J thinks Night Film by Marisha Pessl is cake…with icing

Unknown-1The Cake : Night Film is a super entertaining story that kept me turning the pages the entire week I spent reading it. It distracted me from all competing little chores like Christmas baking and work.

The plot focuses on an enigmatic filmmaker named Stanislas Cordova. In his films, Cordova explores the realm of human nature: good and bad, dark and light, insane and sinister… and so on. The characters in his movies often live, exist, and act where one human attribute ends and its darker counterpart begins. The filmmaker and his films are controversial, shrouded in rumors and fantastic stories. The film sets are believed to be cursed due to a seemingly inordinate number of serious mishaps that take place during filming. His actors, after appearing in his films, tend to drop out of mainstream society and never discuss their experiences on the sets in public. Cordova himself gives no interviews and lives in seclusion with lawyers and people to protect him and his privacy. In fact, rumors about him include every imaginable conspiracy from the question of his actual existence, to the suggestion that he is a criminal of unimaginable evil. (The parallels between Cordova and actual filmmakers, both current and past, makes great fodder for conversation.) Cordova has a cult following of people who refer to themselves as Cordovites. They host underground nighttime viewings of his movies communicated to other Cordovites and fans with a secret graffiti code marked on doors of abandoned warehouses and other clandestine venues. Cordovites run secret websites devoted to scrutinizing every bit of information available on the man and his work.

Cordova is the center of the plot, however, the principal character in the story is Scott McGrath.  McGrath is a journalist who was known for his fearless and sometimes savage reporting. At his peak, no topic was too taboo for McGrath, no bit of evidence out of reach. That is, until he went after Cordova.  McGrath decided to write an expose’ on the filmmaker following the arrest of a serial child-killer. The murderer had admitted to copying scenes he’d seen in a Cordova movie.  McGrath planned to reveal Cordova as the puppeteer behind all the darkness and mystery associated with his films and his reputation. Cordova and his lawyers fought back with a ferocious defamation suit winning most of McGrath’s wealth and capital, costing him his job, his credibility as an objective journalist, and finally his marriage.

Night Film begins with the apparent suicide of Cordova’s 24-year-old daughter and Cordovite conspiracy theories running wild.  McGrath, a man with nothing to lose finding his adversary in the news again, plunges in. He is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of Cordova once and for all.

You know I don’t like to give away secrets, Scramblers. So I will just tell you to prepare to twist and turn, swivel, wriggle, contort, and spin.  You’ll encounter truths and illusions, white lies and black magic. You’ll get a little bit of a super-hero flavor from McGrath, but nothing that made me roll my eyes too much. It’s fiction. It’s supposed to suspend the imagination. Throughout the book, Pessl will drop references and likenesses to films and actors both real fiction, giving the reader a pleasant nod of recognition when stumbled upon.

The Icing: There are pictures. There are photographs. There are reports, receipts, notes on scraps of paper, website threads…and so on. This brilliant device just makes the book incredibly fun and engaging. Like Encyclopedia Brown for adults. I read it in book form, but apparently, if you read it in e-form you can download a “Decoder app” to get extra content with images and audio secrets.

I don’t think you should wait for a special occasion to treat yourself to this one, but if your nightstand is overflowing, Night Film would be a great book to have for the long days of winter to come. It’s nice and long. Maybe if you stick your nose in it in mid February, you’ll look up to find some spring sun on the way in March.

Happy reading!


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Damned Ubiquity! Or, Another Music Writer’s Top Picks of 2013

5. Washed Out Paracosm


A dreamy and dependable “go-to” – this is like something brand new that you also seem to have had in your library for decades. This is music as blood pressure medication.

4. My Bloody Valentinembv


Speaking of decades, SO worth the 20-year wait. My Bloody Valentine creates an artistic experience that goes way beyond listening. It is a whole way of feeling.

3. Vampire WeekendModern Vampires of the City

vampire weekend

Much has been made of the maturity VW displays here, but they never did feel to me like they weren’t grown up. This year’s record mixes their signature intelligence, cleverness, and mischief with a sense of depth and gravity. Great. Great. Great.

2. No JoyWait to Pleasure and Pastel and Pass Out

No Joy-Wait to Pleasure

The beautiful noise is right here. No Joy constructs sonic walls that feature muscular, rhythmic bricks held together with a sweet mortar of swirling fuzz. They create a super trippy, super fresh sound that is appealing because of its variety. Paying respect to the most brilliant shoegaze artists, they cannily switch gears from song to song, and often even within songs. When they are not sending open chords through chain saw effects, No Joy can display soft, sunny, and breezy beach sounds. This year’s output will provide many years of pleasure and great joy. (More on this band in the most recent post below headed: “Great Joy”.)

