Archive for January, 2012

Scott H. Biram – Bad Ingredients (Music Review)

Bad Ingredients cover

Scott H. Biram - Bad Ingredients

Gravel-voiced “dirty old one-man band” Scott H. Biram has mellowed out noticeably with each new album. Bad Ingredients reverses that trend, with lo-fi blues covering every sound from his early wild rock to his later ballads. In that sense, Bad Ingredients is probably the best introduction a new listener will find to Biram. For someone who is already familiar with him, on the other hand, it is the first one to seem a little underwhelming.

I want to be careful not to dismiss this too quickly, though. Even though he isn’t breaking new ground here, I expect to look back in a year or two and consider many of the songs here to be among his best. But at least now, they seem to be less interesting than I expect from Biram. The one potentially new direction I see is that songs like “Born In Jail” and “I Want My Mojo Back” are more indebted to classic blues than his past DIY efforts. It’s a subtle change, though, and those ones don’t always feel as honest and personal as his best.

Though this is his most rocking album in years, that doesn’t seem to be Biram’s strength any more. Songs like “Killed A Chicken Last Night” recall the chaotic, rambling abandon of The Dirty Old One-Man Band, but without the energy behind it. On the other hand, some great things come out of the career-spanning mix. “Victory Song”, for example, applies that chaotic rambling to a more formally-structured song with great results. If you prefer the assured rock-n-roll attitude of Graveyard Shift, you’ll find that incorporated frequently, and usually with success.

It’s probably misleading for me to imply that Biram is calm or quiet. No matter how much he mellows out, his restless, redneck blues will always be inappropriate for dates and dinner parties. For example, the album’s standout is “Broke Ass”, a song that I would unsarcastically describe as a soulful ballad, beautiful despite his rough blues-man voice. But it’s still a song about a depressed slacker and his “worn out two-dollar whore”. Even for a Bloodshot Records artist, he incorporates a lot of metal into his country/blues format. But unlike many Bloodshot artists, it feels entirely authentic, with no posturing or overreaching.

In fact, Biram is the unappreciated gem of Bloodshot’s catalog. Their performers tend to fall into two categories: Decent cover artists committed to an “alt-country” aesthetic that the rest of the underground country scene has already moved beyond, and truly skilled artists who are just passing through on their way to larger indie labels. Biram is an authentic, unique talent who follows his own muse, but has been overlooked by too many people. If you haven’t heard him before, then like I said, Bad Ingredients makes a great introduction. And if you have, what are you waiting for? Even if it’s not his most original work, it’s still a new Scott H. Biram album.

Grade: B

Dava Sobel – Longitude (Book Review)

Longitude cover

Dava Sobel - Longitude

There are many things we take for granted today, but sometimes it’s surprising just how different life was before certain scientific advances. For example, did you know that well into the 18th century, people could determine their latitude by watching the sun but had no way to find their longitude? Ships would become lost or even crash because they misjudged their position by hundreds of miles, and in 1714 England offered a huge prize to the first person to find a solution to the problem. Dava Sobel’s Longitude is the story of this problem, and specifically of clockmaker John Harrison who developed timepieces accurate enough to offer a solution.

Though Sobel sets the story up well, with an easy to understand explanation of what longitude is and how people tried to calculate it, I was otherwise very disappointed with her writing. The early chapters, which establish the state of things before Harrison entered the picture, are unfocused and often repeat each other. A plot does develop once Harrison becomes involved, but it’s so sensationalistic as to be untrustworthy. Harrison is a noble hero, working alone on his clock-based answer against a cabal of scientists who insist that the only feasible solution must be based on astronomy. Harrison is an interesting figure – a self-taught clockmaker who advanced the state of the art significantly, and was such a perfectionist that he might have received the prize much earlier if he hadn’t pointed out the flaws in his own clocks. However, Sobel elevates him and his profession to a near-mystical status. “Time is to clock as mind is to brain”, she announces, making her apparently one of the few people in the world who think that brains share a common mind in the same way clocks measure a universal time. Or maybe she is denying any interaction between the mind and brain, and thinks they have a simple relationship in which one merely observes the other. She doesn’t really explain the statement, other than the equally confusing follow-up that clocks “somehow contain” time. She compares Harrison to Christ, and for some reason declares his first sea-clock superior to a “Hollywood time machine”.

