I started my professional career in the early 90s at a small suburban newspaper in the Gannett chain, first as a reporter, then as an editor. The rules for us in the USA Today farmlands were simple -- keep it short.
At most, only one story could jump from the home page. A 10-inch story? Did it really need to be that long? Opponents thought we provided less depth. That was wrong. Cut out the crap. And be succinct. That serves the reader better. The Internet explosion proved us right. And I've continued to take the "keep it concise" approach to my writing and editing.
Except, unfortunately, on my blog. Have you see some of my posts? Do I think that everybody has the excessive personal time to read my long musings on books or weird music? Do I think I'm the only blog on the Web?
This came into sharper focus as I was looking at the Web site 75 or Less, and its review of Maybe It's Reno, which I discussed back in Playlist 28.I found the 75 or Less reviews a whole lot easier to read than the snarky Pitchfork's rants. Believe it or not, my review of Maybe It's Reno came in at a diminutive 49 words. And that is now my goal and challenge -- aim for 50 words or less on most of my Playlist listings. I give myself one Mulligan on the top review each week, but I have to strive for Fiddy or Less after that.
Let's see how we do this week with Playlist 31.
Personal Days. Ed Park. This witty satire of a paranoia-filled office of "cubicle clusters" has earned numerous accolades, with the LA Times even comparing author Park to Kurt Vonnegut. The book is set at a nondescript company. Knowing Park's background (editor of The Believer and formerly of the Village Voice), I imagine it to be some sort of publishing venture.
A group of young workers, including former grad student Pru, Laars and numerous people whose name begins with a "J," spend their workdays worrying about who will be next to get laid off. The company is taken over the the never-seen Californians. Original Jack was already laid off (and later started a toaster oven restaurant). Those who remain spend their creative energies on nicknames, giving their boss the moniker Sprout and the empty floor where Jill is sent Siberia. Jill, who takes over the responsibilities of a laid off employee without getting any pay increase, has received a deprotion. Employees try to come to terms with the firings by developing their own layoff narrative.
Park, who also lampoons corporate doublespeak and b-s leadership books, breaks Personal Days into three Microsoft Word-like sections -- Can't Undo, Replace All, Revert to Saved. Each chapter is written in a different way. The first is written as a straight narrative. The second chapter is written as a contract, and the final chapter is written as one long run-on sentence e-mail.
Visit Park's Web site, set up as a desktop with e-mail, or The Dizzies, the official Web site of the book. Park is also the editor of The New-York Ghost. Yes, this Park guy is pretty busy.
Now to the Fiddy or Less Playlist items ...
Dear American Airlines. Jonathan Miles. A flight cancellation leaves Bennie Ford stranded at O'Hare. And he's going to miss his daughter's wedding. The novel is Ford's letter to American Airlines. A gimmick? Yes. But it's also a heartbreaking, aching, touching, and often funny story as Ford recounts his sad life over the 170-plus pages.
There Must Be ... 50 Ways to Vote for Obama. This Web site -- the Sufjan Stevens of bumper stickers -- allows you to use your creativity to create state-specific bumper stickers for Obama as well as make a little (I mean very little) money for charity -- and, of course, for the people who run the Web site. Wagonwheel Blues. The War on Drugs. After seeing Bruce Springsteen jam with Arcade Fire, I finally saw his influence on the band. Well, imagine an Arcade Fire influenced instead by Bob Dylan and you've got this exciting new Philly band, who reaches for atmospheric grandeur. Top tracks: Arms Like a Boulder, Taking the Farm and There is No Urgency.
Check out Taking the Farm and Buenos Aires Beach at the top of our newest feature Hear This! -- a regularly updated sampling of songs from albums and artists mentioned in Distractions. Dual Hawks. Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel. I've only downloaded the Centro-Matic side of this dual release. For those who don't know, both bands are led by the prolific Will Johnson. The Centro-Matic half is a collection of mostly mid-tempo indie alt-country rockers. If you like Son Volt, you'll enjoy this band. You can find the lyrics and liner notes on the Centro-Matic/South San Gabriel blog.
And check out the song Twenty-four in Hear This!
