Friday, May 31, 2013

Album of the Week: Shannon McNally "Small Town Talk" (2013)

The first of the modern tribute albums that I can recall was a Neil Young tribute.  An assortment of college rock bands doing covers.  People loved it.  It was the material that you grew up on, played by the performers that you listened to at the time.  It predated Neil’s grunge revival, & in many ways primed the pump for that comeback.  He wasn’t tainted by the classic rock baggage that would’ve kept so many performers from seeming relevant to that same audience.

Since then, that concept of a tribute has been run into the ground.  There’s a tribute to anyone and everyone, with more popular acts having multiples.  And the quality of the participants has declined as well.  Where once it was the A list, now it seems that just about anyone will be used to fill out a CD.

The current trend is to do a cover version of an entire album.  This is still a fairly recent trend, so there’s still some potential left in the concept.

Perhaps the oldest version of the tribute album is for a performer to record a record of a single songwriter’s hits (and misses).  How many country acts in the 50s & 60s recorded an album called “__ sings Hank Williams”?  There was a time that I kept a running list.  I’ve given up on that long ago.

Shannon McNally’s latest is a throwback to that tradition.  “Small Town Talk” is a look back at one of the architects of swamp pop, Bobby Charles.  He’s most famous for writing hits for Bill Haley and Fats Domino, but he was a mainstay of the early New Orleans R&B scene.  Along with Dr John, he was one of the first white musicians to cross the color line & play on R&B hits.

In my mind, McNally occupies a similar space to Bonnie Raitt.  Her husky vocals give the songs a bit of grit, and her country leanings provide an essential element to round out the swamp flavor.  Backed up by top notch New Orleans session men, this is one of those albums that seem to exist out of time.  You could easily be convinced that it had been recorded at any time during the last 40 years.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Album of the Week: Josh Ritter "The Beast In Its Tracks" (2013)

Somewhere in another universe, Josh Ritter is a huge star.  He plays in sold out arenas, rides in big limousines, flies on his own jet.  The release of each of his albums is a big cultural event.

In our universe, Josh Ritter is a talented, if under-appreciated songwriter.  He plays in small to mid-size venues.  None of his records seem to generate much critical conversation or internet buzz.

In my mind, the disconnect seems to be the audience’s abandonment of the building blocks of classic rock.  Don’t take me the wrong way – this isn’t some sort of “Get off my lawn” rant, just an acknowledgement that this type of music has become something that people listen to only occasionally, not the cornerstone of the majority’s listening habits.  It’s just in the mix along with reggae, hiphop, dubstep, the myriad styles of dance music, etc etc.  So while there was a small bubble of more “classic” singer-songwriters around the turn of the millennium – all the Joshes and Bens and sundry—this was just another temporary bubble of popularity.

Unlike so many contemporary acts that are indebted to the music of the sixties and seventies, Ritter’s music is not a slavish imitation of some particular act.  Rather than being a tribute act in everything but name, he uses those influences as building blocks.  So on one song you’ll hear the pop hooks of Paul McCartney.  On another the rushed delivery of Dylan.  On yet another more of Paul Simon’s vocals.  The whole is more than just the sum of these parts.  It is unique to Josh Ritter, yet accessible for fans of those who have come before.  It’s just familiar enough, without being some sort of slavish imitation.

The Beast in Its Tracks is perhaps unique among the category of breakup albums.  Usually, these albums go in one of two ways—either angry or sad.  Ritter is operating at a more mature emotional level.  Sure, there are touches of these emotions, but the overwhelming sense is one of peace and happiness.  It’s an acknowledgement of what had been, and a strong desire for everyone to move on and be happy.

“Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time Volume 1” (IDW, 2013)

With the impending 50th anniversary of Doctor Who we are being treated to a variety of special treats celebrating the long history of the Doctor in his various regenerations.  This limited series is part of that celebratory overview.

Its premise is intriguing, if rather bold.  Each incarnation of the Doctor will have an adventure.  Each adventure will be connected, forming an overall story arc.

This first volume contains the first three issues of the series, featuring each of the first three doctors.  So far there is no obvious connective thread between the stories, except for the disappearance of the companions.  

I’m no expert on the early incarnations of the Doctor, but the characterization of each seems to fit with what I know of each Doctor—the grandfatherly first Doctor, the weird second Doctor, the James Bond third Doctor.  

