Thursday, March 28, 2013

First 10 - Excalibur

This series came highly recommended to me by a friend who, upon hearing of my affinity for Alpha Flight, figured I would be as much a fan of the British X-Men as I was of the Canadian X-Men. Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy it quite as much as I hoped I would.

Excalibur has a lot going for it. For starters, two of my favorite X-Men are on the team: Kitty Pride and Nightcrawler. Secondly, Captain Britain is a whole lot like Guardian, who is my favorite member of Alpha Flight. There is a certain level of kitsch value in the comic, which makes for a lot of fun.

On the downside, Excalibur doesn't seem to have the larger theme that X-Men and Alpha Flight do. The X-Men are constantly battling bigotry and blind hatred while Alpha Flight uncovers the darker side of government bureaucracy and military funding. Excalibur just seems to fight whichever foe comes along without engaging in any other ongoing larger battle. That being the case, it felt like something was missing in the first 10 issues of Excalibur. I enjoyed them, but they could have been better. I'm sure I'm missing quite a bit by only having read the first 10 issues, but I'm basing all these series on their first 10 issues alone, so fair's fair. Here are the updated standings:

  1. Batman
  2. Amazing Spider-Man
  3. Fantastic Four
  4. Deadpool
  5. Booster Gold
  6. Daredevil
  7. The Punisher
  8. Golden Age Green Lantern
  9. The Avengers
  10. The Defenders
  11. Captain America
  12. Excalibur
  13. Golden Age Captain America
  14. Golden Age Blue Beetle
  15. Doctor Strange
  16. Captain Marvel (Marvel Comics)
  17. Aquaman

First 10 - Doctor Strange

My dad is a fan of Doctor Strange from way back. he was in the Merry Marvel Marching society back in the 60's when everything was new and full of promise. Anyway, he was a fan of Doctor Strange, so I thought I would be as well. Unfortunately this wasn't the case. I did enjoy Doctor Strange in The Defenders, and I have always enjoyed his appearances in other series, but his solo series is a bit of a snooze for me. Here's the thing: despite the fact that Doctor Strange could totally kick Superman's butt (Superman is vulnerable to magic, and Doctor Strange is a magician extraordinaire) I don't really understand his world at all.

When magic becomes a part of fiction, you have to give it clear guidelines. Harry Potter is an excellent example of this. You know exactly what the rules of magic are in the series, which makes the story seem plausible. I got no sense of how the world of magic is governed in the world of Doctor Strange. I have no idea what he can and cannot do, therefore I am both less surprised when he does something magically awesome, and less inclined to believe it as well. I am sure the magical world of Doctor Strange was given much more definition in later issues than it was in the first 10 issues, but based solely on the first 10, this isn't a series that I plan on reading soon. Here's where it falls:

  1. Batman
  2. Amazing Spider-Man
  3. Fantastic Four
  4. Deadpool
  5. Booster Gold
  6. Daredevil
  7. The Punisher
  8. Golden Age Green Lantern
  9. The Avengers
  10. The Defenders
  11. Captain America
  12. Golden Age Captain America
  13. Golden Age Blue Beetle
  14. Doctor Strange
  15. Captain Marvel (Marvel Comics)
  16. Aquaman

First 10 - The Defenders

The Defenders are the first non-team of comic book superheroes. The original lineup of Dr. Strange, The Hulk, and Namor is widely considered one of the strongest groups of superheroes ever collected (they got even stronger when Silver Surfer Joined up). The most interesting thing about The Defenders is also their greatest weakness as the basis for a series: the fact that they aren't a team with any central leadership, but rather a group of individuals who work together only when it suits them. This being the case, every issue becomes a struggle to explain why these heroes, which run in completely different circles, would ever hang out together, let alone join forces and battle for good.

Despite its major flaw, The Defenders is a very good series. Each character brings unique strengths and abilities to the team, and the storylines are definitely unique. I don't think that, as a non-team, The Defenders have the potential for longevity that The X-Men or The Avengers have, but they're still absolutely intriguing. This is a series that I will eventually read starting with issue #1 and then give up on it as soon as they replace the original lineup. Here's where it falls in the First 10 standings:

  1. Batman
  2. Amazing Spider-Man
  3. Fantastic Four
  4. Deadpool
  5. Booster Gold
  6. Daredevil
  7. The Punisher
  8. Golden Age Green Lantern
  9. The Avengers
  10. The Defenders
  11. Captain America
  12. Golden Age Captain America
  13. Golden Age Blue Beetle
  14. Captain Marvel (Marvel Comics)
  15. Aquaman

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Walter Carlos - The Well-Tempered Synthesizer

The Well-Tempered Synthesizer is Walter Carlos' sophomore album, and a slight departure from the Switched On Bach formula. Carlos only switches on a single Bach piece on this album. The rest is Monteverdi, Handel, and Scarlatti. Carlos proves once again that the Moog is perfectly suited to the performance of Baroque pieces.

