Monday, 30 June 2008
Celtic Frost -- 'A Dying God Coming Into Human Flesh'
Where We're Going:
Ghostface Killah -- 'Run'
For more actual writing about this Grant Morrison/J.G. Jones creepy horror story as superhero epic, go read Graeme McMillan, Douglas Wolk, Tom Ewing (who compares the book to Marvel's Secret Invasion in a very even-handed way) and Charles W. Hatfield. I'll write more after issue #3 hits, probably.
Mini-manifesto still pending. More on that later.
Sunday, 29 June 2008
The lyrics point to an ocean's deepest depths, but the music sounds more like a gentle waterfall -- the 'arpeggi' of the title cascade down on top of each other, and when Thom Yorke starts to sing his words add to the stream of abstraction:
The meaning is clear, but the language is as expressive as the trickling guitar lines or the wordless backing vocals: I need to get out, and I will follow you to do so even if it leads me over the edge. This feeling intensifies at the point where the guitar lines seem to double their speed and purpose, the trickle becoming a powerful stream. Yorke's words take on an air of justification ("Everybody leaves/If they get the chance") and then... there's no stream anymore, only little bubbles of sound and the "worms/And weird fishes" that haunt the depths.
In the deepest ocean
Bottom of the sea
They turn me
Why should i stay here?
Why should i stay?
I'd be crazy not to follow
Your eyesThey turn me
Turn me on to phantoms
I follow to the edge of the earth
And fall off
Before the titular fishes can do too much damage to Our Hero, however, the music kicks back in, but it's different now, more rhythmic and bass-driven. Indeed, the song actually grooves in its last segment, and the lyrics become driven too, with Yorke's voice dropping lower and sounding both frazzled and determined:
I'll hit the bottom
Hit the bottom and escape
I'll hit the bottom
Hit the bottom to escape
And then it's over, but is the 'escape' the voice achieves true escape or the escape of a man who actually sits cracked and bloodied in the torturer's chair? It's hard to say -- as with the rest of the song, this climax is more about specific sounds and general sentiments than narrative detail, a great torrent of dazed, dreamlike beauty that stops just when you think it might get too much.
Ghostface Killah -- 'Underwater'
This Ghostface number is much more literal and descriptive, even though its content is probably even more ridiculous. Shit, at one point, Ghost goes from talking about Mermaids with Gucci bags to describing "Spongebob in the Bently Coupe/ Banging the Isleys" in a matter of seconds.
Its this clear-headed approach to the preposterous that gives 'Underwater' its power -- the music matches the title-to-song connectivity of 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi' by flooding the sensuous flute sample with burbling water sounds, and Ghostface sounds perfectly at home in this imaginary environment. Indeed, his journey towards underwater transcendence is completely unmarred by the worry that characterises Yorke's vocal performance. As such, it comes off more like a supernaturally detailed and compelling dream, one that you were totally amazed by and detached from at the same time.
Taken in the context of its parent album Fishscale, this surrealised calm makes a lot of sense. 'Underwater' arrives near the end of a record full of gang warfare and romantic strife, and suggests a sort of Little Nemo-esque oblivion that seems quite pleasing, if only for a change of pace, a rest from the constant flux of emotions.
What's remarkable here is not that Ghostface's way with verbal detail is better than Radiohead's wonderfully harmonised disassociation or vice versa, but rather that these songs represent two equally brilliant approaches to conceptual madness. 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi' and 'Underwater' are connected on the level of general conceit, and are both notable for being richer, stranger and more suggestive than the work of either artists' contemporaries. What can I say, I'm a sucker for music that shows some imagination, no matter how it's realised.
There's more than one way to heaven, just like there's more than one way to hell -- just remember to pay attention to what you're doing and how, or you'll end up at the bottom of the sea getting eaten alive, or with a six hundred word essay that bears no resemblance to what really went on.
Saturday, 28 June 2008
No excuses, no further explanations, just a general sense that I want to get this place back in order. Which... it's my birthday today -- I'm 26 now, and I've just woke up with a head full of "oh shit, time to get busy!" I've got Speakerboxxx on the stereo at the moment, and if that doesn't mark me as a blogger who's five years out of time then I don't know what does!
