Thursday, November 29, 2012

Marvel NOW!: Reviews of Comics I Said I’d Never Buy (First Half)

About a month back, I said on this blog that I was not interested in the Marvel NOW! launch and it may actually be enough to turn me off Marvel Comics for good (particularly given I'm probably too old for them now - nodding from my wife ... ). O flip-flopping: thy name is Wheatley. (Or maybe curiosity be my name?  ... Or masochism?) To date, I’ve bought seven titles from the Marvel NOW! line, and you know what? It’s not bad. Reshuffling the creative teams, as occurred with the DC relaunch, may have just been the shot in the arm some of these titles needed, or maybe it just fits my theory that, like debut rock albums, comic book titles are at their most exciting for the first twelve issues.
Uncanny Avengers: I’ve already reviewed #1 here. #2 came out this week and it has more beautiful John Cassaday art. I still hate the fact that all of the X-Men are becoming Avengers now, but it’s making for some interesting character interaction (see Rogue and the Scarlet Witch). Verdict: Four (out of five) fingers.

Fantastic Four: It’s hard to do all that much with the FF that hasn’t been done before. I’m not sure this is it yet; the characters seem to be reacting to each other in the same old ways, but the premise of the series – Reed Richards takes the FF on a year-long trip through time and space – has the potential to deliver some Matt Fraction weirdness. Except that I’m sure Mark Bagley is the artist to go all ‘Casanova’ (Fraction’s weirdest and best series) on us; nothing against Bagley, who is perfectly suited to other series. I think I’ll drop this one. Verdict: Three fingers.

Captain America: Now this is an interesting premise; Rick Remender has shot the often said WWII hero into the sci-fi environment of Dimension Z. It’s so ‘fish out of water’ that it might be worth checking out for a few issues at least. And John Romita Jr’s cover to the first issue is the darkest depiction of the good Captain to date. Verdict: Three fingers and a stub.

Thor - God Of Thunder: Potentially the best of the lot, or at least the one that is just pretentious enough to be an Eisner Award nominee. The story follows Thor in three different time eras, with issue #2 in particular making use of his Viking roots.  Also, in a rarity, Thor is not being depicted as a part-buffoon. Jason Aaron may be the smartest scribe the god of thunder has ever had, and Esad Ribic’s art is for the ages. Verdict: Four fingers.  

All New X-Men – The five original X-Men travel from the ‘60s (although in the compressed Marvel timeline probably from 2003) to witness the awful mess that the present world has become, with man and mutant at each other’s throats more than ever (aren’t they always)? It’s OK, but I’m not sold on the premise of this one. My copy though came with a fun little backing board of the original X-Men as babies.

Indestructible Hulk: The Hulk has had remarkable longevity for a rather dull character (Peter David’s run being a notable exception), but new writer Mark Waid makes a promising start here. No more ‘woe is me’ from Bruce Banner; he’s going to use both his brains and his ‘hulking out’ to his advantage. I think I’ll see where this one goes. Verdict: Three fingers and another stub.

FF: Not the Fantastic Four, but the Freedom Foundation. This also has the potential to be an Eisner nominee, if only cos it has hip writer Matt Fraction and super-hip artist Mike Allred on it. And because, instead of the three guys/token girl line-up, it instead has a three girls/piddly Ant-Man roster.  The first issue was slow, but I reckon by issue three, the cool nerds will be all over this one. Verdict: Three fingers with a fourth in reserve.

Still to come:  Avengers, New Avengers, Secret Avengers, @*&! Avengers, and Superior Spider-Man.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Shit Gamer's Review: Pix 'n' Love Rush and Squareball

Sequels notwithstanding, video games rarely look to their own past, as the opportunites afforded by the pace of technological change means that each game looks to be bigger, clearer, and more novel than the last. But the rise of the smartphone has taken games back in a way, as smartphone consumers, many of them not being video game addicts, are typically unwilling to shell out six bucks for a 300 megabyte game. Two games that have taken advantage of these limitations - nay, even revel in them - are Pix 'n' Love Rush and Squareball.

