Archive for June, 2015

My favorite albums of the first half of 2015

June 21st, 2015 by Reinder

Most years, I barely buy enough new albums released the same year to put together a top 10 at the end (I buy a lot of reissues as well as many albums released during the previous few years, and the total number of albums purchased each year is very large, but I'm usually a little behind the curve), but most years, I try anyway. This year, I had a bit of a budget squeeze as I was preparing for a move, which is now canceled. Over time, I was able to relax the budget restrictions; also streaming has made it easier for me to stay up-to-date under those conditions, so I can at least present some sort of Top 5 for the first half of 2015:

1. Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba - Ba Power (Spotify | Tidal)

Bassekou Kouyaté is the best blues guitarist who doesn't play the blues, or guitar. His band/clan consists entirely of virtuoso players of traditional and newly developed Malian instruments, discreetly complemented here by a rock drummer and some horns and keyboards. Normally I am quite wary of the practice of having West African music overdubbed with Euro-American instruments, but in this case, the additions complement the rock feel that Ngoni Ba were already moving towards.
(There is an official video for the opening track, "Siran Fen" on YouTube, but embedding is disabled on it, so I'm showing the teaser vid instead)

2. Ibeyi - Ibeyi - (Spotify | Tidal)

The album I turn to for spiritual uplift. Previously discussed on this blog.

3. Björk - Vulnicura - (Spotify | Tidal)

You've heard about this one, I'm sure. I've only listened to it 3 or 4 times since it became available on the streaming sites, but its woozy, detailed compositions live up to the hype. I'm not even a fan of Björk, normally, but this album just works for me. Best listened to with good headphones.

4. Songhoy Blues - Music in Exile (Spotify | Tidal)

A more energetic take on Malian blues, with Dan Auerbach's production footprint. This one does fizzle a bit after a very strong start, but that start is very strong indeed.

5. King Crimson - Live at the Orpheum (Not available on Spotify or Tidal)
(No officially sanctioned footage with sound that is representative of the 2014/2015 Crimson appears to exist, and I won't be linking to clandestine recordings)
With only six songs, this live album is more of a teaser for greater things to come, and I'll honestly be surprised if it makes my end-of-year list. But it is a sign of life from the Crims and it showcases a tight, powerful new version of the band.

Notes/First Impressions: Orphan Black by Graeme Manson and others

June 6th, 2015 by Reinder

I'll keep this quick: I adore Orphan Black. It's full of twists, has an interesting mix of gritty and comedic, presents a convoluted story with a large group of characters in a way that I find easy to follow, and Tatjana Maslany's acting performance as multiple characters is a delight. When I queue this show up on Netflix, I know I'm not going anywhere the rest of the evening and into the night.

That said, the episode "By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried" is not going to be my no.1 pick for the Hugos, for two reasons. One, while the show as a whole is great, the individual episodes don't stand out as much for me. In Doctor Who, each episode has its own tone and identity; I don't get that from Orphan Black. Two, the show does have some glaring flaws, especially in its plotting. These faults are not so much plot holes (all stories have them, and a lot of the times the best thing to do with those have been to just let them slide rather than try to fill them) as signs that the viewer is being given the runaround. Here, we get that in the bone marrow donation subplot: Seven-year-old Kira donates bone marrow to cure the disease that is going to kill her "aunt" Cosima; the bone marrow gets coopted by her other "aunt" Rachel, and then destroyed to give Kira's mother Sarah the motivation to shoot a pencil into Rachel's eye. The whole donation subplot is thus nullified with very little in the way of plot progression to show for it. Oh, and Cosima starts feeling better anyway, for a while at least. One instance of this isn't deadly to a series, but by the end of season 2, there are already multiple instances of the same phenomenon, and the show has been confirmed for a fourth season already.

Many years ago, I read the Belgian comic XIII. It was very similar in setup to The Bourne Identity and its sequels, indeed so similar to it that many have accused the writer, Jean van Hamme, of plagiarizing it. But it was a setup that worked: Van Hamme knew how to tell a mystery tale, and was a great match to the hyperrealism of the artist, William Vance. Over several albums we learned everything about the background of the man who was found washed up on the shore with a roman numeral XIII tattooed on his collarbone and no memory of his life before that. Except we didn't. The story that we learned turned out to be a red herring, as did the one that replaced it, and the one after that. I bounced off the series after the seventh book, at which point it was clear the author had no interest in giving us a definite answer as to who XIII was and what happened to him, let alone any kind of closure. At that point at a pace of one or two books a year, the chronology had already begun to strain: 'XIII' was at some point identified as a vietnam vet, and six books on he was still quite a young man despite it being 1990-ish now. Thirty years on, spin-offs of the original series are still running. In them, 'XIII' is still a youngish man, and characters who were high-ranking officers during the Vietnam war are still active participants in the story. I can see some of this happening with Orphan black easily. The writers have carefully kept the setting generic, but it is clearly 2014, and one of the characters is a seven-year-old child. By season six, we may see that child as a tween, with completely different technology in the setting, and with only a few months of in-story time having passed and no sense of when the font of answers has been exhausted. Let's hope that doesn't happen: this show deserves better.