MUSIC: The best of 2009

(This article was originally supposed to appear in the 2010-opening issue of Birmingham Weekly.  It did not.  Perhaps it will eventually pop up there, but in the meantime, you can read it here.  Do so… now:)

Mastodon “Crack the Skye” – It’s the year that Mastodon reached out to the overlooked and underappreciated Trustifarian metal heads.  A friend remarked at their tour kick-off at Workplay in the spring that Mastodon had become “Widespread Sabbath”.  And maybe they have, but goddamned if these aren’t the scariest, most brutal hippies ever.  Blenderize old-school Metallica, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, a conceptual thread inspired by Bill Burroughs and a sheet of blotter acid, and two bottles of Absinthe, and you’ve got a hangover made just me.

Hey, Charlie Manson might really dig this disc, now that I think about it.  Maybe Phil Spector can pass him a copy?

Bigelf “Cheat the Gallows” – I’ve heard people categorize Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie as horror rock, but I think of both of them as more slasher-metal.  Really, is Jason Voorhees that scary? Bigelf, though – man, there’s something really creepy lurking underneath the surface of this whole disc.  Yeah, it sounds very retro, sort of Alice Cooper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the Floyds From Mars, but then you start picturing the three-ring circus, and the tent, and the clowns… Yeah, lots of clowns, but not the happy ones.  More like that goddamned doll from Poltergeist. And John Wayne Gacy.  And Willie Whistles. Ever been ear-raped by a clown?  Yeah.  That’s it. (Note: This apparently came out in August, but I live in Birmingham, AL, where nothing happens when it’s supposed to.  Therefore, it counts. For me.)

Swallow the Sun “New Moon” – In a better world, the sequel to TWILIGHT would have been written by 1970s Wes Craven and directed by Eli Roth.  It would have been filled with torture and buckets of blood — not red syrup, but actual blood.  The entire soundtrack would have been replaced with the latest release from Finnish doom metal band Swallow The Sun.  It would have been AWESOME.  And teenage girls everywhere would be traumatized for life.

Ah, to spend a day in my fantasy world…

Muse “The Resistance” – Does Matthew Bellamy have a Thom Yorke fixation?  Does Muse want too badly to be Queen? Are positive answers to the previous two questions bad things?  Really, imagine it: Paul Rodgers stuck with making Muddy Waters tribute albums, and so Brian May and company invited Yorke to spend six months away from Radiohead to work on a new album. How wonderful would that be?  The correct answer: “The Resistance.”

Animals as Leaders “Animals as Leaders” – I wouldn’t normally list an all-instrumental guitar record on a year-end list, but there’s something so phenomenal and out of this world about Tosin Abasi’s debut that not including it is a musical injustice on par with Jethro Tull’s 1989 Grammy win.  Sometimes I want to compare his writing and playing to Miles Davis, but that’s only because both are so far beyond my ken that it’s pathetic.  Other times, I compare it to putting Mentos and bleach into a mixture of Diet Coke and ammonia.

3 “Revisions” – You know how critics are always all like, “These guys are an overnight success!” And then the bands are all like, “Nuh-unh! We worked for, like a month on this!” New York’s 3 are not at all that band; in fact, they had three discs released indepently before scoring a national distribution deal.  REVISIONS is a nice little project of re-recorded reboots from those first three discs and some bootlegs, cleaned and tightened for a modern day.  These are tight pop songs, not as adventurous as their last two more progressive efforts, really showcasing Joey Eppert’s songwriting and arranging abilities. It’s a great introduction to the band, as well as being something that fans of other bands may find themselves wishing for – another, more polished listen to songs that deserve a wider audience.

Them Crooked Vultures – This is like the best tribute album you could ever imagine.  It’s Zep, but it’s not.  And it’s not a Queens of the Stone Age disc, but it kinda is.  If you know both bands, and picture smashing them together so violently that neither one ever existed, then this is the album you got stoned to every day after class in high school. I expected Grohl to be more prominent, until I realized that if ever John Bonham had a natural successor it was the guy who played drums on Queens of the Stone Age’s SONGS FOR THE DEAF. In all honesty, this disc made me ask for a Karmann Ghia for Christmas.

