This week in book reviews.

Well, I thought it had been a week--it's been two. I guess that explains why I have so many reviews built up. Hopefully next week I'll actually get locked into the weekly schedule.

The Power Of The Dog, by Don Winslow

This book is a far-reaching epic that covers over 25 years in the lives of numerous characters who start out having nothing to do with each other and in some cases never do encounter each other. The thing they have in common, the reason that this book tells all of their various stories, is the drug war. This is an ambitious chronicle of America's War On Drugs, beginning with a successful covert effort to take out Mexico's reigning druglord in the wake of the Vietnam War. At this point, the government assumes that Mexican drug trafficking is a thing of the past, and that they can concentrate their efforts on other countries in Latin America. Art Keller, an agent of the newly-formed DEA who, unlike most of the law enforcement types in the DEA, has a CIA background, thinks this train of thought is deeply flawed. As the book goes on, it will prove him right. But it's a long road from those opening scenes to the final climactic moment in which all that's been set up finally comes together, and the book takes its time getting there. We are given complicated portraits of many different characters in the meantime, from an Irish hitman from New York to a California prostitute to a left-wing archbishop in Guadalajara, all of whom play important roles in the plot. This book has less of a storyline than a complicated web, in which the paths of many different characters spread out and converge at various points. I don't really want to get heavily into describing the plot, as much for reasons of space as anything, but I will say that all of the characters are well-described and sympathetic, and all of their stories are equally gripping and enjoyable. What can be the toughest part, in fact, is deciding who to root for. Often, central characters who were at another point in the book friends are pitted against each other, and as both have been sympathetically described, the reader sympathizes with both. And this isn't the only complicating factor--making it even tougher to decide who to root for is that none of the characters in the book (with the possible exception of the left-wing archbishop) have clean hands. All of them do morally ambiguous or even outright terrible things at one point or another.

And this brings us to the question of Don Winslow's overall goal here. As epic and ambitious as "Power Of The Dog" appears to be purely in terms of its goals as a novel, its scope is even wider and more ambitious than that. Put plainly, Winslow is using this fictional chronicle to tell the story of America's drug war, its various inconsistent motivations and covert actions, and explain exactly why all of the players involved in the struggle did what they did. While a non-fiction chronicle would be more trustworthy in terms of factual details, it's my opinion that "The Power Of The Dog" succeeds in communicating the complicated nature of the drug war, from both the American and Latin American government perspective and from that of the druglords themselves. Furthermore, it succeeds in making the various motivations of all involved clear and understandable. But as I said before, no one's hands are clean. I personally find the idea of America retaining an anti-Communist agenda in their covert interferences with government of various Latin American countries despicable, especially in light of its ramifications for the working class of those countries. On the other hand, knowing that left-wing revolutionary groups who did care about the workers and making sure they were treated justly often funded their efforts through the sale and distribution of cocaine and other drugs doesn't make me feel very good at all. And knowing that the CIA and other covert government agencies facilitated drug-dealing in the U.S. in order to make it easier to manipulate the political situation in Latin America is pretty appalling too. I know that these things happened from my various readings, but "Power Of The Dog"s fictional narrative helps bring it home for me in a way that no footnoted statement in a Wikipedia entry can.

I've written about Don Winslow before, concerning his excellent novel "California Fire And Life", from 1999. That book still seems great to me having read "The Power Of The Dog", but "Power Of The Dog" is obviously on a completely different level than is "California Fire And Life". It's Winslow's followup to that book, but there was a 6 year period inbetween the publishing of the two books, and it's understandable in light of just how much work must have gone into the writing of "Power Of The Dog". Fortunately, it was effort well spent, and anyone who reads this book will come away having gotten the kind of reading experience that one always hopes for but is rarely fortunate enough to find. It's the kind of book that, when one puts it down, makes picking up any other book seem trivial. "The Power Of The Dog" demands a decent amount of quiet reflection before moving on, and may very well change the way you look at America's War On Drugs. It will definitely be one of the better reading experiences you'll have, this or any year. If you haven't read it, do so now. Trust me.

Black Sabbath: Master Of Reality (from the 33 1/3 series), by John Darnielle

I've read a bunch of the 33 1/3 series over the last couple of years, and I've enjoyed all of them to varying degrees, though some more than others. This book, though, may be better than all of the ones I've read before. It's only about 100 pages long, so really more of a novella than a proper book, but it manages to combine the more character driven fiction/memoir elements of some books in the series with the straight up detailed reviewing of others, and in so doing, become superior to both approaches on their own.

