Tuesday, December 26, 2006

2006 Music

I love end of year lists. Around February every year I become sad that I have read all of the “Top Ten” type lists and have to wait for almost a year for more. Most of the CDs mentioned, I reviewed earlier this year. Use the search feature to track them down, if you are interested.

Best Overall Albums or Albums that I Keep Listening to Like Crazy

I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass by Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo returns from some mellower albums with the coolest named album of the year. Though less playful than some of their albums, the trio covers all of the bases here. Some of the tunes are long, soaring, artistic pieces, while others are quiet introspective folk songs. They do a little bit of everything on this album and do it all well. This is one of the best from YLT in years and that is saying something from such a consistent band.

Eyes Open by Snow Patrol

The incredible lyrics and sweeping choruses have not grown old after numerous listens. Gary Lightbody’s superb lyrics are what keep the album fresh. The simple rock song structures and harmonies are solid but belie the overall strength of Snow Patrol as a band that is much, much more than a U2 or Coldplay wannabe.

Nightcrawler by Pete Yorn

It took a while to grow on me, but the combination of modern folk-rock and buzzy modern rock songs makes for a great album. It is not easy to make quality albums when your first disc will probably be your masterpiece, but Yorn rebounds well on his third album. Lyrically, Yorn takes on nightlife and is not as quite as introspective as in the past, though it is a completely successful undertaking. The fact that Yorn is just as comfortable with rocking out as he is with storytelling, shows just how talented he is.

Best Albums that Grew on Me Throughout 2006

Year of Meteors by Laura Veirs

This album is absolutely charming. Yes, it is a bit over produced and she needs to learn to take more risks, but this is a quality outing by Veirs. Her writing is quite deep and highlights the inherit challenges of relationships. I’m glad I kept listening to this one.

It’s Never Been Like That by Phoenix

Danceable rock by a French band...very cool.

Biggest Disappointment of 2006

Sam’s Town by The Killers

I did not review this because it was so horrible. Their debut was full of synth laden pop, while their sophomore effort is pure schlock. Pretending like you are Meatloaf or a bad version of U2 is not a good way to keep an audience. And for that matter, neither is writing horribly pretentious stereotypical songs about America.

Biggest Surprise of 2006

The Eraser by Thom Yorke

I wanted to dislike this album for several reasons. 1. Pretending this is a solo disc and not a Radiohead CD is silly. This is a Radiohead album. 2. The music press wants everyone to like this album in a big way and Yorke was in every music magazine for weeks. 3. While I like a bunch of their music, the overall philosophy of Radiohead as a band that creates postmodern pessimistic landscapes somehow bothers me. The Eraser, though, is great. Yorke’s writing is superb. He writes intensely introspective and hopeful songs that are consistently good and interesting throughout the CD. This is another of my most listened to discs of the year.

Best Comeback Album of 2006

The Garden by Zero 7

In 2004, Zero 7 followed their wonderful debut, Simple Things, with a lackluster disc in When It Falls. Luckily, the duo created a great third album in The Garden. They make the move from the mellow and mostly boring songs on their sophomore disc to lush, interesting pop songs on The Garden.

Monday, December 18, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Nick, written by Levithan, and Norah, written by Cohn, meet one night after Nick’s band plays in a New York City club. And by “meet” I mean they started making out, because Nick needed a pretend girlfriend for five minutes to help him avoid his ex, Tris. Things are not that simple of course. Norah realizes she sort of knows Nick since she is friends with Tris and listened to the mix tapes that Nick made for her. Thus begins a night where Nick and Norah deal with various issues of the past so they can begin a relationship with each other in the present. Things begin a bit rocky, but the authors invite readers to root for the nice guy and the snarky, but well meaning girl.

The writing, however, overshadows any plot devices. Nick and Norah’s dialog is quick and smart. Cursing is an art form and if I could curse as well as they do, I’d do it a lot more. Cohn and Levithan clearly paint the backdrop of the city that the young hipsters use to spend their night.

There was something about this book that bugged me, though it was hard to figure out what it was. The authors give the novel an appreciated edge, but I seemed to catch an elitist and almost condescending bent to the novel. At times the book also seems to drag a little, since the conclusion is obvious from the beginning. Nevertheless, the authors have put together a good read that should appeal to both guys and girls.

What I'm Reading -- Clay by David Almond

Award winning author David Almond’s latest novel is a horror story called Clay. Clay is actually a Frankenstein-type monster created by 13-year old Davie and the creepy new kid in town, Stephen. Clay takes place in England following Davie and his friend, who are both altar boys. The lads are then led to befriend Stephen, who has a mysterious and possibly demonic past, but who might be able to help them handle the equally scary neighborhood bully. This is an incredibly creepy novel and basically becomes a psychological thriller since Almond leaves Davie confused about what is really happening for most of the book. Davie and the reader are never certain who has powers and what actions are actually affecting the world around them. This is quite scary, but fun and well written. More mature readers of Darren Shan's Cirque du Freak series will appreciate this.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Music Review -- Yellow House by Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear has created a bit of buzz for themselves over the last couple of years, though Yellow House is my first time listening to them. Grizzly Bear’s mellow neo-folk is both experimental and accessible, which is quite a feat. The soft acoustic feel is combined with some soaring choruses, amazing harmonies and sonic touches. Banjo and woodwind instruments give the album its clean sound, while Grizzly Bear mixes that up every once in a while with some murkier sounds. This is an incredibly creative album that creates an amazing soundscape. This is one of the best albums of the year and is for fans of Iron and Wine, Yo La Tengo and Sigur Ros.

3.50 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Listening to this sounds like the breeze is trying to tell you something again.

