Archive for March, 2011

Joe the Barbarian (Comic Review)

"The Light's In Danger"Joe is a sullen teenager who would rather retreat into his own imaginary world than face reality. When he falls into a diabetic shock, he gets his wish: A fantasy land populated by his old toys hails him as a savior, and he embarks on a crazy journey only occasionally marred by the reality of him stumbling around a real-world house in search of life-saving sugar.

The idea of someone switching between reality and fantasy is certainly not new, but Joe the Barbarian handles it with aplomb. Author Grant Morrison is a master of crazy ideas, and elevates the fantasy setting beyond normal expectations. (Seriously, dwarf pirates whose submarines navigate a pipe system based on Joe’s plumbing? Skull-wearing inventor-monks, whose glimpses of real-world science are confused with magic? The world is just creative enough to imply that there is a solid history beyond the clichéd “toys living in a magic land”.) Artist Sean Murphy provides an understated realism that easily transitions between the dark, grimy real world and a fantasy world that is manic, cartoony, but still threatened by a growing shadow. Even the publisher plays a key role here: As Vertigo is an imprint of DC, Morrison and Murphy are free to pepper their “toyland” with recognizable action figures instead of generic, copyright-skirting approximations.

The transitions between the two worlds, often panel-to-panel, are masterfully done, and it’s impressive that the comic pulls this off without disrupting the pacing. This keeps the stakes high, constantly reminding the reader of the life-and-death battle that’s taking place in two levels at once. Echoing his real-world status, the characters he meets recognize him as a foretold savior named “The Dying Boy”. The conflict is clear: Joe is only able to save them as long as he is in danger of dying from a diabetic hallucination. Will he condemn them all if he gets to a life-saving drink of soda?

Despite this, the tension would be a lot stronger if the series was more convincing in its hints that these fantasy people might be real. Since everything we see is through Joe’s fevered eyes, any evidence of these creatures’ reality is easy to dismiss as part of his hallucination. The other land is fun and original, but the only conflict that kept me hanging on from month to month was just whether he would get some sugar in his system.

The ending is also surprisingly pat. Morrison unexpectedly makes his only recent creator-owned series more straightforward than the superhero work he has been doing. Warrior-rat Jack must face up to his feelings of inadequacy, the normal-sized pirate prince needs to gain acceptance among his dwarven subjects, and, in a subplot that feels entirely shoehorned in, Joe is in danger of losing his house to foreclosure.

That’s not to say that Joe the Barbarian is bad. Morrison and Murphy are both able to deliver solid results in genre exercises like this, and there are plenty of ideas and developed themes that prove that they aren’t just phoning this in. However, it rarely tries to be more than a straightforward fantasy story about a teenage boy facing his issues. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t going to appeal to anyone who wouldn’t normally want to read those stories.

Grade: B-

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Cake – Showroom of Compassion (Music Review)

Showroom of Compassion cover

Cake - Showroom of Compassion

“I’m so sick of you, so sick of me, I don’t want to be with you”, sings John McCrea on “Sick Of You”. Is this a breakup song, or a complaint about his band? If the latter, that would certainly explain the bored, forgettable performance on a song that should at least be charged with some disdainful energy. If you’re wondering how this ended up being the first single off Cake’s new album, the answer is equally disappointing: Showroom of Compassion doesn’t have anything better to offer.

 

Cake’s repertoire has always been marked by energy, experimentation, and the occasional burst of vitriol. This album may still provide the brass instrumentation and McCrea’s signature flat voice, but it no longer feels like a punk masterpiece filtered through a ska-meets-beat-poetry scene. Showroom is at least an improvement over Pressure Chief, their last (7 years past!) effort. But even though this album drops the embarrassing attempts to fit a formula that should be defined by constant change, it doesn’t offer up anything new, either. These songs would universally fit in as filler tracks on on of their other albums.

There is nothing wrong with Cake filler tracks. On other albums, they provided a sort of reassuring charm, painting a picture of a band that was happy with everything they were doing and didn’t see the need to strive for crowd-pleasing hits every moment. However, devoid of these hits, the filler is unavoidably disappointing.

There are hints of a band still looking for ways to evolve. “Federal Funding” offers a glimpse into the sorts of songs a “grown-up” Cake could write two decades after their formation: The low-key lyrics announce “you’ll receive the federal funding, you can add another wing” without a hint of irony, allowing its disgust at this mundane world to come through only as subtext. The song may not be radio-friendly, but it gives us a vision of a band that could evolve to be dangerous and challenging to fans who are now over 30. None of the other songs follow up on this promise, though.

