Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Some days you wake up and it's just not worth the effort to get out of bed . . . realizing that you somehow got onto the subject of the freakin' X-Men on your blog and have more to say before you totally exhaust the subject is one of those instances when life begins to look less rosy. Oh yeah, and the whole grinding poverty thing.
But anyway -
The first question we began with was - why are the Starjammers still such a prominent element of the X-mythos, given the fact that most people would probably not automatically make the connection between "mutant super-heroes fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them" and "space opera". These were devices created by Chris Claremont as springboards for future stories, with little or not thought given at the time to how these devices would play "down the line". Eventually, the one-time devices became recurring motifs, and eventually permanent fixtures of the series. Claremont's influence on the franchise was such that, after seventeen years, his distinctive style had cohered into the default style for X-Men projects.
So, if elements like the Shi'ar and the Starjammers were originally specks of sand in the context of the ongoing X-Men saga, time and tradition cohered around them in much the same way that sand becomes pearls in the mouth of a clam. Just as Frank Miller's Dare -
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Justice is served.
Monday, September 24, 2007
After seeing the comments on my brief X-Men post the other day, I was able to clarify my thoughts on the matter, in such a way as that I realize now that I was putting my question in an awkward, slightly specious fashion. The question is not: why have the space-opera elements become such an integral part of the X-mythos despite a presumed thematic incongruity; but why have these elements continued to be regarded as central to the mythology long after Chris Claremont has ceded his role as the franchise's chief architect? Although he's been back on and off the central and periphery X-titles for some time, Claremont's historically central run on Uncanny X-Men lasted for seventeen years and ended in 1991. He hasn't been in the "driver's seat" on Uncanny for almost as long as he actually was - and his various returns to the books have been notably unspectacular for a number of reasons. Regardless of one's opinions on Claremont's current skill as a writer, the X-Men books are not now even what they were in 1991. It's to his credit that the book - and amazingly it was just one book, for years and years - was as coherent as it was under his stewardship. The fact that they soon ballooned out of all recognizable proportions is probably a testament to his success as much as anything else.
So: go back to the mid-70s, when the then-adjectiveless X-Men book was still just a foundling, trying to regain its footing after years of limbo. The team was a group of multi-cultural misfits who barely seemed to get along, let alone work with the kind of precision expected from most established super-groups. The mutant angle was just another bit of accrued baggage, hardly that much more important than any number of other bits and pieces. Who remembers that Professor X was initially crippled by a wannabe alien warlord named Lucifer? Or that one of the biggest storylines in the original series' run had been a long battle with the alien Z-Nox, or that their most fiendish foes had been the less-than-sinister Cold War-relic Factor Three? There was a reason why X-Men was, with a few notable exceptions, considered the runt of the 60s Marvel litter - even Sgt. Fury lasted longer. So Claremont's various stock plots and motifs - space opera (the Shi-ar, the Brood), demonic invasion (Belasco, N'astirh, the N'Gari), S&M (the Hellfire Club, Rachel Summers, the Fenris twins), and off-the-wall stuff that doesn't really fit anywhere else (Dracula, ninjas, cyborgs, ninja cyborgs) - didn't relate back to any kind of central thematic bailiwick so much as simply acted as plot engines for the franchise. Reading the early Claremont issues, you definitely get the feeling of someone making it up as he goes along - even fairly well into the run there's still a free-wheeling energy pushing the book forward at a breakneck pace. That sense of momentum was what made it such a monster hit, and pretty much set the standard for post-Bronze age superheroics.
