Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Crash Course: The Fiery Furnaces

Yeah, I technically already did a Primer about the Furnaces, but I was tapped for video ideas this weekend and figured I would do something near and dear to me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Re: Views On Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me

Well, I did have this posted to YouTube on Tuesday, but forgot to put it here. Whoops! Also, hey, go back and read the review from yesterday. Don't want that to get bumped out of the way by this.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Grouper- Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill

It could that I'll have to eat my words someday, but the more time that passes since the 1991 release of Loveless by My Bloody Valentine, the less likely it seems the band will ever release another album. Kevin Shields has made too many announcements over the years that have never come to fruition, and despite their surprising reunion and subsequent shows in '08 and '09, little news has come about any new recorded output. As with rumors and speculation about Neutral Milk Hotel ever recording again, it's best to not get your hopes up. Besides, what do you really want out of a potential follow up to Loveless? It's such a complete and perfect album; anything My Bloody Valentine could possibly record would either be too slavishly similar or too different to be comparable. Even other bands who have taken inspiration from it, or have outright copied its sound, don't come close.

Every so often, though, there's an album that has a similar quality to it that reminds me of Loveless. It's an indefinable trait or atmosphere that has me grasping at adjective straws: dreamlike, haunting, sex-less, warm but emotionally detached, etc. Boards Of Canada's music is this way for me. No, it doesn't sound anything like Loveless, but it shares those qualities. Grouper's Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill, however, shares those qualities and sounds like Loveless. Kind of. The easiest and laziest way to describe this album is that it's like an acoustic guitar flipside to Loveless's electric guitar squall. The patient chording and reverb soaked vocals and guitar of 'Traveling Though A Sea' could easily be turned into a Loveless track if you sped it up a little and suffocated it in beautiful-but-noisy electric guitars. Hell, Liz Harris's vocals, though obviously female in origin and quite lovely at that, could easily mix into the ambiguous male/female mix of Loveless.

But Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill is no mere Loveless sound-a-like or follower. Panda Bear's solo acoustic album, Young Prayer, is another point of reference, and makes sense considering Grouper has opened for Animal Collective. But it's still only a point of reference. Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill has its own distinct feel and pacing, beginning with the red herring of 'Disengaged', which leads you to believe the album is going to be a lot more brutal and difficult than it is. Somehow Harris wrings a lot of variety out of just her vocals, acoustic guitar, and what must be some kind of subtle keyboards/organs. And of course, the ever present reverb. In fact, the reverb on this album isn't like anything else I've heard: it's like reverb from natural locations, such as abandoned tunnels, high ceiling'd haunted mansions, and bottomless canyons. All of this bundled up with tape hiss that sometimes is audible, sounding less like a shoddy bedroom recording and more like another texture. The stirring of leaves in a forest on a windy day, say, or perhaps someone running the sink in the kitchen while you're laying on the couch trying to take a nap.

There is no wasted space and no accidents on Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill. Everything is completely purposeful and precise even if the whole thing never sounds as polished and sterile as that description suggests. There's a naturalistic perfection to the album, like a perfectly formed diamond erupting from a volcano or the mathematically precise shells of certain animals. I don't really know anything about Liz Harris or the recording of this album, and I don't want to. It would spoil the magic to know what she's singing on the borderline-angelic title track, or what the story is behind the instantly memorable album cover, or what kind of effects pedals she uses to make that sound that segues 'Tidal Wave' into 'We've All Time To Sleep.'

I listen to a lot of music, but it's very rare I come across something that's as immediately arresting as Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill. It's the sort of thing you hear and all you want to do is lie down somewhere comfortable and listen to it, over and over. It's been the soundtrack, over the past month or so, to both some happy times for me as well as some very recent and incredibly painful news about one of my family members. This is an album that makes me feel and think things which make all of the old stand-by adjectives I usually bestow on other music hollow and overblown in comparison. With any luck, the cult around it will only grow with time just as it has for My Bloody Valentine and Neutral Milk Hotel.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Heavy Rain

Heavy Rain is certain to go down as one of the most talked about titles of this generation. If it is an "important" game, it is important for the way it moves cinematic videogames forward a few necessary steps. It is not the be all, end all of videogames; not the future for/of all videogames. But it is fascinating and often brilliant as an experience; as a videogame, especially one asking $60, perhaps less so.

