Archive for December, 2012

Shakespeare: A Discussion and Review

This might be a weird article, because it’s the one where my geeky pop-culture blog discusses Shakespeare. And after praising a lot of trashy modern works, I might not have much credibility when I say that I’m not a fan of his.

In general, I have a complicated relationship with classic works. I think it’s very important to understand the past, and there is a lot of good that comes from a shared cultural knowledge for modern artists to reference. On the other hand, I believe that most art is and should be ephemeral. Whether it’s for pure entertainment or a deeper understanding of the human condition, a person picking up a book or listening to a song has different needs and cultural touchstones today than they did in past centuries. There’s nothing wrong with that. And while my personal rating system can be arbitrary, the most important thing is how much entertainment I get out of a specific work. (Being me, “entertainment” might be anything from amusement to deep thoughts and new ideas, but it has to be something.) If a story gives me an appreciation for its time and place, then that is a mark in its favor, but if it assumes that I already know the events it refers to, or the language of the time, then I’m not going to cut it slack for that. Half of the works that I give A grades to today will probably be irrelevant in 20 years, and many of the classics that I dislike would have seemed great if I’d lived in the right place and time. I’m ok with that; If I think that art is ephemeral, I can’t expect anything more from the opinions on this blog.

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First Looks At DC’s New 52: The Third Wave

Finally, here are my First Looks at the new comics I started reading from DC’s “third wave” of recent releases. These launched in September, conveniently coinciding with DC’s month of 0-numbered issues, so they could provide a simple introduction right away. In fact, the month was structured that way at least in part to help promote these new comics, which seems like a lot of effort to go to for just four new series. Despite DC’s efforts, though, the rumors I’ve heard are that some of them are pretty much dead on arrival. There will be a couple successes from the new launches, but it seems that fans are only trying the ones tied to big-name characters or events. Those early days of the New 52, in which obscure characters and ideas actually had a shot, may be over.

After writing sixteen other comic reviews this week already, this article will be mercifully short. I have only been reading two of the four new series. Unless new titles deserving a First Look appear soon, I’ll probably wait about a year after this before I check back on the DC Universe.

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First Looks At DC’s New 52: The Second Wave

Earlier this week, I reviewed all the DC titles that I’ve been reading since the “New 52” launched last year. But as the company has cancelled some titles, they’ve started new replacements. Today, I’m reviewing the three “second wave” titles that I tried out, and tomorrow I’ll catch up on the third wave.

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The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth (Music Review)

Trancendental Youth cover

The Mountain Goats – Trancendental Youth

As a new father myself, I have a lot of respect for The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. Transcendental Youth is his first release since the birth of his son, but he didn’t suddenly become soft and sentimental. Instead, this is a collection of honest songs about the difficulties of life, with the chance for happiness found at the end of a gauntlet. As a lesson for his child, it’s honest and refreshing, with the bit of hope it holds out being completely believable.

These songs are the most grounded in reality since The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, and while the songs aren’t all obviously about youth, the songs make sense if you imagine confused teens narrating each one. From a drug addict to a schizophrenic runaway, Darnielle narrates these without any implied judgment: These are their stories, and they don’t need some adult songwriter inserting his own judgment. And to the extent that Darnielle does have an opinion about this, his repeated theme is that everyone needs to figure out their own path: “Spent Gladiator 2”, the one song that strays slightly outside modern realism, is about bloodied gladiators and besieged villagers just trying to survive, with the obvious implication that childhood is equally epic and dangerous. (Its lyrics are echoed in the advice of “Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator 1)”, with lines such as “play with matches if you think you need to play with matches… just stay alive”.)

Musically, this is what you’d expect from a modern Mountain Goats album. Post-anti-folk, if there is such a thing, Darnielle’s voice mixes a poet’s confidence with a human’s frailty. The music is simple, but emphasizes the emotions in the songs, especially the tension and desperation. This album adds a horn section to many of the songs, which add an effective flourish when singing about the triumph of living through another day.

