Saturday, December 27, 2008

A very merry kauri Christmas

PhotobucketWell, that was a whirlwind Christmas trip -- less than 48 hours out of Auckland -- but we had to negotiate work schedules and so forth and were pleased with what we got. We drove on up to Opononi, a flyspeck hamlet perched on the shore of the Hokianga Harbour about three hours north of Auckland. It's a place I last passed through in 2003 on our trip to Cape Reinga, and we'd been wanting to see more of.

The big attraction in this part of NZ is the kauri forest, the remnants of trees that once spanned most of the country (little-known fact: the lovely green rolling hills most people think of when they think New Zealand are actually the legacy of clear-cutting by man). Kauri are basically the redwood trees of New Zealand, and among the biggest trees on earth. As I've said before, I love redwoods and I quite like kauri too. They don't quite reach the heights of redwoods -- 160 feet or so max as opposed to nearly 400 feet for reddies, but they do have an astounding girth -- the biggest is 50 feet around. Running across some of the few remaining giant kauri is a bit like coming across a solid wood wall in the middle of the forest. The pictures don't quite do them justice in terms of scale.

PhotobucketThis time we stopped at the most excellent Kauri Museum in Matakohe along the way. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, it's one of the better museums I've seen in NZ, with a look at kauri logging and its role in the pioneer settlements, in Maori legend, and its ecology. It's a huge sprawling place with a replica of a working sawmill and tons of big machines which Peter loved.

Also featured is a display of all kinds of kauri gum, which is a gorgeous glowing golden amber and was a prized resource. The museum had nifty displays of gum, included some carved into strange shapes (the kauri gum carved into the shapes of Christian Bibles is a nice statement of the 19th-century mindset).

Photobucket Of course, despite it being summer in New Zealand, we had a mostly rainy getaway to Opononi, but it was still nice. The damp lends an evocative atmosphere to the kauri bush anyway, which is full of kiwis and such. (Not that we saw one -- actually, has anyone reading outside of biologists actually seen a kiwi in the wild? They're very stealthy.) We wandered on the great beaches of Hokianga Harbour, ate too much fish, chips and chocolate for our own good, opened Christmas prezzies and then came back to Auckland and opened still more! My kind of holiday, mate!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Six sentence Sunday

1. How is it I only discovered how cool the band Portishead is just now?

2. Watching the awesome new Criterion Collection DVD of Wes Anderson's first movie "Bottle Rocket", I was reminded again of how honest and sweet the not-quite storybook romance between Luke Wilson's fumbling hapless burglar and the gem-eyed Hispanic maid Inez is.

3. I really want to see "The Curious Affair of Benjamin Button" soon.

4. Our major family Christmas present this year was a new refrigerator, and it is indeed a towering monster of ice-cool goodness that is nearly double the size of our poky old fridge, and it scares me a little bit.

5. Every time I get my hair cut these days my hairline is just a little bit higher.

6. We are off for an extra-short Christmas getaway to parts unknown, so Joyeux Noel and all that jazz!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Concert review: The Mountain Goats, Auckland, December 17

Photobucket...John Darnielle is the rockingest hyper-wordy acoustic-guitar geek in the music biz. The Mountain Goats frontman and his two-man band put on a fantastic show at the Kings Arms last night in Auckland, short but intense and often very funny. I've been a fan of the Goats (basically Darnielle and occasional collaborators) for several years now. He's one of the best songwriters in the business and I've long wanted to see him live. There's few singers that can manage the fragile intensity of Darnielle's songs -- Auckland crowds are usually a bit rowdy at gigs but the audience was hushed and reverent as John spun his tales of beat-down outcasts, lost loves and confused minds. They even handed back John's guitar pick when it fell!

John was in very good cheer, on the second-to-last date of a globetrotting tour, telling amusing monologues about Norwegian death metal and songwriting in Alaska. He started the set solo with his acoustic guitar (which he still managed to "shred" on as he pounded away at it), then during a terrific "In The Craters of the Moon," his nattily-dressed bass player Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster joined him onstage, exploding the acoustic tune into a full-on band set. One thing I really loved about John is how un-self-conscious this former psychiatric nurse was on stage -- he doesn't exactly cut a rock-star figure, with his bowl haircut and glasses, but his sheer joy in his craft is contagious. He pulled goofy faces and banged away at that acoustic guitar like he wanted to be Hendrix.

