Thursday, September 30, 2010

No Age- Everything In Between

No Age's Nouns has only grown better with time, its unique DNA pulling together strands of noise-pop, shoegazing, punk, and psychedelic dream-pop. Yet my expectations for their sophomore effort have been muted at best. Nouns seemed to breed the band out of any possible development, since every move they could make from there was already predicted on it and related singles/EP's. But Everything In Between is an incredibly apt title that helps describe what No Age have achieved. It sounds different and yet the same by exploring the cracks between the aforementioned DNA strands. In other words, everything in between, thus extending the band's sound to its next logical step, if not conclusion. It's by turns noisier, more accessible, more dreamy, more direct, and catchier than Nouns, but most importantly, it's just as good.

Two of the crucial elements of
Everything In Between's sound are the singer's expanded range and the increasing variety of guitar tones. Nouns had Randy Randall moving between the strained shouts of 'Sleeper Hold' and the more contemplative, druggy delivery of 'Things I Did When I Was Dead.' The new album adds a more studied tenor, often done in speak-singing, as heard on 'Glitter' and 'Sorts.' As for those guitar tones, there's something about the production and overall sound of Everything In Between that reminds me of Boces-era Mercury Rev and early Flaming Lips. Check the pealing buzz-saw guitars of 'Glitter' or the rushing noise-punk rave-up 'Shred And Transcend.' Moreover, the lyrics are a bit easier to pick out and understand this time out, meaning that some of the songs sound like genuine punk rock anthems crossed with noise-pop instead of strangely catchy noise-rock with words you couldn't really discern.

There isn't much unoccupied space in this music. Barring a breath-catcher like the subdued 'Common Heat',
Everything In Between is coming at you all the time. Since No Age are only a duo, the fullness and depth of sound on the album is due to either it being a studio album or the band using more loops and electronics than they did before. Most tracks on Everything seem to have at least two guitars carousing around at any given time, coated with different effects, while the drums are a deceptively natural sounding mix of a traditional drum kit with drum machines and samples. In fact, the mix of fresh modern sounds with retro throwbacks reminds me a bit of MGMT's Congratulations.

At the same time, No Age's shoegazing/dream pop side is expanded upon. The album's second half in particular harkens back to 'Keechie' and 'Impossible Bouquet' from their debut. 'Katerpillar' and 'Dusted' run with this, bringing the My Bloody Valentine comparisons I noted in my
Nouns review to fullest bloom. Had Kevin Shields ever delivered the goods when he promised a new album from MBV the last 154 times someone asked him about it, it might've sounded like the loping, modular 'Dusted' and the piano-lost-in-a-sea-of-beautiful-noise on 'Positive Amputation.'

'Chem Trails' closes the album with call-and-response vocals and a deceptively catchy melody in tow. Something about it and the other moments on
Everything In Between where extreme sonics meet poppy elements reminds me of Sisterworld by Liars. It's not difficult to imagine No Age covering tracks like 'Too Much, Too Much' or 'Here Comes All The People.' Liars, however, focus on variety and the detailed juxtaposition of sounds in their experimental world, while No Age are about sheer force and maximalism even in their quieter/dreamier reveries. But like Sisterworld did for Liars, Everything In Betweenproved that No Age had some great music left in them and places yet to explore. Whether those places were just the spaces in between the strands of their already established DNA or avenues to new things...well, we'll have to wait for the next one to find out.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Of Montreal- False Priest

I'll not mince words: Skeletal Lamping was a piece of crap but few people, least of all Kevin Barnes, would admit it. So it was probably asking too much for him to give up his R&B/funk and character-concept pretensions and go back to riding the strange mix of sounds on Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? Instead, here comes False Priest, which is an improvement over Lamping though not a major one. Leaving behind the willfully experimental song structures and the moronic Georgie Fruit character from that album, Priest nonetheless continues with similar music to a more accessible result. Of Montreal have been on this white boy funk thing long enough that it's now easy to forget that they were originally part of the Elephant 6 collective of bands. If those groups wanted to be Brian Wilson or other 60s icons who melded psychedelic weirdness with sweet pop hooks, Barnes nowadays wants to be Prince. Or Cee Lo Green.

