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Creative Aurvana Live! Headphones
Creative Aurvana Live! Headphones
Price: $52.99
33 used & new from $46.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A bargain for the price, April 4, 2016
I have a bunch of expensive headphones, including ones from Sennheiser and Oppo, and for the price, these Creatives are an absolute steal. Are they as good as those headphones? Of course not, but the sound quality is pretty stellar all things considered. Construction is fairly solid, although I break one of these every 3-4 years or so.


Vampire
Vampire
DVD
Price: $5.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars The first English-language film by Japan's greatest auteur. What could possibly go wrong?, December 23, 2014
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Vampire (Amazon Video)
Vampire is a 2011 film by the Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai. Over 15 years, he's built an international reputation as arguably the best director of art films in Japan. His All About Lily Chou-Chou is a masterpiece, and his other films are well-respected by viewers who could be called the Criterion Collection crowd.

Vampire is Iwai's first English-language feature, and unfortunately it's a colossal dud. To the point where the studio apparently, in an effort to recoup anything -- anything -- from its investment, has dumped the movie onto Amazon with a stock horror image that has nothing to do with the film itself and does not even have Iwai's name on the cover.

What went wrong? For starters, I don't believe Iwai is fluent in English. Many fine films have been made where the director and cast did not speak the same language, but Vampire is not among them. Just as in the film Blueberry Nights -- in which the sometimes great Wong Kar Wai managed to completely squander the considerable talents of Jude Law and Natalie Portman -- here you have an A-list Asian director completely out of his element. The tone of this film is perennially off. Although the script has been rendered in idiomatic English, the rhythm of the characters interacting is too artificial. It's too theatrical (in the worst sense), and difficult to get sucked into this world.

The actors do their best with the material they were given.

Iwai is a master of imagery, and he does squeeze some drops of brilliance in some images that bear his usual creative stamp, but it's not enough to rescue the film.


Chopin: Etudes
Chopin: Etudes
Price: $15.74
65 used & new from $6.24

18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Jan's the real deal -- 21st century Chopin, October 1, 2013
This review is from: Chopin: Etudes (Audio CD)
I sat down with this disc and a dozen other recordings, including Horowitz, Perahia, Arrau, Pollini, and many others. I wasn't sure what to expect, but to my surprise, Jan's interpretations are so fresh that his Chopin Etudes more than earn their place among the recordings of those titans. Jan brings two new things to the table: unprecedented restraint and unprecedented use of textures.

Take Op. 25 No. 1, which has two things going on: melody and arpeggios. Chopin weaves the melody and arpeggios together to crescendo into a dramatic peak, then spends a moment in a quiet lagoon, then ends the piece. Like all of the etudes, the structure is ternary form, or A-B-A. Pianists tend to play the melody lyrically and the arpeggios as the splendiferous wonders that they are. The dramatic peak is big and romantic and emotional, and allows for much keyboard banging if desired (for one extreme of this, see Lang Lang).

Now look at what Jan does: he starts the etude from an extremely quiet place and keeps those magnificent arpeggios on a tight leash throughout: quiet, controlled. He plays the melody plainly, simply, emphatically un-lyrically -- almost Gouldian -- in the piece's first half. Most recordings treat this ascent and climax like climbing to the top of a jagged mountain lined with fake Roman ruins, in a thunderstorm, but Jan's buildup is so subtle and finely grained that when he does reach that climax, we're only standing a few feet above where we started, so to speak. And then Jan pulls off his most impressive trick: in the "quiet lagoon", he gently, ever so slightly, allows the melody a lyrical quality, some moments of quiet emotion.

There's storytelling here. Jan is saying something with this music, and he's saying something quite new with it.

