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What I've Been Listening to: July 2020

Everything just comes together so well on RTJ4 by Run the Jewels.

I've been a Run the Jewels fan for quite a few years now. First, Killer Mike and EL-P are exceptional musicians. It's been true of the other Run the Jewels albums and of each's solo work. That said, I feel like RTJ is more than the sum of its parts. The rappers complement and play off one another to reach a higher level. One gets the impression that the two rappers are truly and deeply friends, as interested in supporting one another as they are in taking the spotlight, and that comradery comes off as unique, refreshing, and uplifting.

Second, the beats are fantastic. Each track grabs your attention and makes you want to bob your head, but each has a distinct sound. This is another type of musicianship, but I see it as distinct from the vocal performance. For some tracks, this probably means they reached out to other collaborators to bring new or refine sounds, but to me, this means Killer Mike and EL-P picked the right collaborators and put in clear effort to make every track pop.

Speaking of collaborators, RTJ4 calls on a handful of heavy hitters who dip in to compliment the duo perfectly. Sometimes it seems like groups, hip-hop groups, in particular, rely too heavily on guest appearances and featured artists. On this album, you'll see names like Pharrell Williams, Zach de la Rocha, and DJ Premier, and while their contributions are distinct, to my ears, they're low key. In some cases providing a back-ground hook or beat. In others, providing reinforcing the lyrics, but only after Killer Mike and EL-P have developed a song. In short, you never hear the guest upstage the artist, but rather lift them up, and it's wonderful.

One couldn't talk about RTJ without mentioning their social and political relevance. You won't hear bragging about how dangerous or cool they are as a lot of rappers lean on. Instead, RTJ 4, as with previous albums, Killer Mike and EL-P seem to want to look at society. This album speaks to racial issues, speaks to the power struggle between people and authorities, and speaks to poverty and income inequality. It really couldn't be more politically or socially topical.

That said, what really sets RTJ apart, is that with all their earnest and serious topics and feelings, they are masterfully humorous. It is a fine line to walk when coupling social problems and trying to be funny, think Dave Chappel, etc. But RTJ does just that. On the one hand, they ask you to "look at all these slave masters posin' on yo' dollar," on the other, they have a tough deep-voiced refrain chanting a very silly "ooh la la, ah, oui oui."

For RTJ, these are serious matters and serious times, but they can't help but be goof-balls, and boy, it makes it easier to swallow.



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What I've Been Listening to: June 2020

I enjoy some hip-hop music, but I'm far from having my thumb on the pulse of the genre. I wasn't aware of Mac Miller until the news of his untimely death hit the headlines in 2018.  Still, I didn't encounter much of his music, at least that I knew of, and didn't go seek it out. But there I was taking an extra lap around the neighborhood in my car, with the SXM coffeehouse radio station on, hoping my crazy, soon-to-be three-year-old might go ahead and doze off when "Good News" came on. If you're not familiar, that music station is mostly singer-songwriter, acoustic sort of chill music. Perfect for reading and sipping coffee by, and not where you'd expect to find chart-topping hip-hop musicians.

"Good News" is a single of Miller's 2020 album, Circles, which was released posthumously. Apparently, a work in progress that the musician's family oversaw to completion with some notable collaborators. The sound is mellow but and often soulful, and I suspect that is what attracted me. It has an air of exhaustion to it that given Miller's death seem prophetic. But, it's hard to say how much that is due to others' work after his passing. It certainly seems a more mature, life-warn piece. It's well worth a listen.
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What I've Been Listening to: May 2020

Reggae music.

I used to live in Houston, and have one of those stop-and-go, 12-standstill-lanes sorts of commutes that took an hour to travel less than 15 miles. I often found myself pretty worked up and even downright angry during the drives. That's when I discovered that jamming to some reggae along the way helped ease my mood. Like a little mental teleport to a laid back beach somewhere. Who cares about traffic then?

Between COVID-19 driven change in my life and household, struggling daily with disappointment over finding next to no time to work on my writing, and with little loved ones seemingly going out of their way to try my every last nerve, I've returned to relying on island grooves to keep me sane. From roots stuff like Marley, Toots, Tosh, and Jimmy Cliff, to modern stuff like Ziggy, Damian, Tribal Seed, Soja, and Natural Vibes, to outliers like Joss Stone's "Water for Soul" album, and much in between, I'm pretty much spanning the genre.

Maybe you didn't know I was such a connoisseur.
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What I've Been Listening to: February 2020

I saw an article about a unique concept album from Harry Nilsson called The Point! which was turning 50 years old. It was released in 1970. I'd never heard of it, but its release preceded my arrival on the planet by more than ten years. Still, it sounded odd and interesting, so I found it on iTunes and gave it a listen or ten. I love it.

It's sort of a mini-musical with both songs and narration, telling a simple but poignant story about a boy who suffers prejudice. It's offbeat, calm, and dare I say soothing in execution. It gives you pause to think about behavior, and comes to a satisfying resolution of improvement in the society of the story. The album is also simply beautifully sung and spoken, and the music is easy on the ears. On top of all this, it's full of well thought out word-play. I'd also say it has stood the test of time very well and is easily relatable to the world today. (Maybe anti-prejudice never goes out of style.)

I was familiar with Harry Nilsson, if for no other reason than his singing the main song from Midnight Cowboy (1969), Everybody's Talkin'. However, I'd not heard of this work. I'm so glad I came across it. If you don't know The Point!, give it a listen!

PS I've also found that an animated version came out in 1971 and that Dustin Hoffman lent his voice as the narrator for the first broadcast, and Ringo Starr later narrated the video release. I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy.  Odd, Nilsson sings Everybody's Talkin' for Midnight Cowboy in '69, which starred Dustin Hoffman in his iconic Ratso role. Nilsson released The Point! album in '70, after which Hoffman narrates the animated version of The Point! in '71. I wonder if there is a story behind that? We may never know.

