Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Primer Part 1: Radiohead- Pablo Honey

Much like the early albums of the Beatles, Pablo Honey lacks a sophistication, timelessness, and artsy polish that later Radiohead albums would have in spades. Going through their discography either backwards or forwards, it always sticks out like a sore thumb. Pablo Honey is very much of its time and hasn't aged very well, its early 90s alt. rock sound interesting mainly for the fact that here was an English band who aped American indie rock of the mid-to-late 80s instead of the on-going British trends of shoegazer and electronica, as well as the nascent 'britpop' scene.

Were I a truly dedicatde fan and Radiohead-ologist, I would dig even further back to the Drill EP or their Manic Hedgehog demo tape. But in the process of re-reviewing all of Radiohead's main works, I've come to realize that sometimes the 'undiscovered' eras of a band are undiscovered for a reason. By which I mean, there's nothing worth discovering here. There are only a handful of songs on Pablo Honey that still hold up, now, in 2009, but even those are more like hints of the brilliance to come than something great in their own right. Radiohead's main impetus in shedding the alt rock sound of Pablo Honey and getting more weird, artsy, and experimental was to distance themselves from the hit song 'Creep', but I've always nursed the notiong that they swore to themselves they would never release another album that was so mediocre and amateurish.

If you wonder what I'm talking about, remember that this is the only Radiohead album with swear words (at least, I think it is), the only Radiohead album with a throwaway like 'Anyone Can Play Guitar', and the only Radiohead album where the bonus hidden track is an edited version of the main single. True, all of this makes the album a little charming for its youth and devil-may-care attitude, but it also makes it a little undercooked and, again, not very sophisticated. A good deal of the lyrics likely embarass Thom Yorke today, just as the things I wrote in junior high and high school do to me. And the music is frequently pedestrian, with little of the imagination and sense of adventure that Radiohead would soon be known for. Only 'You', 'Lurgee', and especially 'Blowout' make this album more than a historical curio.

Yet even as a historical curio, I can't think of any reason why anyone needs this album or needs to hear it. Their next major release, the My Iron Lung EP, is half as long and much more rewarding. You may think I'm being really tough on this album for reasons other than what it is, but even on a good day when I'm feeling joyful and am forgiving of a lot of things, Pablo Honey only rates as a two star experience. No, the fact that I consider the rest of Radiohead's studio albums five star experiences doesn't enter the equation. Pablo Honey is just not very good. Only completionists need apply.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Fallout 3

Fallout 3 (360)
Fallout 3's greatest accomplishment isn't that it has an incredible atmosphere. It isn't that it has an interesting game world to explore and inhabit. It isn't how relatively free and non-linear it is. No, Fallout 3's greatest accomplishment is that it lives up to the first game in the series. I wouldn't say that Fallout 3 is as good today as Fallout 1 was back in 1997, but it's still a fantastic game despite some problems that keep it from being as good as it should have been.
I've now finished Fallout 3 twice. In a row. I rarely start a game all over once I've finished it for the first time, so I think this speaks to the quality and unique-ness of Fallout 3, how engrossing and compelling it is. Even the first Fallout can't match the way this game feels and makes you feel: wandering a post-nuclear war wasteland at night with strange creatures attacking you; making your way through the ruins of downtown Washington, D.C., trading assault rifle fire with hulking mutants while your radio plays old 1940s music; making use of the V.A.T.S. mode to shoot a town mayor's head off...Fallout 3 is a game of singular delights and moods. Bethesda rightly stayed closer to the 'feel' of Fallout 1 rather than Fallout 2 when developing this game, keeping the mixture of "bleak post-nuclear war humanity surviving tooth and nail" and "silly, retro 1950s scifi" at a perfect level.
As much as I love Fallout 3, it is a flawed game. Deeply flawed in some ways, in fact. The most nagging thing about the game is ultimately how little freedom you're truly given insofar as the main quest arc is concerned. You're railroaded down the same path no matter if you play the game as an evil sociopath or a saint, and the difference between the endings isn't meaningful enough to matter. Though, as I said, Fallout 3 does an excellent job with atmosphere and the world, it often fails to not seem game-y. From the lock picking and hacking mini-games to the way certain story specific characters are literally unkillable (the fact that you can kill 90% of the characters in the game makes their invulnerability all the more absurd) to the way the V.A.T.S. system combat is stupidly easy but trying to shoot in real time makes it ridiculously clunky, Fallout 3 generally fails to really put you in the game.

Add to this the general freeze/crash bugs that you'll encounter, and it's very clear that this was a Western developed game. For as much as the Japanese have fallen behind the West in terms of general game quality, innovation, and playability, they at least have the good grace to test the hell out of their games and better make you forget you're playing a game. It's always a little disappointing when you need to 'save crawl' (that is to say, constantly saving/loading to get past obstacles) but when you have to do this because you're afraid the game will crash again, it becomes 'infuriating' instead of 'a little disappointing.' Moreover, due to the above game-y elements, you can always see the stitching that holds the world together. It's the subtle difference between watching a movie and seeing people acting out characters/plots and watching a movie but seeing a story unfold instead.
This next paragraph or two will seem like vicious nitpicking, so let me preface by saying that I love Fallout 3 and I think everyone should at least give it a try. Its problems are ignorable and overcome-able because it is, for the most part, very, very fun and unique. Now, then...

Fallout 3 is an RPG that I don't think was play balanced well. Maybe this isn't as important in single player experiences, but certain aspects of Fallout 3's gameplay systems are broken. As in the previous Fallout titles, certain items, weapons, skills, and Perks are far more useful than others. In fact, it seems like the ones that were essential in the original games are pointless here--I never noticed much difference between leveling up Small Arms and not touching it at all (and yes, I was using weapons designated as being under Small Arms). Worst of all is the Repair skill, though. I wish developers would realize that breakable, fatigue-able equipment and weapons are never fun even if it makes the game more realistic. In order to repair things in Fallout 3, you either need to find/carry around additional copies of said items/weapons or pay NPCs to do it for you. I almost always ended up going with the latter choice, since you are limited as to how much weight you can carry; keep in mind that only certain NPCs can repair stuff, and the population of Fallout 3 is sparse and spread out. You might find yourself needing to backtrack across the map to get your machine gun repaired so it does better-than-crap damage. Sure, the game has a fast travel feature, but backtracking is still backtracking.

I mentioned earlier that some NPCs are unkillable. This may make me sound like a psychopath, but: why is it that I can't kill children in Fallout 3?? I can set off an atomic bomb that wipes out a town with children in it, but when I get to a cavern which is occupied by/run by children, I can't touch 'em. This isn't a function of me being a human monster who gets off on killing kids. No, it's that the children in the town are absolute jerks to you even if you're playing a Good character. You'll quickly get tired of them calling you 'Mungo' over and over at least. If it were a town of adults behaving this way, I'd never finish any quests there because I'd end up murdering them all every time.

As for the other unkillable characters, yes, killing your Dad would cause 70% of the plot to have to be re-written into a different scenario, but Fallout 3 is a game that advertises itself so heavily as about player choice in an open ended game world that it seems like a cop-out. As soon as you're dropped in to Fallout 3's world it quickly begins limiting choices and 'open'-ness. Just as the more similar you are to someone the more the small differences between you seem stark and huge, the more a game approaches non-linearity and freedom the more its limitations and linearity stand out. You can rob people blind in Fallout 3, take all of the things from their house/room which you lock-picked into, yet you aren't allowed to sleep in their bed even if they're dead or gone. Why?? After a certain point in the game, you're forced to work with the Brotherhood of Steel even if you prefer their Outcast counterparts. Why?? In order to see most of the content in the game, you have to wander around aimlessly to discover towns and areas that open up quests you otherwise would never see. Since the only appeal of wandering around is the atmosphere of the wasteland and the hope of discovering something, why not give your character a 'map' of the area but still require him/her to walk there before they're allowed to fast travel?? Yes, it's more realistic if you are walking for five minutes without much to do, but it's not any fun from the player's perspective.

