Sunday, June 28, 2009

Video: Sunset Rubdown- Us Ones In Between (Live)

After downloading a torrent of the new Sunset Rubdown album, Dragonslayer, I listened to it, obsessed, for 2 days before finally snapping and ordering all of their stuff I could get from I had always liked this band but felt that Wolf Parade was the superior product that Spencer Krug focused his efforts on. After Dragonslayer, Wolf Parade begins to look like the so-called "side project" and not the other way around. Seriously. The album is that good. It's easily up there with the Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear releases for "ALBUM OF THE YEAR ZOMG" contention.

Anyway, enjoy this live video from the Random Spirit Lover era.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Album of the Week: Sonic Youth- The Eternal

Back on an indie label, minus Jim O'Rourke but plus former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold, Sonic Youth are closing out this decade with an album that may not best their greatest from this decade (2001's Murray Street) but certainly affirms that they still have it. Whatever 'it' is. The Eternal is fantastic noise-pop that is arguably more successful than even Murray Street at splitting the different between noise/lengthy psychdelic improv and pop/melodic songwriting.

If you'll allow me a slight detour, I have to wonder how much having different members has done for Sonic Youth during this decade. Once the band stabilized with now-permanent drummer Steve Shelley around the late 80s, it wasn't until Jim O'Rourke became involved in 200ish that they released their most critically acclaimed and beloved album in years, Murray Street. After two solid albums that followed in the footsteps of that album (reaching a refined, polished, almost noise-less level with 2006's Rather Ripped), O'Rourke left the band to pursue his own projects and the band picked up Ibold as a full time touring bassist and eventual new member. After performing their classic Daydream Nation in its entirety a few times, not to mention going back to the indies after sticking with a major for so long, you have to wonder how much playing their older material along with the fresh blood of Ibold added to The Eternal. Certainly I don't remember noticing the bass lines of Sonic Youth songs before--but that's probably because for a few albums, they didn't bother with any.

So, then, the album. The Eternal sees the band playing all their best cards while adding some new wrinkles to the mix--'Poison Arrow' has the band singing together where normally Thurston, Lee, or Kim solely sang. It's weird to hear their voices together after so long but it works very well. Perhaps the biggest appeal of the album to me is the unforgettable force of Sonic Youth once again playing it loud, heavy, and noisy. While I loved Rather Ripped as much as anyone, it had a little too much drift and lightness, the guitars chiming when they normally ripped and tore. This album still has some of that, but it also brings the 'classic' Sonic Youth guitar skronk and mid 90s psychedelic improv to the fore again. The ultimate effect is an album that, yes, reminds me of my favorite Sonic Youth songs and albums but never sounds like a copy or throwback. Album closer 'Massage The History' has an almost 10 minute run time that makes me think of the Washing Machine/A Thousand Leaves era but has an acoustic guitar(!) and dreamy vocal from Kim that would be more at home on a Yo La Tengo album. 'Sacred Trickster' is probably the most thrilling shot in the arm opening song of a Sonic Youth album in well over a decade, propelling the album to full speed where even Daydream Nation took a few seconds to work up to the full frenzy of 'Teenage Riot.' And 'What We Know' makes excellent use of Ibold's bass, dancing with the always sublime Steve Shelley's drums, revealing what I always assumed about Ibold from his previous associations with Sonic Youth as well as underground in music in general: he was actually wasted on Pavement in a lot of ways. The focus of Sonic Youth has always been the upper registers of noise and atonality, but The Eternal is a refresher course both on how Shelley is and has been their secret weapon along with whoever is pondering the bottom end on bass.

