Frigg, Grannen (Frigg, 2010)

Over the past decade, Frigg have become one of the mainstays in the New Nordic Folk scene. The group have combined the Finnish pelimanni tradition of groups like JPP and the Norwegian hardanger fiddle tradition with touches of Celtic and bluegrass to produce a sound that is melodic, energetic, and fun. Now Esko Järvelä, Alina Järvelä, Einar Olav Larsen, Tero Hyväluoma, Tommi Asplund (all fiddle), Tuomas Logrén (guitar, dobro, mandolin), Petri Prauda (cittern and mandolin) and Antti Järvelä (bass) return with their fourth album Grannen, a new set of instrumentals very much in keeping with what the band have done in the past.

Grannen picks up right where Frigg's previous CD Economy Class left off, with a similar mix of fast and relaxed, and serious and playful. The playing, as usual, is solid throughout. The catch is that if you're familiar with Frigg, then you know exactly what to expect. The one track on Grannen that represents any sort of departure for Frigg is the waltz "Amurin tiikeri," on which Frigg add drums and a horn section. It is the album's biggest highlight for me largely because of its novelty; much of the rest of the album, by contrast, sounds a bit too familiar.

Still, if Frigg seem reluctant to stray too far from a basic formula, it's because the formula has worked well for them, and there are some good examples of the basic Frigg sound on Grannen. Certainly, the opening track "Potatisvals" is vintage Frigg. "Bussen," near the end ofthe CD, is a fine Scandinavian jig. (Jigs and reels aren't nearly as common as waltzes, polskas, and schottishes in Nordic fiddling, but they do pop up from time to time.) And the extended set of polskas "Patana Sunset/Hölökyn Kölökyn" builds up very nicely over the course of seven minutes. So while I was hoping for something a bit more adventurous, Grannen does have enough good moments to keep Frigg's fans interested.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott




America is a wondrous place, with tremendous diversity and accomplishments from coast to coast. And who better to explore this nation than a redneck comedian? Well, that's the take the History Channel goes with on their new show Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy.

Larry the Cable Guy is the tour guide, commentator, and participant in a wide range of places and activities across America. Each episode takes Larry to three different locations, where he talks with experts and gets some hands-on experience with the subject. In the two episodes the History Channel sent the Armchair Critic, Larry: visits the NASA center in Houston; goes on rides at the nation's largest water park in Wisconsin; impersonates himself at a celebrity impersonator show in Las Vegas; makes moonshine in Georgia (and learns how moonshine led to NASCAR); gets etiquette lessons from the grandson of Emily Post in Vermont; and enters a frog-jumping contest in California.

Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy is a bit like getting a history lesson from the class clown. Larry doesn't break character, cracking jokes and remaining lowbrow for most of the show -- and that can get irritating. At the same time, he does convey a sense of appreciation and even wonder at the achievements and people that he comes across during the show. It's far from a perfect mix, but Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy is an affectionate, sometimes too-goofy look at "all the things that make this country great."

Overall grade: B-
Reviewed by James Lynch


If you see two pop stars from the 1980s (and one from the 1960s), cheesy CGI monsters, and an incoherent story, it can only mean one thing: a Syfy Channel original movie. This time around it's Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, which pits giant snakes against giant gators -- and Debbie Gibson against Tiffany.

Animal-rights activist Nikki (Debbie Gibson -- oops, Deborah Gibson) frees some pythons from a lab into the waters of the Florida Everglades. They start killing off the alligator population, so police officer Terry (Tiffany) does the logical thing: opens hunting season for pythons, so drunk rednecks can wander around shooting. When that ingenious plan doesn't work (and Terry's fiancee winds up as python food), she comes up with a more ingenious plan: inject raw chickens with anabolic steroids and experimental growth chemicals, then feed them to the alligators! What could go wrong?

Judging by Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, everything could go wrong -- and did. It's no surprise that neither Ms. Gibson nor Tiffany can act, but the talented A. Martinez and Kathryn Joosten are wasted here. Syfy Channel may have established a niche for CGI critters eating humans and battling each other, but seeing fake snakes and alligators (what exactly is a gatoroid, anyway?) chomping on people and lumbering/slithering around gets old very quickly. There's also very little entertainment from Ms. Gibson and Tiffany insulting each other, dropping titles from their songs into their dialogue, and having a catfight-food fight. And what's Mickey Dolenz from the Monkees doing in this?

