Archive for November, 2011

Thoughts on Lovecraft

The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of the Horror and the Macabre

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are well-known, but not frequently read. I personally had only read a few before I went through the Bloodcurdling Tales short story collection last month. Given that, I’m more interested in discussing the stories than giving them a formal review.

So, in brief: This is a collection of classic horror stories that often manage to be atmospheric and creepy. They seem clichéd, though, with flowery prose and predictable last-paragraph twists. As with many classics, the aspects that made it influential can be found everywhere now, and the flaws (as well as the things that simply didn’t age well) have been left behind in those new works. You can still see what made these stories so great, but they aren’t the must-reads they once were.

Grade: C+

Ok, now that that’s out of the way, here are my thoughts on these stories. Basic familiarity with Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos is assumed, but this should be pretty easy to follow even for those (many) people who haven’t read them.

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Screeching Weasel – First World Manifesto (Music Review)

First World Manifesto cover

Screeching Weasel - First World Manifesto

It’s been eleven years since Screeching Weasel’s last album, enough time for their pop punk sound to dominate the music industry and then fade away. A few years too late for a shot at mainstream success, they are back with First World Manifesto. Founding member John Jughead is missing after legal squabbles, but the other 40-year-olds are here and projecting youthful brattiness as if it never went out of style.

The band is at its best when frontman Ben Weasel acknowledges his role as an aging standard-bearer of a dying scene. In “Follow Your Leaders”, he describes the band as “frat boys with sillier haircuts” and urges the fans to “fall into line like you do all the time”. “Little Big Man” features a tongue-in-cheek lyrics about how Weasel will sic his lawyers on anyone who doesn’t acknowledge his punk rock cred. Self-deprecation is a common punk rock trick, but Manifesto takes it one step further by acknowledging that they’re expected to do so. (“See? Please notice, I laughed at myself” sings Weasel, apparently with checklist in hand.) It’s an appropriately mature and self-aware bid for relevancy in the 2011 punk scene. That’s a relief, because their only attempt to branch out from the traditional themes of punk rock is the somewhat embarrassing love song “Dry Is The Desert” (which never manages any emotional or lyrical depth beyond what the name implies).

For the most part, the band is content to churn out pretty standard songs. They don’t have much to say, but are saved from irrelevance by surprisingly catchy hooks. Tracks about self-destruction (“Bite Marks”), rebelling against scenesters (“Friday Night Nation”), and breakups (“Frankengirl”) manage to be a little more memorable than the comparable songs from other bands. The only one that tries to say much, though, is “Come And See The Violence Inherent In The System”: It contrasts the most fun, lighthearted music on the album with an over-the-top laundry list of complaints about the state of the world, only to spend the second half of the song making fun of the people who issue such complaints.

For the most part, Manifesto succeeds by setting the bar low and clearing it easily. If you’re looking for new pop punk, this may be one of your better bets. It doesn’t break any new ground, but it also never seems like a cynical cash-grab. For a comeback album, that’s not bad.

Grade: B-

Spider-Man: Spider-Island (Comic Review)

(This review covers Amazing Spider-Man #666-673, along with several other titles that tied into the storyline.)

Amazing Spider-Man #670 coverA few months ago, I praised Dan Slott’s current work on Amazing Spider-Man as one of the comic’s definitive runs. It has its ups and downs, of course, but the overall feel is perfect for the character, and the release schedule (twice per month) allows it to fit large, satisfying plots into a short timeframe.

Of course, all long-running comics have their ups and downs, and usually the big “events” are some of the most notable disappointments. The “Spider-Island” storyline that just ran through Amazing is arguably its biggest event in years – at least, it’s the only to feature so many related mini-series and tie-in comics – and surprisingly, it managed to maintain the quality of the series leading up to it. This may not have been one of the series’ highlights, but it was fun and felt true to both the ongoing series and the hyped “event”, and that’s a rare success.

The “Spider Island” of this story is Manhattan. A supervillain infects the borough with a virus that gives everyone the same powers as Spider-Man. At first, this is just about the chaos that results from people having “all of the power and none of the responsibility”, with a look at how it impacts Peter and his supporting characters. But as the virus continues to progress, the victims fall under the control of the villainous “Spider Queen” and the true threat becomes apparent.

As usual, Slott juggles several sub-plots, this time also tying in with several other spin-off titles and cross-overs. Since most of the Marvel community revolves around New York, this effects a lot of the heroes. At times, the story suffers a little for having to remain coherent and interesting whether or not the reader is getting the tie-ins, but is generally succeeds. Most importantly, all of the side titles feel like legitimate stories in their own right – There are no cliffhangers that say “Be sure to read comic ____ for the exciting conclusion!” as some events do. I read most, but not all, of these supporting comics, and they are a part of the overall grade I’m giving this storyline.

