Monday, June 30, 2008

Nas - I Gave You Power

Nas - "I Gave You Power"

Just like "One Love," this track sends chills down my spine every time I hear it. One of my favorite Nas tracks. I'm still working my way through his albums in order, so I haven't heard any of his newer releases and at this pace, probably won't hear Untitled until 2015 or so.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

video #59: Architecture in Helsinki - Do the Whirlwind

Of all the annoying trends in online weaboo culture, few have gotten under my skin like the proliferation of bad digital sprite art that's saturated the domains of Livejournal, Deviantart, and Gaia, and splattered itself across the rest of the Internet. From NES character-inspired webcomics to customizable chibi avatars as means of authentic expression of the adolescent inner-self, it's a crude and persistent reminder of how far the Internet has fallen as a once-unique medium for geeks to congregate and share their once-unique interests. Ten years ago, the Internet was still largely text-based, and of course it still is, but the up-and-coming legions of illiterate, overmedicated, Naruto-addicted, 1337-speaking nymphochildren have proven that you can establish a vast social network despite having a vocabulary of 500 words or less, not to mention the peer-enforced title of ARTIST by simply by shifting a few pixels here and there. But why should I care at all? I don't know. I just lament the further (but inevitable) dumbing-down of a culture that means something to me, or would if I felt like I was really a part of it.

This aesthetic, if you want to call it that, is pushed to its absolute limit in the work of Paul Robertson. What I've seen of his short films and the artwork posted on his journal is nothing short of astounding in its excessive pileup of meticulously-detailed chibis coupled with seizure-inducing effects. The level of detail he puts into each frame of this work is amazing, from the backgrounds to the characters themselves. Its simple 8-bit-charm makes it all feel so familiar, maybe even evoking a little nostalgia for anyone who grew up with videogames like Double Dragon, River City Ransom, or Final Fight, but there's nothing retro about Robertson's take on the genre. In works like "Pirate Baby's Cabana Battle" and "Kings of Power 4 Billion%" (best watched almost anywhere outside of Youtube's image-compressing viewer), the epileptic-levels of violence is beyond the precedent of almost any anime or videogame.

"Do the Whirlwind," on the other hand, is just clean fun, and even made me love a song that I'd already shrugged off as MOR twee-indie hype when I first heard it. It's probably the best place to start with Robertson's work. Yeah, I'm taking it seriously enough to call it "work." But didn't I say I hate this stuff? Maybe I'm just getting old and it's the kids that I hate. I checked Robertson's birthday on his Livejournal. Born only three weeks after me but creatively indulging his ecchi, ultraviolent id and even getting paid for it. Sounds good to me.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Guitar - House Full of Time

Guitar - "House Full of Time"

You've never even heard this song so it can't mean a thing to you, but that summer it was always going through my head. Maybe never more than the times that we'd go to the pool. Floating on my back, my ears dipping below the surface and muffling the roar of all the jets flying in and out of O'Hare overhead, the sun blinding my eyes and warming my skin, your hands behind my head, cradling it so gently, I think I'd never felt so content. I'd never allowed myself a simple kind of peace like this. I'd never known it was possible until you showed me.

It's never quite the same in the pool over here. I don't know what it is, all the windows looking down on us, the threat of a horde of sugar-fed, screaming kids descending on us at any minute, memories of that disgusting hairball incident from last summer that I just can't shake... still, we should go more this summer. We'll regret it if we don't.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

video #58: The Notwist - Pick Up the Phone

Good video, good song. I need more of this band in my life. Hope their new album is as good as Neon Golden, might just pick it up this summer if it is.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Yu Miyake - Lovely Angel

Yu Miyake - "Lovely Angel"

Like I've said before, I don't play videogames very much these days. So three years ago I never expected that I'd ever find a game as endlessly addictive and joyful as Katamari Damacy. What's even more unlikely is that I'd somehow become a proselytizer for it without even realizing it. In the months after buying it, I showed it to my girlfriend and her family, who proceeded to not just buy it but also pick up the sequel (We Love Katamari) when it was finally released. The same goes for coworkers and a handful of friends on the Internet. I'm pretty sure I moved 5 or 6 copies of this game just by talking about it with other people. Did I really sound that excited about it? I guess so.

