Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Blue Mountain: Call it a comeback

PhotobucketAll right, I'll just get this out of the way -- I can't quite be an objective reviewer about Blue Mountain. They were the soundtrack of my college years back in Oxford, Mississippi -- a local alt-country band who were by far the best local band around and one of the best in the American South during the mid-1990s. Frontman Cary Hudson had a husky voice and a mean hand with the guitar, his bass player and wife Laurie Stirratt kept the groove on and provided charming backup vocals, and rowdy drummer Frank Coutch could slam with the best of them. Blue Mountain were the pinnacle to me of a great local band, friendly and open and they could always be counted on for a fine old show.

And it's not too much of a stretch to say we all ended up friends -- Oxford isn't that big a town, after all -- we'd be in the front row at every gig, Cary would come over and jam on our front porch back in Oxford with our friend Noah, and I remember one time a bunch of us had a mighty fine meal of venison sausage after felling a few trees (!!) out on their backwoods Mississippi property. PhotobucketThey're good guys, this band, and I'm proud to know 'em and sometimes pimp for them in my journalistic capacity. (One of my first "real" publications was a review of the band in Billboard magazine back in 1994, a quote from which the band kindly included on their gig posters.)

Blue Mountain never quite made it to the top level of the then-booming alternative country scene with bands like Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown or the Jayhawks, but carved out a comfortable niche for themselves. Most importantly, they had sincerity, and genuine love for what they were doing – lord knows I saw them live enough times to get an appreciation for pulling the hard yards and endless touring it takes a band to succeed. I even drove six hours round-trip to catch them in San Francisco one frigid night after I'd moved away from Mississippi. I was sorry to hear that Blue Mountain broke up around 2001, after a run of excellent albums on Roadrunner Records. But here it is just a few years later, and Blue Mountain is back together giving it another go with not just one but two albums, the all-new Midnight In Mississippi and the compilation Omnibus.

PhotobucketMidnight In Mississippi is a solid comeback, although it doesn't quite break any new ground for the band. It's a fine collection of open-hearted alt-country tunes, switching between rowdy hoedowns and gentle ballads. Lyrically, it feels like the music of an older rocker looking at his wild youth and coming to terms with what lies ahead. Lots of the songs look backwards – one sugary sweet, slightly tongue-in-cheek number is even titled "'70's Song" and its gorgeous harmonies brings to mind the Carpenters. But the best songs here are the loudest -- a rip-roaring "Midnight In Mississippi" name-checks all the old Oxford haunts of the band and is carried along by a tight harmonica-and-guitar riff. "Gentle Soul" has that jamming on the back porch feeling that Blue Mountain always excelled at, while "Skinny Dipping" mashes together cowpunk slash and folksy rhythm into a terrific bawdy romp. Some of the mellower numbers get a little drowsy, but overall, Midnight In Mississippi is a strong, mature effort.

PhotobucketThe second "new" Blue Mountain disc of 2008, Omnibus, is a "sort of" greatest hits collection – the songs were re-recorded from a selection of the band's previous albums. These are songs that should have been hits in a better world – the road anthem "A Band Called Bud," the raucous "Bloody 98," the bittersweet gem "Soul Sister." When Cary breaks out with the guitar solo on "A Band Called Bud," and roars out, "I'm a rock and roll soldier / no time to think of getting older," the memory of a hundred fantastic live gigs comes back to me. As one nitpick, I'm frankly not nuts about some of the re-recordings -- both the lovely ballads "Myrna Lee" and "Pretty Please" are replaced by overly slick and polished and in my mind inferior takes from the haunting, spacious Sun Studios-evocative originals. But it's a solid primer, although I'm sad to see their classic populist anthem "Jimmy Carter" isn't included.

If you're an old fan of Blue Mountain, I'd like to think Midnight In Mississippi will seem like a welcome return home. But if you missed out on Blue Mountain the first time around, check out Omnibus and some of their back catalog too – it's full of treasures.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The coolness that is Doug Jones

So I've continued my indoctrinating the boy into the ways of geek culture by taking him to his first comics/sci-fi convention, Auckland's Armageddon Expo. It's the first time I'd been to this one, which is the biggest in New Zealand, and it was really good fun - not as huge as some of the American expos I've been to of course but it was excellent to take a squirmy 4 1/2-year-old to as he admired various Stormtroopers, superheroes and manga characters running around in fun regalia (and like the idiot I am, I forgot the camera so sorry, no pictures of Peter shaking hands with the Stormtroopers). I tried to be fairly thrifty but did pick up some swell "Hellboy Animated" DVDs for a mere $7.50 each and treated myself to the utterly gorgeous new hardback of Brian Wood's LOCAL comic series.

