No movie reviews today, so I’m going to do away with the customary star ratings that I usually attach to things, since I’m even worse at reviewing non-movie media than I am at reviewing movies.

The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

The Hunter is the source material for a couple of films: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson. I haven’t seen the former, but signs point to it being perhaps closer in spirit to the novel by Westlake, which is written in brutally efficient prose that doesn’t waste a word.

In a way, Westlake, writing as Stark, employs a style that is sort of like the way a child would write a book if he were a professional author. It’s full of phrases in the vein of, “Parker thought about his stolen money and he got mad. Then he thought about how he was going to kill Resnick, and that made him happy.” For the record, that’s not an actual line in the book, but it’s the sensibility of the language.

Obviously, the book is written that way for effect, since that sort of vocabulary characterizes the main character, Parker, who is a singularly driven thug and not at all a nice guy. A pretty creepy persona, to be sure. Westlake doesn’t seem to want you to root for him, and in fact, you won’t be rooting for him. He’s an interesting protagonist in this way, despite being about as deep as a puddle of water.

Anyway, if you’ve seen either of those movies, you know the story, and I’m going to assume anybody reading this has seen at least one of those movies.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

For my birthday, I got a Kindle knowing full well that it’s a luxury at best–but birthdays are good opportunities for indulging in luxuries. I love reading on it, and I knew I had access to a good selection of public domain titles, as well as e-books through the library, so I figured, why not? A Connecticut Yankee is one of those afore-mentioned public domain titles, and I had always been curious to read it if only because I’m a fan of time travel stories in any form.

To be sure, this isn’t speculative science fiction. I was going to make a joke about this being the novelization of the Martin Lawrence film Black Knight, but then I didn’t. But anyway, the mode of travel into the past is the same as in that film (which actually was inspired by Connecticut Yankee, I think)–a blow to the head and a character from the modern day finds himself body and soul in the England of King Arthur.

I wound up enjoying this novel quite a lot. It’s a burlesque, so the characters are not portrayed romantically. At all. Merlin, for example, is just some insane (if cunning) hermit who believes in his own mythology, the Knights of the Round Table are all just useless brutes, and King Arthur, himself, is a mental midget short on redeeming virtues. Nominally, the story follows the Yankee’s attempt to purge Arthur’s Britain of the false ideal of knight-errantry, but what I really enjoyed were the protagonist’s interactions with the sundry characters living in the kingdom, and how they all so thoroughly buy into their context, and how ridiculous it all looks to a free-thinking modern man from a democratic nation.

If I can get all political for a moment, this satire is still cutting even in the world today when you look at, for example, the recent riots in Egypt over this film that apparently nobody has even seen. The calls for the film’s director to be imprisoned, made an example of, the fact that Americans are being killed because of the freedom of expression allowed in our country.

The irony of this in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring is that it’s obvious these nations, which continue to lean heavily on theocracy as a basis for governance, will for a long time be plagued by prominent groups of people–either organized or disorganized–who just don’t get freedom. Their brains have essentially been hardwired to not even be able to comprehend how somebody can (a) have an opinion that isn’t the shared opinion of the realm and (b) that holding such an opinion shouldn’t doom them to death or imprisonment just because certain people don’t like what he has to say.

Twain’s view seems to have been that something like a fundamental human morality exists, but that it too easily gets perverted by the state, religion, superstition, or generally the will of flawed men. Some things never change.

It would be interesting to read a book like this written by a person living a thousand years from now. Moving on to music…

The Color Spectrum (2011) by The Dear Hunter

I recently downloaded Spotify, and I have no idea why I didn’t do this sooner. It’s pretty much the best thing ever. I’ve listened to more music in the past week than I have in the past five years previous. What I’ve been doing is just going down the list of well-reviewed albums at I’ll give almost anything a shot except for heavy metal.

On this topic, something I’ve discovered is that I trust user reviews a lot more than I trust the reviews of professional critics. It’s obvious to me that what paid reviewers look for in music is not necessarily what I look for. To be sure, the aggregate user ratings and the aggregate professional ratings are not often very far off, but if the critics give an album a combined score of 75 and the users give it a 95, it’s a sure thing I’m going to like it more than an album for which those scores are reversed. Anyway, this has nothing to do with the album I’m about to review.

The Color Spectrum is the sort of album I would have never in a million years have had the chance to hear if not for Spotify. And it’s a damn shame, because this is an amazing work of art. There are actually two versions of this album. One has a mere 11 tracks, and it’s the version I listened to first. Then there’s an expanded version that has 36 tracks, and I’m not even going to wager a guess at what that clocks in at for playtime, because the tracks are not trite little radio-friendly ditties that are over just as you’re getting into them. I’ve listened to the expanded album twice already.

What I love about it is that as the album proceeds through colors from black to red to orange to yellow, etc., the tone of the tracks just shifts organically from one end of the spectrum to the next. It’s a vastly diverse collection of music and you get it all in a single package. But more impressive to me is how well written the songs are. I’m not sure you’re going to find yourself necessarily singing them around the house, but any single track is catchy in its way, and nothing feels like a throwaway.

I mean, it’s not the sort of album I’d recommend to my mom, but it’s one of my favorite albums of the past few years.

Swing Lo Magellan (2012) by the Dirty Projectors

So inventive. I sort of see this as a quintessential Indie album in that it’s not attempting to be mainstream at all, but rather is pushing the boundaries of traditional sounds, melody, and musical phrasing, but building around a core of evident knowledge about song writing and structure.  I wish I knew enough about music to better explain why I think Swing Lo Magellan is so good. But it is. I think that if you’re a fan of the genre, you probably owe it to yourself to at least give it a listen.

Transference (2010) by Spoon

I guess I’m a little late to the party on this one. This is a truly great collection of songs that aren’t at all catchy. It’s almost as if Spoon set out to create an album that couldn’t be used on the radio at all. That’s not a criticism. I’ve listened to it twice in the past week. I simply couldn’t really tell you a single song that’s on it. Compared with something like their Gimme Fiction album, which was instantly memorable on almost every track, it feels a little like a departure. But then again, maybe Gimme Fiction was really the departure.

Sainthood (2009) by Tegan and Sara

Here’s one of those albums where there’s a divergence between the critical score (78) and the user score (9.0) on Metacritic. I’m more in line with the users. I’m not sure what it is about these two women, but over the course of three albums (The Con, So Jealous, Sainthood), they haven’t done wrong by me. They’re good song writers and there’s an interesting quality to their voices.

And I’ll end it there for today. I’ve wasted enough time writing about this stuff.