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#MusicMonday: “Bang Bang” – Jessie J, Ariana Grande, Nikki Minaj

Bang-Bang-Promo-Cover

One of many fan-made “Bang Bang” promo covers with a decidely retro feel.

I have always loved Motown. This post is about Jessie J’, Ariana Grande, and Nikki Minaj’s late-summer hit, “Bang Bang.”

These two statements are closely related, I promise.

I grew up revering Motown music. I was obsessed with “Stop! In The Name of Love,” and listened to Oldies 98.1 WOGL on every car ride with my father. The beauty of the great majority of Motown songs is their disarmingly simplicity. The classic and seemingly complex “I Want You Back” is mostly just one endlessly descending bassline. Smokey Robinson created intricate riffs and harmonies over the simplest of blues progressions. My favorite dance tune – “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” – distills down to just one pair of chords.

As it turns out, simple songs with clearly distilled messages are hard to ignore.

This presents a terrific conundrum when it comes to Motown covers on acoustic guitar. “I Want You Back” translates to plenty action on an acoustic guitar, and Smokey songs can be dressed up or stripped down as you choose. Yet, other songs lose their sing sans arrangement and bassline. Plus, what to do with “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” – so simple in its execution that it hardly holds together on one instrument? There, the power must be in your delivery and interpretation – there’s nothing spare to dress with.

Which brings me to “Bang Bang,” a raunchy summer slam from two of the hugest young female voices in pop. I heard it for the first time a few weekends ago while standing in a cell phone store, and my immediate first reaction wasn’t, “Who is singing?” or “Why is the production so huge?”

Nope. My reaction was, “This is so Motown!” I tried to explain it to E later that day, but not being the Hitsville connoisseur that I am she didn’t wholly appreciate the distinction. However, when I confessed it to Ashley in Smash Fantastic rehearsal yesterday, she shrieked, “I know!”

At which point we attempted our first cover of the ridiculous hot weather confection that is “Bang Bang” and discovered its true Motown realness: It’s just one damned chord! C7, over and over again. I thrashed it over and over in rhythm while Ashley annihilated that crazy Jessie J vocal that starts on an Eb. (I claimed Ariana’s verse as my own, as I love belting to her range. We are still negotiating over the Nikki verse.)

The similarity doesn’t stop there. Despite the decidedly unsubtle chorus, the first linee in Grande’s verse is practically cribbed from pint-sized Michael Jackson, “She might’ve let you hold her hand in school. But I’mma show you how to graduate.” Is that so different than the punnish innuendo in “The Love You Save,” where he sings, “When Alexander called you, he said he rang your chimes. Christopher discovered you’re way ahead of your times!”

It remains to be seen if Ashley and I can make our cover interesting enough to hold its own sans all of the arrangement and production on the studio cut, but at least now we understand why the song screamed “Motown!” at us on first contact.

#MusicMonday: “Look At Where We Are” – Hot Chip

hot chip - in our headsWhen you hear these Indie Pop, or Art Pop, or Indietronica, or Electropop, or Synth Pop, or Alternative Dance – or whatever you would label hip wierdball dance bands like Hot Chip and Dirty Projectors with high-voiced male singers  the first thing you almost assuredly notice is their plastic elastic vocals. Just like the skinny-jean culture I loosely associate with their fans, husky(-voiced) boys need not apply.

(I would just call them “Pop” or “Dance” and let them duke it out for attention with Bruno Mars, personally. How they material differ from Paula Abdul I will never understand. But I digress.)

Yet, I don’t trust that we’re always hearing the authentic sound of a real voice singing. It is not just because these are genres that positively glisten with auto-tune. No, it more that as a rule I don’t trust that any vocal that sounds better than George Michael and not as good as Michael Jackson. That’s an uncanny valley that hardly any guy occupies. I’ve heard the subtle stuff you can do with gating and pitch correction and snapping to a click track.

(I actually once questioned Nate from Fun. about that on Twitter, and he swore his own plastic elastic vocals were achieved sans any tuning effects. This was before Some Nights, obvs.)

Then, last week “Look At Where We Are” from Hot Chip’s 2012 record In Our Heads shuffled onto my headphones. It’s such a nude song. A few synth burbles. A two beat kick-snare kick-snare drum loop. Completely unadorned electric guitar, so plaintive you can hear the pick and fingers on the strings. And the voice is right there in your ear. It is not a vacuum-sealed thing in a can. It is silken and easy, and you can hear the air surrounding it.

When all three elements line up, the song turns into some sort of Luther Vandross baby-making jam. Sure, we get some sampled vocals and synths later, but the point has already been made:

Hot Chip can do all of that bippity boopity dance stuff with the best of them, but they don’t need to do it. The best song on the LP is something any kid could do in their bedroom with the most basic instruments out there, yet any kid can’t.

Think it’s an illusion of the studio? Watch this nerdy dude in a sweatshirt who is Hot Chip’s singer deliver a perfect live version complete with the very minor vocal warbles at Coachella:

(Seriously, how freakishly great is his voice?)

Suddenly I find myself liking Hot Chip a lot better, even if they are an indie-art-electronica-indie-synth-pop-dance-indie-alterna-pop band.

Or, you know, A POP BAND, as it was known in 1987.

An Epilogue to The New 52

BATWOMAN_25Here lies the epilogue to my grand experiment of reading DC Comics’ 52 new titles when they launched two years ago this month – and a tiny lesson on customer lifetime value.

Last week the big story in comics was that multiple Eisner Award winner J.H. Williams was walking off DC’s critical hit Batwoman, along with his co-writer W. Haden Blackman. Williams is also the illustrator to DC’s upcoming hotter-the-the-sun Sandman Overture with literary rockstar Neil Gaiman.

Not coincidentally, Batwoman is one of just two DC ongoings I am still reading (the other is Animal Man).