I'll say this much for False Priest: it's not a piece of crap. What it is, though, is stunningly mediocre. None of this music rises above the level of exactly what one would expect from Barnes in this day and age, making “fun” music that someone, somewhere, might dance to. Seeing a song title like 'Coquet Coquette', you might imagine that this name/phrase will be used prominently in the chorus, and you'd be right. You might also imagine it's about a woman who Barnes either fancies or was wronged by, and you'd be right again. Someone not familiar with Of Montreal's modern music might found the swirling keyboard orgy toward the end of this song a bright burst of color, but it—and the by now patented bass/drum machine groove on the next track 'Godly Intersex'—is nothing new from this band. The lyrics and themes are still the same tongue in cheek (I hope) sex and gender playground he's been working from for two albums now. This was novel and interesting when used sparingly on Hissing Fauna but embarrassingly stupid on Skeletal Lamping; on False Priest it's evened out to tired. 'Sex Karma' could be a joke song from some Saturday Night Live skit, but here it makes me hope it's a joke. Barnes and guest Solange trade lame come-ons like “you look like a playground to me, player”, “let's go do some hide and seek/I know you are a little freak”, and “close your eyes and count to three/I kiss you where I shouldn't be.” All the while, the audience rolls its eyes. Were I a more cynical sort, I might accuse Barnes of trying to ride the coattails of R&B it-girl Janelle Monae, though her appearances on Priest are decent and don't feel like cash-ins.

I liked Of Montreal better when the conceptual stuff and genre reaching was subsumed in the music instead of overwhelming it. Kevin Barnes was a much more successful and interesting writer when he spilled his guts every once in awhile because it gave the silly/sexy stuff a dark underpinning. At the same time, the electro-funk/soul/R&B stuff may have first flowered on Hissing Fauna, but it was juxtaposed with the unexpected, like the monolithic krautrock groove of 'The Past Is A Grotesque Animal' or the psychedelic/experimental elements of songs like 'We Were Born The Mutants Again With The Leafling' and 'Heimdalsgate Like a Promethean Curse.' You may think I just don't like this kind of music, but if it's done well, I do. Beck did the whole R&B/funk/sex-obsessed white boy pose better on Midnite Vultures, and Cee Lo Green has been doing the authentic article for almost a decade. Even setting the style and lyrics aside, False Priest is a strangely unambitious and flat album. It's as if Barnes has painted himself into a corner with his last couple albums and now has nothing new or compelling to say. Priest even borders on self parody at times; at least I hope so, because 'Godly Intersex' is one of the stupidest titles for a song ever if there's no wink behind it.

I think the key to Hissing Fauna's greatness was that Barnes was writing from genuine first person when he sang things like “I need help/come on mood shift, shift back to good again.” I like to pretend that since Georgie Fruit is gone, he isn't trying on, say, False Priest as a new persona, or a cipher, to write for/from. But even if he has, it's hard to feel anything or care when he's no longer a contender in the grand scheme of music-as-art to begin with. It's doubly hard when he's busied himself with making music aimed at the dancefloor warriors and satin sheets/tropical oils set who think Of Montreal is too weird/white and don't listen to his music to begin with, to say nothing of the hipsters who giggle from a position of ironic detachment. Maybe someone still takes him seriously, but I don't want to meet the kind of person who reacts to the racial, spiritual, brothers-and-sisters, wannabe 60s countercultural lyrical dreck of 'You Do Mutilate?' with a straight face.

Mind you, I'm not suggesting every artist needs to make serious music for solitary nerds, music that comes straight from their ragged hearts. I do, however, think that if Barnes would re-insert his true self into the music, he might become a contender again. As it stands, False Priest is merely boring and passable. Considering the pedigree of how distinctive both the band and the producer (Jon Brion, but you sure wouldn't know it) are, this dismissal can't help but be deeply ironic.

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lil' Indie Round-Up: Murdocks, Weep, The National Rifle

A strong sense of confusion overtakes me whenever I see the pilsener style beers that microbreweries put out. Why is Sam Adams or whichever-regional-company-you-adore bothering to make a beer that is the same thing as Bud, Miller, or Coors? The same bland, faceless, boring, unimaginative beer, even from a more lovingly crafted home, is still going to taste exactly like all the others. So I'm always confused when I hear bands like The Murdocks, who for all intents and purposes are an indie band who sound like the bland, faceless, boring, unimaginative pop punk/power pop backed by major labels that I actively avoid. (Danger! Elitist snob quip ahead!) Amazing how much happier I am now that I don't watch TV or listen to the radio.