Andrew Bird “Noble Beast” – My girlfriend couldn’t make Bird’s show at Workplay earlier this year, and so passed on her ticket to me. I was, to drastically sell the moment short, blown away, so I borrowed her iPod and now refuse to give it back. Among all the indie, alt-kewl stuff I’m finding there, Andrew Bird’s is probably the most cinematic, like watching someone paint with sound.  It’s captivating, provocative, and best of all, happy.

I still though, for the record, hate hipster audiences.

Porcupine Tree “The Incident” – There’s this idea that progressive rock has to be pompous and effete, that concept albums are for stoners and armchair philosophers. But remember TOMMY? Or THE WALL? Both are concept albums, progressive in their own right, that have a number of brilliant and classic songs that stand alone (Pinball Wizard and Comfortably Numb, respectively). Add THE INCIDENT, a fourteen track “song cycle” about “beginnings and endings and the sense that ‘after this, things will never be the same again’”.  It’s a seamless, beautiful  but demanding project filled with dynamics and explorations both comfortable and challenging.

Devin Townsend Project “Ki” / “Addicted” – Look, folks. Off and on, since 2000 (holy crap, Glenny – 10 years!), I’ve been writing these little capsule reviews of albums that I love and hate.  I try to focus on the stuff I love, because there’s too much hate in the world.  And seriously: if you’ve not yet picked up a disc featuring Devin Townsend – either one of his solo projects or some of his work with Strapping Young Lad – then maybe my job here is hopeless, superfluous.  There’s only so much I can rant and rave about something before I realize that no one’s listening.  KI is soothing, sublime, reflective – I love it, but I’m willing to accept that maybe it’s more personal than something I can recommend to everyone.  ADDICTED, though – frankly, if you don’t pick this disc up, you’re doing yourself a real disservice, and if you pick it up and don’t like it, your soul was stolen in the middle of the night.  It’s bouncy, and heavy, and poppy, and layered, and filled with so many ‘ands’ that your head will explode.  If there’s such a thing as an aural orgasm (an eargasm, maybe?), you will experience it sometime during tracks 7-9.  And then you can thank me – after you wash your hands, please.

Friends of mine also suggested the following albums make the list: “Born on Flag Day” (Deer Tick), “Veckatimest” (Grizzly Bear), “American Sunshine” (Colin Hay), “I and Love and You” (The Avett Brothers), “Cage the Elephant” (Cage the Elephant), “OK Bear” (Jeremy Enigk), “Me and You” (VAST), “Elvis Perkins in Dearland” (Elvis Perkins in Drealand)“Monsters of Folk” (Monsters of Folk), “Black Clouds and Silver Linings” (Dream Theater), “Outer South” (Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band), “Wilco” (Wilco), “Back from the Dead” (Spinal Tap),”It’s Blitz” (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), “Bitte Orca” (Dirty Projectors), “Masterful Mystery Tour” (Beatallica), and “Kingdom of Rust” (Doves).

Sadly for them, this is my list, not theirs.

Someone also suggested Scream (Chris Cornell), but I punched them in the throat, and we are no longer friends.

38 down

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to become a person that I like.  One big component of that person is having a positive outlook on the world — not being a Pollyannaish “The world is beautiful place!! With Unicorns! And Rainbows! For Everyone!!!” type, but avoiding my depressions, finding the beauty in the ugliness around me, and appreciating everything that I have.

38 years ago, in a hospital room in Nashville, Tennessee, I became my parents’ first child.  Those years have been sometimes hard, sometimes easy, but always filled with life and living.  And here, at what is probably the midpoint of my time here in this world, this life, I think I have done a pretty good job of finding happiness, and learning to recognize the good things in my world.

I couldn’t ask for a better family.  My parents are not perfect, but whose are?  Not only did mine provide for me and then some, making sure that I grew up healthy and educated and happy, but (most importantly, to me) taught and encouraged me, both directly and indirectly, to appreciate knowledge, to think for myself, to question and to seek answers.  My siblings Mandy, James, and Kate have all taught me a lot — about people, about life, about differences, about myself.  I don’t get to see any of them as often as I wish, as there’s a lot of ground between all of us now, but I think about them all often.

