A Mountaineer In the Duke of York’s Shire

Back in the spring, when the first blush of the pandemic shut things down around the world, one of the “holy shit, this is serious” moments was when the sports world ground to a halt. In the United States the big deal was when the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, March Madness, was cancelled outright. In Europe, soccer leagues shut down one by one across the continent.

At the time, there were serious discussions about what that meant for the 2019-2020 season that was in the home stretch. Would it be completed later, keeping in mind that the 2020-2021 season kicks off in August? Would the standings be set and stone at the time things were halted, even though the season wasn’t complete? That’s the path the French leagues took, setting final tables based on points earned per game. Would the powers that be simply declare things over, void, and disappear the entire season? That’s what the Dutch leagues did.

In England, the debate about how, and whether, to finish the season centered around Liverpool FC, which were well on their way to their first Premier League title and first top-flight championship in three decades. I was more interested in what was going to happen in the Championship, England’s second tier, where Leeds United topped the table at the time things shut down. It had been 16 years since Leeds had been in the Premier League and I’d been rooting for them to get back all that time.

Why? How does a person born and raised in West Virginia come to root for a team in Yorkshire?*

While I played soccer growing up, it wasn’t really until I was in college that I became a fan of the game. Part of that was due to the 1994 World Cup, which was hosted in the United States and all over TV. Major League Soccer was an outgrowth of that, too. But what really captured my attention was the one-game weekly broadcasts of UEFA Champions League games on a regional sports station. In the Champions League the top teams from all over Europe (each nation has its own league – even each of the UK nations have their own!) from the previous season play to crown a continental champion.

That’s where I first met Leeds United.

LUFC Logo

At the time I didn’t know anything about Leeds or the county, Yorkshire, when the city is located. What I saw was a team that appeared to be overachieving. It appeared to be doing it with young talent that was largely British or Commonwealth based (it was a little odd for a newbie to see English teams primarily made up of players from around the world – I hadn’t learned about the Bosman ruling yet). In other words, they looked like underdogs and I’ve always had a soft spot for underdogs. So they won my support.

In the years since I’ve developed a little bit of an affinity for Leeds and Yorkshire. Two of my favorite bands are from Leeds, The Tangent (or at least its main man, Andy Tillison) and Kaiser Chiefs. The latter is even named after the prior club of former Leeds captain Lucas Radebe! And Yorkshire has a history as one of England’s major producers of coal, so it resonates with my West Virginia roots.

Now, at the time, I didn’t know that Leeds United had a glorious history, particularly in the mid-1960s and early 1970s  when they were one of England’s elite (around the same time progressive rock ruled the land – coincidence?). From the time I was in law school until just about the time I started my current gig in 2002, things were like that again, with the team finishing in the top five for five consecutive seasons.

Then the wheels came off. The team had made some bad financial decisions, gotten overstretched on credit, and had to sell some of its best young players. The bottom fell out and the team was relegated to the Championship and then, three seasons later, to League One (which, confusingly is England’s third tier – the equivalent to AA baseball). They bounced back to the Championship at the start of this decade, but were frustratingly underachieving, until crashing out in the promotion playoffs last year.

Which is what made the pandemic pause so nerve wracking. This season it looked like promotion was theirs to take. Would the interruption mess with the team’s chemistry? Would a compressed schedule put too much stress on Marcelo Bielsa’s thin squad? Would there even be any more games? Thankfully, the rest of the season played out and the right result ensued:

BBCLeedsHeadlineNYTLeeds

Had the pandemic not swept along, my wife and I had planned to visit England and Scotland in the spring and see Leeds play at Elland Road. We might have wound up at the game where they clinched promotion. Alas, it was not to be. At least the promotion part happened! “Marching On Together” as they say.

* I should note that I do my soccer loyalties like some people do publishing rights – for the United States and then for the rest of the world. I root for DC United in Major League Soccer. Who suck so bad right now they’re giving me all the soccer pain I can handle.

The Big Black Hole In the Room

Thanks to Zinio I’m finally getting a chance to catch up on the issues of Prog magazine that I’ve missed during the pandemic. One of them, from June, has yet another of Prog’s famous lists (they love their lists over there), this one of the 50 most “influential” progressive rock albums of all time. As the intro makes clear, it was “not a list of the best prog albums of all time,” but rather a list of albums that are “pivotal in the ongoing development of progressive music.”

As with most lists, the best thing about it is that it can be a jumping off point for discussion. Nothing like this can ever be “definitive.” With that in mind, it makes sense that the list is skewed heavily toward the late 1960s and early 1970s when prog was emerging and at its commercial peak. I was pleased to see it didn’t end there, however, with releases all the way up to 2013 making the cut. There is, however, one pretty glaring hole in the list, which is pretty odd considering that the whole revitalization of the genre that made Prog possible happened then.

I’m talking about the 1990s.

The sole representative from the 90s is Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997), which is both an excellent album and an impressive reminder that expansive, odd, and small-p “progressive” rock could still find a commercial audience. But there was a lot of other important stuff going on in that decade that the list overlooks. Oddly, in some cases.

For example, Dream Theater’s 1989 debut album, When Dream and Day Unite, makes the cut. In a way that makes sense, as DT are the founding fathers of prog-metal and where better place to start than at the beginning? But the truth was not many people heard or cared about that album when it came out. What really broke DT, and announced the arrival of prog-metal, was their 1992 release, Images and Words. It’s practically the face that launched a thousand metal-tinged proggers (who kind of dominate things these days).

But that’s just one example. Here are some other important releases that are absent from the Prog list.

The Swedish Invasion

After the 1970s, prog wasn’t dead, but (to borrow a phrase from Frank Zappa) it did smell funny. While there was a slight resurgence with the neo-prog scene in the early 1980s, it didn’t get the kind of traction as the much had in the 70s. By the end of the decade, prog was very much on life support.

Two things happened in the 1990s that helped its resurgence, what some call the “third wave” of progressive rock. The first was that technology made the recording and releasing of music less expensive and put into the hands of musicians a better chance to get their music out there. The second, the real seismic shift, was the emergence of the Internet. Suddenly it didn’t matter that you were the only one in your town who knew Peter Gabriel was originally in Genesis – you could talk with other fans all over the world and be part of a real community.