I think I need to rope this review back in because it's become way more negative than I wanted it to be. Let me state again that Fallout 3 is an excellent game and I had a blast playing it through twice. But as good as it is, it has flaws and problems. One assumes its financial and critical success will ensure a sequel. Hopefully Bethesda learned a lot from Fallout 3 and the next one will be as much of a masterpiece as Fallout 3 should have been.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Primer Part 0: Radiohead- Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP

This is going to be an awfully solipsistic, navel gazing review for the most part, so if you're just here for the 'consumer report' type stuff, you can skip down the last few paragraphs.

I'm going through one of those 'transitional' periods of life where you look around and realize you're getting old(er), that you have more responsibilities than you ever have; more opportunities have arisen, and every where you look you seem to notice and feel new things. Every person you pass interests you in some indefinable way. You feel as if you could fall in love and meet that next significant other any day. Something about the weather, the way the sun and the sky looks...you feel like it's trying to tell you something but you can't grasp what. At the same time, somehow, you feel trapped, restless. You are suddenly small and confused, the headlong rush of time a terrifying thing. Personally, these sorts of periods always make me long for the seemingly more simple and well-defined times of my past. And since a large part of one of my jobs entails picking over the things that people have donated to Goodwill in order to post them online on their eBay like site--the memories and physical remains of thousands of lives: their toys, clothes, books, records, etc.--I seem to be stuck in a particularly nasty pool of nostalgia. So, I'm finally going back to Radiohead.

I feel as though I've mentioned this in every other review I've written, but Radiohead were the band (and OK Computer was the album) that got me into music on a serious basis. I had liked, even loved, music before Radiohead but they were the first band that truly engaged me as a listener with ideas and complex music that I had to struggle and work at to understand and appreciate. I'm reading Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme at the moment, and when flipping through the book attached to Airbag/How Am I Driving? it occurs to me how it all reads like excerpts from something he wrote. To think that the 13(!!) year old version of me was grappling with those sorts of ideas, and all the neuroses and pre-Millenium existentialism inherent to OK Computer, is kind of mind blowing to me now. I'm not trying to brag, though. Mostly all I did was fill journals with lyrics and awful poems/stories that outright stole or were heavily influenced by Radiohead.

Indeed, there was a span of three or four years where I listened to Radiohead almost every day. More than once, I didn't feel quite right until I had my 'Radiohead fix.' Some weekend afternoons were given over to listening through their discography up until that point, straight through. I can't do that sort of thing with bands any more, not because none of them are as good as Radiohead, but because I like too much music to be so mono-maniacal. Monogamous with women, polyamorous with music. Anyway, since roughly 2004 I've maintained an unconscious distance from Radiohead. I still think they make incredible music (I'll get around to reviewing In Rainbows soon), and the dozen or so times a year I listen their stuff I love it just as much, but I associate Radiohead with a more innocent, carefree time of my life, when I hadn't had any jobs or girlfriends yet. When I was barely writing anything and just starting to get into books and movies. When almost all of my money went to videogames.

For whatever reason I was compelled to bring OK Computer and its sister EP Airbag with me on the commute to work this morning. Maybe it is just wanting to get a small reminder of what life was like for me from 1997-2003, but I'd like to think it's a kind of renewal; a starting over, if you will. I've experienced so much since the last time I seriously sat down with Radiohead's discography and this feels like how I should bring them into this new 'period' of my life. A younger version of me posted reviews of most of their stuff on Epinions.com, and I believe it's time the more measured, nuanced critiques of mid 20s Greg (or is that GregRadiohead??) are brought to bear. Besides which I find all of this reviews embarrassing and amateur-ish. If nothing else, I've become a better writer in the ensuing years. Well, my reviews have gotten a lot longer, anyway.

So, then: Airbag/How Am I Driving? was an EP released after OK Computer, collecting a good portion of the B-sides from that album. The cover indicates it is a "...mini album aimed at the USA", which is record company speak for "here is a stop-gap release because we wanted more product in stores sooner rather than later." Not that I'm complaining, because it would be much more costly to buy all the singles needed to collect these songs. More importantly, the six 'unreleased' songs on Airbag are all excellent. Pavement were a band long said to have very good B-sides but the reissues of their albums have merely proven that their non-album songs were as every bit as uneven as the average band. Radiohead, though, have fantastic B-sides. You can always see why the B-sides wouldn't have worked on the album but you still need to hear them.

I'm not sure how easy or difficult it is to track down a copy of Airbag these days, but if you're a fan of Radiohead, or you just want more music that's closer to the more traditional, guitar based sound of The Bends and OK Computer, then Airbag is worth the effort and expense to obtain. 'Pearly' is a fan favorite with the unforgettable line "that's how/she got her/sweet tooth/for white boys." Instrumental 'Meeting In The Aisle' more obviously points the way to the post-OK Computer era, a dreamy/spacey piece for synthesizer and drum machine that sounds like nothing the band had done up to that point. 'Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)' nods to the multi-part songwriting style of 'Paranoid Android', an unhinged Yorke admonishing the listener to "sell your suit and tie and come and live with me." And the barnstorming 'Palo Alto', which featured so memorably in the Meeting People Is Easy film--was to be the last recorded time we'd hear Radiohead overtly rock out for a few years.

Returning to this EP and its parent album after a few years off, I'm struck at how consistent and satisfying it is. Here is a companion piece to a legendary (for at this point we can surely declare OK Computer legendary) that is almost as good as the main event. Here is an EP of an album track and six B-sides which are far better, have more ideas and more pay-offs, than the entire recorded output of many bands that have flashed bright in the night sky of music since 1998 but had no staying power. Maybe I am just being overly generous because I'm falling back in love with Radiohead. But, no. I have always loved them and always will. Airbag/How Am I Driving? has stood and will stand as a metric for how I judge EPs and 'companion' releases. It is that good.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Swan Lake- Enemy Mine

I had a small twinge of delight when the collaborative side project/supergroup Swan Lake was first announced. I was still new to the work of the three musicians involved--Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes), Daniel Bejar (Destroyer), and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown)--but the idea of them working together was, dare I say, exciting. I didn't know at the time that Spencer Krug was a sometime member of Frog Eyes, and that Frog Eyes had toured behind Destroyer and subsequently recorded an EP with him, Notorious Lightning And Other Works, so while there was some recorded evidence of the three as a creative force it was but a bite size chunk. Excitement and anticipation aside, Swan Lake's debut, Beast Moans, too often sounded like each member had brought songs from their main projects and let the other two add bits and pieces. It's an inconsistent, imperfect album but one well worth seeking out for fans of any of the three musicians. The take away from Beast Moans is that it never truly gelled into a project with a standalone identity. It never sounds like its own thing whereas other 'supergroups' do, if that makes sense.

Enemy Mine mostly succeeds at finally making Swan Lake into something other than "the other two playing in the style of whoever wrote the song." On almost every song, Mercer, Bejar, and Krug make better use of the gifts of the others, whether it be to bring their unique vocals along as a foil or duet of sorts or to coat the songs with their stylistic flourishes and trademarks. There may be no peaks as high as Beast Moan's 'Are You Swimming In Her Pools?' or 'A Venue Called Rubella' but Enemy Mine also sounds like a Swan Lake album and not an album of 'Sunset Rubdown with some Frog Eyes and Destroyer', 'Frog Eyes with some Sunset Rubdown and Destroyer', or 'Destroyer with some Frog Eyes and Sunset Rubdown.'

Enemy Mine falls just short of the masterpiece I think these three are capable of together, but it does improve on their debut in all the ways that matter. In fact, it's surprising and fresh for one reason: Mercer manages to turn in the best material. He was just sort of there doing his thing on Beast Moans and he didn't fit as well as Krug and Bejar did together. Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but on Enemy Mine I sense that he stepped up his game. His songs strike me as the most committed; that is to say, they sound the most like what I imagined Swan Lake would sound like, as a new sound or set of ideas instead of the aforementioned 'two guys backing one in that one guy's style.' That Mercer opens and closes the album is a clear signal to the listener. It allows him to set the tone for and put the period on Enemy Mine. 'Spanish Gold, 2044', a swaggering, unhinged stroll, juxtaposes Mercer's free form ravings against Krug's worldless "oh oh ohs." Bejar's 'Ballad Of a Swan Lake, Or, Daniel's Song' takes his self referential myth-making to a new place, letting each Swan Lake member take a turn in a rowdy finish that kind of sounds like 'Row Row Row Your Boat' but way weirder and more inebriated. Meanwhile, Krug's best moment is inarguably 'A Hand At Dusk', which starts off sounding like a solo piece for piano but works in a synthesizer crescendo that, well, sounds like the sun going down, bridging the gap toward an ending that fits in both Mercer and Bejar but doesn't sound merely like Krug took a Sunset Rubdown piano ballad and had them sing something arbitrarily. Mercer may have arrived at the 'Swan Lake sound' a bit earlier and with better results, but with these two songs Krug and Bejar show they're catching on quick.

