Sunday, July 28, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

This has been one of those weeks where I raided my never ending wishlist for albums that have been on there for years in some cases. With some good fortune, I was able to track down some of the more obscure records that have eluded me in the past. They date from the 60's, 80's, 90's, 00's and range from garage rock to freak folk, and for the most part, are all pretty much awesome. I've always believed there's something to be said for anticipation when it comes to books and music. I suppose that's how the people who circle dates on their calendar to mark new releases feel, but I prefer the unknowing as to when you will encounter the next thing to inspire you. Enjoy.

The Deep - Psychedelic Moods: This 1966 album is the only record this Philly band ever put out and it was one of those holy grail lost albums, until it was finally re-released in 2010. It's phenomenally ahead of its time and sounds like a garage version of early Jefferson Airplane material. It also bears a resemblance to the beautiful weirdness of The United States of America, but everything is tuned slightly heavier. This is definitely an album I should've never left to sit on my wish list for years.

Jordaan Mason - Make Blankets Your Yard: I've been a big fan of Jordaan Mason from the very first moment upon hearing his "Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head" album back in 2009, recorded as collective known as Jordaan Mason and The Horse Museum. It was only after that I discovered he'd recorded four solo albums before that, and later, upon listening to the fan contributed A Fanfare for Neutral Milk Hotel that he had a song on there, which is fitting given the clear influence Jeff Mangum has on his songwriting. This is Jordaan's second album, released in 2005, the same year as his first, "One Day the Horses Will Have Their Revenge." It opens with the wonderful "Snow," one of the his best songs that I've heard so far. The album continues on in a lo-fi acoustic style, something akin to a campfire concert of beautiful surrealist tales. This is the perfect album for a cloudy morning. I truly love it. Definitely a songwriter that deserves more attention than he's ever gotten.

Echo and The Bunnymen - Crocodiles: Back in High School, I had one of this Liverpool band's albums, 1990's indie pop Reverberation, the band's first album without founding singer Ian McCulloch. I didn't care for it at all, sold it, and wrote off the band. That is until recently. After a mention of this album, their1980 debut, in the Spacemen 3 book that I reviewed last week, I decided to check it out. This album is pretty fantastic. It's a post punk album that reminds me of The Cure's early work, but with a more psychedelic rock edge to it. It also reminds me of Television's Marquee Moon. It's pretty fantastic stuff, "Pride" and "Rescue" are two of the more outstanding tracks on an album without any glaring weak spots.

Mountain - Nantucket Sleighride: A few months ago I picked Mountain's first album, 1970's "Climbing" and was pretty blown away. So when I came across this 1971 album last weekend for a few bucks on vinyl, I had to pick it up. Though not as heavy or fresh sounding as its predecessor, this is still a great hard rock album from the early days of the genre. The two albums together make a nice set, and I'd certainly recommend them to any fan of Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath.

The White Stripes - Nine Miles From The White City: Released earlier this month as a fan club special, this double album is a live recording of a concert from Chicago in 2003. The setlist includes many live rarities, including my personal favorite "Candy Cane Children." This is the sound of a band at its height. They were riding the wave of success off of White Blood Cells and being propelled to super stardom with the release of Elephant. The show is electric and really does a great job of capturing the manic energy of their live shows. In my opinion, their best live album to date.

Discount - Half Fiction: Though from the late '90s, I first heard of this band two years ago. It's Allison Mosshart's pre The Kills band. At that time, I listened to the third and final album "Crash Diagnostic" and wasn't very enthused about it. This album was released the year before that one, in 1999, and it's pretty by-the-numbers 90's alternative rock. There's nothing particularly awful about it, but nothing to love about it either. An okay listen for anyone interested in the roots of The Kills or Dead Weather, but sometimes artists move on for a reason, and sometimes bands are forgotten for good reason too.   

