September 2014 music update.

September was a heavy month for new releases, but a light month for good new tracks. I reviewed the new alt-J album, the best release of the month, earlier and haven’t included them here. Here’s the newest Spotify playlist, which includes all of the tracks I listed here but two:

Superhumanoids – “Come Say Hello”/”Hey Big Bang.” I was remiss in omitting these tracks from the August playlist. Sarah Chernoff’s vocals are just incredible, a true soprano soaring over two memorable dream-pop backing tracks.

Snakehips ft. Sinead Harnett - “Days With You.” A soulful trip-hoppy track with unforgettable vocals from Harnett that I first mentioned back in June but that wasn’t released until the very end of August.

The Kooks – “Forgive & Forget.” Maybe the best track from their newest album, reviewed here.

Strand of Oaks – “For Me.” I found their new album to be wildly uneven, often far too low-key given their overall sound, but when Tim Showalter cranks up the tempo just a little bit he finds a sweet spot where the contrast between the guitars’ distortion and his lyrical laments is perfectly balanced.

Broods – “Mother & Father” Not quite as good as their first single, the amazing “Bridges,” but boasting a similar combination of a strong melody and Georgia Nott’s ethereal vocals. This is listed on Spotify but the song isn’t playing for me right now, so it may no longer be available.

Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness – “Cecilia And The Satellite.” Modern synth-pop, reminiscent of the Hooters (perhaps because that band had a minor hit called “Satellite” too) with earnest vocals at the front of the mix.

Tweedy – “Low Key.” Mostly included just so I can link to the video, directed by Nick Offerman and starring, among many others, John Hodgman and Michael Shannon.

Max Jury – “Black Metal.” A bit precious, perhaps, but I got a laugh out of the lyrics and video, and the chorus is rather catchy. The 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Iowa draws on folk and country influences in his better tracks, but at other times veers off towards faux-jazz territory, which I’d say is the wrong direction for him or anyone else who wants to maintain his self-respect.

Cold War Kids – “All This Could Be Yours.” I’ve always found their music to be a little histrionic, mostly the result of Nathan Willett’s vocal style but also found in their dramatic piano/drum riffs. Sometimes it works really well, sometimes less so, with this song, released in July as the first single off their forthcoming album, somewhere in between those two points.

Death from Above 1979 – “Trainwreck 1979.” It seems like a lot of music critics/writers are making of a big deal about this group’s reunion ten years after their apparently one-and-done debut album, of which I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever. For electro-rock, it’s not bad, but I’m a little confused by all the hype; it seems like there are a few dozen U.K. acts putting out similar music right now.

Ex Hex – “Beast.” A new trio led by Mary Timony, former lead singer of noise-rockers Helium and member of Wild Flag, Ex Hex just released their debut album yesterday and it’s full of tight, power-pop tracks that betray Timony’s post-punk roots but are among the most melodic things she’s ever put out.

Animals as Leaders – “Tooth and Claw.” I think I mentioned these guys a few months ago, and I recognize this is pretty out there even for me, but Animals as Leaders’ highly experimental, technically precise brand of instrumental metal is totally riveting for me as a longtime guitar player and occasional fan of melodic death metal – which this resembles, just without the growled or screamed vocals.

Opeth – “Eternal Rains Will Come.” I left this track and “Tooth and Claw” at the end since they’re so unlike everything else on the playlist, moving way into the progressive realm right down to the Hammond organs and psychedelic harmonies. If you only know Opeth from their death-metal past, give this track a listen with fresh ears.

Tracks not on Spotify:

Ty Segall – “Tall Man Skinny Lady.” Getting a ton of play on Sirius XM right now, this song is one of seventeen on Segall’s latest album, with a simple guitar riff over a two-step percussion line that repeats incessantly throughout the song. I don’t know why they ran Segall’s vocals through reverb, which makes it sound like he recorded them from out in the hallway, but otherwise it’s a strong slice of psychedelic rock with an anarchic guitar solo.

Telegram - “Regatta.” An obnoxiously British-sounding act, from the Libertines influences in the music to the lead singer’s almost indecipherable Welsh accent, so the result sounds like a bit like the Arctic Monkeys replaced Alex Turner with Gruff Rhys. The video features the band’s members wandering around Tokyo.

Motherless Brooklyn.

My annual “guys I got wrong” piece is up for Insiders.

I loved Jonathan Lethem’s bizarro paranoid detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music, which felt like a mashup of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick with a dose of Jasper Fforde added like the bitters that completes a cocktail. At least one of you recommended one of his other detective novels, the equally strange but more straightforward Motherless Brooklyn, in which the lead detective isn’t really a detective, but a flunky working for a half-assed detective agency. The boss is killed on a mission gone wrong, and the protagonist and narrator, Lionel Essrog, begins to investigate the murder – in part because he’s involved, but even more so because he has to, as he suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and OCD.