What I'm Reading -- Graphic Novels

The Squirrel Mother: Stories by Megan Kelso

The stories collected here are extremely varied. Kelso writes very personal stories and also includes some on American History. I could not get into her writing at all. The art and the books overall design is perfect down to the smallest details. It’s too bad that the writing was not up to the level of the art.

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan

This is another amazing Graphic Novel from Runaways creator Brian K Vaughan. This is based on the real life story of a pride of lions that escaped from an Iraq zoo when the U.S. bombed the country in ’03. The animals of the zoo all had different thoughts about whether their life as captives was good or bad. When the bombs strike, however, they have no choice but to flee to the outside world. The four lions band together to cope with their new existence and survive. This is incredibly poignant and Vaughan somehow is able to include political overtones without being pretentious. Pride of Baghdad is a must read for anyone.

What I'm Reading -- Nailed by Patrick Jones

Nailed is the new raw creation of Patrick Jones. 16-year old Brett Hendricks is a talented actor who is also in a band. His biggest problems include his dad, who doesn’t act like he even likes Brett, his principal and the jocks at school. When his band kicks into gear and he hooks up with long-time crush Kaylee, things start going quite well for him. When things start to go wrong, however, he starts to spiral wildly out of control. Jones wrote this part extremely well and I was incredibly scared for Brett. The author does not hold back in describing Brett’s pain or the intolerance and hatred of those who want him to conform. When it is all said and done, some good adult role models do step up to help Brett. Unfortunately, there were some unrealistic elements and the ending just did not ring true. Jones does a great job profiling those that insist on conformity and the risk in being the nail that sticks out the farthest. This is a solid effort from Jones.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Music Review – The Last Kiss Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Zach Braff has produced the unofficial follow up to 2004’s Garden State Soundtrack. The Last Kiss is another moody, bittersweet ode to indie pop and adult alternative music. Here, Braff mixes the mainstream sounds of Coldplay and Fiona Apple with less known bands like Turin Brakes and Remy Zero. One of the quirkier additions was Athlete’s jaunty El Salvador. I actually like more of the songs here, though Garden State had some odd choices that worked great like tunes by Zero 7 and Frou Frou. The standouts here are Cary Brothers’ folky Ride, Turin Brakes’ retro Pain Killer and Remy Zero’s rocker Prophecy. Except that the Aimee Mann song seems a bit out of place to me, this is an awesome collection. The Last Kiss is a bit more predictable that Garden State, but Braff created another great collection for fans of thoughtful music.

3.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale

What I’m Reading -- Horns and Wrinkles by Joseph Helgerson

This is one of those books I chose just because of its cool cover. Horns and Wrinkles is by Joseph Helgerson with the artwork by Nicoletta Ceccoli. The story begins with 12-year old Claire being terrorized above a river by her cousin Duke. When Duke falls into the river, however, he begins to grow a horn every time he does something bad, which is quite often. Thus begins an adventure in which Claire tries to free her cousin from the grasp of three river trolls that he starts hanging out with as his nose continues to grow. The plot is quite complex as readers learn about a history of odd happenings around the river, or as Claire’s Grandpa says, “rivery things”. This is a good humorous fairy tale for readers for 4th to 7th graders. Helgerson goes a bit long in some areas, but provides some great vivid characters, especially in Claire’s family. Older readers may find it a bit juvenile, but this is a fun fantasy.

What I'm Reading -- An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Vin Swanson's Teen-Reading-O-Rama continues with the newest book by Looking for Alaska author John Green. An Abundance of Katherines is about Colin, a super intelligent high schooler who has only dated (and been dumped) by girls named Katherine. His best and only friend Hassan tries to get Colin away from moping about Katherine XIX and drags him on a road trip which ends in Gutshot, Tennessee. In Gutshot, they get jobs and meet some nice girls as Colin tries to create his legacy by producing a theorem that can map the ups and downs of any relationship from beginning to end. The author deftly gives us two characters that are at each end of the ambition spectrum. Colin is ultra ambitious and feels his life is getting away from him already and he is not even in college yet. Hassan is fine living off of his parents and avoiding college. The friends are amazingly funny and of course, find many ways to get in trouble on their vacation. I had an extremely rough time identifying with the characters and this could be a problem for other readers. It is, however, one of the funniest books I have ever read, so that did not dampen my enjoyment of this book very much. I don’t know if this is better than Looking for Alaska, but Green does a better job putting together a full and concise story in An Abundance of Katherines. This is book I would not hesitate to recommend to many readers of Teen Lit.

Monday, November 27, 2006

What I’m Reading – Scott Westerfeld

So I am incredibly behind in my reading of teen novels and have a huge reading list to prove it. Step one was to read Peeps and Uglies by Scott Westerfeld. These books have gotten a ton of buzz already, so I’ll make the review part brief and then ramble about some observations between the two.

Synopsis: Peeps: In a world where vampirism is sexually transmitted, 19-year old Cal is infected. His current job is to find others, called “peeps”, who are being destroyed by the parasite. This is a fast paced adventure that is quite good.

Synopsis: Uglies: This is the first in a trilogy of the same name. Tally lives in a future world where turning 16 means a surgery takes place that changes your entire appearance ant thus your standing as an “uglie” changes to a “pretty”. This is a fairly deep story and Tally, who wanted more than anything to become a “pretty”, meets a new friend and starts to realize there is more to the world than just her isolated city. This is very good because it combines a lot of action with a complex plot and likeable characters.

