12 January 2008 to 1 March 2008

1 March 2008

Those who find beauty in all of nature will find themselves at one with the secrets of life itself.
- L.W. Gilbert

The Mimi Burns Band promises pleasure with I Know You're Out There -- but doesn't always deliver. "Mimi Burns is a good singer, the band is good and the arrangements satisfy," says Michael Scott Cain. "It's a promising album that shows that, with tighter writing, the Mimi Burns Band could offer something special."

John Flynn has a leash on Two Wolves. "The songs on this album are like a collective bucket of low flames that spark and fly around throughout the CD," Virginia MacIsaac says. "They quickly flick at your bare skin and you might want to shield your eyes, but you can't hide. They warm the night air through John Flynn's smooth voice, which delivers descriptive messages of hope and understanding. They will leave a mark on you." Nice going, Virginia, that's review #200!

Megson launches its second album with the Smoke of Home. "A little less perfection and a little more unbridled vocal passion would have helped make this a more vibrant album," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "I'm reminded of Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, whose breathy, understated delivery was a refreshing change when the band's debut album The Trinity Sessions was released, but whose unflinching use of that ethereal vocal style wore thin quite quickly for many listeners."

The Sorry Muthas have a lot to say on Greatest Hits Vol. 3. "There were, of course, no 'greatest hits,' and certainly no two previous volumes," Jerome Clark explains. "But if you lived in Minnesota in 1971 and loved folk music even after -- so rock writers were sternly instructing us -- it was no longer cool to do so, and possibly even counter-revolutionary, you owned this. It would be, sorry to say, the one and only Sorry Muthas album to take up residence on this planet, possibly explaining the world's present state."

J.P. Cormier demonstrates his considerable singer-songwriter talents on Looking Back: The Songs. "There are certain names that should be dripping from the lips of every person who has ever claimed a love for roots music. J.P. Cormier is one," Tom Knapp says. "Do yourself a favor and invite J.P. Cormier into your home. Listen to him sing and help me spread the word."

Adam Tanner shows his knack for the blues in Sure As You're Born. "Tanner doesn't sing in the frog-throated, guttural style of many country-blues performers, but if he isn't a deep bluesman in that sense, he manages to carry the songs plausibly enough," Jerome Clark says. "It's the playing and arrangements, though, that make Sure As You're Born a few leagues beyond the ordinary. I can attest the recording continues to give pleasure and satisfaction after repeated listening, and what higher praise is there than that?"

Did you make it to Mardi Gras this year? "I did," Tom Knapp says, "although I never left Pennsylvania to get there. All it took was slipping New Orleans Brass into the stereo, and Bourbon Street materialized around me in all its festive splendor."

Michael Camilo gets caught up in the Spirit of the Moment. "Although Michael Camilo, in his three-decade career, has recorded in many settings, he is probably best known for his trio work, consisting of straight-ahead jazz piano accompanied by bass and drums," says Michael Scott Cain. "That's the case with Spirit of the Moment, and let's say right off that it takes a lot of talent, musicality and inventiveness to keep a sense of sameness out of the music."

Dave Justo's Aura gives a taste of what music might sound like "if Bach, Beethoven or Chopin were composing today and their music was being played on modern instruments," John Lindermuth surmises. "I'll admit, I prefer acoustic to electric guitar. But, the first time I heard this young man play I was stunned by his virtuosity and what he had done with some classical standards. There's a lot of talent here and it shows in the 10 tracks on this self-produced album."

The anthology Soffi d'ancia: Decannale del Festival "Pifferi, muse e zampogne" comes from Italy with 21 tracks featuring various pipes, shawms and other traditional instruments. "In these 76 minutes of music, there's a great variety of traditional sounds, showing the wealth of traditional and folk-roots music in the peninsula," David Cox says. "Unfortunately, on such a lengthy and varied disc, explanatory notes are few. For those of us not from Italy, or not familiar with the music, it leaves us to wonder: Who are these musicians? What are these songs about? A bit more information from the record company might be useful, on what is otherwise a fine, worthwhile collection."

Deborah Godin digs deep into the closet with Papa Do Run: A Baby Boomer Looks (& Laughs) at Vintage Rock 'n' Roll. "The author is an upbeat, chatty fan of everything rock 'n' roll-related who has published a book of lists, covering everything from censored songs to love songs to political songs to women in music," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "If you lived through the era, this is a solid trip down memory lane."

David Blixt pays his respects to The Master of Verona. "Be wary of thinking a knowledge of Shakespeare will prepare you for all of the twists in store, as this story turns around mystery as well as fate," Whitney Mallenby says. "Peppered with literary references, the historical stage of Verona's golden age remains the prominent theme, with politics claiming precedence even over love, where Blixt's book treads rather lightly for a novel inspired by Shakespeare's most renowned romantic tragedy."

Rowena Wright exploits A Loop in Time in this novel. "I'm torn over the review for this book. There are things about Rowena Wright's debut I quite liked: early portions of the plot, the rhythm of the language in certain sections, the notion of a child's blanket infused with the personalities of scientists from various points in history," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "But there are also a significant number of components of the novel I feel did not work at all well."

Tim Lebbon goes a little Berserk in this tale of government cover-ups. "Berserk is a quick read suitable for passing time on the beach or on a long flight, but it is not one of Lebbon's stronger works," Scott Promish says. "I'd recommend Face or The Nature of Balance instead."

Kathryn Glendinning is After Gus in this Scottish tale. "This is probably one of the most frustrating and exasperating books I have ever read, yet I became so entangled in this scandalous web of deceit I couldn't put it down," Cherise Everhard says. "While this book entertained me, it was the entertainment one gets from car wrecks and the tabloids at the grocery checkout counter. The story is fascinating and appalling at the same time, yet impossible not at least to glance at. It read like a one-woman grudge festival."

Lisa Unger shares a Sliver of Truth in her sequel to Beautiful Lies. "The story of Sliver of Truth is, if anything, more intricate than its predecessor," Chris McCallister says. "It is certainly darker, with more violence and more of a view of the world of crime."

If you like this sort of thing, you'll love this book, Tom Knapp says. He's speaking, of course, of Lust, a collection of illustrated personals from Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. "I have to say, this nicely presented book from Fantagraphics just isn't to my taste. But then, as it so clearly illustrates, people's tastes can be very, very, and I do mean very unique. So don't take my word for it -- you might find something in here that's just for you."

Christine Feehan's Dark Hunger is adapted into a manga-style graphic novel -- with limited success. "So far as stories involving lycanthropes and blood-sucking fiends go, this is about the dullest I've ever read," Tom sighs. "You've got endless, plodding lines of dialogue about lifemates and forever love, and some of it is presented in dramatic black dialogue bubbles that ensure you know just how very important they are. Meanwhile, the art by the guy with the made-up name is drab, expressionless and utterly lifeless."

Supergirl is still seeking her Identity in the third volume of her latest incarnation. "Still, the Supergirl character is growing stronger and more defined as we go, so I have hopes that the big plan to eliminate the previous versions in favor of this one will play out well by the end," Tom says. "Still, they should probably lose the crystal barbs that pop out of Our Heroine at odd moments. It just doesn't fit with the character."

Even if you hate Jar-Jar Binks with a passion, Tom says, "you'll still feel a chill when you see the slaughter of an entire Gungan settlement in the opening pages of Victories & Sacrifices. "Victories & Sacrifices is far better than The Defense of Kamino, which preceded it. But, given that the upcoming collection, Last Stand on Jabiim, is better still, I can say the Clone Wars series is certainly headed in the right direction."

Cyberforce is Rising from the Ashes in this collection of early adventures. "What do you do when you want to write or draw the X-Men, but can't for any number of reasons? Why, you write or draw Cyberforce," Michael Vance emotes. "There is much to recommend this title. So if you just can't get enough spandex-clad, super-powered, world-saving super-teams, here is another one, friend."

Philip Zimbardo capstones his four-decade career studying what makes good people do bad things with The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. "The scholar makes a compelling argument for holding the military and government accountable for creating the environment that propelled ordinary soldiers into sadists," says Jessica Lux-Baumann. "In this expose of human nature, the author proves how vulnerable we all are to the powerful effects of our Situation as well as the System."

Daniel Jolley says The Grudge 2 doesn't suffer from its lack of Sarah Michelle Gellar. "Unlike The Grudge, which I found to be a total dud of a horror movie, The Grudge 2 actually has its creepier moments. In my opinion, this sequel is vastly superior to the original, so I'm a little perplexed as to why it has gotten such bad reviews," he says. "If you weren't impressed with the first film, you should definitely give this sequel a try."

Jen Kopf gets the skinny on Me & You & Everyone We Know. "It's billed on the cover as a comedy, which I think sells it short and is misleading," she says. "It looks at how we link with others, how we mess up along the way and how important it is to chance it when we sense a connection."

There's more good stuff on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

23 February 2008

The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.
- E.E. Cummings

Snow closes school here on Friday. But, bigger news yet, the new incarnation of Fire in the Glen makes its debut here on Saturday. Woohoo!

