Squeeze, PLAY

Squeeze was one of the leaders of the '80s new wave music movement -- but how about their music in the '90s? The Squeeze album Play (get it? "Squeeze play?" yeah, forced cleverness, like the play in the inside notes) is an alright album, consistently pleasant but seldom outstanding.

Anyone who's heard Squeeze before will recognize both Glenn Tilbrook's voice and the music from the rest of the band. Play is pretty mellow, never cutting loose but also seldom allowing its slower songs to resist becoming upbeat pop; the exception is "Walk a Straight Line," my favorite song off the album.

Play suffers from some frequently stupid lyrics ("The truth is not my middle name," "Her nails were long and sharp/but she didn't play the harp") and music that sounds like it's all auditioning for top 40 radio. Play is out of print; I didn't mind picking up my used copy, but I won't be listening to it often either.

Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

Blood - Michael Moorcock (1994)

Michael Moorcock is one of the three most influential fantasy writers of the last fifty or sixty years: Tolkien created the Epic Fantasy as we know it; Robert E. Howard gave us Conan and the archetypal barbarian; and Moorcock gave us Elric of Melniboné and defined the anti-hero. He proceeded to write a vast number of books, most of which are part of a giant, over-arching shared mythology. The upside of this is that there is a great deal of depth and texture to the various books and characters as each informs the other. The downside is that some of the books tend to blur together a bit when the parallels and similarities swamp the differences. Blood has most of the upside with little of the downside.

Jack Karaquazian, a gambler in a decaying alternate Earth slowly being eaten both literally and figuratively by Chaos, loses his lady love across the multiverse after making an error of judgement that resulted in the death and maiming of some innocents. He spends the rest of the book seeking first redemption in his own eyes and then his lady love in the dimension to which she had retreated. If you are a Moorcock fan, the common themes and ideas are already apparent to you - a flawed protaganist, harm to the innocents causing an existential crisis, and, of course, the conflict between Law and Chaos.

Moorcock is a beautiful writer. His prose is lucid and his imagery beautiful. In this book it is perhaps a bit more surreal and psychedelic than in many of his works, which lends it an uncommon lustre. Structurally the book alternates between Jack's story and the pulp adventures of the "Corsairs of the Second Ether." The two stories, seemingly unrelated, slowly but inevitable begin to merge. As they do, a meditation on the nature of narrative itself unfolds as fiction merges with fiction-within-fiction, as reality-as-defined-in-the-book collides with fiction-as-defined-within-the-book, books within books ...

(In an odd synchroncity, these are some of the same themes explored in Zeitgeist which I recently reviewed here.)

While not Moorcock's absolute best work, Blood is a fine book. Although part of a series, it stands alone and would serve as a decent introduction to those unfamiliar with Moorcock's work. (Although, tracking down the first Elric book would be even better.) For those who are familiar with Moorcock, Blood makes a fine addition to one's library.

Overall Grade: B+


She & Him, Volume One (Merge Records, 2008)

"She" is actress Zooey Deschanel, a rising star in Hollywood currently serving as the female lead in Yes Man. "Him" is M. Ward, a multi-instrumentallist and producer from Portland, Oregon. Together, She & Him have released an album called Volume One which, according to the good people at Paste Magazine, was chosen as this year's best album.

Of the thirteen songs on Volume One, nine were written by Deschanel and one was co-written by her. I'd describe Deschanel's songwriting style as being one part Carole King, one part Patsy Cline, and several parts sixties girl groups. It's rare for established movie stars to successfully pull off a side career in music (i.e., do something that's actually good), and it's even rarer when they succeed as songwriters to the degree that Deschanel does on this album. If this were the mid-sixties she'd be a highly regarded hit maker, with charming pop songs like "This Is Not a Test," "I Was Made for You," and "Sweet Darlin'." The catch, though, is that her vocals aren't really all that strong, especially on the ballads. The album's one really good vocal performance comes, ironically, on a cover of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me."

While Volume One is generally categorized as alternative or "indie," there's not actually anything about the sound of the album that's cutting edge. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, and if you're a big fan of sixties pop music you'll probably like this album a lot. But I'm starting to notice a significant trend among indie performers to go retro, whether they're making albums like this one or the one I just reviewed by The Submarines, or engaging in the more extreme act of covering an entire album like Meet the Smithereens! did last year. This trend has some strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, some old styles still have plenty to offer, as She & Him show on this album. Many older songs are also worth preserving and bringing back to people's attention; I'll be talking about this more when I review (hopefully in a day or two) Dion's latest album. A good song is a good song, after all, regardless of how old the song or the style may be.