Still, it's Mercer's closing 'Warlock Psychologist' that successfully puts Enemy Mine into 'near excellent' status. Like his best work, it is both two minutes too long and yet could satisfactorily go on for another two. He and Krug end up trading off on the lyric 'Dotty's being taken away in the car' while Bejar does his patented 'I'm just going to sing syllables' thing before the song reaches a climactic ending with all three members singing something while a burbling keyboard draws the curtains closed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Album of the Week: They Might Be Giants- John Henry

Radiohead's OK Computer was the album that really got me into the idea of appreciating music as a serious art form, searching for new and interesting sounds and styles, but it was John Henry by They Might Be Giants which originally showed me a world beyond that of the pop music, hip hop, and post-grunge/alternative rock that dominated the radio in the early 90s. Truth be told I only borrowed it from the library because I was trying to find the songs that the children's show Tiny Toon Adventures made into music videos in one episode. It turned out they weren't on John Henry (they were from Flood), but it didn't matter. It blew my fragile little mind that people could write songs about dirt bikes and obscure painters; unlike Weird Al, it wasn't case of someone taking other songs and substituting funny/clever words it. Yeah, these songs weren't totally serious, either, but They Might Be Giants wrote their own tunes. The word play and odd point of view of They Might Be Giants was every bit a formative experience as similarly youthful/odd things like the TV show The Adventures Of Pete & Pete and Weird Al. All of those are surreal, bizarre, intelligent, and have a unique worldview that is very different from the rest of the culture at large. If people are the products of what they 'consume' then I can thank/blame John Henry, Pete & Pete, and Weird Al as much as anything else in my life for the mentality and personality I have.

John Henry seems to be a controversial point in this band's discography. Let's pause and consider what it means for the controversial moment of a band's career to be when they add a full 'rock' band and rely less on accordions and violins. Hmmmm. OK. Perhaps if I was familiar with the entire discography of They Might Be Giants or John Henry wasn't the first thing of their's I had heard, I might be a bit upset at the professional rock band backing the two Johns on this one. But as it is, I feel like the arrangements and "new" instruments add to the music rather than detract. 'AKA Driver' wouldn't have the same punch without the guitar solo. Certainly 'Stompbox'--an ode to guitar effects pedals, I think--would be a bit sillier than it already is. John Henry isn't monochromatically 'rock' though. The band just as often sound almost ska like with horn sections as they do 'rock' with guitar solos, not to mention that subtle but excellent use of organ.

What makes this album so brilliant isn't about the music. It is ultimately the magic gift that They Might Be Giants have for writing addictive pop songs that evoke so many images and ideas, twisting words and phrases into fascinating new shapes. On paper, 'I Should Be Allowed To Think' is a childishly stupid concept: a song about how the titular character isn't allowed to think but should be, subsequently lamenting such things as "I should be allowed to glue my poster" and, after quoting the "I saw the best minds of my generation..." line by Ginsberg, re-working it into "I saw the worst bands of my generation applied by magic marker to dry wall." Listen to this album in your formative years, as I did, and their lyrics and music seem odd and oddly funny--'O, Do Not Forsake Me' was a personal favorite--but some of it becomes, well, oddly profound as much as it is oddly funny when you're older. 'No One Knows My Plan' seems to be about a prisoner planning an escape but manages a reference to the famous philosophical 'allegory of the cave.' And after all these years I finally noticed that 'Dirt Bike' refers to a literal dirt bike but also uses 'dirt bike' as a name for other things, including a band and a fearsome group of bandits. I think...

Flood is the They Might Be Giants album that will live forever but I've got to go with my gut. There are songs on Flood that I like a lot more than the songs on John Henry, but John Henry means more to me and is more consistent. I always end up skipping songs on Flood but I listen all the way through John Henry. It takes something special for an album that's 20 tracks and almost an hour long to keep me in the audience all the way through. Flood is an attractive woman that everyone likes; John Henry is a real, flawed woman who I personally hold dear and adore. I'm not sure what that says about the 10 year old version of me who also loved John Henry but I feel like They Might Be Giants have probably written a song about how the 10 year old version of someone and an adult version of them are both in love with the same woman, so everything is peachy.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ch-Ch-Ch-Chan...Nah, I'm Not Gunna Use That Tired Old Thing

I was one of the co-editors of the school paper in high school and while it was always fun to edit articles and columns and see the result of my hard work every week, it never felt like a real thing to me. It was a lark, a class I took because I enjoyed writing and my papers/essays always garnered good grades. I wasn't in a large school, so I knew most of the people in my grade even if I wasn't friends with them. It was only when I started writing for the paper in college that I felt the weird thrill of being a writer, having my ideas, thoughts, and feelings go out into a world, never knowing who would read them and what affect it might have on their life and mine. I remember very clearly the morning the first issue with my writing in it came out, walking around campus and fully expecting every person to come up to me and ask if I was that new guy in the paper. Nothing came of it immediately; my expectations were too high and I wanted the feedback loop to be as immediate as the Internet can be. Still, by the time I graduated, you'd be surprised how many ways the columns and reviews I did ended up helping me, whether it was--in a round-a-bout way--getting me a girlfriend or having some random guy at the library tell me he liked my stuff.

At any rate, I think the thing that helped most about writing for the paper was both the deadlines and the limited number of articles I had per month. I am not so much a procrastinator as I am someone who lets ideas percolate and soak until they're ready to be served. Often I would know I had to get something written, edited, and submitted by 5 P.M. on Thursday, for example, and I would end up with two or three concrete ideas by Wednesday night. I never missed a deadline because I always had a few ideas to choose from; whichever one seemed the strongest or I was especially interested in putting down would be the one I chose. It was as if every week I was separating the wheat from the chaff in my writing, thus over the course of each semester putting out a 'Greatest Hits' of things that spilled out of my head and unto the page. Looking back now I'm embarrassed by a lot of it but I was young and impulsive, not the epitome of restraint and wisdom I am now. Er, yeah...

I've been thinking about college and how I used to write back then because once again I find myself with very limited time, a lot of ideas, and not enough energy to get them all done. I've tried to do my best to keep my personal life out of Whiskey Pie, but since it's always been a personal thing no matter what I did, let me reiterate again that in January I started working two jobs. One of them is full-time, Monday through Friday, and the other is part-time on weekends (and randomly during the week when other people can't work). Someone with all the energy in the world and no need for down time could keep Whiskey Pie updated five days a week, but I am not that person. I've done my best to keep up with the Monday through Friday schedule I set for myself but increasingly I feel like I only manage two or three really good updates a week and the others are stop-gaps or throwaways.

So, starting next week, I've decided to move to a three-day-a-week update schedule. This will give me more free time so I don't go crazy/can get my other non-Whiskey Pie writing done while at the same time making those three articles as good as they should be.

Just to be as clear as possible, Whiskey Pie is purely a labor of love on my part. I haven't made any money off of it. I do it because I need to. It's an impulse I can't deny. I mean, I don't even know how many readers I have, if I've gained any outside of my friends/family. Probably not...??

The new schedule will begin this Sunday. Whiskey Pie will be updated on a Sunday/Tuesday/Thursday schedule from now on. Or at least until I lose my one or both of my job or bring another write on board or become addicted to stimulants so I can go without sleep.

Questions/Comments?? GregRadiohead@Gmail.com

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Sea And Cake: Everybody

Let's visualize something together. Imagine yourself back as a child. You're on summer vacation. It's the afternoon and you find yourself inside. Maybe you're tired from playing in the morning or you're waiting for your parents to make lunch. The A/C is on and for whatever reason you lay on the floor and stare out the window, up at that endless expanse of blue with a few clouds marring it. You can feel a little air from the nearest floor vent, cold and dry on your skin. You start to hum something pleasant to yourself.

