Thursday, March 30, 2006

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And so it begins.

...Note on box saying it comes with "deflector shield"!

Say it with me now... "ewwwwwwwww."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

LIFE: My Worst Neighbors Ever

Yes, I've gone all green on top. It's Spring.

So our next-door neighbor celebrated her 93rd birthday over the weekend. She's been a fantastic neighbor, quiet, really nice to us and Peter. Slowing down a bit but still in pretty good shape for 93. I'd have to think about it but I'd say she is pretty close to the Best Neighbor Ever.

Image hosting by PhotobucketWhich leads to the Worst Neighbors Ever. I'm a finicky guy about my peace and quiet, and like to think I'm considerate of my neighbors. I don't ask a lot, just don't wake me up in the middle of the night or sell drugs. I've had a few neighbors that made me rethink my anti-gun position. After one too many nutbags, I vowed a few years back I would never ever live upstairs or downstairs from someone ever again. And so it has remained. Not all neighbors have been hell, but here are my picks for

4. Crazy Marines with Pit Bull, Oxford, Mississippi, 1994. This was a strange subterranean basement apartment I stumbled into for my final semester of college, because a friend of mine had it and she'd moved out. I didn't realize at the time that she had three psychopathic Marines living upstairs who would be oddly quiet for days at a time, then throw weekend-long hoedowns that'd start with awful Garth Brooks country blasting away and then proceed on to Megadeth at about 2 a.m., with lots of stomping on the ceiling above me. And they had a pit bull they'd leave tied up right outside my bedroom window. Trust me, you didn't want to ask them to "keep it down." Scary, scary people. They'd be higher on the list but I only stayed in the place for four months.

3. The 11th Floor of Stockard-Martin, University of Mississippi, 1990-1991. Everyone should live in a dorm for part of college, if only to learn what "Animal House" is like in real life. (Like "Lord of the Flies" meets "Jackass," frankly.) I had good times, of course, because I was 19 and half-crazed with independence, but admittedly, living on the top floor of this all-male dorm was like being in a petri dish. Lunatic backwoods Mississippi rednecks, spoiled Southern trust-fund brats, would-be Memphis gangbanagers, all collided on one floor (the "honors floor," in theory, which just meant the depravity was more creative). I recall Wagner's "Ride of the Valkryies" being blasted at midnight in an elevator shaft, endless false fire alarms, Vaseline on the doorknobs, vomit in the halls and more. It was awesome. Yet I didn't sleep much in 1990-1991, and it all got a little old after a while, so they're on the list.

2. "Joe," Lake Tahoe, 2000. This was in Lake Tahoe, where we lived in an upstairs condominium that was frequently vacant. But in 2000, this slacker snowboard bum kid moved in, and for a while, it was OK. Then he started playing video games real loud all night long through our paper-thin floor, having visitors at all hours, and, oh yeah, dealing pot. It was the pot dealing that finally led us to get the landlord on the phone and ended up getting him evicted after several weeks of 2 a.m. "pot calls" by his clients banging on our shared front door and that familiar odor sifting up through the carpet. The highlight of it all was when he did get tossed out, I got to listen to his dad (who had been paying the rent for spoiled son, of course) yell at him for several hours straight while they hauled all his stuff out. Don't mess with me!

1. Rednecks from Oakdale, Calif., 1997. You know the type – the short, crew-cut guy who has a tin of Skoal in his back pocket, a "tough guy" goatee and beady, primitive eyes, the kind of guy who'll just snap all of a sudden. I got to share space with two of these über-rednecks in 1997 in a tiny cinder-block walled apartment grafted onto the back of a house. They lived in the front, I lived in the back down a tiny alleyway. You name it, these guys did it, and despite the concrete walls between us I heard it all – loud bass-heavy music at all hours of the night and day, revving truck engines in the front yard, occasional rifle shots in the air, and best of all, loud screaming matches between the one I nicknamed "Redneck Joe" and his girlfriend. These fights would start with yelling, then some slamming of furniture and glasses, and then end in even worse, loud make-up sessions in which one of them screamed like a wildcat at the end. I hate to call da cops, but I must've called the police a half-dozen times on these yahoos before their rent checks bounced and they finally left after several torturous months in which I wore earplugs to sleep every night. The worst of the worst. I wasn't in a happy place anyway as it was shortly after I'd moved away from all my friends in Mississippi, I was dead broke and working at a pretty lousy paper, and it was before my darling future wife moved in with me. Bad space, man. Worse neighbors.

Who's your worst neighbor ever?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

COMICS: Silly and serious with Kyle Baker

"Kyle Baker: Cartoonist." Sometimes one word is all you need.

Kyle Baker is indeed a cartoonist … one of the best of them. Equally capable at balancing one-panel gags, whimsical parodies and dark, weighty drama, Baker has been plying his trade for over 20 years now. He's trafficked with mainstream heroes such as Spider-Man, Superman and The Shadow, but he's made his most distinctive mark with his own quirky, distinct style in works from "The Cowboy Wally Show" to "Kyle Baker: Cartoonist." Two of his latest works, "The Bakers" and "Nat Turner," show the diverse talents of this cartoonist.

