Monday, June 30, 2008

Video: The Mountain Goats- Sax Rohmer #1

I'm not the biggest fan of the Heretic Pride album, but I do like this song. And, also, this video, which wisely puts the focus on Darnielle's lyrics. Breathing life into them by giving them various textures, animations, fonts, and synchronized actions from the band, 'Sax Rohmer #1' has a video that may not the most original idea in history (the 'show the lyrics' thing goes back to at least Bob Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues') but still works very well.

I also recommend looking up some live clips of The Mountain Goats. John Darnielle is a pretty amusing guy, and his passion and energy for playing the songs--even while solo and acoustic--is entrancing.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

(Un)Holy Crap!! Diablo III!!


Friday, June 27, 2008

Primer Part 4/Album of the Week: Beck- Odelay

We wouldn't have the full story until later, but you've got to hand it to Beck for making an album like Odelay no matter how much or how little you know about his history. After having a hit single with 'Loser' and being labeled a new voice for his "slacker" generation, nobody should have expected that he had a masterpiece on the way. Mellow Gold can be seen as something of a not-nearly-as-good template for Odelay, but its contemporary Beck releases--Stereopathetic Soulmanure and One Foot In The Grave--certainly didn't point to something like Odelay. The former was an indulgent mess that was itself not-nearly-as-good as Mellow Gold, while the latter was a solid, unique folk-blues affair with an indie rock label and its legendary head.

Strangely, then, the follow-up to Mellow Gold nearly was fashioned more in line with the One Foot in the Grave style than the genre bending, upbeat, party-time bottlerocket that it ended up being. Following his success with 'Loser' and the Mellow Gold album, a few people who were close to Beck died, including his grandfather, Al Hansen, who had a great influence on Beck's life. So Beck began to record sparse, sad songs with Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, best known for going on to work with Elliott Smith. Some of these songs would appear on Odelay--I'm guessing 'Jack-Ass' and 'Ramshackle'--while others would see the light of day on Sea Change, 'It's All In Your Mind' for sure. As a testament to Beck's character, at some point he scrapped this project and ended up working with the Dust Brothers on something completely different. Often you reach a point while depressed due to the loss of loved ones where you look at yourself in the mirror and say "I can either start trying to feel better, or I can just wallow in misery forever." The music world should be forever grateful that Beck chose to start feeling better, because Odelay is his hands-down best album ever, magnum opus, critical darling, and whatever other nice things I can say about it.

The easiest way to describe Odelay is that it takes all the best ideas from Mellow Gold, makes them better, and crafts an entire album out of them. Songs 'Beercan', 'Loser', 'F***in With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)', 'Steal My Body Home', and 'Blackhole' all have clear descendants on Odelay, although the scope and depth of imagination and songwriting skill is leaps and bounds beyond what had come before. 'Hotwax' blends slick blues, hip hop, and rock into something entirely new. The jazzy 'New Pollution' features an incessant drumbeat, funky keyboards, and saxophones sailing across the smoky nightclub feel. 'Derelict' is an intense psychedelic funeral built on a foundation of Indian music. 'Where It's At' is the highest of the album's high points, a now classic single that wrangles old school soul and hip hop in exciting new ways, with a wink and series of handclaps that become irresistable by their second appearance. 'Minus' presents Beck's first successful attempt at thrashing punk rock, with a bracing fuzz bass line and a noisy ending that expertly gives way to the country pastiche 'Sissyneck.' Odelay is that rare thing: an album over 50 minutes in length without a wasted moment, and one that keeps surprising and delighting throughout its 13 tracks.

This year, Odelay was re-released in a deluxe edition. Though it's nice to have the hard-to-find or completely unreleased material, I have to say that this deluxe edition is a let down. After vault clearing re-issues of both high content and high quality like those for the Pavement albums, or even other albums done by the same company as Odelay for, say, Sonic Youth's Goo, this feels like a lost opportunity. Eve though it would only interest critics and hardcore fans, why not include alternate mixes, demos, or even the tracks laid down prior to scrapping the somber album?? After all, no casual fan is likely to buy this anyway. In its defense, though, the deluxe edition does contain some gems, such as the soundtrack-only 'Deadweight', 'Richard's Hairpiece' (which is Aphex Twin's remix of 'Devil's Haircut', and every bit as awesome as that suggests), a better full-band version of 'Thunder Peel' from Stereopathetic Soulmanure, 'Brother' and 'Feather In Your Cap' from that somber pre-Odelay session, 'Devil Got My Woman' which is a cover that would be more at home on a One Foot in the Grave reissue, and 'Burro', which is a mariachi version of 'Jack-Ass.' In Spanish. So while the deluxe edition does have some interesting material, it's otherwise mostly crap--everything either sounds like incredibly inferior Odelay-era songs that were rightfully left off the album or messy sketches that don't go anywhere beyond an interesting drumbeat or sample. Finally there's the UNKLE remix of 'Where It's At', which is as overlong and inconsistent as its 12 minute runtime would lead you to believe. So, like an UNKLE album, then. Anyway, the deluxe edition is not what I would consider essential, so those waffling between the two should stick with the original.

Beck's previous releases were interesting and succeeded as albums to varying degrees, but it was with Odelay that he completely proved himself. Sitting here 12 years after its release, it's equally impressive for how much he's accomplished since and how different his next three albums would be. But I digress. Odelay is a startling album, one that is all over the map musically but hangs together indelibly as a whole. It's an album that I have no reservations about calling 'essential listening' because it's exactly the kind of exciting out-of-the-blue landmark release that gets music critics out of bed in the morning for.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Video: Radiohead- No Surprises

Simply put: I find this to be one of the most astonishing and riveting videos ever made, and I rarely hear anyone talk about it. Even once you know the trick to how it was done, it's still an incredible experience to watch. The feeling you get when the water starts up and you're thinking "no, no way it's going to fully submerge him...and then it does...and he's under it for so long...and then when it starts to come down and he desperately gasps for air before returning to the song...unbelievable.

On a side note, surprise is one of those words I can never manage to spell write because I overthink it. Is it "suprise" or "surprise"?? I say "suh--prise" but it's spelled "sur--prise."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Silver Jews- Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea

In listening to Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea for the first time, you realize that something has irrevocably changed about the Silver Jews. Sure, it's still the band led by David Berman, though it doesn't sound like the Silver Jews we've come to know and love anymore. But the more I've listened to Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, and the more I've gone back to their other albums, the more I come to understand that this 'change' wasn't instantaneous. Rather, it's a process that's been happening since at least 1998's American Water.

Mostly when I think of the Silver Jews, I think of country tinged indie rock mixed with master-class singer/songwriter poetics. To put it another way, the lesser songs can come off as poetry set to indifferent, incidental music, while the better ones come off as brilliant combinations of words and music in equal measure. I've heard it said that people only listen to the Silver Jews for David Berman's lyrics, his ability to craft genuinely moving imagery and dryly turn a phrase into something sharp and stunning. But you can just as easily listen to the songs for the sheer sound of it, the way the lyrics work together with the music even if you aren't consciously following their content. Mostly, Silver Jews songs are somber and mellow or outright dirge-like. Even the happier songs don't see Berman get his low-end voice above a smirk.

You may have noticed I said "mostly" twice in the preceding paragraph. This is because there are some Silver Jews songs that sneak through the cracks to be more forthright and direct; sometimes even precious. Their debut album had 'Rebel Jew', a self referential piece of pop/rock that blossomed into a genuine sing-along chorus. The mostly detached The Natural Bridge had 'Inside The Golden Days Of Missing You', a twangy bit of a ditty about missing a girl and thinking it was better to be unhappy. Then there's American Water, which while not all super-happy-fun-time, certainly brought the Silver Jews into a more song oriented aesthetic. Still the group's masterpiece, it contained the almost saccharine 'Honk If You're Lonely.' Follow up Bright Flight felt like a mix of American Water's classicist pop/rock slant and The Natural Bridge's somber atmosphere, until you got to the second half of the album, which gave you a three-punch-combo of 'Let's Not And Say We Did', 'Tennessee', and 'Friday Night Fever', all catchy, fun, and inventive. Tanglewood Numbers brings us up to present, an album in which every song sounds like it was recorded and played in rural sunlight--give the album a listen again and try to pick out a single song that is slow or sad. Even the ones with dark lyrical content are optimistic sounding.

