Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Audiobook review, The Daily Yomiuri, December 21, 2003

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
By Mark Twain
Read by Patrick Fraley
Audio Partners
6 CDs, 7.5 hours

The unabridged audiobook of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer recently released by Audio Partners Publishing Corp. does exactly what a good audio book should do: It brings the text to life.
Admittedly, it would be tough to make as entertaining a writer as Mark Twain seem dull without doing a complete hatchet job, but voice actor Patrick Fraley makes the classic tale of 19th-century American boyhood gleam like the gem it is.
While Tom Sawyer is the poorer literary predecessor to Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it is still more than worthwhile reading and listening. Using tales of Tom's comic mischief and imagination to illustrate the human foibles of conformity, pride, superstition, greed, jealousy and prejudice, the author offers his own ironic comments in a wry manner well captured by the reader.
Fraley, who has put his talents to use in numerous audiobooks, radio programs and cartoons, has clearly studied actor Hal Holbrook's practiced interpretation in cultivating his own. Fraley evokes Twain's Missouri drawl ably, though his take on the various character voices edges on the cartoonish at times, leaving the adult listener wondering if he has picked up something from the juvenile section.
While Tom Sawyer is suitable for children, Twain wrote it more with adults in mind. Fraley manages to capture the dry sarcasm of Twain's observations on human nature without milking it, and his leisurely pacing makes the entire 7-1/2-hour package a relaxing experience eminently recommendable as commuter listening.

Concert for George, Let It Be...Naked, Lennon Legend, Beatles on Ed Sullivan

The Daily Yomiuri, December 21, 2003

In Your Ear

By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

VARIOUS ARTISTS Concert for George
Warner, 3,400 yen (CD)

Whether you view them as long-lost musical gems, heartfelt tributes or crass attempts to turn leftovers into cash, CDs and DVDs hitting the store shelves for Christmas this year prove that phony or not, Beatlemania has not yet bitten the dust.
Of the three items here, Concert for George is the only one to provide anything that approaches new music. A live two CD recording of a tribute concert held on the first anniversary of George Harrison's death, the album provides a better musical look at the concert than the film of the same event, which cuts back and forth between rehearsals and performances by concert organizer Eric Clapton, former bandmates Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and others.
The first disc features Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar, performing and conducting mesmerizing yet impressively energetic Indian music.
The second disc is more conventional rock written by the Quiet Beatle and performed by those who knew and loved him. While it suffers from some of the usual excesses of live tribute concerts, such as Billy Preston's overlong "My Sweet Lord," Concert For George provides a showcase for a terrific songwriter who was too often overshadowed by the Lennon-McCartney hit factory.

Let It Be...Naked
Toshiba-EMI, 2,667 yen (CD)

Let It Be...Naked is, in essence, something of a correction. The original album was recorded in 1969, before the lushly layered Abbey Road. The original intention was to rehearse a number of new songs with an eye to performing a live concert and to film the whole process with the concert providing the film's climax. The four lads from Liverpool were unable to settle on where and when the concert would take place, finally compromising on an impromptu gig on the roof of the recording studio.
The film was made and the tapes handed over to hit-making producer Phil "Wall of Sound" Spector, who added strings and choirs to the live recording and even slowed down the tape on "Across the Universe" to turn out a chart-topper.
The 2003 version is stripped of Spector's dross and uses different takes for some songs. Six of the 11 tracks are virtually unchanged, though the sound quality has been drastically improved. There are two good reasons to buy this release: to hear what "The Long and Winding Road" really sounds like now that it has been excavated from the mound of saccharin it was buried under for 30 years; and the inclusion of "Don't Let Me Down" not previously on the album.
The bad news is that the bits of studio chatter and telltale Beatles humor have also been stripped away. In Japan at least, an effort has been made to make up for this with a second disc of between-takes banter. "Fly on the Wall" really is only for the truly obsessive, but it does give a brief first look at a few songs that ended up on later solo albums.

Lennon Legend
EMI Records, 3,890 yen (DVD) The latest attempt to stripmine the collective memory of John Lennon for cash, the Lennon Legend DVD, is surprisingly good. A number of previously unseen film clips, such as Lennon's last live performance in 1975, and bits and pieces from the family archives are included along with 20 song videos.
The gut-wrenching video that accompanies "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" will allow you to reclaim the song in all its idealistic glory.
Collectors should also note that a two-DVD set Ed Sullivan Presents The Beatles is also available.

