Archive for April, 2011

Other Lands (Book Review)

“Elenet, the first man… learned enough of the Giver’s tongue that he became vain. He tried to make his own creations, but because he was not the Giver, nothing he tried came out right. It was always twisted… To warm himself, he made fire, not noticing until later that fire consumes all it touches. To put out the fire, he lifted water from the rivers and created storms. To quell the storms, he blew the sky clean and found he had created deserts.”

Other Lands cover

Other Lands

The second book in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy continues its exploration of the gray areas of morality and the way that even well-intentioned people will propagate evil. This isn’t always subtle: The opening scene in Other Lands features Princess Mena Akaran hunting down magic-spawned beasts that were a side effect of the wars in the first book. Durham doesn’t let his point bog down the story, though. A strength of his writing is that he can feature a huge number of point-of-view characters, some directly opposed to each other, but almost all with sympathetic motivations.

This novel picks up nine years after the end of Acacia, but the plot follows smoothly from the last page. With the cultures and history of the “Known World” now fleshed out, the scope expands to include the “Other Lands” across the sea. The great sin of the protagonists’ empire is a long-standing slave trade with that land, but no one knows what happens to the “quota children” once they are sent there. Without giving too much away about the status quo after the first book, it’s safe to say that new threats challenge the empire in both lands.

Looking back at my review of Acacia, I see that my chief complaint was “the plodding pace that derails so much epic fantasy”. This is thankfully gone in the new novel. Durham shaves 150 pages from the first book’s 750-page length (measuring by the mass market paperback), and narrows the timescale from a full generation to a few action-packed months. But some of the first novel’s strengths are also lost. Most notably, while Acacia presented major actors on every side with good intentions and a conflicted morality, Other Lands shows us some important people who are easy to dismiss as simply evil. The moral conflicts still do add rich layers to the story, but it’s much easier to root for a winner this time around.

Other Lands also focuses much more on magic and other fantastic elements. This is not a surprise, as the stakes steadily climb throughout the trilogy, but one notable feature of Acacia was how firmly rooted the book was on the mundane and human. Most people, even royalty, knew of no magic beyond their ancient legends, and this was a refreshing approach for an epic fantasy. The fantastic elements in Other Lands are interesting and appropriate to the story, but it doesn’t feel as unique on my bookshelf as Acacia did.

The plot itself is well done, though. As well as being interesting, it does an excellent job of keeping its various elements balanced and moving. Unlike many epic fantasies, every indication is that Durham will be able to deliver a satisfying, timely ending without needing to stretch the series out into additional books. However, it should be noted that while Acacia worked as a satisfying, standalone story, Other Lands is obviously all set-up for the final book. That doesn’t make it bad, but it is always preferable when a book can work both on its own and as part of a larger story. (Also, while Acacia sent the world through major upheavals and could kill off main characters at any time, Other Lands seems to tread more carefully. The status quo evolves slowly, and characters that survived from the first novel seem to be under the author’s protection now. I suspect that this is mainly because the story is building up towards the next climactic chapter, and not because Durham is softening.)

In short, Other Lands continues a fantasy series that is more notable for its unique moral and humanistic concerns than for an especially thrilling story. However, the solid writing and thoughtful build-up make it clear that the next book will be timely and at least as good as the first two. These days, not many fantasy authors can give their fans confidence of that.

Grade: B-

Corin Tucker Band – 1,000 Years (Music Review)

1,000 Years cover

Corin Tucker Band - 1,000 Years

Corin Tucker hasn’t been heard from much since Sleater-Kinney ended. Her long-awaited reappearance, now at the head of The Corin Tucker Band, is sure to thrill some fans and disappoint others. Sleater-Kinney’s final album, The Woods, showed that they didn’t feel beholden to anyone else’s expectations, and so it’s no surprise that the new 1,000 Years rarely sounds like Sleater-Kinney.

