January 1, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s the first of the year, and I’m drinking a beer so good it may actually get me to drink beer again. I don’t normally drink (let alone beer—this is my first in over a year), but part of that is because when I drink I get obnoxious. I’ve always said that drinking doesn’t change you, it makes you more you. So if you’re a mean dick, you turn into a stupendous asshole. If you’re already a stupendous asshole, God help you.

Anyway, I’m drinking this beer (a Mad Anthony’s Auburn Lager, made here in Fort Wayne), and my wife is cleaning the sun room/library thing we have, and her parents are upstairs trying to sleep before they get back on the train home. The cat is knocking over the vinyl, and the wind is howling, and I’m sitting here writing, because I frankly can’t think of much better to do. I don’t really know what to even write about, but obviously I feel like there’s something in there, because I sat down and fired up Word and here we are. I guess we’ll find it when we get there.

A week and a half ago, I turned thirty. While this is milestone for most people because it’s when they hit middle age and start worrying about their houses and kids’ educations and shit, I just sort of flew past it without much of a thought. And I don’t really think much of it now. My entire adult life (to this point, anyway) has felt like an extended adolescence, I guess. Maybe not even adolescence, but I just don’t feel like (aside from no longer being an asshole drunk womanizer, and the whole “having a kid” thing) my life has really moved on from about 25 or so. Which is odd, considering the whole “having a kid” thing is supposed to be one of those life-changing things.

And I suppose it is. I mean, my plans no longer include staying up until 5am playing board games and drinking until I barely remember what happened, and I largely don’t spend my spare time chasing women I have no chance of landing. For the most part, life has, I guess, settled down. Which worries me, because I’d always had grand designs of moving to Chicago or New York or London or Stockholm or somewhere else large and busy and cosmopolitan and simply Anywhere But Here. I’m slowly watching that plan slip away.

It’s not even a mortality thing; I’m not afraid of dying. I’m afraid of failing to live, of not living up to my potential or hitting the marks other people set for me. Not that I’d call it fear, so much as anxiety. Which is, I guess, a stage of fear, but not really the same thing.

In any case, 2011 was a hell of a year because I found out that I’m essentially in the same boat I was in ten fucking years ago (school is still full of idiot students and idiot professors, with less Good Eggs than I can count on one hand) except through the lens of having experienced it all already. Nothing new under the sun, and all that. Especially tired clichés. (That’s lampshade-hanging, you see.) (So was that last parenthetical. And this one. I could do this all night, really.) There’s probably something about turning into my dad that would go here, too. One of those whiny little daddy-issue things.

I own a house now. By which I mean my wife owns a house and pays the mortgage and bought a car and pays for all the food, and I just keep everything moving, but just barely. I feel like I’m probably expendable, though I’m sure my wife would say otherwise. So now I’m sitting here, listening to the wind and the house creak and watching my wife scurry about, putting things into bags and turning out lights, and I largely feel like 2012 probably won’t see much progress. I feel like this is probably the point where I should make resolutions (make more submissions to journals or something, write more songs, do better in school, lose weight, whatever), but I’m just here, drinking and writing and thinking about Don Quixote mocking me from the other room, still unfinished (the book, not the room) and how I have a stack of things still to get to that I may never will simply because I’m lazy. Or something. It’s not really that I’m lazy or that I don’t care; it’s more that I just don’t feel like there’s all that much to do that I have to do, or that I can make better by having me specifically do it. Nor is it likely that there’s a penalty to my not finishing Don Quixote or catching up on Kick-Ass 2 or watching any number of movies we bought that I haven’t watched or books we have that I haven’t read or anything like that.

I think, more than anything, the urgency has gone out of my life, so I manufacture it out of procrastination and faux deadlines (that I still ignore anyway), as if the pressure will make me work. Obviously it doesn’t, so now I just sit here feeling useless and writing terrible dreck for the whole internet to read.

Thanks, I guess.

ANYWAY (as my arch-nemesis-who-doesn’t know-it is fond of saying), I’m getting to the point of winding all this down to some sort of conclusion, and I don’t think there is one, and I think that’s my point. Maybe. My whole life is just one open-ended essay answer, and here I am bullshitting through it like a freshman history exam. And now you’re reading it.

And now my wife has gone upstairs, having finished her cleaning. This should probably tie in somehow, as a bookend of sorts, but I’d really just have to say something about this beer I’m still drinking. It’s a pretty good beer, I guess.

But I don’t think I’ll make a habit out of it.

Categories: Uncategorized

Happy Banned Books Week!

September 27, 2011 4 comments

Oh hey it’s Banned Book Week! Since we’re a little starved for content around here, with me starting school and all, I figure I should probably do a little something. So that something is this: I’m going to list all the books from the ALA’s List of Banned and/or Challenged Classics that I’ve read, and a few words about each. Numbering follows the order in the ALA list (which is, in turn, based on the Radcliffe list of 100 best novels.)

1.The Great Gatsby – I never read this book in high school, though it’s required reading in a lot of classes (and, in fact, may have been in the other English classes at my school.) I didn’t actually read it until college, when we read a Fitzgerald short story in an American Lit class. I went out and bought it that same week and read it in about two days. It’s a fantastic, fantastic book, and I suspect—like most books we’ll be coming across in this list—the people trying to ban it have never actually read it, nor (if they have) understand it.

2. Catcher in the Rye – Okay, I’m lying here. I read most of this one. During a Spanish class. When someone else was studying the book for a different class. Basically I stole it from them and read it while doing my best to not pay attention. I should probably get around to finishing it one day. Maybe then I’ll get to the parts about why they keep banning it.

3. The Grapes of Wrath – Read it as a sophomore for class. While my teacher was pretty heavy-handed with the symbolism in the book (aren’t they all?), I really enjoyed it. Apparently people take offense to one of the leads having the same initials as Jesus Christ. C’mon people, that’s pretty common. Or maybe it’s because the book is overtly socialist. Yeah, that’s probably it. I’m sure the Okies would have been okay if they would have just worked harder to keep all that dust from flying off their fields.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird – People literally don’t read this book or don’t comprehend it. There’s no other way to explain how the book that gave us Atticus Finch can be challenged. I mean, I understand that the word “nigger” is used in it, but doesn’t this fall under the category of “teachable moment”? Isn’t that what critical thinking is for? Isn’t that why we go to school? Isn’t that the point of the book?

8. The Lord of the Flies – I really enjoyed this book. The social interaction within it is exactly what should be read and understood by high school students (and everyone, for that matter.) Just because some of the kids happen to display behavior unbecoming to a good British child doesn’t mean the overarching point of the book fails. There’s a term for that, it’s called “gestalt”. I realize it’s German, and therefore scary, but it’s quite applicable here. Also, as a personal note: Carleen Matts, if you happen to be reading this, I apologize 100% for being such a shit when we read this. I still believe that sometimes a story is just a story, but this is not one of those times.

12. Of Mice and Men – Read the same year as Grapes of Wrath, and I absolutely detest it. *SPOILER* Lenny dies in the end. On the last page. With no resolution past that. I have never been more angry at the way a book ended. I realize that’s the point, but still. Screw you, Steinbeck. Maybe that’s why it keeps getting banned/challenged: people are just pissed off at the ending.

