Friday, November 28, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 10/Album of the Week- Round Room

Phish played their last show before going on a "hiatus" on October 7, 2000. In mid-August 2002, they announced they would be returning to the stage for a set of four New Year's shows; then, in late October of that same year, more good news: the band were loving their rehearsals so much they decided to release the results as an album. So it was that before they even played a reunion show together, they had a new album in stores. Round Room was the first real taste of the 'new' Phish and reviews were mixed. It was too long. It was sloppily produced. 'Mexican Cousin' sucked. 'Friday' sucked. They didn't sound the same, especially Trey's guitar. Then, more bad reviews: the New Year's Eve shows weren't terribly interesting and the subsequent winter tour was too short and uneven. Though the summer tour is highly regarded and bits and pieces of remainder of the era called 'Post-Hiatus Phish' are much loved, Phish in '03 and '04 just wasn't the same. In late May of 2004, mere weeks before the release of their next album and the start of their summer tour, the band announced that they were breaking up for good, with these dreaded words from Trey punching fans in the gut, fans who were having their favorite band taken away for the second time:

"For the sake of clarity, I should say that this is not like the hiatus, which was our last attempt to revitalize ourselves. We're done."

Yet here we are a little over four years after that and the band are getting back together to perform in March. What a world. Some buzz has developed over whether or not they'll record and release a new album before the shows, and so I find myself having the same excitement that fans did 6 years ago: potential new material from my favorite band.

I've always loved Round Room but I've never been able to articulate why. In writing up the short history of this album and post-hiatus Phish in the preceding paragraphs, I think I finally can explain why. see, Round Room is the most uncompromising studio album Phish ever made. I suspect the only reason Elektra released it was because they were desperate for something that wasn't the expensive-to-produce and probably-not-very-profitable Live Phish archival series. When I say uncompromising, what I mean is, it's the sound of a band playing only for themselves, to show off the songs to each other and to learn them, and then deciding to release that to the public. Though it's cleaned up and doesn't sound like a bootleg, it still has the sound of the first grasping attempts to get through a proper version of a song without the lifelessness that comes with running through the same song over and over. If you believe the liner notes--and I guess we have to because they have no reason to lie--Round Room was recorded in only four days.

Furthermore, there's no consideration given for radio play or winning new fans. I wondered why the band even bothered with 'The Connection' from Undermind; it's an OK song, but Phish are living in a dream if they think they're ever going to have a hit song or convert many millions more into fans from a hit single. Anyway, Round Room is a return to the very early days of studio Phish when the silly songs and long, winding instrumental passages and jams were left on. 'Mexican Cousin' and 'Friday' are reviled by fans--and I agree they sometimes destroy the flow of otherwise good shows--but if taken at face value, you warm up to them. 'Mexican Cousin' is a jokey drinking song and anyone who's seen Bittersweet Motel will understand its intent. 'Friday' is a tongue-in-cheek ballad; thank God they didn't remove the accidental laughing or we might've taken it seriously.

Speaking of accidents, Round Room is charming in its lack of a proper studio production. These literally are rehearsals edited into an album, the sort of thing a band might do and then take to a 'real' studio to make proper versions of. What we get here is Phish doing something they've never done before in the studio: flying without a net. Even The Siket Disc, an improvisational studio album, was heavily edited and finessed. While I'm sure they did a lot of takes for these songs, they weren't thinking of them in terms of 'takes.' All the foibles of their singing and playing are here. Some tracks even have outright bad technical problems with production, most likely due to bleed over or sloppy editing. You can hear an extra track of guitar on some songs (particularly 'Seven Below') and if you pay close attention to the chorus of 'Pebbles and Marbles' there's a weird bleed over that sounds like drums. Yet I'm willing to put up with this minor problems because Round Room is a great set of songs played very well. Phish would go on to play mind blowing versions of most of the major 'jam' tracks from this album but unlike the rest of their studio output, I think these versions stand up, too. Along with invigorating studio improvisation, Round Room has a nice set of ballads, too. In fact, they were recording better ballads without trying than they did when trying really hard. Maybe I'm just a sucker for slow songs and new stuff, but 'Anything But Me' and 'All Of These Dreams' are better than 'If I Could' and 'Waste' if only because they feel organic. They're ballads but they don't sound like old fashioned ballads written to fill the purpose.

And somehow that's the crux of why I think Round Room is so special and deviously underrated. All of the other Phish studio albums have a feeling of 'holding back' and pristine production, two things that don't play to the band's strengths. Some of their studio albums are good, a handful are great, but none of them sound and feel quite like this one, which is the most honest and--here's that word again--uncompromising Phish studio release. It's a here-it-is, as-it-happened, take-it-or-leave-it proposition and a risky one, indeed. While I can't recommend it to newcomers for that reason, it's paradoxically the most representative Phish studio album since it demonstrates an important truth about the band: the parts between the choruses and bridges are just as important as the choruses and the bridges themselves. Improvisation and composition aren't mutually exclusive; even when they aren't singing they're still talking to each other and to you. You just have to know how to listen. Round Room will teach you, if you let it.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 9- Farmhouse

In the CD tray of Farmhouse, there's a picture of the four members of Phish in the middle of a huge snowy expanse, staring up at the camera which is high above them. It's a pretty picture but it also helps to identify the dichotomy essential to the album: the warmth and closeness of the four men versus the loneliness and isolation of rural Vermont. The album strikes a line between the Earthy and the cosmic, music equally at home in the frozen winter as it is the sweltering summer.

If Story of the Ghost taught us that Phish still had their eclecticism, then Farmhouse was a reminder that they might be best--studio-wise, anyway--when they concentrate on a cohesive set of songs. As the album title belies, Farmhouse focuses on songs of rustic character; laid back, country-tinged, and bouncy, these songs borrow from a tradition of Southern rock that borders the jam band scene via bands like The Allman Brothers. At the same time, there's a bit of a funky vibe carried over from the Ghost era, most evident on the danceable throwdown 'Gotta Jibboo.' Yet there's an underlying introversion and cosmic feel to the album at the same time. This makes sense to me, though. As someone who's been out to the country and stared up at starry skies on clear nights, it's often when you're in the middle of nowhere that you think the most about your place in the world and the universe. Insignificant only begins to approach how you feel. And so comes the religious commentary of 'Bug', the death metaphors of 'Dirt', and the socio-political-philosophical searching of 'Sand', which has a spacey/electronic sound that is the closest Phish ever got to techno.

It's worth mention that the recording of Farmhouse bookended the end of the Millenium for Phish, who spent the last month of '99 touring and then performing a 7 hour marathon concert on New Year's Eve. Known as Big Cypress, this 'festival' performance is legendary in Phish lore and is largely sighted as the reason Phish went on hiatus in the fall of 2000....and again in the summer of 2004. If you're the conspiracy theorist type, it's easy to read a lot of doubt and confusion, specifically about the band and the 'scene' that follows it from town to town, into the lyrics of Farmhouse.

As it was Phish's last studio release before their first hiatus, I think Farmhouse has a lot of baggage associated with it, just as Undermind would in 2004. Another parallel is that Farmhouse contained the band's biggest hit, 'Heavy Things', while Undermind would have 'The Connection.' Both are unrepentant pop songs and both are better than hardcore fans are willing to admit, though I myself went through a period of loathing them just on principle. Anyway, listening to Farmhouse without any context other than the band's other studio releases, as I've been trying to, I think it's underrated. It's the closest they've gotten to another Billy Breathes kind of album in which they produce a succinct, warmly produced record that will stand the test of time. Farmhouse might even be a bit more interesting to the average listener since this and the future Round Room contain much more successful slow songs while also having some fiery playing (the latter release has the first honest-to-god jams on any Phish studio album post-Lawn Boy). While I love Billy Breathes, I feel 'Dirt', 'Sleep', and the unashamedly gorgeous instrumental 'The Inlaw Josie Wales' are better grist than the ballads that came before.

