Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Perfect Songs, Part IX

...Number nine, number nine, number nine, in my surprisingly enduring* (I've been doing this for a year and a half!?!) ongoing tally of the songs in my life that have grabbed me long and hard with illicit intent, the ones I can listen to again and again and never tire of, the ones that in my wee self-centered way, I might just call... "perfect." This time – three songs loosely related by love and faith.

(*So far: parts one, two, three, four; five; six; seven and eight!)

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting25. Prince, "When Doves Cry." That bizarre, robotic drum machine beat, elongated by stripped, raw heavy metal guitar lines, then an oddly poppy synthesizer melody – anyone who grew up in the '80s knows this song before the singer opens his mouth. In 1984, "When Doves Cry" freaked me out, burning out of the radio like static from another planet, Prince's insectoid voice buzzing about animals striking curious poses. It sounded like nothing else on the FM radio station I usually listened to. I didn't realize until just the other day that this song has no bassline – perhaps that gives it some of its creepy-crawly allure. Twenty-plus years on, the sheer rattling strangeness of it stays with me. Prince's main lyrical topic is doin' it, but here, his usual slinky sex talk morphs halfway through into an anguished conversation with someone – God? — and anyone that's ever wronged him in his life. It's the sound of a breakdown. How could you just leave me standing, indeed? The #1 selling single of 1984, which shows popular sometimes can be good for you. "Dig if you will the picture / of you and I engaged in a kiss"

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting 26. Cheap Trick, "The Flame." Oh man, my street cred just went out the window. Not everyone loves Cheap Trick, and even those that do probably consider this 1988 ultra-sappy ballad among their lowest moments. But this almost absurdly over-the-top love song I submit to you as among the finest achievements of that maligned genre, the power ballad. The power ballad has as its one and only goal the notion of making your love affair seem like the greatest thing that's ever happened to anyone in the world, of capturing that sensation that your romance is the center of the universe, "whatever you want, I'll give it to you." It's a manipulative track, of course, but Cheap Trick's ace performance and Robin Zander's utterly sincere vocals sell the sugar. Here's the power ballad for the ages. And shoot, it brings back lovelorn memories of high school proms to me. So there you go. (And I won't even tell you how Peter Cetera's "The Glory of Love" almost won the power ballad spot on the list.) "After the fire, after all the rain / I will be the flame."

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting27. Sufjan Stevens, "Chicago." Let's keep this from being the all-1980s chapter of this never-ending saga. Here's something from this decade that I so far never tire of. This beautiful song, with a message like a calming mantra, evokes hope in the moment when it's darkest. "Illinoise," Sufjan's lush 2005 concept album about Illinois and life in general uses this as its emotional centerpiece – an effortlessly epic, heartfelt tune about taking a chance and asking for forgiveness. Sufjan's childlike voice, sweeping orchestration and sturdy backup singers craft a sincere anthem in an age overflowing with insincere chart-toppers. It's vague enough that it can apply to anyone who's ever felt down and out, specific enough that you can see the corn fields as the song's narrator drives to Chicago, "I made a lot of mistakes, in my mind, in my mind." Sufjan's music contains a lot of nods to his Christian faith, and this track can certainly be seen in that vein – surrendering to God for your sins – but in my kinda agnostic sort of way, I just like it as the sound of a man in trouble pausing for breath, gathering courage to examine his life and starting over again. "All things grow, all things grow."

Monday, February 26, 2007

Comics: James Kochalka's 'American Elf,' Vol. 2

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingLots of folks have a diary. But not a lot of people have a cartoon diary.

Vermont cartoonist, musician and all-around renaissance artist James Kochalka has been chronicling the ups and downs of his life online in his daily cartoon journal for more than eight years now on his Web site, American Elf. The result has been one of my must-reads for some time – drawn in Kochalka's simple, fluid and infinitely expressive style, "American Elf" is a testament to how much the comics medium can deal with in just three or four tiny panels. Hilariously funny, often raw, sometimes poetic, it's an amazing creation.

Collected in book form, the scope of "American Elf" is amazing. Kochalka's first collection, the hefty American Elf Book 1, packed together five years' worth of strips into one of my favorite graphic novel collections in a long time. The brand new second volume, American Elf Volume 2, isn't quite as large – only two years as opposed to five – but it is all in color this time out as opposed to black and white.

