Archive for July, 2011

Kurt Vile: Smoke Ring For My Halo (Music Review)

Smoke Ring For My Halo cover

Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring For My Halo

The first time I heard Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, my reaction was to try to remember what else he had done. His casual, assured style immediately made me think of Stephen Malkmus or recent Sonic Youth, practiced 90’s slackers who are still recording music. It was actually a surprise when I realized that Vile is someone new to the music scene.

Vile sings in an almost-spoken, laid-back style, which seems like it could become a sneer if he put a little more energy into it. Instead, it comes across as a half-whine, half-stoned sound. His backing band provides simple guitar-based pop with a lazy feel that calls to mind the “smoke rings” of the album’s title: It is fun and relaxing, with no real intention of going anywhere or trying something new.

When this style works, it can be excellent. The first few tracks give off a confident stoner-pop vibe that I really want to like, especially “Jesus Fever” (a perfect song to get lost in, with its folksy guitar and a downer-hook in the repeated line “I’m already gone”). Unfortunately, Vile front-loads the album with his best music, and it starts to wear thin by the end. On a second listen, even the early standouts have started to lose their luster.

The problem is that the lazy slacker sound actually takes a lot of experience to pull off. Bands like Sonic Youth had a full decade to figure out what worked and what didn’t (and at a time when the audience was more forgiving of experimentation). Vile skips over that long career of self-discovery, and tries to start out in the same territory that the masters are currently inhabiting. This quiet, laid-back style only works when it sounds completely effortless, but it paradoxically demands perfectection. A single note or line out of place stands out in these simple, clear songs, and they easily destroy the illusion.

The line between “mesmerizing” and “boring” is very thin for this music, and is mainly determined by whether it supports appropriately compelling vocals. Unfortunately, Vile doesn’t seem to have a grasp on what sounds good or bad coming from his mouth, and lines like “Don’t know if you really came but I feel dumb in asking” cause the entire composition to come crashing down. The slow pace of a song like “Baby’s Arms” is appropriately relaxing, but in a song like “Peeping Tomboy”, it just sounds like Vile is stalling for time.

Smoke Ring For My Halo is the work of some very skilled artists who haven’t yet figured out how to use their talents. I hope that they aren’t quite the slackers that they appear to be, because if they aren’t satisfied with the work here, they could still learn to record a real masterpiece. This album doesn’t seem to have a place now, but it would work well if it could become the occasionally-satisfying introduction to someone who got a lot better.

Grade: C

Spider-Man: Big Time (Comic Review)

Spider-Man’s recent direction is still controversial in a lot of people’s minds: 2007’s “One More Day” storyline, which arbitrarily undid years’ worth of stories, was very poorly done. However, the intention of that disappointing event was to undo the damage done by all the other poorly-planned changes Marvel had sent Spider-Man through. In that respect, Marvel finally made the right choice: “Brand New Day” kicked off in 2008, with thrice-monthly issues and a small cabal of writers dedicated to stories about Spider-Man’s responsibility and Peter Parker’s friends. It was a stunning success, and it felt like Spider-Man again.

The “Brand New Day” status quo shifted to “Big Time” last November, though it wasn’t nearly as significant a change. Dan Slott, part of the team in “Brand New Day”, became the chief writer, and Amazing Spider-Man switched to two issues per month. Within the comic, “Big Time” represented the idea that maybe things can go right for Peter sometimes. He gets a fun new girlfriend, a job that uses his science skills, and once again finds respect from the hero community. It’s a really nice change of pace from most modern comics, in which the superhero is repeatedly ground down to show the strength of his resolve and the danger of his enemies.

This is a review of issues #648-#665 of Amazing Spider-Man. I’m not sure if Marvel considers the “Big Time” era over now, but the next issue begins the major “Spider Island” event, followed by the launch of a new Spidey title, so it seems like the right place to examine this run.