Farmhouse is one of those albums I've gone back and forth on, but not in a "is it good or does it suck??" kind of way. Rather I've never firmly held to whether it's a five star or four star release. The more I've listened to it, however, (especially with the further context of 2002's Round Room and 2004's Undermind) it seems to have gotten better with age. Were there no Billy Breathes, Farmhouse would be the masterpiece of their studio output, whether you're a fan or not. In that regard it deserves five stars and fairly earns every one.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Video: The Cure- Pictures of You



The Cure are one of those bands who I have a passing familiarity with thanks to their hit singles but have never gotten around to despite knowing I would like them a whole lot.

I did listen to Disintegration once, on the cassette copy of it that a girlfriend had had since it came out, probably, and it seemed as much psychedelic and weird as it did goth-y. At any rate, 'Pictures of You' is a masterpiece of pop songwriting and I would tend to argue it's better than their best known song, 'Boys Don't Cry.' But whatever.

I may not be updating much in the next day or two because of Thanksgiving stuff, by the way.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Penny Arcade: 10 Years, 10 Comics

There is some kind of strange parallel between Half-Life's 10th anniversary and Penny Arcade's, but I'm neither creative nor crazy enough to think of one. As easily the most popular (and arguably best) gaming webcomic, Penny Arcade has been an institution for a decade, holding up a mirror to gamers and nerd culture in general, by turns providing us with a good laugh, necessary mocking, or exasperated sympathy. Through their characters/alter egos, Tycho and Gabe, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik make life suck a little less three times a week.

I figured, what better way to celebrate the comic's 10th anniversary than going back through the archives and selecting a favorite comic of mine from each year?? Of course I had at least three comics from each year I would consider brilliant, but I went with my gut and chose only one lest this go on too long. Let's take a trip back in time, shall we?? Note that because of the way Blogspot hosts image files you may not be able to read these very well. I post them anyway for visual reference. A quick visit to the site and its archive will give you the proper version. Just use the dates I provide.11/5/2008: This comic may specifically deal with the videogame industry, but it speaks to anyone who has seen a favorite author/TV show/musician/website/artist fail despite the quality we see in the product. Gabe is our frustrated proxy in a world gone mad: why are sellouts and cashgrabs more successful than genuine creativity and would-do-it-anyway-even-without-funding-artistry?? Tycho's cynical response is classic Penny Arcade: the only lesson to learn from this scenario, and others like it, is that the universe really is crazy and true greatness is a kind of mistake that is eventually corrected.
6/8/2007: Anyone who's been baffled by the loading screens of an in-store demo unit will know all too well the absurd complexity that some games try to squeeze into an image you view for only a few seconds. Penny Arcade prove themselves masters of satire by taking the button designations to ridiculous extremes, my favorites being 'Feel Remorse' and 'Choke Pixie.'
2/8/2006: I'm about to experience a similar joy tomorrow when the Ohio State/Michigan game occurs and people I would prefer not to talk to will come into my job and try to strike up conversations with me, attempting in the process to see which team I'm rooting for. You would think telling people you don't follow sports would seem more normal after high school, but if you're a guy and not overtly gay you still get exasperated reactions until your funeral. And maybe even after. "He had a wife and a son, but he didn't like sports?!"
3/11/2005: While they never shy away from giving honest, often profane reactions to videogames or news about them, Penny Arcade have a way of exaggerating said reactions to an extreme to underscore both their opinion and the absurdity of feeling so strongly. If this comic seems a bit extreme to you, keep in mind that Sega used to be a beloved company not only of software but hardware, too, and their fall from grace has been entirely their fault post-Dreamcast. Remember when we all thought "well, now instead of having to own a Saturn or Dreamcast to get their awesome games, we'll play them on all platforms"?? That was a nice idea until the universe corrected itself again.
4/30/2004: For awhile I always hated the non-gaming "slice of life" strips done by Penny Arcade. Then this comic came along and my guard was not simply lowered but shattered. As their podcasts testify, even when they aren't talking about videogames, Jerry and Mike are funny, self-aware, and self-deprecating nerds. Thus a strip in which Tycho's ever suffering wife--based on his real life wife, of course--is made to...suffer. Greatly. Her reaction in the second panel is priceless. Though if I had to put a price on it, it might be as high as five dollars.
8/25/2003: Nerd Rage is a phenomena that one must be both inside of and outside of at least once to fully understand. I still think Crystal Chronicles was bullshit but this comic helps put my frustration and anger into perspective. The 'money game' played by console fanboys on message boards gets a just skewering here as well.
11/25/2002: There's a fine line between a hilarious list and a hack job thrown together because the writer couldn't think of anything else (it's usually why I do lists....wait, what??). But since Penny Arcade only do this kind of thing sparingly and they do it so well, it's tough to accuse them of laziness. This strip fits in with the 'Loading Screen Controller Instructions' comic above: simple features of an even more simple product are stretched by the actual copy on the box and then stretched further still by this parody. Thus a plug on a glorified powerstrip becomes an 'Exclusive Hyperperformance Megaport' into which you can "plug something in if you want to."
7/25/2001: This is one of those classic 'talking' comics in which the dialogue between Tycho and Gabe is the bread, butter, and the meat. Gabe as the arrogant/ignorant asshole and Tycho as the frustrated teacher of sorts is a well mined trope of Penny Arcade's, but that never makes it any less funny. See also the more modern strip from 11/10/2008, in which Tycho ends the comic by responding to a self-justifying bias of Gabe's: "You teach me so much Gabriel. You teach us all."
2/23/2000: We've now entered the 'old school' era of Penny Arcade, an era in which violence and anti-social behavior were the rule of the day. Well, moreso than they are now. My favorite part of this comic is not Gabe's "Well, shit" line, but the way Tycho apathetically watches the proceedings and offers to "maybe" call a hospital once he's done eating a Pop Tart. Who could blame him?? Pop Tarts are somewhere in the Ten Commandments I think. Thou Must Pop A Tart, or something.
12/8/1999: As with bad movies and bad music, the only thing that can compete with the satisfaction of playing a really great game is making fun of a really shitty one. Jerry and Mike have sometimes remarked that it's hard to write funny comics about good games; luckily there's always a disproportionate amount of 'execrable' to 'amazing' in all forms of entertainment and art. This comic has always stuck with me for some reason. I think it's the idea that a game is so bad it's literally toxic, but it's even funnier because it's somehow only toxic to Tycho and not Gabe.
12/21/1998: To be perfectly honest the first few Penny Arcade strips haven't aged well. They look as primitive as many of the games of '98 do and they aren't very funny, yet they are important evidence for how far Jerry and Mike have come. They only released a few comics in 1998 anyway, so I went with the best of the bunch. This strip was the first of many times they would tackle the 'violent videogames make people violent' issue and while it's far from the best, I've always wondered if the person Gabe is dragging into the closet is dead or not. If they are dead, his asking for a hammer is all the more grotesque. And funny, somehow.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Half-Life

