Sunday, February 28, 2016

Weekend Music Roundup

This was another week of discovery as I pushed myself to listen to some bands that I hadn't heard before. Of course, that needed to be balanced out with tried and true artists to make everything hunky dory. I was pleasantly surprised by quite a few of these new bands. None of them were disappointing, and some were actually very good. There was also a record that stands a good chance of sticking around for my best of the year list, or certainly best half-year list. It's why I always stick to the idea that music is something you need to continue to stretch your interests, it's the only way to find new sounds. Enjoy.

Thelonious Monk - The London Collection Volume Two: Recorded in 1971, long after the jazz era had ended and club scene had died away, the music still lived on. Recently re-released on 180gram clear vinyl, this record is delightful in every way. Thelonious' piano playing on here feels intimate and personal. There a joyful sadness that comes through the keys that is both somber and beautiful. "I Mean You," is a wonderful be-bop jazz piece, balanced with "Ruby, My Dear" on the flip side which is almost heartbreaking. And naturally, "Hackensack" is always a delight.

Wall of Death - Loveland: Out last month was the second album from the French psychedelic band. Using shoegaze and indie pop elements in the heavier psychedelic sound that shades their music, this album is one of those ethereal soundscapes that is never boring, the way Pink Floyd managed to be in the period where they were trying to find their sound. In a way, they remind me of the Japanese band Ghost, which is quite a compliment in my book. Moments of perfection abound, such as "Blow The Cloud," "All Mighty," "For a Lover," and "Chainless Man" make this a must album to check out for this year.

DeWolf - Roux-Ga-Roux: Released earlier this month, this is the sixth album from the Dutch psychedelic blues band, but my first encounter with them. Obvious students of late '60s psych blues, these guys create a fantastic sound that would fit in with the giants of the genre. With groovy guitar, heavy rhythm, and soulful singing, they got all the right ingredients and put it together in a great way. Like The Black Keys, but a much fuller sound. "Sugar Moon," "Baby's Got a Temper," and "Tired of Loving You" are standout tracks.

The Strypes - Little Victories: The second album from the Irish indie band came out last summer and is the follow-up to their surprising 2013 debut. These are four young lads who have developed a sound that beyond their years while clearly inspired by the past. They are definitely the first of what is likely to become many, children of the Arctic Monkeys. They have the same sense of balancing catchy with rough edges. As with all of their previous releases, including their EPs, this is just a fun, easy to listen to indie rock album that easy to like and kind of impossible to hate. Lots of great tracks, and the deluxe edition includes seven additional songs that are certainly worth it.
The Frights - You Are Going to Hate This: The second album from San Diego indie garage band was released last week, and the title jumped out at me. I really enjoyed this album. It has an upbeat Misfits vibe, like "Teenagers From Mars" meets Cali sunshine indie pop. Reminds me of harder edge Growlers. They are certainly in the same vein as other Cali fuzz rockers Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall, but bring enough of their own '90s indie inspired sound to the genre to make it a worthwhile addition. "Growing Up," "All I Need," "Puppy Knuckles," and "You or Me" are my personal favorites.

Aunt Mary - Aunt Mary: The 1970 debut from the Norwegian hard rock band is part Beatles "Abby Road" and part Jethro Tull "Stand Up", creating an interesting sound, not to mention containing a great graphic cover. Not without flaws, this is still a solid album of the genre and one that should probably be heard more. "Whispering Farewell," and "Did You Notice?" are two real gems. Recommended, though not essential.

Lemon Sky - Dos: The second album from the Cincinnati heavy psych came out this month and is available from their Bandcamp site. It's an interesting album with '80s thrash metal influences blended in with more traditional stoner psych elements. Vocals remind me a bit of Klaus Mine of Scorpions. A solid okay, but nothing groundbreaking. "Guillotine," "Submarine," and "Ash and Bone," are my favorites.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Hailing Caesar...

