Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving from Lulu Eightball

Just a little something to kickoff the holiday. Emily Flake's Lulu Eightball is bitterly funny and it's one of the main reasons I pick up Boston's Weekly Dig every week.

I particularly like the one on the upper right. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nerd Rant: Clash of the Titans Remake

Complaining about the unoriginality of Hollywood is about as useful as complaining about the weather, and using phrases like "raping my childhood" is offensive, cliché, and so cliché it's offensive. But I just watched the trailer for the remake of Clash of the Titans, and I am stunned once again by Hollywood's unoriginality and I feel like my childhood has been raped. Or at least molested.

The 1981 Clash of the Titans is one of the first movies I remember watching, ever. I was 5, and my parents took me to a drive-in to see The Fox and the Hound. It was a double feature with CotT following the forgettable Disney feature, and I guess my parents stayed assuming the kids would fall asleep.

I didn't fall asleep. The movie should have scared the crap out of a 5-year-old, but I fell in love with it. It was and continues to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Technically, it was directed by some guy named Desmond Davis, but anyone who knows it (and I know it very, very well) thinks of it as a Ray Harryhausen film, the last real Harryhausen film made. Yeah, the special effects are dated, but they are still amazing for the time period. It's worth watching the movie just for the creepy Medusa scenes, but there's plenty to admire in terms of the other effects. And it's a fun story. And Laurence Olivier is Zeus! Can the remake have that?

I implore anyone who's never seen this film to watch the original and not the remake. And if they decide to remake Jason and the Argonauts, I may be forced to rant again.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween 2009: The Graveyard Book

Probably the best possible book to have finished reading on the night before Halloween.

I finished The Graveyard Book about 4 minutes ago, so my brain is still whirling a bit. Neil Gaiman is quite a story teller. When I initially read the synopsis of this book--something along the lines of "Nobody Owens is a boy raised in a graveyard by ghosts"--I had my doubts. I also knew it was a children's book, though I must emphasize that it's for older children. The first few pages describe a family being stabbed to death, so please don't read this to your 6-year-old.

But I should have trusted Gaiman to weave an engaging, exciting, and touching tale. Bod (as Nobody is known) and his supernatural guardians represent a fascinating cast of characters. Those first few pages are brutal, but they immediately engage the reader. And honestly, though I enjoyed the Harry Potter series as much as anyone, I think if I were to encourage young readers to read about a young person in a magical setting, I'd go to this book first. It's a bit darker, but also better written and leaves a bit more to the reader's imagination (which is a good thing).

I'm a bit too tried to blather much more, but I will say that as with Gaiman's other children's novel, Coraline, I highly reccomend this book. It's a quick but satisfying read for an adult, and it's a story I'm sure some kids will want to read over and over.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Halloween 2009: Roman Dirge's Lenore

OK, this one has to be quick, but it's pretty Halloweeny....

I randomly picked up Roman Dirge's Lenore: Noogies the other day basically because it looked pretty Halloweenesque. It's a comic based around a "cute little dead girl" named Lenore. I figured if this guy Dirge names his main character after a Poe poem, it can't be all that bad.

And it isn't. The strip, which is comprised of multiple short stories and a few longer stories (some that don't feature the title character at all) is often quite amusing, though darkly so. Lenore regularly mangles pets, stabs people to death--even babies!--and generally wreaks havoc wherever she goes. But, you know, in a cute and funny way!

Though ultra-violent, the strip is very cartoony, so it can't be taken seriously. The characters are very reminscent of Tim Burton's designs (think Frankenweenie or The Nightmare Before Christmas), which is not a bad thing. This particular collection represents the early days of the character and the strip. New characters are constantly being introduced, some of whom stick around for further adventures, some of whom are one-shot deals.

You can see a little more of Lenore at Dirge's website. I'll eventually pick up the next volume, Wedgies, collecting the next four "chapters" of Lenore's story. Maybe I'll save it for next Halloween...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Halloween 2009: Ghost Mix

Anyone can make a Halloween Mix. Throw in some "Monster Mash" and "Spooky" and you're off to the races. But how about a mix that's only about ghosts? Here's a list of ghosty songs, arranged according to their relevance to Halloween. Note that I don't really dislike any of these songs, but the ones marked with a "*" are actually pretty good and I would really put them on a mix, Halloween or otherwise:

Songs about literal ghosts (pretty Halloweeny):
  • "Friendly Ghost"--Eels (from Souljacker)*
  • "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky"--Johnny Cash (16 Biggest Hits...sorry, don't know original album)*
  • "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky"--Me First and The Gimme Gimmes (from Love Their Country)*
  • "Little Ghost"--I'm From Barcelona (from Who Killed Harry Houdini?)
  • "Ghost King Pt. 2"--State Bird (from Mostly Ghostly)
  • "I Think I'll be a Good Ghost"--Say Hi To Your Mom (from Ferocious Mopes)*
  • "Ghost of Mae West"--Trailer Bride (from High Seas)
  • "Skinny White Girl"--Trailer Bride (from Hope Is a Thing With Feathers)*
  • "Leslie Anne Levine"--The Decemberists (from Castaways and Cutouts)*
  • "Eli, the Barrow Boy"--The Decemberists (from Picaresque)
Songs about figurative ghosts (only slightly Halloweeny):
  • "Ghosts"--Laura Marling (from Alas, I Cannot Swim)*
  • "Walking With a Ghost"--Tegan and Sara (from So Jealous)*
  • "The Ghost of You Lingers"--Spoon (from Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga)
  • "My Summer With Ghosts"--Doleful Lions (from Song Cyclops Volume One)
  • "Ghost-Town of My Brain"--Jim White (from No Such Place)
  • "Searching for the Ghost"--Heartless Bastards (from All This Time)*
  • "All My Ghosts"--Frank Black (from Frank Black & The Catholics)*
Honestly, I have no idea what these songs are about, but they have the word "Ghost" in the title (probably not that Halloweeny, but who knows?):
  • "Paddling Ghost"--Dan Deacon (from Bromst)
  • "Ghost of a Plastic Bag"--Pee Wee Fist (from Flying)
  • "Ghostship"--Menomena (from Friend and Foe)
  • "Ghost"--Neutral Milk Hotel (from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea)*
  • "Boy Ghost"--Eef Barzelay (from Rocket Science soundtrack)
  • "Not A Robot, But A Ghost"--Andrew Bird (from Noble Beast)*
  • "Ghosts of Perdition"--Pepi Ginsberg (from Red)
  • "Ghost King Pt. 1"--State Bird (from Mostly Ghostly)
Know any other ghosty songs? I probably missed some obvious ones.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Halloween 2009: Sleepy Hollow

