Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Fifteen Albums of the Decade

There are omissions to this list, I assure you. In fact, there are so many omissions to this list that I almost don't want to post it. The thing is that many of these albums (in fact, most of them) I hold in almost equal regard, so saying that number one is better than number fifteen is accurate but saying number two is better than number three is just barely accurate, by very teeny tiny degrees of measurement. I limited myself to fifteen, but this list could have easily contained fifty. I also limited myself to five honorable mentions without explanation. Okay? Okay. Share your thoughts.

15. In Your Honor - The Foo Fighters
Picks: "The Best Of You" and "Friend of a Friend"

The Foo Fighters have been around for a long time now. Their debut album came out in 1995, and they have released a steady stream of moderate to great albums since. They're consistently satisfactory, often good, sometimes amazing. Frontman Dave Grohl took a gamble releasing In Your Honor as a double CD. In fact, this is more two different albums than one complete album. The first disc is hard rocking, classic Foo Fighters, and produced a number of singles. But it's the second, acoustic disc that earns this album a spot on my list. Listening to it, you can hear Grohl's artistry and shortfalls all at once. "Friend of a Friend," a track off the second disc, is Grohl at his most emotionally raw. Listen to it and you find yourself remembering that Grohl was the drummer for Nirvana, and that he probably wrote this song about Kurt Cobain, which gives the album's title more weight. The only major issue I had with this album was the Sony DRM that came with it, which opened up your computer to easy virus infection and prevented you from listening to this fine music on your iPod. Thanks, Sony, for making us buy it twice. Oh, recalled the discs? Yeah, I never turned mine in...guess I missed that boat.

14. Franz Ferdinand: Limited Edition Bonus Disc - Franz Ferdinand
Picks: "Jacqueline" "All For You, Sophia" and "Words So Leisured"

Franz Ferdinand is a fun band to listen to, but especially their debut album. They sing songs not about love or romance, but about the parts of relationships that precede all that. They sing about the things we do to each other. They sing songs with vague homo-erotic undertones. The only reason I specifically put the limited edition is because of the song "All For You Sophia," which is a frenetic musical tribute to the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and contains some amazing lines; "Bang bang Gavrilo Princip/Bang bang Europe's gonna weep" and "Bang bang history's complete." Nicely steeped in history and well written to boot. Franz made a misstep with their follow up, sadly, but this remains one of the best debut albums of the last decade. Also on the bonus disc, a second version of "Darts of Pleasure" is presented with a slow tempo bearing the name "Words So Leisured" and that is worth a listen.

13. Hot Fuss - The Killers
Picks: "Andy, You're A Star" and "Believe Me Natalie"

Another fantastic debut album of the last decade, The Killers brought glamour back to rock 'n' roll without bringing any kind of parody. Much like Franz Ferdinand, The Killers sing of many of the same subjects (including the vague homo-erotic undertones). What The Killers brought to glam rock was actual artistry, for the first time since David Bowie and Queen held sway. Of course, their next album smacked of Bruce Springsteen (which is not a bad thing, per se) and their most recent album may have that terrifically annoying tune with the line "Are We Human or Are We Dancer?" in it (that's not even grammatically correct in the least bit), but I still take this one on road trips because it's just so much damn fun to listen to.

12. Silent Alarm - Bloc Party
Picks: "Helicopter" and "So Here We Are"

Oh Bloc Party. You showed such promise with this album. "So Here We Are" especially showed me that you were an up and coming musical force to be reckoned with. And tunes like "Helicopter" and "Banquet" showed your versatility and fun and...and then, well, maybe it was just too much to live up to. And that's why you called it quits. I wish that instead, you had released another album as awesome as this one. Maybe you'll reunite in a few years and spark that magic again.

11. Come On Feel the Illinoise - Sufjan Stevens
Picks: "Come On Feel The Illinoise!" and "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!"

Sufjan Stevens (and that name is pronounced Soo-fi-yann)embarked on an epic musical adventure when he released Greetings From Michigan and, after the heavily Bible-themed Seven Swans released Illinoise. Rumors begat rumors which eventually stated that Stevens planned on recording an album for each of the United States. It was going to be great; each state would have its own flag, bird, motto, quarter and now album. But sadly, it looks like Illinoise will be the last. Maybe the rumors weren't true (and they were not) or maybe, Stevens realized that if he did one for each state, D.C. and the Territories might feel jealous and then he'd have to record some more, and all the travel/research not to mention songwriting for more than fifty albums might put a bit of a strain on him and kind of a noose around his creativity. But if he had to stop somewhere, I'm glad he stopped in Illinoise because the first time I heard "They Are Night Zombies!!" posted on a friend's livejournal (which I am pretty sure she hasn't updated since facebook became her everything) I rushed out and bought* this album. And a good thing I did, too, because each tune on this album is at least half as good (which puts this album in good musical standing). So why number eleven? Well, what I like about this album is the cohesiveness; each tune is about the state of Illinois, or its history, or some aspect of it, in some way. But that is also its downfall. I love albums with a theme for some reason, but to base an entire album on a state does seem a bit heavy. Kudos to Stevens, though; any other artist I can think of trying to pull this off, they don't show up on my top fifteen.

10. Kid A - Radiohead
Picks: Whole Album

Radiohead started out as a straight British Rock 'n' Roll band of the Nineties with their first album Pablo Honey. They gained notoriety with their song "Creep" which to this day I still get chills if it comes through my speakers and it's been a while since I've heard it. They solidified their standing with The Bends and that albums' seemingly endless depth. With OK Computer they took a slight tip toe down an experimental lane, with tunes like "Subterranean Homesick Alien." And on this, their fourth album, they sprinted down that experimental electronic boulevard. This wasn't just a new album, it was a reinvention of the band. It was a gamble, and it paid off in a big way. There was a chance that fans would not follow this new direction but Radiohead plunged onward, unwilling to sacrifice their art for its consumers. It was enough for Rolling Stone to name this their pick for album of the decade, so it worked fairly well. And while my favorite track wavers between "Kid A" "Idioteque" and "Motion Picture Soundtrack" I urge you to listen to this album as a whole.

9. Tradin' Dollars for Dimes - The Rum Drum Ramblers
Picks: "I Feel It Too" and "Ain't Happy With You"

Many of my readers may be scratching their heads on this one. "The Rum Drum who whats?" "Tradin' whats-its for whatchamajigs now?" For those of you not in the know, The Rum Drum Ramblers are a folk/blues band based in St. Louis affiliated with Big Muddy Records, and this is the album they released in fall of 2009. They busk, they sing, they play, they rock. They sound like they could be grizzled old blues men, but they're in their mid twenties. These three young men are masters of their craft already, each doing amazing things with their respective instruments (upright bass, guitar, and one man supplying lead vocals, harmonica, washboard, snare drum, tambourine and much more). I could very easily have also included their 2008 8-track Hey Lordy Mama Mama Get Up and Go along with Tradin' Dollars but felt like that may be giving them too much to live up to. I will admit to being a bit of a sycophant when it comes to these guys.

8. Eisenhower - The Slip
Picks: "Airplane/Primitive" and "Paper Birds"

The Slip is a Boston based group with roots in the jam-band scene, but they operate in relative obscurity. I myself would never have heard of them if I weren't a subscriber to NPR's "All Songs Considered" podcast. But they're a fun band to listen to, though fair warning that in order to get to the best this album has to offer you have to get through the first track "Children of December" which is strained and flat and does not do well to introduce you to the rest of the album. Tunes like "Even Rats" and "Airplane/Primitive" showcase the groups' diversity and the album is tied together at the end with the outro to "Paper Birds" which does a very nice job of referencing other tunes on the album without it turning into a gimmick.

7. We Have the Facts And We're Voting Yes - Death Cab For Cutie
Picks: "Company Calls" and "Scientist Studies"

Before Death Cab for Cutie broke out onto the scene big with Transantlantacism in 2003, they released this gem of an album which follows a loose conceptual theme throughout. In fact, if you listen close, the album seems to tell a tale about an unexpected, welcome but ultimately doomed love, taking the journey from friendship to the next level, to betrayal, to that stage where politeness takes over, and then ends in sorrowful longing. The juxtaposition of tone between "Company Calls" and "Company Calls: Epilogue" is the best example of the depth this album carries itself. Possibly Death Cab's most underrated album, give me We Have the Facts over Plans or Transatlanticism any day (full disclosure: I have not heard Narrow Stairs all the way through).

6. The Crane Wife - The Decemberists
Picks: "The Island" "Yankee Bayonet (I Will Be Home Then)" and "The Crane Wife 1 & 2"

The Decemberists might, with the help of a handful of other bands who have gained notoriety recently, someday be credited with saving the album from the ninety-nine cent song download. This folk-rock band has brought great artistry with them. Exhibit A is The Crane Wife, an album which can be characterized by what I have started referring to as the Three L's: Longing, Legends, and Loss (I could throw a fourth L, with Love, but that's not surprising as probably about 90% of all songs are about love of some kind). The story of The Crane Wife is a Japanese legend which gets not one but two retellings on this album ("The Crane Wife 3" begins the album, "The Crane Wife 1 & 2" comes toward the end). This legend is filled with longing and loss; the second track "The Island" does what the Decemberists' next album would do start to finish: tells a story in musical movements like a symphonic piece. "Yankee Bayonet" feels like war-torn lovers writing letters back and forth. There is even a song about the German siege of Leningrad during World War II. Frontman Colin Meloy does not typically concern himself with writing pop songs, but rather with crafting folk songs which tell stories. You must listen to this album. You will thank me later.

5. Good News For People Who Love Bad News - Modest Mouse
Picks: "The World At Large" "Ocean Breathes Salty" and "The View"

On a bad day, nothing picks me up better than this album does. It's actually a strange effect it carries, since for the most part the lyrics are dark and cynical. Take, for instance, this line from "The View": "As life gets longer, awful feels softer/it feels pretty soft to me/And if it takes shit to make bliss/then I feel pretty blissfully/If life's not beautiful without the pain/well I'd just never ever even see beauty again." How could that make a person feel good? That's the magic of this album for me. Maybe they knew people of a certain pessimistic temperament would love this album. It's full of bad news, really, but I love it. Pay close attention to "The World At Large" which is a beautiful piece of music. Unfortunately for me, thanks to my friend Tyler's senior video project at college, I can't hear the closing tune "The Good Times Are Killing Me" without seeing a floating skeleton doll anymore, which makes me kind of have a bad day. So I listen to the album again.