Panorama of history, science and comedy

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, December 14, 2003

By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
By Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 926 pp, 27.95 dollars

Reading Neal Stephenson's latest tome, the 926-page Quicksilver, is like lugging a heavy cooler of beer to the beach on a scorching hot day. The container is heavy and awkward to carry, and getting through the entire contents is a daunting task, but in the end it is delightfully frothy, refreshingly cool and leaves us thirsty for more when it's finished.
Quicksilver is billed as volume one of The Baroque Cycle and will be followed in April by The Confusion and in October by The System of the World. Because of Stephenson's earlier success as a science fiction writer (through the excellent novels Snow Crash, The Diamond Age and Zodiac), this book is viewed by some as belonging to that genre. In truth, it is historical fiction about science.
Quicksilver is a sprawling story about the germination of the seeds of the modern world in the 17th and 18th centuries, focusing on the beginnings of modern science, economics, politics and even language. But in Stephenson's mansion there are many rooms: Quicksilver is also a rip-roaring adventure yarn, a biting satire, a biography of several notable historic figures, a political and military history of the latter part of the baroque period in Europe, the story of the founding and early years of the Royal Society of London--and if you whack a potato hard enough with it, it probably even makes julienne French fries. It is smart, funny, erudite and an addictive page turner. The book's length, however initially daunting, is meaningless. Certainly it is the only 900-page novel that leaves the reader impatient for a pair of sequels.
Obviously, this single volume is several books packed into one. The author breaks it into thirds, each focusing on a key character.
The first opens with a mysterious traveling salesman of alchemical supplies arriving in Boston in 1713 to seek out the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony Institute of Technologickal (sic) Arts, Daniel Waterhouse. A small boy named Ben Franklin guides him to the door of the Puritan scientist, whose father had been a close associate of Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. Dr. Waterhouse is needed back in London to settle a dispute between his Cambridge University roommate Sir Isaac Newton and his longtime friend, the noted German polymath Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Liebniz, over which one of them was the first to invent calculus. On his voyage back to London, Waterhouse's ship is pursued by the pirate fleet of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach. Flashbacks from Waterhouse's younger days feature the great plague year of 1665, the great fire of London and the founding of the Royal Society--and that is just in the first 150 pages.
The second section, "King of the Vagabonds," concerns the adventures of Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, who goes from a childhood in which he and brother earn their keep by swinging from the legs of men on the gallows in the London suburb of Tyburn to hasten their demise, to stealing an ostrich and a harem girl from the Turkish camp at the breaking of the siege of Vienna. Nicknamed for the results of an unfortunate accident with a cauterizing iron suffered while being treated for syphilis, Shaftoe is slowing going mad. One of the weirdest and most entertaining scenes in the book--which has a pretty high overall standard for entertaining weirdness--is his hallucination of dancing nuns, singing galley slaves and lascivious fishwives performing a movie-musical production number in the streets of Paris that would turn Busby Berkeley green with shock and envy.
The third section is largely devoted to the adventures of the aforementioned harem girl, Eliza, who wanders Europe with Jack, settling in Amsterdam for a time and becoming moderately well-to-do as an early stock trader before becoming William of Orange's spy at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. Much of this part is told through coded letters between Eliza and Liebniz, which are intercepted and read by agents of both kings.
As packed with plot threads as the book is, Quicksilver is also a learned discourse on the evolution of alchemy and astrology into modern science and mathematics, and the birth of banking, stock markets and modern capitalism.
One of the most entertaining devices Stephenson uses is his scattering of anachronisms throughout the story. At one point Eliza writes from Venice about the phenomenon of "canal rage" among gondoliers and Waterhouse is warned not to get on Isaac Newton's "s--- list."
Hindsight makes for a certain amount of amusement as well, with a minor character sampling the first tea brought back to England by a traveling scholar and pronouncing it "inoffensive enough, but I don't think Englishmen will ever take to anything so outlandish."
Trimmed of its numerous frills, which include a handful of short plays, digressions into scientific and historical in-jokes and some astonishingly detailed descriptions, Quicksilver could have been half as long and still been a great swashbuckling historical adventure. But such economy is not always desirable; Hamlet is four hours long, and trimmed of its frills it becomes a soap opera about a mopey, rich Danish mama's boy. The devil may be in the details, but so are the delights of Quicksilver

Robert Randolph and the Family Band - Unclassified

By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Robert Randolph and the Family Band
(JapanTour -- Dec. 9 - 12)

The cat is out of the bag on one of the best kept secrets in music.
The aptly titled Unclassified is the first major label release by Robert Randolph and the Family Band.

The group's roots rock R&B sound is slightly different from the standard guitardriven instrumentation, eschewing a second rhythm guitar for John Ginty's funky Hammond organ and piano. The key difference though is that the band is built around Robert Randolph's pedal steel guitar instead of the usual six-string electric sound.

While slide guitar is a rock and blues staple, the more fluid sound of the pedal steel guitar is generally associated with the slippery, weeping sound of Nashville's country crooners. The 10, 13 or 20 stringed pedal steel guitar is played seated at a desk-like platform, plucked with a pick, fretted with a slide and foot pedals are used to modify the sound. They may not look as cool as a low-slung Stratocaster, but they sound like a blues dobro on steroids in the hands of an expert like Randolph.