If you think you know "Water Music," wait until you've heard it performed by Walter Carlos. As with everything he/she does, the performances are impeccable and the voicing is imaginative; breathing new life into some very old music. If you've heard SOB and SOBII, it's time to move on to The Well-Tempered Synthesizer and find out just what Walter Carlos and his/her trusty Moog can do.

Walter Carlos - By Request

This little oddity came out right before Walter Carlos underwent gender realignment surgery, becoming Wendy Carlos. I'm going with Walter here because that's how my copy of the album is titled.

I call this album an oddity because that's exactly what it is. There are performances of both Bach and non-Bach classical selections, as well as original experimental numbers, and popular songs. The covers of "What's New, Pussycat?" and "Eleanor Rigby" are more than likely what gave rise to the excellent Moog Cookbook, and the sheer novelty of those two numbers are worth the purchase price all by themselves.

While it is interesting to hear Carlos perform selections from "Nutcracker Suite" and variations on "Pomp and Circumstances" ("Pompous Circumstances" is an interesting one because, in the grand tradition of Peter Schickele, Carlos meshes in themes from a number of familiar tunes such as "Camptown Races" and other chestnuts) the original pieces make the album a little tedious. Walter Carlos' original compositions place him/her somewhere in the realm of classical music's Brian Eno. He famously created the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, so that's where she's coming from.

"Eleanor Rigby" is a fantastically interesting performance, but "What's New Pussycat?" leaves something to be desired. It just downright weird. This being the case, By Request is a mixed affair, alternately delighting and frustrating.

Walter Carlos - Switched on Bach II

This record is one of the most enduring parts of my childhood. We used to spin this one on the family turntable all the time. As I've become an adult with kids of my own, I have actively tried to make this record a part of their lives as well. So far neither of my children seem partial to it (my daughter has developed a fondness for The Beach Boys, which is nice) but that doesn't mean I won't stop pushing it on them.

While the some presented on Switched on Bach is good, the more on Switched on Bach II is even better. The voicing is impeccable and I have come to view many of the performances on this album to be definitive versions (particularly the two part inventions and "Sheep May Safely Graze").

If you need more evidence of this album's greatness, read the back cover in which Robert Moog praises Carlos and his ability to make the Moog do things even its inventor didn't know were possible. Carlos is a master of his/her instrument, which actually overshadows his/her mastery of Bach.

Walter Carlos - Switched on Bach

In 1968 Switched on Bach turned the world of classical music on its ear as Wendy (Then Walter. He would later become Wendy, and one of the more famous transgendered people in the world) Carlos proved beyond any doubt that analog Moog synthesizers are not only capable of performing Bach impeccably, they're the ideal instrument for it.

Before I launch into a full review of this album, I just want to expose the doubt I experienced when deciding whether or not to go with Wendy or Walter for the name of the artist on this album. I finally decided on Walter because that's what the artist was known as when this album was originally pressed. So yeah, no disrespect to Wendy.

Anyway, this album is transformative for a number of reasons. First of all, Walter Carlos actually contacted Robert Moog and asked him to create new subsystems just to give the Moog the ability to perform Bach correctly. Carlos clearly put a lot of work into the voicing of every single piece. The best selections from the album come on the A-side with "Air on a G String" and the two-part inventions. Even so, Carlos is known for his/her masterful interpretation of the Brandenburg Concerti, and the 3rd which closes out this album is no exception. You have to look far and wide to find Bach performed more ably and originally.

Belinda Carlisle - Heaven on Earth

I already reviewed this album in its CD form, but it's no less impressive in its vinyl form. The only reason I'm doing a double entry is because this blog is as much a visual catalogue of my record collection as it is a set of reviews for others to read. So yeah.

Belinda Carlisle - Belinda

As it happens with oh so many female bands, the prettiest girl with the best voice breaks away and goes solo. That's exactly what happened with Belinda Carlisle and The Go-Go's.

While Belinda Carlisle would eventually put out some of the greatest female pop tunes of the 1980's, this album does not necessarily reflect that. It's not a bad album, or an embarrassing departure. It's just an odd little thing in which Belinda Carlisle sounds like she's struggling to find her independent voice after being defined as merely "the pretty one" from The Go-Go's during the first half of the 80's. There are no true standout tracks on the album, but that doesn't mean it isn't a pleasant listen.