The best compliment I can pay to The Eternal is that it has me curious to see where Sonic Youth will go next. Sonic Nurse and Rather Ripped were good, even great, albums but they didn't leave one wanting more. The Eternal does. It may not end up on my best of '09 list but it's an endlessly satisfying release and probably the best I've heard this year from bands in the "old, established band have still got it" category. Regardless of how I feel about it by year's end, The Eternal will remain an excellent release from a band with no shortage of fascinating and great albums.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Broken Controllers: Videogames And Difficulty

Anyone who's played more than a few videogames probably knows the frustration of getting to a difficult part of a game. This brick wall stopping us from progressing takes on many forms: a sudden rise in difficulty, a sense that the game wasn't designed well or is cheating, a new goal that will take too much time and effort for us to overcome...whatever it is, these parts of games are more often than not the point where most gamers give up and move on to something else. I say this based purely on personal experience and the anecdotes of friends, but logically it holds up, doesn't it?? We quit games as kids because they became too hard or we grew bored of them. True, sometimes it is a case of figuring out you don't like something, but I think most gamers are smart enough to "try before they buy" or read reviews to make informed purchasing decisions.

At any rate, I'm not calling for easier games. Instead I think developers need to focus more on letting the difficulty and challenge come in multiplayer aspects of games instead of the single player ones. This is, of course, largely dependent on what type of game it is, and whether it even has multiplayer. But sheer brute difficulty increasingly strikes me as a relic of the arcade lineage of videogames. Games needed to be hard, to have limited 'lives' and cheap enemies, in order to keep people spending money. But nowadays, what's the use of forcing these limitations on players, specifically in single player contexts?? Yes, there is some charm to throwback games that have these elements, but limited lives/continues and even limited saves/places where you can save need to go away. Seriously. I respect people wanting to be challenged by their games, even in single player, but all it takes is the self control to do it. There are many groups and websites dedicated to things like speed runs and single credit challenges of games, so why rely on the developer to do it for you?? If I want to play the same five minutes of game again and again because I keep dying, don't limit me to five chances before I have to start over. If other players want that limit, they can impose it themselves.

I suppose when I talk about wanting most of the challenge and difficulty in a game to come in the multiplayer, I'm primarily thinking of games like Call Of Duty. Since AI in games is still very limited and always comes off as, err, artificial and machine-like, you end up with a single player experience that ranges from way too easy to infuriatingly hard. Trying to play popular shooters like Halo and Call Of Duty doesn't really present one with a true challenge on the higher difficulties if the AI gains god-like aim, speed, and the ability to take far more bullets. This is more masochism than difficulty. On the other hand, there's Portal. This is a great example of a game that got escalating challenges right. Anytime I got stuck or frustrated, it was always due to some inability or lack of perception on my part. True, Portal isn't as twitch based as the shooters mentioned previously, but still. Just making the AI enemies tougher misses the point. Higher difficulties should offer new and different challenges and not merely more/tougher versions of what's already on the 'normal' or 'easy' settings.

Anyway, difficulty will come in multiplayer. I don't believe that AI will ever catch up to the best human players, let alone be able to mimic the foibles and play styles of the kind of people you'll run into online. This is both the best and worst thing about Call Of Duty, because you usually run into people who are so ridiculously good at it you may as well quit and play a different game. They will make you very, very angry, but they will also give you a chance to see what you're going to have to learn to do in order to be as good as them. Conversely, you may just try to have a good time and, while still bitching to your friends on voice chat, manage to have a somewhat good time. Because it's actual human people who've earned their skills and items and not just AI enemies that cheat and have access to resources and omniscience that you don't. It may feel like they're cheating because they're so good, but really you're just angry they have so much free time and patience (or maybe that's monomania and a lack of a life/ambition) where you don't.

Lastly, I want to mention that I don't think games with a strong narrative should ever be hard. Yes, difficulty itself is subjective, and if a game is so easy as to appear to be on auto-pilot (as the last Prince Of Persia was criticized for) then just as many people will hate it as they would if it was too hard. But if your aim is to tell a story or give people an experience, difficulty does you no favors. We often describe novels or movies as "difficult" but this is because of the subject matter and/or the manner in which the narrative is conveyed. It's never because you can't get past page 240 because the Ringwraiths in Lord Of The Rings spam cheap sword slashes or you keep getting the 'game over' screen in Blade Runner because you fail the Voight-Kampff test. Some criticized BioShock for having the vita-chambers that made death impossible, instead making the player fight back to where they died at, but the game was always focused on offering narrative. Offering it, moreover, with not only its plot and characters but its entire world. Why take the player out of the 'experience', then, because they made a mistake or ventured too far?? You don't and shouldn't.

