Monday, December 27, 2010

Year In Review: My Top Music of 2010

So, 2010 was a pretty good year for me and music I dug -- old hands like Neil Young and Paul Weller put out stellar work, while young turks like Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti and Arcade Fire also delivered grand new sounds. Here's my 10 favorite albums of 2010 in alphabetical order:

Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
PhotobucketThree records and not a duff move yet by this Canadian assembly. There's a beautiful melancholy over this latest set, a kind of ode to vanishing childhood, with one anthem after another. My favorite: "We Used To Wait," which makes the pre-digital era of the 1980s seem as faint and far away as Victorian England.

Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, Before Today
I have a mixed record with getting into indie-rock Pitchfork-certified cool bands -- I love Grizzly Bear, didn't really get what the fuss about Animal Collective is about, but this band -- wow, what a curious, haunting record, like early Guided By Voices mixed with Prince and an '80s horror-movie soundtrack. Vague and strange, with keyboards washing in and out, hooky choruses diving in out of nowhere and quirky strange collages of sound. It's a ramshackle gem.

Roky Erickson, True Love Will Cast Out All Evil
A burned-out '60s psychedelic legend surfaces after years of problems to record a battered, beautiful record with the band Okkervil River. While it lacks the wacked-out frenzy of his old 13th Floor Elevators classics, there's a world-weary wisdom and gentle optimism to this fine comeback.

Grinderman, Grinderman II
PhotobucketNick Cave's dirty ol' rock' n' roll band releases its second disc and it's even more raw than their first, with Cave's sinister power harnessed to raunchy garage rock. Way more unhinged than the Bad Seeds, it's loud and mean and fun.

LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening
Darker and spacier than James Murphy's first two discs, but still filled with marvelous half-snarky, half sincere tunes exploring the frontiers of dance-punk. Also notable this year was Murphy's soulful music for the "Greenberg" soundtrack which points in interesting new directions.

The New Pornographers, Together
Indie-rock's finest all-star collective produces yet another album of power-pop goodness, highlighted by Neko Case's wail and A.C. Newman's bittersweet romanticism. Consistently one of the best bands going.

PhotobucketPhoenix Foundation, Buffalo
This New Zealand group swerve from the terrific hooky pop of their last album into a halfway instrumental record that meanders and sways through deeply textured songs that end up in surprising places. Subtle and gorgeous and something distinctively Kiwi about it all.

Paul Weller, Wake Up The Nation
I finally saw the man live this year backing this well-received album, which distills his nearly 40 years of music with The Jam, Style Council and solo into one diverse whole. Hard-charging dad-punk, blissful balladry, psychedelic strangeness -- it's all here in this sweeping statement.

PhotobucketWeezer, Hurley
There seems to be a love-hate relationship with these guys on the internet but I loved the poppy simplicity of their 8th record, which made fine listening as I zipped along the epic highways of California this autumn. Full of energy and optimism and playfulness, which may infuriate some snooty fans who want Rivers Cuomo to record nothing but "Pinkerton Part II" for the rest of his career, but I enjoy a band that doesn't take itself that seriously and still deliver fun summer pop tunes. Give me this over Katy Perry any day.

Neil Young, Le Noise
Young's so prolific even into his mid-60s that this one snuck by many, but it's a real treat, produced by music legend Daniel Lanois and featuring nothing by Young and his feedback-drenched guitar creating a really fascinating brooding sound that hovers between Crazy Horse crunch and "Harvest" pastoral melancholy. One to crank up right around midnight, and bathe in the glow.

Runners-up: The National, High Violet; Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me; Wolf Parade, Expo 86; Eels, End Times and Tomorrow Morning; Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World soundtrack.

Worst record I bought: Peter Gabriel, Scratch My Back.
As a giant fan, this one makes me sad. The man goes a decade or so between albums for this? A limp collection of tired covers, done with a bland orchestral backing. While Gabriel's voice is still gruff and terrific, there's a dour, labored feel to this entire enterprise, with even the world music textures that colour his best work lacking. Joyless.

Best old music I discovered: The dB's awesome first two albums from 1981-82, "Stands for Decibels" and "Repercussion" together on one disc, which I stumbled across at Real Groovy. I've always wanted to check these guys out as you often hear about them as the missing link between Big Star and R.E.M., and they don't disappoint at all. Top-notch power pop with wit and stylistic experimentation galore.

Worst music news: Other than the continual closing and shuttering of old-fashioned record shops in the MP3 age, I'd have to say the worst news of the year was the death of Alex Chilton.

Best concert: Some good stuff this year like legendary Paul Weller, fantastic and sexy Florence + The Machine and an intimate audience with The New Pornographers, but I have to admit, being in the crowd for the reunited Pavement's first show in 10 years in humble lil' New Zealand was pretty dang cool, and Steve Malkmus and the gang were in full quirk-rock frenzy.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Merry Christmas and all that jazz

We return from a brief camping getaway to Coromandel Peninsula and on into the Christmas rush! More posting including my Top 10 albums of 2010 before the year's out!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Angel-A-Thon: Season 1, And So It Begins

So a while back, over the course of a couple years, the wife and I whipped through all seven seasons, 144 episodes of "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" , which I regularly blogged about in progress reports. How on earth to follow all that vampire-staking action up? With the spin-off showcase "Angel," which ran from 1999-2004 featuring everyone's favorite antihero vampire-with-a-soul.

PhotobucketI was actually rather hesitant to dive into the whole five seasons of "Angel," because spin-off shows rarely reach the heights of their parent. And for about the first half of this series, "Angel" kind of felt like a show trying to figure out what it wants to be. After having left Sunnydale and a broken-hearted Buffy, Angel heads to Los Angeles and sets up shop as a kind of supernatural private detective -- basically, he's vampire Batman. Whiny "Buffy" castmate Cordelia comes aboard as his secretary/damsel in distress, and a mysterious wisecracking guy named Doyle joins the show as they amble about various supernatural adventures.

While entertaining, the early episodes kind of fall into a rut and too often the show doesn't really seem sure where it's going. The gothic rock'n'roll video slash-cut editing style sometimes gets annoying, too. I also have one pet peeve -- wayyyyy too much of Angel strutting about in broad daylight, which spoils the whole vampire mystique thing. I don't care if he's not in direct sunlight, if he's in a brightly lit office, it just ain't... vampirey.

Soon, though, dreary Doyle is killed off (a good move, as the whole dark brooding guy with a secret role was already filled by Angel) and ex-Watcher Wesley (a very solid Alexis Denisof) joins the team. The show needed a "Giles" sort of character, the know-it-all geek with courage, and Wesley and Cordelia provide much-needed comic relief to the show's generally dark demon doings. I also enjoyed the cynical policewoman character Kate, although she starts to move into the background after a couple of appearances. By the end of season one and a few really entertaining episodes featuring the demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart, "Angel" seems a much more focused show than it started off as.

PhotobucketBest episode: Is it a bit of a cheat that my favorite episodes of this series featured guest appearances by "Buffy" characters? Well, either way, episode 8, "I Will Remember You," is a great piece of romantic melodrama when Angel is "cured" of his vampirism, Buffy shows up for a little romantic tango, and in the end Angel has to make a rather tragic decision. The Buffy/Angel thing has been run into the ground, but this episode still packs a nice sting. Honorable mention: the two-parter featuring another "Buffy" character, Eliza Dushku's rogue slayer Faith.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Year In Review: My Top 10 Movies of 2010

...No, I refuse to believe it's mid-December already and the year 2011 looms out on the horizon like some Kubrickian monolith. It's time for the usual year-end review wrap-ups to begin littering the blogosphere. So in the first of an intermittent series wrapping up the year that almost was, here's my Favourite Movies I Saw In 2010. As usual, several of the big Oscar hopeful movies haven't opened down under yet like "The King's Speech," "127 Hours" and "True Grit," so I'm keeping this strictly to what I've seen -- and a couple of movies from the tail end of 2009 sneak in as well.