It was marvelous to see the audience at the Kings Arms were such fans, and slightly surreal in the encore to have cheery group sing-alongs to two of the Goats' darkest tunes, "No Children" and "This Year" (which feature oddly uplifting choruses along the lines of "I hope you die / I hope we both die" or "I am going to make it through this year / if it kills me.") It's very hard to translate on the page how Darnielle's intense wheedling voice can make words like these seem life affirming, but somehow they do. After the last couple of weeks, it was pretty damned cathartic to sing along with the Mountain Goats.

If I had one caveat, it's that it was kind of a short show, just over 90 minutes maybe, but then again, it was a work night and the wife and I were both worn out and eager to hit the hay by midnight. It was a highly enjoyable show, so quality wins over quantity this time. Props also to a very good opening set by Kiwi band SideKickNick, who put on some quirky and energetic power pop. (I've seen a few wretched opening acts lately, so when I see one I dig it makes the whole night a little better.)

Below: "This Year," The Mountain Goats

Monday, December 15, 2008

Year in Review: My Top 10 CDs

...Wow, you know, for me 2008 was actually quite a fantastic year for new music. Some years I've had trouble picking a Top 5, but this year I nearly could have done a Top 20. As it is I had to make some painful arbitrary cuts. Acts I've loved for years such as REM and Beck put out swell new albums, but I also discovered a ton of excellent acts this year (many thanks to cool blogs*) -- like the Hold Steady, Wolf Parade, NZ's own Flight of the Conchords and She & Him.

The order of my Top 10 could easily shift given a change of mood, and there's still a couple of '08 albums I really want to hear but haven't had a chance yet. All that as a caveat, in my humble opinion you can't go wrong with any of these discs from the year that nearly was:

Photobucket1. Hold Steady, "Stay Positive"
Anthemic, inspirational and literate good ol' rock 'n' roll, and a constant in the stereo/iPod all year long. Frontman Craig Finn is one of these dowdy rock poets you see every once in a while, worshipping at the altar of Costello and Springsteen, and on his band's fourth album, creating a rockin' record that never ignores the tough moments, but ultimately seems one hell of a life-affirming document. Swinging from singing about being too old for the "scene" to crooning about cult filmmaker John Cassavetes, Finn manages the tricky business of juggling knowing when to rock and when to go for the killer lyrical hook. A great album has layers, and I'm still digging down deep into this one.

2. Cat Power, "Jukebox"
I know, an album of cover tunes? But nobody does covers like Cat Power, who takes a song and massages it into her own blood. Her takes on tunes by Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday are grooving, sultry and utterly her own. I'd have to say she's my favorite singer performing these days. Seeing her live back in March performing these songs was one of the year's highlights.

Photobucket3. Wolf Parade, "At Mount Zoomer"
Broody, swirling and strange, the second album by this Canadian group is also kind of beautiful because (or in spite of) all the left turns. Sometimes it feels as if a few songs have been squashed together into one. It's got the grandeur of their mates Arcade Fire but sometimes also reminds me of The Doors without the boozy pretension. There's an urgency to it all that keeps the tunes in your head.

4. The Mountain Goats, "Heretic Pride"
I'm finally going to see them live this Wednesday, and I'm psyched. John Darnielle is one of "low-fi" pop's best writers, cunning with a turn of phrase and a fine eye for detail. He started out with boom-box recordings that were faint, tinny and strangely absorbing, but expands into a full band here with glorious results.

5. TV On The Radio, "Dear Science"
This one's on everyone's top 10 lists this year. Am I being a dork by saying I've been into them since 2004? I am so cool. Anyway, TV On The Radio abandons their more prickly side for a bit more mainstream sound, but their industrial-strength doo-wop punk-soul is still hugely compelling stuff, backed up by the dueling vocalists, dense instrumentation, and a state of mind that unerringly captures the confused, battered yet optimistic post-Bush, pre-Obama mindset of the world today.

Photobucket6. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!"
The Australian high priest of weird doom and gloom, back with a roaring album of lust and temptation and sprawling story-rant lyrics. Like hearing a deranged preacher yelling at you in the subway, but backed by a garage band so propulsively cool you can't help but listen. If that doesn't sound like a recommendation, you don't know Nick Cave.

7. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, "Real Emotional Trash"
Combines the quirky whimsy of his old band Pavement with long, groovy psychedelic guitar jams, like a mash-up of Guided by Voices and Television. Wonderfully loopy and unexpectedly emotional, it's the best he's done since Pavement broke up and a terrific guitar record. Put it on, turn it up and stare off into space.

Photobucket8. Bob Dylan, "The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs"
Strictly speaking, not "new" music but what a revelation of material from Bob's work of the last two decades. Gorgeously packaged alternate versions, unreleased songs and live tracks -- it's like getting a couple of new Dylan albums this year! I don't know if three versions of "Mississippi" were needed but "Red River Shore" is a sheer classic and just about justifies the album on its own. Dylan never really "finishes" a song and this look at his sketchbook is fascinating. (Now when do we get an official "Basement Tapes," dagnabit?)

9. Liam Finn, "I'll Be Lightning"
OK, this is a technicality, because it actually came out in New Zealand in 2007, but was released in America in 2008 and I bought it in 2008, so thppppptt. Liam, the Kiwi son of the great Neil Finn of Crowded House, crafts honey-sweet tunes that combine the House's melancholy beauty with a ramshackle, fuzzed-out charm. He's a one-man band, playing nearly every single instrument on this dense album (see him live, it's great how he recreates the sound). It's one of the more promising "famous musical kids" discs I've heard, and grows on me more with each listen.

Photobucket10. Calexico, "Carried To Dust."
Moody Tex-Mex Americana rambles along through one of this Arizona band's best albums. It's the kind of music you listen to while driving through red dirt and ever-setting sunsets. There's a genuine warmth to Calexico's work, which is like soundtracks for epic western movies that never quite existed. In terms of evoking a mood, these guys are hard to beat.

The almost-tops, tied for #11:
Ryan Adams,
"Cardinology," Jenny Lewis, "Acid Tongue," She & Him, "Vol. 1," Elvis Costello and the Imposters, "Momufuku," Beck, "Modern Guilt," REM, "Accelerate."

Best live show:

Tough call as Wilco, Sonic Youth and Cat Power all delivered most excellent Auckland shows, but the massive Big Day Out back in January squished Arcade Fire, Spoon, LCD Soundsystem, Bjork, Liam Finn and Billy Bragg into one hell of a day, so that gets the nod. One of my all-time great musical memories -- here's hoping Neil Young, TV on the Radio and Prodigy can deliver a fitting follow-up next month!

(*As always, go to Largehearted Boy for the coolest dang wrap-up of just about every blog in the universe's Top 10 lists!)

I could watch this all day long.

Kind of hypnotic, ain't it?

...You know, say what you will about Bush (and I will), but the man does have good reflexes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Buffy-A-Thon: Season 7, the grand finale

Enough with the grim reality, how about a little vampire action? In recent weeks, the wife and I finally wrapped up our silly goal of watching every single episode of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer." Now, the final report on the final season!

PhotobucketWe actually felt a little choked up, having come to the grand end run of 144 hours (egad!) of Buffy goodness, even since my idle plan nearly 3 years ago to start watching the entire series from beginning to end. It wasn't some enormous goal, but rather a mild dare -- I'd always been curious to check out "Buffy," most of the TV shows on the air are crap anyway, so why not?

Many times we wondered, how did we not watch this while it was on the air? Some of the time I was moving around country scraping by into new jobs, and TV watching wasn't really a priority; and for several years, we lived up in the mountains and didn't get UPN or WB where "Buffy" was aired. And finally at some point the "Buffy" mythology just seemed so daunting and elaborate to the uninitiated that it didn't seem worth trying to dive in mid-stream. But y'know, I'm glad we consumed the show on DVD season by season -- I can't imagine having to wait a whole week between episodes!

So, Season 7. This felt like a final season, in ways both good and bad. There was a constant sense of momentum, a sense of tying up loose ends; but there was also a bit of creative bankruptcy, a sense that the show was used up. Show creator Joss Whedon's absence after Season 5 is still felt; the dialogue lacks a bit of punch and the humour is played down in favour of more angst. While the army of new young slayer potentials is a pretty cool idea, it ends up with a huge slew of new characters added to the show and a bit of overcrowding. The battle against The First ends up being a big circle back to the series' very first year, and the struggle against the demon-creating Hellmouth. There were a couple points where I felt like, OK, enough with the build-up to a battle against impossible odds, we've seen this before. The season was very focused, but sometimes a bit predictable, too.