19. As I Lay Dying – Read this in the same Am Lit class I mentioned earlier. In fact, I kept my Norton Anthology from that class because it contains the entire text of the novel (and because it has some other choice bits of a zillion great books and poems). While I’m used to books and films that have a narrative that is disjointed and may have many different viewpoints, I really like the way Faulkner pulled this one off. It’s one of those books that makes me stop and say “Why don’t I read more of this guy?”

And if there’s anything that should be taught in school, it’s that how people perceive you is not how you perceive yourself, and how you see others may not be how they really are. Even bumbling fuckups might be trying their hardest. (Or they might be bumbling fuckups. It could really go either way.)

29. Slaughterhouse-Five – Read as a palette cleanser while in the middle of a Hunter S. Thompson kick in college, partially because I had a friend reading it for class. I instantly fell in love with Vonnegut’s prose style, and his conversational tone, and I’ve gone on to get other books of his. They are all amazing, and you should feel bad if you haven’t read them.

I suspect the biggest reason this one gets challenged/banned is because of either a) the fact that humans are kept as zoo animals, or b) that there’s a pair of crudely-drawn boobs toward the end. I suspect it’s more the latter than the former.

40. The Lord of the Rings – Yes, I read the whole thing, including the Hobbit. I’ve tried getting into the other stuff Tolkien has written, but I just don’t have the wherewithal for it. Maybe one day. What I find most funny is that people cite it as anti-Christian, even though it has many of the same themes as the Bible. (Like, the actual Bible, not the one people wave against whatever they don’t agree with.)

49. A Clockwork Orange – Again, this falls down to people simply not reading the book or comprehending it. I’ll give a little leeway on that, though, because the language is about as easy to understand as calculus is to a third-grader. I’m still not sure I get exactly what is said, but I get the big picture. I also get that the final chapter was omitted from the US printings of the book (and as such, from Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation), and without it, the whole point of the book fails. Instead of it being a book about a rough gang member who gets caught and goes through a failed indoctrination by the state, only to relapse and then come to his own decision on his way of life, it’s just about violence and fascism. Burgess hated the book, and hated what it turned into, and I think he’s right. But I think his book is more like Catcher in the Rye than he realizes. It’s a book about growing up.

No, really.

50. The Awakening – While I respect the themes of the book, and find it to be a great work of literature, I absolutely despise the character of Edna. I’m not sure that Chopin even wanted the reader to like her. She’s just so “Fuck you, I do what I want” that I can’t really identify with her. I realize that a lot of it comes out of the Victorian culture and her being so antithetical to it, but, well, put it this way: I can only listen to about four Rage Against the Machine(NSFW) songs before I just want to find something else.

Now that’s only eleven books, but I either own or have on the To Read list about a dozen more from the ALA list. But you know what? The ones I have read made me a better person. Too many people (parents especially) are caught up in trying to legislate away critical, individual thought—too busy trying to watchdog everyone else’s morality while ignoring their own.

The point of school is to learn and entertain new ideas. The point of teaching a book is to understand it. The organized movement against both education and understanding in this country (the US) is appalling, and parents are shirking in their responsibilities on raising children that are capable of understanding concepts like racism, sexism, sexuality, war, death, drugs, society, politics, and control.

Maybe then, one day, we could live in a “civilized” society where unarmed people don’t get blasted with pepper spray by the people that are paid to protect them, where the right choices are made beforehand so the sort of situation that allows for such things don’t happen to begin with.

But who am I kidding? That will never happen. In the meantime, go read a book, so when someone tells you you’re wrong for reading it, you can tell them they’re a fascist asshole that are actively undermining their own freedoms.

Categories: books

The List, Part 3

August 10, 2011 1 comment

1. Part the Last

Okay, so here we are. If you haven’t done so already, you can check out Part 1 here and Part 2 here. Part one also has a bit of discussion about why the hell I’m even regurgitating a months (years?) old meme from Facebook.

2. The List, Part 3

8tracks link-style! (No, I still haven’t fixed embedding. Right-click and open in a new tab or window.)

21. “Fat-Bottomed Girls” – Queen – A Song You Listen to when You’re Happy
I make the claim that this is the best rock song of all time. Sure, there might be Beatles songs that are more popular, and AC/DC songs with more drive, but for me this song is all about the attitude, performance, and production. First, this song sounds (pardon the pun) huge. The drums are thick, the guitar is expansive, and holy shit Freddie Mercury. Let’s face it, a better frontman has never lived. I don’t think it’s possible that Queen could have ever played in a club. And of course this was from their seventh album, so I doubt it was ever played in front of less than eight-hundred-thousand people.

And that drum fill before the last chorus? HUGE. I think Roger Taylor was using a 17-piece kit for that. (I may have exaggerated a bit on this particular inclusion.)

22. “Blake Says” – Amanda Palmer – A Song You Listen to when You’re Sad
I really can’t say too much about this one. “He takes his pills but never takes his medicine” is probably one of the best lyrics of all time, though. Amanda Palmer’s lyrics are so good it actually makes me angry. And this is coming from someone who rarely, if ever, listens to music for its lyrical content.

23. “In Your Eyes” – Peter Gabriel – A Song You Want Played at Your Wedding
You know that part in Say Anything when John Cusack holds up his boombox and plays this while standing out in the driveway? I don’t, because I’ve never seen it. Despite being a huge fan of both Peter Gabriel and John Cusack (and Cameron Crowe, for that matter). But! Somehow my wife and I came together over how goddamn awesome Peter Gabriel is, and decided we wanted it performed at our wedding. That fell through (thanks to the guy who was going to do it having to go to an in-law’s wedding or something), so we ended up having it for our first dance. Incidentally it was only time we ever danced, as we both avoided ever learning how. (I can pick ’em, I say.) Also, despite being in 4/4, it’s practically impossible to dance to in any “traditional” way. So was a weird album like that.

24. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – A Song You Want Played at Your Funeral
The whole thing. With a full orchestra and choir.

I’m not kidding.

(This isn’t on the mix because it’s an hour long. Also it was going to be Mozart’s Requiem, but that’s just maudlin and cliche.)

25. “ZTO” – Devin Townsend – A Song that Makes You Laugh
That Wilhelm Scream at the beginning makes me cackle every damn time. The entire Ziltoid album is fantastic (“I am so omniscient, if there was to be two Omnisciences, I would be both!”), and the insanity starts right off the bat. I constantly reference the “Make it perfect!” at the end of the track. Devin has a sense of humor unparallelled. He’s definitely the second coming of Frank Zappa.

26. “Something Vague” – Bright Eyes – A Song You Can Play on an Instrument
It’s not a terribly difficult song on guitar, but I really like playing it. I could have probably put any number of other songs, but this was the first one that came to mind. It’s also, oddly, the only Bright Eyes song I know how to play.

27. “99 Ways to Die” – Megadeth – A Song You Wish You Could Play
This is, and probably always will be, my favorite Megadeth song. I just can’t seem to play it. I think it’s because it only sounds right if two guitars are playing it. Or because I’m trying to learn it off shitty internet tabs. In any case, if I ever learn how to play it, I will never play another song again, because I’ll just play this non-stop.

28. “Delilah” – The Dresden Dolls – A Song that Makes You Feel Guilty
This is the last Amanda Palmer-penned song on the list (my god, there’s a lot of them). I say it makes me feel guilty because it wavers between blaming the victim and frustration and exasperation. It’s almost painful to listen to because I think everyone knows one of those people that is stuck in a what appears to be an obviously toxic relationship but won’t get out of it. And that’s the part that I identify with. The problem I have is that it really seems to blame the person in the relationship, and that just doesn’t fly with me. It ultimately ends unresolved and the whole thing makes me feel downright bad. But it’s such a good song otherwise.

