Category Archives: Reviews (Of Any And All Things)

Book A Week 1: The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Simon And Schuster, Book Club Edition, Copyright 1978

Simon And Schuster, Book Club Edition, Copyright 1978

Well, I’ve finally decided to take the plunge. Yes indeed, I just (well, two days ago) finished my first week in a book-a-week challenge, and I have to say: I feel pretty damn good about it. But before I get into the book itself, a word about the impetus behind such seeming insanity.

I must confess, I’ve never been a terribly prolific reader. I’ve always wanted to be a prolific reader, but only in the same way I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who wakes up and goes for a run at 5:30 a.m. as the sun barely begins cresting the horizon. The Theory = a pretty cool way to go about dancing on this Earth. The Practice = hitting my iPhone’s snooze button (icon?) until my dogs all but grab me by the ankles and drag me down the stairs.

Don’t get me wrong—I adore reading. In case you haven’t noticed, I do a bit of writing now and then, and when I’m not writing I am probably engaged in some form of reading. Novels. Long form journalism. Comics. Memoirs. Online essays. The backs of cereal boxes. So yeah, reading itself has never been the problem. Reading a lot in a short amount of time, however…now that’s a dust jacket of a different color.

If I had to guess (and this, friends, is a rather liberal guess) I would say I go through—maybe—10 books a year. And that would be a good year. To be sure, that’s certainly a better number than, say, someone who doesn’t read at all, but it’s not a number of which I am terribly proud. I want to read more not only because I love reading (or because I am acutely aware of the enormity of my dream reading list juxtaposed to the limited number of days each of us is granted upon this frail plane). I also want to read more because I believe it makes us all better people. And it makes me a better writer.

Personally, my brain and spirit just feel, well, different when I’m reading a lot. My observations about life are more keen and more quick to rise from those dread bottomless depths increasingly littered with the ephemera of pop-up ads, inane Facebook posts, and so much (oh so much) clickbait. It’s a cliche for sure, but there is no better brain exercise than frequent reading. And that’s the triple truth, Ruth.

As for the writing part—same. When I’m not reading with some degree of fervency, I’m also not writing (at least not in the way I want to write). The two tasks feed off of each other in some kind of weird, cerebral dance I’m still trying to figure out. Reading makes me want to write, and writing makes me want to read. Dig?

Consider the way Stephen King puts it in his most excellent On Writing (a memoir about, well, writing—seriously, read this book):

The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor.

Right on. I completely understood this when I first read it more than ten years ago (!) and it still rings incredibly true today.

And so here I am, staring down the barrel of a challenge that feels at once both overwhelming and exhilarating. On one hand, 52 books is a lot of books. On the other hand, 52 books…IS A LOT OF BOOKS! Isn’t that exciting? I’ll finally read Animal Farm. And 1984. And Rabbit Run. And The Giver. And, like, a whole lot more. Yeah. It’s pretty damn exciting.

Besides, I’ve done the math. If I typically tackle books between 200 and 300 pages, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50 pages a day. Does’t sound too menacing, does it? Sure, this means reading every morning over coffee and breakfast instead of catching up on the next installment of classic Doctor Who (I’m currently up to Episode One of “Death to the Daleks,” for those of you playing along at home), but isn’t that, like, the point?

Well, having already completed one week of this exercise I am fairly confident that I can (and will) do this. As a precaution against falling off the wagon, I’ve also decided to blog about each week’s literary conquest—so keep me accountable interneters! So, now that you know a little about this project, let’s talk a little about Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.

Dust jacket photo of Graham Greene, taken by some chap with the cool ass name Ottawa Karsh.

Dust jacket photo of Graham Greene, taken by some chap with the cool ass name Ottawa Karsh.

There are three reasons I chose this as my first book (none of which are particularly poignant):

1. Greene wrote The Power and the Glory, one of my all-time favorite novels and—for my money—one of the greatest books ever written.

2. I’ve never been entirely comfortable saying “I’m a fan of Graham Greene” knowing that I’ve only got one of his books under my belt.

3. My wife and I recently moved. As a result, all of our novels are still in boxes. This one was at the top of the first box I opened last week. Win win.

