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Tweets from 2014-11-30 to 2014-12-06

November Music Roundup: The Mountain Goats, The Real McKenzies, etc

The Mountain Goats,The Coroner’s Gambit
The Mountain Goats early albums have a pretty distinct sound, and I’d say The Corner’s Gambit fits that profile pretty well.  These guitar-driven story songs with fuzzy recording technique feel sincere and whole and often heartbreaking.  I particularly like “Island Garden Song” for its hopeful hermit narrator, “The Coroner’s Gambit” for its melancholy meditation on death from the otherside, and “Horseradish Road” for its slightly more complicated music line and its cryptic plot. “Insurance Fraud #2″ seems to tell the story of a man investigating insurance fraud, or perhaps worried someone is trying to bump him off.  There’s probably a metaphor there, but I don’t know what it is. (See also: March 2013 Music Roundup)

The Real McKenzies, Off the Leash
The Real McKenzies have a schizophrenic sound, half Scotch-sounding Rock band with a solid bagpipes section and half 90s-era pop-speed-Punk.  “Chip” and “The Ballad of Greyfriars Bobby” feel distinctly Scotch, while songs like “the Lads Who Fought & Won,” “Anyone Else,” and “Too Many Fingers” sound like Offspring songs.  Then there are some that don’t easily fit categorization: I particularly like “Old Becomes New,” which blends the two sounds above well, or “The Maple Trees Remember,” which feels like a Cake song, or “My Mangy Hound,” which is almost as bouncy as a Blink 182 song.  An enjoyable album with a broad spectrum of rock-driven, celtic-influenced songs. (See also: August 2012 Music Roundup)

Compilation, Now Hear This! – The Independent Music Awards 11th Annual Winners (part 3)
It’s always hard to write about compilations, because the song styles are so diverse as to make any statement about the album itself pretty useless.  (I wrote about the first half of this album last month). That said, I liked this album alright.  Highlights are:

  • “Change Your Mind” by Alan Hampton has a strange floating quality with a solid folky songline.
  • “Mistletoe (feat. Chris Ayer)” by Amanda Duncan sounds like a great song from the jazzy 20s.
  • “1000 Nights” by Roscoe James Irwin is a light-touch pop ballad; reminds me of Rodeo Ruby Love a bit.
  • “M.O.D.” by Hemoptysis stood out as so distinctly different from the other songs in the album that I had to write about it.  It’s from the ‘driving guitar, growly singer’ genre of metal.  Not my cup of tea.  The driving beat reminds me a little of Helmet or Ministry, though.
  • “Balloon” by Echo & the Empress is lovely and gentle, with excellent singing.
  • “Crushing Limbs” by Anni Rossi has a light, cute feel despite rather dark lyrics.  Also, solid synth work.

Modern Jazz Stylings of Blue Canue Records – four songs that are about what you’d expect.  Still makes me thing of my friend John Chapman, who played jazz bass in Florida, and whom I went out to hear play once or twice. (So little new to say that I just repeated my entry about songs from this album that I wrote last month.)

Pete Seeger, four from American Favorite Ballads – This selection of four songs, including “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” and “No More Auction Block” reminds us of the folk progressive roots of folk music.  And depresses you unless you’re just soul-less.

Spike Jones, four songs from (Not) Your Standard Spike Jones Collection – Some love songs, “At Last I’m First With You,” “Red Grow the Roses,” and “Liebestraum.” “City Slicker Polka” is a tale about a country lass being harassed by a hound-dog full of goofy sound effects.

The Wayfarers (six songs from Music from Around the World – Australia) – Two about cooking: “Toss Another Shrimp on the Barbie” and “Who Put the Roo in the Stew,” one real classic: “Waltzing Matilda,” and a weird paean to odd Australian names: “Wooloomooloo.”

Garfunkel and Oates, last song from Music Songs – “Only You” is a lovely (or sad) song in honor of the partnership that is this novelty duo.  Also, a little NSFW.

You know the White House photographer resented this assignment.

socks-the-cat

Socks the Cat wishes you merry Christmas.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Profile Pictures and the Digital Age

In a professional development panel at Midwest PCA 2014, I spoke with two colleagues about the job search and job interview process.  In particular, the subject of our panel was “how to give a good interview.”  We discussed Skype interviews and the many pitfalls that emerge from them.  In particular, I mentioned that it was worthwhile to attend to the image behind the person doing the skyping, and to show a professional demeanor in all things.  As a corollary, one of my colleagues mentioned how a member of an interview committee was so turned off by the interviewee’s “unprofessional” profile picture (which featured him holding a puppy) that it soured his analysis of the interview.