"Master Of Reality" is told from the point of view of Roger Painter, a high school student who has been committed by his mother and stepfather to a mental institution. He's either just turned 16 or is still not quite 16 yet, and he's the sort of kid who has spent a lot more time skipping school and smoking weed in his basement than he has doing any sort of studying. His crude journal entries make this obvious. See, the book is his journal, which he's forced to keep by the employees of the mental institution where he's staying. He knows they read his journal, so he's unwilling to write anything of substance in the journal. At first, his entries are just expletive-filled tirades, but after a few days of this, he switches tactics and starts trying to convince the man reading the journal, Gary, to give him back his Walkman and tapes. He swears to Gary that the tapes will make him feel better than any pills or therapy could, and that he'd really be ok if he could at least listen to Black Sabbath's "Master Of Reality", his favorite of all the tapes he has with him. This leads to enthusiastic if rough and uneducated descriptions of how great "Master Of Reality" is, in which Roger dissects each song and explains why they're so important to him.

But before he gets through the entire album, the journal ends, only to be picked up 10 years later by the now-adult Roger, who leads a solitary existence working as a restaurant manager and living in the tiny apartment in a beat-down part of town that his restaurant wages earn him. He's just broken up with his girlfriend, and in going through all of his stuff in order to move out of their shared place into his new solo apartment, he found his old journal from his time in a mental institution, where he apparently stayed until his 18th birthday when they had to let him out. He decides to write a letter to Gary, and tell him all of the things about Black Sabbath and about Roger himself that he never got a chance or had the words to explain back when he was younger. The earlier parts of the book are affecting, depicting as they do the emotional struggle of a kid locked in a mental institution on a very visceral level. If anything, though, this later section is even more affecting, as Roger has matured enough to learn how to express himself more accurately and more in-depth. I don't want to go too into the adult Roger's attempts to fully explain himself, as I fear it will spoil the ending, but I did think that he (and John Darnielle, the actual author) hit upon a powerful and important truth about why it is that teenagers--and adults--who don't fit in with their peers and with mainstream society often turn to music that appears outwardly negative for solace.

I had heard, when I first read about this book, that it was a sequel to "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton", a song by Darnielle's band, The Mountain Goats. Having now read the book, I would say that this is true in a spiritual if not literal sense. Both "Master Of Reality" and "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out Of Denton" explore the topic of misfit kids finding solace in angry and negative music. However, "Master Of Reality" goes far more in depth on the subject, and it's the kind of book that I'd hope anyone could understand. For me, I felt like it allowed me to understand something about myself that I'd never really been able to comprehend. I would like to think that I could also loan this book to someone like my dad, who never seemed to get me when I was a teenager, and maybe it would help him understand who I am and where I'm coming from, and why I'm into the things I'm into. That said, I doubt it would work out that way. My dad would close his mind to the concepts discussed in this book the same way he closed his mind to my Slayer and Black Flag records when I was growing up. But if you are someone with an open mind, if you have found yourself wondering over the years why you or people you care about might find some really positive inspiration in music that seems outwardly negative, abrasive, and anti-social, you should really read this book. John Darnielle has answered some important questions about fundamental subjects within it. I feel that reading this book enriched my life, and it would probably enrich yours too.

Dingo, by Charles De Lint

This was good stuff, if a bit slight. I guess I shouldn't really have expected A-list material from a half-sized $12 hardcover that was marketed to young adults. Although De Lint has occasionally done some of his best work when writing for young adults ("The Blue Girl" being a prime example), so you can't really rule it out either. But yeah, "Dingo" is more like a novella than a full-on novel, and the plot of "normal boy falls in love with new girl in town who is not what she seems, boy becomes involved in quest as a result" is nothing new or groundbreaking. However, De Lint's writing always has certain qualities that attract me to it, principal among them his obvious understanding and empathy with the sort of people who don't fit into the framework of mainstream society--the artists and street buskers and punks and bikers and mentally disturbed homeless. "Dingo" has plenty of this stuff going on, and therefore it struck a chord in me despite the plot itself being pretty standard (not to say cliche). The best part of it was probably the ending, and I will now attempt to explain why without spoiling the story. See, the end to the whole quest comes about 50 pages from the end, but there's a long denoument in which the relationships between various characters are explored in more detail. Things didn't exactly leave off in the best of circumstances at the conclusion of the "quest" portion of the story, and afterwards, various characters attempt to repair relationships between each other, with varying rates of success. While the plot itself is, as I mentioned, pretty standard, all of this post-climactic exposition is quite original and very different from the normally expected "happy ever after" ending in fantasy literature--especially fantasy aimed at children or young adults. Were it not for the depth and originality of this ending section, I probably would only have given this book three stars. As it is, this stuff makes up for some of the less original elements of the main plotline, and does a good job of showing why Charles De Lint's work is always worth checking out, even when he's not quite on top of his game.