Half-Life (PC)
There were a number of good games in between, but the first person shooter genre didn't truly move forward until Half-Life's release in 1998. While Doom wasn't the first FPS, it did create the template for the genre which was followed slavishly for close to five years. With Half-Life, the genre took its first steps toward progress; often referred to at the time as "the thinking man's shooter", Half-Life emphasized cinematic storytelling, immersion in a game world, scripted set-piece action sequences, and puzzles that made great use of the possibility of a 3D game space, this last bit still a relatively new invention. It was telling that when id Software got around to making Doom 3, the result was something much closer to Half-Life than Doom 1 or 2, right down to the 'extra-dimensional beings invading a scientific research facility while you try to survive as an faceless hero' scenario.
Valve slashed the price on the original Half-Life to $.98 on their Steam download service to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the game, and so I'm taking it as the opportunity to revisit the game as I'm sure many are. What strikes me now in returning to it is just what I spoke of above: Half-Life was a groundbreaking game for the FPS genre in almost every way. It told a fantastic story not by cutscenes but by allowing the player to experience the 'story' firsthand. I wrote about the ability of games to tell a story in a different way with my post on Shadow of the Colossus, that by focusing on embedding the story somehow in the game world, it makes the 'narrative' an interactive process rather than a passive one. When other characters talk to me, I can completely ignore them or wait and see what they do. When scripted sequences take place--a scientist dragged into an air vent by an unseen creature--it's possible I don't even see them, merely hearing them while my attention is focused elsewhere.
Though I'm only a few hours into the game, I did finish it when it was originally released, and the various 'puzzles' throughout the game are the other huge innovation of the game. These aren't puzzles in the traditional FPS sense, where you're searching for keycards to unlock doors so you can go shoot more monsters. In fact, when you need doors unlocked, you usually have to find (and keep alive) the scientists or security personnel pictured above so they can do it for you. The 'puzzles' of Half-Life are just as often closer to a Mario-style platformer than they are simple key hunts. You interact with the environment, trying to find paths or hidden areas by moving objects around. The (in)famous crowbar of Half-Life isn't just a clever replacement for the fist/knife ammo conserving weapon of previous FPS's; it's a multi-tool for smashing crates, busting through doors and grates, and manipulating the environment. The game does a lot of things to make the world believable and immersive--seamless movement between 'sections' of the game, for starters--but all the obstacles you face seem like natural products of a disastrous event instead of artificial conceits to test the player's acquired skills and firepower.
The 'shooting' part of the FPS aspect of Half-Life may not get as much attention as the 'first person' part, but to me it's just as crucial. Combat in Half-Life feels far more visceral and 'real' than games that came before despite the familiarity of fighting aliens yet again. Two things are in the game's favor. The first is that none of the shooting seems dull or arbitrary. Though ambushes and 'aliens warping in out of nowhere' do happen, they just don't feel scripted somehow. Perhaps because the story sets up that these aliens are extra-dimensional beings and can apparently warp at will...?? In any case, killing them is always exciting and realistic because they don't soak up huge amounts of damage like the demons of Doom. Each one does take the same number of shots to off for the most part, but it's never an absurd amount; they may be aliens, but they aren't gods. The second thing that makes the combat exciting is the sheer imagination of the alien design. Sure, the headcrabs are inspired by the facehuggers of the Alien film series, but they've become iconic enemies in their own right. The rest of the beings are 'alien' in the literal sense of the word: they're unfamiliar and strange. The first encounter with those little guys who attack with sonic screams is always unnerving, especially once you see them 'blink' their 'eyes', eyes that are more akin to a flesh-like beehive than anything else. One of the most memorable experiences in the game is figuring out how to take down the tentacle creature with the blast rockets in a huge silo-like structure. By trial and error, you figure out that it is blind but can hear you. This is one of the examples of how Half-Life is such a brilliant game. If this were another FPS, you would just unleash your heavy weaponry until it dies. But if I recall correctly, you can't actually kill it with weapons, you have to 'solve the puzzle' so to speak.
This is the requisite paragraph where I sum up my feelings about the game and say "its graphics may have dated, but it's still an essential, important title." But that doesn't seem appropriate or fair to the game somehow. Anyway, the highest praise I can give Half-Life is that I couldn't stop playing it last night ("I'll just get to the next loading screen...") and while writing this entry all I wanted to do is go play it. Assuming you read this in time, you'd be stupid not to get this game for $.98 even if you hate FPS's or think you do.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 8- The Siket Disc

"All music on this disc was recorded live (no overdubs) during two multi-day jam sessions at Bearsville Studios in 1997."

So says the last of the liner notes in the booklet of The Siket Disc, without a doubt the greatest curio in the Phish discography. Not quite a traditional studio album, not quite a live album, and not quite an outtakes/b-sides compilation, this album is some strange combination of all three: a succinct collection of live-in-the-studio improvisations and sound experiments recorded during the sessions that would produce 1998's The Story of the Ghost. Originally available in 1999 and only through Phish's website, it saw a wider release in late 2000 after the Farmhouse album and the beginning of Phish's "first" hiatus. Probably because they still owed their record label a couple more and Elektra was afraid the might not get back together...but being in stores meant I was able to buy this before I was old enough to have a credit card to order it...so whatever.

In my review of The Story of the Ghost, I spoke of how the album felt like a missed opportunity to release something experimental and very different for the band. Fresh off their late winter '97 European tour, the band immediately entered the studio to begin sketching out another album. They were intensely inspired by the music they were now making, having finally arrived at the improvisational breakthrough they had been striving for throughout '96, music that was spacious and funky, with an emphasis on group interplay. At the same time, the music was also more challenging and more brooding than most of what had come before. The funkier aspects of this 'new' sound are in evidence on Ghost while the more spacey/psychedelic/ambient pieces make up The Siket Disc, which itself hews more closely to the 'spacey-guitar/keyboard loops-with-a-groove-underneath' improv style of '99 and '00. At any rate, with the added context of this release and the three CD outttakes from these sessions that float around, it was clear that Phish never intended to make the experimental/really different album I wish for. But I digress.

If the Siket Disc can be viewed as a rare glimpse into the non-pop songwriting side of studio Phish, then one must judge it by those standards. It's strange, riveting music and often sounds like what the band produces once they leave the moorings of a song and have sailed off into the jammy waters on the winds of inspiration. There's always that thrilling moment during the best Phish jams where you forget which song it was and the music takes on a character of pure invention, asking you to accept it at face value and comprehend it not as a mathematical equation of keyboard/bass/guitar/drums/melody/rhythm/texture but as something beyond those things. The Siket Disc is this, distilled. It loses something for the lack of context of a live show but gains something in the utter uncanniness of the music, familiar as the products of instruments but otherwordly, too. The average listener would listen to this album or any snippet of a live Phish improvisation and think it was boring, but they're only after a quick chorus or a rapid series of emotionally void guitar riffs. To those of us who savor Phish and music that is covered by the umbrella of improv/ambient/electronic/experimental/noise, The Siket Disc is incredible stuff. It's challenging not in the way that, say, Metal Machine Music or Steve Reich are, but in the patience and open-ness required for enjoyment. And, for what it's worth, this is the only Phish album that has music the majority of which you won't hear in live shows. The few tracks that did make it to the stage were relegated to a handful of shows or singular appearances. If you're a Phish fan and don't own this album, you're missing out on the drum-less lullaby 'Albert', the playful groove 'The Name Is Slick', and the throbbing-machine-bass-with-rocks-tumbling-down-the-mountain of 'Fish Bass.'

The Siket Disc is not for everyone. It's not even for most fans of the band. But what it does is offer a different view of Phish and a unique set of snapshots of their non-live improvisations. In fact, it leaves one wishing they would release outtakes/improvisations from other studio sessions, too. I know that this album helped deepen my love and understanding of the band; it's like nothing else in their discography. I consider it the hidden gem of their studio work and a minor masterpiece in its own right.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 7- The Story of the Ghost

Just as Phish seemed to perfect their approach to studio albums with 1996's Billy Breathes, they were concurrently struggling with how to move the improvisational element of their music forward. 1996 saw the band attempting to move toward a more rhythmic and groove based style, with less emphasis on the complicated, dynamic lead soloing of guitarist Trey Anastasio or pianist/keyboardist Page McConnell and toward a more group improvisational based style, giving equal weight to bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman. With the Halloween '96 performance of Remain In Light by the Talking Heads, the band got ever closer to reaching this ideal. It wasn't until the band's late winter tour of Europe in '97 that this 'sound' fully blossomed, as partially captured on the live album Slip, Stitch and Pass. At this point, Trey dropped the mini-percussion kit he had employed during longform jams from roughly Fall '95 onward and laid back in the jams by playing funky, rhythmic accents on wah-wah enhanced guitar or creating psychedelic loops. Mike, in turn, adopted a five-string bass that gave a more clearly defined, upper register tone that made him much more audible. All told, throughout '97 and into '98, the band were having one of their most fruitful live eras while quietly recording a studio album that promised to transfer this new live sound to CD.

The result wasn't what people expected.

