Thursday, May 31, 2007

Book Review - The Children of Hurin by J.R.R Tolkien

Being a huge Tolkien fan, (but not a total geek about it), I looked forward to the publication of this book, compiled by Tolkien's son Christopher (now in his eighties) from J.R.R.'s voluminous writings. I was not disappointed. I am going to try my best to avoid any plot spoilers, as I know some of you will read this book as well. Just a bit of background, this book takes place in the First Age, many years before The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The setting is the land of Beleriand, which is the Northwest of Middle-Earth, but by the time of LOTR, this land has been under the sea for hundreds of years. A handful of the characters from LOTR are present, Galadriel, Glorfindel, Elrond, and Sauron are all mentioned.

The story concerns the children of Hurin obviously, Hurin is a great warrior who is taken captive by Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, of whom Sauron is but a servant at this time. Hurin defies Morgoth, so Morgoth puts a curse on his children. The majority of the book tells the tragic tale of Turin, Hurin's son. Turin's first sister dies very young (part of the curse), his other sister, Nienor, makes an appearance in the last few chapters of the book, but her role is significant enough to justify the plural "children" rather than the singular "child" in the title. Turin is probably Tolkien's most fleshed-out character, even more so than Frodo, probably because Turin exhibits the same traits that cause all of us humans grief, and Frodo is not human. Speaking of hobbits, you won't find any here, you will find elves, dwarves, Orcs, and Glaurung, "Father of Dragons".

As with all of Tolkien's other works, people and places have multiple names, Tolkien was a linguist after all. This makes for difficult reading, in fact in looking back on the first 2 times I read LOTR, as a teen, I think this referencing people and places by multiple names is what caused me to have comprehension issues. Kudos to Christopher, however, as he has provided a glossary of names in the back of the book, when you get confused (and you will) you can turn to the glossary and figure out who or what is being referenced. The central character of the book, Turin, son of Hurin, changes his name about 12 times, I turned frequently to the glossary only to find "oh, that's Turin". I would kill to have a reference of this sort for Lord of the Rings, obviously these things are available online, there are hundreds of Tolkien sites, but it's nice to have it handy right there in the book.

Another plus is the inclusion of several beautiful color paintings by Alan Lee, who was involved with the design of the Peter Jackson LOTR movies. The other good news is that the book is short, can be read in 4 hours or so.

This is a very dark book, none of the whimsy found in the Hobbit, or the dry wit found in LOTR are to be found here. I have not read The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales, which both deal with this historical era, so I don't know if the lack of humor is J.R.R.'s or Christopher's. There is already talk of a movie, I'm not sure I would want to see it, the book is VERY violent, as it is set in a time of war between men and elves on the one side vs. Morgoth and his Orcs on the other. Lots and lots of blood and guts, as much or more than LOTR.

I recommend that you read the Introduction and Appendix, particularly if you are familiar with Tolkien's other works. I also highly recommend this website, the Encyclopedia of Arda (Arda is the planet where Middle-Earth is).

All that said, should you read it? Yes. We can all relate to the all-too-human failings of Turin, and Tolkien is one of the greatest writers of all time, this book just reinforces that.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Album review: Kings of Leon - Because of the Times

It's rare that I listen to new albums, preferring instead to mine the Internet and the racks at the used CD store for all the great stuff I missed back in the day. This album was recommended by a friend of a friend, so I decided to check it out. I am glad I did!

First a couple of general notes, then we'll take it song-by-song. This album has a similar vibe to The Loon by Tapes 'n' Tapes (see previous post "Indie-Rock Gem" for that review), but this one has much heavier guitars. The other thing that jumps out at you is that singer Caleb Followill's voice can be annoying at times, fortunately he does the Billy Corgan thing and uses different shadings on different songs, so it's not annoying on every song. These guys' bio is very interesting, I picked up on a Southern vibe (being American by birth, Southern by the grace of God myself) when listening to the album. Turns out they are all named Followill, 3 brothers and a cousin. The brothers' dad was a Pentecostal minister, and they grew up traveling throughout the South (Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance...)
Amazon sez " the Kings Of Leon mix their own brand of Southern Rock with touches of Garage, Punk and Alternative swagger". Amen, brother.

Now for the tunes:

Knocked Up - Upon re-listening to this, I realized why it reminds me of Tapes ' n ' Tapes. It's minimalist (hold that thought, we'll get back to it later). In fact, I don't think there is a single overdub on the whole album, all of this could be played note for note live. Kewl. Coming to The Orange Peel in Asheville on June 2.