My friends make up in quantity what they lack in quality.  Kidding aside, I’m surrounded in every facet of my life with the widest variety, the most diverse people.  Each and every one of them has taught me something (no unimportant lessons in life), helped me up when I was down, shared good times and bad with me.  I may not always be good at showing my appreciation, but it’s there.

I’ve got no shortage of creative stimulation in my world.  There’s so much amazing music and film and reading that I’ve been exposed to, and that I continue to find and be introduced to on a daily basis.

I have two jobs.  Again, not perfect jobs, filled with their own eccentricities and downsides, but overall two of the better jobs that I could hope for.  While I’m not getting rich, I have enough money to live comfortably and happily.  The people I work with are mostly those I count as friends, and the work is fulfilling and challenging, each in it’s own way.

I’ve had a lifetime and then some of love, both given and received.  Even the failed relationships have provided me with learning, new experiences, and wonderful memories. The love and happiness and laughter and passions that I share now are more than I ever hoped for, more than I even dreamed were possible in this world. I am amazed and astonished daily, left speechless more in the past month than the writer in me would ever have imagined possible.

I’ve always felt as though everything that came before led up to wherever  I was at the time.  Today, at least, I feel that that is true on a fundamentally and undeniably good level, that all my years of seeking and exploring and learning and sometimes even suffering have paid off in ways that maybe are more than I even deserve.

To everyone that has touched my life — positively or negatively, but especially the good: thank you.  It’s a wonderful feeling to consider: as ecstatic as I am to be alive and living this life today, I’m pretty sure this is nowhere near the peak. The past 38 years have led me to this point; the next years, I think, will only get better as I go.

Observations: October 2009

Some things are no one’s business but your own.

Some things aren’t your business, no matter how curious a being you may be.

Life moves forward, whether you are ready for it to do so or not.  If you’re not careful, it will pass you right by.

There are things that happen in life that may seem to beg an explanation.  But when you can accept that the universe unfolds as it should in bad situations, then you can learn to accept the same in good moments as well.

“Bones doesn’t feel the pressure to act or do or say anything that she doesn’t want to.  And no one – no one – can make her. And that’s what makes her Bones.”

Why is it that we seek the approval of others to the point of compromising ourselves to get it?

There is no such thing as too good to be true.  That’s fear speaking.  And we have no reason to fear the unknown.  Just clowns and spiders.

THINGS I LIKE: Other Music

I have 120 GB on my iPod, and most of it is very important to me.  That’s 16,000 songs.  51 days of listening without hearing the same song twice. And I’m always looking for more.

I’m gonna try this a little differently, and not mention things like Van Halen — that inspired me to pick up the guitar in the first place in 1983 — or Queen — that first introduced me to “cinematic” music.  Everyone’s heard of these guys.  You all need new things to explore, so let’s go that route:

Follow For Now

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9TJ0UBbo20]

That’s probably not fair of me, really, to turn you on to a band who broke up a long time ago, and whose album is long out of print?  Sorry.  I had long suspected that funk and hard rock could be smoothly combined, and these guys — coming out of Atlanta, so close by — proved it.  And what a voice!

Living Colour were, of course, really close to thing, but Vernon Reid had a tendency to get more outside than I preferred.

Steve Vai

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Did I just say something about being too outside for me? Oops.

Vai started off with Frank Zappa, and you can certainly hear that influence in his playing and composition.  Ditto Hendrix.  But Vai, I would argue, is the closest thing the modern age has known as a virtuoso.  He’s mastered his instrument, and more than anyone I can think of, can make his guitar sing, really emotively.  People argue against the techinique, saying it’s all flash, but as as writer, I immediately compare it to having a large vocabulary — you don’t have to use big words all the time, but it’s certainly nice to have them at your disposal.

