Sunday, March 31, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup - Jason Molina Edition

As I mentioned in the Roundup last week, Jason Molina, one of my favorite songwriters of all time, passed away on March 16th at the age of 39 after a long battle with alcoholism. Though that is tragically too soon, he left behind a brilliant catalog of music that dwarfs many artists even twice his age. 

Ever since the earliest releases as Songs:Ohia in 1997, Jason Molina seemed to be an endless well of amazing songs. His ability to capture sadness, despair, and hope in beautiful songs was unmatched. There are many influences one could point to in his music, from Neil Young to Uncle Tupelo, but there's an overwhelming honesty to Jason's songs that make them stand apart from any easy comparisons.

Over the past decade, I often found myself reaching for one of his albums whenever I was feeling blue, or pensive, or even just reflective on things gone-by. His music never failed to bring me comfort in those times. Upon hearing of his passing, I felt an incredible loss, as if a reassuring voice in my life had been silenced. May he find peace in rest and know that he will be missed.

My Jason Molina Catalog: No need to review them, they are all brilliant and worthy of owning.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

This is the Name I Call You By

I've just finished the last edits before my new novel is sent out to publishers and there is just one task left to do. It's a seemingly simple one on the surface, but I'm finding it extremely difficult. 

At the suggestion of my agent, I'm attempting to rename one of my two main characters. There is nothing wrong with the name I've given her, except that it is the name of the main character in some upcoming "made-to-be-a-bestseller" trilogy, you know the kind that seem to come out every month these days. So to avoid being linked to something like that, it's just easier to change the name. Sounds easy, right? Well, not when you've come to know this character by one name for the past year.

It really shouldn't make any difference. Her name has no significance to the story and no one will ever know it wasn't always the character's given name. Yet, it still matters. Try to imagine Alice being called Emily and for whatever reason it doesn't work. However, if you never knew her as Alice, it wouldn't bother you at all. But since you do, it does. That's the situation I'm in. Every name I try out feels wrong somehow. 

Feeling is what I will go on in my search. When I stumble upon a name that feels right, I will confidently hit the "replace all" button. Until then, it's off to the baby name lists to find my character the name she never had. 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Brave New Worlds

As I mentioned in my post about Oz, I've been working on rewriting the scene in my manuscript where the main characters make the transition from our ordinary world into someplace...different. I knew going into the revisions that this would be one of the hardest scenes to get right. In the first draft, I was more concerned about getting the series of events in place, making sure that what happened once the characters reached this place was dramatic enough. It was like making a line drawing, and now I'm tasked with painting the picture in brilliant colors.

So far I've spent an unusual amount of time on this chapter, trying to fully capture the sights, sounds and scents of this new setting. These are the things that would actually overwhelm the characters, so these are the things they need to experience. But it's a fine line between making a world come alive and lingering too long on description to where it distracts from the story. 

In some ways, novel writing is just an endless balancing act between what is said and what is not said, and when to say those things that must be said. Sometimes, it's just a little more delicate than others.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

This was a sad week in music for me as I learned that one of my favorite singer songwriters of all time passed away last weekend. Jason Molina, of Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. died at the age of 39 after battling alcoholism for years. I spent a better part of the week listening to his many, many wonderful albums, but found it too sad to review them all this week as I've done in the past for other favorite artists of mine. Perhaps next week, or even some time during the week, I'll pay a proper tribute. Instead, I decided to follow the usual format and share with you some recent releases that I've been listening to. Enjoy.

Amplifier - Echo Street: Though they've been around for over a decade, this is only the Manchester progressive rock band's fourth studio album, with three EPs mixed in. This album has the same sort of pace and desperation of a good Porcupine Tree album, following the Pink Floyd aesthetic of the slow build as heard on "Wish You Were Here." Though I wouldn't say this album covers any new ground, I will say it does what it does extremely well. Definitely worth it for fans of the current prog/space rock sound being made.

The Cave Singers - Naomi: The Seattle indie band follows up 2011's wonderful No Witch with their fourth album, released earlier this month. I really like the way this band incorporates classic Americana elements into their brand of indie folk. Their songs have a pureness to them that is quite refreshing. I do miss the darker edge that can be heard on the previous album. This is a much more rhythm based album, and it works, but I just prefer the hint of gloom from No Witch. However, others will definitely respond to this album more. "It's a Crime" is a real standout track for me.

Phosphorescent - Muchacho: It's been three years since this Athens, GA band released their last album and I was very much looking forward to this one. Their southern influenced style of indie folk has a warmness to it that harkens back to Arlo Guthrie and incorporates a playfulness to the traditional country elements. There is a really nice flow to this album, one song moving nicely into another. Quite a good album and stands out enough from other records in the genre to make it a worthwhile addition.

