Sunday, August 31, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

Fear not, the end of the world has not arrived even though the Roundup was missing in action last weekend. Despite popular belief, that is not one of the signs of the aforementioned apocalypse. So as you revel in relief, you can look forward to a welcome return of random thoughts on random albums. Not only was I indisposed last weekend with travel, it had also been yet another week of limited musical interest. Thankfully this week sees a turning of the tide, bringing some of the much anticipated Fall releases to the light of day, along with a strange trend of "hands" on album covers. I used to love this time of year when a new school year would begin, and while toiling away with the burden of new classes, the universe rewarded us with new music. Even though school is a thing of the past, thankfully the universe doesn't seem to know that. A lot to be excited about here, so enjoy!

Blonde Redhead - Barragán: After 20 years of existence, the New York noise rock band returns with their first proper album in four year. It's been seven since their breakout 23 album and in that time they seem to have evolved into purveyors of moody dream pop. Their vision of this genre is made intriguing by the remnants of their early sound which provides a wrinkle into the sound, making it feel unexpected and a little uneasy. This album sort of feels like a pleasant nightmare, something The Xx might make after spending months inside an old Victorian country home that may or may not be haunted. "No More Honey," "Dripping" and "Defeatist Anthem (Harry & I)" are among the best tracks on a solid comeback.

Michael James Tapscott - Good Morning, Africa: This is the third solo album from Tapscott, half of the band Odawas. Like the band's newest album, there are elements of this that remind me of Pink Floyd in their Meddle/Atom Heart Mother phase, but decidedly more drone and free folk in feeling than the Odawas' work. The album spends most of its time as if existing in outer space, peering down on a lonely and beautiful planet, and only occasionally comes down to the surface to bring that beauty into clear focus. It plays like a film score to a movie that will only ever be seen in the listener's mind, and what a wonderful film that is. Definitely not for everyone, but any admirers of space sounds and drone folk will appreciate this delicate record.

Ryan Adams - 1984: After taking some time off, the former Whiskeytown singer/ songwriter is set to return later this fall with a new album. In the meantime, this little EP consisting of 10 songs, all around a minute in length, was released earlier this month as a kind of teaser. Though given the brevity of the material, it's hard to really gauge much from this, except that his energy is high and his enthusiasm seems to have returned. More rock than his classic efforts, "Rats in the Wall" and "Wolves" certainly have left me eager for the new album.

The Magic Numbers - Alias: The London indie pop band burst onto the scene back in 2005 with a stellar debut of beautiful folk pop songs written by the pair of brother/sister siblings. I loved that album, and enjoyed the follow-up the following year. It's now been four years since their third album, and I was actually surprised at how much I missed them. I've been listening to the debut album quite a lot in recent months and was eager for new material. With a sadder tone, this album is just as beautiful and shows real growth. "Out on the Streets," "Shot in the Dark," "You K(no)w," "Enough," and "Wake up" are among my favorites on this solid album.

Interpol - El Pintor: After four years off, and several solo works by Paul Banks, the New York post-punk darlings return for their fourth album. In some ways this feels very much like Paul's 2012 Banks album, which I suppose didn't really differ too vastly from Interpol. Full of eerie sounds and imagery, coupled with bursts of swirling rock goodness, this is the kind of record we've come to expect from the band, which given their limited output, isn't such a bad thing. They wisely seem to wait long enough between albums to give us what we've been missing. This probably won't win them any new acclaim or legion of fans, but it should satisfy their existing followers. I know it satisfied me. "Tidal Wave" "Breaker 1" "Anywhere," and "All the Rage Back Home" are my current favorites.

