Today I’ve got another interesting assembly of media items for you: A neo-classic fairy tale, a comic odyssey into very weird territory, some side projects from favorite artists of mine, and a whole slew of Mega Man-related media.  Let’s dig in!

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This is the first episode of OBS to reflect the broad, sweeping changes I have enacted.  Huzzah!
Today I’ve got some excellent independent downloadable games, a great piece of computer hardware, an album by a nonexistent band, an hilarious audio/video podcast, and one of the best X-Men story arcs ever to be written (among other things.)

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OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG): Episode 9 – The Steampunk Edition

Steampunk can be a difficult subgenre to wrap one’s head around. But since the mainstream world seems to be embracing it with movies like Sherlock Holmes and video games like Epic Mickey, I figured I would take a look at the things in my collection that might be representative of the genre. We’ve got Steampunk books, movies, music, video games, anime and comics to get through, so it’s time to fire up the boilers! Full steam ahead!

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MUSIC: John Reviews “Separation Sunday” by The Hold Steady

Separation Sunday by The Hold Steady

"Separation Sunday" by The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady is, in the words of Red Dwarf‘s Arnold Rimmer, “like a three-fried-egg chili chutney sandwich.” It is a combination of elements that, when taken on their own, usually raise my ire (concept album, vocals spoken rather than sung, a “post-punk” attitude.)  Yet when combined in this particular arrangement, Craig Finn & Co. manage to produce a musical experience that scratches itches I didn’t know I had.

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MUSIC: John reviews “21st Century Breakdown” by Green Day

Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

It’s been a while since I’ve donned my music critic hat, but thanks to several months of searching Rhapsody for new and exciting music, I have a few records I’d like to examine.  I’ll begin with the most recent (so recent it isn’t even available in stores until Tuesday,) 21st Century Breakdown by Green Day.

Depending on whether you consider the Millenium to have occurred in 2000 or 2001, this is either Green Day’s second or third album of the century (Warning was released in 2000 and American Idiot in 2004) and covers much of the same thematic material as American Idiot – dealing with the escalating paranoia, media overload and religion-fueled reactionary mania of a post-9/11 America and world.  It’s a “concept album” in the same sense that American Idiot is a “rock opera,”  as both stretch the definition of their respective terms to the limit.  It consists of three acts, or “sides” as the band refers to them, each featuring the two recurring main characters of Christian and Gloria (the young lovers depicted on the album’s cover.)  The final product is …  Continue reading

BOOKS: MediaMaven Reviews “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”

I used to read a lot of Young Adult novels. I spent most of my teen years reading YA novels, til I realized that I was getting older and the books were getting stupider. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is one of the better YA novels. The characters are relatable, the story is fun, both unrealistic and totally realistic, and there’s the added bonus of a map and songs to enhance the story.

I don’t remember YA novels having characters that are this natural, who curse this much, who have this much sex in this fashion. YA books are either pure all-out fantasy or angst-ridden, often a combination of both. While Nick & Norah does have its elements of wish-fulfillment, the story as a whole is affecting and real.

I read the book about a week after I saw the movie, and John is right—the book is better than the movie. He’s already done an extensive review comparing the movie to the book version, so I will try not overlap.

There were many moments where I wondered why the movie needed to depart so much from the book. Although many adaptations work independently, here the movie skimps too much on the central story, which is the burgeoning love between the title characters, focusing instead on a background character here, a person who Norah thinks about a lot. There is acknowledgment of her being a good friend, much in the same vein as Caroline’s confession in Norah’s arms at the end of the movie, but not much other than a person who Norah cares for and who supports her.

Both stories feature incredibly realistic dialogue. The places in the book are all real, and as a Jerseyan, I loved the shout-outs to my neighboring town and other local places. Both Norah and Nick are very relatable and fun. I wouldn’t have cast Michael Cera in the movie at all. Usually when one sees a movie and then reads the book version of the story, the characters appear as the actors who played them in the movie. I only got that with Tris, even though both she and the main characters are incredibly different than their book counterparts. Nick sports none of the Michael Cera awkwardness and shyness that characterize his characters. Despite his issues with both Norah and Tris, Nick comes across as normal, less awkward and mumbly; he is not as pathetic as he is depicted in the movie.