On the other hand, I'm a bit leery of showering too much of a reward on something that's not really original. Volume One has some fun songs, and something tells me we're going to be hearing a lot from Zooey Deschanel on multiple fronts over the next few years if not beyond. But I wouldn't call the album a revelation, either, just a nice record featuring an emerging performer with a broad range of talents.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

for the video of "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?," click here.

The Submarines, Honeysuckle Weeks (Nettwerk, 2008)

Originally from Boston but currently living in Los Angeles, The Submarines are a duo consisting of John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard. Honeysuckle Weeks is their second album. With the exception of the occasional use of a string quartet, Honeysuckle Weeks is an entirely homemade record, with Dragonetti and Hazard playing all the instruments. The resulting no-frills feel of the record generally works, although the album suffers a bit from the absence of an accomplished drummer.

Blake Hazard does most of the singing. Her voice reminds me of The Cardigans' Nina Persson, especially on the sunny, 60's-inspired pop songs that make up most of the album. Dragonetti provides an effective change of pace on the three songs he sings, especially "The Wake Up Song."

The album's single and standout track is called "You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie." This song cleverly mixes modern alternative rock with the Pet Sounds era sound of The Beach Boys. At first glance the lyrics might seem a bit flowery -- "everyday I wake up, I choose love, I choose light" -- but the song quickly turns into a commentary on how we surround ourselves with countless amusements but not with enough things that are truly meaningful. (Somewhat ironically, the song has gotten significant exposure from its use in a commercial for the iPhone 3G.) It's also the one track on the album where the percussion is really creative enough to enhance the song.

Honeysuckle Weeks boasts a couple of good songs, with the rest of the album being at least pleasant. The Submarines' music is readily accessible pop with a sixties retro feel. Dragonetti and Hazard probably need to bring in a full-time drummer to get their sound to the next level, though.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

"You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie"


Danielia Cotton, Rare Child (Adrenaline Records, 2008)

Hopewell, New Jersey native Danielia Cotton was something of a rare child even when growing up. For whatever reason, black girls listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC just aren't all that common. Cotton was also raised on the jazz and gospel that her mother sang, so when she started singing herself, mixing styles came naturally. Eventually she started singing professionally, and Rare Child is her second album.

Rare Child combines R&B and soul with muscular hard rock. Cotton channels Mavis Staples and Janis Joplin with equal enthusiasm, and while she plays primarily acoustic guitar herself, the rests of her band plugs in and cranks it up. The album has two real standout tracks. The first is the single "Bang My Drum," an anthemic rocker about being independent and true to yourself. The other is the title track. Like "Bang My Drum," "Rare Child" is a celebration of free spirits, although musically it is much more aggressive. The crunchy guitar on that song makes for some of the best pure rock I've heard in a while.

While those two songs dominate the record, the rest of Rare Child is at least decent. I'm a bit worried, though, that Danielia Cotton will suffer a similar fate that the stylistically similar Roachford has faced for the past twenty years, in that she doesn't fit comfortably enough into any specific radio format and as a result won't get airplay. This would be a shame, as Cotton is a solid rocker with a great voice, and she appears to have much to offer.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"Bang My Drum"


The Born Again Floozies, Street Music (Triple R Records, 2008)

At about this time last year, I reviewed 7 Deadly Sinners, the debut CD from the eccentric Indianapolis group The Born Again Floozies. With a rhythm section consisting of tap dancers and a tuba, and Joey Welch's uniquely offbeat style of songwriting, I wasn't certain if they could achieve more than novelty status. However, with their strong follow-up album Street Music (13 Rebellions and a Song of Consolation), the band demonstrates enough substance and depth to indicate that they have plenty of staying power.

The basic framework of the band hasn't changed any. Welch still fronts the band and plays his guitar with same percussive style that characterized the last album. The current line-up sports a new tuba player and only one tap dancer, but the changes don't result in a noticeable difference in the style. What has changed is that Welch is quite a bit more pissed off this time around. He has a big time axe to grind, and his lyrics and playing have gotten considerably edgier. On the opening song "We Got The Power (Love Letter from America)," for example, he sings "We got the guns to manufacture truth; we got the shot to quell our own youth." Indeed, the whole album is series of songs of defiance against the attempts of the powers that be to corporatize and homogenize everything and everyone.

