Wednesday, December 07, 2011

It is approaching the end of the year, and people are making their lists of top albums, as the cycle of leaks and hype presupposes that very little of interest will come to light in the last days that is not a prelude of grander things to come. I have made my own private list of notable records, culled from an iTunes playlist and a look at my shelves, to try to preempt any word from an official organ. It's a reminder that my world and the world outside are a venn diagram with little overlap, and that is fine: I have listened to plenty of music this year, about as much as I would have in any other given year, probably, and been satisfied. Music fills the needs of its listeners, and while if there were any true masterpieces of deep meaning I must have missed them, all the discussion I've heard suggests that everyone else missed it too. And maybe it would be tricky to be too invested now that I am not sixteen anymore. So, what sounded good and interesting enough to warrant mentioning as a highlight, what said something in its essence I found sympathetic?

Early in the year I was naming Micachu And The Shapes collaboration with the London Sinfonietta as the record of 2011, but lacking in any kind of critical acumen or knowledge of music theory, or substantial readership, I was not really able to whip up the cascade of verbiage needed to alter discourse in any way. Now it is December and that record remains as unheralded as it did on it was on its release. Let me restate: I think that record sounds awesome, really sonically rich. I also think that more than any other record, it is a testament to how music works, as a series of collaborations both between peers and across genres, beyond time. Micachu and the Shapes are a band whose song forms on their first records seemed sort of indebted to a certain strand of artsy post-punk, with Kleenex being maybe the best reference point, who had their debut produced by Matthew Herbert and earned enough notice from the British music press to be a in a position to be offered the opportunity to collaborate with a classical ensemble specializing in contemporary works. Some new instruments are built, and the music written seems sort of indebted to DJ Screw's playing records at slowed down speeds, the wobbly depth of a sound slowed down being mimicked by string sections phasing in classical minimalism. That's the record itself, but it comes with a download code for an mp3 mixtape, where the classical concert is sampled and sped up, and a drum sound is added to make it suitable for friends of Mica's in the UK grime scene to rap over. This kind of bricolage is the sort of polyamorous relationship with music that obsessive listeners have, actually given a narrative to make connections deeper than a DJ's analysis of BPM. I can make no great vouchers for the ending mixtape, but then, that's not presented as the end result. It's a bonus, the next step in an ongoing recapitulation. Number one record of the year, in my book, narrated as ever by a contrarian.

The best songs, presented clearly and with no abstractions, would go to Bill Callahan's Apocalypse. My favorite record he's made under his own name, since dropping the Smog moniker, coinciding with a loaded enough title to make people take notice. "Apocalypse, eh?" I am aligned very much with Smog, its distance and its black humor, the sort of traits that lead to me finding someone on Twitter calling Callahan "the patron saint of bad boyfriends" but on the work released under the man's own name these traits have aged into something like grace, no longer surly but rueful. This seems like a moment where the aesthetic prettying-up of arrangements since the lo-fi days of Julius Caesar and the slowly warming tone seem to have aligned without slipping into tedium. Not like that hasn't happened before- certain songs on Red Apple Falls and Knock Knock were pretty lovely- but here that tone is sustained, without hints of darkness. Top record number two.

Top album number three was made by Baltimore locals Sejayno and released onto the internet with no one noticing. Like, I wonder how many people first heard of it close to the artists only heard of it when I tweeted a link. Of course they have released physical material with no one noticing so this is the more eco-friendly option. It's called I-95 and is a concept record about the east coast highway as devil's corridor moving from power center to power center. One of these songs is going to show up in the next year on Salamander Wool's LP for Ehse Records, "Solar Solipsis," and while that is a good record it is less beguiling than this one. This is the best record made by anyone I know, the one I feel closest too, because while it is very weird the songs are recognizable as such, vehicles of personality containing much humor. While Twig Harper's Hanson Records CD is my favorite thing that he's done, it is deliberately alien and anti-ego: A horror movie soundtrack to aliens abducting and experimenting on your consciousness. Which is visceral and thrilling and even cathartic, necessary. I would put it above any other record of its type, actually, a wide category of noise that encompasses drone and new age. I would put this psychedelic record trying to peel the top off your school over anyone working to move your heart, is what I'm trying to say, at top album number four.

The U.S. Girls On Kraak record is something that just came to my attention late in the year and I have listened to lots. Pop songs that really pop, including covers of disparate genres: It is so important to me to hear DIFFERENT SOUNDS on a record. While we all complain about the loudness wars negation of classic dynamics, there is something so undynamic about the classical band formation reliance on the same arrangement. Maybe it's notable that the first bands I got into were things like They Might Be Giants, Ween, and Beck, and that I tend to prefer albums to live shows because they can contain more easily contain more sounds. While I adore this Brute Heart record "Lonely Hunter" and its band setup of bass, drums, and viola, there is a moment where interest begins to lag and the song that contains a piano constitutes a highlight. We are now in the realm of records without numerical ranking: I like both of these records quite a bit. I will continue to name the records that call out to be named, to be selected as worthy of discussion in this dialogue of "albums of the year."

For instance, Alvarius B's Baroque Primitiva. Even though it turns out it's mostly Ennio Morricone covers and I guess a record that is mostly covers isn't especially notable. Although it's the cover of "God Only Knows" that ends up being the most notable song, its homemade arrangement giving away to tape-splice psych, removing a phrase and becoming this dark mirror that is somehow essential to the whole thing, some kind of gnostic revelation shedding new light on the eternal. The rest of the record remains of a piece with that moment, building to it in a way that necessitates a cover of a Nancy Sinatra song, the same James Bond theme that shows up in noted Sun City Girls admirer Matthew Thurber's 1-800-Mice: "You only live twice, or so it seems, one life for yourself, and one for your dreams."

Big Blood remain one of my favorite bands, and they continue to put up the majority of their releases at Free Music Archive. I didn't know that would be the case for their LP Big Blood and The Wicked Hex when it was made available from a Greek label, and so I made the costly move of ordering it from Europe. I have no regrets. It arrived the day before I went to the Voice Of The Valley festival in West Virginia. Something appropriate about America and Appalachia and the whole elemental thing to be found in these songs, by and large their longest, made into mantras. Respect is due also to Angels In America, who performed at Voice Of The Valley and have made their records available at the Free Music Archive as well.

I should maybe take this moment to highlight Voice Of The Valley as probably the best thing I did this year, as a change of pace, escaping from a hurricane that hit the east coast to hang out camping with a large chunk of Baltimore, a good mixture of people I see all the time and people I wish I got to see more, as well as strangers, and a good ratio of chats around a campfire to ecstatic dance parties to general silenced vibing. The music was frequently stellar, lots of live sets by people who are maybe not as good recorded (or at least don't make what I look for in a record enough to listen obsessively) but killed it live: Telecult Powers, Container, Unicorn Hard-On, Bee Mask, Bleakend At Bernies, Needle Gun. Other good shows/good decisions/nice changes of pace would be going to a large club and paying over twenty bucks to see Swans with Richard Bishop opening, and going down to DC to see The Raincoats with Grass Widow and an Ian Svenonius band whose name I didn't catch open. One of the highpoints of the going to see shows at the houses of people I'm friends with would be what happened yesterday, when I saw a tour of Scream Mask and Timeghost down from Providence.