Even when Sobel isn’t being outright confusing, the writing is exaggerated and dramatic. She sides strongly with Harrison, railing against the dirty tricks of his astronomical oppressors and pointing out every flaw in their plans while dismissing issues with the clock-based technique. I found it to be so overdone that I questioned the book’s authority, frequently wondering what I wasn’t being told. By the end, when Sobel is literally moved to tears by Harrison’s life, I felt completely uninvested in the characters or story.

Longitude’s saving graces are that it does tell an interesting and little-known story, and can be read very quickly. Considering the quality of the writing, though, it’s still difficult to say who would find it worth reading.

Grade: C-

Lydia Loveless – Indestructible Machine (Music Review)

Indestructible Machine cover

Lydia Loveless - Indestructible Machine

Lydia Loveless is the new star standard-bearer for Bloodshot’s “country punk” sound, with an aggressive snarl and songs full of taunts and kiss-offs. But she is just as quick to present herself as a socially awkward alcoholic, with references to depression that seem a little too real to write off as mere songwriting. Loveless’ biggest strength is in how she merges these two sides of her personality, and presents it as a consistent, fleshed-out life. If great country singers are expected to open their lives to the audience, she has the most promising approach in the modern rebel scene. Her debut album Indestructible Machine’s greatest accomplishment is shouting out lines like “you seem like such a pussy, babe” while still claiming a place in the conservative country tradition.

However, she still has some room for improvement. The opening songs demonstrate this best, with “Bad Way To Go” being simply jarring, and “Can’t Change Me” sounding like a rock band and country singer who are about to split over creative differences. The sadder songs could stand to have slightly more nuanced singing and less projecting of her voice. But when she attempts that with the more generic-sounding “How Many Women”, it seems that she had to forget her strengths in order to slow things down.

However, even the weak songs are usually excellent vehicles for Loveless’ character, and feature snappy, personal lyrics. When everything fits together as it should, the effect is excellent: “Jesus Was a Wino” is a shit-kicking justification for alcoholism, but with a dark edge that will discourage anyone from living vicariously through her. (The hook is “if I can’t find the corkscrew, I’ll just smash it open right here on the floor”.) “Crazy” should be the template for her quieter side, presenting a downward spiral that can’t be stopped despite the narrator’s self-awareness.

Indestructible Machine is consistently enjoyable, and at least for now, Loveless’ unevenness is part of her reckless charm. Even the songs that should be better are difficult to stop listening to, and the high points are worth the price of the album. I can’t tell how or if she’ll evolve next, but I have high hopes. This might not be the best debut of the past year, but it may be the most promising.

Grade: B

Eddie Spaghetti – Sundowner (Music Review)

Sundowner cover

Eddie Spaghetti - Sundowner

Sundowner is the third solo album from Eddie Spaghetti, but his first released through Bloodshot Records. The new label doesn’t change much, though. A review of this could match the earlier albums almost word for word. His formula is a series of country covers, with just a couple originals, as always including selections from both Steve Earle and Spaghetti’s own Supersuckers.

Spaghetti is a competent but unremarkable singer, and his band matches him in that. His strength here isn’t so much in his performance, but in his excellent taste as a curator. Spanning generations of country, and even choosing a couple curveballs from the punk scene, everyone should expect to learn some new songs from this album. (Did you ever expect to hear a country cover of The Dwarves or Lee Harvey Oswald Band?) I wonder, though, if I would prefer him to devote this energy to hosting a radio show or releasing compilations. His renditions stick so close to the originals that there sometimes seems to be little purpose to them. But then, nothing about this album implies commercial calculation: From the cover picture of his wife to the closing song by his son, not to mention the rambling greeting inside, this is obviously a labor of love. (And yes, those elements appear on all his solo albums.) From that perspective, it’s easy to enjoy this. I may wish Spaghetti tried to put his own mark on these covers, but his enthusiasm for them is unmistakeable. As an ambassador between country music and the punk scene, his intended audience will get a lot out of this.

As always, the cover of his own Supersuckers song (in this case, “Marie”) fares poorly next to the classics he’s chosen, but he acquits himself well with a couple new songs. They may not be technically the best on the album, but at least there are no better versions out there to compare them to. They flesh out the album, and establish him as a creative force in his own right.

Compared to his other albums, this doesn’t hit the highs of Extra Sauce (which had all his first picks of songs to cover, and was elevated, surprisingly, by an excellent harmonica performance), but it regains the energy that Old No. 2 often lacked. I’m still holding out hope for him to release an original country album someday. He’s already proven that he has the aptitude for that, both on his own and with the Supersuckers. In the meantime, these interesting but somewhat forgettable fans-only albums do their part to flesh out the legacy of a great rock-and-roll star.