Signal To Noise, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

My store received a copy of this new hardcover edition of "Signal to Noise" just the other day, and before shelving it, I decided to read it. We were slow, and it's short, so I figured I could get through it in an hour or so. I'd read the story once before, though as an internet download of scanned pages rather than in an actual bound edition. At the time, I didn't really get it, and I hoped that reading it in this new edition might make it easier for me to understand. Boy, did it. The second time through, I really connected with the story Gaiman and McKean were trying to tell. The more overt plot concerns a film director who has learned, at the age of not quite 50, that he's got a malignant, cancerous tumor, and will almost certainly die, and soon. He reacts to this by refusing all treatment and going home to wait for death. While sitting around his house, slowly growing sicker, he sketches out the idea for his final film, one that he now assumes will never be made. The film is about the pre-milennial tensions and social unrest that gripped Europe in the year 999 AD. He's fascinated by the idea of a culture preparing for the end of the world, one that quite obviously did not come. This dovetails with his thoughts and fears about his own death. He seems to regret having lost the opportunity to do more, to have as long a life as he'd always planned to have. This is where the concept of the title comes in--the director spends a lot of time thinking about clear ideas and plans being drowned out by the chaos and randomness of the world. McKean's cut-up illustration style on this particular book underscores this thought process to dramatic effect. What helps even more is the inclusion in this edition of a final epilogue called "Milennium". The rest of the book takes place in the early 90s, and this chapter is the thoughts, upon the arrival of the year 2000, of the woman who produced the director's movies. This chapter adds a different perspective to the rest of the book that helps make sense of it, and gives certain parts greater clarity.

I was deeply moved by this book. I don't know why I didn't understand what Gaiman and McKean were going for with it upon first reading, but all that's important is that I got it this time. I feel like I'm dancing around it in this review, rather than saying straight out what their point was, but I partly feel like I couldn't say it straight out if I wanted to, and I also feel like even a concentrated attempt to spell it out might ruin the book for future readers. I don't want to do that, so I'll leave it here. This is one of the better graphic novels I've ever read in my life. Anyone with concerns about life and death and the eventual result of all our plans and ambitions should read this book.

The Player Of Games, by Iain M. Banks

I don't know how true this is for his more mainstream fiction as Iain Banks, but the science fiction novels Iain M. Banks writes always function on multiple levels. As a result, they can often be a bit daunting; in particular, I remember taking two weeks, during which I had to put it down multiple times, to finish "Excession". I loved it every bit as much as I usually love Banks's sci-fi work, but there was just so much information to absorb that I sometimes felt too overloaded to continue. "Player Of Games" is probably the first of Banks's science fiction novels where I didn't feel that way. That may be due to the fact that I did end up taking short breaks in my reading to read other, shorter books ("Master Of Reality" and "Signal To Noise"), thereby giving me the respite I needed to avoid getting overwhelmed, but I don't even think that's true. It's my honest impression that "Player Of Games" works better than any of the other Banks science fiction novels I've read, and as much as I hate to slight "Excession" and "Use Of Weapons", it's nonetheless true as far as I can see it. I wouldn't say I love it more than those other two, but nonetheless I'm pretty sure it's a slightly better book.