You know all of those faceless bands who popped up in Green Day's Dookie wake, those alternative rock, power-punk-pop groups with names like Fountains Of Wayne and New Found Glory, who were doomed to achieve popularity for a few months and then dwell forever on radio stations looking back on the pop music of the 00s, forgotten by the rest of the world? Well, The Murdocks sound just like them. Distortionist is a mediocre-at-best album in this style, and that's all you need to know to decide if you want it or not.

I feel genuine sympathy for PR people. Their job is extremely imaginative and creative in its utter lack of honesty or self control. During college I took one of those basic newswriting courses and discovered I had a penchant for crapping out really good material simply because I used and abused the tropes and cliches of the form. My professor, who worked for the single big paper in my area, told me I was a natural at writing for TV news or newspapers. It made me run to the worthless sanctity of music criticism/journalism I poke at in my free time, but the class also made me understand the tough job that PR people have. They do the kind of work that the rest of us think we're above doing or don't have the sheer brass balls to do. Because something like the press release for Distortionist would be an impossible task for me. I would go so far as to say I enjoyed and respected this press release more than the album itself; I couldn't possibly make this music sound as thrilling and multi-faceted as the PR release does. Here's some choice quotes to close with; bolded emphasis is mine:

...the results exceeded both band and audience expectations; the sugar-pop melodies and raw edginess were still there, but the songs were more fine-tuned and complex.”

The band’s tour itinerary reflects this mentality, with shows at vomit-stained dive bars in Memphis, to house parties in Iowa City, to sold out shows with bands like Cake, Ben Kweller, and Local H(!?).”

Distortionist is undoubtedly a step forward for the band, both their heaviest and poppiest work to date. It is this aesthetic dissonance that sets Murdocks apart from other artist: they are as simple as they are challenging, as morbid as they are innocent, as na├»ve as they are jaded.”

3 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

This EP has one of the better covers I've come across lately. It has the same quality as Sunset Rubdown's Random Spirit Lover where you don't notice the key element straightaway. In the case of Spirit, there's some magician dude in the middle of it all. In this case, there's a skull.

The National Rifle are one of the better unknown bands I've come across lately. I've got a huge backlog of reviews to write and this EP has been kicking around my apartment for months simply because I can't think of the proper way to explain their sound and why I like it. Vanity Press showcases a potent brew of 90s and 00s indie rock that sounds original yet owes obvious debts to other bands. Like the first Tapes 'nTapes album, really. But where The Loon tipped its hat to the Pixies, Pavement, and Modest Mouse, The National Rifle are firmly in the Spoon school. There's a bit of Britt Daniel about the singer, and the buoyant rhythms of tracks like 'She's A Waste' are right out of Spoon's playbook. Some of the piano/keyboard parts on 'Jazz History Of The World' are highly reminiscent of Girls Can Tell...but again, somehow this music is merely redolent instead of redundant.

The final track 'Too Much T.V.' is easily the best of this bunch, largely because it plays down the band's Spoon-ocity. Set to a thunking bass and drum beat, the song breaks down into some sharp guitar fired choruses with male/female twin vocals from some alternate world where Black Francis and Kim Deal sang together and were copacetic instead of growing to despise each other. But don't get too excited. This EP is pretty good, but seeing as how it's their fourth to date, it's a bit worrying that I feel that they still have some more growth to reach that proper Tapes 'n Tapes ratio of originality to redolence. After all, how many singles and EP's did Pavement, The Strokes, and Interpol need to shed the obvious scales left over from their dinosaur heritages? Assuming you follow me, suffice it to say in every case it was less than four. Here's hoping their forthcoming (still?) album delivers the goods.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5


No, seriously, this is a joke, right? I'm not even going to bother taking off the shrink wrap. You can't have a band name, album title, and cover like that and expect me not to laugh.

Wait, it's the band of one of the co-creators of The Venture Bros.? Well, may as well do my duty and give it a fair listen. Maybe it's like a goth version of Tenacious D.

OK, it's a raspy voiced dude fronting a band who can't decide if they want to be The Cure or one of those more modern bands who straddle the metal/gothy line and have slick production and some keyboards. You know, like Orgy did. Wait, are they still around? But I digress. Sample lyric from 'Let Me': “If the rain would let up/moments wouldn't seem bleak.” I may've killed for that kind of sophistication in high school, but now it just makes me want to kill myself because it's so suffused with overwrought depressed melodrama. There's a song with the subtitle '(Nov. Mix)', which I assume I means “November.” It's one of those Fall/Winter months where the weather is all UGH and sad and bleak, yo.