I’ve also discovered that, in trying to cover it, it sounds entirely different coming from a male singer. It sounds so completely asshole-ish that it’s really making me doubt the decision to cover it. It goes from being a song about frustration and friendship to a song about what a stupid bitch Delilah is and I just can’t do that. So this message is for the guys out there: Don’t cover this song, you’ll sound like a dick.

29. “Batdance” – Prince – A Song from Your Childhood
I actually had to think about this for a while. And once I settle on “Batdance”, I had to find a copy of it, which took some doing, considering how fucking popular the movie and the song were when I was nine. My favorite part is how it’s just a bunch of samples from the movie Batman with a couple of the theme from the 1960s show (mainly the “Batmaaaaan!” bits) over a fairly generic Prince instrumental bed.

But holy shit look at this video:

It’s like everything that was awesome and horrible about the 80s rolled into one. Which is, really, the same thing you could say about Prince.

30. “The Noose” – A Perfect Circle – Your Favorite Song at This Time Last Year
Like I said the first time around, this song has been my favorite since I first heard it. Probably won’t change.

So What Have We Learned?

Well, there are some amusing things, like going from Skynryd to Meshuggah, or from Slayer to Queen. Part of the reason I liked the original meme was that it gave me a chance to actually mention some things I don’t talk about much, or don’t typically acknowledge, like Peter Gabriel. I am, however, a little annoyed that I can’t honestly mention more underground stuff that I like, because so much of it doesn’t really fall into any of the above categories. It’s hard to fit something like chiptunes into anything listed, you know? It’s hard to cite Prong or Goatwhore as something that makes you fall asleep.

Also, uh, I don’t really go digging for random underground shit just because. I have no problem with reaching for populist garbage. Half the songs on this list probably could have qualified under “guilty pleasure” from some people, but I don’t really like to shy away from music I love.

If we want to do any sort of horrible statistical analysis by genre, it breaks down like this:

Rock: 11
Electronic/Dance: 4
Country: 1
Metal: 7
Other stuff: 7

You can debate what criteria I segregated those out by, but that’s how I see it. It’s not really as varied as I was hoping, but considering I don’t have any rap/hip-hop on there, only one country song, no jazz, and so on, I can’t really complain that much.

Now, having reached the end of all of this, I’m not even sure how much this list adds to the wider world of criticism. That really goes for any sort of list, though. I suppose it can add to the overall conversation of cultural minutiae, but it ultimately feels like it was an exercise in extracting meaning out of a bunch of arbitrary decisions. So many of them just came flying out of my ass (e.g., “Something Vague” just being the first song I can play that I though of) that it seems like the whole thing is devoid of meaning. And this doesn’t even touch on the people that answer every prompt with things like Justin Beiber. So it makes me wonder just how doomed our world is.

Though the fact that it came from Facebook should have been a warning.

In the end, though, I had fun compiling the original list, so I guess I’ll have to mark it in the win category. It’s just sad that, for being someone who puts so much emphasis on “WHY DO YOU LIKE WHAT YOU DO”, I really couldn’t dissect some of these further. Oh well. Come back next time for a much better episode!

Categories: Uncategorized

30 Days, Part 2

August 4, 2011 3 comments

1. The Continuing Adventures

Still with me? Cool. This is part two of a three-part “Why On God’s Green Earth are You Blogging a Facebook Meme?” post. Part three will probably be early next week. (I’m shooting for Monday.) You can read part one here. I still haven’t figured out how to embed 8tracks mixes into WordPress, so you’ll have to right-click the link for it and open it in either a new tab or window. I know that it’s possible to do, I’m just lazy. I’ll get to it eventually, I know. Just, uh, not now.

Anyway. Let’s get into it, eh?

2. The List, Part 2

8tracks link-style!

11. “All Nightmare Long” – Metallica – A Song by Your Favorite Band
I’d be silly to not include Metallica, as they still probably default to the band I listen to when I’m not sure what I want to listen to. When I originally posted this to Facebook, one of my friends questioned why I included this over, say, “Master of Puppets” or “One”, and this was my reply:

It has all the elements of all the best Metallica songs. It has catchy bits, some nice speedy bits, a decent vocal performance (which there aren’t too many of, post-Bob Rock), some pretty neat soloing, double-kick that doesn’t sound like shoes in a dryer, and lyrics that aren’t terrible.

Pretty much every “classic” Metallica song is awesome, sure, but this is probably the song that amalgamates their entire career. Don’t get me wrong, all those songs are awesome, but this is a pretty good example of who they are now, not who they were when they were 24. (As a side note, I realized the other day that I’m now the same age they were when they were touring on the Black Album. Fuck you, Metallica. Fuck you.)

That really sums it up, I think.

12. “Beth” – KISS – A Song from a Band You Hate
I realize that 90% of the music I listen to is directly derived from KISS, and without them, I probably would be listening to Dierks Bentley now. (More on that in a minute.) However, I absolutely cannot stand KISS in any way. They’re money-grubbing assholes, they’re egocentric douchebags, and they make terrible, terrible music. Their lyrics are drizzly shit, and they’re probably the most shallow human beings in the United States, and that’s against some stiff competition. In fact, about the only pass I can give them is that they managed to influence a lot of good musicians. So I picked what has to be the worst song by them. (This is another song I simply skipped over while listening back to the mix.)

13. “Greedy Fly” – Bush – A Song that is a Guilty Pleasure
I’ve often said that the phrase “guilty pleasure” is something I really dislike. I’m not actually going to jump down people’s throats for their musical taste, even if they like what I think is garbage. It’s music, y’know? Different people like different stuff, and that’s no big deal. It also helps to rationalize six years of being made fun of for liking metal while living in a backwoods Upper Midwest school district. (Oh shit, I do want to be Chuck Klosterman. God damn it.)

In any case, I really liked Bush’s first two albums. A lot of people panned Razorblade Suitcase (from which this song is taken) for wanting to be too Nirvana-like, but that’s mostly a symptom of having the Steve Albini Sound. Every record he makes sounds that way. Anyway, it’s fashionable to hate Bush, so this is probably the most guilty-pleasure-esque thing I could think of.

14. “A Good Run of Bad Luck” – Clint Black – A Song No One Would Expect You to Love
The first CD I ever bought was Joe Diffie’s Third Rock from the Sun. I was huge into country until about 1996 or so (right around the time Shania Twain was converting country into pop-with-fiddles). I think the reason I like Clint Black so much is the fact that he’s actually a pretty badass guitar player as well as a good songwriter and singer. And I’ll probably never be able to play it, because my brain just doesn’t play country. (I think this song didn’t upload correctly to 8tracks and may be shortened in the mix, but you’re probably not missing much. Maybe the solo, which is pretty good.)

15. “Echoplex” – Nine Inch Nails – A Song that Describes You
Well, the song is about Trent Reznor building his studio, and then locking himself away in it while the music community talks about how irrelevent he has become. I can’t really say much beyond that. I sort of identify with the whole “My voice just echos off these walls” part.