PhotobucketIn alphabetical order --
Black Dynamite
Man, this movie is a hoot. In and out of theatres in about 15 minutes last year, it's a spoof of classic '70s blaxploitation movies that is one of the funniest comedies in years. It's the kind of thing Quentin Tarantino tried to do with his 'Grindhouse' movies. The movie parody genre has been pretty much kicked to death by the hugely unfunny "Scary Movie" type flicks, but "Black Dynamite" harks back to the original "Airplane!" with how lovingly it parodies '70s cheese and Michael Jai White's great turn as the unstoppable Dynamite. And any movie that ends with a kung fu battle with Richard Nixon must be on a Top 10 list.

PhotobucketThis New Zealand charmer became the top grossing movie EVER here this year, and writer/director Taika Waititi proved he's a talent to reckon with. His first feature "Eagle V. Shark" was a goofy romantic lark. Here, he digs in to make a surpassingly kind-hearted comedy/drama set in 1984 about a teen boy's life in an isolated East Coast Maori community when his shiftless, braggart father returns home. This ain't like the hushed and mythic "Whale Rider," though -- Waiti's fanciful script, witty asides and even Michael Jackson tributes make it feel uniquely New Zealand, yet accessible to anyone. If you like the "Flight of the Conchords" sort of deadpan humour seek this out.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
Another one from late 2009 that opened in New Zealand in 2010, and I'd take Wes Anderson's take on Roald Dahl's kiddie classic over 100 "Shrek" movies. I'm a fanboy deluxe for pretty much every movie Anderson's ever done, but this was something special because both the 6-year-old and I could get into it. I love the charmingly low-fi animation, the production design filled with all of Anderson's trademark flourishes, and a pitch-perfect George Clooney as the voice of Mr. Fox. I've watched this at least 3 times so far and love it every time. I wish all movies aimed at children could be more like this one.

The Hurt Locker
The "best" movie of 2009? I dunno, I never place too much seriousness on that Best Picture Oscar, but this is miles better than the all-flash, little substance "Avatar," with a topical Iraq war story that incorporates more knuckle-whiteningly tense scenes than I thought I could handle. I've been a fan of director Kathryn Bigelow's eye for ripping action scenes ever since "Point Break." It may stumble a bit in scenes not on the battlefield, but the ones set in the heat of war are scorching.

There's a kind of gun-metal coldness to Christopher Nolan's style as a director -- movies like "The Dark Knight" and "Memento" are pretty much utterly humorless, shadowy views of the world, polished like gemstones. This one is almost a remake of "The Matrix" with more brooding and less sci-fi, and an excellent cast (highlighted by one of my favorite young actors, Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Several fantastic set-pieces make this a summer blockbuster that sticks with you. Does the story make a lot of actual sense on a second viewing? Not entirely sure yet, but it sure sucks you in while you watch it.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
This one didn't do great at the box office, because for some reason it was perceived as a "hipster movie." Maybe it's Michael Cera, whose itchy dork characters seem to annoy some people. But Edgar Wright's high-octane adaptation of the graphic novel series may be one of the most faithful comic adaptations ever - like the "Sin City" movie with a video game gloss. It's tremendous entertainment, incorporating video-game effects, snappy wit and cartoony violence into a mish-mash of gleeful fun.

A Serious Man
Here's the Coen brothers in full-on "weird" mode, as in more "Barton Fink" than "Raising Arizona." But what a strange, captivatingly weird one this is -- a kind of tangled meditation on fate, faith and the cruel whims of the universe, all cycling around one Larry Gopnik's tragic, slow downfall in 1960s Minnesota. Gopnik (a superb Michael Stuhlbarg) is a college professor who over the course of the movie battles infidelity, spoiled children, crazy neighbours and student blackmail. It's the Coen brothers at their best -- comic in as black a fashion as possible, but also quizzical, with plenty to chew on afterwards.

PhotobucketThe Social Network
Here we have a movie about a bunch of over-privileged geeks sitting around at their computers. So why it is so bloody fascinating? David Fincher brings the same ultra-intense feeling of dread he brought to his "Zodiac" to this tale of social hustling and nerds avenged. Aaron Sorkin's crackling script and some truly good performances by actors playing quite unlikable people make this one zip by, and I think it sums up the zeitgeist of life in 2010 as well as anything else could.

Teenage Paparazzo
I wrote about this one back at the NZ International Film Festival, and still think back fondly on this funny, insightful look at the relationship between the famed and the fans. "Entourage" star Adrian Grenier has made a nicely low-key documentary about a teenage celebrity shooter that twists and turns in amusing ways.

Toy Story 3
This is pretty much a no-brainer, but if this movie consisted of nothing more than its final 15 bittersweet minutes, it would still be a classic for the ages. As it is it brings together Pixar's usual top-notch quality storytelling with an ode to vanishing childhood that will make all but the most soulless of cretins sniffle a bit at the end. Happy trails, Woody.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wednesday shuffle: Sing the song don't be long / Thrill me to the marrow

PhotobucketA man's got to get his workout on. Treadmill shuffle, go!

1. Up The Dosage 2:40 Paul Weller
2. Hollow Cheek 0:32 Guided By Voices
3. Run For Your Life 2:19 The Beatles*
4. American Gangster Time 3:47 Elvis Costello & The Imposters
5. All Night Stand 2:05 The Thoughts
6. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes 7:25 Crosby, Stills & Nash**
7. You Came Through 2:48 PJ Harvey
8. That Is All 3:51 George Harrison
9. Good Morning 5:01 The Dandy Warhols***

* And of course, it was 30 years ago today, John. Hard to believe he's been dead for a good 3/4 of my lifetime. RIP.
** I wouldn't imagine a rather goofy hippy-harmony song like this would be good on the treadmill but to my embarrassment I found myself getting quite into it -- who knew CSN could be workout music?
*** They may be swept up in a kind of hipster backlash in a lot of parts but I still dig these guys, and this slow-burning, bombastic stoner-rock churn of a tune is a fantastic cooldown song.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Superheroes I Love # 7: Hercules

PhotobucketYes, that Hercules. The icon of Greek mythology has made the leap to comic books several times in various incarnations -- why not use the legendary strongman as a superhero, after all? The most lasting portrayal of Hercules in comics has been Marvel Comics' version of him, who first appeared in Journey Into Mystery in 1965 as a sparring partner for the Mighty Thor. Hercules as proper superhero has had a long life in the Marvel universe, joined the mighty Avengers and fought Wolverine and all that kinda jazz. He's been an arrogant yet chivalrous force for good.

Who: The son of Zeus and a mortal woman, the demigod Hercules is a fearless warrior renown for his strength and courage. In the Marvel Comics, Hercules is part of the modern world of superheroes and villains. It's always a bit interesting when a centuries-old mythological figure is shoehorned into modern stories, but Hercules fits better than most.