I must say, I wasn’t all that thrilled with the novel at the start. Veering quite noticeably from the spiritual and existential themes and overall ethos of The Power and the Glory, The Human Factor concerns the seemingly pedestrian life of a British secret service agent named Castle (first name Maurice). Turns out he’s got quite an interesting backstory that involves a clandestine love affair with (and eventual marriage to) a South African woman named Sarah and the adoption of her infant son as his own. There’s also a lot of angst going on about apartheid and Communism and a few other dated intricacies that sometimes confused me in their lack of context, but once given a chance, The Human Factor really begins to delight with its literary minimalism and overriding atmosphere of paranoia wedged between the gloomy hum-drum of British life in the late 70s. From the inside dust jacket:

The Human Factor marks Graham Greene’s triumphant return to the ambiguous world of deceit, illusion, treachery, faith and loneliness that is espionage…

I think the key word there is “loneliness.” That’s the emotion I didn’t expect to encounter, but it’s also the emotion that continued to fascinate and move me throughout the course of this curious little novel. Loneliness is an obvious occupational hazard here (not only for Castle, but also for the hand full of secondary characters that litter the story, including the brilliantly realized Colonel Daintry). What’s more, this loneliness is an existential byproduct that seems to be absent of any really redemptive subsequent. In other words, no one in this story is particularly convicted about what he does, yet they all bemoan the dour prospects of their respective fates. Oh sure, there’s some very pale allusions to national duty or some such folderol, but I venture to guess that everyone in this novel (most especially the protagonist) would much rather be sipping whiskey on a country porch somewhere. Yes, everyone here is a spy, but they might as well be working for the DMV.

Upon doing a slight bit of research I came to realize this was precisely Greene’s intention. His objective was “to write a novel of espionage free from the conventional violence, which has not, in spite of James Bond, been a feature of the British Secret Service.” He goes on to say that he “wanted to present the Service unromantically as a way of life, men going daily to their office to earn their pension.”

Objective, consider thyself achieved. This is indeed a spy novel with almost (almost) every ounce of sex, violence and cliched adrenaline stripped away, leaving us instead with men who are supremely unhappy with the choices they’ve made in life wandering through the mists of Britain yearning for escape that will never come. It’s a rather bleak tale that bears some hallmark passages only Greene could compose. Consider this moment between Colonel Daintry (who has just returned from a funeral) and one of his more fusty colleagues:

“I’ve come from a funeral.”

“No one close, I hope?”

“No. Someone from the office.”

“Oh well. A funeral’s always better to my mind than a wedding. I can’t bear weddings. A funeral’s final. A wedding—well, it’s only an unfortunate stage to something else. I’d rather celebrate a divorce—but then that’s often a stage too, to just another wedding. People get into the habit.”

Or even wonderfully simple lines like, “A man in love walks through the world like an anarchist, carrying a time bomb.”

All in all, an intriguing—if, at times, a bit tedious—novel. The end result is a sense of inescapable gloom that only Greene can deliver, even when his subject matter is international espionage instead of whiskey priests and broken vows.

Up Next: A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’ Engle

Doctor Who Marathon: The Krotons

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Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: David Maloney
Producer: Peter Bryant
Story Number: 47
Number of Episodes: 4
Season: 6

When I first started digging into classic Doctor Who last October (in preparation for the upcoming 50th Anniversary special) I scoured the web for blogs that could help point me in the direction of some of the series’ most essential stories. The goal was to watch at least one episode from every Doctor’s era (including the 1996 TV movie), and with 239 stories from which to choose I needed a little guidance. If you’re interested, here’s a great Doctor-by-Doctor guide from The Nerdist and another from WhatCulture.com.

What I didn’t understand at first was why some of these stories were so universally celebrated. For instance, everyone just raved and raved about “Tomb Of The Cybermen,” but when I got around to watching this Troughton classic I left the story feeling kinda…meh. I just didn’t see the big deal. Now, 43 stories into my marathon, I can officially say that I get it, and “The Krotons” is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

This story marks the first effort from writer Robert Holmes, who would go on to pen a host of celebrated classics like “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Deadly Assassin”, and “The Caves of Androzani.” Holmes is widely regarded as one of the show’s most interesting and engaging writers, a fact that gave me a false sense of hope going into “The Krotons.” With Homles’ name attached to it I figured this one had to be pretty good. Alas, my expectations were left sadly unmatched by the story.