As is often the case with Banks's science fiction novels, "Player Of Games" is character driven, and focuses heavily on the growth and changes a man named Jernau Gurgeh goes through in the course of taking on a years-long epic quest across the galaxy to play an extremely important board game. Gurgeh is a citizen of the Culture, a society that many of Banks's science fiction novels revolve around, in which artificial intelligence has long been more advanced than is possible for the human brain to achieve. Therefore, the Culture is controlled by the sentient, artificially intelligent supercomputers that operate their enormous, planet-like starships. The humans (and artificial intelligences, which are considered the same as people where citizenship is concerned) that live within this far-reaching society live in a near-utopia, in which there are almost no laws, but in order to do so they must accept the fact that all of the truly important decisions for the Culture are made by artificial intelligences. The citizens of the Culture are, in the vast majority, content with this arrangement, but many of the societies that the Culture encounter in their explorations of the galaxy find this entire concept abhorrent in the extreme. One such society that regards the Culture this way is that of the Azadian Empire, which is structured entirely around an epic, sprawling board game, the playing of which determines social and political standing in the Empire. It is this game that Gurgeh travels across the galaxy to play.

Most of the book focuses on Gurgeh's experiences with both the game and the society in which the game takes place. The Azadian Empire is the polar opposite of the Culture--sadistic power struggles and ubiquitous violence, for its own sake more often than not, is not only normal but seen is desirable by the Azadians. Gurgeh is puzzled and disturbed by this, and the Azadians react much the same way to him. They expect him to do terribly in their game, as he has not grown up in their culture (which is almost entirely based around the game), and for the sake of their society's ability to continue, they fervently hope for this result.

To tell any more of the plot would be unfair, as Banks's surprising plot twists are a great deal of the fun of "Player Of Games"; however, it is notable that plot twists exist at all in such a character driven novel. Actually, though, this is much more common for Banks than one might think, having observed how much he cares about and spends time developing his main characters. Generally, plot-driven novels cannot also be character-driven novels, but Banks manages to make many of his books both at once, perhaps nowhere more successfully as with this book. I was familiar enough with his style to expect the plot twists to eventually arrived, and I even guessed one of the more dramatic final twists, but really, I only got it half-right, and it was still handled so well that the fact that I guessed it didn't ruin my enjoyment of the moment it occurred at all.

Overall, Banks does a great job with his Culture novels of updating the old-school space opera paradigm of the science fiction genre and adding in the questioning, insightful analysis of modern cyberpunk without losing the better qualities from either approach. His constructions are bold and, thus far, always greatly successful. This helps to make him one of the best writers of science fiction currently working in the genre, and means that "Player Of Games" should appeal to a wide variety of science fiction fans, from those who love Asimov and Heinlein to those who most appreciate William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.



Jay Reatard.

People have been talking about this guy for a while now, and I've checked out his music a few times without it ever really grabbing me. However, his recent single--first of a series, on Matador--I think I've finally gotten it. And I think the reason I didn't before probably has a lot to do with my original expectations for it. See, when I first heard about Jay Reatard, it was in the context of his having gone solo from his first band, The Reatards. They were part of that whole 90s garage punk sound, and while I tend to like the original 60s wave of that stuff better than the modern versions, I am always at least somewhat open to enjoying some raw, snotty garage punk. However, the first thing I heard by Jay Reatard was his solo album from 2006, "Blood Visions". I don't remember what I thought about it at the time, but I know I was put off by it. It wasn't the raw garage punk that I was expecting, and in fact seemed quite polished based on everything I'd heard about the guy and the sort of lo-fi recording techniques he typically preferred. So after one listen, I decided that Jay Reatard wasn't any good, and deleted "Blood Visions" from my computer.

However, the buzz on the dude just kept growing. Over and over, from people whose music tastes I respect, I kept hearing about how good his stuff was. I decided to try again, thinking that maybe the problem was that I heard one of his more recent albums first. I downloaded the Reatards album "Grown Up Fucked Up" and listened to it. It was more like what I expected--snotty garage punk--but it wasn't exactly a shining example of such a thing, and as a result, while I didn't delete it, I didn't listen to it more than a time or two before shifting it into a less-traveled section of my hard drive and forgetting about it all over again.

The thing that finally got me was when I downloaded the aforementioned new single on Matador. I post on a couple of different mp3-sharing message boards, and one of them has several posters who are very on top of the DIY hardcore/punk singles scene. They're always posting new 7 inches by bands that I haven't heard or, sometimes, even heard of, and writing descriptions of them that make them sound like the weirdest things I'll ever hear. Sometimes I download these records and sometimes I don't, but they always pique my curiosity. When one of those kids posted the new Jay Reatard single on that board, my nagging curiosity made me download it. I wanted to give the guy another try, because if nothing else, so many people whose tastes I respected love his music. I couldn't help but feel like there was something I might not be getting about it, that maybe I'd like it if I listened to it enough.

