Friday, May 30, 2014

Fiction Friday (29)

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I rarely like to read YA novels. It's not because I don't enjoy them, it's more that they tend to frustrate me in several ways. I'm not a YA illiterate by any means. I spent most of my early 20's devouring the genre, but my reading habits drifted away as I start to write more and more for the same audience. I find that within the YA community there is a bit of in-breeding in the sense that so many authors read and love their contemporaries, admiring them to the point where so much of the genre sounds as if it could have been written by the same two or three writers. Apparently the rest of the world is okay with that because the books still seem to sell, and anything that is truly different tends to have a problem standing out. As I'm currently not actually writing a YA manuscript, only revising one, this is one of those moments when I like to dive into the YA books that have been sitting on my self waiting to be read. I picked one that I've wanted to read for the last year. It sounded captivating, and readers seemed to love it. Hoping for another Hunger Games revelation,  I bought the ticket and took the ride.

Starters by Lissa Price
(Delacorte Press, 2012)

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this novel for me is the wealth of wonderful reader reviews for a book that is average at best. The concept may be fascinating, and the cover compelling, but unfortunately the writing does neither of them justice. I found the writing to be completely devoid of any style. Not that it was poor, but rather utterly blank. The was just no life coming off the pages, or out of the character's mouths for that matter. Everything in the book felt put in there to achieve deliberate plot points delivered in a perfunctory manner. Though I will say this, the pacing of the story and the layout of the plot were done quite effectively.

For readers who are only peripherally interested in plot, I suppose this would be a "good" book. But anyone who reads with slightly more focus will inevitably find problems with this novel. Though set in the future, one wrought with changes to the social order, the book can't help sliding into a love story that reads like a contemporary drama played out on a WB television program about rich teenagers in Beverly Hills. One of my biggest problems with this book was the way so much of it seemed to ignore the world it was creating. Of course, that wasn't too hard considering that very little time was spent on explaining why the world had become the way it was. To be honest, it felt like an attempt to dress up a contemporary poor-girl-falls-for-rich-boy story with a dystopian flair. In the end, I didn't find either compelling.

I didn't mind so much that the story idea is heavily borrowed from the under appreciated Dollhouse television show. We all get inspired by other fiction. Part of the function of fiction is to spawn new fiction. I just wish it had been more realized, or expanded on the idea in a different way. But I don't like to write a review without bringing up something positive, because every book has some value and I know how frustrating it is when a review focuses only on the negative. On the positive side, there moments where the victimization of the donors is palpable and truly stuck with me. I guess I just wished there were more moments of real emotion besides those few brief glimpses.

Overall, it's a page turner with an intriguing plot. Not at all unenjoyable, but like cotton candy, it simply dissolves leaving one to wonder if you ever really tasted it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

When the Screen Goes Blank

The past week was one where I saw nearly half of the shows that I watch on television get the axe in favor of the half-baked concepts set to replace them in the Fall. It was the week my DVR died and the one that finally put the nail in the coffin of my cable subscription. Granted, unlike years past, it isn't all that heartbreaking when a show ends. There is such a wealth of television production that there are always things to watch. Too many. Also, many of the shows had admittedly run their course, but not all.

I won't miss Suburgatory, which was a complete dud this season, but The Neighbors and Super Fun Night were two well-written comedies that had been gaining momentum. Community, though it had been the chopping block basically since it debuted, also finished its finest season in years. Believe was a show with a great premise, but lackluster execution. While I enjoyed it, the plot was going absolutely nowhere, which is the perfect recipe for cancellation in this day and age. Rake was one of the best new shows on network television this year. It's the kind of show that could have been built into a mainstay on AMC, but just couldn't pull in the kind of numbers needed to keep it on FOX. So why do the networks even try? Why bother putting on anything other than the thirteenth incarnation of CSI or yet another attempt at remaking ER? It's frustrating investing time in a show and its characters only to have them disappear in the blink of an eye.

