Playlist 22 -- Two Great Books

I was sick this past week, which meant nothing got done around the house. I was working, transporting the kids where they had to go, and, otherwise, in bed. It did allow me plenty of time to read. And I finished these two very different books that I highly recommend.

The Learners. Chip Kidd.
I don't know what small advertising offices in the early 1960s were like, but I sure hope they were as Kidd described in The Learners -- filled with people named Sketch, Tip and Happy; the owner's dog running around loose; discussions of the relative merits of potato chips and shoes; and days capped with drinks at the local watering hole.
This Penn State grad should know. He's a graphic designer himself. If you only know one graphic designer, it's probably Kidd. USA Today once called him the "closest thing to a rock star" in graphic design. He's done the jacket for books by Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and David Sedaris as well as numerous comic books.
The Jurassic Park book cover?
That was his.
Kidd uses his design knowledge, filling The Learners with discussions on typography and essays on for
m vs. content. In one section, he describes over two pages how he created an ad that had a ton of information, but could only be an eighth of a page. Or when he uses the words "forgive me" and shows how it can be read different ways based on the font used.
Kidd has a real knack for comedy (just check out his You Tube trailer) and The Learners rolls on at a fun, fast pace until Stanley Milgram enters the picture. Milgram, the subject of our Weekly Wikipedia link, was conducting his infamous experiments in New Haven, site of the advertising firm. M
ilgram and his experiments play a crucial role in the last half of The Learners.
You can read an excerpt of the book here.
And you'll f
ind Kidd's blog/Web site here.

People of the Book. Geraldine Brooks.
I was completely transfixed by Brooks' novel, both by the scope of what she covered and the incredible detail and emotion that filled each section.

People opens in Sarajevo as Hannah, a rare book expert, is analyzing a long-lost Haggadah, a beautiful Hebrew manuscript created in the 15th century. Hannah's intense study of the book reveals what sounds like a witch recipe -- a tiny insect wing, a dash of wine, salt crystals and a white hair. These pieces of evidence help her unlock some of the mysterious history of the book.

Brooks takes us through that history -- Vienna in 1894, Venice in 1609, Tarragon in 1492 -- detailing the books' travels over six centuries, and those whose lives were intertwined with it. Brooks, who won a Pulitzer for March, has written a heavily-researched book of epic proportions, tackling weighty subjects as politics and the ever-changing relationship between the world's big three religions. Yet it's the personal lives of the individuals -- the people of the book -- that drive this very human story.

What I've been listening to this past week ...
-- Evil Urges, My Morning Jacket, Evil Urges. MMJ released the title track to their upcoming new CD to fans/bloggers this past week and it's something. Want to hear it? Check out Pop Headwound.


Playlist 21, It Has a Good Beet

My headline for this playlist was going to be Canadian Bacon -- seeing as I review the pig pun-filled Beet and two Canadian trios (don't worry, neither is Rush).

I also thought of calling the post Give Peace a Chance. Not only is Peace the lead character in Beet, but the peace symbol is celebrating a monumentous birthday this month. Gerald Holtom's design, one of the most commonly used and recognizable symbols, just turned 50, thus it's the
subject of our Weekly Wikipedia link.

But I went with the rather blah Good Beet. Well, I sure you hope you hosers can dance to it.

Colin Meloy
Music Hall of Williamsburg (Brooklyn, NY.)
With just himself and a guitar, the Decemberists lead singer/songwriter kept the crowd at this cozy Brooklyn club entranced for almost two hours. The set covered a wide range of Meloy's career, leaning slightly to songs on the Decemberists' most recent album The Crane Wife (A Perfect Crime, Shankill Butchers, O Valencia!). He trotted out some new songs and was joined by opening act Laura Gibson for a rendition of Sam Cooke's Cupid. Meloy, clearly enjoying himself, didn't need to do much to get the enthusiastic audience to fill in with the guitar solos or horn parts. And the women in the audience knew to handle the mother parts in a rousing closer The Mariner's Revenge Song.
Stripped down to only guitar, it was easier to concentrate on Meloy's wonderful wordplay. I swear I improve my vocabulary every time I listen to a Decemberists song. Now if only I could find a way to use parapet in a sentence.