16. “It’s Been Awhile” – Staind – A Song You Used to Love but Now Hate
I loved Staind. I really did. And when Break the Cycle came out, I started to change my mind on them. “Outside” was a pretty good song, a nice little one-off, despite the Fred Durst-isms on the live version from the Family Values album. Break, though, still had some heavy songs that I really liked, but they were obviously moving away from their old sound. Critics kept railing on them for their angry-middle-class-kid whining, only to find out that when Staind grew up, they wrote really terrible music. On the albums after Break the Cycle, I can count the number of Staind songs I would consider tolerable on one hand.

Not too long ago their founding drummer quit, and got replaced by Will Hunt from fucking Evanesance, so I guess we’ll see how they’re chugging along now. I read that their new album is full of songs “at least as heavy as the heaviest stuff on the last album.” If that’s true, my hopes for Staind returning to form are still unresolved. (That’s a sneaky way of saying that the last album didn’t really have anything heavy on it, either.) In any case, I think Staind is still a musically talented band, they just produce absolute shit. That’s pretty much my opinion on Dave Matthews Band, too.

17. “Sweet Home Alabama” – Lynyrd Skynyrd – A Song You Often Hear on the Radio
I have seen Lynyrd Skynyrd live three times in the span of four years. Fargo loves its Skynyrd. My dad was, and probably still is, a freakish Skynyrd devotee. I’ve heard more Skynyrd than most people would consider a lifetime’s worth.

And then I moved to Indiana.

Fort Wayne has two classic rock stations and loves its hick almost-but-not-quite southern roots. Despite the band rarely coming through here (from what I can tell), I’ve heard so much more of the band since I moved here that it’s… it’s depressing. I can’t even listen to the band anymore, and this is after having liked them so much I paid money to see them three times.

I will, however, still give them credit for the end of “Free Bird”. That shit is ridiculous.

18. “Bleed” – Meshuggah – A Song You Wish You Heard on the Radio
This could really be any Meshuggah song, but I picked this one solely because of the timing. I have this vision in my head of driving down the street and people simply running of the road because they can’t wrap their heads around the polyrhythm. And then there’s me, cruising along, headbanging very slowly to the loping guitar riff.

Basically what I’m saying is that I’m smarter than both rock radio and its listeners. (Nickelback? Seriously?)

19. “Lateralus” – Tool – A Song from Your Favorite Album
My favorite song, artist, and album are all not the same, and I find that amusing. Sure there’s some overlap in the singer of my favorite song and favorite album (that would be Tool/A Perfect Circle vocalist Maynard James Keenan), but I think it’s sort of funny. I don’t know why.

“Lateralus” and “The Noose” are, incidentally, pretty much neck-and-neck for Favorite Song status. The end of Lateralus (right around the 7:10 mark) just starts expanding. It’s also my favorite part in the live shows, because drummer Danny Carey actually uses the gong behind him and doesn’t miss a beat. It’s fucking amazing. (The part in question is here. One of the bonuses of writing posts like this is that I can spend 45 minutes watching videos of people playing drums and not feel like I’m not entirely ignoring the work I’m doing. It’s research.)

20. “New Faith” – Slayer – A Song You Listen to When You’re Angry
I honestly can’t really say much besides “Slayer”. A lot of people (mostly drunken Slayer fans) say that God Hates Us All is a terrible Slayer album. But they’re wrong. You see, GHUA is probably the single best Tom Araya performance they put down. This song, especially, is just off-the-rails insane. And I’ll never forget playing this album before a local “Christian metal” band played a set that I was running sound for. The look on the guitarist’s face when the line “I KEEP MY BIBLE IN A POOL OF BLOOD SO THAT NONE OF ITS LIES CAN AFFECT ME” came up was pretty hilarious.

I’m an antagonistic dick like that.

3. Outro

So anyway, that’s all for today. Not terribly impressive, but fuck it. You didn’t pay for it, didja?

Categories: Uncategorized

30 Days, Part 1

August 1, 2011 3 comments

1. Why Even Do This?

You’ve probably seen this little meme floating around Facebook as the 30 Day Song Challenge. It’s essentially a chance for music nerds (and anyone else, for that matter) to show off how awesome their taste in music is, and to argue how stupid their friends’ choices are. Obviously this isn’t something someone like me can avoid, so I took part in it as well. However, two things were very apparent. First, Facebook’s nature doesn’t really allow for cool stuff like more than 240 characters in a comment. It wouldn’t be a very good venue to actually discuss thoughts on the music I chose. Second, it’s easy to lose the scope of the list over 30 days. Look how many people sit and watch full seasons of television shows at a time; works are generally meant to be viewed as a whole. I’m not saying that my responses to a Facebook meme are LOST. I’m saying that a stream of single songs with seemingly unconnected themes strung out over a month don’t necessarily have the same feel as a nice, consise playlist.

Also, I’m not really a mix-tape sort of person. I’ve made a few here and there (“You’ve never heard Radiohead?!” and the like), but by and large I personally prefer to listen to music in full albums, and to songs in the context of those albums. Maybe I’m a holdover from back in the day when music was placed on a physical object, but I like the idea of having one flowing piece of work. So, I guess this lets me do that, while still cherry-picking the contents of the list in question.

A couple notes before we get into the meat of this: First, I’l be dividing it up into three posts. Thirty songs in one shot is kind of a lot, and I don’t want to write it, and you probably don’t want to read it or listen to it in one go. I’ll provide links when the other two posts go up (later this week and early next week, likely), so if you want to subject yourself to it, you can. But I’m not really advocating it now. Second, these songs are, for the most part, straight rips from the CD. Some of the tracks begin and end abrubptly (like the end of #10). I could have crossfaded stuff nicely, but frankly that’s a lot of work for a very minor issue. Just deal with it.

Okay.

2. The List, Part 1

http://8tracks.com/mixes/362208/player_v3
(embedding 8tracks mixes into WordPress-hosted blogs still isn’t working. i’m trying to get a workaround going, and when i do, i’ll fix it. til then, just right-click and select ‘open in new tab’ or ‘open in new window’ depending on what you want to do.)

1. “The Noose” – A Perfect Circle – Your Favorite Song
This is really a no-brainer for me. It’s been my favorite song since Thirteenth Step came out in 2003, and unless I’m presented with some pretty impressive evidence to the contrary, my opinion probably won’t change much. I even remember the first time I heard it, when I bought it at Target on the day it was released. It immediately went into my CD player, and I listened to the first track, skipped the second (“Weak and Powerless”, which I had heard dozens of times by this point), and listened to the third, which was “The Noose”. Everything about this song, from the lyric to the melody to the amazing coda was everything I wanted out of music at the time, and it’s still what I compare every other song to. The rest of the album is good, but this song is just… so much better.

2. “Brown-Eyed Girl” – Van Morrison – Your Least Favorite Song
To say that I hate this song is selling it short. I actually get physically ill when I hear this song. My stomach turns, my head starts to throb, my heart pumps viciously. I realize that Van Morrison is respected in jazz and blues circles, and I really like “Moondance”. But, well, let me put it this way:

Have you ever seen Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey? After Bill and Ted are killed by the Evil Robot Us-es (agents of the film’s main villian), they’re sent to Hell, where they are forced to choose a single event in their life to live over and over as their own personal hell. Every uncomfortable situation I have ever been in pales in comparison to the possibility of spending eternity listening to “Brown-Eyed Girl”. I would rather explain to my father that I was in a car accident forever than listen to “Brown-Eyed Girl”. I would rather sit curled up in a closet after the worst breakup of my entire life for time unending than listen to “Brown-Eyed Girl”. I suppose there are probably things that I wouldn’t rather deal with for eternity than listen to this song (being a Darfur war-orphan, for example), but if every wedding, junior high dance, prom, block party, oldies station, and family get-together I’ve ever attended or listened to are any indication, “Brown-Eyed Girl” is the least enjoyable three minutes of my life in pretty much any situation. And “Brown-Eyed Girl” will always make a bad situation worse.