Other records I would be foolish not to mention would be the solo releases of the folks whose duet constitutes the song from the Sejayno record that will appear on the forthcoming Salamander Wool record. That is some contorted and awful grammar, my apologies to the English language. Those people would be Carson and Natalie, Salamander Wool himself and Weyes Blood.
Carson's tape, Espionage Briefcase, is an hour's worth of mostly techno, slash folk music. It's like Eastern Europes infatuation with American club culture turned into a descendant of Baltic folk music a weird and alienated American could connect with, pumping out of a car's tape deck and who knows where that car and its tape deck were manufactured? LOVE DEM GUN SOUNDS. Weyes Blood's The Outside Room LP is a real "on the other hand," the sort of dream-pop folk songs which despite Natalie's former cohabitation and tour with Nautical Almanac actually reminded me on my most recent listen of the first Beach House record. But the songs are longer and less poppy and have way more lyrics. Less commercial but still immediate enough that I am sure it has sold out of its limited pressing at this point. Weyes Blood also issued a split cassette with Angels In America, not available on the Free Music Archive but downloadable from the Northern Spy website for four bucks. That's worthwhile, I kind of loved it.

The best records in the abstract camp to be made by widely known quantities were those made by Tim Hecker and Eric Copeland. Ravedeath, 1972 and Waco Taco Combo respectively. I don't have anything to say about those records that don't say anything (in terms of lyrics at least) that have nonetheless generated plenty of discussion despite music writers' bias toward language. They were good: Waco Taco Combo notable for being better than the Alien In A Garbage Dump material. The Whorehouse Blues seven-inch was good too: I hate seven-inches but I like mp3s okay.

I didn't buy all of this music but I bought a lot of it, and I also bought a lot of music that was not as good as these records were. Mostly from musicians who played incredible live shows or people who've made good work in the past. Support the economy of music and art, participate in the commerce of the uncommercial, because it is the uncommercial that is the least likely to be used to soundtrack a commercial, which is what I suspect is the primary income stream for much of the clutter.

Monday, November 14, 2011

That intelligence leads to alienation is a tale often told in our culture, in no small part by people congratulating themselves for their lack of interpersonal skills. Certainly, trying to communicate ideas that have been thought through to a greater degree than is expected in a world of memes and accepted narratives is not going to be rewarding the speaker with increased social capital. And to let such thoughts go unshared can lead to increased solipsism as, without communication's linearity, thoughts are allowed to move in circular patterns. The mind can be a pretty lonely place to travel through for any of us.

The thing is, consciousness, and its kin, the self and self-consciousness, are pretty common experiences to anyone with a brain, no matter how much mental firepower one has. Issue 4 of Kevin Huizenga's Ganges breaks through all sorts of accepted narratives, by being a guide through these most lonesome of territories, one's own mind, and it is capable of being a guide for all of us because of just how fucking smart it is, how next-level breakthrough the storytelling is. It's a comic book about not being able to sleep, its protagonist is a bookish everyman, and its cartoons and diagrams move through in a way that feels funny, true, and helpful. It helps in the way any fiction helps, by being human and communicating a shared experience.

The possible high point of the issue might be a sequence about trying to read a boring book to fall asleep. Excerpts of the text appear in captions as Glenn Ganges is shown wrestling with its syntax, attempting to sort it into something sensible. It ends in the spiral of failure, the shape unnavigable thought ends up in, but the sequence reads as a pastiche as effectively as the bit explaining video game plot mechanics found in 2008's Ganges 2, which is a weird bit of equivalency: That something about confronting logic and the brain and heavy thought-exercise reads like the same person describing effortless fun. The joy comes, essentially, from the communication not of an experience, but of the spirit of the creator, the spirit of the seeker's search: The same way that a vigorous conversation can be recalled as an enjoyable bit of camaraderie even as the specifics of what was being discussed fade in memory. Both the restless motion of video games and the sludge of reading philosophy go through the same Kevin Huizenga filter, and in the end it is Huizenga- probably one of the best cartoonists working today- the reader is enjoying the company of.

Of course, the other thing that unites the two sequences is that it's one of the few times where the eight-panel grid is deployed, a bit of rigid pacing that makes things more straightforward, a bit of 4/4 drumbeat in a comic of jazz phrasing capturing the modulations of thought.

Maybe it sounds like I am discussing David Foster Wallace or something, certain intentions of explaining the joy of transcendent boredom in The Pale King, or his continual insistence on attempting to capture a brain's recursive thought processes. Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine is probably a better comparison point in the world of literature, if for no other reason than how easy to read it is. It's sense of humor, actually, is like certain tracks on the last record by The Books, The Way Out, which in their collage cut-ups of new-age self-meditation records played out like a version of the same that was more aligned with psychedelia, and as such was more helpful as a guide to the mind than its humorless source material would be.

My citation of all these reference points, I think, points to my failure, or maybe it's just the failure of criticism in general, to not create a work that stands on its own. So all I can do is point to the thing itself, Ganges 4, as a great self-contained object. This sort of high-minded, formally playful thing is probably not for everyone, but it works well enough that it seems like it would be for anyone interested in the idea of it; anyone who can relate to the idea of being kept up at night by a restless brain, which I would assume to be pretty much anyone I would ever attempt to communicate with.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

In the past few weeks, I've been spending time down by Baltimore's McKeldin Fountain, as part of the Occupy Baltimore movement, in solidarity with New York City's Occupy Wall Street group. One rallying cry is "We Are The 99%," referring to the statistically proven fact that 1% of Americans control a majority of the wealth in the country. What's funny is how often we, as Americans, are split into groups, at odds with each other. This is a big part of politics, obviously. These groups are also being depicted as being relatively close in size to one another, which is why it's important that everyone vote, and represent for their half, to get the edge over the other half. The idea of a group that identifies itself as a mass of people, united by shared suffering and empathy for each other, is sort of a radical idea. What's funny is this conservative backlash on the internet, of people saying "I'm the 53%," which I believe refers to people paying federal income taxes? Their point is they don't complain about things, they just work hard, despite maybe having terrible lives. The important thing is they're positioning themselves as a majority that wins. Society as it stands is working out for them well enough to not want sweeping reforms, and their slight-majority threshold ensures that reforms won't be coming anytime soon, despite the undisputed fact that were reforms to come, they and many other people would benefit.

When I've been home, I've been watching a lot of Seinfeld. I've watched the first three seasons, courtesy of a loaned box set. One trope I am catching now that I never previously took note of is how often sports are talked about, specifically baseball, as a topic for male bonding and social activity. Seinfeld doesn't have anything to do with the class struggle, but it might help explain to you why I was thinking about sports, and why they're such a good metaphor for the way these things work.

Professional athletes make up a very slim group of people in this country. Obviously, to be a professional athlete means being in better physical condition than, oh, 90% of the populace. However, other people still play sports. They do it because it's fun, and healthy, and you do it with your friends and it makes you feel like you're part of a larger community. Not everyone does it. I don't do it, although if someone were to organize a game for people at my low level of athleticism I might take part. That would be a nice, small, human community I could be interested in. Obviously, pick-up games occur with some regularity, I don't hear about them, maybe I would be outclassed, whatever. Hooray for those who get together in backyards or in school parking lots to take care of themselves in a way they find enjoyable.

