Friday, April 11, 2014

dada - puzzle - 1992

There's a funny story about dada's first album, "puzzle," regarding my friend Topher. For the longest time, he insisted that the lyric "I just tossed a fifth of gin" was, in fact, "I just tossed at Village Inn." Even after correcting him, he insisted the misheard version was better. Who I am to argue with puking at a Village Inn? (They don't even have them in California. Man, okay, that's even funnier.)

Dada are a band from L.A. with a very distinct sound - lots of buzzy guitars with desert flavor mixed with high elements of psychedelia. They're sort of the perfect L.A. sound. You can imagine dada as a band playing under neon lights while there's a thunderstorm on the wind. "Puzzle" debuted in 1992 with the song "dizz knee land," which was something of an indie hit, a sort of us-against-them anthem that connected with a lot of people my age at the time. It got the band a good amount of attention, for better or worse.

There's something so wonderfully dizzy about dada's sound, those guitars from Calio that buzz and hum, hypnotic and yet rarely meditative. But it's not like that the only appeal - Gurley's bass work is solid and interwoven, and Leavett's drum work is complex while still approachable. But what really set dada apart was the fact that both Calio and Gurley take turns at vocal duties, and the two sound similar, but are still very distinct.

dada put out four albums, broke up, got back together again, put out another album in 2004, and other than  20th anniversary tour in 2013, there hasn't been much from them, which is sad. I've always really liked the band. You should give them a  listen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here - 1975

And now for something completely different.

Everyone with a passing interest in classic rock has a favorite Pink Floyd album.

The majority of people say "Dark Side Of The Moon," because that's the one that everybody bought (and I do mean everybody - it's sold over 50 million copies, so I'm sure there's a remote tribe in the deepest deserts of Russia who jam out to it regularly).

A lot of people will say "The Wall," because "The Wall" was also a huge success, and I think a lot of people key into that anti-establishment thrust that's the center of that massive double album. But for me, my money's always been on "Wish You Were Here," the band's ninth album, and certainly their spaciest.

"Wish You Were Here" is also easily the one with the fewest number of songs, having only five tracks. Now, keep in mind, none of those five tracks is under five minutes in length, and two of them are each over twelve minutes in length, and those two mega tracks are really the two halves of one song that sprawls over nine parts, the gloriously epic tribute to former band member Syd Barrett "Shine On You Crazy Diamond."

So, Syd Barrett had been a member of Pink Floyd for a while, but eventually his mental health with into a state of decline, and he needed to leave the band. There's been a lot of speculation about what was actually up with Syd Barrett - certainly the constant LSD use didn't help any, but people have theorized it might have been schizophrenia or bipolar syndrome, although after his death in 2006, Barret's sister said he never suffered from any form of mental illness. I suspect we'll never really know. Maybe it's better that way.

It's almost nine minutes in to the album before you hear Roger Waters sing a single word, the sprawling instrumental opening gloriously swirling around during the first few parts of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts I-V)" and those words are "Remember when you were young / you shone like the sun..." It's clear the band missed the person who used to be their friend, but they also missed who they used to be when he was around. The two major themes of "Wish You Were Here" are absence and frustration. Absence, in how the band was less unified now than it had been in some time, and frustration, in how the music industry was chipping away at them. It's easy to see "Welcome To The Machine" as a statement on how much they hated what the business was doing to them, and "Have A Cigar" cuts right to the bone with its talk of "riding the gravy train."

To me, though, the title track has always been my favorite Pink Floyd song. "Wish You Were Here" is both nostalgia and wistful without being defeatist. It has a certain world-weariness to it, but there's also a strong sense of resolve in Gilmour's vocals, a sense that he's going to keep on walking, that the way out is through. "We're just two lost souls / swimming in a fishbowl / year after year / Running over the same old ground / What have we found? / The same old fears / Wish you were here..."

It doesn't get any better than that.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Captain America - The Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection - 2010

"Hey Cliff," I hear you saying, "I just saw the new Captain America movie and I would love to know more about where all of this Winter Soldier stuff comes from. Can you help me?" Relax, fearless reader, I got your back.

In 2004, a writer named Ed Brubaker wrapped up his exclusivity contract with DC Comics, and was a free agent again. He walked into Marvel's offices and they asked him, "What do you want to do?" He told them he had a pitch for Captain America. He detailed it out. They said "It's all yours."

Keep in mind, this is 2004. The "Iron Man" movie wouldn't come out for another 4 years. The Disney buyout of Marvel wouldn't happen until 2009. Marvel was just starting to regain its footing, and Brubaker's run on Captain America was one of the biggest lynch pins in that, following in the footsteps that Brian Michael Bendis had been doing with Daredevil (springboarding off of the relaunch that writer-director Kevin Smith had given it in 1998). Brubaker would write Captain America for eight years, wrapping up his run in October of 2012. The most recent series has been written by Rick Remender and it's, well, it's no Brubaker, let's just leave it at that. I realize Remender is trying to do something radically different, but, hell, I don't think I really wanted something radically different.

