Wednesday, September 30, 2009

First Heard in September 2009 - "Yes To Aboration"


I have been listening to the same music since college, so I devised a little project that will spur me to actively pursue new jams. Each month, I will post a mix of the best songs that I heard for the first time within those 30 or so days. Won't you follow me on this journey? Thrill to the futuresounds? Mock me for being late to the party?

VOL 3.:

It's strange the trends that occur while putting these mixes together, considering the random nature of their formation. The method I chose of finding new stuff when I started this project, apart from trying to keep in step with the music press, was basically looking up my all-time favorite bands on Allmusic, assembling a list of 400 or so similar artists, filling my slsk wishlist and letting the hits pile up. But just as "life found a way" in "Jurassic Park," some higher pattern presents itself periodically amongst the cold, hard facts of download supply and demand. And in September, as the temperatures dipped and the sweaters made their way out of the mothballs, my wishlist responded in kind with a soupçon of autumnal electro and jams for the dying summer. What better way to start off the fall than the academic island rhythms of mysterious Swedes JJ?

Note: I would have also included the title track from Bibio's "Ambivalence Avenue," as it is easily one of the best songs I heard this month (and this year, for that matter). However, the only place it would have fit was at Track 1, and I didn't want to start off with a song that was already a perfect Track 1 and title track on its album of origin. For your enjoyment, I included it as a bonus track below. Anyway, there's a look at my nerdy criteria.


001 JJ - Masterplan
002 The Young Friends - Make Out Point
003 Akron/Family - River
004 Bachelorette - Mercurial Man
005 Rogue Wave - 10:1
006 Black Moth Super Rainbow - Twin Of Myself
007 Lindisfarne - Poor Old Ireland
008 Circulatory System - The Spinning Continuous
009 Belbury Poly - Widdershins
010 Phoenix - Countdown (Sick For The Big Sun)
011 St. Vincent - Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood
012 Jay-Z - Empire State of Mind (ft. Alicia Keys)
013 Jay Reatard - I'm Watching You
014 The Low Anthem - To Ohio (Reprise)
015 Fever Ray - Now's The Only Time I Know
016 The Postmarks - Winter Spring Summer Fall
017 The Señors of Marseille - Davey
018 Bibio - Lovers Carvings


This song is great, and it didn't even make the cut:

Friday, September 25, 2009

Genres & Judgments - The Overexposure and Rebirth of the Vampire

Vampires. If you haven't noticed (and how haven't you?), they're everywhere as of late. The hysteria surrounding the Harry Potter books has largely been replaced with the feverish furor regarding the Twilight series in the literary market, while television and Hollywood have quickly jumped on the bandwagon releasing hastily constructed adaptations and cheap knockoffs. In sum, there's a lot of bloodsuckers running around. Some are undeniably entertaining, while most of the others suck (yes, I went there). The following is a review of some of the more prevalent examples.
Since Twilight (2005) is the most popular of the recent vamp stories, I'll start there. I've not read any of Stephenie Meyer's books, but I've seen the first movie (from 2008), which was more than enough for me. Based on accounts from friends and coworkers who have read it, the movie was not nearly as good as the book. Never heard that one before. Based on my amazing ability to sit through crappy movies, I'm just trying to figure out how there was a good story to work with in the first place.
Quick plot synopsis for those who have not experienced either: new girl comes to town, meets broody cute guy, turns out he's a vampire, guy has the hots for her, naughty vamps come to down, think it's weird for nice vamps to not eat human girl, they decide to kill her for fun, the naughty ones are eventually stopped by the nice ones. Also, there is no sex in between the commas.
Not that you need sex in a vampire story, since one of the initial allusions in vampire fiction was the chomping of the neck was used as a replacement for sex in more antiquated times. However, since the nice vampires only eat dirty animals in lieu of tasty people, any sexual chemistry is pretty much thrown out the window. Instead, there's just a lot of extended eye contact sprinkled with a little smooching.
Jonny watching that for 120 minutes = yawn.
Part of this can also be argued as one of the ways Meyer has turned the vampire mythos on its head. As far as I can tell, most of what constitutes as rewriting the rules of the vampire is same thing as ignoring everything that makes a vampire a vampire in the first place. Besides the no human blood drinking, there's also no need to avoid sunlight and there are no fangs.
The Twilight vampires cannot be killed by direct sunlight. No, the only reason they stay out of the sun is because when it does hit their skin, they go all sparkly on you. This actually didn't bother me. At least there's still a reason for them not do go out in the sun; otherwise, they'd stick out too much. I find it lame because there's now one less way to kill them, but it could be worse.
What's worse is that they don't have fangs. This is where the movie completely lost me. Not once do they show a set a fangs. I can understand (and completely dislike) the fact that the nice vamps don't drink human blood. But they should still have retractable canine teeth. How else were they blood-sucking demons in the first place?