PhotobucketThe big highlight of the day for me, though, was the Doug Jones panel. Doug Jones is far from a household name but if you're any kind of nerd you've seen him in something -- as the leader of the Gentlemen in the "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" episode "Hush", as a great Silver Surfer in "Fantastic Four 2," or most notably, as director Guillermo Del Toro's muse in several of his movies, including as fish-man Abe Sapien in the awesome "Hellboy" movies and as multiple characters in "Pan's Labyrinth" such as the ultra-freaky Pale Man. (Jones couldn't say for sure, but I hope he ends up in Guillermo's "Hobbit" movies -- which ya know, are going to be filmed here in New Zealand of course.)

PhotobucketI tell ya, for me personally, I would much rather sit and listen to Doug Jones for an hour over someone like Tom Cruise. Jones was terrifically funny, cheerful and animated as he told of how a freakishly tall, thin guy like himself makes his way in the Hollywood, and how he's become the "guy people stick strange costumes on." It was great fun, even as he told stories about things like having live moths stuck in his mouth for the forgotten 1990s movie "Hocus Pocus" or playing a mutated kangaroo man in not one but two movies ("Tank Girl" and "Warriors of Virtue" if you're keeping score). Frankly I only wish the talk had been longer.

The boy had a swell time too, got his first Transformers toy and ate lots of junk food as he and daddy watched all the strange folk wander about. ("When these people go home do they stay dressed as Boba Fett?" he wondered. I wonder too.)

Friday, October 24, 2008

Yes we can

PhotobucketSo we finally got our absentee ballots from California today. (They apparently got lost in the mail and had to be faxed.) Man, does it feel good to finally just vote after what feels like eons of campaigning. (Hey, remember back when Hillary Clinton ran for President?)

Yeah, I backed Barack and hopefully a hell of a lot of other Americans, at home and abroad, will be doing the same. I really didn't think I might be voting for a black man for President anytime soon; if I ever thought about it, it was like, well, maybe by 2020 or so we'll get to that point.... Whoever would have thought this guy, a state senator not that long ago, could have gotten to this point? It sure helps that John McCain has run one of the most inept campaigns in years.

Remarkably, three of the six folks running for President on the official California ballot are African-American – that's gotta be some kind of record. Of course, of those three, one (Keyes) is a certifiable lunatic and the other (McKinney) has her own share of controversies. But still, wow.

I'm just hoping come November 5, for the first time in 12 years or so, I can say, "Yeah, I voted for that guy," and not have it be in a sad tone of regret for what coulda been.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Life in New Zealand: Year three!

Photobucket...So this week marks two whole years since we packed our bags and made the big migration to New Zealand. I feel a lot more settled than we did after the first year; since last October we've bought a house, moved the rest of our stuff over from the U.S. and generally feel a lot more settled in for this here kiwi adventure, however long it lasts for. A lot of the smaller things that bugged me more notably at first bother me less -- the higher prices, the cultural differences, the occasional person's rather stereotypical impressions that all Americans are arrogant louts, etc. On the other hand, other things still get to me sometimes -- the general "smallness" of country can make you feel a bit claustrophobic. It's hard not to feel disconnected from the rest of the world sometimes. I still haven't really learned to care about rugby or cricket in this rather sports-obsessed place.

One thing I've told a lot of Americans when they ask me about New Zealand is that it's not perfect, which I know sounds kind of negative but it isn't really meant to be. There's this fantasyland Oz view of New Zealand out there which is good for us but also can lead to shattered expectations for many an immigrant from other countries expecting all the problems in their lives to magically disappear when they move to another land. Of course, nowhere on Earth is that perfect, really. New Zealand's got its problems; the crime situation especially among youth is a real worry for me, even if it might be a bit overblown in media coverage from reality. I don't think I'm being negative so much as I'm being a realist rather than an idealist when it comes to my adopted nation.