So, here's the thing - Captain America is a tough nut of a character to crack, much in the same way that, say, Superman is, but for different reasons. With Superman, you have the "overwhelming force" problem. Part of Superman's schtick is that he's basically power without limits. That means to tell interesting stories, you're limited in the kind of tales you can tell - Superman grapples with the morality of his overwhelming powers versus the common man, Superman copes with being an outsider, or Superman's powers are reduced and/or he finds a foe as strong as he is. There's only so many times the kryptonite card can get played before readers go "this again?" And it's hard to relate to Superman, because, well, he's got more power than we're really even able to comprehend. We as an audience are more likely to relate to shy Clark Kent than we are Superman.

Captain America had a similar problem in the Marvel universe, in that there were a limited number of stories people could really tell with him - Captain America's classic "man out of his own time," the world's changed, the burdens of leadership and the pressures of not fitting in. For much of the 1990s, the idea of Captain America even seemed antiquated, awkward, because what did the idea of "America" even mean? Mark Gruenwald (who wrote the incomparable "Squadron Supreme") tried to make Cap a relevant character, having him deal with political and social issues, but it still just didn't seem to work. They tried getting Rob Liefeld to make Cap popular again (as part of the disastrous Heroes Reborn event) but it just didn't connect.

Then 9/11 happened.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Captain America revealed himself as Steve Rogers in the Marvel Universe, and the Avengers collapsed. Rogers joined S.H.I.E.L.D. And that was about where Brubaker came in. See, Brubaker's pitch was that he wanted to do two things - he wanted to tap into the sort of 1970s paranoia that was highly relevant to today's modern political/espionage landscape, and he wanted to bring Captain America into the modern age, not by struggling with it, but by trying to figure out not just what he meant in this new world, but what the idea of being Captain America meant. He wasn't going to take the boy scout approach that so many writers had taken with Captain America, but wanted to really evaluate what sort of image a person who bore the name "Captain America" and who had fought in World War II would have of the country he resided in now. It was time for Captain America to stop living in the past and start adapting to the present, all the while struggling with old foes and adversaries from his past who had already adapted to the modern age.

Brubaker's run isn't flawless, believe me (the "Death of Captain America" and "Captain America Reborn" storylines are somewhat shaky), but when Brubaker's at the top of his game, his Captain America run is something truly special, the kind of pop-spy fiction that we don't get a lot of in comics these days. The start of Brubaker's run is pretty important, because it lays a LOT of the groundwork that's seen in the new Captain America movie, and you can get in on that with "The Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection," which collects the first two books of Brubaker's run on Cap. If you still want more after that, you can move on to "The Red Menace Ultimate Collection," which continues Brubaker's run. Both are great investments. Steve Epting was a great artistic match for the neo-noir spy stories Brubaker wanted to tell, and the two were a match made in heaven. You don't really need to know more than the basic origin story of Captain America to get into either of these, so if you want to read the books where the movie drew inspiration from, this is the place to go. (Hell, if you're eagle-eyed during the movie, you can even spot Brubaker making a quick cameo. I think he'd earned it...)

I would have been content for Captain America to continue being a new-wave espionage story even after Brubaker left, with the new writers picking up the mantle of "how do you be a good guy in a world where it's increasingly hard to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys?" as well as the "the actions of the past always have ripples on the actions of today" second layer Brubaker laid down, but Remender seems intent on taking Cap into less grounded territory, maybe to try and prevent any comparisons from his run and Brubaker's, which is unfortunate. Marvel needs to understand that its audience is mostly older people now, and while it's good to make sure you have titles aimed at the younger audience, you also need titles aimed at the older audience who are looking to find stories that appeal to them. Thankfully, there are a number of books that Marvel's putting out that work, and that are starting to fill that gap - Matt Fraction's "Hawkeye" (although it's certainly more light hearted) as well as Nathan Edmonson's "Punisher" and "Black Widow," but both of those titles are just starting, so I'm judging from early days. Jonathan Hickman's "Secret Warriors" tried to do the espionage thing, but it was too mired in Marvel continuity and frankly just too hard to peel open. The potential was there, but Hickman's work as of late has felt like the kid who's too cool for what he's writing, keeping things a little too aloof and too inaccessible. His run on the Avengers has been a pretty big letdown, feeling more like an attempt to recapture what Warren Ellis did with "The Authority" but with Marvel characters, and it just doesn't work. His "Infinity" crossover was, I think, the sign that too many balls were in the air at once. I'd love to see someone do a S.H.I.E.L.D. comic focusing on Nick Fury and maybe a handful of agents that didn't go so far down the rabbit hole, written by someone like Brubaker, or Greg Rucka. Hell, I'd love to take a shot at writing one, but someone would have to convince Marvel to give me a shot at writing something. So Quesada? Call me. I've got a pitch that would knock your socks off...

