Friday, 28 November 2014

Secret Heroes

“Some guys got it down … secret heroes…Tom Waits… I listen more to that kind of stuff than whatever is popular at the moment, they’re not. Just witch-doctoring up the planet, they don’t set up barriers…”
 - Bob Dylan interviewed by Cameron Crowe for the Biograph boxset, 1985.

I half-remembered this quote recently when listening to Tom Waits and wondered what being a 'secret hero' might mean.
He's a ‘secret hero’ perhaps because he's too intense or eccentric for a wider audience, but the power of his music ripples through the art form by way of covers and  the respect he's gets from other, much more famous, practitioners. 
He’s a master of his craft, content to wander the back roads looking to the past for his inspiration; to the blues, folk, the music-hall and beyond. If you know it, his voice is instantly recognizable. It can be a mighty roar, a tender croon or a wild man's howl he uses to bring the misfits, loners and losers of his songs to life. 
Possibly Tom Waits’ songs are better known than him. Most people know Rod Stewart's cover of DowntownTrain’ or Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Jersey Girl’ cover or some may be familiar with Scarlet Johansson’s entire album of Tom Waits songs.

My favourite Waits album is Swordfishtrombones(‘83)  With this album Waits started to get more adventurous with his songs and broke with the jazzy-bluesy gin/whiskey/beer-soaked nighthawk image that he’d built up through the 70s.

Waits become more of a shapeshifter, more of a restless explorer with this album. He got more adventurous with the instruments he used; the arrangements of his songs; the stories he told. He could still conjure a heart-breaking piano ballad like Soldier’s Things,  when inspired. But there are also songs like Shore Leave which uses avant-garde instruments and traditional African and Balinese percussion to forge an eerily beautiful tale of a sailor wandering the streets of Hong Kong missing his wife.
After this followed an incredible run of albums for Waits: Rain Dogs, Franks Wild Years culminating in the brilliant, wild Bone Machine.
And he’s still kicking - with Bad as Me (2011) Waits finds new ways of exploring old themes and inhabiting a rich array of characters, still impossible to pin down, to predict but somehow always Tom Waits. Or as Neil Young described him when Waits was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame in 2011…

Thinking about Tom Waits and some of the enduring themes of his work, the affinity with outcasts, the formal mastery and experimentation made me think of another ‘secret hero’; Finnish film-maker Aki Kaurismaki.

Kaurismaki’s films often deal with society’s most downtrodden members and like Waits, he displays a deep compassion for the suffering for those on the fringes of society.He has a common fan in American film-maker Jim Jarmusch who has paid tribute to Kaurismaki directly in his wonderful film Night on Earth (soundtrack by Tom Waits) His influence can also be felt in the work of Wes Anderson and Richard Ayoade amongst others.

A good place to start, if new to his work, is Le Havre  his most recent film. The film is the tale of a young African illegal immigrant who hides out in the French port town of Le Havre  after escaping Police. The film weaves threads of prisoner-on-the-run-thriller with wry social commentary all shot-through with Kaurismaki's  extraordinarily deadpan wit and minimalist style.
The rhythm of his films can seem a little jarring at first, as listening to Wait’s music can too in a different way, you need to be patient for the rich rewards that will come if you give them a chance.

 William T Volmann was someone else that I thought of when thinking about the idea of a‘Secret hero’ He doesn’t fit so nicely into place next to Waits as Kaurismaki does. I'd be hard pressed to really liken anybody to him.
Vollmann’s  books plunge headlong the deepest, darkest corners of America and other parts of the world. Vollmann writes fiction and non-fiction often blending both. Vollmann frequently crosses boundaries that other journalists or writers would never go near. He deeply immerses himself in the lives of the people he chooses to write about.
He’s explored the lives of freight-train hopping hobos, meditated on poverty, drug use and prostitution and published a seven volume essay on violence, (usefully collected into a single volume.)
One of my favourites The Rainbow Stories mixes his experiences with ‘boot-woman’ the girlfriends of neo-Nazi skinheads, prostitutes and drug-addicts in his neighbourhood with strangely beautiful fictional stories.
Vollmann’s  output is vast and far-reaching (I’ve barely scratched the surface).  While there is a level of accessibility to Waits and Kaurismaki’s work, Vollmann’s asks a bit more of the audience.
But like Waits and Kaurismaki he is a 'secret hero' to more popular writers like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Where have my weekends gone?.... Orange is the new black, that's where.