Beet. Roger Rosenblatt.
Beet College, started long ago thanks to a gift from wealthy pig farmer Nathaniel Beet, has a storied history and counts among its alumni U.S. senators, Fortune 500 executives and a Supreme Court Justice. But it's in danger of closing. New programs like the Ethnicity, Gender and Television Studies, Little People of Color and Serial Killers of the Northwest have not brought in the large amounts of money the liberal arts school's greedy chief officer and incompetent president expected. And the endowment has disappeared. It's up to lit professor Peace Porterfield to save the school in Rosenblatt's hilarious satire of academia and political correctness.
Rosenblatt loves playing with words, whether it's the names he gives his characters -- Joel Bollovate, Matha Stewart Polite and Peter Bagtoothian -- or the pun-filled way he describes the town of Beet:
If the college closed, so would the town. Everything in it -- the Little Piggy Luncheonette with its fourteen-by-twelve-by-ten foot fiberglass shocking pink pig standing at happy attention on the roof; the Pig Out Diner; the Pen and Oink Book Shop; the Bring Home the Bacon Butchers; Marty's Swine and Cheese; the Pigs in a Blanket Bed and Breakfast and its High on the Hog Lounge; and businesses with similar stage names, too many, all except the town bank, which rejected the most obvious name, for fear of appearing breakable -- relied on the college for its survival.

Jim's Organic Coffee, Blend X aka Witch
es Brew.
This dark roasted coffee is strong, without any hint of bitterness.

Parc Avenue. Plants and Animals.
It's really hard to categorize this three-piece band's debut. The song structures suggest the kind of folkish-jam band that would've easily fit in at Bonaroo a few years back. But the music is indie at heart. Their sometimes rambling approach reminds me most of Dr. Dog. The organic sound builds into sweeping choruses reminiscent of Polyphonic Spree and fellow Canadians Arcade Fire. Don't be scared away by the wide-ranging influences, this is a very accessible album, one that's sure to be on a few end-of-year best lists.

The Arrogant Worms
Blake Library (Stuart FL)

Thanks to our friends, big Worms fans, who tuned us into this show held at the unlikeliest of places -- a library. But Blake isn't your run-of-the-mill library, and the Worms aren't your ordinary performers. The trio plays folk-comedy, with the focus on the comedy part. They say comedy is mostly about timing, and these guys have it, and their show moves at a fast pace. The highlights were the songs Celine Dion, Canada is Really Big, Jesus' Brother Bob and my favorite (because regardless of what you've heard, us vegetarians do have a sense of humor) Carrot Juice is Murder.

And if you don't believe me, you can just ask Jeff. I don't know who Jeff is, but he really likes the Worms -- enough to travel across US and Canada to watch them perform.

Other songs I lent an ear to this past week ...
-- The Island: Come and See/The Landlord's Daughter/You Not Feel the Drowning, The Decemberists, The Crane Wife. Colin and the gang explore their inner Tull and Yes.
-- Nobody Sees me Like You Do, Yoko Ono w/Apples in Stereo, Yes I'm a Witch. The Amazon reviews for the Yes I'm a Witch are fascinating. Ten people give it five starts, and 10 people give it one star.


It's a Bitchun Playlist 20

The Playlist inches toward drinking age. On the flip side, have you noticed that those old geezers The Rolling Stones are everywhere these days?

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Cory Doctorow.
Doctorow’s sci-fi comedy takes place in the not too distant future when death has been cured. You simply take the last reboot of your system and add it to a clone. And thanks to the work of the Bitchun Society, Whuffie is the currency. Your Whuffie score is based on how well-respected and liked you are. (I guess it’s not much different than how many friends you have on My Space.) So Doctorow takes this futuristic premise and sets it where?

In Disney World.

