Comics Wherever, Whenever

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Did someone say dinner?

I realize I’m not breaking any news by saying it’s been a strange few weeks, but man…it’s been a strange few weeks! If you’re like me, staying home may have seemed like a fun idea for the first forty-five minutes. Then began the fidgeting, the laps around the living room, the trips to the snack cabinet, all while scolding the dog that 2 p.m. is not dinnertime. Even removed from the stressful headlines and creeping anxiety, long days at home are not easy for me! If you, like me, might be looking for an escape, then let me lead you to the wonderful world of Hoopla’s digital comics and graphic novels. 

Margo wrote a wonderful introduction to Hoopla last week, and while the streaming tv and music are great, it’s the comics where I get my money’s worth – a pretty easy task since the service is FREE with my library card! If you’ve never read digital comics, it is definitely a process that takes some getting used to. If you have one available, I’d suggest using a tablet or computer instead of your phone. One really nice feature that Hoopla offers is the ability to zoom in on individual cells of a comic, allowing an easier reading experience, albeit sometimes at the expense of the big picture. To activate the zoom, simply click once with your mouse on a computer, or tap the screen twice on a phone or tablet. 

Wondering where to begin? I get it! There is an almost-overwhelming number of titles to choose from, and you can’t really go wrong. But if you do want some suggestions, here are some old favorites and recent titles I’ve enjoyed.

New Kid by Jerry Craft
Well, this one feels like cheating. New Kid is an incredible read and a slam dunk recommendation for readers of all ages. The main character is endearing and relatable, his experiences are profound and enlightening, and Craft’s artwork and storytelling are skillful and moving. It is no wonder that New Kid was the first graphic novel to ever win the Newbery Medal

This incredible book follows Jordan, a young black seventh grader attending a new school, a private academy where he will be surrounded by wealthier classmates and be one of the few students of color. As Jordan struggles to adjust and adapt to this new environment and the ways that his identity and family background affect his treatment, he also has to contend with the more traditional new-school experiences: making friends, dealing with teachers and parents who might mean well, but sometimes don’t get it. In a clever bit of storytelling, Craft features Jordan’s sketches within this book, allowing the reader to see more directly how Jordan’s treatment by others makes him feel. 

No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant
In some ways, this quick moving graphic memoir takes the concept of New Kid and throws it into reverse. This book follows Hazel, a 17-year-old home-schooled senior as she embarks on a summer job clearing invasive ivy from a park in Portland, Oregon. Hazel’s life to this point has been rather sheltered and she is not completely prepared for the diverse range of experiences, backgrounds, and identities she encounters among her new co-workers. This frank book does not shy away from uncomfortable encounters in Hazel’s life and while at times her personal growth seems to come a bit too easily, I appreciate the way that Newlevant examines privilege and prejudice in a relatable coming of age story. 

I Am Not Okay with This by Charles Forsman
If you are a Netflix fan you might have stumbled upon a strange, violent, and darkly hilarious new show called I Am Not Okay with This. And if you, like me, found out the show was based on a comic, you might’ve wished you could read it. Great news! This very adult comic is on Hoopla. Truthfully, the black-and-white line-drawn style was not what I was expecting from this story, but I loved it nonetheless. 

Like the TV show, this comic follows a teenaged girl named Sydney as she grapples with her romantic feelings for her best friend, a tense relationship with her mother, the death of her father, experimentation with sex and drugs, and her violent, uncontrollable superpower. You know, the normal teen stuff! This comic is equal parts twisted and delightful and I loved every second I spent with it. 

Dept. H by Matt Kindt & Sharlene Kindt
This is one where I feel like the less I tell you the better. Of all the comics I am writing about, I find the artwork here to be the most gorgeous. Dept. H follows Mia, an investigator who travels to an undersea research station to solve a murder. Things quickly grow….complicated (and deadly!) as her romantic and familial connections to the station and its inhabitants pull her in conflicting directions. This is a taut and surprising comic that crosses genres with ease while building a fascinating world. 

Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki & Steve Pugh
Are we in the midst of a Harley Quinnaissance? I think we might be! She has the big DC movie, which I really wish I could watch (release it now!) and the animated tv show on the DC Universe streaming network, which I really wish I could watch (bring it to Hoopla!). Luckily, Breaking Glass provides a delightful YA origin story for Harley. Follow Harley as she makes her way in Gotham City, makes some good friends named Ivy and Joker, and finds a way to save a drag queen’s cabaret from the evils of gentrification. I’ve always been a Marvel person, but Harley might just make me switch sides. 

Rebels: These Free and Independent States by Brian Woods, Andrea Mutti, and Lauren Affe
Let’s move on to some history. This book is actually a follow-up to Rebels: A Well-Regulated Militia, which is unfortunately not available on Hoopla. When the library is able to reopen, find it there! Luckily, both these books work perfectly well as standalones. In this newer collection, Woods tells the story of John Abbott, a young ship builder caught up in the chaos, violence, and politics of the War of 1812. This book might best be considered high drama with a side of history, but it gives fascinating context and vivid color to an oft-forgotten period in US history. 

Simon Says Vol. 1: Nazi Hunter by Andre Frattino and Jesse Lee
Listen, we know not to judge a book by its cover. This time I’m asking you not to judge one by its title. Like Rebels, this comic takes a true piece of history and embellishes, perhaps at times wildly. I don’t know how much in common this comic’s Simon has with the actual Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, so I am assuming it is all fiction. That said, this is a thrilling romp of a noire comic. It follows Simon, a Jewish artist in Germany shortly after the Nuremberg trials. Simon lost his family at the hands of the Nazis and he is now driven by a single task: to take his revenge one Nazi officer at a time. Violent vigilante justice meets unimaginable trauma in a story that feels destined for film or series adaptation. 

Of course, Hoopla doesn’t just have comics, so I also want to highlight the three albums (all on Hoopla!) that I was listening to while I wrote this.

Chika Industry Games and Jay Electronica A Written Testimony
They say good things come to those who wait, and these two albums prove it! I’ve been a fan of Chika for a few years, since she started popping up on Instagram ripping incredible freestyles and building a devoted following. Ever since, I’ve been waiting for a proper album and she delivered with Industry Games. Chika is not afraid to go dual threat and crush a hook, but she truly shines as a rapper, bundling incredible lyrical dexterity and clever wordplay with effortless swagger. This is a rising force to be reckoned with. 

On the other hand, I truly have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for Jay Electronica’s debut full length. Twelve years? As an artist, he has been elusive and enigmatic, and at times plain infuriating, so I had no idea what to expect from this album. It turns out he gave us a masterpiece. No one else rhymes quite like he does, and he brought ALL of the heat to this album, building on beautiful production, complexly layered references, and perfect delivery. If all of this doesn’t move the needle for you, JAY-Z also features on nearly every track. 

Overcoats The Fight 
I almost always listen to hip-hop, but when I don’t, I’m probably bopping to Overcoats. This duo makes the perfect blend of electro-pop and indie folk. Harmonized vocals, soaring melodies, and maybe even an occasional hand clap. What are you waiting for?

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.

Group 1

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.

Group 2

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.

Group 3

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.

Group 4

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.

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.

Power

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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Best Music of 2019 So Far

Many people come to me and say, “Kurt, what are some of the best albums of the year?” To which I reply, “My name is not Kurt and please don’t call me late for dinner.” This rather cryptic response is typically unsatisfying, but to soothe the masses of music seekers I give you a few great albums that dropped in 2019 so far.

StrayCats

You might remember the Stray Cats as the rockabilly revival band that rose to fame during my final years of high school. Forty years ago. Although the band has essentially been broken up forever, each of the members has continued in the music business, often in the greater rockabilly genre pool. On 40, their first new album in 26 years, Stray Cats return to the maniacal gut-thumping sweet rockabilly sounds that they first explored in their self-titled 1981 release. In fact, one might hear the occasional extremely familiar riff or chord progression. But, considering that rockabilly has a fairly limited musical vocabulary (which is not a bad thing; many genres are the same way), this is not really surprising or disappointing.

