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.

Music Review -- It’s Never Been Like That by Phoenix

The French are not often thought of being creators of great rock, but Phoenix should change that. Their electronica-tinged rock is about as catchy as possible. The band excels in mid-tempo tunes driven by their jangly guitars. They also just rock out now and then like the opener Napoleon Says where they sing, “Look at what you look like /You know it suits you well/ Napoleon says to take off your coat/ Take off your long johns too…” The lyrics tend to be somewhat bizarre, but complement the music well. They sometimes sound like the Strokes, but Phoenix is more eclectic. They seem influenced somewhat by the synth heavy 80s bands, but it doesn’t dominate their sound like The Killers or The Bravery. So if you feel like some danceable, catchy, jangly, French rock, then this is for you.

2.60 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

What I'm Reading -- The Big Happy by Scott Mebus

This is Mebus’ follow up to his debut novel Booty Nomad. It seems like the lad-lit moniker is already retired, but that is what Mebus does. Lad-lit attempts to be like Nick Hornby, but ends up creating the guy equivalents to chick-lit. This is actually a good thing because while they tend to be a bit shallow, the best writers of the genre (Mebus, Kyle Smith, Jonathan Tropper) are also very funny and somewhat insightful concerning the world of men.

In The Big Happy, Mebus continues to follow 30-something New Yorker David, who is trying to find his course in life after quitting his job and writing a novel that might not get published. His friends, also carried over from Booty Nomad, are also changing but the hardest on David is the transformation of Annie. David’s best friend has just moved back to NY, but returned with a fiancĂ© who somewhat resembles a rat. David is also thrown off by a waitress he meets while performing as a wedding DJ. So, yeah, it is not the deepest book in the world. Still, while not as funny or enlightening as his debut, Mebus again does a decent job keeping his readers interested.

Music Review -- Soundtrack to Your Life by Ashley Parker Angel

At any point in my life, I am usually addicted to one embarrassing television show. Currently, it’s Rock Star: Supernova. Before that it was the first couple seasons of the O.C. Way before any of these, it was the original Making the Band. This hilarious show followed the creation of a boy band called O-Town. One of the first members was Ashley Parker Angel who has just released his first solo album.

Reviewers have actually been fairly kind to the album. APA has taken the rock route for this disc, though it is clearly made for the masses. A super slick pop-punk sound comparable to the All American Rejects permeates the album. There are a couple decent songs like the groovy Beautiful Lie, but most of the lyrics are completely sickly-sweet with cutesy titles like Let U Go and Crazy Beautiful. Despite finding this CD interesting because of the show and recognizing that APA definitely has some sincerity and talent, this is too overproduced to listen to.

1.50 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Music Review -- Simpatico by The Charlatans UK

The new CD by The Charlatans is a bit mixed up. They have always been a fun Brit-rock band sounding a bit like U2 or Oasis, but with more sonic tendencies. Here, The Charlatans have expanded their sound, revelaing influences beyond U2 to include Robbie Williams, the Rolling Stones, 80’s synth-rock and even ska. I think they work best when they mimic the bombastic, arena era U2, with tunes like Blackend Blue Eyes and Muddy Ground. While I appreciate a fairly eclectic album from a genre (Brit Pop/Rock) that does not generally allow for a lot of creativity, I would like them to stick closer to what they do best, which is buzzy guitar driven rock with soaring harmonies and hooky lyrics. Simpatico is an album that strives to be a great eclectic rock album, but unfortunately ends up quite mediocre.

1.90 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale

New Discovery -- Boards of Canada

This is a band that is completely new to me. Boards of Canada are two Scottish musicians who have released three major label electronica collections since ’98. On Music Has the Right to Children, they use very simple and subtle hip hop beats. On The Campfire Headphase they add some electric guitar, but their signature is still the mid-tempo beats and light scratches. While their music is mostly ambient techno, the subtle combination of trip hop makes for some fun, laid back tunes. Check these guys out at

Sunday, July 16, 2006

What I’m Reading – Graphic Novels

Flight Vol. 2 is a short story collection in Graphic Novel form published by Image Comics. The volume collects mostly young authors with a couple of veterans, like Bone’s Jeff Smith thrown in. I found Flight to be incredible. The creativity is so strong it is intimidating. The stories range from typical short stories to collections of random thoughts to stories of robots. Each story has a completely different art style, most of which are brilliant.

Trailers, by Mark Kneece (story) and Julie Collins-Rousseau (art), is hilarious and haunting. Josh is a teen who is forced to put up with his unstable mother, who kills an abusive boyfriend at their trailer park. Josh is trying to hide the body, care for his brother and sister, date the girl he has a crush on and deal with his mom’s new scary boyfriends. The body he buried, however, keeps showing up in weird ways and Josh is unsure as how to handle everything. This is super good.

Brian K. Vaughan’s great series The Runaways continues with volume five. The character development continues to be impressive in these books. Vaughan also adds guest spots by a couple of New Avengers. My only complaint is that one interesting plotline at the beginning of volume five is introduced and dropped very quickly, though maybe it will resurface in the next collection.

What I’m Reading – The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau

The Prophet of Yonwood is actually a prequel to The City of Ember and The People of Sparks. City of Ember was a great book that follows a couple of citizens of Ember. Ember is an underground town that completely relies on electricity and reusing all of their goods. DuPrau created a great adventure as things start to go wrong in the city. It is a wonderful book, however, the two follow-ups are not nearly as good. In the People of Sparks the author sucks all of the fun out of the series and prattles on about her politics as the residents of Ember meet another community.