Still, I quite enjoyed the battle with the "Big Bad" this season, the incorporeal sum of all evil "The First." It's unusual for a Buffy villain as it has no physical form, instead appearing in a variety of guises as dead former cast members or as Buffy herself (who's died a few times of course herself). It all feels like quite a war, and there's casualties galore (many red-shirt 'potential' slayers, the wounding of Xander, the shocking death of a cast member in the finale, even poor Sunnydale itself). While Season 7 isn't the show's finest overall (I think I might go with Season 4), it's still got plenty to recommend it.

I'm glad to have finally seen "Buffy" and enjoyed the heck out of it. What next? At some point I might check in on the "Buffy Season 8" comic book followup which is quite groovy, but as for TV? The spin-off "Angel"? The highly acclaimed "Battlestar: Galactica" reboot maybe, which I still haven't seen? (I'm an absurd fan of the kitschy original I have to admit). "Veronica Mars" as Rob keeps telling me? Perhaps it's time to finally check out "Dancing With The Stars." Or not.

PhotobucketBest episode: "Dirty Girls," the first of the series of episodes winding up the series. Why? Because Nathan Fillion is thirty kinds of awesome, and his introduction as the southern-fried preacher/serial killer/super-demon Caleb juiced up the entire season. The First was a nifty psychological villain, but Caleb provided the slinky physical menace Buffy needs. Fillion is best known as a good guy in "Firefly" or "Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog," but here he's an out-and-out monster, and great at it. There's a real sense anything can happen when Caleb's on screen, and the episode that introduces him is a classic.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The update

OK, well, my father-in-law had surgery yesterday to remove as much of the brain tumour as possible, and it went well enough -- he's alive, he's coherent and happy to still be around. As for what lies ahead, we'll see -- he's going to be in hospital for a while, of course, and a lot hinges on what the biopsy tells about the tumour and if chemotherapy, etc. are needed. But we've crossed a major hurdle, and glad to have done it.

Needless to say it's been stressful on us all, there's been a lot of zipping to the hospital and young kids to look after and so forth. Thanks to those who have expressed kind thoughts here, on Facebook and through emails, Avril and I muchly appreciate it. This is the first of any of our parents to face such a life-threatening situation, and as those of you who've gone through know, it isn't easy. I'll attempt to get back to the light-hearted pop culture type posts as well in coming days, but obviously, we'll still be thinking a heck of a lot about Granddad Peter and hope he's OK.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Reality interlude

...It's been a bad week, and while I like to refrain from getting too personal and confessional on this blog, I do need to at least take a moment to talk about what's going on right now with us.

On Friday, my father-in-law was admitted to hospital after an apparent stroke. He was later diagnosed with a brain tumour. At this point, we don't know a lot other than it's on the large side and needs to be gotten out right away. He's having surgery later this week, and as you can imagine, we're all a little freaked out and things are intense right now. It's all come rather out of nowhere, and it's amazing how quickly things can change.

None of us are really religious, but that doesn't mean good thoughts don't count, so all I can say is if you can spare a few for us, we appreciate it. Obviously I may not be doing too much posting for a spell. Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Have care whilst cooking the Salmon Of Knowledge

With a tip of the hat to loving wife, reason #1 why mythology is AWESOME:

Celtic deities vs. Christianity? Celtics WIN.

(From DK's Illustrated Dictionary of Mythology.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Judge a book by its cover? Why certainly

PhotobucketDo I judge a book by its cover? Oh heck yes, I do. I admit to being shamefacedly surface about such things, and have frequently found myself drawn into a book simply because of an eyecatching design. (Of course, not all books with a nifty cover turn out to be good books.)

Like a lot of book nerds, I'm a fan of the elegant design work of Chip Kidd, who's become the first dust-jacket superstar designer and done everything from "All The Pretty Horses" to "Naked" to "The Secret History" to "Jurassic Park". There are a lot of other cool designers out there but he's still king of the block. Kidd's style of interior book design can wear a bit thin, but when it comes to covers, he's got a magic eye. After I found out who Kidd was, I was surprised to realise several of my favorite book covers in my collection turned out to be his work. A book cover is a curious animal -- it has to include text of some sort, obviously, but it also needs a visual peg. Some covers use just text in an attractive way, some use stunning images and make the art the focus, while some create something new altogether. Like all canvases, a book cover offers unlimited potential.