OK, I'm still not fully convinced this isn't some kind of joke or faux-band-becomes-real-band like Dethklok. Do I need to add that the album ends with a one-two punch of covers of 'Right Here, Right Now' (Jesus Jones) and 'Shut Up And Drive' (Rihanna)? Yeah I know, it confuses the matter further still.

Assuming it is a joke, it's not a very funny one. It's just cliched enough in a gothy/80s kind of way that it feels authentic, so it's able to mock its form with its ironic content But the songs aren't that great and it's not over-the-top enough to be good-bad. Well, the combination of the cover, album title, and album cover are pretty funny. Like stumbling on an especially pathetic LiveJournal circa 2000.

Assuming it's meant seriously...Doc Hammer, keep your day job.

2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

ODDSAC (Animal Collective/Danny Perez)

The idea of a “visual album” isn't a new one though it remains a novelty. I'm sure the history can be traced back further, but Autechre's Gantz Graf EP is the earliest example I can think of for music and visuals being developed to complement each other. Having never seen/listened to it, though, my experience with something like a visual album is limited to Drum's Not Dead by Liars, the deluxe edition of The Information by Beck, and Beach House's recent Teen Dream; all of these came with a DVD of videos for every song. They don't precisely fit the idea of a visual album because they were created as music first and only later were visuals added. As far as I'm aware, then, ODDSAC is the most fleshed out and fully realized hybrid of music and visuals outside of art installations.

I would love to tell you that ODDSAC is a revolutionary leap that proves the validity of a new hybrid artform for a mass market, but it works only slightly more often than it doesn't. The music and visuals share a kind of mutually complementary/antagonistic see-saw: when lovely musical moments of pastoral acoustic or syrupy electronic bliss are tweaking your lobes, sudden stabs of noise and visual interruptions will eventually intrude in. Most of the segues between songs/scenes are pulled off with some finesse and have a taking-a-nap-while-stoned flow, but the more violent flailings give this visual album a quixotic, if not schizophrenic, feeling. Taken as whole, ODDSAC is either the worst set of dreams I've ever had or the best set of nightmares. Or a bit a both.

I suspect the visual aspect—presumably the one most attributable to Danny Perez, though the band no doubt helped—will not be the thing that draws most people to this project. Which is a fair expectation since it's easily the least compelling half of ODDSAC's hybrid form. Even though it's meant to be judged as a whole, I think that its visual side actually fails to be more than just a bunch of weird stuff that gives you something to look at while music plays. It only occasionally seems to relate to the music or interact with it in an effective way that makes you forget you're not just listening to an album with a DVD of videos. This, of course, is the question at the heart of most music video concepts: how much should it reflect the music, if at all? Should it supplant the music to the point where it's arguably successful even without music, or should it play second fiddle? Perhaps visualizers—from iTunes's built-in one to Milk Drop to even something like the Electric Sheep screensaver—are more of a relevant point of reference, since a good chunk of ODDSAC is spent congealing and melting through highly abstract globs, fractals, and polymorphs of color, light, and texture. In fact, it's the scenes where people are featured and some narrative is unfolding that the visuals really falter. There are some entrancing images, particularly in the use of bright colored lighting in night settings, but just as often you get what feels like ten repetitive minutes of a vampire sneaking up on a woman who's wringing the water out of the same piece of cloth over and over.

The music, then, is what most people will care about. Indeed, there are already rips of only the music floating around online. I have to wonder what their reaction will be, and I don't wonder this simply because it was meant as a visual album and not just an album. I suspect the people who have only listened to Animal Collective's last few albums will hate most of what ODDSAC has to offer, since those pastoral/syrupy sections I spoke of earlier are few and far between. It's helpful to remember what the early Animal Collective sounded like and adjust expectations accordingly. Those first few albums were experimental beasts, utilizing noise loops, thunderous drumming, and improvisational dalliances to craft music that was more about the total effect and the moments contained therein than traditional 'songs' or gripping melodies. As this visual album was four years in the making, the band would have begun working on it during the Feels/Strawberry Jam time frame, which was well into their modern song/melody focused era that began with Sung Tongs. Well, so what? So, theorists might posit that ODDSAC was the place where their wilder material went, allowing their pop chops to be honed until the honeyed peak of Merriweather Post-Pavilion. But I don't believe that for a second. The music of ODDSAC is more analogous to the modern Animal Collective's take on the older style, effectively throwing their entire discography into a pan and seeing what kind of gumbo results.

