Friday, February 27, 2009

Shuffling IV

On your marks.

Get set.


1) Freddie Freeloader by Miles Davis: Even though I really like jazz and I'm so far from an expert on the subject I don't have the credibility to say this, I'm going to say it anyway: if you own Kind Of Blue you already should understand everything that's enjoyable and interesting about jazz. It really is the quintessential jazz album, an album of incredible perfection but recorded mostly in single takes, giving every track a fresh, searching feel. 'Freddie Freeloader' is the most traditional track on it, a classy mid-tempo piece that's neither a fast scorcher nor a slow chill-out ballad. All the solos are focused and excellent and...well, if you like music enough to be reading this you probably already own this album. If not, you are an incomplete human being. I'm just going to sit here and enjoy the rest of the song because I have nothing else to say.

2) Saturday by Yo La Tengo: I think that the album this song comes from is one of the most perfect mood setting pieces you could hope for. 'Saturday' is a prime example of the calm, druggy tone And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out has, a late night "I can't sleep"/"we can't sleep" soundtrack for solitary insomnia or romantic insomnia. Plus I love the way Georgia and Ira's voices sound together.

3) Cicadas by Deerhunter: The dual release of Microcastle and Weird Era Continued was one of 2008's best moments, but the one thing I forget to mention about it is the excellent instrumentals they have. Deerhunter could make a completely instrumental release and it would be every bit as striking as their albums so far.

4) Baby Genius by Eels: This is my least favorite track on Electro-Shock Blues. I find the vocal samples irritating and it doesn't fit the mood/concept of the album, in my opinion.

5) Little Debbie by Fugazi: I need to do a Primer on Fugazi some day because I keep meaning to listen to their albums in order and finally get a grip on their discography. Every time a track like this pops up on my shuffle I have to look to see who it is and then I'm all like "oh, it's Fugazi...awesome!!" 'Little Debbie' is quite aggressive and angry. For a band known for their angular guitar playing and border-line reggae/funk bass and percussion work, they could be surprisingly loud and noisy when they wanted to be. Even their 'mature' final album The Argument has lots of thorns to it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Album of the Week: Cat Power- The Covers Record

Is it possible that an artist's most vital, interesting work is an album of covers?? I could see this happening in the 50s and 60s, when original material was often a rarity. But not from an artist like Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, who's written and recorded a respectable body of work of her own. Yet there is some power and magic to this release that keeps me coming back again and again where I normally listen to her other albums maybe once or twice a year. Chan must think it was a great album, too, because her last album was another set of covers.

Yet 2008's Jukebox had a country/soul sound to it, the sort of earthy, 60s worshipping sound that she adopted on her last non-covers album, The Greatest. I'm no great fan of her more current music. I think once she cleaned up her act and got all "professional" she became far less of an artist and more of a pseudo-celebrity, admired more for her personality and stage presence than her music. Well, at least I've got The Covers Record to hold onto. This is the covers album as a minimalist, stripped down, transformative ideal. Chan's performance on this album is naked and shiver inducing. It is both totally vulnerable and totally in control, fragile like a wilting flower yet as powerful as a tidal wave. She accompanies herself on just a guitar or a piano, turning every one of these songs into sad, beautiful things.

The album's essential strength is revealed right away when she delivers a plaintive version of the famous Rolling Stones single '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' but omits the chorus. It is practically a different song, and the line about being on a losing streak takes on a new poignancy. Assuming you've seen V For Vendetta, you'll already be familiar with the most astonishing moment on The Covers Record, the cover of the Velvet Underground's 'I Found A Reason.' All covers are debatablely better than the originals, but like Jimi Hendrix's re-working of 'All Along The Watchtower', Cat Power's piano-and-vocals-only version feels like how 'I Found A Reason' was always meant to sound. I tend to overuse words like "haunting" and "powerful", but this one is haunting and powerful. A lot of the songs on this album give me chills when I hear them, but this one gives me, uhh, double chills. And in a perfect example of how pacing and tracklisting can make a great album even better, The Covers Record saves its most light and celebratory songs for the end, the three-track-combo of 'Paths of Victory', 'Salty Dog', and 'Sea Of Love' giving the listener a nice pick-me-up after often heavy and dirge-like music. In fact, this is one of three albums that I always end up listening to when I'm going through a period of depression. It starts out sympathizing with me but by the end it's starting to talk me out of the valley of sadness.

In answer to my original question, I do think a covers album can be the most interesting and vital work of an artist. It's rare, but The Covers Record proves it can happen. Must hear.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Video: Galaxie 500- Tugboat

Galaxie 500, folks. It's too bad this live version lacks the incredible reverb on the vocals that the studio version has. Hearing that track for the first time gave me chills. Every time I'm listening to it and he comes in and the reverb swirls around his words...well, I get the chills all over again.

I'll get around to reviewing an album of their's sometime. I think they're an incredibly underrated and under-discussed band.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Polvo- Exploded Drawing

While listening to Polvo for the first time, I began thinking about how most of the music we think of as post-rock is mostly descended from Tortoise and Mogwai and not the accepted Slint or Talk Talk starting points. However, there actually were a lot of bands who closely studied Spiderland, Slint's 1991 masterpiece, and went from there. Bands like June Of 44, The Shipping News, Rodan, and, yes, Polvo picked up on the experimental guitar based rock music of that album. But none of these bands has ever cracked into the mainstream or produced an album that is widely known or critically acclaimed. Why is this??

Well, before I get to that, I want to make an important distinction here. This may seem pointless since genre classifications are by nature fluid and meaningless, but we've got to have something we can use when talking about different styles. So: bands like Polvo fly closer to math rock than post rock. There's a lot of overlap between the two, but bands like those named above usually focus on extended instrumental passages using guitars, unique tunings, and non-traditional time signatures instead of the more overtly impressionistic music of post-rock, which normally has keyboard/electronic elements to it (often borrowing liberally from kraut rock, dub, ambient, and sometimes jazz in the process).

The problem with this--and with post-rock/math metal bands in general--is that none of them have recorded anything as good as Spiderland. This may seem like an unfair level to compare them to, but I would argue that almost all of the Tortoise/Mogwai inspired post-rock bands have matched or bested the best efforts of those two bands. See, the thing about math rock is that because of the frenetic playing and complexity it often comes off like prog rock but much more dissonant and experimental. And lacking memorable tunes. Spiderland is so brilliant and memorable because while Slint really got down into some distorted, angular guitar playing and flat out rocking moments they also wrote some affecting, powerful songs. I think I mentioned this in my review of Spiderland, but watching the band perform it live a few summers ago at the Pitchfork Music Festival, I could look around and see thousands of people who had, like me, memorized every deft movement.

This brings us to Exploded Drawing. It is a good album, indeed, often very good. The songs are perfectly competent and always interesting to listen to, but, well, nothing really sticks with you. It's the same thing I see happening with modern noise/indie/rock/experimental bands with mostly unprintable names like Holy F*ck, F*ck Buttons, HEALTH, et. al.: they have interesting sounds/textures and their songs are flat out cool and/or rocking, but none of it really sticks with you. Billy Corgan once dismissed Pavement by saying something like "no one wakes up humming Pavement songs", which is provably false, but it's the kind of thing I think about when I listen to those bands and Exploded Drawing. I enjoy it, I don't regret the money I spent on it, and I'll probably listen to it a few times a year for the rest of my life. But it'll never be the album I make copies of for people I know; it'll never be the album I put on 'best of' or 'my personal favorite' lists.