Mega Python vs. Gatoroid. I saw it, so you don't have to.

Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch



Professional ballet entails a lot of competitiveness -- but madness too? This is the theme of Black Swan, a none-too-subtle melodrama about sanity and Swan Lake.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a shy member of a New York City ballet company. When its artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) retires the company star Beth (Winona Ryder), he decides the next performance will be a radical version of Swan Lake, with the lead dancer playing both the innocent, doomed White Swan and the evil, sexual Black Swan. And the lead goes to Nina.

Unfortunately, Nina has more issues than a magazine stand. She lives with her supportive-yet-smothering mother Erica (Barbare Hershey), a former dancer. Thomas tells Nina that she is technically perfect but needs more passion; he tries to bring this out through sexual comments -- and actions. New company member Lily (Mila Kunis) seems to be the opposite of Lily: less technically sound, but more passionate. And Nina may or may not be scratching and cutting herself. Then there are those pesky hallucinations...

Nina, like her new role, has multiple sides. If this isn't made clear through the dialogue, the near-omnipresent mirrors reflecting Nina's image will drive that point home. So will the jarring blasts of music and quick chords that go along with every surprise, fear, or vision that Nina has: being chased, plucking feathers out of her back, sexual encounters, etc.

Natalie Portman is a fine actor, but here the situations and dialogue seem so blown up that Black Swan is more silly than suspenseful. Since there's no real mystery or building-up of the hallucinations, there's not a crescendo of madness as much as a continuation. The dancing is beautiful, and Mila Kunis is a nice, relaxed foil to the neurotic performance of Portman, but Black Swan has too much hysterical drama to be taken seriously.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch


THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

It's ironic that I lived on Long Island, NY for most of my life, yet I never read The Great Gatsby -- possibly the most famous book set on Long Island -- until after I moved away. Anyway, this classic is a wonderful portrait of not just Long Island, but the Long Island of the elite and doomed.

Set in the 1920s, The Great Gatsby is primarily the observations of Nick Carraway, a young man on the fringes of high society. He lives on one of the two egg-shaped lands at the end of Long Island, across from the wealthier area -- and directly across from a monumental mansion. Nick's entry into the world of the elites is through Daisy (his second cousin once removed) and her husband Tom Buchanan, a hulking brute who barely conceals his affair with his mechanic's wife. Their friend Jordan Baker, a golf pro, becomes Nick's romantic interest.

Then there's Gatsby. His home -- the mansion across from Nick's rental -- always seems to be the focus point of parties, though most of the guests don't seem to know Gatsby himself. Gossip and mystery surround him -- from rumors that he's a bootlegger to stories that he killed a man -- and he seems more a presence than a person. At least, until he becomes part of Nick's social circle -- and Nick's good friend.

The Great Gatsby is an insider's look at what's behind the good life. In this book, Fitzgerald paints a vivid picture of the supposed high life -- where alcohol and gossip and money flow freely -- but behind it are the empty, sad, and even pathetic people who seem lost even while they smile. (Daisy's first words in the novel are "I'm p-paralyzed with happiness.") There are numerous contrasts here: light and darkness, the ash of the area between the "better" New York City and Gatsby's home, even the gulf between Gatsby's rumors and reality, and between his dreams and what he finds. The result is a sad, vivid, ultimately beautiful novel about the elites, for good and ill.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

RAVISHED by Amanda Quick

While I am normally not a reader of the romance novel, a discussion on this site piqued my curiosity about Ravished, a favorite among fans of Amanda Quick (a pseudonym of Jayne Ann Krentz). This historical romance is typical of the genre in some ways, though with a few distinct features.

Harriet Pomeroy is far from the typical romance heroine. Resigned to being an old maid (at the age of 24), she has no interest in society, manners, or marriage. Her biggest concern is fossils -- specifically, an unusual tooth discovered in the cave by the sea. When she also finds some stolen loot there, she calls on the owner of the lands to investigate and trap the thieves, so she can get back to her exploration.

