American Gods (10th Anniversary Ed.) – Neil Gaiman

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Having stumbled upon TOR Books’ Top 10 sci-fi/fantasy book list of the decade, as rated by the public, I found that I had already read and greatly enjoyed the #1 and #3 picks – John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind (though I would reverse the order).

Sitting at #2 was American Gods written by an author of whom I had never heard (likely to the bewilderment of informed sci-fi readers…)   A quick review on Amazon indicated that this book was not so obviously in the expected genre but was instead a mixture of genres.  Still, it was intriguing enough to try, and… it was still ranked #2 between books I liked very, very much.

Now several weeks removed, I think I’m recovered enough to write a review.  I didn’t hate it, and I didn’t like it, either.

Loosely, it’s the story of a man (Shadow) who is released from jail and is pulled into the wake of an older god (Wednesday) who is weakened by faith of modern man being placed in new idols (TV, technology, etc.).  These are promoted to deity status, and likewise aim to keep the old gods a thing of the past.  Tension amongst the gods… okay.  Shadow is recruited as Wednesday’s driver where he witnesses the marshaling of a divergent assortment of vividly imagined, eccentric ex-gods, and… finds himself caught in a highly symbolic, frustratingly literary novel somehow regarded as #2 on a sci-fi/fantasy list.

Sure, there are literal gods who pull (or punch) his strings, timely visits from his decomposing wife, and a showdown of sorts between the relative power of the gods before it moves to a greater revelation.  It certainly takes on an enhanced fictional telling far beyond a symbolic observation of the roadside attractions across America that provide settings for scenes along the journey.

The problem is that despite some great settings and surrounding cast, the two main characters remain as unrevealing and as uninviting as their names.   Flipping page after page (actually, “>” on a Kindle) expecting to find teasing hints about why I would eventually come to care about them, I eventually finished the book realizing I wouldn’t miss either of them.  Protagonists?  Hardly.    It’s clear that the author was reaching for the category of literature, the type that unfortunate school kids will someday have to read and imagine some greater understanding of the modern man.  Wiki should help.

Was there anything of value?  Sure.  Hinzelmann is as well imagined a character as a reader might hope for, including his town and eventual uncovering.   However, although the story fell far short of an entertaining narrative, Gaiman reveals himself to be a great observer of many things, from roadside attractions to human nature.  

I’d consider reading another of his books… after more careful prequalification.  Why? Always looking for thoughtful content or phrases, the details that flesh out the book did not let me down:

“What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul."

“All your questions can be answered, if that is what you want. But once you learn your answers, you can never unlearn them."

“Every hour wounds. The last one kills."

“Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world.”

"Liberty," boomed Wednesday, as they walked to the car, "is a *itch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses."

"Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes. And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives."

2 of 5 STARS

 

(Avoid the 10th Anniversary edition, and buy the original one if you remain interested.  It’s shorter).

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Yes – Fly From Here

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I’m not a big Yes fan.  Though quite a big fan of progressive rock, Jon Anderson’s vocals have often been off-putting, at least when I was younger and digging deep into everything that was music.  Likewise, while I enjoy temp changes and bridges between differing sections making up longer songs, Yes was often just too intricate or too grandstanding.  With bands around like Genesis and Renaissance, I didn’t need Yes in my rotation.

It’s never bothered me that Yes has had a revolving door of musicians; I believe  only Steve Howe (guitar) and Chris Squire (bass) are stalwarts.  Those are two good ones to have.  Bring back one of many drummers (Alan White), a one shot keyboardist (Geoff Downes), and a new vocalist… well. Hmm.  More on that in a bit.

So here, in 2011, is a new Yes album.  Spotify did me the favor of allowing me to listen to it in its entirety, and I subsequently bought the CD, because I’m old fashioned and don’t want to just have music available from “out there somewhere.”  I want the physical product.

Fly From Here is not a great album, but it is a great surprise.  Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn (writer, producer) return to the band after a brief stint 30 years ago, with a song in tow from that era that was never quite finished.  That being the title track, they’ve expanded it into a five part suite… because that’s what some prog rock bands do.  There’s a lot to like within this set, and particularly a Roger Waters Division Bell-era styled slide guitar in “Part II.” 

