Monthly Archives: September 2013

That’s My Jam #5: A very special, long-distance dedication

That’s My Jam is one man’s attempt to reclaim the phrase from people who care more about Miley Cyrus grinding on a guy old enough to be her uncle than they do about any artist who can, I don’t know, actually play, sing or write music worth hearing.

A South Carolina woman recently attacked her roommate with a knife because the roommate would not stop listening to the Eagles.

While The Dude – or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing – would appreciate the sentiment, Ms. Eagles Hater, I think he would agree that violence is not the answer, if even if you’re being forced to listen to Witchy Woman for a 11,245,365th time.

Next time, just sit back, pour yourself a White Russian and enjoy this selection from the Big Lebowski soundtrack. Let Kenny Rogers, the Coen brothers and the Dude take away all of the pain.

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The best show you’re not watching

Stringer Bell turns cop? Yup, it's about as awesome as you'd expect.

Stringer Bell turns cop? Yup, it’s about as awesome as you’d expect.

The third – and likely final – season of the BBC’s cop drama, Luther, is now wrapped up. If you haven’t seen Luther, here’s five reasons why you should check it out.

1. IDRIS ELBA. Idris Elba hit mainstream consciousness with his turn as Stringer Bell in the amazing American series The Wire, since popping up in films such as Thor, Pacific Rim and Prometheus. Elba’s Bell was a smooth-talking business student intent on helping his drug dealing partner Avon Barksdale go legit. Stringer is self-assured, intelligent, calculating, even-tempered. Elba’s Luther, the title character, is none of that. His life is a wreck professionally and privately. His passion and temper have driven away his wife and alienated most who would or could call him friend. His brilliance as an investigator is never denied, but he is a nightmare politically and tends to work in the gray areas on the fringe, a positioning that makes him a target of those who live and work strictly by the book.

What strikes me every time I watch Elba is how he physically inhabits John Luther. Luther wears his emotions in his gait, in his face. When the trail is hot and the evidence is fresh, Luther stalks the bad guy, a muscular predator tensed, ready to pounce. When he fails, when someone dies and he could have prevented it, the life is sucked from him, his trademark 3/4-length jacket just a husk on a desiccated, lifeless, drained soul. Luther’s body language and facial expressions are so honest, so of the moment, that when Luther occasionally does resort to some sort of subterfuge, it’s shocking.

What most saddens me about the end of Luther is that I won’t get to see Elba continue to evolve and own this role. Sad.

2. THE CRIMES. I won’t ruin any of the crimes Luther investigates, because it’s part of the fun seeing the investigations unfold. That said, they’re a step-up from the pedestrian plots of shows like CSI and Law & Order.

3. THE STORY. The crimes are just a front, though. What Luther is really about is how John Luther’s handling of said crimes affects him and those who work with him, care about him. Luther’s ruthless dedication professionally matches the passion of his friendships and romantic interests. And while that makes him interesting, that passion is ultimately his failing. It blinds him, it drives him relentlessly and destroys many of those around him. It paints a target on him, both for those who would see him fail and for those whom he encounters in his work.

4. JUSTIN. Played earnestly by Warren Brown, Justin is hard to pin down. Often, he seems the loyal and more even-tempered counterpart of Luther. But at times, his loyalty is to be questioned. Justin is the young cop trying to find his way, a little naive, but smart enough to understand that following Luther blindly could be the end of him. Is Justin with Luther or against him? Only time will tell.

5. THE AWESOMENESS THAT IS RUTH WILSON. British actress Ruth Wilson plays sociopath Alice Morgan, the one criminal who evades Luther’s investigative prowess. In the process, Alice gains a an appreciation for Luther. Alice has no morals, but she is fascinated by Luther’s strong moral dedication. She admires him for it. And in that, an unlikely bond is formed between lawman and lawbreaker. It’s a relationship that hangs over the show, even when Alice is nowhere to be seen.

