Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Buffy-A-Thon: Season 6

In the home stretch now! Hard to believe when I started this way back when and the goal of watching every single episode of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" seemed yes, highly ambitious indeed. (Some people climb mountains, some people run marathons, some people watch a hell of a lot of TV shows about vampires.) Now there's just one season left to go – what will fill the aching hole in my life? I'll have to take up yoga again or something.

PhotobucketAnyhoo ...Season 6. There's something about this season that's a bit hard to put my finger on, but it's a little less confident than previous seasons. This was the first one without creator Joss Whedon running the show, and maybe that's it. While it's almost always entertaining, there's a sense sometimes that the characters aren't acting "realistic," such as with Anya and Xander's on-and-off wedding.

The unrelenting darkness of Season 6 is a theme, and it's nicely wrapped up in the entertaining final episodes. I mean, I thought Season 5 was grim, what with Buffy's mother dying and all, but boy, this one piles on the misery. Willow's journey this season from hero to villain is well foreshadowed (occasionally a bit ham-handedly) and ends in suitably apocalyptic fashion. The finally consummated relationship between Buffy and Spike, however, wallows a bit too much in a kind of sadomasochistic glee. Also, Anthony Stewart Head as the upright, paternal Giles is sorely missed for most of the season.

I really enjoyed the recurring geeky villainy of "The Trio," three put-upon super-brains who gradually become a real threat for the slayer and her friends. It's kind of refreshing to see non-demonic enemies and the writers cannily make you underestimate the Trio until it's too late. Warren Mears, in particular, is a nasty portrait of the evil that can fester in an unloved, spiteful nerd. What ultimately happens to Warren pushes the envelope about as far as this series has ever gone.

PhotobucketBest episode: While it's a grim season, it also boasts one of the best and wittiest "Buffy" episodes ever, the all-musical extravaganza "Once More With Feeling." The idea of a musical episode isn't totally unique, but what's impressive about this one is Joss Whedon (who returned to write and direct this gem) uses the gimmick to create some real emotion and revelation about the characters. Conflicts that have been bubbling under come to the forefront, and it doesn't hurt that the melange of musical styles is excellent fun. (And it turns out Anthony Stewart Head and Amber Benson as Tara are actually quite good singers.) A funny, heartfelt and gripping romp on the stage. (And go check out the also quite excellent new Joss Whedon production "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" to see how kooky is it to see musical theater grafted onto the superhero epic.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"The force is strong in this one."

PhotobucketAt long last, we have begun indoctrinating the boy in the ways of the Jedi. Thoughts and questions of Peter, age 4 1/2, upon his first viewing of "Star Wars" ("A New Hope," of course) on an extremely rainy, blustery winter Saturday afternoon:

"Why are they having a robot garage sale?"

"Do those aliens make music all the time? Do the aliens make music while they're sleeping?"

"Does Han Solo have any superpowers?"

"Who's that slug man? I hope he [Han Solo] doesn't get eaten because did you know, that slug guy likes eating LOTS of things."

Photobucket"Is [the Death Star] made out of mud? It looks kind of like it's made out of mud."

"That robot looks like a tiny mouse and I can show you my mousey voice sqeeeek squeeek squeeek."

"R2D2 turned off the radio and turned it back on and then made it LOUDER!"

"R2D2 can turn into a fire extinguisher or a screwdriver. He's a changing robot."

"There's an ocean under that garbage floor!"

Final thoughts: "I like Star Wars because it had my toy robot in it!"

And then he was off to run around the house being a TIE fighter.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Movies: So there's this Dark Knight....

Photobucket...Well, I've finally seen "The Dark Knight," which didn't open in New Zealand until this week (so basically I've spent the last week frantically trying to avoid online spoilers from everyone who saw it already in the US). I can't add too much of substance to the reams of online applause, except to say yeah, it really is pretty good, and I'm rather stunned to see it breaking box office records as it's a rather dark, long picture with little of the buoyant joy you've seen in the Spider-Man/Superman movies. It ain't for wee kids, that's for sure, and pushes the PG-13 envelope very hard.

