7.31.2011

Professional Painters

Evening!


Just checking in on Sunday evening to see what's up! You been good? I had a great weekend - for example, my better half made mayonnaise from scratch. Yeah. My meals included homemade chipotle mayo. That's what's up. 


So I was kind of racking my brain about what's been good and worthy of shining a spotlight on, as of light. While I could write endless pages about alternative hits from the 90s or punk bands I have loved, I thought instead I would share something secret with the larger would. The secret I refer to is one of the sources of my favorite things - in a sense, if it turned out Stan Lee's best friend was telling him about his crazy dreams while Stan furiously scribbled notes and cackled to himself. I speak of the genius of Sam.
Sam is my secret weapon against boredom and mediocrity. He is responsible for most, if not all, of the things deemed awesome in my life. He introduced me to my better half in college. He has told me about countless bands. He introduced me to the local hip hop scene here in MPLS. His lifestyle of aggressive intelligence coupled with bikram yoga and liberal amounts of alcohol reinforce the notion that life is not only an ongoing experiential in ratios, it also can be just as awesome as you want it to be. So periodically Sam sends me an email or text with a band name and song title.


Every single time he does this, it's golden.


I won't bore you with a full list just yet, but I will share his most recent, and fully deserving, recommendation. It said, simply, "Warpaint - Undertow". He then called to explain that I should be warned the band sounded like The Breeders being channeled through some hipsters to play subdued, heady guitar-based alt-rock in our modern era. At this point in the conversation I had to interject to clarify his warning was only further piquing my curiosity. 
He was totally right - Warpaint are a fantastic band, and 'Undertow' is a great single that is exactly what he described it to be. The band is based out of LA, having released only an EP (Exquisite Corpse) and an album late last year, The Fool, which has been gaining steam as of late. There's quite a buzz around this band, and it is absolutely deserved. I adore the simultaneously laid-back yet tense sound they put down - it's cool and quiet, but menacing and a bit dangerous. The kind of band you'd see playing at a bar in a modern noir flick where the detective protagonist has to frequent seedy clubs to find a dame who chain-smokes and answers his questions with more questions. That kind of a sound. 
The buzz has only continued to build around Warpaint, as their album The Fool is rife with material for further singles. They're also young and ready to work, having barely scratched the surface of what they're capable of. This is just one of the many reasons I love Sam - he's got an ear to the ground, feeling these things out with an eerily drawn bead on me. The dude just gets me, so when he sends me a recommendation like this I have to pass it on.

7.30.2011

Tenacity

Here we are again!


It's another rainy, stormy Saturday night as I type this. 


Once again I've spent the evening preparing and enjoying an amazing meal with my better half, followed by dedicated movie time with a bottle of wine. She makes crazy good popcorn, I have to say. This time around it was some veg from the farmers market, buffalo burgers and corn on the cob, followed by the Oscar dark horse of last year, The Fighter.
 Holy Hannah, was that a solid evening.


I get now why there was such a fuss over the movie. Having been involved in planning a wedding, being stuck in America's frozen tundra and not wanting to shell out approximately $30 to see it in the theaters, we waited until now to catch up on some of last year's buzz films. Hey, it's cheaper this way, all right? Don't judge - I don't torrent and I'm not made of money. 


Anyway.


While being a fairly rote boxing movie, The Fighter is still incredibly well-constructed and well-executed, to the point that I talked a great deal during the film, mostly my remarking about the nature of boxing and the quality of performance on screen. Not to look down my nose, but it is a rather by-the-numbers underdog movie - it's just that everyone in it is so phenomenal. David O. Russell did an amazing job assembling a cast and framing every shot. I really do feel that I could write hundreds of words on every scene. From the way the ropes of the ring intersect faces to where music cuts in and out, this is a film that is absolutely intentionally constructed, down to the finest detail. 
Of particular note in The Fighter are the supporting players. While Mark Wahlberg is the star, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo give astounding, trans formative performances that one could use as signatory examples of what their craft aspires to. Melissa Leo simply gets lost in her role as Micky Ward's mother/manager, with intensity and hard-lined devotion fueling her motivation - I look forward to her performance in Kevin Smith's forth-coming Red State. Amy Adams delivers a genuine and completely believable turn as the down-on-her-luck girlfriend. The real show, though, is Christian Bale - the manner in which he channels a crack addicted has been, only to redeem the irredeemable, is simply captivating. We're talking about an actor who physically goes from this:
To this:
And then back to this, for the last in the Nolan-Batman trilogy:
Bale is haunting and riveting, in the best way possible. He summons the persona of Dicky Eklund, for better or worse, somehow entirely through the use of his eyes and relentless nervous energy. Seeing the real-life clips of the actual Eklund at the end of the movie only reinforces the unnerving impersonation Bale is able to pull off.


I was thoroughly engaged through the entire movie. If you've waited this long to see The Fighter, go pick it up now and see what everyone else freaked out about last year. It's no wonder The Academy was so up-in-arms about who to give the Oscar to - this upset the apple cart with good reason. I'll catch you tomorrow, gang.

7.29.2011

Recursive Rounds

Happy weekend, kiddos.