One of the pleasures of "American Elf" is watching a life as it unspools – at the start of the strip, Kochalka was working as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, full of dreams of stardom. These days, he's got record deals, published dozens of books and even had dealings with Hollywood. He's a father to 4-year-old Eli, and a homeowner.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingKochalka channels the observant spirit of "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz combined with an underground anything-goes spirit. There's no rules as to what he covers – a strip can be about a fight with his wife, something cute his kid said, or a random sketch of a day's detail, like a weirdly-shaped icicle or a piece of cheese on the ground. Read a huge bunch in one go and you start to see the world Kochalka's way. Everything looks a little more cartoony in real life.

In this volume, Kochalka and his wife Amy watch his son Eli grow from infant to toddler, he continues his sideline absurdist "rawk music" career, his cartooning becomes gradually more successful, and he battles his own insecurities and frustrations. It's just like everyday life – a lot of little moments adding up to something bigger and undefinable.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIt could be said that "American Elf" is getting a bit formulaic as it enters its eighth year and beyond – it's a little less experimental than it was in its earlier days, more a collection of punchlines than of deep thoughts about life. But I don't really see it that way. If anything, I've grown to enjoy "American Elf" more in these later years, as Kochalka's recent adventures in fatherhood mirror my own life and I find myself smiling knowingly at the million strange and funny moments that a kid brings into your world.

Kochalka's art might be too twee for some – and read all in one go, "American Elf" can be kind of like downing six bowls of Cocoa Krispies in a single sitting – that's a lot of sugar to take in. "American Elf" is best dipped into a few pages at a time, absorbing the beauty and the goofy and the sadness that makes up everyday life, filtered through one cartoonist's unwavering eye.

I honestly believe that whenever Kochalka wraps up his daily strip for good (hopefully years from now), the sum total will be seen as one of the more life-affirming and epic graphic novels of our time. And there's not a single superhero in sight.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Movies: The fifth Beatle and the tower of Babel

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting• Been on a bit of a Beatles kick lately (it's required to go through one once a year or so if you often blog about music), and so I revisited the 1994 biopic of their early days, "Backbeat," the other night. Hadn't seen it in years and was surprised by how much I enjoyed anew this take on the Beatles' early Hamburg, pre-fame days, when there were five Beatles and Ringo wasn't in the picture yet. The flick focuses pretty much on John Lennon (Ian Hart) and bass player Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and their complicated friendship as the struggling Beatles play in assorted Hamburg strip joints and dives trying to get a foothold in the music biz. "Backbeat" has a keen eye for debunking the "moptop cute Beatles" image. It nicely depicts the grime and grit of those early, speed-fueled Beatle years, when they were more punk than pop in their assault, having to play six, seven, eight-hour gigs in something closely resembling indentured servitude. The inhuman work load, terrible living conditions and stress was the fire that forged the Beatles from amicable band into something that would become legendary. "Backbeat" pulses with a cool energy as it romps along these early days. The soundtrack doesn't feature a single Lennon/McCartney tune, focusing on the rock and R&B covers the Beatles made their early name with. "Backbeat" captures the vibe of the early Beatles beautifully (even if it gets a bit too many winks in to the band's famous future - "we're gonna be too big for our own bloody good," Lennon says at one point).

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingMore than a decade after "Backbeat's" release, Ian Hart's performance as the angry, bitter young Lennon is still remarkable to watch – without precisely imitating Lennon, he effortlessly evokes him. Dorff's Sutcliffe is easier to play — because how many people really know what Stuart Sutcliffe was like now? — but it's also a fine acting turn, as is the gorgeous Sheryl Lee of "Twin Peaks" fame as seductive German photographer Astrid Kirchherr. Sutcliffe's sad fate in history is well known - a dispensable fifth bandmate whose bass playing was never spectacular, he was in it for a lark. Stu left the band amicably before they became stars, returning to his first love in art. But then he died not long after at the terribly young age of 21 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He's one of these vaguely haunting figures lurking at the edges of the Beatles' history, whose short life makes him seem mysterious and cool in a doomed way (an attribute "Backbeat" diligently exploits). Yet by age 21, the man was a very promising young artist, had a glorious adventure in Germany and fell in love with a girl, and became a Beatle. There are worse epitaphs.

(Photo of Lennon and Sutcliffe (C) Astrid Kirchherr. A marvelous selection of her iconic Beatles shots can be seen at this site.)