This is what listening to The Sea And Cake is like. I gave you a nice visual image to experience, but there really isn't anything remarkable about it, is there?? I probably did something like that a few dozen times as a kid but I never think about it or bring it up to anyone. They aren't bad memories, obviously, but they aren't amazing experiences or magical. This, too, is what listening to The Sea And Cake is like. They don't make bad music by any definition but it isn't amazing or magical. The Sea And Cake are, at least in my book, two paradoxes in one:

1) They've released eight albums yet none of them--with the exception of Oui--are essential; at the same time, all eight are good and contain at least a few songs that fans won't want to miss.

2) Their sound remains almost entirely the same from album to album yet each one has its own character and feel.

Whenever I get around to listening to each The Sea And Cake album, I come to the same conclusion: this album is pretty good; it's got some awesome songs yet it doesn't add up to anything that makes me want to write needlessly long reviews. Consistency, then, is the band's greatest strength and greatest weakness. You can pretty much pick up any of their releases and get a good idea of what all the rest of them will sound like. Yet like a jazz band, The Sea And Cake employ the same instruments and 'sound' on each album but the results and atmosphere are different enough that fans will undoubtedly prefer one over all the rest. All the while, to the average listener, it's the same thing again and again.

The Sea And Cake have made a career out of what can best be described as "easy listening indie pop/rock with touches of jazz and electronic music." Those two clean, crystalline guitars, melodic but almost imperceptible bass, propulsive but only slightly funky percussion, and a smooth-and-warm-but-a-bit-nasally-voice. Plus some keyboards or drum machines every so often. There are no true peaks and valleys or jagged edges in The Sea And Cake's music. The songs operate under two headings, either "relaxing and nocturnal" or "breezy and sunny." Also, their music doesn't sound quite right when listened to in the Fall or Winter. It's got an effervescent Spring/Summer tone to it that I never pick up on until it is the Spring/Summer and I listen to them more than usual.

Oui is the only The Sea And Cake album that casual fans will need, but I still find something oddly compelling about their other albums such as Everybody. It's mostly the "I want more of a good thing" notion, I suppose; if My Bloody Valentine had gone on to produce 6 more things that barely toyed with the Loveless formula, I don't know that I would have complained. Partially, though, I think Everybody and its ilk are just easy listening in the literal, non-pejorative sense. I wouldn't go so far as to say they're like vacations or breaks from other music, because I've never thought of music as something I need a vacation from, but still. There's an ease and immediacy to The Sea And Cake's albums that is taken for granted.

When I burned a CD copy of Everybody, the songs somehow got jumbled up so that 'Introducing' was the first song. I didn't notice my mistake for almost twoo weeks. That kind of thing would be damning about another album--the order of the songs should always be meaningful, right?? Right!!--but it demonstrates the laid back-ness of The Sea And Cake. I want to have stronger reactions to their music, even if they're negative reactions. As it is, I feel ambivalent. Well, it's ambivalent in a positive way. Unless you really despise the idea of a band standing still but remaining consistently good, you'll never end up in arguments about The Sea & Cake's discography. It just sort of is there, waiting for you to get bored in a record store someday and think to yourself, "maybe I'll finally get around to one of The Sea And Cake's albums...."

(An Hour Or So Later, After Returning Home And Listening To It)

"Hey, that was alright, I guess. It sure is a nice day outside. Wonder if it'll rain tomorrow?"

While putting the CD back in the case: "Wonder when the next Tortoise album is coming out...."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Video: Beach House- Heart of Chambers

As I gave Devotion album of the week, it should be apparent that I like it a lot. But I figured I would share this video so you have some inkling of why I like it so much. Plus I love any video that tells some kind of narrative but isn't terribly specific about what's going on.

I don't know why, but seeing her push him around in a shopping cart is kind of funny.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Handsome Furs- Face Control

'Face Control' is apparently a practice in Eastern European club culture wherein people must--through PayPal or other means--give a club/bar money to reserve a table for them but can still face down the doorman, who, as in exclusive bars/clubs across the world, can still turn them away based on appearance. I'm not really sure what significance this has for Handsome Furs and their music. It's on my mind, though, because today is St. Patrick's Day and so all the amateurs will come out to play. They are currently getting sloppy drunk at bars and clubs while I sit here trying to piece together a decent review. I'm fine with this, though. Between the high cost of bars and nonsense like 'face control', being depressed by amateur drunks seems kind of a small reason not to be at a bar tonight.

Still, the fact that Handsome Furs named their second album after this practice has to have some tangential import. It'll have to do, because I've been trying to think of an interesting approach to this album for awhile because I feel like I don't have much to say about it otherwise. "I like it and I recommend it even though it's not as good as Dan Boeckener's main band Wolf Parade or the other Wolf Parade side project, Sunset Rubdown" is the extent of my feeling about the album. Well, here's a little more: Handsome Furs albums are a more electronic take on the kind of stuff Boeckner's Wolf Parade songs sound like, marrying (literally) his yawp of a voice and clangorous guitar work to his wife Alexei Perry's synths and minimalist 80s throwback drum machines. Albums like this define a '4 out of 5' rating in my mind because I have no real problems with them; I enjoy them and would recommend them to other people but yet they don't set my heart aflame.

Anyway, as Alexei Perry--or so I seem to recall reading somewhere--is from Eastern Europe, it makes sense that they would be familiar with the 'face control' concept. All of Eastern Europe has been a fascinating, little discussed area of the world since the end of Communism and it's always a treat to see different aspects of it filtering into our cultural consciousness, whether it be 'face control' ending up on an indie rock album that was released on an American label (but, oddly, recorded by a Canadian and an Eastern European transplant husband-and-wife duo) or the semi-popular S.T.A.L.K.E.R. PC games, which take place in and around the exclusion zone around Chernobyl and reveal a lot about that culture's dreams and nightmares about such Cold War era events. This somehow parallels the mixture of the two sounds I described above--the essentially 80s sound of Perry's electro-pop and Boeckner's modern day guitar shards and rough voice. It doesn't sound Eastern European but much of Face Control is inspired by experiecing that culture.

Too few cross cultural and/or cross genre mixes end up being more than a curiosity or a footnote. I wouldn't call either of the Handsome Furs albums excellent but Face Control is the better of the two, possessing more songs I would describe as "excellent", such 'Radio Kaliningrad' and 'Taking Hotel Arbat Blues.' I can't think of a single thing about Face Control that I don't like and want to talk about...well, the cover is kind of a throwaway, I guess but still. Face Control doesn't strike me as as exceptional. These things happen.

On a side note, it's good to know that indie rock's above average amount of "actually quite good" husband-and-wife music teams is continuing on. Eat your heart out, Thurston Moore & Kim Gordon, Alan Sparhawk & Mimi Parker, Ira Kaplan & Georgia Hubley, Avey Tare & Kria Brekkan, Greg Saunier & Satomi Matsuzaki, et. al.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Album of the Week: Beach House- Devotion

"Music is kind of like a dream for me...The dream brings me closer to my soul."
--Mike Gordon

When you listen to Beach House, time seems to slow down. Though Devotion is only 44 minutes long it seems to be fed into the IV tube of your soul (or heart, if you prefer), a constant steady drip feed of beauty, melody, organs, guitars, subtle/minimalist electronic drums, and reverb drenched production. That 44 minutes drifts through your opium-like daze for what feels like an hour and a half. It is music that on the surface sounds lonely, despairing, and desolate but on closer inspection blooms into a world of color and warmth, filling the room with sound.

Certain music has the power to color and distort the world around you, forcing you to, say, quicken down your pace while out for a walk, to make people around you seem crueler and more unrecognizable, or to make what is otherwise a silent, still room burst with life and sound. Devotion does this last one, but it isn't a loud rock album; that's not how it fills the room. All of its frequencies worm their way into every crevice and open space, somehow even its silences resounding back at you, tiny organ notes or wordless sigh choruses wrapping you in a sound. Rarely with an album so subdued and quiet do I feel the silence between songs just as much as I hear it.

