Friday, August 29, 2008

Primer: Tortoise Part 6- A Lazarus Taxon

There are many roles that a boxset can fulfill in a group's discography. It can collect hard to find and/or unreleased material, giving a glimpse into a band's other facets. It can give the fan an idea of how the band operates when the cameras are off, so to speak, with fly-on-the-wall studio outtakes and demos. It can be a best-of or chronological review of a band's development via cherry picked material from various albums and live performances. And probably a few other things I'm forgetting.

Tortoise, in their typical fashion, have chosen to go their own route with the boxset format, giving the listener a lot of material to wade through, but with precious little context or explanation. Granted, my copy of A Lazarus Taxon didn't come with the booklet for some reason, so it's possible I'm missing out. But since Tortoise's modus operandi is to be as mysterious and monolithic as possible, and thereby putting the emphasis on the music as much as possible, I suppose it's inessential.

The main thing that strikes me about this 3 CD and 1 DVD set is how little regard Tortoise have for their songs. By this I mean they don't see songs as singular, set-in-stone, precious things, but rather as small clusters of sections, melodies, textures, and concepts that combine in a certain way to make up larger albums. Given the scatter shot nature of the 3 CDs contained in A Lazarus Taxon which bring together B-sides, obscure singles, covers, remixes (both by Tortoise and of Tortoise), and other detritus, it's odd how familiar it all seems. But familiar in a good way. This is one boxset that satisfies the listener with a wealth of material but leaves you wanting more even if you're a hardcore fan who's heard their albums. Unfortunately, the DVD is a pretty big letdown because the live material isn't as revelatory as it should have been and only gives you vertical slices of Tortoise's live stuff; even the seven song set from a Toronto show in 1996 feels like a waste because of the poor video quality. The miming performance of 'Seneca' in animal costumes does finally let us know that the band have a sense of humor, but otherwise we learn nothing about Tortoise, in terms of the people behind the band, or Tortoise, in terms of the band's music, song titles, influences, etc. Even the stuff from the jazz festival, which does provide a legitimate connection to Tortoise's jazz influences, isn't as good as it sounds on paper. In the end, it's not so much “Tortoise, remixing--so to speak--their music for a jazz context” as it is “Tortoise with some jazz musicians playing slightly jazzier music than usual.” Call it a missed opportunity. Luckily, the non-DVD/non-live stuff is endlessly satisfying.

When I said just now that it was “odd how familiar it all seems”, “but in a good way”, well, we need look no further than the first two tracks of the first CD. True, they're hard-to-find songs from an obscure single or EP circa 1995, but 'Gamera' has the exact same guitar melody as 'His Second Story Island' off their first album. Similarly, 'The Source of Uncertainty' shares a section with either 'Djed' from Millions Now Living Will Never Die or 'Cliff Dweller Society' from the second CD. I'm not sure, and honestly I'm too lazy to go find out. Anyway, these obvious cases of recycling aren't a bad thing. It just demonstrates how Tortoise functions. Not to repeat myself yet again, but as I said earlier, Tortoise don't view their songs as precious things. They freely borrow ideas and sections from songs to use elsewhere, or, while recording albums, use studio equipment to rip and reorganize improvised material. This belief goes well with the interesting remixes spread across the three discs, particularly Tortoise's infamous take on Yo La Tengo's 'Autumn Sweater' and Nobukazu Takemura's remix of 'TNT.' More than anything else, the remixes of Tortoise's work reveal just how modular and malleable the band's music is. The third CD, a re-issue of a limited edition mini-album which featured different artists remixing tracks from the band's debut, pushes this point even further, becoming a companion piece to the album itself. This is the kind of thing Beck was going for with Guero and the subsequent Guerolito remix album, as well as the "do it yourself" approach to the deluxe edition of The Information.

Though the first two CDs offer much for the hardcore fan to savor, and serve as a reminder after the lukewarm It's All Around You that you still like this band, the third CD will reignite your appreciation for their first album and the band in general, offering enough of a hint of the songs you vaguely recognize as being from said debut album but completely re-configuring their DNA. This is the remix song form not as "futz with the chorus and add incessant drum beats to make this a club anthem" but as "let's completely reassemble the song from the ground up and make it something new and interesting." However, the heretofore unreleased Mike Watt remix is very dull, and more or less sounds like him playing along to the song rather than doing anything clever with it.

While I can complain that the DVD is a wash and it isn't the vault-clearing boxset it could have been, this is just nitpicking. In the end, returning to this boxset has revealed what the best boxsets do: give a fan something to spend an afternoon with. A Lazarus Taxon--despite its faults--manages to pull this off, and is a must-have for fans.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Video: Tortoise- Salt The Skies

What, did you think I was done with Tortoise?? Don't be absurd. I've still got the boxset to dig through. Meanwhile, I won't be updating tomorrow due to my work schedule, so this'll have to tide you over.

You may remember from my It's All Around You review that I don't like this song. This video is pretty interesting, visually, but since it's the only "official" Tortoise video, I guess I have to use it. No, the ones on YouTube you can find aren't "official", posted by Thrill Jockey records or not.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Album of the Week: Television- Marquee Moon

Punk rock and I don't get along too well. Our incompatibility stems from the opinion I hold about it, which is that it was a musical movement that was important and influential but produced nothing, music-wise, I find brilliant. Allow me to clarify before I am garroted: I think the Sex Pistols are a disgustingly overrated band who are interesting for every reason except their music, which sucks. Similarly, the only straight up, traditional punk album you need is the first Ramones album. Then, you more or less know exactly what every other punk band will sound like.

See, punk rock is great because of what it spawned and the bands it influenced, not for punk itself. It wasn't important for the people who saw the Ramones or Sex Pistols in '75-'77 and thought "wow, they aren't very good at their instruments, and they can't sing, but I find this very riveting. The people are taking back rock and making it dangerous again. Maybe I'll start a band who sound like this"; rather, it was important for the bands who were inspired to try out their own crazy ideas on stage because they felt liberated by punk rock. It was the post-punks, the art-punks, the New Wavers, and the myriad of later rock strains (indie rock, alternative rock, noise-pop, riot grrl, anti-folk, alt-country, etc.) that, retroactively, made punk bands important.

Bands like Television, Wire, and the Talking Heads, who simultaneously existed with punk and went beyond it, are the ones that I feel are the true innovators. After all, you can trace the Sex Pistols and the Ramones back to 60s/early-to-mid 70s garage rock without much effort. But the unique sounds of those three bands showed how far this new punk "anybody can be a rocker no matter how strange they are" ideal could go. Where the Talking Heads brought funk, pop, and world music to punk, and Wire brought psychedelia, prog-rock (arguably), and art-rock to punk, Television brought jazz to punk via their complex, interlocking guitars and clean, lean guitar solos. The result is one of the best albums ever made, and a touchstone that many musicians are still inspired by. In fact, invoking Television when describing a new band's sound has become music critic shorthand in the years since Marquee Moon's release, denoting a rock band with long guitar solos and/or deft, complex interplay. See: Sleater-Kinney, Wilco's last few releases, etc.

Though Tom Verlaine's lead vocals, full of untrained yelping, compelling in their nervous way, are in line with punk's "the less you know about music, the less trained you are, the better you're off" dogma, the rest of the band's sound flies in the face of this while remaining inside the punk sphere. Yet Marquee Moon sounds nothing like most punk rock, and it remains hard to classify--all the more reason why it is so often invoked to describe other bands, as I said above. Since punk orthodoxy is all about short, simple songs with no flashy guitar solos, Marquee Moon sticks out as quite possibly the most paradoxical of '77 punk albums. The title track, a ten minute epic that has long since passed into the land of absolutely classic band defining tracks, reminds one of other startlingly original songs that are standing between genres and don't truly belong to anything.

