Archive for June, 2009

Michael Cox: The Meaning of Night

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

I am a sucker for modern takes on Victorian literature of the Charles Dickens / Wilkie Collins variety, Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx being for me the high point of said genre. The Meaning of Night got a bunch of very positive reviews and had a great first line (“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper”) so off I went to read it.

And this is kind of a weird thing to say after spending most of a weekend feverishly plowing through it, but I was ultimately a bit disappointed. I try not to put spoilers of any kind in these reviews, so I don’t want to go into too much more detail, so I’ll just say that for me the ending of the book did not live up to the expectations set by the rest of it. Clearly most readers felt differently (it has 4.5 stars on Amazon), and I enjoyed most of the time I spent with it, so I don’t want to be too harsh, but I felt like there was a bit of a wasted opportunity here.

Frank Zappa: The Big Band Years

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

First an update on my previous survey: after a couple more listens, I am really digging 200 Motels. It casts the widest net of any of the albums so far, ranging from very simple rock to atonal orchestral pieces (if you have any doubts that Zappa had real classical compositional chops, find The Frank Zappa Songbook and check out the orchestral manuscript excerpts there), which makes it tough to get a handle on. But I kind of look at it (this goes for a lot of Zappa albums) like an interesting topographical landscape that is mostly underwater. At first you just see a few islands; these are the easily identifiable musical elements that come along a few times per side and are all you can really orient yourself by at first. Over repeated listens, the waters recede bit by bit, and you can identify more and more elements of the musical landscape that were opaque at first. Eventually the whole work becomes familiar, and you can begin to understand it as a whole.

This is the way I approach a lot of modern classical music; a few years back I spent a month listening to Elliott Carter’s first string quartet once every day in the background, and by the end of it I certainly did recognize a decent fraction of it. Of course Zappa is easier to process this way because those initial landmarks are pop riffs rather than odd intervallic collections, but the principle is the same and in some ways it can be more rewarding because there’s more to hang on to.

Anyway, on to the big band years, which is really just one year, 1972. These two records are mostly instrumental and have big horn sections, and revisit some of the jazz elements he started exploring in Hot Rats back in 1969.

Waka/Jawaka (1972) is less successful for me. Side one is completely occupied by a single piece, “Big Swifty”, which starts with a very promising multi-metric theme (or “head”, I guess), and then wastes it by settling into a jam for most of its 17 minutes. The two vocal pieces that follow seem to be generally regarded as space-fillers, though the second one, the country-tinged “It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal”, is actually my favorite thing on the album, then things are finished off with the title track, 11 minutes long with again too much of it occupied by solos.

(There are a lot of contradictory elements in Zappa’s work, but to me one of the oddest is the character of his solos. Most of his music, even when it’s dumb, is pretty complicated, sometimes deceptively so, but when it comes to solos he’s happy to sit on a couple of chords for five minutes wanking away. Maybe there’s more there I’m not seeing yet, but so far they’re not grabbing me.)

The Grand Wazoo (1972) is a big improvement. The whole thing just feels tighter and more directed, and side two in particular has a nice arc from beginning to end. There are practically no vocals at all on this record, probably a plus for a lot of people.

After a short tour presenting this music, Zappa assembled yet one more version of the Mothers of Invention and returned to rock with sort of a prog flavor. Stay tuned,

Donald X. Vaccarino: Dominion

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Dominion is a card game that came out last year. I heard it was the hot new game, got to play it this spring at the Game Developers Conference, immediately tried to buy it but found out that the first printing had sold out, finally bought it a month ago, and since then Liza and I have probably played an average of one game a night. So the short version is that it is awesome and I wholeheartedly recommend it, but I should probably go into a little more detail than that.

It is basically a deck-building collectible card game, only you build your decks in real time and the universe of cards to collect is randomly generated (25 varieties of cards come with the game but any given session only uses a random subset of 10). Like Settlers of Catan or Puerto Rico, it has the casual-gamer-friendly aspect of each player building up their little individual empire/deck/etc; even if your opponent beat you, you get a sense of accomplishment from your deck being cooler than it was at the start of the game. As with most CCGs, the base rules are incredibly simple and the cards add interesting exceptions on top of them.

I was originally a little concerned about the strategies becoming too obvious or the cards becoming boring, but we’re still enjoying it a ton and regularly having post-game discussions of how well our strategies worked and the various tough decisions we had to make during the game.

It plays great for 2 player but apparently plays well up to groups of 4 as well. And in a month or so an expansion set with 25 new card types will come out! Yes, we are well and truly hooked.