Transcendental Youth doesn’t have as many standout hits as recent Mountain Goats albums Heretic Pride or All Eternals Deck, but it has a clarity of vision that those ones lack. Darnielle’s son didn’t change his art, but it helped him hone the worldview he’s been describing for years. Youth is a painful struggle, but it’s worth surviving. This album captures that.

Grade: B+

 

Checking In With DC’s “New 52” (Part 2)

This is the conclusion to my reviews of the DC comics that started last year. Note that I’m not yet reviewing Animal Man, Swamp Thing, or Frankenstein, as I want to wait for them to finish their ongoing “Rotworld” epic.

Again, each comic title before the reviews links you back to the initial reviews I did at the six-month mark for the title.

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Checking In With DC’s “New 52” (Part 1)

Back in February, DC Comics’ “New 52” initiative reached its sixth month, and I reviewed all the series I was reading. Ten months later, it’s time to check in again.

From a branding standpoint, this continues to be a success. Almost all series have stuck to a reliable monthly schedule, and even though DC has cancelled several, they’ve added replacements to keep the focus on a consistent “52” rather than on the individual failures. This is much higher than the number of series that DC was publishing beforehand, and quite a few obscure characters have found success under this system.

From a creative point of view, the results are more mixed. Superhero comics are often hobbled by the attitude of “everything’s new, but don’t worry because we still have everything you used to love!” Once the newness of the first few issues faded away, it became obvious that few of the series actually had new ideas. I’m still reading more than I used to, since the monthly schedule and steady $3 price point (or $4 for extra-long titles) are much better than what Marvel is providing these days, but I doubt I would miss half of these if I stopped buying them.

September provided a perfect example of the challenges that come from mixing a corporate initiative with individual projects. The company put off the thirteenth issues of every series to provide a “zero month”, with stories from the past of each character. Some series had excellent issues that month, while others had an arbitrary interruption to their ongoing stories. It did attract attention (especially with the eye-catching covers that featured the heroes bursting through the image that was on their issue #1), but my interest still hasn’t returned since that bump in the momentum.

While I haven’t kept up on the worst of the series I reviewed back in February, I read at least the next few issues of most of them. I’m going to review all of those again over the next two days. Because there are so many, I plan on keeping these reviews especially brief, more like additions to the original reviews (which can be found by following the links in each heading). Later in the week, I’ll take closer looks at some of the series that have started since then.

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Two New Releases from Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Music Review)

Psychedelic Pill cover

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Neil Young and Crazy Horse got back together this year for their first joint album in a decade. The result, Psychedelic Pill, is long enough for two CDs despite having only nine tracks total. It’s the kind of sprawling mess we’d expect from the band, for good or for ill. In this case, it’s somewhat disappointing. The music is still excellent, with carefully-sloppy jams that have aged much better than the grunge scene they inspired, but they can’t find anything to sing about.

The twenty-seven minute opener, “Driftin’ Back”, epitomizes the album. Young opens with “Hey now now hey now now, I’m driftin’ back”, an explicit callback to past hits. It’s the only good lyrical choice in the song, which otherwise has awkward statements like “I used to dig Picasso, then a big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper”. Those would be difficult lines to sing in any song, but Young spits them out like he’s not even trying. Fortunately, the singing is sparse during this half hour, and most of it is taken up by a pleasant, if forgettable, groove.

The other long, winding songs are a little more successful lyrically, though still not up to the hits of the past. There are also several short, punchier songs to add variety: The reverb heavy title track is fun, but the extra alternate mix is unnecessary. “Twisted Road” may be the only unqualified success on the album, though admittedly that’s because of its limited vision: That song is a quick, heartfelt ode to the past yet again, this time referring to Dylan and the Grateful Dead as his “old-time music”.