Since I read the books back to back, it was fun to compare the worlds and themes of Peeps and Uglies. The two worlds Westerfeld created are quite similar. In Peeps, the country is split between those who understand the world and those who don’t. Westerfeld seems to be quite influenced by Cyber-punk and The Matrix. Most of the country is going about their regular business, while vampires are slugging it out below New York City. This is not a new development. Cal’s organization was created early in America’s history to keep the virus in check.
Possible spoilers in this paragraph: Interestingly enough, at the end of Peeps, we learn that it is not so clear who the good guys and bad guys are. Westerfeld goes are far as to employ the philosophy that the greater evolved beings were allowed to thrive, so they can take on the world’s next threat. Thus Peeps’ heroes are those whose intentions are more important than the moral foundation of the world they operate in. The author juggles the importance of relationships and trust with the fact that only those that become infected and therefore stronger will have the best chance of surviving the world’s dire situation.
In Uglies, Westerfeld takes the fairly simple world of Peeps and kicks it up a notch. In this world, their goal is to make everyone equal by transforming their appearance. Those that don’t want this life are not just exiled from their city, but tracked down and forced to cooperate. Set far in the future, the only thing left of our society is some scattered ruins of long abandoned cities. I found it interesting that the Smokies, those living in the wild under their own rules, are trying to balance the world of the past and the present. The past was seen as completely misusing the planet, while the present leaders are isolating their people from the world. Like in Peeps, Uglies is mostly about those that realize there is something wrong in their world and are trying to figure out what to do about it.
Most people have read these by now, but for those who haven’t they are well worth it. Neither book is perfect, but Westerfeld created two great stories.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Music Review -- In Colour by The Concretes

The Concretes are a Stockholm based band that got buzz for a commercial featuring their great song, Say Something New. In Colour is the band’s second full length studio album. This disc continues the indie-pop sound of their self-titled debut, but their ideas are more fully realized here. The band combines some catchy hooks with textured music. Most of the songs include keyboards and brass instruments that meld well with Victoria Bergsman’s wispy voice. The album bogs down a little with some tunes that sound the same and they never really step out from their indie-pop foundation. I hope they grow creatively in the future, but for now songs like the lush, but hooky Chosen One are fun and worth a listen.

2.50 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

What I'm Reading -- The World to Come by Dara Horn

The World to Come has one of the most complex plots I have read. The main character, though there are technically many, is Ben Ziskind, who steals a painting that he believes belongs to his family. The rest of the characters also are connected, in one way or another, to this Marc Chagall painting. In the present time, Horn follows Ben, his art-loving pregnant twin, her Russian refugee husband and Erica, the museum employee who needs to get the painting back because it was stolen on her watch. The relationship between the twins and the fact that Ben and Erica have the beginnings of a romantic relationship makes things complicated. The author also lets her readers into the world of Russian Jewish artists in the 20's like Chagall and author Der Nister. The painting originally gets into the Ziskind family, through Ben’s relative, who grew up in an orphanage in Russia. There is too much for me to cover here and Horn also weaves some Yiddish stories into the narrative. This is an inventive novel with several fully developed characters. Horn seamlessly bounces between countries, times, realities and characters to create a wonderful novel in The World to Come.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

What I'm Reading -- De:Tales Stories from Urban Brazil by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

I realized that I seem to say that every graphic novel I read is great. While this is fairly accurate, when I do find an amazing graphic novel people probably say, “He thinks everything is great. I’m going to ignore him now.” Nobody, however, should ignore this graphic novel. Maybe it just clicked with my sensibilities, but De:Tales is a special book. Moon and Ba are twins who grew up in Brazil. All of their stories in this collection take place in Brazil, though the country is mostly just context for the stories. Most of the stories are actually quite similar. The brothers begin with a dream that helps them know what to write and then they go from story to story that are similar in tone, but subtly cover different aspects of life and love. In Too Late for Coffee, a man sees a younger girl he has never met. She greets him by saying, “You're late. It’s too late to fall in love with me.” Other stories include throwing a Birthday party for a long lost friend, a bunch of friends talking about work and Brazil and a guy who hesitates to talk a girl and then starts seeing other versions of himself who never took any chances. The stories are sparsly written but fairly powerful. The art is simple balck and white, though the brothers draw their characters in exquisite detail. This is an amazing collection. There are a couple of adult moments, so this is not really for younger teens.

New Discoveries

Here are a few neat things I have found lately.

T.W. Walsh is the drummer for David Bazan’s Pedro the Lion. Pedro and side project Headphones, are lead by Bazan though the bands occasionally do some of Walsh’s material. If I understand it correctly, another side project, The Soft Drugs, is solely based on Walsh’s songs. Walsh actually wrote one of my favorite Pedro songs, Start Without Me, which is on their MySpace page. Anyway, this is a really confusing band, but my point is thatThe Soft Drugs material is really good. A friend kept bugging me to listen and I thought I had and didn’t like it. Eventually I went back and realized they were all new songs to me and are really good. So, check out the streaming stuff on the MySpace page or download the mp3s at thesoftdrugs.com. Walsh creates a simple indie rock sound similar to Pedro and the writing is quite good. The song I love is the very 77’s-like Defending the Paint.

While reading the Nov/Dec ’06 issue of Poets and Writers, I saw that poet Paul Muldoon is in a band called Rackett. The music is not that good, but with Muldoon as their lyricist, the convergence of poetry and music is really interesting. Check out their website and make sure you read through Muldoon’s lyrics because most of songs are very well written.

