Sunday, November 29, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dr. Octagon- The Octagonecologyst

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Video: Dr. Octagon- Blue Flowers

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

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Album Of The Week: Madvillain- Madvillainy

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2009

You Or Your Memory: Fight Club

The Matrix seemed to be the first DVD that a lot of people bought, something about its newness of visual style, CG effects, and fresh sci-fi story drawing people in to the new format. But Fight Club was the first DVD I ever bought, and I honestly don't remember why. I had never seen the movie before, though I do recall the trailers at the time of its release. Trailers that, like many film trailers for the past 15 years, emphasized the wrong elements and spirit of the movie. This is even starting to infect video games, sadly; all of the commercials and trailers for
Dragon Age: Origins make it look far more action oriented and fast paced than it really is.

At any rate, the 2 DVD special edition of Fight Club sold me on the new DVD format with its extensive features, commentaries, and behind-the-scenes looks. Moreover, the film itself was brilliant and still defies my attempts at categorization. It's a buddy movie. It's an action film. It's an art film. But ultimately, Fight Club is a love story. The ending to the movie is up there with the best of all time, from its perfect use of 'Where Is My Mind?' by the Pixies to the clever post-modern flash of an image (you know what I mean). It was note perfect, as the saying goes. I didn't bring up the ending to praise it, though, because it proves that the movie was a love story, suggesting that if the main character had just gone for Marla right away, none of these things would have happened.

Fight Club came out early in my high school days, and it was a work that informed my point of view and sensibilities as much as Radiohead and Kurt Vonnegut did. I didn't start or join any fight clubs, but I did develop an ironic, detached personality and distaste for consumerism and what the "mainstream" considered valuable and beautiful. This was all for good or ill because hardcore Fight Club fans, like hardcore fans of any work, can be insufferable. But I never really stuck to anything the movie argued for, or seemed to. I never adhere to anything dogmatically, especially a fictional work. Yet the DVD was something I'd pop in at least once a year for many years, which is a rarity because I almost never watch movies a second time.

It has probably been a couple years since I had watched Fight Club, so seeing it a few weeks ago on a whim was a relatively fresh experience. Full disclosure: I didn't go into it with the idea of writing about it, I merely wanted to test the DVD playback of my newly purchased Playstation 3. So while I wasn't mentally compiling a list of thoughts to tackle, to compare and contrast how I feel about the flick now versus in 2000, I did find it to absolutely hold up. If anything the movie is more tonally and socially daring now than it was in 1999, since it came out before September 11th and the re-entry of the word 'terrorist' into our vocabulary. But more than that, it's the movie's criticism of consumer culture and the numbing effects of modern life and post-industrial working life that gets more biting with time. Meanwhile, the film's visual style and plot are still talked about today. On top of its aforementioned brilliant ending sequence, Fight Club contains one of the best plot twists of any movie ever. I still don't want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that it alone makes the movie immediately re-watchable because it fundamentally changes something about how you perceive the characters.

It's always depressed me that people went out and started fight clubs or did acts of consumer/corporate terrorism inspired by the movie. As a semi-impressionable youth, they do seem kind of cool and the movie--intentionally or not--makes a good case for their seeming usefulness. But the older I get, the more I think the point of the movie is that fight clubs and blowing up display windows of computers aren't the answer to the emptiness felt by modern young adult men. The failing of both Fight Club the film and the novel its based on are that they provide no other alternative: giving in to consumer culture is bad, but the fight clubs and Project Mayhem aren't the answer either. Or anyway, not to the extremes their taken. I could possibly make case for the movie suggesting that love was the answer to the main character's existential crisis, but that is really a separate issue. Whatever the case, it's become increasingly clear to me that Fight Club was a case of the movie being better than the source material. The novel is much more needlessly extreme, its ending far less satisfying, its philosophy more heavy handed. If memory serves, even the author, Chuck Palahniuk, agrees that the film version is better, at least as a whole.

