About Ron

Surf guitarist, writer, library technician, Ron fills the daylight hours with dreams of reading, well-behaved pets and the perfect dark beer. Reading interests range from humor to mystery, steampunk to travel writing, historical fiction to surrealism.

Streaming Video

Streaming video has become old hat these days. Still, it’s nice to know that the library has streaming services available. Recently, I took it upon myself to see just what kind of offerings Hoopla has available for patrons of the Everett Public Library. And what I found might amaze you! Well, not really. In fact it’s not that surprising at all, but here it is.

Many of the movies offered by Hoopla are not first run blockbusters. In fact, popular fiction titles are few and far between. But for a person such as myself who is entertained by bad movies and can find good in mediocre movies, there’s a treasure trove of entertainment to be viewed.

Take for example The Radioland Murders. I discovered this movie some years ago and was never able to locate it again. Here we find a murder mystery set in the 1930s with lots of Art Deco, live radio broadcasts, full orchestras in the studio and a killer on the loose. The cast includes a variety of talented actors and the script is well written and entertaining. If you like live radio shows such as The Shadow, you’ll get a kick out of watching the shows be produced, seeing how the sound effects are made, and witnessing the stress of actors receiving scripts just moments before they have to speak the lines. In brief, if you enjoy murder mysteries this movie is well worth checking out. Thank you, Hoopla, for finding this treasure for me once again.

Another title I tried out was The Red House starring Edward G. Robinson. The movie was listed under film noir and I thought it might be based on a mystery by A.A Milne that I had read a few years back. This 1947 film, which in fact has nothing to do with the Milne book, focuses on middle aged siblings who own a small farm. Locals refer to them as the mysterious Martins. Next to their farm stands the Oxhead Woods, which turns out to be the real center of the mystery.

When high school senior Nath goes to work for the Martins, he simply wants to earn some cash. The couple’s adopted daughter Meg obviously has feelings for Nath, but he is planning to marry his girlfriend Tippy and doesn’t even notice Meg’s interest. Early on it becomes apparent that Mr. Martin, Pete, is obsessed with the woods and he tells everyone to avoid them. Something happened in his past in a red house in the woods and Pete hears screaming whenever he’s in those woods. But we don’t learn more about this for quite some time.

Ultimately, the movie is a psychological thriller and I don’t really want to give any more details so as not to give away the thrill of it to. Suffice to say, any time you watch an older movie that apparently has the soundtrack from a hygiene film, well, you know what you’re in for. Kidding aside, The Red House, while sometimes predictable, is still an enjoyable ride.

My final foray into Hoopla came in the guise of a spy thriller/action/comedy titled Operation Endgame. In this movie featuring a talented cast, the director couldn’t decide what type of movie he was making. While the original intent was probably for a spy spoof, the humor never grew much beyond occasional funny dialog. The action seems fine, the gore level adequate. The plot, involving a secret American intelligence group whose members are all trying to kill each other, was sufficiently twisty to satisfy my need for surprise and novelty.

It’s difficult to say much about the plot of this one without giving too much away. What I liked best is that anything could happen, any character could suddenly die. This took away the predictability that this type of movie often suffers from. I moderately recommend this film to anyone who enjoys spydom.

So there you have it. Oh, and let us not forget the best feature of Hoopla: It’s free! So you can take a chance on a movie that may or may not be outstanding. And, I recommend that you do so. But please, do not start with Nude Nuns with Big Guns (I did not make this up!). Slide into an easier title first before tackling the big guns.

I Am Speechless!

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Speechless is a clever sitcom driven by brilliant writing and acting. Amazingly, in 2019 it was ABC’s lowest rated show. Filled with a cast of characters viewers can truly care about, perhaps even want to hang out with, its failure leaves me utterly, wait for it, speechless.

At the center of Speechless we find the DiMeo family. Maya (played by Minnie Driver) is a superstar special-needs mom who is constantly on the lookout for the perfect school environment for J.J., her 16-year-old son. J.J.’s cerebral palsy relegates him to an electric wheelchair and requires him to communicate by pointing a laser at a word/letter board. He is intelligent, happy and generally a typical 16-year-old.