Everyone loves the music in Katamari, even people who'd never be caught dead listening to J-pop. And besides, the soundtrack really is one of those rare collections where there truly is something for everyone. There's not a single track I'm not delighted to hear whenever I play it, but one piece in particular always stood out for me. Wikipedia tells me that its name is "Lovely Angel," composed by Yu Miyake.

"Lovely Angel" isn't even featured in the playable sections of Katamari. (I really don't want to go into describing what the game is about or how it's played, in 2008 this feels as ridiculous as talking about "metrosexuals" or explaining what mash-ups are.) Instead, it's a post-level theme, played after you reach your goal and successfully complete any of the areas. Here, you (the prince) are beamed into outer space by your father (The King of All Cosmos). Essentially, you're coming face to face with God, and the celestial chorus that plays in this scene is everything you'd expect from an encounter with the Almighty. I can only imagine what this could sound like with a great surround sound system. Like the best videogame music, I could listen to this on a loop for hours. And now I can.

So much more I want to say about this scene and all the the possible intended and unintended deeper religious meanings in it -- what it means from a Japanese perspective, from a Western Judeo-Christian point of view, to me personally -- but I've spent the last two nights at work trying to figure it out but I don't think I have it in me. No matter how hard I think about it or how sincere I try to be, it all comes out sounding like the worst wannabe-Klosterman article ever, or a pale imitation of any of the entries in D.B. Weiss's "Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments" in Lucky Wander Boy. Barf!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

video #57: Diverse - Escape Earth

Did the independent hip-hop bubble finally burst? I'm sure it still has an underground following bigger than I can possibly imagine, and that it would still be going strong even if the Internet hadn't helped push labels like Def Jux and Anticon to prominence in the early years of this decade. But the new audiences who flocked to those labels (Rhymesayers and Mush too, I guess) seemed to give up on it all around 2006. Was it too much to keep up with? Did anti-violence/Bush themes run their course? In listening to music that promoted the virtue of authenticity, did listeners begin to question their own as they struggled to reconcile owning CDs by El-P and The Shins? Does this even matter? Does "indie rap" need those listeners again? I'm sure some fans might find the very question offensive. I can't say I have an answer for it.

None of this was Diverse's fault. One A.M. came out on the Chocolate Industries label back in 2003, featuring contributions from Mos Def, Jean Grae, Lyrics Born and Vast Aire, and production from Prefuse 73 and RJD2. All of these musicians have been raked over the coals by critics at one point or another since, either by failing to live up to past masterpieces (The Cold Vein, One Word Extinguisher) or by sullying their reputation with confusing career moves (The Third Hand, The Italian Job). One A.M. was widely-praised but seemed to do nothing but earn Diverse the status of "artist to watch" or "rapper on the rise" who would surely do great things, but not just yet. Chicago critics had visions of him riding Kanye and Twista's coattails to stardom. This never really happened.

I'm hoping this video is the first sign of a new album, and that Mr. Jenkins is still able to employ some of the credibility he earned with his previous releases. He's a great MC with a good ear for producers. Impossible to pin any kind of gimmick on him, either. That said, I don't expect that anyone on the Internet is still going to care about him. Enough of them sincerely seem to like 'Lil Wayne, though. Maybe I should give him a chance, too.

In the meantime, kind of an unfortunate choice of title here considering Chicago's Christian industrial pop perennials Escape From Earth, whose following was perplexingly huge last time I checked. Haven't heard from them in a while, maybe 7th Heaven beat them in a battle of the bands and the shame was too much for them to go on.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano - Super Metroid (mix)

Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano - "Super Metroid (mix)"

Four years ago I received a distressed phone call from my father asking me for my Super Nintendo. It was stored away in a box in their basement. He wanted to give it to one of his coworkers. To say I was taken by surprise by this sudden request was an understatement. I remember my dad being a decent Donkey Kong player when we had our first game system in the early 80s, the great Colecovision, but since then he'd shown no interest in videogames at all, likely only privately acknowledging them as the reason I never grew up to be a great baseball player like he almost was and probably always hoped I would become. Still, even after buying the original NES for me one Christmas and watching with dismay as it took up a perverse amount of my childhood freetime in the years to follow, my parents ponied up the money again and again for a Super Nintendo, a Nintendo 64, a Sega Saturn and a Playstation 2. Today, I've grown up into nothing more than the most casual of gamers, to the point where even sitting down for a quick game of Katamari Damacy or Tekken 4 by myself quickly bores me to tears. I still enjoy multiplayer games, though, one of the few social activities that I can say I love with no hesitations whatsoever. Maybe I turned out just fine after all.