I don't have the extensive knowledge to back this up with examples, but Fight Club strikes me as either one of the last 20th century movies or one of the first of what the 21st century would bring us. I lean more toward the latter. Break it up chemically into its constituent parts--writing, acting, editing, cinematography, musical score, etc.--or take it as a whole, and it's still an amazing film.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Album Of The Week: The Feelies- Crazy Rhythms

The Feelies, you ask?? Who the hell are The Feelies?? Well, the Feelies had a hipster cache in the 80s, thanks to bands like REM and critics like Robert Christgau talking them up. But the original line up fell apart after their first album, Crazy Rhythms, and the band itself split in 1991. Then the members did nothing of consequence for over a decade. They soon became one of the many obscure acts that occasionally show up in the lists and impassioned conversations of record store clerks and music critics while being mostly forgotten by everyone else. Yet in 2008 they reunited and performed with Sonic Youth and this year their first two albums were reissued, and it's like we're all rediscovering something. Something great, even.

The Feelies, at least on Crazy Rhythms, sit at the strange crossroads between the Velvet Underground/Television era of "underground" rock bands and the "college rock" of the 80s. Their guitars had mostly clean tones, the percussion used cymbals only sparingly (I believe it was Lou Reed who said something about how "cymbals eat guitars" in the mix, so he always had Mo Tucker of the Velvets lay off), and the vocals had that distinctly David Byrne-esque nerdy/nasally quality to them while also having a healthy dollop of Lou Reed's flat delivery. Yet what makes The Feelies truly unique is the strange brand of guitar based rock they molded from these traits. I mentioned Television earlier, and while that combined with the relatively long songs on Crazy Rhythms might suggest the transcendent guitar interplay and soloing of Marquee Moon, this album is actually more minimalist and repetitive than that. I remember reading a review of this album a few years back, and they mentioned something about the 'long droning passages of guitar and drums.' Well, it's not quite as experimental as that sounds, the solos and guitar work are certainly not of the typical stadium rock, fist pumping variety.

Crazy Rhythms was a slow burn for me. Having heard most of their influences and a few of the bands they supposedly influenced, I wasn't immediately taken with The Feelies. Due to the mostly clean guitar tones and flat singing style, it initially seemed like pretty boring stuff. And I don't know if it's just the copy I have, but at a couple points on the album there's a 30 second or so long gap of silence that always make me think my iPod Touch ran out of power. Pretty annoying. But I stuck with Crazy Rhythms because I felt I must be missing something, and once I got used to how they sounded and the odd way they use guitars and drums for their songs, I began to really like it. Then I began to love it. There's an almost visionary quality to a band like The Feelies, and I don't mean to imply a religious nature. What I mean by visionary is, this isn't the sort of "sound" you randomly stumble into or lift wholesale from other bands. You can tell they had something very specific in mind, and while it might've taken them awhile to develop it and make sure they had enough variety to keep it interesting, it was worth the effort. Crazy Rhythms may sound like other bands and albums, but there's subtle and not so subtle differences in the unique way they approach songwriting and instrument playing that set them apart. Such as?? Such as the lengthy instrumental intros, outros, or interludes to songs, like on 'Loveless Love', or odd choices, like putting a percussion and bass breakdown early into the title track--which seems like a very Grateful Dead sort of move, like how they used to stick the drum solo part early into versions of 'Cryptical Envelopment/The Other One'. But then again, I've been listening to a lot of the Dead lately, so...I digress.

Even though REM cited The Feelies as a reference, no one seems to have taken anything from them except their clean guitar tones--hence the whole jangle pop thing that REM were often linked to. Which is really too bad, because there's a lot of interesting music and ideas on Crazy Rhythms. It's not the sort of beloved release that will ever topple the well known and well worn classics from much more popular bands, but those who have temporarily become bored with their collection and are looking for something unique will likely love this album just as I do.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

EP Round-Up: Grizzly Bear, Deerhunter, & Bon Iver

Grizzly Bear- Friend EP
Friend may be referred to officially as an EP, but it's a dubious designation for two reasons. One, it clocks in at 43 minutes, which is longer than full albums by a lot of bands. The other reason is that three of the tracks are actually covers of Grizzly Bear songs by other bands. Perhaps it's better to think of this as a hip hop style mixtape?? I don't know.

