Archive for February, 2011

Pump Six And Other Stories (Book Review)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pump Six And Other Stories cover

Pump Six And Other Stories

 

Pump Six And Other Stories establishes its themes on the opening page: A massive new skyscraper is being built in the city of Chengdu, using new organic technology that will actually let it grow until it covers the entire city. The description is fascinating enough that readers of this fiction will feel some exhilaration at the future that technology promises. But then, the focus shifts to the main character of the story, a starving beggar boy who lives in the filth under the shadow of this skyscraper. Technology may offer a lot of potential, but what does it matter if it only helps an elite few, while the rest of humanity is used or discarded at the whim of the powerful?

These characters are actually lucky, compared to those who populate the other short stories in this collection. At least here, some people are gaining a better world. In most of Paolo Bacigalupi’s tales, the state of the world has become so horrible that even the abusive rich people would envy our standard of living today. Most of these futures are dominated by environmental disasters, but other evils are more directly man-made: Brutal Intellectual Property police are apparently the only law in “The Calorie Man”, while “The Fluted Girl” creates a culture of slavery by applying a system of stocks and investment to individual people. One of the great features of short stories is that they don’t have to end happily. Since readers don’t invest as much emotion and time into them as they do to novels, the author doesn’t feel obligated to provide a reassuring ending. Bacigalupi takes full advantage of this: Maybe half of the stories end on a note of hope for the protagonist, if you look at them right, but the overarching feeling is one of doom. Whether or not the damage is permanent, the reader will still despair at the path that humanity is taking.

And despair they will. Bacigalupi may be called a science fiction author, but these works are better described as horror. A true horror story doesn’t need shadowy monsters of fountains of blood, but should rather unsettle the reader’s comfortable life. The disasters shown in Pump Six And Other Stories feel extrapolated from the real world, and their “day after tomorrow” nature hits in a more visceral way than present-day Inconvenient Truths can.

Continue reading

Why Dominion Works (Games)

In late 2008, Dominion introduced the concept of deck-building games. Almost 2 1/2 years later, you’d think that we would have some new games that build on that idea in exciting new ways. Surprisingly, though, we’ve seen only a series of knock-offs that miss the fundamental things that made Dominion so great. A few days ago, I found myself caught in yet another Dominion-vs.-Thunderstone discussion, so I think it’s time to explain once and for all what aspects made Dominion so successful.

Continue reading

Hank Williams III – Rebel Within (Music Review)

Rebel Within cover

Hank III - Rebel Within

“Getting drunk and falling down has taken its toll on me,” announces Hank III as his latest album opens. That message repeats throughout Rebel Within. Even his unrepentant hard-partying tracks mention “the curse of living out my songs”, and hard drugs only come up in reference to the damage they have done to him or his friends. Is the icon of the country-metal scene finally reaching his limit?

There are other possibilities. Williams and Curb Records have fought repeatedly, both in and out of court, and the label even released Straight To Hell under the new name “Bruc Records” to avoid the embarrassment of publishing the first-ever major country CD with a parental advisory label. Rebel Within marks the end of Williams’ contract with Curb, and he has publicly said that he is keeping his best music in reserve for afterwards. Perhaps he just figured that he would have to fight with the label less if he churned out stories about his suffering along with his hell-raising.

It won’t be possible to fully understand this album until we see what he does now that he’s free. In addition to announcing that his lifestyle is catching up with him, Williams also takes his songwriting in a different direction. With this album, a majority of the songs find him solidly in the “country storyteller” vein that faded from fashion a few decades ago. It’s a good sound for him, whether it’s a permanent direction or just a temporary swerve to remind pop country fans what a rich history they are missing. However, these slow, steady songs do feel a little out of place next to the wilder ones like “Rebel Within” or “Tore Up And Loud”.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore Williams’ claim that he is intentionally keeping his best music off of this album. There is a ring of truth to that. It seems that many of the songs either go on for at least half a minute too long or repeat lyrics in places where something different should have been written. The worst offender is “#5”, a mournful song about needing to give up drugs before they kill him. At four minutes, this would have been the emotional core of the album. Stretched out to six-and-a-half minutes, though, most of that impact is lost.

