Thursday, February 11, 2010

The End of the Eighties, Track 08

“The Spy in the Cab”
Swing the Heartache: The BBC Sessions

Claustrophobic paranoia. That’s probably the most succinct way to describe this Orwellian descent into terror.

Bauhaus’ “The Spy in the Cab” is a perfect four-minute marriage between music and lyric delivery. Matching Peter Murphy’s portrayal of the madman’s descent into paranoia, Daniel Ash’s acoustic guitar slowly devolves to the point where, somewhere around the three-minute mark, it’s a feedback-laden fuzzy mess of nerves. Part of the brilliance of the composition is, amid this downward spiral of guitar and lyrics, Kevin Haskin’s unwavering drum/electronic heartbeats become both comforting and unsettling.

Close your eyes for even a second and you’re in that small, coffin-like cab on a damp London night, headlights reflecting back too brightly off the low-hanging fog. And your mind starts playing tricks on you… Is the camera really there? Can you trust your own judgment? Thrown completely off balance, by song’s end, you don’t know if the fear is real or all in the narrator’s head.

Clocking in a half-minute shorter in running time, the Swing the Heartache version of “The Spy In the Cab” winds things tighter and even more succinctly than the original found on Bauhaus’ debut album, In the Flat Field.

Because Swing the Heartache is a compilation of BBC sessions, there is an immediacy to the songs captured here. “The Spy in the Cab” is one of four tracks (including its musical brother “A God in an Alcove”) pulled from the band’s first appearance on the legendary John Peel Show recorded January 03, 1980. More polished than a concert recording, looser than a studio recording, the cuts find a striking middle ground of insistency.

Always my favorite Bauhaus album – probably because it was released while I was in the thick of it – Swing the Heartache: The BBC Sessions is a breathtaking document of Bauhaus’ abilities and “The Spy in the Cab” is one of their creepiest, on-the-verge-of-coming-unhinged tales.

Honestly, though, the paranoia of “The Spy in the Cab” can be easily disarmed by a couple of college freshman by simply recasting the ominous “boop” heartbeat of the song in a Monty Python “Machine that goes ‘Bing!’” setting. Yeah, I’m looking at you, John.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Marvel Unbound - Marvel 1602: New World / Fantastick Four

Marvel 1602, Neil Gaiman’s epic reimaging of the Marvel Universe in colonial times, was a clever, well-thought-out eight-issue saga. There was clear potential for further tales to be told. Thankfully, although Gaiman has decided not to return to that sandbox, others are having a pretty good time in it.

Greg Pak’s 1602: New World runs with the original concepts and delves further into the world of these characters, introducing a few new ones along the way. After both gained powers at the end of the original series, this first sequel focuses on Peter Parquagh and David Banner, 1602’s Spider-Man and Hulk analogs.

Peter and Virginia Dare deal with attacking dinosaurs (really!), and much of the rest of the story revolves around Peter working though his new powers. There is plenty of espionage and subterfuge mingled throughou
t the main plot, including deception between the English and the Colonists, between the Native Americans and the Colonists, between the “suprapowered” and those not.

Although originally published in 2005, it’s interesting to read New World for the first
time as “Dark Reign” is coming to a close in the mainstream Marvel Universe. It’s clear that regardless of the time period, Norman Osborne’s a prick. One of the main plots unfolding over these five issues concerns a deceitful Osborne (is that redundant?) trying to trick the Native Americans into revealing where “the Source” that gave Banner his Hulk ability during the first book is located, and ends with Osborne hinting he knows Peter is “The Spider.”

Like Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Hulk: Gray, the Banner/Hulk thread in New World is an extraordinary tale. The storyline here is a nice twist on the kind of tale that makes the Hulk such a compelling character. All of the greatest Hulk stories are an exploration of mind and heart, the struggles between the reasoning Banner and brutish Hulk. New World offers a similar journey for the characters, but this time it’s the Hulk who is the clear hero and Banner, by virtue of his history and allegiances, is the villain. For all the brutish force that the Hulk possesses, the character shines in this sort of subtle, nuanced storytelling.