As for the appearance of 'ranking up' systems in games like Call Of Duty, where the people who play the most are rewarded with the best weapons and 'perks' the game has to offer along with their already improving natural skills....well, that's a whole 'nother blog post.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Yo La Tengo- I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

Though I love I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, Yo La Tengo's other verbosely titled album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, has always held my heart in its hands. The dreamy, surreal atmosphere of it makes for perfect summer evening listening yet the album is also sure to get in at least a little of Yo La Tengo's patented noisy side with the brilliant and brilliantly placed 'Cherry Chapstick.' Yet 2003's Summer Sun mostly saw the band continue the strand of And Then Nothing... while eliminating any but the barest traces of distortion. So when the band released I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, it felt like a signal to fans that they were going for that I Can Hear The Heart... sound, both albums with long titles and a lot of stylistic variety but always an undercurrent of indie rock and noise pop.

Well, this 2006 album is bald faced sequel to that album. It's an inferior sequel, sure, but it's still good. Actually, taken on its own merits I Am Not Afraid... is an excellent album, and was one of 2006's best, but compared to Yo La Tengo's ever growing discography, it comes off as a bit of a regression. Certain songs recall previous Yo La Tengo classics and the entire album feels like it's paced and patterned after I Can Hear The Heart... So assuming you want more of that 1997 classic, and any music fan should, this is a must hear. The reason I withhold a more ringing endorsement is that, much like Radiohead's Amnesiac in comparison to Kid A, here are two albums that feel of a piece yet have enough different songs and directions to be equally fascinating. Ultimately it'll probably come down to personal preference and/or which one you heard first. Who knows.

I love the way the album is bookended by long squalors of krautrock-drone-beat-meets-noise-pop ('Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodking') and a psychedelic, self referential jam ('The Story Of Yo La Tango'), I do, but it's the songs in between that offer the most surprise and delight. 'Mr. Tough' is sung in a falsetto voice with a jaunty piano melody; James McNew, the band's secret weapon/underutilized vocalist, offers the chamber/orchestral pop ballad 'Black Flowers'; the tongue in cheek 'Watch Out For Me Ronnie' takes the band into full punk rock territory and has fun along the way. Yet in the midst of these highlights are songs that, as said before, merely recall other Yo La Tengo songs without adding anything. Or are sub par. 'Daphnia' revisits the same ambient instrumental territory as 'Green Arrow' from I Can Hear The Heart... but takes twice as long to have the same effect. 'The Race Is On Again' is a mid-tempo mellow number that reminds me of something off of And Then Nothing... but isn't languid/dreamy enough and, well, damned M.O.R. And 'Song For Mahlia' is much too pleasant for its own good, another song that reminds me of And Then Nothing... but wouldn't fit in with the special atmosphere and finesse of that album.

Is it a sin for a band to be content with making music that sounds like them?? This may seem like a pointless question, but I think you know what I mean. I'm running into a similar problem with the new Wilco album, actually. Wilco (The Album) sounds like Wilco; most of its songs remind me of other Wilco songs. I end up liking the album when I listen to it because I don't feel particularly strong about it either way. I guess the same can be said for I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Album of the Week: Dirty Three- Ocean Songs

The apartment complex I recently moved into is build around an artificial lake of sorts. Already I find myself going out there at night to stare at the water, at the way the lights seem to melt into it, thinking about whatever is keeping me awake. I try not to put stock into the fact that I love the water because I'm an Aquarius but maybe there's something to it. I've always loved swimming pools, baths/showers, liquids in general. I never failed to miss Shark Week as a kid; I love sea food. Ironically, though, I never learned how to swim. Anyway, I've had water on the brain lately, so it's only natural I finally got around to Ocean Songs by Dirty Three, a beautiful, semi-conceptual ode to the seas. As with other aquatic phenomena, I love it to death.

