nowReading: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

I first mentioned this book in a post I wrote about good titles. To summarize the relevance: In the back of some magazine or another, I found a review for a book called The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. It’s not unusual for me to be captured by a good story, but just by the title? That was new to me. I learned this book was a sequel to a book with an equally captivating title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The story could be about anything, it could take me anywhere. I had to pick it up.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and I suppose the same should be said for its title, no matter how magical, captivating, awe-inspiring. Fortunately, from the first page, the story is as captivating as its title. Nearly every line is full of magic and wit, nearly every scene is crafted as a vehicle to propel the story forward. This is one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read.

It isn’t without its flaws. September, our twelve-year-old heroine, doesn’t sound like a twelve-year-old girl from World War II-era Nebraska. She sounds like a young woman from England, to be honest. Well-read or not, she seems much older than she actually is, except for her naivety. This is a small caveat, and one that is easily overlooked.

I was slightly disappointed by the near irrelevance of the title I fell head-over-heels for. After several chapters of pure magic and heart, it’s a little disappointing to find that the titular ship of her own making takes all of a paragraph to make, and isn’t really a ship at all. The circumnavigating also takes only a few pages, and compared to the events before and after it, comes across a little threadbare. However, this is also easily overlooked, as it almost seems like a joke played by the author; the same kind of trickery the inhabitants of Fairyland often pull on September.

I found the cast wonderful. September is likable without being overtly good, almost inhumanly flawless, as some heroes and heroines are. A-Through-L is a fantastic companion, and even meek Saturday, who is barely present, plays a large enough role to stand out. Some characters are also found where you wouldn’t expect them. Sometimes they’re inanimate objects, and not even magical ones. A certain green sweater plays a prominent role in the book, despite September’s inability to interact with it in any traditional way.

Perhaps my favorite character, though, is The Marquess. She’s this book’s Queen of Narnia, or Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts. The Marquess is, however, far more interesting. She’s frightening but oddly charming, and where Catherynne M. Valente could’ve given us a carbon-copy “pure evil” villain, she instead crafts a character who is human, tragic, and more deserving of this story.

At its heart, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a children’s story, and the kind we need more of. It’s important for children to grow up seeing the world not in black and white, but shades of gray; not as good and evil, but as different viewpoints. This isn’t to say that nobody is ever right or wrong, just that right and wrong sometimes take an adventure to come to. Valente treads a path set before her by the likes of Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, and Hayao Miyazaki, but still carves out her own place, her own reason for being in it. (While I’m here, I’ll mention that this book would make a fantastic Studio Ghibli film.)

I had so much fun reading this. Books like this are what made me want to write in the first place: A wonderful, magical story from the first page to the last, and beyond the back cover.

NowPlaying: Outlast

All screenshots were taken by me from the Playstation 4 version of Outlast, and may contain graphic imagery.

I have a long history with the horror genre. Nearly all of the short stories I wrote as a teenager were horror stories. I loved horror films as well, and it’s no surprise that my fondness for the genre eventually extended to video games.

It started with Resident Evil, as it probably should have. I bought Resident Evil and Resident Evil Zero for the GameCube, in time to play through them before the then-impending release of Resident Evil 4 (which I still consider one of the greatest video games ever made). Eventually I’d move on to other genre classics like the Silent Hill series, Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, you name it.

I think the horror genre works particularly well in the world of video games. The added layer of interactivity video games provide gives you a sense of peril not possible in film or literature. It’s not impossible for a book to be frightening (I can easily refer you to House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and the short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” by Ursula K. Le Guin) and you’re even more likely to find a frightening film, but video games have an innate ability to hit the fear sweet spot.

I grew up on survival horror video games, but the last few years have yielded a drought for the genre. Resident Evil is more about action now (and I liked Resident Evil 5 and I liked Resident Evil 6 even more, but the horror element is barely present). Silent Hill sees few releases these days, but the series has gone more or less the same way, and while Dead Space 3 tried to strike a balance between action and horror, it mostly abandons all attempts at fear after the first third of the game.

I must not be alone in my yearning for the survival horror classics of the past, because indie developers have stepped up to fill the void most major publishers seem to be ignoring. Games like Slender, Underhell, and Amnesia bring a lot to the table and prove survival horror is alive and well, but my favorite slice of this indie survival horror pie has to be Outlast.


The Blair Witch Project didn’t invent the found footage genre, but it did propel it into the mainstream. A few attempts have been made to translate it into video games, but Outlast does it the best. You play as Miles Upshur, a reporter who receives an anonymous tip about atrocities being committed at Mount Massive Asylum. Armed only with his video camera, Miles breaks into the asylum. The video camera plays an integral role in Outlast, being Miles’s only ally within the walls of Mount Massive.

The anonymous tipster wasn’t joking, and Miles immediately becomes trapped in Mount Massive, wandering the dark and bloodied hallways, using the camera’s night vision mode to navigate dark corridors and sneak around pursuing enemies. Night vision isn’t unlimited, and Miles must keep a stock of batteries to power it as he tries to record the events unfolding in the asylum, or just find a way out.

A few survival horror games put you in the role of a defenseless protagonist, relying on stealth and running away rather than confronting enemies head-on. Outlast is interesting in that not everyone in the asylum is trying to kill you–some of the inmates will actually aid you, some will ignore you, and some will aid, ignore, or attack you depending on their mood.

Outlast Locker
Outlast features no playable combat, forcing you to rely on stealth and hiding to avoid enemies.

There are no ghosts or monsters in Mount Massive, only mentally disturbed people. While some have an inherent propensity for violence, others only mistake Miles for another “doctor” arriving to further torment them. This human aspect permeates the game, and even extends to Outlast’s primary antagonist, Chris Walker.

Walker is an ex-marine committed to the asylum long before Miles’s arrival. Easily the largest inmate, Chris stalks the halls grunting about completing his mission, rattling his chains, breaking down doors, and occasionally ripping off people’s heads. He has a particular interest in Miles Upshur, and if he catches you with low enough health, it’s an immediate game over.

Chris Walker
Protagonist Miles Upshur tries in vain to defend himself against Chris Walker.

Other characters (like Father Martin, Doctor Trager, and the twins) give the game a sense of personality. They’re well-written, oddly charming, and create lingering presences that keep you on your toes throughout your stay at Mount Massive.

The story behind the events at the asylum unfold through documents and in-game dialogue and graffiti, all pointing Miles toward one thing: The Walrider. I won’t spoil what the Walrider is, other than it’s the one inhuman thing in Mount Massive, and Miles will eventually come face-to-face with it.

A lot of the game’s events are scripted, and the layout and level design are genius. While you’re rarely not in control of the protagonist, the building is designed to make sure you’re looking at the right places at the right times to see exactly what you need to to progress the story, or just to frighten you.

Outlast had me on the edge of my seat, but the game’s ending left a lot to be desired. My largest gripe with the horror genre is the way many works end. Often they’re predictable, ambiguously grim, and usually avoidable scenarios that feel more like the writing team checked out early than actually sat down to wrap up the story they created. Outlast was no exception to this rule. At least, not until Whistleblower.

Outlast: Whistleblower

Outlast: Whistleblower is a DLC prequel/interquel/sequel to the main game. In it you play as Waylon Park, the anonymous tipster who first alerted Miles Upshur to the events at Mount Massive. The two stories heavily intertwine, which is apparent from the beginning: Your first objective as Waylon Park is to send the email Miles Upshur receives in the main game.

While it starts earlier than Outlast, Whistleblower is meant to be played after. As Waylon Park, you’ll experience echoes of Miles Upshur’s actions throughout the game, which leads to several Easter eggs and clever encounters with old enemies and allies.

Waylon Park prepares to send an email that will change his life--and Miles Upshur's--forever.
Waylon Park prepares to send an email that will change his life—and Miles Upshur’s—forever.

Whistleblower doesn’t rely entirely on the old, however. The DLC introduces new characters equally as creative and frightening as the ones found in Outlast. Dennis, Frank Manera, and Eddie Gluskin almost make you wish you were being hunted by the twins or Doctor Trager again.

Outlast and Whisteblower touch on the “body horror” subgenre made popular by works such as Alien, The Thing, and Dead Space. As far as subgenres go, body horror is one of my favorites. When you can all but feel what’s happening on the screen, the horror becomes more visceral, more effective. Again, I don’t want to ruin the fun, but neither Miles Upshur nor Waylon Park will emerge from their time at Mount Massive entirely intact.

Outlast Operating Table
Inmate Eddie Gluskin’s operating table.

Whistleblower is a much shorter experience than Outlast (my first playthrough of the main game took almost seven hours, while Whistleblower hovered around two) but it remedies all of my qualms with the game’s ending.

