Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

I hate the cold. I get uncomfortable if it gets under 70 degrees outside. I can't even wrap my mind around the fact that Alaska is a place where people actually live on purpose. I tell you these things so that you'll understand how awesome Jack London is. His writing is so crisp and compelling that I'll read about places I never want to visit and people I don't identify with at all. Oh, I'm also not a dog person. So yeah, the fact that this book was an absolute joy to read really says something about the man who wrote it.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray was a highly controversial book when it was released, which seems strange now. The clear message of the book is that you can't live an immoral life and not reap what you have sown. That seems as moral a moral as any book could ever have, but people in Oscar Wilde's day objected to the graphic depictions in the book as well as the apparent homosexual undertones.

The best part about The Picture of Dorian Gray is that it's still something to talk about more than 100 years after it was written. While the horror may be dated, the tale is not, and its moral implications could be debated nearly endlessly. I also loved the fact that Oscar Wilde couldn't help but include bits of his trademark humor in a horror novel. All in all it's a very good book that everyone should read at least once.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Hound of the Baskervilles - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I don't do mysteries. As far as this genre is concerned, you can take your Cat Who Talked to Ghosts and shove it up your "A" is for Alibi. I'm just not a fan. That said, I loved every page of The Hound of the Baskervilles.

There are a few reasons why Sherlock Holmes succeeds where oh so many others fail (and before you ask, no, I haven't read any books which feature Hercule Poirot). First, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle started writing these books before the genre was so tired and blown out that cats started solving crimes. Second, he created a character in Sherlock Holmes who is so unique and interesting that we're still fascinated by him 100+ years later. Finally, the logic by which the case is solved is so impeccable and irresistible that you'll hardly be aware that you're reading a mystery novel. If this book taught me anything it's that I ought to read more Sherlock Holmes.

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier

This book is simply amazing. I was absolutely blown away by Daphne de Maurier's unique style, and the sense of place she displays in this book is without peer. "Rebecca" begins as a somewhat reluctant domestic romance and ends up somewhere in the realm of the Gothic. There are numerous twists in the plot, and until the final page I had no idea where it was going to end up. I am sure my wife got tired of my constant exclamations of surprise as I made my way through the story. The book is altogether lovely, fragile, and haunting. I probably won't stop thinking about it for quite some time. "Rebecca" is an absolute delight from start to finish and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins

I don't like reality shows. I've never bothered to watch Survivor, but based on what I know, this book is the ultimate manifestation of that type of reality show. Even so, I found it fairly engaging, and I was genuinely interested to see what would happen in the end. I've certainly read more engaging, original, and better written books, but this was the equivalent of a summer action popcorn flick. I engaged in it because it's entertaining. There's ultimately not a ton of substance, but that's not why I picked it up in the first place.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre has it all. It's really a perfect book. There is pain, suffering, injustice, happiness, comeuppance, romance, betrayal,  insanity, compromise, social pressure, and domestic bliss all in one book. Not only that, it's all wrapped up in bildungsroman (a story which follows a character from childhood to adulthood) so you come to feel that you really know and understand Jane and her motivations.

If you enjoy fiction. If you enjoy the art of words being put together to form greater meaning. If you are capable of reading and understanding, I recommend this book to you.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game took me over a decade to read. It is a book that everyone told me I should read, but I was never able to get into until this past year. Part of the problem was that the first OSC book I ever read was The Lost Boys. He should never stop being flogged for that book. It was awful on so many levels. Anyway, I finally just sat down and read Ender's Game and guess what? It didn't make me want to punch Orson Scott Card in the face!

This book is a sci-fi classic, and there's a reason for it. Also, there's a reason why it has proven impossible for film adaptation, but you really need to read it to understand. Anyway, Ender's Game does a perfect job of creating a realistic world, warts and all, and  allowing a flawed protagonist to negotiate that world even though he is constantly being manipulated. I have to admit that I saw the twist ending on this book coming from a mile away, but I still found the overall experience mind-bending. This is the sort of book you should allow yourself to get swept up in because it will really take you places.