A bit part of the enthusiasm that coursed through the Net in the early years was because of several bands from Sweden who helped kick off the third wave.

First up was Anglagard, whose debut album Hybris (1992) sounded like it was dropped out of 1973 via a time warp:

Hybris

It’s glorious, lush, mostly instrumental symphonic prog with lots of 70s hallmarks (Mellotron! Minimoog! Flutes!) and completely out of step with what was popular at the time. It also laid down a marker – people are still making this kind of music (and, to a certain extent, people are still buying it).

Anekdoten’s debut, Vemod (1993), falls into the same boat, although it takes its cues more from Wetton/Bruford era King Crimson than Anglagard does.

Beyond both of those, 1994 saw the release of The Flower King, a solo album by guitarist/vocalist Roine Stolt. Stolt himself wasn’t new – he was a teenage wunderkind in Kaipa during the 1970s – but this album was a return to a basic, very Yes-inspired, symphonic prog sound. Of course, it’s also essentially the debut album of The Flower Kings, who continue to crank through to this day. Stolt went on to lead that band while working with all sorts of other people in bands like Agents of Mercy, The Tangent, and Transatlantic. The Flower Kings itself brought the world the extraordinary bassist Jonas Reingold (and his band Karmakanic) and vocalist Hasse Brunnison’s band.

What all these bands have in common, and why they’re influential to the modern prog world, is they undeniably claimed the idea that “progressive rock” is as much a style – indebted to the original bands of the 1970s – as it is an idea or a rallying cry. There’s rock that progresses – continues to push the boundaries, wherever they may be – and there’s progressive rock as a label. These bands represent the real genesis (so to speak) of that modern, nostalgic prog path.

A Reinvigorated Old Guard

While prog itself might have struggled in the 1980s, that didn’t mean that all prog bands did. Some changed their sound up and had a hit (Yes), while others did the same and became one of the biggest pop bands in the universe (Genesis). That transition wasn’t so smooth for other bands, however, and they limped into the 90s like lost ships at sea.

After vocalist Pete Nichols left, IQ struggled on with a couple more albums that tried to tack into a slicker, more direct sound, with no real success (a couple of good tunes, though). In 1993, Nichols came back and the band jumped solidly back into the neo-prog territory they helped to chart with Ever.

Ever

It wasn’t the only example of a more establish act returning to their more progressive glory days.

Marillion had tried to go a little more pop on Holidays In Eden, but, again, it didn’t really work out (again, several good tunes, though!). As their relationship with their label deteriorated, then went and produced a sprawling concept album, Brave (1994). Not just a statement of intent to do whatever they wanted, it marked a shift in their sound where they started to emphasize atmosphere and mood more than juicy solos. You can hear that vibe everywhere from Gazpacho and Airbag to Pineapple Thief and Porcupine Tree (parts of it, anyway).

Not to be outdone, 1995 saw the roaring back of one of the classic 70s bands when King Crimson released THRAK. It, too, was somewhat backwards looking, melding the intricate dual guitar lines of the 1980s lineup with the thunderous power (two drummers! two bass-ish players!) of the 1970s. It arguably introduced Crimson to entire new audiences from the nu-metal and related scenes.

A New Brand of Odd

“What is prog?” is the evergreen debate on the Internet. If it means more than “stuff that sounds like the 1970s” – and it does – then you have to have some room in your array of influence for bands that might not fit the prog mold, but are just weird enough to embody the spirit of the genre.

Is Primus prog? Don’t know, don’t care, but there’s definitely some prog DNA in there. Their 1991 breakthrough Sailing the Seas of Cheese shows influences of Rush and King Crimson, some astounding musicianship, and just plain odd stuff that pushes it outside the mainstream. The same could be said for The Flaming Lips, who rang out the decade with The Soft Bulletin (1999), a skillfully layered collection of nouveau psychedelia. Arguably they’d go bigger (and proggier) later, but still.

Then there’s Talk Talk, who released their final album, Laughing Stock, in 1991. Much as I have tried this is an album I just can’t get into, but it’s been beloved by a generation of musicians that have come after it for its abstract, arty meanderings. I’ve read that, for some, it’s the origin of post-rock. If spawning a new genre isn’t influential, I don’t know what is.

Finally, in any discussion of the modern progressive scene you have to make room for jam bands. Not every one of those bands gets proggy points, but so many of them take such a diverse range of influences and throw them together with live improvisation that it’s hard to imagine something more progressive. While the scene dates back to the Grateful Dead, what really made it clear that a new generation would jump on that train was the success of Phish. While they’re most known for live shows (of course), their studio albums are worth note, too.

Rift

I’d put 1991’s Rift up there as their proggiest effort – it’s even a bloody concept album!

I’ll admit that I might be a bit sensitive when it comes to 1990s prog. This was the era, while I was in college and law school, that I rediscovered progressive rock – found out that it wasn’t dead and that the 1970s scene was broader and deeper than I’d ever imagined. Even putting that to one side, though, I think even the folks at Prog would admit that it wasn’t quite the nearly-barren wasteland it’s list portrays it to be. Not every album I talk about above should have made the cut, but at least a couple should have.

Why Do I Love Bad (Fictional!) Lawyers?

Popular culture is full of lawyers. As both a lawyer and a writer, I apologize for that, but the legal profession is a pretty rich vein of drama (and even comedy) for writers. There’s crime and deceit, business dealings and family squabbles. The law touches every area of life (for good or for ill), so it’s a great way to examine life itself.

There are plenty of heroic lawyers in pop culture. Perry Mason’s having a kind of resurgence with the new, gritty, noir-flavored HBO series. Atticus Finch is a popular choice for crusader who launched a thousand earnest legal careers.* There are countless others, of course, lawyers who fight for the little guy (or gal) or justice or law in the abstract. They’re fine, of course, but when you always win, things can get kind of stale.

Which is why some of us – or maybe just speaking for myself here – have more of an affinity with the legal bad boys, the ones who work on the edges of professional ethics, for whatever reason. There’s a quite a rogue’s gallery and I pretty much love every one of them. They’re the patron saints of the legal profession, in my eyes.

