Archive for May, 2011

Andrew Jackson Jihad – Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such (Music Review)

Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such cover

Andrew Jackson Jihad - Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such

What makes some jokes worth repeating, but not others? Many people will enjoy watching a funny movie over and over, but it can be almost painful to sit through the act of a comedian you’ve seen before. Funny songs can work either way. Candy Cigarettes, Capguns, Issue Problems and Such, a reissue of Andrew Jackson Jihad’s early releases, shows examples of both extremes.

The songs are stripped-down anti-folk, often nothing more than drums, an acoustic guitar, and Sean Bonnette’s high off-key voice. The music ranges from sweet and folky to an aggressive sound reminiscent of a high-school Modest Mouse cover band. The lyrics are tend towards irreverent, and often obscene, humor. And that’s where my questions about the nature of jokes arise.

Most humor comes from some element of surprise or subverted expectations. If you know what to expect, the joke doesn’t seem as funny any more. I think that comedic movies work so well because they are structured around a plot structure that could just as easily be serious. We rarely enjoy a contextless joke more than once, which is why comedians have such trouble. But when the jokes are mixed with something else, such as a plot arc, they can remain fresh. Perhaps this is because these other elements don’t grow old, so we aren’t bored even when we remember the punchlines. Or perhaps we still enjoy jokes as long as we can share them with someone new, and the unwitting characters in the movie are new to the joke each time.

Andrew Jackson Jihad’s songs work best when they are songs. A few of them are nothing more than funny lyrics, so there is no reason to listen more than once. “Little Brother” is the best example of this, as a musically-deficient song about how the narrator gave his brother fetal alcohol syndrome, but made up for it by buying him a crack whore in grade school. There’s no reason to listen to it a second time. (And without a tolerance for sick humor, many people wouldn’t even want to listen to that one once.) “Smokin'” (a song about cigarettes and being cool) and “Daddy” (about someone whose success is all due to his abusive father) just barely survive on further listens.

However, “Ladykiller” is a wonderful song to listen to over and over again, despite the horrible pun at its core. (Women are attracted to the narrator because he’s such a “lady killer”, but, you know, he also kills ladies.) This is partly because the music is so catchy and upbeat that it could work as a fun pop-folk song if it had different lyrics. But there is also an intriguing character hinted at between the lines of the song: The narrator doesn’t like to kill ladies; he just does it because that’s who he is. It’s the kind of gimmick that falls apart if examined directly, but stays funny when the singer just refers to it obliquely.

Later songs in Candy Cigarettes show a band that has gained a little more subtlety. When the songs stop telling a funny story, and instead focus on amusing but difficult to interpret lyrics, they extend their life quite a bit. As a sort of folk-punk They Might Be Giants, but with the geeky references replaced by stoner concerns, Andrew Jackson Jihad works quite well. “Survival” is an excellent song, throwing out a bunch of conflicting one-liners about “how I learned how to survive”. (Of course, that works as part of the joke, as the song specifically lists screwing with the listeners as a survival tactic. And the excellent Woody Guthrie reference is fun as well.) These elements were still there in their early days (“God Made Dirt” channels their anger very effectively), but improved as time went on.

The other tricky thing about telling jokes is that it is difficult to be serious at the same time. It is fun to hear the thoughts of a mass-murderer in “Bad Stuff” (though it’s another song that wears thin quickly) because we know the singer is not serious. But there are a couple innocently good-natured songs on the album as well, and one of them (“People”) follows “Bad Stuff” immediately. Taking the murderous lyrics with a grain of salt means that the earnest ones sound off. At least in the context of this early work, the band hadn’t yet learned how to make their points mix with the humor.

Candy Cigarettes is a very uneven album. A few songs aren’t very good, and several others only work as one-time novelties. But some of them truly are fun, and I’d even call a few of them excellent. This was my first exposure to the band (on the recommendation of a friend), and I am curious to see where they went from here.