Snuff. Chuck Palahniuk. Just about every Palahniuk book review usually includes the word "sick." And this is true here. I loved Rant and Lullaby, but not this book, which feels like it was just thrown together. The premise: An aging porn star makes her final film in which she takes on 600 men in one day. The day unfolds from the perspective of the porn star's assistant and three men waiting in line for their turn (No. 72, No. 137 and No. 600).
So how did I do? Well, nothing went past 60 until I failed to live up to snuff with my Palahniuk review (79 words). But then again, Chuck failed in his quest, too.
And finally, happy Independence Day. Florida's role in that first important July 4th is covered in a great article on the Palm Beach Post front page today. (On page 2, you'll find out that Gov. Crist has gotten engaged -- for the fifth time)! The one-time colony of West Florida is our Weekly Wikipedia link.
I can watch Steve Carell in almost anything. He adds tremendous nuance to the characters he plays, a rarity today in the Will Farrell comedy world, where big screen acting is just "goofing off."
And Carell did a great job in Get Smart. But the movie just didn't do it for me. It seems a lot of the summer movies are turning into disappointments. I liked The Happening, but just about everyone else didn't. And Love Guru is getting horrible reviews. Other than Iron Man, which I've heard nonstop glowing reviews about from my 13-year-old son and just about anyone else who has seen it, does anyone know any summer movies out there that are worth seeing?
In the meantime, here's the world's greatest Playlist 30, which kicks off with an amazing orchestral piece that I wrote and recorded last night.
Would you believe that Playlist 30 kicks off with my Pulitzer Prize-winning essay on faith, my undying love for classical poetry and my work on the human genome project?
How about a Playlist 30 that lists some stuff I liked last week? Geek Love. Katherine Dunn. If you decide to read Geek Love, you will either devour every single pageand love it, finding a sense of empathy and "normalness" in these family-manufactured freaks. Or you'll throw it down, disgusted. Could be the utter lack of morals, the mutilation or the incest without sex -- if you make it that far. Either way, what you will read will likely stay with you for a long, long time.
Here's the story: Al and Lil Binewski used drugs and isotopes during Lil's pregnancies to create their own family of geeks. Their children include the bald albino humpback dwarf Olympia (the narrator), the piano-playing Siamese twins Electra and Iphy, Arturo the Aqua Boy (born with flippers instead of arms and legs) and the telekinetic Chick. The book picks up steam as the despicable Arty grows more powerful and slowly takes the reins of the circus from Al and Lil, while building a cult-like following.
The book has a second, much less interesting, story line involving a grown Oly, who keeps an eye on her daughter Miranda, as well as an aging Lil. They all live in the same apartment, but neither Miranda or Lil know their tie to Oly. The section has its own Arty in the rich, but secretive Mary Lick.
Geek Love is sickening. Disgusting. And filthy. But it's also funny. Extremely well-written. And very memorable. I see Katherine Dunn has written two other books. I know I shouldn't read them, but I'm afraid I won't be able to help myself.
Meanwhile, check out this week's Wikipedia link for the story of the infamous and highly controversial 1932 horror film Freaks, where director Todd Browning cast real deformed people, in the role of "freaks" instead of using make-up. Evil Urges. My Morning Jacket MMJ continues to take risks to expand its sound. On one track -- the hideous Highly Suspicious -- it fails. But otherwise, they deliver a thorough, surprising adventure from the country-tinged Look at You and soulful Thank You, Too to the touching book worm-loving ode Librarian. Jim James and co. still rock though, as evidenced on the driving Remnants. This is not quite the statement they made with Z, nor as cohesive. But it's one of the most refreshing albums released this year.
Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy. Lagunitas Brewing Company. So I'm at Total Wine, selecting singles to create my own six-pack. My son and his friend follow me in. (They're getting a vanilla creme soda and root beer.) As I search along the shelves for new beer to try, my son's friend hollers: "Ewww. Don't get this beer with the weird man on it." I go over to look and see Frank with his big schnoz looking down on me.
Thank you Lagunitas for brewing up this fine beer in honor of the 40th anniversary of one of many great FZ albums. The beer was stronger than what I usually enjoy, but it had an awesome malty taste with a slight fruity smell. It's a great beer that I very highly recommend, whether you're hanging with the Grand Wazoo, or just jammin' in Joe's Garage.