PPS It seems to me, The Point! is ripe for Broadway adaptation. 1. It is already full of great songs. 2. It could be staged with both Ringo and Dustin Hoffman filling roles. 3. Nilsson has a vast inventory of songs with which the soundtrack could be reinforced if needed. 4. It could be visually fascinating with all these pointed sets. 5. It would be poignant to explore the current climate of prejudice with a bit of an update. - Who do I call to get this plan in motion?
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What I've Been Listening to: Jan 2020


Halsey's new album, Manic, is very appropriately named, but what t amounts to is variety. Prior to hearing her perform on SNL a few weeks ago, I wasn't very familiar with her work, so I started with her recent album. It's very easy to listen to, and groove to, but what really struck me was the variety in style. From slow to upbeat, from instrumental piano to electric fueled rock, sad to hopeful to scornful, the album differs widely, while maintaining a consistent themed tying track to track. That theme seemed to be emotional outpour, and it works. Those are some of the best songs in general anyway. I liked the entire album, but if you don't, you still might find a handful of tracks that appeal to you. My personal favorite is Dominic's  Interlude, which to my ears, is reminiscent of Electric Light Orchestra and, in theory, should have no place in a modern pop album. Still, here we are, and it's fantastic.
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What I've Been Listening To: Dec 2019

A couple of years ago, I heard a pair of songs from Jenny Lewis and thought they were pretty cool. I wasn't familiar with Rilo Kiley, or any of her other ensemble work, and like many things, something else came along and took my attention elsewhere. However, recently Lewis's 2019 album, On the Line, found its way to my iTunes account, I gave it a try, and I was smitten.

Lewis is an excellent lyricist and pairs her wit with a classic yet folksy rock sound. Her voice has a bit of an edge that reminds me of Bonnie Raitt. I'd say the album is easy to listen to musically, great for playing straight through, but also carries layers to contemplate if you care to give it a deeper listen. Lewis additionally draws from superb supporting musicians. Ringo Star plays drums on one song, and the organ solo on "Heads Gonna Roll" had me jumping back just to listen to it again.

After enjoying the album a few times through, I went back and tried a couple of Lewis's previous albums, and they're all fantastic. I'd say one could now count me as a Jenny Lewis fan. If you like smart lyrics, jamming to some old fashioned folksy rock, or both, give "On the Line" a try.
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What I've Been Listening to: Nov. 2019

Ok. Hear me out. I thought I'd be talking about Niel Young and Crazy Horse's resent new album this month, and I enjoyed giving it a listen. I even plan to give it another go, but I found myself into an out-of-left-field album far more, Doja Cat's Hot Pink. But let's be clear. It's forward, crass even, very sexualized, and very sexually explicit. If that might rub you the wrong way, better to forget this post and check back in with me in a month. Otherwise, here's what I like about it.

I'd never heard of Doja Cat until a few weeks ago, maybe because she seems kind of cutesy. The artist's name and the album's name, Hot Pink, make me picture Hello Kitty. If you listened to a small snippet of her performance, you might think the same of Doja Cat's voice. It's high pitched and youthful, in a way that almost makes me think of K-Pop, yuck. But the album reels you in with solid, deep bass rhythms, all with a little bit of a funk aspect, which is far from cutesy. Then Doja Cat hits you with crass, emotional, sometimes vulgar, sometimes vulgar to the point of humor, lyrics - all in tightly written rhymes wich invoke compelling imagery. Plus, she dabbles in aggressive speed changes and brutally honest themes. Doja Cat even captures a taste of the body-positive elements I enjoyed in Lizzo's album a few months ago.

Altogether, I think there's a huge juxtaposition between the surface presentation and the actual lyrics and performance, and it's just damn entertaining. Imagin Taylor Swift covering an NWA song, and you'd be on the same track. I'm not sure I'd personally be as interested without the dichotomy, but all that aside, Doja Cat is a legit MC and might be the next Lil' Kim.

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What I've Been Listening to: Oct. 2019

I was a little young when Nine Inch Nails burst onto the scene in the 90s. I became aware of them but not a fan. Through the years, as a student and a fan of Cinema, I appreciated several NIN music videos, many of which, frontman, Trent Reznor directed himself. Still, I'd never have considered myself a fan of their music. Then came Old Town Road.

If you're not familiar with the silly, record-setting, country rap cross over, from Lil' Nas X, that took the Billboard charts by storm this year, then you probably just don't know it was what you kept hearing at sports arenas, malls, wedding dances, et al.

My six-year-old son loved it, so I heard it a number of times, which I'm sure should be scored by the hundreds. What I didn't realize until recently, however, is that the song sampled from a 2008 Nine Inch Nails instrumental song, which was, in fact, from an entirely instrumental album called Ghosts I-IV. Curiosity got the better of me, so I went to check it out. And I liked it.

Ghosts I-IV might be a new go-to for me when I'm writing horror or darker material. It's hunting, which fits the name, it's often subtle, but not over the top when it does get a bit heavy in the sound. The music isn't competing with vocals, so it stays atmospheric. And that's just what it does, sets an amazing atmosphere of eerie and haunting music. If you're hosting a Halloween party, and want something a bit more grown-up than the Monster Mash and Thriller to loop on the stereo, look no further than Nine Inch Nails' Ghost I-IV. Plus, at almost two hours of run time (basically like four albums), you won't notice it circling back for quite a while.
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What I've Been Listening to: Sept 2019

This one will be a little different. Instead of a cool band or album, I'm going to list an Audible exclusive that both interested and tickled me called Hi Bob. You guessed it, it is with Bob Newhart.