At the start of Season 1 the family moves into a new house (something they do every year) and J.J. undertakes his first experience with mainstream high school. Really, all he wants is to experience the same things as most teens. Maya is, shall we say, rather intense in her efforts to get the best of everything for J.J. and most people are somewhat scared of her. But persistence produces results and J.J. soon has a full-time aide, Kenneth, who goes to classes with him, speaks for him and helps him with physical tasks. Kenneth and J.J. soon form a tight bond that is unique in the annals of sitcoms.

The household is rounded out by husband Jimmy, an airport baggage handler who doesn’t really care what anyone thinks of him; Ray, the middle child, a worrier and realist who just wants a girlfriend; and Ray’s younger sister, Dylan, a competitive runner who has little time for nonsense unless it involves pranking Ray. They make up a close-knit family and although the others feel neglected at times, everyone is focused on providing J.J. with whatever he needs.

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One of the show’s main sources of tension is J.J.’s desire for independence versus Maya’s need to orchestrate his life. She has spent 16 years fighting for J.J., trying to make things easier for him. Now in high school he’s asking for opportunities to go to parties and school dances, play sled hockey and go to summer camp. Maya, understandably, has a hard time letting go. But Kenneth recognizes J.J.’s needs and desires and is an excellent advocate, which in turn leads to tension between Maya and Kenneth.

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Sibling subplots center around Ray’s quest for a girlfriend and Dylan’s insatiable need to win. Another recurring plot point is the family’s general messiness and lack of yard care. J.J. takes a lot of everyone’s energy and little is left for household chores. The DiMeos are fine with this, but neighbors do not always share their enthusiasm. Perhaps my favorite episode is “T-h-a Thanksgiving”. The family is supposed to visit Jimmy’s brother but don’t want to because, well, those relatives are horrible. The brother always humble-brags about his wealth and success; his wife cries at the drop of a hat; her mother performs weird semi-lap dances for J.J.; and their son says a single catch phrase each year and nothing else; So the DiMeos pretend that J.J. is sick and cancel the visit. However, the relatives decide to visit the DiMeos instead. As they continue to plan ways to avoid the unwanted gathering, Maya comes up with a brilliant idea, turning the relatives annoying habits into a game. Every time the wife cries Maya gets a point, when the brother brags Jimmy gets a point, and so on. This is a unique perspective on coping with difficult family interactions.

If you like sharp, clever writing, be sure to check out Speechless. It’s truly a superior and unusual show, well worth the price of admission. And please remember: no helmet, no hockey.

Ken Burns’ Country Music

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I listen to a wide variety of musical styles and one of my favorites is what I call Old Timey. This general label can include early blues, ragtime, folk, jug band and early country. So I eagerly anticipated Ken Burns’ latest documentary, titled simply Country Music. Little did I realize that my version of reality was about to be blown up like a trout in a mountain lake. 

Volume One of this monumental work looks at the folks who invented what we have come to know as country music, including the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry. Beautiful photographs mix with audio recordings and narrated histories. Although I’m more familiar with this music than many people, I still found myself watching with wonderment, learning stories (including scandals) that I’d not known, feeling as if I were present in the photos, cipherin’ the importance of individual performers.

For example, I did not know that Maybelle Carter, guitarist for the Carter Family, created her own style of guitar picking called, among other things, the thumb brush. Or that Jimmie Rodgers was so weak from tuberculosis during his final recording session that he had to rest on a cot between takes. And that Gene Autry’s singing cowboy films were vitally important in spreading country music to a national audience.

Someone I do know a bit about is Mr. Hank Williams, whose short but fertile career began to unfold in the 1940s. From his first hit in 1948 to his death in 1953, Williams created a litany of country standards that continue to be popular 70 years later. Outstanding songwriting skills and an appealing voice were the perfect combination to catapult Hank to stardom. But it was perhaps his lyrics that drew in listeners. Tales of heartache and ways to combat said heartache spoke to people in a way that popular music seldom did.

