Sunday, April 20, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

In case you live under a rock, yesterday was Record Store Day, one of my favorite days of the year. I always look forward to it with anticipation, though I'm rarely interested in the hundreds of reissues and special releases slated for the day. This year there were three releases that I was hoping to find, Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea" 7", the Black Angels EP which I reviewed last week, and a Songs: Ohia 7" box set. Alas, the store I visited had sold out of two of those and hadn't ordered the third. No worries though, I still walked out with a armload of vinyl, though most are albums that I have reviewed here before. However, this week's rotations was full of new releases. For yet another week, the Roundup is dedicated only to 2014 albums. Enjoy.

Big Blood - Fight for Your Dinner Vol. 1: Released this month is the Portland, Maine freak folk band's eighteenth full length album, all of them from the last decade. Their unique blend of psychedelic folk has propelled them near the top of my list of best bands currently around. This is another stellar performance, sounding like an artifact from an alternate reality where phonographs and traveling oddity shows still reign supreme. Fun interludes of wrong number answer machine recordings and one of a child making a mix tape in the 80's add to the surreal aspect of the record. "Well Water Pt. II," "Song for Herb," "2+2=? (The Bob Seger System)" and the title track are among the best. One can only hope that a Vol. 2 is in the works for a quick release.

The Ghost of the Saber Tooth Tiger - Midnight Sun: Due out later this month is the second album from Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl's evolving band. As I expected after catching them in concert back in the fall, the album abandons the neo-folk acoustic style of their debut in favor of a psychedelic rock vibe. Hearing this album, it makes sense the that band opened for Tame Impala and The Flaming Lips as it fits in that category, while also incorporating the best lessons from 90's trip-hop. Easily Sean's best album to date. He just keeps getting better and better. "Animals," "Last Call," "Great Expectations," "Golden Earring," and the title track are all stand outs.

Jessica Lea Mayfield - Make My Head Sing: The Ohio singer songwriter's third album was released last week out. I first came across her work in 2011 when her version of "Lounge Act" was included on SPIN magazine's Nirvana Nevermind tribute album. Her song was easily the best on there. After hearing that I sought out he debut and loved it. This album is equally as good as that one, and one of the better singer songwriter albums I've heard in recent months. It has a definite rock feel to it, moving away from the natural folk vibe of her voice. This albums feels Lightning Dust meets elements of The Black Keys. "Anything You Want," "I Wanna Love You," "Oblivious," and "No Fun" are my personal favorites.

Antemasque - Singles: News broke a several days ago that Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Cedric Bixler-Zavala had reformed a new band along with Flea. Needless to say, I was thrilled. I was still upset that Mars Volta were not going to put out new material, but now it appears they essentially are, just under a new name. Almost immediately after the news broke, the band put up four new songs. "Burned All the Witches" is the most different, a soft acoustic song that is simple yet striking. "Hangin in the Lurch" feels more like their older band At the Drive In with it's more straight forward rock sound. Flea's bass fits that song quite well. "People Forget" owes something to the L.A. strip with it's swagger, but interpreted through their prog-rock lens. Lastly, "4am" feels the most like a Mars Volta song and would fit nicely on their last album. All four songs are pretty spectacular and I couldn't be happier that those two are working together again. 

Pink Mountaintops - Get Back: Coming out next week is the fourth album from Stephen McBean's Black Mountain side project band. It's been five years since their last album, and four since Black Mountain has put out a record. After an almost ever-present series of releases in the middle years of the last decade, I found myself sorely missing his brand of indie hard rock. On some songs this album has a lush feel to it that is usually reserved for British indie rock. But there is still an element of raw energy that provides enough edge to make this a solid album that feels new and welcomed. "The Second Summer of Love," "The Last Dance," and "Through All the Worry" are the standout tracks.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Fiction Friday (27)

The time has come again where I've finished reading a novel and would like to share my thoughts. This week's book is of particular interest to me as I recently took a part-time job with United States Postal Service. Given that fact I figured it was about time I read a book that had been sitting on my shelf for years. It was given to me as a slight joke by my good friend, with whom I suffered through Kevin Costner's three and half hour film adaptation nearly twenty years ago. However, I knew the book was supposed to be good, and seeing as how I am now a "postman" it seemed worthy of a read, and indeed it was. Enjoy.