I hope it's no dig on Danny Perez or ODDSAC as a whole that I think it's better as an experimental album with visuals instead of a visual album. That's simply because the visuals aren't always great and don't always properly fit the music. The times where the visuals seem to be dictating the music is always to the detriment of the latter. The sudden stabs of noise I spoke of earlier are the worst offenders, their only purpose to startle you or rouse you from sleep, but there's also the random samples of people talking/laughing when characters pop up on screen that serve no purpose at all. It feels arbitrarily shoved in to echo the people appearing onscreen instead of the much more naturalistic way Boards Of Canada uses vocal samples. But as with other experiments in new art forms, maybe that's the point: trying to discover how this thing is going to work and work best by not sticking to the tropes of music or film. Just as trying to piece together a sensible plot to ODDSAC isn't the point, wanting the music to not be affected by what's going on in the visuals is also an incorrect desire. But no amount of doubling back over myself will change the fact that ODDSAC isn't the home run, proof of concept for the visual album art form that many have wanted it to be or many will go on to insist it is. What it is, though, is pretty damn cool, and a success at being visually and musically experimental without feeling forced or aimless. Fans who wish the band would record something like Danse Manatee or Hollinndagain would do well to track down a copy, not to mention a healthy amount of their substance of choice.

4 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Walkmen- Bows + Arrows

Had history taken a different course, the Walkmen may never have existed. Three of its member were in the beloved and much hyped Jonathan Fire*Eater in the 90s, a group many predicted to be the next big thing in rock. Since their retro-styled sound borrowed from many bands that critics loved but the public ignored, it seemed a self fulfilling prophecy when their major label debut didn't change the world. Instead, they fell apart and the New York bands they influenced—most notably The Strokes—would go on to “save rock and roll” in the early 00s with fairly similar music. Ultimately, though, I think our particular branch of history was the better one, since the Walkmen went on to be one of the most reliably great traditionalist rock bands ever.

Economy is the word that pops into my mind when I listen to the Walkmen, and their most economical music of all (at least that I've heard) is found onBows + Arrows. Their so-far masterpiece, all of its songs make as spare use as possible of the traditional 60s/70s rock set-up of guitars, bass, drums, organs, and vocals. Spoon rightly get credit and love for their stripped down Kill The Moonlight, but The Walkmen are the true masters of this approach. The best known song from this album, 'The Rat', is downright indulgent by their standards, with its walls of organ, guitar, and a propulsive drum beat. True, it's a fantastic song, arguably one of the most essential of the last decade, but in my book it's got nothing on '138th Street', which is composed of only a guitar and vocals, or the moments on the title track when the full band gives way to shuffling drums, majestic organ chords, and Hamilton Leithauser's restrained laments. To a first time listener, his ragged, straining voice may start out being the band's worst aspect, but soon the depth of expression and honesty of the performances win you over.

Similar to my initial experience with The National, the Walkmen at first seemed pretty basic and forgettable. The National eventually won me over with excellent songwriting and meticulous song craft, while Bows + Arrows taught me to love the Walkmen by showing how a band can maximize the effect of every single sound at their disposal by only using them when necessary. Just as often as not, songs or sections of songs will make due without something just because they can. 'No Christmas While I'm Talking' seems to float in the air around the 2:40 mark when only reverb drenched guitar and a plaintive organ linger like two flares piercing the night sky. They wring a lot of sound out of their self imposed limitations, and it makes the things they do play more imaginative and interesting. Listen closely to the drums on 'The North Pole' or the way they continually use keyboards and guitars as often as keepers of the melody as they do textural aids. When the band do go for the moments of full five member abandon, they sound that much larger than life because you've been trained to think of only a couple instruments and vocals as a fleshed out sound.

The Walkmen inspire people to say things like “they just keep getting better” whenever one of their albums comes out, consistently earning stellar reviews but rarely winning the top spot on album of the year lists. Perhaps it's their fate due to their rugged charm and old fashioned style. Who else would release something as great as A Hundred Miles Off and on a whim follow it up a few months later with a pretty good cover of the entire P*ssy Cats album by John Lennon and Harry Nilsson? No one but the Walkmen, just as no one but the Walkmen could make Bows + Arrows. If this one doesn't turn out to be their masterpiece for the ages, then I'll be genuinely happy, because it's hard to imagine them topping it.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Player Choice and Freedom in Dragon Quest IX

Non-linearity and player choice are two of the main concepts that help define what a RPG will be. Depending on how freely you're able to progress, you can have anything from the rigidly-linear-to-the-point-of-absurdity Final Fantasy XIII to the go-wherever-you-want, do-whatever-you-want-but-you-may-die Elder Scrolls games from Bethesda. RPGs also present the player with innumerable choices beyond progressing the plot. Can you make or customize your characters, or are they pre-defined? Can you tinker with their stats/abilities/spells, or are these things going to progress in the exact same way every time, as with Final Fantasy IV? Can you return to previous locations in case you missed something, or do you have to wait until later in the game to go back?

