Saturday, October 31, 2009

Old Faves, New Ways

My pop culture consumption this last week has been mainly focused on some old favorites being presented in new ways, or at least ways new to me.

Two weeks ago I picked up JLA/Avengers at the sale at the comics shop. This softcover collects the mini-series from 2003-04 by Kurt Busiek and George Perez, which I didn't read the first time around and don't really remember existing (it must have come out when I wasn't paying close attention to comics). I am a big fan of both Busiek and Perez and they did not disappoint here. One standard of the super-hero crossover is a fight between the sets of heroes and it's not one that I'm too fond of. That said, there is a reason for it to happen in this book but it also doesn't go on forever. In fact, there is an alternate reality wherein the JLA had a crossover with the Avengers every year and not the JSA. Fun and cool moments abound in a shifting reality and shifting rosters for both teams. Perez really pulls out the stops with his "camera angles" and singular super-hero prowess. It seems that this is the last DC/Marvel crossover for the forseeable future (and maybe ever); if so, they went out on a high note.

Tuesday saw the release of a new R.E.M. album, Live at the Olympia, which presents highlights from a five night run of rehearsals they did in 2007...and invited the public to. At the start of the double CD, Mike Mills announces "this is not a show" and Michael Stipe refers to the whole experience as an "experiment in terror." Their impetus for the shows was to rehearse new material they were going to record and indeed, you can hear 9 of the 11 songs from Accelerate (one in a different form) as well as 2 that didn't make the record (I really like the change of pace that is "On The Fly"). The rest of the songs span the breadth of their career and many are from Chronic Town and Reckoning, two albums I've still never gotten around to picking up. After hearing "Second Guessing" and "Harborcoat" I know I need to rectify that fact. The band sounds great and bangs out classics like "So. Central Rain" and "Cuyahoga" and "Pretty Persuasion" as well as should have been classics like "New Test Leper"(New Adventures in Hi-Fi seems to be forgotten these days). It's also a testament to their solid songcraft that the new songs don't seem out of place with the rest. I have a feeling I'm going to be listening to a lot of their music over the next month or two.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Chabon's Unwritten Adventures

If I was asked who my favorite writer is, most days I would say Michael Chabon. Why? It starts with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and continues with The Yiddish Policeman's Union and all the points in between. He doesn't just write great novels, though; he also excels at the essay and just published his second collection of them, Manhood For Amateurs. He writes about a teenage sexual encounter with his mother's friend, the beauty of a developing a personality in a basement, his love for Big Barda, the question of whether his son should have been circumcised, and many other topics. It is all written beautifully and fascinating. I can't wait to see what he does next (though I wouldn't mind another novel).

Anyone who has read my blog(s) over the years has heard me talk about my love for the Legion of Super-Heroes and has seen my constant back-and-forth of how I consumer my comics. Those longtime themes clash as I have once again broken my recent rule of only trade paperbacks with the purchase of the two most recent issues of Adventure Comics. And while the Legion is the second feature in the book, I love it more for the first feature of Superboy. Geoff Johns is writing a character-based comic around Superboy's quest to discover which man's DNA is winning the war in his blood - Superman or Lex Luthor - and it is pitch perfect. To make it even better is Francis Manapul's gorgeous art. I will miss this team when they leave after three more issue but I can follow them to a new Flash series if I want. These are great comics.

Did I stop at that comic? No, I did not. I also realized that I don't want to wait for a second trade (which would come out next fall at the earliest) to continue reading The Unwritten. Issue #5 was a standalone delving into Rudyard Kipling's involvement with the mysterious figures who have been manipulating the written word and #6 brings us back to Tom Taylor as he goes to prison and meets a most-interesting monstrous literary character. I will continue to buy this in single issues and do my part to try and ensure that Mike Carey and Peter Gross get to tell this tale for as long as they want.

My Music Year

It's time to admit that I won't be able to complete this project by the end of the year. I have about 75 albums to write about before I'm caught up and I'm sure there will be another 10-15 by the end of the year (especially with Christmas), so it's a losing battle. I also want to get my best of the 2000s project underway and that will take up most of my blogging time. I will try to do a year-end roundup of my music year, most likely in the form of a top ten list. It was fun while it lasted, though!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Shuffle #157

I've managed to avoid my college work so far the last two days, so today I need to get focused. I'd like to watch football as well, which means I need to get focused soon. While I'm working my way towards that state, here are today's ten songs...

