Sunday, November 28, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup (Homecoming Edition)

I'm back home in front of the fire, watching the Birds, fresh from a visit to the town I grew up in. One thing I love about Thanksgiving is how it has become a memory weekend as each one goes by. Part of that for me is listening to music that has been familiar to me for ages. Over the past few weeks, I found myself listening to a handful of albums that my interest in them dates back to Middle School and High School. In keeping with the spirit of the holiday, it seemed like a nice idea to share those today.

Guns N' Roses - Stoned in L.A.: This is a bootleg that I'd been searching for on and off for the last decade or so. This is one of the more famous GNR concerts and ranks up there with the riots, Rock in Rio, and the unfortunate Monsters of Rock festival in GNR Live lore. One of only two shows the band played in 1989, they opened for The Rolling Stones at the Coliseum. It was supposed to be their ultimate homecoming, returning to their hometown, the biggest rock band in the world. Instead the press focused on the lyrics of "One in a Million" from the just released GNR Lies. Axl gives a three minute rant on the subject that is right-on, then the band goes into blistering "Outta Get Me". An amazing show that I doubt the Stones were able to top.

Pink Floyd - My Uncle is Sick Because the Highway is Green: This bootleg collects a series of BBC studio recordings from a newly post-Syd Barrett Floyd. It features a couple of songs from Saucerful of Secrets and one of my favorite, and rarely performed songs, "Julia Dream". The early version of "Careful With that Axe Eugine" when it was still called "Murderistic Woman" is also pretty great. This has always been my favorite era Pink Floyd, along with perfect sound quality, makes this a must-have Floyd bootleg.

Sex Pistols - Kill the Hippies: This bootleg captures the band's Atlanta show during the ill-fated and ill-advised US Tour that destroyed the band. It's interesting to hear Johnny Rotten taunting the audience who have showed up simply to gawk at the band. The band sounds surprisingly sharp. Unfortunately the recording quality isn't great. Still a fun concert though and recommended for fans.

A Walk In Alice's Garden - Compilation: This collection of late '60s British psychedelic rarities fits this weekend's theme twofold. Not only was I super into these kinds of "See Emily Play" type of song, but my Alice fascination was also born then. Of course, Alice has nothing to do with this except that a lot of this genre of music was inspired Alice and other Victorian children's stories. There's some great gems on here (many of which I reviews on the Singles Edition of the roundup two weeks ago). I'm not usually a fan of compilations because they are uneven by nature, but this is consistent throughout and worth a listen.

Lungfish - The Unanimous Hour: Since buying their first album when I was 14 years old, I bought the next five Lungfish albums as they came out. Each one, while good, seemed to stagnate and by the time this came out in 1999, there was too much competing for my music cash. Recently, I found myself wanting to explore the four albums that I missed. I started with this, the first. Naturally, it's the band's best effort in three albums and this should have been the one I bought. There's a reborn intensity to their post-hardcore spiritual sound. Driving beats and howling Ginsburg vocals make this one of their best. I can't wait to hear the next three.

Whitesnake - Ready an' Willing: This is one of those bands that I've never had any respect for, but in the past few years, I've learned that a lot of those bands that I'd never had any respect for turned out to be pretty good. After reading some good things about this band's early work, I put aside my formative years' prejudice toward what I thought was a cartoon band and gave this 1980 album a listen. Still closer to the members' former bands' 70's roots, this is a solid bluesy hard rock album. Nothing spectacular, but certainly worthy of hearing.