Image hosting by Photobucket"The Bakers" – featured in both graphic novels and single comic books – are a whimsical family cartoon, semi-autobiographical, and a little like an actually hip and funny version of "The Family Circus." It's the adventures of Baker, his wife and their three young children, and the strips don't tend to be "about" much – Mom gets a birthday present, Dad plays a game with the kids. It's the commanding style and craft Baker brings to his work that raises them to gorgeous cartoon art. Baker's influenced by the classic "gag strips" of the '50s and earlier, but gives them a modern spin."The Bakers" are wacky, gently wise and always amusing.

Image hosting by PhotobucketBaker impresses by his constant changes in style. His earlier work was pen-and-ink based, shadowy and expressive yet fairly traditional. But in recent years, his work has exploded into a newfound looseness, and he's one of the pioneers of using computers as a drawing tool. He's one of the best caricaturists out there (one of the many hats he wears is doing a great deal of magazine illustration work), able to bend from full-on cartoons to slightly exaggerated neo-realism. "Kyle Baker: Cartoonist" Volumes 1 and 2 present a heaping helping of "The Bakers." Baker's art goes rubbery and fluid (Baker draws himself as a kind of dreadlocked, roundish genial goofy Dad) in these and his equally amusing one-panel "gag" cartoons.

Image hosting by PhotobucketThe pastoral pleasures of "The Bakers" are what make "Nat Turner" such a shocking turn. Based on the failed 1830s rebellion by former slave Turner, it's unflinching in its look at the horrors of slavery. The first issue of a planned four-part series dramatizes Turner's family history from Africa to slavery, with a harrowing journey on a slave ship. Issue two shows the young Turner and his religious awakening that led to later violence. Turner and his followers would kill more than 50 white people before being executed themselves, blood turning to blood.

Image hosting by PhotobucketBaker tells this tale with almost no words at all, letting the images unspool like a nightmare. As the series progresses, Baker mixes his art with text excerpts from "The Confession of Nat Turner." "Nat Turner" isn't easy to read, full of horrible brutality against slaves. (With the concluding half likely to be even more graphic.) It's the polar opposite of the warm 'n' fuzzy "Bakers," but it's full of truth – and frankly, this ugly time in American history needs to be remembered every once in a while. Baker slaps you in the face with the evil of slavery; it's harsh, unforgettable stuff.

Check out for more from the pen of Kyle Baker.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

MOVIES: Friday video review

‘Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit’

Image hosting by PhotobucketYou know how kids love to fixate on things? Well, my 2-year-old Peter is addicted to “Wallace and Gromit.” The short films starring the lovable British clay animation characters are one of his favorite things in the world to watch.

Fortunately, we don’t mind watching them over and over either. The tales of fumbling inventor Wallace and his wry, ever-silent, smarter dog sidekick Gromit are hilarious, gentle humor, full of wit and creativity. Wallace comes up with “cracking” inventions, and Gromit helps get him out of the trouble that usually ensues as a result of them. In between, the pair eat a lot of cheese.

The three short movies from the 1990s each won an Academy Award, and now, their first full-length feature, “Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” has won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

We catch up with Wallace and Gromit and their successful new “pest control service,” that catches rabbits from people’s gardens and humanely gets rid of them. But when Wallace creates a new mechanical way to suppress rabbits’ desires for veggies, it ends up launching a terrible beast on the English countryside — the massive, carrot-snatching “Were-Rabbit.”

“Curse of the Were-Rabbit” boasts some impressively hectic action sequences, but still keeps its finger on the quirky little moments that make “Wallace and Gromit” so timeless. The bond between Wallace and Gromit is one of the great movie teams.

Particularly good in this movie are “guest voices” Ralph Fiennes as the villainous, snooty hunter Victor Quartermaine and Helena Bonham Carter as Wallace’s would-be love interest, the very aristocratic Lady Tottington.

And boy, that claymation is fantastic. There’s something wonderful about knowing every single frame of this film was loving arranged by hand, as opposed to just typed into a hard drive. It took five years to make “Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” and it shows — detailed backgrounds, sight gags and incredibly ornate settings, such as an entire country fair or a field full of wiggling rabbits.

Obviously, in my household we’ll be watching this one again and again. But it’s such a funny, warm and inventive piece of entertainment, it’s worth seeing for everybody.
**** of four

Friday, March 24, 2006

MUSIC: Dick Waterman's secret blues archive

When I lived in Mississippi, one of my favorite things was learning more about the blues … the down-dirty, Delta blues born and bred in Mississippi. During my time as an editor at the weekly newspaper Oxford Town in Oxford, Mississippi, from roughly 1994-1997, one of my tutors was Dick Waterman, a columnist for us with a powerful history in the blues. Image hosting by PhotobucketTook me until a few months ago to find out that Dick has a book out. (So it goes when you move away from the South and don't keep in touch like you should.) But when I learned about his 2003 book "Between Midnight And Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive," I rushed to find a copy.

Dick was a columnist for Oxford Town before I got there, and continued for a year or two after I left. He'd write about whatever struck his mind, many weeks, but a recurring theme was his days as a manager and promoter of blues musicians. He helped "rediscover" many of the great artists in the 1960s, such as Son House and Booker White, and also managed Bonnie Raitt for 15 years. I didn't really figure out for a good long while that Dick was at the center of a ton of great music, but in hindsight the man was like the Zelig of the '60s blues scene, everywhere, not always heralded, but quite pivotal. And he was also one hell of a photographer on the side.

