Saturday, December 27, 2008

A very merry kauri Christmas

PhotobucketWell, that was a whirlwind Christmas trip -- less than 48 hours out of Auckland -- but we had to negotiate work schedules and so forth and were pleased with what we got. We drove on up to Opononi, a flyspeck hamlet perched on the shore of the Hokianga Harbour about three hours north of Auckland. It's a place I last passed through in 2003 on our trip to Cape Reinga, and we'd been wanting to see more of.

The big attraction in this part of NZ is the kauri forest, the remnants of trees that once spanned most of the country (little-known fact: the lovely green rolling hills most people think of when they think New Zealand are actually the legacy of clear-cutting by man). Kauri are basically the redwood trees of New Zealand, and among the biggest trees on earth. As I've said before, I love redwoods and I quite like kauri too. They don't quite reach the heights of redwoods -- 160 feet or so max as opposed to nearly 400 feet for reddies, but they do have an astounding girth -- the biggest is 50 feet around. Running across some of the few remaining giant kauri is a bit like coming across a solid wood wall in the middle of the forest. The pictures don't quite do them justice in terms of scale.

PhotobucketThis time we stopped at the most excellent Kauri Museum in Matakohe along the way. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, it's one of the better museums I've seen in NZ, with a look at kauri logging and its role in the pioneer settlements, in Maori legend, and its ecology. It's a huge sprawling place with a replica of a working sawmill and tons of big machines which Peter loved.

Also featured is a display of all kinds of kauri gum, which is a gorgeous glowing golden amber and was a prized resource. The museum had nifty displays of gum, included some carved into strange shapes (the kauri gum carved into the shapes of Christian Bibles is a nice statement of the 19th-century mindset).

Photobucket Of course, despite it being summer in New Zealand, we had a mostly rainy getaway to Opononi, but it was still nice. The damp lends an evocative atmosphere to the kauri bush anyway, which is full of kiwis and such. (Not that we saw one -- actually, has anyone reading outside of biologists actually seen a kiwi in the wild? They're very stealthy.) We wandered on the great beaches of Hokianga Harbour, ate too much fish, chips and chocolate for our own good, opened Christmas prezzies and then came back to Auckland and opened still more! My kind of holiday, mate!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Six sentence Sunday

1. How is it I only discovered how cool the band Portishead is just now?

2. Watching the awesome new Criterion Collection DVD of Wes Anderson's first movie "Bottle Rocket", I was reminded again of how honest and sweet the not-quite storybook romance between Luke Wilson's fumbling hapless burglar and the gem-eyed Hispanic maid Inez is.

3. I really want to see "The Curious Affair of Benjamin Button" soon.

4. Our major family Christmas present this year was a new refrigerator, and it is indeed a towering monster of ice-cool goodness that is nearly double the size of our poky old fridge, and it scares me a little bit.

5. Every time I get my hair cut these days my hairline is just a little bit higher.

6. We are off for an extra-short Christmas getaway to parts unknown, so Joyeux Noel and all that jazz!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Concert review: The Mountain Goats, Auckland, December 17

Photobucket...John Darnielle is the rockingest hyper-wordy acoustic-guitar geek in the music biz. The Mountain Goats frontman and his two-man band put on a fantastic show at the Kings Arms last night in Auckland, short but intense and often very funny. I've been a fan of the Goats (basically Darnielle and occasional collaborators) for several years now. He's one of the best songwriters in the business and I've long wanted to see him live. There's few singers that can manage the fragile intensity of Darnielle's songs -- Auckland crowds are usually a bit rowdy at gigs but the audience was hushed and reverent as John spun his tales of beat-down outcasts, lost loves and confused minds. They even handed back John's guitar pick when it fell!

John was in very good cheer, on the second-to-last date of a globetrotting tour, telling amusing monologues about Norwegian death metal and songwriting in Alaska. He started the set solo with his acoustic guitar (which he still managed to "shred" on as he pounded away at it), then during a terrific "In The Craters of the Moon," his nattily-dressed bass player Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster joined him onstage, exploding the acoustic tune into a full-on band set. One thing I really loved about John is how un-self-conscious this former psychiatric nurse was on stage -- he doesn't exactly cut a rock-star figure, with his bowl haircut and glasses, but his sheer joy in his craft is contagious. He pulled goofy faces and banged away at that acoustic guitar like he wanted to be Hendrix.

It was marvelous to see the audience at the Kings Arms were such fans, and slightly surreal in the encore to have cheery group sing-alongs to two of the Goats' darkest tunes, "No Children" and "This Year" (which feature oddly uplifting choruses along the lines of "I hope you die / I hope we both die" or "I am going to make it through this year / if it kills me.") It's very hard to translate on the page how Darnielle's intense wheedling voice can make words like these seem life affirming, but somehow they do. After the last couple of weeks, it was pretty damned cathartic to sing along with the Mountain Goats.

If I had one caveat, it's that it was kind of a short show, just over 90 minutes maybe, but then again, it was a work night and the wife and I were both worn out and eager to hit the hay by midnight. It was a highly enjoyable show, so quality wins over quantity this time. Props also to a very good opening set by Kiwi band SideKickNick, who put on some quirky and energetic power pop. (I've seen a few wretched opening acts lately, so when I see one I dig it makes the whole night a little better.)

Below: "This Year," The Mountain Goats

Monday, December 15, 2008

Year in Review: My Top 10 CDs

...Wow, you know, for me 2008 was actually quite a fantastic year for new music. Some years I've had trouble picking a Top 5, but this year I nearly could have done a Top 20. As it is I had to make some painful arbitrary cuts. Acts I've loved for years such as REM and Beck put out swell new albums, but I also discovered a ton of excellent acts this year (many thanks to cool blogs*) -- like the Hold Steady, Wolf Parade, NZ's own Flight of the Conchords and She & Him.

The order of my Top 10 could easily shift given a change of mood, and there's still a couple of '08 albums I really want to hear but haven't had a chance yet. All that as a caveat, in my humble opinion you can't go wrong with any of these discs from the year that nearly was:

Photobucket1. Hold Steady, "Stay Positive"
Anthemic, inspirational and literate good ol' rock 'n' roll, and a constant in the stereo/iPod all year long. Frontman Craig Finn is one of these dowdy rock poets you see every once in a while, worshipping at the altar of Costello and Springsteen, and on his band's fourth album, creating a rockin' record that never ignores the tough moments, but ultimately seems one hell of a life-affirming document. Swinging from singing about being too old for the "scene" to crooning about cult filmmaker John Cassavetes, Finn manages the tricky business of juggling knowing when to rock and when to go for the killer lyrical hook. A great album has layers, and I'm still digging down deep into this one.

2. Cat Power, "Jukebox"
I know, an album of cover tunes? But nobody does covers like Cat Power, who takes a song and massages it into her own blood. Her takes on tunes by Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday are grooving, sultry and utterly her own. I'd have to say she's my favorite singer performing these days. Seeing her live back in March performing these songs was one of the year's highlights.

Photobucket3. Wolf Parade, "At Mount Zoomer"
Broody, swirling and strange, the second album by this Canadian group is also kind of beautiful because (or in spite of) all the left turns. Sometimes it feels as if a few songs have been squashed together into one. It's got the grandeur of their mates Arcade Fire but sometimes also reminds me of The Doors without the boozy pretension. There's an urgency to it all that keeps the tunes in your head.