Astronauts - Hollow Ponds: This is a debut album from a new London based band. An indie folk record that takes liberties with dream pop and electronic undertones, this is one of the more exciting debuts that I've heard this year. It has the feel of a grey and rainy day, which typically is the kind of feel I prefer my albums to have. The music very much matches the cover image, and reminds a bit of Midlake crossed with Gliss. A dreamlike quality prevails throughout, but it never really wavers from reality and remains grounded with an honesty. "Vampires," "Flame Exchange," "Skydive" and the title track are standouts in my opinion.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stay the Ever-Changing Course

Life is a funny thing. We set all of these goals for ourselves, carefully construct plans to guide us towards those ends, and yet fate has a way of taking us on whatever journey it has mind. Sure there are people who claim that we are responsible for the events that transpire, and though our actions certainly can influence the outcomes, there simply are moments when one has to stop and recognize that life is going to take you where it wants and you're simply along for the ride.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fiction Friday (33)

When it came time to choose a new book from my never-ending shelf of books waiting to be read, I found myself attracted to a particularly slim hardcover with no dust jacket. I pulled it off the shelf and realized I had no idea where or when this title had come into my possession, or necessarily even why. The why part I gathered was simply due to my love of 20th century French writers, whose playfulness with language and skilled use of imagery have always influenced my own work. Having spent most of the summer reading lighter fare, I dove headlong into the only work of Forets currently available in English.

Ostinato by Louis-Rene des Forets
(Bison Book, 2002)

Written in a form similar to free verse, this is a challenging book in that there is no plot, or character, or really even any structure. It's more of a collection of the author's meditations on life, beginning with childhood and continuing into old age. The typical details of an autobiography, the who, where, and when, are absent from the text, choosing instead to focus on the emotion involved in the various events. What emerges is an insightful reflection on the individual's constant struggle to understand the world around him.

The true joy of this book comes in the language and imagery it evokes. The form this language takes requires the reader to move slowly, as often entire sections consist on one or two sentences with seemingly endless clauses. In a way, it's like reading philosophy, in the sense that you must continuously search to discover the core of the questions being posed.

The beginning section, in which the author presents his reflections on childhood, is brilliant. It manages to capture the confusion and wonder that comes with that period of life as the world seems to wash over us, leaving but a few events that remain permanently ingrained in our being. From there, the impressions that war leaves on a young man are also striking. Towards the end of the book, as the author attempts to understand the purpose of a life lived devoted to language, it can become a bit too esoteric, but never dull.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

The dog days of summer have arrived and bands have either released their records by now, or are saving them for the Fall, leaving very few exciting releases in these weeks. Luckily I had a handful of good albums that I haven't had the chance to review yet - some new, some old. So this is a bit of clear-out week on the Roundup, but sometimes those are the best. There is everything from folk, to metal, to hip-hop on this list, so definitely something for everyone. And as always, I encourage everyone to take a journey outside their comfort zone. You never know what will surprise you. Enjoy.

King Creosote - From Scotland With Love: Released last month, this is the UK folk singer's 20th album since his debut in 2000, though his output in recent years has been limited to a more manageable one album per year. Like his last few albums, this one has more of a roots feel, inspired by traditional Scottish folk. Some songs, like "Largs," incorporate swing era jazz elements, which gives it a fresh feel and keeps the album from feeling too repetitive, which can be a problem with singer songwriter folk. "Cargill," "Pauper's Dough," and "Miserable Strangers" are my personal favorites. 

Black Pistol Fire - Hush or Howl: The Austin based indie rock band's third album, released this past spring, is a garage blues rock album that feels reminiscent of Dead Weather. The energy on this record is fantastic. It consists of 11 short songs that bleed into the next, providing a the kind of chaotic pulse that every good garage rock album should have. Though at times it can feel slightly too derivative of albums that have come before, this is a solid rock record. Had it come out a decade ago, it would have been transcendent, but seeing as how garage rock is in short supply these days, perhaps the lack of competition adds to the appeal. A thoroughly enjoyable album with several standout tracks such as "Baby Ruthless," "Alabama Cold Cock," and "Run Rabbit Run."

Christian Death - Only Theatre of Pain: This is the L.A. goth band's 1982 debut and an album I've waited far too long to acquire. Like most early goth bands, there's a punk influence which is drifting into darker areas. Unlike their British contemporaries, Christian Death also seem to be influenced by the guitar driven rock that was thriving in L.A. at the time, especially on songs like "Mysterium Iniquitatis" where musically it has a lot of glam rock elements, making them sound like a heavy version of early The Cure. The great thing about this album, and all of their music, is that it's so unique that it still feels interesting more than two decades after it was recorded. "Cavity," "Dream for Mother," "Romeo's Distress," and "Resurrection" are among my favorites.

