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Snap Judgments

Our critics weigh in on new books, blogs, and albums.

ALBUM
LYRICS BORN: AS U WERE
(Decon)
Berkeley-bred musician Lyrics Born has always been more of a singer than a rapper. Even back in 1997, when he and fellow UC Davis alum Lateef, as Latyrx, set the underground rap world ablaze with their release The Album, his flow was more mellifluous creek than raging river; in 2003, he fully crossed over when his hard-funk tune “Callin’ Out” was used in a Diet Coke ad. Since then, Lyrics Born (née Tsutomu “Tom” Shimura) has traded his onstage DJ, D-Sharp, for a live band and has moved further from his rap roots, drawing inspiration from pop, soul, and electro. On his third solo album, As U Were, he fully devotes himself to re-creating the sounds of ’80s radio, coating his drum-machine beats with thick synthesizers and name-dropping Devo and 2 Live Crew. “Coulda Woulda Shoulda” quotes a Michael Jackson beat, while “Kontrol Phreak” and “I Wanna B w/U” recall the robotic strut of Cameo. Yet the album never feels like a museum piece, thanks to a wealth of unstoppable melodies, Lyrics Born’s engagingly gravelly singing, and lyrics that bemoan the ills of urban life and root for love to conquer all—without resorting to clichés. Rap fans may not know what to make of As U Were, but open-minded listeners will find much to like. B+
–DAN STRACHOTA

BOOK
JAMES FRANCO: PALO ALTO
(Scribner)
He’s played Ginsberg and Dean, gotten dolled up in drag for the cover of a trans style magazine, and made freakiness and geekiness enviable—James Franco is our local boy done very, very good. Now, with his first story collection, the Palo Alto native can add author to his wide-ranging résumé. Franco, who dropped out of UCLA after a year to become an actor, has spent time in no less than three MFA programs and is readying for a PhD at Yale. Based on the earnest, awkward stories in Palo Alto, it seems like all that workshopping might have been too much of a fine thing. Breaking the cardinal rule of Fiction 101, Franco tells and tells but rarely shows: “He acted shy. He was like a deer.” “I’m really good in math class but I don’t announce it because I’m a girl.” (We wouldn’t know that last fact if it weren’t spelled out; almost all the teen­age narrators in Palo Alto sound interchangeable.) To be fair, Franco is a novice, and his debut has some promising moments—“the atmosphere was a held breath”—but his words fall flat more often than not, even when he resorts increasingly to sex and violence to give them life. Maybe, over time, the Bay Area’s talented jack-of-all-arts will come to inhabit the role of writer as comfortably as he has so many others. C
–MIA LIPMAN

BLOG
ALEXIS SWANSON TRAINA: NAPA FOR THE CURIOUS & ECCENTRIC
(alexisnapa.com)
When it comes to entertaining, you can find countless blogs by Marthas who dote on Mrs. John L. Strong bespoke stationery and by Ritz Crackers–loving Rachaels who get crazy with the Cheez Whiz. But in the Bay Area, where studied nonchalance and farm-to-table dining prevail, such posts often seem overwrought or undercooked. Enter Alexis Swanson Traina’s blog, which artfully (the site features watercolors by Jean-Philippe Delhomme) introduces readers to locals who inspire the design elements of our region’s epicurean discourse—including Bell’occhio’s Claudia Schwartz, decorator Ken Fulk, and Birch floral design’s Torryne Choate—all of whom offer relevant and often mischievous advice. (Schwartz stores hostess gifts in the seat of an antique cane chair; Choate pairs Marlboro Reds with pinot grigio.) Traina, the creative mind behind Swanson Vineyards’ dis­tinctive look, launched the blog this past spring, it was picked up by the Huffington Post in October, and now she’s hit her stride with cheeky gift ideas that’ll have you laughing into your laptop. For the playboy in your life, Traina suggests group­ing a list of dating prospects with two playfully named versions of Swanson’s new house wine—Lucky Night and Please Forgive Me—plus an Alexis cab and chocolate bonbons. The idea is as spot-on as the blog where it’s posted. A
–ELIZABETH VARNELL

BOOK
RICHARD NAGLER: WORD ON THE STREET
(Heyday Books)
Prowling the streets of Oakland in 1977, Bay Area photographer Richard Nagler spied an ancient woman peering through the curtains of her second-story apartment. Beneath her window was a remnant of a shop sign showing a single word: TIME. It aptly evoked the woman’s age and made for a clever picture—and it launched a three-decade obsession to document similar coincidences. Nagler would have been better off letting TIME stand alone. The 70 photographs in Word on the Street, many taken in Oakland and San Francisco, are mostly well composed, and they successfully capture facets of urban living. But the repeated juxtaposition of a person with a word is distracting at best, and it usually feels forced, as does the introduc­tory essay’s attempt to associate Nagler’s photos with the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. The worst pictures are the most obvious: A workman wipes his brow beneath a theater marquee reading RELAX. Nagler’s more ambiguous combinations fare better, but only because they de-emphasize his concept. The truth is, he doesn’t need a linguistic conceit. His street photography is smart enough to speak for itself. C-
–JONATHON KEATS

BOOK
JULIE GREICIUS & ELISSA BASSIST (EDS.): RUMPUS WOMEN, VOL. I
(The Rumpus Paper Internets)
Don’t be fooled by the generic subtitle, Personal Essays by Women—this collection has plenty of character and a fun backstory. San Francisco–based culture website The Rumpus.net’s new book club alternates between male and female authors each month. November was slotted for a woman, but editors Julie Greicius and Elissa Bassist couldn’t find “an edgy, honest, and literary book” to send to members. So, in early August, they began soliciting essays on any subject from female writers, with one catch: They had to go to print in three weeks. The result is a surprisingly coherent, bold, and stylistically varied compilation whose 20 contributors span a range of topics—religion, race, motherhood, hiking, writing—each in conversation with the rest. (“Pussy Fever,” Cheryl Strayed’s thoughts on why she wishes sex work were obsolete, is followed by “Locker 29,” Antonia Crane’s gritty exposé about auditioning for a New Orleans strip club.) This is a Rumpus production, so the authors tend to be hip and urbane, and many of them discuss sexuality that’s outside the norm. But no matter what they cover, these well-written pieces share a probing intelligence and raise more questions than they answer—the perfect antidote to the pat personal reflections in most col­lections with the word women in the title. A-
–MALENA WATROUS