My Chemical Romance - Conventional Weapons: It seems appropriate to review this on the week the band announced their split. This album is a collection of songs previously released as five singles over the past few months, and were recorded after the band's triumphant Black Parade album. Essentially it is a scrapped album, the band opting instead to release Danger Days, four years after the Black Parade. Having listened to his album now, I have no idea why they made that choice. I found Danger Days to be very disappointing, while this album is exceptionally good. Had they released this, there is no doubt in my mind they would have remained one of the biggest bands around, as they were with the release of Black Parade. It has all the aggression of their best work, while still showing a progression, which is what I think worried them. It includes some of their best songs. If you have ever been a fan of this band, I highly recommend picking this up.

The Besnard Lakes - Until in Excess, Imperceptible UFO: Due out next week this is the fourth album in ten years from the Montreal based band. They've always had a Pink Floyd ability to create swirling soundscapes, but this album certainly moves closer to a shoegazer sound than their previous efforts. These eight songs create a lush and beautiful atmosphere. There is a definite '80s influence on this record, just minor things that creep into it, not in a bad way, but enough to distract me at first. It's not that it doesn't work, but more that it caught me off guard. "Catalina" and "46 Satires"are my favorite tracks on here.

Suede - Bloodsports: In the mid 90's, Suede was one of the best British bands around, reinventing glam rock on their first three phenomenal albums. Then came 1999's disappointing Head Music. Two other forgettable albums followed, and then Brett Anderson recorded a couple of decent solo albums and one great album with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler under the name The Tears. Slowly, over the last decade, he has seemed to get his stride back and this album continues that trend. Though lacking the deviant extravagance of their earlier work, this at least sounds like a Suede album. There are some very fine songs on here that sound as if they could have come from the band's heyday. "Snowblind," "Sabotage," and "Faultlines" are stand out tracks for me.

Curren$y - New Jet City: The newest mix tape from the NOLA rapper is another quality release of diverse hip hop. The man has been on quite a winning streak the last few years, mixing top quality beats with his outstanding delivery. If anything, this mix tape suffers from too many guest spots that don't live up to smoothness of the guy at top billing. Over the past few months, Curren$y has crept to the top of my list of favorite new hip hop artists of the last few years. Definitely worth checking out.

Return to Oz

The other day, I set off down the yellow lined road to journey once more to the merry old land of Oz. Despite the lackluster reviews, I still wanted to see this movie, especially since I'm currently working on the crucial "transition" scene in my own story and wanted to see how this movie handled the switch from Kansas to Oz. I also believe that Sam Raimi is a director with an interesting point of view and was curious to see how he would imagine this world.

There were a lot of things I thought this movie did well, and some that didn't quite work. I absolutely loved the final showdown in the Emerald City. I thought the scarecrow army was amazing, and the China Girl was fantastic. I also enjoyed the silly jokes and even the simplification of motives, especially between the witches. I think these all worked in creating a children's movie that children would enjoy. As an adult, you look at this movie differently, comparing it with the magic you felt watching The Wizard of Oz on television while wrapped up in a sleeping blanket on the living room floor. But that isn't a fair comparison. Neither is it fair to compare it with the brilliant Return to Oz which is a much darker film. That's why I really went into this movie trying to let it stand on its own, and for the most part, it does.

I really liked James Franco's Oz. I thought he had the right touch of ego and charm. I did think some of his dialogue could have been written better. Actually, that's true for a lot of the film. It seemed like so much attention was being paid to the visuals, and probably not quite enough to the story telling. Which brings me to my other problem with this just looked so much like I was watching a video game. I've never been a fan of CGI created worlds. It's a tool that should be used to enhance, not to create. There was absolutely no weight to any of the CGI created elements. A perfect example of this is when anyone had to pick up the China Girl, it seemed they were holding a hologram.

There was such a huge difference in the film when an actual set was used, like in the final scene, or when Oz meets the China Girl. Sets and scenery pull a viewer into the world more than any actor in front of a green screen ever will. And seriously, when will the movie industry get past these 3D gimmicks. I don't go to the movies to pretend I'm on a roller coaster, I go to see a story that moves me, not a trick of the camera.

All of that aside, I thought it was an enjoyable movie. It wasn't without flaws, and sure my expectations were probably too high, but there was fun to be found in the movie. And had I been five years old, watching it for the first time, I very well may have loved it...likewise, I'm sure if I watched Wizard of Oz for the first time now, my review might be considerable worse.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

I spent most of this week listening to any number of the albums I've acquired in recent weeks. There's been so many fantastic releases lately that I must admit to having trouble keeping up with them all. I don't really like listening to music in a disposable way. I prefer to listen to an album until it becomes familiar, which can take several listens. Luckily, there is still a wealth of music in my catalog to be reviewed, allowing me to share with you a selection of mostly 2013 releases, with a few 2012 leftovers worthy of note. Enjoy.

