Friday, May 30, 2008

Album of the Week: Wilco- A Ghost Is Born

For all its so-called indulgences--the guitar solos, the long noise-drone-fest at the end of 'Less Than You Think', the sleight and I-hope-intentionally-kind-of-stupid lyrics to 'I'm A Wheel'--I think we can all agree that A Ghost Is Born opens with one of the most stunning and arresting moments in Wilco history. Barely above a whisper Jeff Tweedy sings "When I sat down on the bed next to you, you started to cry" and this incredibly visual scene of delicacy and pain gives me the absolute chills every time I hear it.

A Ghost Is Born is one of those albums that has a muddled reputation. Shortly before its release, Tweedy entered rehab. Perhaps the album was so consuming that it causes a breakdown?? At the same time, reviews were all over the place--some calling it better than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, some calling it much worse--and I've never been quite clear what the general consensus actually is. In my case, it's overwhelmingly positive.

For all its successes, I've never found Yankee Hotel Foxtrot to be a particularly human or listenable album. Despite the fun tracks like 'Heavy Metal Drummer', it's became a museum piece that I dust off every once in awhile to make sure I wasn't wrong; then, satisfied, I file it back away. It's the kind of album that, when I listen to it, I usually find myself skipping over tracks--not out of spite or dislike, but because I feel I don't need to hear them. They aren't "fun" to listen to, and I certainly don't relate to them. I'm no slouch when it comes to figuring out the meaning of things, but the album opens with "I am an American aquarium drinker/I assassin down the avenue" which certainly sounds cool but doesn't mean anything. Even the ones where Tweedy is writing in a fairly plain language about human feelings, I can't help but think he's writing about other people, or things he's imagined. Do I like heavy metal, let alone think it's kitschy or funny to write a song about nostalgia for being in one??

Thus I find A Ghost Is Born to be a better album, both because of its fantastic, enjoyable songs and its humanity. 'Heavy Metal Drummer' and 'I'm The Man Who Loves You' are good songs, but they're not my favorites from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. I think this is what I mean when I say it's not a listenable album: my favorite songs from it are the slower, more experimental ones, and it's hard to listen to music like that all the time. The opposite is true for A Ghost Is Born. My least favorite song, 'Less Than You Think', is the slowest, most experimental one here, while everything else moves with force and purpose even if it's more mellow and nuanced('Hell Is Chrome', for example). I can listen to this album all day long (and by extension, Sky Blue Sky) because the songs are just fun to listen to. They're catchy, but they aren't fluff or classic rock Frankensteins (like the creature, not the song). It's the same reason I love Surfer Rosa by the Pixies; the songs are addictive, listenable, and fun, but they aren't easy, obvious, or compromised.

As for the humanity of A Ghost Is Born, well, you wouldn't think it on first glance. The artwork and packaging, not to mention the song titles, suggest something cold, unfeeling, austere, and drained of life. But listen to the album with a lyrics sheet--get past the guitar solos, and noisy bits--and you'll find an album with a vulnerability and poetry in its veins that few seem to notice. 'Muzzle Of Bees' contains the following lines, which send me into fits of jealously and awe every time they come on:

And the sun gets passed from tree to tree
Silently, and back to me
With the breeze blown through
Pushed up against the sea
Finally back to me

I'm assuming you got my message
On your machine
I'm assuming you love me
And you know what that means


It's very rare that a writer can be both vague and direct at the same time, but Tweedy accomplishes this here. Everywhere else the album seems to deal, explicitly or implicitly, with Tweedy's personal problems, from the oddly upbeat 'Handshake Drugs' to the pained love song 'Company In My Back' to 'Hell Is Chrome', which I've always assumed was either about him going into rehab or deciding to start abusing painkillers. Even the two "fun" tracks, which aren't about these issues, have a humanity to them that surpasses Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. 'I'm A Wheel' is a stupid tossaway that sounds amazing live, where such broad strokes work well, while 'The Late Greats' is nothing more than a pleasant relief, a pill to be taken, if you will, to recover from the migraine-simulating ending to 'Less Than You Think.'

Though I'm sure no one will agree to this, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the type of album that critics and fans will call the band's best and most essential release, always voting for it on lists, but never really listening to it much. No, I think, if people are being honest with themselves, they would prefer any of the other Wilco albums--other than A.M., that is. And so, A Ghost Is Born is mine. It didn't generate the praise and hoopla which Yankee Hotel Foxtrot did, but, actually, it's better. Give it another chance.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Video: Boards of Canada- Dayvan Cowboy



While I'm not the biggest fan of The Campfire Headphase album (it skirts too closely to easy listening/new age for my taste), I do love 'Dayvan Cowboy.' I've always felt that Boards of Canada's sound was hugely reminiscent of old science films--indeed, the band took their name from the Film Board of Canada, who produced and scored those kind of films--and combined with the imagery here, it's like a dream come true.

The video's first half features the surreal footage of Joe Kittinger making his record shattering jumps from high altitude. As he descends on a parachute, we switch to footage of surfer Laird Hamilton. Maybe it's just me, but I could easily imagine some droning voiceover talking about the science behind these things while the stoner kids in class wipe the drool from their chins and poke each other while saying "dude, the music...woah."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: Shining Force I and II

I'm not really sure where I first heard of Shining Force. It's one of those games that, somehow, comes into your life and you feel like it's always been there. I want to say that I rented it from the local video store because I thought the screenshots on the back of the box looked like Zelda, but I don't particularly think they do now. I guess I had a vivid, deluded imagination as a kid.

Shining Force I was the first strategy RPG I ever played, though I didn't know what RPGs were and my only strategy in the game was to kill everything regardless of any pointless peril I was putting my characters in. It speaks volumes for the easiness of this game that I never bothered to level grind as a kid because I didn't understand the concept. I just knew that a lot of my people died in every battle, and once mages ran out of MP they were worthless as anything other than bait.
People talk a lot about how 2D games have more lasting aesthetics and appeal, and it's games like Shining Force that I think of when this comes up. Though 16 years old, the game still looks cool even if the sprites aren't up to the later standards of, say, Chrono Trigger or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. For its time, though, Shining Force had incredibly large and detailed in-battle cutscenes. The characters animated well, and besides, the game had that awesome, fun dialog/choice/menu system, with cool animated icons instead of simple "yes/no/item/attack/etc." options. Though Blizzard is rightfully praised for their brilliant interfaces and--frankly--awesome looking icons/menus, Shining Force was an early game that even as a kid and not a critic I could appreciate on that level.If there's a problem with the game--and this is something that's endemic to the second game as well--it's that, the further you got into the game, the harder it was to train up new recruits. Since characters join your party at pre-determined levels, and even if you aren't actively leveling instead of just playing, they'll always be behind your other characters. Some characters overcome this by being so outrageously badass you force yourself to use them (see Hanzou the Ninja, above) while others--like Bleu the Dragon--require hours of effort to baby them up to your level. I'm told that he and the other 'useless' characters, like Arthur the magic using Knight, become incredibly strong if given enough time, but honestly the game is easy enough that it's not worth it.

At some point, Shining Force II came out. This was back in a time when you weren't always following release dates or waiting for sequels, so one day I saw it at the video store and excitedly rented it for a weekend. It was everything I'd wanted out of a sequel--bigger, more characters, slightly better looking, and a more free roaming style than the original game. I even woke up early before going to church just so I could squeeze some more time in with it because I knew it had to go back on Monday.