“Drinkin’ Over Momma” might show another glaring example of cut corners. For the most part, the song finds dark humor in its lyrics about a mother who abandons her family for a life of drinking. But in the verse about finding his father a replacement wife, the narrator uses two of the four lines to announce that “she’s gonna have to clean all our shotguns/and skin those critters we bring home”. I don’t question that hunting would be a part of this family’s life, but it hardly seems like it should be the only criteria the singer would mention. Those lines veer dangerously close to the hicksploitation that Williams usually avoids so deftly.

Fortunately, even Williams’ lazier efforts are worth hearing. He still stands out in the modern country outlaw scene that he spawned, and at the best moments, you can see that he is still as innovative and risk-taking as ever, while growing more assured all the time. “Tore Up And Loud” is among his best party songs yet (well, at least until the ending, in which he just yells about being free from Curb Records), and the storytelling style adds more variety to Williams’ songwriting toolkit. This isn’t the first Hank III album anyone should buy, but it’s still good enough to impress anyone who does hear this one first.

Grade: B-


Two From Justin Townes Earle (Music Review)

The Good Life cover

Justin Townes Earle - The Good Life

There is no doubt that Justin Townes Earle is an excellent songwriter. The only question is whether he is writing the best songs for himself to sing. 2008’s The Good Life may be a short 10 tracks (and 30 minutes), but almost every one sounds like a forgotten country-blues classic. The only problem is that he doesn’t sound like a forgotten blues singer. Earle’s¬†young, clean voice is a little disconcerting, and the baby face on the album’s cover adds to the contrast. These are songs that deserve to be sung by a grizzled, world-weary sixty-year-old, not by a man who was in his mid-twenties at the time.

Admittedly, Earle has experienced all the pain that his songs hint at. By 2008, he had already been struggling with addiction for over a decade, and he’d started his solo career after his father’s band had fired him for being unreliable. I suppose that his family’s musical legacy, and his resulting exposure to music, explains why Earle drew on such different influences than would be expected.

Fortunately, the great songwriting still shines through. This album isn’t the classic that it would be if it had found the right ancient blues singer to give it voice, but Earle and his band still deliver the songs with confidence and skill. The songs cover the gamut from the fun, irreverent “South Georgia Sugar Babe” to the somber, Civil War-tinged “Lone Pine Hill”. The title track turns out not to be about “the good life” at all, but is instead a darkly humorous take on a broken man’s insistence that his life isn’t bad after all:

Well since you’ve left I’ve had no place to be.

I spend most every day doing as I please.

I got pockets full of money. Hear it jingle when I walk.

It’s the good life from now on.

Though it’s hard for releases on the Bloodshot label to get much mainstream press, I’m a little surprised that The Good Life didn’t achieve more crossover success. The somber, traditional sound is pitch-perfect for anyone who misses older styles, and it has little of the punk irreverence that would turn most people off from the typical Bloodshot album. (“Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” is the closest this comes to any sort of outlaw country, but even that’s not a litany of crimes, just a light-hearted warning that people should be glad when he’s leaving.)

Harlem River Blues cover

Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues

Two years and two albums later, Earle did achieve a little bit of that crossover success with Harlem River Blues. Not coincidentally, this is the album in which he has found a style that seems to fit his age and life experiences. Rather than setting songs in the general land of American history or heartbreak, he ties them to his current home of New York City. This is a unique approach: Not many people dare to write country songs about New York. Yes, Earle does say that he feels lost and misses the country, but the implication is that this is truly his home. It is a modern twist on the country tradition, but the assured songwriting makes it feel natural.

