Spinnerette (Music Review)

Spinnerette cover

Spinnerette - Spinnerette

As the frontwoman for The Distillers, Brody Dalle was one of the most important figures in early 21st century punk. I’m probably in the minority here, but I would list their Sing Sing Death House among the best albums of the past decade. By the time of their third full-length, though, it was obvious that Dalle was ready to take a new direction, and so it isn’t surprising to see her reappear several years later as the leader of a new band.

With Spinnerette’s self-titled debut, Dalle trades her hard punk sound in for, surprisingly, something more reminiscent of louder ’90s alternative songs. It stands out from most of the current ’90s retreads, though, who are making a calculated decision to use a well-defined, 20-year-old style. Instead, Spinnerette has the desperation of a band that is truly from that era, immersed in a sound that is too fresh to examine objectively, and eager to experiment with different ways to express themselves, even though their creations will be embarrassing as often as they succeed.

Dalle frequently lists Courtney Love as an influence, and that can be heard here. The songs are more complex, though, especially the convoluted lyrics. They rarely follow a verse-chorus-verse structure, and Dalle isn’t simply shouting her emotions with the straightforwardness of Love or her old punk self. This is Hole after a few years in art school, perhaps.

As much as I respect their sloppy, wild experimentation, the results are disappointing. Had Spinnerette existed in the ’90s, I imagine that they would have gotten minor radio play for a couple songs (the catchy “Baptized By Fire”, and maybe the hard-driving “Ghetto Love”), developed a minor fanbase that poured over their lyrics with a fine-tooth comb, and faded from mainstream attention almost immediately. The songs may not be bad, but they rarely stand out, either.

The lyrics themselves are also reminiscent of Hole, but come from a more nihilistic source. In the opening track, “Ghetto Love”, Dalle describes herself as “just a girl out looking for love”. Though love may be dead, she asserts, she is never going to give in. Most of the songs that follow alternately describe heartbreak and longing, seemingly backing up this theme. But the album closes with “A Prescription for Mankind”, which seems to come around to the “love is dead” viewpoint that Dalle fought against at first. “I do believe Hell is on Earth”, Dalle declares, rejecting the faith-based prescription promised in the song’s title.

Spinnerette is at its most compelling when Dalle’s lyrics are straightforward, or at least delivered as comprehensible earworms. The opening track’s declaration “I’m Joan of Arc on a mission: Avenge love’s death” is catchy and memorable, and “Rebellious Palpitations” compares love to drugs with to the simplicity of her punk roots (“White lines on the table look /like a road/ like a road/ like a road/ Then there’s the message that we’re hooked/ dominoes/ dominoes/ dominoes”). Part of the reason they stand out is that they are surrounded by lines with much more obscured deliveries and meanings. Though the band has a ’90s hard rock style down pat, their sound isn’t compelling enough to listen to when the lyrics don’t take center stage. There is some potential for greatness in this band, but Dalle will need to go through another radical reinvention of herself if it is going to be realized.

Grade: C-

The Witmark Demos (Music Review)

The Witmark Demos cover

The Witmark Demos

The latest in Bob Dylan’s official “bootleg series”, The Witmark Demos showcases the demos he recorded at the start of his career. The catch is that, when these were recorded, not even he suspected that this was the first chapter of a folksinging life; instead, Dylan was hoping for success behind the scenes, and was simply recording these so that professional singers would buy them.

This appears to be a new trend for aging singer-songwriters. The Witmark Demos was released only a few months after Kris Kristofferson’s own collection of demos, Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends. A cynic might claim that they are now scraping the bottom of the barrel in their search for nostalgic material to package up and sell. In reality, these releases have a lot of value to people who are interested in the stories behind the songs. The idea of professional singers writing their own material was relatively new in the 1960’s, and the liner notes to Dylan’s release talk extensively about how he was at the forefront of this change.

If you just want to enjoy the songs, you’ll find it uneven. As if in warning, the first disc opens with “Man On The Street”, which Dylan stops abruptly because “I lost the verses”. Other songs are also incomplete (“Do you want this? It’s a drag”) or are interrupted so that Dylan can correct his lyrics. These aren’t necessarily songs that you’ll play over and over.

