Wednesday, June 29, 2005

LIFE: Festering Files of Flimflam

I really must blog about something or else my dozens of readers (hi, Mom) will forget I exist. It was a very Peter-centric weekend, with a family raspberry-picking trip, a visit to the local arts festival and, yesterday on my day off, a daylong trip up to Portland where we visited the Oregon Zoo. Despite lots of drizzly rain all day (yeah, I know, it's Portland, but it's JULY on Friday for cryin' out loud) it was a fine time. Peter particularly liked the polar bears, the gibbon swinging and the elephant getting a pedicure. Then we did grownup things while Peter passed out, Avril visiting superhuge Asian supermarket Uwajimaya and me visiting the Beaverton branch of the bestest book store in the world, Powells.

I of course managed to spend a great deal of money in a short amount of time buying some George Orwell and Patricia Highsmith books I was missing, the amusing new McSweeney's humor anthology and this way too cool for school book:
Image hosted by
"Innocent While You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader"
This book is simply -- well, "badass" is the only phrase that comes to mind. See, I love the Tom Waits, quirkpunk cowboy wailing lonesome cabaret bluesman that he is, and something I love even more than Tom Waits' music is Tom Waits interviews. Surreal, funny like a drunk poet on a barstool, eye-opening and wise, he's consistently quotable:
"Popular music is like a big party, and it's a thrill sneaking in rather than being invited. Every once in a while, a guy with his shirt on inside out, wearing lipstick and a pillbox hat, gets a chance to speak."
"I'd like to see the term wooden kimono return to the lexicon. Means coffin."
"I hope you never have to use this, but if you're ever pursued by a crocodile, run in a zigzag fashion."
"I hope I'm becoming more eccentric. More room, you know. More room in the brain."
"It's nice to be part of the dismemberment of linear time."
Great book. Reading it mutates your frontal lobes.

...Hey, it's been years since I've done one of those "Google Search Terms" things everyone else does when they're hard up for writing material. Thus, from the handy keeper-trackers at site meter, recent searches that brought people here. You never know what you type will draw in people:
"What is Bruce Wayne's job?" (Striking fear into the heart of evildoers. And such.)
"Subaru drugs Johnny's" (I do own a Subaru. That's all I have to say about that.)
"Elisha Cuthbert layouts" (I don't want to know.)
"Chuck klosterman pearl jam boba fett" (Now that's a search)
"Meg White cute" (Yes, the White Stripes drummer is that.)
"Sylvia Siddell biography" (My mother-in-law, and a New Zealand painter - but who's searching for her? Who? Mysterious omens.)
"killer spatula" (oddly enough, I only come in at #7 on this search. Clearly I need to write more about spatulas as a means to an ugly end.)
"Shakespeare plays for lazy stupid students" (Clearly, an inspirational teacher at work.)

Saturday, June 25, 2005

COMICS: Quick Comics Reviews!

Image hosted by

Astro City: The Dark Age #1

I think I'm heading back to "Astro City," Kurt Busiek's acclaimed "realistic" superhero comics, which take a more humane view of standard spandex-clad adventures. Most often, Busiek's writing from the viewpoints of ordinary citizens of Astro City - what's it like to live in a world full of superheroes? Busiek's done some fantastic stories over the years set in Astro City, but illness on his part slowed the production way down and I just kind of drifted away to other comics. Now, he's back with an ambitious 16-part (!) series that's set in the 1970s, at a pivotal time when the candy-colored lighthearted heroics of the old days started to give way to something grim and gritty. This first issue spotlights two brothers - one a cop, one an aspiring thief - and their vantage point as society grows less and less trusting of its heroes. It's all set at the height of Vietnam and Nixonian paranoia, and a quite satisfying read. Busiek's always at his best on "Astro City," with rich characters and fine Neal Adams-esque art by Brent Anderson. This one's no exception so far - it's "adult" superhero comics; not in terms of gore or nudity, but in the mature themes and perspectives it explores. A better value than many of today's ultra-slow storylines, this first issue does the job of setting up relationships and making you care what happens next. A few of the transitions were a bit hard to follow, but otherwise, very good stuff. Grade: A-

Catwoman #44
I have never bought a "Catwoman" comic in my life, but this is my boy Will Pfeifer's first issue as writer, so I decided to check it out. Strong and accessible superheroine hi-jinks, with superb detailed and well-colored art by Pete Woods. Here, Catwoman crosses paths with several villains as she gets involved in a mysterious weapons heist. Pfeifer does a nice job playing up Catwoman as a morally meandering anti-hero, but takes a lighter tone than some of the grittier crime stories I've heard about. His usual snappy dialogue combines with an interesting unfolding plot. Like most "first issues," it's mostly set-up and tease for what's ahead, but holds promise. Grade: B