Mmany outlets tried to make the big story of the walkout that DC Comics ordained that we would never get to see the titular character – a lesbian – marry her new fiancee Detective Maggie Sawyer on panel. Given DC’s dalliance earlier this year with anti-gay champion Orson Scott Card writing a Superman story, many (not just comics) news outlets slanted their stories that the Williams walk-out adds more fuel to a fire of DC’s low opinion of GBLT characters and fans.

That may have yielded some extra hits and comments, but that’s not the real story behind the sudden resignation. If you read into Williams & Blackman’s statement, you’ll see the real issue is that DC won’t commit to a story for long enough that they can build up to it – which is exactly why I went from reading 52 title two years ago to 1 as of next month:

Unfortunately, in recent months, DC has asked us to alter or completely discard many long-standing storylines in ways that we feel compromise the character and the series. We were told to ditch plans for Killer Croc’s origins; forced to drastically alter the original ending of our current arc, which would have defined Batwoman’s heroic future in bold new ways; and, most crushingly, prohibited from ever showing Kate and Maggie actually getting married. All of these editorial decisions came at the last minute, and always after a year or more of planning and plotting on our end.

jh_williams_01While the final straw was the fizzled marriage plot, it was the ongoing interference that broke the camel’s back. Hints of this were visible over three months ago, when Williams tweeted his disappointment in his longstanding Killer Croc plans getting co-opted for another writer to write a one-shot of the character for Villains’ Month.

DC relaunched their entire publishing line to try to establish new (or: bigger) buying habits with a wider group of readers, of whom I was one. I read all 52 books in September 2011, and at least 26 of them that October. I was really excited to see so many distinct stories and new characters, and I would have gladly kept up with many of them.

However, one-by-one, my favorites got picked off – Resurrection Man and Frankenstein to low sales, Stormwatch to a complete reboot, Birds of Prey and Demon Knights to creator changes, and Batwing to a new direction. It seemed like the only books I enjoyed were the offbeat ones no one loved, or the books DC was certain needed a big change.

Note the distinct lack of their core superhero IP on that list; I largely disliked the first story of this books, with a few exceptions (Flash, Batgirl, Green Lantern Corps). And, even if I adored them, it wouldn’t matter – hardly a single book has survived past twenty issues with a consistent writer/plotter aside from Scott Snyder directing Batman, Gail Simone on Batgirl, and Brian Azzarello on Wonder Woman. (Superteam Buccellato and Manpul just announced they are leaving Flash.)

The end result is that I went from reading 52 DC comics 24 months ago to just 1 as of next month. DC’s reboot won them my money and attention in the short term, but my lifetime value as a customer grew less and less as I dropped books, and now will continue to accumulate only a measly $2.99 per month. They lost me in the long-game of increasing revenue.

Meanwhile, in that same time period Marvel has grown my readership from just X-books to all but two books in their entire publishing line of main continuity stories. They have me reading characters I am an avowed non-fan of – like Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Daredevil, and Captain America – just on the strength of the creators and the bold stories being told. I’m happy to commit to that because even when creators change during a run the story direction tends to be largely preserved. My the slope of my cumulative lifetime value line keeps getting steeper and steeper. I’m about as valuable of a customer as they can have – traditionally known as a Marvel Zombie.

I’m just one customer, but I have to believe there’s a greater trend to be found in that example.

Is there a common moral to be found for DC comics between Williams walk-out and my trailing off? I’d say the stories are one and the same – DC doesn’t have faith in their creators to tell stories. That isn’t about characters getting married – Marvel only boasts one major marriage in their line. It’s about telling interesting stories that evolve but never distinctly end.

#MusicMonday: “We Can’t Stop” – The Postmodern Jukebox

cyrus-we-cant-stopContinuing the theme of “traumatic experiences” from last night, earlier this summer I had the distinct experience of viewing the gloriously random trainwreck that is the video for Miley Cyrus’s comeback single, “Can’t Stop” (which this weekend I had verified to me by an actual beach-going teenager as “the song of the summer, because ‘Blurred Lines’ is so overplayed”).

It was early or late or I was half-watching teevee or something, so I remember having the sound turned very low. My watch was purely for the aesthetics of the piece (or, I suppose, the lack thereof). Yet even a whisper of the song left an imprint on my brain. It only took one more listen to get the “la da dee da dee” refrain irretrievably stuck in my brain, and after watching the second glorious visual trainwreck that was Miley’s MTV Music Video Awards performance I also was stuck with the throaty “we can’t stop” chorus.

We’re talking 24/7 under-the-breath singing here. Constant subconscious replay. Ultimate earworm.

At that point I broke down and bought the damn song, and here’s what I realized: it’s actually a pretty interesting song. If you just treat the lyrics like the gibberish they are and listen to the arrangement, it has many interesting little hooks in it – the real performance of the chiming high piano notes, the thrumming fuzz bass, the “la da di” vocal hook, and the way it all evaporates into a brief vacuum at the top of a chorus before it enters on the repeat.

It’s just that the flat, Rihanna-aping vocal production sucks all of the air out of Miley’s performance and makes it joyless and robotic on the whole. (And, note that writing team Rock City actual pitched this to R before Miley sunk her grill into it.)

Enter Scott Bradlee and The Postmodern Jukebox. Yes, I know they are all over the internet already. No, I don’t care. Have some more.

The magic of the Bradlee version of the song is that it strips away all of the obvious differentiators I mentioned above and somehow emerges with an even catchier song.

First off, I am a total sucker for anything Motown, and the raw doo wop blend of unison and harmonies from The Tee Tones is a welcome throwback.

Second, the time signature – Postmodern Jukebox is in 6/8. For the non-musicians among you, just tap along to it. You’ll find you’re tapping in two sets of three – 1-2-3, 1-2-3. You can’t really make the argument that the original song contains this feel, yet after hearing it in the cover I can track that steady pulse in the original as notes in swing time.