This review may seem like an indictment of math rock-leaning post rock in general and Exploded Drawing in particular, but it wasn't my original intention. In all fairness I would qualify this album as above average post-Slint indie rock and the "math rock-leaning post rock" bands mentioned above are all worth checking out for those interested. Assuming you like this kind of stuff, Exploded Drawing is highly recommended. However I caution anyone looking into these bands--Shipping News is the only one I can really vouch for, because I don't have any full lengths by June of 44 or the others--and hoping for some kind of underground, undiscovered masterpiece on the level of a Spiderland. I fear that Exploded Drawing is the sort of thing an over eager record store employee or *ahem* music critic might foist upon you with the best intentions. But there's a line between very good genre excursions and very good, lasting music. Polvo managed to make the former but not the latter. To put it simply, they don't transcend their genre.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Crystal Antlers- Untitled EP

Between bands like Deerhunter, No Age, Liars, Animal Collective, Deerhoof, and Comets On Fire, it's been a pretty diverse and excellent decade for noise rock/pop. And I'm not even that much of an expert to know some of the newer and/or more underground bands that have emerged in the past few years who fit into that group, too. But I think that Crystal Antlers are the first band who take a direct influence from that group while also still maintaining their own sound and inspiring a listener to want to follow their career. And all they've got to their name so far beyond live shows is an EP and a MySpace page.

Listening to this untitled EP for the first time, I very quickly thought they were some kind of Comets On Fire rip off. Specifically Field Recordings From The Sun and earlier era Comets On Fire, when they hadn't quite let their classic rock influences bleed through: noisy, wandering guitars; swirling noise and distortion all over the place; rock solid but loose and rocking drums and bass; an unhinged singer who either shouts or screams everything. But on subsequent listens, this EP starts to take on its own identity and character. Crystal Antlers aren't as jammy as Comets On Fire, for starters. And while they maintain a stupefying level of noise and distortion they sometimes let in moments of psychedelic relief, always showing a keen ability for knowing when to ease up the attack and when to press it home. I don't know how else to explain it, but this music is the sort of stuff you think you'll only want to listen to a couple times before filing it away but then quickly becomes a daily staple. It goes from headache inducer to fist pumper. It helps that, like the aforementioned Comets On Fire, they never forget proper songwriting and rocking amidst all the chaos.

The first two tracks of this EP burn by without a look back until we get to the magnificent 'A Thousand Eyes', which is the Rosetta's Stone to getting this band and why they're good. It starts with some spacey guitar noise and a minimalist melody with tinkling percussion before the full throttle assault hits again, underpinned by an electric organ. Then there's that great moment where the chorus comes out of nowhere and the singer's voice strains to hit the high notes. A brief pause and we're off again, repeating the cycle before we slow things down at the 2:00 mark and let the noise quiet a bit. A psychedelic rock interlude ensues, complete with organ and guitar overlapping each other while the bass and drums pound out a slow motion wallop. Then some "hoo hoo hoo" wordless vocals sweeten the deal a bit, the mix growing denser until we break right back into the chorus. This song reveals all the elements at work in the band's sound: noise, psychedelia, pop songwriting, and flattening rock. On a similar note, the EP closing and appropriately titled 'Parting Song For The Torn Sky' is seven minutes of the best stuff Comets On Fire never recorded, the paint peeling howls enough to stop hearts and awaken the dead. The whole EP package brings to mind old stand-by adjectives like 'incendiary', 'pulverising', and 'powerful' while also demonstrating that sometimes it's not just hyperbole when these terms are used about music.

It's tempting to play a guessing game for how Crystal Antlers's debut album will sound--less noise, more noise, more pop, less pop, more psychedelic, less psychedelic??--but I suppose it's enough for now to enjoy this 6 song sampler platter and appreciate how the band has managed to combine those elements already. This may not be the kind of "out of the blue, fully formed, shot across the bow" that TV On The Radio's debut EP was, but it's still damn good.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Videogame Solipsist: Video Games Or Video...Something Else??

With the release of Flower and Noby Noby Boy, and my recent purchase of a 360, I feel like I'm more immersed in the videogame arena again. Enough so that I'm musing on the distinction between things that are definitively "videogames" as we've always know them and new "kind of a videogame, but kind of not" things like the aforementioned two titles.

Flower, as seen above, is a "game" in which you exist inside the 'dream' of flowers inside someone's apartment, dreams in which you control a 'train' of flower petals that fly about fields setting off chains of color and sound by hitting other flowers and so forth. It's not a "videogame" in the traditional sense that we think of, though. I haven't played it but my impression has been it's more akin to interactive art. Perhaps it's better to say non-videogame interactive electronic entertainment. This is a fine distinction to make, I admit, and most of my thinking on the subject has to do with the problematic definition of what a "videogame" is, not to mention the even tougher definition of what a "game" is.
So I'm going to just come out and roughly define a game as something you can win or lose. There's some sort of 'goal' you're trying to obtain. In a fighting game, it's to beat your opponent or win the tournament. In a strategy game, it's to complete your mission objectives or conquer the world. In an arcade style game, it's to get as many points as possible before you run out of lives. These are all simplistic examples but they're what I mean when I say 'win' or 'lose.' Can you 'lose' at Flower?? Noby Noby Boy might be a better point of debate, as it seems to be just a "stretching, eating, and pooping simulator", to paraphrase a friend. There is gameplay to it, but it's the kind of game that sits on the border between "videogame" and "tech demo" or "videogame" and "interactive art"/" non-videogame interactive electronic entertainment." You can't really win or lose the game, though there is apparently some overarching thing about combining what you eat and how far you stretch with players across the world to get the titular character and an accomplice to other planets. Or something.

Flower and Noby Noby Boy exist somewhere in the space between the different types of videogames. There's simplistic videogames like, say, Pac Man in which the goal is to survive as long as possible/get a high score and there is no 'story' to speak of; actiony affair like Gears Of War which has some story and a bit more gameplay complexity; games like BioShock or Half-Life which primarily tell story through the gameplay and the game world; games like Metal Gear Solid 4, which are tell most of their story through long, involved, movie-like cutscenes. Of coure I'm leaving out co-operative or competitive multiplayer games, which have narratives of their own. Anyway, while there are many more examples and types of games that sit in between these, I feel like Noby Noby Boy and Flower take the medium to a different place in which there is very little "gameplay" and no standard "goal", no true "winning", and the story is either all up to the player to fill in or done in a minimalist, impressionistic way. For the sake of argument, Peggle has very little gameplay (you choose where a ball goes, to reduce it to its basic elements) yet I still think it's a videogame. SimCity has no standard "goal", there's no true "winning" to it and you only truly "lose" if you give up, yet I consider it a videogame. Finally, Shadow Of The Colossus tells its story in a minimalist, impressionistic way yet I absolutely would call it a videogame.
On the other hand, there's something like AudioSurf, which lets you use songs on your computer to make levels for a 'game.' This sort of concept was done earlier with Vib Ribbon, which never saw release in the U.S. And anyway, AudioSurf is more of a 'game' in the traditional sense. It's controlled like a racing game but the gameplay is more akin to a puzzle game in which you drive through colored blocks and try to match them together in the grid below your car. You can't really lose no matter how badly you do but there is some skill to it and you have a goal in mind--get the highest score possible on a certain song at a certain difficulty level. True, you can just use it as a semi-interactive visualizer in which you inhabit music and experience it visually as much as aurally--something that was also done before in a different way by Rez. I would certainly say AudioSurf is more of a game than the two PS3 games discussed above, but I don't think of it on the same level as, say, Fallout 3 or Killzone 2. Again, it's somewhere in the gray area between the different types of videogames.