I really enjoyed Tris here, too. Despite her tendency to be mean and flippant, she had real, believable reasons for breaking up with Nick, and it is in the scene where she explains them to Norah that I love her. Norah and Tris are real friends, sharing secrets and helping each other out. Tris does like Nick, and she is noted by both Nick and Norah as having good taste in music; she does actually like Where’s Fluffy.

Tal is a greater jerk here than in the movie, ruining Norah’s self-esteem. While much is made of his desire for her father to listen to his band’s demo, here he is demeaning, insulting, and just a plain terrible boyfriend. In the movie, he’s actually seen as caring, if misguided, for most of the picture, not the incredibly self-esteem killer who needs to be kicked in the nuts a couple times.

The little details and references work beautifully. Norah’s compares her anger over Nick to My So-Called Life being cancelled, and she later lifts a section of dialogue from the show that mirrors her life. She’s indecisive, rash, and a fool, but all the more loveable because of it. Both Nick and Norah talk about being straight-edge, a term I didn’t hear until I was in college but now seems a whole subset of the emo crowd. Tris especially refers to her female friends as “bitches”, an affectionate take on the term that I personally dislike, but one that is a part of youth slang.

All the characters, even the bit ones, felt like real people, not stereotypes that could have so easily fit into the story. So many things in the book are depicted as normal, where they just wouldn’t be anywhere else—how Norah liked a guy in middle school who turned out to be gay, and the only reason she found this out is because she was beat to the kiss by another boy; the trannies and their whole scene; all the gay kids and their relationships to other characters. Even the confusion and angst wasn’t overwrought or overdrawn, a tough thing to do when writing romance. Norah’s religiosity, Norah’s attitude toward sex, and her anger at her reputation of being “frigid” are all things rarely, if ever, brought up in teen books, and I appreciated all these “issues” finally getting their due.

I also appreciated that it was acknowledged several times how tired the two main characters were as the evening progressed, a point I brought up in the movie.

I do wish that the book didn’t have inserts of scenes from the movie with related captions, just because they stuck out so much. The scenes and the lines didn’t match up. They had no relation to the book. I understand the book’s cover—marketing tactic—but I want to see what the original cover looked like, before it was optioned.

I acknowledge that I’ve gotten to the point where whenever I see a positive romantic and realistic development on the screen I immediately think it’s wish-fulfillment, because that clearly doesn’t happen in real life. This cynical attitude was brought out right away, as when Nick and Norah share their first kiss, following the “Would you please be my girlfriend for five minutes?”, because both of them think the other is a great kisser. Likely, but unlikely. But overall, this didn’t bother me, as so many of the other details superseded that feeling.

As to the music: Both the movie’s soundtrack and John’s personal version don’t mesh with what I picture the real soundtrack to be. First of all, there is a lot of actual music mentioned in the book, songs that are on Nick’s mixtapes, covers played in the clubs, lyrics sung, CDs in his car. Most of the stuff they listed to was punk—the Clash and Green Day were mentioned more than once. They both loved the (neo) punk aesthetic, which is why they were both astonished to meet another straight-edge. John’s soundtrack, with all respect to him, is too ska. The movie soundtrack is dreamy emo—none of the song are mosh-pit worthy, which is just wrong. There should be lots of up-tempo, raucous songs, the kind that make you want to jump out and down and sing aloud, go crazy and get lost in the music. Indeed, there’s a scene when that happens, but the Nick & Norah soundtrack is supposed to be billed as the new indie hip thing, and it falls flat. Nick and Norah themselves like music that is somewhat established, so most music fans will recognize many, if not all the songs mentioned.

Nick & Norah is a quick read, and it’s a good foray into the underworld of YA literature. It’s a relatively lighthearted romance with a dose of big city lights and a rockin’ soundtrack (if you download the music the book mentions). The dialogue, characters and situations are natural and realistic; the story felt like it could actually happen. Most books that incorporate music generally deal with love, and for the most part, you can’t go wrong with the genre. I’m glad that I can add Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist to that list.

