Monday, May 31, 2010

Mother 3

Any sequel to a work that I hold near and dear to my heart prompts simultaneous feelings of joy and dread. For every sequel that's just as good or even better than the original, there's at least twice as many that are total let downs or lack what made the original great. Since Earthbound, aka Mother 2, was such a huge step forward from Mother 1 in terms of gameplay and story, it was hard to know what to expect from its sequel, which ended up taking more than a decade to come out. I had already conceded that there was no way Mother 3 could make the same kind of deep, lasting impact on me that Earthbound did, since that was a once in a lifetime, 'right game at the right time' confluence of events. It speaks volumes for Mother 3, then, that judged on its own merits and against the RPGs of its original Japanese release date era, it's still a wholly unique and satisfying title.

Mother 3 employs a similar narrative structure to Dragon Quest IV, playing out in chapters that feature different characters in each one until the main party is formed and is relatively stable through the last few. The game's story is surprisingly dark and mature, starting off with an unexpected tragedy that plays out with a sophistication and tact completely unknown to most videogames. The surprisingly expressive 2D sprites and animations help a great deal, though it is kind of odd that the enemies in battles aren't animated. But I digress. In Mother 3, you may still ultimately be going on a quest to save the world, which is hardly novel, but as with Earthbound, it's all the places, people, and events that you encounter along the way which make this game so compelling and unique. What's more, the various callbacks and ties to Earthbound thankfully come off as well done treats for fans and not empty, artificially implemented fan service.

Though Mother 3's story and world are nearly flawless, including some final boss battles that are every bit as memorable and artfully done as Earthbound's, the gameplay does seem a bit unbalanced and dated by today's standards. The rhythm based battle system never clicked with me, but it's not necessary to survive. No, my problem with the gameplay is its strict adherence to jRPG norms. In the early chapters of the game, this works against it because of the way the plot is structured. Controlling only one or two party members at a time, there are many surprisingly difficult spots in the game that end up being far more grindy and luck based than they should. In particular, the chapter where you play as Duster going to an abandoned castle to steal something was frustrating, as you have to use items to heal and you're dependent on his not 100% reliable thief tools to incapacitate or debilitate foes. But in general there's an unbalanced feel to the game, particularly in its boss battles, since some of them are neigh impossible until you've leveled up enough to get the right PSI powers. What's more, the eventual main party of Mother 3 also lacks balance, especially in comparison to Earthbound. Only two members can use PSI powers, so their “spellbooks” are huge and unwieldly to navigate. Meanwhile, one of your party members is a dog, who's only use is to see the weaknesses of enemies as well as having a high speed stat. This 'weakness seeing' ability could easily have been another thief tool of Duster's, so the dog ends up feeling like a generic warrior type. Sure, the dog is cute and fun for story purposes, but as a party member in a RPG he's boring

And that sums up my feelings pretty nicely about Mother 3. I really loved the game, but I loved it in spite of my issues with its gameplay. Like Earthbound, the fact that it's an RPG is almost incidental to its uniqueness and artful story. Speaking of, I'd like to give special mention to the very well done translation, which elevates an already excellent game to 'underground classic' status in my book. This is easily the highest quality fan translation I've ever seen and it so perfectly captures the spirit of the game and the series that it's hard to believe it wasn't official. Anyway, Mother 3's gameplay may be frustrating and unbalanced from time to time, but it's one of those videogames, like Silent Hill 2 or Shadow Of The Colossus, where it's easy to forgive or overlook gameplay or control deficiencies because the world and the narrative contained therein is so refreshing, daring, and memorable. Its subtle themes of anti-capitalism and anti-urbanization may be lost on some, but I doubt anyone can make it through the ending and the things that take place between the family members of the main character, and not be genuinely moved.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Re: Views On The New Pornograpers's Together

Rather than try to embed the video here, since that still doesn't display properly, here is the link to go to YouTube for proper resolution!

I hope to have a review, and possibly a video review, done of the new Broken Social Scene album in the next week or so, since the more I listen to it the more conflicted and verbose I think my thoughts on it are going to be by the time I get around to writing about it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Laura Says- Bloom Cheek

Outside of Pavement's Wowee Zowee and a handful of Yo La Tengo albums, indie rock bands aren't really known for their stylistic variety. Instead, they tend to have a sound that can't concretely be summed up with simple genre labels...other than “indie rock”, I guess. So it's something of a treat to hear an indie band who not only blend the influences of a few different kinds of music, but also do so successfully while sounding like themselves and not just a band who have a country song, a reggae song, etc.