For three decades, the Coen brothers have been making some of the best movies of their generation. Their unique style of storytelling has cemented them as one of the few original voices left in popular cinema and has made many of their films modern classics. Last week I finally went to see their newest film, Hail Caesar and I'm happy to report that it yet another masterpiece.

The backdrop of the film is old Hollywood, on the back lot of the fictional Capital Pictures, a thinly veiled portrayal of the once unstoppable juggernaut of MGM. It pays homage to all of the different genres and stars that were popular in the era. There are several perfectly replicated scenes that reflect the cinema of the time, each one done with close attention to detail, and typically ending with a typically brilliant joke which the Coens are so good at doing. 

While dealing with studio exploitation, the hysteria surrounding communism, and the need to hide the private vices of anyone associated with Hollywood, the film uses an entertaining noire frame tale to contain the many moving parts. The result is a delightful movie that kept me entertained and frequently laughing. And like many of their best movies, it's one that can be watched again and again, revealing new references and jokes each time.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Weekend Music Roundup

Another interesting week of music in my world this past week. I've been pulled in equal parts to looking to the past and contemplating the present. It's also a week of artists primarily on the fringes of my likes, meaning that though I like these bands, I wouldn't consider any of these artists to be among my favorites, though collectively, they've made some pretty solid records. Some of these are vinyl finds of my last shopping spree, while the new releases are pure digital. Definitely an enjoyable week of sound exploration. Hopefully there's something you might want to check out. Enjoy.

The Cave Singers - Banshee:  It's been three years since the last album from the Seattle folk rock band, but finally the drought ended this week with the release of their fifth album. The opening track grabs you immediately, hearkening back to their earlier days with a classic back beat indie rock sound. There's a campfire feel to the album, which is what I loved so much about 2011's "No Witch" but which was missing from the follow-up. A nice '70s Van Morrison vibe flows through it as well, and with each song, the impact of the record grows. "Strip Mine," "Lost in the Tide," "That's Why," and "The Swimmer" are excellent tracks on an excellent album.

Kanye West - The Life of Pablo: Three years removed from Yeezus the iconic rapper released his new album on Valentine's Day. Despite all the hate out there, and the chaos that surrounds Ye, there's no denying his artistic brilliance. He continues to stretch the limits of hip hop and push the artistic nature of the genre on each album and this one is no different. Though not quite as strong as his previous two masterpieces, this is still quite stellar. There are a bit too many auto-tune songs that remind me of 808s & Heartbreak but when he's on, it's fantastic. "No More Parties in L.A.," "Famous," "Facts," and "Feedback" are my personal favorites. 

Waylon Jennings - I've Always Been Crazy: One of the titans of country music, this 1978 album captures Waylon in full outlaw persona. The kind of album that is how I picture classic country, to be played in a half-filled smokey bar as Waylon talks about drinking his troubles away while strumming a mean guitar. There's a great medley on here of Buddy Holly tunes, done with Buddy's band The Crickets. Waylon had worked with Buddy and his death is partially responsible for Waylon becoming the 'outlaw' musician that he became. Quality stuff. Waylon is right up there with Hank and Cash as classic country legends.

Animal Collective - Painting With: Over their nearly two decade career, I've followed this psychedelic folk band on and off with never having truly connected to any of their material. I know many people who swear by them, so when this album came out last week, their first in four years, I decided to give them another try.  This album sees them move much farther into the psychedelic pop area and away from folk, and it actually seems to work for them, somehow giving their songs more structure makes them less irritating. This isn't the record that will turn me into a fan, but it's not the one that will turn me off of them forever, so I suppose that is something. "Golden Gal" is the one song I truly loved.

Blodwyn Pig - Ahead Rings Out: In 1968, Mick Abrahams left his guitar duties in Jethro Tull to form this band because he wanted to go into more of blues rock direction while Tull ventured into prog folk. The result was this 1969 debut, which unsurprisingly sounds like what Tull would've made if they were playing blues rock. Perhaps not as innovative as the course Ian Anderson took, but still a pretty jamming album. "Walk On the Water," "Summer Day," "Ain't Ya Comin' Home," "See My Way," and "Dear Jill" are standout tracks.