File this one under very, very, very Halloweeny.

Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow is one of my favorite movies to watch on Halloween. It also happens to be the only "scary" movie my wife will watch with me, but that's besides the point. The film, which came out almost exactly 10 years ago, fell between Burton's two fairly unsuccessful forays into sci-fi territory, Mars Attacks! and Planet of the Apes. Sleepy Hollow is the quintessential Tim Burton film, and I dare say it's my favorite of his movies.

I'll just make life easier for myself and make a list of just a few of reasons why this movie is awesome:

  • Johnny Depp as a brilliant but scaredy-cat Ichabod Crane.
  • An actual flaming pumpkin head.
  • Purposely cheesy dialogue delivered perfectly, including this exchange between Depp and Christina Ricci (in her best role since The Addams Family): Katrina Anne Van Tassel: I have shed my tears for Brom... and yet my heart is not broken. Do you think me wicked?
    Ichabod Crane: No... but perhaps there is a little bit of witch in you, Katrina.
    Katrina Anne Van Tassel: Why do you say that?
    Ichabod Crane: Because you have bewitched me.
  • It has plenty of humor, but also features multiple graphic beheadings, as well as the off-screen slaughter of a cute child (not my wife's favorite part of the movie).
  • An amazing supporting case, including Miranda Richardson, Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gambon, and Christopher Lee.
  • The obligatory cameo by Burton's girlfriend-at-the-time, Lisa Marie (it's like looking for Hitchcock in one of his films).
  • And of course, perhaps most importantly, Christopher friggin' Walken, as the Hessian Horseman himself:
See? Awesome.

If for some reason you've never seen this movie, this is the time of year to do it. It will bewitch you.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Halloween 2009: The Walking Dead

This one falls into the category of very Halloweeny...

Zombie stories pretty much fall into two camps: satirical (think the recent Zombieland or Sean of the Dead for movies, or my most recent favorite computer game, Plants vs. Zombies) or scary. Robert Kirkman's long-running The Walking Dead comics series falls very squarely in the latter category.

I picked up the first compendium of The Walking Dead earlier this year--it's comprised of the first 8 trade paper backs, or the first 48 issues, of the series. It starts off almost identically to one of my favorite recent zombie flicks, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later. A dude, our "hero", a townie cop, wakes up from a coma to find the hospital empty. He eventually makes it outside to find that the town is a wasteland and the walking dead (only much later are they actually referred to as zombies) are everywhere.

Eventually he finds living people, including his family, which is probably the least likely plot development the story offers up. From there, the tried and true zombie tropes are trotted out. The zombies can only be killed by a head shot (or ax, or hammer, or ninja sword...whatever). People think the government will eventually come to the rescue. And most importantly, the survivors should be more afraid of each other than the actual zombies.

There's not a whole lot of new territory here in terms of the zombie mythology, but since it is an exceptionally long series, we're allowed to observe and get to know the well-written characters far better than one can in a 90 minute movie. As long as you don't actually get attached to any characters. This is very much an anyone-can-die-at-any-moment kind of series. Like the superb Y the Last Man, there's also a lot more thought put into the plot and the circumstances. Besides just murder and mayhem, the series is very much a thought experiment. Kirkman has clearly put some effort into imagining what the world would actually be like if the dead came back to life.

The black and white illustrations, primarily by Charlie Adlard and Cliff Rathburn, are well paired with this level of story telling. The violence is graphically depicted, but they're not really going for the gross-out factor. Yes, a person's neck is bitten, but we're not seeing veins and gore squirting everywhere. It's gross, but not too gross.

I can really only read this book one chapter at a time, with good breaks in between. It's a compelling story, but relentlessly grim. There's not a word of comic relief, nor should there be here. Kirkman chose his tone early on and he's remained consistent. But really, when nothing every good happens to anyone, ever, it gets more than a little depressing if you read too much at once. Still, zombies are pretty cool, and this whip-smart series is worth the occassional visit to get that zombie fix we all desire.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Halloween 2009: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In an effort to get a little more content up here, I'm going to try to do a post a night this week in honor of Halloween. I'll try to write about Halloweeny things, but some will be more Halloweeny than others. This first entry is really only vaguely Halloweeny.

My brother-in-law (who's German) recommended Stieg Larrson's novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, ages ago. In hind sight, it was probably before it was even released in this country. It's the first in a trilogy by the late Swedish author who basically wrote the series as a pastime. The series is relatively popular here, but it's huge in Europe. Literally millions of copies have been sold--it's like Harry Potter, but instead of magic for kids, it's sex and murder for adults.

