The Designer’s Drugs: Tina Fey – Bossypants

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Tina Fey – Bossypants

Anno: 2011

This half-biography, half humor book from America’s reigning comedic mind alternates between being too short and running at just the right length.  If one is looking for Tina Fey to give a detailed, minute by minute account of her life and career, well, that didn’t happen.  When she does talk about herself, Fey gives a Cliff’s Notes version of her life: childhood, awkward dates, Second City, getting hired at Saturday Night Live, the process of creating 30 Rock, and her Sarah Palin impersonation that became one of the most notorious aspects of the 2008 presidential election.  Yet it seems obvious that the biography parts, especially the personal, serious bits, were written with great reluctance and as necessary evils.  With the exception of describing work-related stress, she tends not to dwell on feelings and sticks to the facts when the big picture is called for.  As such, there are brief moments when Bossypants gets more biography than autobiography, with “I” being substituted for “she.”  In contrast, it’s clear that the goof off parts of the book, the weird asides and ridiculous lists, are where Fey’s heart really lies.

This isn’t to say that the tone of the book is harshly bipolar, but that the most personal parts of Bossypants often come with a healthy dose of deflection.  Humor is the easy disguise, but Fey exposes herself most in describing others, whether it’s talking her dad up to tall tale proportions or describing her husband’s travel hang-ups and their disastrous journeys together.  It’s in keeping with this lack of self-centeredness that the book’s strongest statement about the potential of women in comedy is a story in which Fey watches from the sidelines as a female castmate tells off a male castmate.

The book does end sort of awkwardly.  The coda begins with Fey musing about being a woman getting older in a business that sycophantically worships youth.  Yet as it progresses, a growing part of that musing involves whether or not Fey should have a second child.  Ultimately it becomes a question Fey asks the reader.  It’s a strange enough ending point on its face, but its gets stranger when one discovers that Fey announced, around the time of this book’s publication, that she is in fact pregnant.  This may be a case of strange and highly appropriate timing or an intentional art-into-life narrative, but the end effect comes off like asking people to vote in an election that was decided the previous week.

Bossypants may not be the greatest comedian’s memoir of all time, but it is a very good supplement to the rest of Tina Fey’s work.

The Designer’s Drugs: Does It Offend You, Yeah? – Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Does It Offend You, Yeah? – Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You

Anno: 2011

 

My initial response to Does It Offend You’s follow-up to its excellent debut, You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into, is that the new album is The Empire Strikes Back to its predecessor’s A New Hope. Whereas the band’s first album was a swashbuckling adventure through synthy pop rock, Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You is a much darker record.  On it, Does It Offend You trades in good cheer for violent outbursts and harsh beats that border on Hulk Smash industrial.

Lest this darkness be mistakenly interpreted as a bad thing, consider that the most arresting tracks on this work tend to be the most furious.  The album’s best track is its opener, the punishing “We Are the Dead.”  While it features a few ravey sound clips, the song owes as much to KMDFM as it does to the KLF.

The manic songs tend to be the pockets of the album which eschew the singing of James Rushent in favor of vocal samples, guest singers, or nearly no words at all.  “Yeah!” is the closest the disc comes to a true instrumental, a robotic rally march fueled by spastic drumbeats and a cheering mob.  The big brassy menace of “Wondering” is complimented by the deft rhymes of guest vocalist Trip, who goes on about Batman and Bill Hicks.  The vocals of the bouncy “Wrestler” come entirely from a speech by pro wrestling cult figure Paul Heyman, brilliantly complimenting the rush of the music.  The strangest track on the album, “The Monkeys Are Coming,” features a YouTube clip in which a clearly disturbed man rants about drugs, monkeys, crap eating, and fellatio (in that counterproductive order).  Despite all expectations, it’s a brilliantly aggressive tune.

None of this is to say that Does It Offend You broke the knob off at smashy and shouty.  Though nothing on Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You is as bright as its predecessor, there are a few songs which turn down the violent gloom.  “Wrong Time Wrong Planet” is the zenith of the slow, a smooth electro-crooner where the constant basslines occasionally give way to fireworks.  The closing “Broken Arms” is practically a space ballad that, while it feels wholly out of place in the context of the album, is a great song in its own right.  The closest this album comes to the band’s former self is in “Pull out My Insides,” an upbeat, cheerful song which still manages to convey the band’s new wistfulness.