New Jersey native Randolph, 25, came to the instrument through the "sacred steel" tradition of the House of God Church. Congregations unable to afford expensive organs began substituting the pedal steel guitar to accompany choirs in the 1930's and an African-American tradition grew up apart from the instrument's country and western roots. Randolph's father was deacon in the church and his mother a minister and Randolph began playing pedal steel in church as a teenager, after his parents divorced. His father remarried with the daughter of sacred steel legend Ted Beard, who taught Randolph the basics and encouraged him to play in church.

Joined by cousins Danyel Morgan and Marcus Randolph on bass and drums respectively, the Family Band was born.

Randolph's sound is reminiscent of slide guitar great Duane Allman, Canadian rock and blues slide player Jeff Healy and Lenny Kravitz filtered through Stevie Wonder, with a dash of Stevie Ray Vaughn's blues fire thrown in for good measure.

Anchored by the Morgan's funked-up bass, Unclassified is energetic, soulful and driving, with Randolph's extended seat-of the pants soloing broken by occasional keyboard wails and screams and impassioned vocals from both Randolph and Morgan, whose clean falsetto gets a work out on the funky Stevie Wonderesque rave-up "I Need More Love" and the more mellow, minorkey "Problems."

Randolph may be the star attraction, but Morgan is the band's not-so-secret weapon with his complex slap and twang playing style giving the Family Band a driving funk-soul feel.
Randolph's gospel roots show through despite the secular songs, giving tunes like "Going in the Right Direction" a decidedly spiritual flavor in a Sly and the Family Stone kind of way.
The ballad "Smile" is a true family affair that features Randolph on acoustic guitar and shining guest vocals from Robert's sister Lenesha Randolph and cousin Ricky Fowler.
Playing to the frontman's true strengths, four of the 11 tracks on Unclassified are instrumentals. "Squeeze" has a southern rock jam feel to it, with the combination of pedal steel and Hammond organ evoking the best of the Allman Brothers Band The album's closing track, the instrumental "Run For Your Life" is so scorching it ought to come with a warning to keep it away from flammable liquids.
The level of talent, soul and great grooves found here ensure that more will be heard from Robert Randolph and the Family Band and their December tour of Japan should be one of the year's hottest tickets.

Baker praises Japan's Iraq efforts

News story from the Daily Yomiuri, December 5, 2003

By Kevin Wood 
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Howard Baker said Thursday the relationship between his country and Japan is "the best it has ever been."
In a luncheon speech at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, the 78-year-old Baker encouraged Japan to take its "rightful place as a great nation," but warned that with such a role come great responsibilities and implied that a willingness to project a nation's power overseas, including through the dispatch of military personnel, was part of fulfilling those responsibilities.
Beginning his remarks by offering condolences for the deaths of two Japanese diplomats in Iraq, Baker said, "We share the grief of the families and the Japanese people on the loss of these two brave public servants."
He praised the steps the government has taken thus far in support of the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism and reconstruction effort in Iraq, and enumerated the U.S. successes in the rebuilding of Iraq.
He also addressed Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, calling Japan "a great superpower" and reaffirming U.S. support for the effort and his personal belief that the prime minister was "up to the challenge" of leading the nation to a major role on the world stage.
Responding to questions about the possibility of terrorist attacks in Tokyo, Baker said, "Terrorism knows no boundaries." He said no nation was safe, but ultimately the best defense was strength and the best course for Japan was to join with other nations to show terrorists their attacks would not go unanswered.
The key political significance of Japan's dispatch of Self-Defense Forces to Iraq, regardless of the number, was that it symbolized the "unity of free peoples to face down terror." He said such a dispatch would demonstrate Japan's sense of responsibility as great nation and would be an expression of national determination for the country to "participate fully and freely in the cause of peace and stability."
The U.S. ambassador and former White House chief of staff under U.S. President Ronald Reagan said the global realignment of U.S. military forces currently being considered could lead to a reduction in U.S. troops in Japan. Whether any changes in the deployment of U.S. forces in Asia would involve reducing the number of personnel stationed in Okinawa prefecture or relocating them elsewhere in Japan was not yet know, he said.
The one thing Baker said he could be sure of was that, "nothing we do will diminish our commitment to the security of Japan. "
Baker reiterated the U.S. contention that evidence prior to the invasion of Iraq strongly indicated the presence of weapons of mass destruction, saying that the failure of the United States to find any WMD was an indication of the skill of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussien's regime at concealing such weapons, not proof the weapons did not exist.
Asked if the United States intended to take any action on WMD possessed by Israel in its efforts to eliminate WMD in the Middle East, Baker said Israel's possession of nuclear weapons was considered an accomplished fact and that his greatest worry was the threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of the "politically unstable regime" in North Korea.
"An accident is one thing, but an accident with a pocketful of nuclear bombs is something else," he said. Such an accident could take many forms from an error in orders by a junior officer in the demilitarized zone to a deteriorating political situation prompting a preemptive strike.