What, then, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea represents is the victory of the pop slanted, songwriting focused David Berman over the poetic, rural grumbling David Berman. And, unfortunately, I don't think it's for the better. While I like the songs listed above, I liked them expressly because they were the exception to the rule. Yes, even 'Honk If You're Lonely', as silly as it is. On Lookout, they are the rule, not the exception. In fact, the best songs are those that don't sound like the Silver Jews at all--the frantic, piano-driven rush of 'Aloyisius, Bluegrass Drummer', the mantra-like daydream of 'Open Field', and the irresistable 'Party Barge', with its seagull samples and classic rock instrumental break. Therein lies the problem for me, and maybe it's just me, but this isn't what I want from the Silver Jews. If this album were released under a different name, or even as a collaboration with Berman's wife, it would be a bit more tolerable.

In fact, the other big change on Lookout is that it sounds like a band album where before it always sounded like Berman was in charge. Stephen Malkmus sometimes sang lead or co-lead on other Jews albums, and Berman's wife Cassie did crop up on the previous two albums, but here she is ubiquitous. Moreover, as stated above, there's much more of an emphasis on songwriting and instrumentation instead of Berman's lyrics and ramshackle country tinted indie rock. Often you get the feeling Berman is bemusedly moving through songs written by another band. I sometimes got the impression on Tanglewood Numbers that Berman barely pulled off the songs because his voice just isn't suited to this kind of music. Here, though, I can't stop thinking that for the first time he is the weak link on a Silver Jews album. I love Berman's voice, but it is not suited for these kind of songs. This is not to say he's always got to be doing Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan laments, but he certainly isn't capable of carrying these songs.

The final nail in the coffin, as much as it pains me to say this, is that I think he's lost his gift for lyrics. It's partially that the focus has been taken (further) off the lyrics this time out, but mostly that what he has to say is either mundane or doesn't connect like it used to. 'My Pillow Is The Threshold' is one of the worst Silver Jews songs ever, both for Berman's surprisingly dull lyrics and his inability to make his voice actually give the refrain weight. 'Strange Victory, Strange Defeat' gives us the clunker "how much fun is a lot more fun??/not much fun at all" which makes "You're the only ten-I-see" from Bright Flight's 'Tennessee' seem winkingly clever, and the "love you to the max!!" line from Tanglewood Number's 'Punks In The Beerlight' look smart for being bad on purpose instead of accidentally. Then there's 'San Francisco B.C.', which everyone seems to like but me. I might have looked forward to a six-minute Berman story-song before, but given how boring this song is, and how completely uncommitted Berman seems to the words, favoring their delivery instead, I doubt I'll ever look forward to another Silver Jews album, period. I mean, really, other than backpedaling to The Natural Bridge-era ruminations or--I hope--divorcing himself completely of both the Silver Jews name and any focus on lyrics, I don't really like where this album went and where the band could go in the future.

If this review comes off as overly personal, it's only because until this point I assumed Berman couldn't release a bad album. It's not that I was strung along under false pretenses; more that I had convinced myself that the Silver Jews were one thing, and always would be, and that they would never release an album that attempts some kind of crossover to a more mainstream audience while utterly failing to change anything about the band that turns off most people (in other words, Berman's voice and the focus on lyrics as the sustenance of the album). Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea isn't a disaster, but it's a let down, and one that has me questioning the very future of a band I used to love.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Primer: Beck Part 3- One Foot In The Grave

Beck sits in this weird place in the music community where he's neither as popular as whatever flavor of the month is on the radio/MTV nor as unknown as most of the bands that grace the Pitchfork frontpage everyday. So it's odd to go back to a time when Beck was just a guy with a flash-in-the-pan hit single and little else. Yet the interesting thing about Beck's early career is that he was embraced by the underground community even as he moved away from it. How else to explain his guest appearance on The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's Orange or, indeed, this very album??

Stereopathetic Soulmanure and Mellow Gold are messes with wildly varying song styles. But for all their inconsistency and strangeness, One Foot In The Grave sticks out to me as the weirdest Beck album of all. Ostensibly an indie/folk/acoustic blues record, it's made even more strange by the fact that it was released on K Records and features Pacific Northwest music scenesters, a few of whom (if I remember correctly) played in Built To Spill or would do so in the future. The album also features the legendary Calvin Johnson, K Records founder, best known for his--and I don't throw around this word lightly--seminal band, Beat Happening. Even given Beck's mellow, non-party-time albums like Mutations and Sea Change, One Foot In The Grave stands out. The album has a very distinctive sound: lo-fi folk and blues, stripped down instrumentation like Beat Happening, and Beck sometimes trading off vocals with the low end drone of Calvin Johnson or the more vibrant and emotive Sam Jayne (whoever that is).

Listening to One Foot In The Grave is a treat as much for what it is as for what it's not. While I will fully admit to loving Odelay and Beck's albums that are in its similar "havin' fun" aesthetic, they don't have the capacity to surprise and delight. And I'm not saying that Beck albums have to be totally groundbreaking or totally different from what he's done before. But let's be honest: Guero and The Information, fine albums that they are, don't supply you anything truly new that you haven't heard Beck do before. But One Foot In The Grave supplies us with fascinating new slices of Beck, such as the Beck/Johnson duet 'I Get Lonesome' with its incessant acoustic guitar riff, the slow motion monotone daydream of 'See Water', the overlapping/Row-Row-Row-Your-Boat vocals on the plaintive 'Forcefield', how 'Fourteen Rivers Fourteen Floods' presents Beck as a bargain basement preacher/bluesman, and 'Outcome', which drafts Beck into an early-to-mid-90s indie rock slacker track, complete with a cough that's left in and a seemingly ad-libbed outro with Beck making-it-up-as-he-goes-along like Stephen Malkmus.

Even though I like One Foot In The Grave a lot, I don't think anyone could argue that it's a masterpiece. It pretty much defines the 4-stars-out-of-5 rating for me, because I consider it essential listening if you're already a fan of Beck but nothing anyone else would likely be interested in. Anyway, One Foot In The Grave is an enjoyable side street, one that you take when you're tired of going the same way home every day after work.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Album of the Week: Wolf Parade- Apologies to the Queen Mary

At the risk of getting dangerously meta on you: whenever I sit down to write a review, I always have a pretty good idea of what I want to say about something. The points I want to make, the things I want to single out for praise or criticism, and so on. But sometimes I want to write a review, and I really think about it a lot, but nothing comes to me. I end up back in my 8th grade days, thinking that reading and writing reviews is pointless, and all you need to know is whether something sucks or not. Well, I've been trying to write a review of Apologies to the Queen Mary for almost 3 years now and I'm still drawing a blank.

Mind you, this isn't an issue of the album being so overwhelming that my response to it is to just sit here, mouth agape, going "guh guh guh guh guh" and gesticulating wildly. For instance, I watched the movie Old Boy a few hours ago and I was nearly catatonic by the time the credits rolled. With Apologies to the Queen Mary I can't think of anything to say because nothing intelligent or incisive comes to mind. I feel like, even after hearing their new album At Mount Zoomer I'm still not far enough away from Apologies to see the big picture. No ideas or critical conceits come to mind when trying to craft this review because it's just a fantastic album that needs no explanation.


You can't tell, but I just sat here listening to 'Fancy Claps' instead of writing something.

