Friday, August 27, 2010

Nik's unheralded albums #1: David Bowie, "Earthling."

There's albums that are loved by someone, but don't quite become "classics" to the mainstream. Everyone knows "Highway 61 Revisited" when they think of Bob Dylan, but who sticks up for, say, "Infidels"? Here's an occasional series that looks at lesser-regarded albums that I really dig.

David Bowie, "Earthling" (1997)*

Photobucket1997's album "Earthling" comes at an interesting time for David Bowie; I call it his "midlife crisis" album, as it came out the same year he turned 50. Heavily influenced by drum 'n' bass dance music, "jungle" techno and industrial rock, it follows the same path started in 1995's "Outside," a Goth cyber-murder concept album that really began Bowie's modern critical revival after Tin Machine and various subpar '80s and '90s efforts. "Earthling" is less heralded by fans and critics, but it's one of my top 5 Bowie albums.

A lot of that is due to the time I discovered it; most great records evoke something in our lives, have some personal relationship to us beyond mere melody. For me, "Earthling" came along when I'd just moved rather haphazardly across the country, from post-college Mississippi to my old homeland of California. I moved without a real plan or job, and after a few months of bumming about and relying on the kindness of old friends, ended up working at a tiny little paper south of Sacramento, a kind of nowheresville with endless valley landscapes. Didn't know where I'd go next, wondering if I'd screwed up by leaving all my old pals in the South, etc.

So "Earthling" was the soundtrack for much of fall '97 and early '98, as I kind of drifted in a job that was OK in a town where everybody my age seemed to have three kids and work at Kmart. (Obviously, life got better, my future wife Avril emigrated to the U.S. and we moved up to Lake Tahoe in summer '98.) "Earthling" is a really anxious, fretful Bowie album, one that kind of assaults you with rippling beats and distorted guitars. It's the loudest of all his albums, and it definitely feels a bit like a 50-year-old trying to sound cool. Yet it works for me to this day.

PhotobucketThe lead track, "Little Wonder," is all skittering blips and screeching guitars, Bowie chattering away like a man on the edge of a breakdown. Lyrics in general aren't the focus of this album, which shows a lot of influence from William Burroughs' "cut-up" writing method. Several tracks, like "Looking for Satellites" or "Law (Earthling on Fire)," are abstractions set to thumping, circling dance music, meant to create mood more than anything. A song like "Seven Years in Tibet," with a compulsive sway, roaring chorus and snippets of Mandarin, is as experimental in its way as any song on "Low." One of my personal favorites on "Earthling" is "Dead Man Walking," a rave-up defiant rebuttal to aging, colored with Bowie's trademark nostalgia and wistfulness, but with a beat you can dance to. Another sterling track is "I'm Afraid Of Americans," which could nearly be a novelty song if it weren't for the very real angst Bowie brings to the tune, wailing lines like "I'm afraid of Americans / I'm afraid of the world / I'm afraid I can't help it." You believe him. Yet my most replayed song on "Earthling" is probably "The Last Thing You Should Do," all raging at the darkness and jittery fear. It's claustrophobic but cathartic at the same time, and the kind of song many techno bands are striving for and miss much of the time. I listened to it a lot in the fall of 1997, wondering who I was and who I'd be a year from then.

Like I said, fear runs through the tunes of "Earthling," fear of death, losing power, potency and the world. "Earthling" is very different from most of Bowie's catalog, with the exception of its predecessor "Outside." His next album, "hours..." heralded a move toward a gentler, more introspective phase. Despite appropriating the sound of bands like Chemical Brothers and Nine Inch Nails, Bowie still managed to be unmistakably himself. "Earthling" is one of his strongest albums in a lifetime full of peaks.

*This a repost and a bit of a reworking of a post from way back in 2005; I've got a few other albums in this vein that I plan to look at in coming weeks.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Superheroes I Love #5: The Great Machine, Mayor Mitchell Hundred

The final issue of Bryan K. Vaughan and Tony Harris's DC/Wildstorm series "Ex Machina" came out this past week. Issue #50 wrapped up the tale of Mitchell Hundred, the would-be superhero who became the mayor of New York City, and like the entire series, it was a thoughtful, edgy, often surprising dive into the world of politics, heroism and culture. Like Vaughan's other big series "Y, The Last Man," this was an epic tale, but grounded in superb characterization of Mayor Hundred and a vast supporting cast.

Who: The Great Machine, the world's only superhero -- who becomes the mayor of New York City after helping save thousands on Sept. 11, 2001.

What: Mitchell Hundred discovered a piece of alien technology that gave him the ability to communicate with machines and became the short-lived superhero The Great Machine, who managed to avert the destruction of one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. He uses his fame to become the Mayor of New York City, but his strange past and the mysteries of his powers keep coming back to haunt him...