1. GoldfrappTales of Us

goldfrapp-tales of us

Magical. Sometimes being just exactly who you are is an act of defiance. It is not easy for everyone, and the simple act of your own expression is courageous. Tales of Us is made up of ten songs, each a distinctive journey of self expression. The song titles are names, (Jo, Annabel, Drew, Simone, Clay, etc.,) and in each song, Alison Goldfrapp either presents us with, or bravely inhabits, a different persona. All of them (quietly, defiantly, courageously) being exactly who they are.

Fantastic and liberating, deeply private and still somehow seductively inclusive, the record plays both ends against the middle. Simple acoustic guitar songs trade time with hugely wrought symphonic pieces, slow jazz, and tripped out electronica. The binding element of the piece is her exquisite voice. Breathily playing out through the dreamy range of the songs, she draws me in absolutely.

Alison Goldfrapp. She makes me want to be where she is.

Alison Goldfrapp. She makes me want to be where she is.

More lovely with every year she is now 47, and along with the other two greatest song interpreters of her generation, Beth Gibbons (48, Portishead) and Elizabeth Fraser (50, Cocteau Twins), Alison Goldfrapp does not merely sing, she occupies her songs, and she transports her listeners. The beauty, the elegance of her, the certainty – she makes me lightheaded. She is delivering her art from a castle on a cloud, and I want to be where she is.

Watch the video for Drew: http://bit.ly/1eTPlNy

Plus 13 of note – (alpha by artist)

Boards of Canada Tomorrow’s Harvest

This is not introductory BoC: For fans only and definitely worth the wait.

Bryan Ferry (The Bryan Ferry Orchestra) – The Jazz Age

Ferry works his genius by reimagining his own solo work and Roxy Music songs as 20s-era jazz. It works so well The Jazz Age transports me to a time I never experienced. Listening to this wonderful piece with eyes closed, you can easily imagine the ice-cold feel of a martini glass stem between your fingers. You can almost smell the room filled with perfume and tobacco smoke. You can sense the cool metal cufflink at your wrist and the swish of dancing silk and lace on your partner’s straight-line evening dress. You can feel the 20s roaring right around you.

DestroyerFive Spanish Songs

If you see Dan Bejar, please give him a hug. Tell him to keep doing what he does. There is nobody like him. This EP is homage – he covers the songs of Spanish songwriter Antonio Luque – and it’s a wonderful way to spend 20 minutes. ¡Viva Destroyer!

FoxygenWe Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, T Rex: All are conjured here and this swaggering record is serious fun, seriously funky. Rocking.

Frankie RoseHerein Wild

I loved her last release, Interstellar, and Frankie Rose’s newest record is really similar. She’s your indie girlfriend so don’t fight it. Just put this in the rotation and love her.

Joanna GruesomeWeird Sister

Do you sometimes just want to rock? This Welsh band does too. Get involved. They tear it up.

Jon HopkinsImmunity

When you were a little kid, you occasionally had dreams where you were running. And your running became almost like flight. Remember? You ran, picking up speed, and after a number of paces your body was so solid and light that the lengths of your steps widened almost impossibly. You just barely touched your foot down before propelling your churning body back up, springing forward from the ground. Floating forward.

If you want to have the waking musical equivalent of your old running dream, check out the record’s best tune: Open Eye Signal. It is eight minutes of wonderfully entrancing music and the whole of Immunity is strong.

Kanye West – Yeezus

Electrifying. How is something so shocking still even possible.

Parquet CourtsLight Up Gold

This band energetically propels the traditions of American punk. This a terrific bunch of short, raw, powerful songs with a sense of humor.

SavagesSilence Yourself

These London women channel Ian Curtis and Joy Division. Crazy dark. Could have been in the top five.

Wax IdolsDiscipline and Desire

This Bay Area outfit transports me back in time to the rich and dark early-1980s. Led by a tornadic creative force, Hether Fortune, they openly draw on the influences of my beloved Siouxsie (and the Banshees) and Daniel Ash (Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets, Bauhaus.)

Fortune is the architect of this remarkable release on the Slumberland Records label. She and her band blaze, and they deserve your attention. The sound is brand new and also somehow like something from your heavy rotation between 1981 and 1986. I can’t get enough of it.


Thank goodness for Weekend: After all, Violens and DIIV can’t be expected to release material every year. Weekend have crept into the same mental space for me as those excellent acts. Also crazy dark.

Yo La TengoFade

What have you ever done to deserve Yo La Tengo? Time after time they invite you over, provide an excellent meal, and you sit down to eat. Always tasty and always reliable, the company’s a treat and the dishes are often remarkable. They have it and still glow. Thanks.

