, the music returns very different—I just realized this week that the ethereal, clock-like outro comes from the pre-chorus. There's an earnestness and emotion in the main singer's voice as he sings about giving his partner a choice to leave the relationship, a theme that is not common in pop music. What really gets me is how the verse starts and stops but then the chorus picks up and rockets forward, helped immensely by the percussion. I get goosebumps every time.

As seen in “Free Spirit,” I think Fictionist’s songwriting is one their strengths. Each song is tightly-knit and captivating. Robbie Connolly and Stuart Maxfield have a kind of Lennon-and-McCartney thing going, collaborating and sharing songwriting credits while also trading off vocals. Also like the Beatles, the other band members write an occasional song. Not many bands have that much talent.

I haven’t seen them live since they changed their name to Fictionist, and if I wasn’t living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, I would try and go to their concerts. You can see some live studio performances on their website that are pretty exciting. Of course, they recently lost their keyboard player, so it is unclear to me how they are handling performing these songs without him; I’m curious how they are getting around that. Hopefully, I’ll get the chance to find out someday.

Meanwhile, I hope they do start playing festivals! They deserve it.