Guns N' Roses - Appetite for Democracy: Recorded during their residency at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas back in the fall of 2012, this concert was released last month on DVD and finally an audio version has emerged. For anyone who hasn't heard the new line-up, perhaps this live setting is the best way to introduce yourself to them. Forget the calls for a reformation, these guys can straight up rock. This set rockets through their catalog of hits, featuring every song you'd except, along with a few covers like "Another Brick in the Wall" and songs from supporting members like Tommy Stinson (of The Replacements) and Bumblefoot. You can say what you will about Axl, but the guy's a performer and when he does actually play a concert, he gives it his all. It's hard to pick favorites, but "Catcher in the Rye" has really become a favorite of mine and this version is terrific."Rocket Queen," "Civil War," and "Patience" are also great renditions.

The Sword - Gods of the Earth: I've been working my way backwards through the Austin stoner metal band's albums, having started with their third and forth, I finally got this, their second album which came out in 2008. This is one of the best throwback metal bands around, meaning they are actually playing proper fucking METAL. They seem like a wonderful amalgamation of everyone from Black Sabbath to Judas Priest and Metallica, but manage to feel very contemporary with their incorporation of a stoner metal sound that feels a bit like Electric Wizard if they played a more thrash style of metal. They also seem to always nail the album artwork, playing on classic metal tropes and images in a fun way. "The Black River," "Maiden, Mother and Crone," "To Take the Black," and "How Heavy This Axe" are my personal picks.

Immortal Technique - Revolutionary Vol. 1: One of the most political hip hop albums ever recorded, released just days after 9/11, this remains one of the last classics in the hardcore East Coast rap movement of the '90s. Born from the likes of Wu Tang and Mobb Deep, Felipe Coronel converted the style into something, as the title suggests, revolutionary. He attempts to turn the hip hop of violence away from neighborhood against neighborhood and toward a more global outrage against poverty and oppression. Just as Digable Planets did in 1994 with "Blowout Comb," Immortal Technique presents this as a wake-up call to the hip hop culture to begin focusing on the bigger issues that contribute to their smaller problems. It shuns materialism in a way that is rare for hip-hop, and can be seen as the beginning of the conscious hip hop movement, along with Aesop Rock's "Labor Days" which came out four days later. As a bonus, the final song, "The Illest" opens with a five-star verse from Jean Grae.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Little Snow Fairy Sugar (Episodes 10-12)

(Catch up on previous episodes here.)

When we last visited Saga and the season fairies, they had finally worked out their confrontations and had come to an understanding of how they could coexist. The tension that had existed between Saga and Sugar has finally disappeared. Though the tension between them made for a good plot, it's really nice to see them getting along. It's like when you have two good friends who are angry at each other. You just want to make up, but you know there is an understanding that must be reached. That's one of the things that I really appreciate about this show, the way it doesn't provide easy resolutions for its characters, especially Saga. It really makes her go through the painful process of growing up and making mistakes.

These three episodes all center around the visiting Hammond Theater Group and their play The Bear Pianist. The town is full of excitement over the performance, but their arrival also stirs many other emotions. After initially being taken with admiration by the bear's piano playing, Saga quickly becomes jealous. But her jealously is more of a confusion of emotions that she is unable to sort out. Her memories of her mother are all wrapped up in piano playing, memories she still has yet to deal with.

Over the course of the troupe's stay in the town, Saga develops an awkward relationship with Vincent, the actor who plays the bear pianist. She initially has a sort of crush on him, but grows frustrated when he plays the piano recklessly, which she equates to an insult of her mother's memory. But after he injures his hand, and asks her to fill in for him and play the music during the last performance, their bond grows stronger. So does her bond with Sugar, who is always supportive of her. Saga's playing inspires Sugar to play her flute, and she finally is able to make real snow. By the end of the twelfth episode, when Saga and Sugar are closer than ever, a flower has finally bloomed on Sugar's magical plant. This is such a great symbol for the power of friendship and how it nurtures each of the characters.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes

As the Emmy awards grow closer, I figured it was time to talk about one of the best shows that aired this year. True Detective, like a good number of cable programs, cast movie stars in the lead roles and got epic performances out both Woody Harrelson and Mathew McConaughey. 