A group of volunteer ad-hocs had long ago taken over the Magic Kingdom and continue to run it. Julius is out to save the landmark attractions, ensuring they don’t go too hi-tech and, therefore, lose their essence. After he’s shot and killed (his third death), he returns, but things start to go haywire.

If you’re not a regular reader of sci-fi, like me, this is a great entry. It’s short, fast-paced and pretty darn funny. I’d be interested in knowing what dedicated sci-fi readers think about this book.

The author Cory Doctorow is a pretty busy man. You can check out his own Web site – craphound.com or the interesting boingboing, to which he regularly contributes.

And the buzz is huge on his new book, coming out later this month -- Little Brother.

Strangers Almanac. Whiskeytown.
The last album Whiskeytown released before they broke up was marred by personnel issues. Despite adding a whole new rhythm section at the last minute, Ryan Adams and crew created a touchstone of alt-country.

Strangers Almanac is one of the top five albums in this genre, and most likely the best that doesn’t involve someone named Tweedy or Farrar.

Why so good?

Start with Ryan Adams’ songwriting. It stays consistent throughout, whether he’s telling a heartwrenching tale like the album highlight Houses on the Hill or the more rocking Yesterday’s News. When they lean toward country, as they do in Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart, the band finds the right balance of rock. Phil Wandscher’s guitar always kicks in at the right time. There’s great chemistry throughout, particularly between Adams and violinist/singer Caitlin Cary.

Recently Strangers Almanac got the deluxe treatment. The new edition adds more than 25 new songs, many just alternate takes of songs already on the album. But there are two covers worth checking out – Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams and Gram Parsons’ Luxury Liner.

Besides Ryan Adams’ big ambitions, the band fell prey to weighty expectations. Listen to this album and it’s easy to see how they were compared to The Replacements (one scribe called them “country and Westerberg”) and dubbed the Nirvana of alt-country.

If you're at all interested in the alt-country genre, this is where to start.

Let it Bleed. The Rolling Stones.
Yep, the Stones are everywhere, even in my favorite electronic music store. Their excellent early albums were recently added to eMusic. It reminded about this classic, my favorite Stones album, which I listened to pretty heavily this week I’m still more a Beatles man, but I see myself devouring the rest of Mick and Keith’s early catalog on eMusic.

The Ruins.
So you know I'm not a sci-fi reader. I'm even less of a horror film fan. Give me suspense and I'm in. But if you're all about blood and gore, I'll skip. But I had really enjoyed Scott Smith's book and the film adaptation of his other book A Simple Plan.

The movie was OK. The script, written by Smith, held close enough to the book with a few differences to keep me interested. It's about two young post-college age couples who meet up with a German and a Greek on a Mexican vacation and end up stranded at a Mayan ruins.

Very intense at times. It wasn't completely free of horror cliches. There was some blood. And the writers found a way to keep one of the attractive female leads in her underwear most of the film. And the ending was different from the book, and a bit disappointing. Overall, a decent movie. But if you haven't read the book, I'd suggest you start there.

Interesting note: The movie was produced by Ben Stiller.

Other songs I've been enjoying...

It was also all about the covers this week, as I enjoyed these terrific remakes:

-- Woodstock, Richard Thompson

-- American Girl, Roger McGuinn, Born to Rock and Roll.

-- Dancing Queen, The Yayhoos.


Obama's been everywhere, man

I'm writing this from my usual locale -- the wonderful state of Florida where we always vote, but the votes don't always count. It's also the state where our Legislature takes more seriously a bill allowing you to take your gun to work, than it does a bill to make sex acts with animals illegal.

So I'm thinking of my home state lately, as a lot of people are. The Pennsylvania primary is just a couple of weeks away. And look out Hillary ... Barak is gaining on you. Give Obama some time to organize and he can close the gap. But could he actually win in the Keystone State? The Daily News' John Baer thinks so.