Plenty of blood and food for thought In the Miso Soup

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, Nov. 11, 2003

In the Miso Soup
By Ryu Murakami
Translated by Ralph McCarthy
Published by Kodansha International
180 pages

By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

In his more than 40 books, author Ryu Murakami (69, Coin Locker Babies) has strived to shock Japanese readers into a reaction, to wake them from their complacency and ennui and convince them to recognize and act upon their individual nature. The most recent of his works translated into English, In the Miso Soup, continues in that vein
Winner of the Yomiuri Literary Award in 1998, In the Miso Soup, with its jarring portrayal of horrific violence, caused a stir when it was serialized in 1997 The Yomiuri Shimbun around the time a 14-year-old boy decapitated a child in Kobe.
The novel revolves around Kenji, a 20-year-old independent, unlicensed nightlife tour guide who specializes in showing foreign tourists around the seamier side of Kabukicho’s red light district, and Frank a middle aged American with a murky past, a wallet full of 10,000 yen notes who appears to specialize in hypnosis and murder. A few days before the end of the year, Frank answers Kenji’s advertisement in the Tokyo Pink Guide and hires the young man to guide him through “the massage parlors and S&M bars and “soaplands” and what have you” for three nights, the third night being Dec. 31, which Kenji has promised to spend with his 16-year-old girlfriend Jun.
However, the wrath of a jilted high-school age sweetheart is the least of Kenji’s worries. He is first contacted by Frank while reading a newspaper report of schoolgirl’s dismembered body being found in Kabukicho and from the first time he meets the American, he senses there is something not quite right about him. By the end of their first night on the town, spent reading a Japanese-English glossary of sex terms aloud to giggling hostesses at a lingerie pub and taking a few swings at a batting cage, Kenji suspects Frank is the killer.
Midway through their second night together his suspicions are confirmed when Frank slaughters everyone in a matchmaking pub with a sashimi knife in one of the most grisly scenes you are likely to read outside of an old Tales from the Crypt comic.
The most stunning thing about the murders aside from their grotesque brutality is Kenji’s reaction both during and after the killing. He is stunned into utter submission, even when Frank leaves him alone in front of a police box after suggesting he go to the authorities, Kenji cannot summon up the courage to turn the psychopath in and ends up returning with the killer to the abandoned building Frank has been living in and listening to him tell his life story.
On New Year’s eve, the third and final night together Frank wants to hear the 108 chimes of the temple bells, promising to release Kenji afterwards.
The novel touches on a number of subjects and themes common in Murakami’s work: the symbiotic love/hate relationship between Japan and the United States, teenage prostitution, the generation gap in Japan and the moral vacuum of modern society.
Murakami was born in Nagasaki Prefecture in 1952 and spent the first 18 years of his life living in the shadow of the U.S. Navy base at Sasebo. He was kicked out of school for his part in protesting the U.S. military presence. His debut 1976 novel Almost Transparent Blue about young people turning to sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll in response to the absence of protest against the U.S. military domination of Japan won the Gunzo Prize for New Talent and the Akutagawa Prize while the young author was still an art school student.
In that novel, African American soldiers abuse Japanese prostitutes who refuse to resist their ill treatment. In similar fashion, Kenji cannot seem to even criticize Frank to his face, much less act to halt his murderous rampage. The only time he refuses Frank’s commands to take part in the circus of the macabre, it simply means Kenji gets to sit out that particularly gruesome dance while still being spattered in his front row seat. Murakami, who has previously described himself as “a child corrupted by America” seems to be pointing out that Japan is still in thrall to the violent, magnetic and often schizophrenic culture of U.S. dominance.
He also explores the cracks in the Japanese system at length, speculating that high school girls engaged in enjo kosai are “selling it” not simply because they can, but for the cold comfort being desired brings to a lonely life and for the reinforcement of the their individuality being chosen by men gives them. He is critical of the hypocrisy of those who live only for financial gain while criticizing others for the same lifestyle.
In the Miso Soup has plenty to say about Japanese and American culture, provide one can get past the salty depictions of horrific violence. Ralph McCarthy’s able translation captures the rough argot of street life without distracting from the story and preserves both the brutality and finesse of Murakami’s original work.