The Dragon Quest series went from something I enjoyed to something I loved after I finished Dragon Quest IX. What strikes me the most about it, and some of the rest of the series, is its strongly Western derived non-linearity and wealth of player choice. Comparing the latest Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest entries has always been a study in contrasts in the Japanese RPG genre, but at no time in their respective histories has the difference been as stark as this year. Where FXIII was criticized for its dogmatic linearity, excising of genre traditions such as towns, and flashy-but-shallow gameplay systems, DQIX was praised for almost precisely the opposite reasons. In those regards, DQIX is indeed closer to Western style RPGs.

While its multiplayer aspects, as well as downloadable items and quests, are DQIX's most fresh and modern aspects, I found its overall classicist design to be its best asset. As with most old school Western style RPGs (as well as Dragon Quest III), you make and design both your main character and your party. I have a terrible habit of starting and never getting more than 20 hours into the original Icewind Dale because making up characters and deciding the party's composition is too much fun. DQIX goes several steps further by allowing you to change Jobs, as well as displaying every piece of equipment on your characters. The latter is something I wish all RPGs did, since you get bored of the same looking characters over the course of 40 or so hours. Anyway, the gameplay and whimsical charm of the DQIX's stories-within-the-main-story may be more classic Dragon Quest than Baldur's Gate, but there are several points in the game where you're either not immediately told where you need to go next or you're allowed to wander around to your heart's content. This is very reminiscent of Western RPGs; the original Fallout spring to mind, since you often had to explore a bit to figure out the next logical step. It's also analogous BioWare's modern games, which eventually get to a point where you have several branching locations to choose from to progress the plot, all of them tying back into the main plot thread at their conclusion.

Final Fantasy XIII may amount to a failed experiment or an attempt to revolutionize the jRPG genre in the way some of its forebearers had. That's for history to decide. On paper Dragon Quest IX may seem to be playing it safe, but like most of its forebearers, it sticks to the best traditions while simultaneously moving things forward a couple steps. In fact, much of its design is so smart and streamlined that the things that are behind the curve stand out more as a result. Had the multiplayer worked over the Internet instead of only local wireless, I think DQIX could've become the sensation here that it was in Japan. The 'Heal All' command makes a welcome return, but there are some nagging interface problems: menus/commands don't require a consistent amount of button presses, leading to mistakes; having to do some things one at a time when you should be able to do them all at once, like dropping off or calling up party members at the Stornway Inn; the traditional but probably unnecessary save system of having to go to a church; and so on. Still, these are only nagging issues at best, and I'll gladly put up with them if it means not throwing the baby out with the bathwater as FFXIII did with much of its design.

What I ended up loving most about DQIX is the way it encourages you to tinker and play around with its gameplay systems. Again, it's all about maximizing the amount of player choice. Its implementation of the Job system is among the most satisfying ever, even going so far as to let you farm skill points by leveling in one Job you don't plan on using and carrying the points back to one of your “main” Jobs. More choice still: you can evenly level the entire party in the same classes or you can play the game with only two or three characters or you can play through the game with friends in multiplayer. What's more, the game's Alchemy system can either be completely ignored or exploited to its limits during any point in the game. If you take the time out of the main quest to chase down obscure ingredients, you can produce items and equipment that are more powerful or at least cooler looking than what you can get in shops. The same applies to the 100+ side quests in DQIX: do them as they come up, do them all in one fell swoop toward the end of the game (or in the meaty post-game), or ignore them entirely. All of this, again, is in stark contrast to FFXIII; its character building system is obscurantist, trying to fool you into thinking you have more choice and customization than you really do. As for its Alchemy-style system, you're basically forced to do it to upgrade equipment. I can't speak to its side quests, since I didn't get that far in the game, but reportedly they don't open up until 30+ hours in.

