Thursday, March 27, 2008

Life's a beach (er, sorry about the cliche)

We had an extraordinarily fine Easter weekend here down under, with warm sunny days throughout (surprising for what's early autumn now, the equivalent of late September in the U.S.). And so we spent three days in a row at the beach, enjoying Auckland's many seaside locales.

It's one of the true joys of NZ life that you're never more than an hour or two from a beach – in Auckland alone, I think you could visit a beach every weekend for 10 years and still not see every one within a 100km-radius of the city. The nice thing is that they all have different characters, too, depending on which side of the North Island you're on.

PhotobucketWest coast beaches, facing the transtasman gulf, tend to be wilder and windier, and full of this gorgeous sparkly black sand that always gets into every possible bodily crevice. The surf at some of the west coast Auckland beaches like Piha and Karekare is quite ferocious and a haunt for surfies, but you can still "swim" in it -- by which I mean paddle out about hip-deep in the surf and let the big waves smash you around a bit. It's very aerobic, and West Coast beaches with their soaring cliffs and epic feeling generally give you a sense of natural awe.

We love the west coast beaches (that's where the family bach or cabin is) but lately we've been doing a lot of Auckland's east coast beaches because they're very family-friendly and close enough to our house to pop over for an hour or so whenever we want.

PhotobucketOn the North Shore of Auckland are some of our favorite beaches – Takapuna, Milford, Shakespeare –– which are a bit calmer, with white sand and gentle waves as they face the Hauraki Gulf rather than the sea proper. At a West Coast beach you have to pretty much keep a 4-year-old within arm's length the whole time, while at the East Coast ones you can let them get two or three arms lengths away. And you get beautiful views of Auckland's many islands (some of which we'll get to visit one of these days, I swear). They're more crowded and less raw, but very nice to just lay about reading a book and diving in to swim a bit.

Living in America where a trip to the beach usually involved a full day's plan at least, rather than a 15-minute commute, I do feel rather spoiled in Auckland. But heck, winter's on the way now, I'm as brown as a medium latte and somehow staring at surf and sand and sky never gets too old, does it?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Concert review: Wilco, Auckland, Easter Sunday

PhotobucketAh, Wilco, Wilco, Wilco. If there's a better live American rock band right now I can't think what it is. Their first "real show" in Auckland (previous appearances have all been at festivals) was a 2 1/2-hour stunner, packed with classics and rarities by one of the tightest bands on the road. Can't think of a better way to finish up an excellent long Easter weekend.

I've been a fan of Jeff Tweedy and co. since the Uncle Tupelo days, and what's fascinating to me about Wilco is how they started off as a rather run-of-the-mill alt-country band like the Jayhawks or Old 97s, but have blown up into so much more. Over the last 13 years they've swerved from country balladry to psych-rock weirdness to hard rock bashing to excursions into krautrock and experimental soundscapes. They've been called the "American Radiohead" but I think that's a rather lazy description for a band that's uniquely Americana, twisting the old cowboy tunes into an often-surreal journey through the states of the mind and heart. Their songs are caked with road dust.

PhotobucketI've been on a mad great run of shows in the past month (Sonic Youth, Cat Power, Iron & Wine and this), but this is right at the top of concert experiences – I sat in the front row right behind the open pit, Tweedy directly in my sight line about 30 feet away, sound was excellent and not TOO loud, and the band was in top form. I loved how a great part of the set was derived from their 2002 masterpiece-to-date, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." Particular highlights included the slowly building opener "Sunken Treasure," a dazzling "Via Chicago," and a particular favorite of mine, the Woody Guthrie-penned "California Stars." I also loved the 10-minute-plus take on "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" during the first encore, which chugged along and kept exploding into cathartic release. Tweedy was in great, genial form, cracking jokes in the audience and repeatedly expressing his love for Kiwiland (at one point accepting a male audience member's offer to marry him "if that's what it takes to emigrate").