Image hosting by PhotobucketDick's photos were often included with his music columns, and I don't think at the time I realized just how priceless a resource they were of a rapidly vanishing age of music. As the old folks die off, few other than B.B. King are around to evoke that classic Mississippi Delta blues. But Dick knew them all, and his archives were filled with candid, remarkable shots of blues legends like Skip James, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, John Hurt, Arthur Crudup, as well as '60s rock legends like Jagger, Joplin, Clapton and more. One of my personal favorites is this one of Mississippi John Hurt, sitting in a station somewhere with his guitar, looking old as the hills.

Image hosting by PhotobucketDick's photo albums are the record of an age, when blues met rock and forever influenced it. Yet the photos were kind of forgotten down there in Oxford, Mississippi, where we'd use them as art to spruce up our tiny alt-weekly. Crisp and sharp black-and-white, they showed Dick Waterman's eye for the moment. Have to admit, we kind of took 'em for granted (I did get to borrow a really fine image of B.B. King by Dick for one of our "Oxford Town" t-shirts, though).

It took their chance discovery by Chris Murray for folks to realize what a priceless music gold mine Dick's photos and stories are, and "Between Midnight And Day" was the result, along with a nice show up in Washington, D.C. Elegantly designed and presented, "Between Midnight And Day" is a fantastic keepsake of Dick's life and times, working both as portfolio and genial autobiography. Dozens of his photos are reprinted, broken down by personalities, and each photo feature includes a short essay by Dick reminiscing. Some are sad – the tale of ripped-off Willie Shade – some are awe-struck — the frightening Howling Wolf – while many are just observational, acute little portraits. Dick's Web site features an excellent selection of his photos to look over (the only shame is you can't see them at full size).

Image hosting by PhotobucketDick never really felt like he was bragging in his writing; it was more that he was just telling stories. Sure, they'd feature appearances from everyone from Muddy Waters to Son House, and when he was talking about "Bonnie" it was Bonnie Raitt. I actually learned a nice bit about column-writing from Dick's easygoing, conversational style. It was great to see some of his gems, such as the tale of humble Arthur Crudup, re-worked into essays for this book. There's at least another book's worth of his columns to be had. (Dick apparently also has another book he's contributed to that just came out last fall which I haven't seen yet — "The B. B. King Treasures : Photos, Mementos & Music from B. B. King's Collection" —timed for B.B.'s 80th birthday.)

Dick, admittedly, was eccentric, a real character to deal with when I was his editor. In the pre-email days he'd fax his columns in to Oxford Town, often at the last possible minute, sometimes right around midnight when we were going to press a few hours later. Yet he was always friendly to deal with, and sometimes he'd even come in the office to hand-deliver the column in the middle of the night. I always looked forward to reading his latest, and was sorry to learn he gave it up eventually after I moved on myself. But with "Between Midnight and Day," he's given everyone a fine token of his life and times in the music scene. As legacies go, this is a pretty great one to have.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

LIFE: Lost – Southern Oregon edition

...So at the newspaper we've been busy covering this story in our back yard the past day or so, which is the top national news on CNN's Web page as I write this. Yep, Southwestern Oregon and our county are big enough that a family of 6 can get lost for two weeks and never be found.

It's hard to believe how remote some areas in our corner of Oregon can get. There are huge chunks of land in our county where you can feel like you're in the middle of Bolivia or something, not see anything but the occasional log truck for miles and miles. Beautiful, but a little scary.

We even drove some of the route this family took on their ill-intentioned drive to the coast last fall, and I can see how easy it is to get lost. It's a tiny winding route that zig-zags through steep mountain country, utterly gorgeous but impossibly isolated. When we drove it last fall, there were a couple points where I wondered if we'd end up lost for good ourselves. Consider then the wisdom of driving in a huge motorhome on these narrow roads in the middle of winter...

Fortunately, this family was all OK, and despite their poor choice of roads (a perfectly decent highway would've taken them from Ashland to the coast easily), they were well-prepared for their impromptu 2-week camping trip. It could've been a lot worse. And I imagine it's a trip they'll never forget.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

ETC.: It's Monday and my day off!

It's Monday and it's time for blueberry waffles! But first, some random bloggery:

• Peter's new favorite word? "Um."
As in, "Peter, did you jam Daddy's toothbrush down the bathroom sink?"
Peter: "Ummmmm....."

• I'm a reviewing machine! Two more reviews of mine for BlogCritics are online over there – Southern Culture on the Skids, "Doublewide and Live," and "Wolf Tracks: The Best of Los Lobos." Go read 'em and make me feel loved.

• This has been around the Web a few times, but it's still awesome. How to make "Garfield" over from lame gag machine into dark psychological drama -- take out all Garfield's words. And behold, you have a pseudo-zen comic about a lonely psycho who talks to his cat and never gets a response. Go check them out at the above link (scroll down to see more), and here's a sample.
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Jim Davis can't sue me as this is protected under limited use for "satire." Er, I think.

• So one of the sites we read often is a New Zealand Immigration forum. A recent post by a Romanian-to-New Zealand immigant offers this insight which I had to share. I shall leave the author anonymous:
"The nature is NZ (otherwise not virgin or untouched) no doubt is fabulous… but there are some minuses. You may see gorgeous bitches and great see water…but you can only watch…the water is very cold even on the mid summer and laying down on the bitch more that 10-15 minutes can harm you as far as the NZ sun is very dangerous."
...Don't lay on the sandy bitches in New Zealand.