For any number of reasons, I never bought Shining Force II or received it as a gift. I suppose it's mainly because my friend Dave and I rented it so often, praying that other people who had it in the meantime didn't erase our save, that we felt as though we already did own it. To my knowledge I never beat either Shining Force until I was older, though I do remember playing someone else's save for a bit and seeing the very late stages of the game, marveling at how insanely strong and godlike the player's party becomes later on.
The most significant addition to the game--and the one that I wish more games would borrow--was in how you could use items to promote your characters to new, different classes. In the original game, all your characters had a set promoted class they could become. Knights became Paladins, Warriors became Gladiators, Mages become Wizards, etc. But in Shining Force II, you could use certain items to allow different promoted classes: Knights could become Pegasus Knights, Warriors could become Barons, Mages could become Sorcerors, Priests could become Master Monks, and Archers could become Brass Gunners. With the exception of the latter, these 'secret' classes were flat out better than their 'standard' counterparts. With the addition of the absurdly strong Peter (see below), they made the game even easier than the original had been. To be fair, Shining Force II offered a difficulty selection, though from what I've read all it affects is the intelligence and ruthlessness of the enemy AI.
Shining Force II's only flaw is that it's broken. As in, easy to the point of laughable. Enemy AI aside, the characters you get in this game are ridiculously strong even without the 'hidden' promotions. Peter joins your party no matter what, and he often can turn the tide of even the game's most precarious battles all by himself. Moreover, the main character of the game (you name him, so I'm referring to him in the generic) is a monster. The main character of the original was no slouch, particularly when you got to the end game's powerful, unique swords, but in the sequel he even gets a lightning spell that puts his MP to some use other than casting Egress to escape battles. On top of all of this, you get Mithril throughout the game. I never knew this as a kid, because I never found the hidden village, but later in the game there's somewhere you can go to 'spend' the Mithril to get amazing new weapons. This seems to be determined randomly from a pool of set weapons based on the character asking for it, but by abusing save states or diligently saving/resetting over and over, you could outfit most of your party with the game's best weapons.

Though I actually have played Shining Force III, at the great expense of my friend Dave, it never really caught on with us. There's something about the original two games that feels timeless and fantastic. I think I can see why they've never made a true strategy RPG Shining Force title since the third, mainly because if you add anything more to the formula it makes things needlessly complicated. Shining Force I and II may be simplistic and easy compared to any of today's strategy RPGs, but I love them for it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sonic Youth- NYC Ghosts & Flowers

To anyone who was following Sonic Youth's career trajectory, NYC Ghosts & Flowers wasn't quite the sudden controversy that all the negative reviews made it seem. They always had a predilection toward the avant garde and arty fartsy in general, and while this side was mostly kept in check on their main albums or relegated to side projects, you had to expect they'd eventually want to follow their muse someday. If, however, you were following their main albums--as a more 'casual' fan, though that's a loaded term--then I suppose NYC Ghosts & Flowers would appear to be an indulgent misstep.

I didn't hear this album until last year, and even given the things that Sonic Youth has produced since its 2000 release, NYC Ghosts & Flowers still stands out in their discography as an odd beast. Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves were leading the band down the road of music that was simultaneously more minimalist/improvisational/psychedelic and also more experimental/noisy. Truthfully these things were always in the band's sound, but those releases drew them out further than ever. And while NYC Ghosts & Flowers would initially seem to pick up the loose ends of A Thousand Leaves and run with them, it simply does not feel or sound much like that album.

It helps to have some context, I think. In the summer of 1999, many of Sonic Youth's custom guitars, effects pedals, and other gear were stolen, meaning that NYC Ghosts & Flowers would be recorded with new and newly altered instruments. At the same time, beginning in 1997, the band had been releasing a series of works under the SYR banner. While mostly improvisational, studio outtakey, and long winded, the fourth of these, released in 1999, was a double album titled "Goodbye 20th Century" in which the band performed or reinterpreted the works of many avant garde musicians and composers from the 20th century such as John Cage, Yoko Ono, and Steve Reich. All of this leads one to believe that the band were ripe for an out there, bizarre album that would test even their long time fans. That the result, NYC Ghosts & Flowers, is as enjoyable and listenable as it is speaks volumes for how well Sonic Youth continue to make the inaccessible accessible.

Yet while I liked the album, I wasn't sure why. It took Robert Christgau to make me understand this album. Considered the "dean" of American music critics, I actually find Christgau's reviews to be totally worthless because of their flowery prose and occasionally pun filled self satisfaction. It's worth noting, too, that at one point Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth had a fight with Robert Christgau, but that's neither here nor there. What does matter is that his review of NYC Ghosts & Flowers helped me understand what was going on with this strange yet compelling album. He said of it: "...this impressionistic poetry-with-post-rock is the most avant-sounding of their DGC-etc. product, and either way its avant parts are more listenable--nay, beautiful--than anything on Washing Machine if not A Thousand Leaves." Which is actually true, even though I love those albums. NYC Ghosts & Flowers puts a premium on texture and lyrics-as-another-instrument rather than lyrics-as-a-way-of-conveying-an-idea. If the music seems occasionally too minimalist and flaccid or self consciously abstract/abrasive, if the lyrics can seem insipid, childish, or amateurish, well, then that's part of the risk.

The album begins with its most accessible song and ends on its most, well, inaccessible. 'Free City Rhymes' ripples into life with beautiful, plucked guitar note loops before a surprisingly groovey beat kicks in on the wheels of clean and clear reverb guitars and Thurston Moore's dreamlike mumblings take us on a trip through the city. This 'cityscape journey' feel will persist throughout the album even as we enter the dark grinding of 'StreamXSonic Subway.' Truthfully this is their most cinematic record even if it possesses a paucity of melodies or hooks. Even a more rocking song like 'Renegade Princess' feels more like a song the band might play during a punk rock show in a movie scene rather than the single their record label will release to push the album. 'Nevermind (What Was It Anyway)' is notorious in my mind due to the lyrics as trashed in the 0.0 review that Pitchfork gave it way back, but I've always had the feeling this whole album was done with tongue in cheek, and having the lines "boys go to Jupiter, get more stupider/ girls go to mars, become rock stars" is pretty damn funny when delivered by Kim Gordon. As for that final inaccessible song, well, 'Lightin'' does seem like a pointless indulgence, but its well in line with the things they had been doing on their SYR releases. Maybe I'm being too nice, but I think it's the perfect, "let's make some weird noises and have free jazz trumpets blurt out" ending to this album.

I should close this by making clear that while I like this album, it's no masterpiece, or even a hidden gem. It's simply a misunderstood work that has been unfairly derided and fairly praised on the exact same points. As Christgau pointed out, there are moments of astonishing beauty and languor that go beyond even those captured on Washing Machine and A Thousand Leaves. Anyway, NYC Ghosts & Flowers isn't a misstep but a sidestep, and a fascinating-but-flawed album from a band with a whole backlog of solid-to-amazing albums.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Album of the Week: Sufjan Stevens- Illinois

It's preciously rare that an album comes out which reminds us exactly what an album can be. A defiant statement of "this is not just a collection of songs or singles, this is a body of work that can truly be appreciated as art and enjoyed as such." With Illinois in 2005, Sufjan Stevens did just that, crafting a timeless album that is part tour book, part Wikipedia entry, part Smile pop symphony, and part poetry. Let's take these one at a time.

I've had this long running idea for a book. Basically, I would travel about the country, living in each of the 50 states for a set amount of time, and getting a "feel" for living there. It would be a kind of Great American Novel, trying to capture what it's like to be both an American and a resident of a certain state. Here comes Sufjan Stevens with his 50 states project and I've conceded the idea to him. Though I fear he's doomed never to complete it, his ambition is to produce a concept album about each of the states. Sadly, he's only managed Michigan and Illinois so far. But with results like these, it's hard to argue too much with his careful, slow pace. Though I love Michigan, Illinois is much more in line with what I think he had envisioned, an album that points out many famous people, landmarks, and historical events from the state, but also getting down the general "feel" of a state, too.