The Postman by David Brin
(Spectra, 1985)

Dystopian fiction before it became a fad was usually more interested in survival than the current theme of love in the face of insurmountable odds. The Postman is a story of surviving, not just the survival one individual, but the survival of a cultural spirit. Set in the state of Oregon, two decades after a Doomwar has torn apart the fabric of society and left its shreds to flap in the breeze, the novel plays out one of the fundamental conflicts of human civilization; primitivism vs. progressive.

The story begins with an attack. Gordon, an intelligent and resourceful survivor, is robbed of all the possessions that he needs to keep him alive as night begins to set in the mountains. Desperate, knowing that he won't survive the night, he pursues the band of robbers in the hopes of making a last ditch attempt to get his gear back and live another day. While trying to find their camp, he is led off track and ends up coming across something more valuable than he could possibly imagine. At first, the old U.S. Mail truck is simply a shelter, its bags of mail become blankets from the cold, and the dead skeleton's uniform is a mere substitute for the gear that was stolen.

Gordon only discovers the symbolic power of these items once he enters the next town on the other side of the mountains, a relatively stable and peaceful community that mistakes him for a postman from a nation they thought no longer existed. Despite Gordon's honesty about how he come in possession of the items, the people latch onto the ideal, even giving him letters to take to long lost family in towns to the West. As he travels from town to town, he quickly learns that his uniform, and the ever more elaborate myth he tells of The Resorted United States, are able to ease the hostilities of communities weary of strangers. Eventually he takes to setting up Post Offices in the places he passes through, appointing postmasters and inadvertently establishing a mail system between the communities.

The Post Office is a wonderful symbol for civilization. It represents the idea of free communication, and communication is the key to a greater purpose and the basis of forming larger communities. The myth quickly grows beyond Gordon's control and he suffers from guilt as he realizes he's giving people hope where perhaps none is warranted. This become painfully clear when the new larger community he's developed is faced with fighting off an invasion of the barbaric hoard known as Holnists, followers of a pre-war survivalist and his primitive teachings. Their epic battles take on the metaphor of good vs. evil in dramatic and powerful ways.

While the novel veers off course a little as it nears the end, getting bogged down in another sub-plot of the advantages and perils of technology, it manages to pull everything together nicely in the end. This is that rare kind of book that mixes action with profound intellectual ideas. A thoroughly enjoyable read that leaves you with much to think about.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Animation Domination

Over the past several years Community has been a bit of a puzzling show in that it displays moments of television brilliance with the occasional well-crafted high concept episode, while often trudging through the rest of the season with clever, if not overly memorable entertainment. But it's hard not to root for and support a show that has given us the Paintball episode, the Blanket Fort episode, Inspector Space Time in all it's glory, and also exists of several alternate timelines. 

A few episodes back, Community brought another classic to the small screen. This time it ventured into the animated world of 1980's G.I. Joe, as well as the more narrowed sphere of G.I. Joe toy commercials. This dead-on parody brought the characters into the Joe universe, with spot-on code names and outfits. It took on the some of the more puzzling aspects of the cartoon, like why no character ever dies in their endless explosive battles, or why Cobra is always targeting tourist destinations with no military value. It was hilarious, especially if like me, you were a fan of the cartoon in your childhood.
As with most of the episodes, it used this alternate world to deal with one of the character's personal issues. The show always does a good job by making those connections in ways that don't feel forced, yet always seem play into sitcom troupes with a tongue in cheek attitude. It's sort of amazing that this show has lasted so long, and even more surprising is that it's better than it's been in years. It takes chances usually not reserved for prime time, major network shows, and that's what has always kept me coming back for more.

Yo Jobra!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

For second time in the last few weeks, the Roundup is dedicated completely to 2014 releases this time around. As the clock ticks down to next Saturday's big event, Record Store Day, and the wealth of releases that will be flooding stores around the country, I've been trying to get a handle on some of the recent music to come out and make a short list of things to search out. A few albums on this week's list are certain to make it on that list, and hopefully yours too. A nice mix of rock genres on here, and definitely up tempo stuff for the most part as I continue to welcome in the warmth of spring. Enjoy.

Fireflies - In Dreams: Just released this past week is the Chicago dream pop bands third album, and it lives up to its title. This a beautiful sleepy record, taking inspiration from shoegaze and folk, combining them into a dreamy blend. It conveys the feeling of a sophisticated children's book, and I've always been a sucker for albums like that. It reminds me of Mojave 3 or a more mellow Joyzipper, or perhaps a more pop version of Mazzy Star. Either way, it's joyous and makes for a wonderful morning springtime record.