Bob mgiht have been a little before my time, but I remember sitting on the floor in front of my parents and watching Newhart as a little kid, and loving Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. I am literaly laughing as I write this, just thinking about them for five seconds.

I've also often been interested in comedy performance, and hearing comedians share their stories is fantastic. If you like Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, then I think you'll enjoy hearing Bob Newhart trade stories and quips with several of today's best comedic talents. I just happened upon this through Audible. It isn't a book, nor can it be found anywhere else, and it's audio only. It's merely excerpts of Bob talking with colleagues and friends about comedy in his gentle, poignant, and sneak-up-on-you hilarious way. If you like Bob Newhart and you like comedy, it's worth a listen.
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What I've Been Listening to: Aug 2019

I'd heard Lizzo interviewed on NPR a few months ago. Issues of gender, body image, and self confidence where all topics of her discussion. She is a larger woman who both figuratively and literally bares all on her recent album. All of this was interesting, but my attention wasn't thoroughly captured until I attended a wedding recently. Her music showed up on the rental car radio, in the club during a pre-wedding party, and even on the dance floor at the reception. She's a unique person with equally unique music, and I'm impressed.

The music starts with toe-tapping beats but where it stands apart is in Lizzo's willingness to push the limits of convention, which she does in three ways. First, in subject matter, the meaning in her lyrics are bold, critical of social norms, and unapologetic.

Second, she pushed the boundaries of what lyrics will fit in the song. Most of the time, singers strive to stay on beat with their music, but sometimes singers have too much to say to be limited this way. My all-time favorite band, Steely Dan operated this way. If there were too many words for a particular line of music, but they were profound, well they went ahead and jammed them in. Lizzo operates this way, and I love it. It grabs the listeners attention. When you hear her trample over her own beat, you have to ask what happened and pay closer attention to what she has to say.

Finally, Lizzo pushes the limits of her own voice. Now I'm sure she has a lovely singing voice when that is her aim, but on what I've heard of her music she often goes higher and lower than her range, cracking and losing pitch along the way. She holds notes she can't sustain and just keeps going. It gives power to her music, as if to say, yes this could be all fine and polished without so much as a blemish in the vocal execution, but it's too powerful and too relevant to worry about all that.

Lizzo won't be contained or held back by convention.
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What I've Been Listening to: July 2019

A friend tried to get me to listen to the Mountains Goats about a dozen years ago. For whatever reason, they didn't grab me, and I probably forgot all about them until recently. I saw a clip of Stephen Colbert jumping on stage and singing with the band on facebook, and gave it a listen. I liked it, so I pulled them up on iTunes, and I have to say I was immediately captivated.

Musically, they're pretty good, but the themes and lyrics are origianl, sometimes off-the-wall, often socially critical, and frequently sardonic. In this aspect, the Mountain Goats remind me of my favorite band, Steely Dan. A few of their songs took me back to when my friend tried to get me to listen, and I wish I had.

Their sound is more folksy, which has not historically been my favorite. My guess is that I wasn't hearing the lyrics well enough and snap judged their sound as not up my alley, but that was a mistake. I say, go give them a listen, listen close, and then listen over it again.
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What I've Been Listening to: June 2019


I was listening to the Coffee House station on SXM while chauffeuring my six-year-old to one place or another and song, Anxiety, by Julia Michaels featuring Selena Gomez came on and caught my attention. Of course, I knew who Selena Gomez was, though she became famous in pop music a bit after I was the type who stayed current on pop music. SO I wouldn't call my self a fan or even very familiar. I'd heard of Julia Michaels from her song Issues a few years ago but didn't know much more. But, I was impressed enough to go look her up on iTunes when I got back to my desk to do some work. I'm glad I did.

The song Anxiety is catchy and a lovely duet, but also has a fairly meaningful message about psychological struggles in today's society. The song appears on an EP called Inner Monologue, Pt. 1 which came out sometime earlier this year. It's only six songs, but Anxiety isn't even my favorite one. The song Happy, from the same EP carries on the ear-pleasing pop sound, with a very introspective theme and lyrics, reflecting a self-destructive impulse that accompanies the ideas form Anxiety well. Besides liking the songs, I think what really impressed me enough to want to write about this EP is how linked and complimentary all the songs are. Again, only six, but they walk us through a range of emotions through a struggling mind, and it's very gripping storytelling.

After I decided I'd likely use this for my Listening post for the month, I went to give the EP one more listen and discovered a new EP, called Inner Monologue Pt. 2 (if you can believe it) had already come out. I've only given it a little time, but can already see the consistent quality and depth with the song Falling for Boys standing out for me early.

Releasing so close to one another, I'm forced to wonder why this material appears as two EP's in two parts, rather than simply an album. With 14 tracks between them, it would have been a reasonable release, but I think the emotional connections are the reason, and I appreciate it. I mention liking the ties between songs in theme as if they're extensions of the same conversation, and while part 2 carries that format, the root themes shift a bit. It seems Michaels wanted a distinction rather than butting them together, and it works.

Bonus points: As I looked into this artist, I found she started her career writing songs for several other big pop stars. That's cool and all, but also that she originally hails from Davenport, IA. That's right, a fellow Hawkeye.

Worth a Mention: Orville Peck.