I feel bad about yesterday. Not really in the sense of what I wrote, but more so the tone I wrote it in. Millencolin is a really great, hardworking band and I feel bad about the manner in which I backhandedly complimented their hard work. So to make up for it, in addition to writing about how great 'No Cigar' is, I thought I'd take the time today to tell you about two more excellent and under-appreciated songs of theirs.
First off is a single from their hard-rocking change-of-direction album Home From Home. The single, 'Fingers Crossed', is a speedy, slick little number that squirrels right out from the starting gate and doesn't let up until they reach the finish line. I remember picking up the album right before I went on my high school's class trip to the East Coast, throwing myself into the furious tempos and relentless attitudes on the album to dull the boredom of an endless bus ride. That's how we rolled in the Middle West, kids. Anyway, the sheer pop brilliance of 'Fingers Crossed' shows how strong of songwriters the boys in Millencolin are - the song is undeniably sun-shiney and hooky, the kind of stuff I always associate with spring time - things are waking up and coming back to life, so the music should be similarly bright and full of life. The Home From Home album was a turn away from traditional punk to more riff-based rock, but it still was pretty damn good.
Another track that I feel needs a little more love (especially after the piece yesterday) is the single 'Ray' from Millencolin's 2005 album Kingwood. Released to strong reviews, the album showed a return to more of a traditional sound that the band was known for. Buzzing away at a comparatively rapid pace, the tune is another undeniably catchy song that has some fantastic chord progressions and satisfying melodies. The way the band twists and turns the tune around their fingers, it comes across as incredibly clear they have good reason for their lasting popularity and prolific career. I love the feel of the song dropping into the chorus, hitting the low notes as they wail away on their instruments.
Again, forgive my dogging the band for simply excelling in their genre - they shouldn't be subjected to flak (especially from the lowly likes of me) for doing what they do well. Millencolin know their strengths and play to them very well. Not every band has to write an opera to be respected - these guys craft incredibly tightly wound pop songs in punky little packages and deserve every bit of respect they've earned. Give 'em a spin and see what I'm talking about.

7.28.2011

Close but...

Hey kids! 


Riding high on the summer, I thought I'd take today's piece to extoll the virtues of the black sheep of popular music, the thing a lot of people loved but no one admits anymore - melodic punk. I will not stoop to calling it pop-punk, because even for me that feels a bit too emasculating, despite my love for both old school punk like The Descendants (Milo Goes to College) and pop music (my own Cyndi Lauper posts). The conflagration of titles seems to be a detriment to both genres, so I tend to just think of it as punk songs with a bit more melody and sunshine, the kind of thing you sing along with no matter what you're doing. Today's melodic punk selection? 'No Cigar' by Scandinavian band Millencolin
Millencolin have long been associated with skate culture, as early as their first American releases on California label Epitaph, who saw the potential in bringing the band's sound into the exploding scene on the West Coast. Riding in on the wave of mega-sellers like Green Day, The Offspring and Rancid, Millencolin (whose name supposedly is derived from the skate trick known as a melancholy) found success both here and abroad. Of course, being the nerd I am, the only reason I knew of the band was from the cultural exposure I can credit to my hip West Coast cousin Ben, who included them in a long list of "Bands I Should Be Listening To". Others on the list included NOFX, Reel Big Fish and MxPx. It was a heady time, when all was right in the world, I was a young teenager and poppy little ska-punk bands like these made total sense to us. I had no idea I would look back on this list and think "Oh, that's cute..." while cringing just a bit. Hey, at the time I was also into Radiohead and the Pumpkins - sometimes you gotta just roll with the punches. 


Anyway. 


I was familiar with the band. However, the first time one of their songs really drilled into my skull, though, was like a lot of nerds - as accompaniment to Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2. I know, I know. Further proof of inherent, undeniable nerdery. It's like a brand or a mark that can't be scrubbed off. Anyway...the track chosen for the game came from an EP the band had just put out, titled No Cigar. The song stands out for me as a kind of codifier on what mid-90s alt-punk sounded like, with it's jangly, punchy guitar riffs and hurtling choruses. I seem to recall Ben telling me that the band was Swedish, but maybe that's just a crossing of wires in my memory banks. I do know that it was apparent that there was something just slightly off about the lyrics, like they were written a little oddly or sung with strange inflection. Whenever it was that I found out, though, their sound made a lot more sense. 
It is a fantastic number, though. From the opening drumrolls that slide you right into the pocket, the song is a solid rocker. Like I said, it's classic 90's (ugh) pop punk, with verses that are sung over just drum and bass, picking up some palm-muted notes as the chorus approaches. I still adore the way the chorus lurches into high gear, with the syncopated slams of the band playing in unison for every note. By the time the last chorus comes they're playing these impossibly dexterous triplets that hook my brain in, no matter how pretentious my tastes have become. True to form, there are no solos or lead parts, just a really jangly little riff that plays on some minor, open chords that are left to ring, creating a great sense of dissonant harmony. It's just a really straight-forward, strong pop song that veers more to punk than rock, is all. 
So why do I feel so sheepish about enjoying this, when I've clearly written about much more embarrassing things on here? Maybe it's that it's the underdog of the 90s, a time on which a lot of people still don't look fondly. There's a bit of nostalgia, sure, but it really wasn't that long ago (10 years, man) that it came out. It still made its way into a playlist I made a few months ago, for running. I think there's a simplicity and accessibility to this song, and certainly this genre of music, that people confuse with vapidity. To be clear and straight-forward in your communication is not a bad thing - conversely communicating poorly and then acting smug about not being understood is not sufficient grounds to label something art (to paraphrase an old XKCD comic). It would seem people are afraid to embrace the music due to it's stigma of fashion, rather than ideas - Bad Religion continue to be one of the smartest, most thought-provoking bands I've heard. 