Third, the vocal. I’m not just talking about the syrupy swoop of Robyn Adele Anderson’s vocals, which runs a lovely counter towards the trend of all retro-style singers having that taffy catch in their voice like Adele or Duffy. It’s her melody that’s distinct. She hews pretty close to the original on the verse, just adjusting for the time signature and – you know – actual singing. Then she breaks out in the “la da di,” transforming the earwormy sing-song of the original into an actual song-worthy melody that allows her to blossom into a brief crescendo on “doin’ whatever want.”

And, they do all this with the ridiculous lyrics about big butts and lines in the back room intact – the only difference is now we’re dancing with “Miley,” rather than “Molly.”

I’ve always said that a good song can be stripped down bare. This cover of “We Can’t Stop” isn’t exactly bare, but it had to be stripped down to the basics of the chord changes and melody to build it back up to this point. The fact that it’s even more catchy without the trappings of modern studio production just proves what lovely bones the song has.

Not every song on the radio right now would survive the transition – certainly not the tuneless “Blurred Lines.” Buy the Postmodern Jukebox version now!

Crushing On: Bailey the Bee by miYim

On day 41 of EV6′s life there is only one thing, living or animate, that I am positively sure she can identify other than E or I.

It is Mr. Bee.

miyim_bailey_the_beeWe received a small assortment of stuffed and noisemaking creatures from our friends and family. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with them. Even a seemingly tiny bunny or caterpillar is about as big as a newborn baby, give or take. I assumed she would thing all of these grinning creatures were just wildlife showing her a threat display and she would constantly cry and try to army-crawl away from them.

Mr. Bee by miYim was different. He looks so darn friendly. He has a firm body and  exceedingly silly feet attached to his thorax with yarn legs. He has a small velcro cuff for affixing him to a car seat, stroller, or baby. And he makes an extremely pleasant dull jangle when he is shaken. It’s a very quiet, neutral sort of sound that I was willing to commit to hearing over and over again, if necessary.

I forget exactly where he started out, but I quickly migrated Mr. Bee to the changing table, because newborn babies have a complete meltdown every time you change them and I was desperate for anything to distract mine while I desperately wiped away her black tar poop.

I would jingle Mr. Bee once or twice, and then lay him on EV6′s chest or even cuff him to her wrist so she could keep on hearing the jingle while I changed her. Soon, I began announcing him. “It’s Mr. Bee,” I would exclaim, signaling that we were beginning a visit with her insect friend that just happened to coincide with a diaper change.

Eventually, the routine (which, keep in mind, happens 10-12 times a day) extended to include a little jingle to Mr. Bee’s jangle. I sing “Mr. Bee” three times in an ascending triad cued from his dull chiming, and then announce “It’s Mr. Bee!”

A little over a week ago we were having a gibbering freak out about EV6 smiling at us randomly while sitting on the couch. The next time I changed her and sang the Mr. Bee jingle, I noticed she smiled then, too! I was usually just so busy grabbing changing implements and psychologically preparing myself for runny mustard poop that I hadn’t noticed when she started doing it!

I asked E if she had noticed this, and she said she had never witnessed the phenomenon.

“Well, are you doing the routine?”

“Um, I show her the Bee, if that’s what you mean.”

“No, you sort of have to announce him.”

“I suppose I do say, ‘It’s Mr. Bee.’”

“No, no, no,” I responded, and escorted her upstairs to the changing table to show her my specific Mr. Bee salutation.

As it turns out, my strategy worked entirely. EV6 has not cried during a diaper change for weeks as long as they are preceded by Mr. Bee. We have even extended his good will to a goodbye ceremony where he gives her a little bop on the nose and then flies back to the shelf.

As far as she is concerned, diaper changes are Mr. Bee Variety Showtime, a feature of which is one of the big humans doing a lot of wiping and patting of her behind.

(Epilogue: E tracked down the friend who bought Mr. Bee for us, and she said she purchased him at a Whole Foods because he made the least offensive noise of all the various baby toys. Also, his name is Bailey, he is $10, and we’ve already purchased a backup.)

let Facts be submitted to a candid world

Pursuant to that Wednesday post about reading to baby, here’s a somewhat chronological list of what we’ve been reading to EV6 in the first month of her life.

I know that over time it’s going to be important for her to hear short, digestible stories with small, distinguishable words – and we’ve got plenty of those lying about. However, an adorable 20-page book that I can read in four minutes really isn’t serving me to well in the “reading to baby” segment of my day right now. The point is more for her to hear one of our voices, steady and ongoing, until she calms down, gets bored, or falls asleep, depending on the situation.

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Honestly, we could just be doing a mic check for twenty minutes. “Baby, one two. Baby, hey hey hey. Baby, chic-ah, shhh, chic-ah, one two.”

I’ve also gotten in the habit of reading Wikipedia’s pages aloud whenever I hit a concept in my constant monologuing to her that I can’t explain, like why a living room is called a parlor. I see this as preemptively equipping myself for the litany of whys we’ll be experiencing in a few years.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

We actually started this one in the womb. E had read that reading to a baby in utero in a calm, quiet environment was a good way for it to learn your voices. She also read that the fetus could track light sources at a certain point, which lead to a hilarious sequence of me shining a flashlight on E’s pregnant belly while I read Vogon poetry. Now that EV6 is an actual baby, she doesn’t like this as much, despite my switching to the illustrated version. Generally, she doesn’t prefer things interrupted by too much dialog, especially given the fact that I cannot help but do crazy character voices throughout.

The Tempest

As noted on Wednesday.

Dante’s Inferno (John Ciardi translation)

EV6 doesn’t always latch on to this when I start, but when she does she’s hooked for an entire canto. My reading is complete with my personal cliff notes on every canto. E thought I was reading them from somewhere! Nope, just used to be really obsessed with Dante in a sort of defense about how hating Shakespeare did not make me stupid.