The title song is the gem of the album, and probably one of the best songs of 2010, period. Earle announces his plan to drown himself in the Harlem River with conviction, resignation, and a strange joy. The contrary, upbeat nature of the music makes this old-school country theme as fresh and addictive as any recent pop song. Unfortunately, Earle was apparently a bit too aware of how strong “Harlem River Blues” was. In addition to naming his album after it, he also made it the opening track, despite how strong it would have sounded as a follow-up to almost any song on the album. (Seriously: I worked it into a mix CD recently, and its rich opening riff makes an effective transition from just about anything.) As a bookend, the album ends with an off-key reprise that feels more like padding than a reminder of the previous high point.

That’s not to say that the other songs are bad. “One More Night In Brooklyn” follows up “Harlem River Blues” with the declaration that maybe he can learn to live in the city after all, while “Working For The MTA” combines that urban theme with traditional train songs to create a simple but powerful tale of longing. From the somber “Christchurch Woman” to the joyful “Move Over Mama”, he covers a wide range of topics, even if the musical style is a little repetitive by the end.

Unlike The Good Life, this album feels appropriate to Earle’s life. He still covers old bluesy themes like depression or wanderlust (“Slippin’ And Slidin'” and “Wanderin'”, respectively), but now they are definitely rooted in his personal experiences. Over all, the songwriting doesn’t stand up to the high standard set on The Good Life, but the results actually work better because they feel so appropriate for the singer. If this album weren’t so short (10 tracks and 30 minutes, just like The Good Life, if you ignore the reprise at the end) with a couple of fillers, this would be an A-level album. Now that Earle has established his unique path, I expect that he’ll soon be able to apply that classic songwriting to it consistently. When he does, the results will truly be great.

The Good Life: B

Harlem River Blues: B+


 

Shambling Towards Hiroshima (Book Review)

Shambling Towards Hiroshima cover

Shambling Towards Hiroshima

Shambling Towards Hiroshima has a hell of a high concept: In the final days of World War II, B-movie actor Syms Thorley discovers that the U.S. has been developing a terrifying new weapon: Monstrous, fire-breathing lizards strong enough to destroy entire cities. Horrified at the thought of the civilian casualties this will cause, Thorley agrees to help the army in a last-ditch effort to end the war without super-weapons. Thorley will wear a rubber suit and pose as a dwarf version of these monsters, so the U.S. can demonstrate their destructive potential to Japanese emissaries. If Thorley is convincing enough as a miniature monster, he just might convince them to surrender before millions of people are killed. Thus begins the highest-stakes monster movie of all time.

 

Continue reading

The Internet Is Surprising

This blog is only a month old, and I write it as a hobby. At the moment, I have two friends who check in on it regularly, and I can expect five to ten more hits whenever I remind people about my blog on Twitter. That’s fine, especially since I know that most of the things I write about wouldn’t be interesting to all of my friends. It would be cool if I could gain a small group of followers over the next year or so, but I don’t have any illusions about getting big.

Technically, this blog is publicly available to the whole world. In reality, though, I expected it to be lost in the noise of millions of other low-traffic sites. I’ve been shocked that, in only one month and 18 posts, I’ve already been reminded of the internet’s potential three times.

Continue reading

Spinnerette (Music Review)

Spinnerette cover

Spinnerette - Spinnerette

As the frontwoman for The Distillers, Brody Dalle was one of the most important figures in early 21st century punk. I’m probably in the minority here, but I would list their Sing Sing Death House among the best albums of the past decade. By the time of their third full-length, though, it was obvious that Dalle was ready to take a new direction, and so it isn’t surprising to see her reappear several years later as the leader of a new band.

With Spinnerette’s self-titled debut, Dalle trades her hard punk sound in for, surprisingly, something more reminiscent of louder ’90s alternative songs. It stands out from most of the current ’90s retreads, though, who are making a calculated decision to use a well-defined, 20-year-old style. Instead, Spinnerette has the desperation of a band that is truly from that era, immersed in a sound that is too fresh to examine objectively, and eager to experiment with different ways to express themselves, even though their creations will be embarrassing as often as they succeed.