Tucker’s voice is still unmistakeable, of course. But she is much more restrained now, usually singing in a low-key, relaxed croon. Occasionally, she slips comfortably into her old hooky vocal catches (in “Half A World Away”) or full-throated rock mode (most notably in the refrainof “Doubt”), but she usually sounds like she expects to be singing for a quiet coffee shop than a raucous crowd.

The band, which includes both a dedicated cellist and violinist, is similarly restrained most of the time. They’re content to try out different sounds on almost every song, starting with a familiar folk-rock but rarely staying there. “Handed Love” builds a bluesy, slightly electronic riff through two quiet minutes before releasing the tension with a half-minute of energy. “1,000 Years” uses a quiet but sinister grinding bass track to give weight to the light acoustic guitar that drives the song, And “Doubt” is simply a balls-out rocker, though its abrupt stop and re-start in the middle makes it less radio-friendly than it seems.

There are a few problems, though. The quiet singing and slow, frequently hesitant music often result in things that feel more like song snippets than complete works. Tucker’s lyrics add to this, with a recurring theme of separation (whether in time or distance) and loss. The narrators grasp for something, but their satisfaction remains as stubbornly out-of-reach as the listener’s. When the lyrics do resolve to specifics, they often go too far to the other extreme. (The last verse of “Half A World Away” explains that it’s literally about a lover gone to deliver aid in Africa. After the bulk of the song is so vague, these eager specifics create an artless contrast.) Overall, Tucker makes an honest attempt at varied, personal topics, but never finds the memorable turns of phrase, revealing lyrics, or hooky sounds that make personal songs successful.

It’s also frustrating that the band can be a little more eager to go loud than Tucker is. Even when they both raise the volume, the music has a tendency to drown out the vocals. Whether this is poor production or an intentional distancing from Sleater-Kinney, it sounds unnatural and draws the attention away from one of the group’s biggest assets.

A lot of talent is evident here, both in Tucker’s solo songwriting and her band’s versatile support. The decision to release this album as “The Corin Tucker Band” rather than simply as a solo “Corin Tucker” was the right one. However, they haven’t yet figured out how to best reach the potential that they show.

Grade: C

OFF! – First Four EPs (Music Review)

First Four EPs cover

OFF! - First Four EPs

Who would’ve expected that the most vital-sounding supergroup in years would be a bunch of middle-aged hardcore musicians? OFF!, whose members come from bands such as Circle Jerks and Rocket From The Crypt, appeared out of nowhere in 2010 to release four EPs, each one squeezing four brutal songs into less than five minutes of playing time. Those are all collected on First Four EPs, which feels like a complete, satisfying album despite its 18-minute length. This approach seems more than a little gimmicky, given that all four EPs and the collection were released in a matter of months, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

The songs are, of course, uniformly short and intense. Though the band only has one speed, they manage to keep each song sounding different. Most manage to squeeze chord changes or a verse-chorus-verse structure in despite their short length, and all of them are distinct musically and lyrically. These are sixteen fleshed out songs, not just throwaway clips. The songs also cover an impressive range of topics, from confrontational political songs to a eulogy for punk singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Quite a few of them address depression and social anxiety. That’s a topic that I’m not used to hearing in punk music, but the band’s honest, straightforward approach makes it seem like the most natural idea in the world. “Blast” is a rare uplifting track, with singer Keith Morris unapologetically celebrating that he “slashed and burned through my fifteen minutes of fame.”

One good thing about the EP format is that there isn’t any space for dead wood, especially with such a short length. There’s not a single disappointing track on this CD. However, the full collection also feels like it lacks standout tracks. One or two longer, meatier songs could have gone a long way towards fleshing this out as an album. That’s the only complaint I can come up with, though. First Four EPs is a stunning argument for the relevance of fierce, vicious hardcore in today’s world.