4. Riverboat Soul - Pokey LaFarge and The South City Three
Picks: "Claude Jones" "Hard Times Come Hard Times Go" and "Bag of Bones"

Pokey LaFarge is another local boy, like the Rum Drum Ramblers. And again, by local "boy" I mean that he is younger than I am (which makes him a boy, I guess). This album, released in the fall of 2009, is not Pokey's first full length album but his first with The South City Three, his backing band. Pokey is on Big Muddy Records as well (for the time being) and, Big Muddy being a smaller label, there is generally a lot of crossover and familiar faces in their bands, so it seems fitting that the South City Three contains two of the Rum Drum Ramblers (and the third Rambler has been known to jump onstage with Pokey and the SC3 on occasion). But where the Rum Drum Ramblers are blues-folk, Pokey is bluegrass. His songs tell stories of bootleggers ("Claude Jones"), allude to the troubles we conjure up when we think of depression-era music ("Hard Times Come Hard Times Go") and he even sings of love. At times, Pokey can seem whimsical, but taking one listen to "Bag of Bones" will show you just how serious these young musicians can be. Again, I may be a bit sycophantic with Pokey and the Three, but it's hard not to like these guys. Trust me.

3. Frances The Mute - The Mars Volta
Picks: Whole Album

Remember, a few notches down the list, when I said that The Decemberists and a handful of other bands were helping to bring back the album? The Mars Volta is one of those bands, and Frances The Mute is an example of how they are bringing the album back. This is an album you cannot listen to in pieces (and the fact that the record company pushed for "L'Via L'Viaquez" as a single (the album version is twelve minutes long) shows just how ridiculous a record company can be. Frances the Mute tells the story of a woman in search of her biological family, and switches from English to Spanish and leaves no room to breathe between the tracks (in order to maintain continuous sound, the vinyl versions locked themselves into a closed groove at the end, repeating the same measure of music until physically stopped and flipped). While this album may be a little heavy, it is evocative of the progressive rock bands of the 70's and 80's who wrote rock symphonies instead of two or three hit singles padded with filler material.

2. How it Ends - DeVotcka
Picks: "The Enemy Guns" and "Twenty-Six Temptations"

Nick Urata's voice haunts me. Listen to the way it strains on "The Enemy Guns," the way it bends ever-so-slightly, the way it soars into the stratosphere and lands with authority on "Twenty-Six Temptations." Listen to this album's title track and I dare you to not be moved. You may know this band (and may have heard a part of "How it Ends") if you've seen the film Little Miss Sunshine, as they scored the film and used some of their existing music. What is most amazing about this band is their eclectic instrumentation. This album has standard pop fare-guitar, bass, drums-but also comes with sousaphone, trumpet, theramin, accordion, melodica, organ...the list goes on. Sometimes they play and sound like a Mariachi band; other times, they sound like an Eastern European street band and still other times like a rock band. This is a group to keep your ears tuned to. Need more proof? Check out their cover of Siouxsie & The Banshee's "Last Beat of My Heart" on DeVotchka's Curse Your Little Heart EP.

1. The Hazards of Love - The Decemberists
Picks: Whole Album

Amazingly, The Decemberists get to be the only repeat band on my list (you may recall how well NBC was featured on my Television list, and how much I must love Pixar from my Film list). If The Crane Wife is exhibit A in proving the album is still alive, The Hazards of Love should be Exhibit N, as in "No need for further exhibits, you've got the jury fully convinced now." Here is what I suggest you do when you give this album a listen: 1) Turn off or unplug your telephone so it will not ring. 2) Make sure you have just had a well-balanced meal before listening. 3) Get yourself a really nice pair of speakers and lock yourself in the room with them. 4) Put this album on and listen to it, start to finish, once. 5) Reflect; hum the tunes that stuck with you while you go about your regular business. 6) Wait two or more hours. 7) Repeat as necessary. I'd say "The Decemberists did it again!" but that's not true. If they had done "it" again (it, in this case, referring to how very great The Crane Wife was) then this would be an accomplishment of a much lesser degree. No, this time, The Decemberists outdid themselves in the studio and then went on to outdo that on tour. That's right; due to the integrated and seamless aspect to the tunes on this album, and their knowledge that at best they could only turn one of them into a single ("The Rake's Song"), the band went on tour to support this album by playing the entire album live at each show. And after the whole album was played, the band would continue and play some of their earlier work. And it wasn't just the idea of the album that carried this to the top of the list; the story it tells is interesting, the characters as well rounded as a loose rock opera would allow, and filled with such beauty and danger that every time I listen, I hear something new. Listen. Now.

Honorable mentions:

In Rainbows - Radiohead

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

( ) - Sigur Ros

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco

Diary: Remastered - Sunny Day Real Estate

Yes, I am well aware that a remastered version of an album originally released in 1994 has no business being on a "Best of the Decade 2000-2009" list, but I felt bad their one offering for the decade (2000's The Rising Tide) didn't come close to making the cut.

So, there you have it. My best-ofs for the decade. I hope in ten years, blogging is still cool enough that I'll feel like doing this again will be worth it.

Happy New Year!

*Of course by "bought" I mean that I may or may not have obtained it through what may or may not have been an illegal file-sharing network.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Haven't Forgotten...

...about the top albums of the decade. I am writing that post in spurts and will post when I am finished.

However, first I wanted to vent about something that just happened to me.

You may recall my undeniable love for Sunny Day Real Estate and especially for Diary, their first album. You may also remember that I mentioned how the band had released remastered versions of Diary and LP2 this year to coincide with their reunion tour. You might remember, too, that I said they were available on vinyl. And finally, you probably forgot that I told you that I received LP2 Remastered on vinyl for my birthday. What you definitely don't know (because I haven't told you yet) is that for Christmas, my friend Beth gave me Diary Remastered on vinyl the Saturday before Christmas. The very next day, I put it on my turntable and lowered the stylus onto the record. I waited for the needle to find the groove. I watched as a really nasty warp kicked the stylus up and off of the record. I swore.

I called Beth up just to ask where she bought it, and she told me So I called Amazon, and set up a gift return (I was trying to set up an exchange, but apparently the guy I was talking to did not understand that concept). So, I printed out the shipping label, sent it off on the Tuesday before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, I got an e-mail saying they had received the package and that I had been refunded with a gift card, so on Christmas Eve I ordered the album again.

So today, four days after Christmas and a good ten days after I received the album as a present, I checked the tracking status of my order and saw that it had arrived at my door. I had to stay late at work, which of course made the anticipation nearly kill me, but I waited it out and returned home two and a half hours late. I ate dinner, took a shower, threw in a load of laundry, talked to Kathy, then unboxed the record, removed the shrink wrap, put the first record on the turntable and lowered the stylus onto the record. I waited for the needle to find the groove. I watched as a really nasty warp kicked the stylus up and off of the record. This time, I really swore.

It was then I noticed the condition of the album cover; the upper left corner is all mashed up. This thing looks like it had been shipped from Seattle to Kentucky to St. Louis to Kentucky to St. Louis. In short, I am fairly certain shipped me the record I just returned to them as broken. Which means I will have to wait another four business days at least before I can listen to my record. Considering Friday is New Year's Day, that translates to at the very earliest I will be able to listen to this record next Tuesday, nearly two and a half weeks after I got it as a present.

I asked when I authorized a return this time if I could get the refund on my credit card rather than as a gift card. No can do. I asked, "What if the same thing happens again?" Then the same thing will happen again, and I can get the refund on my credit card if when I check out the next time I buy it with my credit card. That means I will have an Amazon gift card to spend, sure, but this is the only thing I am wanting to buy right now. Sure, down the road, I will buy something else on Amazon, but it's not like I was planning on buying a movie at Best Buy and might as well buy it online and get the record at Euclid Records or Vintage Vinyl here in town. I don't plan on spending they money, you know?

I guess the moral of this story is, if you're going to buy vinyl records, don't buy them on, buy them at a local record shop. If you're unlucky and don't have one of those anymore, you'd probably have better luck opening a local record shop yourself rather than ordering vinyl from Amazon. If you don't have the means to do this, you'd probably have better luck driving several hours to some other locality's local record shop. Bottom line, this experience has taught me to never order vinyl from Amazon again. I will gladly order DVDs, books, and other crap. But never will I ever order vinyl from EVER. /End Rant.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas From Your Writer & His Family

Acrodyl Joseph, Christmas 2007.

Amethyst Bernardette, Christmas 2008

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Top Ten (erm...Fifteen) Films of the Decade

This is where things will start getting heated. Many of my readers are very opinionated and plugged in to the world of film, and have incredibly different views than I do. Well, that's what this is for...discussion. As I said in my book list, I had trouble narrowing this down to ten so I expanded it by five. Let me know what you think.

15. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

I know what everyone is thinking: Really, Elliot? Really? That was one of the worst films I've seen in the last ten years. In fact, that was one of the worst films I've seen, ever. It's only good in comparison to Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. But here's the thing; if George Lucas had made the first two in the new trilogy with as much story and energy as he put into the third one, we would hate the new trilogy a lot less. The dialog was terrible, yes. The acting wooden, yes. The...wait. Maybe I did hate this film. But for all of the anticipation I had for this movie, I'm tricking myself into it being a better film than it actually was.

14. Little Miss Sunshine
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Not just because the soundtrack is DeVotchka and Sufjan Stevens heavy (though that helped), this film was an achievement for cast and director alike. While everyone turns out incredible performances, Steve Carrell and Paul Dano provide amazing turns as (respectively) Frank Ginsberg, a suicidal gay professor and Dwayne, the quintessential dark teenage boy. And even though Dano doesn't speak for the better part of the film, when he finally speaks he has some of the best lines of the film. Some I have spoken to despise the climactic scene, decrying what Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) does at the pageant as disgusting. If this was you, then you totally missed the point. I'd suggest rewatching just the pageant scene.

