Sunday, September 30, 2012

David Barker (ed) 33 1/3 Greatest Hits vol 1 (Continuum, 2006)

It’s hard to get a handle on the 33 1/3 series.  Its rather free form structure means that you never know what to expect from any particular title.  The approaches range from detailed studio notes to memoir to more abstract critique.  In my own experience, I’ve found that my relationship to the music itself bears little relation to my enjoyment of a particular title.

The Greatest Hits is a way around this problem.  Volume 1 contains selections from each of the first 20 books in the series.  (For a full list, consult the publisher’s website.)  While the first 20 titles do skew a tad towards the classic rock canon, there are appearances by The Smiths, James Brown, Prince, ABBA, & Radiohead.

I enjoyed having samples of each of these titles.  In some cases, I plan on reading the entire volume, while in others I know that a particular author’s approach simply isn’t for me.   As with a buffet, the parts you prefer may be different from mine, but there’s sure to be something here to fill your belly.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

In Defense of: Mumford & Sons

Mumford & Son's latest release, Babel, is on track to sell 600,000 copies in its first week (link).  This is a big deal.  It makes Babel the fastest selling release of the year.  Of course this also means that the inevitable backlash is just ramping up since their first album.  MetaCritic is currently giving the album a combined critical score of 65. Spin magazine has given Babel its "worst new music" tag.  Pitchfork has, so far at least, ignored the release.  I suppose that after the evisceration of their first album, they didn't want to bother.

Now I'm not exactly a fan of the Mumfords, but I have to ask, why all the hate?  It's not like the band is provocative, or confrontational, either in their music or their persona.  It seems to me that at worst, you would just ignore their music (like the common reaction to Dave Matthews).

In theory, here in 2012 we are supposed to be post-rockist, able to accept music on its terms without forcing a predetermined aesthetic framework onto it.  But the reaction to the Mumfords seems to put that to the lie. 

Ann Powers of NPR has a great piece here about the band.  She notes quite rightly that they do not come from the transgressive tradition of rock music.  (And also astutely notes their connection in lineage from U2 et al).  In my mind, that makes them more in the mold of 60s pop singers or the Kingston Trio than the forced authenticity of the folk scare or the rebellious boomers of the latter part of the decade.  Yet if we are post rockist, why the insistence on forcing music to fit some template of rebellion?  And why is that not applied to such indie stalwarts as Bon Iver or Calexico?

Additional attacks come at them because they are not authentic.  Implied in these critiques is the sense that Mumford & Sons are, in fact, part of the folk tradition.  My own experience of their music is that they clearly are not.  They are a rock band that just happens to include a few acoustic instruments.  Structurally their songs are not part of that tradition.  And that's ok.  And again, in a post rockist world, are we really concerned with a bugaboo like authenticity?

In all honesty, I haven't spent the time needed to actually engage with Babel, so I think it's important for me to avoid speaking to the music itself.  But I am glad that people are connecting with music as more than background noise, whatever I eventually decide about the aesthetics of the album itself.  If music is a valuable cultural commodity, isn't it always a good thing when others are enjoying any form of music?

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cherie Priest “Clementine” (Subterranean Press, 2010)

Clementine is a short novel that takes place in Priest’s Clockwork Century universe.  Since these are all more shared worlds novels than continuing storylines, it is not necessary to have read the other novels in order to understand Clementine.  That being said, the world building of the other novels does add to the enjoyment of this one.

Clementine is a lean, mean adventure novel.  While there is a small supporting cast, Priest focuses on two main characters.  Pirate Croggon Hainey is determined to get his airship back.  He’s willing to undertake a violent cross-country chase if that’s what it takes.  Belle Boyd, former Confederate spy turned Pinkerton agent, is assigned to stop him and make sure that the ship’s cargo arrives in Kentucky.

Priest’s narrow focus means that the short length of this novel does not work to its detriment.  She develops the two protagonists and has plenty of room for their fast paced adventures.  The plot moves swiftly, & is surprisingly compelling given its simplicity.

While not as significant as Priest’s other Clockwork Century novels, Clementine is an entertaining read and adds more depth & texture to the world she has created. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

It's William Gibson's World....

Over the last year or so, I've started seeing news items that seemed to be straight out of one of William Gibson's near future novels.  Strange technology interacting with society in unexpected ways.

This weekend there was another example at the Hugo Awards ceremony in Chicago.  The ceremony was being livestreamed (which is sort of crazy right there, if you stop & think about it) when the host company's bots suddenly put the kibosh on the stream.  The story, at least, is that there was nothing the host company could do about it.  You can read the full story on io9.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

T Aaron Payton “The Constantine Affliction” (Nightshade Books, 2012)

The Constantine Affliction is wide tapestry of story elements:  mystery, horror, Lovecraft, steampunk.  It’s an examination of gender roles, of hubris & technology, of Victorian literature and pulp entertainments.  It’s also a whole lot of fun.

Gentleman detective Pembroke “Pimm” Halliday is invited to consult on a series of murders involving prostitutes.  Simultaneously, reporter Ellie “E Skye” Skyler is investigating the clockwork women who are working as prostitutes in London.  It turns out that the stories are intertwined, & they find themselves working to save the Throne.

Payton does an excellent job juggling a lot of characters and plot without ever sacrificing pace.  We have a fairly large cast of characters, but they all feel distinct and consistent.  Similarly, there are multiple disparate plots that all advance and seem solid.  Somehow along the way he makes time for digressions on the fantastical technology of his Victorian London.

Lee Battersby "The Corpse-Rat King" (Angry Robot, 2012)

Marius don Hellespont is a liar, thief, pickpocket, corpse robber.  He’s not a nice man.  He’s given the task of finding a king by the angry dead.  This is his story as he tries to escape this quest and the curse that the dead have laid upon him.

The Corpse-Rat King is exciting, horrific, and at times hilarious.  Battersby does an excellent job embracing both the horror elements inherent in the story as well as the turning this quest into a series of comic misadventures.  

There’s a sense of fairytale logic to Marius’ story.  We aren’t sure exactly what the dead do to Marius, or how it works.  He can eat, but doesn’t seem to need to breathe.  He doesn’t seem to decay, yet is recognized as one of the living dead by those to see him.  He can communicate with the dead, but there’s no explanation of how or why this works.  

Your reaction to Marius’ story may depend on what you look for in a protagonist.  For me, it’s difficult when I don’t see any redeemable features to a character.  Grey hats are fine, and often preferable, but they need to have a spark of “good” for me to be really interested.  Marius just wasn’t compelling for me.  I kept waiting for him to show some signs of personal growth through his troubles, but that moment never came.  I realized that I didn’t care if he was tortured by the angry dead.