Currently viewing the tag: "reviews"

charlieparrWhile watching Charlie Parr play a show on Wednesday night, I tried to count the number of people at Club Cafe. If there were 40, including bartenders, and only two of them wouldn’t stop talking, I estimated that humanity is doing pretty well. Hell, the bartender/waiters didn’t even pester during the show. For a darkened-corner, tiny, dark, acoustic venue, the level of silence was pretty damn impressive. That, sadly, made the two girls in the back and their constant buzz of conversation a lot easier to hear, and to think homicidal thoughts about.

This is not to say that the show was so dull I resorted to counting tables and then multiplying. Charlie Parr gives you a hell of a show, especially for someone armed only with guitar and occasional banjo. And the Club Cafe dug him. I haven’t seen such enthusiastic applause in a while. As my mother says, there is something awful and off about many Pittsburgh crowds. The one at X was nearly asleep. They’re too cool to clap, and too cool to shut up. At X, I never in my life had to work so hard to encore a band. And this is a punk band, people!

Ohio blues singer Roger Hoover opened, with his wife providing some strong harmonies. Hoover wasn’t as special as Parr is, but still had a lot more heart than your average white dude with acoustic guitar. He played a song about his uncle being caught in the perfect storm, which was pretty epic. Either that or my friend hadn’t yet appeared, and I was sipping the nostalgia-fuel that is Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale for the first time since halcyon Reason magazine days. But Hoover also noted that someone said the blue are inoculation against greater sadness. I dig that. And I dig that beer. And I do like the blues.

Friend R.F. showed up a little into Parr’s set. Parr has great, sophisticated blues guitar. There’s some Doc Watson elements there, but he doesn’t sing friendly like Doc often did. Parr is more huuguh, in the guts thing. His voice actually sounds more powerful and more beautiful live than it does on record. Like Willie Watson, the only other person I have seen at Club Cage, Parr can fill the room with just himself. That is a rarity. And the enthusiastic crowd response was a constant surprise, not because it wasn’t earned, but because, again, Pittsburgh.

Parr is scruffy and uncomfortable looking, with a longish beard and balding head. He dropped out of highschool in the 1980s, but he looks older than that. He’s pathologically deadpan in his delivery of in between song banter. The crowd really enjoyed his depressingly hilarious dead cat story. He never smiles.

He’s not dour, though. Now, listening to Charlie Parr on the bus has diminishing returns — not unlike Greyhound buses themselves. At first it goes with the scenery, but if you fall asleep and wake up to something called “Hogkill Blues” (which Parr played — it’s a union tale) the ache can become too much. (Old Crow Medicine Show’s Tennessee Pusher album as 4 a.m. in Baltimore soundtrack has similar problems.) But seeing him demonstrated why it’s worth it to go see someone live. They’re, you know, live. A-live.

Anyway. I can never quite be an atheist because the two girls with their endless crawl of conversation decided to take what I assume to be a smoke break right before Parr played “1922 Blues.” Judging by crowd response and Spotify listens, that’s his number one hit. It’s a good one.

On the other hand, I am merely an agnostic because the crowd wasn’t as interested in my second favorite tune, “Bonneville” from the same album. This heralded the return of the chatty twins. I had hoped they were just that bored and left.

Parr played a version of the murder ballad known sometimes as “Delia’s Gone.” He, as I had hoped, also played “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold my Body Down” as his final song before encore. He did it a cappella, which was gorgeous and powerful enough to shut up the whole cafe.

Some people might be bored by this sort of show*, but besides bringing up a pleasantly archaic shadowy corners of cafes singing the blues thing, it was also just good. Undeniable guitar, and Americana as filtered through a Minnesota man and his beard. Anybody can plug in and break enough eardrums to get folks’ attention. Doing it with just one instrument and just one man remains a particularly impressive type of incantation.

It was kind of like this, but also different.

*These people are wrong.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Saoirse Ronan as Daisy, some Brit as her sexy, sexy cousin.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guest posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, the subject is the new movie How I Live Now, and the 2004 young adult novel upon which it is based. It is a story of war, moving to a new country, and why sometimes you just need to sex up those relatives who catch your eye.

Apocalypse cinema or television (or even books) lives for the money shot — be it grand destruction of a famous monument, or a more humble bit of well-written or captured horror. The movie How I Live Now has two types of sequences, the bleak and the bucolic. It does them both very well, but in the end, though it’s better than the Meg Rosoff YA novel upon which it is based, the movie falls apart for similar reasons. It’s as flimsy as its anorexic, neurotic heroine, and though it tries to find a hard-ass center, there just isn’t much to it.

In each medium, 15-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) is a cold New Yorker. She is sent to  her cousins’ in England to get her out of the way of her father and stepmother. She killed her mother at birth, and therefore has issues. Meanwhile, war is looming, not that any teens give a shit. Upon arrival (in the book), she drops her American ‘tude approximately four minutes after meeting her wood sprite cousins. In the movie, this include annoying Issac who precociously drives at 14, scrappy Piper, sevinish and a bit of a Mary Sue, and Edmond, the dreamy, disturbingly attractive cousin. Yes, Daisy and Eddie hook up. Yes, it’s a little weird. But it wasn’t the dealbreaker for me that it was for, say, this io9 writer. It just isn’t enough to be the whole heart of the story, except, too bad, it is.