4. The Mountain Goats, "Heretic Pride"
I'm finally going to see them live this Wednesday, and I'm psyched. John Darnielle is one of "low-fi" pop's best writers, cunning with a turn of phrase and a fine eye for detail. He started out with boom-box recordings that were faint, tinny and strangely absorbing, but expands into a full band here with glorious results.

5. TV On The Radio, "Dear Science"
This one's on everyone's top 10 lists this year. Am I being a dork by saying I've been into them since 2004? I am so cool. Anyway, TV On The Radio abandons their more prickly side for a bit more mainstream sound, but their industrial-strength doo-wop punk-soul is still hugely compelling stuff, backed up by the dueling vocalists, dense instrumentation, and a state of mind that unerringly captures the confused, battered yet optimistic post-Bush, pre-Obama mindset of the world today.

Photobucket6. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!"
The Australian high priest of weird doom and gloom, back with a roaring album of lust and temptation and sprawling story-rant lyrics. Like hearing a deranged preacher yelling at you in the subway, but backed by a garage band so propulsively cool you can't help but listen. If that doesn't sound like a recommendation, you don't know Nick Cave.

7. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, "Real Emotional Trash"
Combines the quirky whimsy of his old band Pavement with long, groovy psychedelic guitar jams, like a mash-up of Guided by Voices and Television. Wonderfully loopy and unexpectedly emotional, it's the best he's done since Pavement broke up and a terrific guitar record. Put it on, turn it up and stare off into space.

Photobucket8. Bob Dylan, "The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs"
Strictly speaking, not "new" music but what a revelation of material from Bob's work of the last two decades. Gorgeously packaged alternate versions, unreleased songs and live tracks -- it's like getting a couple of new Dylan albums this year! I don't know if three versions of "Mississippi" were needed but "Red River Shore" is a sheer classic and just about justifies the album on its own. Dylan never really "finishes" a song and this look at his sketchbook is fascinating. (Now when do we get an official "Basement Tapes," dagnabit?)

9. Liam Finn, "I'll Be Lightning"
OK, this is a technicality, because it actually came out in New Zealand in 2007, but was released in America in 2008 and I bought it in 2008, so thppppptt. Liam, the Kiwi son of the great Neil Finn of Crowded House, crafts honey-sweet tunes that combine the House's melancholy beauty with a ramshackle, fuzzed-out charm. He's a one-man band, playing nearly every single instrument on this dense album (see him live, it's great how he recreates the sound). It's one of the more promising "famous musical kids" discs I've heard, and grows on me more with each listen.

Photobucket10. Calexico, "Carried To Dust."
Moody Tex-Mex Americana rambles along through one of this Arizona band's best albums. It's the kind of music you listen to while driving through red dirt and ever-setting sunsets. There's a genuine warmth to Calexico's work, which is like soundtracks for epic western movies that never quite existed. In terms of evoking a mood, these guys are hard to beat.

The almost-tops, tied for #11:
Ryan Adams,
"Cardinology," Jenny Lewis, "Acid Tongue," She & Him, "Vol. 1," Elvis Costello and the Imposters, "Momufuku," Beck, "Modern Guilt," REM, "Accelerate."

Best live show:

Tough call as Wilco, Sonic Youth and Cat Power all delivered most excellent Auckland shows, but the massive Big Day Out back in January squished Arcade Fire, Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, Bjork, Liam Finn and Billy Bragg into one hell of a day, so that gets the nod. One of my all-time great musical memories -- here's hoping Neil Young, TV on the Radio and Prodigy can deliver a fitting follow-up next month!

(*As always, go to Largehearted Boy for the coolest dang wrap-up of just about every blog in the universe's Top 10 lists!)

I could watch this all day long.



Kind of hypnotic, ain't it?

...You know, say what you will about Bush (and I will), but the man does have good reflexes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Buffy-A-Thon: Season 7, the grand finale

Enough with the grim reality, how about a little vampire action? In recent weeks, the wife and I finally wrapped up our silly goal of watching every single episode of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." Now, the final report on the final season!

PhotobucketWe actually felt a little choked up, having come to the grand end run of 144 hours (egad!) of Buffy goodness, even since my idle plan nearly 3 years ago to start watching the entire series from beginning to end. It wasn't some enormous goal, but rather a mild dare -- I'd always been curious to check out "Buffy," most of the TV shows on the air are crap anyway, so why not?

Many times we wondered, how did we not watch this while it was on the air? Some of the time I was moving around country scraping by into new jobs, and TV watching wasn't really a priority; and for several years, we lived up in the mountains and didn't get UPN or WB where "Buffy" was aired. And finally at some point the "Buffy" mythology just seemed so daunting and elaborate to the uninitiated that it didn't seem worth trying to dive in mid-stream. But y'know, I'm glad we consumed the show on DVD season by season -- I can't imagine having to wait a whole week between episodes!

So, Season 7. This felt like a final season, in ways both good and bad. There was a constant sense of momentum, a sense of tying up loose ends; but there was also a bit of creative bankruptcy, a sense that the show was used up. Show creator Joss Whedon's absence after Season 5 is still felt; the dialogue lacks a bit of punch and the humour is played down in favour of more angst. While the army of new young slayer potentials is a pretty cool idea, it ends up with a huge slew of new characters added to the show and a bit of overcrowding. The battle against The First ends up being a big circle back to the series' very first year, and the struggle against the demon-creating Hellmouth. There were a couple points where I felt like, OK, enough with the build-up to a battle against impossible odds, we've seen this before. The season was very focused, but sometimes a bit predictable, too.

Still, I quite enjoyed the battle with the "Big Bad" this season, the incorporeal sum of all evil "The First." It's unusual for a Buffy villain as it has no physical form, instead appearing in a variety of guises as dead former cast members or as Buffy herself (who's died a few times of course herself). It all feels like quite a war, and there's casualties galore (many red-shirt 'potential' slayers, the wounding of Xander, the shocking death of a cast member in the finale, even poor Sunnydale itself). While Season 7 isn't the show's finest overall (I think I might go with Season 4), it's still got plenty to recommend it.

I'm glad to have finally seen "Buffy" and enjoyed the heck out of it. What next? At some point I might check in on the "Buffy Season 8" comic book followup which is quite groovy, but as for TV? The spin-off "Angel"? The highly acclaimed "Battlestar: Galactica" reboot maybe, which I still haven't seen? (I'm an absurd fan of the kitschy original I have to admit). "Veronica Mars" as Rob keeps telling me? Perhaps it's time to finally check out "Dancing With The Stars." Or not.

PhotobucketBest episode: "Dirty Girls," the first of the series of episodes winding up the series. Why? Because Nathan Fillion is thirty kinds of awesome, and his introduction as the southern-fried preacher/serial killer/super-demon Caleb juiced up the entire season. The First was a nifty psychological villain, but Caleb provided the slinky physical menace Buffy needs. Fillion is best known as a good guy in "Firefly" or "Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog," but here he's an out-and-out monster, and great at it. There's a real sense anything can happen when Caleb's on screen, and the episode that introduces him is a classic.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The update

OK, well, my father-in-law had surgery yesterday to remove as much of the brain tumour as possible, and it went well enough -- he's alive, he's coherent and happy to still be around. As for what lies ahead, we'll see -- he's going to be in hospital for a while, of course, and a lot hinges on what the biopsy tells about the tumour and if chemotherapy, etc. are needed. But we've crossed a major hurdle, and glad to have done it.