Ultimately, the important question here is not whether Does It Offend You’s new album is as good as its first.  They’re both excellent, though completely different, works.  Instead, its value depends on the listener’s mood.  If you’re up for a snarling bit of electronic dementia, Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You will prove to be a very, very good choice.

The Designer’s Drugs: Andy Schoepp – Time Ninja

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Andy Schoepp – Time Ninja

Anno: 2010

 

Andy Schoepp’s first novel, The Martial Arts Murders, will always have a special place in my heart.  Having spent long periods of my life as a ninja film nerd, the blend of frantic martial arts action, frenzied screw scenes, and unapologetic machismo featured in this debut was right up my alley.  That said, while The Martial Arts Murders is my favorite of Schoepp’s work, I’d have to say that Time Ninja is his best work.

The trilogy that Murders commenced was hyperactive and occasionally flirted with science fiction, but it was also grounded in the geography and circumstances of the modern world.  Beyond the action, these books were essentially mysteries.  In Time Ninja, Schoepp finally leaps into the deep end of the sci-fi pool and gets his hands dirty with world-building.  The story begins with a ninja feud, a few decades from now, which propels the titular ninja, Ryu Kendo, into a future dystopia and the real focus of the plot.  It’s still Earth, but not the Earth as we know it, and it’s fascinating to see how he tweaks the planet.

I’m going to throw this out there, not as a specific criticism of this book but of the gimmick as a whole: no matter the medium, time travel usually doesn’t work well in fiction.  Loose ends and paradoxes tend to pop out and distract the audience from the narrative, and inevitably it becomes a cheap way to erase some awful thing that happened earlier (a step up from those catastrophes being a dream).  Time Ninja sometimes falls victim to these issues, but it’s to Schoepp’s great credit that he shows restraint and doesn’t get tangled up in gimmick. Time Ninja is noticeably more Ninja than Time, to its benefit.

With that in mind, the catastrophe erase which happens in this book actually leads to something I ended up liking a great deal.  In his Murders trilogy, Schoepp’s hero, Detective Michael Darts, was an unfailingly stand-up guy, the sort who held doors for ladies, helped grannies cross the street, and rescued kittens stuck in trees.  Yet in his quest to make everything right, Time Ninja’s hero flips out in a rather irrational manner, and he quickly descends into the moral crossroads of Dickhead Ave. and Monster Blvd.  Things get sorted out, of course, but I really enjoyed the temporary gray area where it wasn’t quite clear if Ryu had become the villain.

Beyond all this, Time Ninja is everything I’ve come to expect from an Andy Schoepp book: supersonic action, verbose dialogue, and, of course, the banging of hot babes.  But the new elements are equally intriguing.  I’d really like to see more science fiction out of Andy Schoepp.

The Designer’s Drugs: Scarlett Thomas – Our Tragic Universe

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Scarlett Thomas – Our Tragic Universe

Anno: 2010

 

There’s a point toward the end of Our Tragic Universe where the protagonist, a disappointed author of genre fiction, advises a peer to cloak his nonfiction research in a fictional clothes.  The reason behind this proposed deception is that while most people approach nonfiction with a critical eye and aims to disprove its theories, people tend to approach fiction in the opposite direction, ready to put all the pieces together in the way that most makes sense.  It’s clear that this attitude colored the entirety of Our Tragic Universe, which is ostensibly fiction but also brings to bear many philosophical asides.  It’s in many ways a mixture of Scarlett Thomas’ previous works, mixing the crippled and frustrated storytelling of Going Out with the metaphysical and sexual End of Mr. Y. Sometimes the mixing gets a bit jarring, the narrative and human lives suddenly getting usurped by discussions on the nature of reality.

To be honest, it took me the better part of the first hundred pages of Our Tragic Universe to get behind the story.  In this opening, the author in question, a late thirties DIY chick named Meg, tromps around her small town, poking her head in and out of the local dramas of her friends and fellow esoterics.  Most of these people are a combination of frustration and insanity, usually attempting to screw, scream, or bullshit their way to a state of distraction.  It’s kind of a depressing slog at first, but as I was trying to work my way through I came to a realization.  It’s about failure. After my change in perspective, Our Tragic Universe became rather wonderful.