Grade: C+

Three Bloodshot Records Reviews

As usual, I bought several CDs during Bloodshot Records’ year-end sale. Since they’ve extended it through the end of January, I figure it’s worth getting my reviews out before the sale ends. Three of the albums I bought just came out in 2011, while three more were released before that. Since it makes sense to focus on the newer ones, I’ll give each of those individual articles over the next few days. But first, here are quick reviews of the ones from 2010 or earlier.

Continue reading

Two-Week Hiatus

Just a quick note: I’m going to be visiting my brother, who has been living in Africa for a few years. It will be an exciting trip, but I will have little or no internet access during this time. I don’t plan to write any blog posts until I return.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you again in late January.

Capsule Reviews: Crime Comics

Though crime comics aren’t nearly as common as superheroes or zombies, there are always a couple coming out. It’s hard to believe that these are a relatively new thing, but Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips more or less created this subgenre a few years ago when their love of noir movies led to Criminal. There’s something about the shadowy underworld and veiled characters that fits right in to comics, though. Here are reviews of three recently-completed crime miniseries.

Continue reading

The Builders And The Butchers – Dead Reckoning (Music Review)

Dead Reckoning cover

The Builders And The Butchers - Dead Reckoning

With their folk-rock sound and nasally, somewhat lost voice, The Builders And The Butchers are immediately reminiscent of fellow Portlanders The Decemberists. But where The Decemberists rely heavily on affectations of past eras, this band is rooted firmly in a modern, or maybe recently-passed, alternative sound. More importantly, their vocals don’t have nearly the range of Colin Meloy, and maintain a consistently whiny sound throughout. I was ready to dismiss them in the first few minutes, but before long, they started to grow on me.

The cover to Dead Reckoning, with its realistic but overly-saturated cartoon of a dead boy (as well as the back, filled with penny-eyed children being rowed off to their fate) makes a good summary of the band’s themes. The depressing and angstful lyrics contrast with upbeat, forward-moving music, and the whole thing is a little too exaggerated to feel the emotions personally. The band has an excellent ear for pop, although their sound has never been mainstream, and this brand of wrist-cutting flamboyance went out of style after The Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails.The back of the Dead Reckoning case

This is a band whose “Lullaby” starts with “It’s time we made ashes of our bones”, and who performs a song called “Rotten To The Core” as if it’s a dancy interpretation of Tom Waits’ cynical Blood Money album. The songs feature a huge variety of instruments (with a unique beat that comes from two people sharing a single drum set), but the results are always simple and repetitive, sometimes with a bit of a waltz or a march to them, and other times just with a stark beat to emphasize the disasters envisioned in the lyrics. Apocalyptic visions are where the singing sounds most at home, reaching manic heights with the proclamation “there’s a battle in the sky between God and the Devil” or warnings about monsters in the sea. Other songs (especially the opening “I Broke The Vein” and the closing “Family Tree”) are more personal, with a quavering narrator explaining his own pain, but the wider cinematic scale sounds the most appropriate to the band.

Though these examples may sound depressing, this is a fun album. It functions as a light, folksy call to arms for a fantasy war that doesn’t actually touch the listener personally. The Builders And The Butchers provide an unusual form of escapism, with a catchy style that sounds full and epic even when featuring mainly acoustic instruments. It’s a unique experience.

Grade: B

Jeff Lemire – Sweet Tooth (Comic Review)

(Based on issues #1-28 of the Vertigo series. According to comments I’ve seen in interviews, Lemire expects this to be roughly the halfway point.)

Sweet Tooth #1 cover

Sweet Tooth

Jeff Lemire is relatively new to the comics scene, but he’s quickly become known for his loose, expressive art. His figure-work has a sketch-like freedom to it, with lines on the face often having more weight than the actual contours that would normally stand out. It’s fitting, then, that his current title is about a world in which the human body is on the verge of falling apart.

Sweet Tooth is in many ways a typical post-apocalyptic story, in which the few survivors of a plague are at the mercy of cults, thugs, and militias who only claim to have others’ best interests at heart. The catch, though, is that all children born since the plague are all human-animal hybrids. The main character is a deer-horned boy named Gus, who has made friends and enemies as he explores the world. While the hybrids fit into the world thanks to Lemire’s art, they don’t make scientific sense. The series is dropping increasingly strong hints that the religious ramblings of Gus’ dead father may be more important than science.