Bruce Springsteen - Darkness On the Edge of Town & The Promise: Growing up as child in New Jersey during the '90s, the Boss was unavoidable no matter how hard I may have tried. I've never taken to his music, though I do find Born to Run bearable. Over the past two weeks, building up to this re-release deluxe edition of his 1978 classic, I've been reading a lot about this album. I decided to give it a try. The original album is probably the best I've heard from Bruce. He was being influenced by the NYC punk scene as well as Buddy Holly. The mixture works nicely and there's some beautiful songs. There are still some songs though that irk me. The Promise album collects two albums worth of tracks left off of the album. It's way too many tracks, many of which were left off for good reason, but still there are a few amazing gems like his version of "Because the Night." There's more heartache and despair than I've heard in his music before. I'm glad I gave it a chance.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Feeling Thankful for Arthur Rackham

I'll be away for the next few days celebrating all the things to be thankful for. In that spirit, I share with you some illustrations by Arthur Rackham. He is truly the master of the craft.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Stray Pt. 1

It's not so bad out here. By myself. Looking out for myself, that's not so hard.

I got paws for catching mice. I can fight a rat if I have to. Add in the trash people toss away and there's plenty to eat. Heat from the subway vents is better than in most apartments, I bet. So who cares what those house cats think. I'm just fine here where I am.

Though it would be nice maybe. Curling up on a sofa. Maybe even a lap, but I'm not so sure about people. They kind of smell like salt and they don't clean themselves properly. Some of them even have dogs. I'll never understand that.

No. I'm just fine where I am. Strolling the streets. Prancing the parks. I've got it made. As made as any cat has ever had it made in the big city.


...I wonder what that lady is doing, holding food out in her hand.

'Walk away' I tell myself. There's no shame in being a snob. Not for a cat.


...she's still holding that piece of food out and now she's making weird noises. Does that mean she wants me to take it? Because I will. I'll take it. She'll never see it again, that's for sure.

Maybe a closer sniff, that's all. Then if she still wants to give it to me, I'll consider it. It does smell good. But what's with the petting. Why do they insist on the petting? Lucky for her the treat is tasty enough that I decide not to take a swipe at her hand with my claws.


What's she doing now? Why she picking me up?

You asked for it lady.


Hold on! I don't want to go into that box. Don't put me in here.

I can't get out. What's the big idea? Why isn't anybody stopping her, this is catnapping! I knew I should've let that treat go. I had a hunch it was a trick. This is how my cousin said he ended up in that kitchen Chinatown. Maybe I should've paid more attention to him when he went on and on about curiosity and the cat.

As soon as he opens this lid, I'm making a run for it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup

This week I'm returning to the traditional Music Roundup format of sharing a random selection of albums that I've discovered over the past few weeks. (Don't worry though, for those who like theme week, there are more planned.) I've been doing a lot of writing lately and by default, a lot of music listening. As always, I've discovered many amazing albums. I'll never understand people who refuse to search out new sounds to inspire them. I find sonic landscapes to be some of the most influential contributing factors to creativity. Here's some of what has been occupying my time of late.

Bear Hands - Burning Bush Supper Club: After 2008's Golden EP, I'd been looking forward to this first full-length album from the Brooklyn based outfit. The band tones down it's aggressive indie sound for this album, creating soft songs that are sometimes a little too soft and seem to fade away as you're listening to them. That said, it's certainly a grower. With each listen, I hear more of the complicated bits and pieces going on under the surface. Slightly too subtle, but in a noisy world that isn't always a bad thing. "Wicksey Boxing" is a real stand-out track for me.

Stardeath & White Dwarfs - The Birth: Released last year, this is easily one of my favorite albums that I've heard of late. I came into this band because of their collaboration with The Flaming Lips on last year's remake of The Dark Side of the Moon and there is certainly an element of Pink Floyd on this. The album has a fuzzed out psychedelic groove, but also a great sense of melody. Of recent bands, only Portugal. The Man seems to compare in range of creativity. A sensational album by all accounts.

Coraline Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Rarely does a film score succeed as a stand-alone listen without the aid of the visual picture, but Coraline does. The orchestra arrangements, coupled with the eerie sounds of The Children's Choir of Nice, create such a wonderfully dreamlike mood that captures the feel of the film perfectly. It reminds me in part of another great soundtrack from last year, Where The Wild Things Are. This album has been in heavy rotation during this past week's dreary mornings.