Dalle frequently lists Courtney Love as an influence, and that can be heard here. The songs are more complex, though, especially the convoluted lyrics. They rarely follow a verse-chorus-verse structure, and Dalle isn’t simply shouting her emotions with the straightforwardness of Love or her old punk self. This is Hole after a few years in art school, perhaps.

As much as I respect their sloppy, wild experimentation, the results are disappointing. Had Spinnerette existed in the ’90s, I imagine that they would have gotten minor radio play for a couple songs (the catchy “Baptized By Fire”, and maybe the hard-driving “Ghetto Love”), developed a minor fanbase that poured over their lyrics with a fine-tooth comb, and faded from mainstream attention almost immediately. The songs may not be bad, but they rarely stand out, either.

The lyrics themselves are also reminiscent of Hole, but come from a more nihilistic source. In the opening track, “Ghetto Love”, Dalle describes herself as “just a girl out looking for love”. Though love may be dead, she asserts, she is never going to give in. Most of the songs that follow alternately describe heartbreak and longing, seemingly backing up this theme. But the album closes with “A Prescription for Mankind”, which seems to come around to the “love is dead” viewpoint that Dalle fought against at first. “I do believe Hell is on Earth”, Dalle declares, rejecting the faith-based prescription promised in the song’s title.

Spinnerette is at its most compelling when Dalle’s lyrics are straightforward, or at least delivered as comprehensible earworms. The opening track’s declaration “I’m Joan of Arc on a mission: Avenge love’s death” is catchy and memorable, and “Rebellious Palpitations” compares love to drugs with to the simplicity of her punk roots (“White lines on the table look /like a road/ like a road/ like a road/ Then there’s the message that we’re hooked/ dominoes/ dominoes/ dominoes”). Part of the reason they stand out is that they are surrounded by lines with much more obscured deliveries and meanings. Though the band has a ’90s hard rock style down pat, their sound isn’t compelling enough to listen to when the lyrics don’t take center stage. There is some potential for greatness in this band, but Dalle will need to go through another radical reinvention of herself if it is going to be realized.

Grade: C-

The Witmark Demos (Music Review)

The Witmark Demos cover

The Witmark Demos

The latest in Bob Dylan’s official “bootleg series”, The Witmark Demos showcases the demos he recorded at the start of his career. The catch is that, when these were recorded, not even he suspected that this was the first chapter of a folksinging life; instead, Dylan was hoping for success behind the scenes, and was simply recording these so that professional singers would buy them.

This appears to be a new trend for aging singer-songwriters. The Witmark Demos was released only a few months after Kris Kristofferson’s own collection of demos, Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends. A cynic might claim that they are now scraping the bottom of the barrel in their search for nostalgic material to package up and sell. In reality, these releases have a lot of value to people who are interested in the stories behind the songs. The idea of professional singers writing their own material was relatively new in the 1960’s, and the liner notes to Dylan’s release talk extensively about how he was at the forefront of this change.

If you just want to enjoy the songs, you’ll find it uneven. As if in warning, the first disc opens with “Man On The Street”, which Dylan stops abruptly because “I lost the verses”. Other songs are also incomplete (“Do you want this? It’s a drag”) or are interrupted so that Dylan can correct his lyrics. These aren’t necessarily songs that you’ll play over and over.

Don’t worry, though. Most of the songs are complete. They are still simple, with no production and little music other than Dylan’s own guitar and harmonica (after all, they were just recorded to help potential buyers imagine how they would sound), but Dylan doesn’t sound bad in a no-frills environment. Additionally, it’s impressive to hear how many of his future hits were fleshed out even at that early age. (Note that many are still structured as simple, traditional songs, such as “Rambling, Gambling Willie”. If you only like Dylan at his most complex, and don’t care for folk traditions, this isn’t for you.) Of the 47 tracks on these two discs, about two-thirds of them deserve to be in a Dylan obsessive’s regular rotation, even if they aren’t necessarily as good as the later versions. In fact, fifteen of these songs never made it into any official Dylan release, so they will be exciting to even more casual fans.