Okay... so I recently finished this series that I was a bit dubious about watching. Yeah, yeah another jail TV series, I know. BUT, before you cast it aside like I initially did, let's see if this will get you all hooked.

The series revolves around a character called Piper Chapman, a woman in her thirties who is sentenced to fifteen months in prison after being convicted of a decade-old crime of transporting money for her drug-dealing girlfriend. Once behind bars, Piper contends not only with the "fishbowl" of prison life (where seemingly minuscule infractions can leave one starved, stalked, or worse), but the challenges of maintaining a long-distance relationship with her fiance Larry. Piper has to deal with the demons of her past decisions and pay for the demons of others, out of which some positive human traits emerge.

Even though it's set in a prison that serves tampon sandwiches for lunch, Orange Is the New Black is a pretty highbrow show, whether it's quoting Shakespeare's Coriolanus, name-dropping Ulysses, or analyzing Robert Frost's ''The Road Not Taken'' in a way that will permanently alter how you interpret that poem.

In case you didn't realize, the TV show is based on Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison, about her experiences in prison.

I'm currently eagerly awaiting the book to come in on hold for me, which I'm hoping will fill the void until the next series starts. It’s only about the need for more – no matter what more might be. I’ve become so engrossed to these characters and have had so much fun watching every single up and down that comes from being in Litchfield prison. I just want OITNB and fast.

Check out the trailer for series 1 here and place a hold on it with Auckland Libraries here.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Armageddon Auckland 2014

Recently over Labour weekend, Auckland hosted the annual Armageddon Entertainment Expo. I thought rather longingly about attending, but wasn’t sure it would be manageable with two rather hectic under 5 year olds, even a couple of pop culture loving ones. Then just two days before, I managed to win tickets to the show, so WAHOO! It was obviously meant to be. Here are a just a few of my highlights from the Monday I attended.

The cosplay
Due to those pesky pre-schoolers (I love them really), it has been a good 5 or 6 years since I last went to Armageddon, and oh my goodness how the cosplay has grown! My significant other and I used to lament the fact that NZ didn’t really do it on the level of overseas conventions, but that has changed indeed and I absolutely loved it :) My sons were in seventh heaven posing with an array of characters, including Iron Man, a rather amazing Dalek, and Star Wars characters galore.
We have some fabulous books on cosplay in our catalogue (I’m getting started on planning my costume for next year) such as:

1000 incredible costume & cosplay ideas : a showcase of creative characters from anime, manga, video games, movies, comics, and more! / Yaya Han, Allison DeBlasio & Joey Marsocci a.k.a. Dr. Grymm.

Cosplay New Zealand / Sylvie Kirkman.

Cosplay world / Brian Ashcraft and Luke Plunkett.

And you really need to see this video of Eveychu, the overall winner of this year’s cosplay competition (not to mention the Trans-Tasman Champion 2014), with her stunning cosplay of Katniss from the Hunger Games; she really deserved her win!

The exhibitors 
Ahhhh, there was something for everyone. From the big stores such as Mighty Ape to smaller stall holders selling the most amazing pop culture goodies. I’m a steampunk fan, and picked up some stunning steampunk pretties, Achievement Christmas shopping was indeed unlocked!

Yet our favourite stand would have to have been the Auckland Libraries one. I may be a little biased, but my aforementioned significant other and small people were extremely happy to have somewhere to put their feet up and play games on the library iPads, while I checked out the cool Makerspace badge making going on.