Lemire writes and draws Sweet Tooth, and has managed to do both on a monthly schedule (along with writing a few new DC superhero series). It helps that his art is supposed to feel rushed and imperfect, but is impressive nonetheless. (A few fill-in artists, most notably Matt Kindt, have stepped in for occasional flashbacks. Kindt’s art feels in line with Lemire’s style, though it never takes advantage of the looseness to experiment with the form.)

Lemire does not write very strong characters, but he draws them with such power that they seem three-dimensional. His plots are much more convoluted than any individual character, though, with betrayals, mysteries, and different factions vying for control. I’m honestly not sure how to expect the current story to play out, and I think I will be equally surprised whether the main group of characters stays together or splits up.

Lemire’s other strength is in action scenes and dream sequences, when the abstractness of the scene lets shapes or panels flow in unexpected ways. Surprisingly, though, he doesn’t capitalize on this as frequently as a post-apocalyptic world would allow. Entire issues go by that feel like filler, and especially when the plot fragments to follow multiple characters at once, the pace slows to a crawl.

That’s not to say that there aren’t excellent portions of the story: The entire first arc, for example, is a fascinating read. One early issue is just a single scene, showing a standoff in a brothel, but the tense mix of action, morality, and danger seen through the eyes of a young boy is well worth reading. On the other hand, the last three issues have told a side story from centuries ago. It is relevant to the main story, but we have no real investment in those characters (and remember, characters’ actions are not Lemire’s strong point) and the important information could have come across in half that time. The two issues before those both happen after Gus is injured, and they have been taken up almost entirely with Gus’ dream sequences and the other characters’ attempts to help him. One issue of that would have been more than enough.It’s not in the traditional “decompressed” style, but it is slow. I’m not sure whether Lemire’s sense of pacing is just off from what I want, or if he is stretching it out as he tries to figure out what comes next.

At its best, Sweet Tooth is surprising and emotional, not to mention truly interesting to watch unfold. It deserves the devoted fans who are writing into the letters column and even getting tattoos. At its worst, though, it seems rushed and a little boring, and makes me hesitate to introduce it to new readers. I’m not sure which aspect will win out over the course of the entire series. It’s shown enough potential to get me firmly invested in the ending, but also squandered enough to keep me from recommending it at the present.

Grade: C+

Young Adult (Movie Review)

Young Adult movie posterAfter Juno, it was difficult to tell whether screenwriter Diablo Cody was a future star or a gimmicky one-hit wonder. A few years later, her new movie Young Adult makes it clear that she truly has writing talent. The cutesy slang that drove Juno is gone, but the believable characters and interesting situations remain. Of course, those characters and situations are still overly clever, but without insulting our intelligence like most dramas do.

The only real flaw left in Cody’s writing is her lack of subtlety. The characters are complex and nuanced in a manner of speaking, but it’s all on the surface. Charlize Theron plays Mavis, a Young Adult fiction writer who – surprise! – hasn’t grown beyond her own days as a young adult. Her stories bitterly try to justify her past as a self-absorbed prom queen, every night she drinks until she passes out with her clothes and the TV still on, and her first act in the morning is to chug from a bottle of Coca-Cola without bothering to close the refrigerator. When she hears that her high school boyfriend (played by Patrick Wilson) is a happily married father, she returns to her old hick town on a mission to win him back.

The plot and dialogue are smooth and witty enough to seem like a feel-good comedy at first glance, but Mavis’ darkly funny self-destruction is for an artsier, feel-bad audience. The characters look frumpy and realistic, and the camera wavers with a calculated lack of polish. Theron and Wilson play their roles perfectly and realistically as the protagonist obliviously sails through a world of genuine people she can’t comprehend. The real star, both in acting and as a character, is played by Patton Oswalt, who is literally crippled from his days as Mavis’ classmate. Shunned at the time, he’s now the only person bitter enough to understand Mavis, and he plays his role with a perfect mix of adult confidence and self-loathing.

It’s frequently difficult to believe that Mavis could be oblivious enough to stick to her course of action, but some (unsubtle) hints of mental problems may explain it. With just a little generosity on the part of the viewer, this builds naturally to a surprisingly awkward climax and an appropriate, but unexpected, resolution. Young Adult is a tragically funny slice of life. exaggerated but feeling true despite that.

Grade: B