Richard Swift - Ground Trouble Jaw: In 2008, the talented singer-songwriter Richard Swift released a series of EPs that differed from his brilliant '70s inspired albums. These EPs showcased a wide-range of influences from the 50's, '60s and 70's. The five songs on here are no different. Though this EP does resemble more of Richard Swift's core sound, somewhere between John Lennon's solo musings and Harry Nilsson's playfulness. A perfect companion to his finest solo album Dressed Up For the Letdown.

Archie Bronson Outfit - Derdang Derdang: The London outfit's second album from 2006 is a fantastic piece of psychedelic blues much like the Black Angels. It's got a dirty rough garage sound that suits the songs perfectly. Most of the songs build into a big sound wave that always seems to take over. Wonderful bits of slide guitar, backing singers, and pure energy. Good stuff.

Picadilly Line - The Huge World of Emily Small: This 1967 album is the only album by this British psychedelic pop group. It's kind of a mishmash of early Pink Floyd singles like "See Emily Play" or "Apples and Oranges", the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album and the Stones' Her Satanic Majesty's Request. In other words, it was a band trying to create a sound of super popular bands of the era with mixed results. There's nothing earth shattering contained in it's songs, but it's still a nice addition to that short-lived genre of flowery pop psychedelia.

Shudder to Think - Curses, Spells, Voodoo, Mooses: Before signing to Dischord Records in 1990 and becoming one of the finest and most unique bands of the '90s, Shudder to Think released this vinyl only album in 1989 which wasn't re-released on CD until 2003. It's a fine album that sees the band's early manic sound already fully formed. Playing with frantic post-hardcore driving beats and quick guitar, it's Craig Wedren's swirling voice that really made this band stand out, and it's the same with this record. This album actually comes the closest to the band's Get Your Goat album, (my first introduction to the band when I purchased it at the age of 15). It's much wilder and more chaotic than the band's later albums which evolved into a more glam-inspired sound. Includes an inspired cover of John Lennon's "Imagine".

Eyes Adrift - Eyes Adrift: In 2002, Krist Novoselic of Nirvana hooked up with another Kurt, this time Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets to form this short-lived band which would release only the one album. Though it received a decent reception from critics, the album was lost in the shuffle and never made much of a splash. In part, I believe this is because the melodic brand of alternative rock, while pleasant enough, never makes much of an impact. I'm a huge fan Krist's first post-Nirvana band, the criminally neglected Sweet 75's, but this band has none of that excitement and fire beneath the surface. A enjoyable enough listen, but doubtful it will stand out. Still though, it would have been nice to see where the band would have gone from here.

Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina - Sittin' In: I have to admit, this album was much better than I expected. My image of Loggins isn't very positive and I was ready to put this album on the record player and turn it off quickly. But in the end, I found it an enjoyable example of lite '70s country folk. "Danny's Song" is the big hit on here and for good reason. It's super catchy and super radio friendly, yet still endearing. "Back to Georgia," "Pooh Corner," and "Same Old Wine" are also top quality songs. I love when an album surprises me.

Camel - Mirage: Released in 1974, this is the second LP from the British prog rock pioneers. This was given to me by a friend and I've been listening to it all week long. This easily fits in with Pink Floyd's output of the same period. The music always seems to move forward, taking you along on a journey. As is the case with much of the best prog rock, it's hard to pin down this album because it's so vast. It's got heavy guitar moments, soft airy moments, and pretty much everything in between. A truly complete album that is a must to complete any collection.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Picture That! Picture Book of the Week

Snow flurries fell again this morning, so I figured it was the right time to feature another one of my favorite snowy books for this week's Picture Book. As the category suggests, there are some Picture Books whose artwork is so compelling that it becomes the story. This is the case for my choice this week. Enjoy.

Is That You, Winter? by Stephen Gammell
(Harcourt 1997)

Old Man Winter wakes up grumpy as he heads off to work, covering the ground with snow as it falls from from the back of his beat-up clunker of a pick-up truck. After taking a nasty spill on the slippery road and falling into a snow bank, he begins to wonder why he even makes it snow in the first place.

