Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The eternal sickness

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketYe gods, it never ends. Despite this being, weather-wise, one of the better winters we've experienced in years, feels like there's been at least one person in the house sick constantly these past 6 weeks or so. And most of the time it's been poor Peter. I'd always heard that when a kid started going to day care or school or whatever, he'd pick up a lot of bugs, but I swear, our (otherwise very nice) day care ought to be declared a biohazard unit with all the germs P's been grabbing since he started there last month. These past four days or so have been the worst yet. He started Saturday with a fever that just continued throughout the weekend, reducing our usually hyper little monkey to a zombie Peter who stared vacantly into space. When we took him to the doctor yesterday turned out he had a temperature of 104 F! He's now on various antibiotics treating his ear infection and was already looking a lot better last night. (And thank god again for that nearly-free medical care!)

I know this is all part and parcel of parenthood, and he certainly could have been a lot sicker, so we're grateful he'll be OK. Now that we're both working we get to balance it all – Avril took time off yesterday and the grandparents have been helping out, while today I'm working a late shift to mind the boy during the day. Hopefully he can return to day care tomorrow (and catch the next virus in line, sigh...)

Parents out there – it gets better, right? Or at least less sickly?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

He yam what he yam: Popeye is back

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOK, Popeye the Sailor Man is no spring chicken - he's 78 years old now. He's still strong to the finish because he eats his spinach, but admittedly, his days as a major cultural creative power are gone. He's a cartoon icon like Mickey Mouse – famous, but you're darned if you can remember what for exactly.

Well, all you need to do to learn what made Popeye world-famous is pick up the absolutely amazing new DVD set Popeye The Sailor Vol. 1: 1933-1938. Over four jam-packed discs, you'll find a platoon of the still-dazzling cartoons that drew in huge crowds nearly 70 years ago. These were some of the most popular cartoons ever made, spun out of the "Thimble Theatre" newspaper comic by E.C. Segar. Segar created Popeye as a throwaway character in 1929, but the rough-and-ready, hard-fighting, loyal and stubborn sailor man soon took over the whole strip. Segar's spunky 'toons have their own kind of populist genius, but it was the screen cartoons by the Fleischer brothers Max and Dave that made Popeye a global sensation. (Heck, a poll of theater owners back in the 1930s showed the sailor was even more popular than his big cartoon rival, Mickey Mouse.)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFleischer Studios' cartoons were some of the earliest animation creations, and their work still looks great today. The animators experimented with the possibilities of cartoons, packing every frame with gags, surreal action and slapstick. The new DVD set collects the first 60 cartoons by the Fleischers, all cleaned up and restored, but even more important, there's a wealth of special features here.

This set has been called "the best animation package ever put out on DVD" by comics writer and historian Mark Evanier. It's a cornucopia of material not just on the sailor man, but on the early days of animation in general, and it offers weeks of viewing. Many of the shorts feature commentary by animation experts and even a few surviving artists who worked on the films. There are two major documentaries, one a look at the creation and history of Popeye on film, one on the roots of animation from 1900 to 1920. You've even got mini-documentaries on everything from the use of music in the shorts to Olive Oyl's femininity (in a short marvelously titled, "Me Fickle Goyl, Olive Oyl: The World's Least Likely Sex Symbol"). As if all that wasn't enough, several dozen primitive pre-Popeye animated shorts dating back to 1915 are included as bonuses -- raw cartoons more interesting as time capsules now, true, but still a fascinating look at where the medium began, and how far it came in just 15 years or so.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOf course, all 60 of these toons follow a rote basic plotline - Popeye encounters bad guy (usually Bluto), has fight, nearly loses until pulling out that magical can of spinach, cue thrilling music, final battle, roll credits. But it's the endless variations on this theme and the cunning artistry involved that make these animations so timeless. The figures quiver and dance, and the backgrounds are filled with endless sight gags. It's all a reminder that while hand-drawn animation seems a bit quaint these days, there's a homespun depth to it that modern stuff rarely has. It's all invested with the sense of novelty that these early animation pioneers must've felt -- they churned out one of these shorts every MONTH for years and yet they rarely cut corners and constantly came up with new ideas. It's all steeped in the gritty reality of the urban Depression years, somehow giving these outrageous cartoons a sense of reality that the more sanitized Disney product sometimes lacked. (Of course, there's a down side to the era, shown in the occasional dated politically incorrect short, such as the ones where Popeye beats up "red Indians.")

