Archive for January, 2013

Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men (Book Review)

No Country For Old Men cover

Cormac McCarthy – No Country For Old Men

Cormac McCarthy is a strange author: Justly lauded by the most sophisticated people in the literary community, he writes taut, engrossing books that are also perfect for the sporadic reader to take along once a year on an airplane flight. If you like seeing the lines blurred between “high” and “low” art, he may be the best example you can find. His unique quirks (a lack of quotes in contractions and dialog, with long scenes driven by evocative dialog without other descriptions) work as both a formalist experiment and a way to keep the story focused on visceral events without slowing down for introspection.

This is especially evident in No Country For Old Men, which is structured so perfectly as a thriller that the Coen Brothers later made it into a movie with almost no changes. It is a testament to the book that nearly every scene calls to mind vivid memories of a film I saw once over five years ago. (Also, a testament to the Coen Brothers and their actors that such vivid memories were there to be summoned in the first place.) It’s the story of Llewelyn Moss, a good ol’ Texan boy who stumbles upon the aftermath of a multi-million dollar drug deal gone bad. He takes the money and goes on the run. The story is split mainly between the viewpoints of Moss, the psychopathic Anton Chigurh, and sheriff Ed Tom Bell. No Country is unapologetically realistic, with Moss’ hopes for survival resting on his no-nonsense aptitude for guns and DIY repairs, and Sheriff Bell sadly putting everything he sees in the terms of escalating gang wars.

The difference between the book and the movie is in their focus. The Coen Brothers, with their love of violence and exaggerated characters, lavished attention on Chigurh. A man who dispassionately murders everyone around him but holds to an unexplained code, he executes victims with a tool designed for cattle and treats his own wounds with veterinary equipment. In McCarthy’s book, though, Chigurh is less his own man and more of a symbol for the devastation strewn by the drug war. This starts out as a thrilling crime novel, but as the plot moves forward, it becomes more about Sheriff Bell and his conviction that this is a preordained tragedy.

The Coens didn’t know what to do with Bell, and left him a cipher similar to the cowboy in The Big Lebowski. This left me very confused when watching the movie, since the title comes from Bell’s worries about the world changing for the worse. I remember thinking that there were important hidden messages behind his speech near the end, but I couldn’t figure them out. It turns out that they were meant to be taken at face value, but just seemed confusing since the movie had abridged them so much and essentially removed his detailed thesis.

This attitude is what makes the book so great. Bell is an amazing character, trying to keep his community safe while sadly admitting that he’s only alive because he’s too ineffective to be worth killing. On the surface, he sounds like every crusty old man who thinks the world is going to hell, but the words McCarthy puts in his mouth are very convincing, especially in the context of Moss and Chigurh’s story. I could quibble (violent crime is actually declining, and the terrifying Chigurh isn’t a realistic character), but mostly I just found myself wishing Bell were a real person I could talk to.

This is a depressing novel. By way of comparison, the only other McCarthy work I’ve read is The Road; Many people find that depressing, but I think it’s about the perseverance of human goodness even in the worst of times. In contrast, No Country for Old Men is about the unstoppable rise of evil in our world. Even if McCarthy stacks the deck to demonstrate his point, it weaves an inescapably somber spell over the reader.

It’s a great book, though. A complete thriller, a powerful message, and interesting character portraits are all crammed into one novel that reads faster than most books that try to do half of all that. Not a single word feels wasted: Though McCarthy’s dialog sets scenes of languorous Texans taking their time with life, every word also feels like it’s propelling the story and its themes forward. This book is a classic. A surprising, depressing classic that draws you in on false promises of a fun heist story, but it’s nonetheless classic for all that.

Grade: A


Three Country/Folk Tribute Albums

Today’s review looks at a few older tribute albums that I have. I’m interested not only in whether they are good, but what makes a tribute album worthwhile in itself.

Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows cover

Various Artists – Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows

For example, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows is a well-deserved tribute to John Prine. Its songs feature trendy-but-not-mainstream artists from the folk and country scenes, basically aiming this at the modern version of Prine’s audience. The covers are very faithful to the originals, but that actually speaks to the range and influence of those songs. Josh Ritter’s version of “Mexican Home” sounds exactly like a Josh Ritter song, and the slick country packaging of “Spanish Pipedream” is perfect for The Avett Brothers. (Justin Townes Earle’s “Far From Me” actually sounds like what Earle should be writing.) The only misfire is “Wedding Day In Funeralville”, in which Conor Oberst sounds like an eager kid begging to sit at the adults’ table.

These are excellent performances of powerful songs, but the album still can’t help but feel a bit slight. They basically are Prine’s songs, just polished up a bit for today’s audiences. But Prine’s originals hold up well, and are still well-regarded enough in the modern folk community that the people buying this have little reason not to just buy his albums. Broken Hearts is a good collection, but more in the sense of a greatest hits disc or a remastered update, not in the sense of something new.

There are tribute albums that recast the subject in a new light or bring an artist to a new audience’s attention. This doesn’t do either. Though it’s too well done to be thought of as a cash-in, it is obvious that these (very good) tracks will be forgotten before they are as old as the originals are now.

Grade: B-

Twistable, Turnable Man cover

Various Artists – Twistable, Turnable Man

Twistable, Turnable Man fills a very different role. Few people are aware that Shel Silverstein wrote songs, and many who do discover them are put off by his rough voice and joking delivery. He was a master songwriter, though, and a tribute like this is long overdue.

The performances here generally position Silverstein in the same folksy songwriter territory as Prine (he even appears here, in fact), though it has more variety than Broken Hearts did: Black Francis is a perfect choice for the exaggerated rock sleaze of “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”, and Dr. Dog’s pastoral approach to “The Unicorn” captures the hippie vibe. The artists represent multiple generations, from Ray Price and Bobby Bare, Sr. to My Morning Jacket and Andrew bird. Plenty of Silverstein’s recognizable humor is here, though he came from a less ironic era, and had a surprising amount of sentimental songs as well. “The Giving Tree” and “Daddy What If” both appear here to represent that. I don’t find them worth the re-listens of Silverstein’s other work, though. (My favorite song in that vein is “Comin’ After Jinny”, but it’s not included.)

With those exceptions, there isn’t a bad song here. Even better, you have probably heard of almost none of them, even though they sound like folk classics here. The only other track that casual listeners are likely to recognize is “A Boy Named Sue”. Todd Snider does a good job with it, but Johnny Cash already sang the definitive cover. However, “The Winner” sung by Kris Kristofferson deserves its place in the pantheon right next to that song. (Seriously, you need “The Winner”. It is another humorous song about a tough brawler, and just as good as the song Cash made famous.)

Twistable, Turnable Man doesn’t just introduce Silverstein’s songs to a generation that had no idea they existed. It also makes an editorial decision to present him as a sober songwriter with the occasional joke. In reality, Silverstein had many facets, and was predominantly a counterculture prankster. Though the artist selections here are impeccable, I find myself wishing for some of today’s libertines and stoners to cover songs like “Polly In A Porny” and “I Got Stoned And I Missed It”. They wouldn’t fit in on this album, though. The style presented here is an intentional artistic decision.

The songs on Twistable, Turnable Man are great on their own terms, just like those on Broken Hearts. But this album also serves a larger purpose, both drawing attention to a little-known artist and providing its own bold take on the works. That turns the whole work into something essential.

Grade: A-

Hard-Headed Woman cover

Various Artists – Hard-Headed Woman

Song by song, Hard-Headed Woman generally doesn’t live up to the standard of quality set by the above albums. However, Wanda Jackson arguably needs a modern update more than John Prine does. Her recording career began a generation earlier, and so the songs feel a little more dated today. Also, despite being adored by her fans as the “First Lady of Rockabilly”, she’s not generally well-known. (This is less true today, since Jack White engineered Jackson’s comeback album, but she definitely deserved more recognition when this compilation was made in 2004.)