In a wonderful shift in perspective, Old Man Winter is seen to be a toy, discovered by a little girl bundled for the weather. Despite her friends taunting, the little girl adores this ratty toy and the snow he brings just for her and can't wait to enjoy the day with her old friend.

This is a joyful book that's part folklore and part Toy Story. It certainly works best when time is taken to thoroughly pour over every detail. The sparse text really serves as a means to enhance Gammell's truly glorious illustrations. Few artists have the rare ability to create entire new worlds in their paintings and Stephen Gammell is certainly one of them. His style incorporates so much movement that the pictures seem to jump from the page and come to life. Perfect for a cold day, preferably after playing in the snow until you're half-frozen.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Keeping You in Suspense

Every great adventure story needs a level of surprise and suspense. Just narrating the accounts of somebody else's exploits isn't enough, no matter how intriguing the character. The trick is to give the reader an adventure of their own.

Plot twists and cliffhanger chapter endings are a common device that help create that sense of discovery and they can be very effective. Coming up with these bits and pieces isn't all that difficult for any writer that is practiced in their storytelling. The real hard part is gauging how well the presentation of them works in the end.

As the inventors of the suspenseful scene, we the writers are NEVER going to be surprised by own our story. Because of this cruel twist of quantum mechanics, there is the inevitable internal debate over whether or not you've pulled off what you were trying to accomplish. So we tinker and toy endlessly with it, banging our heads against the wall until finally we entrust it to another reader. Then there's a lot of finger-crossing and hoping, and in the end, usually a lot more tinkering to get right.

There's a balance that needs established and that's what the search is always for. (The Hunger Games is a great example of suspense done to perfection.) The action can't be too predictable, yet it can't feel like it comes out of nowhere which threatens the story with ridiculousness. These are the agonizing moments of the craft. The puzzlers. Does it work or doesn't it? In the end, you simply have to have a feel for it. Because after all, a good deal of writing is about going with your gut feeling.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

All Things Need Time to Grow

Walk into any writer's workspace and you're bound to find scraps of paper littering every surface and tucked into every hidden corner. This is because we save every hastily jotted down thought we've ever had and each unfinished manuscript that we either didn't have the desire or inspiration to finish.

I've talked before about how I often go through these wastelands in search of any hidden phrase or scene that has been lost in the shuffle. A few weeks ago, I went through the notes and manuscript of a novel I worked on for a year when I was nineteen and twenty. I won't leave you in suspense wondering if I'd discovered a lost work of genius--I did not. In fact, it was awful. Horrendously so. But I did find an interesting section of notes, in the form of questions, tacked onto the where the manuscript abruptly stopped some 150 pages in.

The questions were addressed to me, trying to figure out how to handle some of the overly ambitious aspects of the novel. I realized several fascinating things while reading these notes from over a decade ago. The first was that I simply didn't have the skill necessary to tell the story I was trying to tell, even if it had been focused. The second thing I noticed was an idea that I was attempting in that project was very similar to one I ended up using in the novel I just finished.

I was struck by the notion that an idea sometimes can take many years to develop and grow into something useful. Sometimes the idea is set from the beginning but needs to the right soil to grow in. Other times, the idea simply needs time to grow stronger roots before it sprouts. I suppose this is why all of those scraps of paper float around a writer's workspace--they are ideas in the process of growing.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How the Giraffe Got His Spots

On this Story Time Tuesday, I share with you a story I wrote way back in second grade. Last year, I did a school visit at my elementary school and my amazing second grade teacher presented me with this surprise which she had held onto for all of those years. As far as I'm aware, the earliest surviving story I ever wrote.

The Giraffe

There was a giraffe that everyone laughed at because he didn't have spots and a long neck. Then he went to the jungle. Then he felt a hand and WAMO he was gone. And when he came out he had brown spots and a long neck. The man said, "All you needed was a fire."