The most frustrating cancellation for me was Revolution. I was fine with it going off the air. The story idea had seemed to run its course, and it had been an entertaining two seasons. Two seasons is enough in this fast paced culture with a million new ideas popping up. But the frustrating part is when the network doesn't give the show advance warning. At least let them wrap up a big concept show with a satisfying conclusion. This was a season finale, not a series finale. For crying out loud, it ended with a cliff hanger for the next season which will never be made! I never understood why, in cases like this, they don't allow the producers to make one final episode to reward the fans who watched. If nothing else, it would make the DVD package more inviting to future buyers if they knew they were getting an ending and not just a never-ending pause. 

Having read about the pilots that will be hitting the networks in the Fall, none of the comedies sound even the least bit compelling. They all feel like a show produced around a one note marketing fad. The drama's are more of the same old same old, with the possible exception of Gotham, though if S.H.I.E.L.D. was any indication of comic book cinema going to television, my expectations are not very high. Thankfully, the cable networks continue to get better and better...and Wilfred starts up again in few weeks, so there's no reason to be cranky.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

Well it's finally come to this, an all psychedelic rock weekend on the Roundup. It happened kind of on accident, or least it wasn't something I planned. But I guess it can't really be an accident if my musical tastes continue to be more and more geared toward the genre. It's always been among my favorite types of music, but lately it seems to dominate more of my listening choices. Perhaps that has to do with a dwindling supply of quality indie rock bands due to the never ceasing intrusion of dance and synth pop into the genre. Metal has moved dramatically away from traditional metal. Hip-hop is in a confusing state of transition. That really leaves psych rock as the only genre that is continuing to move forward on a path that I support. So lay back, let your mind wander, and soak up the swirling sounds of psychedelic rock. Enjoy!

The Brian Jonestown Massacre - Revelation: It's been two years since the San Fran neo-psychedelic band released an album, but they have returned this year with a new record. The album opens with another German language track, which littered the last album. It moves back into English afterward and ends up being their most solid release in years. Though they don't abandon their love to old '60s psychedelic sounds, there is a Kurt Vile feel to the record, and it seems like a good direction for the band to take. The vocals permeate under the floating surface of the music, creating a hypnotic aurora that surrounds the the record. A definite necessary addition to any BJM collection.

Woods - With Light and With Love: Released in April, this is the NY state psychedelic folk band's 10th album since their formation in 2003. While their earlier albums were much more folk centered, their recent work has gradually infused more and more psychedelic rock elements, all coming to a glorious culmination on this record. The epic title track serves as a showcase for the band's growth with 9 minutes of brilliance. Though I've enjoyed this band in the past, I was thoroughly surprised at just how good this record is. "Shepherd," "Feather Man," and "Shining" are also standout tracks.

The Blue Angel Lounge - A Sea of Trees: Released earlier this month, this is the third album from the German neo-psychedelia band. After listening to a sample track, I quickly snatched this up. It reminds me a lot of Christian Death, a band that I've been listening to a lot recently. There's this '80s goth vibe that is extremely well done without feeling dated. Having added a touch of shoegaze to the style, they have produced something that sounds very pleasing. Over the last several years there have been a lot decent bands to come out of the Fatherland, most of them influenced by a hypnotic spacey sound that I've always adored. "Desolate Sands," "Walls," "Quartz," and "Melloch Halb & Halb" are high points on this solid record. 

Electric Wizard - Legalise Drugs & Murder: This EP from 2012 combines several singles released by the UK heavy psych band from that same year. Having been one of my favorite bands over the past several years, I'm not sure how I missed this release, probably because their stuff is still import only state side. This is the only music released following 2010's fantastic Black Masses LP. These six tracks continue the apocalyptic feel of their recent work and have been a welcome sound to my ears. Some of the songs are demos, and understandably raw, but lo-fi metal has always been part of their appeal. "Patterns of Evil" and "Legalise Drugs & Murder" are the two best and most tradition Electric Wizard songs, but the experimental weirdness of "Murder & Madness" and "Our Witchcraft Grows" are also quite interesting.