You could cram as much quirkiness as possible onto one album, but you would still need some good songs to make it work. Happily, Joey Welch delivers the goods, to a such degree that he's vaulted himself into the highest tier of songwriters in today's music scene. The lyrics hit their mark repeatedly. The band makes the music work as well, whether they aim for funk ("Dumb It Down Now!"), a subtly insistent groove ("Beulah, You Rock"), or swing ("Dirt Cheap Suit").

Street Music contains 44 minutes of defiance, irreverence, and most importantly, fun. Hopefully The Born Again Floozies will keep flying their freak flag high for some time to come.

Overall grade: A

reviewed by Scott

"Beulah, You Rock"



It's time for the universe's most popular sporting event! The contestants have been picked from the most inept species in the galaxy, and the winner gets to have their species not wiped out. This is the premise of The Great Space Race, an insanely fun racing game from the good folks at Kenzer & Company.

The board consists of an oval track of six-sided hexes, with a bright blue border on the inside and outside forming an imprnetrable barrier to the ships. Each player gets a small plastic ship on the board, and the first player to complete three laps wins.
There's a lot more to each ship, though (as the picture here demonstrates). Each player's ship card has: dials for shield strength (1 to 10 points), hull points (1 to six points) and speed (starting at 1, up to 5); two Bays to keep equipment; spaces for command counters (which let you draw more cards, avoid an impact, turn one facing, or rearrange your cards) and mines; each ship's unique ability; and, most important, five slots for actions.

The faster a player goes, the more cards they draw and the more cards they can play. (A player's speed equals the number of slots they fill each turn.) All players play cards face down, and they are revealed in order each turn. Most cards are movement cards, showing how a player's ship moves (sometimes with optional turning or direction) and whether or not they can drop a mine; players can also place Maintenance cards, letting them draw an Equipment card and use it.
Speed has its price: crashing! The faster you go, the more likely you are to hit something: mines, planetoids, other players. Especially other players: With relatively few weapons, you'll do most damage to other players by ramming them -- and that makes them drop speed and lose cards, plus go off their course! If you miss, though, you'll be in front of them, giving them the chance to ram you.
Then there are events. Resolved before movement, events tend to be bad -- and major events tend to be very bad. Players may lose their equipment or have their speed reduced to 1. A giant amoeba or acid cloud may wander looking for ships to attack. And the dreaded Black Hole requires a substantial amount of maneuvering to pass by.
I've played racing games with no combat and racing games that have almost nothing but combat, and The Great Space Race combines the best of both these worlds. It's great to smash into another ship, or drop a mine directly in their path, but you're far more likely to win by going the fastest than through combat. (In the last game I played, no player lost their ship.) Much like Roborally, The Great Space Race has players planing their movement at the start of their turn -- and sometimes paying for it when unforseen obstacles appear. (Most players use their command counters to turn, avoiding walls or other onstacles.) Maintenance cards are a gamble, as they can give you something very useful or quite useless -- but you'll be sititng still for a turn while installing it.
The Great Space Race has what I'd call a medium level of difficulty, and each game takes 2-3 hours to play. It's very worth it: This is a balanced game with a near-perfect blend of strategy and luck. It's cutthroat, it's fun, and win or lose, you'll have a great time! Though your species may not think so if you lose...
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

Jim's Cure for the Common Carol

I must confess: I've never been a fan of Christmas carols. Many are played ad nauseum, most are intensely sappy, and from November on, they're fairly omnipresent. Bring me the head of Dominick the Christmas Donkey!

Ahem. Anyway, while I don't particularly enjoy this branch of music, I do love a variety of music -- and many of my favorite artists have both tackled traditional tunes and come up with their own original songs. And so, many years, ago, I made a mix cd called The Cure for the Common Carol, my alternative music collection for a stereotypical time of year. There have been countless Christmas albums since I made my mix, but I believe it holds up very well. If you can find these songs, enjoy!