I suppose the book is what one calls a crime thriller. It's not a genre I read often, so it's tough to say. It's the thriller part that gets me. The only difference between "thriller" and "horror" in my mind is that the "horror" usually involves the supernatural in some way. Someone please correct me if I'm wrong. I guess it's the thriller part that also makes this book vaguely Halloweeny--there are some legitimately creepy parts.

But more importantly, once you get past the first 60 pages or so, the book is pretty much unputdownable. Sure, 60 pages is a lot, but it's worth getting through. Not that the beginning is a complete slog, but it's our first introduction to the main characters of not just the book, but the series. The real meat of the story comes soon after, and it's very tasty meat indeed.

Mikael Blomkvist is a financial journalist who's recent fall from grace leads him to a dubious new employer. Though he's not the most exciting character, he's thrust into the extraordinary circumstances that form the crux of the novel. Lisbeth Salander, the titular "girl", is a fascinating character and the centerpiece of the series. It takes an agonizingly long time for her to enter the central plot, but she requires a lot more development as a character.

And really, I can't say much more without spoiling it. I haven't stayed up late to read a book in ages, and my wife read it three times faster than I did. She cursed me for encouraging her to read such a riveting book that was also too scary for her.

The novel isn't great literature, and it's not without its flaws, but it was undoubtedly a fun read. If you started it right now, you'll probably have it done by Halloween. As for me, the sequel, The Girl Who Played with Fire, should be arriving on my doorstep any day now.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Highly Anticipated Fall Albums

I'm so far behind on the albums I've listened to and would like to review, I will likely never catch up--so, sorry about that. But there have been three albums released in the last month that I was really looking forward to, and even though I haven't really absorbed any of them yet, here are some quick early impressions...

The Dodos - Time To Die
So far this album falls squarely in between the previous two Dodos albums in terms of how much I like it. It's not quite as catchy as Beware of the Maniacs, but it's definitely more accessible than last year's somewhat disappointing Visiter. The third album is often a death knell for bands, but I think The Dodos still have some life in them. "Fables", the song in the following video, is pretty representative.

Thao (with the Get Down Stay Down) - Know Better Learn Faster
Of the three albums I'm writing about here, this is the one living up to my expectations the least. That may be because I had the highest expectations for it since Thao's last album, We Brave Bee Stings And All, was my favorite album last year. Where that album was kind of light, silly, and sexy, this album is often dark, dirty, and sexy. It was a big shift in tone (other than the sexy part), and I guess I was a bit jarred. It might grow on me, but I'm pretty sure it won't crack my top 10 or 20 of the year. Still, "Cool Yourself"'s a pretty good song (though not particularly representative of the rest of the album):

Built to Spill - There Is No Enemy
Of these three albums, this is the one that surpassed my expectations. It's not that I don't expect a lot from Built to Spill--Doug Martsch and co. are hands down one of my favorite bands. But they've made a lot of albums, and there are some misses along with the hits. Since I really enjoyed their last album, 2006's You in Reverse, I didn't want to get my hopes up too much. I needn't have worried. I would say There Is No Enemy is on par with Keep It Like a Secret in terms of how much I like it, though they are both very different albums. This album is a little more bitter than usual, but the clever lyrics and massive guitar are still there. Whenever I really need to have my ears barraged by guitar, I know Built to Spill is there for me.

The video below is fan-made, but it's the only way I could get this song on here. "Things Fall Apart" is long, kinda depressing, and has some NSFW lyrics...but it's also pretty awesome.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Andrew Bird's "Anonanimal"

Andrew Bird doesn't make a ton of videos, so when he does, it's kind of event...umm, if you really like Andrew Bird. Which I do.

Check out the freaky-cool video for "Anonanimal", a pretty song from Noble Beast, Bird's most recent album. Unfortunately I can't embed it, but you can see it if click on the pic or go to the following link:

Monday, September 28, 2009

Titan Maximum

Just watched the pilot for Titan Maximum on Adult Swim. has been hyping this show for a month, so it was clear they felt they had something special here.

And yeah, it was pretty funny. The following clip was easily my favorite two minutes of the show, but there was plenty of comedy gold to be had in the pilot.

The giant robot genre is a big fat juicy target for satire, so I have little doubt that if the writing remains this good, the show will be around for a while. For the full pilot, click here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Reviews: Tesla, Monsters, and Mad Militaries

In the last few weeks I've managed to finish 3 books. I feel vaguely literate again. Here's a brief rundown...

Samantha Hunt's The Invention of Everything Else
I first heard about this book a year or so ago when I heard an interview with the author on NPR. The premise sounded interesting--a novelization of Nikola Tesla's last few weeks on earth, during which several real events in his fascinating life are recounted. Though I am by no means a Tesla expert, any scientist worth his salt should at least have some awareness of who he is. In a righteous world, anyone who uses alternating current (which would be pretty much everybody who uses electricity) would know who he is. He was and remains, arguably, one of the most under appreciated inventors and engineers of the last few centuries.

So that's why I read the book. Tesla was a interesting dude. Hunt's depiction of him as mad genius is probably not all that far off the mark. Her depiction of Thomas Edison as an business-savvy non-genius is also probably not too far off the mark. The fictional characters with which they interact, however, are a little harder to embrace. They're better than mere caricatures, but I didn't really find myself caring about them all that much.

This book tries to be a lot of things. It's a bit biography and historical fiction, some romance, and even a dash of science fiction. Some readers may find this inability to classify the book frustrating, some may find it endearing. I find myself falling more into the latter camp--the book isn't exactly literature, but it was clever and entertaining. Just as I found the descriptions of whaling the most fascinating aspect of Moby Dick, I found the descriptions of Tesla's rise and fall as one of the world's greatest inventors very gratifying. If the novel had been composed exclusively of Tesla-centric chapters, it would have received a solid A from me. As it was, I found the chapters that didn't involve Tesla reasonably well-written, but a bit distracting. I'll leave it at a B, and recommend the book to anyone who wants to learn a bit more about Tesla but is too lazy to pick up a real biography any time soon (like me!).

Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters
I read Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners a few years ago. Two of my favorite stories from that anthology were "The Faery Handbag" and "Magic for Beginners". I finished Pretty Monsters a week or so ago and two of my favorite stories were "The Faery Handbag" and "Magic for Beginners."

So apparently this anthology was being marketed as a book for "young adults," but I'm really not sure how different these stories were from the previous volume. I'm not complaining about the repeated stories (the only repeated stories, incidentally); it was actually a pleasure to read them again. "Magic for Beginners" is especially good--a twisty tale of metafiction that leaves the reader needing to read it again. Other stories range from fairly light fantasy to borderline horror. Link has a fantastic imagination, an aptitude for throwing curve balls in her story telling, and an excellent ear for dialogue, particularly children's dialogue. Perhaps it's this last gift that makes these stories for young adults. The protagonists (or victims...what have you) are all children or teenagers, so I guess that's why the book was siphoned into the young adult genre.

So I guess I'd recommend you'd give this book to a young adult you know, but read it yourself first. I'd also recommend Link's Magic for Beginners, which I thought I'd blogged about already, but apparently not. I'd give that one a A-, whereas Pretty Monsters is almost as good with a B+.

Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats
Clearly, I have my finger on the pulst of America. Or at least Hollywood. Literally the day after I picked this book up, I discovered it has recently been made into a movie starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, and other famous actor types. Now I honestly have no idea how TMWSAG could possibly make a good movie, but it was an excellent piece of nonfiction.

The book is Ronson's account of his adventures exploring the scary side of the US military. Not scary dangerous, but scary crazy. The title refers to a secret building in Fort Bragg where men were apparently trained for years to kill (or at least "drop") a goat just by staring at it. Ronson eventually tracks down the one man who apparently did it, a civilian who now practices on hamsters. He also talks to generals who think they can walk through walls, form psychic spies, and the people ultimately behind the Barney song torture.

In THEM: Adventures with Extremists, Ronson relied on his Jewishness to maintain the tension of being an outsider (and potential victim) in the groups he was exploring. Here, though it's seldom mentioned, he uses his Britishness to gain access to people who might not be as open with an American journalist. Ronson follows every lead to discover who the key players have been in the paranormal--or at least pseudoscientific--side of the military over the past 40 years. Much stems from a military document the suggests creating a First Earth Battalion, which suggests that soldiers should essentially be "fighting" their wars with music, hugs, and cute animals. The top brass initially took these ideas to heart, and then that heart was Cheney-fied. The result led to new forms of torture and military tactics that will either make you want to laugh or cry.

That's where Ronson's writing style comes in handy. He's funny--often laugh out loud funny--which is necessary to soften the blow of what we're actually reading here. Some of the stories he describes take place decades ago, so it's easy to say, "Oh, they did some crazy shit back then!" But when he brings his story into the Gulf War and you realize that certain people in the military are as crazy as ever, it made my stomach hurt a little. So kudos to Ronson for writing a book that was entertaining, informative, and more than a little bit sickening. A-

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mmmm....Sky Cake

I do not have enough time in my life to keep up with stand-up comedy. I'm vaguely aware of who's popular at any given time, but I'm not familiar with any particular jokes or sets. But I make an exception for Patton Oswalt, who's 2007 album Werewolves and Lollipops was pretty damn funny.

He's back with new material on the recently released My Weakness is Strong. Some of the bits fall into what I would consider stand-up cliches, including impending fatherhood and airlines. Even as someone admittedly unfamiliar with stand-up, this seemed like well-traveled territory. Grant you, I still laughed at it, probably because I've had my own impending fatherhood fears, and airlines will always suck.

There are also riffs on things that will undoubtedly date this album, including Oswalt's work on Ratatouille and Barack Obama. Again, pretty funny, but will it still be funny 5 years from now? Not so much.

But plenty of other bits are timeless and funny, including Oswalt's takes on depression, walking in on an orgy while house hunting, and his history of religion. Oswalt is at his best when he's at his most cynical, and he doesn't get much more cynical than this atheist's attempt to compress religous history into one scathing allegory, called Sky Cake.

Overall, not quite as funny as Werewolves and Lollipops, but still one of the funniest dudes out there right now. I suppose I don't really have a basis for comparison, I just know I laughed my way through this album.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Paddling Ghost

I mentioned in an earlier post that Dan Deacon's album Bromst has been creeping up on my all year. His electronic music isn't for everyone, but for whatever reason, this album hit a sweet spot with me. Of all the excellent songs on the album, the following video is for one of the weirdest (though still pleasingly frenetic in its energy). Who would have thought that the video for a song called "Paddling Ghost" would actually feature a paddling ghost? And apparently a paddling pirate ghost at that...

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mini Music Reviews: August 2009, Pt. II

Marcy Playground - Leaving Wonderland...In a Fit of Rage
Now here's a band I could get behind. As anyone who knew me grad school can testify, I pushed these purported one-hit-wonders on everyone. I still stand by their first three albums, all of which I feel were completely underrated. I recommend their self-titled debut, their sophomore album Shapeshifter, and their 2004 album MP3 to anyone. Band leader John Wozniak has a gift for catchy hooks and I can almost guarantee that songs from all of these albums will get stuck in your head. But something happened between 2004 and 2009. Apparently Woz found Jesus. The new album starts off in standard Marcy Playground territory with songs about sex and drugs, but then around halfway through, at the track called "Irene", things get pretty Christian-y. The rest of the album is composed of sub-par tunes about (I assume) Wozniak's wife and God. I'm not one to dislike someone because they're Christian by any means--I'm certainly not going to stop listening to Sufjan Stevens because he's Christian--but the last half of this album just isn't that great. I'll still recommend the first 5 tracks though, so by all means check out the first 5 tracks. Despite all this, I'm still going to give'em a B-, just for having the cuts to make another album at all after the last two commercial failures.