Personally, I am one of those casual fans. For me, the collection would have been much more interesting if it focused on those fifteen new songs, and then padded out the rest with other, better outtakes from Dylan’s early years. The collection as a whole is worth listening to a few times for its novelty, but isn’t something I’ll return to. Fortunately, I found the perfect way for someone like me to appreciate this set: I bought it for my brother, a true Dylan completist, and had a few weeks to enjoy it before I passed it on. I highly recommend that you do something similar.

Grade: B-


Webcomics Roundup: January

I’ve decided the best way for me to cover webcomics will be with a monthly article. In contrast to my normal posts, I won’t be assigning grades here. The new comics are generally too incomplete for a fair review, and of the established ones, I’ll only have read through their archives if I really liked them. Therefore, most of the ones I talk about will already be cherry-picked as an A or B comic. I’ll reserve letter grades for things like books and movies, which (1) I’m likely to complete even if I don’ t like them, and (2) usually cost money, so it’s more fair to point out the ones that I don’t like.

I was undecided at first about whether to categorize webcomics with print comics or to keep them separate. They’re obviously related mediums, if not the same, but in practice, they have very different audiences. I did eventually decide to categorize them together, though. (Use the “webcomics” tag to find just those posts.) This month’s subject matter is what made the decision for me: The three most notable new webcomics in January were all created by established names from the world of print comics. The boundary between the print and web worlds has definitely become more fluid.

Below, I’ll discuss Gingerbread Girl, Ratfist, and Bucko.

Continue reading

Eyelid Movies (Music Review)

Eyelid Movies cover

Phantogram - Eyelid Movies

Phantogram distinguishes itself from the electro-pop field with its simplicity. Instead of complex arrangements cutting in and out of epic songs, they are content to weave a few simple strands together. This is both a blessing and a curse on Eyelid Movies: On one hand, these songs are compelling and occasionally even hooky in a way that that very little electronic music manages. On the other hand, once the novelty of the songs wear off, they don’t offer a lot of depth.

The two band members trade off vocal duties throughout the album. Sarah Barthel has a smooth, ethereal voice that grabs the listener’s attention, but never portrays much emotion. They make the right choice to subsume her vocals with the music, making her more of a lead instrument than a singer with a message. Josh Carter’s voice, unfortunately, is much more bland. He only sounds interesting when heavily distorted, as on “Running From the Cops”.

Since vocals are only an intermittent draw in these songs, it doesn’t seem out of place for the lyrics to feel like an afterthought. They are generic but serviceable, never embarrassing the band but also never adding more than an occasional trippy phrase that rises above the mellow sound. In fact, I was surprised when I discovered that they had bothered to print the lyrics in the album.

Like the lyrics and vocals, most of the music is also at its best when it is simple and mesmerizing. These songs would be in danger of being nothing more than well-crafted lullabies if it weren’t for the drum tracks. Rising above the rest of the sounds in a way that neither the singers nor other instruments do, the hip-hop influenced beats give the songs a solid structure. When played loud, they sound confident and interesting; when played soft, this harsh backbone melts away and the result can be enjoyed as simple background music. Fans of Portishead should take note of this band.

A few songs are stunning and memorable. Most notably, the openers “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small” have unique soundscapes and arresting refrains. “Running From the Cops” is similarly original and manages to provide an exception to the rule of uninteresting lyrics. If Phantogram could have brought that level of craft to this entire album, it would be a classic. Unfortunately, they contented themselves mostly with songs that are only interesting as long as they are new. Once the initial novelty has faded away, most of the album is a little too simple and repetitive to be played loud. At the quiet background-music level, it still works, but that’s hardly a notable accomplishment. I suspect that its qualities (mesmerizing sound, trippy lyrics, and a structure that is fascinating as long as it seems new) make it perfect stoner music, but again, that’s an already-crowded field.

Eyelid Movies is a solid performance from a new band, and I’m curious about where they will go next. I worry that they will take the normal route for a “maturing” electronic band and mix in too many elements that drown out their simple style. If they can focus on the unique sounds that made their best songs such stand-outs, though, they could go far.

Grade: B-