Needless to say it's been stressful on us all, there's been a lot of zipping to the hospital and young kids to look after and so forth. Thanks to those who have expressed kind thoughts here, on Facebook and through emails, Avril and I muchly appreciate it. This is the first of any of our parents to face such a life-threatening situation, and as those of you who've gone through know, it isn't easy. I'll attempt to get back to the light-hearted pop culture type posts as well in coming days, but obviously, we'll still be thinking a heck of a lot about Granddad Peter and hope he's OK.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reality interlude

...It's been a bad week, and while I like to refrain from getting too personal and confessional on this blog, I do need to at least take a moment to talk about what's going on right now with us.

On Friday, my father-in-law was admitted to hospital after an apparent stroke. He was later diagnosed with a brain tumour. At this point, we don't know a lot other than it's on the large side and needs to be gotten out right away. He's having surgery later this week, and as you can imagine, we're all a little freaked out and things are intense right now. It's all come rather out of nowhere, and it's amazing how quickly things can change.

None of us are really religious, but that doesn't mean good thoughts don't count, so all I can say is if you can spare a few for us, we appreciate it. Obviously I may not be doing too much posting for a spell. Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Have care whilst cooking the Salmon Of Knowledge

With a tip of the hat to loving wife, reason #1 why mythology is AWESOME:
Photobucket

Celtic deities vs. Christianity? Celtics WIN.

(From DK's Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Judge a book by its cover? Why certainly

PhotobucketDo I judge a book by its cover? Oh heck yes, I do. I admit to being shamefacedly surface about such things, and have frequently found myself drawn into a book simply because of an eyecatching design. (Of course, not all books with a nifty cover turn out to be good books.)

Like a lot of book nerds, I'm a fan of the elegant design work of Chip Kidd, who's become the first dust-jacket superstar designer and done everything from "All The Pretty Horses" to "Naked" to "The Secret History" to "Jurassic Park". There are a lot of other cool designers out there but he's still king of the block. Kidd's style of interior book design can wear a bit thin, but when it comes to covers, he's got a magic eye. After I found out who Kidd was, I was surprised to realise several of my favorite book covers in my collection turned out to be his work. A book cover is a curious animal -- it has to include text of some sort, obviously, but it also needs a visual peg. Some covers use just text in an attractive way, some use stunning images and make the art the focus, while some create something new altogether. Like all canvases, a book cover offers unlimited potential.

Photobucket
A cover isn't everything, but a great one can still turn your head. For instance, I've been reading a lot of good reviews of the late Roberto BolaƱo's epic novel "2666", but what finally tipped the purchase for me was this amazing-looking three-paperback box set of his huge novel, which manages to look both biblical and postmodern all at once. What a beautiful piece of work by Charlotte Strick; I'm almost afraid to ruin it by reading it.

We've pretty much lost rock album cover art as a viable design medium in the age of CDs and MP3, and most movie posters barely seem to try anymore, so it's been cool to see the humble, old-tech book step up and take its place as a fetish object. Blogs like The Book Design Review and Book Covers regularly showcase design work that just makes me go, "Yowza." Worth a thousand words and all that.

Monday, December 1, 2008

My classic comics ABCS: Give Me Liberty

G was a hard one. As you might vaguely recall, I've been working my way alphabetically through the ol' comics collection, picking out one of my favorite comic books for each letter, and there was usually an abundance of choices for each letter -- until I got to G. While there were lots of good comics starting with a G -- Groo, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Gumby -- nothing really leapt out at me to write about. But then I remembered "Give Me Liberty". Given the whole recent wind-up of the political season, this tale of a future America gone wrong and trying to redeem itself seems particularly apt.

PhotobucketA gem with the words of Frank Miller and the art of Dave Gibbons, "Give Me Liberty" boasts a heavy pedigree. Yet it never quite seems to get the acclaim of Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" or Gibbons' "Watchmen." Still, it's a heck of a fine satire. Martha Washington is a young black woman who overcomes impossible odds to become a military hero in a collapsing America. All kinds of horrible things happen to Martha as she cavorts through wars and conspiracies, but she never gives in. Unlike the invincible Marv of Miller's "Sin City" or the aging Bruce Wayne, Martha seems a bit more human despite her tortures.

It's quite strange now, to re-read "Give Me Liberty" and realize those far-out future dates Miller has set his story in are here, or nearly here. Reading it back in the early 90s, seeing the years 2009 and 2010 pass by still had the tang of mystery. Like "Watchmen," "Liberty" is packed with tiny details that fill out its elaborate imaginary world -- the barely-glimpsed table of contents of a "This Week" magazine from January 2009 (!) shows tantalizing glimpses such as "Australia's Aborigines revolt" and "zero gravity surgery."

Miller didn't foresee 9/11, or exactly what the world would become, but he did imagine a world where factionalism takes hold, where America breaks apart into separate nations, such as the American Indian renaissance in a blasted southwest. In my mind, the satire here works far better than it did in "Dark Knight," where the talking heads TV antics always seemed a sideshow to the story. Here, the multi-media interruptions and expositions are integral to the world of Martha Washington, with the advent of the Internet heavily foreshadowed. Despite the brutality, assorted nuclear mutants and holocausts, "Give Me Liberty" is a fundamentally optimistic series.

Miller's trademark blend of tough-guy talk and way over-the-top action is running at a high here, coupled with the typically stunning art of Gibbons. (Miller is very good at keeping the script tight when it needs to be and just letting Gibbons' art tell the story; it feels more like a partnership.) After "Give Me Liberty," Martha Washington came back in a series of elaborate sequels with diminishing returns, but the original is still a fresh, startling take on sci-fi with a kind of hero who's still, sadly, rather unusual in genre fiction. (Quick -- name three other black female women sci-fi action heroes.)

"Liberty", too, foreshadows the change Frank Miller's career has seen from more traditional noir action into broad, sometimes too broad satire. "Liberty" came after the whole Dark Knight/Daredevil/Elektra run of the 1980s, his most mainstream superhero work, yet pointed toward his work like Hard Boiled and "Sin City"; it also had some of the clenched-jaw excess that has marked series like "All-Star Batman" or his bizarre "Dark Knight" sequel. (The demented Surgeon-General villain would fit just fine in "All-Star Batman.") It was a crossroads in his career; one could argue all night as to whether his career has peaked since or not, but "Give Me Liberty" is still a high point in Frank Miller's comics legacy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Un-Thanksgiving Shuffle: Yes no maybe, I don't know, can you repeat the question?

...So when the international news at work is all blood and chaos, I guess it's kind of weird of me to find today's most life-affirming story to be yet another death. But that's curiously how I felt about seeing today on Reuters the passing of the titleholder for oldest person in the world, Edna Parker, at age 115. Walking home from work listening to the ol' iPod, I thought a bit about Mrs Parker, who was born in the holy-god-long-ago year of 1893 and nearly made it to 2009. Born when Grover Cleveland was president, died with President-elect Barack Obama. It's cliche, I know, but man, what a span of years to have lived through, from the 19th century to now, when pretty much everything around you has changed in the course of living.

PhotobucketTo put it in perspective, when the oldest song on today's shuffle, Elvis Presley's "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine,"** came out in 1954, Edna Parker was already 54 years old and not even halfway through her life. Is it life-affirming, in a way, that someone dies at 115, makes it through the craziness of world wars, nuclear threat, religious fanatics, cable TV and the Internet in one lifetime? I dunno, but when people are blowing each other up for no apparent reason, I guess just staying around for so very long can sometimes seem a bit of a miracle. Supercentenarians fascinate me a bit, as they do most people.

Frankly, some days 37 seems an awful long time to be alive, really!

