Thursday, January 31, 2008
Sometimes you meet someone at just the right time and you find you have an album or band in common, and that music becomes the soundtrack to your romance. I can't listen to Summer Sun or And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out without thinking about a summer 3 years ago when I had first begun to go out with a girl. During our second or third date, we went to her parents' house in the country to relax and enjoy the muggy summer night. Listening to the two albums by Yo La Tengo, which have always felt of a pair to me, they perfectly encapsulated the feel of the season and the growing affection between the two of us.
While Yo La Tengo are primarily known for their sprawling, diverse masterpieces like I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One or their early noise/pop gems like Painful, I've always loved their two albums released during the first half of this decade. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is generally acknowledged as the superior of the two, and I would tend to agree. Both albums bend toward the narcoleptic/melodic/poppy/free floating/beautiful/air-y/reserved side of Yo La Tengo's sound, playing their post-rock, kraut rock, and jazzy cards from their hand instead of the entire deck or the noise/pop cards.
If any album in Yo La Tengo's discography could be considered a secret masterpiece, it's Summer Sun. The album was released in 2003, during a time when affection for the band was at a low ebb. I certainly don't remember anyone going crazy over the album, and if you didn't happen to like the dream pop direction And Then Nothing... was heading into, then Summer Sun seemed to confirm all fears that Yo La Tengo were becoming a blood-less, noise-less rock band. I mean, at least And Then Nothing... had 'Cherry Chapstick', right??
Perhaps, but my affection for Summer Sun has grown over the past 5 years. It's the sort of album where, in the course of your review, you try not to use words like "mature" and "nuanced" because for many people those are euphemisms for "your Dad will like it, and he never liked (insert band name here) before" and "it's really boring, but if you listen to it more, it becomes slightly less boring." But, well, Summer Sun *is* more mature and nuanced than previous releases. Not only does it further prove that the band are masters of restraint when it comes to ballads ('Don't Have To Be So Sad', the gorgeous closing Big Star cover 'Take Care'), but it shows their capability with instrumentals ('Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo', most of 'Let's Be Still'). Furthermore, it proves that bassist James McNew is an underutilized vocalist with 'Tiny Birds.'
The odd thing about the album to me is that even the people who think it's fairly mediocre seem to love most of the songs from it. 'Season of the Shark', 'Little Eyes', 'Today Is The Day', and 'Don't Have To Be So Sad' are four of the greatest songs Yo La Tengo have committed to tape, and much loved fan favorites to boot. However, I will admit to one thing: the album could easily lose 'Winter A Go-Go', 'Moonrock Mambo', and 'Let's Be Still' and be both leaner and better for it. And I say that as someone who actually likes these songs.
Summer Sun is a tough album to sum up because my opinion of it is necessarily paradoxical and muddled. It's at once one of the least essential Yo La Tengo albums and at the same time one of the most rewarding and unique. If you're a fan, you've probably already heard it; if you aren't a fan, you're better off starting with I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One or, really, any of their albums released from Painful onward. Still, it's a gorgeous seasonal album that I dig out every time the weather turns warm, and I feel like that summer romance I spoke of earlier might have been slightly less rich if I hadn't had it.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Also, reading up on Super Smash Brothers Brawl leaks. I don't know what everybody's deal is. The characters yet to be revealed aren't that amazing, true, but shit...fucking Solid Snake and Sonic are in the game. How much more batshit crazy fun could this game get?! I want it ever so much, like a mother must want for her baby when she goes home from the hospital before her progeny.
Go listen to Pavement. Stephen Malkmus is my god.
I'll update tomorrow, I promise.
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
What??: Though not so much a duo as a kind of mutually inclusive musical brotherhood, Berman and Malkmus have worked together on and off for roughly 20 years. Most of the time it's been in the context of Berman's Silver Jews, a sort of revolving door group with only Berman as the permanent member. That said, Malkmus's contributions to the band's albums over the years have been frequently brilliant. As friends who often appear at each other's shows, and collaborators in the Silver Jews proper, the two are 40 something pillars of indie rock--the more literate and singer/songwriter-y Berman having a true foil in the more absurdist and rocking Malkmus.
Crucial Work: American Water by the Silver Jews
Who??: Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins
What??: Now closing in on its 10 year, Penny Arcade is the gaming webcomic. Through their alter egos, Gabe and Tycho, Krahulik and Holkins deliver comics three times a week that range from obscene to hilarious to surreal to violent. Lest this devolve into a PR introduction to the duo, let me just say that Penny Arcade is the only webcomic I've been able to stand for more than a year at a time, and their consistency as well as ability to always update on time is unmatched.
Crucial Work: Uhm, Penny Arcade.
Who??: Avey Tare and Panda Bear.
What??: Though it diminishes the contributions of the other two members of the band, Animal Collective is, for all intents and purposes, led by Avey Tare and Panda Bear. And in their journey, they have turned Animal Collective from being a merely interesting noise/psychedelic band to one of the most rewarding and gifted groups of today. Even outside the context of the band, the two produce great solo work that demands equal attention and appreciation.
Crucial Work: Sung Tongs by Animal Collective
Who??: Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim
What??: You may have gathered from my posts that I am a bitter, depressed loner who can only feel joy while I'm giving poison candy to babies or flipping off priests. However, Tim and Eric take a chisel to my stoney frown and flip it upside down with their genius. Both Tom Goes To The Mayor and Tim and Eric's Awesome Show: Great Job! are two of the most polarizing shows on Adult Swim: people seem to be completely in love with them or utterly detest them. Being in the former camp, I can safely say that Tim and Eric are two of the funniest people alive today, and their brand of surreal/absurdist/dry humor, with dashes of dark humor, self deprecation, and gross out jokes thrown in for good measure, is like my favorite thing ever.