I could make all sorts of mealy mouthed comments about how Flower, Noby Noby Boy, and AudioSurf are art games whereas Gears Of War isn't remotely an 'art' game, but this doesn't help define what they are. They're all technically "videogames" in the same way that Die Hard and Eraserhead are "movies." But movies are just something you watch even if the experience is different. There's more to "do" in Gears Of War, more "gameplay" so to speak. But should this be our basis for saying what is and what isn't a "videogame"?? Is the level of interactivity what determines it??

I'm not really sure. And I'm not sure my definition of a game as something that has a goal which can or can't be achieved helps us, either. This is one of those tricky things where lots of gray areas come into play and nothing can be easily divided into groups. Still, I wanted to point out how different Flower and Noby Noby Boy are and to compare/contrast them to other, more traditional "videogames." I would argue they're as much tech demos and interactive art installations as they are videogames. It's good to see the art form expanding in this way, growing more 'artistic' in one direction while other branches like Wii Sports and Rock Band bring the medium to people who never thought of themselves as "gamers." Maybe what we need isn't a new label for these type of games so much as a different way of approaching them from both a consumer and a critical standpoint: what they make you feel and think is more important that if you had fun or what you 'did.'

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Primer: Part 3: Shins- Wincing The Night Away

In 2007, one of the biggest names in the indie rock world released an album to mixed reviews. A controversial album that divided fans, it suggested for some the beginning of the end or even was the end itself. Those who felt this way argued that the band were trying too hard to be something they were not, and how everything that used to make them great was mostly missing.

That album was Modest Mouse's We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank. However, James Mercer of the Shins appears on it, and his band released an album that same year which drew mixed reviews and divided fans, too.

That album was Wincing The Night Away. And it, dear readers, is what we music critics call a "growing pains" album. This is shorthand for any album in which a band spends most of the run time expanding their palette, their approach to music, or similarly experimenting. Typically this results in music that is interesting and different than what the band had done before but is nevertheless not a completely successful transition.

I have to wonder what it must've been like for all those people who bought this one based on their love of the Shins from Garden State and their first two albums. I say this because most of what originally attracted people to this band is absent or played down: their excellent indie pop sound, intractable hooks, and James Mercer's way with songwriting. In its place is an album full of experimentation, patience, and James Mercer's way with songwriting. Er, wait, not that third one.

In all seriousness, Mercer remarked during the PR blitz for the album that he had been suffering from terrible insomnia. This helps explain Wincing The Night Away's frequently delirious lyrics which take one step past the pleasant psychedelia of Oh, Inverted World into the realm of Brian Eno "if it sounds good, it is good" lyrics and Stephen Malkmus-ian "it doesn't have to make sense to be awesome and memorable." I don't know what "and the necessary balloon lies a corpse on the floor/we're p*ssed on far too many sprites/and they're all standing up for their rights" is supposed to mean but I sure like the sound of it.

But the prosecution's case against this album will come down to how un-catchy most of the music is. Coming off of the power pop masterpieces of Chutes Too Narrow, you will likely listen to this one a few times and wonder where all the great songs went off to. Yeah, it's the same band and their sound isn't radically different, but at the same time things aren't the same and the approach has changed. 'Spilt Needles' is the most guilty party, with its whip crack heavy drums and cavalcade of keyboard atmospherics/wails along with a heavily treated guitar. There's also the percussive drum loops of 'Sea Legs' to pick at, as well as the syrupy synthesizer backing of the percussion-less 'Red Rabbits.' And the ominous 'Black Wave', which picks up where 'Your Algebra' from Oh, Inverted World left off. The total effect is that of an indie pop band who made an album that puts a premium on experimenting and pushing themselves to do things differently, to not rely on easy choruses or hooks. If you're looking for a sequel to the first or second Shins album, you'd be best advised to move along.

However, I still find a lot to enjoy on this album. I like the idea that bands are on a continual journey to new and exciting places, so I silently cheer whenever I think about this album. Frankly I'm surprised the band had the guts to do something like this. Don't misjudge where I'm going with this. This album isn't a huge departure from what they had done before; at the same time, while it's good and has some interesting, satisfying music, it still is, as I mentioned earlier, a "growing pains" album. It's different from their first two albums and it's not as good but it promises a lot for the future. Things like the short interlude 'Pam Berry' (with its huge guitar sound), the way 'Turn On Me' slowly offers its delights over a few minutes instead of cramming it all in quick like they used to, and the surprising keyboard solo outro to 'Sea Legs' make me excited for their next release. I never thought I would be interested to see where the Shins go next. After Chutes Too Narrow they seemed destined to release an excellent pop/rock album that was about a half hour long once every 3 or 4 years. In this scenario, their albums would always be good but they would have a steady, unexciting consistency like The Sea & Cake albums have. After Wincing The Night Away, I'm going to get their next album day one instead of "meh, it's just more pop/rock, I'll get around to it someday..."

While Wincing The Night Away is inevitably always going to be known as the Shins's "growing pains" album, one that some fans will enjoy but most will find weak and too different, it's still worth a listen. It may be more enjoyable as a document of where they might go than it is for where they went, but that's not a bad thing. Anyway, if you just want more of the same no one is stopping you from listening to Chutes Too Narrow and Oh, Inverted World.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Video: The Beatles- Birthday

Yeah, it's my birthday tomorrow. I'm turning 25. I'm going out to eat after work so I won't be posting anything. Don't worry, I'll have something substantial for Thursday.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Primer: Part 2/Album Of The Week: Shins- Chutes Too Narrow

I'm working on a theory that the beginning of every Shins album announces its intention within the first song. Oh, Inverted World opens with 'Caring Is Creepy', which has astral keyboards and is a chugging mid-tempo jangle-pop gem. Wincing The Night Away's 'Sleeping Lessons' has a dreamy keyboard line and James Mercer sounds like he's singing underwater; it takes almost a full two minutes and 30 seconds before the electric guitars kick in and the songs sounds 'full' finally. What does Chutes Too Narrow begin with?? Some clapping, a "Woo!" and a patient acoustic guitar intro that gets punctured by electric guitars 40 seconds in. Before we hit the minute mark we're already in the midst of one of the most rocking and downright raunchy songs the Shins have put to tape--Mercer even manages a scream on the "be ready to remember" line.

Yeah, it's gunna be that kind of album.

