Thursday, December 31, 2009

Video: Yeah Yeah Yeahs- Maps



Ten thoughts on 'Maps' and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to celebrate the 2010 New Year's Eve:

1) The drummer looks like the son of Egon Spengler from Ghosbusters.
2) If the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had only stuck to EPs and noisier music, they might've been consistently great instead of only divisively and/or arguably great.
3) No, I don't know why she's wearing a bow (as in bow and arrows) on her arm.
4) This's one of the handful of songs from this decade that I never get tired of hearing, and had to listen to over and over after I heard it for the first time until I was satisfied. I rarely fixate on a single track at a time, but I had it bad for Maps back in '03. And still do now. Maybe someday I'll do a list of those songs...
5) "Yeah Yeah Yeahs" was one of the dumber examples of "good band, shitty name" to come out this decade, though "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!" makes it look like a monument to self restraint.
6) It's still weird to hear Karen O. laughing and having fun while making animal noises on Embryonic by the Flaming Lips, if only because she comes off as one of those irritatingly confrontational, forcibly "artsy" dressing frontpeople.
7) For some reason I found it really hilarious when a co-worker pronounced their name in a mocking Brooklyn/Jersey mob hitman accent: "yea yea yeaaaaaa."
8) Fingerless gloves, especially leather ones, have never and will never look good on women.
9) I confess to not listening to their third album at all, but Show Your Bones left me with little impression no matter how many times I listened to it. I really ought to revisit it before I say this, but: that album wasn't even a daring failure. It was content sounding, and for something that took three years to record it was just kind of boring.
10) What was with all the bands without a bass player that got popular in the early part of the decade? The White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Black Keys...You don't even really notice the absence either, leading me to conclude that not all bands need a bassist though most of them have one seemingly just for the hell of it.

It's that kind of incisive commentary you can continue to expect from Whiskey Pie in 2010, not to mention more of my droning, nasally voice set to cleverly cut images I found on Google or Wikipedia. (Hopefully I'll get a proper microphone soon so it's a bit more, you hear, audible.)

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Whiskey Pie's Best Of 2009 (Part 2)


(Again, read the badly spellchecked full text below for clarifications of bad sound quality and my mush mouth)

5) I'm Going Away by the Fiery Furnaces: The 2009 releases from Wilco and Yo La Tengo left me feeling pretty meh, so even bands that are normally reliable helped contribute to the general weakness of the year. That said, I ended up loving I'm Going Away by the Fiery Furnaces more than I thought I would. Since this is a release that strips away almost all of the song structure experiments and crazy instrumental workouts of the band's sound, I was initially underwhelmed by the album. But the Furnaces always had the songwriting and melodic hooks beating at the heart of their music, and by focusing on that aspect--and a live-in-the-studio production style--they ended up making one of their best albums. The Friedberger siblings recently issued the digital-only Take Me Round Again, which sees them re-making the songs from this album on their own. In the process they ended up emphasizing that, hey, these are great songs no matter what their form.


4) Beacons Of Ancestorship by Tortoise: "Fun" is not a word I associate with post-rock even if it's obvious the dudes in Mogwai, at least, have a sense of humor. But Tortoise have always given off an intellectual air of clinical studio perfectionism that brings to mind Steely Dan. Yet Beacons Of Ancestorship is the clearest example I heard all year of a band very obviously just trying to have fun with music. Because of this, Beacons may lack the cohesiveness or flow of other Tortoise albums, but it's by far the most fun to listen to and sports a variety of sounds. Call it their "much needed shot in the arm" release if you must, but I never thought I'd be so excited about a Tortoise album after 2005's sleepy, workmanlike It's All Around You.


3) Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear: Yes, I'm not entirely sure how it's pronounced either, but I feel like that was the point. Much like with Dirty Projectors, you have to come up with multi-syllabic phrases to categorize the music of Veckatimest. Indie rock folk pop chamber vocal music? Whatever, the point is, this is an amazing album with a timeless quality to it, bursting with ideas and melodies that never sound obvious or cliche.


2) Merriweather post pavillion by animal collective: Merriweather post pavilion was the best reason to start 2009 just as their recent Fall Be Kind EP is the best reason to let it end. As such, Animal collective felt like they owned the entire year, setting the bar high early for other albums to match and then closing it out in style with a great EP. Every fan seems to have their personal "dude, this is totally the best" Animal Collective album--even if it happens to be Panda Bear's solo release, Person Pitch--yet everyone seems to at least agree that Merriweather is brilliant and rivals their own personal pick. I'm a Sung Tongs man yet there are times while listening to Merriweather when I begin to question my loyalty. It's that good. On a final note, those people who complain that the best songs are at either end of the album--'My Girls' and 'Brothersport'--are neglecting 'Daily Routine' and 'Lion In A Coma', not to mention....well, hell, the whole album is great, so shut up already.


1) Dragonslayer by Sunset Rubdown: Around June of this year, it seemed obvious to me that either Animal Collective or Grizzly bear were going to take this top spot. But then--confession time--I downloaded a torrent of Dragonslayer, and within a couple days I bought every Sunset Rubdown release I could get my hands on. Spencer Krug has always been my favorite member of Wolf Parade, but his contributions to this year's Swan Lake album were sub-par. Furthermore, in retrospect I overrated At Mount zoomer even if I still like it. But I digress. Dragonslayer catapulted Krug to being among my favorite artists. The opening and closing tracks of the album are perfect mood pieces with vibrant imagery, while all the songs are intricate mini-suites that have two or more different pieces that fit internally together, and with the rest of the album as a whole. Furthermore, the subtle or overt nods to Sunset Rubdown's previous album, Random Spirit Lover, are clever and fascinating attempts at further tying together Krug's already inter-connected body of work. I actually had to take Dragonslayer off my iPod because for a long time it was all I wanted to hear. It is a joy to listen to, an album full of interesting ideas and brilliant songs within songs that I never seem to get tired of. In a year with a highly contested top spot, Sunset Rubdown managed to become my obvious and only choice.

Whiskey Pie's Best Of 2009 (Part 1)



(Read the full, badly spellchecked text below for clarifications of bad sound quality and my mush mouth)

To be perfectly honest, 2009 was one of the weakest years for music in recent memory. Thinking back to last year in particular, I had a much harder time deciding the order of my "best of 2008" list. 2009, by contrast, was really a race between three for the top spot and then a rabble fighting for the other 7. You know, sort of like crabs trying to climb out of a pot of boiling water, continually reaching the top and tumbling or being pulled back down.


There were no obvious trends to the year--or at least none that I thought were anything other than forced categorization--so I'll skip the ivory tower monologues about the further blurring of genres and get right to it. This is Whiskey Pie's Totally Inessential, Weeks-Too-Late-To-Be-Relevant List Of The Top 10 Albums of 2009.


10) Album by Girls: While I really hope they come up with a better title for their next album, Girls did put forth the effort for the music of Album. A summery California record that is subtly and sometimes not so subtly recalling 1960s California music, it also has some subtle and not so subtle appreciation for weed and lazy, hazy afternoons.


9) Wind's Poem by Mount Eerie: In my review of Wind's Poem, I described it as "like going for a walk on a late Fall night during a storm, the wind and rain alternately pummeling and gentle." It's too bad that so many reviews describe this as Phil Elvrum's black metal album, since nothing here is heavier than anything from The Glow, Pt. 2 from his Microphones band, but I digress. The album is dense and challenging, but those with patience and a good set of headphones will find much to love.


8) Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors: It took me a long time to fully come around to Bitte Orca. It is such a unique, experimental take on pop music that I hardly knew what to make of it at first. Much like my initial experiences with Deerhoof and the Fiery Furnaces, I started by giggling at how seemingly random the song structures developed, at how arbitrarily sounds came at me. But with time, it is obviously deliberate and calculated, leading me to conclude that this band is either visionary and basically uncategorizable, or that they're willfully perverse songwriters who don't want to make it easy on the listener. Whatever the case, Bitte Orca is one of those fascinating, divisive listens that I think everyone should hear even if they will likely end up hating it.


7) Tarot Sport by Fuck Buttons: Assuming you ended up liking Street Horrrrsing by Fuck Buttons, your reaction may have been similar to mine: "huh, this is really interesting stuff, but I don't ever feel like listening to it." Tarot Sport, then, plays like a remix and reboot of Fuck Buttons, bringing in post-rock structures of loud/quiet/loud and melodic peaks and valleys while also adding the driving beats of electronic music. Since they took out all of the screams and just enough of the noisier textures, Tarot Sport ends up being a surprisingly compulsive listen for what is, still, a relatively experimental electronic album.