But eventually even Claremont's industrious energy began to falter, and the Logic of Empire began to assert itself. Spin-offs began to accrue - slowly at first, but eventually at a break-neck pace. Perhaps the slightly aimless direction of the post-200 run - ostensibly so because he had been forced to change directions after being told that Marvel UK plot elements were unavailable for his use - was a conscious effort on his part to avoid turning the book into the kind of static franchise he probably dreaded. Considering just how massively popular the book was, it is amazing he was able to run it with as much of a free hand as he did. Considering how weird and dispirited many late-80s X-Men books were, it is likely that he saw the writing on the wall. He could only keep the team atomized and beset for so long, and once the 90s had kicked into high-gear there were already spin-offs on top of spin-offs coming at a feverish rate. He was let go, and the books almost immediately calcified into the staid institution we see now. Inasmuch as any kind of commercial blockbuster can be considered an idiosyncratic personal work, X-Men seemed to belong wholly to Chris Claremont. When he left, the series became pretty ugly, essentially a paramilitary soap opera acted out by geentically pure ubermeschen with vague allusions to prejudice peppered gingerly throughout.
And it is on these vague allusions where the franchise most often flounders. Claremont was in no way a "subtle" writer, but he was smart enough to keep his subtext firmly on the back burner: obviously, anti-mutant prejudice became a much bigger deal than it had been under Roy Thomas and Werner Roth, but he was smart enough to keep the tone generally light (until he got to the rather ponderous middle 200s, that is) and use the subtext to inform the plot, not the other way around. It's all about fighting and soap-opera, and that's what it's always been about: give the X-Men someone / thing to fight that serves as a reflection of their metaphorical struggle, or even better, their interpersonal struggle. Whatever subtlety Claremont had brought to the enterprise left with him, and soon the X-Men saga became as deeply mired in eugenical debates and ceaseless pontification as it possibly could - the sneaking tendencies of Claremont's later run were amplified, and soon you had whole issues set aside simply for "woe-is-me" angst. It didn't seem to effect sales at all, even though those paying attention couldn't help but see that the sheer size and scope of the franchise had effectively halted the momentum that had made the book not merely popular but pretty good - perhaps the best exemplar of well-made trashy pulp comics circa 1975-1990. What was left wasn't particularly good anymore, but it was popular. And I guess that's all anyone really needs . . .
Thursday, September 20, 2007
Something that's been bugging me a bit lately: how exactly does the X-Men franchise get away with inserting lame space-opera elements into the mythos when it really makes for an odd fit? For decades now, since almost the very beginning of the "All-New, All Different" X-Men and the franchise's sales hegemony (a domination that has continued unabated for almost thirty years, waning only very recently), there has been an established annex of X-Men stories that take place in space, specifically the Shi'ar empire. By nature the vast majority of these stories are removed from the tightly-plotted soap-operatic confines that represent the bread & butter of the franchise.
And yet, to the best of my knowledge, the X-books periodic space stories have never produced a noticeable decline in sales or readership. One of the laziest canards when writing about superhero comics is to trot out a property's "thematic underpinnings" (or whatever you want to call it) as reason for said property's enduring success. This is certainly true for the movie versions of these characters, where screenwriters have to develop thematic and metaphoric shorthand to express things to a general audience that have been, in most case, long ago sublimated by comics readers. Hence, the Spider-Man films harp on the "power and responsibility" themes to the point of ponderous repetition, and the X-Men films are far more rhetorically concerned with the "hates and fears" underpinnings than the comics themselves (usually) are. But in the reality of the comics themselves, the characters have mutated far beyond their initial brief. Sure, the X-Men titles have always touched on the whole "world that hates and fears" them vibe, but the day-to-day working of the series has always been much less about tapping into metaphorical significance than finding ways to keep X amount of characters busy for Y amount of pages, to be continued next month.