Arlo Guthrie - Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys: This 1973 album continues the string of fine releases to start off the career of Woody's son and Dylan's protegee. What Arlo does best is take Bob's style and fuse it with a sound that is just slightly easier to digest. He's kind of like a mainstream radio version of Dylan, though remaining true to the folk ideals and outsider perspective that embody the music. This is another great addition to my collection of his work leading up to this one. "Rambling 'Round" and "Miss the Mississippi and You"are my personal favorites.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Fiction Friday (40)

As I mentioned in the last Fiction Friday, I'm trying to read more this year than last year. After finishing the last of Peculiar Children novels, I picked up this short middle grade novel and read it almost entirely in one sitting, something I hadn't done is quite some time. It was certainly the proper way to enjoy this book, allowing each delicate moment to build on the next. I really enjoyed the subtle sci-fi nature of the story. Those are always the best kind of sci-fi, ones that are more about being human than about other words. Enjoy.

The Green Book by Jill Paton Walsh

A deceptively simple book that packs its thin pages with equal parts hope and worry. The story follows a family on last ditch journey away from a dying Earth. With only enough fuel to reach the unknown distant planet designated for them by richer, more connected refugees that left Earth long before, the passengers on the old ship are allowed only the bare minimum of supplies and only one personal item, along with a book. When they arrive, they have no idea whether the planet will support them or not. It had only be briefly scouted to determine there was a high likelihood that it could support human life.

The trip takes several years, in which time the main character Pattie, grows from a small child into an inquisitive girl. Upon arriving, there is a moment before the passengers will find out if the planet is livable, whether there is water, if their seeds will grow, and are there any potential dangers. Like every moment in this novel, it handled excellently. Will a careful use of words, Jill Paton Walsh is able to capture all the tension without ever embellishing or resorting to melodrama.

Life on this new planet is seen through Pattie's eyes, and so while the difficulties are visible, what the reader truly feels is the sense of discovery that the strange world exhibits. It is the gift of a child to see joy even in the midst of struggle.

A surprise twist at the end only works to strengthen this book and make it even more endearing than it already had been.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Children Who Chase Lost Voices

The other week, I was finally able to catch up with watching a few anime films that I'd been meaning to see. Along with Wolf Children, which I wrote about two weeks ago, I also watched Children Who Chase Lost Voices. This is a film that had been nominated for tons of prestige awards when it came out in 2011. It's a coming of age story that infuses magical elements based on Japanese mythology.

One of the things that I've always loved about anime is the format's ability to genre bend within a film and there is no inner voice asking me to question the logic behind such changes. This is one of those movies that starts off innocently enough, with a young girl missing the father she's lost and the mother who works days on end. She deals with her loneliness by climbing the nearby hills and listening to a radio powered by a crystal left to her by her father. 

It turns out that these crystals have a connection to a world that exists below the surface of the earth, a world where old gods and myths have gone now that they're no longer needed to guide mankind out of his infancy. The girl, Asuna, soon becomes entangled with a human who lives in that world, known as Agartha, and a government agent who is search for it for his own selfish reasons. What transpires is a journey that threatens the very existence of Agartha and causes all involved to question what is possible. 

This is beautiful film, with breathtaking moments of animation. Clearly inspired by Studio Ghibli. There are moments that seem borrowed from Spirited Away and Princess Mononokie. They are clearly interested in the same mythology and derive from similar cultural sources. Certainly worth watching for fans of Miyazaki's films. 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Weekend Music Roundup

The best part about long weekends is the that there is more time to listen to music. Not just have it playing, but to really listen to it. This past week I listened to lots of things, some old and some new. It was also a week of exploration, taking chances on a few things out of lingering curiosity. As a result, I was exposed to some albums that I otherwise may have never listened to and would have missed out. Sometimes you have expand your horizons in order to find stuff. There's a wide range of music types on the list, so hopefully there's something here you'll want to take a chance on. Enjoy.