Thankfully, the vampires of HBO's True Blood (2008) most certainly do possess fangs. They use them to great effect, too, signifying a moment of lustfulness or just plain feeding time.
There's lots of other things to like about the show too. They use the case of the vampire to explore modern American ideals regarding religion, homosexuality and small-town existence, among other things. It's these subjects, in addition to the nudity and language, that make this a more adult experience rather than the largely empty, teenage-romance landscape of the Twilight books.
The second season of the show wrapped up recently, and while it began more interestingly than season one's fairly basic murder-mystery plot, it failed to pack the oomph of originality that I was hoping for when all was said and done. The rounding of vampire Eric's character and Jason Stackhouse's experience amongst the anti-vampire church were mostly excellently done, but the season's largest arc left me lacking. The blonde, superpowered girl and her vampire boyfriend are forced to stop a god-like being from enacting Armageddon? Where ever do you get your ideas, True Blood writing room?
Despite that redundant plotline, True Blood has become a must-watch show for me. It's not in the upper echelon yet, but it could be someday if they keep up the quality.

Next comes a show I doubt I will ever force myself to watch again, The Vampire Diaries (2009), aka Twilight: The TV Show.
Truth be told, I was expecting this show to be udder shit. It was better than I was expecting, but still completely uninteresting to me. If you like Twilight, you'll probably be satisfied with it, as it's clearly mining separate yet similar material (it's also based on a series of books).
Quick plot synopsis for those of you not brave enough to watch: broody, cute, vampire guy moves to town, meets newly-parentless girl, guy has the hots for her since she looks like his ex, turns out he has an naughty vampire brother who doesn't understand why he doesn't eat humans, they fight about it.
See how they mixed things up? The vampire moved into town. Copyright infringement averted.
Hard to say after only one episode if there'll be much nice vampire/teenage girl boning down the line, but the main vamp can stroll around in the daytime too, only it's because of a magic ring, further distancing it into the realm of originality. Writer's room of The Vampire Diaries, where ever do you get your ideas?

One other problem I have with all these three examples is the ancient vampire going head over heels for the teenage girl. Sure, all us fellas have a little Kip Winger in us, but have you actually spoken with a 17-year-old since you were 17? I have over a decade on that age and I have a bit of hard time understanding what their thought process is, so how the hell are 100-year-old guys supposed to look at them with undying love instead of rolling their eyes every few seconds? Oh, right, they remind them of an old flame. I guess growing up in a world without Chris Hansen makes it okay to go through a mid-life crisis, essentially engaging in pedophile behavior. I suspect these stories are going to create a pronounced divide of expectations between tween girls and boys over the next few years as they mosey on through high school. See, while little Jenny is envisioning the handsome boy who has superior intellect and who would rather wait, little Jimmy has been streaming Anal Princesses 23 and is going to come to the table with a completely different set of expectations. But, I digress...
So, there's plenty not to like about all these vampires on the screen. Which is why I read things.