Image hosting by Photobucket• Oh my lord, I have to read this comic someday. The Very Worst Batman Story of the Silver Age, which features the debut (and dare I say, only appearance) of the following: Batbaby. Y'see, Batman's turned into a baby by an evil criminal, and, well... OK, it was the fifties. Found at Silver Age Comics, who have enlightened me in ways I dare not speak of.

• Finally, I leave you with this: The Worst Web Site in the World. Found on

Sunday, March 19, 2006

MOVIES: Visualizing 'V For Vendetta'

Image hosting by PhotobucketDo the ends justify the means? That's the question of "V For Vendetta," which shows us a dark future where America is destroyed and a fascist regime has taken over England. Out of the oppression rises a masked revolutionary, V, who promises to bring back freedom.

Produced by and with a script from the Wachowski brothers (creators of the "Matrix" trilogy) and directed by their longtime collaborator James McTeigue, "V For Vendetta" is probably the most subversive movie to open at #1 at the box office in a good while. It sacrifices some of the intentions of Alan Moore, who wrote the original graphic novel it's based on back in the 1980s, but it still keeps a lot of that seminal work's ideas. Beautifully shot and executed, it's trying to be more than just another action flick.

Image hosting by PhotobucketMoore has disowned the movie, which is a bit of a shame, because it's by far the best of his works made a film. (His name doesn't even get mentioned in the credits, which even though I know it's his fervent wish, feels a bit wrong to me – the man did come up with 90% of the movie's ideas, after all.) This is no "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" abomination – it hits most of the graphic novel's plot points, and feels sincere, striving to be a bit more than your typical action blockbuster. It takes superhero-movie cliches, such as saving the damsel in distress, and twists them in interesting directions — what if the guy who saves the girl is also totally insane?

The Wachowskis and McTeigue have taken Moore and artist David Lloyd's grim fantasia spawned from 1980s Thatcherism (with more than a dash of "1984" and "A Clockwork Orange") and updated it well for modern times. "V for Vendetta" feels timely and raw in a way it wouldn't have in the Clinton years. There's clear parallels to the Bush/Blair war on Iraq, and the questions about how far a population will let fear push them.

Image hosting by PhotobucketNatalie Portman is excellent as Evey Hammond, who goes from shy by-stander to co-revolutionary under V's tutelage. Portman is a fine actress whenever she's not in a George Lucas movie, and her work here – from wallflower to catharsis – is heartbreaking. She plays off Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in "The Matrix), or rather, Weaving's voice, which is all you ever get from the masked V. Weaving wrings a lot out of a character that doesn't even have moving lips, and is a verbose, vivid force of nature as the vicious V.

What doesn't work? Well, the rather dry subplot of a detective investigation seeking V, despite featuring the excellent Stephen Rea as the lead g-man Finch, sucks the air out of the room in several scenes, and a large sprawling government conspiracy added to the movie isn't necessary. And then there's the ending — which I won't spoil for those who haven't seen it, but it's very different from Moore's work. It takes the action to a more populace-based climax, and while it's a different story than Moore's, it still worked for me. It felt true to the movie's more rabble-rousing feeling.

Image hosting by PhotobucketIn general, the Wachowskis sand off some of the deeper edges of Moore's work, making it less internal. V is softened up a bit from the cool, vague visionary of the comics (whenever V starts to show emotion here, it feels tacked on). Many of the plotlines from the book are "Hollywooded" up. The bad guys are all very bad (John Hurt is seedy and demonic as England's future ruler), with few of the human touches Moore gave them, and V is a little too saintly for a mass murderer.

But still, this is a remarkably bold production for a major Hollywood movie. It's devious in that it combines kung-fu "Matrix"-esque action with some deeply progressive thought. Is it irresponsible, in that it lionizes a terrorist with little real debate about what that might mean? Yeah, a little. Having read and dissected the Moore novel – one of my favorites for years – many times, I came to "V for Vendetta" with a little more background than many viewers will. I do wonder if a 15-year-old kid watching it will come out with the wrong ideas. Is it just violence as agent of change, revolution tarted up and made mass-market? I'm still not quite sure.

But in a world where "Big Momma's House 2" and "The Hills Have Eyes" are hits, I'll take what I can get from "Vendetta." It's a vibrant vision.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

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MUSIC: Shoot Out The Lights

Woo hoo! I just bought a ticket for one of my top 10 musicians, Richard Thompson, who's performing in Eugene May 9. Thompson's guitar playing skills are legendary and he's one of the best singer/songwriters out there, yet despite being a fan since '91 or so, I still haven't seen him live. He's apparently doing his fascinating 1000 Years of Popular Music tour, in which he plays a selection of tunes ... well, from the last 10 centuries, from ancient ballads all the way up to Britney Spears (seriously, you have to hear the man's cover of "Oops I Did It Again.") I keep having him play shows near me yet something always blocks me. Finally, I'm going! (Now that just leaves Bowie and Peter Gabriel up near the top of my list of Musicians I Have To See Before They Or Me Die.)

Now if the awesome new RT box set I ordered like a friggin' month ago on eBay would ever arrive, I'd be a happy man...

COMICS: Quick Comic Reviews!