I did manage to get in a little trouble though, as said SO perused the collection there for borrowing, and noticed that we loan out games…I CAN BORROW GAMES! How did I not know this? (said he) *cough cough* (said I).  Did you know you can borrow console games from the Library? We have Nintendo DS, Playstation 2 and 3, Xbox and Xbox 360, PSP and Wii games for hire….there, hopefully I'm sparing anyone else from getting into trouble :)

The celebrities
There was a huge range of awesome guests this year, none of whom I ACTUALLY got to see (blame those small people, not so good with queues). From a number of brilliant voice actors from shows such as Ben 10, Regular Show and Adventure Time, to cast members from great shows such as Stargate SG-1 and Supernatural. The big two this year were MacGyver and Stargate SG-1's Richard Dean Anderson, and Jenna Coleman, Dr Who’s current companion Clara. Who, according to the many friends that DID get to meet her,  is just super lovely in person. I'm trying to be happy for them, really I am :) Guess I’ll just have to settle for watching her fantastic Dr Who episodes through our collections, or perhaps a little Richard Dean Anderson in his earlier (and somewhat tastier) years ;)

Wondering if I cosplayed myself? Miao ;)

PS - would love to hear about your highlights too, please comment away!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Libraries and Lolcats - a puuuuuurfect match

We all know that the Web was created so that physicists could share their research papers, right?  Well, Web 2.0 was developed so that people could admire the antics of cute cats. Like this cool kitty from Coolangatta.

Forward thinking physicists knew the value of cat memes well before they became a thing. You may have heard of the paradox of Schrodinger’s Cat. Sadly, Schrodinger didn’t know about lolcats. In fact, Schrodinger needs a serious image makeover, or at least a visit from the SPCA.

Cats feature heavily in library lore. Dewey the library cat is one example. He was rescued by librarians in the middle of a freezing winter in Spencer, Iowa and went on to live a long, happy life in the library, doing wonders for the town’s economy along the way.

An example of a cat who loved Auckland Libraries was the late Xena, the St Heliers library cat. She was well known in the suburb and is deeply missed by staff and customers.

Here are some other cats who generously lent their time and presence to libraries around the world.

Kitties have pretty much taken over Twitter in recent times too. They seem quite suited to it: maybe it’s because they are creatures of so few words, who knows? Check out @BlindCatRescue for some truly heart-warming tweets.

When it comes to cat rescue, who really benefits? I have often wondered this. When I rescued my blind cat a couple of years ago, I think in a small way he may well have rescued me. Author Gwen Cooper's blind cat Homer changed her life (even saving her from an intruder in her apartment), as she surely changed his. And James Bowen had a much more profound experience with his new feline friend Bob helping him beat homelessness and drug addiction: the resulting book has been a best seller.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Celebrity Day Jobs

Not content with being beautiful, famous, rich and having millions of followers on Twitter, some celebrities need a little more to do in their spare time. Behold! The phenomenon of the Celebrity Day Job.

You may be aware of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop, and perhaps you even subscribed to the newsletter – ironically - but then had to stop because you realised that juice detoxes, monogrammed linen napkins and 5-star hotels are just not really, and never will be, a part of your actual lifestyle. And maybe you’ve even - also ironically - looked at the Preserve website which contains some kind of information about life from plucky lifestyle guru upstart Blake Lively from Gossip Girl and then thought “yeah nah”. Perhaps you did those things.

But wait! There’s so much more. Celebs flashing their talents all over the place, expressing their boundless creativity, and doing random jobs that have nothing to do with their professional training. They have other skills that they want us to know about, so let’s indulge them, shall we?

Do you know that Brad Pitt, besides being a decent actor, is also a furniture designer? Sorry ladies, just because oft-voted Sexiest Man Alive on the Planet Ever designed a bed, does not mean you want to buy it.

Just look at that monstrosity! It would be a major pain in the neck to make every morning. I mean, it’s not like Brad Pitt is actually in the bed, amirite ladeeez??