Highly recommended, especially for people who like more casual boardgames that they can think moderately hard about for 30 minutes as opposed to ones that you bust your brain over for two hours.

Spewer #5: Michael Moorcock

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

(See the previous discussion here for definitions and lists.)

How could I have forgotten Michael Moorcock in my list? As far as I can tell he fits every criterion.

All I’ve read is the first volume of the recent Elric rerelease, which unfortunately did not engage me at all, so I probably won’t be exploring much more (although I do have a copy of Gloriana lying around I picked up when I saw it remaindered). But his whole multiverse / Eternal Champion thing combined with seeing huge omnibuses of vaguely interrelated work definitely got my salivary glands going, before it turned out that I wasn’t that into the sample that I tried.

Frank Zappa: The Flo and Eddie Years

Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Continuing my chronological tour through Frank Zappa’s albums (I’m in no danger of stopping yet)… As I said last time, this group of albums is generally not regarded in very high esteem by Zappa fans. This incarnation of the band features the tandem vocals of Flo (who’s a guy, by the way) and Eddie, both formerly of the Turtles (the song you probably know is “Happy Together”). The music here takes a weird turn towards juvenile vaudeville, with leering and often offensive lyrics that are usually sexual and when they’re not still tend to be pretty gross.

And you know what, I like it a lot more than I thought I would. Part of it is reveling in the sheer musicianship of the band; the high points of the albums are live 20+ minute suites that even though they contain a fair amount of vamping still have an incredible amount of music that needs to be performed precisely, and listening to everyone nail their cues the whole way through is kind of exhilarating. They make it sound easy, and as someone who has had to memorize hours of complicated ensemble music, I know it’s not. It’s kind of a shame that the lyrics are often stupid, but after you hear them a few times, the words stop being so in the foreground. Yeah, that is about the most positive thing I can find to say about the lyrics.

Chunga’s Revenge (1970) is my least favorite album of this period, an unfocused grab-bag of leftovers from old sessions and new songs with Flo and Eddie.

Fillmore East — June 1971 (1971) is a live album featuring the infamous “groupie routine”, one of the aforementioned suites. The highlight for me, though, is the last track, “Tears Began To Fall”, a glorious soul song with, unbelievably, no trace of sarcasm (which maybe is why Zappa unfortunately never performed it again).

200 Motels (1971) is a double-album soundtrack to the movie featuring the band (and MCed, mystifyingly, by Theodore Bikel), and as you can tell from the clips on YouTube, the movie is a total mess and so is a lot of the music. I like big messes, but even I needed a few listens to get into it. Equal parts stupid rock and mostly-atonal orchestral pieces, with very little in between.

Just Another Band From L.A. (1972) is probably my favorite album of this era. Side one is occupied entirely by another suite, “Billy the Mountain”, which is a lot of fun and for once more silly than offensive. (That gets evened out by the second side, whose centerpiece song is a cringe-inducingly gleeful celebration of incestuous urges.)

Four albums of this is about all I can take, but “luckily” someone threw Zappa off the stage during the tour documented in Just Another Band From L.A. and he disbanded this group and spent the next six months in a wheelchair convalescing and composing. Stay tuned for Frank Zappa: The Big Band Years!

Iain M. Banks: The Player of Games

Friday, June 5th, 2009

I wasn’t going to read another Culture novel quite so soon, but a chess/go friend of mine told me that I had to read this, so I did.

It’s about, no surprise, a world-class (I guess universe-class) game player, and, no surprise either, the massive political crisis he finds himself embroiled in. He’s introduced to basically the Best Game Ever, which in its complexity dwarfs the most complicated game you know, whether that is chess, go, or Advanced Squad Leader, and naturally his mission is to defeat a rival civilization at it.

It is actually much more interesting than my admittedly breezy explanation makes it sound. The plot itself is engaging although it’s not hard to tell where it’s going. The rival civilization pretty much defines itself by this game, which makes for a lot of interesting analogies between game-playing and life. Their relative barbarism compared to the Culture is also thought-provoking, as it comprises a mix of aspects that we as modern humans find abominably backward and ones that we share with them (but the far-future utopian Culture population finds just as barbaric).

But what I found most enjoyable was just the take on game-playing. Banks does an admirable job of portraying the different aspects of playing games seriously: the obsession with finding the truth in a position, and the paradoxical combination of fierce competitiveness where any attempt to seize the advantage is allowable and aesthetic appreciation for the development of the game such that the actual determination of the winner is almost unimportant.

Combine this with some cool plot twists and a wry sense of humor and you have a winner, at least as far as this game-playing novel-reader is concerned. Next up (at some point) is Use Of Weapons, which seems to be widely regarded as one of his best.