Pallbearer - Sorrow and Extinction: This debut album from the southern stoner metal band was released last year and got a lot of praise. I picked it up after seeing it on some best-of lists. Musically, it's definitely compelling. There is a certain drone/doom quality to it that makes it easy to listen to. Vocally, it's average at best, but wisely chooses to keep the vocals tuned down so that they get lost in the music. For me, this album fell somewhere in between. I wished it would have either been heavier on the drone, or sped up. Not a bad album, just not a great one. I look forward to their next effort.

Adam Ant - Adam Ant is the Blueblack Hussar in Marrying the Gunner's Daughter: The new wave pioneer returns with his first album of new material since 1990, and depending on your expectations, it's surprisingly good...for the most part. This is an incredibly uneven album, containing 17 songs. There are some shockingly compelling songs on here, like "Cool Zombie, "Stay in the Game," and "Shrink." There are also some painfully awful songs such as "Punkyoungirl," "Sausage," and "Who's a Goofy Bunny?" that perhaps never should have seen the light of day, except as a possible B-Side. Edited down to the quality tunes, this is definite a welcomed return and certainly worth checking out.

Wiz Khalifa - Taylor Allderice: Hailing from Pittsburgh, Wiz has been everywhere since 2006, building his reputation as one of the best rappers to emerge in the last decade. In addition to his endless list of guest appearances and four studio albums, he has released a number of mix tapes, including this one that dates back to last year. One of the reasons why he's so good is because of how versatile he is. His roots are definitely in the style of New York rappers like Nas, but he also slips easily into that laid back Cali sound or the erratic chaos of southern rap. This album features a little of each, along with some great spaced-out beats. (Available for free download at

Blackmail - II: Though this German rock band has been around since 1997, I hadn't heard of them until this album, their eighth, was released last month. This is a moody rock album, with obvious 90's alternative influences, most notably mid-era Radiohead. However, it's much more conventional and less experimental. It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite underrated bands, Medal,  and early I Am Kloot. Nothing really groundbreaking, but certainly a quality indie rock album that captures the feeling of a cloudy day.

Woodpigeon - Thumbtacks and Glue: Released last month, this is the new album from the Calgary based indie folk outfit. The arrangements are slightly more complicated than most indie folk these days, incorporating a lot of different instruments and harmonies. There is an aching beauty to the vocals that really pulls the album along. "Red Rover, Red Rover," is simply amazing. A really good album that stands-out from a lot of other releases in this genre.

Psychic Ills - One Track Mind: The new album from the Brooklyn neo-psychedelic rock band is their seventh. It follows 2011's brilliant Hazed Dream with a similar fuzzy beauty comparable to Spiritualized but with more of garage sound. There's a fantastic groove that runs through this record. Some stand out tracks include, "Might Take A While," "FBI," and "City Sun." The sun-washed vibe of this record will be perfect come summertime, but even in the meantime, it's quite fantastic.

Cancer Bats - Bat Sabbath: Bastards of Reality: A few weeks back I reviewed an album from this Canadian hardcore band and had mixed feelings. Then last week, this showed up and there was no way I could resist. There are five Black Sabbath covers on this EP; "Children of the Grave," "Into the Void," "Iron Man," "N.I.B.," and "War Pigs." While they stay true to the original versions, they bring their trademark energy to the songs, transforming them into slightly heavier tracks that flat out rock. Of course, I have a weak spot for covers, but this was fantastic.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Fiction Friday (15)

When it comes to literature, I tend to be a loyalist. If an author writes a book that moves me in some way, I make every effort to read their other works. I behave the same way when it comes to music. One great album will typically keep me listening to each new one, even after several terrible ones. I like to have faith in an artist. If there exists the ability to capture my imagination once, then there is always the potential that they could strike again. For this week's book picks, I chose two titles by authors who, at some point, wrote books that influenced me in different ways. These are titles read strictly based on their previous work, and both managed to succeed again. Enjoy.