A trio of percussion, guitar, and violin, you may wonder how the Dirty Three could craft a fitting oceanic album. Any fan of film soundtracks, jazz, or instrumental music in general can tell you that not having vocals to worry about often makes for the best 'tribute' music, whether it be Miles Davis's Sketches Of Spain or Matmos's A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure. All three members of the Dirty Three use their instruments to the best textural, melodic, and rhythmic effect, creating music that, yes, ebbs and flows like the tides. The album's most astonishing and accomplished songs--'Authentic Celestial Music' and 'Deep Waters'--are also by far its longest, giving the listener the feel of an epic journey across the water with storms, wind, clear skies, and sun all thrown in.

The Dirty Three don't quite fit into the two genres I would associate them with, post-rock and slowcore, because they aren't experimental enough for the former and aren't always slow and somber enough for the latter. I guess I could justa call them "true originals." Even taken separately, none of the members sound much like other, similar bands. Jim White uses the entire range of his drum kit to full effect not unlike a jazz musician, rolling and accenting but always keeping the beat. Mick Turner's guitar lines are always seemingly afloat, lagging behind or rushing forth unexpectedly; short two or three note lines give way to rhythmic chording or patient melodies. And Warren Ellis's violin soars above it all like a seagull, at other times whipping the water into a frenzy with distortion and rapid swells. All of their albums bear the same elements that are at play on Ocean Songs, but given the emphasis on a consistent 'feel' and 'theme', the album comes off as their best and most focused.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Video: Cymbals Eat Guitars- And The Hazy Sea

Of all the new bands to catch my attention this year, Cymbals Eat Guitars have been the best. Wavves was interesting but overrated. Cymbals at least feel like the real deal even if they draw obviously from Pavement, early Modest Mouse, and Built To Spill. Still, they manage to whip their sound into a fresh mixture. 'And The Hazy Sea' is the first song from the album and a pretty good indicator of the patient give-and-take the album strikes between slow, wide open expanses and sharp, noisy spikes.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Album of the Week: Sonic Youth- Washing Machine

"...Sonic Youth, an institution whose guitars are often emulated and never replicated. As does everything else on a record that will startle no one and sound fresh in 2002."

I sometimes forget how long Sonic Youth have been around, but they're a band of survivors who have a lengthy discography three decades deep. There are a few patches in my knowledge of Sonic Youth so any proclamations I can make about their stuff feels kind of half-cocked. Thankfully there's Robert Christgau, who has had a sometimes acrimonious relationship with the band (specifically Thurston Moore), with the quote above. I'm not sure about the claim that it will startle no one, but it's 2009 and Washine Machine sounds as fresh and interesting as their newewst, The Eternal.

Every Sonic Youth album manages the trick of clearly sounding like a Sonic Youth album yet possessing its own distinct identity. Daydream Nation is a sprawling double album; Bad Moon Rising allows its songs to flow together in a suite-like fashion; Murray Street patiently unfolds into glorious psychedelic and noisy avenues. While I've yet to hear Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, Washing Machine feels like the point where the band re-asserted their experimental and sprawling tendencies. Sonic Youth spent most of the early 90s/late 80s moving toward stripped down, short pop-style songs, but I would argue that they manage this best when the catchy pop moments bubble in and out of the noise and guitar trances. So with 1995's Washing Machine they began to move back to this approach, leading to the lengthy psychedelic/experimental A Thousand Leaves, all those SYR releases, and their material from this decade, which has expertly twisted the threads of punk rock energy, noise/psychedelia, and indie rock/pop.

I really love Washing Machine. In my book it's a five star album but I'm willing to concede that for most people it's got some problems. For starters, it's a weird album even for Sonic Youth: the band closes it with a 19 minute song (which can be heard in its full 25ish minute runtime on their The Destroyed Room collection) yet caved in to their record company and broke up the opening 'Becuz', moving the instrumental outro to later in the album as an untitled track. At the same time, the title track spins out into a white noise mid-section that would put off any casual listener then follows it two songs later with the Kim Gordon/Kim Deal (of the Pixies/Breeders) duet, a homage of sorts to 60s girl groups. The second problem is that the album has no sense of flow or progression. This isn't essential to have a great album but Washing Machine never builds any momentum or a sense of purpose, wandering about for 40 or so minutes before investing the remainder of its runtime on 'The Diamond Sea.'