PhotobucketWhy I dig: Herc has always been the down-to-earth, impulsive braggart counterpoint to Thor's stuffy restraint. Thor always struck me as thick and impenetrable in the comics too much of the time (unless done by Walt Simonson or Jack Kirby). Too much thee-ing and thou-ing. Hercules is the god you'd sit down and have a tankard of mead with. The best portrayals of Hercules combine his chummy bravado with heroism, while in lesser ones writers err too much toward making Hercules an addled man-child. Hercules has had an excellent revival as the star of "The Incredible Hercules" comic, teamed up with a teenage boy genius and having various adventures, loves and epics. Writers Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente have provided some interesting spins on Hercules' character -- notably focusing on the fact that this demigod has lived a very long time and is no stumbling buffoon, while he still has a sense of humour about himself.

Read this:
The classic 1982 "Hercules: Prince of Power" series by Bob Layton were sci-fi action mixed with godly feats, and funny to boot. They're set deep in the future when Hercules -- banished yet again from Olympus by his angry dad Zeus -- is roaming the stars. Then pick up any of the recent "Incredible Hercules" paperbacks by Marvel which nicely weave in a variety of world mythologies and other Marvel hero storylines into a complex, witty and wild ongoing epic.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Five-sentence Friday

Photobucket1. This is super-duper cool, and it's great to see my father-in-law Sir Peter Siddell's art career anthologised in one huge hefty package, coming in early 2011 -- I've seen the proofs and the book looks fantastic!

2. Keith Richards' autobiography "Life" makes for entertaining reading, although a bit too rambling, it's got a remarkable story to tell and he holds little back; great insights into his relationship with Mick Jagger to be found here though.

3. Some band called U2 is playing just down from the road to us this week on their 360 tour, and I'm just not quite huge enough a U2 fan to spring for tickets -- but it turns out we didn't need to, as the concert, also including opening act Jay-Z, was quite loud and audible from our house 3km away, so we pulled out lawn chairs and blankets and sat on our front lawn last night for a live U2 show, without even having to leave our driveway!

4. The Pike River mining tragedy has obviously dominated New Zealand news for the past week, and while we all feared the worst, we hoped for the best; a distinct sting to the situation was added by the fresh memory of the recent Chilean miner rescue miracle, but unfortunately the NZ mine was a completely different type of mine and situation and such a happy outcome seemed unlikely from the start. My sympathies and good thoughts remain with the families of the Pike River 29.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Concert Review: The New Pornographers, Auckland, November 20

I was an avid fan of pornography last night. The New Pornographers, that is, the Canadian indie-pop collective who played an excellent show at the Kings Arms in Auckland last night.

PhotobucketThat band name is a bit of a joke -- there's not much immoral about this band, who for five albums have been exploring the pleasures of hook-filled, harmony-laden energetic pop. The main players are leader Carl "AC" Newman, Neko Case, Dan Bejar and Kathryn Calder, all of whom have had considerable success on their own. If you put Squeeze, Big Star, Cheap Trick, ELO and The Beatles in a blender you might get something like this all-star alt-rock grouping.

It was a hot, humid Auckland spring night, with sweat dripping off everyone. The Kings Arms is a right tiny, intimate place so I was less than 10 feet away from Case the entire time. The show had a freewheeling, relaxed vibe. Between the heat and probable jetlag by the seven-member band it took a few songs for the momentum to really get going and the sound was muddy for a few tunes. (The bass player actually missed getting onstage for the first song, which the band only noticed at the end of the song!) There were a couple of false starts, but there was an energetic good cheer despite the hitches. Throughout the night Newman and Case bantered snarkily with the audience. But like a steamroller, the band kept locking into these fantastic harmonic grooves where the combination of voices and their wall of sound approach blew the crowd away.

PhotobucketThe set featured a heaping helping of songs from their most successful album, 2005's near-masterpiece "Twin Cinema". Newman led the show and did a great job crunching on guitar chords and trading off lead vocals with Case. It was a real pleasure for me to finally see siren Case, who's built the most successful solo career of the group. Her voice is justly famed and to hear her wailing out just a few feet away was awesome.

The Pornographers ramped through many of their best tunes such as "Use It," "The Bleeding Heart Show" and "Challengers." I've always liked how Newman's songwriting combines pop accessibility with twisting, strange lyrics, and as a live show the songs hit sweet spot after sweet spot. Nothing quite like the harmonies Newman, Case and Calder could conjure together. (And I'd think it's quite hard to reproduce live a note-perfect whistling chorus like they did in "The Crash Years" from their latest album "Together.") Sadly missing from this tour was glam-pop singer Bejar, who crafts some of the band's most addictive songs, but Newman did an excellent job filling in on Bejar's sneery vocals on songs like a crowd-pleasing encore of "Jackie Dressed in Cobras."

Here's one of my favorite of their tunes, "The Bleeding Heart Show."

Monday, November 15, 2010

"Alone: Bad. Friend: Good." The genius of Boris Karloff

PhotobucketIt's a little late for Halloween, but I've been in a monster movie frame of mind. The classic monster movies, that is, which to me have always been the Universal Pictures horror of the 1930s to 1950s -- Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, et cetera. I loved 'em as a kid in the 1980s and lately have been on a jag watching some of these classic black and white flicks for the first time in 25 years or so. What's amazing is how well many of them still hold up, particularly those starring the man who I'd say was the king of monster movies -- the original and best Frankenstein's Monster, Boris Karloff.

Bela Lugosi's immortal Dracula seems to get more ink today, and Lon Chaney Jr's tragic self-loathing Wolf Man was also great, but Boris Karloff created a monster who defines horror. Try not to imagine Frankenstein's Monster as the cliched star of everything from breakfast cereals to video games to really bad Hugh Jackman movies. Instead picture the Monster as he first appeared in 1931, looming from the darkened screens. An abomination against life, a morality tale about man's desire to play god, a creature cursed for the way he looks.

The very first scene when we see the Monster in "Frankenstein" is remarkable. The Monster simply walks into a dark and gloomy room, almost unnoticed for a fraction of a second -- then the camera abruptly quick-cuts inward, two beats, to an extreme, silent close-up of Karloff's heavy-lidded, haunting eyes. It's still chilling 80 years after it was filmed. Karloff's portrayal is a marvel of economic emotion, terror and innocence all bundled together. The physicality Karloff brought to the Monster defines it; the locked-kneed, lurching walk, flailing hand movements, the monosyllabic grunts and groans.

PhotobucketThe famous "monster meets the blind hermit" sequence in "Bride of Frankenstein" is a bit hard to watch without bias today because Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" did such a glorious job of sending it up, but try to picture it as it seemed in 1933. It's an amazing little character arc, as the Monster learns and grows an astounding amount in just a short time, from guttural grunts to emotion-packed short sentences. Treated with brief kindness, we see his potential, which makes what happens next that much more stinging.

The naked emotional need of the blind man and the Monster is startling. But what we're seeing here is a real attempt at human connection between two utter outcasts, a connection that is of course shattered by the outside world's cruelty. "Alone: bad. Friend: good." That line could have sounded awful done wrong, but Karloff puts just the right spin of hope and sadness on it. The genius of Karloff is in full flight in this scene, as he's alternately savage, needy and rocked with childlike glee. He helped form the whole "monster you feel kind of sorry for" motif we've seen everywhere from "King Kong" to "Twilight."

