Delayed Reaction: Reconsidering Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World Away

so-runs-the-world-awayWhen it first came out a few years ago, I was less than impressed with Josh Ritter’s So Runs the World Away. It felt like a disappointment, a comedown after the heartfelt, joyful tone of The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. It felt too well-mannered, too measured, too considered. I missed the Josh Ritter who’d cram way too many syllables into a line and then tumble into the chorus of “To the Dogs or Whoever,” the guy who played a chiming, almost clanging acoustic guitar with a grin you could hear in his voice. So Runs the World Away just seemed so…serious all the time.

So I gave up on the record for awhile. Wouldn’t listen to it. Spent most of my time with the EP he followed it up with, Bringing in the Darlings, which I absolutely adored.

But listening to that EP made me think that maybe I’d been a little too hard on So Runs the World Away, so I gave it another chance. And it started to grow on me. Now, every couple of months, I put the album on again, listen through it, and find a renewed appreciation for the growth in craft and songwriting that it represents. While it may not be as exciting or as energetic as his previous outings, and it may lack some a good chunk of the humor he’s presented before, So Runs the World Away is actually a pretty fantastic album.

The opening instrumental track, “Curtains,” feels like it belongs on a Britpop Pink Floyd record with its fade in and swirls of keyboards. It’s a pretty weak start to the album, but the second track, “Change of Time,” more than makes up for it. Ritter has played with layering instruments before, but he does it with aplomb here, adding guitars and keyboards and a backing vocal chorus to his basic finger-picked guitar figure. By the end, it feels every bit as epic as a U2 song, just without the overwrought hand wringing.

Things slow way down for the waltzy “The Curse,” a track I love more each time I hear it. Ritter is an excellent storyteller, and this the subject of the song – a mummy that comes back to life, falls in love with the woman who found his tomb, and becomes a media sensation when he reveals himself to the world, all while she slowly becomes the one who is shriveled up and unable to feel anything – is strange but oddly touching. It’s a truly beautiful song, and one that features only piano, keyboard flourishes, and a trumpet. After the bombast of the previous track, it’s a considerable shift, but the juxtaposition works well.

“Southern Pacifica” feels like the most traditionally-Josh Ritter-y song here, in terms of structure and instrumentation, though even here the horns and swirling keyboards that have marked this album thusfar are front and center. “Rattling Locks” is a jarring, jittery song with a palpable sense of paranoia, distrust, and betrayal seeping through the lyrics.

The story song “Folk Bloodbath” is probably the most predictable sort of song Ritter has ever written. It makes explicit the sort of influences he’s always worked subtly into his songs, referencing Stackalee, Little Delia, and a host of other folk music figures to tell a story of death, betrayal, and gunslingers. It’s a little too obvious, though, a little too much like songs we’ve heard before done better. It doesn’t bring anything new to this type of song, which is rather disappointing.

Things pick back up with “Lock” and “Lantern,” two songs that could have appeared on Historical Conquests and not felt out of place. They’re followed, though, by a string of songs that just drag, offering nothing new or interesting. Things are salvaged at the end, though, by “Long Shadows,” a stripped-down, acoustic-led number with a bounce in its step and self-assured tone that’s hard not to like. It’s a good, somewhat low-key way to end the album, and it points the way to the mostly-acoustic Bringing in the Darlings EP, which shares a tone and style with this track.

Ultimately, So Runs the World Away is a fairly solid album. There are some clunkers in the second half, and “Folk Bloodbath” could have been far more interesting than it ended up being, but when Ritter hits his mark, he nails it.

Delayed Reaction: Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill and the Posthumous Album Curse

I came to Elliott Smith a little late in the game: after his success had already led to major label records, before his untimely death. Like so many others, my introduction to his work was Either/Or, still one of the single best records ever (admittedly, I would also say the same about XO and probably Figure 8). I was upset when I learned about Smith’s death, because it meant we wouldn’t be getting anymore albums from him.

Then they announced From a Basement on the Hill, and I was both excited and very, very nervous.

See, I think there’s something definitely dangerous about the posthumous album. Releasing an unfinished record after the artist’s death is, at best, a gamble, and at worst a crass cash grab. Hell, Tupac’s released more albums since he died than he did when he was still alive. Unfinished work either ends up sounding like exactly that (unfinished, skeletal demos) or some sort of elegiac, overproduced thing that tries to cover up the fact that there wasn’t more than a verse and a half and most of a chorus put together before the guy died.