This is an album that lives in moments, in the realizations you have on the bus home from somewhere or when you go for a walk at night, your head spinning with thoughts that never settle. It lives in vivid scenes of beauty, love, loss, pain, and separation. It spins poetry out of lyrics and ideas that are the little clever things we think of and say everyday but never write down because we think they're too pedestrian:

"You said you hate the sound
Of the buses on the ground
You said you hate the way they scrape their brakes all over town
I said pretend it’s whales
Keeping their voices down."

I genuinely believe that as time goes on, this album will stand as one of those generational masterpieces that we can look back to not just as a fun, enjoyable album, but as a work of art with depth and substance. I don't use terms like "zeitgeist" often, but if there is a zeitgeist to be captured out there, right now, then Wolf Parade have captured it with this album. My appreciation and understanding for it has only increased with time. It helps, too, that though this was the first major work from co-leaders Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, they both turn in high watermarks with 'Shine A Light' and 'I'll Believe In Anything', respectively, the latter of which I think is one of the top songs of the decade thus far. Along with 'Purple Bottle' by Animal Collective, it's also one of my favorite love songs, though they're both very skewed and odd love songs. But I'm odd and skewed too, so...

We've all got a few albums that we have an emotional attachment to, an attachment that doesn't allow us to step back from the music at hand and deliver some semblance of a sensible evaluation of. Sure, it's still subjective. But I love In The Aeroplane Over The Sea and react emotionally to it, yet I can still write a decent review about it without words failing me. I think I've proven, though, that I can't do the same for Apologies to the Queen Mary. I love this album so much that I can't explain why I love it. It transcends the indie rock genre even if the tools it uses--glossy-but-not-retro-or-lame keyboards, whip snap drumming, melodic bass, crisp guitars, unique and affected vocals--are almost standard. I don't want to read anything critical about it because to me it's as perfect a thing as I'm likely to get in this world and I don't want it diminished. I like a lot of albums, but it's very rare that they end up meaning something to me.
Apologies to the Queen Mary means something to me.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why I Quit World of Warcraft

I have this problem with videogames and my ability to be a cynical reductionist about them. For instance, I can break down a FPS and say “it's just a game where a combination of your reflexes and available toolset (in other words, weapons and items) allow you to overcome enemies and obstacles while moving through a linear path toward a set ending.” I can break down a RPG and say “it's just a game where you work toward making your numbers bigger than the enemy's numbers, through use of an available toolset (equipment, spells, items, abilities, leveling up, etc.). Even if you aren't moving along a linear path toward a set ending, there are only so many available endings possible.” This, of course, ignores the promise of X-hundred endings for Fallout 3, where X represents however many numbers they've promised in this month's interview or press release.

This cynical, reductionist eye, when turned upon World of Warcraft, gets a bit fuzzy. My impression in the beginning was that it was a mix of Diablo 2's “lootin' and levelin'” addiction cycle set upon a persistent, multiplayer landscape. But it's a bit more complicated than that. Literally, more complicated: World of Warcraft adds more layers of complexity on top of that formula. You aren't just picking a class, you're picking a race, too. You aren't going through a set of quests toward chapter endings and a final boss or bosses; rather, you're free to go anywhere at any time and do what you want. You also have more things to do than just “lootin' and levelin'”: you can do professions to make money, mess with other players even if you aren't on a PvP server, do dungeons and raids, try your hand at Arena or Battleground PvP, and quest to raise reputation with 'factions' so you can access their specific vendor items and equipment.

So, I found myself heavily addicted to the game for five months straight. I got a character to the current level cap of 70. I played a bunch of alts. I tried almost everything the game had to offer. And then...I quit.

The “why” of my quitting has a short and a long answer. The short answer is that it ceased to run on my laptop. I began to get an error saying that my display driver had stopped working. I ran through all the possible causes and solutions—overheated GPU?? outdated driver?? non-compatible, new driver?? game installation somehow corrupted??—before I finally gave up. I was talking to friends online at the time and I jokingly said to one that I was such a loser that I didn't quit WoW, WoW had quit me. But the truth is that I had given up on the game by then. And therein begins the long answer.

When I was a kid, I used to dream up the ultimate videogame. It would be like another world you went into, one that was always new and changing, so that it had no end. I loved videogames, but I was always a bit let down when they ended. Wouldn't it be awesome if Mario 3, Shining Force II, or Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis never ended?? Moreover, wouldn't it be awesome if these games were another world I could live in for hours at a time, instead of just a passive form of entertainment?? Obviously this sort of “living cyberworld that isn't a game, per se” thing is touched upon in much cyberpunk literature, not to mention The Matrix and non-RPG MMOs like Second Life. But I think World of Warcraft was closer to what I imagined, a RPG without an ending, one that you always had stuff to do in even if you were the highest level. However, it turns out that sometimes what you think you want isn't what you want at all. My main problem with World of Warcraft—and by extension, all MMOs in general—is that there's no ending to them. If you get to level 70, you still need to get better gear. You need to run daily quests so you can make enough money to raise up your professions, raise reputation with factions, to buy the epic flying mounts, etc. You need to run instances and raid dungeons to get better gear. You need to do Arena or Battleground PvP for weeks to get the better gear that these offer. But at what point do you stop?? Even simplistic older games you could replay over and over, either for the fun of it or to get a better score, had concrete endings. But World of Warcraft does not. There is no ultimate boss or piece of equipment or whatever you are working toward. Meanwhile, working toward that non-ending takes far, far too long.

I never wanted to admit this to myself, but World of Warcraft began to feel like a job. As I think anyone will agree, when something begins to feel like a job, you don't want to do it anymore. It ceases to be entertainment and becomes tedium. After a certain point, I wasn't playing WoW for the fun of it anymore; I was playing it because my guild needed me or I was wasting my money if I wasn't playing it or I wanted to see all of the content. I felt as if I had to play every available moment of my free time to maximize my progress in the game. I had to run daily quests because they were refreshed every 24 hours and if I wasn't doing them every day I was wasting my opportunity to make money and progress toward various goals. I had to play so much because if I tried to play the game casually I would take even longer to achieve anything in the game. A few weeks ago I tried to tally up in my head how much time I was spending on the game, and I figured out, roughly, that I was playing the game as many hours as I was spending at work every week, if not usually more. I used to wonder why time was flying by this year, and you know, I didn't seem to be writing as much as I used to, or reading, or playing any other games. Well, there was my answer: I had another job. I was, metaphorically speaking, 'working' for World of Warcraft. I might even have been addicted. I certainly got angry when I had to do other stuff. Paying bills?? Bah!! Eating and showering?? Bah!!

People often write or talk about games like World of Warcraft in terms of addiction, ironically or otherwise. Everquest was dubbed “Evercrack” for its pull over the lives of otherwise responsible men and women. Well, there is a definite cycle of addiction to WoW even if we don't want to admit it, although maybe it's not so much a cycle as a downward arrow. I will allow that it's possible to play the game casually, but I, personally, never felt like it was possible to do so, and nobody I knew in the game or outside of it ever did. Blizzard would never admit this, but you are discouraged (actively and passively) from playing the game casually because all the 'cool' stuff it has can only accessed when you plunk hours upon hours per week into the game. Even with all the time I put into my level 70 character, and my alts, I was only seeing vertical slices of the game. To experience every race, class, different class builds, all the zones and dungeons, all the professions, and the PvP content...well, it would take years. The game has been out for close to four years and people are still playing it. Literally everything interesting in the game requires tremendous time sinks to experience. For the sake of comparison, I spent around 60 hours to finish Final Fantasy XII, though I didn't do much of the optional stuff. In order to hit level 70 in World of Warcraft, I put in 312 hours. That is 13 days. And I still wasn't “done” with the game. I still had professions to raise up, gear to get, dungeons to run, factions to earn reputation with, etc etc. ad infinitum. I'm not even counting the time I played past hitting 70 or the other characters I was playing. This is easily two weeks of my life spent playing this game.