James Lynch

* * *

The Cure for the Common Carol

The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack: What's This?
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairytale of New York
Kate Bush: December Will Be Magic Again
Aimee Mann and Michael Penn: Christmastime
The Arrogant Worms: Santa's Gonna Kick Your Ass
Fountains of Wayne: I Want an Alien for Christmas
Graham Parker: Christmas Is for Mugs
Enya: Oiche Chiun (Silent Night)
Syd Straw: Christmas Twist
Blink-182: I Won't Be Home for Christmas
South Park: Christmastime in Hell
Robert Downey, Jr.: River
Dar Williams: The Christians and the Pagans
The Kinks: Father Christmas
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Christmas at Ground Zero
The Pretenders: 2000 Miles
XTC: Thanks for Christmas
John Wesley Harding: Talking Christmas Goodwill Blues
Frank Zappa: Don't Eat the Yellow Snow
Cocteau Twins: Frosty the Snowman
John Wesley Harding: When Southern Bells Ring (Here Comes XMas)
Shawn Colvin: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Týr, Land (Napalm Records, 2008)

A couple of months ago I reviewed the 2006 album Ragnarok, by the band Týr. Hailing from the remote Faroe Islands in the northeastern corner of the Atlantic Ocean, Heri Joensen (guitar and vocals), Terji Skibenæs (guitar), Gunnar H. Thomsen (bass), and Kári Streymoy (drums) combine heavy metal with the Celtic and Nordic musical traditions that shaped the culture of their homelands. The band just released a new album called Land. Like Ragnarok, Land is a concept album; the songs this time around relate tales of voyages across the sea.

Land begins rather ominously, with a Faroese lyric composed by the Islands' most famous poet, J. H. O. Djurhuus. The poem is actually a spell, cast by the sorceror Trond to protect the Faroe Islands and their pagan culture against Norse invaders intent on Christianizing the Islands. The leader of this force, a Faroese native named Sigmund, is an actual historical figure. The poem is recited over a traditional Faroese tune played not by the band, but by a string quartet. Faroese tunes like this one mash the Nordic and Celtic influences together, resulting in a style that sounds somewhat familiar yet is very complex rhythmically. The band kicks in after the poem is done, turning the Faroese melody into a heavy metal riff that becomes the dominant musical theme on the album.

The subsequent songs on the album follow the lead of the opening piece. Voyagers from places like Scotland and Norway and from many different historical moments cross paths with the Faroese people. Sometimes the voyages involve a confrontation, and sometimes the voyages involve an escape from hardship and the quest for a new life elsewhere. More songs on Land are sung in Faroese than there were on Ragnarok, which was sung mostly in English. The lyrics borrow heavily from Faroese poems and legends, and also from a Norwegian poem written by Edvard Storm in the eighteenth century called "Sinklars Vísa (The Ballad of Sinclair)." Featuring some excellent group vocals, this particular song recalls the brutal ambush of an army of Scottish mercenaries who were hired by the Danes to fight the Norwegians. The two songs mostly in English, "Ocean" and "Land," are both epic pieces lasting over ten minutes.

While I don't think the underlying concept was quite as effective on Land as it was on Ragnarok, the album is still solid. Joensen's vocals are strong throughout, and the group harmonies were particularly well done. Týr's musical prowess should not be overlooked, either. Coupling the complexities of their homeland's traditional music with the volume and speed you'd expect from a heavy metal record is not an easy task. Týr are one of the most consistently fascinating bands that I'm aware of, and I look forward to hearing what they do next.

Land also contains a concert DVD filmed at a performance in 2007. The vocals weren't quite as tight live as they were on record, but otherwise the DVD is a fun bonus.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

"Sinklars Visa"



H.P. Lovecraft may have created cosmic horrors and eldritch tomes, but he also enjoyed the backwoods, inbred families hidden deep withinm the woods, developing far away from civilization. This latter element is the subject of The Hills Rise Wild! , a game from Pagan Publishing where players try to snatch the Necronomicon and and summon their evil god -- or destroy their opponents in the process.

Each player controls six members of an evil faction: the Marsh clan, the Whateley Clan, the DeGhoule Clan, or the Cult of Ezekiel . The characters are represented with small cardboard counters, and players have sheets with each character's stats (attack and defensive bonuses, life, movement, sometimes ammo), abilities, and special abilities that can be used once per game.

All factions are after the Necronomicon, left behind when Old Wizard Whateley died. The board, made up of individual tiles, has 12 shacks, the Whateley Mansion (with four rooms), and assorted trees and terrain. Each shack and room of the Whateley Mansion has a mystery card: Some are items, some are events, and they can help or hurt the characters. When a player finds and picks up Thuh Great Whateley Seal from a shack, they can unlock the Whateley Mansion (for all players). When a player inside the Mansion finds the card Ah Found Thuh Necronomicon, that player can bring it back to their home tile and try and summon their god, thus winning the game.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, combat often determines the winner. Each turn after a player moves their characters they can attack -- and they will! After calculating such factors as range, facing, attack and defense bonuses, and if a character is stunned, slammed, or unconscious, the attacker rolls a 20-sided die, to see if they hit and, if they do, for damage. While players can take several hits before dying, it's not uncommon for a vulnerable character to get ganged up on; and the Brutal Damage Table is very aptly named.