Crucial Work: Tom Goes To The Mayor
Monday, January 28, 2008
If I were to compile a list of games that proved videogames were art, Silent Hill 2 would be on my list. The atmosphere of the game--the environments, the sound design, the music--is probably the single most memorable and affecting in recent memory, and is every bit as good as the material that influenced it. That is to say, David Lynch movies (particularly Blue Velvet), David Cronenberg movies, J-Horror, Jacob's Ladder, and many psychological philosophies and texts. Wandering through the first 20 minutes of the game, you are making your way into the town itself--fog and snow obstruct your vision, but you keep thinking you see things in the distance or in the very fog itself. You hear odd noises that never repeat or make another appearance. You meet a woman in a cemetery who seems far more afraid of you than the bizarre world around her. And from there, the game just gets more frightening, mind bending, and surreal as it goes.
It would ruin the plot to discuss almost anything, but suffice it to say that Silent Hill 2 has one of the most complex, multi-layered, and ultimately ambiguous stories in any game I've played and yet still feels satisfying even if all your questions about James, his wife Mary, the character Maria, and the town/monsters themselves are not fully explained. This is the sort of videogame you will be thinking about as you play it, between sessions of playing it, and after you're done playing it. The sights and sounds--oh, the sounds!!--will stay with you, from the first appearance of Pyramid Head that mirrors a scene from Blue Velvet to the subtle and terrifying ambient noise to the brilliant and always appropriate music by Akira Yamaoka to the various endings you can get which each offer a unique ending to the story.
The problem I have with the game is this: it's not that much fun to play. This may sound odd coming from someone who absolutely adores it, but hear me out. The experience, in sum total, of Silent Hill 2 is one of the greatest videogames have to offer. But that said, it's not that much fun to play. The combat isn't the focus of the game, but it does make it "not fun." It's clunky and awkward, and just doesn't feel right. Also, depending on the difficulty you play on, it can feel baby easy or pointlessly hard--the only difference between the two extremes seems to be an increase in the number of enemies, how much damage they take before they die, and how much ammo/health restoring items you get. All of this is, ultimately, poor game design because there are ways to make a game more or less challenging beyond "you can die more easily because enemies take more hits and you have less firepower." However--and this is a big however--it doesn't ruin the game. That's because you don't, and shouldn't, play Silent Hill games to have fun. It's the equivalent of an art film or a horror film versus a summer action flick. Criticizing Silent Hill games for bad combat kind of misses the point, really, since it's like criticizing, I don't know, Taxi Driver for having poor taxi driving scenes.
There are other minor quibbles one could make about Silent Hill 2 with more than half a decade behind it, such as the uncanny-valley-creepy looking cutscene character models, but for the period it came out, the game looked amazing. Anyway, this also misses the point, because it has looks where it counts--art design and aesthetics. Silent Hill games have a very unique look and feel all their own that transcends the console generation each is from. By today's standards, the "graphics" aren't impressive, but the way the town and monsters look and behave is still genius. You really do become engrossed in the game to the point where you don't sit there thinking critically about everything. I have always hated the idea that a videogame is just the sum of its parts, and if certain things are off or bad--it's too short, too difficult, has technical problems, and so on--then it is automatically a lesser game for it. Silent Hill 2 has its flaws, but they're easy to overlook and forget about when one sits down to play.
Some videogames you play for fun or as entertaining escapism--the Marios and Halos and World of Warcrafts of the world. But some games really do try something new and succeed, and show you things, make you feel things, make you think things, just like any other piece of art can, like an album, a book, a movie, or a painting. Judging such games by the "is it fun or not, and why" standard of criticism misses the whole point entirely. Silent Hill 2 is a game you'll return to over time, discussing it with friends, seeing new angles on it each playthrough.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Though reviews and criticism are ultimately subjective, certain consensuses are often reached. Whether it’s that such and such an album is the best thing a band has yet done or that it merely points the way to better things, if you read enough reviews of an album you begin to notice a collective assessment of it. And so, you often find albums agreed upon as disappointing, sophomore slumps, vanity/indulgence releases, etc. (Please note that I don’t mean out-and-out shitty albums, because there’s rarely much to reassess about them) Some of these are due as much to critical shortsightedness and misunderstanding as they are to the artists themselves.
Anyway, let’s reassess some of the more recent offenders, shall we??
The Album: Some Loud Thunder by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
The Offenses: Being too experimental; sounding too influenced by producer David Fridmann; having songwriting that classifies as spotty and weak.
The Reassessment: Some Loud Thunder is neither a secret masterpiece nor a total failure. It rests somewhere in between the two extremes, though I’d honestly say I liked it a lot better when I came back to it a few months after its release. Yes, it’s not as good as their debut, but it’s still a great album. It’s the difference between an A research paper and a B one, really.
The Album: Rehearsing My Choir by the Fiery Furnaces
The Offenses: Being a kind of radioplay/concept album/autobiography about the Furnace siblings’s Grandmother; being extraordinarily self indulgent; not working as an album or a musical; mostly featuring the vocal stylings of said Grandmother, which could be charitably described as “not very good and not befitting the music.”
The Reassessment: I’ve only managed to make it all the way through the album twice, if that tells you anything. Fiery Furnace albums are sort of like taking a shot of liquor: you just have to jump in and do it. Man up, as they say. Yes, their albums are overlong, complicated, and messy, but if you take the plunge and trust their instincts—as well as giving each album your full attention span for its run time—you are always rewarded. Rehearsing My Choir does not reward you, sadly. It’s more like taking a shot of liquor that you can’t quite get down because it turns out it was moonshine: it’s simply too much. Though every Fiery Furnaces album will inevitably be described as “great but just not as great as Blueberry Boat”, one can also safely say that everything they’ve released since and could possibly release in the future will be better and less indulgent than Choir.