Flying somewhat under the radar was the June release of The Strain (2009), part one in a trilogy from acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan.
The Strain is also guilty of delivering some rather run-of-the-mill story conventions, however, these vampires are anything but cuddly.
I know nothing of Mr. Hogan and his work, but I'm arbitrarily blaming what I didn't like about this novel on him, because knowing what I know about del Toro, his contributions are clear, at least in my mind.
The ancient lineage of the Vampyre? del Toro. The Jerry Bruckheimer-like formula to get me to care about characters I didn't want in the book in the first place? Hogan. The sage old slayer with his encyclopedic mind? del Toro. The mind-numbing dull, C.S.I. hackery? Hogan. The thing that isn't a fang, but way worse that these vampires have? del Toro. The rats? Well, that one could go either way, but it was definitely cool.
These vampires are scary. In fact, they are like no vampire you've ever heard of before. Like Twilight, these ones don't have fangs. Unlike Twilight, they have something much, much worse. This book is seriously scary when it chooses to be.
The novel clocks in at about 4oo pages, and maybe only a quarter of it is actually good. But the good SO out-ways the bad here, that I'm giving it a light recommendation.

Unfortunately for all these other recent vampire stories, I read Charlie Huston's Joe Pitt Casebooks before any of them came out. Book five in the series, My Dead Body, is scheduled to arrive in stores before the year is over, and you can be damn sure I'll have a review up when it does. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and check out the others in the series, starting with Already Dead (2005). These are hands down the best vampire stories I've ever been exposed to, and because they're more modern noir than anything else, they are unlike anything vampire you've seen as well. To tease just a bit more, the inscription inside book three is made out to "Mr. Chandler and Mr. Stoker," the masters of the detective novel and vampire novel, respectively. He honors their work admirably, to say the least.

So, one can only hope that Twilight films get more interesting, that True Blood continues to embrace it's ability to mirror American society, that The Vampire Diaries find an original thought, and that the sequels to The Strain tighten up and stop overestimating our interest in the minute science of inane subjects. If some of that happens, we won't look at vampires as the overexposed monsters that they are in danger of becoming, but instead as some of the more enjoyable fiction of this era.
Blood-Sucker Link of the Week:

Twilight for boys. [via Best Week Ever]

Maybe little Jimmy will be downloading this as well.
Finally, the song of the week.

"Devil Town" by Bright Eyes, Noise Floor (2006)
A really good cover of the Daniel Johnston song. His original is much more haunting, especially if you know anything about him. This version is a bit more accessible to the masses, however, which is why I'm sharing this one. Gotta give another shout-out to Friday Night Lights (the TV show) for turning me on to it.
Coming Up Next Week:
  • I'll be catching up with a slew of movies (including The Yakuza, finally!) after taking two weeks to post this entry, most of which I'd finished a while back (last week's migraine was an evil thing).
  • On the Netflix list, I've got The Night of the Hunter and Two Men in Town en route.
  • The Mad Men feature I mentioned last time will have to wait a week, mainly because I thought it was a bit too forced to be included in the vampire column and this one was going on a tad long as it was.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Comic Geek Speak

Just making a quick post to give a "shout out," as the kids call them, to the folks over at Comic Geek Speak. When I was at The Pittsburgh Comicon, I ran into my old friend Adam at the CGS booth talking comics and making the scene with his mutton chop sideburns.

In any case, I took a listen to their podcast from the con and he gave me a shout out so I figured I'd do the same. The crew on CGS is a good bunch and have some pretty lively discussions during their epic podcasts. Check them out, they're linked in the sidebar.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Con

Hey there LowBrow readers! I’m back from the land of moving and taking on two jobs to report in. About three months back I moved from scenic State College, Pennsylvania to the hustle and bustle of the Steel City... Pittsburgh! Having secured two jobs and little free time I finally made my way out of my cave this weekend to hit up The Pittsburgh Comicon.

The wonderful irony of the convention is that it's not in Pittsburgh proper but in the outlying area of Monroeville. For those of you not in the know, Monroeville is where the original cult (and personal) favorite zombie movie "Dawn of the Dead" was filmed. In fact, the mall featured in the movie is right next door to the convention center where the con was held this year.

This would be my second time attending the con, my first having been some six years ago when Neil Gaiman was supposed to be guest of honor. He cancelled due to scheduling conflicts but I still had a good time with my friend Vic as we discovered the aforementioned “Dawn of the Dead” was celebrating it’s 25th anniversary. Part of the celebration was an after hours tour of the mall with cast and crew of the movie, for a nominal fee of $25 (if I’m remembering right). Vic and I were fortunate enough to have our tour group led by Ken Foree, one of the stars of the movie and the guy with one of the most memorable lines.

