The Avengers

Summary: If you like action movies, comic book movies, special effects, Jos Whedon’s work, or pop culture experiences: go see it. It’s worth seeing on a big screen with the sound a bit too loud.

Fair warning, there will be spoilers below. If you have a problem with that stop reading now.

As some of you may know, I’ve been an Avengers fan for the majority of my life. I was thirteen years old when I picked up a copy of West Coast Avengers issue #31. The next month I picked up Avengers #291, and from there on I was hooked. I own 90% of the issues published (including the myriad of spin-offs) between 1963 and 2006, when I decided to spend my discretionary money on LEGO instead of comics which just become increasingly difficult to store over time. I grew into my adulthood with the Avengers. I said this to give some context so that you might understand why I had been dreading and looking forward for this movie to come out ever since they released the first Iron Man movie in 2008.

Because it’s exceedingly early in the morning and I’m feeling like rambling, I will say that Iron Man is not my favorite Avenger. That would be Hawkeye, followed pretty closely by Captain Marvel (Monica Lambeau), She-Hulk, Captain America, and Hank Pym (Yes, really: Hank Pym). However the first Iron MAn movie was really excellently done. The updated the origin story in a way that made sense, they cast a nearly ideal actor for Tony Stark, and it really worked on a lot of levels and was very enjoyable to watch. For me it really hasn’t lost much of it’s luster either and when I saw it earlier today on the big screen again, it was still a thrill. It also started a flicker of hope that when the eventual Avengers movie arrived it would be worth seeing.

Oh yeah: I arrived at a local movie theater today at 11:10am so that I could watch Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk (Edward Norton version, not the crappy Ang Lee versions), Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and then (at midnight) The Avengers. To be honest I had already been planning on doing essentially this at home however the allure of doing so with a big screen, though without a pause button, was too much to pass up, and I’m glad I did it. It was an excellent opportunity to interact with fellow fans of all kinds and see the movies in a format that does them credit. It doesn’t quite feel like I actually spent 16 hours at the theater yet, though I’m pretty sure it will in the morning. Well, later this morning. Or perhaps this afternoon. Anyway…

As I said on Twitter while waiting for the traffic to clear out of the parking lot: I have a few quibbles with the movie but overall it was quite good and I am likely to see it at least one more time in the theater. I think it was true to the spirit of the comics and worked pretty well in the universe they’ve created with the movies so far. I was thrilled to see Maria Hill as a character, and a pretty kick-ass one at that, and having Hawkeye as a founding member in this version of the Avengers was a treat for me though really not nearly enough of him since he spent half the movie on the bad guy’s team against his own free will.

It was every bit a Joss Whedon movie. Long sections following a particular piece of the action without a cut. Witty dialog and the almost trademark humor. And he kills off a fan favorite character. I’ve really enjoyed the Agent Coulson character through the various movies. The way the actor continued to pull off understatement in the face of everything going on around him in some cases had him stealing scenes. During the marathon they had specially shot introductions to each of the five preceding movies with just Coulson talking to the camera for a couple of minutes and they were all funny and endearing and added to the experience. (I’ll be shocked if they aren’t a DVD extra) For those who may not be familiar with Mr Whedon’s previous history on this point, it’s an actual thing. Assuming he had the choice, I can see why he picked Coulson. Hill didn’t have enough time on screen to have enough impact. Nick Fury is… well, Nick Fury. I’m sure he’ll die someday. Or maybe not. Hawkeye or The Black Widow? It’s not worth killing off a character you can milk for merchandising and possible sequels later. Any of the big three (Cap, Thor, Iron Man) is pretty close to inconceivable for somewhat obvious reasons, including the previous. Hulk? Ditto. I don’t really pay much attention to channels that might have leaked Coulson’s death before hand. I don’t actively avoid spoilers, but I don’t generally seek them out. So when The Avengers finally started to roll tonight I went into it actively watching for who I thought he might take out, and I didn’t see it coming. Here’s the thing: Having that sort of reputation means that every time he does it, the impact is lessened and in the case of a character I really liked and to some extent cared about, I think it seriously cheapened the whole thing.

Oh look, Mr. Whedon killed off somebody we care about again. Ho hum.

I think I’m pretty much done with that Mr. Whedon. We get the point. We got the point before Serenity. Now that you’ve done it in a movie that a hugely significant portion of the population of the western hemisphere is likely to see I think it’s time to move on before that horse you are beating becomes less then paste.