Where The Wild Things Are

Sendak never fails. Also, I do some narrating of the pictures.

Pierre-Sendak

Time Life’s Illustrated History of Photojournalism

In week two I was freaking out that we didn’t have enough high-contrast black and white images available to develop EV6′s vision. E has this huge set of Time Life photography books, so she picked the one packed with the most images for us to page through and read excerpts from. Some of the photos were pretty depressing, but EV6 did pay attention almost the entire time.

The Declaration of Independence

A surprisingly nationalistic choice, for me. I’m not sure why I selected it, but E said my reading was “unexpectedly moving.”

Sendak’s Nutshell Library

I have these committed to memory on some subconscious level such that I kind of skim the words on the page and just recite the story. That makes a certain amount of sense, I suppose, since that is how toddlers “read” books, and these are books I heard A LOT when I was a toddler.

Also, I unfailingly cry whenever I read (or sing) Pierre.

Yellow-Wallpaper-Gilman

Edna St. Vincent Millay poems (from the illustrated versions in Graphic Canon, Vol. 3)

She loved these! Millay is a little more mirthful than Plath.

Gaiman’s Blueberry Girl

Short and cloying, but so wonderfully positive that I can hardly fault it. (Also, this was written for Tori Amos’s daughter, and I quite clearly recall when she was born during my sophomore of college, so it tends to make me feel old.)

W.B. Yeats Selected Poems

An E pick, and an EV6 fav, so far.

The Yellow Wallpaper

This held EV6 at rapt attention for it’s entire duration. I always marvel at how modern and terrifying it is for something published in 1899.

Yeats’s Irish Fairy and Folk Tales

E just started reading these to her.

Comic Book Review: Marvel’s Infinity #2

Jonathan Hickman and the Avenger’s writing and editorial team are turning linewide crossovers into highly choreographed dance before our very eyes.

From the relatively staid Infinity #1 sprang Hickman’s own Avengers #18 and New Avengers #9 – one a space battle that forged unlikely allies, the other a civil war between Earth’s remaining mighty heroes. From Avengers #18 spun Kellie Sue DeConnick’s two-sided coin of Avengers Assemble #18 and Captain Marvel #15, following two Avengers Quinjets into and out of the battle through the eyes of two best friends separated by the gulf of space.

They were four highly enjoyable comic books. The coordination between Avengers, Assemble, and Captain Marvel was nothing less than extraordinary – each one mirrors scenes from the other to construct a prismatic view of the same battle.

That brings us to the second entry in the main event – Infinity #2. Would it play out yet another dimension of the same space battle? Would it breathe some life into the characters from the prior issue? Would the teenage angst of the art improve?

Let’s find out.

Infinity 0002Infinity #2 of 6  

Script and graphic design by Jonathan Hickman. Art by Jerome Opena & Dustin Weaver. Color art by Justin Ponsor.

Rating: 3 of 5 – Good

#140char review: Infinity #2: The plot picks up as a still impersonal story snaps between Earth & space but it’s Opena’s portion of art that makes this epic.

CK Says: Consider it.

Infinity #2 is a thriller from its opening pages, and writer Jonathan Hickman can’t even take all the credit.

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Marvel needs to back up a Brinks truck to the front door of Eisner-winning artist Jerome Opena to ensure his participation on big event books for many years to come. Surely his highly-detailed, cinematic art takes a steady hand and long hours to produce, but every damn frame of it in this comic book is utterly gorgeous – especially wall-worthy recaps of the battles shown in New Avengers. Justin Ponsor’s colors ground Opena’s lined work, adding to its depth and texture.

I suspect this is the sort of comic art movie-goers are hoping to find when they crack open an issue or buy it digitally. Marvel can’t afford to have this sort of weary realism grace the pages of every book – nor would that be appropriate. But it’s a welcome delight after events handled by the slick, animated style of Coipel and Immonen. When it comes to The Avengers and massive events, readers deserve the best of that style – and right now Opena is its pinnacle at Marvel (along with veteran Mike Deodato on Hickman’s Avengers books).

Not all of the book is Opena – after a low-orbit prologue, he sticks to the space battles, leaving two scenes of Earth-bound action to compatriot Dustin Weaver. Weaver, whose notable slowness has marooned a second series of Hickman’s SHIELD two-thirds of the way through, is in solid form in his two segments if not a match for Opena.

As with Cheung before him, he draws terrific architecture and monstrous aliens. However, he also nails all of the human figure-work and faces – at least, for the men he does. He can’t seemed to decide how to draw Inhuman queen Medusa from panel to panel.

(And, let’s face it – his marquee panel of a determined Black Bolt looks like Grumpy Cat.)

Overall, the art is just a mugging Inhumans away from five-stars, but how does the story fare?

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Hickman is in finer form here than in the first chapter, deftly playing between the scenes of the four tie-in issues that intervened. A brief prologue showing an armed infiltration of a S.W.O.R.D. satellite base is isn’t strictly necessary, but wisely frames the action on Earth that we saw in New Avengers #9 to draw it into the context of this story. Opena’s panel’s of Sydren are perhaps the best he’s ever looked (and I think I own his every appearance so far). Similarly, Hickman and Opena dispatch of the three-issue space battle in a single page that expertly weaves in the action we’ve missed.

Scenes in the Inhumans’ floating city shows why Thanos’s interest have suddenly turned to Earth while The Builders’ obliterate societies across the galaxy, while in the intervening pages we see The Builders’ plot of destruction is not as one-sided as we thought.