So I was worried about Basement, and I’ll admit that for the longest time, I did not care for the record. I ranked it down at the bottom of Smith’s catalog. Compared to any other album in his oeuvre (yeah, that’s right, I’m bustin’ out the French), it just didn’t fit. Bits of it were rough and ramshackle, while other parts felt overproduced, and the whole thing felt completely unlike any other Elliott Smith album. It didn’t feel like it was his. The fact that there was a fair amount of controversy over the production and mastering of the album when it came out only served to confirm my fears.

But today, I decided to give it a second chance. It was, after all, a collection of songs written by Elliott Smith, so there had to be something worthwhile in there. And I was surprised to discover that, in fact, while there are a couple of odd missteps, this is actually an album that fits in with his catalog and manages to almost synthesize all the different stages of his career.

The album opens with the atypical rocker “Coast to Coast,” a song that doesn’t have a comparison in the rest of his solo work. With the heavily distorted drums and grungy guitar, it sounds more like an outtake from his previous band, Heatmiser. However, it quickly bounces to more familiar territory, with the softly-plucked acoustic and multi-tracked vocals of “Let’s Get Lost” and the fuller sound of “Pretty (Ugly Before),” which would have felt of a piece with Figure 8.

What’s particularly interesting about the album is that it feels rather like Smith’s attempt to synthesize the Beatles’ Revolver into his own work. Not that this record sounds anything like Revolver, just that the guitars in several places bear a striking resemblance in tone and style to the guitar work on Revolver. It does feel like Smith is also attempting to push the boundaries of his style the way the Beatles did on Revolver.

I do think that this album is still the weakest of Elliott Smith’s career. The songs just don’t feel as complete or as tightly-plotted as on his other records. The lyrics aren’t as sharp, and feel too much like retreads of topics and themes he’s already addressed in other songs to better effect. It is by no means a bad record, just not as great as his other stuff. I’ve reconciled myself to this being the final Elliott Smith album (even if not the final collection of Elliott Smith recordings, as the wonderful 2006 collection of odds and sods, New Moon, proved). While not the best album of his all-too-short career, it’s still worth a listen.

Delayed Reaction: Sucking on Counting Crows’ Hard Candy

As with most bands that were popular in the ’90s, I came to the Counting Crows rather late in the game (like, around 2002 or so). While August and Everything After and Recovering the Satellites are obvious and pretty much indisputable classics at this point, I’m not sure the same holds true for the albums that came after. This Desert Life feels like the band decided to abandon any semblance of rock and roll for a slightly folky, Rod Stewart-meets-Van Morrison-doing-adult-contemporary sorta vibe (though I still love “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” from that record, I don’t care what you think). And then there’s Hard Candy.

Now, I’ll admit that when this album first came out, I listened to it on repeat for about three months, basically. But in the past six or seven years, it hasn’t come up on the iPod much. I decided to give it a spin yesterday, to see if it held up after all this time.

The good news is, the good songs on the record are still very, very good. Unfortunately, I’ve developed less of a tolerance for Adam Duritz’s vocal affectations, and several of the songs are just a slow, mellow mess of blah. Let’s dig in, shall we?

Things start off right with the neo-Byrdsian title track, with its ringing electric twelve string intro and its singalong chorus, remains my favorite song on the record. From there, the album goes to 2002 Top-40 Radio staple “American Girls,” a song which I admit strikes me as just really annoying ten years on. From there, things move into slow jam territory with “Good Time,” a song I just went ahead and skipped over (I didn’t care for it back in 2002, either). From there, the album alternates between upbeat, slightly off-kilter songs that I really enjoy like “If I Could Give All My Love to You (Richard Manuel Is Dead),” “New Frontier,” and “Up All Night (Frankie Miller Goes to Hollywood)”, slower songs that aren’t too bad like “Why Should You Come When I Call” and “Holiday in Spain,” and songs that I just find boring, which is essentially everything else.