But there is a heck of a lot of beauty here, of course. Auckland is a nifty town, with the amenities of most big cities but nowhere near as crowded as say, Los Angeles; where you can drive pretty much no more than 30 minutes in any direction and be at a fantastic beach; where cultures from all over the world rub elbows (it's at least as diverse as San Francisco); where there's an endearing small-town feeling for a place of over a million people, a sense we're all in this together way down here on the southern edge of the world.

Being here in an election year for both New Zealand and the US has been quite fascinating, as I've blogged about frequently lately -- it really lays bare all the big and little differences between the way these two nations do things. I'm proud to have lived in both of 'em, and look forward to what year 3 brings. (The main challenge: Peter starting school! Urk!)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

My Classic Comics ABCS: Flaming Carrot #5

Here we are at #6 on my alphabetical journey through my 25+ years of comic collecting, and we hit the heart of surreal superhero-dom -- the fabulous Flaming Carrot.

PhotobucketI first discovered the Flaming Carrot during the glorious black-and-white comics boom of the mid-1980s, where long-gone publishers like Renegade, Eclipse, First and more sat side-by-side with Marvel and DC at your comic shops. For a lad of 14 or so, it was a cool time to dabble, and nothing on the racks was weirder than Bob Burden's cartoon creation. With the wacky name, eye-catching design and tangible sense of fun that jumped out of the pages, Flaming Carrot Comics was something I had to check out.

The first issue I saw, #5, was like diving into a Lewis Carroll poem or something – a drunken, amnesiac kind-of superhero Flaming Carrot wanders through the city having bizarre adventures with the Frankenstein Monster, martians, hot groupies and a guest appearance by Death himself. Burden's comic was quite stream-of-consciousness – the art, admittedly, was competent rather than dazzling, with a chunky amiability despite the lack of polish. It was less a story than a series of goofy moments strung together, like Marx Brothers meets Spider-Man or somesuch.

A highlight for me this issue was an out-of-nowhere soliloquy by the Carrot that achieves a kind of T.S. Eliot grandeur to me -- "I sit on the lawn ... a child in the summer ... holding my head and looking at it carefully..." Tremendously oddball yet evocative stuff, and you sure didn't see that in Marvel Comics then. It struck a spark in me then, a kind of creative match that made me want to create my own strange characters.

Burden's infectious creativity showed me that no idea was really too strange to not just go with, that you didn't have to be all smooth and refined, and I soon ended up scribbling away pages and pages of a quasi-comic short story called "The Spongy Chronicles" largely inspired by the Flaming Carrot's insane world. It's daft stuff looked at now, of course, but a few years later I took some of the things from that and used it to create the small-press comic Amoeba Adventures, which I started in college and ran with through much of the 1990s and am moderately proud of. It was hardly Nobel Prize-winning material but it did win some fans and friends and was a hell of a lot of fun, and I have to admit I wonder if I would have been inspired to do it if it weren't for the Flaming Carrot. (In fact I even named a villain in the series "The Asbestos Mushroom" in a tip to the Carrot hat.)

Bob Burden has continued sporadic adventures of the Flaming Carrot to this day (the muddled movie misfire "Mystery Men" was also based on some of his creations), and it's best when it still has that what-the-hell randomness that drew me to it in the first place. Flaming Carrot, I salute you. Ut!

Previously in this series: A: Amazing Spider-Man, B: Batman, C: Cerebus, D: Doom Patrol, E: Eightball.

Friday, October 17, 2008

McCain mutiny, Magazine and band-aids

Random Friday notes!

Photobucket• How you know that your once-toddler is growing into a truly rambunctious and rowdy 4 1/2-year-old boy -- he managed to have band-aids on BOTH legs and his elbow earlier this week. It's a busy life being a moderately clumsy boy who falls down a lot. Sometimes his legs look like he was run over by a truck and I'm vaguely worried Child Services might think we're beating on him. Ah, to be a boy again, where you don't creak for weeks when you fall flat on your face...