I understand that many people see this as ideal. “Hey, I only have to pay 15 bucks a month and I get a game I'm never done with or bored of!!” On paper it sounds good, but in reality it's nowhere near this glossy. Let's assume you aren't playing WoW and you buy one game a month. That's a solid $50-$60 a month you'll spend on a game, versus the $15 someone would on WoW. This seems like a bargain until you realize you are doing the same things, over and over, in WoW. Blizzard trumpets the fact that they're always adding new content, but seen under a reductionist light, it's still the same content with new skins. You're still collecting items or killing X number of monsters or going through every style of quest you've already done throughout the whole game. Ultimately it comes down to semi-clever ways of disguising the fact that you're just making your numbers bigger. People who've played this game for a year or more boggle my mind because I got tired of the whole thing in a few months. Even if it were possible to experience all the content in the game—let's say this took two years—would you really feel enriched by the experience, as if your money had been well spent?? Honestly, the idea smacks of addiction and monomania. People who explain why they play the game, and why they've played it for so long, start to sound like they're justifying their addiction to you and themselves at the same time. You just spent three hours of your life to get a helmet that lets you cast a spell four times instead of three. You just spent a week of your life grinding with a faction so you can get an epic flying mount that is a manta ray, though is otherwise functionally similar to your other epic flying mount. I wonder if people even think about this kind of thing when they're doing it. I mean, I had fun playing the game, but I realize now that the fun I had was mostly contained in the times I played co-operatively with other people, not in doing those ridiculous time sinks. And those co-operative experiences were always but a small fraction of the time I put into the game; the other 90% of my two weeks was put toward grinding. Pure and simple, I was paying $15 a month to do the same repetitive, mindless things over and over so that every once in awhile I could play a co-operative, multiplayer version of a dungeon from a single player PC RPG. Or, you know, Diablo 2 with more people and better graphics. Some of my friends play the game still, but I think they'd readily admit the only reason they do is because they know people who play. World of Warcraft is not an engaging enough experience on its own for more than the equivalent length of any other game without other players to spur you on.

Yes, reductionism of this sort can be applied strictly enough to any game until it's seen, bald, as a time or money sink. Entertainment of any form, whether it can/does enrich your life, is escapism and a way to spend time when you aren't at work earning money. Life is the stuff that happens between death and taxes, and entertainment is a large part of life. Scaling back a bit, even other RPGs are time and money sinks. But World of Warcraft is different, because it asks for more time and money than any other game but simultaneously gives the player little sense of accomplishment and no possibility for an ending. Everything you achieve is overshadowed by the next thing you have to do. You hit level 40 and get a mount. Great, now you need to get to level 60 (or, 58, I suppose) and get to Outland. Now you're in Outland and have your epic mount. Now you need to get to level 70 and get your flying mount. Now you need to somehow make money, get better gear, get your epic flying mount, and so on. Achieving all of these things, and playing with your friends, is fun if you're into this kind of game. But it was a hollow kind of fun. I look back on the money and time I spent on the game, and other than the friends I made, I feel as if it was all a waste. This is how the game can trap you: to walk away from it is to throw away all the “progress” you made because you never finished anything and you never can. Even when you cancel your account—a creepy process in which you aren't allowed to cancel without telling them specifically why you're quitting—they're sure to tell you that you can come back at any time and your characters will still be there. As with any good addiction, the possibility for backsliding is left harmlessly open. Except when you throw out your pack of cigarettes, the pack doesn't have “don't worry, you can always get another pack” written on it. And the bartender doesn't call your cell phone asking why you don't come in for a few glasses of scotch anymore.

Going back to my ideal childhood game, I've come to realize that a game with no true ending isn't a game at all. It's just another job or addiction even if it starts out fun. Maybe 'habit' is a better word for this. Going back to the smoking thing, people who smoke all their lives are never done with it unless they quit, completely and forever. Even when you finish a pack, you can always get another. Even if you finish a bottle of beer, you can still get more. It's the same with WoW. When you finish something, there's always something else to do. You're only done when you quit completely and forever. Let me repeat: a game with no ending is a habit because it doesn't stop until you quit. Many, many people may love the idea, but I find it unsettling and scary. It's fun for awhile, or can be, but when you're playing it just to play it or because you feel you have to, it's officially gone from a game to a habit. Hell, I love non-linear games, or linear games with replayability, but they still have some kind of official end point. You can mess around in Oblivion for hundreds of hours, too, but there's still an ending. You can replay Diablo 2 over and over, but it still ends when you finish off Diablo (or Baal) even if you keep going to get more gear or go to the higher difficulty levels. But there's no conclusion to WoW. It just keeps going, and adding more things to do, so that you can never stop because you haven't experienced it all yet. Progress is slow and they keep adding more road that you need progress over at the same time.

I want to end by making clear that I don't hate World of Warcraft. Or the players. Or Blizzard. However, I do want to say that I didn't quit because of technical issues or the laziness of a player who didn't want to put in the effort to get to the cool stuff. No, my main point stands free of any of this: World of Warcraft is a tremendously flawed game, one that is fundamentally built on being a giant time and effort sinkhole with no attainable ending in sight. I can't help but think of what I could have done with the two weeks I put into the game, even if it was just playing other games. And beating them. At least that way I could have a sense of finality and not be playing the same content over and over, for $15 a month, with no end in sight.

A race I can never finish is a race I don't want to run. A game that is a habit is not a game I want to play.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Video: Animal Collective- Winter's Love

I was going to do post the video that's floating around on YouTube from the first My Bloody Valentine reunion show, but 1) it sounds like crap because they play so effing loud 2) it sounds like crap because it was recorded on a digital camera with a built-in mic 3) the bootleg that's floating around out there sounds better although the vocals are nearly undetectable (again, due to the sheer volume) 4) I've been sick for the past 4 or 5 days, and having to work mornings, so I'm sleep deprived and all strung out on cough syrup.

So!! Here's a video of Animal Collective circa 2003 performing 'Winter's Love' from Sung Tongs in someone's apartment. I wish I was in this band. Moreso I wish I had that awesome jack'o'lantern t-shirt.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Primer: Beck Part 2- Mellow Gold

Mellow Gold is one of those albums that is only known for its hit single. Certainly it didn't get bad reviews on its release, but it doesn't have the critical standing that Odelay has. As with Radiohead's Pablo Honey, I pretty much just listened to the hit single and skipped around the album and quickly went back to the other, better albums. I've never had a good handle on Mellow Gold. I don't listen to it anymore and it's been awhile since I've heard it, so my enduring impression has always been that it's an inferior version of what he would do with Odelay. But listening to Mellow Gold now, 7 or so years after I first heard it, and knowing where Beck's career has gone, it's suddenly all cleared up in my head: it's his transitional album.

It bears repeating that Beck released three albums in 1994, although most of us only knew about Mellow Gold at that point. Whereas Stereopathetic Soulmanure probably predated the other two albums, Mellow Gold and One Foot in the Grave were recorded during the same span of time, though not at the same time. While Stereopathetic was a pretty awful, messy album that tried a lot of things and only had a few good songs, One Foot and Mellow Gold succeed, to different degrees, because the former tries a unifying style throughout while the latter is--well--a messy album that tries a lot of things...except that, unlike Stereopathetic, it has more good songs than bad.

