by Jason on February 23rd, 2010
DM Stith‘s full-length CD debut “Heavy Ghost” now dominates my “Top 25 Most Played” iTunes playlist and won the coveted “Jason’s Album of the Year” award in 2009. It’s a travesty that the record industry doesn’t recognize this prestigious award…also lack of funding makes a ceremony (or trophy) impossible. Still.
This is an album for the long dark winter months – lush soundscapes of fingerpicked guitar, dramatic piano, found sounds, and complex percussion. These instruments serve as backdrops that emphasize the multi-tracked arrangements of his unique voice. A more instrumental second half of the album highlights Stith’s falsetto crooning. In the album’s climax, “Braid of Voices”, Stith sings a round based on the lines, “From the back of my head/tied/to the back of my head” over a background chorus woven of his own howling and sighing. What sticks with me the most from this haunting album is its ability to channel an abundance of creativity into a cohesive audio experience.
by Jason on February 9th, 2010
Annie Clark’s alter-ego, St. Vincent, had a previous album in 2007, “Marry Me”, that cracked quite a few critic’s lists. I missed that boat, but her follow up this year, “Actor“, caught my attention when I heard the straightforward rock single “Actor Out Of Work.” It starts out loud and ends louder an urgent two minutes later. Annie Clark sings with clear enunciation in a very pure tone that reminds me of someone like Doris Day or a throwback singer such as Zooey Deschanel (without the annoying affectation). Beneath that simple, pretty delivery are difficult lyrics describing a complex world. In “Marrow” she opens over a rising angelic choir, “Muscle connects to the bone/And the bone to the ire and the marrow/I wish I had a gentle mind and a spine made up of iron.” That combination of light and dark is echoed in her music – strings and the occasional handclap paired with brash baritone saxophones and guitar with some of the dirtiest distortion fuzz I’ve heard in a while.
Annie will be bringing St. Vincent to the Blue Moose Tap House (formerly The Industry) next Tuesday the 16th, so brush up on her catalog quickly!
by Jason on October 26th, 2009
The last few weeks the leaves have finally turned and are starting to drop! For me it’s the perfect time of year for a polished voice paired with slightly sinister music and lyrics for my walk to work iPod playlist. Neko Case’s latest album Middle Cyclone has been filling that niche as I shuffle through the crunchy (sometimes wet) leaves.
Her voice can have a country twang at times but she’s more versatile than any modern pop-country artists. Her band is super talented and the album has a big production sound without losing an emotional resonance. What I most admire about Neko are her lyrics. The opening track, “This Tornado Loves You”, is a dark scorned-love tale with an urgent rhythm behind it to match an intense delivery and lyrics:
My love, I am the speed of sound
I left them motherless, fatherless
Their souls hanging inside-out from their mouths
But it’s never enough
I want you
I also recommend her previous album Fox Confessor Brings The Flood for more of the same.
by Jason on August 17th, 2009
Brian and I both work at the Fiction Desk. If you’ve been in this summer and asked for a recommendation from one of us chances are we shoved this massive fantasy novel in your hands and apologized for the awful cover art. For those of you who are too shy to ask directly I’ll try to ‘sell’ this electronically…but you’re missing out on my crazy hand gestures and emphatic facial expressions.
First let me say you do not necessarily have to like the fantasy genre at all to enjoy this. The series is mostly a vast and complicated character-driven historical fiction saga…with a dragon or three. Wait, haters stay with me here! OK, so there are dragons and a race of human-like beings that kill and create an army of undead ‘wights’, but most of the story (and there are over 3,000 pages – so far) is focused on an intricate plot design and many fascinating characters. You’re thrown into a medieval world of common folk, knights, lords and their King. And bad blood between the royal families make holding that throne oh so difficult.
