Thursday, December 31, 2009
Ten thoughts on 'Maps' and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to celebrate the 2010 New Year's Eve:
1) The drummer looks like the son of Egon Spengler from Ghosbusters.
2) If the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had only stuck to EPs and noisier music, they might've been consistently great instead of only divisively and/or arguably great.
3) No, I don't know why she's wearing a bow (as in bow and arrows) on her arm.
4) This's one of the handful of songs from this decade that I never get tired of hearing, and had to listen to over and over after I heard it for the first time until I was satisfied. I rarely fixate on a single track at a time, but I had it bad for Maps back in '03. And still do now. Maybe someday I'll do a list of those songs...
5) "Yeah Yeah Yeahs" was one of the dumber examples of "good band, shitty name" to come out this decade, though "Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!" makes it look like a monument to self restraint.
6) It's still weird to hear Karen O. laughing and having fun while making animal noises on Embryonic by the Flaming Lips, if only because she comes off as one of those irritatingly confrontational, forcibly "artsy" dressing frontpeople.
7) For some reason I found it really hilarious when a co-worker pronounced their name in a mocking Brooklyn/Jersey mob hitman accent: "yea yea yeaaaaaa."
8) Fingerless gloves, especially leather ones, have never and will never look good on women.
9) I confess to not listening to their third album at all, but Show Your Bones left me with little impression no matter how many times I listened to it. I really ought to revisit it before I say this, but: that album wasn't even a daring failure. It was content sounding, and for something that took three years to record it was just kind of boring.
10) What was with all the bands without a bass player that got popular in the early part of the decade? The White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Black Keys...You don't even really notice the absence either, leading me to conclude that not all bands need a bassist though most of them have one seemingly just for the hell of it.
It's that kind of incisive commentary you can continue to expect from Whiskey Pie in 2010, not to mention more of my droning, nasally voice set to cleverly cut images I found on Google or Wikipedia. (Hopefully I'll get a proper microphone soon so it's a bit more, you hear, audible.)
Sunday, December 27, 2009
(Again, read the badly spellchecked full text below for clarifications of bad sound quality and my mush mouth)
5) I'm Going Away by the Fiery Furnaces: The 2009 releases from Wilco and Yo La Tengo left me feeling pretty meh, so even bands that are normally reliable helped contribute to the general weakness of the year. That said, I ended up loving I'm Going Away by the Fiery Furnaces more than I thought I would. Since this is a release that strips away almost all of the song structure experiments and crazy instrumental workouts of the band's sound, I was initially underwhelmed by the album. But the Furnaces always had the songwriting and melodic hooks beating at the heart of their music, and by focusing on that aspect--and a live-in-the-studio production style--they ended up making one of their best albums. The Friedberger siblings recently issued the digital-only Take Me Round Again, which sees them re-making the songs from this album on their own. In the process they ended up emphasizing that, hey, these are great songs no matter what their form.
4) Beacons Of Ancestorship by Tortoise: "Fun" is not a word I associate with post-rock even if it's obvious the dudes in Mogwai, at least, have a sense of humor. But Tortoise have always given off an intellectual air of clinical studio perfectionism that brings to mind Steely Dan. Yet Beacons Of Ancestorship is the clearest example I heard all year of a band very obviously just trying to have fun with music. Because of this, Beacons may lack the cohesiveness or flow of other Tortoise albums, but it's by far the most fun to listen to and sports a variety of sounds. Call it their "much needed shot in the arm" release if you must, but I never thought I'd be so excited about a Tortoise album after 2005's sleepy, workmanlike It's All Around You.
3) Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear: Yes, I'm not entirely sure how it's pronounced either, but I feel like that was the point. Much like with Dirty Projectors, you have to come up with multi-syllabic phrases to categorize the music of Veckatimest. Indie rock folk pop chamber vocal music? Whatever, the point is, this is an amazing album with a timeless quality to it, bursting with ideas and melodies that never sound obvious or cliche.
2) Merriweather post pavillion by animal collective: Merriweather post pavilion was the best reason to start 2009 just as their recent Fall Be Kind EP is the best reason to let it end. As such, Animal collective felt like they owned the entire year, setting the bar high early for other albums to match and then closing it out in style with a great EP. Every fan seems to have their personal "dude, this is totally the best" Animal Collective album--even if it happens to be Panda Bear's solo release, Person Pitch--yet everyone seems to at least agree that Merriweather is brilliant and rivals their own personal pick. I'm a Sung Tongs man yet there are times while listening to Merriweather when I begin to question my loyalty. It's that good. On a final note, those people who complain that the best songs are at either end of the album--'My Girls' and 'Brothersport'--are neglecting 'Daily Routine' and 'Lion In A Coma', not to mention....well, hell, the whole album is great, so shut up already.