But I digress, back to the song. Nice U2 chime-y guitar lick over...hmm, what is it? I know, Bruce Springsteen "I'm On Fire". And talk about a rock'n'roll lyric - "I don't care what nobody says, we're gonna have a bay-bee....taking off in a Coupe DeVille" etc. etc. which sounds like it could have come from a 1950s rock'n'roll song, albeit one that would have been banned. The juxtaposition of the rockabilly guitar in the left channel with the Edge's sound in the right is fascinating. Only complaint is that it clocks in at 7:10, WAY too long, the coolness wears off
after about 4 minutes or so.

Charmer - this one starts off with a Devo "Mongoloid" bass line, bangin' on a trash can drums, very catchy punk tune. Another theme throughout the album is that many of the songs were "made loud to be played loud", this is one of them. Major drawback is the nails on chalkboard scream every 2 measures or so, you have to be in the mood for it, or you will hit the fast-forward to the next tune real fast.

On Call - I think I mentioned Caleb uses different "voicings" (pun intended) this one starts with a Leon Russell drawl, which apparently he uses on their other albums. Once the guitars kick in, he switches to a more conventional rock voice. This is the first single, if you love rockin' guitars, and I know that you do, you'll dig this. These boys rock.

McFearless - Balls to the wall metal. Crank it up. 'Nuff Said.

Black Thumbnail - Not sure how to describe this one, except as a great rock'n'roll song. I could get used to this cool 2-guitar, one-in-each-speaker sound. If you only listen to one song on this album, this is probably the one. Already inching up on my all-time fave list.

My Party - Kind of a space-funk vibe, fuzzed-out bass, distorted vocals. Nine Inch Nails with soul. If none of your body parts move while listening to this song, I regret to inform you that you are dead. Kick-ass.

True Love Way - After the 4-song roll they've been on, this one is somewhat of a letdown, still has their unique sound, but more of an old-school vibe. Not a highlight.

Ragoo - U2 goes reggae. "I wanna play til they're kickin' down the doors" - there are some very fired-up lyrics on this album. Caleb's voice is starting to bother me by this time, even though the song is great. These guys could be even better if they switched off the vocals on some songs. That said, the incredible guitar playing will get you past any reservations about the vocals.

Fans - this time the left-hand guitar is acoustic. Caleb's voice has the Dave Matthews whine to it, which I guess is appropriate with the acoustic guitar. Once again, though, the guitars will pull you thru. Fans (pun not intended) of DMB will love this one. Nice guitars once again, but I'm not big on the whole DMB sound.

The Runner - the boys go mellow here, and do it well. Caleb sounds like Randy Newman here, singing "I talk to Jesus, Jesus says that I'm OK". All that preachin' they heard growing up sunk in. Nice, laid-back, syncopated drums.

Trunk - Chris Isaak guitars, reverb-drenched, as are the vocals. Lifted the guitar lick from Psych Furs "All of This And Nothing". Grand Funk "Survival" vocals. Obviously all of those styles mixed together gives you something unique. And very cool.......I dig this one.

Camaro - ROCK'N'ROLL! As I'm listening to this, though, it sounds incredibly familiar. I finally figure out what it is, and am dumbfounded.
Sure enough, it sounds remarkably like UFO's first album, which is nothing like their later, much more well known Michael Schenker phase. I think it's the vocals again. Phil Mogg of UFO was trying to sound "bluesy" back then, and he and Caleb Followill just seem to have the same timbre, it is spooky how much these vocals (and the guitars, too) sound alike, on albums released 37 years apart. Weird. If you go down this path, check out "Timothy" on the UFO album vs. this song. Spooky. Not quite so spooky when you consider that the UFO album is even more minimalist than the Kings of Leon, as it only has ONE guitar.

Arizona - the boys go old-school on this one, typical mid-tempo, guitar fade-out album closer. In spite of being stereotypical, it's very nice.

So there ya have it. Somewhere in there (it jumped out at me on the first listen, but not so much on the second) was a song that sounded very much like CAN, the greatest of the mighty Krautrock bands, but there again it's the minimalism. Bottom line? This is a superior album, indeed a classic.

Rock is dead? Not on your life. Granted, it's not ubiquitous like it was in my youth, but if you look for it, it's there. Great rock'n'roll music, like this album, is still out there, if you make the effort to find it, you will be richly rewarded.