The Skygreen Leopards - The Story of the Green Lamb & The Jerusalem Priestess: One of my favorite bands of the last decade, this San Fran based psychedelic folk band released their first albums on the small Jeweled Antler label. This is their second album, which came out in 2002, and is pretty hard to come by. More of a freak folk record than their more current albums, this is a rambling mess of sunshine groove folk, but a mess that is wonderful to get lost in. What it lacks in structure, it makes us for in spontaneity. They would go on to improve from here, but this is still a great record, one that deserves to be plucked from obscurity.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Whistling in the Wind

Over the last few days, I've felt a burst of creative energy coinciding with the end of a sweltering heat wave. It's no surprise. My moods often match the weather. And with the cooling air blowing in, my imagination has cleared some of the dust that had been settling and I feel ready to tackle several projects at once. 

Most recently, I came across a project idea that I'd sketched out quite some time ago, as in three or more years ago. A comic strip panel of Charlie Brown that I'd seen sparked renewed interest in the character I'd set aside in a folder to be forgotten. When I opened it to see what it contained, I was surprised by how much I liked what I found. I instantly felt a desire to return to it, complete with fresh ideas and a new vision for what it could be. 

The lesson in all of this is that sometimes you have to know when to put an idea aside rather than force it to completion. There are times when you know you've come up with something compelling, but simply can't quite figure out what to do with it. But if it's truly as good as you expect, eventually it will come to you. It may be hours later, or it may be years...which is why a writer never throws anything away.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup SPIRITUAL SPACE Edition

"Where I stand is only 3 miles from space...."

For the past several months, I've been reading the biography of Spacemen 3. I always like to keep one music related book going for spare moment reading, and this was definitely a good one. As I neared the end, I began to listen to all of my Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized records in preparation for writing this Roundup, and listening to both bands almost exclusively this entire week. Like most people of my generation, my first introduction was to Spiritualized and only later discovered the band from which is it was born. Both bands belong to a significant cornerstone of my musical taste and are very important in shaping my aesthetic, so it only seemed fitting to give them the proper treatment. Below is the book review followed by album reviews. Enjoy. 

Spacemen 3 & The Birth of Spiritualized by Erik Morse
(Omnibus Press, 2005)

The benefit of a band whose recording career lasted only four short years is that any biography written about them can spend a fair amount of time examining the details at length. This book does just that, starting with the formation of the band when its two primary contributors were just teenagers in Rugby, brought together by a shared curiosity in drugs and 60's psychedelic garage rock. 

The book presents the pairing of Pete "Sonic Boom" Kember and Jason "J. Spaceman" Pierce as one destined for greatness and doomed for disintegration. Their early years are typical of most fringe bands, struggling to get gigs, to get label distribution, find an audience, and ultimately survive thanks to the dole. Eventually, after years of hard work, Spacemen 3 achieved those things and over the course of three short years, rose from obscurity to become the hottest indie band around. But as is so often the case, right when they were on the verge of super stardom, behind the scenes everything was falling apart. 

This books is the culmination of extensive interviews and research, piecing together the torn fabric of these pioneering songwriters. However, it becomes increasingly obvious as one reads that Jason Pierce made himself significantly less available than Sonic. Rather than try to fill in the missing links, the author does a good job of focusing the book on Sonic and his controlling nature that contributed to the breakup of the band. Oddly, for the one who was open about everything, he seems to get afforded much of the blame while Jason strolls off the pages and into Spiritualized, a band whose success would soon eclipse Spaceman 3. A very fascinating read, not just for fans, but for anyone interested in the struggle of trying to create something new in a climate where industry consistantly wants the same, and eventually succeeding, because for all the turmoil and lost potential, it is important to remember that in many ways the Spaceman 3 story is one of victory, not failure. 

Spacemen 3 - Sound of Confusion: The band's 1986 debut is a rumble of psychedelic garage space rock, with gritty transcending covers of the 13th Floor Elevators "Rollercoaster" and The Stooges "Little Doll," along with original gems like "O.D. Catastrophe." Still powerful and raw 25 years after its release.

Spacemen 3 - The Perfect Prescription: Released a year after their debut, this album really sees the band expanding and incorperating the soulful side on songs like "Walking with Jesus," and "Come Down Easy," that would later characterize the work of Spiritualized.