Each chapter is written from the point of view of a different character and usually ends with a cliffhanger. Characters are presented as obvious heroes and villians but as you progress through the series things become much less black and white. 800-odd pages have never gone by so quickly! Oh and HBO is making the pilot, so there is huge potential for this series to blow up.
by Jason on June 24th, 2009
Laurie Halse Anderson’s earlier Young Adult novel, Speak, described the aftermath of a rape at a summer party. It was heartbreaking yet ultimately empowering. Although it was her first novel it quickly established her as one of the better writers in the YA genre. Her latest, Wintergirls, is another “problem novel” that could have been average if not for her lyrical writing style and ability to really get us into the head of an anorexic teen.
Lia’s voice mail was full. One message spoke: I’m so sad. I can’t get out. Lia should have answered her phone, but she was too upset. She had 33 chances that night to answer the calls from her former best friend, Cass. Instead she turned off the phone, went to bed, and Cass died all alone in her hotel room.
Now it”s getting harder for Lia to maintain her sanity and her impossible goal of weighing 85.00 (she always weighs herself to the hundredth decimal place) pounds with the ghost of bulimic Cass popping in and out. Lia understands what it means to weigh so little but her brain just won’t allow her to put food in her stomach. 85.00 is dangerland. 85.00 is Fourth of July fireworks in a small metal box.
Anderson is truly in command in this novel, utilizing simple stylistic tricks such as strikethroughs (
example) to illustrate Lia’s internal self-censorship, while effortlessly playing with language. Warning to the reader: set aside the whole evening and keep the tissues nearby. It’s refreshing to read a novel geared for teens that has such high literary quality while still remaining accessible for the audience!
by Jason on March 12th, 2009
Richard Novak is living a stereotypical ritzy L.A. life : a huge yet empty house, ex-wife and son living back in N.Y., a personal trainer, a nutritionist. He’s financially well-off due to his knack for trading stocks online from home (I kept thinking how different Richard’s life would be today), he barely leaves the house anymore, and wears Bose noise-canceling headphones all day so he doesn’t have to interact with anyone. A sudden crippling pain forces him to make an emergency room visit which seems to reset his life. From here Homes introduces random obstacles and eccentric characters into Richard’s path and we see just what sort of man he really is. He meets and befriends a guru-like donut shop owner, a housewife at the end of her rope, and a 60s counterculture folk hero. These characters all help Richard make sense of his existence and, as a result, he attempts to reconnect with the son he left over a decade ago.
The L.A. satire is pretty heavy-handed, but she has still loaded the novel with funny dialogue and bizarre scenarios throughout (I especially liked the scene where a neighbor’s horse is trapped in a sinkhole and the Hollywood star rescues it with his helicopter). Overall this is a novel that would have made bigger waves 15 years ago, but I found it an engaging read and, sadly, many of the life lessons are still pertinent.
by Jason on January 29th, 2009
I’m one of those people that likes just about everything Mr. Bob Dylan churns out. Sure there are degrees of ‘like’ involved and I’d never compare a "Blood on the Tracks" with say a… "Down in the Groove", but there are always at least a few keepers on each album.
Most Dylan fans agree that the last three albums have been heavy on the keepers and with each album’s release there were internet rumors of unreleased gems Dylan left by the wayside (he’s notoriously fickle during his recording sessions). Sony/Columbia have finally put together a collection of some of these more “modern era” (1989-2006) rare and unreleased songs in the form of volume 8 in their must-have Bootleg Series. I was really looking forward to this collection in order to hear the castoff tunes, but found that I was much more impressed with the alternate versions of previously released tunes.