• OK, after five debates this past month (four in the U.S. and one New Zealand), I'm officially debated-out. Still, yesterday's American finale was interesting to watch as the slow implosion of John McCain's campaign continues. Yes, he could still win, and I'm certainly not going to rule it out, but boy, overall his performance in these debates has been dismal. Interestingly, it's not so much what he said as how he performed. Obama has proven to be pretty masterful at projecting a cool, collected vibe, even if it sometimes is a bit stiff. But McCain has been all over the bloody show at all three debates, by turns hyperactive, frazzled, arrogant and insecure. I watched much of yesterday's debate on the big-screen at work, with the sound lower so I was focusing more on the visuals than the words, and McCain was just jittery, vibrating on that chair like a volcano in the rough. These debates have shown the sound bites are sometimes less important than the image ones, I think.

Photobucket• Very cool retro discovery of October for me is the post-punk band Magazine. I've been re-reading my "Rough Guide To Punk" and they sounded interesting, so I plunked out on the collection "Where The Power Is". After grooving out to it all week, I'm definitely going back for more of their albums. Frontman Howard DeVoto was originally in The Buzzcocks and after splitting with them set off to make his own band. Wow, what a cool sound they had -- kind of straddling the line between punk anger and synth-pop, they're like the missing link between the Sex Pistols and Depeche Mode. "Where The Power Is" covers the band's 1978-1981 heyday, and goes from the raging explosion of "Shot On Both Sides" to the doom-pop "This Poison." Special props to the epic "The Light Pours Out of Me" and guitars 'n' keyboards workout of "Definitive Gaze", although my favorite tune might be the snide and twisted "A Song From Under The Floorboards." Devoto sneers in his Johhny Rotten meets Peter Garrett voice, "I know the meaning of life / it doesn't help me a bit." Too cool.

• Well, after mulling it over I plunked down my $150NZ (urk!) and am going to see Neil Young in January, along with Prodigy, TV On The Radio and all the rest at the Big Day Out 2009. I wavered a bit but looked over at all my Neil Young CDs (I don't have everything from this prolific singer, but I've got nearly 20 of 'em) and said, My My, Hey Hey, OK. Besides, living in New Zealand, you really have to take into account the likelihood of a performer ever coming through here again. Sadly, faithful wife isn't going, so heck, if anyone in Auckland is going and wants to hang, let me know...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Live blogging! The New Zealand Election Debate!

OK, here's some fun -- I'm going to live blog my impressions of the first televised debate between Labour's Prime Minister Helen Clark and National leader John Key. It's my first time viewing one of these in NZ, and will be interesting to compare it to the American counterparts. Shame they're not including the minor party leaders in this as they actually can have much more impact on politics here than in America, but so it goes....

Photobucket7.00 Good lord, this set looks exactly like the game show "The Weakest Link." Scary. The blue lighting on the background audience is odd.

7.02 Wow, Helen Clark's voice is REALLY deep.

7.03 And John Key's is less deep. He keeps bobbing his head from left to right.

7.04 Couldn't moderator Mark Sainsbury have bothered to shave? He looks like a hedgehog.

7.06 I do like the format of the questions -- filmed on YouTube and submitted by Kiwi citizens here and overseas. It kind of makes this feel more participatory.

7.09 Why do Key and Sainsbury call her "Helen Clark" on every reference? It sounds weird.

7.15 Yikes, a lot more shouting and going back and forth than in the US debates. Which is good, because it feels like they're really debating, but is bad because there's a fair amount of talking over each other and "Helen you're wrong" combined with "No John, you're wrong."

7.17 Very heavy focus on economy. So far, Key is kind of presenting the everyman view a bit more while Clark is coming off a tad surly.

7.17 Hey, they have commercials here!

7.24 It's curious -- Clark makes a passing reference to releasing housing affordability policy tomorrow. I'm still not used to how, less than a month before the election, all the parties are just unveiling their policies. Campaigns here are definitely far more foreshortened than the U.S.

7.28 Suddenly, all hell breaks out -- an argument over shower nozzles! Awesome. (A rumoured plan to reduce shower water pressure that has been badly received.) Again, very squabbly and in-your-face arguing -- "You might be used to shouting people down at home, you're not shouting me down," Clark tells Key, and the audience audibly grumbles.

