Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wednesday miscellany

Random note-type stuff....

PhotobucketBen Chapman is dead. Who, you say? The giant man who played the Creature in one of my all-time favorite '50s monster mashes, The Creature From The Black Lagoon (he was the gill-man on land -- another actor played him in the swimming scenes). Sure, he just marched along in a rubber suit making menacing movements, perhaps, but there's something primal and creepy about the Creature that made the movie more resonant than many others of its ilk. I long ago wrote about my curious adoration of this funky flick, and just want to salute the grand master of the gills for freaking out many a child over the past 50 years.

Garfield without Garfield. Existential awesomeness. David Lynch meets fat cat jokes.

• Owning a house requires being handy! Today's installment is repainting the flaking and nasty ceiling in the boy's bedroom. Which requires scraping off old paint, sanding it down (all whilst standing on a ladder bending my spine in curious directions), then painting it only to discover the big patchy spots where I scraped the paint off still show. Spackle, coat three, continue as necessary. Sigh.

• All praise New Zealand its mandatory four weeks annual vacation for employees! The using of some of which means that for the first time in nearly two years, I'm a-headin' back to the United States. Not for another six months, yep, but we got a good deal on tickets this weekend and so Peter and I (sadly sans the good wife, who will mind the homestead and save us a fair amount of money) will jet to California for 2 1/2 weeks in August. My god, how will my country have changed in the past 20 or so months? ...Well, probably not too much, eh?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Book review: "Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks
from the Wild Web"

PhotobucketA book full of blogs? How mainstream media (MSM, of course) is that? Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks From The Wild Web attempts to do the nigh-impossible – summing up millions of blogs through just 30 or so samples. Editor Sarah Boxer, the first web critic for The New York Times, has certainly set her sights high.

But once you get past the general MSM ethos of such a project, Ultimate Blogs is actually quite a fun little sampler of the vast blogosphere. Boxer's task is not unlike trying to catalogue an entire beach from a bucketful of sand, and there's no way she could have the "perfect" summation of blogs here. That said, there's only a couple of excerpts I felt were missed opportunities, and notably, she turned me on to several enjoyable sites I've added to my own blogroll.

PhotobucketShe's kind of caught between appealing to the audience that doesn't know a blog from a vlog and those that are longtime blogging fans. Her introduction may be a bit general for some, but I enjoyed her take: blogs are "conversational and reckless ... public and private, grand and niggling, smart-assed and dumb-assed." A blog anthology by its very nature precludes some inclusions – dated entries don't translate, so many political blogs don't make the cut, and neither do entries heavy on links and video. Instead, perhaps appropriately for a former NY Times employee, the quality of the written word is what sets the bar. Just like any other medium, the vast majority of blogs won't win any awards, but there are hundreds of beautifully written online journals and essays out there to choose from. (Hey, wait a minute, how come she didn't think of me?)

There are some great blogs included here, such as the hilarious latin-lover parody El Guapo in DC (sadly defunct now), the expatriate's tale How To Learn Swedish In 1000 Difficult Lessons, or the quirky art projects of Ironic Sans. Heck, I even enjoyed head-spinning takes on physics with Cosmic Variance or a gung-ho Marine's war tales in Midnight In Iraq.

The animation creations of, however, don't translate to page very well, for instance. A few of the blogs here like Get Your War On's clip-art comic strips or The Smoking Gun are so overexposed already that you wonder if more obscure blogs lost their spot to give them more ink.

But you could nitpick a book like this forever, and Boxer really does do a good job of showing what's out there on the wild web. It's got a god-awful bland cover and I'm not nuts about that straining-to-be-hip title (what about "Blog World" or somesuch?), but for the low price and over 300 pages of blog entries, Ultimate Blogs is far better than you might expect and even longtime bloggers might just find something new. Not bad for the MSM, eh?