The Album: Do The Collapse by Guided By Voices
The Offenses: Being a slicked up, overproduced GBV album; having weak songwriting; being a failed attempt at a major label debut and subsequently getting released on, oddly, industrial powerhouse TVT records; the-one-dude-from-the-Cars produced it and stipulated that the band couldn’t drink during its creation (seriously).
The Reassessment: The only song I can remember from the album is the opener, ‘Teenage FBI.’ Basically, Do The Collapse is like your least favorite album by your favorite band. There still remains all the things you love about them, but it still feels weak or a like mess or a misstep. And Do The Collapse is all three. And the “no drinking” thing just kind of pisses me off, frankly, because if you’ve ever seen or heard about a GBV show, you know that the drunker they get, the better they get. See their final show, captured on The Electrifying Conclusion DVD, for a good example.
The Album: It’s All Around You by Tortoise
The Offenses: Being a more-of-the-same, diminishing-returns kind of album; increasingly making the band into a Steely Dan-esque perfectionist studio beast without any blood.
The Reassessment: It’s All Around You is more of the same, with one or two twists—wordless vocals on ‘The Lithium Stiffs’, the noisy drum nightmare of ‘Dot/Eyes’—that are worth hearing for fans. Otherwise, it’s an entirely unnecessary and skippable release by a band who seem to have increasingly less ideas. And they desperately need to introduce some spontaneity and grit into their sound, because they’re beginning to sound like an austere museum piece.
The Album: NYC Ghosts & Flowers by Sonic Youth
The Offenses: Being too minimalist and noodle-y in some places, too self consciously noisy in others; having bad beat poetry for lyrics; being recorded after most of the band’s custom gear was stolen; representing the end-of-the-line if you didn’t like their 90s output.
The Reassessment: While being the weakest album the band have released in the past 15 years—actually, it’s more like “weakest album ever”—it’s still interesting and worth a few listens. Some of the lyrics are indeed embarrassing, but the music and overall sound of the album fascinate me in some strange way. It’s another side of a fascinating and still vibrant band that you may or may not like; you can say a lot of things about Sonic Youth and their development over the years, but they haven’t fallen into an old age trap of releasing boring, forgettable crap like, say…REM. Speaking of the devil…
The Album: Everything REM has released since at least New Adventures In Hi-Fi.
The Offenses: It’s sad to think that about a decade ago, people used to look forward to REM albums with the same fervor as they now do Radiohead ones. Yet in the past ten(+) years, the band has squandered their good standing with a string of releases that are utterly boring and unmemorable to the point that I can’t even distinguish them from each other. Sure, there are one or two good songs per album, but by and large, I sometimes forget the band hasn’t broken up already.
The Reassessment: Every time a new REM album comes out, some reviewer or critic will say it’s the beginning of a new creative phase in the band’s life. Or that such and such an album was a secret masterpiece, and we were all wrong to hate/ignore it. But…they’re all wrong. I want to be charitable to the band because they have released some amazing, timeless music, but they haven’t done this since the beginning of Clinton’s second term. My good faith has long since gone. Fuck REM.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
One of the warning signs that your drinking is out of control is that you stop drinking things because they taste good, or at least don't taste awful, and start drinking them because they're cheap and have a good ratio of alcohol per volume. So, Steel Reserve. It's a beer that somehow tastes warm even when it's freezing cold. And with that warmth comes a flavor that I would describe as what it tastes like when you pour half a shot of cheap whiskey into a bottle of Miller Light. In short, not very good.
The problem, or the promise, comes in the fact that it has 8.1% alcohol content. And a 12 pack is only like 6 bucks--it's a win/win situation for serious drinkers. However, that comes at the price of your health and stomach. I've never had a hangover from beer, but I did when I drank some Steel Reserve.
Yet...it calls to me.
I got drunk on it the other night and watched Commando while flexing my muscles with my shirt off. Then I fought an entire armored division with a toothpick as my only ally and weapon.
Steel Reserve makes me feel like a god and you should totally fucking drink some.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
It's snowing right now, with a nasty cutting wind to boot, and two hours ago a friend informed me that his father died after battling cancer for two years. I didn't really know what to say to him, other than "I'm sorry", but I also added that he's probably sick of hearing people tell him they're sorry. It's these kind of situations where you realize language will always fail: nothing you say can or could make that person feel better or help you understand. Sometimes a picture isn't worth a thousand words, because those words can never fully capture what seeing the picture is like for each person. So, the weather is nasty and I feel bad for my friend, and no album seems to capture what I'm feeling with words, so I reach for something instrumental, because music transcends.
Right now, Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn is spinning on my record player, and it's exactly what I need, like the aural equivalent of a bowl of hot soup. However, I find that instrumental music is hard to talk about because you end up with a series of florid, poetic descriptions of sound that still don't come close to capturing what it really is. I could tell you that the first track, 'Fredericia', starts out with a sound like a whale moaning over and over before little fish begin peaking in and around the whale, finally passing it up entirely and climbing to the surface where sunlight breaks the silence. Yet if you listened to it, you might picture it or explain it entirely differently. Yet I can't think of another, better way to talk about the album, so bear with me if I descend into a thousand word exchange rate for each song. But I digress.
Of all the post-rock bands going today, only Explosions in the Sky can compete with Do Make Say Think in my book. Old standard bearers like Tortoise, Mogwai, Godspeed, et. al. are still releasing music that ranges from "digging the same hole in different directions" to "actually great, but not groundbreaking." Yet something about the melodies, dynamics, instrumentation, and the unexplainable sound pictures these two bands paint transcends their forefathers.
Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn is divided roughly into thirds, and on the vinyl, completely into thirds--the fourth side is blank. Each side is three songs long, and represents each titular "hymn", though the album's sound doesn't drastically change between each. What I mean is, the first third of the album--"Winter Hymn"--doesn't sound any more or less wintery to me than the other two.
