Wednesday, September 30, 2009

missed it the first time: Arkansas by John Brandon

by John Brandon
McSweeney's, 2008

This book was a highly anticipated experience for me. Not sure why.

Maybe it was the title.
Arkansas. I read in an interview that Brandon imagined Arkansas as sort of a malleable place, open to whatever whims he could make of it. And that's mostly true. Most of the book is set in a state park, that could be in any state of the union, only the shuttling between different cities would be different.

Maybe a good comparison would be the movie
Fargo. Its rooted in a place, but not to exploit the place, but to just have it in a place that where not a lot of cultural connotations are set. The only connotations are regional--a funny accent here, an extra moose joke here. But really, nothing hinges on Fargo the place, just as in Arkansas nothing hinges on it being in Arkansas, it just is.

So yes, the Razorbacks are mentioned, Ft. Smith is mentioned, Little Rock and Memphis are important places. But "southernness" as it is usually defined in literature is not defined here, just like the "midwest" is not simply typified in Fargo.

Another similarity--crime and bodies. Arkansas is about drug smuggling, but the characters who populate this world are not necessarily those of The Wire--it's a level or two higher than the street. It's situated in the world of Swin and Kyle who are drug runners, the act which usually occurs in beat-up Camrys and minivans, not glamorous limos or well-trimmed Escalades.

Instead Kyle and Swin pose as park rangers, taking care of small duties while waiting for the instructions to come from on high. There's also the atypical crime boss, told in a convincing second person fashion, as he builds his empire from bootleg cassette tapes to grander schemes.

In a clever bit of insight and situation, Frog, the drug boss, is able to monitor Kyle and Swin closely without them knowing it, not in some high-tech video way, but more through the way of pawnshops and chili cookoffs. Perhaps that is as southern as the book or anything, for that matter, gets.

Ultimately, the book rests on the shoulder of Kyle and Swin who serve as unusual foils. Swin goes from Tampa, FL to Nashville's Vanderbilt University, only to drop out when the work gets too hard. Kyle is an adrift loner from Athens, GA and they eventually fall into this and that and eventually into working together.

Once Swin and Kyle are firmly ensconced in Arkansas, Swin starts dating a local nurse which makes him confront whether or not his intellect will be used for good or evil. However, Swin is obsessed with tracking his sisters in Kentucky, a quirk that is never fully explained nor is really ever paid off--as if Brandon's character traits spooled out in front of him too quickly.

Kyle is more of the cold-blooded killer type--the one who squashes and kills opponents with little forethought, but possesses plenty of calm to dispose of the bodies after the fact. Brandon never writes Kyle as being overly gruesome, just matter-of-fact. Kyle firmly recognizes that killing and the drug trade go hand-in-hand, a fact that unnerves Swin. But Swin lacks the courage to kill and the courage to leave, which paralyzes him intellectually.

Everything in Arkansas moves at a nice, measured pace, even the few instances of murder. Brandon adopts a blase tone for most of the book--similar to the calmness exerted by Kyle who moves from being the second banana to the main course in the progression of the novel. More and more the story depends on Kyle, a development the reader is subconsciously aware of, as Brandon writes Frog and Kyle in the same detached manner.

Rarely do I want to read a book again, but I want to read this again, just because the characterizations, the places and the situations go against what is typically presented in literature on these subjects. The violence is never suspenseful or tense, the drugs are very rarely portrayed or even discussed. Arkansas deals with the practical, business side of drugs much in the same way a neurotic office assistant may handle the mismanagement of a pencil shipment.

Thankfully, the tension between Swin, Kyle, Frog and Swin's girlfriend Johnna are so effectively realistic that the book never lags.

More after the jump...

Swing South: Dear and the Headlights

Dear and the Headlights: "Talk About"
Dear and the Headlights: "I'm Not Crying, You're Not Crying"

The biggest overlooked trend of the past three or so years--how many bands with the word "Dear" in their name. The Dears. The Dear Hunter. Loney Dear. (Let me know if I'm missing one...). And the one for today, Dear and The Headlights.

Coming out of AZ, this band may be slightly overlooked because of its Equal Vision affiliation--a label that usually has a roster of more screamo than modern rock. But that's no reason to ignore Dear and The Headlights, it has a fan friendliness on par with The Hold Steady or The Killers.

Last year's release, Drunk Like Bible Times, rollicks, rolls and is overall a good release.

They're on tour with Kinch and Rajiv Patel dates & vid are after the jump.

Tour Dates:

Oct 1 2009
Exit/In w/ Kinch Nashville, Tennessee

Oct 2 2009
Masquerade (Hell Stage) w/ Kinch and Rajiv Patel Atlanta, Georgia

Oct 3 2009
Club Downunder (FSU Oglesby Union) w/ Kinch and Rajiv Patel and Midnight Matinee Tallahassee, Florida

Oct 4 2009
The Social w/ Kinch and Rajiv Patel and Mumpsy Orlando, Florida

Oct 5 2009
Orpheum w/ Kinch and Rajiv Patel and The Wedding Party Tampa, Florida

Oct 7 2009
The Parish Room @ House of Blues w/ Kinch and Rajiv Patel New Orleans, Louisiana

More after the jump...

Lit Randomness: R. Crumb on Genesis, Tao & Kmart Realism, Best of the Decade, Glen Beck & literary fiction

The Book of Genesis like you've never seen it before. R. Crumb's adaptation: At a wire service (from Bookslut)

Couple of days old but...the experts' books of the decade versus their highly educated readership: At The Millions. (I'll take the highly educated readership).

Tao Lin and Kmart Realism: At The Rumpus.

Did I already link to this? Glen Beck and literary fiction: At Salon.

More after the jump...

