Movie diary, 8/24/08-9/14/08.


So, this afternoon I saw "Dead End", from 1937, featuring an early non-starring performance by Humphrey Bogart. He was awesome and pretty much stole the show anytime he was on screen, but he was only in about half the movie. This movie is a pretty great example of proto-noir, and definitely a bit more assured and mature than "The Public Enemy", and in fact, although I always worry about movies from this early in the history of the medium being a bit stilted, this one was unusually well put together. My theory is that this has more to do with the Lillian Hellman script than anything else, though William Wyler's direction may have been a big part of it as well. Hellman's script definitely showed her working-class left wing sensibilities, and included a bunch of things that were obviously acceptable in the 30s but probably directly contributed to her 50s blacklisting. For example, one of the characters is involved in a strike during the events covered in the film, and other characters, both children and adults, are shown to have been turned towards a life of crime by inadequate law enforcement, especially reform school.

The movie weaves together three different storylines. Dave Connell is a local guy with an architecture degree who can't find a job and is doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. He's currently pulled between possible relationships with longtime neighborhood girl Drina (played by the gorgeous Sylvia Sidney) and formerly poor socialite Kay. Babyface Martin (Bogey), a gangster from the area who is wanted all over the country but has just gotten plastic surgery, rendering him unrecognizable, has returned to his old neighborhood to see his mother and his girl. And a group of street kids, who for obvious reasons went on to have a career under the name "the Dead End Kids", cause trouble and get into various scrapes. One of these street kids is Drina's little brother Tommy, who she's raising on her own after their mother died. Tommy's been getting into petty crime and gang activity, and gets in trouble partway through the movie for stabbing some rich guy. Meanwhile, Dave, who grew up with Babyface Martin, has recognized ol' Bogey and wants him out of the neighborhood. Bogey's reunion with his mom and his girl don't go as planned--his mom wants nothing to do with him and, uh, something is... wrong... with his girl? That's not explained very well at all--looking it up, I learned that in the original play, she has syphilis, but Hollywood's censor board wouldn't let the movie say so, so the reason that Babyface goes from being glad to see her to suddenly being horrified is completely unclear and kinda confusing. Anyway, Babyface, being disgruntled, gets more and more desperate and attempts a big crime, leading to him and Dave coming into climactic conflict. This and the situation with Drina's little brother Tommy being on the run from the cops and Kay, the rich girl, eventually making it clear to Dave that she's not REALLY interested in him unless he has money, are all separate plotlines that come to a head through a bunch of action scenes that are very well directed. The ending is not a bad one for our main characters, though it's complicated and not entirely good either, but one thing that's made clear in the movie is that, even if these characters turn out OK, the problems of the inner city slums are much bigger than one set of characters, and they aren't going away. Much social reform, the film implies, is going to be necessary.

Again, I think Lillian Hellman is a lot of what made this movie so good. Her excellent plotting and dialogue and the complicated and not all that positive message of the film added layers of nuance and realism that you just don't find in many movies this old. This movie seems an indubitably important influence on the American noir films of the 40s. The Dead End Kids stuff wasn't quite as good as the rest of the movie, though this might have had something to do with my being unable to understand their chatter without subtitles (and still a bit confused by the archaic slang even with subtitles), and it was made up for by Humphrey Bogart's outstanding performance. I'm not at all surprised that Bogart was able to parlay his appearance in this and other crime films of the era into a position a few years later into one of Hollywood's leading actors.

Basically, if you like noir films and you haven't seen "Dead End" yet, you're missing out. It's pretty much essential.


I'm prone to DVR-ing movies and not watching them for months, and tonight I finally got around to seeing a movie that's been on my DVR since sometime in the spring--"Recount", which was made for HBO and stars Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary. It was done in a similar manner to the movie "The Kingdom", in which onscreen titles identified characters the first time they appeared and gave locations, times and dates. Without any need for any further narration, the movie could get right into the action and show us everything that was happening without any need for expository dialogue. This was nice, as I think most people know the bare bones of the story--about the attempt to recount the Florida votes for the 2000 Presidential election--by heart. Spacey and Leary portrayed Democratic party workers who spearheaded the attempt at getting a recount, while Laura Dern gave a cutting portrayal of Laura Dern and Tom Wilkinson was impressive as James Baker (aka the devil himself). One thing that became obvious during my watching of the movie was that a lot of what happened in 2000, including the outcome, was ultimately attributable to the Democrats' unwillingness to fight for the Florida election, at least at first. When Spacey, as Ron Klain, finally started running the show himself, things got a lot better, but by then it was a bit too late. I've got to give credit to the filmmakers for avoiding any overt side-taking in the way the film was directed, but like the movie "Trekkies", I felt like the information they presented was enough to make clear who was really on the right side in the entire situation. At the end of the movie, when Dern as Katherine Harris proclaims a victory for the rule of law, it's like a knife twisting in your guts. And the final scene of the film, in which Baker and Klain speak on the runway before they leave Florida, and Klain tells Baker that he hopes he's right to be confident in Bush, it's an additional tweak. Of course, it could have been overdone and ended up cheesy and obvious, but the direction was understated as it was throughout the movie and avoided pushing the point too hard. Nonetheless, it just reminds me of how important this kind of stuff really is, and how bad it would be if we as a country sat apathetically through another incidence of this sort of thing. I sure hope that doesn't happen.


I saw "Mutual Appreciation" the night before last. It was pretty late when I put it on and I barely made it to the end without falling asleep, but that wasn't the movie's fault. I thought it was quite good, better than Andrew Bujalski's previous movie, "Funny Ha Ha" (although I liked that one too). One thing that was nice was that I could hear the dialogue a little better in this movie than in "Funny", which was a bit tough to understand at points. I like how Bujalski manages to create movies full of little tiny scenes where nothing much seems to happen, and then to add them together in a way that tells a strong and clear story, even though nothing in particular seems to happen at any given moment. It's easy to say that "Mutual Appreciation" is a story about a love triangle between three Brooklyn friends, one of whom has just gotten to town, but that makes it sound like the narrative throughline is SO much stronger than it is. And yet, that's really what's going on in this movie. That and Alan, the main character (played by the dude who sings in Bishop Allen, whoever they are), trying to find a drummer to play music with. And dealing with a local indie girl who loves his music and therefore wants to sleep with him. There are some interesting storytelling choices made--for example, I felt like the story of the love triangle, such as it was, didn't end during the movie. There's a sort of ending offered, but it still just feels like more is going to happen later, and that the real conclusive events that will inevitably occur don't happen until after the movie ends. But I kind of liked that--that the way the film is constructed makes clear that the actual big ending isn't really even the important part. It's the little interactions that don't seem like much when we try to describe them later that are the really important moments. I feel like Bujalski pulls off his attempts to show that these are the important moments, which is even more impressive since he doesn't use all the typical Hollywood directorial tropes like music to let you know how to feel about the scene, and etc. I was interested to see what he'd come up with once he had more of a budget, like in "Hannah Takes The Stairs", but then I found out that he didn't even direct that, only wrote it, so I guess I still have no way of knowing. Hmm.