In fact, a lot of the songs on Mellow Gold could easily fit unto Stereopathetic Soulmanure. The main difference between the two albums (other than the higher recording fidelity and songwriting quality) is that Mellow Gold has a healthy tinge of hip hop. Sometimes the difference between a sort-of-catchy song and a generational touchstone is a fantastic-but-obscure sample and a drum loop, as 'Loser' prove to us all. But elsewhere on Mellow Gold the best tracks are the ones that play similarly free with style and genre. 'F***in With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock)' mixes a bluesy, harmonica-led twang with a grooving drum beat and Beck's free flowing lyric surrealism. 'Beercan', the album's secret masterpiece, points the hardest to his future, with a deliriously fun, sample laden style and an insanely fun chorus with Beck's soon-to-be-standard vocal asides and silliness. Meanwhile, 'Steal My Body Home' and album closer 'Blackhole' hint toward the mellow, darker side of Beck as seen on albums like Sea Change, not to mention the Eastern tinge of songs like 'Derelict.'

The weakness of Mellow Gold comes in the more standard, singer/songwritery stuff or the experimental dreck that weighed down Stereopathetic Soulmanure. 'Pay No Mind (Snoozer)' is, like the better songs off of Stereopathetic such as 'Satan Gave Me a Taco', funny and fun for the first few listens but quickly becomes tiresome. 'Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997' is a plodding attempt at gravity that feels twice as long as it is and completely sucks the momentum out of the album. Then there's the crap like 'Truckdrivin Neighbors Downstairs (Yellow Sweat)' and 'Sweet Sunshine', which harken back to--again--Stereopathetic Soulmanure but for all the wrong reasons. Lest I forget 'Mutherf****er', a two minute patience test of painful noise rock and profanity that is not even good enough to be on Stereopathetic let alone Mellow Gold. I am far from adverse to painful noise rock and/or profanity, but I think even Beck would agree that this song is a piece of crap and a waste of time and space.

While I do like Mellow Gold more than I used to, I'm still not in love with it. Ultimately it is a step up from Stereopathetic Soulmanure, but it's still on the same floor of the stairwell, as it were. Mellow Gold is a good listen, but it's not as completely great as his other albums; other than an awesome hit single, a couple great songs that point the way to something great, and a bunch of mediocre-to-awful other tracks, Mellow Gold is nothing more or less than a transitional album which fans will appreciate but one that will leave newbies wanting.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Primer: Beck Part 1- Stereopathetic Soulmanure

Everyone has that one album or artist that really got them into music. Certainly even as kids we liked music, but it was an indiscriminate and child-ish form of liking something. But then--sometime in our adolescence--there's an experience we have where we realize there's more to this whole "music" thing than just thinking a song or music video is neat. For me, it was Beck, and the song was 'Tropicalia' from a TV commercial around the time of the release of Mutations. I had liked music before, sure; I even had bought a few CDs. But I had never heard anything like 'Tropicalia' before, and when I got the CD I figured out it was the guy who did that funny 'Loser' song years earlier, and so on. But my appreciation for Beck went much deeper than a simple "hey, I like this song, I should get the CD so I can listen to it." No, Beck was the first person I saw as an artist and not just a 'musician', and who's every album I had to have.

So I got them all, and learned the lesson that sometimes even your favorite artists can, have, and will release something that you don't like. Even back when I first heard Stereopathetic Soulmanure, I knew it was crap. As a young man my critical faculties weren't as--ahem--advanced as they are now, so something was either 'awesome' or 'stupid.' Well, Stereopathetic was stupid, and remains so. It was only a year or so ago that I revisited this album, wondering if my juvenile self had gone through a violent reaction. After all, it's always hard when your hero lets you down and produces something less than perfect...maybe I was brash and cast it down for being less than pefect. After all, if there's one thing Americans are good at it's tearing down a hero as easily as we build them up., Stereopathetic is, more or less, as underwhelming as I remember.

Though only released a week or so before Mellow Gold, the music that makes up Stereopathetic Soulmanure largely predates that album, the breakout 'Loser' single, and the contemporaneous One Foot In The Grave album. Actually, I've always been a bit confused as to the chronology of just when all this stuff was recorded, though ultimately it doesn't matter because 99% of the population didn't know anything about Stereopathetic or One Foot and only hardcore fans are likely to care even today, when Beck is a pseudo-celebrity. But I digress. Anyone coming to this album is going to come to it after having heard any of his other albums, just as I did. In fact, I didn't even know this album existed until I saw it circa 1998 at the store and wondered if it was a bootleg or a secret new album.

I may as well come out and say that Stereopathetic Soulmanure is unequivocally Beck's worst album, and even for an artist known for wild stylistic jumps and genre bending conceits, it's horribly disjointed and amateurishly indulgent. While one can forgive this kind of thing in an odds-and-ends compilation from an artist who has established his or her greatness, Stereopathetic is, unfortunately, the opposite case: an odds-and-ends slab from an artist who had yet to prove himself. Among its 25 (or 26, depending on the pressing you get) tracks and over an hour runtime, you get decent folk ('Rowboat', 'Puttin It Down'), silly nonsense ('Ozzy', the weird alien voice spokenword pieces), silly-but-kind-of-good songs ('Cut 1/2 Blues', 'Satan Gave Me a Taco'), god awful noise and noise rock ('Pink Noise', the interludes between some songs, 'Rollins Power Sauce', the hidden bonus track), bluesy hobo busking field recordings ('Waitin' For A Train', 'No Money No Honey', 'Aphid Manure Heist'), and, err, an accordion instrumental ('Jagermeister Pie').

And that's the main crux of it: a long winded mess of an album that doesn't cohere enough to really be called an album but isn't a compilation, either. To be fair, there is something undeniably charming in listening to this album, knowing Beck like we do now. One must also keep in mind that, at the time, it wasn't played out to write a song about Ozzy Osbourne or to pose for the liner art in front of an ice cream truck playing a banjo and wearing a Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet. This kind of absurdism, irony, and self-aware-winking-to-the-audience was relatively fresh. However, the main interest that anyone is likely to have in the album is as time capsule from a time before Beck Hansen was Beck The Rock Star.

I have to admit that in re-revisiting the album, my feelings have swayed back and forth between summing it up as "my least favorite Beck album, but not a bad album necessarily" and "a bad album who's sins I can forgive because I love Beck." But aren't those the same thing?? In the end, once you giggle at a few of the songs and extract the few decent ones for mixtapes or whatever, there simply isn't anything here you'll want to come back to. If this was from any other artist I would think it was a big joke on the listener; if I had heard this before any of Beck's other albums, I would have no reason to believe he was worth any more of my time.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Album of the Week: Spoon- Girls Can Tell

Sometimes, getting fired or quitting a job can be the best thing that ever happens to you. It makes you reconsider what you really want out of life, and what things are really important to you. Assuming you are a creative person of some type, it also helps underscore your motivation for doing what you do: regardless of your finances, would you still be doing the same thing?? Even if you never get anywhere with what you're doing, would you still create in the same way, with the same intentions, or would the starving artist life eventually begin to inform your brush strokes, sentences, and guitar riffs??

After signing with Elektra, releasing an album (1998's A Series of Sneaks), and subsequently being dropped for not selling enough copies, Spoon had every reason to be angry and wonder about those motivations I posed above. The result of all this was neither a sellout, recorded-to-appeal album nor a middle finger, bitter diatribe against record companies and mainstream music listeners. No, after exercising their bile on a single called 'The Agony of Laffitte', the band eventually signed to indie powerhouse Merge Records and released Girls Can Tell, a spot-on indie rock/pop classic.

Spoon are one of those bands that, every time they release an album, reviewers are sure to say that it's either "their best album yet" or "a return to form" assuming they didn't like the last one. The truth, though, is that Spoon don't get better with age. Rather, they stay good with age. None of their albums are anything less than above-average and are all the more impressive for the way the band has maintained a distinctive sound while allowing each album to have its own character and feel. This is a paradox that many bands fail to solve: how do you change while also staying the same??