Grade: B-

The Half-Made World (Book Review)

The Half-Made World

The Half-Made World

I’ve long argued that the “New Weird” is not a distinct genre. Its founder, China Miéville, wrote Perdido Street Station explicitly to show that the line between science fiction and fantasy was an illusion and that both genres deserved more creativity. It’s missing the point to create a separate category for these works. However, after reading Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World, I’m starting to accept that New Weird has become its own sub-genre. Just like steampunk or High Fantasy, it definitely has its own expectations, aesthetics, and fanbase.

Fortunately, the New Weird is not likely to become a stagnant literary ghetto like High Fantasy. After all, its central tenet is wild inventiveness and the undermining of any clichéd expectations. The Half-Made World uses the American Western as a foundation for its setting, but with little-understood spirits twisting the familiar archetypes into something new. The larger-than-life outlaws are servants of a demonic cabal named The Gun. The railroads may be bringing civilization and order to the land, but under the auspices of a force called The Line, which sees humans as no more than disposable cogs in a machine. These two sides are at war, and the ordinary people who live in simple, dusty towns have no love for either of the destructive powers.

While the setting is entirely his own invention, Gilman is definitely inspired by Miéville. Not only is the world the book’s biggest selling point, but it rejects the simple answers and black-and-white morality of most fantasy. (The three main characters are an Agent of the Gun, an Agent of the Line, and a prim woman from civilized lands. Needless to say, they do not get along.) The narrative sympathies are humanistic and anti-authoritarian, but even in his fantasy the author worries that evil will triumph. And the story isn’t afraid to disrupt the status quo, no matter how the reader may want to see it continue. Unfortunately, some of Miéville’s weaknesses come through as well: The plot is slight and driven by coincidence, and the the conclusion is unsatisfying. (In fact, Gilman seems to have made a conscious effort to avoid wrapping anything up neatly.)

What truly makes this New Weird is that the setting becomes less familiar as the book progresses. Rather than doing some world-building and then moving on with the plot, it turns out that the similarities to our Old West exist on the surface only. This setting has centuries of history, and the land becomes stranger and less bound to physical laws (literally “half-made”) the further west one goes. Gilman’s prose does a masterful job of setting the scene, laying out just enough details to bring these strange elements alive, and slowly building up the concepts that underpin the world so that the reader comes to appreciate them without needing them explicitly explained. (This is also true of the characters, who remain interesting and reveal themselves through action rather than narration.)

A great environment, good characters, fair plot, and mediocre ending: That’s a pretty concise summary of the New Weird. And despite its weaknesses, The Half-Made World is a stunning and memorable book. I would love to read more stories set in this world. I may wish that innovations like this had been more integrated into standard genre writing instead of forming a new sub-category, but I can still enjoy the results that it produces.

Grade: B

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard – Old Devils (Music Review)

Old Devils cover

Jon Langford & Skull Orchard - Old Devils

What the hell is Jon Langford thinking? Admittedly, that’s a question I’ve asked myself before. Usually, though, it’s because his latest experiment didn’t work out right. His effort Old Devils, with a band called Skull Orchard, just sticks safely to the aging-rock-star-makes-mature-songs formula. The last time I reviewed an album of his, I gave it a C- for its poor performances of very good songs. This one, with its competent, nearly enjoyable renditions of mediocre songs, earns the same grade for the exact opposite reasons. This isn’t the Jon Langford I’m used to.

Lyrically, the songs are pretty standard fare. “Book of Your Life” is that “I wish I could be more important to you” song that everyone writes at least once, and “Luxury” portrays the expected old rock star’s concern for our materialistic world. Admittedly, the lyrics remain more oblique than we would expect from most people who go the Phil Collins route, though they rarely hide anything too useful below the surface. (Sample lines from “Luxury”: “I’d do anything to please her/ So I bought that brand new freezer/ And I climbed inside”.) Langford almost seems to be inviting the comparison to washed up performers on songs such as “Getting Used To Uselessness” and “Self Portrait” (a dismissive look back on the life of someone much like Langford).