Fungi Girls - Old Foamy: The new single from the Texas lo-fi garage rockers was released in March on cassette. I came across it and couldn't resist the cover. The three songs are more garage rock than psych rock, but there are moments where they feel like 13th Floor Elevators. But mostly this reminds me of Sic Alps or Thee Oh Sees. It's quick, reckless groove is very entertaining and all three songs are pretty good. I really enjoy the fuzzy sunshine feel that hangs over it. Muffled vocals, jangling guitars, and driving rhythm...what's not to like? Definitely worth checking them out on bandcamp.

The Cosmic Dead - Psychonaut: This 2011 compilation gathers material from the Glasgow psychedelic space rock band that dated prior to their self-titled release in the same year. They have since released six albums, so I have a lot of catching up to do. Most of the songs are long, averaging about ten minutes in length. The rhythm section is akin to most drone bands, but the guitar work pulls it out of the genre, providing an early Hawkwind or Pink Fairies feel to it. These instrumental tracks work as a constant exploration of soundscapes of expansive dimensions. "Serpent Coils the Earth," "Psych Ashtray Aktion Mother," and "Fool & the Five of Swords" are among the most interesting compositions.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Movie Monday...Some Pig or Just Some Pig.

I waited eight years to see the live action version of Charlotte's Web. I missed it in the theater, and then back when I still used Netflix, I refused to use up a rental on it figuring that a movie like this would be on television a million times. That prediction turned out to be very wrong. Periodically I would search the guide to see if it was airing and was shocked that even as recently as last year, it was still only showing on premium channels. Then around Christmastime I was even more shocked to see it was available on demand...for a fee!! That's unheard of for a movie that came out in 2006. Then a few weeks ago, it finally aired on Nickelodeon and I was able to record it. 

Having now watched it, I can say without a doubt that it was not worth an eight year wait. It wasn't a bad movie, but it wasn't a great one either. The CGI was fantastic though. It was like Babe but with a decade of technological advancements. Wilbur was adorable, and Charlotte was portrayed with class. As in the animated version, Templeton steals the show, voiced brilliantly here by Steve Buscemi. Despite how great the animals looked, the rest of the movie has a too-vibrant Norman Rockwell aesthetic that I found off-putting, and the human characters felt completely flat, even the talented Dakota Fanning could do very little to make the human interaction feel realistic.

The attempt here was make a truly "safe" family movie, and in those regards I would call it a success. But with such powerful source material, they could have made more of an effort to make a movie that would hold some value for adults. But perhaps my biggest problem with the film version was the treatment of Charlotte's death. It felt very glossed over, not only in screen time, but also in Wilbur's acceptance of it. Even now, so many years after the book was published, Charlotte's Web, and Disney's Bambi film, are still the two main ways where children encounter death in way that imparts on them the sadness and meaning behind it. This movie should have set out to uphold that tradition. 

All in all, it was entertaining and a solid okay. Granted I'm aware that I'm not the target audience and that young children would probably thoroughly enjoy the film. But as a children's book writer, I strongly believe that children's entertainment should strive to be more than passing entertainment that is easily digestible and quickly forgotten. Charlotte deserves more, and so does Wilbur.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

Sorry about last weekend, I was out of town and hoping I'd have some time to throw together a Roundup, but the fates were against me. I hate missing a Roundup, especially seeing as how it's the only consistent feature of this blog. But I'm back this week with another list of all 2014 releases. I'm trying to catch up on the albums from the past few months in time for summer. This week was another one featuring new recordings from familiar favorites. There's a few different genres represented here, but be it folk or rock, they all seem to match sunny and breezy weather that has invaded the area. Hopefully there's something on here for each of you to get excited about. Enjoy.

The Black Keys - Turn Blue: The long-awaited follow-up to 2011's El Camino finally came out last week and once again the Akron blues rock duo delivers. This album is more bluesy than the power rock of the previous album. Though I enjoyed that album very much, I prefer this trip into a more psychedelic garage vibe. It feels like it has more range, and feels more personal. "Weight of Love," "Turn Blue," and "Year in Review" are stand out tracks. Certain to get a lot of play time over the summer months.

