Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Video: Aphex Twin- Come To Daddy

Now, I've never been on acid, so I've never had a bad trip...but I imagine it's sort of like this video.

The more time goes on, and the more of his music I hear, the more I'm convinced that Richard D. James aka Aphex Twin has one of the best senses of humor in the music industry. There's just something about the way the guy operates--from the music and remixes he releases to his sometimes bizarre public appearances to the covers and titles of his albums--which causes me to think this way.

I remain unsure, however, whether 'Come To Daddy' is funny or terrifying. It certainly is creepy, and the stuff childhood nightmares are made of, but it's also kind of funny--from the way the evil-TV-spirit is summoned by dog piss, to the mob of children with Richard D. James masks, to the 'Techno Is' graffiti in the background of one scene. Does the evil-TV-spirit look like the evil guy from Ghostbusters 2 to anyone else??

I like how the "come to daddy" finale looks like the final scene from Close Encounter of the Third Kind where the big tall alien comes out amongst the smaller ones. Anyway, the part where the Richard D. James monster emerges from the TV and screams into the old woman's face is one of those memorable music video moments that everyone should really experience.

If you're ever bored, I recommend watching the rest of Aphex Twin's videos. They're all suitably strange, wonderful, and creepy.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Primer: Pavement Part 5- Brighten The Corners

Of all the Pavement albums most in need of reevaluation and re-contextualizing via the deluxe reissue treatments Matador has been giving Pavement for the past half decade, Brighten The Corners is at the top of my list, followed by Terror Twilight. While I have a clear picture of what Terror Twilight is and what the band were trying to achieve, I also know that there were a myriad of b-sides and Spiral Stairs songs left off that will provide for rich grist when the time comes for its 2 CD rebirth.

What I can't quite grasp is much about Brighten The Corners. Its era (1996 through early 1998) is easily the most undiscussed and unknown period in Pavement's history; things seem to kind of stop at the end of the Wowee Zowee era with the release in January 1996 of the Pacific Trim EP and pick up again in the summer of 1998, with the recording sessions for Terror Twilight, which is also a time when Stephen Malkmus began to do solo shows and was quickly, then slowly, then quickly on his way to breaking up the band toward the end of 1999. Watching The Slow Century DVD you would hardly know Brighten The Corners is released, other than the five or so minutes it's given where Stephen Malkmus mentions that with the album they were trying to show more of their classic rock and REM influences.

Yet even with that Rosetta Stone the album itself is a bit of a slippery thing to nail down. It's Pavement's most mature album in many ways, from the mostly mannered songs and arrangements to the lyrical subjects that frequently mention marriage, growing old, and changes in general. It also is their most accessible by virtue of the fact that there are no noise bursts or screaming; even their other "my parents might like this" album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, had stuff like 'Hit The Plane Down.' So, then, Brighten The Corners is their classic rock/REM album...but it's Pavement's take on this aesthetic, so it's odd and still too strange for the mainstream audience it should have/was trying to appeal to.

We need to keep in mind that, during 1996 and 1997, people were again predicting the death of rock and roll. Electronica/techno had finally caught on in America--after years of being huge in Europe and other locales--and as usual for a short sighted and culturally narrow minded populace, some American critics and writers began to wonder if it would replace rock. Never mind that "with us or against us" and black-and-white have no place in music and never have; also never mind that jazz, blues, rock, hip hop, country, folk, techno, etc. can co-exist peacefully and cross pollinate and create great things. No, it seems that everyone was again making the mistake and saying rock was dead. Into this mire came Pavement, with their most thoroughly old fashioned album. In the aforementioned DVD, a European journalist asks Malkmus if, with Brighten The Corners, they are trying to save rock. He mutters some clever answer about how they feel alone on an island with a few other bands, but they'll save it in the end. I don't think he meant it, but it's a telling comment/joke nonetheless.

It's impossible for me to listen to this album without the above paragraph of context. Brighten The Corners is a sharp departure from the excess and variety of Wowee Zowee, and while I don't think it was an attempt to become a huge popular band that would save rock, it must at least have been an attempt to do something wholly different from their last. For that very reason, it's my least favorite Pavement album, and in many ways, I think it's their least interesting both to listen to and talk about. You may have noticed how much time I've given to everything about the album other than the music, and that's done half intentionally and half not so. I simply don't feel like I have much to say about the album; after a listen or two, its strengths and weaknesses feel self evident.

There are three things I want to point out, and they each involve two song pairs. The first is that 'Stereo' and 'Shady Lane' are among the best Pavement songs ever, and that they begin the album and were the sole singles from it is significant. Secondly, this album is the showcase for Spiral Stairs. Though he only contributes two songs, they are probably his best--with all due respect to 'Kennel District.' 'Date With Ikea' is a great, classicist rock/pop song with Kannberg's unpretentious vocals to make it deeply hummable, while 'Passat Dream' is one of the most unique pieces of the Pavement discography, with a danceable drum beat and a psychedelic backdrop of guitars, keyboards, and "ooh-woo-woo-ooh-ohh" vocals. Lastly, the album closes with the one-two punch of 'Starlings of the Slipstream' and 'Fin', two songs that both have that distinctive "this is the song that closes the album" feel to them. They always throw me off because I don't expect 'Fin' until it starts because 'Starlings' has such finality to it.

Actually, I lied, I have one last thing to say about the album. I'll try to make this quick because I don't have any evidence to back this up. Rather, this is just a matter of feeling: Brighten The Corners doesn't feel like a Pavement album to me. I say "feel" but I also mean "sound." I'm trying my best not to be vague, but there is simply something a bit off about the whole thing. Something in the production, the way the songs sound, how the instruments work with the lyrics, the general vibe of the whole thing...People like to give Terror Twilight guff for being a proto-Malkmus solo album, but if it is, at least it sounds like the other Pavement albums. Listen to Brighten The Corners before or after their other ones. All Pavement albums have a unique vibe and sound, but--again, apologies for being vague--there is something off about Brighten The Corners.

Though Brighten The Corners is my least favorite Pavement album, it also proves how good least-favorite-albums-by-one-of-my-favorite-bands can be. It's the sort of thing like Bossanova by the Pixies where I always forget how much I enjoy it until I make myself listen to it again. I look forward to the deluxe reissue of Brighten The Corners in order to help me get a better understanding and possible appreciation of this (kind of) undiscovered era of Pavement. Until then, know that Brighten The Corners is worth a listen for fans, but only after you've heard everything else. While it may seem I am being a bit harsh on something I admittedly like, I listen to it the least of any Pavement/Malkmus albums, and that should say more than all the words I just rambled out.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Video: The Sea and Cake- Crossing Line

The Sea and Cake are one of those bands who, when people ask me to name some of my favorite music, I always forget about. I also usually forget how much I like them until one of their songs crosses my iTunes shuffle or a friend brings them up in casual conversation.

This video is one of those static concept pieces that can either completely work or completely fail. In this case, it works fantastically; The Sea and Cake's music always casts visions of spring and summer afternoons in my mind, and in that regard, this clip is the perfect complement. As the song winds through its carefully planned course, what seems to be a bird overheard follows the camera in a car as it drives around what I would guess is a suburb.

The subtitles for the lyrics are a nice touch, too, because they help reveal how lucid and dreamlike Sam Prekop's lyrics can be. I have to admit, they normally float past me as inconsequentially as an occasional wind gust on a hot summer day, but having them literally spelled out for me has me paying more attention to his lyrics, especially as I re-listen to the underrated Everybody album.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Album of the Week/Primer: Pavement Part 4- Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition

1994 and 1995 were hugely prolific years for Pavement. While the band were busy touring all over the place--even enjoying an ill fated stint on the 1995 Lollapalooza tour--they managed to release two great albums: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee. While the former has all the feel of a band becoming a band, with songs polished and eager to see action in the wild, the latter has all the feel of a band comfortable with each other, willing to try anything and stretch their horizons. The former was recorded mostly in a small studio in New York, while the latter was recorded mostly in the comfy confines of Memphis. In short, Wowee Zowee is a sloppy, schizophrenic "band album" that may strike most listeners as more fun to make than it is to listen to.