Other tracks on the album include the snooze-fests that are “Carriage,” “Miami,” and “Black and Blue” and the downright unlistenable “Butterfly in Reverse” (co-written by Ryan Adams). The most egregious misstep, though, is the band’s cover of “Big Yellow Taxi,” a track hidden at the end of “Holiday in Spain.” The song really does nothing that the original didn’t, except for smoothing out the sound of Joni Mitchell’s original into a mellow, non-threatening flan of nothing particularly interesting (don’t even get me started on the single version of the song, which features Vanessa Carlton on some of the most annoying and unnecessary backing vocals in music history).

Ultimately, Hard Candy is a decent if rather flawed album. The good songs are really quite good, and stand up to anything else in the band’s catalog. Others are…not so great, not so much because they’re bad but because they don’t aspire to do anything particularly interesting or worthwhile. The middle part of the album especially feels like a slow slog through bland, uninspired drivel. The album’s chief sin isn’t bad music, just bland music with flat, boring lyrics and instrumentation.

Delayed Reaction: The Wallflowers Debut

I’m a big fan of all things Dylan. That includes both Bob and his son, Jakob. I got into the latter’s band, the Wallflowers, like pretty much every single other person in the world: the songs “6th Avenue Heartache” and “One Headlight” off their second album, the excellent Bringing Down the Horse. But then, unlike most people, I went ahead and stuck with them, picking up every album since then and even their debut, the self-title The Wallflowers.

When I first encountered the record, I wasn’t particularly impressed with it. it seemed too unfocused, too sloppy, too meandering to really have much of an impact on me. You could actually almost hear Jakob Dylan making an effort to say, “See? I’m not my dad, I’m my own man making my own music!” There are conscious stabs at making deep statements (“Hollywood” and “Somebody Else’s Money,” mostly), but mostly it’s just Dylan and his band trying to craft convincing American rock and roll.

Looking back at it now, I can see that they actually managed to succeed a little, despite the lack of critical praise or much public interest. As my brother mentioned when I was discussing the album with him yesterday, there are songs where you can hear the members of the band straining to play to the best of their ability, moments when they’re clearly just balls-to-the-wall tearing into a song and playing it as hard and as affectingly as possible. And those are some damn good moments, as it turns out: “Sugarfoot” remains the best song on the album, as far as I’m concerned. I was convinced of it the first time I heard the record, and I remain convinced to this day. But other tracks, such as “Sidewalk Annie,” “Ashes to Ashes,” and “After the Blackbird Sings,” are all just as strong. Jakbob Dylan may have still needed some polish on his lyrics and delivery, but the emotion was definitely there and the underlying structures were usually pretty solid.

Admittedly, some of the songs do run a bit long (looking at you again, “Hollywood” and “Somebody Else’s Money”), and some of them are rather repetitive (I love “Asleep at the Wheel,” but it gets old after about three minutes and then decides to run for another minute forty-eight after that), while others are just downright boring (“Honeybee” and “Be Your Own Girl”). But honestly, as albums go, it’s more killer than filler. Of the twelve songs on the album, I really only want to skip over four, and that’s better than a lot of debuts go.

Ultimately, The Wallflowers is a flawed but promising start. It’s interesting to think that, after this album tanked commercially, Dylan and his organist, Jaffe, ditched the rest of the group and got a new drummer, guitarist, and bass player for Wallflowers 2.0. This new incarnation, of course, went on to record Bringing Down the Horse, and the rest is history, as it were. But there’s still a part of me that wonders where the band could have gone if that first album had been more of a success…

Delayed Reaction: Mission Hill, the Most Progressive Cartoon of the Past 15 Years

Fair warning: what follows is kind of rambling and may not make a whole hell of a lot of sense. I am not, nor do I claim to be, any sort of expert on LGBT issues or relationships, being about as heterosexual as one can possibly be. That being said, the stuff I talk about below really struck me as socially important, so I thought I’d share.

Mission Hill
Image courtesy of Amazon.com.
This week, I’ve been watching Mission Hill: the Complete Series on DVD. In a lot of ways, it’s an unremarkable cartoon from the late ’90s/early ’00s. Most of the characters are pretty standard fare: Andy French, ostensibly our protagonist, is a 20something slacker who would do great things if only he didn’t spend all his time drinking heavily and being more than a bit of a jerk; Andy’s high school brother, Kevin, who comes to live with Andy through a trite, unlikely scenario, and is your stereotypical “nerd” character (seems slightly Asbergers to me, but I might just see that because of my job); and their roommates, Jim and Posey, who are the stoner and the hippie chick, respectively (though Jim is shown to have slightly more layers to him than that; he ends up being an IT/computer specialist for a big ad company and eventually helps Andy get a job in their art and design department). Honestly, none of these characters or character types are all that original, even if they are usually pretty well-done in the show.