Story of the Ghost is very different from Billy Breathes, and the weight of expectations after critics loved that album led many to denounce Ghost as indulgent tripe. This disappointment isn't without merit. Story of the Ghost is somewhere between the tight focus of Billy Breathes and the variety and sprawling mess of earlier studio albums. Meanwhile, because their live improvisational style had found a middle ground between rewarding/complicated jams and danceable/psychedelic fun, many expected their next studio album would be experimental and very different from what had preceded it. Here was their chance to release not an American Beauty but a Head Hunters, a Larks' Tongues In Aspic, an Anthem of the Sun, a Dark Side of the Moon. In fact, The Siket Disc, a set of studio improvisations and experiments first released in 1999, was recorded during the same era as what would become The Story of the Ghost. It's a fascinating document of the studio side of Phish's '97/'98 style and I'll get to it soon.

As for Story of the Ghost itself, well, when you put aside expectations for another Billy Breathes or wishes for an experimental release, it's a satisfying studio effort. On certain days, I would even go so far as to say it's great. The album is hard to get a handle on initially because it's funky and fun but also shot through with introspection and darkness. The surreal, dreamlike 'Fikus' is an underrated gem that was only played live a handful of times, while 'Frankie Says' is a mellow meditation on one's place in the world. Then there's the lament for an anti-social/introverted friend ('Brian and Robert') and the song about how the worst thing about Hell is that "you could be there and not even know" ('Shafty'). Counterbalancing these are the circus love letter 'Roggae', the booty shakin' 'The Moma Dance', and the Talking Heads-esque rocker 'Birds of a Feather.' I like the contrasting tones of the album though I wish they would've dropped the irritating/goofy prog workout of 'Guyute', which doesn't fit the album at all.

There exists a three CD set of outtakes for Story of the Ghost and while none of that suggests the band ever intended to record something like Billy Breathes or their version of the experimental albums posited above, I have always held to my initial impression, that this album is a bit of a wasted opportunity. I suppose Phish always felt they should leave the long-form improv to the live stage, but releases like The Siket Disc make me think they've got a lot of interesting non-major-label/radio friendly music in the vaults. What's more, the few songs or scraps on those outtakes reveal a band capable of short, minor pieces that if released alongside the Ghost and Siket Disc tracks could've made for a fascinating-but-messy double album. Anyway, 'Fikus' and 'End of Session' from Ghost are the sort of 'pleasant surprise' studio-exclusive tracks that make the album unique and worth hearing, along with the reprise of the 'Ghost' lyrics at the end of 'The Moma Dance.'

But those are all my expectations and wishes for the album and one should judge it by what it tries to do, not what I think it should/could have been. Story of the Ghost is a fine studio album. Not quite as good as Farmhouse or Billy Breathes, but still worth buying.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Album of the Week: Elliott Smith- Either/Or

Today was my day off for the week, so after sleeping in late and catching up on Internet nonsense I mailed a credit card bill and went to the library. Once I got home I decided to go for a walk and smoke a clove cigarette. Smoking is something I rarely do (I'm that fairy tale breed who can do it responsibly and not get addicted; yes, we do exist) but today it just felt right. No one else was out except for the cars driving by the exercise trail I use. While crossing a road, a truck full of high schoolers yelled something at me. I'm not sure if it was "smoker" or something more generally derogatory. Since I was listening to a podcast at the time, I don't know for sure. On the way home, the overcast late Fall day turned darker and darker as the sun went down. Then, it began to snow and I thought, this has been a kind of beautiful day, but also kind of sad. It seemed like something out of a short story, the way I was heckled anonymously and then it got darker and more winter-y. I wasn't feeling depressed today but it was a low key, introspective day nonetheless. When I listen to Elliott Smith, I think he's able to capture these kind of scenes and slices of life effortlessly. Everyone always fixates on how depressing his music was, but to me it always carries a kind of existential beauty to it. The way life is, you have to take the bitter with the sweet.

Either/Or was released before he became popular thanks to the soundtrack of Good Will Hunting, and so it captures Smith at a time in his life when he was still only known as a struggling singer/songwriter and ex-member of Heatmiser and not as the post-'Miss Misery' wonderkid. Continuing this transitional element to the album is the instrumentation which sits between the stripped down/acoustic sound of his first two albums and the full blown orchestration of XO and Figure 8. There's a drowsy afternoon/staying-up-too-late vibe to Either/Or that fits in with fellow 'slowcore' tagged bands like American Music Club and Red House Painters, who mix singer/songwriter/folk-isms with slow-to-mid-tempo rock a la the Velvet Underground's third album.

I've always found the album cover to be iconic, as if it were a visual representation of one of his songs. Smith sits in a wooden chair, leaned against a mirror. Graffiti is all over the place. Smith said in interviews that there were points in his life that were lived like the cliched 'starving artist', surviving on peanut butter and bread for weeks on end, and on this cover he looks it. Slouched slightly in the chair, his hair an indifferent mess covered by a hat, he clutches the very end of a cigarette between his fingers and looks out at you with neutral indifference, the famous tattoo of Ferdinand the Bull showing clear on his arm--a tough bull who would rather smell flowers than fight.

The reason that I and so many others love Elliott Smith and his music is the nuances and complexity they demonstrate for the human condition. They're full of depression, anger, jealously, bitterness, heartbreak, loneliness, and self-destruction, but there are equal measures of their opposites, too. We relate to these songs-as-stories but they aren't us just as they aren't Smith, either. An author puts some amount of himself in his work and lets himself feel along with the characters as the narrative develops but to lapse into auto-biography is threatening to cheapen the experience.

Either/Or is a brilliant album not because I've ever been walking down Alameda looking at the cracks in the sidewalk while thinking about my friends, but I've done similar things just as Smith undoubtedly has. Though the things we thought about were without a doubt entirely different, we still have lived that kind of story before. Maybe you've never been out for a walk like the one I took today and felt/thought about the exact things I did, but you can still relate. That is the genius of Elliott Smith and Either/Or specifically. If you're at all a fan of singer/songwriters, it's a must hear.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: Gamecube

The most unique thing about the Nintendo Gamecube, at least in my corner of the world, was that it was the only console I can remember getting on launch day. Well, technically, my parents got it for me for Christmas and weren't clear on whether they picked it up on launch day or afterward. Either way, I was a Gamecube owner from as close to day one as I ever got, and so I had a first row seat for the ride that would follow. I've always thought of the Gamecube as the strangest console Nintendo ever put out, and so my thoughts and feelings on it are a jumble.

For starters, the first console of every generation I got since the days of the NES was always the loser in that console generation. Well, the Sega Genesis didn't lose to the SNES, but it could have had a good year or two more of life before Sega mishandled the poor thing, releasing useless add-ons like the Sega CD and 32X which ruined all good faith in the Sega name. During the next generation, I got a N64 first and though everyone I know owned one and loved it, the Playstation inarguably stomped it in terms of sales and number of great games on a consistent basis. The next generation, I got a Dreamcast, which was an amazing console with great games that died before its time. After its demise, I bet on the Gamecube, hoping Nintendo had learned their lessons. Within a year I had purchased a Playstation 2. Sigh...

Not that they didn't try. It's just that for every right step they took, they took another bad one. The Gamecube used discs instead of carts!! But they were proprietary discs. The Gamecube had actual RPGs!! But only a handful. The Gamecube had a decent launch line-up that consisted of more than two games!! But the Mario game was freaking Luigi's Mansion, which is not a Mario game at all. The Gamecube had cool multiplayer games!! But they hadn't made the leap to Internet play quite yet and were still stuck in the days of split screen while also adding the Gamecube-to-Gameboy-Advance cable debacle that was Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles. Oh, Nintendo. The saddest thing about the Gamecube is that--though it was superior in every way--it sold less than the Nintendo 64. Probably because the Xbox captured the Goldeneye crowd with Halo on the Xbox, but whatever.