Tonight I saw a documentary produced originally for HBO called "Roman Polanski: Wanted, Desired". It's about the Polanski underage-sex case that drove him to leave the country. I expected to get detail that would allow me to understand what Polanski actually did that got him in trouble, and whether or not he was really a rapist on a non-consensual level or more just on a statutory level--i.e. she was into it but the law says she's not old enough to make that decision. I didn't get that sort of insight, first and foremost. It's incredibly vague. Once there's a reference to the girl saying "no" but it is quickly contradicted and it's not clear what sort of investigations were done, what the results of those investigations were, etc. So I still don't know the answer. What I do know is that the victim of the crime was in the movie and had no residual anger towards Polanski. Then again, it happened 30 years ago, so she's had plenty of time to get over it. Suffice it to say, I still don't feel like I know the answer.

But what I did learn from the film is that the judge in the case was manipulating the events of the case from behind the scenes. Both the defense and the prosecution attorneys discuss this in detail during the film, and I felt like Polanski didn't decide to leave the country because he was guilty and running from his crime but because he felt like the judge was totally willing to manipulate the terms of Polanski's plea bargain in order to receive positive publicity. The movie also took side trips into earlier significant events in Polanski's life, such as his parents being killed in the Holocaust in Poland during WWII, and his wife Sharon Tate's murder in 1969 by the Manson family. One thing I did not know was that, at the time of the murder, the general speculation in the press was that Polanski had secretly flown back to the US from Paris and committed the murder himself. This explanation was juxtaposed with shots of Polanski breaking down crying in public during the first few days after the murder. It just made it that much clearer what an ordeal that experience had been for him, and why his relationships with women might have been fucked up for a while after that happened. It doesn't excuse what he did, if he did what they said he did, but it does make it a bit more understandable.

I thought the movie was very well-directed. It had a dark, foreboding feel throughout. Narration was posted onscreen, typed white letters on a black background, rather than spoken in voiceover, and I thought this helped contribute to the mood as well. The one part in which this sort of thing didn't work was when they used excerpts from the victim's testimony to the LA Police, by showing small white strips on a black background, with black type running down the middle of them. The type was very nearly too small to read on my 27 inch living room television. On the 19 inch TV in my bedroom, I wouldn't have been able to read any of it. As it was, I squinted and made out most of it. This narrative technique would have worked far better if the type had been slightly bigger. Fortunately, they only used it once. I felt that the depressing feeling of the movie's overall direction worked especially well both in its resonance with the tone of a lot of Polanski's movies and in the way it was used to tell a story that, regardless of Polanski's ultimate level of wrongdoing, was ultimately a story of a guy losing his way and ending up doomed. That mood was communicated very effectively. Polanski's redemption at the end of the movie seemed almost surprising, despite the fact that I knew about it in advance, simply because of how bad everything seemed to be going up until that point.


Tonight's movie was "The Stranger", an Orson Welles-directed picture from 1946 that was apparently his first commercially successful film, and one of his only ones. That's depressing to think about. Anyway, it was quite good. Not as overtly noir-ish as "Third Man", came out a couple of years later and which he didn't direct anyway, and apparently not as noir-ish as his followup, "The Lady From Shanghai", either. I need to see that next. But yes, "The Stranger" was still quite noir in tone. I don't really feel like I can talk much about the plot because something unexpected and awesome happened about 5 minutes into the movie and I don't want to ruin it for anybody (the descriptions I had read didn't ruin it for me either, wonder of wonders), but a bare-bones sketch of it is this: Edward G. Robinson is a detective, and he's on the trail of a Nazi war criminal that is hiding out in a small town in the northeastern US. That criminal is played by Welles himself, and as usual, his acting is fucking masterful. I swear, every time I see this guy in a movie, I'm blown away all over again at how well he gets emotion across, and how he's able to do it in so many different ways. If he's trying to express something that befits scenery-chewing, he'll do that, and do it up RIGHT--after all, he got his start in Shakespearean stage acting, and no one chews scenery like Shakespearean stage actors. But, if he needs to get something more subtle across, he's capable of shifting gears completely and becoming exactly what he needs to be for the emotion he's communicating. At points in the movie, he had to act like a guy trying to act naturally while he was freaking out under the surface, and it almost seemed like he was sweating on command. Incredible. He's supposed to be the second lead, under Edward G. Robinson, but Welles easily steals the movie from Robinson and everyone else in it.

And then there's his directing. "The Stranger" isn't nearly as ambitious as "Citizen Kane" was, but there are plenty of interesting and awesome things going on in the direction, nonetheless. Scene transitions, mood setting... I'm really trying to avoid mentioning plot at all, and so much of what I'm talking about hinges on plot points that I can't really explain very well without doing so. But one thing I feel like I can mention without revealing anything is that Welles's character fixes the town clock that hasn't operated for decades about 2/3 of the way through the movie, and once that happens, the feel of the movie gets more foreboding by virtue of the fact that the clock will strike ominously in the background quite often during tense scenes. I thought this trick was quite effective, and it could have been too emphasized and totally fallen on its face. Welles expertly avoids that pitfall, and really, other than a rather strange post-climax final scene that I felt didn't match the tone of the movie, the whole thing is incredibly well-directed. From seeing "Citizen Kane" multiple times, I'm aware that the man had a vast reservoir of talent, and from reading about him and seeing some of his other efforts, I'm further aware that a lot of what he did after "Citizen Kane" was messed with by studios. I could guess in a few spots that "The Stranger" was restricted by the desires of the studio, but for the most part Welles does what he wants to do, and the movie is very strong for that reason.


Oh OK so I need to mention that I went to see "The Dark Knight" last night. Empty first run theater, 10:20 showing on a Monday night... perfect. No obnoxious kids anywhere. Just, as it turned out, ME, jumping at every big startling moment in the whole damn movie. I am no good with that kind of shit, and there's a lot of it in this movie. That said, I did not have any objection to the plot, I thought the direction was badass, Heath Ledger gave the definitive performance as The Joker, and in general I loved the hell out of this movie from one end to the other. I did have a pretty skeptical response to the cellphone-sonar trick, though. How the fuck could that even be possible? I don't care if it IS possible or not--just give me a reasonable explanation. There isn't one given, though, so I just kinda had to stop thinking about it and roll with the rest of the movie. Fortunately, that was easy to do. It wasn't the greatest movie ever made, and really, nowhere near the same level as the last movie I saw and felt was an instant classic, that being "There Will Be Blood". But it was damn good at being exactly what it was supposed to be--a dark, creepy superhero action movie. And if nothing else, Heath Ledger transcended the great-but-not-deathless quality of the rest of the movie and gave a deathless performance, making it all the sadder that he managed to end up dead so quickly after.