Front of mind at this point can be none other than Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, of Breaking Bad and his own prequel spinoff, Better Call Saul (which is better than the original, I think):

Saul2

The “patron saint” thing is kind of a joke, but the fact that Saul is about a struggling criminal defense lawyer makes it instantly more relatable to me, even if I never find myself nearly dead in the desert hauling two duffle bags full of drug cartel money (let’s hope). He is a sleaze, no doubt, and it eventually gets him into serious trouble, but at least early on he’s willing to use that sleaze to help the underdog and generally fuck with “law and order.” While I can’t say I approve of Jimmy’s methods, I appreciate the attitude. It’s one that sustains long-time public defenders like me.

Of more long standing in the pantheon is the one, the only “law talking guy,” Lionel Hutz:

Hutz2

Voiced by the wonderful Phil Hartman on The Simpson, Hutz is just a master class in legal incompetence. He marvels at how useful law books can be. He changes the terms of his retainer by marking up his own business cards. He shudders at the otherwise happy thought of a world without lawyers. He requests “bad court thingies.” And, most notably, he’s always looking out for himself:

Deep in the heart of every lawyer lurks the certainty that, if nothing else, they’re better than Hutz.

He’s not the only cartoon lawyer with a hold on my heart. How can I not love Harvey Birdman?

Harvey

Harvey’s less an idol for his legal acumen that he is for his ability to keep a calm head on his . . . wings, while everything else falls apart around him. It’s an important skill for an attorney, especially a criminal defense lawyer. Besides, who wouldn’t want to have an eagle for an assistant?

But if we’re going old school, there’s one sleazy lawyer that was lodged in my brain long before I was anywhere near a law school – Steve Dallas:

SteveDallas

Looking back I’m a little appalled at my love for Bloom County’s legal scholar. He’s a loud mouthed, rude, misogynistic, frat boy – precisely the kind of person I’d loathe if I met him (or saw him online) today. I mean, he did have cool cars, so that counts for something. And he was, come to think of it, the only professional in Bloom County (among the regular cast, at least). He had credentials and never let anybody else forget it. Like Harvey, he also recognized the value of good help:

SteveOpus2SteveOpus1

When it comes to all these guys (and they are all guys – I’ve noticed) I’m reminded of that idea, from Tolstoy, that all happy families are the same, but dysfunctional ones are unique in their dysfunction. I think that’s true for fictional lawyers, too. Good-hearted crusaders are important and uplifting, but they’re not always much fun. Bring on the bad boys!

* Years ago I went to a legal writing seminar where, for the session on issue spotting, we used the facts of To Kill a Mockingbird. A mere 45 minutes later he was facing a lengthy ineffective assistance of counsel charge.

New Tune – “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard”

Last spring the Fourth Circuit held an oral argument session in Charleston, South Carolina, rather than its usual home in Richmond. I had to go down there to argue a case, so I took the wife with me and we made a little vacation of it. Charleston is a neat old city, full of lots of history and architecture.

One day, while walking around, we passed this narrow passageway:

PiratesCourtyard (Small)

Something about the sign grabbed me. It wasn’t for a restaurant or bar and wasn’t any kind of historical marker. It was just a sign designating this places as Pirates Courtyard.

Almost immediately I got a riff in my head. Being that musical inspiration is usually fleeting for me, I did well to keep it going until we got back to the hotel. I jotted down the idea and, at the top of the legal pad with the notes, wrote “Dance Party in the Pirates Courtyard.” Usually I pick a title from my long list of nonsense phrases I keep handy just for that purpose, but this seemed to fit the riff and gave me some idea of what might come next.

After many months, and some good lockdown time, I’ve finally completed it. Does it really conjure a “dance party”? Probably not. It’s too slow, has a “chorus” in 7/4, and has an ambienty piano bridge. But I like it and it’s my song and I’ll call it whatever the fuck I like!
Anyway, here it is – hope you enjoy:

 

Dear US Soccer – Please Shut Up and Settle

I practice criminal law, criminal defense to be precise. I’m glad I do, because there’s a clarity of focus in it that can be a bit hazy in other legal areas. My job is to do the best for my client in court, period – whether that means an acquittal, a better sentence, or (as in my practice, for the most part) a successful result on appeal. Very very rarely are the other considerations to worry about. That the public doesn’t like the process is irrelevant – I’m trying to keep my guy out of a cage.

Civil law is different, particularly civil defense. People who get sued are often really determined to prevail on court, to prove to the world that they’re right. But part of their lawyer’s job is to suggest that winning in court is not necessarily going to solve their problem. A criminal defendant is rarely made worse off by a bold defense in court. A civil defendant, by contrast, particularly a corporation without any real personality – well, sometimes the big machine gets it right:

WinningMove

That went through my head when I read about US Soccer’s pleading last week in its ongoing litigation with the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) over equal pay. I don’t know enough about employment law to know if the arguments made in it are legally sound or have a chance of success, but I’ll assume they do. Question is, what does US Soccer think a “win” would look like at this point?

This article at SI breaks down the federation’s latest argument, which basically has two parts. The first is one familiar to anyone who has brushed up against the legal system – non fregit eum, et emit eam (aka “you broke it, you brought it”):

Stolzenbach first asserts that the fundamental flaw of the players’ legal theory is that they compare a pay system that their own labor union, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association, negotiated with the pay of players who aren’t in their bargaining unit—players on the men’s team.

To that end, U.S. Soccer stresses that courts have consistently rejected attempts by unionized employees to compare their employment terms to employees who are outside of their bargaining unit.

This is the kind of procedural argument I’d expect any lawyer to make. It appears to be the equivalent to how plea bargains are treated in criminal law – once you sign one, you’re stuck with it. Assume A and B are charged in an indictment and A decides to get a good early plea bargain. B sticks it out and, later, either gets a better deal or goes to trial and is acquitted. Can A back out of his plea? Not a chance. Courts routinely hold that so long as you weren’t misinformed, mistaken, or misled into making a guilty plea then you won’t be able to back out of it later. Whether this is a winning argument in the context of the USWNT case I don’t know, but it seems fairly standard.