Don’t worry, though. Most of the songs are complete. They are still simple, with no production and little music other than Dylan’s own guitar and harmonica (after all, they were just recorded to help potential buyers imagine how they would sound), but Dylan doesn’t sound bad in a no-frills environment. Additionally, it’s impressive to hear how many of his future hits were fleshed out even at that early age. (Note that many are still structured as simple, traditional songs, such as “Rambling, Gambling Willie”. If you only like Dylan at his most complex, and don’t care for folk traditions, this isn’t for you.) Of the 47 tracks on these two discs, about two-thirds of them deserve to be in a Dylan obsessive’s regular rotation, even if they aren’t necessarily as good as the later versions. In fact, fifteen of these songs never made it into any official Dylan release, so they will be exciting to even more casual fans.

Personally, I am one of those casual fans. For me, the collection would have been much more interesting if it focused on those fifteen new songs, and then padded out the rest with other, better outtakes from Dylan’s early years. The collection as a whole is worth listening to a few times for its novelty, but isn’t something I’ll return to. Fortunately, I found the perfect way for someone like me to appreciate this set: I bought it for my brother, a true Dylan completist, and had a few weeks to enjoy it before I passed it on. I highly recommend that you do something similar.

Grade: B-


Webcomics Roundup: January

I’ve decided the best way for me to cover webcomics will be with a monthly article. In contrast to my normal posts, I won’t be assigning grades here. The new comics are generally too incomplete for a fair review, and of the established ones, I’ll only have read through their archives if I really liked them. Therefore, most of the ones I talk about will already be cherry-picked as an A or B comic. I’ll reserve letter grades for things like books and movies, which (1) I’m likely to complete even if I don’ t like them, and (2) usually cost money, so it’s more fair to point out the ones that I don’t like.

I was undecided at first about whether to categorize webcomics with print comics or to keep them separate. They’re obviously related mediums, if not the same, but in practice, they have very different audiences. I did eventually decide to categorize them together, though. (Use the “webcomics” tag to find just those posts.) This month’s subject matter is what made the decision for me: The three most notable new webcomics in January were all created by established names from the world of print comics. The boundary between the print and web worlds has definitely become more fluid.

Below, I’ll discuss Gingerbread Girl, Ratfist, and Bucko.

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Eyelid Movies (Music Review)

Eyelid Movies cover

Phantogram - Eyelid Movies

Phantogram distinguishes itself from the electro-pop field with its simplicity. Instead of complex arrangements cutting in and out of epic songs, they are content to weave a few simple strands together. This is both a blessing and a curse on Eyelid Movies: On one hand, these songs are compelling and occasionally even hooky in a way that that very little electronic music manages. On the other hand, once the novelty of the songs wear off, they don’t offer a lot of depth.

The two band members trade off vocal duties throughout the album. Sarah Barthel has a smooth, ethereal voice that grabs the listener’s attention, but never portrays much emotion. They make the right choice to subsume her vocals with the music, making her more of a lead instrument than a singer with a message. Josh Carter’s voice, unfortunately, is much more bland. He only sounds interesting when heavily distorted, as on “Running From the Cops”.

Since vocals are only an intermittent draw in these songs, it doesn’t seem out of place for the lyrics to feel like an afterthought. They are generic but serviceable, never embarrassing the band but also never adding more than an occasional trippy phrase that rises above the mellow sound. In fact, I was surprised when I discovered that they had bothered to print the lyrics in the album.

Like the lyrics and vocals, most of the music is also at its best when it is simple and mesmerizing. These songs would be in danger of being nothing more than well-crafted lullabies if it weren’t for the drum tracks. Rising above the rest of the sounds in a way that neither the singers nor other instruments do, the hip-hop influenced beats give the songs a solid structure. When played loud, they sound confident and interesting; when played soft, this harsh backbone melts away and the result can be enjoyed as simple background music. Fans of Portishead should take note of this band.

A few songs are stunning and memorable. Most notably, the openers “Mouthful of Diamonds” and “When I’m Small” have unique soundscapes and arresting refrains. “Running From the Cops” is similarly original and manages to provide an exception to the rule of uninteresting lyrics. If Phantogram could have brought that level of craft to this entire album, it would be a classic. Unfortunately, they contented themselves mostly with songs that are only interesting as long as they are new. Once the initial novelty has faded away, most of the album is a little too simple and repetitive to be played loud. At the quiet background-music level, it still works, but that’s hardly a notable accomplishment. I suspect that its qualities (mesmerizing sound, trippy lyrics, and a structure that is fascinating as long as it seems new) make it perfect stoner music, but again, that’s an already-crowded field.