Skimming through these issues again to write this review was surprisingly fun, as Slott’s deft touch and master plan are more obvious when reading the stories for a second time. His strengths lie in the way he can balance his love for the characters with the need for a good story, as well as spacing a longer story throughout interesting single issues. The comics touch on every era of Spider-Man’s history, but they manage to move the plot forward without just being safe retread of past hits. Doctor Octopus is changing into something more desperate and sinister. Jonah Jameson continues with some of his first real character development in history. And Peter actually loses his “spider-sense”, leading to twists in the challenges he faces and the ways he has to fight. This feels natural, unlike the costume changes and tacked-on gimmicks that Marvel used to try out on Spider-Man. (Admittedly, Peter does make a few new costumes with the resources his new job gives him. These provide new abilities that make up for his loss of spider-sense. In the short run, it’s a nice change. In the long run, though, it does feel arbitrary for Peter to keep inventing ways out of his current problem. This spider-sense change is an enjoyable diversion, but I hope it’s a temporary one.)

Near the end of this run, Spider-Man’s defeats (for now) Mr. Negative, one of the new villains from the “Brand New Day” era. However, “new” is a relative term when a comic is coming out two to three times a month: It’s actually been more than 100 issues since Mr. Negative was introduced in 2008, and having his story planned and executed over such a long timeframe is an impressive feat. Very few writers ever get to stick with one character long enough to pull off a trick like that.

While it is good to see the hero win throughout “Big Time”, don’t expect it to come without struggle. In particular, one long-time supporting character dies in this run. Rather than feeling like a grab for attention, this is actually moving. The tribute issue that follows, with extended silent scenes demonstrating the holes the death leaves in others’ lives, was one of the best single comics of the year.


On many of the later issues, Slott is joined by writer Fred Van Lente, who takes care of the actual dialog. This is the perfect combination: Slott does a great job handling the plots, but Van Lente is better at the quintessential Spider-Man dialog (both snappy and dramatic without ever feeling overdone). The art is a little less even, unfortunately. No one artist can keep up with a twice-monthly schedule, so the comic rotated through several. None are bad, and some are very good, but as you can see above, the styles are not consistent from one to the next.

In a recent review, I called Batman Incorporated “exactly what a superhero comic should be”. At the time, I was still so impressed by that comic’s early issues that I hadn’t really considered that the later ones were harder to follow and only decent in quality. I’d like to correct that statement: Dan Slott’s run on Amazing Spider-Man is, in fact, exactly what a superhero comic should be. Fun, usually uplifting issues that focus on both the hero and the people around him, and that make use of a rich backstory without getting bogged down in it. It may still be controversial, but I’m confident that we are witnessing one of the classic eras of Spider-Man comics.

Grade: A-

The Blind Assassin (Book Review)

The Blind Assassin

It’s always strange to see how genre literature is filtered through the sensibilities of other writers. Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize-winning The Blind Assassin tells us of the planet Zycron, culminating in the war between a superstitious barbarian tribe and the advanced but corrupt city of Sakiel-Norn. However, it is presented as a story-within-a-story-within-another-story. This metafictional conceit allowed the novel to be taken seriously by the critics.

Fortunately, the three-layered story is clever: According to Atwood’s book, heiress Laura Chase wrote a novel in 1945 before driving off a bridge in an apparent suicide. That novel, which hints at a real-life affair, includes the pulp story as the bedroom talk that a coarse Marxist revolutionary uses to keep the attention of a sheltered upper-class lady. The themes of each layer (real life, the novel about the affair, and the pulp story of Zycron) are reflected cleverly in the others. Meanwhile, newspaper clippings give details about major events in the lives of Laura Chase and her family, while providing tantalizing hints of the untold stories behind the news.

By the mid-point of the novel, though, the stories-within-stories have lost steam. The fantasy about Sakiel-Norn is only ever interesting when it sets the scene, with a culture informed by real-world class struggles and a conflict that highlights the tension between the lovers in the middle story. But every time it is about to actually provide some plot or character-building, it rushes through the actual story in order to reach the next significant piece of scenery. Meanwhile, the book “written” by Laura is interesting only to the extent that it gives us a view of the real-life characters’ secrets. The idea that it could have become famous on its own, let alone remembered fifty years later, makes it harder to believe the otherwise realistic main story.

By this time, the only truly interesting story-within-a-story is the one at the outer level. Iris, the sister to novelist Laura, is recounting the events of her life for us. The jumps between the elderly Iris’ current state, with her sharp wit and bitter outlook, contrast sharply with the young self she recalls: The only children of a successful industrialist, Iris and Laura were raised in privilege and never prepared for adulthood in an unforgiving world. The tragic trajectory is obvious (the book opens on the scene of Laura’s death) but the details are a compelling mystery.