Spacemen 3 - Playing with Fire: The band's breakthrough album released in 1989 is really their crowning achievement. The strengths of both songwriters blend seamlessly to create a masterpiece of audio satisfaction. Sonic's psychedelic drone tracks are among his finest, and Jason's soul blues odes are hauntingly beautiful. 

Spiritualized - Lazer Guided Melodies: Recorded shortly after the demise of Spacemen 3, this album, despite its precise name, is a bit rambling. Consisting of four 10+ minute tracks divided into several parts, it never truly finds itself. There are moments of purity and brilliance, but overall, my least favorite album of the bunch.

Spiritualized - Fucked Up Inside: A live album released to keep interest in the band while they recorded their second album, this recording showcases that both Spaceman 3 and Spiritualized, while admittedly obsessed with the technical aspects of music, were essentially live bands at their heart. It certainly hints at the magic that was to come.

Spiritualized - Pure Phase: Released in 1995, this is the album that really launches the band into greatness, from the opening pain of "Medication," and onto "All My Tears" and "Let it Flow," it becomes clear that Jason Pierce is at the top of his game, crafting the songs of desperation that embody a large portion of a generation. Stunning.

Spiritualized - Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space: My first introduction to either band came with this 1997 masterpiece. It is easily a watershed moment in my music listening development and remains one of my favorite albums of all time. From the blistering brilliance of "Electricity" to the peacefulness of "Cool Waves" this is one of the rare perfect albums.

Spiritualized - Royal Albert Hall Live: Released on the heels of Ladies & Gentlemen, this double album, recorded in 1997, quickly went into high rotation in my life. It introduced me to many of the songs that came before and sent me on a back catalog hunt. One my favorite live albums of all time.

Spiritualized - Let It Come Down: The follow-up to a masterpiece, this album took four years to come out, and was certainly worth the wait. It features some of my favorite Jason Pierce songs like "Out of Sight" and "I Didn't Mean to Hurt You." On less of a grand scale than its predecessor, but no less amazing.

Spiritualized - Amazing Grace: Understandably after the achievements of the previous albums, this 2003 album takes a slightly different approach. The lush orchestration is scaled back a bit in favor of a garage guitar edge. As a result, it feels slightly bare in comparison, but still a great album. "This Little Life of Mine," and "Lord Let It Rain On Me" are among the more outstanding tracks.

Spiritualized - Songs in A&E: After taking five years off, this album finally arrived in 2008. This is a return to the somber mood of Let It Come Down, and takes an even darker turn. Absolutely beautiful moments on this album, "The Waves Crash In" for example, but the concept of being in an emergency room feels slightly disjointed. Though I thoroughly enjoy this album, I feel it doesn't quite come together as a whole the way other Spiritualized albums do.

Spiritualized - Sweet Heart Sweet Light: In 2012, a return after four years, this album captures the desperation that is familiar with all of Spiritualized work. It simply soars with heartache, but with the upbeat summer melodies that make it a joy to listen to over and over. A triumphant return! Hopefully we won't have to wait another four years...but if that's what it takes, I'm willing to be patient. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Writer's Mail

A fun thing about being an author is that sometimes you get mail like this. I found this in my mailbox this morning and it almost made me forget how miserable the heatwave has made me feel. Thanks Shadany!

(The letter is about my book Eight Spinning Planets)

Friday, July 19, 2013

World War Z

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the World War Z novel, which I read in time to see the movie in theaters. I did see the movie a few days after finishing the book and wanted to compare the two. Before seeing it, I imagined it would be hard to adapt the book as was, since it wasn't really a standard plot format, but rather a series of fictional interviews. However, there was enough within those interviews to construct a story depicting the events. I think the movie did a fantastic job imagining those situations and a stunning job in bringing them to life on the screen.

The scenes where Philadelphia and Jerusalem fall are some of the most heart pounding action ever put to the film. The execution of the zombies, and the terror and panic they instill in others is so superbly captured, far better than what was described in the book. The novel continually stresses the way people are overrun by the hoards, it is the central aspect of the story's terror, and it is shown unbelievably well in the movie. And though it is done with CGI, it never looks like CGI, which is a rare gift.

