Archive for February, 2013

Eels – Wonderful, Glorious (Music Review)

Wonderful, Glorious cover

Eels – Wonderful, Glorious

Eels’ confessional lyrics are a welcome relief from the ironic detachment and guarded personalities of today. The band has even been given credit for inspiring the emo scene, but frontman E always stayed oblivious to the trends around him. His consistency through two decades of changing styles probably explains why the band is still around, but it does get repetitive at times. With their three-album “trilogy” in 2009 and 2010, I found myself losing interest very suddenly. But after taking a few more years off, I’m relieved to be enjoying their new album. I can’t say for sure whether Wonderful, Glorious is truly better, or if I just needed to ignore a couple albums so that they would sound fresh again, but I’m happy either way.

Wonderful, Glorious is still not one of the band’s stronger albums. Eels have seemed less musically adventurous since drummer Butch’s departure in 2003, and this one finds them consistently in their “nerdy white guy blues” mode. It’s comfortable, though, and it seems to encourage the most direct lyrics yet. If anything, E crosses into the territory of corny clichés, with songs like “You’re My Friend” and “Stick Together”. (Sample lines: “Yeah, you’re my friend/ Coming through again and again/ Your good will I never will betray”, and “It’s very clear we make a winning team/ We gotta stick together”.) E’s confident lack of coolness comes through for him, though, and he makes even those lines (ok, almost all lines except those) work. Despite playing it safe musically, it appears that this first theme-less album since 2005 freed E to write natural-sounding lyrics again. And as silly as those quotes may sound, long-term fans will appreciate the fact that he finally seems happy and comfortable with his life.

That matters. At this point, checking in with E is one of the main reasons to buy an Eels album. It’s sort of like keeping up with your favorite blog: You don’t expect the author to surprise you with innovations all the time, but it’s still worthwhile to keep up with their life. (Admittedly, buying an album is different than reading a blog. But this way, you get music, too!) Wonderful, Glorious features both the every-day moments and the mundane life changes. (“Bombs Away”, for example, is about the decision to be louder and more assertive.) As long as they don’t appear very frequently, I could keep enjoying Eels albums like this for a long time.

Grade: B

 
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Country Capsule Reviews: 2012 Catch-Up

Though I reviewed plenty of country music throughout 2012, almost none of it was actually new that year. To catch up on what I missed, I went to Saving Country Music’s nominations for the best albums of the year. I don’t always agree with Trigger at SCM, but he makes a great guide. From his seven nominees, I picked out the four that were available on physical CDs. (My preferences are falling out of step with modern times, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the indie country scene. It seems like half of the albums that Trigger loves are only available electronically.) Here are my opinions of those four.

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First (and Last) Look at Marvel NOW!

The “Marvel NOW!” initiative has been running for a few months now, with soft relaunches intended to satisfy both old and new readers. I’ve been reading several of new series, and after my recent cynicism about Marvel’s direction, I went into this honestly unsure of what to expect. There are a lot of good signs here, but it turns out that the negatives far outweigh anything else. This is the time when I should write about my “first looks” at the new titles, but there’s only one that I feel compelled to discuss:


cover to Avengers Arena #1

Avengers Arena

Avengers Arena

(Based on issues #1-4.)

It’s fairly common for DC and Marvel to jump on popular trends, and sometimes they find a way to make it work. But their continuity just isn’t set up to support a Hunger Games-like story about teens forced to kill each other. Superhero comics are unrealistic in many ways, but they work because of an established set of assumptions. For example, the heroes always have an alternative to killing, and a single accident is much more likely to injure or surprise someone than to actually kill them. Avengers Arena feels awkward from the start, as it tries to establish all its “because I said so” rules: The heroes have no way to escape, and no one can find them. Magic won’t work. The villain is satisfied just to mess around with these kids, even though his ability to create this status quo and hide the victims from the rest of the world’s heroes actually makes him incredibly powerful. And the camaraderie that should always make the heroes learn to work together disappears as soon as the villain tells them it should.

I’m not opposed to tragic hero deaths in principle, as long as they serve the story. I was one of the (apparently few) people who appreciated the recent ending to Amazing Spider-Man, because I felt that its events had been properly set up and was true to the characters. In fact, Runaways and Avengers Academy (which both contribute characters to this new title) were two of my favorite modern Marvel series. Both of those were known for stories in which characters changed or died frequently, but those changes were tied to the excellent character work. Avengers Arena author Dennis Hopeless writes these characters awkwardly, and so their out-of-character actions just feel like an insult to the fans. In fact, the first issue makes a point of picking up where Avengers Academy ended just to undo one of its happy moments. It’s manipulative, and it cheapens the work of the skilled creators who paved the way for this cash-in.