Time will tell how it holds up (hey, I loved "Batman" 1989 when it came out, but now, it's certainly a bit creaky around the edges). "Dark Knight" is not flawless – director Christopher Nolan's plot is sometimes too twisty for its own good, and there's a few clunky transitions (what exactly was the point of having Cillian Murphy show up again? Missed opportunity there) – but overall, fantastic performances and a meaty set of themes make this a comic book movie worth chewing over. It's far more like "The Departed" or "Heat" with superhero capes than it is any other comic-book flick I've seen. It's grasping for hard truths at the core of the Batman mythos, and really treats the concept with more respect (even deification) than any of the Batman movies to date.

PhotobucketHeath Ledger, is, I'll add to the accolades, absolutely stunning as The Joker, even if the character is a bit of a leap from most of the comic-book interpretations. I loved the sheer sticky, fidgety physicality he brought to the character, and the mad-dog violence that made you believe he could actually be a physical threat for the Batman. (Unlike Jack Nicholson, who was so swaddled in latex I never found him all that scary.) It just makes you feel so damned bad that this guy's incredible talent – honestly, is this the same person who was in "Brokeback Mountain"? – never got a chance to fully mature. But what a fine epitaph this role is, sure to be nominated for an Oscar next year. Ledger captures the core of menace and mystery that has made The Joker comics' most resonant villain for 70 years now.

Ledger's getting all the ink, but wow, isn't Gary Oldman something as Commissioner James Gordon? He was very good in the first movie, too, but in this sequel he's even better – lifting the never-give-up ordinary man's point of view into the picture. I always hated the way the '90s "Batman" series wasted the blubbery Pat Hingle as Gordon, and am glad to finally see the character get a bit of respect. Oldman's spent so much time playing creeps, lunatics and vampires that it's great to see him so fundamentally decent a role.

I particularly enjoyed the movie's take on Harvey Dent/Two-Face, which captured the sheer tragedy at the heart of the character (a moment utterly lost with Tommy Lee Jones' cavorting in the godawful "Batman Forever"). While the "Two-Face" makeup was so grotesque I actually found it kind of distracting, Aaron Eckhart still managed to take Harvey Dent on a truly tragic journey throughout the course of the movie.

PhotobucketAnd Christian Bale continues to refine his restrained take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, and remains the best of the half-dozen or so actors to play the role. Bale's almost overshadowed in this movie with all the other actors, but he has a kind of calm center that makes you focus on him whenever he's on screen. (Although, yeah, the "growly Batman" voice is just this side of ridiculous.)

...Anyway, you don't need my silly blog post to tell you to go see this. I wouldn't quite call it the best comic book movie ever (sorry, I'm still too much of a Spider-Man fanboy so still say the Spider-Man 1/2 combo trumps this), but it surely is one of the best. Christopher Nolan's crafted a compelling, truly grown-up vision of Batman in these films, and I only hope it doesn't get cheapened and diluted down in the inevitable sequels, as too often happens.

Monday, July 21, 2008

No use crying over spilt milk

Photobucket....So after a couple of months of quite painful stomach cramps and other fun stuff like that, and a few visits to the doctor and assorted sundry prescriptions trying to figure out my woes, I think I've got it sussed -- it looks like I've become lactose intolerant in my doddery old late 30s. Yeah, as far as health issues go, it could certainly be a lot worse, but I have to admit, I have always been a big consumer of dairy products. From the age of 6 years old or so I'd drink probably 6-8 cups of milk A DAY. Which is a lot. I don't smoke or drink much, but I needs my milk.

Lactose intolerance is one of those weird things you hear about but don't pay much attention to until it affects you. Basically, the gist of it is that your body is unable to metabolize the sugar lactose found in mostly dairy products, as the enzyme you need is either missing or decreased. Some folks are like this from birth, while others, like me, develop it later in life. A lot of people get this -- Wikipedia claims 75% of the adult population worldwide are lactose intolerant, a figure which seems rather high to me. People who have it have all degrees of tolerance as well.