Enter Gideon Westbrook, Viscount St. Justin. Known throughout the land as the Beast of Blackthorne Hall, this recluse is scarred, both physically (from a dueling injury) and socially (from rumors he got a parson's daughter pregnant and then refused to marry her, driving her to suicide). Naturally, he finds Harriet both exasperating and attractive, and after they wind up trapped in the cave overnight he decides society will assume he ravished her and so they must marry.

Ravished is, in many ways, the romance novel version of Beauty and the Beast: the seeming monster who's really not all that bad, and the woman who brings out the best in him. There are also some typical romance novel cliches (the attractive sister interested in society, the maid given to hysterics and fainting), not to mention estranged parents, a thieving mastermind, societal scandals (a waltz! really!), a completely evil villain, and the couple who can't quite admit how much they need or affect each other. There are some funny moments here too, such as the drunken fossil group's attempt to "rescue" Harriet, and the talkative Harriet's attempt to give her husband the silent treatment in public. And, of course, there's plenty of sex.

Ravished is a very quick read (I finished it in less than a day) and a simple one. But it does have its share of humor, and it's nice to see a historical romance where the female protagonist is more interested in science than husband-hunting.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch



Back in 1978 Saturday morning cartoons included what I thought was the coolest thing ever: Challenge of the SuperFriends, where several of D.C.'s biggest heroes battled the Legion of Doom every week. All sixteen of these episodes are collected on the DVD set Challenge of the SuperFriends: The First Season. Knowing that the present is often the enemy of nostalgia, I wondered if this childhood treasure would fare as well to my adult eyes.

For those who don't remember the show (or are too young to have seen it), the SuperFriends were Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman, Aquaman, plus the new, ethnically diverse characters Black Vulcan, Apache Chief ("Inek-Chuk!"), and Samurai. They usually waited in the Hall of Justice until the Trouble Alert told them of a crisis -- usually involving the Legion of Doom.

The Legion of Doom consisted of the SuperFriends' arch-enemies. They were led by Lex Luthor and included Brainiac, Bizarro, the Riddler, the Scarecrow, the Cheetah, the Toyman, Sinestro, Solomon Grundy, Captain Cold, Giganta, Black Manta, and Gorilla Grodd. Their headquarters, the Fortress of Doom, looked a lot like Darth Vader's helmet and could fly and shoot lasers (and occasionally travel through time and between dimensions). Most episodes opened with the Fortress of Doom rising from the swamp, then one Legion member would explain their multi-part plan to destroy the SuperFriends and conquer the universe. The SuperFriends would get trapped, escape, and capture the Legion of Doom -- until the next episode.

Challenge of the SuperFriends: The First Season is neither as good as I remembered nor as bad as I feared. If you're looking for mistakes, there's no shortage. Comic book fans will find plenty of goofs, like the Batplane traveling through time, the Flash flying, the Riddler summoning a giant rabbit, or Green Lantern's ring affecting yellow objects. Animation fans will note costumes suddenly changing color, Hawkman's wings disappearing, or other simple errors. And you don't need a science degree to know that humans can't survive in space in a basic jail cell, or the Earth and moon can't just be moved around without massive disruptions as a result, or a communication device can't be buried in prehistoric times and not only work until the present, but also go off at the exact time it needs to!

The "fights" are also odd: Apparently the network didn't want characters hitting each other for fears children would copy them, so most battles have characters picking each other up, giving each other bear hugs, or trapping them in a chandelier or other item. There's plenty of inconsistency in how character powers were used on the show. And the Legion of Doom adopted a one-use-only approach to their devices, as potentially useful items (like a death crystal, or a growth ray) were never used after their first episode.

Even with all its flaws, Challenge of the SuperFriends: The First Season has its good qualities also. Some episodes has interesting opening (like aliens visiting a post-apocalyptic Earth, or Batman's funeral), and some of the plans were clever. We also get to see the origin of some of the heroes and villains. And let's nor forget that this was effectively the first time we got to see the Justice League outside of the comics.

DVD extras include comic book writers Geoff Johns and Mark Waid providing commentary on two episodes (they seem to laugh at it as much as enjoy it), the special Saturday, Sleeping Bags and Super-Friends: A Retrospective, and character bios for every character in the SuperFriends and Legion of Doom.