A cover isn't everything, but a great one can still turn your head. For instance, I've been reading a lot of good reviews of the late Roberto BolaƱo's epic novel "2666", but what finally tipped the purchase for me was this amazing-looking three-paperback box set of his huge novel, which manages to look both biblical and postmodern all at once. What a beautiful piece of work by Charlotte Strick; I'm almost afraid to ruin it by reading it.

We've pretty much lost rock album cover art as a viable design medium in the age of CDs and MP3, and most movie posters barely seem to try anymore, so it's been cool to see the humble, old-tech book step up and take its place as a fetish object. Blogs like The Book Design Review and Book Covers regularly showcase design work that just makes me go, "Yowza." Worth a thousand words and all that.

Monday, December 1, 2008

My classic comics ABCS: Give Me Liberty

G was a hard one. As you might vaguely recall, I've been working my way alphabetically through the ol' comics collection, picking out one of my favorite comic books for each letter, and there was usually an abundance of choices for each letter -- until I got to G. While there were lots of good comics starting with a G -- Groo, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Gumby -- nothing really leapt out at me to write about. But then I remembered "Give Me Liberty". Given the whole recent wind-up of the political season, this tale of a future America gone wrong and trying to redeem itself seems particularly apt.

PhotobucketA gem with the words of Frank Miller and the art of Dave Gibbons, "Give Me Liberty" boasts a heavy pedigree. Yet it never quite seems to get the acclaim of Miller's "Dark Knight Returns" or Gibbons' "Watchmen." Still, it's a heck of a fine satire. Martha Washington is a young black woman who overcomes impossible odds to become a military hero in a collapsing America. All kinds of horrible things happen to Martha as she cavorts through wars and conspiracies, but she never gives in. Unlike the invincible Marv of Miller's "Sin City" or the aging Bruce Wayne, Martha seems a bit more human despite her tortures.

It's quite strange now, to re-read "Give Me Liberty" and realize those far-out future dates Miller has set his story in are here, or nearly here. Reading it back in the early 90s, seeing the years 2009 and 2010 pass by still had the tang of mystery. Like "Watchmen," "Liberty" is packed with tiny details that fill out its elaborate imaginary world -- the barely-glimpsed table of contents of a "This Week" magazine from January 2009 (!) shows tantalizing glimpses such as "Australia's Aborigines revolt" and "zero gravity surgery."

Miller didn't foresee 9/11, or exactly what the world would become, but he did imagine a world where factionalism takes hold, where America breaks apart into separate nations, such as the American Indian renaissance in a blasted southwest. In my mind, the satire here works far better than it did in "Dark Knight," where the talking heads TV antics always seemed a sideshow to the story. Here, the multi-media interruptions and expositions are integral to the world of Martha Washington, with the advent of the Internet heavily foreshadowed. Despite the brutality, assorted nuclear mutants and holocausts, "Give Me Liberty" is a fundamentally optimistic series.

Miller's trademark blend of tough-guy talk and way over-the-top action is running at a high here, coupled with the typically stunning art of Gibbons. (Miller is very good at keeping the script tight when it needs to be and just letting Gibbons' art tell the story; it feels more like a partnership.) After "Give Me Liberty," Martha Washington came back in a series of elaborate sequels with diminishing returns, but the original is still a fresh, startling take on sci-fi with a kind of hero who's still, sadly, rather unusual in genre fiction. (Quick -- name three other black female women sci-fi action heroes.)

"Liberty", too, foreshadows the change Frank Miller's career has seen from more traditional noir action into broad, sometimes too broad satire. "Liberty" came after the whole Dark Knight/Daredevil/Elektra run of the 1980s, his most mainstream superhero work, yet pointed toward his work like Hard Boiled and "Sin City"; it also had some of the clenched-jaw excess that has marked series like "All-Star Batman" or his bizarre "Dark Knight" sequel. (The demented Surgeon-General villain would fit just fine in "All-Star Batman.") It was a crossroads in his career; one could argue all night as to whether his career has peaked since or not, but "Give Me Liberty" is still a high point in Frank Miller's comics legacy.