The thing is “The Krotons” isn’t a bad story. Believe me, I’ve seen a lot worse. It’s relatively taut (only four episodes long) and the plot moves along at a rather brisk clip. But on the whole it’s a more-or-less mediocre romp that, to my mind, serves to remind us why other stories in the classic Who oeuvre are considered to be veritable masterpieces by comparison. A story like “Tomb of the Cybermen” not only provides us with a haunting plot, menacing villains, and very clever direction, but it also gives us some intriguing new layers to the Doctor’s character and an internal conflict between saving the day and satisfying his insatiable lust for knowledge (a compelling conceit that is often a hallmark of what makes contemporary Doctor Who stories so fascinating). Consider, for instance, this brilliant bit of introspection from “Tomb of the Cybermen”:

“The Krotons”, by comparison, doesn’t have anything of the sort.

The Plot: Coming off a particularly harrowing Earth adventure (the most excellent “The Invasion“) the TARDIS appears on a planet inhabited by the Gonds, a somewhat primitive human-like race ruled and enslaved by aliens called Krotons. As legend has it, the Krotons’ ship—the Dynatrope—crash-landed on the Gonds’ planet thousands of years ago, and they’ve been in charge ever since.

The Krotons (1)

I am a Kroton. If you make any jokes about putting me on a salad I will disperse you immediately!

But no Gond has ever seen a Kroton. Instead, the Krotons maintain control over the planet’s indigenous people by educating them through a mysterious computer that only teaches them as much as the Krotons want them to know (knowledge of advanced weaponry and corrosive chemicals, for instance, is strictly verboten). Every so often two of the best Gond students are chosen to become “companions of the Krotons.” They’re invited into the Dynatrope, which every Gond thinks is a pretty cool honor, but all it really means is that the chosen Gonds are drained of their mental energy and then killed with some kind of insidious gas. Bummer.

After some time The Doctor eventually figures out what’s going on. The Krotons are in a state of suspended animation and are only interested in absorbing mental power from the smartest Gonds. When they’ve built up enough of the brainy stuff they can re-materialize, fix their ship, and get the hell back to Krotonville. But of course their plan goes tits up when The Doctor arrives, eventually destroying the Krotons and their Dynatrope with sulphuric acid.

The Pros: Like so many classic Who stories, this one starts off with a promisingly mysterious premise. Why the hell is everyone so eager to be chosen for a one-way ticket to Kroton companionship? It’s a conceit that drew me in immediately, and it’s not until the third episode—once we get an actual look at the K Monsters—that the mystery unravels and is replaced by a more literal LET’S KILL ‘EM plot. Also, Jamie has a pretty bad ass moment in the first episode when he opts to fight one of the Gonds and dismisses the option to use a weapon. “I won’t be needing that, thank you.” Yeah Jamie. Rock on.

The Cons: I often fall into the trap of assuming these classic stories are going to unfold in a manner that I’ve come to expect from the show’s contemporary iteration. For instance, if this were a Doctor Who story being written today, The Doctor would not merely be content with destroying the Krotons. Sure, they’ve enslaved an entire race for thousands of years and throttled their intellectual evolution at the service of their own needs. But come on. All they want is to go home. Are they not even slightly justified? It would have been much more interesting if The Doctor decided to not only help the Gonds free themselves from bondage but to also assist the Krotons in their effort to get back to where they once belonged (everybody wins!), setting up a fascinating conflict between the Gonds’ justified need for vengeance and The Doctor’s more holistic view on every living creature’s right to survive (well, within reason). For an example of this you should check out the ninth Doctor story “Boom Town,” where The Doctor is forced to contemplate whether or not he has the right to sentence an enemy to death, no matter how grievous their actions.

Final Rating: 5/10 (It’s as middle-of-the-road) as they come.

The Beatles: Let It Be & Yesterday And Today

For today’s entry I’ve posted my evening post from The Spin, a Tumblr blog dedicated to my vinyl record collection. Enjoy.