The shorts really start to come into their own when the gruff and growling Billy Costello was replaced by Jack Mercer, who became the voice of Popeye for nearly 50 years. Mercer added a great deal of charm to Popeye through his muttering asides and grouchy wit. And of course, with quirky, hilarious supporting characters like Olive Oyl, the crude Bluto, mooching Wimpy and infant Swee'Pea, there were plenty of personalities for Popeye to play off of in the cartoons.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe remastering is stunning. All but two of the shorts are black and white, but you'll barely notice, the images are so alive. Particularly amazing are the three-dimensional backgrounds created by the Fleischers' "Stereoptical" process, the details of which were long lost in previous muddy video releases. Two color "feature length" (or 20-minute) cartoons, "Popeye The Sailor meets Sindbad The Sailor" and "Popeye The Sailor Meets Ali Baba's 40 Thieves," are also included. The colors on these pop right off the screen.

It's a shame it all had to end – during World War II, Fleischer Studios shut down (but not before also producing some legendary "Superman" cartoons as well). Popeye continued to romp through tales by Paramount and other studios, but they lacked that special combination of humor and invention that these earliest adventures had. By the 1970s, there was some truly dire material being pumped out with the Popeye name on it. It's a shame – because although they're nearly a century old, the material in these toons is still fresh and vital. If you wonder why Popeye became a household name, there's 60 cartoons' worth of reasons right here.

If you're any kind of fan of animation, Popeye or, heck, even spinach, this set is a must-have. It's one of the best DVD collections I've ever seen and a model for re-presenting vintage material with all the bells and whistles our modern era can sum up.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

“I just get sleepy when I read"

Ah yeah, work work work, now I remember what that's like. I know I haven't written much about the new job yet, but that's because it's constantly in flux, and I've been kind of learning a gazillion things every day. The nature of a start-up means it's always changing and so what I'm doing now I won't be doing a month from now, and so forth. I have gotten to design several pages for NZ's flagship paper The New Zealand Herald so that's been cool. Adjusting to the working life too after nearly a year out of the trenches has been tougher than I thought, too, and I'm missing the heck out of Peter of course. It's hard to know when to shut down and I keep having dreams of obscure computer command codes. Yeesh. Anyway, it's all a curious and action-packed environment and I will write more about it eventually when I figure out exactly what it is I have to say.

But anyway, this story about our non-reading habits just depressed me so much I had to blog two bits about it. Too many Americans don't like to read, do they? New Zealand actually has a pretty amazingly book-happy society (especially considering how damned expensive books are here), but of course like anywhere else there's a hefty non-reading population too I imagine. I just don't get it myself -- books have been like air for me since I was 6 years old or so. I'm constantly reading something, and usually manage 6-9 books a month. I actually get a bit jittery, like a caffeine withdrawal, when I don't have a book I'm currently reading. Wish more people out there were reading. All the arguments about "I don't have any time to read" don't really hold up when most people have no problem finding the time to veg out for 2-3 hours a night in from of the ol' telly, do they? Go read a book, people!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Concert review: Ryan Adams, Auckland, Aug. 16

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...If Ryan Adams ever writes an autobiography, it oughta be called "Beautiful but Frustrating." That's kind of how I felt after an often-stellar, but sometimes fumbled show during Ryan's first appearance in New Zealand. Ryan Adams has been putting out a prolific slide of country/rock albums for years now; his 2002 masterwork Gold is right up there on my top albums of the '00s list. But drug addiction, a fiery temper and other problems have nearly derailed his career. (A recent New York Times article about the newly sober Ryan was titled "Ryan Adams didn't die. Now the real work begins.") He's cleaned up now and back with one of his best discs, the mellow and tuneful Easy Tiger.

But I have to admit Ryan's dubious live reputation – fights with the audience, etc. – left me a little uncertain about seeing him up at a nice little intimate theater in Auckland's North Shore. The band, The Cardinals, was fantastic, and Ryan proved he can sing and play guitar with the best of them. His folksy anthems were spun out into sprawling psychedelic Americana gems – it was a bit like an Allman Brothers show spliced with a hint of Replacements.