I hate the song so much I skipped over it when listening back to this very mix.

3. “Leeds United” – Amanda Palmer – A Song that Makes You Happy
This song never fails to get me motivated and make me smile. It was the first Amanda Palmer song I ever heard, and I fell for the whole aesthetic instantly. I bought the album days after hearing the song, and I’ve gone on to get both Dresden Dolls albums plus the In Paradise DVD. This won’t be the last instance of Ms. Palmer’s work on the list, either.

4. “World Coming Down” – Type O Negative – A Song that Makes You Sad
Peter Steele’s lyrics—at least on the personal songs—have always tended toward the dreary side, but this is arguably the most sad song on a whole album of songs like “Everyone I Love is Dead” and “Everything Dies”. If I could put words to what depression feels like, this song would probably would be it. Feeling powerless and apathetic toward one’s own life might seem overly dramatic (Type O were nothing if not melodramatic), but knowing how Pete struggled through personal relationships, drug addiction, a difficult life in the music industry despite initial success makes the song so much more powerful. It may fail on New Criticism points (though it’s a valuable work on its own), “World Coming Down” is a song of a man dying before his literal death… which came too soon. (Another Type O song is coming soon in the list.)

5. “Wonderwall” – Oasis – A Song that Reminds You of Someone
The someone in question is one of my younger brother’s best friends, who would sing this song even more nasally and off-key during Rock Band sessions. He’s the same person that would sing Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” in the same overblown Gallahger voice. I probably could have chosen a few other songs, but they’re typical tripe like the Smashing Pumpkins’ “By Starlight” makes me think of a girl I dated in high school. So here it is: a song that will only ever make me think of one person and the fact that his is the only version I hear in my head when I think of it.

6. “One Note Song” – Tenacious D – A Song that Reminds You of Somewhere
That somewhere is “In the car on the way to the Twin Cities”. Every trip my friends and I would take from Fargo to Minneapolis started with the first Tenacious D album, and was followed by The Bloodhound Gang’s Hooray for Boobies. It didn’t matter who was driving, it didn’t matter whose car we were in. The first Tenacious D track meant we were in the car and going somewhere. (Usually to ogle guitars at the nearest major guitar retailer.) To this day, most of my longer car rides start with this song. I’m nothing if not a creature of habit.

7. “Anesthesia” – Type O Negative – A Song that Reminds You of a Certain Event
The second time I saw the band, at First Avenue in Minneapolis. The show was pretty good, energetic. But this song was easily the best performance of the night. Pete sang all his parts from the album (usually during tours guitarist Kenny Hickey took the duties on some of the screaming bits), and the whole band really rallied around Peter on this one. By the end Pete and Kenny were leaning on each other for support and the whole place just felt somewhere else entirely. I will probably never forget that song, even if the rest of the show has sort of faded from my memory in the intervening years.

8. “Satan” – Orbital & Kirk Hammett – A Song You Know All the Words To
This is sort of cheating, because it only has the one word. But honestly I could have put any of a few dozen songs here, I just picked the easiest. This comes from the soundtrack to the Spawn movie. The album is actually an interesting little experiment that pairs standard hard rock/metal bands with electronic artists. Several of them turn out pretty well (Filter and the Crystal Method with “(Can’t You) Trip Like I Do”, for example), but some are utter garbage (like the complete misfire of Metallica’s mashup with DJ Spooky). All in all, though, it’s pretty enjoyable for fans of either late-90s metal or mid-90s electronic (or both). Oh, and also the riff in this song specifically is pretty killer. Remember, Kirk Hammett was the one responsible for the “Enter Sandman” riff.

9. “Scheiße” – Lady Gaga – A Song You Can Dance To
Okay, maybe not me specifically, but the General You certainly qualifies. It’s probably the most clear “dance” track on Born This Way, and it’s much better than most of the songs on the album because it’s just silly. Gaga is best when she’s singing about absolute bullshit, not trying to make statements.

10. “Us and Them: – Pink Floyd – A Song that Makes You Fall Asleep
When I was in high school, I was just starting to get into Pink Floyd, and it rubbed off on some of my friends, most notably the original singer in my first band. He would put Dark Side of the Moon into his CD player and leave it on repeat to fall asleep, so when I would come over at 11am and he was still in bed, it would still be playing. “Why would you do that on such an awesome album!” I would say. “Dude, it always makes me fall asleep,” he would reply. I thought he was crazy. Now, a decade later, I realize he was right. It’s very snore-inducing. It’s not bad, it’s just… very calm.

Here endeth part the first.

Come back later this week for part two!

Holy shit part two is done!

Categories: Uncategorized

I, uh, hi!

July 26, 2011 1 comment

Do… do you hear that?

*shuffling*
*rustling*

Oh shit.

This thing is still on.

Okay, so I realize it’s been a literal, exact year since I last posted here (on the incredibly deep subject of my video card), but let’s take a little bit to reacquaint ourselves.

Hi, I’m Rick. You’re You. Glad to meet you, you.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s review a bit of the past year. (It should be noted that I’m writing this while taking a break from finding publishers for my horrible writing. Avoiding “work” by “working more”. Procrastination at its finest, folks.)

1. My wife and I bought a new house. A different house from the one we were in a year ago. The whole story is long and sordid and filled with details like “That house blows, this one is awesome.”

2. I started playing World of Warcraft a little too much. I still do. I’m working on it, really. I have to, because…

3. I got accepted into one of the local four-year colleges, probably on the back of their “We’ll take literally anyone” admission policy. The unusual thing (well, I think it’s unusual) is that I’m majoring in Interior Design. We’re talking the nearly-architecture sort of Interior Design, not the put-some-paint-up-and-buy-some-shitty-fake-plants Interior Design. The goal is to eventually graduate and get into an actual architecture school at some point. This is probably a story I will actually tell at a later date, because it’s frankly more words than I want to put into a Who I Am and Where I’ve Been post. (Oh, and I’m minoring in Creative Writing—Poetry. Stop laughing, asshole.)

4. I’ve been stuffing a lot of my brain drippings into my Twitter (you can catch a stream on the right, but this is in the unlikely event you want to read more than a post linking here and what is likely some retweeting), and Facebook (which is probably how you got here). I’ve been flirting with the idea of starting up a Tumblr to sort of consolidate everything, but honestly I probably don’t maximize the avenues I have.

5. This is the biggie: I’ve noticed that I’m focusing a lot of energy in the wrong areas of my life. I’ve been pumping thousands of words a day into internet forums. I’ve been spending upwards of 12 hours a day on Warcraft. None of the things that I used to do—reading, writing, making music, photography—have been on the front burner, and it’s been too long. So here I am. We’ll see if I can keep it up for more than a couple months.

Things and people I’ve been paying attention to (or, the linkwhoring section)

In the way of big-name stuff, most notably I got hooked on Lady Gaga. (Stop. Laughing.) I bought all three albums. So what? (To be fair, the newest one was 99¢) (To be extra fair, it Pomplamoose’s video for “Telephone” that did it.)