Regardless, the three covers are all generally good and done in the style of the respective bands. I do wish that CSS or Atlas Sound would've flipped a coin so we didn't get two covers of 'Knife', but whatever: I love that song and their takes on it are very different. As for the Grizzly Bear material, it represents a strange nexus between all three of their albums. Their remakes of 'Alligator' and 'Little Brother' are in the more electric, dynamic style of Veckatimest, which is odd since that album wouldn't be released for another year and a half after the Friend EP was. Anyway, 'Granny Diner' is clearly a Yellow House leftover and there's an alternate version of 'Shift' from Horn Of Plenty, so we've effectively got pieces of every Grizzly Bear release on this EP, whether in spirit/sound or actual music. The rest of the material is as hit or miss as you might expect, though I do want to mention that I wish that annoying gap of silence and subsequent rocking out wasn't tucked unto the end of 'Deep Blue Sea.'

While everyone should get the albums first and most people will be content with only those, diehard fans looking for something more--not necessarily something new--will find much to enjoy in this surprisingly meaty EP.

Deerhunter- Fluourescent Grey EP
I have the habit of thinking of bands as a linear progression or story, with a very clear evolution or path toward or away from something. While I probably have forced this structure where it doesn't belong, it seems like more often than not it fits a band. Something like the Fluorescent Grey EP is reason why because it is such an obvious stepping stone between Deerhunter's Cryptograms and last year's phenomenal Microcastle.

Of this release, in an interview with Pitchfork Media, Bradford Cox said: "It's like four singles. I almost feel like we should have saved the songs for the next record...But they're all four singles; they're all four good. They could stand on their own." While I couldn't have planned the "stepping stone" comment any better if I was trying to make him connect the albums, I do want to address the "these are four singles" comment. Mind you, Fluorescent Grey is only four songs, so it's easy to criticize such a release for not having enough material. But in the same way that Portal, the PC game, was so awesome partially due to its brevity, Fluorescent Grey is awesome because it gives you just enough music to enjoy in one burst. Also similar to Portal, the quality of the material is shockingly high. I don't know if I'd qualify all of these songs as singles in the traditional sense of a Top 10 hit song, but in terms of indie rock 7"s or what have you, they could absolutely fly. The first three songs definitely feel like steps toward the more pop oriented Microcastle, while 'Wash Off' is a look back to the by turns dreamy and intense shoegazer-isms of Cryptograms.

Like their friends in Animal Collective, Deerhunter seem to get that EPs can be more than just "maybe a new track or two and some remixes or covers." Fluorescent Grey is an excellent dollop of songs you can't get anywhere else, and well worth the price for casual or hardcore fans.

Bon Iver- Blood Bank EP
If this decade has, for the mainstream anyway, been the decline of the album--due to digital music stores, the ease of piracy, or the way we listen to music nowadays--then it has also seen the resurgence of the single as a viable artistic venue. Since people don't feel bad about spending $1 (or less) on a song (or a ringtone of said song), singles have become a much bigger thing than in the 90s, when they pretty much died thanks to the lameness and expense of CD singles. At the same time, I think the EP has come into its own as an artistic format as well. If you buy digitally, you're still only spending about a dollar per song.

According to Wikipedia, most of Blood Bank's sales came from digital sources. That's pretty much par for the course these days, since the only way I ever end up with EPs is getting the digital version (legally or otherwise) or when EPs are packed in as companions with vinyl records. Maybe it's just a money-to-music ratio, I don't know how I justify it. Anyway, since Bon Iver was one of the biggest stories of 2008, it only made sense that those clamoring for more from Justin Vernon would jump on anything Bon Iver in '09, whether it be this EP or his collaboration with a band under the name Volcano Choir. While the latter will likely puzzle those fans who come to Bon Iver from the singer/songwriter/folk perspective, Blood Bank will be a welcome snack while waiting for Vernon's next Bon Iver album.

Other than 'Woods', with its unique vocoder'd vocals and lack of any other instruments (think 'Because' by the Beatles, but not as good), Blood Bank sticks closely to the For Emma, Forever Ago template. So this EP is a case of "more of the same but still good; not essential but recommended for hungry fans."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sufjan Stevens- The BQE

Fans of Sufjan Stevens have been right to wonder what the hell he's been up to for the last four years. After 2005's amazing Illinois album, subsequent outtakes-and-leftovers The Avalanche, and a compilation of Christmas songs (Songs For Christmas), Sufjan seemed to disappear behind the scenes of his Asthmatic Kitty record label. Then there were murmurings of him working on a new project, and in 2007 it was played for the public: a longform orchestral piece about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in New York with an accompanying film. This, however, still doesn't explain the two year gap between the performance and its release as The BQE, but whatever.