And when Ryan and the band were on, they were on fire – I was knocked out by a lengthy jam on "Magnolia Mountain," a Grateful Deadsian ode that might just be my favorite Adams song. "Goodnight Rose" off his latest got a fantastic take, and older tunes like "Beautiful Sorta" and "Cold Roses" also were great. I really liked him digging up a revamped version of "Is This It" from his underrated '80s rock homage Rock N Roll.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBut a slack performance ethic marred it for me – I can understand taking a break after the first two songs to fix what appeared to be technical difficulties, but then another 15-minute break after only 40 minutes or so of music (apparently to take a cigarette break) really killed some of the momentum for me. Then, because the venue has a curfew, there was no encore when the show wrapped up – which they could've done if they'd only started on time and hadn't taken all those breaks. Ah well. It was interesting comparing it to Bob Dylan, who I saw Saturday – his show was far more professional and polished, although I have to admit Ryan trumped Dylan in soulful passion.

But what really irked me about Ryan's concert was the hideous lighting, something I've never had to complain about for a rock concert. For most of the show the stage was bathed in this awful blue-black hue that made everything obscured in shadow. It got a little better but this artistic decision meant we spent most of the show watching Ryan and his band trying to actually see Ryan and his band. People were actually shouting from the balcony to turn the lights up, but no avail. I just don't get why Adams doesn't want the audience to see him play. (I had to compare him afterwards to the superb opening act, Kiwi singer Anika Moa, who was totally awesome, funny and engaged with the audience. And she had the best ad-lib of the night, "I'd knock you out with one tit, mate." Guess you had to be there.)

If it sounds like I'm moaning, it's because this nonsense turned what could've been a great show into a merely quite good one. (And that fantastic take on "Magnolia Mountain" is still ringing in my ears.) Adams is still one of my favorite current musicans and a man of immense talent. It's just a little frustrating, is all.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Life totally sucks sometimes department

Sad, sad and shocking news to learn comics artist Mike Wieringo died suddenly of a heart attack yesterday at only 44 years old. "Ringo" was one of my favorite current comics artists, a prolific blogger and by all accounts one of the nicest guys in the biz. His runs on "Fantastic Four," "The Flash," "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" and most recently the great little "Spider-Man/Fantastic Four" series with Jeff Parker were old-school comics fun at their best - I loved his rubbery, expressive and clean style, which could manage dark when it was called for but was best at creating a sense of wonder and adventure. What a terrible piece of news to wake up to and my condolences to his family. RIP.
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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Concert review: Bob Dylan, Auckland, Aug. 11

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketAt 66 years old, Bob Dylan ought to be a little silly up there still playing "Blowing In The Wind." How many artists his age still seem really relevant? When was the last time a new Rolling Stones album blew you away?

But at his show last night in Auckland, Bob showed us, as he put it in a line from "Spirit In the Water" that drew big applause,
"You think I'm over the hill / You think I'm past my prime
Let me see what you got / We can have a whoppin' good time."

What a great fun show for the sold-out crowd of 10,000 people in Vector Arena. I had fantastic seats, just 30-40 meters from the stage. Bob tromped out on stage looking like a southern revivalist preacher, all clad in black and croaking in his authoritative reedy whine, which has just gotten more rutted and furrowed with the years (part of the fun of seeing Dylan live is seeing how long it takes you to figure out what song he's singing). He's backed by an outstanding band that's highly polished but never too showy, and Dylan himself takes turns on guitar and keyboard.

The only other time I saw Dylan live was in 1990 in Mississippi, and it was a disappointment to me, mostly because I barely knew who Dylan was and only had one of his greatest hits albums. His raggedy voice and terrible acoustics in the venue rendered most of his songs unlistenable and I didn't really get all the fuss.