Regardless of my apologist stance, 'No Cigar' by Millencolin is a a great song that shouldn't get swept under the rug. Just wait for more of the nascent 90s nostalgia if you want a good excuse. When everyone's rocking Doc Martens and watching Clarissa Explains It All, feeling good about VH1, I'll be the one saying "Yeah, but I still think this band is good..." 

7.27.2011

Beached Wail

You guys!

I once again come bearing the joy that is free and fantastic music!

After a hard couple of days of emotional and deeply introspective posts about neglect, let's look on the brighter side of things, both literally and figuratively. To be perfectly honest I was quite content to keep the subject of today's piece as private as possible, but it's hardly private at this point. Hell, I read about it on the Nerdist blog, which is hardly an obscure place these days, what with their awesome-sauce podcast and newly-minted TV show. Anyway, the site tipped me off to something I love, in concept and execution - the good ol' mixtape. Although I suppose at this point, technologically, such a thing is extinct. It's more of a playlist. But that just doesn't have the same ring, now, does it?

I digress.

The mix is titled Beachland. Put together by Nate LC and hosted on his tumblr Mixbox, the playlist (which I remind you IS FREE) is designed to be a phenomenal and utterly enjoyable summer mix. After making good use of it since I was tipped off back in...what, May?...wow...I can say with certainty that it is a great mix. The dude knows how to string tunes together, which on the surface sounds easy but is, in fact, quite an art. Described in a manner which I won't crib here, the mix is the perfect thing for your summer and I wanted to make sure anyone reading this got a fair shake at it before the season is gone (sorry Aussies and Kiwis, try back in a few months). 
Full of legitimately great tracks by a variety of artists, there's something for everyone here. Kicking off (and wrapping up) with some beach sounds, the mix rolls from one chilled-yet-sunny track to the next with a deft touch of talented mixing. 'Surfers Hymn' by Panda Bear is a superb choice to open the mix with its joyous, open structure. 1234 Jericho by Jamaica is one of the sunniest, clearly summer songs I've ever heard. That it's followed by the super-fun 'Houdini' by Foster The People only sweetens the deal. I know it's total teeny-bopper stuff but I can't get enough of Eliza Doolittle singing 'Pack Up' - it's become a summer standard in and of its own right. I'm constantly hearing 'Radio' by Raphael Saadiq on the Current these days, highlighting its relevance. There's even some Lonely Island for levity and thump, as well as a great, cheery rap number from my seckrit favorite Childish Gambino.

I love this mix for a whole slew of reasons. It's incredibly well constructed and one of many Nate LC has done. I have yet to spin through the Halloween mix, which I am forcing myself to wait for October to play, even if it kills me to do so. Head on over and get it while you can and while the sun still shines - it's great for whatever you've got going, I promise.

7.26.2011

Further Regrets

Hey gang.


Yesterday I wrote openly about the regret of sleeping on a talented artist. The positive side to such a piece is that I am still able to get back into the work. Sims has no shortage of energy and passion - we'll all be hearing more from him in the future. What can make ignorance difficult to deal with is losing an artist before you have a chance to appreciate them. I'm in that position now in the absence of Michael Larsen, a talented rapper and musician from the Twin Cities who passed away late last year. Only 28 years old, Larsen (known mostly by his stage name Eyedea, of the duo Eyedea & Abilities) was only beginning to truly come into his talents. He had tons of irons in fires, working in multiple groups and playing and recording prolifically for a young artist. His untimely passing left a huge hole not only in the lives of his friends and family but in the music scene both here and abroad.


I was missing out, both then and now.


I had heard snippets of Eyedea rapping but had little appreciation for what he was putting down. Besides, a fuzzy little iPod earbud on a busy street is not ideal for hearing a new sound. Still, he was outside of my bubble - there are tons of Rhymesayers artists I love and adore, but his work rarely found me and vice versa. But that's on me.
 So when photog-extraordinaire Kate Engelmann tipped me off to an upcoming Face Candy showcase/benefit in August, suggesting I look into the posthumous release, I was curious. Curious not only for what I anticipated would be an interesting and energetic event, but for what I began to understand Face Candy to be - a melding of improvised freestyle rapping over improvised, live jazz tracks. 


How in the world could I have missed this? 


It's every thing I love in hip hop - passionate, intelligent, loose and slinky. I haven't even allowed myself to hear the album completed in the wake of Larsen's passing, only the first release, This Is Where We Were. Recorded live on tour, the album is raw and vibrant, a collection of artists who captured lightening in a bottle. At times it feels like it might squirrel away from the musicians as the weave and bob, reigning in their instruments, but the whole time it holds together in a way that subconscious cohesive ideas can do. I look forward to digging in to Waste Age Teenland, but I'm deliberately saving it for a later time, maybe closer to the event.
It's amazing how we can take things for granted - like the old joke about New Yorkers never visiting the Statue of Liberty despite being life long residents, we just assume things will always be there. I just assume local musicians will always be around for my eventual discovery. They're people just like you and me, capable of leaving or quitting or losing the fire inside. Take a look around and enjoy the world while it's here. Celebrate the artists who do it, not for mansions and money but for fun and fans. Support the arts.

7.25.2011

Mea Culpa

I'm sorry, Sims.


I'm sorry I slept on your amazing, unparalleled masterpiece - Bad Time Zoo


I'm sorry I ever questioned the work you put forth, delaying the album until it was perfect, giving valid reason for any push back it might have had. 


I'm sorry for not being a better person, in the wake of the material you put forth. You're the kind of artist who puts out a body of work and the audience realizes their own shortcomings as a result. It's just that good. It's that well put together.