Essrog’s tics are minor, and his coworkers at the L&L Car Service, a front for the detective agency run by Frank Minna, all treat them as a fact of life, mostly ignoring them or bestowing unkind nicknames on him (like “Freakshow”). The four underlings, including Essrog, were all at the same orphanage together, from which Minna plucked them first to work as day laborers on suspect jobs like moving what appeared to be stolen goods, then later on to be his team of lookouts and stooges while he played detective. When Frank dies on what at first looks like a normal job gone wrong, with Lionel and dim-witted colleague Gilbert serving as his backup, Lionel starts an independent investigation of sorts, one without a lot of direction at first but that he can’t stop once he gets enmeshed in it – just like he has to complete his series of taps or work out vocal tics that come out of his mouth like random attempts at anagrams and wordplay. (Lethem credits the work of several neurologists in his acknowledgements, including Oliver Sacks.) But Lionel isn’t any more a freak than anyone else – his eccentricities are just more visible.

The case itself is more convoluted than that of your standard hard-boiled detective novel, and the resolution is less clean and partially happens off-screen, but Lethem nods to the conventions of the form, perhaps a little too much so, with Lionel getting knocked out and waking up somewhere else, and sleeping with one of the only female characters in one of the book’s most improbable but funnier scenes. Making Lionel the narrator allows Lethem to draw humor from his condition without ever seeming to mock him for it, and in some ways the obsessiveness that often accompanies Tourette’s is an asset for a would-be sleuth. Some of his conversations with suspects would come off as unrealistic if he didn’t have the condition; Lionel’s tics and utterances punctuate the interrogations in such a way that his blunt questions don’t come off as starkly, which makes the suspects’ candor easier to believe.

I could have done without the stereotyped Italian wiseguys, particularly the older mobsters who are straight out of central casting and would have to inhale just to be two-dimensional, even though they probably had to be Italian to fill those roles in a book set in Brooklyn. They’re secondary, at least, playing limited on-screen roles, as Lionel himself is truly the star – and will apparently be played by Ed Norton in the upcoming film version. If you read this as an amazing character study first and a detective story second, you’ll find the book much more enjoyable than you will if you’re just looking for a good crime novel.

I picked up another detective novel, Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ’s Nairobi Heat, because the author’s father, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, wrote one of my top 100 novels, A Grain of Wheat, a seminal work of Kenyan colonialism and the struggle for independence. Nairobi Heat is a detective novel that takes its protagonist, Ishmael, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Kenya to investigate the murder of a white girl whose body was found on the doorstep of a hero of the Rwandan genocide. The book itself is a mess of detective-novel cliches – including the knock on the head, waking up bound to a chair, sleeping with the unbelievably good-looking woman who plays an important role in the investigation, and lots of needless violence – but the resolution evoked a powerful reminiscence of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, my favorite hard-boiled detective novel by any author. And perhaps that fits: the violence and lawlessness of Hammett’s book certainly seems to apply to modern Kenya, at least in wa Ngũgĩ’s rendering. He could use a lot of help with his characterizations and needs to craft a fresher plot, but at least his influences seem to be the right ones.

This is All Yours.

alt-J’s 2012 debut album An Awesome Wave, winner of that fall’s Mercury Prize, remains my favorite album released since the turn of the century, a hypnotic, hypercreative, genre-bending masterwork that plays with sounds, tempos, and tension to subvert typical rock song structures without every losing sight of the critical elements of melody and rhythm. The album featured stunning production that offered clear, precise sounds in a minimalist framework, while the then-quartet carried lyrical and musical themes across multiple tracks to present the listener with a diverse yet cohesive whole. The Mercury Prize doesn’t always go to the most deserving album – last year’s snoozer would be a perfect example – but alt-J deserved it as much as any other winner ever had. (Of course, Pitchfork trashed the album, shocking no one.)

That means that expectations, mine and the music world’s, have run very high with the long crescendo to today’s release of This Is All Yours, the sophomore album from alt-J, now a trio after the departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury. The new disc moves the band in a direct I didn’t anticipate, opting for slower tempos and brighter sounds, creating a more melancholy record overall, one with fewer standout melodies than An Awesome Wave and a muddled production quality that contrasts with the precision of its predecessor’s. It is every bit as bizarre a record as you’d expect from a band that named itself after a keyboard combination (their name is technically Δ) and that produced an album as weird as their debut. It is less consistent than their first record, but it is never, ever dull.