Both Outlast and Whistleblower come with a layer of social commentary (the former on mental health and treatment of those suffering from disorders, the latter on the titular concept of whistleblowing) but it never gets in the way of the game’s main intention: Telling a story. A very disturbing, frightening, and totally fun story.

The team at Red Barrels consists mostly of former employees of Ubisoft and Naughty Dog, and proves that a game doesn’t need a huge budget or a large studio to be as good as the $60 discs you’ll find on store shelves. Outlast is a lot of fun and one of the best survival horror experiences I’m aware of. I’m excited to see what else the studio has to offer, not to mention any future entries they might have in the Outlast vein.

The halls of Mount Massive are difficult to escape, but I can't help but hope Red Barrels will one day let us back in.
The halls of Mount Massive are difficult to escape, but I can’t help but hope Red Barrels will one day let us back in.

nowListening: Cope by Manchester Orchestra

My favorite band is Brand New. I have a list of reasons far too long for this blog post, but one of them is their tendency to introduce me to other great bands, through covers, tours, or the occasional “This song is called ‘Go See Explosions in the Sky.'”

One of Brand New’s most famous tours was a series of shows they played with Manchester Orchestra and Kevin Devine. You can find some high-quality videos from this tour on YouTube, and I recommend doing so. All three artists and their opening acts gave fantastic performances.

Kevin Devine and members of Brand New and Manchester Orchestra covering “Holland, 1945” by Neutral Milk Hotel, another of my favorite bands.

That’s how Manchester Orchestra appeared on my radar. Eventually I would hear their song “Wolves at Night” on the radio. I thought it was okay, but my second radio experience with Manchester Orchestra fared much better: It was the song “Shake it Out”, and from then I was hooked. Fast-paced guitars and explosive vocals culminate in a noisy but still melodic refrain, before the song suddenly drops into a quasi-acoustic, quiet interlude:

I felt the Lord begin
To peel off all my skin.
And I felt the weight within,
Reveal the bigger mess
That you can’t fix.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Shake it Out”

The loud-quiet-loud structure of the song reminded me of something off of Brand New’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and not long after, the band released the title track of their then-upcoming album Simple Math for free. It was another quiet-loud-quiet introspective song, so I picked up a copy of Simple Math (and went back and bought Mean Everything to Nothing and I’m Like a Virgin Losing a Child as well).

The three albums (four if you count the unreleased Nobody Sings Anymore, which I do, since “Slow to Learn” and “Girl With Broken Wings” are some of my favorite songs) were enough to cement Manchester Orchestra as one of my favorite bands. Between Andy Hull’s angelic voice (and legendary beard; you have to mention the beard), drums that aren’t afraid to leave the hi-hat and snare, bass you can actually hear, guitars that get noisy but never reduce themselves to noise, and Chris Freeman playing like a dozen instruments at the same time, the band has everything I love about music.

The wait for new material after Simple Math was a long one. Now and then a new song came up during a live performance, and the band released a handful of singles, but after two years, Manchester Orchestra played a set featuring several new songs. For a few months nothing else happened release-wise, and during a show Andy Hull even joked that their new album was “apparently never coming out.”

Thankfully, their new album did eventually come out, incidentally enough, on April 1st.


The first thing I noticed about the album was that I wasn’t fond of its artwork. While I’ve since come to accept it, at first it struck me as bland, almost lazy. That’s a superficial part of what makes an album, though, and didn’t deter me from pre-ordering the album, much less listening to it as soon as it arrived.

I was already familiar with the opening track, “Top Notch”, as the band released it on the internet months before the album’s release. The song sets the tone for the album to follow: Loud and angry. Where Simple Math gave way to orchestral instruments like strings and horns, “Top Notch”, like many of the songs on Cope, instead offers flavoring with sporadic guitar shreds. Lyrically, the song is classic Manchester Orchestra, blending storytelling and metaphor into a message that is cryptic but oddly relatable.

So the first kid says in his temporal tone,
“I don’t think there’s a way to resolve it.
We should wrap up these towels around our blistering palms,
And wait it out in the closet.”
His brother looks him up and down and prophesies how all of it should end,
He says, “We’re buried underneath the yard, and no one ever listens.
Or visits.”

—Manchester Orchestra, “Top Notch”

Before “Top Notch” has a chance to exit the stage, “Choose You” comes in with feedback leading to a fast-paced chorus of guitars, eventually giving way to one of my favorite opening lines on the record: “The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck. I tried to find out who I was by jumping off the deck.” This song is more upbeat than “Top Notch”, but just as loud and angry, and many of the songs on Cope will follow its example.

The third track, “Girl Harbor”, quickly became one of my favorite Manchester Orchestra songs. One of the band’s signatures is their ability to be loud without sacrificing melody. I’ve touched on this already, but “Girl Harbor” is one of the best examples of this talent. Andy Hull’s brutal but somehow not unkind honesty shines in the song’s lyrics.

You always talk so loud,
And you never notice.
I don’t mind the sound, but you
Have re-arranged the pieces of your life
So many times, you’ve burned out the parts.

I don’t want to believe, but I want to believe you.
I don’t mean what I say, but I say what I mean to.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Girl Harbor”

Following this is “The Mansion”. One of Manchester Orchestra’s greatest influences is Built to Spill, and this song makes it easy to tell. I’m a sucker for songs with palm-muted verses that explode when they get to the chorus, and the trippy lead guitar and catchy chorus made this the first song from the album to get stuck in my head.

“The Ocean” is another great example of the angry-but-upbeat tone embedded in Cope, and the following track, “Every Stone”, is almost like the other side of the same coin. I don’t know what it is, but the two songs strike me as being related to each other. Where “The Ocean” is more flat and angry, “Every Stone” is calmer and more melodic, and both songs touch on the subject of letting things go.

That boat will not float,
It’s the last in its class, I’m the first one to know.
That bed is never made,
I’m the last of my kind, fucking tricked by my training.
I, I’ll give it to the ocean.

—Manchester Orchestra, “The Ocean”


You might just miss the mark
If you’re keeping everyone away
You didn’t mean to, you didn’t want to.
Well it might just leave a mark
If you don’t give anyone a say
You never want to, you never mean to.
Every stone I’ve thrown has gone away, it’s gone away,
It’s gone away.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Every Stone”

“All That I Really Wanted” is another showcase of that brutal honesty I mentioned before, while “Trees” almost feels like an epilogue to it. “Trees” has some cool moments, but I don’t love either song. I feel bad writing that, because Manchester Orchestra’s songs have a habit of creeping up on me and becoming favorites out of nowhere, so I can’t exactly set an opinion in stone, but for now I find the two underwhelming.

“Indentions” offers a welcome change of pace. It’s another fast favorite of mine. The bass and keyboards stand out on this one, the second verse has a really cool pre-echo effect on the vocals, and the last chorus is followed by a brief but very cool electric guitar riff. The chorus is simple but powerful: “I won’t leave indentions of me. I won’t leave intentionally.”

“See it Again” is probably the most unique track on the album. It starts off dark, with a faint vocal chorus to accompany heavy drums and a palm-muted guitar track, and the lyrics offer another storytelling session. This one isn’t so cryptic; the song deals with the narrator losing someone he cares about. The verses take us from the narrator’s front door before his loss, to uncertainty in a hospital waiting room, to deciding what does and doesn’t matter in life once he gets to the morgue.

Every Manchester Orchestra record contains at least one song that conjures a vivid depiction of some stage of death and grief. “See it Again” takes on this task for Cope, and it does a fantastic job.

The album closes with the title track, “Cope”. It’s another of those loud-quiet-loud songs I like. “Cope” is one of Manchester Orchestra’s shortest closers (“Colly Strings” and “The River” clock in at almost 6 minutes each, and “Leaky Breaks” ends up over 7) but it’s one of their strongest, in my opinion.

If I do echo, I hope you never see
There is no one there who’s waiting after me.
And I hope if there is one thing I let go,
It is the way that we cope.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Cope”

All of Manchester Orchestra’s albums have a unique sound, but Cope exists on an entirely separate plane. Sometimes, the album reminds me of the cover: Plain in black and white. There isn’t a lot of color here, but somehow, the band made it work, and with a few exceptions, each song becomes its own entity and stands out. Cope isn’t the album I asked for and it certainly isn’t the album I expected, but it’s one I welcome gladly.

All lyrics and the album artwork belong to Manchester Orchestra, not me.

nowListening: Rooms of the House by La Dispute

All songs and lyrics belong to La Dispute, not me. I’m just here to share my own interpretation of and experience with them.