Think David Lynch meets Roy Orbison. I heard an interview on NPR and had to look this artist up. He sings in a mask, uses cowboy imagery, employs Orbison's almost operatic, vibrato-rich tenor, has unapologetic homosexual tones, and all his videos feel like excerpts from David Lynch movies. Even the general sound motif is Lynch-esque. I can't say I would sit and listen to an album, go to a concert, or groove to this music in any way, but as an artist, I have to appreciate it. It's clear Orville Peck is inspired by country classics like Cash or the previously mentioned Orbison, as well as visually inspired by the likes of the masterful Sergio Leone. His material is so very demands attention, is interesting, but is also exceptionally odd - Lynch anyone? It's good that this exists even if it isn't my jam, and I'm interested out of pure curiosity to see where it goes from here.
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What I've Been Listening to: May 2019

This is one that totally came from catching my eye on iTunes. Billie Eilish wasn't on my radar before her new album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, came out a little over a month ago. I have an eclectic taste, but the pop and club influences I can detect in Eilish's music don't usually draw my attention. However, the haunting quality of Eilish's musical sound, voice, and lyrics are all captivating.

Her music gives me more the feeling of a horror movie soundtrack than a dance club, but her lyrics and themes go quite a bit further than horror background music. They have a life of their own. Since my writing encompasses horror, as well as darker sci-fi, mystery, and fantasy, Eilish's music is right at home in my office filling the room with an eerie mood as I crank away on a particularly dark story. I'm sure I'll return to Eilish again when I'm in need of such a musical muse.
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What I've Been Listening to: March 2019

Around the time I finished college, I became aware of and subsequently a fan of Andrew Bird. I even saw him perform at eh Englert in Iowa City, in 2007. But for some reason, I stopped following him a year or so after that. Then, earlier this month, without any provocation I'm aware of, Andrew Brid came to mind. Thus, I pulled him up on my unlimited iTunes and set to rediscover him. It has been delightful. It's also made me think about art and performance in general.

For me, Bird's older stuff seemed experimental. It showed tremendous command and musical proficiency, originality, as well as being downright obscure. No one else I was aware of was using violins and whistling consistently in their music. Pretty cool for a just-out-of-school, would-be writer.  But, Bird's newer offerings, at least what I've managed to hear so far, seem to have given up some of the experimental and obscure factors in favor of more traditional lyricism and what I'll call flowability, as in ease of listening even though there's still whistling aplenty.

Now I could see where one might survey the two and come to an opinion that Bird has leaned more mainstream, and perhaps see that as a criticism. "I liked his older stuff," nay-sayers, if-you-will. To which I would praise the heart and emotion which seems to have developed in course.  And thus we come to a more general thought on art and performance.

Technical proficiency and a willingness to draw in new elements have merit, and certainly, have a place in art, but can those alone sustain an artist? And my thinking is that, no, they can't. Imagine, if you will, a painter who can paint such lifelike portraits that one couldn't tell the difference between their painting and a photograph. One one hand you could say that the artist was a master or the medium, but one could also argue the artist wasn't providing anything which a photograph can't: no emotion, no opinion, no feeling outside of what we get from the photo. Seeing such an artist would be a neat parlor trick, but I don't think it sustains much artistic praise.

Separately, let's consider a musician who plays the rims of glasses of water, stroking their finger around the glass to produce notes. This instrument would be obscure, maybe experimental, and it would be a cool trick to see them play Beethoven or Mozart on the glasses, but I'll go out on a limb and assume no glass-rim musicians have ever cracked the top 40 with their latest track. Listeners would prefer here someone bring a new feeling or at least pour their emotions into a piece than to hear it played in an obscure way for the sake of obscurity.

So, back to Bird. Yes, he's left some experimental sounds and glorious proficiency behind, but he's gained so much more, a real voice, an authentic style. Perhaps all that experimenting paid off in developing this mature style. The result may be more mainstream, but I find Bird as enjoyable to listen as ever.
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What I've been Listening to: February 2019

I heard the members of Mandolin Orange interviewed on the radio and thought I'd give them a listen, so I pulled up their new album, Tides of Teardrops on iTunes. I'm glad I did.

Their sound is interesting, they have great lyrics, wonderful voices, and splendid harmonies, plus the music is very chill, perfect for casually listening to while hammering out a couple of days of editing. I think Mandolin Orange's entire sound reminds me of the song "When I Paint My Masterpiece," be The Band. I love The Band, I love that song, so they are in excellent company in that thought.

One trouble I find, not that I want to call them a novelty act, is that all the songs kind of run together for me. I think this can happen when one relies on some specific musical point, for them the mandolin. It's in their name, but where The Band who I previously compared, can rely on guitar, keyboard, bass, or Levon Helm on the drubs, as well as acoustic or electric versions of most of those, plus several distinct voices, all capable of driving a song, Mandolin Orange seems to have just the one sound, one dimension. Over a couple listens through the new album, I dig it. Going back and listening through all their albums, it got a bit stale, and all kind of runs together.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to: Jan. 2019

Reading:

Earlier this month I sat down and read Lovecraft's Herbert West - Reanimator stories. I'm working on a new story which has some similar themes, and I wanted to be sure I wasn't inadvertently overlapping with characters or plot. I'd seen the movie years ago but never read the original literature.

In short, I loved it. It was dark, mysterious and thought-provoking. I enjoyed the almost Dracula-esque point of view in the how Lovecraft told the story, which offers more of a second-hand accounting of the plot by the Herbert West's (the main character's) associate and frequent assistant in his work. The style made West's motives as mysterious as his actions. While that might have proven a shortfall for a full novel, in the short format, it added a compelling layer.

I also rather liked the cliffhangers and omitted plot points that came inherently through the short series format of the pros. Rather than one novella, the story was originally published as six novelettes. Between each, there is a lapse of time, sometimes it's short, other times its years. Again,  I don't think this would have worked well in a novel, or a more directly narrated story, but coming from West's peer, it is believable that he might only address the story when something new and noteworthy has arisen.

Finally, I found the literature much more serious than the movie. Now, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the movie way back when. I loved Jeffrey Combs' performance and the interpretation of the re-animated creations, which were a little off-the-wall. However, in Lovecraft's original, the character is presented more seriously, and we see very little to nothing of the creatures he created. Instead, we see mostly the damage they have done and hearsay of the horrors. Altogether it is much more mysterious and again makes me think of Dracula. This is a wonderful difference between the movie and literature, as it gives both pretty unique reasons to be liked.

