Music Review: Bright Eyes and Neva Dinova – One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels

I’m not surprised One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels was my most played album of 2019. Conor Oberst is extremely talented, and Bright Eyes is one of my favorite musical acts. What does surprise me is I’m pretty sure I replayed Neva Dinova’s songs more than Conor’s. Neva Dinova is a band based out of Omaha, Nebraska (same as Conor), and even though they can’t turn a phrase quite like Conor, they more than hold their own on the album.

One Jug of Wine, Two Vessels is good folk music made better by supplemental instruments (saxophone, trumpet, keys) and a small-town issues sort of vibe. The songs cover the usual subjects of depression, looking for love, cocaine, and hanging onto someone who’s clearly looking for an escape route. I can’t say I’ve really connected with the songs emotionally, and I wouldn’t rank any of the Bright Eyes songs among Conor’s best creations. But Conor has gone on record saying being in studio with Neva Dinova has been his favorite album recording experience. That must shine through on the album, because I just like hanging out with the songs. I don’t get tired of Neva Dinova sympathizing with a bar patron (“You just want someone’s love to take you down”) or asking what the fuck is the point of destroying yourself.

Remember when I said Neva Dinova still has something to learn from Conor about lyrics writing? I’ll end by quoting one of my favorite parts of the album with imagery that only Bright Eyes could bring to life:

“And you talk when you’re drunk
Like you’re standing in front of a microphone.
And each night it repeats, and you fall into me
Like a domino.

And you talk when you’re drunk
Like you’re writing it up for an article.
And you think that I lie when I tell you, ‘Goodbye,
And I’ve got to go,’
‘Cause I’ve got to go…”

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TV Review: The Wire

I’d been saving The Wire for years. Anyone who searches “greatest TV show of all time” is bound to come across The Wire, so I was well aware of its reputation before finally watching. It’s a terrible predicament for art to be saddled with a prestigious label, because most art cannot live up to the echo chamber of praise. The Wire does, though. It lives up to expectations even while defying them.

The city of Baltimore is the setting for the show, and it is also the main character. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) garners much of the show’s focus, but even he seems to realize he’s a small, churning pawn within the urban sprawl. There are major factions that comprise the city, including enterprising criminals, police officers, school teachers and students, dock workers, politicians, and more. Each season of the show shifts its focus, and a minor character in one season may end up being a crucial cog down the road.

But what makes The Wire so compelling? There’s the city of Baltimore itself; its exposed underbelly is as fascinating as the underside of a rotting log. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns ignore TV conventions like “police case of the week” to extend storylines to something more satisfying. Characters can follow the law or flout it, but all of them have moral shortcomings. The cast is diverse, featuring mostly black actors. And above all, the writing is excellent and grounded in the streets, projects, and back corners of Baltimore. The show doesn’t take great pains to explain every character and plot point to the viewer, and I understand if that frustrates some. I retreaded multiple scenes to pick up on things I missed, and even as a careful viewer I know I still missed important connective tissue. I appreciate art that makes me work for it. In that way The Wire is dense, challenging, and rewarding.

There’s no question The Wire is TV at its best. I could write a Key Character feature about most of its impressive cast (Lieutenant Daniels or “Stringer” Bell would probably be my first pick). The only question is, which season is its pinnacle? Season one is my favorite right now, but I’ve only watched through the show once so far. It’s a testament to its quality that after one viewing I felt the urge to immediately start the whole thing over again. That time will come soon enough, I’m sure. Omar comin’.

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Treasured Track: Del Shannon – “Runaway”

Our favorite songs are timeless. Even with years separating us from the last time we heard them, these songs call us back to a bygone era in our lives. Some of them helped us through heart wrenching breakups while others remind us of late nights spent with best friends. In this feature I reflect on the tracks that I’ve obsessed over in the past and always welcome back to my headphones in the present.

Just like with movies, some songs simply age better than others. Watching American Graffiti right now will trigger memories of your own high school experience, even though it was released in 1973. And “Runaway” by Del Shannon will still help heal a breakup 59 years after its original release.

The term “ghosted” is fairly recent, but Shannon may as well have written “Runaway” specifically for the experience of being dumped by someone and being given no rhyme or reason for it. The song begins with a snappy guitar introduction and Shannon singing: “As I walk along, I wonder / What went wrong with our love, / A love that was so strong.” There aren’t many more lyrics to the song, so Shannon stretches them out in a creative way. The chorus is memorable because of the way Shannon wavers his tone like a wah pedal.

“And I wonder…
I wah-wah-wah-wah-wonder
Why
A-wah-wah-wah-wah-why
She ran awaaay,”
And I wonder where she will stay-yay,
My little runaway.”

Lack of closure is what “Runaway” is all about. There’s the pain of missing someone, surely, but not knowing what went wrong and where your loved one is staying now (and who they’re staying with) is worse. I always liked “Runaway,” but it wasn’t until I was unceremoniously ghosted (this was years ago, thankfully) that I thought, “Man, this song is perfect.” It still is, and a big part of that is the keyboard solo before the final chorus. Keyboardist Max Crook feeds off of Shannon’s urgency, dancing across the keys and hitting an erratic high tone that sounds like it was pulled from a horror B-movie set in a theme park. The sound mirrors the narrator’s bouncing, dejected thoughts, and it adds so much flavor to the song. Like many popular songs of the era, “Runaway” is a shorty; it clocks in at less than two and a half minutes. It’s short enough that if you’re going to hear it once, you may as well play it twice.

Sadly, Shannon was unable to overcome his demons later in life and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1990. In his honor you should watch Del Shannon play “Runaway” on Letterman. He’s clearly enjoying himself during the performance, and he sounds as good as ever.