Canned Heat - Live at Topanga Corral

One of the most interesting things about Live at Topanga Corral is that the cover features a shirtless Bob "The Bear" Hite, who, while a freakishly fat man in the 60's, would basically be an average dude today.

Aside from the cover, this album features 46:37 of fantastic blues. What always makes Canned Heat great for me is the overdriven guitar by Henry "Sunflower" Vestine, who is in rare form on this album. The only real problem with Live at Topanga Corral is the fact that the sound quality isn't that great. It's about on par with my Rubber Dubber bootleg of The Band in terms of fidelity. While that's a common problem with live albums from this era, it does distract from an otherwise fine performance by a great band.

Canned Heat - Future Blues

Future Blues is my favorite Canned Heat album which is due, in large part, to the band's fantastic cover of the classic "Let's Work Together." As I've noted in every single review of a Canned Heat album, the band's best feature is their tube-driven tonally perfect distortion, which is slathered thick on this album.

If you enjoy super solid blues workouts, you really can't do much better than this album. I recommend it to everyone who enjoys music...of any sort...ever.

Canned Heat - Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Canned Heat's third studio album, isn't quite as strong as the two which preceded it. Sure, there are some very good songs on the album, but, on the whole, the band sounds a little less tight and a little less focused than on previous efforts.

"Same All Over," the album's opener is the gem of the album. It, more than anything, recalls the finely-honed, perfectly-distorted blues rock of Canned Heat's previous albums. The rest of the album, while not a mess, is less impressive than previous outings. This is a good album from a band that can, and has, made great albums.

Canned Heat - Boogie With Canned Heat

There are guitarists who spend their entire lives in pursuit of the perfect distorted guitar tone. Too bad for them Henry "Sunflower" Vestine, lead guitarist for Canned Heat already nailed it. Listen to the guitar solo on "Amphetamine Annie" and try to tell me it isn't the crunchiest, most fantastically distorted guitar work you've ever heard.

Canned Heat tends to be a little underrated in comparison to their peers from the 1960s. They rocked it at Woodstock, and they somehow don't seem to get their propers. This album is great. Every single song is perfect white boy distorted blues. Anyway, if you're looking for some super crunchy blues, listen to Canned Heat.

John Cale - Fear

There are two things about John Cale that I know to be absolutely true: 1) He's brilliant and 2) He's weird. Fear presents an astonishing blend of brilliant and weird, which is precisely what I expected.

One of the things I love about this album is the fact that John Cale pulled my two favorite parts out of Roxy Music (Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno) to fill out this album. There is a definite Velvet Underground meets Roxy Music feel to the album, with equal parts something pure John Cale mixed in. The songs range from highly experimental jaunts to almost pure pop (I say almost pure because John Cale doesn't seem content with laying down three minute radio content. He'll throw little spikes into his sweet concoctions just for good measure). All in all this is a very solid listen and highly recommended to fans of Velvet Underground and/or Roxy Music.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Arctic Monkeys - Favorite Worst Nightmare

As it was with Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, it is possible to recognize the quality of an album and still not enjoy it at all. This is true of everything Arctic Monkeys has ever done or will ever probably do.

Baleeted? Yes. With gusto.

Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

I don't like this album. I don't like Arctic Monkeys in general. That doesn't mean that I don't think it's a high quality album or that it isn't an important turn in the evolution of rock in the 00's. I don't like The Rolling Stones either, but that doesn't mean I don't understand why other people do.

Arctic Monkeys bring a garage rock blast to the indie sound of The Strokes (another band I can't seem to bring myself to enjoy) and wrap the whole thing up in a very British vibe. Seriously, not even The Beatles sounded this British.

While I love garage rock, and generally love British music, Arctic Monkeys just don't move my dial at all. I give this album points for its quality as well as the fact that it has the only Arctic Monkeys song I actually like ("When the Sun Goes Down"). It's a good album, but that doesn't mean I have to listen to it.

Baleeted? Yes. Because life is too short to waste on things you don't really like.

Arcade Fire - Neon Bible

I don't know why I sometimes tend to resist records that I should embrace. I bought this album when it came out and was, for inexplicable reasons, terrified to listen to it for five years. Now I feel like an idiot for putting it off so long.

While Funeral was an album that stretched and attempted to be more than it was, Neon Bible is the full realization of something amazing. It's a crazy amalgamation of pipe organs, symphony orchestras, and the standard Arcade Fire indie rock hodge podge. Neon Bible is Wagnerian in its grandiosity and near-operatic approach. It's a never-say-die bombastic affair that is riveting from the word "go." I really should've listened back in 2007 when everyone was telling me how good this album is. The difference between the version of "No Cars Go" on Neon Bible and the one that appeared on the band's debut EP tells you everything you need to know about how this band has matured into something great.