Speaking of those famous people, landmarks, and historical events...Illinois is crammed full of important Illinois things as well as esoterica. This of course makes for a wide ranging set of data points to draw from for inspiration, leading to an album as diverse as it is consistently brilliant. From the horrifying, bleak 'John Wayne Gacy, Jr.' to the ebullient rush of the superhero chorus to 'The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts' to the stripped down acoustic chill inducing story song with an obscure holiday for a title 'Casimir Pulaski Day' to the short instrumental 'A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze' which mentions one of the huge mazes that seem to define something about the Midwest for a lot of people, the album is filled to the brim with references that may or may not need to be tracked down. Which, of course, are all contained on the Wikipedia entry for the album.

The real thing that draws me and everyone else back to the album is the songs themselves. Even if you don't pay attention to the concept of the album, it's still one of the best things released this decade. Brian Wilson's Smile is another, and though I'm not suggesting that Sufjan Stevens was influenced by it, because Michigan is largely similar and predates it, keep in mind that it was finally completed and released in 2004. Smile is a pop symphony of sorts, songs and mini-songs forming suites and referring back to each other as the album moves along. At the same time, Smile doesn't sound like much pop music you've ever heard; it's almost like an audio stage play at times. In short, it's an orchestral pop concept album that uses non-traditional song structures and songwriting. This is also what Illinois happens to be. Though it's longer, less freewheeling, and with no central concept other than Illinois and its contents, it's every bit as good as Smile in my opinion. 'Chicago' is a flat out amazing song and one of Stevens's greatest accomplishments as a writer, while songs like 'Jacksonville', 'Decatur, Or, A Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!', and 'Come On! Feel The Illinoise!' show off his gift for writing brain burrowing "I've got to hear that again before I go to work and/or sleep" melodies.

Finally, I want to touch upon the lyrics of the album. It's pretty rare that I bother paying attention to what someone is singing because I'm more in line with the Brian Eno school of lyric writing--"if it sounds good, it is good, even if it doesn't make sense"--than anything else. However, Illinois has devastating beauty in its confines. 'The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!' gives me chills every time I hear it, particularly the amazing imagery he paints for the listener with the wasp outstretched on his arm. Even the more upbeat songs have depth and brilliant lyrics, such as these from 'The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts':

"I took a bus to the lake
Saw the monument face
Yellow tides, golden eyes
Red and white, red and wise
Raise the flag, summer home
Parted hair, part unknown
If I knew what I read
I'll send it half ways"

The rarest thing of all in the music criticism business is when an album, in your opinion, gets the right amount of praise and coverage. Normally I find that an album is over- or under-praised, and either overly discussed or totally forgotten. But with Illinois, I think everyone got it just right. It was a five star, A-plus album on its release, and it still holds up well almost three years later. There is no need for me to be a revisionist or build up context to elevate or demolish this album. It simply is one of the best albums of the decade so far, and I wish Sufjan Stevens would get to work on his next album already.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Video: The Prodigy- Breathe



I really did want to make an actual, meaty post today, but unfortunately I got called into work this morning and then decided to go for a jog once I got home. So I'm neither in the mood nor state of energy to write something. Anyway: 'Breathe.'

'Breathe' takes me back to a time when electronica was finally getting big in America. I always kind of knew what "techno" sounded like, but I had no idea it could be this messed up and catchy at the same time.

Song aside, the video is very reminiscent of the video for Nine Inch Nails's 'Closer', which is one of my favorite all time videos. They both have that kind of passing-a-car-accident fascination for me. Even before the Internet, if somebody told me about something horrifying/crazy/screwed up/gross, I couldn't stop myself from eventually experiencing it. There are disgusting, screwed up things in both these videos, though in the case of 'Breathe' it's more for the odd looking band members and their cool posing than, say, a robot with a pig's head or Trent Reznor in a ball-gag and blindfold.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lil' Indie Round-Up 1

Album: The Big Bang EP by Radars To The Sky
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: I couldn't find an image of the cover anywhere online, but this live picture is just as good. The actual cover is all murky and orange with the band's name and EP title in the bottom center. In short, I expect something vaguely post-rockish. Mainly because the band's name makes me think of Explosions In The Sky.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Actually, quite good. It's nothing like post-rock, but it is within the post-punk/indie rock sound that borrows heavily from acts like Modest Mouse. That the band has female and male lead vocals--an indie rock staple--is all the better. Given a full album and a sympathetic producer, this band could produce something truly great.

Album: Ride The Boogie by Ride The Boogie
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Given the title and look, I pretty much expect one of those fun time, funky "we love the 70s" bands that are always a hit in the jam band scene.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: This album is pretty ass. It reminds me of what Man Man might sound like if they grew up watching classic rock cover bands in dive bars. Instead of writing songs about mustaches, they would write a song called 'Mustache Riders.' Instead of borrowing Frank Zappa's skewed approach to songwriting and instrumentation, they'd focus on his juvenile humor.
Album: Thunderbeast by Skamper
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Cave In. I dunno, it reminds of a long lost EP from Cave In's Antenna era. So, basically, post-metal/post-hardcore with a desire to sound like Radiohead and My Bloody Valentine but a result of sounding like The Foo Fighters in heavy rock mode with a bit more effects pedals.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: What if the dude from Stone Temple Pilots joined Placebo, and the resulting band really wanted to fit into the No Wave-ish revival as led by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs circa 2003/2004. You know, that "noisy guitars and loud keyboards mixed with clattering drums and some electronics" aesthetic, only instead of an ass kicking female singer, Skamper have an irritating, overly affected dude.
Album: YoungBored&Broke by The Heys
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: I couldn't find an image of the cover online, but it's basically this picture with the band's name and album title above it. In my book, if you put your band on the cover of an album, it better not be a stupid publicity shot like this, which nobody thinks is cool. Musically, if they're American, I expect something like The Strokes only 7 years too late. If they're British, I expect something like The Hives only British instead of Swedish.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: You know those amazingly boring and generic British rock bands that at least once a year you see the British music journalists pushing on the rest of the world?? Well, The Heys are like that. Sometimes the dude sounds so much like Damon Albarn from Blur that I wonder if it might be him, playing a joke on everyone. It's not that this kind of middling, 60s worship is bad. It's just that it has absolutely no imagination and makes me want to go listen to Oasis's Be Here Now because even though it's an overblown indulgent piece of crap it's something interesting and worth getting your dander up over.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Video: Wilco- Side With The Seeds



One of the reasons I like Wilco is that I could fit right into the band, looks-wise. Members often have terrible haircuts and three-day-shadows on their faces. I can appreciate that.

This is a performance video from, as far as I can tell, some kind of bonus DVD that accompanied Sky Blue Sky when it was first released. This particular clip starts with Jeff Tweedy talking about growing up, or something like that, before they cue up 'Side With The Seeds.' While mostly following the album version, you do get a chance to see Nels Cline in action.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The New Pornographers- Challengers

Sometimes I wonder if I'm not critical enough of music. Lately I find myself writing more positive reviews than negative ones and I begin to wonder if I'm losing my edge; am I going soft, being too nice and accommodating to albums that, during the heat of youth, I would have dismantled with precision?? Perhaps it's just that I'm more selective about what I bother to review--why say anything if all you have is nothing nice?? Bad reviews are fun to write, but I actually find they're more difficult to write because it's harder to articulately posit criticisms than it is to repeat "boy, this sucks" in increasing volume and tenacity.

I bring this up because Challengers is one of very few recent albums I've flat out not enjoyed and I've had trouble getting my head around precisely why I don't think it's good. I wish it were as simple as "it's not as good as their other albums" because then we could just drop that on the table and nod, offering up witticisms about taste being subjective before we put on Led Zeppelin IV and open some beers. But while it is indeed not as good as their other albums, there's more going on in Challengers than just an example of an inferior sequel.