As I’ve mentioned in previous Spin posts, I haven’t put much conscious effort into adding Beatles records to my collection. Not only are worthwhile copies usually outside my spending threshold on any given day, but I kind of harbor this notion that at some point in the (not too distant?) future I will actually commit to bulking up on these Liverpudlian lads’ library. And when I do I want to do it right. Should I go all mono or all stereo? Should I look for particular pressings (about which I known nothing at this point) or just pursue quality in general? Until I sort all of this out, I sort of just take whatever comes my way. Which is how I came into this rather shoddy copy of Let It Be.

I honestly don’t remember how this came into my possession, but I think it may have been one of several records Cydnee’s mom donated to the cause about two years ago. Which was cool. Despite the rather sad circumstances under which it was recorded, it’s always been one of my favorite Beatles efforts. Sure, you come for classics like “Across the Universe” and the album’s famed title track, but you stay for the more obscure ditties like “I’ve Got A Feeling,” “For You Blue,” and “One After 909.” The whole thing is a testament to the fact that even when the band’s chemistry and endurance was up against the ropes, these guys still managed to put out a collection of kick ass music.

The shame of it all is that this record is practically unlistenable. It’s not warped or scratched, but for some reason the pitch of every song ebbs and flows from start to finish, making it sound like someone is slowing it down and then speeding it up at random intervals. I don’t know why, but it kinda sucks. Still, the album looks pretty cool, which is something. I guess.

It also came with like 20 photocopies that someone decided to make from the album’s iconic cover. I wonder why…

Then there’s Yesterday and Today. Again, I don’t know how it came into my possession (see the above theory for a possible explanation) but I’m glad it did.

Released in 1966, the album is a compilation of tracks from the band’s two most recent British LPs at the time—Help! and Rubber Soul—as well as a few from the upcoming Revolver. Unfortunately the copy I have is not one of the original pressings, which came with an entirely different cover, known in most circles as “The Butcher Cover.” Here’s what it looked like:

Yeah, I know. There’s a very interesting story behind this original cover, as well as the reasons why it was eventually changed. To read all about it click here. Obtaining a “Butcher Cover” copy of Yesterday and Today is considered a Holy Grail in most vinyl collector circles, so until I set out on that particular pilgrimage this one will have to do. Besides, the cover of the one I have still has an interesting little anecdote. Notice who’s sitting inside the trunk? Yup. That image is just one of many supposed “Paul Is Dead” clues littered throughout Beatles lore. And the music isn’t half bad either.

Doctor Who Marathon: The Mind Robber

The_Mind_Robber_VHS_UK_cover

Writer: Peter Link
Director: David Maloney
Producer: Peter Bryant
Story Number: 45
Number of Episodes: 5 (20 minutes each)
Season: 6

Since I first began this Doctor Who marathon mission of mine oh so many months ago, I’ve come to realize something maddening about story titles. Some of the most intriguing ones wind up being absolute rubbish (I’m looking at you Dominators). And that’s why I was cautiously optimistic when I found out the next installment was called “The Mind Robber.” Now doesn’t that sound damn cool? Well, I’m delighted to report that this one lived up to its namesake expectations—exceeded them actually. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say this is one of my favorite classic Who episodes to date.

The Plot: In order to escape a Dulcian volcano of doom (please get off that damn planet A-SAP!), The Doctor has to revert to rather unconventional measures and remove the TARDIS from “normal” time and space. He doesn’t want to do this because, you know, “normal” time and space is where everyone is most cozy. But he has no choice. If he doesn’t, he and his companions will wind up as little more than mummified remains in an intergalactic Pompeii exhibit of the future (or is it the past?).

The plan works. Kind of. The good news is that it gets them off Dulkis. The bad news is that The Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie suddenly find themselves floating in a frighteningly empty void that explodes the TARDIS into a dozen pieces and leaves them clinging to the control console, terrified and completely alone. Oh yeah, it’s pretty cool.

The next few minutes unfold with dream-like perplexity as Jamie and Zoe suddenly find themselves surrounded by an unending white expanse where they are each beckoned by illusory temptations from their respective time periods. Then some intimidating white robots show up and escort our heroes into, well, we don’t know where.