The November 2006 issue of Wired had possibly the coolest article I have ever read. In "Very Short Stories," Wired found 33 writers to pen Sci-Fi short stories that had to be six words long. Then they went to five graphic designers and had them design the pages for the article. The people they found to write are a great group and include Stan Lee, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Kevin Smith and Neil Gaiman. The results are amazingly cool. The stories can be seen in Wired’s archive, though you really need the hard copy to fully appreciate it. My favorite is by Harry Harrison, “Time machine reaches future!!!...nobody there…”

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Music Review -- Under the Iron Sea by Keane

At one point I was buying any CD that anyone compared to Coldplay. The results ranged from good additions to my collection(The Doves, Clinic) to bad additions(Keane, Embrace). So, I bought their debut album Hopes and Fears without hearing any of their music. While the band is definitely talented, only a few songs combined solid songwriting with interesting music. Overall, Hopes and Fears was a sub-par and dry debut.

With their sophomore effort, Under the Iron Sea, the band stretches out and becomes more of a rock outfit. They still avoid guitars and their tunes are mostly piano based. There are two main changes between their two albums. The first is that there is much more depth in the construction of their new songs. Too often, Hopes and Fears felt like a basic pop album, despite the oblivious talent of the band’s members. The other change is a definitive move to create the U2 vibe of soaring hook laden choruses. This works on some songs, but not others.

To me the standout is Is It Any Wonder?, a great song that sounds like it should have been on U2’s Pop album. Tom Chaplin sings, “But now I think how I was wrong/ And you were laughing along/ And now I look a fool for thinking you were on, my side/ Is it any wonder I'm tired/ Is it any wonder that I feel uptight / Is it any wonder I don't know what's right.” These arena rock/Coldplay-like songs succeed when the lyrics are tight, but some like A Bad Dream border on goofiness.

Keane has created an album with some great moments. Unfortunately, I don’t think the band will hit its stride and craft truly creative music until they stop trying to be U2 or Coldplay. The good news is that Under the Iron Sea makes it sound like they are on their way. For now. at their best Keane is a more melodic and accessible Snow Patrol and at their worst they are an over hyped Something Corporate or The Fray.

2.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

What I'm Reading -- Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home is a memoir in graphic novel form. Bechdel wrote and illustrated this powerful book about her childhood. Fun Home really centers on Bechdel’s father who was an English teacher, ran a small town funeral parlor and obsessed over the old mansion they lived in. Growing up, the author feels secondary to the house her father is so passionate about. As she learns more about her father, she realizes their lives are parallel to each other. His hidden relationships with other men are comparable to Bechdel’s sexuality that she slowly reveals to her parents. This is a fairly long graphic novel, though the author packs it with information the reader needs. Bechdel illustrates the comic with simple drawings and just a touch of color. This is a very raw telling of a girl growing up under some tough emotional circumstances. Fun Home is a bit heavy, but quite good.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

What I'm Reading -- The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. I absolutely loved Popco and reviewed it earlier this year. This time Thomas is writing about a mysterious book that could be cursed. Everyone involved in the book ends of dead or missing. Ariel, a graduate student working on studying the book’s author, ends up with the only remaining copy of The End of Mr. Y. Her professor at the university goes missing, but Ariel decides to read it and solve the mystery. Thus begins a wild adventure which partly takes place in this world and partly in a parallel universe made up of thoughts, evil children, trains fueled by fear and the god of mice. This is an incredibly bizarre and trippy book and I did not realize it would become a Sci-Fi Adventure story when I started reading it. Thomas has to lay down a lot of background information into religious beliefs and especially thought experiments by people like Albert Einstein, so that the story makes sense. The characters are very well written and Thomas presents a smart female lead character similar to her heroine in Popco. The End of Mr. Y is a thoughtful, weird and raw novel. This is highly recommended, though it is not an easy read by any means.

Monday, October 23, 2006

What I'm Reading -- The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

Two veterans of the comics industry decided to create a graphic novel version of the 568 page 9/11 Commission Report. Every time I read about this somewhere it seems like I see a new controversy over it, so let me take care of those right away.

1. There is no bias here by Jacobson and Colon. They are just putting the original report in a more readable format. This is a paraphrase of the whole report and the authors did try to quote it as often as they could. Also, the Foreward is written by the Chair and Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission, so this is a legitimate document.
2. This graphic novel is not intended to fix any of the problems of the commission. This is just a digested version so any biases and mistakes the commission made comes out in this book as well.
3. Some have said that the drawings are made to make some people look better than others and that there is some inherit racism in how the terrorists are drawn. I did not pick this up at all, but others may see it differently.

I was incredibly excited when I heard about this and I was not let down. Reading many of the details of the 9/11 Commission Report is incredibly interesting. The art is quite good and helps move along the commentary. They also organize the information so that it is easier to understand. In one section, the reader can see a timeline of September 11, 2001 from the perspective of each hijacked plane. The authors cover this sensitive material with great maturity. This is a great read, though it is obviously sad and alarming.

What I'm Reading -- Adverbs by Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler, who writes the Series of Unfortunate Events as Lemony Snicket, has written another novel for adults. Adverbs is not quite a series of short stories, but close. Handler puts together a bunch of snippets of lives of characters that eventually cross paths. The theme of the book is all about defining love. Handler unfortunately explains this over and over and over. I did not find many of these snippets very interesting or realistic. I did think a couple of the stories are quite interesting, but it was just not consistent enough. This is for those who enjoy Hander’s style of writing in the Unfortunate Events series and are more interested in the language used to write a story than in the actual story itself.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Music Review -- Continuum by John Mayer

John Mayer’s third full length studio album has received almost completely positive reviews from music critics. Actually, if it were not for these reviews I would have written this a week ago and proclaimed this one of the worst albums ever. Since I figured I was missing something that was obvious to others, I gave Continuum a few more listens.

Mayer was admittedly in a weird place in his career when getting ready to record Continuum. He had created two popular and well-done pop albums with Room for Squares and Heavier Things. His writing was much deeper than most popular artists and it worked well with the acoustic pop of RFS and more mature Adult Contemporary sound on Heavier Things. In 2005, he created the John Mayer Trio and moved from singer-songwriter mode to blues/soul mode on Try. Continuum is a mix of Mayer letting out his blues/soul side, while still attempting to create accessible pop music.