13. Ratatouille
Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar has yet to disappoint, which is a dangerous position to hold in an industry as unforgiving as the film industry. Everyone knows that when giants fall, they fall much harder than anyone else. So what is Pixar's secret? Well, it's revealed in the very opening sequence of this film, as the camera (even though it's animated, it feels like it was shot) zooms in on an old-fashioned television. The high pitched ringing you hear isn't a problem with your ears or with your home theater system or anything like that; it's Pixar throwing in a realistic element most filmmakers would manipulate to remove. It's that old fashioned television ringing in your ears. It's the cracked linoleum in the same place every time. It's the uneven lines in the grout of the linoleum (it is much easier to animate a straight line but they don't like easy). It's the realistic whiskers on the rat. It's the way the neon lights flicker on atop the restaurant. It's the way you can almost smell the food. It's the way you want to eat the food when you leave the show. That's what it is. This is a prime example of Pixar's awesomeness.

12. Everything is Illuminated
Warner Independent Pictures

Liev Schreiber and Everything is Illuminated author Jonathan Safran Foer have much in common. Both are up and coming in their field, and represent the newer generation of Jewish artists. This film, based on Foer's debut novel, is Schreiber's directorial debut (and the only director credit he has to this point). Everything is Illuminated is a beautiful and faithful adaptation of about two thirds of the book or so. Moments range from the humorous to the heart wrenching. Eugene Hutz turns in a great performance as Alex, the Ukrainian translator for Jonathan (Elijah Woods). Alex has a loose grasp on the English language and American Culture, causing him to hire a street band (Hutz's real life band Gogol Bordello) to play the Star Spangled Banner upon Jonathan's arrival. Wood himself avoids sentimentalism as Jonathan Safran Foer, a fictional version of the book's author. Jonathan collects mementos of his trip in a black fanny pack. It takes guts to wear one of those after 1992. And despite the fanny pack, this film is beautiful.

11. There Will Be Blood
Ghoulardi Film Company

I'm a fan of character-driven narratives, and There Will Be Blood delivers exactly that. I could give you the basic plot in probably a few sentences, but the plot is not what's important. What's important is Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his character arc. He begins as a mineral prospector and ends as a rich oil man, and on the way you see what he is willing to do to get what he wants. Paul Dano (again he crops up in my list...I think I kinda like this guy) shines as Eli Sunday, a preacher intent on reaping the benefit of the oil for his church (Dano also plays Paul Sunday, Eli's twin brother). While this film can be, at times, heavy handed, Daniel Day-Lewis' performance stands out as the best of the decade.

10. The Incredibles
Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

Reason number two Pixar makes great films: Story. From concept to execution, this film has it done right. Sure, we've seen this idea about Super Heroes and their identity crises. Since Superman met Clark Kent this has been going on. The idea of the general public turning against the heroes, forcing them into obscurity? Also not new. But the way it is done works very well. For instance, when Mr. Incredible returns home from a night of vigilante heroism and is confronted by his wife, the moment feels real. It's almost as if she caught him returning from a late night tryst. The film is also funny when it needs to be but dark, like all good super hero fare. The only bad moment comes when Violet tells her brother "Their lives could be in danger, or worse; their marriage!" But, I guess that's a teenager for you...

9. High Fidelity
Dogstar Films

I'm a sucker for a film about a music snob. It's like looking into a moving, celluloid mirror. Throw in some stuck up beer snobbery and references to Italian bicycles and German cars, and Rob Gordon (John Cusack) could very easily be an alternate reality version of this blog's author. But relatability isn't the only reason this film lands in my top ten. It's also the structure; the in-moment narration, the breaking of the fourth wall, it all works so well. Rob invites us into his world and shows us more than he intends to. We know he's an idiot, but he remains more or less clueless throughout. Jack Black also shines as Barry, a brash music snob who works at the record shop Rob owns. I am happy to say that I am not Rob Gordon, but if I squint hard enough I can see that parallel universe. The book would have made it onto my last top ten list, but alas! it was published in 1996. I highly recommend adding this to your list. Caveat; there are those who do not like John Cusack films because they seem to always include Joan. She's in this one, but it's my favorite role I've seen her in so you should totally give her a chance.

8. Star Trek
Paramount Pictures

Let me give you the standard rundown I always give regarding Star Trek films: watch the even-numbered ones and you will only be slightly disappointed when you get to Nemesis, the last Trek film released (which was basically The Wrath of Kahn but with the Next Generation cast). Generally skip the odd numbered ones (although The Voyage Home will make no sense without The Search for Spock) because the original is pretty but boring, the third one feels a bit forced, the fifth one is flat out terrible, Generations is pretty meh, and Insurrection isn't even good enough to be a bad science fiction film. But then director J.J. Abrams took the helm and made number eleven and it kicks ass. Like The Wrath of Kahn, this is a great science fiction film apart from being a Star Trek film. It would have been very easy to do this wrong (look at The Phantom Menace) but Abrams avoided the fanboys' cries of "You're messing with canon!" by flat out rewriting it. Watch. This. Film.

7. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Anonymous Content

Jim Carrey can be a good actor. He has shown this before, in The Truman Show, in The Man on the Moon and in Liar Liar (underrated). But this is also the man who gave us Ace Ventura, The Cable Guy and Me, Myself & Irene. In Eternal Sunshine, Carrey proves again that he is a capable actor. Maybe he just enjoys acting in terrible roles. Maybe he likes the idea of jumping on a motorcycle in a hospital gown and letting the audience get a look at his crack (Yes Man, I'm looking in your direction with partially closed eyes), I guess. Please, please do more films like this one, Jim Carrey. Joel Barish (Carrey's character) is one of the most sardonic protagonists to grace the silver screen. Not to mention the beautiful script. Kate Winslet shows her range, too, playing the Bohemian Clementine. Elijah Wood (looks like I like him, too) does a good job, too, as Patrick, a man who uses what he gleans about Clementine from Joel to pursue a relationship with her. Part Drop Dead Fred, part Being John Malkovich, this movie will make you think about the good and the bad parts of relationships, asking us to consider how we could walk away from the good when all we can see is the bad.

6. Lord of the Rings: The Complete Trilogy
New Line Cinema

Clearly, I do like Elijah Wood. Except that, well, it's not that I don't like him, I just happen to like some of the films he's been in. It's not always because of him. In fact, I'd say that though he is the main character of at least the first of these three films, (Viggo Mortensen taking over in the second), it was not his performance that landed these films the collective six spot on my list. No, I will give the credit to director Peter Jackson, for his vision and attention to detail and balls of steel. It's one thing to tamper with a beloved world that's been around for thirty years (like Star Wars) or forty years (like Star Trek), but author J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth has existed since 1937. Its history is rich and detailed and has an established mythology (read The Silmarillion; it is basically Middle Earth's bible) and people know the history. So to tackle a project like this, It's sweeping and epic but it never feels like it's straining to cover its bases. Originally, Jackson broke the three novels into two scripts, believing it would make the project marketable. At the time, Miramax held the film rights and asked Jackson if he thought he could change his plans from two films to one. That would have been straining. When New Line Cinema picked up the option, they called Jackson for a meeting to discuss the "two-film" approach, which they felt was wrong. Ready to defend against a single film, Jackson was delighted to find New Line's quibble wasn't that two films was too much, they were concerned that two films would not be enough. These three films go together on the list as an achievement of modern film-making and of script adaptation; the performances of the actors carried this up to the number six spot.

5. Snatch
Columbia Pictures Corporation/SKA Films

Nobody thought director Guy Ritchie could outdo Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels at all. When I first saw the trailer for Snatch, I was worried. It looked like Ritchie had just remade Lock Stock with a bigger budget and some bigger names (Benicio Del Toro as Frankie Four Fingers, Brad Pitt as Mickey). I'll admit, I did not see this one in theaters. In fact, I waited two years before I finally rented it, waiting for it to come off the new release wall at Blockbuster (wow, remember when we used to rent our movies at Blockbuster?) before shelling out money to see it. What a mistake that was. This movie doesn't rehash Ritchie's previous offering, it obliterates it. It's multifaceted, multi-layered and hilarious. Ritchie proved again that he is a master of the complicated screenplay. Jason Statham gives us his best role to date as Turkish, the film's main character and narrator. A friend once explained Snatch like this; "If you've seen Crash, you know how all the characters affect all the others, even though they may not actually meet? It's like that, only, you know, hilarious." Unfortunately for Ritchie, his follow-ups have been let downs (though I have not yet seen RocknRolla or Sherlock Holmes) with duds like Swept Away and Revolver. Oh, Guy Ritchie; if only Madonna would have helped your career.

4. Finding Nemo
Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar again, and this time they gain a spot because of the emotion they can bring. If we were really going for one-time emotional punch, I would have included Up! on the list merely for the first twelve minutes (I ball my eyes out every damn time). But Nemo gives us a shock followed by a slow release of emotion. Clownfish get eaten by barracudas. It happens. We shouldn't care, it's part of nature. But we do care. And then we fall for Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) because he finds the one remaining egg and gives it the name his wife wanted. It's a great story about a single parent raising a small child in the dangerous, every day world. Except their fish. But Pixar makes us care about the fish. They pay close attention to the movement of the water, the movement of the fish, to make everything as real as possible. Obviously, a talking fish is not real. The emotion is. The emotion is very, very real.

3. O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Touchstone Pictures

Dear Critics, you're all idiots. What was it about this film that you didn't like? Seriously? You all loved the music and hated the film when it was released, but now it's cropping up on your best-of-the-decade lists. Was it that even though it was based on Homer's Odyssey, it was too loose for you? Come on! The film itself was a great story, hilariously told and rich with what could, I guess, be called 1930's pop culture references. The music helped everything in this film (without the music, the film would be on my top ten, but not in the top three). You're all morons, all of you, and I question every review you all write from here on out in perpetuity.