All Marvel comics, all the time! Honestly, I do have fairly diverse comic tastes, but for some reason I'm in a spandex-craving mood lately. Here's a few reviews of recent comix:

Image hosting by PhotobucketAmazing Spider-Man #529. After the colossal mess that was "The Other" crossover, this issue doesn't look so bad. The big deal, of course, is that Spider-Man gets a new high-tech costume this issue courtesy of his bestest friend Iron Man. While obviously the costume is a passing phase, and nowhere near as iconic as the old red-and-blues or even that underrated '80s black costume, it's an interesting development. Writer J.M. Straczynski's run the past five years or so has been all over the map for me; he's written some great stories and also some of the worst Spider-Man stories ever. What I like about this issue is the interesting mentor/student relationship Spidey's forged with Iron Man, not at all what I might have expected out of Spider-Man's membership in the Avengers. While that whole idea's been mixed in execution, at the very least it's offered some new dynamics for the Spider-Man mythos to chew on. Mostly set-up for the upcoming "Civil War" crossover (yep, another one), this issue isn't a classic, but it's promising enough. Grade: B-

Ultimate Spider-Man #91. This book of tales of an "alternate" teenage Spider-Man went through a bad patch a year or so ago with the anticlimatic "Hobgoblin" storyline, but it's back near its peak as of late. This issue kicks off a four-part story introducing "Ultimate Deadpool," but it's mostly an issue about Peter Parker's relationship with the X-Men's Kitty Pryde. Peter's new girlfriend is one of the things that's energized the book, and is a lot of fun (and not feasible in the "real" Marvel universe due to the characters' age difference, but here they're both about 16). Writer Brian Bendis clearly enjoys playing off the idea of Peter dating a fellow superhero, and the banter and wit recapture a lot of what "Ultimate Spider-Man" so much fun in the first place. Still the best ongoing "Spider-Man" title, despite some meandering in the plots. Grade: A-

Image hosting by PhotobucketMs. Marvel #1. It's like 1979 all over again lately, as all the old superheroines from that era are making comebacks. Joining Spider-Woman and She-Hulk in new books is Ms. Marvel, who's always been a good character in search of a decent comic book. This first issue is a solid launch... female superheroes have always walked the line between sex objects and actual heroic characters, and Ms Marvel's stripper-meets-Mardi Gras costume doesn't help matters. Yet writer Brian Reed's got a nice hook, presenting Ms. Marvel as a "B-list" hero who desperately wants to live up to her potential. This issue is mostly set-up along those lines (Ms. Marvel hires a publicist!) but it's got some good crackling dialogue, a nice sense of characterization and eases up on the cheesecake. Plus, slimy aliens The Brood invade! There's a good idea here and it'll be interesting to see if this survives the "curse of the solo female character" comic book – after all, Ms. Marvel's original series back in the day only lasted 25 issues or so. Can Ms. Marvel battle reader indifference? Grade: B

Daredevil #82. OK, so you're a blind superhero whose identity has been revealed and you're going to jail. Just another day in the life of Daredevil. New writer Ed Brubaker kicks off his run here, left in the rather interesting storyline that Brian Bendis, writer for the last five years, wrapped up with. It's an excellent start to a book that had begun to feel a little drawn-out and plodding under Bendis, as good as his work had been. Brubaker and artist Michael Lark bring a claustrophobic dread to this issue, as Matt "Daredevil" Murdock settles into prison life with dozens of men who'd like to kill him. It's "Oz" meets "Batman," and Brubaker's work is wordier, denser and somehow a bit more fulfilling than Bendis' recent scripts - I didn't flip through this issue in three minutes, in other words. He's helped by the fine dark and detailed art of Lark. Where do you go from here, with your main character in jail? Don't know, but I'm keeping "Daredevil" at the top of my reading pile to find out. Grade: A-

Thursday, March 16, 2006

MUSIC: Chieftains, Monkeys and Heads

Admittedly, there are worse fates than having a pile of new CDs you've been desperately meaning to review... But as I clear up the backlog, here's a look at a couple recent reviews I wrote for my second online home at BlogCritics and other ramblings...

The Chieftains, "The Essential Chieftains"
Click hereIf there's a lack of green in your wardrobe, consider loading "The Essential Chieftains" on your iPod this St. Patrick's Day to celebrate your Irish side ... and avoid any unwanted pinches. This new two-CD, sprawling anthology features the best of Ireland's leading band. For novices unsure where to begin with the band's approximately 40 albums over the past four decades, "The Essential Chieftains" is the place to start. This compilation focuses on their work from the 1960s to 2003, collecting for the first time together their work on several different record labels. "The Essential Chieftains" is nicely split into two complementary discs: "The Chieftains' Roots," focusing heavily on more traditional instrumentals, jigs and reels, and Disc 2, "The Chieftains and Friends," which includes collaborations over the years with a cast of all-stars including Sting, Elvis Costello, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Jackson Browne and many more. If you're wanting that classic pipes-heavy, cheery Irish bounce, Disc 1 offers it in spades. Disc 2 has the sound of a slightly tipsy, mad all-star jam that lasts for hours, and the many voices contributing to the Chieftains sound gives it a nicely diverse feel. Particular highlights include Van Morrison's clarion voice on "Shenandoah," Irishwoman Sinéad O'Connor on the magnificently epic "The Foggy Dew," and Skaggs's countrified turn on "Cotton-Eyed Joe." You'll also find The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Béla Fleck and Nanci Griffith popping up on Disc 2. The Chieftains long ago reached beyond Ireland's borders for influences - you'll find guest stars like a Chinese ensemble in a track from 1987's "The Chieftains in China," or a Spanish flavor to the jaunty "Guadalupe," which features guest spots by Los Lobos and Linda Ronstadt. Chieftains aficionados will appreciate the survey of their career this 35-track set offers, but it's perhaps even better for newcomers — who can get a healthy sampling of one of the leading popularizers of world music. (Want the full review? Head over to BlogCritics and read it here)

