Friday, January 30, 2015

Fiction Friday 35


With all the chaos that came recently due to the move, holidays, change in work schedule, and the expected baby, my reading time had been greatly diminished over the past few months. But I'm not going to completely blame the events of my life for the ungodly slow pace at which I finished the book that I'm reviewing today. I started reading this five hundred page book early in the Fall and knew pretty early on that it wasn't my kind of book. But I'm sort of compulsive about finishing a book once I start reading it. You never know when a piece of fiction will surprise you. This one kept surprising me, but only by getting slightly worse every time I thought it to be impossible. I don't really like posting negative reviews, I believe in the decency of not saying anything if you don't have anything nice to say. But sometimes you need to warn people away, plus you need to establish your aesthetic if anyone is going to take your opinions seriously.

Commonwealth by joey goebel
(MacAdam, 2008)

The quote on the cover of this book, from Tom Robbins, reads "Joey Goebel is a born writer, one of those fated orginals...", which should have been enough for me to stay clear. As it turns out, it was a fitting quote from a fitting author, since my dislike for the writing was on par with my dislike for Tom Robbins' writing. This book believes it's being incredibly quirky, subtly subversive, and profoundly honest, when really it fails in all of those endeavours.

The story follows the events of a privileged family over the course of a summer that will change all of their lives. Set in the nonspecific middle American town of Bashford, this is supposed to be representative of some mythical Main Street America that doesn't exist anywhere but in the past and political speeches. In fact, this entire novel revolves around a simplistic interpretation of Bush era political rhetoric. While I'm sure it thinks it's being clever, the story reveals only surface level observations through its dull, one dimensional characters who behave in extremely predefined ways.

Not funny enough to be satire. Not deep enough to revealing.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Blizzard of Oz


Anyone watching weather reports leading up to Monday's snowbust in the New York area would've thought the world was coming to an end. An endless parade of faces appeared warning of "historic" snowfalls, dire conditions, and all out end to everything we know. Politicians, afraid of being accused of being unprepared, overreacted and closed roads, schools, and government agencies from Monday afternoon through Tuesday. The masses panicked, raiding stores at a record pace. In the end, the city got 7 inches of snow, and to the north, we got a grand total of 2 inches. 

While I understand that in New England, the preparation was called for, as it should be anywhere on the coast where coastal flooding is a possibility, that doesn't excuse the actions inland. First off, this is the Northeast...it's January...we get snow. That's part of winter! Second, there is no need to close things for the next day when they can easily be closed later. Schools did not need to be closed a day in advance, close them in the morning the way it has always been done. Doesn't anyone think it silly that politicians would be making these decisions based on weather reports - the most notoriously inaccurate thing in human history!

Yesterday, I watched weather man after weather woman making heartfelt apologies for getting it wrong after the public reacted harshly. They talked about computer models, and the idea of how it's better to be safe than sorry...but what they don't realize is that the reaction isn't just based on this one storm. It's based on the fact that every reasonable weather event since Hurricane Katrina is labeled "extreme" or "historic." CNN's regular weather report is actually called "Extreme Weather." They hype things up to get people to watch and then shrug it off when their predictions turn out to be the only thing extreme in the whole process. 

Now I fully support the idea of preparing the public of potentially hazardous, or deadly storms, especially hurricanes or tornadoes, but snowfall during winter or a heatwave in the summer do not qualify. The silliness has got to stop, and hopefully this storm will pave the way for more common sense, like the kind that existed pre-2005. If it doesn't, they run the risk of people ignoring an actual cause for alarm due to weariness of extended hype.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Weekend Music Roundup

It's the weekend again, time for music thoughts. I spent much of this week listening to a few new albums and a bunch of old ones. Along with reviews of the 2015 releases, I thought I'd share two albums from '99-'00 which have had frequent airplay in my world over the past couple of weeks. Given the nature of my days lately, there's been a lot of hip hop and metal on my playlists, but I've tried only to share the best, or ones that seemed worthy of mention due to past reviews. Next week should have more indie and folk, but we'll have to see. Hopefully you'll all find something to check out. Enjoy.