Chutes Too Narrow represents a lot of things for the Shins. As alluded to in my review of their first album, this one sees the band fully plugging into the Northwest music scene, enlisting Built To Spill/Modest Mouse producer Phil Elk to help get the abundance of electric guitars on display to sound just right. It also represents the band not only matching their impressive debut but overcoming it; Oh, Inverted World is nearly flawless indie pop and essential to the zeitgeist of this decade thanks to Garden State, but pound for pound Chutes is better. This is an album bursting with addictive hooks and excellent songwriting--Wincing The Night Away is more challenging and interesting to talk about, but Mercer really perfected his way with arrangements and lyrics on this one. Lastly, Chutes Too Narrow represents the band filtering out some of their 60s pop/psychedelic tendencies for something much more akin to the power pop of contemporaries like The New Pornographers. Funnily enough, it was during this same era when Belle & Sebastian were themselves moving toward power pop from their twee/indie pop beginnings. Once again, comparisons could be drawn between the Shins and those Scottish masters. But I digress.

The thing that strikes me most about this album today is just how energetic it is. We aren't quite to the spastic levels of Architecture In Helsinki but we're pretty close. Even the slower songs like 'Young Pilgrims' have a forward momentum to them (I also dig the pedal steel on this track; see 'Gone For Good' for more of the Shins going country). Most of this energy is due to the way the album was mixed, moving the guitars and vocals up front while burying the keyboards and bass. This is easily the Shins's most guitar centric album yet. Thankfully Phil Elk was on hand to capture the results;I say "thankfully" because he is an old hand at capturing these sort of distinctive guitar tones after working with Built To Spill, who also make use of guitars with a very clean, crisp, and slightly reverb-y sound. 'Saint Simon' has some staccato guitar chording as plucked from reggae (or funk) which somehow works in this context even once the band gets to the second half of the song with the angelic 'la da da da da' chorus. 'Turn A Square', meanwhile, reminds me of excellent group interplay in the beginning to the Beatles's 'Don't Let Me Down' only played faster and continuously.

On a side note, 'Those To Come' is such a great way to end this album. It's so reserved and poetic; something about the atmosphere it creates is utterly perfect and makes me think of whistling tea kettles on foggy weekend mornings. It makes me long for a James Mercer solo album whenever I hear it because--especially after the growth shown on Wincing The Night Away--I think he could make a really excellent album on his own.

I wanted to complain that this album is too short, but I only think that when I look at the runtime. Chutes Too Narrow is short and to the point; all excess and flab has been trimmed away. It is an as-perfect-as-we're-likely-to-get-in-this-world power pop album. While it's unclear where they'll go from their third album, Chutes stands as the band's pinnacle and is my favorite of their's thus far.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Primer: The Shins Part 1- Oh, Inverted World

Oh, Inverted World only took on significance and popular appeal years after it was released, which is an odd thing to happen to an album. It was highly praised on its release and it sold well, yes, but it was hardly a blockbuster success. No one was thinking of the band in the terms they do now. Anyway, in my recollection the trajectory and heart of this decade didn't really start to develop until 2003 or 2004, with the rise of websites like Pitchfork and the blog culture. It was another indie rock revolution as had happened in both the 80s and 90s with fanzines and the like, but this one moved faster and reached more people. The Shins were one of the first beneficiaries of this--particularly after the epochal Garden State film (love it or hate it, it's incredibly important to this decade and the youth coming of age during it). It was as if everyone went out and bought Oh, Inverted World 3 years after its release and subsequently decided that good music was worth seeking out since it was easier than ever to find (via the aforementioned websites and blogs) and to sample before buying (via piracy/torrents or things like MySpace and YouTube). When Wincing The Night Away, the first post-Garden State album by the Shins, was released in 2007 it went to number 2 on the Billboard charts and was, more significantly, the highest charting album that their record label, Sub Pop, ever had. Speaking of which...while this decade has seen the further strengthening of well established indie stalwarts like Matador, Merge, Thrill Jockey, and Touch N Go, it was also the decade when Sub Pop re-invented itself from "that grunge rock label" to "that indie rock label." The Shins were one of the first big indie rock acts that Sub Pop collected, including Iron & Wine, Fleet Foxes, Wolf Parade, and The Postal Service.

That's a lot of heady stuff swirling around this rather unassuming band and even more unassuming album. And even if most people only bought it because it was "the band who had that song from the one scene in Garden State" it doesn't change the fact that Oh, Inverted World is both one of the most fully formed, distinctive debuts of the decade and one of the best indie pop albums ever released. True, The Shins borrow from the pop/rock/psychedelia of the 60s. True, they sounded enough like indie pop torch bearers Belle & Sebastian to make comparisons between the two inevitable. But, at least on this album, The Shins are weirder and more psychedelic than Belle & Sebastian ever got. Revisiting Oh, Inverted World, I'm struck by how, on one hand, it's as catchy and near-perfect as I remember, but on the other hand, how strange it can be.

I'm not just talking about 'Your Algebra', either. The lyrics are memorably surreal at certain points. Behind all that addictive indie pop are some odd visuals and observations. 'New Slang', "that song from the one scene in Garden State", presents us with the following couplet that I think would disturb anyone who bothered to pay attention:

God speed all the bakers at dawn
May they cut all their thumbs
And bleed into their buns
'till they melt away

As the band are from New Mexico, I'd like to point out that the Southwest has a rich tradition of weird bands, like The 13th Floor Elevators and Butthole Surfers. However, their sound and lyrics remind me more of the Northwest during the turn of the Millennium. In the era after grunge died off, the Northwest became a hotbed of indie rock. Inventive, fascinating bands and musicians who drew from obvious influences but made music all of their own came into being: Built To Spill, Modest Mouse, Elliott Smith, Sleater-Kinney, The Microphones, and so on. Modest Mouse were another pre-super fame in the 2001 era when Oh, Inverted World was release. Modest Mouse used to be an indie rock band who wrote a lot of strange, fascinating music, and as they are thanked in the liner notes of Oh, Inverted World, they were probably one inspiration for the Shins. After all, Isaac Brock was not a man adverse to writing some surreal-but-poignant couplets.

Still, I'd be selling the album under false pretenses if I didn't praise the music. The Shins's second album Chutes Too Narrow is a much more straightforward and rocking release in comparison, but this one is perfect, catchy pop/rock. The electric guitars on it are more jangle than rock, more reverb than distortion. There are both more keyboards and more acoustic guitars than you probably remember as well; the bass playing is normally melodic in the Paul McCartney-style. All told, this is an album without much bottom end. But indie pop never does have that, unless you're Beat Happening. And even then it's only because Calvin Johnson likes his baritone vocals just fine. But I digress. Oh, Inverted World also has the most psychedelic touches of any Shins release though they're subtle and to-the-point. For what it's worth, however, when I saw the band live in '04 they played an extended psychedelic jam intro to 'Pressed In A Book' that came out of seemingly nowhere and set my heart a-twitter. Wincing The Night Away has some arty elements to it and it's nowhere near as immediate as their first two albums, but even it isn't as psychedelic as their first one gets. Songs like 'Your Algebra' and 'Pressed In A Book' represent an interesting direction the band could revisit someday.

We can look back now and say with certainty that the first Shins album will stand alongside whatever other albums you might wish to throw against the wall that we will build one day to define this decade. From the present, we can also say with certainty where the band would go from Oh, Inverted World. But if one examines it in a vacuum, pretends one was back in 2001 and feigns ignorance of the other two albums, the Shins's debut stands up as a truly exciting first release from a band who have an impressively complete sound and aesthetic. Oh, Inverted World does what most great debuts do: it suggests that while this is great, the best is yet to come. It presents a band with distinctive music of variety and consistency, but suggests a few pathes they might follow from here. Downright essential indie pop listening.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Video: Husker Du- 'Could You Be The One?

