Reviews

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.

Music Review: Nothing In Your Eyes

The latest offering (after a seven-year hiatus) from the reclusive electronic music producer known as N Pa is a haunting track titled “Nothing In Your Eyes.” Instrumentally, the song has a frosty feel. The opening guitar riff and synth pads, provided by Glaswegian guitarist Gloom Is Okay and N Pa respectively, envelops the listener in a sonic snow globe while the pleading vocal from singer Marcie Joy provides a flickering spark of warmth and hope: “Give me one warm thought, Just one warm thought. I’ll make it last through colder nights, I’ll make it last through lonely times.” The pathos in these lines is palpable, and the remainder of the song swirls cinematically with drums crunching underfoot and an icy synth line from Android Invasion lingering in the air like frosty breath. All told, a two-minute odyssey into the darkness of a love gone cold.

Music Review: Playback is a Bitch

Playback is a Bitch Album CoverOver the years, Scot Sax has produced a wide range of exceptional music. From the ultra-polished pop perfection of his work as the front man for Wanderlust and Feel to his more homespun recordings as Bachelor Number One and as a solo artist, Scot has always brought equal parts compassion and energy to his music. His 2018 album Drawing from Memory was certainly a case in point. A collection of original songs evoking the best of 70s AM radio gold, the album found Scot echoing much of the music that likely inspired his lifelong appreciation of the well-wrought tune. With this year’s Playback is a Bitch, Scot is digging deeper, taking risks, and coming up with a blend of tracks that feels at once familiar and artistically satisfying.

The new album finds Scot getting a bit funky (not for the first time in his life) but also a bit trippy and dreamy at the same time. The dreamlike quality takes hold immediately with the first track, “Roller Wakes Up,” a thirty-six-second intro that sounds like the feeling of gradually returning to the waking world from a deep sleep. It transitions naturally into the album’s title track, which is where the funk starts to kick in — but not all at once. “Playback is Bitch” actually sounds like a throwback to the Monkees for the first few bars before a short blues riff introduces a bass-heavy dance groove. The rest of the album follows suit, drifting sweetly and soulfully between groovy beats and trippy, dreamy sojourns, like the instrumental “How Come There’s No Wind In Your Kite,” which gives way to the percolating, trumpet-laden “Fell in Love with Myself Again,” a true highlight of the album.

Not surprisingly, songwriting is at the heart of the album, both in terms of craft and as an over-arching theme. When Scot sings in “Two Sweethearts” that he has “exactly two minutes” to get out his thoughts, it’s easy to imagine he’s describing the job of tunesmiths everywhere, the unrelenting compulsion to distill the essence of a heart full of conflicting, confusing, overwhelming emotions down to the parameters of a radio-friendly pop song. It isn’t easy, and it also isn’t a science. As the penultimate track, a spoken-word recording titled “Roller’s Monologue,” makes clear, it’s a work of heart. Yes, there are people in the world who can boil songwriting down to a formula and treat it like a business. But as songwriters like Scot Sax show us time and time again, there are also people who are “out there singing to the clouds” (as the track’s narrator insists), artists driven by their sheer love of music. In the end, that’s exactly what Playback is a Bitch is all about.

PS: Playback is a Bitch is actually soundtrack! For more info, visit the film’s FB page: Playback is a Bitch.