Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review - What I Tell You Three Times Is False - Donald Westlake

Only Donald Westlake could write a deconstructionist novel that contains a discussion on deconstructionism. He not only gets away with this blatant disregard for form but does so in such a casual as to make it look easy. The man is a genius.

If you’re like me, you have (or had) no clue as to what “deconstructionism” is. According to Westlake, it’s the reason Westerns failed. It’s easier if I just quote:

“In each genre there are basic patterns, recurring scenes, stock characters. So with the deconstructionists the story is aware that it’s a story, the characters are aware that they’re characters with a function to fulfill, and the reader or the audience is constantly being reminded that this isn’t real life, this is a pattern, and it’s being presented in a particular way because of various artistic decisions and to further some sort of argument… In a western, the tough but honest foreman is aware that he’s an archetype, that Ward Bond is the basic figure he’s modeled after, and that the purpose he’s been created for is to represent that element of the story and not to live a regular life like a regular human being.”

Whew! That said, in What I Tell You Three Times Is False, written under the pen name of Samuel Holt, Westlake has the audacity to have Charlie Chan, Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes find themselves in a mystery. Or rather these characters come in the form of three actors who have portrayed these famous literary characters to the point that the public identifies one with the other. And the actors have begun to identify themselves with the character, or in some cases are fighting against it. These actors are presented with a classic murder mystery scenario: death in a locked room. They just happen to be on an island to film a public service ad for some charity but a tropical storm blew in just after they landed so they are trapped in a mansion, a kind of closed room in itself due to the inability to go outside in the fierce storm. One of them, or one of a small handful of guests and service people on the island, is the killer. And then another murder happens. And then another. One by one the list pares down as they wait for the storm to lift, hoping to solve the murders before they are next.

What I Tell You Three Times Is False was a total blast to read even though I’ve never read a Charlie Chan or Miss Marple book. Good clean murderous fun for the whole family!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Music Review - The Zombies - The Singles Collection

Now HERE'S THE STUFF! What a solid band with too few albums. Dig it, bro.
A few years ago while listening to the oldies station, "Time of the Season" was playing and even though I'd heard this song countless times before, the signature bass line really stood out this time. So began my quest to find out about The Zombies, culminating in the purchase and severe enjoyment of The Singles Collection. The CD contains all fourteen of their singles, both A and B sides (kids, ask your parents if you need this concept explained) covering their entire career. The Zombies only had two or three really big hits but were constant favorites of the critics. Since I'm technically a critic, I'm legally obligated to like them for fear of being disbarred from the union. What set The Zombies apart from the rest of the bands that came over with The British Invasion was their heavy use of keyboards, minor keys, jazzy feel, and their ability to consistently write catchy yet complex songs.

The CD kicks off with their first big hit "She's Not There" a song with some great organ playing that paved the way for The Doors, plus some great interplay between the bass and an inventive drum part. The sound of The Zombies is difficult to capture because they did so many so well. There's the near-Rolling Stones sound of "Woman", the early Beatles feel of "You Make Me Feel Good" and the Supremes R&B of "She's Coming Home". "Indication", a later single, moves along like a speeding semi-truck with a rollicking, fun bass line before ending with a proggish melody on the guitar. In contrast "Beechwood Park" is a gloomy, melancholy minor-key ode to erstwhile days spent in Beechwood Park. "Conversation Off Floral Street", the only instrumental on the CD, flips the beat around like Brubeck's "Take Five" with lots of upbeat organ and a relaxed, pastoral bridge. Of course, The Zombies scored their biggest hit, "Time of the Season" after they broke up. While there aren't any songs on the CD quite like this classic where more is said with what is not played that what is, every song on this album deserves more airplay than it received. The bass is inventive and prominent, nearly as much as the plentiful keyboards, and the songs take unexpected twists, using chords outside the traditional rock repertoire. For those who tread the musical road less traveled, this CD is a lesson in expanding boundaries. For everyone else, it's just chock full-o-great songs.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2001.