The Thorns, Masked and Anonymous

Music review column from The Daily Yomiuri, August 21, 2003

By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

The Thorns
Sony Music Japan Int'l, 2,400 yen

Grab your 12-string guitar, California folk-rock has returned.
The tasty three-part harmonies of singer-songwriters Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins and Matthew Sweet instantly evoke the The Byrds, the early work of The Eagles and especially Crosby, Stills and Nash, with an occasional hint of Tom Petty, the Beach Boys and the Mamas and Papas.
All three are accomplished solo artists and producers. Despite being accustomed to working alone, they were keen to try a more interactive project.
After things clicked during a brief demo session in the spring of 2002, the three spent a couple of weeks writing songs on a ranch in California's Santa Ynez Valley and in a suite in the Montrose Hotel in Los Angeles. That autumn, they were joined in the studio in Atlanta by producer Brendan O'Brien (Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Train), ace session drummer Jim Keltner and E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan.
The result is 13 tracks (plus two extras just for Japan) that hark back to the best of the aforementioned bands while creating a new melodic, harmony-driven power-folk for the new century that owes more to 1970s pop singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne than traditional folk roots. No faux-soul boy band nasal whinging tweaked in the studio here, these guys are the real full-throated deal.
The lead track "Runaway Feeling" has a steering-wheel tapping feel and simple catchy progression that could fool the listener into thinking they've stumbled onto a lost track from Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever, and the melancholic "Dragonfly" could have been the lead single from a Vietnam-era Crosby, Stills and Nash album. "Long, Sweet Summer Night" is the kind of short, sweet pop tune that Brian Wilson wishes he could still write.
The production and arrangements are polished and bright, but the rougher original demo of "Brambles" featured as a bonus track for Japanese release indicates that The Thorns might benefit from a looser, more acoustic-based approach that lets a darkness into their California sunshine.

Masked and Anonymous
Sony Music Japan Int'l, 2,400 yen

While film soundtracks rarely feature enough new material to merit critical attention, an exception must be made for Bob Dylan's latest cinematic effort, Masked and Anonymous. By all reports, the movie, directed by Larry Charles, is surreal, and the soundtrack certainly reflects that with four new performances by Dylan and 10 by other artists covering his compositions, often in other languages.
The Magokoro Brothers' "My Back Pages" with its Japanese lyrics might provide a good entry point for Japanese interested in seeing what all the fuss is about. Los Lobos add a little Latin spice to the semi-cajun "On a Night Like This" and the album even includes an Italian rap version of "Like a Rolling Stone." One of the most interesting interpretations is Sertab Erener's Arabian-flavored "One More Cup of Coffee."
America's greatest living songwriter tackles the traditional bluegrass number "Diamond Joe" and the Confederate anthem "Dixie" with equal aplomb and his scorching reworking of "Cold Irons Bound" from his 1997 Grammy-winning album Time Out Of Mind is the high point of the album.
A must-have for serious Dylan aficionados, but for the casual fan there are better collections of covers available.

Gibson now just 15 minutes into the future

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, August 10, 2003

By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Pattern Recognition
By William Gibson
Putnam, 368 pp, 25.95 dollars

William Gibson is a study in contradictions. The author of seven science fiction novels, he often denies being a science fiction author. He wrote his first novel, 1985's award-winning Neuromancer--which led to him being credited with launching the cyberpunk genre and coining the term cyberspace--on a manual typewriter.
While his previous works have been set in a dystopian near future, his latest, Pattern Recognition, is ostensibly set in the present, though some of the technology and practices described are so cutting-edge as to give the novel a sense of being set in the almost-future of next week or next month.
Though Pattern Recognition dispenses with the techno-wizardry and orbital communities posited in Gibson's earlier work, his recurring themes of the authenticity of art and the nature of creativity are still present. In terms of plot, Pattern Recognition echoes Neuromancer, centered as they both are on a search for the elusive creator of mysterious works of art.
Cayce Pollard is an intuitive marketing consultant, a "coolhunter" who can tell at a glance whether a design will catch on or flop. She is also obsessed with "the footage" a mysterious series of compelling video clips of unknown origin that keep appearing on the Internet, spawning a dedicated subculture. When the eccentric head of a London advertising agency persuades her to seek out the creator of the footage, Cayce bounces from London to Tokyo to Russia with danger, betrayal and intrigue stalking her every step of the way.
Perhaps as a bit of self-satire of his earlier writing, which was sometimes criticized for using brand names in place of adjectives, or perhaps as the kryptonite to her coolhunting superpowers, Gibson saddles Cayce with a bizarre allergy to certain trademarks and logos, with Bibendum the Michelen Man causing nausea and too much Tommy Hilfiger leading to panic attacks. Cayce even has to have the Levi logo ground off the buttons of her jeans.
Cayce is also in mourning for her father, a former government "security expert" and probable CIA man who may or may not have been at the World Trade Center when he disappeared in New York on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Cayce has inherited a touch of her father's professional paranoia and his legacy looms large in the story.
Gibson has an impressive ability to create with a few deft phrases original characters like Cayce who, while seeming impossible, are eminently believable: Hubertus Bigend, the too-handsome and ultra-persuasive cutting-edge advertising whiz that his former lover, a friend of Cayce's, describes as a "real Lombard--loads of money, but a real dickhead"; Boone Chu, a Chinese-American "white hat hacker," security consultant and failed dot.commer from Oklahoma; Hobbs-Baranov, an abrasive, alcoholic retired mathematician and code-breaker obsessed with an early mechanical computer/calculator created in a concentration camp.
As in most of his books, the characters are not always as fleshed out as they might be and sometimes more attention is paid to their clothing than to their motivations. Nor is sparkling dialogue Gibson's strong suit, with conversations existing more to move the plot along than to develop characters.
However, when it comes to creating an atmosphere or capturing a specific feeling, few modern writers can touch him.
Evocative descriptions of places, from the "cyclopean Stalin-era buildings in burnt orange brick" of Moscow to the "manically animated forest of signs" of Shinjuku, Tokyo, fill the book. Where other writers these days are prone to throwing around postmodern references to television programs, movies or pop music, Gibson is more likely to reference architecture and design, graphic art and obscure subcultures such as Japan's "Otaku covens."
As the man who described cyberspace before there was an Internet, Gibson is especially adept at capturing the feel of bulletin board conversations, the paranoid fear of having one's personal Internet history and e-mail laid bare, the closeness of an e-mail relationship, the eeriness of hearing an e-mail friend's voice for the first time and the shock of a first in-the-flesh meeting between old e-friends.
While Gibson's best science fiction efforts have been set in a near-future that seems so real it could be last week, Pattern Recognition is set in a near past that feels like next week. This is by far his most complex work. By stripping away the action-movie violence and Buck Rogers (by way of William Burroughs) gadgetry that, while entertaining, often obscured the more serious themes of his earlier works, Gibson has managed a mature novel of considerable depth and perception that is rife with insight into the nature of electronic relationships, mass culture and the commodification of creativity.