Moving on, we have the three female characters with names in the movie. I’m not sure if I should feel elated or disappointed that there were three real characters with speaking parts that were female in a mega-blockbuster comic book movie. Given the demographics at the marathon that I was at today, which was at least 30% women (Really. Yes, I was a little surprised. And clearly MANY, or possibly most, were there NOT because they came with their boyfriends) having 25% of the major cast being female isn’t too bad for this kind of movie. Somewhat more interesting was the kind of range I thought the characters had. Maria Hill is a soldier, and as previously mentioned a pretty kick-ass one. On the other end of the spectrum, Pepper Pots played a purely supporting role as essentially a wife (Sure, not married, but whatever). Granted, a wife that didn’t put up with much from her husband and can give back in kind but unlike the strong, take-charge Pepper Potts we saw in the first two movies the very first opportunity for her to leave town for safety she gets sent packing. And then there was Natasha Romanov, The Black Widow.

Of ALL of the characters who should have emotional issues in the Avengers, it’s the Hulk. It’s kind of his thing. Yes, occasionally in the comics for whatever reason he gets over it temporarily. It is always, however, temporary. Why in this movie is the Hulk over his anger issues but they go back to the 1960’s to play out the Widow/Hawkeye stuff? I can tell you, it wasn’t very good the first time around and it didn’t come off a lot better this time. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong on that point but it didn’t quite feel right. I’m looking forward to hearing a feminist deconstruction of the character.

One last set of thoughts, and then I really must go to bed.

In all of my time reading comics the cliche that has always irritated me most is the bit where the good guys have to fight one another for the first half of a story. I know some people seem to adore that bit and debate endless who could beat-up who scenarios but I was bored with them before I was done being a teenager and have only thought the pretense for that particular brand of fan-service to have gotten more and more irritating since then. It will surprise no one then when I saw that in some ways that the big fight between Thor and The Hulk was the most boring part of the movie. I really thought about going and getting some more pop, maybe stroll to the bathroom, and then take in some movie posters but I figured how long could they possibly take to wank on the screen? Nearly 20 minutes is the answer, and it was about 19 minutes too long. The bit not long after that where they’re all in a conference room and bickering? That was fine. That shows actual relationships and conflicts of interest and all sorts of interesting stuff. But who would win if Thor and the Hulk got in a fight and Captain America tries to break it up? WHO THE FUCK CARES! That said, the single punch delivered by Hulk to Thor in the big battle at the end? Unnecessary, but funny.

No tag for this post.

New Marvel Trades on Nook (12/23/2011)

New Marvel Comics Available on Nook 12/23/2011

It’s been 11 days since the last batch of new comics got released which seems like an odd number but at a guess it is because Sunday is Christmas in the US and Monday seems to be the day many businesses are giving as a holiday. Could it be that instead of the world of physical comics, where a holiday means delayed shipments, that in the world of electronic comics we’ll have early shipments? It would be nice but it seems more likely that Marvel wanted more titles in the catalog for all the people who are about to receive a shiny new device in the next two days. In any case we’ll know if the two week release window is the general plan on or around Jan 9, 2012.

This release is fairly Spider-Man heavy gives us a little mix of vintages starting with a classic Avengers storyline in “Avengers Under Siege”. (Personal anecdote: That is the story that ran immediately before I started following the Avengers.) In a similarly dark tone we have the first collection from the recent “Dark Avengers”. Both of which I’m looking forward to reading through, Under Siege for the umpteenth time and Dark Avengers for the first.

The spate of Spider-Man titles that arrives this week continues the odd release pattern we’ve got going for most titles. Doing it right is the Ultimate line with the consecutive release of Volume 3 and continuing to make a mess of things is the release of the Civil War story (Pre-Brand New Day), the second volume immediately following Brand New Day, and a volume long AFTER Brand New Day (though previous to “Big Time” released last week), but still no Brand New Day. So for those of you keeping track that gives us the following contemporary issues of Amazing Spider-Man: #532-536, #546-558, #574-577, #648-651.

To balance the complaints about the order of release I do want to point out that at least there are digital releases and I personally find the reading experience to be quite good.

Hope everyone is enjoying the holiday season!