Ballycotton "has already gotten its share of accolades on this site with reviews of the band's 1997 and 2003 CDs," Tom Knapp says. Now he splits the difference with his thoughts on A La Cut from 2001. "When I glanced up from my work to see my 10-year-old gypsy daughter dancing wildly and completely unselfconsciously in the doorway, I thought it would be a disservice not to share the excitement this band creates," he says. "Based in Austria and rooted in a mixture of Celtic and mainland European traditions, Ballycotton doesn't hold back, either -- while not all of the tunes are at a breakneck pace, all convey a sense of excitement and energy that is just on the edge of breaking free of all restraint and ... well, demanding that everyone, not just little girls, dance."

Al Stewart's Love Chronicles are available again, nearly 40 years after the album's original release. "Stewart's less than radio-friendly preoccupation with cataloguing sexual conquests in his lyrics is another component of his music that would need to change before he could rocket to the top of the charts," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "On Love Chronicles, the lyrics are simply too sexually voyeuristic to crack the top 40."

Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger got together for a Precious Friend, and the recording has retained its staying power many years later. "If you are a folk music fan but you don't have this set in your collection, get it now and set aside a LOT of time because you will not be able to listen to it only once before putting it away," Matt Sherwin says. "I have listened to it countless times over the years and it has never lost a shred of freshness nor power. If you want a primer on folk music laced with some spiritual accents and social commentary, then this is also a great CD for you."

Big Smith & Family have their bases covered From Hay to Zzzzzz: Hillbilly Songs for Kids. "From Hay to Zzzzzz is the fifth CD by the Big Smith band. On this round, they've added more family. Lots of family. Young family and old family, by digging up old songs and adding young voices," Virginia MacIsaac says. "The music throughout is remarkably good and 42 tracks is a generous supply of music."

Ray Bierl is ready to bring his music to Any Place I Hang My Hat. "If you like folk music in the old-fashioned sense -- which is to say what it was people used to mean when they said 'folk music,' which was not self-composed, self-directed pop tunes strummed on an acoustic guitar -- you will be drawn to this album," Jerome Clark says. "Bierl, whose love of hobo and cowboy songs places him in Woody Guthrie's line of succession, reminds me -- though he is no banal imitator of either -- of a couple of other West Coast figures: Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who forged his own identity from the Guthrie template, and the late Jim Ringer, who did the same from Johnny Cash's."

The Combine Pilots "are a good band, solid musicians all, and Wayne Noyce can sing, so I wish I could agree with the title of Wayne Noyce & the Combine Pilots' CD," says Michael Scott Cain after spinning It's All Good. "But, unfortunately, it's not all good. It's not all bad, either. It's mostly just OK. The CD is competent, well-produced and provides a good showcase of where the band is at this moment."

Davis Coen exorcises an Ill Disposition with a mix of Southern rural styles, Jerome Clark says. "The New Orleans-based 219 Records has been issuing a steady stream of first-rate roots records from gifted young artists whom I suspect most listeners are hearing for the first time," he says. "Both Coen and his label are well worth getting to know."

Craig King has a Breakthrough to an old sound on this one, Dave Howell says. "King has the right voice for these songs, strong and sincere without overdoing it, and equally good on burners and ballads."

Stanley Schumacher & the Music Now Ensemble assemble some Sound Textures through free improvisation. "All this might seem chaotic at first," Dave Howell says. "But with close listening you hear patterns as the musicians relate to each other. Often, Schumacher seems to be talking with his horn, directing his players. There may not be rhythm but there are musical notes, just in an unusual context."

Arkana Music, led by Ali Berkok, offers a bit of original jazz on Hyprovisation. "Unfortunately, all the musical competence in the world cannot make beautiful or even interesting music from such cacophony," Stephen Richmond says. "The saxophonist, wandering in and out through the various tracks, is mindful of a sufferer of Attention Deficit Disorder on speed. Berkok's piano isn't much better, playing really random-sounding riffs rhythmically. And, to top it off, one track pretty much sounds like the rest."

The Unseen Guest lived up to John R. Lindermuth's expectations. "Like sequels to a book or film, some things are so good the first time round there's no hope of duplicating the level of enjoyment," he says. "Fortunately, that wasn't the case when Declan Murray and Amith Narayan put together this second collaborative album as the Unseen Guest. I enjoyed Check Point as much as I did their first album, Out There."

Jenna Black detects Shadows on the Soul in the vampire world of her Guardians of the Night. "This book is marketed as a paranormal romance, but I really found it to be so much more," Cherise Everhard says. "This isn't a fluffy vampire tale; the vampires in this book, even the good ones, have very real and dark sides. Shadows on the Soul has a little bit of everything in it and I could see it appealing to many different readers. This is a surprisingly deep and emotional tale filled with action, revenge, moral conflict, loyalty, betrayal and a healthy dose of lust and sex."

Rachel Caine pays the Devil's Due in her second novel about detectives Lucia Garza and Jazz Callender. "More romance, more intrigue, more stuff blowing up! Woot!" Gloria Oliver enthuses. "This novel is fast paced and gritty, and there's tons more information on a very convoluted past. Loads of fun!"

C.D. White's Standards Left Ragged "narrows its focus on the American Revolution to the pivotal waters surrounding the Chesapeake Bay," Tom Knapp says. "But what makes this short novel by Charles White especially fascinating is its point of view -- or points, rather, because there are two, and they're on opposite sides of the war."

Matt Ruff plays with Bad Monkeys in a book sure to "satisfy fans of science-fiction, of mysteries and of conspiracy thrillers," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "The author delivers a surprise ending worthy of a tale with this level of manic energy."

James Macomber sets international lawyer John Cann the task of defending an international terrorist in A Grave Breach. "When I read A Grave Breach I had to suspend disbelief more than usual," Wil Owen says. "I have not had much experience with law firms in general. I've only met a few military types who have been extensively trained to kill. But I have never met an attorney who kills outside of the courtroom."

Mark Allen offers hearty praise for Red Menace. "Telling the story of a soldier-cum-superhero who is patriotic to a fault, yet still gets used and abused by his government, Menace immediately draws readers in, then treats them to a rollercoaster ride brimming with superhero action, political intrigue and interesting characters on both sides," Mark says. "Writers Danny Bilson, Paul Demeo and Adam Brody pull out all creative stops in their collusion to create a hero who does what he does because it's right, not because the people believe in him."

Before Marvel superheroes Storm and the Black Panther got married, they were just two crazy kids running amuck in Africa. "But this collected miniseries, which retroactively creates a teenage romance for the two heroes, feels forced," Tom Knapp says. "Sure, Marvel had to build a foundation for the highly publicized wedding of these two characters, but -- just like the ongoing Democratic primaries -- it seems like an awkward attempt to play the race card and lure black voters -- I mean, readers -- to its side." Read about it in Storm, billed by Marvel as the "untold love story between Marvel's two pre-eminent black superheroes."

Angel gets together with a few Old Friends in this story that takes places after the controversial conclusion of the Angel TV series. "The big problem here is we don't yet know what happened during and after that big battle in the alley that concluded the series, so telling us what happened after whatever happened after the battle is premature," Tom says. "Also, the resolution is just kind of lame."

The crew of the original Starship Enterprise is reborn in Star Trek: The Key Collection #4, newly printed by Checker Publishing. "The fact that I'm recommending this book is a victory for nostalgia over substance," Tom admits. "The artwork in these books is pretty bad. ... Don't pick this up for fine art or literature. But for a trip down Memory Lane -- to the future, no less -- this collection is a hoot."

The Star Wars Empire series continues with Allies & Adversaries. "The tales are fillers, nothing more, and to that extent they are successful at what they set out to accomplish," Tom says. "They don't leave you feeling as if anything momentous has occurred. But hey, if your purpose here is just to get a little Star Wars fix, these should keep you going for a little while longer."

Max Brooks takes the guesswork out of coming through an undead infestation alive in The Zombie Survival Guide. "It's all too easy to scoff at the notion of zombies," Tom Knapp says. "But just try laughing when a group of moaning, undead freaks are feasting on your lower extremities, pal! ... The humor of this book is found in the utter seriousness with which Brooks approaches the subject. Sure, it's a little tongue-in-cheek at times, but for the most part The Zombie Survival Guide is presented as a completely straightforward and serious text to use in case of the direst of emergencies."

Brian David Andersen takes a new angle on the assassination of John F. Kennedy in "My God, I'm Hit!" "Some readers might think Andersen's theories are just as far-fetched," Wil Owen says. "Within only a couple pages, I thought Andersen was in desperate need of an editor. ... Before long, I realized he also needed a writer. Regardless of how good (or bad) his ideas about the Kennedy assassination may be, Andersen cannot write very well."

Daniel Jolley takes a wild ride with Ghost Rider. "I know the reaction to Ghost Rider has been a little mixed, but I for one am glad to hear there are plans for a sequel in the works," he says. "In terms of plot and characterization, this film does leave itself open to various levels of criticism, but Ghost Rider is a great character that could easily sustain a franchise of films."

Jen Kopf, meanwhile, passes the time with a little Wordplay. "Jon Stewart does it. So do Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, filmmaker Ken Burns and the Indigo Girls, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. And, in a strange twist of fate, so do Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Though not together," she explains. "Wordplay pays homage to the New York Times crossword puzzle and its editor, Will Shortz, as well as all the anonymous-in-most-circles aficionados who debate and compete and agonize over those little squares of black and white."