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Swing South: These Arms are Snakes & dd/mm/yyyy

These Arms Are Snakes: "Red Line Season"

When these two bands get together I'm sure there is some nutty electronic math rock freakout of epic proportions. Biblical proportions. The two bands are different musically, but they approach their song structure similarly. So there's Seattle's These Arms Are Snakes, schlepping their new album,

DD/MM/YYYY: "Digital Haircut"

Then there is buzz band DD/MM/YYYY out of the Great North (Toronto) more known for not knowing what to call themselves than for their brand of methodic electronica rock. Good stuff all the same. And their new album out now on cassette (officially now what 'cool' kids do) & digitally & possibly mp3 is called
Black Square.

They're hitting a bunch of dates together down South, so head on out to one of them. Dates after the jump...

Sep 29 2009
DC9 w/ DD-MM-YYYY Washington, Washington DC

Sep 30 2009
Local 506 w/ DD-YY-MMMM and Fin Fang Foom Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Oct 1 2009
Star Community Bar w/ DD-MM-YYYY and Hawks and Whores Atlanta, Georgia

Oct 2 2009
Club Downunder w/ DD-MM-YYYY Tallahassee, Florida

Oct 3 2009
Will’s Pub w/ DD-MM-YYYY Orlando, Florida

Oct 5 2009
Spanish Moon w/ DD-MM-YYYY Baton Rouge, Louisiana

More after the jump...

review: The Beached Margin/Done Waiting by I Was Totally Destroying It

Let's go ahead and make it clear that you'll be hearing a lot about I Was Totally Destroying It in the next few months (if you haven't already). Their album of two EPs, The Beached Margin/Done Waiting, was released in August and their new one, Horror Vacui drops in mid-October. Never gave this one a proper review, so here we go...

The Beached Margin/Done Waiting EPs

I Was Totally Destroying It
Greyday Records, 2009

I Was Totally Destroying It: "The Witch Riding Your Back"

It's kind of odd that Chapel Hill's I Was Totally Destroying It (IWTDI) crammed
The Beached Margin and Done Waiting together. Stylistically, the four songs of The Beached Margin is this atypical sandwich of the most melancholic songs the band has ever written. Thick with folktale metaphor, the EP glances at witches, wolves, and wolves blowing down houses. It's the air of frustration, where everything is a fog that can't be beaten, only escaped.

Though "The Witch Riding Your Back" is upbeat, there's a definite purpose to it--a force that lets you know that this going somewhere. Lead vocalists Rachel Hirsh and John Booker have resignation in their voice as they sing about a "hag of intimdation" and about the witch that they've never seen riding their backs and suffocating them. It's a lot different than the wistfulness for simpler days in songs like "My Favorite Haunt" or the breakdanceable "Hey Alright!"

"Fences," "Negative Agents" and "Me + All My Friends" discuss more about weaknesses, houses falling, dead friends and frantic movement with no forward progress. It does show maturity, I guess, a maturity that everything isn't always sweet tea and roses. But their jaded natureseems to come a little too easy, just like their jangly, awesome melodies of their self-titled debut invoke jealousy at their ease as well. It's obvious that lyricists Booker and Hirsh wear their hearts on their sleeves, luckily they have plenty of interesting melodies beating forth.

With the almost despairing songs of The Beached Margin, it's a relief to hear a mildly excitable song like "Done Waiting" on the 7 song EP of the same name. It delivers an awesome opening guitar melody and then the percussion and bass fill in nicely behind Hirsh's vocals. Like I said, these guys have POP oozing out of them and they can't help but be contagious.

But "Teeth" is more cautiously optimistic, "Get In Line" is a patient explanation of a bad relationship with yet an easy hook to pick up. Guess all I mean is that IWTDI is not so easily classifiable any more, this set of songs delivers on the awkwardness of telling others off, on sinful people, on the impossibility not remaining perfect.

But all this is only gleaned from the lyrics--because outside looking in, IWTDI throws a couple of curveballs, but overall maintains their snappy spunk. "The Masquerade" is a melancholy number that ends too abruptly and "Radar Song" seems like a great song, just probably not for this band with its hollowed confessional feel. I'm just glad they got all of this out of their system before
Horror Vacui. Maybe for that one we'll see a more balanced account.

I've read a lot of different comparisons for this band, but I always come back to the Foo Fighters and Jimmy Eat World with female flourishes. This is modern rock to its core, nothing offensively hard here--just straight catchy, guitar rock with its most potent pop formula.

The Beached Margin/Done Waiting doesn't lend itself to the many crowd pleasers of the self-titled, but its obviously not supposed to. There are some deeper machinations at work here and IWTDI in all of their prodigousness decided to share a bit of their frustrations with us instead of hiding these tapes in the deep, dark basement. But what's dark for IWTDI is just a little downer for the rest of us. They can't help but express themselves but except with a love for the upbeat.

More after the jump...

Monday, September 28, 2009

Swing South: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart/ Cymbals Eat Guitars

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart: "Higher Than Stars"

These bands have played a few shows in the South and I hesitated to write anything about them because...really, I don't get it. I don't get how this band is not castigated up & down for having the most pretentious emo-sounding name in history of emo-sounding names. I guess it's because they play the music the indie-rock bloggers like, instead of easily dismissed power pop-punk. But they can write some freakin' awesome melodies and look like lil' Ivy-League kittens in all their pictures.

Oh yeah and I guess they release an EP like every 3 months that keeps the blogosphere churning and spinning right round.
(Is this the "blogger backlash" that so many critics are quick to find, in the vein of the rise and fall of CYHSY or Tapes N Tapes? Make note to self).

The Pains in Writing Their Name are accompanied by a fine complementary band, Cymbals Eat Guitars, which shares the Pains' passion for writing fuzzed-out rock (is this shoegaze?).