I first covered Sims in my week-long Doomtree Diatribe earlier in the year, wherein I wrote about his under-appreciated False Hopes 14 rather than jump on the band wagon that was rolling in on the heels of his second major release. Turns out I should have been paying better attention. While I was making an impassioned plea for the masses to listen to his stealth endeavors, everyone else was busy being blown away by what the artist is truly capable of.
Bad Time Zoo is the kind of album you use in text books to illustrate just what exactly is artistic growth. As amazing as Lights Out Paris was, it was well worn by the time his official sophomore release debuted. What the world received was the lyricism and insight of one of the most thought-provoking and hard working mc's out there. The working title had long been in the public eye as 'The Veldt' which set the tone conceptually for an animalistic endeavor. The final title of 'Bad Time Zoo' establishes more of a manic, stampeding and vital soundscape, one whose life force feels like a zoo run amok in the face of an oppressive society. The opening salvo of 'Future Shock' shows Sims to be all too aware of the isolating world we create with our omnipresent tech, while subconsciously summoning more human times with it's chanting and pounding drums. The sweaty worry of 'Burn It Down' feels frantic and inescapably energetic, pulsing with rhythms that grab you and shake you to wake you from your slumber. 'One Dimensional Man' brings to light the vapid air of the upper-middle and upper class' attempts at saving the world, one banquet benefit at a time. 
Showing a broadening of sound, 'When It Rolls In' stands out as a game changer for the artist. Producer Lazerbeak creates a brooding, haunting soundscape for Sims to run wild in. In what may be a first, Sims actually sings a bit on the track, whose poetry has never been more affecting. I would be remiss, though, not to mention the lava-banger that is the formerly eponymous track 'The Veldt', where the two create a melting world of animals out to get you, lurching one bleeding beat at a time. I've honestly not heard anything quite like it in a long time, even from anyone in  the Doomtree crew.
Sims' intelligence has the rare gift of making the audience feel sheepish for a lack of aid to society. I know I come away from spins of this album with a bit of languishing guilt, knowing I walk to my office with the mindset of being the best person I can be. His lyrics bring light to the world we live in, for better or worse. I'm grateful that I can work to do the good things I can, but being a good spouse and responsible citizen simply isn't enough. What I struggle with, though, is what to do with that guilt - what does Sims want from us? How do we save the world, then, if not by being more aware of what we do?


Perhaps I'm looking too deeply at this issue. Whatever your take is on this album, you can't deny it's craft. Immaculately assembled, Sims has set the bar staggeringly high for anyone else in Minneapolis, let alone the world of independent hip hop. Step up your rap game, kids - Sims is loose.

7.24.2011

Changing Times

Hello, there!


It's been a lovely Sunday with my better half. We spent the day getting things done on our requisite lists of tasks and looked at a house or two, just to see if that is indeed the next step. Maybe. Who knows. We'll see. Don't pressure me. Anyway, we came back to our lovely apartment that we would miss terribly and set about working on my better half's summer project (aside from the wedding) which is making use of our CSA program, which delivers us a package of locally grown fruit and vegetables every week. Jaime Oliver would be very proud. Tonight's task involved cooking up some baby bok choy on the grill and it was delicious. While we were buzzing around the kitchen we had our satellite radio playing, to give a little Sunday night levity. A song came on that I have really grown fond of, as I have begun to associate with these evenings we spend together, creating super scrumptious meals from scratch.


The song in question? 'Changing' by The Airborne Toxic Event, of all romantic and pleasing titles for bands.


The tune is at times a throwback and inescapably modern. Composed around a simple 80s-esque one-and-two drum beat and a bit of sing-songy hooks. This is not meant at all to diminish what is a popular and catchy tune; rather, I think it's exactly why it's such a great song. As I mentioned in my write up of Grizzly Bear's infectious 'Two Weeks', good song writing and simple song writing often go hand in hand - simple should not be confused with lazy.
 That 'Changing' is a simple tune means only that you can recall its distinct and memorable sections. Singer Mikel Jollet's voice is rich and full, with a quality that is not unlike that of master song-smith Morrissey, only without all the dickish arrogance. I love Morrissey, mind you - I just can't stand pompous artists (yet I still enjoy Smashing Pumpkins...). Anyway, the vocals are solid and right in line with the track, pulling you along on a rolling tune. The intro is a classic example of how to set the mood for a song, establishing the key and tone but in a building and growing sense of structure. When the band kicks in, all the pieces lock right into sync. They find the pocket and stick to it. The syncopated starts and stops of the verses are hypnotic and head bobbing.
What absolutely hooks me into this song, though, has to be the odd but instantly memorable solo in the middle eight. My mind tells me its a guitar, but the way that it gets bent and most likely auto-tuned into strange, unnatural pitches makes my ear sit up and say 'Wait, what was that?' every single time I hear the song. In fact, this little piece of witch craft has quickly become my favorite thing about one of my favorite songs of the summer. It's instantly recognizable and distinct, setting this song apart from anything out there. If you hear it you'll know what I mean, though I suspect it could be quiet a divisive effect.
The Airborne Toxic Event are rising fast, with this song propelling their new album All At Once up the charts. It's a fun, energetic tune for grilling and entertaining - give it a spin while goofing with some friends and you'll see what I mean. 'Changing' is a good thing.

7.23.2011

Big Little City

Good morning! I trust most of you will be reading this well after it's posted, in the morning rather than on Saturday just before midnight.