Spider-Man: House of M #1
I'm not reading the House of M miniseries, Marvel's latest "this will change comics FOREVER!!!!!" cash-grab, so why pick up one of the spinoffs? Well, I'm a Spider-Man fan and have a weakness for "alternative universe" tales of the web-slinger, which this is - plus, Mark Waid's usually a pretty solid writer. This is set in House of M's alternative earth where mutants are the majority and humans the opppressed minority. So what's Spider-Man's place in this? Turns out, he's a famous hero, with a hot wife, a kid and worldwide fame - he even has hired former boss J. Jonah Jameson as a flunkie. It's interesting to see a Peter Parker who's not a loser in life; I like how Waid doesn't just make him a spoiled jerk, but he definitely plants some unpleasant personality characteristics in Parker. The stage is set in the first issue for Peter's perfect world to come crashing down. As alternate histories go, this is better than most issues of "What If?" starring Spider-Man, with nice in-jokes for the fanboys, and has great art. Extra points for this being clearly accessible without reading anything else in the crossover. A good skewed view of Spider-Man all on its own, worth picking up. Grade: B+


Yes, it's been that kind of week. Anyway, a few miscellaneous Friday a.m. links...

• My full "Batman Begins" review, if you're interested, can be found here. I also headed down to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival last weekend again and did a review of their great new "Twelfth Night" which I'll post a link to once it's online...

• Congrats to fellow blogger Greg and his wife on the birth of their second child, who looks uncannily familiar to me somehow... I dunno, though, Greg, Igraine?!

• Hey, remember that two-headed cat I mentioned last week? The one that showed up in our office with its owners and we ended up writing a quirky story (with gruesome photo) about? Of course, like any weird and or hideously freakish small-town news, it got picked up by the wire services worldwire. (Just go do a Google News search for "Roseburg kitten" and you will see news sites from India to South Africa picked it up.) Which meant all week long we've had pesky editors calling us seeking permission to run our photo, and a variety of freaks looking to exploit the cat.

The punchline? Turns out the cat died the same day we printed the original story. Probably for the best for the cat, although I guess the guy who wanted it for his circus is out of luck. Yeesh.

Friday, June 24, 2005

MUSIC: Three for Thursday

CDs, CDs, I love the CDs and I refuse to grow up and get an iPod like everybody else. Here's three moderate to completely obscure recent purchases that are worth checking out:

The Mountain Goats, "The Sunset Tree"
The Mountain Goats are underground heroes close to breaking through (heck, The New Yorker wrote about them recently). I got turned onto them by largeheartedboy and others and have become a big fan. The "Goats" is a misnomer - there's basically one goat, John Darnielle, and his one-man band is insanely prolific, having put out hundreds of songs in just a few years. The sound is a kind of folky strum, often just Darnielle and a guitar, although recent albums have added more elaborate backing instrumentation to great effect. But the main instrument is Darnielle's voice and his direct, intense lyrics about love and redemption, which insists you listen to it. It's a nasal, hypnotic, raw neo-Violent Femmes, kind of love-it or hate-it sound. I definitely fall on the "love it" side — like few current singers, Darnielle really demands you listen to the words and gives the feeling that what he's saying is the most important thing in the world right now. This latest album is heavily autobiographical, dealing with Darnielle's fear and abuse at the hands of his late stepfather. Despite that heavy feeling, "The Sunset Tree" is never too dark, and falls back on the theme of music as savior. The songs "This Year" and "Dance Music" are worth the price of admission alone — "This Year," with its chorus of, "I will make it through this year if it kills me," and its windswept, getting-the-hell-out-of-this-town anthemic feel, makes it a contender for my favorite tune of the year. Darnielle's about telling portraits in miniature, lyrics sculpting detail out of the air -- take this couplet from one of his earlier songs, "International Small Arms Traffic Blues":
"Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania
Trucks loaded down with weapons
Crossing over every night"

"The Sunset Tree" is cathartic despite of or perhaps because of the subject matter, and leaves you feeling refreshed and hopeful. Good stuff.

James Kochalka Superstar, "Our Most Beloved"
Vermont's James Kochalka is probably better known as the cult cartoon creator with the absolutely groovy online daily diary strip (collected in the massive "American Elf" book), but besides all that, he's also a rock superstar. Or at least, a pretend one. "Our Most Beloved" culls the choice bits from several underground albums Kochalka and his friends have released over the years, and put them out on big ol' Rhino Records. His sound is loose, silly, sometimes profane and playful, like They Might Be Giants with an 8-year-old's sense of humor. But it's also insanely catchy, with tunes like the classic "Monkey Vs. Robot," "Breaking Stuff" and "Bad Astronaut" as surreal flights of fancy through Kochalka's mind. It's great music for kids, as long as they don't quite get the more adult elements of Kochalka's tunes (F'r instance, "Talk To The Wookie" is, um, not so much about "Star Wars" and more about, um, a sex act). Long-term, I'm not sure how the novelty tracks on this CD will hold up -- sometimes discs like this are fun for a while and then get old. But underneath the silliness Kochalka has a solid grasp on tunes and "hooks" -- frankly, I'm just jealous of a guy that can RAWK and draw!