The three singles released from This is All Yours showcase the album’s brilliance alongside its inconsistency. “Hunger of the Pine” works from a trip-hop foundation, layers guitarist Joe Newman’s languorous, high-pitched vocals – occasionally delivering entire lines without changing the note – over keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton’s baritone, only to throw in a sample of Miley Cyrus incongruously singing “I’m a female rebel” in the chorus. “Left Hand Free,” a song the boys have acknowledged they wrote because their label’s A&R man said he didn’t hear a single from the album, listens like a deadpan parody of American indie or jangle-pop, with suitably ridiculous lyrics that still manage to slip in the kind of literary allusions that they used so well on An Awesome Wave. The third single, “Every Other Freckle,” is the album’s best song, bridging the gap between those first two songs in a way that recalls their first album’s highest points, shifting gears suddenly between tempos or even genres, with lyrical flourishes that offer competing interpretations (the transition from touching to creepy in “I wanna bed into you, like a cat beds into a beanbag/Turn you inside out, and lick you like a crisp packet” is a highlight of their career) and perfectly timed hard-stops before the next miniature movement begins. The three songs don’t really sound at all like they’d come from the same band, with an almost anti-commercial song in “Hunger of the Pine” alongside the disposable “Left Hand Free,” diversity without the explosive creativity of the band’s first record.

Instead, the trio appear to have channeled their creativity into crafting lush soundscapes like the gorgeous acoustic track “Warm Foothills,” which features vocals from no fewer than four guest singers, including Lianne La Havas, whom alt-J beat out for the Mercury Prize two years ago. The vocals are stitched together to give you odd transitions before we get our payoff in beautiful harmonies – although there’s no big finish or massive textural shift as you might have expected on An Awesome Wave. The lyrics of the Alien-inspired “The Gospel of John Hurt” blend that film’s mythology (it doesn’t go well for Hurt’s character) with the Book of Jeremiah, over a tripartite backing track, starting with a xylophone-heavy introductory passage, leading to a sluggish passage where we get the band spelling out a key word (as on “Fitzpleasure” and “Bloodflood”) before the guitar moves to the front in the final, cathartic movement. How that song can be followed with the throwaway acoustic track “Pusher” is one of the most puzzling aspects of the disc; I could have done without “Pusher” entirely, but after one of This is All Yours‘ strongest, most intense songs, it dissolves the momentum the band has just built up with the previous song.

alt-J have always been fond of referring back to their own songs, and do so explicitly with “Bloodflood pt. II,” which brings back both “Bloodflood” and “Fitzpleasure” from their first album, reusing certain lyrics and musical themes but reworking them into new settings while carrying over the violence implicit in “Fitzpleasure,” which itself drew from the book and film Last Exit to Brooklyn. They’re also big on unusual covers, and the album’s bonus track completely deconstructs Bill Withers’ classic soul song “Lovely Day” and builds it back up with multiple flows of shimmering keyboard lines that move over you like fluids of varying viscosities – to the point where you might only recognize the original track by the lyrics.

The brief review by the Guardian compared This is All Yours to Radiohead’s Kid A for their shared abandonment of the traditional rock format in favor of playing with sounds and textures, but Radiohead’s departure was far more shocking – here was one of the greatest straight-up rock bands in history, coming off an album that should have won every award for which it could possibly have been eligible, metaphorically lighting its guitars on fire to play with keyboards and other synthetic sounds. alt-J had no such sound to abandon, so their capacity to shock us more than their debut already did so is muted.

This is All Yours includes repetition of themes and imagery in its lyrics, just as their first album did, here with recurring ruminations on loss and dependence in relationships, and several songs refer to the African quelea, a nomadic passerine bird of African that travels in large flocks, or other flying creatures; as well as to lungs, to waves, or to the sea. Their lyrics are more cryptic and less narrative this time around; most songs on An Awesome Wave told a story somewhere, while the songs on This is All Yours have fewer lyrics overall and none tells a complete story from beginning to end. That may be the most shocking shift of the album, rather than the change in music – the way that alt-J thinks about crafting a single song, or an album as a collection of songs, seems to have changed, as if they couldn’t or wouldn’t reproduce the style of their first album, which was five years in the making. This is All Yours comes out only two years and a few months after their debut, but in many ways feels more ambitious and bold. It is uneven compared to their debut, and presents a less immersive listening experience, but also shows a group unwilling or unable to rest on their laurels, for whom an effort that doesn’t match their best work can still be among the most important and impressive albums of the year.

Saturday five, 9/19/14.

My Tuesday column this past week announced that Kris Bryant is my 2014 Prospect of the Year, a piece in which I mentioned a dozen other guys, including the player with the best pro debut by a 2014 draft pick. I also held my regular Klawchat on Thursday.

I’ve been stepping up the boardgame reviews again, reviewing Valley of the Kings for Paste magazine, and Seasons and Spyrium here.

EDIT: Codito/Sage Board Games have a new iOS boardgame app bundle, which takes $1 off each of the games you haven’t bought. Tigris & Euphrates and Le Havre are both excellent, if you don’t already own them.