6) Embryonic by the Flaming Lips: While At War With The Mystics was far from a bad album, between its mostly forgettable orchestral space pop and the band's increasing emphasis on elaborate stage shows, everyone had all but forgotten the old Flaming Lips. Their earlier, noisier albums actually aren't the masterpieces that people make them out to be, so it was a relief to listen to Embryonic for the first time and see that they didn't revert to the 1980s so much as tear it up and start from scratch. Embryonic is a LOUD, demanding listen, but even as a double album it moves at a much brisker pace than their two previous releases. Also, any album that has Karen O. from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs making animal sounds rather than actually singing is OK in my book.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Girls- Album

It's an interesting coincidence that within a year of each other, we got two excellent albums by bands named Women and Girls. What's more, they both show an affinity, if not slavish dedication, to the sound of 60s music. Where Women traced out a noisy blend of pop that sounded like a modern update on the Velvet Underground's monolithic White Light/White Heat, Girls are much more blissed out, dreamy and stoned. Their production and sound recall a less meticulous, less orchestral version of Brian Wilson and/or Phil Spector, filtered through a haze of smoke, pill bottles, and piles of empty beer cans.

The apathetically named Album also bears a very clear vinyl record pacing and tracklisting. You can practically feel yourself getting up to flip the record over after the long 'Hellhole Ratrace', a song that has a circular progression and emotional peak that suggests it should be the album closer instead of the mid-point. It does, however, set the mood for the album's more languid second half. 'Headache', 'Summertime', and 'Lauren Marie' are in no hurry to get anywhere and offer ample opportunity to let you space out and daydream. Even 'Morning Light', a noise-pop shot in the arm which sounds like a cover of something off of No Age's Nouns, has a "late afternoon, riding the couch" vibe to it.

Indeed, this "vibe" is the key to the album's greatness in my opinion. Girls are Californian through and through, and much like how the Beach Boys got their start writing about the culture they experienced in that state, Album has a--you knew this word was coming--sunny, summery feeling that feels unique to California. But where the Beach Boys innocently pined for girls, surfboards, and cars, Girls are only interested in (no pun intended) girls and drugs. Even the bummer songs are catchy and endlessly listenable while being mellow enough to chill to. Yes, even the wall of sound, shoegazer-meets-surf-pop of 'Big Bad Mean Mother Fcker.' This track is pretty much Girls's version of Yo La Tengo's shoegazer cover of the Beach Boys's 'Little Green Honda' from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, and that's not a bad thing. But I digress. The most immediately enjoyable bits of Album are the pleasant pop of album opener 'Lust For Life' and the 60s soul/girl group-style ballad 'Headache', two tracks that argue strongly for the fact that you can wear your influences on your sleeve but not have to rip them off in the process.

I took awhile to come around to Girls, if only because this is a summer album to its very core and it's hard to enjoy that when it's the midst of winter in Ohio. The Shins at least had the good sense to issue Oh, Inverted World in June of '01, but whatever. Like fellow 2009 breakouts The xx, Girls manage to sound utterly original and fully formed despite: being so young, having some obvious sonic influences, and never having recorded anything before. Album is among the best albums of the year, but here's hoping they name their next album something different so sentences like this one don't sound so redundant out loud.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Album Of The Week: Mount Eerie- Wind's Poem

Often during the course of a week, I'll get ideas for novels I want to write, and the plot, characters, and 'feel' of what I see them as is so vivid and clear to me that it really does seem like a vision I'm being given. However, it's one thing to have visions and extremely specific ideas for a work, and another thing entirely to do them. Filmmakers like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino are visionary in the sense that the sort of art they make is uncompromising and demanding but at the same time like nothing you've ever seen before. It is "visionary" stuff through and through, since they're able to take what exists in their minds and make it real.

This is how I think of Wind's Poem, and Phil Elvrum's music in general. You always get the sense that the entire work existed in his head, and albums are his attempt to put physical form to these visions. Moreover, even at his most consistent and accessible, Elvrum's music is still uncompromising and demanding. Wind's Poem roars to life immediately with 'Wind's Dark Poem', one of the tracks on the album that show the loud side of Mount Eerie. Most reviews have dubbed this Elvrum's "black metal album", but go back to the excellent The Glow, Pt. 2 under his Microphones alias and skip to the songs 'Something Contd.', 'I Want To Be Cold', and Samurai Sword.' This style of music has always been a part of his style, and anyway, I don't know if it really sounds like true black metal. It's more just like really loud guitars: loud to the point of distortion without any need for effects pedals, if that makes sense. Of course just to let you know that he's not to be pidgeonholed, he follows this opening bludgeon with the eleven-and-a-half minute long 'Through The Trees', a languid organ drone of a song.

I have to admit that I don't actually follow Elvrum's career at all, so all the singles, EPs, compilations, and albums he's done are beyond my body of knowledge. But I can say with certainty that Wind's Poem is a clear continuation of the lyrical themes from The Glow, Pt. 2, namely his fascination with nature imagery, a constant sense of a dark foreboding atmosphere, and extreme attention to detail. Most artists would blindly start to yell or scream to match the louder songs on this album, but Elvrum still sticks to his distinctive and calmly emotional voice. He uses it as a detail as much as the centerpiece of Wind's Poem, which is something a lot of artists would find unthinkable.

Wind's Poem is an experience unlike any I've had all year with music. It's like going for a walk on a late Fall night during a storm, the wind and rain alternately pummeling and gentle. Wind's Poem may be remembered as a "black metal" album, but it's all filtered through Elvrum's lo-fi indie rock and singer/songwriter lenses. To put it another way, I don't think of The Glow, Pt. 2 as his "drone" album even though there are some examples of that genre on it. It isn't solely one style or another, just as this one isn't, either. Anyway, Wind's Poem is just as demanding and uncompromising for its production as much as its "black metal." You really, really need to listen to it on headphones; moreover, you need to listen to it in one sitting. This is neither an album to rush through, to skip to your favorite songs while driving, nor is it an accessible, digestible listen. When he sings "I'm the river/I am the ocean of changing shape/I bring bodies/in the void you heard my name" on 'Wind Speaks', you're only about halfway through the album. It feels like much more time has passed, however, because Wind's Poem is dense, both with width and breadth. 'Summons' follows next, all eerie guitar moans and Elvrum's naked voice. You could break the album down into these more reflective moments and the roaring loud stuff, but perhaps it's better to look at it as light or heavy wind. As if to underscore this dual nature of wind and the album's obsession with it, 'The Mouth Of Sky' comes right after 'Summons' and sounds like one of the epic peaks of a post-rock band without all the patient crescendos that normally lead up to them.

Whether you love or hate the films of David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, you at least have to admit that what they make is very unique, purely their's from conception to end product, and not like anything else that's out there. This's exactly how I feel about Phil Elvrum's music. It's definitely not for everyone, and Wind's Poem in particular is a dense and visionary work that is among 2009's best albums. You'll need some headphones and the right mood to get it, but once you do, Wind's Poem will prove itself worthy of all the effort and patience.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Cymbals Eat Guitars- Why There Are Mountains

The subject of originality is one that fascinates me. Even those things that you think of as coming out of the blue and having no none touchstones are usually just influenced by obscure things you've never heard of. Or anyway, it'll turn out to be a case of people having a similar idea but there's no provable connection between the two. In the past week I've finally gotten around to watching Slumdog Millionaire and Amelie, and while the former is essentially the same old Hollywood-style poorly written crap wrapped up in a unique setting and premise, the latter is original through and through, and has immediately become one of my favorite movies. But I bet if I did some digging, I'd hear that director/co-writer Jean-Pierre Jeunet was influenced by this or that French director or handful of films that I've never heard of.

Cymbals Eat Guitars are in the same school of indie rock as Tapes 'n Tapes, which is to say, their influences are pretty plain. Both bands manage to sound original enough that they can't be called plagiarists so much as students of a certain kind of music. The first Tapes 'n Tapes album was excellent, sure, but it clearly spent its college years in the course of study that may as well be dubbed Pixies 'n Pavement. Cymbals Eat Guitars, meanwhile, take their name from (I'm pretty sure) a Lou Reed quote about how he had drummer Maureen Tucker mostly focus on toms and the bass drum, giving the Velvet Underground's music a primitive/minimalist bent, because he felt that "cymbals eat up guitars" in the audio space of music--too much treble. However, Cymbals Eat Guitar's music sounds like the band stole the playbook of mid-to-late 90s Pacific Northwest indie rock: Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, and Pavement all come to mind when listening to Why There Are Mountains.