*First published at the online magazine

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Music you should dig: The Mountain Goats

PhotobucketOne of my favorite bands I've discovered in the last five years or so are the wonderful Mountain Goats. Singer John Darnielle is one of the most unique voices in the business, kind of like a combination of Bob Dylan, Robyn Hitchcock and a guy you see mumbling poems to himself in the back of the bus. The Mountain Goats are basically Darnielle with a handful of buddies; the band started off with Darnielle recording low-fi confessional acoustic rambles on a guitar on a boom box, and he's since moved into lusher fuller sounds with his more recent albums. His reedy quiver of a voice might catch you off guard, but he draws you in with his elaborate tableaus of monsters, freaks and lovable skateboarding losers, painting even the most ordinary of scenes with a kind of gangly beauty.

None less an authority than The Guardian calls him one of the best lyricists in music today, and it's hard to argue. He's funny, heartbreaking and does maddeningly brilliant turns of phrase. One of my favorites is the early tune "The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton":

The best ever death metal band out of denton
were a couple of guys, who'd been friends since grade school.
one was named cyrus, and the other was jeff.
and they practiced twice a week in jeff's bedroom.

The best ever death metal band out of denton
never settled on a name.
but the top three contenders, after weeks of debate,
were satan's fingers, and the killers, and the hospital bombers.

This is a band with song titles like "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent," "Game Shows Touch Our Lives," "International Small Arms Traffic Blues" and "The Fall Of The Star High School Running Back."

Which brings me to the reason for my post, checking out the new Mountain Goats video! This video just blows me away - I rarely watch music videos anymore in the post-MTV era, but it shows you can still do something creative with a very lyrics-based performer. Enjoy "Sax Rohmer #1" from the new Mountain Goats disc "Heretic Pride":

Best of all, the Mountain Goats are coming to Auckland for a show in April, and you can bet the wife and I will be there in the front row. Go Goats!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy Birthday, Peter!

Photobucket...Four years ago today, we made ourselves a little boy! Now he is a mighty four-year-old and the baby days are rapidly fading into the past...

But heck, it's been a fantastic adventure and he is truly my favorite person in all the world. Happy birthday, Peter!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Concert review: Sonic Youth, Auckland, Feb. 16

You know you're getting older when you wear ear plugs through an entire concert, but heck, that's Sonic Youth for you. The high priests of New York art-punk rock came back to New Zealand last night for an awesome performance of their entire 1988 masterpiece "Daydream Nation" for the Don't Look Back concert series. And they were loud, of course, because they're Sonic Youth, and they were amazing.

PhotobucketI've seen Sonic Youth three times now (Berkeley 1999, Seattle 2002) and this was the best gig yet, in an intimate theater where we scooped up incredible seats just above the raging mosh pit crowd and with perfect views of the band. Heck, I even managed to survive having gotten up to work at 5 a.m. that day and having a head cold.

The thing about Sonic Youth is people either love 'em or hate 'em. They live out at the fringes between noise and music, skating along the edges and remaining the prototypical "cool art band" and inspiring everything from grunge to the avant-garde. They've been playing their angular, dense guitar epics for nearly 30 years (!!) now and lead guitarist Thurston Moore and bassist Kim Gordon are still the sexiest rock couple in the biz. Gangly Moore, all floppy red hair, bashful grin and arms, is easily in my top five guitarists of all time list. The man produces an utterly distinctive sound, tuning his guitar in unique ways, rippling and dreamlike, surging from astounding beauty to acid-harsh clattering within the same chords.

PhotobucketAnd of course Kim Gordon, even at 50-something, is still the coolest rock chick you ever saw, swaying along in her uninhibited dances, pounding the bass like it was a drum. Awesome second guitarist Lee Ranaldo and drummer Steve Shelley complete the combination. Particuarly great were stomps through "Daydream" tracks "Eric's Trips" and "Kissability," and a lengthy two encores which included a bunch of their more recent work. Plus they pulled a goofy hysterical fanboy on stage and gave him hugs. Sonic Youth are arty, but they also just seem like kinda nice guys.

And while the earplugs seemed a wee bit nerdy, they didn't filter out my enjoyment of the tunes at all and I have to admit my ears aren't ringing at all today. This year's awesome summer concert season in Auckland continues – next up, Cat Power March 4!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ack, I've been podcasted! It's a blog crossover!