1) Dragonslayer by Sunset Rubdown: Around June of this year, it seemed obvious to me that either Animal Collective or Grizzly bear were going to take this top spot. But then--confession time--I downloaded a torrent of Dragonslayer, and within a couple days I bought every Sunset Rubdown release I could get my hands on. Spencer Krug has always been my favorite member of Wolf Parade, but his contributions to this year's Swan Lake album were sub-par. Furthermore, in retrospect I overrated At Mount zoomer even if I still like it. But I digress. Dragonslayer catapulted Krug to being among my favorite artists. The opening and closing tracks of the album are perfect mood pieces with vibrant imagery, while all the songs are intricate mini-suites that have two or more different pieces that fit internally together, and with the rest of the album as a whole. Furthermore, the subtle or overt nods to Sunset Rubdown's previous album, Random Spirit Lover, are clever and fascinating attempts at further tying together Krug's already inter-connected body of work. I actually had to take Dragonslayer off my iPod because for a long time it was all I wanted to hear. It is a joy to listen to, an album full of interesting ideas and brilliant songs within songs that I never seem to get tired of. In a year with a highly contested top spot, Sunset Rubdown managed to become my obvious and only choice.
(Read the full, badly spellchecked text below for clarifications of bad sound quality and my mush mouth)
To be perfectly honest, 2009 was one of the weakest years for music in recent memory. Thinking back to last year in particular, I had a much harder time deciding the order of my "best of 2008" list. 2009, by contrast, was really a race between three for the top spot and then a rabble fighting for the other 7. You know, sort of like crabs trying to climb out of a pot of boiling water, continually reaching the top and tumbling or being pulled back down.
There were no obvious trends to the year--or at least none that I thought were anything other than forced categorization--so I'll skip the ivory tower monologues about the further blurring of genres and get right to it. This is Whiskey Pie's Totally Inessential, Weeks-Too-Late-To-Be-Relevant List Of The Top 10 Albums of 2009.
10) Album by Girls: While I really hope they come up with a better title for their next album, Girls did put forth the effort for the music of Album. A summery California record that is subtly and sometimes not so subtly recalling 1960s California music, it also has some subtle and not so subtle appreciation for weed and lazy, hazy afternoons.
9) Wind's Poem by Mount Eerie: In my review of Wind's Poem, I described it as "like going for a walk on a late Fall night during a storm, the wind and rain alternately pummeling and gentle." It's too bad that so many reviews describe this as Phil Elvrum's black metal album, since nothing here is heavier than anything from The Glow, Pt. 2 from his Microphones band, but I digress. The album is dense and challenging, but those with patience and a good set of headphones will find much to love.
8) Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors: It took me a long time to fully come around to Bitte Orca. It is such a unique, experimental take on pop music that I hardly knew what to make of it at first. Much like my initial experiences with Deerhoof and the Fiery Furnaces, I started by giggling at how seemingly random the song structures developed, at how arbitrarily sounds came at me. But with time, it is obviously deliberate and calculated, leading me to conclude that this band is either visionary and basically uncategorizable, or that they're willfully perverse songwriters who don't want to make it easy on the listener. Whatever the case, Bitte Orca is one of those fascinating, divisive listens that I think everyone should hear even if they will likely end up hating it.
7) Tarot Sport by Fuck Buttons: Assuming you ended up liking Street Horrrrsing by Fuck Buttons, your reaction may have been similar to mine: "huh, this is really interesting stuff, but I don't ever feel like listening to it." Tarot Sport, then, plays like a remix and reboot of Fuck Buttons, bringing in post-rock structures of loud/quiet/loud and melodic peaks and valleys while also adding the driving beats of electronic music. Since they took out all of the screams and just enough of the noisier textures, Tarot Sport ends up being a surprisingly compulsive listen for what is, still, a relatively experimental electronic album.
6) Embryonic by the Flaming Lips: While At War With The Mystics was far from a bad album, between its mostly forgettable orchestral space pop and the band's increasing emphasis on elaborate stage shows, everyone had all but forgotten the old Flaming Lips. Their earlier, noisier albums actually aren't the masterpieces that people make them out to be, so it was a relief to listen to Embryonic for the first time and see that they didn't revert to the 1980s so much as tear it up and start from scratch. Embryonic is a LOUD, demanding listen, but even as a double album it moves at a much brisker pace than their two previous releases. Also, any album that has Karen O. from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs making animal sounds rather than actually singing is OK in my book.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The apathetically named Album also bears a very clear vinyl record pacing and tracklisting. You can practically feel yourself getting up to flip the record over after the long 'Hellhole Ratrace', a song that has a circular progression and emotional peak that suggests it should be the album closer instead of the mid-point. It does, however, set the mood for the album's more languid second half. 'Headache', 'Summertime', and 'Lauren Marie' are in no hurry to get anywhere and offer ample opportunity to let you space out and daydream. Even 'Morning Light', a noise-pop shot in the arm which sounds like a cover of something off of No Age's Nouns, has a "late afternoon, riding the couch" vibe to it.