No, where the show really shines is in the portrayal of one of the only two monogamous, committed relationships in the entire series: Wally and Gus (the other, between Carlos and Natalie, is notable for being a healthy, interracial marriage where race never even really seems like an issue between the two). Wally and Gus, two older, gay men, have the healthiest, most realistic relationship in the entire series, and possibly the most realistic portrayal of a gay relationship on all of television.

Wally and Gus
Image courtesy of fanpop.com.
Wally and Gus are presented as well-rounded, human characters. Yes, they are gay, but that is merely a facet of their personalities as opposed to the defining characteristic that guides every action they take. They are clearly in a loving, long-term relationship, one where there are occasionally arguments (what long-term relationship doesn’t have those?) and disagreements, but there’s a commitment and a warmth to their interactions that’s beautiful to watch. It’s not exploitative, it’s not played for laughs (except insomuch as any relationship is treated as a source of amusement and entertainment in a comedy show), and it doesn’t go for the cheap shots or stereotypes.

What’s more, the characters around them treat the couple as perfectly normal. Now, it saddens me in this day and age that I’d even have to point that out, or that it might be uncommon or strange, but that’s the sad reality we live in: it may be the 21st century, but most folks are still more than a little uptight about LGBT relationships. But Andy, Kevin, Jim, Posey, and the rest all treat Wally and Gus as just two other people who live in the building; no more, no less.

That’s what’s so enormously progressive about this particular show, and why I think I appreciate it despite its blatant mediocrity in pretty much every other aspect of its existence: the writers made these two characters feel natural and real.

Their best episode is the series finale, a touching ode not only to the bad cinema of Ed Wood but to the power and draw of True Love. In the episode, Wally is an up-and-coming film director working with some of the biggest stars of the screen, directing a big-budget sci-fi epic that everyone is certain will be a blockbuster success. But then he meets Gus, and everything about the film falls apart: Wally puts Gus in the lead role even though Gus can’t act his way out of a wet paper bag, the rest of the cast quit, and the studio kills the project. Wally takes his film to a small-time studio, reworks the entire script to fit his new leading man (and less-than-stellar supporting cast), and does a no-budget Ed Wood-style b-film that is so bad, he hid it from the world for 50 years. When Kevin discovers the movie and hypes it up with the neighborhood, Wally’s sense of self-worth is devastated, but it’s nothing compared to how horrible he feels for putting Gus in a position of ridicule. The thing is, Gus doesn’t really give a damn what people think of him, as long as Wally’s happy. And ultimately, Wally figures that out, deciding that a movie that brings people joy (it’s a hilariously bad film) can’t be that bad, and he can live with his shame at having produced a real stinker if he’s got Gus. Which he definitely has. The final shot of the episode (and of the series, as it turns out) is of Wally and Gus in bed, content with each other. It’s a heartwarming, emotionally-charged moment for a show that usually did jokes about alcohol and hookers, and it hits all the right notes. Honestly, if you watched no other episode of the series than this one, you’d think it was a pretty damn good show. I think if they’d been able to produce more stuff like this one 22-minute piece, the show wouldn’t have been canceled.

Delayed Reaction – Huey Lewis and The News: Your Dad’s Rock and Roll Band

Okay, so I have a bit of a confession to make: I really dig Huey Lewis and the News.

Yeah, I know, they’re about as hip as a shattered pelvis, but I can’t really help myself: I’m a sucker for dad rock.

