Monday, April 26, 2010

The Only Thing I Have, by Rhonda Waterfall

your uncle was right: go check out Spectrum Culture at

Unnerving, moving and sometimes exceedingly bleak, many of the stories included in The Only Thing I Have are likely to stay in the reader's mind long after that final page in this slim volume has been turned. The debut book from Canadian writer Rhonda Waterfall, it is written in a brutally direct style that heightens the impact of these narratives of loneliness and loss. Its topics aren't particularly novel, but no matter: there is plenty to like here, with the author's unadorned prose and gift for storytelling offsetting any lack of originality.

Waterfall's writings can roughly be described as mostly sympathetic examinations of the human psyche disguised as simple tales about failing relationships. Several begin with this common motif: the central characters of "When You're Gone," "Around the Park" and the title story all feature intensely restless and dissatisfied people who envision idyllic - and most likely unattainable - lives that break from their status quo domesticity. These are portraits of characters desperate to escape but paralyzed by bouts of inaction and their own conflicted emotions: these characters know they want something else, but aren't sure of what that something is. Their indecision cripples them; worse, when these characters take decisive action it doesn't turn out well.

There's also a heavy amount of fatalism in the world the author portrays in The Only Thing I Have. Coupled with the writer's tendency for invoking the sinister and gothic - especially in the Post-It Note double-murder tale of "The Last Note," the taxi cab driver killing in "Shooting the Driver" and the chilling, remorseless next-door neighbor murder of the title character in "Fatty" - hope and optimism are in short supply throughout this collection. For the most part Waterfall's writing cannot be described as excessively nihilistic - though one character slowly freezes to death with only a grainy homemade sex tape of himself and the woman he either can't stand or desperately needs for comfort - as she clearly cares about her characters, as deeply flawed and sometimes self-absorbed as they are. Their sufferings in the face of an indifferent world are immediately recognizable; Waterfall is never over-indulgent and her dramas unfold subtly and not on a grandiose scale. Her characters are acutely aware that daily struggles sometimes exact the heaviest toll on a person's mind: "I think sometimes I'm going to have a nervous breakdown. I suppose it's not the real thing, the full-blown deal. It's just small breakdowns. Little breaks along the way," Waterfall writes at one point.

If there is a shortcoming to these stories, it's that periodically they sound like minor variations on the same theme, especially in terms of how Waterfall's plotlines unfold and how her subjects react to adversity. Though it also at times feels overly repetitive - too many entries involve clichés like seedy hotels, people downing liquor like water and anonymous, mostly unsatisfying sex - The Only Thing I Have is a promising first effort from an obviously gifted writer. With its precise and economical writing style and characters whose struggles will likely feel prescient to readers, this book convincingly speaks of shared human experiences, as we embrace life's comforts and equally try to make sense of its cruelties.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Secret History: The World That Never Was is also known as Spectrum Culture and it's a great indie site. Go check it out and tell David you love it.

Few things in music journalism are more clichéd than a critic's wounded lament for an underappreciated album. Still, I'll tell anyone who will listen - which by now isn't many people - that the Secret History's 2008 Desolation Town EP continues to be criminally overlooked by both the indie press and listening public. Its songs combined buoyant indie pop with trace amounts of the Smiths, glam rock- before it overdosed on its own excesses- and girl group harmonies stripped of their optimistic, cooing overtones. Desolation Town was a predominately dark affair, loosely based around the story of someone who flees the ruins of Hiroshima, stumbles his way through Europe and ends up fairly miserable in Palermo. It was evocative, troubling stuff, a handful of songs whose narrative arcs, set sometime in the past, unfolded like a dream or surrealist film and whose various tragedies felt both timeless and contemporary.

The band follows a similar approach on debut LP The World That Never Was, a deeply-woven, complex and altogether brilliant effort that represents one of the most mature debut indie releases in recent memory. Its songs sound instantly familiar but offer enough variations to distinguish them from their apparent influences, crisscrossing genres with ease. Many of the songs' arrangements are shimmering and bright: after a bit of roughhouse hooligan chanting and clapping, "Johnny Anorak" opens with crunching guitars and a keyboard melody that falls just on the right side of kitschy, "Our Lady of Stalingrad" is an infectious mix of bouncing piano and intricate harmonies and "Love Theme" showcases Lisa Ronson's vibrant vocals. Other songs are more deliberate: "God Save the Runaways" and "Sex with Ghosts" move at a funereal pace against a hazy instrumental mix, while "Our Lady of Palermo" - the only carryover from the EP - is perhaps the album's most disarming track. Set in a "pilgrimage to where God's never been" and sung by Ronson as plainly as possible, it's a stripped-bare song of rain-soaked streets and lost summers whose martial drumbeat and strings are absolutely devastating in their emotional impact.

Songwriter Michael Grace, Jr. ambitiously weaves several thematic strands together; his lyrics are literate but never coldly academic or detached, varied without feeling inaccessible. Although the songs' arrangements are primarily upbeat, their subject matter is almost always bleak. Like on the EP, these songs and their events occur as if in a dream or a movie presented out of sequence. Certain images recur throughout this so-called "requiem for young monsters," most frequently musicians and their awestruck worshippers, ghosts and, of course, monsters; Frankenstein's bride, Marlene Dietrich, Bela Lugosi and, um, a dead babysitter all make appearances. These are songs of distance and loneliness spread out across a vast geography of ghettos, grottos and Super 8 motels, combined with a sense of mortality that is impossible to shake. "They buried her there in the garden/ Behind the refinery," Ronson sings on "Sex With Ghosts," while in other places Grace's characters walk "on the shadowy side of the street" and realize that the "stars shine brighter and brighter/ Until they go out." Grace's lyrics - already solid back in his My Favorite days - have simply never been better or more nuanced.