Cymbals Eat Guitars: "And The Hazy Sea"

Remaining dates after the jump:

Sep 28 2009
The Earl w/The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Atlanta, Georgia

Sep 29 2009
Local 506 w/The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Sep 30 2009
Black Cat w/The Pains of Being Pure at Heart WASHINGTON, Washington DC

Oct 1 2009
Ottobar w/The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Baltimore, Maryland

Oct 3 2009
Webster Hall: w / The Pains of Being Pure at Heart New York, New York

Oct 5 2009
First Unitarian Church w/The Pains of Being Pure at Heart Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

More after the jump...

LIt Randomness: Jim Carroll, Why Writers Can't Talk, Donald Ray Pollock & more

The Last Days of Jim Carroll:
At NY Times

A “brilliant work of art” is what Mr. Carroll’s ardent, loyal fans were hoping for in his novel, and what the writer himself must have passionately wished for. A successful novel might have meant that he would not be marginalized as an aging “punk poet,” as he was in some recent obituaries. Given his health, it might have constituted his most unlikely comeback yet.

Remember, it's not your fault you can't hold a conversation: At NY Times

Excellent interview with Donal Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff: At The Rumpus

As for the humor, I worked in a paper mill all my adult life and there were a lot of funny guys there. So you pick up on that. Even though something really bad might have happened to somebody you can still make a joke out of it. I tried to put a lot of humor in the book because the situations, the things that happen in my stories—if there wasn’t any humor, by the time you finished reading the book you’d probably want to kill yourself.

Review--The Year Before the Flood: At PopMatters

Remember when we did that series on crime noir? This has nothing to do with that per se. But here's an article about Jim Thompson and his autobiographical writings: At Pop Matters.

More after the jump...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Five: 5 Most Important Brand New Songs

With the release of Daisy this week, it's time to gauge the transformation of Brand New. This was hard. Very hard. The changes from this band have been monumental, to say the least, but there were hints all along. These songs portray those changes and perhaps prophesy what's next. And keep in mind, these are NOT necessarily my favorite Brand New songs, just ones that I think show what the band has done the best.

5) "Jude Law and a Semester Abroad" from Your Favorite Weapon

Do you understand how far they've come? Do you? Really?

4) "Vices" from Daisy

The rest of the album doesn't match the tone of this opener, but this is the full exorcism of the "Devil" Brand New ripping into their chosen identity in perhaps their heaviest song to date. Here's the direction for whatever follows next.

3) "Sic Transit Gloria...Glory Fades" from Deja Entendu

The first indication that all had changed and the perfect example of what was to come. The mumbling staccato lyrics. The now familiar climaxing screams. What was once so revolutionary is now so familiar.

2) "Degausser" from The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me

The perfect culmination, which was started on Deja Entendu, this time enhanced by the haunting choir and the erratic guitar melody of the chorus. All of this in 5:30 minutes would serve as the mainstream world's introduction to the band.

1. "I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light" from Deja Entendu

"Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't" has similar themes and "The Quiet Things That No One Knows" is a better song, but only "I Will Play My Game Beneath the Spin Light" weaves some of the best lyrics this decade with a genre-bending punk structure. Consider:

I wrote more postcards than hooks/ I read more maps than books/Feel like every chance to leave/is another chance I should have took" and "Watch me as I cut myself wide open
on this stage. Yes, I am paid to spill my guts/I won't see home till spring/ Oh, I would kill for the Atlantic, but I am paid to make girls panic while I sing."
a complete meta experience that expresses their frustration about unmanageable expectations, while simultaneously mocking themselves, the scene and us. This is the tension that has wrought the madness that is Brand New.

More after the jump...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

review: Daisy Brand New

Welcoming a new album from an established band is like meeting your sister's new boyfriend for the first time. You know she's serious about this one and you want to support her, but you just don't know how he's going to fit, only that he has too. Sure the family will remain the same, but it will be different. Sure, your sister is still the same, and you can see why she likes this guy, but still how does he fit? Will he fit? He must fit.

It's the same with Brand New.
Daisy is their new boyfriend. The one they've been seeing for months and now want to introduce to the whole extended family. They've been developing and working and making and creating and finding themselves in this process to come up with something both brand new and Brand New. Eventually, we'll learn to accept their new offering.

There's no way any album can immediately be welcomed with open arms, we as listeners have to find the common ground, the creative leaps, a trace of the old in the new that has comforts.

I'm still sussing out that similarities and the differences with Brand New. A song like "Bed" is comforting...I know that rhythm, that cadence from a song like "Sowing Season" or "Jesus." That nice distant backbeat with tender guitar melodies and unbalanced lyrical insights has become the bread and butter of Brand New.

But so has interrupting those quiet moments. It used to come in the form of passionate scream or a voice that keeps rising and rising to a fever pitch of fury.

In many instances, Daisy loses those moments for a roughshod edge. "Vices" is a metal song, in the sense that it replicates the experience of getting hit in the back of a head by a jagged steel pipe while minding your business on the carousel and is probably a song At The Drive-In would have eventually developed. "Gasoline" is also structured differently, with its punked White Stripes/garage rock structure and its screeching feedback ending. To still call Brand New punk or god-forbid emo is to disparage all of rock's brethren, especially the grunge forebears.

Brand New is trying to find the next leap for the band, and the single "At The Bottom" and "Gasoline" portends that future as a night of the living Kurt Cobain or as Pearl Jam tribute band. Those influences aren't as obvious in the context of Brand New, only when taken as singles. Then you get a fuzzed-out classic almost country pick with "Be Gone" and the electric white noise exploration in "Noro." "In a Jar" is striking not so much for its intense off the wall chorus, but for its harmonious verses. Brand New now freaks us out not by its intensity and screams, but for its tasteful pop (don't worry, the 'pop' doesn't last that long).

this album is too lean for its own good. I'm hesitant to focus on the eccentricities of the album, but really that's what's here. Another song could have changed the whole debate. Daisy is slim and compact and so every nuance has an intense focus.
With such a limited offering, a song like "Be Gone" would probably be a throwaway, but with this thin album, I'm want to dissect it for all of its absurdity. And perhaps that's the point. It's not the length of the goodness, but the intensity of what is good.