Technically, Jan's outstanding, and if he's not (yet?) at the level of the gods like Ashkenazy and Pollini who've tackled the Etudes before, that's no insult-- the young man is at least running in their company. What's extremely impressive is that Jan brings the subtle textures he so expertly applies to slow passages to the bravura parts, as well-- varied, interesting textures that I find rarely in the Etudes of the aforementioned Chopin Gods. Take Op. 10 No. 1, one of the most technically challenging pieces of piano music ever written. Chopin Gods like Perahia and others play this so fast, loud, and incredibly, that you wonder if they are even human. Jan plays impressively, but he also draws forth the darker voices of the piece which get lost the faster and more impressively one plays it, and gives the arpeggios a variety of different characters: some louder, others slower, some seemingly on virtuoso auto-pilot, others played as if the pianist has momentarily lost himself in euphoria. Jan's put real thought into crafting a version that conjures interpretations and stories.

Throughout the disc, there's a quiet and quite beautiful dignity and restraint in Jan's Chopin. He declines to inflate the music to its emotional limits, let alone the histrionic extremes to which some pianists have been guilty of taking it. Where others sing Chopin's melodies in assured, gorgeous cantabile, Jan sings them with introspection, sometimes hesitancy. The keyboard is banged only judiciously. I'm reminded of a quote by Glenn Gould: "[Some music] wears its heart on its sleeve. It seems to say, ''Please take note: This is Tragedy." It doesn't have the dignity to bear its suffering with a hint of quiet resignation". In this and other ways, Jan seems an heir to some of Gould's key ideas. In a promo video for this disc, Jan talks about "adjust[ing the music]... to our reality and our times". I'm unsure if this means changes to the actual sheet music, or just disregarding tempo markings, but whatever he did, I hope he pushes it even further in the future.

This is 21st century Chopin, and -- without saying "better" or "worse" in comparison to the beloved masters who've come before -- Jan's is a welcome and exciting new perspective.
Comment Comments (8) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 5, 2014 4:26 PM PDT


Hana & Alice (Widescreen)
Hana & Alice (Widescreen)
DVD ~ Anne Suzuki
5 used & new from $27.72

4.0 out of 5 stars Shunji Iwai's Songs of Innocence, April 14, 2013
This review is from: Hana & Alice (Widescreen) (DVD)
"Songs of Innocence and of Experience" was a collection of poems by William Blake (1757-1827). The Songs of Innocence portray the world of idyll and childhood (nursery rhymes, a little lamb, fairy-tale characters) while the Songs of Experience revisit many of the characters and themes but twisted by the harsh realities of adulthood (sorrow, injustice, tragedy, mortality).

Like many, I became acquainted with Shunji Iwai through his apocalyptic magnum opus, All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001), arguably the greatest Japanese film of the new millennium. Lily's a big, important film, and a tough act to follow. The first time I watched Hana & Alice (2004), Iwai's followup, I was baffled and disappointed. Was this really the same writer and director? It seemed too simple, contrived, lacking at almost every turn in the fractal complexity of Lily. I thought that Iwai had run out of things to say.

But now, watching Hana & Alice again the better part of a decade later, I see that while Lily was Iwai's masterpiece, his grand and terrible Songs of Experience, Hana & Alice, while quieter, humbler, and in every way less "writ large", is nearly as rewarding. It is a companion piece of sorts to Lily -- Iwai's Songs of Innocence, so to speak -- and viewing it through this lens is what finally let me fully appreciate the film.

The film has three narratives: Hana's story, Alice's story, and stories of the two of them together. Hana's story and the stories of the two characters are, without question, pure Songs of Innocence. These sections consist of friends hanging out, chatting and goofing around, ballet lessons, cherry blossom trees, a museum, a visit to the zoo, theatre rehearsals... In short, innocent scenes, imagery and characters, as well as innocent plot devices (especially the main one, which I won't spoil here) and even an innocent soundtrack (Hana's theme, composed by Iwai himself). Iwai even explores the storytelling vocabulary of innocent stories: when characters feel bad, it rains; the male protagonist emits cartoon-like exclamations of surprise; the most at stake is whether the main characters will, in fact, become boyfriend and girlfriend.