Indeed, this "vibe" is the key to the album's greatness in my opinion. Girls are Californian through and through, and much like how the Beach Boys got their start writing about the culture they experienced in that state, Album has a--you knew this word was coming--sunny, summery feeling that feels unique to California. But where the Beach Boys innocently pined for girls, surfboards, and cars, Girls are only interested in (no pun intended) girls and drugs. Even the bummer songs are catchy and endlessly listenable while being mellow enough to chill to. Yes, even the wall of sound, shoegazer-meets-surf-pop of 'Big Bad Mean Mother Fcker.' This track is pretty much Girls's version of Yo La Tengo's shoegazer cover of the Beach Boys's 'Little Green Honda' from I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, and that's not a bad thing. But I digress. The most immediately enjoyable bits of Album are the pleasant pop of album opener 'Lust For Life' and the 60s soul/girl group-style ballad 'Headache', two tracks that argue strongly for the fact that you can wear your influences on your sleeve but not have to rip them off in the process.
I took awhile to come around to Girls, if only because this is a summer album to its very core and it's hard to enjoy that when it's the midst of winter in Ohio. The Shins at least had the good sense to issue Oh, Inverted World in June of '01, but whatever. Like fellow 2009 breakouts The xx, Girls manage to sound utterly original and fully formed despite: being so young, having some obvious sonic influences, and never having recorded anything before. Album is among the best albums of the year, but here's hoping they name their next album something different so sentences like this one don't sound so redundant out loud.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
This is how I think of Wind's Poem, and Phil Elvrum's music in general. You always get the sense that the entire work existed in his head, and albums are his attempt to put physical form to these visions. Moreover, even at his most consistent and accessible, Elvrum's music is still uncompromising and demanding. Wind's Poem roars to life immediately with 'Wind's Dark Poem', one of the tracks on the album that show the loud side of Mount Eerie. Most reviews have dubbed this Elvrum's "black metal album", but go back to the excellent The Glow, Pt. 2 under his Microphones alias and skip to the songs 'Something Contd.', 'I Want To Be Cold', and Samurai Sword.' This style of music has always been a part of his style, and anyway, I don't know if it really sounds like true black metal. It's more just like really loud guitars: loud to the point of distortion without any need for effects pedals, if that makes sense. Of course just to let you know that he's not to be pidgeonholed, he follows this opening bludgeon with the eleven-and-a-half minute long 'Through The Trees', a languid organ drone of a song.
I have to admit that I don't actually follow Elvrum's career at all, so all the singles, EPs, compilations, and albums he's done are beyond my body of knowledge. But I can say with certainty that Wind's Poem is a clear continuation of the lyrical themes from The Glow, Pt. 2, namely his fascination with nature imagery, a constant sense of a dark foreboding atmosphere, and extreme attention to detail. Most artists would blindly start to yell or scream to match the louder songs on this album, but Elvrum still sticks to his distinctive and calmly emotional voice. He uses it as a detail as much as the centerpiece of Wind's Poem, which is something a lot of artists would find unthinkable.
Wind's Poem is an experience unlike any I've had all year with music. It's like going for a walk on a late Fall night during a storm, the wind and rain alternately pummeling and gentle. Wind's Poem may be remembered as a "black metal" album, but it's all filtered through Elvrum's lo-fi indie rock and singer/songwriter lenses. To put it another way, I don't think of The Glow, Pt. 2 as his "drone" album even though there are some examples of that genre on it. It isn't solely one style or another, just as this one isn't, either. Anyway, Wind's Poem is just as demanding and uncompromising for its production as much as its "black metal." You really, really need to listen to it on headphones; moreover, you need to listen to it in one sitting. This is neither an album to rush through, to skip to your favorite songs while driving, nor is it an accessible, digestible listen. When he sings "I'm the river/I am the ocean of changing shape/I bring bodies/in the void you heard my name" on 'Wind Speaks', you're only about halfway through the album. It feels like much more time has passed, however, because Wind's Poem is dense, both with width and breadth. 'Summons' follows next, all eerie guitar moans and Elvrum's naked voice. You could break the album down into these more reflective moments and the roaring loud stuff, but perhaps it's better to look at it as light or heavy wind. As if to underscore this dual nature of wind and the album's obsession with it, 'The Mouth Of Sky' comes right after 'Summons' and sounds like one of the epic peaks of a post-rock band without all the patient crescendos that normally lead up to them.