Pix 'n' Love Rush has four games to choose from: Classic Rush, Cursed Rush, Rainbow Rush, and On-Off Rush. Personally, the one I find most addictive is Cursed Rush because the other Rushes require more brain co-ordination - Classic Rush has four buttons (left, right, jump, and shoot), whereas with Cursed Rush you just need to touch the screen to jump. On the other hand, the fact that the levels are called Hard, Harder, Hardcore, Hardcorer, and Hardcorest doesn't exactly appeal to the gaming novice.  Still, it's so visually appealing, with its absorption of the old arcade graphic style (the screen is not rectangular, your progress is measured to the second decimal point, there's a game of Pong being played in the background) that you don't mind frequently falling to your death. And I managed to get 100% on Hard and Harder! Which probably means they're not actually that hard, but still ...

A game that has even more simple graphics, and is more fiendishly evil in its difficulty, is SQUAREBALL. All you have to do is direct a 'squareball' around a maze, and by maze I mean an assortment of Pong-like blocks. Sound easy? Except that the freaking ball  never stops moving, and given this you often have to anticipate your next move even as you are adjusting to your last one. Never have I winced so much, as time and time again I've just negotiated my ball through a difficult patch and thought it was in the clear only for me to unwittingly direct it into open space, or into a pit of lava (and by lava I mean a red block). Squareball requires so much concentration and precision that sometimes I'm almost afraid to breathe. If it wasn't just so darn cute and ironical I would have run from its pits of despair long ago.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The 15 Best Coldplay Songs

Apart from Radiohead, the other major band I saw play this week was Coldplay. In contrast to Radiohead, most of my favourite Coldplay tracks are the obvious ones - the roof-raisers, the confetti-droppers, the light-holders, the leg-lifters. Also, a chunk of them come from the greatest Coldplay album of them all, the beautiful 'A Rush Of Blood To The Head'. These are my favourite 15 tracks from Jonny Buckland's band:

1. Clocks
2. The Scientist
3. In My Place
4. Lost!
5. Viva La Vida
6. Violet Hill
7. Shiver
8. Yellow
9. Lovers In Japan
10. Paradise
11. Speed Of Sound
12. Politik
13. Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall
14. Warning Sign
15. What If

The 15 Best Radiohead Songs

Seeing Radiohead tonight at Rod Laver Arena I was struck by the following things:

1) Gee, they've changed a lot since I saw them on the tour after OK Computer.
2) Thom Yorke's voice is amazing. Well, duh. But on CD it sounds like part of the atmosphere, it's only when you see it live you think about how those sounds are coming from someone's throat.
3) Ed O'Brien has managed to massage his backing vocals to sound like Thom Yorke's echo.
4) Who were the young hipster girls sitting in front of us? Judging by their reactions to the songs, I think they started liking Radiohead when they could flog 'In Rainbows' off the internet for free.
5) The benefit of being an 'albums band' is that Radiohead can play whatever the hell they want and be assured that a good portion of the audience will know it. Alright, everyone knows 'Creep' and 'Paranoid Android', but no-one would really go home that disappointed if they didn't play them. They can pull out any song as the mood strikes them and know that it will be someone's favourite.

With that in mind, here are my 15 favourite Radiohead tracks:

1. Sulk
2. Jigsaw Falling Into Place
3. The Bends
4. Karma Police
5. Reckoner
6. There There
7. Let Down
8. Idioteque
9. 2 + 2 = 5
10. Fake Plastic Trees
11. Creep
12. Paranoid Android
13. The Pyramid Song
14. A Wolf At The Door
15. The National Anthem

Sunday, November 11, 2012

‘Lonerism’ and the Rise of the Aussie Isolationist Muso

Tame Impala’s latest album, ‘Lonerism’ is, as the title implies, a solitary kind of record. The band itself hails from Perth, well known to be geographically the most isolated city on the planet. Most of the album was recorded by one man, Kevin Parker. Parker has said about the album that it in part arose from the realisation that “I’m just a total outcast. I can’t really talk to anyone without feeling stupid … sometimes I just want to run home and never come out of my bedroom again.” The music backs up this feeling; most of the tracks are dreamy soundscapes that very much sound like one guy twiddling some knobs (pun not intended) in his bedroom. We’re not exactly talking Syd Barrett’s ‘The Madcap Laughs’ here, and Tame Impala’s first album, ‘Innerspeaker’, sounded like the work of a band (even if it may not have been), but it’s clear that this album doesn’t fit the Cold Chisel blueprint of Australian rock.

