Thursday, October 20, 2011

Book Club: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians is pretty much universally tagged as “Harry Potter for Grown Ups.” It’s not, really. For one, it’s not really that much like Harry Potter other than the fact that it’s largely set at a school of magic and in a world where magic is real, but the magic is grittier, more arcane and mysterious and dangerous than the simplified magic world of Harry Potter. Not to knock HP, I love me some Harry Potter, but my big fear going into this book was that it would be too Harry Potter-esque and I was relieved to find that it wasn’t. The Chronicles of Narnia is also a huge touchstone, and there’s more of that influence in The Magicians than anything. At least what I know about Narnia, which isn’t a lot but even then, he makes references to Narnia and Harry Potter in the book so as to set it all apart. Anyway, Grossman’s book was engrossing. Ha! And it was really, really good and sad and a wonderful coming of age story featuring a protagonist who is a fuck up just like everyone else. It’s rare to find a genuine fuck up in books, I think. There’s that platonic ideal of a fuck up and then there’s Quentin Coldwater who rings much more like you or I (or probably just I in this case, I identified with him a bit, although I don’t know if I’m as big of a bitch as he is but I probably am) than of the classic fuck ups. He makes mistakes, often big ones that have huge consequences, but they’re mistakes anyone could make under the right emotional circumstances. The Magicians treats magic like some dangerous, unstable substance humans just accidentally stumbled upon and it really grounds this novel in reality, which is primarily why it’s so great. That and Grossman’s prose is just terrific to read and laugh out loud funny sometimes and then just horrifying and brutal other times.

It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to do one of these Book Club features for a book, but I’ve figured out that certain books just go better with music and it’s not right to force it. As usual, most of these songs are culled from whatever’s been in the CD player or playing on repeat on iTunes, or some new thing I stumbled upon that seemed to fit in one way or another.

Parry Gripp – “I Wanna Be a Magician”

Lev Grossman curated this theme song for The Magicians. How fucking cool is that? And you know what, it’s a goddamned great track. Like Grossman, I share a sort of undying love for Nerf Herder based on years of listening between the ages 14 and 18 and well, I still listen to Nerf Herder now and again because it’s just good. Good hooks and such. This is just such a perfect fucking song for this book/series/whatever it is. It conveys that sense of excitement that kind of runs through the book. That’s really the only consistent emotion, really. Even when it’s subdued due to danger and heartbreak, there’s always that thrill of the quest. It’s what this book is all about: finding out that magic is real and then seeing how far the rabbit hole goes.

Los Campesinos! – “By Your Hand”

One of the best things about The Magicians is that it deals with teen angst in a more realistic way than Harry Potter. That’s one of the things that really sets it apart and somewhat removes the “Harry Potter for Grown Ups” stigma. It’s not really Harry Potter for grown ups because it’s not really that much like Harry Potter. And it’s not really for grown ups. It’s more young adult with a hefty dose of post-college lit.

I can’t wait for this album to come out. I forgot it was so close. This is the first single, and I found this video about a month after it premiered, took a break from reading, freaked out a little, and then freaked out a little more because it’s so good. It’s good because it’s catchy and sad like all the best LC! Songs but it also definitely feels like this band is maturing in the best way. The way where they aren’t sacrificing any of the inherent stuff that makes them great and that only makes their music better and better. Maybe this song fits so well because they’re British and Brakebills is described as being very Anglophilic. But it balances the fun and sad that comes with the early twenties/twentysomething characters. Anyway, I think I watched this video right when Quentin and Alice went to her parents weird house and it felt like something was going to go drastically wrong with their relationship sometime later in the novel, but at that point they still loved eachother. Not like they ever stop loving eachother, it just gets complicated because as I’ve said, Quentin is a stupid fuck up which only makes what happens at the end all that much more tragic and ultimately, what makes this book so fucking good. There are consequences, and those consequences are never pleasant, and will have to be dealt with by those who surivive. And that’s sad. But that’s life.

Los Campesinos! – “This is How You Spell..."

And yeah, maybe it’s the British thing. But Quentin and Alice’s relationship just feels like a fucking Los Campesinos! Song. Bittersweet. Emphasis on the sweet, emphasis on the bitter. Notably “I know, I am wrong, I am sorry.” Something about that sentiment.

