Category Archives: music

An Evening at the Music Tapes’ Roving Circus: The Traveling Imaginary

The Music Tapes

You close your eyes and imagine walking in a forest to a tent, and inside the tent is a present, and inside the present is… what? Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, as you kind of have to be at a Music Tapes performance to really appreciate their ability to immerse fully grown adults in worlds of childlike fantasies, although fantasies which are tinged with something dark that lurks just outside the red and yellow walls of their pop-up circus tent. That darkness comes from their haunting lyrics over a deceptively simple layering of instruments that the Music Tapes, led by former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster (who’d actually sold his Neutral Milk Hotel Aeroplane Over the Sea banjo to fund the circus tent tour), along with Elephant 6 collective member Robbie Cucchiaro (who also sometimes played with Jeff Mangum’s band), have perfected. They’ve been a part of the Elephant 6 group since the 1990s and sound a bit like if you had an orchestra that suddenly found themselves with only a handful of members and a pile of instruments like saws and singing televisions to try to rebuild their music.

Paris in Bells

Throwing Pennies

Earlier this month on February 2, I went to the Music Tapes’ “Traveling Imaginary,” their current roving performance/storytelling event supporting their new album Mary’s Voice, at the Church for All Nations in Manhattan, presented by Wordless Music. On entering the church we immediately saw a circus tent taking up much of the space, and were all encouraged to try our luck throwing a penny (while blindfolded) at a bell. If you won, you got a prize (like an old key). Julian Koster also gave a solo performance on his saw atop a rolling piano before we finally all crowded into the tent. Then they set off on a rambling set mixed with stories about a mysterious game called “Evening” that you play in your sleep as a child, and a poor clown and cow performing in a circus. It all sounds kind of silly, but the band is so committed to the whimsy that you end up falling for it, too, cheering for a fellow audience member to guide a snowman’s hand to throw a snowball through the moon. A seven-foot-tall metronome even backed the band, and an automaton-organist played along.

Traveling Imaginary

Circus Tent

I’d seen the Music Tapes before when they opened for Jeff Mangum at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a performance that made me fall in love with their music, the giant set pieces and creative instruments somehow not feeling like gimmicks and their scrappy sound being as engaging musically as it was endearing. I have a ticket to see Jeff Mangum this coming Friday, and I hope to make it and see the Music Tapes open for him again, although seeing them in their own environment of the circus tent was something special. When we left the venue a soft snow was falling on the New York streets, and the fragments of lyrics from their song “Takeshi and Elijah” came into my head: “somehow we all played in musical bands/that toured through the lands/oh, they will wake you/and cover your form with old clothes/oh, they will take you into their arms/tell them the secret to snowing,” and I thought about the fake snowy glitter that had fallen in the tent and tried to evoke for us the same magic.

From another performance of the Music Tapes’ in another of their favorite venues: a stranger’s living room near Christmas:

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Music and the Concrete Jungle

Sunset seen from my bedroom window.

Last Thursday I got to see Philip Glass’ free performance at the SoHo Apple Store. It was amazing and I really never thought I would have the chance to see him perform. Even if his name isn’t familiar, you’ve probably heard the American composer’s beautifully minimal scores for films like Kundun, Candyman, and The Hours. I’ve long used his repetition-based compositions as writing accompaniment. I got to the Apple Store about an hour before the performance, got a white wristband, and in an hour was led up to a small performance area. I had to stand, but had a good view of the stage. First, Glass played two of his pieces, Etude No. 1 and Metamorphosis No. 2, on the piano. Rarely is a room in New York so quiet, and it made me realize how much ambient noise is always coming in off the streets. Then he was joined by cellist Wendy Sutter, with whom he played three songs. After their duet, Glass left the stage and violinist Tim Fain played some crazy fast notes on a version of one of Glass’ Einstein on the Beach songs. After, the Glass Chamber Players, a group of six string musicians, played several arrangements. The best part of the concert, for me at least, was the last song where Philip Glass was joined onstage by Ira Glass, whose voice is as familiar as my best friends’ due to listening for years to This American Life, although I’d never seen him in person before. Apparently, Ira Glass is Philip Glass’ cousin. Ira Glass read an Allen Ginsberg poem that Philip Glass used to perform with Ginsberg, called “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” in which Ginsberg declares the end of the Vietnam War. It was an amazing and astounding performance.

Poor beheaded dinosaur in Astoria.

Friday night, I went to the Knitting Factory in Williamsburg with my roommate to see Shilpa Ray and Her Happy Hookers. I hadn’t heard their music before, but it turned out to be a really good show. I didn’t understand a word of the lyrics howled by Shilpa Ray while she attacked her harmonium, and still got the heartbreaking cynicism of her music. I guess I would compare her music to the psychobilly Horrorpops, but much less cute, with something of Wanda Jackson’s voice.