Sivert Hoyem - Lioness: The sixth solo album from the lead singer of criminally underrated Norwegian band Madrugada was released last month and is another gem in his career of brilliant albums. This is another mellower record, like 2011's "Long Slow Distance," one of my favorite albums of that year. These songs feature his refined style of indie rock blended with with folk and ballad elements, but it's his voice that really defines things, a spiritual voice that is always managing to give a beauty to darkness. Easily one of my favorite records of 2016 so far and one that will most likely end up on my list in December, so definitely one to check out.

Elliott Smith - Heaven Adores You: This archival release of demos and alternate takes of Elliott's work is being released to accompany a soundtrack. Much like the Kurt Cobain release last year, this is one of those albums that is meant to appeal mainly to die-hard fans. Luckily, I happen to be one of those. This is like discovering a lost box of treasures, as raw as they are. Perhaps because of their rawness, the honesty shines through even more so than on his more polished studio records of his later career. "Plainclothes Man," "Say Yes," "Son of Sam (Acoustic)" and all the untitled instrumental demos were of real interest to me.

The Dutchess and the Duke - Live at Third Man Records: Recorded in the Fall of 2014, after a few years hiatus and side-projects, the band got back together to record this live-to-acetate that was released last summer. Running through songs from both albums, it's a great set, including favorites of mine like "Out of Time," and "Armageddon Song." I was really happy to find a copy of this, it's a great addition to the collection. I hope this will mean there is a new album in the works some time down the road.

Jefferson Airplane - Jefferson Airplane Takes Off: Despite being a huge fan of the Airplane, for some reason I never managed to pick up their debut back in my Airplane CD buying days, probably because I had the songs on other various releases, including the Fillmore East live set, and the Loves You box set. But the death of Paul and Signe on the same day two week ago sort of hit me. When I came across a nice copy of this for cheap, I had to buy it. Wow, is it ever fantastic. Nearly as good as the landmark Surrealistic Pillow that would follow. A brilliant psychedelic folk album with classics like "It's No Secret," "Let Me In," "Bringing Me Down," and "Let's Get Together."

Peter, Paul, and Mary - Peter, Paul, and Mommy: The last album released by the folk trio was appropriately a children's album. In 1969, the folk movement was running on empty, and these early stars were moving into parenthood, which made sense to record this album recorded with a audience of children. I picked this up for my baby the other day and we listened to it. It's quite good. Just well sung and played innocent folk music, with "Puff the Magic Dragon" being the fantastic set closer.

Gary Numan - The Pleasure Principle: The 1979 debut album from the New Wave legend is a wonderful piece of minimal synth music. I listened to this on a whim, mostly because something about the starkness of the cover appealed to me. I'm familiar with the hits on this record, especially "Cars" but was unaware of his work otherwise. This album is sort of claustrophobic in ways, and eerily pleasant. It reminds me of music that would have existed in Clockwork Orange's vision of the future. Definitely worth a listen.  

Bee Gees - 2 Years On: This 1971 album is the beginning of the brothers second career. Robin having come back to the band, they move away from the earlier sound into a soft rock sound that would soon dominate '70s radio. Disco was still in the future, as was stardom, but there are some great tunes on here that would echo the start of glam rock, especially the great "Lonely Days." All in all, way to many ballads to make it an exceptional album, but a nice find in the $1 bin. "Back Home," "The 1st Mistake I Made," "Lay It On Me," and the Lennon-esque "Every Second, Every Minute" are quality tracks.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Fiction Friday (39)

For a combination of reasons, last year was the year when I read books that didn't appeal to me. I also read slowly, mostly because I was busy with a baby, and when I wasn't, I was sleeping or working. The result was several months of unenthusiastic reading. I decided to change that this year, and one way to change that is to read books that I really, really want to read and not just picking up a book because it's been sitting around on a shelf for long enough. My selectivity has typically been one of my skills, choosing things that I know that I will like. I hadn't been using that skill appropriately of late, but that's all in the past. To kick off the new year, I picked up a book that I've been wanting to read since I closed the cover on the last book in the series. I was rewarded not only with a story that I loved, but one that inspired me to make time to read it quickly.

