Music Review: Darling Specimens by Zoe Boekbinder

Zoe Boëkbinder presents a challenge for a reviewer. Most times when you first listen to music, you sift through a mental catalog of musicians to make comparisons. Though some of these comparisons are perhaps overly contrived (“he sounded like a cross between Mick Jagger and Cab Calloway”), a writer can evoke a musical idea in the reader, hopefully intriguing a reader into checking out a deserving musician.

I had difficulty finding artists to compare to her, so perhaps I should just say it simply: Boëkbinder is the Queen of Quirk. She cites influences as diverse as Amanda Palmer in The Dresden Dolls and Elvis. Her sound on Darling Specimens is unique, mixing beats and live instrumentation with subtle elan; she refers to it as “geek glam,” which I love.

“Make A Mess” is the song that convinced me to review the album and a strong place to start. Though just 2:24 long, it’s blessedly catchy, with a bright horn section and percussive momentum that bubbles up with effervescent force. It hits me in the same place as Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine; it’s my new “early morning, bounce and go” song. Her groove is undeniable.

Boëkbinder makes good use of both ends of her voice, most especially when she warbles high into the oddly fragile part. This is shown off beautifully in “Hollow Bones,” a duet with the high, eerie wail of a musical saw that sings in its own voice.

I could describe her lyricism as wry whimsy. Because there are no lyrics in the liner notes, I was forever scanning back to make sure she said what I thought she said. Much of her songwriting had the taste of a razor-filled éclair: sweet and fluffy with a cutting edge. In “Serrated Spoon,” she sings “I’ll fill jars with formaldehyde and put those parts of you inside.”

Even her love songs have that sweet-sour twist, as she asks in “Artichoke”: “Are we just two wrongs trying to make it right?/ Are we lost, driving circles-circles ‘cause we’re blind?/ Sometimes I think you love so much that your love must be blind.”  Sampling her lyrics actually does her no justice, because they actually build upon each other from the first word to the last.

The vocal flourishes of “Salt Water” actually remind me of Morrissey, whom I love. “Gravity” has backing vocals, sweet little harmonies that evoke The Andrews Sisters if they had sung over a beatbox.

As I approached the end of the album on my first listen, I thought how perfect it would be if she did a song with a cello. Then “Anything Forever,” the last track, flipped on and I couldn’t decide if I was prescient or she’s just aware of the power of her own voice coupled with the rich tones of the cello.

The packaging for Darling Specimens captures her contrast between the masculine and feminine sides, with two profiles images of Boëkbinder on the inside. Because she has an asymmetrical haircut, one side has long hair and the other short: the short-haired Boëkbinder reminds me of a very pretty early Beatles Paul McCartney, and the long-haired looks like Louise Brooks. The album design has vintage tones of olive and copper, with lots of line-drawings of bugs. Instead of being off-putting, it just looks peculiar in the best way.

In short, Darling Specimens is the perfect holiday gift for the off-beat personalities in your life, those who appreciate salt with their sweet.

Boëkbinder will be touring all fall, so be sure to check her Facebook page for the most recent concert listings. See the video for “Make a Mess” here, as well as on her Bandcamp site.

Article first published as Music Review: Darling Specimens by Zoe Boëkbinder on Blogcritics.

Singing the Dragons to Sleep: Farewell to Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011)

Today marks the end of an era: author Anne McCaffrey passed away at the age of 85, from a stroke at her home in Ireland.

I remember the first time I saw an Anne McCaffrey book: I was in a used bookstore, one that I frequently haunted in hopes of discovering some dusty paperback treasure. The books were always shelved stacked, spine-out, so you could scan whole stacks in a hurry. I was about 11 years old.

I was getting bored, as I already had a small book pile tucked under my arm, so I ran my finger down the shelf for “M-Mc.” The word “Dragon” caught my eye. I pulled it out; it was Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. I had never heard of her, but I definitely liked dragons and I liked that there was a girl riding on the back of the dragon and that she seemed to have most of her clothes on. Even at the age of 11, I was skeptical about the fantasy novels that featured scantily-clad barbarian ladies on the cover.

I had read The Hobbit a few years before and had shuddered at visions of Smaug curled up, one eye half-open, gleaming with his gold. Who wasn’t fascinated with dragons? Who didn’t want to fly?

When I was older, I learned to appreciate her accomplishments. The White Dragon was the first science fiction novel written by a woman to make the New York Times Bestseller List. Her work often had strong female protagonists, not to mention queen dragons. She was the first woman to win a Hugo Award for fiction and the first to win a Nebula Award. She paved the way for countless female genre writers thereafter.

Anne brought us a whole world, blended science fiction and fantasy with carefree elan. Pern takes its place alongside hallowed fantasy lands: Middle Earth, Narnia, Oz, Earthsea, Discworld. Her writing allowed us to feel the wind blasting our hair back as the dragon launched into the air, to hear the flap of mighty wings.

She allowed us to fly. So ride the dragon’s wings to your well-deserved rest, Anne. Pern awaits.

Article first published as Singing the Dragons to Sleep: Farewell to Anne McCaffrey (1926-2011) on Blogcritics.

Q & A with Neil Gaiman, or Why Neil Gaiman is a Gentleman

Neil Gaiman is a gentleman. I had always suspected as much, but after my recent Q&A conference call with him, it was confirmed.

Let me back up a bit. I have long been an admirer of Neil’s work. My first introduction was his magnificent opus, The Sandman graphic novel series. I was entranced how he combined humor, pathos and allusions from pop culture to Greek Mythology to reinvigorate the graphical novel format. I was so inspired that my musician friend Paul and I used it as the starting point for a gothic opera, Veil & Subdue.

After that, I couldn’t get enough. Neverwhere was a particular favorite, then Coraline, then American Gods and Anansi Boys and so on. In brief, he was on my short list of writers who transcended simple fantasy into the fantastical. Thus, when the opportunity to do a Q&A on behalf of Blogcritics showed up, I nearly broke my laptop’s touchpad in my haste to claim it.

It was my first official Q&A and I was so nervous. I had fewer than 20 hours to prepare a question for someone whom I considered not only extremely talented, but supportive to other writers and readers (more on that later).

Naturally, I slept not a wink. Questions floated through my head; I plucked haplessly at them like dandelion seeds: some were too obvious, some too pandering and a few too cutesy.

The hour of the conference call arrived. I dialed in early and listened to the hold music. The instructions came on: Press *1 if you have a question. “Oh, do I,” thought I. Done, I pressed the keypad.

And then Neil Gaiman came on the line. He was as witty and self-effacing as I had imagined, with a wonderful speaking voice – sonorous, yet gentle. His answers were humorous and diplomatic. One reporter asked him if he felt there was something missing in the current glut of vampires, werewolves and zombies books. His response went straight to the point, which is diminishing literary returns with the loss of passion:

“There’s always this problem in any form of literature. [Books] happen because the time is right for them and they get written by people who believe in them…whether it’s wizards or vampires – whatever. Other people look around and go, ‘Oh, this is a way to make money or a way to cash in.’ They mean less and less; it’s like old-style photocopies. You photocopy a copy of a copy and pretty soon you end up with a grey sheet of paper with lines on them.”

Neil Gaiman is a tireless advocate for writers. Here is his latest advice to those suffering through National Novel Writer’s Month (NaNoWriMo). He also supports readers of all ages, as the founder of All Hallows Read and countless other literary projects. He spoke eloquently on the importance of books to kids, regardless of whether the books themselves are perceived as quality: “The truth is that when kids encounter books, they bring themselves to them. The place you find the magic can be anywhere…because you’re bringing yourself as a reader to it.”

I enjoyed his answers and sat quietly, waiting my turn until the moderator said, “Ok, there are no more questions, so thank you Mr. Gaiman.”

Fortunately, our phones were muted, because I wailed, NOoooOOoooOO!” and pressed buttons, to no avail. I had botched it; the system had beaten me. I was not going to get a question answered by Neil Gaiman.

In despair, I popped onto Twitter and sent this:

“I was on the conference call and system didn’t pick up that I had a ?: As far as performing dialogue, do you ever act out your own while writing or was this a completely new experience?”

It was a half-hearted hope. I had been following his Twitter account since I joined, six months ago, but he has 1.6 million followers. Imagine my shock when this popped up:

…and then he answered my question.

Such a small courtesy, yet so unexpected. He was likely weary of the questions and the strained Q&A format – the long silences and the stutters as each participant was piped in and out.

I responded with: 

“Did you enjoy being Simpsonized? Do you feel more yellow-ish now?”

And he said:

And so that, dear reader, is how I got a personal answer to my question. So I hope you had a chance to watch The Simpsons on Sunday, because it features the voice of Neil Gaiman, New York Times best-selling writer and a true gentleman. Also now in yellow.

The Book Job Episode Synopsis
Lisa loses faith in the legitimacy of the “tween lit” industry and decides to pen her own novel. Homer, once informed of the lucrative opportunities, assembles a team to write the next big tween best-seller. Neil Gaiman as Himself joins the group to lend a seasoned writer’s eye, but the Springfield crew ends up with more than they expect in The Book Job, a parody of The Italian Job.

Neil Gaiman is a New York Times best-selling author and the recipient of numerous literary awards. His novels include Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boys and Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, as well as a children’s book author. Although originally from England, he currently lives in America.

He is not, in fact, yellow.

You can visit Gaiman at his official site.

Article first published as Q & A with Neil Gaiman, or Why Neil Gaiman is a Gentleman on Blogcritics.