The Hills Rise Wild! may seem atypical for a work based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, but it's actually in keeping with Lovecraft's mythos. There is plenty of humor in this game, which is plenty dark (such as the tokens showing the characters that got killed) and good for quite a few laughs. Gameplay works very well: The combat system is easy to follow, the factions are all unique but well balanced, and while sometimes The Hills Rise Wild! can degenerate into a slugfest, wise players can use strategy to have one character make a mad dash to their home tile while the other characters run interference.
The front cover of The Hills Rise Wild! describes it as "a frenzied fury of hillbilly horror!" and that summarizes this silly, gory, and extremely fun game very well. Sadly, the expansion The Re-Animated never got released -- but that's my only complaint with The Hills Rise Wild! If you want a great combat game that also captures a lighter side of H.P. Lovecraft, find a copy of The Hills Rise Wild!
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch


Zeitgeist - Bruce Sterling (2000)

The best science fiction books sometimes seem prescient, such as the moment in Zeitgeist where Bruce Sterling name checks Osama bin Laden. In a book published in 2000. (Not that he's predicting 9/11 or anything, but it's still jarring to read and it made me double check the publication date.) Zeitgeist is full of odd little moments like that as the narrative careens across the world, mostly in Turkey and Hawaii but with sidetrips through Mexico and the US Southwest. The book is a complex, slightly hallucinatory, and obscure meditation on the nature of life and history as understood by the twentieth century on the eve of Y2K. It works surprisingly well given what sounds at first blush like an unwieldy premise.

Our protagonist, Leggy Starlitz, is running a scam in Turkey, pushing a Spice Girls ripoff called G-7. Step by step, Sterling shifts his setting from what seems to be a rather tawdry part of the real world, into an even more tawdry alternative history. Things get stranger in minute increments and it's hard to tell exactly where reality runs off the rails. It reads like a caper novel on acid. French philosophy starts to make an appearance along with discussions about the consensual nature of reality and the lack of any objective reality.

In many ways, the book is sort of a hard science version of Jasper Fford's "Bookworld" series (one of which I reviewed here), asking questions about the nature of reality and fiction. "History is written by the winners" is not just a pithy aphorism in this book, it's literal truth.

As usual, Sterling writes well and manages to pack these ideas into a rollicking good read. Zeitgeist is one of his best books, pulling you seductively into a world which is just not quite right ...

Overall Grade: A-


The Raconteurs Consolers of the Lonely (Third Man Records, 2008)

The Raconteurs are something of anomaly in rock music in the sense that the band is a side project for its four members. The most famous Raconteur is Jack White, the singer, guitarist, and occasional keyboardist for The White Stripes. But the other members have separate careers as well; Brendan Benson (vocals, guitar, keyboards) has made several solo albums, and Jack Lawrence (bass) and Patrick Keeler (drums) are part of a band called The Greenhornes. Consolers of the Lonely is The Raconteurs' second album.

Jack White may have built his reputation on creating a sound that's even more minimalist than punk -- The White Stripes are basically a power trio minus the bass player -- but with The Raconteurs he settles comfortably into a more standard two guitar, bass, and drums configuration. He and Benson share the vocals throughout the disc. This is a good thing in my estimation, as I've never considered White's voice to be a selling point. The sound on Consolers of the Lonely leans heavily towards anthemic classic rock, with a few loud rave-ups thrown in for good measure. Several of the songs, most notably "The Switch and the Spur," feature dramatic shifts in the mood part of the way in.

I sort of have mixed feelings about Consolers of the Lonely on the whole. On one hand, it sounds like the kind of album that would have become a staple of classic rock radio had it been made thirty or more years ago. On the other hand, I think their general approach sounds a little bit dated now. I like my share of bands with something of a retro sound, like The Soundtrack of Our Lives for example. But that particular band is more melodic than The Raconteurs, with a bit more emphasis on musicality and less on volume, and I guess that's why they sound fresher to me.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

"Salute Your Solution"


BETTIE PAGE 1923-2008

Bettie Page, possibly America's most famous pin-up model, passed away this week.