Whether you love or hate the films of David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, you at least have to admit that what they make is very unique, purely their's from conception to end product, and not like anything else that's out there. This's exactly how I feel about Phil Elvrum's music. It's definitely not for everyone, and Wind's Poem in particular is a dense and visionary work that is among 2009's best albums. You'll need some headphones and the right mood to get it, but once you do, Wind's Poem will prove itself worthy of all the effort and patience.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Cymbals Eat Guitars are in the same school of indie rock as Tapes 'n Tapes, which is to say, their influences are pretty plain. Both bands manage to sound original enough that they can't be called plagiarists so much as students of a certain kind of music. The first Tapes 'n Tapes album was excellent, sure, but it clearly spent its college years in the course of study that may as well be dubbed Pixies 'n Pavement. Cymbals Eat Guitars, meanwhile, take their name from (I'm pretty sure) a Lou Reed quote about how he had drummer Maureen Tucker mostly focus on toms and the bass drum, giving the Velvet Underground's music a primitive/minimalist bent, because he felt that "cymbals eat up guitars" in the audio space of music--too much treble. However, Cymbals Eat Guitar's music sounds like the band stole the playbook of mid-to-late 90s Pacific Northwest indie rock: Modest Mouse, Built To Spill, and Pavement all come to mind when listening to Why There Are Mountains.
Whether this is a bad thing is up to the listener. I want to make clear that at no point do Cymbals Eat Guitars directly rip-off their influences. Just as Nirvana openly admitted to attempting to make good on the ideas of the Pixies and, say, Mudhoney, Cymbals Eat Guitars sound like their own band while calling to mind their influences quite readily. Personally, I think Why There Are Mountains is a good little album, for what it is, but I'm afraid that it's bound to be forgotten as time goes on unless the band really does something amazing with their next album. Too often bands like this fall prey to the same fate that befell Tapes 'n Tapes, which was to make a mediocre, experimental-in-a-bad-way sophomore release and fall into obscurity.
To put it more simply, if you're really into indie rock, particularly the Pacific Northwest brand of the aforementioned bands, you'll enjoy Why There Are Mountains but probably won't love it. This's a conditional recommendation, I admit, so take it for what it is.
Oh, and for the record, the new cover art that was added when the band finally got around to releasing it on a record label is really, really awful.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Tarot Sport's most crucial progression is the way that the band have embraced the dynamics of songwriting rather than the dynamics of pure sound. The entirety of the album is one long suite that flows into each subsequent song; moreover, they also allow natural ebbs and flows to take place. There's a downright post-rock-ian "peaks and valleys, louds and quiets, minimalism and maximalism" structure to these tracks that helps Tarot Sport connect on an emotional level. I enjoyed Street Horrrsing as a sonic curio, a kind of intellectual think-piece, but it's not the sort of release I feel a connection with or wistfully get urges to listen to again. Not so with Tarot Sport.
I have to admit that I was skeptical when this album started getting really good reviews, since Street Horrrsing was such a demanding, difficult listen. But once the beautiful keyboard washes on the opening of the album kicked in, I immediately had to chuck my expectations out the window. One easy way to put it is that Tarot Sport plays like an IDM/post-rock remix of their first album, gutting out the screams entirely (vocals-without-screaming show up on one track, though I can't for the life of me remember which one), keeping some of the noise elements as texture and contrast rather than the focus, and adding in both persistent electronic beats and post-rock's emotional peaks and valleys. Hell, 'The Lisbon Maru' could pass for a particularly experimental Godspeed! You Black Emperor or Mogwai track, while 'Phantom Limb' has more in common with the experimental beat fuckery of modern Autechre than it doesn't.
Street Horrrsing may have gotten them on the radar, but Tarot Sport is the release that proves Fuck Buttons deserve whatever praise and attention they can get. There's a flow, pacing, and sheer enjoyability to the experience of this album that is years more advanced beyond the debut: in a year with some really excellent, epic, and memorable closing tracks, 'Flight Of The Feathered Serpent' is one of the best. 'Brothersport' and 'Watching The Planets', eat your heart out. Tarot Sport is not for everyone, as it retains some of the noisy textures/washes of sound of their earlier work, but those looking for what is arguably the best and most interesting electronic album of 2009 would be wise to seek it out.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Gogol Bordello are a punk band through and through, and one could argue that their gypsy identity is a much truer brand of punk than what passes for it these days, since they freely mix their Eastern European aesthetic with dub reggae, certain kinds of world music, "classic" punk rock, and so on. The danger of fusionist bands is that they come off sounding and looking like a novelty. On a quick glance, Gogol Bordello give this impression. When you first see the band on the DVD half of the Live From Axis Mundi set, you may think to yourself "oh how precious...there's the middle aged looking Eastern European dudes on violin and accordion, black dude in a Jimi Hendrix shirt on bass, and traditional looking white dudes on drums and guitar." Later, there's a Latino guy and two costumed chicks who dance, sing, and play hand held drums and cymbals. On paper, it sounds like the kind of annoying, self consciously multi-ethnic-and-gender pamphlets that colleges put out.
