Thursday, February 23, 2012

Richard X. Heyman - Actual Sighs

This album is a re-release of Richard X. Heyman's first EP, Actual Size, as well as fourteen (you read it right. Fourteen) additional tracks. The difference of 20 years between the old and new material is pretty noticeable. I tend to prefer the older stuff. A lot of the newer songs get a little cute with the arrangement and the songs themselves suffer. Despite this minor drawback, there is still plenty of good music on this disc. With 20 tracks of solid power pop you're sure to find something you like.

Richard X. Heyman - Hey Man!

Richard X Heyman is a one man rock band. He plays every single instrument on this record and wrote every single song as well. He's such a talent that it's a shame he isn't better known. If you love power pop, you can't go around not owning any Richard X. Heyman. Hey Man! is as solid an album as Heyman ever put out. Now go buy it.

Charlotte Hatherley - Grey Will Fade

I miss Charlotte Hatherley. Ash used to roll through Arizona almost twice a year. They played small clubs and I always got to chat with the band after the show. I even got a hug from Charlotte once. It was awesome. Her presence may be missed in Ash, but this album shows she is a sister who is plenty capable of doing it for herself. There is only one dud on the album ("Stop"), and everything else is pure glimmering guitar pop. I highly recommend this album as well as "Paragon" and "Where I'm Calling From."

First 10 - Golden Age Green Lantern

So I plowed right through another first 10. This marks a couple of firsts. This is my first first 10 in the DC Universe (although everything I read took place on the pages of All-American Comics and All-Star Comics which were bought by National Periodicals which became DC. Comics be crazy) and my first Golden Age first 10. So yeah, exciting.

So the comics I read covered both Alan Scott's transformation into the Green Lantern as well as his inclusion in the brand new Justice Society of America. The Justice Society comics featured a lot of solo work by each member followed by some late teamwork. All the solo pages were already drawn and published in each character's solo title and the few pages at the end where they get together to deliver the finishing blows to the bad guys were the only original pages in the book. It's a bit lazy, but it was a platform for pushing all the solo series in the All-American stable. The importance of the Justice Society cannot be understated. They were the first superhero team ever. Even though they were created as a marketing tactic, the team took on a life of its own as time went on and inspired every subsequent superhero team.

Before I get to the solo Green Lantern titles, I want to rank the original members of the Justice Society in order from most favorite to least because as I read the first couple JSA issues, I found characters I loved and characters I didn't care for.

1. Spectre - I love everything about this guy. His costume is so great that it hasn't changed in any major way since 1940. He's powerful, he's enigmatic, he's everything you want in an engaging comic book character.

2. The Flash - Jay Garrick is a champ, pure and simple. He has one major power and it's a great one. Also, I love the look of the Golden Age Flash. I also love the look of Barry Allen (as well as all subsequent Flashes), but there's something about the silly helmet and blue pants of the original Flash.

3. Sandman - This was something of a toss-up. I could have just as easily gone with Alan Scott, but I think I like Sandman just a touch more. The fact that his MO was to use non-lethal force to get the job done in addition to the fact that he has no superpowers gives a level of tension to his stories. Also, his costume is awesome and mysterious. Should I ever attend a con, I'm dressing as Golden Age Sandman.

4. Green Lantern - Alan Scott has a lot going for him, though not quite as much as the three guys I listed first. I was a bit annoyed by a major continuity error within the first few issues (In All-American Comics #16 he's a railroad construction engineer. In All-American Comics #20 he's suddenly a radio engineer). I still love the business with the ring and its connection to the lantern. Alan Scott set the precedent for the much more engaging Green Lanterns which would come later (see: Hal Jordan)

5. Doctor Fate - Mysterious and enigmatic. Great costume (really love the helmet). Powerful. And yet he still plays second fiddle to Spectre (at least in my book). If anything Doctor Fate is a little too mysterious and not well-defined enough in the first few JSA issues.

6. Hour-Man - I like the idea of the Hour-Man, but it isn't as well-executed as I would have hoped. I wish Miraclo could only be taken a certain number of times in a day, or that it was extremely expensive to make. I really wanted Hour-Man to be constantly walking the line of losing and gaining his powers. It looks like his character does become a lot more interesting when Miraclo turns out to be addictive, but none of that plays out in the early issues of JSA.