Tonight I saw "Rounders". Brandon's been trying to get me to watch that movie for years, and I never have because I was never quite in the right mood. But tonight it looked cool, and we needed something to watch because the Jets/Patriots game was boring. So we put it on, and of course, Brandon was right, it's an outstanding movie. I've long thought that Matt Damon's association with Ben Affleck and Hollywoodness in general belied the extent of his acting talents, and "Rounders" is yet more support for that position. Edward Norton was brilliant as well, but that's never a surprise. I loved the plot of the movie, too--the intrigue and false placidity of the high-stakes illegal poker gambling underground is the kind of thing I find fascinating, and the movie played on that to keep me riveted, especially at moments when the calm was shattered and everyone revealed the hostility and violence that had been under the surface the whole time. The ending was especially awesome, and I liked that it gave me a feeling of redemption without everything necessarily turning out all that well. It wasn't too sad of an ending, nor too happy of one--all the notes were perfect. The way Edward Norton's plotline turned out was also well handled, and I liked that he bowed out of the action early. It seemed like the kind of decision that could be risky in a movie, but the director made it pay off in "Rounders". I couldn't name a single thing wrong with this movie, and I will probably go back and watch it again at least a few times in the relatively near future.


Books I've read recently.

Ghost Walk, by Brian Keene
This Keene guy is unstoppable. I have read a lot of his books in a very short amount of time, and I keep waiting for them to get boring, or predictable, and it keeps on not happening. I keep thinking that I'm gonna get tired of his style, if nothing else, and need a break. Again, not happening. They just keep on being outstanding, and "Ghost Walk" continues the streak, following up "Dark Hollow" with a story that is less a direct sequel than a parallel novel. "Dark Hollow" main character Adam Senft is a secondary character here, but the really fascinating stuff in this book all involves Levi Stoltzfus, a character Brian has described on his website as "the Amish Repairman Jack" (referencing F. Paul Wilson's excellent series of novels). Stoltzfus is a much more supernaturally focused character than Wilson's Repairman Jack, but the comparison makes sense, and the really great thing about Levi is that he exists in "Ghost Walk" not as a force for evil or a good but ultimately hapless character who is set upon by forces outside his reckoning, but an honest-to-god protagonist who recognizes what he's up against and has the power to fight the evil forces he's facing. This is the sort of protagonist we do not generally see in Keene's novels, which is probably why so many of them end in a manner somewhat reminiscent of George Romero's series of "Living Dead" movies. One might consider "Ghoul"s Timmy Graco as a similar sort of protagonist, but even when compared to Timmy, Levi is obviously much more powerful and aware of what he's up against. His presence in this book helps bring in a new element, not previously seen in Keene's novels, which will hopefully appear again in the future--perhaps in the person of Levi himself.

The plot of "Ghost Walk" revolves once again around LeHorn's Hollow; this time, two years after the events of "Dark Hollow", a man named Ken Ripple has decided to hold a charity ghost walk in the woods near LeHorn's Hollow, in celebration of Halloween and in order to honor the memory of his wife, who passed away at a young age from cancer. However, unbeknownst to Ripple, a lone hunter in the nearby woods has stumbled upon a gate of some sort, which he has unknowingly opened and allowed an evil presence into the world. By the time the ghost walk opens on the night before Halloween, the evil presence in the woods is poised to have come all the way through the gate, at which time it will overrun the world. However, Levi Stoltzfus discovers what is going on pretty quickly and, with the help of local reporter Maria Nasr, he puts a plan into motion that will stop the evil forces gathering in LeHorn's Hollow.

This book was fast-paced and scary, featured extensive character development not only for the protagonists but for several other minor characters, which were given room to grow beyond the one-dimensional cutouts that often appear in these more minor roles in horror novels, and finally, most importantly, it gave you someone to root for--someone who, for once, seemed like he might have a chance at success in his objective of stopping evil. This might just be Keene's most fully realized novel, and with him pumping out books at an incredible rate and growing as a writer in leaps and bounds from one to the next, he seems poised to be two or three times as good in another few years. Which is something that I've said before, I know, but only seems to become truer with each new book of his I read.

Crooked Little Vein, by Warren Ellis
The tale of a down on his luck private eye hired by a presidential cabinet member, who also happens to be a stone junkie, to track down an alternate version of the Constitution of the United States that has gone missing and could change the political climate of the U.S. completely were it to come to light now, "Crooked Little Vein" is straight insanity from one end to the other. Assuming you have a strong stomach and a sensibility that is not easily offended by blasphemy, disrespect towards institutions of government, or Fall-of-Rome-level sexual deviance, you will certainly enjoy it thoroughly. I blew through it in one afternoon, nearly in one sitting, and had a blast with it the entire time. Now, I've read a lot of Warren Ellis's writing for the graphic novel format, and a lot of his essays, and I always enjoy it thoroughly, but one point I have to make where "Crooked Little Vein" is concerned is that it is not his magnum opus, by any means. This book, a madcap travelogue that basically becomes a romp through every type of sexual deviance that you can think of (and at least one or two types that you haven't thought of), is one of his lighter works. It does touch on important ideas that often come up in Ellis's work--the importance of the internet as a way to provide power to the common citizen, freedom of expression as represented by sexual deviance and body modification--but for the most part, this book is a hilariously decadent and depraved twist on the sort of dry wit that is so endemic to England. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson and Douglas Adams collaborating from the great beyond, and channeling the results of their efforts through ... well, Warren Ellis, I suppose. At any rate, while it is not as serious in tone as, say, "Black Summer", it is definitely as skeweringly satirical as "Transmetropolitan", and has some of the over-the-top sensibilities found in "Nextwave". Fans of Ellis's previous work will no doubt find a lot to love here, no matter which of his writing styles they enjoy the most.

Gardens Of The Moon, by Steven Erikson
I enjoyed this book while I was reading it, but it automatically loses a star by virtue of the fact that I was reading it for a month. Granted, I took a lot of breaks--finishing a magazine here, reading some comic books there, catching an occasional chapter of a much lighter and more immediately gratifying John Waters book sometimes when I just couldn't take any more--but even still, it should not have taken me that long to read this or any book. Consider, if you will, the fact that it took me just under two weeks to read Neal Stephenson's "Anathem", which is almost 300 pages longer than "Gardens Of The Moon". This book may have been an enjoyable slog, but it was a slog nonetheless. It was written in an incredibly dense manner, which made me tired and feel like I should put it down and do something else after, on average, 20 pages or so. Even when I got to the end of the book and was really interested in the outcome, I was still only getting through 40 or 50 pages per day, if that.