Really, it's not a big deal in the general scheme of things - it's not diabetes, for instance. I'm just rather lazy about changing my habits which is probably why I didn't sort this out months ago when I started having these problems. I realized a few weeks back that I was in utter denial about milk being the problem, and my stubborn idea of "scaling back" was to cut to 2-3 glasses a day. Now after an epiphany for about two weeks I've gone cold turkey, with no milk and only a few bits of cheese here and there. (Cheese is reputedly "better" for you if you're lactose intolerant.)

I'm generally feeling a lot better -- not 100%, but a lot less of this rather painful bloating kind of feeling that was keeping me up nights on and off since last November or so. I've even realized there are lactose-free dairy products available (I told you, you don't pay much attention to this stuff until it happens to you). I've tried a bit of lactose-free milk this week to see and it's all right; a bit sweet compared to the fat-free milk we've drank for years, but not terrible by any means. If I have a dash of this stuff now and again I probably won't even miss my old friend milk all that much, I guess. We all have to change our habits eventually.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Year in Music 2008 midterm report

It's halfway through the year more or less, and while I still buy lots of those strange archaic shiny things called CDs, I haven't been buying a ton of new music (oddly, I've been filling in gaps in things like the Rolling Stones' classic 1960s work and my newfound Scott Walker obsession). But of what I've picked up from this year so far, here's what I'm digging the most:

PhotobucketBeck, "Modern Guilt." Just got this last week and I've listened to it a dozen times already, so that's a good sign it'll be in my year-end favorites. Beck teams with DJ Dangermouse for a trippy, psychedelic disc that's my favorite Beck since "Sea Change." It's got a gloomy undertone like that fine album, but leavened here by some addictive beat-heavy production and Beck's most emotionally forthright tunes in a while. The marvelous "Gamma Ray" sounds like a shoulda-been 60s dance craze and "Chemtrails" is a hazy, slow-building epic.

PhotobucketElvis Costello, "Momofuku." Quick-tongued and angry like the best of Costello's work, "Momofuku" is a good-natured jam that boasts some terrific songwriting and a sense of enthusiastic fun that makes it worthwhile for any Elvis fan. It's as carefree as 2004's "The Delivery Man" but more polished lyrically than that one, although it lacks the sonic inventiveness of his last real masterpiece, 2002's "When I Was Cruel." But it's a fine set of songs -- "American Gangster Time" particularly is spot-on, and it's great to see Elvis at 50 still making music with a point to it.

PhotobucketThe Mountain Goats, "Heretic Pride". I wrote about how much I dig the Mountain Goats before, and this squawky gem of an album is one of John Darnielle's most professional releases yet – fuller sounding than his earlier bare-bones guitar-and-boombox albums. The raw and urgent indie ethos is here but this is his most mainstream sounding album, with orchestration that enhances rather than detracts from Darnielle's goaty bleat of a voice. "Sax Rohmer #1" and "Autoclave" are eccentric little statements about love and loss that still feel like anthems to me. Great stuff.

PhotobucketCat Power, "Jukebox." Of course, I saw her perform much of this album in a terrific live show back in March and while it's an album of mostly cover tunes, it's not a stretch to say this is one of Chan Marshall's most personal set of songs. In paying homage to the artists she loves like Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Aretha Franklin she unveils something sacred about herself. And man, that amped-up version of her own "Metal Heart" is just a stunner. Crackling bluesy alt-rock and Chan's voice has never been sexier or stronger.