In actuality, the X-Men's myriad space adventures have one real explanation: Chris Claremont liked putting the X-Men into space, and he did it a lot. The Shi'ar were introduced during the Phoenix saga as a kind of cosmic deus ex machina, dancing around the giant MacGuffin of the god-like Phoenix force. With Phoenix out of the series, the Shi'ar could easily have faded back into the woodwork, but for some odd reason they stayed at the forefront of the mythos: Professor X fell in love with Queen Lilandra; the leader of a band of Shi'ar space pirates (!!!) just happened to be Cyclops' long-lost dad; hell, at some point Wolverine was even revealed to be a Skrull in disguise (way back in the late 90s), so it wasn't just the Shi'ar that kept intruding. Hell, travelling around space at some point the X-Men encountered another race of foes called the Brood, a group of predatory parasites who had even less to do with the series' original brief even than the Shi'ar and their quasi-feudal militaristic bird people oligarchy. At the very least, the Kree and the Skrulls always seemed plausible: highly militarized pseudo-fascist oligarchies, one of which just happened to be ruled by a technological amalgam of thousands of the race's brightest minds (still a pretty striking idea, considering how often alien races get boiled down to "humans with funny skin condition" archetypes).
But the Shi'ar are presented pretty much at face value, in such a way that the readers are expected to care about "good" empresses and "bad" emperors - all of which points to a pretty disgusting royalist streak on the part of these creators that really doesn't jibe with the egalitarian identity politics at the supposed heart of the franchise. I'm a citizen of the United States, and the only "good" emperor is one that's been deposed and beheaded. I wonder, in helping to prop up the Shi'ar oligarchy, just how many interstellar atrocities can directly or indirectly be laid at the X-Men's feet? I imagine that to the average Shi'ar on the street, folks like the X-Men seem about as legitimate an instrument of imperial power as Hessian mercenaries seemed to the American colonists in 1780.
And yet, as I said, to the best of my knowledge none of these factors have ever had so much as the slightest impact on the books' popularity. Which, I suppose, is as good a commentary on the nature of franchise storytelling in mainstream American comics as anything else: as long as you've got Wolverine making with the stabby, does it really matter what he's stabbing, or why? By that same token, there was a period when Claremont (at the outset of Wolverine's own solo book) tried to inject Wolverine into a pseudo-Terry and the Pirates milieu, the "Patch" period where Logan spent all his time on the mythical southeast Asian island of Madripoor, fighting Chinese gangsters and retro-styled femme fatales. Did it matter that the whole thing was preposterous? No, because it just didn't matter what Wolverine was doing. As long as he was doing something, people would buy it. And boy oh boy, Wolverine's done a whole lot of something in the pages of his own books for the last twenty years or so. As to just what that something is - well, there have always been a lot of guys in suits with guns, and ninjas. About as fun as watching grass grow, but there you are. I feel the same way about the X-Men's space adventures (and I'm generally a fan of space-opera stuff). I'm obviously not the market, however: the market is people who just want some kind of monthly dose of Wolverine and Co. They could be sitting around baking a Christmas ham for all that the actual content of the books has ever influenced their popularity.
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
I don't read fantasy books. Or - rather - scratch that, I don't very often do so. When I was younger I read Tolkein, and that was good - good enough that the endless parade of imitators seemed less amusing than merely pitiful. I think because he's such a damnably popular writer he doesn't get enough credit in certain regards - The Silmarillion is my favorite of his, and whereas I can't really see myself going back to read The Lord of the Rings anytime soon (the movies kind of soured me, honestly), the former remains a singularly dense and allusive experience in my mind. Tolkein's work had a depth of conception and solidity of purpose that simply mooted all but the most perspicacious of his followers. I'd wholeheartedly recommend Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, but honestly I haven't read them in decades so I have no idea how they hold up.
One of Donaldson's most significant achievements, in any event, was upending the same fantasy tropes that had been accepted so uncritically by legions of Tolkeinistas. I just didn't have a lot of appetite for the genre after reading these, and a smattering of others too - Roger Zelazny's Amber books were good pulpy fun, and I enjoyed Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series (even if those fall rather definitely into the "guilty pleasure" column!). Some of Gene Wolf's books might be considered fantasy if you squint at them funny. But seriously, life is too short, and not a lot in the field holds my interest.