For my part, the album underscores, italicizes, and bolds the difference between "my favorite album from a band" and "the best album by a band." Is it a critic's duty to argue for his ragged beloved even if he knows his family, friends, and readers might not like it at all--"really, Dad, she's got a great personality!!"--or to acknowledge its flaws and, instead, work up the same level of enthusiasm for a more polished, digestible album that people are bound to like?? Should I consider my favorite album to be a band's best album, or should I always concede to popular opinion and taste?? Frankly, I love Woee Zowee and it's easily my favorite album by Pavement (in fact, most 'hardcore' fans, and members of the band, seem to feel the same) but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who's never heard the band before. As I said in my reviews for Slanted & Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the latter is really the best place for newbies to start as well as being their most agreeable album. You could make a pretty solid case for either of Pavement's first two albums as being their definitive best, but you'll only ever see hardcore fans arguing that Wowee Zowee is their best.

I am one of them. Wowee Zowee is secretly one of the best albums of the 90s, but you would also have to like Pavement to feel that way. In my mind, I think of this album as being the most Pavement of all Pavement albums. It sounds like a band not trying to be anything except themselves. They let it all hang out here, too: the album is Pavement's longest and most diverse by a wide margin. In critic shorthand, we call this "a band's White Album." That Wowee Zowee begins with the slow, lurching 'We Dance' (a song that itself begins with the uncomfortable lyric "there is no/castration fear") speaks volumes for what the band were going for here. Moreover, the band chose 'Rattled By The Rush' and 'Father To a Sister of Thought' for the singles, two songs that don't exactly scream out for mid 90s alternative rock radio play. 'Father To a Sister of Thought', other than having of the best titles in the entire Pavement canon, just happens to be a mid-tempo countrified rocker that recalls 'Range Life' from Crooked Rain. So, yeah, it'd be hard to picture that playing after 'Zero' by the Smashing Pumpkins.

Other highlights abound. 'Grounded' is still one of my favorite songs from this or any album, with repetitive, swirling guitars and crunchy breaks. 'Grave Architecture' has one of those propulsive guitar/bass/drum grooves you can imagine yourself driving to or drinking to in a basement party. 'Flux = Rad' is a caustic punker that sees the band tapping back into their hardcore influences, Malkmus screaming "I don't wanna let you!!" before the song collapses into the two-part, epic sounding 'Fight This Generation', one of the band's masterpieces. Finally, there's 'Kennel District', Spiral Stairs' most visible and worthwhile contribution to an album up to this point, driven by a huge, fuzzy bassline and a distorted, upper register guitar.

Like their first two albums, Wowee Zowee was reissued in a deluxe fashion, titled Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition. You might think that, with such a long album, there wouldn't be much left to hear. Surprisingly, then, this disc-and-a-half of extras is every bit the equal of the Crooked Rain bonuses, if not the Slanted & Enchanted high water mark. Along with outtakes and b-sides from the 'Rattled By The Rush' and 'Father To A Sister of Thought' singles, disc one includes the Pacific Trim EP, which is a curious footnote both in the Pavement and Silver Jews histories. Pavement members Malkmus, Steve West, and Bob Nastanovich were supposed to record some Silver Jews material with David Berman at a studio, but Berman backed out at the last minute. Rather than waste the money, the three soldiered on, banging out these four songs in a few days. But I digress. None of this extra material is going to change your life, but for fans of this era of Pavement, they're like manna from heaven. 'Gangsters & Pranksters' is just one of those fun non-album tracks that fans of bands eat up and cherish and misguidedly put up mixtapes for friends who don't get it.

Disc two is far more scattershot. But, hey, that's what we love about Wowee Zowee, right?? 'Sensitive Euro Man' is a slight, formerly-soundtrack-only Malkmus number, better ed significantly by Spiral Stairs' 'Painted Soliders', another formerly-soundtrack-only affair that is genuinely catchy and rocking. It also has one of Pavement's best/worst videos ever, but that's a tale for another time. Elsewhere we get a few stray outtakes and compilation appearances that don't amount to much--'Soul Food' especially--while the live material is completely great. 'Fight This Generation' comes in a long, screechy-flute-enhanced version, giving people a glimpse into the way the band would sloppily stretch and break the songs live, all while Malkmus ad-libs new lyrics or just stream-of-consciousness variations of what was on the album. The band's penchant for throwing random tangents is shown in the 'Golden Boys/Candylad' pairing and later with the jam they do before busting into 'Box Elder', one of those weird moments where you're not sure if they're really trying or not.

When all is said and done, Wowee Zowee still remains my favorite Pavement album and one of my favorite albums, period. With the Sordid Sentinels reissue, I have even more reason to love it, and this era of Pavement in general. Yet I would be a liar if I said that everyone is going to love this album. Most people will probably listen to it once or twice, wish the band had removed 4 or 5 songs and shuffled the tracklisting around, and then go back to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. But for those who persevere and find sprawling, messy albums that display a band's full talent and personality appealing, there is nothing quite like Wowee Zowee to get you through the day.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Overpowered RPG Characters

One of the ongoing discussions in any game with an active community is usually what character/class is over or underpowered. This usually takes the form of one group saying something is overpowered, another group pointing out how they totally aren't overpowered, and another group that either makes fun of the whole thing or says that another thing is what is really overpowered.

However, overpowered characters are not necessarily a bad thing. Most of my favorite games have them. Perhaps that says more about me than it does the games, but nevertheless...allow me to present my favorites.
Who??: Alucard
Game: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Why??: Alucard is Dracula's son. Therefore, he has all kinds of awesome-ness already going for me. Specifically to Symphony of the Night, it means that, almost from the minute you start the game, you're a walking death machine. Once you start to get better equipment and spells, the game becomes a cakewalk. In fact, this entry in the Castlevania series is notoriously easy, especially if you abuse things like the Shield Rod + Alucard Shield combo, the spell that drains the life of enemies, or the Crissaegrim sword. You might immediately say "Well, Alucard is the only playable character in the game, so does he count as overpowered?!" but you forget that you can unlock Richter Belmont and, depending on the version you're playing, Maria. Richter is a bit more challenging, while Maria is awkward and lame. So, yeah, Alucard is stupidly powerful.
Who??: Peter the Phoenix
Game: Shining Force II
Why??: When you first get Peter in your party, he looks like he does above and is controlled by the computer. Once you see him in action during a battle, though, you'll quickly learn why Peter is considered the best character in the game. Or at least the cheapest. Unlike some of the other characters in the Shining Force series, who start out horrible but with a lot of work become unstoppable, Peter is immediately awesome. After he's promoted and he starts looking more like an Aztec bird god instead of a retarded muppet, he becomes even better. Not only does Peter automatically resurrect himself so you don't have to pay money after battles to get him back, but he has gobs of attack, speed, and HP. Also, in the game's story, he permanently joins your party on the order of a God. Sweet.
Who??: Orlandu a.k.a. T.G. Cid
Game: Final Fantasy Tactics
Why??: Orlandu is one of the earliest known times where people began to use terms like 'overpowered.' Though he joins your party well into the game, he comes with the All SwordSkill ability set, meaning he can use ALL of the awesome Sword Skill attacks in the game. You know, the ones that are way too powerful and awesome. Not only that, he comes with the Excalibur sword, which casts Haste on any character wielding it. So he gets twice as many turns as your other characters, and he has some of the best unique attacks. Assuming you twink him out with some of the abilities from the game's other unbalanced classes (hello, Dual Wield from Ninjas) he becomes, you guessed it, even more powerful. Obligatory Note: T.G. Cid stands for "Thunder God Cid."
Who??: Warlocks
Game: World of Warcraft
Why??: Warlocks are a contentious subject in WoW. They have been considered overpowered since the release of the game, and while they aren't the "automatic win" that most of the other characters I'm talking about are, they still are pretty bad. WoW is a game where most classes have a specific role, or two, to play. Warlocks can seemingly do everything in the game at once, even if some of those roles are better done by other classes. Just for the sake of argument: they can DPS with awesome spells, DOT with awesome curses, resurrect healers, create items that quickly heal other players, breathe underwater with a spell, crowd control with Banish or Fear or Enslave, get their mounts and epic mounts for free (requires doing involved quest chains, but still), tank via certain pets (Felguard says "hi!!"), summon other players, siphon mana or health from enemies...