Eels - Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire
And speaking of artists who are declining with age, Mark Oliver Everett's latest "effort" is about is about as interesting as his last couple albums, which is not a good thing. Though 2003's Shootenany had some great tracks, I haven't really liked an Eels album in its entirety since 2002's Souljacker. Maybe I just haven't given this new album enough listens, but I can't think of one exceptional track off the top of my head. Maybe E is just too happy...his best work always seems to come from the times in his life when he's most miserable. I don't know why exactly this album doesn't do it for me. I just doesn't, so I'm giving it a C-. Also, the title is stupid.

We Were Promised Jetpacks - These Four Walls
I mentioned in my last post that I seemed to like French female vocalists. Apparently I also like Scottish dudes yelling. These Four Walls is a remarkable debut album. The music begs to be played loudly, preferably out of a car window at night, but whatever works for you. And just try not to play the air drums on some of these anthems. The whole album is pretty much old school anthemic rock (I just checked, and "anthemic" is not strictly a word, except to describe bands and music like this). Give "Quiet Little Voices" a listen below--if you like it, there's 10 other gems in the same vein on the rest of the album. A-

Discovery - LP
And on the other end of the likability spectrum, we have Discovery. This album was basically being sold as a ThePostal Service-type project by Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij. Hey, I liked The Postal Service and I like Vampire Weekend, so this had to be a winner, right? Uggh, so wrong. I muscled my way through two listens, and that's all it's getting. I have become much more open-minded about electronic music over the past few years and I've found plenty that I've liked. I found this "music" simply grating. F

Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer
I'm having the hardest time writing this little review, I suppose because this is such a bizarre little album. I like it, but I can't say precisely why I like it. Listening to it feels like I'm being buried in an avalanche of music--it's pop music in a carnival mirror. Of all the albums I've liked this year so far, this one is probably the least accessible, which is why I hesitate to recommend it. My favorite track on the album is called "Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!", so you know this isn't exactly Top-40 fare. If you like weird stuff, give it a shot. It will either strike a chord, as it did with me, or it won't. B+

Todd Snider - The Excitement Plan
I think I may officially be joining The Cult of Todd. Snider has been around for a good while and I've been peripherally aware of him for a while, but this summer I decided to take the plunge. I got his excellent live album (which I'd heard before), Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, and I picked up this album, his most recent release. Todd Snider is a story teller, and his knack for writing songs that are tragic or funny or tragic and funny puts him in the ranks of some other excellent song writers, such as Randy Newman and Warren Zevon. Many of the songs are deeply personal--this is not a man who's had an easy life. But he can look back and laugh at his experiences, and he encourages us to laugh with him. I like this album from beginning to end. The video below gives us the song from the beginning, a little ditty called "Slim Chance". There are no official videos from this new album, so this is live, which apparently is how you're really supposed to experience Snider's music (I'll see him eventually). Evelyn Is Not Real should recognize the venue here.... And by the way, I give this one a solid A.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mini Music Reviews: August 2009, Pt. I

I figured I better post again, before I get too rusty. I'm so far behind on album reviews, a lot of these came out a while ago. But at least all of them are 2009 (except for one). Here are a fraction of thing things that have made their way into my CD player over the past few months. I'm splitting this up into two posts since things were getting a little wordy...

John Doe & The Sadies - Country Club
I basically picked this up because I really liked the last album by The Sadies, who I supposed fall into the alt-country category. I wasn't familiar with John Doe. They're all competent musicians, but this album of country standards was pretty meh. If I'm going to listen to covers of country songs (not that I'm going to do that very often), I want a new spin on them, and there wasn't much spinning going on here. C-

Passion Pit - MannersBoldI really wanted to love this album. They've gotten more press than nearly any other Boston-based band since I've moved back to the area. Some of my favorite critics had nothing but high praise. But the first listen was rough. I actually contemplated never listening to it again. The whole children's choir thing was doing nothing for me. The Stones got away with that in "You Can't Always Get What You Want", and the gimmick hasn't worked all that well for me since (I'm looking at you, Decemberists). In any case, I did listen again, and I liked it more. It's different, and I can see the kids wanting to dance to it. But I'll never love it. B-

Wilco - Wilco (The Album)

My relationship to Wilco isn't so much love/hate as like/tolerate. The only Wilco album I really loved was Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The only album I really disliked was A Ghost is Born (sorry, EINR). Whether or not I've liked their other albums pretty much depends on my mood any given year when they come out. I guess I was in the mood for a Wilco album this year, because I'm enjoying this one. It's not spectacular by any means, but I'm enjoying it more than the relatively tepid Sky Blue Sky. If you like Wilco, it's certainly worth checking out. If you're unfamiliar with them, this is not the place to start. B+

The Accidental - There Were Wolves
This is the aforementioned 2008 album, and it didn't even come out in late 2008. But since it's one of my favorite albums that I've picked up in the last few months, I thought I should mention it. The Accidental is essentially a "supergroup", composed of British musicians from a variety of bands. The only person with whom I was familiar was Sam Genders of Tunng, a band I really like. I supposed this album could be called folky, but that would be doing it an injustice. Though there are certainly folk elements, there's lots of other genres mixed in there. Whatever you want to call it, I just know that relative to the other 20+ albums I've picked up in the last few months, I've been listening to this one quite a bit. The video below doesn't really do the music justice (this is not the album verison of the song), and if you can listen to the title track, start there. Good stuff. A-