That's my big problem with this book, but it's mostly offset by how much I enjoyed the actual story the book told. One thing that was very important to my enjoyment, and on which I must congratulate Mr. Erikson, was how well-drawn, multi-dimensional, and fully realized his main characters were. Considering that there were upwards of a dozen, and that we got significant looks at the inner emotional lives of at least five of them, this was not an easy feat to achieve. Even more impressive is the fact that he did so against the backdrop of an epic fantasy genre that typically slaps down some stock one-dimensional stereotypes as characters and moves on. In fact, for a writer of epic fantasy, Erikson did a great job of defying many typical stereotypes of the genre. "Gardens Of The Moon", wonder of wonders, is not a quest novel. It does not present an epic battle between forces of ultimate good and ultimate evil. No, instead it gives us multiple forces, all with independent goals of various natures, and shows them battling, forming alliances, and generally working to achieve their goals in whatever manner is necessary. All of the characters have some degree of sympathy to the reader, no matter how they are aligned, and all of the characters make choices at one point or another that the reader will find him or herself looking upon unfavorably. This novel's plot is the stuff of life--chaotic, sometimes nonsensical, and certainly not easily understood in black and white terms. Factors like magic, a polytheistic pantheon that interacts with mortals, multiple races of intelligent beings, warring empires, and cities that operate on a near-anarchistic level and would prefer to be free to continue such operations, all further blur the lines of this narrative and provide interesting colors and depths.

This book was recommended to me as an epic fantasy novel for people who don't like epic fantasy novels, and I can certainly see why. In fact, I'm left with some mild degree of curiosity about its sequels--of which there are 9, only 6 of which are currently available in the US. However, after working at a fantasy-oriented bookstore for 8 years and watching fans of lengthy series that are still being written rejoice and suffer with the changing of release dates, I don't really see myself pitching into the further volumes of this series with any kind of real urgency. This is especially true in light of how long a lot of future volumes were. If this book was a slog for me (oh, and it was), then how much slogging must I be prepared to do in the face of future volumes that are 200 to 300 pages longer than this one? No, I think I'll hold off for at least a few months before picking up another of these books. I can't imagine that I will stop with the series here, though--despite the major strike against it, I did enjoy this book.

The Great Derangement, by Matt Taibbi
When Matt Taibbi first started writing about politics for Rolling Stone, I was very impressed with him. He actually let his feelings about the issues, the politicians, the behaviors they engaged in and the positions they took come through. He wasn't afraid to call someone an asshole or the son of the devil or whatever he might say to his friends while sitting around at a bar ranting, and this combined with his intelligent and incisive analysis of the things he was writing about combined to make him the best political writer Rolling Stone had had since the heyday of Hunter S. Thompson. As time has gone on and I've become less and less interested in Rolling Stone for their music coverage, I've started to flip directly to any piece in the magazine written by Matt Taibbi the second I get the new issue. He's worth the price of admission all by himself, and this book-length analysis of a couple things he's written about at much shorter lengths for Rolling Stone in the past was particularly welcome in my eyes.

In "The Great Derangement", Taibbi goes undercover as a lost soul looking for guidance at the megachurch of Texas pastor John Hagee, who received a lot of no-doubt unwelcome attention earlier this year for his ties to John McCain and his inflammatory statements about the Catholic Church, Jewish people, and Iran. Taibbi discusses Hagee's Christian Zionism in the book, but he spends a great deal more time just explaining what it's like to be a member of Hagee's megachurch on a day to day basis. One thing that might surprise my fellow liberals who come to this book looking for righteous indignation and putdowns of those not like us might be how easy it quickly becomes to empathize with those Taibbi meets and gets to know within Hagee's congregation. While they are often guilty of repeating asinine political talking points fed to them by Hagee and his minions and absorbed unquestioningly, these congregation members are generally concerned with the same things as anyone else in America in 2008 who isn't rich enough to avoid being concerned about everything. Later in the book, Taibbi draws comparisons between these lost souls and similar ones on the left, specifically those drawn in by the "9/11 truth movement", which Taibbi spends some time debunking but far more time reminding us is made up of concerned citizens just like us.

The larger point Taibbi makes, in making clear that right-wing evangelical Christians and left-wing 9/11 truthers are just as alike as they are different, is that the average Americans who make up the large majority of this country have been de facto disenfranchised by the workings of the American government. They may have the ability to vote for different political representatives, but at a time when, at least on issues of economy, the two political parties that control the country's political offices are united in supporting the desires of big business instead of helping with the needs of ordinary Americans, those ordinary Americans are not given a choice in elections that will actually help them improve their lives. They're forced to pick between opposing cultural forces, and neither the culturally-left party nor the culturally-right party are going to do anything to improve their situations in their daily lives. For these reasons, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum find themselves turning to explanations that help them make sense of this problem, whether they be conspiracy theories or apocalyptic religious visions.

Taibbi's overarching point in all of this is that we, the average Americans, need a sweeping change to our political system, one that expands far beyond the dictates of party and cultural affiliation. This book was written before the beginning of the presidential primary of this past year, and in its epilogue, written slightly later, Taibbi mentions feeling some hope for both sides of the political spectrum at the sights of the Paul, Edwards, and Obama candidacies. However, as he points out, even if candidates like these are able to get into office, it's going to take more than that to heal the American distrust of their political system and bring people back to a point where they look at the world rationally instead of through the prisms of nonsensical and easily debunked explanations for the world.

I enjoyed reading this book very much, and did end up relating to both the evangelicals and the conspiracy theorists within its pages, but the person I related to most closely was Taibbi, in his inability to pick one particular viewpoint and make a stand on it. In the introduction, he questions whether he himself is not, in the end, the villain of the entire book, by virtue of his going undercover, and of his looking down on people who at least have a viewpoint, a position on which they've taken a stand. He finds himself envying this ideological sure-footedness even as he questions its basis. That's something I sometimes feel myself.

This book is very much worth reading, but don't go into it looking for it to make you feel superior, or to avoid questioning your own superiority. Even for the most enlightened of us, this massively entertaining book is also quite disturbing.

Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann
I was not expecting to enjoy this book. I am not normally someone who likes the cute-animals-solve-a-murder subgenre of the mystery genre, and I really tend to despise the cozy end of the mystery genre in general, so I didn't go into it expecting much. I was reading it for a book club I was in, and I didn't pick it up until the day before our meeting to discuss the book. For that reason, I didn't have time to get through the entire book before the meeting, but I was surprised to find myself flying through it, and enjoying myself thoroughly the entire way. I was further surprised to find myself reading 3/4 of it in the day and a half between when I started it and my book club meeting, and finishing it as soon as I woke up the next morning. It surpassed my expectations completely.

Leonie Swann's narrative of sheep who live in a meadow in Ireland who find themselves attempting to solve the murder of their beloved shepherd, who read them romances and detective stories in the evening, is really a story of the sheep themselves. Surprisingly, there is much attention paid to fleshing out the characters and personalities of the sheep in the flock, all 16 or so of them. I found myself particularly liking Othello, the taciturn black sheep with much mysterious experience of the outside world, and Mopple, the happy-go-lucky ram who loves to eat and remembers everything. Other fleshed-out characters include Zora, a philosophical sheep who likes to stand on the edge of the cliff that borders their pasture and stare down at the sea below; Miss Maple, the smartest of the sheep, who does most of the ratocinating where the mystery of George the shepherd's death is concerned; Sir Ritchfield, the flock's aging lead ram, who is starting to forget things; and Cloud, a sweet and tender ewe who isn't the smartest sheep in the flock by any stretch, but makes up for it with her friendly and charming personality.