The other one, though . . . yikes. It has to do with whether the job of USWNT player is “roughly equal in terms of effort, skill, and responsibility” to that of US Men’s National Team (USMNT) player. It was bad enough to point out that in terms of “responsibility” that the USWNT may not have the same earning potential as the USMNT (while eliding the fact that the USMNT choked and missed out on its last big earning opportunity – the 2018 World Cup).

From there it got worse:

Stolzenbach attempts to supplement this argument, even wading into some territory that could be described as misogynistic.

He insists that men’s players face much more demanding working conditions and thus have fundamentally different—and, by implication, harder—jobs. He contends that men’s players encounter ‘opposing fan hostility’ in road environments, particularly in Mexico and Central America, that is ‘unmatched’ by anything experienced by women’s players. Stolzenbach stresses that the women don’t play in Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean when trying to qualify for tournament play. Further, Stolzenbach maintains that ‘science’ confirms there are different levels of speed and strength required for men’s and women’s players. He insists it is not a ‘sexist stereotype’ to recognize this distinction.

 

Now, if US Soccer was fighting to stay out of jail I might question this strategy, but you do what you have to do. But at the end of the day, US Soccer is going to have to continue to do business with the USWNT (and the USMNT, who have publicly supported the drive for equal pay) and, more importantly, the American public. Why on Earth would they want to denigrate about the only good thing coming out of American soccer at the moment?

Let’s recap. The women are undefeated in more than a dozen matches, just swept through the She Believes cup against quality competition, are the two-time defendant champions of the world (with two other World Cups prior), and are gearing up to try and win their fifth gold medal at this summer’s Olympics. By contrast, the men failed to qualify for the last World Cup (to be fair, so did traditional powers Italy, Chile, and the Netherlands), their furthest progression in the Cup came before the Second World War, and they’ve ceded the pole position in the region to Mexico. Oh, and the Olympics? The men haven’t qualified since 2008.

Whether those comparisons are apples to oranges or not is irrelevant. In the public eye, US Soccer has precisely one broadly loved group whom people outside of soccer fanatics care anything about – the USWNT. Building the game in the United States – at all levels, men’s and women’s – requires public support. Pissing off a large swath of the public with arguments like this – even if it’s a winner legally – is a long-term losing proposition. It’s not just my criminal law mind that thinks this is a bad play (in response to this tweet):

USSoccerTweet1

Indeed, the backlash from this filing has been swift and fierce. US Soccer eventually apologized, but the players weren’t buying it. The president of the federation resigned and, apparently, the law firm responsible was fired.

Ultimately, as to what comes next, I think Alexi Lalas has it about right:

USSoccerTweet2

This really isn’t a legal fight. It can’t be won in a courtroom. It’s only going to be won in the court of public opinion and that’s going to require some serious groveling on US Soccer’s part. So, let’s get to it, US Soccer – shut up and settle this thing already!

Please-Shut-Up-Morgan-Freeman-Picture

Decade – Favorite Books

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

Writers read. I’m always surprised when I find someone who writes who thinks that either reading in their genre is a bad idea or, in some cases, that reading itself just takes away from valuable writing time. You gotta do your own work, of course, but it’s critical for a writer to nourish their mind and soul with the works of others. Besides, reading is fun! So, naturally, I do a lot of it, although most of it these days is less “reading” than it is “listening” via audiobooks. Regardless, I’ve read some good stuff over the past ten years.

Here are the rules for this list . . .

1. Only works first published during the last decade are eligible.

2. Only one work per author on the list BUT (and it’s kind of a big one) I’ve included series, trilogies, and the like under one heading, so the list is actually more than ten books.

3. As with all the other lists, these are personal favorites. I don’t make any claim to these being the best, most influential, or what have you. I just really liked ‘em.

Saga (2012-present)
by Bryan K. Vaughn & Fiona Staples

 

SagaVol1

A couple of years ago when I wrote about why you should be reading this science fantasy space epic, I called it “the apex of what comics can be.” That’s completely true – if you’ve never read a comic or graphic novel before, you could do worse than to start with Saga. But as I also said back then, you should read it because “it’s a great story, involving people you will care deeply about, told across a stunningly inventive backdrop.” How could it not be a favorite?

Redshirts (2012)
by John Scalzi

Redshirts_John_Scalzi1

By now even people who have never seen an episode of Star Trek know what it means to be a “red shirt” – an expendable character who gets sacrificed so the audience knows the peril our heroes are about to face (and escape, obviously). Is there something deeper there than just a cheap joke and internet meme? John Scalzi took the idea and ran with it, crafting a story about a group of low-rung characters on a suspiciously Trek-like ship who figure out the game. What follows is good fun and a meditation on what it means to live your own story and find out who you really are. Also, how can you not love a book with three codas?

The Master of Confessions (2014)
by Thierry Cruvellier

MasterofConfessions

Thierry Cruvellier’s book is not a history of what the Khmer Rouge did to Cambodia in the 1970s, nor is it a straight biography of Duch, the titular master of confessions. Rather, it’s a more freeform observation and commentary on Duch’s 8-month trial for crimes against humanity. As such, while it certainly talks about the brutal history of that era (and that place, Tuol Sleng, the former high school that still had blood on the walls when my wife and I visited in 2015), it also dives into the idea of confessions as legal proof and what happens when legal proceedings drag on an on, to the point where the defense team openly spars with each other.

I wrote a more in-depth review of the book which you can read here. Needless to say, it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.

Children of Time (2015)
Children of Ruin (2019)
by Adrian Tchaikovsky

If you had told me in 2010 that one of my favorite books in the next decade would involve sentient spiders I would have rolled my eyes. But it’s true! Children of Time begins with a disrupted experiment on a distant planet which results in spider-like beings getting infected with an uplift nanovirus. In the eons it takes for humans to make it back there, we’re treated to the evolution of the spiders and development of their own space-faring society. It’s completely brilliant, outside the box stuff. The story continues in Children of Ruin, which is almost as good.