Marquee Moon's genius was in overturning the prevailing trends of punk rock just as the movement was taking shape. The band's guitarists used relatively clean/distortion-free guitars, and stuck to linear, melodic lead/rhythm guitar interplay instead of the dirty tones and chord bashing/riffing of most punk. Songs like 'Venus' and 'Prove It' could have easily been simple punk songs, but Television injected them with a playfulness missing in the angry, overly serious punk scene. At the same time, they actually tried to be good at their instruments, and borrowed heavily from jazz in inventing a rock guitar style that went beyond power chords and Jimi Hendrix's face melting solos. Though derided as 'the Jerry Garcia of punk' in the past, Tom Verlaine, and foil Richard Lloyd, crafted a guitar based, improvisational style that pops with inventive ideas, melodies, and complex interplay. Listening to hard-to-find 'official' bootlegs, it quickly becomes obvious that Marquee Moon was more restrained than their live shows, which allowed the full band's collective might full flight. Within the focus of a studio album, however, this greater length and immediacy was traded for tight playing and near-perfect music--witness the surprising poetic delicacy the band allows on 'Guiding Light', a yin to the title track's atomic bomb yang of flawless, free flowing solos that never get tiring.

Marquee Moon stands alongside the great masterpieces of 20th century pop music. It sounds completely timeless, and, even to this day, when so many have taken inspiration from it, it sounds startlingly fresh and original. I first heard it while in high school and had no idea it was from 1977 until I saw the back cover. Truly, this is the sort of album that is so exciting and original that it makes you fall in love with listening to music all over again.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Primer: Tortoise Part 5- It's All Around You

It only happens from time to time, but every once in awhile, you get the impression that a band is trying too hard. For whatever reason--trying to distance themselves from their past, trying to move their art forward, trying to rip it all up and start from scratch, trying to be something they're not--listening to an album of their's gives you the feeling that they're putting way too much thought and effort into an ultimately fruitless pursuit. It's as if the band is fighting their instincts and overthinking their approach when they don't have to.

On It's All Around You, Tortoise give off the impression that they're trying too hard. Which is paradoxical, because this is their least challenging and interesting album. You'd think one would be more apt to say they're trying too hard about the predecessor, Standards, which added new wrinkles to the band's sound and vision. But, no. It's All Around You is trying too hard in one very dire way: it's trying to sound like Tortoise, and ends up emphasizing most of their worst traits in the process.

For starters, there's the packaging. I normally don't bring this up in reviews, because who really cares, but...well, I own It's All Around You in the digipak format. The band did that clever/un-clever thing of making both the front and back of the CD the 'covers', so you aren't sure which one the true cover is. Moreover, the cover art is ridiculous nature scene garbage, the kind of crap you would see stillshots of on a digital cable music channel for 'easy listening.' At the same time, I don't get what the band are trying to say with the little story that's printed in the booklet about a girl picking strawberries. Personally, I take it as a metaphor for the album itself: "I know what I do not want", the girl says, "and I will not be happy with it."

On second thought, maybe it's not a metaphor so much as a direct summation of my feelings.

See, It's All Around You is Tortoise's worst album. It marks the first time I really thought Tortoise were just repeating themselves, but repeating themselves in worse ways. The production and playing are immaculate to a disappointing degree. I mean, I love Steely Dan as much as the next guy, but It's All Around You sounds mathematically precise, clinical, and energy-less when it shouldn't. The album's most interesting sequence--where the ponderous, searching 'Unknown', slowly unraveling like a good improvisation, suddenly screams into the noisy, drum heavy 'Dot/Eyes'--feels coldly calculated and without any balls. Allow me to explain: the Velvet Underground's noisy tendencies, that was 'having balls.' They sounded animalistic and human when they were cranking the volume and shoving their guitars at their amplifiers. Most modern noise/improv, by contrast, sounds 'without balls', because it's so intellectual and theoretically driven. Half of the time, you get the feeling like it's more a science or math experiment and not an attempt to create music and/or sonic 'art.'

There's no sense of danger, experimentation, or chance anywhere on this album. Too often it clings to elements of the past, mirrored in personality-less ways. 'On The Chin' sounds like a lost b-side that was re-recorded for the album, with a typically Tortoise slow moving rhythm, arbitrary use of vibes/marimbas, and the same guitar texture you've heard on pretty much every Tortoise album since TNT. Now, there is something to be said for having a distinctive sound, but if you just keep repeating yourself, that value is eventually gone. 'Five Too Many' assumes you'll stick around to listen to the aimless, noodling guitar "solo" that takes up most of its runtime, despite the fact that you've tired of this kind of anti-solo noodling long since if you've listened to any Tortoise album before. And where their sudden stops and just-as-sudden return to/re-working of a theme used to seem interesting and unique, now it just seem rote and boring--witness 'Salt The Skies', which is perhaps the best summation of this problem, and with this album in general. It starts out with a winding, circular ascent, then some rising tension via volume/more instruments and an increase in pace, then a sudden release of said tension in a crescendo, and finally a return to the original theme. As I said, this kind of thing used to be stunning, but now it's just...obvious.

It's been four years since Tortoise released anything new (I don't count their collaboration with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy), and I would like to think it had something to do with the warmed over music of It's All Around You, which more and more sounds like a stopgap, standing-still album. Whatever Tortoise might have in store for a future release, I hope they learned some valuable lessons from this album and the reception it received. It's not terrible, but only because it plays it too safe to be terrible. Playing it safe isn't automatically damning, but when a band has four other albums that are perfectly serviceab--ok, no, they're outright better, you kind of have to wonder what the point of a boring, unchallenging fifth album is. Unless you really, really love Tortoise, you can easily skip this one.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Primer: Tortoise Part 4- Standards

There's an experimental, devil-may-care attitude to Tortoise's Standards that seems sorely missing in the rest of their catalog, and I'm not entirely sure why that is. But there is something about the album that just feels more lively and interesting than usual, from the way songs flow together to the conciseness of the album itself to the way new ideas and melodies come much more rapidly than they do on other Tortoise albums. It has the energy, the ebb and flow, of a masterfully planned/played live show, taking its time with the slower/mellower bits but not losing a listener's interest in the process.

Largely, the greatness of Standards--at least, the greatness I see in it--can be attributed to the way in which it was recorded. Where the overly long, occasionally kind-of-boring TNT was mostly written, improvised, and heavily edited in the studio over the course of a year, Standards was largely written beforehand and then embellished a bit in the studio in a much shorter period of time. Strange, then, that Standards is Tortoise's most electronic album. I don't mean that it's their techno album, just as TNT wasn't their jazz album. Instead, the inspiration is just more pronounced than usual. Standards features rhythms equally alongside the melodies, mixing the drums and bass as high as the other instruments, or, as is the case with the anomalous 'Monica', which doesn't sound much like Tortoise at all, borrowing a dreamy, synth-pop sound (with either a vocoder or a talkbox on a guitar) that is more readily found on a Daft Punk album.

Tortoise's weakness as a band is their precarious balance between being intriguing instrumental music and sleep inducing, immaculately played easy listening. This is something that came up a lot in reviews of their last album, It's All Around You, which brought little new ideas to the table and seemed content to coast on good graces. It may not prove as bad as my memory, but it's such a stark contrast to Standards, an album that helped pull the band back from the edge in my book. The tonal, textural, melodic, and rhythmic palette of the band has never been as wide and yet as deep as it is here. Though I think it may be the album on which Tortoise's patented vibraphones/marimbas make the least appearances, their sparing use makes them seem all the more unique and purposeful. Moreover, the band neither fall back on old habits nor the lazy dynamics of their post-rock contemporaries. Granted, I like many other post-rock bands, but you can sort of characterize most of the songs as being quiet-to-loud-and-back-again crescendo races. At the same time, when Tortoise do go back to the well for their minimalist interludes ('Firefly' could easily have fit unto TNT) or repetitive structures ('Eden 1' keeps the same grinding beat, though it fades to the background when ponderous guitars pick out a duet), it's never for very long. Finally, Standards has, outside of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the best pacing and sequencing of any Tortoise album. A few of the songs do that segue thing that always gets my rocks off ('Seneca' into 'Eros', 'Firefly' into 'Six Pack') and in general, a deft balance is struck between intense exploratory Tortoise grooves (at least, what passes for a Tortoise groove anyway) and the chillier ambient spacey stuff.