What's off-putting to me is the idea of sports as a thing you follow, like politics, a set of stats and people to find solidarity with, to root for and against. It's against the very idea of "sport" as game at the root of the definition, the same way party politics counter the idea of democracy in a very real way. People love to support their team, though, don't they? Talk radio and news coverage, is all about professional sports, this thing with lots of money behind it.

Particularly germane to this, actually, is a thing I heard (from Occupy-Baltimore-supporter, and my idea of a semi-successful person, Dan Deacon) about how the Yankees operate, as a professional sports team. There are salary caps in baseball. If you pay a player more than that, you get fined. The Yankees, in order to fairly artificially cultivate their image as winners, pay more than what the league allows, with the knowledge that they can just pay the fines and go on with it. People still root for The Yankees, despite this essential illegality, because they like the idea of winners. Obviously, "fuck the Yankees" is a proper response to this, it makes sense that you would then just root for anyone else, even if they don't have anything in common with you, people root for their local team even though it's probably just a collection of mercenaries from elsewhere. That's a thing people do, but it doesn't really make sense to me.

"We are the 99%" is being mocked by people who see the game being played on a human level and think that looks awkward, when what they are seeing is people doing something healthy.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

I didn't attend the Small Press Expo this year, due in part to former travel companion Adam Boysen having left Baltimore for the west coast, but the very passing of the event means that comic book Oscar season is upon us, to use a phrase coined by Mothers News.

The book I am most excited to read is the collection of Matthew Thurber's 1-800-Mice, wrapping up using material previously unpublished. I haven't heard anything about the new material: For the past few years, Jog would write about the show, or someone at Comics Comics, but now that Dan Nadel is the new online editor of The Comics Journal, the fear of "conflict of interest" delays such coverage. The same effect from those former stalwarts applies further, nowadays, to books published by Fantagraphics. That consolidation of power effects a huge chunk of discussion about the comics I would want to read, so all I'm getting our Twitter chirps about how the new Love And Rockets is one of the best comics ever. (Adam Boysen was also the roommate who kept on top of purchasing everything the Hernandez brothers did, so I will have to wait some time to confirm this firsthand.)

I find myself still reading comics of note, one of which is an Eleanor Davis short story in the final issue of Mome. It is a bit of science fiction that feels very contemporary, in a way that seems difficult at this point in time, with communications technology so developed and advanced that telling stories taking place in the modern era functions as science fiction in a certain way. That would be the tactic explored in the last few William Gibson novels, for instance. Other authors attempting to talk about modern communications technology, Youtube videos and G-chat and such, tend to just tell stories dealing with their semi-autobiographical protagonists confrontation with depression and inertia. Miranda July's new film The Future works that territory before moving into magic realism. I was thinking that maybe this strategy emerges because we are living in a science-fictional world, but without any of the narrative thrust of adventure instilled by those pulp narratives. "In a society that has abolished all adventure, the only adventure left is to abolish that society," goes the May 1968 graffiti, but that is not the life being lived by those with iPhones. Davis tells a tale probably familiar to anyone who has traveled back and forth between one of America's metropolitan centers and its more rural areas, but extrapolates it into the future, largely through use of language and semi-psychedelic coloring that looks like it was done using colored pencil. I thought it was great, and am now interested in reading her comics for kids published by major publishing houses that will inevitably share none of this story's concerns but may still succeed on their own merits.

There's ideas in that last paragraph I meant to write in a letter to Matthew Thurber, actually, in response to these Smell Temple posts he's been putting up his blogs, photos of typewritten reviews of science-fiction films, but maybe this post will show up in his Google Alerts. (I would hope he wouldn't have Google alerts but they are a thing that people have.)

Not quite a comic book is Michael Kupperman's Mark Twain's Autobiography: 1910-2010, which develops a tendency towards prose that's been present in recent issues of Tales Designed To Thrizzle, but expanded to book length loses a lot of the dadaist chops that made them what they were. The premise takes it to a lot of territory previously covered by Kupperman, as well as noted admirers like John Hodgman. There's a certain degree of diminished returns for me but certainly I still got a few laughs out of it. He's using the same constellations of humor, but it's not like I do not appreciate a good gaze at the night sky. Have I mentioned before that I don't really like his use of color, and prefer him in black and white or monochome? The book is filled with illustrations and some chapters are comics, all done only with tones of blue, but it's also all drawn in one simplified style, rather than the crazy engraving style look or photorealism that Kupperman sometimes uses for particular effects. Without the appropriation of tropes of 1950s comic books or educational films that marks a good portion of his art, the book could be more accessible to a general audience, one that would be prepared for the humor from Conan O'Brien and Will Ferrell. More of a gag gift than something for a dedicated audience, but the Scott Dikkers gag book You Are Worthless is one of my favorite bits of humor writing, so that's not a completely ignoble goal.

Olivier Schrauwen's The Man Who Grew His Beard is a collection of gorgeously colored comics. Like Brecht Evens, Schrauwen is a Belgian whose sense of color is superior to anyone making comics in North America. It feels handmade, even when computers are utilized, and while Schrauwen is known for utilizing the style of Winsor McKay, all the comics here feel really contemporary. Reading it, I was reminded of the imagery one comes across on 50 Watts, while certain aspects of it reminded me of Steven Millhauser's short stories, to name another fantasist who McKay has influenced. Also like Millhauser, there is a certain familiarity to the structures being utilized- while Millhauser repeats himself, Schrauwen tells the tale of one using his imagination to escape a mundane reality that will be familiar to those who've seen Brazil, or the works of Dennis Potter. But the psychedelia of the drawing goes beyond, and sells the idea thoroughly. It looks phenomenal, and I imagine I will return to it frequently.

Anders Nilsen's Big Questions has been collected, and I bought the deluxe hardcover from Amazon, which I would advise against. The Amazon discount puts it at the cost of buying the paperback from a local store, and the added appendix I was so excited ends up being fairly slight. Support your local retailer! Especially if they are the sort of the place that carried Big Questions as it was being serialized. I followed the serialization until the point where it seemed like an ending was no longer in sight, and the cost of individual issues continued to rise. As someone who read the individual issues, I have a slight quibble with the reformatting: I wish the white-on-black spirograph image found on page 234 was not there, and that the scene that plays out over a page turn on 235-236 was maintained as a spread as it was in the serialization, where it worked beautifully as a continuation to the preceding scene. But the book is good, displaying a completely separate set of strengths on display in Nilsen's monologue comics, the ability to draw the shit out of a scene. Setting, layout, action sequences... The storytelling is top-shelf, totally on a par with any Providence dudes you would name if you agreed with me that those guys are great visual storytellers. I also am reminded of Geof Darrow, if Darrow was less into gore and more into open fields. Total visual poetry. Don't read it too fast. Also I am pretty certain that Nilsen draws these super-detailed backgrounds over and over again, even when he could easily do things animation cel style. People are saying nice things about this book all over the place, including the New York Times, which isn't going to talk about the stupid minutiae that I am half-ashamed of noticing. When this book was coming out I was convinced it would be the next Black Hole and everyone would read it when it was collected and that still seems pretty possible, but it might be too quiet and epic for that sort of ubiquitousness in folks' consciousness, which is to its credit.