I think everyone can agree that the first three New Pornographers albums are of-a-piece. They don't sound identical, but they're all working from the same indie pop/power pop blueprint. They contain some of the catchiest and most addictive songs from this decade, and I can't say enough good things about them. At the same time that the New Pornographers "supergroup" was cranking them out, the members of the band--including A.C. Newman (aka Carl Newman), Neko Case, and Destroyer (aka Dan Bejar)--were producing really great 'solo' albums. At some point after the release of the third New Pornographers album, Twin Cinema, the solo work began to infect the "supergroup", and it was not for the best.

I don't want to say that the only thing the New Pornographers are good at is their aesthetic as described above, but, well, Challengers doesn't prove that they're good at anything else. It sounds like A.C. Newman's The Slow Wonder, Neko Case's Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, and Destroyer's Rubies smashed together in a car crash with Twin Cinema. The mix isn't so much a White Album-esque "each Beatle with the other three backing him" vibe as it is a watered down, confused mess. Even the songs which do play to their strengths--like 'All Of The Things That Go To Make Heaven And Earth' and 'Mutiny, I Promise You'--strike me as b-side quality. Elsewhere, I can't help but wonder what 'Go Places', 'My Rights Versus Yours', and 'Entering White Cecilia' might have sounded like if delivered on the respective 'solo' wings of Neko Case, A.C. Newman, and Destroyer.

What Challengers lacks most of all is hooks. "Hooks" are a very vague idea that everyone understands but nobody can explain, and this album is a great example of what not having hooks can do to your album. The first three New Pornographers albums had hooks spilling out of the speakers. The solo albums mentioned above have plenty of hooks without having to always be the "go for the throat!!" power pop of the New Pornographers. Yet even after listening to Challengers for the fifth time, I still don't remember much of anything about it. Normally the Dan Bejar songs are the highlights of a New Pornographers album: 'Jackie, Dressed In Cobras' is one of my favorite songs, ever, from any band or album. However, his contributions to Challengers are his weakest yet, a weakness that would begin to seem symptomatic with his kind-of-meh, hit-or-miss new album Trouble In Dreams. Meanwhile Carl Newman steadfastly tries to remake his solo album in this setting and comes up wanting again and again. Part of the blame for the hook-less can be placed at the feet of the increasingly dominant acoustic/orchestral sound the band began to head in during Twin Cinema. I think it needs to be said: acoustic instruments don't belong in the New Pornographers. At least not as the main instruments.

I hesitate to be too negative toward Challengers because I have ample evidence in and out of the discography of the New Pornographers that they're capable of incredible things. I keep telling myself that maybe it's me and not the album; maybe I don't "get it" yet and on this listen I will. But this is not a difficult album: there is nothing to get. It is what it is, and what Challengers happens to be is a creative misstep, not a disaster but a true disappointment if there ever was one.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Album Vs. Solo Album

It's often the case that a band releases an album and a member of that band releases a solo album in close proximity. This can just as often make for an interesting compare/contrast comparison, revealing how much of a band's sound or brilliance is up to that person, or at the very least, how much the band can bring to their work.

Album: Deerhunter- Cryptograms (2007)
Solo Album: Atlas Sound- Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (2008)
What Say You??: While Cryptograms adheres to a mixture of kraut rock, shoegazer, ambient, and noise pop, Bradford Cox's solo album under the Atlas Sound moniker falls closer to the dream pop, ambient, and electro-pop borders of the musical lands. You might be fooled into thinking Let The Blind Lead Those... is the next Deerhunter album because they sound close enough for unknowing ears to accept, but you'll definitely notice a difference in texture and mood.

Album: Animal Collective- Sung Tongs (2004)
Solo Album: Panda Bear- Young Prayer (2004)
What Say You??: I've gone into this in greater detail elsewhere, but Sung Tongs is Animal Collective's landmark release. This is not so much due to the fact that they were playing on mostly acoustic instruments but that they were writing actual songs--and catchy ones, at that. Panda Bear's solo album from that era takes the same starting aesthetic but goes in a different direction with it, featuring acoustic guitars almost exclusively, and all the while driven by Panda Bear's full range as a vocalist. It may be a step back toward abstraction versus songs, but it's more affecting for it.

Album: Broken Social Scene- Broken Social Scene (2005)
Solo Album: Kevin Drew- Spirit If...(2007)
What Say You?? Though released two years apart, and under the confusing label Broken Social Scene Presents..., the implication was that this would be a solo album, and so it wasn't unreasonable to expect that Spirit If... sound different from the last BSS album. However, I'll be damned if I could tell this wasn't a Broken Social Scene album. All of which confuses me, because it was recorded with seemingly the entire usual BSS crew, and it sounds like the sequel for their self titled album. But, whatever. I'm not complaining here--that album is better than You Forgot It In People in my opinion, and in this case, more of the same is "more of the awesome" in my book.

Album: The New Pornographers- Electric Version (2003)
Solo Album: A.C. Newman- The Slow Wonder (2004)
What Say You??: There isn't as much difference between these two albums as may initially appear. Though The Slow Wonder isn't the only "solo" album of a New Pornographer from this era, it would infect the band's sound most obviously. On their last album, Challengers, the band's sound evolved toward a more nuanced, orchestrated, and acoustic sound--not unlike The Slow Wonder. However, I don't really want that from the New Pornographers. What I want is something like Electric Version, which is a modern classic of indie pop/power pop that gets better and better with time, as do their other pre-Challengers releases. I also love The Slow Wonder though I love it expressly because it is a solo album, which implies something. But I digress. My case against Challengers will have to be made another day.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

World of Warcraft Patch Notes 2.4.2

World of Warcraft Client Patch 2.4.2

The latest patch notes can always be found at http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/patchnotes/

The latest test realm patch notes can always be found at http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/patchnotes/test-realm-patchnotes.html

Druids

  • Nurturing Instinct: This talent no longer causes your character to nag other players or have emotional breakdowns at Winter Veil feasts.

Hunters

  • Aspect of the Viper: This ability now instantly regens mana as it's used, but all sound effects will be replaced by high pitched hissing.
  • The Boar and Cat pet families are no longer tameable.
  • Fixed a bug that made Druids tameable.
  • Steady Shot: This ability will now require players to manually aim their weapon via crosshairs.

Mages

  • Talent: Improved Blink (Arcane) causes the player to blink furiously, as if something is in their eyes or they've emerged from a cave into bright sunlight after weeks of darkness.
  • Completing the quest “Arcane Refreshment” will now properly teach the spell Conjure Beer (Rank 7).
  • Molten Armor will now instantly kill the player if cast.
  • New Teleport/Portal: Theramore and Teleport/Portal:Stonard spells are available at portal trainers in their respective locations. But who really gives a damn.

Paladins

  • Flash of Light and Holy Light will now work properly with castsequence macros, whatever that means.
  • Seal of the Crusader: This ability now increases the damage dealt against players who are Muslim.
  • Talent: Repentance now asks the player to confess a sin before it can be properly used against enemies.
  • Male Blood Elf Paladins gain a new Aura at level 35: Bishounen, which causes all female mobs within 200 yards to shriek and autofollow.

Priests

  • Fear Ward will no longer cause players to be Feared by players with Ward somewhere in their name.
  • Mana Burn: This spell is no longer known as 'Mana STD.'
  • Power Word: Shield now has the correct sound associated with it and can no longer be heard from large distances, unless you have a macro set up to /Yell "I just used Power Word: Shield!!!!!!" every time it's cast.
  • Male Human Priests can now complete the Children's Week quests, but it makes for an obvious joke and your guild will never let you hear the end of it.