Plenty of other aspects make The World That Never Was so intriguing - the theological musings of "Sister Rose" and "How I Saved My Life," occasional bouts of dry humor and flawless ensemble performances from the seven-member band also deserve mention - but the album succeeds because its disconcertingly beautiful arrangements and expressive lyrics complement each other so well. If our lives, dreams and little desperations could be put to music, we'd be fortunate if this is what they'd sound like.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Revisit: Cobb - by Al Stump

spectrum culture,, it's time you visited

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

An "absolute shit" was how Ernest Hemingway described him. "He had a screw was like his brain was miswired so that the least damned thing would set him off," the American writer remarked. To Harold Seymour, he was "temperamental, humorless, egocentric." "With Detroit he had no friends...they hated his guts," the historian once wrote. Philadelphia A's manager Connie Mack colorfully summarized him as a "back-alley artist" and a "no-good ruffian." Perhaps player Fred Haney said it best: "He had spells, fits. Unimportant things made him blow. Some of the boys thought it was a case of brain fever."

Such is the image of Ty Cobb that dominates Al Stump's stellar 1994 biography, now rightly regarded as one of the finest sports biographies ever penned. Expertly written and meticulously researched, Cobb is as close to legitimate historical writing as a sports-based biography can get. Stump, who previously acted as ghostwriter for Cobb's one-sided and deceptively titled autobiography My Life in Baseball: The True Record, produced the definitive and most objective examination of the ballplayer yet with this study. Written fluidly and with a flair for the both the mundane and dramatic aspect's of Cobb's life, it belongs on any serious list of the last century's best biographies.

The Ty Cobb that emerges from the pages of this biography was most often a bastard. Not in the literal sense - the ballplayer was the son of a teacher father and underage teenage bride mother - but in ways that such a term cannot possibly fully capture. Cobb was deeply flawed, both on and off the diamond; it's no wonder only three players attended his funeral in 1961. Despite his obvious admiration for Cobb as an athlete, Stump is brutally direct when examining Cobb as a person. The depiction is not pretty: short-tempered, excessively racist even by the standards of his time, negligent as a father and husband, frequently brawling with fans, teammates, opponents and even umpires upon the slightest perceived insult, Cobb comes across as a loose cannon and live wire rolled into one.

His sins were many and were almost so frequent as to border on the type of fisticuffs-infused excess usually reserved for a violent Hollywood blockbuster. Often his victims were black; in 1906 he choked a black woman, while in 1909 he somehow managed to escape serious jail time after an altercation with a hotel employee resulted in the employee being stabbed numerous times by Cobb. Whites weren't exempt from such outbursts either; in one infamous incident, Cobb climbed into the stands to rough up a crippled fan who had been jeering him during a game. The man, who only had two fingers on one hand and none on the other, was defenseless as Cobb pounded him. The crowd's cries for mercy were met with none. "I don't care if he has no legs" Cobb reportedly snarled during the attack.

But goddamn he was a fantastic player, as Stump demonstrates throughout this biography. Still today Cobb's stats - his career batting average, number of hits, stolen bases, batting titles, to mention but a few - defy believability, even though the outfielder played most of his career in the so-called deadball era. Stump convincingly shows that Cobb was essentially a scientific ballplayer, with an emphasis placed on precision hitting, sometimes-reckless base stealing and mental warfare waged against opponents and, in some cases, teammates, officials and club owners. Cobb mastered the art of antagonism on the diamond; trash talking was part of his repertoire long before it had a formal name, while his spikes-out slides frequently left opponents' legs bloodied or worse. To Stump's credit, he never gets bogged down in regurgitating Cobb's gaudy career numbers, instead carefully weaving specific plays and events into the broader narrative of the player's life.

Though Stump offers an unflinchingly honest summary of Cobb's often reprehensible actions, the author still manages to evoke some degree of sympathy for the baseball legend. The burden of coping with his father's death - shot to death by Cobb's mother under mysterious circumstances in 1905 - apparently weighed heavily on Cobb throughout his life. The degree to which that event influenced the player's actions in both his personal and professional life is of course open to conjecture, but Stump suggests the impact on Cobb's psyche was severe. Cobb in some ways was a forerunner to the modern athlete: he invested and endorsed wisely, becoming a millionaire in the process, challenged baseball's restrictive labor policies decades before free agency would become a reality, glad-handed with politicians and presidents and even established a college fund for underprivileged Georgia students. Essentially, Ty Cobb became a brand unto himself, with all the positive and negative connotations that brand evinced.

In his final years Cobb cut a pathetic figure; still prone to spasms of violence and unpredictability, his last days were spent battling the effects of cancer, diabetes and overconsumption of booze as his health - but apparently not his acerbic tongue - declined. He died with none of the fanfare and goodwill afforded his rival Babe Ruth - whose brawny, long-ball style of play Cobb loathed - and will likely be remembered as much for his sandpaper personality as his various baseball achievements. No one will ever truly know what made Cobb tick; maybe he was mentally tweaked as those who encountered him - or who otherwise felt his physical or mental wrath - him stated.

Though Cobb remains inscrutable in many ways over a century after his first professional game, Al Stump's biography offers the most complete understanding of the man that we are likely to ever have. As sports fans we sometimes tend to romanticize our sports giants and ignore any unsavory aspects that cloud such a mythical ideal. Al Stump's biography glosses over nothing; impartial as any such book should be yet written with an appreciation for Cobb's on-field accomplishments, Cobb is a brilliant, and often troubling, account of a man whose fame - and infamy - are still etched in both baseball's and America's history.