The band's sound ranges the usual post-rock gamut from quiet, almost ambient moments to out-and-out, all instruments to 11 rocking. Do Make Say Think also features brass/horns/woodwinds, as well as violin, and--lest I forget--a healthy spoonful of rustic folk/acoustic aesthetics. Which makes sense, given that the band often records in rural surroundings, like farmhouses or barns owned by family and friends. And if any of it sounds slightly familiar, well, some of the members of Do Make Say Think contribute to Broken Social Scene, that monolithic Canadian collective, so some aesthetic traces show up in both camps.
The only basis for comparison I have for Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn is You, You're A History In Rust, their most recent release. That was one of my favorite albums of 2007, but I would have to say, I think Hymn is better. Sometimes a band just nails it, for lack of a better explanation--the songs are there, the melodies are there, and it sounds incredible, plain and simple. It's the difference, to use another example, between a great live jazz album and an average one. There's just something about it that you love and can't explain. Words can't convey what 'Outer Inner & Secret' makes me feel when it gets to the series of crescendos built on top of thudding drums and two-note guitars, rising and falling and giving me goosebumps. It's like...well, it's like what certain hymns do to my Mom. You feel magical, spiritual, and beyond words.
The music of Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn is the music of blinding snowfalls, late summer country sunsets, and the little things you hum to yourself, unconsciously, when you're feeling beside yourself with some overwhelming emotion. Please, do yourself a favor and get this album.
Friday, January 18, 2008
I can't swim. I took lessons as a kid, but I never stuck with it beyond the beginner session because going to the deep end scared me. Yet, paradoxically, I love water--maybe it's because I'm an Aquarius, maybe not--and when my family went on vacations and I was a kid, I couldn't get enough of hotel pools or the ocean. There is something beautiful and uncanny about swimming in a pool and turning upside down, feeling weightless and confused because now what used to be below you feels like the roof--and when you look "down" it now looks like up. You see the water surface above you, and above that, the "true" roof, and your sense of disorientation is both delicious and mind blowing.
Stay with me.
My Mom taught me a neat trick during a bored summer afternoon when I was younger. What you do is you take a small hand mirror, hold it just under your nose, and go outside. Let's say you have a deck or a set of stairs outside you can use. So, with the mirror under your nose, look down into it and you see the sky. Jump or step off the deck/stairs. For some reason your brain thinks that you are going to fall into the sky and you feel frightened and free of gravity at the same time. This also works indoors, where you keep stepping over doorways and ceiling fans when you don't need to.
I bring both of these childhood memories up because they're exactly the kind of things that Super Mario Galaxy gets right. You're never sure exactly which way is up or down, or even if there is one. It is often completely subjective depending on which "ground" you are standing on. While Mario 64 may have brought the series into 3D, I feel like Super Mario Galaxy is the first "true" 3D platformer because there is a real sense of depth instead of simply moving up/down or left/right.
The first time you end up on a planetoid and you can run around the full sphere of it, wrapping around it over and over, doing Mario's jumps, spinning the Wii remote to attack enemies, using the remote to collect star bits to shoot at enemies, too...well, this feeling of "wow, this is so much fun!!" never goes away. Even the levels that force you to use the Wii remote's motion sensing to control Mario completely, such as the manta ray surfing level or the Super Monkey Ball-esque one, though frustrating at first, quickly become second nature. It is an immersive game, by which I mean you never have to look down at the controller and figure out what you're supposed to press to do what, it comes completely intuitively.
The other big thing that Mario Galaxy gets right is variety. I am tempted to call it a mini-game collection fused with Mario 64's core gameplay, but that's misleading. Simply put, every stage you play on is completely unique and you will always be doing new, interesting things you never thought you would be doing. Galaxy constantly surprises and pleases you, even with the stages which are difficult and frustrating--and there are some. However, this ties back into the genius of the game's variety: you don't have to play every level or collect every star to complete the game. If you get stuck on something, you can either skip it completely or come back to it later with a fresh mind.
Let me close this review with why precisely I bought the game. I wasn't completely sold on yet another Mario game until I was in Best Buy two weeks ago. I had heard so many great things about Galaxy, but it was only once I played it at Best Buy that I knew I had to have it. I ran around the main hub world part of the game, watching little star people gurgle and coo at me, soothed by the delightful music, and played half of one level, dying by falling off the stage and getting sucked into a black hole. I put the controllers down, walked over to the Wii games, and immediately went up to the checkout. If you have a Wii and you don't have this game, there's something wrong with you.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Anyway, the first Turtles game is fucking hard as hell, and it's fun to watch somebody else get past the stupid dam level. But this video is of the player failing the final level over and over, with hilarious results. Enjoy.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
It was bound to happen eventually. I find myself in my local record store and nothing I had come there to find was in stock. Going through the vinyl bins three times I feel compelled to buy something, as I always do when I go there, just to support them. I had heard the name Pere Ubu before, specifically in the Looking For A Thrill DVD that Thrill Jockey put out a few years ago. Anyway, they had Dub Housing in the Punk section and I like to take gambles on music sometimes.
I think I can now relate to how people felt in 1978 when they heard this album because they had little-to-no expectation about it, just as I did. There is very little in music like Pere Ubu--Captain Beefheart is a reference point, but it's also a misleading one. Of all the new wave/post-punk bands I've heard, Pere Ubu is easily the strangest and most interesting at the same time. Within very specific genres certain bands will transcend and make something both of its time and essentially timeless. That is Dub Housing.
Every element of the sound of Dub Housing is essential to its greatness. David Thomas's vocals are impassioned, strained, strange, and deranged. His delivery, cadence, and lyrics are all his own. Guitars chime, clang, and distort to the point of unintelligibility. The bass and drums keep an effectively grooving and cathartic warped playground tempo. The juxtaposition of almost cheesey organ lines with some of the most brilliant, original, and frankly fucked up synthesizer sounds I've ever heard is the lynchpin of the album's sound. Little touches like the sparing use of saxophone and sound effects also add to the bizarre soup of sound.