The most telling thing about Warlocks is that, for a class that can only wear cloth armor, they dominate in PvP. This is because they can max out their Stamina--thus getting a nearly bottomless reservoir of HP--and use an ability that quickly converts HP into mana, effectively giving them infinite MP for spells and making them nearly unkillable. Combined with a healer class like Paladin or Priest, in 2 v 2 matches they are gods. Combined with Shadow Priests in PvE questing, instanced dungeons, or raids, their combined Shadow spells and Shadow resistance lowering effects make them great in every situation. Whew.
Who??: Sorcerers
Game: Diablo
Why??: The first Diablo is embarrassingly unbalanced to the side of Sorcerers. Of the three available classes, they become unstoppable whirling death by game's end due to their array of spells and Mana Shield. Basically, Mana Shield causes you to take damage from your MP instead of HP. At the same time, you can spam Guardian (which summons three-headed dragon dealies to shoot at enemies) and Apocalypse (which is the big, end-game nuke spell of the game) to roll over your enemies with ease. Sorcerers are the definition of overpowered, though the early-to-mid game can be rough as it is for every caster class in most Western style RPGs. Speaking of which...
Who??: Bards
Game: Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter
Why??: I chose this one for last because it's one of the more interesting examples of the changes an expansion can bring to a seemingly set-in-stone game. The thing is, I like music a lot, but in the context of RPGs, Bards are unspeakably lame. This was especially true in the D&D games that Bioware/Black Isle developed in the late 90s/early 00s. However, with the Heart of Winter expansion pack for the dungeon hacky Icewind Dale, Bards became arguably the best class in the game, with the exception of Druids. Bards are kind of like the Warlocks of Icewind Dale: they do a lot of things and a good number of those they do well. Bards can pickpocket like Thieves, cast spells like Mages, get buffs in the form of songs, can identify items with their high Lore rating (an awesome skill that most people take for granted), get some great Bard-only items, can do certain quest things that other characters can't (in the first town, they can sing to a ghost for extra experience), and, possibly, could tank. I never bothered with the latter, though. Maybe 'overpowered' is too strong a word, but the Heart of Winter changes made the Bard one of the best classes in the game. With the final song (which they learn at a measly level 11) they become an essential part of your party.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Primer: Pavement Part 3- Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.'s Desert Origins

I don't listen to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain anymore. Oh, sure, I do bust it out from time to time and play it, but I'm rarely actively listening to it. It goes in one ear and comes out the other and I can subconsciously feel the changes and the different songs, but the album has become so ingrained in my psyche that I take it for granted.

If you were going to play a Pavement album to try to get someone into the band, Crooked Rain would be it. Sure, Brighten The Corners is a lot more mellow and easy going, but it's also not as good as Crooked Rain. Rather, this album is the sound of Pavement forming into a true band that is both inventive and tips its hat to forefathers at the same time. Along with concurrent releases by, say, Sebadoh, the album also helped cement the mid 90s indie rock sound of clean guitars juxtaposed with distorted ones, and a wide ranging sound that draws inspiration from 70s punk rock, 80s hardcore, 80s indie rock, and classic rock.

'Silence Kid', often erroneously titled 'Silence Kit', opens the album with the band tuning up before the memorable rush of cowbell-driven-guitars kicks in. This really is one of those songs that you never get sick of and the difference between it and even the band's last release, the Watery, Domestic EP is huge. Much happened in Pavement land between these times, though: original drummer and producer Gary Young quit the band (or was fired, depending on who you ask) and was replaced by both friend-of-the-band Steve West and ancillary backup musician/road manager Bob Nastonovich, the latter of whom often had to keep time on a mini drum kit during concerts when Young became too drunk or antic happy to function. Steve West has a much more classically oriented full rock sound, fitting these songs like a glove; at the same time, the songs themselves just sound bigger and more cooked up, rather than the brilliant scribbles of Slanted & Enchanted. Scott Kannberg aka Spiral Stairs also makes more of a noticeable contribution, particularly with his first lead vocal appearance on 'Hit The Plane Down', which is one of those love-it-or-hate-it songs. Personally I don't think it fits the album at all, but I'm too used to it being there to really want to get rid of it.

While I should say up front that Crooked Rain is not my favorite Pavement album, it absolutely has some fantastic songs. 'Stop Breathin'' is the first instance on record of Malkmus's guitar ambitions which would later see fruition on his solo albums, a twirling, melancholic, and downright pretty solo showcase that achieves liftoff in its second half. 'Cut Your Hair' and 'Gold Soundz' being the most well known of the album's songs, you might think they have nothing to offer other than a hook to get mainstream America to buy Crooked Rain. Not so. If you haven't heard these songs in awhile, or just remember them as boring and accessible, give them another spin: the irresistable "ooh ooh ohh ohh ohh" chorus of 'Cut Your Hair' just gets better with age, while the rich melodies and skewed lyrics of 'Gold Soundz' make for great hanging-with-friends-in-the-Spring-or-Summer music. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention 'Heaven Is A Truck', which is the album's hidden gem. It also happens to be one of Malkmus's tenderest and most poetic songs, and apparently something of a favorite of his--seeing him perform it, solo and acoustic, at the Pitchfork festival last year was like watching an author do a reading of what they consider one of their best works.

Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain was released in a deluxe edition reissue a few years ago. Much like the Slanted & Enchanted reissue, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.'s Desert Origins adds a disc and a half of bonus material, most of which is unavailable elsewhere. While it's nowhere near as good as the first reissue's bonus material, it's still the version to buy. The first disc's extra stuff mostly amounts to B-sides, all of which you'll listen to a few times and forget about. 'Coolin' By Sound' would have made a better choice for the album as a Spiral Stairs song instead of 'Hit The Plane Down', though, and 'Strings of Nashville' is a gorgeous and quiet ballad that may take you off guard. Disc two is where the money is at: a handful of songs from the scrapped sessions the band did with Gary Young, a host of outtakes and song sketches, and a Peel session to cap it all off. Tracks 2 through 8 were from the aforementioned Young session and reveal what the album might have turned out like with Young still in the band and producing. They simply don't sound right, and while that may be a "I'm too used to the album as it would turn out" thing, 'Range Life', 'Stop Breathin'', and 'Ell Ess Two' (later renamed 'Elevate Me Later') sound rushed and lightweight in any context.

What will most please fans is the remainder of the disc, which has some great unreleased material and plays like a mini-album. Along with a piano heavy alternate mix of 'Heaven Is A Truck' and early versions of songs that would turn up on Wowee Zowee, we get a glimpse into the Pavement songwriting playbook with the sketches like 'Rug Rat' and 'Dark Ages.' I find these fascinating because I love Malkmus's tossed off songs and lyrical ad-libs, but everyone else's mileage will vary. After the palette cleansing, sad, and appropriately titled 'Instrumental', the Peel session closes the disc with 'Brink of the Clouds' and 'Tartar Martyr', equally good Malkmus and Spiral Stairs unreleased songs; an early version of 'Pueblo'; and 'The Sutcliffe Catering Song' which will show up on the Wowee Zowee deluxe edition titled 'Easily Fooled.' Anyway, it's a nice cap to the reissue, and every bit as "wow, I've never heard these before and they're awesome!!" as the Peel sessions from Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe.