In fact, both stalwarts stand out.  Howe has amazingly tasteful solos and fills, and Squire, for those who listen closely, plays just what is needed.  Howe’s wizardry shines on “Solitaire,” a solo acoustic piece, and on the closer, “Into the Storm,” which is probably the most complete “prog rock” song on the CD. 

That said, all-but-a-fixture Jon Anderson was apparently not invited back for vocals this time around, which to some means that this release should be trashed as it is not truly a Yes product.   I don’t have that hang up.  But they know their fans, and they recruited the lead singer of a Yes-tribute band (Close to the Edge), Benoit David, who handles the job admirably.  It took all of two listens for me to stop comparing him to Anderson and begin appreciating what he offers.  He can sound similar to Anderson, but can sing in a lower key that works as well.  On the uneven “Man You Always Wanted Me to Be,” he even sounds like Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree).  And, with Chris Squire handling backing vocals, the sound is close enough to vintage Yes while refreshingly different. 

Musically, the sound is closer to the best aspirations of early 1980’s Yes members – Yes’ 90125, Asia, GTR… but delivers closer to the goal of a more accessible (and profitable) prog rock.   Whether that is a desirable goal will likely shape the listener’s opinion of this CD.  The keys to this sound are the uncomplicated (and often regrettably uninspired given the opportunities) keyboards from Downes and a general restraint amongst all not to overwhelm the music with virtuosity. 

Also, the lyrics don’t embrace the bane of the genre, the fantasy/epic/thematic inspired nonsense that renders so many works meaningless. In fact, only rarely do they stray into lyrics that make one scratch his head (“riding the tiger?”).  I don’t know that this translates to it being better, but it fits David’s phrasing and creates a generally uplifting mood throughout the CD.

It’s an enjoyable listen, and that’s enough.

Recommended Songs: “Fly From Here Parts 1 and 2” and “Into the Storm”

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

Abbreviated version

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A Period of Change in My Life

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My wife has always been artistic, but in her early days of working as an artist, we would go and look at galleries.  Artists are always looking for inspiration, whether it be subject matter, seasonal color preferences, presentation, bio stylings, etc. 

I don’t remember the particular piece of art, but I’m pretty sure it was a painting.  Let’s just imagine that it was a 4’ x 4’ painting, with one shade of red, and with discernible brush patterns that crisscross, swirl, go in circles… whatever. 

Let’s further imagine that the title of this work is Becoming, and it’s hung on the wall of an art gallery that specializes in original works.  I’m not going to judge anyone who finds something that they appreciate in any piece of art, and a great big splotch of red probably looks good on the walls of an office or a den or a garage or any other white wall.  Sure, there may be other factors like floor colors, other furniture, stone or wood finishes, or a single plastic carnation in a glass vase, standing on a French table just beneath.  Whatever.

But for me, an engineer by education, I look at it, scratch my head, and ask, “She wants $700 for this? I could do that for only $699!”  What’s the story here?

And for those who ask that question, conveniently located next to the “work” is a small index card sized bio, where the artist introduces herself and her background.  As she describes the piece, she explains that It represents a period of change in my life.”

That’s… remarkable.  Was it a divorce?  Second marriage?  Empty nest syndrome?  A disagreeable steak tartar?  The passing of your uncle’s best friend’s son’s goldfish, Fritz? The mourning after the final episode of Seinfeld?  Or a reawakening to the possibilities of “red” in the temporary supply shortage of paints of other colors? 

And to this day, my wife and I pull out that phrase whenever we come across B.S. in an appeal to the wine and cheese crowd who might actually believe it.

Sigh.

I’m not an artist and I don’t play one on TV.  But I can appreciate art.  Go me.  I also have an iPhone.  That doesn’t make me an artist, but it does have a camera. And that doesn’t make me a photographer.  And I get bored sometimes.  But that doesn’t make me a philosopher (It might make a blogger).