1. Run Run Run 4:23 The Velvet Underground
2. He War 3:30 Cat Power
3. Minimum Wage 0:46 They Might Be Giants*
4. It's Just Too Much (Live) 3:02 The Velvet Underground
5. I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine 2:31 Elvis Presley**
6. Free 3:33 Cat Power
7. Woven Birds 3:47 Calexico
8. Smash It Up (Part 2) 2:56 The Damned
9. Boss Of Me (Theme From Malcolm In The Middle) 2:59 They Might Be Giants***

* The best 46-second song I've ever heard. With bullwhip!
*** Sometimes I'm curious about the arcane algorithms that go into determining what happens when you press "Shuffle." For instance, why, today, out of 6,500 songs on my nearly full iPod, should I get two random songs each today from the Velvet Underground, Cat Power and They Might Be Giants? The shuffle mystery. Ask Edna Parker if she knows now.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

In which humidity and apathy combine

....*Yawn* OK, it's not you, it's me, I'm a little short on inspiration right now as we live through the humid, rainy, sticky spring before summer's true heat starts here. And reading about my American compadres getting ready for Thanksgiving... It's very strange still living in NZ and having a holiday come up that you're used to but is not celebrated here, like Thanksgiving or Fourth of July. They may be rather cheesy, I'll admit, but when you grow up with them, they're part of your experience. You sort of feel a bit short-changed, and yes, a wee bit homesick -- sorry, Guy Fawkes Day isn't a really good substitute. We have done quasi-Thanksgiving celebrations these last three years, though, which is cool.

Anyway, I've been spending much of the past several days in the engaging project of stripping 25-year-old wallpaper off walls and repainting the boy's bedroom. Which is pretty gosh-darned exciting as you may guess.

PhotobucketSo lacking any real content I'll just throw in one FINAL plug for Movember donations from you -- if you've been mulling over donating towards my manly facial hair and helping fight prostate cancer, there's less than a week left to go til it all wraps up at month's end! Look at the grainy picture, see how hairy I've gotten? And I'm doing it for all of mankind! Many, many thanks to those of you who have donated, my 3-man Pagemasters team "Shavemasters" has raised nearly NZ$500 so far which isn't terrible at all. But if you've got a dollar or two, please click here and securely donate to the cause. American funds gladly accepted as well (and hey, your dollar is worth more than ours so $10US is like $20 here!)

Righto, Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it and have a turkey leg for me!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The history of rock II: The Replacements, 1985-1990

PhotobucketWhen it all began, The Replacements didn't aspire to be the voice of a generation, or anything much at all, really, other than a kick-ass rock 'n' roll band. But singer/songwriter Paul Westerberg and his mates -- guitarist Bob Stinson, bass Tommy Stinson, drummer Chris Mars -- were a little too talented to just tear it up in bars and dives forever, and the Replacements evolved into one of the best bands of the 1980s. They were loud and smart, messy and true. Their first four albums were reissued by Rhino Records earlier this year, with a ton of bonus tracks.

Now Rhino is back with the second half, the final four Replacements albums from 1985-1990 all polished up with remastered sound, liner notes and a nice selection of bonus demos, rare and live tracks. For Replacements fans, these are must-haves, with a total of 35 new songs added between the four discs.

The Replacements' fourth album, Let It Be, was an audacious masterpiece (naming yourself after a Beatles disc does take a peculiar kind of guts). The band got signed to the major label Sire, and were poised for greatness. Unfortunately, the major label marked the beginning of the end -- founding guitarist Bob Stinson soon got kicked out over his self-destructive alcoholism, there was the usual tug-of-war between trying to win fame and trying to stay true to themselves, and the Replacements flamed out by 1990.

Let It Be's 1985 followup, Tim, still showed the band at the height of their chaotic powers. Westerberg was stretching his songwriting wings here and it's classic tracks one after another: "Hold My Life," "Bastards of Young," "Kiss Me On The Bus," "Waitress In The Sky." The mature talent that showed in early tracks like "Shiftless When Idle" blossoms here – Westerberg is trying to articulate what it means to be young, confused and indecisive, and that yearning, questing feeling illuminates the best of his work. He doesn't pretend to have the answers, as he sings on "Bastards of Young": "God, what a mess, on the ladder of success / Where you take one step and miss the whole first rung." The outtakes here include several versions of songs recorded with Big Star lead singer Alex Chilton, who would be homaged in the band's next album. If you like "Can't Hardly Wait," you'll find two versions of it in the bonus tracks - echoey acoustic and spiky electrified ones. Shortly after Tim was finished, Bob Stinson, who never liked Westerberg's mellower songwriting directions, was kicked out of the band and a bit of the outlaw edge was lost.

Photobucket1987's Pleased To Meet Me sometimes gets overshadowed by Let It Be and Tim, but it might just be my own personal favorite Replacements disc. I've always had a love for the anthem "Alex Chilton," a ferocious tribute to the man whose sound is a big inspiration for the band, and this disc balances the heartfelt "The Ledge" and "Can't Hardly Wait" with the slacker stomp of songs like "I Don't Know" and "Red Red Wine." A hefty 11 bonus tracks are included on the reissue, including the intriguing unreleased work in progress "Photo," the excellent snarling B-side "Election Day" and covers of "Route 66" and "Tossin' And Turnin."

Conventional wisdom has it the Replacements' final two albums mark a decline, a move away from raucous alt-rock into mawkish sentimental pop, but there's actually a lot to like. Admittedly, 1989's Don't Tell A Soul is probably the weakest Replacements album – the production is just too slick and '80s, and the tone uncertain as the band moves awkwardly towards adulthood. Still, the marvelous "I'll Be You" stands out, and was the band's only Billboard top 100 hit. The reissue of Soul includes some of the best rare gems in the catalogue, such as boozy country-fried rarity "Portland" and a marvelously silly, slapdash jam with none other than Tom Waits, "Date To Church."

PhotobucketThe band's swan song All Shook Down really isn't a Replacements album at all, but Westerberg's first stab at a solo album, with fellow members Mars and Tommy Stinson only making a few appearances and a session band filling in the rest. If you're looking for the anarchic spirit of Hootenanny-era Replacements you won't find it here, as it's an album heavy on acoustic sounds, introspective lyrics and hushed vocals. Yet for all that, it's a calmly compelling, melancholy disc about the hangover at the end of an era, with some of Westerberg's sharpest writing ("Sadly Beautiful," "Merry Go Round"). "Where It Began" is a bittersweet farewell to what was: "Never had to bow to you when we began / now I can play you a tune at your command." The sense of drunken fun that dominated the band's early albums is gone, true, but there's still a considerable talent left behind.

The Replacements left a considerable influence on alt-rock -- and Westerberg's solo career hasn't quite set the world on fire, maybe, but it's still produced some fine and very underrated music. Bob Stinson sadly succumbed to his addictions in the 1990s, drummer Mars became a painter and Tommy Stinson, of all things, joined Axl Rose's rotating Guns 'n' Roses cast. The story of the Replacements is really that of Westerberg, growing from a smart-mouthed adolescent into a confident songwriter. The rougher edges get sanded off along the way, but that happens to us all, doesn't it?

Friday, November 21, 2008

We are on the dinosaur rock touring circuit

For a wee little country in the middle of an ocean, we do get a lot of the big acts down here. All the venerable rock dinosaurs are coming through in 2008-09 it seems -- in addition to Neil Young at Big Day Out, whom I'm way down for, we're also seeing folks like Stevie Wonder, Leonard Cohen, Billy Joel and the surviving members of The Who (should that be the "Wh"?) I was really, really tempted to see Mr. Townshend and Mr. Daltrey when they come this way in March, but when ticket prices START at $150 for the nosebleed seats, I decided I'd be better off just popping my DVD of "The Kids Are Alright" back on again. Nostalgia is one thing, but yeesh, $250 for a decent seat is a bit much.