Photobucket...And while I wouldn't call it great, one disc I think has been rather unfairly panned is Scarlett Johansson's "Anywhere I Lay My Head", a collection of Tom Waits cover songs. Now, does she sound like Tom Waits? Not at all. Can she sing? Well, not technically, but her deep moan of a voice does remind me a bit of Nico and old Sinead O'Connor. The production by TV on the Radio's David Sitek is really heavy to cover up the thin voice, but put it all together and it's a nicely moody little album, kind of fractured fairytale lullabies with a dreamy, gauzy tone. It's far more idiosyncratic and interesting than most actress-turned-musician CD releases, and I've found myself frequently playing it as kind of mellow late-night background music. Its biggest flaw is that as a Tom Waits tribute, it falls far short of the original material's growly majesty and sounds more like a 20-year-old girl reciting poetry to herself in her bedroom. But still, not as bad as all that really.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My Classic Comics ABCs: Cerebus #83

OK, this is a weird issue to continue my alphabetical countdown of my favourite comics over the years.

PhotobucketOn the face of it, Dave Sim's Cerebus #83 is actually one HELL of a boring comic - the middle of a verrrrry long storyline and a bizarre digression that I'm still not quite sure makes much sense, in which a housewife basically spends the entire issue giving a rambling monologue to our aardvark hero Cerebus. It's right in the middle of the epic "Church And State" storyline that ran like 60 issues, but it's a strange pause in the action – lots of exposition. "Church and State" is overall a fantastic storyline. But this issue – really, not the best part. (The teaser at the end of the issue even acknowledges this, saying "Next: Patience, Folks, She's Getting To It.")

I picked Cerebus on a whim, not really "getting it." Yet this and a couple other random issues I bought around this time stuck with me. There was a sense that there was a heck of a lot going on here I didn't understand, and the sheer denseness of it all intrigued me. There was something going on here that was a lot more ambitious than most comics I read. I was mostly a Marvel and DC superheroes kind of guy, and the ornate beauty of Dave Sim and Gerhard's black and white artwork was amazing. (Dig all those zillions of little crosshatches in Gerhard's background - every grain of wood on the beams! I still don't understand how the man had the patience for that.) A little later, around "Jaka's Story" I think, I started buying Cerebus full-time and kept on with it up and down (mostly down, sadly, in the final act) till #300 in 2004.

But here's the main reason Cerebus ranks for me - I met my wife through it. Yep, I wouldn't be here in New Zealand without Cerebus – y'see, my wife read Cerebus too, and I had a letter printed in it circa #150 that she read. She was looking for American pen-pals and so we began exchanging letters ... and give or take 7 years or so of friendship, long-distance courtship and other diversions, we ended up together, spawned a baby boy, and still like to read the comics together (she's not big on superheroes though). It's strange to think what my life might have ended up like if I hadn't randomly tried out a few issues of Cerebus back in the 1980s.

As for the comic Cerebus – well, about halfway through I think Dave Sim lost or fatally redirected the plot big-time, and the story basically became a series of absurdist set-pieces that never quite led anywhere. I read it to the end out of a sense of duty, but honestly, post-#200 it sputtered out. His own peculiar obsessions about gender and religion took over the story, obscuring it. The creator overwhelmed the character. The sense of fun, of mystery and hidden potential that I found in my stray issue was never quite met. But for sheer longevity and skill, it's still one of the milestones of the comics medium.

However, I did net a wife and kid out of reading this comic, so y'know, there's that. I owe Cerebus a lot, arguably more than any other comics I've read.

Previously in the Comics ABCS: A, B.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sunday Shuffle: You're Playin' With Your Life, This Ain't No Truth Or Dare

...The soundtrack for making pizza for lunch with our friend Denis. And the first truly sunny warm day in eons that falls on a weekend, hurray!

