Goodnight Loving – The Goodnight Loving Supper Club (Music Review)

The Goodnight Loving Supper Club cover

Goodnight Loving - The Goodnight Loving Supper Club

I don’t know much about Goodnight Loving, and I kind of like it that way. In my mind, they’re a group of underachieving stoner friends who hook up the recording equipment in someone’s garage about once a year to bang out hook-filled, fuzzed out rock, This idea is probably rooted in my mind because when I first found them, they had nothing but a Myspace page and Amazon was only selling used copied of their CDs. Well, those albums are finally easy to find in print, and their label has even given them a webpage now (from which I see that I missed one of their releases – there are downsides to being an enigma). Still, The Goodnight Loving isn’t as well-known as they deserve to be. In fact, I confidently declare them to be the best band without a Wikipedia page.

The Goodnight Loving Supper Club retains the low-fi atmosphere that defined the band, but it is obvious that they’ve stepped out of the garage into a real recording studio. There are no sloppy single-take moments, and everything fits together with a professional precision. The higher budget production does a good job of approximating their low-budget sound, but the smoothing out comes at the expense of both the highs and the lows.

Speaking of smoothing out, the songs seem to be comfortably bland. While Cemetery Trails used its rambling pop sound to examine painful moments and damaged people without getting too depressing, and Crooked Lake was high-energy fun with a great basement-country vibe, Supper Club’s focus is on more psychedelic lyrics. “She gave me flowers that I couldn’t see” begins “Bike + Stick”, while “Summer Dream” tells a rambling story that fits the name. “Ain’t It Weird?” trips through concepts like “we poked out our eyes in a game we devised where we looked through a cellophane screen” and seems to forget them by the end of the verse, and “Sunnyside” is an energetic little ditty about waking up hungover. The songs are fun, but rarely memorable.

The Goodnight Loving continues to belt out their songs with a punk efficiency: They average just over two minutes long, with only a few barely breaking the three-minute mark. Supper Club includes two instrumentals, though, each flowing smoothly from the preceding track. This is a good trick on the band’s part, allowing them to flesh out the space they’re working in and provide the rambling feel that this album’s stoner vibe demands, while still making each track short and standalone out of respect for their punk approach. The whole album feels a little like that, in fact: Goodnight Loving manages to find new territory to explore without ever leaving the confines that define them as a band. While this may not be their strongest effort, it’s that guaranteed mix of consistency and experimentation that makes all their albums sure bets.

Grade: B-


 

My Grading System

My recent article about Thor: The Mighty Avenger marked my 51st review. Oops: I meant to stop and look back at them when I reached number 50, but I guess I wasn’t counting carefully enough. 51 will have to do.

The friends that I’ve talked to don’t always know what to make of my grades. We’re all used to grade inflation, and it’s easy to assume that anything less than an A is a bad review. So I’ve added an explanation on the right-hand side of the blog showing exactly what the grades mean. I’ve also created a separate page with a detailed break-down for each +/- modifier. I don’t know that I’ve been completely consistent so far, but I now have a written standard, complete with questions I can ask myself to decide what grade I’d give something.

In short, remember that while As may be excellent, a B still means that I’m recommending something. It may have some flaws, but I explain the good and bad points in my review. That should help you figure out whether the good will outweigh the bad for you, keeping in mind that it did for me.

I was also curious about exactly how my 51 grades so far break down. More details below the cut.

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Thor: The Mighty Avenger (Comic Review)

Thor: The Mighty Avenger

Thor: The Mighty Avenger

In late 2010, to prepare for the upcoming Thor movie, Marvel released a barrage of new Thor-related comics. I’m not sure exactly how that was supposed to help with either publicity or sales: Marvel’s back catalog already had a confusing series of unrelated comics to sell if needed, so creating a bunch of new ones with different styles and from different continuities isn’t really changing anything.

But these days, the standard M.O. for superhero publishers seems to be to throw everything possible against the wall, and one or two good things will come out of the mess. That happened this time with Roger Langridge’s and Chris Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger. The second (and final) volume is released in paperback today.

The work that these two put out was unexpected. Langridge is best known for comedy work, with an unsympathetic edge. His writing here was surprisingly tender and human: Re-telling Thor’s “origin” story, this series starts just days after the god Thor is exiled to Earth. Langridge makes superhero tropes secondary so he can focus on the pain and anger of a proud man who has lost his home, and his growing relationship with Jane Foster as she helps him adjust to the human world.

Chris Samnee provides excellent art. I had not known of him beforehand, but between this title and the recently released Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale, I’ll be keeping my eye on him. His work is soft and understated, with simple lines calling out emotions, and incredibly natural body language. Every character looks distinct and natural. While that may sound out of place in an action-heavy genre, where artists usually focus on adventure at the expense of portraying the people, Samnee makes it work: When every pose conveys Thor’s quiet, confident strength, the powerful action flows naturally.