Oh yes, there's also a new Optic Nerve out. The last issue came out when I was in college, and I read it although my consciousness was already moving in an "Adrian Tomine is kind of lame" direction. It is interesting how the shift in general comic folks' consciousness has moved in a way to effect him, as a cartoonist. The whole idea of black-and-white comics as indicator of "alternative," arising out of budgetary constraints has sort of changed- That was how Love And Rockets were printed, that was how Eightball was printed, and Tomine's general style of "realistic" drawing fell into the same type of idiom. Now, with so many older comics back in print, half of the comic is drawn in this Popeye-influenced style that is also reminiscent of Sammy Harkham, Jordan Crane, Chuck Forsman, etc. It's a lot looser. And then the other half is in full-color because its a reworking of a strip from Kramers Ergot 7. (The first half is in 1/4 full color, in emulation of Sunday strips in the cycle of newspaper comics.) It is cool, an interesting progression, even if these days I am sort of neutral on the content. I am fairly certain that "Hortisculpture" is a better comic that Shortcomings was, and not just because it is more self-consciously a comic than something that could just as easily be an indie movie. Shortcomings was serialized over the course of my going to college, and when I first read Sleepwalk and Other Stories I was in high school and had not yet read Raymond Carver. Sometimes I think people are not served by being prolific, by having their voice out there too often, a readership can become over-familiar; in other cases a lack of output just reminds the audience of how much time has passed. The comics I am the most excited about are those I have not yet read.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Halfway through another year where online music magazines are talking about the best of the year thus far and posting lists of neglected records which are not that neglected in that they received some coverage from online music magazines, my little corner of the world is as small as the corner record store where local yokels peddle their wares. The store I am talking about is The True Vine in Hampden, Baltimore, where the records coming out from Baltimore acts that receive coverage are unlikely to be ordered by proprietor Jason Willett, unless those bands place copies on consignment when they are not on tour. This laissez-faire attitude still wins the respect of local musicians, most of whom would probably still consider The True Vine their favorite local record store, despite/because of this indifference. Here are the records my smallish segment has produced thus far.

The Angels In America Narrow Road To The Interior LP alternates between being stripped down and hollowed out. There's plenty of space, which sometimes translates to too much reverb, but mostly just means a particular mood being conveyed: You have to give it more space and solitude than you do your more common in-the-red mastering jobs. Loose structures of song-husks, as lyrics discuss topics like burning your money, walking in the woods, and the appeal of being beaten up by women, and soundscapes try to convey the same elusive truth. If you have heard and liked the ballads on the proper, song-based Magik Markers LPs you will understand what's happening here, if you can intuit the correlative difference between live drums and drum machine and electric guitar vs pure electronics. Not everyone can but come on. Available on LP, CD, and as pay-what-thou-wilt mp3 download. Weyes Blood and Angels In America also have a limited-to-100 split cassette release on Northern Spy you can download the mp3s of for $4 but I haven't made the plunge yet because I keep thinking one of those 100 tapes will be made available to me at some point in the coming months.

The Weyes Blood LP on Not Not Fun, (probably still available but if you google it the first result is a mediafire link) The Outside Room, is pretty killer, which I was not expecting at all- In the time concurrent with the record being recorded, live performances were based around loops which did not always align and tended to abstract away from the idea of the song, with occasionally a tune or two coming in clear enough for me to stand behind it. Her live shows now are totally great, actually, but all of that is incidental to the fact that this record is a pretty perfect bit of atmosphere. Nico is probably the easiest point of comparison, and "sad" is the easiest emotional descriptor. But "sad" is obviously a lax term, especially when we are talking about music, so keep "Nico" in quotations as well. This is the kind of record that you put on at the record store on a Sunday afternoon and sell three copies. I like records more than live shows anyway, and records like these are a good communicator of that concept.

The Daniel Higgs cassette Ultraterrestrial Harvest Hymns contains lots of organ improvisations, run through with occasional tape distortion. Or at least it did when I heard it- My playing of it caused a tape player to break. I have others but have been wary. His collaboration with The Skull Defekts is great, both on the record Peer Amid and even moreso live, where they played material that I think will be on a followup LP. Live the feeling is that of watching The Fall as psych-rock band, with Mark E Smith's drunken nonsense being replaced with Higgs' clarity of sense in the presence of multiple realities overlapping. The record with the Skull Defekts is on Thrill Jockey, just like last year's Clairaudience Fellowship collaboration with Twig Harper.

Twig Harper's self-titled solo CD on Hanson Records is maybe my favorite recorded material I've heard of his. Starting off with the initial shock of the first sound you hear being that of an acoustic guitar, things start to make more sense as that instrument never gets around to playing a melody, but instead gets melted in with a melange of other electronics. A piano later makes a similar appearance, maybe out of tune, maybe all these instruments are out of tune, but they remain recognizable ingredients, keeping the whole thing processable as "horror movie soundtrack." The film in question would be that of aliens flying about in a space ship with human being on the operating table, but all of this is occurring within the bounds of the mind, and any violence that might be enacted is a liberating act being misunderstood by the body. Psychedelic agenda in effect: If you hear this music and your head thinks "haunted house," your mind is the haunted house, being exorcised of all sorts of ghosts of former tenants.

The new Sejayno record, Interstate 95, is currently only available for download, although the concept I heard awhile back was that the album was going to be turned into a playable Myst-style adventure game you click your way around, with the songs maybe being pressed to vinyl or not. Ideally that conceptual framework gives you hint of what's going on, in this concept album- which is about I-95, the highway that runs the length of America's east coast, being the "devil's corridor," told in terms of an art handler/drug courier making the voyage from Providence to Miami and back and having adventures along the way. This rules, obviously, these goofball parameters should give you an idea of what to expect, obviously this whole thing is an assault on expectations with a lot of laughs if you are tuned in enough to be accepting of a thing too stoned to be called surreal and too esoteric to be characterized using such common drug parlance as "stoned."

Records to come out this year that I had to pick up at Fells Point's The Sound Garden because the people that made them do not live in Baltimore include Micachu And The Shapes' Chopped And Screwed, Terror Bird's Human Culture, and Alvarius B's Baroque Primitiva. The record most widely enjoyed by people I talk to in conversation would probably be that Bill Callahan Apocalypse record. I'm leaving the house now, to go see Jason Willett perform with his fairly amazing improv band Leprechaun Catering.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

I received a review copy of Jaakko Pallasvuo "PYYTÄJÄT," sent from Finland, and am please to announce that it is pretty damn good, worthy of your attentions if you are one who has thought about ordering comics from Finland. (I have!) The hand-lettering is in Finnish, but the dialogue is translated at the bottom of the page, in a closed-captioning effect which might not always be effective, but is in this case: The story beng told has an oblique tone of uncertainty to it, at first, and that removed distance contributes to the book's sense of mystery. Turning the page from the first to the second page, one wonders how the narrative connects, reading on, one questions the motives of characters as they being to say things that seem like lies. By the end, threads have converged, with things that initially might have seemed like jokes being developed into character depth by the end.