This isn’t meant to be a review per se, it’s meant to be an analysis. It gets personal at the end. I’m not trying to bum anyone out or make anyone worry about me; I’m generally a happy person. My intention is to share why this album is so close to me, especially in those moments when I’m not.

The more avid readers of my blog will recall I recently wrote a post about La Dispute’s 2011 album Wildlife. At the end of that post, I linked to the band’s YouTube, where they had posted the first single from their newest album. I had listened to it once or twice, but only casually. I prefer to take my La Dispute albums in their entirety.

Rooms of the House by La Dispute

Rooms of the House hasn’t been out long, but I’ve given it enough thorough listens to write my thoughts on it. Sometimes these came in the middle of sleepless nights, sitting awake and listening to the album. Sometimes it was on the band’s YouTube page, where they’ve provided every song, complete with lyrics, in a seamless playlist. Once, I lay on my back during a panic attack and listened as I felt my heart rate increase and my breaths fall short for no readily apparent reason. And, of course, I gave it several listens while walking, either on the treadmill or around town.

The first thing I noticed about the album is that it’s shorter than their previous releases. Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair consists of 13 tracks totaling 52 minutes. Wildlife upped the number of tracks to 14 and clocks in at 58 minutes. Rooms of the House, on the other hand, contains only 11 tracks, and rests at 42 minutes.

At first I was worried that I might not be in for the same kind of intense roller coaster ride of a narrative the band usually puts out, but I pushed these thoughts aside. It’s not the length of a work that matters, but the impact it has on you. I wanted to be free of any preconceived notions when I listened to the album as a whole.

It’s immediately clear why this record is shorter than their past LPs. From the first second of the opening track, “HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”, you can tell the band is much more focused, almost more frantic, like they’re dying to get their sound out and do it now.

“HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”, the opening track of La Dispute’s Rooms of the House.

The opening track tells the story of a couple who are temporarily split up. A woman takes her son to her parents’ house in Terre Haute, Indiana, while her husband stays in Hudsonville, Michigan, until his week-long shift at the furniture mill ends and he can join them. Instead, a storm rocks both cities, knocking out the phone lines and leaving both parties unable to contact each other.

The song intensifies as its thematic storm does, sounding more frantic and chaotic as the narrative progresses. One of my favorite moments on the whole album comes when the storm has passed and the couple finally get into contact with each other, yet the song doesn’t calm down, instead escalating to new heights, and we catch a glimpse of a much more dangerous, internal storm our characters are weathering:

I remember those nights I couldn’t get through to you when
Quiet storms came, rattled the window panes
I couldn’t keep a thing the same way
When the storm blew in, and the furniture rearranged
I could see lightning there,
And a funnel cloud.
And your mother said,
“I swear I saw lightning in your eyes
When that call got through to the other side.”

—La Dispute, “HUDSONVILLE, MI 1956”

After this, we reach the calm after the storm. The song drops in volume and tempo, slowing to a crawl while vocalist Jordan Dreyer reads off the lyrics more like a list than a song, reflecting tattered thoughts, both profound and inconsequential things that cross one’s mind after an internal conflict, like leaves and branches scattered after a heavy storm: “Wires snap. Metal gets twisted. There’s the rattle of the window glass bending in. Take the kids down. Terre Haute. Coffee. Thanksgiving. Stay calm. Keep down…” While the music and the vocals drift apart and settle into discordant remnants of the song, we’re given the final line: “There are moments of collapse.”

These moments of collapse, that internal storm and separation itself serve as repeating themes on the record. I’m not sure if Rooms of the House is meant to be a concept album in the strictest sense, but there is a heavy theme: These songs all serve as rooms of a house, they all serve as pieces of a whole that can be something or nothing, depending on how they’re filled.

The next track is called “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice” and tells the story of two people who go for a walk on a frozen lake. Our narrator is distracted by his everyday problems (“Had I cut my hair short? Had I grown my beard out long? … There’s a leak in the basement, stupid permanent estrangement, casement windows need glazing, hinges and arms need to be replaced.”). These problems disappear for a moment when the ice collapses below him, resulting in a brush with death.

“Don’t panic” I could hear you
Saying as I fell through
Blackness complete down,
Waiting until my feet touched ground.
At the bottom, they finally did
First reaction was “This is it.”
Next thought was “Just stay calm,
Kick up and save your phone.”

—La Dispute, “First Reactions After Falling Through the Ice”

Despite being one of the band’s shortest songs, “First Reactions” is one of their more vivid pieces. Imagery doesn’t always work in songs, but here it becomes personal; we hear first-hand the narrator’s plight, the everyday things still eating at him even at the bottom of a lake, the panic and the bargaining that accompany a moment of fright.

After this comes a change in pace. “Woman (in mirror)” is a quiet, slow tune, and one of the support beams that holds this metaphoric house together. The narrator begins by explaining the house: “Where a bookshelf goes, or a throw rug, how you shape any common space, and the language you make out of looks and names, all the motions of ordinary love.” The bookshelf mentioned here is a prominent symbol on the record. It’s as the first track says: “There is history in the rooms of the house.” Objects like this make up part of the history currently being laid out by our main characters.

In this song, our narrator watches his wife get dressed for a dinner party. It seems like a simple action, but the band expands it into an entire song, and not without reason. There are hints of trouble for the characters involved, but on the whole the song represents one moment.

And I watch you, your reversal
It’s an honest thing when there’s no one there.
Some days, they feel like dress rehearsals,
Some days I watch, and you don’t care.
There’s a dinner, Thanksgiving
Dress up nice, make a dish to bring
There are moments here, only yours and mine,
Tiny dots on an endless timeline.

—La Dispute, “Woman (in mirror)”

One of the song’s final lines is perhaps the most important to its narrative: “The smallest sounds leave the clearest echoes.” The song fades away soon after this, but later on in Rooms of the House, we’ll find out what it means.

“SCENES FROM HIGHWAYS 1981-2009” is a song about people driving away from their problems. This isn’t a new topic in the world of music (this song even mentions a few classics like “Born to Run” and “Running on Empty”). La Dispute takes the song down a different path than some of their predecessors; what we’re given is the story of people trying to drive away, but always returning home in the end.

“For Mayor in Splitsville” follows this by setting up jokes about how much of a pain marriage can be. Our narrator is reflecting on this while he considers his own marriage. He and his wife have just returned from their road trip, unable to drive away from their problems and ending up back home. They make promises to change their lives and their living space, but this does little to help: “But I guess in the end, we just moved furniture around.”

After this is the song “35”. Our narrator is sitting up late one night when the news comes on the television. A bridge has collapsed, cars have fallen into the river, and a rescue is underway. Our narrator enters a dreamlike state; he feels sorrow for the people involved in the accident, and by the next morning, he feels like his life is a bridge that collapsed under him, and wonders if he can still kick out the window and swim to safety.

This is followed by “Stay Happy There”. Here our narrator imagines parallel universes in which he ended up happy. He sees images of a world in which the bridge in “35” didn’t collapse, visions of him and his wife talking through their problems, living on a coast instead of the Midwest. He also imagines other, less hopeful ones: “Somewhere I’m up past dawn, until / Somewhere you live here still / Somewhere you’re already gone.” Meanwhile, all the things he and his wife have filled their house with, all of the things that carry history weigh heavily on him: “Doesn’t it seem a bit wasteful to you, to throw away all of the time we spent perfecting our love in close quarters and confines?”

Following this is another of these objects that carry history. “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963” begins and ends with a lamp, and the story in between is one of a group of young girls who come home from school one day to find their parents sitting at a table, with a shoebox full of things that would have belonged to their youngest sister, had she survived her birth. The girls are perhaps too young to understand exactly what happened, but they understand very well the weight and sadness their parents are experiencing, so heavy that both parents refuse to ever say the child’s name.

You watched while Father held her,
Said, “Some things come, but can’t stay here.”
You saw a brightness,
Like a light through your eyes closed tight,
Then she tumbled away.
From here, someplace
To remain in the nighttime shadows she made
To be an absence in Mom, a sadness hanging over her
Like some Pentecostal flame
Drifting on and off.
She was “sister,”
Only whispered.
Sometimes “her”
Or “the child we lost.”

—La Dispute, “THE CHILD WE LOST 1963”

Next is “Woman (reading)”. The title hearkens back to “Woman (in mirror)”, and this is no coincidence. In the latter, our narrator was watching his wife put makeup on in her mirror. “Woman (reading)” is set later, when the end of their marriage is all but imminent, and our narrator sits in his office struggling to write, instead watching his wife reading in the other room.

“Woman (reading)” by La Dispute.

I could probably write a blog post the entire length of this one just about this song. From the first listen, it became one of my favorite songs. I’ll only go into detail on a few of the reasons.

There’s a clear contrast between both “Woman” songs. In “(in mirror)” the titular woman is putting makeup on. She’s getting dressed up to leave. She and her husband are going to a dinner party. They appear content, but it’s only an appearance. The cracks are present, but the characters have put makeup over it. In “(reading)”, there’s no more illusion. Things didn’t work. But we’re given another tiny dot on this endless timeline, and our narrator gets a final look at his wife, not dressing up or putting makeup on, but sitting and reading. This is who she really is, and he’s trying to figure her out, knowing it’s too late. She’s aware he’s watching, and that’s where our moment ends. Everything is out in the open: No makeup, just a woman reading, and a man unable to read her.

From here the song proceeds into the future, after they part ways.

And I pause where I am for a second when I hear your name
Sometimes I think I see your face in improbable places
Do those moments replay for you?
When I’m suddenly there, and then won’t go away
When you’re sitting in your living room
Reading for the afternoon
Do you put your book down, look and try to find me there?

—La Dispute, “Woman (reading)”

Our narrator reflects on how, together, they turned the house into a home. He goes over local landmarks, like a wine stain on the couch and scratches in the floor, sometimes not remembering whether he and his wife created them, or they were already there, and seeing history in them regardless.

Earlier we were presented with the line “The smallest sounds leave the clearest echoes.” It’s possible to see “Woman (in mirror)” as the smallest sound, and “Woman (reading)” as the echo it leaves.

“Extraordinary Dinner Party” moves forward in time. It’s the morning after a snowstorm, and our narrator digs his car out of the snow and goes to work. Throughout the day he sees images of all the stories told so far, reminders of the dinner party, the bookshelf, a man driving away from his problems. History has repeated itself, and our narrator has done nothing to stop it, as he says: “Because I was afraid to change. But that’s not an excuse to stay.”

The last few seconds of the track break the fourth wall. You can hear the band begin to practice the next track, mess up, and laugh it off before starting again. It provides a small bit of respite from the otherwise heavy record, a break from the weight of the previous songs, and the next one.

“Objects in Space” closes the album. Music accompanies a spoken-word poem; there’s no singing here, only speaking. Somewhere, at some time, our narrator gathers all of these things from around his house. He spends hours looking them over, thinking of their stories, and then trying to find something to do with them, somewhere to put them. Melancholy guitars guide us through the track, providing a chord progression to serve as the chorus, while the bass and the drums keep the song nailed down, serving as a structure for the narrator to weave through. This is one of the saddest songs I’ve ever heard. Defeat is audible in Jordan Dreyer’s voice, the guitars drip with resignation.

Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair begins with silence, an amp being turned on, and then a slow guitar progression. It ends with a similar song fading away. Wildlife begins with a distant, twangy guitar playing a tune for a while until the rest of the instruments come in, and ends with vocals fading away while the guitar drones on a few more times.

In contrast, Rooms of the House began with guitars and vocals in the first second of the record. I mentioned before that it’s shorter and more focused, and “Objects in Space” is no exception. We’re given our story, and then the record ends as promptly as it began. In terms of sound, there’s no lingering, no echo; just a tiny dot on an endless timeline.

My head is another story. The music bounces back and forth across my mind, the lyrics echo in the everyday things I see that remind me of my own tiny dots: My guitar on the wall, still missing its A string. The hat I made and never leave home without. Tickets to a concert I never went to. A letter someone wrote me (and I never wrote back). Figurines line every shelf of my desk, some of them found, some bought, some given as gifts, some I don’t like looking at. I have shelves full of books I’ve read, and boxes full of books I’ve written.

I’ve never lost someone to a stillbirth or a bridge collapse. I’ve never sat and watched a woman I love put makeup on, or sit and read. I’ve never driven down the highway to forget my problems, only to find them waiting on the porch when I get back. These are things I’ve experienced only vicariously through Rooms of the House, but there’s something cathartic about that. I wouldn’t know for sure, but maybe the guys in La Dispute have never walked home at four in the morning with a panic attack after telling someone you don’t love them. Maybe they’ve never stayed in a hotel after losing a house, then heard someone die in the next room over. Maybe they’ve never had nerve damage that calls into question whether they’ll ever write another word, let alone a song or a story or a book. I haven’t experienced what they have, and maybe they haven’t experienced what I have, but we all have our echoes to live with, and sometimes it’s nice to share them, to create a mutual understanding with another person. Sometimes it’s nice to listen to someone else’s echoes, and let them drown out your own for a while.

nowWatching: The Wind Rises

I hope the more avid fans of Miyazaki and anime will forgive me for using the English titles in this blog post; they come more naturally to me and, I assume, most of my readers.

The image that appears later in this post was taken from the Ghibli wiki at

Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite filmmakers and one of my biggest influences, not just in my writing, but in my philosophy. From the first time I watched Princess Mononoke, I was in love with the animation and storytelling. I’d never seen anything like it before. I still haven’t. Even the other Studio Ghibli films (all of which consist of unparalleled quality, and all of which I thoroughly enjoy) aren’t quite on the same plane as Miyazaki’s personally-directed projects. (Credit must be given to Isao Takahata, whose films come close, and special mention to Hiromasa Yonebayashi, whose film The Secret World of Arrietty is wonderful; as well as Gorō Miyazaki, who directed Tales From Earthsea, one of my least-favorite Ghibli films, then went on to direct From Up on Poppy Hill, one of my favorites.)

I don’t know that I had ever cared for fictional characters as much as I cared for the ones in Princess Mononoke. It was particularly interesting to me that I was not presented with a “bad guy”, but with a large cast of characters who happened to have conflicting agendas, and sometimes do bad things. Even one of the central characters, Ashitaka, has a momentary lapse in his otherwise peaceful, nonviolent nature: “If it would lift the curse, I’d let it tear you apart.” The film’s characters are more than believable, they are alive.

Spirited Away made a big splash in America, winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. This film is probably the best example of one of the things that makes Miyazaki’s films so enjoyable. Taking place in a bathhouse for spirits, you can watch the movie a hundred times, and every time, you’ll notice something new, some minuscule detail placed in the background or hiding within a few frames. Hundreds of spirits go about their daily lives, and when you watch the film you can piece together countless untold stories. The film is a snapshot of characters that, while fictional, never cease to be real.

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favorite Miyazaki films, and I bought Ponyo the day it came out on DVD. Despite all of this, I had never seen one of his movies in the theater until last night. I’m glad to have had the experience; The Wind Rises is currently slated to be his last.

Kaze Tachinu official movie poster. Image taken from nausicaa.netI’m not going to say a lot about the movie. One reason for this is that it just came out in America last night, and not a lot of people have had the opportunity to see it yet. The other reason is that I don’t believe I can adequately convey my experience in watching the film. For every time I laughed, every glint of light across an airplane’s wings, every flake of snow drifting into a young woman’s sleeping bag, every puff of smoke blown from a character’s cigarette, one thought kept coming back into my mind: This is the last one he’ll make.

Almost every film Hayao Miyazaki has directed features a scene where characters take flight. It’s only fitting that his last film carry the wind as a theme. More than this, the wind is an ever-present character in the movie. It appears in almost every scene, drifting smoke or curtains in the background, or carrying a parasol and changing a character’s life forever.  I think this speaks to Miyazaki’s talent: The wind is invisible, but that couldn’t stop him from making an animated movie about it.

I would like to see the film in its original Japanese someday, but I’m thankful for the care and talent put in by the English cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite actors, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better person to carry the film. John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Stanley Tucci, Martin Short, Werner Herzog, William H. Macy, and Mae Whitman round out the supporting cast, and each does a fantastic job giving a voice to Miyazaki’s wonderful characters. Sound designer Gary Rydstrom has done a fantastic job on the English adaptations of many Studio Ghibli films, and I’m thankful that such care is taken to bring the movies into a new language while keeping the story and interactions between characters intact.

I can’t describe the joy I would feel if Miyazaki were to again come out of retirement and announce a new film. It wouldn’t surprise me; some people never quit. They slow down, they take breaks, but they’re always working on something, there’s always another thing calling to them, begging to be shared with the world. Hayao Miyazaki strikes me as that type of person. But if it never happens, if The Wind Rises really is his last film, I can accept that. With a heavy heart but a smile on my face, I would understand and accept it.

nowListening: No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

All lyrics and songs belong to The Republic of Wolves, not me.

When I first heard The Republic of Wolves, I hated them.

To be clear, I didn’t have anything against their sound. I guess a slice of history is in order: The Republic of Wolves made the scene when several of their demos appeared on YouTube disguised as Brand New demos. Brand New is my favorite band, and when I found out it wasn’t them, I was disappointed in how shady the whole thing was. When the band came out and claimed the demos, they said it was a friend of theirs who posted them, without the band’s knowledge. That didn’t alleviate my disappointment.

I think deep down I was mostly upset that I wasn’t hearing new music by my favorite band. (I probably knew this anyway; the demos sounded very similar to Brand New, but “similar” is as close as it got.)

Despite my mostly forced aversion to the band, every now and then, echoes of the song “Cardinals” played in my head: “I think I found a better way to live, and I think I found a better way to die.” The lyrics were so simple, but said so much. I found myself returning to the song to see what else it had to offer. I found more to like: “I’ve been fitting myself into that small space, that you set out for the screaming of the wind, ’cause that is all I’ve ever been.”

“Cardinals”, by The Republic of Wolves, uploaded to YouTube by a fan.

The immature compulsion I felt to avoid the band eventually broke down, and one day, I used the last of an iTunes gift card to buy the band’s EP His Old Branches. I would come to love the songs “Cardinals”, “For His Old Branches”, and “The Clouds”, and eventually I picked up the rest of the band’s releases.

The band’s first full-length album, Varuna, solidified them as one of my favorite bands. From the haunting, selling-your-soul-themed “Sea Smoke” to the energetic “Oarsman”, the seven-minute-long epic “Monologues” to the lethargic, melody-driven “Pitch and Resin” and “Grounded, I Am Traveling Light”, some of my favorite songs come from this album. I hadn’t felt particularly moved by music in a long time, and Varuna helped change that. It’s impact on me is probably clear; in my novel In the Lone and Level Sands, two characters meet up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and travel across the country listening to music, and “Pitch and Resin” becomes their anthem. (I didn’t reprint any lyrics as that would infringe upon copyright, but it was and still is my hope that mentioning the song will inspire people to find it.)

The Republic of Wolves next released an EP called The Cartogropher, full of oceanic songs primarily sung by the band’s backing vocalist, which provided a fresh and interesting perspective on their music. Next came their second full-length, No Matter How Narrow, in which the band nails down a very new, more unique sound.

No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

From the opening track “Frozen Feet”, it’s clear that No Matter How Narrow sounds radically different from the band’s previous material. The introspective, cleverly crafted lyrics remain, but the vocal melodies and the music that accompanies them are much brighter and lighthearted compared to the often dark, serious tones carried in the band’s past work.

There’s a cold that I must catch,
Living well in all that I’ve said
And I feel it coming on,
Unless it’s all in my head.

But you were up at two A.M.
Figuring out what it meant:
That all those sins were really sicknesses,
And nobody’s to blame.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Frozen Feet”

“Stray(s)” comes in quieter and darker, with verses reminiscent of Coldplay. The chorus is much louder and led by backing vocalist Gregg Andrew Dellarocca (something I wish happened more often on the album; in past releases, he handled lead vocals on at least one song, but not this time around). After this is “Spare Key”, a more upbeat song with lyrics hearkening back to “Cardinals”.

The official video for “Spare Key”, from the band’s YouTube channel.

“Greenville, MO” is perhaps the most akin to the band’s former sound, with distant guitars accompanying a prominent bass and slow, droning vocals. This isn’t to say this song would belong on one of the band’s other works; two bridges heartily shouted by vocalist Mason Maggio sound like nothing the band has produced before.

“Pioneers” introduces itself with a loud, catchy chorus, then calms down long enough to deliver the precisely placed, cleverly woven lyrics I first fell in love with this band for.

Enough with the coronations,
There’s no one left who isn’t king of something arbitrary
That’s why I’m looking for a crown to pick apart,
We’re just collecting flies in jars, a reconquista in our yard
A war I never had to start.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Pioneers”

After this is one of my favorite songs on the album and from this band, “Keep Clean”. The song contains the energy and enthusiasm of past tunes like “Oarsman” and “The Dead Men Stood Together”, but is possibly the most upbeat track they’ve ever recorded. The talented Will Noon of Straylight Run and fun. fills in on drums for this song.

So we’re all ordaining ministers
Because we can’t keep, no we can’t keep clean.
We’ve been deferring to a hypocrite,
With a kind voice and a loud idea
He divided up the races with a pencil and the Book of Genesis
And sorted us into companies and colonies all pitted up against each other
No matter how, no matter how common is our cause.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Keep Clean”

Following this is “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, an experimental track with a lot of effects, which sounds like something that could easily go wrong, but is perfectly executed. At just over two minutes long, the tune doesn’t wear out its welcome, and culminates in one of my favorite moments on the album, a loud, multi-layered chorus that reminds me of some of my favorite songs from The Cartographer. This leads into “Turning Lane”, another fast-paced track that contains some of my favorite lead guitar work on the album.

Next is the moody, quasi-acoustic “Vinedresser”. This is another of my favorites, with lyrics drenched in metaphor, stopping only once to deliver a moment of clear, undisguised sincerity:

But I was a victim like you,
My shoplifted grace in hand.
How could you know me so well,
When I couldn’t know myself?

—The Republic of Wolves, “Vinedresser”

“Orange Empire” is probably the heaviest song on the album. With lyrics like “Now I’m barely blood and flesh, just an anatomic sketch, coming to find this may be as solid as we get”, the song is contemplative, if not angry, which makes for a very solid penultimate track.

The album closes with “Through Empty Vessels”, a melodic and honest reflection on two people who have had a falling out. This one hits close to home for me; the subject isn’t new to the world of music, but the stance it takes is a little more original. When two people fight, it’s almost never one person’s fault. Sometimes things just don’t work. I’ve tried to capture this in song before, but I don’t think I’ll ever do as good a job as this song does.

And I was intertwined, for the first time, with my own lies
As we both crossed a devastating line
In the flood tide, it never mattered why
When we chose sides, we were both right.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Through Empty Vessels”

The title is possibly a reference to the band’s first EP, whose last song was called “Through Windows”. It wouldn’t be the only reference on No Matter How Narrow to the band’s previous work, and it’s obvious that The Republic of Wolves have come a long way in their musical journey. I can’t wait to see where they go next.

nowPlaying: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock was one of the first Xbox 360 games I ever played. I bought the console from a friend, along with a few games, and that was the only one that looked interesting to me. (I had yet to go pick up my copy of Fallout 3, which was my reason for buying the console in the first place.) I remember being surprised at how much fun it was: Not your average first-person shooter, the game implements the use of biological powers called plasmids, which ultimately led to the fall of the game’s utopian underwater city, Rapture. The game introduced the Big Daddy, one of the most iconic video game characters to appear in recent time, and the story’s twist ending was something I hadn’t seen much in the world of video games.

I remember playing Bioshock 2 and finding it to be a little too familiar. It’s a solid game, but it didn’t offer much that the first game didn’t. Perhaps this is to be expected; the game is made by a different team.

The team behind the first Bioshock would later go on to make the third entry in the series, Bioshock Infinite. This one leaves the underwater city of Rapture in favor of the floating city of Columbia. It’s clear from the beginning that this isn’t going to be more of the same.

Welcome to Columbia.
Welcome to Columbia.

The protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, Booker Dewitt, is much more present than in past games. In recent years, there’s been an influx of silent protagonists. This is something that isn’t always successful in terms of storytelling; when done correctly, the player will feel like they’re in the game, but if not, it tends to feel more like you’re playing as a wall that other characters keep asking to do things. It’s refreshing to see the concept of the pre-made, vocal protagonist is still around and can still be successful.

While you don’t control what Booker Dewitt says, several decisions are left up to you, the player. These range from trivial to very difficult, but great care has been taken to make sure they aren’t out of place. This is the downside to playing as a pre-made protagonist: Sometimes you, the player, make them do things that character would never do. Bioshock Infinite treads this line perfectly. Nothing Booker does is out of place, and he reacts to things the way you’d expect him to react.

Strong storytelling isn’t limited to Booker Dewitt. Bioshock Infinite is one of the strongest games I’ve seen in a long time, in terms of story. Booker’s journey begins on a boat trip to a lighthouse, and takes him into a floating city. His mission: Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt. “Whatever that means” will likely be your first thought, and this is intentional: Booker is the kind of guy who does things he needs to do and doesn’t ask questions. At least, that’s how he starts out.

Things in Columbia quickly take a dark turn, and Booker finds himself fighting for his life, trying to reach a distant statue so he might “find the girl”. It seems Booker is Columbia’s prophesied antichrist figure, recognizable by the “AD” carved into the back of his right hand. Columbia’s prophet, Zachary Comstock, has seen Booker coming, and wants him stopped at all costs.

Columbia is made up of floating islands, and to traverse them, Booker will use a device called the Sky-Hook to latch on to rails connecting the islands. This makes for an interesting mechanic: While sliding along these rails, called Sky-Lines, combat is still possible, and sometimes even required.

The Sky-Hook also makes for a powerful melee weapon.
The Sky-Hook also makes for a powerful melee weapon.

While interesting, the Sky-Line and Sky-Hook system never realize their full potential. Whatever you do the first time you use them is probably going to be all you do with them throughout the game. Shooting from the Sky-Line is difficult, and you’ll most likely miss most of your targets. There also isn’t much complexity to be found: Most of the Sky-Lines in combat areas just take you in a circle around a platform your enemies will be shooting at you from. I couldn’t help but feel like a lot more could’ve been done with this system.

This brings me to my other main complaints about the game. Instead of the plasmids found in earlier games, Booker will use Vigors. The concept is the same: Your DNA is altered, allowing you to use biological attacks. If I had to summarize the game’s use of these, it would be “too much shock and not enough bio”. In most cases, you’ll just end up pulling the trigger of your regular old rifle until everyone else stops shooting at you. I found the Vigors to be mostly useless; one of them, called Devil’s Hand, was just about the only one I used, and it wasn’t particularly creative: Throw a ball of fire and it explodes. As far as first-person shooters go, they may as well have given you grenades.

The exception to the rule is a Vigor you acquire later in the game called Return to Sender. This one is easily my favorite, and the only one I found creative or even fun to use: Booker summons a ball of energy into his hand that allows him to catch incoming bullets and then throw them back at enemies. Doing this requires the use of Booker’s shield, so it isn’t unlimited, and timing is everything.

Return to Sender is particularly useful against Patriots, robotic renditions of the Founding Fathers equipped with machine guns.
Return to Sender is particularly useful against Patriots, robotic renditions of the Founding Fathers equipped with machine guns.

Return to Sender aside, Bisohock Infinite is a pretty basic first-person shooter. There isn’t much variety in the enemies (the iconic Big Daddies are nowhere to be found, instead replaced with Handymen, which are far more annoying than frightening or formidable). Where the game surpasses your run-of-the-mill FPS is in its art direction. You’ll be using the same guns to fight the same enemies you’ll find in any FPS, but they’re going to look a lot more beautiful.

It takes more than looks to make a great game (which Bioshock Infinite is). With breathtaking visuals but standard gameplay and game time (a playthrough will take about 8-10 hours), where Infinite succeeds is its story, and this really takes off when you meet “the girl”, Elizabeth.

It’s difficult to meet Elizabeth and not be immediately reminded of a Disney character (Belle from Beauty and the Beast comes to mind). She’s a young, naive girl who’s spent her life alone in a tower with her books (and a certain guardian I won’t spoil for you). Sounds easy, right? Find the girl, protect the girl, get her to New York, wipe away the debt. Looks can be deceiving; Elizabeth is no sucker, and she’s not going to obey Booker as easily as Booker obeys the man who hired him. She has a mind of her own, and this lends to what is perhaps the game’s biggest charm.

The first time Booker meets Elizabeth, she attacks him with a book on quantum physics. and thus, a legend was born.
The first time Booker meets Elizabeth, she attacks him with a book on quantum physics. and thus, a legend was born.

Elizabeth makes for an interesting character in so many ways. I said she has a mind of her own, and this extends to the gameplay itself: Elizabeth will be with you for most of the game. She’ll stay out of the way during combat, searching for ammo and health for Booker, sometimes finding money, lockpicks, and other useful items. The game’s AI is often mentioned, and with good reason. She’ll walk ahead of you toward your goal, sit down, chat with strangers, lean against walls, look through shelves; Elizabeth acts like a human being. She’ll talk with Booker about everything from his mission to her missing pinky finger. Her personality and programming make her one of the most likable video game characters I’ve ever met.

It’s hard to talk about the game’s story without ruining it. From the point you meet Elizabeth onward, Bioshock Infinite carries one of the strongest stories in video gaming. You’ll meet a lot of characters and factions with their own reasons and purposes, and the story carries what would otherwise be a decent game into greatness. Enemies become friends, motives change. Something as small as the tip of a pinky finger can have life-altering ramifications.

When the screen finally cut to black and the credits began to roll, my first thought was “That’s it?” This quickly gave rise to “What in the world did I just witness?” which was then followed by me sitting in silence for about a half hour playing back everything I’d just experienced in my head. What seems at first like a tangled, nonsensical web of plot holes becomes a complex, intricate, purposeful and meaningful series of events the more you pick at it, the further you unravel it, and I’m not convinced it’s possible to straighten everything out. There’s a reason the title contains the word “Infinite”.

Look up any list of the most mind-blowing endings in video game history, and you’ll probably see the first Bioshock on it. Bioshock Infinite puts it to shame. If I hadn’t rented the game, I would have popped it right back into my Xbox and played through it again to see what else I could see. I look forward to my next playthrough (but I’m aiming for PC next time; the Xbox 360 version suffers from an unfortunate amount of lag, especially during the last battle).

The game’s developer, Irrational Games, recently announced a massive scaling-down, as well as an intent to make no further Bioshock games. I have no doubt their publisher, 2K Games, will assign another team to make sequels, but it’ll be hard to see them as true Bioshock games. Bioshock ends with Infinite; you can’t take a story this well planned and executed and simply add on to it. It’s rare in the world of video games to see a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite create one of the exceptions to this rule, and I think I’d be happier if they remained that way.

All images taken from the official website and not owned by me.

nowListening: Wildlife by La Dispute

Recently I re-visited one of my favorite albums, Wildlife by La Dispute. Normally I walk on the treadmill for 20-30 minutes a day, but Wildlife clocks in at almost an hour. I had planned to stop at my normal time, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, and went the whole hour. This isn’t one you listen to just part of, it’s an album you commit to.

All lyrics and songs by La Dispute, not me. Obviously.

The interpretation of these songs as presented in this post, however, is mine. At no point should you feel like it’s the correct or only one; that’s the beauty of music.

I first heard of La Dispute in the summer of 2011, when the band released their entire discography for free on the internet. I happened to be browsing a post over at AbsolutePunk, and one of my friends on that site couldn’t recommend the band enough.

I downloaded their discography and gave a few of the releases (one LP and about seven EPs ranging from two to eight tracks) a try. I was at first put off by the vocals; at first listen, Jordan Dreyer’s voice can be intimidating, if not raw.

Even then, there were a few songs I could really get into. I think “The Surgeon and the Scientist” was first among them. One day, with my iPod on shuffle, a little tune called “Such Small Hands” came up. The first thing to catch my hear was the haunting, disembodied guitar intro. Then the vocals come in, and what hooked me were the lyrics.

I thought I heard the door open, oh
No, thought I heard the door open but I only heard it close
I thought I heard a plane crashing
Now I think it was your passion snapping

La Dispute, “Such Small Hands”

As it turns out, “Such Small Hands” is the first track on their first album, exhaustively titled Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair. That provided the foot in the door for the rest of the record. One listen to the following track, “Said the King to the River”, and I was sold on La Dispute.

La Dispute is a writer’s band. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer had reportedly never participated in music before being asked to join; he wrote short stories and poems instead. Literature is prominent in all of the band’s music. Two of their EPs (Hear, Hear. and Hear, Hear II) consist entirely of the band playing along to Dreyer reading, singing, and screaming famous poems, such as Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.

A fan-made lyric video for the song “Andria”, showcasing a few of the band’s common styles: A blend of spoken-word poetry and fast-paced punk vocals, Jordan Dreyer’s raw, honest-to-God voice and absolute control over his range, the bass coming in to foreshadow the intensity the song is about to escalate to, the lead guitar part forming a sort of “dueling guitars” melody to compliment the lead vocals. While it appears on their first release, this song is referenced many times on the album Wildlife.

For a lot of bands, you can hear the bands that influenced them in their music. With La Dispute, the keen listener will hear all of the writers that influenced the band instead.

It didn’t take long for La Dispute to cement themselves as one of my favorite bands. In October of 2011, they released a new album called Wildlife. I bought it immediately, and took my iPod out to the back deck to listen to it on the porch swing. It seemed fitting: That’s where I go to read books, and Wildlife is audible literature.

Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to hear.

Wildlife by La Dispute

Wildlife is a concept album. Each song has a clear and complete narrative, but also fits into a larger one (think chapters in a book). The album opens with one of four letters the narrator is writing. The song is called “a Departure” and sets the stage for the story about to unfold.

Night fell on me writing this, and I ran out of paper
So I crossed the name out at the top of the page
Not sure why I’m even writing this, but I guess it feels right,
It sort of feels like I have to, like an exorcism.

I guess that makes me sound crazy, but that’s all right.
Lately I feel like I might be, not that I’ve heard any voices or anything
Just like that everyday kind, where you forget things you shouldn’t,
And you think too much about death.

La Dispute, “a Departure”

The album can be broken down into parts: A letter, three songs, the next letter, three songs, etc. Following “a Departure” is the fast-paced “Harder Harmonies”, which tells the story of an extraordinary piano player whose music is overtaken by the tones of the nearby city.

In all of the songs, it’s difficult to tell how much is literal vs. metaphorical, and how many of the stories are true. I’ve heard that most of them are things experienced by the band members or people they know. Part of me wants to never find out; not knowing contributes to the magnitude Wildlife carries. I can only hope these things didn’t all happen to the same person, but in terms of the story, I’ll say they do.

“Harder Harmonies” escalates into a sense of frustration conveyed not just by the lyrics, but by the music. The song ends on a message anybody could sympathize with: “There’s a melody in everything, I’m trying to find a harmony, but nothing seems to work, nothing seems to fit.” This is a recurring theme: Nothing seems to fit, and I think that’s where the story really picks up.

“St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues” comes next. It tells the story of a church our narrator passes by every day, the once-beloved church now abandoned and falling apart, and the narrator thinks the same thing of some kind of relationship in his life, possibly the loss of his own faith.

Ten years now standing vacant
Ten years on empty, maybe more.
Once held the faith of hundreds,
Soon one more cell phone store.
For years they gathered here
Inside the building, sound and true
To sing their praises to a God that gave them hope
To carry on, to carry through.

La Dispute, “St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues”

After this comes “Edit Your Hometown”, which sounds like a link you’d click on facebook, and that’s probably the point. The song tells the story of a young man who claimed his city with his friends, spending nights together and having fun, but as the years went on, his friends all moved away and carried on with their lives, leaving the narrator feeling alone with an empty city.

After this is our next letter, this one titled “a Letter”. The narrator looks at all of his anger and frustration and begins to wonder if it comes from within, and that maybe things aren’t working because he isn’t really trying to make them work.

Next up is a song in two parts: “Safer in the Forest/Love Song for Poor Michigan”. Both songs occupy the same track and are loosely related, but you can tell where one ends and one begins. “Safer in the Forest” is a relatively quiet, droning tune carried by guitars that never stop but don’t quite repeat themselves, moving up and down in tune with the vocals, until the song explodes into “Love Song for Poor Michigan”, a song about how a bad economy can break people down. In these you can hear references to previous songs; “Safer in the Forest” mentions the city’s song first suggested in “Harder Harmonies” as well as the desire to leave found in “Edit Your Hometown”, while “Love Song for Poor Michigan” hearkens all the way back to the song “Andria” off the band’s previous album, with the line “I will hold these old streets safely in my head, like her”. If you choose to interpret it as such, Wildlife can be seen as a sort of sequel concept to Somewhere at the Bottom… as this isn’t the only reference you’ll find to the band’s previous work.

“The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit” carries tones of trying to forget pain through things like drugs and sex, but reflecting on how these releases are only temporary.

After this we get our third letter, titled “a Poem”. The narrator reflects on how the writing isn’t helping: “I had a reason for the writing, but trying to exorcise my demons didn’t work.” The narrator instead writes a poem to summarize his feelings and actions. This is reflected in the song as it slows to a crawl and transitions into a spoken-word poem.

The worry, the wonder, the shortness of days
The replacement for purpose
The things swept away
By the worry, the wonder, my slightness of frame
The replacements for feeling,
The casual lay.
And the worst of the wildlife wears clothes and can pray
And they worry and wonder for three meals a day.
Only death unimpeded, not slowing its pace
Brings that petty old worry and wonder away.

La Dispute, “a Poem”

After this comes a suite of three songs that I find hard to listen to, but I mean that in the best possible way. The next three songs are, without contest, the most emotionally exhausting suite of music I can think of. By the time I was through the first of them, “King Park”, I had stopped swinging on my porch swing, my shaking hands were pressed against my mouth. If you can think of a movie that brought you to the edge of your seat in anticipation, not in the exaggerated, metaphorical sense, but one of those moments that actually made you drop everything and just sit down and pay attention, this song is the audible equivalent of that. If you listen to nothing else from this record, listen to these three songs, in order, please. Something like this doesn’t come along often in any medium.

I don’t want to spoil the effect for you, so I’ll try not to go into too much detail about these three. Just grab a pair of headphones, sit down in a dark room, and listen. You might want to bring a box of tissues and find some ear bleach for when it’s over. These aren’t songs you just listen to; you’re probably going to want something to help you calm down afterward. I guess this all comes off as pretentious or exaggerated, but that’s not my intention. I’m serious, things are going to get intense.

“King Park” opens with a shooting: “Another shooting on the southeast side, this a drive-by, mid-day…Not far from the park, about a block from where the other shooting was last month. Or was it last week?”

The first two stanzas of the song are told in an omniscient, procedural tone, just the basic facts. There’s been a shooting, not far from where another one was recently. At the end of the second stanza, we hit the human element: “The target: a rival, but they didn’t hit the target this time. They hit a kid we think had nothing to do with it.”

From there, our narrator becomes a spectre, a spirit transcending time and space in an attempt to find a reason for the violence. His journey takes him “High and high up over King Park”, back through time, where he can visit the victims before they died, just “playing games and doing homework”, and visit their families, see their lives.

I want to write it all down, so I can always remember
If you could see it up close, how could you ever forget?
How senseless death, how precious life,
I want to be there when the bullet hit.

La Dispute, “King Park”

After this, our narrator moves forward in time to find the shooter, and from there an already dark and heavy song becomes almost too much to bear. I won’t even say anything about it. Just go listen for yourself.

After this is a song called “Edward Benz, 27 Times”. This one starts off on a much lighter tone than where “King Park” ends, and for that I’m grateful. We open with an old man, the titular Edward Benz, entering the narrator’s store and asking him to repair a window on a door.

Things take a drastic tone throughout the song as Ed tells our narrator his story. The song bounces back and forth between the narrator in the past, standing on Ed’s porch and listening to his story, and our narrator as he is currently, feeling alone and desperate and in pain. Slowly, our narrator realizes he’s writing a parallel to Ed’s story, so he revisits it in his head for comparison.

The underlying tone seems to be that the narrator finds the two situations incomparable: What the narrator is going through (suggested to be a breakup) is shallow compared to what Ed experienced, but that fact brings our narrator no solace; his pain is still pain.

And I sit in my apartment,
I’m getting no answers.
I’m finding no peace, no release from the anger.
I’ll leave it at arms length,
I’m keeping my distance
From hotels and Jesus and blood on the carpet.
I’m stomaching nothing,
I’m reaching for no one,
I’m leaving this city and I’m headed out to nowhere.

La Dispute, “Edward Benz, 27 Times”

Our trio rounds out with the song “I See Everything”. In this one, our narrator recalls a day in his junior year of high school, when he walks into the classroom a little late and finds a heavy atmosphere in the room. He takes his seat and finds his teacher handing out photocopies of a journal she kept in the 80’s, shortly after her seven-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Following the introduction, the middle of the song is presented directly as these journal entries, and the end finds our narrator alone many years later, reflecting on the teacher and her son, as well as his own life.

July 9
There’s a suffering when I look in his eyes
He’s been through so much.
We’ve all been through so much, but
What incredible resolve our little boy shows
Only seven, standing face-to-face with death
He said it’s easy to find people who have suffered worse than him
“Like Jesus suffered worse than anyone,”
He told me last night, when God abandoned him.

La Dispute, “I See Everything”

Once this suite ends, we’re given our last letter, “a Broken Jar”.  Our narrator has grown tired of writing down these stories in attempt to cope, they aren’t helping. In his frustration he turns over a table and a breaks a jar, which he then attempts to repair, but reflects that no matter what he does, the cracks will still be visible, and some things can’t be fully repaired.

After this letter, we’re presented with two songs to serve as falling action. The first is “all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks”. Maybe I look too much into it, but I think the fact that the title is improperly formatted (using all lowercase letters) is a reflection of how the writer has become tired and apathetic, but he hasn’t given up, hence the title being so long.

In this song, our writer comes to a realization. He’s been writing down the suffering of other people to cope with his own, and rather than comparing them, he begins to collect them, to realize that other people have made it through their pain, so it’s possible that he will, too.

Tell me what your worst fears are
I bet they look a lot like mine
Tell me what you think about when you can’t fall asleep at night.
Tell me that you’re struggling, tell me that you’re scared
No, tell me that you’re terrified of life
Tell me that it’s difficult to not think of death sometimes.
Tell me how you lost, tell me how he left, tell me how she left
Tell me how you lost everything that you had,
Tell me it ain’t ever coming back.
Tell me about God, tell me about love,
Tell me that it’s all of the above.
Say you think of everything in fear,
I bet you’re not the only one who does.

La Dispute, “all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks”

The album’s final track is “You and I in Unison”. In this song, the writer finally tells his own story, adding his own pain to the pages he’s been writing, and leaves them with the feeling that even if we suffer, we all suffer together. Our narrator isn’t alone and never has beenhe has a stack of pages that prove it.

There’s a certain feeling you get when you finish reading a good book, and Wildlife is probably the only album that’s ever given me that feeling. It’s painful but hopeful, it’s heavy but beautiful.

La Dispute is releasing their third album in March 2014, called Rooms of the House. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope I love it half as much as I love Wildlife.

La Dispute provides nearly all of their music for listening on their website here:

If you enjoy the music, please consider supporting the band. Pre-orders of their upcoming album Rooms of the House support various charities. More information can be found on the album’s pre-order pages here:

nowPlaying: Xenoblade Chronicles

You might remember how, for a few months, I was a staff writer for a Nintendo fan site. The site is gone now and the admin vanished, but my love for writing, video games, and writing about video games is stronger than ever, so I’m happy to continue doing it on my blog. I’ve also decided to extend my reviews/analyses outside of the gaming world (with music and films in mind), but for now, here’s the first in my nowPlaying series: Xenoblade Chronicles, developed by Monolith Soft, for the Nintendo Wii.

All images taken from the official site, not owned by me.

When you ask people about the greatest video games ever made, there are a few titles that’ll come up on almost every list: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Half-Life 2. Resident Evil 4. In a perfect world, Xenoblade Chronicles would be one of them. It’s near the top of mine.

Released for the Wii in 2010, this one took a while to leave Japan. It didn’t reach America for nearly two years, coming out shortly before the Wii’s successor, the Wii U. The game received a limited printing, so a copy is going to cost you anywhere between $60 and $80, but it’s worth it.

The word “epic” is overused these days, but it fits this game perfectly. The story opens with two titans fighting each other in an otherwise empty ocean. They strike fatal blows at the same time, but their lifeless bodies remain standing, and from these spring forth all living things.

You play as Shulk, a young boy who grew up on one of the titan’s knees. Did I mention the game is epic? The whole world consists of the bodies of the titans. At any point you can look into the sky and see their arms, their heads, you can look across the ocean and see most of the other titan—all but the part that extends beyond the clouds.

An example of the view from one of the legs, complete with the torso of the titan in the distance.
An example of the view from one of the legs, complete with the torso of the titan in the distance, and its extended sword hovering above.

This game is huge. Everything about it is massive: Open-world areas in the same vein as Bethesda’s latest games, seamless combat (nearly all of the game’s loading screens are just there to load cinemas, only a few places require a loading screen transition), character customization; everything you’d expect from an action RPG, but bigger. My final play time, for example, was 75 hours. There were still dozens of side quests I hadn’t done, and I could have sunk another few hours in to level up and have an easier time with the final bosses (because a game this big can’t have just one).

The graphics are good, for the Wii. You can find screenshots, but they don’t do it much justice. The wind blowing through the grass, the people and creatures going about their lives, the ever-looming titans, you have to see it for yourself. It’s a Wii game, so by today’s standards it’s dated, but even as such it looks good.

Colony 6, where the main characters grew up. From this viewpoint, you can travel all the way into the town and along its streets without loading screens.
Colony 6, where the main characters grew up. From this viewpoint, you can travel all the way into the town and along its streets without loading screens.


The characters you face are, for the most part, lovable. Off the top of my head, only one enemy character comes to mind who I could describe as one-dimensional, and she’s not a major character. Everyone else is a well-acted, well-designed being, complete with their own motives and reasons, and this adds to one of the game’s running themes: Existentialism.

Your run-of-the-mill game can be pared down to “Find the bad guy and kill him”. You’ll be doing a lot of finding in this game, and you’ll be doing your fair share of killing, but you won’t want to. Instead of faceless “baddies” that only stand in your path, the game presents your adversaries as people who happen to be on the other side of the coin. Shulk, the main character, begins as a naive kid with a desire for vengeance, but transforms into a strong, noble man, one who tries to reason before ever lifting his sword, and who understands his enemies. I have a feeling the game’s director, Tetsuya Takahashi, might have been influenced by the works of Orson Scott Card and Ursula K. Le Guin: Before Shulk defeats his enemies, he has to know and love them, and he feels every loss along his path.

The game’s story goes on to tackle the idea of what it means to be part of a Universe in which you aren’t the only inhabitant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game do this before. There are often moments of depth, often strong characters that you feel for, but Xenoblade takes it to a new level. As big as the game is, it must also be described as “deep”.

The tree in the background is just a texture from this distance, but you will eventually reach the top of it in-game.
The tree in the background is just a texture from this distance, but you will eventually reach the top of it in-game.

Some of the plot points are trite, but most are unpredictable. The game threw a lot of curveballs. In most cases I had no idea what was coming until the second it happened. It does suffer from some overly-descriptive and repetitive dialogue (sometimes the characters just plain talk too much), but it’s nothing you won’t find in the average video game.

The gameplay itself is fun, but a lot of people seem to have trouble with the battle system. Unlike most games, you won’t be mashing the A button to obliterate everything in your path. Characters (there are several in your party, and you get 3 on-screen at a time and may play as any of them) auto-attack. Your job as the player is to choose where they go. Some attacks are more powerful from behind, some from the side, etc. You also have special attacks called “Arts” that you choose from, giving combat a layer of strategy comparable to that of a turn-based RPG, but the battles won’t wait for you, and timing is everything.

Another word I might use to describe the game is “exhausting”. The last ten hours or so started to wear me down. I did get a little tired of running around fighting random creatures and fetching items for NPCs. The game’s design is relentless, every new place you find is as large and as full of things to explore and do as the last, but by the time I reached the last handful of areas, I just wanted to skip them and go straight into the main quests. I never really wanted to stop playing, but if there had been another ten hours of main story, I might have.

The upsides far outweigh the downsides, and in the end I’m so glad to have played through this game. It’s one of the most original and unique stories I’ve ever encountered, especially in the world of video games.

In January 2013, Nintendo revealed a trailer for a game by the same company, Monolith Soft, that is very heavily implied to be a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles. I can’t wait to see what’s in store this time around. The possibilities are limitless, and I’m looking forward to what will surely be one of the richest gaming experiences offered this generation.

Small Update, and a Review of 11/22/63

I found a healthy way to lengthen my scifi manuscript. It’s still on the short side, but I think it’s solid, story-wise. I’m working on querying, now.

My last post mentioned editing an older project for self-publishing, and that has gone very well. Hopefully I’ll have something substantial to post in the next two or three weeks. I’m pretty excited.

I have another review, this time of 11/22/63 by Stephen King.

11/22/63 is probably my favorite non-Dark Tower Stephen King novel. I say this loosely, as almost every one of his books ties into that series in some way, and this one is no exception. It’s not a horror novel, although the elements of it are there. It’s a gripping story, and a heavy one.

We live in a world that all too often demands a happy ending. I admire King’s ability to ignore this demand, but for the right reasons. It’s easy to write a tragedy for the sake of being contrary, but King doesn’t do this. Instead, his story is tragic, but hopeful, and shouldn’t it be? How often does life tie up all the loose ends, pack them into a gift-wrapped box, and send them to us on a sunny day, with all of the “good guys” alive and unscathed and all of the “bad guys” locked up or dead? More likely, the outcome of an event is apt to be a little good and a little bad (and usually a little more of one than the other), as are the people involved.

11/22/63 tells a fantastic tale that, because of the way it’s told, could just as easily be about real people and real events. Few authors do this as well as Stephen King, and while some of his craft decisions leave me scratching my head or even rolling my eyes, I always walk away grateful to have read the book and spent that time with his characters and stories. This one gets five stars from me.

As a side note, this is my first experience with an audio book. I think I prefer the print, but Craig Wasson’s reading was superb. Each character came to life in a unique but not over-the-top way. Sometimes he read things differently than I would have, but I could hardly call the different perspective a bad thing.

Check out more of my reading activity on my Goodreads page.