There's more good stuff on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

16 February 2008

Nine politicians out of 10 are knaves who maintain themselves by preying
on the idiotic vanities and pathetic hopes of half-wits.
- H.L. Mencken

We offer today's edition in the midst of sleet and birthdays and leftover candy hearts. Woohoo!

Lissa Schneckenburger trades her fiddle for a Song. "No worries on the fiddle front, because she plays on every track," Tom Knapp says. "But, as the title suggests, the centerpiece of Song is, well, songs. And it's a good thing that Lissa isn't just a fiddler who sometimes sings. Here, she's a singer who sometimes fiddles, and she's equally adept at both. Her voice is clear, sweet and mellow, and she adds a pleasant touch to this collection of traditional ballads."

Golden Bough is searching the sands for some Pirate Gold. "Harps, pennywhistles, bodhrans, violas, mandolins, accordions and guitars abound, and the songs all have the jaunty bounce of Celtic fare," says Michael Scott Cain. "What's missing is variety. Thirteen songs about pillaging and plundering, no matter how well-played and sung, tend to get a touch repetitive."

Francesco Benozzo trades his native Italian for antique Welsh on Llyfr Taliesin. "Benozzo, who lived four years in Wales, appears to have a deep affection for and affinity with that country," says David Cox. "Benozzo's voice, a kind of happy growl, and his lovely harp playing make this an enjoyable listen."

Kvonn, a quartet of musicians from the Faroe Islands, bring their music to life on Hvonn. "Some Scandinavian music has an underlying melancholy, but there is little of that on these 15 tracks," Dave Howell says. "What stands out is a peaceful, pastoral sense. ... The CD reflects the quieter forms of Celtic music."

John Sebastian and David Grisman are justifiably Satisfied with this new collaboration. "Products of the Village folk scene of the 1960s, John Sebastian and David Grisman played together for a short time in the influential, fondly remembered and now obscure Even Dozen Jug Band," Jerome Clark says. "According to Satisfied's liner notes, their paths rarely crossed over the next four decades. Reunited at a benefit concert in 2005, they resumed performing together as older, significantly more seasoned musicians. This modest but perfect album is the happy consequence."

Kyle Andrews' Find Love, Let Go "is a rough-around-the-edges recording of seven engaging songs," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "Andrews' voice cracks and crackles with passionate intensity. The arrangements are clever and inventive without being precious or overly arty. Acoustic guitar is the foundation to most tracks. Competent bass and drums or drum tracks fill out the sound. But it's the embellishments that make this recording really special."

Sara Softich sings 10 tracks "that veer in and around a mixture of Ukrainian, country twang and classical sounds" on Pipe Dream, Virginia MacIsaac says. "The whole CD is pretty much a downer with songs about misery, crying, shame, night, death and wizards. Sara's voice sounds very young and unstrung, and she seems to be reaching out for a tone and strength that isn't quite there."

Emily Herring "overflows with emotion" on My Tears Will Be Relieved, John Lindermuth says. "She combines Texas country with a bit of the Delta blues, performing in a raw twang that may irritate some listeners but backing it up with some good guitar."

Nappy Brown's latest album has been a Long Time Coming. "What is it with these old soul singers?" asks Michael Scott Cain. "Ray Charles got progressively better till he passed on, Solomon Burke is in his 70s and is greater than at any time in his past, and now Nappy Brown -- who started out as one of the pioneers of rhythm and blues, recording singles for Savoy in the mid-1950s -- just made the best album of his career."

John Lisi & Delta Funk lay down some "crunchy, skeletal music" on Dead Cat Bounce. "The sound is (largely) electric, percussive and organic, shaped from elemental rock 'n' roll, funk and blues without in every instance sounding like any single genre in particular," Jerome Clark says. "You might call what's going on here garage music with brains. You could also say they just don't make 'em like this anymore, except that they just did." Woohoo, Jerome, that's review #300!

Rob Diener & Anomaly's brand of jazz comes with Some Assembly Required. "The brass instruments step to the fore in Some Assembly Required, and while Rob Diener and Anomaly have created a decent album, it is not a must-listen experience," Paul de Bruijn says. "The music is steady but sometimes lacks the flair that makes the difference between good and great."

Giancarlo Mazzu and Luciano Troja are sharing Seven Tales About Standards. "Sometime the two play solo, but usually they weave in and out of each other's melody lines," Dave Howell says. "Mazzu throws in a bit of ragtime or Spanish guitar now and then, but he never clashes with Troja's jazz stylings."

What's the big event this month for young girls across the nation? The Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds concert movie, of course. Tom Knapp braved the experience with his daughter and her best friend, and he shares the experience with everyone here who didn't make the same sacrifice. "I'll be honest here, Miley's music is never going to be my music of choice (even though her songs are catchier than a lot of the pop-princess dreck on the market)," he says. "But it's still refreshing to see a young star who seems to have her head together, who seems to value family and friends over fame, who seems to be avoiding the pitfalls that have felled so many of her peers. As role models go, my daughter could do much, much worse. The concert itself is an enjoyable production that makes good use of the latest 3-D technology. ... And it was all worthwhile when my daughter threw her arms around me after the show and proclaimed me the best daddy in the world for taking her."

Clive Barker misses the mark with Mister B. Gone, which begins with a request from the demon Jakabok to burn the book. "There's no shortage of interesting material, particularly about the morality of agents of both Heaven and Hell, the vaguely Dante-esque Hell from which Jakabok hails, a new interpretation of a climactic event in human history," says Jennifer Mo. "Had more time been spent developing these ideas -- and less on infanticide, patricide and homicide -- Mister B. Gone could have been a thought-provoking piece of entertainment. As it is, however, I suggest you don't burn this book: just set it back on its shelf and read something else."

Bill Pronzini threads a Labyrinth for this murder-mystery. "A good mystery, in my opinion, gives the reader enough clues so that the reader can try to keep pace with the detective, and neither solve it ahead of the protagonist, nor be so far behind that the solution seems to be derived from Divine Inspiration," Chris McCallister says. "Pronzini finds that balance."

Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant have put together The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. "Whether it involves mushroom-crazed duchesses, unavoidable ghosts, talking animals or only a sorry inability to mix a great cocktail, the imaginable atrocities of life, and some that only these authors could have imagined, find vibrant and stirring representations in this book," says Whitney Mallenby. "A satisfyingly weird homage to the magazine pledged to publish the best and the oddest of today's literary world, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet is a provoking experience."

Stephen R. Donaldson exercises his mystery-lovin' half with The Man Who Risked His Partner. "There's an interesting study of some rather unusual psyches in this one -- an awesome noir work and lots of angst," says Gloria Oliver. "It shows what a man might do when push comes to shove -- and it's another great work by Stephen R. Donaldson, writing as his noirish counterpart Reed Stephens."

Thomas Thorpe continues the adventures of the Darmon family in Night Wind to Bahia. "This story would be ideal for a movie -- it has all the ingredients needed," Liana Metal says. "It is also steeped in history, and it caters to all the family, fiction and adventure lovers."

George Pelecanos deals in serial murder with The Night Gardener. The story "is definitely entertaining," Wil Owen says. However, regarding this audiobook version, "Pelecanos is a much better writer than he is a narrator."

Ordinarily, Tom Knapp would be thrilled with a book like New Tales of Old Palomar 2. "The early tales of Palomar, Gilbert Hernandez's Latin American village setting, are among the best, and I think it's great that he's writing in that period again," Tom says. "But this magazine-sized book presents only one fairly short tale, 'The Children of Palomar,' which seems small incentive to pay out the $7.95 cover price. And while the art is as good as we've come to expect from the Hernandez brothers, the story doesn't fit the Palomar mold."

The Star Wars: Clone Wars series, which fills in some of the gaps between the movies Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, begins with The Defense of Kamino. "This collection is more a series of related events than a cohesive storyline," Tom says. "The writing is solid without breaking any exciting new ground, while the art is uniformly strong and colorful, if a bit dark. Overall, I'd recommend this book for anyone who wants to see more of the Clone Wars, which the movies managed to skip."

Tom stepped into volume two of The Expendable One -- The Boob versus the Boobs -- at a disadvantage since he never saw the first volume. "But it isn't too hard to hit the ground running once you realize that a) Twigs can take any amount of damage; b) the injuries hurt even if they don't cause any permanent harm; and c) in a largely colorless book, tough-as-nails Agent Armstrong is always easy to spot by the color of her thigh-high silks," he says. "I won't tell you why there's an army of robots after Twigs. Let's just accept that as truth. It's how he, Armstrong and pal Jerry handle it that's so entertaining."

C. Nathan Coyle takes a glance back at the heyday of CrossGen Comics with Flying Solo, the first volume of the Meridian series. "Hopefully, more readers will pick up this pleasantly portable-sized 'traveler edition' and rekindle interest in Meridian," he reports.

Dave Thompson screens a little Black & White & Blue: Adult Cinema from the Victorian Age to the VCR. "In a series of chronological chapters, he takes a scholarly look at an industry for which there is little mainstream archive or history," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "Many of the early films have disintegrated into vinegary-smelling dust, and the official records are few."