2. Wall-E
Pixar Animation Studios

This is, in my opinion, Pixar's masterpiece. This will be the Pixar film (and computer-animated film) against which I judge all of Pixar's future films (or other computer-animated films). While other animation studios are concerned with the cleanliness of the world they animate (and dirtiness in the script...Shrek I'm looking in your direction this time), Pixar is more concerned with a beautiful script, a beautiful story, and a beautiful rendering of an imperfect world. Like the uneven grout in the linoleum in Ratatouille, like the dirty floor in Monster's, Inc and like the garbage-encrusted Earth in Wall-E, Pixar knows how to do it. Many filmmakers try to avoid accidental soft-focus and lens flares. Pixar works hard to get them in. Bottom line; many films shot with cameras look like they were rendered on a computer but Pixar makes their computer rendered films look like they were shot with cameras. And aside from that, Wall-E gets the top of the Pixar heap because it is beautiful to look at, has a great message and carries a great warning. The ultimate irony, though, is that Disney financed and distributed this film about the Earth being corrupted and destroyed by a giant corporation bent on selling the world a bunch of crap that ends up in landfills.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums
American Empirical Pictures

Wes Anderson showed he was a genius with Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. Then he released The Royal Tenenbaums and cemented his status. I can't say anything about this movie, though, because once I start, I don't stop. If you haven't seen it, well...get on it. Hilarious cross-reference: Best TV Show star Jason Bateman once described Arrested Development as "Royal Tenenbaums shot like Cops." Now stop reading and update your Netflix queue.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Top Ten Books of the Decade

For the greater part of the past decade, I was not so much able to read at my leisure as I was assigned books to read for class in a given time frame. I managed to squeeze in a few books here and there, over the summer, during break, instead of sleeping, that were not assigned reading. Most of the assigned reading, in fact, was at the newest fifteen years old. Basically, most of the reading I've done in the last ten years was of books published in the prior four thousand years or so (Beowulf, I'm looking at you). So this was probably the hardest list for me to put together. No Twilight, although we do get some Potter for all you nerds out there with me.

10. And Another Thing... - Eoin Colfer

Despite the fact that Colfer did not start the series and had no real right to continue or even try to end it, he did an okay job. It was a difficult task, there can be no doubt about that, and the average fan boy was probably more than willing to give it the old "Star Wars Prequel" treatment, but, you know, things worked out okay. Check here for my full review.

9. Furious Improvisation - Susan Quinn

The only non-fiction book to make my list is a fascinating read, and became much more topical than the author could have imagined when she began researching the project. This book tells the story of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal Public Works effort to put actors, writers, directors and other theatre professionals back to work. Sadly, this current economic downturn lacks a modern counterpart to this program which produced some of the most influential, controversial and best Theatre the country has ever seen. If you are at all interested in the well-being of artists in your community, send a copy of this to your Congressman and/or to the president, with a note indicating your concern and that you think we should try this again and, this time, not let it fall prey to any witch hunt. Damn you, Senator McCarthy.

8. Up In the Air - Walter Kirn

It's topical right now, especially, because of the Jason Reitman directed, partially shot in St. Louis, George Clooney starring film based on the novel, but if you haven't seen the movie yet I urge you to read the book first. Actually, I urge you to do that for any film based on a novel. Read the novel first. But no, really, because what Kirn did was paint a portrait of a man who lives in what he calls "Airworld" in our pre-9/11 days (the book having been published the very first day of 2001). It's wry, it's funny and sad at the same time. I did not imagine protagonist Ryan Bingham looking anything like George Clooney...I imagined him somewhat faceless, banal, like the hotel rooms and rental cars. In Fight Club (written by Chuck Palahniuk), the lead character drones about how everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. Ryan Bingham loves this about Airworld. You will love this book.

7. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer

There is a hand full of post-9/11 literature which uses that day as a backdrop, none more emotionally in-the-moment charged as Don DeLillo's Falling Man and none more indicative of the man's exploitive nature than Neal LaBute's play The Mercy Seat. Both of these begin that morning, as the sirens ring and the dust flies. But Extremely Loud begins two years later, and does not tackle to politics or the emotional warpings of the direct victims, it follows a young boy as he comes to terms with losing his father. The narrator, nine year old Oskar Schell, carries through the novel a secret about his father. Foer's style combines prose with post-modern visual writing, which some have criticized but which I find helps capture the spirit of the characters.

6. The Salmon of Doubt - Douglas Adams (Posthumous)

The Salmon of Doubt was the working title for no fewer than three of Douglas Adams' novels, and that includes the novel in progress discovered in bits and pieces on his hard drive after his death. More than just the bare beginnings of a novel, this book gives us a collection of essays, letters and speeches Adams wrote throughout his life. It reads like a documentary culled together from home movies; it's almost an autobiography but he doesn't attempt to hide or call attention to his shortcomings which, sadly, included more procrastination than writing.

5. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - J. K. Rowling

You knew I had to throw one of these in, and the only reason I didn't just include the whole series is that since some of the books were published prior to the year 2000, that would have been breaking the rules (and if I were going to break the rules, I would have put Freaks and Geeks on my Top Ten TV list). I did not feel that I should post individually, and really, adding all of the Harry Potter books published this decade into one entry would have bumped it down the list, so I chose what I feel is the strongest book of the series with Half Blood Prince. Rowling gives us the heaviest blow in the series with the death of a major character ( the love's Dumbledore, okay? Dumbledore. If you haven't read it by now you're not likely to). Sure, others in the series gave us loss, but not in the magnitude of this one. Also, it set up the greatest twist in the whole series, culminating in the last book with the chapter titled "The Prince's Tale." This book is pivotal in Harry's story, and is layered enough that I had to read it twice before the full effect hit me.

4. All Things, All At Once: New and Collected Stories - Lee K. Abbott

I met Lee K. Abbott, last fall at Webster University. He came and read from this book and then read from a work in progress. It's always interesting to meet a writer you admire, and I admired him primarily because of the stories in this book. He writes about growing up, fathers and sons, brothers, the desert, Roswell, love, sex, rock and roll, and he writes about them so well. I will admit that my short story "Before Rock Attained Perfection" was very heavily influenced by Abbott. My copy may be a paperback edition, but when I get a nice bookcase with glass doors to put my treasured books behind, this goes in there, right next to my battered copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

3. The Ministry of Special Cases - Nathan Englander

This book haunts me. The imagery, the symbolism, the humor and the sadness. All of it. Haunts me. Ever heard of the Argentinian Dirty War? Perhaps you have heard of Los Desaparecidos? Political dissidents-and often times innocent people wrongfully accused-were rounded up and systematically removed from society; locked in prison, shuffled into an impenetrable bureaucracy ostensibly for release, and then quietly pushed out of an airplane flying over the ocean in the dead of night. The Ministry of Special Cases tells the story of Kaddish Poznan, a Jewish man living with his family in Argentina, the ultimate outsider who is paid by rich Jewish families to remove evidence that their family was ever associated with a now defunct temple, a temple associated with prostitution and organized crime. He makes their past vanish. And then, his son vanishes as well. It is...powerful stuff.

2. You Don't Love Me Yet - Jonathan Lethem

Oh, Jonathan Lethem; you had me at Motherless Brooklyn back in 1999 (a novel which is soon to be released as a Edward Norton directed film next year). You're quirky, you're witty, and you write so beautifully about awkward sex. And in You Don't Love Me Yet, you write so well about art, music, and awkward sexual tension. The novel centers around a nameless indie-rock quartet which has a total of 35 minutes worth of music. Lucinda, the bass player, sets up a gig at a dance party. But there is a twist. My favorite moment in the book (and yours, too, probably) comes at the "Dance Party" where the band is supposed to play so quietly, no one can hear them. The party's guests are then supposed to dance to the music they brought in with their own walkmen. The food is not to be eaten. The party itself is to be a work of art, but the confusion of what the guests expects vs what the organizer intended breaks down, and it becomes the one moment for the unnamed band to shine. Light but smart, I read this one in all of two sittings.

1. Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer

Foer has a way of picking the defining crises in our collective history, and making beauty out of them. While the Liev Schreiber directed film starring Elijah Wood is a pretty faithful adaptation of two thirds of the book, it is that last third that brings the most beauty and sadness to the novel. Everything is Illuminated is funny and sombre, often times in the same sentence. As a writer, I would have been terrified to have turned out such a novel for my first offering. I'd be afraid I could never have followed it up. Fortunately for readers, Foer seems not to notice the quality of his words after he's polished them. Time to move on to the next project.

Honorable Mention:

A Moveable Feast: Restored Edition - Ernest Hemingway (posthumous), Sean Hemingway (introduction) and Patrick Hemingway (foreword)

What this little list of Hemingways after the title does not tell you is that Sean and Patrick, Ernest Hemingway's grandsons, heavily edited this book to make their grandmother, Ernest's first wife, look better. Some critics argued that Mary Hemingway, Ernest's fourth wife who edited the original manuscript before its first publication in 1964, removed large chunks at her discretion which have been reinstated for this edition. I include this as an honorable mention only to concede to the fact that long after the artist is gone, their name can be invoked and new insights attributed to them.

Keep checking back. To be honest, this list was hard in that I had to really think about ten new books I've read in the last ten years. I expected my Top Ten films and Albums lists to be easier, but in fact they were harder to narrow down to only ten of each. In fact, it got so hard that my top ten films and albums lists will now be top fifteen lists, each with honorable mentions as well. Look for those as the week progresses to Christmas. And as usual, let me know what you think. Ready any new, good books lately and want to share? Read something on my list and you completely disagree that it should be anywhere near the top ten? Let me know!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Top Ten Television shows of the Decade

This is an easy way to kick off my top ten lists; television. It's easier to remember what shows started this decade. To clarify, I will not be listing shows that were merely on during this decade, they have to be shows that began their run. No Friends (no danger of that anyway) or Freaks and Geeks (damn!). Also, please remember this is my personal top ten. It's got nothing to do with ratings, DVD sales, or how much money NBC slipped me to promote their shows (they win big with five of the ten). So, without further ado, here goes:

10. Star Trek: Enterprise

I actually prefer this incarnation of Trek to Voyager and some of the pre-Dominion War episodes of Deep Space Nine, as it addressed a part of the Star Trek universe we had never seen before: Pre-Kirk Starfleet. Pay close attention to Season 3; the show's producers knew it was in trouble so they devised a season-long arc involving the Xindi, a race bent on the annihilation of Earth. Ignore the season-ending time warp to was almost as if the producers sensed the Friday-Night death knell approaching. Not helped by the fact that it was being broadcast on UPN, this has become the least ubiquitous of Trek's casts. But local boy Scott Bakula made a great Captain Archer.

9. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

One of the many television shows to be cut before its time, Studio 60 should have survived, and would have if it hadn't 1) had to follow up The West Wing's success and also 2) been placed in NBC's rotation the same season as 30 Rock. While Studio 60 was earnest, felt, and smart, 30 Rock was silly, hilarious, and smart. A hat tip to Bradley Whitford and Matthew Perry, both coming off hugely successful shows on NBC and jumping on what was the best new show on their line-up that year.

8. Heroes

This television show would be much higher rated on my list if not for seasons 2-4 (four being the current season). The first season was so promising; it told the stories of ordinary people coming to terms with these extraordinary gifts they were given. They did heroic things and faced villains who ranged from misguided megalomaniacs to insanely dangerous serial killers. Characters were intriguing and layered and even though it played at times like a bad soap opera (Ali Larter, I'm looking at your storyline) it was still a great show. The only let down came with the season finale, which promised so much and delivered only a fraction. Then came the confusing and short-lived second season, followed by the character-overloaded first half of third. The second half, again, promised great things but the villains were just re-hashes of the first season, and so were the plots. The fourth season promised to fix these things, but so far, it's been more of the same. But remember that first season, brimming with excitement and possibility. It was really that good once.

7. My Name is Earl

Earl was based on a very simple and very cool premise; a man who has lived a life of degradation and sin receives an unexpected windfall followed by an equally unexpected setback, which he interprets as Karma. The series then follows him crossing all the bad things he's done off his list as he rights his past wrongs. What a cool concept for a show, right? And it worked; Jason Lee was perfect as the titular character, and the supporting cast fit into the white-trash universe Earl inhabited. Smart, witty and charming, this show had great potential. Sadly, NBC did not renew this show for the 2009-2010 season, leaving Earl Stuckey's list unresolved. NBC, this is another one to add to your list, right alongside Freaks and Geeks and Studio 60, not to mention the original Star Trek.

6. The Office

No one can dispute the effect this American translation of the Ricky Gervais BBC hit has had on pop culture in America. Everyone knew a Michael Scott, a Dwight Schrute, a Jim Halpert, etc before this show hit the airwaves, but now we have names for these kinds of people. And the timing was perfect for star Steve Carrell, having come off 40 Year Old Virgin and right into a starring sitcom role. The show is smart, witty, and partially unscripted, which is the way things seem to be going. Strangely, many people love this show but have never paid any attention to its Fox Network fore-runner (see below--Number 1 best show) which clearly paved the way. NBC just knew how to market it better, which is why this one lasts so much longer. "That's what she said."

5. Boston Legal

ABC's first (and, technically, only) addition to the list picked up where its predecessor The Practice left off, transplanting characters to keep the audience familiar. The show did not truly take off until Rene Auberjonois and Candace Bergen joined the cast, each providing a foil against James Spader's brash character Alan Shore and William Shatner's egomaniac attorney Denny Crane. The show tackled the Patriot Act, abortion, adoption, same-sex marriage, and provided viewers the most mature Bromance network television is ever likely to see in Shatner and Spader. Ending its run in December 2008, Boston Legal gets the honor of being the only non-active television series listed which I believe ended at the correct moment. Denny Crane.

4. Scrubs

Nothing could have prepared me, in 2001, for the comedic onslaught I was about to receive from Bill Lawrence, Zach Braff and the rest of the cast of Scrubs. Arguably one of the best pilots ever put together, the first episode left in no doubt what each main character's motives were. Even the Janitor (Neil Flynn), who was not included in any of the subsequent scripts that had been written before filming the pilot, had fans after that first broadcast. In a market glutted with medical dramas, Scrubs continued to get funnier and funnier as the seasons went on. Sadly, this is the show that gets the award for being put on unnecessary life-support. With the writer's strike shortened seventh season being its last on NBC, ABC picked it up and began inserting Disney references that had not been there before. With the departure of many of the shows characters after the eight season, and the introduction of several new characters, the show now feels more like Saved By The Bell: The New Class. But do yourself a favor and check out the season six episode "My Musical." Braff and co-star Donald Faison deliver the best (not most mature, mind, but best) Bromance to grace the small screen.

3. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

The only cable show to make it on here. I don't have cable, so my ability to catch shows on cable has been few and far between until Hulu started carrying many shows. Sunny is the only one I follow regularly, and I have never laughed so hard. The idea behind the show, I think, is to have these incredibly smart and talented actors portray the stupidest people on the planet and just sort of improvise around a loose script for a while. And it works. The show is crass, rude, and offensive to human decency, but the fact that the characters don't seem to notice makes it work.

2. Glee

I am well aware that Glee is in its first season, but it is that good. It does seem, at times, to just be playing silly buggers with the cross-relationship love triangles (or quadrangles as the case may be) but there is always a pay-off. And the music is amazing. Sure, no high school choir in the country could pick up sheet music and improvise a dance and ever hope to sound half as good as that, but you have to look past that. As little work as the students seem to be putting into Glee Club, the actors are putting so much into Glee. And I know there has been some controversy about the autotune on voices (a device used in a recording studio to mechanically adjust the pitch of a voice so they are signing the exact perfect note) but imagine having to record that many songs a week. Of course they're going to take some short cuts. The thing to remember is that these people really are singing, they are giving it their all. And there is always going to be a payoff.

1. Arrested Development

You still haven't seen this show? What is wrong with you? Creator Mitch Hurwitz and Executive Producer (and narrator) Ron Howard gave us an incredible three years' worth of the smartest, funniest television ever produced and Fox gave it the ax. Part of what made it so smart was that the show itself knew it was doomed, and mocked this fact. Season two's length was cut midway through, so they wrote a similar cut for the fictional Bluth Company into an episode. Season three was a scramble to simultaneously wrap up the series and shop around for a new network, leading to the most hilarious episode of television ever produced entitled "Save Our Bluths." The episode dealt with saving the Bluth Company by means of a celebrity-studded gala, and searching for another company to help ("Perhaps the Home Builders Organization?" "No, HBO would never pick us up." "Well then I guess it's Showtime!") Somebody dies. The conclusion was broadcast live. All the regular gimmicks to keep a show going. Loyal viewers laughed so hard they cried and cried so hard they laughed. We all knew it was coming to an end. There has been talk of a movie ever since, so we're keeping our ears to the ground on that one. When Fox sees the revenue the film brings in, let's hope they think back on the show's cancellation and say, "I've made a huge mistake."

Honorable Mentions:

Pushing Daisies

Damn you, writer's strike of 2007. This show had such potential. Damn you, ABC, for not noticing.


Like Glee, FlashForward has just completed the first half of its first season. It has shown promise, but has not left the same kind of impression that Glee has. So, judgment has been reserved for the time being.

30 Rock

I still contend that this show and Studio 60 should both have been allowed to grow. They offered differing perspectives on the same theme. And while I love 30 Rock, only one of the two could make my top ten, and based on what could have been, this one got the boot.

I know many people will cry out that ABC's Lost is not on here. I just could never get into it. Perhaps if I tried again, I could, but when the first season aired I worked nights, and back then we didn't have Hulu yet. I felt unqualified to offer my opinion. Also, you'll note that there are no reality shows on my list. That was calculated. Reality shows aren't even good enough to make it onto my "Bottom Ten" list. They just shouldn't even exist.

Check back for more of the best of the decade in the next few days. And let me know what you think: agree/disagree? Leave me your top ten. Tear mine apart. But be gentle, elsewise I might not want to share any more of my best-ofs with you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Coming Soon

Everybody is doing their top ten lists nowadays. Makes sense, as it's the end of the year and also the end of the decade. NPR Music has been doing a great recap of the best music of the decade, including All Songs Considered's 50 Most Important Recordings.

Well, I thought, why not do some of that myself? So, starting later today, you will begin seeing my top ten lists of the best of the decade. Topics will include best albums, best books, best movies and best television.

A caveat: This will be limited to those albums, books, films and shows I have actually heard/seen/read. It will include some very obvious entries (nobody expects Fox's Arrested Development to not be my top television show) and some really obscure entries as well (I doubt many of you have actually read All Things, All at Once by Lee K. Abbott). So be looking for those.

Just so everybody knows, I am aware it has been nearly two months since I last posted. Again, I thrive on comments, and when nobody comments on my posts, it makes me less likely to post again in the immediate future. I understand that my last few posts were, um...lengthy? And also very in-depth about an obscure subject. I promise to be more brief with my top-ten list justifications than I was with my Sunny Day Real Estate reviews. That did get a little out of hand, but it had to be done.

Something very cool; I got a Sunny Day Real Estate t-shirt sent to me by my good buddy Zach (who also happens to have been the bass player in my old band The Hitchhikers, the best man at my wedding, and a former cycling team mate) who attended their show in Boston. I was then wearing this shirt on my 27th birthday when my friends Melinda and Jake gave me LP2 (The Pink Album) on Vinyl. The remastered one with bonus tracks. It's pink. I don't mean the cover is pink, because if it wasn't pink it would be a travesty. No, the vinyl itself, is pink. Pink vinyl. I also received a receiver so that I could hook up my record player so I could then listen to pink vinyl. It even sounds pink it's so awesome.

Other than that, I failed at NaNoWriMo this year. I just, for some reason, have hit a wall. This is a bad thing. I need to power through it. It's among my new years' resolutions, and anyway, 2009 has two weeks left to redeem itself and all signs point to it being a major let down. There were good things that happened in 2009, but...well, that's a post for another day. New Year's day, probably. That, I have been working on. I have my farewell to 2009 all written out already. Expect that.

Let's see; I turned another year older last month on the 21st. Got the album, the stereo receiver, an electric razor (Kathy was tired of having to buy me Mach 3 turbo blades), Up In the Air by Walter Kirn, three albums via iTunes giftcards (The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists and Raditude by Weezer), some cash and a six pack of Magic Hat Not Quite Pale Ale (top ten beers of the decade sounds like a dangerous list). Good haul. Most importantly, I got to spend my birthday with good friends and family.