After the disastrous Pressure Chief, this album is vaguely reassuring. It’s still not good, but at least they have reversed their downward slide. Now that they can handle the solid, secondary Cake songs, they only need to come up with a couple standout tracks to create a great album. If they manage this, though, it won’t be until the next try.

Grade: C

 

Roger Miret And The Disasters – Gotta Get Up Now (Music Review)

Gotta Get Up Now cover

Roger Miret And The Disasters - Gotta Get Up Now

For the past decade, Roger Miret (of the seminal 80’s hardcore band Agnostic Front) has fronted The Disasters. The songs typically tell unapologetic stories of his violent youth and the glory days of punk rock. The result is strangely backward-looking for a genre that usually focuses on the here-and-now. But Miret has earned the right to a few victory laps, and The Disasters’ songs are clear and compulsively listenable, a cleaner, Oi Punk-influenced version of his hardcore past.

Gotta Get Up Now still has these stories of Miret’s youth, but it takes a surprising turn towards activism. Through tracks like “Stand Up and Fight”, “The Enemy”, and the title track, Miret suddenly seems more interested in calling his fans to action instead of just telling stories. This is what I thought I wanted for the past few albums, but the reality is strangely unsatisfying.

This is largely because Miret is so vague on what he’s calling on his fans to do. The message is “stand up and work together”, but the lyrics rarely mention what to work together on. There’s a brief mention about the power in a union, and “Red White and Blue” accuses politicians of lying to us, but that’s about it. He’s much more forthcoming when it comes to details about growing up in the Lower East Side (pissing in a record store, breaking into cars, and seeing friends die), but that’s not going to win him much political capital. Are his intentions actually political at all? “Tonight’s the Night” implies that he’s just calling people to rally around a strong, united punk scene.

The songs themselves are satisfying, of course. The band hasn’t changed much in the five years since their last album. If anything, the production is a little dirtier than the earlier albums, which were unusually clear for punk, and the rest of the band is more likely to join in on the raucous vocals. But they don’t have any especially hooky tracks like “Kiss Kiss Kill Kill” or “Roots Rockn’ Roll” to define the album, and the final result feels less vital than before.

The one surprise on Gotta Get Up Now is “JR”, an loving ode to a son. The song is arranged and performed like traditional country, but using their standard punk instruments and vocalization. It’s an unusual take on the increasingly common punk-turned-country song, though Miret will need to make his voice sound a little more serious if he plans to sustain goodwill for this style beyond this one song. I’m glad to see them experimenting with new sounds, though. The band still has a lot of potential, but needs to find new things to say if they are going to stay as important as they used to be.

Grade: C+

Decemberists – The King Is Dead (Music Review)

The King Is Dead cover

Decemberists - The King Is Dead

To start, let’s get this straight: The King Is Dead is not The Decemberists’ “country album” or “folk album”. It has some elements of those, with an acoustic guitar taking lead and the mandolin, tambourine, and harmonica occasionally appearing as well. But the music never settles for long within the strictures of either genre. If anything, a vague term like “The Decemberists’ Americana album” would work.

It’s obvious why people are looking to define The King Is Dead, though. It’s a startling new direction for the band. While The Decemberists have never been afraid of change, this is a sudden reversal from the sea shanties and gritty 18th-century settings.

Many songs still fit comfortably within our expectations of The Decemberists. “Rox In The Box” is full of winking affectation for a granite mine that’s a full century and several social strata removed from Colin Meloy’s current world, while lifting riffs from the traditional Scottish “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”. (It’s also a disturbingly cheerful song about a serious tragedy.) “January Hymn” is a simple song with first-person narration that Meloy’s voice makes intensely personal. But other songs are only identifiably by The Decemberists because of that distinctive voice, and that highlights the boundaries that the band has generally stayed within before: Meloy’s nasal voice has always worked either as a quirk to make his narrators seem human and present, or as a comfortable vehicle for over-literate affectation. Hearing him sing without either of those elements is occasionally jarring. He never strays from his strengths for long enough to make me argue that a different vocalist would be better, but the thought did cross my mind a few times. Fortunately, the songwriting is so consistently strong that any complaints about the vocals seem out of place.