If you're curious about what probably seemed like an amazing cartoon from childhood, or you're a massive fan of superheroes and animation, Challenge of the SuperFriends: The First Season is worth checking out. There are plenty of flaws with it, and the plotting and animation are far behind current superhero cartoons, but it can still be enjoyable as well.

Overall grade: C-
Reviewed by James Lynch



James Bond seems like the perfect action hero-spy -- lethal, suave, great with women, smart -- but what if he was also a dick? This is more or less the basis for Archer, an animated comedy about a dysfunctional spy working for a dysfunctional spy agency.

Sterling Archer (H. Jon Benjamin) is the chief spy at the International Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS), able to kill and complete missions with no problem. Except that he's amazingly selfish, often drunk, a chronic womanizer, and very juvenile. It doesn't help that ISIS is run by Malory Archer (Jessica Walter), Sterling's mother. Malory loves to make Sterling miserable (she gave him his codename "Duchess," after her favorite dog) and also loves to drink and get laid; in addition, she has a secret relationship with KGB Colonel Nikoli Jackov (Peter Newman).
The rest of ISIS isn't much better. Agent Lana Kane (Aisha Tyler) is Sterling's ex-girlfriend, who finds herself stuck on missions with him (and often shoots him). Lana is dating wimpy, clingy ISIS comptroller Cyril Figgis (Chris Parnell), who's jealous of Sterling. Pam (Amber Nash) is the human resources leader who's a hopeless gossip with a crush on Lana. Ditzy secretary Cheryl (Judy Greer) changes her name every week and likes to get strangled. And technical genius Dr. Krieger (Lucky Yates) is dark and creepy.

Archer uses the same type of animation (one or two characters will move a little and stand out against a flat background) and humor (lots of pauses, very politically incorrect) as creator Adam Reed's previous shows Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo. With Archer, it seems to work better. The voice talent is absolutely terrific, especially H. Jon Benjamin's laid back delivery as the title spy to Jessica Walters as the harpy of a mother who can be as bad as her irresponsible son. The dialogue is often risque, fairly bizarre, and very funny:

Lana: Have you noticed anything weird about Conway?
Sterling: Other than the fact that he's not circumcised?
Lana: Wow. Okay. Glossing over how you know that...
Sterling: We touched penises.
Lana: No! Glossing! Glossing!

The spy setting also provides lots of opportunities for comedy, such as when Sterling is sent to seduce a male enemy agent, the ISIS support staff pickets outside the secret headquarters, or rival agency ODIN hires away Sterling and Lana. And there's plenty of twisted goings-on inside ISIS, as when everyone gets caught up playing "marry, bang or kill."

Archer: The Complete Season One has the first ten episodes of the series plus a few extras: a behind-the-scenes look at the animation, plus a version of the pilot with a very different version of Sterling Archer. Archer can be as juvenile as its characters at times, but it's a demented comedy that just happens to be very funny too.

Overall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


BURLESQUE (the book)

Is it possible to dislike a work and still enjoy learning about how it was made? Absolutely! I disliked the movie Burlesque, yet the book Burlesque is a fine peek behind the curtain at all the visuals that went into the movie.

Burlesque is a photographic exploration of the movie, usually with commentaries from the people involved. The photos appear even before the book's introductions (from Cher and Christina Aguilera) and foreword (from writer-director Steve Astin), and they keep appearing, filling a page and sometimes spilling across adjacentpages. There are photos of all the movie's stars (you'll see a lot more of Kristen Bell and Julianne Hough here than you saw in the movie), plus the fashions, makeup, and even colors and lighting in the movie. Preliminary sketches sometimes appear next to the final results, showing the transition from planning to shooting.

Burlesque isn't just a picture book, though. Everything was done consciously, and the inspirations and reasons behind the choices are explained by the crew of the movie, from the costume and production designers to makeup artists and "department head, hair." Actors also share their recollections of the pictured scenes, as does Antin: "When planning a film, you can't shoot all the musical numbers back-to-back. They're a tremendous amount of work for the dancers and it would cause injuries. Plus, you'd wind up killing some of them."
Burlesque is an interesting visual trip into the different elements that went into the movie. While I found the film's story trite and predictable, it turns out that great care was taken to create an atmosphere relating to the characters' point in their stories. Burlesque is not a how-to guide for making a movie, or even how to stage a burlesque show, but it's a nice photographic trip down the making of this visually impressive film.