Tweedy and sturdy bassist John Stirratt are the only remaining members of Wilco's original incarnation, but the newer members are what make the band so dazzing live - particularly drummer Glenn Kotche, and lead guitarist Nels Cline, who's just astounding. Nels could shift from pedal-steel country laments to blues riffs to utterly spacey, experimental textures at the drop of a hat. He's amazingly versatile and one of the best guitarists I've seen (and the guy is in his 50s!). The spooky underwater-rock drifts of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" would seem hard to duplicate live, but Cline's anchor of sound brought tunes like "Jesus, Etc." and "A Shot In The Arm" to dazzling life. Put 'em all together, and these six guys put on one of the best rock shows I've seen in a while, probably since I saw Arcade Fire earlier this year, except this was far more intimate and lengthy.

If Wilco comes to your town, check them out. They're worth the trip. Here's a nice vid of the gang performing the jazzy "Impossible Germany" last year – excellent guitar showcase for Nels!

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Easter Bunny's coming to your house

Photobucket'Tis Easter weekend, and New Zealand pretty much shuts down completely the entire time. Me too, I've got five of six days off, so we're off to the beach to enjoy a last hint of late summer. And Wilco comes to town Sunday! Huzzah!

The Mountain Goats aren't coming to New Zealand or Australia next month due to medical reasons. Ticket refund time. Fudge. Get well soon, John Darnielle. Sadness, and hoping for a reschedule soon.

• Elvis Costello's plans for his new album manage to baffle, confuse and irritate me all at the same time. Hey, I may be stuck in 1999, but I like CDs, darn it!

• I discovered Dr. K's nifty blog, and he's running an all Planet Of The Apes week, which is, like, the most awesome thing ever. Ongoing discussion of the grand nihilism of "Beneath The Planet Of The Apes," the darkest darn ape movie of all time and a flick that warped my young mind irreparably. Nuclear holocaust for everyone!

Barack Obama writes and delivers a truly great speech trying to actually talk intelligently about a minor controversy. Right wingers work overtime to try and whittle, mangle and recast it in such a way that it ain't that no more. Whether you agree with the man or not, you've got to be pretty unforgiving not to concede that the man is thoughtful in a way we usually don't see in politics. He wrote his own speech, which you know shouldn't really be that big a deal but actually sadly is considering how rarely this happens in presidential politics these days. (I highly recommend Obama's two books, one stirring memoir, one more policy focused for all those who keep repeating the party line that he has no ideas.)

• Watched groovy "Eastern Promises." Don't mess with the Russian mafia. They will cut. you. up. And Viggo Mortensten naked can still beat the crap out of any man alive. I love the David Cronenberg even if this wasn't quite his top work, still a good yarn.

• Quote of the day that nearly made me spit coffee on the MacBook, from one of my favorite newspaper columnists, San Francisco Chronicle's Jon Carroll: "I've never been a fan of St. Patrick's Day; it seems to me that celebrating being Irish by drinking is like celebrating being black by picking cotton."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Yeah, our boy's got the moves

Peter: Can we have a dance party?
Me: OK, pick out your music.
Peter: This!

(Grabs Tom Waits' anarcho-noise jazz/punk classic "Bone Machine," a sure sign my boy at 4 is far cooler than I ever was.)

Results below. Check out those hips!

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Buffy-a-thon: Season 4

PhotobucketMy god, I'm past the halfway point. As some might recall, since 2006 I've been on a project to watch all seven seasons of the legendary "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" TV series by Joss Whedon, which I foolishly missed out on while it was on the air. I've just wrapped up Season 4, more than halfway through the 144 episodes.

I have to admit, it's a close call, but I think this is the best Buffy season yet, narrowly topping Season 3's swell duels with the Mayor and Faith. It's tight, sexy and funny, with an engaging ongoing storyline that consistently goes in unexpected directions. We get less of the sometimes-forced "monster of the week" episodes that run out of steam.