Other superheroes guest star in almost every issue, but this aspect still seems muted. The impression is that we are witnessing the quiet beginning of a superhero age, and the people of this small town would normally never see them. Thor’s sudden presence naturally brings some others in, but the feeling that this is a world populated by ordinary people remains strong.

"Simple and good. I like simple and good very much."

Words you rarely see in a Thor comic

This should have become a classic work, but it was canceled way too early by Marvel when they began culling the overstretched Thor line. Not only did this rob us of future comics like this, but it actually managed to lessen the existing ones: The first six issues were obviously intended to go together as an introductory story arc, with Thor gaining some acceptance of his new role. Issue 6 closes with a relationship beginning between him and Jane, and issue 7 opens up some time later, after he has gotten to know the other people of the town.

That’s a good structure, and it was natural for Langridge to assume that Marvel would want six-issue story arcs. But when the series was suddenly canceled at issue 8, we were left with a long introduction followed by a short, two-part follow up. To make matters worse, Marvel released the collected editions in two volumes, with four issues each. The stopping point between these two volumes feels entirely unnatural, and breaks the flow of the story.

This could have been a great series, and it’s not at all the fault of Langridge or Samnee that it didn’t reach that level. But the first couple issues were still finding their footing, the last couple felt like a slightly rushed coda, and Marvel’s collection policy means that the few middle issues are drained of some of their power. This is still a very good work, and unique among comics today, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. But judging it by what it became, instead of what it should have been, I simply can’t give it an A.

Grade: B+

(Editorial note: Since I have a Twitter feed to comment on all the comics I read, I don’t normally plan on reviewing them here. But I’ll look back on entire series, or notable stretches of them, when appropriate. I can only review the ones I read, of course, so they will often be positive reviews if I’ve stuck through to the end. But fortunately for you, there are some pretty terrible series that I’ve stuck with because it didn’t become obvious right away. So you’ll get to hear me complain sometimes as well.)

A Theory of Fun For Game Design (Book Review)

A Theory of Fun For Game Design

A Theory of Fun For Game Design

Have you ever wondered what makes games fun? Sure, you can talk about how you enjoy the challenge or the novelty, but what makes those things fun? What does “fun” mean, anyway? In A Theory of Fun For Game Design, Raph Koster tries to answer the fundamental question of how games work by defining “fun” itself. Though his background is in video games, he finds common ground with everything from sports to role-playing.

According to Koster, games appeal to us because our brain rewards us for learning new things. Games present a structured, learnable system, in effect providing us a lesson that can later be applied to our more complex reality. In fact, Koster takes this to its logical extreme, saying that games are part of the same medium as training drills and school. “Fun is just another word for learning”, and if we don’t normally perceive learning as fun, that is more a failure of school lessons than with the medium itself. After all, our brains are wired to want to learn.

It’s a compelling theory, as figuring out new challenges is a fundamental part of games and it explains why a game will not be fun for someone if it is too simple or too complex for them. Koster builds up this point with a breezy description of cognitive theory, throwing around terms like chunking and explaining levels of consciousness to quickly lay a foundation for the way he sees our relationship to games. This simple style is complemented by the cartoons that are found on every even page. They help the book fly by, partly because those pages read so quickly, and partly because they make it so easy for the reader to peak ahead and suddenly become committed to the next page. They also are effective at driving home Koster’s points; Whether it’s his game design experience or understanding of cognitive theory, he knows that using a second source to repeat a point to a reader will make it much easier to accept.

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Webcomics Roundup: The Great Return

Achewood is backI didn’t start reading any new webcomics in February. For me, the biggest news was the promise of a return from two established comics that haven’t updated in a while: Achewood and Mugwhump the Great.

Achewood, of course, needs no introduction. For nearly a decade now, it’s been one of the best (if not the best) webcomics out there. The clean lines, strong characters, and the unpredictable plot directions make this a consistent treat. So why am I not that excited that it’s updating again?

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The Appeal of Horror

A couple of days ago, Alicia commented on one of my blog posts. In response to my claim that Pump Six And Other Stories is a horror book because we can see ourselves and our culture in the worst parts of the stories, she said:

That’s a good point about horror. I feel like it should be distinguished from those horror *movies*, though, because this doesn’t sound anything like your typical “girl goes alone into a dark woods even though all signs point to dying screaming and crying” kind. The reason I don’t like those movies is because it all seems like gratuitous violence to me, silly or not, and I just don’t care to watch it.

I began a response by differentiating between a couple types of horror, but I immediately started finding new branches of things to say. So I never wrote the comment, and it spent a day bouncing around my head. Now I want to discuss exactly what the appeal of horror is.

I don’t watch very much horror, so I welcome feedback from anyone who is more immersed in its subtleties.