The art is by Humerto Ramos, who has become one of the major Spidey artists in recent years. I have mixed feelings about his work: He’s a skilled and dynamic artist. However, his people look incredibly cartoony, with inconsistent proportions and exaggerated body language. It isn’t necessarily less realistic than some of the trends that have dominated comic art at times, but it is different enough to seem out of place in a Marvel book. Even after seeing his work in Amazing Spider-Man for a few years now, it sometimes strikes me as distracting and off-model. I have to admit, though, that if I read through quickly and let his art flow by, those exaggerations create action scenes that feel natural and varied. Ramos’ style is definitely rooted in an understanding of the human form.

Spider-Man stories are a continuous soap opera, for the hero and the ordinary people around him. The ongoing stories continue to progress, with yet another plot-line that started over 100 issues ago (that of the characters Venom and “Anti-Venom”) coming to a close. This remains the only modern comic series that can manage that sort of long-form storytelling, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m not bothered by occasional annoyances in the short run. In the long run, this is always excellent. (There were a couple of those annoyances in this storyline. The sight-seeing Madame Web is one of the most frustrating characters out there, just popping in from time to time to drop intentionally vague hints that don’t help anyone. Also, after recent issues that celebrated Spider-Man’s refusal to kill, the workaround at the end of this story felt cheap.) It is unfortunately that most of the changes that came up at the conclusion to this were actually returning things to a previous status quo, but even there, the changes came up organically and didn’t feel like the editorial fiat that normally dominates high-profile events.

Panel from Spider-Island

“Spider-Island” is far from perfect, and it’s definitely not the place a new reader should start. However, I can say that it is the only event comic I can think of in recent years that I actually enjoyed and would recommend to others. Most events seem focused on “Get from point A to B, introduce these arbitrary changes the corporate office asked for, and be sure to sell all the cross-over issues!” Storytelling isn’t a priority, so they mask it by repeating over and over how important everything is. This comic, on the other hand, still put the story and characters first. The “importance” all flowed naturally from that.

Grade: B-

Though they were factored into the above grade, here is a brief discussion of the other comics that were a part of this event:

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Interactive Fiction Competition: Fan Interference, Cana According To Micah, and Last Day of Summer

The results are in for the 2011 IFComp. Below the fold, I have my final three reviews for games that I played. But first, a few comments on the competition as a whole:

  • I played 11 of the 38 games, and chose them randomly so there would be no selection bias when I submitted my votes. Of these 11, I only played 2 games in the top third and 3 in the bottom. Apparently, I ended up with a lot of the average games.
  • I suspect that I was grading slightly too kindly, and that seems confirmed now that I see how many high-rated games I missed. I am staying consistent with my scoring for the reviews here, but will probably be slightly harsher next year. My normal standard for giving something a B is “would I recommend this?”, which works well for books and CDs, but may be a little too low a bar for a free half-hour game.
  • Though my scores may have been a little too generous, I see that 9 of my reviews were pretty close to the universal consensus, but I liked 2 of them much better than most people. I stand by those, though: Blind was a surprisingly immersive and tense experience, and The Guardian was a strange but successful experiment in “interactive” storytelling. It’s possible that my years away from the IF scene made those seem more creative to me than they actually were, but that’s the only possible argument I can come up with.
  • I’ll definitely be playing again next year. It was fun, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that about half of the games are now designed to be completed in well under the 2-hour time limit. That will make it easier for me to commit to.

My previous reviews can be found here, here, here, and here. Now, on to three puzzle-based games: Fan Interference, Cana According To Micah, and Last Day of Summer.

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EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints (Music Review)

Past Life Martyred Saints cover

EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

EMA’s music exists in a territory somewhere between songs and performance pieces. The music is generally repetitive grinding or droning, creating a shapeless platform for her lost-sounding voice and frequent non-sequiturs, and the recordings lose quite a bit by not being able to show her dream-like but charismatic performance. Despite that, though, the tracks work well as individual songs, with meaning and cohesion that distances them from most of the lo-fi artsy experiments that it could be compared to. It’s rare for music like this to win me over, but her release Past Life Martyred Saints managed to do it.

An edgy energy flows through the performance. Usually it’s in the amusical instrumentation or angstful lyrics, but it feels perfectly natural on the occasions when an angry noise breaks through the calm surface. These fit naturally into a complex persona that makes the occasional vague, boring stretch forgivable. Those stretches do exist, unfortunately, but they don’t define the album.