Overall grade: B
Reviewed by James Lynch
(proud to have the Armchair Critic's first hat trick of reviewing a related book, movie, and soundtrack!)


Superheroes are all the rage in movies, so it's no surprise that The Green Hornet radio show and television show got the big-screen treatment. Having Seth Rogen star in and co-write the movie is more surprising. The Green Hornet is largely a reflection of Rogen -- and that's often silly and often painful.

Rogen plays Britt Reid, a selfish, hedonistic womanizer and party animal who lives off his father James (Tom Wilkinson). James is the publisher of the newspaper The Daily Sentinel and concerned about the crime in Los Angeles -- and Britt's lack of concern. When James dies (of a bee sting, of all things), Britt inherits his father's newspaper, media empire, and possessions -- with little idea what to do with any of it.

Enter Kato (Jay Chou). Possibly the most overqualified character ever, Kato was James' mechanic and gets coffee for Britt, but he's actually a martial-arts master and mechanical genius. After a night of vandalism and saving a couple from muggers, Britt and Kato decide to be superheroes. But Britt decides they should pose as villains (so the actual villains won't threaten innocents to get to them) and uses The Daily Sentinel to make them, the Green Hornet and sidekick, infamous.

With the gadget-filled car the Black Beauty, Britt and Kato begin making disruptive waves in the underworld. This bothers crime boss Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz, so much better used in Inglourious Basterds), a thug with a double-barreled handgun and insecurities about what people think of him. Also along for the ride are: Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz), Britt's hot secretary who is more of a crime expert (and source of tension between Britt and Kato); district attorney Scanlon (David Harbour), who's not happy about the Green Hornet; and Axford (Edward James Olmos), the day-to-day publisher of The Daily Sentinel.

While The Green Hornet pays plenty of tribute to the original show, it's oddly like Rogen's stoner comedy Pineapple Express: Both movies feature Rogen as a "lovable" goofball who turns into an action hero at the end (with lots of violence). Rogen spends almost all of this movie as less of a hero (such as when he runs away, yelling "Every man for himself!") and more of a comic jerk, making The Green Hornet feel like a comedy trying to be an action movie.

The action isn't impressive, Kato's martial arts view is an odd mix of a Terminator's targeting system and bullet-time from The Matrix, and 3-D has never been so inessential as it is here. Jay Chou is good as the ultra-talented Kato, but most of the cast feels like they're going through the motions. And how is it that the Green Hornet and Kato don't deliberately kill anyone, yet seem perfectly fine with all the bodies that pile up in their wake?

The Green Hornet has some laughs here and there, but overall it's neither funny nor exciting enough to be a solid addition to the canon of good superhero movies.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch


Gerry Rafferty, 1947-2011

Gerry Rafferty was a gifted Scottish singer-songwriter. He had two major hits in his career, the first of which was "Stuck in the Middle with You" as a member of the group Stealers Wheel, and the second of which was "Baker Street" as a solo artist. For a more detailed look at his music, I'll refer you the review of his greatest hits CD Days Gone Down that I posted here in 2006. I suggested at the time that he was probably living quietly somewhere enjoying his low profile, having been largely out of the music business since the early 80s, but I guess the truth is never that simple. Rafferty suffered from a crippling drinking problem that led to divorce, a series of embarrassing public incidents that became tabloid fodder, and ultimately, liver and kidney failure. He passed away yesterday, at the age of 63.

Rafferty was one of the first Scotsmen to enjoy major chart success, but there was more to his career than the two big hits. He was one of the most eclectic performers in rock, mixing in elements of folk (both "folk" as its most conventionally defined and the folk music of his native Scotland) and jazz. And as Days Gone Down shows, he had quite a few good songs in his repertoire. Still, "Baker Street" stands out for the unforgettable sax part played by Raphael Ravenscroft.

It's a great shame that alcoholism wrecked his personal reputation and then claimed his life as well. That old story gets repeated far too often. But Gerry Rafferty accomplished a lot of good things in his life as well, and leaves behind an enviable legacy of music. Hopefully people will look on that and remember him fondly.