New Marvel Trades on Nook (12/12/2011)

New Marvel Comics Available on Nook 12/12/2011

The list for this week includes a couple of firsts for the the Nook releases. First and foremost it’s the first 616 Spider-Man trades released (Ultimate Spider-Man vol 1 & 2 were much earlier) though it does show part of the problems in the release schedule by putting out books on either side of the One More Day special event without also publishing THAT story. Previous weeks have shown similar issues with the Civil War and Captain America assasination timeline and I expect that it will continue in that vein until someone can talk some sense to whatever poor intern got the job of getting this schedule together.

The second first is the inclusion of the Masterwork trades. Already owning them in physical form I am still debating if I’m going to pick them up or not though I would imagine they look as good as the modern stuff. It does at least point to some intention to publish some of the classics from the vault.

Marvel Comics on the Nook

I’ve been a Nook user since I got a free Color last Christmas and liked it enough to upgrade to the Tablet on day one (which honestly is a somewhat marginal upgrade) and also a long time Marvel Comics reader though a few years ago I had to decide financially between LEGO and Comics and then once my finances had stabilized I still wasn’t able to return to the comics because I just don’t have any space for them. So when the Nook Tablet announcement included news that Marvel would be publishing exclusively on the Nook platform I was incredibly excited.

Sadly that announcement said essentially nothing about what they would be publishing and several weeks in, some of the shine has worn off the thrill of finally being able to buy Marvel comics digitally however I can say that it has not been a total disappointment. Currently Marvel is only publishing trade collections for Nook and the selection is still somewhat small. Today there are a total of 48 items available in the special Marvel Comics section, and that includes the five new items that were the first new items in two weeks.

The pricing for the trades is decent, though probably nothing to look forward to if you have already bought any of these in print, generally maxing out at $16.74 (currently only for Planet Hulk) and as low as $5.59 for several good items. Most items are within a dollar of $10.

Users of the Nook software on other platforms should beware: These purchases are ONLY viewable on a Nook Tablet or Nook Color with the latest firmware. I’m hoping they open that up a bit some day and since I’m a Tablet owner I’m don’t have too much of a problem with it, but it really feels like a purely artificial imposition for no good reason.

The reading experience is pretty good if not perfect. The default display is a full page taking up the entire screen and the text is quite readable and the graphics come through well. If you want to see detail a quick tap zooms in for a closer look. Tilting the device into landscape mode will resize to display two pages which is handy for big spreads, though makes the text unreadable at that size. Additionally the TOC navigation is visual rather then by page number so it makes it really easy to move around.

The actual problem from my point of view is the what they are publishing and when they are publishing them. Early in the release cycle they published books on either side of the story where Captain America was assassinated without publishing the story where the assassination happened. They seem to be keeping with that kind of idiocy with this week’s publishing of Spider-Man trades on either side of the One More Day storyline, though hopefully they’ll follow up next week with that story as well. The assassination story I wasn’t as bothered by since I had already read that one in print. I have not read the Spider-Man story and so it feels a bit spoilerish to be reading what happens afterwards and I might wait till they correct that oversight before I actually crack that one open.

The initial point of this post however was to make a note of the items that are available when they are released since I can not seem to find anywhere else on the net that talks about it and figured it might be useful for someone else. I’ve been checking the store daily for awhile so hopefully will keep this up for at least awhile in some format.

No tag for this post.

Recent reading

Between Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross I have recently found two authors to look into, one pretty successfully and the other who had a free ebook of his first novel.

First is Linda Nagata who Alastair Reynolds lauded/blamed for several of the ideas in his early work on his blog nearly two months ago. So far I’ve gotten through her first two novels and am enjoying them quite a bit. “Tech-Heaven” was enjoyable even with the somewhat dated technology prognostication. I did spend a fair amount of the book trying to figure out just how much of a cryonics booster the author was and to her credit never quite figured it out, though it sure seemed to come down a fair bit on the positive side much of the time.

While figuring out which book of Ms Nagata’s to start with I ran across her twitter account where she had mentioned that one of my favorite author’s (who I had basically lost track of in the last few years), Martha Wells, had recently published “The Cloud Roads“. As usual for her writing, it caught my attention enough that I ended up spending time with it rather then venturing from my hotel and exploring Niagara Falls and it’s environs. Excellent world, great characters, and a well threaded plot made for a fun read.

After that it was back to Linda Nagata for “The Bohr Maker“. While “Tech-Heaven” had been somewhat obviously a first novel, “The Bohr Maker” is from an obviously more experienced author. The characters were more fleshed out and it read more smoothly with less to distract me into thinking about what the author’s motives where. I’m still not sure I could recommend it to my friends that prefer character relationships to world-building, but it’s certainly at least worth a look.