I should have picked up on this point earlier, when Meg recalls a vacation in which she as a child met a pair of magical – possibly mythical – people out in the middle of nowhere.  At the end of her vacation, the man of the duo tells her that she would come to nothing.  And really, this sets the tone for the remainder of the book, in that Meg’s purpose here is to discover what nothing really is and how that doesn’t have to be a negative concept.  Slowly and with the assistance of some events that may be either simple fortune or supernatural intervention – an ambiguity which is purposely unanswered – Meg begins to dispel her life’s inertia.  It’s likely that in my accepting that this book was about failure, I set myself up to be satisfied when the main character outgrows her nothingness and gives evidence that it’s never too late.

The Designer’s Drugs: Sweat Boys – EP

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Sweat Boys – EP

Anno: 2011

This toe in the water by a group of synth-minded La Crosse goons is a damn good introduction, full of new wave swing which transforms from silly and speedy to romantic and grandiose.  The three tracks on this disc remind me a lot of the Human League, bearing a sort of electronic manic depression that loses none of its immediacy by being gloomy.

“Sweat Boys” the song begins the disc with a hyper sense of perversion, giving the imagery of two guys getting drunk, pissed off, and oiled up before wrestling in a dark alley.  Following this is “See You Dance,” a bouncing story of dancefloor rebound which starts to veer the album toward apocalyptic longing.  This mood hits its climax in the striking “Cold War Lovesong,” which soars as it despairs.

The work on this EP is excellent, a perfect example of electronic dance music.  I do have a very slight complaint that the songs’ production sometimes leaves vocalist Ben Koch’s singing feeling less forceful and a bit secondary to the music.  Nonetheless, I cannot wait to hear a full album.

The Designer’s Drugs: Deadmau5 – 4×4=12

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Deadmau5 – 4×4=12

Anno: 2010

 

Whether one enjoys Deadmau5 ultimately depends upon whether one enjoys Daft Punk – and specifically, the minimalist side of the Daft Punk sound.  On 4×4=12, Deadmau5 puts together some good beats, but there’s next to nothing here that doesn’t feel like a mirror of someone else’s song.

Compounding this forgivable sin are the few vocal tracks which dot an otherwise instrumental album.  One of these three tracks, a moody pianodance titled “Raise Your Weapon,” is the album’s best track, reminiscent of the Hybrid school of orchestral electronica.  The other two sing songs, “Sofi Needs a Ladder” and “One Trick Pony”, have solid music, but they feature a shit vocalist who spouts out dirty slut slogans in an attempt to be hip and cool.  Boring.

Beyond those two disasters, 4×4=12 is a good album, but not a mind-blowing one – which, if you’re into the style, shouldn’t matter.

The Designer’s Drugs: Ace of Base – The Golden Ratio

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Ace of Base – The Golden Ratio

Anno: 2010

 

I try to avoid having guilty pleasures, but it wouldn’t be far off to describe Ace of Base as my one musical pleasure which is most surprising.  Though I tend to loathe much of the band’s best known work – “The Sign” in particular makes me grate my teeth – Ace of Base was really my first serious introduction to electronic music.  The clubbed-up B-sides of the band’s debut album drew me in, and its follow-up, The Bridge, is a mature stripe of Europop that stands as my favorite example of the style.  Of course, most people only know the singles, and as such I get a villainous glee when busting out Ace of Base upon the unexpected.

It’s been eight years since Ace of Base released their last album, and for some time it seemed as though the band had packed it in.  The gradual departures of the band’s two female singers, Jenny and Linn Berggren, seemed to be the final straw, but instead of calling it a day, the two remaining members decided to crew up, recruiting two new girls to sing their songs.  The result is The Golden Ratio, and while there are some good tracks to be found, this version of Ace of Base doesn’t match the original.  There are two big reasons why this is the case, and both have to do with Ace of Base trading in what made it unique for more conventional pop fodder.