Daniel Jolley weaves his way through Pan's Labyrinth. "For me, this film sort of came out of nowhere," he says. "It's not often a Spanish film (with subtitles, at that) becomes all the rage in America, but I just kept seeing references to this thing all over the place. Having watched it, I can see why -- it really is a wondrous, compelling, emotional cinematic experience."

Jen Kopf plays tag with Arthur & the Invisibles. "The movie references everything from the King Arthur legend, appropriately enough, to films like Pulp Fiction and Saturday Night Fever. And everyone from Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel to Snoop Dogg and Madonna stands ready in service of the adventure," she says. "But underground, what should have been suspenseful, animated fun just seems a draggy, confusing welter of ideas, one reference crowding into the next. It's entertaining enough, but it lacks the magic of a great, mythical tale."

There's more good stuff on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

9 February 2008

In the beginning, there was nothing, which exploded.
- Terry Pratchett

Are you a MySpace geek? My wife can't get enough of it. Facebook, too. What a nerd she is!! But Rambles.NET is on MySpace, too, and if you'd like to be MySpace friends, drop by and make it happen. See you there!

The Fiddlestickers are ready and willing to Pass It On when it comes to the Maritimes fiddle tradition. "The liner notes are a little sparse, focusing more on the guest musicians than the 12 young performers in the spotlight and overlooking details such as which student sang on this track and who danced on that one, but otherwise, this is a great package," Tom Knapp says. "It gives me hope, and maybe it could inspire a few young fiddlers here and there who might be reassured to know the tradition remains alive."

Judith Weikle sings of Pirates, Poets & Patriots on her debut recording. "She has a refreshingly clear and lilting voice appropriate to the genre and sure to transport the listener to distant shores and different times," John Lindermuth says. "The music is evocative of the hard times and suffering of the Irish and Scots and short on joyful jigs, except for one or two more upbeat selections."

Shad Weathersby takes The Beaten Path on his latest effort. "While I immensely enjoyed Shad Weathersby's previous effort Chomp Chomp, bringing his folksy funk to original, bright and breezy children's songs, I must admit feeling a bit equivocal about this latest effort for grownups," Stephen Richmond says. "While there's certainly a definite and definitive charm to these quirky-lyricked, but no less bouncy tunes, there is a repetitiveness, a sameness to these songs, that, while quite appealing on the children's album, tends to be annoying here."

Pineross's self-titled debut album "is an impressive start for songwriter, director, producer, multi-intrumentalist and who-knows-what-else-he's-done-on-this-album Kevin Larkin and about a half-dozen instrumental musicians," says C. Nathan Coyle. "This album has a definite southwest vibe that would be appropriate in nearly any setting, be it while watching a John Ford flick, driving on the open road or relaxing in a coffeehouse."

Bobby Rush serves up the blues Raw. "Rush has been around since the 1950s and he built his reputation on his live shows, featuring an elaborate act complete with a large cooking band and sexy show girls," says Michael Scott Cain. "On Raw, with the exception of a dobro on three tracks, he goes it alone -- just Rush, his acoustic guitar and harmonica."

Sleepy John Estes is out and about On the Chicago Blues Scene. "On this CD, a remastered and released album originally put out in 1968, Sleepy John Estes, the legendary acoustic country bluesman, recorded with a first-rate electric band for the first time," says Michael. "Listening to this album, I was struck by the fact that everyone who played on it is gone now. How fortunate we are to have this CD to remember them by."

Corinne West's CD Second Sight places her songs "into arrangements that borrow from bluegrass and rooted contemporary folk," Jerome Clark says. "You might immediately think of Alison Krauss minus the ever more cloying romantic-pop gloss."

Michael Hurwitz & the Aimless Drifters play a little Cowboy Fandango to dazzle your ears. "Nothing of the drugstore-cowboy Nashville hat act, singer/guitarist Michael Hurwitz is a man with bonafide range credentials," Jerome says. "His music is plain-spoken and straightforward, sung in a charmingly cracked baritone, the voice of a man who's been around and has a supply of good stories -- funny, rueful or grim -- to pass on."

Mike Arroyo is eager to share My Jazzy Mood. "The music on My Jazzy Mood does not challenge, but embraces the listener," Paul de Bruijn says. "Arroyo has crafted some delightful numbers on this CD, so some afternoon take the time to sit back with a cup of coffee and enjoy."

Mark Rosen & Sweet Thunder Jazztet unleash a Monsoon of music. "The music on Monsoon start and ends in swing, and along the way Marc Rosen & Sweet Thunder Jazztet switch to more elegant and slower forms," Paul says. "They do both styles very well and the numbers frequently flow from one into the other."

The artists of Putumayo invite everyone to a World Party. "The listener is treated to music from four continents (North and South America, Europe and Africa) and a number of island nations (Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique)," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "Still, at just 44 minutes in length, there's room to have squeezed in a few more tracks so that Asia and Australia could have been added to the mix. The world is larger than 10 tracks can ever reflect."

The Claudia Bombardella Ensemble gathers together a broad range of European musical influences on Paesaggi Lontani: Live. "Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Claudia Bombardella picks up the sax, clarinet and accordion and sings on this CD, where styles range from folk to near-classical," David Cox explains. "It is a dreamy, smooth sound, with her clear vocals and arrangements that are simple and full."

Virginia MacIsaac pays a visit to Wendy's World for a musical celebration, Cape Breton style. "There was just way too much going on to give a whole play by play," Virginia says, although she notes that Wendy's show "reminded us quietly, yet strongly, that performance itself is not the ultimate goal; it is reaching out, sharing culture and tradition. It's community, with performance simply a tool to enhance that." This Celtic Colours event featured performances by Tracey Dares, Jackie Dunn-MacIsaac, Patrick Gillis, Glenn Graham, Willie Kennedy, Mary Jane Lamond, Ashley MacIsaac, Wendy MacIsaac, Ryan J. MacNeil, Mairi Rankin and Stephanie Wills.

Mike Resnick takes a few different angles on a former U.S. president, Rough Rider and originator of the teddy bear in The Other Teddy Roosevelts. "As an anthology of separate stories, certain ideas and phrases issue forth rather repetitively from Roosevelt, and they combine with the unwavering conviction that Americanism and heroism are the only things to live for to create a shtick that may prove tiresome if consumed too quickly," says Whitney Mallenby. "But for an entertaining and often insightful way to pass the time, this book offers everything a reader could wish for: a change from the ordinary, an intriguing outlook on life and a hero who can be counted on to stick to his guns, or at least carry a big stick."

Saskia Walker fails to reach her full potential with The Strangeling, Whitney says. "The characters were pawns with functions in place of personalities, the plot barely stretched over 175 pages, cliches littered every erotic encounter and all information appears either repeatedly or hopelessly unclear. In short, while The Strangeling features a great deal of frustratingly crushed potential and a lively imagination, this book should have been an early rough draft."

Alex Archer continues the Rogue Angel series with volume four, The Chosen. "The Chosen is a good adventure story with strong elements of suspense and mystery, plus some supernatural horror," Chris McCallister says. "The supernatural horror elements in this story remind me of George Chesbro's The Beasts of Valhalla, although Chesbro developed those elements better."

David Chacko conjures a historical drama from Roman times in The Severan Prophecies. "I am used to reviewing books that either truly grab my attention to the point I don't want to put them down, or I have to force myself through them so I can write about them," Wil Owen says. "With this book, I found myself enjoying it while I was reading. But when I put The Severan Prophecies down, I had no compelling desire to pick it back up again."

After four successful and exciting Borderlands horror anthologies, the series falters with From the Borderlands: Stories of Terror & Madness, despite stories by the likes of Stephen King, Bentley Little and Whitley Strieber, Scott Promish warns. "From the Borderlands is filled with rambling, forgettable, often incoherent rubbish, he says. "Seeing the editors gush praise about each entry in the introductions only adds insult."

Jason again stretches the bounds of accepted reality with his time-traveling, anthropomorphic tale, I Killed Adolf Hitler. "Jason is an artist who never wastes a word or a line of ink when it comes to telling a story," Tom Knapp says. "And yet, his books tap a rich, deep vein of the storytelling tradition that is unmatched in the graphic field. If you haven't discovered him yet, discover him now."

The original Secret Wars storyline for Marvel was big news "primarily because of the many characters it drew together into one giant brouhaha. Ultimately, the story itself wasn't all that interesting and -- beyond Spider-Man's new black costume, which would later become the living symbiote Venom -- it had little in the way of lasting impact on the Marvel Universe," Tom says. "So I'm not sure what Marvel creators were hoping to accomplish with Beyond, which is a stripped-down version of Secret Wars, but with lightweight characters replacing the top-shelf characters of the original."

The galaxy's second-best bounty hunter takes the spotlight in Zam Wesell. "OK, so no one stretched a brain muscle in titling these books," Tom says. "The story, too, is fairly lackluster; the two mercenaries, after competing to acquire a specific artifact in the previous book, now learn it could destroy a world and, acting entirely out of character, decide to play hero without any chance of financial gain. Sure, there's some nice interaction between Zam and Jango, but since we know how that story ends, it carries little weight."