This season has big changes - Buffy and the gang go to college, Angel's gone, and at long last, the U.S. military apparently notices all the demons and vampires haunting Sunnydale, California, and decides to do something about it – namely, a top-secret Initiative that's capturing demons for some mysterious plan. The Initiative storyline, and Buffy's affair with its lieutenant Riley, drives the season and is a lot of fun. The military's got nothing on the slayer. The grotesque cyborg-demon creation Adam is another excellent "Big Bad" villain for the series, with a laconic cool presence.

PhotobucketTo top it all off, Spike joins the cast on a regular basis, with a great plotline about him losing his vampire preying skills (read: impotence) and becoming a begrudging "good guy" (sort of). James Marster's snide and sarcastic Spike is a great addition to a crew that was getting a little too touchy-feely. There's good conflict with the trio of Buffy, Willow and Xander this season, and each character gets a moment to shine. Willow's break-up with Oz and surprising affair with Tara are nicely handled. Only former watcher Giles gets a bit lost this year, not given much to do.

I'd long heard about how good "Buffy" was when it was on, but life and the like got in the way of catching its spell. But it's even better to watch it on DVD in huge gulps, having mostly avoided spoilers. Season 4 shows Joss Whedon and co. at the peak of their powers, and it's a heck of a lot better than most stuff on the tube today.

PhotobucketBest episode: "Hush," the classic "silent" episode where some ultra-creepy demons steal Sunnydale's voices, and Buffy and Riley have to stop things – without saying a word. Lots of plot movement, tremendously freaky foes, and a lot of humour without a line of dialogue.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

I blew up the blog

Technical difficulties. Somehow accidentally deleted critical bit of coding. Normal service will resume when I figure out what the hell I did.

Update: All right. Been thinking of changing the templates anyway since last time I did was in 2005 apparently, and that was the easiest way to fix the problem. So here's a new look for the Spatula, minor tweaks to come as I have time!

Concert review: Iron & Wine, Auckland, March 14

PhotobucketMarch concert madness continued last night with the debut performance of Iron And Wine in New Zealand. Iron and Wine is led by Sam Beam -- kind of Nick Drake as if he were influenced by William Faulkner with a dash of Nick Cave and the Grateful Dead -- and he specializes in a hushed, gorgeous alt-folk blend that's often spellbinding. (You might have heard Iron and Wine's great cover of The Shins' "Such Great Heights" on the "Garden State" soundtrack.) Iron and Wine's latest, "The Shepherd's Dog", opens up from the mostly acoustic feel of their earlier work, incorporating multiple rhythms and drawing on elements of world music.

On this tour, Beam's crystalline vocals are backed up by a full band, including sister Sarah Beam on backup vocals. The band's MVP was the stunning steel and pedal guitar work by Calexico's Paul Niehaus -- his otherworldly tones leant a haunted wild-west vibe to it all. The show opened with the fantastic "Trapeze Swinger," in which Beam distills what feels like the whole history of man and God and devil and the fall into seven or so minutes of beautiful music. Beam's music is quiet, late-night meditation fare, but his lyrics are wonderfully dark and twisted, drawing on epic imagery of death, love and myth. Songs start with lyrics like "Papa died Sunday and I understood / All dead white boys say, 'God is good'" or deal with cheery topics like the Bible's Jezebel awaiting her death at the teeth of wild dogs. His lyrics, such as those for "The Trapeze Singer," read like hippie-Gothic poetry.

Unfortunately, the kinda rowdy Friday night pub crowd wasn't quite the best venue for Iron & Wine's hushed and intricate tunes. Beam is genial but very focused, looking like a liberal town college professor up there in his beard and sweater vest. The show is all about the music rather than banter, so sometimes I think there was a little disconnect with the crowd. I think the show might have played a bit better in a seated venue where drunk 20-somethings weren't jostling their mates. But heck, I just kept moving away from the annoying folk and grooved to the music.