The center of all this is essentially what we heard on
Devil and God and they may have chosen the devil. Overall, this album is more intense, more tedious, brimming at the edges of experimental audio (not the wandering, ambient type, but the odd, noise type) juxtaposed with Jesse Lacey's now trademark introspective lyrics on himself and the music industry. Though I don't think this album is as strong as Deja Entendu or even the last one, but I really think the band saw the dark side and decided to leap into it. This is not the Deja Entendu to Your Favorite Weapon, but is still a shift.

Daisy is the sound of Brand New's descent into madness, and I don't think they've reached the bottom yet.

More after the jump...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

missed it the first time: DMZ by Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli

DMZ: On the Ground
by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli
Vertigo, 2006

Let's admit it right here and now: once we let go of the prejudices of graphic novels, the hope that they promise for literature is boundless. They can and will send literature in a million new directions. I've been pumped to read stuff like Blankets, Maus and most recently, A.D. New Orleans After The Deluge.

It takes a different talent for sure, and some of the story-telling ability has fallen behind the quality of art, but the two are coming closer and closer, as more writers team up with more artists to create a fully realized vision. We shouldn't worry about what will be "lost" with this, only excited at the possibilities. What we come up as a literary society will run the gamut from magazine-style novels to wordless books, all accepted under capital-L Literature (or let's hope so at least. Heaven knows we don't need to keep splitting up English departments).

That's a weighty intro for DMZ, but fitting. Because Brian Wood is one of the most intelligent writers working today, and all he works in is primarily the comics medium. Surely this man, with his creative scenes and serialized storytelling could find a TV or movie deal (he probably has one and I just don't know...).

With DMZ, Wood did some of the art as well, but is the primary story creator. And what I like from Wood in DMZ and his more recent Local series, is how he is able to innovate grand settings and schemes, and boil all of those down into interesting chunks. The big picture narrative with DMZ is that the U.S. is at war again, split apart by its own militaristic factions and Manhattan has become the DMZ, a no man's land of with its own rules and customs, controlled by no one and populated by ex-pats from both sides from the warring Free States and the United States.

Great circumstances, cue main character. Now this took some critical maneuvering. They had to find a way to explore this scene in a fairly easy fashion, while also allowing for some explication just to marvel at the world that Wood dreamed up. So they place a photojournalist intern, Matthew Roth, into the mix and stick him in the middle of the DMZ when his ride out leaves him behind. Yes, the details and circumstances for how Roth got there are not fully explained or plausible, but it makes as much sense as any action movie.

In Volume 1: On The Ground, Roth just gets a feel for the land while Wood weaves in all this post-apocalyptic urban survival techniques, such as mentions about how to grow sustainable food, reusable energy and the glories of bamboo. There are also some shocking New York City scenes, like a barren Central Park--stripped of all its timber and used for firewood.

DMZ introduces all of these concepts in its fictional world, because Roth is the reader's proxy--he's learning for the job and we're learning for fun.

But like a television show (or more like a comic book), DMZ creates vignettes that then make a larger whole of Roth's new found world--one where personal relationships are so vital, but can be so easily crossed just for survival as well.

There's a big sticker on the spine of my used library copy that reads "YA," but this is just as well-crafted as any Clive Cussler tale, with a more imaginative landscape and grittier features.

With graphic novels, us old-school lit types have to rewire our brains on how to read. Usually, I rush through the text in the whole book and then later pick up bits and pieces of the story as I flip back through, looking at the art. This is where the details are of course, and offers two possible readings then--one solely centered on plot action and another centered on the effects and imagery that make a story like this so rich.

Roth at one point has to face small children that have burns and cuts from a bomb meant for him--he's unscathed, but they are battered and bruised up. The emotional resonance of this doesn't settle during a quick skim of the dialogue, but only after when the full weight of the story is understood.

I don't know the end of DMZ, only this beginning, but call me intrigued or don't call me at all. The world of the DMZ fits perfectly into the nation's current (and 2006) mindset and is executed at the perfect pitch relative to the medium (unlike say, the similarly themed TV show Jericho). DMZ is now like this classic gift that I get to unwrap when the rest of the world has already discovered it and moved on, and I'm excited to finally get to know the secrets that they already hold. But let's not keep Brian Wood a secret.

More after the jump...

Lit Randomnes: An official endorsement

Every blogger has one of "those" weeks and this one is mine. So I officially link to Vol. 1 Brooklyn's "Bites" today, especially the interview with James Ellroy, though I will add this NPR story I heard yesterday with him, with an excerpt from Blood's A Rover. It actually made me want to read his new book.

But have no fear--I will have some more literary mess this afternoon.

More after the jump...

Monday, September 21, 2009

review: Midtown Dickens Lanterns

Midtown Dickens
Self-released, 2009

I’m a big believer that albums equal seasons, and time, places and context influence the perception of an album almost as much as the album itself. That’s why we’ll get a hundred different top albums of the decade in the next few months.

So, Midtown Dickens has made an autumn record. Because when I think of autumn, I think of long mountain drives with different colored leaves and I think of BANJOS of course, so Midtown Dickens delivers on that one, lucky for me. See the correlation? FALL=MOUNTAINS=MOUNTAIN MUSIC. Yeah, that formula is as easy as pie with ice cream on top. Oh, now I’m thinking DINERS instead of campfire and diners only fit into the summer days and winter nights mythology, so now I’ve screwed this review up.