Still, I'm looking over my notes for blog posts, listening to Outkast, trying to decide how to proceed. Not today. Too much other stuff to do. Plus, also: celebration! But next week I'm going to post a wee semi-serious manifesto as part of an attempt to requisition my groove back -- maybe it'll work, maybe it won't, we'll see.
UPDATE: JESUS! Now that's what I call a Kirby-tastic birthday! Thanks guys!
Also: Karen , thanks so much for the Connect ticket you brilliant mentalist you! Seriously, Breeders + Goldfrapp + Grinderman + Gossip + Spiritualized + Mercury Rev + Malkmus (w/Janet Weiss!) + Manics + Camera Obscura + Gutter Twins = hell yeah!
Monday, 23 June 2008
A little follow-up to my previous post on the joys of Joe Casey's weirder comics (riddled with errors and typos as the initial post was, I'm determined to add to it!):
Having just stated that I think Casey is at his best when he allows his characters to lead the story rather than imposing a strict plot on them, I find myself thinking about the importance of purpose in Casey's work.
This came up in that Comics Journal interview Casey did with Tom Spurgeon, and it seems like a thought that has some flexibility to it. Many of Casey's characters are heroes in search of a vocation: the casts of Automatic Kafka and Wildcats have outlasted their original reasons for existing, the teenagers of The Intimates are still trying to work out who they're going to be, and Godland is all about following your own buzz vs finding your place in the scale of things.
So how does this fit with the idea that Casey's best work is free, loose and animistic? Shouldn't that very freeness mean that Casey's characters are constantly on the run from thematic purpose? Well, no. See, whether they're chasing down the ultimate high (like Basil Cronus), trying to find a new way to save the world (Wildcats 3.0 come on down) or struggling with their role as forerunner to evolution (Adam Archer, Godland's comin' soon!) Casey's best characters are all trying to do what they think they have to. They might be wrong -- many of them seem plain deluded! -- but overall I get the sense that Casey appreciates the fact having the space to do what you want is a good place to start working out what you should do.
Maybe this is the kind of lesson you learn when you're not given complete control. Like, if you start off writing corporate superhero characters, balancing your own impulses with the desires of the company. Then, eventually, you get to do your own thing for a while, but your impressionistic superhero satire series gets canceled early -- what do you do? And then what if it happens again, with your formally ambitious teen superhero story?
In both cases, Casey's response was to explain what was going on within the text, informing both the characters and the audience what he'd been trying to do, and then to wipe the slate as clean as he could. There's a bitterness to Casey's tone when this happens the second time round, but what does this gesture actually say? That if you can't do it as you'd planned, it's best to just make your intentions clear, explain the mitigating factors, and walk away. Is that it? Maybe. And is that a stroppy response or a mature one? I'm not sure.
Here's something Casey said during another interview with Tom Spurgeon (who is totally the glue holding this series of half-formed thoughts together, in case you hadn't noticed):
I think it's a very mature decision to not hold onto things too tightly... to know when to let go. To have that wider perspective and understand how an action -- even if it doesn't benefit you personally -- can affect a greater good. I don't think that's too heavy-handed a sentiment to place on superhero characters, do you?Casey's obviously addressing issues "within" his stories here, but I guess I'm curious about the ways that this theme resonates outside of his comics as well. It points to a series of questions that might be equally important to an office worker, a comic book writer, a journalist, a bummed out girlfriend, a super-genius crime fighter, or just about any other damned fool out there. It's power/responsibility and all that old noise, sure, but Casey engages with this concept in a way that seems refreshingly thoughtful and unforced. Better yet, he does so while still honoring the gloriously silly and sleazy side of the comic book galaxy (see all the crazy crap I was enthusing about in my previous post for proof).
Like his characters, I'm not sure that Casey always knows what the right action always is when it comes to balancing his wishes with the will of the world. What he does seem to be sure of is that if he keeps letting his characters try to work these questions out for themselves then he might eventually hit on something. Plus, it makes for entertaining stories, even (perversely!) when that freedom is curtailed (those last few issues of The Intimates are fucked up and fascinating in equal measure).
So let's hear it for Casey and his collaborators.