One hopes that, after: 1) the lukewarm reception It's All Around You received 2) compiling the odds and ends boxset A Lazarus Taxon 3) performing Millions Now Living Will Never Die at different musical festivals over the past 2 or 3 years, the band were reminded of what made them great in the first place. One need look no further than Standards for what exactly Tortoise is capable of, an album that both sounded like Tortoise and added new pages to their recipe book at the same time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Album of the Week: The Grateful Dead- Workingman's Dead

I've often heard it said that the Dead are one of those bands you either love or hate, yet I find myself somewhere between these two extremes. For the record, this has nothing to do with their live stuff, either. I was very heavily into Phish until recently, so I'm not averse to lengthy improvisations and wading through 3 or 4 CD live releases. The problem with the Dead for me is a combination of how long they were around and how hit-or-miss they could be. The former because I much prefer their first decade of existence, and the latter simply because of the ephemeral nature of live shows, particularly for jam bands. At their worst, they could be an incredibly sluggish and boring band, but at their best, they could truly transcend. So I neither love nor hate the Dead as a general rule. When they're good, they're actually great, but when they're bad, they're embarassing to listen to.

With all that out of the way, I wish Workingman's Dead got the kind of love that American Beauty does. Both albums represent the Dead at the point in their career when they embraced their roots as a jugband, bringing in country, folk, and (stronger) blues influences. Along with this came the incredible vocal harmonies they learned from their friends Crosby, Stills, and Nash (and maybe Young, too). Yet I've always thought of Workingman's Dead as the more successful of the two albums, not in terms of its songs, but for its entirely believable transformation of the Dead from an acid dropping, psychedelic, improvisational, and rockin' live band to a hard drinkin' band of the people.

See, American Beauty is a stellar album, but Workingman's Dead completely nails what it's trying to be. Trey Anastasio of Phish remarked during a Charlie Rose interview that the Dead were the greatest American band ever, and I think what he was getting at was their ability to take all the entirely American musical idioms and put their own spin on them. Moreover, with the songs on Workingman's Dead, the band created songs that are so startlingly close to classic American folk songs, blues, ballads, and country work songs that I didn't realize until recently that they weren't covers or adaptations. Instead, the band were crafting new myths about old heroes (like Casey Jones), old folk tales, and, most pleasingly, old standard topics like women, drinking, and hard jobs. If American Beauty is the kind of album that everyone knows and loves, and you can drink/sing along to with friends, then Workingman's Dead is the album you put on in order to drink alone to.

While not the quintessential Dead album (I think Europe '72 has the best mix of excellently played 'songs' and deft improvisation), Workingman's Dead is a damn near perfect American album. Weirdly enough, for being an album so connected with the distant past, it feels appropriately classic 40 years later, as if they knew that the songs they were making during this era were destined to become staples in the same way that the old songs they grew up on were. Intentional or otherwise, Workingman's Dead is one of the finest albums ever recorded, and even if you think you hate the Dead, you might be surprised how much you love this.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Video: Grandaddy- Nature Anthem

Grandaddy are one of those bands that I just plain don't get. They're the sort of indie rock band who release a handful of albums before breaking up. They're the sort of indie rock band who sound a lot like other, better bands--in this case, the Flaming Lips and a more rural, less experimental, American Radiohead. They're also the sort of indie rock band who have a solid 'greatest hits' disc of good material and a whole bunch of fair-to-forgettable crap. So what I don't get is why people seem so enamored with the band. They're merely OK in my book, but even a compilation of their best material still wouldn't excite me, because they're more alchemists than innovators: they take the sounds of great bands they like and put a bit of a spin on it but bring nothing new to the table.

Also, I share a last name with the lead dude, and that's always kind of bugged me because I feel like I'm usually borrowing from others instead of writing things that are original and have their own unique voice.

Anyway, I don't like this video. Or this song. It's an example of the worst tendencies of Grandaddy, to steal from the Flaming Lips and pass it off as their own. For the record, Wayne Coyne may write some clunkers here or there, but he never would write a saccharine ditty about woodland animals. Furthermore, the Flaming Lips usually--usually--save the silly animal costumes for their stage show. Further damning evidence is Grandaddy's 'Now It's On', which is pretty similar both visually and sonically to the Flaming Lips song/video 'Turn It On.'

Monday, August 18, 2008

Primer: Tortoise Part 3- TNT

While there's no hard and fast rule or set of rules about what makes a great album cover, one kind of cover always appeals to me: the ambiguous one. I don't mean abstract or minimalist. In fact, it's hard for me to say precisely what I mean because by its very nature the ambiguous album cover doesn't fit into a category. Rather, I like to explain it as the kind of record cover that captures your imagination but provides no explanation or context for the music contained therein. Tortoise's TNT is a cover that will stick me for the rest of my life. It's a simple, tossed off doodle done by a band member during the recording sessions, but with its "Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost-with-lazy-eyes-and-weird-stink-line-breath" character offering both the band's name and album title, I was endlessly intrigued with the album before even listening to it all those years ago.

I've probably written about this before in another context, but there's something to be said for the purity of blind musical discovery. Though nowadays if there's reviews of an album out before I hear it, I can't stop myself from reading them, I used to be able to arrive at various bands without knowing precisely what I was in for. I think back to the first phase of my love affair with music, when I pawed through my parents' record collection, picking out ones with covers that caught my eye or had band names that sounded familiar. I think about the sadly few times I've done this since while at my local record store, picking an album blindly on the way it looks, the way the name kind-of-rings-a-bell, the names of the songs, etc.

The point I'm too-slowly getting to is that Tortoise are a band who always manage to release albums that give me that same sense of blind musical discovery. Even though I know who the members are, at the same time, I don't. Not really. I know they're all involved in various other bands and that they're from Chicago, but even after seeing them in various interviews and live clips on YouTube, I'm still no closer to knowing them. And that's for the best, because with a band like Tortoise, their motivations, personal demons, love lives, and biographies don't matter. I suppose a good deal of this has to do with their music being entirely instrumental, but even their song titles, album titles, and album covers are pretty ambiguous. Hell, even the name of the band is. The first time I listened to TNT, I wasn't even sure if I was listening to the album "TNT" by a band called "Tortoise", or the album "Tortoise" by a band called "TNT."

TNT, then. This album is the center point around which Tortoise's entire discography revolves, being a minor turning point for the band both personnel and sound-wise. TNT was recorded over the course of a year, covering the period between the end of the touring for Millions Now Living Will Never Die and finishing up with the departure of David Pajo from the band. Interesting, then, how little Pajo I've detected on the album over the years. Maybe I associate him too much with the sound of Slint, but TNT very obviously belongs to newly recruited guitarist Jeff Parker, who comes from a jazz background. This isn't to say that TNT is a jazz album, but it definitely has a sound that edges closer to guitar-based jazz (think Pat Metheny, but not as Easy Listening as some of you might foolishly think this implies) than previous albums. Oddly, there's also a more pronounced electronic influence, especially on 'The Equator', though this is much more obvious on Standards. In short, TNT is a transitional album, and like most transitional albums, it brushes up against greatness but ultimately misses 'classic' status.

The problem--and I hesitate to use that word, because I do like TNT--is that this album is too long. That may seem like a positive to some people, because in this age of endless playlists and track skipping, too much of a favorite band is never too much. But, as a singular, contained piece of music, TNT is too unwieldly to sit down and listen to. At 64 minutes in length, it's two tracks too long. I usually get lost somewhere in the middle of it, and while I really enjoy albums that I can get lost inside of and re-connect with later when my attention wanders back, it's also the hallmark of an album that isn't engaging all the way through. Tortoise may be one of my favorite bands, but the kind of criticisms that are leveled at them by haters--they're boring, noodle-y, or even too 'safe'--speak to their ability to constantly fit inside the ambient music ideal that Brian Eno set out. That is to say, music that functions just as well as being the 'wallpaper' of a room as it does the center of a listener's attention. This is a nice way of saying that sometimes I get bored of TNT halfway through and start to fall asleep, or I get up to do something else while it's still playing. Like, take a leak, read a book, figure out what I'm going to eat for dinner, etc.

