Posts Tagged ‘Jason Isbell’

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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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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