Archive for April, 2011

.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+

First Wave (Comic Review)

From Doc Savage to Superman, from The Shadow to Batman, superheroes grew fairly directly out of the pulp movement. Since DC Comics has since acquired the rights to many of these influential characters, it isn’t surprising that they would try to breathe new life into them. First Wave was an attempt to create a shared world of gritty, low-powered heroes based on reinterpretations of classic figures. Not a bad idea, but DC did an astoundingly bad job with it.

The plan was that First Wave would be a six-issue miniseries that set up a status quo, with two ongoing titles (Doc Savage and The Spirit) immediately spinning off from it. A solid plan, but it doesn’t mean anything if the comic itself isn’t very good. First Wave’s story follows a convoluted plot involving a world-spanning secret organization, a drug that turns victim’s blood into gold, and a machine that can manufacture tsunamis. Even after re-reading it for this review, I’m not quite sure how those pieces fit together. Nor am I sure how the different heroes all got involved: I count six to eight plot threads following different pulp heroes or groups (depending on whether Doc Savage and his associates are counted separately), and weaving those in and out of six comics is a tricky task. When a character suddenly appears in a new issue, it can be difficult to remember what they know and what their current motivations are.

Writer Brian Azzarello and artist Rags Morales are both associated with high-profile comics events, but they weren’t necessarily the right combination for this title. Morales’ crisp combination of realism and cartoonishness is the hallmark of modern-day superhero art (especially mixed with this book’s bright colors), and it contrasts with the darker, gritty pulp story that Azzarello is trying to tell.

The Bat-Man and his gun

The one bright spot of this relaunch is the clever ideas that were applied to the characters. The once heroic Blackhawks are now mercenaries who care mainly about money, and even after they turn against the bad guy, they have little regard for the lives of less capable heroes. Doc Savage, “the perfect man”, is set against a skeptical press and a public who can’t trust the motives of an alleged hero. And I’d love to read further adventures of this rookie “Bat-Man”, who carries guns and is as interested in the adrenaline rush as the justice. Unfortunately, a series based on him would probably turn out to be a disappointment, based on the spin-offs that we did see. The Spirit had possibly the most interesting reinvention of all, being paired with a corrupt police force who sneer and trade barbs with him. The new Spirit comic, though, quickly forgets this. Instead of just getting tips from Commissioner Dolan (a “bad cop but a good guy” who cares about his own wealth and safety first, but will help The Spirit do his job on the side), within a year the vigilante is publicly walking around the police station with his “best friend” the commissioner. It’s not a bad title on its own, but contradicts First Wave enough to ruin the effect that a shared world is supposed to have.

This isn’t a review of The Spirit, or the standalone Doc Savage title (an inoffensively bland action story), but it bears noting that the problems with First Wave extended to very poor editorial control across the intended line. There was also a one-issue “First Wave Special” last week that I was waiting for before doing this review. That issue actually wasn’t bad: A creative team with a grittier style, a story that addressed plot lines in the recent Spirit and Doc Savage titles, and a confrontation between some of the major players that emphasizes each one’s different personality. The First Wave Special actually made a good case for these characters as part of a new interconnected line. Unfortunately, I think the damage has already been done. First Wave itself was a hard-to-follow mess that introduced interesting characters, but failed to do anything worthwhile with them. More than a year after the experiment started (yes, the six-issue series was plagued by a lot of delays), it is obvious that the momentum it was trying to build is not going to happen.

Grade: D-

7 Wonders (Game Review)

7 Wonders BoxIn some ways, a game that works for more than five people is the Holy Grail of the industry. In my opinion, even going past four people causes long delays between turns, and introduces too many factors that feel outside of a single player’s direct control. But when a group of friends gets together, it’s easy to end up with too many people to comfortably play one game, but not enough to split into two groups.

7 Wonders’ claim to fame is that it works for up to seven players at once. More importantly, though, it keeps everyone consistently engaged through its breezy twenty- to thirty-minute playing time. Its mechanics make this so simple that after one game, it seems amazing that no one has tried this approach before. Basically, there is no downtime because every player is making their choice simultaneously every turn. Choose one card to play, and pass the rest of your hand to the player next to you. Sure, other games have used this card drafting technique before, but 7 Wonders also addresses the other source of slowdowns in games with too many players: All your interactions are with the people to your immediate left and right, so you don’t need to get bogged down keeping track of more than two other players.

The game itself is a fairly straightforward entry in the “civilization light” genre. Each card gives you resource production, points, or abilities. There are too many resources to personally cover all of them, but you can buy the ones you need from your neighbors. Just keep track of what they are producing so you don’t duplicate their efforts, and so that you can build the ones that they’ll want to buy from you! Also watch their military strength, because at the end of each of the three rounds, your comparative power will gain or lose you points.

7 Wonders Play7 Wonders offers a decent amount of choices. You can earn points through cards, advancing your personal “great wonder” track, matching symbols, getting money, or having a stronger military than your neighbors. The “Guild” cards that appear at the end of the game even let you score points for how advanced your neighbors are in various categories! It’s impossible to excel in every area, but they are well-balanced enough that you can ignore any of those and still win the game.