Daisy has a relatively endearing run-off sentence style in the book. But her narrow eye becomes less appealing — and much more contrived — after the fourth time she conveniently decides to ignore an adult’s explanation for what exactly the fuck is going on with this war business. Her obsessive focus, useful in surviving, if not contextualizing, is turned into an acknowledged character trait in the movie (basically OCD), but anything from her view still feels shallow and myopic.

The book just rakes on the cliches of the faeryland of England. There are more cousins there, and the cliches are divided up between them. Eddie has the mysteriously telepathic powers. He just gets Daisy, man. His twin, melded into him for the movie, is the obligatory strong, silent, and Dickon-esque type. And yes, I could choose to see this as so deliberate an homage to The Secret Garden that it is acceptable. But I can’t. If only because all that English shit was so appealing to me as a tween, I can’t. Edmond has a falcon, for fuck’s sake. I can’t stand it. He speaks to cows. The Secret Garden plus nukes sounds great. Why don’t I buy it?

The movie initially seems more promising — tightening things, and letting the loving, but not syrupy shots set the scene. And the English cottage is falling down, and there are dishes in the sink. Piper is a dirty-faced, solemn, kind, but human ginger, not a pixie making every soldier fall in love with her. The war situation is not treated quite as much as an excuse for playing Lost Boys as it is in the book. And the moment when we know something is wrong is treated with the gravity required . The paradise of a day at the swimming hole, during which Daisy begins to accept her God damned magical surroundings, is stopped by a rush of wind, darkening skies, and falling ash. We don’t even see the mushroom cloud. Little Piper, of course, calls it snow. It gives the necessary chill down the spine, and it gave me false hope that the movie was going to get away from the book more than it did. But again, if you want your doom and gloom money shots (and I do), the movie does come with that.

They survive. And still have a good time for a bit. Daisy burns her pass to go back to America because Eddie is now her whole world. But soon enough, scary soldiers (still British, though) come to separate the two boys and two girls. And that’s it for the plot, really. It’s all Daisy and Piper being shoved away into a creepy old English house, being sent to sort potatoes on a farm, and planning their escape back to their home. In some ways, the movie’s choice to ignore some of the details of the book make it better, or at least less maddening that Daisy has no questions about what the hell happened to her new country. The shots of wrecked countryside seen flickering through her window when she and Piper are taken are effective, showing enough for horror, but not enough for clarity or contrivance that she doesn’t see the whole picture.

But it’s still too little. There’s an enemy, at one point they “take [a] checkpoint.” A neighbor boy is shot, in the head, and is actually show still alive on the ground for a few seconds, groping in the mud. Same with the eerie details of a downed plane — the first object Daisy and Piper see is of an oxygen mask lying in the woods. Shudder. And the same with the moment when Daisy has to dig through a pile of bodies to make sure it’s not her cousins. It’s flawlessly-crafted, in the vein of the opening of the pilot for The Walking Dead, but much starker. Yet, it’s still just a nightmare moodpiece. (This is a problem for apocalyptic fiction — that dread is unsustainable — and why it so often delves into survivors sniping. And why the fiction that doesn’t do that is something special.)

Too many sad pop songs over beautiful landscape. Too many montages. How I Live Now doesn’t commit the unforgivable sin of putting conspicuous music over its worst bits, but the filler feels like all music sometimes. The frantic, whispered voices in Daisy’s head that were supposed to represent her OCD and anorexia worked better than I would think. I appreciate that she didn’t warm up and become hero mom figure to Piper like she did in the book, but some sign of caring about the red-headed moppet wouldn’t have been amiss. Ronan is good, the Brits are all decent. Nobody is stilted, but nobody is exceptional.

And though the lovely cinematography of the movie makes the book’s flimsy plot seem more substantial, it had the same endless problem. I want to know more about the war. And I want more than a teenager falling in love with a place and her cousin, then being taken away, and having to walk back for a week over broken landscape. Piper and Daisy seem exhausted, in book and movie, but I still want to say, dammit, have you not seen Rabbit-Proof Fence? You pansies think a week of walking in England is bad? Somehow, again in both mediums, the characters treat the situation too heavily and too lightly. And nobody ever asks what’s going on. I don’t care how hot your cousin is, I don’t care you much you miss him, you take the time to fucking ask an adult who nuked London.