Nacho Picasso & Blue Sky Black Death - Stoned & Dethroned: Last week the Seattle rapper released his sixth full length album, and third where he's teamed up with the San Fran beat makers. Blue Sky Black Death has been producing the best hip hop beats over the past decade, and this album features some of their best work, bringing out the darkness in Nacho's surrealistic rants. "Coke Hyena," "I'm to Blame for the Rain," "Money," and "Bastard in a Basket" are my favorites and classic Nacho. His delivery always brings the humorous and profound together in a perfect flow of words. Definitely worth checking out. 

Milo Greene - Control: The L.A. indie folk band finally delivers the follow-up to their 2012 debut this week. I enjoyed their self-titled debut when it came out and was interested to see where the last three years had taken them. Their musical journey has steered them away from their folk pop sound and onto the road of indie pop, but the sound works for them. This album reminds me of the newest Magic Numbers record, a collection of danceable sad love songs. On the slower songs, it has an Xx feel to. "White Lies," "Parents' House," and "Lonely Eyes" are my personal favorites. A solid record, just as their first one was.

Callisto - Secret Youth: Due out at the end of the month is the atmospheric sludge metal album from the Finnish band, their fourth. Unusual for an album these days, this one starts off slow and gains momentum as it goes on. Typically albums open strong, lull in the middle, and leave you with a kicker at the end. That's marketing 101, but marketing doesn't apply to sludge metal bands. The music slugs its way through the bitter landscape, feeling very cold and desolate. A solid record. Nothing groundbreaking, but solid. "Grey Light," "Ghostwritten," and "Acts" are my personal favorites.

Relative Ash - Our Time with You...: The one and only album from the Chicago nu metal band came out in 2000, and I've had the CD about that long. For a time, I was really into this record and I recently pulled it out again after not listening to it in years. Musically, this album is shattering and relentlessly fast and heavy making it perfect headphone music. Lyrically it explores traditional nu metal realms of sex, life, death from an alternate perspective. This is definitely an album that falls outside of most people's comfort zones, lots of intensity and visceral emotion. It's always felt to me like a metal version of At the Drive In though perhaps that's just me. Far from perfect, but there a times when it is perfect for my mood.

Wale - Festivus: Right before Christmas, the D.C. rapper released his third Seinfeld themed mixtape. It's fitting that Wale would continue putting out mixtapes even after three major label albums since it was the mixtape scene which first got him attention. His early mixtapes are among my favorite hip-hop releases of the last decade. His flow is still as fresh as ever, but recently there seems to be a lack of effort. There's something to be said about how the hunger of an up and coming artist can drive them, and how success can make the art lazy. This mixtape, along with his last few albums, tend to fall into that predicament. There are far too many lesser talents on here and not enough Wale, and when he is on the mic, the dynamic spark isn't quite there. All in all, it's a decent listen, it's just I expect more from him.

Supergrass - Supergrass: The Oxford Brit-pop band's third album from 1999 has always been their favorite of mine. The band is in its prime,  cranking out their best early '70s Rolling Stones impressions and the result is an entire album of thumpers. Another album that I recently put back into the rotation, I've been listening to it the past two weeks and loving it. "Moving," "Beautiful People," "Mary," and "Pumping on Your Stereo" are highlights in this late '90s rock gem.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Fly Like a Birdman


As life goes by, the accumulation of artistic exposure inevitably means that there are fewer and fewer surprises to be found in works of fiction, especially if you've devoted most of your life to the study of understanding how the concept of story works. So when I encounter a story that feels as original as Birdman, I feel compelled to share my love and sing the praises. 