Colin Hay, "Going Somewhere"
You know who Colin Hay is. The lead voice of '80s "Down Under" rock combo Men At Work, he's managed to stay a surprisingly strong and soulful songwriter long past his one-hit wonder days. I'm a total unapologetic Men At Work geek and periodically check out the solo work of Hay, who's still recording (and has made some nifty song cameos on TV's groovy "Scrubs"). This acoustic collection offers a nice roundup of Hay's world-weary, enjoyably quirky sound, all sung pretty much solo with acoustic guitar for accompaniment. A few lesser-known Men At Work songs get reimagined, as well as a variety of tunes from his past 20 years or so of solo work. It's on the mellow side, but I enjoy the skewed, wry and refreshingly humble tunes, such as "Beautiful World" (great lyrics, quoted above in my logo sig this week), "Waiting For My Real Life To Begin" or "Looking For Jack." If you're an '80s child who remembers Men At Work fondly, this is a nice reintroduction to their frontman that isn't just an exercise in nostalgia.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Happy 38th birthday today to my favorite actress Nicole Kidman! In her honor:
Posting likely light this week, as there's vacations at work and I'm pulling double-duty. Some CD reviews later this week hopefully.
To my wife: Um, sorry about that...

Saturday, June 18, 2005

MOVIES: Batman Begins

Image hosted by
Now that's Batman done right. Just saw "Batman Begins" last night, and thoroughly dug it. Is it the second coming of superhero flicks? Well, no, but it is a well-executed, thoughtful and very elegant exploration of the Batman character, giving us by far the most rounded Batman movie yet. I've got to work on a full review of it for the paper, but here's a few miscellaneous impressions --

For the wary,


Christian Bale definitely gave us the most spot-on Batman yet, combining all that worked from the last three Batmans -- Keaton's thoughtfulness, Kilmer's gravity and Clooney's, um... chin? I thought Bale did a fine job showing Bruce Wayne's metamorphosis, duel identities and the stern power of Batman (OK, he overplayed the SUPERDEEPVOICE a few times, but it worked for me). From the moment his casting was announced, I thought Bale would be a good fit as the Caped Crusader, and I wasn't disappointed.
Cillian Murphy ("28 Days Later") was creepy perfection as The Scarecrow, a fear-obsessed psychiatrist with a bag full of nasty hallucinogenic drugs.
• The fun-house Bizarro Gotham of the Tim Burton/Schumacher films was cool on first blush, but got really played out over time. So it was refreshing to see a fairly realistic Gotham City, done by filming in Chicago. The movie benefits by having a gritty Gotham and Batman as the oddest thing in it, rather than just another freak in the freakshow.
• Director Christopher Nolan has a fine eye for combining character with action - his "Insomnia" and "Memento" were stylish little gems. Now that he's got the big canvas to play on, I thought he did a great job. Actually, part of me favors the opening hour of the movie, which is basically "Bruce Wayne Begins," over the more traditional second half. Nolan really brought Bruce Wayne to life, making him much realer to me than any of the other Bat-films have.
Liam Neeson was Jedi perfection as Wayne's mentor, and I really liked the added twists added to his character.
• Tabloid queen Katie Holmes was quite decent as the new-for-the-movie Rachel Dawes, a character that added solid resonance to Bruce Wayne's decisions as he chose what path to take. She was a little one-note, but then again her character was kind of meant as a virtuous angel, so that worked.
• Also dug Gary Oldman as a spot-on not-quite-Commissioner Gordon, and loved the active role he took in the finale. Oldman's ability to disappear into a character always amazes me (I mean, this guy's played Sid Vicious, Dracula, Beethoven, Lee Harvey Oswald and a lisping Texas-style warlord in "The Fifth Element" -- now that's range!).
• Oddly, one of the most famous actors in the cast didn't quite work for me as well -- Michael Caine's Cockney "Alfie" was a solid role model for Wayne, but he felt too different from the comic book version for me to quite appreciate, and often his character just served as comic relief.
• The jitterbug editing style was a little offputting, especially during a few of the fight scenes, which would've been a lot more impressive with clearer choreography.

Overall, I'd give the movie a strong A-, which might even rise to an A upon repeated viewings. I remember well waiting in line on opening day of 1989's "Batman", sixteen (yipes) years ago now. Prior to "Batman Begins," this was probably the best Batman movie we had, although it's dated terribly in a lot of ways. Keaton, despite not looking the part AT ALL, did a good job, and the production design was certainly impressive. But that godawful Prince soundtrack takes at least ten points off my rating, and the fact Batman can't turn his head is kind of weird. I don't think this new flick will be quite the pop culture monolith or box office hit that one was -- for one thing, a live-action Batman was a real novelty in 1989, and another, this movie is definitely not "kid friendly."