Concrete Blonde! Another band that feels like imaginary LA: That is the one that mixes the 60s, the late 70s, the 80s, and the early 90s. That is also Dad tending bar and taking over the LA Times letters. Mom hanging out with Peter Scolari and getting hit on by John Hurt while waiting tables. They meet. They go see Stop Making Sense, they have a few kids. Exene Cervenka lives down the street at some point. Everyone reads Joan Didion and watches cool-MTV until we have to move because of crackhead neighbors and because I get asthma and pneumonia  Soundtrack by the Talking Heads, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, The Cars, X, and the Blasters. Plus, Kingdom Come, I suppose. If only because I don’t remember living in LA, but I do remember the first I saw Uncle Dan without his hair metal hair.

Anyway, this is an anti-cop song, for an added bonus.

The greatest song about a dusty Bible that there is, which is impressive since the other one is by Hank Williams Sr. Fun fact: my friend Bob is still apologizing for going to see the Fox Hunt one night in Pittsburgh. I was taking a nap, he did not wake me up.

Latent Chatham University impulses coming up for me here, but I would love if Tegan and Sara always were this rockin’ and catchy.

One of my favorites by the Stanley Brothers. It makes me want to love the Lord in a way that only Ralph Stanley can.

Took me long enough. Sheesh.

 

 

My Grandma keeps on suggesting that I read the newspaper funnies, so I must remind myself that not all comics are terrible. Please wince as I recklessly call graphic novels comics, but nobody who loved Calvin and Hobbes and Foxtrot as much as I did as a child could every consider “comic” a pejorative, so don’t even worry about it.

In website form:

Mitch Clem: maker of Nothing Nice to Say and My Stupid Life, the latter of which I have read through more times than I can count. Occasionally I worry over him, when he draws something too real. Often he just writes ska-pickle jokes, or jokes about stupid, loitering punks. Sometimes I don’t get the punk rock specific joke, unless it is making fun of Against Me! or Tim Armstrong. Clem helped me learn about the existence of the edited for TV Big Lebowski. Plus, this is hilarious.

Bonus: Clem’s fiance Nation of Amanda, who watercolors his comics and just seems amazing in internetland and as a character in “My Stupid Life.” I just want them to be punk and artistic and happy together forever and ever.

Kate Beaton: How much do I love Kate Beaton’s Hark, a vagrant series? Almost enough to look up Canadian history references. Almost. She’s feminist, she’s funny, she is a giant nerd for history, a love which she mixes weirdly with pop culture and literary references and jokes about Canadian politeness. Her art is awesome, with a deceptively simple, Quentin Blake-esque style. Plus, she made the greatest mocking of/tribute to the Kennedys since that time Garrett Quinn wouldn’t stop doing a Ted Kennedy impression on the way to LPAC. Also, she invented “I had fun once, it was awful,” so fuck you, Grumpy Cat.

In book form:

Anders Nilsen’s Dogs and Water — I once read it when I was really depressed, and it didn’t help, but I still got pleasingly lost in the troubling, spare  mysterious world of this comic. Something has happened — or is happening — and a lone individual, plus a teddy bear, is wandering a barren, post-war, post-apocalypse landscape.

Tintin — particularly Tintin in Tibet, The Blue Lotus, The Crab with the Golden Claws, basically anything with a lot of opium in the subplot, and at least some minority characters portrayed as heroic, not just as racist as fuck-all stereotypes (Japanese people, holy shit, Herge. You should have met some real ones). I read these books when I was little. They’re racist, violent, make light of alcoholism, and opium smuggling is a subplot in what seems like every other book. They’re also beautifully drawn, funny, and the adventures within each volume’s 62 pages inspired half the games I played as a kid (stuffed animals always had to jump/fall down a waterfall, ideally after being chased by someone gun-toting). And 1) Yes, Tintin was a journalist who never wrote a story and that was bizarre. And 2) Tintin in the Land of the Soviets sucks, but it does have a reference to Soviets taking wheat from Kulaks and letting them starve. I mean, Herge got it before The New York Times did, that’s all.  And 3) No, I didn’t watch the movie, and I just don’t want to.

Guy Delisle’s work, mainlyPyongyang: a Journey in North Korea. That is the book that got me fascinated with that world’s most fucked up nation. Delisle has more of that simple style I love. The French Canadian draws himself as big-nosed and quizzical  the backgrounds in simple black and white, sometimes with pale greens or tan. But nearly all of the most fascinating details of North Korea, from the hideous food, to the fact that Pyongyang is almost dark at night, I first got from Delisle. He’s a great person to travel with in comic form — the drawings are a bit childish, but the grim point of North Korea comes across all too effectively. 

Jeff Lemire: Beaton is the Canadian comic artists to make you happy, Lemire is the one who will just make you weep, but then feel kind of good, but still lonely, but lonely in a beautiful kind of way. Ugh. His Essex County is just wonderful. I need to read all of Sweet Tooth.

Also read: Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, for real comics reporting on the Bosnian war, and Peter Bagge’s compilation of reason comic: Everyone  Is Stupid Except for Me. 

And a special shout-out to the first comic I ever bought: Batman vs. Tarzan. It’s true.

Besides this comic book about The Carter Family (I love a world where that exists) which I intend to read on the train home from California, what should I be reading that I did not include here?