Grade: A-

The Unwritten (Comic Review)

Note: So far, I’ve only reviewed comic series after they concluded. I’d to occasionally examine ones that are still ongoing, as well. As issue #24 of The Unwritten was just released, it seems like a good time. This is the point where most Vertigo titles are cancelled, so it’s now safe to say that this series should have have a long life ahead of it. In this case, it also happens to be the point where author Mike Carey says the first act is concluded. In a happy coincidence, as I was writing this review, I got word that volume 2 of this series had been nominated for a Hugo award.

Ever since it was birthed by Sandman, the Vertigo comic line seems to have a fascination with stories about stories. From the modern hit Fables (in which fairy tale characters literally live in New York), to more obscure titles like Testament (with rebels in a near future dystopia who repeat the mythic cycles of traditional religions), to constant spin-offs of Sandman itself, like the current House of Mystery (which features a different character narrating a story-within-the-story every month), this is the closest Vertigo comes to a unifying theme. The Unwritten is the latest example of this, with a plot that literally explores the power of stories to control the world.

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Agnostic Front – My Life My Way (Music Review)

My Life My Way cover

Agnostic Front - My Life My Way

When I reviewed the new album from Roger Miret And The Disasters a few weeks ago, I didn’t realize that Miret also had a new release with his original band, Agnostic Front. It’s been four years since their last release, making it the longest gap in the group’s two decades of existence. Maybe that’s to be expected. All these years removed from the youthful energy that pushed them to the top of the New York hardcore scene, what does the band still have to sing about?

In some ways, My Life My Way is a very safe take on what Agnostic Front should be in 2011. The music is almost as intense as ever, though the songs are now consistently two minutes long instead of one. The lyrics focus once again on the punk scene and Miret’s life on the streets, with the difference that his stories are now in the past tense instead of the present.

So is this a retread, or a return to form? Given that Agnostic Front had evolved to cover other topics in the past decade, and that The Disasters seemed to be Miret’s outlet for stories about his youth, one could be forgiven for assuming that it’s the former. The music supports that cynical position: Music has never been Agnostic Front’s strong point, but this album takes their sludgy, undifferentiated metal riffs to a new extreme. After 15-20 listens, I don’t think there’s a single song I could identify with the vocal track removed. (Take out the drums as well, and I don’t know that I’d ever learn to tell them apart, except for the extra-intense “That’s Life” that sounds lifted from their defining Victim In Pain era.)

On a closer listen, though, the lyrics do justify this album. Miret seems to have grown into a more contemplative, adult outlook on life, and his takeaway from a violent youth turns out to be a heartwarming philosophy of self-determination and the power of friendship. True, songs like “Self Pride” and “More Than A Memory” (an ode to a fallen friend) would have fit in at any point in Agnostic Front’s career, but Miret hits those points more than ever in this album. Then he goes a step farther, with life lessons like “sometimes you have to walk away from everything to get a new start” and the acknowledgment on “The Sacrifice” that he hasn’t lived up to the standards set by his heroes. It’s not deep, but it’s heartfelt, and more introspective than you can usually expect from hardcore. The songs are honest, enjoyable, and keep the band moving forward rather than treading water.

It seems that Miret is trying to impart some fatherly wisdom to the next generation of punks. He has enough credibility, and couches the message in vicious enough music, that he may get his message through where actual fathers are failing. If so, good for him. There aren’t many elder statesmen of punk, and Miret’s one of the few possible contenders.

Grade: B-

Cargo Noir (Game Review)

Cargo Noir boxWhile bidding games are incredibly common in the current board gaming scene, Cargo Noir manages to find a new twist on the mechanic. Each turn, a player has a few ships that they can send out to offer money for a set of tiles. Those tiles won’t actually be purchased until the player’s next turn, which gives every other player a chance to make a higher offer on those same tiles. If the initial offer is outbid, the player who made it will need to either withdraw or raise their bid on their next turn. Because this is a new offer, it will be yet another time around the table before the tiles are actually won.

