Thursday, June 25, 2009


The journal Nature published a story on June 24, 2009 regarding a discovery made in September 2008 of what is believed to be the earliest handmade musical instrument. The tiny flute was carved from a mammoth tusk some 35,000 years ago, and was discovered in the same cave in Germany where the same team found a tiny ivory carving of a naked woman. Say what you will about our primitive ancestors, but they used the media available to them for the same basic purposes most of us use the Web. Read more about -- and listen to -- the flute here.

[Still from Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom courtesy of The Ward-O-Matic]

Through the magic of media synergy, PBS aired the program The Music Instinct the same night that Nature published its report. And through the magic of channel surfing, The Typing Monkey managed to see Instinct, and enjoyed it immensely. They put Jarvis Cocker in an MRI and mapped his brain while he sang, talked to a man who accompanies songbirds with his clarinet, and discussed research both sound and dubious regarding the human urge to play and listen to music. Check your local listings, as the show is worth catching.

Thinking about the origins of music and its ability to stir our emotions so deeply and effectively, reminded The Typing Monkey of a Disney cartoon short called Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom. Directed by the great Ward Kimball and Charles A. Nichols, the 1953 short not only won an Oscar, but is also the first cartoon to be filmed in CinemaScope. Toot is as reductive as a 10-minute cartoon aimed at teaching kids the basics of music history needs to be. But the Jim Flora-inspired artwork and sweet music make it entertaining.


[Courtesy of thelostdisney]

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Monkey Reads: Pirates, Vikings & Ancient Magic

The Black Stranger and Other American Tales
By Robert E. Howard
Introduction/Edited by Steven Tompkins
The title story opens this collection with a magnificently tangled plot involving pirates and buccaneers racing to claim a cursed stash of treasure secreted away on the shores of the Pictish Wilderness*, where a nobleman lives in self-exile, on the run from the titular stranger, to whom he owes more than he can repay.

Howard lays out details at just the right points to give all the major players enough back story and motivation to keep the pulp-hungry reader chewing at the pages until the moment Conan re-enters the plot. Yes, the character better known by his usual job title "the Barbarian" has adapted to changing times, trading a fur loincloth for Errol Flynn finery in order to conquer the pirate racket. Howard's best-known creation behaves as both deus ex machina and secret star of "The Black Stranger." And he's still an ass-kicking good time.

After the mini-epic start, the subsequent Viking and conquistador-era tales slow the momentum until the next pirate yarn, "Black Vulmea's Vengance," quickens the pace again. Both "Stranger" and "Vulmea" could easily translate into films, though the former would have to get audiences past the idea of Conan outside of his expected sword-and-sandals milieu.

The final third of this set lives up the American Tales promise by wading waist-deep into late 19th and early 20th century Southern-gothic grime. Pitting white Christian men against all the ancient magic the New World, and its bounty of imported faiths, can dredge up.

Readers sharp enough to cope with the period-referential language will be rewarded with Howard's urban legend-like "Kelly the Conjure-Man" which acts as a sort of prologue for "Black Canaan" and its humid tale of a voodoo-fueled slave uprising in the swampy outskirts of a small farm village.

Howard deftly uses the Victorian horror structure ("Pigeons from Hell" and "The Horror from the Mound") in territory more familiar to him, and allows for a reverential take on American Indian spiritualism in "Old Garfield's Heart."

Anyone with a moderate level of curiosity about Howard's writing might as well start here. There are enough violent thrills to inspire a return to the world of Conan and to Howard's horror tales.

Reference material: If you read Conan or Kull comics as a kid, reading the texts from which those bloody panels were derived makes for a joyfully adolescent summer read. Also EC Comics fans and readers of early Stephen King will dig Howard's words.

*In the first published draft of this review, The Typing Monkey incorrectly identified the location of the events in the title story as a "not quite colonial American coast" presuming that Howard's vague references to Pict tribes was his way of defining Native Americans in terms that Europeans might have. Not so. The Picts, a real life warrior clan in pre-Roman invasion Scotland, are incorporated into Howard's Hyborian Age, the fictional age he created for the Conan stories, so that his hero might interact with a variety of historical types that weren't necessarily concomitant. We regret the error.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Not Roland Kirk ...

the other Rip Rig & Panic. Happy solstice, folks. Bass clarinets are GO!

[courtesy of SociopathicFruitloop]

(Moon)Light Powered

(Ghostly International)
Press play and don't plan on stopping once you do. Deastro, aka Randolph Chabot and a trio of new recruits to back him, finds a nearly exhausting athletic pace at the start of his debut for Ghostly International and never lets up for the duration of 14 songs.

Chabot based some of the music on a dream he had, and the whirring electronics and running-paced rhythms reflect that indefinable urgency only dreams create. It's as if he wants listeners to just keep moving with him, whether that movement be dancing or something even more fanciful.

Shimmering waves of synthesizer -- big, square-wave squeals and peals -- roll over simple bass lines and crash into keyboard passages that bounce and chime. Chabot's distant-sounding, but finely delivered vocals and some crisp rhythm guitar add human warmth to Moondagger, especially "Toxic Crusaders" and "Day of Wonder," where the drum kit makes clear that real people are behind every note here.

No obvious candidate for a single stands out, though Ghostly put "Parallelogram" and "Vermillion Plaza" out ahead of the LP. However, given our collective drunkenness on MP3s and a tendency to discard before we've properly digested, just so we can run to the next pretty sound, is an album worth playing from start to finish a bad thing?

If Chabot did anything wrong with Moondagger, it's that he doesn't give us a chance to rest before another song demands action.

Reference material: Chabot's voice, and his restless electronic pop sounds, recall New Order's Low-Life and Brotherhood. [Note to the uninitiated: Please get those albums.] Fans of MGMT wanting to stretch out a bit, or White Williams fans looking for something a little more energetic, should hear Deastro too.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Near Dark - or - The Really Grey Album

Dark Night of the Soul
Any controversy surrounding this collaboration fizzled out before making a serious dent in the popular memory. That's probably because the record's not very exciting. There may be more to the story than was initially reported but what's known is simple: DJ/producer/musician Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) and Sparklehorse singer/songwriter Mark Linkous wrote and recorded 13 songs inspired by some photos taken by filmmaker David Lynch. Then EMI, the record label that signed Danger Mouse, refused to release the album.

The subsequent, and mildly subversive, marketing tactic used to get Dark Night into the public's ears remains the stickiest part of this project. Danger Mouse's fingerprints have been on a number of mainstream (Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley) and indie (Jemini, Joker's Daughter, The Rapture) successes.

But Dark Night possesses little of the alternately grim and playful sonic ink that normally saturates the pages of Danger Mouse's songbook. That the album begins with a track featuring The Flaming Lips and boasts two vocal contributions from former Grandaddy leader Jason Lyttle makes sense. Musically, Dark Night rests in a lackluster spot between The Lips' shimmering cotton candy haze and Grandaddy's twinkling bummer-pop.

The listener's enjoyment of a given song may depend largely on appreciation for (or tolerance of) the featured vocalist. None of the music scrapes the senses in that way Lynch's best cinema can ("Eraserhead" "Blue Velvet" "The Elephant Man"), nor does any of it bump and fizz with the pop appeal that Danger Mouse normally brings to his music.

Resist the temptation to blame the dullness on Linkous -- in a collaboration as sprawling as this, every participant gets blame equal to their level of involvement. Collectors of pop curios can add Dark Night to the shelf. Danger Mouse fans can take a breath and wait to see what comes next. After all, nobody thought there'd be a second Gnarls Barkley disc, let alone one that good.