It's safe to say that songs like 'Drinking Wine Spodyody' and 'Caligari's Mirror' are two of the album's best, so sample these if you're at all curious about this band. The former is one of those songs that shouldn't be catchy but is, with its off kilter, angular playing and vocal tics from David Thomas. 'Caligari's Mirror' borrows from the "what should we do with a drunken sailor" mariner's song to great effect. And I would be doing a disservice to the album if I didn't mention the two instrumentals, 'Thriller!' and 'Blow Daddy-o' which push the band's instruments to their limits, from the psychedelic, backwards guitar of 'Thriller!' to the synthesizer/noise loop that runs throughout 'Blow Daddy-o.'
The true tests of an album's greatness are its longevity and timelessness. And in those regards, Dub Housing is a brilliant piece of art: people are still discovering this band and being influenced by it, and it still sounds both fresh and belonging to no certain era or movement.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
Once you do, go to the bathroom and splash some numbingly cold water on your face. Drink a glass or two of water. If it stays down, proceed to try to eat some food. Try to keep the food down. Drink some really strong tea or coffee. Wait a few minutes. Take some aspirin or Tylenol and some nasal decongestant (for some reason when I drink my nose gets really clogged up). Still keeping it all down?? Starting to feel a bit better?? It's time to take your mind off the pain and sickness. No, don't drink more!!
I used to try to medicate hangovers with noise. I thought that it would blow all the bad shit out of my brain through sheer agony. But now I'm more about soothing my brain with repetitive, mellow music. I have discovered that From Here We Go Sublime by The Field is perfect for this. Attach a drool cup to your face and put this on with the iTunes visualizer running. Much better.
For further relief, dig out Meteos for the Nintendo DS. No, not the fucking Disney version. The original. Haven't played it in awhile, have you?? Feels good, doesn't it?? Yes. It might not be as hypnotic as its more popular, readily available brother Lumines, but I find it easier on a hangover.
Assuming you did puke at some point, drink some water, nibble on some dry cereal, and lay on the couch all day watching whatever is on the History Channel or Discovery. Documentaries are the best TV show for getting over a hangover.
Of course, the ultimate hangover cure, as stated in Knocked Up, is to get stoned. But assuming you're like me and don't have access to said substance, I think the above will do you just fine.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Flash back a few years, and my then-girlfriend and I had gotten out of a Shins show near Dayton. She remarked that James Mercer, frontman of sorts for the band, looks like Kevin Spacey. As we walked back to her car, we overheard another couple talking about the show, and when we brought up the look-a-like, they said that they were just discussing the same thing.
Tom Waits (One of my personal heroes)
Ron Perlman (Hellboy, narrator from Fallout, Beast from the Beauty and the Beast TV series, all around bad ass and most obvious choice to play Tom Waits in an inevitable future biopic)
Britt Daniel (Spoon--the band, not the utensil or The Tick battle cry)
Gary Busey (terrifying human being)
Friday, January 11, 2008
Album: Sung Tongs
Why Should I Care?? Sung Tongs is basically the landmark moment in the AC discography. It was the album that got them attention from both critics and music fans alike, partially due to mistakenly being lumped in with the 2004-era ‘freak-folk’ boom, but mostly because it is a fantastic album in its own right. Though I like the previous albums to varying extents, it was only with Sung Tongs that they started writing great songs. ‘Leaf House’ is quite possibly one of the most perfect introductions to the band. Anyway, Sung Tongs represents the logical conclusion to the acoustic experiment of Campfire Songs.
Buy, Ignore, Or “Borrow”: Buy.
Why Should I Care??: If Sung Tongs perfected the AC’s folky side, then Feels represents the perfection of the electronic side. According to the band, every song is a love song, but these are love songs as filtered through the warped AC lens. The album has a warm, reverb drenched vibe made all the more paradoxically familiar and strange due to the oddly tuned instruments the band used. In short, Feels is every bit the masterpiece Sung Tongs is for very different, but not necessarily opposite, reasons.
Buy, Ignore, Or “Borrow”: Buy.
Album: Strawberry Jam
Why Should I Care??: Well, for starters, 2007 was what I would call a ridiculously good year for music. I’m in the process of making a 2007 mix CD for a friend and I’m having a tough time narrowing it down. With that in mind, Strawberry Jam easily clinches the top album of the year. It is perhaps the most perfect thing the band have yet released, a noise/pop/psychedelic/electronic quilt you can wrap yourself in and never want to come out of. ‘For Reverend Green’, ‘Peacebone’, and ‘Fireworks’ alone are reason enough to need this album.
Buy, Ignore, Or “Borrow”: BUY.
Also Of Note: Young Prayer by Panda Bear (Buy); Pullhair Rubeye by Avey Tare & Kria Brekkan (Buy); Person Pitch by Panda Bear (Buy)
Thursday, January 10, 2008
As my current favorite band, I've been itching to cook up an entry about them. I could--and did, on Epinions.com--write lengthy reviews of each album, EP, and side project, but instead I'll spare you the headache and take you through their discography, a few steps at a time.
Album: Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’re Vanished/Danse Manatee
Why Should I Care??: Now packed together as a 2-for-1 CD set, the first two Animal Collective albums are fitfully brilliant and a pretty good value to boot. Critically speaking, they’re my two least favorite Animal Collective albums because they aren’t much like what was to come, and I find them tough to listen to all the way through in one sitting because—especially on Danse Manatee—the songs range in quality from terrible to great-but-not-as-good-as-what’s-to-come. Basically, they sound cool but they aren’t terribly memorable.
Buy, Ignore, Or “Borrow”: Buy. I’m a sucker for a good deal.