The result is a game in which many potential auctions are taking place at once, but most of them only receive a single bid. When someone is outbid, it’s a big deal: At a minimum, that person has just wasted one of their limited actions from the prior turn, and if they still want those tiles, they will need to wait at least another round to get them. The game lasts a mere 10 or 11 turns (depending on the number of players), so a one-round delay can be pretty significant.

Most people find this system a little unintuitive at first – they expect this to be a standard auction game, in which players get a chance to bid back and forth on a contested item within one turn. But once everyone understands the concept, it’s simple and elegant. The goal is to bid high enough to discourage other players from getting involved in the auction at all, but not so high that money is wasted: Earning more money requires a ship action. Wasting money effectively means that later actions will be lost to pay for it.

The red player outbids the blue player for the tiles in Bombay

The red player outbids the blue player for the tiles in Bombay

The flow of the game is very natural. Start your turn by seeing which of your bids from the last turn have survived uncontested, collect those tiles, and then send your ships out for new bids. Additionally, decide whether to cash those tiles in for points, or keep them for a later turn. (Yes, this is a classic “earn one resource, and then use it to buy points” Euro-game.) Turns move fast, and the fact that each action takes a round to resolve means that there is a feeling of continuity from round to round.

This system has a few flaws, too. Most notably, outbidding someone sometimes feels like too powerful an attack. Even if the other player is willing to bid higher for the tiles, they are still forced to lose an action and wait longer for the goods. Attacks in bidding games don’t usually feel so direct. Worse, they can sometimes feel arbitrary. You may find yourself willing to spend three coins to buy three tiles, and see that two other players have each made a bid of two coins for three tiles. With the way tiles are valued, it often makes no practical difference to you which auction you bid on, but the choice will have huge repercussions for the player who gets blocked! Expect accusations of “king-making” to come up a time or two each game.

The way the tiles are valued is interesting, but probably a little too simple. There are nine types of goods, and the most points can be earned by cashing in a set of matching ones. Sets of all-different ones can be cashed in as well. In either case, sets become much more valuable as they get larger, but only a limited number of tiles can be saved from turn to turn. Players will usually do best with the simple task of collecting different tiles, but matching sets are necessary to reach the highest-point cards. This choice creates a nice tension, but I do wish there was a little more to it. Too often, the different sets of tiles available feel more or less the same as each other, which leads back to the problem in which deciding where to bid has less to do with its value to you and more to do with which other player you want to hurt. Cargo Noir is a good game, but if it could have found a scoring system with the variety of Ra’s, the bidding choices would be much more interesting.

The game is published by Days of Wonder, which means that despite the pasted-on theme, it comes with high-quality bits and detailed artwork. This is nice, even if it is a little more extravagant than needed. For all the attention to the game’s appearance, though, it seems that someone could have put some effort into making  sure that all the pieces fit back in the box easily. There are ways to squeeze everything in there, but none of them are as simple as they should be.

All that said, Cargo Noir is a better game than many of Days of Wonder’s recent offerings. I don’t find the auctions themselves compelling enough to return to this one regularly, but the auction system is original and elegant enough to ensure that it won’t be forgotten.

Grade: B

The Wormworld Saga: A Profitable Webcomic?

I just read the first chapter of the webcomic The Wormworld Saga. It’s too early to tell how good it is yet, but there is definite promise. The setup hits all the clichés of the “imaginative but damaged boy discovers a fantasy world”, but it has a great feel for the childish wonder that should drive such stories, as evidenced in the hidden room at his grandmother’s house. The painted colors are a little chunky and occasionally lifeless for my taste, but the art is undeniably skilled. And the real selling point is its infinite canvas, with each chapter being a single long, long page that the reader keeps scrolling down through. The first chapter doesn’t always take advantage of this, but it does create an absolutely stunning opening, as the downward scrolling leads from the sky to a kingdom below the ground, which morphs back into a real-world scene. And while that glimpse of the other kingdom is the only time this chapter leaves reality, I absolutely love this fanart which uses that same canvas to slowly reveal more and more of an impossible world.