Page began posing for photos in the 1940s, and by the 1950s her image was omnipresent. She posed in swimsuits, did fashion photography, became infamous for her bondage and s&m photos, and appeared in the then-young magazine Playboy.

Page retired from modeling in the 1950s, but she enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s. She was often painted by brillinant cheesecake artist Olivia De Berardinis, and there was a movie made about her life: The Notorious Bettie Page, with Gretchen Mol portraying the famous model.

Bettie Page was as famous as Marilyn Monroe, and it's been suggested that Page helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She will be missed.
James Lynch


The Wilk Are Among Us - Isidore Haiblum (1975)

The Wilk Are Among Us is the rather misleading, but funny and eye-catching, title of this rather eccentric but charming book by Isidore Haiblum. The "wilk" are just one of five different alien species that have members stranded on Earth by a bizarre "transmitter malfuction." One of them, the tentacled Leonard, must try to save the planet from the terrible threat of the "wilk," which look like humans, the "nill," and their fearsome mind control powers, the "hunter," with its ability to inflame violence in others, and a mysterious hairy being that no one can identify. Leonard takes on the shape of a wilk-like human and sets off to save the world. The problem is, or rather, one of the problems is, that Leonard's not a solider or even a good field agent, he's a sociologist.

The story plays out with a variety of action-adventure or spy-thriller scenes, with a veneer of science-fiction and some gently funny social commentary mixed in. Fish-out-of-water Leonard faces aliens on Earth and beauracrats with office politics back at "home base." And, of course, humand are disgusting to look at, which doesn't help.

Leonard is a very engaging character, an outer-space nebbishy type, doing what he can while griping about it the whole time. The writing is fast-paced, as is the story, and the whole book just whirls right along. It's not great literature, but it's certainly a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Overall Grade: B

The Müller-Fokker Effect - John Sladek (1971)

Satire is a tricky business, and it tends not to age well. Some satire, like Dr. Strangelove or M.A.S.H., transcends the genre in some sense and remains enjoyable far beyond the usual satirical sell-by date. Most however starts to look dated pretty quickly, as soon as the social situation that is being commented on changes, and while it can be interesting as a period piece it is no longer the biting comedic tour de force that it once was. Such is the case of The Müller-Fokker Effect.

Don't get me wrong, there are parts of the book that I like pretty well and parts that remain funny nearly forty years after it was published, but the structure and episodes simply haven't worn well. The book is attempting to be a zany, spinning out of control, over-the-top weirdness fest, like some of Terry Southern's work in the same time period (such as The Magic Christian), with darkly comic elements like you find in some Vonnegut or Jules Feiffer, but the set pieces just don't hold up.

The plot, in short, is that an attempt is being made to digitize a human being, but the tapes containing the encoding are lost and dispersed. A variety of factions go hunting for them, but that's merely the mcguffin to allow a variety of eccentric characters to run all over the place engaging in bizarre behaviour. The book ultimately ends in more-or-less full blown race war.

Sladek is good writer, and some of his later work, books and stories not quite so pointedly satiric in tone, are still engaging and worth reading. The Müller-Fokker Effect, however, is only for completists or students of the time.

Overall Grade: D



Before Batman's cape and cowl were donned by Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, or even Adam West, he was played Lewis Wislon. Batman: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection gathers this 1943 World War 2 series that first gave us a live-action Batman.

This series has Batman/Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his young sidekick Robin/Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) fighting the minions of the evil Japanese villain Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carroll Naish), who uses everything from a radium-powered death ray to hypnotized super-strong victims. There's also Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) as Bruce Wayne's love interest, Martin Warren (Gus Glassmire) as Linda's uncle and early victim of Daka, and Alfred (William Austin) as a wimpy, "comical" butler to Batman and Robin.

Even if you attribute the omnipresent racism of this series to the time it was made (you'll be hard-pressed to find a more offensive stereotype of the Japanese than Dr. Daka), there are numerous other problems with this Batman serial collection. The budget was so low that Batman and Robon's costumes look like they were made of felt, the "Bat's Cave" (yes, that's what they call it) is a cave with a desk in it, and the "Batmobile" is a normal car, with Alfred driving it. Worse, the fight sequences are repetitive, with Batman and Robin punching out the same thugs repeatedly, while getting beat up by the same thugs. And remember the movie Misery where Annie complained that she hated cliffhangers where a hero would be in peril at the end of an episode, then the next episode would add a scene showing why they weren't in peril? That happens in every episode here! Also, why is the government giving Bruce Wayne top-secret assignments? Does the government know Batman's secret identity?

