Just Finished Reading: Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. A collection of short tales based on legends and folktales he heard when visiting the Alhambra, and some account of his stay there. Not as good as the stuff in The Sketch Book, but still good. There were plenty of enchantments, ghosts, and sorcerers, and the Seal of Solomon even, but I was hoping for some familiar spirits too. I especially liked how some of the legends had a persistent presence through the book, being referenced in other legends.
Now Reading: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson. I’ve read her short-story collection The Lottery, which is brilliant and horrifying, but this is the first of her novels for me. I’m about halfway through it, and it's fantastic. The main characters are all so appalling. It’s starting off very darkly funny, surreal, and disorienting, amped up by its in media res presentation, all of which are things that I love, love, love in my fiction.
On High Rotation: Combinations by Eisley. This is their second LP-length recording (with two or three EPs before that), and they’ve still got it. So beautiful that it hurts a little, as always. The arrangements show a marked improvement in terms of complexity over their previous stuff, and I’m really glad to hear the overdriven guitars return after their complete absence on Room Noises. The mandolin and classical guitars on “Come Clean” were a pleasant surprise, as was the harpsichord on “Combinations.” Also, the trend continues: Stacy and Sherri Dupree, the singers, are increasingly hard to tell apart by their voices. They’ve always harmonized as if it were as easy as breathing, but now they blend together almost seamlessly; it’s like listening to one person sing two parts at the same time.
As a fan of Sherri’s fascinating and charming ink work, I’m really glad to see it being used on the cover. She’s got a very unique style that looks sort of like Art Deco mixed with Surrealism (I know that sounds contradictory), and I can’t get enough of it.
Lyrically, there’s not as much of the fantastical stuff (like “With lightbulbs in our pockets, we’ll light the darkened forest” or “When the morning came, the bees flew down and wrapped themselves around me. And that’s when I spoke the word to have them trace your face for me in pollen”) that I love to hear from them, all though there’s a few lines that have that ring.
Also Some Other Music: The Serpent’s Egg, Into the Labyrinth, and A Passage in Time by Dead Can Dance. I picked these up at the pawnshop on a recommendation from a friend. I haven’t listened to Into the Labyrinth yet, but their work seems to be a blend of Medieval (both secular and sacred) and Near East styles (“vocabularies” is a better word for it), with 1980s production values (lots and lots of digital reverb). Lisa Gerrard has a fantastic voice (although I’d like it better without the reverb), but I just don’t care for most of the compositions. They’re not bad, it’s just that, with the exception of motets and madrigals, I don’t care for Medieval sacred music (too simple), and most of the stuff on these CDs that doesn’t sound like Medieval plainchant is very, very minimalist. There is, however, a piece on A Passage in Time called “Saltarello” that I really enjoy, in a Medieval secular (pagan, even) style with what sounds like it might actually be a shaum or musette (early double-reed instruments). It might be synthesized, though; with the production being so heavy on digital reverb, it’s hard to tell. “Cantara” is also pretty good once it gets going.
Now, so I’m not misunderstood, minimalism means a different thing in music than it does in art, no matter how much the White Stripes try to tell you otherwise. In music, it refers to the use of short, repeating, hypnotic patterns. I’m not against it as a technique – I use it myself, from time to time. But when I do it, I complement it with improvised, textural passages that never repeat. Dead Can Dance use minimalism by itself, and there’s just not enough going on for my tastes. Even when it’s layered (and it usually is on these discs), I grasp the passage within the first two or three repetitions, and from that point on there’s no reward for active listening.
I’ve also recently picked up Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV Volume 2: No World for Tomorrow by Coheed and Cambria. It’s not as good as Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV Volume 1: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness, but it’s still good. (Yes, I find it necessary to write out the full titles. I like how absurdly long they are.) I love most of the artwork in it, especially the big piece that the case folds out into, with all its bursting planets, ascending Prise, giant robot, hell yeah. So wonderfully melodramatic, operatic, geeky, and metal.