In any case, this year I was excited to see that the guest of honor was the man himself, Stan Lee! The kicker on this one though was the $40 tickets they were selling to get his autograph, which were sold out when I showed up Saturday morning. I wasn’t really disappointed though. I’m not one for autographs preferring the experience of meeting the individual and getting to at least have an exchange with them. At the very least, I hoped to get a picture of Mr. Lee, which I did manage to do, but I’ll save that for last.

The con this time around wasn’t just an opportunity for me to mil about with other fans looking at back issues and merchandise, but was a chance for me to meet up with friends I hadn’t seen for some time. I arrived about thirty minutes after the doors opened and began wandering around a bit, looking for that one item I wanted to take home with me as well as checking out the, shall we say, colorful cast of characters that attend these events. During my first lap around the dealers’ area, I ran into a friend of mine I used to work with up in State College. We played a bit of catch up and was happy to geek out with him again. After that, my friend Vic showed up along with a few of our other friends.

There was more checking out of the wares the dealers had for sale, our friends coming here to actually buy comics, there being a lack of a quality comic book store in their home town. Vic and I broke off and decided to do what we do best, find the odd wonders of the show. Among them, the Mystique that really needed to morph into a face that looked less like a man’s, Fat Vader leading around a chubby slave Leia by a chain, and the awesome albino we wanted to make our new friend.

The coup de grâce being the few moments we spent hanging out next to the concession stand as one of our party was getting a drink. We were talking between ourselves and half conversating with a gentleman engrossed in his blackberry. He had a tag on his shirt meaning he was either with the con in some way, shape, or form. That is when one of the Iron Sirens (see the Comicon website) walked past wearing what could kindly be called a costume but was more a couple of bits of fabric to cover her naughty bits up. Gazing upon her sculpted form (you see, Iron Sirens are all body builders) we came upon a surprise that made us all stop. Just above her belly button was what could be said to have been a protrusion of some sort, best described by Vic as it being “like a chest burster had attempted to do it’s thing and just sort of gave up.” The gentleman beside us looked up from his Blackberry to chime in before we moved on, “Yeah, it’s like she lifted something a bit too heavy.” What we didn’t know at the time though was that we were sort of paling it up a bit with Greg Horn. You see, those are the moments I love at cons, the times when you get to actually meet the people. When they’re not talking about the industry and when you’re not asking them to draw you a picture. Next year, if Mr. Horn is at the con again, I’m buying him a $5 Budweiser.

While The Pittsburgh Comicon might not be up there as one of the big cons like Wizard World or Comic-Con International, it’s enjoyable as an event for bringing people together. It doesn’t seem to have caught itself up in the hype of Hollywood or has bogged itself down with too much stuff that isn’t comic books. What I found there this year was comic book dealers, artists, and fans. I also found an atmosphere where I could reconnect with old friends and not feel like I was constantly being sold on a lifestyle. Mind you, I’ve never been to any of the big cons but that’s just something I’ll have to remedy in the future.

Oh, before I forget, my brush with Stan Lee. You see, as I said the tickets to get his autograph were sold out. In an attempt to at least get a picture of the man, I went to where they had him set up and, with my zoom up to maximum, got this gem!


If you get a big name in like Stan Lee and market your convention around him, as you should, at least make him somewhat accessible to the people who either couldn’t afford the $40 for a ticket to get an autograph or just couldn’t get one because they were sold out. By somewhat accessible I mean have him in a place where a person could get a clear picture of him without the need of a special camera.

Regardless, I’m looking forward to next year’s con. Margot Kidder is going to be there!

Film Gauge - "District 9" (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)

What: "District 9" (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
When: Friday, August 21st, 2009 11:15 AM
Where: AMC 34th St. (34th St. & 8th Ave.)