If you’re looking for standout tracks, “1234 Ever” is a fairly catchy opener. “Pieces of the Past” has the most interesting lyrics on the album, looking at the way our history becomes safe and sanitized even as its evils are perpetuated, but you’ll need to overlook a scenery-chewing voiceover and a slightly stilted delivery from Langford in order to appreciate it. And “Strange Ways to Win Wars” works because it communicates its pacifist message in simple, clean terms that seem a lot less self-important than the typical political song.

Throughout the album, Skull Orchard supports Langford with strong, though not showy, arrangements. I don’t think this album is going to leave anyone excited about the band, but it does seem that they have the skill to help any song reach its full potential. As a backing band that leaves the spotlight on the singer-songwriter, though, they don’t have any tricks that can raise these particular songs above their current level.

Grade: C-

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Book Review)

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

The more one learns about the human brain, the more fascinating – and puzzling – it becomes. For those who want a hint of the depths we have yet to explore, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat contains twenty-four case studies of people with a wide variety of neurological ailments. All of these non-fiction stories were witnessed firsthand by author Oliver Sacks, leaving the reader acutely aware of how many more strange cases there must be beyond this single person’s experience. Though it’s a little dated now, having been written between the years of 1970 and 1985, it is still considered a classic in certain circles.

The people and conditions described here are definitely interesting, and Dr. Sacks comes across as the kind of cultured, empathetic man who is perfect to the role of helping damaged people get the most out of life. His writing style can be frustrating at times, though. I’m not sure who his target audience was, or if he even had one in mind. Most of the time, Sacks takes a high-level approach that will be comfortable to people with no knowledge of the science that drives his discipline. (It’s often easy to forget that his focus is on the neurological side of things, and not just general psychology.) But when he does bring up the physiology of the brain, it’s in passing references without much explanation. Apparently, the reader is expected to understand the significance of a lesion on this or that area of the brain. Similarly, Sacks frequently drops references to other doctors and their work. Again, there is often little context given, and the reader doesn’t always know why that particular case study is relevant at this time.

It also doesn’t help that most of these stories were first published independently in various places. The book simply takes the original articles and adds postscripts where necessary to tie them together or to update old information. The chapters range from a few pages long to nearly twenty, while some postscripts can be longer than the shorter chapters. Many of the articles would be greatly improved if they had been re-written to incorporate their postscripts’ information more naturally. This is especially frustrating when Sacks wants to compare different cases to each other. He is as likely to refer to a story that appears later in the book as he is to refer to an earlier one, meaning that (on a first read, at least), these comparisons mean as little to the reader as do the references to other doctors’ work. This is a shame, because there are a lot of interesting discussions to be had from these stories, and Sacks’ chapter-by-chapter approach does not do justice to these overarching questions.

That isn’t to say that the stories aren’t interesting in themselves. Some create interesting and memorable characters, such as the aging man perpetually trapped in his past as a nineteen-year-old sailor. Others raise intriguing questions, such as the man whose head trauma made him regain suppressed memories of a violent murder. Does that imply that the mechanism of suppression had been tied to a physical element of the brain? There are clever factoids that armchair philosophers like myself can take away in lieu of real medical training, such as the fact that phantom limbs are necessary in order for a person to use prosthetics. But the real gems of the book are when Sacks takes a quirky condition that is half-understood by the general public and gives us some appreciation for how their internal lives actually are. The case studies of a man who relied on his Tourette’s and the idiots savants who could do little but perform amazing calculations will stay with me and even inform my impressions of other people in the future.

Alternately incomplete, dry, and disorganized, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat can be difficult to appreciate at times. I had a few false starts before I got into it. I am glad that I did read it in the end, though. Despite its flaws, the book’s highlights will stick with me for a long time.