The Boy and the Sea by Kirsty Gunn
(Faber & Faber, 2006)

This is a slim novel, which on the surface appears to have room to breathe the way Gunn's stellar debut Rain does. However, the story quickly grows dense. Like the sea it speaks of, the prose has a strong undertow, pulling you deeper into its own rhythm. As a result, this coming of age tale reads more like a free verse poem, in the same style as Gunn's The Keepsake and The Place You Return to Is Home

Like a lot of free verse, in the beginning it can be tough to find the right rhythm of the words, but once you do, it simply sings. Though the metaphor of the sea and time swallowing us up before delivering us anew, along with the main character Ward's feelings of isolation, is beautifully done, I think this title, more than her previous books, remains slightly vague. I couldn't help but feeling that I wanted just a little more from Ward. We see mostly his surface with only glimpses of what lies under the waves within him. There's a beauty in that, but a few dives into the water would have made this truly brilliant in my opinion. 

UnderSurface by Mitch Cullin
(Permanent Press, 2002)

This is not a novel for everyone. In some ways, I think that should be the preface of every Mitch Cullin novel, author of Tideland. Because though he writes with a stark and beautiful prose, he often addresses subject matter which deals with the fringes of human existence. UnderSurface is no different. This is a haunting portrait of the shadowy side of human sexuality, and the base desire that drives one to do something he wouldn't ordinarily do...and then to repeat it over and over until the thrill wears off and something deeper must emerge to take it's place.

At its most basic level, UnderSurface is a cautionary tale dealing with the dangers of suppressed desires finding secretive outlets. After growing less and less cautious about his illicit rendezvous, the man character finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and consequently loses everything. But it's Cullin's gift for storytelling that makes this story compelling, by allowing the mystery to unravel in bits and pieces.

On another level, this book is a challenge to morality, and what we consider right and wrong and the way those conventions push individuals into unsafe choices. But it is also about how those moral complexities create and breed darker desires within us, and how those desires can make us lose sight of what we truly value.

As I said, this book may not be for everyone, but it probably should be. We all have demons we must face through life. This is the kind of book that forces you to examine your own.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Casting Protection Spells

Writers have a habit of working their own personal quirks into their fictional worlds. It's only natural. After all, creative writing is basically just a way in which we try to figure out the world around us while holding the illusion of control. Fiction allows the individual to inflict his or her will on a representative universe. Writers incorporate elements of their own lives not simply to inject a sense of realism into the work, but as a psychological exercise to make sense of their own reality.

I often build story elements around actual details from my life. I will use an encounter, or an action, or conversation as the starting point for my imagination, letting it swell into something important. One such event occurred last week when we got what will most likely be the last snowfall of the year. All winter long I'd wanted to make a Snowtoro (a Totoro made of snow, obviously), but it had consistantly been too cold for proper snow building. Finally the conditions were right, and so I took a break to complete the task. When I was done, it struck me how he seemed like a sentry guarding my home from evil. Within seconds, this translated into an idea that I couldn't wait to build into a manuscript I'm working on.

It struck me that my characters should have some token of protection, more superstitious than magical, that they use to feel safe in the presence of the monsters who terrorize them. It's hard to explain the feeling a writer gets when struck with an idea that seems to fit so perfectly with what they are already trying to do, but this was one of those moments for me. It seems once again my odd personal superstition will effect the fate of my characters...they can thank me for it later.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

Before I begin, I must apologize for last weekend. I was caught going between here and there and by the time I got home, I simply had no heart for writing properly about the sacred joy of music. As a result, once again there is a long list of records fighting for space on the Roundup. But sticking to my recent promise, I've decided to keep this week about new releases, and a few leftovers from 2012. There has been a rapid fire of releases recently from bands that were long due for something new. And from looks of things, the madness is only going to increase as April is littered with more such releases. I will dutifully try my best to share my thoughts in a timely manner. Enjoy.

The Flaming Lips - The Terror: Due out on the first day in April, this is the first true follow-up to 2009's spectacular Embryonic for the dust belt kings of neo-psychedelic indie rock. Much like its predecessor, it spins a darker mood and seems to sink inwardly deeper with every track in the same way as the best of Pink Floyd's albums such as Meddle. The wonderful thing about this record is how it captures the terror of feeling insignificant and yet manages to make it beautiful at the same time. "Be Free, A Way" is a real stand out track for me on album that feels much more like an entirety than a series of songs.

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar: Released way back in January of last year, this is the Swedish folk duo's second album and it's perfectly beautiful. I came to hear of this album through someone's list of favorite albums of last year. I didn't know the person, but liked all the albums on their list, only this one I didn't know. It's one of those cases of shared taste that paid off because I really love the early 70's influence on this folk record. It reminds me of a more upbeat Smoke Fairies or a country folk interpretation of Mazzy Star. Easily one of the best folk records of last year.

