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A first post of 2016, actually in a very early part of 2016!  Last year was a poor one for posting, as so many real-life situations took over my mental energies.  On the one hand, I started finding a lot of energy for my own creative writing, finishing several stories and poems, and even selling one of each.  On the other, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer in January of 2015 and, after a round of chemo and radiation, passed away in July.  I’m sure the 2nd one fed the 1st one, as I’m sure my brain needed an escape from what was obviously a very difficult time.

So this post will be a bit scattershot, and probably not in keeping with the theme this blog has followed so far, which is a focus on folklore in music.  I’m rethinking that focus, because I think its narrow nature prevented me from posting as often as I liked. I think if I post about more general things as well, including some music that might not fit the site’s initial mission statement, I might get more done.  So with that said, let’s just do some lists!

My 10 Favorite Records from 2015

1) Josh Ritter – Sermon on the Rocks

So much energy and joy in this one; Ritter’s always hyper-verbal, but this time, it feels like it’s because he can barely contain himself.

 

2) Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ

When I gave this one a first listen as an album, it didn’t blow me away.  Maybe I was too focused on the wrestling angle.  But every time I heard one of these songs on the radio by itself, I thought to myself, “That’s one of the best songs he’s written in a long time, and I like how he uses wrestling as a metaphor.”   Went back to the album and loved it.

 

3) Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass

Kate Bush, Dusty Springfield, and Harry Nilsson all rolled up into one.  Gorgeous stuff, and there’s a live EP of some of these songs on Spotify with rougher edges that’s equally good.

 

4) Kristin Diable – Create Your Own Mythology

Don’t know much about her yet, as this one was recommended late in the year by a friend.  Great voice, great vintage sound.

5) Andrew Bryant – This Is the Life

Comparisons to Jason Molina’s music, which is my musical version of home and comfort food all rolled into one, jumped Bryant’s record to the top of my “to listen to” pile (even though I should have already been checking it out, since I’m a Water Liars fan). So glad I did. This is great, thoughtful late-night stuff.

 

6) Kasey Musgraves – Pageant Material

Even in a country genre that’s defined by wordplay, Musgrave’s lyrics stand out.  “Biscuits” is probably my least favorite song on the album, but it’s apparently the only one with a video.

 

7) Los Lobos – Gates of Gold

These guys are so consistently good that it’s easy to take them for granted.  At this point in their career, they seem incapable of making a bad album.

 

8) Calexico – Edge of the Sun

Their earlier forays into more conventional pop songwriting are paying big dividends now, and Edge of the Sun finds them successfully merging it with the border influences that have always defined their sound.

 

9) Jason Isbell – Something More than Free

Perhaps not as strong as his solo career-making Southeastern, but that’s a pretty high bar.  Very strong.

 

10) Bohannons – Black Cross, Black Shield

For when the late-night demons can only be beaten back by loud, distorted guitars.

 

Movies I Saw in 2015 (In No Order)

  • Grand Budapest Hotel – Almost, but not quite, overtakes Moonrise Kingdom as my favorite Wes Anderson film
  • Maleficent – Meh.
  • You’re Next – Home invasion horror with the twist of the “final girl” having been raised by survivalist parents.  Some good twists and turns in this one, although I thought the ending was a bit of a let-down.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road – I saw things on the screen I’d never seen before.  Wonderful, eye-searing things.  I was amazed from start to finish.
  • Inside Out – I really enjoyed it, and yes, it had the requisite part where the kids in the audience are looking in confusion at their crying parents.  A neat movie, and I find it really interesting (and encouraging?) that my daughter on the spectrum reacted so strongly and positively to it.
  • Two Guns – I can’t even remember what this one was about, which tells me I probably shouldn’t even bother IMDB’ing it.
  • Minions – I have kids. I was contractually required to see this one, although I’ll admit to a fondness for the Despicable Me movies. This one had some moments.
  • John Wick – Loved this one so much. How am I supposed to get to bed at a decent hour when this is on every time I’m flipping through the movie channels?
  • 47 Ronin – For every good Keanu movie, there’s (at least) one bad one, I suppose.
  • St Vincent – Found this one to be really charming. It went in several places I didn’t expect, and while the draw is obviously Bill Murray doing his cranky misanthrope thing, this movie had a lot of charm and heart.
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – What’s that? This movie wasn’t perfect? Sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of my time machine hurtling me back to when I was eight years old in 1977 and falling in love with science fiction.
  • Jupiter Ascending – Good ideas here and there, but hoo boy, what a lifeless mess.
  • Kingsman: Secret Service – Fun, tongue-in-cheek take on Bond-type spy movies.  That scene in the church, though. Ye gods. That’s one that will make you sit for a long while and think about why it very nearly turned you against the whole movie, while you’ll gleefully watch John Wick 40 times.