PhotobucketFor the three of you who thought, gosh, I wonder what Spatula Forum would sound like, it's your lucky day – yesterday, I bopped on up to Auckland's North Shore and sat down with fellow American expat Arthur for his weekly podcast, AmeriNZ. Arthur's been down under more than a decade and I find his podcast and blog always provide fascinating perspectives on NZ and American life. It was great to finally "put a face to the blog" so to speak and get together, and of course he cornered me for a segment, which you can listen to right here or download here. He's also available on iTunes and of course you can get the show from his own blog too. Think that covers all the bases.

I'm sure I sound like a total doofus, of course, and my stumbling and inarticulate answers to Arthur's thoughtful queries will make for very amusing listening. Arthur and I talk about my experiences in NZ, 18 months or so in, my likes and dislikes so far, and my book as well. It was good fun to rant on the Internets in a different format than the blog, so give it a listen, and thanks again Arthur for the soapbox!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Solace in the sickness

...Urgh, I say, urgh. Stumbling back to normalcy after a wicked case of the dreaded lurgy that I caught from the boy, leaving me a fetal mess for several days. I didn't leave the house for about 60 hours, so I guess I got a mini vacation. Fortunately I had some things to keep me company in the illness. Nice things to have around when you're sick:

PhotobucketCat Power's sultry new disc of covers and et cetera, Jukebox. If there's a sexier singer going these days, I don't wanna hear it. Cat Power's mint juleps-and-summer sweat voice has developed into a powerhouse of song, and right from the get-go, Jukebox envelops you in a warm mood as she takes covers by Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell and more and makes them her own. It gets off on the right foot with a delicious take on Frank Sinatra's "New York" and is fine company on a rainy night.

• The "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" DVD marathon continued merrily into Season 4, and so I'm nearly at the halfway point of my goal to watch the entire series. May I just say, who rocks harder than Spike? No one rocks harder than Spike, that's who. And the all-silent episode "Hush" may just be in the contention for the single best (and creepiest) episode of "Buffy" by the time I finish the whole friggin' series, in 2011...

Photobucket• Nothing better than reading old comic books when you're sick, and digging out my copies of the classic 1950s EC Comics collections is the way to go. Specifically, I spent much time re-reading the short-lived series "Piracy," which pretty much mined the genre for all it's worth and is a heck of a lot better than Johnny Depp running around fighting squids. Fantastic art by Wally Wood and company, and plentiful use of keelhauling as a plot device. Yarrrrr!

• Why can't you buy a decent canned chicken soup in New Zealand, anyways?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The boy, 3 years, 51 weeks

Photobucket...Peter's favorite phrase these days is "I love you," which never gets tiresome to hear. (Even when he's using it as a shield; i.e., "Who took out all the DVDs?" "I love you, Daddy.") It's hard to believe sometimes he's going to be 4 years old in just a week or so, that the baby days are well and truly over and ohmigod, he starts school in one year's time (kids start when they turn 5 years old here). He's in this phase right now where he constantly has to check that we love him and remind us he loves us. There are worse phases, of course.

One of the hardest parts of being a Dad for me has always been enjoying the "Here and Now," as I constantly find myself wondering what will become of the boy when he's older, what kind of boy/teen/man he'll be. I have a wonderful day with him playing squirt gun wars and hanging at the beach but in the back of my mind, I'm worrying he'll get in a car wreck when he's 16 because of something I failed to teach him now. I know, parenting is mostly worry. Last night I was helping him vomit into a bowl over some 24-hour flu bug, Tuesday he came home from day care with a big gash on his forehead he got chasing after some girl, today he put on a puppet show for me. You cross your fingers and try not to freak out, like, every second for the rest of your life.

I guess I'll do what I can, and store up all these "I love yous" for the not-too-distant day when he'll be aghast at the notion of affection between us and far too cool to tell his Daddy that. Meantime, I love you too, boy.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super duper Tuesday

...I know, more American politics! What can I say -- it's a pretty fascinating year for us presidential politics junkies, and the biggest primary election day in history -- a de facto early national election, almost -- is fascinating to observe. My vote for Mr. Obama is already in the hands of California registrars, but I don't have a clue how it will all shake down. It's a numbers game now, for the first time in a couple decades. I like it. I like that we don't have a "preordained" nominee from either party for once, and that there's a bit of a tussle going on over ideas and the future of my homeland. McCain seems to have it more sewn up on the GOP side, although the conservatives are still giving him hell. Obama and Clinton, it's hard to tell. Clinton definitely has the bigger name, but the thing about Obama seems to be the more the average voter learns about him, the better he does.