I had purchased both “Tech-Heaven” and “The Bohr Maker” through the store on my Barnes & Noble Nook Color but had seen Linda Nagata flogging Book View Cafe pretty hard in her twitter stream and figured I’d give that a try for the next novel in The Nanotech Succession, “Deception Well“. I haven’t cracked the cover quite yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

However I haven’t decided if I’m going to start that first or try Karl Schroeder‘s “Ventus”. He has been doing some guest writing on Charles Stross’ blog for the past couple of weeks and has been more then interesting enough to take a look at, and who am I to turn down a free book in the process.

No tag for this post.

A Snowy Morning Antidote

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in having occasionally experienced a time when hitting shuffle on one’s music collection, or some subset that fits onto your portable device of choice, just seems to work really well for the mood or circumstances you are currently in. This morning I have had one of those experiences and I thought I’d put it down for posterity. Right at this moment it feels like exactly the right antidote to having sat in traffic for an hour to get to work.

  1. Semisonic – Who’s Stopping You – All About Chemistry
  2. Tosca – Session 7: Song – Dehli9
  3. The Guggenheim Grotto – Fee Da Da Dee – Happy the Man
  4. Peter Mayer – Harry the Pharoah – Novelties
  5. Cafe Accordion Orchestra – Velma From Selma – Live!
  6. They Might Be Giants – The Mesopotamians – The Else
  7. Afro Celt Sound System – North – Volume 3: Further in Time
  8. The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Three to Get Ready – Time Out
  9. Glee Cast – Keep Holding On – Glee: The Music, Volume 1
  10. Sufjan Stevens – Chicago – Illinois
  11. Baka Beyond – MbĂ© – Journey Between
  12. They Might Be Giants – Pencil Rain – Then: The Earlier Years
  13. Martyn Bennett – Stream – Martyn Bennett

There has since been quite a bit more that’s worked pretty well but I figured I had to cut it off somewhere.

No tag for this post.

It never ends up like the magazine photo

I think that there is a truism in cooking that US media producers should keep in mind: It never ends up like the magazine photo. If you have ever done any amount of cooking you’ll know this fact, if not in those words. Even if the sum total of culinary creation you have indulged in extends as far as pressing buttons on a microwave you can not have failed to notice that the contents of the tray you pull out of the microwave has barely a passing resemblance to the “Serving Suggestion” pictured on the box. Attempts at real cooking with fancy ingredients inspired by the glossy pictures that face you down in the grocery store check out line only fare somewhat better, even if the flavor of the result hopefully knocks your socks off. The lesson learned fairly quickly from cooking is essentially that there are two kinds of recipes: The kind of recipe that makes something taste/feel a particular way, and the kind of recipe that makes something look a particular way. Unless it’s a photography magazine, generally the recipe is for how something tastes and that’s usually a good thing.

I think that begins to describe what happened with the BBC’s attempt at making a Top Gear series specifically for US audiences. In this case I think they had one of those recipes, but it appears to be the recipe (formula) from the photography magazine. You know, the one that says to use glue as the milk in cereal so that it looks right. Despite all the stories of kids eating glue in grade school, I never tried it more then once and while watching the episode “Cobra Attack” I was reminded why I never liked the taste of it very much.

There are definitely good things about the show but they seem to be largely mixed in with the bad. Adam Ferrara in particular embodied several of them. For example, his detailed deciphering of a Lamborghini model number was really useful information and was presented in a way that was interesting. On the other hand his interview of the legendary Buzz Aldrin was… not interesting. A full two minutes is given to the conversation between the two and as far as I can tell it was two minutes too long simply because the photography style recipe had been doggedly followed without any apparent understanding about why it works for Jeremy Clarkson. That formula must say that there should be some pleasant chit-chat and then the host eventually asks about the cars the guest has driven, followed by a softball along the lines of, “How did you like the track?” to move things along to the video replay of the celebrities attempt to drive quickly in a slow car.

I think one of the key reasons why it works for Mr Clarkson and not for Mr. Ferrara is that Clarkson at least looks like he is interested in the answers to the questions he is asking. For the first 40 seconds on the interview Adam seems to make an attempt to be genuinely interested in asking about Aldrin’s career and experience and then spends the remaining 1 min 20 seconds seemingly bored by asking rote “How about the blah blah?” from a list, even when Buzz at least tries to make those answers at least passably interesting. I would really be curious to see the rest of the footage from this section. Was there really nothing else more interesting to show the viewers?