Country Music moves on to tell of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs developing a new style called bluegrass, of Elvis Presley and others taking country in a new direction that would eventually become rock and roll, and of Ray Charles’ importance in popularizing country with the release of his album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The amount of information in this documentary is phenomenal and we’ve only scratched the surface today. And, there’s also a Volume Two!

Part of the beauty of country music, and American music in general, is the combination of influences. Nobody woke up on a Tuesday and said, “Ah, I think I’ll invent country music!” American folk music, which is derived from European folk music, along with African influences, blues, jazz and swing all had an impact on the growth of country. For example, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys modeled themselves after swing bands, employing horn sections, drums, instrumental solos and a swing feel. And in the early 1950s honky tonk, boogie woogie and country, as well as other genres, coalesced into rockabilly and then rock and roll. It’s all intertwined.

So sit back and prepare to be stunned. Volume One is about eight hours of viewing time, so make sure you have a comfy chair and an adequate supply of beverages. And do not sit too close to the screen as this is bad for your eyes. And please, as always, allow time for bathroom breaks.

Best PNW Albums of 2019

It’s time to play that audience favorite, What’s The Best PNW Album of 2019? What do we have for today’s winner, Johnny?

(Silence)

Johnny seems to be, umm, a figment of my imagination. So let’s move on to this year’s contenders for What’s The Best PNW Album of 2019?

As I’ve probably said in the past, I’m not much for picking absolute favorites. So today I’ll present you with some very good albums that came out of the Pacific Northwest in 2019. None of these are being designated as “the best” album of the year, and there are many other releases I could easily include on my list. So buckle up and uncork a tall one.

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First up is a heavy dose of pure power pop from Seattle’s La Fille. Their latest album, Alright Already, is a primer in just how good power pop can be. Catchy, sweet melodies tempered with a fine steel edge of R&R. Fans of Matthew Sweet should dig this one.

Portland’s Shivas channel a heavy psychedelic/garage vibe on Dark Thoughts. In fact, this album sounds like it was made in 1965, not 2019. Massive reverb, caterwauling from beyond the grave, cascading stacks of mind-bending riffs combine to please your frontal lobe as only 60s rock can.

Tullycraft, hailing from Bellingham, is a local band that made it kinda big. They are recognized as one of the, if not the progenitor of twee pop. This genre combines catchy, poppy melodies with raw, unpolished vocals that lean a bit toward the spoken side. 2019’s The Railway Prince Hotel is an excellent example of what twee can be.

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Portland’s Minus 5 made a stunning comeback in 2019 after frontman Scott McCaughey’s stroke in late 2018. The indie rockers released Stroke Manor, an album which attempts to suggest the experience of having a stroke. Styles range from poppy to hard rocking and everything inbetween. Be sure to check this one out.

The Seattle-ites, strangely enough hailing from Seattle, pay tribute to legendary ska band the Skatelites. Lovers of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones beware! The music on The Thing! EP is firmly rooted in first wave ska, a relaxed walk through the rocksteady beat. Authentic, extremely well done. Expect more great music from this band in the future.

Local Teen stirs up Portland with their own brand of twee pop/punk on Low Vibrations, Bad Emotions. Picture twee lead vocals with shouted backup vocals, male and female lead singers, horns, fast tempos, a ton of variety. A great band and album, well worth exploring.

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If it is punk that you seek, look no further than Night Danger by Vancouver’s Alien Boys. Their brand of punk takes elements from early British punk, pop punk, and even a bit of hard rock. The sound is unique and a pleasant alternative to all the soundalike punk groups. Fans of 999 should dig this group.

And if it is a walk in the country that pleases your ear buds, Portland’s Little Sue can soothe your brow with her latest, Gold. Sue has been a fixture in Portland for over 25 years, and Gold displays her excellent songwriting skills, resulting in a modern, original country album that sounds like it’s filled with standards.

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Do you like your power pop on the rough side? Or perhaps you’re into indie Canadian pop punk? Vancouver’s Pudding just might be the answer to your every desire. Kind of loose or DIY, 2019’s Pop Over takes its title literally, showing where the music will go once pop is no longer. A highly recommended listening experience.