The sheep need to engage in some rather non-sheeplike behaviors at several points in the story in order to determine the identity of George's killer, and these elements of the story might have grated in the hands of a lesser writer. However, Leonie Swann's sure-handed narrative and character construction keeps the reader from ever losing confidence in the tale they are reading, and makes the entire adventure quite believable, as well as a lot of fun. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect results from the flock's limited understanding of human phrases and terminology. They spend the entire tale believing the town priest's name to be God, and at one point, when Satan is mentioned as a possible metaphorical culprit for the murder, the sheep dismiss this idea out of hand, as they know Satan, a goat who lives near their pasture, and they know he wouldn't do anything like that.

The humans in the story are judged rather differently than they might be in a story that was written from the point of view of humans. Ham, the town butcher, is seen as a black-hearted villain, despite the fact that most of the townspeople seem to like him, and Beth, a lady who used to bring George Biblical tracts, is seen as disturbing because the sheep find her smell unappetizing. But in the end, it seems like maybe the sheep know more about people than we do, and their strange, removed perspective on all the events of the story bring insights to light that might not occur at all if we read the story from the point of view of other humans involved in the tale.

There is apparently a sequel planned, and I'm not sure how much I will like that one, as the idea of a murder being solved by a flock of sheep starts to lose a lot of credibility in my mind once it happens more than once. However, considering how much better this book was than I expected it to be, I would certainly be willing to at least take a look at a sequel.

My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up, by Stephen Elliott
This book is made up of several short stories, all of which are quite short, leaving the book a mere 120 or so pages in length and therefore not quite worth the $14 they were charging for it. However, I enjoyed the stories within nonetheless, and would read more writing by Stephen Elliott if given the opportunity.

The stories in this book focus on Elliott's sexual experiences, mostly consisting of being on the receiving end of brutal beatings. As a submissive, this sort of thing is what he wants out of his sex life, but it's mixed with drug problems, flashbacks to his disturbing and unhappy childhood, and a life generally lived on the edge, in crappy apartments and the back seats of cars. It's a memoir of sorts, but Elliott claims to have published it as fiction because he doesn't want to have to be responsible for the truth of his own memories. It's therefore hard to know what of the events the book describes actually happened and what didn't, but it seems likely that there's some basic truth to all of these experiences.

In some ways I could relate to Elliott's experiences within the book. I didn't have anywhere near as rough of a childhood as he did, and my sex life was never anywhere near as intense and fucked-up as he describes his as being in this book, but I have some tendencies towards the BDSM side of things myself, and his desires and fetishes made a fundamental kind of sense to me, even if I'd never take them anywhere near as far as he and his lovers in the book did.

I felt like the real story being told in this book, the story that one gets when all of the individual, single-event-based stories are added together like this into a (not quite) book-length single work, is that of a person with a lot of mental problems and a sexuality he doesn't really understand trying to come to a point where he is able to accept himself and his sexuality, and find a healthy way to express both. By the end of the last story, he seems like he sort of kind of does just that. At least a little bit. It's a happy ending of sorts, and by that point in the book, it's a welcome one.

Cycler, by Lauren McLaughlin
This was a quick read, and probably the only part about it that I didn't like was that it ended so quickly that I was left wanting a lot more from its storyline. However, the back cover says that McLaughlin is working on a sequel, so that's good at least. And I'm sure that part of the reason this book is shorter than I wanted it to be is that it was written for a young adult audience. Nonetheless, I do wish it were a bit longer. The big ending blew by me so fast that I couldn't help but feel that it needed a little more detail.

On the whole, though, this is a very engaging story. Jill is a cycler, which means that, for the four days before her menstrual period begins, she changes into a boy. Her mother is a very straightlaced suburban type, and finds this transformation appalling. For that reason, her mother has taught Jill to use meditation to erase all of her memories of her time as a boy. Perhaps for this reason, or maybe just as a side effect of the cycling change, the boy she changes into has developed a personality of his own, named Jack, and has started to chafe at the periods of imprisonment that make up his experience of life. You can imagine where the story goes from here.

I found the parts of the story that were narrated by Jack to be a good bit more enjoyable than Jill's sections. I wouldn't say that Jack is a more likable character, but since Jill spends most of her life with no memory of the imprisonment Jack goes through, she has come to be a pretty well-adjusted teenage girl who is generally not concerned about anything more than a prom date. Jack's sections are full of teen angst and snarky frustration, and therefore I found them more compelling. I'm hoping he has a bigger role in the sequel, although that probably won't happen since he only exists for four days out of every month.

I was also really happy to see the book exploring concepts of gender and sexuality in a complicated fashion. I don't want to go into detail with the ways it does so, as those would constitute spoilers, but I will say that it's nice to see people avoiding and even condemning the standard gender binary that society tries to force all of us into. This kind of more complicated, questioning outlook was some of what I was looking for when I picked up a book about a person whose body switched between genders, and though it didn't go quite as far as I might've liked it to (blame the young adult audience it's being directed toward for that), it got into these issues enough to satisfy me. I have high hopes for the sequel where this element in particular is concerned.

Shock Value, by John Waters
This strange and thoroughly entertaining book was less like a biography of John Waters (how it was initially explained to me) and more like a zine he'd written and turned into a book. There is no real chronology to the stories in the book; instead, it begins with a chapter about the making of "Pink Flamingos", then jumps around from chapter to chapter without any real rhyme or reason. A chapter about Waters's childhood fascination with disasters is followed by chapters about how much he loves Baltimore, his cross-country pilgrimages to attend highly publicized trials, interviews with his favorite movie directors (Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis), and chapters devoted to his favorite actors to work with, Divine and Edith Massey. Interspersed between these chapters are chapters that tell about the making of his other movies and about his struggles with censor boards, but at least half of the book is less an autobiography than Waters excitedly discussing his various fascinations. None of this is a negative thing, however--all of the chapters are equally entertaining, and Waters is just as good at expounding upon his unique worldview as he is at telling stories from his life. The many pictures distributed throughout the book are also great fun to look at, mixing images from his hard to find early movies with pictures of his bizarre company of actors in their day to day lives, without all the crazy makeup and costumes in which he generally decks them out. Unfortunately, the book ends in 1981, the year he wrote it, and other than an introduction written in 1995, we get nothing about the last 25+ years of his life. I doubt there are as many good stories from that period as there are from his early days, but nonetheless I'd like to hear them. I hear he has other books, so I should probably track them down and see if they can fill in the holes left by "Shock Value". That said, this book is incredibly entertaining, and anyone with a taste for "bad taste" will enjoy it thoroughly.



Can you please explain.

The Apex Theory are pretty well forgotten by now in most circles, and if they're on your radar at all, it's probably because of their relation to System Of A Down (Apex Theory's original vocalist was the original drummer for System Of A Down, and had to quit before their first album due to a hand injury). They were pretty active from 2001 until 2003, releasing an EP and an album, and since I hadn't heard anything from them since, I assumed they'd broken up. Actually, while doing some half-assed research for this blog entry, I discovered that their singer left the band during the 2002 tour for their album "Topsy Turvy", and that they'd carried on ever since as a three-piece with their guitarist singing. Apparently they're now known as Mt. Helium, and released an album this year called "Faces". That's all news to me, and I should probably check that stuff out, but right now I really just want to talk about their first LP.