Books I Read in 2015 (I really lost reading momentum this year)

  • Kelly Link – Get in Trouble
  • Neil Gaiman – Trigger Warnings
  • Kij Johnson – At the Mouth of the River of Bees (when I grow up, I want to write like Kij Johnson)
  • Daniel Woodring – Winter’s Bone
  • Daniel Woodring – The Outlaw Album (stories)

 

Graphic Novels/Comic Collections I Read in 2015

  • Rachel Rising, vols 1-5
  • Hellboy – The Midnight Circus
  • Saga, vols 1-5
  • The Sandman: Overture
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A mostly complete list of the new things I heard/read/played, etc. in the month of January, 2015

Books and Stories

redeploymentRedeployment, by Phil Klay — Redeployment won the National Book Award for its often harrowing stories about life on the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a short story collection, an obvious go-to comparison is to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.  That only gets you so far. Despite Klay’s acknowledgements that his stories are fiction, often taken from conversations he had with other soldiers, he doesn’t go for the same sweeping arc of “even though these things didn’t happen, they’re still true” that characterizes O’Brien’s book.  It’s an interesting book, even if it didn’t always work for me. Several stories purposely don’t resolve themselves in anything resembling a satisfying manner, while others rely so heavily on acronyms and jargon that you wonder if they’re meant to be read by anyone outside of the military.  My favorite story was probably the one about a contractor attempting to shepherd goodwill projects in the local communities, having to contend with meddling politicians and their donors back home. The Catch-22 nature of it works very well.

“A Colder War” by Charles Stross — If you haven’t read Stross’s Laundry novels, they’re well worth checking out.  Set in the workaday world of a secret British agency whose job is to keep the things in the dark from getting through. It may sound a little bit like Mike Mignola’s B.P.R.D. or any of several other such fictional agencies, but Stross’s books don’t forget to drown their characters in the tedium of bureaucracy and oh so many meetings and internal reviews.   As a short story, “A Colder War” zips past many of those hallmarks to step away from the Laundry and tell the tale of an American operative trying to stop the end of the world back in the ’80s.  Stross takes the Cold War-era landscape, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and American politics, and creates a real page-turner.  Just a lot of fun, especially if you like your apocalypses with a dose of Elder Gods.

Movies

grand_budapestThe Grand Budapest Hotel — I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson, although I certainly understand the criticism of his movies as emotionally remote dollhouses, pretty to look at but without much to feel. I didn’t always agree with that opinion, but I could see where it was coming from.  I felt like that started to turn around with Moonrise Kingdom, which continued his trademark visual formalism with some real, rough-edged emotions.  I think The Grand Budapest Hotel continued that work, although for me, it was less notable for the emotion and more for the pure silliness of some of the situations and visuals.  Moonrise Kingdom is still my favorite Anderson film, but I really enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Games

Borderlands 2: Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep
Tiny Tina, a homicidal 13-year old explosives expert who talked like a gangsta rapper with ADD, was probably my favorite character in all of Borderlands 2.  I jumped on the chance to grab some DLC in the most recent Steam sale, and Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was really impressive.  The premise is that several Borderlands 2 characters play a Dungeons & Dragons-type game called Bunkers & Badasses, with Tina as dungeon master.  The Borderlands universe suddenly gets a RenFest feel, and you get some hilarious voiceover where the players argue with Tina about her game-running choices.  Most surprising of all, there’s some real emotion at the end of this one: something the Borderlands 2 universe generally doesn’t go near with an electrified stick.  Well done, Gearbox.  I wasn’t expecting that and it really worked.  Oh, and I got a shotgun that shoots swords, and when the sword hits its target, it explodes into three smaller explosive swords. They’ll have to pry that piece of weaponry from my character’s cold, dead hands.

A good review of the campaign:

Music

Two artists whom I’d never heard of, but who immediately caught my ear.

Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass:
natalie_prassMy off-the-cuff description is “What if Kate Bush sang indie soul songs?” but there’s a better and more accurate way to describe it that will occur to me with more listens, of which there will be many.

 

 

 

Caitlin Canty, Reckless Skyline:
caitlin_cantyCountry/rock blend with great vocals and excellent production. Really liking this one.  Everything just seems to work in that indefinable “you know it when you hear it” kind of way.