However, the music fits together so naturally, and is so vivacious and catchy, that any preconceptions and misgivings quickly fall away. Nothing about the band feels manufactured or too clever for its own good. Rather, because of the band's gypsy identity, they appreciate multi-culturalism and the sympathetic underpinnings of seemingly disparate musical styles. Songs like 'Think Locally, Fuck Globally' and 'American Wedding' represent a kind of purist celebration of life and love of music that's largely absent in most popular Western music. To put it another way, there's nothing ironic or guarded about the band.
The CD half of Live At Axis Mundi lets you focus on the music of Gogol Bordello, though it'll likely only be of interest to established fans since it has the canned energy of studio "live" performances while lacking the (relative) finesse and control of the album versions. The DVD, meanwhile, leaves you with the feeling that on the night it was recorded, this concert was the most fun you could have had with your clothes on. It's too bad that they don't play 'American Wedding' during it, because their fusionist/gypsy music and colorful, impossibly energetic stage show made me think of the movie Rachel Getting Married. In particular the cultures-coming-together scenes that leave you wishing you were there to meet these interesting people and help celebrate the marriage of two people. If the main character is stuck on self destruction and her part in her young brother's death, than the other characters represent the celebration of life, love, and music. Interestingly, TV On The Radio's Tunde Adebimpe plays the groom in that film, and TV On The Radio are another New York band who blend together different cultural and music influences. But I digress. Watching the DVD, you wish you were at a Gogol Bordello show; as time goes on, you find it increasingly difficult not to move to the music and do that thing where you half smile and half almost-laugh.
Live From Axis Mundi is just a hell of a lot of fun no matter how you slice it. It's the sort of CD/DVD set that feels as much like a celebration of the band and its fans as it makes for a conversion tool for curious on-lookers. Highly recommended.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
The thing that I think always made us quit the game was its use of elements from other genres. Adventure games, at least for me, are at their best and purest when they stick to what is unique about them, which is to say, their writing/dialogue and puzzles. The latter is often where many go wrong, because they insist on ever larger inventories of increasingly obtuse items, item combinations, and leaps of logic. Moreover, when adventure games forced elements of other genres into themselves, the results always felt awkward and poorly done. All of the fighting in Fate Of Atlantis boils down to mashing the mouse button and wailing away, since the game doesn't explain its system to you and trying to back up and recover will eventually cause Indy to run away. Furthermore, when you get toward the end of the game, you're flying a hot air balloon through screen after screen of empty ocean looking for a submarine. In order to land, you vent the hot gas, causing your balloon to confusingly descend in concentric circles, making it difficult to "aim" your landing spot. For that matter, it's never explained to you that the idea is to land on the sub, so you'll probably waste a boring 20 minutes landing on the various small islands, wondering why nothing is happening.
Odd, then, that the thing that caused me to quit the game this time wasn't these poorly implemented mechanics. Rather, it was the final portions of the game that take place in Atlantis. This part gradually becomes open ended and sprawling; not a problem in and of itself, but the slow movement speed of Indy, and random Nazis patrolling the area who force you into fights or running away via the same repetitive conversation, really grate on the nerves. This also happens to be the only part of the game that has a lot of miss-able items that will be required to finish puzzles, so you're never sure if you can't solve one because you haven't had the "a-ha!" moment or if you need some gewgaw. This is one of the worst problems of the game (and by extension the genre in general): often it's a matter of pixel hunting, gradually moving your cursor around the screen in lawnmower-like paths to make sure you aren't missing anything. But it can also be something as counter-intuitive as having to close the lid of a crate so that Indy is capable of noticing a paper attached to it.
Worse still is that the machinery of Atlantis is powered by a fantastical metal called orichalcum. You come upon beads of it during the course of the regular game, but once you get to Atlantis, you're able to use a machine to make more. My assumption was that the game gave you an infinite supply once you successfully used the device, but as it turns out, if you waste too many on trial and error while solving future puzzles, you run out. This means not only backtracking--via what feels like a half hour of slow movement and the same tedious random Nazi patrols--but having to go through the two-room, three-step process of making more beads. After doing all of this, I accidentally fought too many Nazis in a row and Indy's health hadn't recovered, leading to an easy death. As I hadn't saved for awhile, this meant losing a lot of progress. Yes, that's technically my fault, but why the idea of a game auto-saving for you took so long to make its way into the majority of titles is baffling to me for situations just like this.