Coralie Clement - Toystore
I find albums lots of different ways, but I very rarely pick one up randomly. That's what I did with Toystore. I tend to like French female vocalists, so I thought I'd give it a shot. What I got can only be called Revenge Of the Blog Post. Back in May, when I reviewed Star Trek, I said that the movie had a bit too much Spock in it, which was annoying in much the same way that a band would be annoying if it had a bit too much ukulele. Well guess what the primary instrument on this album is? Maybe the album title should have tipped me off, but who would have thought some hot French chick would be jammin' to a uke for an entire album? The plus side is, I still like ladies singing in French, even though I don't understand a word of it. The ukulele, though distracting at first, grew on me. It's not a great album, but it's by no means terrible. I can't think of any reason to recommend it unless you happen to have the same musical fetish that I do, but I'm going to give it a B anyway.

Carbon Leaf - Nothing Rhymes With Woman
Recently, Carrie Brownstein (formerly of Sleater-Kinney) wrote an insightful post about middle-of-the-road bands on her excellent music blog, Monitor Mix. Carbon Leaf is just such a band. They are neither great nor terrible. They just...are. I have one other album by this relatively prolific band that you have probably never heard of, 2001's Echo Echo. It's a slightly better than decent album, which is why I decided to give the band another try. I have nothing bad to say about this just didn't do much for me. If you're really into Celtic rock (created by an American band), you might want to check it out. C

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Movie We Will All Go Out To See

Not Bad

Since no one seems to be aware of this:

Frank Black and his wife have an album out under the name Grand Duchy. I like it more as I listen to it. It's The Good Queen of Pop meets the Wicked King of Distortion. The album has a very 80's feel, like the bad dreams of the Thompsan Twins.

Monday, July 27, 2009

How appropriate! You fight like a cow!

Gamers born before 1990 almost universally cut their teeth on the now-moribund adventure genre. Justly criticized for the often obscure logic of their puzzles and the fundamentally uninspiring click-everywhere-try-everything gameplay, adventure games fell out of favor in the face of more visceral first-person shooters and action-adventures. Those who played them, however, fondly remember the clever writing and charming personality of these games, particularly those produced by LucasArts. In recent years, they have seen a slight resurgence of popularity, thanks in part to the efforts of TellTale games, who revived Sam & Max as an episodic game series. Now they have pulled the same trick with the Monkey Island series, and as part of the launch of the new series, the original Secret of Monkey Island has been released in a new special edition, with spiffed-up graphics and an all-new voice track. Yes, I think you should buy it.

In general, I think the older games that essentially walked 2-D sprites over pseudo-3-D fields have aged better than early polygonal 3-D graphics, but the new coat of paint serves The Secret of Monkey Island very well. The designs faithfully render the overall look of the original, while adding a whimsical flair that meshes perfectly with the game's irreverent tone. The voice acting is somewhat less successful, in part because some lines get repeated quite a bit, and in part because the speaking slows the pace down. Hearing the swordfighting insults in full voice, however, is more than adequate compensation.

The primary weakness of the special edition is that it's still the same game, which means nobody is applying any of the lessons learned from the downfall of the adventure genre. The puzzles are still fairly obscure, you still have to click on everything in sight in order to progress, and you still have to figure out how on earth you can use a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle. Fortunately, there is a light hint system available, one that judiciously directs the player towards the right answer without spelling things out. It's perhaps not as satisfying as figuring out all the answers yourself, but it's more fulfilling than a trip to GameFAQs.

Of course, if you don't find any of this appealing, you can revert to the original game with the touch of a button, on the fly. Underneath the new spit and polish, The Secret of Monkey Island hasn't really changed. For those of us who remember that a man's wit must be as sharp as his blade, that's an ideal kind of update. And for those who never learned what to say when a sword master calls you a pain in the backside, The Secret of Monkey Island is about the best possible introduction to a style of play that once dominated computer gaming.

Tales of Monkey Island: Launch of the Screaming Narwhal is available on Wii and The Secret of Monkey Island SE can be downloaded on XBox Live Arcade. Both games are available on Steam for PC.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Oh Tron, How Do I Love Thee?

OK, one more lazy trailer post, and then I promise my next post will be more substantial. Tron has a special place in the hearts of geeks my age. How I would have loved to be at Comic Con when this premiered. For reals, the Tron: Legacy trailer is only for the truly nerdly nerds out there:

Friday, July 17, 2009

Trailer for New Jean-Pierre Jeunet Film

Sorry for the lack of posts this month. I've actually got plenty to write about, just no time to write about it. Eventually I'll be getting more than 5 hours of sleep a night again and will have a little more energy for blogging. Could be next week, could be next month.

Until then, I stumbled across the trailer for the newest Jean-Pierre Jeunet film. Not speaking a lick of French, I don't even know what the title, Micmacs à tire-larigot, means. Judging from the trailer, I'd say it's a comedy heist film. Whatever it's about, it's sure to be pretty. I don't love every Jeunet movie, but I love many of them, and they're all pretty.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

My ‘favorite’ albums of 2009, so far (updated):

As I commented on EJP’s thread, I have been less than thrilled by music releases this year. For me, while there have been some above average releases (at least using the Pitchfork barometer [PFB]), there has not been a single release that I have got lost in and played over and over again.