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The robots! They’re so…white!

Meanwhile The Doctor awakens in a surreal forest of some kind, which he eventually comes to realize is a land of fiction inhabited by creepy wind-up soldiers, Gulliver (ya know, the one who had all the travels), Rapunzel, a smattering of mythological baddies, and a hoard of irritating school boys and girls who speak only in riddles (Are you my mummy?).

To make a long (and fascinating) story short, it turns out that this obtuse universe is presided over by a man known as the Master (no, not that Master…sadly). He’s an English writer from 1926 who is being controlled by something called the Master Brain. Anxious to free himself from the clutches of the Brain, the English writer has devised a cunning plot: Make The Doctor take over his compositional duties so he can get the hell home. Oh yeah, and the Master Brain wants to take over the Earth…but more on that later.

That’s about as far as I’ll go in explaining the plot, because half the fun of this episode is winding through the surreal mystery along with out heroes (and there is a lot of surreal mystery to be had here).

The Pros: Doctor Who is often at its best when the story puts its main characters in terrifying situations that bend everyday perceptions of time and space, especially when those situations are being controlled by an unseen and unknown, outside force. Sadly, I’ve come to realize there is a real dearth of this in the show’s first few seasons (with the exception of gems like The Edge of Destruction, The Time Meddler, and The Invasion). “The Mind Robber”, however, goes further in this regard than any episode I’ve seen thus far, and fans of the show’s modern-day manifestation will not be disappointed, as the story is an undeniable harbinger for contemporary classics like Amy’s Choice, The Girl Who Waited, and Midnight. The direction is fluid and surreal while the story itself (for the most part) employs some truly novel conceits that are at once suspenseful and thought provoking. One can even go so far as to ruminate on some potentially meta-fictive themes going on here. Consider: If The Doctor suddenly finds himself in a world of fiction, does that mean he too is a work of fiction? Because, well, he is…at least to us…I mean, in this world…but he doesn’t know it…I mean, in his world…oh you get the point. It’s a genuinely clever and entertaining story from start to (almost) finish.

The Cons: Well, I probably could have done without Karkus, a fictional (to us) cartoon character from the year 2000 (woah, future!). He’s an unnecessary bit of childish camp thrown into an otherwise taught, mature story.

I am Karkus. Fear my muscles.

I am Karkus. Fear my muscles.

But even more frustrating than Karkus is the way the story ends. After everything we’ve been through we find out that the Master Brain is interested in luring everyone on Earth into this fictitious world, rendering them helpless and leaving the planet free for the taking. Ugh…really? It’s a disappointing and far-too-literal conclusion to a story that was, up to that point, thick, heady, and abstract in all the right ways. It kind of feels like Peter Link got to the last episode and was like, “Hm. I’ve painted myself into a pretty tight fucking corner here, haven’t I? Bullocks. Well, um, yeah. Takeover the Earth. That’s it!” In the hands of someone like Steven Moffat the conclusion would have been far richer and probably involved some kid of plot to make sure literary characters never died, even at the expense of the humans that created them. Or something. But the story’s lackluster denouement is certainly not enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater. All told, “The Mind Robber” is one for the ages, and it’s one of the reasons a chap like myself marches on through such a daunting marathon.

Final Rating: 8/10 (points lost for Karkus and the conclusion)

Doctor Who Marathon: The Dominators

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Writer: Norman Ashby
Director: Morris Barry
Producer: Peter Bryant
Story Number: 44
Number of Episodes: 5
Season: 6

Well, out of the 24 classic Who stories I’ve seen so far, The Dominators may be the worst (and that’s saying something when you consider that I’ve suffered through such gems as The Gunfighters and The Sensorites). And I have to say, I’m stunned that this is how the BBC saw fit to kick off season six. Really guys? This was the best you could do?

The Plot: The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe arrive on the peaceful planet Dulkis. The Doctor’s been here before, and he’s delighted to return. Pulling a beach ball and folding chair from the depths of the TARDIS, he and his companions expect to enjoy a nice restful holiday on a planet inhabited by a society that has “outlawed war.” What could possibly go wrong?