After that, well, nothing much. Took a trip to Chicago and fell in love with our friends' condo. Get this: two grocery stores, a CostCo and a Menards, all within walking distance. Drew carried their Christmas tree home. How awesome is that? Don't answer, I'll tell you; Super awesome. We did some shopping at Ikea and came home with a new CD shelf and a new bookshelf (with glass doors on the bottom half). Got my Christmas shopping done, really excited because I bought Kathy a really nice *** ******** **** of **** ******** ***** *** *********** even though I **** **** ******, but it will **** **** ** *** ********* (the preceding was redacted to preserve surprise for Kathy on Christmas morning). Trust me, she'll love it.

Okay, well, look for a blitz of posts in the next few days. Starting with this one.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I Know That We Would Fall in There For A Time and Then Unfall Again...

(Continued from a previous post)

LP2 was a greater success than Diary commercially if not artistically. But the tensions in the band were too great, and before the album was even released the foursome had gone their separate ways. Mendel and Goldsmith were recruited by Dave Grohl to join Foo Fighters, while Hoerner moved to a farm in rural Washington state and Enigk recorded a solo record called Return of the Frog Queen, which is not without its merits (though I will not be discussing it anymore).

Sub Pop, who was losing its status as a giant of the indie labels (and I know that's counterintuitive) began urging Enigk and Hoerner to collaborate on an album of b-sides and rarities. Buzz began building when Mendel and Goldsmith agreed to contribute to the project. It was soon realized that the album would be short, so the group began writing new material. The rarities album never came to fruition, however, because the group decided instead to record a new full album. Sub Pop was informed and agreed to the change. The buzz grew.

How it Feels to Be Something On

Artist: Sunny Day Real Estate
Title: How it Feels to Be Something On
Label/Year: Sub Pop 1998

During the recording sessions for the second Foo Fighters album, Dave Grohl secretly re-recorded most of the drum tracks with himself playing because he was unhappy with how Goldsmith had played. Understandably upset, Goldsmith left the band to devote his time exclusively to the Sunny Day Real Estate reunion and the new album. Nate Mendel, however, backed out before Sunny Day went into the studio, committing himself full time to Grohl and the Foo Fighters. Mendel had already contributed to many of the songs which found their way onto the third Sunny Day album, but for the recording and the subsequent tour, Jeff Palmer played bass (he was replaced during the tour by Joe Skyward).

How it Feels to Be Something On presented a much more mellow, mature sound to Sunny Day fans. Enigk's characteristic stratospheric voice was more subdued on many tracks. Gone, too, were the interweaving of different instruments. The construction of the different parts were much more traditional; rhythm guitar and bass laid the tonal foundation beside the steady drums, while lead guitar was more subdued than previous offerings.

Despite these differences, the album has gems. The opening track, "Pillars" feels the most like original Sunny Day (the title of this post is borrowed from this song). The album continues without interuption to track two, "Roses in Water." This, again, feels like older Sunny Day, with the familiar unison rhythmic patterns from the first two albums. Back, too, are the hypnotic repetitions which pepper Diary and LP2.

The third track, "Every Shining Time You Arrive" is one of the most beautiful songs on the album; a two chord progression and a looped drum part (which at first I cringed, but it seems to fit, and even as a drummer I've admitted this was a good idea) flow under simple lead lines and Enigk's floating melody. But let me talk about the looped drum part for a moment, if I might. It's true that looping one measure of drum part over and over in a four minute song could get boring, especially for the drummer when you have to play it live, but as a listener you don't notice until it stops for a moment, following the only cymbal crash in the whole song. It has the effect of your grandmother cursing, you know? Think of the most foul-mouthed person you know, and you won't bat an eye when they drop an F-bomb. It has all the effect of an empty water balloon bursting three feet behind you. But if your grandmother dropped one, it has the effect of a supernova. Looping the part was a way to insure Goldsmith only added one crash. Supernova.

From here, the album goes to "Two Promises" which is almost as bad as the album gets. The lyrics are trying too hard to be "She's Leaving Home" by The Beatles; "He thinks, I gave her my heart, she tasted my blood/now she's gone again/Why did you leave me here?/How could you leave me down here?" Add to this, if you try to sing along with it you find it nearly impossible. It's common in Sunny Day Real Estate songs for the guitars to be doing one thing and the vocal a completely different, but in this case the difference is too great.

And unfortunately, you find out next where they could go that could be worse than where they've been. "100 Million" is Dan Hoerner's attempt at an anthem condemning the commoditization of everything and the destruction of the environment. It is blatant; "Pay for the food on your plate to live/Pay for the mood in your mind to give a thought disguised/pay for the simplest things" and the most blatant "One hundred million/fences surround us/can we own everything/including the moon and the sun and the stars?" It's clear that Enigk is the songwriter in the group, while Hoerner just dabbles.

There is respite after this track, however, as the title track is up next. Like Diary's "Sometimes" "How It Feels..." lilts but is full of power and sadness. It always feels like the weight of the song is keeping it from going too fast; powerfully fast drum licks are followed by slow time keeping, Goldsmith leaning on the backside of each beat (jazz drummers will know the opposite of what I am talking about). Like LP2, this album has a creamy center with this piece.

The album moves on to "The Prophet" which begins with acoustic guitar and what sounds like it could be a Buddhist mantra chanted under rising vocal oh's. The drums kick in, not keeping time but denoting breaks where it is acceptable to nod. Without warning, the tune kicks into slow time and the real vocals start, then back, then back again. This makes for good driving music but not good listening music. Following a tune which is a pure pleasure just to sit and listen to, "The Prophet" comes along and instigates movement with its pulse pounding drums and soaring vocals. The end of this tune comes at such fever pitch, you imagine there might not be room for any more music in your speakers regardless of their size.

Aware of this, the band turns it down for the next track, fan favorite "Guitar and Video Games." And before you ask, yes, it is about playing guitars and video games. Sort of. In standard slow-SDRE fashion, this tune lilts. It is, uncharacteristically, about love that seems to be working out. As a teenager when this album was released, who spent much of his time playing guitar and video games, it gave me hope; maybe out there somewhere is a girl who won't mind me and might even join in with guitar and video games. And as I count myself as a fairly standard representation of Sunny Day's fanbase, you can see how it became a fan favorite.

The album's penultimate song has an interesting title with "The Shark's Own Private Fuck." This goes into the same category as "The Blankets Were the Stairs" because I couldn't tell you for a moment why it's called this. I can say that the string accompaniment fits perfectly with the tune, and that it seems as though Goldsmith used this tune as an opportunity to crash his cymbals enough to make up for the restrained loop-track on "Every Shining Time You Arrive."

The final tune on this album, "The Days Were Golden," is rather tragic. Not in and of itself because it's fairly straightforward. "The days were golden/and we were known to be/We won't escape this memory forward on/to the place we sail" it opens. No, what's tragic is that the title says the days were golden. The truth hurts; this album is only a slight improvement over LP2 and does not artistically approach Diary. It's as if the band knew things could not be as good in the future as they had been.

I had the good fortune to be in the audience at Mississippi Nights in St. Louis on February 25, 1999, to see Sunny Day Real Estate as they toured in support of this album. Everything about that night was perfect. Well, almost perfect. I remember it was warm for a February night, which was great. The opening band was a group called MK Ultra (headed by John Vanderslice, if anybody knows who that is) and I had come prepared; they were good enough I wanted to buy their album, so I went to the merch table and bought a copy of The Dream is Over and a Sunny Day Real Estate t-shirt. The shirt, for the record, was a ringer, white with black rings, with the fly from LP2 on the chest and the name of the band on the back in the same font used all over Diary. The second band came out, Heroic Doses, and I liked them so much I bought their album. And when I say album, I mean vinyl. They were out of CDs, and I could either pay them now and give them my address (not falling for that no matter how legit it turned out to be), buy it online (this was 1999, the early days of internet shopping) or get it on cassette or vinyl. I went vinyl. Vinyl is actually a topic for another day, though. Cool moments of the night: peed next to bassist for MK Ultra and shook hands with Heroic Doses' drummer after their set. He was taller than even me. Scary.

I wish I could remember the whole set list. I know they opened with "Pillars" and they played "Seven" and "Rodeo Jones." I also know they played "100 Million" which just confirmed the idea in my head that it is the worst song they've ever written. They played "J'Nuh" and "The Prophet" which I thought was a new song because they started it differently than it starts on the album.

What was cool about the show was Jeremy and Dan spoke to the audience a lot. They talked about the first time they played a show in St. Louis, which Dan said took place in "the basement of a Hardees I think, and there were about twelve people there, only two of whom had heard of us before and only one of whom had a high opinion of us." I remember somebody shouting, "Play 'Two Promises'" and Jeremy saying, "No. You don't want us to do that live, trust me. It's no good live." Somebody else yelled, "Play 'Seven'" and when Dan said they already had, the guy shouted back, "I got here late, play it again!" Everyone laughed. At one point, Goldsmith broke a stick. To close, they played "Days Were Golden." As each member finished their part, he turned off his amp and left the stage until only Goldsmith remained, lightly hammering the time as his spotlight turned amber and completely faded. Amazing. At the end of the night, I had the CD, the record, the t-shirt (on over the shirt I brought), and the broken drumstick. My buddy Zach had similar packages (no vinyl for him) plus an intact drumstick. Our friend Dave made off with a copy of the set list (I wonder if he still has it). It was amazing, and made even more so by the fact that I was sixteen and it was a school night. My ears rang the whole next day, I was tired, but I wore that shirt at school with a smile on my face.

Joe Skyward opted out of the band after the tour ended, and it was decided Enigk, Hoerner and Goldsmith would enter the studio as a threesome to record a fourth album. But not before Sub Pop released a live album and a live concert video.

I'm not going to review the live album. The artwork is boring, the mix isn't great. It's none of the fun of going to a real concert. The video isn't much better. But it fulfilled Sunny Day Real Estate's contract with Sub Pop, and before going into the studio they went label shopping, and ended up on Time Bomb recordings (an independent label with the power of BMG's distribution network). It was felt that this arrangement would be most beneficial; the small label would allow Sunny Day to stay in creative control while BMG could reach a larger market. Good bye Sub Pop, hello Time Bomb.