The show follows the crime drama format established by Twin Peaks, and followed more recently by The Killing and The Bridge, of taking one case and stretching it out over the entire season. Because the show is on HBO, there was no sanitation of the darkness surrounding the murder plot which incorporated a good deal of cult imagery and satanic elements. But it is the style of storytelling that really sets the show apart from the competition.

True Detective uses a technique where it tells three timelines simultaneously. There is the story of the actual investigation which took place 20 years ago, the fallout between the character set a decade in the past, and the story of the present. All three unravel slowly, and each carefully influences the other. This is difficult way to tell a story and can often lead to problems, but when it's effective, as it is here, the results are hard to argue with. 

This is not a show for the squeamish, but for those who think they can brave the dark subject matter, I highly recommend it. Mathew McConaughey is absolutely wonderful, and should win the Best Actor trophy, putting him just two awards shy of an EGOT. The show itself faces tough competition from the likes of Game of Thrones and a last hurrah for Breaking Bad, but it stands a fair chance.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

Once again the week was filled with current releases, some of which I'd eagerly been anticipating. For the first time in quite a while, this is one of those lists that has no common theme. The genres vary widely from folk to metal, thus representing my musical leanings. Perhaps the most exciting music news of the week however was the discovery of a ton of albums that due out in the next few months by some of my favorite bands. The Fall is always ripe with releases and this year looks quite promising. As always, I will share my thoughts as soon I get my hands on them, but for now enjoy these recent finds. See you next week.

Stardeath and White Dwarfs - Wastoid: Five years after their amazing debut "The Birth", the psychedelic rock band finally returned this past week with a follow-up. The band is related, both literally and artistically, with The Flaming Lips and they definitely seem to be following the same path as The Lips have over their past few albums. What I love about this album is how expansive it is, taking influence from metal, psych rock, and indie rock and blending it together into something that sounds new and powerful. "Birds of War," "The Chrome Children," "Frequency," and "Luminous Veil" are my favorite tracks at the moment, but there aren't really any that I don't like. Another album to possibly look for on my best of the year list.

Black Submarine - New Shores: It's been three years since this off-shoot band of The Verve released their debut EP under the name Black Ships. This past February, they finally released a full-length album under their new name. Their neo-psychedelia sound is comparable to some of what can be found on The Verve's Forth album, particularly on songs like "Noise Epic." But there is also an electronic edge, mostly in the background. The album succeeds on tracks that are more like dreamscapes inspired by '90s shoegazer bands. These lengthy tracks are the best of the bunch, and a step above of the songs on the debut EP. They create a perfect haze for lazy summer days. The album though is uneven, but still worthwhile for fans of the genre or those interested in hearing Nick McCabe's "Gravity Grave" style of guitar work. "Is This All We Feel," and "Here So Rain" are the two best songs in my opinion.  

Odawas - Reflections of a Pink Laser: This is the Berkeley psychedelic folk band's fourth album, released last month. This is one of those under the radar bands that is mesmerizing in a sort of post Syd Barrett, still finding their sound, Pink Floyd kind of way. Their work reminds me of albums like Meddle and UmmaGumma and I ordered this from the French label that released it. The most exciting thing about it is how much growth it shows from their previous records. Their sound has expanded into truly epic visions. This is the perfect kind of record to listen to while I write and I plan on doing that quite a bit in the next several weeks. 

Demon Eye - Leave the Light: This debut album from the North Carolina metal band came out in January and after reading about it this past week, I was intrigued enough to seek it out. They have a classic heavy metal sound that reminds me of heavier Deep Purple but with an updated feel. The also remind me of a more blues influence version of Dead Child. Basically they have solid metal formula of grinding guitars and screeching vocals, and there's also a good swing in the rhythm section like in Black Sabbath's early work. This is a quality metal record for fans of traditional heavy metal. "Hecate," "Edge of a Knife," and "From Beyond" are standout tracks.

Nine Black Alps - Everything Is: The 2005 debut from the Manchester based band is a grunge inspired piece of indie rock. The Mudhoney/ Nirvana guitar hooks are mixed with a more British garage style of singing that feels like the London band Dogs. The songs are filled with intelligent angst and energy. Certainly nothing groundbreaking on this, but still quite an enjoyable rock album that's rough around the edges. "Get Your Guns," "Cosmopolitan," "Not Everyone" and the title track are currently my favorites. 