Heavy Rain takes obvious inspiration from films like Se7en, certain police investigation procedural TV shows, as well as suspenseful thrillers of all types that involve life and death, chase sequences, and dramatic interpersonal conflict. But there's also a subtle noir and European art film influence going on, something compounded by the game's brilliant opening credits. At any rate, Heavy Rain switches the player between four characters: a father dealing with the loss of one son and the kidnapping by a serial killer of another; a FBI agent with a drug problem on the killer's trail; a private detective with asthma after the same killer; and a female reporter/photographer who, intentionally or otherwise, gets mixed up in the whole thing. The game does an excellent job of moving at appropriate times between the four points of view, and is especially interesting for the way its plot can branch dramatically depending on your actions. Any or even all of these characters can die and the game will go on, which is something I don't think any game has ever done before. There's no "game over, try again"; it just goes on without him or her. I stuck with this concept even though it meant one of the main four died. I never went back to re-do sections if they didn't turn out how I wanted, and this gave me a huge sense of "ownership" over the narrative. I found myself making the kind of decisions I would make, or that I think the characters would, rather than the ones I thought would be the most funny or dramatic like I do in other games. At the same time, I felt true empathy for the characters, which is something that's never happened to me with a game before. They were believable--or just believable enough--and, while often toeing well worn cliches, worked well. Even the death and subsequent ending for one of the four in my playthrough rang as true, intentional, and satisfying despite the fact in any other title it would have been considered a "bad" ending that I got through not playing right.

Heavy Rain's gameplay is mostly where it runs into some problems. I actually do like all of the QTE/timed button presses and motion control stuff, since I think this game does it better than anyone else. The button prompts organically appear where your eyes
would be focused, and Quantic Dream have masterfully corresponded actions in the game to things you do with your hands. For example, to open a particularly rusted sliding door, you have to thrust the controller sideways in one rough, clipped motion. To, say, wrestle with another character for a gun or knife, you have to pound on a button and keep up on top of further prompts until your fingers become just as exhausted and confused as the character does. But for as far as the game goes toward wherever cinematic videogames are going, it still holds on to some obvious gamey tropes that take the player out of the experience from time to time. The awkward way you walk around (hold down R2 and "steer" with the R-stick while controlling your head with the L-stick) becomes second nature after a bit, but will still cause you to get hung up on objects in the way that someone in real life/a movie wouldn't. Moreover, you can purposefully fail a simple task over and over, leading to such comical situations as characters starting to open a door but giving up and closing it, over and over. And while this may just be because I was playing on the default difficulty, there were a few of those tense timed button press sequences where I felt cheated due to split second timing or poor implementation. I even killed a non-main character on accident during my first playthrough because I hit the wrong button...

Presentation-wise, Heavy Rain earns a lot of points for its expertly crafted camera angles and interactive cinematic sequences. Rather than having static characters stand and stare while talking, you can move around and lean on things or pick up objects as someone would in a movie or real life. There are a few very tense or very emotional sequences in the game that are pulled off with a cinematographer's eye for framing and pacing. In fact, there's a particularly gut wrenching scene toward the end where the female reporter visits an elderly woman with Alzheimer's: a sad, bittersweet scene about memory, love, and life that was aided by the game's often understated, classy score. Unlike recent titles like Uncharted 2 and Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain's characters are very life-like
and mostly avoid Uncanny Valley territory. The eyes and mouths are still not quite right, but the motion capture and voice acting are extremely proficient barring some strange almost-accents: the FBI agent has a slight Boston thing going on, and the mother of one of the serial killer's victims, Lauren, is clearly a French woman trying to sound American and hide her accent at the same time.

Other than the issues explored above, my two lasting problems with the game are its price and its lasting impact on the videogames medium. I happily paid $60 for the game, and don't feel that my money was wasted in any way. Heavy Rain is an utterly unique, moving, and thought provoking game that justifies its expense immediately to anyone who's into this sort of thing. But for most people, it'll be a hard sell. Though I am replaying the game and making very different choices, I have looked online for the different ways the plot can branch, and the ways the ending can play out, and I really do think this is a one way trip. It's so much more interesting to have your own canonical version of events and compare/contrast with others, which is something the game's director, David Cage, controversially meant when he said something about how he hopes people only play the game once.