But the content of the webcomic itself, whether it ends up being good or bad, isn’t what motivated me to write this. Instead, I’m fascinated by the way Daniel Lieske, the creator, is hoping to make money from his story.

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.357 String Band – Lightning From The North (Music Review)

Lightning From The North cover

.357 String Band - Lightning From The North

One common approach for alt country bands is to mix traditional instrumentation with punk-influenced vocals. I’m sure that many people who could otherwise see this music as a reverent, skilled alternative to modern pop country are too put off by the rough singing to appreciate it, and I’ve wondered how this contributes to the divides within country music. Personally, though, I’m a fan of that sound. The aggressive singing is a battle cry for bands trying to reclaim a musical heritage that has been watered down by mainstream expectations, and if this sub-genre has run too far from the wholesome, moral side of country, well, I’m the wrong person to complain to about murder ballads and outlaw songs.

.357 String Band is a perfect example of this style, with their main distinction being their focus on bluegrass instead of more general country. (They call their sound “streetgrass”, but I don’t know that a new term is needed for it.) The members are very skilled country musicians, whose playing adds a lot of complexity to the traditional bluegrass sounds, and with production that retains the energy and layers that most classic bluegrass recordings sadly lose. The lyrics are unmistakably country when considered song-by-song, though very few classic singers would have included so many songs being no-good troublemakers without a few gospel songs for balance. But the singing, of course, is where the band would lose most traditionalists.

I have mixed feelings about the singing on Lightning From The North. Some songs are perfect examples of why this punk approach can mix so naturally with country – witness the authenticity it gives to the hard-partying life in “Dust Devil”, or the world-weariness it brings to the more tender “The Days Engrave”. In many other songs, though, the vocals fall a little flat. The singer seems more intent on hitting all the words at the right time and getting through the song than with actually portraying the emotions that should be behind it. “The Harvest Is Past”, for example, laments social decline (“thieves and beggars prosper while good men wither and die”) with all the subtlety of a high schooler who has been called on to read Shakespeare to his English class, This album features two singers, with the good performances generally coming from Joe Huber, and the weaker ones from Derek Dunn. Both singers have their shares of successes and failures, though. Whether this is from the punk influence on modern country, or the fact that bluegrass music traditionally pushes its performers to stay fast and upbeat on all songs, the band would be a lot better if they would slow down and emote at times.

Lightning From The North is an occasionally uneven, but usually good, collection of songs. It finds a surprising amount of variety in bluegrass, a style that often sounds the same on the downbeat songs as the upbeat ones. My concerns about the singing aside, this is a solid entry in a style that is all too rare among alt country bands.

Grade: B

Jayke Orvis – It’s All Been Said (Music Review)

It's All Been Said cover

Jayke Orvis - Its All Been Said

Was Jayke Orvis serious when he named his album It’s All Been Said? True, he sticks faithfully to country music fundamentals here, but the sum of the parts is nothing quite like I’ve heard before. He provides brilliant instrumentation, mixing a guitar, mandolin, bass and dobro into a richly layered sound that belies his trashy, stoner persona. The music owes a lot to his bluegrass background, but is often toned down and paired with somber vocals: I don’t think there’s a “downer country” movement, but this album makes me want one.

The album’s flaws don’t come from the songwriting at all, but from a lack of focus. It opens with “A Recipe For Tea”, a mix of sampled phone calls and TV horror hosts that sounds like it should be kicking off a album instead of a country one. The second track is appropriately country, but it’s an upbeat instrumental that feels out of place on the depressed album. It could be made to work, but sticking an instrumental right after a pointless intro presents it as filler instead of a legitimate song on its own.