Like Wowee Zowee, Bloom Cheek is just under an hour long and encompasses What Laura Say's takes on various sounds. Whether it's Built To Spill/Modest Mouse style indie rock ('Training'), wide eyed white boy soul ('Bloom Cheek'), Dr. Dog style 60s pop/rock ('I Suppose'), The Police's summery reggae trading blows with The Shins circa Chutes Too Narrow ('Grocery List'), or My Morning Jacket's classic rock guitars meet Grizzly Bear's potent vocals (the sublime 'Gardener Of Wonders'), you constantly get the sense that this band aren't just dabbling with genres to make up for a paucity of ideas. Rather, they've gotten inside of these styles and tinkered until they mastered not just the surface but what makes it truly work underneath. The rustic, Fleet Foxes style vocal harmonies of 'Tape It Spoke' are spot on, of course, but the track is just as much brilliant for the acoustic guitar interplay and the unexpected keyboards that bring it to a close.

While it may be far easier to play 'spot the influence' with Bloom Cheek than it was with Wowee Zowee, that's no strike against it. Some bands thrive on their sprawl and variety; hell, jam bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead are virtually defined by the way they consciously dabble in genres. Besides, Wowee Zowee was almost entirely variations on 'underground' rock, punk rock, college rock, and indie rock; only 'Father To A Sister Of Thought' could qualify as a non something rock song. At the same time, part of what makes Wowee Zowee such a fun listen is the way it includes the tracks that other bands would consider undercooked, short throwaways. It's an album of sprawl and excess, but that doesn't mean the songs are long and intricate. A healthy amount of the album is spent on two minute-ish tracks that hit on an idea and almost immediately move on. By contrast, Bloom Cheek also has sprawl and excess, but each song is packed with ideas that are either completely developed or give way to unexpected delights. Witness the six minute 'Lines And Colours', which opens in eerie country/folk territory before organs and keyboards usher in a full on electric guitar assault at the 3:22 mark, this then giving way to an elongated ambient/minimalist outro.

What Laura Says must have sweated over the track listing of Bloom Cheek, because it moves smoothly from one idea to the next with a breathless flow that allows it to feel half as long as it really is. It helps that there are some interesting piano interludes between songs, like the break between the jaunty 'I Suppose' and the roadhouse blues-rock of 'Keep Running Shoes Special.' But you can also tell the band have a keen feel for pacing, following the funk/rock instrumental 'Roll Some Coin' with the grooving 70s AOR ballad 'I'd Dance For You.'

It would be a damn shame if Bloom Cheek got lost in the wave of excellent releases from established bands that we've seen so far this year. Though this is only their sophomore release, What Laura Says show all the finesse and songwriting ability of a band with several albums under their feet. That they were able to simultaneously recall and synthesize so many different bands and sounds into their own DNA is an impressive achievement. If this album doesn't go down as their jump to wider recognition, it will go down as one of 2010's hidden gems.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cocteau Twins- Echoes In A Shallow Bay

For all the power and emotionally affective qualities that instrumental music can have, I still think the human voice is the most beguiling and spellbinding instrument. This is something that is underscored for me whenever I listen to bands who sing in other languages, or even bands that make use of wordless vocals. Sigur Ros comes immediately to mind. The Icelandic band primarily sing in a made up language that nevertheless proves to be capable of making a listener feel certain things with only an implicit, personal understanding of what the song “means.” A more esoteric example is Panda Bear's Young Prayer album, which is made up almost entirely of his wordless vocals and acoustic guitars. Even without knowing that it was recorded in the wake of his father's death, it still gets across an elegiac, mournful quality despite having no intelligible English lyrics about funerals and loss.

I bought Echoes In A Shallow Bay on a whim through my job, because I recalled once downloading some albums by the Cocteau Twins but never giving them a fair shake before being distracted by other things. The first time I listened to this EP I accidentally had the volume up way too loud, and something about Liz Fraser's vocals on the lead track 'Great Spangled Fritillary' instantly captivated me. I was pretty sure she was singing in another language, and her simultaneously atmospheric and intense “ohhh ahh” backing vocals immediately brought to mind both Sigur Ros and Young Prayer, as well as a lot of the bands the Cocteau Twins influenced. Shades of their music show up in recent favorites of mine like Beach House's Teen Dream and Grouper's Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill.

Echoes and its companion EP, Tiny Dynamine, were (according to Wikipedia) not originally recorded with the intent of release, since the band were merely testing out a new recording studio. Without the context of Tiny Dynamine, not to mention the rest of their body of work, I can't speak authoritatively on the relative quality of these four tracks. But coming from my perspective, if this is the kind of music they record without a release in mind, it makes me eager to track down their better known albums, since Echoes is great. Fraser's indecipherable lyrics, the mysterious artwork, and the dreamy soup of guitars, keyboards, and bass give this music a mysterious, otherworldly feel. 'Eggs and Their Shells' in particular is just out of reach, as if you're drunk and can't quite concentrate hard enough to figure out what she's singing, or even whether you're awake or not.