"Stuck in the Middle with You"

"Baker Street"



Sure, we've all seen horror movies. We've all laughed at how stupid the characters are, and how they should do this and shouldn't have done that. But what if you find yourself in a horror movie? What if the aliens are invading, that doll really did move, or the masked figure with an ax is behind you right now??? Fear not (okay, fear a good deal), because there's a guide to surviving the Terrorverse! How to Survive a Horror Movie by Seth Grahame-Smith (author of the relevant Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) (and the far less relevant
The Big Book of Porn
) has tips on everything from killing vampires to performing an exorcism to dealing with that haunted house you live in.

After determining if you're in a horror movie ("Does everything look slightly grainy? This could indicate that you're being shot on film. Or that you're developing cataracts. Either way, not good.") and what sort of horror movie it is, How to Survive a Horror Movie gets into giving you survival tips. After some general advice (the six C.R.A.V.E.N. steps and the Seven Deadly Horror Movie Sins), the chapters go into genres (slashers, inanimate objects, aliens) and sub-genres for each one ("What to Do if Your Corn Has Children in It," "How to Survive a Night of Babysitting," "How to Tell If You've Been Dead Since the Beginning of the Movie"). There are also "Ejection Seat" tips for desperate escapes, random lists ("The Toolshed Arsenal," "Are You in a Sequel?") and even an extremely, er, original way to defeat Satan. How to Survive a Horror Movie also has an introduction/apology from Wes Craven, a list of horror movies to watch, and "Five Completely Inessential Horror Movies."

How to Survive a Horror Movie is a terrific tongue-in-cheek love letter to the horror movie genre. Grahame-Smith has clearly seen and loved the best and the worst of horror movies, and instead of dryly listing the rules and pitfalls he presents them as a survival guide. The advice is insanely over the top ("shoot first, never bother asking questions"), as is the commentary on the characters and situations ("Take some busty teenage girls, add an escaped mental patient, and you've got the romantic comedy hit of the summer! Just kidding. He kills them all.") If you've enjoyed or hater the horror genre, you'll find plenty to laugh at here. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go wander around in the cemetery in the dark on the anniversary of the insane killer's death...

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

Rihanna, LOUD

Rihanna has come full circle. After getting popular with radio-friendly pop on albums like Good Gone Gone Bad: Reloaded, she channeled her public abuse from Chris Brown into the darker album Rated R. Loud, Rihanna's newset album, returns the singer to (mostly) light pop.

I'm not entirely sure where the title for the new album comes from. There are a few songs where Rihanna yells as much as she sings, but for the most part Loud is the usual mix of up-tempo pop tunes and slower ballads.

If Loud is about anything, it's about Rihanna and men. The songs are mostly about sex ("s&m," "skin"), dating ("What's My Name?" "Only Girl (in the World"), relationship problems (the touching "California King Bed," "Fading," "Complicated"), and even how available and disposable men are ("Raining Men"). These songs are enjoyable, if somewhat typical.

As for the other songs, "Cheers (Drink to That)" is a celebration of the alcohol-filled weekends (though more sedate than Pink's "Raise Your Glass") and "Man Down" would be a serious song about killing someone -- if it didn't have a light, breezy reggae melody to it. The exception is the jarring final song, "Love the Way You Lie (part II) with Eminem. This stands out as far more serious, depressing, and substantial than anything else on Loud.

Rihanna's Loud is decent, but for the most part she's still settling for routine pop songs. While this album has mostly good songs, it's not until the last song that Rihanna shows what she's really capable of.

Overall grade: C+
Reviewed by James Lynch


Top 10 Albums of 2010

2010 has come and gone, and I got to hear a healthy amount of quality music. The bottom half of this year's top 10 list was pretty hard to sort out, as there were more worthy candidates than available spots. I can't promise that I wouldn't change the list if I wrote it up again tomorrow. Anyway, Happy New Year, and let's hope for more good stuff in 2011.

10. Red Priest, Johann, I'm Only Dancing: I learned much less about the music of J. S. Bach in the music courses I took in high school and college than I did from listening to this CD.

9. Vilma Timonen Quartet, Forward: And they do move forward, thanks to more vocals.

8. Simon Fagan, Outside Looking In: This one gets bonus points for overall consistency.

7. Vampire Weekend, Contra: Another band gets better the second time around.

6. Amadou & Mariam, Welcome to Mali: It's the kind of album that will annoy a purist. But purists tend to miss out on a lot of good music.