I was re-reading Our Band Could Be Your Life and it got me in the mood for this sort of music. I've never actually listened to Husker Du, but I do vaguely recall seeing this video on MTV years ago. For some reason I remembered this song as being slower and with less guitar noise. Well, whatever.

It's funny how much of what we think of as 'alternative rock' or 'grunge' from the early to mid 90s was already well established by the late 80s. Between Dinosaur Jr., Husker Du, and Fugazi I think most of the good things about alternative music were already done with by the time Nirvana arrived in '91. But I digress.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Smashing Pumpkins- Adore

We all have comfort albums from our youth, I think. Albums that maybe we never listen to but can't bear to part with. Maybe it's something you're a little embarrassed of owning, too, and every time you see it on the shelf you think "my, how far I've come." But when you're really going through a hard time you'll turn off all the lights, sneak into a closet, turn off your cellphone, and listen to that album over and over, remember all the other times in the past you gave yourself over to it to help escape for a little while. These kind of albums aren't guilty pleasures, necessarily. Rather, they're more like comfort food: something very familiar to you that you don't eat very often but it just makes you feel warm and safe when you eat it.

Well, Adore is one of those for me. I've owned it since it came out and either it gets better with age or I just cherish my time with it more and more because it allows me to be nostalgic. The misunderstood, depressed, and incredibly young version of me that bought this seems to rise up inside me when I hear it now. Even flipping through the booklet takes me back--how the dark, gothic looking photos stirred something inside me, as did the see-through top of D'arcy, which was incredibly sexy and incredibly frightening at the same time. The whole album seemed to be giving me a glimpse of the future, when I would be a misunderstood, depressed, and slightly older man who had experienced the deep emotions and poetic musings of Adore. And I have.

The initial press for Adore suggested it would be an electronica album and the first single 'Ava Adore' furthered this, unfortunately. It was like a halfway point between the band's guitar based alt. rock and electronica as was in fashion from '97 to '98. Except that the album itself was mostly moody and introspective, neither rock nor electronica. If the word 'gothic' ever applied to a Smashing Pumpkins album, it does to this. Even when there are electronic touches they are far from club anthems or brainy IDM. Frequently the band uses a piano and/or acoustic guitars. Furthermore, when there are electric guitars, they re not used as lead instruments. The one exception I can think of being the epic 'For Martha', which builds and builds until the towering solo erupts from the mountaintop.

The cynical critic in me wants to take a few cracks at this album. So I'm going to put him in a room with the 10 Year Fan part of me and let them go.

For starters, at just over 72 minutes Adore is ridiculously long.

But...I really like all the songs; sometimes I love long albums and just getting lost inside the world they create.

Well, still, Adore is backloaded with the longest, most pondering songs. All the good stuff is up front.

But...I really like it that way. It's like how the three intense, long, psychedelic songs on Modest Mouse's The Moon & Antarctica make up the middle of the album. Only in this case the album is getting more deep and deliberate as it goes, making the come-down of 'Blank Page' and '17' all the better.

Well, 'The Tale Of Dusty & Pistol Pete' doesn't really fit the album. It's lighthearted and downright poppy.

But...that's precisely why it works so well on the album. It's surrounded by the intense 'Pug' and the desperately sad piano character study 'Annie Dog.' And it's a nice bit of appropriate levity in a heavy, dense album--this is hardly as upbeat and catchy as you think.

Well, Billy Corgan is kind of a jerk and some of his lyrics here are garbage.

But...OK, he is kind of a jerk, but I think Adore is his most consistently good set of lyrics ever. Yes, it's sad and gothic, but in a good way.

Well, Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness and Siamese Dream are better and more popular, so nyah!!

But...they may be more popular, sure. They may get way more critical acclaim and may show up on more lists. But Adore is secretly the best Smashing Pumpkins album. It's the odd duck of their discography and not the place for newcomers to start. Yet it's so good that it's one of my comfort albums; so good that even when I argue with myself over it I end up loving it.

Well, at least I got the last word in.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Shuffling III




1) Something Against You by Pixies: Here we have the Pixies in all their raw glory, yelling and loud guitars and fast rock. This is one of those songs that doesn't work on its own but in the context of an album, it's genius.

2) Slavin' Away (live) by The Fiery Furnaces: I honestly can't remember what album this is from. Originally, I mean; this here is the live version from their live album Remember. Turns out it's from Rehearsing My Choir, which makes sense since I don't really like that album. Yet this version makes me want to revisit it. Or, at the very least, force myself to listen to Remember all the way through in one sitting.

3) Full Throttle by The Prodigy: During one of my many drunken nights, I got the hankering to hear both their best known work (Fat Of The Land) and their most respect, Music For The Jilted Generation. I've always loved that album title. It's got that 'big, important, era defining' ring to it, doubly so for a mid 90s electronica album. I'm not entirely sure this kind of big beat music will survive or age unscathed, but I still admire the curiously psychedelic and drug addled elements of it all. If you haven't listened to Dig Your Own Hole by the Chemical Brothers in awhile, you might be surprised at what you hear. Regardless, The Prodigy are a group who's critical respect will come some day. Anyway, this is one of those good mid-album chuggers that keeps you moving between the bigger or slower tracks.

4) You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb by Spoon: Spoon grow more and more popular and beloved with each album yet they're never become too popular or released a sell out, bad album. Even the more poppy affair like this is pretty awesome. There's just something about their classicist pop/rock as approached from an indie rock perspective that I can't get enough of. And Britt Daniel Daniel has one of those voices that shouldn't be good yet is.

5) Dead by Pixies: Damn, this is the Pixies Sandwich Edition of Shuffling, isn't it, kids?? And this is oddly similar to 'Something Against You' in that I don't think this song works particularly well on its own but it works brilliantly in the context of the album. Why, as this song ends, I can just hear the lead in to 'Monkey Gone To Heaven' in my head...

Monday, February 9, 2009

Album of the Week: Ween- The Mollusk

If you were a young nerd in the late 80s and early 90s, you probably really liked Weird Al and They Might Be Giants, bands that were themselves nerdy but incredibly intelligent and with a keen ear for pop music (or in Weird Al's case, a keen sense of turning pop music into something that was clever and/or funny). They had a knack for reproducing various genres of music and their humor bordered the lines between PG and PG-13 while often having obscure references you didn't get until years later--I remember hearing They Might Be Giants's 'Meet James Ensor' and assuming he was some character they made up, like 'Mean Mr. Mustard' by the Beatles.

Well, Ween are kind of like the band you get into when you're old enough to think about and experiment with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. You never outgrow They Might Be Giants or Weird Al, but they also belong to a younger version of you in many ways. But Ween, now here's an older version of what you had. They're equally witty and equally adept at covering musical genres and writing brilliant pop songs. But Ween are like the R rated version of the above bands, juvenile while at the same time very adult in nature. Ween tow the line between absurdity and sincerity so often you're never sure if a song like 'It's Gonna Be (Alright)' is for real or not. And while they wrote about adult things like sex or drugs, they wrote about them in a decidedly immature way.

The Mollusk is Ween's answer to questions about sincerity vs. parody and originality vs. genre pastiches. Yes, it's a vague concept album about nautical things; yes, it has a song called 'Waving My Dick In The Wind; yes, it borrows heavily from psychedelia, art rock, and prog rock. But no it's not a joke; it is a masterpiece.