I’ve long-since given up being a guitar hero, but every now and then, I can pop on some Vai and still dream…

Porcupine Tree

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I learned later in life to dig Pink Floyd (I was surrounded by people who longed for the seventies in high school, so got really burned early on Zeppelin, Floyd, and the Dead), and appreciate their psychadelic explorations, their cinematic sound.  Maybe it was because I discovered PT around the same time, but I can’t help but really noticing a strong similarity between the two.  Both started out as improvisational, heavily experimental bands, and gradually developed into more “pop” (ha) oriented styles.  Both are known for big, epic approaches.  PT is a little heavier, but I have to think that if you appreciate Floyd and would enjoy an updated, similar sound, Porcupine Tree is a good place to look.

T-Ride

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Yup – hair metal! WHOOOO!!!

These guys were only together for one album, until internal turmoil broke them up.  But that album? One of my all-time favorites.  Brilliant guitar work, but in very small bursts – always leave ’em wanting more.  Great pop tunes and turnarounds.  Funky metal. And those harmonies — with the exception of Extreme (WHOOOOO!!!!!), absolutely NO ONE has ever taken that element of Queen and worked it into heavy music so well.

3

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I got turned on to these guys because someone told me they reminded them of my band, the Exhibit(s).  The only real similarity is that the guitarist/vocalist plays an acoustic guitar, sometimes through pedals.  But it was a good recommendation, nonetheless.  Nice ethereal feel to their music. It’s got a little bit of a prog-metal feel, but more focus.

Oceansize

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Like Muse, or Radiohead, maybe.  I have a really hard time categorizing this band.  But I love ’em.  Found them complettely by accident, and having stopped listening since.

No-Man

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For those decreasingly-common times that I feel like wrapping myself in a warm blanket of depression and just letting it take over me — this is the soundtrack.  Incredibly wistful, but infused with ust enough hope to keep you going. And so beautiful…

Butch Walker

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If you just want some good, straight-ahead rock and roll, tight songwriting with a great delivery — Butch Walker’s your man.  He’s from Atlanta, too — another lucky discovery brought to me by The Nick. His old band, Marvelous 3, is well worth checking out, as well. He’s also a lot of fun live, if you ever have the chance to check him out.

Lastly, I’m not a huge fan of Joseph Arthur in general — I’m obviously not hip enough.  But this song will always have a really special emotional attachment for me — one of my few wonder-what-could-have-been moments.  The studio version is beautiful, but his one man  performance (seen here on the Late Late Show, but witnessed live at Smith’s in Atlanta) was jaw-dropping and heart-breaking.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Letfvx_VBvo]

THINGS I LIKE: Devin Townsend

There are plenty of musicians that I respect and follow. Music is probably the most important thing in my world — ask me what I’ll sacrifice first: friends, animals, small innocent babies, my sex life, or music? (If you’re a friend or a small innocent baby, you’re not gonna like the answer). Music is almost always playing around me – in the car, at my desks, at the bar, in the shower.

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Out of all the music I’ve ever been exposed to, no one’s work has influenced, inspired or excited me more than the collective output of Devin Townsend. Like a bunch of other people, I discovered him when he sang on the Steve Vai disc Sex and Religion — the first and only Vai disc to focus on a full-band concept instead of (primarily) instumentals. As much of a fan of Steve Vai and his guitar work as I’ve been since Flexable, Devin’s voice blew me away.  A few years later, I happened to read about a new disc by a band called Strapping Young Lad (As Heavy as a Really Heavy Thing) and mail-ordered it. From there, I was sold.

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The thing that originally drew me to Townsend’s work — from his solo catalog to SYL to his guest appearances — is his voice, which is odd for me.  I’ve always been a guitar guy, not terribly concerned with vocals (I certainly notice when they aren’t good or don’t fit the song, but they’ve never really stood out for me).  His voice, though, has so much power, range, and emotion behind it, that I think it’s impossible to ignore.