Composing a long orchestral work may seem a bit out of Sufjan's league, but take a listen to the Michigan and Illinois albums again. They possess a symphonic structure in some regards, as well as containing overtly orchestral music and instrumentals. The simplest way to describe the sound of The BQE is to say that it's like Sufjan wrote an entire 40 minute album of that kind of material, but there are some key differences. As this one is entirely instrumental, there's a greater variety of melodies and ideas, as well as a true symphonic scope to the proceedings. It's as superficial as the way the piece is divided up into "Movements" and "Interludes" (as well as a Prelude and Postlude, naturally), but also as deep as the way some of those melodies and ideas are referred to or varied over the course of the work. I won't go into much detail as far as the music goes, but I did want to highlight the sequence of 'Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise' and 'Movement IV: Traffic Shock', which lie at the heart of The BQE and are its best moments. The former contains one of the best orchestral hooks he delivers here, recalling 'Out Of Egypt, Into The Great Laugh Of Mankind, And I Shake The Dirt From My Sandals As I Run' from Illinois; the latter is an electronic, videogame-y sounding surprise, providing a refreshing break from the symphonic nature of the album while still riffing on the melodies of the previous track.

Sufjan has been making a lot of comments in the press lately about his probably-dead 50 States Project and how he's wondering what the point of the album as a format is, and something like The BQE is his first stab at getting beyond the current format. Whether he continues down this path is impossible to say, but allow me to step outside the bounds of a review of the music and address the "mixed media" portion of this project. The film portion of The BQE is about what you'd expect, lots of shots of traffic, driving, artsy night shots of stoplights and headlights, etc. You'll maybe watch it twice and only listen to the music from there on out. I can't really speak to the 3D Viewmaster reel(!) that comes with the CD version since I don't have a Viewmaster, and I don't have access to the 40 page comic book that comes with the vinyl version. Meanwhile, the longwinded philosophical essay by Sufjan printed in the booklet is, quite frankly, a bit too indulgent and pretentious for my liking. Ultimately I have to wonder who this stuff is for, other than hardcore fans. If this is his solution to an existential crisis about music, songwriting, and the album format, it seems like a misguided-but-charmingly-niche one.

Like most projects that seem unusual for an artist you love, The BQE is neither terrible nor a complete triumph; neither essential nor forgettable. It's an interesting, borderline-challenging diversion from Sufjan's usual output that will only appeal to hardcore fans or those with an open mind about orchestral/symphonic music. Personally, however, I hope he doesn't continue down this path, mixed media or even orchestral. Instead I wish he'd just make a damn album already.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Atlas Sound- Logos

Listening to Logos over the past few days, I've realized that I don't consume media (or, if you will, art) like I think I should. See, I've always felt that I should go into everything with an open mind: even if I've read reviews of a movie or album ahead of time, I should still try to approach it with just my critical lens and non-critical gut reactions in tow. Now I have to admit that I actively go into everything wanting to like it. I'm not sure if this is a better or worse way to do things. It might be amplifying my initial love or disappointment artificially, but then again, I reserve final judgment for later. This is why I don't write "previews" of any kind. Assuming I did, I might've dropped Logos right away and not gone back for more listens.

I'm struggling with a way to explain this as succinctly as possible, but Logos doesn't leave a good first impression. Bradford Cox has been on such a string of greatness in his main band, Deerhunter, and with his solo project. Atlas Sound, that it's hard not to hold this album to a very high standard. So that might be part of it. Also, at least on first listen, the album feels like a collection of Microcastle (and Weird Era Cont.) leftovers, skeletal demos, and two collaborations that sound less like "Atlas Sound meets Panda Bear/meets Stereolab" and more like "an Atlas Sound remix of a Panda Bear/Stereolab song." Compared to the surprisingly hook filled Microcastle or the consistently brilliant ambient-pop/electronic atmospheres of the previous Atlas Sound album, Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel, Logos offers no immediate delights beyond the aforementioned Panda Bear and Stereolab guests.