The comic I was most reminded of, (aside from general "this is like a European art film" sentiments) was the Ed Brubaker and Jason Lutes collaboration, The Fall, that ran in Dark Horse Presents and was later collected in a similar format by Drawn And Quarterly. Pallasvuo's drawing style, with its rough pencil line and figurework and absence of panel borders, pretty far from Lutes' polished inks- But each make their pages dense with panels, and The Fall initially withheld knowledge of the characters' pasts in favor of showing human behavior in a cryptic context. The Fall was a crime story, and had more noticeable plot forward movement, but the amount of density here stops the book from feeling slight, and makes the book read at a deliberately slow rate that allows me to be reminded of stories that were much longer. Meanwhile, the drawing is able to capture its setting, woods and a river, and natural phenomena, like light and the blur of speed ably, while still seeming of a piece with its depiction of humans and their structures as flat and childlike, reduced to iconography and texture.

The format is great: A one-shot comic, with dimensions comparable to a coloring book or a small newspaper, with endpapers depicting trees and the endpapers listing other works the publisher has handled, including translations of Americans such as Gary Panter and Jeffrey Brown, and Europeans like Ruppert and Mulot and Joann Sfar, as well as other Finnish cartoonists whose work has been translated by American publishers. The publishers' multi-cultural attitude is much appreciated, as in reading the comic in question I learned Finnish swears, which I'm pretty happy with.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A few weeks ago DC Comics sent out a press release announcing that all of their comics would be relaunched with new first issues and that this would allow for something fresh and accessible to the masses of contemporary culture. A week or two after that, the writers and artists that would be behind the coming avalanche of product were announced, along with images displaying what the art would look like, and those paying attention learned that the idea of "contemporary" that a 2011 comics company is willing to put out there looks exactly like things that were popular in the 1990s. Popular comics-wise, at least, at a moment when comics were at a low ebb in terms of their cultural currency: The drawing style I'm talking about would be made most manifest outside of comics in Todd McFarlane doing album art for the band KoRn and directing one of their music videos. If the visual gleam of this crosshatched surface had a sonic equivalent, it would be nu-metal, essentially, and that is the house style, mandated from the higher-ups, for DC comics come mid-2011: Drawings that look like they come from a Disturbed CD.

The original announcement of restarted numbering came part and parcel with the idea that these comics will be available digitally the same day that the physical copies are on sale, a concession to ideas of the digital world. What's strange, then, is the disinterest these comics have towards the way that the online world is oriented towards visual culture: Look at tumblr, flickr- all these tools that people use to keep track of what floats their boat, visually. A big part of this stream is photography, and that isn't necessarily germane to a comics discussion, but shit: There are plenty of people who draw, or design, and these people's sense of aesthetics is miles away from the product that DC hopes to charge money for an audience to look at.

The reason for this, probably, is because that anyone who learns how to draw comics via reading comics is also going to learn a lot of history, and for this generation of cartoonists, that means knowing that working in the labor mines of the mainstream is not a worthwhile way to spend away the vitality of your youth. Anyone looking at Jack Kirby drawings (as drawings, as comics, and not just a vehicle for certain characters beloved by fan culture) is going to learn that Jack Kirby's career arc is not one to emulate: It involves working pretty much until you die, with diminishing commercial success. Any prospective penciller that might not know these things, and be closer to the "fan" mentality that would be interested in drawing characters from their youth, probably grew up on manga, and would have a drawing style completely repugnant to the companies signing the checks. So the people the companies find to make things look "new" are those that have already been employed by the industry, for the past 15 years or more: The artist chosen to draw the flagship comic that kicks off the whole initiative, Jim Lee, is in his mid-forties.

So, that's the upside. The past is dying, and the mistakes prior generations made have been learned from by the children of the future. However, just because the best and brightest of those making art have learned where the action isn't, doesn't mean that the average consumer has, and mainstream superhero comics remain a major revenue stream for comic book stores, places I would assign cultural value to. I would like it if the people willing to pay for high-production-value color printing offered that service to people willing to use it in an interesting way, but that is not the case, and the fact that things look different printed on paper than they do on a computer screen will probably be lost to the generation after this one. Plenty of comics with meager virtues to their art, worth learning from, can currently be found at comic book shops across this great land, sold for dirt cheap because most people aren't interested. Connoisseurs of bottom-feeder culture have the quarter bins of comic book stores the same way they have the one-and-two-dollar bins of record stores, but that only lasts as long as either remain open, powered by a stream of things with actual profit margins.

The downside to a major publisher dying is the death of print, and comic book stores, and the continuance of landfills in the face of everything else.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The first time I saw the preview clip for Ben Jones' Cartoon Network show, The Problem Solverz, show up on Youtube, I felt crazy, like something in reality I had taken for granted had been undermined. The show felt "off," in a way which was sort of like an Invasion Of The Body Snatchers scenario: Uploaded to the Paperrad Youtube channel, looking really great, but moving according to this formula that seemed dumbed-down. Eventually the revelation came: Oh, it's for kids now. The Adult Swim pilot, produced by PFFR, distinctive as it might have been, had jokes in it that weren't prefigured on the assumption of an adult audience the way that Adult Swim shows increasingly have been, with offensiveness a part of its underlying premise and as such impossible to remove. That was fine by me, but I felt what I was seeing was something else: Someone looking at the surface of Ben's aesthetic and running with it, thinking that was all that was there. A sort of aggressive ecstatic randomness, based around videogames, food, neon, butts, etc. This felt especially jarring after years of seeing this aesthetic copied elsewhere and feeling like I had to explain the difference between the real thing and the copycats.

This interview then explained to me the thing I was really detecting, in a way that made sense to me: Ben isn't writing this show. He cares about it, is invested in it, but is directing his energies towards the visuals, delegating the writing to Hollywood-comedy-writers-looking-for-work. (I looked up the person writing the episodes up online and found a LinkedIn profile showing a resume that I wouldn't begrudge anyone, but definitely is that of a journeyman looking for work writing comedy after an Ivy League education.) It reminded me: Oh, yeah, right: "Artist" has a tendency to mean "visual artist," which was sort of the underlying principle behind all the drawing and gallery installation and whatnot. The comedic voice, while it might not have been secondary, existed to supplement visual ideas. Now, with a mainstream venue, the visual ideas are the driving idea, as that ended up being the thing that had gained the most traction in the larger culture anyway.

(This is sort of a bummer to me as someone who was basically into writing first, narrative, humor, and then got really inspired by some bits of visual language that felt more immediate than the sort of drawing I was seeing in comics I bought for the writing. But that little personal narrative is just an aside to the story that I am trying to tell currently.)

I disagree with Dan Nadel's assertion in his interview that Ben is the first underground cartoonist to make the leap to having a mainstream animation venue since Matt Groening. It forgets about Jhonen Vasquez making Invader Zim. Maybe Nadel wouldn't count him as an underground cartoonist, but I think it's pretty important to note, especially since the currently existing dominant internet 4chan culture evidenced in the bulk of webcomics and Cartoon Network obsessives talking shit on the look of Problem Solverz comes from that place in goth culture. It might seem too prevalent to consider underground, what with the presence of Hot Topic in every mall in America, but hippie was huge as well, and so was hardcore after that. I also think that being aware of and fascinated by trends/fashion/youth culture is a pretty big part of Paper Rad's work, especially the stuff the Cioccis did/continue to do in their solo work.

