Sunday, July 22, 2007

So it begins...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket First day tomorrow at the new gig. Excited but a bit jittery. Digging all the "work clothes" out of the dusty closet and polishing 'em up. Strange to return to the realm of wage earner after nearly a year off. First time since early 2004 both the wife and I have been working at the same time!

So anyway, wish me luck, I'll return sometime soon after I find my sea legs in the high-stakes world of New Zealand publication editing!

Thoughts on the end of Harry Potter

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...So I stayed up till a bit past midnight last night with my friend Harry, diving deep into "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows" to see how it all ends for our man at Hogwarts. I won't spoil anything here, but it was a fine, speedy 600-page read and a pretty fitting conclusion to the saga. Although J.K. Rowling desperately should include recap pages for those of us who don't have every line of the series memorized, after a couple of chapters I got back into the Muggles groove and was captivated by a book where the stakes are insanely high, the body count startling, and the sense of onrushing doom quite tangible. If you listen carefully this weekend you can hear the gentle rustle of millions of pages being turned worldwide at the same time – how cool is that?

And it's always kind of fun to be involved in pop culture events like this – I stood in line at the Warehouse store for a half-hour or so on a rainy Saturday morning and watched them wheel out the boxes with "EMBARGOED" stamped on there, witnessed the fidgety teen in front of me nearly have cardiac arrest (she actually dropped her copy of HP7 when they handed it to her, she was so wired), and I even got a free Harry cap for being one of the first 100 in line. Woo hoo, geekdom!

I have always been partial to the great "child fantasy literature series" – my favorites over the years include L. Frank Baum's "Oz" series (which bear little resemblance to the movie), the "Narnia" books (although on a recent re-read I was surprised to see how overt the Christian message now seemed), the "Tintin" comics and probably my all-time favorite, Hugh Lofting's marvelous "Dr. Doolittle" novels from the 1920s and 1930s (later, if it's not too strong to say, generously molested and mutilated into a series of fart jokes by Hollywood and Eddie Murphy).

The "Potter" stories, perhaps, haven't been quite so iconic to me – nothing is as fine as it is when you read it at 11 years old, after all – but they're good solid fun. Rowling crafts a highly detailed, layered world, even if she gets bogged down sometimes in plot mechanics and exposition. I envy the kids who've grown up reading this story. I can't think of another similar book series offhand that has "grown up" along with the audience like this one – looking back at "Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone" now, it's a very simple, kid-focused read, whereas "Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows" is an often very adult, gritty experience. I think a huge part of the Potter mystique is that slow-burning maturity, how we as readers age as Potter grows into the world and his considerable legacy. Rowling had no idea what she set in motion a decade or so ago, but if her work has turned on just a handful of her legion of fans to the vast world of great books out there in the land, then she has done one heck of a thing indeed.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Music: the return of Crowded House

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe first time I heard Neil Finn's voice was on a mix tape an old high school girlfriend made for me, nearly 20 years ago now. She put together a tape that was one half Finn's group Crowded House, one half Elton John. It was the Crowded House that stuck with me – a selection of tracks from the band's first few albums, songs like "Better Be Home Soon," "Something So Strong," "Into Temptation."

Long after I lost track of the girlfriend and our days together were just memories, I kept the tape, and the hopeful beauty of Finn's voice was always a comforting thing to summon up. Years later, I now live in Finn's homeland of New Zealand myself, and I have to admit Crowded House's music has long been one of the things I've identified this country with. Whenever I hear a classic Crowded House tune, I think young love, full of potential and peril. When he's firing on all cylinders, Finn is one of the better songwriters we've got.

Crowded House had a run through global fame in the late '80s and early '90s, but called it a day in 1996 when Finn embarked on a successful solo career. They left four fine albums, but hopes for a reunion of the original lineup were sadly dashed when drummer Paul Hester killed himself in a Sydney park in 2005. The death of Hester – an extroverted, mercurial character who apparently had some serious sadness beneath the smiles – was a terrific loss, but perhaps one point of light in it came the spark that led to the reunion of Crowded House for the first time in 14 years.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFinn had been working on a new solo album, but in the wake of Hester's death he asked founding Crowded House bass player Nick Seymour to join him. After recording the entire album, Finn decided it should be a Crowded House project. The duo went back into the studio with multi-instrumentalist Mark Hart, who performed on Crowded House's last two albums, and drummer Matt Sherrod, who's worked with Beck, to record four more songs. The result became Time On Earth, the first Crowded House record since 1993's Together Alone.