At such times, I could play Angry Birds… and sometimes I do.  But that takes longer than going through, say, a car wash.  And, if you’re in a car wash, and you enjoy watching the mechanical arms and water jets and soap dispensers and such, you might just be bored enough to realize that they make interesting soap or spray patterns on your windshield.

If, by chance, you also write a blog, you may find that you take pictures of odd things just for the possibility that they may relate to some subject that you may warm to later.  Or more simply, if you’re bored, and you have your iPhone, and there’s soap bubbles, yeah.  Why not take pictures?

I’m not going through a period of change in my life.  My car goes through changes regularly, from clean to dirty to clean to dirty…

Anyway, these hypothetical photos may sit on your phone, and sit on your phone, and… they’re awkward to explain to others as you scroll through your hundreds of photos in your phone’s library.  Perhaps, you could explain them away as representing a period of change in your life.  People buy into that stuff.

Anyway, I’m tired of them, and my photo library needs to be soaped, washed, and rinsed.  It needs a period of change in its life.

So, following are vintage 2009 car wash pictures (a highly collectible year).  First is the original, then reimaged (again at the expense of Angry Birds) using the following iPhone apps: Pixiromatic, PhotoTropedelic, and PictureShow.  If you find that you don’t have time to do this with your own photos, I might suggest air travel when at 20,000 ft.  It worked for me.

If you hover your mouse, you’ll find not-so-artistic descriptions of each.

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My Morning Jacket – Live at Verizon Amphitheater

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Weekend concerts are so much kinder than weeknight shows.  Aware that My Morning Jacket (MMJ) has a fan base that travels, my concert buddy and I figured, rightly, that this would be a good show for arriving early and “tailgating,” as such things go.  We arrived early, and enjoyed watching the (generally younger) crowd enjoy their drinks, socializing, bean toss games and general hanging out.

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We talked a bit with a couple that drew near due to the Rory Gallagher guitar licks emanating from my car, another couple from work who sought us out, and a young couple parked next to us who were happy to have a night out without lost abbeytheir nine month old.  (It’s a good thing; I don’t think the infant (or the police) would have appreciated what they were smoking in their car).

Properly fortified by pretzels, home cooked burgers, and Lost Abbey ales, we finally made our way into the venue.  As it turned out, we were so certain that the show started at 8:00 that we missed a good bit of the opening set by Neko Case, who we were both interested in hearing.  Sadly, it was a ho-hum performance, without much energy or, for that matter, much sound coming off the stage.  She’s well regarded and probably fares better in a smaller venue.  I very much enjoyed her contributions to Jacob Dylan’s last CD.

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The stage change didn’t take long, but long enough for everyone to press forward and get situated for sight lines.  But then, just a few minutes before the band takes the stage, there’s the “Excuse me! Coming through!” crowd who had stepped away, in fact, the entire time until now, to go fetch beers.  Never mind that they’re (always) much taller than the friends they join.  Such is life in General Admission floor areas, and it’s expected.  I really, reallyIMG_5127 need to figure out how to get media credentials so I can take closer photos, not to mention bring a better camera. 

Aside, what guy gets a standing area ticket for his date?  Sure, they can dance or, well, maybe not.  There’s no room in the throng.  What’s the female opinion of this?  Is the company more important than seeing?  Because at 5’5” or shorter, it’s a challenge.  Now, the guy with the balding head pictured at right… he can only blame himself.

And so, the light dims and the show begins.  My first observation was that MMJ favors very striking stage lighting.  The second quickly followed, which was, “Aha.  Finally, a rock show by a band who knows how it should look and sound.”  They began with “Victory Dance,” the opener of their latest CD, and rattled off a succession of new songs and several older ones that promised a very, very entertaining evening.  Lead singer Jim James travels the stage, the lead guitarist can flat play, and the drummer arrived directly from the mid 1970’s, back when drummers understood that they actually can have a stage presence.

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But, then… having played “Outta My System,” MMJ slowed down with song selections, became more adventurous (to be kind), and, to my ears, lost their vibe (and often their visibility in low lights).   “Dondante” was a 20 minute (or was it 10 minutes?) noodling jam that got a rise from the crowd whenever it seemed they were finding their pulse, and by its end, I think the applause was mostly that it was finally over.  When the conversations of the crowed are as audible as the band, it’s a good sign that the crowd has lost interest (unless you’re at Chastain, where that’s normal).   