Whether this is a bad thing is up to the listener. I want to make clear that at no point do Cymbals Eat Guitars directly rip-off their influences. Just as Nirvana openly admitted to attempting to make good on the ideas of the Pixies and, say, Mudhoney, Cymbals Eat Guitars sound like their own band while calling to mind their influences quite readily. Personally, I think Why There Are Mountains is a good little album, for what it is, but I'm afraid that it's bound to be forgotten as time goes on unless the band really does something amazing with their next album. Too often bands like this fall prey to the same fate that befell Tapes 'n Tapes, which was to make a mediocre, experimental-in-a-bad-way sophomore release and fall into obscurity.

To put it more simply, if you're really into indie rock, particularly the Pacific Northwest brand of the aforementioned bands, you'll enjoy Why There Are Mountains but probably won't love it. This's a conditional recommendation, I admit, so take it for what it is.

Oh, and for the record, the new cover art that was added when the band finally got around to releasing it on a record label is really, really awful.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Album Of The Week: Fuck Buttons- Tarot Sport

It's pretty telling that the first track on Tarot Sport, the new album from Fuck Buttons, is called 'Surf Solar', while the last is dubbed 'Flight Of The Feathered Serpent.' For a duo who mostly spent their debut hovering in place while exploring textural noise, droney minimalism, and, from time to time, incomprehensible muffled screams, it's quite a change to see them producing an album that has a sense of headlong momentum and movement. So, too, have they stripped away most of the noise and all of the screaming while still retaining their own unique electronic sound. Perhaps the biggest change from the (conditionally) must hear Street Horrrsing, however, is that Fuck Buttons are now making something definable as music instead of something that was arguably just musical experiments with the periodic table of sound elements.

Tarot Sport's most crucial progression is the way that the band have embraced the dynamics of songwriting rather than the dynamics of pure sound. The entirety of the album is one long suite that flows into each subsequent song; moreover, they also allow natural ebbs and flows to take place. There's a downright post-rock-ian "peaks and valleys, louds and quiets, minimalism and maximalism" structure to these tracks that helps Tarot Sport connect on an emotional level. I enjoyed Street Horrrsing as a sonic curio, a kind of intellectual think-piece, but it's not the sort of release I feel a connection with or wistfully get urges to listen to again. Not so with Tarot Sport.

I have to admit that I was skeptical when this album started getting really good reviews, since Street Horrrsing was such a demanding, difficult listen. But once the beautiful keyboard washes on the opening of the album kicked in, I immediately had to chuck my expectations out the window. One easy way to put it is that Tarot Sport plays like an IDM/post-rock remix of their first album, gutting out the screams entirely (vocals-without-screaming show up on one track, though I can't for the life of me remember which one), keeping some of the noise elements as texture and contrast rather than the focus, and adding in both persistent electronic beats and post-rock's emotional peaks and valleys. Hell, 'The Lisbon Maru' could pass for a particularly experimental Godspeed! You Black Emperor or Mogwai track, while 'Phantom Limb' has more in common with the experimental beat fuckery of modern Autechre than it doesn't.

Street Horrrsing may have gotten them on the radar, but Tarot Sport is the release that proves Fuck Buttons deserve whatever praise and attention they can get. There's a flow, pacing, and sheer enjoyability to the experience of this album that is years more advanced beyond the debut: in a year with some really excellent, epic, and memorable closing tracks, 'Flight Of The Feathered Serpent' is one of the best. 'Brothersport' and 'Watching The Planets', eat your heart out. Tarot Sport is not for everyone, as it retains some of the noisy textures/washes of sound of their earlier work, but those looking for what is arguably the best and most interesting electronic album of 2009 would be wise to seek it out.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gogol Bordello- Live At Axis Mundi

There are many anecdotes about The Minutemen encountering orthodox punks who hated their music and argued that they weren't really punk. With their funk, reggae, and even some Latin influences, The Mintutemen didn't sound like The Ramones or hardcore contemporaries like Black Flag. But, to the band, that was exactly why they were punk. Punk rock wasn't supposed to be about a sound that was set in stone, it was about doing your own thing and not having to fit in with the mainstream. It helps to remember that bands like Television and Talking Heads were part of the punk rock scene of '77 era New York City. New York, of course, is considered the world's city, and immigrants from all over come there to blend and cross-pollinate while still retaining their roots.

Gogol Bordello are a punk band through and through, and one could argue that their gypsy identity is a much truer brand of punk than what passes for it these days, since they freely mix their Eastern European aesthetic with dub reggae, certain kinds of world music, "classic" punk rock, and so on. The danger of fusionist bands is that they come off sounding and looking like a novelty. On a quick glance, Gogol Bordello give this impression. When you first see the band on the DVD half of the Live From Axis Mundi set, you may think to yourself "oh how precious...there's the middle aged looking Eastern European dudes on violin and accordion, black dude in a Jimi Hendrix shirt on bass, and traditional looking white dudes on drums and guitar." Later, there's a Latino guy and two costumed chicks who dance, sing, and play hand held drums and cymbals. On paper, it sounds like the kind of annoying, self consciously multi-ethnic-and-gender pamphlets that colleges put out.

However, the music fits together so naturally, and is so vivacious and catchy, that any preconceptions and misgivings quickly fall away. Nothing about the band feels manufactured or too clever for its own good. Rather, because of the band's gypsy identity, they appreciate multi-culturalism and the sympathetic underpinnings of seemingly disparate musical styles. Songs like 'Think Locally, Fuck Globally' and 'American Wedding' represent a kind of purist celebration of life and love of music that's largely absent in most popular Western music. To put it another way, there's nothing ironic or guarded about the band.

The CD half of Live At Axis Mundi lets you focus on the music of Gogol Bordello, though it'll likely only be of interest to established fans since it has the canned energy of studio "live" performances while lacking the (relative) finesse and control of the album versions. The DVD, meanwhile, leaves you with the feeling that on the night it was recorded, this concert was the most fun you could have had with your clothes on. It's too bad that they don't play 'American Wedding' during it, because their fusionist/gypsy music and colorful, impossibly energetic stage show made me think of the movie Rachel Getting Married. In particular the cultures-coming-together scenes that leave you wishing you were there to meet these interesting people and help celebrate the marriage of two people. If the main character is stuck on self destruction and her part in her young brother's death, than the other characters represent the celebration of life, love, and music. Interestingly, TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe plays the groom in that film, and TV On The Radio are another New York band who blend together different cultural and music influences. But I digress. Watching the DVD, you wish you were at a Gogol Bordello show; as time goes on, you find it increasingly difficult not to move to the music and do that thing where you half smile and half almost-laugh.

Live From Axis Mundi is just a hell of a lot of fun no matter how you slice it. It's the sort of CD/DVD set that feels as much like a celebration of the band and its fans as it makes for a conversion tool for curious on-lookers. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

You Or Your Memory: Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis

Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis (PC)
Though few think of them as such, graphical adventure games of the early to mid 90s were some of the best co-operative experiences of my life. That's because they were some of the few games that my sister and I played together, and having another person to help figure out the puzzles or take the controls for awhile was always helpful. While the only one we ever managed to finish was King's Quest V, Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis has stuck with me as the best and most memorable of the bunch. It's too bad we came to the genre too late to play the first Monkey Island, and missed fan favorites such as Sam & Max Hit The Road, but oh well.
Indiana Jones was that game for us, by which I mean, the game that you started what felt like a half dozen times but never finished. Each time my sister and I re-installed and began again, we'd make it a little further, but as far as I remember we never actually made it to Atlantis. Still, there was something of a MacGuyver-like element to the puzzles and situations of the game that we loved. We weren't aware of it at the time because the game doesn't do a very good job of pointing it out unless you've read the manual, but you can actually play through it on one of three paths: a puzzle heavy one, a fighting/action heavy one, and a path in which female protagonist Sophia Hapgood is always with you, rather than falling into Nazi hands for the majority of the experience.