Nevertheless, it was a swell concert, and here's a great live take on the show opener, "The Trapeze Swinger," from 2007:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

...In which I get all William S. Burroughs on your arse*

(*The cut-up technique, that is.) Surfing randomly I found this nifty book meme which I rather liked:

Take five books off your bookshelf.
2. Book #1 -- first sentence
3. Book #2 -- last sentence on page fifty
4. Book #3 -- second sentence on page one hundred
5. Book #4 -- next to the last sentence on page one hundred fifty
6. Book #5 -- final sentence of the book
7. Make the five sentences into a paragraph:

And thus...

"Run here, my towhead grandchildren, and let this geezer dandle you upon his knee. 'Whaddaya think one of these babies would fetch?' a worker asked me, running his hand licentiously over my VCR. Your sister told me the other day that Noboru Wataya raped you. The girls wear skirts and black leather jackets. The bitch is dead now."

...How disturbing a casserole that was, frankly. Picked at random from the library wing -- (1) "Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung" by Lester Bangs, (2) "Near-Life Experiences" by Jon Carroll, (3) "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" by Haruki Murakami, (4) "A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers and (5) "Casino Royale" by Ian Fleming.

Tag, you're it, anyone who wants to play along.

Monday, March 10, 2008

"Flight Of The Conchords" vs. "Tenacious D"
-- the comedy cage match

PhotobucketSo it's funny but one question I've been asked more than any other lately by my American friends is, have you seen "Flight Of The Conchords," the hit HBO TV series about the struggling New Zealander musicians in New York City. Embarassingly, until recently, the answer was no, because the series didn't air in New Zealand until months after it aired in the U.S., and then it aired at like 10.30 at night which is past my bedtime on work nights (blame NZ television, which actually passed on airing the show when offered at first, and will never quite live that down).

But now it's out on DVD here, we bought it and have been laughing our way through the first series. It's hilarious deadpan humor, with what I now recognize as a particularly Kiwi bent to it.

PhotobucketI have to admit, though, before I ever saw "Conchords" I was a bit put off by it, because it sounded startlingly familiar to another short TV series, which also just happened to be on HBO, about a two-man band struggling for success -- Jack Black and Kyle Gass' "Tenacious D," of course. And they are quite similar, no doubt about it, right down to having a single obsessed fan of each band. But then again, the theme itself is hardly new – mock comedy about fake bands goes back at least to "The Monkees" that I can think of.

And what's interesting having seen both "D" and "Conchords" now is the differences between them. They're both quite funny, I think, but in different ways that speak of the cultural humor gap between US and Brit/Kiwi style wit.

Photobucket"D" is openly surreal and slapstick, over-the-top in the way live-action cartoon character Jack Black specialized in when he was starting out. The D meet Sasquatch, battle the Devil, kick each other's heads off in fights, and play a kind of acoustic heavy metal folk heavy on sexual bragging, yelping and boasting, made all the funnier because they're strumming it along on cheap two-chord guitars. It's a comedy based on excess -- how far will we take this? (The D's semi-successful live-action movie "The Pick of Destiny" tried the same style, only to sputter out a bit when transfered from 10-minute shorts into 90 minutes of film.)

PhotobucketThe Conchords on the other hand are particularly Kiwi as they focus in on the idea of the Kiwi man, a stoic "bloke." They play on the image of Kiwis as unknowns in Manhattan (frequently they're mistaken for Australians or English), and Conchords Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie are experts at the deadpan, Buster Keaton stoneface non-reaction reaction shot. The duo and their manager Murray are sometimes shown as gullible, easily fleeced and a bit confused by bustling Manhattan. So "Conchords" is simultaneously making fun of Kiwis in America while also knowingly nudging New Zealand in the side, saying "ah, this is what they think we're like, eh?" It's double-edged humour that's a fair bit subtler than Tenacious D, and the exotic Kiwi factor pays well to Americans who don't know much about this country on the other side of the world.