Although not as clever as in Gaiman’s book, New World does offer a few new Earth-616 analogs. Spanish free-lance weapons inventor Lord Iron (Iron Man) and his helper Rhodes (War Machine) play key roles in the plot. Lord Iron’s ship to the New World is helmed by Admiral Ross (General “Thunderbolt” Ross), and
head of police in the Roanoke colony is Dougan (Dum Dum Dugan).

Historically, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the Americas. In this continuity (both in Gaiman’s original and continued here), the character of Dare has shape-shifting abilities, and serves as a deus ex machina to end New World’s climactic battle between all sides. And that was probably the weakest point in the book.

Whereas New World is set primarily in America, Fantastick Four takes place almost entirely at sea, which makes perfect sense considering the nature of so many of the modern era Fantastic Four’s adventures. Sailing the ocean was the great unknown in colonial times, akin to blasting off into space in the ’60s.

The characters are nicely woven together in this second sequel by Peter David. Along with the Fantastic Four, we get colonial versions of the Frightful Four, Doctor Doom, Black Widow, Namor, Namorita, and the Watcher. Count Otto Von Doom kidnaps William Shakespeare to record his exploits as he employs the Four
Who Are Frightful to take him to the End of the World, where he believes there lays a city in which he can find a cure for his badly scarred face.

The Four of the Fantastick (the “Fantastick” being the name of their ship), pursue Doom in an attempt to rescue Shakespeare. Ending up in battle with Doom and his cohorts, they are all sent over the edge of the world and into Bensaylum, Numenor’s kingdom. Playing off the classic tenuous alliances between modern day Doom and Namor, their 1602 counterparts strike a deal that goes south during the inevitable power struggle between Doom, Numenor, and Wizard.

Throughout the five issues there are some good character moments with Medusa and Wizard (both of the Four Who Are Frightful), and between Numenor’s cousin Rita and John Storm.

Greg Tocchini and Pascal Alixe’s art is fitting and appealing. Visually, both stories collected here are beautiful and unique while still feeling perfectly aligned with the tone Scott McKowen set on the original series.

It's good to at least have these two sequel stories in a single volume, but extras consist of a lone page of character sketches from New World’s Tocchini and one page from Fantastick Four’s Alixe. Very disappointing for such a nicely packaged book with so much potential.

I had originally read Marvel 1602 in hardcover from the library, and I’ve seen the individual trade paperback printings of the two sequels. While it’s nice that they have collected New World and Fantastick Four in this single hardcover volume, it would be even better to see a 1602 Omnibus collecting all three of these stories, along with the recent Spider-Man: 1602 mini and the “Son of the Dragon” 1602 Hulk story in Broken Worlds, and pile on the extras under one cover.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The End of the Eighties, Track 07

Ian McCulloch

It was a bit of a tossup here. The track in this slot could just as easily be “All My Life”. That Echo & the Bunnymen tune off their self-titled 1987 release is one of my favorites, its circular melody matching the lyrical motion of the chorus perfectly (“All my, all my life / revolves around laughter and crying / as my life turns round and round.”). It’s a beautiful song and easy to see where frontman Ian McCulloch was ultimately headed a couple of years later with his first solo effort.

Candleland is one of those albums that hit at the perfect moment to permanently lodge itself in the musical catalog of my brain. McCulloch released a personal, affecting ten-song collection reflecting on death and rebirth, pulling heavily from the experience of losing both his father and original Bunnymen drummer Pete de Freitas that same year.

The album’s title track is very much the progeny of “All My Life”. There is a maturity about it that belies the melancholy. McCulloch sings of honoring the past while mourning loss. Although reflective Goth-y punks consider death, one’s own mortality is usually the last thing on a 19-year-old’s mind. But with Candleland, McCulloch subtly nudges the listener into headier places by virtue of sharing his own reflections.

I have always loved that cross-pollination within the alternative music scene. Like Sinéad O’Connor’s guest vocals on The The’s “Kingdom of Rain”, Robert Smith’s stint with the Banshees, or Propaganda’s Claudia Brücken showing up on Andy Bell’s solo album, finding Cocteau Twin Elizabeth Fraser on “Candleland” is a treat. Her shimmering vocals only help elevate the song to even greater heights.

A few years later McCulloch’s second solo effort, Mysterio, did nothing for me, but 2003’s Slideling is a wonderful compliment to Candleland. Those two albums still rotate through my player regularly.