Brian Setzer is now age 60, which is strangely old for someone playing youth-oriented music, but his voice and guitar have never been better. This guy is about as good as it gets. Give the album a spin or two, maybe put on some pegged jeans, throw back a PBR and indulge in a little delinquency. You won’t regret it. Unless you get caught and imprisoned.

MeatPuppets

Meat Puppets, perhaps one of the best bands you’ve never heard of, started playing in 1980, and, other than a couple of shortish breaks, they’ve been together ever since. Originally known as a punk band, their music rapidly expanded to include a bit of the country and psych vibes. Cowpunk, as the mix of country and punk came to be called, was one of the more exciting subgenres to emerge in that era. It’s never attracted too many practitioners but has definitely influenced current bands including The Goddamn Gallows and Stoned Evergreen Travelers.

If you are a person who likes older Meat Puppets albums, you will probably enjoy their latest, Dusty Notes. There’s no groundbreaking genre-expanding mind-blowing quantum leaps here, just a solid punk rock foundation covered with sweet country crooning and psychedelic sensibilities. Songs tend towards the mellow with guitars a bit more in the background than the front. And the electric harpsichord in Unfrozen Memory? Well worth the wait.

L7

L7 came to prominence in the 90s, broke up in 2001 and returned to the rock and roll limelight in 2014. Although their music resonates with a distinct punk/metal feel, the group is often associated with grunge and its big-name acts. At a time when rock and punk rock were largely male-dominated, the women of L7 went against the norms and created heavy, sleazy punk that made listeners forget all about gender and stereotypes.

2019 saw the release of a brand spanking new album, Scatter the Rats, that picks up right where the band left off. Heavy metal guitar riffage, a pervasive Joan Jett vibe, gritty rock and roll, heavy pop… Lots of variety within the punk genre. But always, that hard metallic edge picks away at your brain brain brain driving you… Well, you’ll just have to listen.

The year is barely half over and there will undoubtedly be many other great albums to hear. But for now, unless you’re a time traveler, check out these and other recently-released albums at Everett Public Library. And always remember the compelling words of Captain Beefheart:

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The Best Albums From The PNW 2019

It’s that time of year once again, time for the annual semi-half-year best albums of the Pacific Northwest take-a-looksee. 2019 has presented us with a surprising number of spectacular albums in our soggy corner of the U.S. and here are just a few you might want to check out for yourself.

TACOCATtacocat-thismessisaplace-cover-

Tacocat is one of the more nationally-recognized Seattle bands these days. Their sound is somewhere in the pop-punk/mainstream-pop quadrant of the genre spectrum. Rich harmonies, a touch of 60s girl pop and sugary gooey goodness all color their latest release, This Mess Is a Place. If you enjoyed their previous release, Lost Time, you’re sure to love this followup.

THE BLACK TONESblack tones

One of the most talked about bands in Seattle, The Black Tones, finally delivered their debut album, Cobain & Cornbread, in 2019. And it is fabulous. The music takes me right back to 1969, but not to my 6-year-old self, more of a me-as-an-adult kinda thing… Anyhow, ferocious use of wah wah, a palpable Hendrix guitar vibe and wide open song structures all hearken back to a day when a bunch of kids squatted in a muddy field in upstate New York. Perhaps most notable is that here we have a band that does not sound like other bands of today. Heavy, fuzzy, riff-driven, filled with lengthy instrumental interludes and then BAM! A traditional old-timey gospel tune. This album has not been released on CD yet, but look for it out in the digital world.

THE HEAD AND THE HEARThead_and_heart_mirage

The Head and the Heart is one of the more popular and active bands currently in Seattle. Classified as indie pop or indie folk, the group spits out catchy hooks that make you sing along on their latest release, Living Mirage. This album, as well as the group’s other recent albums, is heavily produced, resulting in a huge sound that markedly contrasts with the intimacy of their first album. You can hear a variety of their releases, both in CD format and streaming, from Everett Public Library. Just click on the band’s name at the beginning of this paragraph.