Arctic Monkeys, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not"
Click hereHype is a two-headed beast. It can bite you as easily as it can help you. Britain's The Arctic Monkeys are Exhibit A in this week's installment of The Hype Show. Their debut CD, "Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not" has gotten enough ink to singlehandedly blacken the entire British Isles. These Monkeys have struck a chord in Britain, where they've become the country's fastest-selling album of all time. In the U.S., not so much -- they debuted at #34 in the first week. The hype probably is leading to a bit of an anti-hype backlash – I mean, NME, Britain's music cheerleader, had a poll of readers who named this album the #5 British album of ALL TIME – greater than any Beatles, Rolling Stones or Who album. Um, yeah, OK. So if you go in with that trivia factoid, you'll probably be disappointed by the Monkeys. But here's the thing – it's a decent CD, full of energy and raw talent. It's nowhere near worthy of the insane hype the British press put on it, of course, but it's a perfectly enjoyable collection of slamming punk-pop songs, taking equal cues from The Sex Pistols, Green Day and Franz Ferdinand to create a gritty, street-level look at being young and foolish in England 2006. It's all launched by crunchy angular guitar riffs, punkish sing-along choruses, and the nasal snarl of frontman Alex Turner's voice. Turner, 19, has that angry teen poet thing down, and his singing is snotty and packed with attitude. Yet there's also a current of sly intelligence running under the Monkeys lyrics. The booklet is filled with grey scenes of their Sheffield hometown, a dull, eternally overcast landscape full of kids with nothing to do. The propulsive first single, "I Bet That You Look Good On The Dance Floor," is full of pogo-worthy guitar licks, while "A Certain Romance" mashes up punk rock with a Kinks-esque look at dreary old England. Will they succeed in America? I can't imagine they'll get beyond cult status, because they feel so very British that the iPod American generation might not identify with them. Yet "Whatever People Say" clearly speaks to a generation of English blokes in the same way that Green Day's epic "American Idiot" is tailor-made for a group of our kids. It may not exactly be novel – it's a brand of the same English angst that's been pimped ever since John and Paul picked up a guitar — but it gets your fingers tapping.

Talking Heads, "Remain In Light" DualDisc remaster
Click hereThe Talking Heads' "Remain In Light" is often considered their finest moment, and 26 years after its original release, it still sounds as fresh and new as it did in 1980. Rhino Records has newly re-released the entire Heads catalogue on DualDisc, in gorgeously clear sound and with bonus tracks and DVD video extras. "Remain In Light" was called the fourth-best album of the 1980s by Rolling Stone magazine. Its fusion of dank jungle rhythms, chirping electronica and fragmented chanting vocals have been influential on bands for years. "Remain In Light" came as producer Brian Eno, singer David Byrne and company were perfecting their mix of angst-ridden danceable pop. Nervous as hell, filled with hooks and innovation, it's a frantic masterpiece — in fact, I'd argue it was their creative peak, as co-writer and producer Eno moved on after this album, and the unique mix of energy was never quite the same in the remaining Heads records. The remastering here is fantastic. The primal African drumbeats that ground the album are crisp and you can hear every lick by the Heads' sterling rhythm section, led by bassist Tina Weymouth and drummer Chris Franz. And then there's the wonderful centerpiece of the album, "Once In A Lifetime." Über-critic Robert Christgau called this "the greatest song Byrne will ever write," and it's hard to argue when it comes to this witty and wise little tune that sounds more relevant to me every passing year, with Byrne's quizzical, stunned refrain: "And you may ask yourself — well ... how did I get here?" What may surprise newcomers to "Remain In Light" is how organically "Once In A Lifetime" grows from the jittery unrest of the entire album. There's also four "unfinished outtakes" on this reissue — "Fela's Riff," "Unison," "Double Groove" and "Right Start." They're kind of like sketches of finished songs, but provide a great insight into the band's creative process. If all you know of the Talking Heads is a handful of great songs, "Remain In Light" is the place to start to get the richer experience. (Want the full review? Head over to BlogCritics and read it here)

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

ETC.: Born in the U.S.A.

Life would be a whole lot easier if we'd invented teleportation by now, don't you think? I mean, for one thing, you wouldn't have to invest 24 hours of flying, driving and driving some more to go to New Zealand, for one thing. Someone needs to get on this, post-haste.

• ITEM! The best thing about coming back from vacation is MAIL, of course. Approximately 15 magazines, a box of comic books, some CDs and DVDs, and the wayward bill or thirty. If you want me, I'll be in my room. Since ostensibly I'm still a comics blogger, I'll try to review some comics later this week too. Oh, and I've got about a half-dozen CD reviews for BlogCritics I need to work on. Vacation is over...