Feist – “The Bad in Each Other”

Well, it’s pretty clear what I focused on the most in the book. I just love a well told relationship story. One that gets it right. That sort of thing seems to be the most important thing it is, or at least that’s how it seems. The way we interact with people, notably the ones we love. You know Alice and Quentin are gonna get together from the second you see them in the same room and he remarks at how weird and odd she is. And then there’s the whole fox-sex thing in Antarctica and the fact that they’re the only two crazy enough to participate in Mayakovsky’s optional final. Kindered spirits, those two. SO SPOILER ALERT QUIT READING IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THIS, it was pretty easy figure out that Quentin was going to cheat with her. What with all the drinking and drugging and partying and time away from Alice because she hated all that. This post-Brakebills world seemed almost out of character for Quentin, but mostly because I was just so annoyed because I knew what was going to happen. And then it did, and then I understood why it had to happen: So Penny could show up with the magic button that would take them to Fillory. Having that Quentin/Alice drama running through what should have been the most exciting thing ever was just perfectly placed to keep things grounded. To make sure the real world followed them into magic land. And then it looks like it’s going to work out, maybe and of course Alice sacrifices herself with some badass medieval magic to kill the Beast and I know that needs to happen because Quentin is the protagonist and he needs that to happen so he can learn and grow but man, but it still sucks. It illustrates the complexity of their relationship and that’s what makes Quentin who he becomes. I’m reading The Magician King now and he’s a little bit wiser. Still a fuck up, but he knows that there are consequences and he’s more mature this time around. Granted, not that much more mature, but he’s touched the stove and realized it’s hot so there.

Anyway, this song has pangs of a couple who’ve been together so long they know every last bit about each other and notably, how they’re capable of hurting each other.

M83 – “Midnight City”
I put M83’s new bloated-but-still-lovely LP Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming one night whilst reading and it was a nice fit. Anthony Gonzalez knows exactly how to play on nostalgia in such a way that it captures the absolute spirit of youth and preserves all of its faults and triumphs. It’s not so much of a lyrical thing, but the tone that the synthesizers have that just screams 20 year olds at magician school. Also, I didn't know this when I picked this song, but the video is basically a bunch of kids who can do magic. GO FIGURE.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Free Design - Kites are Fun

The Free Design – Kites Are Fun
Project 3, 1967
Acquired: Half Price Books, Used, 2010
Price: $8

This is some proto-twee shit. I bought this because I vaguely remember this band from my Nuggets/twee-pop-is-god phase and I don’t think I ever listened to it. That seems to be the only reason I can use to get myself to buy records since I don’t really need them anymore and I clearly don’t listen to them enough. So “Oh great! I haven’t heard this and I think this record is rare maybe” is as good an excuse as any. This is the only record in my collection that is musty (it’s simply not allowed, not ever, especially since I’ve started working at HPB in which handling collections that have been collecting mold and such for the last 20 years makes me throw musty records away on sight), a rare exception. No visible mold, but you can certainly smell the must. A small sacrifice, I suppose. The music is what you would expect from a band tagged with a label like “Sunshine Pop.” The siblings Dedrick certainly have a penchant for happy jams, that’s for sure. Laid back, groovy loungey tunes from the Summer of Love, etc. There are some long liner notes that I don’t have time to read, but the first line of the title track proclaims “This bright, gay song was, literally, the beginning of the Free Design.” (Note: Haha, Gay. Lol). The song-by-song notes look like they’ve been written by some PR exec desperate to make you think this music is interesting but instead ruins them with over-explanation with lines like “Chris adds a jaunty recorder solo to the group’s singing” and quotes from the band like “If it takes drugs to free your mind, you’re reaching out for nothing. Your own imagination is where it’s at.” God, what a bunch of SQUARES. On the whole, this is a really fucking lame record. Just painfully lame, which I suppose is why it reminds me of twee pop. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy aspects of it, but really, after reading some of these lame ass liner notes, I’m thinking about how much more interesting this might be if it wasn’t for stuff like “It’s important for the whole song to have an idea, like a novel or a poem, although it doesn’t have to be very profound. To start with you need a catchy phrase. But after that phrase, a lot of songs don’t go very far. I spend a lot of time on the lyrics trying to make them say something and, at the same time, to make sure that they’re not so deep that nobody understands them.” This over-explanation of concept is an interest-killer, for real. But I suppose pretending it doesn’t exist and just evaluating the record, it’s still just some boring folk-tinged easy listening pop. Sure, I can see the influence on twee a bit (singing about Kites, carefree things, etc) but Twee was cool because it incorporated punk rock. This is not-cool because it tries to be as vanilla as humanly possible in an effort to get more people to listen to it. At least that’s the impression I get. This might have sounded really fresh in ’67. Who knows, maybe I woulda ate this shit up but now it’s dated in a sad sort of way. Plus, the whole thing sounds like it was painstakingly packaged by out of touch record label execs trying to tap in to the “youth market” and it shows. Still, there are plenty of nice harmonies and well orchestrated bits of instrumentation and I guess it’s a nice album, but nice album’s don’t get asked to the prom.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Thrill of Discovery: Arctic Monkeys - Part 2

Day 4: October 6, 2011

Favourite Worst Nightmare

“Fluorescent Adolescent”

What a great video! Seriously! Arctic Monkeys seem to shine when they prove that their simple music can be twisted and morphed into fucking brilliant pop songs if they want it to.

