Saturday, March 15, 2014

Phutureprimitive - Kinetik - 2011

Time to talk about one the Bay Area's own - Phutureprimitive. Phutureprimitive is the pseudonym for an SF Bay Area producer/DJ named Rain, which I assume has to also be a pseudonym, or he has no last name and odd parents. But it's the Bay, so who the hell knows.

"Kinetik" is Phutureprimitive's second album, and it's a heady mix of glitch hop and psychedelic techno, with gorgeous melodies laid atop of it. You know, I'm not even sure how I heard about Phutureprimitive - I think at some point he was going to open for The Chemical Brothers when they played The Fox Theater in Oakland, an amazing show I went to, but he wasn't the opening act for that show, because the opener was someone called Freq Nasty, who I don't remember liking that much, for exactly the reasons I do like Phutureprimitive - a complete lack of melody, a problem Phutureprimitive never seems to have.

I'm finnicky with electronic music - I want interested songs, I want a good beat, but more importantly than anything, I want some kind of melody flowing through songs, rather than just a collection of beats with the occasional synth pad or chord laid atop of it. I don't like techno that can completely blend into the background. The best techno has the sense to engage the listener with the sense of melody and movement.

"Kinetik" has all of those things - great sounds, interesting flourishes, kickin' beats and melodies that drift in and out of the songs, alternating between the big beats and the intricate dance of notes. He's playing a show in Oakland early next month. I may need to make the time to go and check him out live. Give "Kinetik" a chance - I think you'll dig it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

John Constantine: Hellblazer - "Dangerous Habits" - 1991

What with the announcement that they're doing a Constantine TV show pilot, I wanted to talk a little bit about "Dangerous Habits," one of the comic book series' best storylines. Supposedly the TV version of Constantine won't feature him smoking, so this particular storyline would need some fairly major changes if they were going to try and incorporate it at some point (which I assume they would).

John Constantine is a magician of the streets of London, who is as much a confidence man as he is actual blue-collar magician. He's known for being mostly self-serving and of having a nasty problem of most of his friends getting caught up in the crossfire of his life. A lot of people describe him as an antihero, but I've always preferred to think of Constantine as the Raymond Chandler version of a sorcerer, sort of the hard-nosed detective turned spell slinger. Many of the best of the Hellblazer stories certainly unravel like mysteries, but they are also dark, manipulative things, and while there's almost also some element of deadly magic involved, we're often reminded that the most thing in existence is the human heart, sometimes even Constantine's own.

When "Dangerous Habits" opens, Constantine is dying. Not from any scheme gone awry or any enemy finally catching up with him, but of terminal lung cancer, the cost of his having been a constant smoker for longer than anyone can remember. Over the course of the storyline, Constantine finds out that not only is cancer killing him, but that the forces of Hell are more than a little eager for John to shuffle off the mortal coil and into their clutches. You see, John's been a real pain in the ass for Hell for a very long time, and the ruling class of Hell take that kind of personally, because not only has he been a thorn in their side, he's been a real prick about it, taunting them and insulting them every chance he gets. (They shouldn't feel too bad about it, really; that's sort of Constantine's M.O. for anyone he doesn't like, angel or demon alike.)

It helps to know a little bit about Constantine as a character before the "Dangerous Habits" storyline, but it also works as a cold open for the character. My first exposure to Constantine came from "Books of Magic," Neil Gaiman's four issue mini-series that sort of gave a sightseeing tour of the more mystical parts of the DC universe, and Constantine was one of the four tour guides in that series, and I liked the character right from the start. He was smug and arrogant and just the right amount of condescending without being an utter prick.

I don't want to spoil too much about "Dangerous Habits" - it's only six-issues, and has been collected in a trade paperback that should be picked up if you have a chance. Ennis continued writing Hellblazer for a while, and had a number of other good stories, and he also used his success to springboard into launching "Preacher," his extremely well-regarded series from Vertigo, but we'll save that for another day...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ned's Atomic Dustbin - God Fodder - 1991

I absolutely blame Tristan for this band. I'm not quite sure how he found them, but he had a copy of their first album, the incomparable "God Fodder" on tape, and he lent it to me at some point, telling me he thought I'd like it. I copied the tape (like we did back then) and then bought my own copy of it a few weeks later, because I wanted to support the band.

Ned's Atomic Dustbin weren't like other bands I'd heard before. There was something odd and unusual about their sound, so I did a little digging back then, and found out that the band had not one but two bass players, one who was playing melody and the other playing the more traditional bass backing. They also had a guitarist, a drummer and a vocalist, who had a thick accent. On later albums, they'd start to incorporate elements of electronica, but in the most organic sense. They had a very groove oriented style to their rock, and I found out that the style was called "grebo," and that the style was from the Midlands section of the UK.