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Pump Six And Other Stories (Book Review)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pump Six And Other Stories cover

Pump Six And Other Stories

 

Pump Six And Other Stories establishes its themes on the opening page: A massive new skyscraper is being built in the city of Chengdu, using new organic technology that will actually let it grow until it covers the entire city. The description is fascinating enough that readers of this fiction will feel some exhilaration at the future that technology promises. But then, the focus shifts to the main character of the story, a starving beggar boy who lives in the filth under the shadow of this skyscraper. Technology may offer a lot of potential, but what does it matter if it only helps an elite few, while the rest of humanity is used or discarded at the whim of the powerful?

These characters are actually lucky, compared to those who populate the other short stories in this collection. At least here, some people are gaining a better world. In most of Paolo Bacigalupi’s tales, the state of the world has become so horrible that even the abusive rich people would envy our standard of living today. Most of these futures are dominated by environmental disasters, but other evils are more directly man-made: Brutal Intellectual Property police are apparently the only law in “The Calorie Man”, while “The Fluted Girl” creates a culture of slavery by applying a system of stocks and investment to individual people. One of the great features of short stories is that they don’t have to end happily. Since readers don’t invest as much emotion and time into them as they do to novels, the author doesn’t feel obligated to provide a reassuring ending. Bacigalupi takes full advantage of this: Maybe half of the stories end on a note of hope for the protagonist, if you look at them right, but the overarching feeling is one of doom. Whether or not the damage is permanent, the reader will still despair at the path that humanity is taking.

And despair they will. Bacigalupi may be called a science fiction author, but these works are better described as horror. A true horror story doesn’t need shadowy monsters of fountains of blood, but should rather unsettle the reader’s comfortable life. The disasters shown in Pump Six And Other Stories feel extrapolated from the real world, and their “day after tomorrow” nature hits in a more visceral way than present-day Inconvenient Truths can.

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Why Dominion Works (Games)

In late 2008, Dominion introduced the concept of deck-building games. Almost 2 1/2 years later, you’d think that we would have some new games that build on that idea in exciting new ways. Surprisingly, though, we’ve seen only a series of knock-offs that miss the fundamental things that made Dominion so great. A few days ago, I found myself caught in yet another Dominion-vs.-Thunderstone discussion, so I think it’s time to explain once and for all what aspects made Dominion so successful.

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Hank Williams III – Rebel Within (Music Review)

Rebel Within cover

Hank III - Rebel Within

“Getting drunk and falling down has taken its toll on me,” announces Hank III as his latest album opens. That message repeats throughout Rebel Within. Even his unrepentant hard-partying tracks mention “the curse of living out my songs”, and hard drugs only come up in reference to the damage they have done to him or his friends. Is the icon of the country-metal scene finally reaching his limit?

There are other possibilities. Williams and Curb Records have fought repeatedly, both in and out of court, and the label even released Straight To Hell under the new name “Bruc Records” to avoid the embarrassment of publishing the first-ever major country CD with a parental advisory label. Rebel Within marks the end of Williams’ contract with Curb, and he has publicly said that he is keeping his best music in reserve for afterwards. Perhaps he just figured that he would have to fight with the label less if he churned out stories about his suffering along with his hell-raising.

It won’t be possible to fully understand this album until we see what he does now that he’s free. In addition to announcing that his lifestyle is catching up with him, Williams also takes his songwriting in a different direction. With this album, a majority of the songs find him solidly in the “country storyteller” vein that faded from fashion a few decades ago. It’s a good sound for him, whether it’s a permanent direction or just a temporary swerve to remind pop country fans what a rich history they are missing. However, these slow, steady songs do feel a little out of place next to the wilder ones like “Rebel Within” or “Tore Up And Loud”.

Of course, it’s hard to ignore Williams’ claim that he is intentionally keeping his best music off of this album. There is a ring of truth to that. It seems that many of the songs either go on for at least half a minute too long or repeat lyrics in places where something different should have been written. The worst offender is “#5”, a mournful song about needing to give up drugs before they kill him. At four minutes, this would have been the emotional core of the album. Stretched out to six-and-a-half minutes, though, most of that impact is lost.

“Drinkin’ Over Momma” might show another glaring example of cut corners. For the most part, the song finds dark humor in its lyrics about a mother who abandons her family for a life of drinking. But in the verse about finding his father a replacement wife, the narrator uses two of the four lines to announce that “she’s gonna have to clean all our shotguns/and skin those critters we bring home”. I don’t question that hunting would be a part of this family’s life, but it hardly seems like it should be the only criteria the singer would mention. Those lines veer dangerously close to the hicksploitation that Williams usually avoids so deftly.