Midtown Dickens is the mostly the collaboration of Kym Register and Catherine Edgerton with friends added in and they prioritize echoing harmonies and ambient sounds of nature, as if it were recorded in hollow logs or empty slides, see it depends on the context of the CITY or the COUNTRY. RURAL vs. URBAN. I don’t know where the Midtown Dickens ladies live, though it says Durham, and people from Durham are in this urban messy morass, though I know people from the Triangle like to fake it and think they all live in Aerostreams outside of town in the empty fields, but as far as I know, the only ones really do that are the Bowerbirds (okay...I'm sure there are more, but they are probably in Winnebagos).

Midtown Dickens

Midtown Dickens inhabits that space that as people we’re all trying to navigate, the space between nature and urban, life with “postmodern conveniences” and “life in nature” and the musical traditions that go along with it. On this self-released album, their promo copies are handmade envelopes with a simple collage image and typewritten Courier letters. It’s a throwback, but with their unassuming, (anti?)folk banjo-strumming ways their second song “Annihilation” is about a nuclear holocaust or something and the absurdity of what will be missed: “It’s going to be a long, hot nuclear winter, without your lemonade when all that you’ve got a big field and a pile of remains.” Register and Edgerton’s harmonies can be tricky, one is more powerful than the other, the other is meek but passionate (I don’t know whose voice is whose), but together they develop this say-speak sing-song about not only annihilation, but the ghost of cowboys (“Spring”) and turn excellent metaphors about sea life (“The Fish Song”). Also like to rock and swoon to “Old Dogs,” a slow song with a fitting horn arrangement about hitting the road on a cross-country journey.

With support from the tradition-oriented Carolina Chocolate Drops, Midtown Dickens will sound like an impressive but simple light-hearted bluegrass band. Lanterns is mostly a slow-go, not many songs have immediately catchy hooks and if they do they are drawn, way drawn out, like a string of dough that somehow gets longer and longer, and yet no holes emerge. But once the stories and lyrics come into focus on these songs a couple of true American(a?) poets emerge. After I term this an “autumn album” my favorite song is one that reminisces about summer, “The Best Summer Ever.” They sing “it’s the best summer ever, whether or not we know it yet,” which is an ironic take on the endless optimism that our culture puts on the promise of seasons…and here’s where I eat the whole first paragraph. I did screw this review up.

More after the jump...

Lit Randomness: John Grisham hates literature, The Millions decade of books & Shake The Devil Off

John Grisham saw the face of literature and turned away: At the Telegraph (h/t Literary Saloon)

The Millions begins to unveil their Top 10 books of the decade (or of the millenium so far): At The Millions.

Review of Shake The Devil Off & Zeitoun: At Bookforum.
This is the first time I've heard of Shake The Devil Off, but it's apparently about the double suicide & murder of two likable, young French Quarter artists. I remember reading the story a few years ago, and this seems like an interesting take on one aspect of post-Katrina life.

I don't know anything about the "Creative Criticism School" but it looks interesting: At Conversational Reading.

More after the jump...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Five: Top 5 Albums from Merge Records

This summer, Chapel Hill's own Merge Records celebrated 20 years of being in business. And there's a book detailing the ups and downs of the label. To understand Merge from a fan and musician's point of view, I could think of no one better than crazy Duncan Webster, the lead singer of Durham's Hammer No More The Fingers.

Duncan (left, bass), Joe (right, guitar) and Jeff (drums) of Hammer No More The Fingers

Duncan is the most mild-mannered guy in person but undergoes a Clark Kent towards the wild side once on stage as HNMTF's frontman. Here are Duncan's top 5 albums from Merge:

5. Destroyer - This Night

I first heard songs from this record on WXDU 88.7. The Duke University student station. I have memories of listening to this on a Greyhound bus journey down to Florida to visit some friends. Dan Bejar also plays in New Pornographers, who are one of Hammer's favorite bands. He has a pretty unique voice.

4. Polvo - Celebrate The New Dark Age

My friend Nick Wallhausser bought this record when we were in 6th grade. I have many memories of us jamming out to this at his house. It's the scariest, most intense indie rock you will ever hear. I saw them live at Vanish Fest a year later. My parents dropped me off at the show. It was at the old Durham Bulls park. They played two 15 minute long songs. That was their set. Pretty crazy stuff.

3. Spoon - Girls Can Tell

I saw these guys open for Superchunk at Cat's Cradle in, I think, 2002. I had never heard of them. The crowd was totally blown away. Little did I know they would become one of the most well known indie bands of the decade. "Lines In The Suit" is one of the sexiest songs I've ever heard.

2. Shark Quest - Battle Of The Loons

I bought this CD from the used bin at Poindexter records in Durham. Beautiful instrumental rock. One of the first times hearing cello in indie rock.

1. Rosebuds - Life Like

I bought this album at a Rosebuds show back in 2008. It's been in constant rotation since. It's their latest and possibly greatest. I love "In The Backyard." Great song.
More after the jump...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

review: Hear Here: The Triangle Various NC artists

Hear Here: The Triangle
WKNC and Terpsikhore Records and Flying Tiger Sound
Various North Carolina Artists, 2009

Compilations are always a weird beast to review, because well, they are disjointed by their very nature. There is not supposed to be continuity, only fresh revelations. It's hell to listen to, because I have to keep referring to the tracklisting just to see which song is going. But none of that is the fault of Hear Here because it does what a comp is supposed to do--introduce excellent new music. But Hear Here takes it a step further and does not just throw a bunch of songs on a disc, but asked all of the bands included to record an original song. And we're not talking slouches. Here's a new Rosebuds single, a new Love Language and Birds of Avalon single, something from Annuals and Terpsikhore Records spin-off band, Sunfold. And Lonnie Walker, Hammer No More The Fingers, The Never are like old nearby friends--it's always good to see them in the neighborhood.