The thing that I think always made us quit the game was its use of elements from other genres. Adventure games, at least for me, are at their best and purest when they stick to what is unique about them, which is to say, their writing/dialogue and puzzles. The latter is often where many go wrong, because they insist on ever larger inventories of increasingly obtuse items, item combinations, and leaps of logic. Moreover, when adventure games forced elements of other genres into themselves, the results always felt awkward and poorly done. All of the fighting in Fate Of Atlantis boils down to mashing the mouse button and wailing away, since the game doesn't explain its system to you and trying to back up and recover will eventually cause Indy to run away. Furthermore, when you get toward the end of the game, you're flying a hot air balloon through screen after screen of empty ocean looking for a submarine. In order to land, you vent the hot gas, causing your balloon to confusingly descend in concentric circles, making it difficult to "aim" your landing spot. For that matter, it's never explained to you that the idea is to land on the sub, so you'll probably waste a boring 20 minutes landing on the various small islands, wondering why nothing is happening.
Odd, then, that the thing that caused me to quit the game this time wasn't these poorly implemented mechanics. Rather, it was the final portions of the game that take place in Atlantis. This part gradually becomes open ended and sprawling; not a problem in and of itself, but the slow movement speed of Indy, and random Nazis patrolling the area who force you into fights or running away via the same repetitive conversation, really grate on the nerves. This also happens to be the only part of the game that has a lot of miss-able items that will be required to finish puzzles, so you're never sure if you can't solve one because you haven't had the "a-ha!" moment or if you need some gewgaw. This is one of the worst problems of the game (and by extension the genre in general): often it's a matter of pixel hunting, gradually moving your cursor around the screen in lawnmower-like paths to make sure you aren't missing anything. But it can also be something as counter-intuitive as having to close the lid of a crate so that Indy is capable of noticing a paper attached to it.
Worse still is that the machinery of Atlantis is powered by a fantastical metal called orichalcum. You come upon beads of it during the course of the regular game, but once you get to Atlantis, you're able to use a machine to make more. My assumption was that the game gave you an infinite supply once you successfully used the device, but as it turns out, if you waste too many on trial and error while solving future puzzles, you run out. This means not only backtracking--via what feels like a half hour of slow movement and the same tedious random Nazi patrols--but having to go through the two-room, three-step process of making more beads. After doing all of this, I accidentally fought too many Nazis in a row and Indy's health hadn't recovered, leading to an easy death. As I hadn't saved for awhile, this meant losing a lot of progress. Yes, that's technically my fault, but why the idea of a game auto-saving for you took so long to make its way into the majority of titles is baffling to me for situations just like this.

The Atlantis portion of the game reminds me a lot of the last bit of the original Half-Life that takes place in Xen, insofar as both are the most frustrating and oblique sections of both. In Half-Life's case, it was because Xen went on far too long, suddenly emphasized the not-so-good jumping mechanics of the game, and was generally pretty confusing and felt out of character with the first 2/3 of the game. The infamous end boss felt like it was lifted from Quake, for god's sake. Anyway, Atlantis's issues are its aforementioned backtracking and sudden supernatural elements. Granted, Indiana Jones has always dealt with supernatural stuff, but in this game it's more a case of the puzzles you begin running into and the supernatural, which is to say, unnatural/made-up stuff that you have work with. As I mentioned earlier, there's a MacGuyver-like feel to the majority of the puzzles in the game up to this point. Hell, you even have to make the hot air balloon yourself, just as McGuyver once made a small, two-seater glider airplane. But in Atlantis, you're using made up machines and items that behave according to the game's internal logic. Unless you developed the game, at least a couple of the things you need to do here will elicit "what the fuck?!" reactions. For instance, at one point you need to fill a stone cup with lava. You figure out pretty quickly that if you insert a statuesque fish head into an Atlantean lava forge, it'll spit that out of its mouth. So you try to "Use" your cup on the lava flowing out of it, but Indy says he doesn't want to burn his hand off. The solution is to place the cup down first and then insert the fish head. Pretty finicky, right? No, pretty idiotic: the flow of the lava doesn't stop as he picks up the now filled up and removes the fish head. How did he manage to do those things without burning his hand, but carefully filling the cup in the flow is impossible?!

Most of Fate Of Atlantis's problems are purely a matter of its genre conventions and the kind of game design philosophy that was taken for granted at the time. Nowadays, though, I think part of the blame has to be laid on the developers, who either didn't playtest the game enough or left in its issues to pad out the length. For its time and judged against the adventure game genre, Fate Of Atlantis was pretty ambitious and tried a lot of things. However, it doesn't hold up particularly well because of those ambitions, since the three different paths outlined above eventually converge at the end of the game, rendering them meaningless. All of the fighting and action elements that it borrowed are awful and clumsy; even if you played the game right now with a FAQ in hand, you'd still find the game frustrating and tedious even while you were bypassing all of the sometimes finicky puzzles and obtuse logic leaps. Unfortunately, then, Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis must remain an interesting part of the history of PC games and the adventure genre, but not something that has held up and demands a revisit today.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Album Of The Week: The xx- XX

I wonder, has there ever been a study that determines whether people tend to prefer singers from their own gender? I ask because I've been listening to a lot of PJ Harvey and The Velvet Underground this week, and it's got me thinking about this very subject. For a time I despised Nico's songs on the first Velvets album, but now I love her voice and welcome the change from Lou Reed. Meanwhile, for some reason I have to consciously think "I want to listen to a female voice today" to get around to PJ Harvey, Sleater-Kinney, etc. I don't know why I divide music along gender lines, and I probably shouldn't. The point is, bands who have both female and male singers present something of a solution to my problem, since I don't think of The xx as either a "male" or "female" band, just as I don't think of the first Velvets album as "belonging" to Reed or Nico.

I have to assume that The xx is wrapped up in gender politics and interaction between the sexes, since so many of their songs on XX are about love, whether it be having it, losing it, or wanting it. I'd like to think their name is a reference to the XX and XY chromosomes, but it's likelier that they couldn't think of a good one and chose 'xx' to denote a blank space. This same reserve and borderline apathy is abundant in their slow, mellow music. There's a "late night, in the night club/upscale bar, romantic tension" atmosphere to their music that's borrowed from the first Interpol album and Junior Boy's So This Is Goodbye, but The xx never reach the emotional peaks of either band, only really lifting Interpol's guitar tone and reverb-heavy effects. No, their music is more detached and minimalist, as if a post-punk band dropped all punk influences and brought in some R&B, in particular a focus on vocals. Furthermore, if you added a beat and a couple jazzy samples to 'Shelter', you'd be at least halfway to Portishead, or any number of other trip hop/downtempo electronic groups.

The xx's music may remind one of post-punk, trip hop, and R&B, but after a couple listens to this album, an astonishing sense of originality arises. Don't misunderstand me; they're not one of those left-field bands who sound like nothing you've ever heard before. But no one, that I've heard of, anyway, has put the pieces together quite like this. It's even more astonishing that the band are in their early 20s, because the self assured performances, pristine arrangements, and IV-drip melodies are the kind of thing most groups have to work their way toward. Though not as affecting (at least to this heart) as, say, Low's Mimi and Alan, the female/male co-vocals on tracks like 'Heart Skipped A Beat' are truly amongst XX's best moments. Despite the withdrawn, minimalist music, there's a real sincerity to the singing on this album even if, on the surface, it sounds monotone and indifferent. It's like how admitting to someone that you love them can only be done with a neutral voice, otherwise you'll sound too desperate or too insincere. Or you're expecting to get your heart broken when the other person doesn't respond in kind, so you play it off as irony.

While XX is one of the best albums of 2009, it's hard to imagine that whatever they come out with next will have quite the same impact or refreshing sense of originality. Not that their sophomore effort is fated to be bad; they could comfortably make a career of perfecting or slightly altering the little corner of the world they've carved out with their debut. But The xx seem like one of those "lightning strikes once" phenomena, where a band's first release is so distinctive and self assured that there isn't much room for things like maturity or change without completely altering the formula of what makes them so good. But, hey, whatever. XX is great, and that's all you need to know.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Video: The xx- Crystalised



Hey so, other than Girls and Cymbals Eat Guitars, the other big "out of nowhere" indie band from '09 for me is The xx. Oddly enough I haven't done reviews of any of these bands yet, but that'll change soon. Anyway, give this video a watch/listen and you'll have a good idea of what their album sounds like. It's pretty much just 40ish minutes of this, which is to say, addictive, compelling, and downtempo post-punk/indie rock.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Antlers- Hospice

There is a long history of art that deals with pain, death, loss, and sadness. The danger in such work, at least to me, is that it can be emotionally manipulative and lead you to think more highly of something than you otherwise might not, if it was about another subject. As the only creatures aware of both our own mortality and the ephemerality of all things, be they love or friendship or an ice cream cone, I think we're preconditioned to want to love art that addresses these topics. They're subjects we're always aware of, even if not consciously, and when art forces us to confront them, we can be overwhelmed and automatically accept them at face value rather than detaching ourselves from our emotions and asking whether we like them because of their subject matter or in spite of it.