One of the standouts on this album is a stripped down version of “Most of the Time” originally recorded for the underrated 1989 “Oh Mercy” album. To me the original version suffers slightly from trying to achieve a contemporary sound (for the time) and really works so much better here with less production and more emphasis on the song’s structure, delivery, and lyrics. You can hear both versions via the link at the beginning of the paragraph. It’s one of those “Idiot Wind” lost/screwed-up love tunes where Dylan can pair lone-wolf style boasting (“I don’t compromise and I don’t pretend, I don’t even care if I ever see her again”) with a somber refrain (“Most of the time”). Another solid entry in the Bootleg Series.
by Jason on November 26th, 2008
This is a pretty quiet, introspective character study novel of the life of Laura Bush, although Sittenfeld here uses the character pseudonym "Alice Lindgren" and we’re put in Wisconsin rather than Texas. For those that care to delve into the personal history of Laura there is plenty in here for you to Google after reading particularly juicy passages (of which there are many), but for me I found I cared less and less about what was biography…which I guess would be a point for Sittenfeld since this is a novel and not a biography. Those seeking Bush family dirt will recognize most of the actions that occur (the fatal High School car accident, the Roe v. Wade comment) but could be surprised by the personalities (George Sr. gets a pass and Barbara is shown as quite the ice queen).
There’s a lot in here, though a majority of the 600-odd pages deal with life prior to the White House. I kept waiting for elections and losses and victories (the last two might depend on who you ask) but when it came to the build up to the 2000 election I decided those years were actually the least interesting of Alice/Laura’s life. Thankfully Sittenfeld seemed to agree and much is glossed over in favor of how her early life’s traumas and family relationships created the possibly (again, it is fiction) complex woman we now know as the first lady. And if she’s right in her depiction, which I feel is a fair portrayal, then I think no one will be happier to see the Bush’s leave the White House than Laura herself.
by Jason on October 27th, 2008
A BIG title, will the content inside live up to it? Not completely, but this is still a fun offbeat YA novel for the ladies (and guys if they’re mature enough to give it a shot).
Frankie’s summer vacation is coming to an end, she’s about to start her sophomore year at her elite boarding school. Like many girls her age she’s been developing intellectually, emotionally and physically. These changes (basically *ahem* the latter one) do not go unnoticed and Frankie starts her new year off right by catching the eye of the uber-popular, dreamy senior Matthew and is ushered into his social circle. Complicating things, Frankie’s a feminist and quite spunky. Bravo to Lockhart in her portrayal of this relationship, there’s some believable internal monologue involving her feelings towards this long-standing crush. The pretty-boy Matthew treats her like a child, doll, groupie, etc…
Frankie is also conflicted by Matthew’s best buddie bad-boy ‘Alpha,’ who has an infuriating Alpha-dog complex and does all sorts of fun unladylike things Frankie wants to be doing. She learns that these two are involved in a boys-only merry-prankster secret society that she longs to join. When they refuse to acknowledge their part in this fraternity, she decides to anonymously hijack it via e-blackmail which results in all sorts of great campus pranks courtesy of the new queen-alpha. Some great lessons for women in here about figuring out what is most important and how to remain true to yourself when faced with the prospect of having it all.
by Jason on September 29th, 2008
This book is receiving a lot of hype as the Young Adult book of the fall season. Collins, author of the popular Juvenile Fiction series The Underland Chronicles (Gregor), has written for a slightly higher grade level in this dystopian action/adventure novel. The United States has fractured into a land made up of the domineering and decadent Capitol population served by 12 outlying districts, each responsible for some form of trade to support the Capitol. An earlier rebellion was quashed by the Capitol and now each year two representatives from each district are sent to compete in a reality television Running Man-esque deathmatch designed to remind the districts of their insubordination. Oh and these lucky chosen few are always between the ages of 12 and 18. Here’s where the story gets morally difficult…or at least I thought it was going to be. I mean 12-year-olds stabbing fellow pre-teens? Dark stuff, right?
Turns out Collins sidesteps this more intriguing issue in favor of building a tense action-packed story of survival as well as introducing a psychologically confusing romance between the two spunky and brave contestants from lowly District 12. Don’t get me wrong, I still think teens are going to eat this story up, but Collins really had a chance to do something more lasting with this one. Apparently Collins has a trilogy in mind for this storyline, I’d be surprised if she switches gears for the rest of the series, either way I’ll be first in line for book 2.