The Conchords' music is also a fair bit different than Tenacious D -- the songs are almost always in elaborate music video-style fantasy sequences, and tunes like "If You're Into It" and "Business Time" kind of parody hot R&B and indie pop but are also technically quite proficient music, with Jemaine's swooping bass delivery and Bret's velvety croon. The music is more varied than the D's, which possibly explains why the Conchords' first CD "The Distant Future" just grabbed a Grammy Award.

I think "Tenacious D" is about being big and refusing to acknowledge you're small, while "Flight Of The Conchords" is about being small and dreaming of being big. What that says about the two nations I'll leave to deeper thinkers than I! I tell you, though, now that I'm a fan of both shows, what I wouldn't give to see some kind of "Tenacious D"/"Flight of the Conchords" crossover, with a musical duel and/or cage fight to the death to see who the top parody folk duo in the world really is.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A little of this, a little of that

Random notes! I have my 57th cold of the last few months (or at least what feels like that with Peter the Human Plague Boy living with us and constantly infecting us with day-care germs), so nothing too ambitious today. Scattered thoughts, floating about like the glowing green mucus in my skull (isn't that a pretty image):

Did I mention Patrick has relaunched his Califoregonian blog as the crazy multimedia explosion of groove, Big Plastic Head? Well now I have. Patrick, I want my $5. Go check it out, though.

Did I tell you one of my favorite authors Michael Chabon wrote a cool intellectual article on superhero costumes for The New Yorker recently? "An essay in unitard theory" -- how can you pass that up? Go read.

Did I say I watched the movie "Zodiac" the other night and it was terrific? If you're expecting "Se7en Part II" from director David Fincher, you won't get it, but it's actually a very moody, trippy dive into obsession and madness about the years-long search for the Zodiac serial killer who wreaked havoc in the San Francisco Bay Area in the '60s and '70s. Amazing period detail and great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., a serial killer movie more about the hunt than blood splattering the screen.

Did I point you in the direction of Angry Why are we all so angry? Well, unfortunately, I can attest that for a business about communication newsrooms are hives to some of the most socially retarded folk out there; and a lot of nice amigos as well. I've been quite happy with my last few jobs but I know in my past I've had journalism jobs that left me thinking, why do I bother with this? It's a profession that unfortunately breeds a lot of bitterness, I think. Anyway, this site features anonymous journalists ranting anonymously about their lives. Voyeurism! (Oh, and just to balance it all out a bit --, which naturally features a little less posting.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Concert review: Cat Power, Auckland, March 4

Yep, I believe in Cat Power. Her return to Auckland Tuesday night was an outstanding concert by one of my favorite singers today. I wasn't quite sure what to expect -- Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, has been putting out gorgeous ethereal tunes for more than a decade but also developed a bit of a reputation as a really rocky live performer, battling stage fright and sometimes just kind of trailing off into limbo in the middle of a set. (A fine but very sad profile of her in The New Yorker a few years back had me fearing for her life, really.)

No worries, mate -- she was great. Chan has come through the fire, done the rehab thing and all that, and reinvented herself as a down-and-dirty Southern blues soul singer. She's originally from Georgia, and her earlier work was more hushed, sparse and kind of Gothic folk, but her last couple albums have seen her sound broaden into a full band and her fantastic pipes expand into a kind of alternative version of Nina Simone/Aretha Franklin or somesuch. The scorching guitar work by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Judah Bauer was particularly great, although the sound was a little muddy and occasionally overwhelmed Chan's vocals (didn't help I was about two feet from a speaker and wedged in by the sell-out crowd, I guess).

Chan is eccentric, definitely -- constantly fidgeting with her clothes, making funky jokes, bumming cigs from the audience and dancing a bit like an autistic Frankenstein monster, but she was also delightfully passionate, quirky and real. She was terrifically confident compared to her earlier reputation. She never felt packaged, utterly throwing herself into the music. Her current disc "Jukebox" is a set of reimagined cover versions so this set was heavy on the covers, including takes on Nina Simone, Hank Williams and Patsy Cline. I particularly loved her ferocious take on her own "Metal Heart" and a radically revamped "Lived In Bars." No "Cross Bones Style", alas, but can't have everything.