Unfortunately, it does not work so well. Mayer’s lyrics just don’t resonate the way his earlier works did. Waiting on the World to Change (“We keep on waiting/ Waiting for the world to change/ One day our generation/ Is gonna rule the population”) and Belief (“Everyone believes/ And no one’s going quietly”) are so vaguely political that they don’t really mean anything. Many of the other songs are about heartache and losing love, though most of them show little depth. The theme of bittersweet relationships runs throughout the album and occasionally scores a victory like I Don’t Trust Myself with Mayer singing, “No, I’m not the man I used to be lately/ See, you met me at an interesting time/ And if my past is any sign of your future/ You should be warned before I let you inside.” This is a brilliant song in the soul tradition and Mayer lets the subject of the song know he wants what is best for her, but it is not necessarily him.

Musically, the album is completely solid. The only misstep is that his voice just can not handle the chorus of Vultures and give the song the smooth falsetto that it needs. Mayer uses bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan from his Trio and the three are great together. My biggest problem besides the lack of quality lyrics is the production. Mayer and Jordan produced it together. They employed a slick sound that is often too tinny making some of Mayer’s guitar and vocals sound really corny. Never have the blues sounded so shinny and unthreatening.

There are some wonderful moments here and I Don’t Trust Myself, The Heart of Life and Stop This Train are definitely standouts. I’m glad I listed more closely to it. Overall though, it is still a big disappointment. This will probably appeal to many of his Adult Contemporary fans, but Mayer is too talented to create this uneven and poorly produced album. Of course, remember that there are dozens of critics who disagree with me.

1.75 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What I'm Reading -- The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell

Campbell uses various forms of art to communicate his story in this brilliant graphic novel, The Fate of the Artist. One day, Campbell, an obsessive artist, is discovered to be missing. Campbell’s many quirks are explained as his wife and daughter fill in the responding police officers. The author uses these conversations, odd bits of history, children’s drawings and newspaper comic strips to tell the story of Eddie Campbell. The character’s bizarre behavior on the surface can seem like a stream of random musings, but this is really a look at perceptions of reality. Through the eyes of family members and fans of the character’s art, several layers of life and art are explored. Campbell gives no conclusions or signs to let readers in to any reasons behind his behavior. Instead he presents a humorous, but sad portrayal of everyday life clashing with creative art. I don't know if some readers will appreciate this grahpic novel's strange way of telling the story, but this really is an amazing read.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Music Review -- Alligator by The National

The National has roots in both Ohio and New York and it shows. Actually, this band would make a great trivia question. What band has members from Ohio that finally formed in Brooklyn and includes two sets of brothers? Anyway, the band combines a punk rock attitude and lyrics with a roots rock vibe.

Lead singer Matt Berninger presents an almost spoken delivery with his deep baritone voice. The guitar work from Aaron and Bryce Dessner is intricate and melodic and really drives some of the tamer songs. Berninger’s lyrics combine real life sensitivity with some deep angst. The great opening track Secret Meeting starts out, “I think this place is full of spies/ I think they're onto me…Didn't anybody tell you how to gracefully disappear in a room?”

The band seems somewhat reserved and laid back on most of the album’s tracks. It is like they can rock and they might be about to rock, but they never really decide that it is time to rock. The combination of the singer’s voice, their lyrics and the excellent guitar work make the album fairly enjoyable, though on many of these tunes one or more of these elements are missing. Alligator, which came out mid-2005, is a solid disc, though I wish more of their songs were crafted as well as tracks like Karen, Lit Up and Friend of Mine. The National comes off as a less arty Arcade Fire or an artier The John Doe Thing. It’s a rare band that could appeal to both the alt-country and post-punk set, but The National pulls it off.

2.50 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Graphic Novels

Ultimate Spider-Man 15 by Brian Michael Bendis: Silver Sable enters the Ultimate Spider-Man universe and is hunting for Peter Parker. Vol. 15 is another good story arc by Bendis and also includes an interesting relationship forming between Parker and Kitty Pryde. These are consistently some of the best graphic novels out there.

Ultimate Iron Man by Orson Scott Card: This is great. Card reworks the Iron Man story beginning with a young Tony Stark and his father. My only complain is that this reworking is so different from the original that it sometimes seem like it’s not an Iron Man comic at all. Despite it being so different, this is a great sci-fi heavy version of Tony Stark.

House of M by Brian Michael Bendis: When one of the most powerful mutants in the world is not happy, then no one else is happy. The Scarlett Witch, in an attempt to have the life she wants changes the whole world and the only one who remembers how life used to be is Wolverine. The new world is basically what Magneto always dreamed of. Mutants rule over humans and it is up to Wolverine to figure out how to get things back to normal. This is very good.

Avengers Disassembled by Brian Michael Bendis: This is purely for big Avengers fans. The story is boring and keeps going back to even duller flashbacks. The art is quite uneven as well. Basically, the Marvel Universe is changing and it seems as if everyone has it out for the Avengers, who must consider disbanding.

Music Review -- Open Season by Feist

Open Season is the b-sides/remix version of her debut album Let It Die, which I reviewed earlier this year. Let It Die is a splendid folk-pop album in the vein of Over the Rhine and Beth Orton. Many of the songs on Open Season were on the first CD. Two of those songs actually get six different treatments here. Guests here include Deathcab’s Ben Gibbard. Many of the tracks get completely different takes like the acoustic cover of the Bee Gees’ “Inside and Out”. A lot of the songs get overhauled in a jazz or R&B style, but this is a very eclectic album. Like her first album, this comes highly recommended, despite the fact that like all remix albums it is incredibly uneven. Feist is an amazing creative talent and I can not wait for whatever she does next.