Edited (7/15/09): So I've been giving the new Wilco album some more play time. I mean, they are one of my favorite bands, and sometimes an album has to grow on you. I think I'm finally starting to get Wilco (the album). So my updated list:

10. Telekinesis! – S/T (PFB 6.3)

9. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast (PFB 7.5)

8. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (PFB 7.9)

7. Mos Def – The Ecstatic. Most recent addition, it could climb higher. Yes, it is true, white people do love Mos Def. I like reading the Sunday Times and eating fancy sandwiches too. Sue me. (PFB 8.0)

6. Wilco - Wilco (the album) (PFB 7.3)

5. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (PFB 8.5)

4. Pains of Being Pure at Heart – S/T (PFB 8.4)

3. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest. It really helps to see these guys live. I didn’t really get them and have the appreciation that I currently have until after that moment. (PFB 9.0)

2. Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (PFB 8.5)

1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion (PFB 9.6)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Favorite Albums of 2009...So Far

Now that I'm back at work full time and still getting used to being a father of two, posting here will probably be a little scarce for a while. But I still wanted to mention my favorite albums from the first half of the year. I won't go into a lot of details since I've already reviewed all of these on the site previously. Just a benchmark for myself, really...

10) Dan Deacon - Bromst
Dan Deacon is just happy to be here. This weird little album has gotten much more playtime than I would have initially expected. I can go into a little trance when I listen to it, though I wouldn't call it trance music. I recently discovered that it's great to listen to if you're caught in a traffic jam
9) the boy least likely to - the law of the playground
8) The Thermals - Now We Can See
7) Art Brut - Art Brut vs. Satan
6) Chairlift - Does You Inspire You
5) Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
4) M. Ward - Hold Time
I think this one will inevitably move down the chart. I like the album, but I don't think it has staying power for the rest of the year.
3) Telekinesis - Telekinesis!
2) Ida Maria - Fortress 'Round My Heart
1) Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

No surprises in my top 3, based on the reviews I gave them. The order of albums below that is somewhat interchangeable. There are a few things that didn't make this list that are a little surprising to myself. No Decemberists, Say Hi, or Beirut. I wouldn't say I'm really disappointed by these albums, but I'm just not listening to them as much as I would have expected based on how much I like the artists. I was disappointed by some other artists, like Camera Obscura, Bishop Allen, and most notably, Clem Snide. But it happens.

So far, 2009 has been pretty dense with releases by artists I know and like. The next couple months are pretty sparce in terms of new albums by artists I know, though I have my eye on releases by YACHT, The Dodos, WHY?, Islands, Thao, and maybe The Flaming Lips (See Pitchfork for list of upcoming releases). And maybe my next favorite album is by someone I've never heard of.

Any albums I didn't mention here or in previous reviews that I've clearly been missing out on?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Paternity Leave Reading

I'm currently wrapping up my paternity leave. My brand spanking new daughter is awesome, but let's face it, infants are kind of boring. She has about 20 minutes a day that she's awake and not nursing, and I enjoy those minutes. I've used some of the other time to catch up on some reading.

I recently finished Steven Millhauser's short story anthology, Dangerous Laughter. It was my first book by Millhauser, and I wasn't even halfway through the 13 stories presented here before I knew I'd be reading more of him. Millhauser's biggest claim to fame, outside literary circles, is that the relatively recent movie The Illusionist was based on one of his short stories (the story, "Eisenheim the Illusionist," is not in this anthology). It was a pretty decent movie, and Millhauser is a very clever, thought-provoking writer. Many of the stories force the reader to consider some aspect of the world that we take for granted--a Tom and Jerry cartoon, laughter, words, household objects, our sense of touch--from a completely new, slightly skewed perspective.

"History of a Disturbance" made me incredibly self-conscious about the words that came out of my mouth for days. Even as I think of the story now, weeks after I initially read it, it makes my mind feel kind of itchy. In the story "The Other Town", which isn't so much a story as it is a narrative description, we are introduced to a town that has created an exact doppelganger of itself; a copy that is kept updated minute by minute whenever a fork is shifted in a drawer or a leaf falls from a tree. How the town maintains this replica is vaguely interesting; why the town puts forth such an effort is much more intriguing.

Some of the stories feel like sci-fi or fantasy, but none fall easily into either genre. Some are character driven, some don't even have characters. Nearly all the stories were entertaining, and all of them made me think. Dangerous Laughter was easily the best anthology I've read in ages and I would highly recommend it.

On a much, much lighter note, I also finished John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise (or if you prefer the complete title, An Almanac of Complete World Knowledge Compiled with Instructive Annotation and Arranged in Useful Order By Me, John Hodgman, A Professional Writer, In The Areas of My Expertise). Most of the world knows Hodgman as the PC guy in the Mac vs. PC ads. He's also a frequent contributor to This American Life, for you NPR fans out there. I remember hearing an interview with Hodgman a few years ago when this book came out and thinking it sounded cool. I promptly forgot about it, then found the book relatively recently and decided to check it out. I'm glad I did.

A book consisting of entirely made-up facts probably won't appeal to everyone, but I found it highly amusing. Consider one of Hodgman's favorite topics, hoboes. He devotes several pages to a list of 700 Hobo names. And in one of the more amusing passages, he describes part of Hobo history:

At his inauguration in 1933, a new crippled president named Roosevelt addressed the nervous crowd: "The people of the United States have not failed. In their need, they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. An so I will kill all the hoboes, and together we will gnaw on their bones." It was time for a comprehensive Hobo Eradicaiton Plan called "The New Deal."

And so on. He also expounds upon facial hair, how to win a fight, failed palindromes (e.g. Slow speed: deep owls), and eels, among several other things. It's all very absurd, but you have to actually be somewhat well-read and reasonably intelligent to understand just how absurd some of this stuff is. In other words, you might appreciate the book more if listen to NPR (or its Canadian equivalent). It's not something I would recommend reading in one sitting--or even 10 sittings--but it's a fun book to pick up once in a while for a good chuckle.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Mini Music Reviews: June 2009

Most of these albums came out at least a month or so ago, but I'm playing a little catch-up. Here are some newish things that have been getting some spins...