But then there was Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I wouldn't exactly say I was proud to have these books on my shelf - in fact, I sold them to the used bookstore last time I moved. I resisted them for the longest time. I had a couple friends, however, who swore by them, and they kept pushing them on me - try the first one, it's free, they'd say. Life is short, as I said, and the prospect of a series of two-inch thick fantasy novels stretching indefinitely into the future filled me with . . . well, not necessarily terror, but I wasn't exactly keen to start. But finally I did, on the second or third try (the first book is notoriously difficult to begin, which was perhaps in retrospect not a smart move on Jordan's part). And sure enough - at some point, around halfway through the first book, things just click. You find that you cannot stop reading. Jordan wasn't a great writer or even, let's be frank, a particularly good writer - one of those same friends who originally suggested the books to me once tried to read some of his many Conana novels, and said it was one of the worst pieces of shit he'd ever tried to choke down. And yet . . . there was something there, something fiercely pulpy and unrepentently old-fashion in the way he doled out his plots and elaborated this incredibly intricate fictional tapestry. The characterization was barely above the level of rudimentary, the dialogue painfully earnest and endlessly expository - his idea of a character trait was a perpetually repeating verbal trope, usually with heavy-handed comedic irony added in to the bargain. He wrote like a sculptor chiseling granite, and I don't mean that as a complement.
At a certain point, reading the series, I felt the unmistakable touch of purgatorial excess. You know how about halfway through the run of the X-Files (maybe a bit earlier, I don't recall specifically), you got the unmistakable feeling that they really didn't have a clue what they were doing, and were in fact just sort of stringing the viewers along? I wouldn't quite say that Jordan had that problem, because he definitely had an ending in sight - it's just that the longer he proceeded forward, the further away that ending seemed to be.
Now he's dead. The ending is apparently extant, and will be published in some form, in the series' twelfth and final book. I don't think, from what I've seen, the eventual finale will face the same kinds of legitimacy problems that Tolkein and Frank Herbert's "posthumous" works have faced - I think in this instance the fanbase is simply too desperate for a conclusion. If I had invested enough of my life to read all eleven previous books (and various ephemera), I'd be pretty anxious for an ending as well. (Brian Herbert was able to construct a final conclusion to the Dune series from his father's notes, but whether or not it actually holds up is a question I can't answer - I've had people tell me the various Brian Herbert-spearheaded spinoffs have been "not bad", which isn't exactly a ringing endorsement.) In any event, the series deserves an ending. I may not have had the patience to tough it out, and in all honestly I doubt whether I will ever have the time or inclination to go back. But it will please me to see it finished, because regardless of his many faults as a writer, Jordan was still a hell of a storyteller. That's got to count for something, right?
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Thursday, September 13, 2007
Sometimes I think I do a good job of keeping my personal life out of this blog - other times I realize that I'm essentially full of shit. My attitude towards comics is contradictory and often changes depending on my mood; because comics have traditionally held a central position in my mental landscape, how I feel at any given moment is reflected in my attitudes towards comics, of which this blog is the primary indicator. I never really had what you would call comics friends - I didn't hang out with fellow comic readers or anything like that. I may have struck up a few acquaintances over the years, but nothing like the life-long friendships I've heard described by many other comics people. It probably has much to do with my tendency to attempt to distance myself from comics, through rhetorical flourish if not actual fact. (I mean, seriously, anyone who spends this much time writing about Quasar is only kidding himself if he thinks he's maintaining any kind of objective distance!)
But I think that this blog has developed a readership over the years - yeah, weird to think I've been around for years, but I have - who not only expect my pronouncements to be puzzlingly self-contradictory, but actually enjoy the many layers of paradox and nigh-Kantian obfuscation on display. Those who tune in day in and day out, whether I'm babbling about indie rock or putting up funny pictures of hippos, well, after all it sort of begins to feel like a small-scale community.