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Josh Ritter - The Animal Years - 2006

That more people haven't heard of Josh Ritter still kind of amazes me. The man puts out consistently great albums, tours incessantly, wrote a book and is just generally a nice guy, and yet, loads of people have never heard of him.

Ritter's music is a blend of folk and rock, with a certain on-the-road feel to it, giving him an almost out-of-time feel, like he's some guy with a guitar riding the railroad across the country, playing songs at stops whenever the train stops to load or unload, like a vagabond troubadour around the turn of the century, or someone in the early days of radio. His first major label effort, "The Animal Years," certainly reflects that sort of feel.

What's amazing is how timeless "The Animal Years" feels, even though a good portion of it is about the Iraq war. Despite the fact that a number of these songs were relating to current events, they're folded in an elegant metaphorical language, full of anachronistic references and oblique meanings. Take "Girl In The War," which references Peter and Paul at the pearly gates, as well as Laurel and Hardy. And the song is full of righteous anger, too. "The angels fly around in there, but we can't see them/I got a girl in the war, Paul I know that they can hear me yell/If they can't find a way to help her they can go to Hell."

That sort of haunting poetry is abundant on the album, and it's colored with instrumentation that varies from simple to complex.

For me, though, there are two songs that are absolute must-hears on the album. The first is the the epic "Thin Blue Flame," that clocks in over nine minutes in length, a dusty trail song that builds and builds and builds like the last stretch of daylight blossoming into a starry night with a full moon draping the evening in shimmering light. I love songs like this, that just keep adding bit after bit, until you realize a whole song has erupted around you.

There's no getting past it, though. The absolute heart of the album is the song, "Good Man," one of my favorite songs not just by Josh, but by anyone. It's a song that skips along, more uptempo than much of the album, but that just makes it all hang together even more.

Later albums from Josh Ritter have all had great songs, but if you want the best cohesive album, start here.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Switchblade Honey - 2003

Over the life of this blog, I'm probably going to end up talking about everything Warren Ellis has ever written, but I wanted to start with one of the gems that a lot of people don't often see - the 2003 graphic novel "Switchblade Honey."

"Switchblade Honey" is a standalone story that has no relation to anything else, and sprang forth, as Ellis tells it in his introduction, as a side effect of his friendship with Patrick Stewart. I won't spoil the wonderful anecdote that he tells in the intro, but the part I will tell you is that he eventually decides he wants to write a sci-fi story where someone like Ray Winstone was the captain. Winstone isn't well known here, despite appearing in high profile films like "Sexy Beast" and "The Departed," but in England, he's known for playing a real force of nature. So Ellis set out to take all the conventions of Star Trek and mainstream sci-fi spaceship stories around that time and spin them utterly on their head.

At some point in the future, the human species has gone interstellar. They end up meeting the Chasta, and they make an utterly horrible first impression. So the Chasta decide to wipe humanity out of existence. They're working their way backwards towards Earth, killing every human along the way on their path to the homeworld. And they're encircled our solar system, boxing us in as they press forward.

Since all conventional thinking has failed, the remnants of humanity decide to think way outside of the box - they get a disgraced captain, John Ryder, give him a one-of-a-kind prototype ship they aren't even sure fully works, let him pick a crew of fuck-ups and criminals, and set him loose. If they can't be the army, they can be the guerrilla fighters. And they don't have any support at all. Even their own people won't recognize them. They are the absolute last ditch effort of a species desperate not to be wiped out - us.

It's a rogue's story, but rogues on the side of angels. Ryder and his crew are troublemakers of the highest order, but they're doing what they think is right, because they don't want to be the only five humans left alive. There's some sense of expectation, to try and save the species, even if a lot of it isn't worth saving. (Suffice to say, the Chasta's dim view of humanity isn't entirely unwarranted.) But some of it is, and that's enough. That has to be enough.

We'll talk more about Ellis again  later, as he's written a number of things that I utterly adore and not enough of you have read. I picked this one today because it's obscure enough that a lot of Ellis fans haven't probably read it, and those of you who haven't read anything of Ellis at all will have a nice self-contained piece that won't run you an arm and a leg, and doesn't trail off in the middle. The trademark things of Ellis are mad-cap characters (check) and razor-sharp dialogue (check), and you'll find them in spades here.  Perhaps the only downer about this particular book is that it's black-and-white, as I think having color would've helped the entire piece, but hey, it's a book about space, and space does have a lot of black.