Saturday, June 24, 2006

Music Review -- Tales From Turnpike House by Saint Etienne

I grabbed this because I’m a sucker for good packaging and graphic design and so far Tales From Turnpike House and People in Planes’ As Far as the Eye Can See are the coolest looking CDs I’ve seen this year. Saint Etienne has created a concept album, in which all of its songs take place in a housing project. This, for the most part, is dance-pop heavy on the synthesizers. While most of the songs are light dance-pop, further into the album they branch out into some more guitar heavy pop-rock and dance club type songs. This is not great, though the vocals and programming are quite good. This is a good play in the background kind of CD.

2.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

What I’m Reading – Graphic Novels

Astronauts of the Future

I read this after reading French Graphic Novelist Manu Larcent’s brilliant Ordinary Victories. This is a hard plot to describe without ruining the whole story, but its basically about two kids who believe that most if not all of the humans in the world are actually robots or aliens. This is incredibly cool.

New Avengers

After Brian Michael Bendis did Avengers Disassembled, he wrote the New Avengers. Bendis follows Captain America and what led him to form a new team with Iron Man, Spider-Man, Wolverine and others. This was a very interesting read and features my favorite super villain of all time, Electro. The art is inconsistent, but the story is solid and entertaining.

What I'm Reading -- Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty

Just to warn you, this is going to be an extremely mixed up review. At some point I started reading the Jessica Darling books by Megan McCafferty. I must have read Sloppy Firsts in my Teen Lit class or maybe it was recommended to me by someone. I don’t really remember. I did apparently enjoy Sloppy Firsts enough to want to read Second Helpings, though I’m starting to doubt my memory. I remember thinking that McCafferty was a good writer with a nice clean style and enough insight to create a wonderful lead character in Jessica. So, when book three came out I gave it a read and was sorely disappointed. The reality I thought I remembered the author giving her subjects is not present here. Jessica, her boyfriend Marcus and her many friends are just bad caricatures of people who turn silly, pretentious and incredibly shallow. Maybe the author was just looking to add a darker edge to her characters as they grow up or maybe these books only exist is another parallel universe and I am a crazy person.

Having said all of this, it’s really just a taste thing. I don’t mean to be too harsh because I’m not even remotely the target audience here. A reader looking for this type of book, especially one who read the first two, will probably be easily satisfied with Charmed Thirds.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

New Discovery -- Spencer Mulder

So, I’m in a local festival’s beer tent the other night and I hear a pretty decent singer. Spencer Mulder is a young singer-songwriter who has a nice emo-pop type sound. From what I saw of his show he is solid writer and his voice reminds me a lot of Something Corporate’s Andrew McMahon. He has some tunes up at

Note: Being forced to sit through an Elvis impersonator is extremely uncool. However, seeing the Elvis impersonator after the show dressed in shorts, a t-shirt and his big, gold Elvis glasses trying to fit in with the crowd was beyond amusing.

What I'm Reading -- Family and Other Accidents by Shari Goldhagen

Family and Other Accidents is the debut novel of Midwestern writer Shari Goldhagen. This novel is about the relationships of two brothers left without their parents. Goldhagen begins with 27-year old Jack and 17-year old Connor living in their parents old home in Cleveland. The book then covers the next 25 years of their lives following the hard-working and womanizing lawyer in Jack and the nervous, shy Connor from Cleveland to New York to Chicago. Obviously, Family and Other Accidents is mainly about the relationships of brothers and the author was quite authentic in this regard. She does on occasion seem to change some of the characters’ attitudes and personalities without much explanation. This is partly due to her style, which is to show different scenes years apart from each other, though I think she still should have been a bit more consistent. At its most raw Jack and Connor are used to show how selfishness affects others so profoundly. The many characters in this book are almost all engaging and the novel excels in some of its vivid and stark moments. This is good debut fiction.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Music Review -- 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor by Shawn Mullins

9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor is Shawn Mullins’ first solo disc since Beneath the Velvet Sun in 2000. BVS saw Mullins turn more electric and radio friendly after his brilliant breakthrough with Soul’s Core. Mullins also was 1/3 of the band The Thorns which put out their only disc in ’03.

