Sunday, October 28, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

This was one of those weeks of unexpected new releases from bands I was unaware had a new release scheduled. I love those kinds of weeks, especially when the bands are among my favorites. In the midst of that, I also rediscovered some things that I'd neglected for too long and decided to include those as well. And in case you ever wondered how I make these lists, basically I get up on Sunday's, look at the albums waiting to be reviewed, and pick ones based on what I feel like listening to that day. It is rare that I don't listen to the album as I write the review, just in case something fresh hits me. Anyway, plenty here to digest. Enjoy.

Manic Street Preachers - National Treasures-The Complete Singles: Though a contractual Best Of called Forever Delayed was released in 2002, it wasn't complete by any stretch. This double album, with nineteen tracks on each, includes every song the band has released as a single, in chronological order. Reviewing these kind of albums is tough, because it is essentially a review of the band's career, in this case, one of the greatest bands of the last twenty years in my opinion. You really hear the band progress from their early rebellious Motorcycle Emptiness phase, into their If You Tolerate This era of epic beauty and tragedy, and finally onto the reflective current period. What shows through is the consistent brilliance of one of the most political bands of all time. Impossible not to give this 5 stars. 

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill: After reuniting with his oft backing band earlier this year for their take on Americana, the Godfather of Grunge and Crazy Horse have given us this double album of goodness. I have to admit to being weary of this album. Though one of my all time favorite songwriters, Neil's recent albums, while not embarrassing by any means, have tended to bore me. But I gave this a go, mostly because of how much I enjoyed Americana. I'm glad I did. This easily his best album in decades. The opening epic 27minute track "Drifting Back," is not only amazing, I would suggest it deserves mention among Neil's best. The rest of the album is also extremely strong, lacking any real wasteful tracks. I love the way his past material sometimes creeps into these songs, like the past is blending with the present. Psychedelic Pill is proof that great artists always have the potential for greatness, it's the reason why we dedicate ourselves to following their work.

Andrew Bird - Hands of Glory: With his second album of 2012, following springs stellar Break It Yourself, Andrew Bird continues to be in top form. These nine tracks are less ambitious than those on the other album, but no less amazing. There's more of indie folk vibe here as compared to the more chamber folk sound Andrew Bird usually delivers. The only question I have is which of the two will make it higher on my best of the year list because right now it's really hard to tell, both are fantastic.

Godspeed You Black Emperor - 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!: The gloomy Canadian drone rock band has had a bit of cult following ever since 2000's Lift Yr. Skinny Fists... album, one that I own and enjoy, though never really understood completely the reverence in which it's held. They return here with their first full length album in 10 years and not much has really changed. Consisting of two 20-plus minute tracks and two 6-plus minute tracks, their instrumental music never fails to create vast soundscapes. It's very weighty album, though, as I've always felt with them, probably not as weighty as they would like to believe judging from their Joycean choices of titles. Still though, quality through and through, but personally I think Earth does this type of thing slightly better.
Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am...: Far from new, I've had this album since 2006, the year it was released, and the band has remained a favorite of mine ever since. I decided to include this album on this week's list because I pulled out the CD the other day and listened to it for the first time in probably over two years. I found myself re-blown away by how aggressive and original it still sounds today. It's a raw and emotional observation on life in the modern age, full of justified cynicism and tongue in cheek wit. But above all of that, it rocks as hard as anything The Stooges ever did. There's a good reason why this album made waves in the UK. Definitely should have made more waves here in the US. 
The Music Tapes - Mary's Voice: Julian Koster's fourth release as The Music Tapes in the last 13 years is a beautiful record. One of the members of Neutral Milk Hotel, Julian has been involved in many of the Elephant 6 projects since it's early days. The Music Tapes has always been his baby, and has always attempted to make imaginary worlds that sound almost like field recordings from a circus that never was. This album isn't any different. There are lot of accordion/saw interludes between the traditional songs, but those songs are some of the best on any of his albums. "To All Who Say Goodnight" is absolutely amazing.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Way the Wind Blows

Whenever I'm working on a novel, there are these moments in life where I find myself transported into the events taking place. Yesterday I caught this flock heading south in formation, flying under the approach of winter that lingered in the overcast. I heard them coming long before I saw them and watched as they passed above by me. It was exactly the kind of thing I could imagine happening to my two main characters. 