7. Hawkman - Nothing about Hawkman appeals to me, and yet he is far from the worst that the original JSA had to offer.

8. Atom - Al Pratt is as lame as a comic book character could be. He's super short, really annoying, and has no powers whatsoever. If he got killed in the line of duty, I would flip the page with nary a tear shed or even so much as a sigh.

9. Johnny Thunder - Though not a full member of the original JSA (he would join early on), he tagged along in all their early adventures (I can't for the life of me figure out why). The adventures of an accidental hero couldn't possibly interest me less. He's more of a pest than a hero.

Anyway, with that out of the way, lemme talk about Green Lantern for a bit. I noticed two things about Golden Age comics right off the bat. 1) They were clearly written for kids. The language used in the stories as well as the stories themselves seemed geared toward a young audience. I can't imagine many adult comic book guys in the 1940s.  2) They were imaginative, but only to a point. Golden Age characters were much more limited in their powers than their current counterparts. Most notably, Golden Age Superman couldn't fly. Alan Scott didn't have many of the powers Hal Jordan did, and his activities were limited to Earth, not the vast expanse patrolled by later Green Lanterns. Basically, Golden Age superhero powers were merely slight tweaks to reality rather than complete departures from it.

So Alan Scott didn't have crazy powers or intergalactic adventures. So what? He played out awesome crime-busting adventures similar to the other heroes of his day (I really like the gumshoe archetype, and Alan Scott does a fair amount of gumshoe work). He kept a decent cover identity (I wonder how many superhero alter-egos work in mass media. It seems like a lot), his powers have well-defined limits, and he has clear weaknesses. Golden Age Green Lantern stories are compelling and fun to read.

So if you're scoring at home (you're not, are you?) I'm still keeping Fantastic Four in the driver's seat, followed by Punisher with Golden Age Green Lantern close behind.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

H2O - Go

Go is H2O's sellout album. Normally this would mean that everyone in the punk community should shun them until they break up. Cred is serious business in punk. I gave up on many a band for selling out (most notably I gave up on AFI when they released Sing the Sorrow) but somehow I love this H2O album more than anything else they've ever done. It's a much more pop-oriented album than anything else in the H2O catalogue. Songs like "Memory Lane" and "Self Reliable" really spoke to me when I first got this album, and they make me miss those simpler times when I hear them now.

H2O - F.T.T.W.

H2O will always remind me of a certain homie who brought me into the world of punk. They, along with Strung Out, were one of his favorite bands. F.T.T.W. (Faster Than the World? Found the Truth Within? Finally Taste the Water?) is a hard-rocking fast-moving affair. At times it feels like early Bouncing Souls, which is nice. Some of the songs are a bit uneven, and there is some definite filler on the disc. Otherwise it's great punk.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Guitar Wolf - Loverock

The illegitimate Japanese children of The Stooges and The MC5 rock so hard I feel like I need to check and see if I still have all my teeth after listening to this album.

First 10 - The Punisher

The Punisher is Batman. No, he's not literally Batman (it's Bruce Wayne, but don't tell anyone you heard it from me) but he fills a similar space in the Marvel Universe. There are many similarities between The Dark Knight and Marvel's man in black. They both lost their families in an act of crime and vowed to avenge their loss. Both stalk the night and act as vigilantes, doing the job standard law enforcement can't do. Neither of them have super powers. They both avail themselves of technology. There are probably other similarities, but I'm too lazy to bust my noodle about it right now. Just know that The Punisher is Marvel's Batman.

So I found myself with a conundrum in reading the first 10 issues of The Punisher. He started showing up in Marvel titles in the 70's, but didn't get his own series until the late 80's. He first got a 5 issue limited series which was drawn by Mike Zeck and written by Steven Grant. That was the jumping off point for the continuing Punisher series as written by Mike Baron and drawn by Klaus Janson. I figured there would be some dissimilarities between the limited and  ongoing series, so I decided to read the 5 issues of the limited series as well as the first 10 issues of the continuing series.