Why Should I Care??: As it stands, this is the only official live Animal Collective album. There are live tracks scattered across various EPs and singles, but they don’t have the flow of a live show. That said, Hollinndagain is frustrating because while it does give a taste of the live AC experience, it’s nowhere near as rewarding and refined as modern live shows. Essentially, the Animal Collective used lots of electronics, feedback loops, and odd noises and while it sounds cool, just like their previous studio material, it’s extremely tedious and unrewarding. As it’s largely improvised, or sounds like it is, that makes it pretty worthless.
Buy, Ignore, Or “Borrow”: Ignore. If you must hear what they used to sound like live, then “borrow” it.
Album: Campfire Songs
Why Should I Care??: This album is a cool concept and a great result, and easily the best thing they had done up to that point. Campfire Songs was recorded in one long take on a screened in porch on acoustic instruments, with ambient sounds picked up on the mics as well as field recordings added later. There is a haunting, entrancing quality to this droney folk album, an aesthetic that would be perfected on Sung Tongs and Panda Bear’s solo album Young Prayer.
Buy, Ignore, Or “Borrow”: Absolutely buy. This is the hidden gem of their discography.
Album: Here Comes The Indian
Why Should I Care??: This marks the first time their electronic/experimental side produced a great album. Though they weren’t writing “songs” quite yet, the lengthy soundscapes and small bits of melody that intertwine point forward to modern masterpieces. Also, ‘Two Sails On A Sound’ is amazing to listen to while you’re driving through a heavy rainstorm during the day.
Buy, Ignore, Or “Borrow”: Buy. You’ll come back to this album again and again.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
I'm currently in the midst of a really nasty cold, coughing up my lungs every few minutes and blowing my nose constantly, but the one advantage is that, between my general feeling of being out of it and taking NyQuil at night, I've been in the perfect frame of body and mind to listen to Painful.
The long and short of the Yo La Tengo story is that they're a band of music nerds. Their knowledge and love of the art form is ridiculously encyclopedic, and to top that off, they've been around since 1984 (coincidentally, the year of my birth), so their discography is suitably vast and varied.
Painful falls neatly into the halfway point of their existence, released in 1993, and is something of a watershed for a number of reasons. It was the first album released on Matador after years of casting about in the indie minor leagues, an association that continues to this day. More importantly, I would call it the beginning of the 'modern' Yo La Tengo sound. Though not the first album with then-new bassist James McNew, it is the first that refined the band's sound, perfecting their noise/pop and druggy/psychedelic side with their pastoral, calm ballads and folky moments. Later albums would expand their sound even further, such as the masterpiece I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, but there is just something special about a moment when a band finally matches their unique sound to genuinely great songs, and Painful is it. Lastly, and this may be the kind of nerdy footnote that the band themselves would love, it marks the first time when the last song on the album is arguably the best.
The early 90s were something of a time when noisy bands tempered their sound to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Yo La Tengo contemporaries Sonic Youth were going through the beginnings of their accessible/classic rock influenced era at the time of Painful so it's interesting to note just how uncompromising the album is, yet it's noise and feedback are not alienating. I've never thought of Yo La Tengo as especially difficult or experimental because their rough edges are rounded off a bit. Even the explicitly noisy tracks like 'Sudden Organ' and the second version of 'Big Day Coming' use distortion and feedback as a textural/melodic device, such that it becomes a blissful, warm sound. In short, this is the kind of thing people mean when they say noise/pop, and while there's a very fine line between the two, when they're balanced just right as they are here, it is glorious. Especially while you're floating around due to illness or cold medicine.
If I were forced name my favorite Yo La Tengo album, it would never be Painful. I don't think that's an insult, really, because their discography is startlingly consistent, and it's hard to displace I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One or And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out in my estimation. All of that said, Painful is a perfectly sublime album in its own right as well as being the cornerstone upon which the modern Yo La Tengo is built. It's that rare beast: an important album and an addictively listenable one at that.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Much has been said about how the beat-em-up genre is effectively dead in the water, for any number of reasons. But if I think back to the games I did like, one thing becomes clear: they were just complex enough to have more depth than Double Dragon, but weren't trying to be anything more than a dumb, fun game.
The Warriors has its share of problems, but the main one to me is that it tries to do too many things. Frankly my problem with every Rockstar game is that it's far more fun to run around the world doing whatever you want than it is to do their 'story missions' or mini-games that give you better weapons, items, skills, stats, or whatever the case may be. The Warriors is no different. The story missions quickly become a frustrating mess which range from too difficult to needlessly complicated. One mission saw me trying to protect three different stores from gang attacks, but even with the commands you can give to your AI teammates, there is no option to post one or two of them at each store to make this easier. At the same time, one mission forces you to complete graffiti tags before other teams of gang members do--this wouldn't be a problem except that the spray can mechanics in the game are needlessly finicky and sensitive. What's more, the exercise mini-games you do to power up your characters amount to the boring "mash a button over and over" or "push the buttons to on-screen commands" types.
All of this detracts from the main gameplay, which is an old fashioned beat-em-up. The parts of the game that do focus on fights are fun, but they still don't feel quite right. The controls, especially for running and jumping, are a bit wonky, while the various combos you can pull off while fighting are rendered worthless because they are so difficult to connect with such that you're better off hammering A or X over and over. The large variety of weapons you can use is worth noting but other than aesthetic differences I never felt like using a brick was any more or less effective than, say, a knife.
I also have a fundamental problem with the boss fights you sometimes find yourself in because even in the world the game creates they seem absurd. Often these boss characters cannot be knocked down, so your only recourse is to either go toe-to-toe and hope your health and supply of life giving Flash drugs don't run out before you wear the enemy down OR to use scattered weapons in hit-and-run attacks, which is both boring and frustrating. This is because the manual aiming mode is awkward (basically, you hold a button and stand still while you use the stick to aim an arrow at whatever you want to hit) and the automatic aiming is just as likely to hit things you don't want to as it is to hit your desired target.