Book 'Em Danno

So you may have noticed a new section in the blog. As it tuns out, I read a ton of books for my grad work, and I review them on goodreads but not here. It makes more sense to review them here because this is my special place for reviewing things. So look for more book reviews in the near future. This semester it'll be Native American Literature, 20th Century American Literature, and fairy tales as told by famous authors. So yeah, it'll be fun...sort of.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Putting a New Fang on the Tone-Arm Cobra

I haven't often thought about the styli in my turntables. My first two turntables were of the 1980's variety when vinyl was going out and nobody cared about making a decent tone arm anymore, so a good stylus wouldn't have really done anything for them.

My current turntable (Pioneer PL-115D for you gear heads out there. It's simplistic, but a total workhorse) is a significantly better piece of machinery. I bought it from a guy who hits up yard and estate sales and refurbishes the things he finds (I got my Marantz 2252B from the same guy). He had equipped the turntable with a brand new Audio Technica ATN3600L, which is a nice-sounding low-budget stylus. I had been meaning to get a new stylus for a long time, but never got around to it for whatever reason. Then I was on one of my audio forums, and a guy talked about replacing your stylus every 4-5 years. I hadn't replaced the stylus on the Pioneer for about 8 years, so I bit the bullet and picked up a brand new Audio Technica ATN3600L for two reasons: 1) I already knew that it would fit my cartridge and 2) it also fit my budget (under $30. Yeah, I'm poor).

When I pulled the old stylus out, I noticed a couple things were off. First of all, the arm which holds the diamond was bent. I never noticed it because I always saw it from an angle. The other thing I noticed was that the diamond on my old stylus was worn down significantly when compared to the new one.

Anyway, I popped the new stylus on, and immediately noticed an improvement in the clarity. It's ridiculous that I didn't get around to this sooner. Now I'm looking online for other styli, and other cartridges as well. I plan on changing every 2-3 years from now on just because it's the audio equivalent of getting new glasses and realizing that you had the option of seeing more clearly all along. If any audiophiles come across this post, feel free to suggest cartridges and/or styli.

All Girl Summer Fun Band - All Girl Summer Fun Band

You can't help but love All Girl Summer Fun Band. The girls really do sound like they're having a ton of fun in the summertime.

It's really hard to write about this band without using the word, "cute." Sure, they're cute. Their songs are cute. The artwork is cute. Everything about this band is cute, but they're so much more than simply cute. They're excellent songwriters, excellent purveyors of tongue-in-cheek humor, and excellent musicians.

While I recommend all their albums to anyone who will listen, this, their debut, is probably the best place to start.

Baleeted? Nope. Adorable things do not get baleeted.

The All-American Rejects - Move Along

The All-American Rejects are the pop punk equivalent of a boy band, by which I mean their fan base is almost exclusively 12 year old girls. This being the case, why do I like them so much? 12 year old girls are almost always wrong about everything, and we don't usually have overlapping tastes. This is probably one of the cases where it's best to not think about it too much.

Move Along is the album that made the band famous, partially because they became a TRL staple with the videos from this album. While TRL is generally the place where bad music is rewarded by idiots, I actually really like this album. It isn't quite as good as the band's debut, but the songwriting is strong enough to make this a nice guilty pleasure.

Baleeted? Nope, but you don't have to tell everyone I said so.

Alison Krauss - A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection

While Weird Al has trouble deciding between Kirk and Picard (that's easy: Picard all the way), I have trouble deciding who has the most gorgeous voice in country music: Alison Krauss or Emmylous Harris.

Alison Krauss always sounds like she's whispering sweet nothings because her voice, while whispy, is intimate, beautiful, and downright seductive.

This album compiles a number of hits from Alison Krauss' outstanding career, and more than a few of them came as a surprise to me. You've more than likely heard "Jacob's Dream," and "Baby Mine," but have you heard the duet version of "Missing You" that she sang with John Waite? I love the original, but I think I prefer this version. This compilation is filled with surprises like that, and it's well worth owning.

Baleeted? Nope. That was never in question.

The Aliens - Astronomy For Dogs

This album sounds like three former members of The Beta Band decided to cut a 1960's style psychedelic record, which is a good thing because that's exactly what this is.