• On the other hand, my homey Ryan Adams is coming back to New Zealand in February, and while I had kind of mixed feelings about his last gig, in the end I remember the really good bits far more than the annoying ones and I'd like to see what he does again. I'm enjoying his latest Cardinology (which starts very strong, runs out of steam a bit in the end though). And he's playing at the Powerstation which is a great place to catch a gig, even if he doesn't turn the lights on again this time.

• Chuck Klosterman writes my favorite opening lines of the week, and I don't even really care about Guns 'n' Roses Chinese Democracy: "Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn." A great little essay piece from a critic who shames me.

• Very cool late birthday present of the week: Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison Legacy 3-disc special edition set, which includes two entire shows from the Man in Black's fateful prison concert, and a DVD documentary which I haven't even cracked open yet. Just hearing the entire show is quite a trip, though -- it's been built up as one of those mythic musical moments, and yeah, a fair amount of it was artifice and stagecraft, but still -- there's something there, in the joyous howl of the inmates' voices and Cash's cool calm control as he sings 'em a few numbers. One of the great high-wire balancing acts in music history and an absolutely fantastic reissue box package by Sony/Legacy, too.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, defined

Conversation whilst playing with Lego with the boy:

"...Dad, you know how much I like enja turtles?"

Me: "Ninja turtles?"

"No, en-jah turtles. They have lots of vehicles you know and do things."
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"Engine turtles?"

"Enja!"

"Do they like to have fights and run around a lot?"

"No, enja turtles, not neenja. They ride cars too. I think they eat cats."

"Ninja turtles, those are called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- they've been around since I was a teenager. Did you learn about them at playschool?"

"Yep, enja turtles, they're my favrit."

"Enja??"

"...Dad, you need to learn how to call things names you know."

(Pause)

".... But you can call them ninja turtles if you want to."

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Movember reminder -- time's running out to donate

PhotobucketRight-o, it's halfway through Movember as this month is known -- if you recall my previous post , this year I'm part of the Movember prostate cancer awareness fund-raiser event where I grow a mustache (or manly goatee thing in my case) and you pledge money toward it to help fight prostate cancer worldwide. Yes, my face is itchy for a good cause!

Please, if you're able and willing, toss a couple bucks to the cause -- it doesn't have to be much, even $5, and it doesn't matter where you live as it can be converted to NZ dollars.
To donate to my Mo you can either:
1. Click right here and donate securely online using your credit card
2. If you're in NZ, write a cheque payable to ‘Movember Donations Account', referencing my Registration Number 1531176 and mailing it to: Movember, PO Box 12 708, Wellington 6144
All donations over $10 are tax deductible.

So if you please, donate a couple bucks to the cause of men's health in the name of Spatula Forum. Many thanks!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

And now let us hear the fanboy's lament

One of the annoying things about being a bit of a fanboy pop-culture geek is that it often comes with a sense of completism. If I like something enough, I always have the urge to go out and get everything else that writer/musician/filmmaker has done. Which is how we end up with a house full of stuff.

Breaking the chain on that is hard, especially when it comes to music. There are certain musicians whom I will, no doubt about it, get their latest album soon as it comes out, on release date if at all possible. We'll call those "Category 1" musicians -- David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Wilco, White Stripes, Elvis Costello, for instance.

PhotobucketBut not every artist whose music I like a lot can be Category 1. For instance, I'm a big fan of Lucinda Williams, love her sultry alt-country style, saw her live back in 2003 (and Peter, huge in Avril's belly at the time, kicked along through the show). Her discs "Car Wheels On A Gravel Road" and "Essence" are stone-cold favorites of mine. But I have to admit her last album, "West", was merely OK for me, a step down from the peaks. Now, I've got nearly every Lucinda Williams disc -- 7 by my count. Her new album, "Little Honey" just came out, has gotten decent reviews -- but it's not Category 1 for me. It's in the land of "will probably pick up eventually, but not a rush." And maybe I can overcome my fanboy completism enough to say, maybe I won't get it at all. (And this is not to pick on Lucinda Williams here, as I do dig her a lot.)

PhotobucketSometimes a band can disappoint me so much that I may just say "they're off the buy list." The Beastie Boys come to mind -- their last, 2004's anemic, self-parodying "To The 5 Boroughs," seemed a huge step back from the dizzying funk-rap-fusion of their previous few discs. Then there's R.E.M., whom most everyone will admit were on a fairly big slump post-Bill Berry -- their albums after "Monster" were all so dull I've long since gotten rid of 'em, but I did pick up and quite enjoy this year's "Accelerate." So always a chance for a comeback. Frankly, as I look at my ever-blooming CD collection I get to the point where I think, "what is it about this album that will stand out for me, or am I just going to get it because it looks nice next to the others?" This theory applies to books, comics, toys, whatever your poison is.

...Is there any particular point to this little ramble? Perhaps it's just something peculiar to the collector's gene, that you can spend time obsessing over "holes" in your collection of choice and what they might mean. That way lies madness! I guess it's hitting yet another birthday this week but you kind of start to realize that really, you can't ever get every single thing you might possibly be interested in. Nothing can ever be "enough." I have no plans to retreat and dig my head back into the turtle shell, but I gotta realize -- there's a heck of a lot in this world to do and limited time (and money) to do it.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Thursday shuffle: Too much monkey business for me to be involved in

Photobucket...So here's the thing, I thought as I was walking across town to the mechanic to pick up the car --- do you think Sarah Palin doesn't realize she lost the election, and that a large majority of voters and pundits would have to say McCain's choice of her was a big part of the reason for that? Watching her suddenly give more interviews than she somehow managed to do while she was running for vice-president, I had to wonder. Suddenly she's getting more press than President-elect Obama, which doesn't quite seem right. Can we just put a moratorium on 2012 race stories until, I dunno, 2010 at least?? And a moratorium on Sarah Palin, for, like, ever?

1. Here For You 4:32 Neil Young
2. Too Much Monkey Business 2:57 Chuck Berry
3. Gamma Ray 2:57 Beck
4. I Want You To Want Me 3:21 Chris Isaak
5. Come What May 4:46 Nicole Kidman & Ewan McGregor, Moulin Rouge soundtrack
6. Would If I Could 3:40 Melissa Auf der Maur
7. Here (Peel Session) 3:49 Pavement
8. Happy Jack 2:12 The Who
9. Victim Of Love 3:38 Erasure
10. Heart In a Cage 3:28 The Strokes
11. FM 1:46 The Mountain Goats
12. King Horse 3:01 Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A present with a tail

PhotobucketSo, today's my birthday (#37 if you're counting -- which I have decided to no longer do, frankly), and to celebrate, I decided to get an unusual present for myself -- meet Bowie,* the new cat in our household. I spent much of yesterday afternoon over at the Auckland SPCA auditioning cats to be our new animal, always a tricky process. It'd been 13 years since I last did this for our wonderful Kudzu cat, who couldn't come with us from the US. It's never easy to look over lovely little animals and try to choose just one, knowing they all need a new home. But this little fella -- well, she just seemed right, somehow, from the way she began loudly purring as I took her out of her cage and her calm but not sullen disposition. Hopefully the boy doesn't drive her insane.