The founders of the grebo style were widely considered to be Pop Will Eat Itself, who had some similarities to Ned's, but grebo was sort of a catch-all, as groups like Jesus Jones and Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine were also tagged as grebo, and they've got some pretty big differences. It was more about the style of dress that the bands wore than any heavy similarities in music - dreadlocks, partially shaved heads, ratty jeans, lumberjacks shirts, scarfs and crazy hats - it was basically grunge gone one step closer towards Mad Max.

"Grey Cell Green" had to be the first song Tristan played for me, and it's understandable why - it's catchy as all fuck. Who really knows what the lyrics are about, but it's got a great tempo and you really get the full sound of the double-bass attack, one bouncing all over the place and one laying the groundwork. And Jonn's voice isn't quite anthemic, but it's easy to connect with. If anything, the song almost felt like grunge on speed, with chunky guitars and a very dense sound.

"Kill Your Television" tells you everything you really need to know about the band - they were rebellious, but not against anything in particular. It's like that line from King Missile - "Whatever happened to revolution for the hell of it? / What ever happened to protesting nothing in particular, / Just protesting / Because it's Saturday / And there's nothing else to do?" Ned's were rebels without any particular cause or any particular concern. They put out 3 studio albums - "God Fodder," "Are You Normal?" and "brainbloodvolume" - all of which are worth picking up, a b-sides compilation  that's also got great stuff (which is apparently out of print now...), the live album "Shoot the Neds!" and they re-recorded a lot of their stuff for a sort of remastered best of called "Session" that's great if you just want a one-disc of the highlights.  There's also "Intact - The Singles Collection" but if you're just want the hits, get "Session" instead, or buy all the albums AND "Session."

Ned's Atomic Dustbin disbanded in 1995, but reformed again in 2000 to play a few gigs, and the original lineup reunited in 2008, and now they play a couple of gigs a year, and there's talk about them maybe recording a new album, but they seem in no rush to do so. That's okay. All this great music will keep us patient...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Once A Thief - 1991

"Once A Thief" is not the kind of movie you would expect from Hong Kong action maestro John Woo, and it came in between two very different movies, 1990's "Bullet In The Head" which was about concentration camps and 1992's "Hard Boiled" which is sort of the apex of the John Woo super violent ballet, both of which are excellent films. In the middle, however, you'll find "Once A Thief," which is a heist comedy, and I do not use the term "comedy" mockingly, because the film is pretty damn funny. In fact, in a lot of ways, you can see "Once A Thief" as the predecessor of the entire genre that Stephen Chow built, that sort of wacky, nonsensical comedy that doesn't really have to obey any rules of reality.

The story is about three orphans who have been quasi-adopted by, get this, both a crime boss and a police officer. They train to be thieves, but eventually want to get out of their life of crime. All the basic things you want out of a John Woo movie are here - big action set pieces, shoot outs, flashy cinematography, doves, fire, reflections... but you also get a delightfully weird romantic triangle, and comedy that veers between slapstick and dry wit at a moment's notice. And, it stars Chow Yun-Fat, who I will watch in pretty much anything...

The film is just so different than a lot of Woo's other works that many people may find it hard to believe that the man who brought us "Face/Off" would get caught up in what can only be described as "The Thomas Crown Affair" meets "Kung Fu Hustle" but Woo's a very talented and flexible guy. Don't believe me? Check out his mega-epic period film "Red Cliff," which was gorgeous to look at and amazingly constructed. Sadly, it seems like Woo's left Hollywood for good, but at least he's still making movies.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Mission - Carved In Sand - 1990

The Mission (or The Mission UK as they're often called here, to avoid conflict with an existing R&B group) sprung out of The Sisters of Mercy, who were the torchbearer for goth rock in the 1980s. The Mission was interested in still doing goth rock, but they definitely wanted to make it a little more accessible and broaden the scope. (Also, apparently Sisters of Mercy founder Andrew Eldritch was a little hard to work with. And, keep in mind, SoM haven't put out a new album since 1990, but they've still gone on tour regularly. Take that for whatever you will.)

When the members of The Mission struck out on their own, they were going to originally call their band "The Sisterhood," but were "strongly discouraged" from doing so by Eldritch, and Mission keystone Wayne Hussey has said in interviews since then that the Sisterhood name was a bad idea, and he wished they'd never even tried it. So they were rechristened The Mission. The point of both names was to make it clear that they weren't going to be veering too far from the the touchstones they'd already helped establish in The Sisters of Mercy.

I remember I picked up "Carved In Sand" on the basis of the cover from the Antiquarium, the used music/book store in downtown Omaha, on cassette in 1991, and I found the sound of it fascinating. It's goth rock, most certainly, but it's also not doom'n'gloom like I sort of expected goth rock to be. I'm not sure why I thought all goth rock would be utterly depressing and unlistenable, but I was delighted to find that it was catchy.