It's funny, all those who say this flick is the "real" Batman at last, though, kind of overlook that like any iconic character, Bats has had countless "realities" over the years - from the 1930s gun-toting 'Dark Knight' to today's ultra-hardass Bat-battleaxe to Neal Adams' shadows-drenched 1970s warrior. And then there's this guy:
Image hosted by
Image hosted by
Image hosted by
Courtesy of the groovy Great Comic Book Database! The 1960s comics ruled!
Point being, they're ALL Batmans - in my mind, none has any more "legitimacy" than the other. It's all fiction, after all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

LIFE: Tuesday rant

Tuesday rant: I walk to work a fair bit, especially now that I'm trying to lose 10 pounds by Labor Day. And nearly every day I get run over by some assclown who thinks pedestrians are optional to ignore. It's not something specific to my hometown -- it's everywhere, pretty much, that you have people in cars who think their metal shells exclude them from human decency. My wife actually got "bumped" by some clueless lady a couple years back when she was crossing a marked crosswalk on a green light. What I love are the people who sllllowwwwwly roll forward as you're crossing in front of them, just to get that extra inch or two closer to their goal. Never mind that the human foot is notoriously inept and it'd be quite easy to just pump the gas enough to turn my pedestrian self into organ soup. I don't really have a clue as to how to cleanse the world of all these drivers who ignore pedestrians -- I've written columns about it before, we even have a state law enforcing the pedestrian crossings, but it's never enforced. All I know is that if I meet my bitter end in a crosswalk at the hand of one of these self-absorbed sacks of flesh I'm going to do some serious haunting on their asses.

Life as a newspaper editor, installment #321 -- the couple who came in at lunchtime today with a two-headed cat. Actual cat, but with two faces kind of squashed up together. Not as gross as you can imagine, but pretty darn weird. I'd post a pic but it's kind of disturbing. See how glamorous the newspaper life is? (Edit: Just in case you're interested, we did end up writing about it. If you're strong-hearted, check out photo here.)

Gratuitous Baby Peter photo: Peter makes a clean sweep with his favorite new toy!

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

ETC.: Things that are good

Potpourri of Monday miscellany...
• HBO's "Entourage" is fun stuff. This half-hour comedy's first season just made it onto DVD so we checked it out for the first time over the weekend. It follows the life of a young upcoming Hollywood star Vincent Chase and his posse of greedy pals as they navigate the shallowness and treachery of Los Angeles life. Packed with real-life cameos from stars and hilarious takes on Hollywood's bizarro universe, it's another gem in HBO's crown of original series. A great take on the excess and conspicious consumption that drives life in LA. Special note to one of my favorite not-quite-famous actors, Jeremy Piven (the "You must chill!" guy in "Say Anything," among other roles), who rocks hard as a near-psychopath Hollywood agent.

The Walking Dead over at Image Comics is just too much zombie-chomping fun. You know the drill -- the end of the world, zombies everywhere, band of survivors trying to make it -- but it's a hell of a gas because it's an ongoing series rather than a movie, enabling writer Robert Kirkman to take his time and tell the tale of former cop Rick, his family and the friends and enemies they make as they wind their way through a post-apocalyptic land. I've been collecting this series as the comics are collected in trade paperback, but after reading the superb Volume 3: "Safety Behind Bars" over the weekend, I've vowed to start reading it monthly in comics form. It's that good -- Volume 3, where the cast finds a federal prison that will make a perfect sanctuary (once the zombie inmates are cleared out), is the best yet. Moral and ethical dilemmas abound, people die, characters change and you can't read it all fast enough. Great stuff.

• Not that I'm a gorehound or anything, but I'm also very psyched to hear about this fall's deluxe DVD of David Cronenberg's "The Fly," one of the finest horror films of the modern age. Coming just in time for Halloween, this two-disc set is the full-on Criterion-style treatment, with director commentary, a major documentary, deleted scenes and much more. I remember seeing "The Fly" back in '86 or so when it came out and being shocked by how emotional what I thought was your standard monster movie could be. Jeff Goldblum gives the best performance of his career as a man slowly falling apart (read it as a metaphor for cancer, AIDS, etc.), and the supremely creepy David Cronenberg makes it much more than just another gore-fest. (Although gruesome and disturbing it is indeed.) (Skip the awful Goldblum- and Cronenberg-less 1989 "The Fly II," which is sadistic, mean-spirited, exploitive and brain-dead in a way the original wasn't.) Great to see this classic getting the fancy re-release -- that's why I loves the DVDs!

• Saturday's episode of Justice League Unlimited -- Captain Marvel vs. Superman?! Holy geekgasm! Another superb episode of the best animated superhero series going, with wall-to-wall action and a great appearance by Captain Marvel, a hero few writers really seem to have a handle on. Shazam! Good stuff.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

MOVIES: 'The Life And Death of Peter Sellers'

Image hosted by
I've always been fond of Peter Sellers, although I've only seen a fraction of the 74 movies he made before his early death at 55. His astounding versatility as a comedian, a mimic with little compare, made him watchable even in the most mediocre movies. At his peak — "Dr. Strangelove," "Being There," the "Pink Panther" flicks — he was unbeatable.