Given that the first few tracks emphasize this departure from the band’s normal sound, it’s obviously intended to be the purpose of the album. These songs break from the clear, story-driven lyrics of the past for more inscrutable meanings, and command their simple Americana instruments to create a powerful, confident wall of sound that would go straight to the top of the pop charts in a slightly different universe. This album deserves to bring in an entirely new set of fans without ever alienating the existing ones.

Knowing The Decemberists, it won’t be more than an album or two before they have shed this style for something new. In a way, that’s too bad. A band could spend its entire career exploring the sonic territory uncovered by The King Is Dead. The catchy, pop-oriented feel mixes with complex instrumentation and lyrics to create one of the best albums of their career.

Grade: A

Knight and Squire (Comic Review)

Knight and Squire

Knight and Squire

Though Knight and Squire were introduced in the 1950’s, for the past decade or so this British Batman and Robin has been solely the domain of DC’s mad genius writer Grant Morrison. I have to admit I was a bit worried when Paul Cornell began his Knight and Squire miniseries, as other writers’ followups to Morrison work have generally been embarrassing. I needn’t have worried.

For one thing, Morrison has left these two heroes surprisingly untouched. While they’ve been woven into his large DC epics, most notably the prelude to Seven Soldiers and throughout his exploration of Batman, they appeared and left without actually getting wrapped up in those convoluted plots. That leaves them with little more defining them beyond being a cheery, slightly silly British superhero team. Further, Cornell himself is British, and he’s used this miniseries as an opportunity to explore just what DC’s America-centric superhero universe is like across the pond.

Knight and Squire charactersCornell attacks this opportunity with Morrison-esque creativity, coming up with over 100 new characters for this six-issue series. While that’s partly a marketing gimmick, quite a few of them have become familiar, fleshed-out characters by the end of the story. Even the ones who just appear for a panel are still granted clever names and costumes, and help the result feels more like a bustling world than a simple gimmick. Jimmy Broxton’s art mostly fits the mold of competent, modern superhero work, but he has a playful inventiveness that fits well with Cornell’s vision. Designing multiple new characters every month is no easy task, but Broxton makes it look natural.

The world-building goes well beyond a lot of funny new characters, though. Cornell explores what it would really mean to be a British superhero, somehow mixing the gaudy costumes with a stiff upper lip and quiet reserve. In this world, most British heroes started as a self-aware reaction to the American scene, making it more a club than a frantic life-or-death battle between exaggerated personalities. The first issue sets the scene in a special pub with “truce magic”, allowing the heroes and villains to mix without fear of a fight breaking out. (It’s a relatively recent tradition by British standards, explains Squire. “It’s only been here since the Sixteenth Century.”)

The British nature permeates this, from silly jokes to serious villains (such as a cult whose vision of restoring England’s classic past highlights a dark, racist undertone to modern culture). From my American point of view, it rings very true. But then, Americans are used to thinking the world revolves around them. I suspect that a true Englishman might be surprised at how much time these people spend comparing themselves to the US.

Cornell’s real gift is for dialogue. It comes to the fore here, establishing both this new setting and the people within it. The superhero battles are actually the weak point of this series, the high points being when the action is incidental to the character-building. Of note, see Issue 1, with the pub and its truce magic, and issue 4, in which Squire has an awkward first date and we learn more about the history of both leads than Morrison ever provided.

The first four issues are lighthearted done-in-one stories, so it’s a bit of a surprise when the final two see the heroes collide with the more brutal American hero culture. Some fans have decried this turn to the “grim and gritty” clichés of modern superhero comics. It makes sense, though. “Grim and gritty” isn’t automatically bad, it’s just become the standard for lazy, uninspired writers. The England-meets-America confrontation makes perfect sense given the set-up of the first few issues, and it never sinks to violence for violence’s sake. Without giving too much away, there are some truly disappointing “grim” events, but the heroes’ ultimate goodness, and British-ness, sees them through. What makes most modern “dark” comics disappointing is that the writers forget that superhero stories should be about the good guys persevering due to their morality, not just suffering for it. Cornell gets this balance exactly right.

While Knight and Squire does suffer when it moves away from the characters to focus on plot, fortunately that’s not the focus of the series. Amazingly, this Batman spin-off managed to slip past the DC editors with its own feel, rather than the lazy “Batman in England” that I would have expected. What we got instead was unique and inventive worldbuilding. I expect to see many of Cornell’s creations appearing in other peoples’ stories in the near future. Even more importantly, I hope to see him back with these characters before long, introducing us all to this familiar yet surprising culture.