Well, just around the bend two dour chaps in ridiculous, swallowing shoulder pads land their spaceship. These are The Dominators, a race that apparently only respects “the authority of superior force” (and enormous shoulder pads). But don’t be fooled. These guys may come armed with a menacing name (and did I mention the shoulder pads?) but they’re almost as dull and tedious as the planet on which they’ve arrived.

Hey, um, do my shoulder pads look smaller than yours? Be honest now.

Hey, um, do my shoulder pads look smaller than yours? Be honest now.

And why are The Dominators here you may ask? Well, apparently Dulkis experienced a nuclear catastrophe almost 200 years ago, and there is now an uninhabitable island that is highly radioactive down to the core—and The Dominators just love radioactivity. It’s what fuels their ship. So yeah, they want it. All of it.

Oh yeah, and The Dominators also brought some friends with them—small robotic servants called Quarks. I’d rather not waste too much brain power describing the Quarks ridiculous design, so here you go:

Man, I thought we were auditioning for Daleks!

Man, I thought we were auditioning for Daleks!

In the end The Doctor must attempt to save the planet because the Dulcians are a bunch of bureaucratic, pacifist weenies who can’t be bothered to so much as leave the couch let alone raise up arms against an invading alien force (they’re the ones who outlawed war, remember?). They’re pretty much the worst. Nonetheless The Doctor, being the righteous dude that he is, decides to save them anyway, even though I’m kinda sure intergalactic Darwinism pretty much demands for their extinction.

Let's uh, just sit this one out. I'll get the Funions.

Let’s uh, just sit this one out. I’ll get the Funions.

The Pros: It’s so maddening when Doctor Who misses the opportunity to delve deeper into a particular plot point or intriguing aside. So is the case here with the Dulcians. At first their pacifism seems like a noble aspect of societal evolution, but it quickly becomes clear that even too much pacifism is, well, bad. There are a handful of delightful scenes involving the council of Dulcian something-or-others debating what should be done about these Dominators (who are hell bent on eradicating the entire planet). In the end they basically decide to just sit it out. “Even non action is a form of action,” declares one Dulcian jamoke. And that’s what they do. They sit. And then they debate some more. And then they sit some more. It’s an intriguing device that forces one to consider the maddening ills of both bureaucracy  and extremism (no matter how seemingly noble the pursuit). Sure, outlawing war and guns and violence sounds great. But when someone comes knocking on your doors and says, “Excuse me, but I’m going to burn your fucking house down if that’s okay,” you should probably step into Plan B. Oh yeah, and Troughton rocks (as per usual).

The Cons: Ugh…I don’t want to waste too much time here because for anyone who has seen this particular story knows all too well what it lacks. The direction is stiff. The villains (both The Dominators and their trash bin servants) are quite possibly the least intimidating and tedious that I’ve seen so far. They don’t seem all that menacing, clever, or even adept at their namesake task. You could probably topple a Quark with a hearty exhale blown through a straw. I’d rather watch Sensorites read the phone book than sit through one more scene involving The Dominators arguing about whether or not they should kill the Dulcians. Also, as is the case with so many Troughton-era stories there are too many episodes. This could have easily been whittled down to three or four at most.

Final Rating: 2/10

Let Us Now Praise…Robert Ellis

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One of the most loathsome tropes employed by music critics is the comparison of a new band or artist to an old band or artist for the sake of lending credence, understanding, or street cred to the many ineffable qualities of uncharted sonic territory. You know, something like, “Dawes is today’s heir apparent to The Band.” No. Dawes is Dawes and The Band is (was) The Band. Sure, all art is reductive on some level, but grasping at these low-hanging-fruit comparisons is just not fair, neither to the new nor the old. In doing so we water down the energy of the contemporary for the sake of nostalgia or simplicity (and yes, I’ve been guilty of doing this myself). That being said, when a February 2014 Esquire blurb did this with singer-songwriter Robert Ellis, I’ll admit, it made me sit up:

“The 25-year-old Texan is Paul Simon trapped in Tom Waits’s head, with George Jones’s voice. He’s what Jim James might sound like if he’d liked Randy Newman more than the Band.”