The Fifth Season (2015)
The Obelisk Gate (2016)
The Stone Sky (2017)
by N.K. Jemisin

Broken

I generally do not buy the hype. Almost never do I read, see, or hear something that is wildly praised and think it’s as great as all that. If anything shouldn’t have met my standards it’s this trilogy – a volume of which won the Hugo award for best novel an unprecedented three years in a row. Somehow, it managed not to disappoint. The first book, in particular, is utterly brilliant for the narrative sleight of hand it pulls off. The other two don’t quite match that high mark, but are both excellent and the trilogy tells a hell of a story overall.

The Mechanical (2015)
The Rising (2015)
The Liberation (2016)
by Ian Tregillis

Tregillis-AlchemyWars2016UK

“Clockmakers lie.” Not such a big deal if they’re all making timepieces, but if they’re making scores of mechanical men? It could be a big problem, particularly if some of those “clakkers” start to think for themselves. That’s the thrust of the Alchemy Wars trilogy, which is set in an alternate universe 1920s where the world is basically ruled by the Dutch as a result of their mastery of clockwork automatons. Only some, like the books’ hero Jax, aren’t content to do what they’re told. A great story set in a fascinating world that raises interesting questions about free will and such.

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War On Drugs  (2015)
by Johann Hari

Scream

I read this book along with Sam Quinones’ Dreamland, which investigates the origin of the current opioid crisis. Chasing the Scream goes back much further and investigates the origins of the drug war itself, back in the beginning of the 20th Century. It focuses particularly on a slimy shit named Harry Anslinger, who ran the predecessor to the DEA for more than three decades. He was the prototypical drug warrior, pathologically certain of his moral correctness and impervious to evidence showing just about every assumption he had about drugs was wrong. More than that, however, the book allows Johann Hari to look at various alternatives to our current drug war, almost all of which look more promising.

The Road to Jonestown (2017)
by Jeff Guinn

RoadtoJonestown

I knew the basic story of Jonestown – the far out settlement in the jungle, the fateful Congressional fact-finding mission, the murder/suicide that ensued. What I never really knew is how things wound up that way. Guinn’s book is a fascinating and comprehensive look at a man who began life as a charismatic preacher and civil rights activist who slipped slowly into authoritarianism and paranoia. It’s frightening, yet completely understandable, how many of victims were drawn in by him and equally horrific the things so many of them eventually did in his name.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)
by Joanne Freeman

FieldofBlood

I went into reading this book thinking that the incident pictured on the front – the beating of a northern Senator by a southern colleague in the Senate chamber on the eve of the Civil War – was a singular thing. I expected some interesting history you point to and say, “look out how uncivilized they all were.” Instead, I came out the other end thinking the age – which included numerous acts of inter-Congressional violence and at least one death – sounds an awful lot like ours. Given where it all led the first time, it wasn’t a comforting read.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)
by Radley Balko & Tucker Carrington

CadaverKing

Radley Balko is best known for his work chronicling the rise of militarism in police procedures, but during that same time he’s done a lot of work on the hot mess that is forensic science in this country. In this book he, along with Tucker Carrington (of the Innocence Project), take one particular case study of this, chronicling the death investigation system in Mississippi. Thoroughly political and slanted towards the prosecution, it sends innocent people to prison – who then only sometimes get released, because the courts have problems dealing with stuff like this. It will make you throw the book across the room.

Decade – Favorite TV Shows

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

It’s not an original thought to say that there’s a lot of TV shows out there these days. Not just that – a lot of very good TV shows (along with a lot of dreck, of course – Sturgeon was onto something). With every streaming service and cable network producing original content, it’s impossible for anybody to keep track of it all. These selections are ones I was lucky enough to cross paths with (in some instances years after their original run) over the past ten years. Some other things to keep in mind:

1. These are just what I say they are – favorites. I don’t make any claims that these are the “best,” whatever that may mean.

2. I only considered shows that began in 2010 or later (but see below).

3. I didn’t limit consideration to only multi-season series, but the list wound up not including any limited run stuff (although, again, see below).

With that said, away we go . . .

Justified (2010-2015)

Justified

I’m a federal criminal defense lawyer. US Marshals are not my friends. So it says something that one of my favorite characters of the past decade is a Deputy US Marshal. That Raylan Givens is the creation of Elmore Leonard doesn’t hurt, but the way he was developed (and played by Timothy Oliphant) through the run of the show really brought him to life. That Leonard vibe extends all the way though the show, particularly in the very unusual for TV setting (hello, federal district next door to mine!) and the astounding bevy of supporting characters, all of whom are unique characters without being “colorful” (if that makes sense). I mean, Boyd Crowder (and Dewey Crow), come on!

Bob’s Burgers (2011-present)

Bob

This is one of those shows I knew nothing about until the wife and I started watching reruns on Cartoon Network (I think) several years into its run. It didn’t take us long to make first-run episodes part of our regular rotation, to the extent that Fox’s football programming makes regularity an option. It’s a funny show with just enough heart to make you care about the weirdoes on screen. And what weirdoes. I’ll just say that I think Gene Belcher is my spirit animal and leave it at that.

Game of Thrones (2011-2019)

GoT

I know, I know, they didn’t really stick the landing (it wasn’t as bad as lots of loud people thought), but as a fan of Martin’s books before the series began I was super pleased by the show. It’s also a fascinating case study in adaptation, since the show runners ran past the point where Martin had written fairly quickly. I’d also be lying if I didn’t appreciate how the show helped shove fantasy stuff to the cultural forefront. Plus, I got to discuss it in court!

The Americans (2013-2018)

Americans

If someone had told me, before this show premiered, that it was really more of a family drama than a high-stake spy thriller, I might have given it a pass. That would have been a big mistake because while that’s an accurate description of what transpired over six seasons, it also doesn’t do justice to the atmosphere the show generated with all the spy stuff (and excellent soundtrack choices). Once you’ve seen mom and dad stuff a dead body in a suitcase it tends to stick with you, you know? If Stranger Things (which just missed the cut for this list) is all about 1980s nostalgia, this series was all about the paranoia of the same age.

Fun fact – the children of the Soviet spies who were the inspiration for the show recently had their Canadian citizenship confirmed.