The art is better than the writing, but art isn’t the issue here. This is a cynical title focused on the shock value of good characters being hunted and killed by other “good” characters, and it’s too focused on that goal to let things like unfinished character arcs or established personalities get in its way. This is a serious problem, especially because its ramifications go beyond this single series. The point of ongoing superhero comics is that they are ongoing: The connection to the big picture makes each issue better, and I justify the price of individual issues by saying that I get more than just the pages of the current story. Obviously there will be unpleasant surprises from time to time, but the overall feeling needs to be that the stories are building on each other. Avengers Arena is an outright betrayal of some excellent past comics, and is obviously designed to take advantage of readers for having liked those. This can’t just be written off as Dennis Hopeless’ fault, because a heavily marketed slaughter-fest like this must have had heavy involvement from the editorial staff.

It’s possible that there are plans to explain or undo this further along. However, the four issues I’ve read have been clearly intended to accept at face value, and I can’t keep buying them. I can only conclude that the people steering Marvel have no respect for the value of their unfolding stories or the characters that drive them. There’s no reason for me to continue putting time and money into stories that are being guided by people willing to break the fundamental contract between publisher and reader. I’ve decided to stop buying Marvel superhero comics.

That’s how bad Avengers Arena is: It’s not just a bad idea and poorly-written, but it’s enough to kill all my interest in Marvel, period. I hope to someday see changes in their editorial direction that will let me trust the company again. In the meantime, though, I won’t regret ignoring them.

Grade: F


I could talk further about the other new series I tried, because on their own I had a generally positive opinion of them. But if I’m not willing to buy any Marvel titles because I no longer have faith that these ones will turn out well, there doesn’t seem to be any point in recommending them.

For now, I am continuing to follow only one Marvel series: Daredevil. I’ve never cared about this character or his supporting cast before, so I don’t have to be worried about what happens to them in the future. I’m just buying them because of Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s excellent craft, and I don’t have to worry about building any sort of attachment that Marvel could take advantage of. It’s sad that I can only read one of their comics after making a calculated decision about my own lack of buy-in to it.

John Green – The Fault in Our Stars (Book Review)

The Fault In Our Stars cover

John Green – The Fault In Our Stars

Remember those conversations your teenage self had with friends? Some were hilarious, some were profound, and all felt meaningful. In retrospect, you weren’t actually as clever as you all thought you were, but that sensation of significance was the best part of becoming an adult. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars captures this aspect of teenage friendship perfectly. Hazel Grace Lancaster probably wouldn’t really be as coherently snarky as her narration is, and her friends couldn’t always have such perfectly well-timed comments, but I can believe that everything felt like she describes. Though the writing teeters on the edge of being precious and stylized, this interpretation makes it seem human and believable.

The snarkiness and sense of import are vital, given the depressing nature of this book: Hazel has a fatal cancer, as do most of her young friends. This is a novel that can’t end any way but sadly, unless it’s with a trite moral about suffering bravely or learning to appreciate life no matter what. As an intelligent, bitter girl who has to live with cancer’s reality, Hazel hates those clichés. Her story is refreshingly honest about the way terminal diseases actually feel and how the concern of healthy people just creates distance between them. It’s a sympathetic character portrait that’s probably helped a lot of people to deal with these real-world situations.

Readers react in different ways to the quirky dialog and narration. Some find it distracting and fake, while others love it. I initially found myself somewhere in the middle: Though I liked the way this represented the feeling of growing up, its formula felt so precise that it was hard to appreciate the emotions of the people behind the poised one-liners. It grew on me, though. Hazel’s opinions and personality were really appealing, and it is obvious that Green understands his characters even when Hazel’s youthful perspective misses things. Her parents’ difficulty with her disease is especially heartbreaking. So of course, by the end, these are fully-realized characters going through incredible tragedy.

As much as Hazel detests “cancer books”, Green has written one anyway. It’s sad, meaningful, and celebrates life, but it does this without the obtuse justifications that most people use to come to terms with tragedy. It doesn’t go easy on its characters (one important subplot is about Hazel’s love for a brutally honest novel, and trying to contact the bitter, deluded man who wrote it), but it also provides her with love and growth. The story is kicked off when she meets Augustus Green, a charismatic cancer survivor with whom she can immediately have those profound teen conversations.

As realistic as The Fault in Our Stars often is about life with cancer, it definitely succumbs to formula in other ways. Various characters’ diseases follow the exact paths you would predict, and the love between the main characters is presented as a little too perfect, without acknowledgment that imminent death is its only difference from other young romances. In fact, the entire love story fits the standard chick-flick formula perfectly: Hazel is the clever, quirky girl who doesn’t see anything special in herself at first, and Augustus is the unflinchingly supporting and giving man who provides validation.