So, then, what to change about TNT to make it better?? I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with its overall sound, so that's not it. After all, you're very likely to love a good deal of this album. 'TNT' is a fantastic opener, with a great jazzy drums-and-horn section vibe to it; 'Ten-Day Interval' is a hypnotic showcase for the band's trademark vibes/marimbas; 'Almost Always Is Nearly Enough' sounds like an IDM remix of a Tortoise song without the need for any remixing because it already sounds that way. However, the album needs to be edited down somewhere, and were I to choose the requisite two tracks to trim this album down to get it into fighting shape, I would have to prune 'Four-Day Interval' and the unwieldly titled 'In Sarah, Mencken, Christ And Beethoven There Were Women', a combined 12-or-so minutes of music; the former for being a plodding, minimalist revision of the vibe/marimbas theme from 'Ten-Day Interval' and the latter for being seven minutes long with not nearly enough development. Keep in mind these aren't bad songs, per se, but they are totally unnecessary. They are guilty of making the middle of album so...not "boring", but...close. I'm almost positive that somewhere out there, some Tortoise fans are gnashing their teeth (or their beaks...?? tortoises have beaks, not teeth, right??) and saying that those two songs are among their favorites, but so it goes.

TNT may be the reason that I got into Tortoise, but it's probably my second to least favorite of their's. Yes, it ultimately comes down to personal taste, but TNT has always felt like a 'bogged down' album to me. It took a year to record, the band had six members at the time, and it's too long. While it doesn't have the "trying too hard" vibe that my least favorite Tortoise album does (that would be It's All Around You), and while it also is still pretty great, it's just not essential in my book.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Complainer: CD Packaging

Though I will admit outright that I'm a iconoclastic vinyl record diehard, I also own a lot of CDs. I don't outright hate the CD format; it's a necessary evil in this strange era where we're transitioning to digital only music while vinyl record sales are simultaneously up. I would argue this is largely because CDs are the unfortunate mid-point between the convenience and portability of digital music and the classy, fun-to-look-at-and-listen to record format. Also, many new releases of vinyl smartly include codes for free digital downloads. But I digress.

This is not an entry in The Complainer series wherein I eviserate the CD format itself. I don't prefer it, but I've got too many CDs already, and I don't have the time/money to replace them all with vinyl/digital versions. This is also not about the ubiquitous, annoying stickers that are on the tops of CDs. Everybody in the world, everyone who was ever born and possibly could be born in the future, hates those. Rather, this is about the different packages that CDs come in, and what I dislike about them. Note: I'm not going to go into every single CD package style, since I don't own every weird little variation there is. Also, stuff like the 'slimline' CD cases and the lame paper sleeves are self evidently crappy.
The Jewel Case
I would wager that a good 90-95% of the CDs you own are in this kind of packaging. As far as I know, it was the 'original' package that CDs came in when first introduced in the mid 80s, and has always been the most common, though the Digipak format is probably next in line. My issue with this format is that, even though it's the most durable--after all, it's almost entirely made out of plastic--it has a propensity for getting cracks in the cover, as well as the frequent breaking of the little plastic 'arm' bits that snap the clear plastic lid unto the bottom tray. It's up to debate as to whether a CD versus a record, minus all packaging, will be more durable, but I personally own many CDs with ugly cracks on the lid and/or no arms so that they fall off if I turn them upside down.

Were you to sit down and devise a way to combine the vinyl record sleeve with the CD jewel case, you'd probably end up with the Digipak. This package is essentially the bottom tray of a CD jewel case glued inside a miniature-gatefold record sleeve. It does have the appeal of a record sleeve--you only see the cover image, and not the black bar of a jewel case next to it--but it also has that package's weakness. That is to say, cardboard, as sturdy as it can be, still bends really easily. I'm sure some people take immaculate care of their CDs, but I use them as a mobile/travel music format, and almost all of my CDs in Digipak have bent corners. That may sound needlessly nitpicky, but that's what this column is all about.
The Double Jewel Case
I debated whether to even put this seperately, since its flaws are similar to the standard jewel case. However, this allows me to single out the ugliness of the double jewel case format. It may allow record companies to put booklets and/or extensive liner notes inside, but it just doesn't look very elegant. I also want to take a running stab at the "regular jewel case, with an awkward foldout tray to fit 2 or 3 CDs inside" format. These foldout trays are ridiculously fragile, and trying to use them is begging for the CDs to fall out of the center grip things.
The Jewel Case with Slipcover
Possibly because someone realized Digipak was flimsy but jewel cases didn't showcase the cover art enough, record companies began to issue CDs in a standard jewel case format, but with a cardboard slipcover that went over them. I'm of two minds on this format. It solves the issues I have with the eventual wear and tear of the Digipak with the eventual ugliness of the jewel case...but I never keep the damn things on the CDs. Call me lazy (go ahead, I'll be over here trying to reach the TV remote with my foot) but these slipcovers are a hassle to get off. It seems like every one that I have fits too tightly to come off easily. So, I've got a pile of these things filed away somewhere, and I'm back with the problem of jewel cases.
The Boxset
While the actual look, dimensions, and materials vary greatly, the CD format did give birth to one magnificent new musical format: the boxset. True, artists were releasing triple and quadruple (possibly even more, I confess that I don't know) record albums during the heyday of the format, but the idea of a "multiple disc" release beyond a 'double album' was something that really came to to prominence in the CD era. It was simply more cost effective to cram so much music unto so many CDs even if the packaging that housed it was more expensive as a byproduct. The above pictured boxset--a live, 6 CD release by Miles Davis--would have spanned at least as many records and cost probably double. I can't technically complain about this CD style, since each one is different, but I don't really want to. They may be far less portable than a typical single or double CD release, but they aren't supposed to be.
Whatever All These Are (The Rest)
Frequently, artists decide it would be really funny if they released their new CD in a weird package. They may look more aesthetically pleasing than a typical jewel case, but because they usually involve Digipak-style containers and/or cheap, slipcover style packaging that 'holds' the CD with a booklet, they're just plain bad. The Bob Dylan ones pictured above are awful, because the other side of the package is a gaping whole, which you're guaranteed to constantly spill the booklet and CD case out of because there's nothing holding them in. Most frustratingly of all, these sundry other CD packages usually have limited edition or short-lived-and-doomed-to-go-out-of-print connotations to them, like the Broken Social Scene album shown above that came with a bonus EP on CD, or the (not pictured) Tortoise boxset, which is like a cardboard version of the container some leather wallets come in, with 3 CDs and 1 DVD packaged in flimy cardboard/paper sleeves. Give me a break.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Primer: Tortoise Part 2/Album of the Week: Millions Now Living Will Never Die

I've always wondered something about this album, and I think it gives insight into how Tortoise operates. The liner notes to Millions Now Living Will Never Die reveal that Bundy K. Brown wrote a portion of 'The Taut and Tame', but curiously he was no longer in the band by this point. Instead, sometime between the release of the first album and this, he had left the band, and David Pajo (formerly of Slint) joined. The addition of an honest-to-goodness guitarist changed the Tortoise sound, but at the same time the proposition of Brown writing part of a song on which he doesn't even play speaks volumes for how Tortoise operates.

Furthermore, I recently re-watched the DVD portion of the A Lazarus Taxon boxset and was reminded how democratic the band is. Effectively a faceless band, their de-facto leader has always been perceived as John McEntire, but only because he engineers/produces the band's albums. During concerts--and I'm guessing for the recording of albums--the band switches instruments pretty frequently. All of this gives you the correct impression that Tortoise is not a band where ego ever comes up. Listening to their albums, which are marvels of restraint, you realize that every instrument is used for a reason. Nobody is playing something because they have to always be doing something otherwise they get mad. Members are content to lay off for a bit and let someone else take center stage; not in an improvisational or soloing kind of way, but in a melodic/rhythmic/textural kind of way.

Millions Now Living Will Never Die is an album I have no reservations about calling iconic. From its provocative title to its evocative album cover (schools of fish are a pretty good match for the imagery that the music sometimes creates in your head) to its unique pacing (more on this in a bit), the album frequently and rightly ends up on many best album lists, particularly as a tent pole of the post-rock genre. Clearly I love the album, and while I could conceivably see people not liking it who like post-rock, it's still undeniably one of the landmark releases of said genre. After all, I'm not the biggest fan of either of the Joy Division albums, but they're still landmarks for post-punk. I think you have to hear them to understand the genre.