Back in 2002, I was living in a house with everyone else in my band. We'd be broken up in about six months due to members moving out of town, but at that point it felt sort of like living the rock n' roll dream. There was one night when all of us were sitting around the living room, not doing too much, and Eric, our lead guitarist, had his guitar out and plugged into a practice amp. He'd been working on riffs earlier, but now he was entertaining himself by playing along with songs that came on MTV2 (back when that network still played videos). The Strokes' first big single, "Last Night", was getting a lot of airplay at that point, and he'd started playing along with the TV when it came on, discovering to the vast amusement of everyone in the room that the rhythm guitar part on the verses was one chord. After that, he tried playing along with each new song that came on, and was generally successful by about 30 seconds into the song, though he had to tune down to drop D to play along with P.O.D.'s "Youth Of The Nation". All this mimicry came to an abrupt end, though, when the video for "Shhh (Hope Diggy)" by the Apex Theory came on. All of us in the room yelled, "Whoa!" as soon as it started, because for a minute, we couldn't even tell what time signature it was in. It had a strange, mathematically complex chord progression, and underneath that progression, the rhythm section played complicated fills. It reminded me of Frank Zappa or some similar prog-rock merchant, and it did so in the same way that System Of A Down, who had just recently had a hit with "Chop Suey", did. But the problem that "Shhh (Hope Diggy)" had in connecting with me and my bandmates was the vocals. On the choruses, they had that sort of rap-core bounce that Fred Durst made his signature, and on the verses, they were fast, scatting rap of the sort that Linkin Park vocalist Mike Shinoda was known for. Limp Bizkit? Linkin Park? Gross. Regardless of their mathy tendencies, we concluded, this Apex Theory band sucked.

That said, I found myself thinking about the song a lot in the ensuing days and weeks. Yes, the chorus was obnoxious. Yes, the verses were rappy. But the strange time signatures and proggy flourishes drew my mind back to it over and over, and I couldn't help but wonder if the Apex Theory didn't have something more to offer. I learned that this was the case months later, after moving out of the band house, while again watching MTV2. This time I saw the video for "Apossibly", on which there weren't any rappy vocals anywhere. The music was more straightforward, too, but I liked it a lot. A catchy guitar riff and a melodically sung chorus made the song irresistible for me, and I set to work downloading their album. What I learned from hearing "Topsy Turvy" in its entirety was this: if there's anything that's to blame for Apex Theory not being as famous as System of a Down right now, it's the A&R decision to make "Shhh (Hope Diggy)" the first single. It doesn't sound a thing like the rest of the album, and it contains some very divisive elements--specifically, rappy vocals. I know the A&R guy in question was probably just trying to catch the demographic that bought Linkin Park albums, but Apex Theory's sound as a whole makes clear to me that this is the wrong target market to aim for. Their usual sound is more like a bizarre Armenian version of emo-influenced alternative rock--At The Drive In by way of System Of A Down. They should have aimed this album at kids who liked the Mars Volta (although, unfortunately, The Mars Volta weren't around at the time to provide a guide for such marketing).

"Apossibly" makes this somewhat clear, but where it really becomes obvious is on "Bravo", which should have been the single. This song switches from quieter verses to driving, uptempo choruses, all powered by a catchy vocal melody. The driving bridge, on which the singer yells "It's about time!", is the best part, and manages to incorporate Apex Theory's more mathematically inclined tendencies into a riff that is still carried by a 4/4 beat--the riff spirals around the beat, getting ahead, then falling behind, always to come back to the beginning at the same spot that the beat does. "Mucus Shifters" plays with tempo much more overtly, and is constructed around a riff that speeds up and slows down as it's played, the rhythm section following and creating a bizarre time signature that I still can't quite figure out. "That's All!" is a quieter, more subdued track, on which keyboards provide the basic chords, and the guitar trickles arpeggios all over the melodic beds the keyboards lay down. "In Books" is straightforwardly heavy and provides a fitting end to the album, while "Add Mission" starts the whole thing off with spacey yet powerful riffing and verses that start out sounding 4/4 but soon reveal themselves to be in a much more bizarre time signature. "Bullshed" begins with a progged-out instrumental intro, but turns into a groove-oriented alt-rock jam after 90 seconds or thereabouts.

Really, there isn't a dud here, not even "Shhh (Hope Diggy)"--and I say that despite the fact that the title of that song makes me want to punch someone in the face. After a while, I even learned to love the scatting raps on that song's verses, which opened me up even more to the strangely fascinating riffing going on underneath them. Really, though, I just love everything by the Apex Theory, including the songs on their self-titled EP, like "Swing This", that weren't rerecorded for the full-length. I even located a promotional CD called "Random Bursts", which features an otherwise unreleased song called "Calm-It", and it was worth the price of admission all by itself (granted, the copy of "Random Bursts" I found cost me a dollar, but still). Even to this day, after owning their CDs for over 5 years, I'm still occasionally overcome by an urge to hear Apex Theory, and at times like that, nothing else will do. Maybe I'm the only person in the world who still cares about this band, and I'm fine with that if so, but seriously--you guys are missing out. This band rules.

Apex Theory - Bravo
Apex Theory - Add Mission



...and I think about the love that you laid on my table.

It's always great to find, or rediscover, some amazing piece of music. But sometimes it's also frustrating. The usual response to discovering some song or album that rules is to seek out more work by the same artist, or by related bands, or whatever, and sometimes the result of this search is hours of additional great music. But sometimes, the hours of additional great music that you hope to find just isn't there. Worst of all is when you hear one song by a band that blows you away, only to discover that everything else they ever recorded is nowhere near as good. Maybe it was the only great song they had in them (Count Five's "Psychotic Reaction" is a good example of this phenomenon). Maybe the song was an experimental one-off, and nothing else they ever recorded sounded anything like it (Fuel's "Shimmer", a 90s one-hit wonder that I am no doubt some sort of massive loser for liking, is a good example of this. The rest of their stuff is bad nu-metal). And maybe the song is an indication of where the band was going, but they broke up before they ever got there. Endpoint's "Brown County", the final song on their final EP, is a good example of this type, but a better one is the one that inspired this blog entry: Cream's "Badge".

Actually, despite the fact that this song was released on a Cream album, it probably isn't entirely fair to call it a Cream song at all. Unlike most of Cream's material, it features Eric Clapton on lead vocals, instead of bassist Jack Bruce. Furthermore, it has none of the blues base that most of Cream's material has. And finally, most importantly, the song was written by Clapton in collaboration with George Harrison, and Harrison's Beatlesque stamp is all over it. "Badge" is one of only two songs that arose out of this late-60s Clapton/Harrison collaboration, the other being "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", a track on which Harrison took lead vocal and was therefore released on The Beatles' 1968 self-titled album, also known as "The White Album".