Photobucket1. Not Home Anymore 5:59 Whiskeytown*
2. Department Of Youth 3:18 Alice Cooper
3. I Got You (I Feel Good) 2:47 James Brown
4. Science Fiction, Double Feature 3.00 Various Artists The Rocky Horror Picture Show Soundtrack**
5. Wanderlust 3:04 R.E.M.
6. Chain Of Command 2:34 XTC***
7. I Can't Make It On Time 2:33 The Ramones****
8. Oh Sherrie 3:51 Steve Perry *****
9. A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger 4:56 Of Montreal
10. Breath 5:28 Pearl Jam
11. Love Is The Foundation 2:32 Loretta Lynn
12. Everybody's Happy Nowadays 3:12 The Buzzcocks
13. San Francisco Days 3:00 Chris Isaak
14. Start To Move 1:13 Wire
15. My Baby Just Cares For Me 3:04 Nina Simone
16. Beat It 4:18 Michael Jackson******

*From the extraordinarily good new 2-CD Stranger's Almanac Special Edition. Ryan Adams hasn't released a new album in like, what, 6 months. He must be dead.
**I haven't seen this movie in years but I'm kind of afraid to as it's likely to be far cheesier and more dated than I remember.
***For some reason the chaotic strut of early XTC always sounds to me like a marching band on speed.
****I still miss Joey Ramone.
*****In 1987 I had a crush on a girl named Sherry and thus this was the finest song of all times. Don't look at me like that.
******Honestly, this one song still almost makes the last 25 years of horror and comedy for its singer seem worthwhile.

Friday, July 11, 2008

In which I spend (nearly) a week
in bed with Pacino and Heston

Urgh. What a fine week it's been. Struck down Monday by gastroenteritis (stomach flu) and have been a gibbering dessicated wreck most of the past few days, just now returning to feeling human. Managed about 1.1 days at work and much time lying on couches or sofas buried under a ton of blankets and sleeping bags. The problem with having the chills during a week that just happens to have been one of the coldest in recent NZ history cannot be understated. I just couldn't get warm for a while there even with heaters blazing and tiny fireplace roaring (well, meowing). Not recommended for anyone, really, but cross fingers that the boy and the wife haven't picked up this excruciatingly nasty little bug. (That blog post I managed to get up Wednesday was actually one I'd been working on for a week or so, and I somehow crawled blearily to the laptop to finally post it in between spells of dementia. See, I think of you guys first.)

PhotobucketIn any event, I did get to catch up on a few movies/books between naps and medically induced comas. I went on a 1970s movie binge this week, watching Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon" which I'd never seen and the late great Charlton Heston in "Omega Man" which I think I'd seen many years ago.

"Dog Day Afternoon" was just great, one of those rangy, gritty '70s flicks of the kind you never see anymore – a rollicking bank robbery thriller but also a tense character study. Can you imagine a major studio doing a movie today where the "hero" turns out to be a closeted gay man trying to steal money for his lover's sex change operation? It's Pacino near his peak before he got all "hoo-ha" self-parody. I particularly love his slow staring shock at the pivotal moment when a phone rings in the bank he's robbing. And John Cazale as Pacino's partner is swell, simmering and telling more with his eyes than some actors do in an entire movie -- Cazale only made four or five movies before he died shockingly young of cancer, but every one of them - "Godfather," "The Deer Hunter," "The Conversation" - is a stone-cold classic. He and Pacino do some great acting in this flick that's a template for many an inferior heist movie since.

Photobucket"Omega Man," like I said, I think I saw wayyyy back when, but barely remember it. "Planet of the Apes" is like grade-A+ Heston Apocalyptica Cheese-Whiz for me, whereas "Omega" is probably more like a B+. Swingin' Chuck is absolutely awesome, of course, as the last man on an infected earth, snarling invective and taking off his shirt whenever possible. I also watched "I Am Legend" recently and they're both decent popcorn thriller adapations of the same quite good sci-fi novel by Richard Matheson. But neither of these adaptations are quite faithful enough to get the haunting misery of the book right. Will Smith is surprisingly good in "Legend" but the rubbery CGI villains are lame. "Omega" gets more fun out of the end of the world, what with Heston's grunting, the utterly unsuitable disco-classical soundtrack and the Black Power girlfriend. And of course, Heston dies a glorious Christ-like death at the end. But the cult-like "infected" annoyed me with their yammering and constant catching on fire and Anthony Zerbe looked nothing so much like Peter Sellers' Dr. Strangelove in a robe. Goofy albino guys in black hoods don't equal apes, so there's that.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The other big election in 2008

..Yeah, it's hardly gotten the same amount of ink worldwide as the US one, but New Zealand is also having major leadership elections this year. It's my first time living here through the electoral cycle, and it's been quite interesting figuring it all out. I'm still an extreme novice to New Zealand politics (even if I have met the Prime Minister). This year's race will pit the Labour Party and its leader, Prime Minister Helen Clark, against the National Party and its leader John Key.