As always, Atwood’s prose is masterful. Iris’ tale finds the right turns of phrase to capture herself at all ages, bringing alive their small Canadian town, the culture of the early 20th century, and the adult world as seen through children’s eyes. The history of the Chase family is filled with mistakes and tragedy, but after a lifetime of experience, Iris’ portrayal finds compassion for all but a few villains who ruined her life directly.

The story is unique. Laura is a strange child (possibly autistic?), while Iris is quiet, distant, and seems to have no agency in the story she herself is telling. Their idillic, privileged childhood seems wrong from the beginning, and sets them on an unusual course through life. Iris’ unhappy arranged marriage dominates half of the book, but this book does not put feminism front and center in the way that Atwood’s novels like The Handmaid’s Tale did. It’s impossible to avoid a feminist angle when discussing this book, but it’s thrown into the mix along with many other elements. Chief among them is the mysteries of Iris and Laura’s lives, which are slowly revealed throughout the book. Though I complained that the inner stories (as well as the newspaper articles) aren’t very satisfying on their own, they do allow the secrets to be revealed in an interesting way: The reader receiving a high-level glimpse of the future from newspaper clippings, a few more hints from the elderly Iris’ comments and Laura’s novel, and finally the complete story when the flashback scenes catch up to that point. Even when the final pieces are obvious (as they are in the last few chapters), it is an enjoyable way to structure the novel.

In short, though, the inner stories of The Blind Assassin mainly provide an interesting hook at the start. They never become satisfying on their own. The outer one features the  interesting characters and compelling plot. Despite Atwood’s reputation as a respected author who isn’t afraid to work with science fiction and fantasy, it’s her rich vision of the real world that make this novel worth reading.

Grade: B

How I Would Handle the DC Universe Reboot

Cover for Justice League #1, this SeptemberThe major comic news of the past month has been DC’s plan to cancel every title in their line and launch 52 new titles, all starting at #1. Some of these will be titles that existed before, but with a new numbering system and a change of creators. Others are new titles, or bring a new focus to previously-minor characters. It’s still not clear exactly how much these “#1″s are restarting the stories and how much they are continuations of what went before.

Relaunching, renumbering, and other gimmicks are hardly new to superhero comics. But this is a bigger deal than normal because of how widespread it is. Also, this is the first major change since DC Comics was restructured underneath parent company Warner Entertainment, and DC will be starting a new digital distribution plan that is aimed at attracting new readers. No one knows for sure how well this digital outreach will work, but a lot of current readers are outspokenly against it. That’s not surprising; comic readers are outspokenly against almost every change that has happened in the past generation. Whether or not this new line of titles succeeds, I think that DC will hold on to most of their current customer base. However, that fanbase is slowly shrinking, and I think this is widely regarded as DC’s last real chance to stop the bleeding. If this fails, things will go on much as before, but DC probably won’t have the goodwill to allow them to try any other bold moves for the next 5-10 years. If they are shackled to the current system for that long, I doubt they’ll be in any shape to try again afterwards.

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The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck (Music Review)

All Eternals Deck cover

The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck

Ever notice that fantasy and science fiction themes are common in movies and books, but most music is strictly limited to realistic stories? What is it that gives us such different expectations in different genres? The Mountain Goats stand alone as a “serious” indie folk band that is as comfortable with monsters and cultists as with personal, realistic characters.

The trick is to treat both extremes with the same seriousness: Deep, often inscrutable lyrics and three-dimensional characters dominate all the songs. The band’s style, with simple instrumentation putting the focus on John Darnielle’s reedy but earnest voice, makes both the complex and the emotional lyrics succeed. Their latest, All Eternals Deck, is a perfect example of this. The liner notes go into detail about the apparently-fictional Tarot deck that the album takes its name from, and the songs feature vampires and cultists prominently. A first-time listener could easily assume that the entire album dealt with the magical, but in fact quite a few songs (such as the obvious “For Charles Bronson” and “Liza Forever Minnelli”) stay firmly rooted in the real world.