And really, no one does dad rock better. Hell, Huey Lewis looks like he could be your dad (or someone’s dad, anyway), and he does those embarrassing things to try to sound cool and hip (even playing a song called “Hip to be Square,” which, for those of you born after 1985, is a reference to the fact that “squares” were boring, dorky people, so he’s really saying that it’s cool to be uncool, which I think we can all agree is not the case). But I love the band anyway, possibly specifically because of Lewis’s earnestness and gosh-shucks dad charm. He’s an Everyman, a guy with a bit of gravel in his voice, singing fairly uncomplicated songs about working, trying to have a decent adult relationship, and the daily crap we all have to deal with as we grow up. This is music with a mortgage and car payments, a baby seat in the backseat of the sensible four-door sedan, a receding hair line, and a desire to cut loose on the weekend, maybe drink a beer or two, and have some fun with the guys. It’s music with a beer gut and a 9 to 5 job, but it doesn’t ever try to pretend that it’s younger than it is or cooler than it is. This is comfortable, fun music, and it doesn’t get any better than the Sports album.

Oh, others may espouse the wonders of Fore!, or hold up the band’s 1985 masterpiece “The Power of Love” from the movie Back to the Future, but I know the score: Sports is the perfect distillation of what Huey Lewis and the News were all about. There’s plenty of loud guitars, cheesy keyboards, brassy horns, and doowap-inspired vocal harmonies.

The album opens with “The Heart of Rock and Roll,” a tune that is as much a statement of purpose as anything the band ever recorded. With it’s city-checking lyrics, subtle organ, and heartbeat-simulating kickdrum, it’s just fun. It’s followed by “Heart and Soul,” with its unmistakable riff and simple message of love (or at least lust). Next up is “Bad is Bad,” a song that pummels ’80s slang and points out that, sometimes, “bad” (which again, for those of you born after 1985, meant someone was cool or hip and didn’t care about authority) means “bad” (as in “not good”). It’s clever and funny and features some great backing harmonies. “I Want a New Drug,” of course, is the song Ray Parker, Jr. “borrowed” for the Ghostbusters theme song, but it’s also an extended metaphor about wanting to find a drug that feels as good as being with the one you love.

The back half of the album doesn’t quite live up to the awesomeness of that first side. “Walking on a Thin Line” is good if not exactly remarkable, and “Finally Found a Home” is just downright boring. “If This is It” is one of those sing-along love songs you know even if you don’t really know it. “You Crack Me Up” is uptempo but ultimately forgettable; “Honky Tonk Blues” is a fun cover of the old Hank Williams, Sr., tune (and really, you can’t go wrong with a little Hank Sr.).

And that’s it for the album. It’s short (only 9 songs long), but there’s a lot of power in that short list. Sure, not everything on second side lives up to the sheer awesomeness of the first side, but it’s a tall order to top such great songs. Honestly, if you only listen to one pop-rock record from the mid-80s, make it Sports.

Delayed Reaction: Deadpool Classic Volume 1

Earlier this week I picked up the first volume of Deadpool Classic. It collects Deadpool’s first appearance in New Mutants #98, his first two miniseries – The Circle Chase and Sins of the Past – and the first issue of his 1997 ongoing series by Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness. The current ongoing series has grown on me (even if the recent story arc with Spider-Man and – ugh – Hit Monkey left me rather cold), so I figured it’d be nice to see where the character came from.

Sadly, there are definitely some serious flaws with this collection, not least of which is the fact that it’s so very, very ’90s. For some, that may not be a problem, but the sketchy, over-muscled, everyone grimaces all the time stuff just doesn’t do a whole lot for me. If it weren’t for the fact that this set includes the first of the Kelly/McGuinness run, I’d probably have just passed on this book.

Let’s start at the beginning. New Mutants #98 is a Rob Liefeld comic. That should really tell you everything you need to know: ridiculous musculature, loads of unnecessary pouches, poorly-drawn feet and hands, etc. We all know the flaws in the man’s art. Deadpool is in the comic for all of maybe three or four pages before he’s subdued by Cable and shipped back to his employer in a box (seriously). The character seems pretty bland here, without any of the zaniness or wacky color commentary the character’s become known for. He shows up, he’s beaten, then end. There’s a little banter, but nothing that really makes the character stand out.

