Archive for July, 2013

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway (Music Review)

The Low Highway cover

Steve Earle & The Dukes (& Duchesses) – The Low Highway

Two years after the excellent I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, Steve Earle returns with a solid but unexciting album. The Low Highway does everything fans will want from Earle, but has no real standout songs.

This time performing with “The Dukes (& Duchesses)”, Earle’s band makes this his countriest album in years. Confident, polished, and sticking to a familiar style, this easily fits in with the pop-Americana resurgence of these post-Mumford years. But, while the album mixes his blues-rock with everything from harmonica to fiddle to jazz piano, it’s usually comfortable with slow ballads that fit Earle’s age and his pain. It’s a good choice, and one that stands out next to younger, less soulful bands. Again, it’s just missing those couple great songs that would define it.

So what songs are on this? Well, one of the highlights is “Invisible”, a heartfelt story of homelessness. Earle is one of the few people who still seem to remember that country has a tradition of sympathy for the downtrodden. He sometimes comes across as over-earnest, though, as on “Calico County”‘s description of a poor, meth-blighted town. It’s the rock track on this album, but his heart doesn’t seem in it. Somewhere in between is “The Low Highway”. His personal daydream of hitchhiking mixes in scenes of poor folk on the road and damaged veterans, but they sometimes feel shoehorned in.

Every Earle album has a duet with a woman, and “That All You Got?” is an energetic, swinging track that leads into the equally upbeat “Love’s Gonna Blow My Way”. It’s the most fun part of the album, but there are a couple other sections that come close. On the other hand, those stand out against a couple disappointments. “21st Century Blues” tries to rail against the injustices of today, but his complaints too often sound dated. Missing “flying cars”, “teletransporters”, and Kennedy’s promises, he overlooks the wonders that today does offer. The old promises of jetpacks and Dick Tracey watches have been completely outdone by the reality of smartphones and internet. Not that that is Earle’s main point – there are plenty of injustices around us as well – but his lighthearted comments serve to make him sound out of touch instead of humanizing his political complaints.

Overall, Earle is still refusing to settle down, and he’s a good songwriter who (usually) knows how to play to his strengths. The Low Highway is a nice change of pace, if not one of the albums that stand out over his career.

Grade: B-


Hanabi (Game Review)


Hanabi (picture from BoardGame Geek)

Today we learned that Antoine Bauza’s Hanabi won the 2013 Spiel des Jahres. The Spiel is the most-followed award in the gaming industry, even though it’s focused on family games in the European market. Therefore, every year at this time we get to hear lots of confusion and anger from serious gamers who don’t care for the latest SdJ winner at all. This year, though, something strange happened: the game that won was actually great for gamers of all skill levels! (Also today, Legends of Andor won the Kennerspiel, which is for games that are more serious, but still on the light side of what I usually play. I don’t expect to play Legends of Andor again any time soon, but I have added some new thoughts to my first impressions from Origins.)

On first glance, Hanabi is a pretty simple game: Everyone at the table works together to play cards in order from 1 to 5 in each of five colors. (There are multiples of cards, giving you the chance to discard for a new one if there is nothing immediately useful in your hand.) The gimmick is that you hold your cards backwards, so that you see everyone else’s hand but not your own! As an action, you can choose to give someone a hint, but you are restricted to telling them only about a specific rank or color in their hand. If you do, you must tell them the location of each card matching that rank or color. (So, for example, if you want to let them know about the Red 2 that is playable, but they also have a Green 2 and a Red 3, there’s no way to point out just that one card.) Hints are a limited resource that must be replenished by discarding. Just remember that discarded cards are lost forever, so don’t give up the wrong one!

At first, Hanabi is a fun, silly change of pace from other games. It really is weird to hold a hand of cards that you know nothing about, while looking around the table wishing you could shout out advice to the others. But it quickly becomes tense and tricky. It’s possible to infer a lot of information from what other people say within the allowed system of hints, as well as how they act when they know your cards.

The reason for Hanabi’s wild success, winning over both the Spiel des Jahres jury and hardcore gamers, is that different groups can experience it very differently. If you’re playing with social gamers or kids, you can allow a good deal of table talk. People can groan or cheer when they see a card drawn, publicly talk about how “you really need to hint to Bob about that card he just drew”, or even put emphasis in their voice to say a little more with their hint. It’s still a fun, unusual game that will make you feel clever when you win. On the other hand, more serious gamers can outlaw all table talk, and even refuse to give reminders if someone forgets an earlier hint. Also, it’s easy to finish the game without losing outright (playing three bad cards), but difficult to complete all five colors, so in between is a scoring system that lets you decide what is a “good” or “bad” result for your group. It scales from a silly game that can make kids feel clever all the way up to a many-layered one with logic and communication conventions similar to Bridge. That’s quite a range! (And then there are extra cards to add a twist when the game gets too simple.)

If Hanabi has a flaw, though, it is that range. With most tabletop games, I can sit down at a convention or with friends of a friend, and know what I’m getting into. Here, subtle differences in players’ expectations can completely change the game experience. If you play strictly but someone shares extra information, the game is basically ruined, but if you like to laugh at silly plays and talk through tough spots, anyone who stops you is spoiling it. Regardless of whether everyone has the same approach, you still probably won’t all agree on the conventions used to legally share information. Even within my game group, there are definite disagreements about what is fair, and half of the discussions about this game on BoardGame Geek seem to be about different expectations.

I think that Hanabi is rarely going to be a go-to game for random gatherings. For a known group of friends, though, it’s an excellent experience. Unique, challenging, and fit for whatever level you want to play. Don’t let this Spiel des Jahres winner pass you by.