Finally, we round out 2019 with a bit of old timey busking music by Portland’s Lightnin’ Luke. Volume 2 is a raw recording of classic and original blues played by a single person. But the performances never sound small and are packed with excitement as well as fun. Just the thing to scratch your hokum itch.

A ton of superior music comes out of the NW every year. Be sure to explore what’s out there. And don’t forget Everett Public Library’s local music section. It’s well worth the price of admission.

The Good Place

Finally, the ultimate philosophical questions surrounding life and death have been answered. In a sitcom. Called The Good Place.

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The premise is a little difficult to explain without getting into multiple spoilers, but here we go.

There is an afterlife! When people die they either go to the Good Place or the Bad Place, depending on how they behaved while alive. The show focuses on four people who die at roughly the same time and are thrust together in the Good Place in a neighborhood designed by an eternal (or nearly-eternal) being named Michael. Michael is sort of like a god in the neighborhood, able to help people, fix problems and create heavenly things such as frozen yogurt restaurants.

There is a “but”.

But Eleanor (the main character) realizes she doesn’t belong in the Good Place. She was, in fact, a horrible human being while alive. Thus, Eleanor assumes there’s been some sort of clerical error that saved her from eternal punishment. And, wanting to remain in the Good Place, she tries to cover up this mistake. To her credit, Eleanor does try to make up for previous behaviors by studying ethics with Chidi (a professor of ethics while alive), who is her soulmate in the Good Place. But it becomes apparent that covering up her past is not going to be easy.

Other characters include another pair of soulmates, Tahani, a rich socialite while alive, and Jianyu, a silent Taiwanese monk, who live in a fantastic mansion next to Eleanor and Chidi’s tiny, clown-themed house. And let us not forget Janet, a sort of supercomputer in human form, who knows literally everything and is able to fill all the desires of the neighborhood’s inhabitants (such as providing frozen yogurt).

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This is the premise, more or less, at the beginning of the first season. But it’s important to remember one thing about The Good Place: Nothing is what it seems to be. In fact, viewers’ expectations are constantly turned upside down over teakettle. By the end of season 1, the above description is highly inaccurate and the show reboots, so to speak, in an entirely different direction. And this is one of the strengths of the show, its willingness to explore entirely new circumstances, essentially trashing everything that has already occurred. In a way, this aspect of The Good Place is similar to the premise of Groundhog Day, with characters reliving the same or similar situations with different outcomes. This device provides a level of freshness that is seldom found on television.

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Later seasons are impossible to describe without giving away the many twists that make The Good Place such a refreshing show. Suffice to say, a variety of permutations of the original plot find their way into the afterlife, creating much humor along the way.

The fourth and final season of the show is currently airing on network TV, meaning there will only be 50 or so episodes of the show in total. Higher quality often means fewer episodes, which means viewers will have to find other innovative programming. So take advantage of this excellent program while you can. The writing, acting, plot twists and explanations of the afterlife are superlative. As a young British prime minister once said, “Hey, that’s my donut!”

Post Punk, Dance and New Order

It’s a fundamental rule of life that all the cool kids like certain bands. Oddly enough, I often can’t generate much enthusiasm for these bands, which is strange since I am one of the cool kids. Joy Division is such a band. Everybody who is anybody worships the very particles of sweat generated by these early post-punk legends, and their song Love Will Tear Us Apart is a theme song of my generation. Although the band recorded many additional outstanding songs, I can’t say that I really dig their sound: cold, distant and uncaring music accompanying frequently somber lyrics.

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After the band was no more, some of the Division went on to form New Order. This was an exciting prospect leading fans to expect more of that frozen post-punk groove. And the band’s first album, Movement, seemed like a fulfillment of expectations. Subsequent albums, however, moved in a different direction. And their second album, Power, Corruption & Lies, kicked off this journey to a veritable new… order.

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What’s amazing about this album is that it came at a unique point in time with a group moving on an unusual artistic trajectory, from somewhat morbid post-punk to solid gold dance hits. And while I’m not a fan of where they came from or where they went to, New Order created a perfect gem of post-punk dance hits on Power, Corruption & Lies.