Bojack Horseman (2014-present)

Bojack

Comedy is tricky. As I noted above, you have to care about characters for a show to have legs, not matter how good the jokes. But in asking us to care, it invites the writers to go into more serious, less funny places. Bojack Horseman really straddles that line nicely, digging deeply into the title characters depression and substance abuse but never quite losing site of the fact that we’re watching a cartoon about half-human animal people in a place called Hollywoo. You could probably do “Death of a Salesman” in front of the backdrop and still die laughing. This is, after all, a show where an entire episode’s punch line is that the horse guy is bombing at his own mother’s funeral.

Oh, and it’s got my favorite theme song from any TV show in a very long time.

The Knick (2014-2015)

Knick

This is my overlooked/neglected pick for this list, which is a surprise given the pedigree involved – a period piece created/directed by Stephen Soderbergh starring Clive Owen (and a host of excellent character actors) promising a different spin on that venerable TV institution, the hospital drama. Maybe it was because the show sidestepped the usual focus on medical heroics to dwell in the underbelly of a hospital struggling to stay open in 19th century New York. Maybe Owen didn’t pull off the addicted genius asshole like Hugh Laurie did on House. Maybe the excellent, anachronistic electronic score by Cliff Martinez turned some off. Regardless, I loved both seasons and wanted more. Alas.

The Leftovers (2014-2017)

Leftovers

Tom Perotta’s novel The Leftovers is very good, a darkly humorous meditation on a world where a small percentage of the population just disappear one day. The TV series upon which it’s based, which covered the events of the book in the first of its three seasons, is completely brilliant. The vibe’s not quite the same as the book, but it doubles down on the sheer weirdness that a world like that would produce. I didn’t know what was going on for a lot of the show’s run and I still loved it. It’s one of those shows that you either loved or it left you cold. Count me firmly in the first group.

Better Call Saul (2015-present)

Saul

You’re probably wondering why this made the list and not Breaking Bad. Did you overlook the part above where I said I was a defense attorney? Saul Goodman is one of the TV patron saints of my profession (along with Lionel Hutz). More to the point, I think the slow transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman is a more compelling arc than what happened with Walter White. Walter was driven to do horrible things by circumstance, but he embraced those acts pretty easily. Jimmy has always tried to be better, to seek the approval of the establishment (in the form of his lawyer brother Chuck), and generally do right. That he continually fails and is drawn deeper and deeper into criminality is more tragic.

The Magicians (2015-present)

Magicians

Full confession – I was not a huge fan of the Lev Grosman books upon which this series is based. I read the first two and simply couldn’t come to grips with the main character, Quentin. There was just too much of him. Imagine my surprise when the show runners here apparently came to the same conclusion and made Quentin one of many lead characters on the show, almost all of whom are more interesting and compelling. Add to that some great batshit “yes, this is fantasy!” elements and a willingness to do just about anything (singing – I’m talking about singing) and this series is one of my most pleasant surprises.

Mr. Robot (2015-2019)

MrRobot

A show about which I once said this:

MrRobotJoke

I never really loved this show until its last season. Up to that point I had been impressed by it, but something hadn’t fully clicked about it. I think what finally did it was realizing how amazingly Sam Esmail and crew used the visual language of the show, the odd camera angles and such, to give it a distinct look that could throw you off your feet. That made me reflect on the writing itself and I realized it did the same thing and that, at the end of the show, I was profoundly digging it. Slow burns are a wonderful thing.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

I had to have a pair of honorable mentions, just because they don’t quite fit the parameters I set when I started this project.

Archer (2009-present)

Archer

Archer would have been a shoo-in for this list, but for one fact – it premiered in 2009. In spite of that, I had to give it some love since it’s amazingly funny and still running into the next decade. I love the show’s willingness to take the characters and throw them into completely different settings from season to season (from the original spy spoof setup to drug runners, noir figures, and space farers), even if every attempt didn’t work out that well.

Watchmen (2019)

Watchmen

Watchmen isn’t on the list proper for a couple of reasons. First, it’s Damon Lindelhoff’s baby and he’s already represented with The Leftovers. Second – just what is Watchmen, anyway? If it’s really just a one-season-and-done situation, it may still deserve a spot, but since future seasons are a possibility I wasn’t comfortable putting it on. Regardless of how brilliant this season was, it could go completely downhill in the future. Maybe after another ten years I’ll come back and promote it to the big leagues.

NOTE: I put this list together before it was confirmed that Watchmen was going to be one and done. Rather than mess with the list, I’ll keep it here in its special place. Seems right.

Decade – Favorite Songs

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

As I said last week, I listen to a lot of music. in trying to process all the great music from the last ten years I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums (which dropped last week), one of favorite tunes. Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list. While there’s no hard and fast rule that none of the favorite album artists could appear on this list, too, it just worked out that way.

2. One song per artist. Some of these albums are full of good songs and there are other albums from this decade, too, but I had to draw a line somewhere.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

Got it? Good. Let’s rock . . .

“Starts With Nothing” from The Future Is Medieval by Kaiser Chiefs (2011)

It doesn’t start with nothing, of course, but with a synth pattern, some kick drum, and vocals. After a brief respite, the full band kicks in and things build from there to a titanic conclusion. In a list full of epic prog tracks, sometimes you just need a good rock tune. Kaiser Chiefs are kind of my go-to for that kind of thing – intelligent modern rock with just enough keyboards to keep things interesting. Yes, that is my final answer.

“King of Number 33” from King of Number 33 by DeeExpus (2011)

One of the great epics of the decade, it has a story that sounds too odd not to have some basis in fact. The “King” here is a mentally disabled guy who rides the same bus over and over, not hurting anybody, until one day he shows up with sword and starts demanding obedience from his “subjects.” It’s sad and tragic, but the music is really good, with lots of nice instrumental breaks. It leans to the heavier side of the scale (as lots of prog does these days), but it gets the balance just right.