But just as Blake's Songs of Innocence hinted at the darker aspects of adulthood, as so does Alice's story here. Alice's experiences -- her relationship with her mother, interacting with her wise but distant father, her introduction to the fickle and demeaning world of small time acting and modeling -- portray the first cracks of innocence, the messy, complicated world of adults.

Iwai is a heavy experimentalist in film, but here, he reigns in his more extreme creative tendencies in his best attempt to tell a straightforward, perhaps mainstream story. Characters are still filmed upside-down, through windowpanes, and talking into mirrors, but these gentle bits of experimentalism are woven subtly into the fabric of the film.

The final scene of Hana & Alice is a minor film classic, and the movie as a whole stands as a quiet but rewarding work from one of Japan's greatest filmmakers.


Gerhard Richter: Large Abstracts
Gerhard Richter: Large Abstracts
by Gregor Stemmrich
Edition: Hardcover
30 used & new from $174.77

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars English edition is out of print, German edition still in print at cover price, February 17, 2013
This is a hardcover with color plates of 60-odd large abstracts by Richter dating 1986 to 2006. It's printed in the typically high standards of German art house publisher Hatje Cantz.

Since the book is out of print and the price of used copies has gotten rather exorbitant, I just wanted to point out that the German edition is still in print at its original (reasonable) cover price. The title is "Abstrakte Bilder". If you just want to see the pictures and don't need the essays (or can read German), track a copy down.


Gould & Gulda: Piano Works
Gould & Gulda: Piano Works
Price: $17.00
26 used & new from $8.13

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars great new versions of Glenn Gould's unfinished sonata and "So You Want to Write a Fugue", February 10, 2013
This disc by Sasha Grynyuk contains the 10-part jazz/classical fusion "Play Piano Play" by Friedrich Gulda, some bits of juvenilia by Glenn Gould, a fascinating rendition of unfinished fragments from the piano sonata that Gould worked on as a teenager, and an excellent transcription of Gould's "So You Want to Write a Fugue".

"So You Want to Write a Fugue" was written by Gould for the finale of a 1963 television special titled "The Anatomy of Fugue", when Gould was around 31 years old. It was performed by four singers (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) accompanied by a string quartet. It was meant to illustrate the fugue form for a 1960's TV audience, but, Gould being Gould, he loaded the piece with his musical opinions and ideas. He paired "every good theme [with a] really strong countersubject," as he explained in interview a decade later, and ended it with what he called a "demolition of a fugue" (i.e. a deconstruction).

As originally recorded, it's a fun piece, but its jokey lyrics doomed it to the status of novelty. Like all novelties, one does not want to listen to it more than a couple times. Which is why Grynyuk's piano transcription is so welcome. Grynyuk takes Gould's composition (one of his precious few) and rescues it from novelty status by removing the voices and staying true to the contrapuntal, Wagnerian melodies and counter-melodies in the piece (Grynyuk's rendition sounds much like Gould's own transcription of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on Glenn Gould Conducts & Plays Wagner). Unlike the original, this is a version I can listen to over and over.

The other Gould pieces are juvenilia dating from 1948-1952, when Gould was around 16 to 20 years old. Gould later designated his string quartet as "Opus 1", indicating that he did not see these early piano fragments as genuine contributions to his oeuvre. Gould's "Five short pieces" (1950) each clock in under a minute, and sound like exercises in twelve-tone composition. Interesting, but unsatisfying and impossible to really appreciate in their 30-second chunks. These were also recorded by the pianist Vestard Shimkus on a disc included with a biography of Gould (I believe certain editions of Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould). Gould's "Two Pieces for Piano" (1951-52) are just as short and unsatisfying. There is a recording of these pieces on Glenn Gould - The Composer by pianist Emile Naoumoff, but Grynyuk plays them in a much more Gouldian manner than Naoumoff (in other words, straight and clean; to paraphrase Gould, "there's an awful lot of piano playing" on Naoumoff's version).