The Atlantis portion of the game reminds me a lot of the last bit of the original Half-Life that takes place in Xen, insofar as both are the most frustrating and oblique sections of both. In Half-Life's case, it was because Xen went on far too long, suddenly emphasized the not-so-good jumping mechanics of the game, and was generally pretty confusing and felt out of character with the first 2/3 of the game. The infamous end boss felt like it was lifted from Quake, for god's sake. Anyway, Atlantis's issues are its aforementioned backtracking and sudden supernatural elements. Granted, Indiana Jones has always dealt with supernatural stuff, but in this game it's more a case of the puzzles you begin running into and the supernatural, which is to say, unnatural/made-up stuff that you have work with. As I mentioned earlier, there's a MacGuyver-like feel to the majority of the puzzles in the game up to this point. Hell, you even have to make the hot air balloon yourself, just as McGuyver once made a small, two-seater glider airplane. But in Atlantis, you're using made up machines and items that behave according to the game's internal logic. Unless you developed the game, at least a couple of the things you need to do here will elicit "what the fuck?!" reactions. For instance, at one point you need to fill a stone cup with lava. You figure out pretty quickly that if you insert a statuesque fish head into an Atlantean lava forge, it'll spit that out of its mouth. So you try to "Use" your cup on the lava flowing out of it, but Indy says he doesn't want to burn his hand off. The solution is to place the cup down first and then insert the fish head. Pretty finicky, right? No, pretty idiotic: the flow of the lava doesn't stop as he picks up the now filled up and removes the fish head. How did he manage to do those things without burning his hand, but carefully filling the cup in the flow is impossible?!
Most of Fate Of Atlantis's problems are purely a matter of its genre conventions and the kind of game design philosophy that was taken for granted at the time. Nowadays, though, I think part of the blame has to be laid on the developers, who either didn't playtest the game enough or left in its issues to pad out the length. For its time and judged against the adventure game genre, Fate Of Atlantis was pretty ambitious and tried a lot of things. However, it doesn't hold up particularly well because of those ambitions, since the three different paths outlined above eventually converge at the end of the game, rendering them meaningless. All of the fighting and action elements that it borrowed are awful and clumsy; even if you played the game right now with a FAQ in hand, you'd still find the game frustrating and tedious even while you were bypassing all of the sometimes finicky puzzles and obtuse logic leaps. Unfortunately, then, Indiana Jones And The Fate Of Atlantis must remain an interesting part of the history of PC games and the adventure genre, but not something that has held up and demands a revisit today.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
I have to assume that The xx is wrapped up in gender politics and interaction between the sexes, since so many of their songs on XX are about love, whether it be having it, losing it, or wanting it. I'd like to think their name is a reference to the XX and XY chromosomes, but it's likelier that they couldn't think of a good one and chose 'xx' to denote a blank space. This same reserve and borderline apathy is abundant in their slow, mellow music. There's a "late night, in the night club/upscale bar, romantic tension" atmosphere to their music that's borrowed from the first Interpol album and Junior Boy's So This Is Goodbye, but The xx never reach the emotional peaks of either band, only really lifting Interpol's guitar tone and reverb-heavy effects. No, their music is more detached and minimalist, as if a post-punk band dropped all punk influences and brought in some R&B, in particular a focus on vocals. Furthermore, if you added a beat and a couple jazzy samples to 'Shelter', you'd be at least halfway to Portishead, or any number of other trip hop/downtempo electronic groups.
The xx's music may remind one of post-punk, trip hop, and R&B, but after a couple listens to this album, an astonishing sense of originality arises. Don't misunderstand me; they're not one of those left-field bands who sound like nothing you've ever heard before. But no one, that I've heard of, anyway, has put the pieces together quite like this. It's even more astonishing that the band are in their early 20s, because the self assured performances, pristine arrangements, and IV-drip melodies are the kind of thing most groups have to work their way toward. Though not as affecting (at least to this heart) as, say, Low's Mimi and Alan, the female/male co-vocals on tracks like 'Heart Skipped A Beat' are truly amongst XX's best moments. Despite the withdrawn, minimalist music, there's a real sincerity to the singing on this album even if, on the surface, it sounds monotone and indifferent. It's like how admitting to someone that you love them can only be done with a neutral voice, otherwise you'll sound too desperate or too insincere. Or you're expecting to get your heart broken when the other person doesn't respond in kind, so you play it off as irony.