After a long and bittersweet goodbye for some of my nearest and dearest, my better half suggested we enjoy our night off by taking in a movie. So while the storm raged on outside our apartment, we sat together on the couch as husband and wife, a bowl of popcorn seasoned with strange and delicious spices she's perfected in my lap. The flick? A wonderfully touching and human movie from last year, Cedar Rapids.
A great film that slipped under the mainstream radar, the movie is a heartfelt and endearing movie that features the talents of Ed Helms. Helms, best known for his sincere and hysterical performances in The Office, The Hangover series and as a correspondent on The Daily Show, is fantastic choice in the lead. As a man who has spent his entire life in a small Wisconsin town sent to Cedar Rapids for an Insurance convention, Helms is sweet and charming, making the fun twist on the standard fish-out-of-water tale much more pleasing to watch. His goofy grin and innocent attitude make him so lovable that you can't help but root for him. Helms' character quickly finds he's in over his head in the big city as his life begins to unravel in front of him. 
It's not the zany, Hangover-esque comedy the trailers and ad campaigns suggested. Simply due to the overlap in the media I consume I saw my share of promos for the film, from (returning to) The Daily Show, Marc Maron's WTF podcast and SNL. All indications except for Maron's interview showed the movie to be another case of hi-jinks and "What happened last night!?" style exasperation. Maron, in his typical home-run interviews, got Helms to talk more about the human, relatable side of the protagonist. After hearing this episode and reading all the great press on the movie I knew I had to see it, I just couldn't fit it in before the wedding. I'm glad we saw it tonight, though. It's really just a sweet and funny movie that's pretty grounded considering all the goofiness. 
The dark horse of the ensemble cast has to be John C. Reilly, a man who is no stranger to character-comedy work. His mannerisms and choices in inflection make him so enjoyable. There have been occasional roles of his where I get tired of his shtick or choices, but I absolutely loved him in this. He not only makes an incredibly abrasive supporting character quite likable, but does the impossible in playing a believable drunk. Although I should admit there is the possibility he actually WAS drunk, I'm more inclined to believe he just made some smart, insightful choices for a silly scene. 
Really, if you need a movie for the night that's at times laugh-out-loud, poignant and just consistently genuine and smart without being cynical, this is it. It got so much great press last year for good reason. The cast is superb, the writing is fresh and not cliched and the visual style is distinct. Check out Cedar Rapids. It's super fun.

7.22.2011

Bear Attack

Happy weekend!


Video Game Week is officially behind us and I can once again get to writing about music and movies (and occasionally the written word) that deserves praise. To be honest, though, I feel rusty and out of practice, so I'll start this resurgent phase with something short and sweet, instead of a long-winded diatribe on a double album. Let us take a look at a much loved but all-too-quickly forgotten single that we must not cast aside - 'Two Weeks' by Grizzly Bear.
My unending love for this song is something that beats at the very heart of this site - namely the feeling that we, as a collective culture, are moving so fast that great things are being cast off much too fast. This song is a perfect example of that feeling. Hip-to-the-sound readers will know that the charming and swaying song was released by the psyche-folk band almost a full two years ago, quickly rising in prominence. Featured in ads and samples and interpolations far and wide (including my favorite use as a backing track by Childish Gambino) the song was an almost instant hit. There's a certain characteristic to the tune that's just so charming (to reuse the word) and retro yet fresh and revitalizing. I love the way the keys bounce and pop through the track. The fuzz of a little guitar is a great accompaniment at the core of the song. The band's wordless "oohs" and "ahhhs" are so smooth and airy that you can't help croon along with them at every turn. There's a sound in there that I struggle to identify - is it a vocorder? Some kind of synth? Whatever it is, it breathes and adds a little twist that gives such a wonderful little push of life to 'Two Weeks' that takes it up a level.
I think that those little notes and touches are what make this dreamy little folk tune work so well. The song has nary an ounce of fat on it, yet it still clocks in at just over four minutes. A tight arrangement and some smart arrangments keep your ear engaged and keep the song feeling fresh, no matter how many times you hear it. Certainly with such a laid back, behind the beat air to 'Two Weeks' you could anticipate the song to drag or slow down, yet it still rolls along with the cheery piano diads. 
My statement at the beginning of this post still stands - we move too quickly past great things at times. My appreciation for this song has only grown since it topped the charts and I get the feeling others have already forgotten about it, even though its only been two years since its debut. In the winter it cheers me up. In spring it grants a sense of rejuvenation. In summer it feels breezy and relaxed, a sunny tune for sitting and watching people. Don't forget about it - it's sublime.

7.21.2011

Console Nation

Kids, it's time we say goodbye to Video Game Week.


This most likely comes with a rounding cheer from a heart segment of my audience, while coming from a heavy heart. I really do love to apply analysis and critical thought to my gaming. Whether its the simplest indulgence, like button mashing and rhythm games, or the headiest, most convention defying experience to date, I love examining the phenomenon that occurs when we play games. I really appreciate the fact that anyone here would read my thoughts on a field that has no shortage of self-righteous essays and pretentious diatribes, not just from me but from much more talented, witty writers. 
I could honestly fill pages upon pages with content devoted to my love of gaming but in the interest of not shedding any more readers, I'll just round up the few posts on the subject that I have done and get back to what I do best - heartfelt examinations of the music that makes people tick. While there may be the occasional post on games in the future, they will much more sporadic, that's for sure. For example, I hardly mentioned the unsung hero of games - soundtracks. Someday, kids. Some day. 