Baleeted? No. Quite the opposite. I'll be spinning this one again soon.

Arcade Fire - Funeral

Funeral was actually my introduction to Arcade Fire. As I've mentioned several times before, I used to hang out at Eastside Records, which was the greatest vinyl spot in the state. Every time I went in there, the owners would be spinning obscure reggae platters or early Scott Walker records. One week they were spinning "Crown of Love" over and over again, and I just couldn't get over the awesome tempo change at the end of the song, which turns a ballad into a frantic plea. I bought Funeral and never looked back.

Arcade Fire has a certain grandiosity and a tendency to reach beyond their grasp. Funeral as a whole sounds a lot like British Sea Power, but somehow it feels like they always intended to be more, which gives this album an air of dignity and ambition which spills over into their next efforts.

Baleeted? Nope. I love this album.

Arcade Fire - Arcade Fire EP

Arcade Fire hit the scene as part of the massive cultural shift toward all things indie in the early 00's. Oddly enough, the very term "indie" has undergone a major shift since that time. Indie used to refer to bands on small time independent labels, but now it's basically the new "alternative." If it isn't straightforward rock, and if it gets a little experimental, it's indie regardless whether or not it takes place on a major label. Arcade Fire is part of the major label indie crowd (distributed by EMI), but this EP is good enough that semantics really don't matter.

Just give "No Cars Go" a listen and I'm sure you'll soon agree that Arcade Fire is one of the best things going in indie, major label or no.

Baleeted? Not a chance.

The Aquabats - Yo, Check Out This Ride

My wife and I saw The Aquabats in concert shortly after this EP came out. This 5 track EP really only has 2 great songs: the title track and "Throw Away the Trash." I think I really only love "Throw Away the Trash" because in the Aquabats show we went to, Kitty Litter was the villain and after he littered the audience with plastic balls, MC Bat Commander held up a trash can and the crowd tried to throw the balls into it. It was a crazy ton of fun, so I tend to enjoy the song.

As an EP, Yo, Check Out This Ride doesn't really offer enough to be a necessary purchase for most fans. If you're a completist, this EP won't be a disappointment, but it's more of a very light musical snack than a meal.

Baleeted? No, but only because of my lifelong loyalty to The Aquabats.

The Aquabats - Myths, Legends, and Other Amazing Adventures Vol. 2

This album is a collection of Aquabats b-sides and rarities. While I was initially skeptical that there would be any gems in the Aquabats cutout bin, this album provides two of my very favorite Aquabats tunes in "Pool Party" and "Pizza Day." "Worms Make Dirt" is a Jonathan Coulton-esque explanation of the role of earthworms. "I Feel Asleep on my Arm" is a mock screamo tune which only grows more hilarious with time.

There is a lot of good on this album and it's well worth the purchase price for any die hard Aquabats fan.

Baleeted? No way. "Pizza Day" and "Pool Party" are too awesome.

The Aquabats - Charge!!

Charge!! finds the Aquabats much more comfortable in their own skin. This is the most focused outing since the sophomore effort, The Fury of the Aquabats. The horn section is noticeably missing from the band's sound on this record and has been largely replaced by synthesizers, which is not as far as step down as it would seem.

The songwriting on this album is as strong and quirky as ever. Every single song title on the album is followed by an exclamation point, which is perfectly fitting. Every song is a quirky anthem and every note of the album is laser-focused on the Aquabats singular silly persona. Highly recommended are "Fashion Zombies!" and "Look at Me (I'm a Winner)!"

Baleeted? No, this is a winner.

The Aquabats - The Aquabats vs. The Floating Eye of Death!

While The Aquabats have always given their own unique take on ska, The Aquabats vs. The Floating Eye of Death finds the band moving away from ska and toward something entirely different, something purely Aquabats and nothing else.

The greatest song on the album is "Lovers of Loving Love" which is one of the two Aquabats love songs my wife and I share (the other being "Red Sweater"). The rest of the songs on this album aren't quite as strong as the sets on other Aquabats records, but the energy is as high as ever, and that's half the point when it comes to The Aquabats.

Baleeted? Nope. There's enough awesome here to keep it.

The Aquabats - Return of the Aquabats

While The Aquabats weren't as polished on their debut as they would be on subsequent albums, the cheekily-titled Return of the Aquabats is brimming with the trademark silliness and high energy that have given the band a hardcore cult following that will never die.

There are some definite trademark Aquabats tunes on this album, though many of them would be revisited on later albums. Some of the treats included are "Playdough," "Martian Girl," "Idiot Box" and several others. The Aquabats are basically the They Might Be Giants of ska, and this album shows that as well as any other.

Baleeted? Never.