• So last weekend I had a Peter-free day and took in "Babel," in an effort to see more than one of the best picture nominees before this Sunday's Oscars. It was a quality flick, but lacking the focus to make it worthy of being best picture, in my mind. It's like a globalized version of "Crash" – bad things happening to insulated or ignorant folks for two hours in loosely intertwining stories, told with skill and some fine acting, but something crucial missing in the mix. The main problem I had with "Babel" is that I could feel the writer's hand in almost every scene – you shouldn't be able to see the strings that easily on the puppets. Little of it felt unforced, save perhaps the Japanese girl's storyline, which almost belonged in an entirely different movie. Brad Pitt is excellent in a supporting role, and there's several incredibly tense, powerfully presented sequences throughout this harrowing movie. It's not a terrible movie by any means, but being nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture gets your expectations pretty high. Director Alejandro Iñárritu's crazy-quilt storytelling style seems to be a hit with many critics, but I find it often simplistic. (His last movie, "21 Grams," was melodramatic and insincere.) "Babel" feels like a picture aching to impress you with its profound insight.

• Good luck to our friend Erin and her partner Val, who have left Auckland on several months of global travel before ending up in Vancouver, Canada, and are blogging about their adventures here. Go read - they're way more exciting than my blog!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Music Review: Lily Allen, Alright, Still

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOn the cover of her debut CD Alright, Still, Lily Allen perches on a pop-art bicycle in a carnival version of London. Her head is tilted and she looks on the verge of launching a slick, smooth putdown. It's the look of the smartest kid in the class who's decided to become a troublemaker.

Another one of those British mega-hit imports trying to make it big in the states, Lily Allen is far more Arctic Monkeys than Robbie Robertson. Her singles "Smile" and "LDN" were hits last year in the U.K., and now Alright, Still has gotten a U.S. release. A recent appearance on "Saturday Night Live" is boosting her American attack. Allen effortlessly combines a smart, cynical lyrical bent with chirpy, upbeat island-pop music. While she's only 21, there's a universal appeal to her tunes. MySpace launched her career – her demos posted on her home page drew attention that led to Alright, Still's release last summer overseas.

The disc's kickoff single, "Smile," sticks in your head with an insistent firmness. Its Jamaica-meets-No Doubt bounce belies some of the most cynical lyrics you'll hear in such a radio-friendly tune – "At first when I see you cry / it makes me smile / of course I feel bad for a while / but then I just smile." It's the ultimate kiss-off, in a sing-along, girl power anthem.

Allen's emotive soprano is the hook she uses to spin her sweet-sounding, bitter-aftertaste pop. "Knock 'Em Out" combines a dance hall piano lick with a snide, Cockney-rap delivery that evokes The Streets combined with Lady Sovereign as she dissects the singles scene. "LDN" rides along on a Bob Marley swinging beat as it looks at the highs and lows of life in London ("When you look with your eyes, everything seems nice / but if you look twice you can see it's all lies").

Of course, Allen is hardly the second coming of the Clash with her observations that England has a prim public face and a seamy underbelly, but her tunes still have a cutting wit. While Allen often gets biting, she's rarely raunchy – sure, "Nan You're A Window Shopper" is a slashing assault on old folks and their "leaky colostomy bags," while "Not Big" berates an ex-boyfriend for exactly what you'd think the title is referring to.

Allen's at her best when her dark wit is sharp – one of the disc's weaker tracks, the platitude-filled "Take What You Take," comes perilously close to sounding like the Spice Girls with a little profanity. Also, a bonus "alternate version" of "Smile" on this US release, done over with a sloppy trumpet and drum machine '80s Katrina and the Waves-style production, is bloody awful.

But heck, Lily Allen is young, after all, and that's a big element of her success here. Only someone who's 21 and infatuated with her own cleverness could produce a debut as brash, cocky and hummably fun as Alright, Still. It's pop with enough edge to appeal to balding hipsters even as their 14-year-old daughters sing along with it on their iPods.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

...Howdy, all four of my regular readers, I'm back from the brief hiatus. I'm hoping to start more regular posting again later this week but for now I have to give a belated...

Happy third birthday, Peter!

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Yep, our little man is now three as of the 18th. We had a fine party for him last weekend, his first "real" birthday party with friends and relatives coming and presents galore. He was hyped up the entire day like he just downed ten shots of espresso. But he had a blast.

While it's indisputably hard work, it's been great spending so much time with him these past 6 months. He's growing and changing every single day, and entered the "question" phase ("Eat your sandwich." "Why?" "Because you're hungry." "Why am I hungry?" "Because you have been playing for 17 hours." "Why have I been playing?" Etc.) Yesterday we had a lengthy discussion on why despite his wishes, he can't grow up to have a baby in his tummy. Yeah, I thought I'd have the birds and bees talk a little later on in life...