Here's anything and everything I've written about button mashing:


Zombies Ate My Neighbors - an old post about a sublime SNES game, which is a love letter to B-Movies.
Silent Hill 2 - the scariest and most captivating experience I've ever had with a game, bar none.
Gamespite - a look at the most funny and intelligent gaming community I've seen, headed by Jeremy Parish.
S.T.U.N. Runner - a whimsical tale about lost memories from my childhood. And Chuck E. Cheese!
Scribblenauts - I wrote about this smart little game after a pre-flight happy-hour and some in-flight DS time.
Grabbed By The Ghoulies - Rare's black sheep that's really not too bad, worth the few dollars it goes for these days.
Maniac Mansion - a groundbreaking classic, as fun then as it is now. Another of many loving homages to Horror.
ToeJam & Earl - Co-op ahead of its time, a stealth masterpiece of the Sega Genesis.
Link's Awakening - The secret-best Zelda game which goes undeservedly neglected these days.
Dragon Warrior 4 - In which I wax nostalgic about exploring and having a curious mind as a child.
Virtual Bart - The hidden redemptive qualities of minigames and the mindless pleasures they afford.
That wraps up Video Game Week for me, kids. Starting tomorrow I get back on my grind with the more traditional music-based posts and articles. Down the line we'll have more themed weeks, like Book Worm Week and a special Halloween themed series. Until then, I'll see you guys on the flip side. Thanks for reading.

7.20.2011

Chocolate Frosted Minigames

Evening, kids.


A brief word about tonight's post - the title is, to be blunt, stolen from a 30 Rock joke about horrible cereals. I found it fitting for the subject matter, because like stealing jokes, minigames are often mindless, lazy and derivative. There are times, though, when no matter how capable you may be or how broad your palette may be, you just want mindless, stupid laughs. That's where minigames come in.


To be honest I'm not a devoted advocate of the much maligned yet massively popular format. Certainly the Wii helped popularize them. Indeed there seems to be a glut of shovelware these days - just games crammed into the checkout aisle next to candy-bars and bottle soda, eager to swindle you out of $10 and your respect for the gaming industry. Not all minigame collections are inherently bad; more to the core of the issue not all are created equal. One of my favorite of the genre is a comparative antique - the launch title for the original Xbox, Fusion Frenzy. I loved making drinking games out of the 60-second intervals of frantic gameplay the inexpensive title brought in college. Simple games that mimicked the Powerball game from American Gladiators or the one in which you either jump over or duck under hurtles and pipes as they come flying toward your character - these were great for a little levity before heading out on a Friday or Saturday night with friends. While it is common place now, a few rounds of Halo wouldn't have quite the same jovial effect on our group of friends. Some mindless button mashing, timed to ever-changing patterns and reflex tests? Super fun when beer is added to the mix. 
But not all minigames are for parties. One of my favorites that brought me much secret joy over the years (again, in college) was found in an obscure old title for SNES and the Genesis. There were a lot of winter nights as a student in which I would be done with my studies (sort of) and home with nothing good (free) to do. My better half attending University 1000 miles away, I had to while away the time doing something while we chatted on the phone, growing closer as we broke down the details of our respective days. When I wasn't spending these conversations cooking Ramen or pizza rolls (a habit I have mercifully quit in the last six years) I would fire up my copy of the long-forgotten Simpsons tie-in Virtual Bart and play a particular game.
The Simpsons, Gospel though they may be, have a terrible track record for video games. Almost every single one has been a dismal, unquestionable failure, and yet I have played so many of them with so much patience. Virtual Bart was just another in a long line of stinkers with Bart-branding, skating by on it's merchandising license. The central concept was that Bart straps in to a Virtual Reality machine at a Springfield Elementary Science Fair and all kinds of wacky hi-jinx ensue. Most of the games were awful and too simple to be fun, even for a minigame. 
One game, though, I could not turn away from. It was, for lack of a proper title, a shooting gallery. Bart simply stands outside the school before the Science Fair and hurls tomatoes at his classmates, getting points for every one he hits. As you progress authority figures show up, wandering back and forth through the scenery and blocking your targets. That's it -  no big concept. No major threat, no big reward. Just try to nail Rod and Todd Flanders with tomatoes. I was completely hooked. More than once I would exclaim "YES!" while on the phone with my eventual wife. When questioned on it I would have to explain why I was so excited to have pegged Ralph Wiggum. She understood my excitement and that is why I married her. 


Not all gaming has to be high-brow, expensive execution. Sometimes all you need is a simple, gratifying execution of concept. Time your throws and take aim - that's all you need to blow off a little steam and kill a cold, lonely winter night.

7.19.2011

World Maps

I'm still in the grips of another Middle West heat wave, kids. It's tough. 