All of the bands are from the Triangle area of North Carolina, an area that is being flooded with good music. But the good kind of flood. There is a serious revolution going on there; it's no joke. In fact, it's easy for me to name another 6-8 unsigned/independent bands that should've been on this comp, that could have created an equally as satisfying mix of music. Hit up this and this for a few examples. So there's no Bellafea, no Midtown Dickens, no Red Collar, no Aminal, no Megafaun, no Bowerbirds. Only one Trekky Records band. But then, this comp succeeds in introducing me to yet another wave of bands that are now on the totally awesome list, like Motorskills. Their song "Right As Hell," sounds like it was a Thom Yorke B-side, which in this case is a good thing. They do not copy Thom Yorke, they embody him, or at least a really air-tight compact version of something he might do. The Kingsbury Manx also offers a gem with "Custer's Last Stand" as they take a new surf music approach to a U.S. western showdown.

A friend of mine told me it was a big deal that Colossus had a new song on here, as they're an older-type metal band who are getting back together for a few shows. So the song is a good welcome back gesture.

I was pleasantly surprised by the Americans in France track, their snotty, dirty garage sound is finally endearing to me. Also surprised by the track from The Never. Called "Littlest Things" it doesn't veer far from their previous work, but it does incorporate some gentler, quieter parts than I'm used to with their music--usually it's so quick and poppy, whereas this is simple and understanding rather than on a sugar rush. It's good for them and their harmonies on this track soar.

There are several hip-hop/rap songs on here from bands like Kooley High and The Beast that I can't really comment on because I have no knowledge of them or other groups that may be like them. With that said, I guess I will comment--I enjoyed "My People" by The Beast.

This disc is worth picking up and knowing about because knowing is knowledge in case anyone was wondering. Track list is after the jump...

Track List:

1. Lonnie Walker, “Feels Like Right”
2. Kooley High, “Can’t Go Wrong”
3. The Love Language, “Horophones”
4. The Never, “Littlest Things”
5. Colossus, “Sunglasses in Space”
6. Birds of Avalon, “Telepathic Creep”
7. Hammer No More The Fingers, “The Visitor”
8. Motor Skills, “Right as Hell”
9. The Kingsbury Manx, “Custer’s Last Stand”
10. Blount Harvey, “The Three”
11. Static Minds, “Time Bomb”
12. The Beast, “My People”
13. Americans In France, “No Love for a Prophet”
14. Inflowential, “Sheriff”
15. The Old Ceremony, “Gone Go the Memories”
16. Sunfold, “Weeping Wall”
17. The Rosebuds, “Brad Cook is Not Your Man”

More after the jump...

Lit Randomness: DFW, Tim O'Brien, Jim Carroll, Hurricane Katrina, literary baseball

These are from the everyday stream of information flotsam. I need to be more careful to note the referents.

Dedication to David Foster Wallace and the source of his character's names: At n + plus one.

The Michael Pemulis of Placebo Records, when reached by phone, admitted he was also unfamiliar with Wallace's work and seemed unruffled to hear that his alias had been appropriated in a popular novel. The name was taken from someone else anyway, he said, adding, "It's interesting to me how events that seem like they're meaningless can turn into something else." I had to agree, as the chords of "Posthumous Gratitude," the first song on Priorities, poured out from the turntable behind me.

Stories from after the flood: At Guernica.

Tim O'Brien on why fiction sucks: At The Atlantic.

Literary baseball: At PaperCuts (via Vol 1. Brooklyn)

In the weirdest bit of timing, Paste magazine published this piece on Jim Carroll BEFORE he died, but in the same month of his death, which may mean its a more honest account: At Paste.

More after the jump...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

mp3s: Ume, The Good Graces, White Hinterland

Ume "The Conductor"

Saw Austin's Ume earlier this year in an opening slot for a re-formed Polvo show and this band grabbed everyone's attention with their low-key demeanor, but fast and nasty garage-punk led by Lauren Larson. Their EP, Sunshower is getting a vinyl release next week.

Good Graces: "Pretty New Song"

Kim Ware of Atlanta's The Good Graces. Their new album is called Bring On The Tambourines which is out from Ware's own label, Eskimo Kiss Records.

White Hinterland: "Chant de Grillon"

White Hinterland, led by Casey Dienel and with Shawn Creeden, will be hitting the road this fall with a few dates.

More after the jump...

Monday, September 14, 2009

review: Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records by John Cook, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records
The Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small

by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

Algonquin, 2009

This story of Merge is just about as much about being non-revolutionary as it is being “revolutionary.” So Merge is about signing bands one album at a time. Merge is about getting bands to stick within a recording budget. Merge is about helping bands fulfill their artistic ideas. Merge is revolutionary for doing sensible business and not flaunting exorbitant money on bands that may or may not make it. And even if you don't care much for their music, you have to appreciate the method.

And what Jonathan Marx of Lambchop says about Superchunk that could also apply to the label: “They weren’t desperate for cash; they weren’t desperate for fame. The only thing they were desperate for was the thing that they were doing.”

That desperation plays out in interesting ways. Superchunk and Merge was essentially formed in the mind of Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, who were dating in the early 90s and then later split. How and why the band and label survived their own personal relationship is a testament to their own integrity—that they believed the label and band was doing something greater than themselves.

But with that in mind, it’s hard to think that until earlier this decade, Ballance and McCaughan still had day jobs. Their myth and legend greatly exceeded their actual finances. And the same could be said for an incredible release like Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over The Sea, which took awhile to grab hold of the nation’s attention.