The Aliens ride a curious line. While other bands like The Apples in Stereo are more obsessed with how to create a 1960's sound through studio recording techniques, The Aliens seem more interested in creating a 1960's sound through songwriting alone. The production qualities on this album make no qualms about sounding modern, but the songs still have a vintage ring. Throughout the album, you'll find yourself wondering whether it sounds more new or old.

I highly recommend this album to fans of power pop (because they'll appreciate the songcraft), fans of The Beta Band (for obvious reasons) and for fans of 1960's psychedelic rock who wish there were still bands doing it like they did it in the old days.

Baleeted? Nope. Too good for the baleeted bin.

Alien Ant Farm - Up in the Attic

Up in the Attic is about the same as truANT. It isn't as much fun as ANThology, but it still has a number of good songs and is worth owning if this sort of music is your jam. I tend to hate all the Limp Bizkits (is there a band name that makes you feel dumber as you write it? Nope, you're right. Insane Clown Posse does take the cake) and Linkin Parks of the world, but I always seem to have room for Alien Ant Farm. That has to count for something.

Baleeted? Nope, but by a very small margin.

Alien Ant Farm - truANT

I really wanted truANT to be as good as Alien Ant Farm's debut album, but it isn't. It took a long time for that initial disappointment to wear off and for me to accept this album for what it is: an above average nu-metal album.

Alien Ant Farm is really the only nu-metal outfit that I feel any love for. I saw them live on the Warped Tour back in the day, which might be why I love them. They just seem like the only nu-metal group whose heads are not up their own butts. They have a sense of humor about themselves, and don't seem to wear the over-serious scowl that so many of their contemporaries are guilty of.

While truANT isn't as all-out fun as ANThology, it's still a pretty decent record. Some of the songs blended together a little too well (a common problem with nu-metal), but the band really does try to mix it up, including a couple off-tempo numbers to offset the unstoppable barrage of hard-hitting rock. All in all, Alien Ant Farm is better than every other band in their genre, so there's something to be said for that.

Baleeted? Nope, but just by a hair.

Alice Cooper - The Definitive Alice Cooper

Alice Cooper is one of the most interesting things to ever happen to rock and roll. It's hard to even know how to talk about it. There's Alice Cooper the man, who has cut records and toured with numerous backing bands, but there's also Alice Cooper the original 1970's hard rocking shock-rock band. There's no question that the band was better in its original form, but you have to give the man credit for his longevity. He's touring with guys half his age nowadays, but he still rocks and shocks harder and better than they do.

Alice Cooper is probably best known for the 1970's output which included classics like "School's Out," "I'm Eighteen," and "Billion Dollar Babies." Those are some of the best songs on this compilation. Some of the later cuts on the album just aren't as good as the first cuts because there was a noticable decline in quality as Alice Cooper moved from the 70's into the 80's and 90's. There are a couple ballads near the end of the disc that are among the most unremarkable I've ever heard. While this is a slightly uneven compilation, it's very thorough. You'll more than likely enjoy the first half more than the second half, but the whole thing is still worth owning.

Baleeted? Not a chance.

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley

There is a reason why some books continue to be important long after they were written. Frankenstein is as much a treatise on the meaning of life and the very concept of humanity as it is a work of horror. Sure, it's not as terrifying now as it was when it was first written. Of course you've seen The Munsters since this book was written, so your concept of the square-headed clumsy monster (that isn't the way he's portrayed in the book, by the way. He speaks fluent French and is quite agile)has probably dulled you to what readers in Shelley's day found to be absolutely terrifying.

This book is as important as it is great, and it surely is both. It is the first notable work of science fiction ever written, and remains one of the true masterpieces in the genre. It also shook the dust off Gothic fiction and gave the genre legs enough to keep moving into a new century. Finally, it is now and will remain a major cultural touchstone. Your very life will be enriched by reading this book.

If you give Frankenstein half a chance and accept it for what it is, rather than what you think it should be, you'll enjoy it.

The Monk - Matthew Gregory Lewis

By the end of this book, I could scarcely believe how far the story had gone. If you ever want to see what a real downward spiral looks like, take a look at The Monk. This is a prime example of Gothic fiction, and one of the more sickening tales you'll ever come across (no, really. I was less disgusted by "Titus Andronicus"). 