After the extended snooze, would they step it back up? 

No, instead they played “Slow, Slow Tune.”  It’s a nice enough song, but… Then they fired up “Black Metal,” a rocking song that sparked life back into the crowed, and they closed with “Mahgeetah” which was decent, or, at least much better than the last 5 or so songs.. 

The encore opened with two winners and then to “Cobra,” a song that wasn’t released on an album but which appreciated by their core fans as it’s not heard much.  But, at that point, my buddy and I were of the opinion that a cold bottled water would be much more appreciated than anything the band had left.  So, we missed the final three songs, and it’s worth noting that we rarely miss any.  I would have enjoyed the Neko Case collaboration, but… I needed the water more.

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Overall, MMJ has enough good material that I was disappointed on this particular setlist. They played heavily from their new CD and from It Still Moves, a CD which has a slower paced charm, but I’d prefer a heavier dose of the rocking Z.  MMJ plays a number of styles – indie rock, Americana, etc., and they detour into psychedelic rock or “jam band” when playing live.  Still, I was very disappointed that they seemed uninspired in the second half.  This falls to James, as the band played well.  And kudos to drummer Patrick Hallahan, a great one to watch.

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Other photos are can be seen HERE.

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

Setlist:

Victory Dance
Circuital
You Wanna Freak Out
Off the Record
I’m Amazed
Gideon
Golden
Outta My System
Smokin From Shootin
Run Thru
Touch Me I’m Going to Scream (Part 2)
Dondante
Slow Slow Tune
Holdin’ On to Black Metal
Mahgeetah

Encore:

Wordless Chorus
The Day is Coming
Cobra
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around (w/ Neko Case)
Dancefloors
One Big Holiday

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Big Bad Voodoo Daddy – Live at Verizon Amphitheater

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Two days after Death Cab for Cutie, it was back to Verizon, this time for a change of musical pace with my wife, son, and his best friend.  Despite the name of the band, this wasn’t for a another Indie rock concert, but rather the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and a swing/big band known as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy.  As the tickets were offered for free by a coworker, this was a no-lose departure from my usual concert outings, but not so far from my musical tastes, given a great appreciation for Sinatra.

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The ASO, conducted by Michael Krajewski, led off with seven songs to set a swing/big band mood.  While the slower pieces allowed the string section to play a role, the brassy “Sing, Sing, Sing” got people out of the cramped seats and into the aisles to dance.  Given the flavor of music, it was no surprise that trumpet solos would be featured, enjoyably played by Thomas Hooten.  The last song, “In the Mood,” was a familiar song from the Glenn Miller Orchestra that kept expectations high through the intermission. 

A short backstage interview with the conductor revealed a great sense of humor, somewhat of a surprise for people like me who might expect otherwise from limited exposure to PBS broadcasting of classical music. As the full time conductor of the Atlanta, Houston, and Jacksonville Symphonies, I would guess his work schedule is handled with humor as well.

Big Bad Voodoo Daddy took the stage, backed by the ASO, and opened with a swinging swagger that held pace throughout the show.  Bandleader Scotty, in a wool suit and seemingly unaffected by the heat, quickly interacted with the audience, and the band joined suit with intricate and interwoven brassy charts.  Alto, tenor, trumpet, trombone, stand up bass, drums, piano…. you want it, they got it, and they hardly take a breath from song to song.  Solos were plentiful, expertly interwoven into high adrenalin songs.

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I hadn’t listened to BBVD before the concert, but the words were simple and rang clear.  A quick review their recorded product easily leads to the following titles:  “Jumpin’ Jack,” “You and Me & the Bottle Makes 3,” “Go Daddy-O,” “I Wanna Be Just Like You (Jungle Book Song),” and “So Long Farewell Goodbye.”