Whether intentionally or not, Hester's spirit haunts Time On Earth. "I think there's a lot of heart and spirit in the album which is connected with the loss of our dear friend Paul but also an attempt to try and make sense of it and move forward," Finn said in an interview for his record label. Loss and death are a constant in the lyrical imagery – angels, saints and heaven are recurring motifs. Thankfully, Finn has one of the finer voices in music to tackle this tricky territory – he's always managed to combine sentiment and soul without slipping into overwrought Michael Bolton realms.

Finn draws on famous friends – Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr pops up to play guitar on two tracks, including the buoyant first single, "Don't Stop Now," which marries a wistful chorus to Marr's distinctive guitar riffs. Marr also co-wrote "Even A Child," which may be the most upbeat track on Time On Earth, a jangle-pop guitar track married to Finn's urgent singing. Elsewhere, the tune "Silent House" was written by Finn with none other than the Dixie Chicks.

The album's beating heart seems to be in "Pour Le Monde," which could be Finn's ode to Hester ("He's the best that you ever had / he's so low you'll never know"). It's a grand, swelling track that combines heartbreak and hope with an anthemic touch. The welcome, jaunty "Transit Lounge" starts off combining airport random sounds with ambient tones in a way that brings to mind Brian Eno. Album closer "People Are Like Suns" is a kind of graceful benediction to the album's fears and dreams: "People are like suns / they are burning up tonight."

Is it like old times? Not precisely. Its peculiar genesis means Time On Earth doesn't quite "feel" like a Crowded House record. If anything it's far more similar to Finn's solo work, brittle and often melancholy, gorgeous and ruminative, but perhaps a bit lacking on the hooks. There's nothing along the lines of earlier Crowded House raucous rockers like "Knocked Out," for instance. Perhaps sensibly, Finn and co. haven't tried to pick up like it was 1993 – this is the work of an older man, who's been around the block a few more times since. Most of the songs on Time On Earth are slow builders, ones that reward repeat listening.

The thoughtful drift of Time On Earth lingers like the best of Finn's work, heavy of heart and hopeful despite the odds. This house is a welcome one to visit again.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Reviews: 39th Auckland International Film Festival

I spent a lot of the weekend cloaked in darkness watching images shimmering on screen at Auckland's most excellent film festival. It's great living in a city with such a world-class event – it was very hard to narrow down what to view out of more than 100 fantastic offerings, but here's a look at what I've seen:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"Helvetica" (director, Gary Hustwit). A documentary about a typeface? Egads, you say. But this 80-minute feature on the world's most ubiquitous font (you see it everywhere from the Target logo to American Airlines' logo to most street signs) is fascinating work. Director Gary Hustwit started with a premise – why is one particular typeface so common in this modern world? – that spins into a sweeping discussion of typography design in general and what the shape of a letter can do to our mind. Helvetica, which is 50 years old in 2007, has become the script of city life. Besides giving us many montages showing how Helvetica is everywhere these days, Hustwit stuffs his film with interviews with a wonderfully eccentric crowd of type experts. Trust me, some of these guys are quite bizarre, such as the German who lustily denounces Helvetica or the avant-garde magazine designer who once laid out an article he disliked in the utterly illegible Zapf Dingbats font – and it saw print that way. There's a lot of humor in Hustwit's exploration of this insular but very influential world of design. The screening I was at seemed to be full of graphic designers or people involved somehow in the art of type. As someone who's worked in newspapers for over a decade and had my share of dealings with Helvetica I found this a really interesting movie, one that adeptly fulfills the documentarian's desire to show us a hidden facet of the everyday world. Hustwit himself was at the screening and gave an informative Q&A talk afterwards about how and why he did this film. It's a very "niche" appealing film I suppose, but I loved it, and can't wait to pick up the DVD.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"All In This Tea" (director, Les Blank). How much do you know about the history of tea? I got offered a free ticket a friend couldn't use to this one, despite not being much of a tea drinker. And it certainly left me thirsty – a quite interesting, short documentary that follows David Hoffman, a Californian tea importer whose life is devoted to finding the best, purest Chinese oolong teas in remote parts of the countryside. Director Blank splices Hoffman's wanderings with a look at the meaning of tea, its growing popularity in America and what the differences are between organic tea and factory-farmed alternatives. It's a quite neat little film that is best when it focuses on the small details, such as Hoffman's penchant for sticking his nose into bags of tea leaves to gauge their quality. When it starts to speechify a bit on organic farming methods it becomes a little dull, but rallies nicely to become a meditation on quality of food in general. "All In This Tea" also features lots of lovely footage of the rural Chinese countryside and its people. Hoffman is a nicely charming lead character, a kind of capitalist hippie whose love for the "good tea" is infectious. The kind of small, spunky movie film festivals are made to showcase.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket"Rescue Dawn" (director, Werner Herzog). This is the most "Hollywood" I've seen of German director Herzog's films ("Grizzly Man," "Fitzcarraldo," etc), but it's also a tremendously captivating war story, based on the true story of U.S. Navy pilot Dieter Dengler, who was shot down and captured in Laos in 1965. Christian Bale stars in a story of survival, as Dieter plans an escape from a prison in the heart of the jungle. Herzog's movies often feature man against nature in gritty scenarios, and "Rescue Dawn" is no different. It's on the conventional side, by Herzog's standards, but still spellbinding, particularly as Dieter spirals down into despair and faces impossible odds. Herzog makes the malevolent Asian jungle like another character in this film – you can taste the humid air, smell the fetid jungle scents. It's the small details that Herzog adds that give his distinctive tone to this movie – it could've been a Steven Spielberg movie, but instead it's something tense, heartbreaking and haunting. Bale is excellent, playing a can-do hero who has to confront his own limits, but even more dazzling is Steve Zahn as a fellower prisoner. Zahn is best known for kooky comedies like "Saving Silverman" or "Happy, Texas," but he is utterly fantastic here as a prisoner whose spirit has been nearly crushed. His intensity really should be remembered come Oscar time, and I hope it is.