Ugh. Admittedly, that blurb is one big orgy of regrettable comparisons, but it did the trick and inspired me to give Ellis a digital spin. And I’ve been delighted ever since.

With three full length albums under his belt—The Great Re Arranger (2009), Photographs (2011), and The Lights From The Chemical Plant (2014)—Ellis’s talents as a lyricist and vocalist are undeniable as he aches his way through landscape tales of disillusion, complicated love, and American ennui with a pinched and plaintive whine accented by slide guitars, jangly pianos, and inspiring dynamics. And while I’ll resist the urge to do so myself, it’s easy to see why Esquire saw fit to make the comparisons it did, name dropping the likes of Waits and Newman in its review. Because there’s something slanted about the songs of Robert Ellis, who lures listeners with the charm of his melodies but then takes them by the hand through sinuous back alleys of irony, insight, and sympathetic satire once they’re hooked. Consider, for instance, these lines from “TV Song,” the opener of The Lights From The Chemical Plant:

I am not a failure, I played the hand that I was dealt
But every now and then I do pretend that I am someone else
It takes no imagination, just a flick of the remote
Then I am on vacation in a life someone else wrote

Maybe I’m a millionaire, I travel over the world
I’m handsome and respected, I get all those pretty girls
So calm and mysterious, fighting for the greater good
People love and adore me from New York to Hollywood

Well, this may not be the healthiest, I know
But I’m happiest when I exist through my favorite TV shows

I’m a gun fighter, I’m a bull rider
I’m the captain of some pirate ship at sea
For a couple hours I got super powers
Oh my God, I love watching my TV, oh yeah
Oh my God, I love watching my TV

In the hands of lesser talent, a song like this would be nothing more than a self-righteous hipster’s sneering lament about the trappings of contemporary escapism. I mean, I don’t even own a TV, man. But Ellis treats the characters in his songs with a melancholic kindness that inspires introspection rather than condescension. Give it a listen:

Another highlight is his most recent album’s namesake, “Chemical Plant,” an impressionist tale of young love juxtaposed against industrial skylines.

She says my heart is like an orphan
And your words are like home
I do not deserve such kindness
Keeps me warm down to my arms
We bear some strange familiar likeness
To a man I feel I know

As if to keep each other safe
They spent the night and then embrace

And the lights from the chemical plant
Burn bright in the night like an old kerosene lamp
When all seemed unstable
I could watch how they were there
The lights from the chemical plant

I could go on at great length about the virtues of Robert Ellis, but you gotta hear it for yourself, because it’s well worth the listen. This guy not only understands the sublime and painful nuances of life, but he gets America and what it means to feel the way we feel during this specific time and age. And that’s a rare quality indeed.

Review: “Topography of a Bird”

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“Three things are necessary,” wrote Thomas Aquinas, “for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do.” It could be said that Topography of a Bird, the charming full-length debut from singer-songwriter Mark Rice, is an exploration of that path to enlightenment. Full of transcendental petitions for love, comfort, and understanding, Topography is a record that explores some complicated queries through some improbably uncomplicated folk melodies and introspective lyrics; the meditations of a journeyman concerned less with the answers than he is with the questions at hand.

Topography of a Bird is the stuff of Sunday night introspection; of those solitary moments that descend after the church lights have dimmed, the monks have retired for the evening, and the rest of the congregants have gone home. In those instances, alone and unhinged against the backdrop of forever, one rarely thinks in nuanced poetry or grand declarations. Instead, he thinks (prays, meditates) on the perpetually dawning sweep of his life in the broader scope, and Rice seems to understand this quite well, whittling his search down to its most primary parts. How have I failed? How have I succeeded? What do I desire? What do I despise? Who am I now and what do I eventually wish to become? That his music appeals to these (quote-unquote) big life questions without proselytization or solipsistic trifling is a laudable feat, and it’s what males Topography at once so enjoyable and also so severe.

Belief, desire, and action. Rice raises the curtain on these concerns from the outset with the album’s whispered opening track, “Show Me How To Love,” a lyrically and sonically understated entree that begins with the chirping rhythm of nighttime crickets before the first strum of guitars. As the song builds Rice returns to one simple refrain over and over again: “Show me how to love/ Show me how to love/ When the stars are so bright…so bright.” It’s a soft meditation that sets the table for the album’s ensuing 13 tracks.