Girls Can Tell is an album bursting with ideas, melodies, and rhythms. The album opens with 'Everything Hits At Once', a song that I heard on a performance they did on Austin City Limits and which immediately caused me to track down the album. Once the song gets to the chorus and the piano/guitar riff hits, you're immediately hooked. Returning to the song again, you begin to notice Britt Daniel's impressionistic, snapshots-of-moments-and-feelings lyrics, the way the drums are mixed fairly up front and propel the song, and the meticulous production. 'Lines In The Suit' has chunky, nearly-reggae/funk-esque rhythm guitar, giving the song an up-and-down ride feel, later giving way to a falsetto-enhanced section. '10:20 AM' is built upon hazy organ chords and stringent acoustic guitar plucking, while the cinematic ending song 'Chicago At Night' moves with a circular, unstoppable carousel ride feel while slide guitars and subtle keyboards top everything off.

The one idea I never see brought up in Spoon reviews is their incredible sense of rhythm. I don't mean rhythm as in a funk or dance music context. I mean rhythm as it applies in a rock context, to drums, rhythm guitar, bass, and keyboards. Often the main melody of a Spoon song is just as much rhythmic as it is pure chord progressions or notes. 'Anything You Want' is a great example of this, as is 'Take The Fifth', songs in which the keyboards and drums, respectively, provide the main movement of a song while allowing the other instruments--including the vocals--to weave in and out of them, providing counterpoints, reinforcing that movement, or making sub-movements and melodies of its own. It may not be complex poly-rhythms, but it certainly shows a greater care toward rhythm than most indie rock--or rock bands in general--tend to show.

Though it was with their albums following Girls Can Tell that Spoon became popular and (more) critically acclaimed, everyone should go back to Girls Can Tell, both because it's a great album and because it's a lesson to artists never to give up or to let failure affect them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Spoilers From A Guy Who Hasn't Played Or Seen The Following Things

I heard that your character's new friend, Tyler, is actually the same person as him. Pretty crazy, huh?? And you don't see it coming. Unless you read the novel, I guess.
The Happening??
I read on a message board that the twist in this M. Night Shymalamalamb movie is that Mark Wahlberg's character's friend, who you see murdered in the beginning of the movie, is actually alive and behind the terrorist group who highjacked the nuclear weapon. Also, his wife didn't die of cancer, he killed her with a pillow to put her out of her misery.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull??
A friend of a friend who ran the projector for an advanced screening in Geogre Lucas's private Skywalker Ranch told my gynecologist's hairdresser that Indiana Jones is actually an android. In fact, all the characters in the movie are androids even though most of them think they're human and have even formed a police force known as 'blade runners' to find and eliminate them. Oh, and the motorcycle that Shia LeBouf rides in the movie is actually a Transformer.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots??
I know a guy who works at EB Games, and who took a copy home a week ago to play it, and he said that you find out three hours into the game that Snake's real name is Clancy Fillrump. The entire game is a lie told in a dream to you, the player, by series creator Hideo Kojima, who is himself a dream of the Fayth. For those wondering, Raiden is the Fayth's physical manifestation in our world, though his true form is not of a skinny, effeminate Japanese man-boy but of the lightning shootin' dude from the Mortal Kombat series. Finally, the titular Patriots, an enduring mystery in the MGS series, will turn out to be a red herring because they refer literally to the Founding Fathers of the Revolutionary War, and were used by Revolver Ocelot to confuse everyone even further.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Video: Can- Bring Me Coffee Or Tea

Can are one of those bands you're extremely unlikely to have heard of until you REALLY get into music. If they're mentioned at all, it's in being namechecked by bands you like or listed as influences on Wikipedia entries. Nevertheless, they're one of the most forward thinking and revered bands in music history, and their story and background are just as fascinating as their indescribable music.

This video apparently comes from the Can DVD which I've always been tempted to buy but never have. Interestingly enough, this is a different version of the song than the one featured on the Tago Mago album. Here, it's more dreamlike and ambient, with footage mostly of Damo Suzuki cooing the song and slinking along to it.

I highly recommend picking up Tago Mago, Ege Bamyasi, and Future Days if you're intrigued. They are very different and nearly flawless slabs of kraut-rock goodness.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Lil' Indie Round-Up 2

Album: Twilight by the Baskervilles
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: I don't get why it says 'apartment' and 'mcues' (??) on the cover. Otherwise, I expect either a psych/folk sound ala Love or Devendra Banhart or something more sinister and misleading, like a Velvet Underground throwback.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: I was just thinking to myself the other day about how there haven't been many good indie pop bands lately. There's Belle and Sebastian and The Shins, sure, but...well, anyway, the Baskervilles craft expert-level indie pop that recalls those two bands while putting their own little spin on it. The hooks stick in you on first bite while the melodies and surprisingly sophisticated arrangements reward repeat listening. This is the kind of album my friend Pat might like, and he's usually very discerning and contradictory with his taste.
Album: Premonitions by Bella Noir
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: This reminds me vaguely of the cover to Wire's 154, all impressionistic 80s lines. Except this cover is black and white, and that album wasn't released in the 80s. Err anyway, I expect something gothic and/or 80s synthpop.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: It's only an EP, but this band's sound is remarkably well formed. Sounding like Radiohead as fronted by PJ Harvey--or maybe Interpol as fronted by Chrissie Hynde--the songs have a deliciously deep atmosphere, dark, enticing feminine moans echoing out of alleyways while a taut rhythm section pounds the pavement in search of the guy making with the ghostly electronic flourishes and stinging guitar howls. Here's hoping they find a sympathetic label and producer for their album.
Album: Take The Whole Midrange And Boost It by Oppenheimer
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: If you went to the woefully understocked 'Dance' section of your local Best Buy and pulled out a compilation at random, it would look like this. A meaningless swirl of neon that is distinctly European and something our kids will probably make fun of someday.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Honestly, I was surprised by this one. Imagine that the New Pornographers were a synthpop band from Ireland instead of a power-pop band from Canada. I actually can't stand synthpop but it's impossible to resist the spoonful of sugar sans medicine that is Take The Whole Midrange And Boost It. I still wish they'd get a better album cover, but whatever.
Album: 1985 by Riddle of Steel
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Frankly, a terrible hair metal tribute album.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Riddle of Steel are like a ultra-slick, ultra-boring combination of Weezer (that is to say, modern day god awful Weezer), Wolfmother's 70s festishism/plagiarism, and Van Halen-by-way-of-wanna-be-prog-rock guitar riffs. So, you know, bad.
Album: The Grand Hooded Phantom by Your Highness Electric
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: This looks like one of those flavor-of-the-moment screamo/post-hardcore/metalcore bands that I ended my subscription to Alternative Press 7 years ago over. I can only listen to so many bands who want to be, I don't know, Killswitch Engage or Atreyu with god awful names like 'Fear Before the March of Flames' and 'Creation Is Crucifixion' (I kid you not, those are real) before I want to scream(o).
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: I've given this a lot of thought, and I think I have the recipe for you. Take Rage Against The Machine minus rapping; add Red Hot Chili Pepper basslines (on some songs); add the chunky guitar riffs and funk-less drum groove of ZZ Top worshipping Queens of the Stone Age; finally, stir with a mixture of some of the worst lyrics I've ever heard, and some of the lamest "awesome" song titles ever ('Le Titout', seriously??). Once solution has settled, serve directly in toilet bowl.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Album of the Week: Pixies- Surfer Rosa

One of my fondest memories is a road trip some friends and I took years ago. Being the music nerd that I am, I had a huge leather wallet of CDs in the car with us and after much discussion we put Surfer Rosa on. Grinning in the ecstasy of youth and freedom that is a male road trip, we were singing along and joking around throughout the entire thing, every song met with "god, I love this album" comments and fist pumping. Air guitars may have been employed. I relate this story to you because, when you get beyond all talk of Surfer Rosa being influential and "important", you are left with a damn fine album that is a blast to listen to.