5. The National, High Violet: The last two songs, "England" and "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," really pushed this album up the list.

4. Ozomatli, Fire Away: Some people will complain that they've gotten more commercial, but they've also gotten more musical and still have the same energy.

3. Richard Thompson, Dream Attic: From the 60s to the 10s. That makes six decades during which he's made essential music.

2. Johnny Clegg, Human: Like Richard Thompson, he's aged well, and deserves a much bigger following.

1. Jesca Hoop, Hunting My Dress: Definitely the most original recording I've heard in a while, and she backs up her originality with some quality songwriting.



There be treasure waitin' for ye, arrrrrrrr! And there be enemies waitin' too! Pirate Versus Pirate is a game where players send their pirates out to collect coins and attack their opponents.

Pirate Versus Pirate is similar to Ninja Versus Ninja in that both give you six units, you roll four-sided dice to move, and combat is one of the two ways to win. (They're also both from Out of the Box Games and illustrated by John Kovalic.) The main differences, apart from the pirate theme, is that Pirate Versus Pirate can be played with two or three players, and both work equally well.

In Pirate Versus Pirate the players face off on a triangular board. In a two-player game each player's pirates start at their rowboat in two corners of the board, while the four treasures (three silver pieces, one gold piece) are in the third corner; with three players, each player gets a corner and the treasures are in the center of the board.

On a player's turn they roll the dice (two four-siders, with bones and skulls on them) and move one pirate that many spaces. Pirates have to move the full roll, they only move to adjacent triangles, they can't move onto a triangle more than once in a turn (no backtracking!), and they can't pass through other pirates. If a pirate can end their turn on the space of an opponent's pirate, the opponent's piece is removed from the game. You can win by being the last pirate standing.

You can also win with treasure! The first player to get two silver pieces, or the one gold piece, to their rowboat wins. However, this has its share of challenges. When a pirate moves on or over a space with a coin, that pirate picks up the coin. Once a pirate has a coin, though, it can't attack other pirates, collect other coins, or move onto a space with another coin. The pirate can drop it off at his side's rowboat -- but has to end their move on the rowboat space designated for that coin. And while a pirate can abandon a coin on the board, they have to do so at the start of their move -- and they can't get a new coin or attack another pirate during that turn.

I really like how Pirate Versus Pirate took the core mechanics of Ninja Versus Ninja and changed enough to make a very different game. Getting treasures is very challenging, from clearing a path to the rowboat to clearing a path to the gold coin (it always starts blocked by silver coins) to protecting the pirate with the treasure since they can't attack. There's skill in figuring out when to attack or when to go treasure hunting, and luck in the roll of the dice. Pirate Versus Pirate is pretty quick, easy to learn yet challenging too, and a lot of fun.

Ovarrrrrrrall grade: B+
Reviewed by James Lynch


The Ditty Bops, The Color Album (Ditty Bops Music, 2010)

The Los Angeles wife-and-wife duo of Amanda Barrett (vocals and guitar) and Abby DeWald (vocals and mandolin), collectively known as The Ditty Bops, were one of my favorite musical acts from the preceding decade. They have three full-length albums under their belts, but they've also released three EPs on their own label. The most recent of these, The Color Album, is a quick, 17-minute collection of eight short songs associated in some way with the colors of the rainbow (plus a bonus color, pink).

The songs on The Color Album have sparse arrangements, featuring mostly Barrett's guitar and maybe one or two other instruments. Even the harmonies are scaled back, as Barrett and DeWald emphasize their solo vocals here. But if The Color Album is a bit lighter than a typical Ditty Bops recording, it still shows off the same catchy charm their fans have come to expect. There are a couple of gems here as well, especially "Evergreen," a song about a female faerie spirit who comes around every January to bring discarded Christmas trees back to life. The last two songs, "Seventh Ray" (about colors beyond violet) and "Pink City" (a celebration of the color pink that the American Cancer Society should strongly consider adopting), are a lot of fun as well.

The Color Album may not quite match the very high standard that The Ditty Bops have set with their full-length offerings, but it's a fun little diversion. It's available for download at a very generous price, and fans of the band will definitely find it worth their while.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

A live performance of "Under the Orange Sun"