The film deals with the struggle of one man to break free from the shadow of past success and popularity in an attempt to gain respect for his artistic talent. The way it presents the turbulent path of an artistic career, and the conflicts of ego that tend to go along with it, are incredibly honest, at least from my personal experiences. As an artist, you are haunted by the work you did in the past, and forever in doubt about the quality of what you may be doing in the present. Michael Keaton is not only the perfect actor for this role because of the meta connotations with his history of being the first Batman, but also because over the years people forgot that he's a great actor. 

Edward Norton represents another difficult aspect of being an artist. He's the artist who excels in his art, but can't handle the everyday mundane practices of real life. The artist who is more content to live within his art at the expense of any other relationships is another pitfall that lurks on the artistic journey. The film captures all of this in a script that is humorous at times and heartbreaking at others. The camera weaves through the narrow backstage hallways as if traveling through tunnels of the mind, connecting one thought and emotion to another, sometimes allowing them to crash in violent collision. There is a darkness hovering through those halls, in fact the world is only bright and colorful when the story is transported into the imaginary worlds of its characters. That is he life of the artist.

There are some films that come to mind for comparison; Black Swan, Inland Empire, Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind and Pan's Labyrinth to name a few. It's like those movies, but completely unlike them as well, as they are also unlike each other or any others. Like those movies this one is unique and it's nice to see uniqueness being recognized in an age when movies that don't fall into one of the predetermined labels that coincide with a ready-made marketing campaign tend get lost. Fly high, Birdman...fly high.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Weekend Music Roundup


Halfway through the first month of the new year and already there have been some exciting releases to show up. Luckily my current situation has allowed me to absorb and enjoy the new selections for the week in a way that I haven't been able to in quite some time. As a result, I'm actually far ahead of schedule and will be staying current on the Roundup for the foreseeable future. This week's choices include several new releases, as well as a few from last year that I wasn't able to get to before. From rock to metal to hip-hop, there's a bit of everything on here. Enjoy.

Ty Segall - Mr. Face: Picking up where he left off last Fall, the busiest neo-psychedelia rocker from San Fran released another great four songs this month. Like last year's album The Manipulator this EP release incorporates a lot of folk elements and feels kind of like something the Grateful Dead would make if the magic of time and space could transplant their formation into the here and now rather than fifty years past. It's so exciting when a songwriter is completely on top of his game like Ty has been the past few years. Definitely a must for fans, and hopefully a sign of more good things to come in the near future. 

Dr. Dog - Live at a Flamingo Hotel: For the better part of the last decade, this Philly psychedelic folk band was one of my favorites. Two sub-par albums over the past three years, while not enough to derail my faith and loyalty, were certainly disappointing. So when this live album was released last week I was a little skeptical, but gave it a listen anyway. Then I gave it another, and another, and another...and you get the point. The band's freewheeling spirit, so evident on their earlier albums but curtailed in the production of recent records, shines though in their live performance. My first encounter with this band was seeing them open for The White Stripes way back when, and this album instantly sparked fresh reminders of that show. Their blend of swampy blues comes alive in such different ways in an organic setting. "The Beach," "Ain't It Strange," and "Shame, Shame" are standout tracks.

Test Icicles - For Screening Purposes Only: This crash and burn dance punk outfit from London released only this one album back in 2005 before they split up and Devonté Hynes went on to become Lightspeed Champion. Though for years I've had their EP that came out a month earlier than this album, it never connected with me until recently when I went back to listen to it. And since I was always interested in this record, due to my appreciation of Lightspeed Champion, I went back and sought it out. Not really to my surprise, it's fantastic. It's the closest thing to Death from Above 1979 that you'll find, but under the aggro punk energy, it's super groovy, kind of like The Rapture. Anyway, it's pretty much genius. "Circle. Square. Triangle," "Your Biggest Mistake," and "Boa Vs Python" are among my favorites. 