This is the first great track on this record. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s the first really good track on this record, and it’s five songs in. It feels like a departure from the first record in the best way: the way where Arctic Monkeys start to peel past the unavoidable comparisons and get a “That sounds like an Arctic Monkeys song.” Mind, it’s not there yet. Not quite at all, but I’ve been listening to their latest, Suck it and See, in the car on a loop for five days and it feels like more fun to track this young band’s progression up to that point. Puts it all in perspective, because it feels like they’re getting better and better, album after album. Or maybe not better and better. But figuring themselves out more. This one sounds better, nice production and all, but until “Florescent Adolescent” hits it all feels a bit rote. The prior songs on the album, that is. It’s a groovy jam through and through hitting that sweet spot that Arctic Monkeys seem to hit three or four times an album. Chris, just a fucking excellent song. A three minute pop song played to perfection. And an excellent music video directed by Richard Ayoade to boot!

“Only Ones You Know”

Man oh man, the quiet songs is where Alex Turner really gets to shine. The nice new beefed up production works in his favor here, too, in that it stays out of the way while letting all the nice and elegant pretty bits shine through before rushing back into the pretty OK rock music of the next song. But when the lights are dimmed, he can really twist a gorgeous melody around your guts and heartstrings and I don’t know, muscly things that gives you the heavy chest. I don’t feel like these guys are amazing musicians. They’re capable enough, I suppose, at least for what Alex Turner’s songs require, but on a whole the riffs and the basslines tend to err on the side of OK. When there’s less to get in the way of the actual songs, they tend to shine.

Day 5: October 11, 2011

The Rest of this Fucking Album
Remember that last paragraph where I said that Arctic Monkeys’ relied very, very heavily on the talent in Alex Turner’s songwriting? Well, well just yeah. The rest of this album is forgettable. I’ve listened to it three times through looking for a spark of something great and I get some amateurish guitar work and boring ol’ bass lines and all that brashness of the debut but muted because its filtered through some fancy studio boards or whatever. Maybe that’s why the three singles on this album are culled from the first five songs. It seems like Arctic Monkeys have this problem with consistency. Their sound is pretty consistent, I’ll give’em that, but consistently compelling is something they can do maybe 50% of the time. At least that’s what I’ve seen with Suck it and See, which I’m still compulsively listening to in the car despite the album being 50% excellent and 50% just plain boring with a dash of cock-rock. On Favourite Worst Nightmare they’re not quite there yet. Still a handful of British lads getting to play at being rock stars, which is awesome, but the back half of this album is mostly chaff. “The Bad Thing” isn’t so bad, it has some really fun vocal delivery that mixes it up enough to keep it going for its pretty short running time.


Revisiting the First half of the record for shits and grins


Ok, this song has something to it. It’s fun, and I think that’s something that for some reason I can’t bring to the table when I’m listening to Arctic Monkeys. Because I hate fun music. I mean, I don’t really hate it, I just generally hate fun. Or I’m indifferent to fun, at least when it comes to music. It doesn’t bother me when its there, but if the song lacks any meatier substance I can tend to overlook the fact that it might have been just good old fashioned fun. The bass line (What is it with the bass lines on this fucking album?) reeks of what Death From Above 1979 did for bass lines in the early 00s and now every bass line sounds crunchy when played with aggression and the distortion turned way up.

“Teddy Pickler”
The other aforementioned single from the first five songs. This one drowns under an amateurish bass line as well. I wish the music wasn’t so boring, because I really do think Alex Turner has some amazing talent. The sort that’s going to mature with the man. He’s clever. Very clever, good with words and teriffic with melodies. The music, man oh man, it’s just plain uninspiring.

“D is for Dangerous”
This is another one of those “fun songs.” Except in this case, “Fun” means “dance punk revival. At least the songs are very, very short on this record. Particularly in the case of this one, which stays afloat because it’s only a little over two minutes long.