Karloff's skill is more notable when you compare his portrayal to that of other actors who've played the Monster -- in the many sequels to the 1931 movie we saw actors like Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. take on the role, but they lacked that almost-sweet innocence Karloff brought. What was a character of real tragic depth became the more familiar lumbering monster we now know, still cool, but not quite as shocking and strange as the half-human Monster Karloff created in the first three films. And Frankenstein's Monster on film since has never quite managed the power of the Karloff years.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Nik's Unheralded Albums #3: Colin Hay Band, "Wayfaring Sons."

Colin Hay Band, "Wayfaring Sons." (1990)

PhotobucketIt's hard being perceived as a one-hit wonder. You put out an album, it does a zillion in sales, but you can never quite get that popular mojo back. Witness Men At Work, the Aussie "Down Under" combo who were huge with "Business As Usual" in 1982, but kind of gradually faded away within a couple years. But for those who were fans, lead singer Colin Hay has actually done some pretty interesting work since then. He did two more Men At Work albums, mild hit "Cargo" and the darker and quite underrated flop, now out-of-print "Two Hearts." Then the band broke up and he went solo.

I've enoyed Hay's solo career intermittently -- he's written some beautiful, laid-back tunes, although many of his albums seem to contain an awful lot of filler in between the gentle gems. (Lately he's taken to doing "unplugged" version of many of his old Men At Work songs which are pretty to listen to but lack much in the way of novelty.) The sitcom "Scrubs" used several of his tunes to give him a sort of comeback. But one disc I've always had a soft spot for is a fairly obscure one, 1990's "Wayfaring Sons" by the Colin Hay Band.

I first heard this one in the waning days of my Men At Work fandom, and it always sparked in me a powerful feeling of wanderlust. Loosely it's a concept album about traveling the world, voyaging the seven seas, with several songs about leaving home and coming back again. It relies heavily on Celtic and folk sounds, giving it an almost Chieftains feel in spots. The instrumentation is lush and varied, not quite as monotonous as the more acoustic style Hay uses these days, and his husky voice is in fine form throughout.

"Wayfaring Sons" is definitely Hay's strongest collection of songs, with barely a duff move in the bunch. Lyrics of harsh oceans and stormy weather dot the tunes. The title song kicks off with a down-home violin, a bustling night out -- "I duck into this public house / and get shattered by the din" -- and the singer upping stakes and sailing across the sea.

Hay's songwriting here has always felt very evocative to me, sketching in a few telling details with the lyrics and the very full, pub band meets world music feeling. "Into My Life" is a charming little love tune that captures a relationship in all its passion and frustration -- "We drink until we get too tired / Even though you try to dance for me / I still can't light up your fire." "Dream On (In The Night)" or "Not So Lonely" are fairly conventional torch songs but it's the purring warmth of Hay's voice that makes them soar and little touches like the chanting Gaelic backing chorus on "Not So Lonely." A marvelous jangly mandolin and soaring chorus on the anthemic album closer "Ya (Rest In Peace)" bring us back to where we started, back to the bustling public house that we heard in the opening tune.

It may not quite be a hidden masterpiece, but "Wayfaring Sons" is my favorite of Hay's solo discography by a long shot, and kind of nearly makes for a "lost" Men At Work record. Hay may be a 'one-hit wonder' to much of the public at large, but I've enjoyed many of his songs over the years. It's one I like to spin on occasion and think of foreign seas.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Concert review: Paul Weller, Auckland, October 29

PhotobucketThere's a reason Paul Weller was dubbed 'The Modfather' of British pop. From his early days with the short sharp punk attacks of The Jam to leading the way for "Britpop" in the early 1990s to his modern soulful experimentation, Weller has been at the vanguard of British music, combining his idols The Who and the Kinks with his own fierce music and bittersweet passions.

He's never been huge in the US, but Weller's albums consistently top the charts in England; the whole country and its thick, living history and class culture are his muse. For my money, Weller's as vital as he's ever been -- this year's album "Wake Up The Nation" is a barnstormer, one of the best of 2010.

He made it to Auckland this weekend in a series of three sold-out shows at the Powerstation, his first appearance in New Zealand ever. From the moment he took the stage, clad in black and chatty in his thick accent, Weller did a fine job surveying his 40-year-career, mixing the old Jam and Style Council classics with his superb more recent work. (This guy apparently thinks Weller should have played nothing but Jam tracks, but I disagree -- the man's got a rich and diverse catalog, why not explore it?)

PhotobucketI actually really discovered Weller with his solo albums, particularly 1993's rich, soulful "Wild Wood," and only came to the Jam belatedly some time later. As he's aged Weller has weathered and seasoned like a fine old oak, into a peerless singer/songwriter who evokes a timeless mood tinged with that old punk anger. The best comparison I can make is to another old angry young punk, Elvis Costello, who's lasted far longer than anyone might have guessed by constantly changing his approach.

Weller showed off all his sides during the show -- highlights included a storming, psychedelic jam through "Pieces of Dreams" from his latest album, or the sweeping, eclectic "Trees," which crams together several different songs into one powerful mix. The "Stanley Road" classic torch song "You Do Something To Me" got a loving take, while "Echoes Round The Sun" (written with Noel Gallagher) was a feedback-laced gem. The old Jam classics could be counted upon to get the crowd raving, such as a bouncy bass-driven "Start!" (smashed together with the brand new "Fast Car/Slow Traffic" in a sterling medley) and a massive fist-pumping singalong take on "Eton Rifles," or The Style Council's poppy "Shout To The Top."

Over nearly two hours and two encores, Weller swerved from piano-led balladry to crunchy guitar anthems without missing a beat. It's good to see The Modfather is still full of plenty of steam and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Mix Tapes I Have Known #1: YO YO MA, 1992

PhotobucketAh, the mix tape. The lovely artifact of the 1980s and 1990s where you painstakingly, pre-digital, grafted together a dozen or two of your favorite songs into some kind of deeply deep emotional statement that was, most typically, aimed at showing the subject of said tape how awesome you were.

Now that we slackers of that generation have grown up these have become the object of fetishistic nostalgia galore , and why not? They're snapshots of the person you were at the time you made it. Often, I tried to make copies of the mix tapes I made for people because they made awesome car listening, so now I can scavenge out our one remaining cassette player and listen to them on occasion. Here's the first of a trawl through my aging, decomposing Mix Tapes.

The tape: "YO YO MA"

Year created: 1992

Who it was for: "Yo Yo Ma" (I think I just liked the oddball sound of that cellist's name as a tape title) was made for one of my California friends, either John or Sun; unfortunately 18 years on I'm not entirely sure who for but I think this one was for John. Many of my tapes were sent from my college home in Mississippi to my old high school chums out West, cries from the heart of Dixie aimed at showing off what I thought were my impressive tastes; these were vaguely homesick missives, from a stranger in the South to the place he came from. Good god, I'm just as pretentious now as I was then.

PhotobucketTrack listing:

1. Hello, I Love You (The Cure)

2. Little Earthquakes (Tori Amos)
3. The Fly (U2)

4. Progress (Midnight Oil)

5. A Campfire Song (10,000 Maniacs)

6. Anchorage (Michelle Shocked)

7. We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful (Morrissey)

8. Only You (Yaz)

9. Getting Better (The Beatles)

10. The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel)

11. So. Central Rain (REM)

1. Strange Angels (Laurie Anderson)
2. She Goes On (Crowded House)

3. We Are The Champions (Queen)

4. Mayor of Simpleton (XTC)

5. I Can't Dance (Genesis)

6. Dome (The Church)

7. Tomorrow (Morrissey)

8. My Finest Hour (The Sundays)

9. Always On My Mind (The Pet Shop Boys)

10. In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel)

11. Songbird of Love (The Hurlettes)

What this says about my musical tastes at the time: This is a pretty middle-of-the-road selection of early 1990s alternative rock standards -- The Church, Tori Amos, The Cure, etc. At the age of 22 or so, I was fairly proto-emo at the time, hence the TWO Morrissey songs included here. I did have what I like to think were some cool choices even back in '92 -- Laurie Anderson, XTC (who remain one of my favorites today) -- mixed in with the requisite U2 and REM stuff.