There's a lot of terrible campaign writing out there (honestly, if I hear one more commentator remark on Clinton showing a hint of emotion as veiled criticism, I'll yank his byline myself). But there's good too, and here's just a bit I've seen today I like:

The always enjoyable Independent on the return of John McCain.

A great expose of the world of "Hillary Haters," the folks that take their dislike to bizarre, pathological extremes.

A nice piece by one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon, on why he's voting Obama.

And to cap it all off, the man himself in a great excerpt from his fine book "The Audacity of Hope." Read Barack Obama's words.

And here's a little YouTube. This blog is officially politically biased! (In case anyone had doubts.)

And of course, if you're in one of the Super Tuesday states today, for the luvva god, VOTE!

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Movies: "No Country For Old Men"

PhotobucketFinally, the movies get Cormac McCarthy right. "No Country For Old Men" at long last made it down to this part of the world, and it lives up to the hype - it's right up there with the great Coen Brothers movies like "Fargo," "Raising Arizona" and the underrated "Barton Fink."

On its surface, it's a very linear movie – man finds $2 million in dirty money, unstoppable hired killer hunts for him. But in his original novel, McCarthy infused this with a kind of existential dread, a sense of a rotten world filled with few fleeting saving graces. I've long been a fan of Cormac's flinty, fluid prose, which combines Biblical rapture with a dirty resignation, in his looks at battered men surrounded by undefinable landscapes.

The Coens capture Cormac's brilliance well in this movie, which lingers over the Texas sagebrush and highways, motels and valleys, infusing them with a sense of something huge and unspeakable watching all this take place. In Cormac's books, the landscape is a very much alive character, and the movie gets that (unlike the rather neutered film of his "All The Pretty Horses" a few years back).

PhotobucketAnd of course, everyone leaves this movie talking about Javier Bardem's terrifying performance as hitman Chigurh, who's like a Hannibal Lecter-meets-Terminator in the dessert, with unspeakable appetites and a warped but firm moral code. Chigurh is like Cormac's other great villains (I'm thinking of the haunting Judge in "Blood Meridian"), who come off more as malign force than mere human. With dead eyes, bizarre hair and a knife-sharp temper, Bardem's crafted one of the great movie killers.

PhotobucketBut if "No Country For Old Men" were just a chase flick, it wouldn't have scooped up all these Oscar nods and critical huzzahs. It's about a chase, but it's also about fate. It definitely upsets audience expectations with the final act, which refuses to go toward an expected catharsis and instead turns grimly inward. Fate and chance come home. While Bardem is unforgettable and a stoic Josh Brolin note-perfect as the hunted man, the movie is really about Sheriff Bell, a never-been-better Tommy Lee Jones. The movie's soul is a man who's spent a life surrounded by unexplainable violence and who to his horror, as he nears old age and death, realizes he still knows nothing about where that violence really comes from. Jones is wonderfully weary and turns his usual hard-as-nails image on its end.

The Coens subvert their usual stylistic tics for "No Country" -- mostly they play it very straight, and very well. While they can do comedy like nobody else ("Raising Arizona" easily goes on my desert-island comedy movies list), in recent movies they've gotten so far into their own in-jokey little world that they lost a little power. (I might even argue this slump began with the cult hit "The Big Lebowski", which I never found as clever as its fans find it.) By the time fun but flimsy stuff like Tom Hanks doing Foghorn Leghorn in "The Ladykillers" came along, I felt like the Coens were drowning in their own quirks.

But here, the Coens use their directorial power calmly, wisely and make a movie that still has their voice, but it haunts you too, in a way nothing they've ever done - even "Fargo" - has quite managed. They should deservedly take home a few Oscars for this one.