While the sheer totality of sound is what makes this band so unique and compelling, it's obvious to anyone that without Fraser's vocals they'd be just another pretty good 80s “college rock” band with an atmospheric/gothic vibe. Based solely on 'Melonella', the Cocteau Twins sound as if they have two or three different vocalists, so varied and, yes, beguiling and spellbinding are her performances. While likely not the band's best work, Echoes has proven to be an engrossing and enjoyable EP, and I find it difficult to not just keep flipping the record over and listening to its four songs again and again.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Department Of Eagles- In Ear Park

Much as I'd like to live in a world without review scores, having to put a numeric or symbolic score on something certainly affects how I feel about it. I prefer the ubiquitous five star scale, with no half stars in between. It does tend to de-value that five star rating, sure, but of all the various ones I've encountered, it seems the most handy for forcing people to be both honest and succinct. Review systems like Pitchfork's seem pointlessly granular. What, really, is the difference between a 3.5 and a 3.6, if you're already that low on the scale? Then again, the classic thumbs up/down scale of Siskel & Ebert feels almost like an afterthought. Even if a movie got two thumbs up, it wasn't guaranteed to be a masterpiece; without the context of what they had to say about it, or even which person said what, it always struck me as a really weak recommendation. But even though most people who read reviews simply skim and/or skip to the score, I think scores are useful. Even for the reviewer, since they make you really consider how strongly you feel about something and why.

I promise I'll get to In Ear Park, but indulge me for a bit longer. You see, this album has been doing a number on me for awhile now. It's rare that I struggle with what score I'm going to give something. Typically, the hard part for me is in going through the following considerations: 1) do I really need to write a review at all? 2) what do I think/feel about it, and why? 3) what is the most interesting and/or entertaining way of expressing those thoughts/feelings? I've wanted to write a review of In Ear Park for about a year or so, but other things keep coming up that seem more worthy of my time and effort. Well, that and I'm not sure how to score it. This is the one time I wish I could squeeze a half star unto my score like the last bit of toothpaste out of a tube. But I can't, and won't. So, yes, I give In Ear Park four stars.

And you know what? There's no shame in four stars. It is literally above average! But the immediate question becomes, "why not five stars?" What is "wrong" with In Ear Park that I would deduct a star? This is the wrong way of going about scores, though. Albums don't start off with five stars and lose them as I find things I don't like. Rather, it's an aggregate of various factors that compel me to spit out a score and an explanation of it.

And you know what? My issue with In Ear Park is that I wish I could give it three-and-a-half stars.

I don't like to think of Department Of Eagles as a side project to Grizzly Bear, since they existed before Daniel Rossen joined that better known band. To me, Department Of Eagles is a kind of alternate reality, less grandiose version of Grizzly Bear. Rossen's songs on In Ear Park do bear a close resemblance to his contributions to Yellow House, the Friend EP, and Veckatimest; in fact, you can hear certain stylistic and sonic influences onVeckatimest. But there's an intimacy and "no one's looking" free-wheeling flow to In Ear Park that makes it ultimately unique and not just a Grizzly Bear sound-a-like. Fred Nicolaus's two songs help its uniqueness the most, since they have a wide eyed, youthful playfulness that reminds me of Joanna Newsom's more whimsical material. The immediately great 'Teenagers' pairs a carousing piano line to a deceptively catchy melody, but, like his other contribution, 'Classical Records', his uncertain, weak vocals are nearly overwhelmed by the production and arrangements. Meanwhile, Rossen delivers some of his best material with the whipcrack clap beats and "ooh"ing backing vocals of 'No One Does It Like You', and 'Floating On The Lehigh's by turns gentle, bracing, and majestic journey through moods.

"Ultimately unique" as In Ear Park may be, it also has the feeling of Rossen stretching some ideas too thin. As I said before, some similar ideas and sounds appear in better forms on Grizzly Bear albums. 'Phantom Other' and 'Balmy Night' in particular sound like Veckatimest and Yellow House b-sides, respectively (yes, I know this album came out before Veckatimest, but bear with me). In Ear Park's second half is also poorly paced, since it feels like it's ending on three separate occasions. 'Floating On The Lehigh', 'Waves Of Rye', and 'Herring Bone' all have that "final song on an album" mood to them, but then it actually ends with the anti-climactic 'Balmy Night.' Albums can end in all sorts of ways, but I always find 'Balmy Night' particularly unsatisfying and abrupt, and this is only compounded by how In Ear Park has seemed to be wrapping up three times before this with much more definitively "final" songs.