Totally obvious choice: Like 99% of mankind, I used Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" on a mix tape. In fact I used it on several of them. It is an awesome song and deserves its mixtape stardom, though. Most disturbing is that this song of everlasting love and devotion is on a tape that I made for a dude.

Clever left-field choices: The Sundays were a short-lived and delicate girl-alt-pop band back in the day, and "My Finest Hour" is a lovely little number. "The Hurlettes" were a made-up band from a snippet of an old high-school play I put on the end of the tape, so you can't get much more obscure than that.

What was I thinking?: Now, I'll stick up for Genesis any day, even Phil Collins-era Genesis, but why on earth I chose the goofy try-hard novelty number "I Can't Dance" from one of their worst albums is beyond me. And I also like Queen, but the insanely overused "We Are The Champions" wouldn't be in my top 20 Queen songs at all.

Hasn't dated so well: The mawkish earnestness of 10,000 Maniacs, whom I only occasionally listen to today; ditto Tori Amos, who put out an utterly superb debut album with "Little Earthquakes" and has faced diminishing returns ever since then.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Into the TARDIS with two Doctor Whos

PhotobucketI've been to several big old American comic-book conventions like the ChicagoCon, so really, compared to them, New Zealand's Armageddon Expo is rather small. But it's still a decent size and a lot of fun to while away a day at -- a couple of hundred booths of stuff for sale and show, celebrity guests, tons of bizarre costumes to gawk at and the usual kind of overcrowded, sweaty, adrenaline-filled rush of stimuli you get at conventions.

PhotobucketBut the big draw for me this time was the chance to see TWO former Doctor Whos appear -- the "seventh Doctor," Sylvester McCoy, and the little-known "eighth Doctor," who only appeared in one 1996 TV movie, Paul McGann. Both appeared for photos etc as well as in panels. I always find these kind of panels quite fascinating, a bit of a peek behind the curtain at what an actor's life is really like. They have to put up with a lot of inane fans, but I appreciate it when an actor takes the time to talk to the crowd. McCoy played the seasoned old showman/raconteur, rambling off into oddball and amusing stories about shoving ferrets down his pants in his circus days (I kid you not). He's had a long and varied career (and is apparently going to play a role in "The Hobbit" movies if they even actually get made) and was quite comfortable playing to the crowd.

PhotobucketMcGann was a bit more wistful and down-to-earth (and I think jet-lagged). I've just watched the 1990s "Doctor Who" movie he was in, and while it was a mixed bag story-wise, I really liked McGann's portrayal of the Doctor, half Victorian dandy, half imperious alien. It's a shame he didn't get to play the Doctor more (although he has done a ton of audio-only adventures.) McGann isn't a household name but he's been in some good stuff, notably as the "I" in the Brit cult classic movie "Withnail And I," and he also waxed rhapsodic about his appearance in, er, lower-brow flicks such as "Lesbian Vampire Killers." He seemed like a good bloke, basically, and both he and McCoy had a lot of fun geek tidbits into "Dr. Who" history which I found fascinating, as a relatively novice Who-vian who really only got into the show starting with the new 2005 series. (McGann mentioned that during the casting for the 1990s "Doctor Who" would-be revival, one actor's name came up repeatedly for the part of the Doctor -- Monty Python's Eric Idle. While I do love the Python, I suspect that would've been a bizarre misstep indeed.)

Thursday, October 21, 2010

It's a change of Hobbit

PhotobucketIs The Hobbit leaving New Zealand? Sure sounds like it. I honestly don't know enough details about these labour woes to weigh in too much on whether the actors union is in the right or wrong here, but I do think it's a bloody debacle if the Hobbit movies end up being filmed elsewhere than New Zealand as a result of them.

The Lord of the Rings movies were a huge boost for New Zealand and its image overseas, and that kind of image and impression is simply priceless. The idea that Devonshire or Australia might be hired up to substitute for New Zealand in the next films is mind-boggling, especially since Kiwi Sir Peter Jackson will be back as director. This production has been hugely troubled (witness the loss of originally signed director Guillermo Del Toro, who would've been a great fit).

I sure hope that a resolution to this situation might be found, as it's just a horrible look for New Zealand to lose The Hobbit. The movies are good for the country's economy, image and the national sense of pride, and labour complaints shouldn't derail them. Frankly, I'm wondering if these movies will ever really get made. My precious!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Superheroes I Love #6: Vanth Dreadstar

PhotobucketOne of the nifty bits of geek-related loot I picked up in California was reassembling my set of Jim Starlin's Dreadstar comic series from back in the 1980s. Like a lot of things, I used to own these comics, got rid of them for some reason and then years later experienced deep remorse. Starlin's "Dreadstar" run from #1-40 is vintage high-octane space opera, with a lot of the deeper themes about mortality and power that Starlin has explored in his other work like "Warlock" and "Captain Marvel."

It's the story of Vanth Dreadstar, who's caught between two evil warring empires and attempts to take them down with the aid of his friends. It's a bit of a riff on "Star Wars" and other such sagas but done with a visceral spin -- people die bloody deaths, and the evil here is a lot more sinister than Darth Vader. The murderous Lord High Papal, the series' main villain, is a genocidal religious maniac without pity.

Who: Vanth Dreadstar, the last survivor of the Milky Way galaxy who ends up fighting in a war between two empires.

What: Dreadstar is not strictly a "superhero" in the traditional sense of the word (even though he dons a rather garish spandex outfit at one point), but more of a soldier, a rebel who finds himself in a series of never-ending wars. A mystical sword of power and other abilities lead him into conflict with those who would oppress billions. Reprints include the early "Metamorphosis Odyssey" storyline and the first 12 issues of "Dreadstar" in trade paperback if you can find 'em.

PhotobucketWhy I dig: Dreadstar is a kind of King Arthur figure, one surrounded by unimaginable pain and tragedy (at one point, Dreadstar helps to wipe out the entire Milky Way Galaxy; in another, an entire city is nuked by the Lord Papal just to get at him). Starlin surrounds this figure with a good mix of supporting characters (the blind telepath Willow, the cat-man Oedi, the disfigured sorcerer Syzygy). He makes you believe this scrappy band of rebels could take down a massive power. Dreadstar is racked with guilt over his deeds yet also a kind of righteous anger that you rarely see in "good guys" (there's a sequence in #10 where he basically tortures a villain to death; no matter how much the dude had it coming you still sort of cringe at the intensity). Now, in the 1990s, this kind of bloody anti-hero would be commonplace, but in 1982, Dreadstar's darkness was startling.

Starlin's run on the series wound down with an extremely dark coda set post-revolution, where Dreadstar awakens from a coma to find a world where all his struggles seem to have been for nothing. It's a very grim way to go and hard reading, as old characters die, corruption is everywhere and Dreadstar himself even contemplates suicide. But it's also a clear, stinging statement by Starlin that war is never neatly wrapped up (which seems very relevant today in the "War on Terror" era).