The Black Angels - Clear Lake Forest: The Austin neo-psychedelic band is releasing this 7 song EP on colored vinyl for Record Store Day next week, their first release since last year's Indigo Meadow. Since their 2006 debut, they have released four consistently good rock albums that are just the right blend of psychedelic and garage. This is no different, and is perhaps their freshest sounding release in years. There isn't a bad song on here, but "Linda's Gone" is perhaps the most interesting and different from the rest of their catalog. This is definitely going to be on my search list when I make my annual Record Store Day travels. 
Kimono Kult - Hiding in the Light: Formed earlier this year, the band features Omar Rodriguez Lopez and John Frusciante, along with the singer from Omar's other band Bosnian Rainbows. This debut EP was released digitally back in March and features the synth sound that both Omar and John have been into lately. Teresa's vocals are reminiscent of Yoko Ono, though more melodic. It's got a nice groove to it, and manages to stay away from anything too grating, but it lacks the spark that makes their other work so appealing. An interesting listen for fans, but otherwise not much more than a curiosity. Hopefully with the recent news, Mars Volta will be back in action and Omar will contribute to a proper prog release.

Squadda B - 10th Grade Dropout: The Oakland rapper has released six albums in the last three years, and 19 mixtapes since 2009. Out this past month, this is his 20th mixtape. It's easy to say that perhaps he's stretching himself to thin, and this release would certainly support that assumption. The laid back groove wavers between a chill out vibe and just plain laziness. There are moments where the record hints at the potential of something good, if only it had the chance to develop more. "Tell It Like It Is" and "Cash Click Floe" are the only tracks that will get any repeat playtime, the rest is pretty forgettable.

Varsity - Thanks for Nothing: Released last week on limited edition blue cassette was this debut EP from the Chicago based trio that sounds a bit like Best Coast with a garage rock feel. There's also a '90s alternative vibe that sort of intrigues me. Only five songs, but often that's enough and it seems like just the right amount for this album. The band is clearly just beginning to click, and could potentially put out a damn fine album one day. A fun little introduction that has them on my watch list. "Jackie" and "Despite the Warning" are my favorites, and the album is available at their bandcamp site for a "name your price" download.

Chain & The Gang - Minimum Rock N Roll: This is the fourth album from Ian Svenonius' garage rock band that formed in 2009. Ian has fronted very influential bands like Make-Up and Nation of Ulysses, and written an incredible book of rock essays entitled The Psychic Soviet. I was excited for Chain & The Gang's debut, but left a little underwhelmed. This album however feels like a proper return to the vital sound of Make-Up, a band which still amazes me. It has a raw energy that fuels an intense paranoid rhythm. From beginning to end, it delivers and is easily his best release since Make-Up disbanded back in 2000. "Devitalize," "Never Been Properly Loved," and "I'm a Choice (Not a Child)" are among the stand out tracks.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Into the Forest

As I wrote last week, I'm working on two different manuscripts right now. One is a children's novel and the other is the revision of a YA novel. Interestingly enough, both feature an element of frightening forests. The classic fairy tale setting has always appealed to me, though I've had little opportunity to take advantage of it in the past. However, both of these stories have their roots in ancient folk and fairy tales, making the forest and all its darkness fair game.

My attraction to the forest goes back to my childhood. I spent most of my outdoor time in the woods that surrounded the area near where I grew up. Luckily I lived near a decent sized state park, and the housing developments were still few and far between. The woods were a place where children could live removed from the rules of an adult world for a few hours. In that space, the imagination took shape. Adventures were born and characters came to life. I'm really enjoying the journey back there and can think of no better place for my stories to exist.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

Spring has finally arrived here in the foothills of the Catskill mountains and to celebrate, I've been rocking out this week. And whenever I think of rock, somehow L.A. always creeps into my thoughts. It comes as no surprise then that there are three L.A. bands on this week's round up. I also took some time to track down a couple records that I'd wanted for some time, and pulled one out from back in the day to give it a review just in time for the band's induction into the Hall of Fame. For the first time in months, there is no folk on this week's roundup. You can blame that on the weather. Hopefully there's something you'll like. Enjoy.