Here are some I want to spend more time with:

GrouperThe Man Who Died in His Boat

The Haxan CloakExcavation

Julianna Barwick – Nepenthe

Oneohetrix Point NeverR Plus Seven

Here is a single that I LOVE from 2013. Check out this weird video and beatiful song from TV on the RadioMillion Mileshttp://bit.ly/1cZQn93

Wanted to love:

Here are a couple that got on my radar, (or I otherwise wanted to love this year,) but never made it in the rotation:

Daft PunkRandom Access Memories  I did not believe the hype.

DeerhunterMonomania  This is a bummer – Bradford Cox is a favorite artist in large part BECAUSE his approach is often willfully provocative and difficult. This record seemed to double back on that difficulty and provocation and fell flat.

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The Seduction and Romance of Faulty Memory, Part One: My Sister at the Family Piano

Like great pieces of music, sounds from nature and the outdoors act as time machines. Listen! Gently rustling leaves at sunset. Among the leaves there is the loud insistent whirr of locusts. The sounds combine to dizzy you. You are enveloped in the sense and transported to a young summer evening.

Close your eyes and listen: The “chick-chick-chick” of a rotating sprinkler. Disembodied outdoor voices just after dusk on a sultry night. Night sounds, dusky sounds, make you feel alive and young. Laughter. Crickets. A late and scratchy squawk from a bluejay.

You are a boy again. You are a little girl.

Still, songs have a stronger time travel hold on me than even most sounds from nature. Music causes more chilling, and oddly, more deeply primal reactions than nature.

My earliest memories of music are from home when I was four and five years old (1969-70). My sister Andrea, seven years older, played the piano and sometimes I liked to listen. In my memory of her at age eleven or twelve, (faulty, for sure,) she is masterful — tackling complicated works with a combination of great discipline and natural talent. At that very young age it was probably already clear that playing the piano was going to be beyond my abilities. So, once in a while she took from inside of the hinged maple piano bench a narrow velvet pouch held closed by a thin braided drawstring. She had mostly outgrown playing the instrument, but she would slip from the pouch a bone white recorder and she’d play a short, quiet, simple song. Perhaps it was her sweet attempt to show her clumsy little brother how easy it can be to make music.


My Sister Andrea, about age 10.

My Sister Andrea, about age 10.

Below are three French masterpieces for solo piano, all written between the late 1880s and very early in the twentieth century – within less than two decades of one another. Hearing these remarkable songs makes me a little boy again. I am positive that my sister Andrea, determined and accomplished in her own right at age eleven, never played anything like them. But when I hear them, I am a little boy, back in our pretty humble one story house in the middle of Nebraska in 1970. My sister’s hair, bright and blond, catching the late afternoon sunlight through the west window. Her fingers falling and rising.

Contemplative and insanely beautiful, this short piece still surely influences composers, as it did the ambient geniuses John Cage and Brian Eno.

Erik Satie – Gymnopédie No.1  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-Xm7s9eGxU

Eric Satie

Eric Satie

Brian Eno

Brian Eno

John Cage

John Cage

Or try these lovely pieces:

Maurice Ravel – Jeux d’eau  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cumoVX7x3Zo

Claude Debussy – Suite bergamasque  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGcEYALnk8s

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Insomnia, Part One: Cat’s Paw

Recently Judy was in Michigan visiting our family for several days, and actually, I wasn’t sleeping too badly. That was nice, because I have trouble sleeping pretty often. Among other things, Judy’s absence affects our cats who are brother and sister. In her absence they are more affectionate toward me (purely by default) and also, instead of waking her to feed him between 3:30 and 5:00 a.m., I feel upon my sleeping face the hungrily insistent paws of 20+ pounds of furry fury. The perpetrator is our male cat, Fortunato (Otto).

He’s loud, too. An athletic meower, Otto puts his whole body into his wake up calls. They are sustained, intermittent, baby-like yowls. They begin with an upsetting trill – really a high, crackling whine that quickly turns into a piercing “ooh” then a puling “ahhwww” — all with a hint of a rolling “arrrr” rumbling deep in his throat. Like the cries of a human infant, his early morning meows make him pathetic, and they fill me with confusion, panic and revulsion.

Otto's meowing is so boring that he often lapses into a yawn himself while perpetrating one.

Otto’s meowing is so boring that he often lapses into a yawn himself while perpetrating one.

And it is like that every god damned morning for me when she’s gone. Lurking above me, he conjures primal howls and commences with surprisingly strong pawing at my puffy face and neck until I lug myself out of bed and get the villain his kibbly breakfast.

So, after one morning’s pestering, I was tromping dazedly away from our comfortable bed and downstairs from our second story bedroom. As usual, I was trying not to think much – simple thoughts: “Don’t fall down. DON’T open your eyes too wide. Etc…” Trying to ‘stay asleep’ while traveling two flights down, then two flights back up — feeding the bastard.  I looked through narrow eyes as I moved through the kitchen, purposely avoiding a glance at the clock, as I headed down the second set of steps to our basement where the beast’s food and dish are kept.