I used to do periodic fund-raisers around here, promoting the Paypal button and the Amazon links in order to try and make a little bit of extra cash for the many, many hours of unpaid labor. Most of us who blog are not doing it for the dough - and I suspect those lucky few who do get paid in some fashion would probably do it for free if they had to. Anyway, you may have noticed (if you have been around this long) that I haven't done a fundraiser in quite some time. The reason why is, to put it bluntly, it just hasn't occurred to me. At some point the blog itself outstripped any kind of expectation of even the most rudimentary remuneration, and just sort of became this thing attached to my body, like a wart or carbunkle positioned on an embarrassing part of your body that talks a lot and eats a lot. You don't necessarily throw fundraisers for, say, your feet or your pancreas. It's just there, and like my feet or my pancreas I have no desire to separate myself from this blog anytime soon.
In the last few months I left a financially stable job for the chance to return back to school, which I left many, many years ago. It was one of those situations where I realized I had the perfect opportunity to do something I'd been putting off for a long time - "if not now, when?" The problem is that while the opportunity was good, the financial situation was less than stable. Things needed to work exactly right in terms of financial aid and a new job for me to be able to skate by cleanly. Well, of course, things didn't quite work out that way, as you might expect. So, here I am back in school, but struggling to keep my head above water. You can just imagine what that does to a fellow's desire for extra-curricular blogging!
You can probably see where this is going: it's time for another of my intermittent pledge drives. This isn't just because I want some extra cash to buy books or what not, this is the real deal, putting gas in the tank and food on the table. My birthday is in a little under two weeks and it is my hope that these financial straits will be at least slightly mollified by then, inasmuch as I'd like to be able to pay the rent on time. But until then, it falls on me to ask everyone who regularly reads and enjoys the work on this blog to put a penny or two in my cup. A few dollars from just a fraction of the people who show up every day would really make a world of difference right now.
Like PBS, I try to keep pledge drives to a minimum, but unlike PBS I won't interrupt Doctor Who every ten minutes to ask for money.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Euthyphro: Hello, Sophocles, I see we are both on the docket again.
Socrates: Yes, quite so.
E: You should be happy to learn that I was successful in my case against my father.
S: I am certain that will bring you great acclaim at the family picnic.
E: Now I am being sued myself. The circumstances should be of interest to you, as I have been accused of impiety.
S: Yes? And what are the circumstances now?
E: You well know my status as a freelance hierophant, and of my expertise in all matters spiritual and religious. I have an insight into the gods which is not to be trifled.
S: Yes, and in the past you have been so far developed in your opinions as to be openly heckled by those in the assembly who cannot acknowledge your greatness.
E: Indeed, this is so.
S: Where have you gone awry?
E: I have failed to acknowledge the divinity of Clapton, even though he is a duly recognized god whose festival we all observe. I did not pay cult to him, and I was overheard disparaging his godhead by his followers. It was, perhaps, less than wise, in retrospect.
S: Always so courageous, my friend.
E: Yes, you know exactly my dilemma.
S: For what is worth, I would doubt the divinity of any demigod who could not - or steadfastly refused - to play simple rhythm lines. All the endless weedling, it grates upon my humours.
E: So, what have you been called to account for, my friend?
S: Impiety, again. After - as you recall - I was exonerated from my previous charges, I gave a symposium on modern independent rock & roll, during which I stated for all and sundry to hear that the New Pornographers, while a fine band, were in fact in sum no greater than the strengths of their finest member, specifically Neko Case.
E: Why, that is rank impiety, Socrates.
S: So you say.
E: It is accepted knowledge that AC Newman's pure power-pop songwriting, combined with the relief pitching work of Dan Bejar, produce the most formidable songwriting this side of Britt Daniel.
S: Again, this is said.
E: you are renowned for your wisdom, my friend, but I see here that you have fatally overstepped your bounds. Your inner voice has led you astray.
S: Permit me to explore this line of reasoning.
E: Certainly, my friend.