Much more interesting, while at the same time serving as a tease of almost tragicomic proportions for the compositions Gould never got around to writing, are the fragments here of Gould's piano sonata, written around age 16. I have no idea about the manuscript history of this piece, but Grynyuk's three movements clock in around 10.5 minutes (an apparently greatly expanded version of the first movement appears on Glenn Gould - The Composer). There is some truly fascinating and moving stuff in here. One hears traces of Gould's lifelong influences like Schönberg and Hindemith, but also echoes of the melody from Gould's String Quartet Opus 1, and, crazily, something out of a 19th century piano hall in the end of the third fragment, where the left hand just provides thunder under the melodies of the right hand (the latter does not appear at all on Naoumoff's recording, and I'm unsure if Grynyuk added it himself, but it sounds damn good).

Finally, included here is Friedrich Gulda's 10-part "Play Piano Play", around half an hour of classical-ed up jazz. I'll leave it to future reviewers to tackle that one.

Overall, a thoughtful and unique disc that does much honor to Glenn Gould's legacy. Bravo, Mr. Grynyuk.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 27, 2015 3:40 PM PST


True Swamp: Choose Your Poison
True Swamp: Choose Your Poison
by Charles Hatfield
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.98
46 used & new from $2.61

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A comic book classic, January 19, 2013
I came up with a number of potential headlines for this Amazon review of True Swamp:

"American poet"
"Classic from Seattle's grunge comics scene"
"How can a comic about talking frogs and a foul-mouthed marmot be so moving and achingly human?"

But ultimately the one I chose above is the place I must start from. Reading True Swamp again close to 20 years after encountering it around 1994, I can reach no conclusion other than that True Swamp is a genuine classic of the medium, and readers familiar with the others -- Sandman, Cerebus, Watchmen, take your pick -- owe it to themselves to check it out.

True Swamp is fascinating for a number of reasons, most of which are touched upon in the book's excellent introduction by Jack Kirby scholar Charles Hatfield. Hatfield writes that "True Swamp defies taxonomy," and indeed there is nothing like it in any medium. True Swamp is a black-and-white independent comic from the early 90's about a frog named Lenny and his misadventures in a swamp populated by talking animals, scheming insects, and a host of supernatural creatures (fairies, little men made out of fungus, etc.). In most "funny animal" comics -- Donald Duck, Pogo, etc. -- the animals largely act and talk like people. And in True Swamp, the frogs and lizards do that half the time, swearing and arguing about life, relationships, etc. But Lewis's characters just as often act like the animals they are, searching for food, laying eggs, fleeing predators. The fact that the book is so hard to describe and categorize may be one reason it's not more well-known, but hopefully this new hardcover will contribute to True Swamp getting the recognition it more than deserves.

Hatfield mentions the "unwashed poetry of the dialogue", and there is a real poetry to the way Lewis's characters speak, presumably like dudes from early 90's Seattle (whom Lewis seems to have chronicled as assiduously as James Joyce did the spoken language of turn-of-the-century Dublin). There's poetry too in the way panels progress, the way the stories themselves unfold. On the surface, Lewis seems to follow few rules of "normal" storytelling. Situations meander into one another, running on pure, sometimes hallucinatory inspiration. Only later, at the end of the chapters, does the reader see how well thought-out the plotting often actually is, for instance issue #2, which floats along in its dreamy, organic, loose way, until suddenly you realize you've been reading a tightly structured pulp horror/detective story, complete with some clever plot twists.

There is a confidence to this material that is surprising for such a young man (Lewis began True Swamp at age 21) and someone whose drawing initially seemed so unpolished. The art evolves practically page to page, and by quantum leaps compared to his minicomic art for issue #1, included in this hardcover. Given Lewis's age and apparent lack of experience, everything about True Swamp *should* have come out as amateur -- the art, the writing, the world-building -- but none of it does. The combination of confidence and raw talent is something we've seen before, but not usually in comics. We've seen it in places like rock and roll, punk, grunge.

