Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Album of the Week: The Milk Carton Kids "The Ash & Clay" (2013)

For better or worse (or possibly both), The Milk Carton Kids are lumped into the same category as Mumford & Sons, The Lumineers, etc.  From a marketing standpoint, it’s probably understandable.  Obviously Anti wants to sell records, & pitching The MCKs as a similar act hopes to siphon off some of the massive fanbases of those other acts.

When you actually listen to the music, however, the similarities end pretty quickly.  Both Mumford & The Lumineers are acoustic rock.  The bones of their music have more similarities to Coldplay than to anything from the folk music tradition.  The MCKs influences come fast & quick on listening… and the comparisons to folk acts are unavoidable.

Their harmonies remind me of Simon & Garfunkle.  Listen to the vocal interplay between the two vocalists.  The MCKs don’t seem to have Simon’s knack for pop hooks, or that 60s penchant for “relevancy”, but the sonics are the same.  The music itself brings to mind Gillian Welch.  Clearly these guys have been listening to David Rawlings.  The fills & leads sound as if they asked DR to sit in for a bit.

If anything, my major complaint with this record would be that there’s too much standing on the shoulders of giants.  It’s hard to cut away the influences & get to The MCKs own sound.  However, all the ingredients seem to be there.  This isn’t the career defining record.  But they have the potential to make some truly great recordings.

Matt Kindt "Mind MGMT Volume 1" (Dark Horse Comics, 2013)

In another medium, Mind MGMT would be referred to as a High Concept story.  What if the US government had a secret program with weaponized mind control specialists?  

In its particulars, Mind MGMT is the story of Meru, a true crime writer who investigates a curious incident involving a commercial flight whose passengers all show signs of amnesia.  Her investigation throws her into a spy story with psychics, immortal assassins, and former government operatives.

Given the widespread praise that this series has received in the single issue format, I was underwhelmed by this collection of the first six issues.  The plotting is remarkably simple for such a convoluted tale: Maru travels to exotic location; escapes confrontation with assassins, then receives lengthy exposition.  There are a few problems with this.  First, Kindt gives too much telling without enough showing.  We receive detailed backstory and answers to questions that have never been asked.  Second, there’s no time to develop tension or for the reader to ask questions that are later answered.  We’re given the answers without the questions ever being raised.   This means that there is no payoff in the answers, since we aren’t invested.  Also, we have no real investment in any of the characters in the story.  Our protagonist, Meru, seems to be sympathetic primarily because she is the protagonist.  Otherwise Meru is as much of a mystery as anything else in this story.

Quick mention must be made of the art choices in Mind MGMT.  Kindt uses a rough watercolor style that is more common in more personal comics.  It is a bit surprising to see it used with this type of storytelling, & some readers may find it a bit jarring.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Album of the Week: Sam Doores & Riley Downing & the Tumbleweeds "Holy Cross Blues" (2012)

These days when someone references “classic country” they usually mean the days of Nudie suits and telecasters (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).  Sam Doores & Riley Downing go back farther than that, to the country of the 20s and 30s, when times were hard and the songs reflected that.

There’s a dust bowl sensibility to the 12 tracks on “Holy Cross Blues”, with themes of rambling, loss, and a quest for redemption and happiness.  They bring back the old blues influences that you’ve heard in Jimmie Rodgers and his contemporaries.

The production is simple, giving a warm analogue sound to the recording.  The guitars tend to edge into the fuzzy tones of amps being pushed a bit too hard.  The vocals are straightforward, and given plenty of room.

RIYL:  Son Volt, Townes Van Zandt, Tom Waits

Seanan McGuire "Midnight Blue-Light Special" (DAW, 2013)

In case you haven’t been reading McGuire’s InCryptid series, here’s what you need to know so far:  A cryptid is a creature whose existence has been suggested but not proven.  This would include mythological stories about dragons and gorgons as well as more modern stories about Bigfoot or chupacabras.  The Covenant of St George is an ancient society dedicated to the extermination of all cryptids.  A few generations ago the Price family came to America and left the Covenant. The Prices think that humans and cryptids can live together peacefully.  And the Covenant thinks they’re all dead. 