The book is set as an oral history, and the testimonies given consistently refers to Merge’s desire to wait on artists to percolate and to develop. The most reflective of this is Spoon, who was generally ignored on their major label, Elektra, only to release their breakthrough Girls Can Tell on Merge, where Britt Daniel finally released his inhibitions and incorporated more of a soul sound into his rock sound.

As interviewed by John Cook of Gawker, the stories alternate between Superchunk’s story and certain band stories. Not all bands are included, that would be near impossible, but some bands like M.Ward and Camera Obscura go without a mention at all. But including all of them would be impossible, but including a choice like Butterglory over those shows the commitment of Merge to good music over dollars.

I was also kind of surprised that there was no discussion with Ballance and McCaughan about their transition into the digital age, especially since their long-time distributor Touch and Go recently changed its CD distribution model to just focus on being a label. Another segment on how the world has changed since they began their label would have been a quality addition, just to understand the difficulties and advantages to something like mp3s and the differing world of promotion.

The segment on Arcade Fire gets into it a little bit as they discuss the impact of a Pitchfork review (who has generally been kind to Merge bands from the looks of it) on the band and its lasting impact over something in Rolling Stone. The Arcade Fire was truly a representation in the power of viral word to mouth, on the scale of a pandemic.

Often Merge served as the safehaven from the major labels. Even though Trail of Dead jumped from Merge to Interscope, that was more of an aberration than the rule. But it’s clear at least from the book’s perspective, though Matador, Touch & Go, and Subpop may have something else to add, that Merge has greatly influenced the way indie rock is perceived—or at least their model, ethos and dedication has been copied repeatedly, maybe even moreso than the bands themselves.

Any label, any organization would be honored with a story compilation like this one and the tribute from Ryan Adams at the beginning is almost worth the purchase price. Our Noise is a testament to the label’s combination of good taste and good business sense as well as a demonstration of how good music also depends on a little bit of good luck.

*A portion of this review originally appeared in the September issue of Bootleg Magazine.

More after the jump...

Lit Randomness: Artist Brian Wood, Late Age of Print, Scorch Atlas

Interv. w/ comics writer Brian Wood, of DMZ & Local and a whole bunch other things. I'm not really a comics person, but I really liked Local and now the first volume of DMZ is in the mail to me. Maybe I am a comics person:
At NYC Graphic Novelists.
“Honestly, there’s a maturity there with DMZ that I hadn’t quite managed with Channel Zero,” Wood says. “In a lot of ways I was doing the same book again, but this time with an objective viewpoint. A decade separated the two projects, and its not just that I had progressed as a writer and an artist, but my outlook had become nuanced. I was seeing things in shades of gray rather than pure black and white as when I was a student."

Good review by Richard Nash of Late Age of Print:
At The Critical Flame.

Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism; they virtually began it, they are part of the fuel that drives it, and they are key for understanding ways in which consumer capitalism is changing and evolving, in some respects into a whole other beast. That is book culture.

Scorch Atlas
is lighting up the reviews, but here's an older interview that explains the magic:
At Eclectica.

Trying to get readers and writers to talk to one another:
At one of my new favorite blogs, Three Guys One Book.

More after the jump...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Five: 5 Indie Rock Songs for College Football

It's September. College kids are strutting back on campus, the hefty guys are throwing some footballs on Saturday and some coolness is entering the air. And we're not talking about the weather. We're talking about the frat boys who now listen to Dirty Projectors (wait, are they cool? I don't know...).

To bridge the worlds of indie rock and college football, Deckfight has asked Bryan and Langston from The Lawn Chair Boys to illuminate us on what college football would look like with an indie rock touch. And if you're not familiar with The Lawn Chair Boys, they bring the best ironic punch to sports this side of Ron Artest. And while you're there, check out my guest post on the Chicago Bears and Vanderbilt from last week.

5 indie rock songs for college football:

1. Tailgating: "People Say" by Portugal. The Man
The line "We may make it through the war if we make through the night" is sung with only the hope one can find in parking lots, ladder golf, and a solo cup. This song perfectly captures the positivity of tailgating while declaring that such festivities are indeed preparation for battle.

2. Entrance Music:"I Start to Run" by White Denim

Virginia Tech enters to the intensity of "Enter Sandman," which would certainly drown out the silence of Texas Tech's Mike Leach's speeches. He believes a calm team is a better team. In White Denim's song "I Start to Run," one finds the stark contrast of both philosophies, as the stadium is ripped apart by the crowd chanting, "start to run," before kickoff ensues.

3. Halftime Show Song: "Harmonium" by Rogue Wave

Halftime shows are supposed to be epic productions. They need twirling flags and layers of emotion, and the sounds need to shift in one's ear like colors in a kaleidoscope. They also need to be long enough for one to go by the bathroom and the concession stand without feeling like they missed anything. Rogue Wave's "Harmonium" does all these things.

4. Fight Song: "Give 'Em All a Big Fat Lip" by The Whigs

A fight song needs a driving bass line, like a heart that promises to beat through bone and flesh and defeat. Plus, the lyrics suggest one's opponent will get a punch to the face. Too bad Oregon coaches didn't encourage LeGarrette Blount to take up the bass guitar.

5. Alma Mater: "Chug Along" by Trainwreck Riders

Win or lose, at the end of the day, everyone's got to get together, hug, sing, and maybe toast a few. You know, all that about sentimentality hanging in the autumn leaves and from the goal posts. A song has to capture that: "paradise and a bad dream."

Bonus: Obvious omissions
"Underdog" by Spoon and anything by American Football.