The first two Tortoise albums are pretty strange when you go back to them. Their self titled debut, I've recently learned, didn't actually have any guitars at all. Instead, they used two bassists in interesting ways to cover up for it. At the same time, Tortoise was a fairly ambient and minimalist release. It does sound like Tortoise, but it's a very different band than the one now in existence. Millions... took a bassist away and added the unique guitar stylings of ex-Slint member David Pajo. Moreover, it's the odd man out in terms of its pacing: it has the least songs of any Tortoise album, and it has the single longest song from any of their albums in 'Djed', which at 20 minutes is more than twice as long as the nearest contender. (Side note to obsessive fans: yes, I know 'Cliff Dweller Society' is 15 minutes long, but it's not on an album). It's an anomaly in the band's discography to be sure, though because Tortoise albums are instrumental and sound the way they do, songs frequently flow together; another simpler way to put it is that Tortoise albums are meant to be listened to as a whole, so suck it up and give it your time, maaaaan.

As I discussed in my review of their debut, Tortoise's genius was to take the first stirrings of post-rock from Talk Talk's Laughing Stock and Slint's Spiderland, combine them together, and add their own spin to the whole thing. While Laughing Stock began from jazz, folk, and even classical music, and Spiderland began from prog rock, math rock, and borderline metal, Tortoise met these origins at a fork in the road, carrying behind them a cartload filled with dub, film music, electronic music, ambient, krautrock, and various world music influences (mainly in their use of vibraphones/marimbas and other assorted percussion). Though Tortoise is underrated, I would argue that it was on Millions Now Living Will Never Die where Tortoise really began to sketch out their own musical idiom and identity.

The album begins with the monolithic 'Djed', which is as good as you've been told. Assuming one were pressed to come up with a list of 'must hear' post-rock songs, I think you'd have to include 'Djed', or at least consider it as a prime contender for essential songs by Tortoise. Allow me to digress for a moment: I've always been puzzled by the title. Did the band mean for it to be taken as "DJ'd", as in a DJ, or pronounced in some weird accent like "duh-jed" or simply "jed" with a silent D?? In retrospect, I assume it was a nod to the way the song, like a proper DJ mixing and seguing songs together, stitches various mini-songs and ideas together in one epic collage. It is indeed a towering achievement for the post-rock genre, one that the listener should pause and savor like a cup of tea.

I must also give the rest of the album its due. 'Glass Museum' is an appropriately titled, immaculately played piece for chamber musicians, adding a nice dole of grit and rock during the section that starts around the three minute mark. 'A Survey' is a calm, ambient, bass driven throwback to the first album, while 'The Taut and Tame' is a peppy, crunchy workout for clattering percussion and distorted guitar. 'Dear Grandma and Grandpa' emerges from a haze of synth washes, and as the album's least guitar-centric, free floating piece, it recalls the more lucid, dreamlike sections of 'Djed' before seguing smoothly into closer 'Along the Banks of Rivers' on the back of a snare drum roll. This song is easily the band's most filmic, and reminds me of something that might be played at the end of a James Bond film from the late 60s, with its spy/noir-ish digital delay guitar, textural Rhodes piano accents, and jazzy, cymbal heavy percussion. For what it's worth, it's also a good song to drop unto the end of mixtapes as a palette cleanser or way to finesse an uneven time ratio between sides A and B.

One of the things I love about certain bands is their ability to combine the experimental and the accessible as well as the grounded/earthy and spacious/spacey. I'm thinking specifically of albums like Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, albums which wrap these seemingly conflicting musical approaches into one giant tapestry of brilliance. I'm not trying to directly compare the two, but Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die is similarly effective as Bitches Brew at challenging the listener with music that contains the above, in equally conflicting and complementary ways. Millions... is a fantastic album, and one that influenced many as well as being among those rare cases where a band is able to distill its influences in such a way to sound wholly original and show us musty ol', jaded music critics that we haven't heard it all before.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lil' Indie Round-Up 3

Album: Chandelier by Rachael Sage
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: When the whole singer/songwriter thing got really big in the 70s, you could pretty much set your watch to each artist releasing an album at least every two years. And that album would have some obscure, clever object, idea, or word as its title. Also, the cover would typically be said artist posing with the object or making a visual reference to it somehow. So, then, this makes me expect a fairly generic singer/songwriter album. p.s. I don't know why it's showing up all blued out like that. Some quirk of Blogger, I guess.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Tori Amos says "hi." Too pleasant to hate, too cutesy, quirky, and immaculate to like, Chandelier is Sage's 8th (!!) album. All in all, it's piano-driven singer/songwriter pop in the Amos-vein, only less challenging and intense. If I had a girlfriend and she was making this music, I would be touched and proud of her, but secretly have no desire to listen to it, ever.

Album: The Discovery EP by The Discovery
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: OK, you've seen the cover now. Doesn't it scream 'high school art project from the stoner kid in class'?? I would also accept the answer 'fan made cover for almost any Flaming Lips album.' So, I expect something druggy, psychedelic, or cosmic, maaaaan.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: This one took me awhile to sum up, despite being only 4 songs, but I think I've nailed it--acoustic 311. Granted, I haven't listened to any 311 in a good 10 years, but that's the vibe I got off this: reggae/Latin influences married to generic alt. rock. The twist here is that The Discovery have added a cup more acoustic guitar. Oh, and the last song 'In The Air Tonight' lamely lifts most of the chorus to that Phil Collins song and is half as good.
Album: The Revisionists by The Revisionists
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: The Revisionists is such a vague, wants-to-be-cool-but-is-just-kind-of-forgettable name for a band. And the cover reminds me of the similar monikered Editors, which features a skeletal outline of a building. Here, though, we get a scrawl of newspaper clippings in various languages. All of this leads me to believe the band is one of those millions of "back to basics" punk bands that are on the Warped Tour for a year and then completely forgotten.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Well, I don't hate this, so that's already a point in its favor. Also, it's not a "back to basics" punk band. No, it's a "back to basics" post-punk band, only more Clash-y. Literature given with the album reveals that two thirds of the band were in Tonic (they of the mid-90s alt. rock hit "If You Could Only See") and the other third is the guy who directed the Wilco documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart. Anyway, this is the sort of music that marries 90s alt. rock with late 70s post-punk via the Clash, music that I wouldn't flee from if it were played in a bar, but music that is supremely boring to sit down and listen to.
Album: Blackmarket EP by Blackmarket
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Somewhere, somebody listened to a lot of Fugazi and decided to make an album cover that reflected this obsession. Given the band's name, a potently political/economic term, alongside the blur of things going on here visually, I expect Fugazi.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Let me pose a scenario to you. Imagine if, instead of recording the harder, stranger Pinkerton, Rivers Cuomo led Weezer, post-Blue Album, to head off the subsequent pack of mid-to-late 90s rock bands inspired equally by indie rock and arena rock and start churning out crap right away. Instead of doing what he actually did, and going off to college, then coming back to ruin Weezer's good name by, apparently, challenging himself to make a series of albums that are each worse than the one that came before. But I digress. Since this scenario never happened, we get to listen to bands like Blackmarket instead. Blackmarket are terrible.
Album: Siege Mentality by Digital Primate
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Ever since Gorillaz were unleashed unto the world, England has been inundated with bands that mix rock, electronic music, and hip hop, and have silly names or themes around them. The mock 8-bit NES gorilla mask pictured above leads me to believe this particular release leans toward the electronic music realm, since many electronic artists have a similar kitschy appreciation for that visual aesthetic.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: I was pretty close with my guess, except that I hadn't factored in the bizarre political slant of the album. Or all the sexual stuff. Frankly, the song titles alone are pretty embarassing, and that it's apparently a white guy behind all this is even worse. Like most British albums of this type, it's overly long, and reminds you of much better bands that you don't even really like (in this case, I'd say a more electro-hop Gorillaz, or simply a worse Basement Jaxx).
Album: Pigs by The Dirty Hearts
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: In the late 90s, I remember always going to my local Media Play store and wandering the racks of CDs. Every so often I'd come across some album cover that was really disturbing or gross. Usually it had something violent, provocative, or sexual, and it seemed like it was usually on Trent Reznor's Nothing Records label. It also seemed as though they usually had some vague bestiality angle, too. So, then, this cover, which has a human infant gestating inside a pig. It's vaguely disturbing, but it also is a lazy, lazy visual symbol for human beings as "pigs." I expect passable industrial rock.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: I like this album, if only because it reminds one of a time in the early 90s when garage rock made a short lived, under covered comeback. Bands like The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion didn't really fit in with the grunge rock or indie rock of that era, and so existed in this weird place that never really made sense. The Dirty Hearts are of this era, too, despite being a decade and change too late. Even the amateurish back cover, a collage of meat products, reminds me of something, say, Pavement would've had on a pre-Slanted & Enchanted single or EP. As for the music itself, it straddles the lines between grunge rock, indie rock, and garage rock, featuring songs that go on a minute too long and sometimes throw in odd elements like a brass section.
Album: Falcon EP by Falcon
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Right now, I work at the deli/meat department in a local grocery store. One of the brands of lunch meat and cheese we carry is called Boar's Head. It's a relatively 'premium' brand, which costs a dollar or two more per pound than the competitors, but I much prefer it. Their havarti is delicious. Huh?? Oh, right; this album cover. It's got a bloody boar's head on it, but the band's name is Falcon. Expectation?? Overly clever indie pop, or painful, room clearing metal/noise.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Passable, enjoyable indie rock with an optimistic, anthemic streak. The big deal about this band is that they're slowly recording the songs of a high school classmate who wrote hundreds of tunes over roughly a year's time in the late 80s before being institutionalized. Shades of Daniel Johnston, right?? Unfortunately, this is a band where the concept behind them is more interesting than the music itself. It's not bad by any means, mind you, but I think people are more willing to write genius into a musician because he or she was crazy, and that's unfair. If you hear the songs of Daniel Johnston out of context, they're still amazing because they're so well written, and his voice is so unique. Not so for Falcon. The story is more special than the music, and I'd be more excited to hear the original versions.
Album: The Sound by Mar
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: I'm going to be a jerk and say that this cover is terrible, and it's not even ironically terrible. It's got an old timey looking woman with angels exploding out of her head, suggesting that this band's sound is so amazing it caused cherubs to fountain out of her head. Did I just use 'fountain' as a verb?? I did. Anyway, I'm guessing this album sounds like Snow Patrol, one of those bands that tried to combine post-rock and indie rock together and wind up sounding like crap in the process.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Wow, I was pretty close. Only the post-rock is more like a string based Sigur Ros, and the indie rock is more like an American guy who likes Radiohead a lot and wishes his voice could go as high and powerful as Thom Yorke. I may sound cynical here, but Mar belong to a raft of bands that try so hard to be unique and interesting but end up sounding like a patchwork of various other bands. I can't hate them for it, because I remember times when I used to ape various writers, but that doesn't mean I like them for it, either.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Video: Genesis- Land of Confusion