“Titanic Calls Carpathia” from COMM by The Tangent (2011)

COMM, as you might guess from the title, is all about communication. It’s not surprise, then, that Andy Tillison would choose to root one of the album’s epic in the one of the first uses of wireless communication in history, the distress call from the sinking Titanic. The theme of distress runs through the tune, folding in everything from Apollo 13 to a lonely person with a cell phone. There’s a cynical streak, of course, Andy being Andy, with regard to what we do these days for “comm.” Musically, everybody in that version of The Tangent was on top of their game.

“Some Memorial” by echolyn from echolyn (aka “Window”) (2012)

I almost went with “Island,” the opening track on this album (echolyn’s best of the decade), since it kicks things off in such a dynamic way. At the end of the day, though, I had to go with the track that closes the first disc. I love the way it works through various moods, from detached and jazzy through angry and driving to the concluding “take a handful of seeds / and a mouthful of earth / lie down, become a garden” section. The strings are a particularly nice touch, contrasting nicely with Chris Buzby’s keys.

“Judas Unrepentant” from English Electric Part One by Big Big Train (2012)

I’ve written about this song before, the story of an art forger undone by the hints he himself left in his works. That’s great in itself, but the music has a bouncy, broad quality that sort of takes the piss out of the seriousness of the story. It’s hard not to love a song that allows you to loudly belt out in the car lines like “charged him with conspiracy to defraud”! Oh, and the guitar work from Dave Gregory, percolating in the background for the most part, is superb.

“Houndstooth” from Senna by Mahogany Frog (2012)

Mahogany Frog exist at the confluence of fusion-inspired instrumental prog, electronica, and jam bands. They’re amazing live (I had a chance to see them at ProgDay in 2010), but they’re equally good at putting the energy of live performance onto tape. This track (actually the first two tracks) from their latest (c’mon guys!) album distills all that makes them fun to listen to into under ten minutes. Wonderful vintage keys, thumping drums, spiraling guitars. Fantastic.

“I Can Teach You How to Lose a Fight” from The Unraveling by Knifeworld (2014)

First impressions are tough, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a better one than the opening track on Knifeworld’s 2014 opus, the first thing of theirs I heard. It’s all just slightly off, but in the best way. It starts off almost industrial, with just rhythm and vocals and occasional guitar, before it explodes to take in the kaleidoscope of sound that Knifeworld is. The lyrics are unsettling (the line “The Skulls We Buried Have Regrown Their Eyes” shows up as a song title later on the album). Seldom have I been so taken with a band so quickly.

“Remurdered” from Rave Tapes by Mogwai (2014)

Rave Tapes marries Mogwai’s usual guitar/bass/drum post rock with healthy dollops of electronics and synths. Nowhere does that come together better than “Remurdered” (what a great title for a song). It starts out with an insistent synth pulse with some spacey guitars before drums and seriously growly bass synth carries things away. It’s one of those songs that builds so well from sparse beginnings to thunderous conclusion.

“La Mitrailleuse” from The Punishment of Luxury by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (2017)

It’s old hat these days for bands that have been split up for decades to get back together and ride the nostalgia gravy train. Less usual is for said bands to make and release new material that’s worth listening to and can stand up with their best earlier work. Since returning with 2010’s dancy History of Modern, OMD has been doing just that. On The Punishment of Luxury they channeled a lot of Dazzle Ships, nowhere more than this track which is just layered vocals and the sounds of gunfire. Chilling and effective.

“Everything Is Awful” from I’ll Be Your Girl by The Decemberists (2018)

If there was ever a song for our times, this is it (no coincidence that it’s the newest tune on this list). What makes it work is, despite the sentiment in the lyrics, the music is upbeat and creates this weird dissonance in your mind. You want to sing along with how awful things are. It’s like laughing in the face of tragedy or maybe a campfire song for the end of the world. Sometimes that’s the best you can do, so why not have a good song for it (see also, 3rDegree’s “A Nihilist’s Love Song”)?

Decade – Favorite Albums

As 2019 wound down a lot of people took the chance to catalog the best/worst/whatever of the decade just gone by (while others noted that the new decade doesn’t really start for another year). Never one to pass up a good chance to develop some blog fodder, I’m spending this month looking back at my favorites from the 2010s.

I listen to a lot of music. There’s no way I could narrow down a decade’s worth of stuff to ten albums, so I had to have some rules. Without rules we’re just animals, right? So far as music goes, that means . . .

1. Two lists – one of favorite albums, one of favorite tunes (that one comes next week). Nothing on the album list can contribute a track to the tunes list.

2. One album per artist. Some of my favorites have had very good decades, but I didn’t want to fill up on them.

3. As with everything in this Decade series, these are my favorites. I don’t make the case that they’re the best, most important, most influential, or anything like that. This is just stuff that I really really like.

With those in mind, away we go . . .

The Long Division by 3rDegree (2012)

LongDivision

3rDegree had a really good decade. Either of their two Ones and Zeroes albums could have been the one I picked for this list since they’re great, too, but I keep coming back to this one. About half the songs are political, but not partisan, in that they cast a keen eye on our fucked up American system (sadly, it looks like they’ll remain relevant for years to come). The rest of the album contains what is perhaps my favorite tune by the band, “Memetic Pandemic,” and the wonderfully sing-songy “A Nihilist’s Love Song.”

Clockwork Angels by Rush (2012)

ClockworkAngels

They say you’re supposed to exit on a high note. Rush did. Their final studio album was a return to their proggy concept album roots. Sprawling and epic, they used some strings very effectively (and even took them on tour). It’s my favorite thing they’ve done since Neal’s tragedies and probably since the 1980s (I like the synths!). The story is a kind of steampunk Candide, better on record than in writing.

Gravity’s Dirty Work by Darkroom (2013)

GravitysDirtyWork

If I had one word to describe my musical decade it would be “Bandcamp.” The streaming/downloading/artist portal website has changed the way I discover new music. The ability to hear about a band and just put their name into Google with “bandcamp” after it generally puts a lot of music at my fingertips. Such is the case with Darkroom, an ambient duo I read about in Prog magazine (I’m pretty sure). The music here is dark and dreamy, with equal parts thick layers of electronics and solo guitar that glides overtop.

