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, 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.