I have to admit that this was my first Lovecraft read (don't tell the Horror Writers Association), but I am likely to return to his ample body of eerie works.

Watching:

After over a year of trying to catch it, I finally watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. I was not disappointed.

While it was a great, gut-wrenching movie, I think what I liked best about it was how many totally unforeseen elements and dynamics there was to the film. In fact, the movie probably spent as much time examining them as it did advancing any sort of plot. One example, which is a bit of a spoiler but one revealed in the first 10 to 20 minutes, is that while the main character (Frances McDormand) is putting heat on the town Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) to solve her daughter's murder, we find the Sheriff is dying from cancer.

Another is just the presence of Peter Dinklage's character as the town midget (the movie's words) who interacts with the main character, with her ex-husband, with the Barney-Fife-esque deputy (Sam Rockwell) all with profound character implications on both sides of the dynamics, and all without any particular consequence on where the story advances too.

This movie was almost a clinic on character development and diversity, and delightful refreshing as such.

Listening to:

When I'm really hitting my stride on the first draft of a new story, I have a few go-to artists or playlists which I believe to be perfect, creativity-propelling background music, and that is what I've found myself listening to this month, mostly to Frank Zappa.

Now let me explain a bit. The ideal music for jamming to while writing, for me, should move a bit but not too fast, get your head bobbing when you pay attention to it, but not demand attention. It has to be somewhat genre fitting, so eerie when one is writing horror, etc. However, most of all it has to be un-intrusive. One time I tried getting some writing done while listening to Rage Against the Machine and found my heart and body getting so pumped I was hitting the keys on my keyboard like I was going to poke them through the plastic if I could even keep my attention on what I was doing at all. On the other end of the spectrum, I wouldn't want something so chill, it might put me to sleep.

So now you might be thinking, Zappa?  Not exactly synonymous with "un-intrusive." That's true, and while I like to give an occasional listen to Zappa's definitive tracks, the album I have on standby for writing sessions is Shut Up and Play Your Guitar. It moves, but not with hard rock. It doesn't have any complex or outrageous Zappa lyrics to unpack and pull your attention, and yet, if you come to the end of a though and your attention does drift to the music, there will undoubtedly be an impressive guitar riff, showing off a superior artist's proficiency, basically every moment of each song. Give it a try.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching and Listening To: Nov. 2018

Reading:
After watching the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, and thoroughly enjoying it (see last month's Watching) I decided to delve into Shirley Jackson's original book. Though I haven't quite hit the final page, I can comment on many sparks of delight, though overall I've not been as wowed as I was with the series.

Part of the difference, through no fault of the book, is that some of the shocking reveals of the book were telegraphed, or portrayed directly in the adaptation. Thus, I give the book a lot of credit for execution though my experience has been a bit flat. The other significant difference I've experienced is in the book's limiting the perception to mostly one character where the adaptation took time specifically to show each character's point of view. All the pieces of the puzzle only came together once we'd seen how each of the seven characters remembered the house. I have to say I found that variety more satisfying.

Perhaps the reason I haven't raced to the end is due to this lesser interest in the book than the series drew from me. In any case, it is a well written and eerie story, which if nothing else provided a superior foundation for the adapted story I enjoyed so much. I'll likely be giving it a 4 of 5 stars on my Goodreads.


Watching:

Turnabout is fair play. Last month I wrote about reading American Gods and watching The Haunting of Hill House, this month my reading is The Haunting of Hill House and my watching is... Season one of the Starz adapted series of American Gods.

I was excited to see this series. I've been aware of it for some time. After reading the first quarter or so of the book, indulging in all the unique and fantastic characters, and having some notion of the superior cast involved in the series — such as the always compelling and mysterious Gillian Anderson, the exuberant and undeniably talented Kristen Chenoweth, the scene-stealing Ian McShane, the eye-grabbing oddball Chrispin Glover,  and the iconic (and pride of my home state of Iowa) Cloris Leachman — I was eager to see this adaptation. I behaved myself and saw to finish the novel before queuing up episode one. However, I found the series fell short for me.

I can't say any character in-particular let me down, in fact, I felt like Pablo Schreiber, an actor I wasn't familiar with as the character Mad Sweeney, who only commanded a few scenes in the book, really stood out as intriguing in the series, but still, I've been left wanting. Maybe one issue is the scene sharing of all the cast. In the book, the characters are self-contained and only as deep or important as the author makes them. In the series, actors come loaded with expectations, and if they are only cast in a sparse roll, we viewers might feel slighted, when we readers did not. But, I think there is more trouble than that. I think the directing comes up short as well.

The series feels like it's reaching for the edginess of an HBO knockout but never quite gets there. Forcing grittiness that doesn't land.  For instance, the story begins with Shadow, the main character, in jail, and of course, the prison will be dirty, cold in color and motif, and tinny in sound design, but it seems that look and feel extend to every other location and scene. I didn't get that impression from the book.

I pictured Wednesday with more polish, he wants to trade out a crappy car for one more suited to his liking, hustles to get bumped up to first class, for me that means a cleaner, snazzier feel, not one just as gritty as the prison, at least not all the time. The story takes place moving across the country, so the locations vary greatly as well. I think this lack of cinematic variety robbed the character and location variety of individual uniqueness, producing a one-dimensional presentation when the book was thoroughly multi-faceted.

It seems a second season is due in order to complete the book's narrative, and I am interested in the series enough to give the next installment a chance, especially since we can assume the story will wrap up on one more season. I'm also interested to see some of the characters yet to be introduced, and who'll portray them. Still, I think with the resources at hand, the series could have been significantly better.