It is not a common occurrence when in the throes of blockbuster season to be confronted at the movie theater with ambiguity and issues of great social importance. Amid the sequels, reboots and romantic comedies of summer, it is even stranger still to find these ideas packaged in the Trojan Horse guise of an action-packed alien thriller. But District 9, for good or ill, is just such a film. By virtue of its odd dichotomy of political commentary and popcorn thrills, the experience of watching District 9 is a strange one, intermittently rewarding and cringe-making. First-time director Neill Blomkamp's film is bursting with style and ideas, and most surprisingly a rather bleak outlook on human nature that is constantly at odds with the conventions of the action genre. Ironic, then, that such a unique project resulted from the demise of one of the more uninspired-sounding projects buzzing around Hollywood these days: the motion picture adaptation of the videogame Halo.

The film, set in the uneasy environs of Johannesburg, begins as a rather clear-cut allegory for the apartheid system in South Africa. A defenseless alien ship becomes stranded over the city, and the government corrals the thousands of impoverished alien inhabitants into a horrific shantytown called "District 9." We are presented with a series of talking head interviews - government agents, reporters, politicians and locals setting the scene and expressing their opinions on how best to deal with the "Prawns" (a slur for our extraterrestrial visitors). These docu-style sound bites combine with a mix of staged and archival news footage to create a queasy verisimilitude. It is a bravura opening, to be sure, but one that continually skirts the line of exploitation. We see the computer-generated aliens integrated seamlessly into unmistakably real footage of rioting black South Africans alongside staged scenes of township dwellers watching a "dog fight" between insectoid alien creatures. These images, in service of the allegory, are often too glib for comfort.

It is soon made clear, however, that Blomkamp is making a larger point about the oppressive forces that converge on District 9, though the pitilessness with which even supposedly sympathetic figures are portrayed is astonishing. The film's ostensible hero, Wikus Van De Merwe (portrayed by the charismatic acting novice Sharlto Copley) is one of the most selfish and cowardly protagonists in recent cinematic memory. Wikus is a low-level bureaucrat charged with evicting the residents of District 9 and moving them to even more sinister accommodations (an outwardly "humanitarian" effort spearheaded, in a twist emblematic of the film's pitch black view of government, by an independently contracted weapons manufacturer hell-bent on co-opting Prawn firepower). As Wikus goes about his duties, he comes across an alien nest, destroying the gestating fetuses with the dispassionate interest of a hobbyist, laughing for the camera all the while. In moments like these, Blomkamp muddies his film with real life - there are no heroes, and even those underdogs that we may want to root for occasionally do ugly things.

Coming as it does on the heels of such an intriguing and morally ambiguous first half, the third act of District 9 is somewhat disappointing in its more simplified tone. As Wikus finds himself on the wrong side of the conflict between the Prawns and his employers, the film shifts focus from documentary realism to more straightforward action setpieces. A McGuffin is introduced that holds the key to the aliens' salvation, and Wikus forms an unlikely alliance with a Prawn named Christopher who may be the closest thing the film has to a truly heroic character. Of course, in keeping with Blomkamp's cynical view, Christopher is swiftly betrayed by self-interested humans and his plan to return home goes awry. No matter how close the filmmaker comes to conforming to any sort of genre convention, it is not in his nature to give us the clichéd happy ending.

With District 9, Neill Blomkamp has found a middle ground between escapist entertainment and the evening news, an intellectually stimulating but often uncomfortable place to visit. Nonetheless, it is a creative oasis in the blockbuster desert.

Click here to see the "District 9" trailer

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Genres & Judgements - Don Draper as Lucifer Incarnate, the Badassery of Commissioner Gordon, and Veronica Mars at the Skywalker Ranch

First up, the song of the week:

"All For U" by RJD2, Magnificent City (Instrumentals) (2006)
Recently introduced to me via my new-found obsession, Mad Men. RJD2's track "A Beautiful Mine" is the show's theme, and this song is off the same album. I've only delved into a bit of his instrumental stuff thus far. After "A Beautiful Mine," this is my favorite thus far.
While I speak of the devil -- Don Draper -- let us now move on to Mad Men itself.
The third season of the superb AMC drama is now in progress about an office at an advertising agency in the early 1960s. Our main character, Mr. Draper, and his series' cohorts drift through an seemingly endless supply of scotch, Lucky Strikes and tailored suits in between cutting deals in the boardroom and bedroom alike.
Encapsulating the show's run so far here is a bit of a fool's errand, but I'll probably want to talk about it in the future and need to get some of my thoughts out on the interweb.
Perhaps the odd thing about this show is that it doesn't concern itself with having a traditional villain. The conflicts are mostly interpersonal and you learn every character's motivation eventually, so casting blame to any one person in a given plotline is left to your own mind's eye. When taking a step back, it's Don Draper who should be the most detestable of the principle cast; however, he's anything but. I suppose you could compare him to Tony Soprano as the villain you love, but that's unfair to Draper. What makes him evil is his ability to manipulate virtually any situation to his favor, given time. It's a level of seduction I was first introduced in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters -- subversive, masqueraded and, most importantly, effective. What's most confounding about him as a character is that I find myself reveling in every horrible deed he engages in, asking myself the next day "What would Don Draper do?" in daily situations.
Even given the level of complexity that is Don Draper, what really makes Mad Men so engaging is its execution of dynamic character study as expressed through innate subtlety. It's Betty indulging Roger's drunken requests at the dinner table. It's Peggy following Don's advice. It's Don fondling a patch of grass just long enough that it comes across with menace. All of this is handled by the entire creative team with such ease, it's worrisome that it won't be seen again for a long time in television (or at least until next Sunday).
I tackled another item that had been on my list for a long time, Batman: Year One (1987). Written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, it's considered one of the greatest of all Batman tales. Elements of it were used in Batman Begins film from a few years back, though not as much as I was somehow led to believe.
Miller's work on Daredevil was my gateway into comics, so he'll always hold an important part in my fanboy psyche, but other than his Sin City work, I have almost always been more disappointed by his work that I was expecting (The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, Give Me Liberty). I suppose a lot of this has to do with the passage of time and the continued ascension of comics as an artform and literary expression. Comics have come a long way since he first became huge.
Though it's technically about a still young Bruce Wayne becoming the Dark Knight, I found the Jim Gordon parts far more engaging. For me, his struggles as the lone good cop were more interesting than Bruce's transformation. There's some especially nice work done with your expectations going into the book with Barbara Gordon.
In the end, if you're a series Batman fan, you probably must read this. However, most of the best elements were cherry picked and placed in Batman Begins by Nolan and company.
I also watched Fanboys recently. If you're hardcore about Star Wars, you should probably check it out. It may have too much "inside" humor for the casual Lucas affixionado (do you know what Kashyyyk is? or are you at this guy's level? then you qualify), but has its moments for the rest of us, too.
Fanboys is okay. Try not to get too ramped up about seeing it, otherwise you'll be pretty underwhelmed, but there were some surprising (to me) cameos sprinkled throughout the movie. I apparently knew so little about it, I didn't realize the delectable Kristen Bell played a fairly significant role.
I suppose the real achievement with the movie is that it recaptures that insane excitement in 1998 for a new Star Wars flick. After what we got, it's a little hard to remember that sometimes.
And Now For the Ethical Dilemma of the Week:
Is It Ethical To Engineer Delicious Cows That Feel No Pain? [via Popular Science]
You said they're delicious?
Answer: Yes!
Coming Up Next Week:

  • This Mad Men entry went on a bit longer than I had anticipated and was dominated (fittingly so) by Don Draper, so I think I may talk about a different character from the show after each week's new episodes going forward.
  • After realizing that Batman: Dark Victory took place in the Batman: Year One universe and was a sequel to Loeb and Sale's own Batman: The Long Halloween, I've been backtracking so that I can review it properly. Expect Halloween and Dark Victory soon.
  • Still got The Yakuza in the Netflix pipeline. But now that the basement is unflooded and back in order, more movie and tv watching will commence.
  • Finally, I did finish Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's new novel The Strain this week. I'm holding off until the season 2 finale of True Blood airs for my next G&J article to talk about it, however, because it will be vampire-centric.