The reason Ween can pull of this album is that they are utterly committed to the music they make even if some of it is just a joke to them. You don't record music you hate to make fun of it. Ween may be goofy and immature at times, but they are serious about their love for music. Album opener 'I'm Dancing In The Show Tonight' is a goofy musical number complete with silly voices and a spot-on piano melody. The title track is a transcendent ode to the creature itself, complete with a cheap synthesizer chorus of flutes and brass. 'I'll Be Your Jonny On The Spot' combines a superfast drum machine with crunchy guitars and deadpan vocal delivery. Then there's 'The Blarney Stone', a Scottish bar sing-along with appropriate ambient/crowd sounds. And the instrumental 'Pink Eye (On My Leg)', with its cheesy and cheap sounding drum loop...and dog barks...and what sounds like a guy burping or saying "uhhhhh" slowed down. Of course I would be remiss if I didn't bring up 'Ocean Man', which is so pleasant and catchy that it was used in the Spongebob Squarepants movie.

And so we come full circle: Ween, a band who can write about very R-rated things (one of their classics is a track called 'L.M.L.Y.P.';you might be able to guess what that stands for) but still retain a child-like whimsy. Even when Ween are spinning a style of music or some genre to their own means--sincerely or otherwise--you never doubt their love of music and their way with both songwriting and instrumental chops. Anybody can write lazy, simple joke songs but it takes a truly skilled band to pull off 'Buckingham Green', which is like a trip from Syd Barret-style mid 60s psychedelia to early 70s prog rock and back.

While the rest of their albums might be funnier, weirder, more interesting, more profane, more populist, or more varied, The Mollusk simply and neatly demonstrates everything that makes Ween such a great band. You might wish they took things more seriously. You might wish they took things less seriously. But you could hardly wish for a better and more consistent album from them.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Video: Beat Happening- Pine Box Derby

There's something sublimely off-kilter, lackadaisical, and brilliant about Beat Happening. Calvin Johnson has one of those voices that you'll probably hate until you've heard it enough, at which point you love it. It fits the music so perfectly too, the way the song barely holds together and stumbles along as if the band can't be bothered to keep on the same time wave length. To put it another way, it's so loose it wraps back around to tight.

As Johnson sings about witches and vampires we get some masterful images of the band knowingly dancing in a bad way. Which reminds me of how Calvin Johnson might've become the American Morrissey if he had had a 'better' voice and gave enough of a damn to try to make Beat Happening into a huge success. Whatever, man, Beat Happening are just as excellent as The Smiths but on their own terms.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Rapture- Echoes

I want to begin this review by admitting that when this album first came out, I thought it was absolutely amazing. Dance-punk wasn't a terribly familiar kind of music to most of my generation. At least it wasn't to me; bands like Gang Of Four, Liquid Liquid, and ESG still aren't very popular, that is to say, they aren't some of the more obvious ones that older music fans will point you to when you're starting out. So Echoes came as a revelation, and I'll never forget listening to it in the winter of '03, 'Open Up Your Heart' starting just as snow began to fall when a friend and I were on the way home from going out to eat. It was magic, and the rest of the album was a frenetic throwdown that combined the kinds of music he and I were heavily into: arty punk/post-punk, experimental and otherwise electronic music, and funky dance music.

But with that history in mind, Echoes is an album that I've recently revisited and it doesn't hold up. Perhaps it was the blush of youth, where every new album I heard was exciting and interesting. Perhaps my tastes have changed a bit. Maybe I'm a little bit more keen on spotting something that I think will endure instead of being a momentary, 'capturing a time period well' thing. Or perhaps this album isn't as good as I thought, not a 'classic' though still pretty good.

You know, I'm going to go with that last 'perhaps.'

The Rapture were at the forefront of the dance-punk explosion that took place roughly around 2003, which was sort of concurrent with the freak-folk explosion and slightly after the new garage rock revival thing had begun to die down. As alluded to above, their music combines the energy and raw power of punk, the production techniques and techno beats/bleeps of electronic music, and the booty shaking power of funk. Single 'House Of Jealous Lovers' seemed to speak to everyone, giving us music we didn't really know we wanted. There's no denying the greatness of this song--it'll easily go down as one of the defining tracks for this decade, at least as far as the 'underground' is concerned--but barring a few other gems, the thing I've come to realize is that Echoes is a fun album anchored by a fantastic song and a few great ideas spread out thinly over 11 tracks. Nowadays, Echoes sounds very homogenic, and I usually lose interest by 'Killing.'

This kind of situation, in which one retrospectively realizes an album isn't nearly as good as one thought, happens. It happens a few times to each of us, I think. A band will release a single or two and then eventually have those on their first album and the music press and all the scenesters go crazy for it, praising it to high heaven. I mean seriously, Pitchfork gave this album their 'best of' status for 2003. 2003 wasn't an incredible year for music but still, there were better albums than this. But I digress. In the end, you come to know that whatever was praised so highly, what captured your heart so strongly, doesn't hold up. Echoes is an OK album; it's a fun listen and really good to drive or dance to, but it's not going to go down in history. Other than 'Open Up Your Heart' and 'Infatuation', the album is little more than 9 variations on the sound 'House Of Jealous Lovers' established. It's an excellent song, sure, but I don't need that many things like it. Maybe this is a good thing if, again, you want a peppy, energetic album to groove to, but it doesn't make for a timeless music.

The Rapture face the same problem that many bands do who release a single or album that defines a sub-genre of music: where to go from there?? Too often the new sub-genre attracts a hundred new bands who all sound nearly identical, the 'sound' becoming a homogenized and dogmatic one in the process. Dance-punk is a great starting point, but you've got go somewhere from there. Unfortunately, The Rapture chose to wait 3 years before releasing their next album, by which point no one really cared about them anymore. Moreover, they had trimmed away some of the interesting experimental/punk aspects of their music, effectively making them a white boy indie rock dance band. The only band of the 2003 dance-punk era who seemed to have escaped is Liars, who were always far more 'out there' than the other bands and quickly proved it with their second and third albums. I suppose LCD Soundsystem escaped too by virtue of the fact that they were always much closer to the dance side of the dance-punk equation. Also, with songs as good as those on Sound Of Silver, it wouldn't matter what 'style' you were. that was a classic album, one that'll stand the test of time (probably). Just as most of the hardcore punk bands are a historical curiosity because they didn't go anywhere from super fast, super aggresive punk rock, dance-punk bands will probably go down as a historical curiosity because most of them didn't go anywhere from their starting points, either. As a 'scene' they're important and good, but as individual bands they're forgettable. I'm sure The Rapture's follow-up to Echoes, Pieces of the People We Love, is decent, but I really don't care.