I first saw this video as a child, and subsequently convinced myself that it had been a nightmare created by watching one of the Child's Play movies. And not, you know, a real video by a real band in which all the people (and animals, actually) are the most singularly terrifying puppets you'll see this week. Maybe even this decade.

Apparently the goal of the puppeteers was to make Genesis and the then-president Reagan and his wife even uglier to look at. It wouldn't be so bad if not for their eyes...their frightening, frightening eyes.

Still, I have a strange fascination with this video now that I know it was real after all. So, I inflict it on you, and hope you pass it on to others. Otherwise, in a week, demon-puppet Phil Collins will crawl out of your TV set and kill you.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Shadow of the Colossus

I have this problem with videogames sometimes. I become so caught up in the carrot-on-a-string elements of a game that I don't stop to look around and experience the world I've elected to enter. Videogames become something I need to complete or finish (or even play enough of to write a review) instead of something to enjoy and appreciate. This is why I so often don't finish games, and why I initially gave up on Shadow of the Colossus: games start to feel like work, specifically homework. I feel like I have to finish a game in order to competently talk about it. I feel like I have to play certain games because everyone else is, or they games in question are beloved critical classics that didn't sell well but offer something very different and compelling from most other videogames.

So, then, let me just say this: if we really want videogames to be accepted as the new form of art, of expression, that they are, we need more games like Shadow of the Colossus. Though it has a story that could potentially be told in another medium, it couldn't be experienced/told in exactly the same way. And that's the key: the translation of this game to another artform would change it irrevocably.

I keep coming back to the argument that they had on one of the 1UPFM Backlog segments about videogames as a medium, and how the one thing that videogames can do that others can't is interactivity. I absolutely agree with Ryan O'Donnell on this point, because I truly believe videogames as an artistic medium, rather than an entertainment medium, will only continue to evolve if they focus on making the story interactive and embedded in the game world somehow. Not all videogames should do this, of course, because not all videogames are trying to tell a story, or at least are so focused on one. Narrative driven videogames, however, should, in my opinion. I felt such connection to the Shadow of the Colossus world and story because I was the one discovering it all and interacting with it. Moreover, even though there are cutscenes that help tell the story, you can always, at the very least, move the camera around.

As with Ico, I think Shadow of the Colossus quickly divides its audience into people who just want to have fun while a story is spoon fed to them and people who want to experience something and exist in an environment, exploring it, in order to get most of the story. I wouldn't consider this game fun to play, but as an interactive experience, it's one of the best the medium has to offer. Much like Silent Hill 2, I can easily forgive and overlook the shortcomings and awkwardness of the "gameplay" aspect in order to get the fulfilling environmental, atmospheric, and implicit narrative. Speaking of which: that the cutscenes in the game have interactivity, however limited, is a step in the right direction for an artform long reduced to aping other mediums to convey information.

If early RPGs, text adventures, and adventure games represented videogames borrowing from books to be art; if games with gorgeous graphics (2D graphics count, haters) represented borrowing from paintings and visual art to be art; if games like Metal Gear Solid represented borrowing from movies to be art...then games like Shadow of the Colossus represent videogames realizing their potential as an artistic medium on their own unique ground: interactivity. Note that this is not a snobbish way of saying that this automatically makes these kind of games superior. Maybe Shadow of the Colossus (or 'art' games in general) is not a game that you will enjoy. This doesn't mean you're a bad person or that you're stupid. After all, not everyone likes watching art films, reading difficult fiction, or going to museums to look at paintings. It's simply an artistic outgrowth of a form of entertainment, and it's endlessly exciting to see an artform in its infancy produce something so grand.

The two things that this game gets right, that I would argue no other game has gotten right before or since, are a sense of scale and a feeling of utter solitude. Both of these things are tied into exactly what makes Shadow of the Colossus so brilliant, so we'll examine them separately.

Upon encountering most Colossi, your reaction will likely be “wow, how am I going to defeat this thing??” Though your sword will reveal their weak points—a trope of boss battles that have been in videogames for years—it's never immediately obvious how you can get to and assault those weak points. People have criticized Shadow of the Colossus for being “only” a series of 16 boss battles, but that is needlessly reductive. As the common saying about this game goes, the Colossi “are” the levels. Even the ones that aren't towering bipedal creatures are 'levels' in the general sense of the word. They're like a combination of a linear platformer 'level' and a puzzle game. You 'solve' each Colossus fight as much as you 'get to the end of the level.' And given the enormous scale of most of the Colossi in the game, the enormity of your task is directly proportional to how satisfying it feels when you take them down. Seeing the comparatively tiny Wander take down these huge beasts, after being initially intimidated by them, is utterly compelling even though the sneaking suspicion that what you're doing isn't totally “good” quickly becomes a walking and then a running suspicion.

The other half of Shadow of the Colossus's gameplay is getting to the various Colossi. Getting lost in most 3D games of this sort is usually a frustration, but, here, it is a kind of reward. Even discounting the fruit trees and lizards that boost Wander's life and grip meter, respectively, the unforgettable experience of traversing the game's world feels like an optional, but wholly complete, gameplay system. Fighting the Colossi may be the game's big draw, but I would argue moving through the world is equally important. From the brilliantly realistic way that Wander's horse, Agro, acts and is controlled, to the breathtaking but completely barren (note: barren meaning “nobody else is there”, not “wastelands”) scenery you see, Shadow of the Colossus contains one of the most complete and 'natural' worlds in all of videogame history. In most games, when you happen upon a cool looking chunk of architecture, or a clearing in a forest, or some such thing, you have been conditioned to expect that some tangible game reward is there. To get a bit behind the scenes on you, a programmer wouldn't take the time to detail such an area unless there is something there. It's a waste of time and money to do this. Not so for Shadow of the Colossus. As with the behavior of the Colossi themselves—which greatly vary in their aggressiveness and reactive-ness to stimuli, just like animals in real life—everything is put into the game just to be there and to feel natural. There are forests, waterfalls, beaches, and desert expanses that serve no game purpose other than to exist and be discovered.