Hospice is a conceptual piece about the death of a character's lover from cancer. Not every song follows this theme, with 'Bear' about a couple (possibly the same couple, pre-cancer diagnosis) who glibly decide to have an abortion after an unexpected pregnancy, subsequently driving them apart. The music is appropriately dour for such subjects, with a cold, clinical production style and sound that reminds me of a less atmospheric version of Atlas Sound's Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel, an album that also dealt with hospital scenes, surgery, and love. Hospice ranges from the lengthy electronic introspection of 'Atrophy' (with the devastating line "I'm bound to your bedside/your eulogy singer") to the bright and melodic 'Two', which kind of reminds me of Arcade Fire's Funeral in the way that album met death and loss with huge peaks of emotional release and strong hooks. Electro-Shock Blues by the Eels is another touchstone for Hospice, not so much as a sonic influence as it is a similar conceptual piece about death, loss, and pain.

The huge difference between Electro-Shock Blues and Hospice, at least in my mind, is that the former was based on true experiences that Mark Oliver Everett went through with the deaths of his sister and mother (and likely his father, who died when he was fairly young). By contrast, Hospice is an entirely fictionalized work, at least according to what we know. The question of authenticity is a tricky one in art, and I don't want to imply that creators have to have experienced a story or emotion themselves for it to ring true and be acceptable. I don't question that the members of Antlers have experienced some form of death and loss in their own lives; everyone has. Furthermore, the band doesn't need to have lost a love to cancer for this album to be good. What I do question is whether Hospice is, purposefully or otherwise, emotionally manipulative to listeners. We ascribe certain qualities to art that deals with serious issues, among them somewhat nebulous concepts like "importance." We often automatically assume that "serious" or "important" art is always successful and worthy of accolades. After all, how often do comedies win at the Academy Awards versus those full of drama, violence, and romance? While I do like Hospice, I think it's been overrated due to the deeply personal reactions that people have to it. It's next to impossible to separate our emotional reactions from art, and there are many things from my youth that I probably love more due to feelings I derive from them rather than their inherent quality. But I can still put a critical eye to think and admit that it's more a case of something in me responding to the work rather than some quality inherent in said work.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, the people who are calling Hospice one of the best albums of the year are really saying it's one of their favorite albums of the year. There is a definite distinction here if you give it some thought. Personally, the first few times I listened to this album, I liked it quite a bit, but at the same time, I also didn't quite see what the big deal was. It was only when I started to pay attention to the lyrics and themes running through the album that I began to understand. I suspect that Hospice will be a deeply personal experience for many listeners, but sometimes you have to force yourself to separate your emotional response from your intellectual one. This is a good album, but it's neither one of the best albums of 2009 nor is it one of the best albums that deals with death, illness, and pain.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

You Or Your Memory: Gorillaz- s/t

Everyone's lasting memory of the Gorillaz project is probably the animated video for 'Clint Eastwood'; failing that, it's that the band is made up of four comic book/cartoon characters who serve as fronts for the brains behind the scenes. The danger of this project was always that style would overtake substance, and perhaps that was even the point: a kind of meta-pop band who ironically commented on the "manufactured" pop and boy bands of the time. Parody by way of extreme-ism, literally being a made up and manufactured band. That Gorillaz's 2005 album, Demon Days, didn't have the same impact and popularity as the debut says something about whether it was style carrying the band, I suppose.

My first distinct recollection of Gorillaz doesn't come from the 'Clint Eastwood' video. Instead, it comes from the songs 'Double Bass' and 'Sound Check (Gravity).' Over the summer of 2001, I worked for my local school system, cleaning the building and doing general maintenance work at the elementary school a few miles down the road from my parents' house (where I lived at the time). One of my co-workers had a computer on a rolling cart that he hauled around as he worked so he could listen to music. At the time the most concrete memory I had was that he owned all of the pre-fame Kid Rock albums, but now I remember how he didn't have the entire Gorillaz album, just the two aforementioned tracks. Both the Kid Rock thing and that are kind of weird, but that's not the point. The point is that, at the time, I somehow didn't connect them to 'Clint Eastwood', and certainly not to Damon Albarn's main band, Blur, who I loved thanks to Parklife and 13.

I bring this up because, when I listen to Gorillaz today, I'm struck by just how good the album is, and how I love it for the songs that weren't singles. Damon Albarn had already trodden a more experimental direction with Blur starting with their self titled album and the increased emphasis of guitarist Graham Coxon's contributions to the band, but the Gorillaz project saw him adding hip hop, dub/reggae, and even some latin/world music to his palette, all things born out by Blur's Think Tank album. And whatever else Albarn has been up to this decade that I didn't follow. However, due to the annoying "fake animated band" conceit, it's tough to know who's responsible for what as far as the direction of the music on Gorillaz. Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura was heavily involved, and anyone who's listened to the first Dr. Octagon album will see how crucial his production, samples, and beats can be to the greatness of an album.

But I digress. While the two songs that feature rapper Del Tha Funkee Homosapien steal the show, at least as far as most people's lasting impressions are concerned, it's the other stuff that grabs me when I listen to it now. 'Double Bass' and 'Sound Check (Gravity)' absolutely hold up, while a late album deep cut like 'Slow Country' is one of the major reasons I feel like I'm re-discovering this release. 'Slow Country' has got this weird tropical vibe to it, complete with wind synth whoosh sounds; Albarn's echoed vocals sound like a much more oblique and minimalist version of his musings on city and suburban life from Blur's mid 90s Britpop era. And while 'Left Hand Suzuki Method' is typical of overblown non-album bonus tracks from this period (in that it's too long and a forgettable mess), 'Dracula' is actually so good that I wish it was officially considered part of the album. I never thought that "the dude from Blur singing on a dub reggae track" could be good, but I guess I'd be wrong.

Though the willfully opaque nature of who did exactly what on which songs frustrates me a bit, it's actually the faceless nature of this collaboration that makes it so successful and work together even when it dips into a genre exercise with an obvious guest star, like on 'Latin Simone.' Collaborations either seem to obviously tilt to one side of the equation or become complete crap, so it's refreshing to see one that manages to be really good and not skew far toward one genre or collaborator's style. Sure, that's obviously Damon Albarn doing most of the singing, and that's obviously Del doing the rapping, but the rest is kind of a mystery, and because of that, Gorillaz is stronger and more unified for it. I keep talking about Albarn all the time, but I don't think of this as "his" band. It's as much artist/illustrator Jamie Hewlett's band, or Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura's band. In some perverse way, I almost wish they had never revealed who was behind Gorillaz, like a modern day Residents.

I'm pretty sure I finally bought Gorillaz during the summer of '01, and it was an album that completely defined the pre-9/11 innocence of my high school days. For whatever reason, I don't think I'd listened to it for a good five years until I saw a news story a couple weeks ago about the eventual next Gorillaz album. Perhaps because it took them so long to release another album, I thought of Gorillaz as a disposable pop album and a novelty at best. But time has a way of changing things, and I would go so far as to say that I like this album more, today, than I did in its hey-day. So yes, there was some substance behind all that flashy style, and it's what will keep Gorillaz not just a musical curio, but a worthy one at that.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Album Of The Week: Animal Collective- Fall Be Kind EP

It's surreal to think that it's already been nearly a near since Animal Collective released Merriweather Post Pavilion. I could just be thinking like a solipsist here, but 2009 has flown by, hasn't it? Nowhere has this felt more evident than in the music world, or anyway, the corner that I inhabit and follow. 2009 hasn't had quite as many truly excellent albums as 2008, and at the same time, everyone's already jumped the gun on their "best of the decade" lists and articles. Most of the world seems eager to finish December and be done with this decade, so leave it to the band who helped start off 2009, with what is arguably their best album, to finish it with what is arguably their best EP.

As I mentioned in my review of Deerhunter's Fluorescent Grey EP, Animal Collective are one of the few bands who think of an EP as a true venue for expression. They've always put forth the effort to offer fans something interesting and new, instead of just having a glorified single or remix depository. Their first, Prospect Hummer, was a wonderful coda to Sung Tongs with the legendary (in some circles) Vashti Bunyan in tow. People was interesting but inessential, unfortunately offering both a studio and live version of the title track. Last year's Water Curses, meanwhile, was the true proof that very few bands make EPs like Animal Collective. That release was arguably as good if not better than most of Strawberry Jam's tracks, something born out by the fact that I remember the band saying that the EP wasn't so much leftovers and B-sides as it was stuff that just didn't fit or flow well with the album.