Rogues

  • Ability: Blade Flurry: This ability no longer produces a frozen ice cream treat with bits of swords and daggers mixed in.
  • Talent: Mutilate (Assassination) will cause no damage to the target but it will make their character model significantly uglier. All Horde except Blood Elves are immune to this effect.
  • Players can now change their character class name from 'Rogue' to 'Ninja' or 'Pirate.' Shut up already.
  • Talent: Dirty Deeds: now done dirt cheap.

Shaman

  • Ability: Frostbrand Weapon: Rank 6 damage has been increased very slightly. Like, you won't even be able to tell a difference.
  • Talent: Anticipation: ......wait for it......
  • ..........
  • ..........
  • See next patch for details.

Warlocks

  • Talent: Demonic Knowledge: now causes the player's parents to worry about him or her, what with all the black clothing and such.
  • Pets: Using a Pet other than Succubus in raids no longer automatically kicks you from the group, unless that's just your raid leader being a jerk.
  • Creating a Warlock now displays the message "Easy Mode Activated" and all mobs in the game are polymorphed into chickens when the player gets within 500 yards of them.

Warrior

  • Protection specced Warriors no longer move 15% slower than other characters and have armor covering their entire character model.
  • Quoting any movies, videogames, or TV shows while playing a Warrior automatically bans the player's account.

PvP

  • Arenas
    • Players who don't enter Arenas with super twinked out gear are automatically dropped from the match. Why do you even try?

Professions

  • All Professions no longer take more time than a real job to be effective at.
  • All 4-day cooldowns are now 3 days, 23 hours.
  • Leatherworking: Reaching the Master level of this profession no longer changes your character class to "BDSM."

Dungeons and Raids

  • Black Temple has now been renamed to "African American Temple."
  • Magister’s Terrace
    • Vexallus is no longer immune to physical damage on Normal difficulty.
    • Kael’thas is no longer immune to arcane damage on Normal difficulty.
    • Sunblade Imps will now reset properly, unless the moon is out, then they won't.

Items

  • Arcane Charges now deal arcane damage to the player's credit card which is used to pay the monthly fee.
  • Botanist’s Gloves of Growth have had their texture corrected and give players Greenthumb status.
  • Goblin Jumper Cables still never work. Ever.
  • Most Main-Hand weapons are now Left-Hand only weapons.
  • Nightfall now has a chance to fail if it's already night.

User Interface

  • The guild log scroll bar will now properly display so you don't miss out on all the Murloc and Chuck Norris jokes.
  • Mailboxes can now be tracked on the minimap. Thank Christ.

World Environment

  • The dragons in Blade’s Edge Mountains will no longer instantly knock you off your mount, but the Monstrous Kailiri in Skettis still do. Gawd.

Bug Fixes

  • When your server goes down, the game will automatically post on the official forums for you, threatening to cancel your account if something isn't done.
  • Female Draenei horns will now correctly protrude through certain plate helms. Totally hot.
  • The Vengeful Gladiator’s Rifle will now play the proper sound when used instead of playing a sound clip of Russell Crowe screaming.
  • It is no longer possible for pets to get stuck in place after exiting the Spectral Realm in the Kalecgos encounter. However, they still get stuck and take stupid paths everywhere else in the effing game.
  • Whirlwind now has the correct sound associated with it. Wait, how did we miss this before??

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Album of the Week: Sunset Rubdown- Random Spirit Lover

If there's a trend I'm beginning to see in 2008 amongst the indie rock leading minds, it's that this is the year of indulgence and complexity. Perhaps I'm making a mountain of a mole hill, but with Stephen Malkmus's album being all jammy and guitar hero-y, the forthcoming Silver Jews album being all accessible and poppy, and future releases by Wolf Parade and Islands having both awesome cover art as well as complicated, long winded songs, it's starting to look like everyone is following whims and/or pushing themselves to expand their art.

I'm going back to Random Spirit Lover by Sunset Rubdown from this past fall, and I'm finding this similar change had already taken place within this band. The songs are longer (only two songs are less than four minutes), more complicated, and less distinct--often the songs flow into each other and have no obvious chorus/verse/chorus structures. This isn't so much prog rock as it is a true album album.

Music critics have used phrases like 'rewards repeated listening' and 'a true album rather than a collection of songs' for many years, and it's exactly for releases like Random Spirit Lover that they were forged. I've been listening to the album off and on since its release last October but it's only recently that I've completely come around to it. Up to this point, it most definitely was good but I didn't see the greatness yet. Compared to Spencer Krug's work with Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, or even the last Sunset Rubdown album, it felt like he was purposely sabotaging one of his best assets: his ability to write off-kilter but insanely catchy songs.

However, given enough time, Random Spirit Lover reveals itself to be every bit the equal of those projects. While they may possess better, self contained songs, Random Spirit Lover possesses better moments. None of the songs from the album immediately stand out, but moments certainly do. 'The Courtesan Has Sung' begins with an echoed, overlapping vocal line and primitive percussion, a seeming minimalist indulgence with no merit, before Krug starts to sing wordless "woah ah oh"s and the keyboards and guitars strike and the whole thing positively glows out of the speakers. Meanwhile, 'Colt Stands Up, Grows Horns'--which is the weakest 'song' on the album--serves to take the sting off the brilliant 'Winged/Wicked Things' with its spacey, frozen ambiance before a crazed funhouse keyboard outro leads us into the mid-tempo 'Stallion' which begins the second half of the album. I don't know if it's actually true, but from the time that keyboard outro begins and Krug comes in on 'Stallion', it feels like the longest stretch of time on the album without vocals. This gives the whole three song package a tinge of entering the second half of a story, as if an all instrumental intermission has occurred before the curtain rises on the next act.

The problem with an album like this is that if you're the sort of listener who just wants to get to the catchy pop moments, you're going to hate this album. It's difficult in the sense that it only rewards people who will stick with it and enjoy not just the main course of a meal but the aperitifs, appetizers, desserts, and digestifs as well. You could skip around to the moments or songs you like best, but it doesn't have the same effect it does when you listen to the whole thing and come to these heights naturally. With Random Spirit Lover the old adage holds true: it's about the journey, not the destination. The first time I listened to the whole thing in its entirety, it was during a power outage. Forced to kill time with just my iPod, I gave it my full attention in one chunk rather than the piecemeal listens I had given it in the past. I loved the experience, but afterward I couldn't remember which specific songs I liked.

This will be why people who just want quick-and-dirty three minute pop songs won't like it, and why people who want something more will love it. You really need to set aside an hour and give yourself over to it completely. Just as you would devote more time and attention to a complicated film, novel, or videogame, Random Spirit Lover asks more of the listener but it also provides richer rewards. You may not listen to it every day, but when you're in the mood for a full meal and not just the main course, you'll find a lot to digest here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Video: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy- I Gave You



Technically this is a song from the album Bonnie 'Prince' Billy did with Matt Sweeney. Anyway, this is a very affecting video assuming you pay attention to the lyrics. They go perfectly with the vibe of the video, as you can imagine someone in this situation after being rejected. The reveal at the end is a nice twist that gives the whole thing a darker tone, too.

If you're a fan of facial hair and/or blusey/folky/country-y indie rock, then Will Oldham (aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy) is your man and this is your video.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Are We What We Play??

Are We What We Play?
This 1UP article is one of the best pieces of videogame journalism I've read in some time. And it really did get me to think about how and why I play videogames. I've read and re-read the four unique essays contained in the article, comparing and contrasting to my own experience, and it's made me realize two things.

The first is that most Japanese games completely fail at making any sort of player/character connection. I'm trying to think of any Japanese game where I, personally, felt a connection to a character that went beyond a passive, "member of the audience along for the ride" role, but I'm drawing a blank.