More Watching:
I've also just finished Westworld, Season Two (HBO). I really liked the first season and was excited for this one to arrive. However, while the first season was a bit confusing in jumping time and place, it had nothing on season two. That's the reason it took me half a year before I finished the season. Now that may sound like disparaging criticism. However, I really did enjoy this season as well, it just made it harder to watch, or to find the time to watch. One couldn't just throw it on after getting the kids to bed, and the dishes washed, hoping to get a full episode in before falling asleep. It wasn't a show one could pause halfway through an episode and pick up tomorrow. It needed a degree of focus to follow which I don't always have the time and energy to give.

Not to spoil but here's a tidbit of how confusing it could be.
1. We're following at least five characters' season-long storylines.
2. We have at least a half dozen secondary character's story arcs bridging the main ones.
3. We're jumping at least four story time periods, often without knowing which one we're in and whether it comes before or after what we recently saw of a character.
4. Did I forget to mention there are dozens of flashbacks? So that makes the story time periods more like 20.
5. We jump between reality, and at least two digital false realities, sometimes without knowing which, or that we've jumped.
And then, of course, there is...
6. We have characters who we aren't sure if they're human or android.

Now, all of this is done with good reason to create mystery and intrigue. In fact, if I try to imagine sorting it out into a more linear flow, it becomes clear rather quickly that many of the delightful revelations at the end of episodes or the end of the season would be tipped too early, so I think all this jumping and confusion was necessary. Plus, once I reached the end of the season everything (well mostly everything) fell into place for a complete picture, a better understanding of the whole, with many satisfying reveals. I loved it. What few questions remained unanswered seemed intentional to usher our attention to the third season.

Furthermore, this season explores themes of understanding one's self, of what truly constitutes reality, what free will means in theory and in practice, what darkness humans are capable of, and likely a dozen more existential questions, picking right up where season one left off and pushing these quagmires even further. This I also loved.

Thus, all totaled I give Westworld Season 2 a glowingly positive review, though you can see how it is far from casual viewing.


Listening to:
If you happen to have been following my listening section the past few months, you might want to brace for a hard turn. I've had Cardi B (hip-hop), Pillowfight (cinematic/dance/hip-hop), and Logic (hip-hop), but with the creeping of Christmas, and two small children nearly always with me in the car, my listening for November has grown dominated by Burl Ives Christmas tunes. 

That's right, a corny singer (and actor) who's popularity probably peeked more than 50 years ago, and long before I was born. I have to wonder if Cardi B would even know who Burl Ives was. But for her, and for those reading this who aren't familiar, you probably know his voice from the beloved stop-motion, animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) in which he not only voiced the snowman narrator, Sam but also sang the title song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," as well as the songs "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold."

Old Burl, of course, recorded several other Christmas carols in his many decades of recording, with about 30 singles and appearing on over 50 albums according to his Wikipedia discography. Now I'm not about to claim I'm a fan of his work in general, there's little edgy or challenging to be found there. But, at Christmas, when the mind turns to warmer thoughts, family memories, and nostalgia, I'm alright with Burl's Christmas collection on repeat.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To: October 2018

Reading:

I've just finished Neil Gaiman's American Gods. I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I hear his name thrown around a lot in fantasy circles and as it just so happens I put out a fantasy novelette this very month. 

I didn't initially set out to write a fantasy piece, but when you work in horror and sci-fi, the other two branches of spec fiction, I guess you can find yourself slipping down that road. It was only once I was collaborating with an editor when I thought the horror I'd written was nearly finished that I realized I had a dark fantasy work on my hands, and I decided to finally delve into that literary world with one of the heavy hitters. I am also looking forward to giving the adapted tv series a shot now that I've finished the book.

Now for my thoughts on the book. First, I found the ending, the main conclusion of the gods' war to be both unforeseen and satisfying. Sometimes those are hard to accomplish together, to give readers something they didn't flush out already, but have all the pieces laid along the story for it to make perfect sense. Gaiman did that very well.

Second, as I started the book I was finding the main character, Shadow, a bit dull, an empty body to which bad things were happening, but that turned out to be intentional and a necessity for the character to grow beyond. So in the end, that turned around, and I found the character more interesting. Well done.

But finally, I have to say I don't think I liked this book as much as I thought I would. The original premise was exciting and had my mind running with all the possibilities, but I guess I found the story hefty on research (and I felt it came off as exceptionally well researched) but ultimately lacking on drawing me into exciting happenings. Even the god war near the end was all but glossed over with little intimate detail what-so-ever.

 I think what I found most compelling were the little tangential stories of characters who brought certain gods to America. Maybe my trouble is that building a character on known mythology risks seeming unoriginal. Then if you don't take that character into new and exciting places, you wind up dull. The characters were no doubt twists on established mythologies, and the new gods were original ideas, but it just never reached the level of excitement for which I hungered. I still found it a good book, and will likely give it four stars on my book rating accounts, but with all the hype I thought it would be a five star read for sure.

Watching:

As of this post, I'm three episodes into the new Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, and I love every minute of it. Full disclosure, I haven't read the original Shirley Jackson novel, though I think I'm likely to do so in the near future. I was familiar with the story by word of mouth and previous adaptations, but the new spin of a family reflecting on the event of the house, after the fact, and the very contemporary personal problems each character is already dealing with at this point in the series has me enthralled. I think I'm fast becoming an S. Jackson fan as well as a fan of the series director, Mike Flanagan. Horror buffs should not miss this one.

Listing to:

Is there something to listen to in October besides the soundtrack for The Nightmare Before Christmas? Not if my kids are around, but I caught someone posting Logic's "Wu Tang Forever" on facebook. I wasn't familiar with Logic, but I was hip to the Wu Tang which is indeed forever, so I gave it a listen.