In any case, the point of those questions is not to find out the details of what the guest has driven previously in any sort of detail, but instead it is to determine what kind of driver the guest is. Are they used to driving sports cars? Do they regularly drive at all? Are they a lead-foot or are they cautious? It gives information about the character of the guest which can be interesting. This recitation was not.

That kind of slavish copying of the style and rote of the original Top Gear series permeates the entire episode and are the key to the problems with the show. The main feature of this episode, and the source of the title, is a chase between a Dodge Viper and a Huey Cobra helicopter. Wow, I haven’t seen anything like that before. Oh, wait. A highlight of the next episode is a race against downhill skiers. Wait, not this one.

The flavor of the original Top Gear series is not attained by following that photographic formula to the letter. It is done by selecting the ingredients carefully and paying attention to what is happening in your pot while they cook. It doesn’t matter if the recipe says “high heat” if on your stove it starts to burn immediately. You turn the heat down! More apropos of this episode: a “pinch” of salt is a highly subjective measurement and should be adjusted to the taste of the audience.

One thought in fairness though, is that I have only seen episodes of the UK series after it had a chance to mature. I only have access to Season 6 and later easily, and so that is primarily what I have seen. Given enough time it is feasible that this lame copy could find it’s own voice. I suppose I just don’t trust that will happen. In that vein I asked people for good examples of UK media properties that had been remade in the US. The only examples that had come to mind for me had been the highly unfortunate “Coupling” by NBC. On balance there are several good examples including “Antiques Roadshow” (which I had thought was originally from the US), “American Idol”, and “The Office”. Now, I don’t particularly like either incarnation of those last two but that doesn’t make them bad shows in either form and I don’t think it’s fair to simply lump this attempt into something that could just be a popular misconception.

So is the US version of Top Gear a travesty? Heck no. The aforementioned bit explaining Lamborghini model numbers is a good example of when it really works. Similarly the graphic overlay of the guest’s position on the track while watching the lap is a nice touch, though using some transparency effects to make it slightly less prominent would be nice. Those kinds of little touches show that there is something there but unfortunately I think that by following the wrong formula a little too well makes the entirety end up tasting just like the paper those magazine photos are printed on.

A playlist: A Male Experience

For those who do not know the details, my living situation is slightly non-standard. I live with my female partner (Generally referred to as “J”), J’s female partner Sigrid, and their two kids M and K. (I borrowed the naming system from Sig since it is simple and elegant.) Mostly my interactions with the kids are limited to a slightly ill-defined sort of live-in uncle relationship as I am not one of their parents. Primarily I only say something about their behavior when it’s really egregious and J and Sig aren’t close enough to do anything about it quickly, but I also get to corrupt their young minds with all sorts of silly ideas as long as I think it won’t get the three of us in trouble.

Anyway, as with most people, music is played while driving. J has an interesting but somewhat limited palette for music but Sig tends to be a bit more catholic in her tastes (note the small ‘c’) and so exposes the kids to all sorts of stuff over time. The other day the Talking Heads “Once In A Lifetime” was heard and the kids really liked it. Now Sig doesn’t have a lot of Talking Heads, and other then that and maybe a couple of other tracks isn’t particularly interesting in looking much more into them so she asked me if I had a copy that I could burn to a disc for the kids so they could listen to it in the playroom. Oh, and maybe some other stuff too if I wanted while I was at it. Maybe some male stuff. Sort of. The conversation was both simpler and more complex then that as it was between two people who have been friends for years and living in the same space for just over a year.

As with just about everything that I enjoy, I am primarily a dilettante when it comes to The Talking Heads. I have a more then passing familiarity with their album catalog, as well as some enthusiasm for portions of it but without a lot of significant interesting in keeping up with the minutia. Translation: I’ve got the “Sand In the Vaseline” greatest hits compilation and one other album and that’s about it which was more then enough to get started with the request and it didn’t take me too long for the idea to catch and be interesting enough to ensure it got done quickly.

Starting with “Once In a Lifetime” presents quite a bit of opportunity to go in any number of directions, but the one that really caught my attention was the aspects of dealing with modern masculinity and social roles for men and after spending a little time digging through my music collection it was pretty clear that it’s a pretty universal sort of theme.