PhotobucketNew Zealand's system is a parliamentary representative democratic monarchy (phew!) -- basically we're still part of the Commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth II as our head of state. The actual work of running the country is done by the Prime Minister and Parliament. It's highly likely that in the next 30 years or so you'll see NZ and Australia both become republics, but it won't happen while Elizabeth is still alive, I think.

The big players in NZ politics are the Labour PartyHelen Clark has been leading the country since 1999 -- and the National Party. Labour is generally seen as more left-leaning. Fellow blogger Arthur at AmeriNZ always has good thoughts on the NZ political scene, and a while back he had a nice summation – generally here politics are to the left of America and Australia. Even our "Republicans," the National Party, would be considered moderate or "blue dog" Democrats in the US; conservative economically, but not really about setting social agendas. The far-right conservative wing is far less influential here, consigned to minor parties like NZ First and ACT.

Elections to Parliament here run under the MMP (mixed member proportional) system, where you can split your vote between a candidate and a party. (I.e., you can vote for the Labour MP, and then vote for National as a party.) This means that none of us really choose who the next Prime Minister is going to be, but rather the party that will be in power. Under MMP each MP is either elected by voters in a single-member constituency via first past the post or appointed from party lists. So it's a combination of direct representatives and "at-large" party members in the Parliament. You frequently see Labour or National forming coalitions with the smaller parties to get the 50-percent vote threshold to have a government assembled, so minor parties in general such as the Greens or Maori Party have a much bigger say in things than they do in the US.

So that's a very broad and likely incomplete 30-second summary of NZ's system (far more can be found at the ol' Wikipedia). What about this year's race?

PhotobucketWhat it all boils down to this year is a referendum on Helen Clark, and unfortunately it's looking very likely she won't win a fairly unprecedented fourth term. Little of this is due to the inspiring rhetoric of John Key, a former investment banker and general empty suit who has yet to say much of what he would actually DO if Prime Minister. I don't find Key actively objectionable, but vaguely faceless and a little slippery. Clark's biggest foe is the general impression she's "had long enough" and even though NZ has done pretty well under her, it's been a dismal year with the economy slowing and a steady drumbeat of violent crime and gang worries. Labour is frequently seen as overreaching lately with its policies and the words "nanny state" get bantered around a lot. People are just "ready for a change," as the saying goes, and at this point anything bad that happens is blamed on Labour.

It's unfair that a good politician is seen as having a sell-by date, but I guess most folks are turned off by someone being in office more than a decade. I get the same vibe from her press that the ex-Australian PM John Howard was giving off right before he got the boot -- basically, she can do no right in the voting public's eyes, and that's a pretty hard place to come back from. We don't know when the election exactly is yet (like in Britain, it has to be "called"), but it'll have to be before November 15 according to law. Key basically has to stand back and not have any major scandals, and he'll probably be the next Prime Minister. The election could still hold some twists and turns, but few of the omens are in Labour's favor. Ah well - at least I get to vote in TWO countries' elections this year!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Countdown to vacation - one month

PhotobucketGreat galloping galaxies, it's July 3 -- which means it's exactly one month till the boy and I fly the friendly skies the lonnnnnnng way back to California for my first visit to the States since we moved down under in 2006. I'm quite looking forward to time off work and away from the various household headaches we were slammed with in June. Back when I bought tickets it seemed ages away, but now it's nearly here. I'm eager to see the family and embrace the wide-open Americana after two years down here, and will be interested to see if it or I have notably changed all that much.