Still to come: "Control," the new biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, which I'll see later this week!

D'oh, I say, d'oh

Movie marketing is awesome. Everybody else on the Net is doing this, so why not me – thanks to the upcoming Simpsons movie, what Peter and I would look like as Simpsons characters:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Saturday, July 14, 2007

A scurrying serving of smatterings

I'm busy playing with various attempts at RSS, XML, DYI and other strange and unfathomable Internet acronyms as I do a little spiffing up and modernizing here at the "Spat" in an attempt to build up traffic a bit (hence the little cute buttons off to the right that probably don't work right). What the hell is a Feedburner and how can it make me famous? (An aside, anyone who's currently subscribing to my "feeds" might want to update them, I think.) So here's a few random notes instead of actual content:

• Here's another two recent pieces for BlogCritics which will excite you to your very marrow (or at the least your epidermis):
- A review of The National's swell, moody new disc Boxer.
- A look at a collection of more than a decade worth of Afghan Whigs shoulda-been-hits, Unbreakable.

• Let me throw in a plug for my old pal Troy Hickman, comics writer, unrepentant Rush fan and occasional taxidermist – his new blog Shut Up And Enjoy The Ozzy! is up and running and sure to offer you whole minutes of browsing pleasure. Go read it and tell him Nik's blog is funnier.

• Good luck to another fellow blogger Patrick and his gal pal Karen, who are getting married this weekend back in our old stomping grounds of Oregon.

• And now I'm off to partake of the 39th Auckland International Film Festival this weekend – look for my pale, light-starved form to materialize again Monday or so with a few reviews!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why my dentist cracks me up

He said today whilst I was having a filling and we were talking about Bob Dylan's upcoming concert in Auckland, which we both have tickets for:

"I'm having the dream again. I'm the on-call emergency dentist. Bob Dylan's people call, and there's a problem. I have to do an emergency root canal, and we become friends. He writes a song about me."

It was his beautifully blissed-out expression that sold it for me.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A few thoughts on the funny strips

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket• Quite sad to wake up this morning to the news that cartoonist Doug Marlette has died in a car accident at the relatively young age of 57. (And strange enough, he was killed in an accident in Holly Springs, Mississippi, right around where I used to live.) He was one of the finer editorial cartoonists of the time and for a while I was a big fan of his comic "Kudzu," which was an endearingly Southern-fried take on life that I felt captured the true voice of the South these days far better than hillbilly stuff like "Barney Google." He even dared to include a preacher as a main character but made him startlingly humane and non-judgmental. There was a gentle good humor to his work that wasn't spectacularly flashy, but it was insightful and witty. In an increasingly bland comics page, his strip was usually one of the few I kept up with. RIP. (Edit to add: A very fine appreciation over at The Washington Post.)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket• In other comic-related news, I was recently reading "Popeye: I Yam What I Yam" Vol. 1 by Fantagraphics books. Everyone thinks of spinach when they think of Popeye, but didja know the original newspaper comic strips Popeye debuted in barely even mentioned spinach? Popeye bounded on the scene in the late 1920s in E.C. Segar's "Thimble Theatre" comic, as a colorful cast addition to the ongoing tale of wisecracking, height-challenged adventurer Castor Oyl (and his soon-to-be-more famous sister, Olive). But Popeye soon took over the entire strip, his oversized personality crowding out many of the characters in free-wheeling, high seas comic adventures as he battled characters like the Sea Hag and the Goon.