As a series, "Dreadstar" isn't perfect, in retrospect -- the first 15 or 20 issues are the best, and Starlin way overdoes the recaps each issue, which are very jarring reading it all in a sitting. The final revolution seems to come a bit too quickly and neatly to be believed (the same could easily be said of "Return of the Jedi," too). Ignore the later issues of the series written by Peter David, which while amusing space-action fun, really lack the emotional power and weight of Starlin's work and rely too much on goofy humour to succeed.

But Starlin's original "Dreadstar" work, nearly 30 years old now, still is terrific reading and as flawed, blood-stained and arrogant as he is, Vanth Dreadstar remains a compelling character.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I left my heart in San Francisco

Photobucket...Yeah man, I'm back down under, after several groovy weeks in California. It was my second trip back for a visit since we emigrated in 2006, and it is always a bit strange trying to cram so much into two or three weeks. Not to mention rather exhausting being the single-dad with the 6-year-old boy while Mom stays in New Zealand. There's the meet-ups with old friends, wedged into everyone's busy schedules, where you get an hour or two to play speed catch-up of the last four (or even 20) years of your lives. There's trying to show your son all around the area you grew up in, trying to ensure quality time with the grandparents and the uncle, and trying to get some American-style shopping in there. Somewhere you also attempt to "relax" on this "vacation" some.

Highlights of this year's journey --
Photobucket• The places that are etched in my mind from childhood and onwards, all wonderful to see again -- the high, dry foothills of the Sierra Nevada where I grew up; the sweeping lonely casino-filled vistas of Reno and Western Nevada, both tacky and epic western at the same time. The sweeping blue expanse of Lake Tahoe, where I spent much of the late 1990s, the grand granite-lined canyons of the Yuba River, the finest place in the world to while away a hot summer's day. And of course sweet San Francisco, which still has the same kinetic effect on me it did the first time I saw it back in the 1970s -- Coit Tower, North Beach, Chinatown, the giant Sutro Tower (the "monster tower" of my childhood), the candy-box spectacle of the houses stippled up and down the hills, the sweeping Golden Gate Bridge, foreboding Alcatraz hunched in the harbour -- I do love that place.

• The climate really knocked me for a loop, though. I'd forgotten that late September is peak allergy/pollen season and that, combined with the staggering dryness of the climate after being so used to humid New Zealand, left my sinuses feeling like a barometer the entire time. It's a shame I love an area yet hate the atmosphere.

• One thing that struck me is how battered and cynical the American "mood" seemed. A liberal like me thinks it's the hangover from 8 years of colossal failure by Bush and the impossible expectations laid on his successor. Far as I can figure the Tea Party folks are against nearly everything being done these days but I have yet to really figure out what they'd do about it or why they didn't speak out during the wild government expansion of the Bush years. It's nearly Election Day in the US and while I hope people aren't dense enough to give the party that screwed everything up for 8 years ANOTHER chance at the House or Senate, my feelings are that the American people just love being fooled by big promises and vague platitudes, from either side of the aisle. The failure of the two-party system -- if we don't like the guy in the White House, we'll just vote against EVERYTHING he proposes -- is manifest. While NZ politics are far from perfect, the minor parties here have a much stronger chance of actually getting their views shown and making a difference through coalition governments. In general politics here seem a bit less shrill, less polarized. I really am starting to fear the American system is terminally broken, no matter who's President.

• The recession that hadn't quite happened last time I visited in summer 2008 was in clear evidence -- vacant shops from Sacramento to Reno, several friends who've lost jobs/money in the past two years. The newspapers I once read have all shrunk into near-nothingness -- thanks to narrower "web widths" (reducing print costs) and staff cutbacks. I remember when the San Francisco Bay Guardian, say, was a thick monster of a free weekly tabloid you could kill a cat with, whereas the one I picked up last week was a wee thin thing. I know my industry is changing and it has to change, but it is a shame to see the newspaper so withered in size and influence.

Photobucket• As always the sheer SCALE of everything in America dazzles after a few years away in a small, small country. Mega-malls the size of small New Zealand towns, spreading silently over the countryside that once contained nothing but fields; more big box stores than you ever imagined existed; giant cars everywhere. Theme restaurants that serve more food on a plate than one man can decently eat; a "large" cup of coffee that is at least twice the size of one you'd find down under. All of this exists in some form or another in NZ, of course, but just "less" of it.

* On the flip side of course is how cheap anything and everything seems in America compared to NZ -- as usual I stuffed my suitcases to the brim with things like books, CDs, toys, over-the-counter medicines and blue jeans, all far more costly down here. Found several wonderful things to jam in the bags such as the "Nuggets II" CD box set, a great "Art of Brian Bolland" coffee-table book I didn't even know existed, lots of awesome Beat literature at the wonderful City Lights Books in SF, and much, much more. It's a good thing we only get back to the US every couple of years as my wallet and bookshelves really couldn't handle more often.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

God save the queen - maybe.

PhotobucketMy head of state in New Zealand is Queen Elizabeth II. We're still part of the Commonwealth, still a fragment of the once-huge British Empire. While we have our own Prime Minster and all that, in theory, the Queen is our big boss, even if the power is more ceremonial than not.

In recent weeks the debate on New Zealand's future has flared up again, with the leader of the opposition party saying it's time to start making plans for a republic. "We need to start the conversation now," said Labour leader Phil Goff. Prime Minister John Key seems to be content with vagueness, having said before a New Zealand republic is "inevitable" but not actually doing much more than that. Bills introduced to actually move the debate don't get far; the most recent one failed on its first reading in Parliament.

The sentiment generally seems to be that when Queen Elizabeth II dies or steps down, NZ (and probably Australia) will move to sever their last ties to the monarchy. The notion of poor King Charles III doesn't seem to instill a lot of confidence in people. (We might still have Queen Elizabeth for another 20 years though - while she's 84, her mum lasted to 101.)

However, you could argue that without the ties to the motherland New Zealand suddenly becomes a mighty small country at the bottom of the world. Australia already has a lot over us economically. Would losing the monarchy actually benefit us in any tangible way on the world stage? Do we need it to stay afloat? Yet culturally, we're hardly "Southern Britain" anymore. NZ is a vibrant, multicultural nation - a little bit Pacifica, a little bit Maori, a little bit Australian, a little bit Asian. Britain really is an awful long ways away. We're our own identity now.

I've got nothing against old Queenie, and I find the novelty of it all kind of interesting to observe coming from the American system of government. If pressed, I'd have to admit the whole notion of a hereditary leader, as limited as her actual power might be, kind of flies in the face of my good ol' "anybody can be President" American idealism.

PhotobucketBut I'd bet firm money a change is going to happen, in the next decade if not sooner. I certainly see no harm in the notion of planning for it, but there seems to be a political timidity to engage on this -- for fear of offending the last hardcore monarchists. But it's foolish to wait until Queen Elizabeth II kicks the bucket to even start thinking about the future. While there's a kind of quaint charm to the idea of the monarchy, in reality New Zealand stopped being just an outpost of empire some time ago. It's only a formality that we still have a Queen.