The limited series was fan-dang-diddly-tastic. There was a great deal of character development in a short period of time, and the plot had some unexpected twists and turns. When the limited series was done, I found myself wondering how they would start off the story for the continuing series. The limited series storyline was so well-written and everything wrapped up so tightly that it almost felt like The Punisher's work was done. That's a whole lot for 5 issues to do.

The first 10 issues of the continuing series were slightly less awesome than the limited series. The problem with the continuing series is that The Punisher doesn't have great villains. There is no Joker to his Batman. I understand that in order to be The Punisher, Frank Castle has to bust a few caps and put a few baddies in the morgue. He just doesn't have a white whale. His modus operendi of killing every bad guy he meets gets a little old. Nobody he meets is his equal and the tension you normally get from knowing that the good guy might lose (even though deep down you know he won't) is not there. It's still a very well-written gritty comic. I enjoyed the first 10, but Fantastic Four is still the clubhouse leader.

I don't know what I'll be reading next, but I should pick something in the DC Universe. I tend to be a bit Marvel-centric (the nerdiest compound word I have ever seen). So stay posted. Or not. Nobody reads this blog, and they certainly don't read it for my thoughts on comic books.

Various Artists - Lobster Records: Greetings

This was a cheap punk compilation that provides a few cheap thrills. Not too bad, not too great.

Greenwheel - Soma Holiday

I got this CD for free. I think I paid to much for this unremarkable mumble rock.

Green Day - Kerplunk!

This is young Green Day at their very best. The songs are a little tighter than they were on the previous album, and the band is firing on all cylinders with Tre Cool on the skins. This is pure undiluted 1990s California punk.

Green Day - 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours

I don't want to sound like that guy, but I really do enjoy Green Day's earlier stuff more than their later stuff. Bear in mind that I'm a big fan of garage rock as well as punk. Green Day's early albums had a youthful energy and a certain truth to them. I don't want to say Green Day sold out or lost their sound. They evolved and I still enjoy their later work. I just really really love this early stuff. 1039/ Smoothed out Slappy Hours is the first of two pre-Dookie albums. I prefer Kerplunk! but there are plenty of good songs (including an odd cover of Op Ivy's "Knowledge") on this disc as well.

The Grays - Ro Sham Bo

This is an interesting project in band democracy if nothing else. Everyone wrote songs, everyone sang lead at some point, and nobody was the "leader." Unfortunately they only lasted for one album and it suffers a bit from having too many cooks in the kitchen. There's some noticeable unevenness of style as you go from songwriter to songwriter. On the other hand, "Very Best Years" is a fantastic Jason Falkner song and most of his material on this album foreshadows his excellent solo work. Highly recommended for Jellyfish fans, moderately recommended for everyone else.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Martin Gore - Counterfeit EP

Most of this EP is sparse and uninteresting when compared with Depeche Mode's body of work. On the other hand, "In a Manner of Speaking" is befuddlingly good. One out of six ain't bad.

Further Seems Forever - How to Start a Fire

How many other bands have changed lead singers and still managed to sound exactly the same? AC/DC comes time mind (get off it you weirdos who think Brian Johnson sounds nothing like Bon Scott) but there must be others. Anyway, this album is generally ok.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981

Glenn Gould's career and life are bookended by two very different versions of Bach's Goldberg Variations. For all their differences they might as well be named Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

His 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations established him as a marvel. The 1955 recording is marked by some of the most astoundingly fast and technically complex piano work since Lizt. He played with a precision Wendy Carlos' synthesizers would envy if only they were able. The 1955 recording is not merely a technical wonder but an emotional thrill as well. It is a young man's exploration of the instrument to which he has devoted himself. It is the ultimate expression of youthful virtuosity.

The 1981 recording was completed roughly one year before Glenn Gould's death. Included in this three disc set is an interview Gould did with Tim Page shortly before his death. To hear Gould discuss the shortcomings of his 1955 recording (at one point he states that he understands why some are drawn to his youthful work, but that he has grown well beyond it) you get the sense that over the years Gould added wisdom to his virtuosity. The 1981 recording is not the same technical marvel his 1955 recording was. The tempos are generally slower, and Gould repeats some of the variations, something he did not do in the 1955 recording. The 1981 recording is marked by a mastery, not just of the instrument, but of the music itself and its meaning.