ANNIE FORD BANDannie ford

If it’s country you’re looking for, try out At Night by Seattle’s Annie Ford Band. A dash of blues, a smidgen of swing and a veritable dollop of honky tonk combine with an amazing voice (look out Eillen Jewel!) to make a most hearty country stew. Those listeners expecting to hear the contemporary country/pop that tops the charts these days might find themselves disappointed. Old-timey country is Annie Ford’s oeuvre, and you just might come to expect Patsy Cline herself to lasso you a cold tall one while you enjoy these tunes.

It may seem that four magnificent albums are all we’re allotted in a year, but we’ve only seen a scant sliver of 2019’s offerings. Stay tuned for info on more local albums and be sure to check out EPL’s Local Music section. As my grandparents always said, if you don’t keep up with the Joneses the Joneses will keep up with you. Of course, my grandparents never met anyone named Jones. And please do remember, you can pick your friend’s music… but something something something.

On the Come Up

Is it possible to wait months for a book’s release, get an advance copy, geek out about getting an advance copy, forget about said advanced copy, get bogged down in work projects, read some less-fulfilling books, wait on the hold list for the now newly-released book, finally get your turn with the book, then remember the advance copy buried on your desk? Yes, it would appear that this is possible and I can prove it. That’s why I am only now gushing over Angie Thomas’s (relatively) new novel On the Come Up.

On the Come Up is set in Garden Heights, the same neighborhood as Thomas’s incredible debut novel, The Hate U Give, and follows a teenaged aspiring rapper named Bri Jackson. Bri’s childhood has been informed by several traumatic events. As a young girl Bri lost her father, a rapper on the cusp of stardom, when he was murdered in front of her house. This terrible event devastated Bri’s mother who subsequently suffered from a years-long battle with substance abuse and addiction. As a result, Bri and her older brother spent a significant portion of their childhood living with their strict, god-fearing grandparents before their mother was able to regain her sobriety and reunite with her children.

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At age 16 Bri is an incredibly precocious rapper and somewhat ambivalent student with a quick-fire temper and a burning desire to make it big and earn the money to help her family. When a video of her battle rapping goes viral, Bri realizes that her dreams of hip-hop stardom could become reality. But the closer Bri gets to realizing her goal, the more slippery it becomes. A racially charged incident with school security leaves Bri suspended, then some of her angrier lyrics lead to misinterpretation, overwrought outrage, and media hysteria. Bri must also decide who to trust with her career – her devoted aunt with a penchant for neighborhood trouble or her father’s slick talking former manager.

At the same time that Bri is trying to jumpstart her career, she is also dealing with plenty of personal issues. From family conflict, to the stresses of poverty, to discrimination and bigotry at school, the challenges of everyday life are fraying Bri’s nerves. And then there are the boys! There’s Bri’s best friend who she has long had feeling for. But he just started dating someone else. And Curtis the wise cracking jerk who nobody takes seriously until Bri notices that he is hiding depth behind his jackass facade. As Bri’s personal life, family history, and rap god aspirations begin to collide she must contend with not only neighborhood beefs and career goals, but figuring out how to stay true to herself in a world determined to tear her down.

Angie Thomas is an incredibly skilled writer able to deftly balance the gross injustices of structural inequality, the unrelenting traumas of being a black woman in America, and the less weighty but still-urgent drama of teenage life. All of her characters are both relatable and realistic, and she has mastered the critical skill of capturing the voices of young people in a way that never feels contrived. Thomas was an aspiring teenaged rapper herself and Bri’s raps are as impressive as Thomas’s prose. In fact, I’d recommend listening to Thomas deliver some of these lyrics, as you can in this video, to get a better sense of the skill that Thomas possesses as an MC and writer. My favorite part is the dexterity of her flow when she rhymes coroner with corner. And if you’re looking for a soundtrack while you read, we have CDs by many of the artists Bri mentions in the book, including J. Cole, Rapsody, Kendrick, and Eric B. & Rakim, and you can stream or download a ton more for free with Hoopla!