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There’s something about Mirel Wagner’s music that scares the hell out of me.  I don’t say that lightly, because I don’t scare easily.  Sure, there was a brief period where my house creeped me out before the unexplained noises suddenly went away, but as far as books, TV, and music go, I’m not bothered by much.  Unless someone gets beyond the obvious, external trappings of horror and really puts a finger on a different way of thinking. Then things get scary.

Wagner’s music goes to dark places and doesn’t flinch. It even exhibits a playful streak when its narrators describe the very bad things they’ve done or have had done to them.  Imagine Nick Cave but without the bombast or theatrics, Mark Lanegan without the ferryman’s rasp, or acoustic death blues taken to their logical extreme.  Plenty of people might write a murder ballad, but few would go on to imagine what might happen if the narrator never got rid of the body.

Wagner’s songs often feature just her on acoustic guitar with very few, if any, embellishments.  Taken in one full listen, Wagner’s albums can have just a touch of sameness, and some songs don’t reach the same heights/depths as others.  Taken in bits and pieces, though, which may be all some listeners can do given the subject matter, this is often harrowing stuff.

Right now, I’m most struck by the two songs below: “No Death” (from her self-titled debut) and “1, 2, 3, 4” (from her newest, When the Cellar Children See the Light of Day).  It’s Halloween mix-making time, and one of those will definitely be a centerpiece this year.  But also getting a lot of play are “Oak Tree” (told in the voice of someone buried at the base of the tree) and “Red” (about a demonic dance partner).  I’m sure as time goes on, repeated listens to both albums will reveal other songs that insinuate themselves just as well, like dark moonlit vines snaking their way into your skull.

Mirel Wagner, “No Death”

 

Mirel Wagner, “1, 2, 3, 4”

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Early on in The Shambling Guide to New York City, I realized I had a fundamental difference of opinion with Mur Lafferty. She loves cities, and while I wouldn’t say I hate them, I don’t have a lot of use for them. I admire the way their population density allows for certain things: mom and pop corner stores, for example, or small niche shops that can exist only because of the high traffic.  In my youth, way back when my youth was an actual fire and not a sputtering ember, I always enjoyed the nervous energy running through their streets (although I always made someone else drive).  Now? Well, I’m not so old that I’m telling kids to get off my lawn just yet, but cities with their loud noises and their fast pace and their pushin’ and shovin’ … well, they make me a little nervous.

ShamblingGuide-200x300

Not so with Lafferty, and not so with her heroine Zoe, who arrives in New York City after a job and a relationship in North Carolina go sour.  Zoe loves New York, always has, but that doesn’t make New York any less tough when it comes to her job search.  One day, though, she comes across a posting for Underworld Publishing.  She applies, or at least she tries to, but seemingly everyone she runs into tells her that she’s not a good fit for the job.  Thing is, they won’t tell her why, which only makes Zoe more stubborn and determined.  Eventually, her perseverence lands her an interview and she discovers that Underworld Publishing is dedicated to publishing travel guides for zombies, vampires, and other things that go bump in the night.  Yes, they’re all real, and they’re just as fond of restaurants, museums, and tourist traps as anyone else.

So right away, Lafferty’s Shambling Guide (also the name of the travel guide Zoe brings to life) acts as a sort of alternate history of New York.  The monsters have always been there, having worked out an agreement with the human population (or at least certain informed portions of it) that allows both sides to co-exist without too much conflict.  This means that certain landmarks hold double meanings for humans and for coterie (the name preferred by Lafferty’s supernatural folk).  Humans might go to a museum for its priceless art, and coterie might go there for the same reason, but it’s also possible that the building also acts as a prison, or a safe area, or a place of worship for the coterie.

One thing I like about Lafferty’s concept is that it lets her interject snippets from Zoe’s completed Shambling Guide between the chapters of the primary story.  We find out about restaurants, book shops, landmarks, and other things of interest to coterie. We get to see a little more of the texture that makes up the world Lafferty’s created.

I first came to know Lafferty through her eminently practical (and empathetic) I Should Be Writing podcast, which finds Lafferty not only giving voice to her own doubts and epiphanies as a writer, but also trying to guide others through the waters of professional writing as she’s experienced it.  She usually wastes little time getting to the point and dispensing with misconceptions about the writing life.