Speaking of which, Peter was so excited you'd have thought the cat was his birthday present. Bowie seems really affectionate but not too squawky (she barely meowed at all during the car ride home), and I have to admit, after two years or so without, I'm really going to dig having a fuzzy little cat in our lives again. Makes New Zealand feel a little more like home.

*The names were tricky; "Twist" was suggested by the SPCA after her bent left ear, while we considered such names as Iggy, Tardis (too geeky even for us) and Fantastic Birthday Cat (um, that one was Peter's). In the end I went to homage my favorite musician but also picked a name that's kind of cute and short and not too hard to say.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

New Zealand: Time for a change, too

Politics, politics, politics. New Zealand's Election 2008 has come and gone, and I am just about utterly drained of all insight after a week packed with parsing polls and picking politicians in two nations, but I'll scrape together a few thoughts on Aotearoa's vote:

Photobucket• In what wasn't really a surprise, National has unseated Labour in the government pretty decisively (Labour barely won 34 percent of the vote), and our new Prime Minister is John Key. Sad to see as I do like Helen Clark, who will still go down as one of NZ's great leaders, but at the same time I never really felt like the electorate was behind her, and frankly, almost any politician is going to have a hard road trying to stay in office after nearly a decade there. As I've mentioned before, I was far less emotionally invested in this country's election than I was in the US, where I would've had to take to bed for a week if McCain had won. I'll see what National does, I guess -- Key is rather mild in demeanor but some of the folks aligned with him are a bit right wing for me.

• Curiously, both Clark and Key tried grabbing for the Obama mantle; Clark noting that the US chose to go left, so vote Labour, Key saying the US went for change, so vote Nationals. There are interesting contrasts and parallels with the US election, though -- a seasoned politician is defeated by a relative political novice, and the opposition party makes big gains. The difference here is, instead of the centrist-left taking over, our government is now moving more to the right. (Ironic, of course, that we left the US during the dark days of Bush and moved to New Zealand, only to have Obama win the US and the right win New Zealand!)

Photobucket• An interesting quirk of New Zealand is that the Electoral Act here actually makes it illegal to do ANYTHING on Election Day that might be construed as influencing votes. Which means suddenly overnight thousands of big campaign signs disappeared; newspapers on Election Day had barely a word about the vote, other than a few non-candidate related short pieces; if you have a bumper sticker on your car you've got to take it off on Election Day. Yow.

• So when we went to vote yesterday I was surprised by how basic the ballots were -- no propositions, no sewer board district candidates, nothing but "two ticks" -- the party vote and the local MP candidate vote. Makes it easy to fill out! Peter was very interested in watching Mum and Dad cast their vote and even got a sticker for voting (which, um, they didn't really let him do).

And with that, we're off to the beach -- as the good wife put it, "two elections in one week is just too much!"

Friday, November 7, 2008

One election down, one to go!

Yeah, man, it's all-politics week on Spatula Forum, by god, because it sure seems like there's nothing else going on in the world! A handful of random musings on elections both in America and here:

PhotobucketObama-Mania: Yeah, I know they're all just trying to make a buck, but when was the last time you saw everybody selling T-shirts with the president's face on them? Or newspapers selling t-shirts with their own front page on them? ...The guy who bought 10,000 copies of the Bellingham Herald as an investment, however, I don't know about him. He'll be like the guy with 10,000 worthless copies of the "Superman dies" comic in his basement, won't he?

"Palin thought Africa was a country, not a continent"?... Hell's bells, I don't like the woman but even I have trouble believing that could be true, but they were saying this on FOX News of all places. The walls have fallen and all the factions are spilling their guts, it seems. If even a fraction of what's being said is true, I thank the voters Sarah Palin never got to be within a few heartbeats of the White House. Will she be back in 2012? Can't wait for all the tell-all books.

• Turning to New Zealand... Imagine for a moment that in a US Presidential election debate not one but BOTH of the leading candidates admit they're not really all that religious. Can't see it? That's what happened in NZ's final leaders debate between Prime Minister Helen Clark and National's John Key before tomorrow's election. The kind of far-right fundamentalism exemplified by Palin is fairly non-existent as any kind of major force here, pretty much confined to very minor parties. For both leading candidates in an election to stand up and say they don't know if there is a God would just never happen in the US. About a third of New Zealanders call themselves non-religious, quite different from America, so maybe the candidates here just know their audience better. Either way, interesting difference.

• So tomorrow is our New Zealand election and yes, I know, it's been historic and world-changing ... wait, that's the American one. This one has been pretty dull, with National likely to assume power after nearly 10 years of Labour, but still, it's my first time voting down under and I'm excited to do that. The MMP system means that I cast two votes, one for party and one for a candidate, and I can split those up if I want to (vote for Green Party as a party and a Labour candidate, for instance). So you're able to strategize your vote a bit here and minor parties are way more influential than they are in the US. It's very likely some kind of coalition between National or Labour and the smaller parties will have to be formed to get the magic 50-percent of Parliament mark, so while the voting is tomorrow it could well be days before we really know who's going to run the country the next three years. I'll report tomorrow night from Election Day!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President Barack Obama

PhotobucketWow. What a moment. What a fine day.

I don't care your politics, if you aren't the slightest bit moved by what happened today, you're incapable of seeing the bigger picture. Just 150 years ago, Barack Obama might well have been enslaved to another human being. Fifty years ago, in certain states he could have been beaten to death just for trying to vote. When he spoke of 106-year-old Anna Nixon Cooper tonight, and her journey from "a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky" to today when "she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote," for a moment I felt the quivering membrane of history, and how quickly something can change.

No, he won't be perfect, no, he won't "save us all," but by gosh, I am proud of what America did tonight, and while I can't be there to celebrate, I'm lifting a glass or two to cheer him on.

President Barack Obama. Wow. It's easy in all the clutter and noise of our 24-7 wired world to downplay what a gigantic thing this is, that a black man is now President-elect of the United States of America.

The sun is shining in New Zealand tonight after rain much of the day, and we saw a big honking rainbow out the window of our kitchen. Yeah, there's trouble in the world, but just for tonight, let's bask in how we much we've done toward atoning for the scars that have long marked America's shining optimism.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Elections, elections, everywhere an election

I do believe I'm suffering from a kind of pre-election catatonia --- as I may have mentioned, I've got TWO elections this week and being as I work in the media, it's kind of all-election all-the-time for me lately. Having absorbed the glowing power of a thousand unrelenting Internet pundits, I'm too dazed to offer a post of much substance.

Thus all I can really say is this:
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I may not live in America anymore, but I was born there and love it still, and just for once in this rather grim decade, I'd like to see the "good" guys win. So go vote, no matter who you plan on voting for, and whatever happens, stay cool, amigos. I'm sure whatever happens I'll be back with something to say about it. And once this one's over I'm gearing up for New Zealand's election Saturday! I'm a voting fool! (No wisecracks, please...)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

This is a public service announcement -- with facial hair!

Howdy all, going to break character today from my usual scintillating content, as this year I'm taking part in the Movember prostate cancer awareness fund-raiser event. What does it entail? No climbing mountains or marathon runs for me -- instead, I boldly step forward and offer to grow facial hair and not shave the entire month of November in order to support men's health and the fight against prostate cancer. I know, it's a big step for me, but I'm willing to put down the razor for a month for a good cause.

PhotobucketSo if you're able, please donate a couple bucks to the cause. American credit cards will be accepted (payment amount will be in NZ $). To donate to my Mo you can either:
1. Click right here and donate online using your credit card
2. If you're in NZ, write a cheque payable to ‘Movember Donations Account', referencing my Registration Number 1531176 and mailing it to: Movember, PO Box 12 708, Wellington 6144
All donations over $10 are tax deductible.