I had an amazing vantage point, maybe 10 feet from her tops, to the point where I could hear the scuff of her shoes as she danced across the stage. Have to admit I fell a little bit in love with her -- Chan was raw and naked in a way you don't often see -- when she was belting out "I love you" over and over in her fantastic last song, you could almost see the person she was singing it to. Somehow, looking at her I felt l like I was seeing someone who was once badly broken but who's getting better all the time, hopeful and brave enough to survive the days ahead. Chan Marshall is happy, and I hope she stays that way as her voice is a beautiful one indeed.

Here's a great performance of the 2008 version of "Metal Heart" live in Paris. Awesome!

And her fantastic sultry cover of the Frank Sinatra chestnut "New York":

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Yes, Prime Minister

PhotobucketThe marvelous thing about New Zealand is that it is such a small country, that you can find yourself just meeting the Prime Minister one day. We were at the Teddy Bears Picnic today, a kids' carnival benefit, and happened to run into Prime Minister Helen Clark popping by for a visit (complete with her own teddy bear!). We have met one of her aides, Joan, a couple of times as she's a friend of my wife's family (and my in-laws have met Clark many times at Labour Party functions), but it was the first time I'd met Helen Clark herself, who's been New Zealand's leader for nearly a decade.

It was interesting to compare it to the United States, where you're lucky to get within a mile of a President and not too likely to come across them at a smallish county fair-type event. She only had two bodyguards (the sunglasses and earphones give them away) and a small entourage, and we had a couple minutes to chat with her. She seemed quite nice, asked about Peter's daycare and how I found New Zealand, and hopefully I didn't come off as too much of a doofus. Anyway, now I can say I have indeed met New Zealand's Prime Minister -- and unlike our current American chief, I'm kind of happy to have her as the boss.

How to create a 4-year-old superhero

Now that Peter's a huge 4-year-old, he's old enough for me to begin the process of firmly warping his mind and showing him there's more to pop culture than Bob the Builder and The Go Show. Yes, it's time for superhero action!

PhotobucketMy vast comic library has been held in reserve for this purpose. However, the tricky part is finding comics a 4-year-old will actually be into. I wish I had more of the Carl Barks Duck comics or old Harvey comics or Jeff Smith's Bone, but alas I don't and they aren't cheap or easy to come by down under. If I read my kid the latest issue of say, Thunderbolts or Ex Machina, much as I enjoy it it'd probably warp his mind a bit (er, comics really aren't for kids so much these days, are they?).

Which is where the phone books come in. I've been on a tear collecting the DC Comics Showcase Presents and Marvel Essential black-and-white reprint 'phone books', finding them pretty much the best bang for your comic-buying book you can get -- 500+ pages of classic comic goodness for the equivalent of 3-4 current comics in price. Not too shabby. I've probably got over 30 of these things by now, from classics like Superman and Batman to less-known but sometimes even better stuff like Enemy Ace, The Defenders and The Unknown Soldier. Not every one of these is appropriate for a 4-year-old, but a lot of that awesome "Silver Age" (1950s-60s) stuff is just great for an aspiring superhero geek. Last night we read tales of The Flash, fastest man alive, and his foes Captain Cold and the slowest man alive, Turtle Man (not surprisingly, a fairly ineffectual villain, that one). Peter loves 'em, and now he also wants me to read him lots of "Iron Man" comics (we saw the trailer for the fab looking new movie on YouTube the other day). Peter is also hugely into my Tintin collections, which is grand.

I've always hated those who acted like reading comics were some pitfall on the way to becoming literate, a sidetrack that leads into gum-chewing idiocy. I cut my reading teeth on comics and today read everything from John Updike to Paul Auster to Shakespeare -- plus Iron Man. Yeah, I know we've got everything from PlayStation to iPod these days, but a good old story still fires up the imagination furnace like nothing else quite can. And anything that does that is a great thing in my book.