Angus & Julia Stone - Angus & Julia Stone: The third album from the Australian indie folk duo was released this past week. I've been a fan since their debut back in 2007 and was excited for this one. Their voices blend so well together, and by alternating lead vocals, they create an album that seems to continuously surprise as it plays on. It doesn't stray far from their previous releases, though it does trend more towards folk pop. This albums feel to me like something The Carpenters might have made if they'd come along thirty years later and been influenced by indie folk. "A Heartbreak," "Death Defying Acts," and "Main Street" are standout tracks.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Even the Sky Changes Colors

I've been working on the second draft of a novel for a few months now, and I knew going into this rewrite that the last third of the manuscript was problematic. I wasn't quite sure how it needed to change, just that it did. My hope was that by cleaning up the first two-thirds, the rest of the story would come together in a new and exciting way. 

While I still don't have a clear path to the end, I can say with certainty that the mess is a little less muddled. When writing something new, it's quite easy to loose track of which themes are the crucial ones and which are just curiosities that intrigued me as I went along. Second drafts are good for that. They focus you on the core elements of the story and guide it along in a concise way that makes for better reading. 

As I enter this last phase, I'm feeling confident. Often my initial distaste for a first draft stems from too many tangents. Snipping them away in a clean fashion usually produces the results I'm looking for.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Weekend Music Roundup

The drought of the last several weeks abruptly came to an end this week with several releases meant to kick off the beginning of the Autumn rush. Some old favorites emerged once again, but they were joined by a few newcomers, making it an exciting week of listening. I decided to limit the list to those records that I've truly been loving over the past few days, saving others for upcoming lists. In other music related news, I went to see Midlake perform an acoustic show the other night. It was an intimate and wonderful show, and has me once again obsessed with their 2006 album The Trials of Van Occupanter, which is not on the list, but definitely an album everyone should check out. Enjoy.

Spoon - They Want My Soul: After four years of silence, the Austin indie rock band is set to return this week with their eighth album. For the first half of the last decade, this was on my favorite bands around. Their first five albums were cornerstones of the 00's rock revival, highlighted by 2001's Girls Can Tell and 2005's Gimme Fiction. Then came their breakout 2007 record Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga with the hit "The Underdog." Personally, I could never embrace that album and as a result, the band faded from my consciousness a few years before their last release in 2010. Feeling nostalgic and hopeful, I was curious about this album, and my curiosity couldn't have been better rewarded. This is a real return to form for the band and it echos those great records of the early part of the last decade. It's focus on honest, yet catchy indie rock has always been their strength. "Rent I Pay," "Rainy Taxi," "Knock Knock Knock," and "Let Me Be Mine" are fantastic tracks on an album that stands proudly alongside their best. 

Ty Segall - Manipulator: After releasing two amazing albums last year, and three the year before, the lo-fi psychedelic pioneer, and leader of Sic Alps, has been relatively quiet this year. Finally, at the end of August, he will release his first album of the year, another brilliant batch of indie psychedelia. Picking up with the last two records left off, there is a spiritual beauty to chaos that shrouds this album. This is the sound of a songwriter hitting his creative peek and exploring whatever direction his muse decides to take him. This time around, it takes him on a furious fueled adventure and leaves behind a wonderful rock album. "It's Over," "Feel," "The Faker" and "The Crawler" are standout tracks for me.

Mirel Wagner - When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day: The second album from the Finnish contemporary folk singer is due out later this month. I was drawn to the title, and the sample track I heard, which promised to deliver a dark fairy tale. It certainly does. A collection of beautiful songs with brutal undertones that remind me of Nick Cave's darkness mixed with Jason Molina's scaled down howl. An exceptional album that won't appeal to everyone, but for those who it will appeal to, you're in for a treat. "1 2 3 4," "Taller Than Tall Trees" and "The Dirt" are my personal favorites, but definitely an album best enjoyed as a whole.