Chocolate chip pumpkin bread from Baked.

I met up with Elizabeth and Eszter in Red Hook, Brooklyn on Saturday for some IKEA shopping. I got there a little early to explore and found the hip little bakery Baked. I had coffee and a delicious piece of chocolate chip pumpkin bread.

Erie Basin Park in Red Hook.

Red Hook is kind of an odd place. It doesn’t have any subway stops, so you either have to take the bus or a ferry. Although artists, IKEA, and the Fairway Market have recently moved in, it’s still pretty industrial and I wouldn’t want to wander around there alone at night (Al Capone got his start in Red Hook, after all). Being daytime, I wandered around the new Erie Basin Park that was built around IKEA and attempts to be educational about shipping practices while offering modern designs. I liked these wavy benches, which I guess you are supposed to lay down on during warm weather.

Inside an abandoned trolley car in Red Hook.

After meeting my friends, we went to the Fairway and indulged in free samples of raw milk cheese, green tea ice cream, and olive oil from Nyons (from the Drôme department where I lived in France). Behind Fairway, which is housed in an old coffee warehouse, is a train of abandoned trolley cars that were intended to go from Red Hook to Brooklyn Heights. That would have been convenient, but I guess the city of New York decided to cancel the project for some reason.

Statue of Liberty seen from Red Hook.

There are also pretty views of the Statue of Liberty from Red Hook, that I’m sure could make the rent a bit higher if those trolleys were going. Anyway, we explored IKEA and I bought some cheap glasses (six for $1.99!!) for my apartment. Later that day, we went to a bar in the East Village that gives you a free pizza with each drink you buy. The pizza wasn’t great, but getting a beer and dinner for $5 is not bad at all.

Athena at Athens Square Park in Astoria, Queens.

Today I took the R train all the way up to Astoria, Queens to visit Eszter’s neighborhood. We checked out the European products at the grocery stores and had lunch at a Czech restaurant. I was surprised at how many bustling stores there were in Astoria and the diversity of food options. I believe that was my first encounter with Czech food, and the potato and cheese and then fruit dumplings were delicious. I also traded my old books for some of her old clothes, so now I have some new things to wear with the bonus of clearing out my bookshelf.

I recently joined Goodreads and I’m not quite sure what to do with it. If any friends are on it, add me!

The Flaming Lips: New Year’s Eve

I welcomed 2010 with seven friends and the Flaming Lips. It was my second time to see the Flaming Lips New Year’s Eve show in Oklahoma City, and my fifth time to see them in concert. When we met up at the Colcord Hotel before going over to the venue, I could have sworn that I saw Steven Drozd go out before us, but I was too distracted by a giant eyeball wearing a top hat to be sure.

There was the usual mix of astronauts, psychedelic santas, and aliens in the crowd, along with that well-dressed eyeball. The first half of the concert was all Flaming Lips songs, starting with “Race For the Prize” and going through other songs from The Soft Bulletin, as well as Transmissions From The Satellite Heart, At War With the Mystics, and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.

But I was most excited to hear the new music from their 2009 album, Embryonic. They played “Silver Trembling Hands,” “Convinced of the Hex,” and “See the Leaves” and I thought the noisy sound worked really well in the live concert. Oh, and click on that “Convinced of the Hex” link to see the awesome inflatable catfish wearing a pea coat who joined the costumed butterflies, moths, and caterpillars at the side of the stage. On the other side, there was an inflatable sun and of course there were balloons and confetti generously thrown throughout.

At midnight, there was a countdown to 2010 with hundreds of balloons thrown onto the crowd. Then, there was a short break when they rearranged their stage and were joined by Stardeath and the White Dwarfs to cover Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety. It started with Wayne Coyne standing on the sound area in the middle of the crowd and projecting lasers out of giant hands onto the huge disco ball that was above the crowd.

I’m not a Pink Floyd expert, but I thought they did an awesome job. You can download a whole album of their cover on iTunes, although I liked Steven Drozd’s live screaming on “The Great Gig in the Sky” more than Peaches’ on the recording. I also liked their addition of electronic voice to “Money,” during which balloons full of real money were dropped on the crowd. There was also a part where they asked everyone to set their cellphone alarms to a certain time so the whole crowd was ringing in unison just before their cover of “Time / Breathe.”

There’s an amazing gallery of images on this person’s site and tons of videos on YouTube if you want to get more of the concert experience. I hope to see them again soon because I would love to hear more of Embryonic live. I’m so glad I was able to start 2010 with favorite band and some of my favorite people. 2009 was a crazy, but wonderful, year. I hope 2010 treats me right.