The Shambling Guide adopts a similar strategy, and that’s both good and bad.  There’s no denying the story’s a page-turner; your firm stance that the next chapter will be your last before turning out the lights evaporates pretty quickly when you get to the end of said chapter.  Still, I wish the story had just a little more heft to it.  Zoe is surrounded by fantastic beings and creatures, and it is her story, but it comes at the expense of knowing many of the other characters very well.  We’re meant to see this world through her eyes as she revels in the color and flavor of the coterie world, but also brushes up against its dangers.  She works with zombies, vampires, a water sprite, even a death goddess, and many of these characters get considerable “screen time.”  However, by book’s end, I know very little about what makes them tick. They’re of obvious value to Zoe as guides to the coterie world, and even as friends, but they remain ciphers to the reader.  That may be something that’s addressed in the next volume of the series, which takes place in New Orleans, as we get to learn more about these characters that we’ve met. But it may not be Lafferty’s intent to bring too many of these characters along (I’m sure New Orleans has plenty of its own)in the second book. So we’ll see.

In a similar way, Lafferty dispenses with the usual complications that other writers would throw at you once the main villain has been identified.  I got towards the end of the book thinking, “How is she going to make this story jump through the usual hoops before it’s all said and done?”  Lafferty’s answer is to just have a big fight and get it over with.  Zoe and company still get their asses kicked around, but there’s none of this hero’s journey folderol to weigh things down.  In this case, despite my folklore leanings (and love for the Hero’s Journey), I approve.

I enjoyed The Shambling Guide to New York City.  I wish it had more characterization when it comes to the supporting cast.  Plus, just between you and me, I think Phil is a terrible boss.  Zoe deserves about four raises.  Still, Lafferty’s constructed a fun world and it’ll be interested to see how she builds it out in the future.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane begins in an emotional dead zone.  The narrator has returned home for a funeral, going through the motions of shaking hands and accepting condolences, and finds himself driving around without any thought to where he’s going.  He just needs to get away.

It turns out, of course, that somewhere in the subconscious waters, he knows exactly where he’s going: The Hempstock Farm, where a childhood friend used to claim that her pond was actually an ocean.  As he sits by the pond, he’s suddenly flooded with memories of what really happened one childhood year.

At this point, we’re very early in the book, but Gaiman has already addressed us in a voice we haven’t gotten from him before.  The book’s initial pages convey the surreal detachment that washes over you as a coping mechanism when dealing with things like family deaths.  It’s also in stark contrast to the clarity with which Gaiman later mixes vivid scenes of childhood with an adult’s distance from those events.  His narrator is recalling these events clearly, but he’s also swept up in the details and sensations of being a young boy again.

One of Gaiman’s strengths has always been his clear writing style. I’ve always felt that it served him extremely well in his short stories, which are efficient and bone-lean without the loss of being entertaining.  Especially impressive was his recent journal entry about the loss of Cabal, his dog of ten years.  Gaiman, clearly flooded with grief, didn’t succumb to the temptation most of us would feel to bog his eulogy down in an attempt to get in every single detail.  He treated his years with Cabal as a narrative, hitting enough high points and low points for readers to get some sense of what Cabal meant to him.  It was clear, and it was heartbreaking.

In the lead-up to Ocean‘s publication, Gaiman had made references to the book being rooted in more memory and personal experience than many of his works.  In a recent review of the book, Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer told the story of how Gaiman had tried to tell her something important and personal, and how she hadn’t listened, and how then one day Gaiman began reading to her from the manuscript that would become The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Now, as readers, we have no idea what that pivotal moment (or moments) from Gaiman’s past turned out to be.  And it’s certainly a fool’s errand to try and discern from the text of Ocean — a book chock to the gills with monsters, immortals,  and cosmic peace — what’s true and what isn’t, or if any of it’s true in the real-world factual sense.  In that sense, Ocean is very much like recent albums by Jason Isbell (in which the former Drive-by Trucker freely blends his own thoughts and feelings into the sad characters in his songs) and Patty Griffin (in which Griffin constructs a personal history of her recently passed father).  In both cases, personal experience and imagination go into the creative blender, and art — art that takes what it needs and renders the dividing lines invisible — comes out.

Nevertheless, unless Gaiman has the best literary poker face of his generation, this feels like the most we’ve gotten of Gaiman the person in one of his novels.  So many of the narrator’s memories — a bookish childhood, a small bedroom with a sink just the right height, comic books, a tentative relationship with a father — ring true.  Granted, we could just be dealing with Gaiman’s famously fertile brain, but Ocean reads like a book that comes from a very real emotional place, even though we know (we’re pretty sure) that Gaiman never fought dark supernatural forces.