(Speaking of outposts of Empire, I'm off to the United States for a long-overdue holiday and will be on blog hiatus until mid-October sometime. Cheers mates!)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nik's unheralded albums #2: Elvis Costello, "Mighty Like A Rose"

Elvis Costello, "Mighty Like A Rose" (1991)

PhotobucketThe thing some people like and some people don't like about Elvis Costello is that he's a dabbler. The one-time punk's angriest young literary man has gone on to forge a career of astounding diversity, doing everything from country music to fuzzy garage rock to laidback balladry to even, god forbid, an opera. I personally love Costello's never-idle mind, even if all of his career spins don't quite pan out (the opera, no thank you). Costello is always recognizably himself, even when trying on different genres. One of Costello's albums that is often overlooked when his career is considered is 1991's "Mighty Like A Rose," which is an album of violent, almost dizzying eclecticism.

"Mighty Like A Rose" was the first time I fell hard for Costello, and perhaps that's why I hold it so dear. It's full of verbose wit and rage like the best of his work, while musically it careens about like a drunken sailor, with blasting guitars, horns, calliope, flutes, even maracas. "If you really want to hear an angry record," Costello writes in the liner notes, "then this one is for you." He had an untamed long-haired, bearded look around the time of this album which makes him look like some kind of demented prophet coming from the other side. The lyrics reflect this new look -- the first lines on the album are "The sun struggles up another beautiful day / and I felt glad in my own suspicious way." So the tone is set, as "Rose" swings between malice and mourning. There's a kind of lurching energy to "Rose" that reminds me a bit of Tom Waits.

"The Other Side of Summer" is a Beach Boys song wrung through a dark wringer, sneering instead of crooning. Men and women recur throughout "Rose" playing cruel games with each other. In "Harpies Bizarre" the girl is crushed by the worldly stranger. In "After the Fall" she has her revenge. Two songs co-written with Paul McCartney feature here; in their "Playboy to a Man" it's romance as jaunty battle of the sexes; Costello yelps, "now you're standing there in your underwear / now you know just how it feels for her."

PhotobucketIf "Rose" were just meanness it wouldn't have much appeal, but what I also like are the moments of tenderness like the brittle "Sweet Pear" or "So Like Candy," and the razor sharp wit of songs like the over-the-top rant "How To Be Dumb" or "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," which is about exactly what it sounds like.

What I'd have to call one of my top 5 Elvis Costello songs of all closes out the record on a note of resounding grace -- "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" which reels about like a carnival from an alternate universe, a catalogue of surrealistic imagery. There's a fine sleight of hand here as Costello sings of "shadows of regret" and broken hearts, then reveals himself as a character in the song -- "well I'm the lucky goon / who composed this tune / from birds arranged on the high wire." He ends with what he later called a kind of "agnostic prayer," a beautiful moment when all the anger and frustration of the album ends with a glimpse of hope -- "Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain / I can't believe, I'll never believe in anything again."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

And it burns, burns, burns, like a ring of fire...

PhotobucketSo we had a magnitude 7.1 earthquake down here yesterday morning, the most damaging in New Zealand in about 80 years from the looks of it. It didn't hit anywhere near us in Auckland, but about 500 miles south in Christchurch on the South Island, NZ's second biggest city. I visited there for the first time a year or so ago and it's a really beautiful city with great buildings, and am sad to see how torn up it's been -- though thankfully, no loss of life reported so far.

Because I'm lucky, I was actually awake at 4.35 am Saturday when the quake hit -- I work at danged early hours on Saturday mornings. Didn't feel it in Auckland, although by (perhaps) freakish concidence, at almost the exact same time the giant glass front door of my workplace shattered into a million pieces. We were having a ferocious gale-force windstorm up here at the time so I can't say it was the earthquake that caused it, but then again, who knows if it wasn't a factor?

It is a vivid reminder that we here live right on the Pacific Ring of Fire, which isn't just a Johnny Cash song but the most active geothermal zone on earth. NZ straddles a continental shelf and the entire country is dotted with volcanoes, thermal vents and more. Our home of Auckland has literally dozens of theoretically extinct volcanos (used as Maori ancient pa, fortresses). In our harbour is a giant looming volcano island, Rangitoto, which erupted out of the ocean not 700 years ago, which is a mere eyeblink in geological time. It's hard to imagine the sheer chaos a giant volcano in the nation's biggest harbour would cause if it popped up today.

Peter, 6, was a bit freaked out by all the earthquake coverage on the TV last night and can't say I blame him. Growing up in California earthquakes were a constant fear too. My thoughts go out to all those down south affected by this billion-dollar disaster, and it's a stern and worrying reminder that when it comes right down to it, the human race are mere visitors on a playing field of immense natural forces far more powerful than we are.

• In other quake coverage, Arthur talks about disasters and social networking (I too got a flurry of anxious Facebook messages yesterday).

• To help: Salvation Army NZ

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On the end of every fork: Naked Lunch

Some books you try several times to read before you crack their code. I remember picking up a paperback of William S. Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" years ago and being unable to get past the first 30 pages or so. It had a sleazy, baffling and intimate tone but I couldn't make head or tail of it. PhotobucketMore recently, bolstered by a diet of Bukowski and having read a quite interesting biography of Burroughs, I thought I'd try it again. This time the book opened itself up to me. I'm still not quite sure if I "liked" it in the traditional sense of reading a book, but I can't quite stop thinking about it.

The key to "Naked Lunch" is realising that it isn't a traditional narrative, that there is no end or beginning really, and that it's basically the drug-stewed mind of Burroughs spinning forth in a frequently vile, hallucogenic rant loosely tied together by a few recurring themes. It's hard to put aside all the narrative preconceptions you bring to reading, but once you slide into "Lunch's" strange and slithery rhythms you kind of get what's being attempted here, closer to a prose poem than a novel. It's the sex and drugs that puts a lot of people off "Lunch," and it's without a doubt not for the timid -- I consider myself fairly unshockable but several passages in "Lunch" push one to the limit. It is a book without an ounce of comfort in it. You later learn many of the most shocking passages, the mass orgies/massacres and such, are meant to be a metaphor for capital punishment. Not sure how well it works at that, but as a general "look how terrible man can be to man" sort of screed, it does the job.

Photobucket"The sailor's face dissolved. His mouth undulated forward on a long tube and sucked in the black fuzz, vibrating in supersonic peristalsis disappeared in a silent, pink explosion."

Ostensibly it's "about," if anything, the drug subculture in Burroughs' imaginary "Interzone" -- based on the expatriate Tangiers community Burroughs lived in during the depths of his drug addiction in the 1940s and 50s. Characters appear and disappear; chapters were apparently randomly assembled from the huge pile of manuscript Burroughs had written. There are moments of blackest humour that pass in between the visions like bone-dry chuckles. All but a few sentences of the novel may just be a vivid halluciation.

What sticks with you is Burroughs' foul, snakelike, ellipsis-filled, wandering prose -- like a David Lynch movie, it's more about setting a mood than a straight plot A to plot B movement. It assaults you, bombards you with grotesqueries. It's like listening to Captain Beefheart - if I'm in the right mood, it works, but it's not everyday cuisine. In between the slime and sleaze there are glittering shards of prose beauty, men with eyes like insects and gibbering protoplasmic spasms. Is it a 'comfortable' reading experience? Absolutely not, but somehow between the viscera and abominations it stirs you, leaves you different than you were before.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Nik's unheralded albums #1: David Bowie, "Earthling."

There's albums that are loved by someone, but don't quite become "classics" to the mainstream. Everyone knows "Highway 61 Revisited" when they think of Bob Dylan, but who sticks up for, say, "Infidels"? Here's an occasional series that looks at lesser-regarded albums that I really dig.