But a lot of other stuff has been shooting around my social circle lately, so I’ll mention them real quick-like.

First up, there’s Bob Cluness. He writes musicky knowledgey bits from his hidden Icelandic base at Reykjavik Sex Farm. He’s bona fide. He does real writing, and once appeared in a tourism campaign for the country with a population only slightly larger than my current city of residence. Also he’s probably the only Scottish bastard on the island. His musical taste is vastly better than mine. (I’m listening to Bright Eyes right now. He’s probably listening to something with electronic bleeps, buzzsaws, or both.) He compiles painfully good mixes at 8tracks.

Next, there’s Bram E. Gieben. He founded Black Lantern Music and Weaponizer. Have you ever heard of witch house? Bram has. Bram makes it, and he’ll fuck your skull out with darkwave hip-hop.

We have before us, also, Chris Graves, creator of Space Shark. I’ve mentioned Chris before. He’s still insane. Probably moreso, now that he’s (presumably) back from SDCC. Support the Shark, buy the ticket, take the ride.

Next, one Robin LeBlanc. Photography and beer are her things, and she’s pretty good at them, I hear. She’s on the shortlist for Canadian Country Music Award for Best Album Photography (or whatever the hell they call those things up there). We’ll find out soon if she gets a full-on nomination, but in either case I understand there will be beer and cupcakes. Not necessarily in that order.

Last, but not least, is Ginger Piglet Press, which saw fit to publish one of my shitty poems in their first issue. Yes, I’m whoring myself a bit here, but the rest of the contributors to the issue more than make up for my wankery. Go buy it, so they can print another issue. (Maybe they’ll have the smarts to leave me out of that one. If I even submit anything.)

So anyway

I have a bit I’m planning on putting up in the next few weeks, while I’m not running around trying not to go insane (or laying in bed awake, trying not to go insane).

It’s horribly cliche meme-shit, but hopefully I can derive some actual words from it. Good words.

Categories: Uncategorized

My Video Card

July 26, 2010 3 comments

I think this video card is part of some vast conspiracy to slowly destroy my sanity, or stop me from playing WoW. Because one day I’ll snap and hit my computer so hard it pops out in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

It will probably be whirring, still. I just won’t be able to hear it.

You see, I was all ready to write up a real post. I even made a rough outline, which I only do when I’m Doing Work, Tthen my graphics card started resonating, as it has been doing for the past… well, since about two weeks after I bought it. And I know it’s the video card, because when I press firmly on the card, it stops. Or at least lessens. Also, the other fans in my system are silent.

So in a fit of simultaneous OCD and procrastination, I pulled it out, attempted to lubricate the ONLY MOVING PART ON THE CARD (which is inaccessible for the purposes of lubrication), and replaced it. That failed. So now I’m back to percussion therapy, which stops it for a little while. Eventually my metacarpals will break, or my computer will finally decide that Violence Is Not The Answer, and cease operation. Or there’s that ocean thing.

Regardless, this is one of many stupid little things that keeps me from doing other, bigger things. For some reason, my brain only works on one project at a time, and usually only long enough to start them (all that “finishing” work is boring, man!) And all this buzzing is slowly driving me insane.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Diversion About the Loss of Magic

April 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Forgive this, it’s going to get rambly.

I’m listening to Beck’s Modern Guilt right now. For maybe the fourth time since I bought it, a month after it came out. Modern Guilt was one of those albums that made music geeks’ brains explode because it paired OMG BECK with OMG DANGER MOUSE, who I’d only just heard about because of that one song that you couldn’t fucking get rid of during the summer of 2006 that I’d only just paid attention to in early 2008. (For the people that don’t feel like trying to parse that sentence over and over til it makes sense: Gnarls Barkley recorded “Crazy” and released it in 2006 and I hated it because I couldn’t avoid it. Then I actually listened to it later, and I kinda liked it.)

But aside from what I’m listening to, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Gillen/Mckelvie’s Phonogram Vol.2: The Singles Club, and my brain’s been shoved into a tangent. First, I get into things way, way too late. It’s like my life is a constant running Jim Gaffigan gag (“Heat? That came out six years ago.” “Yeah, but I wanna talk about it now.”) Second, and this is the important bit, I don’t seem to enjoy things I used to nearly as much… especially in the music world.

The thing about Phonogram is that it uses magic as a very interesting metaphor for the sheer love of music. I mean, other people have drawn the music = magic parallel before, but Phonogram does it in a really interesting way by tying it to ritual magic. But the magic bit is a device to run that same bit of pop culture dissection that Hornby and Klosterman (terrible as he may be) and any other music critic has done in a different way. Instead of running through the same shitty buzzwords that print journalists use, Gillen and Mckelvie can show their readers what they mean. Such is the strength of comics.

But what does all that have to do with me liking music less? Well, not much, I guess, aside from maybe enlightening me to the fact that used to do the same dissection of minutia. I used to consume music by the metric tonne. I used to absorb it and internalize it and make it who I was. Maybe part of this came from the desire to be a professional musician myself. But I think most of it comes from that period in your life when you define yourself by what you consume. When I was seventeen, all I listened to was Metallica. (“No shit?” you’re probably saying sarcastically. “No shit,” I reply, while glaring at you with the eyes of somebody that actually liked Load because it was good, even if it wasn’t what people expected from Metallica.) By the time I hit college, I had expanded to nu-metal. And you know what? I still like the old Drowning Pool records, and Limp Bizkit’s first two albums were listenable for being misogynistic frat-boy shit. I’m even slowly coming to terms with the fact that I might actually like Deftones.

But somewhere in the past few years, I stopped really devouring new stuff, while at the same time somehow broadening my horizons. I like music now that varies wildly, from The Smiths to Amanda Palmer[*] to Mastodon[**] to Gary Numan. But the thing is, my music stopped identifying and shaping me, rather, I shaped my music. I can’t say “I love Nine Inch Nails” with the same vigor as the goth kids in 1995 did.

So my question in all of this is “When does our culture stop defining us, and when do we start defining our culture?” And, as a corollary, “Is it a bad thing when that tradeoff occurs?”

I made a point the other day on a different internet forum that I haven’t read a book that’s really rewired my brain in a long time. The same goes for music, and to a much, much more obvious extent, movies. I’ve simply stopped consuming the massive quantities of brain drippings that I used to. Now, this doesn’t necessarily make me feel guilty, but it makes me feel like there’s something amiss. I used to eat and breathe music. Now it’s just… something I have on in the car. Something that drowns out the sound of traffic outside my house. And on the same side of the quarter, playing music is something that I derive much less joy from. Writing a song is more like work than it ever has been.

I’m loathe to say that it’s because I’m not listening to enough stuff; I hardly think that’s the case. I think it’s more that I’m just no impacted by it as much as I used to be… and I’m trying to figure out why I don’t obsess about the gear Johnny Greenwood used on Kid A to get Sound X like I used to.

I’d like to say it’s because I’m growing up or maturing or some shit like that, but I refuse to accept that. I’m only 28. If anything, I feel like it’s because all the other bullshit life has to offer[***] is getting in the way. I’m now pulled in so many directions that it seems like sometimes the best plan is to just wait the whole thing out and let the valuable stuff come to me through time. And while it’s a good strategy for getting “safe” stuff, it’s not particularly fulfilling.