But I digress. It's easy for me to recommend this album to anyone because it's the one that even people who don't really like Pavement can enjoy. If you're looking to expand your horizons, or go back in time to when indie rock was the alternative to alternative rock, then Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain is the album for you.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Primer: Pavement Part 2- Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe

If you'll excuse me for opening a post in such a lavish, proclamatory way, I just want to get this off my chest: Slanted & Enchanted is one of the best albums ever released and it's next to impossible to imagine the development of indie rock from the 90s onward without it. Whew. I feel better.

Though still a band not nearly as popular and well known as we music critics make them out to be, nevertheless, during the 90s Pavement were the carriers of the great white indie rock hope. This mantle having been placed on them with the release, in 1992, of Slanted & Enchanted, an album that both significantly improved upon their first three EPs and 'Summer Babe' single as collected on Westing (By Musket and Sextant) AND blew the doors out on the band's songwriting, pushing songs in new and strange directions. Witness 'Conduit For Sale!' in all its dust raising glory, alternating between cries of "I'm trying!! I'm trying!!" and Stephen Malkmus's stream of consciousness, almost 'Subterranean Homesick Blues'-esque quick talking absurdisms. Witness 'Here', their first "ballad", which moves in a circular fashion while maintaining the same sublime drum and guitar line during its entire duration. Witness 'Fame Throwa', perhaps the album's most unique creation, a cinematic spy tale of two disparate pieces that sling back and forth neatly. At least I think that's what is going on...

One could talk about each of the album's original 14 songs, but other than 'Our Singer', which is one of my favorite and most unsung tracks from the album, you either know these songs already or you have no clue. If you don't have a clue, you really should. Early 90s indie rock doesn't come much better than Slanted & Enchanted, and while you may at first be turned off by the bits of noise or the screaming/yelping on some songs, give the album enough time to win you over and you'll have a true favorite for years to come.

In 2002, to mark the 10th anniversary of the album, Matador released the Slanted & Enchanted: Luxe & Reduxe reissue. Spread across 2 CDs are the original album, assorted B-sides, two Peel sessions, the Watery, Domestic EP released shortly after the album, B-sides from that EP, and a full concert from late '92. This really is the version of the album to buy even if it will you cost a bit more money. The Peel sessions alone are a wealth of mostly unreleased Pavement gems, from the plaintive, cleaned up version of 'Secret Knowledge of Backroads' that would be seen on the Silver Jews' The Arizona Record to the addictive "see myself come running back" call and response vocals on 'Circa 1762' to the suffocating atmosphere and strangled shrieks of 'The List of Dorms', they're all unique additions to the Slanted era.

Of course the big draws are the full concert and the Watery, Domestic EP. The concert is more or less what you'd expect. It's mostly "more frantic and rocking" versions of Slanted era songs. However, it should be noted that the concert also contains songs from the Westing collection in significantly better form, including 'Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent.' As for Watery, Domestic, well, it's rightfully considered the best EP Pavement ever put out--though I do have a soft spot for Pacific Trim. 'Texas Never Whispers' begins with a feedback shrill organ before descending into the cool opening line "here we go/she's on a hidden tableaux", which is probably the only time I've heard "tableaux" used in a song. 'Frontwards' is one of the band's signature non-album tracks, an almost Weezer-esque mid-tempo mellow rocker with the memorably uncharacteristic line "well I've got style/miles and miles/so much style that it's wasted." 'Lions (Linden)' is a slight-but-good ditty while 'Shoot The Singer (1 Sick Verse)' helps point the way to Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain with its (kind of) fuller band sound and "da da da da" vocals/Malkmus ad-libbing something during the ending. Oddly enough, 'So Stark (You're A Skyscraper)' and 'Greenlander' didn't make the cut for the EP though I think most people agree they're as good if not better that the last two songs on the EP. 'Greenlander' is just one of those songs you can end a mixtape's side on and feel good about every single time.

Slanted & Enchanted occupies this weird space for me, because it's neither my favorite Pavement album (that would be Wowee Zowee) nor the one I would consider the best place to start for newbies (that would be Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain). However, I would stick my neck out and call it Pavement's most important album, because of everything it did for the band (proved their potential, justified the initial attention and praise) and the indie rock world (a landmark release, both for the "scene" itself and now-powerhouse, then-brand-new label Matador). Setting all of this aside, as one should ultimately, Slanted & Enchanted is an album that you have to thumb through a thesaurus to come up with new and interesting superlatives for because it's all been said. You simply must have it, and the Luxe & Reduxe version of the album is worth every penny.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Video: Daft Punk- Around The World

There's no other way to say it: Michel Gondry is a genius. And Daft Punk are geniuses, too. The combination of these two talents--even in 1997, before they were as well known as they are today--produced the magnificent video for the single version of 'Around The World.'

The video, which features Gondry's usual bag of dreamlike and almost-optical-illusion-esque tricks, has various groups moving around a platform in revolving, interweaving fashion. Like a visualizer, their movements sync up with the beats and sounds of the music in a way close enough to be cool but not so close as to be crap choreography.

My favorite 'group' in this video?? Not the skeletons as you might predict, but the prosthetically-tall jogging suit bedecked dudes. There's something very mid-to-late 90s about them, and I like that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Primer: Pavement Part 1- Westing (By Musket and Sextant)

In today's indie rock/blogosphere "scene", where bands seemingly spring up overnight based on recordings that aren't even available for purchase yet, it's hard to think back to a time when bands could get huge interest in them based on something they had actually released--maybe even on a vinyl record(!!). The late 80s/early 90s were a time when bands would self finance singles or EPs, press a thousand copies for friends, send some out to record labels and fanzines, and be satisfied with whatever attention they got. Often there was a great mystique about a band because no one knew everything about them within the first minute of their 15 minutes of fame. Into this golden era rode Pavement, a band that people knew so little about some fanzines mistakenly switched around the band's name with the EP's title or their made-up record label, Treble Kicker.

I won't go into a history lesson because there already exists both a great film (Slow Century) and a book (Perfect Sound Forever) about Pavement. However, I will say that Westing (By Musket and Sextant) represents a valuable reminder of just how fully formed Pavement were at conception. And, also, how far they came. Westing collects the band's first three EPs and the 'Summer Babe' single along with a few stray tracks, all material that predates the Slanted & Enchanted album.

It's difficult to set aside history and try to come to this music with fresh ears, in the same way that you can't listen to, say, Revolver or Kind of Blue with virgin ears. I'm not saying that this music is near the level of those releases, but similarly, I can't really listen to Westing and pretend that I haven't heard everything Pavement and Stephen Malkmus have done since. However, it would be hard not to be excited about this band even based on the first EP, Slay Tracks (1933-1969). 'You're Killing Me' starts with blasts of noise before repetitive guitar chording and static swamp the mix. Malkmus sings in his soon-to-be patented nasally alto. And hey presto, it's the Pavement you know and love, only younger and more lo-fi. 'Box Elder' is a Pavement classic, one that the band apparently played throughout its history. 'She Believes' is another early favorite, with a chugging, insistent guitar line and Gary Young's emphatic, primitive drumming.

Next up is Demolition Plot J-7 which begins with a personal favorite in 'Forklift.' A bit messier than its subsequent live renditions, the "ba ba ba ba ba" backing chorus still shines through the murk. 'Spizzle Trunk' features keyboards of some kind, along with a great guitar/drums break in between verses. Other than 'Perfect Depth', which is a hidden gem, I feel like this EP is the weakest of the three collected here. The other songs are too underdeveloped, and sound like the aimless slabs of noise or riffing they are.