The money raised by Movember is used to raise awareness of men's health issues and donated to the Cancer Society of New Zealand and the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand. These two charities will use the money raised to fund research and increase support networks for those affected with prostate cancer and experiencing depression.

As if the cause weren't groovy enough, I pledge to show you a photo of yours truly at month's end with glorious hairness. Thanks in advance for your support, folks -- and yes, I will look like Magnum P.I.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Blue Mountain: Call it a comeback

PhotobucketAll right, I'll just get this out of the way -- I can't quite be an objective reviewer about Blue Mountain. They were the soundtrack of my college years back in Oxford, Mississippi -- a local alt-country band who were by far the best local band around and one of the best in the American South during the mid-1990s. Frontman Cary Hudson had a husky voice and a mean hand with the guitar, his bass player and wife Laurie Stirratt kept the groove on and provided charming backup vocals, and rowdy drummer Frank Coutch could slam with the best of them. Blue Mountain were the pinnacle to me of a great local band, friendly and open and they could always be counted on for a fine old show.

And it's not too much of a stretch to say we all ended up friends -- Oxford isn't that big a town, after all -- we'd be in the front row at every gig, Cary would come over and jam on our front porch back in Oxford with our friend Noah, and I remember one time a bunch of us had a mighty fine meal of venison sausage after felling a few trees (!!) out on their backwoods Mississippi property. PhotobucketThey're good guys, this band, and I'm proud to know 'em and sometimes pimp for them in my journalistic capacity. (One of my first "real" publications was a review of the band in Billboard magazine back in 1994, a quote from which the band kindly included on their gig posters.)

Blue Mountain never quite made it to the top level of the then-booming alternative country scene with bands like Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown or the Jayhawks, but carved out a comfortable niche for themselves. Most importantly, they had sincerity, and genuine love for what they were doing – lord knows I saw them live enough times to get an appreciation for pulling the hard yards and endless touring it takes a band to succeed. I even drove six hours round-trip to catch them in San Francisco one frigid night after I'd moved away from Mississippi. I was sorry to hear that Blue Mountain broke up around 2001, after a run of excellent albums on Roadrunner Records. But here it is just a few years later, and Blue Mountain is back together giving it another go with not just one but two albums, the all-new Midnight In Mississippi and the compilation Omnibus.

PhotobucketMidnight In Mississippi is a solid comeback, although it doesn't quite break any new ground for the band. It's a fine collection of open-hearted alt-country tunes, switching between rowdy hoedowns and gentle ballads. Lyrically, it feels like the music of an older rocker looking at his wild youth and coming to terms with what lies ahead. Lots of the songs look backwards – one sugary sweet, slightly tongue-in-cheek number is even titled "'70's Song" and its gorgeous harmonies brings to mind the Carpenters. But the best songs here are the loudest -- a rip-roaring "Midnight In Mississippi" name-checks all the old Oxford haunts of the band and is carried along by a tight harmonica-and-guitar riff. "Gentle Soul" has that jamming on the back porch feeling that Blue Mountain always excelled at, while "Skinny Dipping" mashes together cowpunk slash and folksy rhythm into a terrific bawdy romp. Some of the mellower numbers get a little drowsy, but overall, Midnight In Mississippi is a strong, mature effort.

PhotobucketThe second "new" Blue Mountain disc of 2008, Omnibus, is a "sort of" greatest hits collection – the songs were re-recorded from a selection of the band's previous albums. These are songs that should have been hits in a better world – the road anthem "A Band Called Bud," the raucous "Bloody 98," the bittersweet gem "Soul Sister." When Cary breaks out with the guitar solo on "A Band Called Bud," and roars out, "I'm a rock and roll soldier / no time to think of getting older," the memory of a hundred fantastic live gigs comes back to me. As one nitpick, I'm frankly not nuts about some of the re-recordings -- both the lovely ballads "Myrna Lee" and "Pretty Please" are replaced by overly slick and polished and in my mind inferior takes from the haunting, spacious Sun Studios-evocative originals. But it's a solid primer, although I'm sad to see their classic populist anthem "Jimmy Carter" isn't included.

If you're an old fan of Blue Mountain, I'd like to think Midnight In Mississippi will seem like a welcome return home. But if you missed out on Blue Mountain the first time around, check out Omnibus and some of their back catalog too – it's full of treasures.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The coolness that is Doug Jones

So I've continued my indoctrinating the boy into the ways of geek culture by taking him to his first comics/sci-fi convention, Auckland's Armageddon Expo. It's the first time I'd been to this one, which is the biggest in New Zealand, and it was really good fun - not as huge as some of the American expos I've been to of course but it was excellent to take a squirmy 4 1/2-year-old to as he admired various Stormtroopers, superheroes and manga characters running around in fun regalia (and like the idiot I am, I forgot the camera so sorry, no pictures of Peter shaking hands with the Stormtroopers). I tried to be fairly thrifty but did pick up some swell "Hellboy Animated" DVDs for a mere $7.50 each and treated myself to the utterly gorgeous new hardback of Brian Wood's LOCAL comic series.

PhotobucketThe big highlight of the day for me, though, was the Doug Jones panel. Doug Jones is far from a household name but if you're any kind of nerd you've seen him in something -- as the leader of the Gentlemen in the "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" episode "Hush", as a great Silver Surfer in "Fantastic Four 2," or most notably, as director Guillermo Del Toro's muse in several of his movies, including as fish-man Abe Sapien in the awesome "Hellboy" movies and as multiple characters in "Pan's Labyrinth" such as the ultra-freaky Pale Man. (Jones couldn't say for sure, but I hope he ends up in Guillermo's "Hobbit" movies -- which ya know, are going to be filmed here in New Zealand of course.)

PhotobucketI tell ya, for me personally, I would much rather sit and listen to Doug Jones for an hour over someone like Tom Cruise. Jones was terrifically funny, cheerful and animated as he told of how a freakishly tall, thin guy like himself makes his way in the Hollywood, and how he's become the "guy people stick strange costumes on." It was great fun, even as he told stories about things like having live moths stuck in his mouth for the forgotten 1990s movie "Hocus Pocus" or playing a mutated kangaroo man in not one but two movies ("Tank Girl" and "Warriors of Virtue" if you're keeping score). Frankly I only wish the talk had been longer.

The boy had a swell time too, got his first Transformers toy and ate lots of junk food as he and daddy watched all the strange folk wander about. ("When these people go home do they stay dressed as Boba Fett?" he wondered. I wonder too.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Yes we can

PhotobucketSo we finally got our absentee ballots from California today. (They apparently got lost in the mail and had to be faxed.) Man, does it feel good to finally just vote after what feels like eons of campaigning. (Hey, remember back when Hillary Clinton ran for President?)

Yeah, I backed Barack and hopefully a hell of a lot of other Americans, at home and abroad, will be doing the same. I really didn't think I might be voting for a black man for President anytime soon; if I ever thought about it, it was like, well, maybe by 2020 or so we'll get to that point.... Whoever would have thought this guy, a state senator not that long ago, could have gotten to this point? It sure helps that John McCain has run one of the most inept campaigns in years.

Remarkably, three of the six folks running for President on the official California ballot are African-American – that's gotta be some kind of record. Of course, of those three, one (Keyes) is a certifiable lunatic and the other (McKinney) has her own share of controversies. But still, wow.