Dream pop is a sub-genre of music that, at least for my taste, walks a fine line between too relaxed/patient and just relaxed/patient enough. The Cocteau Twins never hooked me but Beach House sure has. All of the ideas and sounds on Devotion were present on Beach House's self-titled debut but they weren't as developed or well executed as they are here. You may need to give it a few chances to 'get' what is so astonishing about it; soon, though, its hazy, lovely sounds and deliberate melodies will creep into--yes--your dreams and daydreams, bubbling below the surface to pop up during various parts of the day. Listening to Devotion at work on headphones, hardly paying attention to it or listening to it in bed before I fall asleep...through both methods it has seeped into me like a bag of tea steeping in a pot of scalding hot water. Victoria Legrand's laments about the loss of and joyous pledges of love continue to resonate with me for reasons I can't really explain. "Resonate" is a great word to use here because not since Galaxie 500 has of reverb seemed so essential to a band's sound. True, Legrand's voice would be mesmerizing without it, but it's that same difference between hearing Galaxie 500's 'Tugboat' without reverb on the live versions and hearing it with it on the studio one. It's still a great song, but that reverb takes on a life of its own, the slight echoes as important as the origin itself. So it is with her voice, as if her voice isn't a singular thing but holds the weight of a chorus in its clutches.

I doubt if anyone who's never been in love will feel the same about Devotion because it is a work so bound up in the feelings associated with romance and the loss thereof. Animal Collective's Feels was described by the band as their 'love' album, and every song on that album has an euphoria about it that registers with you subconsciously far before you come to the conclusion after examining the lyrics. Devotion is a slipperier creature. It's not so overt with its concept onn a subconcious level and is both more measured about love and goes to greater depths on a conscious/lyrical one. After all, it's one thing to sing, as the Collective did, "I got a big big big heart beat yeah, I think you are the sweetest thing" and another, as Beach House does, to sing about devotion--not religious, mind you--at least twice on an album named Devotion. To devote yourself to someone, this is not something you say lightly. That religious connotation is there even if you've used the word so often in a non-religious context that most of that is lost. This album may remind you of similarly strong feelings you've had for someone, wanting to do everything you can to make them happy and to feel loved.

Devotion was one of 2008's most overlooked and underrated releases. Even I didn't get around to it until this year. If you're at all inclined to the idea of music that is dreamy, slow, and hazy yet conjures up feelings of love and cozy warmth, Devotion is a must buy.

Friday, March 13, 2009

For The Record...

I am too tired from being at both jobs all day to write something today. It's too late to get something done and I'm going to be working a long shift tomorrow at one of my jobs, so....for the record, the album of the week this week was going to be Beach House's Devotion. I'll be writing an actual album of the week entry for it next week, so stay tuned.

....I think this is the only time I've missed an 'album of the week' since Whiskey Pie started. Damn real life getting in the way!!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Resident Evil 5: Reviews Response

One of the first things I did when I bought my 360 almost a month ago was to download the demo of Resident Evil 5. Like most other sane human beings, I craved a sequel to Resident Evil 4. Out of the sequel I wanted a game that played like it, but added co-op and took the series even further into action/shooter territory.

But after trying the demo a few times, always quitting in frustration, something seemed just off about the experience. It played like Resident Evil 4, yes, but the reason the controls worked so well in that game was that you were never as under duress and siege as you thought you were. Enemies ran at you and swarmed you, but the game had a genius for creating the illusion that you were in worse danger than you really were. Your AI partner in RE5 is a capable, bad ass woman. Your partner is RE4 was, err, Ashley, the wimpy daughter of the President. Even if you, as Leon, felt empowered, you always had to worry about her. Meanwhile, once you got used to the controls of RE4, you only got into bad trouble when you made a mistake. No matter what control scheme I try in the RE5 demo, I feel that I am constantly at war with the controls and what the game expects me to do with the abilities I have.

So RE5 simultaneously gives you a more worthy partner to help you handle the more numerous and agile foes but at the same time it presents you with much more harrowing action set pieces and insists on forcing the same deliberate controls on you. Yes, everyone has been complaining about how RE5's controls are clunky, but they are for what the game wants you to accomplish. All along the Resident Evil series has been very deliberately paced and even clunkier than RE5 but you weren't facing down groups of fast moving enemies and seemingly unstoppable big dudes with axes . As for RE4, again, you might feel like you're always about to be swarmed and eaten alive, but the way you dodge, move, aim, take down or escape from enemies is very deliberate and nuanced. It works well for what it's trying to do. RE5 is a messy, awkward experience that fundamentally fails because it tries to be more like Western style first/third person shooters yet hamstrings and limits your character in how well he can move, shoot, and interact with the environment. You wouldn't want to play, say, Half-Life 2 with Doom 2 controls, would you??

With all of this in mind, I'm so, so pleased to read the reviews from 1UP and G4TV. They helped me put into words what I was feeling from the demo. Though I am terribly disappointed to know that the problems I foresaw in the demo are all over the main game. I really, really want to love RE5 and have it be as good as RE4 but judging from the demo--a bite size snack of gameplay that is supposed to entice you into purchasing the full product--I will just be disappointed.

I know that those two sites are going to get flamed into oblivion over their, but people seem to forget that everyone expected and wanted this game to be as good as promised. 1UP and G4TV don't have a grudge against Capcom or the Resident Evil series. They aren't releasing 'bad' reviews to get hits and attention. Plain and simple, RE5 is a flawed game and these reviews do an excellent job at encapsulating James Mielke's and Adam Sessler's reactions to it. This is one of those moments where I feel like games journalism is catching up to film and music reviews/criticism. Sometimes reviews or critiques are more of a way to help understand something, how it made you feel, than it is a way to determine if something is what you want to buy or experience. It's not always about whether something is good or bad, it's about why it's good or bad. At the same time that these reviews helped me decide that I can wait until the price drops to pick up RE5, they allowed me to understand why my reaction to the demo was that something was "just off about the whole thing."

So thank you, Mielke and Sessler. I'm on your side and I don't envy you the shitstorms that are about to come your way.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Phish Reunion: Night Three Review

First, let me start this review by saying that, having revisited the shows from the first two nights, there were a bit more flubs and sloppy playing than I initially detected. However, I feel like these were honest mistakes and not the product of drugs, apathy, or being drunk. After four and a half years off, Phish is bound to forget. Having the pressure of knowing their entire fan base will be combing these shows for any sign of trouble, they're also bound to get nervous. Anyone who's taken a class where you have to give speeches knows that you can practice until you have the entire thing memorized but it's quite another thing to do it in front of a group.

So, with that out of the way, I'm going to tentatively declare the third night of the Hampton reunion shows my favorite. Which is strange because most of the 'big' songs I was looking forward to hearing--Ghost, You Enjoy Myself, Piper, Fluffhead--were already played on the first two nights. What night three has over those, though, is Phish really loosening up and feeding off the energy of the first two nights. Sunday's show was packed with unexpectedly excellent improvisation, mostly delivered in focused, succinct courses. That 22 minute Down With Disease main course can't be ignored, of course, but oddly I found myself more surprised and enchanted by the shorter jams. I would go so far as to say that, with all due respect to the first two nights, the two sets on Sunday were exactly what I was hoping for.

After Sanity, Wilson, Foam, and Bathtub Gin, I would have gone home happy (assuming I was at the show) but then they pulled out a completely unexpected Undermind. Now, this is a song I've been dying to hear Phish play after they named their final album after it. Hell, they even included a soundcheck version of it with a bonus disc for one of their DVDs. Well, the one they played this night was different from the album version but it's much more fully formed and tight than the sloppy mess that was the soundcheck one. I'm with everyone else in being floored by the Fluffhead that opened this three night stand, but I think Undermind was my own personal payoff and vindication. I look forward to this one going into regular rotation, it's a good alternate for, say, Twist.

The rest of the first set absolutely smokes--that ten minute Bathtub Gin' is the shortest one they've played in ages but it's still incredible, and the Maze is just as good as an average one from '94 or '95. And hey, bring on more Keytar enhanced Frankenstein's. It must've been hilarious to see Page up there playing it...