First, the new vocalists sound like every other female pop vocalist on the scene.  Their voices crack with girly vulnerability at all the right moments, their lyrics profess all the expected heartbreak and whimsy.  They’re props, and serve their purpose.

But the more pressing problem with The Golden Ratio lies squarely on the shoulders of the band’s tenured members.  The band doesn’t completely abandon its reggae-tinged pop roots, and the strongest example of the old style, “Mr. Replay,” is one of the album’s best tracks.  Yet there is a strong sense that the band is trying to keep pace with everyone else instead of being itself.  “Southern California” is the worst offender, a lifeless grab at moody American girlpop.

But what’s worse, the opening track, “All for You,” sounds like every other electropop group from Ace of Base’s mid-90s heyday, and it’s only the most glaring evidence.  Trading in Ace of Base’s electropop for the La Bouche/Snap!/Culture Beat conglomerate is not a good move.

Still, there is one very bright moment on the album, a flamenco guitar led dirge titled “Who Am I” in which every aspect of the new group comes together perfectly.  If every song on The Golden Ratio was as well-orchestrated as this, it would have been brilliant.

Yet as it stands, I’d have recommended that this new group have started with a clean slate and a new name.  The Golden Ratio is no Bridge.

 

(As a bonus, one of the worst music videos ever!)

The Designer’s Drugs: Meghan McCain – Dirty Sexy Politics

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Meghan McCain – Dirty Sexy Politics

Anno: 2010

Meghan McCain’s story of her dad John’s 2008 presidential campaign is easily comparable to Danica McKellar’s math books directed toward teenage girls.  Though she admits to swearing like a sailor and falling far short of the feminine ideal put forth by her Republican Party, Meghan’s account of political life is clearly directed toward McKellar’s audience.  When she’s not taking her party to task or discussing her growing disillusionment with her old man’s campaign, McCain tends to spend her time obsessing over her hair, wardrobe, girlfriends, and the ubiquitous UGG boots which she mentions at the slightest provocation.  The title’s not exactly accurate; the Sexy in Dirty Sexy Politics is actually more about gender than hookups, but I suppose Dirty Girly Politics doesn’t have the same ring.

On the surface, getting something out of this book depends on the reader being able to do one of two things: enjoying fashion-centric tales of girls on the campaign trail, or being able to roll one’s eyes at these bits and move on.  The former isn’t for me, but McCain’s book stays on its political task enough to hold me over through the eye-rolling.

When she discusses her alienation from the Republican Party or the damage caused to her family during her dad’s 2000 campaign, McCain provides a cogent case for moving conservatism beyond its closed-minded, reactionary, and youth-dismissing current state.  While unmistakably right-wing on infrastructure issues, her views on social issues come dangerously close to liberal.  That McCain isn’t a pundit and doesn’t have a political background works to her benefit.  Some chapters feel more guarded and use more political speak than others (it’s hard for me to take seriously anyone under 30 using the phrase “young people”), but McCain tends to stick with forthrightness, without the entitled moral trolling that accompanies much of today’s popular conservative writing.

When the discussion moves to her dad’s 2008 presidential campaign, it becomes harder to agree with every point made.  Meghan is hardly objective, but that’s the point.  She provides a sympathetic insight on John McCain the person, even as she criticizes the vultures and opportunists who commandeered his campaign as it gains traction.  As could be expected, a big part of this story focuses on Sarah Palin’s running mate effect on the campaign.  While Meghan quickly sours on Palin’s blatant lunge for the limelight, she steers clear of catty tabloid trash-talking.

Those expecting slick diatribes and reinforced party lines from Dirty Sexy Politics will come away empty-handed.  More than anything, this is a tale of a girl put out of her element, expected to be a campaign prop and rebelling against it.  It doesn’t always work, but this is a nice change from the usual shouting of political literature.

The Designer’s Drugs: Mick Foley – Countdown to Lockdown

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Mick Foley – Countdown to Lockdown

Anno: 2010

The oversaturated, often ghostwritten world of the wrestler’s autobiography has been worn out since Mick Foley single-handedly created – or at least legitimized – the field.  His first of four autobiographies, titled Have a Nice Day!, was a remarkable account of pro wrestling, compiled from handwritten notebooks written in Foley’s own hand.  It remains the benchmark against which every other pro wrestler’s memoirs are judged.  Since then, Foley tends to pop up every few years with a new book of varying quality detailing his life’s recent events.