Open. Cowboy Junkies. The Cowboy Junkies captured magic with their major label debut Trinity Session. Their authentic (recorded live in a church with one microphone) blend of country, folk and blues with a dash of Velvet Underground is one of the few albums I could listen to every day and never tire.
I has not listened to much else in the Junkies' catalog until I purchased their 2001 release Open at the Princeton Record Exchange. First, it's no Trinity Session. You still have Margo Timmin's hushed vocals and the well-placed blasts of harmonica. Alan Anton's bass still carries each song. But Michael Timmins' phasered and fuzzed guitar is turned up on some tracks, such as the crunching Dark Hole Again. Some songs, especially the album's best moment I'm So Open, move along at a faster pace than the snail-like Trinity Sessions. Not that there's anything approaching upbeat here. Open is a great set of moody, often dark music, that rewards those who stick through several listens.
I was on vacation. But the Playlist never really takes a vacation. Vacations just provide more time to delve into new books, discover new music or finally get out to the movies. Vacation took us to Philadelphia, New York and Princeton (with a short business trip to DC). Weirdly, those were the three locations hit by a certain happening in M. Night Shyamalan's latest thriller (see last item on the playlist).
Coincidence? Or something else at play here? Anyway, here's this week's Playlist
This week's Playlist ... This week's Playlist ...
LP Cover Lovers. If you're like me, you long for the days when vinyl records ruled the musical world. A visit to the local used record store resulted in a new listening experience. And an art experience, too.
My joy of discovering music was often tied directly into the art work. As I dropped the needle on the vinyl, I'd first go to the inside sleeve, hoping that there would be lyrics and a listing of the musicians for each track. Then I'd study the actual album cover. What joy if it was a gatefold. Sticky Fingers. News of the World. Physical Graffiti.Presence. Any Pink Floyd album. Jazz albums put out by Blue Note.
This was art.
And sometimes art is bad.
Or just funny.
The two vinyl collectors who run the LP Cover Lovers Web site "love finding old records with crazy, beautiful, sexy, funny, shocking, provacative, absurd, tacky covers." It's like visiting a flea market or a musty old record store every day.
The bin Ladens. Steven Coll. This is a heavily researched and meticulous, perhaps a bit too meticulous, look at the large bin Laden family. And what a story it is. Father Muhammed bin Laden, poor, illiterate and with only one eye, left a small village in what is now Yemen and arrived in Saudi Arabia in the 1920s. He earned a reputation as an honest and religious man. He cultivated relationships with the royal Saudi family, which made his company their preferred choice for all types of jobs.
But that's just the beginning of the story. Coll details the lives of many of Muhammed's 55 children, including the infamous Osama. (Muhammed had 22 wives). The most interesting chapters focus on oldest son Salem, who took over the company when Muhammed died in a plane crash in 1967, the first of several plane-related tragedies and dramas involving the family. Coll details Osama's religious turn early in life and how, at least initially, it helped the company. But Salem was no religious fanatic. He studied and made friends in the West, including the future husband of Emmylou Harris. He played guitar (poorly) and wanted to be a rocker. He loved fast cars, pranks, planes and fart jokes. And he dreamed of creating a "United Nations" of wives. Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights (33 1/3). Hayden Childs. I dare you to name anyone, other than, perhaps, Neil Young, who has shown the combined guitar prowess, songwriting skills and longevity of Richard Thompson. The guitar hero's dark masterpiece Shoot Out the Lights, which he recorded with then-wife Linda, is one of the greatest rock albums of all-time, let alone the 80s, as Rolling Stone declared.
Childs tackles Shoot out the Lights for the latest installment of the wonderful 33 1/3 series. He provides deft analysis of the album track by track, through the nonfiction eyes of a musician whose life bears an eerie resemblance to Thompson, but without the success. Oh, and he throws in references to Dante's Inferno for good measure (see this week's Wikipedia link). I was skeptical of this approach at first, but it really works well.
Childs covers the original recording of what ended up being Shoot Out the Lights. Produced by soft rocker Gerry Rafferty, the bootleg album is widely known as Rafferty's Folly. I knew I'd love this book immediately after reading Childs' description of Mr. Baker Street.
Rafferty had been half of Stealer's Wheel, the "Stuck in the Middle With You" guys, but by the end of the 70s, he'd produced a couple of wildly popular solo albums, City to City and Night Owl. Listen to those solo albums now, and they sound like a leisure suit skidding into a cocaine-fueled car wreck, but back then, they sounded like folding money.