Swans - To Be Kind: Released this past week is the latest experimental rock behemoth from the NYC band that has been together for over 30 years. Admittedly, I'm more of a fan of Michael Gira's other band Angles of Light, but every now and then I do drift back to Swans. Clocking in at a play time of 2 hours, it's needless to say that this is an expansive album incorporating a lot of post-rock and drone elements. If anything, it suffers from being too long, creating a undeserved feeling of repetition for an album that is a constant exploration of dramatic waves. The last two songs are my favorite, which made the entire voyage worthwhile. "Nathalie Neal" and "To Be Kind" remind me of Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. A great album to have on while writing, but one of those records that is hard to listen to repeatedly.

Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain: Due out this week is the first solo album in six years from the Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk frontman. Over the past two decades, Conor hasn't strayed far from the Midwestern indie folk sound that he's perfected. In that way, this album holds few surprises, but it's still one of his most consistent releases in quite some time. I've been enjoying it all week long, choosing to listen to it most mornings. "Time Forgot," "Zigzagging Toward the Light," and "Enola Gay" are my favorite tracks at the moment. 
Sharon Van Etten - Are We There: The NYC based singer songwriter's fifth album is due out next week and it's quite spectacular. The album blends folk and dream pop with a shoegazer aesthetic to create an album that feels rich and beautiful. It reminds me of the new Warpaint album, which is currently one of my favorites of the year. The relaxed vibe makes it a great album for lazy summer days of letting the music wash over you. "Taking Chances," "Our Love," and "Break Me," are the real standout tracks on a thoroughly enjoyable record.
Guided by Voices - Cool Planet: In their continued marathon output, the Ohio kings of lo-fi released their second album of the year last week, which is their fifth in the last two years. It seems as if their work schedule is finally taking it's toll. Though this is another solid record, it does lack the immediate sense of success that their previous post-reunion albums have had since 2012. Like all of their albums, it's a collection of short songs that choose not to linger and instead attempt to capture the moment in flashes. Not their best effort, but any GBV record is a welcome addition. "Fast Crawl," "The Bone Church," "Ticked to Hide," and "Authoritarian Zoo" are my current favorite tracks. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Eternal Oz

With the new animated Oz film releasing this past weekend, it seemed time to pay tribute to one of the truly under appreciated films of my childhood, 1985's Return to Oz. This is a film that I still watch periodically and it holds up incredibly well. The striking thing about it is that the movie is extremely dark. In the recent Entertainment Weekly they had an article about how it inspired nightmares in an entire generation, but when I saw it as a child, rather than being afraid, I was fascinated by the darkness.

It has a completely opposite mood than the original film, which is relevant from the very beginning where we find Dorothy in a Kansas mental hospital undergoing shock therapy in an attempt to rid her of lingering "fantasies" concerning Oz. Nobody believes her tales of the adventure she lived through and the adults try to cure her of what they consider a wild imagination. It's a powerful and realistic portrayal of imagination being treated as a disease and a child's determination to hold onto what she knows to be the truth.

When she finally returns to Oz, Dorothy finds a much-changed land. The place she knew has fallen on dark times. The Emerald City lies in ruins, overrun by evil gangs of Wheelers and populated by headless inhabitants who have been turned to stone. In a way it reflects the contemporary feeling of the time that cities were dangerous places on the decline. 

The best part of the movie is Dorothy, played by an actual child, the mesmerizing Fairuza Balk. Through it all, she faces adversity with the a frustrated determination reminiscent of Alice in the Wonderland books. It's one of the benchmark movies in the development of my imagination, as is the original. And while it may be blamed for terrorizing a generation of children, for me it remains one of those formative films that stuck with me. As the new movie gets panned by critics, may I recommend a different journey to Oz and suggest that you give this film a try. As a bonus, you don't have to go to the theater, and as we all know, there is no place like home when it comes to escaping into imagined lands.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Communication Breakdown

(Artwork entitled Friendship by 4yo)

This past week I've been thinking quite a bit about life in the '90s. This wasn't spurred by any form of poetic waxing on times gone by, but rather a particular case of dream induced nostalgia. I had a string of dreams the other night populated with people I went to High School with, not even close friends, just classmates. Some of these people I hadn't thought about in years. Upon waking, through a chain of various related thoughts, my mind shifted to my apartment on St. Mark's Place in the mid-to-late 90's and the form of perpetual self-medicated, semi-isolation in which I existed. 