Overall this volume is a bit difficult to evaluate. Since the storylines haven’t really come together, it’s difficult to tell where this series is going.  Only three issues in a collection seem more than a bit slight, my preference would have been for the series to be collected as a whole, or divided into two volumes at most.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Wesley Chu “Lives of Tao” (Angry Robot, 2013)

Once again I seem to be outside the hivemind.  Look around the internet, & you’ll see glowing gushing reviews for Wesley Chu’s debut.  Funny, action packed, with a protagonist that people identify with.  That hasn’t been my experience at all.

Here’s the setup:  When a spy mission goes cockeyed, an alien named Tao is forced to look for a new host.  He grabs Roen Tan & enlists him in a war between alien species that goes back millions of years.  Hijinks ensue.

The tone is light & breezy; the type that you would normally associate with an Urban Fantasy novel.  Despite the hilarity that so many others experienced, I didn’t find the book to be particularly funny.  Of course humor is incredibly subjective, so YMMV.

My biggest gripe is squarely at the center of the book:  Roen Tan himself.  When we first meet Roen, he’s an underemployed fat slob with a post-collegiate drinking problem.  While out on a drunken night on the town, he ends up playing the unwilling host to Tao.  Other than as a collection of negative characteristics, Roen as a character doesn’t really seem to exist.  He has no interests or hobbies.  He doesn’t actually have any friends.  (His roommate is the closest to a friend that we meet, yet their relationship seems to be more of a caricature of young male friendships rather than an actual representation of such.) He exists more as a placeholder for audience identification than as an actual character.

Assuming that Roen is indeed intended as an audience identifier, then his characterization is insulting.  (And I would argue that he does in fact exist solely for the reader to identify with.  The narrative is crafted in such a way that the reader is forced into this position.  And if there’s any doubt about this, simply read some of the many reviews on the book.  It’s clear that readers are seeing themselves in Roen.)  Roen is continually referred to as being incompetent and of less worth than other characters.  Chu doesn’t try to subvert this image, but instead plays it up; perhaps to greater dramatize Roen’s training.  If the author creates a character that is intended as a reader substitute, and that character is continually belittled by other characters as well as the author, then what does the author think of the reader?

Of course we do have another option in characters, that being the titular alien, Tao.  Tao is presented as one of the good guys, but think for a moment about what actually happens here.  Tao forces himself upon an unwilling host (We don’t know if Roen would have given permission, but he was never asked for his consent.).  Tao can only leave Roen with Roen’s death.  So Roen has zero choice in the matter.  At this point Roen is thrust into a war that has lasted for thousands of years.  And what exactly is the difference between the good guys and the bad guys?  Both sides want to run the world and treat humans as little more than pets.  The “good” guys might create less military destruction, but we really don’t know that. 

With such a problematic core, I didn’t find The Lives of Tao to be enjoyable.  Admittedly, I’m on the outside of what seems to be the consensus opinion. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Paul Cornell "London Falling" (Tor Books, 2013)

The most common failing of any mashup is that the parts aren’t true to their origin, & the result is somehow less than the sum of its parts.  Paul Cornell’s London Falling combines a police procedural with dark urban fantasy, and retains both the grittiness of the former with the wonder and awe of the latter.

The book opens as a straight police procedural.  We see the culmination of a long undercover operation to arrest the leader of a large portion of the organized crime in London.  When the suspect dies a shocking and strange death while in custody, a small group of police officers are tasked with cleaning up the mess that the investigation has become.  They follow a lead into an abandoned house, where a strange encounter leaves the police officers with the Sight.  That is, the ability to see the hidden supernatural nature of the city.  It turns out that their prey is a centuries old witch who has been abducting and killing children, among other victims.

Unlike most urban fantasy, Cornell’s magical London is a horrible place.  There is blood sacrifice, murdered children, horrible things in the shadows, and other dangers.  The detectives are stumbling around trying to find the rules of this place, and the reader along with them.  They struggle to achieve the few answers that they can find, and we are left with as much mystery as the characters themselves.

Rather than having his characters respond with a gleeful acceptance of this other state of reality, Cornell has the characters respond the way that people actually do after a trauma.  There is denial, followed by a certain amount of acceptance, and ultimately a reliance on routine.  There’s a sense that the familiar procedure of police work is all that is keeping them sane.  And their procedure is what they count on to resolve the situation.  The difference being that this time it’s (literally) a wicked witch, and not a drug lord or other criminal. Just as this reliance on procedure grounds the characters, it also grounds the story for the reader.  The mental reactions of all the police officers are thus relatable. 

London Falling is a fast paced gritty dark fantasy that should appeal to fans of both police procedurals and urban fantasy.  Despite the dark subject matter, it was a very entertaining read.  While the story is complete in his volume, there does seem to be a setup for future stories in this world.  Hopefully they’ll be just as compelling.