The final problem with Washing Machine is that there's nothing here to hook newcomers. There are a handful of great 'starter' albums for getting into Sonic Youth, but there's really nothing on Washing Machine that's poppy or accessible enough to pull neophytes in. 'The Diamond Sea', the song part, anyway, is an excellent psychedelic ballad, but there's at least 15 minutes of noise and improv wrapped around it; 'No Queen Blues' has Steve Shelley's patented bouncy drums and some brilliant guitar sounds but ruins its chances with a noisy outro; even Gordon's straightforward 'Becuz' goes for too much chaos and skronk. As mentioned earlier, Sonic Youth were better at mixing the noise and pop at other points in their career, but Washing Machine definitely (one might say, defiantly) sticks closer to noise and rock force than it does memorable songwriting and pop elements.

...which is why I love it so much. Despite the caving in on 'Becuz', from here on out the band did whatever they wanted to, and Washing Machine has a devil may care, relaxed feel. True, Sonic Youth's 90s output is an uneven, contentious set of albums. Nothing really won them the acclaim and interest that Daydream Nation and 2001's "return to form" Murray Street did. But maybe that's why the 90s are such a fascinating era for the established Sonic Youth fan. To paraphrase Christgau, Washing Machine still sounds fresh, but I would add that it can also startle and surprise, too. You just have to already like the band to enjoy it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Movin' Out

Whiskey Pie will be taking a break for about a week while I move into an apartment and get situated. That means no Album Of The Week for this week, I guess. Sorry!!

See you on the other side.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Nazi Zombies Are Easy: Why CoD: WaW's Zombie Mode Is So Fun

As much as I loved Call of Duty 4's single player campaign and Call of Duty: World At War's multiplayer and co-op stuff, I think it's the Zombies mode from the latter title that has most stuck with me on a nightly basis. During the day I'll find myself thinking up new strategies or weapon combinations that might help me (and my friends) make it past round 20. But what is so, for lack of a better term, compelling about this game mode??
Much as most of this "fun" can be attributed to how cool zombies are as foes in most games, I think there's something else at work. Modern games like Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising have all but perfected the tension and bloodthirsty actiony fun that games like Resident Evil (and the Mercenaries mode of that series) started. Call of Duty: WaW's Zombies mode has these elements, to some extent, but this "something else" that makes it as good as those games is an inherent sense of old school arcade fun. Since, as far as we know, the Zombies mode goes on forever until all the players die, you're basically playing it entirely for fun and/or the challenge and/or high scores. Think about it.
We could trace the history of games that tried to be something more than mere entertainment, but what I'm getting at is that the earliest videogames were like the earliest movies. That is to say, intended as something new, interesting, and thrilling/entertaining. There may, arguably, be a narrative to Space Invaders or even the original NES Super Mario Bros., but these games were more about having fun, overcoming challenges, and racking up points. The Zombies mode in Call of Duty: WaW returns us to this game design philosophy. There are even 'powerups' and arcadey elements like a random weapon box that you spend points to gamble on. That this mode can also be co-operative with up to three other people lends it another old school, arcadey layer, bringing to mind classics like Gauntlet and the early 90s Konami beat-em-ups like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

It was suggested on a recent 1UP podcast that the Zombies mode could be released as a standalone downloadable game on Xbox Live or the PS3's PSN. This makes a lot of sense to me because this game mode is in keeping with the classic/retro styled games on those services. Games like Galaxy Wars and Castle Crashers in which, to reiterate, the focus is on fun, overcoming challenges, and getting a high score. It's nice to see that even big budget blockbuster titles can let their hair down and get a little silly from time to time.