This Bloodshot Records tribute loses Jackson’s personality and doesn’t try to copy her vocal tricks, but it offers honest appreciation and modern production. Also, it avoids presenting only one of Jackson’s faces. I’m sure it would have been tempting for this label, still early in its “country-punk” days, to focus on the proto-riot-grrl of “Hot Dog, That Made Him Mad” and “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will”. But they gave equal time to her wholesome country side with, among other songs, the prayer of “One Day At A Time”.

The main problem with Hard-Headed Woman is that the best tribute albums sound like they’re coming from peers acknowledging their influences. Here, the performers are obviously still living under Jackson’s shadow. Several have since become moderately big names, including Robbie Fulks, The Asylum Street Spankers, and Wayne Hancock, but the only real star is Neko Case. (If you’re a fan of Case’s pure country days, though, her version of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is a must-have. Never mind that Jackson isn’t one of the first five people you’d associate the song with.) The bulk of the album, though, is filled out with the people best known for rounding out Bloodshot compilations: The Bottle Rockets, Rosie Flores, and others. Aside from Neko Case’s standout, though, I actually think most of the best performances here come from the lesser-known artists.

It should also be said that the Bloodshot crew seemed more willing to adapt the songs than the stars of John Prine’s tribute did: Trailer Bride’s drone gives “Fujiyama Mama” a foreign, threatening feel, and The Cornell Hurd Band provide a funkier, country trash version of “This Gun Don’t Care Who It Shoots”. It’s easy to dismiss this as a bunch of covers thrown off from a small label, but they made a lot of their own artistic choices without any real missteps.

This album is far from essential, but it’s surprisingly fun and heartfelt. Plenty of music fans today know little about Wanda Jackson, and this tribute makes an introduction to her. The original songs would work as well, but these ones document her influence in a way that isn’t obvious from the old recordings themselves. In that way, this provides a unique justification for its existence.

Grade: B-


Mage Knight (Game Review)

Mage Knight box

Mage Knight

I’ve explained before that I don’t generally like dungeon-crawler board games. Usually too in love with their cool setting to make the rules fun and fair, they are victims of the trade-offs between theme and mechanics. I had high hopes for Mage Knight, though. In games like Galaxy Trucker and Dungeon Lords, Vlaada Chvátil has shown that he can come up with innovative, fun ways to bring out a game’s theme. But while Mage Knight is well-designed in many ways, it just doesn’t work for me.

Each player is a morally ambiguous “Mage Knight” roaming the countryside: You kill the wandering monsters that threaten civilians, but you also sack towns and fortifications, and most scenarios require you to capture cities at the end. The board is a series of tiles which don’t offer a lot of variety from game to game, but do keep individual turns unpredictable as you explore the edges and reveal more tiles. These tiles, along with everything else in the game, are beautifully made: The oversized box is full of custom dice, hundreds of cards, a wide variety of different tokens for monsters and abilities, as well as a few painted figures.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Some of the beautiful, varied cards.

Those cards are especially important. Instead of traditional stats and dice, your character’s abilities are determined mainly by a deck of cards. This mix of deck-building with role-playing is a concept that I’m starting to hear about frequently, but I doubt many games will do it as well. Mage Knight is one of the very few deck-builders with mechanics that fit the game, instead of just unsuccessfully cloning Dominion. In this case, each card has two possible abilities (with the stronger one generally powered by one of four Mana colors), and any card can be played to give a single point in one of the basic needs of a turn: Movement, Attack, Blocking, or Influence. This variety of options keeps your character’s abilities fairly balanced regardless of what you draw. Sure, you’ll sometimes find yourself with little movement on a turn, or lots of combat ability when you wanted to spend Influence peacefully in town, but it’s not nearly as arbitrary and random as other systems.

