Percy Gloom

Cathy Malkasian's Percy Gloom is a treatise on existentialism in the guise of a quick-read graphic novella. Published way back in 2007 (Oh, we were young then...) the story follows an immediately dour little worrywart of a man seeking to start a new life in a strange world abroad at an office for safety writing. (He's the type to enjoy determining how common household objects may hurt, maim or kill a person... it is his childhood dream.) But for such a sad character Percy Gloom, who subsists on only bran muffins and the juice of 30 lemons, he is remarkably adventurous. Malkasian first hands us a little sad sack and then shows us a redemptive tale about his growing into a positive risk-taker... who smiles. Through out the 160+ pages, text is meager, but perfectly expressive and well-characterized. Percy Gloom tackles cultist behavior and conflicting human desires to transcend life and hold onto it forever with a delicate, charming hand.

In these things, these graphic novellas, art is paramount. Malkasian creates a unique world of caricature melded to reality. Forms are exaggerated, but never to the detriment of the narrative. And many of her creations have a Seussian design that makes them almost familiar enough to be old friends. Percy Gloom, the man, is small, large-headed and big-eared (which turns out to be incredibly relevant) and his expressions demand the reader's love and admiration. Malkasian has created him for us to want him to succeed and not because he's Disney attractive... Beyond Percy, there are no two characters who look alike, from a kind doctor, to an inventive mother, to an ominous overweight child. Malkasian's little world is just the right size with just the right dose of weird to keep you feeling surprised, but never fully lost.

The inner beauty lies in creative and heartfelt story telling. There's lost love, and fear of death, and the fear of the tedium of living, and fear of exploring new places. Each utterly visceral topic weaves into the narrative unpretentiously and nothing feels extraneous. Even a side story about two children seeking to avoid school by finding a special stone taps into basic human desires for freedom and choice. Are we meant to seek the afterlife, forgoing the world we have before us? Should we escape the world we live in forcibly to remove ourselves from the tedium? Or should we cling to life and youth, shunning age and wisdom? Maybe we should take life as it is and love living it while we can... Malkasian presents something that is as much as philosophical debate/treatise as it is a classic story, and that is perhaps the greatest success of the whole project.

Available on Amazon cheap, and through local libraries, it's worth the 2 hours you may need to plow through it. Take the time to look deeply into the art, and keep an eye on the elements of the story that are downplayed purposefully. Percy Gloom is a classic that deserves a fresh look two years later and will remain timeless long after.
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Girls - Album

Christopher Owens, whose affect-heavy (nearly Strummer-esque) vocals head up Girls, is a former member of the Children of God post-hippie Jesus movement cult. Beyond the heavily 60s influence on their new album Album that little tidbit fails illustrate much about him, or his music. Album is really more of a course on 1960s surf, alt, and psychedelic rock all created anew with the raspy, distorted weight of 21st century crassness. That is not to say that this is a sad bastard album, but for an album working in such lovey-dovey styles and genres, Girls do not dish out airy whimsy. They do more with pleas for happiness, and resignations about love. For an album with these influences, Album, takes the standards of "boy likes girl and wants to love her forever" and turns them toward more of a "boy likes girl, but now in the late 2000s, reciprocity is harder to acquire". The mash-up makes for compelling songs that have a catchy beat, but feel substantial. This is the Thanksgiving dinner of pop music, not some trivial snack.

Album feels lighter than it is. And that is a compliment. A huge one, really because it lacks the air of pretension that haunt so many 60s-style records. Girls aren't reinventing the songs, the ideas or the music, they are imprinting each with the darker intelligence of a world that has seen so much since 1970 rolled in. "Lust for Life" opens the record with the sort of hoarse, lyrical cries that indicate experience. From there, the pace, feel and power oscillates, touching the grinding poppy surf-rock and dreamy, drug-touched sounds of pre-post-Brian Wilson late Beach Boys (Not Kokomo! No.)

Beyond the sound, for an album called Album, the liner notes included have only the songs names, one on each page, with photos of women (girls) in the background. It feels like the photo album included is meant for consumption alongside the music, perhaps to paint a larger, clearer picture about to whom each song is intended. That sort of connection, though manufactured, gives Album the ability to act as a pop record and a friendly conversation. It's intimacy. Owens and his heart feel more genuinely on display, and the artworks that touch us most are those with that ability to converse with us. Album isn't music just to hear, it is music in conversation. And that's what makes it such a gift to listeners, and to the 60s genres to which it pays homage.