7.30 Sainsbury goes off on a crusade about money - "Do you feel rich?" he asks. Clark is a bit nonplussed, while Key turns it into a campaign pivot.

7.43 A debate about climate change is interesting, focusing on NZ's "clean green" image and the cost it takes to maintain that. However, Key starts to lose me by asking "What's the point" of a tiny country like NZ leading the world in being carbon-free? Yeah, we're no China, but still...

7.45 Some goofballs start beat-boxing for no particular reason in the middle of their YouTube question, which comes off really geeky.

7.53 Tough words on crime, but neither really comes across with a sterling answer on a rising problem in NZ, especially in Auckland.

8.00 A curious digression into the 1981 Springboks Rugby Tour which is a defining moment in NZ history, especially since it involves rugby (and apartheid). Trying to pin Key down on what he thought on an event 27 years ago (when he was 20 and as he admits, it wasn't that important an issue to him at that time) seems a bit like a kiwi "Ayers moment," i.e. much ado about nothing much. Clark continues to be fairly aggressive, often to her detriment I feel.

8.08 Final 20 minutes before any Maori issues are brought up.

8.22 It's curious for me that Clark is basically using the same argument as John McCain, even though politically they have next to nothing in common -- it's all about experience and the record.

8.25 Finally a questioner brings up the exclusion of the other six party leaders. I guess they have been included in the past and Clark refers to it as being a "bit like a game show." She's seen the set!

8.30 So it ends as it began, with shouting at each other.

Final thoughts: Well, interesting. I've been saying all along I'm a bit less invested in this election than I am the American one, where I've known since March or so I was voting for Obama. Politically, I'm simpatico with most of Labour's positions, but was curious to hear more from John Key. Frankly, Key was better than I thought, while Clark was less than she often is capable of. She's a terrific politician and a very good speaker, but today she seemed to let Key get under her skin and was too combative and borderline rude. There was too much interrupting and shouting by both candidates, though. Clark looks great when she smiles but spent a lot of time scowling, whereas Key came off fairly relaxed and more articulate than he has in news segments. He was often artfully vague though, like most politicians.

I'm fairly sure who and what I'm voting for myself, but it's been good to get an idea what will happen if -- as the polls seem to show -- Key does become Prime Minister.
Grades: Key B, Clark B-

Tuesday shuffle: I heard Papa tell Mama, Let that boy boogie woogie

...It's the kind of weather where it's cold in the morning but in the afternoon hot and sticky and you're walking home carrying the leather jacket you wore to work this morning and sweating. And your shoes hurt.

I didn't mean to hit the shuffle button twice -- actual content soon, I swear, just been a busy week.

Photobucket1. Sound And Vision 3:04 David Bowie
2. Lullaby 2:03 Liam Finn*
3. The Taxi 2:07 Young Marble Giants
4. Evolution 4:46 Cat Power
5. One Love 3:36 The Stone Roses
6. Black Dog 2:34 Blue Mountain**
7. Boogie Chillen 3:12 John Lee Hooker***
8. Back In The U.S.S.R. 1:54 The Beatles****
9. Firestarter 4:43 The Prodigy

* Son of the great Neil Finn, of course.
** Great old Mississippi band and friends of mine wouldjabelieveit, and one of their best songs, a right ol' Southern barnburner.
*** Every time I hear this tune, I grin. Can't help it.
**** When I was 12 or 13, another kid tried to convince me this song proved the Beatles were "communists." The 1980s were an interesting time.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Friday shuffle: Holy muscle of love

...Walking to work on a nice sunny morning and then it begins to rain on you. Welcome to New Zealand, mate!

Photobucket1. Defy You 3:49 The Offspring
2. Rael 1 5:45 The Who
3. Just Lose It 4:09 Eminem
4. Odditty 2:34 The Clean*
5. She's A Rainbow 4:13 The Rolling Stones
6. Muscle Of Love 3:46 Alice Cooper
7. The Passenger 4:43 Iggy Pop
8. An Unmarketed Product 1:08 Guided By Voices

*A very excellent New Zealand band. Fans of Pavement, check them out.
** I listened to about half this song not knowing who it was. From the Stones' wistful hippies phase I think.
*** The best song title ever. Biggest regret in life: When I interviewed Alice Cooper a couple years back, I didn't ask him about "Muscle of Love."
**** Which is better -- wild rabid dog Iggy or moody mystic Iggy? I can't decide.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Days of future shock