Though my favorite part of the book, the analysis of the military action against the zombies, is absent from the movie, I thought the film did a clever job of creating a viable working solution to the plague. The other thing I loved about the movie was the pacing. Ignoring the current rules of cinema, the movie moved at breakneck speed for the first two thirds only to slow down dramatically for the last third. I've always been a fan of movies that follow this structure, A Clockwork Orange comes to mind. After initiating the audience in the chaos, throwing you into the mess, it slows down enough to allow you to digest the circumstances and be overwhelmed by the actuality of it. It was a long time after walking out the theater before I felt I'd left the world it created. One of the few instances where I think the movie might be slightly better than the book.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

I've decided to do something a little different this week. Instead of reviewing albums, I'm sharing a bunch of songs that I've been really digging of late. These all stem from the month long sojourn into my CD collection. I figure it's not worth reviewing albums I've owned for years, and in some cases, have already reviewed here. So load up your youtube channel or whatever music listening site you visit and add these songs to your playlist, sit back, and enjoy the greatness. Enjoy.

Joy Zipper - "Go Tell the World" from the album The Heartlight Set

The Verve - "Sonnet" from the album Urban Hymns 

Mojave 3 - "Give What You Take" from the album Out of Tune

Turin Brakes - "Last Clown" from the album JackInABox

Ride - "From Time to Time" from the album Carnival of Light

The Dandy Warhols - "Hard on for Jesus" from the album The Dandy Warhols Come Down

Joy Zipper - "Check Out My New Jesus" from the album Joy Zipper

Bright Eyes - "Padraic My Prince" from the album Letting Off the Happiness

Gram Parsons - "She" from the album GP

Portugal. The Man - "Evil Friends" from the album Evil Friends

Slowdive - "Alison" from the album Souvlaki

Hot Chip - "(Just Like We) Breakdown" from the album The Warning

The Zombies - "You Really Got a Hold on Me" from the album Begin Here

Starsailor - "Talk Her Down" from the album Love Is Here

Haven - "Beautiful Thing" from the album Between the Senses

The Kooks - "Stormy Weather" from the album Konk

My Morning Jacket - "Librarian" from the album Evil Urges

Embrace - "Fireworks" from the album The Good Will Out

Blonde Redhead - "Top Ranking" from the album 23

Suede - "Beautiful Ones" from the album Coming Up

Ryan Adams - "Bartering Lines" from the album Heartbreaker

Brenda Lee - "Dynamite" first live television performance of the song.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Walking in Wonderland

Recently I've been busying myself with the revisions of a Middle Grade manuscript that I wrote about two years ago, and while I love revisiting stories and enriching them, it's definitely the "work" aspect of writing. Most writers will admit that this isn't their favorite part of the process. The part we love is the creating of the stories and the weaving of the narratives that make those ideas come alive. 

So, it goes without saying that while revising my manuscript I've also been daydreaming about other stories I want to write. The stories come in little snippets of observation, lines from song lyrics, and encounters with strangers. These elements start to piece themselves together on their own, forming characters and plots. I find it's always better to let a story come together over time rather than sitting down and trying to figure out what to write about. That never works for me. 

The added benefit of working in this manner, it gives me motivation to finish those edits. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Weekend Music Roundup

Finally doing a bit of catching up on new music, having exhausted a fair amount of my tolerance for nostalgic listening over the past month or so. Most everything on the list this week was released in the past few months, but there a few that stem from the investigation of older records and tracking down a band's other releases. There's a range from folk to metal, with no sense of continuity, except for the fact that most of the artists are British this week in celebration of Andy Murray winning Wimbledon earlier today. Enjoy.

Trevor Moss & Hannah-Lou - Quality First, Last & Forever: Released in 2011, this is the married British folk duo's second album under this moniker, their first album having been released under the band name Indigo Moss 2007 after being discovered by Simon Tong (of Verve). I've been a fan ever since that first album, and they continue to make beautiful folk music. After recently listening to the previous album the other week, I found that I had missed this one and sought it out. A fine addition to their growing catalog of music, and a must listen for anyone who thinks the folk revival begins and ends with Mumford & Sons. "All Been for Nothing," "The Stargazers' Gutter," and "A Hill Far, Far Away" are among my favorite tracks.