Really great tracks (because they're all good): "Laura," "Hellhole Ratrace," and "Summertime"
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In Defense of Record Stores

Very few music consumers, even self-proclaimed audiophiles bother with amassing a collection of records or CDs now. The various useful music players and the digitization of music mean that storing a great library takes literally no space at all. And yet, there is a reason to go to record stores and shop for music that is built inherently into each and every one of us. It's the hunt; that search followed with an exhilarating discovery at the end. Downloading an album, or simply a song one desires through iTunes or another service is easy, convenient and completely efficient, but there's no effort there, and additionally, no wonderful payout for the little successes. In a record store, especially when perusing the used albums and new arrivals one is thrust into the excitement of the hunt and there are more often than not some excellent surprises. On a recent trip I lucked into Junior Boys' Last Exit, Grizzly Bear's Yellow House, and Belle & Sebastian's Dear Catastrophe Waitress. All used. All by surprise. You will never stumble upon a gem like one of those by cruising through the iTunes store with a mouse. What's there is there, and it cannot be hidden behind an odd Beatles compilation reissue or a Grand Funk Railroad disc.

In the same way that libraries have lost random reference seekers and researchers to Wikipedia and other info-sites, record stores have lost patrons to online shopping and downloads. The great loss here is that the social aspect of trading and learning information or buying and learning about new music is dissipating. There was a time when going to the local record store to find out what new albums came out and to hear these new sounds for the first time was part of any audiophiles Saturday. One could know intimately the tastes and opinions of the clerks and even find a bit of friendship there. A new record would come out and friends would gather for nights and through entire weekends just to hang out and listen to it over and over (mind-altering substances optional, but encouraged). Listening parties are valuable beyond just the intoxication of sound and drink and smoke. They are remainders of a culture that only used to consume music live and most often en masse. It is vaguely reminiscent of the roots of blues and jazz and other music borne from groups of people collaborating to make beautiful new sounds.

Importantly, we did not historically keep music as a private thing, concerts were the only mode of consumption for the first symphonies, records could be shared and radio was something driven by requests and a community passion. Over time, record stores wain because music is something we hold more privately. If music need not be sought in person, by foot and by hand, to acquire, then it's all the easier to collect, devour and forget. Going out and searching, spending ones money and time in researching albums is just as important and can allow for a more complete appreciation of the work involved in creating the music. And though much of these ideas are hopelessly fucking nostalgic they do ring true. Music started as a social activity and now it seems we use it more to distance ourselves from where we are than to bond with those around us. Value in life often comes from hard work, whether in one's profession or in one's hobbies. It will always be more fulfilling to seek out greatness, or to create it yourself through hours of search and struggle and planning, than to have it fall from the sky into your lap. And finding used music in a place with live people is one form of that. As is writing your own music. As is simply taking the time to read about new bands to see what you may be missing in the mainstream.

Keep record stores alive. Keep book stores alive. We need each other, and we need these social bonding places to know how to live together. And I won't apologize for the preceding schmaltz. Independent Record Store Day for 2010 will be held on April 17. You can learn more at www.recordstoreday.com.
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With San Francisco in Mind.

As promised, following my review/discussion of James Howard Kunstler's The City in Mind, I took stock of the application of New Urbanism in one of the United States' greatest cities: San Francisco. Known for a solid, timely and intuitive web of mass transit, as well as bike-ready streets, San Francisco is likely the best example of a city in California wresting its hulking frame from the wreckage of suburban sprawl. Of course, the city doesn't have an infinite amount of space to work with, layered artfully onto a narrow peninsula, but beyond even that, with the sprawling extensions of the Bay Area, San Francisco shows an awareness of space and a desire to be lived in by human beings. The majority of buildings are mixed use footprints, at least housing more than a single family, and often holding a retail location or restaurant on the ground level. And I'm speaking primarily of the outer sections now because the downtown, in the financial district and as one moves toward the northern end of the city the density is magnified. And beautifully.

The city, as New Urbanism calls for, is eminently walkable, and moving from one end to the other, with help from the train, takes little time at all. Even after a short underground ride a person is capable of making great tracks by foot in little time. San Francisco makes walking from point to point easy and the texture of the city, the fabric of buildings and cultures and peoples makes hours of walking enjoyable.

There are numerous atrocious quick build apartment buildings nested among the beautiful row house walk-ups, but the lack of space, a silly and wasted commodity in most of the West, means that everything must be in close proximity. A coffee shop and a grocer and a restaurant will be near by, which is exactly what humans need. And if a new look is necessary to freshen the mind and reinvigorate the senses, then it can be found within a few minutes time. By comparison, Denver lacks this walkability. Not entirely, as I've made great journeys around the city by foot, but one can hardly get out of a specific "neck of the woods" within two hours time. In San Francisco the faces of the city are attainable at every turn. A bus ride can take you from the Mission to the Castro to the Haight in a matter of minutes. And while I acknowledge that the age and spirit of San Francisco is greater and different from that of Denver, it makes a great difference to have people stacked atop one another at every turn. We learn tolerance and love and respect through proximity. And patience.