It looks like I'll get to see several old friends of mine while I'm there, including a mini-reunion of high school chums, some of whom I haven't seen in nearly 20 (urk) years now. I'm also planning a major shopping spree for clothes, graphic novels, music et cetera as, I've loudly said a few times, them things are quite pricey down here in the antipodes. And I'm finally going to try and get the estimated 30 or 40 boxes of miscellaneous books, keepsakes and papers stored in my parents' garage down here somehow. I've got a shipping company picked out so hopefully it will work out (the problem with shipping internationally is that you can find endless horror stories online about it which puts the black fear into you about your belongings ending up in a deep-water trench or something).

I'm kind of dreading how the boy, age 4 1/2, will do without Mama for 2 1/2 weeks and how I will cope as sole parental figure, particularly in that 13-hour flight. He's at that awkward age in between cuddly toddler and rambunctious boy, so it'll be interesting. Hopefully we'll keep him too busy enjoying the delights of grandparents and Northern California in August to get too homesick.

Meanwhile, enjoy your Fourth of July, Americans, as I alternately am blown away by winds and drown in an Auckland winter!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Old 97's: Saddle up for Blame It On Gravity

Photobucket"Cowboy poetry" is one of those phrases you sometimes hear and don't know quite what to make of it. Odes to sagebrush and saddle sores, perhaps? But the music of The Old 97's, with its high lonesome sound, always felt like a kind of cowboy poetry to me. The Dallas-spawned band draws on country music to create something that's not quite alt-country – it's a smoother sound than, say, the grittier Uncle Tupelo or Whiskeytown. Instead, frontman Rhett Miller uses the twangs and tropes of country music to create impeccable pop. Back in the 1990s, seeing them live felt like watching punk crash a rock concert at the grange hall – a thrilling and feisty clash of styles, all led by Miller's wide-open yearning voice.

Miller puts an urgency into his crooning laments, a kind of breathless impatience that gives the songs a jangly momentum. He's got a knack for great little turns of phrase – there's a line in "Doreen" off 1995's Wreck Your Life that still amazes me with its economical way of summing up one girl's life so far in a few words: "She lived in Berkeley til the earthquake shook her loose ... She lives in Texas now where nothing ever moves."

It's a shame then that the band has never quite broken through to the mainstream, despite a string of great albums – you can't go wrong with Wreck Your Life or 1999's Kinks-like Fight Songs, in my book.

PhotobucketMiller took time off for a solo career which was less country, more pop, but after a bit of a hiatus the 97's of old are back with Blame It On Gravity, 13 songs of wistful romance that return to the country roots of the band's earliest work. Nearly every song is about the broken-hearted or the nearly so, yet Miller's crystalline voice always keeps a hint of optimism among the woe as the band swings between hoedowns and slow burners. "Dance With Me" has a propulsive drive backed by soaring guitar lines, as Miller spits out his declarations: "Underneath the foreign stars / In a foreign place where they don’t love you – I do care." "The Color of A Lonely Heart Is Blue," sung by bass guitar player Murray Hammond, is the kind of song you can imagine being played at the campfire at sunset.

Gravity is a return to form for the band, with empathetic rock anthems waiting around every corner – "The Fool," "Ride," "I Will Remain." While country is the flavor, there's welcome and varied influences. The distorted fuzz-guitar of "Early Morning" sounds like Sonic Youth meets Merle Haggard, while "She Loves The Sunset" has an island-reverie swoon to it. "My Two Feet" is jangle-pop straight out of the Byrds/Beatles handbook. There's a confidence in their material that shows the hiatus has done them good. They've staked out a niche and are at home in it, and lord knows you never can have too many love songs.

For longtime fans, Blame It On Gravity is like a note from an old friend. For newcomers, it isn't a bad place to start at all. It's cowboy poetry that rides smooth the whole way down the trail.