I recently rewatched the goofy "Return Of The Pink Panther," which I hadn't seen since I was a kid. Frankly, most of the scenes without Clouseau in these movies are hardly worth watching, but when Sellers is on camera, the madcap anarchy of his comedy still breaks me up. It's a shame Sellers' movies were rarely up to the quality of his talent.

I also read a biography of Sellers a few years ago, and like many artists, his overwhelming talent kept him from having a very happy life. Sellers was a fascinating character simply by his lack of self outside his characters – "There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me but I had it surgically removed," he once said. Now, a recent HBO movie attempts to explore the contradictions and tragedies of Sellers' life, in "The Life And Death of Peter Sellers."

This HBO production has some great things going for it, most notably a fantastic performance by Geoffrey Rush as Sellers. I wouldn't have twigged Rush to play him, but that uncanny actor sinks into Sellers' skin. He doesn't look a lot like Sellers, but once he puts on the makeup, you'd never know the difference. He captures both Sellers' essential blankness and the ferocious life he brought to his characters in several cunning re-enactments of his work. One pivotal scene shows Sellers, on set and in character as the crazed Dr. Strangelove, interacting with his mother and staying in character through her attempts to connect with him as a human being. Both on the set and off the set, Rush does an amazing job recreating the troubled Sellers. Also have to note Stanley Tucci, quite riveting in a brief appearance as Stanley Kubrick.

Unfortunately what sinks it is unfocused, pyrotechnic direction. Director Stephen Hopkins is clearly trying to emulate the madcap swingin' '60s sensibility of Sellers flicks like "What's New Pussycat," but it doesn't work well. He throws in breaking-of-the-fourth-wall, gonzo acid sequences, oddball flashbacks that feature Rush-as-Sellers impersonating characters in Sellers' life, such as his wife, mother, directors. I get what they're going for, but it seems self-indulgent. The movie races through Sellers' life and marriages at such a speedy pace little sinks in (the gorgeous, Oscar-winning Charlize Theron is utterly wasted as wife Britt Eklund). The nasty side of Sellers' character is given plenty of exposure, but you go away wanting a little more depth.

I guess in a way this movie is similar to Peter Sellers' own movies – good concept, utterly fantastic performance by the leading man, but the rest of the movie is wanting in comparison. For Sellers fans, it's worth checking out, but it would be hard for those who aren't fans to see what the man's strange appeal really was.

Friday, June 10, 2005

MOVIES: 'The Aviator'

Here's a video review, plus if you want more scribblings, here's a link to a column I wrote for the paper this week. Cheers!

'The Aviator'
The story of Howard Hughes is one of a dizzying rise, and a painful, far longer fall. It’s tailor-made for the movies — orphaned boy inherits his father’s tool business, parlays that into global fame, power and even a career as a Hollywood director — until he’s brought down by crippling psychological problems that end with him dying a withered recluse.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hughes roughly from age 20 to 45, and does a fantastic job showing his ever-turning mind, attention to detail and steely self-confidence. The movie kicks off with Hughes filming “Hell’s Angels,” a 1930 airplane war picture that was one of the biggest and most elaborate movies ever filmed.
From there, Hughes gets into airplanes as a business, developing faster and more advanced planes with a painstaking eye. Hughes also squires some of Hollywood’s most gorgeous women about, including soulmate Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett), and comes into conflict with the U.S. government during the McCarthyism era.
Yet all the while, he battled obsessive-compulsive disorder. The movie sticks to the sunnier side of Hughes’ life, ending before he basically became a germ-phobic prisoner living in Las Vegas hotels. But the seeds of Hughes’s mental downfall are there even in his youth, shown in some of “The Aviator’s” most haunting sequences.
DiCaprio is remarkably solid and believable as Hughes. The main problem is that as Hughes ages, DiCaprio with his baby face looks less and less appropriate. That aside, it’s a powerful, layered turn from this former teen idol.
Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning performance as Katharine Hepburn throws you off-balance at first — she’s so broad and tackles Hepburn’s distinctive accent so aggressively that it feels like a parody. Yet she warms to it quickly, showing us the woman behind Hepburn’s famed bravado. Although she looks little like Hepburn, Blanchett really captures her essence. Her scenes with DiCaprio have the most heart of any in “The Aviator.”
“The Aviator” doesn’t quite rank with the heights of director Martin Scorsese’s best work, the more personal films like “Goodfellas” or “Taxi Driver.” Hughes is DiCaprio’s obsession, and to some extent Scorsese is the hired hand as director. His unique imprint is missing.
Certain scenes of “The Aviator,” such as an apocalyptic airplane crash, will scorch on your memory, but the story ultimately bogs down a bit in aviation politics and finds it hard to maintain its uplifting tone in the face of Hughes’ sorry real-life end (which isn’t directly referred to). It’s sparkling, gorgeously filmed history, but ultimately, at three hours, a little overlong and underfocused.
Considering the damaged nature of its subject, “The Aviator” does a good job giving wings to his ultimately sad tale of a man who flew too high, too fast.
*** of four