Then we come to set two, which is the grand slam of the weekend in my book. The second night had some damn good improvisation, in retrospect, but I think Sunday's second set kills it. Much like the 2/28/03 Tweezer was held up as the first major jam of the post-hiatus era that stood up to the greats from years past, I think at the very least this Disease will live beyond the fame (infamy??) of the three night Hampton reunion run. Like the Rock and Roll and Ghost from night two, you can just feel Trey trying out new things and completely hooking in to what the rest of the band is up to. Fans of Fishman will adore the way he single handedly tries to shove this one out of deep space mode. Just when it seems that the song is about to end and all momentum is gone, Trey starts up Seven Below. I find myself paradoxically pleased by this version even though it doesn't really go nearly as far out as most of the spacey post-hiatus versions. It's....novel to hear Trey hang back in a jam for a minute or two, playing along rhythmically until he has hatched a plan of attack and winds the jam into high gear. I would hardly call this Seven Below an epic--at less than eight minutes it would be hard to--but it's still one you shouldn't miss. And something about the combination of funkin', rockin', and spacin' from this set reminds me of '97.

Speaking of awesome funkin', rockin', and spacin', holy lawd does this Twist deserve more love. Like the Wolfman's Brother from night two, its length initially had me saying "meh" but once I heard it, I was entranced. I know I'm not the only one who hears Mike and Fishman playing a few bars of Seven Below around the 7:09 mark, but the main thing I love is the way this Twist slowly but purposefully moves into the deep space we visited earlier with Disease. Toward the end Page even uses the new keyboard from his Suzy Greenberg solo from night one. Then as the space continues, Trey hitting the upper reaches of the Milky Way with his angelic loops, Fishman drops the beat on 2001.

Of course, Moma Dance comes next.

Of course.

After an unexpected but well placed While My Guitar Gently Weeps, we get one of the more poignant moments of the run with Wading In The Velvet Sea. We all remember that the last time this was played, it felt like a depressing wake for the band. Page could scarcely make it through without crying. They had to play it just to underscore, once again, that they were back. And they also managed to play the most lovely and perfect version of it you'll ever hear. I'm dead serious. Remember how I said they've gotten better at ballads, and how Trey is putting more effort and feeling into his vocal performances?? This is the sort of thing I mean. The ballads and set close-y songs like Slave To The Traffic Light are one of the last things on my mind when I think about great Phish moments, but the tail end of this show was a wake-up call to me for how the ending of a show can be just as memorable as the beginning and the middle.

I was holding out for some sort of crazy encore--like a 'Fluffhead Reprise' or another Destiny Unbound break-out--but what we got was just as satisfying. Plus I think a huge arena full of people singing someone's Dad 'Happy Birthday' is the kind of nice, touching moment that melts even my black, cynical heart.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Video: Phish- Grind (3/6/09)

I'm still chewing on the last of the reunion shows, so here's a video to tide you over. There's a ton of videos from the three nights on YouTube but most of them look or sound like crap. Or both. So while this is just a barbershop quartet ditty from one of the encores, it's all around one of the best videos I could find.

For those of you who don't care about Phish, Whiskey Pie will return to normal on Thursday.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Phish Reunion: Night Two Review

As the first set alone is an hour and 45 minutes, I'm going to do my best not to attempt a song-by-song walkthrough. Still, aside from its length the first set of the second night is notable for a few things. The first and most apparent is that Phish has gotten better than ever at playing ballads. Take a listen to 'Brian and Robert', which has a slightly different arrangement now, losing the vocal 'ooh' bit. Listen for how studied and strong Trey's voice sounds and the way Page's blends so well with it. While I'm on the subject of Page, god damn has he been bringing it for the shows so far. You can really see why the band played his solo song 'Beauty Of A Broken Heart' as well as his 'showcase' piece 'Lawn Boy' in the same set. I feel like Trey is still warming up a bit as far as improvisation and fill/backing playing goes but Page has been on the ball from the get-go. This could just be a result of the way the soundboard copy is mixed, but who knows...

The third notable thing about this set is the tasteful mixture of oldies-but-goodies and rarities. Can you really be angry at a set that contains 'Gumbo', 'It's Ice', and 'Guelah Papyrus'?? Can you really be mad at a set that contains almost-perfect-especially-compared-to-post-hiatus versions of 'Reba' and 'Split Open and Melt'?? I think not.

Lastly, let us pause and note how much more plugged in and excited Trey sounds to be playing in Phish again. I've always been a big defender of post-hiatus Phish but even I will admit that many times during his solos from that era he seemed to lack any motivation or inventiveness. The Trey of 2009 is a different man, though. I'm already getting ahead of myself and talking about the show as a whole, but while his playing in general may not be up to the standards of your personal favorite year or tour, it's far more energetic, focused, and experimental (in the literal sense of the word) then it has been for some time. And for that matter, pay attention to how he's singing and delivering the words, too. You may think his pauses and seemingly off-time delivery are a sign of rustiness or forgetfulness, but give 'Heavy Things' another spin. That is the sound of a man who's learned how to vary an approach to singing as much as he has to playing. I generally have bad things to say about his solo career since '04 but at least it's given him the confidence or motivation to put more care into his vocal performance.

Much like last night, the first set is long and extremely well played. I would probably rank the 'It's Ice' and 'Back On The Train' among the best played; the former for the mind-blowing space section in the middle (which reminds me of nothing so much as the illustrious jam between 'Waves' and 'David Bowie' from the IT Festival) and the latter for both opening the show and demonstrating Trey's renewed solo vigor.

The second set is damn near an hour and a half, so if you're wondering why they only managed a single song encore, now you know why. The set starts off with a searching, patient 'Rock and Roll' that makes me eat my words about Trey needing more time to warm up his improv and fill/backing playing. This particular version may never congeal into a true classic but the band's collective interplay is continually interesting and worth chewing on a few times to wring all the juices out before you swallow. The semi-segue into 'Limb By Limb' is the first sign you'll get that this set will be better as a whole package then it is for any one or two particular songs or magic moments. Rather, my continual impression throughout this set, and my feeling toward the whole show in general, is that I'm just fucking elated to hear new Phish music again. See, I didn't get really into Phish until '04 when they were about to break up. So this is the first time I've got share in the anticipation and reaction to the music being made as it's being made. It's like getting to return to a particularly happy part of my childhood, or perhaps returning to a relationship that went bad. Only now, that woman is back and things are as good as they ever were, perhaps better.

The 'Ghost' (played in the '97 and post-hiatus style, without the delay loop opening) in this set doesn't stack up to my personal favorite versions but make no mistake: it's still damn good. I suspect that the more I listen to it, the more I'll enjoy it, but even on this, my second spin, I'm already according the whole band gold stars. I'm slightly torn on the way it goes to that seemingly standard 'Ghost' trope where the music speeds up and eventually Trey goes into his arpeggio, twirling/swirling "we just hit the peak!!" stuff, but I never get tired of hearing that, so...Anyway, the stuff he does around the 7:30 mark with his sparse playing and loop pedal is brilliant and something I've never heard him do before. Again, this is a great sign that he's making plenty of room for Mike, Fishman, and Page to take a more active role in the jams while he's still contributing, too. Maybe I'm making too much of this, but I predict that this 'Ghost' will go down as the first notable improvisation of 2009. I liked Friday night's show as much as anyone, and it had some excellent playing, soloing, and jamming throughout, but you've got to admit that so far the second set of Saturday night is the high water mark for the weekend, improvisation and segue-wise. Though I'm not sure there's any kind of segue into 'Piper' from 'Ghost' because Page's lovely piano outro dies away before the first notes start. Whatever. We'll have to wait a bit longer for a true epic 'Piper' but I can hardly be mad when the unexpected segue into 'Birds Of A Feather' becomes clear. This is one of those moments where you have to wonder if they had it planned or Trey just decided on the spot to do it. As early as 4:30 into 'Piper' you can hear it coming but your first thought will probably be "man, if Trey keeps this up this is going to be one of the most wild 'Piper's ever...."

Let's all have a hearty laugh at Trey flubbing the second verse of 'Birds.' Perhaps we will receive whippets that dance in a curlie cue dance, Trey. Perhaps.

Now, here's where the set seals the deal for me. I was already feeling above-average-happy with the proceedings thus far, but this 'Wolfman's Brother' totally has me embarrassing my pale, gangly white self by causing me to now type: awww sheeeit, son. I will confess right now that I'm the sort of fan who glances through setlists and scoffs at short versions of what I consider 'big jam' songs. A 12 minute 'Tweezer'?? I'll pass. A sub-9:00 'Wolfman's Brother'?? What is this, 1995??