Going back to Phonogram (sort of), the main goal of magic is affecting the world around you. But at the same time, part of most magical traditions is understanding the world around you and how it affects you. So maybe that’s the problem? Maybe I’ve let the world affect me for too long? Maybe it’s time to start internalizing my surroundings so I can bend them to my will. Or maybe it’s all just twentysomethings-from-the-1990s wankery. Because sometimes I feel like my whole generation is a generation of wankers.

In any case, it still doesn’t answer why something that used to mean so much to me doesn’t anymore. At least, it’s not the same. Have I built up a tolerance to the things I used to enjoy? Do I just keep needing more and stronger music injections?

I mean, I don’t want to sound all middle-age crisis-y (again, the 28 years old argument), but I kinda miss the person I was ten years ago. Or at least, the one aspect of me that wasn’t an asshole. Back when it felt like I meant something, when the world around me felt like it meant something.

Ugh. This is getting entirely too emo. I’m going to stop before I actually say “I hope I die before I get old.” Because I think that’s when I jump the shark in my own brain.

Oh, and if you’re actually interested in what I’m listening to these days, I’m listening to a lot of She. Combine chiptunes and traditional dance hall electronic, and you get She. It’s really fucking good. But I’m not going to go learn Japanese to understand the (occasional) lyrics.

[*]Amusing Amanda Palmer anecdote: I can distinctly remember finding a Dresden Dolls CD in my friend’s binder in 2003 or so, when he was buying, without question, everything Roadrunner put out. I asked what it was like, and he said something to the effect of “It’s okay, but not metal at all,” at which point I completely disregarded it. Just last week, I bought the Dresden Dolls DVD Paradise because I’ve fallen entirely in love with all things Amanda Palmer. Oh, how times change.

[**]Amusing Mastodon anecdote: My first exposure to Mastodon was a few years back on a trip to (I think) Wheaton, MN, to run sound for some friends of mine. I came back from that trip and immediately bought Remission, and have purchased everything they’ve released since. “March of the Fire Ants” is still their best song.

[***]Cliff Burton: “When I started, I decided to devote my life to it and not get sidetracked by all the other bullshit life has to offer.” Also possibly relevant: “You don’t burn out from going too fast. You burn out from going too slow and getting bored.”

Review – Melissa Auf der Maur’s Out of Our Minds

April 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Note: Last year, when the “This Would Be Paradise” EP was released, I reviewed that as well.

In 2004, Melissa Auf der Maur released her first solo album. While being fantastic on a musical front, it was a little… well, we’ll say immature. The lyrics, in particular, have a certain art-school pretension to them. “Surely,” I thought, “someone with as much education and talent as Melissa Auf der Maur can come up with things that don’t sound like they came out of a middle school girl’s diary. If she moved past that, this album would be amazing.” Considering Auf der Maur’s massive bass chops, fantastic voice (her harmonies were the best part of Hole’s Celebrity Skin album), and knack for surrounding herself with other talented musicians, I still stand by that opinion.

Yet now, six years later, I have much the same feeling. Though, thankfully, most of it has filtered out of the music, and into other projects in the same orbit as Out of Our Minds, Auf der Maur’s newest release. The album itself is a mild concept album that fits into a full array of media, including a full-length feature film (which is where most of my feeling that things haven’t changed much comes from) and a graphic novel.

The irony is that since most of that artsy stuff has leeched out into other media, the music that is left is much more focused. The songs are definitely there, and the more questionable lyrics simply seem cryptic here than on the last record, where they just seemed bloated and heavy-handed. Now, that’s not to say that Auf der Maur doesn’t lay it on thick now and then, but overall it’s a much less infuriating experience than the 2004 release, and that’s a great development.

Musically, there’s a lot to be happy about on this album. Melissa’s melodic and rhythmic sensibilities are still as pleasing as on the last album. While this leads to a feeling of familiarity, it’s not boring by any stretch. While the last album was a fairly straightforward rock record, this has more of a prog feel, and there are some other incorporations like electronic drum loops in a few songs, and some pretty interesting instrumentation. There’s some interesting harpsichord-like sounds on “Meet Me on the Dark Side,” and the instrumental “This Would Be Paradise” features what I think is a glockenspiel, or at least a sampled, processed one. The latter also features some tape loops of late Saskatchewan politician Tommy Douglas, who spearheaded the national health care movement in Canada in the 1960s. The inclusion is an obvious reference to the US health care reform, which Auf der Maur wrote in support of several times on her blog. While this is the obvious reference, it’s also a great plea for equality and basic human rights in general.

The album also seems a bit heavier than the last album, and I expect a lot of it comes from playing in her Black Sabbath tribute band Hand of Doom. I wouldn’t say Out of Our Minds sounds particularly doomy, or even sludgy, but it definitely has more weight than its predecessor. Part of that is because Auf der Maur’s bass tones play a much larger part of the mix than previously, but some of it is composition, as well. The title track, for instance, has some rather Mastodon-like moments (not the chorus so much, but most of the rest of it. If Brann Dailor was drumming. Instead, it’s “only” Josh Freese on most songs.)

While a few of the cuts, including the title track, are damn good, the duet with Glenn Danzig(!) is far and away the best song on the record. “Father’s Grave” is a brooding, expansive song, with Danzing singing the part of a gravedigger with whom Auf der Maur seems to build a relationship with. I’m still not sure exactly what the implication is from the story of the song, but honestly, the thing I’m most enthralled by is the performance. Both Danzig (who I don’t follow terribly closely) and Auf der Maur are riffing off each other, and this is well and truly a duet. The chemistry they have is quite evident, the song just builds and builds on itself, and I recommend getting this album even if this is the only song you listen to. It’s that good.

Overall, the album doesn’t particularly drag, and it’s a satisfying length. Clocking in at just under an hour, it’s certainly not as jam-packed as many albums are these days, but its relative brevity does sort of make me wish there were another song or two to make up for the six-years between albums. Though, to be fair, she was also touring, performing in Hand of Doom, traveling, and shooting a movie to go with the project, so I’ll let it slide.

Finally, the full album is up for streaming and purchase at the MAdM website, and is available from most online retailers. Unfortunately I can’t seem to get it locally, and I haven’t settled on whether I want it on vinyl or not. In any case, I whole-heartedly recommend this album.

I think I might give the movie and graphic novel a miss, though.

A Chat About Comics

November 13, 2009 2 comments

As may be obvious by now, I read comic books from time to time. I’m not really the guy that will go get every issue of a Marvel uber-crossover that’s mainly engineered to sell books, nor do I buy a book out of a decade-long habit of buying the same title over and over again, long after I stopped reading them. I may have OCD tendencies, but paying between $2-$4 a shot for books I’ll never read out of the sake of completeness is not something I do. (And believe me, non-comics folks, there are comic book people that do this.)

I don’t want to sound all elitist and snobby here, but I buy comic books for their art and their storytelling. While comics have slowly been coming into the mainstream over the past decade or so, much of it is because of the blockbuster films of Batman, Iron Man, and Watchmen, almost none of which create a huge surge of interest in comic books. Yes, sales for various Batman classics spiked around The Dark Knight being released, and Watchmen found itself on the bestseller list again as soon as the film was announced, but by and large, these results weren’t terribly long-lasting. Interest in individual titles peaked and waned, and few people fell in love with the medium, because, well, I don’t know. Probably the whole Spandex-and-tits culture of superhero books.