And now, to the links – seven this time, since I didn’t post last Saturday and had a few extras saved up:


Spyrium is a highly-rated (#288 on Boardgamegeek) but as yet not that well-known strategy game from the designer of the award-winning Caylus, but employs different mechanics for a game of moderate to high complexity that works best with three to four players but does play with two. Spyrium is a fictional crystal that unleashes tremendous energy when players use it in factories, but the crystal itself is hard to come by, as is the money the players will need to buy buildings and to use the workers they’ve placed in the game’s central market. The game thrives on scarcity and rewards players who pursue a tight strategy and don’t deviate from it, but you’ll need some luck to do that, especially if other players are after the same cards that you want. The game is currently $18 on amazon, through that link above.

In Spyrium, players represent industrialists who seek to gain victory points by processing spyrium to gain victory points, generally in factories that the player buys and buildings, in which a combination of spyrium and workers (meeples) yield victory points in each turn when they’re used. Each player starts the game with three worker meeples and places them in the 3×3 “market” of cards, which includes buildings to be purchased; technologies for purchase that provide recurring benefits (such as discounts on building purchases); and one-time bonuses of spyrium, money, victory points, or progress on the residence track.

The catch, and the game’s most distinguishing characteristic, is that players place meeples in the spaces between the cards in the market, rather than on the cards directly. The price of a card is equal to its face value plus another £1 for each meeple (yours or others’) adjacent to that card. (You have to have a meeple adjacent to a card to buy it.) Players place workers into the market one at a time, rotating through all players, but at any point a player can choose to switch to his/her “activation phase” and begin taking meeples off the market, even if s/he still has meeples to place.

When removing a meeple, the player may purchase any of the adjacent cards OR receive money equal to the number of other meeples adjacent to the same cards. Therefore, placement and removal introduce a significant strategic element to the game. You may place meeples just to try to gain money, but if you wait too long to remove one, you may get nothing – no cash, and no card because the adjacent cards are gone or unaffordable. Money and spyrium are always in short supply, so you’ll rarely be able to do everything you want, especially early in the game, which runs six rounds in total.

The basic strategy involves getting at least one building that generates spyrium, and at least one that lets you convert it into victory points. The “technology” cards can provide discounts or other bonuses that make concentrating on certain cards or assets more valuable, while the residence track, where all players start at 2 and can advance to 7, can provide frequent bonuses if the player concentrates on advancing there early enough and nabs one of the associated technology cards. (In short, you get your token up to 7, and then try to invoke that track repeatedly for a 7-point bonus each time.) By the game’s final rounds, the cards become more expensive while spyrium is almost impossible to come by.

With two players, the market is much less competitive – it’s easier to grab the cards you want, unless you and your opponent are pursuing the same cards, something you can avoid by switching your strategy very slightly. The order in which you withdraw your workers from the market matters regardless of the number of players With more players, you need more focus on getting the right combinations of cards and grabbing resources when you can, and you’ll have to adjust at some point because an opponent took the card you wanted, or because opponents priced you out (deliberately or as collateral damage) of a card you intended to buy. That means the game also requires a fair amount of foresight, but knowledge of the cards isn’t required or very tricky, as the technology cards appear early and the buildings all follow a simple formula of increasing rewards.

The game promises a steampunk theme that doesn’t materialize. Game themes are tricky things to begin with – most German-style games involve a theme that sits awkwardly on a game mechanic, with only a tenuous connection between the two, and Spyrium’s connection is among the weakest I’ve seen. You’re placing workers, gathering two resources, and converting all of that into points. At the end of the game, you can earn additional points for your buildings, including some special points-only buildings similar to the prestige buildings available at the end of Caylus and the luxury ships at the end of Le Havre.

A typical two-player game takes 45 minutes in person, about a half hour online at Boardgame Arena, mostly because of decision-making time rather than time to resolve the effects of moves. That decision-making time is one of my two complaints about Spyrium, along with the fact that the tight resource constraints introduce what I think of as game-stress, best encapsulated by the difficulty in keeping your people fed in Agricola: I don’t play games to worry about whether my imaginary family has enough to eat. Granted, Spyrium has no direct penalties for running out of money or its namesake crystal, but if you don’t manage the first two rounds correctly, you are well and screwed in rounds five and six, meaning the pressure to make good moves early on is enormous. (I don’t think it’s possible to fully recover from a bad opening, but I haven’t played enough to say that with any certainty.) That, I believe, is why the game hasn’t caught on despite a good combination of simple mechanics and complex decision-making, with attractive elements and a famous designer to draw you in. It’s a smart, balanced game, but it’s more challenging than it is fun, and as such I think it’s for serious or hardcore gamers only.

Butcher’s Crossing.

My post naming Cubs 3b Kris Bryant the 2014 Prospect of the Year is up for Insiders.

John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing was one of three novels the National Book Award-winner published, just republished earlier this year by the New York Review of Books after the unexpected success of a reissue of his novel Stoner last year. Butcher’s Crossing takes the American western and turns it inside out, reimagining it as Shakespearean tragedy and morality tale rather than hewing to the standard formula of adventure and inevitable conquest.