The works of Johnny Hart get their due in Growing Old with B.C.: A Fifty Year Celebration. "Hart died in 2007 after writing and drawing that wildly successful bunch of bananas, er, eh, cavemen in the comic strip, B.C.," says Michael Vance. "Look up from almost any of the hundreds of comic strips reprinted in Growing Old with B. C. and you'll do so with tears in your eyes and deep-throated laughter."

Kristen Breitweiser has a great deal to express in Wake-Up Call: The Political Education of a 9/11 Widow. "It is a very emotional book," Wil Owen says. "You smile as she talks about the lives of her family. You will feel shock and horror as you see the events of 9/11 through her eyes. You will feel anger when she explains how this attack could have been prevented. You will be a little confused when the rare argument goes astray and doesn't have the solid punch compared to the majority of her words."

Steve Weber tells you how to Plug Your Book. "There are numerous books now available on the subject, but Weber's is surely among the best," John R. Lindermuth says. "He doesn't simply offer advice; he offers suggestions based on efforts he has self-tested with his own books. These suggestions may be tailored to suit the needs and personality of the individual writer."

Daniel Jolley and Timothy Keene both have something to say about Dragon Wars. "When I see such things as a litany of hilarious "things I learned from watching Dragon Wars" and complaints that there is really only one dragon and he appears only at the very end, it does make this film seem pretty stupid -- but despite all of the oddities, gaps and other problems with the plot, I had a ball watching it," Daniel says. Adds Tim, "If you're looking for a serious movie, avoid this one like the plague. If, however, you're looking to spend a few mindless hours enjoying a very well made silly movie that will result in much laughter, this one is worth a rental."

There's more good stuff on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

2 February 2008

Laughing in the face of danger is not a survival strategy.
- Terry Pratchett

Have you kissed a whistlepig today?

Niamh Ni Charra offers her fiddle and concertina On Da Thaobh (From Both Sides). "This is what good Irish instrumental music sounds like," says Jennifer Mo. "There are a lot more than two sides to this recording, which seems to redefine itself with each new track."

Brother collects a sampling of more than a decade of recordings on As You Were. "Interestingly, despite the fact that some of the songs on As You Were are more than a decade old, nothing on the album feels particularly dated," Gregg Thurlbeck says. "This may be due to the fact that the combination of bagpipes and didgeridoo has never become associated with a particular musical movement or moment in time. There's a timelessness to the band's sound."

Linda Thompson unleashes her Versatile Heart on her second recording for Rounder. " is impossible to write about Linda without bringing up ex-husband Richard Thompson," Jerome Clark says. "As one listens to Linda's solo albums, one has no trouble discerning how much she has learned from Richard's writing, not the least of it his mordant sensibility, where love usually proves to be a particularly insidious form of treachery. If Richard is a fine singer, however, Linda is a great one. ... This may not be music for the kids, but it is the work of an intelligent, gifted, grown-up artist who knows herself, knows what she wants to say and says it elegantly."

James Durst may not be Internationally Unknown any longer. "With a smooth, light and musically adept voice, Durst fills this CD with new words and arrangements of traditional works as well as a few by other writers," Virginia MacIsaac says. "This is definitely a timeless folk CD with a message that crosses the attitudes of the 2000s with the 1970s."

Marva Wright recounts the Katrina tragedy through personal experience on After the Levees Broke. "And as this album proves, the people of New Orleans -- especially their musicians -- will persist and keep on going the way they always have," says C. Nathan Coyle. "After the Levees Broke has that classic 'N'awlins' mix they've always had: humor, sass, determination and that trademark laissez les bon temps roulez attitude. And Marva Wright shows that they'll keep on having that defining attitude, in spite of this post-Katrina life."

Karen Collins & the Backroads Band share a little Tail Light Blues. "Far more men than women are reviving traditional country. That makes Collins a novel presence, but she also happens to be a thoroughly capable practitioner," Jerome Clark says. "I confess, however, that I hope she has a bluegrass album in her somewhere down the road."

The Charlie Sizemore Band has some Good News to relate. "When it's good, Good News' news is good indeed," Jerome says. "I'm sure that just about any bluegrass fan will take to it. Perhaps next time, though, Sizemore will choose more consistently robust material."

Ken Zazpi (a band, not a person) bursts forth from the Basque territory with Gelditu Denbora. "The Gernika-based group (the band name translates as "Minus Seven") astonished a lot of people with this acoustic-electric CD," David Cox says. "With the participation of veteran folk musicians -- including Oskorri members Inigo Egia and Xabier Zeberio, plus Arkaitz Miner from Tapia eta Leturia -- this CD took the popular band in new directions."

Robert WindPony offers up some Native American flute on Moon Rider and Sky Blue. "Windpony does not add nature sounds, synthesizers or anything else to his CDs. There is only flute," Dave Howell says. "Windpony provides more variety than you might think, however."

Sophia shares her Spirit Healing Chants with the masses. "There's definitely something more going on here than the usual meditation music," says Stephen Richmond. "Sophia, well known and deservedly so among the new age community for her stunning Chakra Healing Chants, follows that album's success with a luminous and numinous homage and paean to the Divine Feminine."

Our coverage of the Celtic Colours festival continues this week with Virginia MacIsaac's report on the annual Guitar Summit in Judique. "One of the nice things about the Guitar Summit is the freedom it gives the players," she says. "They can choose to be inventive and inspired, or to let the audience relish the talents they're already best known for. The lineup has never been less than superb."

Peter Cannon finds the inner babe magnet in H.P. Lovecraft in The Lovecraft Chronicles. "This is a novel of manners, portraying Lovecraft as a gentleman and a scholar, even attempting to come to grips with his racism," Dave Howell says. "But Lovecraft himself, even in an alternate universe, is not nearly as interesting as his monstrous stories and visions. Hemingway, A. Conan Doyle or other authors might work in such a tome, but not an impoverished letter-writer who in real life rarely left home."

Matthew Hughes finds his voice in The Commons. "Jack Vance has perhaps the most immediately recognizable style of any science fiction author, so I was looking forward to seeing if Matthew Hughes was carrying on the tradition as suggested by several reviews I'd read of his work," Ron Bierman says. "On the basis of The Commons, I'd say he can do Vance when he wants to, but mostly he's his own man."

Tim Lebbon has been writing After the War in Noreela. "Continuing to explore Noreela City from his 2006 and 2007 novels Dusk and Dawn, Lebbon himself calls these stories noir fantasy," Mark Bromberg says. "The reader won't need a deep knowledge of the Noreela novels but After the War might whet your appetite for learning about the history of Ventgorians, the Poison Forest and the Violet Dogs."

Harry Turtledove finds the next step in his Crosstime Traffic series to be In High Places. "His writing style is rather simple to follow, although he has a habit of repeating himself a lot," Wil Owen warns. "Despite that, In High Places is the better of the two Crosstime Traffic novels I've read. In fact, if time wasn't such a premium, I probably would have read this book in one sitting."

Carlton Mellick III exposes the thrill of Sex & Death in Television Town. "As with every book by Carlton Mellick III, this book is intentionally, deliberately and forcefully strange, weird and so far outside-the-box that the author probably lost the box. Besides the rampant violence and death, and the incessant and flagrant sexuality, there is sadism, masochism, fetishism and probably several other isms I do not even recognize," Chris McCallister opines. "So, what did I like about this quintessentially bizarre book? Despite all of Mellick's forced offensiveness and obsessions with violence and sex, Mellick is still a talented weaver of tales, and Sex & Death in Television Town might be his best-constructed tale of the four I have read."

Isaac Asimov shares his Robot Visions with the masses. "It's both interesting and disconcerting to revisit the work of an author as revered as Isaac Asimov," Gregg Thurlbeck admits. "But in reading through the 18 stories it becomes obvious that Asimov was an uneven writer, occasionally able to craft a complex and layered story, more frequently content simply to construct a tricky plot around a mental puzzle. Too many of the stories here are populated by cardboard characters delivering clunky dialogue in service of a punchline ending, all too quickly forgotten."

In Midnight Sun, Tom Knapp says, "Charlie Huston continues his reinvention of Marc Spector, a.k.a. Moon Knight, as a broken, hateful, possibly insane and largely ineffectual hero. ... Sadly, Moon Knight continues to be a boring, even distasteful read. And there's just no good excuse for that failure."

The first volume of The Sleepy Truth "looks to be a lot of fun," Tom says. "They don't have noses, there are no whites in their eyes and they only occasionally have mouths. But the teenagers who produce The Sleepy Truth, a Weekly World News-type tabloid for the small town of Sleepy Hollow, New York, are endearingly cute nonetheless."

Timothy Zahn's novel Dark Force Rising was adapted into the graphic novel Dark Force Rising and "does a pretty good job of standing on its own," Tom says. "The story is tense and action-packed, but also filled with intelligent dialogue and diplomacy. It also helps that the art by Terry Dodson, while not the best I've seen, is easy on the eyes; unlike many Star Wars artists, Dodson draws characters you can recognize from the movies."

The CrossGen series Sigil gets a spark of new life in Death Match, now published by Checker. "While Sigil: Death Match is a delight to look at -- Scott Eaton's art is downright superb -- the story is staunchly fair-to-middling," C. Nathan Coyle warns. "It's not one of those stories that will grab your attention and make you want to purchase the previous volumes, nor will it have you looking for Vol. 6."