3.00 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Music Review -- Nightcrawler by Pete Yorn

Pete Yorn has created the follow up to 2002’s awesome modern rock album Musicforthemorningafter and 2003’s folkier Day I Forgot. While the debut disc was mostly a look at relationships and regret and his sophomore disc was more about stories from everyday life, Nightcrawler is about the nervous energy and ups and downs of nightlife. Yorn mostly abandons the rootsier sound of Day I Forgot and his writing is not nearly as consistent as in the past. Nightcrawler took quite a few listens for me to get used to it and understand what Yorn was trying to do here. The first few songs are buzzy rock songs that are muddled and do not seem to click. Yorn really does not hit his stride until track five, a folk song called The Man. Starting with The Man, the disc starts to seem like a natural progression from his debut, except that I’m surprised that he chose to make such an unforgiving rock album. Playing most of the instruments himself, and performing a bevy of melodic rock songs makes this album really click, despite the troubled beginning.

The disc really takes off with my favorite, Maybe I’m Right. One of the most upbeat and positive songs (and somewhat corny, but still cool) it is a great rocker with Yorn crooning, “Maybe I'm right, right on/ I said, "Hey, baby, baby, baby, I'll take you tonight."/ And I'll see you on the other side, sugar/ Your pleasant face, your crooked smile/ Maybe tomorrow is a lifetime away.” While not as deep as earlier efforts, Nighcrawler has some good writing and often has his characters feeling lonely in a crowded and busy life. It was not as I expected, but Pete Yorn fans, who especially those who liked Musicforthemorningafter should enjoy this as well. Yorn's voice is quite emotive and drives several of these songs to a great sound nearly on its own. Those who like melodic rock and Brit-rock like Razorlight, the Dandy Warhols and the Charlatans U.K. should also be in to this. Oh, and I suggest buying the disc with two "bonus" songs, which makes this a long 16-track album.

2.75 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Londonstani by Gautam Malkani

I was extremely tempted to bail on Gautam Malkani’s debut novel, Londonstani. This is novel about four Indian teenagers living in London and raising hell. The slang and colloquiums are so heavy that it was jarring to read until I got used to the style. A snippet from page 9:

--U hear wot ma bredren Jas b chattin? Hardjit says, welcoming my input. – If you b getting lippy wid me u b getting yo’self mashed up.

Oh yeah, there are also no apostrophes to distinguish dialog. Once you get used to this shorthand style of writing the book really takes off. Jas is kind of a nerd, but he is living a new life after being accepted by three schoolmates, who are some small-time gangsters. Things get serious for the group when their business with illegal cell phones turns into a bigger job. Also, Jas, who now has a bit of cash to throw around, is making moves on a Muslim girl, which has his whole community turning against him. Things, of course, in the end go wrong for the whole crew. Racial tensions and traditions are a big part of this book. Malkani does a good job being serious and funny at the same time. This is a harsh, but good coming of age story.

What I'm Reading -- U.S.! by Chris Bachelder

Chris Bachelder is the author of the brilliant Bear v. Shark. In U.S.! he writes about an America where people can and often do raise others from the dead. In this case, readers meet the recreated former author and politician Upton Sinclair. Sinclair’s careers after his first life are followed in the forms of letters, emails, Amazon.com-type reviews, EBay-type product listings and some normal storytelling. While obviously satiric, Bachelder makes Sinclair seem really quirky and cool. Sinclair is resurrected every few years by the dwindling number of Socialists in the country that are hoping that the author of The Jungle will help their cause. Unfortunately for Sinclair and his many secretaries, America is not ready for Socialism and so the muckraker keeps getting assassinated. Bachelder goes right after American culture without holding back. At times, the book seems to wander aimlessly, but after a while the book leads to a seminal moment at an Anti-Socialist 4th of July Celebration and Book-burning in Greenville, South Carolina. The result is an amazingly well done and hilarious look at this country, pop culture and politics.

What I'm Reading -- The End of California by Steve Yarbrough

Pete Barrington leaves California and drags his family to his small hometown in Mississippi. Yarbrough follows the family’s transition to a place they don’t really want to live. Nevertheless, Barrington is trying to get away from controversy in California and his wife and daughter have no choice. Unfortunately for Barrington, some of his old demons never left his hometown and he has some things to deal with all over again. The End of California is a decent look at dealing with a troublesome past which keeps barging into the present. Yarbrough is a good writer and balances the family drama and murder mystery elements well, though the book really never rises above the horde of authors with works following messed up people and their families.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Music Review -- Blue on Blue by Leigh Nash

Blue on Blue is the solo debut of former Sixpence None the Richer member Leigh Nash. 6p had a long and tumultuous career putting out only four full length albums between ’94 and ’02. The band’s core members were Nash and multi-instrumentalist and lyricist Matt Slocum. Slocum’s only appearance here is that he co-wrote the album’s first single My Idea of Heaven.

Nash wrote or co-wrote every song of the album. Despite her varied influences and her past with 6p, this is purely a pop album. The Kiss Me, 6p’s biggest hit, of this album is My Idea of Heaven. Though a bit bland and sappy, it is not a bad tune. Most of the songs have a dreamy quality and are heavy on the keyboards.

While a few of the songs are written a bit too preciously, like Nervous in the Light of Dawn, the writing is solid and well-structured. Nash is never preachy, but does focus on some spiritual and philosophical issues. Mixed in, as well, are some pure love songs. On songs like More of It and Cloud Nine it is nice to hear Nash write as if she is speaking to someone specific. Too many songs these days lack any punch because they are written as if they are addressed to “whom it may concern”.

The album really gets moving a few songs in. The best songs on Blue on Blue are the faster paced tunes which force Nash to stretch her voice a little bit. Her soft voice belies her range and strength, which is shown on Never Finish where she sings, “You want me all to yourself/ Well you’ve got me now/ I’ve got to think to myself/ Where do you end?/ And where do you begin?” Angel Tonight and Blue are other tunes that step out a little from the ranks of the mid-tempo songs and are quite good.

Repeated listening reveals more depth than there is on the surface. Nonetheless, the problem with this album is that there is no edge at all. And again I stress “at all”. The CD is well produced and the musicians are all good, but the shiny, shimmering songs are all a listener gets. I know this is unfair, but some of Slocum’s guitar work and edgier lyrics would add a lot to a work like this. Nash has proven with Blue on Blue that her voice is still great and her songwriting is solid. Her debut will not help anyone deal with missing Sixpence None the Richer, but it is good on its own standing.

2.60 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Listening to this makes you feel like everyday could be a breezy, sunny Tuesday afternoon.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

My Top Ten Favorite Football Books

I have been wanting to post something different than usual. So, with the begining of the NFL, EPL and stretch run of MLS, I decided to list my favorite football books.

1. The $1 league: The Rise and Fall of the USFL by Jim Byrne (1987). You have to enjoy the business side of sports to like this book, but I have read this book about the creation of a new pro football league in the 1980s several times. The star of the book becomes New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump who basically ruins the USFL by wanting to take on the NFL.

2.A Season with Verona: Travels Around Italy in Search of Illusion, National Character, and...Goals! by Tim Parks (2002). Parks, an English teacher in Italy, watches every match of his favorite club, Hellas Verona. Parks is a great writer and covers much more than just Serie A action, as he goes into the character of Italy as a country.

3.Next Man up: A Year behind the Lines in Today's NFL by John Feinstein (2005). Feinstein is a brilliant sports writer and he gets incredible access to follow the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens for a year.

4.Never Die Easy: The Autobiography of Walter Payton by Walter Payton and Don Yaeger (2000). This heartbreaking memoir was being written when Payton passed away from liver cancer. Yaeger finished the book and used tons of interviews with Payton’s friends and family to turn it into more of an oral history.

5.Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger (1999). This also made for a great movie, but the book that follows a High School football team in Texas is extremely poignant.

6.Going Long: The Wild Ten-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived It by Jeff Miller (2003). Just like the overly long subtitle says.

7.Now You See Him ...The Barry Sanders Story by Barry Sanderss and Mark E. McCormickk (2003). Some of this bored me, but getting a look into his personality and why he quit football is quite interesting.
8.Long Bomb: How The Xfl Became Tv's Biggest Fiasco by Brett Forrest (2002). I don’t care what anyone says the XFL was so silly it was cool. Forrest followed the crazy league and one of its teams, the Las Vegas Outlaws, for the XFL’s only season.

9.I Am Third by Gale Sayerss and Al Silverman (1970). The greatest football movie of all time, Brian’s Song, was based on Sayers autobiography that stars himself and teammate Brian Piccolo.

10.Proving Ground: A Season on the Fringe in NFL Europe by Lars Anderson (2001). The league that created Kurt Warner and other NFLers gets its due in this book. Anderson spends the year following the now-defunct Scottish Claymores and several of their players who went overseas to get another shot at the NFL.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

New Discoveries

Here are a few random things that I have happened upon lately.

Former Over the Rhine guitarist and Monk frontman Ric Hordinski is now on MySpace. He has some songs up that are catchy pop tunes. Not his normal thing, but still enjoyable. He explains more at his new homepage.

Also, Sarah Masen has been updating her site now and again with new songs. The best is her cover of Elvis Costello's Veronica, though there are some other good tunes on here. Apparently at some point, she was working with Hordinski, who is a good producer. Her last CD is still Dreamlife of Angels from 2001. I'm hoping she records again, especially if she can re-create the vibe of 1998's less poppy and more organic Carry Us Through.

Finally, for those who know of my Christian Music past (don't tell anyone), then this article from last year may be interesting. Kate Bowman's "Secular, Sacred or both?" makes a couple of good points about the place (or lack thereof) of Christian music in the current music scene.


What I'm Reading -- The Driftless Area by Tom Drury

Tom Drury’s main character is Pierre Hunter, a thoughtful 24-year old bartender. Hunter is saved from a nearly fatal accident by a beautiful girl, who is in the same town but lives alone and rarely leaves her old mansion. Pierre continues to float through life, but starts to realize he is part of a bigger plan that involves his new girlfriend, some mobsters, $77,000 and a strange old man. There also is a bit of mysticism thrown into the story that creates some weird situations and a groovy ambiance. Pierre seems to have no problem being a part of something bigger, but Drury gives little indication of how the story will be resolved.

This is an incredibly well written book. Drury tells the story with an amazingly concise style of writing. He gives his readers exactly what he wants them to know, no more and no less. The dialogue is quick and witty. The characters are all smart and enduring. Besides the somewhat creepy cover this book is absolutely great. This is one of my favorites over the last few months. The Driftless Area is a bit similar in tone and story to Markus Zusak’s I am the Messenger.