Not much white marble in George Pelecanos' gritty Washington

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, July 27, 2003
By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Soul Circus
By George P. Pelecanos
Little, Brown; 352 pp; 24.95 dollars

When most of us think of Washington, the first images that come to mind are of the U.S. Capitol building and the White House, of prosperous middle-aged white men in suits and ties going about the business of running the most powerful nation on earth.
Those familiar with the work of crime writer George P. Pelecanos may have a very different vision of the city. In Soul Circus, his 11th novel set in the roughest neighborhoods of Washington, Pelecanos gives the reader a close look at the world of gangs, guns, poverty and drugs that dominates much of the U.S. capital.
Pelecanos' Washington is a dark, dirty and dangerous place where even ex-cop private eyes like Derek Strange and Terry Quinn walk softly down some streets.
Soul Circus follows directly on the heels of Pelecanos' 2002 bestseller Hell to Pay and the 2001 novel that introduced Strange and Quinn, Right as Rain. Strange, a rock-steady pillar of the African-American community in his mid-fifties, has taken on the younger, hot-headed Irish-American Quinn as a partner in Strange Investigations.
Following up on the events of Hell to Pay, we find the two working for lawyers defending drug kingpin Granville Oliver. Strange has been retained to find the former girlfriend of Oliver's right-hand man, whose testimony can keep him off death row, while Quinn is involved in trying to find the ex-girlfriend of the loser brother of a local street gang leader.
As in his previous work, notably the three novels featuring hard-drinking investigator Nick Stefanos, even the heroes have flaws. The quick-tempered Quinn is unable to back away from the smallest affront and Strange has more than one skeleton in his own closet. While both act heroically on occasion and do their best to do the right thing, their very human weaknesses are what ultimately make the two protagonists sympathetic, realistic characters.
That gift for creating believable, detailed characters extends even to the most minor players in Soul Circus, with characters who pop up in only a few scenes expertly drawn with a minimum of exposition.
Where other authors might supply a quick stereotype or faceless cardboard cutout, even the counterman in the diner and the parents of the kids on the peewee football team Strange coaches have unique identities and distinct faces. Pelecanos has mastered the art of showing us a character through minimal but vivid description, realistic dialogue and believable action rather than long paragraphs of back story and explanation.
While mastering all the conventions of the hardboiled genre, Pelecanos is not a slave to them and manages to make political and philosophical points about race relations, gun control, feminism, masculinity and honesty without it interfering with the readers enjoyment of the story.
Pelecanos clearly argues that the easy availability of firearms is one of the greatest contributing factors to violent crime, even using Nick Stefanos, the hero of three of his earlier books, in a cameo role to drive the point home.
While offering a bleak view of life in the ghettos of Washington, Pelecanos also shows how small acts of decency can make a difference in the world and refuses to fall into the usual trap of having one tough good guy solve all the world's problems with his fists and a gun. Hollywood-style violence without consequences does not exist in the real world and Pelecanos shows how the death of anyone diminishes us all without preaching.
With Soul Circus, Pelecanos should garner the fame he richly deserves and take his place in the pantheon of noir greats alongside Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy.

