Skip to content

Category Archives: reviews

From The Beginning: Dr. Seuss – McElligot’s Pool (Book #5)

drseuss-brand-hero-01

This post is part of my month-long "Blog of Tomorrow" celebration of the launch of Crushing Krisis's Patreon. Learn more or become a Patron today!


Today is the fifth installment of my “From The Beginning” read of Dr. Seuss’s entire bibliography. Last week I reviewed the slightly odd, lesser-known Horton book Horton Hatches the Egg.

Dr. Seuss followed Horton with another silly rhyming tale, recycling Marco the protagonist of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and his wild imagination. However, this time around Marco didn’t seem to capture my toddler’s imagination.

McElligot’s Pool (1947) – Dr. Seuss Amazon Logo
mcelligots-pool-dr-seuss

CK Says:  – Consider it

Reading Time: 5-8 minutes

Gender Diversity: Marco and the farmer are male; some fisher are gendered as male. The one named women is out hanging her clothes (as most of Seuss’s early women are)

Ethnic Diversity: None

Challenging Language: pasture, croquet, connecting, whoofing, friskers, kangaroo, gristle, acrobat, thrashing

Themes to Discuss: imagination, littering, evolution

McElligot’s Pool reunites us with Marco, the imaginative star of Seuss’s debut And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. On this occasion he’s not walking down a busy city street, but sitting at a fishing hole out in the country. His vivid imagination is not only intact, but it has grown.

That means the same is true for Marco’s author, Dr. Seuss. His fifth book is the first to dive deeply into his fanciful world of ridiculous made up animals  – here represented in meter by all the unusual fish that Marco can possibly dream up.

mcelligots-pool-dr-seuss-rooster-fishMcElligot’s Pool is a really just an overgrown puddle, a hole-in-the-ground filled with water and people’s junk. A local farmer says Marco couldn’t possible catch a fish there even if he fished for fifty years! Even without the junk, I’m not sure that any fish would want to live there.

Marco is undeterred, imagining the pool as an underground river that runs out under his little town to the sea beyond. And, while there might not be any interesting fish in McElligot’s Pool, the sea is full of them! He starts out picturing real (or, at least, realistic) fish he might catch, but escalates quickly to picturing rooster fish, cow fish, downhill skiing fish and people fish. (It’s pretty gruesome to imagine catching some of them with a hook!)

All of those fish are the reason Marco keeps fishing, even if they might not really exist to be caught.

Seuss feints in the direction of an environmentalist tale with the initial focus on all the junk littering the pool, but the theme doesn’t linger after its initial mention. Once the underground river flows out to the sea, the story is like an underwater adaptation of Mulberry Street fueled by extra imagination.

mcelligots-pool-dr-seuss-pg-32I found the book full of silly fish to be charming, but from the first read the toddler had found it to be boring. I wasn’t sure why at first. It has colorful illustrations and  zippy, easy-to-read language. After negotiating with her to read it a few more times, I think her disinterest is the result of McElligot’s Pool lacking the progression of Mulberry Street. Though the fish do get slightly bigger and more unusual as the story continues, there isn’t a clear “this replaces that” theme nor a sense of reaching a destination. It’s just a list of silly fish.

What interested toddler does have in the book are certainly the illustrations. This book features a fuller range of colors than the last few – delicate watercolors rather than the bold color fills of Mullberry or the flash of red in 500 Hats and King’s Stilts. The fish themselves are quite delightful. Seuss pushes each of Marco’s fanciful concepts as far as possible. Some of them definitely elicit a chuckle from me on re-read, especially the saw fish who can’t get around on his own because he’s poorly balanced and the skiing fish because why would a fish need to ski underwater?!

McElligot’s Pool is a silly book to borrow from a library to spur your child’s imagination, or perhaps a fun read to get them excited about a visit the aquarium, but it’s not a Seuss classic you must own.

35-for-35: 1993 – Rid of Me by PJ Harvey

This post is part of my month-long "Blog of Tomorrow" celebration of the launch of Crushing Krisis's Patreon. Learn more or become a Patron today!


This is where the choices are going to get really painful for me. I have a dozen favorite songs from 1993, at least.

Ace of Base’s “The Sign” and how it marked the end of my pop music fandom for the better part of a decade. Janet’s genre-bending “If” full of sex and squalling guitars. “River of Dreams” and the one time I could connect with my father over a piece of current music. Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club, a front to back listenable record that is so obviously the work of a collective of songwriters rather than a singular voice.

Juliana Hatfield, Liz Phair… I can keep going.