The Rising Tide

Artist: Sunny Day Real Estate
Title: The Rising Tide
Label/Year: Time Bomb 2000

In early 2000, a free mp3 was offered on Sunny Day's website. It was an early mix of "The Ocean" from their new album, and I liked what I heard. It was of the mellow variety Sunny Day Real Estate, but it had everything I loved about their music. I couldn't wait until the album came out.

I remember buying this CD at Vintage Vinyl at midnight on June 20th, 2000. It was the summer before my senior year of high school. I wore my Sunny Day Real Estate shirt and stood in line for an hour before midnight. I went with my friend Emily Adams in her VW Beetle. It was that awesome kind of summer night warmth that is perfect for driving with the windows down. About five minutes after midnight, I had my copy and we were heading back out to her car. We took the longest route home we could think of while I blasted the CD. I managed to keep it low enough her speakers weren't blown out, but only barely. I remember the rubber seal around the passenger door was peeling off inside the car and flapping in the breeze and I remember when the CD ended and we still weren't back to her house (which is where my car was, which was not mine but my dad's and didn't have a CD player) and the CD started over and I beat the dashboard along with William Goldsmith so hard that the glove compartment opened, bashing me in the knees.

This album opens that well. The first track, "Killed By an Angel" starts with a crescendo of drums and into very heavy guitar. For a moment, it feels like old Sunny Day is back. Unison, each instrument feels like it wants to lead but everything fits. Enigk soars above it. And this first tune atones for the sin of "100 Million." This is how you write a song about the state of affairs. "Beg for more when all else fails/serum viles to help you when your sad" the song says, repeating the line "It's never how you feel/it comes in a bottle."

Inexplicably, track two on this album is called "One." And while tunes such as "Seven," "8," "47" and "48" have nothing to do with the number, this one does. "Everything and everyone and in the end we are all one/The truth will not be denied" the chorus goes, annoyingly. The song even opens with the line "And it's strange/how we're wasting our lives novacaine/when the pain helps us rise/here we stay." You realize, oh. It's going to be one of those albums, with a theme of "this is how we see the world and what we think is wrong with it." Look, unless you're U2, a whole album of that gets a little much. Also, it last time you tried something like that, you wrote the worst song you have ever written, maybe you should stick to writing about introspection.

The third track is called "Rain Song" and it dawned on me the first time I thought about it, that they're not the first band to have songs titled "Rain Song" and "The Ocean" on the same album. Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy anyone?

Unfortunately, Sunny Day's "Rain Song" is a bad love song. "You are a devil, they say and it's candy" springs to mind as evidence. Also, "Nevermind the words they waste/they can't see you're mine" and the appallingly creepy "dreaming of the day when you open your arms in the light of our love." You are not the same band that released Diary are you? In fact, the artwork in the liner notes opposite the lyrics for the first three tunes indicates that they are the same band, minus a member; a promotional photograph of the band had been turned into a two-toned pictogram of, from left to right, Goldsmith, Enigk and Hoerner. None of them appear to be smiling.

The fourth track on the album, "Disappear," buys back some of this transgression. In fact, it's got a great pulsating beat and driving guitar, it would fit perfectly where "100 Million" falls on How it Feels... but then this album would have less to sell itself on.

By this point in the first listen, I had learned the main difference between the Sunny Day Real Estate of the year 2000 and the Sunny Day Real Estate of the year 1994; they think they learned how to write a song.

In truth, the artistry seemed to be gone, which is frustrating for a fan. Again, "Disappear" is not a bad tune. But it feels like a regression from where they've been. The following track, "Snibe" is about a fictitious monster, according to interviews with Hoerner. Snibe is inside us all. Snibe is what makes us do bad things to our fellow man. I can't help but like this song, though. The instrumentation is interesting and heavier than the band usually goes. The melody is clever and different enough from what the instruments are doing that it feels less like a regression and more like a sidestep. But the lyrics keep me from loving this song. "Old enough to abuse me/But all too cheap to amuse me" precedes a statement which seems to admit complacency in letting hunger and poverty persist. Again, unless you're U2...

But then we get to "The Ocean" which is the first track on the album that doesn't seem to be trying to either solve or showcase the problems of the world. It lilts. This would fit well on Diary almost. For the first time on this album, it feels like an improvement from their debut. And the ending of this's perfect. I love it. In case you were wondering if I had anything actually nice to say about this album, yes. Yes I do. I love this song. This song is the album's creamy center.

Sunny Day then takes their similarities to Led Zeppelin a step too far with their next track, "The Fool in the Photograph" (In Through the Out Door's "Fool in the Rain" anyone?) but here it stops. With this tune, Sunny Day does something it hadn't done much of except for with LP2's "Iscarabaid" and "J'Nuh:" An instrument matches the vocals. Perhaps they were thinking back on the "Two Promises" debacle, and decided to integrate a fail safe into this tune, which is a difficult one to sing along with as well, though the instrunentation helps. The only truly odd spot in this tune comes at the three minute mark. Up until that point, it's had a kind of mid-eastern style to the chord changes and melody. Then all of a sudden, it's a Rob Thomas song. Not a good feel.

"Tearing in My Heart" comes next, a lilting quiet piece that inexplicably opens with footsteps and a woman's sharp, scratchy and almost angry sounding voice saying "Here's some kids, you wanna hear some kids?" Without waiting for us to answer yes or no, she says, "Listen." And you do hear kids, playing. Apparently, this was Dan's sister recording herself walking around Paris, or something like that. It's strange, and I'm not sure what kind of expiremental angle they were trying to go for with that move. Other than that, the tune itself isn't bad. It's everything "Rain Song" tried to be but wasn't in terms of musicality, and it's a song about how it feels to be abandoned and then rescued. "Tearing in my heart when it all falls apart/and it's almost too hard/Tearing in my soul when you help make me whole/when it's all said and done." A little blatant, but the point is made. It seems like they're trying to predict the future here (writer's note; they are doing that).

Next comes the very strange, we're-really-not-trying-to-sound-like-Radiohead-but-we-kinda-wish-we-did "Television." They don't succeed at sounding like Radiohead at all, but they try to add a little electronica. Not to mention Enigk throws in a vocal riff ripped from former Seattle neighborhood chums Pearl Jam (seriously, I expect Enigk to break into a very ironic version of "Jeremy" after this vocal run at about the one minute twenty second mark).

Next up, the second to last offering is called "Faces in Disguise" and it's actually pretty good. It feels a little Bruce Springsteen "Streets of Philadelphia" inspired, but that's a pretty good tune itself. This one never gets too loud or too busy. This is the peak point of the album, in fact. While it is not like any other Sunny Day Real Estate, it's not bad like some of the other new avenues they explore on this album.

The album closes with the title track. And it returns to the theme of much of the album. "Color your skin with gold and the violence remains/cover your eyes with rose but the stain remains." But much like the first track, this particular tune handles the matter well. While "Killed by An Angel" rocks hard to get the point across, "The Rising Tide" relies on a more subdued piano feel. The record ends with the line "Morning comes in the dream before we rise/when we linger side by side/it's my heart that speaks this time/we will ride the rising tide" which sounds like it could be usurped by Glenn Beck if you think about it, but it's a message of hope. The tide rising is not a bad thing, it's a good thing. High tide can wash away the bad. Right?

Six days after this album found its way out of Vintage Vinyl and into my hands, I took it back to Vintage Vinyl. No, I didn't hate it so much I was willing to sell it back at a loss. And I wasn't so strapped for cash that I sold my most recent acquisition. Why would I return to the store with my copy?

This is why. I wish that were me in that picture, but it's not (I pulled this off of Vintage Vinyl's website). But I was there, trust me, this time with my friend Katie. I got my copy of The Rising Tide signed (I love the guy in this picture with his vinyl copy of How it Feels... which just made me remember Dan Hoerner's sweet tattoo of the starburst from the cover of that album on his left forearm...okay, sorry to slow you down). It was very cool to get the album signed by Jeremy, William and Dan. I even talked to them about their show the year before at Mississippi Nights. Dan said the crowd was great. Jeremy said the second opening act was tough to follow. William said he didn't remember it, that he had such a fever for a couple nights, he said he couldn't remember the shows between Nashville and Boulder. Zach was there, too, and he had the band sign not only his copy of The Rising Tide but also the drumstick Goldsmith had accidentally thrown into the crowd (which was how Zach got the drumstick).

Later that night, they played at The Firehouse. I got there particularly early, so we could get right up close to the stage. In fact, we arrived before the band did, and we were sitting against the venue outside eating Taco Bell (procured for us by a friend who asked us to save him a spot while he got food) when the tour bus pulled up. Dan looked at me and said, "Hey, I know that guy!" It was a cool moment for me.

I wish I could remember more of this concert. I couldn't tell you who the opening bands were, because they weren't all that great. I can tell you that Jeremy, Dan and William were center stage while two nameless guys played bass and keyboard kind of almost off-stage left. I know they played "8" and most of the new album and I remember thinking that "Tearing in My Heart" was a beautiful live song. I know they played "In Circles" and "Shadows." When they played, "The Rising Tide" they exited the stage for five minutes before coming back out. We all screamed, "Play 'Seven'" or whatever other song everybody wanted to hear, but they surprised us all by playing "Sometimes" which they have rarely played live. And that was how it ended; "No words, right words."

After the show, William threw his busted snare drum head frisbee-style into the crowd, and I jumped up and caught it. Dan saw this, looked at me and recognized me again. "I guess you'll have to hold onto that," he said, "and we can sign it the next time we come through." Another awesome moment for me.

But, as the title of this post says, they fell in there for a time and then unfell again. Time Bomb pulled funding for their European tour last minute and then almost overnight disintegrated, leaving the band without a label and without any more tour dates. In fact, the situation with Time Bomb had been a slow burning disaster from the start, with mismanagement and disorganization and very little cash flow. Disilusioned and tired, the band called it quits for a second time.

Amazingly, Hoerner-Enigk-Goldsmith is still Sunny Day Real Estate, but Enigk-Goldsmith-Mendel apparently becomes something new. In 2001, that trio announced a new project entitled The Fire Theft. Like many "projects" in the music industry, this wasn't going to be a band per se, but a group (or "band") of musicians who would tour and record when they had no other obligations (such as Mendel's ongoing association with The Foo Fighters, Enigk's solo career, Goldsmith's crippling arthritis, etc). The music was almost Sunny Day. Almost.