There are side missions and 'flashback' missions to do, but they ultimately amount to the usual Rockstar game design of doing things within a certain time limit ("go mug people to earn $120 in 5 minutes", say) or playing a section with irritating button press mini-games as put to better use in God of War or Resident Evil 4.
The only highlight of the game to me is the sound design, which feels absolutely true to the movie. They got almost all of the characters from the movie to do voicework for the game, which gives everything an "authentic" feel. And I especially love the smooth female radio announcer, who mocks you when you die, and can be heard talking as you're walking around your hangout between missions. That said, I can't decide if the swearing is appropriate given the source material or overdone. At a certain point, I had played the game so long that it started to affect the way I thought and acted in it. I began to mug and assault random characters just because I could, not to mention I started to think like the characters do. I was chasing some scrawny Latino guy who owed The Warriors money, and he kept getting away and causing me to fight more enemies instead of pounding his face in. I actually found myself getting angry at the game because once I finally did catch up to him, I had no satisfying conclusion because he fell off a building. "Shit, I wanted to stomp that fuck's head in!!" I shouted to no one. Anyway, at least the slang feels natural and not overused.
In the end, the failure of the game rests on the fact that it's too much like a GTA with beat-em-up mechanics rather than a beat-em-up with some ideas borrowed from the advances and innovations in game design since the early-to-mid 90s golden age of the genre. If you're a fan of the film, the game may provide some added backstory and time with these characters that you've always wanted, but even then, it's too much frivolous gameplay and not nearly enough handing out beatings.
Monday, January 7, 2008
Greg, what is your favorite RPG of all time??
“Well,” I’d say, after hemming and hawing, “I can’t decide, but Chrono Trigger would make the top three.”
For all the various reasons I love Chrono Trigger—and you can find better written accountings of its greatness elsewhere—I think the one least mentioned is the palpable sense of sadness that is always bubbling underneath the surface. Obviously most RPGs have the whole mechanic of “go to town, find out town and townspeople have a problem and are bummed out, solve the problem and make everything better for everyone forever” but to my knowledge only Chrono Trigger goes a step farther and shows you what will happen should your quest to defeat Lavos fail.
There are different sad moments in the game, from Frog’s backstory to Robo’s beating to Schala’s sacrifice, but the 2300 A.D. era you visit early in the game is basically an entire time period wherein Lavos has emerged and destroyed civilization. Humanity clings on, shivering and starving in scattered domes, but all in all people are pretty well fucked in this era.
For whatever reason, the parts of the game that take place in 2300 are my favorite. Actually, I think I know the reason: I respond to melancholy. Even though through your actions you bring hope to this era by helping out and providing the survivors with a potential future food source (see plant below) it’s still going to be a rough time.
What’s more, there are little touches here and there that help drive home the fact that this place is close to death, from the corpse you discover clutching the plant seed to the howling wind sound on the overworld map to the insane inventor who gives you the Epoch. There are RPGs where you can get “bad” endings or do bad things—see most American developed PC RPGs—but entire chunks of Chrono Trigger take place in a world you’re actively trying to prevent.
Of course, my favorite little bit is the way that, even with advanced technology, humans still couldn’t stop Lavos. I tend to be a fatalist about a lot of things on top of my aforementioned melancholy preference, so the fact that technology couldn’t help makes my black, cynical heart pump with slightly warmer ichor. Plus it makes me wonder if the Reptites had won out over humans whether they could have fared better.
Anyway, there’s this device called the Enertron which is effectively a free, instant Inn—it restores all your HP and MP to full. Your characters step out of it striking victory poses, but then the text intones the following and your characters stare down in disappointment at their empty bellies:
Mankind may have advanced rest machinery (imagine how it must’ve revolutionized the trucking industry!!) but they still can’t overcome hunger, one of the most basic drives.
Then, of course, there’s the predictable “robots that were created to aid and defend mankind end up turning on him” thing.
PROTIP: Most robots in the game are weak to Chrono’s Lightning techs.
The future is a bummer, but on the bright side, I guess things can get worse than they are. Errr I guess that’s a bright side.
Saturday, January 5, 2008
Actually, I reserve the right to rescind this rule should the mood and inspiration strike me simultaneously.
Also, while I'm at it, I'll speak for CJ and I--because I'm presumptuous like that, god damnit--and state for the record that even though we're trying to post something everyday from Monday through Friday, we will probably miss from time to time. It just happens when you're doing something as a labor of love and not as an occupation. However if I ever somehow become wealthy enough to do this as a living, or even semi-living, know that I would update everyday, unlike, say, VGCats, that subpar webcomic that manages new content once every console generation.
But I digress. My eyes hurt and the only thing I have the energy to do is lay in bed and listen to old GFW podcats.
Friday, January 4, 2008
There’s a growing trend over the last decade or so for bands to include a DVD with the first pressing of their albums, perhaps as a token of esteem to loyal paying fans as well as a shot in the dark to encourage sales. Whether they are documentaries about the making of the album (see Phish’s Specimens of Beauty, which was packed in with Undermind), live footage (see the DVD packed in with Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky), or a mix of the two (see Mogwai’s Mr. Beast DVD), they rarely serve as more than something you’ll watch once or twice and forget about.
At the same time, listening to music while watching visualizers is awesome. Though I only have experience with iTunes, I can tell you that while I (sadly) hardly ever just listen to an album while doing nothing else anymore, iTunes’s visualizer makes for a convenient excuse to watch some psychedelic visuals while focusing on the music at the same time. I am a multi-tasker by nature, so even though staring at a mesmerizing, swirling screen while saliva overcomes the dam of my lips isn’t productive, it is still is something more than staring at my ceiling or keeping my eyes closed for 30~60 minutes at a time.