In getting there, we view a series of thrilling still-frames from a kinetic space battle that casts our Avengers (and Claremont-created Gladiator of the Shi’ar) as a new pantheon of powerful gods to replace our creators of old. What use does an adult society have with its progenitors? Once we are given life, how long must we show gratitude and deference before striking our own path? The Builders seem to be contemplating these same questions, as they send a sole Ex Nihilo (meaning “out of nothing” – a concept intrinsically linked with creation) on a mission that runs counter to his life’s purpose.

This is the Hickman I know and love – interlacing questions of determinism and theology amidst his punch-ups.

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Yet, even as Hickman hits his narrative stride, he shows that he’s still adjusting to story-telling on comics biggest stage. Both the space battle and the wake of the Nihilo’s action are narrated by a removed speaker, keeping the reader at a distance from the heroes we so desire to get close to. In particular, their humanitarian mission to the victims of the Ex Nihilo comes off as a maudlin waste of pages despite Opena in full gravitas mode. Just a word from Thor’s lips to pair with his actions could have loaned these scenes the narrative heft to match their imagery, but Hickman misses the chance.

A final Earth-bound sequence by Weaver is all exposition to get us to the issue’s big reveal. It’s a doozy in terms of Marvel continuity, but it would have been heavier if we could expect a Secret Invasion style “Who could it be?” surprise in the coming issues. Unfortunately, the mystery doesn’t have a very deep bench of characters to draw its answer from. It would have probably been more interesting to make the subject a mutant than an Inhuman, which would have also made the X-Men more relevant to the event. Alas, Marvel has other intellectual property to flog in 2014, and Hickman dutifully steers the story in that direction.

We end Infinity #2 in a far more interesting place than we began, questioning the motives of a pair of seemingly-unconnected but equally-complex enemies. It’s clear this crossover isn’t going to be the two-front bash-em-up its lead-up suggested. Yet, one-third of the way through the event, it’s a fair question to ask if Hickman will ever make these stunning images and surprising developments truly visceral. For all the barbs thrown at past event-pilots Bendis and Fraction, they each knew how to give voice to fan favorite characters and twist a personal knife amidst the destruction of battle.

Though the story of Infinity has now proven its intrigue, I fear Hickman might stay removed from the action for the duration of this series. Maybe that’s how it should be … maybe that’s how we avoid a disappointing event. Even so, it’s also going to leave each issue slightly unsatisfying as we finish it.

I’ll drown my book

On night three of baby EV6′s life she was having a moment of baby sleeplessness, so I decided to read her a story.

We had amassed a stack of children’s books from friends and family. It included both favorites I recognized (Sendak, especially), obscurities, and newer classics. That night I decided to go with something middle-of-the-road, and so I picked up a collection of Curious George stories and began to read.

the-tempest-folger-1709As I read, I noticed three things.

One, the story was awful. This dumb monkey was misbehaving and breaking things, and everyone both complained about it and found it endearing. I’ve noticed this is a theme in many children’s books, like the horrid Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. I’m all for a mischievous protagonist, but not for one who is clearly a villain and in need of a time out.

Two, on top of the terrible tale, the grammar was lamentable. I found myself both silently correcting punctuation and audibly rearranging words to ensure the story would not poison my young child’s future sentence construction skills.

Three, baby EV6 gave no shits. About the story, I mean. She had been pooping regularly all day. I know, she was three days old – how much did I expect her to follow the story? Not at all. Really. But, I did expect the rhythm of my reading to be pleasing to her, or else I could have just talked her to sleep (a skill I surely possess).

That last point is what made me the angriest at this stupid monkey as I tossed aside the volume in disgust. For all the crimes of bad character and bad grammar, at the very least the writing could have a bit of meter to make up for it. Most good toddler books do have a sort of a rhythm to their words, even if they don’t rhyme or make verse. But this poor primate’s tale was a clunky monkey.

EV6 in one arm, I marched the few steps from our rocking chair to the bookshelf. I wasted not a second on the shelf of children’s books where I previously dwelled. This time I went for one of my even less favorite areas – Shakespeare. I am generally no fan of the bard, but I do still have my favorites. Amongst them, The Tempest, which is what I picked up.

Compared to Spurious George, The Tempest was practically a sleeping potion. It took less than two scenes to put my newborn entirely to sleep, entranced by the rhythm of my speech as Prospero enlightened Miranda of her early life in Britain, before they were both marooned on their lonely, sunlit isle.

It was then I decided: babies don’t just need baby books. At least, not at first. Before they can comprehend a story or enjoy a colorful picture, babies aren’t too interested in the narrative. What they want to hear is your voice – that same voice that spoke to them all the time from the otherwise of the wall of their womb.

Our selection of literature was forever altered.

Comic Book Review: Avengers Assemble – Science Bros (#9-13)

If you are part of the entire population of the free world who kinda dug The Avengers movie, afterwards you may have been moved to consider, “Wow, can I read more high-action, high-drama, high-comedy stories like that in Avengers comic books?”

avengers-assemble-science-bros-tpb

Yes and no. There are certainly action-packed, drama-filled, laugh-inducing Avengers tories out of umpteen thousand different Avengers issues Marvel has released over the decades, but few come close to the glossy sheen of the film. It’s a big challenge for Marvel, which frequently finds itself flat-footed when it comes to delivering the right comic into the hands of an inspired movie-goer.

Enter Avengers Assemble – a comic Marvel pulled together in 2012 with the specific mandate of being friendly to the movie-loving audience headed from cinemas straight to their local comic book store.

The first collection of issues #1-8 was a highly-enjoyable intergalactic romp written by Brian Bendis, but the universal scope of the adventure did more for capitalizing on Thanos’s split-second reveal in the credits of the movie than it did for matching the tone of the film.

Enjoyable comics, but not exactly a sequel.

Then there is the proceeding run of issues #9-13, by Marvel writer and Manga-adaptation vet Kellie Sue DeConnick, just released as a trade paperback called Avengers Assemble: Science Bros. It features the entire movie cast and the ever-awesome Captain Marvel and Spider-Woman – plus, a brief appearance from a peanut gallery of perennial favs, Spider-Man and Wolverine.