Sure enough, "See Saw" and "Screaming Hand", the two songs on the single, clicked for me immediately. From first listen, I loved both of them. But not because they were the sort of garage punk I expected--if anything, they were even less like that than the previous Jay Reatard stuff I'd heard. Both songs had an acoustic rhythm guitar track placed prominently in the mix, and they were both incredibly poppy, to an extent that I didn't remember any other Jay Reatard-related songs I'd heard being. The recording was very lo-fi, sounding if anything like it was recorded on a four-track in a bedroom. Thin bass sound, fuzzy, almost distorted drumming, and staticky vocal tracks made me think of all the Guided By Voices and early Pavement singles that I loved when I was in high school in the early 90s and the lo-fi revolution was in full swing. Both songs are every bit as catchy as those old GBV singles, too. "See Saw" has a great part halfway through where it breaks down to acoustic guitar strumming and Jay singing, "She creeps me out. She crept me in again." It only sort of makes sense but it's super catchy, especially when the rest of the instruments (I would say "band" but I'm pretty sure Jay, a true solo act, plays everything himself) come back in and turn this bridge into an anthemic final chorus. The way the distorted electric leads mix with acoustic strumming on this final chorus is the kind of thing that too high a recording quality could suck the life out of, but as it is it works perfectly. "Screaming Hand" is the B-side of the record, but there's no loss in quality between the A and B sides. "Screaming Hand"s chorus is just as catchy as "See Saw"s, and even though it's over more quickly and has a more static song structure, it's just as likely to get stuck in your head all day.

So, once I heard that single and loved it as much as I did, I had to figure out if there was more to this whole Jay Reatard thing. Certainly "See Saw" and "Screaming Hand" sounded different from "Blood Visions", his most recent album, and it was entirely possible that the poppy/lo-fi direction of that single was a new approach for him, and I wouldn't like any of his older material. However, I had to check it out, just in case. Through the good graces of the internet, I immediately located "Blood Visions", which I figured I'd give another shot, as well as several of the singles he'd released over the last couple of years (since beginning to bill himself as a solo artist). The last single before "See Saw"/"Screaming Hand", "I Know A Place"/"Don't Let Him Come Back", was if anything even more acoustic-based and poppy than "See Saw", but while I liked the A-side a lot, the B-side seemed a bit wanting. If anything, I think the problem with it is that it doesn't have that same kind of fuzz charge to it that "See Saw" and its B-side had; it's too poppy and not punked-up enough. That said, there's definitely a pattern in Reatard's more recent singles, one that makes me think Jay has indeed discovered the early 90s lo-fi power-pop single revolution, as well as perhaps some of the late 70s/early 80s Rough Trade bands--like the Swell Maps, say--who were inspiration for a lot of those early 90s acts. As far as I'm concerned, this can only be a good thing.

"Blood Visions", though, is still a bit of a different thing. I've definitely come to appreciate it since re-acquiring it, and some of the songs get stuck in my head lately just as much as "See Saw" does. But it's not as lo-fi as the singles. In fact, it's recorded pretty well, although I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's polished, as I had originally thought. If anything, I think the clean, distinct sound of the guitars on the album is down to a recording technique, perhaps like what The Feelies did when they recorded their album "Crazy Rhythms"--plugging the guitars directly into the mixing board instead of into amps which are then miked and recorded, which is the standard recording approach. If this is what Jay Reatard did, it was without a doubt on purpose and to achieve the exact sound that he got. If there's one thing that's become obvious to me about Jay Reatard from reading about him and his career, it's that he does everything he does for a specific reason. In this case, with "Blood Visions" and its guitar sound, I'm guessing that he was looking for the very same flat, airless guitar sound that he got. It has a lot of the same effect for "Blood Visions" that the same sort of sound has on Gang Of Four's first album, "Entertainment"--it makes the whole record sound very tense and uneasy. The album would sound this way even without lyrics, in fact, but Jay's lyrics only heighten that sort of unease that already pervades the music. It's not always clear what exactly he's singing about, but it's not anything very nice. On the opening title track, he just yells over and over, "Blood visions--what they want to give me." This is the lion's share of the lyrics. What blood visions are is never explained, though Jay appears on the album's cover wearing nothing but a red bikini brief, covered head to toe in blood (fake, one assumes). His troubled family life is a matter of public record, as is his unstable personality and tendency to freak out during performances, so the idea that he's plagued by disturbing, violent visions in his private life is not nearly as farfetched as it might be for a lot of other musicians. However, it's never really explained. One song in which he does go into some detail is the ominously titled "My Family", in which he sings, "A child's love tuns into a bloody mom" (assuming I'm even understanding him correctly). Later he says, "Memories stay here, the bludgeoning will set them off," and asks someone to "please close your eyes as the blows make impact." It's not clear who he's talking to, or whether he's speaking of violence as inflicted by himself or someone else, but it's still pretty creepy.