Not one deck-building element seems to be directly lifted from Dominion. Money and “Buys” are gone, and Mana powers cards when they are used. Players optionally keep or discard any unused cards at the end of their turn. And like some other games, wounds are represented by useless cards that can’t be discarded easily. The biggest innovation is in the pacing of the game: Each round ends once one player has gone through their deck, and then everyone shuffles for the next round. Decks generally grow slowly, as card Trashing is rare, and no cards (other than Wounds) are so bad that you would want to get rid of them just for the sake of deck efficiency.

With only six rounds in most games, and no guarantee that you’ll go through your full deck on a round, Mage Knight doesn’t offer a lot of time to build and modify your deck. However, you gain other improvements as well. With every level-up, your character either gains a skill (from a pool that grows throughout the game) or a slot to recruit an additional supporting unit. The units and skills offer almost as wide a variety of abilities as the cards do. Though it’s not pure deck-building, the combination of cards, skills, and units combine to make your character feel unique and powerful by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

Midway through a solo game. There are a LOT of components, and a multi-player game barely fits on a large table by the end.

So why did I say that this game disappointed me? Everything I’ve explained so far is true: This is beautifully produced and features creative, well-balanced game design. There are two huge problems, though.

The first is the complexity of the rules. Though the rulebooks are designed with Chvátil’s typically thorough, clear explanations and even provide an introductory scenario to teach it gradually, this game is complex. It took me hours just to prepare to teach that introductory scenario, which I don’t think has ever happened before. Every rule has a logical reason, but there still too many quibbling details to remember: Gaining Artifact cards works differently than other types, because you draw an extra and then give one back. When fighting multiple enemies, you must play cards to block them individually but can group them for attack card effects. Remember that any enemy you attack in a Keep gains the “Fortified” ability, and that after killing a rampaging monster you move up in the Reputation track! The introductory scenario doesn’t even include all the rules, including the many ways that player vs. player battles differ from normal combat.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

A close-up of the same game a little later, once the city figures are out.

Also, while the range of options offered by each card makes the game structure work, it also makes it long. Each turn is basically a puzzle, trying to figure out the optimal way to move to a new location and accomplish something there. Many cards can combine with others, and spending Mana on one might make you unable to afford another, so the possibilities are incredibly broad. Add to that the fact that your units and many skills can be used only once per round, so you have to decide what to spend this turn. And of course, you may have three or four possible targets close by, so if one doesn’t seem possible, you can consider another. It’s not uncommon to see someone spend five or ten minutes figuring out what to do on their turn, and the people I play with are normally very fast.

These two issues make a bad combination: We spent hours playing that teaching game, and if we wanted to keep playing it within the group, we’d need to do it again to bring other friends up to speed. Going through it once is somewhat interesting (if full of way too much downtime), but the fact that every new player needs hours of training is the real killer. I’ve only played it once with others, and since then have just played it solitaire. The solo game does a remarkable job of maintaining the experience (Chvátil’s design skills are impeccable), but because of that I can also say that the problems never quite go away: My games continue to take a very long time, and even though I’m not waiting on anyone else, the puzzle-after-puzzle feel makes the game seem slow and draining.

Mage Knight has a lot going for it. The production quality and rules are among the best of 2012, but none of my friends are interested in playing it. I can’t say I blame them; I’m very glad to have experienced this, but after a few solitaire sessions, I have no desire to try it again myself.

Grade: C


People Take Warning! (Music Review)

People Take Warning! cover

Various Artists – People Take Warning!

People Take Warning! is a three-disc set of songs from the 1920s and 1930s that all commemorate disasters. Its seventy tracks include some classics (such as Charlie Patton’s “High Water Everywhere”), but also a lot with unprepared backup singers and lyrics that don’t fit the meter. The liner notes explain that this is because some of the songs were quickly rushed out to capitalize on a tragedy while it was fresh in everyone’s mind. Unfortunately, this collection feels just as slipshod, and has no excuse about timeliness.