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Communication breakdown

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting...So I haven't really been feeling the blogging lately, down to posting just once or twice a week. Part of it is the daily routine we've settled into here as "Mr. Mom" and fumbling aspiring freelance writer – there's not a lot to say really about it, and there's only so much "look how cute my boy is" posts one can get away with. And while we've been doing a lot of fine visits to beaches, again, only so much you can really say. As for the New Zealand/U.S. cultural differences thing, I'm just not out and about enough right now to suss that out.

So the inspirado has fled for the nonce, and I think I'll take a little blogging sabbatical until it returns. Been doing this for nearly three years, after all! Never wanted this to feel like an obligation and the last few weeks it kind of has. So a break, for a week or a month or whatever happens. I could pick it up again on Tuesday, who knows? See you in the future...

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Mega America Trek 2006: South Dakota, Part II

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So where were we? Fleeing out of Deadwood in the setting sun, after a full day of exploring the tourism haven The Black Hills. On to the Badlands and Rapid City, the largest city in South Dakota but just 60,000 people or so, a town perched on the edge of vast prairie.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingRapid City really doesn't make a tremendous impression (I was appalled with the Sunday newspaper there – the one I'd worked for back in Oregon in a much smaller town was yards better). But one thing about it is exceedingly cool – downtown, to capitalize on the whole Rushmore/Presidential history of the area, they've been gradually erecting life-size bronze statues of every single president, from Washington to Warren Harding to Clinton. I found this bizarrely cool. They haven't finished all the presidents yet – about 25 of them so far, I think. I would support this use of my taxpayer money for the simple geeky oddness of it. (You can find pics of most of the statues here.) They're all clustered in a section of downtown on various street corners. We all walked around downtown in the evening and looked for statues. The Jimmy Carter statue was a particular favorite, pictured here. The Nixon one is in a total "Dr. Evil" pose, though. Rapid City also has a mysterious Dinosaur Park on a big hill overlooking the entire town, which boasts some rather run-down and cartoony giant dinosaur statues. It's a bit peculiar to look up and see a brontosaurus on a hill watching your hotel room.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWe used Rapid City as our base to zip eastwards, away out of the Black Hills and toward the raw and rugged Badlands National Park. On the way, we had to stop at the amazingly self-promotional, "world famous" Wall Drug. You'll find signs for this store all over the Midwest – we spotted them in the middle of Wyoming – goofy little "Burma shave" type signs advertising their "free ice water" and "5 cent coffee". My dad went there once in the 1970s and told us we had to go. This store is a piece of true Americana, kitschy and sprawling and kind of amazing – it's actually several dozen stores crammed into one city block in the wee-tiny town of Wall, about 40 minutes east of Rapid City. It's all owned and run by the same family and has been since the 1930s, and has a kind of cowboy-western theme going on – rambling shops, museums, restaurants, even a giant mechanical T-rex that scared the beejeezus out of Peter. Definitely a lot more fun than your typical Interestate rest stop.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIf the foresty, rambling Black Hills are the opposite of the prairie, the Badlands are the Bizarro inverse. You head east from Rapid City for about an hour, and the land flattens out like a huge tan blanket, gently rolling hills. The Badlands erupt slowly out of this calm, fragmented chunks of land like out of a Cormac McCarthy novel – they were created by erosion over millions of years. The effect they create is startling – it's pure chaos of geology and astoundingly vivid and detailed, sunken down into flat prairie. One of the richest fossil beds in the world, it's like visiting the moon or something – especially when you drive right down into the pinnacles and spires themselves, which form some astoundingly jagged shapes. The only place I can compare it to is Southern Utah, which has the same unearthly allure.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAt Badlands, we also got our first glimpse on this trip of the American icon of the Great Plains, the bison. It's amazing, and more than a bit sad, to think that kazillions of these huge beasts used to roam the fields before we human beings wiped most of them out. They're being reintroduced in national parks, though, and we came across a small group of 4-5 of them here, including one obliging fellow who was, um, scratching himself on a fence post not 10 feet from us. Seen up close, these monsters are really impressive – nothing like meek, boring cows, they're huge grunting slabs of meat and muscle that look like they could easily knock your mid-sized SUV over a cliff if they wished. It was actually a little scary being so close to one without a fence – hope that scratching kept him in a good mood! (We'd end up seeing a huge old herd of nearly 100 bison in Yellowstone National Park a few days later, which this served as the appetizer for.)