I remembered fondly how I used to fill the greeting tape of my answering machine with an entire song. This is a habit that dated back to High School and continued through college. That way, if anyone called, before they could leave message, they had to first listen to a song of my choosing, representing my current state of mind. I was trying to remember what songs I had used. I could only remember that once, for quite a long stretch of perhaps two months, my greeting was The Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down" from the rooftop concert in its entirety. For whatever reason, it seemed to sum up how I was feeling in those bleak grey winter days. 

The interesting thing about all of this is not the fact that I lived in a time when answering machines used full size cassette tapes, or that I still consider "Don't Let Me Down" to be the Fab Four's finest song, but rather the changing nature of communication. Back then if someone wished to get in contact with you, they were subjected to your whims. Whether it was an answering machine song, or an unanswered page, the parameters of the conversation were in your hands. In a sense it still is. You can choose not to answer the phone, or leave an email unread, but more and more the receiver is subjected to the whims of the sender. Be it on social media, or text messages, the sender "posts" something to you, forcing you to engage in whatever train of thought is steering them at the time. 

The circumstances of communication have changed dramatically in the past two decades and while there is a convenience and ease to it, I'm not sure I'm totally on board. In fact, I know that I'm not totally on board because I NEVER text. I have a cell phone that I only turn on when I need to make a call. Sometimes I'm amazed when I see elderly people who still correspond by snail mail, and it dawned on me that if I'm still around in 40 years, the younger generations will probably view my perculair communication standards in the same light and humankind pushes ever onward. Oh well, as long they just don't let me down, I'll be okay.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

After several weeks of all new releases, I'm drifting away from that course of action...but only slightly, and mostly in theory. There are a few older releases on here, but technically most of them are from this year, but they are archival material from old timers, another fallout from the glory which is Record Store Day. Another rarity for the Roundup this week is that the list features three live albums. I'm usually not a big fan of live records, but all of the ones on here are pretty fantastic. Next week I'll probably return to a list of current albums, but for the moment I'm enjoying the nostalgic trip down memory lane. Enjoy.

Neil Young - A Letter Home: For the second time in two years, Neil has released an album of all covers. Crazy Horse rejoined him for his previous covers album of old-timey Americana folky tunes, but this time he is flying solo. Recorded in the lo-fi studio Jack White built inside a telephone booth, the very nature of the production of this album creates the illusion that it's a very old piece of vinyl. Some have said it's gimmicky, but I actually love the crackle quality...and it's not really gimmicky if the effects are a natural result of the recording process. Anyway, on this record, Neil covers songs that inspired him early on, and even later in his career. His voice is vintage Neil, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar and the occasional piano. My favorites include "Needle of Death," "Girl From North Country," "On the Road Again," and "If You Could Only Read My Mind." This is a must for fans.

Grateful Dead - Live at Hampton Coliseum '79: In the ongoing tradition of releasing concerts that have been floating around in bootleg form forever, the Dead released this wonderful concert on vinyl for Record Store Day. This is one of the best live Grateful Dead albums that I've heard from this era. They are in perfect form, feeding off the crowd and playing with the passion that they are known for. Though I'm not a huge fan of "Eyes of the World" or "Truckin," which take up 21 minutes toward the end, they don't take away from the album, and I know others will consider them both to be highlights. My favorites are "Passenger," "New Minglewood Blues," "Loser," and "Estimated Prophet." 
Archie Bronson Outfit - Fur: This is the 2004 debut from the UK based garage rock band and one that I'd been looking for going on a few years now. I really liked the follow-up to this record, and this one is just as good and perhaps slightly better. They play garage rock with an acid blues aggression, but are also capable of producing quieter psychedelic gems similar to those put out by Black Angels. They released an album in 2010, and a fourth one is due out this year, but this is the perfect place to start. "Riders," "Here He Comes," "The Wheel Rolls On" and "Pompeii" are among my favorites.