I keep looking at the release date for the Gamecube and I can't believe it. November 2001?? The reason this seems ridiculous to me is that the ten or so games I most associate with the system and the enjoyment I derived from it are spread out over a five year span. Roughly, that's two games a year, which might be enough for some people though not the sort of people you want to associate with. For as much as I remember loving the Gamecube, I think this had more to do with the fact that I ended up owning a Playstation 2 and Xbox at the same time. So when those two games a year came, I was able to hook my Gamecube back up and remember why Nintendo could be awesome. Those ten or so games, and my thoughts, follow.

1) Star Wars: Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader- I played the hell out of this game though I remember, just like its predecessor, I reached a certain point where it gets ball bustingly hard and I gave up. Still, every console launch needs a game to be somewhat decent and showcase both its graphics and the controller, and I think this game was the best case for owning a Gamecube at launch. No offense, Super Monkey Ball.

2) Super Smash Bros. Melee- Since this was and remains one of the best loved games for the Gamecube, I find it very demonstrative of how focused Nintendo had become on system launchs first and then slowly trickling one or two good games out a year after that. Melee has the distinction of being the most 'hardcore' of the Smash Bros. games, by which I mean people were able to take it seriously enough to have tournaments around it. In comparison to the first game or this year's Brawl, it's without a doubt the most 'technical' of the three. I liked Melee a lot though none of my friends played it, so my time with it was short lived.

3) Pikmin- The three games above were the only things I played on the Gamecube until Animal Crossing almost a year later. I should be talking about Pikmin right here, but to be frank I like the idea of Pikmin more than the game itself. I hate games with time limits and those with trial and error gameplay elements even more. Moreover, Pikmin is a good example of "it's a good game, but I don't care", an issue that is currently making me regret my Wii purchase. This is fundamental to Nintendo's console hardware. They may squeeze out two great games a year, but if you have no interest in playing said games, what good is it to own their systems?? Still, I give them a lot of credit for making a new IP and I'll be interested to see what the Wii-enhanced third entry in the series is like.

4) Super Mario Sunshine- I've never played this game. It always pissed me off that, instead of another great Mario game, they added in a gimmicky mechanic. Plus the whole 'summer' vibe of it was unspeakably lame, like someone released a summer expansion pack or ROM hack of Mario 64 with better graphics. I know this game sold like mad but it seemed to represent that Nintendo was taking risks at an ill-advised time in their history. Zelda: Wind Waker was a similar risk though it's my favorite Zelda, so...I got nothin'. If they were smart they would have done for the Gamecube what they ended up doing for the Wii: a mostly by-the-numbers-but-dark-and-serious-looking Zelda and a revolutionary Mario title.

5) Animal Crossing- Looking back, we should've seen this as the point where Nintendo began to go after a casual audience. You could make the argument that the Gamecube was their last attempt to win the hardcore back but they never had enough games during any one season to keep us loyal. Thus games like Animal Crossing, which was kind of like Nintendo's version of The Sims only a lot less freeform and way more time consuming. I'll never forget the moment I realized I would either have to constantly change the system's internal clock to see the cool events in the game OR base my life around it. "You mean I have to wake up at 7 a.m., real time, to enter this fishing tournament?? No thanks."

6) Metroid Prime- It was with Metroid Prime that I felt my investment in a Gamecube was worthwhile, since it was getting monumental review scores and everyone loved it. I never got all that far into the game because I couldn't get used to the controls. The general consensus seems to be that this was the best in the Prime series and so I find myself wishing they would port this to Wii and utilize the incredible motion control from Prime 3.

7) The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker- Despite its most glaring flaw--the infamous Triforce hunt toward the end of the game--everything about Wind Waker was genius. Along with Majora's Mask, it's the most unique Zelda game insofar as the world it creates as well as the pacing and flow of the game. I really can't stand Majora's Mask but I respect it for its world and the weird 'three day'/'time manipulation' pacing/flow. But I think Wind Waker did both better. It was a breath of fresh air but it was also a great game, too. In many ways Twilight Princess never interested me because it was too much like Ocarina of Time and did nothing truly 'new.' I realize that sailing around the world is basically just a different version of walking around the world on the ground/riding a horse, so Wind Waker wasn't truly 'new' either, but in terms of the actual gameplay 'feel' of traveling/exploring by ship, it's entirely different. Anyway, this ended up being my favorite Gamecube title, so take that for what it's worth.

8) Mario Kart: Double Dash!!- I never played this game because once I realized it and Super Mario Sunshine were imagination-less sequels to their N64 predecessors, I knew I didn't need to play them. Unless you have a lot of friends and don't want to play anything that requires real skill, you can skip every Mario Kart from here to Hell.

9) Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door- 2004 was the RPG year for the Gamecube, with a Paper Mario sequel alongside a Final Fantasy game and Tales of Symphonia. Unfortunately, the Final Fantasy game was a fucking mess that required four people, each with Gameboy Advances and Gamecube-to-GBA cables, to enjoy, while the Tales game was, in my estimation, incredibly overrated because it was one of the only exclusive RPGs for the system. But I digress. The Gamecube Paper Mario was pretty good even if I never beat it. It struck a better balance between platforming/action and RPG than the Wii sequel, at least.

10) Resident Evil 4- This was one of those times when a game came out of nowhere. Even reading previews for it, I expected RE4 to be nothing more than a slightly better looking but same old, same old entry in the series since all the others were. But, as it turned out, RE4 was completely awesome and went on to win Game of the Year from almost everybody. Though its best version is on the Wii, Resident Evil 4, along with Metroid Prime 1 and Smash Brothers Melee, was one of the best games for drawing in the hardcore crowd who looked at the purple Gamecube with its purse-like handle and scoffed.

11) Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance- I want to like the Fire Emblem series but I find them joyless to play. Yet again we see the problem with the Gamecube: there's this awesome strategy RPG for it but it's also the only one, so I guess you better like it otherwise you're shit out of luck. I give Nintendo credit for finally bringing this series over to the States but all it really did was make me realize I wasn't missing much all those years because a permanent death mechanic in a game with statistics and random elements makes me want to rip that tiny little disc out of my Gamecube and snap it in half. Keep in mind, too, that Path of Radiance came out in October of '05 and nothing of consequence came out for the rest of its lifespan. Unless you count Mario Party or Super Mario Strikers, in which case shame on you. You don't get any dessert.

My closing thoughts on the Gamecube?? It was a bizarre system for a bizarre time in Nintendo's life. The system itself is just odd--a cubic box with a carrying handle (really, Nintendo?? You think people just carry their consoles around without any kind of bag or case??) that ran what amounted to mini-DVDs and was played with a freakish controller. I mean, I still can't get used to that controller; it's like someone melted the remains of three other controllers together. More than all of that, the games were never what you expected, for better or worse: a Mario that was more of the same but with a gimmick, a Zelda that looked and felt totally different, a Resident Evil sequel that reinvented the series, a Final Fantasy that was focused on multiplayer (and non-online multiplayer at that), supposedly fun 'casual' games that were secretly complex and 'hardcore' (Mario Kart and Smash Bros.), and the first true Nintendo crossover casual game (Animal Crossing) along with their last true new hardcore IP (Pikmin). The TV commercials alone were a fascinating series of mistakes, making the system seem more 'hardcore' and 'artsy' than it really was before eventually switching to try to make it seem more casual and broadly appealing than it really was.

I have a lot of fondness for the thing, but it's a fondness tempered with sarcasm, irony, and cynicism. Bless you, Gamecube, you odd, odd thing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 6/Album of the Week- Billy Breathes

Billy Breathes was and remains a sticky point of contention among some Phish fans. It was such a focused, disciplined, and majestic album, unapologetically pop, that fans had a hard time accepting that this was Phish. Certainly the first time I heard the album I was astonished at what I was hearing--here was a band who I mainly knew of as the guys who deftly married playfulness (in lyrics and music) to virtuosic improvisation, and now they had recorded an album that was like a love note to the AOR of the 60s and 70s. Hoist may have been a stab at a mainstream audience but it wasn't fully committed to being an album that anyone could appreciate and came off as a collection of disparate songs. And yet, I could see the point of the hardcore Phish fan, viewing this album with bittersweet detachment: where were the jams, man?? Why such a serious album??