I'm currently--slowly--making my way through Persona 3: FES. This is one of those Japanese games where your character is, essentially, a blank slate. You determine their "personality" with responses you give and the decisions you make. However, the closer a game gets to non-linearity, the more stifling and obvious the limitations become. I was playing the game as if I were the main character. How would I act in these situations?? Well, it turns out that I can't fully play the game like it was me, because I'll never finish its plot if I do. If I had my way, I'd never go into the game's dungeon. Instead, I would focus on studying, the track team, and playing the game-within-a-game MMORPG. Yet every month you are forced into a story scene in which you have to go fight enemies and then a boss in a mini-dungeon. If you neglect leveling up your characters too much, you might get completely stuck and have to start over. Meanwhile, your interactions with the characters in-game don't seem to have much effect other than letting you make new and better Persona fusions. If you ignore people or never talk to them to begin with, they don't hinder your progress or try to poison other people's opinion of you. Instead, you just won't be able to make the Persona fusions that their friendship would grant you.
It's not like I have a choice, pretty boy.

This isn't to say that Persona 3 is a bad game, because it's not. It represents a very unique RPG that combines a dungeon crawler with a dating/life sim. However, it is an odd beast in that it's a Japanese game where you help shape the main character but none of those decisions feel important or game changing. Sure, Western developed RPGs with moral choices and more-open-ended character develop will ultimately condense into totally good/in between/totally evil archetypes, but at least it's something you do. When I'm an anti-social jerk in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Fallout, my decisions have real consequences both for the story and the world I'm inhabiting. You are always saving the world in Persona 3 and almost every other Japanese RPG. You are always the good guy in Persona 3 and almost every other Japanese RPG. Again, this doesn't make them bad games. It just nudges them further to the "fun games" side as opposed to "games I can relate to and/or take meaning from" side.
Oh, I haven't left the Light Side...yet.

The second thing I want to talk about is World of Warcraft. You aren't making decisions in the game that effect the story or your character's personality. The quests you take--which ostensibly are the story--don't let you decide whether your character is evil, good, or in between. However, everything else about it will do this, whether you know it or not. Do you gank other players?? Do you heal and buff random people while running around?? Do you never group with anyone?? Do you take advantage of your guild, if you have one, or are you the person who's always selflessly giving up items and money to help others?? At the same time, which class you play reflects your personality in some way. While it is fun to try all the classes--and I have--it's worth noting that which one(s) you stick with can say something about you. Are you the 'take charge' type?? You're probably a Warrior, the class that almost always leads when your group is doing dungeons. Are you the helpful, support-oriented type?? You're probably a Priest, the main healers/buffers. Are you the "I can't commit to just one thing and want to be flexible" type?? You're probably a Druid. Or perhaps it goes the opposite way: you play in the game what you wish you were in real life.

Moreover, all of these things help create the story for you. For me, and I'm sure many others, the "story" of the game isn't the quests. I would wager that 98% of WoW players completely skip the lore and explanation that accompanies the quests and just want to get to killin'. There has been a lot of the talk recently about how games tell stories and how they should tell stories, and I think this game is of a mind with the "the environment you inhabit and the choices you make create the story" viewpoint famously put forth by Ken Levine, the main mind behind BioShock. The story of my Dwarf Hunter's journey to level 70 wasn't the story of the quests, but the story I experiences in the places I went, the players I helped or harassed, the silly stuff I did in towns (naked, drunk dancing and boxing in Ironforge is always fun), the dungeons my guild ran and the funny/frustrating events that transpired there, and so on. I would actually say that WoW requires a lot of imagination from the player, because when I'm in the ruins of some Troll temple, the explanation I come up with by looking around me is always better than the lore/quest text that accompanies it. Just as things are always more terrifying when you can't see them and/or have no knowledge of what precisely they are, the setting and story of a game is (usually) better when you are making it up yourself.

Yeah, I posted the screencap I took when I hit 70. Deal with it.
The odd thing is, when I play Western style RPGs, I tend to go down the "total jerk" path, and I think that might be as much a reaction to the "goody two shoes" path I'm railroaded down in Japanese RPGs as much as it is my own inner dark tendencies. I say this is odd because when I play WoW, I'm actually altruistic, because I feel that the things I do in the game will reflect on me in real life. I know some of the people I play with, so I play the game like it's really me. Which is stranger yet, because in my mind I think of myself as a selfish prick but I'm always giving away items to guild members or helping them with difficult quests.

So, maybe it's not so much a case of "we are what we play" as "what I play can be who I am or what I want to be."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Album of the Week: My Bloody Valentine- Isn't Anything

Don't worry. I'm not going to try to be an iconoclast and argue that Isn't Anything is better than Loveless. After all, it wouldn't be fair; Loveless is an iconic, landmark release that still sounds like nothing else in music history. It was a bolt from the blue. By any standard, Isn't Anything is a more 'normal' album: its got discernible lyrics, the guitars aren't constantly built up to huge swallowing walls of beautiful noise, and the songs themselves are more traditionally structured.

However, even if Loveless never existed, Isn't Anything would still be one of the crowning achievements of the shoegazer genre. In fact, listening to other bands of this era, you get the impression that they took inspiration primarily from this album. Nobody quite managed to make the jump to a Loveless level, or perhaps knew better than to try. Isn't Anything is more safely grounded in this reality, with an inspiration of its own to work from: The Jesus and Mary Chain's Psychocandy. I have to confess that I only very recently listened to that album, but its influence is shot through this album, from the druggy atmospheres and careful mix of noise/pop to the Velvet Underground-esque mystique and seeming danger of the whole project. What My Bloody Valentine did was to make this aesthetic a little more warm and inviting. Listening to Psychocandy is like being strung out on heroin in a crappy apartment after your girlfriend has decided to leave you for good; listening to Isn't Anything is like being stoned and sleepy while snuggling with a girlfriend who you had a serious fight with the night before.

It took Deerhoof to make me realize how much I like Isn't Anything. In 2006, the band released a free MP3-only EP through their website which contained live tracks and 3 covers. One of those was 'Lose My Breath' from Isn't Anything, and in listening to the EP over and over, it finally hit me what great songs this band has. Even the huge reverb monster 'All I Need', with its cavernous guitars, is a fantastic experience. However, Isn't Anything more often adheres to a noise/pop blueprint, with songs like 'Soft As Snow (But Warm Inside)', 'You Never Should', 'Nothing Much To Lose', and the aforementioned 'Lose My Breath' all being, underneath all the sonic murk and thrashings, classic pop/rock songs waiting to be uncovered. There is also more of a Dinosaur Jr.-esque rock vibe going on in some songs, like the heady rush of 'When You Wake (You're Still In A Dream)' and 'Feed Me With Your Kiss.'

I love Isn't Anything. I consider it a 5 star album. But--and this is a very big but, indeed--it's no Loveless. Sometimes it's possible to listen to this album and come away with the impression that it's pretty good on its own merits, but it was still a warm-up for Loveless. And though Isn't Anything would prove more influential in the short term, Loveless would be moreso in the long run. Bands like Deerhunter and M83 have taken ideas from Loveless into very different directions, while others--such as Trey Anastasio of Phish and Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices--claim to be inspired by the album in less direct ways. In the end, though, Isn't Anything is worthy of consideration and appreciation on its own. Try to listen to it without the burden of Loveless and you'll find a lot to love.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Tom Goes To The Mayor: Season Two Highlights

With season two, Tom Goes To The Mayor got weirder, darker, and, yes, funnier. Though the show has never been officially canceled, since Tim and Eric moved on after this season to do Awesome Show, it's fairly certain that these will be the last episodes of the series. Here I present the second half of my personal choices for funniest moments from Tom Goes To The Mayor.

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Episode: My Big Cups
Funniest Moment: After getting caught passing off his sons' macaroni art as his own in front of a city council meeting, Tom's beeper goes off. The Mayor, making the bizarre assumption that it's the fire alarm, begins spraying people with a fire extinguisher. "Whew, saved by the bell," Tom remarks, as the episode ends and we cut to footage of Dustin "Screech" Diamond doing a strange neck dance.

