Friday, January 31, 2014

Sound'a'Roundus: Dan Callahan's Top 13 Albums

A long time coming, behold the majesty of Dan Callahan, he of A Screaming Comes Across the Sky and Dan Le Fou, and most recently of the quantum majesty of Doctors Without Borders. A King of Kings like Ozymandias, getting 13 albums from Mr. Callahan was like pulling teeth, and thanks to my suddenly full school schedule, it was a pain to find time to get this together. But here it is.


Fashionably late. Hal fuckin' Jordan, let's kick this pig. Self-imposed rules: no compilations, one album per artist.

Beethoven's 9th Symphony, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker and conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini (1824)

(No, it's not Berlin, which appears to not be on YouTube. As Dan says, "Use your imagination.")

Yes, the distinction is important. The first CD I ever bought with my own money, and the best recording I've ever heard of the best piece of music I've ever heard. My having a favorite recording of Beethoven's Ninth has been called "the most pretentious thing I've ever heard," but I ain't doing this shit for effect. Once you've heard this one, you'll know the difference, and the others simply won't do. Even the most famous, von Karajan's recording with the Philharmoniker, feels rushed and slight by comparison. In the '94 Northridge earthquake (i lived in Northridge at the time), the CD fell off the rack, out of its case, had some rocks fall on it, and got scratched to hell. I went out to the Wherehouse on Balboa and Devonshire and bought a different recording that was about seven bucks. I walked out of the store, tore off the shrink wrap, and put the disc in my Walkman. A few minutes in, I heard someone cough. A few minutes later, I heard someone drop something on the floor, where it clattered for a few seconds. Then I took the CD out and threw it in the nearest trash can I could find. Then I walked from the record store to the grocery store, bought some generic-brand windex, went home and cleaned my old one until it would play again. Fuck you, it matters. Whoever you may be, reading this, I'll burn you a copy with joy in my heart; all you have to do is ask, slim. When I started thinking about this list, two albums sprang immediately to mind; this is the first one.

Johann Sebastian Bach - Goldberg Variations, performed by Glenn Gould (1955 & 1981)

That goddamn weirdo recorded this somewhat obscure classical suite (which he single-handedly made un-obscure) twice: once as his first professional recording, and again at the end of his life. I guess I'm technically cheating by picking both, but both are completely vital for very different reasons - one is the sound of youthful exuberance and raw talent; the other, heavier and slower and more significant with the weight of age. Both recordings are actually improved by the fact that he's audibly humming along - the only man more into the music than I am, listening to it at this very second.

Howlin' Wolf - Howlin' Wolf (1962)

"This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies."

The Velvet Underground - "White Light/White Heat" (1968)

 A thick, black slab of noise. Neck and neck with their self-titled, which is almost its complete opposite, and great for the opposite reasons.

The Stooges - "Fun House" (1970)

And here, almost halfway into this list, I present my thesis: virtuosity is overrated. Technical skill takes you only so far. For me, it's about how the music feels and makes you feel. this one makes me feel filthy. Luckily, that's a feeling I love.

The Clash - "London Calling" (1979)

The entire history of 20th century western music in a tasty, easy-to-digest package. Every time you listen to it, this will happen: "Oh yeah - I forgot how great *that* song is!" and there's 19 of dem bitches.

Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes (1983)

The word "perfect" gets thrown around a lot, but here we are. "Blister in the Sun" is an ideal opener, "Good Feeling" is an exemplary closer, and there's magic in-between; "Add it Up" rocks about as hard as any song ever recorded with acoustic instruments.  Ten songs, no filler.

Big Black - "Songs about Fucking" (1987)

Possibly the greatest album title and cover of all time contains low-down & dirty rock & roll. It's refreshing to hear music of any genre which is this completely unsentimental.

My Bloody Valentine - "Loveless" (1991)

The poster child for an album whose cover perfectly represents the music contained therein: hazy, pink, dense, dreamlike and dreamy. It's also ideal music to fuck to. Normally, i don't like ending my sentences with prepositions, but this album is just that damn good.

Nirvana - "In Utero" (1993)

I've said for years that Nevermind is a better collection of songs but this one is a better album overall. Most people don't get that, but fuck you, *I* know what it means. My nigga Steve Albini makes this sludgy whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1999)

Tale as old as time: a Cold War-era East German transvestite finds and loses love in the American midwest. Proof positive that the best art is simultaneously unique in its specifics and universal in its themes. Whether you prefer the film or theatrical production soundtrack is between you and your conscience. Or do what I did and combine the two - both have songs the other doesn't.