Sleep - Dopesmoker: The San Jose sludge metal band's 2003 epic was re-released last year on colored vinyl, with a bonus album of live versions of songs from their other epic album, Sleep's Holy Mountain. I picked this up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last December and have found myself listening to it a lot as the summer weather warmed up. Its heavy grooves mix well with the sweltering air, lingering and multiplying as the one track album pushes through three sides of the record. This an album that took 10 years to see the light of day in its original release, due to label fighting and the lack of desire for them to put out a 63 minute song. It took another ten years to get it on vinyl, but the medium is the best for hearing this type of drone metal. Definitely worth picking up if you ever come across it. 

Bill Ryder Jones - A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart: Released this spring, this is the Coral guitarist's second official solo album, though there is an early, and brilliant, unreleased album out there as well. Moving away from the neo-classical style of his 2011 album If... this album takes on a lullaby gospel feel reminiscent of Spiritualized. There's also a Leonard Cohen like confessional feel to some songs, like the beautiful title track; a minimal piano, acoustic guitar, and tambourine tale of self-loathing. This is a fantastic album, perfect for setting the mood for a reflective day.

Seven Sisters of Sleep - Opium Morals: Hailing from California, the birth place of sludge metal, this is the band's second album, which came out this past spring. This is heavier than most, bordering on death metal, especially with the screamcore vocals. This usually isn't my thing, but the music was played well enough, and heavy enough, to keep me interested throughout the album. Typically I wouldn't make it through an entire listen of a growling, demonic voice, so that's saying something. But if that's your thing, this is a good album to pick up.

The Pigeon Detectives - We Met at Sea: It's been six years since this Leeds indie band came along in the wave of rock that followed the Arctic Monkeys debut the year before. Their first album had a similar type of edge, but the two albums that followed were a definite move toward more commercial appeal. Now with their fourth album, the band has discovered the right balance on this release. And while the Monkeys have continued to evolve and change, the Pigeon Detectives have stayed true to playing rawkus pub rock love songs. Nothing incredibly earth shattering here, but a good summer rock album, and easily their best since their first. "I Won't Come Back," "Hold Your Gaze," and "No State to Drive" are my current favorites.

Beady Eye - Acoustic Session Live Abbey Road Studios: Recorded on the eve of their second album release last month, this set features 10 songs from the album, all done in a scaled back acoustic arrangement. Given that a lot of the album is already semi-acoustic, it makes sense, but even so, these live versions are truly brilliant and show how good a professional band can sound. The version of "Ballroom Figured" is especially good. There's also a bonus cover of The Beatles "Cry, Baby, Cry." A nice companion to the album.

Electric Eye - Pick-up, Lift-off, Space, Time: The debut album from this Norwegian band is a swirling psychedelic joy. It's sort of a cross between the Black Angles and a trippy version of Joy Division. The first single, "Tangerine" is a a masterpiece of Floyd inspired Space Rock. These guys definitely know how to weave beautiful textures of sound into music that never loses its core. They drift, but keep the center, making this record one of the best examples of the genre in a while. Great stuff and one of my favorites of the year so far.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fiction Friday (19)

On this Friday I've decided to take a trip back into old Victorian England to share two tales that are quickly fading into obscurity, if they haven't disappeared there already. I've always been interested in the history of Children's Literature and often track down books from this era to study. These are two that I read in the last year and quite enjoyed. The two are very different, highlighting the shift that would come in the world of Children's Literature after Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Enjoy these two classics and hopefully they will inspire you to rediscover books of your own. 

The Golden Key by George MacDonald

Having long been a devoted obsessive to children's literature, and having a particular fondness for its origins in post-Romantic era England, I have to say it's a little embarrassing to have not read George MacDonald before now.

The Golden Key is the kind of spooky, symbolic fairy tale that served as the foundations of literature written for children. It follows a young boy who finds a key from fairy land, but does not know what the key opens. There begins a journey which he undertakes with a girl who escapes the cruelty of unkind masters, one lasting their entire lives.