In 2006, rumors began sweeping the internet of a possible SDRE reunion. These rumors were quickly quelched by the members of the band.

In 2007, more rumors began, and while these were also denied, they were not denied as forcefully. And in late 2007, it seemed Enigk and Goldsmith at least were interested in maybe thinking about the slightest chance of possibly pondering the notion of thinking of a reunion. Maybe.

By late 2008, plans were being made. Even Mendel was on board.

And late Summer 2009, Sunny Day Real Estate began touring again. I dug the old drum head out of storage. And then I checked the schedule.

They overlooked St. Louis. I couldn't believe it...they had planned a tour without a stop in the Gateway City. I was heartbroken.

But the more I thought about it, the more I understood. Fellow St. Louisans, you know what I'm talking about: what venues do we have left? Mississippi Nights? Gone. The Firehouse? Dante's Inferno stupid freaking skank dance club now. The Galaxy? Gone. The Side Door? Gone. The Hi-Pointe? Gone. All that's really left is Kiel/Savvis/Scott Trade, The Fox, Riverport/UMB Bank Pavillion/Verizon Wireless/whatever-the-crap-it's-called-now Ampitheatre and The Pageant. Most of those venues are too big or too expensive for Sunny Day. I guess The Pageant was all booked up.

Diary and LP2 have been re-released with bonus tracks on CD and clear red vinyl (available for purchase at This link for anyone interested in buying me a birthday or Christmas present, hint hint clear red vinyl copies of SDRE albums). Their concert from 9/30/09 at the 9:30 club in D.C. was recorded for NPR's All Songs Considered Live Concert Podcast (go download this right now on your iTunes). They opened with "Seven" and closed with "Days Were Golden." They played "Spade and Parade" which was one of their old b-sides. They didn't play a single song from The Rising Tide, which I guess speaks to their own opinion about the album. They even played a new song. If you want to know how it sounds, well...I guess you'll have to go download the podcast yourself. I think I've spoken enough on the subject.

Happy listening.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review: And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer

As stated previously, Eoin Colfer reluctantly accepted the task of writing a sixth book in Douglas Adams' science-fiction/comedy magnum opus The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. Adams himself died in 2001, nine years after the publication of the fifth book in the series. Bridging the gap was probably more than enough of a challenge for Colfer, but he had an even bigger obstacle to keep in mind, an obstacle which in this case is presented to you in the form of me, the Hitchhiker fan. And the worst part is, unlike writer's block or editors or computers crashing and erasing all that masterful writing you had just forgotten to save after sixty pages leaving only the first three pages you intended to throw out anyway, the fan comes in at the end of the process. The fan determines your level of success, to a point.

I say "to a point" because Colfer had a fair amount of built-in success with this writing venture. Millions of readers the world over know and love the Hitchhiker series, and millions of readers the world over know and love Colfer's own Artemis Fowl series (and there is bound to be some overlap). When you've got an artist that sells, selling a product that sells, chances are, you're not going to lose money. I haven't checked the numbers, but I'd feel safe betting that Colfer and his publisher are sitting pretty on this one.

But the measure of success for a writer doesn't come in the sales, it comes in the critical response and (sometimes more importantly) the respose of the amateur critic (read: the general public, i.e. you and me). So Colfer's built in sales can be discounted for the rest of this review. Sufficed to say, Colfer had multiple barriers to overcome when writing this book.

When we last left the heroes of the Hitchhiker series, Douglas Adams had managed to kill four of the original main characters (one of them twice) as well as two new characters. For the record, Marvin The Paranoid Android turned himself off for the last time at the end of book four (So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish) while Arthur, Ford, Trillian and a Trillian from a different dimension were all killed off. At the beginning of the fifth book (Mostly Harmless), we find Arthur's lady love from book four has vanished in a hyperspace accident. Also, Random (Trillian's daughter by Arthur's sperm-bank deposit) was killed. Zaphod, the two-headed insane Galactic President, hadn't been seen since the end of book three (Life, The Universe and Everything).

Eoin Colfer's first barrier, therefore, was how to reunite four dead people with an absent character (just four; Marvin's story had ended positively enough and only four were present where the last book left off, as the Earth was destroyed yet again). And inexplicably, the book opens with an old man who you slowly suspect to be Arthur sitting on a beach reminiscing until a bird arrives and warns of a low battery. Two more scenarios play out, one with Ford Prefect living the high life until an octopus warns of a dying battery and the last with Trillian interviewing her own daughter while a small furry animal delivers the warning. And suddenly, the four find themselves in the midst of the Earth being destroyed, at the end of the last book.

Before the Earth is destroyed, however, Zaphod returns, and together the five disembark only to find themselves in need of rescue yet again. This is what Colfer has done; he has taken the structure of the original story and tweaked it. Originally, Ford and Arthur are rescued from the Earth by the very people working to destroy it, only to find themselves in need of rescue again moments later by Zaphod. In this case, Zaphod's rescue is the first and then a character by the name of Wowbagger arrives and saves them (Wowbagger being an immortal being who made brief appearances in book three).

This far in, it is clear that this is not and will not become a Douglas Adams novel. It is Colfer, through and through, which is comforting. Had anyone attempted to write the sixth book that Adams may have written, reader backlash would have been immediate. We as fans know that Adams was incomparable, and also that that was not always a good thing.

Adams had a quick and witty pen, but he was never a novelist. In fact, the first book in the series could be seen as nothing more than a series of events happening to the main characters while they absorb them. They were passive, especially Arthur who never grew out of that role as the series went on (except for briefly in the third book). Colfer, on the other hand, has a firm grip on what drives a novel (plot) and how plot should be driven (by the characters, rather than at the characters).

Read as a book by itself, And Another Thing... would bring a mild chuckle at times. It's the references which are its strength and weakness. Making jokes about Arthur's desire for a good cup of tea help keep the story grounded in its legacy. However, whenever Colfer goes onto one of his many Adams-esque tangents (Adams once said that when he was having trouble with the plot he was working on, he would invent a small sub plot and put it into the context of the story he was writing just to help it along; for instance the sub plot in book three about the Starship Titanic), Colfer delves into names of places and people which Adams had used before. This seems to be overkill; with each reference to Port Brasta, the Land of Brequinda, the Squornshellos system, Zarniwoop, Van Harl (oh, did you know Zarniwoop and Van Harl are the same person? according to Colfer, they are), and so forth, I would cringe. It was as if Colfer was at my elbow, nudging me in the side to say, "See, I know the first five books just as well as any of the hardcore fans. How else would I know about planets like Hastromil and Han Wavel?" We get it, Colfer, and we wish you'd come up with your own names.

These side-tracks don't always end this way. A particular story about an Atheist smuggling himself into Valhalla in the belly of a goat contains my favorite line in the whole book; while trying to cut himself from the goat's belly as it is being roasted above a fire, he reaches for his knife to find it is not there. "Where's my nothingdamned kife?" he asks. And one of these mini-plots concerns the man who invented the sub-etha network (the galactic equivalent, in this book anyway, of the internet) who went by the name of Doxy Ribonu-Clegg. Legend has it that as he lay on his back in a field on his home planet and gazed at the stars, he imagined all the space to be loaded with information and promptly discovered ways to transmit information through that space. Readers will smile and acknowledge this as a tip of the hat to Douglas Adams himself, concerning the story of how he came up with the idea for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy while lying drunk in a field in Innsbruck, Austria. The name Doxy Ribonu-Clegg is a hat tip to Adams' initials DNA, while the suggestion that he may have invented the internet being attributed to the fact that the way Adams visioned the fictional Guide, the internet (and specifically Wikipedia) have fulfilled that vision and with smart phones and the Amazon Kindle, the Guide is all but a reality now.

The main difference between this part of the series and the previous five parts (aside from the name on the cover) is that each character (including Arthur) has a clear motivation now. Zaphod wishes only to make money from a small band of humans he sold a planet to; Trillian wishes to give more attention to her daughter. Ford wants to dismantle the power structure at the Guide's offices which had suffered a takeover by the beuracratic Vogons. Random wishes to make a change in the galaxy, to grow up and become a leader. Wowbagger wishes to regain mortality. Thor (who plays a major role) wishes to regain his popularity which suffered a blow in recent times due to a compromising video posted on a galactic youtube site. And Arthur wishes to find Fenchurch again, and to live a peaceful life once and for all, to escape his bad luck and constant imminent doom.

We have to remember, though, that this is Arthur Dent we are talking about here. The only book in which he got what he wanted was the fourth one, and by the beginning of the fifth it had been taken away from him. So the question the reader has in mind now should be, will Colfer let Arthur Dent be happy? Well, you'll have to read to find out.

But the overall question is, will Colfer make the fans happy? My answer to that is the same as above; you'll have to read to find out. This is certainly not what Adams would have written, but if you come in expecting that you were never going to be happy. You have to approach the book without any expectations other than there will be characters with whom you are familiar. In the end, the book reads less like the sixth in the series and more like homage to the series, and to its creator who we all still, eight years later, miss. Which is not to say it's not worth the read. I will be stashing this on my bookshelf, to the right of the first five books in the series. I knew as I read it that it was not Douglas Adams' part six, but it still felt like it fit. As for Eoin Colfer, he has earned himself an appreciative nod from me. I know I could never, in a million years, have attempted to take on such a monumental task. I only hope that he knows how much I respect him. As far as I am concerned, he overcame the greatest barrier; me.


I know some readers may have been expecting part two of my Sunny Day Real Estate review, but I had to get to this before too long. Sunny Day Real Estate's newest album has been out nearly ten years, an extra day won't make much difference. Colfer's book has been out for eight days, I figured I should get this out while it's still a new book. But come back tomorrow for more Sunny Day rants, and the following day for more. That's right, I'm promising to blog for the next two days, which would make my consecutive day blogging total 4 days (five if you don't count weekends, but, I mean, seriously, you can count weekends). I look forward to bringing you some consistency which is not just consistently not blogging!