But, if we are going to talk about songs that really changed my whole damn life, we need to be talking about Polly Jean Harvey’s breakthrough album, Rid of Me.

All of it.

I didn’t come around to Harvey until a few years after Rid of Me, when I saw Tracy Bonham cover her “50ft Queenie.” Being a voracious consumer of female-vocal rock, it didn’t take much to convince me to head down to Borders to pick up the album that contained the original.

I was not prepared for what I heard. Rid of Me is a powerful and at-times terrifying album. This had all the rawness of Hole but the measured perfection of Tori Amos. It had guttural strength that stood up to anything on In Utero and spectral power that made it seem like a spiritual sister to Bjork’s Debut. While many fans and critics prefer her To Bring You My Love, the raw power of Steve Albini-produced Rid of Me remains her seminal work in this household.

I can’t pick just one song to highlight, so let’s just talk about half the record.

“Missed” never fails to stun me. It’s a lost track from Jesus Christ Superstar, Mary’s lament to a lost Jesus kept away in a tomb after Mary Magdelene insisting “Everything’s Alright.” It’s beautiful – takes my breath away on every play even after listening to it for 20 years.

The biblical theme continues on Bob Dylan’s famous “Highway ’61 Revisited,” the title track of his 1965 record.

Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

Who on their second album decides to take a mid-record break to cover Dylan’s strutting country-rock paean to the famous road as a squalling, foreboding rock song? The Dylan original and faithful covers sound trite next to this muscular, paranoid version. The surging power chords, the surprisingly nuanced drumming, the jangling single note riff.

I’ve always felt this ought to be the credits tune to an adaptation of The Stand, with its depiction of God sparing Abraham’s son at the start to a roving gambler trying to start the next world war just to see if god would stop him in the final stanza. Continue reading ›

Track-by-Track: Lady Gaga’s Joanne – “Grigiot Girls” and “Just Another Day” (Bonus Tracks)

lady-gaga-in-the-studioIt’s the last of song-by-song essays on Joanne, which means we’re also only a days away from an explosion of music and comics content in November!

I’m in unexplored territory here – the only time I heard this pair of bonus tunes was on Lady Gaga’s release night concert, so I don’t have a week of them seeping into my brain to speak from.

Grigiot Girls” lies squarely in the pop/country sound, and could have helped anchor the acoustic urges of the LP.

It’s also… a little silly? I mean, pop/country songs tend to be a little silly in their over-earnestness, and this nails it, singing about “tough girls on the mend” who “toss that cork” and call each other up to pour their hearts out over a glass of wine.

(It helps that it comes from such an emotional place – at her launch concert, Gaga introduced it as a song for her friend who is living with cancer.)

On one hand, it’s by far Gaga’s most embarrassing song. On the other, she nailed the sound and sentiment of a country radio tune. You can just feel a stadium full of drunk fans singing along to the chorus of “All the pinot, pinot grigiot girls” while waving their hands in the air.

Part of that is a full-on commitment to the genre; the production here pushes a lot farther than Gaga dared on “Joanne” and “Million Reasons” with its process acoustic guitar sound on the verse and the generic drum loop and accents of piano on the chorus.

I think it was a good idea to leave this song as a bonus track. Delivering anything so squarely country on the LP would have opened up a whole new range of criticisms to be hurled at it. As it is, Gaga uses the genre more as an inspiration than a touchtone.

The real story here is “Just Another Day.”

Holy glamorous Bowie, how is this song not on the mother-loving album?

It’s wonderful! It hits the clanging piano spot of “Come To Mama,” is rife with sonic references to Elton Join like “Hey Girl,” an even adds in a serious McCartney-at-the-piano and Queen aesthetic to the proceedings (it’s a serious soundalike to “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy”).

It’s also one of the best sets of casual, not-trying-too-hard lyrics Gaga delivers on the disc – which is perfect, because it’s a song about being casual and not trying too hard.

Just another way to prove I love you, and it’s hard today
I’ll lay back in my chair and find a way
And when you say that thing that you say that makes me mad
I’ll turn away, I’ll turn away, I’ll turn away

And think of different ways to keep my spirits up
And choreograph hours with playful, joyous thoughts

We both know I could learn a thing or two
About relaxing. Hey, I love you
And after all, it’s just another day

Despite all of those classic sound-checks, the song doesn’t feel trapped in a bygone era the way “Come to Mama” does thanks to some clever flourishes of synthesizer that add to the keys and horns.