Why I dig: "Ex Machina" was not really a book about superheroes. Instead, it was a book about politicians, who aren't always that heroic, and Vaughan created a kind of "West Wing" meets "X-Files" vibe to this always interesting series. All sorts of topical events from the last six years are woven into the twisting, time-hopping narrative - terrorism, abortion, art vs. smut, crime, gay marriage.

PhotobucketThe comic could sometimes verge on being too talky, and its hot-topic issues may make it seem dated in years to come, but I rather liked the naive liberal idealism Hundred has -- and what happens to him throughout the series. Vaughan has a knack for dialogue and complex, realistic characters who don't hew to just one point of view. Harris' fluid, photorealistic art is an integral part of the series (in a rarity these days, Harris drew every issue of the main series). I loved his work on "Starman" a while back but he's taken it to the next level here.

"Ex Machina" is a series that rewards re-reading, which many comics don't these days. Indeed, the final issue is so devastating and poignant that it inspired me to go back and start reading the entire series again from scratch. I was fascinated to see how #50 wraps up so nicely with #1 from over six years ago. It's one of the most interesting statements on superheroes we've seen this decade, and hopefully will only grow in reputation over time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The truth is out there

This is the kind of thing that just depresses me about my home land to no end.

Whether or not you agree with his politics, it really, honestly has been proven without a doubt that Barack Obama is not a Muslim. That he was not actually born in Indonesia or Guatemala or wherever. He may be a liberal tax-and-spender, but he's no foreign invasion leader. Yet the lies persist.

I just don't get it. Is believing in whatever the vast right wing conspiracy of the day is just shorthand for "I don't like the guy's politics"? Much as I despise the administration of George W. Bush, I never bought into the conspiracy that he somehow planned/knew about 9/11. Yet people just love their conspiracy theories. As if a secret Muslim infiltrator could actually get elected President in Fox News America?

It's frankly embarrassing sometimes at my work, where I'm surrounded by Kiwis, Australians, Brits and South Africans, and having to defend the US when a story like this comes across the wire. It feeds into all the sad stereotypes people have about my country. (Of course, every country has its idiots, demagogues and ranters, a fact I like to point out when anyone gets too high on the 'bash America' bandwagon. New Zealand politicians tend to be less brash and omnipresent than Americans, but it's got its share of well, wankers.)

A great reason for why the Obama myths persist in mainstream society lies in the fact that media are scared to death of stating an outright fact when it comes to politics, for fear of offending some demographic. Too many stories on this sort of thing mushmouth their way around the point, using vague language rather than just calling a lie a lie, an untruth an untruth. Journalists today have been taught that being factual isn't being "balanced."

I dunno. Is it just easier to believe whatever you're told that fits into your personal worldview? But as the always thoughtful Arthur puts it, propaganda works. Say something enough and people will start to believe it. It's a shame that the 24-hour news cycle, always logged on Internet world of knowledge and freedom seems to have in many ways actually made this kind of climate worse. The truth is out there... somewhere, I guess, maybe.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Movie review: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

PhotobucketSitting there watching this week's comic-book movie adaptation "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" with a big goofy grin on my face much of the time, one thought kept running through my head -- how on earth did this movie get made? It's a gleeful, wacky romp, the demon spawn of 1960s Adam West "Batman" crossed with Donkey Kong spliced with a raving Looney Tunes energy all its own.

It's hardly "The Dark Knight," in the madcap way it slices and dices genres and constantly winks at its own artificiality. And it isn't looking like a big hit movie at the box office, whatever that means, but creatively, it's a high-adrenaline blast from "Shaun of the Dead"/"Spaced"/"Hot Fuzz" mastermind Edgar Wright.

If you're not up on it, it's all about a rather clueless, casually cruel but well-meaning doofus named Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) who grows up to become a man. Pilgrim's a jobless, aimless 22-year-old bass player in a struggling band who falls in love with the mysterious Ramona Flowers – but finds out he has to defeat her 7 evil exes before winning her heart.

PhotobucketI loved the casting -- Michael Cera's wide-eyed nerd routine may have worn thin for some, but I think he really ventured into a new place here. He got that the Scott Pilgrim of the comics is hopelessly self-centered and not that bright, and he's surprisingly convincing as a flyweight action here during the many fight scenes. (Any movie that features a climactic battle pitting Michael Cera vs. Jason "Rushmore" Schwartzman = awesome.) I also really liked Mary Elizabeth Winstead's Ramona -- she resembles a young Kate Winslet, and does well in a really tricky, deadpan role. Kieran Culkin nearly steals the movie as Pilgrim's gay roomate Wallace and in smaller roles "evil exes" Brandon Routh and Chris Evans are awesome. The aforementioned Schwartzman, who I always like, makes a great oily evil Gideon.