In the two years between the release of Hoist and Billy Breathes, the band truly began their rise to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. Through '94 and '95 the improvisational aspect of the band began to match the energy and creativity of the setlists, covers, and segues that had always been a trademark. Remember, too, that in August of '95 Jerry Garcia died, effectively ending the Grateful Dead and causing a healthy portion of that fanbase to seek out other up and coming jam bands to follow around. After an incredible fall tour and a legendary New Year's Eve show to wrap up 1995, Phish spent the first part of 1996 recording a new album. A few of the songs from Billy Breathes had been performed in '95, material that the band struggled to play live in a satisfactory manner. Influenced, possibly, by their performances on Halloween '94 and '95 of The White Album by the Beatles and Quadrophenia by The Who, respectively, the songs were more nuanced and serious than before. I also get the impression that Phish finally took the recording studio seriously and wanted to make something that would stand the test of time, an album that felt 'of a whole' and flowed together logically as a piece of music instead of a assortment of songs that were blueprints for live performances.

Indeed, the main appeal of Billy Breathes to me, as a hardcore Phish fan, is that--whether we want to admit it or not--Phish were never very good at performing these kind of songs live. Well, that's not entirely fair. They weren't good at performing ballads and songs that required disciplined, immaculate vocals and harmonies live. 'Waste', 'Talk', and 'Billy Breathes' are all songs that sound best on the album because their greatness rests on restraint and emotional resonance. Fans may have highly emotional reactions to certain songs of Phish, but they aren't well known for their ballads in the way the Grateful Dead were. I try to avoid comparing the two bands because it summons angry debaters, but when you listen to Jerry Garcia sing 'Sugaree' or 'Stella Blue', you feel it. As much as I love Phish, I only get that when I hear the album versions. This was the first time Phish were writing ballads that felt "real", and the emotion behind them was "honest." Indeed, Billy Breathes is their most "serious" album and I think that was a problem for some fans. The other 'problem' with Billy Breathes is that Phish had a bad habit of playing 'Prince Caspian' and 'Character Zero' into the ground over the course of tours. These two songs make fan lists of "songs you never want to hear live again" and I think the addition of "live" to that is a crucial distinction. These songs work so well in the pacing and flow of Billy Breathes but became infuriating 'late set or encore' material live. Whenever I'm listening to a show and they bust out 'Caspian' late into the second set, I can't help but think they're trying to re-capture the magic of the way the song flows out of the 'Swept Away'/'Steep' sequence on the album.

When critics use terms like 'pacing', 'flow', and 'sequencing', they refer to albums that do them well like Billy Breathes. There is a logical progression and emotionally resonant quality to this album I can't quite define, the way it hits the ballads at just the right time and alternates heavier fare like 'Character Zero' and 'Theme From The Bottom' with the airier 'Waste' and 'Train Song.' The way the aforementioned 'Swept Away'/'Steep'/'Prince Caspian' sequence forms a brilliant closing sequence that reminds one of the more lucid segue chains of live Phish. Then there's the excellent and subtle use of acoustic guitar throughout; the extremely warm production of the album that just begs for a release on vinyl; the way the album sounds timeless, as if it could've existed in 1974 or 2004. There really is just something about Billy Breathes that appeals to even those who don't like Phish or don't think they do. It creates a special atmosphere and feel for the listener, reminding me of late nights spent writing in my journal or staring at the fireplace in my parents' house while enjoying a bottle of wine.

Every great band or artist has that one album where everything comes together and they either purposely or accidentally find themselves suddenly getting rave reviews and selling far more copies than they had before. Billy Breathes was that album for Phish, and I urge non-fans to give it a try while hardcore fans should listen to it with fresh ears as a discrete piece of music.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Video: Andrew Bird- Imitosis



I've been trying to figure out what's wrong with my laptop for about 24 hours now. First the display driver kept crashing like it only used to when I played intensive games. I got that to work last night sometime--after having to manually uninstall the current driver and download/install a new one using only the built-in VGA driver in 800 x 600 resolution--but when I woke up this morning, my battery had a seizure and now doesn't work. As soon as I remove the AC plug from the back of my laptop it turns off, as if there's no battery at all...and it refuses to charge despite knowing there's a battery and it's low.

This is all a long winded way of saying, I hate computers.

Also, it's scary to think that I might lose all the stuff I have on here, especially the one novel I wrote last year and the one I'm currently writing. And all the pictures I've taken. And music. Etc.

With all of that in mind, here's 'Imitosis' by Andrew Bird. "We are all basically alone" indeed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On First Listen: Cococoma- Cococoma

I've had an idea for a feature for Whiskey Pie for awhile in which I listen to an album/band for the first time and "live blog" the results. If you're a regular reader of Whiskey Pie, you might recall that I did this once for a Shellac album. However, I never came back to the idea because normally I'm too greedy and eager to listen to something alone instead of waiting to write about it as I give it a first spin. One of the more interesting aspects of music listening, at least to me, is the naked first impression of an album before you know anything about it, or more routinely, read any reviews. So!! This is my first true attempt at this thing, since I had skimmed some reviews of the Shellac album before getting it.

As for Cococoma, I've seen this album at my local record shop for a few months now. Every time I browse the vinyl section and sift through the 'Punk' area I stop on this one and stare at the cover. Something about it speaks to me on a fundamental level and reminds me of looking through my parents' records as a kid, not knowing anything about music, really, let alone the bands. For all I knew, Little Feat was the name of the album. In fact the cover for Little Feat's Down On The Farm obsessed me for awhile because, even pre-sexual awakening, I knew there was something naughty and wrong about the cartoon duck. Lest I come off as a furry (or feather-y...whatever) I should note that I don't find it sexy now and never did. Anyway...I wasn't entirely sure if Cococoma was a modern band or not, given the 1920s/1930s cartoon cover and the late 60s vibe of the one dude's glasses and the other dude's boots. Flipping the record over, I see that they have a girl in the band, so I'm guessing she's the one on the rocket.

Today, after trading in some CDs for store credit, I could no longer put off my curiosity about this band and this album. It had been there in the record bin like a reliable friend, staring out at me for months while I passed it over for other albums I actually knew about. "Hmmm," I'd think to myself, "I don't know...$10 is kind of cheap, but it's a Punk band I know nothing about..." I was feeling pretty magnanimous and wanted to rescue it from obscurity. And anyway, what's so wrong about buying something based only on the cover?? Let's give it a go, shall we??

1) I Swear: Oops, this is supposed to be played at 45 RPM!! The first time I listened to the Beatles's White Album I was sure there was something wrong with my parents's copy of it, since the version of 'Revolution' I knew was the fast, angry one, not the slower/surfier one on the album. I think the new Portishead album was released on double vinyl meant to be played at 45 RPM, too. But I digress. This song is like a trip back to the early years of this decade, when garage rock came back to popular prominence. Something very Hives-y about it.

2) Too Tired: Hey, an organ!! A Farfisa, no less. Ah, hey, a guitar solo. I hope the entire album is this spastic and fast.

3) Ain't You Had Enough?: I won't go for the easy joke here. But I will say that, like most garage rock, all the songs kind of sound the same. This isn't really a bad thing; in fact, I wish Animal Collective would release an album that was just variations on 'Leaf House' or 'Peacebone.'

4) Go Ahead: I can actually tell there's a girl in the band for the first time though she's still only on back-up vocals. This gives the song an...early 90s riot grrl vibe, though I'm being really reductionist because I can't think of any non-riot grrl punk bands with a chick in them. I just noticed that the drummer/lead singer and the chick/guitarist have the same last name. Married or siblings? Ah, the old White Stripes dilemma...

5) (Tryin' To) Read My Mind: All killer, no filler. Farfisa makes another frontline appearance. This album is all piledriver drums and timbre-y cymbal hits with a bunch of white noise guitar chording and chunky organ, with every line yelled anthemic style...woah, that guitar solo is nuts!!