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

MUSIC: The White Stripes get "Satanic"

Image hosted by
Whoo hoo, a 2-CD music day. Picked up both the new Coldplay CD and the latest from the White Stripes today, both albums I've been looking forward to in different ways. Coldplay I'll hit later on, but I've been looking forward to The White Stripes' latest, "Get Behind Me Satan," for months.
The boy-and-girl duo of Jack and Meg White are spunky, gutbucket and ramshackle tunesmiths with surprising depth, making a whole lot of noise for two people without a bass player, combining cranky Delta blues with elements of folk, country and punk rock. They keep on evolving, and the early word on "Get Behind Me Satan" is that it's another left turn from a band full of them.
So, in the spirit, let's do Real-time Blogging! Here's my first impressions of "Get Behind Me Satan," random notes and thoughts right as I listen to it on my headphones while writing other stuff here at work.
Standard disclaimer – first impressions are the next side to useless sometimes when it comes to albums (that rave review I gave Radiohead's "Hail To The Thief" curiously juxtaposes with the fact I hardly ever listen to it now), and White Stripes CDs are particularly tricky to pin down. I wasn't wild about "Elephant," their last CD, instantly, but over time it's become one of my favorite recent albums.
So how does "Get Behind Me Satan" fare? (Plus 10 points for the awesome title.) The first listen verdict:

1. Blue Orchid - I downloaded this single several weeks ago, so I'm already familiar with it. Its kinda wacky, high-pitched Zeppelin-meets-hair metal riff is equal parts grating and addictive.
2. The Nurse -- A marimba?!? Weird vibe, but the song doesn't quite go anywhere. Moody. I know Meg White's not the best drummer in the world technically, but man, she's pounding here.
3. The Doorbell – First instinct, this sounds like a 1970s Michael Jackson Motown tune, with a bouncing piano riff and Jack White scatting at Mach 3. And it's ridiculously catchy in its silly way. Very gospel revival feel to it.
4. Forever For Her (Is Over For Me) – Another piano-based ramble, with prominent xylophone parts (!!) and a nice soaring chorus. It's got a funny kind of wind-up toy music box feel to it.
5. Little Ghost – A down-home country hoedown, almost over-the-top campy, but a enjoyable little track.
6. The Denial Twist – Great title for a song, and a nice bouncy feel, driven by piano again and Jack White swagger. Yet it seems to just kind of fade out before it really builds to a climax, so it feels unfinished.
7. White Moon - A fantastic track, epic and wounded, rippling waves of regret-soaked lyrics washing back and forth over majestic piano breaks. Bonus points for hearing Meg's drum kit collapse at the end of the song.
8. Instinct Blues -- After an album loaded with mostly gentler ballads, this song rips out like broken glass, huge '70s rock star blasts of guitar and screaming rage. A throwback to their early punk-rock work, cathartic. "The flies get it, and the frogs get it..."
9. Passive Manipulation – A joke song, barely 30 seconds, sung by Meg White (who's cute as hell and a powerful drummer, but not much of a singer.) A trifle, but kind of endearing.
10. Take, Take, Take – A guitar-strumming ramble, bluesy and bouncy, all about Rita Hayworth apparently. Great chorus. Is that a phone ringing in the middle of the song?
11. As Ugly As I Seem – Very gentle ballad, the kindest-soundest song on the album. About redemption, perhaps.
12. Red Rain – Big bang boom. Crashing, squealing, yelping, full of feedback and distortion, even louder than "Instinct Blues," the album's climax, all smash and release.
13. I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet) – And then it all wraps up with this piano-driven quasi-inspirational ballad, which has a winking satirical tone you get once you listen closely to the lyrics. Home sweet home.

Final verdict? I like it, but it's definitely a change from the more rock-driven sound of the last couple albums. Anyone expecting punk rock will be sad. It takes a bit of a cue from Jack White's bluegrass-tinged "Cold Mountain" soundtrack work, and a raw, intimate and confessional feel (it was recorded in a handful of days, apparently). That works for and against it -- it doesn't feel overpolished, but a few tunes feel like demo versions. Yet Jack White's palpable love for music springs out of just about every track, and it's a pleasure to see an artist so ready to try out different styles. Clearly the White Stripes don't want to be pigeonholed. While it might be a little bit of experimentation for the hell of it, "Get Behind Me Satan" sounds pretty cool to me so far.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

ETC.: Rainy Monday

Rain rain rain. I usually work Tuesday through Saturdays, and for some reason this spring, the weather gods have chosen to mock me. It rains without fail almost every single Sunday and Monday I am off work. Today it is raining, raining, raining. And Peter is being reluctant to take his afternoon nap. So it goes...