Billy Bragg is The Progressive Patriot in this "important, readable book" in which English musician Billy Bragg "promises to take on the question of what it means to be an English patriot on the left in the era of multiculturalism, devolution and other harrowing change," David Cox says. "At just under 300 pages -- a bit rambling at times -- this is a landmark book. Above all it argues the importance of being a patriot -- a progressive patriot. Not an easy thing to be."

John Leake makes the acquaintance of Jack Unterweger in Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer. "Leake has obviously done exhaustive research on his subject. He does not shirk from describing the horror of the crimes, but the main focus is Unterweger himself," Dave Howell says. "Fw books have captured a sociopathic personality as well as this one." Oops! We posted a review of this by Jessica Lux-Baumann just last week, but failed to connect the two. Now read 'em both, side by side!

Asif Kapadia's The Return "does not lay things out plainly for the viewer -- though neither is it as ambiguous as it might first seem," Scott Promish says. "I very much like films that make me think, even more if they keep me thinking about them after they are over. ... What I don't like are films that string me along for 80 minutes without any idea of what's going on, or at least a feeling that it is building up to something."

Jen Kopf isn't Keeping Mum about this flick. "If dark English comedies aren't your thing, 2005's Keeping Mum will be an exercise in DVD-rental disaster. Ditto if you're expecting Rowan Atkinson to reprise his broadly bumbling Mr. Bean in his portrayal of Vicar Goodfellow," she says. "Still, dark humor requires more depth than a straight comedy. It requires comedy that's in the service of a bigger point -- and here, screenwriters Richard Russo and Niall Johnson ably deliver. With more up its sleeve than you might at first assume, Keeping Mum is a movie that doesn't deserve to be kept secret."

There's more good stuff on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

26 January 2008

The time has come for all of us as Americans to stop thinking in little ways. We are too diverse and too myriad to fit into an antebellum mind set. It's time to believe in an America of inclusion, not exclusion.
- Rev. Webster "Kit" Howell

Martin Simpson, who has labored as a singer and guitarist in the British folk scene since the 1970s, has "never attained the wide recognition he deserved," Jerome Clark complains. "After Prodigal Son nobody who cares about traditional music in the early 21st century is going to be able, or to want, to remain oblivious to his presence. Another giant is now astride the landscape."

Willie Johnson, a.k.a. "Peerie," gets busy on Willie's World. "Packing 24 tracks onto a single CD is a feat in itself," Nicky Rossiter says. "Consider the range of music and musicians and the timespan involved, and it is little short of a miracle product. OK, some tracks are short, but for all that sometimes the best things come in small packages."

Ceredwen's O'r Mabinogi is "a new-age music lover's delight!" says Marina Urman, who makes her Rambles.NET debut with a new look at a decade-old classic. "Ceredwen, a Celtic band consisting of Andrew Fryer and Renee Gray, in 1997 created a lasting masterpiece for the world of Celtic music.

Lotus is looking for a Better Day through music. "The Vancouver-based group makes an exciting uptempo sound spiced with beautiful voices and lyrical airs," says Adolf Goriup. "The music of Lotus covers a wide range of styles, from melancholic ballads accompanied by guitar, harmonica and mandolin to rhythmic and rocky songs dominated by the drums and the bass; the best part being always the beautiful lead and harmony vocals."

Adam Zwig "takes a stylistically different approach to music" with his new release, Cast Iron Letters, according to C. Nathan Coyle. "Unlike musicians who are firmly entrenched in their style/genre, almost defined by it, Zwig takes on the folk and blues genres as if they are an outer coat and scarf. Folk and blues music don't seem to drive his music so much as their inherent ideology and application," he says. "Feeling that folk and blues music are more musically suited as a better means of communication than rock music, Zwig actively chose a style/genre with which to communicate his message, thereby making the message his primary concern and his music a secondary choice."

Bob Margolin is working In North Carolina on his own, new label. "Margolin's pedigree is well renowned in the blues world because he cut his teeth as a sideman with the legendary Muddy Waters and went on to pump out a handful of his own very successful records on the Alligator label," Carole McDonnell says. "It is immaculately packaged. Unfortunately, the music was not conceived in the same manner. It is an eclectic mix that tries to cover too wide a variety of Piedmont and Chicago styles. The CD is too long, has little continuity and would have been better had he let artistic content and mastering be handled by unbiased ears." (As sometimes happens in this business, copies of this CD went out to more than one reviewer. So, after reading Carole's review, be sure to check out Jerome Clark's differing opinion from last summer.)

Riders in the Sky celebrate a legend with Public Cowboy #1: A Centennial Salute to the Music of Gene Autry. "Formed three decades ago, Riders in the Sky is among the handful of groups to keep Western pop -- the Hollywood-cowboy music popular mostly in the 1940s -- from lapsing into the silence of the pop-culture grave," Jerome says. "Even when the tribute-makers are as good as the Riders, one wonders why potential listeners would seek out the simulation when the genuine article is readily available in lots of good reissue CDs and even a box set or two. The Riders' versions of these classics are not exactly carbon copies, but not exactly radically rearranged either."

Jeff Griffith lays down a loving country sound on If It Ain't One Thing It's Another. "A young guy who grew up in rural Texas, Griffith is a natural-born talent with an aching, whiskey-edged baritone," Jerome says. "On this, his first album, he bestows upon us 11 solidly crafted songs, the bulk of them unsparing tales of wounded human moments. It's the sort of stuff that is pretty much fraud-proof."

Alan Lomax's efforts were incredible, spanning a planned 150-plus-disc collection of world music," David Cox says. Up for consideration today is The Spanish Recordings - Mallorca: The Balearic Islands. "As is typical with field recordings, the music varies in quality of performance; pieces of songs are missing, and so on," David says. "But the passion and authenticity heard in these recordings of local folk performers is irreplaceable."

Glen Helgeson's music is "inspired by the music of many countries" on Distant Borders Revisited, Dave Howell says. "This is recommended for those who like world fusion with a light touch."

Edward Powell heads East for a Spiritdance. "Powell is no Ravi Shankar, as you might expect. But being a Westerner, he makes Indian music more accessible to American listeners," Dave says. "Powell has both a true affinity for Indian music and compositional skills that let him successfully introduce seemingly disparate elements into his work."

Corinne Smith has another live concert experience to share: Roger Waters at TD Banknorth Garden in Boston. "It was a dream come true for Pink Floyd fans. Only one thing could be better than witnessing Roger Waters perform the legendary Dark Side of the Moon album, and that would be if David Gilmour was willing to join him," Corinne says. "Gilmour's absence aside, it's difficult to imagine how this show could have been any better. Suffice it to say that if you missed it, you missed it."

Oh, hey -- Celtic Colours coverage resumes next week!

Jenna Black spies Secrets in the Shadows in the second volume of Guardians of the Night. "The characters in these stories are not one-dimensional; with their realistic flaws and strengths they come to life on the pages," Cherise Everhard says. "This story is a compelling mix of terror and titillation, deceit and discovery, good and evil and that hazy area in between. I love this series!"

John C. Wright follows the Orphans of Chaos with Fugitives of Chaos, picking up shortly after the first book's end. "Like its predecessor, Fugitives of Chaos is a blend of mythology and the modern world," Robert M. Tilendis says. "I would strongly advise reading Orphans first -- this is a continuing story, not a true trilogy, and the various identities of the characters and the complex backstory can become confusing unless they are fresh in your mind."

Joan Upton Hall ponders the once and future king in Arturo el Rey, set in a devastated future world. "Arturo el Rey is rich in detail, thought and research," Gloria Oliver says. "The characters come alive on the page and the plight of the survivors becomes your own. ... I'm looking forward to the sequel and New Camelot's continuing progress."

Selina Rosen seeks a serial killer in Strange Robby. "I thoroughly enjoyed this book," says Gloria. "The characters are full of life, they're multifaceted and they deal with several complex issues and circumstances along the way. I also loved how the seemingly simple matter of a serial killer kept enlarging into bigger and bigger things."

Tom Lewis continues the Pea Island Gold trilogy with Nazis in North Carolina. "As much as I enjoyed Sunday's Child, I think I liked Hitler's Judas even more," Wil Owen says. "Lewis's writing skills are excellent. He has a good mix of action sequences as well as character development. He makes it easy to care about some characters while despising others."

A new Star Wars series in on The Path to Nowhere in this first installment of Dark Times. "The Path to Nowhere is bold storytelling that doesn't flinch from taking a dark turn in its plot," Tom Knapp says. "With a strong story supported by Douglas Wheatley's excellent artwork, Dark Times can consider me hooked."

Whither Supergirl? "The art is good," Tom says. "But Candor, the second volume of the new Supergirl series, is a mess that doesn't seem to have any consistent idea of who this new version of the character really is, or where she's going."

The Scion line, once part of the CrossGen universe, gathers again with Checker Publishing for a Royal Wedding. "Scion took on the odd mixture of 'sci-fi gothic romance,' combining sword and sorcery with feuding kingdoms and anthropomorphic animals and the occasional futuristic technology," says C. Nathan Coyle. "Basically, the premise is an odd melange of Excalibur, Dynasty, The Island of Dr. Moreau and a sprinkle of sci-fi/tech just to throw the reader off the temporal trail."