What I'm Reading -- Hello I Must be Going by Christie Hodgen

In Hello I Must be Going, Hodgen follows a mother and her two children following the death of their husband/father. The main character is 9-year old Frankie, who like her brother, worships their Vietnam-vet father. Following his death, Frankie becomes quiet and focuses on her drawings, her brother begins some bizarre behaviors and her mom becomes obsessed with weird boyfriends and pills. Hodgen excels when following the slow but consistent growth of Frankie as she becomes more confident and plans for college. Some of the book’s situations are a bit too farcical considering the overall tone of the novel. This is a good solid read, though it does not live up to better and more realistic portrayals like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Music Review -- Eyes Open by Snow Patrol

Every once in a while a band seems on the verge of creating an epic album. This often makes the band’s next release seem mediocre compared to expectations. Eyes Open is the follow up to Snow Patrol’s great Final Straw. Final Straw had an amazing combination of textures, sonic influences and modern rock that garnered obvious comparisons to Coldplay and Radiohead. Eyes Open is a wonderful album, but it is a bit disappointing that they made the same transition to arena-ready songs that Coldplay did between A Rush of Blood to the Head and X&Y. The results are still quite good. It would just be nice to see Snow Patrol (and Coldplay) working outside of the parameters of soaring, arena-freiendly songs.

The emphasis here is on Gary Lightbody’s songwriting. These are wonderfully written songs with introspective lyrics that look at every side of bittersweet relationships. The writing is similar to, but even more biting and personal, than Ben Gibbard’s work with Deathcab for Cutie and The Postal Service. The opener is a high energy, sing-along with Lightbody singing, “Electric shocks on aching bones/ There is a darkness deep in you/ A frightening magic I cling to…It’s so clear now you are all that I have/ I have no fear now that you are all that I have…” The lyrical maturity on this album is impressive as the writer’s subjects long for peace, look for anything they can do to force their worlds to behave as they wish and even yearn for anything tragic to rouse them to greater things or personal defeat. On Headlights on Dark Roads he writes, “For once I want to be the car crash/ Not always just the traffic jam/ Hit me hard enough to wake me/ And lead me wild to your dark roads.”

Musically, this is much lighter on sonic influences and heavier on guitar and hook driven tunes than previous efforts. The downfall of the disc is that they try too hard to be catchy and hit an emotional note in song after song. This is an amazingly capable band and Lightbody’s voice is an instrument itself. The producer did a great job not allowing his somewhat wispy voice to be lost under the crunchy guitars, though I wish they would allow him more time singing alone without the constant harmonies.

Maybe someday, Snow Patrol will create their own Sgt. Peppers, but for now they are proving to be one of the best bands around.

3.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Music -- Johnny Cash

I have listening to a lot of Johnny Cash lately. I won’t review them too deeply because if you don’t already know that Cash was the man then you have more problems than I can fix. One is Cash’s Personal File, which came out in May. This collection covers 49 tracks he recorded in the 70s and 80s. Personally I like the earlier era of Cash and this comes after the young, brash, rocking Johnny Cash. Still, its nice to hear Cash do a ton of standards and hymns when his voice was younger and stronger and he was deeply ensconced in his folk roots. The other disc I’ve been listening to is American V: A Hundred Highways that was released last month. This is the last of the CDs of an older Cash singing covers, standards and an occasional newly written song. This is my other favorite period of his music. In this fifth installment, his voice wavers as he sings this collection of songs that are mostly about death, or seem like they are about death because of what we know about the singer. I recommend his early music or the collections from the last few years to newer fans, though Personal File is fun to hear another part of the great artist’s career.

What I'm Reading -- Literacy and Longing in L.A. by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack

I was expecting a deeper book when I chose to read Literacy and Longing in L.A. by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack. Once my expectations changed a bit though, I was pleasantly surprised by this novel. The book follows divorced, former news writer Dora. The 35-year old recounts her life being obsessed with books, being out of work and trying to figure out what to do with herself. She meets a handsome, intelligent book store clerk and they start a relationship that changes once she finds out about his family and more about his personality. Anyone who is well-read will enjoy the literary references and there are a ton. Really, this is more of a chick-lit type novel, but since I recently bailed on a book halfway through, I had to finish this one. Anyway, Dora does tons of worrying about her looks, avoiding the L.A. highways and all sorts of things expected in chick-lit. The authors, however, do a nice job giving Dora and her fling some depth, especially when they introduce Fred’s family situation. Dora is funny and tries quite admirably to do the right thing despite her situation and hang-ups. This is a good book for deeper readers looking for something lighter or general chick-lit fans looking for something a bit more substantial.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

What I'm Reading -- Grab on to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way by Bryan Charles

The Unbiased Part: Bryan Charles follows new high school graduate Vim Sweeny as he tries to decide what to do with himself. Vim has plenty of Gen-X angst in Kalamazoo, MI circa 1992. He plays in a grunge band (very Pavement-like), is falling for a band mate’s girlfriend, wants to quit his dish-washing gig and is trying to avoid his father.

Initially, I found it quite interesting, but too disjointed. Then about halfway through the book, Vim heads to northern Michigan to hang out with his cool, rocker uncle. At this point, Vim’s decisions on how to live his life drive the book to its focused conclusions. The peripheral characters are also quite realistic and the hero of this book is really Vim’s hard-working, intelligent step-father. Once it hits it's stride, the concise writing style gives it a lyrical slant, which is very appropriate considering the important role that music takes in the novel. The cover art is also well designed and looks like it could be an album cover.

The Biased Part: Reading a book about ’92 Kalamazoo is fun. Charles writes about tons of hangouts, restaurants and areas of the city. I’m biased because I was around there at the time and the same age as Vim. Charles does a great job chronicling the city and the vibe among the Gen-X crowd.

I definitely think this book is a great complement to other novels about my generation like Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and Microserfs, Max Barry’s Syrup and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Also, I need to figure out how to say "Grab on to me tightly as if I knew the way" in normal conversation because it sounds so cool.