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs
(Quirk Books, 2015)

The concluding book in the Peculiar Children series that began two novels ago was not only magnificent in its own right, but the perfect installment to end a story that has engaged my imagination for the past few years.

While the last book suffered from the curse of a middle novel, one that simply bridges the beginning and the climax, moving the characters from point A to point B, this book was free from those constraints. Picking up where the action left off, literally where it left off, as if a pause button was pushed and with the opening of the cover, the scene starts up again. I will admit that it was a little disjointing at first and I found myself putting it down in order to refresh myself with the events I'd read last year. But once it all came back to me, I was off and running and read this book quicker than I've read any book in the last year.

One of my other qualms about the previous novel was the forced nature of Jacob and Emma's relationship. Thankfully, this time around their young love is once again infused with the honesty that made it so special in the first book. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that this story focused on the two of them as a team. It didn't attempt to carry a huge cast through the story and kept the attention on them as they struggled to defeat their enemies in the heart of Devil's Acre; a most excellently conceived loop of nastiness.

As with the previous two stories, the action scenes were masterfully written, but it was the the expanded elaborations of Peculiardom Mythology that kept me enthralled and turning the pages. The secrets revealed here filled my head with wondering long after the pages were closed for the night. The idea of the time loops and their connectedness was fascinating, and the ancient history of their struggles and eventual fall were extremely compelling for a sci-fi nerd like myself. Others may find those elements a bit boring, but they truly made the book for me.

What a magical feeling when a story begins two books prior and wraps up with such an wonderfully complete and gripping novel. Bravo, Mr. Riggs.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Little Red

Little Red by Beatriz Martin Vidal
(Logos, 2012)

I recently received this absolutely stunning wordless picture book that tells the tale of Little Red Riding Hood in all of its darkness. Beatriz Martin Vidal is one of the artists that I've been enamored with over the past few years, and this books reminds just why I've been so blown away. The paintings are intense, the fear and mystery is palpable. And the altered ending creates a story where Red triumphs on her own, destroying the wolf simply by the pureness of her being. Breathtaking and beautiful. 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Weekend Music Roundup

Well it may be SuperBowl weekend, but for me the weekend is still first and foremost about music. This was a week where much of what I was listening to won't end up on the list because it is vinyl purchases of things I'd already heard digitally and reviewed here. But it's also a week where I returned to Bandcamp to engage in more unheard bands. I also caught up with releases from favorite artists that I hadn't yet heard. There's a few 2016 releases on here, and lots of genres. Hopefully you will all find something worth checking out. Enjoy.

Mars Red Sky - Providence: The new EP from the French stoner rock band follows 2014's terrific album, Stranded in Arcadia. The three new songs on here are less heavy than the ones on previous album, but that's not really a bad thing. They seem to be exploring their sound, and it's serving them well. Though there remains a heavy back beat, it is sort of used to keep the the pace of the swirling sounds that swim throughout the tracks. The last song is an acoustic, Floydian soundscape that is perhaps the most intricate and beautiful track to date. The new full length album comes out later this year and I can't wait to hear where they go with it.

Guided By Voices - Do the Collapse: Typical of the Ohio lo-fi legends' albums, this 1999 record is packed with short songs, full of intrigue and power chords. I picked this one up on orange vinyl last weekend and it's yet another gem. Perhaps their most accessible album, it's more mainstream indie rock sounding than the glimmering brilliance of Bee Thousand. Still it's not devoid of their trademark quirkiness and drifts into near literary psychedelic poetry. "Hold On Hope," "Optical Hopscotch," "In Stitches," and "Mushroom Art" are among my favorites. 