While some entries in the series are more traditionally Japanese than others, Dragon Quest IX continually struck me as one of the best games at bridging the gap between the Western and Japanese approaches to RPG design. The original Dragon Quest, and other jRPGs of its era, were clearly patterned after Wizardry and other old school Western RPGs. Thus by the series sticking to its roots, it has wrapped back around to feel fresh and satisfyingly modern. Final Fantasy XII became one of my favorites of the last generation because it, too, took many cues from Western RPGs, albeit in a more purposefully modern form. It has an openness and depth of player choice that is more akin to a MMORPG or BioWare game than the other games in the series (not to mention much less of the bile inducing jRPG plucky teen heroes and pseudo-philosophical psychobabble plots). FFXIII superficially looks and plays like FFXII, but in their details and design, they are as different as, well, DQIX and FFXIII. The Dragon Quest series may never be as popular in the States as Final Fantasy is, but DQIX is definite proof that the supposedly staid and conservative jRPG genre has much life in it, thanks to the important Western influences of openness and choice.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Beer Wars

For many years, and probably still true for many people, documentaries were seen as something that had to be objective, unbiased, and informative only. But thanks to famous releases like The Thin Blue Line and Michael Moore's films, documentaries have become better known as what amount to filmic essays, if not polemics, which strive to inform, entertain, and most of all to subtly or overtly attempt to prove a point. Most modern documentaries can be divided into preaching to the choir (Super High Me), strident propaganda that convinces no one and angers the rest (Religulous), or oddly fascinating glimpses into worlds you never knew existed (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control).

Beer Wars is somewhere between those three, though this will depend heavily on your foreknowledge of the beer industry in America. I don't hate the big American breweries, but I do normally buy microbrews, largely because I like to sample new beers I've never tried. This is more a matter of taste than some kind of ethical standard, but I suppose that is one of the points of the film: big American breweries have watered down and McDonald-ized what a beer is or can be, feeding Americans commercials (or propaganda, if you want to put it that way) for decades. Even now when someone says something about “a tall frosty one”, I still picture the idealized pale yellow glass of beer seen in so many Bud Light commercials, sweating perfectly, undoubtedly ice cold and refreshing.

As I said, how this documentary comes off will depend on how much you know about the beer industry, but also what kind of beers you like. Assuming you're like some ex-co-workers of mine and you think anything heavier or with more flavor than Bud Light is gross and undrinkable, you'll see Beer Wars as the sad sack tale of various microbreweries who are whining about how they can't compete with the big boys. Likewise, assuming you're like me, and you only drink beer from the big American companies when you can't afford the good stuff or you're at a party and it's all that's available, then you may enjoy this documentary a great deal more. If nothing else, it is a fascinating study in how marketing dollars and rampant, greedy business practices can attempt to stamp out the little guys even though they pose far less threat than other major competitors. Parallels to the business practices of Wal Mart and Microsoft abound. Seeing how Anheuser-Busch goes after a caffeine infused microbrew with their own version just to make sure they can compete in even the smallest sectors of the beer market is depressing or infuriating. Or both. You'll also learn quite a bit about how the beer industry works, and how the various laws and regulations seem purposefully set up to make it as hard as possible for anyone to go up against the big guys.

Most touchingly, Beer Wars shows the human side of the industry, with the agonies and in-it-for-the-love-of-the-game satisfaction of microbreweries and their founders on display. While the juxtaposition of these people against the “no comment” monoliths and bullshit PR-speak of the major breweries seems like a deliberate and cheap way to force audience sympathy one way or the other, you could argue it's the reality and facts of the situation which do this more than the filmmaker's intent. Anat Baron makes for an interesting director/documentarian, but the smartest and most persuasive thing in Beer Wars is something she couldn't have possibly planned. In one scene near the end, Dogfish Head brewery founder Sam Calagione receives a legal threat from Anheuser-Busch based on Dogfish's use of the highly specific terms “chicory stout” and “Punkin ale”, beers they had made for years. It wasn't enough for AB to release a pumpkin beer; they apparently wanted to be able to use the term “punkin” as well.

As with Beer Wars itself, either you agree this is an outrage and shouldn't even happen in a just world, or you shrug and go back to your crappy beer, thinking that capitalist competition is the only ethical standard by which actions should be judged. If someone can do it for less money, well, them's the breaks, and they should be allowed to. My reply would be this: wait until something like this affects you personally, and then you may not be so quick to dismiss these underdog microbreweries. Or their delicious, delicious beer.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sufjan Stevens- All Delighted People EP

Last Fall, Sufjan Stevens embarked on a relatively small tour during which he played a good deal of new, unreleased material. I saw one of these shows, and it was somewhat shocking to see him play as much electric guitar as he did the acoustic instruments I associate with him. Songs would carouse into extended fusion jazz blurts from his backing band or elongated guitar solos more akin to say, Built To Spill, than anything he had done before. Last Fall also saw the release of The BQE, Sufjan's symphonic work; in his own words, an attempt to get beyond pop songwriting, which he saw as his “greatest weapon.” So, with those concurrent developments in hand, the biggest surprise to me about this EP is simply its sudden release. After half a decade had elapsed since any new music from the man (The BQE aside, which is a different beast entirely), it was odd to wake up one day and see that he had a lengthy EP available for download and streaming.