What happens next is my main problem with this collection. Rather than giving us Deadpool’s subsequent appearances in X-Force (where a lot of his backstory was fleshed out and we got some hint of what he does and to whom he has connections), we’re thrown right into his first miniseries, The Circle Chase. It’s written by Deadpool’s co-creator, Fabian Nicieza, and drawn by ’90s superstar (hey, I’d heard of him back then, and I didn’t know squat about comics until just a few years ago) Joe Madureira. We get some so-so characterization and a whole lot more banter, but we’re thrown into a story that has very little context. And it’s a story that doesn’t really seem to achieve much: there are a bunch of people looking for someone’s will, there’s a bunch of folks trying to kill Deadpool for his supposed connection to it, Juggernaut and Black Tom Cassidy run around and occasionally smash through walls, and the thing comes to an end with Deadpool fighting his (apparent) arch-nemesis, a guy named (I’m not kidding here) Slayback (thank you, 1990s).

Deadpool’s second mini, Sins of the Past, seems to pick up right where The Circle Chase left off. Deadpool teams up with Siryn and her father, Banshee, for this one, there’s a subplot about an Interpol operative who got screwed over by Deadpool several years back, and there’s a doctor trying to fix whatever had happened to Black Tom during The Circle Chase. Again, there’s not much happening here, but Deadpool is slowly evolving into the morally-gray, wise-cracking character he is now. Ian Churchill’s art is sketchy and very much of its time, and Mark Waid’s script is decent if forgettable.

The one redeeming factor of this collection is the first issue of Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness ongoing series from 1997. It’s closer in tone to the current Deadpool series, with fast-paced dialogue, lots of violence and bad decisions on the part of the main character, and some fourth-wall-breaking metahumor thrown in for fun. That particular issue actually makes me want to pick up the next couple of collections, since they feature the Kelly/McGuinness Deadpool series.

All in all, Deadpool Classic Volume 1 is a fairly mediocre affair, though maybe it’s just too much of its time and I don’t have quite the appreciation for ’90s comics that I thought I did.

Snow Madness: A Delayed Reaction to Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman Run

I’ve been snowed in for the better part of the past week or two, which means I’ve been reading a lot. It also means I’ve kinda run out of new things to read, so I’ve been going back and re-reading stuff I already have.

For some reason, one of the things I have sitting on my shelf is the four-trade run of Superman/Batman by Jeph Loeb. Now, these aren’t horrible comics (though he’s definitely capable of creating those, as anyone who took a look at Ultimatum knows), but I’m certainly not proud they’re on my shelf. I bought these when I first started getting into comics a few years ago and I’d read The Long Halloween (which actually is quite good, though I think it has more to do with Tim Sale’s art than Loeb’s writing) and thought, “Hey, more stuff by Jeph Loeb? That’s probably pretty good!” Yes, Past Chuck was kinda stupid. By the time the fourth book, Vengeance, came out, I bought it mostly for the sake of completion than out of any desire to actually read the story he was putting together.

So let’s take a look, book by book, at what worked and what didn’t. Spoilers for those of you who haven’t and (for whatever weird reason) might want to read these books.

The first story, Public Enemies, is a basically an excuse to have Batman and Superman go up against a bunch of different heroes and villains. Oh, and to have a giant mecha punch a Kryptonite asteroid. Loeb, as those who follow his work well know, is great at developing stories that fit the artist he’s got; in this case, he’s got Ed McGuinness, who does big, kinetic action scenes great. McGuinness’s blocky, bulky character designs are great for this stuff, and it’s clear this is supposed to be a fun book. And it is, in a mindless, summer blockbuster sort of way. As a popcorn action flick of a comic, it works pretty well.

That isn’t to say the book is without problems; there are a couple of glaring ones, to my mind. First, Batman and Superman team up to find out whether or not John Corben, AKA the villain Metallo, was the man who shot Bruce Wayne’s parents. There’s evidence in the S.T.A.R. Labs’ databanks that Corben was the man who shot the Waynes, and both Superman and Batman suspect the information may have been planted to mess with Batman. But it’s never clear why Luthor (who was, at the time, President of the United States) did this, since he doesn’t know Batman is Bruce Wayne. Why would he think information on the Waynes’ murder mess with Batman if he didn’t know Batman and Bruce Wayne were one and the same? It’s a minor plot hole, since that was just the impetus for the two heroes to get together and things quickly move on to the giant asteroid on a collision course with earth, but it bugged me nonetheless.