Which got me to thinking – a lot of Australian ‘bands’ that have found international acclaim (and  their way into my CD collection) over the past decade or so have also tended to driven by their own Kevin Parker-isolated-muso-types. The Vines’ sound was largely a reflection of Craig Nicholls’ part-schizophrenic mindset. Luke Steele of the Sleepy Jackson and Empire of the Sun is the archetype of the ‘temperamental-isolated-Antipodean-genius ‘, managing to work his way through more ‘bandmates’ than single releases.  While the circumstances that led to the departure of two-thirds of Wolfmother’s line-up were somewhat different, their departure still solidified the notion that Andrew Stockdale was the driving force behind that group. The three great hopes of Aussie indie dance, the Presets, Cut Copy, and Midnight Juggernauts, have an average of precisely 3.00 members. And the wildly lauded ‘Since I Left You’ by the Avalanches was basically the product of a few guys’ record collections. Only Jet (and possibly Wolfmother) fit the mould of your classic pub-rock band.

Head back to the ‘90s though, and there were plenty of bands that gained their popularity from making a racket live. Powderfinger, You Am I, Grinspoon, Jebediah, the Superjesus, Custard, The Cruel Sea, Spiderbait, Regurgitator, and of course Silverchair, were all bands whose music you could go to a sweaty bar and get drunk to, rather than lie on your bed and play it through your laptop speakers.  Yet few of these bands (Silverchair being the obvious exception) had that much success overseas  (some deservedly so). The recent crop of introverted musicians has been more likely to show up in NME, Pitchfork, or even non-Aussie Rolling Stone than the raucous alternative rockers of the decade before.

Part of the reason for this may be that the more recent crop of bands are better (I think they are, but then I’m a Beatles fan and social introvert).  But I think their success says something too about how the music industry has changed; in an increasingly globalised and digitalised world there are no ‘scenes’, or rather there is one global ‘scene’, and this has allowed the isolationist to flourish. Listeners, both in Australia and overseas, have many more opportunities now to discover the precocious muso twiddling away in the bedroom (sigh … there really is no good way to phrase that). In years past, bands like Empire of the Sun and Midnight Juggernauts wouldn’t have got past the bouncer at the door. In the past, your band needed to be a ‘gang’. Now you just need some friends to play the parts when you’re touring.

(By the by, I recommend ‘Lonerism’; I think it’s a step above ‘Innerspeaker’ in that the tracks on that album tended to blend too much into one another. They blend on ‘Lonerism’ as well, but each track also has its own distinct ideas to make it stand out.)  

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Wooden Finger Five: November 2012

This past month, I've been making my way through the Pitchfork 500, which was Pitchfork's list of the best songs from 1977 up until 2008 (when the list was released). To date I've really only got through the 1977-1979 and 1984-1986 segements of the list. There were a lot of old disco tracks, a lot of early electronic music, a lot of early hiphop, and these gems:

1. Street Hassle - Lou Reed

I feel like I should have discovered this track by the Louster earlier - it's one of his best and most definitive. It clocks in at over 11 minutes but never gets tried, as it's split into three distinct sections. Section 1 is about a woman picking up a male prostitute (very Lou Reed). Section 2 is where the woman's dead from drugs, and the dealer is telling the prostitute he has to get the woman out (ultra Lou Reed). Section 3 is about nothing in particular, but it sounds beautiful and wraps up the suite nicely. Bruce Springsteen has a very cool guest spot as well.

2. Outdoor Miner - Wire

You'll see most of my picks for this month are real downers, but this is a sweet little tune, which at least one person thinks is 'an abstract interpretation of the experiences of a kind of inchworm known as the serpentine miner'. Well, that sounds arty enough for Wire to be true. For a band that did a lot of arty stuff though, they also put out a bunch of classic pop tunes.

3. Pink Turns To Blue - Husker Du

Husker Du's 'Zen Arcade' is meant to be essentially a concept album about a boy going out in the world and finding out how shit everything is. And this song is about the most shitkicking, gut-wrenching of them all; you can pretty much guess what pink turning to blue refers to (hint: think 'Street Hassle' above), but what makes it worse is that this girl seems like she was the only good thing in this world to our narrator. The melody isn't depressing though - it's as catchy as hell.

4. Kerosene - Big Black

I vaguely remembered that Steve Albini was the producer of Nirvana's 'In Utero' but I didn't know that he had his own band called Big Black. Remember those brutal, bleeding tracks on 'In Utero' like 'Scentless Apprentice' and 'Radio Friendly Unit Shifter'? This was kind of the antecedent to them. Albini's lyrics aren't necessarily subtle, but he is clever in the way he builds his narrative, as you gradually realise just how horrifying it is.