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Episode: Bass Fest
Funniest Moment: The Only Married News Team are caught unprepared when their teleprompter apparently is blank. Jan is petrified while Wayne tries to encourage her. Finally, Jan asks 'Ryan' if they can cut to a commercial. Suddenly, Wayne shrieks "Ryan go to commercial!!" and you can almost tell that Tim was caught unaware by the outburst, giving the show an improvisational feel that would come to the fore with their next project.

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Episode: Jeffy the Sea Serpent
Funniest Moment: No, it's not The Mayor forgetting that Tom is inside a fake sea serpent. It's the ending where the "dead" sea serpent is on display in a museum of "Nature's Greatest Mistakes", with a placard that reads "Underwater Bigfoot-Style Monstrosity."

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Episode: White Collarless
Funniest Moment: Combining a poop joke with poor spelling is funny no matter how you slice it.

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Episode: Wrestling
Funniest Moment: After abusing a drug to help win a boys' wrestling tournament, Tom is reduced to a wheelchair bound wreck. However, his statue is being installed next to The Mayor's, who helpfully puts a telescope in front of his "good" eye. Realizing that not only is his name misspelled, but the statue looks nothing like him, Tom moans out an exasperated cry that gets me every time I hear it.

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Episode: Saxman
Funniest Moment: One of the running gags on the show was people circling things on paper like an elementary school teacher might. However, in this scene, it's combined with Tom realizing the music writing process with the creepy Saxman isn't going so well because he's working in the bass cleft.

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Episode: Spray a Carpet or Rug
Funniest Moment: As the darkest episode up to this point, 'Spray a Carpet or Rug' also has an ending that is the strangest yet. After being talked into suicide, Tom goes through a surreal scene that recalls the ending of 2001 before he ends up in what appears to be heaven's version of The Mayor's office. Things quickly turn sinister before the camera cuts to The Mayor, revealed to be a demon, who screams a terrifying sound...and then the episode ends.

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Episode: Surprise Party
Funniest Moment: This is one of those episodes where things get worse and worse for Tom. And while this business card/spelling joke had been done in an earlier episode (specifically in 'Re-Birth'), Tom's addition of "the phone number isn't current" is especially ridiculous since, well, the phone number is listed as "pending."

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Episode: CNE
Funniest Moment: In an episode packed with hilarious things, the commercial for CNE medication takes the cake. It's first introduced as "not just your father's diaper rash medication anymore!!" and then later "though first developed as a dangerous fox repellent..." before Dr. Michael Ian Black turns it off. It's worth noting that Black holds a medical degree from Dr. Peppar's Medical Institute aka the guy behind the Re-Birthing episode's strange adoption legitimizing program.

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Episode: Friendship Alliance
Funniest Moment: I have a weak spot for ridiculous products, and Rat Nap is one of the best Tim and Eric came up with. Ostensibly a liquid used to induce sleep or comas in rodents, in this episode it's used in large quantities to put Tom, The Mayor, and Gibbons to sleep for two weeks so John C. Reilly can escape town without legal consequences.

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Episode: Zoo Trouble
Funniest Moment: 'Zoo Trouble' is probably my least favorite of the second season of Tom Goes To The Mayor simply because the ending is too arbitrary and silly for its own good. However, they do manage a few good laughs, such as during the ride Tom and The Mayor go on at Bernie Fusterillio's Real Live Animal Experience. Told to "smell the breath of the deadly lion", Tom's smell tube malfunctions and seals around his mouth, giving his face a coat of stinky paste as he chokes and coughs.

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Episode: Layover
Funniest Moment: Fun Fact: According to the commentary, this is among Tim and Eric's personal favorite episodes of the show. While the other restaurants they came up with were funny--WW Laserz, Gulliver's buffet, Sauceman's--Fishanelli's is the best yet. A seafood establishment where you can choose your fish, dip, and waiter, the small legal text at the end of the commercial is comedy gold. You probably can't read it from an image this small, but it informs the viewer that the "squid snaplins" may contain up to 94% of a few disgusting sea creatures that clearly aren't squid. Also that color and salt have been added to maintain appearance and consumer appetite.

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Episode: Couple's Therapy
Funniest Moment: During an exercise to help get some more romance into the bedroom, The Mayor is told to say something erotic without using words. He leans toward Tom and makes a series of the most strange human sounds you've heard in a long time before Gary Shandling, as the leader of the couples cruise they're on, says "Mayor, that's turning the whole boat on."

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Episode: Glass Eyes
Funniest Moment: During a barrel goat hunt, the Only Married News Team are singing a song to urge the participants on. When the goats escape from Memorial Park, they begin to sing about the events unfolding. I don't know, I just think it's really funny that they quickly cut from a scripted, pre-filmed song to "breaking news" in the form of a song.

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Episode: Undercover
Funniest Moment: Tom's height reduction surgery in order to pose as a child at the school was funny. So funny that Zach Galifianakis, as a doctor, laughs hysterically while describing it to Tom. However, his re-heightening is funnier still, and probably the best ending reveal of the whole series. Tottering on stick legs with an idiotically throaty voice, Tom tries to lean in toward the microphone to thank the city council before his legs snap and he falls over.

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Episode: Puddins
Funniest Moment: This episode is the blackest humor Tim and Eric have ever produced. I happen to think it's among the funniest. The poem that Tom reads at his son's memorial service at the school is genius in its awkwardness, only trumped by his ensuing grief and furthering madness. Appearing at The Mayor's office, who mistakes Tom for a baboon, he tries to introduce his new son "Brindon Again." Of course it's not a real human baby: rather, it's an irritated cat, who jumps out of the empty Puddins container and crashes through a window while Tom collapses into despair. I dunno, you'd have to watch it to think it's funny.

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Episode: Joy's Ex
Funniest Moment: Here we are, the last one. This episode is a fairly appropriate note to end on, especially given the psychedelic vibe the whole thing has. I mean, they do get stoned in it. Anyway, the best bit comes when Tom explains that he shouldn't go outside in the thunderstorm because his briefs have a lot of underwire. "You know, for support," he offers, striking a hilarious pose.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Video: Iron and Wine- Naked As We Came



I know that Sam Beam is trying to say something with this video, but honestly it's something that a lot of people have done and said better before. It's a muddle of death, renewal, things running backwards or forwards in time, love, food...The imagery is lousy with symbolism and metaphor but it'll be lost on most people. It's a nice enough video otherwise.

The only thing I can add is that death is often used as a metaphor for orgasm or sex. "Naked As We Came" could mean dying or, er, coming. "One of us will die inside these arms" helps make this clear, but also if you know that the French sometimes refer to orgasm as la petite mort: "the little death."

Monday, May 5, 2008

Tom Goes To The Mayor: Season One Highlights

With the recent release of the first season of Tim and Eric's Awesome Show: Great Job!, I felt compelled to go back to their first series, Tom Goes To The Mayor. As the 3 DVD set contains both seasons of the show, I figured I may as well split this post into two convenient halves highlighting what I consider the funniest moments from each episode.

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Episode: Bear Traps
Funniest Moment: As The Mayor introduces Tom to the Jefferton City Council, he mentions that Tom is a real astronaut, not like that imposter. Cut to newspaper clipping seen above. Doubly funny because Tom is also not an astronaut.

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Episode: WW Laserz
Funniest Moment: After being knocked unconscious by an angry, asthma suffering child's brick projectile, Tom comes to days later in a dumpster. The Mayor explains that he has been keeping Tom there because he was "too tender to move" and has been feeding him cat food. In what would become a series signature moment, a real life hand and cat food are shown, with the fingers disgustingly breaking up the canned feline treat.