Nearly 20 years on, I'm a converted Dylan fan and his quirks became endearing to me when I finally saw him live for a second time. His "never-ending tour" has been going on for years and one of the reasons Dylan can just keep playing his songs over and over is that he subtly reinvents them every night. They rarely sound the same way twice, apparently.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThere were a lot of highlights in the set, and stuff from his excellent 2006 album Modern Times shone particularly brightly, especially a hushed "Nettie Moore" and a romping version of "Rollin' And Tumblin'" that sounded like Muddy Waters meets Robert Johnson. I loved a stretched-out, still-passionate "Just Like A Woman" and the stomping, nearly psychedelic take on "Highway 61 Revisited." His "Wonder Boys" soundtrack song "Things Have Changed" was an emotional high point (and the Academy Award he won for that tune was resting quietly on one of the amps). The epic "Desolation Row" was a real pleasure to hear live, too, even if some wanker who thought he was at a rugby match tried to rush the stage during it. The stark "Masters of War" received a hypnotic rendition, the stage all bathed in crimson light, and as an encore "All Along The Watchtower" had a fierce power to it. I was a little bummed by his "Tangled Up In Blue," as one of my favorite Dylan lyrics got a rushed take that jumbled up the classic melody, and Dylan zipped through the intricate lines like an auctioneer.

If you were expecting lots of stage patter and Bob cracking Joan Baez jokes, don't bother – the only time he broke away from the music was to introduce the band on the second-to-last song. And that was cool – it kept the element of Bob the mystic, down here to entertain us mere mortals.

Set list, courtesy of the most excellent web site that features everything you wanted to know about Bob's tours:
1. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
2. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
3. Watching The River Flow
4. Just Like A Woman
5. Rollin' And Tumblin'
6. When The Deal Goes Down
7. Things Have Changed
8. Tangled Up In Blue
9. Spirit On The Water
10. Highway 61 Revisited
11. Desolation Row
12. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)
13. Nettie Moore
14. Summer Days
15. Masters Of War

16. Thunder On The Mountain
17. All Along The Watchtower

Thursday, August 9, 2007

No Elvis, Beatles or the Rolling Stones in 1977 (Part 2)

Righto, here's the second half of my look at my favorite 10 albums from the great music of 1977, thirty years ago this year when we all were riding Big Wheels and listening to Abba on our 8-tracks. Or something like that. Anyway, here's #6-10:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket6. Television, Marquee Moon. A combination of jaggedy punk shards and freewheeling jam band guitar, this album is one of those stunning debuts '77 laid claim to. Yet Television as a band barely did anything notable after this. But wow, those guitars – it's kind of like if the Ramones were crossed with the Grateful Dead – rough lyrics, wheedling vocals and abrupt swerves in tone, spread out by some of the finest guitar solos you'll ever hear. I'm not a huge "guitar solo man" – I don't particularly care for Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Joe Satriani, I have to admit – but man, the way Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd's strings crash, bash and duel each other over tunes like "Friction," "Marquee Moon" and "Elevation" makes me dizzy, every time I listen to it. Punk proves it can be great musicianship.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket7 and 8. Iggy Pop, The Idiot, Lust For Life. Just like David Bowie, Iggy Pop had an amazing 1977 musically, releasing two classic albums – which were actually produced and co-written with Bowie (I don't imagine Bowie slept much in '77). Some say Iggy was Bowie's puppet for these albums, some say Bowie was merely helping out a friend who was down and out after his riotous Stooges career. Either way, it's pretty much the best non-Stooges stuff Iggy's ever done, with classic tracks like "Nightclubbing," "Fun Time" and "The Passenger," not to mention that amazingly decadent tune, "Lust For Life." Bowie's chilled style meets Iggy's seedy charisma and comes up a winner.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket9. Kraftwerk, Trans-Europe Express. I like to think of Kraftwerk as "driving music." (Maybe it's their famous song "Autobahn.") The template for everyone from Moby to Coldplay, strangely soothing and authoritative. Unlike some of their other work I've heard, here the Krauts of Kraftwerk craft real songs with catchy melody, yet steeped in that oily machine-like precision they so excel at. "Europe Endless" and "Trans-Europe Express" now feel both retro and futuristic at the same time, while songs like "Showroom Dummies" and "Hall of Mirrors" gaze with a merciless eye on the question of identity and reality. Yet the music never gets so lost in the abstract that it fails to engage you emotionally.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket10. Talking Heads, 77. So jittery and nervous it's like being dipped in raw caffeine, the debut album from the Heads isn't quite as funky and experimental as their later work, but it makes up for that in tense showmanship. There's something curiously askew about songs like "Psycho Killer" and "Uh Oh , Love Comes To Town," a sense that David Byrne is about ready to explode with repressed energy. The new wave starts here.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977 (Part 1)

Everywhere I turn lately, I see references to the thirtieth anniversary of things that happened in 1977 – the release of "Star Wars," the beginning of the personal computer, Elvis died, etc. It's weird enough for me to be alive and actually be able to remember 30 years ago, although at age 6 I wasn't much of a pop culture consumer (I vaguely recall Jimmy Carter's teeth, looming over all, and watching a lot of "Sesame Street").