Wright's approach to the material is somewhere over the point of being over the top -- he throws in video game references like villains exploding into piles of coins or extra lives popping on screen at opportune moments. And of course, the whole way a romantic comedy is spliced into some sort of mutant superhero film where scrawny Scott Pilgrim can be thrown through buildings and survive unmaimed. It gets rather surreal at times (Vegan Police?!?) but never breaks the rules of its own weird universe.

PhotobucketThe movie features a bit less heart, a lot more whiz-bang motion than the longer 1200-page or so comic series by Bryan O'Malley, but Wright does a great job distilling the six novels into one two-hour movie. Sound effects appear on screen a la the old "Batman" TV show; captions appear to give us scene transitions. It's another thrilling example of how in this golden age of comics-spawned movies, not everything is "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." We can still see ones that really push the creative limits like this or "American Splendor." See it now before it vanishes from theatres, or check it out on DVD soon.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Here's a story, of a lovely lady...

PhotobucketIn truth, I spent far, far too much of my childhood watching reruns of "The Brady Bunch."

I saw every one of the 117 episodes of "The Brady Bunch" in afternoon reruns as a kid, some of them many times over. The shows were only a few years old at this point, and in constant rotation on TV. Greg Brady's dubious fashion choices, Marcia's hotness and Mike Brady's stern but loving paternal tone were all hardwired into my brain, paisley patterns on a growing mind.

The other weekend, I discovered a cheap DVD clearance sale where I could buy the full season sets of "The Brady Bunch" for just $9 each. I went a little bit mad, visions of polyester '70s childhood recaptured in my head. And I imagined indoctrinating young Peter -- not named after the middle Brady boy, honest -- into "Brady" fandom. (He loves "The Simpsons," and I do too, but frankly sometimes we think he could use a little more wholesome family sitcom role-modeling than Homer and Bart.)

I still think, 40 years (egad) after it premiered, "The Brady Bunch" stands up in my mind as the archetypal cuddly sitcom. I don't profess it to be an objectively "good" show. But it has a warmth and sincerity despite the hackneyed sitcom plotlines (Bradys go camping! Bradys clean attic! Bradys go Hawaii!). The kids always seemed more real than the wisecracking automatons on sitcoms such as "Differ'nt Strokes," and Mike and Carol Brady portrayed a truly loving couple -- a blended marriage --- that modeled the kind of behavior most of us would like parents to be. The only truly false note is wacky Alice the housekeeper, who now seems vaguely creepy with her constant passive-aggressive wisecracks about her love life.

PhotobucketI was always rather fond of the Brady home layout. Was a fictional television sitcom location ever better delineated? The Brady bunch house has inspired a host of fetishists (including blueprints for it). The house felt lived-in, kitschy to the max, of course. What was the deal with the hideous clown painting on the boys' bedroom wall, or the astroturf lawn, or the strangely mod and cavernous haunt that was Mike's den? Was there really only one bathroom?

While it wasn't part of the hard-hitting, "relevant" wave of '70s TV shows that included "M*A*S*H" and "All In The Family," the Bradys were a gentle step beyond one-dimensional "Leave It To Beaver" and "My Three Sons" type families. Sure, Greg getting caught smoking was about as harsh as it got, but I don't know, "The Brady Bunch" never felt quite as fake as plastic as so many sitcoms to me. Or perhaps it was so ridiculously plastic that I embraced it anyway. Or maybe it's just because I grew up on Brady afternoons, a half-hour of gently moralistic hijinks several days a week, and anything you grew up looks good with enough hindsight.

Whatever the answer, re-watching these episodes in recent weeks has been a jolly good time. And my Peter? He loves 'em too. Groovy.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Happy birthday, Dad!

PhotobucketHappy birthday to my dear old dad, who turns 70 today.

Birthdays are one of the times I really feel the distance of being on the other side of the world from my family, unfortunately, but with the Internet and phone we do what we can. I still remember him coming home from work when I was a kid, wearing his Air Force uniform, his keys jingling. The smell of Brut aftershave always reminds me of my Dad.

Ever since I had a boy of my own the immensely hard job of being a dad has been revealed to me more and more each day. It's a job that you don't apply for, but it's harder in its way than any other job you'll have. It humbles the heck out of you as you discover all the things you'll do wrong, but it also has moments of the highest pristine clarity that will become the highlights of your life. Working in the media I am sadly exposed every day to huge screw-up wastes of fatherhood who abandon, abuse and hurt their kids, and I know I'm doing better than all of them.

PhotobucketMy dad taught me much of the best of what I do. We've had our disagreements as all fathers and sons do, but they've haven't been that bad. Moving down here 6000 miles away four years ago, one of the hardest things was knowing I'd be so far away from my own family, and with the only grandson too. My parents have always supported every move I've ever made, and we haven't actually really lived in the same town for long in 20 years now. But there's a lot of difference between a few hours' drive and an ocean.

Happy Birthday to you Dad, and thanks again for all the good lessons.