Americana cover

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Americana

It’s kind of funny that they used that term, because Neil Young and Crazy Horse also released an album with their renditions of actual “old-time music”. Called Americana, it’s obviously a warm-up exercise for a band, with in-studio discussion between songs and a variety of approaches. Though a few attempts aren’t successful, the results are frequently excellent. That shouldn’t be a surprise: If Psychedelic Pill provides a great performance of mediocre songs, then of course they could apply themselves well to time-tested classics.

Crazy Horse’s meandering style doesn’t always work well with these more direct folk songs. “Clementine”, for example, is actually a simple joke (I bet you didn’t know that!), but in their hands it becomes more of a drawn-out shaggy dog story, and while their version of “Tom Dula” has an excellent build-up, the tension they create actually gets dropped a couple times over its eight-minute length. But in  “Gallows Pole” and “Travel On”, the band finds the perfect mix of their style with the songs’ needs. They travel outside their comfort zone on “Get A Job” with an energetic vocal arrangement that has more in common with barbershop quartets than grunge rock. And while it’s difficult to take “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain” seriously today, they perform “Jesus’ Chariot” with a fervor fit for a revival service. I find “This Land Is Your Land” and “High Flyin’ Bird” to be pretty bland, but the only true misstep is “God Save the Queen”, which they merge with “America the Beautiful” in a way that honors neither song.

Most people I’ve talked to were disappointed with Americana, but I don’t agree at all. I think that a lot of people have trouble seeing through the clichés that these songs have become, but fortunately Young was able to do so. It may be uneven, but the successes easily justify the whole project. Neil Young and Crazy Horse did release an album worth buying this year, but it’s not the one that you might expect.

Psychedelic Pill: C+

Americana: B

 

The Last Three Fablehaven Books

When I read the first two Fablehaven books, I was struck by how differently I would describe both of them. The first was a wild, dangerous fairy tale, and the second was a safe children’s book driven by cool ideas. I’ve now read the rest of the five-book series, and even though the narrative style has stayed consistent, I would still describe each one pretty differently.

Overall, Brandon Mull has written a very good series that I would recommend to younger “Young Adult” readers or to adults looking for a fun children’s fantasy.

Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague

Grip of the Shadow Plague is driven by a lot of ideas, but none of them are as memorable as the grossest and coolest moments of the previous book. Instead, the impression I took away was that this is a tightly plotted series with a lot of threads and characters being juggled at once. Many things from previous books are developed here, and many more are left hanging for later. Mull does this very well. The plot progresses smoothly despite the number of things going on, and nothing is left for too long without a payoff.

The plot is more about quantity than quality, though, with two new regions of the Fablehaven preserve, time travel, another set of magical challenges hiding a MacGuffin, another preserve, and the titular “shadow plague” being only some of the significant features. Everything feels consistent within its world (a huge step up from most Harry Potter-inspired stories), and if none set the imagination on fire like the previous book, the story is consistently enjoyable.

Fablehaven: Secret of the Dragon Sanctuary cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven: Secret of the Dragon Sanctuary

Though it’s just as tightly plotted, Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary is where the series feels like it’s unravelling. This isn’t just because it’s the third book in a row with that MacGuffin hidden behind a series of challenges. It also begins to fall into the Harry Potter trap in which an an ever-expanding magical world becomes inconsistent. In this case, the story opens up by revealing that of course there’s a magical attack that perfectly circumvents the good guys’ defenses, but that no one has thought to prepare for. In fact, the villains would have won in the opening chapters if an inexplicably foolish action hadn’t revealed them.

This beginning also involves the main characters dealing with a significant tragedy, and the story simply skips forward several days rather than portray their reactions. Whether its a weakness of Mull’s writing, or simply a lack of interest, he puts no effort into what should have been the most important character-building scenes of the series. That’s strange, given that the one big strength unique to this book is Seth’s continuing development, retaining his impulsive character as he grows and learns from past mistakes.