Perfect Sound Forever represents a step up both in terms of consistency and inventiveness. You can really see the seeds of the 'Summer Babe' single/Slanted & Enchanted album here. 'Heckler Spray' is a fun and rocking instrumental that builds up steam for 'From Now On', another hidden gem in the band's early discography, and one that lightens the band's sound enough that you can imagine a dubiously "with it" record executive saying to himself "if we took out the noisy guitars on the chorus breaks, we could push this as grunge!!" The band, however, prove themselves unpredictable with the odd, almost Sonic Youth-esque opening of 'Angel Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent' which, admittedly, appears in a better, more energetic form on the deluxe reissue of Slanted & Enchanted. Still, the band is trying something new, and it works great: a weird, avant-guitar intertwining opening and then a mellower second half. The other two noteworthy songs on here are 'Debris Slide' and 'Home', the former of which is a brilliant and stupid sing-along, the latter of which has some of Malkmus's earliest and best examples of the way his lyrics can be lucid and bizarre yet somehow still affect you emotionally.

Fans of Slanted & Enchanted will be interested to see how this version of 'Summer Babe' differs from the so-called "Winter Version" on the album. Well, it's all mixed a bit lower, but otherwise there isn't much difference. Then there's 'Mercy: The Laundromat', which is also known as 'Mercy Snack: The Laundromat' and simply 'Mercy Snack.' Either way, as a B-side it is every bit the equal of the Slanted tracks, and has a nice in-joke with the line "I'm regular/I'm treble kicked." Everything about this song is prime early Pavement, from the surreal lyrics to the peaking, white noise guitars to the caveman simple drums on the breaks. 'Baptist Blacktick' is another experiment in songwriting that pays off, with a great moment where Malkmus screams out the lyrics. 'My First Mine' is a song that I like a lot, but it's definitely B-side grist. Westing closes with 'My Radio', a song whose origins I'm unsure of, but definitely sounds like something recorded during the three EPs, all white noise guitars and lo-fi production.

Though as a huge fan of Pavement I'm tempted to say this compilation is essential, in reality, it isn't. Much of this material is either collected on the deluxe reissue of Slanted & Enchanted (often in better form) or is only going to appeal to hardcore fans and/or those who love this era's noise/pop/indie/lo-fi aesthetic. In short, you should get this once you've heard everything else.

Monday, April 14, 2008

How Impossible Art Thou, Bubble Bobble End Boss??

I was visiting a friend in Cleveland over the weekend, and his roommate ended up downloading Bubble Bobble on the Wii's Virtual Console. We both used to play the game like crazy as younglings, and proceeded to power through most of it without any trouble. Some of the stages are a bitch, but with persistence, we got to the boss. I vaguely remember fighting the boss as a kid, but what I didn't remember is that--like so many other NES games--the end boss is bitch hard.

Though there are better known bitch hard NES bosses, I'm surprised nobody brings up the dude from Bubble Bobble. Here's the set up: you have to get to the top of the stage to get those lightning bottles. They allow you to blow bubbles that, when popped, shoot lightning. The "80" you see at the top is how many hits it takes to bubble the last boss so you can then pop him.

As the boss cuts through the room in his 90 degree patterns, he throws out waves of bottles. GameFAQs informs me that the boss is known as "Super Drunk" which is kind of funny now that I think about it.

Not so funny is the way I can't beat this boss. Keep in mind I'm playing this on an emulator and a keyboard is hardly the ideal way to play the game, but I didn't fair much better with a partner.
You'll see this a lot. After 20 minutes of trying, the lowest I got him down to was 64.
The reason this boss is impossibly hard is a combination of the mechanics of the game and the unfairness of the fight. Quite often you'll find yourself cornered by the boss and wave of bottles, and the bubble blowing and popping is shaky at best best. You never feel like you have enough time or control to set up your attack as you'd like, so it's left up to luck how well you come out each attempt. Other than this boss, the game is about bubbling enemies, popping them, and trying not to get killed. There are also various items you can get to help you, and that experience is a lot of fun. The game's mechanics weren't really designed for a boss fight like this--at least, they don't feel like they were--so that might be a lot of it. Of course the fact it takes 80 hits to kill him--and then you can still screw it up if you don't get to him to pop his ballooned self in time--is just the cherry on top.

As children, we had all the time and bloody mindedness necessary to conquer challenges like this. However, nowadays I have neither time nor bloody mindedness for unfair, rigged crap like this. For its time, Super Drunk was par for the course, but seen through modern eyes he is an antiquated game design element that is both difficult and difficult for bad reasons.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Album of the Week: Palace Music- Viva Last Blues

Will Oldham is what I would consider the consummate singer/songwriter of the 90s--and thereafter--indie rock scene. He has remained resolutely independent of major labels while building a body of work that is as large as it is consistent. Like similar artists John Darnielle (aka the Mountain Goats) and Jason Molina (aka Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co. et al), Oldham releases something once a year and has used many names (Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace, his own name), though he seems to have settled on the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy moniker around the turn of the millenium. Moreover, though he has some critically acknowledged masterpieces (particularly 1999's I See A Darkness), you can pretty much jump into his discography at any point because it's similar enough and every release is at least above average in quality.

Viva Last Blues was Oldham's third album, and, released in 1995, it feels like one of those touchstones for what true independent/underground musicians were doing during the rise and fall of "alternative" rock. If you were old enough to get sick of the mainstream and he so-called 'alternative' to the mainstream during this era, then albums like this were what you latched unto. While most of the world was turning up their amps and having Butch Vig produce their major label debut, Oldham was going to Alabama to record a country tinged album with Steve Albini. Of the sessions, and the other Oldham releases he worked on, Albini has said that Oldham doesn't rehearse the material with the band beforehand. Viva Last Blues has an atmosphere that captures the inspired spark of the moment, of players feeling their way through a song for the first or second time; the very same "strike while it's hot" vibe that John Darnielle goes for when he writes a song and scraps it unless he records it shortly afterward.

Personally, I've been mystified by Oldham's music often being filed under 'country.' Though a vein of rustic Americana runs throughout his work, nothing on Viva Last Blues sounds like either old fashioned country or newer, slicker country. Certainly the instruments on this album aren't foreign to country (guitar, bass, drums, organ/piano, electric guitar) but there isn't that twang factor that I associate with country or the necessary banjos to make it bluegrass-y. I would guess someone, somewhere, referred to this album as being alt-country during its release, but that doesn't quite seem right, either. The closest descriptor I can come up with is Bob Dylan's mid 60s to mid 70s folk/rock/country hybrid sound. It has the same very American sound with being blues, jazz, funk, or outright rock. So, Viva Last Blues is like that Dylan phase, only different and with a much better singer.

Indeed, Oldham's voice is what truly ties these songs together into the brilliant package that they are. Equally adept at low key ballads like 'We All, Us Three, Will Ride' and the ecstatic, yelped peaks of 'Work Hard/Play Hard', Oldham's versatile voice is both distinctive and easy to love. It also makes for a perfect duet or harmonizing foil, and the times on the album where his brother, Ned, or Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein sing with him are some of its best: witness the album closer, 'Old Jersualem', which ends with just such a moment. Elsewhere Oldham's penchant for playful and profane shines through. 'The Mountain Low' has him wishing he could...make love to a mountain (OK, so it's a metaphor for loving a woman who lives in the valley, or something like that), while the aforementioned 'Work Hard/Play Hard' sees Oldham intoning that he likes it "once in the morning and once at night." Serious/melancholy and joking/dirty things are not mutually exclusive, and Will Oldham is the first artist I think of when this dichotomy comes up. As Oldham sings on a song from I See A Darkness, "death to everyone is gonna come/and it makes hosing much more fun." I think you can probably figure out what 'hosing' means.