Even so, the most memorable aspect of the book is the part that breaks with tradition, and it definitely makes this book worth reading. Powerful, life-affirming, and sad, The Fault in Our Stars manages to fulfill the expectations of a “cancer book” and still be an honest discussion of cancer.

Grade: B

 

Death Grips – The Money Store (Music Review)

The Money Store cover

Death Grips – The Money Store

Glitch-rap band Death Grips provides a heady, challenging experience. Frantic beats and musical loops mix with aggressive vocals that are repeated, aborted, and stuttered in a way that would just barely be singable without sampling. It’s a daring, but very successful marriage of modern musical styles: The technical, abstract atmosphere of electronics meet the fervent personal declarations of rap. This mixed lineage makes The Money Store an incredible album.

Stefan Burnett’s rapid-fire lyrics can be difficult to follow even if you’re reading them. The album opens with the staccato chant “Get get get get got got got got blood rush to my head lit hot lock poppin off the fuckin block knot clockin wrist slit watch bent through bot.” Though the song’s theme (a car accident) eventually becomes clear, it’s more because of the vocabulary than from coherent sentences. What personality comes through is dark and violent, with the language of street life exaggerated into songs about killing everyone. It’s distasteful, but works because the entire package is so gonzo that over-the-top rants feel entirely appropriate. Even when reveling in the worst of human nature and using studio tricks that usually feel impersonal to me, the result feels intense, exhilarating, and in a strange way to be a futuristic declaration of human potential.

For all its psychopathic raving, there is also a wicked streak of humor and intelligence here. Modern slang mixes with mythological references, and mentions of basilisks and Warhol sound just as natural as scatology. “Hacker” is a thrilling example of the band’s abilities: Complex layers of music and electro-tribal beats create an energy that feels too trapped to dissipate, while Burnett throws off clever stream-of-consciousness one-liners (“Make your water break in the Apple Store… My existence is a momentary lapse of reason… Now backstroke through your k-hole…”). It’s an amazing technical feat that treats the foundations of rap as something to run through a studio computer, and I don’t know of any other songs like it.

With its aggressive nihilism leavened only by post-modern meaninglessness, The Money Store is too dark to listen to for long. But it’s also difficult to stop listening to. Bold, intelligent, and intense, it’s exactly the sort of thing I hope to find when I search through new music. I don’t know that it would survive familiarity or imitations, but I’m glad to have it.

Grade: B+

 

Two Feld Games: Trajan and The Castles of Burgundy

Trajan box

Trajan

Castles of Burgundy

The Castles of Burgundy

Stefan Feld is a prolific game designer, with at least three new releases scheduled for this year. As two of his recent designs show, though, he manages to keep the quality high. The Castles of Burgundy and Trajan may obviously come from the same design approach, but they feel very distinct from each other.

What is the same? Well, both offer a unique way for players to choose among several available actions each turn. The actions generally involve taking items from a common pool or racing to a goal, which provide the player interaction for the game. Additionally, many actions involve giving you another action of a different type. This isn’t over-powered, as spending an action to gain an action doesn’t automatically give you much, but a well-planned combination will provide big rewards. And while these two games have little of the engine- or empire-building common today, they instead have an open-ended nature that overwhelms the players with choice. The actions provide points or new abilities in different ways, and the game’s internal clock moves too fast to let players take advantage of every opportunity. The different paths are well-balanced, with no one strategy being dominant every time, so each game becomes a matter of finding the best opportunities in the current set-up.

The Trajan player board.

The Trajan player board.

When comparing the action-selection mechanisms, Trajan definitely comes out ahead. Each player has a personal board with twelve markers spread over a ring of six spaces, and they move these pieces around as in a game of Mancala. Each space represents a different action, and the one that you end in determines the action you can take. Further, those markers in the Mancala board come in six colors. Sometimes, you’ll get to place a special tile by one space. If you later trigger that space’s action while two markers of specific colors are present, then you earn a bonus. This means that you’ll need to plan ahead a few turns to make sure you can do the needed actions in the needed order, but you have some ability to shift suddenly if the situation on the board changes. As a simple example, perhaps you planned to use the “Shipping” action next turn, and that would set thing up for you to next take the “Senate” action. If an opponent first plays cards to claim the Shipping points that you wanted, then you may want to wait until that bonus is available again later. But do you have a different way to lead up to the “Senate” action you still really want to play?