Besides the obvious masterpiece that this is, I found the WAMO bit especially interesting. It's a device I still use often in writing chapter books. Both Pirate School and CatKid are filled with CRASHes and BLAMs. It's funny how our sense of storytelling develops at such an early age. I read this to the kids during the visit. They reacted with slightly less enthiusiam than when my reading of CatKid.

Monday, November 15, 2010


The place I go to dream is the same place I go for stories. Writing after all isn't much more than organized daydreaming. Dreams have always played an important role in my writing process. There are many scenes in my novels that are basically dreams I had and adapted to the story.

Whenever I wake from a particularly vivid dream, I scramble in the dark for the pen and paper by my bed and scribble madly all that I can remember. Then I usually spend the next morning figuring out which pieces are usable for which projects. Last night was one of the rare cases when a dream offered me major breakthroughs on two separate projects I'm working on.

Next time I feel like a nap, I think I'll convince myself that I'm really working. I realized also that I can write remarkably well in the dark, wonder if that's a skill I could add to my resume?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup (Singles Edition)

I've always been a sucker for singles and 7 inch records dating back to my teen years. The format has always been somewhat of a collectors format ever since the LP became king. But said collector is often rewarded with B-Sides that on many occasions rank among a band's best songs in my opinion. In a way, they are liking reading the unknown book by a great author and finding it far better than the one everyone is supposed to read. In that spirit, this weekend I bring you a whole mess of singles that I've gathered over the past few months or so. Dive and and discover something great.

Beady Eye - Bring the Light: Released this past Wednesday, this was one of those songs that I've been waiting to hear ever since Oasis split. Liam (along with the other members of Oasis not named Noel) formed Beady Eye immediately after the split. This is the first taste of the band, a song given away for free on the band's website. The result is typical of any highly hyped's okay. A solid Mod-revival track with Jerry Lee Lewis type piano backing. It certainly intrigues me to hear more.

Manic Street Preachers - (It's Not War) - Just the End of Love: The single that proceeded the album (reviewed last week). The title track is pretty standard Manic fare, which is to say it has a really big anthem sound. There are three B-sides, the strongest being "I'm Leaving You For Solitude" which had it been on the album, would be one the top 3 or 4 songs on there. Worth it for that song alone.

The Raconteurs - Top Yourself: Jack White's Third Man Records has been releasing a lot of interesting limited edition vinyl of late. This one came out recently, it's two demo versions of songs from the last album. The A-Side is a raw rough rehearsal version of the album track which is heavy on Jack White's guitar work accompanied by barely audible vocals. The B-Side is the real treat, a demo version of Brendan Benson's "You Don't Understand." Usually his songs are so produced that it's nice to hear the song stripped down to this acoustic version.

Interpol - Barricade: I have yet to hear the new album, but heard this, the second single, last night and was very impressed. Having known this band from it's earliest days when we walked in the same circles of the East Village, I have to say this song is probably the most exciting song I've heard from them since their debut album. I hope the album lives up to my new, higher expectations.

The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger - Jardin du Luxembourg: The debut single from Sean Lennon's new project with girlfriend Charlotte Muhl. It's easy to compare him with his dad, with the similar voice and affinity for trippy power pop guitar riffs. But these songs benefit from Charlotte's accompanying vocals, lending a folky feel to it. It reminds me so much of autumn days in Central Park for some reason. Again, looking forward to hearing the album which came out a few weeks ago.
Oasis - I Believe in All: The last song ever released by the blokes from Madchester is amazing. Originally a Bonus Track on the Japanese edition of their last album Dig Out Your Soul, the song was released to the rest of us as a single last year. I heard it for the first time last week and like all of the best Oasis songs, it's been stuck in my head ever since. If this is truly the last we hear of them as a unit, it was a great way to go out. An aggressive psychedelic gem.

Brenda Lee - Ride, Ride, Ride: This '45 dates from 1967, during Brenda's mid-career swirling pop era. The title track is a little bit of a throwback to her earlier country rockabilly days while the B-Side "Lonely People Do Foolish Things" is a beautifully sad song like the kind that defines this period of her career.