Though Kunstler did not address San Francisco in his text, I imagine he would be pleased with the city's functionality and the way that it loves the people living in it, rather than constantly battling against their mobility and happiness.
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From Beyond the Grave.

Products come and go. Ad campaigns essentially begin as the sweaty, writhing act of copulation that gives birth to a product within the public awareness. Once born, though, advertising acts only as different levels of medical assistance, from bandage to full-fledged life support with a focus on preventing the untimely (though market dictated) death of its child-product. The problem is that advertisers are really shitty doctors, and these child-products lack adequate insurance to get the care they need to grow up strong. They can't even afford Flintstones Chewable Vitamins, let alone some sort of free-market interferon. But, since this health care metaphor is turning from a single yarn into a hideous Christmas sweater, I'll digress. Today, I began thinking of products that I remember fondly, but which were not long for this earth. Of course, none of these are staggeringly excellent. Were they, then the market machine would've have stayed their executions. The market isn't built for little guys, or the little nephews of big guys, or the individual tastes of small batches of consumers. Or, at least it wasn't back in the 1990s when the internet was fresh and new and great sites like kickstarter.com and Twitter were not yet tapping into the keen interests of the few and many.

With this in mind, a short list of products I recall fondly that no longer exist, some of which lasted only months before being locked away like that fellow in the iron mask:

  1. OK Soda - Remember this stuff? Maybe not... it wasn't released in many markets, but Denver was one of them. My pop-iconography riddled 12 year-old brain bought into the campaign immediately and I remember actually liking the way the "unique fruit soda" tasted. A neat tidbit: Popular writer/cartoonist Charles Burns of Black Hole fame did the can design.
  2. Arch Deluxe and other Deluxe McDonald's sandwiches - There existed a time when McDonald's decided that Happy Meals and McNuggets weren't attracting the right element. They needed a sandwich for adults that was more like a "restaurant burger" and for some reason was infused with seaweed extract. Talk about sophistication! And I remember loving those things while I listlessly lingered in the mall food court.
  3. The popularity of excite.com - Remember Excite, that upstart little search engine that could with the dramatic X? Pre-Google, it seems there were as many search engines running around the internet as there were porno sites. I loved Excite because for some reason it was the most popular search engine among my high school friends (It did the "best searches") and yes, I am disgustingly aware of how lame my high school years were at times, but then we were standing at the forefront of Tomorrow.
  4. The Montreal Expos - The strike in 1994 destroyed what could have been a truly great, long-lasting franchise. Back then they could field Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom and Moises Alou, and... AND start Pedro Martinez in his prime. The greatest chance this team had to win over the fans in Montreal and the greatest blow to baseball in recent memory did them in. Though technically the lack of interest was well-established, but the team just lost every great chance to be a dynasty despite a litany of solid players through the years. Now, repackaged as the Washington Nationals they have pieces, again, of a solid team, but assembly remains the final hurdle.
I said it was a short list. But, I'm hoping to provoke some thought out there and see what products any of you remember fondly long after they passed into that gentle product night. Any takers? Perhaps some of you remember Burma Shave and their rhyming ad campaigns (I do not, but it came up as a similar topic online to the OK Soda) or another product that was quirky, or at least pinpointed a brief understanding of the cultural lexicon. Drop a few on me, if you're so inclined.
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Notable Text: The City in Mind

The preface of James Howard Kunstler's The City in Mind begins: "This book doesn't pretend to be the last word on cities." And throughout Kunstler's breadth of knowledge on architecture, history, sociology, psychology and anthropology he keeps this initial promise. Kunstler's topic, surveying the functionality and representative value of eight world cities, though explored in his previous works (Geography of Nowhere [1993], Home from Nowhere [1996]) delves deeply into proponent arguments for New Urbanism while maintaining a vocabulary and style that is entertaining and accessible. I am neither a city planner, nor an architect in training and I was, save for a paragraph here and there, riveted by the historical contexts and philosophical arguments Kunstler poses. So riveted that for the last three weeks--as I've read the text on bus commutes--that I analyze the architecture and city structure in downtown Denver, and will plan on following up this review with thoughts on San Francisco in a couple of weeks. Anytime a text can get inside the head of a reader with such finesse it deserves applause. The City in Mind is an invaluably interactive text because it drives the reader to approach his space, his environment, with a philosophical microscope.