Will Andrews arrives in the rural trading post town of Butcher’s Crossing direct from Boston, where he’s left Harvard (of course he has … it’s always Harvard, never Dartmouth or Williams or SUNY-Oswego) after three years in search of something different, a less comfortable life than the upper-class upbringing he’s had among salons and scions. The town is little more than a street, a half-dozen buildings, and a regular flow of hunters and trappers, mostly trading in buffalo hides. Andrews hooks up with the grizzled Miller, who knows of an enormous, untapped herd of buffalo that promises a tenfold return on Andrews’ money, with some risk involved due to the distance to get to the herd, which Miller hasn’t actually seen in a decade. The two set off with a driver and a skinner, and they do eventually locate Miller’s quarry, but when Miller becomes so focused on killing off the entire herd, the quartet stay too long and become trapped all winter by a blizzard, forcing them to fend for their lives against hunger, cold, and the madness of isolation.

Williams makes it clear from the start that this is a novel of failure, of the protagonists’ refusal to heed sound advice and clear warnings in search of high and likely unattainable goals. The inability to contemplate that failure, like the invincibility that powers the teenaged mind, dooms Andrews and Miller from the start. Miller is the driver who won’t ask for directions, and leads the team even though Andrews, as the bankroll, should have a say in major decisions. Once he begins the killing, Miller is unable to stop, whether due to bloodlust or greed – or a blend of both where neither can be distinguished – is unclear. Picking the entire herd clean leaves them out in the hinterlands of the Colorado Territory too late in the season, and the blizzard comes quickly, trapping them for six months while taking away much of their stash of hides. They lose some of the remainder on the way back, only to return to Butcher’s Crossing to find that the buffalo-hide bubble has burst, leaving a ghost town behind and the prodigal sons left with nothing to show for their sufferings.

The typical western imagines the old American West as a tableau of vast plains that lead to opportunity, adventure, and the inevitability of manifest destiny – his land and its fruits are ours for the taking, consequences be damned (or fracked). Miller, who has been trying to recruit a money man for this mission for several years, can only see hides as dollars, and appears unconcerned with the consequences for man or beast. Andrews arrives out west with a romantic ideal of the pioneer country in his mind, only to discover after one day on a horse that the physical reality bears no resemblance to the vague pictures he had in his mind. He’s running away from something, but running to something he hardly knows. Charley Hoge, the driver, has already lost one hand to frostbite on a previous hunt gone awry, and now clings equally to his drink and his religion to see him through any crisis. The hired skinner Schneider is the pragmatist, always looking to turn back when the odds seem too long, taking his salary instead of a share of the profits, but even his wiser outlook can’t earn him a better end than those of his mates.

Butcher’s Crossing can be an arduous read because the entire book operates under a shadow. You know none of this is going to end well, not just because the blurb on the back of the book tells you so, but because Williams slathers his brush with a heavy dose of foreshadowing and paints it all over the first part of the book. He takes mercy on the reader by avoiding too much detail of the caravan’s temporary shortage of water and later their miserable time when trapped in the mountains by snow, but this book remains the doom-metal equivalent in the western genre – lugubrious yet menacing, a book designed to trigger your anxiety more than your sense of adventure. There’s a brief passage where the group encounters a small gathering of Native Americans, but rather than giving us the hackneyed kind of interaction – usually outright conflict or a temporary partnership built on mutual distrust – Williams has our heroes pass the group by, with no bullets or arrows fired or words exchanged. The natives appear to have no interest in contact with these white men; perhaps they figured the men were foolish enough to head to their own deaths without any assistance.

Next up: Nairobi Heat, a modern detective novel by Mũkoma Wa Ngũgĩ, the son of the world-renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, whose novel A Grain of Wheat is among my top 100 novels of all time.

Seasons boardgame.

I have a new Insider column on naming Kris Bryant the minor league prospect of the year, with a dozen other guys earning mentions.

The boardgame Seasons is a hybrid of two of the most popular subgenres in gaming right now – deckbuilding and complex strategy games – but adds a high degree of interactivity to the game that makes it feel less complicated to play. As in most games in those two subgenres, there’s a significant benefit to knowing the cards in the deck, so first-timers are at a huge disadvantage and the learning curve is fairly steep. However, the cards themselves are seldom complicated, with each individual card’s actions playing out quite simply; it’s the interactions between cards that define the game’s strategy and thus how complex you want the game to become.

In Seasons, each player starts the game with nine cards, which s/he divides into three triplets that become that player’s hand for each of the three rounds of the game. Each round comprises specific turns where a token moves somewhat randomly around a board of 12 spaces covering four seasons, with each change season shifting the values of the four “energy tokens” (the game’s primary currency) to reflect each element’s scarcity in that season. To begin each round, players roll a number of special dice equal to one more than the number of players, then each player chooses a die that grants benefits like energy tokens, crystals (victory points), or the ability to play more cards (summoning power) or exchange energy tokens for crystals (transmuting). After dice selection, players can take several actions, most importantly playing cards, which involves spending energy tokens and occasionally crystals to place the cards on the table in front of him/her, some with immediate benefits, others with recurring effects, and still more with one-time gains later in the game.