The Pixies were and remain a band for music nerds and critics. Though the grunge/alt rock groups that they inspired would go on to become massive stars and millionaires in the 90s, the Pixies have never been a band like that. Successful, yes. Beloved, yes. But--and this may be presumptuous to say--they belong to music nerds and critics. The subject matter of their songs is simply too odd and creepy, the music too noisy and unhinged to ever appeal to a mass market audience. If you went to high school anytime from the late 80s onward and you were the weird kid in class who wasn't satisfied with the music that was popular amongst your peers, chances are good you found the Pixies. Dropping the needle on (or pressing play) your first Pixies album is a revelation the likes of which you usually only hear about in religious circumstances. Oh, to be able to hear 'Debaser' for the first time again...

But that song comes from Doolittle, and I'm trying to discuss Surfer Rosa. The genius of what the Pixies did, first with Come On Pilgrim and fully realized here, was to play with the dynamics that had always been in place in rock music. What I mean is, loud/soft and noisy/clean. It's a very basic formula--one which Kurt Cobain famously admitted to ripping off wholesale from the Pixies--but one that pays incredible dividends: witness the rush of opener 'Bone Machine', which builds to a peak before the "your bone's got a little machine" lyric kills the sound and then the guitars come slashing back in. Witness 'Something Against You', which opens with a clean rhythm guitar before the distorted lead guitar blasts the door down and Black Francis howls in anger through what sounds like a bullhorn. Witness 'Gigantic', which opens so delicately and showcases the power of loud/quiet and clean/noisy dynamics.

At just a touch over a half hour in length, Surfer Rosa's every moment is excellent and worthwhile. Nothing is carelessly put on the album just to pad out the runtime--even the studio banter is classic amongst a certain friend and I. Hell, even the silly 'Tony's Theme' is great though it is my least favorite song on the album. And that's the crux of the album to me: it's just so enjoyable and so much fun to listen to. I frequently cite Surfer Rosa in reviews as an example of something that I find addictive and compulsively listenable. Due to its brevity and consistency, it's hard not to put it on when I can't decide what I want to listen to or, say, when I'm scrolling through iTunes and trying to come up with a review to write. I'm just sayin'.

I could talk about all those ancillary things about the album--Steve Albini's production, the perverse but catchy lyrics, the way it influenced indie rock bands to have a token girl often as a bassist--but like I said at the beginning, if you push all that aside you'll be left with not just one of the best indie rock albums or one of the best rock albums, but one of the best albums of all time, period. Yes, Surfer Rosa is that good. Go listen to it again; your awkward, strange younger self will thank you.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Islands- Arm's Way

It's tough to grow up. But it's even tougher to grow up when all you're known for is being a kid. Just ask any of the many child stars over the years who have tried to parlay their pre-teen successes into adulthood. What, then, to expect from a band like Islands, and leader Nicholas Thorburn, who has made a living out of crafting childish and catchy indie pop?? What to make of Arm's Way, an album that seems to perversely force itself into maturity and forget the band's appeal in the first place??

Well, that's not entirely fair. Thorburn's aesthetic, going back to the Unicorns album from half a decade ago, was to combine a whimsical, childish indie pop aesthetic with dark subject matter (many of his songs deal with death) and an experimental, genre bending playfulness that touches on prog rock, hip hop, and tropical flavors. And it's also true that the Unicorns album and the Islands' first album, Return To The Sea, had long songs. But, this album isn't as good as either of those, and gives one the impression that Thorburn took the worst tendencies of those albums to hear this time out, while simultaneously trying to forcefully mature the band's sound. Which is to say, he made the arrangements more complicated and focused more on nuance and overall sound than crafting 'hooks.' The result is an interesting, frustrating, and ultimately unfulfilling album that gives you just enough succor to want to come back but never enough to fill you up.

"Fill you up" is a bad way of putting it, because the one thing you're going to hear from most people about this album is how bloated it is. At 68 minutes it is inexcusably long, and for a band that formerly seemed to have no shortage of ideas (Return To The Sea is incredibly varied and consistently good at the same time), it's kind of sad that the album only has enough good material to support half that runtime. 'In The Rushes' is, frankly, a mess, a song that plods along for five minutes in search of a direction before suddenly quoting The Who's 'A Quick One While He's Away.' Unfortunately, this kind of "too clever for its own good" thing might have worked on a shorter, more quixotic Unicorns track, where you expect that kind of self conscious "oh, we're so quirky!!" vibe and can forgive it, but here it just seems like the band reaching to mirror their own attempts at length and bombast to that masterpiece and coming up very short. I will admit that I love the out-of-nowhere samba/Latin ending to 'J'aime Vous Voir Quitter', but this song is only three minutes long. Moreover, album closer 'Vertigo (If It's A Crime)' is 11 minutes long and mostly instrumental, and it's probably the most successful new idea on the album--it goes through many phases and ideas, but none of them are arbitrary or worthless fluff. So, my point is this: either give us these sharp changes in shorter songs, or go the Fiery Furnaces route and make the longer songs winding funhouses of sound, texture, and feel.

I've been listening to the new Wolf Parade album, At Mount Zoomer, at the same time I've been digesting Arm's Way and my overwhelming impression is that Thorburn desperately needs a creative foil. While the main Wolf Parade guys (Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug) can function very well outside of the band, they often have collaborators in those projects, too. Unfortunately, Thorburn seems adrift on his own course after the Unicorns broke up and Jamie Thompson left Islands. While he's capable of producing some brilliant and beautiful moments--of which 'To a Bond', 'The Arm', and most-likely-choice-for-single 'Creeper' are a testament--those moments are surrounded by lots of extraneous music that should have been left on the cutting room floor. This may sound hypocritical after I praised Sunset Rubdown's Random Spirit Lover for doing a similar thing, but the music between those brilliant, memorable moments on that album is very enjoyable if you listen to the album as a whole. With Arm's Way I just want to skip to the good parts and scrap the rest.

My hope is that Arm's Way is a difficult, growing pains album, not unlike the second Liars release. Now that Thorburn has moved his aesthetic past the quirky, quixotic, and compact indie pop/prog rock/cute-songs-with-dark-content phase of his career, let's assume he can either learn a new way of bringing his epic ideas to a more successful fruition, or perhaps re-learn some of what made his previous releases so great in the first place while better expanding their palette and delivery.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Video: Deerhoof- The Perfect Me

Assuming you didn't like their music, it would be really easy to hate Deerhoof. Especially based on playful videos like this, in which the band actually play over a pre-recorded version of the song 'The Perfect Me.' And Satomi messes with a silly light toy, a stuffed animal, and a Bob Dylan-esque "hold up the lyrics to the song" move. And they begin the video by talking over each other.

Thankfully, then, I love Deerhoof and I think this video is cute. I've never gotten the feeling that Satomi's "kawaiiii I'm a cute little Japanese woman who does funny poses and dances crazy!!" shtick is actually a shtick. Rather, I think it's just how she is, in the same way that Thom Yorke's seizure dancing isn't an act.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Resident Evil 4

I think this goes for most 'older' gamers, who have things like jobs and friends to take up their time, but I never replay games. Half the time I don't even finish games because I lose interest, or it's been so long since I played whatever that I can't remember what I was doing in the game. So I think it says a lot for the quality and replayability of Resident Evil 4 that I break it out every few months and have another helping.