The other big problem is what I like to call the dueling text boxes. We get both Superman’s and Batman’s innermost thoughts throughout the series in yellow (for Superman) and blue (for Batman) text boxes. They often contain parallel text, establishing the emotional and psychological state of our heroes. But…well, there’s just so many of them, first of all. It’s like reading a Silver Age comic with all the thought balloons, except they’re text boxes instead of thought balloons. They’re serving the same purpose. Rather than letting the characters’ respect for each other and admiration for each others’ abilities come out through the story or through bits of dialogue, we have to have all these text boxes. And it’s not like they’re telling us anything particularly interesting or important: We get a recap of each hero’s origin story, their sense of conflict about the Corben mystery, their frustration with Luthor and his machinations to blame the asteroid on Superman, and their rather overt bromantic relationship (yeah, I said “bromantic”).

Story #2, Supergirl, is about exactly that: the reintroduction of Supergirl to the DC Universe. We’re talking about Kara Zor-El, Superman’s cousin, here, a character last seen during Crisis on Infinite Earths back in the mid-80s. The biggest surprise here is that it took DC 20 years to bring the character back. Loeb is joined here by Michael Turner, best known for his drawings of women with impossibly-long torsos and very skimpy clothing. Thankfully (?), Loeb gives him plenty of scantily-clad jailbait and lots of Amazonians to draw. And the Female Furies on Apokolips. Again, Loeb seems to tailor the story to the artist’s skills and preferences, giving Turner lots of pin-up style poses to draw and plenty of women.

We’ve also got the dueling text boxes again, though this time they’re mostly concerned with how Batman doesn’t trust Superman or Kara and how Superman finally doesn’t feel alone anymore. There’s a lot of noise about accepting people and trust and family, but it all feels pretty flat. We also get Batman threatening to blow up the entire planet of Apokolips, which is kinda cool, I guess, but seems somewhat out-of-character. What really hurts in this particular story, though, is the dialogue. There’s a particularly bad exchange during the climactic battle between Superman and Darkseid after Darkseid’s used the Omega Beams on Kara (though not really. She was teleported out of harm’s way at the last second, but it does beg the question: what was incinerated by the Omega Beams if not Kara? They wouldn’t have just stopped, since their original target was Superman anyway and I’d think they’d have just kept going until they hit him) where Superman rattles off a laundry list of the things Kara will never get to do now that she’s dead (though not really. And another thing: after the battle, it’s indicated that Superman was in on the whole thing the whole time and knew Kara wasn’t dead, so why the hell was pretending she was? To trick Darkseid, whom he ends up shoving into the Source Wall and effectively imprisoning indefinitely? What’s the point?). It’s pretty pathetic. He talks about her smile, not getting a first kiss, blah blah blah, oh wah, generic teenagery stuff. And then there’s the final scene of the book, where he introduces Supergirl to a bunch of heroes like the JLA, the JSA, and the Outsiders, and she’s all excited about getting to meet them and they’re all excited about getting to work with Supergirl (whom they’ve just met, I hasten to remind you). It’s pretty cornball.

Story the third is called Absolute Power, and it poses a fairly interesting question: what if Superman and Batman were shifted from their paths at very key points and groomed to become despots instead of heroes? What if they ruled the world with an iron fist? It’s a clever idea, but sadly it devolves into random, “Hey, let’s visit other alternate DC earths! Look, it’s Kamandi! And the DC western characters, only in the modern day! Wow!” And then the whole thing breaks down into a by-the-numbers restore the timeline and rescue all of reality to reset the status quo story. It’s the best of the storylines in Loeb’s run, but that’s like being the fastest snail in a snail race.

The art this time is handled by Carlos Pacheco, who does an excellent job of rendering the heroes in an iconic fashion. His art isn’t anything spectacular, but his grasp of design and storytelling is solid and he does a good job with what he’s got.

Loeb’s big twists here – having to rely on Darkseid to help them reset the timeline, the villains from the Legion of Super-Heroes future being responsible, having to bounce around in time and space as the timeline attempts to correct itself, and Batman unmaking himself by saving his parents’ lives – are interesting but don’t really make for a coherent or even engaging story. It seems like he came up with a bunch of “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” moments and then threw them all together and hoped something stuck.