A typical turn in Seasons starts with dice selection, after which each player receives the benefits shown on the die s/he chose and then may take any number of actions:

* Spending energy tokens and/or crystals to “summon” (place on the table) a power card from his hand.

* Activating certain effects of cards on the table in front of him. Some of those effects can be used once per turn; others require “sacrificing” (trashing) the card.

* Taking a penalty of five or more points (to be assessed at game-end) to use a bonus action, such as increasing the player’s summoning power – that is, how many cards s/he may have on the table in front of him/her at one time. The maximum is 15.

* Transmuting energy tokens into crystals (points). The value of each energy type varies by season; in each season, one of the four types is worth three crystals per token when transmuted, one is worth two points, and two types are worth one. These change so that each energy type has one season where its value is at the maximum of three points.

The effects of the cards are easy to follow, thanks to the text on the cards and the relatively small number of symbols you need to know to understand the game. Some examples of cards are the Hourglass of Time, which gives you a bonus energy token every time the season changes; the Dice of Malice, which costs nothing to play and lets you reroll your die once each round while giving you a two-point bonus; and Kairn the Destroyer, which allows you to pay (trash, in essence) one energy token each turn to make each of your opponents lose four crystals. There are also one-time use cards like the Amulet of Fire, which increases your summoning power by two, and there are cards that must be sacrificed to be used, like the Potion of Power, which lets you draw and immediately place a new power card while increasing your summoning power by one.

The strategic element comes into play at the beginning of the game, when you get to select which nine cards go into your starting deck, a process during which you need to pay attention to certain card combinations that bring exponential benefits. For example, if you have the Wondrous Chest card, which gives you a bonus every time the season changes if you have four or more energy tokens in your hand, you’ll want to look for cards that help you rack up more energy tokens (e.g., Hourglass of Time), or a card like Bespelled Grimoire, which allows you to keep ten tokens rather than seven in your hand – so it’s easier to spend tokens on cards without depleting your supply. Executing these strategies involves knowing the cards reasonably well, including cards that you might draw as the game progresses; understanding or being able to work out how they interact over the course of the game; and keeping track of everything you have and are supposed to do (e.g., activating Kairn every turn) while the game goes on. And if you happen to choose incorrectly at the start of the game, either picking the wrong cards or organizing them suboptimally into your three three-card decks, you may be sunk before the ship has even launched.

Perhaps that’s what prevents me from giving Seasons my highest recommendation – it’s a very good game, with an incredibly thoughtful design that maintains its balance despite all of the possible permutations of cards and die rolls, but it’s nearly impossible to explain its mechanics in a succinct fashion. Our first play through the game was a rarity in that we got the rules right, but saw none of the game’s “point” of how to rack up bigger point totals, in part because there was no guidance anywhere on how to sort your initial nine cards (we used the suggested starter sets) into three piles. A typical winning score in a two-player game can run into the 200s, and in a three-player game in the 150-200 range, but in our first game neither of us cracked 100 because we didn’t grasp any of the strategic aspects – and until I tried a few games online Boardgame Arena I didn’t get a feel for how the game was supposed to be played.

Once you have the gist, however, Seasons is addictive, and posseses a great blend of individual achievement (trying to reach higher scores, or just to know you played a better game) and competitive play through cards that allow you to play off your opponents or even screw with them. You just have to wear it for a bout or two while you figure it out and learn the deck and the back-and-forth flow of energy tokens and crystals that powers the game.

Puig Destroyer, FKA Twigs, and other new albums.

Puig Destroyer started out as something of a joke (their name alludes to American grindcore act Pig Destroyer) among a few baseball-loving musicians, including Riley Breckenridge and Ian Miller of the Productive Outs podcast, but they’ve now morphed into a real if virtual hardcore punk band that performs loud, fast, short songs about baseball topics – including one song I can honestly claim to have inspired, “Umpshow.” Their first full-length album, Puig Destroyer, includes twenty songs, none over 2:06, with the best song titles anyone’s produced since Seth Putnam died, including “Three True Outcomes,” “Trumbomb,” and the entirely truthful “No One Cares About Your Fantasy Team.” This kind of post-hardcore isn’t for everyone – I’ve seen them described as grindcore, but Puig Destroyer isn’t in Napalm Death territory – with blast beats, shouted vocals, and heavy bass lines, but it’s tightly produced and you can hear the strong musicianship underlying the jokes about sabermetrics and ligament reconstruction surgery. The album is available for preorder for $7 now through that link, and you get an immediate download of the song “Mike Trout.” (Full disclosure: I’ve met Ian, been on the Productive Outs podcast, and received a digital review copy of the album.)