Godland might be on a collision course with its ending now, but at least everyone involved seems prepared this time, so let's hope that this crash is a good one. And if not, well, at least Casey's got enough personal freedom that he can still mix bill paying numbers with flights of lunatic fancy. Now can someone help me rob a bank or two to get Godland artist Tom Scioli enough money to keep him happily unemployed for the rest of his days? The fact that he draws his books on his lunch breaks and while chilling with his family is both a demonstration of personal purpose and a dick-kicking reminder that even guys who create awesome, fairly successful comics have to pay the bills through other means.
Sunday, 22 June 2008
Scott McAllister drops in with a text message regarding Nine Inch Nails’ new album The Slip:
...it’s like With Teeth but, uh, breezier. Y’know, in the way that a giant industrial fan is breezy.
And he’s right. Go find out for yourselves, if you haven't already.
Thursday, 19 June 2008
LCD Soundsystem -- 'Big Ideas'
It's always tempting to review LCD Soundsystem records through references to other pop songs. This is partly James Murphy's fault, if anyone really needs to be blamed -- after all, the music he makes is full of overt nods to and riffs on the music he loves, and his breakthrough single 'Losing My Edge' was a self-damning catalog of cool music references.
The problem is that this can foreground the method at the expense of the results. Listing ingredients is nothing on eating a good meal, and it's easy to overlook this fact when you're comparing a new Grant Morrison Superman comic to its sixties counterparts, or tracing the various elements of house and disco music that make up a typical Hercules and Love Affair track.
'Big Ideas' could certainly be described in such terms: you could probably compare the big blasts of Eno-esque sound that break up the track to the more mellow drone of Murphy's previous Eno-riff 'Great Release' if you wanted to. Seriously, though, to do that seems kinda perverse in a way, because like most LCD Soundsystem songs 'Big Ideas' is so ridiculously about right here and right now. It's about that chugging bass-line, those perfect drums fills, and hook after glorious hook hammered to perfection by Murphy's yelped vocals and tinny guitar lines. It is totally physical, just like a good LCD Soundsystem live show, where new songs can become fan favourites before they're even over (no joke, I saw this happen before Sound of Silver was released).
Don't get me wrong, I've been a total reference-damaged geek for most of my life. Before I'd even heard of Cape Fear, I'd seen the Simpsons parody of it; when I finally saw Manhattan for the first time, all I could could think of was the opening to season two of Spaced. As such, it's no surprise that people like me should enjoy music that courts our trivia-heavy mindset, which is why I'd argue that Murphy shouldn't be blamed for the focus on other music that pervades the discourse around his records.
No one should ignore context or history, of course, not even when dealing with ephemeral pop music. It can be fun way to approach art as part of a tangled web of action and reaction, particularly in our current information-heavy environment. The only problem comes when this becomes the dominant way in which an artists work is considered, particularly when that artist has a personal aesthetic as strong as that of James Murphy, or Grant Morrison, or JH Williams or Jonathan Lethem.
(Missing from this argument: a discussion of the difference between using your sources and merely imitating them, record-collector rock vs music that plays with its sources, etc.)
Pop culture riffs and references are a useful tool in the creation and evaluation of art, and I think most people know that. As such, this post isn't a shot at any particular critics, but rather a response to the general feeling I get from reading positive and negative reviews of works that are overt in their debts to their sources. It's also a very lengthy note to self:
Don't let the subtext obliterate the text, don't let the recipe overpower the meal, don't ignore a groove this good in favour of dwelling on the other great grooves it builds on.
After all, writing reviews and essays is useful and fun, but sometimes you've just gotta dance!
Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Automatic Kafka and Godland both benefit hugely from the sheer looseness of their design,with Godland being particularly notable for how little the antics of its various side characters have to do with the adventures of Adam Archer and his family. Indeed, Friedrich Nicklehead, Basil Cronus and the Tormentor have spent so much time chasing each other round in circles that it's almost a surprise when their stories collide with the main plot!
The Intimates seemed to be intended as a another character driven serial, but the bitter self-commentary of some of its later issues seems to indicate that Casey was chaffing against the perception that this wasn't what people wanted from the book. Perhaps the post Automatic Kafka Casey was feeling doubly frustrated by the fact that he'd had to cut two such stories short in close proximity?
This bout of second-guessing brings me to two of Casey's more recent works -- the short graphic novel Nixon's Pals and the first issue of Charlatan Ball.