How did this song get left off the LP? Sometimes with bonus tracks it’s that the song was sonically too close to another tune or that it would have pulled the album in the wrong direction. I just don’t see that here – this is the perfect one-to-one replacement to “Come to Mama,” and it could have been added before or after “Angel Down” to give the back half of the disc some much-needed pep.

Children’s Book Review, Somewhat Scary Edition: The Dark & Lon Po Po

Happy Halloween weekend, my pretties!

I’m not much for wearing costumes, but I do have a year-round love of the slightly macabre that has bled into some of our book choices for EV. Actually, when it comes to this trio I can’t even take credit for choosing them – E hunted down both of these offbeat books.

However, I can say that they’ve become great favorites of mine and constant requests from EV. That’s not just for their scare factor, but because they’re both apocryphal folk tales that include important lessons about bravery and independence.

The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen Amazon Logo

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon KlassenCK Says: 4.5 stars – Buy It!

Gender Diversity: Male protagonist w/agender darkness
Ethnic Diversity: None; white protagonist
Challenging Language: None!
Themes to Discuss: darkness; being scared of the dark; exploring by yourself (positives and negatives)

Read Time: 5 minutes

This book was an early favorite of EV’s from just after her first birthday, and we read it so often that “Hi, Dark!” became two of her first five words.

The Dark is the story of Laszlo, a young boy who lives in a sprawling, creaky old house and who is afraid of the dark. He visits the dark in the doorway of the basement each day, saying, “Hi, dark,” thinking that perhaps if he visited it in his room it wouldn’t come to visit him in his own in the night. Otherwise, Laszlo tries to avoid the dark whenever he can, staying away from shadowy corners and quickly whisking himself to bed in the evenings and letting a nightlight illuminate his room while he sleeps. One night when his lightbulb burns out he has to make friends with the darkness, and it surprises him by being not nearly as scary as he thought it was.

Let me be clear – this book is potentially scary for little readers. Especially if you introduce it to an slightly older toddler who already has some mistrust of darkness, it’s going to positively terrify them that the dark might starting beckoning them in an actual voice and telling them to open drawers. Artist Jon Klassen, whose own sense of dark humor is on display in his Hat trilogy, illustrates the house as its own creepy character thanks to his angular art. He leaves plenty of dark spaces where things can swirl in the shadows. If you live in that sort of a dwelling, the potential for scariness only increases.

the-dark-interior-01However, starting EV on the book so early had completely the opposite effect, because the book itself is about how the dark is no more or less malicious than any other definition of space in your world. The dark leads Laszlo past every shadowy spot in the house, and they’re all just rooms when she shines his flashlight on them.

Just ahead of the climax, author Lemony Snicket (of the Unfortunate Events series) delivers the powerful moral – that the dark exists in our world to create contrast, just like a creaky roof has kept the rain out for years and huge, cold windows let us see outside without letting the outside in. Everything in the world has its place, including the dark, and none of it is inherently frightening.

As a result of that message and many hundreds of readings of this book, EV would say, “Hi, dark!” every night when we turned out the light at bedtime. She has never needed a night light or showed any hesitation about charging into the dark hallway upstairs or upsettedness with open closet doors.

Pair that with the book’s simple, easy-to-read language that’s still fun for caregivers to narrate, and this is a book with legs. We don’t read it as much now as we did two years ago, but it’s never completely fallen out of our greatest hits list. I suspect it will remain there until EV grows sick of reading it herself.

open-book-icon-16370

Lon Po Po, translated and illustrated by Ed Young Amazon Logo

Lon Po Po, a Chinese fable translated by Ed YoungCK Says: 4.5 stars – Buy It!

Gender Diversity: Three young girl protagonists and a male crossdressing wolf
Ethnic Diversity: All characters are Chinese
Challenging Language: disguised, eldest, latched, cunning, awl, hemp, gingko, brittle, delighted (Also, challenging sentence structure throughout. This isn’t an early-reader book)
Themes to Discuss: violence and kids in peril; stranger danger; mythology vs reality; climbing trees and heights; allegorical death

Read Time: 10 minutes

Lon Po Po is a Chinese fable that is part Red-Riding Hood and part Three Little Pigs, but scarier and more empowering than either tale.

It’s a creepy book full of lush, full-page painted illustrations and relatively dense text. It says a lot about E and I (and our oddball taste in books) that it has become our go-to gift for kids who need to read more, especially little white boys who might not have books where girls or kids of color get to be the heroes.

