Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I'm still reading Against The Day, but I wanted to mention this Pynchon-like myspace artist.

Hans Groiner Plays Monk

From the description:

I am originally from the Austrian village of Braunau, (also the birthplace of Hitler, but please don't hold that against me!). I started playing accordion, then piano, from a very young age. My other hobby was listening to the radio. One day, around 1978, I heard a very interesting piece of music that turned out to be a jazz pianist named Thelonious Monk. It pickled my interest because it was very different from anything I had ever heard. Although his music fascinated me, I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, Mr. Monk had obvious talents, but on the other hand, his piano playing was very messy, and his songs had many funny notes and rhythms. Over the many years that I have been studying his music, I have grown to the conclusion that his songs would be much better, and much more popular, if many of the dissonances, or "wrong notes," were removed. With my new CD, "Hans Groiner Plays Monk," I have done just that.

Awesome! Maybe he'll get to Cecil Taylor and Peter Brötzmann next!

Book 3/50: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Yes, it's been out for a while and yes, it's a book for children. I read the first four books in the series a number of years ago and figured I was done with it then. But my brother has prevailed on me to finish the series, saying that it gets better and even addresses the exceptionalist way that Harry Potter is wonderful at everything and everyone good loves him and all that. I don't mind those things for the story - after all, the books are meant for children, and children sometimes need a less complicated main character to identify with - but it was getting tedious for me. So, long story long, I figured I'd read the final three books.

And that's all justification for reading books that are, after all, a pop culture phenomenon, so here's the skinny. I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix back in October or November of last year, and my brother was right: the books were a bit more nuanced and interesting. I bought this one recently and read it in about two days (I mean, it's the size of a phone book, yes, but the font is huge and the story is all plot, which is easier to read than good writing, y'know). Other reviewers have exhausted everything there is to say about the book, so all I'm going to add is that it's ok. I'm glad I'm reading it, but it's basically junk food. I like Oreos, too, but I'm not going to praise them for their complexity or rewarding experience.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Book 2/50: The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright

I should say more about this, but I've been sitting on this review for over a week. The novel is about the U.S.'s attempt to heal over the scar of slavery before and during the Civil War, and it combines some harrowing realistic segments (such as the battle sequence, Antietam, I think) with highly allegorical characters and situations. There's a few spoilers below, but nothing that should dampen your enjoyment of this novel.

The main character is Liberty Fish, the son of New York-based abolitionists, although his mother grew up on a slave-owning plantation in South Carolina. When she left, she never saw her parents or siblings again, but their hold on her (often amplified by their letters) hurts her terribly. Liberty heads off to war when it breaks out, but eventually deserts from Sherman's March to go meet his maternal grandparents, only partially prepared but determined to witness the Boschian horrors of the plantation.

Wright's eye for historical detail is thrilling. For instance, the segment of the book in which a young Liberty and his father travel by boat upriver along the Erie Canal (or is it the Niagara River?) reminds me of both Melville's The Confidence Man and Vigo's excellent movie L'Atalante, but it is also very different and true to the central conflict of his story. I think those expecting pure realism will be lost, but readers who enjoy woozy surrealism (it's not for nothing that Pynchon himself has a blurb on the cover) would very much enjoy this novel.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A couple of links to mention.

Leonard's World War Livingroom project is a sight to behold, so go behold it.

33 1/3 blog has an excerpt of my forthcoming novella/music criticism. I'm not going to insist you go read it, but there it is. As always, news about said work can be found at the Shoot Out The Lights blog.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

I'm-a gonna read 50 books in 2008! Maybe!

Here's book No. 1/50: Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men

I love Cormac McCarthy, as a general rule. I think Blood Meridian, Suttree, and The Road are among the finest novels of the last 40 years. But I'd heard other McCarthy lovers express indifference for much of his post-Blood Meridian work, and a reading of All The Pretty Horses a few years back seemed to confirm that take on the man's oeuvre. I thought as much as I loved his major works, maybe his minor ones weren't for me.