Image hosting by Photobucket• ITEM! Ultra-violent, near-fascistic and frenetic as all hell, "24" is rapidly challenging "Lost" for my favorite drama on television these days. We sat through a mini-marathon catching up on the last several hours of "24" over the weekend, and then watched last night's episode as well. The bloodshed! The brutality! The manliness! Jack Bauer's world is gleefully cartoonish and over-the-top, yet played with utter straightness by the cast, including the incredibly good Kiefer Sutherland (Could anybody else sell the inate lunacy of Jack's 24-hours-o'-mayhem like Sutherland does? The man is fantastic). In the last two episodes alone, we've seen three major cast members killed off as this season's battle with the terrorists hurtles along. All this and the return of '80s stars like Peter "Robocop" Weller, C. Thomas "Soul Man" Howell and Ray "Twin Peaks" Wise! Season 5 might just be the show's best yet, as the producers have managed to balance nonstop movement with a little more human drama and slightly more plausible plots (and thankfully, no more cougar attacks). Gregory Itzin's weasely President Logan is a particular delight. "24" is a thrill ride, one even a softy liberal like me can enjoy despite its rather conservative bent (Torture a suspect? The question isn't whether to or not, but how many fingers Jack Bauer will take off). It's not a world I'd want to live in (and I certainly wouldn't want to work at CTU, the elite counter-terrorism unit that has all the social skills, ego tripping, panic attacks and cliques of your average high school senior class), but it's a great blast to visit for an hour each week.

• ITEM! Cool blogger Bill Sherman did a nifty track-by-track analysis of that hyperbolically titled "Perfect Songs" Volume 1 CD yours truly did a little while back. Thanks for the in-depth look, Bill; I guess you're not down with Eminem, but I'll freely admit the man's an acquired taste!

• ITEM! Happy birthday today to my mother-in-law Sylvia! Sorry we couldn't stay long enough to celebrate, but we had a party in advance; and Peter got no less than FOUR birthday cakes over the past month, so he's happy.

Friday, March 10, 2006

LIFE: Out of the Antipodes

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...Alas, all good vacations must come to an end, and so tomorrow we begin our epic trek from New Zealand back to Oregon (13 hours or so on plane, 3 hours on car, followed by another 8 hours or so in car -- jeepers, that's nearly 24 hours of traveling!). But it's colored by the knowledge that we'll be back here in another 7-8 months or so, Peter and his same-aged cousin Louis will be frolicking on the beach again, and, oh yeah, Avril and I will be looking for gainful employment on the other side of the world. A great adventure it will all be even if we're plagued by second thoughts between now and then.

Hope you few constant readers have enjoyed the blogging from down under. Regular ranting and reviewing to begin again sometime next week after I've recuperated from the immense stress of 3 weeks' vacation time...

LIFE: Brushing up on art

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AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- One of the nice things about this visit to Auckland is that we've gotten to see several of the family art shows. The Siddell family are all acclaimed New Zealand artists (except for Avril, who's the "white sheep" of the family); the house here is crammed with family paintings and sculptures and such. Her father Peter is one of the country's most famous realist artists, while mother Sylvia focuses on still lifes and some quite dramatic colors. Last week we got to attend an opening for Avril's sister Emily, who's a glass artist and does some amazingly impressive installations, the kind of thing that astound you by being really complex and yet elegantly simple at the same time. Emily's partner Stephen Bradbourne also had a nice opening of his own solo show at the gallery at the same time, with his large, color-flecked glass vessels. (Unfortunately things got a bit rowdy with the wine and all and one of these grand pieces met an untimely end on the concrete floor Saturday after a really tragic stumble by one of the guests at the opening. Egad.)

Then yesterday we drove out to the Lopdell House in Auckland's suburbs, which features a cool show called "Bugged" all about insects and contributions from both Peter and Sylvia. And on Monday I went to the Auckland Art Gallery to check out a nice new show, "Art & The '60s from Tate Britain," all kinds of swinging experimental '60s artwork. As I was leaving that show and heading through another part of the gallery, I turn the corner and find another huge painting by my father-in-law on display in the gallery of New Zealand artwork. I can't get away from art around here. It's enough to make a man want to pick up a brush.

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

No time for words as we're off to the zoo this morning, but for those who like the NZ photos, here's a few more from our trip up Te Mata Peak near Napier last weekend, an astounding viewpoint where you can see huge swathes of Hawke's Bay and the surrounding area. The photos don't even come close to capturing the entire view, unfortunately, but they give you an idea...
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Tuesday, March 7, 2006

LIFE: Get some culture

Image hosting by PhotobucketYesterday we had a lot of fun visiting the Auckland International Cultural Festival, just down the road from my in-laws' house. Huge event featuring people of pretty much every variety except Amish, tons of ethnic food, dance and more. Auckland is a hugely diverse city (there are parts of downtown I can walk and swear I'm in an Asian town), and the festival had folks from everywhere - Ethiopia, Finland, Kurdistan, China, Chile...

Sights and sounds abounded, a fine place to just sit and people-watch for a while: Burundian drummers; prayer flags snapping in the wind; happy Sudanese refugee children with Kiwi accents playing at the playground; a buddhist monk walking around in orange robes with a high-tech camcorder strapped to his back; dapper African men wearing "I Love Eritrea" banners; tasty Malaysian satay in peanut sauce for sale, $1 a stick; a South African Zulu woman getting a Polynesian lei from a vendor; Maori kid eating ice cream; gaggles of Chinese kids texting their friends ten feet away on their cell phones; a diminutive Asian man playing an extraordinarily cheesy cover version of Lionel Richie's "Hello" on a pan flute; a booth of the "Auckland Oromian Association" (where is Oromia?!); fantastic Algerian sausage for sale; an Aussie-looking cowboy fellow with a handlebar mustache and shirt open halfway to his navel, displaying a rug of white chest hair; a dolphin balloon floating off into the sky, blonde woman below waving good-bye...