AvgAs - 0009 - pg10The first story features a science squabble between big brains Tony Stark and Bruce Banner that could have easily occurred in the car they drove away in at the end of The Avengers. When a science-y mystery arises, they each pick one teammate to see who can solve it first. Stark, ever the competitor, picks Thor. Banner, knowing his Hulk persona might need some minding, picks the beguiling Spider-Woman. The Captains America and Marvel wind up as team three, doing the fist-fighting dirty-work while the science bros embark on (and ultimately bungle) their initial mission.

The second story finds a former victim of Black Widow calling in a marker – a chance for her to repay a bit of the red in her ledger. Against her wishes, both Hawkeye and Spider-Woman accompany her on the mission as an ongoing part of their ex-lovers’ spat. It starts as a simple search and rescue, but becomes more complex when the person the Avengers are rescuing turns out to have a different repayment in mind for Natasha’s sins of the past.

This comic feels just like the movie, splitting it neatly in two halves between the super-powered members of the team and its more human side. From the pointed banter between Stark and Banner, to Spider-Woman both taming and sympathizing with Hulk, to Captains America and Marvel shouldering the hard part of the mission, the first story reads like a natural extension of the film so perfectly that you can play it in your head as a direct sequel. The second story does that beautiful thing that comics can do – expanding a minor plot point of the movie to its own tale that deepens the backstory of a character.

DeConnick navigates both stories with ease, proving that comics can be fun and funny, and entertaining while being appropriate for readers of all ages. The artwork isn’t the cinematic, lifelike stuff of some of Marvel’s go-to talents, but it’s bold and engaging throughout. That’s especially true of Stefano Caselli on the first story – he needs a regular Marvel gig, pronto!

CK Says: Buy it! 4.5 out of 5 stars.

#MusicMonday: “Little Numbers” – BOY

BOY_-_Mutual_Friends_CoverI spend so much time and attention putting things on my iPod that I hardly know what’s on it anymore.

Wait, that didn’t make any sense, did it?

There are distinct reasons that I am avowed in my neglect of streaming music services like Spotify. When I want all of the records Rolling Stone gave four or more stars to this year or everything from MetaCritic that scored an 80 or above, I am not just talking about the music a service managed to get the licensing rights to. I mean all of it, all the time – in cars and subway tunnels, on elevators and airplanes.

The downside of this Cookie Monster sort of approach to gobbling music is that I have no context. Songs aren’t showing up via recommendations or new playlists – they are just appearing en masse in my “Unheard Songs” list, which I’ve narrowed down to a very manageable 1995 at the moment.

Case and point: “Little Numbers” by BOY from their 2011 LP Mutual Friends. This came on via a random shuffle of my unheard songs the other day. I proceeded to play it 10 TIMES IN A ROW. It is so effing awesome. I can’t even.

That wicked simple piano line paired with a relentless handclap and snare hybrid. The slight Aimee Mann esque prickle to the vocal. Lyrics like “I rearrange parts of my living room – time is hard to kill since I met you.” And that’s all before the magnificent sing-songy refrain, “seven little numbers,” about the abject cruelty of those not-so-random digits that can make up the telephonic address of another human being. Somehow the whole feels indie but also somehow like a dance party without reeling out the slashing guitars and wheezing synths most indie rock uses to get to that point.

Apparently the song was in a Lufthansa Airlines commercial and was big in Japan (really), which tells me nothing about why I own it. It racked up nearly 10 million views on YouTube – although, if my listening habits are any indication, that may have come from 500,000 or less unique people mainlining the tune over and over.

Oh to get a look at those YouTube internal metrics.

Meanwhile, the LP Mutual Friends was out two years ago today and did in fact get an 80 on MetaCritic (from five reviews that don’t actually average 80), which I suppose explains how it wound up on my iPod, but Rolling Stone just shared the MP3 this year and the only review I can locate is 3.5 stars and in German.

So how did it wind up on my iPod? No idea. But I’m keeping it – not only because it is an amazingly little construct of a song, but because it is proof positive that my widely cast net of musical interest hauls in some prize catches amongst all the flotsam.

Comic Book Review: Marvel’s Infinity #1

Monthly comic books are a bit like the local nightly news.

Whether a day is exciting or not, or whether you care or not, your local nightly news will find something to say about it. I haven’t seen it for over a decade, but some people watch it daily. Others just tune in when there is a big story to report on.

Ongoing comic books are a lot like that. They just keep happening, issue after issue, while comic book publishers find new things about them to hype every month. Some people devoutly collect each one, while others only buy stories with their favorite characters or creators.

Both in news and in comics, every once in a while there is a big event. A big news event is the kind of thing that causes TV networks to break into their regularly scheduled programming with an update from the national news bureau, and might keep you refreshing Twitter or CNN all day long.

Comic books have the equivalent in line-wide event books. These limited-run titles signal the arrival of a massive, world-altering story too big in scope to contain in a single 22-page issue. However, much like big news events, sometimes comic events are a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and after all the breathless coverage you wonder what the big deal was.

Which brings us to today’s topic…

Infinity - 0001Infinity #1 of 6  

Script and graphic design by Jonathan Hickman. Pencils by Jim Cheung. Inks by Mark Morales with John Livesay, David Meikis, and Jim Cheung. Color art by Justin Ponsor.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 – Okay

#140char review: Infinity #1: Hickman reveals a long-term plot in steady pulses. As usual, Cheung’s heroes are all thin-lipped teens. Solid (if bland) set-up

CK Says: Consider it.

Jonathan Hickman excels at writing entire forests of plot and motivations, and in the end Infinity #1 is just a single tree.