Moon Duo - Shadow of the Sun: The Portland based neo-psychedelia band's third album due out in March is another Saucer Full of Secrets artifact of fuzzy mind altering adventures. I really enjoyed their last album, 2012's Circles, and this definitely shows a progression as their songs are little tighter as they venture into the current brand of expansive rock. Much like the shoegaze era, there are several bands making this kind of music and often it's hard to tell them completely apart, but for fans of the genre, that's not necessarily a bad thing. "Free the Skull," "Slow Down Low," and "Ice" are standout tracks for me.

Tayyib Ali - Keystone State of Mind III: The Philly rapper's third mix tape was released at the end of last year, and it's pretty impressive. I still like to follow what comes out of the hometown and Tayyib shows more promise than any Philly rapper in quite some time. Unlike so many mix tapes these days, this one has a professional sound equal to any proper album. It's crisp. It isn't stuffed with filler. And there are no stupid skits. It's old school Philly beats, mellow flow, and smooth delivery make for a solid album. There's some uneven tracks, but even those aren't bad and don't detract from the over all feel. I get the feeling we'll be hearing from Tayyib for quite some time to come.

The Dodos - Individ: This is my first leap into the catalog of the San Fran indie band. Individ is their sixth album, due out at the end of January. The sound is a mixture of indie folk and indie pop, similar to The Shins on their uptempo songs, and more like The Antlers on their quieter songs. Like both of those bands, The Dodos tend to be a little too vague for my tastes. The music easily fades into the background, and while it can swim nicely over you, it rarely penetrates through you. "Retriever," "Competition," and "Darkness" are my favorites on an album that should appeal to fans of this type of indie music.

Truckfighters - The Complete History: Despite the title of this compilation from the Swedish stoner rock band, this is far from a "complete" history of their six albums and four EPs over the past decade. However, it does do a good job at giving a retrospective of their music over the years. They have a sound similar to bands like Kadavar and The Sword, with concentration of heavy riffs, blazing fuzz and the steady pounding of drums. This is a band that I'd passed over before, but seriously regret that now. I plan on digging into their catalog in a proper way from here on out. "Mind Control," "The Chairman," and "Helium 28" are my personal favorites.

Skunk Anansie - An Acoustic Skunk Anansie Live in London: In the mid to late '90s, this London alternative metal band was recording some of the most emotionally and politically charged music in the era when Brit Pop ruled the London scene. Most bands that are as high strung as these guys tend to burn out fast, and though they did disappear for quite some time, they never disappeared and have re-emerged in the last few years. Last year they released this album of their first ever acoustic concert. Acoustic might seem strange if you are familiar with the energy in their songs, but given lead singer Skin's mesmerizing voice, it's not that weird. These songs are reinvented, with anger giving way to sadness and reflection. In many ways, this album is a bit of a triumph. "Brazen (Weep)," "Weak," "God Loves Only You," and an amazing cover of Paul Weller's "You Do Something To Me" are highlights.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Wrong Man(s)


It's been a little over six months since I cut the chord on cable television and ventured into the world of streaming television. Given that I was addicted to many prime time shows, I went the Hulu route instead of watching last seasons shows on Netflix. One of the best aspects of Hulu is their importation of British comedy, shows like Outnumbered, Peep Show, and Inbetweeners which BBC America showed only limited seasons. But beyond BBC, Hulu imports other shows as Hulu Originals, one such gem being The Wrong Mans which I binge watched all two seasons in little over a week.

The show is a basically a buddy comedy about two mismatched blokes in small town England who wind up caught in international plots of espionage, terror, drug smuggling, as well as a bit of high stakes local city planning. In the spirit of Mr. Bean and Scooby Doo, these two amateurs manage to outwit the bad guys with good intentions, quick thinking, and more than a bit of luck. It has the perfect mixture of intrigue, tension, and laugh-out-loud comedy. The writing was great. The acting was great. Easily one of the best shows I've seen in quite some time.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Weekend Music Roundup


Welcome to the first roundup of the new year. Sadly, there is only one 2015 release on here, but it's a great one. It was a week where I decided to dig into albums that were piling up and chose to the spread out the genres quite a bit. Some of these are albums I listened to over the past two weeks with hopes that they might end up on the final list of the year, and while they didn't, a few came close. From indie to hip-hop and R&B to folk metal, there's something for everyone, so find something you might like and give it a whirl. Enjoy.