The power of sex, drugs and cheap strawberries

Book review from The Daily Yomiuri, July 25, 2003

By Kevin Wood
Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Reefer Madness
By Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin, 310 pp, 23 dollars

Those picking up this book expecting a collection of lurid tales from the counterculture--after all, it is named for a 1937 propaganda film about how smoking marijuana turns clean-cut kids into ax-murdering maniacs--may be in for a surprise.
Having exposed the "dark side of the all-American meal" in his 2001 best seller Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser turns his considerable talents to an examination on the trillion dollar underground economy of the United States.
The book is built around expanded versions of three previously published magazine articles on marijuana laws, illegal immigrant labor and the pornography business, bracketed by an introduction and conclusion that discuss the role and nature of the shadow economy.
By and large, Reefer Madness is a damning debunking of the free market mantras and moral hypocrisy of pro-business political conservatives.
Schlosser begins with a look at the economic and legal consequences of the largest U.S. cash crop--marijuana.
Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared the opening of the "War on Drugs" in 1980 and in 1982 appointed the first "Drug Czar," Carlton Turner, who believed smoking pot was responsible for young people being involved in "anti-military, anti-nuclear power, anti-big business, anti-authority demonstrations" and that marijuana use caused homosexuality.
Schlosser points out the inconsistencies in the way offenders are sentenced in different parts of the country. "In New York State, possessing slightly less than an ounce (28 grams) of marijuana brings a 100 dollars fine, if it's a first offense. In Louisiana, possessing the same amount of pot could lead to a prison sentence of twenty years." He details the way some law enforcement agencies have become financially dependent on the income derived from property seizures connected to drug investigations.
In particular, Schlosser highlights the way the political race to demonstrate how tough candidates are on drugs has resulted in penalties that far outweigh the crimes they claim to punish.
"A conviction for a marijuana offense can mean the revocation or denial of more than 460 federal benefits, including student loans, small-business loans, professional licenses, and farm subsidies... federal welfare payment and food stamps. Convicted murderers, rapists and child molesters, however, remain eligible for such benefits."
He exposes the injustice of mandatory minimum sentencing rules that send people to prison for more than 20 years, and often for life, for offenses as minor as selling drug paraphernalia such as water pipes.
The second section details the plight of migrant workers in the California agricultural industry, mainly through an examination of the use of illegal immigrant labor in the strawberry farming business. Schlosser contends that the farm industry in the United States (and to a growing extent the meatpacking, textile and other industries that rely on cheap, semi-skilled labor) has become dependent on illegal immigrants. The underground economy relies on untraceable, untaxable cash transactions, and Schlosser asserts that nearly 30 percent of workers in Los Angeles County are now paid in cash.
Large agribusiness corporations skirt labor laws through sharecropping arrangements straight out of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, while the law punishes illegal immigrant workers far more severely than those who employ and exploit them.
"Left to its own devices, the free market always seeks a work force that is hungry, desperate and cheap--a work force that is anything but free" concludes the author.
The final section traces the history of the pornography industry in the United States by looking at the various attempts over the years to legally define obscenity and rule on what people can or cannot legally see, while telling the story of the founding father of modern porn, a former comic book salesman who built an industry that generates the same revenue as Hollywood's domestic box office receipts.
This section also serves as a primer on the fine art of tax evasion, tracing the efforts of porn magnate Reuben Sturman to skim off and hide hundreds of millions of dollars to avoid funding the government's long-running campaign to convict him on obscenity charges.
While the section is somewhat outdated in that it lacks much information on the financial impact of the Internet on the porn industry, it does provide a revealing look at a legal industry that is largely subterranean.
Overall, the strength of Reefer Madness is Schlosser's ability to put a human face on abstract statistics and tie dry historical facts to interesting human drama.
The only real complaint is that each of the main sections of the book could, and should, have been expanded to fill entire volumes of their own.

Music review, June 20, 2003

The Daily Yomiuri, June 20, 2003
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

Everything Must Go
Steely Dan
Warner Music, 2,400 yen
Back with a new album after a relatively short break this time, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen's follow-up to 2000's album-of-the-year Grammy winner Two Against Nature is more of the same jazz-infused pop soul that made the band one of the greatest of the '70s and '80s.
Becker and Fagen have not mellowed with age, merely honed their dry, dark wit. The differences between Everything Must Go and earlier classics like Aja (1977) and Can't Buy a Thrill (1972) are superficial and tracks from the new album would have been quite at home on any of the band's earlier albums.
Gone are hot studio guitar players like Skunk Baxter and Denny Diaz from the early incarnations of Steely Dan. In their place we find Becker's polished, precise riffs and Fagen's lush horn arrangements.
Fagen's keyboard chops and clear, plaintive voice have lost nothing from the band's heyday, and Becker, in addition to playing all the driving, funky bass on the album, has come up yet another notch on this album from his exceptionally tasty solo guitar work on Two Against Nature. He also makes his debut as a lead vocalist on "Slang of Ages."
From their earliest work, there has always been a decadent feel to Steely Dan's immaculately arranged studio pop. That theme continues here on songs like "Things I Miss the Most," with the singer bemoaning the loss of "the talk, the sex, the somebody to trust, the Audi TT, the house on the Vineyard, the house on the Gulf Coast."
Such delightfully snide criticism of materialism runs through album bookended as it is with "The Last Mall," a singing commercial for an Armageddon day sale, and the title track, a last memo from a corrupt CEO whose corporate malfeasance has caught up with the whole company.
A Steely Dan album is like a chocolate eclair--its arrival gives us pleasure and its departure merely makes us hungry for more.