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Video Game Review: Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions

In early 1998 my brother and I had a debate over which video game earned the championship belt between two heavyweight contenders – the RPG Final Fantasy VII and the strategy RPG Final Fantasy Tactics. In the years between then and now, history has decided for us. The Final Fantasy VII universe has accumulated spin-off titles, an anime feature film, and it is being remade as another big budget production. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy Tactics remains relegated to the past, for the most part. I tried playing one of the Game Boy Advance spin-offs, but it paled in comparison to the original.

I haven’t played every Final Fantasy game. Seriously, who has the time? But I’ve played enough to feel secure in saying Tactics has to be one of the best Final Fantasy games, and overall it’s one of the best video games released during the original Playstation era. Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions is more of a re-release than a remake, but its improved translation fixes one of the main flaws of the original game. The battle system is still a bit overcomplicated for me to fully account for every detail (for example, characters’ zodiac signs affect attack damage), but in this case I’d rather the game be more complex rather than less.

The Tactics story itself is quite dense and hard to follow. The sense I had playing it the very first time was, “Man this is epic and cool but I don’t remember who that guy is and I don’t know who is betraying who.” Following the story is still challenging, but I liken it to reading a novel that expects you to pay attention and use a highlighter if you need to help yourself. The main character Ramza is a naïve highborn child who sheds the scales from his eyes as he grows, and his friend Delita is one of the most intriguing characters Final Fantasy has ever produced. He grows much faster than Ramza, playing the political game and using people so that he’s never used as a pawn again. Whereas many Final Fantasy games focus mainly on fantasy adventure, politics factor heavily into Tactics. The marriage of fantasy and politics sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder Game of Thrones caught on like wildfire.

All this writing and I haven’t yet mentioned the combat. Unlike many RPGs, a button masher this is not. Units are moved across a map like chess pieces, placed strategically to inflict higher damage while avoiding attacks from opposing units. It’s addicting gameplay, and matches can extend to half an hour or more. Watching your black mage inflict a death blow just before a ninja is about to strike her down is one of the many small victories experienced on the Tactics battlefield. And thanks to the excellent job system, that same black mage can be transformed into a time mage, a monk, a geomancer, or whatever else you like for the next match. One of the only gripes I have with The War of the Lions is it includes special jobs that require absurd amounts of experience to attain.

I love Final Fantasy Tactics, and The War of the Lions is the best way to experience it. Anyone who enjoys RPGs, epic stories (seriously, I love the church vs. state vs. demons story so much), strategy games, board games, and anything awesome needs to play it. There’s no excuse either, because you can now play it on your phone like I did. Also, Delita is a character who deserves to be mentioned alongside heavy hitters like Cloud Strife. If that’s not enough of a selling point, Cloud also sneaks his way into Tactics as a playable character. There truly is no reason not to play this game.

If you’d like to know more about the game, or if you have already played Final Fantasy Tactics and want to take a trip down memory lane, here’s a great retrospective review by Resonant Arc.

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Michigan Bound

I began my career in wildland fire on the Mendocino National Forest way back in May of 2016. At the time I didn’t know anything about fighting fire, and I was unfamiliar with poison oak, God’s devil plant. Working in California, overall, has been a damn pleasure. I’ve learned skills I never would have acquired on my own, met some good people, and worked harder than I have at any other job (not every day, but the tough days were always the most rewarding). The MNF also gave me the opportunity to detail on a helicopter in Twin Falls, ID, which turned out to be my favorite fire season thus far.

Now it’s time to drive east to begin a new job at the Huron-Manistee National Forest. I’m excited to check out a new region, even if it means I’m going to miss the California mountains I love. I’m also going to be much closer to my future wife, which is something I’m extremely thankful for. Cheers to new beginnings in the state of Michigan.

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Movie Review: Everybody Wants Some!!

I’m convinced that not nearly enough people have watched Everybody Wants Some!! Maybe it didn’t get much attention because it’s not a direct sequel to Dazed and Confused – it’s a spiritual successor – but it stands right alongside Linklater’s high school haze cloud of nostalgia.

Whereas Dazed and Confused threw together every social group to see them mix and mingle, Everybody Wants Some!! is focused on college baseball players in Texas as they galivant around town the weekend before classes officially begin. Freshman pitcher Jake leads us into athlete dorm life, but he’s a main character similar to Randall “Pink” Floyd. He’s a decent guy, but his buddies are all more interesting. There’s Jay, the antagonistic pitcher who believes he’s bound for the big show. McReynolds is captivating as the natural athlete who’s overly competitive, a natural leader, and a complete asshole when he chooses to be. And we can’t forget Finnegan who fills in the Mathew McConaughey role of resident ladies’ man who combines laid back confidence with intellectual repartee.

Most of the movie is spent watching the guys bond, argue, debate, compete, and chase women. I hesitate to call this a sports movie, but the one practice we get to watch is a definite highlight. Anyone who played baseball in high school or college will recognize the power struggles and silly fun of practicing without supervision. Everybody Wants Some!! is a good, rewatchable movie, but watching it makes me wish it were expanded to a TV series. It could make a perfect transition from big screen to small.

One minor complaint is the romance subplot between Jake and Beverly is a bit of a drag at the tail end of the movie. Not to say it’s bad, but the movie is at its best when it’s an expanded cast party. Everybody Wants Some!! works as a college movie, sports flick, nostalgia trip, early 80’s mixtape, and bong rip. C’mon, it’s Linklater. Of course weed is involved. Now go watch it.

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