* Meanwhile, longtime hardcore stalwarts Sick of It All are about to release The Last Act of Defiance, their first album in four years, one that shows a band in steep decline. Not only are the fourteen tracks generic and tired, but the song “2061” sees the group espousing 9/11 conspiracy-theory nonsense, claiming that the U.S. government is hiding the “truth” about the attacks until confidential documents are made public in the year of the song’s title. That kind of “truther” bullshit is an intelligence test, and Sick of It All just failed.

* In Flames’ newest album, Siren Charms, continues in the vein of their more recent work, where they try to straddle the space between their melodic death metal roots and more radio-friendly American metalcore, which produces a very unsatisfying end result. In Flames’ signature twin guitar leads are present all over the album, but aren’t front and center on enough tracks for fans of their work or, in my case, fans of that particular brand of extreme-metal riffing.

* FKA twigs (née Tahliah Debrett Barnett) might suffocate under the weight of all of the positive reviews of her debut album LP1, including a nomination for this year’s Mercury Prize. While Barnett shows beauty in her emotional, restrained style of singing, I can’t add to the effusive plaudits thrown her way because the severely understated trip-hop style where she plies her musical trade strikes me as little more than background music. There’s almost nothing here to praise or critique; it’s barely music, an unstable foundation for Barnett’s impressive vocal acrobatics, unable to hold my attention for even the length of a song. She may very well win the Mercury Prize, which alt-J took home two years ago for An Awesome Wave, given the critical acclaim LP1 has received; I’m just not hearing what everyone else is.

* English hard-rock band Amplifier draws influence from about three decades of rock and metal, from the ’70s (notably Pink Floyd, with hints of Black Sabbath) to the ’90s (Nirvana, Soundgarden), but the result on their forthcoming album Mystoria is surprisingly tame. I certainly expected more experimentation based on their reviews and press clippings, but after the opening pair of tracks, we get some generic album-oriented rock tracks made marginally more interesting with heavy use of effects pedals. The instrumental opener, “Magic Carpet,” and second track, “Black Rainbow,” are the only standouts here, with the off-beat percussion line in the latter track giving it the experimental feel that the guitar riff lacks.

The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.

This week’s Klawchat transcript is up, as is my newest boardgame review for Paste, on the deckbuilding game Valley of the Kings.

Alton Brown mentioned Steven Sherrill’s novel The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break twice on podcasts I listened to this spring/summer, once on his own and once on the Nerdist podcast, saying it was his all-time favorite novel, one he re-reads regularly. That was good enough for me to check it out – especially once I saw it wasn’t some thousand-page monolith – and it is indeed a fabulous book, clever, compelling, and incredibly warm-hearted, which is funny since the main character is quite literally a monster.

That would the capital-M Minotaur, spawn of Pasiphaë, devourer of virgins, bane of Minos, half-man and half-bull, now five thousand years old and working as a line cook in North Carolina. That’s Sherrill’s one nod to unreality, as everything that comes after that fact of the Minotaur’s existence, the peculiarity of which generates no remark from the non-monster characters in the book. (He does encounter a couple of other immortals – Daphne the Naiad appears briefly toward the end of the book, and we see Medusa in most unfortunate circumstances as well.) With that one given, Sherrill treats the Minotaur as a very human character, at least emotionally, since the guy does have the head of a bull, but other than that and some difficulty speaking, the Minotaur is a protagonist with whom most readers will easily empathize.

Working in the kitchen for a traditional American restaurant, the Minotaur is a diligent and precise worker, getting along with most of his co-workers, mostly because he has the patience of a creature who’s lived five thousand years and seen all manner of unkindness from the humans with whom he’s interacted. He lives in a trailer park, apparently the latest in an endless string of short-term residences, and is an expert at diagnosing and repairing problems with car engines, a skill he trades to his landlord in place of rent. He has a crush on one co-worker, Kelly, but flirts with Cecie, is one of the few who respects the gay expediter David, and tolerates (to a point) the juvenile behavior of Mike and Shane. But he has a pervasive sense of unease that a change for the worse is coming, and eventually his habit of going along to get along lands him in a situation where he has to choose between being proactive and letting history continue to drag him along for the ride.

Sherrill builds his story around largely mundane events. He has great feel for the rhythm of a restaurant kitchen and the repetitive tasks that go into preparing hundreds of identical meals over the course of a few hours, a tedium that the Minotaur actually enjoys. He goes into similar levels of detail on the workings of combustion engines, which I’ll assume is all accurate because I know little more than that you turn the key to start the motor. The twin emphases on specific aspects of these endeavors and on telling the story of the Minotaur’s quotidian life without requiring any Big Events to move the plot will make you forget that the main character is a mythical beast. And he infuses the Minotaur with profound understanding of human behavior and emotions – not supernaturally so, just enough that he becomes the ideal lens through which to watch the actions of the people around him, many of them screwed up in one way or another, the remainder busy screwing themselves up as fast as they can.