S: Is it not true that Newman and Bejar are universally hailed as masters of the modern power pop form?
E: Yes, this is given by all the authorities to be true. Even you cannot deny this.
S: Nor would I wish to. But what is power-pop? What is the accepted definition?
E: Well, it is a vaguely retro style of rock & roll influenced by the mid-period British Invasion, as well as specific stylistic contributions from Mod and American garage.
S: Yes. And would it not be true to say that at its best power-pop is an extremely straitened form?
E: Why, yes. The more accomplished a power-pop songwriter, the more concise and crisp their work.
S: So would not it be true to say that even the best power-pop songwriter would be hard-pressed to reach beyond an extremely limited idiom without essentially eroding his prime appeal? (I will note here that they are overwhelmingly men.)
E: I cannot disagree with your logic.
S: Furthermore, if you allow for this previous point, is it not also true that the audience and appeal of power-pop music is limited.
E: Why, yes, but you can't criticize a genre on the basis of it's audience -
S: Nor would I intend to commit such a fallacy. Merely will I add that within the confines of such a self-selecting, extremely biased audience, things might appear to be great which in reality are quite small.
E: But I see your game, Sophocles - you seek to make Neko Case seem larger by minimizing the achievements of the rest of the group.
S: I am not minimizing them, my friend, they minimize themselves through the limited - albeit highly satisfying - scope of their music. It appeals to an audience much like the musicians themselves: older, musically-educated, with nerdy habits which have grown highly defined from detecting minute differences in things very much alike.
E: Even given this reductive description, you still allow for their skill as songwriters. How is Neko Case measurably greater?
S: It seems evident to me, Euthyphro, that Neko Case has achieved much of more lasting significance partially by virtue of the fact that she has allowed herself much more freedom as an artist.
E: Does she not hew close to the country template, which I know you to hold in great disdain?
S: It is true that her first solo album, The Virginian, is straight honky-tonk country - however, I will point out that regardless of this her tongue is planted firmly-in-cheek.
E: This is a debatable point, Socrates, but I will follow you so far as you lead.
S: Thank you. But even with these caveats, there is no dispute that Neko's primary mode of discourse is through country & western, or some permutation thereof. Much of her later work falls more accurately into the realms of torchsong and balladry.
E: You are on the verge of drawing, I believe, parallels to the work of another famous chanteuse, Ms. KD Lang?
S: The comparison did not escape my notice, but it is not perhaps a straight allegory. In any event: Case's later solo albums have possessed a quality of penetrating intimacy and disarming moral candor, elevating Case's songwriting voice to one of the most mature and ineffable forces conceivable in a modern context.
E: You lay out a convincing argument, my friend.
S: Allow me further to say that her songwriting is stronger even without the added boon of her indescribable voice and distinctive charisma. Whereas the New Pornographers write good pop songs, their essentially hobbled form - what might perhaps be properly termed their distillation of the Platonic essence of pop songwriting - is limiting and ultimately acts as a kind of insulation against any kind of greater emotional involvement in the music above the level of sheer thrilling appreciation of craft. It is easy to love a New Pornographers track but hard, in reflection, to inhabit it, so brightly does the patina of perfection gleam across it's polished surface. But the byways Neko Case inhabits are much stranger, wilder, more gnarled and less certain. There is ambiguity and weakness in her lyrical mode that places her work at a distance from that of her peers, a fertile emotional plain into which the listener can insert himself.
E: I see. So, in essence, there is simply much more of lasting value to be had in Neko Case's material, past the exterior pleasures of the New Pornographers' power pop, for those who have the patience to inhabit all the allusive intricacies thereof?
E: It is no wonder you find yourself on the docket in such an instance, Sophocles. Do you not know that your judges are themselves nerds, nerds who gain much in the way of personal satisfaction from identifying with the obscurantist tendencies of their songwriting heroes? I fear you shall taste hemlock before this matter rests.