6) Premonition: Hello, side two. Someone says "fucking ready" and then the drums count off and here we go. At three minutes, this is the longest song on the album. A not-quite-as-fast mid-tempo rocker. Farfisa powered chorus. You know how Guy Picciotto from Fugazi sounds when he's yelling out the choruses of their anthemic songs?? That's how this dude sounds all the time.

7) Desperate Situation: There's a galloping sense of rhythm to this song that reminds me of 'Nimrod's Son' by the Pixies. The lead singer doesn't yell so much as yell/sing this time, which is a nice change of pace. One thing I'll say for this band, you can't listen to this album lying down. It pretty much demands a vertical stance, if not full on rockin'.

8) I Don't Mind...: Are you allowed to fault a punk/garage rock album for simplistic lyrics? I kind of feel like it's faulting a jazz album for not having lyrics at all, you know?? If I stare at the album cover while this song is playing I swear I can see the cartoons moving around...

9) She Gets Heavy (Holds Too Tight): Another garage rock yelper. You've got to admire a song where most of the lyrics are contained in the title. At least the ones you can understand underneath the loud guitars and drums. Another flash-fire guitar solo.

10) I Want More: I'm going to make the obvious joke here...I do want more. I guess punk/garage rock albums are short by necessity because they don't stick around long enough to get boring. Still, the main reason I avoid 95% of punk/garage rock in the first place is that there isn't enough variety and it all sounds the same after awhile. There is a comfort to knowing that you can set your watch to the predictability of said albums that I fully understand, but I've never been the type of person who was content to listen to the same kind of music day in/day out.

All in all, a decent punk/garage rock record. Unless you're really into this genre you can probably skip this. You only need so many albums like this in your collection and trying to sift the wheat from the chaff is the job of better qualified specialists than I.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Primer: Phish Part 5- Hoist

There isn't a better disconnect between where Phish was as a band and where their label wanted them to be at than the video for 'Down With Disease.' It's easy for me to forget that the semi-professional and 'adult' looking Phish of the past decade or so was once the weird/nerdy/playful Phish of the 80s and early-to-mid 90s. Watching the video--with its glimpses of Phish in concert bouncing on trampolines as well as hints of the infamous vacuum cleaner--it becomes abundantly clear that, while the song playing is polished and intended for radio play, the band was not. But it was never Phish's destiny to win over an audience with a music video and a charting hit single. In all actuality it was never their intention.

With that in mind, I wonder if Phish really thought Hoist was a good album or if they did it for the record company's sake. On one hand, Hoist makes the crucial step of getting the runtime down to that magic, manageable 45 minutes that I spoke of in my review of Rift. On the other hand, the production of the album is still cold and lifeless while the band's sound is polished to a waxy sheen, losing all the appeal of Phish in the process. The real triumphs of Hoist aren't the catchier, more upbeat tracks like 'Down With Disease' and 'Axilla [Part II]' but the ballads 'Lifeboy' and 'If I Could.' These point the way to the forthcoming Billy Breathes, which proved the band could make a great studio album without having to sacrifice anything. From a Phish historian's perspective, 'Wolfman's Brother' is the diamond in the rough of the album, since it was only played a few times from '94 to '96 before being revisited and reborn during the early '97 performance captured on the live album Slip, Stitch and Pass in a funkier jamming form.

Given the two year stretch between Hoist and Billy Breathes, I'll go into greater detail the context for the creation of the latter album in my review for it. But at the time of Hoist Phish was still a mid-level jam band steadily growing in popularity. '93 and '94 were the first years that Phish began to earn their marks as improvisers, playing to their own little cult audience and not caring what the mainstream thought. In said mainstream, the fad of grunge rock was fading and its related offspring, alternative rock, was rising up. All the while, hip hop/rap was increasing in popularity by leaps and bounds. So, again, I have to wonder what the band and the record label were thinking releasing this album. Even with a studio polish, Phish was still too weird for the mainstream and too different from the 'alternative' world. And while their fans dutifully bought Hoist I can't imagine many thought it was the best the band was capable of if they were left to their own devices. I mean, where was their version of American Beauty, The White Album, Hot Rats, or Tommy? Hell, Junta and Lawn Boy were pretty awesome, right??

The truth of the matter is that Phish weren't capable of the songcraft necessary to carry a tight, concise, and creative studio album quite yet, and their record company was ill-advisedly trying to whitewash what made the band great: complicated, winding songs and extended soloing/improvisation. I feel like a broken record because I've been saying this for at least two reviews now, but while I like the songs of Hoist it doesn't work as an album. One need only listen to the 'hidden track' after 'Demand' to see where the band's priorities were at this point in time. This first glimpse of live Phish--the jam portion of a version of 'Split Open and Melt' from '93--is superior to anything else on the album. With my disappointments in Phish's first three major label studio albums, one might ask what, exactly, I would've done. Hindsight is 20/20 but still. If the record label understood anything about the band they would've known that they were best live and free to do what they wanted. The songs of A Picture of Nectar, Rift, and Hoist just weren't meant to be played and recorded in the manner they were. Lawn Boy is a successful album because it didn't try to clip 'Reba' and 'Run Like An Antelope' down to size so they could fit more songs on the album. You could cut four or five songs from the three aforementioned albums to allow for more improvisational room because, let's be honest, Phish wasn't focused on songwriting at that point in their career. During '95 and '96 they became serious about writing great songs for a studio album, songs that didn't need a jam afterwards or complicated structures to work. Really, what I think they should have done with the pre-Billy Breathes albums was to have less songs, have longer songs, and still stick to a 45-50 minute runtime.

Though I've been critical, I don't dislike Hoist. It's a step in the right direction, paring down to 45 minutes from the incredibly long and unfocused Rift. But at the same time, the band had a ways to go to produce something that sounds and functions like a true studio album instead of a collection of songs with all the blood and vigor of live performances taken out. Fans should pick this up, while those interested in the band should stick with Lawn Boy or Junta. Everybody else, Billy Breathes is the way to go, and I'll get to that next.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Album of the Week: The Silver Apples- Silver Apples/Contact

I generally don't take guidance from my dreams. This is because they have little to offer my real life, consisting mainly of nightmare scenarios, violent confrontations, or regressive nervous worries from years past. But sometimes music creeps into my dreams. I find myself in a situation where I'm listening to something I've never heard before, as if my subconscious mind is creating new music that it knows will appeal to me. Then, in the dream, I ask someone what is playing and they tell me and it's a band I already know and the music suddenly changes to that. Last night, it was the Silver Apples, so here we are.

One of the best ways to start an argument with someone is to ask them what they think the best decade or era of music is. My gut reaction is to say the 60s, but then to revise to "the mid 60s to the mid 70s." Even though I'm ensconced in the music of my time, I think the only stuff worth following is the so-called 'indie/underground' music. During the mid 60s to the mid 70s, the best music was also, seemingly, the most popular. Yet as we revisit the past, we find that there were still a lot of bands that fell through the cracks. Some were very ahead of their time, others just didn't fit in with the on-going psychedelia and hippie-centric writing of the day, and there's something about the experimental music outside the typical Woodstock fare going on at the time that I find endlessly fascinating and timeless.

The Silver Apples were one of those bands. Possessing a bravura and willingness to make the kind of music they wanted to make, the duo produced two albums of futuristic electronic music that doesn't sound like much of anything before or since. Mixing the dreamy vocals and homemade synthesizer washes, drones, loops, and bleeps of Simeon Coxe with the endlessly imaginative, ever-evolving funky/jazzy percussion of Danny Taylor, the Silver Apples were like an American answer to the German krautrock bands of the era such as Can and Neu!, two bands also notable for being 'ahead of their time' and influencing many later bands yet still sounding contemporary and unique.