1. In This Camp/Midlake (10)
2. Jamie/Weezer (2)
3. Walking For Two Hours/The Twilight Sad (6)
4. The Monitor/Bishop Allen (13)
5. All The Miles/Amy Millan (10)
6. You Got Me/Elk City (9)
7. Instrumental 3 (demo)/Wilco (7)
8. How Deep Is the Red/Elvis Costello (5)
9. We're Not Alone/Dinosaur Jr. (13)
10. Sour Shores/Portastatic (15)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Music Year #10

This feature hits double digits and rolls into February with a look at Ben Kweller's Changing Horses. To be honest, I'm still not sure what to make of this album. Kweller adopts a more country music style for the record, complete with steel guitar and lots of piano, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. I certainly have no problem with twang in music I listen to and I also don't have a problem with an artist trying something new. The songs are solid, from the pretty "Old Hat" to the kinda-cowboy punk of "Fight" to the typical goofy-yet-endearing Kweller lyrics of "Things I Like To Do." So what's my problem? It's not his last album, about which you'll be hearing more in my best of the decade series. What it comes down to is that while I like it well enough, I don't love it and I was hoping for another home run. Not much else to be said, I guess.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Music Year #9

When I read that David Byrne and Brian Eno were releasing a record in 2008, I was mildly interested. I've been a fan of Byrne's but that fandom wasn't really active; I can't tell you the last time I listened to my Talking Heads compilation and I let go of the 2 solo albums of his I'd had. Brian Eno I knew more for his production on U2 records than for any of his records. I flagged it as something worth checking out, then forgot about it until I noticed it on eMusic and here we are.

Everything That Happens Will Happen Today is an album with two modes. One is a shimmery pop with chiming guitars and soaring melodies as exemplified in "Home" and "My Big Nurse" and the title track. The other is more experimental, like the skittering piano and squalling guitar of "I Feel My Stuff" and the white guy danceable funk of "Strange Overtones," which is a song about a song. The styles work very well together and make for a solid record.

Break Blues

Posting has been obviously sparse this week, though that's not necessarily unusual. Life has been busy as always and my college classes took a step in terms of the quantity of work this week, so I've been stressed and feeling behind. However, I have reached a bit of a respite - it is fall break in the school system where I work during the day, which means two days off wrapped around a weekend. It feels heavenly.

It comes at a time where I have 140 or so items on my Google Reader and a DVR that's about 40% full. It comes at a time when I have two books to be read and a third that's in at the library, not to mention the JLA/Avengers trade I bought last week or the issues of SF magazines that are stacked up (I've been halfway through one for a couple weeks now). Let's not even mention all the DVDs I haven't even cracked open.

I also want to keep things moving on the blog. I still have one more album I bought in January to discuss in "My Music Year" and the year as a whole is getting shorter. I do still want to write about my favorite works of art from the 2000s, which I hope to kick off on Nov. 1. I think at this point, The Jayhawks project will have to remain on hold for a while longer.

I can't let all of these things get in the way of school either - that work isn't going away. When I think about how quickly the break will go and how much I won't be able to accomplish, it makes me a little depressed. I won't let the negatives rule the days, however, and I'll enjoy what I get done and know it will be more than it would have been without the days off. I'm taking today off completely from my school work, which definitely helps. You should see a few more posts from me over the next few days as well.

My Music Year #8

Here's a case of not knowing what you'll come home with when you go shopping. I had received some Best Buy gift cards for Christmas and hadn't spent all of the money yet, so I was wandering around the music section. I walked by the "R"s and saw some of last year's Replacements reissues. I flipped through and came home with All Shook Down, their final album from 1990. I had owned the album once before but had gotten rid of it during the big 1994 depressed music purge and while I had replaced the rest of the Replacement discs, this one hadn't quite found its way back. Perfect.

I think there are many fans of the Mats who don't really think of this one much and that's a shame. Yes, I suppose it could be seen as a Paul Westerberg solo album but it's not labeled as such. And yes, there are a bunch of guest musicians like Benmont Tench and John Cale and Steve Berlin but their presence only serves to enhance the music. In the end, isn't the music really what the focus should be on?

The album gets out of the gate strong with the mid-tempo rock of "When It Began" and stays strong all the way through the piano-based "The Last." The songs are tightly constructed and the mood varies from light (the fumbled countdown of "Attitude") to the somber (the haunting "Sadly Beautiful"). It also contains one of my favorite-for-no-particular-reason lines - "The magazine she flips through/Is a special double issue/Smells like perfume/She leaves it on the plane" - which is followed by a little Steve Berlin sax riff in time with the snapping drums.