MUSIC: John Reviews “Rosematter” a.k.a. “Shooter’s Gonna Choke” by Rosematter

If you’ve been following my recent reviews of Cruiserweight’s albums, you’ll know that Pandora is a music resource that can be at once both very useful and very misleading.  Rosematter is another band that Pandora recommended for me, and I enjoyed “I Bet She Gives Great Helmet” enough to hunt down an album of theirs.  Though it was not as easy a task as it should’ve been (more on that later) I picked up their self-titled album and found exactly what Cruiserweight’s second album refused to deliver to me: fast, rockin’ female-fronted powerpop with lyrics that fluctuate between amusing, depressing and uplifting, but are consistently clever and refreshing.

I had some trouble picking up Rosematter because of a problem with the album’s naming, which was exacerbated by iTunes.  If you look on the iTunes store, you’ll find two albums by Rosematter with identical tracks: Shooter’s Gonna Choke and their self-titled album.  Since I still believe in buying music at retail (for whatever reason) and appreciate references to Happy Gilmore, I headed to the Virgin Megastore to pick up a copy of Shooter’s Gonna Choke.  When I got there, I couldn’t remember the name of the band, so I looked up the album in their catalog and found that it was no longer being carried.  Drag!  Little did I know (until my return trip) that it had been sitting in the pop/rock “R” section all along, albeit under a different name.

So why the name change?  Is it because the tweens and teens of today wouldn’t recognize a reference to one of Adam Sandler’s only funny movies if they heard it? (Wow, am I that far removed from the youth of today?) No!  It turns out that the band was dropped from Lobster Records and released the tracks as a repackaged “reboot” album under their new label, Victory Records.  As far as I can tell, the tracks are identical in every way.  It even shows up as “Shooter’s Gonna Choke” in my iTunes library!  Anyway, enough with the background.  On to the review!

Whatever you call it, the album kicks off with “Decadence is Freedom with a Smile.” Rosematter lets you have it with full-speed-ahead powerpop right out of the gate and doesn’t let up for the duration of the album.  As far as I can tell, the song is about living life to the fullest and not getting caught up in the small stuff.  The first lines of the chorus are: “every breath we take is / a moment that we’ll never have again / how does it taste?”  Lead singer Katie’s vocals are powerful and emotional without being whiny, which is always a good thing in my book.  Strong guitar and drum presence is a mainstay here and throughout the album.

Next up is the track that introduced me to the band, “I Bet She Gives Great Helmet.” Yay for Spaceballs references!  There’s more of what I’ll call a “highway rhythm” to this one, giving the impression that it’s about a break-up taking place during a cross-country drive.  There’s a nice effect to Katie’s vocals on this song, as if she’s singing backup vocals for herself (there’s a technical term for this, but I sure as heck don’t know it.)

“I Don’t Cheat, I Get Results” is currently my favorite Rosematter track, in large part because it has a slightly slower start that builds in intensity and because it features my favorite lyrics on the album.  The song is a love letter from itself to the band and its fans, and their emotion and enthusiasm shines through brighter than on any of their relationship-related songs.  It’s their “This One Is Gonna Leave A Bruise” (for those who are familiar with Less Than Jake.)  My favorite set of lines has to be their remembrance of good times from the old days, “All those nights with nothing to do / resulted in timeless experiences … every album you handed me / every kolbrooks’ basement show / Every weekend road trip that ended up with the four of us / sleeping in a car at a truck stop outside Newark, Delaware.” It may not flow on paper, but they make it work in the song.  More than anything, it’s moments like these (and the clever song titles) that made it so easy for me to identify with and relate to Rosematter.

The band follows that stellar entry with their radio hit, “Fool Me Once, Strike One.  Fool Me Twice, Strike Three.”  I’ve heard that this title is a reference to The Office, but I don’t recognize it.  Its former title was “If I Played Little League Now, I’d Kick Ass” according to Youtube clips.  This is another great song about how awesome it is to be in a band, playing your heart out and living the life we all wish we could.  Rosematter can get away with songs like this while they’re still relatively unknown, because we know they’re not being obnoxious about their fame and wealth.  They’re clearly in this because they love playing music, and that’s what “Fool Me Once” is all about.

The next track, “Do Re Egon,” wins the award for best reference of the album.  I suspect The All-New Cheap Moves would concur, since they also have a love of Ghostbusters II quotes.  The song itself is a bit more vocal-heavy and features bouncier drums than its predecessors, as Katie belts out a cautionary tale that stresses the importance of getting out of your small town and seeing the world before you’re trapped forever and your life has passed you by.  Katie and the rest of the band must have been Save Ferris fans back in the day, because she sounds exactly like a slightly younger Monique Powell on this track, which makes me happier than it has any right to.