Everyone here makes jokes about risking death by venturing out in the winter months when wind chill can get down to 40 below zero, but the secret about Minnesota is that the summer can be just as dangerous. Case in point - in search of a specific dinner ingredient last night, I braved the 110+ heat index for all of 20 minutes. Having not had dinner yet and slowly navigating the jungle-like conditions, I returned home with the elusive ingredient on the verge of fainting. I just needed something to munch on (keeping mind and body together) and a cool glass of water to lower the temp. But it reaffirmed the notion that, for long stretches of time here in MPLS, it's simply not safe to venture out. One of the best outlets I've found to combat these potential cabin-fever conditions is exploring in video games. Not all games provide it, but it is a motive that was instilled at an early age.
 Like many people in America my brothers and I subscribed to Nintendo Power when we were kids, not only for all the amazing secrets and game tips but for...wait for it...drumroll...a free game! We got our copy of Dragon Warrior in the mail and were promptly confused. Our experience with RPGs at that point was minimal. I don't think I even know how to read at that point, actually. But we had our resources (the mag) and a resourceful attitude (what else do you do on a dangerously cold snow-day?) so we set about making Dragon Warrior a worthy endeavor. Alright, mostly I just watched as my older brother played it with the neighbor kids, explaining the action to me very patiently. At some point the addictive nature of a solid RPG hooked its claws into both the older brother and the Summers kids across the street and the three older kids went about working their way through the rest of the Dragon Warrior catalogue on NES.
 For myriad reasons the second and third iterations never captured my imagination (except for the Phantom Ship which was amazing), even after I learned to read and played through the original. When the three older kids had played through Dragon Warrior Four, however, I was mystified. Here was a brightly colored, artfully plotted and constructed game with a massive world to explore. At the time there was nothing else like it. Being the conservative tacticians that they were, rather than save their game right before the final battles, they saved them in the final safe spot, allowing me to pick up the controller when they were all off watching a baseball game, so I could explore the world as it existed in the almost completed, fully unlocked state. Doing so triggered some nascent, developing corner of my mind that until that point had been slumbering. When it awoke it was like a white ball of burning curiosity, seeking info, from reading every line of text to exploring every nook and cranny.
 The world of Dragon Warrior Four was big, to the point of being navigated with either a ship or hot air balloon. I understood the basic mechanics from watching the others play it, so I knew about the chaptered structure, the overlapping plots and the wide cast of characters. I was curious, though, how it all fit together. Having a fully powered up cast of characters to explore with allowed me free reign over the game, granting near-instant gratification to my desire to see what lay around the corner. Sometimes it was amusing, like being able to run a shop in a certain village. Other times it was with great caution and trepidation as I wandered into the World Tree just to see where it could take me. I knew I shouldn't monkey around in end-game affairs but the temptation of hidden worlds was so tempting!

I know it seems really childish and foolish to speak of it in such reverent terms, but the experience did set into motion my love of playing with boundaries in games. I spent hours with my younger brother glitching and sequence breaking The Ocarina of Time. Goldeneye on the 64? I still dig up bugs and tricks on it, just to see if anything new was discovered, like the test level 'Citadel'. As games have evolved this sense of "Can I do this?" has changed with the design. I remember how exasperated the older brother was when I was playing some hunting game on our PS2 and kept trying to get the little guy to go into a cabin. 

"Man, it's a hunting game!" he insisted, frustrated at my nebbish, indoor-only attitude. 

"Dude, you're missing the point," I tried to explain. But he would have none of it. 

Games now reward that sense of rule-bending. They reward you for thinking outside of the box. Look at the driving concept behind of Dead Rising, where your entire experience in the game is predicated on dispatching zombies in the most creative, outside of the box conceivable. Modern classic Bioshock is nothing but a philosophical examination of choice and free will in gaming told through the eyes of an Ayn Rand-obsessed studio. Some of the most fun I've had in gaming comes from just dinking around in the environment. I remember bouts of insomnia combatted with tooling around in GTA: San Andreas just observing the generation and mechanics of the traffic around the city.

 Anyone who's met me will attest that I am not a big outdoorsman, camping and hiking and all that. I think the content to this site proves that well enough. But that doesn't mean I don't have an adventurous mind. Some of the brightest, most wonderful people I know demonstrate this just by engaging their mind, no matter where there life takes them. You don't have to work for NASA to exercise your mind. Find something that makes yours go, and keep at it. Dragon Warrior Four, of all things, helped me get my mind running. It doesn't have to be ultra-taxing - just try to have fun with your life, no matter the circumstances, and you'll be mentally engaged. 

7.18.2011

Dreamstate

I never got carsick playing this. Not once. 