Grade: B

The Vaselines (Music Review)

Enter the Vaselines cover

The Vaselines - Enter the Vaselines

The Vaselines were sort of the Velvet Underground of the late 80’s: Almost no one listened to them at the time, but everyone who did went out and started a band. Today, they are best known as “the band that Nirvana kept covering”. But last year, the Vaselines started getting more attention in their own right. Sub Pop released a retrospective of their past work, as well as their first new album in two decades. It’s late in coming, but the band deserves the increased recognition that they are finally getting.

Listening to Enter The Vaselines, it’s easy to see how they inspired Kurt Cobain and his peers. Though all the songs were recorded in the late 80’s, they sound like they came straight out of 90’s rock radio. It’s also easy to see why they didn’t make a splash on their own. The low budget, DIY performance had very little in common with the polished synth-rock that dominated at the time. All their recorded work, two EPs and one full-length, fits on one CD, leaving the second disk to be filled with demos and live recordings. (This second CD has a couple bright points, but for the most part, it leaves you feeling that you didn’t miss anything by not seeing them at the time. Perhaps that is another reason that the band didn’t achieve immediate fame.)

Most of their best-known songs are on those first two EPs. With very few influences to draw from directly, The Vaselines applied their low-fi approach to anything that crossed their mind. The results include fuzzed-out rock, folk, pop, and even a compelling disco cover. The lyrics are bratty, immature, and often sexual. The kink factor is raised by the way the boy-girl duo took turns with the lead vocals, giving the impression that they were double-teaming the subject of their song.

Their eventual album, Dum Dum, is not quite as memorable as those early songs. That is partly because a full-length release allows space for filler songs, so it doesn’t seem as solid as the earlier EPs. Additionally, by this time the band had settled on a more straightforward rock sound as the source for most of their songs. It was prescient, as most bands would be following that lead a few years later, but the songs don’t feel as varied or memorable as the early ones.

That’s not to say that Dum Dum was bad. Held up next to the songs it inspired a few years later, it still sounds great. Even discounting their influence, these songs are good enough to be remembered alongside the hits of the alternative years. And to be fair, they did experiment with their sound a bit on the album: “No Hope” is a smooth, compelling downer of a song, and “Lovecraft” is a (less successful) droner. But the album is best appreciated for its catchy, bouncing songs like “Sex Sux (Amen)” and “Oliver Twisted”.

Sex With An X cover

The Vaselines - Sex With An X

Sex With An X is a new Vaselines album, in the sense that it’s fronted by the same two people, and they still have a gift for hooky, memorable songs. But the days of The Vaselines are half a lifetime away for them, and they don’t seem to have any desire to recreate that time. The new album neither slavishly follows the original sound nor tries to re-establish their cutting-edge credentials. Instead, this is a comfortable, confident slice of adult-oriented pop music from two middle-aged people who have nothing to prove.

The sound is smooth, and the production is slick, in direct contrast to their late 80’s sound. In some ways, this feels more appropriate for the name “Vaselines” than the original songs. However, they’ve lost the kinky edge that also fit the name. The few songs that mention sex now sound tame (“Feels so right/ It must be wrong for me/ Let’s do it, let’s do it again” goes the title track), and the rest have been replaced by more world-weary breakup songs.

It’s still good, as long as no one holds them to a purist ideal of how the band “should” sound. The songs are not going to inspire a new generation to start their own bands, but if you’re just looking for good, memorable songs, the hit-to-miss ratio is honestly better than Dum Dum’s was. The singers still have a sense of humor, as seen in “Overweight But Over You” and “Ruined” (a self-aware attack on old, washed-up bands), and they cover a wide variety of topics, from “I Hate the 80’s” to “My God’s Bigger Than Your God”.

These two releases are both very good in different ways. Exit The Vaselines is a relic of an under-appreciated classic. It is no longer groundbreaking, but still holds up for anyone who wants more music from that era. Sex With An X is a collection of polished songs that aren’t necessarily trying to be remembered decades later, but that are perfectly fun right now.