The town of Wall was as far east as we got on this mega trek of ours – and yet, looking at the map, despite the thousands of miles we drove, we barely hit the halfway point of America. To quote Yakov Smirnoff, "What a country!" Our three days in western South Dakota had lots of fine sights that we'll long remember.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Music reviews: of Montreal, Fujiya & Miyagi

Here's short versions of a couple indie dance-rock music type CDs I've reviewed lately over at BlogCritics. Not my usual listening fare but pretty enjoyable stuff, it turns out... Head to my BlogCritics page to read the full versions if you are so inclined.

Of Montreal, 'Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?' (Polyvinyl Records)
Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOf Montreal's dark and questing "Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?" is like the sound of a nervous breakdown with a beat you can dance to. The Athens, Ga.,-based group of Montreal sprang out of the mind of Kevin Barnes. "Hissing Fauna," of Montreal's eighth album, is a darker, more self-obsessed turn than the more gleeful pop of the previous work. A loose concept album about depression and elation, "Hissing Fauna" uses music as a muse. Barnes, who wrote and recorded much of this alone, dealt with suddenly living in a foreign country, a new child, marriage concerns and more in a chaotic year. "Hissing Fauna" is him trying to make sense of it all. "Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?" is lavishly orchestrated pop, complete with an elaborate fold-out case that resembles a blooming hippie flower. Song titles that are almost willfully goofy – "Sink The Seine," "Gronlandic Edit," "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider" – are tacked onto some ornate, creative and occasionally infuriatingly bizarre songs. Of Montreal's spinning electic frenzy may turn off as many as it appeals to. But the soaring highs and crashing lows of "Hissing Fauna" cohere into a dazzlingly creative if imperfect album. Take the first track, "Suffer For Fashion," which launches along on keyboard riffs and optimistic choruses that could've come straight out of an Erasure concert. It's followed soon by "Cato As A Pun," which crashes down to earth in a lonely disco groove. "I guess you just want to shave your head/ have a drink and be left alone," Barnes laments. The howls and catharsis of "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal" are the disc's highlight, building steam over nearly 12 minutes into a jittery Bowie-esque soundscape, Barnes raving about the state of his heart to a swelling, monotonous background of electronic beats, coos, squeals and riffs. "It's like we weren't made for this world / Though I wouldn't really want to meet someone who was," he says at one point. The song's heft comes from its sheer tension, the sensation that something huge is at stake here. The track divides the album cleanly in two parts - a "down" side and an "up" side. The second half of the disc, coming after the massively emotional "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal," is a little light and twee, with a few rambling, unfocused jam-pop melodies that lack the tightness of the album's best tracks. While it's not the easiest album that will come out of 2007, "Hissing Fauna" is definitely one of the most ambitious. I'm already a lot fonder of it than I was the first few times I listened to it, wondering, "what is this lunacy?"

Fujiya & Miyagi, 'Transparent Things' (Deaf, Dumb & Blind Records)
Photobucket - Video and Image HostingTheir name is Japanese; their influences are German, their new album "Transparent Things" is named after a novel by Russian Vladimir Nabokov. But Fujiya & Miyagi are actually a Brighton, U.K. trio releasing their first disc stateside, full of bleeping, sardonic wit and atmospheric vibes. "Transparent Things" collects a stew of the band's British singles together. Fujiya & Miyagi have brewed up a drifting soundtrack to ennui, down-tempo dance tunes for a rainy drive or a 3 a.m. ponder. The songs never quite explode into full-out release, but amble along in a groove that's gently uplifting. Circling, repetitive riffs flow along with deadpan surrealistic vocals to create a systematic mood throughout "Transparent Things." At its best, it all induces a trancey reverie about the always-on, wired world we live in – or as vocalist David Best gasps in the title track, "I look through transparent things and I feel OK." "Cassette Single" updates and homages the Kraftwerk instrumental sound over a 6-minute trek, while the lullaby "Cylinders" sounds a bit like a trippy cover version of a song by '80s act The Church. "Ankle Injuries" has a propulsive drive and winkingly repeats the band's name over and over until you space out into the ether. "We were just pretending to be Japanese," Best whispers in "Photocopier," undercutting the solemn sway of some of the music by telling us it might all just be a big game. They even quote the old tune "Dem Bones" extensively in the goofy "Collarbone." The music's foundation of the hallowed kraut-rock gods Can, Kraftwerk and Neu! blend in with more modern wry disco-punk tints; fans of LCD Soundsystem's amped-up irony-techno might dig this as the chilled-out, egghead sibling. Fujiya & Miyagi might be transparent things, but you can see an awful lot of things in a reflection, after all, can't you?