Music Review - Spongebob Squarepants - Theme Highlights

Ah, the good ol' days when I had time to watch TV. Now I realize that it's 99.99% garbage so I'm not missing anything. I wonder if this albums a collector piece now?
Are ya ready kids? I can't hear you! Arrrrrr! As if the neighbors didn't wonder about you already, you can now blast the songs from the show SpongeBob Squarepants out of your high-fidelity stereo system 24/7. Much like it's spiritual father The Ren & Stimpy Show, SpongeBob Squarepants is a very offbeat children's cartoon that often includes humor aimed way above the heads of the obvious child target audience. Further proof is provided by the tracks on this CD, one of which was recorded by Ween and another by Pantera, neither of which are likely to land a guest spot on Sesame Street. Fittingly, the album kicks off with the theme song, sung by the gruff but lovable Painty the Pirate. Ween follows with the chirpy yet instructional shoe-tying song "Loop De Loop." Sandy Cheeks (with Nashville mainstay Junior Brown) croons her "Texas Song", mixing ukulele with lap steel. A few seconds of show dialog introduces "Pre-Hibernation" by Pantera, which is essentially a minute-plus of distorted, heavy trash guitar… very out of place in any other "children's" cartoon but just another day in the SpongeBob universe. A 50's beat jazzes up "Ripped Pants", the finale of the episode that introduced America to sponges in underpants. Like a good brain hemorrhage, "SpongeBob Scaredy Pants" mixes the theme song from The Munsters with sixties surf music into another enticing episode closer. Aside from the theme song, my favorite track is "F.U.N. Song" sung by SpongeBob and the ultimate napoleon complex, Plankton. As the Pollyannic SpongeBob sings "F is for friends who do stuff together / U is for You and me…" Plankton growls "F is for fire that burns down the whole town / U is for uranium… BOMBS!" The worst part about this twisted album is that the seven tracks speed by in a mere nine minutes. Surely the powers that be could have squeezed on another couple of songs or even a minute or two of that great "ukulele played underwater" incidental music. Or more dialog. OR ANYTHING! It's zany, spastic fun as only SpongeBob can provide but at nine minutes, it isn't worth the list price of $7.49.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2001.

Music Review - Spongetones - Odd Fellows

Ah, the Spongetones. I liked 'em but they don't have a lot of tricks in their bag. I was all set to review their Textural Drone album but didn't. There was just enough of a difference between that album and this to make up 400 words. A few years later I picked up Beat! The Spongetones off eMusic and again, while enjoyable there just wasn't enough to write or get excited about.
After a five year absence, the princes of power pop have released Odd Fellows, an amazing collection of superbly written songs that combine early Beatles merseybeat, hook-filled punchy rock, and classic harmonies. The first impression one has of the Spongetones is that of pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles having been transported to today. This is much more than just mimicry as these fun-loving rockers have captured the spirit of those early albums and updated the sound and style, much like The Rutles but without the cheese and onions.

Opening with the harmonica laden "You'll Come Running' Back", you'll swear it's a lost Beatles track that was left off Anthology 1. "Dark Brown Eyes" combines more of this retro sound with Everly Brothers harmonies and a dead-on Paul vocal style in a gentle love song. More snappy rhythms are to be found in "Eyedoan Geddit", a roaring up-beat party song that shows a big Cheap Trick influence. The gentle "Home" treats the listener with a great singable George Harrison melody backed with some superb finger-picking. As much as I like the Beatles, my two favorite songs on the album are those that show almost no Beatles influence. "Love Song To Mrs. Parker" is a sorrowful piano-driven song about chances not taken with lyrics such as "I would have held her that night / I would have pulled her from the fight / I could have made her smile just once/ In another time." The album ends with my other favorite, "Much Too Slow" with its heavy, punchy, power pop rhythms that remind me of the best of Badfinger. These four gents from North Carolina have soaked up the best of the last few decades of music and spew forth incredible songs as easily as most people breath. With just one album, The Spongetones have converted me to an instant fan!

This article first appeared in WhatzUp, July 2000.

Music Review - Lucas Alvarez - Room Full of Earfuls

Here's a guy I should look up one of these days and see if he's still making music. A local guy who just a bit off his rocker.
Local musician Lucas Alvarez is the musical purist's worst nightmare. Over the course of two albums with the band Someband and six solo albums, Alvarez's flippant brain has become a whirling Quisenart of musical styles. On his latest release, Room Full of Earfuls (available at MP3.com), Lucas takes the classic ten-song approach, hurtling each track at you from hidden nooks and crannies all over the room. A fifties sock-hop where the squeaky-clean kids are replaced with punks sporting Mohawks, black makeup, and tattoos opens the album ("Renunciation"), followed quickly by rambling, humorous lyrics mixed with a near-metal guitar riff in "You're Not Fat" ("I think you look just fine in that dress.") "Fake It" begins as a stomping rocker but then slows to a more laid back feel after the first verse, which suits the nice vocal harmonies. Jittery organs lend a hint of The Zombies to "Romance Is Dead", an angry diatribe on the politics of romance. Brushed drums and female scat vocals make "Comfort Food" a wonderful jazzy ditty with lyrics sure to amuse those not sated with starchy gustatory delights. An ode to eating "for eating's sake", Alvarez sings "I'd give up eating if I thought you weren't coming back / But baby I trust that you will so I think that I'll have a snack." Leaving the best song for last, "Can't Afford to Call" is the sweet, somber, biographical story of "a dirt poor undergrad" whose university "wants more cash than I've ever had." Soft vocals and acoustic guitar (plus xylophone embellishments) characterize this simple collection of great lyrics that I'm helpless to quote: "I can't afford to call you / 'Cause I've always been cheap / I can't afford to call you / And ease you into sleep / Like I used to do when I wasn't quite so far away / And I lived close to you and the phone bill wasn't mine to pay." This album is full of such great lyrics that perch precariously between novelty and profundity.