They featured a number of Cab Calloway songs, “Reefer Man,” “Hey Now Hey Now,” “The Old Man of the Mountain,” and a very popular “Minnie the Moocher.”  Otherwise, a crowd favorite was “Mr. Pinstripe Suit,” one of their first songs.  The band includes its original members from its founding 18 years ago, and there is a natural ease to their performance that brings adds a lot of fun (which otherwise might devolve into a skills competition).

Verizon provided good camera coverage for close-ups on the viewing screens, but between the overall distance from the crowd to the band and the limited space for movement, one has to wonder how much better BBVD would translate in a club atmosphere.  Kudos to Verizon for crystal clear audio for this show.

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Death Cab for Cutie – Live at Verizon Amphitheater

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Early into their 2011 tour supporting their latest CD, Codes and Keys, Death Cab arrived in Atlanta to join an enthusiastic crowd in sweltering heat.  Front man Ben Gibbard said, “We’ve been looking forward to playing here for a long time.”  Really?  In this heat?

Before the General Admission area was fully admitted, Scottish Indie band Frightened Rabbit opened the show with a brisk set of 8 songs.  By the time “Scottish Winds” arrived midway in the set, either the sound booth had improved some settings or my brain’s circuitry adapted to the musical din enough to understand what lead singer Scott Hutchison was singing.  The band was favorably received, whether due to the music or to Southerner’s being suckers for Scottish accents, I’m not sure.  Watching the facial expressions of Scott’s brother Grant as he drummed was certainly visually entertaining.

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After a fairly quick stage change, Death Cab took the stage.  They opened with “I Will Possess Your Heart.”  Whether the title was a mission statement for the evening is uncertain, but the extended and aggressive musical intro to the song was a great way to trumpet the band’s arrival.

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For those standing in front of the stage, the band’s arrival also invited a compaction of sorts, which is to be expected.  Thus, numerous (not to mention one particularly amorous) 20-something couples pressed into the gaps, and the “Alpharetta Winds” were thereby buffered out.  Still, at least Southerners know that in August, shorts and T-shirts are appropriate.  The members of Frightened Rabbit and Ben Gibbard didn’t think that far ahead, having to roll up their long sleeved plaid shirts early in their sets (The jeans were forgiven, as any musician worth his salt doesn’t wear shorts when performing.  It’s just not done).

The band is certainly considerate of their long term fans.  Of the 24 songs played, five were from albums preceding 2003’s Transatlanticism, IMG_5063which launched the band into wider recognition.  That said, the older songs were generally less popular than those from the last four CDs.

Aside from the opener, another highlight was “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” for which the band exited and Gibbard played solo acoustic.  It was obviously a crowd favorite, as they sang along, pretty well as such things go.

Tracks from their new album were relatively few (4), and hearing them live didn’t open them up in a new way.   “You are a Tourist” had the most appeal, but when it comes to singing about fires, “Grapevine Fires” won, no-contest.

At first glance, it might seem that Gibbard is Death Cab for IMG_5068Cutie.  Not true.  Bassist Nick Harmer plays large in concert, with driving, well phrased sequences that carry many of their songs.  While guitarist/keyboardist Chris Walla lacks any penchant for showmanship, his contributions might be similar to George Harrison with The Beatles:  uncomplicated work that happens to fit the songs perfectly.  It was obvious in this show that he increasingly prefers playing with sound effects.

And that leaves drummer Jason McGerr, who kept the beats moving through the evening.  His moment came at the end of the show, descending on his drums with his full weight at the climax of the closer, “Transatlanticism.”  Take the rest of the might off, Jason!

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Note: Highly recommended for any concert is a cooler in waiting with ice cold bottles of water.  Ahh.

3 of 5 STARS

 

 

Set List:

I Will Possess Your Heart
Crooked Teeth
We Laugh Indoors
Photobooth
Doors Unlocked and Open
Long Division
Grapevine Fires
Codes and Keys
What Sarah Said
I Will Follow You Into the Dark
Title Track
Little Bribes
You are a Tourist
The New Year
Some Boys
Soul Meets Body
A Movie Script Ending
Cath
We Looked Like Giants
Marching Bands of Manhattan

Encores:
Stay Young, Go Dancing
Title and Registration
The Sound of Settling
Transatlanticism

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