It may seem as if I'm being a bit hard on Echoes, but I like to think of this as more 'correcting the curve.' For what it is and what it's trying to be, it makes for good, fun, danceable music with a handful of fantastic ideas and sounds. Unfortunately, these fantastic ideas and sounds are stretched to fill 11 songs, and anytime I can tell someone they only really need to hear one song ('House Of Jealous Lovers') off a record, I'm a bit reluctant to get too crazy about it. Anyway, Echoes is good but it's not 5 stars, 10 out of 10 good. In the end I just feel...ambivalent about it.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Videogame Solipsist: Baldur's Gate I

Baldur's Gate(PC) 1998
In the mid to late 90s, I flirted with being even nerdier than I already was: Magic The Gathering and other 'collectible card games' became a short time obsession. In fact, I had subscribed to InQuest magazine and eventually tried forcing all of this on my friends. As if that wasn't enough, the same went for a starter kit of Dungeons & Dragons. I might have gotten my friends to try collectible card games once or twice, but the D&D kit never saw use beyond me reading the big manual over and over, messing with the figures included, and wishing I had friends who weren't jerks. Since I never had a girlfriend in high school without being a D&D and Magic playin' fool, I doubt it would've made much difference. And I think I would have really loved D&D because, hell, I'm a writer and I'm a good improviser. Plus I have a soft spot for anything fantasy. On a sidte note, one of friends was really into Warhammer, specifically the naval sort of Warhammer, so I don't know why he felt so 'above' my stuff. But I guess this is just nerdy kettles calling nerdy pots black.

Anyway, it was during this time that my family got a second, newer computer and I was getting fed up with my Nintendo 64. Thus I ended up going through a phase where I played a bunch of awesome PC games in about 3 months before I got back into console gaming again thanks to the Playstation I got for Christmas in 1998. With Half-Life 1 and Starcraft fresh in my memory--two games that revolutionized their respective genres--it seemed only appropriate that I would play Baldur's Gate in early '99, a game that similarly revolutionized PC RPGs after they had spent years wandering in the wilderness.
The original Baldur's Gate is one of those "classic" games that you can go back to now and find lots of flaws with. It's a matter of evolution in terms of game mechanics and graphics. Graphically, it hasn't aged badly, but it doesn't still look amazing, either. Mostly, I suppose, the flaws are with its gameplay, which tries to encompass too much in one game. To be a true D&D experience, it would need to allow for a wider range of options and character types. Even though you can go anywhere at any point in the game, theoretically, you're definitely guided down a linear series of stops. At the same time, you'll be hard pressed to finish the game if you don't make a character that's at least very good at combat. Baldur's Gate isn't as combat intensive as the dungeon hacky Icewind Dale games, but it's still more or less mandatory to beat the game. The Fallout games did a bit of a better job with this 'open ended character' idea; it wasn't easy to finish Fallout 1 or 2 with a non-combat character, but it was at least possible. This isn't the case for Baldur's Gate, but then again, that kind of play never interested me. I suppose the biggest problem with the game is that you would really need to know a lot about the D&D universe and rule system to understand most things without trial and error. The death mechanic and spell systems are very, very different from most other RPGs and without reading the impressively thick manual you would only find these things out too late. Even as familiar as I was with D&D, it took me awhile to get over the fact that Warrior types are incredibly basic and have no 'special' attacks. And the armor class thing has thankfully been finessed a bit in later rule revisions of D&D. THAC0?? Oh no!!
However, I'm not here to criticize Baldur's Gate. Sure, the future Bioware/Black Isle games would improve on nearly every aspect of this game--from the combat (the Icewind Dale series), the story/dialogue (Planescape: Torment), to the expansiveness of the world and number of options available to you (Baldur's Gate II)--but there's always something to be said for being first. To my knowledge, this was the first RPG that operated in real time but let you push the spacebar to 'pause' the action and issue commands on the fly. This made the game simultaneously more streamlined and more strategic than the average PC RPG. This 'real time' concept carried over into the non-combat elements of the game, meaning that Baldur's Gate had day/night cycles and changing weather. Unfortunately this tied in with the D&D mechanics of how you regained spells and replenished health, so you would have to stop every so often and 'rest', causing hours to pass in the process so that you would suddenly be in the dead of night and at a disadvantage (unless you had someone with infravision). Or you might have that annoying thing where you try to rest but random enemies interrupt your sleep, so your battered party has to fend off some foes with low health and/or spells. In which case you quickly learned to use (abuse??) the game's save/load system. And if you didn't rest, eventually your party members would complain incessantly and their abilities would suffer. This made the game more realistic but also more frustrating, too.
Though I never got far into the game, the story and characters were the first inkling most of us got of how brilliant Bioware/Black Isle's writers were. The first two Fallout games were out by this point but they were mostly just about the character you made; as they were set in post-nuclear war settings, you were alone for long stretches of time and the world was a lot of empty, moody expanses. Still, it all gets a bit complicated when you know that while Bioware wasn't involved with the Fallout series, Black Isle worked a bit on Baldur's Gate and solely developed later games using the Infinity Engine ( the engine made for Baldur's Gate) including the aforementioned Planescape: Torment and Icewind Dale. At any rate, I was looking over a FAQ for this game yesterday and Baldur's Gate has way more characters than I remember, most of them with unique voice actors and personalities. The most memorable is, of course, the crazy Minsc, who has a hamster named Boo who he thinks is some kind of 'giant space hamster.' It'll be awhile before you forget his battle cry of "Go the eyes Boo, go for the eyes! Rarrrghhhhh!" The story, meanwhile, was a classic fantasy tale of the main character (who you create) trying to figure out his or her backstory set against the backdrop of bandit raids and an iron shortage in the Baldur's Gate/Sword Coast region. I think it eventually comes out that you're a spawn of one of the Gods or Demons of the D&D world, which is a pretty interesting plot twist.
Though the Fallout series got there first, Baldur's Gate set the precedent of Bioware games having moral choices and entirely different quests based on your actions. Of course this moral system is borrowed wholesale from the D&D 'alignment' system, but it arguably makes the first, best, and most consistent use of it in an adaptation of D&D to videogame. Depending on your alignment and the responses you give in dialogue, you can end up intimidating people, tricking them, insulting them, praising them, and much more. Not only did this go for NPCs, it went for your party, too. Depending on their alignment, the characters in your party might leave if they don't like your actions or how you're running things. There are also a few 'pairs' of characters, so if you, say, get rid of Jaheira or Khalid, the other will leave, too. If memory serves, you could even run into situations where your party members were so horrified/disappointed with your actions, they would leave and subsequently attack you. Speaking of killing: since I didn't play Fallout until later, this was also the first RPG I played where you could kill anyone you wanted in the game. Yes, this would call down the guards and eventually powerful bands of mercenaries and troops, but it was a really novel thing for the time.

I still have my complete box copy of Baldur's Gate and looking over the contents just now really puts me back in the mood and mindset of a younger version of me, incredibly excited to sit down with this game and go on an adventure. The Baldur's Gate series always struck a Lord Of The Rings-like balance of exploration, story/dialogue, and combat, and so whenever I think of classic RPGs--PC or console--it's usually what I'm thinking of. Looking back, the game has some flaws insofar as the gameplay is concerned--the difficulty varies wildly depending on your party and how you're playing the game, on top of the sudden curves already inherent to it because of the various assassins and 'boss' characters--and you'll need to do a lot of tweaking and modding to get it to run properly on today's computers. But I would argue that, for its time and for how its aged, Baldur's Gate is every bit as important and still incredible as its '98 brothers, Starcraft and Half-Life.

Just remember to gather your party before venturing forth.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Album of the Week: Nick Cave- No More Shall We Part

It's strange how I often don't notice the lyrics of a song on the first listen. As a writer, you'd think it was what primarily interested me in music, but that's not really the case. Sure, I eventually notice the lyrics on the second or third spin, but music has an ability to communicate meaning and/or narrative without having to state it explicitly.