While I do think more kindly of In Ear Park when thinking about it after the fact, it's one of those quintessentially four star albums that falters a bit while I'm listening to it and concentrating. It's uneven, sure, but it's more than that: it's the feeling of recycled ideas from chronologically earlier and at-the-time-still-coming Grizzly Bear albums; the weak vocals of Nicolaus and overactive arrangements on his songs; the poorly paced second half. Side project or "alternate reality, less grandiose version" of Grizzly Bear that Department Of Eagles may be, it does end up creating its own feel and sense of two friends making some pretty good music while not many people are paying attention. Just don't go into it expecting something as consistent and brilliant as Veckatimest.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Blackmarket/Spirit Kid/Makaras Pen


St. Vincent Decor

I didn't have much love for the self titled EP by these guys back in '08, and it turns out that a full album merely means there's twice as much music not to like. Even though the band try to vary their sound from time to time with acoustic guitar or big ornate production, as on the ambitious 'The One I Know You're Not', it doesn't make the songs any better. Blackmarket are, fundamentally, a band who sound generic and personality-less. I mean, I hate modern day Weezer, but at least Rivers Cuomo has some charm and personality. Imagine modern day Weezer without Cuomo's faltering songwriting abilities and sliver of charm/personality, and you've got Blackmarket.

Anyway, St. Vincent Decor is a big dumb rock album that reminds me of why I don't listen to the radio, and why I got sick of listening to it back in the 90s. But why, more specifically, is this album no good? Well, it's a combination of a few things: A) I hate most of Weezer's post-Pinkerton output, so I wouldn't like a band who sound like that B) there's a polished, Pro Tools redolent production style to the album that sounds like what happens when bands don't have enough ideas or integrity to stop producers from pushing them around C) the artwork is awful, and as with the name and album title, there's absolutely no consideration given to what they're trying to say, which leads me to conclude that D) Blackmarket aren't really a band so much as a drunken dare between three dudes that has gone on far too long.

1 Poorly Drawn Star Out Of 5

Spirit Kid


Well, bonus points for brevity: the self titled debut album from Spirit Kid is only ten tracks and 27 minutes long. That said, no points for originality: the press release that came with the album makes it clear that Emeen Zarookian (is it just me, or does his name look like it belongs as an alien character in a Kurt Vonnegut book?) really loves The Beatles and other classic pop/rock bands, but I think a fairer comparison is Elephant 6 mainstays Apples In Stereo. And Olivia Tremor Control, minus the psychedelia and experimental tendencies.

I don't know quite how to explain it, but if you've ever wondered what melodic pop music without hooks sounds like, then get this album. It should be impossible to craft Beatles-esque pop music without strong hooks and memorable songs, but somehow Zarookian pulled it off. Songs like '(You Are) Not MY Servant' and 'Assumed By You' are almost over before they begin, and no impression is left other than “congrats, you got the sound of this style of music but have taken none of the lessons from it about songwriting or hooks.” These are songs of complete competence and studio perfectionism (which only makes sense, since Zarookian is the only person who played or sang on this album) with no originality or ideas of their own. Do I even need to mention that he sounds an exact imitation of the dude from Apples In Stereo and one of the dudes from Olivia Tremor Control? Say what you will about those bands, or even, say, Dr. Dog, but at least they have great, memorable songs and put their own spin on this style of music.

2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 2

Makaras Pen


Oh, no no no no. No. Look, I love shoegazer music, and I'm growing to love the dream-pop/vaguely gothic sound of classic 4AD bands like Cocteau Twins, Red House Painters, and Dead Can Dance, but that doesn't mean I want a self acknowledged rip off of these bands. Sure, that's kind of novel in 2010, but novel doesn't mean good.

It doesn't help that the lyrics to this album are generally atrocious and read like break up notes or LiveJournal poetry: “you drove a stake right through my heart/should've known from the start/I've been down on my luck/just crave for your touch.” And it doesn't help that the dudes in the band look like meaty 30 something bartenders who “auditioned” a chick to be their singer, and she subsequently studied the “formulaic and structural aspects of the genre.” This is what the press release says, and you know that when a press release uses a term like “formulaic”, things are just bound to be great. Well, OK, this music isn't bad because it's formulaic. That just makes it boring and forgettable. Rather, it's bad because when the band attempt original things, like the pointless and laugh out loud ridiculous screaming from one of the dudes toward the end of 'Tightrope', or the excruciatingly drawn out closing instrumental 'Opus 6', which sounds like a cover band of a cover band of Mogwai, drunk....where was I? Oh yeah. When they try these things, it falls flat and ruins whatever atmosphere the band are creating. Sorry, did I say “creating”? I meant “copying.”

Even assuming you really love this kind of music, there's a world of difference between boring, formulaic competence and well-done-but-not-very-original above average-ness. You may recall I really enjoyed an album by a band called Muy Cansado. They were very obviously trying to sound like The Pixies. I wrestled with how unoriginal they were, but the more I listened to their album, Stars And Garters, the more I stopped worrying about originality and just enjoyed the thing for being, you guessed it, well-done-but-not-very-original. I can't say the same for Makaras Pen.

2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5