5. Primitive Painters - Felt

This is one of those songs that feels like it was the soundtrack to every mid-'80s movie, but it wasn't actually on the soundtrack to any of them. (I know. I checked to see where it was from.) It's very much like the Cocteau Twins in that Robin Guthrie produced it, and his bandmate Elizabeth Fraser sang backing vocals, and you can't understand a single lyric. But it would still be suitably atmospheric even without those touches.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Predictions For the 2012-13 NBA Season

Most Valuable Player: Carmelo Anthony (New York) - yes, it sounds ludicrous, but I think the Knicks will have a much-improved season, and because Melo scores the most points (and there'll be voter fatigue for LeBron) he'll get the nod. But I still think LeBron will actually have the best season.
Rookie of the Year: Anthony Davis (New Orleans)
Defensive Player of the Year: Tyson Chandler (New York) - Chandler will get part of the rest of the credit for the Knicks' surge.
Most Improved Player: James Harden (Houston)
Coach of the Year: Mike Woodson (New York) - And Woodson will get the other part of the credit.

All-Star Teams:

Eastern Conference: Starters - Derrick Rose (Chicago), Dwyane Wade (Miami), Carmelo Anthony (New York), LeBron James (Miami), Kevin Garnett (Boston); Bench - Rajon Rondo (Boston), Deron Williams (Brooklyn), Chris Bosh (Miami), Josh Smith (Atlanta), Tyson Chandler (New York), Al Horford (Atlanta), Joakim Noah (Chicago), with an injured Rose to be replaced by Paul George (Indiana).

Western Conference: Starters - Jeremy Lin (Houston) - there's a lot of voters in China!, Kobe Bryant (LA Lakers), Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City), Blake Griffin (LA Clippers), Dwight Howard (LA Lakers); Bench - Chris Paul (LA Clippers), Tony Parker (San Antonio), James Harden (Houston), Andre Iguodala (Denver), Kevin Love (Minnesota), Anthony Davis (New Orleans), Marc Gasol (Memphis).

Eastern Conference Champion: Miami
Western Conference Champion: San Antonio

NBA Champion: Miami

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Hawkeye Joins The Big (Little) Leagues

When growing up, my favourite comic book character was Hawkeye. (This may have been an early attempt at trying to be in ‘the cool crowd’, given that the general populace did not know who Hawkeye was until last year’s ‘Avengers’ movie. Strangely enough, my classmates seemed to respond to my shoehorning Hawkeye into all my 4th-grade writing activities with puzzlement rather than seeing it a measure of my coolness.)  Nevertheless, when a new ‘Hawkeye’ series was announced a few months back, even I didn’t put it on my standing order. The archer has never shown himself able to carry off a major ongoing series, and even a bunch of cool, minimalist covers wasn’t enough to convince me that was going to change. With 20 years of collecting behind me, I have to be choosy now about which new 17cm by 26cm titles I will pick to further clog up my living space.

Which is where the Marvel iPhone app comes in – for much the same price as the physical copy (cheaper for older titles) I can clog up my gigabyte allowance instead. I downloaded Hawkeye #1 a few months back and wasn’t overly impressed. But then #’s 2 and 3 got good reviews, so I gave them a go this week and I enjoyed them a lot more. The addition to the title of Kate Bishop, who replaced Clint Barton as Hawkeye when he seemingly ‘died’ a few years back, has given the book a mentor/protégé, old guard/new guard, will they/won’t they type of feel. Writer Matt Fraction and cover and interior artist David Aja have taken the many goofy elements of Hawkeye stories past and given them a 2010’s sheen, such as making the Hawkster’s many trick arrows into highly useful and inventive weapons, and making a lame-o crook like the frickin’ Ringmaster seem less like a bloody useless prat.

But more than that, ‘Hawkeye’ may just be the perfect title for the iPhone age. It’s not big and epic, it’s personable, and Aja’s rectangular panels seem like they made with desktop wallpaper in mind. You can breeze through an issue in 20 minutes and it feels like a 2-dimensional podcast. Then again, maybe I’m just trying to console myself for not picking up the first issue off the stands, and letting it pay off my mortgage.