Marvel - Infinity - 0001 - interior01

You can tell that important plot points are being set up here. You can feel that certain foreboding exposition is actually the punch line of a dark joke we won’t be told for several issues.

Yet, on its own Infinity #1 just doesn’t excite.

Part of this is a heavy reliance on alien concepts (literally and figuratively). While the Giger-eseque alien Outrider and an entire subjugated society of Ahl-Gullo are made from whole cloth, bringing Space Knights back from the brink of obscurity is a delight. However, the resultingly spare speaking panels full of heroes leaves this thick book feeling a bit light on content.

Of those, only Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Bolt get significant screen time here, and none of them are actually significant. The former two feel as though they appear just to appease whiners like me, though Black Bolt certainly makes his presence felt (and heard).

Jim Cheung is drawing both the bookends of this series, and those positions are likely the wisest choice. Cheung excels at creatures, cityscapes, gear, and explosions – all guaranteed in the opening and closing installments. His widescreen alien action will make you realize why comic book movies will never top the sheer audacity of settings and casting of actual comics.

Marvel - Infinity - 0001 - interior02

That said, films do have one up on Cheung: he’s merely average on faces. His heroes are no Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, handsome and distinct. Every last human being has the same thin-lipped, constipated teenager face – Cap’s just has a few extra wrinles. It made Cheung unmissable on Young Avengers and Children’s Crusade, but annoying here. His action is unclear, making the nimble escape of the Outrider a confusing muddle.

The real art-star of this book is colorist Justin Ponsor, who finds middle ground between Dean White reversed-white shading and Marvel’s infamously orange sunset color scheme. From the haunting red of the sunken eye-sockets of a tortured Caretaker to the dusty rainbow of superhero costumes pressed together in a chilly cargo hold, Ponsor finds the right tone for every page. It’s he who knocks it out of the park for the best splash pages of the book – the visceral vibration effect on Black Bolt’s seismic whisper and two full pages of Thanos’s shadowed face.

The lack of thrill in issue one isn’t a mood-killer. Hickman has yet to pen a disappointing arc of comics. The next two artists – Opena and Weaver – are two of the best in Marvel’s stable. And, in addition to five additional issues of Infinity, we’re also due for nine key Avengers issues to expand the plot – so, it’s likely Avengers #18 and New Avengers #9 will fill in the character beats I sorely missed in this issue. Plus, once we’ve traversed the entire forest, this particular tree will probably look much more interesting.

This isn’t a bad comic book, but you probably won’t go wrong simply picking up #2 when it hits in a few weeks.

PS: If you can, pick this book up digitally for a rather impressive Silver Surfer back-up story that isn’t present in the print edition.

Crushing On: Cheap Graphic Novels

Reading comics via graphic novels can be an expensive habit to maintain. They’re are rarely any cheaper than a $15 cover price, and sometimes run more like $20 or $40 – and hardcovers can be as much as $100! When you’re trying to gather a run of dozens or hundreds of individual issues, that adds up really fast.

When I first started buying, I thought I simply had to pay cover price at book stores or comic shops. That was really expensive, but it was immediately gratifying and I could make sure the quality of a book was high – both in its contents and its physical condition.

50% off of new graphic novel releases every week? Yes, please!

Then, I realized I could order them on Amazon for at least 25% off, and as much as 33% off. That was a lot less expensive, and fast with Amazon Prime – but, the physical condition of a book after it had been packed and shipped could vary widely. At one point I was sending back a fifth of everything I received!

Then, I discovered Cheap Graphic Novels dot com (CGN). They have (or, can get) every graphic novel in print, and if it’s from Marvel or DC it’s 45% off. And, if you order it the week of release, it’s an even 50% off! Not only that, but they are comic book lovers who are friendly to chat with and take a good look at books before they pack them in indestructible double-boxes with paper on all sides.

This totally exploded my comic book buying – I was getting double the books for the money I’d spend in a bookstore, and always in perfect quality compared to Amazon. I have spent an obscene amount of money with CGN in the past two years, and they have never made a mistake, and the worst quality issue I’ve encountered is a tiny bend on the cover of a single book.

I see you doing the project management math. Low cost. High quality. Surely there’s a downside? Well, there is, but it’s a minor one: CGN ships via Media Mail from California, which means I might not see the books for two weeks. And, they require signature on delivery, which means if you aren’t home to receive your order you’ll be headed to the post office.

You know what? That’s okay. When it comes to my comic habit, I’d rather spend a little extra time and keep my money and high quality bookshelf intact. If you agree, you should make your next order from CGN. There are a handful of other sites with similar discounts, but none that I’ve found so reliable and friendly.

Note: I haven’t been compensated for this in any way, although I’d love for CGN to start a referral program so I could add them to my Definitive X-Men, Avengers, and Fantastic Four guides. If you order from them, tell them Krisis sent you!

not what i meant to say

That post was supposed to be about the Marvel Avengers Alliance PvP tournament and how you have to be in the top 1,000 people in the world to win Deadpool for free and how I am currently ranked 1,700 out of TWO MILLION but I am never going to close that 700-person gap between now and tomorrow when it’s over even though I am taking every POSSIBLE shot at this point.

In my head I still know it was about that, but I’d have to draw a effing diagram to explain to you how it wound up being about Wayne Gretzky.

Instead, please accept this rather hilarious comic book cover of Deadpool facing off against an undead Teddy Roosevelt and a hoard of animals – presumably either ones that he hunted or intended to kill but never got around to prior to his death.

Why they are playing for Team Teddy, I don’t understand.

Crushing On: Productivity Tools ToDoist & TimeSheet

I’m at my best when I’m on the clock.

That’s not just a euphemism for procrastinating until a deadline. I am consistently, measurably better at getting things done when I consistently measure what I’m getting done.