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Episode: Pioneer Island
Funniest Moment: Though technically the second episode aired, the DVD lists it as the third episode. Anyway, the best scene in 'Pioneer Island' is after Tom writes a postcard to his family while helping with the Pioneer Island renovations. As he mispronounces the word "brochure" it shows up on the screen as a subtitle. This would become another series staple: mispronunciations, sometimes with subtitles. See also constant misspellings, often of Tom's full name, Tom Peters.

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Episode: Toodle Day
Funniest Moment: This is one of those episodes where you just have to go along with the ridiculous premise to have any fun with it. Basically an annual town festival where dogs are married off, The Mayor has decided that for this year's Toodle Day they should train a matchmaker dog to help pair off the canines, as dog divorces are extremely high due to inappropriate husband/wife combinations. So it's up to Tom to train this dog, which he does so in ridiculous attire. The blackboard, complete with "by Tom Peters" on it, seals the absurdity of the whole thing.

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Episode: Rats Off To Ya!
Funniest Moment: I don't know why I think it's so funny, but this whole episode spoofs America's tendency to latch unto one cultural fad and take it to extremes. In this case, it's a t-shirt that Tom makes, the titular 'Rats Off To Ya" with a rat presenting a hat to the t-shirt viewer. A local business owner steals the idea from him, and the whole thing ends up with Rats Off To Ya wristlets, electric scooters, bongs, and this hilarious, teen pop skewering music video. Truth be told Eric Wareheim's outfit and dance moves--foreshadowing his amazing 'Casey and his Brother' stuff on Awesome Show--are a funnier visual gag this the singer chick grinding on a man in a rat costume, but I'm a sucker for bestiality.

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Episode: Porcelain Birds
Funniest Moment: We're roughly halfway through the season, and I think it's with this episode that the series came into its own. There are a lot of hilarious moments in this one, but the ending is what always gets me. It's not even the surprise screeching giant bird that pops out of the huge toilet dedicated to a despondent Tom at the very end. For me, it's just the huge toilet itself, because it makes for a great reminder that the same thing that useless shit like porcelain birds are made out of also goes into the thing that we use to shit in.

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Episode: Vehicular Manslaughter
Funniest Moment: It's impossible not to love the dance/handshake thing that The Mayor and Dr. Michael Ian Black do. There's just something inspired about the weird gestures and nonsense words that Tim and Eric come up with for these kind of situations.

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Episode: Boy Meets Mayor
Funniest Moment: Though I will admit that I think it's funny that The Mayor seems more concerned with Tom's broken sandal than he does with his sex scandal, I also think it's far funnier when they both find themselves in a hot air balloon race/record attempt and lose their minds. There has always been something disturbing and creepy about The Mayor, something inhuman, but this is the first time he truly gives off a serial killer vibe. When Tom argues that they need to give up and land before they all die, The Mayor grabs him and, with a dagger to Tom's neck, calmly intones "I wouldn't do that if I were you."

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Episode: Calcucorn
Funniest Moment: Like 'Porcelain Birds', 'Calcucorn' is funny from start to finish, and its best scene comes at the end. I would have to summarize the whole episode to help contextualize the hilarity of this part, but just know that as Tom sinks in a heavy, unwieldly unicorn suit he politely offers something along the lines of "this suit is making me sink, that's the only problem I have with it right now." Much of the humor from this show comes from awkward situations or Tom not standing up for himself, and this is one of those situations where Tim and Eric absolutely help you understand what they were going for with this show and this character.

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Episode: Gibbons
Funniest Moment: While the majority of the humor in this episode comes from the interplay between The Mayor, Gibbons, and Tom, they also manage to sneak in a great bit about what Tom is trying to sell at the Friendship Expo. The show usually managed to sneak in little bits of text on posters, postcards, backgrounds, or just other funny details that you only notice on the second or third viewing. However this one's side humor is delicious: Tom's wife Joy has him selling 'friendship skirts for men' ("to be worn in tandem", Tom explains) while he is trying to hock his BOTCs--books on tiny cassette. Somehow, Tim and Eric always manage to push something that already is funny--a motivational seminar on an outdated audio format from a man who constantly fails and has no backbone--to something funnier yet--the same thing only on an even more useless audio format that practically no one has heard of.

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Episode: Pipe Camp
Funniest Moment: I have actually seen official Pipe Camp shirts in the wild. I just wanted to note that because I think this image speaks for itself: Tom in another stupid outfit, with his fly undone, trying to motivate kids to exercise at a camp that, unbeknownst to him, is teaching kids proper pipe smoking and what fatty meats would complement what blends of pipe tobacco. I should add that Tom mispronounces aerobics, too.

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Episode: Re-Birth
Funniest Moment: As with 'Toodle Day', you just have to roll with the premise of the episode to like 'Re-Birth.' However, I hope I'm not alone in thinking that what Tom renames his three sons--Brandon, Brindon, and Brendon--is one of the funniest running gags of the series from here on out.

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Episode: Vice Mayor
Funniest Moment: Tim and Eric's 'Married News Team' bit gets better with time. Though taken to even loftier and creepier heights later in the series, and in Awesome Show, this scene from the last episode of season one ranks up there for me with one of the best images from the series. Even not knowing anything about what is going on in this picture, you could probably get some amusement out of it. That Jan is pawing at the image of Tom's house, where the hobo stink wave originates, while Wayne nods adoringly from the bottom right of the screen is simply sublime.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Album of the Week: Andrew Bird- Armchair Apocrypha

The cover of Armchair Apocrypha is some kind of bird, though all you can see is its back. You can't detect any wings, any facial features, the claws, etc. It's as if you're wandering through a grandparent's attic, seeing all kinds of strange and seemingly foreign things from years past via only one angle--you do a doubletake and either look closer or turn the object over before you realize what it is. This is more or less what listening to the album is like. The songs seem familiar to you but you aren't quite sure what they are until you give them closer inspection.

Andrew Bird is one of those American musicians who you're almost sure can't be an American because he seems so multicultural. The phrase "citizen of the world" comes to mind because his songs seem shot through with imagery and words from across the world. There's something of a worldly 19th century European aristocrat vibe going on, too, from his violin/stringed instrument mastery to his highly skilled whistling to his voice pitched somewhere between the operatic ecstasy of Rufus Wainwright and the sensitive-but-full-bodied Jeff Buckley. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but combined with his lyrics--filled with words, places, and people you'd only expect to hear in various history or sociology courses in college--Bird really seems like a truly intelligent person who knows a lot about everything. A Renaissance man, basically.

The true accomplishment of Armchair Apocrypha is not its intelligence, though. Like other brainy indie rockers such as the Decemberists, you don't need a Bachelor's degree to appreciate the album. That's because with songs like 'Imitosis', 'Plasticities', and 'Scythian Empires' Bird has proven himself a genius of pop songwriting. Though these three songs are too long and nuanced to work as radio smash hits, they are as catchy as catchy can be. Like Sufjan Stevens, Bird is able to write infectious and memorable songs utilizing a vast array of instruments. Also similarly, those songs can be about unconventional subjects. Where Stevens has released two albums that are ostensibly "about" the states Michigan and Illinois, Bird's songs can be about, well, the Scythian Empire and heretics; however, it's also true that Stevens and Bird's songs are not just about these topics. They're often used as metaphors or red herrings for the true meaning, which is usually left up to the listener to decide.

I feel like I should have more to say, but other than "the lyrics are really good, too" nothing comes to mind. Perhaps that's the point. This is one of those albums that people simply have to experience themselves, have a reaction to emotionally/intellectually, and return to often for ever-richer enjoyment. I can't fully explain to you what the title of the album means to me, or what I feel when the intro to 'Plasticities' starts and Bird materializes with the line "this isn't your song/this isn't your music." But you wouldn't, and shouldn't, understand even if I tried to. So. Get this album.