I read their search as allegorical of the trials and tribulations on the path to morality within life, with the end objective being taken into heaven. This is all beautifully disguised in utterly rich fantasy worlds that come to life with lyrical beauty. The plot can seem simplistic and aimless at times, but never dull. However, the language and mood of this work are its real triumph. Though I must confess, reading it by candlelight from my house in the woods on a day without electricity may have added to that feeling. (The 1984 edition illustrated by Maurice Sendak (pictured) is the one I read, and naturally the artwork was beautiful.)

The Wallypug in London by G.E. Farrow

This is the third book in the Wallypug series, written in the 1890's and early 1900's, and it follows Wallypug, the King of a place called Why, on a trip to visit the author in London. These books follow in the tradition of Lewis Carroll's nonsense works, and like Carroll's books, are written for the purpose of entertaining children. The author was known to encourage his readers to write to him so that he could incorporate their ideas into his stories. Most likely this story contains many suggestions from his young readers.

The story is a delightfully silly tale of the trouble the King's arrival causes around town. The small king's entourage includes a cast of funny characters including a wooden soldier, a gentleman fish, and a wannabe poet. As with Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, much of the humor stems from the misunderstandings that take place when encountering unfamiliar surroundings. In this case though, it is the visitor who is the stranger in a world that readers would know. There is also a fair amount of intrigue in the story, making it quite the page turner.

Popular in its day, these books are important in the tradition and evolution of children's literature as a means to entertain children rather than teach them. They don't hold up as well as some others, but still very enjoyable reads, and definitely worth checking out if you're a scholar of children's literature. 

Thursday, July 4, 2013

America the Beautiful

Independence Day is a time when we are supposed to reflect on what it means to be American. For most people, that means getting lost in the enjoyment of swimming pools, cold beer, and the taste of our finest cusine cooking on the grill. It's a time to celebrate all that we have, all that we've accomplished, and all that we might accomplish in the future. It means that for me as well, but it also means more. Because reflection is not supposed to be a forgetting of all our troubles. In the spirit of the holiday, it's also a time for each American to examine the state of our nation and see if we're living up to the promise of our founding ideals.

America is place of many contradictions. It is the land of free, but has more incarcerated people than any other democracy. It's a nation that celebrates its outlaws, while demanding justice. We pride ourselves on individuality, yet tend to throw blame on anyone but ourselves. These contradictions are perhaps clearest in our political landscape, where we've never been more divided since the Civil War, a division that seems to be getting worse by the day, and threatens the lasting continuation of our government's functionality.

So on America's 237th Birthday, where do we stand? On one hand, the growing acceptance of same sex couples and their rights moves us one step closer to fulfilling the promise of "All men are created equal" and that is something worth celebrating with massive amounts of fireworks, because it means we are still progressing. And while there are large groups of people who oppose this measure, voicing their objection shows that the right to personal opinion still exits. 

On the other hand, we have states like North Carolina and Texas and Ohio trying to enforce new voter restrictions to suppress opposition. This is a huge step backward, trying to ensure that our government does not represent all the people, just those with influence and like-minded ideas. And we also have the huge mess created by the Patriot Act, the most ill-named bill in the history of this country, serving to undermine our most basic freedoms, and which, left unchecked, has the very real potential to lead to a police state. We have corporations dictating policy with their abundance of influence that the average citizen can't possible compete with. We have politicians bent on serving the will of the few over the needs of the many. And we have a population that for the most part doesn't seem to care as long as they are placated with materialism and entertainment. 

America is far from perfect, despite the popular myth we like to tell ourselves. It is a deeply flawed nation, but at least it's one that never seems to content to live with its flaws. I love this country. There is no other place I'd rather live. Because despite all the problems, it is still a place where I can write this and share it openly without fear of retaliation. I love this country because even with all the tension, it truly is an example to the rest of the world for how so many different kinds of people, with completely different traditions, beliefs, and customs can live side-by-side in relative harmony. We are a nation that comes together, shown time and time again in the face of tragedy and adversity. I just hope we can come together again in the near future to make sure our nation truly reflects the best of interests of all her people.