If you've seen most of the bland color Popeye TV cartoons, you haven't seen the "real" Popeye, and Fantagraphics is doing a terrific job reprinting these 75+ year old strips in simply gigantic 10x14 inch hardback tomes. They've got a gutsy 1930s spunkiness to them and Segar's simple, crisp antic lines are still a pleasure to view. The strips are a bit dated but just as charmingly anarchic as, say, Marx Brothers movies from the same era. Popeye is actually – stay with me now – kind of a prototype of the Wolverine character – the charismatic, untamed loner who constantly spouts catchphrases and uses violence as his first response. His strength doesn't come from spinach but from simply being a "tough bloke." ("I socks 'em permanent," he boasts). The stories have a rambling make-it-up-daily feel to them but are exciting little adventures that get better as the strip finds its voice (best of all, it's the first of six planned volumes collecting Segar's life work). This beautifully designed hardback has over 200 pages of Segar goodness and is one of the best comics collections of the year. (A far more eloquent review of the book can be found over at, if you want more testimony.) They don't make the comics like this one these days – what little serialized strips are left are bland eunuchs like "Mark Trail" – and that's a shame. "Blow me down," as Popeye himself would say.

Monday, July 9, 2007

The last week

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketToday kicks off the final week before Peter enters day care as I prepare to start my new job... P starts day care next Monday on a part-time basis (I don't start work until the 23rd, and we wanted to ease him in the first week). It's a strange feeling, and I have to admit I'm both regretful and relieved at the same time. I quit my last job Aug. 31, 2006, and in the past 10 months or so I've spent far more time with Peter than I did the first 2 1/2 years of his life. That's something I'll never forget, being able to enjoy the kind of "quality time" that far too many parents just can't swing in the hectic modern world.

I just wish I hadn't spent about 35% of this time whining about not having a job, being annoyed at our rambunctious toddler and generally freaking out a bit about the whole upheaval of moving 6,000 miles overseas. It's human nature to be never entirely satisfied, I guess. The first few months after Avril returned to work and I was having to look after the boy, like, all day, were definitely the worst, and in retrospect I had some real depression going on then. You take away everything that defines your life and replace it with new stuff, it'll shake you up a bit. But by March or so I started to realize this time was going to be very finite and before I knew it Peter would magically transform like our nephew Max, who sprouted into an impossibly gangly, taciturn teenager seemingly overnight. So enjoy it while it lasts.

Filling the days got a lot easier when we started going to Playcentre – as anyone who minds a toddler will tell you, keeping them occupied is the hardest part. And Peter and I have had several expeditions exploring Auckland, the museums, zoo, et cetera. It's been great to watch that little mind develop and his constant growth. While he's been big on asserting his independence (#1 favorite phrase: "No I want to do that!") he also isn't shy about expressing his love (#2 favorite phrase: "I really want to cuddle you"). He loves to ask questions (#3 favorite phrase: "Why do...[fill in the blank; i.e. yesterday's question about why worms live in the ground]"), and keeps coming up with ever-more elaborate fantasy play schemes that make me hope he'll be as creative as an adult as he is as a kid. He's overall an incredibly happy, excited and smart kid. But he also requires a heck of a lot of energy to keep up with and I admit the notion of paying professionals to do this for some of the day is rather alluring.

I am definitely ready to go back into the workforce and excited about what'll happen there. The novelty of having a 3-year-old as my major social outlet grew old a while ago. But I have to admit it's all been full of a lot of little wonders too and hopefully I can store that somewhere in my head and summon it back up whenever I get sick of the novelty of working again. Meantime I'll enjoy this last week.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Book/music review: Rough Guide To The Blues

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketEveryone gets the blues. But for many of today's listeners, the blues might evoke a dreary, dusty sound that has little to do with modern times. That's a mistake – give them a chance, and you'll find that 70- or 80-year-old tunes by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy or Blind Willie McTell have an authentic human voice that can't be faked. Listen through the haze of years, and the roaring power of Howlin' Wolf or the deadpan swing of Muddy Waters still have the power to transport you. The blues reeks of history, but it's a past that's still very much alive and kicking. A new book and CD Rough Guide To The Blues is your ticket to delve into this world.

Nigel Williamson, author of the excellent Rough Guide To Bob Dylan, has crafted a sweeping survey of the blues, from its earliest African roots right on up to young blues-inspired kids like Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Pretty much every blues name you can think of is included in this book, and a companion CD compilation provides a chance to hear the unforgettable sound of the blues at its best.