Grade: B-

Ida Maria – Fortress ’round My Heart (Music Review)

Fortress 'round My Heart cover

Ida Maria - Fortress 'round My Heart

Ida Maria had one of the best pop songs of 2009 with “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked”. Bratty and fun on the surface, it actually revealed a deep insecurity: “I like you so much better when you’re naked/I like me so much better when you’re naked” was a brilliantly simple depiction of a pained, desperate search for validation. Though the song was excellent, I didn’t expect that the music was aimed at me, and I moved on. But encouraged by a friend who described Ida Maria as his favorite guilty pleasure of the year, I finally tried out a used copy of it.

Fortress ’round My Heart is much like “Better When You’re Naked” leads one to expect. Straightforward, punk-lite songs about youth sung by someone just old enough to offer a mature perspective on it, they never reach the highs of that single, but don’t disappoint either. The songs don’t have any great revelations (“it made me realize how much you wanna give away just to feel loved”), but are never embarrassing, either. The tinge of self-awareness and adult knowledge is subtle enough not to bother the teenagers, but makes the songs accessible to their parents as well.

Singer Ida Maria Sivertsen has a voice that manages to sound vulnerable even when it rises to a punk sneer, and is emotional and introspective when she slips into slower ballads. This goes a long way to making the songs successful, though it must also be said that her singing isn’t very strong. The shouts seem as if they’re struggling to be heard over the music, and the quieter stuff is so breathy as to almost fade away. Sivertsen’s voice defines the personality of the songs, but it would be nice if it grows stronger in future albums.

At just over 30 minutes, Fortress ’round My Heart is a little short, but never has time to wear out its welcome. While the songs are light, they are pleasantly varied enough to support that length: The Regina Spektor-esque meandering on “Queen of the World”, the 80’s-tinged dance beat on “Louie”, and the sparse, mournful singing on “Keep Me Warm” all add dimensions to a narrator who seemed simpler on “Better When You’re Naked”. That could be the thing that keeps Ida Maria from being a one-hit wonder. Whether autobiographical or not, the album does build up a consistent narrative personality, and it is one that fans could happily follow through later releases.

Grade: B-

Superhero Comic Capsule Reviews

After my reviews of five “indie” comics yesterday, here are five DC and Marvel superhero comics. (Ok, one of them is in a smaller imprint, but it still features superheroes.) Two of these were complete stories, but the other three are new ongoing series that I’m reviewing based on the first few months.

I’m not sure if this experiment with capsule reviews was successful for me or not. I did manage to review several things that I wouldn’t have otherwise, but it takes me much longer to write this way. And there are some comics that I’d rather wait and review once they’ve had a longer run, instead of jumping in with a “capsule” after a few months. I’m not sure if it makes sense to review some comics quickly and wait on others. I’ll probably return to this format again in a few months, but I’m not sure what I’ll decide long-term. If you have any comments, let me know.

Continue reading

Comic Capsule Reviews

Comic book series come through faster than I can write full reviews of them. I’m going to experiment with capsule reviews to cover some of the recent series that I read. My plan is to cover “indie” miniseries today (in comic terms, that means “anything without superheroes”), and then look at some recent superhero ones tomorrow.

Note that these are just the comics that I read. They aren’t always the most significant ones. For example, the big summer events are underway at both DC and Marvel, and I haven’t been interested in picking up either of those. I’ll be the first to admit that my choices are sometimes arbitrary, but I don’t have the time (or money) to try everything. Looking at the list below, I’m fairly happy with my choices. Even the failures are interesting ones, and if I hadn’t been willing to take a chance on the occasional disappointing comic, I wouldn’t have found the good ones, either.

Continue reading

Jaguar Love – Hologram Jams (Music Review)

Hologram Jams cover

Jaguar Love - Hologram Jams

Spinning out of art-punk bands Blood Brothers and Pretty Girls Make Graves, Jaguar Love seemed to be an attempt to bring a more accessible element to their distinctive sound. Given that it took me a full year to hear that they had released a second album, though, they apparently fell short of any popular appeal. On Hologram Jams, the band is reduced to just ex-Blood Brothers members, with Jay Clark replaced by a drum machine. Most of the Blood Brothers’ original spark is gone, as well.