In contrast, The Castles of Burgundy’s action-selection is simply done by rolling two dice. Most of the game involves claiming tiles from a central area in one action and then adding them to your “princedom” on a later action. Specific numbers are required in each case, and not always the same for each of the two actions. (For example, you may want to claim the City tile that’s in the “4” area, but the space you’ll later play it to is marked “1”.) Despite some ways for players to tweak dice, this feels more arbitrary than Trajan’s deterministic system, and dice just usually aren’t that interesting. More troublesome, this game can have a surprising amount of downtime as players consider the different options they have for their two actions each turn. (Trajan also takes some thinking, but it’s usually more interesting to watch, and you have more to plan yourself while waiting.)

Two player boards and the central area of Burgundy visible.

Two player boards and the central area of Burgundy visible.

The defense of Burgundy would be that it has the more interesting actions. Though neither has a strong sense of empire-building, Trajan has none at all. That game’s actions are just sources of points with a pasted-on theme. Burgundy at least has the feel of putting together an abstract fiefdom. The board has a pre-determined plan for what types of buildings can go where (with many different boards to choose from, and a typical game filling up at least two-thirds of the spaces), with rewards for completing areas or being the first player to finish off a tile type. Of course, the tiles give different types of bonuses when played, from points to the chance to perform another specific action (not limited by numbers). One tile type provides new “technologies” that give players different abilities or ways to score.

I find Trajan’s actions interesting in a different way, though. Despite the lack of theme, there is an interesting interaction between them. Many resources can be gained from more than one action, and some actions provide benefits to others. Because the Mancala movement lets you skip over actions, it’s possible to play an entire game without using all six action types, and realistically, your strategy will lead to using one or two of them very rarely.

The full Trajan board

The full Trajan board

Regardless of the differences, both games are put together excellently. If you want a balanced game of moderate player-interaction, rewarding the most efficient tactical choice out of many possibilities, then you will enjoy either. I give the edge to Trajan, which most perfectly fits the “default” Feld style explained at the start of this article. It features interesting decisions in which your current move determines what choices will be available in the next one. Even so, it definitely doesn’t make The Castles of Burgundy obsolete. These are both different enough to be worth playing.

Trajan: B+

Castles of Burgundy: B A (I have updated my opinion)

(Trajan images taken by me, while the (better) pictures of The Castles of Burgundy are from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the originals and photographer credits.)

Jeff Smith – RASL (Comic Review)

cover to RASL #1

RASL

Jeff Smith is mostly known for his all-ages comic Bone, but he just devoted over four years to RASL, a science fiction adventure aimed at adults. It’s best feature is the great black-and-white art you would expect from him: Distinctive characters and strong, fluid line-work make for clear, visually-pleasing pages. For this story, he drew slightly grittier and more detailed pictures, which gets in the way of the fluid action that made Bone scan like a moving animation. It’s still a pleasure to see Smith’s artwork, of course. Despite that, this story never became that interesting.

The main character, who goes by the alias “RASL”, is introduced as a hedonistic art thief with a device that lets him travel between parallel universes. But a “lizard-faced man” is also jumping between worlds to hunt him, a wide-eyed mute girl appears and disappears mysteriously, and it turns out that RASL is actually an on-the-run scientist. After the first third of the series, that art-thief anti-hero is forgotten, and in his place is a man racing to stop short-sighted scientists from experiments that threaten the world. (The perfect example of this change in atmosphere is the effect that “drifting” between worlds has on RASL. At the start, it’s established that each drift takes such a toll on his mind and body that he needs to lose himself in a drunken, womanizing haze to recover. By the end, he and the villains are jumping between worlds every few minutes, and staying alert enough to trade punches immediately afterwards.)

RASL pageDespite a lot of strange mysteries on the periphery, the core story could be a by-the-numbers action movie, probably starring someone midway between Nicolas Cage and Bruce Willis. The main qualification to be a “scientist” is the ability to handle yourself in a fight, and RASL’s big breakthrough had more to do with discovering Nikolai Tesla’s lost notes than with research or experiments. It’s all perfectly fun popcorn fare enhanced by occasional philosophical puzzles, but it would need a couple more explosions and car chases to qualify as a summer blockbuster.

In some ways, it’s like Smith bit off more than he could chew: All the extra bits made this confusing to follow while it was being serialized (with long delays between the two to four issues per year), but if you read it at one time, it’s difficult to reconcile the set-up of the early issues with the plot that takes over. Interesting, but never actually satisfying, this is a half-successful experiment from one of the great cartoonists of our time. It’s good to know that Smith isn’t going to be pigeonholed by the runaway success of Bone, but I hope he finds a better mix of elements for his next story.

Grade: C+