Packed in with the initial batch of Drum’s Not Dead by the Liars was a DVD containing three different films set to the album: two by band members and one by an honest-to-god filmmaker. This is kind of like a mash-up of the two above ideas because, between the three films, we get lots of pretty artsy visuals, studio footage, live footage, and…uh…a bunch of footage of a snail.
Let’s begin, shall we?? First up is ‘Drum’s Not Bread’, which is the most interesting and entertaining of the three. I won’t go song by song, but let me hit some highlights.
Here we see some semi-typical live footage, albeit clearly not live footage of the song that plays over it.
This is one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen: masks pitched somewhere between Mardi Gras and creepy-birdlike-plague-doctor-style-mask, facial hair, haunting eyes, and the screen divided into sectors to complicate matters for the better.
I don’t remember what song this amateurishly animated part goes to, but suffice it to say that everything acts out or illustrates the lyrics and I like cats.
I figured I’d end on a high note—pun definitely intended. In case you’re too sheltered to tell, this is footage of one of the Liars dudes rinsing out his bong, all after brushing his teeth and shaving his moustache. Classy!!
The second and worst film is called ‘Helix Aspersa.’ I suppose if you listened to the album and thought to yourself, “gee, I wish this was set to footage of a snail crawling around, eating stuff, and having lame editing magic done to it” then this would be your favorite thing ever. Also, you need to seek professional help.
Just in case you think I’m lying, here is a snail.
And here is a snail with crazy mirror imaging!!
The third film is a mix of depressingly amateurish film student imagery, live footage, and semi-interesting experiments. The fact it was done by some European guy who is (maybe??) an honest-to-god art film dude is a bit sad.
See?? This is what I mean. You’d be better off with iTunes’s visualizer.
Then there’s this, though it’s only dark and hard to see because I took a screen cap at the wrong moment. Anyway, it’s the clean shaven, impossibly young looking member of Liars screaming into a microphone, which is maybe less interesting than the pictures I could have shown you of odd looking front man guy throwing himself all around the stage in weird outfits.
Last but not least, the honestly-kind-of-cool three shot of the Liars guys while the last song plays. From left to right: clean shaven, impossibly young looking guy who looks around and occasionally seems to respond to questions silently; odd looking front man guy who doesn’t move or say anything for the entirety of this shot; guy-who-looks-like-Viggo-Mortensen who is a bit more affable and emotive.
What conclusion should one take from this project?? Well, it turns out to be just like everything else I mentioned earlier. I’ve only watched these twice since I bought the album almost two years ago. It’s slightly more interesting than the typical DVD pack in but it’s still not as cool as a visualizer.
Thursday, January 3, 2008
I’ve heard all of Smith’s albums. I even read the book about him, Elliott Smith and the Ballad of Big Nothing. To be sure, I love his music and his lyrics mean a lot to me—in fact, when I get really depressed to the point that I don’t want to do anything except lay in bed, his self titled album is one of three albums I listen to to help me through, the others being Cat Power’s The Covers Record and Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. And much like Nick Drake, to whom he is so often compared it’s become a cliché even to point out how often he’s compared to him, I think Smith’s music is at its best when it is stripped down and unadorned.
This, then, is why I didn’t find Smith’s death especially affecting, because in my opinion his best and most affecting work was behind him by the time he killed himself (or, as certain fans insist, he was murdered). Say what you will about XO and Figure 8, but they don’t do it for me like his first three because they sound too big, too polished, too orchestrated, and too grasping. Certain singer/songwriter types get better as their sound gets fuller and more mannered—witness the full flowering of the talents of Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird on their last albums—while others seem more labored and watered down, such as Elliott Smith.
I promise I’m going somewhere with this.
Roman Candle was Smith’s first solo album, though he had been a member of the band Heatmiser for several years. The story goes that Smith recorded the album in his then-girlfriend’s house and didn’t intend to release it, but after Cavity Search Records heard it, they convinced him to. Ah, but a cursory read of Wikipedia could have told you that, so let me tell you something new: the album is not nearly as lo-fi as people make it out to be. Compare this to, say, the early recordings of the Mountain Goats and it’s a night and day difference.
I always read a lot about both Nick Drake and Elliott Smith’s lyrics and lives, but the one thing I never hear mentioned is their skill with a guitar. Granted it is not in the metal/jazz soloing mode, but their fingerpicking and unique chording style deserve special mention time and again—Drake for the still-confounding playing on Pink Moon and Smith for his frequently brilliant electric guitar work on Roman Candle as well as the Drake-esque acoustics of his self titled album.
The other problem I have with the later albums of Elliott Smith is their length. Roman Candle is a lean half hour and as such never overstays its welcome. What’s more, the songs are of consistently high quality—‘Roman Candle’ is maybe his best opening track from an album ever other than the landmark ‘Needle In The Hay’; the direct (and soon to become Smith standard) double-tracked vocals on ‘No Name #4’; even the od- man-out closing instrumental ‘Kiwi Maddog 20/20’, which has a country twang and lightening quality, is great.
I said his death didn’t affect me too greatly, which is strange because I grew up with Smith’s self titled album. No, that’s not true. The first thing I heard by him was Figure 8 and while I liked it, it didn’t mean much to me other than the relationship-style songs like ‘Somebody That I Used To Know.’ However, discovering his self titled album during the latter stages of high school gave me something to return to again and again over the years. It often played in my head while I went through formative experiences in college and afterward. So it’s hard for me to be critical about the album because it means so much to me—thus I inevitably think it’s the best thing he’s ever done, and would recommend it over Roman Candle. However, this is a brilliant album in its own right that deserves more attention. If all you know about Elliott Smith is ‘Miss Misery’ or the iconic cover to Figure 8, track this album down and find out why so many people think his early work is so essential.