Anyway, with the lens of "visual art" on, the fact that Problem Solverz is sort of Ben Jones gone through the looking glass then allows for the fact that, thanks to Youtube, you can see Problem Solverz through the looking glass, reflected through the eyes of internet-savvy kids, who upload videos of them just videotaping the show, or doing dubs where they talk all over the dialogue. It is kind of annoying when I am just trying to watch the newest episodes, but I imagine that Ben must be psyched as hell to see these weird 21st century distortions popping up, marveling at how weird kids are, and what they are receptive to.

This all is sort of the follow-up to the Riff Raff "Ice Thunder" video I posted a while ago, where a white dude bedecked in cornrows and ostentatious jewelry rapped at the viewer in a boardroom using Garfield references while a Jerky Boys decal hung behind him and there'd be cuts to cartoon Ninja Turtles merchandise. Dude is currently cluttering up my twitter feed with use of the word "obtuse," used much the same way Lil B would use the word "based," but rather than Lil B's reclamation of negative drug-talk to constitute a sort of absolute freedom, including from that of language, Riff Raff's use of obtuse just makes me think of the bit in the BJ And The Dogs book where Alfe is sitting in a car and says "does this rod have to be at such an obtuse angle?" and then puts the car in neutral/reverse causing it to roll backwards. Look at this fucking goofball, and be amazed at how culture works in 2011 America. It is maybe important to also note that Odd Future, when they are not rapping about rape and not having dads, are being absurdist and shouting out Cartoon Network shows. Does any of this make any sense to any of you? Youth is a thing that doesn't have any memory, which is why the people at the last few Extreme Animals shows have been the same handful of people that have been going for years- It might even be a smaller crowd than it was in 2006, to hear the tale be told. Through the looking glass, caught up in reflected light's glare.

Maybe I bemoan the loss of the Paper Rad crew telling stories in their narrative voice because the emphasis on spirituality and humor really helped to ground it in a world I could understand, (that of human beings with individual consciousnesses) rather than just having it be this kind of abstracted dialogue told in fashion and juxtaposition of imagery. That thread is gone, and now there is just this cacophony which is fairly pleasant and interesting to contemplate, but lacking the immediacy of resonance to be found in classical forms like storytelling.

Anyway. I'm looking forward to Ben's Black Math/Men's Group book coming out this year, along with his contribution to the just-announced-today Kramers Ergot 8, (with a cover designed by Robert Beatty, who I mentioned in the last post) and I'm looking forward to the world getting weirder and harder for me to parse. Getting old, I believe is what people call it. The future belongs to folks that place audio of themselves talking over TV shows and upload it to Youtube. I saw a thing on Twitter yesterday about Al Roker watching season two of Archer on an iPad while riding on a plane. I'm not really into that show, but the lead animator is my buddy from college who hung a Paper Rad poster up in the school animation lab. I still work crappy jobs and have no influence on the larger culture at all, and somehow that is assuring and gives me peace.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I just read a thing that I am pretty much convinced I will be thinking about a lot in the days to come. It's a new story, posted on Pitchfork, about Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel writing a score for a thought-controlled synthesizer, that was performed by Robert Schneider (of the Apples In Stereo and the inventor of the instrument in question) and Robert Beatty (of Hair Police and Three Legged Race).

The "score" is a book of collages, basically, that the mind responds to as it reads in order. Which seems a lot like a comic. Images that you read. I'm sure text could be included, although there's nothing in the story that says such is the case for Mangum's piece.

I don't even know where to go with this. Abstract comics, collages, Neutral Milk Hotel, noise, harmonies. The main thing is the harmonies created just in this story alone, when filtered through my brain and its interests. Humming in consonance, richly.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

This Micachu And The Shapes record with the London Sinfonietta, "Chopped and Screwed" might be the best record of 2011. A pop band, whose first record was produced by Matthew Herbert, doing a live one-off collaboration with a strings and woodwind ensemble to emulate the sound of DJ Screw, it ends up being really rich and beautiful, but maybe not satisfying to people expecting a pop record. I can imagine it seeming too gimmicky for classical music fans, as well, but anyone who's into sound and music should be able to get behind it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Someone I know has been asking the question "Do you think The Strokes were influential?" It sounds sarcastic to hear it said aloud. Sonically, their music feels like a dead end, a rock band among many, at the start of a decade that was maybe most highlighted by the integration of computer technology and acoustic sound sources.

Over at The AV club, Steven Hyden just completed writing an overview of 1990s alternative rock culture. It avoids talking about a lot of bands to construct its narrative, which culminates in an essay about Woodstock 1999. The series might be frustrating to a reader looking to read about certain areas of interest, but giving the story being told, that particular ending makes it more clear what happened next.

I've talked about this before, because it's endlessly fascinating to me: That nu-metal essentially precipitated the end of rock radio, because in chasing the testosterone ideal, stations stopped playing female artists, or anything soft, and alienating 50% of the audience who had started listening to the station for 10,000 Maniacs. So, somewhere early in the decade, the rock radio format, as a thing that plays new music, dies an ignoble death. This is also parallel with the end of MTV as a channel that plays music. The main device of getting these "alternative" artists out to the public in a crossover form fades away, ostensibly to be replaced by the internet.

The arrival of The Strokes, and their heralding in the press, is the moment where a separate narrative is addressed and becomes dominant. The reference points- The Velvet Underground, Television, Pavement- were absorbed into the popular audience's collective consciousness, if only as names and vague concepts. New York City becomes posited as this bohemian ideal. Obviously, this was seeded by other things. The audience I'm imagining had probably watched Kids on VHS in middle school. But without The Strokes, you don't get Interpol, or, more importantly, "hipster" as a common slur. The whole idea of "indie rock," as a thing no longer having to do with independent labels, but designating a type of aesthetic, increasing in popularity, stems from this shift.

American Apparel plays a part in this too, and in some ways can be considered the same thing as The Strokes, in terms of its general appearance of lifestyle projected. The ubiquity of their advertising for a few years in the middle of the aughts serves as connective tissue for an underground turning itself into a thing of commerce. Due to the internet, nothing could succeed on the basis of selling itself as a product- records couldn't sell, and music magazines couldn't sell. But magazines could be given away, provided advertisers subsidized their printing, and websites could exist, if advertising could cover the cost of server-space. It covers compensation for contributors as well, although by all accounts this is largely minimal.

The internet's abundance of free content devalues culture, but the Bush administration does an even better job. I can't even begin to unpack all the ways that occurs, actually. Despite all this collapse, the idea of growth still persisted. Specific to my interests today is the fact that art schools and liberal art schools felt the need to increase their enrollment, bringing more people in: I tend to believe that most of these new students are aware of the fact that there is little chance for success after graduating, and are just saying "fuck it." I can't begin to unpack all the reasons they would say that, either, although the venn diagram overlap with the Bush administration's damaging effect is one of them, and so, in all likelihood, is the hipster archetype.