But oddly enough, I've been listening to more music that was made in 1977 than anything else. In fact, most of the music that's been really grabbing me lately seems to have been in that broad "post-punk" era made between 1975 to 1983 or so. I'm living retro. '77 was an amazing year, though. If I wasn't in first grade at the time, I would've been rocking out hard.

Here's a two-part look at my 10 favorite albums from 1977. There were a lot of fine albums from 1977, and some didn't quite make the cut – notably, The Clash's first album is superb by any standard (and of course the song "1977" is where I stole my subject header from today), Wire's "Pink Flag" is razor-sharp punk power incarnate, and Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" is near-perfect pop, but these are the ones that grabbed me the most.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPhoto Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket1. and 2. David Bowie, Low and "Heroes". What an extraordinary year for David Bowie fans '77 was. "Low" is pretty much not just one of the best albums Bowie ever did, but one of the best anyone ever recorded – thirty years on, it still sounds strangely "other," as if it were transmissions from Venus or something. The way the songs bleed over the course of the album from traditional verse-chorus-verse structure into a zone where there's no words, only language-less voices, the chilly vibe Brian Eno added to the music, the sensation that you're heading into unknown territories – most "experimental" artists would give their eyeteeth to make an album as strikingly new as this. "Heroes" doesn't get quite the same acclaim, but it's just as good, and that title track might just be the finest anthem of Bowie's career.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket3. Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True. I did a story a few years back where I profiled the drummer on this album, a guy who calls himself "Mmicky Shine," believe it or not. One of the coolest parts of interviewing this rather distracted hippie-type guy was seeing a gold record of "My Aim Is True" hung high on the wall of his loft. This debut – another winner in a year full of first albums – didn't feature the Attractions, but a side band called Clover that actually ended up with Huey Lewis and the News. Anyway, while some of Elvis' later albums were more refined, I always had a soft spot for this debut, which is far more cynical and cruel than the Sex Pistols could imagine. Tunes like "Alison," "Blame It On Cain," and "Mystery Dance" are like daggers in song form. Amazing stuff and still one of my favorite discs.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket4. The Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks. Speaking of the Sex Pistols – Punk rock turned into parody about five minutes on, really, but the Pistols still have a corrosive, shambling charm. They couldn't play, Johnny Rotten screamed more than sang, and the Ramones really did punk far better. No matter – this still is a blistering manifesto about nihilism, even in an era where "Anarchy In The UK" is probably being used to sell cars somewhere. Take a listen to the abortion-themed song "Bodies" – the Pistols are still shocking today. They only had one album in them, and really, for this kind of music, that sounds just about right.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket5. Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel (1). Peter Gabriel's first post-Genesis solo album is a bit of a trial run – his formula wouldn't be fully worked out until his third album. But this one is full of an artist exploring himself, trying out new hats and new ideas, and it boasts one of Gabriel's most utterly lovely songs, the goodbye-to-the-past anthem "Solisbury Hill." Art-rock like "Moribund the Burgermeister" (it just sounds like a Yes song, doesn't it?) mixes with lovely ballads like "Humdrum," rock like "Modern Love" and strange experiments like the barbershop-quartet lark "Excuse Me." Gabriel would mature into an incredible artist, but he'd never quite be so playful again.

(Next up: #6-10 on my top albums of 1977 countdown!)

Saturday, August 4, 2007

There is nothing wrong with your set

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket...Ah, yes, the blog. I'm still deep in training for my new job, and it's been a bit like going to journalism boot camp (learning new computer system, new editing system, new styles, etc). I'm enjoying it a lot but my brain is basically spinning with information. Next week we'll start moving from theory into practice and actually putting out newspapers. What little free time I've got is spending time with the family – who've all been sick as dogs the past couple weeks, too. (Avril and the boy are actually on antibiotics right now.) It's been a bit like living in a M*A*S*H unit. So far I've dodged the illness bullet mostly, although in the very act of typing these words I've likely contracted the plague. So it goes. I'll attempt an actual post sometime soon.