It feels surprisingly meaty for a twenty-minute game, but there is a lot of chance hidden behind the mechanics. Drawing the right cards, especially when those big Guilds are dealt out at the end, makes a big difference. And while it may be fun to ignore the player on the other side of the table, it can be frustrating to learn you’ve lost to someone you weren’t even able to interact with. For that reason, I suspect that these mechanics wouldn’t work in a much longer game, as much as I wish they could. It’s not too frustrating to lose a filler game by chance, but it would be a deal-breaker if two hours of planning fall apart through no fault of your own.

The game also becomes a little repetitive before long. Despite the many paths to victory points, and the different “Wonder” boards that each player is dealt, the various strategies don’t really feel that different after several plays. They’re all based on getting resources, playing cards, and watching to make sure you bury any card that your neighbor desperately needs. There are already expansions on the horizon that promise to add more variety, but I’m not sure how well they’ll succeed. 7 Wonders feels like it has as many elements as its short playtime can support. Anything different enough to actually increase the replayability would probably be too overwhelming. On the other hand, designer Antoine Bauza has already made one near-impossible task look simple. If 7 Wonders could keep me interested through a seven-player game, then I suppose that the expansions could hold more surprises of their own.

Even after the initial rush of newness wears off, I don’t expect this game to stop being fun. And because it fills a niche that nothing else in my collection does, I’m sure it will remain in use for a long time. Looking for a filler to play as your friends are arriving, or when you’re winding down for the night? This works no matter how many people are there with you, and it feels heavier than just about anything else that plays so quickly. 7 Wonders not only has an original design, but is going to keep hitting my table long-term.

Grade: A-


Infoquake (Book Review)

Infoquake cover


David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake is about cutting-edge programmers in a far-future world dominated by “bio/logics”, or programs that extend the human body. This being the future, of course, many things are different: Our Internet has been replaced by the “Data Sea”, modern corporations have turned into “fiefcorps” while religions are replaced with single-issue groups called “Creeds”, and people can use “multi projections” to virtually travel around the world, indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood people except for being intangible.

Infoquake is a fun, fast read that makes a perfect airplane book, but it never reaches the depths that it is aiming for. A culture with generations of experiences so different than ours should be fundamentally changed in some ways. (For books I’ve read recently that explored differences like this, see the shockingly different culture in The City And The City, or to a lesser extent the magic society of the Young Wizards series.) The people in this novel are easy to understand through the lens of our own culture, though. The powerful programs circulating through everyone’s bodies don’t fundamentally change their capabilities, but instead are just used to add flavor to the prose. (For example, it may say that someone “switched on PokerFace” in a place where a present-day novel would say they “struggled to keep their surprise from showing.) Fifty years ago, Isaac Asimov was writing about how the ability to visit people virtually would change our perceptions of self and human interaction. But in Infoquake, the decisions about whether to physically travel or project oneself virtually are entirely based on narrative convenience.

A lot of thought did go into the world-building. The book closes with 50 pages of appendices that actually feel relevant and interesting. It’s just too bad that the result is so shallow, without any of the exploration into human nature that science fiction can provide.

The “fiefcorp” system is another frustratingly-vague element of the book. Most companies in this book are small teams of 10 or so people that only last for a few years. The employees (“apprentices”) pledge to a master for a period of years, earning only subsistence wages with the promise of a big bonus when the contract ends. This system keeps the main characters in the employ of their obsessive, narcissistic leader Natch throughout the story, but it raises many unanswered questions about how such a structure could succeed and continue for generations.

In the novel’s case, the fiefcorp works because the characters are equally vague and defined only by their work. They regularly put in 16-hour days for Natch (with the help of a bio/logics program that keeps them awake, of course), and never mention any hobbies or friends outside of this work. They remain single-mindedly focused on driving the book’s plot forwards.

As for that plot, it is fairly interesting. Natch is a borderline-sociopathic genius driven to succeed in order to quiet an existential emptiness. His fiefcorp’s battles to fight to the top of the bio/logics food chain are redirected when he is given a head start on a mysterious new science initially known only as “The Phoenix Project”, which promises to redefine humanity as much as bio/logics did centuries ago.

Programming marathons and corporate battles are not normally the ingredients for a page-turning novel, but Edelman manages the light touch necessary to keep these moving along for the reader. By the end of the book, a complex status quo has been built up, along with several moving pieces that guarantee this status quo will not remain in place for much more of the trilogy. It is slightly frustrating that so many unresolved elements are introduced late in the story, but it’s obvious that the three books are meant to be read as a whole.

Will the rest of the trilogy address the frustrations I had with the first book? It’s hard to say. This story seemed pretty content to play with the pieces of a distant civilization without actually exploring the consequences of making them so distant. On the other hand, it’s hard to believe that so much world-building couldn’t be setting up something more complex. One scene in the book provides the sort of experience I’m looking for: A sheltered character named Horvil meets “an Islander”, a person who we have been led to believe is less technologically advanced than the rest of the world. To Horvil’s shock, the Islander shows that he is still quite sophisticated and even uses bio/logics, but explains that his people avoid the dangers of all the uncontrolled code that floats around “civilized people’s” bodies. This scene works so well because, two-thirds of the way into the book, the reader has also had time to build up expectations that are now being subverted. A different way of life is being shown, and it mirrors tensions in today’s world without copying them directly. It is possible that the later novels intend to continue correcting the reader’s misunderstandings as the world of the characters changes.

Whatever the future volumes hold, Infoquake is a light, readable science fiction story. It provides escapism, but no deep ideas.

Grade: C+