But, listen up friends, because this is the tightest god damn 'Wolfman's' you'll ever hear. It's short but the band doesn't waste a second. While Trey does the kind of galloping, choppy playing he did on the legendary Slip, Stitch & Pass version, Page and Mike tear it up, funk style. Once Mike hits his synth pedal, he and Fishman lock into this ass kicking groove that is only surpassed by one of the best, most concise Trey-led jams you'll ever hear. I'm dead serious. By the 6:30 mark, any doubts you had about whether Trey "still had it" will be obliterated.

So, yes, this 'Wolfman's Brother' is a "mere eight minutes long." Well, if every version of 'Wolfman's' ended up being this short, as long as they were this great I wouldn't mind.

I know what you're thinking now, and no, the 'Prince Caspian' isn't boring. It's better than normal, even. This is thanks, once again, to Page, who I daresay turns in a command performance. His solo before the band comes crashing back in with the closing section is ample proof that, as the saying goes, Page Side Is Rage Side.

And then they played a 'Mike's Groove', which is the first one since 2000 I've given any kind of shit about. No, the 'I Am Hydrogen' wasn't note perfect; and while I feel like broken record for saying this again, I'm going to: it wasn't note perfect but it was still far better than post-hiatus. The 'Weekapaug Groove' has a particularly excellent moment around the 4:30 mark where the band locks into one of those old fashioned, face melting grooves before launching into the 'Weekapaug' ending and yeah, once again you'll think to yourself, Phish is back. Hell, even the standard issue 'Character Zero' set closer is played with a zeal and focus that I haven't heard from Trey since, dare I say, 1997.

Oh, and then they encored with 'A Day In The Life.' I forgot how much I liked this song, and how much I liked hearing Phish play it. But I guess I could say the same thing for everything they played tonight.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Phish Reunion: Night One Review

Given that it's been around four and a half years since they last played together--and in that time Trey Anastasio went through some very humiliating and humbling jail time--you knew you could count on one of two things happening for the three reunion shows. Either they come back much tighter and better practiced than they were during the last go-round ('03 to '04 for those keeping score at home) or it's the same sloppy-but-fascinating Phish from that '03/'04 era. Since there is so much pressure and expectation for these shows, it would be enough for them to just get through a show playing really well. The elements that I consider magical and "fan for life" inducing--the improvisation and the segues between songs--probably won't come until after the band dusts off the cob webs. If they 'played it safe', so to speak, for the three night run at Hampton, you could hardly hold it against them. Safe Phish is better than no Phish, anyway.

Well, as I write this initial post it's Saturday afternoon. I am about to brew up a pot of tea and finish listening to the rest of Friday night's show. I'm almost to the end of the first set I can already tell you this: they played it safe by not playing it safe.

See, the worst aspect of Phish in the so-called 'post-hiatus' era of '03/'04 wasn't the unevenness of the shows. Rather, it was that the band--particularly Trey--often played the heavily composed, downright prog rock songs really sloppily. Or, in the case of the fan favorite epic 'Fluffhead', they didn't play them at all. The band admitted that they weren't practicing much, if at all. This may have given the shows from this time period a devil may care immediacy and sometimes surprisingly potent improvisational prowess, but it was often rough to make it through the composed portion of songs to get to the good stuff, so to speak.

As they never played 'Fluffhead' in the post-hiatus era, we all felt like we were 'owed' one during this three night stand. Many called for or predicted a 'Fluffhead' opener. It seemed the most obvious and also the most correct choice to let fans know that: A) they still liked the old stuff, too B) they could still play the old stuff C) unlike the post-hiatus era, they were practicing the old stuff and eager to play it. Busting out these kind of songs was playing it safe on one hand because they knew it would appease the fans. On the other hand, it was not playing it safe because, beyond all the pressure and expectation already on them, fans would surely be combing every second of tape for flubs and mistakes.

Let me just jump right into it then: holy shit, they played 'Fluffhead' to open the show! You had to see it coming but it didn't decrease the surprise and elation one bit. I don't know that I would say this was the tightest 'Fluffhead' ever played, but it is easily the most historically important and moving 'Fluffhead' ever played. And you know what? None of the playing in the heavily composed songs was as tight as it was back in '93 or '94, but that time has passed and we can never go back. If the first show back doesn't contain much of the things I most value in Phish (the aforementioned improv and segues), that's OK. I've never been the biggest fan of these compositional songs but even I can't deny how powerful and ultimately meaningful it is to hear the band playing them better than they have in probably ten years.

There is nothing drastically different about any of the songs in the first set, except for a fun, sloppy 'Farmhouse' (huh, playing the simpler, less composed songs sloppily is somehow much more forgivable) and the older, slower version of 'Water In The Sky.' Phish didn't rearrange the songs or add in new sections or anything else you might dream up. I feel like I'm being too hard on the band by writing all of this and I don't mean to. The first set is very satisfying; almost two hours in length, it sticks to songs from pre-97 and will scratch every old school itch you have. There may not be any sterling improvisation (though there are moments in 'Stash' that suggest great things ahead) but everything is played well and with an energy that reminds me of how drinking tea makes me feel, simultaneously hyper yet patient and studied.

On a side note, was it just me or did Page's new keyboard on his 'Suzy' solo kick ass? I look forward to hearing more of it and what's more, it brings the band that much closer to an inevitable cover of 'Chameleon' from Head Hunters.


Fans will notice that Trey's guitar tone is somewhere between his 'classic' sound and the raunchy, distorted tone of post-hiatus. As his 'classic' tone suits the complicated, precise, sometimes delicate sound of the composed songs and the dirtier tone sounded bad ass in the dark, stormy post-hiatus jams, it's promising to see he's splitting the difference between the two. And on this nod to the past with an eye toward the future, let's pause and acknowledge that the band begins set two with a new song, 'Backwards Down The Number Line.' Set one opens with a much requested classic; Trey's sound is closer to his old sound...but it's actually a new guitar tone altogether and they began the second set with a totally new song. Yes, they're serious about loving the old stuff but wanting to move forward too.

Since, in my opinion, Trey's solo music went from 'meh' to 'bleck' after Phish "broke up" in '04, I'm not really sold on this song. It sounds like they borrowed the melody line/chord progression from 'Candle In The Wind' and the lyrics just seem clumsy and wordy to me. There are some good vocal harmonies in the song but the most important thing to take away from this is that 'Backwards' is a song song like 'Heavy Things' or 'Sample In A Jar' are song songs. They're not heavily composed and they never will be a jam vehicle warhorse like 'Tweezer.' Speaking of...

When I was driving around today listening to the first set, it finally hit me that we would get to hear new versions of all the old jam vehicle warhorses. Each year or set of years of Phish seemed to have its own character and style of jamming, so that a '95 'Tweezer' and a '98 'Tweezer' had little in common except the composed part. I am really geeking out on the prospect of new versions of 'Ghost', 'Piper', 'Seven Below', etc. You have to figure at least a few of these are coming in the next two shows especially since they've already blown their wad with 'Stash', 'Tweezer', and 'You Enjoy Myself' for this one. But I digress.

The composed part of this 'Tweezer' is good and funky as it has been since '97. It's very comforting to hear Trey play the main riff right instead of the weird way he approached it during post-hiatus. Seriously, dig out 2/28/03 and listen to the opening of that monster; it's like he's playing an inverted version of the riff. Anyway, the jam starts out very tentative. I'm sure the band has been jamming together along with their heavily composed songs practice regimen but after four years apart some of the connections have probably weakened in the ol' improvisational nervous system. I do get the distinct impression that they're listening and responding to each other, though. The way Page takes over the jam around the 7:00 mark and Trey drops out almost entirely, playing funky rhythmic chording...it sure brings a smile to my face. Honestly, other than the new song, if someone handed you this show and didn't tell you what date it was from, you might have a hard time telling what era it's from. It doesn't sound like post-hiatus but it doesn't sound like the 'classic' 1983 to 2000 era either.

