Monday, February 23, 2009

First Impressions: Psapp, Robyn Hitchcock, Beirut, M. Ward

Last Tuesday saw the release of a ton of interesting and/or promising albums. I splurged a bit and got a few I'd had my eye on for a while. A single listen is generally not enough to really "get" any album, but once in a while I do these first impression things and write about my initial thoughts on an album after the first listen.

Psapp-The Camel's Back
Psapp's first album, The Only Thing I Ever Wanted, was a nice little surprise a few years ago. It was one of those albums that I thought would be kind of disposable. I'd listen to it for a few months and then it would sort of disappear into my collection. But I've found myself putting it on pretty consistently since I got it, which is why I picked up their second effort. I would say it's more of the same--lots of fun little songs, with some bells and whistles (literally--they use a lot of toy instruments in their music) to make it interesting. Only time will tell if this album will grow on me like their first. I hope it does.
Psapp - The Monster Song

Robyn Hitchcock &
The Venus 3-Goodnight Oslo
Pretty much the same story for Robyn Hitchcock, except he's been around a lot longer than Psapp. I really enjoyed his debut with the Venus 3 a few years ago, Ole! Tarantula, but like that album, it looks like Goodnight Oslo will be a slow burn. Hitchcock's songwriting is always solid, if a little perverse at times, and this looks like a strong effort.

Beirut-March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland
This album is actually two EPs, as opposed to an LP. The first, March of the Zapotec, is straight up Beirut, loaded with horns and the folksy tones of Eastern Europe, and this time, Mexico. I still haven't heard a song to match "Elephant Gun", but this first EP is a nice listen. Realpeople Holland is apparently a side project of Zach Condon's--it's all electronic, contrasting sharply with the first EP. Though I usually find Condon's voice highly tolerable if not downright pleasant, I found it didn't meld well with this style of music. I will say, I hadn't realized how similar to David Byrne he sounded until I heard this second EP. That said, I was ready to never listen to this EP again until I heard the last track, "No Dice," which is a fun techno beat with no vocals. That one's a keeper.

M. Ward-Hold Time
Easily the album I was looking forward to the most of these four, M. Ward didn't let me down. I was unsurprised and quite pleased that Zooey Deschanel lent her vocals to "Never Had Nobody Like You"; I was more surprised by Lucinda Williams' vocals on "Oh Lonesome Me." Having these two guest vocalists on the same album was an odd choice. Deschanel's voice is as sweet as can be, whereas Williams sounds like she's been smoking three packs a day for a few decades. Ward's voice matches well with both, but for different reasons. The cover of "Rave On" is one of Ward's more interesting choices--I have to say I like the original, faster version better, but maybe I'll get used to this take. I'm really more interested in the originals, and I'd say that even after only one listen, M. Ward's songwriting and production is as strong as ever. A must for any M. Ward fan and a decent introduction for any newbie.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Quote of the Week, by Chuck Klosterman

Aside from a few interviews and essays, I haven't read much by Chuck Klosterman. Pop culture already sucks up a bit too much of my time, so do I need to read about it even more? That said, he was recently featured in Newsweek's "A Life in Books" feature, in which authors and writers are asked about their favorite books. Nothing very surprising about his 5 "most essential" books, but when asked for A Book You Would Have Parents Read To Their Children, Klosterman responded: "'Gravity's Rainbow.' I don't really understand children."

I laughed out loud on my train. I may have to go out and buy one of this guy's books. Any recommendations from someone who's read him?

For the record, if you simply must read one Pynchon novel before you die, go for The Crying of Lot 49. Gravity's Rainbow has its moments, but it almost kicked my ass.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Andrew Bird's Noble Beast

This is a review I should have written weeks ago, but better late than never, I guess. I say "should have" because anyone who looks at this blog even occasionally knows that I can't say enough about Andrew Bird. Noble Beast, released last month, is finally getting the Bird Man the attention he deserves. There's been a veritable media blitz--NPR loves him to death, I've been seeing and hearing interviews with him left and right, and I believe he's playing Leno tonight. For a guy who's songs you'll probably never hear on the radio, this might be as good as it gets.

But I digress. The only unfortunate thing about Noble Beast is that it came out so early in 2009 that I'm concerned it won't find a home on people's top 10 lists at the end of the year. I think I can safely say that won't be a problem for me. Bird is easily one of my favorite artists of the last decade, and Noble Beast places a close second behind Mysterious Production of Eggs for his best album to date. From the infectious opening whistle of "Oh No" right on through to the end, there is nary a weak spot.

Maybe I'm a sucker for whistling, or a little violin plucking, or big words, or all of these things put together, but this is definitely good stuff. The melodies that were stuck in Andrew Bird's head for years as he crafted the songs for Noble Beast will get stuck in your head. The words in his lyrics, whether you know what they mean or not, will stick in your head like a poppy seed in your teeth. From Bird's recent NPR interview (there's lots of links to streaming concerts and songs through the NPR site, too): "Bird's lyrics often feature archaic language — words such as radiolarian, plecostomus, dermestids, coprophagia — which he chooses mainly for their sound, but not at the expense of their meaning....'I guess I'm attracted to more archaic words because they can be imbued with more meaning, because their definition is elusive. And sometimes my use of words is a bit reckless. I'm aware of that.'"