Nixon's Pals is entertaining, but its story is maybe concise in a way that stops it from being a total success. What's good about it is the sheer oddball sleaziness of the world Casey and artist Chris Burnham have created. The super-powered parolees that populate the book have a freakish charm that's distinctly Casey -- it would have been nice if they'd been given more of a chance to wander around and talk crap and be weird, instead of being trapped in a fairly stock, noirish plot, but so it goes...
Charlatan Ball has only just started, but as an ongoing series I'm hopeful that it'll find the time to let its characters and concepts do whatever the hell they want to do. The premise is simple and not particularly amazing in itself -- guy has crap life, slips through into another, weirder reality, which... let’s not fuck around, this could be any number of children's fantasy books or 60s sci-fi stories with that setup.
As such, a project like this succeeds or fails on the basis of its tone and details, and thankfully Charlatan Ball is superstrong on both of those points. As Sean Witzke has pointed out, Casey's obsession with the sheer visual weirdness of Kirby's works is the first thing that'll strike you here, just like it does in Godland. There's a warped, fluid quality to Andy Suriano's linework that combines with the murky psychedelia of the colour scheme in a way that suggests a cross between prime-time Kirby and the 80s work of Brendan McCarthy.
Here's the cover for issue #2, for those of you who haven't had a look at the book yet:
See what I mean about the Kirby-style madness? That post of Sean's that I linked to above has a great image from the inside of issue #1 that really highlights what I was talking about with regards to the colouring too -- go check it out!
It's worth noting that Charlatan Ball isn't Godland redux, because any attempt to sell it as such would be disingenuous at best. Indeed, in contrast to Godland artist Tom Scioli's forceful, blocky figures, Charlatan Ball presents us with a universe that looks like it could melt together into technicolour oneness at any moment. Except it's not quite so wholesome as all that, what with the match fixing, mobs debts and strips bars and all. And that's fine with me, so long as Casey and Suriano keep letting their weirder instincts run free. Your mileage may vary, of course, but if you enjoy Casey's more free-spirited works then I'd say there's a good chance you'll like this one too.
Friday, 13 June 2008
I am, of course, referring to The Apocalipstix, the upcoming Cameron Stewart/Ray Fawkes comic which looks like Josie & The Pussycats + Mad Max to the power of awesome!
Comic Book Resources have both a fifty page preview and an interview with the creators. Check em both out.
Also -- BOOM!
Just a little taste of the book for you. Looks good, doesn't it? It's interesting to me that there's this undercurrent of wrongness and horror to most the comics that Cameron Stewart's drawn so far in his career. Sin Titulo and The Other Side are all about that atmosphere, and in both cases there's a certain frisson to be derived from the sight of such graceful, cartoony artwork being applied to such dark purposes.
The more I think about it, though, the more this creepy, unnerving material seems less like the exception and more like the rule for Stewart. After all, his stint on Catwoman mixed joyous multi-pannel slug-fests with scenes of grizzly torture, and his collaborations with Grant Morrison have all been studies in tainted innocence.
The brilliant thing about The Apolcalypstix with regards to this schemata is that it looks to be the most straight-up fun work of Stewart's career, and yet it's set in a post-apocalyptic society! What the hell!
The most interesting part of that interview, for me? Definitely this bit from Cameron Stewart:
“When I started work on ‘The Apocalipstix’ original graphic novel, I decided that I was not going to be restricted by page count, I would just draw each scene as it felt natural for me to do and allow myself as many pages as I wanted to do it right. I found this really liberating and it enabled me to use double page splashes for effect far more frequently than I would have if I'd been stuck with only 22 pages for each chapter. This is a big, loud, pop story and I think it needed big, loud, pop panels.”
Then again, I'm totally hot for process, so what do I know?
Sean posted this lil' meme on his blog:
You are in a mall when the zombies attack. You have:
1. one weapon.
2. one song blasting on the speakers.
3. one famous person to fight alongside you.
Weapon can be real or fictional, you may assume endless ammo if applicable. Person can be real or fictional.
And man is this one ever a hoot to answer!
I posted my first go at it on Sean's site:
1. A portable waffle iron (heavy duty, with ghostbusters style backpack as power source) - that'd be my weapon of choice.
