Reviews

“Black Boots”

Abominations



As you may have noticed, I’ve been releasing a decent amount of music lately. In part, this is because I’ve been collaborating with other musicians like Timothy Simmons, The La-La-Lettes, and my cousin Vince as part of The Ministry of Plausible Rumours. Meanwhile, I’ve also been recording a few songs on my own, and the latest is a somewhat long song with a country & western lilt called “Black Boots.”

The earliest version of this song came to me many years ago with the phrase “I’m wearing my suit to the steakhouse tonight.” One of the couplets went something like, “I’m tired and lonely and looking to fight. I’m wearing my suit to the steakhouse tonight.” But sometime in 2020, I started playing with the idea from a different angle and it became “Are you promising to hold your tongue but looking for a fight? Are you wearing your black…

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The Ministry of Plausible Rumours: Summer Again

Abominations

Vince and Marc circa 1995.

You might guess, based on the above photo, that my cousin Vince and I spent a lot of time playing music together in our youth. In reality, though, we really never saw much of each other for various reasons, the biggest being that he was what seemed at the time to be impossibly older than I was. Seven or eight years older? I’m not even sure. To this day, I have no idea how old Vince is, or any of my cousins for that matter. But when I was a child, the age difference was enough to make me think of Vince and his siblings (Steve and Lorraine, if you’re trying keep track) as a different and exotic species altogether: Familius nonfamiliar, perhaps.

In any case, you can imagine my surprise when Vince reached out to me back in January of 2020 to ask if…

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Aliens, Robots, and VR Idols

Full disclosure: I tried reading some of HP Lovecraft’s fiction when I was in grammar school — a collection of short stories that included “The Call of Cthulhu,” if I remember correctly — but I found it fairly alienating and also kind of depressing. Similarly, I never really got into Isaac Asimov (despite Will Smith’s best efforts), and though I vaguely recall reading and mostly enjoying William Gibson’s Neuromancer as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I failed to finish reading a subsequent Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, because I didn’t know what was going on and didn’t especially care to find out.

None of this is to disparage any of the above writers. I’m told by several friends and colleagues — and now by John L. Steadman, author of Aliens, Robots, and Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson — that their works are classics not only within their genre but of literature in English more broadly. Likewise, the profusion of Cthulhu-themed bumper stickers and tee shirts among steampunk hipsters alone has, over the past decade or so, made me wonder whether I am, in fact, missing out on something. Fortunately for me and others of my ilk, Steadman’s book does an excellent job of summarizing much if not all of each author’s oeuvre in loving detail. Think of it as the Rough Guide to Lovecraft, Asimov and Gibson Countries.

While much of the volume is given over to valuable summary, Steadman’s larger purpose is to explore, in his words, “the interrelationship between alien and humankind.” This examination reveals the limits and limitations of what Steadman describes as “the belief that humankind is at the center of the cosmos — the most important element in the cosmos, in fact.” This critique of what might broadly be described as Humanism resonates with the Inhumanism or Antihumanism of figures like Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry does much to undermine the notion that humans are the center of existence, and it also calls to mind the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who look upon humanity with a mix of curiosity and bemusement.

One question that Steadman returns to repeatedly is that of motive: What do the aliens in the authors’ works want? Curiously, the question itself reveals the limits of humanity’s ability to conceive of and understand the fully alien insofar as asking what aliens want assumes that they do, in fact, want as humans do. Perhaps this explains Steadman’s conclusion that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal” and that “when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers,” we are left with the disturbing vision of “humankind, short-lived and insignificant, alone in a vast, indifferent cosmos.”

New Music: Thee Rakevines

I stumbled upon Thee Rakevines yesterday, and they’re quickly becoming one of my favorite bands. Their tracks have a strong garage-rock vibe, but they’re also pretty eclectic. In other words, there’s no pigeonholing this group, which I love.

The first track on their Spotify playlist, This is “Thee Rakevines, is called “In a Time of Covid (I Need Fuzz),” and while what the world needs now may be love, sweet love (apologies to Burt Bacharach), it also needs this song. The cool (and appropriate, given the title) fuzz effect on the vocal reminds me of a lot of my favorite grungy song from the 1990s, including “Cannonball” by the Breeders. There’s also a blistering guitar solo. The sudden ending feels like hitting a brick wall and demands multiple listens.

The second song on the playlist is called “Damaged,” and it sends the clear signal that Thee Rakevines are not a one-trick pony. This track is mellow and almost jazzy, and a sublime vocal from Byddia Lewis (who reprises vocal duties later in the playlist on “Sticking With You”) is somehow both the polar opposite of the distorted vocal in “In a Time of Covid” but also its perfect counterpoint.

I’m hearing strong hints of Nirvana in “Just the Way that I Am,” and there’s a cinematic Spaghetti-western feel to “Another Time (Another Place),” a song that would feel right at home on the soundtrack of an underground 1960s film — or anything by Quentin Tarantino. The fade-out in “Thinking in Pictures” reveals the cool organ riff that undergirds the entire song — so don’t skip ahead when you’re nearing the end of that one!

The punk influence on Thee Rakevines is undeniable. Most of the songs (with the exception of “Thinking in Pictures”) are well under three minutes long. Nonetheless, the band draws on a wide range of musical influences, incorporating 60s garage rock, 90s grunge, psychedelia, and jazz into an amazing debut playlist. Weighing in at just under 23 minutes, This Is “Thee Rakevines” is definitely worth listening to in its entirety in a single sitting.