Reckless or not, it works. I could probably do a post for every song on this album, but I'll stop here and just encourage anybody reading this to check out Noble Beast. If you're already an Andrew Bird fan, get the Deluxe Edition, which features a bonus instrumental album, Useless Creatures. It's a bit more experimental and weird, but still a great listen.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Latest Time Sink: Crayon Physics Deluxe

So I really don't feel qualified to write a game review since I play games so infrequently--I generally leave game reviewing to Sparky. But I stumbled across Crayon Physics Deluxe a month ago or so, and it's an icon I'm wary of clicking on my computer because it usually means an hour of my life is about to disappear (at least).

The premise is simple. On each level, you get a ball, which can move, and a star, which does not. Using only a "crayon" to draw lines, pivots, and other objects that more or less obey the laws of physics, you have to get the ball to touch the star. Occasionally you get a tool, like a rocket, to help you out. It's really easier to show you than to describe it, so check out one of the Kloonigames trailers:

It's often the simple games that are most addicting, and so it is with CPD. Like the only other game I've played relatively recently, World of Goo, it has a lot of what Sparky calls "Aha!" moments. Some solutions are deceptively simple; some have taken me way too long. It's not as pretty World of Goo, and there's no plot to speak of, but you also aren't limited in tools. You can fill the screen with the most elaborate Rube Goldberg device imaginable to get the ball from A to B (see video below). With the full game--as opposed to the free demo you can download from Kloonigames--you also have the challenge to solve each level with an elegant solution (draw only one line or object), an old school solution (no pendulums, can't nudge the ball, etc...), or an awesome solution. I'm still working on getting an awesome solution.

Crayon Physics.... One possible solution from Highway6 on Vimeo.
My biggest fault with the game is that there are only three or four tunes in the background music. The music is actually kind of pretty, but it gets old fast if you end up playing for a while. I'd recommend turning the music down and putting on your iTunes or music player of choice while playing. I would also suggest giving yourself a set play time, as in "I will play Crayon Physics Deluxe for one hour and no more," or you may be in for some late nights.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Comic Review: House of Mystery

When I saw that Bill Willingham, the writer behind Fables, and Matthew Sturges, who collaborates with Willingham on Jack of Fables, were working together on a new series, I figured it was worth checking out. The first trade paperback in House of Mystery introduces what is essentially a spinoff of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series (also a Vertigo property), specifically a chapter in that series called "World's End" in its TPB form.

The House of Mystery, or the Inn at World's End, or whatever you want to call it, is a big ol' mansion that sits at a junction of world's and dimensions. Wanderer's from any and every plane of existence can and do end up there, some just for a visit, and some for longer stays. No money is exchanged in this establishment, only stories. The customers pay their tabs with tales.

It's a convenient framing device for telling a variety of stories. Sturges takes the reigns on the frame, introducing us to Fig, a young architect who can "talk" to buildings and who has been dreaming about the House much of her life. Eventually, she ends up at the House and meets the staff. And since she apparently can't leave the grounds, she's doomed to become one of the staff. Meanwhile, a motley crew of patrons, from a transdimensional process server to a renegade witch, tell their horrific stories, which for the most part are written by Willingham.

That's probably what surprised me most about this book. It's pretty much an old school horror comic, with plenty of guts and gross-outs. There's some dry humor here and there, and it's not a splatterfest by any means, but at its heart it's essentially Tales From the Crypt with an actual story tying together the vignettes, as opposed to a cackling zombie-puppet.

Luca Rossi draws Fig's story, and I can't say I'm in love with the art here. Some of it's just fine, but the only reason I can tell most of the women apart is because their hair color is different. This lackluster illustration is more than compensated for by the various artists who draw the internal stories. Ranging from the cartoony (Steve Rolston) to the photorealistic (Zachary Baldus), nearly all the guest artists outshine Rossi, in my opinion.

Overall, I don't see this becoming one of my favorite series, but it was definitely good enough that I'll keep my eye out for the next TPB. It's success will depend largely on how Fig's story evolves. I think it holds promise, but right now there's a danger that it will grow too convoluted too early. Perhaps things will pick up as we learn the backstories of the rest of the House's occupants.

A Few More Favorite Tracks from 2008

I actually have plenty posts coming up, but since I wrote down some of my favorite tracks (that weren't on top 20 albums) from 2008, I figured I'd throw them up here. I wouldn't say I disliked the albums these songs came from at all, but if I were to, say, make a mix for someone, these are the only songs from these albums I would consider for inclusion. Maybe some day I'll figure out how to stream songs on here, but for now I'll highly encourage you to find these songs on the internets and give them a listen.

  • Dr. Dog (Fate)- "The Old Days"
  • Headlights (Some Racing, Some Stopping)-"Cherry Tulips"
  • The Mountain Goats (Heretic Pride)-"Autoclave"
  • Yael Naïm (Yael Naïm)-"New Soul"
  • Bon Iver (For Emma, Forever Ago)-"Skinny Love"
I realize this was a big year for Bon Iver and this album made a ton of top ten lists, but with the exception of this song I couldn't bring myself to fall in love with the whole album. I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to this kind of music, and I wasn't quite sad enough this year to embrace it.
  • Mumlers (Thickets & Stitches)-"Red River Hustle"
  • The Magnetic Fields (Distortion)-"Too Drunk to Dream"
  • The Kills (Midnight Boom)-"U.R.A. Fever"