2. MIA's 'Boyz' on the PA.
3. Poor, bemused Michael Cera as my sidekick.
But the man Plok is right: this one demands to be answered several times over! For example, if I were to give it a go right now my answers would be:
1. Bruce Campbell on a stick.
2. Mogwai's 'Glasgow Mega Snake' blasting out the speakers.
3. A concussed Kevin Sorbo as my fighting partner.
(Note: If possible, Sorbo should be so dazed that he actually believes that he's Hercules, and that he's been transported to some hellish, plastic underworld which he must battle his way out of. )
Ok, so the first answer is a bit cheaty, but hell, I know a Bruce Campbell apocalypse when I see one!
Anyway, ask me the same question again in a couple of minutes and I might say:
1. A half-brick in a sock.
2. Public Enemy's 'Brothers Gonna Work It Out' bouncing off the walls.
3. A ridiculously caffeinated Eliza Dushku for support.
Ach, who am I kidding, I could probably answer this question all day. For example:
1. A diamond studded lead pipe.
2. Fugazi's 'Returning the Screw' shredding the soundsystem.
3. Dizzee Rascal by my side (I'd die horribly, but he'd try to help, and would probably get a good song out of it!)
Ah, man -- good to know I'm playing Zombies tonight. That might just be the geekiest thing I've ever said here (and remember, this is mostly a comics blog), but damn if I'm not in exactly the right mood for it today!
Erm... anyone else fancy a go at this meme, or have I killed it for the world?
Wednesday, 11 June 2008
Marnie Stern -- In Advance of the Broken Arm
At first the blast of drums and guitars and vocals that makes up yr typical Marnie Stern song might sound like an explosion in a music shop, but don't run for cover right away. Pay attention to the virtuoso fragments as they whiz past your ears and you'll realise that that songs such as 'Vibrational Match' and 'Plato's Fucked Up Cave' contain beautiful melodies in their jagged tangents. What does it sound like? Like Sleater Kinney blasted into a million art rock pieces, all intricate guitar parts and songs that combust and re-combust as they go on.
Forget such easy comparisons and throw yourself into the heart of the album and you'll discover the greater purpose of this musical shrapnel. It's there in the lyrics and song titles, which read like frantic notes to self: "Keep on! Keep at it! Keep on! Keep at it!", 'Put All Your Eggs In One Basket and Then Watch That Basket!!', 'Every Single Line Means Something'.
This is music that constantly challenges itself to get better, more imaginative. It'd sound hectoring if there wasn't so much going on, if every song weren't a firecracker full of ideas, just waiting to seen, heard, described, imitated, and dreamed of. On album closer 'Patterns of a Diamond Ceiling', Stern describes her method while she demonstrates it. "The picture in my head is my reward" she says, and you believe her, but you know that the picture wouldn't be half so valuable if there weren't listeners to misinterpret it for themselves. By the time all of the elements in the song have been brought together to ignite, you've learned Stern's methods, and it's time to burn your own picture into the sky. You've got the tools, you've got the know-how: go!
Masta Killa -- No Said Date
Of all the Wu-Tang MCs, who ever thought that Masta Killa would be the one to most truly embody the Clan's kung-fu philosophy? No Said Date starts with a dialogue fragment about a young apprentice seeking out to judge his master's former pupils, and follows up on this premise by hitting the Wu basics hard. Scuzzed up soul & martial arts chatter are married with forceful precision by the RZA and his disciples, while Masta Killa spits a mix of thug-chat and thoughtful flashbacks together with an attention to rhythmic intricacy that recalls Rakim in full flow. The relative lack of vocal charisma that had previously seemed to be Masta Killa's weakness works to his advantage here: no Wu-Tang rapper has ever sounded so relaxed in his own mastery as he does on this album. There are cameos from high profile Wu members, sure, but not even the frantic drama of Ghostface or the muffle-mouthed charm of the Method Man can decenter Masta Killa here. He's too busy relishing his art, finding gaps in the beat, making sure that his fellow Wu-soldiers know that he's got the skills to match them if needs be.