I had other quibbles with this book, as well. For example, Seth taunts an opponent with obvious falsehoods even though he spends a section of the book wearing a device that will kill him if he ever lies. A surprise near the end of the book involves the Society “crossing an unthinkable boundary”, which, honestly, would have been one of the first things a villain fighting the status quo would do. And most importantly, I had serious doubts about the morality of the heroes’ actions by the end of their quest.

Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary gets by mainly on the strengths of the previous books, and it puts all the pieces in place for an interesting conclusion. On its own, though, it is the weak point in the series.

Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison cover

Brandon Mull – Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison

Fortunately, Keys to the Demon Prison does pull everything together for the ending that the series deserves. With Mull’s excellent plot management, it’s not too surprising that just about everything is wrapped up in a satisfying way.

The big difference in this book is that it takes on many more trappings of swords-and-sorcery epics.With its matters of honor, fantasy royalty, and even dragon-slaying, the book loses a little of its focus on Kendra and Seth’s family. There are also some unnecessary history lessons that provide belated world-building with oddly specific details. (A couple speeches stand out so much that I’ve wondered if they are allegory for Mormon stories. I know nothing about that, though; Can anyone weigh in? Mull does arguably let his beliefs show through in the series’ moral lessons. Note that these are presented as good conversation-starters, and are all unobjectionable for children’s literature regardless of your religious beliefs.)

Don’t let the shift towards the epic scare you away, though. Fablehaven closes on a strong note, and it’s easy to forget about some missteps in book four when thinking back on the series as a whole.

Fablehaven: Grip of the Shadow Plague: B-

Fablehaven: Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary: C

Fablehaven: Keys to the Demon Prison: B

 

Avengers – Avengers (Music Review)

Avengers cover

Avengers – Avengers

For years, the Avengers’ seminal debut was unavailable due to legal issues. All I knew of them was “The American In Me”, a brutal, catchy song that showcased frontwoman Penelope Houston’s charisma and presaged both the hardcore movement and the poppier punk that would come later. That self-titled debut (their only album ever) has finally been re-issued with a second disc of B-sides. Now that I can hear it, I’m finding it somewhat enjoyable, but it’s not the classic that deserves the legend it has three decades later.

The main problem is that it doesn’t feel like a cohesive album. A 1977 EP fleshed out with additional tracks recorded over the next couple years, it catches a young band figuring out what they want to be in a not-yet-defined scene. It’s especially obvious that this comes from the early days of punk with songs like “We Are The One” and “I Believe In Me”. The optimism there optimism would have been dismissed as hippie trash once punk culture was more fully defined. Just one year later, the painful street life documented in”Desperation” and “Second To None” sounded like it could have been lifted right from The Stooges or The Dead Boys. And while the impassioned cover of “Paint it Black” is one of my favorite tracks, it’s just plain difficult to categorize.

Though there are many good songs, there are unfortunately no more like “The American In Me”. “Fuck You” has the energy, and “Thin White Line” has the subversive earworms, but that just emphasizes the unfocused chaos of the release. And then there is the unfortunate “White Nigger”, which would sabotage the whole album if their definition of “nigger” weren’t too unconventional to be fully offensive.

It’s ironic that the B-sides have better production and a more cohesive feel. But there are only enough new studio tracks to create another EP, and the rest is filled out by live recordings and alternate song takes. Still, it shows what an excellent band The Avengers were turning into. It’s too bad that their first album has to stand alone, rather than being the opening chapter to a great career.

Grade: B-

 

Webcomics Roundup for 2012

Look at that: It’s been more than a year since my last webcomics roundup. I guess I should probably stop pretending these are monthly. I don’t keep up on webcomics quite as obsessively as my other interests, so I will probably never be offering extensive thoughts that often. I do still read a lot, though, so I plan to keep offering updates from time to time. Here are thoughts on and links to some of the webcomics that I should have been talking about over the past year.

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