Friday, May 02, 2014

The Starting Line - Direction - 2007

I showed up late to The Starting Line's party. Way later than I should've, honestly. The band formed in 1999, and it wasn't until their third album, "Direction," that I heard of them, and by that point, it was pretty much too late. I've always been sad about that. The band's been on indefinite hiatus since finishing the tour for "Direction" back in 2008. They play one or two shows a year, generally in New Jersey, but it seems like that may be all we're getting for the foreseeable future, which is a damn shame.

"Direction" is a fun mix of pop, punk and rock that's got such amazing songs at the core of it, I'm surprised it wasn't a bigger hit. To me, "Direction" felt like the kind of record that The All-American Rejects always wanted to make in their heart of hearts, but could never quite get enough gusto to make. It's a blended album that has its own sense of identity, confident enough to grab from every sort of style it likes to play with.

"Island" was the song that hooked me hard. "It seems like we can never catch a break..." Yeah, I've been there, felt that. The whole album is full of amazing lyrics and taut songwriting, but alas, it seems like it wasn't enough. Hopefully they'll come back. I'd like to see them live at some point...

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Black Grape - Stupid Stupid Stupid - 1997

It's funny, but I've always found the Happy Mondays interesting but never essential, and I know that probably makes me a bad person. I'm sure at some point, the Happy Mondays will grow on me, and I'll be singing their praises, but I always found Black Grape to be a far better mix.

The Happy Mondays were sort of ground zero for Madchester, at least until The Stone Roses took over. The appeal of the Madchester sound was that it was a blend of, well, nearly everything. At the core of it, the idea was to take some the rave and dance music and incorporate it with rock'n'roll elements, but the Happy Mondays (and, by extension, Black Grape) took it a step further and integrated rap and hip-hop, whereas The Stone Roses would add psychedelic elements. HM and BG both did so as well, although nowhere near to the extent that the Roses did.

Part of the problem was that the leader of Happy Mondays, Shaun Ryder, seemed like he was poised for self-destruction when the band broke up. During the Happy Mondays, Ryder had always come across as somewhat thuggish, and his public overindulgence of drugs and alcohol was well documented. Instead, he came back a few years later with Black Grape, and their first album, "It's Great When You're Straight... Yeah." And that album, basically, just continued on doing the same thing the Happy Mondays had been doing, except with a bit more grungy rock vibe.

Black Grape's second album, "Stupid Stupid Stupid," opens with the song "Get Higher," a hilariously weird cutup mixing rap, rock and rave, as well as spliced together audio footage of Ronald and Nancy Reagan talking about the benefits of marijuana. Sure, it's not high end weirdness, but it's enough for a great laugh. From there, the album descends it a wild mixture of all the things that Madchester was about - rhythm, guitars, drums, manic vocals and a sense of energy. Some critics have said it isn't as strong as "It's Great" because it's doing much of the same, but I think it does it better, more refined, and that makes it a better album. Either one's good, really, but I prefer "Stupid."

It was to be Black Grape's last album, and eventually, the Happy Mondays reformed and put out a new album in 2007 that I haven't heard yet. I've heard it's okay, but not amazing. Still, it's mostly made up of the team that formed Black Grape, so we'll see. "Stupid Stupid Stupid" saw a lot of play from me when I was in college. It's a hidden gem you should give a listen to.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Blue Man Group - Audio - 1999

By now, most of the world knows about the Blue Man Group, but back in 1999, they weren't as well established. Sure, their theatrical show had been going for close to a decade, and was a smash hit in New York, Chicago and Boston, and they'd had a few TV appearances that was starting to raise their profile even more so, but they hadn't started their run in Vegas that helped them break into superstardom. So when "Audio," their first album, came out, it did okay, but it continued to build over years, as more and more people became familiar with the show and wanted to own some of the group's haunting music.

If you're not familiar with the Blue Man Group, it's three men who exist without words, nearly alien curious travelers who seek to bring new sounds into the world. It's as much performance art and pantomime as it is music, but oh, what wonderful music it is.

"Audio" contains pieces of the music used in the stage show, but is not the stage show. In many ways, it was intended to be sort of a companion piece to the show, to evoke memories of things you've seen if you've seen the show, but to put them in a new light. And, it was an attempt to capture the sort of mad scientist sound that the Blue Man Group have on an audio recording.

If you've unfamiliar with the Blue Man Group, they focus on "found sound," the art of using things in the world to make music in new and unusual ways. The piece they're most known for is a sequence using PVC tubes as drum tones. (A variation of that piece is on Audio, called "PVC IV.") One of my favorite instruments is called the Piano Smasher, which is a giant gong mallet being used to strike the open strings of a piano. It's gloriously weird.

"Audio" is a good place to start with the Blue Man Group, as the second album, "The Complex," is a bit more traditional and rock oriented (although still very heavy on the BMG instrumentation despite featuring Mr. Gwen Stefani - Bush's Gavin Rossdale - on vocals for a track), and Audio still has them being excessively weird for weirdness's sake.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Idlewild - The Remote Part - 2002

The year was 2002. I had just moved back from Las Vegas to the Bay Area, and NME magazine was dabbling with a radio broadcast online, playing bits of Radio 6, their "cutting edge" station on a stream free from their website.

It gave me something to listen to at work. A lot of it was crap. But every so often, something would stick and I'd find a new band. And once, just once, I'd heard a song that I became obsessed with.

That song was "American English" by Idlewild.

That silvery guitar comes ringing in the air like some long lost U2 song, and then Roddy Womble's trembling Scottish voice purrs into life over it. A few verses later, the steady base comes in, and just a bit past that, it all crashes together and the drums kick in. And as soon as the chorus kicks in, that arms-spread-wide, standing-on-the-edge-of-the-mountain, bathed-in-rain, grin-as-wide-as-the-day feeling swells over you. Or maybe that's just me.