Since I wanted to like this album, I stuck with it, and I'm glad I did. Logos, like Deerhunter's Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP from earlier this year, is still a step down from Cox's previous releases, but it's still solid. Furthermore, my initial misgivings may just be a case of over-familiarity with the artist and his style. Once I listened to Logos a few more times past my initial disappointment, it began to reveal its subtle, interesting nature. Where Atlas Sound's last album, Let The Blind..., was a nuanced and dreamy piece of bedroom ambient-pop magic, this album is relatively straightforward bedroom indie rock. Logos may sound unfocused and unfinished at first--it did to me--but once I began to get what Cox was likely going for, these issues turn into assets. Namely, variety and stripped down songs. I don't know if it's actually true, but this album seems to have less layers of sound and instruments than the rest of Cox's work.

Logos retains the intimacy of the previous album while feeling less clinical and withdrawn. 'Sheila' contains one of Cox's simplest and warmest melodies, while the title track wraps his vocals in lo-fi fuzz. The irony of all of this is that once I got into Logos, I ended up liking the two collaborative tracks much less. 'Walkabout' and 'Quick Canal' are fine by any measure, but they sound too much like Panda Bear and Stereolab largely because the respective singers of both bands are at the heart of each song. The former kind of reminds me of a more 60s style remake of the electro-loop from Animal Collective's 'Water Curses', while the latter doesn't even feature Cox's voice (at least that I can recall) and only starts to feel like an Atlas Sound track when the song short circuits halfway through and a wall of shoegazer noise descends like a curtain.

Anyway, yes, Logos does feel like a step down from Cox's last Atlas Sound and Deerhunter releases, and the collaborative tracks, while good, kind of don't work for me in the context of the rest of the tracks. But it's still a very good album and one that fans of his work are sure to enjoy; they may just need to dial down the expectations or give it some time to fully appreciate it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Album Of The Week- The Cure- Disintegration

The Cure are a band who, like the Grateful Dead, have a large-yet-cult-ish following of sometimes monomaniacal fans. Meanwhile, everyone else thinks they know what the band is, dismissing them out of hand without ever giving them a listen. Get past the image foisted on them by the public, and the Dead were actually one of the best bands during their heyday, recording quintessentially American music. As for The Cure, they were, along with The Smiths, the reason why British pop music was so damn good in the 80s. Yes, I said "pop music." Just as the Dead are unfairly pigeonholed as toothless hippies who noodled for 2 hours a night, The Cure are unfairly slotted as joyless goth music for suicidal, immature teens.

The Cure's Disintegration is one of those "classic" albums that could use a resurgence in popularity just so everyone will hear it for what it is rather than what they think it is or remember it being. While it certainly is aptly described with adjectives like gothic, atmospheric, slow, and, yes, depressed, it also contains two of the band's most popular songs. Which, for the record, are upbeat love songs. More importantly, though, Disintegration is secretly an epic psychedelic rock album blended with The Cure's distinctive goth/post-punk style. According to interviews, Robert Smith was having a hard time with the band's popularity before the recording of the album and fell into a depression. Oddly, he didn't lapse into alcoholism or heroin as you might expect, but instead went for LSD. As such, Disintegration isn't psychedelic in the sunny way of The Beatles or other 60s pop groups. Rather, it led to The Cure having long instrumental sections, loads of effects and reverb on the guitars and vocals, and a 71 minute run time.

This album is what I would call a "qualified masterpiece." What I mean is, it doesn't have the near universal appeal that things like Sgt. Pepper's or Led Zeppelin IV seem to. You really have to want to listen to Disintegration, to submit to its pacing and vibe, in order to appreciate and fall in love with it. I could sit here and list things that will keep people from liking it, but they'd be the same things that are so great about it. Such as the way most of its dynamic songs are in its first half, leaving the back half for lengthy and atmospheric tracks, like 'Homesick', which I always think is an instrumental because the vocals don't come in until the 3:20 mark. Or the surprising one-two punch of the almost-funky 'Lullaby' and the jagged post-punk bass of 'Fascination Street.'

Ironically regarded by The Cure's record label as "commercial suicide" before its release, Disintegration served only to make the band even more popular than ever. And while it is widely regarded by critics as their best album, I wonder if they notice how weird and psychedelic it is and not just all the typical goth stuff. In any case, it really is one of the best albums ever with a unique sound and great songs.