Laura Gibson - Beasts of Seasons

The last time I listened to this album in its entirety, I was playing chess with my dad. It's that kind of music. To say that it's background music would be a little too damning, because it is good, it's just not something I can throw myself into. For the most part, it's good chill-out music, but "Spirited" is definitely a stand-out track and worth checking out. The album's not going to be one of my favorites of the year, but this track might be. Overall, I'd give it a B-.

the boy least likely to - the law of the playground
When I picked up the second album by The Boy Least Likely To a few months ago, I was more than a little afraid it would disappoint me like I'm From Barcelona's sophomore album, which saw that band becoming a big bummer. TBLLT's debut, The Best Party Ever, was happy scrappy fun, and I wanted more of the same. This time, I got it. The band still manages to deliver some pretty dark lyrics under some of the fizziest, child-like music you'll ever hear, and that's a pretty neat trick. Their music is not for everybody--even I'm often at a loss as to when I can actually play this album out loud. It's not something you want to blast out of your car window, and I'd be laughed out of work if I ever tried to play it there. Maybe it's something my two-year-old would enjoy listening to with me. I think I might revert to about 4-years-old when I listen to it. Whatever. It's kinda cheesy, but it makes me happy, and I'll give it an A-, without (much) embarrassment. Also, it's about time I found a song with the lyric "And I know kung fu...":

Every Goliath Has Its David from The Boy Least Likely To on Vimeo.

Art Brut - Art Brut vs. Satan
Art Brut is also not for everyone. For one thing, as anyone who's heard the band can testify, Eddie Argos can't and doesn't sing. As those of us familiar with the first track of their first album know, he's not being ironic. That's really just the way he "sings". But their songs are often clever and entertaining, and the songs from this album may be their cleverest and entertainingest so far. It's a morning after kind of album, and Argos bluntly shares the repercussions of an alcoholic lifestyle. Frank Black (aka Black Francis, aka Charles Thompson) produced the album, which is essentially live, in studio. Or "Slap Dash For No Cash" as one of the song titles explains. It's easily the best thing Thompson has had a hand in for years. "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake" and "Mysterious Bruises" are excellent tracks, but the whole album is surprising listenable--by far Art Brut's strongest effort so far. A-

Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
The thing about Camera Obscura is, they're one of those bands that's just much better live. After seeing them live a few years ago, their albums just don't measure up. On top of that, even as far as the albums go, I think My Maudlin Career is a step down from Let's Get Out Of This Country, which is still my favorite Camera Obscura album. That said, I still love Tracyanne Campbell, and "French Navy" is a pretty catchy tune. It's not a bad album, but I have to give them a C+ for failing to capture the energy of their live show.

Amadou & Mariam - Welcome to Mali
Amadou and Mariam make some danceable, yet soulful music. It's as simple as that. I didn't like this album quite as much as 2005's Manu Chao-produced Dimanche a Bamako (which I would get first if you're not familiar with this duo), but it's still a fun listen if you want to bop your head but don't really care whether or not you understand the words. A solid B.

St. Vincent - Actor

I'm still making up my mind about this one. Like many of the albums in this post (apparently) I like one or two songs, but I'm not in love with the whole album. In this case, the single, "Actor Out of Work", is easily one of Annie Clark's best songs, brief though it is. I'm not sure the rest of the album stands up all that well next to it, however. Also like many of the other albums in this post, I liked St. Vincent's previous effort, Marry Me, considerably more. That album was kind of a slow-burner for me, however, so I may have to give this one a little more time. For now, a B-.

Yusuf - Roadsinger (To Warm You Through The Night)

My problem with Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) is that I have a hard time interpreting any of his songs as secular. He still has a unique and pleasant-sounding voice; he still knows how to right a good hook. I just can't help but feel like I'm being preached at sometimes, and I don't care if he
's Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, I don't like that feeling. Many of his new songs probably are religious in nature, but certainly not all of them. In any case, I'm starting to get past those feelings and just getting back to enjoying the music of a pretty amazing artist. I grew to like his "comeback" album, An Other Cup, quite a bit, and this follow-up is growing on me, too. B

The Vaselines - Enter The Vaselines

I should confess from the outset that I have yet to listen to the second disc in this two-disc set, a "greatest hits" album for a band that never really had any hits. The second disc is primarily live versions, and since I'm not yet familiar with the studio versions, I figured I'd get used to those first. I have yet to read a review of this album that doesn't mention that Kurt Cobain was a huge fan of The Vaselines, so...there you go. As for the music itself, it could pretty much be its own genre: pop-psychedelic smut. C'mon, are we really supposed to believe that "Rory Rides
Me Raw" is about a horse? And it's almost unfortunate that "You Think You're a Man" is so catchy, because it's definitely not a song I want to be singing out loud if the tune pops into my head. That said, I appreciate the frankness of the lyrics, and the music itself is some straight-up rock that doesn't suffer from the overproduction that dilutes similar artists of today. B+

Chairlift - Does You Inspire You
Speaking of sexy and catchy all rolled up into one, check out "Bruises", my favorite song off this album:

I should point out that I quite liked this song before I watched the video with all its skin and whatnot. Technically, I think Does You Inspire You came out in 2008, but it was re-released in 2009 with a few extra tracks. I don't know that the extra tracks make much of a difference, but this odd trio is growing on me quickly. I wouldn't say every song is stellar--some of the tracks are downright weird, even by my standards. But out of the pile of newish CDs I'm currently listening to, I find myself listening to this one a lot. Enough so that I'm going to give it an A-.