David Bowie, "Earthling" (1997)*

Photobucket1997's album "Earthling" comes at an interesting time for David Bowie; I call it his "midlife crisis" album, as it came out the same year he turned 50. Heavily influenced by drum 'n' bass dance music, "jungle" techno and industrial rock, it follows the same path started in 1995's "Outside," a Goth cyber-murder concept album that really began Bowie's modern critical revival after Tin Machine and various subpar '80s and '90s efforts. "Earthling" is less heralded by fans and critics, but it's one of my top 5 Bowie albums.

A lot of that is due to the time I discovered it; most great records evoke something in our lives, have some personal relationship to us beyond mere melody. For me, "Earthling" came along when I'd just moved rather haphazardly across the country, from post-college Mississippi to my old homeland of California. I moved without a real plan or job, and after a few months of bumming about and relying on the kindness of old friends, ended up working at a tiny little paper south of Sacramento, a kind of nowheresville with endless valley landscapes. Didn't know where I'd go next, wondering if I'd screwed up by leaving all my old pals in the South, etc.

So "Earthling" was the soundtrack for much of fall '97 and early '98, as I kind of drifted in a job that was OK in a town where everybody my age seemed to have three kids and work at Kmart. (Obviously, life got better, my future wife Avril emigrated to the U.S. and we moved up to Lake Tahoe in summer '98.) "Earthling" is a really anxious, fretful Bowie album, one that kind of assaults you with rippling beats and distorted guitars. It's the loudest of all his albums, and it definitely feels a bit like a 50-year-old trying to sound cool. Yet it works for me to this day.

PhotobucketThe lead track, "Little Wonder," is all skittering blips and screeching guitars, Bowie chattering away like a man on the edge of a breakdown. Lyrics in general aren't the focus of this album, which shows a lot of influence from William Burroughs' "cut-up" writing method. Several tracks, like "Looking for Satellites" or "Law (Earthling on Fire)," are abstractions set to thumping, circling dance music, meant to create mood more than anything. A song like "Seven Years in Tibet," with a compulsive sway, roaring chorus and snippets of Mandarin, is as experimental in its way as any song on "Low." One of my personal favorites on "Earthling" is "Dead Man Walking," a rave-up defiant rebuttal to aging, colored with Bowie's trademark nostalgia and wistfulness, but with a beat you can dance to. Another sterling track is "I'm Afraid Of Americans," which could nearly be a novelty song if it weren't for the very real angst Bowie brings to the tune, wailing lines like "I'm afraid of Americans / I'm afraid of the world / I'm afraid I can't help it." You believe him. Yet my most replayed song on "Earthling" is probably "The Last Thing You Should Do," all raging at the darkness and jittery fear. It's claustrophobic but cathartic at the same time, and the kind of song many techno bands are striving for and miss much of the time. I listened to it a lot in the fall of 1997, wondering who I was and who I'd be a year from then.

Like I said, fear runs through the tunes of "Earthling," fear of death, losing power, potency and the world. "Earthling" is very different from most of Bowie's catalog, with the exception of its predecessor "Outside." His next album, "hours..." heralded a move toward a gentler, more introspective phase. Despite appropriating the sound of bands like Chemical Brothers and Nine Inch Nails, Bowie still managed to be unmistakably himself. "Earthling" is one of his strongest albums in a lifetime full of peaks.

*This a repost and a bit of a reworking of a post from way back in 2005; I've got a few other albums in this vein that I plan to look at in coming weeks.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Superheroes I Love #5: The Great Machine, Mayor Mitchell Hundred

The final issue of Bryan K. Vaughan and Tony Harris's DC/Wildstorm series "Ex Machina" came out this past week. Issue #50 wrapped up the tale of Mitchell Hundred, the would-be superhero who became the mayor of New York City, and like the entire series, it was a thoughtful, edgy, often surprising dive into the world of politics, heroism and culture. Like Vaughan's other big series "Y, The Last Man," this was an epic tale, but grounded in superb characterization of Mayor Hundred and a vast supporting cast.

Who: The Great Machine, the world's only superhero -- who becomes the mayor of New York City after helping save thousands on Sept. 11, 2001.

What: Mitchell Hundred discovered a piece of alien technology that gave him the ability to communicate with machines and became the short-lived superhero The Great Machine, who managed to avert the destruction of one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. He uses his fame to become the Mayor of New York City, but his strange past and the mysteries of his powers keep coming back to haunt him...

Why I dig: "Ex Machina" was not really a book about superheroes. Instead, it was a book about politicians, who aren't always that heroic, and Vaughan created a kind of "West Wing" meets "X-Files" vibe to this always interesting series. All sorts of topical events from the last six years are woven into the twisting, time-hopping narrative - terrorism, abortion, art vs. smut, crime, gay marriage.

PhotobucketThe comic could sometimes verge on being too talky, and its hot-topic issues may make it seem dated in years to come, but I rather liked the naive liberal idealism Hundred has -- and what happens to him throughout the series. Vaughan has a knack for dialogue and complex, realistic characters who don't hew to just one point of view. Harris' fluid, photorealistic art is an integral part of the series (in a rarity these days, Harris drew every issue of the main series). I loved his work on "Starman" a while back but he's taken it to the next level here.

"Ex Machina" is a series that rewards re-reading, which many comics don't these days. Indeed, the final issue is so devastating and poignant that it inspired me to go back and start reading the entire series again from scratch. I was fascinated to see how #50 wraps up so nicely with #1 from over six years ago. It's one of the most interesting statements on superheroes we've seen this decade, and hopefully will only grow in reputation over time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The truth is out there

This is the kind of thing that just depresses me about my home land to no end.

Whether or not you agree with his politics, it really, honestly has been proven without a doubt that Barack Obama is not a Muslim. That he was not actually born in Indonesia or Guatemala or wherever. He may be a liberal tax-and-spender, but he's no foreign invasion leader. Yet the lies persist.

I just don't get it. Is believing in whatever the vast right wing conspiracy of the day is just shorthand for "I don't like the guy's politics"? Much as I despise the administration of George W. Bush, I never bought into the conspiracy that he somehow planned/knew about 9/11. Yet people just love their conspiracy theories. As if a secret Muslim infiltrator could actually get elected President in Fox News America?

It's frankly embarrassing sometimes at my work, where I'm surrounded by Kiwis, Australians, Brits and South Africans, and having to defend the US when a story like this comes across the wire. It feeds into all the sad stereotypes people have about my country. (Of course, every country has its idiots, demagogues and ranters, a fact I like to point out when anyone gets too high on the 'bash America' bandwagon. New Zealand politicians tend to be less brash and omnipresent than Americans, but it's got its share of well, wankers.)

A great reason for why the Obama myths persist in mainstream society lies in the fact that media are scared to death of stating an outright fact when it comes to politics, for fear of offending some demographic. Too many stories on this sort of thing mushmouth their way around the point, using vague language rather than just calling a lie a lie, an untruth an untruth. Journalists today have been taught that being factual isn't being "balanced."

I dunno. Is it just easier to believe whatever you're told that fits into your personal worldview? But as the always thoughtful Arthur puts it, propaganda works. Say something enough and people will start to believe it. It's a shame that the 24-hour news cycle, always logged on Internet world of knowledge and freedom seems to have in many ways actually made this kind of climate worse. The truth is out there... somewhere, I guess, maybe.