  1. Once In a LifetimeTalking Heads – Popular Favorites: 1976-1992/Sand In the Vaseline
  2. On The AirGirlyman – Little Star
  3. All Kinds of TimeFountains of Wayne – Welcome Interstate Managers
  4. Jump Through the HoopsMighty Mighty Bosstones – Question the Answers
  5. Harder Better Faster StrongerDaft Punk – Discovery
  6. Pushing Me AwayLinkin Park – Hybrid Theory
  7. Losing My ReligionR.E.M. – Out of Time
  8. My CountryMidnight Oil – Earth and Sun and Moon
  9. ChicagoSufjan Stevens – Illinoise
  10. What Do You Want From MePink Floyd – The Division Bell
  11. ShoutTears for Fears – Songs From the Big Chair
  12. Let’s Go Crazy (LP Version) – Prince – Purple Rain
  13. I Wanna Be a CowboyBoys Don’t Cry – Retro Lunchbox: Squeeze the Cheese
  14. ArmyBen Folds Five – The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner
  15. ’64 AKA Go – Lemon Jelly – ’64-’95
  16. Blue Boat HomePeter Mayer – Earth Town Square

The initial version of the playlist was about four hours long, but I was able to cut it down to under an hour and a half pretty quickly by stripping it down to one track per artist. After a few arrangements for flow and tempo a narrative started to develop, and eventually ended up in this order.

The narrative can be divided pretty loosely into Consciousness (Tracks 1-4), Rising Bitterness (Tracks 4-8), Self Discovery (Tracks 7-10), Anger (Tracks 10-12), What Next? (Tracks 13-16).

Consciousness is the point where the nebulous character of the narrative, let’s just call him John (for “John Doe”), finally takes notice of his surrounding. It’s not something that happens to everyone early in life and from my own personal experience seems to happen periodically even, or perhaps especially, after you think you have everything figured out. Maybe it’s the first time John has noticed how the world expects him to be and how he feels about that. Maybe it’s the 10th time. It’s pretty much the same every time since it inevitably turns into…

Rising Bitterness, or maybe Growing Resentment, describes the internal dichotomy that represents the urge to follow on with what’s going on because it seems relatively stable and trying to make that fit with the knowledge that you don’t like what you are doing or who you have become, but you continue to strive because “that’s what guys do”. Right? At a certain point John decides that the problem can’t possibly be him, so he starts acting out against his loved ones (“Pushing Me Away”) and his habitual institutions (“Loosing My Religion”). I really wanted to put “Harder Better Faster Stronger” before “Jump Through the Hoops” since it fits the narrative flow better, but the the guitar intro to “Jump” just makes more sense after “All Kinds of Time”.

Self Discovery happens two ways: The habitual institutions are cutting it anymore (Religion = God, sex, beer, money, whatever); Someone finally says something to piss him off enough to snap (“My Country”). The little intro at the front of “Chicago” just felt like a light bulb going off in John’s head and the lyrics of the song are all about trying to remake oneself while still not quite over his previous life. Not having developed tools for real self actualization we end up with the despair and pain present in “What Do You Want From Me?” as we start with the shouty bit.

Anger is something that humans deal with, and some days I wonder if it isn’t something that males deal with more. Blame it on the testosterone or whatever, but my experience lived and observed indicates that women don’t as often have the spark of pure rage to battle when even the littlest thing goes wrong. This is a different kind of anger then the bitterness though, since it’s harder to externalize. John has finally figured out that he’s the problem and uses the power of the anger to drive him to finally try and figure things out.

Initially, the answer to “What Next?” is something infantile. If John is in his mid-40’s this likely involves a small, fast, red vehicle and/or a new sex partner half his age or younger. While I doubt we all wanted to be cowboys when we were young the basic form is pretty common. (I wanted to be an astronaut.) Or maybe he could just run away from it all? Join the military! After thinking through the possible consequences of that move and what is likely to come of it John finally somes to terms with the urge to just do something different (“’64 AKA Go”).

Peter Mayer’s “Blue Boat Home” isn’t quite the right ending for this narrative, but it’s mostly there because I know both M and K love the song and I wanted to make sure I anchored the disc with something else that they knew especially after something as long-winded as the preceding Lemon Jelly track. I’m not entirely happy with other bits of the order either. “Let’s Go Crazy” should probably be in Rising Bitterness. “What Do You Want From Me” probably the same. I wanted to be sure that there were a couple of peaks in the mix though. The Pink Floyd tracks makes for a really good low spot in the energy of the mix just about the in the middle of the disc then ramping back up to a peak at “Army” and a slow wind down to the end.