Weighing in at eight songs and nearly an hour of music, it's odd that All Delighted People is considered an EP and priced as such. Only $5 for so much new Sufjan music?! What a deal! After a few listens, though, it becomes apparent why so much is available for so little. This EP is a hodgepodge of disparate music, all of it a notch or two below Sufjan's other work. Five shorter, more traditional songs jut up against three, uhm, different-beasts-entirely. To say it doesn't hang together or feel of a piece is an understatement. All Delighted People feels like a sweeping-of-the-table before the forthcoming The Age Of Adz, which, judging by the recently released song 'Too Much', sounds very little like this EP. One gets the feeling that Sufjan has been aimlessly puttering away in the studio over the past couple years and figured he might as well release the results before his “real” next batch of music hits. I could be wrong, of course, but Sufjan's releases have always had a crucial unified feel and flow that All Delighted People utterly lacks. Illinois was pretty varied, yet it works as a whole. Its track ordering and flow are impeccable. All Delighted People is, to quote 'From The Mouth Of Gabriel', “a very big mess.”

What's more, this is a real downer of an EP. I recall thinking that Sufjan seemed a bit bummed and out of it at the concert last Fall, and he's made comments in the press for the past couple years about how he didn't see a point to making albums anymore. Consequently, most of these songs seem given over to post-break up depression and apocalyptic dread. I never agreed before when people said that Sufjan's music was sad and defeated, or his voice whiny, but it's hard to listen to 'The Owl And The Tanager' and think otherwise. With minimalist piano backing and some vocal echo, he recounts a tale of some kind of love gone wrong, tied up in odd symbolic bird imagery, ending with the line “one waits until the hour is death.” Character sketch or harrowing personal tale, there's no symbolism to 'Arnika', bearing a refrain that sounds like a suicide note: “I'm tired of life, I'm tired of waiting for someone.” These shorter songs aren't awful, but they remind me of the kind of artless, going-through-the-motions poetry I used to churn out when I was depressed in high school and college. Compare even the best of these songs to his past work and the difference is stark. 'Enchanting Ghost' has some of his worst vocal work to date, with a rushed, strained delivery that sounds as if he wanted to finish as quickly as possible because he had to piss.

Elsewhere, those different-beasts-entirely sound like the experiments they (probably) were. 'Djohariah' is unforgivably long even if it does feature the bracing electric guitar soloing that impressed and surprised me at last Fall's show. Yet as guitar solo showpieces go, it's a long, long way from any of the old classics, and possesses the constant feel of building to some payoff or peak that never comes. Save the seventeen minute version for concerts, I say. Meanwhile, the two versions of 'All Delighted People' bring in the apocalyptic aspect I mentioned earlier. They make decent use of some borrowed lyrics from Simon & Garfunkel's 'The Sounds Of Silence' and the “original version” is probably this EP's most successful attempt at doing something new. It expands and contracts over its eleven minute run time, bringing in choral voices, malfunctioning noisy electric guitars, an orchestra, and a brass section, all topped off with an orchestral ending reminiscent of both the famous Psycho shower scene music and the speeding up cacophonous part of 'A Day In The Life' by the Beatles.

In my review of The BQE, I concluded that it wasneither terrible nor a complete triumph; neither essential nor forgettable.” It's odd that I wish I could say the same about All Delighted People. Many modern artists are using the EP format for music that, while not necessarily better than their albums, is at least almost as good as their albums. I paid what is essentially a standard album price for the Water Curses and Fall Be Kind EPs by Animal Collective on vinyl, and I don't regret it one bit. I don't normally bring up prices in reviews since they're largely irrelevant, but I feel like $5 is the absolute maximum you should pay for All Delighted People, even for a vinyl copy. Its experiments aren't terribly successful and the older style songs are sub-par. Here's hoping that new album I've been longing for back before even my BQE review proves he hasn't totally lost it.

2 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5