PhotobucketY'know, the Internet is kinda cool. I know, I know, this is self-evident, but honestly, sometimes I think we get used to technology so quickly we tend to forget how swell it can be. Sometimes you need to just stand back and go, "Whoa." This came to me yesterday as the boy and I tested out Skype for the first time -- video-phone calling my parents on the other side of the world, being able to see and talk to them in real-time video, which was amazing. Then after that I sat down and watched the second US presidential debate streaming on The New York Times web site, all the while of course checking in on various live-blogging reactions to it. Even four years ago, I couldn't have imagined doing any of this so easily. Video has just exploded online in the last year or two. It wasn't all that long ago that video-phone calling was the realm of science fiction. The web has so thoroughly entangled itself in everyday life that it's hard to imagine being completely cut off from it anymore. And I don't even own a Blackberry or iPhone.

Even say 15 years ago, moving to New Zealand would have been a lot more isolating proposition than it is now. Back then, Avril and I only communicated by letters and the rare phone call. "Instant" talk was rare. If we'd lived a century ago, we would've basically been saying goodbye to everyone we knew in America for good when we moved Down Under, with perhaps an occasional damp long-delayed letter. These days, thanks to email, Skype, Facebook, and the like, some days I practically forget I'm living in New Zealand and not just in a remote part of America. As Thomas Friedman puts it, the world is flat these days -- and getting flatter all the time. If only we could get teleportation figured out, life would be perfect!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Boring election vs. evil election

So, it's about one month before Election Day in two countries. I wish I could say the New Zealand election was particularly interesting, but frankly, it's been an utter snooze so far. Campaign laws dictate the parties can't even begin "official" campaigns until a month out from the election, so that might be part of it, but really I think it's just a total lack of suspense. As I've written before, Labour's running for a fourth term, and the opposition National has had a lead in the polls for -- well, all year, really. At this point it's hard for me to get that interested in a campaign that lacks passion. I'm frankly more interested in the minor parties and what role they might play in a coalition government's makeup. Maybe this race will change in the next month, maybe not.

PhotobucketMeanwhile, in the US, well -- this is an election that will be talked about for a long time, no matter what happens. What's been amazing to me is just how low and awful John McCain's clan have sunk. No hurdle is so low they can't crawl under it. The latest of course is the thinly veiled racism and "other" card, with hatchetwoman Palin repeatedly dropping code words about Obama. "Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain asked today. Because, y'know, Obama's different if you get my meaning. I hear he's a Muslin or something like that. What we should be asking is, what happened to "straight talkin'" John McCain, or has he always been this way? You reap what you sow, and if you sow hate, that's what you get.

It's amazing that the "inexperienced" Democrat has run the far more mature, statesmanlike campaign, while McCain has been running as if he were some hotblooded county sheriff yanked off to Warshington for the first time. I hope the poll trends are correct and the right choice is made Nov. 4. Frankly, if McCain/Palin govern like they campaign, we'll be launching nukes in North Korea by Groundhog Day, journalism will be outlawed and Pat Robertson will be Secretary of State.

Friday, October 3, 2008

TV On The Radio: Dear Science,

PhotobucketCalling all stations – TV On The Radio is back on the airwaves, and it's worth tuning in for this. The Brooklyn art-rock combo's third disc, Dear Science, is here (yes, the comma's part of the title), and it's a dazzling and inventive "letter to whom it may concern" that's funky, angry and open-hearted.

If TV On The Radio's debut was fuzzy space rock and their second album Return To Cookie Mountain a gritty, tense marriage of doo-wop and industrial howl, this one is a bit more mainstream. It's hard to categorize, hence the one-size-fits-all tag of "art rock" – splinters of Motown, Afro-pop, post-punk splatter and Brian Eno cascade about Dear Science, a test-tube full of influence that still manages to sound wholly original.

They're still a band that thrives on tension, but this is also a pitch for global audiences. I don't know if TV On The Radio set out to create the soundtrack to the Bush years, but the push-and-pull of anxiety I get from their albums makes as good a background music as any. Acidic asides on the state of the nation -- "I'm scared to death that I'm living a life not worth dying for," goes a line in "Red Dress" -- blend with very personal dramas. TV on the Radio are nervous, but their fears make for some unforgettable sounds.