Then I saw the Coen Brothers' big screen adaptation of No Country For Old Men a couple of weeks back, and I figured that I should give the book a try. The movie spoke to me. I thought the book would, too.

And it does, but it's not the same. All my mental images have been pre-determined by the movie. Even where the book and movie diverge (which isn't often), I have a hard time picturing the scene without a stylistic similarity to the Coen Brothers' movie.

Anyway, yes, the book is pulpier and thinner than McCarthy's major works. The themes of inevitability and the rotten heart of human existence are on better display in other McCarthy books. Moss and Sheriff Bell could be Larry Brown creations. They are suitably rough and driven by internal monologues that aren't necessarily shared with the world (or readers, in Moss's case), but they lack the mythic otherness of McCarthy's best characters, although Chigurh certainly makes up for that.

It's a quick read, though. Because I saw the movie first - and because I think the movie is the superior work in this case - I'll never think of it on its own. I'm pretty sure it will always be a companion to the movie in my head.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The EMP Pop Conference rejected my presentation proposal, "I Wanna Destroy You: The Prisoner's Dilemma and Conflict Between Multiple Band Leaders." No esoteric, only-half-serious-at-best discussions of game theory for you! Their theme this year involved the effect of pop music on major political conflict, especially relating to Latin American music.

It may sound like sour grapes when I say that I think that pop music has absolutely nothing to do with real political conflict in almost all cases (with a few rare exceptions, such as reggae on Jamaican politics in the late 70s and Fela Kuti on Nigerian politics in the same period). And it may sound like sour grapes when I say that I know almost nothing about Latin American music that hasn't been written to death (because the Latin American music I love is pretty much tropicalia [psychedelic Brazilian pop from the late 60s and 70s], about which I can contribute nothing new). These may sound like sour grapes because they are.

Anyway, I proposed a discussion of the intersection of two topics that I do halfway understand, because I think the essential conflict in pop music is internal, between band members or sometimes within a single songwriter wresting with competing impulses. I think it would have been a fun topic, but that, as they say, is that.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

David Simon responds to the Slate Wire Chat Club thing.

Here's the Slate thing.

Me, I think Ep 51 is a killer. These journalist guys complaining about the new story in the Baltimore Sun is a whole lotta hooey, especially at this stage. As people who have watched the Wire in the past should know, you have to give these stories time to develop, rather than leaping to silly conclusions based on an early glance.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

You know what's exciting? If you're a nerd, you're probably saying "A year-end best-of list!" Or possibly "Starbuck and Buffy in a frackin' tag-team nude mud-wrestling grudge-match with those chicks from Pushing Daisies!" But don't say that out loud. Anyone within earshot is honor-bound to wedgie you and steal your Dungeon Master's Guide.

Anyway, I can't offer you pictures of the grudge-match (although I hear they'll be featured in next month's issue of The Nation), but I do have a year-end best-of list at the ready. It's about music! Nerdy music! For nerds!

My iTunes tells me that I have more than 50 albums that came out in 2007. This is a lot for me, especially given that my lofty position as co-editor of The High Hat means that I am on no PR radar screens and don't get free albums. So, eMusic is responsible for most of my 2007 albums, although I bought a few from iTunes and Waterloo Records here in Austin. I liked a lot of them, but I didn't love many. There were only a few A+ albums, but a lot of A/A- albums, and sorting through those has been a bit confusing.

So, here's 1 - 25. I like a few other albums that didn't make the list, like Baroness's Red Album or Linda Thompson's Versatile Heart, but I didn't love them enough to hit the A range. Both were B+ albums, easy, though.

Top Ten

1. Akron/Family – Love Is Simple
I've liked both previous Akron/Family albums, but both have had a few too many 90 degree turns around their blend of mannered alt-folk and woolly free jazz. This one integrates their sides with a transcendence that drives their point home. I love it. This is only one of the world-music exploiting bizarro-freaky indie-folk music I seem to have fallen in love with. Other contenders in this genre are Yeasayer, Panda Bear, Animal Collective, and Skeletons And Kings Of All Cities. All four of those albums are pretty great, and I had a hard time deciding where to put them on the list. I think I scored them by how fatigued I felt after repeated listens. All really spoke to me, and I thought each would make the top ten at different points in the year, but I've grown a little more frustrated with each for different reasons. The Animal Collective in particular is disappointing because I've loved their previous two albums so much. But their decision to clarify the vocal lines, increase the role of the loops, and de-emphasize their relationship with real acoustic instruments felt like they'd lost the organic part of their music.

2. Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala
This guy's easy to compare to a handful of great - if iconoclastic - singer/songwriters, but he's really his own thing: a clever pop jokester with a devastasting emotional left hook. I've gone gaga over Jonathan Richman and Stephin Merritt at various points in the past, and this guy's the equal of each in some ways.

3. Deerhunter - Cryptograms/Flourescent Grey EP
These albums are two different things, but they manage to be cohesive and complementary even when pursuing vastly different aims. The albums bathes everything in a psychedelic wash, but the pop heart of the songs beats through the haze. The EP is just the opposite, full of hooks that can barely disguise their weirdness.

4. Battles - Mirrored
Squelchy proggish geek-rock. This would be the nerdiest (and yet most groovin') music on the list if not for Dan Deacon.

5. Andrew Bird – Armchair Apocrypha
Bird's songwriting continues to grow more resonant and beautiful and weird. He's the aural equivalent of Michel Gondry.

6. Menomena – Friend and Foe
There's a handful of dull songs on here, but the great ones appear frequently and are fun little puzzles that you could spend the better part of a day working out.

7. The National – Boxer
When people talk about U2 or Bruce Springsteen, they talk about inspiring anthemic music that digs in under the skin and refuses to let go. U2 and Springsteen sound nothing like that to me, but this does.

8. British Sea Power - Krankenhaus? EP/Grizzly Bear - "Friend" EP
Two mini-albums of greatness. BSP has always struck me as a great - if overly mannered - band. Their EP of this year was just great. Grizzly Bear reworked a few tracks and shed some of their inhibitions in the process, and this EP sounds drunk in the best way. The cover tracks are pretty lame, though.

9. My Teenage Stride – Ears Like Golden Bats
May putting this album in my top ten be the most conservative thing I do all year. MTS channel The Clean, The Chills, and The Bats like champions. This album sounds like the music I loved when I was 17, and again when I was 25, and again when I was 33, and again now.

10. Nina Nastasia & Jim White – You Follow Me
Two instruments: guitar and drums. One voice. But it sounds like an orchestra of emotion. I expected something more quiet and resigned than this, but this is much better than I could have possibly expected.

The Rest

11. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings - 100 Days, 100 Nights
12. Wooden Shjips - s/t
13. Yeasayer - All Hour Cymbals
14. Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass
15. Panda Bear – Person Pitch/Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
16. Parts & Labor – Mapmaker
17. Dan Deacon - Spiderman of the Rings
18. The New Pornographers - Challengers
19. Shearwater – Palo Alto
20. Pelican – City of Echoes
21. Deerhoof – Friend Opportunity
22. Mekons - Natural
23. Fiery Furnaces - Widow City
24. St. Vincent - Marry Me
25. Sunset Rubdown – Random Spirit Lover

Probably not too many surprises here. Some artists I've loved in the past didn't get me in quite the same way this year. That's the way it goes, I guess.

Happy New Year! Nine days later.

So, I've updated a few things here. You can click on the image of my forthcoming novella Shoot Out The Lights at the top of the right-hand toolbar and go straight to Amazon to buy it. If you'd rather spend the extra bucks at Powell's, click the link under Shoppin'.

I created a new blog to promote the book. Actually, I created that blog a while back, but I haven't had anything to say, so there you go.

I also consolidated all outward bound links and deleted links to everyone who hadn't updated in 6 months. If you're one of those I deleted and would rather be included, send me an email and I'll add you back in.

Finally, I'm going to attempt to read and review 50 books again this year, so I'll be sure to keep an updated link for any interested parties. I'm working on Pynchon's Against The Day right now, so it may be a while before I have a post.

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