This brings us to The Prophet of Yonwood, which is not a bad book in and of itself. DuPrau is writing in the modern world this time, as war is possibly reaching to the U.S. 11-year old Nickie and her aunt travel to North Carolina to take care of a huge house they inherited and intend to sell. However, the city of Yonwood has a “prophet” who is guiding the town through a series of weird decisions in order to avoid the coming destruction in the prophet’s vision. Some of the town’s leaders are overly hyper in following the prophet’s messages and bans the citizens from things like singing.

Its not terrible and the author creates some neat characters and some incredible worlds, but a few things wreck it. DuPrau is too transparent and the plot reveals its secrets much too soon. Also, this is really a standalone title. It technically connects to the other two, but it’s a loose relationship. I wholeheartedly recommend The City of Ember, but despite the positive reviews by SLJ and others, the other books in the series are not of the same quality. Readers interested in the themes of DuPrau’s work should read Meg Rosoff’s solid How I Live Now and Mark Dunn’s great Ella Minnow Pea.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Music Review – Where the Humans Eat by Willy Mason

This is the 2004 release by Willy Mason, which I’m reviewing by request (thanks Jackie). I’m actually a bit embarrassed that I did not know of Mason. 18 when he recorded this, Mason’s voice sounds like that of a seasoned singer who has played in too many smoky bars. Mason is a great writer and I think this is a rare album that would satisfy both fans of traditional folk and new folk. Most of the tunes are cool, but I love the gospel-tinged, hymn-like Fear no Pain where Mason sings, “I ain't gonna fear no pain anymore/Ain't nothin' worth that strain/I'm gonna walk in the hands of the Lord.” This is a mostly acoustic album and heavily influenced by the blues and Johnny Cash. With bands like Bright Eyes getting the deserved attention they get, I’m surprised Mason is not better known. Fans of Bright Eyes and Rabbit Fur Coat by Jenny Lewis will dig this CD.

2.85 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

What I’m Reading – Last Wave and Theft

Last Wave by Paul Hayden is actually from 2003, but I just recently heard about it. Hayden is yet another Australian author writing books tuned towards young adults, though in our cooperative this is actually considered Adult Fiction. This is about 17-year old Matt, who is graduating and ready to spend his last summer partying with his surfer friends until they split up to do whatever is next. Matt, however, becomes mixed up between a couple of girls and could see his surfing days end, while his best friend is dealing with a potentially unwanted pregnancy. Later, more tragedy takes place, leaving Matt depressed and unsure as how to act around his friends and his family. This is quite good and Hayden pours on the Australian dialect, which is fun to read. This is a good read for teens and adults alike, though the book is fairly raw. At one point, I thought I was seeing some inconsistencies with the plotting, but as it went on I think that Hayden just knows how to write about the fluidity of life and people’s emotions. The fact that life gets weirdly inconsistent is partly the point of Last Wave.

Peter Carey has written quite a few novels, though Theft: A Love Story is the first I have read. I tried to get through this book, but could only get about halfway. I’m not saying it is a bad book, it is just more challenging than I was willing to put up with at the moment. Theft is basically about a painting that gets stolen. The story is told from the standpoint of three characters: “Butcher” a pretentious painter, his emotional brother and a mysterious woman who is the daughter of the artist who painted the missing work of art. It is a great plot, but the characters’ ramblings are hard to follow and Carey forces his readers to take in every little detail in order to follow the story. It is good, just not for me at the moment.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Music Review – Nooma Soundtrack Volume 001

The Nooma Soundtrack features music found on the short videos of the same name. Brie Stoner and David Vandervelde contribute all of the CD’s thirteen tunes. As a whole the album creates a laid back ambient mood like Dusty Trails, Yo La Tengo or Starflyer 59.

David Vandervelde’s tracks range from retro rockers to moody instrumentals. The mellower songs are actually much better and create a great soundscape with some electronic elements. He can rock a bit, though. I think Indiana is one of my new favorite songs because it is just so incredibly hooky. All My Prayers is great too, though he unfortunately ends the CD with two poor tunes. Heaven Weeps and Flowers are overproduced retro rock that sounds like bad Dandy Warhol’s songs.

Brie Stoner is someone who has played venues around G.R. for a while. Her contributions to this soundtrack are great. All of the songs are fairly moving with Can You Love Me as a standout. Brie is solid singer-songwriter, though on most of these tunes she brings a more atmospheric modern rock sound (see: Ivy). Her sound is mature and her voice clearly supports the messages of hope and longing in her writing.

Overall, this is a wonderful collection of bittersweet and hopeful songs.

Find out more about them at and

3.25 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale

Listening to this makes you feel like those times when you know its all going to work out, but you just wished you knew how.

What I’m Reading – The Draft: A Year Inside the NFL’s Search for Talent by Pete Williams.

This book by Pete Williams is a good look at the NFL Draft and especially the events surrounding it. Williams follows some teams (mostly Atlanta and Tampa Bay) and several players through their quest to find players for their team or get drafted as a player. The history of the draft and how it got to be the huge event it is today is fascinating.

Williams unfortunately writes in that dry “I’ve written for newspapers for too long” style which gets tiring. The content is good, though, especially when he covers things a sports fan just can’t read in the sports section like behind the scenes at the NFL Combine and agent negotiations among other things. I would recommend another book that covers the draft to a certain extent, which is John Feinstein’s brilliant Next Man Up.