Tuesday, 10 June 2008
It's simple, you see, once you look at it with the right pair of TV-addled eyes. You see, it's all a big trick. Or a big treat, depending on how the current 'Batman RIP' story finishes. Morrison's run began with Bruce Wayne attending a charity event in London, yes? Well, while he was there, it is my contention that he was snared by TV illusionist Derren Brown:
Taken from this point of view, the scheme behind Morrison's story becomes clear. On Brown's current TV show, Channel 4's Trick or Treat, members of the public who have applied to be on the show find themselves wrapped up in a bit of theatrical reprogramming. Whether this reprogramming is done with the intent to help the participant or just totally freak them out depends on whether they draw a trick card or a treat card. Oh, and they don’t find out what they’ve drawn until events resolve themselves, by the way – which makes it that little bit more fucked up when he, say, asks them to eat a bit of glass or whatever. And that was part of a confidence boosting treat!
Now, Morrison’s Batman may or may not have volunteered for the treatment he’s receiving, but there can be no doubt that the jumble of black-out experiences, forgotten memories, and hints of an intangible conspiracy have all the giddy “what the hell?” bounce of a good Derren Brown show. But is he being broken down or built back up? That’s the hook that Morrison’s run to date has built up to, and rereading it all in one sitting... well, there’s some amount of showmanship there.
Ok, so I'm obviously not being serious with the Derren Brown is the Black Glove stuff (though I don't know if that twist would be any more goofy than it being Thomas Wayne Jr) . I do think that Morrison doesn’t get enough credit for the performative aspect of his writing – his skills as a philosopher have been overstated by some of his admirers, but even his lesser works tend to keep me guessing as to what’s going on right up to the end (insert your own jokes as to the incomprehensibility of Morrison’s writing here).
Of course, you could also point out that this particular Batman run has elicited another feeling familiar to viewers of Brown's TV programs: that it's all just complete bullshit hidden behind elaborate stagecraft. Now, fair enough, a big part of Derren Brown's thing is to show the machinations behind mysterious nonsense (see his Seance show, for example). However, it's hard not to be skeptical about the extent to which Derren is able to manipulate people through suggestion -- shouldn't this guy be the ruler of the world by now? Or is he an actual, old fashioned supervillain psychologically, i.e. all he wants to do is mess with people in a colourful and unlikely way? Well, I guess that fits -- it's why I started this post off with a joke about him being the Black Glove, after all.Of course Morrison's bullshit is bullshit, what with him being a guy who makes up stories for a living and all, but he needs to bring it all together in a way that's both convincing and exciting. He's messing with his audience, which is probably a good thing to do in a Batman comic, providing that the feeling that it's all starting to make sense isn't a total con. Me, I've got faith -- Morrison's a good showman, just like Brown, and I've got a feeling that he's breaking Batman to pieces with a clear idea of how he wants to reform him.
Now if only he had a more capable artistic assistant than current artist Tony Daniels, who I hear is a fan favourite but whose work strikes me as being stiff and unremarkable. This story needs an artist who could unite various previous interpretations of the character in a new way, someone who could dispel those worries that Morrison's run is all suggestion and no story. Someone like J.H. Williams, maybe? Heh, I kid -- great as Williams' stint as artist was, I know he couldn't fit the book into his schedule.
Still, it doesn't hurt to dream... no, wait, maybe it does!
Anyway, for all the frustrations of Morrison's Batman (see me ranting here), it's the monthly comic that currently has me most excited to find out what happens next. There are better superhero books out there (All Star Superman and Godland, for example), but the appeal of showmanship and suggestion shouldn't be underrated.
(EDIT: A question occurs -- do I find the showmanship of Morrison's Batman more engaging than that of All Star Superman or Godland because I know that the creative teams have greater freedom in those latter titles? Like, is part of the appeal here watching to see how much Morrison can do within the flexible-but-yet-constrictive setting of the DCU? This ties back into Derren Brown's shows, where a lot of the entertainment derives from a certain lack of credibility -- "he couldn't possibly do that". This is, of course, one of the key appeals of genre fiction, seeing how clever writers play with and break certain rules. So... yeah, I guess it's possible. That said, adherence to shared, corporate universe generates confusion and disappointment in the world of comics more often than not -- see some of the discordant reactions to Final Crisis #1 as discussed in this Grant Morrison interview for examples.)