As a child of the late 80s/early 90s I was a proud owner of a Game Boy, the inexplicably gender-specific portable device courtesy of Nintendo. My parents, in their infinite wisdom and generosity, decided the best way to pacify me on long car trips (of which there were many) and trips to my grandparents (of which there were even more). I adored the Gameboy both for what it was and what it afforded -  gaming on the go! Official, transportable Nintendo games! I was sold. Rather, mom and dad were. The requisite title was Tetris, of course, but there were other games that mesmerized me beyond the gratifying disappearing of bricks. Of particular quality and experience is the subject of today's Video Game Week piece about neglected and forgotten games - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening
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Zelda and Nintendo (especially of the portable variety) have become inextricably intertwined in the two decades, but that wasn't always the case. At the time of the release of Link's Awakening there had been a total of three Zelda titles - the original and establishing title, the uneven and divisive sequel and the instant-classic Link to the Past. A quality gaming experience was not the guarantee at this point. But with it's pedigree and reputation, it was already known at the time to be a solid, reliable series in the Nintendo canon. When Link's Awakening was announced people were excited but wary - some titles had shown a drop in quality in the journey to the smaller screen. When it finally was released we got something that was a little unlike any Zelda game we'd seen before, and nothing since then has been quite like it. In fact Link's Awakening remains an anomaly in both structure and plot, setting it apart from the rest of the games in the series.
Whereas every single other game bearing the Zelda title has included some form of Hyrule, Ganon, the Triforce and the titular princess herself, Link's Awakening set itself apart by eschewing all of these standard ingredients for a unique and whimsical tale of cast-away adventuring. The core of the game's plot (which was surprisingly rich for its day) is as follows: Link, in the wake of his adventures in A Link to the Past, sets off for sail on the high seas. When a storm wrecks his boat he awakes to find himself on the shore of Koholint Island, a strange place that bears more than a passing similarity to Hyrule. At the center of the island is a mountain with a gigantic egg resting in the crater on top. In order to leave the island and go home, Link must defeat eight creatures in their respective dungeon lairs in order to retrieve instruments to play a song that will awaken the Wind Fish that rests within the egg. See? Told you it wasn't the same old song and dance. What unfolds is a sad tale of both determinism and resignation in the face of destiny. I will be extremely conservative and not spoil a 20 year old game, but my 10 year old self was genuinely sad to see what unfolded in the final moments of the game, and even now I remember it fondly for the adventure. However I still don't want to re-experience the loss that stems from the plot. I think that shows either an extreme emotional attachment or signs of strong game design.
 While I certainly don't want to dump all over the tried-and-true template for a Zelda game (Ganon, Triforce, Hyrule and one requisite tweak of the conventions) I really loved this game for what set it apart, even if at the time I thought it was a bit odd. In fact, my pre-teen brain interpreted the non-canonical setting as a result of the portable nature of the game, i.e. smaller, non-console iteration equated a non-standard game. In a way that subconscious interpretation was right, as I've found that te game's development was almost an after-hours, off-project construction. The designers were afforded more freedom to play around with conventions because of the side-story nature of the game. This sense of freewheeling, 'let's throw this in' attitude made for a unique little adventure, one that felt both large in scope and unlike anything I'd played before. There were cameos from Mario games, the occasional side-scrolling section and even, for the first time in a Zelda game, the ability to (gasp!) jump. These quirks helped break ground for the series, if only in adding a touch of whimsy where convention might otherwise induce stagnation.
 There have been re-releases and enhanced versions in the intervening years since I've played Link's Awakening, but my heart will always remain with the simple little black and white, bare-bones version for the Gameboy. There are...ways...to track it down if you can't find the GBC version. If you've never played it, I would highly recommend it, just to see what a Zelda game can be when the plot and structure are unrestrained by the demands of convention. Even if it involves a poignant moment at the end. 

7.17.2011

Funkotron

In the midst of another relentless Middle West heat wave, I bring you more of Video Game Week! 


Some estimates have put the heat index well above 110 (Fahrenheit, you metric-loving world, you!) and that is just too darn hot to function. Consequently my better half and I have spent the day reassembling our humble abode in the wake of our wedding and honeymoon. We hit a Farmer's Market before 9 in the morning and it was still so hot we decided that cleaning in the AC with the blinds down was the best way to be productive today. Any further venturing would have risked certain death. Since subsequent adventuring would have required the use of video games, so when she wasn't watching me clean in our office I fired up my copy of my favorite old Sega game, ToeJam & Earl!
My love of the world of hip hop clearly started at a young age.


Released in 1991 for the Sega Genesis (Mega Drive to you Japanese readers), the game was a favorite of mine for a variety of reasons. My friend Matt owned a copy and we spent our share of winter afternoons playing the game, whose titular aliens ToeJam (the skinny one) and Earl (the fat one) seemed not-at-all a desperate grab at relevancy and hip vernacular from marketing teams. Basic plot was as follows: Aliens crash on a bizarre version of Earth, fight off stereotypes of humans to find pieces of wrecked craft to get home. A rap-themed take on ET, basically. 
A fairly simple game, you pretty much just walk your character of choice around in search of ship parts, picking up wrapped presents (which contained a variety of goods like rocket skates, Icarus wings, slingshots and food) while dodging crazy doctors and angry moms pushing their kids in shopping carts. Not a lot to it, just wander around and search for stuff. While this was still the early 90s, a period in which video games were simpler both in concept and execution, it was even at the time a pretty minimal game. That essence of simplicity was endearing, though, as it got the game's concept out of the way and just let you and a partner explore the weird, hyper-real world the designers created. It was an adventure in the most basic sense - you and a friend try to help the hip, stranded aliens. For a couple of white kids from the sticks we thought we were down with the lingo. Bad ass dudes, were we. 
There's all sorts of idiosyncratic touches in ToeJam & Earl that made it stand out at the time. Enemies weren't simply trying to kill you but were more of a conceptual impediment. Example: Hula Girls were scattered around, and when in their vicinity your character is compelled to Hula dance, which did you no damage but opened you up to, say, a swarm of bees coming out of left field. Santa Claus made appearances, because why not? I guess to follow the logic of the game offering presents as a source of items and goods. Anyway, you could sneak up on Santa to startle him, causing a bevy of gifts to fall out. Levels were literally levels - giant, randomly formed platforms of land suspended in open space, complete with quicksand and lakes. Falling off the level would cause you to drop back down, only impeding progress rather than out-and-out penalization. In the first level of the game you could fall down a hole to Level Zero, which was nothing but a hot tub and lemonade stand. If your character sat idle too long they would fall asleep. Pressing buttons wouldn't immediately wake them up, but start a cascade of whispers and eventual yelling that would eventually get them going again. This is all sounding absolutely absurd, but these weird things are why I love the game to this day.
I mentioned in yesterday's post how I rarely play any games with other people, but this is the exception to the rule. I loved playing it as a kid. In college it served as a great goofing off/time waster with friends who grew up on the Sega side of the tracks. Fire up the emulator, grab a beer and an ashtray (I've since quit) and casually wander around a fun, if oddly twisted world. ToeJam & Earl is a surreal, satirizing of America, but that take on life makes the game fascinating to play when coupled with it's simple yet free-roaming style of play. If you've never had a chance to play it you can download it for Virtual Console and possibly Xbox Live Arcade, or find it...other...places. I highly recommend it, just for the sense of whimsy.