John Frusciante - Enclosure: Continuing in the synth/glitch style of his last album, 2012's PBX Funicular Intaglio Zone, comes the newest record from one of my favorite songwriters of all time. Though the style is similar, he does infuse a bit more of his traditional acoustic rock melodies into the vocal parts, making this a more accessible album. "Sleep," "Run," "Stage," "Fanfare," and "Zone" are all amazing tracks. Like his early work, this is one of those records that can take a few listens to completely appreciate, but also like those works, it's quite brilliant.

Royal Blood - Out of the Black: Released two weeks ago, this is the debut EP from UK noise rockers out of Brighton. Four tracks that show a ton of promise, this is heavy noise rock with garage rock undertones. This is the kind of high energy rock that has become rare these days and I've been loving every minute of it for the past week. It reminds a lot of Icarus Line, one of my favorite bands. As of now there is not an album scheduled for release, but hopefully that will quickly change. Definitely worth checking out.

Mobb Deep - The Infamous Mobb Deep: Nearly 20 years after the release of their groundbreaking album The Infamous, the Queens natives have decided to revisit the source of their greatest success. Coming five years after their disappointing last album, this was a welcomed return to form. It's clear they got a bit of their swagger back for this album and it's pretty tight throughout. "Check the Credits," "Say Something," and "Taking You Off Here" are some of their best tracks in over a decade. It also includes a second disc with re-recorded and alternate versions of The Infamous. It's nice to have them back and this should get plenty of play come summer time.

Christian Death - The Decomposition of Violets: Coming out of L.A. in the early 80's, Christian Death is a bit of oddity. Sounding like their British gothic post punk contemporaries, the band shunned the glam metal scene that ruled their city at the time. This 1985 live album, recorded in Hollywood, captures the band at their peak. It has all the darkness and eerie guitar work that a great gothic album should. It would be the perfect soundtrack to those long ago goth clubs that I ventured into while in High School, but unlike a lot of music that intrigued me at that age, this stands the test of time, managing to remain haunting after all of these years. "As Evening Falls," "Electra Descending," "Face," and "The Drowning" are among my favorites.

Tweak Birk - Under Cover Crops: This week I'd been listening to this psychedelic L.A. band's first ep again when I learned they had one that came out in 2012 that I'd completely missed. Having loved all their previous work, I quickly sought it out. They create stoner rock with incredible catchy hooks, something like Tame Impala but with the oddness of The Flaming Lips. Like their other albums, this one is heavy, fun, and completely rocks. "People," "Psychorain," and "Weight" are among my favorites. Great stuff.

KISS - Alive: This week I've been reading the Kiss cover article in Rolling Stone and it made me want to dig out this classic 1975 album. In true rock 'n' roll fashion, I stole this double CD from Tower Records back in 1993, though I'm sure the corporate mind of Kiss wouldn't approve. This is the album that really launched the NYC glam rock band into the mainstream. After mediocre success with their first three studio albums, the label decided they needed something that could capture the energy of their live shows, and the natural conclusion was to release a live album. From the blistering guitar opening on "Deuce" the album launches into a hard rocking evening. Ace Frehley stands out on this album, his guitar work is amazing. Peter Criss plays the drums with a swing rhythm that is captivating. Paul sounds great. And Gene's bass is as evil as ever. With songs like "Black Diamond," "Parasite" and "Strutter," it becomes clear how these pioneers assisted in saving rock from it's first declared death. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

On Burning Out and Fading Away...

Twenty years ago, I was eighteen years old and very drunk in Munich when someone stopped me in the hotel lobby to say Kurt Cobain had committed suicide in his Seattle home. Though I was a huge fan, I remember my reaction wasn't one of devastation or even surprise. Though sad as it was, I rather expected it to happen sooner or later. It sort of amazed me that it came as a shock to anyone. A few months before he had tried to commit suicide in Italy and had ended up in a coma. His songs, especially many of his later ones, read like a diary of one suffering with life. It was this very quality about him that spoke to so many lost teenagers in the first place. So his death didn't surprise me, yet it still saddens me.

To this day I often think about what kind music Kurt would have recorded in the past twenty years. Sometimes I hear a song and can't help thinking Kurt might have made something that sounded like this. After hearing his last songs that have showed up over the years, "You Know You're Right," "Do Re Mi," etc, I think Kurt was moving on to something spiritual in his music. I could also see him doing something like Elliot Smith's self titled album or Johnossi's debut. And though we will never know what was to come, his influence can still be heard and the music he left behind is still enjoyed. True legends never fade away.