To be sure, Rice’s brush strokes are broad, even at times a little vague, as he peppers Topography with supplicant titles like “Hold Me Now,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Save Me Tonight.” But this strain of indeterminate invocation—to a woman? to a friend? to God?—is the record’s greatest strength. It’s what binds the album as an honest and accessible work. And even when he sometimes dances on the edge of sentimentality Rice never gives in, always managing to avoid preciousness with an easy turn of phrase. His songs—along with all of their potential vagaries—are both intensely personal (see the wonderfully haunting “Ohio”) and yet universally appealing to a hunger for understanding what it means to be frail and broken and human.

In “Hold Me Now,” Rice is “at the crossroads/ Looking for the ancient way, the good way.” In “Don’t Let Me Down”—a road-ready, drive-time ditty—he beckons, “Don’t let the day get away/ Until I make amends.” And in “Maybe This Time,” one of Topography’s standout tracks: “I’m messed up and broken/ And I can’t see past my pride.” The cynics may confuse these for the lamentations of an old-world Pollyanna, the cries a man who still believes that perhaps salvation is simpler than we think. But where Rice’s silence and simplicity leave off, the vibrancy of the album’s musicality picks up.

Topography’s edge of enlightenment owes much to the production of David Young, a vintage stylist with some serious pop-rock predilections that harken back less to Dylanesque balladeers than to The Beach Boys or Weezer. Pulling from that tradition, Young allows Rice’s otherwise simple, coffee-shop melodies to blossom and grow into their fuller organic potential. Consider “Tuscan Sun,” a bittersweet number that, in the hands of a lesser reggisseur, might suffer under the weight of its own importance. But Young—who sings backup and also plays several studio instruments on the record, including some impressive lead guitar and harmonica—transforms the track into something wholly anthemic. You can almost see the lighters being raised in unison as a grand, harmonic chorus swells in the final minute, begging “Don’t let the sun go down now/ All my life I’ve waited now I/ Know your eyes, your life, your smile with mine.” It’s a sublime moment.

The same could be said of “Be With you Tonight.” What begins as an unadorned bedroom ballad—a little bit Elliot Smith, a little bit Ray Lamontagne—slowly builds into another one of Topography’s unexpected anthems, swelling with pianos, thudding percussion, and electric guitars. Just when it seems Rice’s spirit is beyond saving, his music finds redemption yet again. Torture, death, rebirth. Let the rain fall down.

Rice also gets a lot of help from a respectable swath of studio musicians here, including the venerable Verien Brotzman on percussion, Tom Swope on bass, and Sissy Clemens on violin and vocals (more about her in a moment). But Topography’s background players do more than add layers to the music; they lend the album a casual air of good nature and inviting humor. Despite their gravity, Rice’s tunes are not depressive. In fact they are remarkably optimistic, and this chorus of musicians at his back only serve to drive home that point.

Only once on the album does Rice take a backseat to his fellow musicians, and the moment is one of Topography’s greatest triumphs. On “Starting Ground” Clemens takes the reigns and delivers a beautiful slice of smoky sensuality and sadness that thoroughly bely her mere 20 years. “Starting Ground” is a Clemens original and the only non-Rice tune on the record. Delivered at the album’s half-way mark, this late-night, bar-room piano ballad (I am painfully resisting the all-to-obvious Billie Holiday comparison here), which concerns itself with the simple sorrow of deception, takes the pathos to an entirely new level while never feeling out of place within the context of Topography’s greater aesthetic.

Rice has said the Topography’s title is derived from a quote he once heard about the ways in which thoughts are like birds. “We can’t stop them from flying over our heads,” it goes. “But we can keep them from making a nest in our hair.” What Rice has done is craft an album that is rich with flight and absent of any nests. It’s a patient album for a throughly impatient time, and at every turn it feels as though silent salvation is at hand.

BONUS TRACK: Check out the following clip of Rice performing “Ohio” last month in Pittsburgh during his record release concert.