In the end, this 'Tweezer' is the first public stretching of muscles before the jogs and marathons to come. Page has definitely gotten much more assertive over the past four years and you can really tell he and Trey are hooking up, melodically speaking, all over the place. It's too bad that the most interesting and improvisationally fresh part of this jam comes in the last minute or two. I have to admit I was surprised by the segue into 'Taste' though in retrospect you can sort of see it coming when Trey and Page start dancing around each other's notes and Fishman has all but dropped out. Despite the relatively few glimpses this show gives us of the improvisational beast that Phish was and can be, it's more than enough for me to hear these songs again, new versions of them, and to dream of the future. Really, this is one of those shows that gets an automatic free pass for the extraordinary circumstances and the tightness of the playing. Even if they had played sloppy I would give them a free pass, but they didn't, so nyah. Anyone who can say a bad word about this show other than "there weren't many jams" is either a liar or an impossible to please asshole. I've tried to learn to be patient and show restraint with Phish this time out. I don't need 'best ever' versions of songs or face melting improvisation yet. I just want more Phish.

Though for what it's worth, I think the 'Chalk Dust Torture' from set I is one of the better non-improv versions I've heard.

And really, that's the general vibe of the whole night: it's Phish playing again after years off, but it's also Phish playing better than they have in years. I defy you to listen to the 'Possum' from set II and say it was sloppy or that Trey was lost in his own world. The spirit and mood of this show is reconciliatory, celebratory, and some other word that ends in -tory. Sorry, words are starting to fail me.

I feel like I'm not allowed to criticize this show, if that makes any sense. The stick-up-his-ass, "I want improv and segues" fan inside me may not be 100% satisfied with this show, but even he is willing to give this one a nod of approval. After all, it had me--I mean, him...it had him laughing during the orgasmic release of the "oh hell yes, it wasn't a lie or a joke, we're back, bitches" tight and energetic ending to an unbelievable 'Fluffhead.'

Why laughing?? If he didn't laugh, I might cry.

Uhm, I mean, if I didn't laugh, he might cry.

Wait...you know what, nevermind.

Hey, they had to restart the beginning of 'You Enjoy Myself' and Trey jokes about it, saying it won't be like the last time they had to. Referring, of course, to the early '03 show at this same venue where they had to restart it. If I had any doubts that Trey and the rest of the band were making a conscious effort to practice and do these songs justice, it has now been erased. Personally, though, I never felt the post-hiatus 'YEM' playing was ever terrible. Statistically speaking they play this song more than any other so it's hard to lose it, y'know??

Hey, Trey just hilariously flubbed the 'Boy, Man, God, Shit' part, prompting him to say 'God Shit' and laugh through the rest. Indeed, Phish is back. And yes, I mean 'Phish is back' not 'Phish are back.' For I think of Phish as one entity. It is made up of the four members plus their crew plus the fans, but it still adds up to one thing: Phish.

I think most of us can agree that this decade had been, in general, a pretty bad one. At a time when things seem to be going from worse to worst, it's nice to have Phish back to make it a little easier. It's nicer still to have Phish back at the strongest they've been in years and years. I predict within another show or two, or at the very least on the summer tour, they'll have the incredible improv and segues that I crave. They've already proven that they've fixed almost all of the problems from post-hiatus in one historic show. It would be greedy to ask for something more so soon, wouldn't it??

Friday's show was exactly what we and the band needed, a bit of everything that makes Phish, well, Phish: the heavily composed stuff, the songy stuff, the jokey/fun stuff (vacuum solo, barbershop quartet), the improv, the segues, and the all around good feelings and excellent musicianship. Yes, I keep saying it, but Phish is back. Between that and Obama winning the presidency, it's as if this whole awful, confused decade never happened. No, man, Phish didn't go on hiatus and they sure as hell didn't break up. 2009 is starting to look like what 2001 should've been.

And so that's why I'm calling for a '2001' at some point tomorrow or Sunday. It's just gotta happen.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Sorry For The Lack Of Whiskey Pie

Between two jobs and trying to edit a novel, and trying to buy a car/transfer the title/get new places/look at apartments/move out, I may not be updating as often for the next few weeks. I know it's all bullshit and many people with busy lives maintain consistent update schedules...but sometimes your personal life has to take precedence. Anyway, it's not like I have a million readers or am making money off this. Neither of those is why I do this but still, it's hard to update when I'm busy with other stuff or simply brain dead from work and real life stuff.

Anyway, Phish is reuniting tonight after almost 5 years off, so I'm sure I'll be doing something about that on Monday. Look forward to it!!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Album of the Week: Modest Mouse- The Lonesome Crowded West

Between the Polaroid photos in the lyric booklet of desolate winter highways, the lyrics, and the general feel of the songs themselves, The Lonesome Crowded West quickly gives you everything you need to understand the spirit of the album. Which is: the feeling of wanting to travel or travelling, of going to other places to get away or to change your life, and ultimately feeling the futility in it all. Desperately you want to travel, but having gone there you know it hasn't changed a thing or having not gone because you predict it won't change a thing. This is an album of existential longing and religious denial. The existence of god--any god--is denied and the purpose of life is elusive. Haven't you ever felt the desire to get away from it all, the pure pull of travel, only to think about it and come to the realization that, essentially, everything is the same everywhere?? If there's nothing to do in your hometown, well, millions of people in the world are thinking the same thing. And if here's no god, well, that's OK, but what are we here for?? Better get on the road and do some thinking...

Modest Mouse's first album, This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, began Isaac Brock's exploration of themes of travel, what life is about, and atheism (or at the very least the questioning of Christianity) but it was with The Lonesome Crowded West that they reach their finest flowering. Yeah, their first album is really good, and the albums after Lonesome touch on some of these themes, but it's at its most focused here. 1997 saw a lot of now-classic albums but The Lonesome Crowded West is one of the least recognized. Either Modest Mouse's next release, The Moon & Antarctica, steals all the thunder or their mainstream breakthrough Good News For People Who Loves Bad News does. Well, those are both debatable, but I find something so much more...pure about '97 era Modest Mouse. They were still on an indie label and still making music that sounded full yet was made with only 3 members. The Moon & Antarctica was the band unleashing their inner studio masterminds, a dense, fascinating, lyrically and musically layered work but it lost something with the increased scope.

At any rate, the ideas and themes explored on this album are but half of its greatness. You may be surprised someday, listening to The Lonesome Crowded West after a long absence, just how many excellent songs you forgot were on here. 'Cowboy Dan' is a huge fan favorite, six minutes long and not a wasted second in there--starting out dark and intense before getting into a winding down section at the two minute mark, every guitar note and word drawn out patiently in a languid, psychedelic introspection. And then immediately it slides back into the dark intensity. 'Long Distance Drunk' has always been a personal favorite--"it doesn't seem like anything you're saying or doing is making any sense"--and does a lot with just a repetitive, drum-driven groove. Still, this album wouldn't be half the creature it is without 'Truckers Atlas', which is a ten minute travelogue that musically and lyrically sums up the album while letting the band stretch out. Keep in mind this isn't the jammy stretching out of, say, Built To Spill. Moreso it's just a (predictably) great song to drive to as it keeps going and going.

I've tried to make it through this without using the word 'zeitgeist', but every time I listen to this album I feel like it captures the spirit of the age. The Lonesome Crowded West puts it there even in the title: it's about feeling alone in large group of people, in a crowded room; living in a heavily populated area yet you can't relate to anyone or anything. It's about nameless desperation and boredom gnawing at you, pacing you around in your apartment or house, feeling like you have to go somewhere or do something but knowing that there's nowhere you can go and nothing you can do that will truly help you. It's about denying religion and thus the afterlife but still wanting to live even if the living is hard and full of worry and questions about purpose. Finally, it's about acceptance of all these things:
he said that god takes care of himself
and you of you
it's all nice on ice alright
and it's not day
and it's not night
but it's all nice on ice alright

Monday, March 2, 2009

Video: Cat Power- He War

I really like this video, the cut-up scenes of a relationship set against some beautiful looking settings. It's always stuck with me. I even used it for a presentation in a philosophy course of Aesthetics for some reason. I get the feeling the video is trying to say something by mostly keeping the guy's face hidden until the very end but it's beyond me. It's nice to see the whole thing from the other side, where a guy is the unattainable, aloof object desire. Remind me to wear jeans and black T-shirts more often, maybe I'll get a woman like Chan Marshall to chase after me...