In a concise but information-filled 75 pages or so of introduction, Williamson takes a look at blues history, starting from its dark roots in the African slave trade, and moving through the years up to the 1960s when a blues revival added a critical ingredient to the new sound of rock 'n' roll. Along the way, Williamson looks at blues sub-genres like Mississippi Delta blues, slide guitar, zydeco, British blues and many more.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe meat of the book is an enormous A to Z encyclopedia of the blues, profiling dozens of famous and obscure musicians and labels from throughout the years, including many recommended playlists of tunes. You've got the big names given nice capsule biographies, like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Bessie Smith, but equally as fascinating to me were the tales of forgotten bluesmen I'd never even heard of, like Daddy Stovepipe, Bo Weavil Jackson or Speckled Red. Some died young in knife fights or froze to death in the cold; some lived long into their 80s or 90s, long enough to get some of the acclaim they deserved.

In a move that might offend some blues purists, Williamson also includes a look at the legion of rock bands inspired by the blues, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Captain Beefheart. But in a clever gambit, Williamson looks at these acts entirely through the context of their blues roots rather than at their larger careers, showing us the wide reach the Delta sound has had in popular music.

In a work this size and scope there's bound to be a few mistakes, and some will likely be uncovered by readers with more background than I. (Williamson misidentifies Oxford's University of Mississippi once, I noted.) But on my casual read, I was amazed by the sheer breadth of information included in this tome. He also includes a handy list of blues resources, such as other books, movies, magazines and web sites.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe companion CD of The Rough Guide to the Blues, compiled by Williamson as well, offers an excellent survey of the blues over the years. Obviously the hundreds of names in the book can't be included on one disc, but over 22 tracks Williamson takes us from the scratchy, mysterious early sounds of acts like Mamie Smith or Charley Patton all the way on up to the postmodern blues-techno hybrids of the late R.L. Burnside or the Mali-meets-blues sound of Ali Farka Touré. The spare and lonesome sound of those early acts explodes into the big-band showmanship of the later Chicago blues.

The big names are all included on this CD – John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom," Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup's seminal "That's All Right" (which went on to be recorded by Elvis Presley, of course), Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues." In a nice move, arguably the two biggest stars of the blues, B.B. King and Muddy Waters, are represented by rarer live tracks rather than the familiar hits – the version of Waters' "Mannish Boy" included on here is particularly smokin', a call-and-response romp.

If you're unsure of where to start with the blues, or even an old hand in search of a refresher course, I can't imagine a better combination than sitting down to read The Rough Guide To The Blues while having the companion CD blasting out of your stereo system. Williamson has done an amazing job making this legendary music accessible and showing us some of its secrets, while still keeping the strange mystery that is the very core of the blues experience.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Meanwhile, back in the real world...

So I haven't been posting a lot lately and some may have noticed I haven't been posting much at all about "real life" the last several weeks. That's because there's been a lot of changes going on, and I haven't wanted to write about it until it's all a little clearer -- and not jinx myself. Long story short, I've lined up a very spiffy new job and we've enrolled Peter in day care starting in a couple weeks, which is a big transition for us from the routine we've established the last 10 months or so.

Ever since we got back from Sydney, we've been thinking hard about where we are on our so-called "plan" and how we'd like to eventually own our own house here. That meant I'd need to return to the work force. Amazingly, I had an incredibly quick job search due to a combination of luck and timing and lined up a very promising job in less than a week! I'll be working as a "regional deputy senior sub-editor" (that's a long title, ain't it?) for a company owned by the Australian Associated Press that is taking on the editing, layout and design for APN Media, which owns the New Zealand Herald, Listener magazine and a host of other smaller papers. It looks like I'll be starting toward the end of July – a few details remain to be worked out. I'm pretty psyched as this is a huge company I'll be joining and it offers some real challenges. It's been just shy of a year since I worked, and while it's been a fantastic experience both as a Dad and traveling around, that itch to get back in the trenches has been pretty strong too.

And so we're putting P in day care which is something we've managed to avoid his first 3 1/2 years. I've been really lucky to spend my days with him this past year and being a stay-at-home dad has changed my whole view of parenting, but it wasn't feasible to do it forever and I really knew I wasn't going to feel like I "lived" in New Zealand unless I was working here too. It's going to be tough giving our little man up to strangers for 8 hours a day or so but he's ready for it... if anything it's going to be a lot harder on Mom and Dad than it will him, I imagine. We've found a really good center in a good location.

Anyway, that's what's up with us right now. I have a feeling my blogging will get even less frequent once I start work, but I'll try to keep a presence up on here. And right now I need to bone up on my NZ journalism style!