Spider-Man and Batman get together in Disordered Minds. "I've been rereading a bunch of old company crossovers lately -- you know, the ones where popular characters from two different comic-book universes come together to fight or cooperate (or both) for a stand-alone adventure," Tom says. "Some are pretty good. Some are crap. This one, featuring DC's Batman and Marvel's Spider-Man, is just kind of pointless."

John Leake's Entering Hades: The Double Life of a Serial Killer profiles Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger who, in the 1990s, committed a series of sexual assaults and murders across Europe and the United States. "Leake's research is exhaustive, but his narrative style is lacking at times," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "The author is also prone to getting bogged down in details, rendering the details of Unterweger's second Austrian trial quite heavy-handedly."

Tom Knapp tries to hold onto his lunch as the destruction of Manhattan unfolds before him in Cloverfield. "No matter how good a movie is -- and this one is, in its way, very very good -- it suffers when you can't bear to look at the screen," he explains. "It's hard to appreciate the filmmaker's craft when you're trying to keep down the buffalo chicken sandwich you foolishly ate on the way to the theater."

Jen Kopf in 2005 pledged her love to Shaun of the Dead. "I'm happy to say writer/director Edgar Wright is back, again with Simon Pegg, and this time his sights are set on a target that's even bigger, even more spoof-worthy: The shoot-'em-up cop drama, with slow-mo bullet dodging, car chases and a misunderstood hero," she says. So tune in now for a little Hot Fuzz, and take a look at what Jen has to say.

There's more good stuff on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

19 January 2008

Never vote for the best candidate, vote for the one who will do the least harm.
- Frank Dane

On Jan. 20, 1982, Ozzy Osborne bit the head off a bat after it was thrown onstage by a fan in Des Moines. The next day, blues legend B.B. King donated his collection of 7,000 rare blues albums to the University of Mississippi. Experts believe the two events are entirely unrelated.

Tommy Makem gets a small portion of his due in The Legendary Tommy Makem Collection, Nicky Rossiter says. "With all due respect to artists whose lives and works have been celebrated with the ubiquitous 'box set,' one true legend who deserved it and could have filled a huge box was ignored until his death in 2007, and even now we are asked to be content with 40 songs," he says. "Two CDs could never hope to contain even a fraction of his output, but this is a start."

Arlon Bennett provides Summer's Voice on this new release. Although there are some weak spots on the album, Michael Scott Cain urges readers to "listen for the good stuff."

Three Day Threshold goes Against the Grain with this bluegrass/Celtic recording. "Three Day Threshold seems like a band that does nothing half-assed," says C. Nathan Coyle. "Once they pick a direction for a song -- be it fast or slow, rambling or rousing -- they're all in and the stakes be damned. One can only imagine how boisterous and rowdy as hell a live performance by Three Day Threshold must be."

Skyla Spencer exposes her country roots on You Said You'd Call Me. "A collection of 11 original songs, the album is very much in the contemporary/popular country vein," Sean Walsh says. "Overall, You Said You'd Call Me is a great record for dancing to and partying with. Skyla has a very commercial sound and should be one to watch in the contemporary country stakes!"

Betty Harris uses her Intuition for this blues recording. "It is extremely refreshing to have an artist come around that has a modern sound with familiar overtones that fit like a comfortable old pair of gloves," says Carole McDonnell. "Betty Harris sports solid vocals reminiscant of Tina Turner on Intuition, a polished 16-track offering."

Victor Saumarez gets moving on Swing Strings. "Saumarez's guitar is the driving force behind the recording, providing the strong 4/4 rhythm of swing music and carrying the melody at the same time," says Jennifer Mo. "He pulls it off with panache: the resulting sound is crisp, clean and nimbly energetic."

Matt and Erica Hinton, borrowing the name of an 1844 American hymn book, explore the history of a special kind of singing in Awake, My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp. "Viewers can expect to be charmed by the joy and gusto of the singers and the sincerity of those interviewed, and they will appreciate that this is not a look at the musical artistry of 'performance.' Instead, it's a wonderful look at people busy in a communal activity with a component of personal offering," says Virginia MacIsaac. "This is something new for your music library -- a DVD with a look at a cappella singing tradition from the southern USA and how it exists in modern times."

Corinne Smith looks back over 2007 and shares her thoughts on two memorable concerts. First up is Genesis, which she caught live in Hartford, Conn. "In spite of ending on a low note, the Genesis performance was overall a spectacular one, and many a pleased fan left the arena," she recalls.

Next, here's Bob Seger with the Silver Bullet Band & Steve Azar, who did it up in Worcester, Mass. "Snowflakes were swirling above us as we made our own moves into the New England night. The echoes from the amplifiers were ringing in our heads, and we had experienced a great evening of old time rock 'n' roll, remembering a time when we were just young and restless and bored," Corinne says. "These days, we have so much more to think about: deadlines and commitments; what to leave in, what to leave out. But we've got tonight. Why don't we stay?"

Our coverage of Celtic Colours International Music Festival in Cape Breton will continue soon.

Elizabeth Moon is Engaging the Enemy in another novel from Vatta's War. "In Kylara Vatta, Moon has created a truly likable, engaging character. Ky is brave, smart and loyal and inspires loyalty in others," Laurie Thayer says. "Unfortunately, by this point in the series, her adventures are all starting to have a 'same old, same old' feel. Ky gets herself and her ship in trouble, faces overwhelming odds and manages to get herself and her ship out of trouble mostly intact."

Christopher Stires creates a Rebel Nation on this alternate Earth. "Stires demonstrates a wonderful attention to detail through his world building here," Gloria Oliver says. "There's great suspense, awesome prose and plenty of hair-raising excitement to boot!"

Scott Westerfield creates an unsettling world in Uglies. "Westerfield paints a chilling portrait with his utopian-seeming society, and he explores the delicate balance between freedom and security," Donna Scanlon says. "The price exacted for living in safety and security robs the pretties of individuality and choice, including the right to make bad choices. His point gradually becomes horrifyingly clear to the reader."

Peter Roderick builds this novel around Araujo's Stone. "It is about the personal story of an immigrant, Araujo, who left the Island of Fogo in order to find work in America," Liana Metal says. "The story starts with the death of Araujo and follows a family argument regarding his burial. As the plot unfolds, the reader can learn about Araujo's life and the views of his family members that are quite different from his."

Sheldon Currie unearths the perils of a coal-mining society in The Glace Bay Miners' Museum. "This novel is brief, but all the more dramatic for its brevity," Tom Knapp says. "You get to know the characters very well in a short span of pages, which makes their troubles and triumphs all the more real. An air of gloom hangs over the text, however, enough to presage the tragic events you know will come."

Mary Hogan writes a lively young-adult story in Susanna Sees Stars. "This book is filled with laugh-out-loud humor, teenage angst and obstacles, and everyday teenage girl issues like weight and fitting in," Cherise Everhard says. "Susanna and her best friend, Amelia, are adorable, witty, smart and nice, the kind of girls you'd be proud to have as a daughter, niece or sister. This was a fun book to read."

Alison Bechdel gets graphically biographical in Fun Home. "Dense, highly literate and lush with words, it is an exploration of a life that begins with a death in the family -- her father, Bruce -- and crisscrosses through time to answer the question of her father's real identity as a closeted gay man living a straight life that was slowly killing him," Mary Harvey says. "There are few cartoonists who have had the impact on the industry, and gained as much critical and national acclaim, as the brilliant Bechdel, author of the wildly popular cartoon strip Dykes to Watch Out For. You'd have to look at Charles Schulz, Gary Trudeau or Berkley Breathed to find serious competitors for her observational genius, social awareness and finely tuned wit."

Supergirl is recast as a guardian angel in Wings. "Since the story has no real place in the DC Universe, the writing team was free to play out an idea that just didn't fit anywhere else. I can only guess it's presented as a variation on the Matrix/Linda Danvers/Supergirl origin because they wanted a pulpit from which to preach, and the Supergirl tie-in gave them a bigger congregation than a no-name character would have done," Tom Knapp says. "I didn't like this story very much. Anyone who believes there's not enough of that old-time religion in their superhero funny books will probably love it."

Spider-Man teams up with Gen 13 in the creatively titled crossover, Spider-Man/Gen 13. "Crossovers can be a lot of fun," Tom opines. "This one feels like it was written just because they thought there should be one."

The Graphic Classics series continues with the 14th volume, Gothic Classics, which adapts four novels and short stories to graphic form. "They are well written, but the dialogue sounds stilted to a modern ear. The depth of characterization is exceptional, but the plots are, well, mundane," says Michael Vance. "All of the art is interesting, if not exceptional, in technique and style."

Slash, with the help of Anthony Bozza, breaks the long-standing silence of Guns N' Roses with his self-titled book Slash. "Now, for the first time ever, someone on the inside has gone on record to describe the genesis of the band, how they wrote and performed one of the most definitive rock albums of all time, the changes in the band's lineup and, finally, the implosion of all things GNR," says Jessica Lux-Baumann. "Who knew it would be the notoriously private lead guitarist, a soft-spoken man hidden behind a famous mop of hair, who would step up and tell the story?"