Grade: A-


Glen Duncan – I, Lucifer (Book Review)

I, Lucifer cover

Glen Duncan – I, Lucifer

Glen Duncan’s I, Lucifer is the story of Satan, after God offers him the chance to possess a mortal body for a month. Rather than take the chance at redemption, he splits his time between the pleasures of the modern world and writing his side of the story for us all to read. Naturally, Lucifer’s version of things differs slightly from God’s.

In general, there are two ways to write stories about the devil. Either his rebelliousness can be cool, setting him off against an out-of-touch God, or he can be the scapegoat for all pain and suffering. This book tries to have it both ways, and fails. Lucifer’s writing is confident and collected, and he expects us to identify with his freedom-loving worldview. But then he keeps interrupting that narrative to brag about persuading people to rape and murder. These aren’t kept abstract, either. He’s especially proud of the damage these crimes do to innocents. If you can’t handle scenes of child rape and very detailed descriptions of Medieval torture, this book is not for you.

Of course, even if you can handle those scenes, there’s no reason why this book should be for you. I can enjoy stories about anti-heroes, and even about villains. But I don’t automatically like them just because they’re about bad people. And I, Lucifer doesn’t offer any reason to read it. Possibly worst of all (if you’re not one to get disturbed by the scenes in this book) is how boring he actually is most of the time. When he’s not being the original rebel or the reason for torture, he’s just in over his head in the human world, sounding a lot more like a hedonistic mortal than a deity who has seen ages pass.

Duncan is a great writer. Allusions and economical turns of phrase flow through the prose, and he can set scenes and describe people very insightfully. This book is not well-written, though. Lucifer’s tendency is to wander off on tangents constantly, jumping between philosophy, the “real” versions of Biblical stories, and the modern-day events. Almost no time is dedicated to the plot, and all these aspects end up feeling disjointed. Many individual scenes are good. There’s one digression near the end that justifies the contradiction between Lucifer’s roles as freedom-lover and a perpetrator of suffering. If that had come earlier, and been supported throughout the book, it would have been a very different, much more interesting, story.

I, Lucifer has very good moments, but they’re all temporary. For all Duncan’s skill, the book he wanted to write just wasn’t very good. The main character merges the worst parts of unlikeable and uninteresting, the other characters barely exist, and there’s almost no plot to speak of. I do find myself vaguely curious about what Duncan’s other novels are like, but unless someone promises me that they are very different than this, I won’t be giving them a chance.

Grade: D+


Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Modern Vampires of the City cover

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Like everyone, I found Vampire Weekend’s debut to be a surprise hit. Also like everyone, I intended to check out their follow-up, but never got around to it. It didn’t seem too important to buy another literate-but-light-on-meaning pop album with affected African vocal inflections. Now the band has a third album, and, like everyone, I was surprised to hear people talk about it in the same surprised, glowing terms they used for the original Vampire Weekend. So I come to this one without much expertise, not knowing how much of the growth I’m seeing would have been evident had I been paying attention a few years ago. However, I can say that Modern Vampires of the City is an incredible album.

Yes, you’ll have to get past an awful album title. And a drab cover photo of New York City in 1966. And the first track, “Obvious Bicycle”, is not going to grab your attention. But after those first five minutes, all of the album’s weak points are out of the way. What’s left is a masterfully crafted set of songs that make the band’s gimmicky sound and themes seem perfectly natural. If you don’t think you’re interested in pop albums, Modern Vampires may be especially for you. Vampire Weekend doesn’t seem to see any conflict between catchy, hook-filled songs and intelligent lyrics that reward attention. For example, “Ya Hey” is a fun track with a nonsensical-sounding refrain, but it’s actually about “Yahweh”. The band confronts the Hebrew god who wouldn’t even give His name clearly, faulting Him for the distance between Himself and His creation. The “Ya Hey” of the refrain is distorted in varied ways to play with the unpronounceable name.

Distortion also plays a center role in “Diane Young”, possibly the best pop song in years. It’s a mix of “baby baby baby”, lyrics about living fast, breaks in the tension that are practically a cappella, and sudden releases driven by an upbeat drum machine. In addition to all those blended aspects, the vocals are sometimes slowed down and run through cheap studio tricks that create a strong contrast to the otherwise-sugary song. Imagine a power-pop hit by Ween, and you’ll have a good idea of how this works.

It’s amazing to see the evolution from Vampire Weekend to Modern Vampires of the City. It’s obviously the same band, but where their early songs’ meanings were basically “Google what a ‘mansard roof’ is and you’ll understand”, these ones have a lot going on. (Atheism or discomfort with religion come up frequently, as in “Ya Hey”, but many songs are just general tales about life. Aging seems to be a secondary theme, as well.) The production and songcraft are excellent, with even the flow between songs feeling carefully engineered. It’s a varied but cohesive album with obvious care put into every moment. Whatever your past experiences with Vampire Weekend, this is a must-have.

Grade: A


Webcomics Roundup: Q2 Miscellany

I have (as always) been inconsistent lately about my monthly webcomics articles. Not a lot of new ones have grabbed my attention lately, though. Comic Chameleon, which I reviewed on Sunday, is about the only new notable event in the webcomics world that I know of. But I do have several items that seem worth mentioning, even if they aren’t strictly new. Here is a quick list of webcomics miscellany.

(And yes, I did time these articles so that this one could refer to the just-reviewed Comic Chameleon, but they would each count as a different month’s webcomic article. Not that anyone cares but me, I’m sure. You don’t write for an amateur blog in 2013 without being a little bit obsessive, though.)

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