Ultimately, I think this is Gaiman’s best book Gaiman’s so far. I don’t say that lightly. I’ve been a fan of Gaiman’s work since the early days of The Sandman, but my opinion of his work has ebbed and flowed. I’ve enjoyed much of his poetry, but I continue to have a “meh” reaction to one of his recent efforts, “House” (being fully aware that the poem’s subject matter directly ties into my thoughts on Ocean).  I was one of the few who found something lacking in American Gods, and had come to the conclusion that he was a much better short story writer than he was a novelist.  Anansi Boys quickly cured me of that misconception, but it was still Gaiman telling the story from a distance.  Excellent fantasy, but what to take from it other than a good tale (which, I’ll admit, is often quite enough)?

Ocean, though.  This is a new beast.  This is Gaiman telling quite the good story (I think it contains some of his most beautiful, evocative writing yet), but also investing something of himself into the mix.  The result is a more layered story than we’re used to seeing from him, where the mythology and the imagination are informed by personal experience.

I don’t think Ocean is a perfect book. For example, this reader wishes more time was spent on the pivotal relationship between the narrator and his father.  That doesn’t prevent Ocean from being an effectively frightening book.  And it certainly doesn’t prevent Ocean from being a sad book (both in terms of specific scenes and the book’s overall tone) that justifies Gaiman’s superstar status in the fantasy world.

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It’s a bit of a celebration day around these parts, because there’s a new Janelle Monae video, and that means that we’re probably not that far away from a new Janelle Monae album.

The Atlanta-based Monae, and her Wondaland collective, aren’t as well-known as they should be outside of R&B circles, despite Monae appearing in a Cover Girl ad and on bunches of magazine covers.  Monae did appear on Fun’s “We Are Young,” though, which probably helped her exposure a good bit.  Still, even if you’re kind of aware of her from those appearances, her own music is a fresh, vibrant surprise when you finally hear it.  She’s one of the most creative artists out there, and when she’s hitting on all cylinders, it’s hard to think of anyone since Outkast who’s made rap and R&B so funky, weird, and accessible.

Relevant to this little corner of the Interwebs, she also likes to mine science fiction tropes for her songs and videos.  2007’s Metropolis Suite I: The Chase and especially 2010 excellent The Archandroid cloak themselves in a futuristic dystopia.  The story of the Archandroid is essentially this: Monae’s character is actually from the 28th century, but was sent back to the 21st century so that her DNA could be used as part of a clone-based rebellion against Metropolis’s secret ruling class. I think. It’s a little unclear sometimes, but that’s OK. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the records, and the videos are visual treats all their own.

Still, three cheers for Monae and her crew for creating some of the most futuristic funk since Parliament stepped off of the Mothership.

This first video, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” is the new one and has a little bit of that sci-fi flair before getting into some straightahead bootie-shaking and a fierce rap by Monae to close things out.  It’s OK that the video and song, to some extent, ditch the science fiction device. One of the things I like about Monae’s approach is that she doesn’t let the concept and the songs get in each other’s way, making use of whatever she needs at the time:

Her older “Many Moons” video features her tale’s clone-heavy aspects and some of its implications:

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I love it when I learn something new, especially when it’s something I meant to learn a long time ago.  Back in the days before Wikipedia and an Internet full of answers (a time best captured here), I was religiously reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in which he had a personified version of Fiddler’s Green walking around. At some point, Gaiman may have alluded to what Fiddler’s Green was all about, but I missed or forgot it if he did.  Nothing in my paltry mythology library at the time had anything on it, and eventually I forgot all about it.

But tonight, I caught this video of Cary Hudson singing an unreleased song called “Fiddler’s Green.”  Cary Hudson was the leader of the criminally under-appreciated Blue Mountain, a roots rock or alt-country or whatever-you-want-to-call-them band who recently broke up.  Hudson writes strong songs and plays some nasty slide guitar, but I think this acoustic number might be one of his best yet.

So what’s Fiddler’s Green, since I brought the whole thing up?  Well, it’s a mythical afterlife where the drinks never stop flowing, the musicians never stop playing, and the dancers never get tired.  Think Valhalla without the war drills or a Big Rock Candy Mountain for salty sailors and sea dogs. It apparently exists between Heaven and Hell, and sounds like it beats the heck out of limbo, where, if Dore’s illustrations for Dante are accurate, a bunch of robed philosophers just stand around being mopey.

Here’s Hudson singing about it.  I really like this song.

Also worth noting that I found the video on the Couch by Couchwest site, a kind of alternative avenue for musicians to get their music out during the SXSW festival.  They can be in Austin, or they can be anywhere else in the world. Apparently, the only rule is that you can’t be on a stage in your video.  There’s some good stuff all over this site, especially if you like the rootsy stuff.

Some Cary Hudson links:
https://twitter.com/caryhudsonmusic
http://www.bluemountainband.net/
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Cary-Hudson-Music/124389767589979

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