And that’s the thing about comics, is that behind the vast face and long shadow of mainstream superhero books, there’s a vast wealth of independent creators and publishers, and small-release niche books, and mini-comics, and a full array of real good literature and art. I’m not trying to disparage mainstream comics creators or the like, but it’s my opinion that there’s a lot more to be read than just Superman thwarting whatever Lex Luthor’s big plan is this month, or whatever universe-shattering event is taking place this year.

For that reason, I tend to be very selective in my comics purchases. Again for the non-comics people, the primary ordering method for comics is a catalog called Previews, which runs solicitations for comics about two months ahead of their actual publishing date, so publishers know how much to order, retailers know how much stock they’ll be receiving, readers/consumers will know what’s coming up in the market and the like. (Previews also enjoys a near-monopoly on comics distribution through it’s parent company, Diamond Comics. That is the subject of a whole different article, and something I won’t be getting into here.) Some people simply subscribe to their regular monthly titles, and ride those out. This is all well and good, but I’m constantly on the lookout for new stories, and so every month I sit down and dig through the entire catalog, and chose whatever books seem interesting. Sometimes I get clunkers, but most of the time I have a pretty good bullshit detector with my comics.

Certain creators are people that will instantly pique my interest, like Warren Ellis—who I’ve mentioned here before—or Jonathan Hickman, or Ben Templesmith, or others. Most of the reason for this is because, even when they’re talking about superheros (as can be the case for Ellis or Hickman), they tell (or illustrate) good stories.

For that reason, I’d like to mention a couple of the books that I’ve been reading lately.

Frankenstein’s Womb by Warren Ellis

This short story, or “graphic novella” as Ellis calls them, tells of a possibly-fictional/possibly-factual event in the life of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, most famous for her gothic novel Frankenstein and her turbulent marriage to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. During a trip to Lake Geneva in 1816 to visit Lord Byron, Mary and her husband supposedly stopped at Castle Frankenstein in Germany. This book is Ellis’ take on what may have happened there, when Frankenstein’s monster appears and narrates Shelley’s past, present, and future to her.

Structurally, the book feels much like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in that a supernatural guide escorts the main character through the phases of her life, narrating both the world around her, and the results various events have had and will have on her life, whether she is conscious of their influence or not. It addresses the historical origins of the tale of Frankenstein, and contains some terrific dialogue.

Thematically, the Frankenstein’s Womb is similar to Alan Moore’s fantastic From Hell—which Warren Ellis has repeatedly called a masterpiece of the medium. The main similarity is in its idea of “giving birth to the future.” Other works, of course, talk about the need for invention and the constant push to bring about the future: Ellis’ own Doktor Sleepless, as well as the Illuminatus! trilogy, speaks of “immanentizing the eschaton,” or bringing about the end of the world. Also, Womb feels specifically like Chapter Four of From Hell, in which the main antagonist, Sir William Gull, is explaining to his carriage-driver and accomplice the divine history of London’s architecture. That is, much of the book reads like a single, long monologue that narrates a history few people have ever heard.

In this way, it is also similar to other Ellis books, Crecy and Aetheric Mechanics. One could say that Ellis has the future on his mind. (Considering his love for many things technological, one would probably be correct.)

There are two primary things keeping Frankenstein’s Womb from being a laborious textbook read, though. The first is Ellis’s fantastic dialogue, not only in the monster’s monologues, but the dialogue among the other characters. Few writers capture dialogue and its many intricacies as well as Ellis. The second is artist Marek Oleksicki’s stunning black-and-white art. Rendered in beautiful brushwork, the confines of the castle, the emotive faces, and the the detail of the monster and whatever environment the characters find themselves conveys Ellis’s them and story superbly. I definitely look forward to any book that Oleksicki may have in the future.

All in all, the story is fantastic, the art is amazing, and Frankenstein’s Womb makes a fantastic deal with a cover price of $6.99 for 48 pages of Romantic-era horror and futurism. I highly recommend this book. It would be a great additional text for any serious study of Shelley’s work or life, and is great creepy fun for Halloween.

…even though Halloween 2009 is over.

Marvel 1985 and Kick-Ass

Both of these books are written by Mark Millar, and are both published by Marvel, and are both about superheroes. So why am I writing about them? Story, of course!

These two books are like two sides of the same coin. In 1985, Millar asks, What if the Marvel Universe was real? And they started to spill over into the real world? In Kick-Ass, he asks, What would happen if a real kid decided to become a superhero?

Both books focus on a down-on-his luck kid, who just happens to love comic books. A lot.

In 1985 that boy is Toby. His parents are divorcing, and his mother thinks his comics habit is going to stunt him socially, and turn him into a lazy nobody… just like his father. Toby begins seeing comic book characters in his real life activities, and turns to his father for help. In the end, an all-star cast of Marvel superheroes (and supervillians) do battle in Toby’s real life, and Toby goes into the Marvel Universe to get help. It’s a fantastic book of… fantasy. The downside is that some of its reverence toward comic book geekery is pretty heavy-handed. On occasion it comes off like an advertisement for Marvel Comics, and seems like some scenes are delivered with a wink and a nudge.

Kick-Ass features Dave, who has typical problems. He’s got a single dad, he has trouble with girls in school. He, like Toby, withdraws into the world of comics. Eventually, Dave has the genius idea of becoming a superhero, despite having no superpowers whatsoever… sort of like Batman. In it, he discovers a small subculture of people with the same ideas of vigilante justice as him (and these people actually do exist… look around MySpace enough and you’ll find them.) In the end, he becomes a real crimefigher who gets in way over his head, with only his wit and steel skull plates as weapons. The book, which is being made into a $65 million movie as we speak, is a clever play on action comics, motivation, and self-image.

Both of these books, however, do something interesting, in that they are aware of the universes they exist in. Like a play-within-a-play, these comics-within-comics focus on boys whose only refuge is comic books, and then whose main problem becomes them: Toby’s world is overrun by comic book characters, Dave’s becomes a living nightmare because he attempts to become a comic book character. Both act almost like comics versions of the Daffy Duck cartoon “Duck Amuck,” in which Daffy is fully aware of his place as a cartoon character, and is put through the paces by his omnipotent creator. Both 1985 and Kick-Ass have the feel that, at any moment, a character will look to the reader, and say something along the lines of “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS SHIT RIGHT HERE?!” But, of course, they don’t.

Both books are multi-part miniseries, and can be picked up in collected forms as well as individual issues.

Conclusion

So anyway, after all that talk about disliking superhero books, I ended up talking about them anyway. Why? Because the story would have worked in any other medium… something like 1985 could be told similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, or like the Sam Neill film In the Mouth of Madness. But in comics, those stories are told in a way unique to the medium, through timing, and art, that a prose book or film could never capture exactly.

Really, in the end, this is less a review of three comics. This is more an advocation for you to go out and read some darn good comics (and maybe a little rambling), so that maybe you’ll find yourself interested in something other than the paper version of the Batman origin story. If you’re well and truly interested, and I hope you are by this point, go check out Scott McCloud’s excellent book Understanding Comics. It is a full, scholarly deconstruction of the entire medium of comics, from art to writing, to timing, to how the reader interacts psychologically with comics… all told in the format of a comic book. It’s a fascinating read, and I still refer to it constantly. Whatever you do, head down to your Local Comics Shop and ask for some good stories.

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