The Magnetic Fields - "69 Love Songs" (1999)

This is the second album that immediately sprang to mind. The greatest gift I've ever received or given. Demands to be shared; speaking from experience, anyone/everyone you give it to will love it (and if they don't, stop hanging out with them.) An astounding batting average.

Radiohead - "Kid A" (2000)

Atypical (believe me, no pun intended.) There hasn't been an album like this since, by Radiohead or anyone else. When I first listened to it, I wasn't crazy about it because it didn't rock. Let the record show I'm a fuckin' idiot.


If I may, a shout-out to my personal runners-up:

"Cheap Trick at Budokan: The Complete Concert" (Is this the greatest live album of all time?)

"Johnny Cash at San Quentin" (Or is this? Towdier, sloppier, and higher on pills than his more famous "at Folsom Prison", this one sounds like he could have started a prison break just by saying the word)

Descendents - "Milo Goes to College" (The Platonic form of punk rock. Milo's is the voice everyone since has been trying to imitate)

Butthole Surfers - "Psychic... Powerless... Another Man's Sac" (This album is absolutely disgusting, and so am I; the appeal is obvious. My favorite album by my favorite band that no one else likes [aside from the three or four people reading this])

"Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols" (A cliché pick, with good reason. 10/11 unforgettable songs [Even as I write this I'm completely blanking on "New York"])

Black Flag - "My War" (There's that firecracker title track, and then there's Side B - three songs, eighteen minutes that drove the punkers NUTS because they couldn't handle their favorite band slowing it down a little bit. And so grunge is born)

Tom Waits - "The Black Rider" (Popular consensus says this partial soundtrack to a theatrical Burroughs collaboration musical is his worst album - fuck 'em. It's haunting and moving and I have a personal sentimental attachment to it [which, as everybody knows, trumps all])

Dead Kennedys - "Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables" (My big problem with most punk rock is that it's too straightforward. This debut handily averts that with a healthy dose of weird. Socially astute carnival calliope fronted by this dude who sounds like Fred Schneider)

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds - "Murder Ballads" (Mean and nasty [so am I; the appeal is obvious]. The last album before Cave's tragic descent into that deadly killer of artistic creativity, sobriety, this one will cheer you right up when you're in a bad mood. Listening to it in a good mood is not recommended)

Slint - "Spiderland" (Disqualified because every time I listen to "Washer", I hear the birth of emo. When your album is 40 minutes and nine of those are the genesis of something hateful, well... some sins cannot be forgiven)

The Shaggs - "Philosophy of the World" (Fuck irony. This album rocks hard, and it's catchier than just about anything else you'd care to name)

and [YOUR FAVORITE BEATLES ALBUM] (Dear punk rock shitheads who slag off the Beatles because you're trying to be controversial - shut up, the Beatles are great.)

Albums cut from the final 13 because they were already on Bollweg's list:

The Smashing Pumpkins - "Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness" (Billy Corgan's predilection for horrible puns aside, this double album is bloated, self-indulgent, pretentious, angsty, and completely amazing)

Pixies - "Doolittle" (When I was sixteen, I'd listen to this one all the way through then start it over again from the beginning)

Miles Davis - "Kind of Blue" ("Get the fuck out of my face, you jive motherfucker, and take your silly bitch with you.")

The phenomenal artists I didn't feel had an album representational enough of how much I like 'em: Aphex Twin, B.B. King, Beck, Lady Day, The Birthday Party, The Black Keys, Black Sabbath, Cab Calloway, Coil, The Cramps, CCR, David Bowie, Dinosaur Jr, Etta James, Faith No More, Flogging Molly, Fugazi, Grinderman, Gorillaz, Hüsker Dü, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Jesus Lizard, John Prine, Joy Division, Kanye (that's right, you fucking heard me), Melvins, The Misfits, Mission of Burma, Motörhead, Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Nina Simone, Pink Floyd (shut up), The Pogues, The Pretty Things, Queens of the Stone Age, The Rolling Stones, Scratch Scid, Shellac, Social D, Soundgarden, Swans, The White Stripes, Wilco, Wire.

To Ennio Morricone - whose soundtracks to Leone's films are achingly, heart-rendingly beautiful, but best experienced as a part of those films rather than as discrete albums.

And, of course, to the Dirty Three's "Everything's Fucked" and Sonic Youth's "The Diamond Sea" - two of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard and *almost* good enough for me to pick their respective albums on the strength of those tracks alone.

Now, if this was a list of favorite individual tracks, mine would look very different.