Shadow of the Colossus is an extraordinarily lonely game on top of all this. By the time you finish the game, you'll have spent hours with just your horse, riding around the world and trying to find paths to the next Colossus. This might sound frustrating on paper, but the game is purposely designed to evoke solitude and loneliness in the player. Though dread quickly supersedes the feeling, your immediate reaction upon seeing a Colossus is one of relief: finally, another living thing!! As someone who enjoys being alone, I found this game to be surprisingly satisfying for the amount of time you go without hearing or seeing anything other than the environment and your horse. Some have compared this feeling to the Tom Hanks movie, Castaway, and I think it's pretty apt, especially when you realize you're personalizing and sympathizing with a horse, albeit probably the most realistic horse in videogame history.

I'd like to close by saying that the story of the game is one of the best the artform has to offer even though there isn't technically that much of it. But due to its minimalist style, less is indeed more. The game, like a good art film, trusts you to fill in the blanks yourself. It's also open to interpretation, as most great works of art are, and once you really start to question and think about the implications of the story line, the motivations of the characters, and the results of your actions in the world, you're left with a lot of things to chew on. If most gamers of my generation entered the artform through Mario, in which you were obviously the good guy, saving the helpless princess love interest, then Shadow of the Colossus is, arguably, the point where everything became a little more complicated, and grew up a lot. In this game, you're maybe not a good guy, doing maybe not good things, to save a girl (we're not sure if she's a princess, a priestess, or just an average person) without really knowing our motivation for doing so (she could be our love interest, or a girl we love from afar, or our sister, or something else entirely).

Well, OK, the motivation of the game is, simply, love. Love is the only thing that could cause what is ostensibly an average guy to try to take on these huge beasts, potentially losing his life in the process. Good or bad, what Wander does is for his love of this girl, and that's something that I don't think we, as the player coming to this world from the outside, need explained to us. We've all been crazy enough due to love to try the impossible. So even if we, as the player, have only a vague idea of our motivation in the game, we understand and sympathize with Wander because we've been there. After awhile, I wasn't questioning whether Wander was doing good or bad; I felt like, he's in love, and I've been in love, and good or bad doesn't come into the issue when he is trying to help the one he loves. It's very rare that a videogame can make me relate to a character on a pretty fundamentally human level while not knowing anything about him or her otherwise. And that, if nothing else, proves to me that Shadow of the Colossus is art, and is one of the best videogames ever made.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Primer: Tortoise Part 1/Album of the Week: Tortoise

It would be impossible to calculate the impact that Tortoise's first two albums had on underground music. Though Millions Now Living Will Never Die frequently, and rightly, gets the nod for being one of the first true masterpieces of the post-rock genre, it came a full two years after Tortoise. There's something to be said for being first, and Tortoise were the first band to take the lessons of post-rock precursors Laughing Stock (by Talk Talk) and Spiderland (by Slint) and spin it all into something strikingly new, taking influences as disparate (yet fairly sympathetic) as dub, jazz, kraut-rock, soundtrack/film music, ambient, psychedelia, and minimalism.

Tortoise is a fascinating album to go back to because of how little it sounds like the Tortoise we know and love. At the time the band were often using two bassists at once; moreover, the album sounds like the monolithic work of a mysterious group of as little as one person but no more than three. Once the "Tortoise sound", as it were, became established on Millions Now Living... and TNT, returning to the sound of this album is interesting because of how simple it is. Tortoise is without a doubt the band's most ambient and minimalist release, with a restraint and sparseness rarely seen in future post-rock. At least for such sustained periods of times, that is.

As with most instrumental music, the greatness of Tortoise lies in the moods it establishes, and the evocative sounds and melodies that spill forth. This album isn't quite as borderline-austere as later Tortoise releases, so you usually get a sense of something other than a museum, where formerly dirty and fascinating pieces of history (swords, paintings, stuffed wild animals, etc.) are given a cleaned up and detached viewing by audiences. Not that Tortoise is noisy or messy. Rather, it simply strikes me as less assured and more willing to take risks than most Tortoise albums. 'Onions Wrapped In Rubber' is nearly seven minutes of very little happening, other than some stray percussion and electronic sounds. 'Ry Cooder' is a classic Tortoise piece that has an addictive bass-and-vibraphone melody as its centerpiece. 'His Second Story Island' is a contemplative tone poem for electric guitar. 'Magnet Pulls Through' is a perfect opener for such a deliberately paced and atmospheric album, threatening to erupt into a chorus or crescendo before collapsing back into taut drumming and rhythmic interplay with guitars.

As both the first album from one of the genre's biggest bands and its first significant release (again, not counting Spiderland and Laughing Stock), Tortoise, today, seems like such a small, unassuming piece of music. Even if later bands pushed this music into huge, majestic crescendos, overwhelming but pretty noise, or borderline-metal instrumental prowess, Tortoise still stands as a testament to how some revolutions start with a whisper instead of a roar.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

My Morning Jacket- Evil Urges

My Morning Jacket are many things to many people. Like contemporaries such as Wilco, who crossover between many different crowds (closet music critic/bloggers, jam band followers, too-cool-for-school indie rockers, etc.), the band threatens to lose or neglect fans by changing their sound too much. Wilco overcomes this by not really giving a crap what their fans want, while My Morning Jacket are currently overcoming it by putting something for everyone on their albums. Their Z is a fantastic album, and even though it was the first time those outside the Southern Rock/jam band/classic rock axis took notice of them, it still had enough pure guitar fury to keep the attention of the latter. To put it succinctly, 'Lay Low' tears it up.

Problematically, My Morning Jacket expand their palette even further on Evil Urges, with none of the laser-sharp focus and inspired experimental pop that Z showcased. At 47 minutes, it was the band's shortest album, and while brevity may not be a sign of quality, it was in that case. Evil Urges is scattershot and varied, but it never hangs together as a whole. It's as if every few songs the album restarts--first it's funky, then it's blue eyed country soul, then it's fist pumping rock, then it's spacey and prog rock-y. This is similar to the problem that so many jam bands have: they want to showcase their songs on studio albums, their variety of styles, but also their ability to improvise. Thus they release overly long albums that are too much for newcomers to grasp, and too dry and short for the diehard to love. In My Morning Jacket's case, the problem is that they are now attempting too much on a single album, and none of it is particularly good. Z was 10 tracks, but those 10 tracks pack in a great deal of variety and inventiveness. Evil Urges only has 4 more songs, and 8 more minutes, but feels bloated and unfocused.

Most worryingly of all, the addition of funk to the band's palette is a disaster. 'Highly Suspicious' is quite possibly the worst thing they've ever recorded. It feels like a bald faced attempt by the band to inject some humor and kitsch into their music, which is a fine idea in theory, but in execution is awful. Jim James has one of those "raise the hair on the back of your neck" voices when he sticks to his brisk tenor or his spacey, reverb soaked wolf howls, but when he tries to sound like Prince, it's simply embarrassing. Title track and opening song 'Evil Urges' fares a bit better by combining the band's various musical strands with this new vocal style, but it's such an odd, long winded choice to begin the album I don't know what they were thinking.

Mainly, as I've struggled to get a handle on Evil Urges, the impression that this album is one for the fans takes shape. As it compares so unfavorably to Z, this is the only conclusion I can come to. Assuming you are a hardcore fan of the band, you'll undoubtedly love this. Assuming you're like me, and thought Z was a great album but you're still not sold on the band, then Evil Urges will do nothing to convince you otherwise.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Video: The Replacements- Bastards of Young

It never takes long before any form of expression causes/creates a form of expression that's anti- it. Funny, then, that I usually find myself drawn to that anti- force instead of the original.

Case in point, this anti-music video for a Replacements song. I've yet to get around to listening to this band, sadly, other than 'Answering Machine' which an ex-girlfriend once put on a mixtape for me. That said, you've gotta give it up to the 80s forefathers of modern indie rock like the Replacements every now and then. (Speaking of which, Our Band Could Be Your Life is an awesome book). I find this video absolutely riveting because, though it's a mostly static shot of a stereo system, it speaks to me on a level music videos never do. That level being "stop watching the visuals and pay attention to the song." Interestingly enough, many modern YouTube videos for bands are made by users and consist of just the album cover and the song playing. It's piracy, sure, but it also reminds me of what music listeners did before video killed the radio star: they stared at the album cover, or their stereo, or the ceiling, and that was enough.