EMA is still young, and still clearly recalls the teen angst she sings about: The brutal “Butterfly Knife” is an unapologetic story of self-mutilation (“You were a goth in high school/You cut and fucked your arms up… 20 kisses with a butterfly knife”), and “Marked” portrays her as a hollow soul (“My arms they are a see-through plastic”) craving dangerous validation (“I wish that every time he touched me left a mark”). In some ways, Past Life Martyred Saints feels a little like a college art thesis that managed to take on a life of its own. It has that exuberant but sometimes-unfinished quality that can be embarrassing ten years later, and hopefully the success she found here won’t stop her from the experimentation and development that should still be in front of her.

Past Life Martyred Saints covers everything from Stephen Foster references to off-key acapella. It is bookended by two songs over six minutes long: “Grey Ship” and “Red Star”. The former sets the tone by wandering between breathy folk and electronic drone, while the latter closes the album with a more traditional song structure. The triumphant conclusion finds her with the mature conviction to leave a man who’s no good for her. Whether or not those two songs are meant to thematically define the album, there’s no doubt that it covers a lot of ground and hints at further development in the future. EMA is an artist to watch.

Grade: B

Interactive Fiction Competition: It And The Guardian

(Though the IFComp ends today, I’m still catching up on my reviews. Here are my impressions of It and The Guardian, with a few more to follow later this week.)

Despite the name “interactive fiction”, most works are first and foremost puzzle-based games. Does this limit its literary potential? About a decade back, there was a movement to create “puzzleless IF” that would let the characters and plot come to the forefront. I remember those attempts as unsuccessful, though; interacting through a text parser naturally leads to situations that need to be figured out, and without a focus on puzzles, it was easier to notice the ways that the computer system didn’t completely model reality.

Coming back after a few years away from IF, I’m pleasantly surprised with how far a plot-based focus and puzzleless approaches have come along. Some of the games that I already looked at (The Play and Keepsake) are about living through a simple story, with the only puzzle being the metagame of figuring out how the story can be changed on subsequent playthroughs. Here, I look at two more works that certainly don’t adhere to a pure puzzleless approach, but keep the puzzles very simple in order to focus on their story.

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Nick 13 – Nick 13 (Music Review)

Nick 13 cover

Nick 13 - Nick 13

With his self-titled solo debut, Nick 13 joins the growing ranks of punk singers gone country. What makes this case unique is just how country it is. Most projects like this still let the punk roots show through and seem too rough to traditional country audiences. This is pure mellow music whose riffs and rhythm guitar strongly evoke open western vistas. Sparse soundscapes support his distinctive voice, with Nick 13 singing over a simple melody and the band contributing flourishes between his lines.

Of course, his band Tiger Army was always a little unusual in this regard. Their psychobilly-tinged rock was comparatively mellow and introspective, with Nick 13’s mellow, squeaky-clean voice sounding a little too innocent for their chosen scene. Despite their popularity, Tiger Army’s style never felt right to me. Even here, Nick 13’s voice sounds so soft that it’s easy to imagine the typical Western characters dismissing him as too soft and effeminate. He’d be the guy on the dude ranch that the grizzled ranchers joke about while sitting around the campfire. By the third act of the story, though, the sincerity and depth of this ex-city slicker would win them over.

The subject matter is traditional, with wandering, love, and regrets about vaguely-defined sins taking the forefront. A couple times, such as “Cupid’s Victim”, Nick 13 bases the lyrics on metaphors that would seem more appropriate to Tiger Army than a simple country song, but that’s the only (slight) hint that he isn’t native to this genre. And really, most modern country artists are defying tradition more than that.

If anything, Nick 13 is too faithful to the laid-back style he is using here. The songs are consistent and enjoyable, but there are no radio-ready singles here. Only the upbeat “Gambler’s Life” even attempts a catchy refrain or memorable beat, but it still seems understated and more at home on the album than as a single. It’s safe to say that he would consider this a feature, not a bug, and is not likely to make any standalone hits even if he releases more albums like this. It’s hard to argue with that, though: The ten songs found here have absolutely no missteps, and Nick 13 already sounds perfectly at home in this new band. There is enough musical and lyrical variety to keep this from being repetitive. If it is arguably all “filler”, it’s good filler.

Few punk singers have embarrassed themselves when dabbling in country, but they rarely sound completely natural either. At best, those works can be accepted as a progression after years of experience, but the punk history still informs the new work. Here, though, Nick 13 steps into his country western sound like it’s a second skin. In many ways, it seems that he has finally found his perfect niche. If Tiger Army ended to allow for more releases like this, I wouldn’t be disappointed at all.