Lon Po Po starts as the reverse of Red Riding Hood – Shang, Tao, and Paotze stay behind while their mother visits grandmother’s house for her birthday. A watchful wolf notices that the three succulent little girls have been left unguarded, and cons his way into their house and bed pretending to be their grandmother, having missed her daughter on the path. Clever Shang catches on to his charade even as her sisters snuggle closer, and manages to convince the wolf the leave the house to enjoy the tender nuts of a gingko tree. Since the wolf cannot climb the tree himself, the girls hoist him in a basket but repeatedly feign fumbling and dropping him until he is killed by the fall.

I mentioned our tastes run slightly towards the macabre, right?

The wolf being creepy on the other side of the door from the children in Lon Po Po.This isn’t going to be a great fit for all families. The kids are in considerably more peril than is presented in the typical sanitized fairy tale. The wolf is legitimately terrifying at points – some of the illustrations even freak me out. And, finally, there’s the little matter of the girls lying to wolf about the ginkgo nuts and then murdering him.

However, to me none of that is as terrifying as a world of inoffensive books about little white boys who solve everything or little girls whose hardest choice is what to wear to ballet class – both of which we’ve had bought for us by well-meaning people.

The wolf’s death is not graphic, making it less terrifying than aspects of Peter and the Wolf, and opens up discussing the idea of allegory. That pairs well with Shang’s relaying the myth of the tender gingko nut to the naive wolf.

This was another book that EV could not get enough of around the one year mark. Despite it being written in perfect English, there’s definitely a peculiar rhythm to its translated text. That kept me engaged through many early reads until it became one of my all-time favorites. There’s the chance to do fun voices for the wolf and the girls, and the text gives plenty of opportunities for emphasis and hamming it up.

Plus, it features a clever young Chinese girl that outwits an evil wolf! It’s one of the first books we had that featured a protagonist that was both a reflection of EV’s race and an aspiration for her self-reliance.

(My wolf voice is Cookie Monster imitating the Wicked Witch of the West. E finds it deeply unsettling.)

As with The Dark, I think this is a book you either have to start early before kids might think it’s scary or late enough that you can explain the context to them. But, there’s nothing inherently bad or offensive about this story – it’s the kind of challenge young listeners deserve as their tastes develop.

Track-by-Track: Lady Gaga’s Joanne – “Angel Down” (Track 11)

Lady Gaga at the mixing board.We’re just two songs away from the end of my song-by-song essays on Joanne, which means we’re also only three days away from an explosion of music and comics content in November!

This is the end, my friends.

Well, not really, because the deluxe edition of this LP includes a pair of bonus tracks, but this is it for the actual track-listing.

Angel Down” is Lady Gaga’s most on-the-nose social commentary to date, reportedly written in response to Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012 (which might indicate that this song missed the cut for Artpop).

The song has a grand melody that’s half hymnal, half Friday night drinking song. It’s honestly one of her most distinct – especially the climb on the major seventh chord in the chorus.

Gaga and her collaborators don’t quite seem to know what to do with this bold-voiced but reflective track. It’s scored with big block piano chords, moaning guitar swells, and delicate peals of harp. Gaga sings with a broad, chesty voice that hints at Ethel Merman over occasional wheezes of electronic drums.

The elements pass by in fits and starts, never coalescing into a memorable gestalt. The final song sounds as much like a demo as the “Work Tape” on the Deluxe edition of the album. The Work Tape version sounds much closer to “Million Reasons” – in effect, awesome. Given Gaga’s intent to show many different facets of herself on Joanne I get the avoidance of repeating the same sonic palette, but she did the song a disservice with the actual treatment.

The first verse struggles in the vague, metaphorical area where many of the more sincere songs on the disc dwell, but a strong chorus lifts it out of the muddle. Ultimately the song is only composed of four couplets, further reinforcing it’s hymnal qualities- a unique pair in each verse, a repeated verse refrain, and a chorus. It’s the second verse – the last original lines on the disc – where Gaga finally seems to figure out how to make the vague into something universal, elevating the entire song by association.

Doesn’t everyone belong in the arms of the sacred?
Why do we pretend we’re wrong? Has our young courage faded?

Shots were fired on the street by the church where we used to meet
Angel down, angel down. Why do people just stand around?

I’m a believer. It’s a trial, foolish and weaker
Oh, oh, oh, I’d rather save an angel down
I’m a believer. It’s chaos. Where are our leaders?
Oh, oh, oh, I’d rather save an angel down

On the whole, “Angel Down” is a missed opportunity to show off something memorable, and it’s all down to the arrangement. Given its hymn-like quality, the church references, I feel like “Angel Down” begging for is somber brass arrangement a la New Orleans Jazz or even Louis Armstrong. It’s a chance to connect the country theme of Joanne to Cheek to Cheek to show that Lady Gaga’s transformation here is not so sudden.