I was really surprised by how gripping the book was. Many things which were shocking 200+ years ago barely move the dial nowadays, but The Monk holds up. It's still shocking and quite the wild ride. You can really see why it was such a controversial book when it was first printed. No doubt the Catholics of the day did not find it at all amusing.

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole

This book is more notable for establishing and defining a genre than being the best work in that genre. If you've ever wondered why things are termed "Gothic" when they have no connection whatsoever to the Germanic tribes that sacked Rome, look no further than this book. Walpole initially presented "The Castle of Otranto" as a translation of a Gothic tale. In the second edition he copped to the authorship, but the usage of the term "Gothic" to refer to anything with a tendency toward the occult and/or macabre was already established (also partially due to a revival of Gothic architecture, which Walpole happened to be involved in as well). So there you have it: from Walpole to The Cure to the kid in the funny pants at Hot Topic. The book itself is fairly interesting and an ok read (though the fourth chapter is bo-ho-ho-horing). Check it out if you ever want to know where all this Gothic business came from. If you're looking for great Gothic fiction, however, I would probably point you somewhere else.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

alaska! - Emotions

alaska! is comprised of Lowercase's Imaad Wasif and Sebadoh's Russell Pollard. They churn out what appears to be some sort of alternative-ish grunge-ish indie-ish chum. I'm not uncomfortable listening to bands that defy genre (The Mars Volta, anyone?) but alaska! didn't really move me much.

The problem with this album is that it's a tweener. It's not that it exists between genres, but between varying levels of quality. Some of the songs are pretty good while others are not so much. I'm playing it as I write this review, and I genuinely can't decide whether or not I want to delete it. I guess the real test is the fact that I really can't see myself listening to this album again. I'm not even sure where I got it. If I had to guess, I'd say my friend Amber gave it to me. I haven't heard nor seen from her in a few years, so I guess she won't mind if this one doesn't make the cut.

Baleeted? Unfortunately, yes.

Enchanted Soundtrack

My wife and I were engaged when Enchanted came out. We went to see it on its opening weekend, and were surprised to see that we were the only adults who were not accompanying children. While Enchanted will surely appeal to kids, this is a fairy tale for adults. It questions the very possibility of the fairy tale ideal, and finds a happy medium somewhere between the ridiculousness of fairy tales and the harshness of the real world.

While the movie is not an all-out musical (though Broadway's unoriginality and Disney's desire to turn a buck will definitely turn this movie into a musical sometime in the very near future. Will I go see it? Yes. I never said I wasn't dumb or easily duped out of my money) there are plenty of great showtunes in the score. Unfortunately, there aren't quite enough to fill the soundtrack, so they had to tack on some of the instrumental tracks to flesh things out. The instrumental tracks are fairly unremarkable. They mainly restate the themes from the vocal tracks in a longer and more boring way.

Although this soundtrack is a bit of a mixed bag, the vocal tracks are so good they make this a worthy purchase. If you're buying it on itunes, just get the first 5 tracks. If you buy the CD, only listen to the first 5 tracks.

Baleeted? Nope.

Alan Jackson - Greatest Hits Collection

Other than Garth Brooks, nobody churned out more country hits in the 90's than Alan Jackson.

I've had a difficult relationship with Alan Jackson over the years. I grew up in a small town which subscribed to the same view of music as Bob's Country Bunker ("We got both kinds of music: country and western"). Although I still somehow managed to learn how to country dance, I rebelled against country music during the 90's. I was all about grunge, punk, ska, and anything else that wasn't country. Over time I came back to my roots, incorporating country back into my listening repertoire. More than anyone else, I had to make my peace with Alan Jackson. While I merely disliked other country artists, I openly hated Jackson for songs like "Tall Tall Trees." When I finally learned to be okay with that song, my journey back to the dark side was complete. In making peace with country, I was making peace with myself and my own background. Nowadays I'm just as comfortable with country as I am with the more esoteric parts of my collection (probably all my Wildebeests 45's).