Grade: B

Interactive Fiction Competition: Operation Extraction and The Play

Every year, the IFComp features a few web-based games. With the state of web design these days, these can easily include status screens and other formatting that compares nicely to the state of the art in old-school text adventures. However, they generally don’t feature any text input from the player. Text parsing is complicated, and if the designer wanted it, they would probably have used one of the established interactive fiction development systems instead of their own web application. This means that the web-based games may feel very different than the other works in the competition, but in some ways they are very like classic Choose Your Own Adventures.

That’s not to say that a CYOA story has to be bad. There are interesting narrative possibilities that the classic children’s books barely touched on, and telling them through a computer creates a lot of potential that books couldn’t offer. This review examines two of this year’s web-based entries, Operation Extraction and The Play.

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Wanda Jackson – The Party Ain’t Over (Music Review)

The Party Ain't Over cover

Wanda Jackson - The Party Ain't Over

When Jack White engineered a comeback album for Loretta Lynn, the result was stunning. Van Lear Rose’s collection of both covers and originals introduced Lynn to a new generation, and presented her as a still-talented and interesting woman. Now White is trying again with Wanda Jackson’s The Party Ain’t Over, but with less success.

As one of the first rockabilly singers, and still one of the few notable female ones, Jackson deserves this recognition as much as Lynn. However, she hasn’t aged quite as well. In some ways, a direct comparison to Van Lear Rose is unfair, since Jackson’s harder style favors youth, and original songs were never as central to her persona. However, it’s still the natural approach. Either way, this collection of competently-performed covers can’t avoid being disappointing.

She still has a distinctive growl on songs such as the “Shakin’ All Over” and “Nervous Breakdown”, but little range or energy. White tries to compensate with a band of talented young rock musicians, but there is only so much they can do. This is supposed to be Jackson’s album, and even though the music occasionally threatens to drown her out, she stays at the center. They never aim to be more than a good cover band.

Of the more rocking songs, “Thunder On The Mountain” is by far the best. This five-year-old Dylan song has gone almost uncovered to date, and it takes some serious instrumental scaling up and lyrical paring down to bring it in line with Jackson’s style. It’s the one song here that feels transformed into something new, and while it still would have benefitted from a different vocalist, it realizes the vision that White must have had when he decided to record albums with his influences.

Jackson is at her best with slower, sultrier songs, such as “Teach Me Tonight” and a surprising performance of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”. She brings a world-weary perspective and experienced sultriness to these works, turning her age to a strength.

The main problem with The Party Ain’t Over may be that it sets its aims too low. It rarely tries to do more than pay tribute to classic songs, and that leaves no room for a tribute to Jackson. Without exception, these songs can easily be judged to be worse than the originals, and worse than Jackson could have done in her prime. Her personality barely comes through, with “Dust On The Bible” being the only choice that sounds like it came from Jackson’s heart. Winehouse’s “little carpet burns”, the gimmicky “Rum And Coca-Cola”, and the overreaching energy just don’t feel right for Jackson today. White succeeded with Lynn’s Van Lear Rose by making it into an honest snapshot of its subject, but this new work buries Jackson under all the glitz and fancy production. It’s hard to tell whether this was a miscalculation or the only thing that would work for her, but either way, it doesn’t do justice to this rock-n-roll icon.

Grade: C

The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? (Music Review)

What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? cover

The Vaccines - What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?

The Vaccines have a sound equally influenced by 70’s punk and 80’s synth, with lyrics that sometimes dip into the sleazy, dangerous territory of The Raveonettes. These elements meld surprisingly well on their debut release What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? The punk elements keep the slower songs straightforward and emotional, without dipping into any boring or navel-gazing territory, and the other elements ensure that the harder songs are clear and well-produced enough to be accepted by a mainstream audience.

“Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)” and “Norgaard” are Ramones-influenced gems, which barely take three minutes when played back to back. These are the rare songs that can remain fun even when they stay stuck in your head for days. The bulk of the songs are in a slower style, with sparse arrangements around singer Justin Young’s deep, smooth voice. In songs like “Wetsuit” and “Post Break-Up Sex”, he provides a youthful approximation of soulfulness. while slightly more energetic ones like “Blow It Up” tinge the clean production with a garage influence. Somewhere in between the band’s extremes, the mid-tempo “If You Wanna” provides a bouncy beat and timeless sound, with a radio-ready message of break-up pain. (“I don’t wanna see you with another guy, but the fact is that I may. That’s what all the friends I do not like as much as you say.”)

This album has some of the best pop treasures of the year, but even at its short half hour runtime, it seems like the band have run through all their tricks by the end. It’s not immediately obvious how they will manage to follow this up without either becoming boring or abandoning their simple elegance. Even if The Vaccines’ career ends up being as fleeting as the youth and the lusts they portray, though, at least this album will preserve them.

Grade: B+