Sunday, 8 June 2008
Also: the moon = full of bunnies?! (Thanks Uncertainty Principle!)
Also also: as much as I'm looking forward to various Grant Morrison comics, more Godland, etc, the comics event that's getting me most excited this summer is Eddie Campbell's Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard.
For a slightly longer peek, go have a look at this post on Campbell's blog.
Thank you and goodnight!
Despite the fact that he's a well established pop-science author, it's always tempting to read Steven Johnson's output like you would that of an exciting young novelist. Emergence laid out his themes and interests and tried to find connections between them; everything he has published since has chased down one of these concepts down hard*.
Whether exploring the workings of the brain in Mind Wide Open or discussing the increasing complexity of popular culture in Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson's previous work has made for speedy, idea-heavy reading, not unlike the fictions of JG Ballard. The Ghost Map slows things down a little, perhaps out of necessity as much as anything else. The story Johnson has decided to tell works well to explicate one of Emergence's themes (the way that cities organise themselves over time), but is also far more grounded in history and biography than anything he's previously written. This level of contextual detail might be slightly off-putting to those expecting something as sleek as Johnson's other works, but those who persevere will be rewarded with a slice of London Victoriana that sidesteps plastic Ballardisms for the earthier textures of Ballard's contemporary Michael Moorcock.
The story of two men (an anesthesiologist and a clergyman, contrast fans!) who discovered that cholera is a waterborne disease rather than an airborne one, The Ghost Map opens up with swathes of Dickensian detail and even the odd Dickens references, and then travels chronologically from the sources of 1854's cholera outbreak to the aforementioned discoveries. The most obviously "Steven Johnson"-esque part of this is the epilogue, with its discussion of the story's relevance to the modern city, but the content of the book are given more prominence than any of the points the author wants to make. As such, the novelistic elements of Johnson's writing blossom here, with his recurring thematic concerns seeming to grow out of vast swathes of sullied ground, rather than being scratched into it.
Of course, it's not that this style is better than that of Johnson's previous works -- that's a question of personal taste. What I will say is that it's good to see Johnson trying to find new, unforced forms with which to explore his recurring concerns, just like an ambitious fiction writer would.
*I haven't read Johnson's first book Interface Culture yet, so I can't say if it either strengthens my point or demolishes it.
Saturday, 7 June 2008
--You know how I was praising Marnie Stern's 'Absorb Those Numbers' for the way it recombines its own components as it goes on? Well here's a masterclass in the form: Matthew Perpetua has put up an entire live set from the Fiery Furnaces' Blueberry Boat medley tour! It's great to hear all those melodies, bizarre stories and instrumental freakouts run into each other in a controlled (if somewhat breathless!) fashion. Really makes you appreciate just how many great tunes these guys have in them, as well as how beautifully perverse their instincts can be.
--Also via that lad Perpetua, an interview with The Long Blondes on their new album "Couples". The band's pride in their improved craft hasn't made for an easy journalistic hook this year, which is a shame because the new record's a big step up on their first one and it seems like very few people are interested.
--This Barbelith thread on the work of cartoonist Frank Quitely seems quite promising. Topics covered so far include the man's way with space, body language and character design, as well as the influence of old-school Scottish comic strips such as Oor Wullie and The Broons.
--Of all the clashing opinions on JG Jones/Grant Morrison's Final Crisis #1 I've read during the past week or so, Sean Collins' take matches most closely with my own. It might be commercial suicide, but I took a great deal of perverse pleasure in the fact that the opening chapter of DC's big summer blockbuster played out like an oblique cosmic detective story. Of course, it could have done with a more compelling cliffhanger, but I guess Morrison had already used up two good ones in this month's issues of Batman and Superman. So... yeah, Final Crisis: it looks pretty, and it seems like it could really heat up as it goes on. I'll stay with it for now.
I'm having a bit of a rethink about the way I write this blog. I think I'm either going to switch to longer, more sporadic posts or to shorter pieces which have a more deliberate agenda, but it's all undecided as of yet. And... we're done.
Friday, 6 June 2008
But hey -- looks like Sean's Tagged me for a meme:
List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they're not any good, but they must be songs you're really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they're listening to'.