Alan Jackson is a country music staple. Songs like "Chatahoochie," "Gone Country," and "Don't Rock the Jukebox" should be required listening for any country music fan. Alan Jackson's signature twang is unmistakable, and this compilation of hits from the first part of his career is evidence of the man's greatness and importance to the genre.

Baleeted? Nope.

Al Green - Compact Command Performances: 14 Greatest Hits

Al Green is amazing. His voice is sweet, smooth, and soulful. He is exactly the type of artist who absolutely killed it in his day, but wouldn't fly on any of the twelve billion tv-based singing competitions which favor pointless vocal noodling over actual talent and soul. If you want to know what soulful singing really sounds like, toss your american idol crap into an industrial shredder and give "Tired of Being Alone" a spin.

My beef with every single tv singing competition aside, this is a fantastic compilation. It is not the most thorough compilation of Al Green's greatness, but every single track is a stone-cold slice of soul. Sure, I could point you in the direction of compilations with more tracks (The Definitive Greatest Hits) or compilations that give a greater overview of the man's career (The Immortal Soul of Al Green), but this compilation gives you exactly what it is supposed to: 14 of Al Green's greatest soul tracks.

Baleeted? Nope.

Upping the Ante

Now that I'm going through my digital albums as well as my vinyl, I have the option of doing something I've always wanted to do with my massive mp3 collection (No, seriously, I have over 260 gigs worth of music): weed out the junk.

Here's the new rule: anything in my mp3 collection that doesn't get 3 stars or more gets....baleeted! From here on out it's be awesome or get out. It's win or go home. It's rock my socks or I'll clean your clock. It's be super great or suffer an ignominious fate. It's perform at a high level while meeting or exceeding expectations or don't and suffer the fate of those who are cast aside as dross to be trod upon by the feet of man and beast.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The X-Men Awards

A couple months ago I read and/or caught up the the present day in all the X-Men titles (except X-Force and the Wolverine solo titles, which I will read eventually, but not until I get a little more variety in my comic book diet). Because I've taken in a metric tonne of X-Men comics, I thought it might be a good idea to hand out a few awards to my favorite storylines, favorite artists, favorite writers, and a few things I didn't like. So here they are, probably the only X-Men awards I'll ever do.

Greatest X-Men Series

Winner: Uncanny X-men

This was really a no-brainer. I just love the original. The first 20 years of the series were simply beyond reproach. Many would argue that the series has had some major ups and downs since its beginnings, but it started great, is currently great, and had a whole of great in between.

Runners Up:

1. X-Men Legacy (aka X-Men, aka New X-Men) - It's hard to not love the title that shared the main X-Men storyline beginning in the 1990s.

2. X-Men (aka X-Men Volume 3) - Although it's a fairly new title, I'm loving it. The artwork is fantastic, and the series feels fresh and interesting.

3. Astonishing X-Men - Joss Whedon is king of the nerds, and his great X-Men series only affirms that fact. The artwork took a dive after Whedon and his artist John Cassaday left, but Warren Ellis is a great writer, and his stories succeed in spite of the sometimes less than stellar artwork.

4. Wolverine and the X-Men - Another very new series which has shown a lot of promise. The fact that it's named after the animated series that got me started reading comic books in the first place is also helpful.

5. X-Men Forever - I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. Chris Claremont pulls some series weight in the world of X-Men, and I thought letting him have his own X-Men series and do whatever he wanted with it would be better than it actually was. This series was a little disappointing.

6. X-Men Unlimited - X-Men Unlimited was conceived as a series which would tell the stories that happen between the issues of the other X-Men titles. As such, it's somewhat less important than the other X-Men series. There are a few interesting things that happen in the series, but they're too few and far between.

7. Ultimate X-Men - The Marvel Ultimate universe re-imagines and updates some of the more notable Marvel heroes. I really didn't like this series because I found that it tried way too hard to be hip and with it.

8. Xtreme X-Men - Nope. Also, this.

Greatest Storyline

Winner: Giant Size X-Men #1

The X-Men were floundering on the verge of cancellation before Giant-Size X-men came out. No, really. In the 1970's Marvel began running old issues from the 1960's because X-Men wasn't a very popular series at the time. Giant-Size X-Men was a last-ditch bid to revive the series and it totally worked. 