The Bones of What You Believe by Chvrches (2013)

BonesOfWhatYouBelieve

Modern synth-pop lives! I learned about this Scottish trio from Keyboard magazine. Not only did I really like what I heard, but I was stunned to find out they’re actually kind of popular. More than once I’ve heard Chvrches tunes on TV (or in a FIFA video game soundtrack) and turned to my wife, in amazement, to explain that I actually own this song. Anyway, all three of their albums released this decade have been great, but the first one holds a special place in my heart.

Execute and Breathe by Elephants of Scotland (2014)

ExecuteAndBreathe

If I had a second word to describe my decade in music it would be “ROSFest.” I saw lots of new (to me, at least) bands there before the fest moved from Gettysburg to Florida this year, including these guys. No elephants anywhere and they’re from Vermont, not Scotland, but their Rush-influenced (with more keyboards) prog is very good. My big beef with them at ROSFest was that they lacked a strong lead vocalist, but that’s less important for a studio record. I listen to this album a lot.

Live In America by Sanguine Hum (2014 – or maybe 2012)

LiveInAmerica

Speaking of ROSFest finds. When I saw this set in 2012 I had no idea who these guys were. By the end of it I was a huge fan. I even stood in the meet & greet line afterwards (which I never did), even though they didn’t have their new album for sale (got to talk to Matt Baber about the Rhodes he used, though, so it was all good). Another band that’s had a great decade, Sanguine Hum have cranked out a lot of great music recently, but this is still a favorite because it captures the experience of diving into the unknown and coming out the other end grinning like a loon.

The release date is a little confusing. I think it was released on Bandcamp in 2012 to those of us who preordered the DVD of the show, but that DVD (which came with a CD, too) didn’t arrive until 2014. Make of that what you will.

The Race for Space by Public Service Broadcasting (2015)

RaceForSpaceCCCP

Central to The Race for Space is a gimmick – taking dialogue and monologue from old films (usually propaganda and news stock) and turning them into lyrics for songs. Not just laying them over beds of electronics like folks have been doing forever, but actually trimming and manipulating them to work in the place of lyrics. That said, it’s a hell of a gimmick and works super well, whether it’s in the context of the slow building, brooding “Sputnik” or the infectious “Go!.” Musically there’s a lot of electronics, but a backbone of real drums (and even horns on one track) and some guitar that keeps things from getting too artificial.

Hand.Cannot.Erase by Steven Wilson (2015)

HandCannotErase

Like 3rDegree, Steve Wilson had a hell of a decade and I could almost have picked any of his albums for this list. I think this one – a concept album based on reports of a woman who died, alone, in her London apartment and wasn’t missed for years (not a typo) – brings together the various parts of Wilson’s style the best. There’s lengthy proggy instrumental stuff (the Minimoog solo on “Regret #9”  is almost worth the price of admission alone) alongside modern electronic-style stuff, and more direct pop songs. The concluding “Last Regret” is pretty straightforward, but heart breaking.

Fuck Everyone and Run by Marillion (2016)

FEAR

At this point, Marillion cranks out consistently good stuff that occasionally rises to great. FEAR is their latest great album, a sprawling epic of raw nerve feelings. A lot of it is political, at least in the broadest sense, and lands some punches (without them being as targeted directly as, say, “Gaza” from Sounds That Can’t Be Made). At first listen those big statements were the ones I gravitated towards (particularly the last movement of “The New Kings”), but my favorite track has come to be “The Leavers” (which, in spite of the title and when it was recorded has nothing to do with Brexit), an ode to the push-pull dynamics of touring.

Say So by Bent Knee (2016)

SaySo

Another ROSFest surprise. Although I’d listened to their prior album (on Bandcamp!) before seeing them, nothing really captures this band like a live setting. They make the most out of wild dynamic swings, shifting from hushed, almost whispered vocals over piano to full-bore riffage in the blink of an eye. It helps that keyboardist/vocalist Courtney Swain has the voice to tackle both ends of the spectrum with ease. They’re a prog band, but thoroughly modern (one member just manipulates the other musicians’’ sound on stage with a laptop) and really exciting.

I could go on and on about all the great music that came out over the past ten years, but I can safely call these favorites. Go check ‘em out.

Some Festive (?) Winter Music

Every year, sometime around the middle of December, I think to myself that I really should make some Christmas music. Of course, by that time it’s too late, so I shrug and go on with things. This year, however, I got my shit together soon enough to actually make some tunes for the season!

Naturally, there’s a twist.

When looking for a holiday tune or tunes to adapt I didn’t want anything too obvious. One of my main gripes with Christmas music is that people pass around the same few dozen carols that constantly get reworked without either making something new or digging deep for more obscure material. Original wasn’t really in the cards, since I don’t write words and you really need words for a new Xmas song to make any sense. So I tried to find something different, or at least new to my ears. If it happened to be in the public domain, even better.

The more I dug, the more the “season” in question shifted from “Christmas” to “winter.” I got really into the idea of doing something about surviving winter. I know people for whom the short days and the cold really make life miserable. I’m not a huge fan of them, either. So I settled on two olde folk songs that fit the theme.

The first is “Drive the Cold Winter Away” (also called “All Hail to the Days”), an English song dating back to about 1625. It’s all about seeing through the long, cold nights with friends and others and invokes scenes of parties, caroling, and all that jazz. Naturally that’s too upbeat for what I usually do, but I found this downtempo version by Loreena McKennitt and took my inspiration from it.

The second is “The Winter It Is Past” (also called “The Curragh of Kildare”), an Irish song, parts of which date back to at least the 1700s. There’s at least one version that includes lyrics by my great-great-great-whatever (sure, why not) Robert Burns. It’s all about the return of spring as well as the departure of a lover. The bitter and the sweet, as they say. The melody here is more traditional and upbeat than the first part, so I hope it’s a nice contrast.

I needed a name for this amalgam and wanted to express a sentiment like “winter sucks, but it gets better.” Thankfully, everything sounds better in Latin, so it became “Hiems Sugit, Sed is Gets Melius.” My old Latin teacher would approve, I think.

Without further ado, enjoy – and Happy Holidays!

If you’re interested, I tackled the same basic idea (winter giving forth to spring) a few years back in an original tune, “The Ice, The Sun.” It’s more ambient and sprawling.