The same could be said for Fall Be Kind. Its five tracks neither sound like retreads from Merriweather nor lesser material that was left on the cutting room floor. At a bit over 27 minutes, it's a substantial work with its own sense of flow and atmosphere. The band made some comments about how it was going to be "darker" than Merriweather, and while there is a bit more uncertainty, less obvious song structures, and more experimental textures to the EP, it's still just as poppy and frequently head nodding as the album. The first two tracks find resolution in brilliant samples: 'Graze' has euphoric pan flutes from Zamfir, while 'Why Would I Want? Sky' famously features the first legal Grateful Dead sample, from 'Unbroken Chain.' As for the rest, 'Bleed' is where most of the "darker" talk likely comes from, with its free-floating vocals and almost-sinister synthesizer sounds. The last two tracks are the kind of introspective and philosophical wonderings that the band is becoming synonymous with. 'On A Highway' is a road weary lament from Avey Tare, while the lengthy 'I Think I Can' is about needing to move on, ending with a 'The Little Engine That Could'-style repetition of the line "I think I can" in a vocal harmony that reminds you, once again, how Animal Collective can take an influence like the Beach Boys and make it their own.

In 2008, the self titled album and Sun Giant EP by Fleet Foxes formed an unstoppable duo that were collectively my favorite release of that year. I have no qualms about saying the same for Fall Be Kind. Judged by the EP format, Fall Be Kind is as brilliant, consistent, and well paced as Merriweather is judged by the album format. Forming a kind of unique symmetry, by design or otherwise, Merriweather was the best reason to move on to 2009 from 2008, while Fall Be Kind is the best reason to close the book on the year and begin reminiscing. For what it's worth, if I gave out an award for best EP of 2009, Fall Be Kind would easily win.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Borderlands

A good chunk of the way into Borderlands, you get a quest to go kill some kind of fearsome creature called Slither. Judging by the name, you expect to find some kind of huge insectoid or reptilian enemy awaiting you in an epic boss battle. Instead, you fight a small but uniquely colored version of the Scythid type of enemy that you've already killed a few dozen breeding generations of. It's this kind of clever twist on a very typical RPG quest that I wish Borderlands did more often, and in the end, it seemed symbolic of the game as a whole. Borderlands is very successful at what it's trying to be, but it lacks some crucial polish, balancing, and that certain extra level of originality and cleverness--if you'll allow it: je ne sais quoi--that would put it in the top tier of games.

Borderlands is a hybrid of a first person shooter, such as Call Of Duty, and an action RPG with heavy loot mechanics, like the Diablo series. On a cursory glance, the game reminds one a lot of last year's brilliant Fallout 3, from the mix of FPS and RPG to its Mad Max-esque desert/post-apocalyptic scifi setting. Hell, it even goes as far as the fact that you start out Fallout 3 leaving a "Vault" and in Borderlands you're trying to get to a "Vault." But Borderlands is much less story and dialogue focused, instead crafting an experience that feels as much like "a first person shooter with Diablo II loot and leveling mechanics" as you are probably imagining. In fact, it's content to be this and not try for much more.

Borderlands is evidence of the best and worst elements of Western game design in this day and age. I kept thinking of Dead Space while playing it, not for the style of game, but for the accessibility and playability tweaks done to make the experience as streamlined and frustration free as possible. Nothing wrong with that, but at the same time, the game never quite shakes the feeling that it was thought up by a committee clutching a list of influences and other games that it never completely transcends. Off the top of my head, Borderlands takes the recharging shields from the Halo series; the perk from the Call of Duty series that lets you take a few pot shots before truly dying (here, if you manage to down an enemy in that time you get back up with a 'second wind'); the Vita-Chambers from BioShock (though here the penalty is also lost money, not just time); the randomized loot and color coding of the Diablo series; quests that are ripped right out of MMORPGs like World Of Warcraft (you will collect 50 crystals; you will kill 15 of a given enemy); and so on. All of these add up to a game that is, for the most part, smartly designed and aware of the best developments in Western game design philosophy. But unfortunately, this also make the game feel a little less original and daring.
It's a testament to the strength of the core gameplay that I finished Borderlands in what was for me a relatively short amount of time. So while I'm about to dig into the issues and problems that the game has, know that the "Diablo meets FPS" style is just too addicting and well done to not be worth playing. It's more a matter of the game not being as deep, well crafted, or refreshingly original that keeps me from going completely crazy for it and recommending it to anyone who isn't already a fiend for this style of game.

Unlike the aforementioned Dead Space, Borderlands doesn't have flawless technical performance. It suffers from that very characteristic Unreal Engine 3 texture pop-in where every time you enter a new area via loading screen, the world initially appears bland and awful looking until the details are added. Similarly, the framerate will be fine one minute but fall prey to what should be outdated problems the next, such as a huge number of enemies causing the game to turn into a slow motion flip book. Most annoying of all, the load times between the main areas seemed to get longer and longer the further into the game I got. What's more, literally every time I quit out to the main menu, it took so long to load I thought maybe the game had frozen. Even once it unstuck itself, the textures slowly and awkwardly popped in, making the whole thing pretty embarrassing. As a whole, the technical performance of the game is kind of like driving a really great car that, 20% of the time, will sputter or fail to start for a couple minutes. It doesn't make you hate the car, but it doesn't help you love it, either.

Speaking of vehicles, Borderlands plays like a game in which they were a late addition. The vehicle controls are somewhere between the god awful Mako in Mass Effect and the arcadey ease of the Halo series. In truth, though, the vehicles are only really cumbersome when they get hung up on simple rocks or when you're engaged in combat. The vehicles in Borderlands are not balanced at all, to the ridiculous point where you can insta-kill almost any enemy in the game by running them over; meanwhile, the mounted machine guns and rocket launchers do far less damage than your own personal arsenal. I finished a quest by managing to get a vehicle into a town and, I swear, accidentally running over the boss enemy I was there to kill without realizing I had done it or knowing that I even could. Yet it's the parts where you have to fight other vehicles that really cause the whole thing to fall apart. If you're playing alone, it's way too difficult to steer and shoot at the same time, so I'd usually just stop and jump into the turret. But even if I had a second player to aim while I drove, the weapons on the vehicle are so weak that you're better off jumping out and fighting on foot. I understand why they balanced the vehicles for weapon damage and running-stuff-over damage, but it still feels wonky and awkward.
Actually, there's a lot of other things that feel wonky and awkward about Borderlands. The 'jump' in the game is floaty like Halo, but it lacks a sense of precision; combined with no obvious boundaries for where you can and can't get to, the few quests that require you to go bounding around are frustrating. It's even possible to get stuck on or in the game's walls and geometry while trying to get through what seems like a short cut. Thus the game actively discourages you from exploring or attempting to lessen the backtracking for yourself. While the game does have a 'fast travel' system and the aforementioned vehicles, you'll still spend far too much time sprinting in one direction with nothing to do. This problem only gets worse when you're too high of a level for an area you have to get through, since you get virtually no experience from killing enemies at that point. So you end up running straight through an encampment or cave because fighting is a waste of time and resources, getting little needles of damage from the foes to slow you down. Over all of these issues is the fact that while the game's controls are based on the tried-and-true Call of Duty formula, they never feel as precise and exact as they should. Since you spend a large part of combat running backwards or circle strafing, I wish the game had some kind of lock-on, at least on consoles, since hiding behind cover is usually a crapshoot for you while enemies are seemingly invulnerable behind even flimsy guardrails. And, as is usually the case in console games of this type, the menus and shop interfaces needed another streamlining and ease-of-use pass. They're by no means awful, but they're not great, either.

There's a pervasive sense about Borderlands that they didn't do enough to move the game beyond its formula of "FPS meets Diablo." For starters, the RPG elements are very shallow. There are are a mere four character classes, and they each only have one unique skill. While each class is somewhat customizable, the end result is as if you're playing Diablo II and instead of a dozen or more skills and spells to choose from for each class, you merely have one that you can slightly tweak. I beat the game as the Soldier, and while he's easily the ideal for a single player experience thanks to his abilities to regenerate ammo and health, I don't see any compelling reason NOT to use the exact same build in co-op. Many seem to be down on Borderlands as a solo game, but I found it fun and do-able, thanks to things like the 'second wind' mechanic. However, because of this and the way boss battles work, you just as frequently end up in exciting "skin of your teeth" encounters where you barely hold your own by killing off minions to get back up, as you will end up in "war of attrition" situations where you whittle down a boss's health, die and respawn, whittle down some more, and repeat.