I hate to pick on Mullin too much because he has crafted so many great singer-songwriter tunes in the last few years. On 9th Ward, however, he allows the disc to be too uneven as he jumps from folk to country to blues to soul music. This would not be such a bad thing, except that he is so much better at folky and rootsy styles. Also, on some songs his baritone voice seems almost monotone and the lyrics are barely adequate.

When he writes a good tune with decent accompaniment, though, the result is great. The opener, Blue As You, is a wonderful tune as Mullins sings, “I like my daylight to be silver/I like my night skies to be blue/ Blue as you.” On the radio release Beautiful Wreck he writes, “I’ve lost count of the times I’ve given up on you/But you make such a beautiful wreck you do.” Mullins also included some moving songs like We Could Go and Start Again and Kelly’s Song. While, there are some definite missteps on 9th Ward, its worth the listen for its high points, though I hope his next effort is more focused.

2.15 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Listening to this feels like the moment you begin to admit to yourself that you’re lost and then you suddenly realize you’re home.

What I'm Reading -- JPod by Douglas Coupland

JPod by Douglas Coupland hearkens back to his earlier novels like Generation X and Microserfs. Coupland’s last couple of efforts have been the serious, but still incredible books Eleanor Rigby and Hey Nostradamus!. In JPod, Coupland takes the subversive and societal elements of Microserfs and combines it with some wacky characters and plot elements like he did in All Families are Psychotic.

JPod follows the lives of six employees of a video game company who all work together in a pod of cubicles. The main character is Ethan, a typical Coupland character stuck somewhere between ambivalence and brilliance. When the JPoders are forced to add a crazy wise-cracking turtle character to their serious skateboarding game, there lives are thrown for a loop and they even meet an author named Douglas Coupland. Much of the book actually deviates from the plot and the author details his characters' odd discussions and games they use to pass the time at work, like each writing Ronald McDonald a love letter and challenging each other to find patterns in lists of prime numbers. It was great fun to read an old-school Coupland book and the few flaws do not really matter, because it is such a cool read.

What I'm Reading -- Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting by Brett Milano

Vinyl Junkies by Brett Milano is an all encompassing look at album collectors. Milano hangs out with many obsessive collectors including some famous ones, like Sonic Youth’s Thurston More. At points, it all runs together as Milano recounts story after story of collectors filling up their homes with albums, traveling around the world to find albums and spending thousands of dollars for rare records. The best parts are when Milano presents both sides of some interesting but odd arguments, like is John Cusak’s character in Hi Fidelity a realistic portrayal of a collector (not really), are albums or CDs better (albums, of course) and why would someone collect more albums that he can listen to in a lifetime (no logical answer)? Vinyl Junkies is an entertaining look at record collectors.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Music Review -- Comfort of Strangers by Beth Orton

Beth Orton’s new disc is produced by Jim O’Rourke, who has worked with Wilco among other bands, and he helps this album avoid some of the muddled sounds of Daybreaker. While not a terrible album, Daybreaker lacked many of the subtleties of Orton’s previous albums. The disc was also upstaged by the B-sides collection, The Other Side of Daybreak.

On Comfort of Strangers, Orton mixes some up-tempo tunes with a bunch of ballads and introspective songs. Her voice sounds as good as it has ever sounded. Shadow of a Doubt is one of the standout tunes with Orton singing, “Its true your love has been a lesson/And its taught me more than any other blessing…” Really there are many strong songs and I keep finding more new and neat things about this CD the more I listen to it. The focus here is squarely on her writing, which as always, is bittersweet in the best way possible. The electronic influences are less prominent here, though the stripped down sound works great with her voice. This disc cements Orton as one of the best singer-songwriters of the last few years. This is another great effort by Beth Orton and well worth many listens.

3.00 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale