Scott D. Parker
I was happily surprised yesterday, but I wasn’t expecting it.
The veteran “rock band with horns,” Chicago, released their 38th album yesterday, Born for This Moment. For a band celebrating their 55th year, that’s darn impressive. Chicago is one of my two favorite bands and I eagerly waited to spin that new album yesterday. In fact, with it being a work day, I woke at 5:30am just so I could listen to the album before the workday began. Later that day, my son ventured out and purchased the CD.
Being a writer, I documented my experience in real time. It’s a text file in which I wrote down my thoughts and feelings as the album played. Without the liner notes, the only thing I had to go on was the music itself. Isn’t that basically the way to experience a first listen?
Anyway, I knew that this new album would likely be the band’s last. It’s been eight years since Chicago released an album of new, non-Christmas material—although I wholeheartedly contend that the 2019 Chicago Christmas album was mostly original as well, seeing as it featured seven original songs that merely used the vocabulary of Christmas.
Prior to yesterday, Chicago had released two singles, “If This is Goodbye” and “Firecracker.” The former is a modern-sounding song with lots of vocal overdubs while the latter certainly has that Chicago vibe to it. Other cuts on the album also contained that certain signature Chicago sound. Hey, no surprise there, right? There’s a reason they’ve been successful for more than half a century. And some of these sounds are so good.
But then this band anchored by three original members in their seventies throws the listener more than one curve ball. Some of the songs feature programmed drums and rhythms that we’re used to hearing on songs by artists young enough to be their grand or great-grandchildren. In the song “You’ve Got to Believe,” the chorus is something you could easily hear Justin Timberlake sing. Seriously. Founding singer Robert Lamm even tries a few different things with his voice, voicing some of his songs with a rougher style.
It’s not just newer, modern instrumental and beats that stand out. For the first time, there’s a violin solo on one of the slower tunes. And for the first time since 1978, there’s an extended flute section, complete with a solo.
As I wrote a few weeks back, I’m a big fan of legacy artists acknowledging their age and life experiences. Up until now, that’s been a rarity for a Chicago album. No longer. We finally get them looking backward and celebrating their lives and careers, but we also get some forward-thinking music. If this is indeed the last Chicago album, then this collection of songs left me with some bittersweet tears as well as a feeling of surprise.
Circling back to writers, it got me to wondering how often veteran writers deliver a book or a story that surprises us readers. Stephen King does it pretty regularly, writing pretty much whatever he wants but with a willingness to try something new.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with finding a formula and sticking to it. Heck, Chicago did that for decades with their ballads. I’m not even sure if I, too, wouldn’t just stick to a formula and cash those checks.
So bravo to those artists and writers who try something new. But I’m still wondering about writers who try something new. Can y’all help with that? The first book that comes to mind is Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. I know there are more.
Saturday, July 16, 2022
Thursday, July 14, 2022
Wednesday, July 13, 2022
I don't know about you, but where I live, it is god damn hot outside. Like, take three steps outside the door, burst in to sweat, turn around and walk your damp ass back in hot outside. In other words, it's time to stay inside and watch crime TV, preferably while wearing loose fitting but still indecently short shorts and sipping a cold drink.
My drink of choice is usually either an Old Fashioned or Liquid Death (cold water out of a can is so damn good I wonder why we spent decades drinking out of plastic bottles), but since I can't make you a drink, I thought I'd share what I've been watching this summer.
BARRY - HBO
Just let Bill Hader write and direct anything he wants. It's frankly unfair how good he has proven himself to be. Season three sees Barry in an impossible place and keeps him there, grinding him down until, somehow, he ends up in an even deeper hole. Along the way, we get Hollywood satire, relationship woes, a freeway chase, the wisdom of the beignet dude, two of the best jokes I've seen in years (one about tech support, the other about a multitude of dogs), and loads of ultraviolence.
I have a fantasy where Hader somehow gets attached to write and direct WHITE JAZZ, and that's all because of how goddamn good Barry is.
UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN - HULU
I skipped this one originally, in part because I'd previously read Krakauer's masterful non-fiction book, and was a bit iffy on the idea of creating a main character to tie up the events, but this is actually pretty great. Dismissed by some as an anti-Mormon screed, the show seems, to me, to be almost delicate in its attempt at unwinding the strands of nationalism and faith and identity and community that all become jumbled up before being dipped in blood. Most of the praise for this show I've seen has been for Andrew Garfield, but the writing is impeccable, and the cinematography is hauntingly evocative. I could write for a while longer about how America is a uniquely bloody culture and how that affects the art we make, but this show makes the same argument, just in a different way.
WE OWN THIS CITY - HBO
A spiritual successor to THE WIRE, WE OWN THIS CITY is, quite possibly, the single most frustrating and enraging Limited Series I've ever seen. The true story of the Baltimore Gun Task Force, the show follows a group of police officers who abuse, steal, and co-opt the local drug trade, and the cops, US Attorneys, and Feds who ultimately bring them down. Oh, and it's told in a brilliant non-linear fashion that leaves absolutely no doubt about how broken several institutions in the United States are (and the cause... spoiler alert, it's The War on Drugs!)
The cops in this show aren't committing crimes because of any highminded sense of keeping the peace. They don't even attempt to justify the shit they pulled. They do it because it makes them feel powerful, and because they're greedy. They do it because they can.
BLACK BIRD - AppleTV+
Written by Dennis Lehane, and starring Ray Liotta, BLACK BIRD tells the story of a particularly charismatic inmate, and the serial killer he needs to keep talking. This one just started last week, so I'm not sure how it will all play out yet (though again, it's based on a true story, so I guess if I wanted to, I could just read about it), but you're telling me a Dennis Lehane written show won't be amazing all the way through? Get real.
STRANGER THINGS - Netflix
Everyone knows this show, so there's no point in going over what it's about. To be totally honest, I'm not sure I could give a concise description anyway. But there are two things to note about the last season of Stranger Things:
1) Yes, the "homages" are starting to feel a lot more on the nose, and
2) Master of Puppets still fucking rules.
I know there are a lot of shows I've not listed, like DARK WINDS and BETTER CALL SAUL but that's just because I haven't watched them yet. Soon though, especially because it feels like this heat is never gonna let up.
Tuesday, July 12, 2022
Scott's Note: Dana King guest posts this week. He's back to tell us about his new novel, White Out, the newest book in his Penns River series.
Take it away, Dana...
Location, Location, Location
by Dana King
Last week I learned of my panel for this year’s Bouchercon: The Place It Took Place: Setting in Mystery, where Mary Logue, Patricia Skalka, Oskar Magnusson, Sylissa Franklin, Albert Tucher and I will talk about how setting influences and sometimes determines the mystery in our stories. (Sunday, September 11 at 9:00 if you’re going to Bouchercon. I’ll give away a book for one lucky early riser.) I have since received several kind messages from friends telling me how well suited I am for this panel, which flatters me no end.
The panel assignment has also prompted me to think in more detail than usual how my setting – Penns River in seven of my eight most recent books – does affect the stories. Anything that prompts me to contemplate such things is good, as it’s easy to take them for granted, which can lead to missed opportunities.
For those unaware, Penns River is a small city twenty miles northeast of Pittsburgh on the Allegheny River. The economy collapsed when the mills closed in the 70s and the town has not recovered. It’s now a decaying Rust Belt exurb with the hulks of abandoned factories still looming over the old downtown section. Such a setting conjures, and accepts, some stories much more readily than others.
Making too direct an association between crime and poverty (“The hungry man stole a loaf of bread”) is too facile. The low-income status of most Penns River residents makes them more susceptible to temptation, but working-class people in depressed towns are no more - or less - inherently criminal than the upper class living in Manhattan condos. The working-class crimes just aren’t as glamorous.
What kinds of crimes are we talking about? Here are examples taken from earlier books in the series.
A low-roller casino opens in a long-abandoned retail facility, prompting a power struggle between those who want to take over the ancillary businesses (loan sharking, prostitution, drugs) and the criminals already running those businesses.
The renovation of a different run-down shopping center into a religious-themed mall lies too close to the center of the town’s drug business, prompting a power struggle.
A car thief who has been preying on the casino parking lot finds someone in the car he has targeted and kills him.
A mass shooting distracts the already overworked police, providing an opportunity for a fugitive to undertake a series of robberies in supermarkets and check-cashing facilities.
A hit-and-run homicide almost falls through the cracks as the overworked detectives can’t pay as much attention as they’d like to the investigation.
A man shot through both ass cheeks at the culmination of an argument over who ate the last of the chocolate chip cookies in a house across town.
The theft of construction equipment parked overnight where a front yard meets the street.
Various flavors of domestic altercations.
An old woman with dementia wanders off in sub-freezing temperatures.
Purveyors of (mostly) legal moonshine find themselves targeted by the Dixie Mafia.
A meth cooker needs window coverings for the trailer and steals small flags from local businesses and homes to cover them.
The new book, White Out, (available as of yesterday) starts out with a tragedy that has become too routine in this country: a cop shoots an unarmed man. The differences here are:
The cop is Black, the victim white;
The victim was a white supremacist;
Other white supremacists rally in Penns River for the funeral, which is on the same day as…
The casino has a poker tournament with a million dollars cash on the gaming floor, and
A massive storm drops over a foot of snow on the town.
No white-collar crime. No suburban psychological suspense. No elaborate schemes. Crime in Penns River is opportunistic accidental, or a struggle over the same slice of pie when there aren’t enough slices to go around. Small stuff. The fate of the world does not hinge on any of these cases. What matters here is how the locals respond to attempts to make their already shitty lives even worse.
The national news doesn’t cover Penns River. Few outside of town will ever know what happens. That doesn’t make it any less important, or terrifying, to the people who live there.
Dana King writes the Penns River series of police procedurals, the newest of which, White Out, became available from Down & Out Books` on July 11. Dana’s Nick Forte private eye novels have earned two Shamus Award nominations from the Private Eye Writers of America. His work has appeared in outlets such as Thuglit and Mystery Tribune and numerous anthologies, most recently The Eviction of Hope. You can get to know him better on his website (https://danakingauthor.com/), blog (https://danaking.blogspot.com/), Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/DanaKingBooks), or Twitter (https://twitter.com/DanaKingAuthor).