Heavy Rain certainly isn't for everyone, and even I will admit that it's sub-10 hour length makes the $60 price tag a bit of a sticking point for those who are interested, especially in light of concurrent titles like Final Fantasy XII which offer dozens more. But there is a true quality vs. quantity balance to the game's sub-10 hour play time that bears mention, since, like Portal, it was the perfect length for what it was trying to accomplish, and was some of the best 10 hours I've ever spent with any game. Anyway, if you still can't quite take the leap of faith on this game, there's always renting it. As for the issue of its lasting impact...I suppose what I really mean is, how well it's going to age. In many ways it feels like the important next step, or series of steps, for cinematic videogames...but that also means it is arguably destined to end up an awkward middle child between older titles like Metal Gear Solid and whatever else is coming in the future.

I would wholeheartedly peg Heavy Rain as an important, interesting title that anyone who takes videogames seriously--as an art form or otherwise--should play. I hate kids, yet I felt every tinge of terror and grim determination for what the main character goes through while losing one son and later having to go through hell to save the other. I have also never felt so tense and on the edge of my seat with
anything as I did during many of the game's "action" sequences, from escaping the clutches of a creepy doctor to escaping a burning apartment building to making split second decisions that will determine whether people live or die.

The promos and media surrounding the game ask: "how far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?" Heavy Rain itself will ask that question in increasingly gruesome detail as its story progresses: would you hurt yourself or others? Would you break the law? Would you kill or be killed? I never thought that videogames would have the courage to not only ask me that question but make me really relate such topics to my own life, but here we are. For all of its sometimes clunky gameplay and not-quite-there look, Heavy Rain deserves five stars for the things it made me think and feel. If that isn't art, if that doesn't make it the videogame equivalent of movies and books that do the same, then I don't know what is.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Portugal The Man- American Ghetto

In the press release Portugal The Man issued about American Ghetto, the band's leader John Gourley explains that “American Ghetto was an album that, though drum machined and programmed and synthesized, maintained a lot of feeling and the soul and heart of what this band is.” This is a surprisingly honest and accurate assessment coming from an album's creator; normally they try to come off as literate and obscurantist even when talking about a stripped down album (I'm looking at you, Matt Friedberger, and the stuff you said about I'm Going Away, rambling about Taxi and Titanic like you did). Any any rate, the short turnaround time between this album and last year's damned good The Satanic Satanist led me to believe it would be either a dramatic departure or more of the same, but not as good.

American Ghetto is more of the same: indie rock mixed up with funk and soul/R&B in a way reminiscent of recent Of Montreal releases but less experimental and more consistent. However, it's also “more of the same but still good.” There is indeed a more synthetic and programmed feel to this album, with drum loops and even some samples mixed in. Yet Ghetto has a surprisingly “live” and grooving sound even if it lacks the energy of a full band playing together in the studio. 'The Pushers Party' has incredibly solid drum lines and some Hendrix-ian guitar licks, complete with distortion and wah-wah pedal; one imagines it will be a delight live. At the same time, tracks like 'When The War Ends' have a throwaway feel that belies the album's quick short production. The trite, impersonal, and dull political lyrics don't help, but it's the seemingly tacked on, unnecessary sitars and overwhelmingly stuffed layers of sound that bring it down. Some more finesse and time in the studio could have brought stuff like this in line, as well as the sense that sometimes the songs go on for a minute too long.

However, John Gourley's infallibly keen sense of melodies and hooks is perhaps even sharper than it was on The Satanic Satanist. Opener 'The Dead Dog' sort of sounds like the lithe, falsetto Jack White of 'My Doorbell' mixed with a drum loop/sample straight off one of Beck's Odelay ancestor albums like Guero. And if the lyrical hook of '60 Years' doesn't immediately stick with you, I don't know what will. Gourley simply has a way with delivering lyrics in relation to both melody and rhythm that is one of those things that set apart the Portugal The Man's of the world from the Static Of The Gods's. I do wish there were more surprises like the funk jam outro of 'Fantastic Pace', but maybe that's just me.

If American Ghetto doesn't have the same Summer-y ease and refinement of The Satanic Satanist, it's still just as successful and enjoyable in different ways. Think of it as the darker, harder edged flipside of the Satanist coin.