While XX is one of the best albums of 2009, it's hard to imagine that whatever they come out with next will have quite the same impact or refreshing sense of originality. Not that their sophomore effort is fated to be bad; they could comfortably make a career of perfecting or slightly altering the little corner of the world they've carved out with their debut. But The xx seem like one of those "lightning strikes once" phenomena, where a band's first release is so distinctive and self assured that there isn't much room for things like maturity or change without completely altering the formula of what makes them so good. But, hey, whatever. XX is great, and that's all you need to know.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Hey so, other than Girls and Cymbals Eat Guitars, the other big "out of nowhere" indie band from '09 for me is The xx. Oddly enough I haven't done reviews of any of these bands yet, but that'll change soon. Anyway, give this video a watch/listen and you'll have a good idea of what their album sounds like. It's pretty much just 40ish minutes of this, which is to say, addictive, compelling, and downtempo post-punk/indie rock.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Hospice is a conceptual piece about the death of a character's lover from cancer. Not every song follows this theme, with 'Bear' about a couple (possibly the same couple, pre-cancer diagnosis) who glibly decide to have an abortion after an unexpected pregnancy, subsequently driving them apart. The music is appropriately dour for such subjects, with a cold, clinical production style and sound that reminds me of a less atmospheric version of Atlas Sound's Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel, an album that also dealt with hospital scenes, surgery, and love. Hospice ranges from the lengthy electronic introspection of 'Atrophy' (with the devastating line "I'm bound to your bedside/your eulogy singer") to the bright and melodic 'Two', which kind of reminds me of Arcade Fire's Funeral in the way that album met death and loss with huge peaks of emotional release and strong hooks. Electro-Shock Blues by the Eels is another touchstone for Hospice, not so much as a sonic influence as it is a similar conceptual piece about death, loss, and pain.
The huge difference between Electro-Shock Blues and Hospice, at least in my mind, is that the former was based on true experiences that Mark Oliver Everett went through with the deaths of his sister and mother (and likely his father, who died when he was fairly young). By contrast, Hospice is an entirely fictionalized work, at least according to what we know. The question of authenticity is a tricky one in art, and I don't want to imply that creators have to have experienced a story or emotion themselves for it to ring true and be acceptable. I don't question that the members of Antlers have experienced some form of death and loss in their own lives; everyone has. Furthermore, the band doesn't need to have lost a love to cancer for this album to be good. What I do question is whether Hospice is, purposefully or otherwise, emotionally manipulative to listeners. We ascribe certain qualities to art that deals with serious issues, among them somewhat nebulous concepts like "importance." We often automatically assume that "serious" or "important" art is always successful and worthy of accolades. After all, how often do comedies win at the Academy Awards versus those full of drama, violence, and romance? While I do like Hospice, I think it's been overrated due to the deeply personal reactions that people have to it. It's next to impossible to separate our emotional reactions from art, and there are many things from my youth that I probably love more due to feelings I derive from them rather than their inherent quality. But I can still put a critical eye to think and admit that it's more a case of something in me responding to the work rather than some quality inherent in said work.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, the people who are calling Hospice one of the best albums of the year are really saying it's one of their favorite albums of the year. There is a definite distinction here if you give it some thought. Personally, the first few times I listened to this album, I liked it quite a bit, but at the same time, I also didn't quite see what the big deal was. It was only when I started to pay attention to the lyrics and themes running through the album that I began to understand. I suspect that Hospice will be a deeply personal experience for many listeners, but sometimes you have to force yourself to separate your emotional response from your intellectual one. This is a good album, but it's neither one of the best albums of 2009 nor is it one of the best albums that deals with death, illness, and pain.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
My first distinct recollection of Gorillaz doesn't come from the 'Clint Eastwood' video. Instead, it comes from the songs 'Double Bass' and 'Sound Check (Gravity).' Over the summer of 2001, I worked for my local school system, cleaning the building and doing general maintenance work at the elementary school a few miles down the road from my parents' house (where I lived at the time). One of my co-workers had a computer on a rolling cart that he hauled around as he worked so he could listen to music. At the time the most concrete memory I had was that he owned all of the pre-fame Kid Rock albums, but now I remember how he didn't have the entire Gorillaz album, just the two aforementioned tracks. Both the Kid Rock thing and that are kind of weird, but that's not the point. The point is that, at the time, I somehow didn't connect them to 'Clint Eastwood', and certainly not to Damon Albarn's main band, Blur, who I loved thanks to Parklife and 13.
I bring this up because, when I listen to Gorillaz today, I'm struck by just how good the album is, and how I love it for the songs that weren't singles. Damon Albarn had already trodden a more experimental direction with Blur starting with their self titled album and the increased emphasis of guitarist Graham Coxon's contributions to the band, but the Gorillaz project saw him adding hip hop, dub/reggae, and even some latin/world music to his palette, all things born out by Blur's Think Tank album. And whatever else Albarn has been up to this decade that I didn't follow. However, due to the annoying "fake animated band" conceit, it's tough to know who's responsible for what as far as the direction of the music on Gorillaz. Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura was heavily involved, and anyone who's listened to the first Dr. Octagon album will see how crucial his production, samples, and beats can be to the greatness of an album.