Anyway, I used the Bing music search to link to most of the songs and then linked the artists to the best info I could find for each of them. For those of you with Zune Passes, the Bing link has the advantage of letting you listen to most of the tracks. For those of you without it’s got iTunes and Amazon links as well.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on the mix or the narrative or both. I don’t often have something that’s quite this cohesive, so it made sense to try and have it written down somewhere.

An Artist In Search of an Editor

Of the changes that have occurred in my life in the past year, one of them gives me the opportunity to make the drive between the Twin Cities and Madison every month or so. While the trip is by no means short I do look forward to it in part because it gives me a chance to be by myself and really listen to music which is something that the rest of my excessive number of hobbies do not always allow much time for.

This past weekend I bought BT’s new album “These Hopeful Machines” and listened to it almost exclusively on both legs of the trip. I’ve been listening to his music for nearly a decade after a friend had recommended a couple of particular tracks from one of his earlier albums to me and it has been interesting to hear the slow change of style and technique over that time. The All Music Guide calls his early style “Epic House” and I would be hard pressed to argue with that particularly apt description, but as they note after his early albums things began to change. Instead of the huge, contiguous slabs of sound the music began to become ever more jagged and full of surprising textures that were both challenging to the casual listener but left enough harmonic accessibility for even a modicum of attention to pay off with grandiose sonic landscapes. At this point it appears that “This Binary Universe” was the apogee of that trend with it’s glitch ridden orchestra of sounds providing a seemingly endless tapestry of deep introspection.

“These Hopeful Machines” is an interesting work in that it feels like a blending of those first epic sounds in “IMA” or “ESCM” with the rhythmic sensibility of Universe’s more successful pieces. This is undeniably an album made to sound good to the ears of the dance floor set while leaving more than enough depth for those of us who listen in less active ways and there is a lot here to listen to with a run time over two CDs of nearly two solid hours and a relatively well put together through-line between tracks. (I found it particularly telling that the version available for purchase through Microsoft’s Zune music store was just two tracks, one for each disc.) I personally found most of the music to be very good with the only thorough disappointment being the final track which is a mediocre and, frankly, over-produced cover of The Psychadelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You”. From the abrupt and powerful entrance of “Suddenly” to the blippy fun of “The Rose of Jericho” to the epic pop drive of “The Unbreakable” this is excellent music with typically enveloping emotional depth.

As much as I have been enjoying the album there are definitely elements that take away from the experience and make me wonder if this isn’t a good view of the back side of a particularly tall mountain of a career even aside from the aforementioned final track. With the rare exception of the occasional nice turn of phrase BT’s impenetrably feeler-y lyrics have never been something to really write home about and none of those exceptions show up here. The lyrics in the chorus of “Suddenly” are particularly baffling though I’m certain that several people will have very good and entirely contradictory explanations about what “And I love it when you fall… to me! Suddenly.” actually means. The sudden chorus in “Forget Me” sung by his young daughter also comes across as simply odd rather than any possible intention I can think of.

However the most striking failing that is present all through the album is the one I alluded to in the title for this post: BT has gotten to the point in his career that he obviously doesn’t see the need to allow an editor of any sort meddle in his art and the result is the poorer for it. I feel a bit awkward saying that with the evidence of my own bellicose text and the knowledge that some of my favorite pieces of music are long winded ramblings through sound that by any other measure are the most egoistical of embellishments in the Ambient, Trance, or Contemporary Orchestral genres. The comparison that keeps coming to mind is with Sufjan Stevens’ recent “The BQE” which I had a chance to listen to in some depth on a similar Madison trip last fall. Stevens’ has never been known for having an economical notion about his music but where he succeeded in “The BQE” with his just so movements, BT manages to overstay his welcome more than once and in the particular case of “Every Other Way”, and to a lesser extent “The Light In Things”, he makes the middle of the first album turn into several opportunities to wonder why he didn’t just cut out the five or six decent fragments of ideas and just keep them in a box until he had time to fully develop them into something worth listening to. The biggest disappointment is that the core of “Every Other Way” could be one of the better tracks if not for all the tacked on aural wankery.