Wildlife I have spotted in our back yard in the past three days: Deer (including one young buck who seems ready to move in), flock of turkeys with several baby turkeys (turklets?), miscellaneous cats, and one surprising raccoon that our cat nearly charged out the back door after (which would have resulted in one less cat in the neighborhood if I hadn't grabbed her by the tail). And we live in the middle of town!

This interview with Ted Turner pretty much sums up why I don't watch TV news much anymore. Like Ted says, CNN, FOX, et al - it's true, they're the "missing white girls" and "pervert of the day' networks. Yeah, a girl is missing in Aruba, yeah, it's a tragedy, but hundreds of kids run away from home or get abducted every year. Why do only some (read: usually blue-eyed, usually blonde and pretty) merit blanket TV coverage? Ted Turner actually has some good advice for the network he started, but unfortunately I suspect if it did actually turn to serious hard news, global coverage and deep thought, the ratings would drop like stones. For some reason I can't fathom, people apparently like to watch the trauma-of-the-day and talk show blowhards pontificating at them. I don't get it, myself.

Watching much of the "Scrubs" first season DVD this weekend reminded me how this is one of the best 2-3 shows on TV today. I missed the first season of this when it aired back in 2001, pegging it as yet another TV doctor show, but it's really become one of the funniest, wittiest and most humane shows on the air. The first season is great, and it's interesting to see where the characters started. Watching it, I'm struck by how real most of the character seem, unlike your usual sitcom constructions. I enjoyed "Friends" in a trashy way, for instance, but never felt like any of them were actual human beings. But J.D., Turk, Elliott and the rest all feel, despite the gags and pratfalls and silly lines, like actual people. Now that's fine writing.

Absolutely wonderful comics news this weekend from the big Wizard World Philadelphia show -- in between all the hoopla about new titles, DC Comics let slip they're launching DC Showcase Presents, a massive reprint program highlighting goodies from their 70-year history in an affordable thick black-and-white format like the Marvel Essential series. It launches in fall with a 500-page monster of 1960s Superman stories, goofy and glorious fun stuff for a mere $17 or so a pop. Following will be tomes on the Justice League and Green Lantern, as well as more obscure properties like Jonah Hex and good lord, even superfreak Metamorpho! I love seeing classic comics at affordable prices, and the black-and-white doesn't bug me a bit. Hopefully even more will follow -- I would plotz for books of DC's war and science-fiction comics, or stuff like "Sugar & Spike," "The Doom Patrol," or "Brave & Bold." What a fine time to be a comics fan.

• Because it's Monday: The zombie blog. Mmm, brains....

The boy is asleep! Hurrah!

Saturday, June 4, 2005

COMICS: Quick comics reviews

So I somehow restrained myself from buying the first issue of Marvel Comics' latest overhyped, this-will-change-the-world-forever!!! crossover, "House of M." This actually was a bit of effort for me as I regrettably am still a total sucker for hyped galaxy-of-superhero crossover type comics even if, like Chinese food, I'm hungry half an hour later. Yet I've been really disenchanted with a lot of writer Brian Bendis' work the past few months, the premise (yet another "alternate universe" story) and the spine-crippling $3 a pop for 8 sttttttretched-out bi-weekly issues price all did me in. If the reviews are good (which so far, they're very mixed) I might pick up the trade paperback of the whole shebang at a discount six months from now, but for the nonce, I am "House of M"-less. I feel so inadequate.

Image hosted by
Villains United #2
Speaking of hyped crossovers, yeah, I loathed the way "Identity Crisis" turned out, but despite the ridiculous overly grim tone the DC Universe has taken on lately, I still felt compelled to pick up one of the miniseries in the "Crisis" cavalcade of comics, mainly because I like the idea of a supervillain vs. supervillain war and writer Gail Simone's got a good reputation. This miniseries revives the old "Secret Society of Supervillains" idea (and how can you not like such a group?), featuring a huge grouping of villains coming together as a result of "Idenitity Crisis," and six villains who've chosen not to ally themselves with the powerful society. It's good fun two issues in, with the spunky, desperately outnumbered "Secret Six" facing impossible odds. Good character choices to focus on, including the mercenary Deadshot and, my favorite, "Catman!" Catman is a total loser Batman villain who's been around for years, but appears here mysteriously and radically revamped into someone actually impressive. Simone's got a sharp eye for dialogue and the story is actually accessible to someone like me who's skipping many of the other series DC's publishing right now. I do wish they'd toss in little captions identifying some of the many villains who appear in this series, though. When did captions become illegal? Grade: B+

Incredible Hulk #82
That rarity of rarities, a self-contained comic book, a story that doesn't go on for eighteen parts! I've been a bit on the fence about the last few issues of writer Peter David's long awaited return to the Hulk (in my opinion, the only writer, including Stan Lee, who's ever made the character interesting). But this nice little gem of a tale is good stuff indeed, featuring the Hulk/Bruce Banner's encounter with a mysterious London woman who involves him in a twisted campaign of revenge and retribution. Good moody art by Jae Lee and a nice "Twilight Zone" feel to it all. Sure, the basic theme of the story's been done before, but David does a nice job adding his own flourishes. Good Hulk comics, using a character that really has a lot of potential in a novel way. Grade: A-