I see True Swamp as a grunge comics classic. Lewis did create True Swamp in Seattle, in the early 90's, among a vibrant scene of comic book artists who drew rough and scratchy artwork, and True Swamp is characterized by much of what's considered the grunge ethos: concerned above all with authenticity (check), full of distortion, fueled by raw energy over technical skill (especially in the original #1, issue #2, and a certain commitment to raw artwork even when Lewis's drawing had evolved by miles in the later issues), and apathetic, angsty, or depressive lyrics (three adjectives that describe most of True Swamp's denizens).

Hatfield calls the book "weirdly, gutsily alive", and True Swamp's greatest strength is this vividness of its characters and stories. You're sucked into this weird but fascinating world. You believe in and care about these characters. Lewis's extensive world-building -- the religion, mythology, unit of currency, and words he invented for his talking frogs, snakes and rodents -- is both impressive and often very funny. There are many rewarding, even unforgettable moments. In his foreword, Ed Brubaker writes that "some of the things that Jon did here have stuck with me the rest of my life," and that's true for me, too.

I'm not sure if my review has begun to do True Swamp justice, but hopefully it's a start and many others will chime in, as well. I note that Lewis continues to add to the True Swamp world, with two issues published in 2000-2001 and now in pages that he serializes on his website and later collects in pamphlet form. A True Swamp hardcover volume 2 appears planned for 2013, and I for one am greatly looking forward to it.


The Pot Book
The Pot Book
by Edmund De Waal
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $49.95
42 used & new from $21.29

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What if you had never seen a painting before, and someone handed you a book with pictures of the 300 greatest paintings ever?, November 10, 2012
This review is from: The Pot Book (Hardcover)
Slight exaggeration, but that's kind of what reading The Pot Book feels like.

Obviously, I've seen ceramics before, but have never known much about ceramics or given them much thought at all. Like most people, I've hurried through the ceramics wings of even the world's best museums, focused on finding the painting and sculpture rooms on the museum map as I obliviously rushed past undoubtedly priceless collections of pots, vases, and tableware. I'm not proud of my ignorance, but hope that admitting it may help fellow ignoramuses appreciate how incredible this book is, to make even ME now love ceramics.

The Pot Book is a thorough introduction to the art form, but it can be browsed just as well-- each page is a little story unto itself. There's large photos of 300 different ceramic pieces, from antiquity through the 21st century, with a couple paragraphs describing each.

Many of the 300 ceramic pieces featured here are masterpieces. Almost all are fascinating. Some are minor revelations. Edmund de Waal's short paragraphs teem with information about each piece's history, importance, and details of the craft (different clays, porcelains, glazes, firing methods, etc.). In lesser hands this stuff could get boring indeed, but de Waal's brilliant writing makes each ceramic piece a discovery. Taken as a whole, the book's 300 entries weave a persuasive argument for the importance of ceramics in the history of art, implicitly making the case that the medium is deeper, better and more interesting than even art lovers tend to think.

What led me to this book was Edmund de Waal's bestselling family and art history memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, which chronicles the rise and fall of de Waal's European family. Although not explicitly about ceramics, The Hare With Amber Eyes touches upon most of the fine arts and contains some of de Waal's apparently core ideas about ceramics: the importance that vitrines (cabinets with glass windows) play in experiencing ceramics, both in the home and museum, and how the quiet power of the tactile experience can enrich our appreciation of ceramics, both as art and everyday objects. The book led me to check out de Waal's work online, and I was impressed to see those ideas being vibrantly explored in his current works: installations of minimalist thrown porcelain pots, mostly in vitrines, that play around with ideas of history and art. It's cool to see de Waal explore his central ideas and themes across such different avenues -- a survey of ceramics history, a family memoir, and art installations -- and each adds a greater appreciation of his other works.

Finally, I note that the thumbnail of the book's cover here on Amazon does it no justice. The book is a beautifully printed and bound coffee table art book.