2 Chainz - Codeine Cowboy: This mixtape, released in 2011 under his alias Tity Boi, is billed as a "2 Chainz Collective" though I must admit there is fair amount of filler. The Atlanta rapper is one of the most conflicting current hip hop artists in my opinion. When he's on, there are few that deliver rhymes better. But when he's off, I find his tracks to be disposable at best. Thankfully there are a few moments on this album where he delivers. "Cowboy," "Too Easy" and "Call Teisha" are standout tracks and worthy of download...which is free for this mixtape. 

R.E.M. - Unplugged 1991-2001: Another Record Store Day release was this 4 album vinyl box featuring the legendary alternative rock band's MTV Unplugged performances from two decades ago. Though I'm admittedly mixed when it comes to R.E.M., finding them borderline pretentious at times, and nearly brilliant at others, I decided that this was the kind of setting where I could really enjoy them. It turns out that I was right. This is the band at its best, devoid of production tricks and performing with the kind of feeling their songs demand. This set is filled with gems, including two amazing versions of their best song "Losing My Religion." Other standouts for me are "Get Up," "Pop Song 89," "Half a World Away," "The One I Love," and "Country Feedback." Certainly a must for fans, and even for those on the fence like myself.   

Arctic Monkeys - iTunes Festive London 2013: This EP was released toward the end of last year and it's a great companion to the album that was one of my favorites of the year. This live set features five of the best songs from the AM album. The versions on here don't vary too much from the studio versions, but this is one of those bands that sounds great in a live setting. Probably not necessary if you have the album, but if you love it, then you'll certainly want this to go along with it.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Fiction Friday (28)

It had been a while since I've read a book by a favorite author of mine. Mostly because many of my favorite authors are long gone, which means there are only a precious number of their works yet to be read. I fear burning through them too quickly, but also I fear passing them up for something else, never knowing when the day will come when I will have read my last book. So every so often I make it a point to make sure I spend some time connecting with my favorites and this past week was just such a time. It was nice spending the days with Raymond Queneau, my old pal who I hadn't read in quite some time. Enjoy.

Pierrot Mon Ami by Raymond Queneau

Queneau is a master of character, often sacrificing plot for the creation of personalities for the reader to connect with. As a writer who has often been criticized for the same "flaws," I've always been drawn to Queneau's work. The thing many people don't understand about novels that focus more on character than plot is that the world revolves around the character because he or she is the only one aware of what is going on in. In that way the character becomes a stand-in for the author, observing the world with a reluctance to get involved. Pierrot is such a character in this novel.

It follows one summer in the life of a young man. And though much happens around him, there is no central plot. He falls in love, though there is no relationship. He gets a job, loses a job, gets another job, loses another job; all in two days time. There is a spectacular fire, a phoney prince with a tomb erected in his honor, and a short car trip with a trained ape and boar. And while Pierrot exists on the periphery of all of these events, he is never truly engaged. There is a moment near the end of the book where Pierrot reflects on his adventure, referring to it as a sort of current that carried him into chance encounters. During this reflection, Queneau writes:

"He saw too the novel it could have made, a detective novel with a crime, a guilty party and a detective, and the requisite interplay between the different asperities of the demonstration, and he saw the novel that it had become, a novel so shorn of artifice that it was quite impossible to know whether it contained a riddle to be solved or whether it did not..."

As one of the voices of the French "new novel," Queneau refused to force life into the confines of a novel plot. Life doesn't fit into nice packages. Sometimes things that happen simply come to nothing. But that doesn't mean there isn't something one can take away from a story such as this one. It's an enjoyable, often humorous tale of young man who has no direction and no idea what his future holds. And like many his age, he doesn't much care, willing to just go with the flow. And though there is no climatic moment, or defining turn of events, Pierrot shows growth. Somewhere in his journey, the insecure, slightly nervous figure from the opening becomes a more confident person able to laugh at the absurdities of life.

This is a subtle novel, and one that really doesn't leave much of an impact until it's been absorbed in its entirety. I wasn't sure that I truly liked it until I was finished, but once I was, everything sort of came together for me. Not his absolute best, but definitely worth the read.