To say I was impressed would be an understatement. Logic slides right into the classic through-back to Wu Tang heyday. Excited, I gave some of the other works of this new (to me) hip-hop artist and was thoroughly confused. Confused that I'd somehow never come across him before. So now, I guess I'm a fan of Logic's too.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listening To. September 2018

Reading:

This month, I've started a couple of books but haven't finished any, not that they aren't good, so I'm sure I'll be talking about them soon. However, I've also been reading quite a bit with my son who just started Kindergarten, and he has been interested in the A Series of Unfortunate Events books, so I've read five installments in as many weeks. Therefore, this month my recent reads section will have to fall to Lemony Snicket.

This is not a consolation, I think these books are delightful, but I usually strive to talk about books which are intended for an audience as mature as that which I imagine for the books I write. That said, though these books fall under children's literature, anyone who has read one can tell you they lean mature in theme and content for the children's genre.

On a personal note, shortly after finishing college I spent about two years working in production in local news at a network affiliate in Cedar Rapids, IA. I don't recall what year it was, but at some point during my tenure, our morning anchor did a series of short live interviews with Lemony Snicket (the author in his character) via satellite. I wasn't familiar with the books, at 22-23 y/o I didn't have my thumb on the pulse of children's literature, so I don't even recall what in particular the author was promoting. By looking at the years of publication, I can suppose it was the release of one of the last two books in the series.

What I do recall is that the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, acted superior, and was even a bit cruel to our anchor. I imagined he was behaving in character, as I knew the author wasn't really Lemony Snicket, that it was a pen name packed with its own personality, and found it a bit funny. Our anchor tired to be a good sport, but even when the camera wasn't on, and the author was getting technical cues from our producer before, and after each interview segment, the author was rude, evasive, argumentative, and acted superior to our staff as well. It left a bad impression for me, but one I didn't give tremendous thought to as I wasn't that interested in the first place.

Fast forward ten years and Netflix adapts the books for a series starring the one and only NPH. Given my respect for the actor, and with the series continuing into a second season, I had to reconsider my casual stance against the author (his persona) and the books. Thus, I started one with my son. We are both glad I did. The books are a little difficult at times for a kindergartener but touch on subjects worth discussing. They promote children building advanced vocabulary, building strong character, and building new inventions, plus the stores are just plain entertaining. I'm thoroughly enjoying these books, and even if my son decided he wanted to stop the series, I think I'd finish it.

One confusing thing, however, is that I was expecting the narrator (Lemony Snicket) to be a terrible, insulting, and judgmental voice, just like the man we interviewed. True, the narrator, talks about dark themes and doesn't baby the reader through it, but he is empathetic towards the hardship of the characters, is matter-of-fact about their troubles, explores a bit of dry humor, but ultimately seems caring about both the characters and us the reader. In fact, the persona I saw interviewed seemed much more like the villain, Count Olaf than the narrator.

Who knows? Maybe after a long day with dozens of interviews, someone challenged Daniel Handler to do one set with the bumkins in Iowa as Olaf instead of Snicket, but no one let us in on the joke. Now my feelings are mixed, but I'm glad I'm enjoying the books. Maybe one should never judge a book by the insults it's author slings at you. (Or rather, those around you.)

Watching:

I rarely ever truly binge-watch anything. With a five-year-old and a one-year-old the opportunity to let Netflix just cruise on into another episode is pretty rare, especially in a month where MLB races come to a head and College Football Kicks off, but the closest I've come to a binge as of late was taking in the full season of Altered Carbon in under two weeks.

First of all, I love the sci-fi basis for this show. For those who haven't dabbled, Altered Carbon's narrative hinges on the existence of technology that lets people hold their consciousness in quasi-bio storage disks which can be downloaded or physically transferred into new bodies. It's like one's mind held in a thumb-drive with a seemingly endless ability to hot-swap. The idea was entirely original to me and set my imagination running in a thousand directions.

The characters are interesting, engaging, and diverse; the storyline is exciting, high-concept, and yet believable; but what the show does best is transcribe recognizable social problems (from economic inequality to gender-targeted violence to religious fanaticism) into engaging story arcs— as most good science-fiction seems to do.

I'm very excited to see this show go into another season, which leads me to my final point of praise, the show's concept of body-hopping sets the stage for an endless freshening of the cast and plot. Characters can be killed off, then return in new bodies without significant plot-holes, the cast can be swapped out seamlessly without compromising continuity. In fact, major characters could be moved into children, elderly, or opposite-gender bodies to create drama, humor, relationship issues and much more. For that matter, characters could swap each other's bodies to create compelling mystery or unsettling hilarity. Heck, the same protagonist could be moved to a different body (different lead actor) only to meet his former self (original lead actor) as an antagonist. The possibilities seem limitless.

I'm anxious to see what the future holds for Altered Carbon.

Listening to:

Just like many people do when Christmas nears, in expectation of Halloween about a month away, I lean toward mood-setting tunes. Unlike the Yuletide season, Halloween music is a bit harder to cultivate, especially if one wants to look beyond Danny Elfman scores and different versions of "The Monster Mash." I'm glaring at you Pandora. Thus, I currently find myself queuing up the 2013 Dan the Automator and Emily Wells collaborative album, Pillowfight.

The music features eerie instrumentals, dark themes, and ghostly vocals to create a scary atmosphere, not for a horror blood-letting, but more of a solo walk through the graveyard at night. Let me also add; its unobtrusiveness works wonderfully for having in the background while I'm cranking away writing a new spooky story.
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What I've Been Reading, Watching, and Listing. August 2018

Reading:

I'm just finishing Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man's Fundamentals of Delicious Living by Nick Offerman. Usually, my reading tends toward fiction, and when it doesn't, it usually involves non-fiction that related to a fiction story I'm writing. Or in other words, research. However, I'd had this book way back in my "to read" pile for years. I think the world of Nick Offerman's acting, and find him to be an exceptional humorist when out-of-character as well. I caught a part of Offerman's new reality series about crafting and was drawn back to check out this book.