"Butterfly On A Wheel" was the first single from the album, and it's easy to see why. While it has that big, expansive sound that The Mission was known for, there's an accessibility to it, and the synths almost make it sound like a bleaker version of Simple Minds.

The big track, though, was "Deliverance," which felt like it was picking right up from some of the other tracks that the guys in The Mission had helped put together at The Sisters of Mercy. (In fact, I actually worked backwards, finding out about SoM from The Mission.) "Deliverance" feels like it's the son of the classic SoM track "Dominion," with a steady kick beat and and guitars that purr like a V6 engine roaring down the highway.

The Mission are still together as a band, and just put out the great "The Brightest Light" last year, and they're still in the same vein they've always been, and that's just fine. There aren't a whole lot of people making this kind of music, maybe because they just don't think they can do it better than The Mission. Maybe they're right...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lou Reed - Magic & Loss - 1992

When Lou Reed passed away last year, I have to admit I felt an intense moment of sadness. I'd been hoping to go and see him at The Warfield in San Francisco last summer, but the show was cancelled a month or so before the performance, so maybe I suspected there was something amiss, but I hoped that maybe he'd come back around the next year. But in October, he'd passed away and those chances were dashed on the rocks, and the poet laureate of the streets was taken from us forever. He was 71.

Funny enough, the first song I have any actual memory attached to is a Lou Reed song, the Velvet Underground's "Heroin." It must have been randomly on the car radio, which I still can't quite understand, but I remember that song being part of my life long before I remember all that much else. So when I heard the song again years later, it was like something resurrected from a past life, some skeleton in my closet I hadn't even known I'd had.

It was also weird that when Lou Reed died, I'd actually been listening to a lot of "Magic & Loss," his 1992 album, because it had been a little more than a year since someone I'd known in high school had passed away from ovarian cancer. "Magic & Loss" is very much an album about mortality, about death and, yes, even about cancer. Two of Lou Reed's friends had died from cancer in 1990, and so an album that originally been intended to be a concept piece about magicians turned into a meditation on the frailty of life, and so, for me it seemed only appropriate that I turn to it in memory of someone I once called a friend.

There was a brilliant yet rebellious girl named Tamara Minikus who was my ride to and from school for most of my junior year in high school, which would've been 1993-1994. She had a two-tone Ford Escort with a Seahawks bumper sticker and a dent in each fender. She also drove with a heavy lead foot, and yet, for as much she drove like a bat outta hell, she always seemed in complete control of the car. In early 1994, I started dating someone and instead of riding with 'Mara, I took the bus with that girl. That relationship didn't last, but 'Mara was dating someone at the time, and so she couldn't reliably give me lifts anymore. We drifted apart, but would talk now and again during senior year, at parties or hanging around the journalism classroom, or down at the theater. We were tangential to each other, but just didn't seem to connect any more. I was pretty awkward back then, and maybe still am. I'm not great at initiating contact with people. I always feel like I'm imposing just being around.

 'Mara and I went on different paths in life, her going to college in Boston and me in Lincoln, NE. I hadn't seen her more than once or twice since high school (I think the last time was at Chris and Kate Wiig's wedding...) when randomly in 2009 a handful of us got together for drinks at a bar when we were all back in town for Christmas. She appeared to be on the mend at that point, and the cancer seemed to be in remission. They had taken one ovary out, and she was worried they might have to take the other, but the four of us must have sat and chatted for a few hours. It was the last time I'd see her. When she died, it was the first time I'd felt connected to someone who passed away who wasn't family, and far more senior than me. I barely knew her post high school and yet, somehow I still miss her. She was one of the first people I ever knew who told me it was okay to just be me, regardless of what anyone else thought. I never forgot that. I even gave her a mixtape at one point that had a song from "Magic & Loss" on it...

"Magic & Loss" isn't what anyone could call an "up" album, despite having a couple of upbeat songs on it. I mean, he eases you in gently, leading off with the wonderful "What's Good," which isn't that upbeat when you start to look at the lyrics, but it's certainly up-tempo and has a certain swing to it.

"Life's like a mayonnaise soda / And life's like space without room / And life's like bacon and ice cream / That's what life's like without you..." I mean, this is a song that ends with "What's good? / (Life's good) / But not fair at all..." It's not exactly what anyone could call chipper and optimistic, considering it's clearly talking about someone no longer with us, how the person gone "loved a life others throw away nightly" and that tells you everything you need to know right there. It's a song that wants to mourn, but knows it can't, and shouldn't, because that's not what the dead would want.