S: That is my fear as well, but for darling Neko, I regret that I have but one life to give.
Monday, September 10, 2007
So yeah - last week was one of those weeks when it was an uphill battle just to remember to post song lyrics and hippo pictures. I've got a new routine going on, and hopefully more substantive posting will resume as I settle into a groove.
In the meantime: Shooter on Legion? OK, they've got my money, sight unseen. I have no shame.
Aragones returning to Bat Lash, with John Severin? I'll be God-damned, it's like they're actually interested in making good comics again. What a fucking concept. Again, I'll be paying real money for this one . . . all six issues before it gets canceled for depressingly low sales.
Aragones on The Spirit? I admit my antipathy towards the Spirit revival is quite strong . . . even after I found out Eisner had indeed given the project his blessing, it still seemed massively wrong. I mean, Orson Welles would probably have signed off on a sequel to Citizen Kane if you paid him enough money towards the end of his life as well, doesn't make it any better or smarter an idea. (Not that The Spirit carries quite as much currency in comic terms as Kane does in film, but still, you get the analogy.) Add in Darwyn Cooke, a creator I cannot bring myself to feel anything above a risible disdain for, and the project was not one I could warm too under any circumstance. But Aragones? Well . . . depending on the artist, I may just change my tune. Not because I have or will have changed my mind about the essential viability of continuing the character's adventures on anything more than an extremely sparing basis, but because . . . well, because he's Sergio Aragones, one of our greatest living cartoonists.
Since when has 52 become so lionized? I remember when the damn thing was being published you couldn't hear above the din of people complaining, but now that its over it is being hailed as some sort of milestone of modern graphic literature. It's funny how just a little bit of a perspective change can make even the most gimlet-eyed cynic see the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Compared to Countdown, Bloodstrike would seem like David Mamet, so is it any wonder that 52 holds such a special place in the collective memory?
Been scanning Dan Slott's new Avengers: Initiative book, and it seems odd that no one has mentioned the fact that this book seems to be fulfilling almost exactly the same kind of role in the Marvel cosmology / publishing scheme that 52 fulfilled for DC. Only to me it reads a far sight better, because Slott seems to have a better hand for judging dozens of secondary and tertiary characters than the brain trust behind 52, who seemed half the time to be avoiding stepping on each others' toes as much as anything else. I love Slott's attitude towards Marvel's byzantine - but still essentially straightforward - continuity, far more than any of DC's rather pained and bureaucratic attempts at a peevishly unappealing consistency. You'll miss it when it's gone, is what I'm saying, just like you miss 52.
Thursday, September 06, 2007
Then the girl in the café taps me on the shoulder,
I realize five years went by I'm older,
Memories smolder winters colder,
But that same piano loops over and over and over.
The road shines and the rain washes away
The same Chinese takeaway selling shit in a tray,
It's dark all round I walk down same sight same sounds new beats though.
Solid concrete under my feet,
No surprises no treats the world stands still as my mind sloshes round,
The washing up bowl in my crown.
My life's been up and down since I walked from that crowd.
Sunday, September 02, 2007
Rilo Kiley - Under the Blacklights
I have long held a wary ambivalence towards Rilo Kiley. On the one hand, there's something rather disturbingly disingenuous about them, not necessarily pre-fab so much as premeditated in a way that seems almost calculated in terms of its ability to present an image of exactly what a female-fronted indie rock band should look and sound like in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Not a lot of originality on display - not perhaps a cardinal sin considering how many great bands have been stylistically redundant, but Rilo Kiley lack the brio to really set them apart. It doesn't help that Jenny Lewis presents herself in a slightly uncomfortable fashion, playing up the most questionable aspects of the male indie-rock fan's passive-aggressive attitude towards female sex objects. Clad in baby-girl dresses, striking a sensitive songwriter pose with a come-hither woe-is-me pout plastered firmly on her mug, it's a remarkably unattractive and frankly manipulative image. Why is it, I ask, that folks like PJ Harvey or Neko Case or Cat Power can strike a sexy pose without really compromising their integrity, but every time I see Jenny Lewis I cringe a little?