The whole album has a dark, scary vibe, epitomized by song titles like "Death Is Forming," "Nightmares", and "Greed, Money, Useless Children". Even some of the less frightening song titles hide creepy lyrical subjects: on "It's So Easy", Jay sings, "It's so easy when your friends are dead. It's so much easier when you don't even care." Later, on "I See You Standing There", he talks about seeing the girl in question as she picks her kids up from school. "Everything is fine, everything is cool," he says, but what the listener starts to realize is that he's stalking this girl, that she has no idea he's watching her go about her daily activities.

Once I started to understand "Blood Visions" as an example of dark, tense postpunk, I found myself appreciating it a lot more than I initially had. The songwriting is still catchy, and Reatard seems to have a knack for a catchy chorus no matter what genre he's working in. However, "Blood Visions" is definitely a dark album, and it works as such.

I still haven't ventured back into Jay Reatard's earlier music career--he has something like 10 years of releases with The Reatards, Lost Sounds, and a whole lot of other side projects and one-offs, dating back to the mid-90s--but at this point, I'm sure of one thing: I like what he's doing now. Even if it turns out that I'm not as excited by his first 10 years or so of records, I have his future output to look forward to. It promises to be highly prolific, too--he is already due to release 5 more singles on Matador before the end of the year. I for one am looking forward to them.

Jay Reatard - See Saw
Jay Reatard - My Shadow



Too many letters don't get sent.

Obligatory self-loathing intro: I haven't been posting enough content on this blog. Yeah, I know, what else is new. I want to be a person who writes, but between my moodiness and my desire to read/watch/hear as many pop-cultural artifacts as possible (and hey, don't forget my obsession with politics--this blog will eventually be joined by one in which I talk only about politics. This will probably take minimum 3 months to actually happen), I spend way more time passively absorbing content than I do actively creating it. Sometimes I wonder if I'm not so deficient in self-esteem because I really just understand exactly how lame I am.

Sigh. OK. Enough of that.

It's been raining a lot lately, around here. And for reasons that I don't really want to go into right now, I've been thinking back a lot, back to the days when I was in high school. Staring out the window on a rainy spring afternoon waiting for my life to start. Sometimes I feel like it never really did, but at least when I was in high school I had an excuse. It almost makes me miss those days, or at least wish I'd taken more advantage of them. Back then, though, it was the same as it is now--all I could focus on was how lonely and unfulfilled I felt. I guess it's no surprise.

But the point I'm trying to get to is that my musical listenings have taken a bit of a nostalgic turn, at least where one band is concerned: Adorable. I had their 1992 album, "Against Perfection", in my senior year of high school, and it was the soundtrack to a lot of aimless drives around the boring rural countryside where I lived back then. Adorable were considered part of that whole shoegaze thing, but they were never the least bit hazy. I think they just got thrown into all of that because they were British guys with guitars and distortion pedals who also liked to put melodies into their songs. The closest they come to sounding like any of the true shoegaze stuff is when they get going on one of their more frenetic tracks and come to resemble a less grunged-out version of Swervedriver. Most of the time, though, they sound more like the mid-80s British guitar bands who hadn't been influenced by J Mascis and Kevin Shields. I figure the guys in Adorable were much bigger fans of Echo and The Bunnymen or The Chameleons--which are more than respectable influences.