The reissue also contains demos for many of the songs as well as a couple of extra tracks. They are worth listening to but the main attraction here is the album proper, an underappreciated classic.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Shuffle #156

I stayed up late to watch the end of the Angels/Yankees ALCS game last night and the wrong team won. What can you do? Today's sports highlights include the Giants/Saints at noon and the Bears/Falcons tonight. Looking forward to watching those games and to seeing what songs pop up right now...

1. Modesto Is Not That Sweet/The Hold Steady (20)
2. Outta My Head/M. Ward (14)
3. Teeth/Bowerbirds (4)
4. Monster Closet/Two Hours Traffic (6)
5. The Supine/Andrew Bird (13)
6. Backstabbin'/Sloan (9)
7. Come Crash/A.C. Newman (7)
8. Nothing Can Hurt You Now/Glossary (9)
9. Alone (Alternate Version)/Wilco (10)
10. Hard Talkin/Le Switch (3)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My Music Year #7

This year has been a big year for Jayhawks fans and not just for the release of a retrospective and rarities disc this summer. We were also treated to new material from Gary Louris and Mark Olson, the driving forces of the early period of The Jayhawks. Olson left the band in 1995 but over the past couple years the two have performed together and recorded Ready For the Flood. It's not a Jayhawks record but there are still many pleasures to be had.

Much of the album is the two men together - their voices (Louris up high and Olson on the bottom) and their acoustic guitars. They blend so well together that you can just get wrapped up in the sound. That's helped, of course, by a keen sense of melody and the construction of the songs. I don't think any of the songs will strike a person as one of the best they've ever heard but they are all candidates to get stuck in your head. There are subtleties to the music as well and other instruments (notably organ, harmonica, and electric guitar) contribute to the whole. It's a cohesive album in the best sense and one of my favorites of the year. I hope they keep making music together.


I started out the day with big dreams, wanting to see two movies, buy two books, download the new Built To Spill album, and pick up some goodies at a sale at the comics shop. I knew I wouldn't be able to do all of it and didn't really have the money to do all of it anyway but some days it's nice to dream. As it turned out, some of my dreams for the day came true and I got some other stuff I hadn't even planned on getting.

I ended up getting four nice shirts that I can wear to work, as well as a new pair of corduroys. I might even end up with a pair of black ones by the time the weekend is over - my wife and I saw them on the way out of the store and she had to make a movie time.

That's right, she went to the movies and I didn't. The good news for me is that I have a four day weekend coming up due to fall break, so I have a decent chance of catching either Where the Wild Things Are or The Invention of Lying (or both!) next weekend. Why not tomorrow? Football, baby.

I went to Barnes & Noble but they only had one of the books I was looking for (the missing one was the new Jonathan Lethem) and that one wasn't on any sort of sale, so I passed it up.

My last stop was the comics shop...and I couldn't decide on anything. I came home. I sat around for a bit. Then I went back to the comics shop.

They had the other book I was looking for, Peter and Max by Bill Willingham, which is a prose novel set in the world of his Fables comic. It was included in the sale. Finally, a decision made.

I had been looking at the first collection of Invincible Iron Man, which I've heard great things about (and read the first issue of about 18 months ago), but I just couldn't commit to it. One day, I will. I did notice the collection of the last DC and Marvel crossover series, JLA/Avengers, which was written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by George Perez. I'd been looking at that for months too and decided to pull the trigger.

That should have been the end of it...but I wasn't done. Even though I had resolved to only buy trades again, I couldn't help myself. I had to pick up a couple single issues and at 40% off it was easier to justify. I grabbed the two most recent issues of The Unwritten (the first four were great), the first issue of Sweet Tooth (which was originally a buck), and Adventure Comics #2 (I can't resist a comic starring the original Legion of Super-Heroes). I would have picked up Adventure Comics #3 if they had it. I don't want to start down that path again but there has got to be a way to make it work for me. I need to figure it out.

Anyway, there's my day of consuming.

My Music Year #6

My Bruce Springsteen fandom goes back 25 years to when I heard the singles from Born in the U.S.A. on the radio. It wasn't until my 14th birthday in 1985 that I got the whole album (on cassette, having received a Walkman for a Christmas present in 1984) and I spent months listening to it while doing a wide variety of chores outside. The live boxed set that came out in 1986 introduced me to a lot more of his music and I became a true fan. Naturally, I bought his latest album, Working On A Dream, the day it came out.

The title track was out and about before the album came out and it's a good indicator of the album's feel as a whole. Springsteen is definitely working in a pop mode, and I love the little bass run by Gary W. Tallent that opens this song. We get melody and some background "la, la, la-la"s with an uplifting message. It's not his best song but it is solid.