I honestly could not be forced to choose between the two. They represent the remarkable musical journey of Glenn Gould's life. One may speculate as to whether or not Gould recorded the variations again because he knew the end was near (he probably always thought the end was near. He was a legendary hypochondriac). Whether he knew or not, these two recordings are the bookends of his musical career. One cannot be considered without the other and neither can be left out of any serious discussion of Gould's music.

Benny Goodman - Benny Goodman's Greatest Hits

Benny Goodman is the cat's pajamas. His career made the clarinet look cool (quite the accomplishment when you consider its place as an instrument for dorky girls with overbites in high school bands across the land). This disc provides a good overview of the man's music. I prefer the version of "Sing Sing Sing" on this disc over any other.

Good Charlotte - The Young and the Restless

I almost hate myself for enjoying any part of this CD. I have had a troubled history with pop punk, and Good Charlotte typifies that history better than any band not named Blink 182. Despite the fact that I am educated and like to consider myself beyond the reach of the teenage drama portrayed on this disc, I still really enjoy "Girls & Boys" (especially the reference to the Blur song of the same name) and simply cannot escape the grandiosity of the instrumental "A New Beginning." Other than those two ties, this disc is worthless garbage that I secretly enjoy.

Goo Goo Dolls - A Boy Named Goo

A Boy Named Goo is a perfect piece of 1990s paraphernalia. Say what you will about the way in which the Goo Goo Dolls went all weepy balladeer after this album (mainly because of the success of "Name") but this album occupies the perfect place in 90s alternative. It's corporate enough to be radio friendly and yet edgy enough to not completely suck. I do have a nostalgic memory of this album as well as a memory of some controversy about the cover art (implied infant cannibalism) but can't find information online about it anywhere.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Various Artists - The "Gone With the Wind" of Punk Rock Samplers

Shoddy workmanship dooms this hapless punk comp. They didn't normalize the volume levels from track to track so the effect is something akin to early napster mix cd's in which tracks of varying bit rates and volume levels were haphazardly thrown together. Boo and hiss.

Gin Blossoms - New Miserable Experience

The first time I heard this record it was a transcendent experience. Not only was it a fantastic album, it was made by guys from Arizona. Until that point it had not occurred to me that professional quality music might come from people in my home state. It gave me hope that I might make a fantastic record someday. I never did, but that doesn't lessen the impact of this record. Oh, and I hung out with Scott Johnson at a benefit show once. Really great guy.

The Gift of Gab - 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up

The first solo project of Gift of Gab from Blackalicious is not so far removed from standard Blackalicious fare that it feels like a necessary solo job. It has a lot of the same ethereal elements Nia did. It's still a fantastic hip-hop record. "Way of the Light" "Flashback" and "Real MCs" are all highly recommended.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Pros and Cons of the Ion Profile Pro

Now that I've owned this turntable for a month or so and have had the chance to use it several times, I have a few thoughts about it. I use this turntable in the computer room where I am writing this entry. My other turntable is a vintage Pioneer PL-115D which requires a phono preamp (I run mine through a Marantz 2252B receiver and a pair of Philips bookshelf speakers) and a decent ground, so it's a a little hard to throw just anywhere. Also, my daughter pretty much owns the entertainment room where my other turntable is and if I ever open my vinyl cabinet, she bum rushes it every time. The Ion fits nicely in the computer room, doesn't require a bulky receiver (the Marantz is a work of art, but it's quite large and extremely heavy), and can be placed where my daughter can't interfere with it. There are however, some downsides. I know this turntable was designed for people who hate their vinyl collection and wish it was MP3's (really? There are people who think that way? They should send their records to me). This is a USB turntable that does have an internal preamp as well as an rca out. I run it through the rca outs into a set of very nice computer speakers (no, really. They're very nice). I have run this turntable through my other setup, so I have a decent idea what it sounds like in the best circumstances. I have also tried the recording software, and it's crap. So there's that. Anyway, without any more delay let's kick it to some pro's and con's:

1. Internal Preamp- It is a nice feature
2. Portability- This thing is waaay lighter than the Pioneer
3. Sleek Design- I like the curves on this thing. It looks nice
4. Nice Slip Mat- You can buy a decent slip mat cheap, but it's nice to not need to
5. Great Dust Cover- The hinge break on the dust cover is perfect. It doesn't force itself down as some covers do. I have never skipped a record because I was putting the dust cover down.
6. Inexpensive- I picked the Ion up for $60, which isn't bad at all.