One can imagine that, if a full album were produced by the Clapton-Harrison collaborative unit, perhaps with Ginger Baker on drums (one can dream, at least), it would have sounded like "Badge" and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" throughout. However, that didn't happen. While Cream was in the midst of breaking up in 1968--in fact, "Badge" appeared on their final album, "Goodbye", which was half-studio and half-live due to a lack of new material--The Beatles were to hang on, mostly out of a sense of duty rather than any real desire to continue as a group, for two more years. By the time those two years had passed, Eric Clapton had moved on to other collaborations, first with Baker, Steve Winwood, and bassist Rick Grech in the short-lived Blind Faith, then with Duane Allman and the Delaney and Bonnie rhythm section as Derek And The Dominos. Winwood dominated the sound of Blind Faith, singing on all songs and writing most of them. While their album is not wonderful, it's pretty decent, probably due to the fact that Winwood was still a decent songwriter at this point--this was over a decade before his "Arc Of A Diver"/"Back In The High Life"/"Roll With It" travesty triumvirate. Derek and the Dominos were more scattershot, filling their one release, a double album, with covers and collaborations with keyboardist Bobby Whitlock. It features a few incredible moments, most notably title track "Layla" and standout Clapton contribution "Bellbottom Blues", but the most important thing to note about this album in light of the current discussion is that "Layla" and several other songs on the album were inspired by Clapton's having fallen in love with George Harrison's then-wife, Pattie Boyd. She later left Harrison and married Clapton (whose marriage to her lasted a couple of years less than Harrison's had). So, by the time Harrison was free from his obligations to the Beatles, Clapton had fallen in love with his wife. One would assume that this made the idea of a Clapton-Harrison collaborative project impossible.

And that's a shame, because "Badge" is such an incredible song. As I mentioned earlier, it has none of the blues elements that Cream songs were most commonly based around. Instead, it consists of a pop-rock verse structure (with no real chorus), and a powerful melodic centerpiece--a lengthy bridge over which Clapton solos to great effect. It was, in fact, this bridge that gave the song its name; Harrison saw Clapton's composition notes, and misread the word "bridge" as "Badge". The song is structured more like a Beatles song than a Cream song, but really, it doesn't sound too much like the Beatles either. In fact, if anything, I'd say the song resembles something that Badfinger would have done. Badfinger were the first band other than the Beatles to release records on the Beatles' Apple Records label, and rose to fame with the help of their association with the Beatles. However, they weren't merely a Beatles copy band, as they've sometimes been labeled. Instead, Badfinger were the first band who could properly be called power-pop. Their pioneering of this genre, which dominated the rock of the early to mid 70s (Big Star, the Raspberries, Cheap Trick), was possible due to their synthesis of the many disparate elements that had made up the Beatles' songwriting styles at various points during their career. The Beatles, relentless innovators at all times, nonetheless burned through styles rather quickly, constantly trying new ways of writing a song and then casting them off by their next album. This enabled them to make the quantum leaps in songwriting that allowed them to progress from "Love Me Do" to "A Day In The Life" in five years, and to side two of "Abbey Road" in only two more, but it also made it tough to point to one specific songwriting style that was quintessentially Beatles in nature. Nonetheless, Badfinger built their sound upon a foundation of quintessentially Beatlesque stylings, and they did so by synthesizing all of the disparate elements that made up "Love Me Do" and "Rubber Soul" and "Sgt. Pepper" and "Abbey Road" and coming out with a unified sound that incorporated all of these things without sacrificing its own focus. This sound was what became power-pop, and Badfinger deserve a great deal of credit for coming up with it, even if they were building on work done by their benefactors in the previous decade.

They may also have been building on "Badge", however, as it too seems to synthesize much of these same Beatlesque elements. Since George Harrison had such an important role in writing it, that can hardly be surprising, but the song sounds much less like something either Harrison or Clapton, for that matter, would have written anytime previously. Instead, it looks forward, and might therefore be the real unsung starting point of power-pop. The song is based around a catchy rhythm guitar riff that's doubled by a piano line, and Clapton's vocals on it are smooth and melodic, an obvious contrast to his lead vocal turn on "Crossroads", from Cream's previous album, "Wheels Of Fire". During the first two verses of the song, his guitar is subdued, revealing none of the fireworks that had made him a guitar hero long before "Badge" was recorded. The rhythm section is equally subdued, and all of the players do their best to get out of the way of the main melody, as carried by the vocals.

The lyrics to the song are vague where concrete details are concerned, but nonetheless paint a detailed emotional picture. The song would be excellent no matter what, but the lyrical picture just adds that much more of a punch to it. "Thinking about the times you drove in my car," sings Clapton. "Thinking that I might've drove you too far. And I'm thinking about the love that you laid on my table." This is the moment when most songs would go from verse to chorus, but instead, the guitar, piano, and rhythm section all just build up to a high, chiming chord, after which the entire song stops for a full measure. Finally, the bass brings it back in for another verse. "I told you not to wander round in the dark. I told you about the swans, that they live in the park. And I told you about the kid, now he's married to Mabel." Both of these verses hint at a dissolved relationship, and when mixed with the subdued music and minor-chord vocal melody, they create a feeling of sadness and loss. But what they're actually talking about stays vague and hard to figure out, as it will throughout the song.

After the same chiming chord ends the second verse, the song changes completely as it enters the bridge. It's brought in by a ringing guitar arpeggio, played through the same sort of chorus effect that Badfinger made famous with the leads on their most famous singles, such as "No Matter What" and "Baby Blue". When the piano and rhythm section come in under the lead guitar, Clapton begins singing, sounding much more passionate than he did on the first two verses. "You better pick yourself up off the ground before they bring the curtain down," he declares, finally launching into an unrestrained solo of the sort that he'd made his name on. In the background, a quiet vocal chorus hums along with the rhythm chords played by bass and piano, and a mellotron slowly fades in as well, adding a symphonic layer of additional melody. All of these additional layers take the song far away from its subdued beginnings, and also strengthen the resemblance to a late-period Beatles song.

When, at the end of the bridge, the band plunges back into the verse once more, the layers of backing vocal and mellotron stick around, and spur Clapton into singing the final verse even more passionately than he delivered his lyrics during the bridge. As he does so, he continues to add guitar leads inbetween his vocal lines, which again increase the intensity with which this final verse is delivered--quite a contrast with the two that came before the bridge. "I'm talking about a girl that looks quite like you," he sings. "She didn't like to wait around in the queue." Then the final, most affecting, line: "She cried away her life since she fell out the cradle!" I don't know if it's the lyric itself, Clapton's delivery, or some combination of the two that makes that last line stick with me so strongly, but regardless, it's a powerful, resonant line, and it wraps up the song perfectly. The last high, chiming chord rings out with an air of foreboding melancholy, encapsulating the mood created throughout.