That’s always been true for me at work, especially starting in 2006 when I flourished like a unruly weed when paired with a project management system that allowed me to track my billable hours. Knowing what my to-do list consists of and how long I spend doing it is a huge motivator for me. I guess it was my own version of  “gamification” before that became a hip thing to do to everything in your life.

It hasn’t always been as easy to find the same productivity alchemy at home. I always have long-term goals and near-term projects I’m working on, but I don’t exactly have billable hours. Who is there to charge, aside from myself? Left to my own devices I’ll always pick the thing that is the most fun or the most methodical – which works out frequently to rehearsing, occasionally as laundry, and hardly ever as cleaning the bathroom.

I’ve found a website and an app that both nip that occasional path-of-least-resistance listlessness in the bud, but from slightly different directions.

ToDoist: a tasklist website and app

First, there’s ToDoist. I found it over the summer after demoing over a dozen task management systems online to help my wrangle dozens of things I was hoping to get done. Some of the services were no-frills checklists, while others were practically their own personal Outlook installation.

ToDoist falls closer to the former side of the scale – it’s a simply, obvious checklist that allows you to group tasks into projects and set deadlines and priorities.

When I checked out other systems, I discovered the lack of projects and priorities to be a real dealbreaker. If you can’t organize your tasks or give them some sense of order then you might as well be working with a pen and paper – which is cool and all, but I wanted something dynamic that worked from any internet connection as well as on my phone.

ToDoist does the trick, and for a mere $2 a month you can add improved filtering, tagging, searches, and reminders – totally worth it!

ToDoist meant I was actually crossing things off my list of at-home to-dos – awesome! However, it lacked one feature I really treasure about entering billable hours at work – the ability to perform an audit on what I was spending (wasting?) the most time on. I find that’s a useful exercise to undergo both at work and at home to normalize your expectations … like, your commute is always 45 minutes, so stop being so sure you can leave work late and still get home by six!

Timesheet: a time tracker app for Android

I needed a super-straightforward phone app – effectively, just a stopwatch for tasks. I found my match in a free app called TimeSheet.

It’s the perfect tool for a freelancer or home project enthusiast. You can set up multiple projects, each with a client and a billable rate. When you start working you simply start the clock on your project! When you’re done you stop the clock and wind up with a handy task summary that breaks out your billability and allows you to add expenses and notes. You can also add tasks after the fact without the clock, and export your data to Excel.

Is this overkill for a week or two of auditing how I spend my time? A little. But, you don’t have to use all of those features. Heck, you could use it just for one thing you are trying to bring more of in your life, like working on your NaBloPoMo book or mixing your band’s new album.

(Not that I need extra motivation to do either of those.)

(Okay, maybe just a little.)

In just three days I found out that I’m getting way more sleep than I used to, and that my commute takes up a lot more time in aggregate than I realized – so I should find something productive to do while I’m in transit. I also decided I could be spending a minimum of time each day doing other things (a-hem: blogging), so I added projects for those too.

There you have it – two free productivity tools that can help you get a better handle on your time. I’m totally into them both, so hopefully you can find some use for them too.

Now it’s your turn: What productivity tool are you crushing on lately? Is it super-techy, or as simple as a pen and paper?

#MusicMonday: Heart – “These Dreams”

E and I saw Heart at the Tower Theatre on Friday, a classic-rock date night sequel to our spur-of-the-moment decision to see the Pretenders a few years ago.

I don’t adore the entire Heart catalog like I adore that of The Pretenders, but I do love a great number Heart songs – especially from their first three albums. That acoustic-driven galloping rock is definitely in the lineage of Arcati Crisis; I’ve always been fascinated that Gina isn’t a particular fan, given her similarities in writing and performance to the Wilson sisters.

Of course, those Heart albums were all before my time. My actual introduction to the band was most like the video to “These Dreams” in 1986, which to me at the time might have plausibly seemed as though it came from the Labyrinth soundtrack.

Don’t worry, I won’t subject you to the entire video.

I was always confused by Heart on Casey Casem’s count down, because in their videos they were made up just like the big-haired rocker guys I was so bored by … except, these were… women? I felt like I should have liked them, but this was in their “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” period, a song Ann Wilson won’t even sing today, so could you blame me for not liking them?

Yet, these were also the acoustic-rockers who spawned hits like “Barracuda” and “Crazy on You.” What gives?

I read Heart’s new memoir Kicking and Dcreaming overnight on Friday, and it explained the peculiar duality of the band. Heart nearly dissolved when they left CBS Records imprint Portrait in 1982, and when they reformed for Capitol records they began performing songs by other writers in an attempt to fit in on rock radio. It brought them their greatest success – including their first number one single, “These Dreams,” one of their few songs with Nancy Wilson singing lead.

My obsession with not purchasing an $18 copy of Nancy’s live acoustic solo record lead me to snag the early Heart discs from the bargain bin.

I’ve always been obsessed with the song, but the synthesizer- and reverb-drenched original never really sounded right to me. Back in college while I was trolling through the CD racks at Tower Records I noticed a peculiar lone title in the W section – Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop by Nancy Wilson?

That Nancy Wilson? I picked up the case an examined the track list and, LO AND BEHOLD, it included an acoustic version of “These Dreams”! But, it was $18 – far too rich for my blood when it came to CDs.

(Oh, the quaint stories of being a music fan in early 2000s.)

I eventually did buy the album, after picking up those early Mushroom and Portrait LPs with the encouragement of my old colleague Alex. I’ve never been one for those Capitol albums, though. Their stadium rock sound also mean that Nancy’s acoustic leanings were muffled and later altogether drowned out.

Happily, that wasn’t the end of Heart – in the past decade they’ve refocused on their old-school sound with a bluesy tinge on three solid studio albums.

That also means that on tour they’ve reclaimed some of their excessive 80s hits. On Friday they brought me to tears with an acoustic version of “These Dreams” with Nancy on mandolin that flowed directly into an acoustic and piano duet on “Alone.”