More after the jump...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

review: David Bazan Curse Your Branches

David Bazan: "Hard To Be"
David Bazan: "Bless This Mess"

The questioning of God in all forms on this album cannot be denied, but what David Bazan's
Curse Your Branches shows is that the transition from belief to unbelief and possibly back again is not simple. It’s not a lightswitch, it’s not an easy button. In fact, it’s painful, despairing, confusing, heartbreakingly awful for your daughter to ask about God and not know what to tell her, as in "In Stitches." Then try “Bless This Mess” and “Hard To Be.” Both deal with decisions, family acceptance, family denial, and pervasive societal narratives. "Lost My Shape" is a slow plod that mentions drinking and worry over denying God, full of metaphors about lost causes. Bazan in Pedro the Lion was never the perfect premise of optimism, but most of this is dark even by his standards. But all of Bazan's musings are marks of someone who takes belief and then the declaration of unbelief seriously.

Bazan asks questions that every human being finds themselves asking at one point or another--but Bazan is bold or stupid enough to bring them into his art. Honesty has never been something he has struggled with. But now his brutal truth brings his beliefs to the forefront--Bazan (like the similarly misunderstood Daniel Smith of Danielson) had his first album released on a christian record label, back when that label Tooth and Nail took chances they could not fathom now. That decision has been more of a hindrance than a help for Bazan and his many critiques of Christianity over the years. The Christian market has very defined limitations, least of those are its actual beliefs, but it’s more about marketing and image and style...the same elements that go into every successful act on any major label. In other words, no matter if Bazan was still as active in his Christian faith as any pastor, his general style and outlook would not be a fit. Which is why
Curse Your Branches matters.

With that in mind, none of Bazan’s songs stray far musically from his previous adventures, except songs like “When We Fell,” “Bearing Witness” and “Bless This Mess” contain an undeniable jaunty joy, more pep in Bazan’s steps. Is their glee here? A hint of smirk? Possibly. Or it’s the culmination of more of his solo work, with some dabblings in classical country stylings--unlike the more modern rock element of
Control for instance.

Similar metaphors, such as the garden of Eden, the captain of a ship, having and developing children, original sin. All of these Bazan obsesses over in
Curse Your Branches, with the most definitive answer coming in the title track:
“Oh, falling leaves should curse their branches
For not letting them decide where they should fall
And not letting them refuse to fall at all”

Perhaps Bazan is not as frustrated at God, but just the process used in making people decide about God. Maybe grace and understanding is needed. Any who may be celebrating over Bazan's decision to seemingly reject his Christian beliefs are not listening close enough--in many ways, it's missing the point. Again, in “Curse Your Branches” Bazan asks:
“Red and orange, or blue and yellow
In which of these do you believe?
If you're not sure right now,
Please take a moment
I need your signature before you leave”

Some will be sure and definitive in their beliefs all their lives. Others need time and patience. I’m not sure where Bazan is, and it’s not up for me to decide. He’s asking questions, making his beliefs real. Asking questions that atheists, agnostics, Christians and other religious adherents need to ask. But
Curse Your Branches shows the often thin line between belief and unbelief.

More after the jump...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Swing South: John Ralston

John Ralston: "Ghetto Tested"

I'm enjoying the recent wave of emo troubadours, now that Dashboard Confessional is pretty much out of the way. Guys like Ace Enders, Jon Nolan, even The New Amsterdams. There are a whole bunch of others and one of those is John Ralston. From Lake Worth, FL he took a similar road after his stint with Legends of Rodeo, a band I love. Their early Americana/alt-country/emo hybrid seemed foreign in 2002 but now seems almost commonplace.

Ralston has embraced that ethic even more so with his solo releases, and has slowed down his tunes but has thrown some more electronic wash into the mix (see "White Spiders" and "Gone Gone Gone," a Legends-sounding song).

With all that said, personally I've dropped the ball on Mr. Ralston. Don't have any of his albums, but think I'll pick up some soon.

Southeast tour dates & vid after the jump:

This is a fan video of "Gone Gone Gone," but it's done well.

Southeast tour dates:

Sep 11 2009
New World Brewery Tampa, Florida

Sep 12 2009
Redlight Orlando, Florida

Sep 13 2009
Local 506 Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Sep 14 2009
Jammin Java Vienna, Virginia

Sep 21 2009
Drunken Unicorn Atlanta, Georgia

Sep 22 2009
1982 Gainesville, Florida

More after the jump...

Lit Randomness: Slaughterhouse 90210, slow down & Sarah Manguso

Interview w/ Maris Kreizman of Slaughterhouse 90210: At Jacket Copy.

I knew I wanted to start a blog that featured my favorite literary quotes, but I thought that quotes alone would be a bit too precious or boring. And I have always been a connoisseur of crappy TV. So I figured what better way to indulge my guilty pleasures than by pairing them with more high-minded fare?

How fast and often should authors write? Discussing "slow down": At The Millions.

Review of Bolano's Skating Rink: At The Fanzine.

An interview with Sarah Manguso: At Bookslut.

More after the jump...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day=Back on Wednesday

My labor day was rudely interrupted by some lawncare service cutting grass. After I take care of this end of summer vacation business, we'll be back Wednesday.
More after the jump...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Friday Five: Top 5 Southern Novels

These stories and this list got us thinking about what southern literature is and is supposed to be. Southern literature at its best contains all of the region's contradictions and irrationalities, full of rascals, rebels and wily reverends. The type of stuff we like to read. Here's our top 5 Southern novels.

5. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Though set in 1930s Georgia,
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is less about the Deep South and more about how normal people face up to life's many sorrows and disappointments. McCullers wrote the book at the age of 23, but her complex view of her varied characters and their sufferings demonstrates that she was wise beyond her years.--Andrew

4. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Every Southerner immediately and forever knows the malaise.

3. Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor

O'Connor slowly lures you in, then knocks you over the head.--my wife, Ashley

2. All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

Willie Stark = Huey Long = Bill Clinton. We are their pawns.

1. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

Only Ignatius Reilly has the courage to put his eccentricities and laziness into action. The rest of us just harbor resentment against his boldness.

More after the jump...
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