Like all of his albums, it will take you two spins or so to get into Viva Last Blues. I wasn't an immediate convert to I See A Darkness either. However, if you persevere, you will find in any of Oldham's music a rich and rewarding listen that provides future favorite songs of your's, including the flooring majesties 'New Partner' and 'I See A Darkness', the latter of which Johnny Cash covered. Anyway, Viva Last Blues is a classic, if not essential, Oldham release that everyone should hear.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Video: Tom Waits- God's Away On Business

Tom Waits is a champion squinter. Every time I see footage of him, his face is contorted in a look of either pain or passion, perhaps both, as if singing his damaged, idiosyncratic songs has a physical effect as much as an emotional one. Which kinds of makes sense due to his scratchy, whiskey soaked growl, though if you've heard him speak you know his voice isn't an affectation so much as, well, all he can really manage.

Anyway, this video is an old fashioned artsy one. Waits mugs for the camera in a desolate 20s/30s set that mirrors the old timey sound of the song. At various points he can be seen standing in a room with large birds (my best guess would be emu) and the lyrics of the song as well as the visuals imply that God has left and the animals have re-taken the Earth. Perhaps Waits is the devil or an angel letting us know that our time is coming to an end.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into that.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Same Title, Different Song

If you're like me, you probably keep your music organized on your computer by artist and/or album. However, if you arrange your collection by song title...

Song: 'All I Need'
Artists: Air, My Bloody Valentine, Radiohead
The Air and Radiohead songs are relatively close in tone, both being mid-tempo ballads that help anchor the emotional core of their respective albums. Meanwhile, the My Blood Valentine song is a cloud of noise such that no matter how loud you listen to the song, it always feel remote, far away, and up near the sun somewhere.

Song: 'Wildnerness'
Artists: Joy Division, Sleater-Kinney
Joy Division's 'Wilderness' couldn't be more different from Sleater-Kinney's if they had tried. Their's is an almost prototypical Joy Division number with a plodding drum, scrawling guitars, bucking bass, and reverb everywhere. Meanwhile, Sleater-Kinney's is a mid tempo rocker with impassioned vocals and everything redlined except the intertwining guitar during the chorus breaks.

Song: 'Animals'
Artists: Devendra Banhart, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads
Devendra Banhart's song is a short folk piece that reminds one of the time when he was an actual freak instead of someone constantly putting on a show. Sonic Youth's song, at least the one I have, is an early version of 'Mary Christ' from the deluxe edition of Goo. Meanwhile the Talking Heads song is a typically funky and catchy ditty about how animals are dangerous and untrustworthy foes. The line "animals are smart/they shit on the ground" is pretty ace, too.

Song: 'Dark Star'
Artists: Beck, Grateful Dead
I've always gotten the feeling that most people avoid the title 'Dark Star' because it's so associated with the Grateful Dead. In that spirit, you couldn't get much farther and yet closer to the epic, psychedelic, and improvisational Dead version than Beck's, which is a deadpan spacey dirge with all sorts of psychedelic flourishes.

Song: 'Venus'
Artists: Air, Low, Television
While I don't like the album nearly as much, I feel like 'Venus' is one of the best album openers that Air have ever done. I love the warm embrace of the synth washes that float up after the one minute mark. Then there's Low's 'Venus', which I only have on the hard-to-find live album One More Reason To Forget and which I remember hearing for the first time after I had broken up with a girlfriend. It's an atypically energetic number for Low, especially early Low, though it still moves at their usual slow pace. Anyway, Television's 'Venus' is just plain awesome from beginning to end. People tend to associate Marquee Moon with the longer guitar jams, but I think 'Venus' is the secret masterpiece, especially the backing vocals asking and reacting to the main vocals: "Did you feel low?" "No" "HUH?!"

Song: 'Untitled'
Artists: Andrew Bird, Animal Collective, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Burial, DJ Shadow, Fugazi, Interpol, Panda Bear, Pearl Jam, Sigur Ros, Sonic Youth
Yeah, are you really surprised that so many people in my collection used the title 'Untitled'?? Don't expect me to go through them all, since technically Panda Bear and Sigur Ros released whole albums where every song has no official title.

Song: 'Providence'
Artists: Deerhunter, King Crimson, Sonic Youth
I'll end on this one because I think it's the most interesting. All three of these songs are pretty different, but also pretty similar in an experimental way. Deerhunter's opens with looping guitars and adds layer upon layer of dreamy guitar sounds before descending into an ambient-esque climax with waterfall sounds and birds chirping. King Crimson's 'Providence' comes from the Red album though it is actually a live improvisation from a concert. This is the sort of song that's too difficult to describe. It trades off silence with free form guitar/violin/bass/drums drones and snatches of music and finally gains some momentum in its rollin' and tumblin' second half. Finally, 'Providence' by Sonic Youth is the (in)famous musique concrete piece from Daydream Nation that uses an answering machine message left by Mike Watt, a haunting piano, and errant white noise to produce a spellbinding, indescribable atmosphere that wouldn't be out of place in a David Lynch film.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Swan Lake- Beast Moans

People like to throw around the term "supergroup" as if it actually means anything anymore. Every time a few guys from other bands start a band together you hear that they're a "supergroup." I don't know about you, but the idea of "supergroups" becomes totally unappealing once you've listened to great musicians or artists thrown together at benefit concerts or music festivals. The cold realization is that it takes time for people to get used to each other, and it is exceedingly rare that people who've never collaborated together could produce something substantial on the first try. It's fun to make up dream bands--Hendrix on guitar, John Bonham on drums, that kind of thing--but the truth is they play entirely different styles and would take awhile to either learn to play in each other's framework or create something wholly new.

So, then, Swan Lake, which combines Dan Bejar (solo artist under the moniker Destroyer and the secret weapon of the New Pornographers), Carey Mercer (brilliant howler of Frog Eyes), and Spencer Krug (sometime member of Frog Eyes, main force behind Sunset Rubdown, and a significant creative half of Wolf Parade). At first glance this line up wouldn't make sense to anyone who isn't familiar with Destroyer's work. After releasing the synth/keyboard based Your Blues album, Dan Bejar decided to tour with Frog Eyes as his backing band, transforming the orchestrated and synthetic affectations of the album into a rocking and rollicking barnstormer. If you've ever seen Bob Dylan live in the past few years and witnessed how his band transforms the songs into new and fantastic shapes, then you have an idea of what the Frog Eyes pairing was like. Anyway, Bejar, Mercer, and Krug enjoyed the tour so much they recorded an EP under the Destroyer name, Notorious Lightning and Other Works, and made plans to record an album together. Thus, a year or so later, the Swan Lake project was born.

Where exactly does Beast Moans fall on the scale between "disparate musicians taking turns playing in each other's style" and "creating something unlike anything the three have produced before"?? Well, more of the former than the latter. Imagine me saying that with a tinge of disappointment and you've got the general crux of the issue. Beast Moans is a bit of a slippery album because I feel like Dan Bejar and Spencer Krug make better collaborators than either of them with Carey Mercer. This is no knock on Mercer or Frog Eyes, but that band's style is so distinctive and unhinged that one gets the feeling that here Bejar and Krug help make Mercer's songs more coherent and traditional while he, in turn, makes their's more unpredictable and odd. Consider 'The Partisan But He's Got To Know', which is just a typically great Frog Eyes song until Bejar and Mercer trade lines toward the end, adding much needed flavor syrup to the reverby Slushie that is Frog Eyes. Metaphorically speaking. On the other hand, consider album closer 'Shooting Rockets' which, though written by Bejar, is an apocalyptic dirge buried beneath dense guitar soundscapes and clattering percussion. Compare this to the version of the song that appears on Bejar's recent Destroyer album Trouble In Dreams in a cleaned up and much more enjoyable form.