The Minotaur barely speaks, finding it difficult to articulate clearly given his bull’s tongue and a clear bout of self-consciousness because of this, so much of his dialogue comes out as grunts that his coworkers all understand – which also puts them in the position of doing most of the talking. That puts the Minotaur roughly into the everyman/observer archetype, sort of a bull-headed Nick Jenkins, someone who watches the action for us but isn’t completely neutral or uninvolved. (The bull-headed bit is a dash of irony on Sherrill’s part, as the Minotaur is neither stubborn nor decisive, but is quite thoughtful and even aware of his habit of sometimes making bad decisions.) He’s the title character, and ultimately it’s his decision and his choices that shape the conclusion of the novel, but the real interest here is the diverse side characters, who are eccentric and flawed and whose real natures are reflected in their interactions with the hero. He’s deeply empathetic toward them, the result of his complex origins and five thousand years of watching humans be human, and most of them are similarly empathetic towards him.

Grub, the amusingly-named owner of the restaurant where the Minotaur – called “M.” by all his friends and colleagues – works, hires a new waitress named Kelly, who is revealed to be an epileptic when she has a grand mal seizure during a shift. The Minotaur’s affection for her seems to go beyond a mere physical attraction; he sees in her some kind of kindred spirit, another lonely soul wandering through life without a clear destination and with too much awareness of her own differences. The story ends with an unexpected sequence of events that force M. to finally be proactive and make a real choice to shape his own destiny, but he needs a little help from an unexpected deus ex machina and a lot of understanding to get to the point, where Sherrill leaves the reader in ambiguity, but with the possibility of hope, which seems to be all the Minotaur is asking the world to give him.

Next up: John Williams’ western Butcher’s Crossing.

America Walks Into a Bar.

I have a post up for Insiders today on keeping faith in some players who had less-than-great years.

Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops is a thoroughly academic look at the history of the watering hole, mostly in the United States but with a brief look at its origins in Europe and in the Near East. Like most histories, it lacks any real narrative thread, but Sismondo does present a clear thesis – that the bar or tavern has had an essential role in the cultural history of the U.S. – and does a great job of backing it up through interesting and often funny anecdotes.

The book is built around discrete chapters, each of which covers a specific movement that either got its start in the taverns or found faster growth through tavern culture, starting with the revolutionary spirit in the U.S. that led to the Stamp Act protests, the Tea Party (the real one, folks), and eventually the American Revolution and the nascent U.S. government. In that era, there were no real town halls or any kind of community center where anyone (meaning any adult man, although occasionally women were admitted) could gather to hear news, exchange information, or tip off the ragtag militia that the British were coming. Even churches would often have to close due to weather, moving their religious services to the local to take advantage of the latter facility’s heating. From there, Sismondo jumps ahead slightly to the abolitionist movement, then bounces through about 150 years of U.S. history, covering the temperance movement (and the Anti-Saloon League), the disaster of Prohibition, and the gay-rights movement that exploded, in literal and metaphorical terms, during a police raid on the Stonewall Inn in 1969.

The challenge for Sismondo isn’t making this interesting – she’s talking about booze and bars, with the frequent injections of sex and violence, so, really, I already have your attention by now – but making her arguments convincing. Some are easy, like the rise of the American revolutionary movement in taverns, because at the time, that’s all there was. If you wanted to associate, you had few options besides the town local. Others are more difficult, such as the speakeasy’s role in advancing women’s rights, because earlier proscriptions on women drinking alongside men or even sharing the same space in a tavern were dropped when all such establishments were banned. The political machines of the 1800s, notably the Tammany Hall regime in New York, certainly rose through the taverns of the age, especially because votes were procured in exchange for booze, but would they have risen without those places? Couldn’t votes be bought in other ways, as they are today here and in other countries? Sismondo makes a strong case, but it’s all anecdotal (as it has to be), so those chapters are more about reader interest than proving a hypothesis.

The interest level can be pretty high, depending on the chapter and subject. Sismondo gives brief portraits of some of the earliest celebrity bartenders, such as Jerry Thomas, and gives a lot of detail on some of the key figures in the Haymarket riot, where anarchists bombed a peaceful pro-labor rally, leading to four executions in a gross miscarriage of justice that further spurred the embryonic American labor movement. We get a sketch of Mary “Texas” Guinan, an actress who owned a speakeasy, the 300 Club, that became one of the most popular during Prohibition and launched careers of the likes of George Raft and Walter Winchell (the latter of whom made his name by printing the gossip Guinan fed him). And there’s a host of amusing stories of Prohibition evasion, much of it tolerated, enabled, or even run by the very folks who were supposed to be enforcing the silly, misguided Volstead Act. My main complaint with the book, though, is that we never seem to get enough of any of these things. The stories are all short, which keeps the book moving, but misses opportunities to add color to its pages with details on the eccentric characters or the devious/comical events that were planned at or took place in the American bar.

Next up: I just finished Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, a book Alton Brown recommended twice on podcasts earlier this year, and have begun John Williams’ western novel Butcher’s Crossing.