In moments like this, I find myself drifting deeper into the story. The world of my fiction and the world outside grow to look alike and my life gets intertwined with the characters. Everything merges. Life blends with imagination and imagination influences reality. Alas, that is the life a writer chooses to live. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Walk On

To say The Walking Dead has had it's up and downs over the first three season would be an understatement. There have been times when it has been infuriatingly misguided and painfully slow. Remember when they spent a whole season on a farm searching for a girl whose disappearance made no sense to begin with? However, I keep returning to it because the zombie apocalyptic world these characters inhabit is captivating. 

With that said, the final push of the second season seemed to be getting things on track. The pacing picked up. The characters were settling into their roles. It was time really get this thing going. Thankfully, this season has done just that. The explosive start has seen a progression of the story by expanding the world. It's also introduced multiple storylines and new characters to keep the drama ramped up. And with the spoilers given in the season long trailer, we know there is a lot more excitement to come. Finally The Walking Dead is morphing into the show I'd always hoped it would become from the beginning.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

After the aimlessness of last week's list, I've returned with a full roundup of newish releases. Most of these albums came out in the last month or so, but all have come out this year. Many are from bands I've been following for years and rank among my favorites of the recent past. Thankfully, none have been disappointing, which means the addition of these has just improved this year's crop of music quite a bit. Enjoy.

Kadavar - Kadavar: The 2012 debut from Berlin heavy psych band is pretty much as epic as the cover would suggest. Heavily influenced by '70s hard rock, this album doesn't really cover any new territory, but the landscape it does cover is done exceptionally well. It keeps up a blistering pace throughout all six songs, never pausing for breath. Easily one of the best heavy albums I've heard this year. Perfect for any fans of Sabbath influenced rock.

Menomena - Moms: This is the first new album in two years from the Portland indie band. Following up 2010's amazing Mines is a tall order, but this album doesn't fail to live up to expectations. This band has evolved quite a bit from it's early days. Their sound is tighter and more refined, but at the same time has managed to keep the edge that made them so interesting to begin with. And like their other albums, it's the kind of record that is easy to listen to from start to finish without ever growing bored. Definitely will warrant consideration for the end of the year best of list.

Murder by Death - Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon: By the end of the last decade, this gothic country band had become one of the best bands around, producing amazing album after amazing album. Things fell off a bit with their 2010 release, Good Morning Magpie. Two years later, the band returns with this new full length album and they've certainly regained their stride. Desperate tales of drunkenness and cruelty abound, told over a frantic rock pace with country overtones. Really great album.

Frightened Rabbit - State Hospital: The Scottish indie folk rockers return from a two year silence with this new EP, released last month. As with their previous releases, I enjoy this album but find there are moments throughout where I lose interest. On this EP, it's the talk heavy "Wedding Gloves." Otherwise, this is a very decent collection of Scottish folk rock, reminiscent of Alasdair Roberts with more guitar.

Jason Molina - Autumn Bird Songs: This EP is the first solo release from the Magnolia Electric Co. frontman in six years, and though painfully short at only 22min, it's well worth the wait. Easily one of the best singer songwriters of the last decade, Jason is a modern day Neil Young with a Midwestern howl and hauntingly reflective lyrics. All eight songs on here are brilliant, with possibly the best being saved for last with "A Sad Hard Change." An album that seems destined for my best of the year list.

Dr. Dog - Wild Race: Earlier this spring, my favorite Philly psychedelic indie rockers released their first ever disappointing album, Be the Void. This month's release of this EP has redeemed them for the year. Basically a glorified single for the album's title track, this contains five songs, all of them bursting with the manic energy that has characterized their releases for the past decade, and which was lacking on the full length album. "Exit for Sale," and "Wild Race," are the two best songs in my opinion. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

More Than Meets the Eye

One of the shows I've been most impressed with this new television season is Transformers Prime and the creative leaps it has made. Entering its third season, the series has really found its groove. It had already begun to pick up steam last season, but now it's really rolling. The characters have finally found their way and the human teenagers have thankfully been given smaller supporting roles. Plus, the addition of Smokescreen added much need life to the Autobots. But the biggest different is the grandness of the story.