Some new ideas do appear on Beast Moans, and promise greater things on the inevitable, all-but-released next album. After Bejar's magnificent 'The Freedom', the song segues into 'Petersburg, Liberty Theater, 1914', which has a title like a Frog Eyes song but belongs to each member equally. Over a repetitive drum beat, glistening guitars, and downright beautiful keyboards, Krug and Bejar harmonize very well before trading off vocals to Mercer, who is commended for singing in a fashion somewhat unlike his usual style, much calmer and almost speak-singing.'Pleasure Vessels', though Mercer penned, switches between reverb drenched walls of sound and clean guitar chording, a mood piece as much as a song.

It's always hard for me to review a "supergroup" album and not declare a MVP, so to speak. Were I forced, the easy victor on this album is Spencer Krug. Though we all loved the Wolf Parade album and Sunset Rubdown's Shut Up I Am Dreaming, he really proves himself one of the best and most consistent songwriters of the Canadian indie scene with 'All Fires' and 'Are You Swimming In Her Pools?' which combine his love of repeating everyday phrases with poetic/romantic imagery. The latter presents such gems as "please is not a word I ever said quietly" and "I hope you find your mother there" alongside the flat-out amazing second 'verse' which begins with the following three lines:

Are you running up her riverbeds and navigating long fingers of a hand?
Because fingers make the hand
And rivers make the land

I want to give some credit to Mercer and Bejar, but their best works lies elsewhere as far as I'm concerned, and I feel like their best contributions to the album are still overshadowed by Krug. It's true that they probably pushed Krug to this level and/or helped him realize his songs better than he could have with his other bands, but one gets the distinct impression they didn't bring their "A" game to the proceedings. Props to Bejar, though, for managing anything as good as 'A Venue Called Rubella' while he's also busy dividing his output between Destroyer and New Pornographers.

Though I do genuinely enjoy this album, I also feel that the next thing they release will be even better. Other than Bejar, who played it safe on his last two releases to diminishing results (I'm still baffled that people like Challengers by the New Pornographers so much), Mercer and Krug seemed to take the lessons of this collaboration to heart. Both of the last albums by Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown were phenomenal, and represented great artistic steps--if not a leap--for each. Whatever the future holds for the Swan Lake project, rest assured that its first product, Beast Moans, is well worth seeking out for fans of any of the three minds behind it.

Friday, April 4, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: Dreamcast

September 9, 1999 was one of those weird numerical dates in history. It seemed ripe for people putting more significance into it than they should--9 is a powerful number, after all, and if I knew anything about Numerology I could probably list off a bunch of "facts" about it. Anyway, the main thing I remember about the date is that MTV was having some kind of awards show (they were whores for the "9/9/99" thing) and the Sega Dreamcast was launching in North America. I think that just speaks to everything that made the Dreamcast unique. Who launches consoles in September, let alone on a unique numerical date??

With a remove of less than a decade, it's easy to get nostalgic and lovey-dovey about the Dreamcast. However, we forget how sketchy the whole thing was when it first came out. Sega had given up on the Saturn in the U.S. by 1998, ironically a time when most of its best games were coming out here. By the end of 1998, it had been released in Japan, and we were teased for nearly a year with the amazing screenshots pouring out of that country. Still, we were very hesitant to buy in to the Dreamcast, after having been confused or burned by the 32X, Sega CD, and Saturn.

So, while I wanted to point out that we had no reason to expect the Dreamcast would be good, in the end I, and many others, were proved wrong. Looking at the games list, the Dreamcast had utter classics in almost every genre, as well as doing things ahead of its time: the VMU memory cards, online multiplayer on a console, first console to support mouse and keyboard, and the first console to use voice chat via a microphone.

I didn't get a Dreamcast until around the time the Playstation 2 was launching. I remember there being this weird time where, in the holiday of 2000, I was concurrently playing Grandia II on my Dreamcast and Final Fantasy IX on my Playstation, and I got way more into Grandia II than I did FFIX, and it didn't make any sense to me. It may have been excitement about having a new console, but Grandia II had voices, which was something I hadn't seen in a RPG before, at least on console. At the same time, there were already a ton of great Dreamcast games to pick up, too: Power Stone 2, Shenmue, Jet Grind Radio, Virtua Tennis, Soul Calibur, Resident Evil: Code Veronica...I think if you look at the list of Dreamcast games that were released, you'll be shocked how many games you forgot and how many were released in 1999 or 2000.

This is to say nothing of 2001, which was simultaneously the peak and the beginning of the end for the Dreamcast. Let's start with the peak: Phantasy Star Online. It's the one game that immediately jumps to my mind as being what the Dreamcast was all about. I will never forget buying this game with some leftover holiday money, coming home, and getting lost in it for the rest of the day. Other than Diablo 1 and 2, I had never experienced anything like this. It was a dungeon crawler like that series, but with a Japanese RPG style and an amazing idea: free online play across regions. You could play with people across the world on it, and the game even had an innovative chat system that used symbols and a mechanic that allowed you to build sentences out of pieces that the game would translate across languages. For instance, you could make a macro that said "Help" or "Hello" or "Follow Me" and it would show up, properly, in whatever language the other people in your game were using. My fondest memory of this game was fighting a boss with three other people, one of whom was either French or French Canadian. Three of us died in the battle, and watched the last guy somehow manage to defeat the boss on his own while we cheered via the simple, translated phrases.

The writing was on the wall for the Dreamcast, however. The Playstation 2 simply commanded too much attention, and with its ability to cheaply play DVDs, it was hard to ignore for long. The games may not have been there, but by the end of 2001, they were. Things kept looking better and better for Sony while they got worse and worse for Sega. Microsoft had announced their entry into the videogames market with the Xbox, a system that largely felt like their take on the Dreamcast idea. Meanwhile, Nintendo announced the Gamecube, which promised to improve on many of the errors made during the N64 era. February 2002 saw the last official Dreamcast game in the U.S., NHL 2K2. Though the Dreamcast had a relatively healthy lifespan in Japan (like its predecessor, the Saturn) it barely lasted three years in the U.S. and effectively ruined Sega as a hardware brand. It would be their last system ever, though rumors pop up at least once a year that the company may step back in. However unlikely this is, with the increasing nostalgia and love for the Dreamcast, it may actually work the next time...

Thursday, April 3, 2008

On First Listen: Shellac- Excellent Italian Greyhound

One of my music buying habits is to just jump into a band I've never listened to at any point in their discography. I let fate and the record store decide where I'll begin with Do Make Say Think or, in this case, Shellac.

Shellac is an odd case, because I've technically heard a lot of work that Steve Albini has done as a producer--sorry, I mean, recording engineer--but I've never listened to anything he's personally done. I like the idea of his bands and the descriptions I've read, but never heard them.

Excellent Italian Greyhound is their latest album, and I could find a copy on vinyl, so here I am. Awesomely enough, the band includes a CD copy in the vinyl sleeve, though it's kind of a "fuck you" move because it's just a blank CD. So, then, I'll say "fuck you" back and listen to it on CD first.

The album opens with the spoken word driven and lengthy 'The End of Radio.' This is kind of a weird way to start an album. It reminds me a lot of Slint's Spiderland in terms of the dynamics, loud/quite/loud sections, and the plodding, exacting nature of the repetitive guitar. Obviously Steve Albini worked with Slint on their first album, Tweez and has been quite vocal about his love for Spiderland ever since its release, so the comparison makes sense. The song is, funnily enough, exactly what the title implies--someone broadcasting the last radio broadcast ever.