When I hear this song, I find myself mourning for something that never existed at all, a Clapton-Harrison collaboration that could have generated one or more albums like this, full of power-pop gems and bluesy, emotional anthems. I hear hints of what could have been in "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," as well as in Blind Faith's "Presence of the Lord", The Beatles' "Something", Derek And The Dominoes' "Bell Bottom Blues", and George Harrison's solo track "Isn't It A Pity". But nowhere do I hear it more clearly than in "Badge", and as much as I love this song, I am always a bit sad when I hear it, to think that there are no more songs like this one.

Cream - Badge



Return to the valley of emo.

Remember a few years ago when once every other month or so I had some new emo band to hype on here? Back when Fall Out Boy were making it big and Taking Back Sunday were releasing some of my favorite albums of the mid-00s? Yeah, me too. And then it trickled off, almost to a complete stop, because I stopped finding new bands I liked in that scene. Some of the favorites then have continued to be good on subsequent albums (Taking Back Sunday, My Chemical Romance), and some have turned to shit (Fall Out Boy). But the problem is that I got used to the records by the bands I already liked, and stopped finding new examples of bands in that style that were measuring up to the same quality standard. So I turned to other things--at times burying myself in 60s garage/psych, and at other points focusing on alt-rock, or hardcore, or Britpop bands that I loved 15 years ago. There was a part of me always keeping half an ear open for new examples of good modern emo, but most of what I ran across was inconsistent at best.

There's been one band recently that's broken this trend though, and that's Paramore. The first single from their most recent album, "Riot!", didn't completely win me over, because despite its catchy riffs, the lyrics really bugged me. A song in which the narrator gloats in the face of a romantic rival about having the object of her affection "where I want him now" is not going to make me happy, ever. All the cliches about catty rivalry between girls, all the manipulative battle-of-the-sexes crap in which boys are seen as targets for point-scoring, and especially lines like "Once a whore, you're nothing more. I'm sorry, that'll never change"--not the kind of stuff I want to hear in a song, no matter how catchy the melody. But a friend of mine told me about how good the rest of the record was, how "Misery Business" wasn't even one of the stronger songs on the record, how I should check out the rest of the album, and I just couldn't resist. If there's one thing I learned from my period a few years ago in which I fell in love with almost every new emo band that came down the pike, it's that I'm not going to be able to resist really catchy songs. So I figured what the hell, I'd give Paramore a shot.

Unfortunately, I can't say that the lyrics to the rest of the album are any smarter or better thought out than those of "Misery Business". They are at least inoffensive, so that's a step in the right direction. But one thing that "Misery Business" and "Crushcrushcrush", which I also hear on the radio, both point out is that the A&R people assigned to Paramore are picking the wrong singles. Yes, "Misery Business" is catchy enough that, if I tune out the lyrics, I can enjoy listening to it. And yes, "Crushcrushcrush" has some decent parts, even if the chorus kind of gets on my nerves. But no doubt about it, these are two of the weakest songs on the album. If you've heard them on the radio and thought what I did, that Paramore were decent--certainly more promising than a lot of other recent emo acts--but nothing amazing, let me tell you, you haven't heard anything yet.

The best argument on this album for a reassignation of the single-picking duties for Paramore is track two, "That's What You Get". If "Misery Business" is a catchy song, then this is an irresistible pop confection of the first order. Some of Paramore's songs feature tough-sounding punk rhythm guitar and harder-edged riffing on the verses that offset the catchier choruses, and normally, I would consider these plus points. For Paramore, though, the opposite is true. Their best songs are the ones where their punk/hardcore inclinations get out of the way and let the pure pop goodness shine through. "That's What You Get" does a great job of exactly this, and it's a perfect combination of modern, melodic emo and the more straightforward pop catchiness of early 80s New Wave bands like the Go-Gos. Singer Hayley Williams fills most of the song with stupid lyrics that border on meaningless, but the chorus of "That's what you get when you let your heart win" redeems those dumb lyrics entirely. It's a vague phrase, but it's just evocative enough to allow the listener to give it meaning with their imagination. And the listener will want to, because the chorus underneath those lyrics has an evocative, emotional sound of its own. If I still had reservations about Paramore after my experience with their first single, this song erased them all in one fell swoop.

The song that follows it, "Hallelujah", is another great one, but this one connects more overtly with the punk/hardcore roots of Paramore's sound. The entire song moves at a head-nodding half-tempo, the sort of speed that could sound like a breakdown coming out of a faster, punkier riff. Sticking with the slower speed throughout the song instead of contrasting it with that sort of faster punk riff is a risky choice, but it pays off in a big way. Paramore guitarist Josh Farro spends most of the song switching between steadily strummed octave chords and a more chugging attack, in a manner reminiscent of Quicksand. Contrasted with Hayley's gorgeously sung vocals, though, this guitar attack comes to a much different end, emphasizing the more emotional nature of the song even as the heavier feel of the music is preserved.

Slower ballads "When It Rains" and "We Are Broken", which show up later in the album, work well enough within the context of the album to serve as breaks in the mood, and keep the listener interested enough not to reach for the skip button. However, both songs seem slightly at odds with Paramore's usual punk-influenced style. Their choruses being as catchy as they are save them from seeming like total sellout moves, and the album works well as a whole with these two songs on it, but I'm not entirely sure about this particular direction in their sound. Fortunately, these songs are offset by one that lies halfway between the two--"Miracle". It has a similar pop feel to that of "That's What You Get", but brings in a bit more of the faster, punkier feel of "Misery Business". In so doing, it creates what might be the perfect blend of all of the styles Paramore explore on this album. "That's What You Get" is probably slightly catchier, but "Miracle" is a more fully realized song, and if they can replicate this blend more often, their next album will be significantly better than this one. Not only does "Miracle" have an outstanding chorus, it's got a bridge that mixes the pop of the chorus with a more intense vibe that powers things along and hints much more strongly at hardcore than the rest of the song does. Then at the end, they wrap the whole thing up with a half-speed breakdown that feels like something Lifetime would have done--always a good band to imitate, if you ask me.

The album ends with "Born For This", an uptempo track with choppily strummed verses and a catchy chorus. However, the element of this song that catches my attention the most is the way they transition from verse to chorus: the rhythm section drops out, the guitar drops in volume, and over Josh Farro's choppy strumming, Hayley quietly sings, "We want the airwaves back." Any Refused fan worth their salt will recognize this as a tribute to the Refused song "Liberation Frequency", from their era-defining final album "The Shape Of Punk To Come". "Born For This" is a really catchy song, and it'd be one of the best ones on the album even without this hidden reference. However, with it added in, my opinion not only of the song but of Paramore as a whole is pushed significantly higher. If Paramore are knowledgeable enough, and have good enough taste, to include a reference like this on their album, they are cool in my book.

Ultimately, "Riot!", while being good for the most part and excellent at several points, is somewhat of a mixed bag. I like it quite a bit, and I'm sure I'll still be listening to it in a few years just like I'm still listening to "From Under The Cork Tree" and "Three Cheers For Sweet Revenge" now. Whether their next album will be a "Black Parade" or an "Infinity On High" remains to be seen, but I'm smart enough to appreciate what I've got while I've got it, even if it's not quite perfect.

Paramore - That's What You Get
Paramore - Miracle