I'm just hoping come November 5, for the first time in 12 years or so, I can say, "Yeah, I voted for that guy," and not have it be in a sad tone of regret for what coulda been.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Life in New Zealand: Year three!

Photobucket...So this week marks two whole years since we packed our bags and made the big migration to New Zealand. I feel a lot more settled than we did after the first year; since last October we've bought a house, moved the rest of our stuff over from the U.S. and generally feel a lot more settled in for this here kiwi adventure, however long it lasts for. A lot of the smaller things that bugged me more notably at first bother me less -- the higher prices, the cultural differences, the occasional person's rather stereotypical impressions that all Americans are arrogant louts, etc. On the other hand, other things still get to me sometimes -- the general "smallness" of country can make you feel a bit claustrophobic. It's hard not to feel disconnected from the rest of the world sometimes. I still haven't really learned to care about rugby or cricket in this rather sports-obsessed place.

One thing I've told a lot of Americans when they ask me about New Zealand is that it's not perfect, which I know sounds kind of negative but it isn't really meant to be. There's this fantasyland Oz view of New Zealand out there which is good for us but also can lead to shattered expectations for many an immigrant from other countries expecting all the problems in their lives to magically disappear when they move to another land. Of course, nowhere on Earth is that perfect, really. New Zealand's got its problems; the crime situation especially among youth is a real worry for me, even if it might be a bit overblown in media coverage from reality. I don't think I'm being negative so much as I'm being a realist rather than an idealist when it comes to my adopted nation.

But there is a heck of a lot of beauty here, of course. Auckland is a nifty town, with the amenities of most big cities but nowhere near as crowded as say, Los Angeles; where you can drive pretty much no more than 30 minutes in any direction and be at a fantastic beach; where cultures from all over the world rub elbows (it's at least as diverse as San Francisco); where there's an endearing small-town feeling for a place of over a million people, a sense we're all in this together way down here on the southern edge of the world.

Being here in an election year for both New Zealand and the US has been quite fascinating, as I've blogged about frequently lately -- it really lays bare all the big and little differences between the way these two nations do things. I'm proud to have lived in both of 'em, and look forward to what year 3 brings. (The main challenge: Peter starting school! Urk!)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My Classic Comics ABCS: Flaming Carrot #5

Here we are at #6 on my alphabetical journey through my 25+ years of comic collecting, and we hit the heart of surreal superhero-dom -- the fabulous Flaming Carrot.

PhotobucketI first discovered the Flaming Carrot during the glorious black-and-white comics boom of the mid-1980s, where long-gone publishers like Renegade, Eclipse, First and more sat side-by-side with Marvel and DC at your comic shops. For a lad of 14 or so, it was a cool time to dabble, and nothing on the racks was weirder than Bob Burden's cartoon creation. With the wacky name, eye-catching design and tangible sense of fun that jumped out of the pages, Flaming Carrot Comics was something I had to check out.

The first issue I saw, #5, was like diving into a Lewis Carroll poem or something – a drunken, amnesiac kind-of superhero Flaming Carrot wanders through the city having bizarre adventures with the Frankenstein Monster, martians, hot groupies and a guest appearance by Death himself. Burden's comic was quite stream-of-consciousness – the art, admittedly, was competent rather than dazzling, with a chunky amiability despite the lack of polish. It was less a story than a series of goofy moments strung together, like Marx Brothers meets Spider-Man or somesuch.

A highlight for me this issue was an out-of-nowhere soliloquy by the Carrot that achieves a kind of T.S. Eliot grandeur to me -- "I sit on the lawn ... a child in the summer ... holding my head and looking at it carefully..." Tremendously oddball yet evocative stuff, and you sure didn't see that in Marvel Comics then. It struck a spark in me then, a kind of creative match that made me want to create my own strange characters.

Burden's infectious creativity showed me that no idea was really too strange to not just go with, that you didn't have to be all smooth and refined, and I soon ended up scribbling away pages and pages of a quasi-comic short story called "The Spongy Chronicles" largely inspired by the Flaming Carrot's insane world. It's daft stuff looked at now, of course, but a few years later I took some of the things from that and used it to create the small-press comic Amoeba Adventures, which I started in college and ran with through much of the 1990s and am moderately proud of. It was hardly Nobel Prize-winning material but it did win some fans and friends and was a hell of a lot of fun, and I have to admit I wonder if I would have been inspired to do it if it weren't for the Flaming Carrot. (In fact I even named a villain in the series "The Asbestos Mushroom" in a tip to the Carrot hat.)

Bob Burden has continued sporadic adventures of the Flaming Carrot to this day (the muddled movie misfire "Mystery Men" was also based on some of his creations), and it's best when it still has that what-the-hell randomness that drew me to it in the first place. Flaming Carrot, I salute you. Ut!

Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball.

Friday, October 17, 2008

McCain mutiny, Magazine and band-aids

Random Friday notes!

Photobucket• How you know that your once-toddler is growing into a truly rambunctious and rowdy 4 1/2-year-old boy -- he managed to have band-aids on BOTH legs and his elbow earlier this week. It's a busy life being a moderately clumsy boy who falls down a lot. Sometimes his legs look like he was run over by a truck and I'm vaguely worried Child Services might think we're beating on him. Ah, to be a boy again, where you don't creak for weeks when you fall flat on your face...

• OK, after five debates this past month (four in the U.S. and one New Zealand), I'm officially debated-out. Still, yesterday's American finale was interesting to watch as the slow implosion of John McCain's campaign continues. Yes, he could still win, and I'm certainly not going to rule it out, but boy, overall his performance in these debates has been dismal. Interestingly, it's not so much what he said as how he performed. Obama has proven to be pretty masterful at projecting a cool, collected vibe, even if it sometimes is a bit stiff. But McCain has been all over the bloody show at all three debates, by turns hyperactive, frazzled, arrogant and insecure. I watched much of yesterday's debate on the big-screen at work, with the sound lower so I was focusing more on the visuals than the words, and McCain was just jittery, vibrating on that chair like a volcano in the rough. These debates have shown the sound bites are sometimes less important than the image ones, I think.

Photobucket• Very cool retro discovery of October for me is the post-punk band Magazine. I've been re-reading my "Rough Guide To Punk" and they sounded interesting, so I plunked out on the collection "Where The Power Is". After grooving out to it all week, I'm definitely going back for more of their albums. Frontman Howard DeVoto was originally in The Buzzcocks and after splitting with them set off to make his own band. Wow, what a cool sound they had -- kind of straddling the line between punk anger and synth-pop, they're like the missing link between the Sex Pistols and Depeche Mode. "Where The Power Is" covers the band's 1978-1981 heyday, and goes from the raging explosion of "Shot On Both Sides" to the doom-pop "This Poison." Special props to the epic "The Light Pours Out of Me" and guitars 'n' keyboards workout of "Definitive Gaze", although my favorite tune might be the snide and twisted "A Song From Under The Floorboards." Devoto sneers in his Johhny Rotten meets Peter Garrett voice, "I know the meaning of life / it doesn't help me a bit." Too cool.

• Well, after mulling it over I plunked down my $150NZ (urk!) and am going to see Neil Young in January, along with Prodigy, TV On The Radio and all the rest at the Big Day Out 2009. I wavered a bit but looked over at all my Neil Young CDs (I don't have everything from this prolific singer, but I've got nearly 20 of 'em) and said, My My, Hey Hey, OK. Besides, living in New Zealand, you really have to take into account the likelihood of a performer ever coming through here again. Sadly, faithful wife isn't going, so heck, if anyone in Auckland is going and wants to hang, let me know...