Monday, August 4, 2008


Killer7 is definitely a game that I would not consider 'fun', but one that demonstrates the potential of videogames as a storytelling medium. You could tell this story as a movie, manga, novel, etc. but it wouldn't be quite the same narrative as it was in this game. The various tools the game uses--the cell shaded graphics, the inspired/unique sound design (the acoustic guitar strum when items appear; the mechanical voice saying "bullet"), the intentionally awkward controls (at first I hated them, but after awhile they seem very deliberate), the mix of anime and CG cutscenes, the interactions in the 'save rooms' (the TV channel idea is charmingly bizarre)--could never be done in any other medium.
I know people are starting to apply the auteur theory to videogame designers, but this is a case where I feel it truly applies. You couldn't get a game like this out of any designer other than Suda51. As the game is a surreal, complex mess that I'm still trying to unravel after the ending, it reminds me a lot of a David Lynch film, open ended meanings and "leave it up to each viewer/player to decide for themselves" and all. In a similar fashion to how you always get the impression Lynch had a hand in everything in his films from the sound scoring to the camera angles to the production design to the dialogue, you get the sense that Killer7 was entirely Suda's vision brought to life.

This isn't to say that Killer7 is a flawless masterpiece. There's a big difference between an 'art' game and a great 'art' game. Just as I've never seen a movie quite like Lost Highway but don't consider it a great movie, I've never played a game like Killer7 but don't consider it a great game. This raises a whole 'nother side debate of why I play certain games, and what I hope to get out of them. Killer7 is a unique, inspired, and utterly memorable experience (experience being the key word here) but playing it is often a frustrating chore. Even though you effectively can't lose because of the Garcian character, who can instantly revive dead characters by recovering their bodies, Killer7 is still a difficult-for-the-wrong reasons gameplay experience. Enemies that can instantly kill you, or that can get off cheap hits on you because you just came through a door, are something the entire medium needs to leave behind if we want more people to stick with 'art' games like this. I don't mean that such games need to be stupidly easy, but they should at least make getting through the narrative as easy as possible.
As it's a mix of a rail shooter, survival horror, and an adventure game, Killer7 doesn't do any of these pieces particularly well, but as a combined package, it's frequently brilliant. This especially comes to a head with the boss battles, which range from unique spins on the tried and true "expose/shoot the weakpoint" to a High Noon-esque duel with a dove as the timer to a predetermined, fighting game-style tournament that you play but have no direct effect on to a "final" boss fight in which you win by letting all your characters die. Kind of.

All the while, the game is playing with the conventions of the above genres, and videogames as a whole. Just as Earthbound could be taken as a parody of RPGs, Killer7 constantly undermines your idea of what a game can be and what's supposed to happen during a plot. Much as Lost Highway starts off as a mystery about the disappearance of a musician's wife before things quickly take a turn for the surreal, Killer7 starts off about a team of assassins assigned to stop a terrorist group before quickly going off the deep end. It is absolutely post-modern, and skirts dangerously close to being a meta-game at certain points. Though it may not make a whole lot of sense to you, but you'll never forget it. The levels you go through--particularly the school and the Japanese-style mansion/house--have a surreal, dream-like atmosphere that matches the ghostly characters who talk to you with their distorted, robotic voices, creepy monologues out of which you can occasionally catch a intelligible word or two.
If you approach Killer7 like you would any other game, trying to overcome the enemies and power your way through to the end, you're missing the point. Even if it is ostensibly a shooter, it's one of those games--like Silent Hill 2, Earthbound, and Shadow of the Colossus--which you're tempted, indeed encouraged, to think about when you're done playing, and to go back to over the years to catch new details. To take your time with the game, linger in its environments, and puzzle at the complicated story (and backstory) as well as the series of endings, is to fully understand what the game was trying to do. To put it succinctly, Killer7 is a game you don't play, it's a game you experience. It has its flaws (after all, it's one of those titles that the same reasons I give for loving it, other people give for hating it) but as an experience it remains one of the best the medium has to offer.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Tapes 'n Tapes- Walk It Off

I wish someone would explain to me why Dave Fridmann sees fit to work with young, up and coming indie rock bands. I get that his aesthetic works with bands who need a shot in the arm, like Low and Sleater-Kinney, but he is definitely one of the more distinctive and obvious producing hands in the business today. With his piles of instruments and distorted, over-driven, and compressed sound, you never really know how a band will come through his wringer. This isn't so exciting and necessary for young bands, however. Both Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and Tapes 'n Tapes released debut albums of effortless, self-assured indie rock that were some of the most exciting and fresh releases of their respective years. And then they recruited Dave Fridmann to produce their second albums, leading to dramatic changes in their sound before it was strictly called for.

This isn't to say that Some Loud Thunder or Walk It Off are terrible. In fact, I've warmed up to both via repeat listens. But after going back to their first releases, it's hard to feel that the changes were for the better. I'm a well compensated lobbyist to get bands to expand and/or change their style on subsequent albums, but both Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and Tapes 'n Tapes lost a good deal of what appealed to people about them in the first place by doing so. Certainly their second albums are more experimental, nuanced, and definitely fit under the header of "albums that grow on you" for it, three things I have ready to paste into reviews to chastise other bands for not doing, but in this case I can't say I, or many other people, would have been very unhappy if both bands had released second albums that kept some of the immediacy and catchy hooks of their debuts.

Part of the appeal of Tapes 'n Tapes's debut was its ability to display obvious influences but not outright steal from them. Pixies, Pavement, and Modest Mouse are the clear starting points, but The Loon, in general, was like a glorious love letter to indie rock of all stripes. People sometimes say that music critics are just frustrated musicians (those who can, do; those who can't, criticize), so I think a sizeable portion of those of us who loved the band love them because they were fans who managed to wrangle their favorite bands' sounds in new, interesting ways. Another part of the appeal of their debut, for me at least, was its spacious production. The slower songs like 'Manitoba', 'Omaha', and 'In Houston' revealed a band perfectly capable of restraint, letting every delicate guitar or keyboard note sail through the air. Then there were the addictive, instantly enjoyable rock songs like 'Insistor' and 'Cowbell' which showed a young band capable of great things, and still greater things to come.

So why is it that Walk It Off has practically none of these elements??

I give the band credit for trying something different with their second album. It was a gamble, but as with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, it didn't completely pay off. Paradoxically, while shedding some of their more obvious influences, Tapes 'n Tapes have actually become less distinctive in the process. I don't think I'm alone in thinking that this set of songs is more indebted to sounds (both in the lyric writing and way instruments are used) than songs. Moreover, the production is another atrocious Dave Fridmann mess. Gone is the relaxed, spacious atmosphere of The Loon. In its place is Fridmann's now-patented "compress and distort things needlessly; pile on instruments needlessly; try to make every album sound like a Flaming Lips album needlessly" style. While this worked for Sleater-Kinney and Low, it worked because those bands were in need of a new direction. Here, his production only furthers the sense that Tapes 'n Tapes are moving away from everything that made me like them in the first place. I could accept that the band wanted their second album to sound really different, or that the songs wouldn't be as immediately catchy, but not both at once. Speaking of not-as-catchy: I defy anyone to name a song on Walk It Off as good as even 'Just Drums' or '10 Gallon Ascots' from The Loon. The closest the band comes is 'Hang Them All' and 'Lines', two songs that, not coincidentally, feel the closest to the spirit and sense of fun of their debut.

Spending some time with Walk It Off always tempers my disappointment somewhat. It's not a bad album by any means, but as soon as I go back to their debut, it instantly seems like an inferior, needlessly experimental sophomore effort. Look, not every band needs to revolutionize their sound on their second release. Also, I don't think any band needs such a distinctive, forceful producer as Dave Fridmann to work on said second release. Had the band stuck a bit closer to their debut, had the band not worked with Fridmann, had this been their third or fourth album instead of their second...perhaps then, Walk It Off could have been a resounding success. As it is, though, Walk It Off, like Some Loud Thunder, is a very different beast from the debut, and one that acquired its "different-ness" at the expense of most of what made us like the band in the first place.