The Legendary Pink Dots - The Maria Dimension: The band's landmark 1991 release is often considered their masterpiece, and for good reason. As frequent followers are aware, I've been obsessed with this band for the past year or so, but have been coming at their catalog from all angles rather than in any progressive chronological order. This is the easiest album to define as psychedelic space rock with ambient overtones, but even so, it is still indescribably unique.  "A Space Between," "The Ocean Cried 'Blue Murder'," "The Grain Kings," and "Expresso Noir," are exceptional tracks and what might be their most accessible nightmare.

Bevis Frond - Ear Song: I've been a fan of the Frond for two decades and was thrilled to find a vinyl copy of this 1990 EP this past weekend. The title track and "Olde World" are much more punk infused that most of their stuff, and is sounds great. It's almost punk-blues sounding, unlike most everything I've ever heard. It's rare to hear some that sound different. The second side is a short live set. Lots of energy in their playing. A must have for fans. 

Drug Cabin - Wiggle Room: The 2014 debut album from the L.A. indie band is pure pop inspired indie rock with psychedelic overtones. Drawing on early to mid-sixties sounds, it reminds me of some of the Elephant 6 bands like early Apples in Stereo, The Minders, and Ladybug Transistor. There's a deceptive simplicity to the music that hides the complexities that exist just below the surface. "Ruby" and "Wonderful" are standouts for me. Definitely check them out on Bandcamp if you're into this kind of thing. 

Sunflower Bean - Human Ceremony: Out this week is the debut album from the latest hype band to come out of Brooklyn. I'd read about this record and it sounded interesting, supposedly psychedelic indie rock. Having listened to it, it's not psyche at all, and is more indie pop than anything else. The strange thing about bands that are really hyped is that they rarely sound like anything new, and that's the case here. Sunflower Bean are sort of a mix of a dozen other bands from the past 20 years. It sort of weaves in and out of genres of rock, sort of like Band of Skulls. It's a solid OK, but not deserving of the attention. "Wall Watcher," "I Was Home," and the title track are standouts.  

BigBee of the Whitetree - North American Nomad: Released in December, this lo-fi folk album from the Boston singer songwriter is one of those beautiful desolate winter albums. It reminds me a bit of Jose Gonzalez, especially his early work. Simple and sparse, and incredibly moving. This is definitely worth checking out on his Bandcamp site. "Pine Root" and "Redwood Dust" are great tunes on this perfect winter afternoon album. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Literary Birthdays...The Soft Machine

“Writers, like elephants, have long, vicious memories. There are things I wish I could forget.”
William S. Burroughs

Monday, February 1, 2016

Wolf Children

The past weekend, I finally watched Wolf Children, the acclaimed 2013 anime film from director Mamoru Hosoda. I've been wanting to see this film ever since I stumbled across it while researching work on my werewolf novel two years ago. Though it's very different than the tale I'm crafting, the idea of wolf children intrigued me and it was a delight to see how it was handled in this beautiful film.

In many ways, Wolf Children is a classic fairy tale but with a decidedly modern feel, dealing with modern day problems. It handles extremely difficult subjects like death and childhood anxieties with delicate care, while never attempting to gloss over them or trivialize their seriousness. There are moments in the movie that are incredibly sad, but they are balanced with moments of triumph. 

It's strange how I find myself now watching things with a parental eye. When this movie was over, I was left with an overwhelming excitement to one day share it with my daughter, who has been fascinated with the DVD cover for weeks. Rated PG, it has that kind of Bambi feel that makes it appropriate for introducing tough subjects in a way that children can understand and not be terribly afraid of. And the message of following your heart, being yourself, and helping others is one that every parent can appreciate.