The old cliché goes that nothing is perfect, but I think we all would call certain games "perfect." There are quibbles you can quibble over when pressed to, but your overwhelming desire is to praise the game and play it again every time someone brings it up. For me, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Fallout 1, and Super Metroid are perfect games, ones that I can replay on a whim and actually finish again because: 1) they're fantastic games 2) they're just the right length 3) they're pretty easy, and I'm a wimp.
Though I will fully admit to liking the Resident Evil games I had played, I always kind of knew they were awkward, clunky, and full of Japanese videogame bullshit that I can't put up with anymore. From the irritating save system to the poisonously bad controls (well, except for RE3, I guess) to the dumb inventory system (a shotgun takes up as much room as an herb??) to the shallow, shallow combat, it's incredible that I liked them at all. Resident Evil 4 does away with all of this, and is all the better for it. Instead of the usual "if you die, you go back to wherever you saved last" the game has various, unofficial 'checkpoints' you'll return to if you die. Sure, it's not quite the fast--and some would argue, cheap--"save anywhere you want as often as you want" system seen on PCs, but it's still better than 90% of Japanese games.

Also better than 90% of any games, Japanese or otherwise: the gameplay. There is something indescribably satisfying about RE4, all the way from the feel of the guns to the little hidden treasures you can find. Not only did they finally get the controls right (I still would like the ability to strafe, but I guess that would make it even easier than it already is), but they made it simply fun to move through the world and fight things. Before Resident Evils were slow and clunky, and now they were quick and smooth. One might even draw a parallel to George Romero's Night of the Living Dead zombies and those fast moving ones from 28 Days Later, but--let me put on my geek hat here--the enemies in RE4 aren't zombies. Not technically. But I digress.
The first word that comes to mind when I think of RE4's combat is "setpiece." But that doesn't mean much without context, so let me explain. When I think of great action movies--say, Raiders of the Lost Ark--I think of the great moments from them, not necessarily in a linear, plot focused way. The truck chase scene from Raiders is awesome. The Velociraptor/kitchen scene from Jurassic Park still makes me nervous when I watch it. And so on. RE4 is the same way. The boss fights are very creative, but they also have appropriate 'epic'-ness about them. Moreover, the various 'battles' you go through still ring true on my 10th playthrough, from the first villager wave you must withstand to the Last Standish fight in the cabin with Luis helping out to fighting through the defenses of the Los Illuminados while some dude in a helicopter is strafing and blowing things up. RE4 is a hell of a ride, as a movie critic would say, and it has setpieces from breakfast to dinnertime.

RE4 may not be a survival horror game, but I would still argue for it as an action horror game. A lot of the "survival" aspects of the previous Resident Evil games were artificial elements put in the game to make it difficult for the wrong reasons. The inventory system was terrible, and having to backtrack to the item boxes to juggle equipment, puzzle solving do-dads, and health items/ammo was just plain irritating and didn't add the "management of scarce resources" element that I think the developers were going for. RE4's solution is to give you an inventory system based on grid pieces--so an herb takes up two grid slots, while a rocket launcher takes up, say, 20. Then there's the absurd-but-clever addition of money and the various shopkeeper dudes you can visit during the course of the game, selling off worthless items, buying/upgrading weapons and equipment, etc. Of course this also gives the game further replayability, because you can't reasonably use every weapon in the game during each playthrough, so it's fun to try out a different shotgun or try out the TMP on this run.
Resident Evil 4 is also scary, at least it can be. Mention the Regenerators around me and my immediate impulse is to run like hell or scream. Oddly, I never found the Resident Evil games that scary. What fright they did provide was always "dog jumps at you out of nowhere!!" crap, which is cheap and easy. What RE4 did, other than adding some of the surreal/creepy-ness of Silent Hill, is to take the relentless Nemesis enemy from RE3 and give most of the enemies in the game his same ability to follow you through doors and keep coming at you. There still are doors that serve as loading screen transitions between areas which they won't go through, but for the most part the enemies will be hot on your heels all the time until you kill them or get far enough away.

I've made a pretty strong case for RE4's great gameplay, I hope, but there are some things that I'll still quibble over. (I think this is the most times I've used the word quibble in one update). Mainly, I guess, it's that the timed event/button press stuff is fun for awhile but quickly gets old. If you're playing the Wii version--and again, you really should be--then you get to do the kind of flopping and waggling that everyone personifies Wii players as looking like idiots for. It does add some interactivity to the cutscenes, but nowadays it frustrates me. I'm thinking of the knife fight/cutscene with Krauser, where you really have to be on time with your button presses or Wiimote shaking lest you die and then have to sit through all the talking over and over again.
There are some other small things I could quibble over (I promise that's the last time I use 'quibble' in this update) but they're mostly nitpicky stuff, like how some weapons are definitely better than others, and how the Mercenaries and other 'extra' modes are really cool but you won't play them much. Rather, the last thing I want to bring up is the cheap, cheap insta-deaths the game throws at you. I think I said this somewhere above: RE4 is a relatively easy game. I've never tried it on Professional difficulty, and I do die a lot even on the regular difficulty, but the kind of deaths I suffer are due to crap like failing the button pressing/timed events or the instant kill moves that some enemies--like the chainsaw dude pictured above--have. Because of the way enemies will drop health items/ammo depending on how badly the player needs them, you're very, very unlikely to run out of ammo or herbs, so practically every death you suffer is because you didn't hit A in time or those big blind guys with the giant Wolverine claws swung around in a fury and decapitated you. On the bright side, these losses of life and limb lead to awesomely gruesome and gruesomely awesome death sequences. I said this about Smash Brothers Brawl, and it applies to RE4, too: any game that can make losing just as fun as winning is pretty damn good in my book.

I've run out of things to say, and I can't think of a clever way to end this review. Basically, you need to play Resident Evil 4 if you haven't already. It's my favorite game of the decade so far, and I'm more than willing to call it A Modern Classic and have this sentence put on the gamebox with my name attributed. I'm waiting, Capcom.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Super Lame Monday Update...From The Past!!

I really did mean to do an update today, but I had an eye doctor appointment in the afternoon and my eyes are still messed up. My pupils are so dilated I could birth some sort of eye baby through them with no fuss and even less muss.

In lieu of anything new, here's a really old review I wrote of Rolling Stone magazine that is rife with spelling errors, punctuation problems, and other foul grammar. I think I wrote it when I was 16, and that helps explain why my opinions are idiotic and the points I try to make are ham fisted and even more idiotic. Idioticer. Uh huh.

"You know, I find it oh so ironic how trendy and pathetic Rolling Stone. I remember when I respected the magazine because they were just so popular that there had to be something good about it.

Well, there was 30 years ago. Flip to any random page and you are guaranteed to see an advertisement of some kind. Sure, the magazine looks huge when you see it on the shelf, but really 1/2 or less of the pages are actual content and not ultra trendy Gap or Tommy Hilfiger ads for the hipster 14 and under set. Isn't it ironic that a magazine that was created during the time of non-conformity and a hatred of all sponsors and big companies is now full of ads depicting these same things?

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with Rolling Stone is that they employ the worst possible people for jobs and let their amateurish opinions be known. I read an article on Rolling Stone online today, which was contributed by someone off of AOL. Being a former user of that service, I know how pathetic and xenophobic such people can be. But the aforementioned article, an attack of juvenile quality on Radiohead and their new album Kid A, was just too much. It was like CNN hired some random 14 year old to talk about how lame and stupid presidential candidate George Bush is. I do realize the article was mainly for comedy purposes, and most of Rolling Stone is a farce of one thing or another; but don't you think they could have got somebody more professional to do the jokes? Then it wouldn't seem like the personal attack that it was.

Any magazine that tries to cover all forms on entertainment will ultimately fail; because no one person or magazine can satisfy every group unless it is around 300 pages long....oh, and with half the pages *not* filled with advertisements. As it is, you have no excuse to but this magazine at all, because all news that is even worth hearing or reading about is found for free online; from unbiased sources. Any magazine run by entertainment 'critics' that features groups like Limp Bizkit or Britney Spears on it's cover and other such groups should not be taken seriously. If you can find me a credible music critic that actually thinks Limp Bizkit or Britney Spears are important enough or have great music to be on a cover, then I'll smash my copy of Kid A and declare my love for a magazine full of ads that smells funny."