Essentially, with The Stroke you have a paraphrase of the old Velvet Underground quote: Not everyone bought their record, but everyone that heard about it got the idea that you could make records that no one would ever buy. Planting the seeds of mouths you can't feed. The fact that they came from privilege is what allowed them to receive attention enough for the idea to proliferate. Obviously, some people already had the idea; art schools have existed for ages, and some people will always consign themselves to a life of barely surviving.

So now we're at a moment where there's a million musicians out there, or artists, or whatever you want to call it, this white noise chamber, where CDs are basically valueless and vinyl records are frequently in limited edition to appeal to their small niches, all influenced by Sonic Youth inspired ideas of record collecting culture.

What's interesting is the fact that, originally, the internet produced new mediating structures, music criticism websites based on a personal canon gaining parlance in the culture at large. I am largely talking about Pitchfork, but the fact that most other websites were viewed in relation to that one, which in itself didn't really have that much different from what all the free weeklies and skate magazines were interested in throughout the 1990s. The most interesting thing to me about that website is how, in its ascent to the top of the mass mind, it sort of consolidated its power structure in a way where it was essentially promoted to the place where it could do the least damage, while doing the same thing to its writers: Note the way Mark Richardson, once a champion of Keith Fullerton Whitman records, was given a head writer position where he is largely brought out to extol the virtues of reissues. The shit-talking dismissals of certain scenes which they gained notoriety for has evaporated, aware of the power they now hold and seeking to not do harm.

I sort of suspect that the whole idea of this independent sphere having a mediating agency has collapsed. The world's exploded into too many tiny spheres for the attempt to be possible in any efficient way, and most anyone producing work has said "fuck it" to the point where trying to find things of value beyond "this sounds pleasant enough" shouldn't even be attempted. Which, I guess, is where the narrative for the next decade, this decade, begins: With the triumph of Kanye West and celebrity, because that's the only thing large enough to be seen, and the only world with enough awareness of having an audience to try to make an impact. How funny is it that Altered Zones doesn't even credit its writers? (Altered Zones is a website I heard about in the context of it being the absolute worst, total style-over-substance in its choice of coverage, only to learn that it is a sort of "little sister" site of Pitchfork that I think largely finds out about things from blogs, home-recording projects e-mailing them) How funny is it that the world I am aware of, an "underground" where people are constantly touring and playing shows with their friends, somehow continues to elude coverage in a world where people are trying to stay on top of things?

Meanwhile, the last post I made featured a video by Riff Raff, a dude whose aesthetic is both understandable in its precedents and totally baffling in how that particular manifestation came into being. That stuff is a counter-narrative to all that I have discussed, some of it with more roots in Woodstock 1999 than others.

The other story I could tell involves Ladyfest, an outgrowth of the 1990s riot grrl movement that specifically reacts to the fact that multiple rapes occurred during Woodstock 1999. That's an important part of the "indie" framework as well: As apolitical as things might be, a place where you don't get raped is going to appeal to people. Although American Apparel remains more popular. But then, there's also the internet as a place where people don't get raped, and that increasingly becomes the world in which we all are living.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Full screen this.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Recently I returned to the United States from a ten-day stint in Israel. It was called a Birthright trip, which I find a little obnoxious, but it was a free trip paid for by, I believe, the Israeli government and some wealthy American Jews, so I will accept their nomenclature. Since being back in the USA, most conversations I've had about the trip have involved responding to knee-jerk cynicism, informed by political readings. For my part I attempted to enter the whole thing without any kind of political agenda, my lens focused on consciousness, an awareness of the narratives people construct for themselves.

On a bus with 49 strangers, it is odd how quickly you begin to feel as if you've known them all your life. Staring at people's faces, trying to place them to college classes or summer camps, thinking they might be recognizable as someone you've completely forgotten and never really known. Until it dawns on you that you have, in face, known these people all your life, that there are archetypes that reoccur over and over again, filling up the background. These roles do not have names, I don't think, but if they did, I'm sure that, within this particular group, I could be labeled with the "weirdo" tag easily. A clear outlier. Partly this followed my decision to think the way I did, but that comes easily enough: Really, the idea behind my behavior was a conscious naming of the way I already act.

This is not to say I did not make friends. It probably would have become intolerable had I not done so. On my first evening, as the rules were being discussed, I thought about breaking them simply to be released from duty. We were told that anyone hungover in the morning would be placed on a plane, and even though being hungover is deeply unpleasant, and easily avoided, I considered it as an option. But I stuck it out, found some nice people to converse with, and had a pretty nice time, a welcome change of pace from the rhythms of everyday behavior. Time was structured fairly rigidly, which is annoying in a lot of ways, but this reduced me to my essence.

The goal of the project is to make young people love Israel. I am too double-minded to be an ideal target subject, but most of the conflict I felt was due to the corrupting influence of commerce, of tourism. Too much of what I saw for sale was tacky souvenirs, sold to tourists. This was most pronounced in the town of Tsfat/Svat, the supposed center of Jewish mysticism, a mountain town with a beautiful layout, narrow streets, and an artists' colony. It is only when you walk through the artist's colony and realize that you are looking at a "fine art gallery," of the kind that sells prints of paintings in suburbia, that takes up blocks and blocks, for an audience of sixty-year-olds. We were spoken to by a guy who'd really found an angle to work- existing in the artist's colony as "the mystic artist," drawing geometric patterns outlining the Qabalic tree of life. Speaking in vagueness but seeming really cool to those who had not had much experience with the genuinely strange, and successfully selling large quantities of work. It makes sense that there is a constant economic pressure leading to conservatism, in a country so old and beautiful, but that is exactly the same problem that makes me avoid large chunks of America. There are parts of Jerusalem where people are still plainly living, but I can only assume those areas have been family-owned for generations. Other parts of Jerusalem are incredibly expensive due to wealthy Americans having purchased properties that they then do not live in.

Cooler was a Drues (sic? sorry, only heard the word spoken aloud) village where, for tax purposes, everyone lives in unfinished homes, continually with chunks under construction. Or the Bedouins, a semi-nomadic group of desert dwellers. Much as it is in discussion of war: My sympathy is with those that are just trying to live their life. I understand that it is difficult.

As for other conflicts: It seems pretty likely to me that any American liberal that is more pissed off about Israel than they are about America is basically retarded. Partly, this is because America is much more distanced from what it's doing. This makes it easier to forget about, but is absolutely an actual fault, moreso than a strength. To me it seems likely that there will be peace in the middle east long before the United States ceases to exist in a state of perpetual conflict. Despite the fact that everywhere you go in Israel, you see people carrying machine guns, and it does not take much for casual racism to manifest itself. The mandatory military service makes everyone much more invested in peace, and there is not a massive military-industrial complex perpetuating itself.

The weird presence of religion, dictating the lives of even those who do not observe it, is more pronounced there, but in a way that makes it that much more open for discussion. The presence of religious sites, monotheisms overlapping with one another, only serves to remind that, in spite of it all, everything is holy. Cats overrun everything; like the guns, a common presence one becomes accustomed to despite the deep strangeness once you think about it.

Strip away the levels. In the hotel in Jerusalem, I saw Fox News coverage of a shooting of Congresswoman and felt like weeping. I can talk about my trip more, to those who want to know what I saw, what I witnessed. I have a journal detailing events and memories. This is an attempt at processing the whole thing, simply, as a response to the cynical that I do not want to talk to.