Eyelid Movies is a solid performance from a new band, and I’m curious about where they will go next. I worry that they will take the normal route for a “maturing” electronic band and mix in too many elements that drown out their simple style. If they can focus on the unique sounds that made their best songs such stand-outs, though, they could go far.

Grade: B-


Young Wizards Books 1-5

 

Every now and then, I find myself trying to explain to someone why I’m not a big fan of the Harry Potter series. I still haven’t gotten good at this explanation, probably because I usually change the subject before the other person decides I’m an elitist snob who is trying to over-think their simple pleasures. When I do go into details, I try to explain that it feels like Harry Potter just throws in world-building elements because they are amusing or useful at the time, with no thought for how they fit in to the greater series. It’s not that I’m intentionally nitpicking it, but if I really like a series, the world will keep living on in my head. And it breaks the spell when I repeatedly realize that a conflict from one book could have been resolved easily if the characters had just remembered to use a spell or character from a previous book.

Sometimes, instead of just walking away, the person asks me what alternative I’d recommend to Harry Potter. Usually, I tell them about Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. Unlike Harry Potter, these books kept kept a foothold in my imagination for years after I read them.

When I discovered the series, there were only three books, and the final one seemed meant as the end of a trilogy. I was happy to discover recently that the series continued after all, and is now up to nine books. I got the first five for Christmas a year ago, and I began re-reading them. It was exciting, but also a little worrisome. Would these live up to the standards that had been set by almost two decades of nostalgia? Short answer: they did sometimes, but disappointed me at other times. They probably aren’t the Harry Potter killers I remembered, but I can definitely recommend them as good young adult fantasy books.

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Blue Valentine (Movie Review)

Blue Valentine

Last weekend, Alicia and I went to see Blue Valentine. It tells the story of a husband and wife whose relationship is falling apart, and it manages to convey this so believably that it’s honestly unsettling. Maybe it wasn’t the best choice for the first movie to watch together after becoming engaged, but both of us are glad we saw it.

 

I want to keep this article much shorter than my other recent ones, and besides, most of what I want to say about the movie is based on spoilers. So I’ll be direct here: The acting, casting, directing, and writing are all excellent. Blue Valentine tells a story that is way too rare in movies, and makes its human drama absolutely convincing. In fact, the characters and setting are thought through so well that they can let many important things go unsaid. I assume you’re familiar with the feeling of a movie that starts to unravel as soon as you think about it afterwards, or one that you can’t even discuss afterwards without noticing all the plot holes. With Blue Valentine, everything fits together even better as you think about it. Alicia and I talked about it for a while afterwards, and every time one of us said that we didn’t understand a certain person’s motivation, or how something fit together in the timing or setting, we would talk it through and realize that it made perfect sense. The movie just hadn’t held our hands the whole way through it. In fact, I woke up the next morning with new insights into the characters and fresh opinions about their situation. I can’t remember the last time anything (other than reality) let me know people with such intricacy.

Blue Valentine receives a solid A- grade, and you should see it. If anything, I’m being too harsh in my grading. I’m going to discuss a central theme in spoilery detail below the cut, but you shouldn’t read that until you’ve seen the movie. Because this is one of the rare ones that deserve to be experienced.

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Game Reviews from 2010

After posting last week’s article about board gaming in 2010, I realized that it would be interesting to actually review those games that I played at least five times. I’d planned to skip that, because I’m not trying to just cherry-pick the things that I’ll review positively. But a few of the games I played repeatedly turned out to be disappointing once I really got to know them, so there is a good deal of variety in there. This list may not have any horrible games, but it certainly has some mediocre ones, and it’s worthwhile to think about what made them that way. Also, I definitely seemed to be drawn towards the more unique games to play repeatedly, so this list is fairly interesting.

Of the twenty-one games that I played five or more times, I excluded the nine that I’d already known before 2010 started. That left me with twelve, listed below in alphabetical order.

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