The Circulatory System - Mosaics Within Mosaics: Released last month, this album was recorded over a period of twelve years. It is the first release by the band, headed by William Cullen Hart of Olivia Tremor Control, in over four years. Like all of the previous albums, this one is compilation of fragments woven together into something beautiful. It wanders sleepily from dream to dream, pausing to examine one curious moment after the next. This is experimental psychedelia at its best and is a wonderful addition to the Elephant 6 universe. This isn't album where one can pick out songs. It's one piece, to be appreciated in a single listen. 

Vanilla Fudge - Vanilla Fudge: In 1967 the NYC music scene was beginning see the passing of the folk renaissance, while the psychedelic rock movement was just starting to spring up out on the West Coast. Vanilla Fudge is one of the rare psychedelic bands to emerge from New York at the time. They differ vastly from The Velvet Underground, perhaps the best known psychedelic band from NYC at the time, more closely resembling bands from L.A. like The United States of America and The West Coast Experimental Pop Art Band. The other weekend I picked up this 1967 debut on vinyl and have been pretty obsessed with it ever since. It opens with a stunning rendition of The Beatles "Ticket to Ride" and a few songs later offers an amazing interpretation of The Zombies "She's Not There." But the absolute highlight of this record is the mesmerizing seven-minute version of The Supremes "You Keep Me Hanging On." A nice album closer of "Eleanor Rigby" wraps up the set. Definitely a must for any collector of early psych rock. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Fiction Friday (32)

It's that time again, another book read and another review. When it came time to pick up another title, I decided to return to the forest ruled by cats in the Warriors series. I've been taking my time with these books over the past few years, and it seems each time I do, I'm surprised that it has taken me so long to return. While lacking the literary might of the Redwall series, these Middle Grade books are always compelling and seem perfect for reluctant, but good readers. Though action driven, they never ignore the importance of character relationships and broader themes of loyalty and friendship. Definitely a worthy addition to the bookshelves of anyone who enjoys talking animal stories.

Warriors #5: A Dangerous Path by Erin Hunter
(Avon 2004)

I have to admit that after the first two books in this series, I began to wonder if my time might not be better spent elsewhere. But those concerns vanished after the reading the fourth book, and now the fifth book of the original six has proved more than ever that this is a series well worth reading. It has the right mix of adventure, drama, and most importantly, characters to fear and those to cheer for.

The story opens with a dramatic surprise as Fireheart learns the identity of the new leader of Shadowclan at the monthly gathering of the four forest clans. Over the course of the series, Thunderclan has had many run-ins with Shadowclan. In fact, they've had their troubles with all of the other clans, but Shadowclan has always been portrayed as the most nefarious of the bunch. By proclaiming Tigerheart, the disgraced and traitorous former Thunderclan deputy, as their new leader, the reader's deep held fear of both Shadowclan and Tigerheart are immediately reignited. It is clear from the beginning that Thunderclan is facing troubled times, with dangers all around them, and hidden troubles within the clan itself.

Fireheart is very busy trying to keep the camp in order as they attempt to rebuild from the devastating fire that roared through Thunderclan in the last book. Bluestar, the clan's once strong leader, and Firheart's mentor, has never recovered from Tigerheart's betrayal or the hardships that have befallen her clan ever since. Convinced that Starclan have abandoned her, and that her entire clan is made up of traitors, Bluestar has retreated to her den, leaving Fireheart with the responsibility of taking care of maters in these troubled times. On top of dealing with the shortage of resources due to the fire, the lingering threat of newly named Tigerstar, disputes with Windclan and Riverclan, and the distrust of some of his own warriors, Fireheart must face the greatest danger the Clan has ever seen as a pack of dogs is discovered living in the forest.

While the troubles weigh heavily on our hero, he is often lifted by the help of his friends. The welcomed return of Graystripe to the clan is perhaps the biggest benefit to Fireheart. The promotion of Fireheart's apprentice, and nephew Cloudpaw, has also given him an ally in the clan. His close relationships with Cinderpelt and Sandstorm benefit him greatly, though they don't come without a price. One thing I love about these books is that the friendships are never without contention and strife. They thoughtfully take into account the complications that go along with trusting in others.

The last several chapters of this installment are heart pounding. The mounting threats converge in a compelling way, and can only be overcome by resolving the personal frictions between the warriors. In a dramatic conclusion, all the threads of the story come together in a wonderfully satisfying way. Easily the best book in the series that keeps getting better.