Enter The Vaselines: B

Sex With An X: B

Air (Comic Review)

Air

Air

G. Willow Wilson’s Air ran for 24 issues, a pretty standard length for a modern Vertigo title. However, it had more ambitious goals than the other comics it was published alongside: It focuses on airplanes while examining our post-9/11 world, with all the concerns of terrorism, security, national identity, and wars for oil brought to the forefront. I want to commend it for the issues it raises, but none of them are ever satisfactorily answered.

The main character, Blythe, is a flight attendant who’s afraid of heights. (Let that sink in for a minute.) When she finds herself in the middle of a fight to control new-found Aztec technology, she learns that she is a “hyperpract”, one of the rare people able to use the new devices. With it, she can access a reality where symbols matter more than physical objects. Most importantly, this gives her the power to move an airplane to another place without using fuel. Everyone, of course, wants control over this post-oil future.

Since hyperpract technology is still secret, the battle breaks down into two conspiratorial groups: On Blythe’s side is an alliance between a private airplane company, a group of carefree outlaws led by a still-living Amelia Earhart, and Interpol. (The ethical implications of this combination are rarely brought up.) The bad guys are a vigilante group named The Etisian Front, who are easily identified by the giant tattoo worn by each member of this secret society. Led by a Dick Cheney lookalike, they represent America’s desire to “make flight safe” at any cost. They are easy to hate, since they keep railing against Blythe’s love interest, Zayne, for looking like a terrorist.

Of course, they are somewhat right to mistrust Zayne. He admits to knowing people in Hezbollah in the first issue, and he constantly travels under suspicious aliases. Air’s strengths come from the way it doesn’t present a black-and-white world, and this is best represented in the thin line that separated Zayne’s choice to join Interpol from his other option of becoming a terrorist. (In one memorable sequence, Zayne’s brother ties religious extremists to the book’s theme of symbols defining the world, explaining that the symbols themselves are like a virus, getting into the heads of fundamentalists when their defenses are low.)

Symbolism as Technology

The comic’s weaknesses, though, are pretty strong. Just like the concept of a flight attendant who can’t handle heights, none of the people act in a remotely realistic manner. Blythe and her fellow flight attendants skip work to go off on strange adventures even before they’re introduced to the secret societies fighting over the future. The plan for starting the age of hyperpract flight is to keep sending Blythe off on missions, even though she almost kills herself (and loses the valuable Aztec device) each time. And Amelia Earhart’s secret society was founded two minutes after she met a drunken, boastful arms smuggler in a bar. She immediately decided that this dangerous man was a kindred spirit who shared her love of freedom, so she trusted him with her identity and her knowledge about hyperpract technology.

The characters’ behavior didn’t make any sense until I realized that this should be viewed as a romance novel rather than the action-adventure it appears to be on the surface. Blythe is a flighty, confused woman who can’t begin to reach her potential until she is centered by the love of a good man. Aside from a few moments of stubborn defiance, most of the plot is driven forward by the fact that she’ll passively do whatever anyone tells her: Going off on strange missions, handing over valuable objects to whichever stranger is currently claiming to be a good guy, and even sleeping with someone else simply because he tells her that Zayne is untrustworthy. Zayne seems suspicious, all right, but it was only their love at first sight that kept her from turning in an obvious con artist who kept flirting with her as he compromised airport security with a series of false identities. (Zayne, of course, did that and drew Blythe into his dangerous world because he felt the same way about her.)

Most of the series is a frustrating mix: hints of clever ideas and a meaningful worldview derailed by a ridiculous plot and characters. The last story arc goes off the rails, with a series of unbelievable adventures that are framed as Blythe’s “flight test”. It includes an unsophisticated time travel story that seems very pleased with its cleverness, and a book with secrets about the future that is never explained enough to feel like it fits into the rest of the story. Those final issues suggest that if the series hadn’t ended at that point, it still would have been out of ideas.

Take that, civilization!

I’ve made it to the end of a comic review without mentioning the art. That’s actually a credit to M. K. Perker, whose style fits this title so perfectly that it rarely registers consciously. His command over body language and expressions is excellent, and it makes the (many) conversations in this series feel as engaging as the action sequences. (In fact, he stumbles occasionally during the action. Perker’s people seem the most natural when they aren’t touching others.) I hope we see more of him in the future: To date, he has only worked on one title that wasn’t written by Wilson. And while I want to see more of Perker’s work, I’m not currently inclined to try more of Wilson’s. She has a lot of good ideas, but doesn’t seem very good at weaving them into a story.

Grade: C-