Track-by-Track: Lady Gaga’s Joanne – “Hey Girl” with Florence Welch (Track 10)

lady-gaga-horse-2016I’ll be dissecting Joanne song by song every day until November, which will bring a monster month of daily music and comics content with it.

Hey Girl” fascinates me to no end. After over a week of listening, I’m still not sure if I like it or not, but it definitely holds my interest.

The first interesting thing about “Hey Girl” is that it’s a duet and a co-write with Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine. And, it’s a true duet – Florence doesn’t just pop in for a quick featured verse and some harmonies, she is threaded throughout the entire song along with Gaga.

Her presence makes a lot of thematic sense, since this is a song that’s unabashedly about female friends and girl power (and it’s not like Gaga was going to pick Madonna for that spot).

Hey girl, hey girl – We can make it easy if we lift each other
Hey girl, hey girl – We don’t need to keep on one-in’ up another
Hey girl, hey girl. Hey girl, hey girl.
If you lose your way just know that I got you

The other thing that will hit you in approximately 10 seconds of listening is one – maybe two – obvious nods to Gaga’s influences on this tune. (I know this because that’s exactly how long it took both Jake and I to notice.)

The first of the two influences is Elton John, as Lady Gaga is nearly plagiarizing the rhythm section of “Bennie and the Jets” here – a favorite that she’s performed with John! The back and forth octaves of piano that dip chromatically played against a loping drum beat make the songs nearly identical.

The second of the two influences is slightly more obscure, but makes a lot of sense in the context of 2016. The phased, swirling synthesizer sound paired with clean stabs of guitar is a straight lift from the Philly Soul sound of the A-Side of David Bowie’s Young Americans – “Win,” “Fascination,” and especially “Right.” As a major David Bowie fan, I can’t unhear it – you can start singing any of that trio of tunes directly from the chorus of “Hey Girl.”

It’s hard for me to get past hearing the influences to hearing the song. It has a certain flatness to its structure and chord progressions. There aren’t any big leaps or breaks. The songs flows forward like liquid, a particular trademark of Florence’s own work.

That brings us back to collaborations. While Gaga has collaborated with a number of producers and instrumentalists, she’s been much more selective about allowing other vocalists on her tracks. On Fame Monster Gaga’s guest star was Beyonce, who was just cresting her wave of being one of the most revered creators in pop. It felt completely appropriate to see these two women together, creating dancefloor anthems.

On Artpop, the collaboration was regrettably with R. Kelly, as famous for his self-parodying “Trapped In The Closet” as for his pursuit of sex with minors and a litany of alleged child pornography and sexual abuse. While Kelly is also at times an R&B genius, the dissonance of Gaga choosing him as a featured co-star was immediate – especially on a song called “Do What You Want (With My Body).” It was a rare example of her going off-message and being chided for it by the fans and media.

florence-welch-on-horse-with-swordFlorence Welch makes another, very particular kind of statement as a pairing with Gaga. Welch is seen as a nearly infallible, genre-defying female auteur who is mentioned in the same breath with the biggest rock stars.Like Gaga, she was a guest of the Rolling Stones to sing the duet on “Gimme Shelter.” While I didn’t love her last LP, if it was indeed a bit weak it did nothing to slow her popularity or weaken her ability to break through to modern rock radio.

In short – Florence is an image in which Lady Gaga is currently trying to remake herself, much as Taylor Swift veered towards the big tent mega-pop of Katy Perry on her last LP.

Gaga does a brilliant job of fitting into Florence’s mold across this album. And, true to the lyrics of the song, she uses it to lift Florence up – rarely has her vocals ever sounded silken and beautiful, even on her own records. I’d never say Gaga and Florence sound alike, but their voices are mixed so evenly here that it is truly hard to tell them apart at points.

That’s a lot of digital ink spilled on the context of the song without saying to much about the song itself, but for me that’s the thing – the song is all context. It’s a vessel full of ideas about influences, Gaga and Florence’s personal brands, sharing spotlight, and friendship. Its retro sound would feel out of place on the record without “Diamond Heart” as an opener and “Come To Mama” to proceed it, which further justifies that peculiar tune. At the same time, it helps to counterbalance the sexual revolution on the first half of the record with a feminist one.

Eventually I’ll figure out whether I like it or not.