I was doing a pretty good job of “staying asleep”, when at the bottom of the stairs, I rounded the corner into the basement room where the cat food is, and everything changed. On the softest spot on the bare heel of my left foot, I placed the full weight of my body onto a rock-hard nugget that one of the critters had nosed out of its’ dish. It nearly brought me to my knees. Shooting pain. Adrenaline. What a wake up. There was no way I would be going back to sleep any time soon. I limped up the stairs and looked through wide awake eyes at the kitchen clock. It was 4:07 a.m., the most exquisitely lonely time imaginable.

A song to help you “get through” at 4:07 a.m., or any time really. This beautiful, joyful song can take me back in time to the mid-80s, and sounds so fresh it could have been made last week:  From Lonely Is an Eyesore, a compilation of music by artists of the 4AD label, 1987, Dif Juz, No Motion:  http://bit.ly/15XBiPV

One of the most unusual music videos I know of, and a gorgeous vision of loneliness cured, this is one of the prettiest songs you will ever hear from a remarkable record. From It’ll End in Tears, 4AD, 1984, This Mortal Coil, Barramundi:  http://bit.ly/19rZMG6

COMING SOON! Insomnia, Part Two: Lonely Time. (A young insomniac’s guide to selections from the popular music of the late-60s and early-70s.)

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Insomnia: Part Two: Lonely Time (A young insomniac’s guide to selections from the popular music of the late-60s and early-70s.)

Is there is a more exquisitely lonely time than 4:07 a.m.? Veteran insomniacs know it well. A time for a haunted heart and mind, it is nighttime’s point of no return – too late to be awake and too early to rise for the day – so it is also time to give oneself over to all manner of bizarre and crushing doubts — to catalogue your private dread – to scan the night-gray ceiling, wide-eyed, dreaming of the dark-draped and elusive comfort of the sandman’s veil.

Sleep has challenged me intermittently through my life. There is the “not being able to fall asleep” problem – a bad one. But awakening and then being unable to go back to sleep is something almost like torture. As a little kid, sometimes there were horrific and inexplicably violent dreams that made me afraid to go to sleep. Or, (this still happens,) the mind simply would not slow and then shut off. Sounds could help to get me to go to sleep, even muffled white noise: a tumbling load of clothes being dried distantly down the hall, the faint sounds of late-inning baseball being called on TV or radio in another room, ventilation fans whirring in the dark, a tub full of water being drawn.

By the time I was old enough to have a record player in my bedroom, there was sometimes music at night. Music – a loyal companion that helped to stem the frustration of sleeplessness. I had access to great music that surely influenced my lifelong tastes. My mother had dozens of Elvis Presley records, and loved Glen Campbell. My three older sisters’ albums ranged wonderfully from Bacharach to the Beach Boys and the Beatles to the Carpenters and Melanie. Aloha from Hawaii; Gentle on My Mind; Promises, Promises; Pet Sounds; Revolver & Rubber Soul; Close to You; Candles in the Rain. My sisters and parents also had soundtracks from films like The Sting that introduced me to Scott Joplin via Marvin Hamlisch; the fascinating, over-the-top psych-rock of Jesus Christ Superstar; and Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross channeling Billie Holiday.

Diana Ross as Holiday

Diana Ross as Holiday

Carl Anderson as Judas

Carl Anderson as Judas

Listening habits and tastes evolved. I began buying my own records. I would play them and try to time falling asleep precisely as the needle lifted from the last song of the side, the arm shuttled its way to its resting spot, and the player clicked off. In my teens I left music going through the night from a 24 hour FM station. Into undergraduate years there was a lot of lying awake in the dark – almost always with a ‘soundtrack’. Lennon, Bowie, Pink Floyd: Jealous Guy; Golden Years; Time. Intensely introspective time.

The music at night habit finally faded in later college years, and that is long ago. Those songs are now like time capsules for me to open and sort through. The loneliness of 4:07 a.m. had mostly been forgotten about. In Insomnia, Part Three, I will explore the startling 4:07 revelation of a recent morning when something happened to remind me of the very particular kind of loneliness of some of those college mornings, and of an old favorite friend who often helped me through. For now, here are some fine songs that can take you back over forty years:

Dusty Springfield and Burt Bacharach, A House Is Not a Home: http://bit.ly/17F7rmh

The Beatles, If I Needed Someonehttp://bit.ly/15Qr880

Glen Campbell, I Guess I’m Dumb: http://bit.ly/17jLaUO

Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell

Marvin Hamlisch, Scott Joplin’s Solace: http://bit.ly/1dInDqd

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin

The Carpenters, We’ve Only Just Begun: http://bit.ly/15yvSuX

Diana Ross, You’ve Changed: http://bit.ly/14lkWBx

COMING SOON! Insomnia, Part Three: If You Knew Suzanne Like I Knew Suzanne. 

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