Placebo - B3: This EP came out last October and represents the first new music from London's once upon a time 20th century glam revivalists since 2009's wonderful Battle for the Sun. Over their nearly two decade long career, Placebo have been one of the most consistent British rock bands, releasing quality records and staying true to their guitar and sneer style of rock. These five songs would easily fit into any one of their albums and feel right at home. Though, most likely none of them would be among your favorite songs on the album. So in a way, this is just another five songs, but as a fan, sometimes that's all you need. If you are new to the band, then I recommend going straight for their classic album, Without You I am Nothing.

Uncle Tupelo - The Seven Inch Singles: In the early '90s, Uncle Tupelo basically ushered in the world of alt-country with their landmark album "No Depression." Led by Jeff Tweedy (who would go on to form Wilco) and Jay Farrar (who would go on to form Son Volt), the band brought country music to the indie crowd. Due out next month, this compilation brings together the bands first four singles, A and B sides. More than 20 years later, the songs still sound fresh and meaningful. I can't help but think that Gram Parsons would be proud to have recorded any of these songs.

Jim James - Regions of Light and Sound of God: Released last month, the new solo album from the My Morning Jacket frontman doesn't drift too far from the band's sound, yet includes some Flaming Lips type distorting electronics that really seem to add another quality to his brand of country soul rock. Though this album may not blow anyone away, it's an extremely enjoyable listen and the kind of album that can be heard over and over and continue to offer something new. I get the feeling that this is one of those records that will grow on me with every listen.

Enforcer - Death by Fire: This was my unexpected surprise of the past week. I hadn't heard of this Swedish speed metal band before, despite this being their third album. Released last month, this is an album that doesn't quit, racing ferociously through all eight tracks. This album is so authentic to the speed metal played in the early 80's that it would fool even the most die-hard metal fans. But it's not simply an ode to that music, or a knock-off, more like a re-birth. It's incredibly great, the perfect mix of pounding drums, screeching guitars and classic NWOBHM vocals. I'm absolutely loving this album this week.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Specter At The Feast: Due out next week, this is the San Fran rockers sixth album, and first since 2010's Beat the Devil's Tattoo. I've been a fan of these guys since their 2001 debut, but my favorite album has always been 2005's Howl which is more blues, folk influenced. For the first time since that album, they've infused some of that into the songs on here. They've also found a Joy Division like melancholy that feels right for the time. A solid effort and a welcome return.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

With all the Star Wars chatter these days about new movies, it seems people have forgotten that there is currently a phenomenal Star Wars product on the market. Of course I'm referring to The Clone Wars animated series, which during it's several season run on Cartoon Network has continued to excel not only in its storytelling and character development, but also in offering fans the most in depth glimpse at the expanded universe. 

The season finale aired this past week and it answered one of the pressing questions raised by the series. Given that it takes place between Episode II and Episode III, there was always the question of what would happen to Asoka. She is Anakin's teenage padawan, and seeing as how she isn't in Episode III, there was going to need to be some sort of explanation. Over the past two seasons, this is the question that has kept plaguing me. What was going to happen to Asoka?

I finally got the answer in this season's wonderful three part concluding episode. Viewers learned the fate of Asoka, and not only was it masterfully handled, it also raised serious questions about the state of the Jedi Council in wartime. These episodes were really a turning point in the greater Star Wars story. There is a line spoken by a Jedi named Barriss where she accuses the Jedi of being a weapon for the Dark Side. I thought this was a brilliant speech, and an accurate one. With the Jedi Council caving to the demands of the Senate, led by the Emperor, they are essentially working for the Dark Side. I'd never thought about it that way, but now the truth is so obvious.

Another thing this episode achieved was to further set up Anakin's fall. I always knew that Asoka's fate would play into this arc, and was very pleased with the subtle, yet pivotal, role it will play in his growing rift with the Jedi Council. 

It's strange that there is all this speculation about the new Star Wars movies when most so-called fans are completely ignoring one of the franchise's best offerings. If you haven't watched The Clone Wars, do yourself a favor and start tuning in. 

May the force be with you...and with you Asoka Tano.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Stepping Into Story

I spent this past week making revisions to my new manuscript. Stepping back into a story can be a tricky thing sometimes, especially one told in two voices. Sometimes though, it isn't hard at all. I was lucky this time. As soon as I dove in, I felt like I'd never left the world I'd put to paper.

I think part of that is due to the fact that the one main character is based more on me than any character I've written in eight years. There are differences between us, but for the most part, the character shares many of my traits and opinions. This wasn't an intentional decision, it just sort of happened as the writing progressed. Sometimes I purposely try to stay away from that, but for whatever reason, it just felt right for this book.

With my work done for now, there's nothing to do but wait for the story to find a home. Sometimes that's the hardest part...