The next several songs establish Orvis as a modern country virtuoso, mixing technically brilliant music with memorable, personal lyrics and strong, understated vocals. He lightens the “downer country” mood with a few upbeat songs that, unlike the early instrumental, still fit in the album thanks to their gritty production and references to the hard side of life.

Even once the album gets going, though, it makes several confounding choices. Why is “Streets” mixed with distracting hoots and applause from an audience, or “Shady Grove Gypsy Moon” introduced with another horror movie sample? “Dreadful Sinner”, a quiet recounting of vigilante justice, should be one of the best songs in recent years: The rich instrumentation is a prime example of how, despite the album title, it has not yet “all been said”, and Orvis’ matter-of-fact vocal delivery makes the lyrics haunting and unshakeable. (From his mouth, “wickedness is painless, but it’s blazing strong and true” sounds as simple and country as the later “that’s what we do with the dreadful sinner, hold him in the river till the bubbles are few”.) But Orvis apparently couldn’t find a way to start or end the song, with a half-minute of unnecessary sound clips on each end. What we’re left with is something that sounds like the middle portion of a longer epic, rather than a satisfying song on its own. (I recommend the video, which is scattered in other ways, but at least makes the opening and closing feel tied to the song.) It’s All Been Said may be excellent two thirds of the time, but a disappointing third is too much when it’s only 34 minutes long.

Jayke Orvis is an amazing talent, with a style that should be able to bridge the gap between standard country fans and the alt country scene. It’s no surprise that Saving Country Music named him the “Artist of the Year” based on the strength of It’s All Been Said. But the album doesn’t quite deserve as many accolades. It’s often excellent, but also uneven. I can easily recommend it, even though I’ll have to keep waiting for the classic that Orvis is obviously capable of creating.

Grade: B+

The Extra Lens – Undercard (Music Review)

Undercard cover

The liner notes to Undercard cover each song with John Darnielle’s typically playful and pithy commentary. The discussion of “Cruiserweights” provides a context that I use to understand the entire album:

There are people out there who transfer footage of old fights from worn VHS to DVD, and through a couple of these people, I’ve managed to put together a small collection. Half of these fights, if I do not personally watch them, will never be remembered by anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances. There are tragic heroes, and then there are really tragic heroes, and then there are guys who, knowing that they’re never going to get rich or famous, will nevertheless consent to have most of the bones in their faces broken in front of an auditorium full of other guys who’ve paid to watch it happen.

The song makes good on this description, tenderly describing a boxer’s thoughts as he is beaten to a pulp. But almost every track on this album fits the theme described here, examining events that would be forgotten if they weren’t captured in song. From the literal (the staff in “Only Existing Footage” laboring over a movie that will never be finished) to the figurative (the immigrants of “Programmed Cell Death” furtively meeting as they watch their culture die off), from the mundane (multiple songs about affairs) to the fantastic (a family trying to forget the horror from the deep they uncover on a fishing trip), Undercard captures these quiet moments. If you doubt the value of snapshots such as these, the album closes with the narrator of “Dogs of Clinic 17”, dying of an unnamed medical experiment, reminding you “there’s a light in all of you who hear my song”.

This album itself may be one of those easily lost events. The Extra Lens released their only other album a decade ago, and that was under the name “Extra Glenns”. Undercard would receive more attention if Darnielle released it as a project of his usual band, The Mountain Goats, or if Franklin Bruno associated it with The Human Hearts. But the ephemeral nature of a side project makes these songs all the more poignant.

The songs themselves are as thoughtful and poetic as anything from The Mountain Goats. Bruno handles more complex musical arrangements than Darnielle would make on his own, but this is definitely a lo-fidelity album, more at home with the anti-folk style of The Mountain Goats than the lusher pop sounds of The Human Hearts. The result is something that feels more vital than most official Mountain Goats releases. If Undercard is both about and an example of personal, easily forgotten moments, it makes an excellent case for its own existence.

Grade: B+