I couldn’t help but think of that when someone I Skyped with recently, in a professional context, had this profile pic:

skype-screenshot

I noticed, just before we connected, that I hadn’t adjusted my profile picture either, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t terribly professional either.  Here it is, just for fairness’ sake:

briley-skype-profile

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Comics Roundup: Mind MGMT, House of Mystery, Codeflesh

Mind mgmt House of Mystery Codeflesh

Mind MGMT, Vol 1: The Manager by Matt Kindt
Mind MGMT starts with a creepy premise — in a moment, everyone on a passenger airplane from the pilots to the passengers forgets who they are and how they got on the plane.  This kickstarts a story of spies, intrigue, and psyops with a world-spanning narrative, creepy “immortal” superspies who will stop at nothing to track their targets, including getting shot in the face.  It’s a parable for the modern superstate, a tight thriller, and an artful comic with a surprising and deep story.  I look forward to reading volume 2.

House of Mystery, Vol 1: Room and Boredom by Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham, Luca Rossi et al.
The venerable anthology series got a gruesome grown-up reboot in 2008.  This collection uses a wraparound tale that tells the story of the house itself, a place where visitors from many worlds and era can meet to have a drink, share stories, and perhaps be doomed.  To pay their tab at the house, visitors tell stories of varying degrees of madness.  Unfortunately, the downside is that the anthology stories, which range from silly to downright horrifying, are necessarily so brief that they’re inconsequential.  In between these stories, the authors weave a wraparound story about the house itself, focused on a young woman who finds herself in the crummy position of permanent resident.  It’s a good introduction to the series, with plenty of horror and mystery on its own; worth a read, but I’ve not decided yet if I’ll pick up the next volume.

Codeflesh by Joe Casey and Charlie Adlard
When Cameron Daltrey gets in trouble with a judge for using too much force on a bail skipper he’d apprehended, he is banned from bringing in such men.  but Daltrey specializes in super-human bail notes, and it’s difficult for regular folks to bring them in.  Plus, he likes beating people up.  So what does Daltrey do? He dons a barcode mask and hunts them down himself.  Codeflesh feels like a comic that planned to have a broad understory — some explanation of the genetic engineering that some of the characters mention, some rhyme or reason for the protagonist’s costume or the comic’s title, and perhaps a big bad for Daltrey to fight against.  But in the short run of the comic there’s not much for the reader to grab onto – Daltrey is neither noble enough to admire nor delightfully vicious enough to admiringly hate, he’s just grubby, like a two-bit side character from the dark hero ages of 1990-2004.  I picked this up because I think Automatic Kafka is amazing, and I can see a similar interest in disrupting the normal “hero = amazing person” trope, but where AK hit, I think codeflesh misses.  There is one exception, though — the villain “Rotor,” who has many body parts, including his genitals, replaced with flamethrowing apparatus.  If only the series had included more moments like that.

Rotor's story, Codeflesh

Tweets from 2014-11-23 to 2014-11-29

The Colorado Kid

The Colorado KidThe Colorado Kid
by Stephen King

The Colorado Kid is a crime story and a mystery steeped in place.  Its setting and its storytellers are the crucial ingredient that makes the tale go.  The plot, loosely described, is thus: two veteran journalists in a small town in coastal Maine tell a young journalist about a mysterious case they’d encountered a couple decades ago.  A few thoughts:

  • This is actually a tale about how stories are told — the way journalists shape the articles they write and choose the pieces they tell.  I’m not sure how true it is in its evaluation of the way journalists work, but it’s amusing.
  • The three main characters are compelling and interesting, and the audience is warmly welcomed into their intimate mentorship.
  • In some ways, this novel feels like King’s attempt at the historical mystery, his own run at The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.  Both tales concentrate on a mystery already told, and solutions whose visibility dims as the years go by.
  • Part of what drove me to pick this up was the television show Haven, which purports to be inspired by this novel.  Alas, the two stories only overlap in the character of the town and the two reporters.  All the things that make Haven interesting are missing from this novel that supposedly inspired it.
  • I read the “Hard Case” edition of the book, which has an hilarious cover that has nothing to do with the novel at all, save that one of the characters is a woman.  The other covers I’ve seen on line for later editions of the book all have much more to do with the novel than does this one.