Of course, the stories are deep and interesting in both cases. “Prowl Great Cain” and “Sourdoire Valley Song” provide back-to-back examples, with the first examining the guilty conscience of a grave robber who betrayed a friend, and the second expressing fascination with Neanderthal culture.

“Estate Sale Sign” is arguably an improvement on Jonathan Coulton’s formula, with an intensely nostalgic look through the eyes of an aged cultist selling off his worn-out relics and sacrificial alter. “Damn These Vampires” opens the album with possibly the perfect Mountain Goats song: Featuring a narrator recently turned to vampirism, Darnielle’s voice and the building piano perfectly convey a stark, pained character with only occasional bouts of intense passion to break up a lonely, emotionless existence. But “Never Quite Free” provides a counterpoint to this, with a simple message of hope for a better life despite past tragedies.

If All Eternals Deck has a flaw, it is the inconsistent feel throughout. It’s normal for a Mountain Goats album to feature such wide variety, but so many early songs feature a sense of building doom that it is disappointing for the second half not to offer any pay-off. Despite the hints at a theme, this ends up being a standard collection of Mountain Goats songs. I don’t want to sound ungrateful about that – there are no bad songs here, and the band continues its musical growth from the early lo-fi days, but it often feels on the edge of true greatness, and this is never quite achieved.

Grade: B

Echo (Comic Review)

Echo #2 coverTerry Moore is one of the big names among self-published cartoonists, having worked on Strangers In Paradise since the early 1990’s. But one drawback to writing, illustrating, and publishing your own comic is that you spend all your time focusing on one. Perhaps for that reason, Moore ended Strangers In Paradise in 2007 to begin a new series, Echo. Echo just finished its run as a single 30-issue story, and a new series will be taking its place soon. This is probably the right strategy to pursue in today’s comic market. At the very least, it convinced me to try out his work.

Echo is the story of Julie Martin, who finds pieces of an experimental super-suit raining down on her after they explode during a test flight. This “alloy” fuses itself to her body, and Julie must figure out how to control it while running from unscrupulous government contractors who want their suit back.

This may sound like a typical superhero origin story, but Moore’s comics have always been known for their focus on characters and strong women.This is the primarily the story of Julie herself, as well as her newfound protector Dillon, an agent tracking her down, and even Annie, the woman who had been testing the suit when it blew up.

Distinctive, believable people are Moore’s artistic strength as well. This feels like a human drama throughout, without the stilted clichés of many superhero stories. Body language, expressions, and individual appearances are all varied and support the characters as the comic’s focus. Admittedly, they are a little sexualized (Julie’s skin-tight alloy burns her clothes away when it activates, but it covers her so that she’s not technically naked), but done in the way one would expect from Moore’s reputation for empowered, realistic women. I am confident that this has at least as many female fans as male.

The art itself is black and white (plus a silvery gray for the alloy), with some cross-hatching and filled blacks. The simple inking and lack of color is what allows Moore to produce comics on a near-monthly schedule, and while it does feel a little slight at times, it complements the story. Unfortunately, the story could stand to be a little less slight. Bad guys act with barely more subtlety than Saturday morning cartoon villains, and the pseudo-science behind the alloy involves metaphysics, emotions, and souls. The plot never becomes as interesting as the relationships between the characters, and while it flows well in monthly serialization, some plot threads never feel resolved in retrospect.

Though Echo could be made into a big-budget action movie without much tweaking, the current implementation is definitely aimed at a comic-size niche audience. It needs to be appreciated by someone who cares primarily about the character-driven drama, but enjoys the trappings of a superpowered story. Further, the series does have several scenes of shocking violence that even verge on horror, which most people will find at odds with the light, occasionally comedic, interactions that dominate the story.

Overall, Echo feels like a disposable work by a talented creator capable of doing much more. Whether the demands of the periodical schedule kept Moore from reaching any interesting depths with the story, or whether he just wasn’t interested in more than he created here, this never quite achieved anything memorable. I’ll be watching him in the hopes that he reaches greater heights on his next title, though; At the very least, Moore can guarantee a reliable, timely story. There aren’t many talented comic creators who have chosen to do their own thing outside of the auspices of Marvel and DC, and I’m eager to see what he can accomplish.

Grade: C+