The Triffids - Bury Me Deep in Love: This 1989 single from the Australian folk rock band comes a few years after their two legendary albums (In the Pines and Born Sandy Devotional). The A-Side isn't all that original or memorable, but a B-Side cover of Madonna's "In the Groove" is amazing. Along with Drop Nineteens cover of "Angel", it's the best Madonna cover I've ever heard and made the purchase of this vinyl worthwhile.

Rhubarb Rhubarb - Moneylender: This 1968 single is the only release from this Berkshire band. Their blend of psychedelic pop reminds me more of Oasis than any of their contemporaries, feeling a bit ahead of it's time but also derivative at the same time. Two solid songs that can be found on many compilations.

Karine et Rebecca - Moi, je dors avec Nounours: Released in 1965, the title track is something of a novelty hit. Karine and Rebecca are two little girls with very childish voices that went on to release a seemingly endless string of four track '45s for the next decade. I found the music to be extremely interesting and out of time. The girls sound like the little white mouse in Tom & Jerry. Very interesting stuff.

Wonderland - Poochy/ Moscow: Released in 1968, these two songs by the Hamburg based band are heavy groove numbers that sound like the precursor to Prog Rock. Worth a listen simply to hear that early birth of a genre that wouldn't make a splash for another several years.

The Explosive - Cities Make the Country Colder & (Who Planted Thorns In) Miss Alice's Garden: Both of these singles date from 1969 and are great psychedelic pop in the spirit of the Monkee's best work, with a slightly sinister Sonics vibe thrown in. All four tracks are pretty good.

Melvins - Night Goat / Adolescent Wet Dream: This is a rougher version of the song 'Night Goat' that appears on the Kurt Cobain produced album Houdini. Easily one of my favorite songs by the sludge rock pioneers. The B-Side is a short rambling dose of sludge that is remarkable only for it's great title.

No Way Sis - I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing: In 1996, at the height of Oasis phenom in the UK, this Glasgow Oasis covers band released their own single. It's a cover of the Coke commercial song (referenced in Oasis's Shakermaker) along with two B-Sides. Despite Noel referring to them as the second best band in the world, they ain't. Good for a laugh but not much else. I do believe the band split and some members went on to form Urban Verve (a Verve covers band).

Friday, November 12, 2010

Picture That! Picture Book of the Week

Last week the New York Times released its annual list of Best Illustrated books (you can see them here). In honor of that, this week I wanted to share one of my favorite picture books that was a choice of the New York Times in 1999 and demonstrates an aspect of Picture Books that I haven't discussed yet...the blending of nonfiction facts and whimsical story.

Emeline at the Circus by Marjorie Priceman
(Knopf 1999)

On a trip to the circus with her class, second grader Emeline gets more than a front row seat when she's unsuspectedly snatched into the action by an elephant craving her peanuts.

Emeline's teacher is determined to make the circus a learning lesson for her students. Never glancing up from her book of facts, she reads off information on each new attraction that enters the ring. She's so involved in teaching that she doesn't notice one of her students has become the hilarious star of the show.

The majority of the text consists of facts on popular sights at the circus, covering everything from elephants and tigers to acrobats. What really makes this book special is the story told in the delightful pictures and the interactions between the two. The whole time, the reader feels like he or she is in on the joke with Emeline. There's also a beautiful little message hidden in this interplay; sometimes learning is better done through living.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Walking Through A Story

Working on several projects at once is how I keep myself interested but it can also make my brain hurt at times. This past week I've had four different story lines running through my head as I try to sort things out in each. Right now I've got ghouls, goblins, evil twins, and a cast of kid space explorers roaming through my thoughts. It's getting crowded in there.

There's only one solution for times like this...write. The quicker I get one story out of my head the clearer the next one gets. It's a bit like being possessed by several ghosts. You got to get them out one at a time to avoid insanity. That's what I've been up to this week, clearing some mental space via creativity.

When I get a handle on some of this, I'll be sure to post in more detail about each project. Until then, tomorrow I got another favorite picture book of mine to share with you.