These sorts of problems are compounded by the game's lack of balance. Thanks to its randomized items and weapons, as well as the type and number of enemies in each area, the difficulty switches between unfair/cheap and easy/boring. Meanwhile, the AI suffers from similar extremes. It either has Far Cry syndrome, where enemies can see and accurately shoot you from incredible distances, or they take way too long to notice what's going on, standing brain dead in front of you while making no attempt to get to cover or avoid your shots. As for the weapons and items, they never seemed quite right to me. Repeaters are next to useless; rocket launchers don't do enough splash damage; grenades and exploding barrels are comically overpowered; weapons with elemental effects usually even out to be just as useful as those without. The Eridian/alien weapons you get late in the game are pointless since, while they have unlimited ammo, they also have a cooldown. Your regular guns will inevitably be superior and ammo is almost never a problem unless you use SMGs. Anyway, it's all kind of irrelevant because combat rifles are likely what you'll end up using through 90% of the game thanks to their Goldilocks-like "just right" balance of rate of fire, damage, clip size, reload speed, accuracy, and range. The only time I used anything else was if I found something cool I wanted to try or just from the sheer bordedom of using the same style of weapon all the time.
The structure and story of Borderlands are easily the worst things about it. It suffers from that MMORPG problem of dropping too many quests on you at one time and relying on you to efficiently organize what order you'll tackle them in. This wouldn't be so bad if the game's way point system was always accurate, but often it'll just point you in the general area of where you need to be. For instance, there is a type of quest where you have to scavenge the parts for the weapon that you'll get as the quest reward. The combination of the vague way point dot on your map with the utter lack of detail in the quest text makes these needlessly obtuse. You either jump around on top of objects looking for that telltale green light or giving up and finding pictures of the exact locations online. Speaking of the map, I hope you like having to pull it up constantly, because Borderlands has no mini-map at all. This is completely baffling, and it's an omission that I have to imagine was deliberate though I don't know why. Also omitted was any but the most paper thin strands of a plot. In its defense, I do like the world and characters of Borderlands, and the Team Fortress 2-esque cartoony aesthetic looks great (once those textures pop in, anyway). But for every great NPC like the crazy-but-kind-of-in-a-hot-way Patricia Tannis, there's the incredibly irritating Claptrap robots, who are miserable at being funny or clever, and the grating, repetitive voice clips from Scooter that play at the vehicle spawn nodes.

I don't think it's spoiling anything to say that the game ends with a final boss battle against a big monster. This is symptomatic of the game's frequent lack of creativity. From time to time you'll run up against bosses who get a graphic novel-style cutaway introduction screen, but like the clever Slither quest I mentioned at the start of this review, they don't come often enough. Borderlands seems content to float by on genre conventions of RPG and MMORPG quest types, and the word that comes to mind for a good chunk of the experience is padding. Granted, to most people, the story and characters of Diablo II or World Of Warcraft are meaningless and the entire point is to quest, level up, and get cool loot, but there's more depth, creativity, and personality to those games to entertain you as well. I will admit that I burned through the last seven or eight hours of Borderlands in one day, so it's possible that this colored my perception, but I don't think so. The ending sections of the game in particular drag on and on. You know how in the ending portions of many first person shooters, you end up slogging through these long linear battlefields where there's either a ton of enemies directly gunning for you, or there's two sides battling it out that you have to fight past? Well, Borderlands is both of these at the same time, and as you can imagine, it does wonders for the framerate and texture pop-in. It got to the point where I'd open the map and see that the area I just entered was practically a straight line with some curves, and I'd just sprint through, hoping I'd hit a checkpoint before dying, just hoping to get to the final encounter and get it over with. Since there's no side quests or other things to do for the last hour or two, and you'll probably be over-levelled anyway, there's really no point in not racing to the finish line.

Borderlands offers a "second playthrough" option once you beat the game, but other than higher enemy levels and better loot, there's no compelling reason to do all of the same quests over again. In the end, the game is better in concept than in execution, offering not enough depth in character development and lacking a lot of polish, both in terms of technical issues and gameplay balance, to be admitted to the top tier of games. Its setting and characters end up feeling underutilized and the game isn't as creative as it could be, lacking the spark of originality that similar first person shooters hybrids like BioShock or Fallout 3 are loved for. Borderlands is fun while it lasts, but I think only people who love Diablo-style loot games will be compelled to play.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dr. Octagon- The Octagonecologyst

I don't know where it came from, but there's a short interview with Keith Thorton (aka Dr. Octagon) on YouTube where he offers a bizarre and detailed argument about keeping people from eating and drinking stuff from your fridge. He argues that you have to buy odd stuff like seltzer water and pumpernickel bread and learn to like it; your friends and visitors will be longing for the usual sugary sodas and cereal but you won't have any for them. There is something exceedingly oblique about the way Keith deals with this subject, as if his way is the only solution despite its extremity and off-beat approac. After all, telling people "no, you can't have any" would suffice.

Still, the interview gives a crucial sample of the mind that brought us Dr. Octagonecologyst. His lyrics are by turns complex, absurd, scatological, and pornographic, and the different scenes and character sketches (such as the instantly memorable 'halfsharkalligatorhalfman') are some of the most singular I've ever heard. Like the legendary Captain Beefheart, Keith has a surreal and strange way of seeing the world, and there are rumors concerning his sanity. And like Frank Zappa, he combines intelligent, complex music with low brow sex and bathroom humor. Part of the success of this album must go to Dan Nakamura and DJ Qbert, the former for his production and use of samples, and the latter for his scratching on tracks like 'Real Raw' and 'Blue Flowers.'

As I'm not well versed in hip hop/rap, it's difficult for me to argue for the influence or importance of this album. But considering that Dr. Octagonecologyst came out in 1996, it would make any arguments for itself. Even in my limited scope, I can see elements of this album in the work of MF Doom, who's use of instrumentals built on samples from cartoons, TV shows, movies, etc., as well as weird wordplay, are predicted by Dr. Octagon. On their own, the tracks that sample from medical based porn--'Intro' and 'A Visit To The Gynecologyst'--are jokey throwaways. But like MF Doom's sampling from cartoons about the comic book villain Dr. Doom, they work in the context of the album. After all, Dr. Octagon is, y'know, a doctor, and a gynecologist to boot. And as these porn samples are played for laughs, they seem so ridiculous that they are neither offensive nor titillating.

Anyway, due to its weird subject matter, lyrics, and a production style that didn't fit in with the prevailing mainstream stars of its time, Dr. Octagonecologyst was a landmark work in the 'underground' hip hop/rap scene. Remember, 1996 was the era of Tupac vs. Biggie. I don't want to go so far as to say that this album was to 1996's rap scene what Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica was to its era, but there are some definite parallels. Whatever the case, like Frank Zappa, Keith can record a track like 'Girl Let Me Touch You' and make it both jokey and seriously excellent at the same time.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Video: Dr. Octagon- Blue Flowers



Paul's Boutique by the Beastie Boys is rightly considered an album that was ahead of its time, but Kool Keith's debut under the Dr. Octagon persona has proven to be similarly visionary. This video is appropriately strange though the few clear shots of Keith reveal someone far more normal looking than you'd ever guess by his lyrics and skits.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Album Of The Week: Madvillain- Madvillainy

Sometimes we all get in a rut, and the best way to get out of it is to go out of our way to experience new things. Things that are beyond our familiar and comfortable areas of expertise. As such, I decided to finally check out this whole "underground" rap/hip hop scene. As an awkward white boy, I've just never really gotten into rap or hip hop on any but the most surface levels. I like the Beastie Boys, if that helps, but I never got into all of the popular rap of my youth or the current scene. The production seems too obvious and samey sounding, while the subject matter is either stuff I can't possibly relate to or have trouble with.

So with that out of the way, Madvillainy has really hooked me. All of the things that usually keep me from liking rap are absent. The production and samples are brilliant and non-traditional, lacking the repetitive and boring "in da club" vibe that I can't stand. Among the somewhat expected jazz and funk samples are sources as obscure as Frank Zappa, Steve Reich, the Street Fighter II video game, and some kind of bizarre Sun Ra spoken word piece, as well as the comic book(?) commentary about villains and supervillains that ties everything together. As for the lyrics and rhymes, MF Doom (and the other rappers) may dip into the usual subjects of weed, women, and money (three things I currently lack), but they aren't the focus by any means. There's a complexity and density to the rhymes that are genuinely refreshing to these ears. 'Shadows Of Tomorrow' in particular has a tongue tying structure that consistently impresses.