Most importantly, the recording quality is consistently poor. Flat, washed-out, and full of a record player’s static, most of them sound like the transfer to CD was done by just setting up a microphone ten feet from a turntable. It doesn’t seem like the creators searched very widely for material, either, with many artists represented repeatedly. Ernest Stoneman and Charlie Patton each have four tracks here, with Patton’s all on the same disc.

The material deserved better. The songs are an interesting snapshot of the concerns and fascinations of a lost time: The first disc is devoted to accidents on man-made devices, including the expected train crashes. But it also features seven songs about The Titanic, a common theme that has since been forgotten. (Until buying Dylan’s epic “Tempest” last year, I don’t think my collection had any Titanic songs.) The second disc, “Man V. Nature”, is full of floods and boll weevils, but also has a couple fires of the scope we don’t see today. Those tragedies have the same fascinating immediacy as murder ballads, which unsurprisingly are the focus of the final disc. Those are the best songs; There’s a reason murder songs remain more popular than the other themes. (The recording quality is also better here. Perhaps the producers had a better selection to pick from, or maybe it’s just easier to find well-preserved copies of these songs.) Even so, if you’re in this release’s target audience, you already have better renditions of “Stack O’ Lee”, “Pretty Polly”, and several others.

The liner notes include a decent, if short, essay by Tom Waits about the role of disaster songs in the culture. The rest of the booklet provides several interesting tidbits of information, but still feels as maddeningly rushed as the rest of the production. For example, it wouldn’t take much research to correct the assertion that we don’t know if “Frankie & Johnny” was a true story or not. Even the track listing is incredibly different between the CD case and the booklet. One song is alternately called “The Titanic” and “The Sinking of The Titanic”, while another is both “Mississippi Boweavil” and “Boll Weevil Blues”. Many backup artists are credited in only one of the locations , and neither source can consistently decide between “Alfred Reed” an “Blind Alfred Reed” (yet they disagree with each other in all three of his appearances). It doesn’t seem that much effort went into this at all.

People Take Warning! is a collection that I really wanted to like. Its compelling theme and ambitious scope are exactly what the project should have. However, the quality and attention to detail are lacking throughout.

Grade: C-


The End of Amazing Spider-Man (Comic Review)

(Based on issues #674-700, along with the “Ends of the Earth” special and issues #679.1 and 699.1.)

cover to Amazing Spider-Man #700

Amazing Spider-Man

Like a moving target, serialized stories can be difficult to review. I wrote a draft review of recent Amazing Spider-Man issues a couple months ago, but never got around to finishing it. At the time, I was frustrated with the way Dan Slott’s run seemed to be slowly losing steam, and very disappointed by the recent “Ends of the Earth” event. But with issue #700, Amazing ended its fifty-year run with a much more conclusive story than most heroes ever get. Now that I have a finished story to look at, it feels much stronger.

This isn’t supposed to be a review of the entire “Big Time” era of Spider-Man (I looked at issues starting with #648 here, and the following “Spider-Island” event next), nor is it supposed to be a review just of the ending. However, due to the nature of long-running stories, both of those weigh heavily over the selection I actually am reviewing here. Dan Slott’s slightly-over-fifty-issue solo run (coming on the heels of “Brand New Day”, his hundred-issue collaboration) was written with the confidence that he would have time to plan out and develop a long-running story. In an era where most creative teams get shuffled around within a year, this is a rare thing. And while most of these comics were structured as two-to-six-issue arcs, in retrospect it’s easy to see one long story winding through them. The half of “Big Time” being looked at here is pretty clearly “cleaning up” many of the changes that Slott had implemented, but also sets up the final act of an epic Doctor Octopus story after which “nothing will ever be the same”.