On and On
Jack Johnson
Universal, 2,427 yen
Former professional surfer and filmmaker Jack Johnson's second album On and On, is, like its creator, a product of Hawaii.
The album was recorded in Johnson's studio there, with one track recorded live, complete with breaking ocean wave accompaniment, at a beach barbecue at his brother's home.
Johnson is reminiscent of that guy you knew in university who played old classic rock tunes on acoustic guitar around the bonfire or in late night dorm-room jam sessions. He wasn't the greatest guitarist or singer, but fun to listen to. Now suddenly that same guy is making hit records, but he hasn't really changed. By most accounts, Johnson's success as a musician has come almost in spite of his relaxed approach. The intimate feel of On and On gives new meaning to the term "laid back."
Simple three-chord guitar grooves, backed with basic drums and bass and topped with idiosyncratic lyrics delivered in an almost hip-hop cadence make for a folky, eminently listenable, relaxing album.
Despite the laid back feel of On and On there are flashes of poetic cleverness in songs like "The Horizon Has Been Defeated" ("People are lonely and only animals with fancy shoes") and Symbol in My Driveway ("I've got a perfect set of blueprints/I'm gonna build somebody else") and some fairly muscular guitar work that in another setting might seem bombastic, but here acts more like an extra

Monday, February 22, 2010

Music review column May 23, 2003


Daily Yomiuri, May 23, 2003
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer 

Slingshot Professionals 
Rykodisc, 2,177 yen

Slingshot Professionals is the fifth full-length album from Washington-born singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire Kelly Joe Phelps. Stylistically, it follows the path laid out by 2001's Sky Like a Broken Clock, with long dramatic story-songs and impressionistic lyrics balancing Phelps' driven-yet-restrained acoustic slide guitar. Phelps delivers a shot of intimate blues filtered through jazz and the virtuoso folk of performers such as Bert Janch, with a generous chaser of Tom Waits. The result is something reminiscent of an acoustic Dire Straits playing Leonard Cohen songs. However, to pigeonhole this music would be wrong.  
Singer-songwriters often succumb to the pitfalls of their avocation, becoming too personal, taking themselves too seriously and becoming pretentious, emphasizing lyrics at the expense of instrumental work, or, as is often the case with virtuoso players, showing off their chops at the expense of the song. Many are just too whiny, too wimpy or too self-involved to be appealing.  
Phelps is none of these things. His lyrics are mysterious, evocative and telling, never trite. His guitar work is restrained and subtle with just enough flash and testicular fortitude to grab the ears of the most dedicated guitar fan. To the credit of producer Lee Townsend, the music is seamless and polished but without any hint of affect or slickness. The addition of jazz guitarist Bill Frissel, a longtime Townsend collaborator, simply makes more of a good thing.  
This is not an album you are likely to put on first thing in the morning unless you've been up all night. It's intense and energetic, but not in a bouncy, get-up-and-dance kind of way. Slingshot Professionals is impassioned, but never loud, and rootsy without any Nashville twang to it. It is a very rare thing: A record that contains no cheese of any kind. A sort of CD equivalent to those stay-up-until-sunrise conversations you had with your best friends back when none of you had to worry about working the next morning.  

LeRoy's Swing  
Buffalo Records, 2,500 yen

This album, the result of a single live session by the Austin, Texas, quintet Les Niglos and released under the name of lead guitarist Dave Biller for pronunciation-driven reasons of social sensitivity, is not to be missed by fans of jazz guitar giant Django Reinhardt.  
According to Biller, Les Niglos was originally formed by the members to have some some fun playing the music of their hero, Reinhardt.  
Both the sense of fun and the overwhelming influence of Reinhardt on the band are very evident on LeRoy's Swing. Of the 13 tracks, four are Reinhardt compositions and six are songs the famous gypsy jazz guitarist often covered, including '30s hot jazz standards like "Tea for Two," "Sheik of Araby" and "Japanese Sandman." The remaining three tracks written by Biller blend so perfectly with the other material as to be almost indistinguishable.  
The decision to name the band for Biller is a sensible one, as it is really his guitar playing that is showcased. Clarinetist Ben Saffer plays Stephane Grappeli to Biller's Reinhardt, and the addition of a reed to the string ensemble gives the group a warmer, smoother sound. Bassist Ryan Gould and guitarists Anthony Locke and Jeff Seaver make up the airtight rhythm section.  
If Reinhardt and Grappeli with the original Hot Club of France Quintet were a blazing bonfire, then Biller and Saffer are the same fire a few hours later. The flames may not leap quite as high, but that allows us to stand closer and enjoy the warmth more.