There was another Adorable album in addition to "Against Perfection", 1994's "Fake", but I never really owned it. Yeah, at some point in the past half-decade or so I downloaded it and burned it to CD, but I think I listened to it 3 times or so. Whenever I thought about listening to Adorable, it was because I wanted to hear the songs I knew, like the beautiful ballad "Sunshine Smile", on which they were closer to shoegaze than they were on any of their other songs (perhaps not so coincidentally, this was their biggest hit). Or "Homeboy", which veered between mellow bass-driven verses and dramatic, distortion-charged choruses. Or "Favorite Fallen Idol", my favorite song on the album (no pun intended), which rocked hard on the verses and got a considerable head of steam going before blindsiding you with the much more melodic chorus--which at the same time was still every bit as driving as the verses. Then there were all the other great songs like "Sistine Chapel Ceiling" and "Crash Site" and "Glorious" and "A To Fade In", and I never wanted to pull out an album I'd never heard before when I could return to these much-loved favorites.

What's finally, after all these years, led me to discover the treasures that always awaited me on "Fake" is 2008's "Footnotes", a greatest-hits compilation for a band who only released two albums, and basically only existed for three years. That might seem like an excessive gesture, especially when you see that "Footnotes" contains almost the entirety of both albums--only two songs from each were left off, so that it contains 18 of the 22 songs Adorable ever released (on albums--there were a few non-LP B-sides). I'm not complaining, though--all my favorite songs from "Against Perfection" are here, and in fact, the only two songs left off are the two songs that I never thought were all that good. Being unfamiliar with "Fake", I don't know that the two songs from that album that were left off are also the two worst songs on there, but considering that pretty much every song from "Fake" that made it onto "Footnotes" is awesome, I can only imagine that they did just as good a job cherry-picking that album.

What I've found most interesting as I've continued to listen to "Footnotes" is the way the songs from "Against Perfection", which I've been playing steadily for years and years, have started to sound a bit stale for me. Lately, instead of sitting through the less familiar songs and waiting excitedly for the ones I know to come around, I'm much more stoked to hear the new, fresh-sounding songs like "Submarine", "Vendetta", and "Kangaroo Court", some of which are proving to be as good or better than my favorites from "Against Perfection". I think I'll probably always love "Favorite Fallen Idol" most of all, but it's a very near thing when compared to "Kangaroo Court", a song that is less driving and more melancholy but based around a melody that's pretty close to perfection. The lyrics are a metaphor for the ending of a relationship, comparing such a thing to an unfair trial in which the evidence is skewed and all the laws are twisted against you. I've felt that way a lot in life, but what I really feel when I listen to this song is the anguish in singer Piotr Fijalkowski's voice when he pronounces the word "kangaroo", especially at the end of the song, when the music is trailing off.

The more melancholy tone of "Kangaroo Court" seems reflected in most of the songs from "Fake", actually, especially on "Lettergo", which follows "Kangaroo Court" on "Footnotes". Unlike "Kangaroo Court", in which Piotr is lamenting that he's not being given a fair chance in a relationship, "Lettergo" describes a situation in which he never made his feelings clear at all. "It was a pleasure and a privilege," he tells the object of his affections, "But I guess you'll never know." By the end of the song, he's urging the listener not to share his fate--"too many letters don't get sent. Too many letters don't get read." That's another place I've been too many times.

I guess maybe that more melancholy tone is why I've found myself relating more to the songs from "Fake". The sun hasn't shown up here in days, and right now I can look to my left and see the view out of my rain-covered window. Nothing but gray skies. That melancholy feeling is still with me. A lot has changed since my high school days, but a lot of times I still feel exactly the same.

Adorable - Favorite Fallen Idol
Adorable - Crash Site
Adorable - Submarine
Adorable - Kangaroo Court



This week in book reviews.

Once again, it's been a few weeks. Sorry about that--I've been sick. Here are a couple of book reviews.

Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, by Kerry Cohen

Reading this book was kind of hard going, especially at first. I don't want to give the indication that the writing was bad; it was actually really good, but that was part of why it was hard to get through. Kerry Cohen's matter-of-fact narration of her teenage years, and the way she spared nothing in her quest for attention and approval from boys, is unflinching, and sometimes it's hard to make it through the harsh stories she tells, especially when she describes with clarity and detail the feel...more Reading this book was kind of hard going, especially at first. I don't want to give the indication that the writing was bad; it was actually really good, but that was part of why it was hard to get through. Kerry Cohen's matter-of-fact narration of her teenage years, and the way she spared nothing in her quest for attention and approval from boys, is unflinching, and sometimes it's hard to make it through the harsh stories she tells, especially when she describes with clarity and detail the feelings of need and desire that lay under the surface for her throughout these experiences. I actually put the book down for longer than a week on two separate occasions, both times because I just didn't feel like I could take any more of the book's bleakness.