Filed into eight chapters, Kunstler's book looks at the successes, shortfalls and disasters of city design and urban organization of Paris, Atlanta, Mexico City, Berlin, Las Vegas, Rome, Boston and London. Each section incorporates important historical information, but Kunstler takes a special interest in each for specific reasons noted in their respective peoples' philosophies. Anecdotes peppered throughout, too, keep things personal and accessible, as if one could sit with Kunstler in a cafe in any of those locales listed above and receive a similar treatise on the city's virtues and sins. Being a believer of New Urbanism, Kunstler rails against cities designed as numerous pods connected only by highways and interstates. And he applauds the value of unity within a city's transit and its architectural design. Briefly, he breaks the eight chapters down thusly:

Paris: Kunstler applauds the work of Napolean III and his prefect of the Seine (essentially a mayor/city planner) Georges Eugene Haussmann for their efforts to turn the city from rat infested slum to unified, human-sized municipality. Specific building guidelines were placed so that buildings in Paris resemble one another and knit a complete tapestry, rather than being a madly assembled mesh of different styles. Paris is this way, united physically, and by an excellent system of trains.

Atlanta: Kunstler calls out the suburban expansion that has left the downtown area nearly deserted of residents, but requires hour long commutes by thousands each day for work, using exorbitant amounts of gasoline. It's a car culture created during times of inexpensive oil that cannot sustain itself forever, meaning eventually lots of those suburban homes will be uselessly isolated from places of work, restaurants and other necessary amenities. All of it started after the civil war. And, for a book published in 1999, an amazingly prophetic quote from the final section of this chapter titled 'The Repo Economy:'

"The next economy will be the Repo economy when, for example, amazing numbers of 'DiTech 125 percent Dream Loans' will be labeled nonperforming and seedy-looking men armed with repossession notices show up in the circular driveways of the defaulted-upon chipboard-and-vinyl McMansions in places like Cherokee County, Georgia, to change the locks on the putative collateral."

Mexico City: A history lesson from the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish all the way to the present day crime-driven, collapsing, under-watered plateau city at the center of Mexico.

Berlin: How can a city be rebuilt, ignoring its history with fascism and socialism, and knit itself back together from two halves that spent 40 years growing apart?

Las Vegas: Ten-lane roadways, half-mile long city blocks, absurdly cheap casino hotels that are built to last only as long as their own novelty to the public and then torn down. Kunstler argues that a city predicated on getting something for nothing will never be built for real people, only for their boundless curiosity in vices. And some really amazing history on Howard Hughes great buy-up of much of the original downtown.

Rome: This was a city, built massively, by hand! and without the aid of any machinery that still stands in great ruin, but nearly serviceable today. The buildings we make as humans today are never intended to remain for as long as those of Rome, where humans first pioneered the use of cement and concrete. Every inch was built with care and consideration, a detail that would impact architecture hundreds of years later, but would never fully sink in.

Boston: Kunstler presents evidence that this one city has shown the capability to re-urbanize itself bit by bit (though not yet complete) to become functional for a society of human beings, not a society of cars. Gentrification, and massive transit projects heal not only the appearance of the city, but also mobilize the many populations to keep the urban organism alive.

London: Parks! Big ones! The impact of our (borrowed from the English) American obsession with open space, and our fear that urbanization means only the dirty implications of the Industrial Revolution when times have long since changed. And of course, our "god-given right" to a large parcel of land to use without any concern for the public good or the greater value it adds to our community.

Just snippets here, but what's amazing about The City in Mind is that Kunstler places convincing emphasis on the need for mixed-use footprints in building. Instead of having an office park, which goes from bustling to ghost town each and every day, a well designed group of commercial, residential, industrial and park space makes it livable for humans who would no longer need long commutes, unnecessary personal transportation and the like. Imagine, really, waking up, wherever you are, and being able to walk to a cafe, go to work, shop for groceries and anything else and then walk home, without ever considering stepping foot inside a car. If streets, city blocks, transit, and buildings are assembled so that people can use everything around them with ease, life could be less stressful, simpler and altogether more fulfilling. Instead, America now is established with all of the wealthiest people out far away from the city in a place where they MUST drive to the grocery store, MUST drive to shop, MUST drive to work and could walk for miles along endlessly winding suburban streets without finding anything but more people who have to do the same thing.

And all of this, the driving, the cost of living, all of it, are increased by the establishment of distance. A well-run city, one with a diverse society of people of all classes can grow and mutate and shift as time demands without ever losing its essential value: a place for people to live. The City in Mind may not find mass appeal, but it has piqued a passion in me and is allowing me to see the city I live in, the quality of the buildings around me, and the way each city block is used much differently. Now, not only do I see something ugly in a dead, pay-for-parking lot, I also see a spot where something beautiful could go, an apartment building with basement parking, retail on the ground level, three floors of office space and 4 more floors of living space. Instead of leaving an ugly, empty husk every night, this would see service and value to its community all day long. And that's something. A world where no building had to be empty half of its standing life.
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