Batman: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection has a few good touches -- Batman assuming the disguise of gangster Chuck White, foreshadowing his "Mathces" Malone disguise; Dr. Daka speculating that there are multiple Batmen since he keeps escaping death -- but overall it's more painful that entertaining. Fans of the Batman character might be curious to see this earliest live version of the Caped Crusader, but you'll be more entertained with the Tim Burton films, Batman: The Dark Knight, or even Batman: The Animated Series. This version is far too clunky, dopey, and repetitive.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch


Ljova and the Kontraband, Mnemosyne (Kapustnik Records, 2008)

The violist Ljova first came to my attention when he joined the superb Brooklyn-based gypsy band Romashka a few years ago. Although I know him from folk circles, Ljova's musical background is extremely diverse; the list of performers he's worked with includes both Yo-Yo Ma and Jay-Z. I was actually the first person to publish a review of Ljova's debut CD Vjola: World on Four Strings. That album featured Ljova, almost exclusively, multi-tracking several different viola parts for each tune. On his new album Mnemosyne, though, Ljova works with a backing group called the Kontraband, featuring Patrick Farrell on accordion, Mike Savino on bass, and Matthias Kunzli on percussion. A couple of tracks also feature vocals from his wife, Romashka's singer Inna Barmash.

As with his first album, Ljova composed all the music himself. The tunes on Vjola: World on Four Strings alternated between folk music of a mostly eastern European feel and darker, more impressionistic pieces. The tunes on Mnemosyne are generally more consistently structured, although a few of them include a breakdown in the rhythm and melody to allow for Ljova and Farrell to do some heavy experimentation. Ljova displays some serious skill as both a composer and player throughout the disc, but he definitely has a playful side as well. Often this side manifests itself in the tune titles -- my two favorite instrumentals on the disc are called "Love Potion, Expired" and "Crutchahoy Nign"-- but the music itself often unpredictably bounces off on some fun tangents.

Inna Barmash is comfortable singing in a number of different languages, to the extent that it was a bit surprising at first to hear her sing in English on two of her three songs. But she does a particularly good job on the song "Mnemosyne," a poem by Trumbull Stickney that Ljova set to music. She sings in Yiddish on the traditional Yiddish song called "Koyl." Her last song, the very tongue-in-cheek love song "Gone Crazy," was written for her by Ljova and done in the style of an American mid-1900's standard.

Ljova is a unique and intriguing performer, and Mnemosyne is another broad exploration of the many facets of his personality in general and his musical tastes in particular. As was the case with his first offering, the new album is so diverse that it may be hard for one person to like everything on it. But any music fan will probably find at least a few tracks that pique their interest.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Ljova and an early version of the Kontraband performing "Bagel on the Malecon" at Joe's Pub in Manhattan.

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2009 The Green Man Review


Kouon Frouva, Askel Astuttavaksi (Lempilevyt, 2007)

When I was up at the Maine Kantele Institute in August, guitarist Topi Korhonen introduced me to a whole bunch of music from the current Finnish folk scene, including several bands which he's involved with. One such band is Kouon Frouva. In addition to Topi, the band also includes Värttinä's Lassi Logrén on fiddle, Jarmo Romppanen on mandolin and mandola, Jani Snellman on bass, and Silvo Vatanen on flute. Their album is called Askel Astuttavaksi, which means "step by step" in Finnish. Jarmo Romppanen handles most of the songwriting, but Korhonen and Logrén share the vocals with him.

This album is a bit unusual for a Scandinavian folk recording, in that there's a heavy emphasis on male group vocals. You might think that the masculine voices would result in a more aggressive sound than is typical for Finnish folk, but in fact the opposite is true. In contrast to the high, harsh harmonizing of a band like Värttinä, Kouon Frouva is laid back, subdued, and jazzy in a mellow sort of way. The voices blend together nicely and pleasantly throughout. Likewise, the musicians are all solid players as well. There's some especially nice interplay between the guitar and mandola on "Olet Sankari," for example, but I'm partial to that sort of thing.

Askel Astuttavaksi
does not have a real standout track, but the whole album has a really cool groove to it. While the mellowness might take some getting used to, this is definitely the kind of album that grows on you with repeated listenings.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Twilight (Summit Entertainment, 2008)

The movie Twilight, based on a novel by Stephenie Meyer, tells the story of a teenage girl named Bella and a vampire, Edward, who fall for each other. Kristen Stewart (Panic Room) stars as Bella and Robert Pattingson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as the Jim-Stark-esque bloodsucker.