However, the best thing about Madvillainy to me is its structure and focus. I've been listening to other underground classics like Dr. Octagon's Octagonecologyst and El-P's Fantastic Damage, and while I'm loving those, too, they always feel long and somewhat repetitive. Perhaps it's just the contrast with Madvillainy, but I don't think so. Something other critics have also noticed is the non-traditional structure of the songs on this album. It has 22 tracks and is only 46 minutes long, but more crucially, the songs are fairly short and have no true choruses. Think of all the beloved popular rap tracks from the past 15 or so years. We remember them more for their hooks/choruses than for the rhymes in between during the verses. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a bad thing, but it makes Madvillainy all the more unique and interesting because it avoids this way of doing things. For some reason when I imported the album into iTunes, it added 'Strange Ways' twice, and it immediately struck me as the weakest track on the album because it was the only song that seemed to repeat itself. Whoops, turns out it didn't, but I think this just demonstrates what I'm talking about. The rhymes and production/samples are what truly make Madvillainy a modern classic, but its non-traditional structure and linear song progressions are a large part of its appeal.

While I may still be new to rap/hip hop, Madvillainy is fast becoming one of my favorite albums of the decade. It may just be the "newness" of this genre of music to me, but I don't think so. I may not be experienced enough with the vocabulary and reference points that most rap fans will come to Madvillainy with, but judging from other reviews, even they find something great and unique in this album. If you're like me and simply assumed that this kind of music just wasn't for you, then you've been listening to the wrong stuff.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Fall- The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country On The Click)

Navigating The Fall's discography is a time consuming and headache inducing exercise in frustration. At the time of this writing, they have 28 official studio albums. You can probably imagine how many singles, EPs, and compilations are also out there. But the sheer volume of Fall music to sift through wouldn't be so difficult if the band's line up remained stable. The only consistent member has been Mark E. Smith, thus the quality of their output varies wildly from album to album. And in my experience, even some of the albums that most people agree on as their best may not strike your fancy. Hex Enduction Hour and This Nation's Saving Grace still haven't clicked with me, but I do like their debut, Live At The Witch Trials.

Anyway, take this review with the warning that I'm by no means a converted fan of The Fall. By and large, I think the band is at the very least interesting but not always successful. Furthermore, I think Smith might be the weak link in the band, at least as far as his vocals are concerned. I tend to like the non-traditional singers, but for some reason he strikes me as monotonous and apathetic. Even assuming Smith's charges that Pavement were a Fall rip off are correct, at least Stephen Malkmus gradually became a decent singer and the band's music was consistent. But I digress.

The Real New Fall LP is officially subtitled Formerly Country On The Click because the band had mostly finished an album which was then subsequently leaked. Upset, Smith decided to re-record and remix most if not all of the songs. I've never heard the unreleased version of this album so I have no real opinion on the matter, but I will say that I think it's a pretty phenomenal title. And that's saying something for a band who have some great song and album titles. But I digress again. The Real New Fall LP is a guitar oriented underground rock album in The Fall tradition, though it's more straightforward than the other Fall albums I've heard. And for the record, Smith does seem to put more effort into the vocals here, at times his singing reminding me of Damon Albarn of Blur. Or I guess it would be the other way around since Smith's probably got 20 years on him.

The Real New Fall LP is a fascinating mess of an album. It's all over the place stylistically and at times it sounds like it was a mashup of different albums. Tracks like 'Boxoctosis' and 'The Past' have an almost garage rock revival tinge to them, but then other tracks like 'Green Eyed' and the first half of '41 Loop/Houston' have an electronic/experimental style. It all somehow works even if it has always sounded more like a compilation than a proper album to me. It's kind of annoying that you get more stuff like the mostly forgettable 'Protein Protection' rather than the weirder stuff like 'Mad Mock Goth', but whatever. Probably the most annoying thing about it is that the tracks are referred to by several different names depending on the version you have. Or even where you're reading the tracklisting from. The U.S. version of the album added 2 tracks, and a lot of the song titles are different on the U.K. version as well as the unreleased version. More confusing yet, the tracklisting on the center of the record that I have must be erroneous, because 'Boxoctosis' (aka 'Open The Boxoctosis #2') is called 'Boxboctosis.' Whew.

I've owned The Real New Fall LP for close to two years and I keep listening to it every few months. To be perfectly honest, if I owned it on CD, I'd probably cherry pick the songs I like and delete the rest. But there's something weirdly compelling about the album as a whole, too. Maybe it's just that I haven't found the right Fall albums for me yet, the ones I'm going to love as a whole and not just certain songs like on this one. But whatever. The Real New Fall LP is, just like the band, always interesting but not always good.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Album Of The Week: The Grateful Dead- Europe '72

My hope is that, as more time passes, the new people getting into the Grateful Dead will hear them without any of the baggage associated with them. When the band was still kicking around in the 80s and 90s, they were always seen as harmless and toothless holdovers from an era and youth culture that had long since passed. A band of hippies, but worse, they were also yawn inducing noodlers who's music was only interesting when you were stoned or tripping. But after Jerry Garcia's death and the subsequent re-flowering of the jam band scene in the late 90s, focus was taken off the Dead as the center of the "I hate hippies and their music sucks" mentality. Open minded people began to go back to the band's music and discovered a band who, in their prime, were every bit as worthy of the critical praise and commercial success of "classic rock" contemporaries like The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, et al.

Europe '72 is probably the best introduction to the band's music as a whole. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are their best studio releases, but due to their stripped down country/folk/blues style, they aren't very representative of what the band sounded like live. As for the essential Live/Dead, surely one of the greatest albums of all time (let alone live albums), well, it's definitely got too much of the psychedelic improvisation and not enough traditional songs. Europe '72 strikes a great balance between the more song oriented first disc and the wide open vistas of second; that said, we now know that the band went back in to touch up their vocals, in studio, so this release isn't technically a true live document. But since the Dead's vocals could often be rough live, it made this release better to include their more honed studio harmonies as learned from Crosby, Stills, & Nash and first demonstrated on the Workingman's Dead album.

I would suspect that a lot of people who hate the Dead, or think they do, have never listened to their stuff from before the 80s. Roughly the band's first decade is almost universally excellent, and those who think of the Dead as harmless noodlers will be shocked by the electric acid freak outs of their first few years. By the time of their famous European tour in 1972, the band had also began to mix in their country/blues/folk influences, as well as newer original material that had an Americana or pre-rock era mythos to it, whether it be the famous 'Casey Jones', their takes on standards like 'Samson & Delilah', or a pastiche like 'Greatest Story Ever Told.' Live/Dead and their pre-'71 era may have gotten me into the band, but once I began to appreciate their songs as much as their extended improvisation and segues, Europe '72 was what made me stop apologizing for loving the band. I honestly believe that the Dead were one of the greatest American bands of all time, and I say that as someone who many would describe as a hipster with a record store clerk's penchant for modern, "indie rock" music and obscure old stuff. But I digress.

Europe '72 plays like a sampler of everything that Deadheads love. It doesn't feature absolutely every fan favorite, but nothing short of a huge box set could--and even then, people would be arguing about which version to include. It does, however, give the listener a wonderful smattering of fundamentals, like the classic 'China Cat Sunflower'/'I Know You Rider' pairing, joined by a fluid upbeat segue; the wah-wah'd bliss of the "sunshine daydream" outro to 'Sugar Magnolia'; a Pigpen sung blues tune ('Hurts Me Too'); and the sequence that begins with 'Truckin' and ends with 'Morning Dew', a nonstop 37ish minutes of music. The record label, or whoever, wisely broke this up into four tracks with an 'Epilogue' and 'Prelude' for newer fans to easily digest, though the second or so of silence between the two was likely added/edited for the original vinyl record since for time constraints. For all intents and purposes these two tracks are just a segue/improvisation that could just as easily have been listed as a single 'Jam' track on CD. Speaking of changes for the CD, the best of the bonus material is at the end of disc two. No, not the hidden joke about the dog. The actual music portion of the bonus is a very meaty 30 or so minutes and demonstrates the band's ability to quickly weave in and out of tracks. The 'Caution/Who Do You Love/Caution' sandwich in the middle that's bookended by 'Good Lovin' is particularly great.

Even those intrigued by the Dead may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the band's official live releases, let alone the huge catalog of audience tapes that are even more readily accessible on the Internet today. I would point to Europe '72 as the best starting place for anyone who wants a sample of the band. Workingman's Dead and American Beauty are great albums, but often people who like those don't end up liking the Dead; those albums are the end point and all these people enjoy or want. But ideally, Europe '72 will represent only the beginning and a point of conversion for new fans. I know it was for me.