Friday, January 17, 2014

Miracleman #1...a consumer's opinion

Both photos in this article swiped from the wonderful!

So, with the start of another school semester, I'm finding myself a little overwhelmed with the amount of literature being thrown at me, and so at least for a bit I'm going to slow down on More Moore. Depressing, since there were some months I was pretty slow before, but that's how it is, and I'll try to put up at least a post a month or so. In the meantime, Marvel has given us chapter one of Alan Moore's (and later Neil Gaiman's) seminal first major work, Miracleman! I ran out and picked up my copy on the 15th, the day it was released, and here I am, a couple days later.
So is it worth it? Tough call. 

Consider this a little consumer guidebook for the new Miracleman, just something for those on the fence. I don't regret my purchase (much) but there's no question that Marvel made some bizarre decisions regarding this issue, so be informed.

First off, let's address the big blue-spandex-wearing elephant in the room: the price. For reasons known but to God, Marvel decided on not just a premium, but a massive premium markup for this particular issue, and it sounds like a decent premium for each issue to come. The standard Miracleman #1 is going to set you back $5.99, and I've seen variant covers (like that Garry Leach beauty up there) run as high as ten bucks. This is a heart-stopping price, double what a normal comic costs these days, and if Marvel wants to snare new readers for this series, this is absolutely the worst possible way to do it, and hopefully it will sell just based on name recognition.

Except of course it won't, because there's no name to recognize. I know this isn't Marvel's fault, but due to Alan Moore's vicious contract hardball, there's no writer credit at all on this book; just a creditless cover and the still-hilarious "STORY - THE ORIGINAL WRITER" on the inside. As everyone's favorite comicmonger Mike Sterling so eloquently put it, apparently “WRITER: A.M.” or “MR. M.” or “JILL DE RAY” were out of the question.

So the price is okay to you, and you've known that Mr. Moore was involved for decades, right? And hey, it's 64 pages, who's going to complain? Well that brings us to big problem number three...
It's only got like 20 pages of actual comic inside! The rest is a monumental parade of filler, including sketches, interviews, essays, and a handful of Golden Age strips from Marvelman creator Mick Anglo. I had thought that there were supposed to be a couple Warpsmith stories, a spinoff story that ran concurrent to Marvelman and eventually crossed over in book II, but a scan of the solicitor's notes show I was mis-remembering. Keeping in mind that a normal, $2.99 comic is 24 pages, what Marvel is trying to do here almost feels insidious, and if for some bizarre reason a member of the uninitiated DOES pick up a copy, they will feel so gypped by its contents that I can't imagine any of them picking up chapter 2. Personally, I loved the Golden Age work, but I suspect that I'm in the minority among even '80s Alan Moore readers, let alone 2014's hip kids, and since I seem to recall the all-Golden Age Marvelman book that came out a few years ago sold about ten copies, I think I'm right in those assumptions.

So there's the negatives, and I don't blame you if they're too much to bear. Any positives? Absolutely. The work looks absolutely gorgeous, recolored and relettered and treated with the utmost care. I've heard a lot of people complain about the new colors, but I don't get it; it's perhaps a bit 'standard' compared to Swamp Thing or Watchmen or something, but the old Warrior and Eclipse coloring jobs were so bad that I can't imagine anyone wouldn't prefer the workmanlike Photoshop job we got. Everything is crisp and clear, the colors pop where they're supposed to, even a few details that were obscured in the original work are intact here. I have heard that the digital edition of the comic slaps some panties on the otherwise bare bottom of Liz Moran in one panel, which makes me wonder what exactly they're going to attempt when we get to the birth chapter, but the physical copy I got is in its uncensored glory.

And finally, there's the fact that this story is just really, really good, and that Marvel has brought us a story that's remained out of print for 25 years (and in Gaiman's case, unfinished). Reading it in print for the first time (I could never afford those Eclipse trades), I was struck by how, even though nearly every comic since then was influenced by Marvelman in some way, it still feels fresh and urgent and downright essential. And, minus some unfortunate Beckum artwork around the middle, it's only going to get better. Everybody that is interested in what comics have become since 1982 absolutely has to read Miracleman.

So there you have it: three reasons against buying the book, and two reasons for. Draw your own conclusions from it, I suppose, though part of me does think that the average Joe should just wait for the trade. As it is, I can't imagine what Marvel was thinking giving us a 25 page comic, adding 40 pages of filler, and charging us 6 bucks for it, unless they really thought that rabid Moore fans alone would boost sales enough to make it worthwhile. I'll say this though: I'll be buying issue two in a couple weeks. How can I not? It's Miracleman!