Gainsbourg Gainbegiratuz
Gainsbourg Gainbegiratuz
Price: $15.99

4.0 out of 5 stars incredible Gainsbourg covers in the Basque language, October 6, 2012
There's a million Gainsbourg covers out there: mostly by French chanson artists, plus plenty of piano, string, jazz, and accordion transcriptions, as well as a couple of curios such as Gainsbourg in Spanish and Japanese. Most of these I'd characterize as stylistic experiments, above all concerned with melody rather than lyrics. 99% of the ones I've heard are benign, pleasant, and forgettable.

And then there's this album, Gainsbourg Gainbegiratuz. I don't know much about its provenance; the fifteen tracks are covers by, apparently, veterans of the Basque music scene.

I don't understand a word of Basque, but there's some unmistakable magic here. The voices of so many of these singers, including Gari and Urko Menaia, are perfectly suited to Gainsbourg's material: gravelly voices, not young, world-weary but convivial withal, bathed in tobacco smoke, with more than a soupçon of impropriety. Gainsbourg sounds made for voices like these: darkly textured and lined with sandpaper.

But the way these voices bring Gainsbourg's songs to new life is equally impressive. Standout tracks include L'anamour by Gari, La Javanaise by Urko Menaia, and Les Cigarillos by Txuma Murugarran. Many of the tracks draw forth the deep, painful and emotional cores of Gainsbourg's songs, in marked contrast with Gainsbourg's classic originals, which Gainsbourg often sang in his understated, often playful tone. I find it difficult to describe these tracks in anything but hyperbole, so I'll end my review here.

Any Gainsbourg fan should hear this set of unique artists, their incomparable voice instruments and passionate interpretations. I'd love to hear more views on this album from either Gainsbourg devotees or fans of Basque music in general.


Wagner: Preludes & Orchestral Excerpts from Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Parsifal, & Tristan und Isolde
Wagner: Preludes & Orchestral Excerpts from Die Meistersinger, Lohengrin, Parsifal, & Tristan und Isolde
50 used & new from $2.62

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wagner from a lifelong Wagnerian, September 28, 2012
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Thielemann conducting Wagner is like sushi made by a guy who's done nothing but make and refine his sushi-making technique for decades. You're in the hands of a master with a lifetime of incomparable experience.

I'm currently reading Thielemann's 2012 book, "My Life with Wagner" (Mein Leben mit Wagner), and it describes how his goal, amazingly beginning in early childhood, was to become a conductor and especially a conductor of Wagner.

I doubt that few people alive, in any profession, are as intimately acquainted with the Tristan Prelude + Liebestod as Herr Thielemann. He conducted it around age 26 in a conservatory "Karajan Conducting Competition", was disqualified due to his interpretation (although the jury was not unanimous-- Karajan himself voted to keep Thielemann in), and it's been part of his repertoire ever since. I had the privilege of seeing him and his new orchestra, the Staatskapelle Dresden, perform it last month, and it was insanely nuanced under Thielemann's wand, largely as heard on this recording. Thielemann's rapid gear-change tempi, his exaggerated silences, and the textures he brings to the piece are all without peer in the dozen or so recordings I listened to in comparison. Note in the first minutes just how long Thielemann draws out the rests compared to other conductors (a good couple seconds longer), magnifying their dramatic potential. The care he takes in shaping the sounds. How he often prefers slow to fast, allowing him to explore the full range of Wagner's colors. More importantly, Thielemann uses these many small interpretative gestures to weave a cohesive emotional/inner narrative. The whole is equal to or better than the sum of its parts. Hearing Thielemann conduct the Tristan pieces was a, if not the, highlight in a lifetime of classical concert going, and the way this recording sounds, although published in 1998, is how the Maestro still performs them.

Thielemann brings his considerable gifts to the rest of the tracks, but I'll leave my review at that. I just wanted to emphasize for future listeners that this isn't just another Wagner Greatest Hits album. This is Wagner in the hands of someone who has devoted most of his life to Wagner's music and is arguably his greatest living interpreter.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 1, 2012 2:29 PM PDT


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