This truly may be the rare case in which changes stick. Slott has always shown a strong appreciation of the things that made Spider-Man great, and he caps off the Amazing era with the same humanity, melodrama, and colorful supporting characters as ever. It’s an appropriate conclusion, and those last few issues were exciting (and a little scary) with the reader knowing only that something important was about to change.

(I do worry that the new status quo may be difficult to keep going for long, and if it falls apart it threatens to undo the solid closing of this story. However, I will refrain from reviewing comics that haven’t come out yet.)

That’s not to say that there weren’t missteps, though. I already mentioned that “Ends of the Earth” was a disappointment: Spider-Man is thrown in to a world-wide crisis with no buildup or sense of scale, so it never feels more important than his usual races across New York. He stays awake for days trying to keep up with the bad guys, but the story jumps so quickly that none of that sacrifice is seen. And despite its alleged significance, the resolution hinges on a few standard battles with his usual foes. The “Ends of the Earth Special” released alongside this is a mostly plot-free story of C-list heroes rushing into battle at his side, and usually dying without accomplishing anything. It’s depressing and cynical, especially since one plot point has Spider-Man threatening to torture a prisoner for information.  (He says afterwards he was bluffing, but Peter should know that threatening prisoners with torture is a form of psychological torture.)

Mostly, though, these were fun stories. Classic villains like the Vulture update themselves again, mind-controlling robots infest a space station, and so on. One of the strongest stories was “No Turning Back”, which brought a somewhat decisive (and tragic) conclusion to long-simmering plots about The Lizard and Morbius. Humberto Ramos pencilled as much of this as the bimonthly schedule would allow, and I’ve finally come to accept his slightly exaggerated style as appropriate to the action-packed soap opera that is Spider-Man. It’s the little character threads that developed throughout these mostly stand-alone stories that make Spider-Man work.

Spider-Man internal

After such a long time on the character, there were signs that Slott was slowing down. The past year was spent much more in wrap-up mode than presenting new ideas. (The only recent new character introduced recently, the super-powerful but irresponsible “Alpha”, was uninteresting. As with the lack of drama in “Ends of the Earth”, the comic simply told us that Alpha was powerful and important without ever demonstrating it believably.) However, this still closed on a very strong note: While juggling many plots smoothly, Slott ended with true surprises that slid under the media’s radar, and gave us all the impression that he was wrapping it up on his terms.

Grade: B


2012 Stats

2012 was a crazy year for me. I started out blogging regularly, but then my wife’s pregnancy and an insane work project (complete with all-nighters and eighty-hour weeks) hit at once. I hardly blogged at all through the summer months, and it was difficult to get back into the habit once I stopped. I made up for that all in December, though, with 31 posts containing 59 reviews! Those daily posts were the only things to give my days structure during the initial sleepless weeks with my new daughter.

Where will I go from here, though? I’m enjoying this writing a lot, but I know that my life will get busy once I have to juggle work and fatherhood. I’m going to try switching to an every-other-day schedule, and I plan to build up a little buffer during my last days at home in the hopes that I can keep it going. Honestly, though, I’ll be pretty amazed if I can stay on pace for even a couple months.

Anyway, I like to take the first day of the year to look back at my reviews in aggregate. Though 2012 was inconsistent from month to month, its total numbers were surprisingly close to 2011’s: 109 posts containing 185 letter grades:


You can see last year’s wrap-up for more details on what I counted. The only thing that I’ll add here is that I don’t even start gathering these stats until the last few days of the year, so it’s a relief to realize that my grading curve held steady. I do think I can be a little too generous sometimes: When I went back through all this year’s grades, about 90% of them still felt right to me, but the ones that surprised me consistently seemed too high. I still think of myself as someone who averages a B- review, and that is true, but only because I was so stingy with the As this past year. Will it continue? I’m not sure – I still definitely intend to give grades item-by-item instead of trying to massage my stats over the course of the year.

If you’re curious, I have more detailed breakdowns by category below the fold. (Don’t feel obligated to keep reading; I do this summary mostly for my own sake.)

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