Fortunately, even Williams’ lazier efforts are worth hearing. He still stands out in the modern country outlaw scene that he spawned, and at the best moments, you can see that he is still as innovative and risk-taking as ever, while growing more assured all the time. “Tore Up And Loud” is among his best party songs yet (well, at least until the ending, in which he just yells about being free from Curb Records), and the storytelling style adds more variety to Williams’ songwriting toolkit. This isn’t the first Hank III album anyone should buy, but it’s still good enough to impress anyone who does hear this one first.

Grade: B-


Two From Justin Townes Earle (Music Review)

The Good Life cover

Justin Townes Earle - The Good Life

There is no doubt that Justin Townes Earle is an excellent songwriter. The only question is whether he is writing the best songs for himself to sing. 2008’s The Good Life may be a short 10 tracks (and 30 minutes), but almost every one sounds like a forgotten country-blues classic. The only problem is that he doesn’t sound like a forgotten blues singer. Earle’s young, clean voice is a little disconcerting, and the baby face on the album’s cover adds to the contrast. These are songs that deserve to be sung by a grizzled, world-weary sixty-year-old, not by a man who was in his mid-twenties at the time.

Admittedly, Earle has experienced all the pain that his songs hint at. By 2008, he had already been struggling with addiction for over a decade, and he’d started his solo career after his father’s band had fired him for being unreliable. I suppose that his family’s musical legacy, and his resulting exposure to music, explains why Earle drew on such different influences than would be expected.

Fortunately, the great songwriting still shines through. This album isn’t the classic that it would be if it had found the right ancient blues singer to give it voice, but Earle and his band still deliver the songs with confidence and skill. The songs cover the gamut from the fun, irreverent “South Georgia Sugar Babe” to the somber, Civil War-tinged “Lone Pine Hill”. The title track turns out not to be about “the good life” at all, but is instead a darkly humorous take on a broken man’s insistence that his life isn’t bad after all:

Well since you’ve left I’ve had no place to be.

I spend most every day doing as I please.

I got pockets full of money. Hear it jingle when I walk.

It’s the good life from now on.

Though it’s hard for releases on the Bloodshot label to get much mainstream press, I’m a little surprised that The Good Life didn’t achieve more crossover success. The somber, traditional sound is pitch-perfect for anyone who misses older styles, and it has little of the punk irreverence that would turn most people off from the typical Bloodshot album. (“Ain’t Glad I’m Leaving” is the closest this comes to any sort of outlaw country, but even that’s not a litany of crimes, just a light-hearted warning that people should be glad when he’s leaving.)

Harlem River Blues cover

Justin Townes Earle - Harlem River Blues

Two years and two albums later, Earle did achieve a little bit of that crossover success with Harlem River Blues. Not coincidentally, this is the album in which he has found a style that seems to fit his age and life experiences. Rather than setting songs in the general land of American history or heartbreak, he ties them to his current home of New York City. This is a unique approach: Not many people dare to write country songs about New York. Yes, Earle does say that he feels lost and misses the country, but the implication is that this is truly his home. It is a modern twist on the country tradition, but the assured songwriting makes it feel natural.

The title song is the gem of the album, and probably one of the best songs of 2010, period. Earle announces his plan to drown himself in the Harlem River with conviction, resignation, and a strange joy. The contrary, upbeat nature of the music makes this old-school country theme as fresh and addictive as any recent pop song. Unfortunately, Earle was apparently a bit too aware of how strong “Harlem River Blues” was. In addition to naming his album after it, he also made it the opening track, despite how strong it would have sounded as a follow-up to almost any song on the album. (Seriously: I worked it into a mix CD recently, and its rich opening riff makes an effective transition from just about anything.) As a bookend, the album ends with an off-key reprise that feels more like padding than a reminder of the previous high point.

That’s not to say that the other songs are bad. “One More Night In Brooklyn” follows up “Harlem River Blues” with the declaration that maybe he can learn to live in the city after all, while “Working For The MTA” combines that urban theme with traditional train songs to create a simple but powerful tale of longing. From the somber “Christchurch Woman” to the joyful “Move Over Mama”, he covers a wide range of topics, even if the musical style is a little repetitive by the end.

Unlike The Good Life, this album feels appropriate to Earle’s life. He still covers old bluesy themes like depression or wanderlust (“Slippin’ And Slidin'” and “Wanderin'”, respectively), but now they are definitely rooted in his personal experiences. Over all, the songwriting doesn’t stand up to the high standard set on The Good Life, but the results actually work better because they feel so appropriate for the singer. If this album weren’t so short (10 tracks and 30 minutes, just like The Good Life, if you ignore the reprise at the end) with a couple of fillers, this would be an A-level album. Now that Earle has established his unique path, I expect that he’ll soon be able to apply that classic songwriting to it consistently. When he does, the results will truly be great.

The Good Life: B

Harlem River Blues: B+