But I digress. While the two songs that feature rapper Del Tha Funkee Homosapien steal the show, at least as far as most people's lasting impressions are concerned, it's the other stuff that grabs me when I listen to it now. 'Double Bass' and 'Sound Check (Gravity)' absolutely hold up, while a late album deep cut like 'Slow Country' is one of the major reasons I feel like I'm re-discovering this release. 'Slow Country' has got this weird tropical vibe to it, complete with wind synth whoosh sounds; Albarn's echoed vocals sound like a much more oblique and minimalist version of his musings on city and suburban life from Blur's mid 90s Britpop era. And while 'Left Hand Suzuki Method' is typical of overblown non-album bonus tracks from this period (in that it's too long and a forgettable mess), 'Dracula' is actually so good that I wish it was officially considered part of the album. I never thought that "the dude from Blur singing on a dub reggae track" could be good, but I guess I'd be wrong.
Though the willfully opaque nature of who did exactly what on which songs frustrates me a bit, it's actually the faceless nature of this collaboration that makes it so successful and work together even when it dips into a genre exercise with an obvious guest star, like on 'Latin Simone.' Collaborations either seem to obviously tilt to one side of the equation or become complete crap, so it's refreshing to see one that manages to be really good and not skew far toward one genre or collaborator's style. Sure, that's obviously Damon Albarn doing most of the singing, and that's obviously Del doing the rapping, but the rest is kind of a mystery, and because of that, Gorillaz is stronger and more unified for it. I keep talking about Albarn all the time, but I don't think of this as "his" band. It's as much artist/illustrator Jamie Hewlett's band, or Dan 'The Automator' Nakamura's band. In some perverse way, I almost wish they had never revealed who was behind Gorillaz, like a modern day Residents.
I'm pretty sure I finally bought Gorillaz during the summer of '01, and it was an album that completely defined the pre-9/11 innocence of my high school days. For whatever reason, I don't think I'd listened to it for a good five years until I saw a news story a couple weeks ago about the eventual next Gorillaz album. Perhaps because it took them so long to release another album, I thought of Gorillaz as a disposable pop album and a novelty at best. But time has a way of changing things, and I would go so far as to say that I like this album more, today, than I did in its hey-day. So yes, there was some substance behind all that flashy style, and it's what will keep Gorillaz not just a musical curio, but a worthy one at that.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
As I mentioned in my review of Deerhunter's Fluorescent Grey EP, Animal Collective are one of the few bands who think of an EP as a true venue for expression. They've always put forth the effort to offer fans something interesting and new, instead of just having a glorified single or remix depository. Their first, Prospect Hummer, was a wonderful coda to Sung Tongs with the legendary (in some circles) Vashti Bunyan in tow. People was interesting but inessential, unfortunately offering both a studio and live version of the title track. Last year's Water Curses, meanwhile, was the true proof that very few bands make EPs like Animal Collective. That release was arguably as good if not better than most of Strawberry Jam's tracks, something born out by the fact that I remember the band saying that the EP wasn't so much leftovers and B-sides as it was stuff that just didn't fit or flow well with the album.
The same could be said for Fall Be Kind. Its five tracks neither sound like retreads from Merriweather nor lesser material that was left on the cutting room floor. At a bit over 27 minutes, it's a substantial work with its own sense of flow and atmosphere. The band made some comments about how it was going to be "darker" than Merriweather, and while there is a bit more uncertainty, less obvious song structures, and more experimental textures to the EP, it's still just as poppy and frequently head nodding as the album. The first two tracks find resolution in brilliant samples: 'Graze' has euphoric pan flutes from Zamfir, while 'Why Would I Want? Sky' famously features the first legal Grateful Dead sample, from 'Unbroken Chain.' As for the rest, 'Bleed' is where most of the "darker" talk likely comes from, with its free-floating vocals and almost-sinister synthesizer sounds. The last two tracks are the kind of introspective and philosophical wonderings that the band is becoming synonymous with. 'On A Highway' is a road weary lament from Avey Tare, while the lengthy 'I Think I Can' is about needing to move on, ending with a 'The Little Engine That Could'-style repetition of the line "I think I can" in a vocal harmony that reminds you, once again, how Animal Collective can take an influence like the Beach Boys and make it their own.
In 2008, the self titled album and Sun Giant EP by Fleet Foxes formed an unstoppable duo that were collectively my favorite release of that year. I have no qualms about saying the same for Fall Be Kind. Judged by the EP format, Fall Be Kind is as brilliant, consistent, and well paced as Merriweather is judged by the album format. Forming a kind of unique symmetry, by design or otherwise, Merriweather was the best reason to move on to 2009 from 2008, while Fall Be Kind is the best reason to close the book on the year and begin reminiscing. For what it's worth, if I gave out an award for best EP of 2009, Fall Be Kind would easily win.