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The Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut

A while ago I blogged about how I like to pick up books at the library without much knowledge about who wrote them or what the plot might be, beyond what I could read on the book jacket. It’s led me down some interesting fictional paths, including two books that have similar themes yet distinct, unique plots that make each satisfying.

SPOILERS (Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.)

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The first novel I stumbled upon was The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand. Adam is a teenager who lives in western Illinois along the Mississippi River. He’s bored, listless, doesn’t really like who he his, where he is or any of the people around him, be they friends, family or just fellow townspeople. He’s pretty much an average American teen. Oh, except he can’t die. Not at all. He knows. He’s tried 39 times. Jump off a bridge, shoot himself, throw himself from a moving car. It just doesn’t work. And that bothers him. A lot. Which is why he’s tried 39 times, believing he has nothing to live for and that, at some point, he’s bound to succeed.

Along the way, Adam starts to re-examine what he holds to be true. His older brother left home after high school and pretty much never came back, fearing his younger brother. Adam pities his parents, who don’t know how to handle him because of his … ability. He’s not close any of the boys his age who he calls friends. Beyond a cool teacher, a female friend who ends up being more interested in another guy and a little girl who he has a rapport with, he feels little toward anyone. But … his mom tries her best to make little moments happen, to touch her son briefly even if bonding so often seems out of the question. Adam believes he knows that two local men are responsible for returning him to his home after each “death,” but it turns out to be his father is the one who has tracked him down every time, his father the one who sees his broken body and carries him home. The boys he hangs out with, the only people he really trusts, attempt to exploit his ability. The cool teacher moves away, leaving Adam without the closest thing he has to a therapist. And the little girl helps him change his outlook on life and welcoming an early death. Everything Adam holds to be true is challenged, slowly building connections out of the disconnect.

Author Greg Galloway references everything from YouTube to Kafka in Adam’s voice. The narrative and reading level make it a satisfying read for adults, and interesting one for teens. Galloway never comes off as condescending to Adam, but is understanding that life and maturity lead to alterations of how one views the world. Adam’s evolution from start to finish is natural and worthy of the journey.

The Universe versus Alex Woods pb jacketI picked up The Universe versus Alex Woods solely because of the book jacket recommendation by author Jasper Fforde, whose absurdist Tuesday Next series and the inventive Shades of Gray (not the insipid mom porn that’s dominated the best seller lists) I’d highly recommend to anyone with an active imagination and an appreciation for authors such as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. I consider Fforde to be one of the more inventive modern novelists I’ve come across, so I felt like I couldn’t pass this tome up.

Alex Woods has a lot in common with Adam. Alex is a teen with few friends his own age and is generally disconnected from the people around him. He, too, stands out in his community, but not because he can’t die, but because he almost did. Alex is one of two people in recorded history who has been hit by a meteorite and lived. Alex has another special connection with death, through his friend, Mr. Peterson, a neighbor and confidante who is dying of a degenerative disease.

Only where Adam found how to shed his deadly obsession and embrace life, Alex learns to face his fears and accept death. Mr. Peterson, upon finding out he has a degenerative disease, attempts suicide, Alex is angry. For Alex, who revels in the fact that he cheated death at an early age, comprehension of Mr. Peterson’s situation takes time. Part of the bond between Alex and Mr. Peterson is their mutual admission of their atheist beliefs (thus Alex’s founding of the Secular Church of Kurt Vonnegut, he and Mr. Peterson’s favorite author and a frequent touchstone throughout the novel). Knowing in his heart that nothing is beyond that final moment, Alex can’t believe someone would rush to the end. But Mr. Peterson is firm, knowing he will be unable to read, speak, do anything beyond live in fear and frustration, a prisoner of his own decaying body. Alex comes to accept Mr. Peterson’s wishes, and when the time comes that the disease cripples his friend, Alex agrees to help Mr. Peterson to go comfortably and on his own terms.