Note: I could not get the album cover image to upload or hotlink for the life of me, but if you really want to find it, you can.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Crash Course: Frog Eyes

Yup, another new video series. Explained in the video and all. This one took me forever to make, but I think it's my best yet.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Static Of The Gods- Knowledge Machine / Venus Bogardus- Spitting At The Glass

Their name sounds like an Explosions In The Sky cover band, their new album's title sounds like a Kraftwerk reference: truly, Static Of The Gods give an interesting first impression with words alone. Unfortunately, words are also the thing that drag them down.

If I may play the “book by its cover” card: this album's cover is garbage. It's the sort of thing a freshmen in visual arts would likely produce for their friend's band, a clusterfuck of different colored letters that would make House Of Leaves author Mark Z. Danielewski spin in his grave, if he was dead. The fact that they had some little yellow searchlight things spell out the album title, legibly, to the lower right makes it even worse. It'd be like seeing that stylistic, incomprehensible graffiti tattooing the available space on the walls and structures of cities, which is already bad, but someone has also helpfully wrote clearly underneath what it says. It's still ugly even if you know what it says; knowing that a confusing smudge of maybe-letters says “Putter Butt” actually makes it worse.

Anyway, the real word problem with this band is their lyrics. The music is fine if unmemorable; an inoffensive, competently played brand of indie rock that sounds like how the generic version of Coca Cola tastes. It's close, sure, but it's missing originality and that certain special something that makes Coke so good and worth the extra 20% of your cash. They even work in some electronic touches on 'Mean Streak' because hey, Radiohead did that and every else has to, right? Things like that and the band's name make me wonder if they put any thought into what they're trying to say with music or words. Why name your band Static Of The Gods if you just sound like Rilo Kiley Redux? Why have electronic elements sprinkled in to this song instead of that one if they don't mean anything on their own or combined with the lyrics or feel of the song? But I digress. I was talking about words....

Every time I've listened to Knowledge Machine, it always sticks out to me that singer Jen Johnson must have brought in her poetry book to the recording session. There's a wordiness and awkward delivery to the lyrics on this album that belies someone not understanding that, while lyrics can be poetry, poetry shouldn't be lyrics. It's not a one-to-one conversion, in the same way that news writing for a paper is similar to but not exactly the same as news writing for TV. It doesn't help that she seems to sing every song with the same style, inflection, and tone. It's all just kind of...monotonous. I wish she would know when to let the music carry the weight, or to stop trying to sound like every generic, borderline-cutesy female indie rock singer who sort-of-sounds-like-Neko-Case-if-you-really-squint-your-ears (yes you can do that; try it some time).

If I'm coming off as overly mean in this review, I don't mean to. I'm past the days of writing reviews of things I don't like to blow off some steam or to make myself feel superior. But when you listen to as much music as I do, it's hard not to be bothered by the lack of unique ideas and poor songwriting of bands like Static Of The Gods. The music may be competent, but it lacks any personality or distinguishing characteristics; the lyrics themselves aren't terrible, but they're awkward and performed with a poet's style rather than a vocalist. All in all, the problems of Knowledge Machine make the band sound amateurish and as “I'm just doing this for the fun of it, not to make a living” as I hope they are.

2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Though the bio for Venus Bogardus mentions Richard Hell and the band's connection to him, you'd have to be deaf or oblivious not to listen to Spitting At The Glass and avoid tripping your This Band Sounds Like Sonic Youth!!! alarm. From the basic tone/textures of the instruments, to the “male and female couple as main members and vocalists” aspect, to the arty New York feel of the album: it all screams Sonic Youth.

Here's the weird thing, though: it's a really good Sonic Youth rip off. I actually hesitated to use the world “rip off”, since it's a strong accusation and I don't mean it as a bad thing. But there's no denying that fact, especially when the first song, 'Judy Davis Lips', sounds like a Daydream Nation b-side, and the 18(!) minute closing track, 'Brett Smiley Pile-Up', plays like a poor (poor poor) man's version of 'The Diamond Sea' from Sonic Youth's Washing Machine mashed up with one of the languid tracks from A Thousand Leaves. It's one thing to be influenced by another band. It's another thing to sound like another band, a phrase often used in a metaphorical or approximate but not precise comparative way, like saying Visiter by The Dodos sounds like Animal Collective's Sung Tongs. But Venus Bogardus sound like Sonic Youth in a literal, precise way. They outright lift a lot of Sonic Youth's trademarks; I'm dead serious when I say that a few of the times I was listening to this album on the way to work, I forgot I wasn't listening to Sonic Youth. I dare you to listen to the way the female singer sounds and delivers lyrics around the six minute mark of 'Brett Smiley Pile-Up' and not admit that she is trying to sound like Kim Gordon. You can't. Sorry, no. If you can listen to that and argue that she isn't trying to sound like Kim Gordon, you're either a fucking liar or you've never heard of Sonic Youth.