Of these follow-ups, Countdown to Lockdown finds itself in the middle of the road.  The main thrust of the book details Foley’s exodus to TNA, wrestling’s number two promotion, where the old gun attempts to deliver a solid match within a steel cage.  The days count down as Foley’s fears, insecurities, and physical condition threaten to overwhelm him, yet he pulls himself together.

The ultimate problem that plagues this book is the insecurity.  Foley’s accounts of the wrestling world are still enthralling, and it’s still really easy to get behind him in his newest adventures.  But wow, does he come off as nervous in this one.  The book’s scatterbrained tangents, bashful asides, and schoolboy shout-outs to the ladies take a heavy toll on the narrative.

As such, the best chapters in Countdown to Lockdown have nothing to do with the main story.  Foley’s account of his marginalization within and departure from the WWE, and his take on wrestling’s many casualties and tendencies toward substance abuse, feature some of the book’s boldest writing.  Foley’s criticisms of his old job, jaded fans, and the industry at large are delivered largely with fairness and without bitterness, though a few cheap shots do come out from time to time.

Another key element in the book is the description of Foley’s charitable work, both as a wrestler and outside of it.  His work with disabled kids and wounded soldiers has gone back for years, but Foley spends a lot of time in this book promoting his favorite charities, particularly his work sponsoring children in foreign countries.  It’s interesting to read about his impact upon a village in Sierra Leone, a place where the celebrity of pro wrestling doesn’t reach yet where Foley is treated as a hero.  These stories might have felt out of place in the average ghostwritten wrestling memoir, but are completely fitting alongside Foley’s optimistic style.

The Hardcore Legend's Legend

But the most notable part of this tale is, believe it or not, Tori Amos.  Though she’s been mentioned in Mick’s other books, here he devotes an entire chapter to praising the singer.  In what basically amounts to a fan letter, he breaks down the lyrics to his favorite Amos song, builds up the nerve to meet her, and then agonizes over whether he creeped her out.  It’s a strange and occasionally fawning part of the book, but one which ties in with the main narrative later on.  In the larger context, it makes sense, but the presentation could have been less starstruck.

It’s an odd, meandering piece of work, but Countdown to Lockdown should appeal to the already converted wrestling fan.  For the newcomer, however, start with his first book.  Foley’s gift for writing may not be in full force here, but it is present often enough to signify that, while his wrestling career is coming to a close, he may still have a few good books left in him.

The Designer’s Drugs: Brandon Flowers – Flamingo (Deluxe Edition)

 

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Brandon Flowers – Flamingo (Deluxe Edition)

Anno: 2010

 

Owing to their Vegas roots, the Killers have always flirted with the idea of being a casino band, but on his solo debut singer Brandon Flowers drowns in gambling metaphor.  Flowers opens the album with “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas,” where he takes in the huddled masses with the intent of fleecing them all.  “Jilted Lovers & Broken Hearts” isn’t as blatant, though the references to rolling dice and playing cards paint the walls throughout this dancing romance.  The album’s best storytelling is on a dopey country tune titled “The Clock Was Tickin’” which chronicles the down and out life of a Vegas dreg with forgiving scope.

Yet Flowers advances this formula one step further and injects this Sin City story with a healthy dose of the Lord.  While this factor could send the album into a preachy quagmire, the storytelling on most of these songs is often an advantage.  A few of the lordy tracks are lackluster, the most obvious being the album’s closer, “Right Behind You.”  Musically it’s a sad and pretty work of electropop; lyrically it plays out like the “Footprints” fable.  Yet “Playing with Fire” – easily the album’s best track – is a gorgeously sparse track bearing the imagery of Christ out in the desert.  Similarly gripping, “On the Floor” plays out like a vice spiritual featuring animals out of Aesop’s Fables.

Though it’s not as immediately exciting as the Killers’ work, Flamingo is Flowers’ bold, and perhaps inevitable, break from its dance rock style.  It’s also his best work since that band’s debut.