Midnight Blue-Light Special focuses on Verity Price, the young Price daughter living in NYC in order to follow her dreams of being a ballroom dancer.  She learns that the Covenant is sending a team to New York.  Their report could lead to the Covenant exterminating all the cryptids in the city.  And things will just get worse if they learn that the Prices are still alive.

On a surface level, the InCryptid series is like most urban fantasy series.  There’s a young female protagonist, who is beautiful and a badass.  The story is told in first person, with a quippy narrative voice.  The heroine has friends and allies who are members of exotic nonhuman species.  The reading experience is fairly light and breezy.

That being said, McGuire has a secret weapon that separates the InCryptid books from the plethora of urban fantasies lining the shelves everywhere these days.  That weapon is her world building.  First, she ignores the popular nonhumans.  There are no vampires or werewolves to be found in these books.  Instead, Verity Price’s New York is populated with dragons, gorgons, boogeymen, and a wide variety of idiosyncratic species from all over the world.  Second, each of these species seems to have their own elaborate social and biological histories, and best yet – we get to see how these histories influence the behaviors of the characters.  So members of predatory species act like predators.  Those who would be prey act more like creatures who have a history of being hunted.  This sort of world building gives an underlying structure to the series, and makes it stronger than some simple sort of wish fulfillment.

I did have a couple of problems with the book.  First, at times McGuire is a bit too prone to infodumps.  You get the feeling that she’s created all this cool backstory, and at times just can’t resist telling the reader about it.  Now I really appreciate the work and world building involved, but it’s better to let that come out in characterization and action, not in characters directly telling each other these things.

Second, the agents from the Covenant were a bit too inept.  After more than a book of building up the Covenant as an incredibly powerful antagonist, these agents really didn’t cause too much of a problem for Verity or the cryptids of New York.  If the members of the Covenant had caused a bit more havoc in New York then it would have increased the tension substantially.

Midnight Blue-Light Special is a thoroughly entertaining read.  Its detailed world building creates a fantasy world that it rich in depth and detail.  The InCryptid series is one of the best in modern urban fantasy.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mark Waid “Daredevil, Vol 1” (Marvel, 2012)

“It has been a miserable last few years and every time I thought I’d finally hit bottom, God somehow found me a bigger shovel.  All this pain and all this loss and…and I just can’t bear the weight of it anymore and stay sane.  I know that.  So this is the way I’ve decided to be.”

Matt Murdock’s speech to Foggy is perhaps Mark Waid’s statement of intent with his run on Daredevil.  Acknowledge the grimdark past of the comic, while offering a dramatic change of pace and tone.  It’s perhaps a soft reboot more than anything, with past events staying in continuity, even while there’s a change of focus away from that type of storytelling.

Waid’s fresh approach to the title is in some ways a return to its silver age roots.  Forgoing many trends of contemporary comics, Waid’s Daredevil is a swashbuckling hero.  His concerns are at a more human level, protecting the poor and disenfranchised, than with slugging it out with supervillains.  The stories are shorter, punchier, and more self-contained.  A reader doesn’t need to know 50 years of Marvel continuity to understand the storyline.  It feels fresh exciting and fun.

The art duties are split between Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin.  Their simple clean lines reflect this reversion to silver age aesthetics visually.  The colorists, Javier Rodriguez and Muntsa Vicente, only add to the throwback effect.  Bold color choices, often themed in red and yellow (DD’s colors, don’t ya know).  The overall effect is evocative of the pop art of the 1960s, the era of Daredevil’s birth.

I couldn’t be more impressed with a contemporary comic.  It has both the fun and energy of a silver age comics, but with the stylistic sophistication of a 21st century piece.  Highly recommended for all ages.