Ok, sounds like a laugh. Here we go:
(1) Roots Manuva -- 'Witness (1 Hope)'
This sounds like the soundtrack to the most banging computer game of all time, but it's actually a combustible mix of self-deprecation and contemplative force, which is just what you need right now. Keep on jumping those turtles, keep on collecting those rings, keep on doing whatever it is that you find you need to do.
Don't stop, but just remember not to take it too seriously either.
(2) The Long Blondes -- 'Couples'
So is this 'How Soon Is Now?' for attractive, fashionable young women who're somehow convinced they're past it at 26? Yeah, that sounds good. That sounds interesting. That sounds like another complication in the Long Blondes' persona (as outlined perfectly by Miss AMP in this piece).
(3) The Mountain Goats -- 'I Saw The Sign (live)'
I've been a huge Mountain Goats kick this year, and right now I'm stuck on this live Ace of Bass cover. It starts out with a story during which John Darnielle makes light of his affection for the song, stringing the story out over the song's chord progression, making sure every joke hits at just the right time ('...but you can't give enough money to the Ace of Bass, no matter what you do'), and eventually launching into the song itself. At first he still plays with comedy, deflating his own rendition by deadpanning the word 'poetry' between lines. But by the time he's got the whole audience singing the chorus we're well beyond irony and into something way more genuine and less obvious.
And... yeah, I've been thinking about taste and commercialised art and Steven Johnson's Everything Bad Is Good For You and this Backstreet Boys review (also by John Darnielle), and this song feels like an active and engaging part of this argument. It doesn't bother with tired popist/rockist rhetoric, but instead demonstrates its point with a mix of amusement and love, which is pretty perfect if you ask me.
(4) Wiley -- 'My Mistakes (XXXChange Mix)'
The words push past that mopey, self-obsessed cycle of regret and self-admonition, towards a brazen acceptance. The moral is: "Yeah, I messed up, I accept that, it's my fault, but let's keep going." This note plays out in both small details and as a part of the overall theme, but if it doesn't interest you then forget the lyrics and let the sounds bash you about the head a bit. The XXXChange mix makes it all sound that bit more epic and involving, but even on the original cut the strings hit like beats, the beats sigh like strings, and the MCs sound like they never wanna stop.
Is the attitude at the heart of this song still hugely self-regarding? Maybe, but if so it's the kind of self-regard that says 'fuck it, let's keep living' as opposed to 'oh, the pain of it all, it's just to much for me!' kind.
(And no, in case anyone's wondering, I don't always treat UK hip hop tracks like self-help seminars. Just the two on this list!)
(5) Smashing Pumpkins -- '1979'
Of all the moments of odd, clumsy grace that break up the rage and petulance of Mellon Collie and The Infinite Sadness, this has always been my favourite. Try not to focus on the vertiginous spectacle of a man looking back on a song that looks back on a time before the observer was even born. Focus instead on the chugging, insistent riff, the pseudo-electric backbeat and the way that Billy Corgan's voice creaks as it tries to be beautiful. It's hard to make nostalgic teenage bullshit sound this gorgeous, which is why I've been hooked on this song lately, trying to figure out what it does right in order to rip it off for my own nefarious purposes.
(6) Guided By Voices -- 'Captain's Dead'
Hell, I've not got anything clever to say about this song, but I have to mention it because it is eating my brain right now. What else? Uh... the vocal harmonies are almost rediculously gorgeous and clear; the guitars are almost rediculously scuzzed and murky, and... well, what can I say, I love the contrast!
(7) Marnie Stern -- 'Absorb Those Numbers'
This is my current writing soundtrack, the song most likely to make me actually write, as opposed to the song most likely to make me stare into space in the name of good art. It starts out all frantic and noisy, but then it breaks itself down and starts recombining different song elements till that noise starts to swing. And just when you're breath catches up to where you began, the song switches register again, finding placid melodies in the middle of of what sounds like an explosion in a drum-factory. Marnie Stern's best work feels both quite intellectual and totally energetic and pop to me, which is a combination that hots up my brain like a megaton dose of caffeine.
So there you have it: Marnie Stern = a prog-pop narcotic, and I'm officially due another hit.
Before I go off in search of my fix, I'll gently tag anyone who reads this and wants an excuse to give it a try, to save myself the embarrassment of trying to think of seven untagged people who might read this post!
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