Instead, why not enjoy Brad Pitt doing what he does best, which is: having abs in Fight Club.

Now, thanks to filmmaker Sofia Coppola, single serve sparkling wine in a can with a straw is a thing. Apparently it is also a thing that you can actually buy and then, presumably also drink, because OMG celebrity bubbles! If you have tasted this, please let me know in the comments section, and also let me know if it improved your ability to direct indie films because wouldn’t it be great if a drink could do that?!

Or, just watch Lost in Translation, possibly Scarlett Johansson’s last good movie, and also starring the wonderful Bill Murray, who, in real life, owns a restaurant and a baseball team which keeps him busy when he’s not wasting ghosts / reliving the same day over and over / seeking to avenge the death of his best friend who was eaten by a shark.

Speaking of ScarJo, when she’s not looking gorgeous and acting in (mostly) bad movies she also likes to sing. Can she sing? Not really! But she’s a celeb, so she does what she wants. Randomly, in 2008 she recorded an album of Tom Waits covers and even though her main job is “actress” she managed to suck all the emotion and meaning out of a bunch of great songs. If you’re new to Tom Waits, perhaps try his album Rain Dogs, one of my all-time favourite albums ever, and featuring 100% of songs not sung by a Hollywood actress.

Closer to home (but not that close, he’s an Australian, right??) is Russell Crowe who, aside from being in various bands in his spare time, recently became part owner of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a rugby league team. So either he really likes rugby league or he intends to write a song that rhymes ‘Russell Crowe’ with ‘Rabbitoh’, which is what I suspect.

And anyone who’s anyone has a cookbook /advice guide/ diet book /children's picture book out these days. Just a quick glance at the library shelves and I spotted such gems as: Badass: a hard-earned guide to living life with style and (the right) attitude by Shannen Doherty; April loses it: lose 30 kilos in 30 weeks by April Ieremia; and Dream more: celebrate the dreamer in you by Dolly Parton. Celebs. Is there nothing they can’t do?

But my favourite example of celebrity day jobs is in the second season of the Simpsons when Homer, normally a Nuclear Safety Inspector, designs a car so shabby that it bankrupts his brother’s company:

Lesson learned: don't give up your day job.

Monday, 3 November 2014

On Heavy Rotation

Recently I have been listening to four albums on heavy rotation and I can't seem to get enough of any of them. These women are crazy talented and are bringing some fresh sounds to 2014!

I highly recommend checking them out below:
This is the debut album of R&B singer Tinashe. Her first single of the album 2 0n is a total club banger and I love it! She's got a total Aaliyah vibe about her, particularly in this live performance on Jimmy Kimmel. What I love about this album though is that its not a throwaway album with cheap and quickly produced club banger tracks. This album is not what I expected from her, but I really am enjoying it.

This is the third album from Swedish artist Lykke Li and once again she has captivated me with her personal brand of etheral and haunting melodies with great beats. The love songs on this album simultaneously warm my heart and tear it apart. Definitely worth a listen. Check out the first single off the album, No Rest For the Wicked.

The debut album from British artist FKA Twigs is one of the most fresh sounds I have heard in a while. It is a mixture of synth-laden R&B while evoking the sounds of bands like Portishead and Twigs' vocals being both soft yet piercing. Honestly this album is so much worth your time, she's definitely one to watch - which you can actually do live at Laneway Festival next year in Auckland! Check out her first single off it below.

Souled Out - Jhené Aiko
I first heard the voice of Jhené Aiko on a Drake song (From Time) and immediately knew I had to see if she had any solo music out. At the time she had an EP called Sail Out which I fell in love with. Aiko's brand of chilled out, intimate songs are captivating for their honesty and the beauty of her voice. Her songs are about issues close to her heart, ranging from breakups, relationships, her daughter, and the death of her brother. What really sets her apart however is her talent with lyricism and wordplay. She's definitely one of my new favourite artists <3