The bass is a bit more upfront on the whole album than previous E Street records and I enjoy hearing it. Springsteen and the E Street Band have been working together for more than 35 years and I love all the little touches they bring. "My Lucky Day" starts out as a run-of-the-mill pop song but when Steve Van Zandt starts harmonizing on the second verse, the song seems to catch another gear and everything just seems sharper.

Some reviewers had a problem with "Queen of the Supermarket," specifically the lyrics. They were reading the song as some sort of commentary on the state of American consumerism but to me it's just a love song set in a supermarket with some nimble bass and a solid pop feel that gets a bit operatic before an odd little outro.

I'll admit to not being the biggest fan of the album opener, "Outlaw Pete." It's a tall tale that really goes on a couple minutes too long. I do enjoy the bonus track, the Oscar-nominated "The Wrestler" from the movie of the same name, although I don't think I've ever seen a one-legged dog.

The back half of the album holds some real gems. "Tomorrow Never Knows" has a lovely folk pop beat (and borrows the title from The Beatles) and "Life Itself" is filled with urgency and nice guitar texture. Finally, the acoustic-based "Last Carnival" is a tribute to the late E Streeter Dan Federici and is effective due to the brevity and tone and some beautiful gospel coos at the end.

Will this be one of the Springsteen albums I listen to over and over and over again? No, and it hasn't been. Is it yet another solid album in his long career? Absolutely.

Monday, October 12, 2009

My Music Year #5

One of the drawbacks to using eMusic as a main source of music is that sometimes you have to find a album that fits the amount of downloads you have left. There are also times when you are running out of time before your downloads turn over. These circumstances can lead to some hasty decisions, decisions which sometimes work out and sometimes don't.

I don't quite remember if Rilo Kiley's The Execution of All Things falls into either or both of those categories but the facts are these: I listened to the whole album 2 time in late January and hadn't listened to it since until tonight. Now it's not that I don't like Rilo Kiley or Jenny Lewis but obviously this album didn't grab me. You know what? It still doesn't. Oh sure, this album has well-crafted mid-tempo pop songs but I don't hear anything to really grab me. If the songs come up during a shuffle, no problem. But as for a fourth listen? I don't see it happening anytime soon.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Shuffle #155

I got three posts up this week, which isn't too bad. I still want to get into the other two projects I outlined a few weeks ago and maybe this is the week that will happen. Stay tuned...

1. 16, Maybe Less/Iron And Wine & Calexico (15)
2. Uniform/The Essex Green (21)
3. Without You/Centro-Matic (15)
4. No Lucifer/British Sea Power (6)
5. Savannah Smiles/Okkervil River (12)
6. You Can Always Count On Me (In The Worst Way)/Superchunk (10)
7. Josephine/Portastatic (7)
8. Wall of Dumb/Higgins (5)
9. Headed For a Fall/M. Ward (17)
10. Odalisque/The Decemberists (7)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

My Music Year #4

Let's talk Tokyo Police Club. The Canadian band made a splash in the music blogosphere with the release of their 2006 debut EP, A Lesson in Crime, and rightfully so. It was full of short, sharp songs that were extremely catchy; my favorite of the 7 songs was "Citizens of Tomorrow," which was a warning about how we would so be ruled by robots. They followed that up in 2007 with a 3 song EP, Smith, and then a 2 song release, Your English is Good. In 2008, they released their first full album, Elephant Shell, and the reaction was not even close to what it had been. I read words like disappointing and letdown in reviews. I still wanted to get the album but didn't have it at the top of my priorities.

I got the album from eMusic back in January and was unsure of it at first. By a few more listens, however, I was wondering if everyone else had heard a different album because the one I was hearing was great.

They are still writing short, sharp catchy songs. The drums and bass are often prominent, as well as some slashing guitar. The lyrics are wonderful. "In A Cave" and "Juno" are so good that I'm surprised they haven't been used in a movie or TV show...hell, even an advertisement. It's a great album that deserves a second chance and I think the band should be huge.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

My Music Year #3

I resisted Bon Iver for much of 2008. He was a music blog baby and I was hesitant because sometimes the blog buzz is for an artist or band who may have a different sound but really isn't all that good. I finally decided to give him a shot and was glad to have found someone whose work I did like, so when his Blood Bank EP came out early this year, I quickly downloaded it.