Let me tell you. It has been a delight. Offerman addresses his youth and his journey to acting success, with many tidbits of blue-collar philosophy to boot, and every bit of it hit home with me. His growing up in rural Illinois, though a decade or two before my own formative years, does not seem to have differed much from my own rural Iowa youth. This built an immediate connection for me.

Offerman follows that with an insistence that hard work, not pan-handling to entertainment trends, and keeping his life rich with non-acting endeavors were all keys to his career success. This spoke comfortingly to my own striving toward a writing and screenwriting career on a ladder to success which I'm personally still trying climb.  Best of all, every statement of wisdom is accompanied by at least two instances of deadpan hilarity. This book was good for my spirit and for my heart.

Watching:

I finally carved out the time to watch the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks. I'm careful not to call it a "reboot," because most of the time I'm not in favor of rehashing old entertainment properties when there are plenty of original ideas waiting to see the light of day. In this case, however, the new season picks up where the original left off, addresses some of the unresolved issues left dangling (though not particularly resolving them) and features many of the original characters, with as far as I can tell, all the original actors and actress reprising their roles. Not everyone from the original Twin Peaks returns but my compliments to Lynch and Frost for writing around those characters, rather than re-casting any. It also brings an entirely new set of characters into the story, many of which are fielded by actors with whom David Lynch fans are familiar.

Perhaps a more significant distinction in my mind, between a reboot and a revival, is that I don't consider Twin Peaks to have been a major commercial property, in the first place. It had its cult following and continued to gain fans over the years out of cinephiles and film students, but altogether it's not a blockbuster property. So to me, the fresh season didn't seem to be cashing in on the fanbase but instead feeding them what they've been hungry for low these many years.

Outright, I must say, I loved this new season. Through my eyes, it was prime David Lynch. One could label what sets Lynch apart, as weirdness, abstractness, deep symbolism, what-have-you, but to me, I equate it metaphorically to salt. Just as a little salt can make manilla food a little better, a little weirdness can make an average story a little better. A bit more salt can make your average snake a delicious treat, though you might want to watch how much you eat. Likewise, a lot of weirdness can make a story a unique and enthralling treat, but it probably loses it appeal if everything you watch is that way. And to follow the metaphor to an end, salt alone does not make a supremely delectable dish, and in turn, a story which is all weirdness and abstraction without at least the vestige of a followable plot which seems to be heading somewhere coherent makes for dismal viewing. In Lynch's canon, I believe you can find all three. A few projects which flirt with weird, a few which go way too far, with more weird than plot, and many which fit deliciously in the middle. And I found the New Twin Peaks to hit that sweet spot dead center.

I'll even go farther to say, there were moments of what I'm going to call "meta-Lynch" at play. Where I felt Lynch, and let us not forget his partner Frost, gave a little more than usual in order to show the foundation that led up to some of the particular abstraction. For example, in the new season, we see a character come running down the road with a gold-painted shovel to pronounce she's "shoveling her way out of the shit." Another point, we see a woman and her young son, worried, sitting by the side of their comatose husband/father in a hospital only to have a dazed woman in a poofy cocktail dress bring in a tray of sandwiches as if they were at a party. Both of these moments sound very Lynch-esque, but where the new Twin Peaks departed is that each of these moments had a half dozen scenes laying the groundwork for why this ends up occurring, as odd as it is. It's important because it changes the effect. Where once the shoveler or the waitress may have simply appeared and the viewer would be left to ponder, "what was that? Why did that happen? Was I supposed to get that?" Instead, we received a stream of scenes where first we say "that's odd," then we build to "this is getting weird" then "is this going somewhere," only to have it reach a quintessential Lynch scene of intersection only instead of saying "that's weird" we say "ah ha, so that is where that was going." And then proceed to giggle with delight. That's why I call it "meta-Lynch" as if Lynch were poking just a bit of fun at the weird, pop-up abstractions that have been hallmarks of his career.

I stayed away from the new Twin Peaks for a while because I was worried I would be disappointed, but it was magic. If they go on to do any more, as has been rumored, I'll be eager to indulge.

Listening:

Let's just call my music taste eclectic. Some years ago reggae crept up on this small town mid-westerner as my favorite genre, Steely Dan is my all-time favorite group, and I'm just as likely to groove to the Mamas and Papas as Childish Gambino (even though This is America was both catchy and profound). My taste encompasses just about anything except electronic and country, but what's playing on my iTunes as a craft this post is Cardi B's "Invasion of Privacy."

A few things I like about it. First, it is catchy. Several tracks have different toe-tapping beats, Ms. B's vocals are pleasing and pretty tight. I don't listen to rap all the time, but some, and there is a list of rappers I love to which I'm not necessarily adding Cardy B.

One weakness for me is the all-to-common boastful self-aggrandizing present in the lyrics, but once you look past that, Cardi B has a compelling story spanning the tracks of the album. Her personal story as a stripper turned successful rapper, doesn't necessarily deviate far from all the drug-dealer turned rapper stories we've seen before, but it definitely has a new flavor and one unique to the female perspective in her work.

What I like most, is the presence of a consistent and interlocking theme to the album as a whole. Every track ties into the others and weaves a story across songs. It seems rare to see that sort of cohesion in the age of surfing the latest hit singles on shuffle mode, so it is pleasing to stumble onto it once in a while.

Good. Now anyone googling "David Lynch and Cardi B" finally has a result to pull up. You're Welcome, internet.
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