Belle and Sebastian - Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance: For the second year in a row, the first release I heard has a very good chance of ending up on another Best of List. Over the course of their first four albums in the late '90s, this Glasgow indie pop band were among my favorites, and I still love those albums. Lately I've been getting back into them and was excited to hear what their 9th album sounded like, and it was a revelation. I've been listening to this album every day. It's exactly what they do best, intelligent lyrics, catchy quirky arrangements, and some other magical quality that is hard to define. Perhaps it also has to do with the fact of that their songs about misspent, misinterpreted youth appeal to me and remind me of the kind of stories I write. Either way, this album is wonderful. "The Party Line," "Nobody's Empire," "The Cat With the Cream," and "The Everlasting Muse" are among my favorites.

Goblin Hovel - Wonders Gone Dark, Shadows Brought to Life: This is a band that has been putting out albums for the last few years on their bandcamp site. It consists of rotating members from other bands and they call themselves a studio project and declare each new release as their next performance. This is sort of a dark gothic folk album with acoustic metal elements and demonic urges. So basically, it's wonderful and was a late consideration for my best albums of the year last week. I love the darkness and the goblin growls, which have inspired my rethinking of the changes I need to make to my novel. Definitely worth checking out if any of those genres appeal to you. It's a name your price situation, so there no reason not to.

Oasis - The Unofficial Anthology: I got this bootleg over 4 years ago, back when I was listening to a new Fab Five bootleg every Tuesday for like a year. This one got lost in the shuffle when it came to reviews, but recently I pulled out the CD and put it in, and is it ever fantastic! Spanning the band's career, this collection includes rare unreleased songs, like covers of Paul Weller and The Beatles, as well as alternate versions of songs including a wonderful demo of "Songbird" and "Rag Doll" and a Noel vocal version of "Whatever" and "Sunday Morning Call" that are exceptional. Though a reunion still seems far off, there is always the music that was left behind, and there's a ton of it, so enjoy.

Damon Albarn and the Heavy Seas - Live at the de de de der...: It's only fitting that if there's an Oasis release on the Roundup that there is also a Blur related release. Back in November, Damon played two gigs at the Royal Albert Hall in London and decided to release both nights as separate double disc albums. Being the orderly person that I am, I started with the first one, November 15th, and this review is based on that outstanding performance. This is part of the same tour that I saw back in the summer, and he spans his entire career of solo work, Blur, Gorillaz, and The Good, The Bad, and The Queen. The songs are reinterpreted, making this a really exciting performance. Too many highlights to list, this is a definite must for fans.

Mapei - Hey Hey: Five years ago, the American born Swedish artist released a groundbreaking hip-hop EP before going quiet for four years until last year's breakout alternative R&B sensation "Don't Wait." This fall, she finally released her first solo LP, which opens with "Don't Wait," one of the best songs of last year. When I heard that song last year, I predicted that she could become the next Lauryn Hill and I still believe that. This album is more R&B than hip-hop, but there are moments where her MC skills shine like on "Second to None." While none of the R&B tunes quite match the brilliance of "Don't Wait" they are all still quite good, making this a solid debut and proves Mapei is an artist not afraid to take chances.

Earl Sweatshirt - EARL: Last year, I had this L.A. rapper's second album on my best of the year list and this week I finally got around to listening to his 2010 debut. Like the album that followed, Earl delivers some of the most raw rhymes around. He has a laid back Cali flow, but combines that with a distinctively East Coast imagery. The beats are more experimental than most, the kind that would never make a club hit, but which make every song an interesting journey. "Kill," "epaR," and "Stapleton" are the standout tracks on this too short album.