But then . . . I really like Rabbit Fur Coat. Jenny Lewis can write a fine song when the mood strikes her. I am not sure I really understand how country music has become synonymous with indie rock credibility this past decade - the corn-pone twangy shit is not really something I care for, but it seems like a whole generation of modern rockers associate pedal slide guitar and second-hand rural fetishizing with authenticity - see, Bright Eyes, Ryan Adams, Calexico. Annoying, is all I can say. As much as I love Neko Case, it's still a struggle for me to really get behind anything done in the country idiom - I can't quite shake the negative associations I had growing up in a country music enclave in rural northern California - that's the "heartland" music I know, and every time I hear a softly-strumemd acoustic guitar twanging up the joint, that's what I see in my mind's eye. Not a lot of room for cozy down-home sentiment.
But I digress! I liked Rabbit Fur Coat (I mean, seriously, how could I not like country songs about atheism?), and despite my reservations I was interested enough in Under the Blacklights to take the plunge when I saw it on sale at Best Buy. I'm glad I did: it's by no means a perfect album, but it's a good album that somehow manages to directly address some of my past misgivings without wholly succeeding. Jenny Lewis has advanced from being a fresh-faced ingénue to some kind of dark sex-goddess - it's a wholly unconvincing and somewhat comical transformation. Some folks can pull it off, some can't. (I mean, seriously, she still looks about twelve. Maybe that's a turn on for some folks.) But all the same the songs directly speak to the more unpleasant aspects of sexuality that have occasionally surfaced in and around her music. Again, it has something of a precocious feel, like play-acting - but that doesn't really hurt the music itself. It sounds like a teenager's idea of what the darker side of sex and lust feels like, and there's something almost refreshing about the idea, like a group of Mormon home-school kids trying to skim the Mötley Crüe fakebook. I shouldn't probably enjoy it as much as I do, but I like it. (For added skeeze factor, read this month's SPIN cover story on the band - I can't remember the last time I saw a band so obviously demoralized by their frontwoman's success. The other dudes in Rilo Kiley are hoping for dear life that Under the Blacklights takes off because if Jenny Lewis goes her way they're back to working the night shift at the Circle K. Great band dynamic!)
The New Pornographers - Challengers
Speaking of your difficult band dynamic...
I love the New Pornographers, I really do. But here's a great example of a band whose entire career to this point is predicated on the involvement of someone who could best be described as disinterested, i.e. Neko Case. She's the best songwriter in the group but she doesn't contribute songs to the group. She tours with the group . . . sometimes. They've got a substitute chick singer to fill in for her when she's busy. She's one classy dame and I doubt she'd contribute to the group at all if she didn't enjoy it - but still, the fact remains, her personal appeal and magnetism outweigh everyone else in the group by about 1000 to one.
There doesn't seem to be as much Neko on Challengers as there was on Twin Cinema. I'll stand by the latter as one of the best pure power-pop albums of the decade, instantly accessible and consistently enjoyable even two years on. This is something much quieter . . . the overriding touchstone here appears to be Fleetwood Mack, of all things, with quiet songs about heartbreak balanced with discrete measures of black humor and lilting harmonies. It's not a straight analogy, but it's there. I have to admit I've been listening to the album for over a week now and I still can't wrap my head around it. It's a step out on a limb for the band, I can see that, away from their comfort zone and into darker territory. Successful? Probably not entirely. But still appealing enough to command repeated listenings.
Recoil - Subhuman
Be honest, were you expecting another Recoil album? If you like Recoil, this is exactly what you are looking for. Sort of like The The remixed by UNKLE with tiny bits of the Cocteau Twins and Jarvis Cocker. I've only got to listen to it a couple times so far, but it seems like a keeper.