Clearly, the leads are invested in doing a good job and yield earnest performances. Their portrayals walk the difficult line between "brooding" and appearing to be falling in love. Bella's friends from high school complement the leads with their perkiness, particularly Eric (Justin Chon) and Jessica (Anna Kendrick). Although romance is at the film's center, action arises in the form of a sports game as well as in the form of a fight sequence, the latter as Edward and his family rally to protect Bella from a vicious, out-of-town vampire. The scenery is terrific; highlights include forests of the Pacific Northwest and stately, 70-year-old Kalama High School, moodily captured on overcast days.

On the down side, there are some plot holes. For example, Edward uses his secret superpowers to save Bella from being crushed by a car in view of numerous kids, yet no one besides Bella becomes curious. Later in the film, after Edward's family thoughtfully prepares a meal for Bella on the occasion of formally meeting her, she declines because she already ate. Surely a hopelessly lovestruck gal would compromise to show some appreciation -- maybe have a salad and samples. Of course, some reason was needed for the one family member who's skeptical of the liaison to "snap" and voice her disapproval, but that could've been woven in more skillfully. And, during the fight sequence, Bella is seriously injured: hit, bitten, sent careering over jagged shards of broken mirror. Shortly after, we see her hospitalized but not visibly much worse for the wear. In the most obvious sense, that would suggest she's superhuman like Edward (but I gather that's not the case). In at least these three spots, the plot could've been tightened up.

Despite the parts that ring false, these in my estimation seem "innocent" enough not to detract that much from the overall picture. The earnest lead performances are what's most obvious, and if you allow yourself to go with them you may have a li'l harmless vampire fun.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by David Nofer



Tonight, December 3rtd, is the Victoria's Secret 2009 Fashion Show. I doubt there's anything I can say about this one when I wrote about last year's special here (except the featured singer is Usher), but since that means more hot women strutting their stuff down a catwalk in designer lingerie, truly repetition can be a good thing.

But why tell when I can show? Since lingerie is better seen than discussed, here are several photos from the show. What else can I say, but...


James Lynch

A Trio of Tales from Creeping Hemlock Press

I recently received three publications from Creeping Hemlock Press. These tales were dark, disturbing, fairly brief, and pretty original.

The Shallow End of the Pool by Adam-Troy Castro may be the most extreme example of parents hashing out their differences through their kids. When two parents split up, the father took and raised their daughter Jenny and the mother did the same for Ethan. But the children were raised, trained, and even medicated to destroy each other. When the kids are 16, their parents (who Jenny only calls "Daddy" and "the Bitch") take them to the desert, bind their arms behind them and gag them, seal them in an empty swimming pool (the top covered with a wire fence), and leave them to kill each other.

This 56-page tale is very brutal and surprisingly involving. Everything is told from Jenny's point of view, and she is both aware what her parents are doing to them while still struggling to please her father. The Shallow End of the Pool pulls no punches, leaving the reader feeling sickened, shocked, and having experienced something very, very original.

The other two short stories (called "chapbooks" by Creeping Hemlock Press) are two tales of zombies. Thin Them Out, written by Kim Paffenroth, R.J. Sevin, and Julie Sevin, looks at the aftermath of the aftermath of the zombie invasion from two sides. Human survivors battle against zombies and -- as so often happens in these tales -- each other. Alternating with their plight is a nameless zombie who wanders while flashes of his former life pop in and out of his head. This is a pretty grim story, though there is some some gallows humor (the zombie uses a hole in his chest to carry some items) .

The third tale is Flesh Is Fleeting... Art Is Forever! by Gary A. Braunbeck. Pretty much straight comedy (with some gore tossed in), this tale is a parody of pretentiousness. Written as a review in the "Arts and Entertainment" section by a Wendell Shakelton-Bailey III, this story is a snob's take on the first post-apocalyptic zombie classical music concert. There's little subtlety here -- the subtitle is "Some Bullshit Will Continue Even After the Dead Wipe Us Out" -- but there are plenty of chuckles as the critic looks down his nose at everyone "common" and revels at the ingenuity of the decomposing orchestra.

Overall grades:

The Shallow End of the Pool: A-
Thin Them Out: B-
Flesh Is Fleeting... Art Is Forever! B

Reviewed by James Lynch