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Devin’s also a proponent of the ‘wall of sound’ approach to recording, placing layer after layer of instrumentation and vocal on every track.  This to me gives everything a huge feeling, that IMAX film sensation.  Different volumes and listening environments bring out different elements of songs, and even 13 years after getting his first solo disc I can still discover new things in the tracks.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5H8p238vzUo]

His music is not necessarily widely available, but most of it can be found at Amazon or on EBay.  He can be found online at www.hevydevy.com, and on MySpace as well.

THINGS I LIKE: Other Books

swansongSwan Song (Robert McCammon)

When I was in high school in the late ’80s, I became obsessed with horror novels and movies.  I had read a few of them previously (I was more a Sherlock Holmes guy before high school), but a girl named Cynthia Harrington sent me It for my 14th birthday, and it was on.

If I had a favorite writer other than Stephen King, it was Robert McCammon.  He was (and, I believe, still is) a local author.  Something about that always struck me as neat, as a teenager.  While I think that King is a better storyteller, I think McCammon is less watered-down in some ways — his extremes exist further from the center.  Swan Song is comparable (and often compared) to King’s The Stand (and fairly so), but I think that this is the stronger of the two.

Really and truly, especially with summer coming up, you can’t go wrong with McCammon.  For a less-horror slanted read, try Boy’s Life.

illusionsIllusions (Richard Bach)

This is new-agey as hell — I honestly sometimes can’t believe that I like this book at all, much less as much as I do. But the truth is, this book possibly more than any other collection of words has shaped my life and my philosophy.  I recommend it to anyone and everyone, in spite of the hippie ambiance.

There are a lot of truisms throughout, and it’s a good reference book for people that may have lost their way in life.


houseofleaves rawsharktextsHouse of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski) and The Raw Shark Texts (Steven Hall)

There’s a genre out there that no one has tagged as such: mind fuck.  And I can imagine that there are so few members of this genre as to make it not worth labeling, but if only…

Both of these books are part horror/science fiction and part love story (yes, really). The magic of the horror — and honestly, the real scares that both give me every time I read them — come from concepts that are… well, they’re nearly impossible to explain.  House of Leaves deals with impossible physics and insanity, while Raw Shark Texts is about words and language and memory and insanity. Both unabashedly attack higher levels, and delving in can be incredibly rewarding.

It doesn’t hurt at all, apparently, to be a little bit of a nerd to read these two.

choke-novel12 Choke (Chuck Palahniuk)

Speaking of mind fuck…

I can’t even remotely claim to have gotten on the early Palahniuk train — it took the movie version of Fight Club to turn me on to his writing.  Glad it did, though.

Palahniuk is as close to poetry that I can imagine reading.  I love the usage of language in his books, as well as his constant pushing of the envelope and explorations of the underbelly of acceptibility. Choke, above all others, really struck me as the strongest of all his works, including the ending.  I can’t quite put my finger back on it on rereading, but the feeling of everything snapping directly and correctly into place whne I hit the last 15-20 pages was overwhelming the first time I read the book.

stephen-king-itIT (Stephen King)

I’m forever thankful to Cynthia Harrington for this gift.  In fact, as unattached to my material goods as I am, I still hold on to this hardcover because it’s the first King book I ever got.

To this day, there are scenes from the book that I’m not certain I ever read completely through, because they still scare the shit out of me.

Yes, I’m serious.

THINGS I LIKE: Other movies

MEMENTO: I suppose a lot of what I like about this is from a filmmaking/storytelling perspective – Christopher Nolan makes such a potentially confusing movie, but it all works perfectly. It’s a mystery on so many levels, and trying to figure it out, while leading the viewer nowhere, is a lot of fun.  Well-crafted and well told.

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DEAD MAN: I generally loathe Jarmusch films — they strike me as 30 frames per second of bullshit indie movie posing.  But something about this flick — starring Johnny Depp and Iggy Pop!, with music by Neil Young — is pure movie magic.  Also, it’s black & white, another (usual) turn-off for me that somehow works perfectly here.

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SUNSHINE: Danny Boyle’s philosophical sci-fi thriller is in my mind hte most underrated film of this century so far.  The story appeals to my sense of wonder at the world outside our world, and at the physical processes that allow for life as we know it.  What grabbed me and made me come back repeatedly to this film was both the astonishing visuals, particlarly the last 30 minutes of the film, and both the sound design and ambient scoring.  This is truly one of the most cinematic films of the last ten years, and inspired me to purchase a Blu-Ray player.