Gavin Extence also has a reverence and respect for his young lead character. For all of his intelligence and maturity beyond his years, Alex maintains a naiveté that gives him unique perspective. Extence also surrounds Alex with a cast of unique, believable characters who challenge and support him. The believablity factor is higher with Alex Woods than 39 Deaths, a necessity to make this particular tale connect.

Two tales of death, one a reaffirmation of life, the other an acceptance of the end we’ll all face. You can’t go wrong with either.

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That’s My Jam #4: Neutral Milk Hotel, ‘Holland, 1945’

That’s My Jam is a series attempting to help real music fans reclaim the phrase from those who treat every new Katy Perry release as a life-changing experience.

My first non-hip-hop Jam selection was introduced to me via mix-tape. Way back in the 1990s, before music was available on the Internet and when no mere mortals had the power to burn CDs, a couple of my pals would send me tapes a couple of times a year during my banishment to the lower Rio Grande Valley, at the time no friend to indie music fans. I would fly through the desert, orange groves and aloe fields, Holland, 1945 and other low-profile rock gems propelling me through the oppressive heat.

If I made a list of my 10 favorite songs of all time – and I may, someday – this would make the cut, no sweat.  Jeff Mangum’s unusual lyrics are a draw, and the song rawks in a way indie classics tend not to. But to me, what really elevates Holland, 1945 is the horns. Usually, brass brings with it touches of soul, jazz, reggae, other non-rock sounds. Here, the horns are treated like rock instruments, accenting the sound like a good rhythm guitar part noodles with stealing the lead.

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Overrated Shit #4: Mumford & Sons live, 09/02/13

I’ve been to two choreographed, big-time concerts in my life. I saw Roger Waters do The Wall a couple of summers ago in Indianapolis, and if you can afford it (it isn’t cheap), I’d recommend it. It’s an incredible mix of live and digital effects, along with the awesome soundtrack, of course. And the scale is something which isn’t often replicated by other live shows, although I’d imagine Madonna and U2, to name a couple, could probably pull it off.

The other staged show I witnessed was the New Kids on the Block, back in 1990 in Peoria, Ill. A plethora of choreographed dancing, a big video screen, at least one of the Kids floating over the crowd during songs. Lots and lots of teenage girls screaming. While the music wasn’t much to write home about, the show was pretty impressive.

So when I saw Mumford & Sons on Labor Day at Klipsch near Indy, these are the two shows I thought of over the course of the night’s tightly choreographed show. Unfortunately, Mumford came off more New Kids and less Waters.

It started with the big video screens. I began to notice how every shot was perfect, the framing, the lighting, the cuts. It was like the final version of a concert video, that well done. Thing is, you can’t do that unless you know precisely where every band member is going to be at all times. I also started to realize that none of the backing band was ever on video, even if soloing. And when someone (crew? member of opening bands?) ran onstage with a cowbell and was playing with Mumford & Sons, the cameras never cut to what I now know to be the only spontaneous act in that show.

The last thing that really struck me, though, was each song sounded pretty much exactly like the album version. No, Mumford and the fellas weren’t lip syncing. But they weren’t re-working the arrangements much, jamming, changing instrumentation, nothing much to distinguish what they are capable of as a live band compared to what they create in the studio.

That’s what frustrates me. I have friends who saw Mumford & Sons in a club in Louisville a year ago, and they raved about the show, the energy, the jamming. I saw none of that. I saw a band determined to give each of their Grammy-loving fans the same show, from Boston to Bakersfield. An Applebee’s-ization of music.

It really sucked the heart out of the show for me. When I go to a live show, it’s the opportunity to see improvisation, re-working of the catalog, how the band connects with the audience. At Mumford & Sons, I was served the equivalent of the opening number at the Academy Awards. And while I know some people gobble that up – just as many of the people at that Labor Day show did – I’m not interested in swallowing that bile.

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