The response is that what I saw was contrived, a view of a country placed into an easy frame. There is an artifice to it, the same way there is around anything else.

What is artifice? What Israelity? Swimming nude in the Sea of Galilee in the middle of January, floating in the dead sea, peeing in the Mediterranean. A soldier next to me saying that, as a drill, first thing in the morning, everyone strips down to a bathing suit and swims in the ocean. Another soldier made the punchline that I was going to make, in other situation, during a moment where I hesitated. We should all be aware that every soldier is some mother's son, that every loss is a human tragedy. Too often I think that the greater tragedy is that war exists at all, as a result of economic factors: Even this abstraction is a result of my distance. I made some friends who I do not wish to die. They want peace for themselves and the people around them. Can my own feelings of living in a city where there are people just a few blocks away from me who might not want me to live here be projected onto them? I think they can. Everyone needs a space. Most spaces would be nice were it not for money corrupting everything. It is notable that America is the only country besides Israel where circumcision is the default practice for newborns. We are closer than we think, but maybe I know that closeness a little more intimately than the abstraction of it that we often think of.

I doubt I will ever return to Israel: There is much more to see in the world. I am grateful to have seen it, even if it was easily recognizable, if I anthropomorphicize it in the projection of my features. I am grateful for the bit of self-knowledge reflected back to me. I hope I keep in touch with the people who I met, even though I might not have much to say to them without a constant barrage of shared experiences to reflect on.

Monday, January 17, 2011

These are my favorite comics of 2010. It's guided by what came out this year, but alludes to work from years prior, as a rough guide to what feels contemporary. To make this a top ten, please reserve places for Chris Ware's latest Acme Novelty Library and Edie Fake's Gaylord Phoenix, as yet unread. To better imagine a guide to comics I read this year that feel contemporary, please be aware of CF's fondness for Matt Wagner's Grendel comics and Michael Deforge citing his two biggest influences as being Richard Corben and Saul Steinberg.

1. If N Oof/Puke Force by Brian Chippendale. These comics are exhilarating. Reading Ninja in 2005, where each page would be dated with the day of its composition, I would think "He's getting better, steadily. HIs focus is increasing, he's becoming clearer." And now the new stuff arrives, and it's great. The new layout in If N Oof frees up his ability to go back and forth and not just hold its focus on characters animating themselves. The shorter strips in Puke Force move at such a pace that you get a sense of a plot developing itself over the scope of a full city. I also read Mat Brinkman's Multi-Force collection this year, and that's what Puke Force reads like, in its sense of scope and pacing, while If N Oof reads like Taiyo Matsumoto's Black And White in its sense of adventure and emotional resonance. These are some of the best comics ever, filled with some of my favorite drawings. There is a whole world of drawing stories here, a type of energy that signifies "fun" for me but there's a horror underneath it that defines its world and its stakes, to not just signify but to actually be fun, triumphing in the face of death-anxiety.

2. Michael Deforge comics. His most recent publication, Spotting Deer, is this science fiction triumph: I read it thinking "Where is this coming from? Who thinks like this?" What makes this more powerful is not only is that not his debut, but it's the follow-up to a couple of comics that seem to precisely map his psychic territory. Issue 1 of Lose, published last year, gave the reader this sense that they do know where Michael Deforge is coming from, and its a place with a lot of comics. That comic, with its vision of Hell populated by cartoon characters, was really powerful, and the fever dreams that followed possessed an intuitive sense of a polluted inner landscape. Twelve months later it seems like that sense of home has already been moved on from, into streams polluted not by cultural detritus, but by dead bodies.

3. King City by Brandon Graham. I read a lot of Seth Fisher comics this year. Those feel like the closest thing to predecessors to King City, with their manic delineations of architecture, easy flow, and sense of humor. But Brandon Graham isn't drawing other people's scripts, and he's not drawing Batman comics. This distinction is what makes his work feel like the future, which seems important when you're drawing science fiction. It's not hard sf, it's pretty clearly a fantasy, in that there are cats with magic powers, but when I read it I feel the potential for a better tomorrow, not just an escape from the drudgery of today. That potential better tomorrow is all for the world of comics, but comics are a way of processing one's world, and it's the global nature of Brandon Graham's influences that you can see an exciting and open-minded tomorrow.

4. Wally Gropius by Tim Hensley. When I travel, I look for things that appear "foreign," indigenous to the area they originate from and organic to it, but percolating with strangeness. Wally Gropius is that comic, for America. Speaking in a dialect learned from 1960s teen comics, run through the filter of anti-ego to be almost anonymous, talking about this thing of American commerce. Funny and strange and precisely itself, it's hard to imagine how Tim Hensley will follow up a work that feels so channeled from such a coalescing of disparate elements.

5. Love And Rockets Volume 3 by Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez. The Hernandez brothers do not always work for me, based as it is in serialization and the rhythms of understated daily life. Sometimes they can rip it, though, and a panel or two will make me sit up and take notice, and things can get pretty jarring. Jaime's story here is one of the ones that feels a bit more focused on editing between moments than simply letting the camera run. The other great Jaime comic I read for the first time this year, "Everybody Loves Me Baby," that ran in issue 7 of Penny Century, is up there as well. These are comics of his that feel like endings, climaxes, to whole stories, that bring in fresh elements late in the game to make it feel all the more focused and complete. This comic deals in more uncomfortable subject matter than usual, but it's the ending, after that stuff, that really got to me.

6. 1-800-Mice by Matthew Thurber: Like Michael Deforge, Matthew Thurber seems deeply influenced by Marc Bell. But rather than the polymorphous cartoon composites that people Bell's pages, Matthew sculpts narratives out of this bizarre language-imagery, that move forward and onward. His approach is perfect for discussing this modern world: The weird grammar scans like nonsense, but is easily parsed as you focus in, only for it to remind you of the nonsense that we are drowning in, and taking for granted as understandable. Watching him crack wise about lingo like "apps," an abbreviation for "applications" used in reference to technologically advanced cellular phones, that might not have even been a part of common parlance at the time he began drawing the series, might be one of the great pleasures of our age. Another one would be watching him integrate pages of incredibly well-done action sequences that are still funny even as they are effectively thrilling. If this comic had a taste, it would be honey and moss.

7. Spider-Man: Fever by Brendan McCarthy. The psych-noise cover version of Steve Ditko, who's already pretty psychedelic to begin with. Think of Daily Life's interpretation of Faust's It's A Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl. The collection places them back to back and reduces the passage of time to a feeding into a digital storage unit, like consciousness after the singularity.

8. Mr. Cellar's Attic/Black Color by Noel Freibert. Lighting a room with an oddly-placed lamp suffuses the space with a sinister luminousness, creeping across your face as you go about your business. I was up too early this morning, the lamp on the bathroom radiator lit me before the dawn gazed in. How old is Mr Freibert, exactly? Have we considered the possibility that he might be the reincarnation of Rory Hayes, his soul now scared away from drugs?

I read other good comics this year, but these are the works that hit me the hardest, as I was reading them. The next five would be: Carlos Gonzalez' Steam Walkway, Daniel Clowes' Wilson, Brecht Evens' The Wrong Place, David Hine and Shaky Kane's Bulletproof Coffin, and CF's output.