However, towards the end, when Kerry started to pull herself together, recognize the bad behavior patterns she had, and work towards changing them, I started to feel a bit better about the story I was reading. Even though I didn't have that much fun reading a lot of this book, I think it was quite well-written, succeeding in its effort to place the reader inside the mind of the titular "loose girl", a teenaged and, later, twentysomething girl who sought affirmation in sex, often from men who didn't care about her and treated her like an object. And it was probably good for me to read it, too, because even though I didn't recognize myself in Kerry's methods of dealing with her own feelings of emptiness and insignificance, I saw a lot of myself in those feelings. There was a point, towards the end of the book, when Kerry started talking about her desire to be a writer, and how she wasn't working towards it, instead focusing all her energy on her boyfriend. She said, "I'm wasting my life on this man," and I realized that I myself do a lot of the same things--waste my life on constantly worrying about whether or not I'm in a relationship, and, when I'm in one, focusing on it to the exclusion of all of my other goals in life. Thankfully, I've never gone the route of frequent, meaningless sex, but I've done plenty of things that were just as damaging in my own way. In the end, even though I'm a shy boy instead of a loose girl, I saw a lot of myself in this book. It may not be a fun read, but it's definitely a worthwhile read, even for those whose experiences are very different than those of Kerry Cohen.

King Rat, by China Mieville

OK, I actually finished this one last week sometime, but I've been sick ever since and having trouble coming up with the energy to write anything. So this may not be as accurate as it would be had I written it the day I finished reading "King Rat", but I'll do my best.

This book is about a twenty-something boy in London who still lives with his father and is resisting the process of growing up, spending his time and money hanging out in the drum n' bass scene, hitting up dance parties and traveling to outdoor festivals instead of getting a full-time job and a place of his own. He feels unsure about what he wants from life and his relationship with his father could be a lot better than it is, but he's trying to find some way to proceed forward. However, as the book begins, his life is turned upside-down when his father is murdered and he is arrested for the crime. He didn't commit it, but to the police, it looks almost certain that he did. Things get simultaneously better and worse for him when, after a night in jail, a man with strange supernatural powers comes to him and springs him from jail. This man is King Rat, and he tells our protagonist, Saul, that he is descended from rat royalty, is both rat and human, and must therefore learn to use his rat instincts to survive now that the human world is closed to him. Furthermore, King Rat tells Saul that someone he calls the Ratcatcher (who soon turns out to be none other than the Pied Piper of Hamelin) is at large in London and is hunting for both of them. He blames Saul's father's death on the Ratcatcher, and along with his friends Anansi (king of the spiders) and Loplop (king of the birds), he and Saul begin working on a plan to stop the Ratcatcher from killing all of them.

Meanwhile, Saul's friends Fabian and Natasha wonder where Saul has gone. Natasha is a drum n' bass musician who begins working on some new compositions with Pete, a stranger who plays flute and who randomly showed up at her flat one day wanting to make music. Soon enough, it becomes obvious to the reader that Pete is the Pied Piper. Natasha doesn't suspect anything, but Fabian is creeped out, and starts poking around trying to figure out what's happened to Saul, as well as what Pete's deal might be.

That's what happens in the first quarter of the book or so, but there's a lot more going on than may be apparent from that synopsis. First of all, Mieville subverts the usual cliches of fantasy tales like this--Saul's rat relative, as well as his spider and bird pals, are not the cheery, innocent, and benevolent creatures of many other tales of this sort. In fact, before too long, I found myself questioning the honesty and trustworthiness of both sides of this power struggle. Granted, the Pied Piper seemed like a bad guy from the jump, but the animal kings didn't seem much better. Mieville does a masterful job of plotting this novel in a way that's far different from the usual cliches of the genre, something he's also been praised for with his more recent young adult novel, "Un Lun Dun". His original spin on the nature vs. evil forces plotline kept "King Rat" unpredictable to the very end. Also, as a tangential note, this book made me really curious about drum n' bass and jungle, both subgenres of techno music, which I typically have no use for as a whole. Surprisingly enough, the albums this book led me to check out (A Guy Called Gerald's "Black Secret Technology" and Burial's "Untrue" foremost among them) have really struck my fancy, and I think I've become at least somewhat of a convert.

So yeah, "King Rat" is worth checking out, both for obvious and non-obvious reasons. Highly recommended.