The Cybertronian War and its vast back story have started to dominate the show's arch. It feels much more like an anime series now with the inclusion of the super powerful relics and the introduction of the Omega keys that could revive Cybertron. This is a nod to the later seasons of the original cartoon and comic book, which ended with the birth of Cybertron's Golden Age. I admit to be in nerd heaven if that's the route the show continues to take...because let's face it, we all want to see more of Cybertron and less of Earth.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

It's the end of the week, time to roundup the music listening of the past several days. This week's list is a kind of a random collection of all different genres from various years. There really is no connecting thread whatsoever, but there are two new releases thrown in just to keep it contemporary. I guess I've been a bit of a random mood lately. Hopefully there is something for everyone here. Enjoy.

Piano Magic - The Troubled Sleep of Piano Magic: This London based indie band has been around since the late '90s and continues to release albums. This 2003 album is considered one of their best and I'd been looking forward to hearing it for some time. I've always loved the way they trade off male and female voices on songs. Most of the music here is very dreamy, soft, and beautiful. Though, as the title suggests, there are moments of shoegazer madness that infects the album. It's quite good and definitely a good place to start with this band for those unfamiliar with their work.

Solomon Burke - Rock 'n Soul: This is the Philly soul singer's fourth album, released in 1964. This album is full of classic soul, especially the brilliant "If You Need Me." Though less well known than Otis Redding, Solomon Burke posses the same rich quality to his voice. A fantastic example of '60 soul that did not come out of Motown.

Curren$y & Wiz Khalifa - How Fly: As frequent readers will know, I've been on a huge Curren$y kick lately. He has one of the best flows I've heard in a while. He has a southern rapper flow, but doesn't drag the way many other southern rappers do. On this 2009 mix-tape, he teams up with another rising star, Wiz Khalifa. The duo works great together and there are certainly some amazing tracks on here. The only place where it suffers is on a few toss-off tracks with undeveloped beats. But for a free mix tape, it's better than most hip hop albums out there.

Right Away, Great Captain - The Church of the Good Thief: This is the new album from Andy Hull (of Manchester Orchestra) and the third under the Right Away, Great Captain name. A few weeks ago I reviewed the first album and quickly found myself wanting more. These are very scaled back songs, basically just a voice and quiet guitar, but Andy always commits to every song with such passion that his simple songs are never boring. This album builds throughout, becoming quite epic by the end.

Old Crow Medicine Show - Carry Me Back: Released this summer, this is the Nashville bluegrass band's seventh album. It has a great old timey feel to it, and reminds me a bit of a modern Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In addition to banjo heavy bluegrass, there is a nice y'alternative feel to some of the songs. "Mississippi Saturday Night" and "Genevieve" are stand out tracks. Great for those who like a country roots vibe.

Pinback - Information Retrieved: After five years, the California rockers return with a new album that shows a maturity from 2007's wonderful Autumn of the Seraphs. This is a quieter album than their previous effors, but in that way it reminds me of Fugazi's late '90s evolution. It's a more minimal sound, yet more effective in ways. Some of these songs were part of their two part single from earlier in the year, but I doubt many people heard those. Not sure it lives up to five years of waiting, but it's really good record. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Round and Round We Go

A small miracle happened the other day, I went to the multiplex and found myself watching a pretty clever movie. I'd been interested in seeing Looper for a while, mostly because the director's previous movie Brick was quite intriguing, but also because I'm a sucker for anything time-travel.

This is one of those movies that got most everything right. The vision of the future wasn't over the top, it was kind of like now, only different. The complicated time travel theory wasn't over explained by some voice over or pointless scientist character, instead it was shown and quite convincingly. And most impressively, there wasn't a single bad line of dialogue in the movie. 

The best sci-fi never relies on tricks or stunts, it uses story to create a world which, if one pays attention, has something important to say about our own world. Looper was such a film. A wonderfully told story, told wonderfully.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Weekend Music Roundup

Back on schedule this week and back with a list of mostly current releases. Every time the seasons switch, I talk about how the weather influences what I like to listen to. What's fascinating to me is how this is never really a conscious choice for me. It's not as if the leaves change and I tell myself that it's time for more subdued folkish music. My mental clock seems to make the adjustment before I'm even really aware. So here we are, the first Roundup of autumn and already the season's true colors are showing. Enjoy.