All in all “These Hopeful Machines” is hardly an unheralded triumph but it is certainly a great work by a mature master of electronic music and I will always remember driving through the rolling hills of west-central Wisconsin and watching the sun peek out behind the rain clouds and slowly flood the land with the same radiance that was peaking at about the 1:30 mark of “The Emergency” and spurred my way home with it’s intrinsic feeling of good and connectedness.

No tag for this post.

Things you should know about HDTV

I’ve been running into a huge number of people who don’t understand what’s going on with HDTV lately, so I figured I needed to put something out for the couple of people who do read my blog.

  1. The HD broadcast switch is a funded federal mandate. (see item #3)
  2. You do not have to get rid of your existing TV unless you really want to. (see item#3)
  3. Every household in the US is entitled to two (2) coupons good for free HD to SD content converters. You can get your coupon from https://www.dtv2009.gov/. These are set top boxes that go from a standard pair of rabbit ears or whatever you’re using as an antenna to your TV and let you watch HD content on your regular old non-HD TV.
  4. You are getting something (two things!) from the government for FREE here people.
  5. If you plan to continue using a VCR or other SD equipment (Tivo series 1 and 2, Windows MCE, MythTV, etc) to record programming make sure that you get a converter box that can change channels on a schedule or can be controlled by your recording equipment. If your recording equipment has built in schedules of some kind they may not match the new HD lineup and schedule.
  6. Shop for a new TV carefully. Just because you buy a new “HD capable” TV does not mean you can just hook up an antenna and start getting HD content. Many “HD Capable” TVs sold do not include an HD tuner (though it’s better than it used to be) since for the most part the manufacturer’s figure that you will have either a cable box or satellite receiver that will do the tuning instead. A TV with an HD tuner will likely cost $100-$200 more than an otherwise identical model.
  7. Not all HD capable TVs are widescreen. Many manufacturers make several “normal” (4:3 aspect ratio) sets that are just as “HD capable” as their widescreen versions.
  8. Not all HD capable TVs are light and thin. I personally own a ~125lb 30in widescreen CRT that I really quite like except when I decide to move it up or down stairs. CRTs still for the most part look better than other competing technologies. The problem is that, as evidenced by my 125lb wonder of modern technology, the technology does not scale well to really big screens.
  9. “Plasma” TVs use much more power than a similarly sized CRT. Really big plasma TVs use proportionally more power. My brother heats his living room with his (Not a joke).
  10. LCD TVs use much less power than a similarly sized CRT. Really big LCD TVs use proportionally more power which may actually be more than your current 27in non-HD TV uses. Do not take the word of the salesman at the store on this one, get a Kill-A-Watt and find out for yourself.
  11. The biggest downside to many of the non-CRT technologies is that they can be very difficult to see anything when you are not directly in front of them (though it is much better than it was a few years ago). Some sets are much better than others. If the comfy chair is off in a corner you may not be able to watch anything on that big new thing heating the living room. Before you go to the store, figure out where you might end up trying to watch it from in your room and figure out what that distance and angle are and try and replicate it in the store to see what it will look like.
  12. A 30in widescreen TV has a picture that is about the same size vertically as a 27in “normal” (4:3) TV. Remember that the measurement is diagonal.
  13. You do not have to have cable or satellite to get local broadcast HD channels. Most satellite receivers get their local HD content from an antenna you hook up to the back of them. Some cable systems don’t display all of the local HD channels.
  14. Most cable systems highly compress their content so it is very possible that NBC/ABC/CBS/FOX/PBS/CW/etc might look better from an antenna in your area.
  15. Not all content from HD sources is really HD. There’s quite a bit of programming (especially children’s and daytime programming) that is still displayed in SD. Re-runs of Cheers and Friends will always be in SD. The HD source might make it look a bit better than the old SD signal though.
  16. Not all stations that are broadcasting in HD are broadcasting HD content at all. Up until Fall of 2007 my local CW affiliate in particular was broadcasting everything in 480P which meant the widescreen dramas (Like Smallville) get shrunk to fit the lower resolution and looked really bad on my widescreen set with black bars on all sides. (Thanks to Aaron for pointing out they had changed over) Still, it is something to watch for in your area, especially on stations that are not affiliated with the big four networks.

That’s all that I can think of right now but if anyone has any questions feel free to ask them. If I don’t know the answer I’m more than willing to look them up.