The first two Silver Apples albums, from 1968 and '69, are currently available on a single CD, and while I admire the bargain, I hope that people view these albums as separate entities instead of one long listen. They each have a character of their own even if they superficially sound the same with those crazy keyboards and that booty-shaking percussion groove that probably launched a thousand samples. The self-titled debut has more of a pop bent, with shorter songs and a more explicitly psychedelic tone particularly when it comes to the lyrics. Highlights here include the band signature tune 'Oscillations', droney synths meet ultra-tight drumming on 'Lovefingers', the tribalistic stomp of 'Dancing Gods', and 'Program', which will get you nodding your head along to the beat before you know it.

The second album, Contact, has a rougher feel to it while also adding strangely effective banjo(!!) on two tracks. Contact is less obviously hippie-ish than most of the self-titled debut which works in its favor in my book. It's hard to choose between the two albums in terms of favorites because they're equally good and it, then, comes down to personal preference: the more groovy and poppy debut, or the more experimental and varied Contact. At any rate, as far as I know the only way to get these albums today is in the single CD form so all this hairsplitting is meaningless from a consumer standpoint. So, then...'You and I' and 'I Have Known Love' pick up where the debut left off, crafting classic Silver Apples grooves you just want to ride forever. The two aforementioned banjo tracks are shockingly good: 'Ruby' is a short-ish electronic bluegrass drone and 'Confusion' is a nice breath of fresh air to what is mostly an oppressive electronic throwdown. The album draws to a close with the amusing 'Fantasies', which has Simeon Coxe talk-singing and guiding drummer Danny Taylor through the song with orders like "change course now" and "come back home."

If you're the kind of person who's always looking to expand his or her palette, to try out new things in the arts but also to go back to the undiscovered masterpieces of the ages, then this album is the kind of thing you need to pick up. It's adventurous but rewarding music, timeless but of its time, electronic yet not machine-like. In short, it's a must have.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Video: Architecture In Helsinki- Do The Whirlwind



Sorry for the lack of a post yesterday, but it's been a pretty transformative and harrowing 48 hours or so for me. But you don't care about that crap!! So here's an awesome 2D/videogame sprite music video for the always catchy and life affirming Architecture In Helsinki. At first I assumed this was a Maple Story AMV, but nope...it's an official video.

Again, sorry for the 'no update.' Since January, I've really been trying to stick to the 'Monday through Friday' schedule but sometimes real life gets in the way. For what it's worth, I'm also currently participating in the National Novel Writer's Month challenge to write a novel in a month, so my creative juices are a bit stretched at the moment.

Anyway, stop back tomorrow for Album of the Week.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Videogame Solipsist: Dragon Quest IV

Dragon Quest IV: Chapters of the Chosen (DS)
While the rest of the world is going crazy in anticipation of election results, I thought I would spend today's update escaping into the simple, charming fantasy world of Dragon Quest IV. Because to me, that's what good RPGs have always been: pure, escapist delight.

Games journalism has bloomed to include genuine critical discourse, and so a lot of it has had to do with history and context to help us understand how we've gotten here. Through venues like 1UP's Retronauts podcast and the exhaustive work of Hardcore Gaming 101, we've reached a better understand of videogames as both an entertainment medium and an artform. As a nerd who grew up loving RPGs even before they were popularized in 1997 by Final Fantasy VII, it's been fascinating to see the retro/critical collective fill in the gaps on the two biggest console RPG series's going: Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.

Though things were even more sparse in Europe, America got both series in an odd fashion and missed several key titles in both. It was only in 2006 that we finally, officially, got every numbered entry in the main Final Fantasy series, while we've still yet to see Dragon Quest V and VI in the U.S. Thankfully, they are coming via the Nintendo DS in the next year or two.

The story of the Dragon Quest franchise, especially as it pertains to the U.S., has been better told elsewhere. Mainly I want to focus on the gap in America's view of the series. Growing up, I did play the first Dragon Quest game (released here as Dragon Warrior) and despite its age I thought it was an interesting game. I wasn't savvy enough to realize it had taken several years to be released here so I assumed its archaic-look and fool was purposeful. Besides, I didn't get around to playing it until I was currently obsessed with the Shining Force games on Genesis, so...

Like many people, then, I ignored the series, missing the American releases of II, III, and IV. Technically I suppose I didn't even know they existed since I didn't play the first one until around 1994, but...whatever. Sadly, Enix closed up shop in the U.S. after releasing a handful of terrible RPGs on the SNES and deciding Americans didn't like the genre. The next Dragon Quest we got would be VII, but I think it bears dwelling on the fact that the majority of this country never played DQ II, III, and IV so we didn't exactly know we were missing V and VI. VII, of course, did little to change our mind about the series: it was a SLOOOOWWW, archaic, and boring-ly translated jRPG. I think Shane Bettenhausen said it best on the Retronauts episode about the Dragon Quest series, that it was a mechanics heavy RPG with visuals that were an "abortion."

It's depressing that we re-entered the series with VII since it is, arguably, one of the weakest entries in the series. It would be like judging the Final Fantasy series by Final Fantasy II. The remainder of the Dragon Quest series was much more focused and had far better balance, pacing, and scenario writing. This is what I discovered with Dragon Quest VIII, along with most of the people who were interested in the series but passed on VII. And the more I've played of Dragon Quest IV, the more I understand why the Japanese are so crazy for this series. It's got nothing to do with ambitious (some would say, pretentious) storylines, bleeding-edge graphics, or ever changing gameplay systems like the Final Fantasy series and everything to do with sheer charisma and old fashioned story telling.

Dragon Quest IV is an incredible achievement, both in its original NES incarnation and now on the DS. The way you play the various 'chapters' before controlling the main hero character of the game is a fascinating concept that I wish more RPGs would have borrowed. In the game's most infamous and unique chapter, you play as a merchant trying to make money, flipping the tables on the entire RPG genre convention of shopkeepers. Now you play the normally anonymous shopkeeper while a succession of heroes (and maybe even some villains) comes in, makes their transaction, and leaves. At the same time, the chapters have little ties to the other characters therein, as well as overlapping areas of the game. In the second chapter, you visit some of the same areas you will, later, as the merchant, for instance, and when playing as the merchant you hear about the fighting tournament you participated in during the previous chapter. The only thing that comes close, as far as I remember, is the 'Trinity Sight' scenario system of Suikoden III (which is secretly one of the best PS2 RPGs). But that was played on a much larger and more ambitious scale. And it had duck-people. Aaaanyway...

Really, I love Dragon Quest IV (and by extension, VIII) for the aforementioned charm and old fashioned story telling. There's just something about the feel of the game, from the gorgeous 2D graphics to the animated-with-plenty-of-personality sprites to the phenomenal soundtrack and wonderfully retro sound effects to the imaginative and clever new translation...all of it works for me, plain and simple. The gameplay may not be ambitious, the battle system may not have as much depth as certain Final Fantasy titles, but that's OK. Nothing about Dragon Quest IV, in this day and age, is attempting to be revolutionary even if, for the time, it was an amazing game. The story line may be simplistic and cliched by today's standards, but you can boil almost anything down to the same few stories. Hero save the world, the end. The important thing it that it's told well, and Dragon Quest IV manages to do that.

I will confess that I was more excited to play Dragon Quest V and VI than IV mainly because they were the contemporaries of Final Fantasies IV, V, and VI, which are the console RPGs I most associate with moving the genre forward during the 16 bit era. From what I've read, they're just as charming as Dragon Quest IV but have deeper gameplay/character building systems, too. Yet in playing Dragon Quest IV, I've really come to appreciate it as its own entity as well as an important touchstone in the jRPG genre. I feel as though history has been re-written again. Final Fantasy IV is often touted as the point where story began to be emphasized in console RPGs while also being the first true "next gen" RPG...but Dragon Quest IV would be an even earlier example. It's not the story that it tells so much as how it's told; the characters and the scenario writing are miles beyond the characters and scenario writing of its then-contemporary Final Fantasy III. I suppose if we really wanted to split hairs, Phantasy Star I, which pre-dates both, had an ambitious story and characters even earlier...but whatever.

Dragon Quest IV is a really great game, and anyone interested in retconning the history of console RPGs as they think it happened should check it out.