1. Cheap Cartridge and Stylus- Of all the places to be chintzy, the part that picks up the sound and turns it into a usable audio signal always seems like a bad choice. Still, most inexpensive modern turntables skimp here
2. Cheap Tone Arm- I don't expect too much from a budget turntable, but this is not quality workmanship
3. Complete Lack of Adjustment- There is no way to balance the arm, set the anti-skate, dial in needle weight, or anything of the sort. Once again, I don't expect too much. The Philips is in the budget range for turntables, but it still provides all the basic adjustments for a decent turntable
4. Skippy Skip Skip- Because of the cheap tone arm and lack of adjustment, the Ion skips on records that play perfectly fine on the Philips.
5. Thin Sound- Because of the cheap cartridge, stylus, and tone arm (and possibly because of the internal preamp) this turntable just doesn't crank out the rich sound my Philips does.

Please know that I am not an audiophile. I don't have a tube preamp, I don't have an air-suspended turntable, I don't have a dedicated listening room, and I have never spent more than $250 on a single piece of audio equipment. I'm just a guy who tries to get the best sound he can without dropping too much coin. I have had a lot of experience with vintage and budget audio equipment, so I generally know what I'm talking about. I would only recommend this turntable to two types of people: 1) People who want to rip their vinyl to MP3's (seriously guys, send me your records. You don't deserve 'em) 2) People who want a turntable but don't want to invest in preamps, receivers, speakers, etc.

I'm not saying that this turntable sucks or that it is the worst thing on the market. It plays records, which is what it is supposed to do. I paid $75 for my Pioneer turntable and it was a much more sound investment. I would suggest that anyone looking to buy a first turntable should steer clear of the cheaply made modern budget and USB market. Buy a vintage Pioneer, Kenwood, or Sony, put a new stylus on it, and invest in either a decent vintage amplifier/receiver or buy any one of a number of reasonably-priced phono preamps that are on the market. You can sometimes find decent/fixable vintage audio equipment at thrift stores. I have a friend who outfitted himself with a great system for under $100 ($25 of which was a new stylus) by picking stuff up at a thrift store, dusting it off, and fixing it up. The Ion will continue to get use until I can teach my daughter to respect her daddy's record collection, but it isn't my favorite way of listening to my records. If I could replace it with a vintage turntable, I would.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Band - Live at Hollywood Bowl Bootleg

This is an awesome bootleg that I'm proud to own. The sound quality is ok, especially when considering the source. The Band lays down a great show with the only slip-up being an uncharacteristically bad solo by Garth Hudson on "Unfaithful Servant." My appreciation for this record and the guys who made it was increased when I read this story. All in all, this was a nice acquisition for me. I think I only paid $11 for it, and it sells for a lot more online.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Band - Northern Lights, Southern Cross

This is the last truly great studio album by The Band. "Ophelia" alone is worth the cost of this record.

The Band - Moondog Matinee

Fie on anyone who says this isn't a good album. The Band did several covers on their regular studio albums, so an album of covers is not a strange idea. They chose a great lineup of songs which work together to form a cohesive album. They give the greatest performance of "Share Your Love" I have ever heard. If I didn't know better, I would almost swear they wrote some of these songs. I don't care what the critics say, I really like this album.

The Band - Cahoots

Cahoots is a moments album. There are some really great moments, a couple great songs, and a whole lotta somethin' else. It's not bad, it just falls below the very high bar The Band set for themselves with their first three albums. "Life is a Carnival" and "When I Paint My Masterpiece" are great, but then there's "Volcano."