Take the album opener, Age of Consent. It starts with a catchy high-register bass hook and simple dance-oriented drums. Jangly guitar and bass-end synth fill out the sound until vocals with a bit of the requisite angst enter, completing this gorgeous melding of genres. The result is a kind of happy sorrow that leaves me near tears while I tap my foot and shake my moneymaker. Songs do not get much better than this.

The next ditty, We All Stand, moves away from danceability and straight into quirky, dark and rhythmically complex worlds. It’s the perfect song for watching people attempt to keep the beat. But just when things look decidedly non-terpsichorean, we are immediately thrust back into the dance with The Village. Bass and drums act much like they did in Age of Consent and although the tempo is a bit medium, we hear many of the elements of the synthpop that is soon to take over New Order’s oeuvre.

Now I’m not going to take you through every song on the album, so let’s move ahead to Blue Monday. Here the group hits its stride, creating synth dance music complete with non-stop drum machine and repetitive synth-bass riff for 7 minutes and 28 seconds. Vocals are not plentiful, but are dripping with, oozing with ennui when present. And, there’s not much going on musically, so ya just gotta dance!

I will leave you all with Your Silent Face, a truly beautiful, slow synthpop song featuring melodica, jangly guitar leads and a lovely synth melody. Not really a dance tune but highly introspective, hummable and heartstoppingly sad, this song cements Power, Corruption & Lies as one of the best albums from the 80s.

Stop by the library and see what there is to hear. And be sure to check out New Order in your journeys. As always, don’t forget your dancing shoes.

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Chuck

Recently, as I sat and pondered the meaning of existence, I wondered what it is that makes a particular television program one of my favorites. Writing and acting are important aspects of any good TV show, but there’s more to it than that. And so I realized that what I look for in a show, although not consciously, is a cast of characters that I like, people who I’d hang out with. Or invite into my living room.

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To this end, one of my favorite shows is Chuck, a series focusing on a nerdy computer geek who is recruited by the CIA after a virtual computer is downloaded into his head. In other words, an extremely realistic premise. (Pause). This is not so different from many other shows where an untrained person aids the police/FBI/etc., but what sets this show apart from the pack is the interaction between characters.

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Chuck Bartowski is a nice guy. He attended Stanford University but got expelled shortly before graduation for something he didn’t do. With his life-plan derailed, Chuck ends up repairing computers at the Buy More (the TV equivalent of Best Buy). He lives with his sister Ellie, perhaps the nicest person alive, and her husband Devon (AKA Captain Awesome), perhaps the most positive person alive.

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Outside of Chuck’s family, tucked away in the depths of the Buy More, we find Chuck’s co-workers, a cast of misfits, clowns and losers. These eccentric individuals provide the show’s comic relief with their scheming and meddling and general screwing up. The comedy they bring is essential to offset the drama and death-defying action of Chuck’s spy guy activities.

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This leaves us with Chuck’s spy co-workers, John Casey, a by-the-books ex-marine and Sarah Walker, Chuck’s handler and pretend girlfriend. As a nerd, Chuck is somewhat overwhelmed by the attention of this beautiful woman and he would really, really, really like to get rid of the pretend status of their relationship. As with many a TV show, this sexual tension is one of the mainstays of the program.

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So, why is this show better than countless others? The answer is simple: relationships. Due to their undercover status Chuck and Sarah’s relationship is quite complex. Chuck makes it no secret that he’s head-over-heels for this smart, funny, attractive pretend girlfriend, but Sarah is all business. Mostly. She obviously likes Chuck but knows it would be dangerous for a spy to become emotionally entangled with anyone else, let alone her spy partner. She will suggest that they kiss as part of their cover, or even spend the night together (doing absolutely nothing), but she won’t let any real emotions show. And after time, this wears on Chuck. He wants a real girlfriend, specifically Sarah. The subtle nuances that Zach Levi and Yvonne Strahovski bring to their rolls is impressive.

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So what we have in the end is an action-packed spy show, a comedy, and a romance all wrapped into one. Of course I’ve just touched on the tip of the spy iceberg (spyceberg), so to speak, so you’ll have to watch to find out how everything unfolds. In the immortal words of the Earl of Sandwich, “I highly recommend that you check this one out. And fetch me some bread and bologna!”