“Chuck Norris Jokes Aren’t Funny Anymore” wins the prize for funniest non-reference song title, but is unfortunately a bit standard as emo-pop goes.  It even features tearing-heart-from-chest imagery, which is about as cliche as you can get.

I had to ask a friend what the joke of “Anyone Who Hates John Hinckley Doesn’t Understand True Love” was. Apparently John Hinckley was the guy who tried to assassinate Ronald Raegan in an effort to win the affection of Jodie Foster.  This one has some winner lyrics, like “Fifty Cent is a rapper, not a tip” for comedy and “Tap the brakes and late-night shakes / Oh, babe, some scars are just too deep” for drama.  The tempo shifts from something like a power ballad during the verses to full-on Rosematter powerpop for the choruses.  It’s a great example of the band’s ability to do more than just rock at 8,000 miles per hour.

“Your Mom Doesn’t Count as a Fan, Jesse” is probably the saddest and most dramatic (without being cliche) track on the album, but manages to balance its dramatic lyrics with rockin’ music and even some gang vocals on the chorus (and we all know how much I love gang vocals.) Bonus points for the line “I hate the way you push this lightning out your mouth”  It’s strange, but you get exactly what she means.

“Being Brave Usually Means Having Your Adult Teeth Knocked Out” has the most Guitar Hero-friendly opening, and also sports some of the most positive lyrics on the album.  It could be about a connection between people, but I choose to interpret it as a song about America.  I think that “We could be lost in all our situations / or on the verge of clarity / We share disaster and strive for meaning / a collection of laughter and tears, regret and satisfaction / connect us all” could work in either context, don’t you?

I think that “Pull A Fievel and Go West” is about sex, but it’s a bit open to interpretation (which is good, because it’s weird to have song about sex and its title be a reference to a Don Bluth animated kids’ movie.)  I can tell you that it’s got some of the best gang vocals on the album, and continues Rosematter’s pulse-pounding race to the musical finish line.

Finally, we close with “I Drink to Prepare for a Fight (Tonight I’m Very Prepared.)”  Sadly, I thought this was the most forgettable track, and can’t think of much to write about it now.  That’s not to say it’s bad, mind you, just not very memorable.

Overall, I think that Rosematter (or Shooter’s Gonna Choke, whichever you choose to call it) is an excellent debut album by a spunky powerpop band that shows tons of promise and has a great sense of humor & humility.  For those of my era, the classic comedy movie references and stylistic echoes of Save Ferris make for an easy connection (though I’m sure the youth of today would say they sound like a happier Paramore, the go-to band for comparing female vocalists.)

Oh, and to all the Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer fans out there:  Both Rosematter and Zolof are from Pennsylvania, both are spunky powerpop (of different sorts), and both have a young, photogenic platinum blonde female lead vocalist.  If they don’t start touring together, it’ll be a huge waste of opportunity.

Just for fun and in the tradition of Rocky & Bullwinkle, I’m going to list the tracks’ actual titles, and what could be their more traditional titles (in my estimation):

1. “Decadence is Freedom with a Smile” (or How Does It Taste?)

2. “I Bet She Gives Great Helmet” (or Forward Motion)

3. “I Don’t Cheat, I Get Results” (or More than Memories)

4. “Fool Me Once, Strike one.  Fool Me Twice, Strike Three” (or Every Night is a Revolution)

5. “Do Re Egon” (or Munsoned in Minnesota)

6. “Chuck Norris Jokes Aren’t Funny Anymore” (or Frustration Overwhelms Me)

7. “Anyone Who Hates John Hinckley Doesn’t Understand True Love” (or Late Night Scene)

8. “Your Mom Doesn’t Count as a Fan, Jesse” (or This Is not a Game)

9. “Being Brave Usually Means Having Your Adult Teeth Knocked Right Out” (or On the Verge of Clarity)

10. “Pull A Fievel and Go West” (or Quick Glances and Deep Breaths)

11. “I Drink to Prepare for a Fight (Tonight I’m Very Prepared)”  (or Midnight Has Come and Gone)