'Steady As She Goes' is not a cover of that Raconteurs song. Rather it's a pretty basic angry punk-ish song. Steve Albini (I'm assuming he's the singer on this song, anyway) yells the lyrics, but not in a death metal/screamo kind of way, thankfully. One thing I can say about this album thus far: it sounds as good as you'd expect from a notoriously finicky engineer. The instruments all sound clean and seperated and the vocals are mixed a bit lower than everything else. Which is the standard Albini aesthetic, and in Shellac's case, it certainly works.

'Be Prepared' is a math rocky "we have chops" workout. I've been thinking about why I don't know if I like or dislike this song, and I realize it's because this album doesn't make sense to me yet. It's going to take awhile to get into their way of doing things, because so far the songs are untraditional insofar as they don't have typical structures.

'Elephant' makes me think of Fugazi. The vocals remind me a bit of Ian MacKaye, especially the "repeat the lie" bit. So, then, Shellac sound like Slint mixed with Fugazi. Interesting.

'Genuine Lulabelle' is a long one. 9 minutes that trade between formless guitar minimalism, crunchy full band riffing, spoken word, and a strange dialogue between characters that reminds me of something off a Frank Zappa album. It actually reminds me of something off Gastr Del Sol's Crookt, Crackt, or Fly.

'Kittypants' is pretty damn good. Reminds me of what Slint might have released if they stayed together and released an all instrumental pop album. A nice, short instrumental that cleanses the palette.

'Boycott' is another angry, punkish song that reminds me of Fugazi. I love that pretty, upper register guitar line.

'Paco' is another instrumental, though it's longer and more varied than 'Kittypants.' Again, the closest comparison I can come up with is Slint, although faster and with more variety than that implies. One song from the end, I have to say that this album isn't as challenging and noisy as I imagined. Maybe I give too much credit to Albini for being difficult or experimental. But maybe I'm drawing too much of a conclusion from this, my sole listening experience.

'Spoke', the album closer, is an angry, screamed punkish number that doesn't remind me of Fugazi for once. It does, however, remind me of three dudes thinking it would be funny if they wrote a song where they could yell and scream a bunch of shit of no consequence and have mindless, fun backing music to pound out. And that's probably what happened, too.

So, my first Shellac experience. I don't feel especially positive or negative about the band so far. They certainly don't sound like much of anything I've heard before, except Slint and Fugazi, two bands that Shellac are at least familiar with, if not good friends with. I will say that it wasn't quite what I expect--a pleasant surprise.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Video: Beck- Loser

I tend to think of the 1990s as one long afternoon in late summer. I have no explanation for why I feel this way, aside from the fact that many of my memories of the decade revolve around just such a time. And one of the best things about later summer afternoons in the 90s was watching MTV, because they played all sorts of videos back then--rap, alt rock, R&B, metal, punk, and sometimes even techno.

The 90s style of music video for the alt rock/indie crowd was usually to be as obtuse and strange as possible, while simultaneously having as little to do with the song as possible. With all of this in mind, I present to you the video for 'Loser', which opens with Beck in a blurred out Stormtrooper helmet, and only gets stranger and stranger from there.

My favorite parts of the video are Death cleaning blood off a windshield, girls doing aerobics in a graveyard through a polarized filter, and live footage of Beck cleaning off a stage with a leafblower.

This is the kind of stuff you'd typically see on those late summer 90s afternoons, and it made sense, somehow, even if you were a kid and knew nothing about absurdism, surrealism, and irony. Though Beck's subsequent videos are all "better" by any metric, this first bolt out of the blue simultaneously puts the lid on his first phase as a no-name anti-folk/junkyard singer/songwriter and points the way to his next phase as the superstar David Bowie-ish artist who tries on many hats, sometimes at the same time.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Album of the Week: The Unicorns- Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?

This may seem needlessly myopic, but for me, the musical heart of this decade didn't make itself clear until 2003 and 2004. While Radiohead's Kid A released in late 2000 signaled that artists could take major risks without losing their audience or the love of critics, it didn't end up being quite the revolution that, say, Nirvana's Nevermind was for the 90s. Rather, consider 2003 and 2004 as the time when indie rock made itself known as a force to be reckoned with. These two years saw definitive, decade defining releases from big names like Arcade Fire (Funeral), Broken Social Scene (You Forgot It In People), Deerhoof (Milk Man), Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Fever To Tell), The Postal Service (Give Up), Death Cab For Cutie (Transatlanticism), Fiery Furnaces (Blueberry Boat), The New Pornographers (The Electric Version), Sufjan Stevens (Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lake State), TV On The Radio (Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes or the Young Liars EP), and, of course, Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? by the Unicorns. A truly heady mix of bands, and I'm probably leaving a lot out.

The Unicorns have come to stand, at least in my mind, for the kind of overnight success and collapse of a band that can happen in the current music journalism world. The Unicorns came out of nowhere in 2003 with this, their only album, and it seemed that every publication--both online and off--was lavishing praise upon them. After touring for more than a year, the band, exhausted and (presumably) a bit sick of each other, posted on their website that the band was through, confirming this in early 2005. Since then, two members collaborated on an album under the name Islands though shortly after the release of their debut Return To The Sea one member had departed. Thankfully, other massively popular, out-of-left-field bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah have weathered the initial storm better.

While the albums I mentioned above all, somehow, fit under the broad indie rock umbrella, I think that this album helped to define the specific indie rock template for this decade. First of all, it's from a Canadian band, and one of the big stories of the '00s has been the emergence and viability of Canadian bands. Secondly, the album makes use of perky, tight drumming, crunchy-or-very-clean guitars, spazzy retro keyboards, 60s style supporting bass that is mixed fairly low in the mix, and more immediate, affected vocals. I associate all of these elements, to various extents, with the current "indie rock standard" sound. I'm not saying that the Unicorns pioneered this sound, or that every band in indie rock today is influenced by them, but I notice a lot of these common elements, and this album came out early enough to cement it in my mind. Lastly, the album is a damn good slice of what, at barebones, could be called pop/rock, but yet sounds nothing like what we typically think of when we say pop/rock.

Other than the fact that Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? still stands up as a damn good indie pop/rock album, there's two more things that made it so irresistable to critics and fans. The songs are untraditional in the sense that they rarely conform to basic structures like chorus/verse/chorus. Quite often, they're linear, or quickly jump between sections like the Fiery Furnaces or, sometimes, Deerhoof. Take 'Sea Ghost', which starts with a pennywhistle, adds bouncy drums, crunchy guitars, and precocious, affected vocals as it goes. Over its 3:43 duration, it never once repeats anything. Then there's the studio bantery opening of 'Tuff Luff', giving way to a barely there dirge before violins and fluffy keyboards bring the song to the surface for fresh air. Things fall back to just a molasses slow bass line and sweet harmonies before, again, a full band sound comes in--then there's a quick drum break with a short rap--and the song draws to a close with a repeated refrain of "save us" with odd sound effects and resounding drums.

The other thing I think that people latch unto with this album is its self awareness and referentiality. The album opens with 'I Don't Wanna Die' and closes with 'Ready To Die.' In between, there's three songs in a row with the word "ghost" in the title, a few songs directly about the band ('Let's Get Known', 'I Was Born (A Unicorn)'), and, just maybe, a reference to future band Islands in 'Ready To Die.' Which is pretty meta, I suppose: it's a song about being ready to die, but it could also be about the death of the band and hints at the Islands project. But that's reaching a bit. The only other (non-live) album I can think of that's as aware of both itself as an album and the songs themselves is Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, which either gives that album another feather in its cap for being ahead of its time or just means that I'm the only one who pays attention to these sort of things.

I'm a little worried that as time goes on, this album will be forgotten or at least not given the attention it deserves. Typically when bands implode after one album, even if the members go on to record great things under other names, that first album is forgotten. While I like Return To The Sea a lot, and it could have easily come out as the second Unicorns album, there is just something joyous and fresh about Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? that was lost in the transition toward a more nuanced, mature sound. But that's a review for another day. For now, track down a copy of this album and enjoy.