The next song on the album with even close to the same sort of faster rhythm is "Sword of Damocles," which is, god help us, a song about chemotherapy. How rough is that, when your more upbeat songs are tributes to the dead and odes to medicine that runs the risk of killing you? And this is Lou Reed, who was famous for writing about standing on a corner, waiting for a guy to bring drugs ("I'm Waiting For The Man"), who wrote about transexuals ("Walk On The Wild Side"), the NRA and the Native Americans ("Last Great American Whale")... this is a guy who's tackled heavy subjects before, but "Magic & Loss" is so dark and sparse, that's what makes it all so gripping.

The back half of the album takes the maudlin elements and drops more sturdy beats over them, so the weight doesn't overwhelm it, and it brings the album into a bit more rock territory, as if Lou knew that the first half would weigh heavily on the listener. Death is hard for anyone to deal with. That isn't to say the back half is entirely without weighty songs, and the narrative-driven "Harry's Circumcision" is such a bleak, weird and awkward story, it's impossible to resist, especially as Mike Rathke layers such amazing guitar work over the top of it.

"Magic & Loss" ends with the title track, a song about the last moments of life, where you're trying to figure out whether or not your life was enough. (Reed's answer - of course it was and it wasn't, but who are we to judge?) It's an album I revisit regularly, although I have to be honest and say that sometimes I try to stick to the less crushing songs, not because I don't appreciate them, but because that much of a meditation on death can be tough to take. Reed wrote a ton of unforgettable songs over his life, and "What's Good" never fails to make me smirk, just a little bit, in admiration. It's worth picking up, like most of Lou Reed's catalog. Just don't get me started on "Metal Machine Music."

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Wanted - 2004

I very much have a love/hate relationship with Mark Millar as a writer. On one hand, he's written a bunch of books I've really liked over the years. On the other, his public persona is all the worst aspects of P.T. Barnum and Billy Mays mixed with a WWF wrestler from the 1980s. (If you think I'm kidding about this, you need only read one of the missives he puts down in the back of any single issue of his comics of the recent years, where he talks about how everything he has coming out is better than anything ever put out in the history of comics. Seriously.) Add in the fact that when he's off, he's really off, and you have a writer I feel like I need to consider quite carefully before I pick anything of his up.

All that said, "Wanted" is one of my favorite books of the last decade. There was a movie made about it that was good, but veered so much from the source material as to be almost unrecognizable.

"Wanted" is about supervillains.

The concept isn't all that complicated - it's a world without superheroes, and the supervillains have taken over, but they aren't all crazy and in the limelight. They've learned that the best way to rule is from the shadows, and while they get occasionally crazy, they also tend to keep a lot of it in check and under the covers. They're sort of like the Mafia and the CIA all rolled into one, but, y'know, with super powers.

Wesley Gibson is the protagonist of the book, and also the narrator, although there are a lot of points where you feel like Wesley is doing an impersonation of the narrator of Chuck Pahalniuk's "Fight Club," all self-loathing and nihilism and despondency. Wesley, as it turns out, is also the son of the late great, Killer, one of the most powerful supervillains out there, who was recently assassinated. The Fraternity (which is what the organization of supervillains is called) want to recruit and train Wesley to take his father's place, and to help them find out who killed their father.

In a lot of ways, Wanted is a classic hero's journey told from the flip side. Instead of teaching Wesley how to be good and noble, they teach him how to be evil and self-serving, how to not only endure violence but how to revel in it. And, like the classic hero's journey, they teach him how to fight, which comes pretty naturally to him.

As you read Wanted, you're probably going to feel pretty conflicted about how you feel about it, which is good. Wesley turns from walked-all-over to one-doing-the-walking relatively quickly, and a reader with any moral compass at all will say he's overcompensating and going too far in the other direction, which is of course the point. Wesley reaches the depths of humanity and keeps on digging, committing murder, theft and other horrible acts pretty mindlessly, without seeing it have really much of an impact on Wesley's psyche. It's the story of a supervillain told by a supervillain who doesn't have any regrets over what he's become, and has contempt for anyone who can't do what he does. The book's going to make you feel a little squeamish, and that's by design. Millar wants you to see what life would be like for a supervillain who got away with living that sort of life, and J.G. Jones turns in an absolutely amazing collection of art. Jones is mostly a cover artist these days, much to my sadness, because he knows how to fill up panels with all the details they need, and how to pull focus in dramatic angles and lightning like a good film director, and "Wanted" is him firing on all cylinders. At some point, I hope to track down one of his original pages from either "Wanted" or the "Marvel Boy" miniseries he did with Grant Morrison.

The other great thing about "Wanted" is that it's a self-contained story - you don't need to get any other books, and I don't think we're likely to ever see a sequel, which is fine. This book tells you the entire story you need, and you don't need a page more. "Wanted" is sort of the end-of-the-line of the approach that "Watchmen" and "Dark Knight Returns" were putting forth in the 1980s - this is as dark and gritty as you'll ever need to get. But it's also a hell of a story. This one Millar hit out of the park. Just don't get me started on how much I hate "Superior."