Sunday, March 5, 2006

LIFE: Things That Are Good And Not So Good

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - Ah, the sun is shining in New Zealand and there's a foot of snow at my parents' house in California, so life is grand. Also had a very nice lunch talk with an Auckland couple who are friends of my in-laws. One of them is the former features editor of the country's largest newspaper, The New Zealand Herald, and we had a very positive conversation about NZ journalism jobs which boosted my hopes about finding one here.

Things that are good here:
Peter's festering cold continues to fester, so today we decided to take him to the doctor. All kinds of horrifying long green goopy things keep coming from his nostrils, and it's been more than a week now, and we're flying out next Friday and don't want him to have sinus issues on the flight.
Here is why NZ's health care system is so infinitely better than the tangled corrupt morass we call U.S. health coverage. Avril called the doctor at 10:45 a.m. on a SATURDAY. Got an appointment for 11:15 -- THAT SAME MORNING. She and P walked down to the office, where P was checked out (he was given antibiotics to deal with the infection, and a good going-over), and they were back in time for lunch.
Complete cost of checkup, doctor consultation: $20. That's it. No insurance red tape, no co-pay, arguing with irritating woman on phone about why they won't pay, etc. Prescription: 100% FREE.
Seriously, there's a lot of good things about the U.S., but the cost of health care isn't one of them.

Things that are not so good here:
Man, the things that are nonessential but good in life are expensive here -- books, CDs, DVDs, et cetera. I've known this from prior visits of course, but now that we're moving here it's that much more obvious. Typical costs for a new book, maybe $30NZ, large books up to $50-$80NZ; a new single CD, $30-$35NZ. Yeah, you take into account the NZ exchange rate (currently it's worth about 70¢ to the U.S. greenback) but that's still a good markup from American costs, since we're all the way out here in the lonely antipodes.
Even my beloved comic books take the hit. I found a very nice new comic shop that I hope to be a patron of once we're here, with a great selection of everything from Spider-Man to Optic Nerve, but man, that import do take a bite, don't it? A typical $3 U.S. comic (which is already highway robbery for most comics these days, but I digress) is about $6-7 NZ here; softback TPBs and graphic novels from $30NZ to a staggering $50+ NZ. I don't blame the shops for the cost, it's just part of life here, but I'm definitely going to have to cut my comics obsession to the bone once we're here, from 15 or so titles a month to maybe 8. Just can't afford to do otherwise!
And this is why we're bringing over/shipping so much of our CDs/DVDs/books -- factor in the costs of replacing them here, and it's the cheaper alternative.
Ah well. At least it's sunny today.

Saturday, March 4, 2006

LIFE: It's an Art Deco overload!

AUCKLAND, New Zealand - So a few days, a lot of kilometers and about a zillion sheep later, we're back from our jaunt over to the east coast of North Island to visit Napier and Taupo for a few days. At least one frequent reader has blogged before about this part of the world, and the Hawke's Bay area has been high on my list of places to go that we didn't see in my previous visits to New Zealand. So my in-laws, Avril, Toddler Peter and I hit the highway for a few days of jet-set sightseeing. Napier is a particular highlight of my NZ travels to date -- after a huge earthquake in the 1930s, much of the city was rebuilt in a striking art deco style. I'm a big fan of the art deco design, and Napier was worth the drive.

Anyway, I'm suffering road burn-out and other exhaustions, so I'll just let a few pictures make up for my usual verbosity. Napier boasts some amazing buildings -- they all look like they just came out of a 1940's "Superman" animated cartoon! Enjoy the deco overload and I'll try writing real words again soon.
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Wednesday, March 1, 2006

LIFE: Read it in the papers

So in theory when we move here to New Zealand later this year, I'll have to get a job. I've been kind of avoiding that topic because there's so much else involved with becoming an expatriate that I've got to worry about, and I can't work anyway until I get residency, which will probably happen 3-4 months after we arrive for good. But the question remains, what will yours truly do? Unfortunately I'm not in one of these "highly skilled" professions there's a demand for here, i.e. medicine or computers. Journalism here is somewhat different than the U.S., although the basic similarities remain. But the newspapers definitely take a more British "tabloidy" tone with the news:

Image hosting by PhotobucketYou'd have to read about halfway into this grim story to learn the stabbings occurred in Asia, not downtown Auckland. Not that that mediates their awfulness, but it does show a fundamentally different approach in coverage to our staid -- sometimes dull -- middle American approach. The NZ papers are closest in kin to New York City's fiery New York Post and other tabs, I think. It's an approach I wonder if I can fit in with, although I'm adaptable.

Image hosting by Photobucket They definitely sensationalize a bit more here -- why have a traffic jam when you can have "Road Rage Chaos In Jam From Hell", as a headline a few weeks back said? Or take this gem from Sunday's paper, at right. Of course, the story is actually about a bird whose neck was snapped, traumatizing an entire family of kiwis: "An Auckland couple have accused the owner of Ngatea cafe of snapping the neck of a sparrow sitting on the cafe's windowsill and dumping it in a plastic bag in the freezer." Definitely unpleasant, but the headline kind of gives you a rather different impression than bird-icide, doesn't it?

There's also an excellent magazine industry here in Auckland that boasts several fine 'zines I wouldn't mind working for if the opportunity presented itself... Of course, for all I know, I won't be able to get a journalism job anyway, and end up doing magic tricks for nickels in front of a fish-and-chip shop.