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SIXTH SENSE: Yeah, yeah, Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. But bullshit on you if you say you saw it coming.  The one film Shyamalan ever got right (Unbreakable wasn’t too bad, but not as perfect), from Willis to the tiny clues (and the revealing walk-through at the end) to the PERFECT blink-and-you-missed-it-but-if-you-saw-it-you-probably-peed-yourself-a-little moment. THE ultimate twist movie, even if you know the ending.

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I’ve left out a lot of obvious ones, but if you’ve missed any of the following somehow, make it a point to go see them now:

The Matrix, Fight Club Blade Runner, Grand Canyon, The Ring, The House of Sand and Fog, Requiem for a Dream, Videodrome, The Conversation, Redbelt.

THINGS I LIKE: L. A. Story

lastory

Forget for this moment the smog and the cars and the restaurant and the skating and remember only this. A kiss may not be the truth, but it is what we wish were true.

Harris Telemacher, L.A. Story

There are some movies that just hit you in the right place, right way, right time.  You look back, and on paper, there’s nothing there that should make it special, but every time you rewatch the film, you get that feeling you got the first time you viewed it, and it stays with you or hours or days. You learn the lines by repetition, you find yourself whistling songs in the soundtrack that you would normally hate.

Steve Martin wrote what may be the meanest love story ever with L.A. Story.  Sure, on the surface, it’s a romantic comedy, and on that level as sickly-sweet as anything Sandra Bullock ever did (though, for all the fantasy elements, much more grounded in the way the world really works). But beneath that, it’s a love story about Los Angeles. It’s often described as a satire, but it feels more like a true tribute told through little stabs and punches in the shoulder.  Somehow, Martin and director Mick Jackson managed to fill 90 minutes with some almost cruel truisms about LA residents, yet every one of them is cut and delivered with an undercurrent of, if not respect, then at least a begrudgingly unconditional love.

Martin himself shows all off his sides here.  There’s a bit of the wacky, wild and crazy guy, some straight man, and a lot of philosophy.  And I suppose, all these years after I first saw L.A. Story at an afternoon matinee to kill some time, the philosophy is what sticks with me.

Harris: Ordinarily, I don’t like to be around interesting people because it means I have to be interesting too.
Sara: Are you saying I’m interesting?
Harris: All I’m saying is that, when I’m around you, I find myself showing off, which is the idiot’s version of being interesting.

There are some wonderfully creative concepts in the movie, as well — two in partcular make the movie completely worth watching (without spoiling them, both involve Martin and then-real-life-wife Victoria Tennant; one set around a plane, another in a garden).

Watch L.A. Story. Buy it, and rewatch it until you’ve memorized it, and then watch it some more. There’s a very real magic on display in what may be Martin’s pinnacle as a film writer, although I will apologize in advance if you find yourself whistling an Enya tune after it’s over.

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THINGS I LIKE: Other comics and graphic novels

More comics you might like. After 30+ years of collecting, these are the collections that I think either make good entry points, if you’re trying to see if comics are good reading, or just plain stand out above the rest:

THE CROW James O’Barr’s revenge story is based in real life; the tragedy that surrounded the filmed version only heightens the emotional impact.  It’s a classic “alternative” comic, black and white and VERY adult oriented. It’s tough to read, at times, but damned well worth the effort.

ALL-STAR SUPERMAN You’ll hear writers say that writing Superman, after seventy-plus years of publication, is harder and harder to do; after all, what stories are left to be told?  Grant Morrison makes it that much harder for them with this collection of 12 issues that perfectly melds the insanity of the Silver Age with modern storytelling. If ever there was a perfect celebration of perhaps the most iconic comic-book hero ever, this is it.

SANDMAN Neil Gaiman writes quite possibly the most literate comic book ever. Don’t let the fact that this long-running but finite series is worshipped by goth kids and Tori Amos fans frighten you away; there’s a lot here to love, almost a modern-day mythology in it’s own right.