The first song and title track is the highlight of the collection. Justin Vernon's falsetto is one of his signatures and in this minor key pulser he harmonizes with himself to gorgeous affect at the start of the song. The lyrics are interesting too: "Well I met you at the blood bank/we were looking at the bags/wondering if any of the colors/matched any of the names on the tags" are the opening lines in a song about family and secrets. It's a beautiful song and one of his best.

While the other three songs don't quite match the first, there are still pleasures to be found in the strum and slide guitar of "Beach Baby" and the dissonant piano of "Babys." The last song, "Woods," is just Vernon's voice run through Auto-Tune and then layered while he sings only, "I'm up in the woods/I'm down on my mind/I'm building a still/To slow down the time." When you first hear it, it sounds stupid and weird but repeated listens changes that impression into something more positive.

On the whole, that's what listening to Bon Iver needs to be. You need to hear the songs a few times to let the subtleties hit your ears and, at times, to understand what's he's saying. That falsetto is gorgeous, yes, but sometimes the diction isn't all that clear. It's a minor quibble, though.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

My Music Year #2

When I think of Andrew Bird, I think of plucked strings, violin, and whistling. On the first track of Noble Beast ("Oh No"), you get all three and you also get melody, another Birdian trait. You also get some intriguing lyrics - in this case, "Arm in arm we are the hopeless sociopaths." Indeed. That opener also give you a pretty good indication of what you're going to get on the whole record, which is not to say that every song sounds the same. Rather, these elements are his strengths and he weaves them throughout time and mood shifts in his songs; one example is "Anonanimal," which starts out with the sweeping strings and starts layering in sounds before opening up into a rockier style of drums and guitar. "Masterswarm" dissolves into video game-like blips and clicks after starting with an introductory passage followed by a lightly bouncing rhythm accompanying the violin. There is also the "pop hit" of "Fitz and the Dizzyspells."

I admire Bird quite a bit and I enjoy this album (and his previous one, Armchair Apocrypha) when I listen to them but I don't always reach for them. I don't often have his songs running through my head either, though they have a bit more after listening to this album in preparation for this post. If you like music that can make you think while also entertaining, this album is for you.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Shuffle #154

I've not abandoned my projects but it's been a pretty busy week and this coming week should be even worse with two tests. Still, I hope to get a few posts up between now and next Sunday's shuffle. Meanwhile, let's get to today's music...

1. Mating Calls/Warren Zanes (9)
2. Life is White/Big Star (11)
3. California Stars (live)/Jeff Tweedy (10)
4. Honey Blue/Paul Burch (3)
5. Scythian Empires/Andrew Bird (9)
6. Pleasure Is Mine/Matthew Sweet (10)
7. An Apology/Canasta (13)
8. Pride of the Yankees/Patterson Hood (6)
9. Marie Provost/Nick Lowe (8)
10. On the Bubble/The Broken West (20)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Looking Ahead: October 2009

I meant to get around to this feature again last month but just didn't get my act together. I should be on my way to bed right now but I don't want to let this month start to slip away before I looked ahead to it. So, here are some things I'm looking forward to this month...

The Invention of Lying (Oct. 2) - A cool idea concept that was written and directed by Ricky Gervais

Built To Spill/There Is No Enemy (Oct. 6) - Guitar goodness

The Mountain Goats/The Life of the World to Come (Oct. 6) - One of my favorite songwriters using Bible verses as inspiration? I'm intrigued.

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon (Oct. 6) - Personal essays from one of my favorite writers

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel (Oct. 7) - A prose piece set in the world of Fables, one of my favorite comics

Jack of Fables Vol. 6: The Big Book of War (Oct. 7) - I hope it features more one pagers with my favorite character of 2009, Babe the Blue Ox

Planetary #27 (Oct. 7) - While I won't pick it up, this means a fourth collection is somewhere on the horizon and I can finally read everything from #19 on

The Flaming Lips/Embryonic (Oct. 13) - An old-fashioned double album

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Oct. 13) - A new novel by another of my favorite writers

30 Rock season premiere (Oct. 15) - I want to go there

Where The Wild Things Are (Oct. 16) - I have high hopes for this Spike Jonze-directed adaptation of the classic book that was a childhood favorite

Scalped Vol. 5: High Lonesome (Oct. 21) - I still need to buy and read the 3rd and 4th volumes

Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds HC (Oct. 21) - A collection of the mini-series that continued the revitalization of "my" Legion of Super-Heroes

R.E.M./Live At The Olympia (Oct. 27) - These shows were supposedly high quality and covered the breadth of their career

Gentlemen Broncos (Oct. 30) - This is something I'll probably end up seeing on DVD but I am all over the concept from the team behind Napoleon Dynamite