On No More Shall We Part, Nick Cave has a way of writing songs that function as vivid short stories, most of the narrative contained in the lyrics. The rest of the 'story' is told through the music in an implicit, abstract way. And that is where this sort of album goes from merely great to excellent. There's something about the way the music clings to Cave's songs that fills in the rest of the details. 'Hallelujah' has Warren Ellis's mournful violin floating above the action, putting an image of an overcast dreary day in my head as Cave goes for a walk and tells us what he's thinking. 'God Is In The House' sounds like it was recorded in a church, Cave bellowing to the congregation about suburban hypocrisy and concepts of safety; the timbre of the piano reminds me of old, slightly out-of-tune pianos you hear in so many country churches across the country. And then there's that magic moment where he starts whispering to you as if he's right there...

No More Shall We Part is a classicist's singer/songwriter album through and through (though Cave gives his own unique impassioned spin on the whole thing). It's full of stories and scenes. No song is shorter than four minutes and the entire thing finally draws to a close 67 minutes after starting. Every time I listen to this album I feel like I should be sitting in the dark with candles lit, drinking a bottle of red wine and staring out the window. It's the style of album that people who flirt with the singer/songwriter genre make midway or late into their career where they simply record a bunch of great songs; slow, sad, majestic, introspective songs. They don't worry about whether the album is too long or too plodding or doesn't have a hit single. No More Shall We Part may be mostly slow songs, but its deliberate pace and thoughtful songwriting is the point entirely, what makes it so fantastic.

Nick Cave's career is far too varied (and mostly unfamiliar to me) to easily pigeonhole, but this is without a doubt the best of his singer/songwriter leaning albums, an exquisitely poetic collection of story-songs and song-stories. No More Shall We Part may be a tad overlong, it may drag in places and have poor pacing...but it's a classic in its own right. Pop open a bottle of wine, light some candles, and get ready to stare out the window...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Lil' Indie Round-Up 5

Mommy yes, the Lil Indie Round-Up returns!!
Album: Firelight by The Coral Sea
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Well, it's probably supposed to be some intense torch given the periodic table of elements look of the album title and band name, but to me it sorta looks like a sparkler. So, I dunno: brainy indie rock about chemistry equations??
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Chilly post rock atmospherics (our guitars have a lot of delay and reverb, dude) meet warm, spiky indie rock. With keyboards/piano thrown in for good measure from time to time. This is actually a pretty good album if rather unexceptional. This is a case where the band has their sound down but the songs just aren't there.
Album: Chandeliers by The Boat People
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Well, the intention is clearly to give you the impression of something soft, natural, and pretty. My guess is it's something minimalist--maybe all instrumental, even.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: What we have here is excellent indie pop from Australia. Between it and New Zealand, they're threatening to take the indie pop crown away from Britain and the U.S. This band may not have the most original sound in the world but they have great songs and the hooks embed themselves in you quite nicely. A heaping helping of Belle & Sebastian and a few spoonfuls of harder edged American indie pop, good sir or madam??
Album: Soho Lights by Tat
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Well, other than the fact that I can't get the image to display with the proper colors, it makes me expect something obnoxious and profane. Tat is an exceedingly stupid name for a band, and the album title is a cheeky, insidery New York kind of thing that irks me to no end.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Remember in the mid 90s, when alternative rock was boiled down to a lame halfway point between the pop/punk of Green Day and the ultra generic, watered down grunge rock of bands everyone has forgotten?? This is that, only with a girl singer. And they're from England but you would never know it and they should know better.
Album: Bedroom Superstars by Scarlet Blonde
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Given the musical equipment on display, it's probably some awful bedroom laptop pop affair.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: If there were ever a Massive Attack, Everything But The Girl, and Bjork cover band, and that band went on to write original songs, it would probably sound like this. A very English-y electro-soul pop album with some experimental electronic edges. The singer has got a really nice voice, certainly, and the music/production backing her is good, but those two things don't add up to much and the whole thing is rather unexceptional. Not bad, not good.
Album: Fools Want Noise by Oh My God
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: "Dude, you remember that movie, 'Monkey Shines'?! Let's write an album and have that on the cover!!"
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Think of the most uninspired hard rock you can. This album sounds like that. It's all the hardest rocking but at the same time least good Foo Fighters songs in one place, and the most interesting thing about this band is the backstory of how they got in a car accident before it was released. I'm sorry for that, and I know the band put a lot of work into this, but I don't grade on effort or hardship. Shitty music is shitty music no matter what.
Album: The Kindness Kind by The Kindness King
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: I think someone fell asleep in art class and hurriedly made this cover after having a dream about gay sex and cough syrup. This roughly approximates my idea of what the album sounds like: gay sex on cough syrup. Which is to say, awesome.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: This isn't half bad. This band's got one of those powerful, melodic PJ Harvey type of female singers. This is perfectly competent but forgettable indie rock with a handful of electronic touches. A decent album but the band don't do enough to make themselves unique. The best song here--'A New Sense'--basically sounds like a cover of a Spoon song.
Album: Bittersweet Batch by Jesse Dee
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: You probably can't read it, but the little bit in the corner says 'Almost Exclusively In Stereo.' So I expect some kind of retro revivalist throwback like the new wave of garage rock bands in the early years of this decade.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: It's a white boy with a big ol' soulful voice, set to an appropriately soulful/funky backing. I'll cut to the chase and say that for what this album is trying to do, it's actually very good. However, I never go for these kind of genre pastiches because it doesn't give the artist much room to grow. Unless he changes his sound a lot, it's just going to be an entire career of stuff like this, and who really needs three white boy soul albums?? Hell, I don't even need one.
Album: You're Being Watched by Fugitive Kind
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: Ooooh, it's all neon. Kinda like Electric Warrior by T. Rex, yeah?? Something tells me this isn't as good, though. I mean, the only band I can think of who got away with showing their gear on the cover was Battles.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: Like so many bands I end up reviewing in this column, Fugitive Kind exemplify the truism that just having some instruments and a 'sound' is worthless without good songs or inventiveness. This band features neither good songs nor anything inventive. Instead, it's ultra generic alternative rock with an over-reaching, show offy female singer who writes the kind of lyrics you filled notebooks with and then left at home when you got into college. I mean seriously, "I wanna hold my breath/just to see/if it feels like I'm alive"??
Album: Hannah by The Age of Rockets
What Does The Cover Make Me Expect??: I appreciate the old timey look of this. Coupled with the band's name, I'll guess it's some kind of old timey, "singing about the 19th century and early 20th century" band, like the Decemberists only nowhere near as good.
What Does It Actually Sound Like??: The press blurb included with my copy of this album compares them to The Postal Service, but for all intents and purposes they might as well be The Postal Service. The music has that same indie-electro-pop sound and most of the time the singer is so eerily close to Ben Gibbard I wouldn't be surprised to find out they were twins...or clones. I also detect a dash of The Flaming Lips circa The Soft Bulletin but mainly in the (over)use of big choruses of voices. Or it could just be that the whole thing reminds me of The Postal Service's cover of The Flaming Lips song, 'Suddenly Everything Has Changed', a song from The Soft Bulletin. Whoops, looks like The Postal Service has you beat there, too...