It’s nice to read a Stephen King book that’s not six hundred pages or more.  That said, this wasn’t my favorite book — either as a mystery or a King novel.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Beguiled by Spam

As all blog owners do, I regularly clear the spam queue from my blog, rarely giving a second glance to comments so clearly machine generated.  I believe early machine comments with non-advertising contents are designed to build a spambot’s reputation on a site so later they can post SEO click content.  Anyway, yesterday I got this comment that was so vague it had to be spam:

spam-comment

But it was posted as a comment on a movie review post that I really liked. So I really wanted it to be real.  Of course, when I googled the email address, I found it on a list of ‘free email addresses’ for spammers and jerkwads to use.  I marked it as spam, but sadly.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Comics Roundup: Moon Knight, Lady Sabre, Locke and Key Vol 1

Moon Knight, Vol 1 Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft

Moon Knight, Vol 1: From the Dead, by Ellis and Shalvey
I always like Warren Ellis’ work.  He brings a jaunty righteousness to his vigilantes that satisfies like a well crafted hamburger.  Delicious but not that good for you.  At the same time, Ellis is at his best when constructing his own worlds and characters.  Thus, my feeling about Moon Knight: From the Dead is mixed — it’s a character that exists already and seems nearly unkillable, that protects people who ‘travel at night’ in the city?  So far there just isn’t much there to grab on to.  I’ll give it another volume, surely, because it’s Warren Ellis.  But so far, it feels like the Punisher but with a dumb mask.

Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, Vol 1, by Rucka and Burchett
Few male comics writers do better writing women than Greg Rucka.  His stock in trade has always been the whip-smart woman who defies lazy stereotypes.  So it makes sense that he’d shine in a world of pirates, airships, swords, gunslingers, and clockwork.  The Lady Sabre story is a great adventure, and I look forward to the next chapter.  (I’m not reading it online, so I’ll wait until they release another volume or they announce that they aren’t going to.)

Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft by Hill and Rodriguez
A great start to a creepy comic series.  After a tragedy sends them fleeing from their normal lives, the family seeks shelter at their ancestral home, each trying to find solace in their new environment.  But it turns out that there are secrets in this old house, fantastical keys that create magical effects.  And circling this vulnerable family are forces of darkness, seeking to manipulate and consume the family.  This first volume shocks and appalls, and sets the stage for a great story. Also, this is the first time I ever remember getting a ‘jump scare’ from a comic book.  I’m looking forward to Vol 2.

Tweets from 2014-11-16 to 2014-11-22

Annihilation

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer Annihilation
by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the first book in a trilogy about the strange.  The premise is delightfully vague — a zone (in the United States?) has become infested with some sort of invading biology that terraforms the land around it, menaces the people living there, and brings the strange in high doses.  Into this forbidden zone, which the residents of the “Southern Reach” (is that the U.S. South? seems like) call “Area X,” goes a team of four specialists: a psychologist, an anthropologist, a biologist, and a surveyor.  Things go weird quickly.

A few thoughts:

  • This book is mesmerizing and creepy, but it never really grabbed me.  By the last third of the book I was keen to find out what was going on, but my experience of it never amped up the way I like a book to do, especially one focused so much on mystery/ magic/ or horror.
  • The book’s shifting tone is one of the most interesting aspects of this book; it revels in complex category allegiances.  Like many books of fantasy and weirdness, Annihilation challenges our sense of narrative cohesion and the way we understand what’s happening in the tale.
  • The epistolary form works well given the narrative reveals throughout the story, but at the same time it releases one crucial safety valve, which is whether or not the narrator will make it to the end of the tale.  They must.  That said, I like the way suspense and fear get worked into the story through foreshadowing and flashbacks.
  • There were several moments in reading the novel where I thought of LOST and its attendant weirdnesses throughout the island.  But unlike LOST, Annihilation sticks to a single person’s perspective and a single person’s narrative.  This gives Vandermeer a lot more freedom to include story hooks that do not get resolved, as the limited perspective of the narrator necessarily means that not every bump in the night will get investigated.  (As opposed to LOST, which followed many perspectives and thus suggested that we might eventually get everything explained to us.)
  • The fantastical elements of the novel are pretty out there — a strange mix of surreal and bizarre, worthy of Clive Barker or similar fantasists.  I particularly like the use of a lighthouse as a key location in the story, as that particular kind of structure easily serves a variety of allegorical and storytelling purposes, being isolated, liminal, and kinda creepy.  In that way, this book stands as a strong descendant of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, which often turned on groups of people encountering things beyond comprehension, and wrestling with the madness that could follow.

