Archive for January, 2011

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

January 26, 2011

[Tricia]  This is a fantasy novel that some people have called a kind of Harry Potter for adults. I would definitely echo the for adults part, and I see where people make the comparison in that it is a coming of age story about a young man going to a school (in this case a college) for magic.  But it is very much its own story.  It is kind of a dark book at times.  I found it very engrossing, and I still find myself thinking about it.  There is apparently a sequel coming out later this year which I definitely plan on reading.

The whole series is available as ebook and audiobook on LIbby/Overdrive.

Title details for The Magicians by Lev Grossman - Wait list

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss – Edmund de Waal

January 25, 2011


I thought this was a really wonderful book. The author explores the history of his family, a rich, powerful Jewish family from Odessa, by tracing the story of their collection of Japanese netsuke from the mid 1800s to the present – moving through high society Paris in the late 1800s, Vienna in the years leading up to the first World War, to 1950s Tokyo. The book is about art and history, but is also a deeply personal family history. I found it fascinating and moving.

Available as an audiobook on Libby/Overdrive and on Hoopla.

The Hare with Amber Eyes - Audiobook

White Lies – Ritual Music CD

January 25, 2011


If you are like me you have your fav bands past, present and [hopefully] future whose music speaks to you. There is an amazing amount of new music “out there” on the air and in cyberspace, much of it is crap, but then things do seem to winnow themselves out. It is a harsh almost Darwinian process, but then so is life.  This is hardly the place to windge about the unfairness of existence. But it is the place to comment on an alternative rock band with what I have come to believe have a very powerful sound and qualities that beg listening to.

 There are loads of “one hit wonders” in the music world, and for a very good reason. Writing, practicing, performing, recording; then touring—if you are so lucky as to get that far is very tough and I have been told that it is far less than one in 10 bands or artists who are lucky—or good enough to get that far with even one song.

 But to follow up with a second album of songs starts to put an artist or band into another category. More sound, more tunes, more lyrics to please the fans, the recoding company, maybe just a bit to feed the all too human ego, and of course to pay the rent. This White Lies have done.

 Since the debut of their eponymous album in January 2009, there has been a clamour for more music from this [admittedly] dark English trio. Hey, it is what they do, it is their music. But to me the most astonishing thing has been their almost total absence from the North American music scene. Massive in the UK, Ireland & Australia, they have just not made it here in America. And I am at a loss as to why. 

 The new CD “Ritual” from White Lies, the West London based alternative/indie rock band, was released January 17, 2011. They are amazing, even unique. Easy to say and many will also disagree. Perhaps it is due to their beautifully dark lyrics and videos. It cannot be due to the crisp, clear vocals sounding much older and richer than their early twenties. The techno side of the music is not I think overdone. “Is love” starts right out and things just get better, at least for White Lies fans. “Bigger than us” is the powerhouse on the disc [the music video is a tribute to the old Sci-fi film E. T., who knew?] and “Holy Ghost” [not what you think…] is quite memorable.

 I admit it, I am prejudiced. The reviews on this album have been mixed, I will admit. Those who are predisposed to like the band ought to love it, those who do not will find it overwrought and gloomy. I personally found it to be, as has been noted in other reviews, uplifting. The more you listen to it the more, I think, you will like it. But the caveat is simply this, it is intense. If you want happy, bouncy, cheery music don’t bother.  Look elsewhere.

 If  however you want remarkable music that gets into your soul and might actually speak to it, then buy this disc and its predecessor and watch the videos which are well made and really quite clever. This is not as the phrase goes “for everybody” but then it does not pretend to be. The writing, vocals and performances might appeal to you. Do listen, but more fairly please buy/pay for the tracks, as the guys still have to pay the rent.

 bill Littlefield

Broken Bells – music CD

January 25, 2011


Retro is in.  Really in.  Is this good? It depends, as with all things on your point of view. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery it is true, yet one wearies of the same old stuff. Or is it true that there is nothing new under the sun. That too depends on your point of view.

The L.A, based group [initially duo] featuring Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse and James Mercer from the Shins might just be something new. And if not at least very 80’s and possibly 70’s retro. Their album Broken Bells released 3/9/10 certainly does bring back memories. Is that their plan? If so it worked.