PhotobucketTunde Adebimpe (the Peter Gabriel-esque wail) and Kyp Malone (channeling Prince's falsetto through a Pixies filter) trade off vocals and songwriting duties, resulting in a diverse yet coherent mish-mash. There's more hip-hop and funk dripping into the band's sound here -- "Dancing Choose" starts off with an outraged rap ("Angry young man / American apparently", Adebimpe sneers) that segues into punchy horns, a smooth chorus and even what sounds to me like an alarm clock beeping repeatedly. The oozingly luxurious single "Golden Age" could be the most uncomplicatedly happy song TV On The Radio's ever done -- if it wasn't for that skittering, unhinged set of beats.

Beautiful downer "Family Tree" evokes the ethereal gravitas of Sigür Rös, while the knock-out "Shout Me Out" starts as a blissed-out reverie that explodes into a scribbly light-speed guitar workout straight out of a Velvet Underground live bootleg. "DLZ" builds up to a catharsis that ranks with the band's best – "Never you mind, death professor / If love is life, my love is better," Adebimpe hollers against a chorus of bleeps, whistles, bangs and feedback.

I think I might prefer Adebimpe's more adventurous, outgoing anthems to Malone's slightly mellower songs, but it's a peanut butter-and-chocolate thing here -- the two songwriters together are what make it all work. Multi-instrumentalist band member and producer David Andrew Sitek is key -- he layers sounds without making it claustrophobic; the dense production is enveloping and rewards repeat listens.

Dear Science, bounces between the poles of love and fear, rage and acceptance, and it's this fierce struggle that animates it. TV On The Radio's music has always felt to me like it's being broadcast from about five minutes into our future. It's a channel I can't wait to tune into again.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

I have never seen "Batman and Robin" and I'm OK with that

I am a man of wide and discerning tastes. And I do love the comic-book movies, from the very, very good (The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Superman II) to the just OK (Fantastic Four, Superman Returns) to the oh god why did I watch that? (Ang Lee's Hulk, Elektra, the John Travolta Punisher movie which hurts my brain)

But while I'm a bona-fide comic geek fanboy, there is one comic movie I've never seen: 1997's hugely reviled Batman and Robin. I saw 1989's Batman, which is the perfect example of a movie that seemed awesome at the time but hasn't aged all that well. I saw Batman Returns -- loved Catwoman, hated the Penguin. I saw Batman Forever and I loathed it -- Val Kilmer's Botox-lipped Batman, Tommy Lee Jones chewing through walls as Two-Face (thank god for Aaron Eckhart), the day-glo production design, Chris O'Donnell's oh-sweet-jeezus-can-I-punch-him-in-the-face-pleeze-annoying Robin.

PhotobucketBy the time 1997 rolled around I had enough, and things were kind of chaotic that year for me anyway and so I never got to see the glories of Arnold Schwarzengegger as Mr. Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, or George Clooney pre-Oscar as Batman. A year or so later word of mouth had set in on this movie (random IMDB commenter to director Joel Schumacher: "I hate you so much, just for this film."), and despite working part-time at a video store for the late 1990s, I never felt the urge to see it. Then came the 'comic book movie revival' with X-Men and all the rest and so forth.

Occasionally I've thought, gosh, as a comic book geek, fannish completism is part of the gig, and I really ought to just watch this "Batman & Robin" one day to see just how bad it is. I watched Madonna's "Swept Away" after all (and lost the ability to see for a week, but never mind).

Then this morning I idly stumbled across a YouTube 10-minute "best of" clips from "Batman & Robin" online. I watched it all, coffee dribbling from my slack mouth in horror, Arnold Schwarzenegger's lame puns ricocheting about my brain, and I realized, that life is a precious jewel that is far too short and our time is far better spent. Ten minutes was enough.

Ten minutes I will never, ever get back:

Update: Comics blogging icon (well, demigod) Mike Sterling weighs in on "Batman & Robin", totally ripping me off really but I have to give him props because he actually watched the movie, and took notes. He's a hard, hard man, that Sterling.