As I read this book, I also couldn’t help but think of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, a 1979 movie about a forbidden zone in Russia where a mysterious force, or set of forces, has taken over and driven out the rightful residents.  The government in that film has banned any incursions into the place, but the narrator joins a black market coyote who specializes in taking trips into the zone. Both Annihilation and Stalker make use of the eerie state created by modern culture that has been taken over by nature (and by something strange).  They both trade on the tendency of the human mind to imagine things hiding in the dark, watching us, and on our propensity for curiosity.  Most significantly to me, both texts make strange the everyday (like a lighthouse) through some actual weirdness and a liberal dose of well-crafted mood.

Weird snow space Wolf and the pond Stalker movie poster Dudes in a room

Overall, Annihilation is a compelling tale of mystery and terror, a weird fantasy story in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, with a dose of Clive Barker.  Take someone with you when you read it.

How cold was it?

It’s pretty darn cold in Chicagoland this week.  It’s not like the Minnesota of my childhood, but still.

Old "smoking" engine leaves Chicago's Union Station

I remember walking outside in those Minnesota winters, puffing up into the air like a train. As to whether I still do that on the days when my breath condenses in Chicago’s early morning sun? NO COMMENT.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I Zombify Myself to Teach About Zombies

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to Skype in to the Crane River Theater company’s zombie run training session to provide a little information for the zombie participants there.  I wasn’t able to do it live, so I sent them a 15 minute video to show instead.  They recently sent me a thank you note and a couple photos of my ‘talk.’  This line of events struck me as amazing and weird:

  • Unable to work out a time for me to attend the event…
  • I was invited to attend digitally but couldn’t make the time they had in mind…
  • So I sent a video of me talking about zombies…
  • Which their participants watched (and, I’m told, enjoyed)…
  • During which their photographer took photos…
  • Printed those photos…
  • And mailed them to me.

It’s awesome.

Crane River Theater Zombie Run Training Session crane-river-theater02-web

Also, it occurs to me that I’ve enabled some digital zombification of myself.  The organizers can take my video and use it in future runs, or distribute it, or do whatever.  I suppose nominally they’re limited by copyright law, but I didn’t do much to secure any rights to the video.  In my essay “The E-Dead,” I argued that part of the confluence of the zombie genre and the Internet comes in our fear of being out of control of ourselves.  As we make and distribute digital artifacts, we all experience the artist’s dilemma more and more (the artist’s dilemma being that you cannot control your work once you release it into the world).  And that experience of being controlled by other people feels an awful lot like being a voodoo zombie.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Dad is Fat

Dad Is Fat

Dad Is Fat

Dad is Fat
by Jim Gaffigan

Jim Gaffigan is funny.  If you didn’t know that, get thee to Netflix! Gaffigan’s book, Dad is Fat, explores the weird, wild world of the father of five who lives in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City with his apparently amazing wife.  It’s a funny book full of brief essays with sharp observations on the parenting life.  It’s funny and earnest and simple, and well written.  A few thoughts:

  • Gaffigan makes a good argument about our society’s happy willingness to comment on other peoples’ lives.  The section on peoples’ reactions to the fact that he has five kids works really well, feeling both earnest and thoughtful.
  • I kept finding myself telling Jenny my favorite bits.  A few quick quips: “I’m the kind of guy who dresses up with for Halloween with his kids.  I wish I’d known how much Captain Hook looks like Captain Morgan, and how much people in New York like rum.” and “Whoever thought up the phrase ‘terrible twos’ must have felt pretty dumb when his kid turned three.”
  • Gaffigan does a great job explaining how a great marriage should work.  He seems like a real partner to Jeannie, and she to him.  It’s interesting to compare his approach to the darker honesty of Michael Ian Black in You’re Not Doing It Right.
  • My favorite section in the book is toward the end, when Gaffigan explains how he takes his family on the road with him in the summer, doing shows at night and using a tour bus to “camp” their way across the country.  It’s heartwarming and amusing.
  • Throughout the book, Gaffigan maintains his self-depreciating humor and clean approach to comedy.  He explores the ups and downs of parenting, of family life in New York, and of parenting-related aspects like babysitters and friendships.

Dad is Fat is a great book, very amusing and earnest and touching.

Tweets from 2014-11-09 to 2014-11-15