As now seems almost obligatory there are artful videos and if not shocking at least disturbing at that. “The ghost inside” video with the fabulous Christina Hendricks from Mad Men as a lonely android [as if Ms. Hendricks could ever be described as “lonely”…] trying to get to a vacation planet is creepily effective. The cost of space travel being literally an arm and a leg… to say nothing of getting there being half the fun… 

We are treated to an array of violins, synthesizer[s] and lots of it, and piano too. It is a Retro/indie rock/synth/ fest with heartily strummed bass and Alto trumpet. With an almost a Zombie-esque or Jefferson Airplane sound, a smooth chorus and some re-verb, sort of a 60’s mod-sound. Everything old is new again… tracks such as October, Mongrel heart are very good, as is The High Road and Vaporizer. You can sort of see where the brilliant “Phantom Limb” [from the Shins “Wincing the night away”] came from. Or you may think this is really old stuff. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But there has been a lot of airplay of Broken Bells tracks on WFNX radio Boston, surely a good sign.

Still Broken Bells have a great website with continuously playing tracks and their iconic pink shimmering shape and their music videos. So depending on your point of view it is all new or old hat. It is for the listener to decide. I really like it. I hope that you may too.

bill Littlefield

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More (music CD)

January 13, 2011


The banjo has rarely, if ever been used in rock music. However the English folk rock group “Mumford & Sons” does use this instrument and with what I believe is laudable success. The band leader Marcus Mumford (guitar & mandolin) recently said while laughing on BBC Radio 1 that “we sound like a removal [moving] company, we even have a big white van”.

Joking aside M & S are a very rare thing in music, and that is a new wholly sound, and it is also one that sells and very well too. Their album “Sigh no more” released Oct ’09 in the UK and Feb ’10 in the US has gotten amazing worldwide airplay. There is a simple reason for this. It is that the band and album are good very good. The banjo plucking of Ben Lovett and Winston Marshall is mesmerizing and the tunes are as good as the lyrics.

Those who will recall the origins of American Country and Western music will also recall that it originated in the Scots/Irish and Old English country dance music tradition, for so it was then. And we should not be surprised at the effective 21st. century use of the mandolin and the more prosaic banjo. It is remarkable that they do not clash but sound beautifully together. Yet all of this would be an irrelevant aside if the whole did not exceed the sum of the parts, which it does. In fact, it is like meeting and old friend after a long absence.

Arguably the banjo has not been used to great popularity since the TV series Hee-Haw in the 1970’s. The cynics amongst us will say that it is a gimmick and a shoddy one at that. In all things musical folk are entitled to their opinion. Yet it is also true that as with Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, The Battlefield Band as well as Mumford & sons, you know where they stand. There is no false attempt to hide regional accents, in this case North English. Christopher Eccleston will no doubt be pleased here. You know “Who” I mean… Sigh no more is a really refreshing album with very listenable tracks. I hope to hear more from Mumford & Sons, with or without their van.

Jet Age: The Comet, the 707 and the Race to Shrink the World by Sam Howe Verhovek

January 10, 2011


Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World is not an academic history, thank god. But it is a brilliant popular work on a now ubiquitous machine; the intercontinental jetliner. Author Sam Howe Verhovek has written a book for the interested, the curious and perhaps even a pilot or three.

The story of the domination by the Boeing corporation of aviation in the last half of the 20th centiry and the Greek tragedy, almost literally, of the failure of the De Havilland Comet is too long and complex to recount here. Suffice to say that Mr. Verhovek does what in my mind is an almost impossible thing he distills the events, history, technical side and people into a very readable and indeed enjoyable book.

Next time you get onto a jet you may have reason to thank both Boeing and de Havilland for what you see and what you can’t.

XX by the band The XX – music CD

January 5, 2011


Most people, after a certain point in life become skeptical, if not of everything, at least of wild initial claims. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. This is of course not an entirely bad thing. The alternative is often wild eyed naiveté, which is potentially dangerous.

 And so I find myself thinking the above as I consider the new, in 2009, English Pop/rock band “The XX”. They are almost too good to be true. In fact after the initial listen, several actually, another group comes to mind. That would be Fleetwood Mac circa 1975, and the “Rumors” album. I mention this because The XX, it has been mentioned elsewhere, have oddly compellingly quiet and thoughtful lyrics and sound, speaking as if two lovers were in a quiet conversation. It is not salacious. But it is all about the relationships as was “Rumors” so long ago. So are The XX and their disc XX.

 The music is played remarkably quietly for the most part as are the songs sung. And the instruments are carefully played. Yet the songs are, or rather have a haunting quality. And by haunting I do not mean frightening. Perhaps ethereal is more accurate–even gossamer. Which paradoxically should not imply thin writing, scoring or mixing. Because it certainly is not. It is a very clean crisp sound.

 Tracks such as “Crystalised”, “Islands” and “VCR” are to my mind amongst the best I have heard in a very long time. In fact every song is good. Added to the recognition by their winning the 2010 Barclaycard Mercury Prize in 2010—similar to our Grammy’s—which gives the imprimatur of genuine achievement to this new band. Please do listen to this improbably named group. Maybe you will be haunted pleasantly too.    

 bill littlefield