Hologram Jams ups the ante on both the accessible and off-putting parts of Jaguar Love’s debut, opening up with a heavily electronic beat and a disco bombast. The Blood Brothers’ distinctively aggressive, stream of consciousness lyrics are largely replaced with simple celebrations of partying and youth. If these are meant to be parodies of vapid dance music, the band rarely lets on. A joke played straight for too long can cease to be a joke.

This approach shows some potential on the surprising “Cherry Soda”, which builds up through Whitney’s yowling “jaguar” vocals to a sudden white-guy-club rap: “Sugar-coated cherry soda/puking on the lawn./It’s six AM the party’s over./Everybody’s gone./Rode a motherfucking mastodon to my highschool prom/It’s on it’s on it’s on it’s on like Immigrant Song.” That glorious celebration of ridiculousness in a perversion of mainstream music is the album’s highlight, inviting the listener to laugh at and with the band at the same time. Otherwise, though, the album mainly features high-pitched yowling vocals on top of uninspired drum machine-and-synthesizer compositions.

Towards the end, the focus shifts to a couple slow, angsty songs, which are as embarrassing as the names (“Sad Parade” and “A Prostitute An Angel”) imply. These are the kinds of poems that most highschoolers have the sense to throw away a few years later. What possessed artists who used to be known for their challenging, non-traditional lyrics to publish this stuff? (Fans desperate for a Blood Brothers fix will find some relief in “Up All Night”, “Jaguar Warriors”, and “Evaline”, but they’ll need to pretend that those are just the throwaway tracks from a better album.)

Hologram Jams is dominated by obstinate attempts to insist that Jaguar Love and their music are awesome, despite all evidence to the contrary. The rare times that the curtain is lifted and we see beyond that shallow surface, nothing is there.

Grade: D

Noise (Book Review)

Noise Cover


Darin Bradley’s Noise tells of the chaos that follows a complete social and economic collapse in the near future. It is the story of a young man named Hiram who follows a movement called “Salvage”, which was dedicated to preparing for just such a collapse. Specifically, Salvage advocates forming a tight-knit tribe (Group) of people to take what they need and kill anyone in their way.

On the surface, Noise appears to be a ridiculous wish-fulfillment fantasy: The main characters encounter little serious resistance in their amoral path, and just happen to have all the training and luck they need to succeed. The “Event” that precipitated this new anarchy is never explained, but seems suspiciously convenient as an excuse for “one day I woke up and had to start killing people”. And the conceit behind Salvage is hard to believe, as well: This community communicates in nothing but obscure broadcasts over unused television frequencies. It has so many rabid followers that the small town of the novel has at least ten warring Groups, and yet it never became mainstream enough to move to the Internet or attract government intervention.

Despite these problems, the novel works. Part of it is the dense, chaotic prose, which can jump without warning between the present and the past, or even multiple events that are occurring simultaneously. Hiram’s backstory is filled out piecemeal as he draws parallels between his childhood and his present, as if he’s trying to justify all his violent actions as pre-ordained or generate a creation myth for his new Group. The writing style provides a glimpse into the narrator’s damaged psyche and ensures that the reader is always questioning him. If this violent story is someone’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, it’s obviously not the author’s.

The other thing that makes this story succeed is the system of rituals and psychological tools that inform Hiram’s interpretation of Salvage. Some are simple (“Hiram” is a new name that he chooses for his post-Event life), but others are complex and surprising. When possible, murders are performed by one member of the Group ordering another to do it, and they provide absolution for the act afterwards by making eye contact and announcing “What you did was right”. The dynamics of the Group have a control that borders on the fascist, but with a shifting, communal leadership that emphasizes the common good over any one person’s. And the fervor with which these people quote the “Book” they’ve created and hunger for new broadcasts from their favorite sources makes it clear that this is more a religion than a survival plan.