The final story, Vengeance, teams Loeb up with Ed McGuinness again. It’s easily the worst of the stories. It’s spiteful, cluttered, and relies heavily on Loeb’s run on Superman (collected as the Emperor Joker story) for one of its key plot points. The gist of it all is that the Joker retains some power from when he stole the powers of Mr. Mxyzptlk, and Mxy’s trying to get it back with a game. Superman and Batman – while still under the influence of Saturn Queen, Cosmic King, and Lightning Lord from the Absolute Power arc – swoop into an alternate dimension and kill a hero called Skyscraper because he killed Lois Lane. Except..well, he really didn’t, since Lois is alive and well and this was all made up by the Joker and Mxy for the game. Skyscraper was part of a team called the Maximums (Loeb’s thinly-veiled Avengers analogs; the Captain America proxy, Soldier, had a sidekick/son called “Lucky” who is essentially the only hero who never gets to come back to life, even though the afterlife seems to have a revolving door in this universe), and his death sets up a conflict between the Maximums (guided by a disguised Mxyzptlk) and Superman and Batman.

One of my biggest problems with this story – aside from its incoherence and utter disregard for decent storytelling – is its use of Bizarro. Bizarro is one of those characters people either love or hate. I hate ’em, probably because he’s so rarely used well (and the whole “Opposite Day” way of speaking just gets annoying and unnecessarily convoluted). I think the only use of Bizarro that I’ve actually liked was Grant Morrison’s use in All-Star Superman, but as discussed earlier, that’s one of the best comic books ever made, so…

Back to this comic. Loeb ends up creating another giant blockbuster-esque series of fight scenes for McGuinness to draw (and he does draw the hell out of ’em, you have to give him that), complete with no less than five Supergirls, a Superwoman, a Batwoman, a Tim Drake in the Batman Beyond uniform, and a whole host of Batmen and Supermen from across time and the multiverse.

But ultimately, how do we judge these comics? Loeb clearly wasn’t setting out to create a definitive story about Batman and Superman, but rather a fun, fairly mindless series of tights ‘n’ fights. While there’s nothing wrong with that (I mean, I enjoy a mindless action movie or comic), it doesn’t even always succeed at doing that. There’s plotholes, bad storytelling, and cringe-inducing dialogue. The art is usually pretty good (though Turner’s stuff is an acquired taste and McGuinness’s stuff is very cartoony), but the writing – especially those damn dueling text boxes – leave something to be desired. Would I recommend these books? Not so much. They rely on some fairly obscure continuity, so they’re not exactly new-reader friendly (especially Vengeance), and long-time fans of either character may become annoyed with some of the characterization. And, like I said, dialogue and plotting were pretty weak. The art’s pretty, though.

Delayed Reaction: Moxy Fruvous, Thornhill

Every so often, I feel inclined to dip back into the wellspring of the music of my childhood (or early adulthood, as the case may be) and revisit something I used to listen to until my ears fell off. The Moxy Fruvous album Thornhill is one such trip.

It all started Thursday night when one of the songs off the album, “My Poor Generation,” came up on shuffle on the ol’ iPod. I thought to myself, “Man, haven’t heard this song in ages! Why don’t I listen to these guys more?” ‘Cause seriously, there was a period of about three or four years there (in college and into grad school) where I listened to them constantly. My computer was full of illegally-downloaded tunes by the Canadian quartet, I had their website bookmarked, and I was deeply disappointed that they went on “indefinite hiatus” around the same time I really got into them. It was like the cosmos was laughing at me.

Thornhill is one of those “mature” records that arists sometimes make. Moxy Fruvous was always a little goofy and silly, what with writing songs about European monarchs on the lam and bandit fish and all. But Thornhill was a fairly serious, adult affair: sure, there were still jokes, but they weren’t the focus of the songs. Rather, the melodies, the harmonies, and the personal stories were front and center. And these guys can sing and write a lovely pop song, lemme tell you. The album is chock-full of perfectly-balanced pop songs with clever lyrics, layered vocal harmonies, and a folky, jangly sound that I could just listen to for days on end.

Do I love this album as much now as I did back then? I dunno. It’s aged well, I know that. Some of the songs rely too much on their clever wordplay to try to get them through (“Hate Letter” in particular), and a couple of songs really drag down the back half of the record (“Independence Day” and “Downsizing,” the two most doggedly serious songs on the record, spring readily to mind here), but most of the album is still great. Well over half of the tracks on the album have a five star rating on my iPod, so that speaks pretty clearly to how much I still enjoy this music.