Larry G. Straub explores Autumn Corridors in this collection of thoughts on life and death. "It's Straub's first book, and it's probably the book he had wanted to write for a long time," Corinne H. Smith says. "It's not without merit; it can provide everyday guidance for those searching for it. But one gets the impression that the author is tiptoeing carefully upon every subject he brings up so as not to offend anyone. In that case, he's not following his own fundamental truths too closely."

Tom Knapp feels Will Smith's pain in I am Legend. "The movie paces very slowly through many of its scenes, particularly in the first half, building tension for an audience that isn't quite sure what to expect. There's very little action, so when something does happen, quite suddenly, it effectively scares the crap out of you far more than buckets of gore could ever do," Tom says. "I am Legend doesn't achieve its full potential, but what it does do, it does very well."

Jen Kopf, meanwhile, shares a crepe with Ratatouille. "Ratatouille is the most recent release from Pixar's Brad Bird, whose animation work, like The Incredibles and Iron Giant, has an emotional resonance at its core," Jen says. "And here again, the story has not been sacrificed for the jaw-dropping animation. But instead of a boy and his dog, we have a young man and the rat under his toque blanche."

There's more good stuff on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)

12 January 2008

He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.
- Joseph Conrad

Here's a totally frivolous and pointless flashback to the 1980s. On Jan. 11, 1986, James Brown scored his first Top 5 hit ("Living in America") in 21 years. Television's Dynasty was launched on Jan. 12, 1981, and Muhammed Ali was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Decade on Jan. 13, 1980.

The Kingston Trio gets its due with The Final Concert and The Lost 1967 Album, both newly released by Collector's Choice. "These CDs testify to the legend that the Kingston Trio has become," Michael Scott Cain remarks. "Like the Trio itself, these albums are not only important historically, they offer fine entertainment."

The compilation disc Down at the Sea Hotel is more for parents than it is for kids, Jerome Clark notes. "The songs are heart-tuggingly melodic, each performed in an accessible acoustic folk-pop arrangement," he says. "Some of the proceeds of this album will go to the Breast Cancer Fund. Good music, good cause -- no complaints here."

Richmond Fontaine "is one of those bands that should be better known than it is," Sean Walsh opines, and The Fitzgerald should be the album to make the band known. "Specializing in bittersweet tales of everyday life amongst the wide wedge-end population of people who are just about holding it together, the band are successors, of a sort, to Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen," Sean says. "Like that illustrious pair, Richmond Fontaine's chief lyricist and songwriter Willy Vlautin is extremely literate and articulates the despairing and near-devastated lives of his characters very poignantly."

The Steep Canyon Rangers are Lovin' Pretty Women on a bluegrass recording that just won't quit. "On this, their fourth album, the Steep Canyon Rangers make one thing perfectly clear: if they stay together, nothing is likely to stop their rise to the top of the bluegrass world, to follow in the footsteps of Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury, the reigning champs and elder statesmen of pure bluegrass," Jerome Clark says. "These five young men, who got together in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the 1990s, have it all: picking skills, vocals, harmonies and -- not least -- a bunch of superior original songs."

Brad Paisley's music is Time Well Wasted. "Usually I feed on a string of basic folk, a lot of self-produced albums that are still really good, but here is one professionally done and it's so easy," Virginia MacIsaac says. "All it takes is to sit back and enjoy. That swingy drawl cracks your heart and there's a slow teasing quality to a lot of the songs."

JJ Sansaverino spreads some Sunshine After Midnight with his debut recording. "Jazz guitarist JJ Sansaverino has over the past number of years built quite a reputation for himself as a purveyor of smooth, slick, laidback grooves and what press releases often call 'intoxicating' rhythms," Sean Walsh says. "Employing a wide range of styles -- from Mexicana and South American rhythms through more classical jazz leanings -- JJ wields his axe with some aplomb."

The David Joel Quartet's Spiral Sky earns faint praise from Stephen Richmond, who calls it "competent medium-to-light jazz entirely appropriate for Sunday brunch background music. ... There really are not any standout tracks and, for all the notable accomplishments of David Joel as a musician and music educator, the album is repetitive and derivative."

Our coverage of Celtic Colours International Music Festival in Cape Breton will continue soon.

L.S. Matthews brings The Outcasts into play during a trip to Dorset, England, "where rumors of an ancient burial ground and a mysterious screaming skull reside," Cherise Everhard says. "This is a fanciful story about five unlikely but loveable heroes and another side of life as they know it; filled with obstacles, nets and dimensions. But don't be fooled into thinking this is light reading with little substance."

Rachel Caine unleashes the djinn in Chill Factor, the third book in her Weather Warden series. "You're in for a wild ride!" Gloria Oliver says. "I had to read this one, and could not stop 'til I was done."

Annabel Davis-Goff examines a pivotal slice of Irish history through the eyes of a young girl in The Fox's Walk. "You could sit, sipping tea, on lace and pale yellow cushions on a delicate chair, before a large window in the sun room, looking out at the rolling green fields of the Irish landscape, and become for a time part of one of the few aristocratic families in Ireland and see what they see and think as they think," says Virginia MacIsaac. "For a time ... as you read the book and pretend you are there. If your leisure time allows you this, you will enjoy this book, and might receive more imaginings and passion from it that I was able to experience."

Steve Hamilton is prepared for a little Night Work. "This is a gripping novel combining mystery, adventure, crime and subtle romance," Liana Metal says. "Packed with vivid images and horror scenes that qualify it as a thriller, this book is undoubtedly a good read that will entertain the audience who loves this genre."

Will Beall crosses the line from reality to fiction with L.A. Rex. "This made-for-a-screenplay novel is the gritty story of a whitebread rookie cop with a hidden past who is paired with a streetwise old-school doorbuster of a partner," Jessica Lux-Baumann says. "The author's day job as a cop brings a sense of legitimacy to the novel, which employs violence involving fire, trains, a garbage disposal, shanks, scalping and (a) pet jaguar."

Michael D. Eisner returns to Camp after retreating from Disney. "I highly recommend Camp to anyone who has fond memories of going to summer camp as a child, or to anyone with an interest in the outdoors or education," Corinne Smith says. "Not just a biography of Michael Eisner, this book is above all, a tribute to the idea that camping is still a vital activity for young people to participate in. And if you can listen to the audiobook rather than read the printed page, so much the better."

The new Vertigo series, Crossing Midnight, begins here with the first volume, Cut Here. "This story by Mike Carey is delightfully rich in Eastern folklore, which -- as Carey explains in a brief but thorough afterword -- is very different from but bears surprising similarities to the Eurocentric folklore more familiar to Western audiences," Tom Knapp says. "The plot is bewilderingly fast-paced and takes many unexpected, sometimes horrific turns along the way, but Carey's obvious research into the culture helps to keep each new development and character clear."

Even casting Mary Jane Watson as Little Red Riding Hood couldn't save Spider-Man: Fairy Tales, "a questionable book that, I suppose, seeks to capture some of the success of DC Comics' Elseworlds series," Tom says. "While I offer kudos to writer C.B. Cebulski for stepping outside the usual Western circle of stories for two of the four presented here, I can't find much substance here to sink my teeth into. The book just isn't very interesting and, worse yet, it fails to entertain."

Spike, still kicking in the aftermath of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, gets all cute and cuddly in Shadow Puppets, which pits the bleached vampire against the Smile Time kids' show. "Chaos ensues. Hilarity abounds," Tom says. "If you like Spike, read this. It's that simple."

The immortal Highlander is resurrected in comic-book form, the first collection of which is The Coldest War. Tom -- a big fan of the original film -- says the book "is more failure than success," a sad truth he blames largely on the artists.

Nikki Sixx, Jessica Lux-Baumann says, "has treated his fans and the memoir-consuming public to a real, live diary of a dope fiend. The Heroin Diaries: A Year in the Life of a Shattered Rock Star recounts a dark year in the life of the Motley Crue bandleader/bassist."

Derek Brockway and Julian Carey spend a little time outdoors for Weatherman Walking (Walks around Wales). "Brockway, the Welsh weather broadcaster, presents a dozen of his favorite walks around the country, in this 130-page, colourful book," David Cox explains. "The weatherman is a good, experienced guide to these areas and provides lots of encouragement for those looking for an excuse to get off the couch."

Jen Kopf celebrates her victory with the Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. "At first glance, Evelyn Ryan is trapped," she says. "Yet this most resilient of women, as portrayed in Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, is about as close to a saint as you'll see in movies these days. ... Add an emotional resolution for both the fictional Evelyn and the real woman, and this is one of those movies, both sincere and unexpectedly moving, that deserves a bigger audience."

Jen also has a few kind words to say about A League of Ordinary Gentlemen. "You won't very often find a more unflinching look at a bunch of guys who realize pop culture has passed them by and much of what they love has been dumped by the wayside," she says. "It's not the stereotypical midlife crisis of 'I want a sports car.' You get a true sense of what a real crisis in midlife is like; there's nothing fictional about watching these bowlers wonder if they should hang up their dreams when they have absolutely nothing waiting in the wings."

There's more good stuff on the way! (Meanwhile, take a peek at the archives of past editions, below.)