-- And learn more about the 33 1/3 series at its blog.
-- And please, please pick up Shoot Out the Lightsif you don't already have it. If you thought Fleetwood Mac's Rumours was the greatest in-band breakup album of all time, you're in for a treat.
Fighting Trees. The Swimmers. A couple years ago, I fell in love with the big, world-weary sound of Philadelphia alt-country band One Star Hotel. I've waited since then for the follow-up to their wonderful 2004 release Good Morning, West Gordon. I would've been waiting a long time. That band broke up. But the good news: Lead singer/guitarist/keyboardist/songwriter Steven Yutzy-Burkey, a Lancaster native, formed the new band The Swimmers and recently released Fighting Trees. Unfortunately, this self-produced CD lacks some of the jangly sound of One Star Hotel. But that's OK. The big dramatic swoops, the pounding pianos and the harmonies (Beatles' circa White Album) remain. It's smart, melodic and one of the best releases I've heard so far this year. The Happening. Fans and critics are out in full force panning M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie, yet it still grossed over $30 million its first week. I don't get the vitrol. This is not Sixth Sense or even Signs. But it's a solid suspenseful movie with one of the most tense opening 10-15 minutes I've seen. Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel are not great, but certainly play their roles well enough. And Betty Buckley was amazing. I don't want to go into the plot at all as not to spoil it. This flick is definitely worth the $9-$10 you'd pay to see it in the theaters.
Welcome to summer with overwhelming humidity in Florida and temperatures set to cross the 100-degree mark up north. So stay inside. Turn up the air conditioner. And treat yourself to a good book or some good music. Here's what I've been enjoying this past week ...
Getting to the Point is Beside It. I Love Math. This isn't calculus or trig. Nothing fancy. Just basic math. This Texas indie supergroup of sorts (the musicians come from several bands, including the Old 97s and Apples in Stereo) plays it very well. Drummer Philip Peeples pounds out simple swinging rhythms. Singer John Dufhilo comes across as a mix between John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants and a less downbeat Elliot Smith. The 11 songs that make up Getting to the Point (not counting a 38-second reprise) are a wonderful combination of indie-pop, alt-country and garage rock. The members of I Love Math are less rawkous than they are in their other groups. But the album is filled with tons of melody and clever lyrics. Go ahead and listen to These Paper Thin Walls and try not singing the Ba-da-da refrain. I Love Math is opening for the Old 97s on their current tour (Peeples is handling drums for both groups). This is a fun album and I hope the participants find time to make more together. Them: Adventures with Extremists. Jon Ronson What do radical Islamic militant Omar Bakri Mohammed, former BBC sportscaster David Icke, American militias and the KKK have in common? Besides the fact that they work on the outer fringes spouting hatred, they also all believe that the Bilderberg Group runs the world, using its annual meeting to set the "New World Order." These secret leaders are mostly Jews who worship owls. Oh, and Icke thinks all these people are descended from lizards.
British journalist Ronson, who is Jewish, doesn't really infiltrate these camps, as much as he develops relationships with the leaders. The result is that you almost feel empathy for these extremists. They are a bunch of buffoons. There's Mohammed, the self-declared Osama Bin Laden of London, who gives wrong directions to his followers and ends up giving a speech to a sparse crowd. Or the emerging KKK leader who passes out self-help books and implores his followers to not use the n-word. In other words, Ronson, doesn't expose these haters. He lets them expose themselves.
Oh, but there is a Bilderberg Group (our weekly Wikipedia link). And Ronson gets pretty close before he ends up being chased down by a henchman.
An interesting note: According to the Internet Movie Database, a movie script of Them is currently being written by Ronson and Mike White (School of Rock).
Music Within This independent film is a touching story about the life of Richard Pimental, a Vietnam vet and disability activist. The relationship between Pimental and his buddy Art, who has cerebral palsy, is the heart of the often-funny movie.
Maybe It's Reno. Maybe It's Reno. This is a reunion album of sorts. Members include the former members of 1990s indie-pop band Unrest. But this is clearly singer/bassist Bridget Cross' show. Maybe it's Reno takes the 90 alt-rock and plows it into wide open spaces. A unique album, that will grow on you in time.