Permeating these fine songs is a Chris Knox/punk Do-It-Yourself ethic. The songs are sparsely recorded and although they have a live, raw feel about them they are not aggressive. Recorded at Monastic Chambers, I can't imagine they took more than two takes on each song, such is the carefree enthusiasm. Alvarez plays nearly every instrument here (although his beloved viola is sadly absent from this release) and worse yet, he knows how to write catchy melodies so these songs stick in your mind long after the CD has stopped spinning. True to his punk youth, all the songs are short with a reckless hit-and-run mentality that leaves the listener stunned but smiling.

Originally published in WhatzUp, March 2002.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Music Review - Bryan Scary - Daffy's Elixir

Bryan Scary's 2006 debut blew my leiderhosen off! It's a kaliedoscope of colors and sounds, bouncing off rubber walls with an artistic agility that requires ingesting a full pot of coffee just to follow, let alone write. His 2008 follow-up, Flight Of the Knife, was more of the same, but perhaps a bit less so because I didn't write a review for it. Then I didn't hear anything from Mr. Scary until I saw his third album, Daffy's Elixer, on more than a few "best albums of 2012" lists and I knew that I had likely missed something good.

Well, missed as in "missed the chance to make money on a review that would underwrite the cost of buying said album." I still got to enjoy Daffy's Elixer and now I get to tell YOU about it! The first song is decent, the second is catchy but not his strongest. But when the third song ("Cable Through Your Heart") begins with a whoosh and a bang you know the caffeine has kicked in. This spastic venture has all the energy and jarring yet enjoyable musical changeups as on the first album. The bass line in particular sounds like it would be a blast to play, leaping and scooping all over the place. "The Silver Lake Mining Company" is less frenetic but still jumps like crazy while "Diamonds!" starts with piano and harpsichord but soon shifts into a western vibe before ending on a kind of 8-bit disco rhythm. From the lyrics I'm thinking Bryan is considering proposing to someone.

The song that really got me hooked is "Ballroom Kid". While the version on the album is good this live video of the band belting it out in a small radio sound room is even better, and by better I mean that the bass is fuzzier and louder in the mix.
Is it just me or does Mr. Scary look a bit like Adam Sandler? The rest of the fifteen tracks include a few others that leap into western garb for a few seconds or minutes, while others, like the disjointed "Faintless Moody: Outlaw" refuses to limit itself to a consistent time signature. It's all just crazy, zany stuff that refuses to be confined by genre.

If you define "progressive rock" as music with time and tempo changes, Bryan Scary is for you and how! As a bonus you get enough strong pop melodies to fill three albums. A few will certainly follow you home and beg for kibble. Feed them at your own risk. All in all Daffy's Elixir is a strong return after four years locked away in a ritalin detox program. I'm glad he got kicked out.

Music Review - Bryan Scary - The Shredding Tears

       This is a debut album? The Shredding Tears by 23-year-old Bryan Scary is the kind of astounding album that should come out after 10 years of good-to-great albums, a creative milestone that he forever after attempts to match. The fact that he spent three years laboring over this kaleidoscope of musical fantasies does little to detract from its impact it's just plain amazing!

       The album opens with "Stab at the Sun," a pop symphony in the vein of Pet Sounds with elements of Sgt. Pepper's-era Beatles, ELO vocals, and Jellyfish parading through an array of musical scenes, each one a playful pageant that begs for more.

       "The Lessons I Learned" weds a sad waltz to a nostalgic McCartney melody, a bit more relaxed but just as incredible. Heavier theatrics come into play in "The Ceiling on the Wall," mixing falsetto vocals, breezy melodies and clever lyrics with bits of 10cc, Queen, Self and a recurring muppet chorus of "Marbles! Marbles!" Endearing vocal choo-choos make "The Little Engine Who Couldn't (Think Straight)" both childlike and engaging, while textured synthesizers, clever sound effects and Pink Floydian vocals make "The Up and Over Stairwell" a treat for lovers of melodic gems. Retro guitars and a sticky melody germinate "The Blood Club" into an infectiously memorable disease, bringing to mind the best of Fort Wayne's own Kevin Hambrick. Another winner is "Misery Loves Company," which begins with vocoder vocals menacingly looming over staccato piano until halfway through, when a retro groove introduces "Shine a little light on me, baby." There are 15 songs on this album spanning just over an hour ... and there's not a bit of filler in the bunch.

       While enjoying this album time and again I was often reminded of Klaatu and how they playfully romped through an amusement park of memorable hooks and dynamic arrangements, happily smiling with a knowing wink in their eyes. As with many solo albums cooked up in the studio, The Shredding Tears is a bit self-indulgent, but in a very good way. There's so much going on with so many layers and colorful sounds that it would take many listens to catch it all. The level of detail and sophistication is downright impressive, bringing to mind classic albums such as O.K. Computer, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper's and Dark Side of the Moon. Even if he didn't have the remarkable ability to evoke the vocal ghosts of Lennon and Harrison, Scary is able to conjure up the best of the past and blend it into a refreshing cocktail of modern sonic delight.