Most importantly, Giant-Size X-Men brought in Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Thunderbird, and Wolverine. The addition of all these new heroes really shook up the X-Men as a group, and provided a major shot in the arm to the team as well as the series as a whole.

The story of how all the new X-Men were brought in and how they learned to mesh and fight alongside the existing X-Men is one of the best and most intriguing things that ever happened in the world of mutants. Sure, there have been more shocking storylines, there have been more involved storylines, but the events that took place in Giant Size X-Men and the issues immediately following are hands down the best and most important things to ever happen in the world of the X-Men. 

Runners Up:

1. The Dark Phoenix Saga - Jean Grey's turn as an unstoppable force which unknowingly destroys a planet and billions of people is a mind-blowing tale.

2. Onslaught - Professor X turned evil, giant, and unstoppable? Yes, please.

3. House of M - House of M was a major shakeup in the world of mutants that left some of them powerless, and others dead. It's the Marvel equivalent of the DC Crises.

4. Days of Future Past - Mind-bending and a whole lot of fun.

Best Artist

Winner: Jack Kirby

Yes, there have been more complex and flashy artists in the history of X-Men, but I still can't get over the original. Part of it is the fact that I just really love the simplicity and fun of the Marvel comics from the 1960's. Jack Kirby's artwork perfectly complimented Stan Lee's stellar writing. Jack Kirby gave the X-Men their look, and set the tone for the series.

Runners Up: 

1. John Byrne - This is another subjective pick. John Byrne was a phenomenon. For Alpha Flight he did both the stories and the artwork. For the X-Men, he kept the spirit of Jack Kirby's original artwork alive while bridging the gap for the future of X-Men.

2. Jim Lee - Jim Lee is an X-Men artist that everyone seems to agree on. Many feel he is the very best artist to ever draw the X-Men. I can see that argument, but I have my own preferences.

3. John Cassaday - Half of the reason why the first 24 issues of Astonishing X-Men were so astonishing. Seriously, go look at the series, it looks amazing.

4. Marc Silvestri - Marc Silvestri kept the X-Men looking good through the 80's and early 90's when there were a number of aesthetic crimes being committed throughout the comic book world.

Worst Artist

Winner: Kaare Andrews

Just look a this image. Look at what he did to Storm and Emma Frost. Has Kaare Andrews ever seen a woman in real life? Is he aware of the fact that other artists, including the amateurs on Deviantart, actually make the female X-Men look attractive? This cover is bad and Kaare Andrews should feel bad.

Runners  Up:

1. Frank Quitely

What happened here? Does Frank Quitely know that Emma Frost is not asian? Also, does he know that she is not a tranny?

2. Kia Asamiya

The X-Men don't all have the same pointy manga nose. I don't read anime as a personal choice, and I hated it when Marvel forced me to.

Best Writer

Winner: Stan Lee - Could it be anyone else? Yes, I know I've been picking all the old timers over the new schoolers, but that's just the way I feel. I don't know that I would have gotten very far in my comic book reading if it weren't for Stan's signature style. His writing actively mentored me, and drew me into the comics. It's why I love Marvel's 60's output so much.

Runners Up:

1. Grant Morrison - I'm getting tired of writing blurbs. Just as tired as you're getting of reading them, provided anyone ever decided to read this.

2. Scott Lobdell

3. Joss Whedon

4. Matt Fraction

Most Perplexing Writer

Winner: Chris Claremont - Once again, could it be anyone else? Chris Claremont is sometimes one of the best things to ever happen to the X-Men and at other times one of the worst. He gave us The Dark Phoenix Saga, but he also gave us the X-Babies. Like I said, he's the most perplexing writer in the world of X-Men.

Anyway, I was going to give a bunch of awards for things like worst teamup (Power Pack, with X-Babies following close behind), best relationship (Cyclops and Jean Grey with Colossus and Kitty Pryde following close behind), relationship that you seem to be okay with but secretly hate (Cyclops and Emma Frost), but I am getting bored with my own awards. Let's just wrap this up.