Big Blood - Old Time Primitive: My current favorite freak folk collective released their eleventh album in six years this past April and I have to say it may be their best yet. It's an ambitious attempt at creating an artifact that is partially something dug up from the past, and a relic from the future at the same time. The one thing that is always true about a Big Blood album is the undeniable groove that runs through them even as songs veer into experimental psychedelic folk. This is what makes their albums an entity rather than a collection of songs. Easily one of my favorite albums of the year so far.

The Byrds - The Notorious Byrd Brothers: The one non-new release on the list in the L.A. folk band's classic 1968 album. This is the album where the band was falling apart (they would continue with a vastly different lineup afterwards). Following their masterpiece albums, Fifth Dimension and Younger than Yesterday, this one is more a return to folk roots. Though less ambitious, it strikes a great chord, capturing some of the sorrow that would later fill albums by bands on the scene in the years to come. A beautiful record that really completes an amazing trilogy for the band. The expanded version is well worth it, including David Crosby's "Triad" (which would appear on Jefferson Airplane's "Crown of Creation" album instead).

Sea Wolf - Old World Romance: After their first two albums, this L.A. band was easily one of my rising favorites. It's been three years since their last album, so I was really excited to hear this. I'm happy to say, it met all expectations. It doesn't veer far away from the previous albums, but that's alright with me. Just great indie rock without all the pretensions. They are like a more straight forward Arcade Fire meets Wolf Parade. "Priscilla" is my favorite track of the moment, though there really aren't any bad ones.

Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't: The Swedish singer songwriter's first full length album since 2007's Night Falls Over Kortedala. Like that album, this one has moments where I really enjoy it, but mostly it frustrates me. He has an amazing Morrissey kind of voice and musically, it's very well done. Where it really gets me is when I listen to the lyrics and realize he's talking about nonsense. The three best songs happen to be the last three; "The End of the World is Bigger Than Love," "I Know What Love Isn't," and "Every Little Hair Knows Your Name." It's on these songs where I can see the potential for Jens Lekman to one day be as good as Andrew Bird...yet, isn't.

Sic Alps - Sic Alps: For their fourth album, the San Fran psych folk rockers went the self-titled approach. I must admit, I never understood the self-titled album, especially when it's not the debut. But the band makes up for it with their most consistent release to date. From start to finish, this record is a steady stream of lo-fi bliss, whereas their previous efforts have been slightly marred by occasions of freak-out experimentation. An absolutely great record by a band that just keeps getting better.

Woods - Bend Beyond: This Brooklyn folk pop band has been around for nearly a decade, but really seem to have come into their own recently. Reminiscent of San Fran psych folksters Skygreen Leopards, they have a warm sound with wonderful harmonies. The album opens with the amazing title track and never really lets up. The soft and beautiful "It Ain't Easy" and "Wind Was the Wine" are other standout tracks. A very solid effort.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Happy Mad Hatter Day

"If you knew Time as well as I do," said the Hatter, "you wouldn't talk about wasting it. It's him."

Oh happiest of nonsense holidays! Today has been declared Mad Hatter Day, thanks to the 10/6 fraction on the Hatter's hat in the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland illustrations. It's a day where silliness is allowed and tea parties can be endless with simply moving around the table. 

For me it's always a time to reflect on one of the most important books and authors to influence my own career. The Hatter embodies one of the key elements to the theme of the book that has always been central for me. He represents the absurdity of adults and adult conversation when viewed through the eyes of a child. One of the key themes of the book is how unfair rules set up by grown ups can be. This is a theme that I've focused on through the children's books I've written. As adults, if we can remain aware of this, it can go a long way in making us remember that there is a lot we can learn from children.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Fiction Friday (12)

Recently I've been reading a lot of longer books. Like most people, when I look at my shelf of books to read, I tend to skip over the thick ones, but for whatever reason, lately I've been gravitating toward them. Because of this, my book reviews have slowed down a little. However, I hadn't done one in a while, so luckily I had a wonderful book just waiting to be reviewed. It's a book I'd been wanting to read for quite some time and finally read over the summer. Enjoy.