THE AUTHORITY From fairy-tale to the ultimate summer popcorn action movie… Warren Ellis takes the spandex field, deconstructs it, puts it back together and presents quite possibly the most realistic (in a dystopian sort of way) look at a world with super-heroes.  If you strip comics of their innocence, replacing them with the bleak reality of a world filled with greed and violence, this is what you’d get.  And on top of it all, the situations are as epic as you would hope a team possessing this much power would face.

TRANSMETROPOLITAN Another Ellis entry; what if Hunter S. Thompson had written science fiction? As someone who doesn’t enjoy overly political fiction, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this book — I’ll credit Ellis’s excellent writing and the voice he gave protagonist Spider Jerusalem for all of it.

ASTONISHING X-MEN This is not the best gateway book — even if you’ve seen all the X-movies, there’s still a lot of continuity assumed on the reader’s part.  But it is, quite possibly, the best arc in the history of the team.  Joss Whedon — Mr. Cancelled In Spite of Excellence TV — finds all the individual voices and — despite a shaky second-of-four arc — crafts an excellent story with twists and a bitter, bitter ending (at least for those of us that are long time readers).

PREACHER Sixty issues that seem made for Spike TV– a little supernatural, a little action, a little horror, a little wild-west.  This, to me, defines the idea of a “guy’s” comic — it practically radiates testosterone.  And strangely, it’s incredibly popular with girls, too — probably because Jesse Custer is very handsome to go along with his hard-drinking, ass-kicking ways.  Or something. Writer Garth Ennis hit a true home run with this story of one man’s literal hunt for God.

THINGS I LIKE: Barry Ween, Boy Genius

Over the past decade or so, I’ve reviewed CDs and movies and books for a few websites and local newspapers. I’ve been criticized by people for only giving favorable reviews, but there’s a good reason for that: as a freelance writer, I decided that rather than waste my time experiencing things that I don’t enjoy (and then re-experiencing them while reviewing them), I would focus on things that I like, and try to spread the word about good stuff.  Although, I must admit that bashing entertainment that sucks is really fun, sometimes…

“In The Sun Also RisesErnest Hemingway describes genius as the ability to learn at a greater velocity. For a suicidal drunk with a pathological fear of latent homosexuality, Papa did all right.” 

-Barry Ween

The characters are simple enough: a ten-year-old super-genius and his very average (slightly hyperactive, obsessed with the idea of sex, and a big fan of apes) best friend Jeremy. The concept springs from there: what would happen if the experiments of a junior mad scientist went awry? (Answer: hilarity)

Written and illustrated by Judd Winick – better known as either a DC comics writer or former cast member of The Real World, depending on how old you are — Barry Ween Boy Genius is a great example of why I love comic books.  The jokes are enhanced by the illustrations.  The action scenes flow surprisingly well for a “humor” comic. It’s easy enough, reading any of the volumes, to remember and relive what it was like to be an adolescent kid (even if I didn’t occasionally blow the Earth out of its orbit, or turn my babysitters into giant monkeys).

The magic of Barry, for me, is in the balance of cynical, often misanthropic and usually non-sequitur humor (find me a better line than “Jesus was a fan of Leg Show“) and serious consideration of what it would mean to be a ten-year-old with an IQ of 350. As a young “gifted” kid (and yeah, “gifted” and “special” aren’t too far apart), Barry would have been my role model — a comic-book superhero without the spandex, but with plenty of attitude to make up for it.

You can compare the Barry Ween volumes to any number of things — South Park meets Calvin & Hobbes in a meth-fueled car wreck with Dexter’s Lab — but none of those really does the gathered mini-series justice.  It’s got elements of all those things, but — as evidenced especially by the ending of the fourth volume — it has heart, and Winick is not afraid to show it.

onibk_341Finally out a few weeks ago is The Big Book of Barry Ween, Boy Genius, a collection of all four volumes of the comic.  Highly recommended for anyone looking for a good gateway into graphic literature, or just a really good laugh.