Back then, in 2002, it wasn't easy to get music from England, and we were in a period where there was a lot of great music being put out in England. Thankfully, there was a record shop in Berkeley, next door to the comic book shop I visited then, Comic Relief, run by the irreplaceable Rory Root. The guy running the record shop imported a lot of CDs from England, and when I went in one day, he had two copies of "The Remote Part" by Idlewild, newly arrived. I grabbed one and must have had the biggest smile on my face when I went to pay for it.

"They any good?" the cashier asked me as he was ringing me up.

"If it's half as good as the single, it's fucking brilliant," I told him.

"Can you go grab me the other one?" he asked. So I did. He opened it up and popped it into the store's CD player immediately. "Huh. Pretty fuckin' good. I'll have to order more copies."

When I came back in two weeks later, they had five copies of the album in stock and it was in the "Employee Recommended" section. So I felt pretty good about that.

The rest of the album was, indeed, fucking brilliant. The first three songs were probably the strongest opening I'd ever heard on an album, starting with the intense energy of "You Held The World In Your Arms" and followed up by "A Modern Way Of Letting Go" before getting to "American English."

The album is filled with great songs, but the last song on the album, "In Remote Part/Scottish Fiction," is one of my absolute all-time favorite songs. The tail end of the song includes the poem "Scottish Fiction," read by its author Edwin Morgan, and was written specifically for the album. It's a marvelously grand bow for the album, and if it doesn't sell you on getting a copy, well, I don't know what will.

Their first two albums, "Hope Is Important" and "100 Broken Windows" have great songs on them, but are a touch uneven, and the band is still finding their footing on them, so I came in at exactly the right time. They've put out three great albums since releasing "The Remote Part" in 2002 - "Warnings/Promises," "Make Another World" and "Post Electric Blues," as well as a couple of greatest hits collections, "Idlewild - The Collection" and "Scottish Fiction: The Best of 1997 - 2007" and maybe we'll get something new this year, or next.

I don't have a lot of sad concert stories, despite the fact that I've seen over a hundred shows, but I've always been sad that Idlewild cancelled their last tour. I mean, I understand - Rod Jones, the band's guitarist, broke his collarbone - but I've never seen them live, and I truly want to. Then the band went on hiatus and it looked like they might be done for good. But I was happy to see the band reunited late last year and is working on recording a new album, and I truly hope they'll play the American dates they had to cancel on back in 2010, because they are one of the very few bands on my list of favorites I have yet to see live. So if they do tour the states, I'll see them, no matter where I need to get to.

They're that good.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Queen & Country - Greg Rucka - 2001-2007

It's no secret I love me a good spy story. The problem is that the comics world has, surprisingly, not a whole lot of good ones. Oh sure, we get a few odds and ends here and there, and I treasure each one that we get, but often they don't run long, or they tend to gloss over the sorts of stuff I find fascinating.

Greg Rucka's "Queen & Country" wasn't short and it wasn't afraid to get down to the nitty-gritty.

The series ran from 2001 to 2007 from Oni Press, and focused on SIS, the Special Intelligence Service for Her Majesty's Government, aka England. The main protagonist is Tara Chace, one of the Minders, aka the field agents.

Q&C draws its inspiration from a British television show called "The Sandbaggers," which aired from 1978 to 1980, when its creator, Ian Mackintosh, mysteriously disappeared. Seriously, you have no idea how much like a spy story the man's disappearance is. According to reports, he and two others were flying over the Gulf of Alaska, they made a short unscheduled stop at an old WWII era disused airfield, then shortly after, send a brief mayday signal and vanished.

The report was that the plane had crashed and all aboard were lost at sea. But there have been a bevy of unanswered questions about that day, wreckage was never found, and a guy even wrote a book about it. The prevailing theory is that Mackintosh is either living a new life somewhere or defected to Russia. No one's really sure. The hope was that there would be more clarity in 2013 after some things were declassified, but I haven't seen any real updates, so it looks like his fate is still unknown. How cool is that?

Part of the appeal of both Q&C and Sandbaggers is that they are very authentic portrayals of espionage work, i.e. there's lots of office work, planning, sitting around, discussing things, in addition to the more standard action fare.

Sure, James Bond is the go-to for showcasing big splashy set pieces, but actual espionage work has a lot of sitting and waiting, having to be ready, for when those moments of action do occur, they're often sudden and without warning, and there's no time for hesitation. It's hurry up and wait in the best and worst possible way.

And the office politics, oh man, don't get me started. You think your office has complicated squabbles... imagine if you knew that everyone you were arguing with was a trained soldier with high intelligence, excellent marksmanship and occasionally flexible morality, as needs might call for. And then throw in the fact that the government you work for doesn't often know what to do with you or your team, isn't sure they're making the right calls, wants to think about things forever, wants to second guess you and your information, and reserves the right to insult you if anything goes wrong, whether or not you listened to them in the first place. It's not just a nest of vipers, it's the whole damn pit.

Another part of what makes Q&C so compelling is Chace herself, who is both highly capable and an utter mess, as it feels like many people in the espionage field are. We see Chace, warts and all, being dangerous and smart, and yet still coping with personal problems and political struggles. 

After the series' conclusion, Rucka's written three novels continuing the stories, but I've always felt that Q&C sung better in illustrated format. That said, there's been the potential of a movie circling around for a while, with Ellen Page supposedly in negotiations to play Chace, and a director officially being announced in March, but as with all comic book translations, I won't believe a word of it until I hear the movie's actually filming.

Q&C isn't the only successful espionage comic, but it's certainly had one of the longest runs, and it's easy to pick up, in 4 collected volumes, and all three novels are easily available as well.