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

Not exactly a sequel to Howl's Moving Castle, this novel inhabits the same world created in that story, but stars a completely different set of characters on a very different kind of journey (until the book nears the end). However both books share the same level of enchantment throughout.

The story follows a humble young merchant named Abdullah who suddenly finds himself caught up in an adventure straight out of his wildest daydreams. Once again Diana Wynne Jones is able to bring to a life a storybook sort of world that is incredibly transportive and a joy to visit. She also has a gift for blending adventure and humor in such a way that two work hand-in-hand to further the action. It's a blast watching this lovestruck, slightly naive character outwit evil Sultans, devilish dragons, and nasty bandits with the help of a stubborn magic carpet and a cranky genie.

By the end of the book, there are some nice surprises for fans of Howl's Moving Castle. The two stories don't really converge until the last third, but when they do, it's a lot of fun...just like everything else in Castle in the Air.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Whatever Happened to the Revolution...

I tried to do my patriotic duty last night by watching the debate even though my mind has been made up for over two years. But in the end, it was a complete waste of time. Both candidates were simply giving their stump speech and repeating the same market tested phrases over and over again, without ever challenging the other. The moderator was non existent, letting both candidates ramble off topic and never raising a flag or asking a follow-up to deliberately misleading statements (and when I say that, let's be honest, I'm talking to you, Mitt).

This is one of the many problems affecting politics these days. It's become this refined game and both sides have it down to a science, which means the results rely on a lucky play or a blown call. Watching the undecided voter meter during the debate just proves this. Ever time Mitt Romney said he was going to create jobs, there was a spike of approval. Really people? Anyone can say they are going to create jobs, millions of them. I could say it. That doesn't make it true. And isn't it sort of impossible to evaluate if you never really say how you'll do it...and isn't that risky when you're entire plan of cutting the deficit hinges on these created jobs? I don't really understand how one could be undecided, but if I were, I'd imagine that meter would've stayed flat for me all night long.

Over the summer, I came across this dilapidated house, overrun with stray cats, with a Ron Paul sign in the yard. And though I find Ron Paul's revolution to be laughable in so many ways, I thought the image of its failure to be striking. The game has become so predictable that if new players aren't introduced, the only ones who truly lose are us. However the party machines steamroll over any attempt by anyone else to get a seat at the table. There was no debate last night...only more soundbites.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

You Say You Want a Revolution...

Back in the summer when I first saw the previews for NBC's new series Revolution, I have to admit that it looked dead terrible. From the lighting, to the sword fights, everything about it felt wrong. In the end though, I decided J.J. Abrams had earned at least a shot, though my expectations were really, really low. Three episodes in however, I have to say I'm enjoying it. Mostly because of the obvious Star Wars connections.

The show has done a good job managing intrigue. There's a lot more going on than I'd expected, but that's more the fault of duds like Tera Nova and the painfully slow pacing that sometimes ruins Fallen Skies. So far on Revolution, things seem to be happening really quickly. I think they've been able to do that because the world they've created already feels vast and there's a lot they can explore. Sure, it suffers from a good amount of forced dialogue, most of it delivered poorly. And the narrative structure is lifted almost completely from Lost with its pairing off of characters and the use of flashback to set-up dramatic scenes. But there's also a lot to love about. The action scenes are done well and the world is appropriately brutal without being too depressing.

For me, the most entertaining part are the Star Wars allusions that run throughout the show. There's a Han Solo, a Princess Leia, a girl version of Luke, an Empire, a Rebellion, and there was even a Catina scene. The relationship dynamics mirror those of the Star Wars characters, as do their personality traits. On top of that universe, they've layered a dystopian "Fall of America" theme. Enter the The Hunger Games allusions. One could almost believe the younger cast members were auditioned for Hunger Games look-a-likes. There's also a lot of story elements borrowed from the late great Jericho show. The amazing thing is that it all kind of works and that's what makes the show fun.

There is clearly a ton of story potential that could keep this going and improving. If the characters and writers can get everything clicking, this could become as good as Firefly. More than likely it will end up another concept show that couldn't deliver like The Cape, or Terra Nova. But for now, I'm remaining hopeful...besides, it's nice to have Han Solo back fighting the Empire.