Baer is not alone. Earl Pickens also thinks Obama can win too. In this great parody of Johnny Cash's "Everwhere," Pickens names checks all the places, refuting the claim that Pennsylvania is just Pittsburgh and Philly with Alabama in between.


It's Playlist 19, Fo Shizzle

I love "man on the lam" stories. I wish Nick at Nite or another one of the hundred or so cable channels I get would find a spot for the old David Janssen Fugitive series. And while they're at, why not add some Get Smart and the It's the Garry Shandling Show, too?

Now, this week's playlist.

Rogue Male. Geoffrey Household.
Geoffrey Household's 1939 classic is a man on the lam story. The language is a bit outdated, but it doesn't slow the pace of this thriller. The novel opens with the protagonist taking aim at a certain head of state (Hitler, perhaps?) before getting caught by one of the guards. Within a couple pages, he's dangling from a cliff. And from there on, it never lets up.

I have been far too amused with this latest Web fad. Basically, you go to the Gizoogle home page. You paste in a Web site URL. And Gizoogle transliates into how it would sound if it was being read by Snoop Doggy Dogg. And think of all the money you'd save on weed.

Here's a Gizoogled review of Charlatan, which appeared in last week's Playlist.

In My Own Time. Karen Dalton.
In My Own Time was originally released in 1971 and finally made it to compact disc two years ago. My first exposure to Dalton was her version of the traditional Katie Cruel on last year's Oxford Southern American Music Magazine. She tackles country, folk, blues and soul with equal aplomb. You can literally hear the ache in her cracking voice as she makes these songs such as When a Man Makes and, the album highlight, the Band's In a Station all her own.

Hard to Love a Man EP. Mangolia Electric Co.
Magnolia Electric Co. is the talented Jason Molina, who also has released albums under his own name and as Songs:Ohio. Sojourner is a collection of earlier CDs with new music and newer version of older tunes. But it still works as a fine introduction to Molina's brooding country-rock, with the emphasis on rock. Hate to fall prey to the one of the most-often used cliches, but Neil Young is an obvious influence on Molina. On the 2005 Hard to Love, Molina's story-telling skills really stand out on Bowery and 31 Seasons in the Minor Leagues. But the cover of Werewolves of London was unnecessary.


I Don't Get It -- Lying Parents

When Todd Rundgren released the album Liars back in 2004, he was asked about the title and the album cover -- TR dressed in bunny ears and nose, hovering over an Easter basket. He discussed how lying is so pervasive in our society, and that it starts when we lie to our kids about things like the Easter Bunny (the reason for the CD cover) or Santa Claus.

He has a point. But the problem isn't just that parents lie to their kids. It's that they're teaching them to lie.

And, subsequently, cheat.

And steal.

You probably remember a few months back when a six-year-old girl won a prized ticket to a Hannah Montana show with a letter describing how her father died in Iraq. Quite sad. Until we found out it was a lie, obviously perpetrated with a little parental help.

Recently, I overheard about an area teen who bragged that how his dad was so technologically skilled. So skilled, in fact, that he was able to pay for one cable box (or satellite dish) and hook it up -- free of cost -- to several TVs in the house. The dad was proud. The son was proud.

And they were lying. Cheating. Stealing.

As pervasive as lying is that sense of entitlement everyone feels, whether it's for concert tickets, cable TV, a raise at work, easy grades at school. And people use that entitlement to justify using dishonesty to get what they want.

Look, I'm all for sticking it to the man, especially when that man is a huge bully corporation like Ticketmaster, Clear Channel or Halliburton. But my distaste for these money-grabbers doesn't justify cheating or stealing from them. And it certainly doesn't justify teaching those traits to your children.

Parents, grow up!

Lying liars and the liars who sing about them
Let me end this post on a lighter note, with three of my favorite songs about lying. I'm sure I left one of your favorites out. Please let me know.

3. Big Star, Don't Lie to Me.
2. Billy Joel, Honesty.
1. Nick Lowe, All Men are Liars. He rhymes ghastly with Rick Astley. It's a fun song. Check out the video now.