I'm not mad or even disappointed with Spitting At The Glass (despite resorting to the f-bomb just then) because, as I said, this is a really good Sonic Youth rip off. I'm not sure that I wouldn't rather just go listen to Sonic Youth if given the option, but I don't mind a well done copy cat. To go with the Coke metaphor from the previous review, Venus Bogardus are...well, they're not like the Pepsi to Sonic Youth's Coke, but they're at least the RC Cola. They pull off the “we're artsy people who make a lot of references to New York City and obscure-ish references like the Fluxus art movement or Roxy Music” thing convincingly enough, and there's a feel/texture to the production that smacks of late night intensity; think of it as the steamy art-punk club to Interpol's chilly/detached, expensive-clothes-and-drinks/hipster's don't-call-it-a-bar bar. Also, when they diverge a bit from the Sonic Youth formula, like on the post-punky clangor of 'Spitting At The Glass' or the acoustic 'Mouth To Hand', they reveal themselves capable of much better than just clutching at the strands of New York Cities past. Here's hoping they lean a bit more on that and stop going to all tomorrow's parties.*

P.S. I don't know why they bothered with a radio edit of 'Flat Planes.' As near as I can tell, it's not even different from the album version, which is somehow less baffling than the fact that a band at this level of popularity and supposed independent spirit would make such a concession. Unless it's a joke, in which case it's an unfunny, pointless one. Kind of like the awful album cover, really.

P.P.S. That post-script sure went on long, didn't it?

*Yes, that was a Velvet Underground reference. See, I'm New York artsy, too!

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Destroyer- Bay Of Pigs EP

Longtime Destroyer fans should by now be used to Dan Bejar's wandering muse. His stylistic changes aren't as extreme as, say, Beck's, and aren't as (in)famous as David Bowie, an artist whom Bejar is often compared to. Bejar's best known one-two curveball was 2004's Your Blues album, a synth/keyboard orchestral-pop masterpiece, along with the subsequent tour and EP (the underrated Notorious Lightning & Other Works) with the unhinged Frog Eyes as a backing band. Destroyer's next two albums were relatively straightforward indie rock/singer songwriter stuff, so I'd have to assume Bay Of Pigs came as a shock to newer fans.

At any rate,
Bay Of Pigs returns Bejar, at least conceptually, to the synth/keyboard heavy Your Blues. But where that album had a purposefully cheap MIDI sound to it, this one sounds clean, slick, modern, and like the work of a full band instead of a single lab rat. Various reviews have described the title track as disco-ish, but to these ears it's more like 80s synth-pop with a good sense of groove than it is some Saturday Night Fever dreck. At thirteen-and-a-half minutes, it also has time for eerie atmospheric intro and outro sections, and lets Bejar go on and on in his 'Tangled Up In Blue'/Dylan-esque storyteller mode, weaving yet more references to characters, places, and events from his body of work, as well as adding some new ones. 'Ravers', meanwhile, is a ghostly remake of the barrelhouse piano based rock of 'Rivers' from Destroyer's 2008 album, Trouble In Dreams. I do prefer the original version, since the words and phrasing style of it feel forced and awkward in this droning, ambient setting. But at the same time, I've never heard a song like this from Bejar before, and his distinctive vocals and lyrics work shockingly well in said setting. It's novel, sure, but not a novelty.

The same could be said for the EP. Whether Bejar pursues this direction for his next album with Destroyer is impossible to say. I hope he does, for whatever that's worth. Well, whatever does happen, it won't change the fact that
Bay Of Pigs is a brilliant, challenging-but-rewarding EP.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mass Effect 2

Tried something a bit different with this one. In retrospect it may be a bit too dark, but oh well.