Friday, June 3, 2005

BOOKS: What I Read - May

Another month is over, and it's time to continue my yearlong project of keeping track of what I read in my so-called "free time." The year-to-date total stands at 34 books (not counting graphic novels, comics, magazines etc. in the figure). (In case you're feeling nostalgic, here's January, February, March, and April.) Here's this month's literary haul --

“Chip Kidd” by Veronique Vienne. They say you can't judge a book by its cover, but I have to tell you, I sometimes do. And the work of Chip Kidd, the only "celebrity book designer" I can think of, has always grabbed me. His covers include "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt, David Sedaris' "Naked," "Jurassic Park" and about a million others, all sharp combinations of art, design, communication and vivid imagery. Anyway, this mini-book features a short essay about Kidd and how he works, and a handsome portfolio of a hundred or so of his best-known covers, as well as his highly interesting design work for comic-related books on "Peanuts," Batman, Plastic Man and more. Found it remaindered and a nice art book to flip through and be dazzled by on occasion.

“Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With The Beatles” by Tony Bramwell. Another Beatles book? Yet this one, by a childhood Liverpool friend of the Fab Four who grew up with them, then became a kind of roadie/gofer/manager within their organization as their fame grew, is quite interesting, a "beetle's eye view" of the Beatles' rise, told in a folksy, friendly tone that manages to include lots of interesting behind-the-scenes gossip without even seeming tawdry. It's also just a nice travelogue of the 60s, and the incredible cultural changes the Beatles rode the wave of. Recommended for any Beatlemaniac. Bramwell definitely doesn't think a lot of Yoko Ono, though!

"Road Fever" by Tim Cahill. (Re-read) Perfect reading during our vacation last month, this romp about Cahill's monthlong-trek with "endurance driver" Garry Sowersby in a GMC Truck from the tip of South America to the shores of the Arctic Sea in Alaska, an attempt to break the Guinness Book of World Records feat for speed and long-distance driving. Cahill's one of my favorite travel writers and this book is great fun to return to, as the drivers work their way through the dangers of South and Central American roads. Makes any road trip you took look paltry by comparison.

“Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power At Any Cost" by Richard Shenkman. Yeah, we know Bill Clinton and the Bushes are ambitious people. But this fascinating history shows us that pretty much all the forty-something presidents have been men driven by power, whether for good or bad. Shenkman meanders through the years from Washington to Eisenhower, giving us both a look at how the presidency has evolved and how the country has changed too. I'm a big presidential history buff and was surprised at how much new I learned from this book, which combines a big-picture thesis about the lures and liabilities of power with a layman's eye for detail and character.

"Saturday" by Ian McEwan. A London neurosurgeon wakes up for an ordinary Saturday of leisure and family time in this novel set right before the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. But violence creeps up in the most unexpected fashion. McEwan is one of the great literary thriller writers today, managing to combine elegant, supple prose with tight moral dilemmas, like a combination of John Updike and Patricia Highsmith. This novel is another fine fast read, as his neurosurgeon learns the cost of a casual cruelty. I love the thick medical details Ewan included, which are informative but never go overboard. Great summer reading.

"The Well of Lost Plots" by Jasper Fforde. Book three in the Thursday Next "literary detective" series. Fforde continues to entertain with this series, which imagines a world where fiction and reality can be interchangeable, and a secret police force manages the laws of fiction. Fforde is just a fountain of funny, fascinating ideas that pay homage to books from the past, from "grammasites" that attack fiction to the sprawling, Borges-ian world of the library of fiction, where behind-the-scenes workers handle the process of bringing books to life. This book was particularly rich with concepts (like characters communicating by "footnoterphones" and cameos by characters from Shakespeare to Bronte to Fitzgerald). Eager to read the fourth and final book, which comes out in paperback next month.

Wednesday, June 1, 2005

ETC.: Linkorama

Because I have nothing much to say, trashy links and liberal Bush-bashing!
Lindsay Lohan's breasts. Now that I've got your attention and upped my Google hit count 500%, this cool medical blog asks what's up with the teen queen's weight loss. Because you care, darn it!

• I know, Paris Hilton's getting married. You're depressed. Read this great essay over at the Washington Post about Hilton's utter irrelevance and snap out of it.

• There have been many neighbors in my life I've wanted to do this to.

• Are audiobooks really "reading"? The New York Times explores the question (free registration required if you're not, but really, you should register).

• And finally, when all else fails, those who question you hate America:
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush called a human rights report "absurd" for criticizing the United States' detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said Tuesday the allegations were made by "people who hate America."
It'd be funny except, well, it's not. Anyway, Amnesty International, al-Qaida -- both start with the letter "A." Think about it.