Most of all, Noise works because the author doesn’t stoop to any simple answers or feel the need to explain where he disagrees with Hiram. The plot may be straightforward once you’ve pierced the schizophrenic ramblings of Hiram’s narration, but there are only glimpses of a “true story” behind it. Hiram doesn’t realize how selectively his actions pick from the plan in his Book, and doesn’t seem to think about how the Group dynamics will work (or not) once they have settled down and started a new community. The obvious, Fight Club-like hunger for identity through this violence belies the idea that this is simply for survival. Given the choice, Hiram wants attempts to restore law and order to fail. Though the novel never says this, I strongly suspect that the “Event” which led to this post-apocalyptic situation was nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy by a critical mass of Salvage participants who had decided that the end was nigh.

Noise is not for everyone. It espouses a gruesome morality, but comes from a literate, deconstructionist source that will turn off people looking for a visceral thrill. It asks plenty of questions, but never raises them explicitly. Yet for all that, it clearly positions itself as a “low art” thriller that doesn’t have to mean anything, rather than aiming for weighty significance. If you can stomach that combination, you’ll find a novel that is sometimes exciting, sometimes disturbing, and always thought-provoking.

Grade: B+

Old 97’s – The Grand Theatre, Volume One (Music Review)

The Grand Theatre, Volume One cover

Old 97's - The Grand Theatre, Volume One

I have to admit that I’ve only paid attention to the Old 97’s sporadically. While Wreck Your Life is one of the classic albums of the alt-country era (it’s one of the first CDs I’ll point someone to if they’re curious about what country offers beyond the radio), most of their output is a lot more hit-and-miss. I’ve learned that a typical Old 97’s album has one or two great songs and a bunch of throwaway fluff. But I’m glad I decided to check out their 2010 album, The Grand Theatre, Volume One.

Grand Theatre finds the band with a much broader range than they did in their Bloodshot Records days. A couple of excellent country songs are found in the middle, and honestly, they’re still the highlight. Many of the tracks focus much more on the rock side of their “country-rock” formula, with mixed results. Overall, they have a Wilco-meets-Fountains of Wayne simplicity that speaks of older men confidently stepping into territory normally reserved for the young. When they focus on more complex musical arrangements that show off their country roots, such as the last half of “The Magician”, they give a rarely-heard depth to pop-rock. When the music takes a backstage to the sometimes pointless singing, such as the first half of “The Magician”, the only saving grace is that frontman Rhett Miller seems to be in a hurry to get the song over with.

Both for good and ill, those aren’t the only styles that the Old 97’s experiment with. A couple songs slip almost into a stoner vibe, but from very different directions: “You Were Born To Be In Battle” features Miller singing over a smooth, dark country groove, while the slow-building “Please Hold On While the Train Is Moving” could almost be a trippy Cracker outtake. Both are good, but per the usual Old 97’s rule, the country song is the memorable one.

The only complete failures on the album are the two attempts at smooth ballads, which are as insipid as their names imply (“Love Is What You Are” and “The Beauty Marks”). But the highlights are worth waiting for. “A State Of Texas” demonstrates just what the band was aiming for through the country-rock songs on the album, and succeeds enough to justify any missteps elsewhere. And “Champaign, Illinois” puts a brash, confident twist on the music from “Desolation Row” but provides completely new lyrics which, while maybe not Dylan-level, are still good enough to justify that bold move.

It appears that any Old 97’s album will be marked by highs and lows. However, The Grand Theatre’s highs are especially memorable, and most of the lesser tracks are still strong enough to add to the experience. This isn’t the sort of classic that I used to want from each Old 97’s release, but it’s a polished work from a band that sounds like they could keep doing this forever. After this album, I’ve accepted that that’s still a good thing.

Grade: B