But then this call, just minutes after punching out at work around 9:00 on a Saturday night, shook me to my core. He didn't tell me all the details, only that one of the guys he worked with was looking for an SNES, and that he knew how mine was gathering dust in the basement. This was true; I hadn't touched it for years and had no immediate plans to change that. I suppose I'd always imagined setting up all my old systems on one TV and getting back into all the old games that I'd lived with for so many years. I'd done this to one extent or another before, but three systems on one television set is a mess no matter how many power strips and cable ties you use. It seemed like a project for another day, maybe sometime in the near future when I'd have that great new job and that great new apartment with that extra room that I could use for such endeavours, perhaps helping to bring my life full circle in the process, or something.

He never told me why he needed it, but the strange urgency in his voice sent my imagination spiralling out of control. Was he getting a generous offer for it? Did this stand to help him advance professionally? Would it simply put him in the better graces of his blue-collar colleagues? I hastily agreed, forgetting that I probably could have slept on it and given him a more carefully considered answer two days later on Sunday evening. Later that night, I realized with horror what I'd done, but knew it was too late to go back on my word. Could I really bring myself to willfully take back that which I'd only kept cloistered away in storage for so many years?

The loss of my SNES and all the games I had with it was salved by my hope that getting another used system in the future wouldn't prove to be too hard. They're cheap and plentiful in Japan. Surely finding one here can't be much harder. Right? But more importantly, I still had three cartridges from it in my dresser drawer, the three that captured my imagination from the first time I sat down to play them and still flicker through my dreams from time to time today.

Shadowrun was an isometric, top-down futuristic RPG. Set in Seattle in 205X (?), you play an amnesiac struggling to recover his memories who finds himself the target of corporate-hired assassins. The dark, grimey settings were so beautifully detailed -- trash-strewn streets, flickering streetlights, dive bars and goth clubs -- capturing the sense of scuzzy urban decay and futurism gone bad that I'd always found myself drawn toward even when I was young. Battles were fought with guns and magic. You could hire orcs, trolls, shamen, shapeshifters, or just plain old mercenaries to fight alongside you in shady alleys, underground dungeons, and highrise office buildings. Now and then you'd have to take a break to hack into some computers to steal money (nuyen) and data. What a fantastic world this was. Even during the times I was lost and confused, just wandering around in the streets and in lonely corridors of buildings was still an involving experience that filled me with a sense of freedom that I was so desperately beginning to crave. Games like these were awful subsitutes for the real thing, but at times they were all I had.

A puzzle/action game with a vaguely similar premise to Shadowrun, Flashback was a collection of cyberpunk tropes that veterans of the genre knew all too well and were likely sick of by 1993. But it was all knew and pretty mindblowing to my impressionable young mind. If Shadowrun played like a William Gibson story, Flashback was straight out of Phillip K. Dick, with interplanetary travel and bizarre alien worlds. The animation is some of the smoothest found on the SNES, with physics so realistic that every leap across a gap takes perfect timing and risk assessment. Your character runs, leaps, and rolls in ways that are pretty pathetic compared to most backflipping, 20 foot-high leaping videogame characters, but kind of impressive by realistic standards. Flashback also has some of the longest and best-looking cutscenes I've seen in a pre-Playstation world, which feel like a great payoff rather than an annoyance each time you reach one. It's a thinking-person's adventure, extremely slow-paced and quiet, translated into English but still very, very French in its very essence.

Shadowrun and Flashback were ripe with borrowed ideas. Super Metroid, on the other hand, was just a bigger, more ambitious attempt on the same ideas found in its two predecessors. But those two games --Metroid for the SNES, Metroid II for the Game Boy -- presented a backstory that felt even more rich and epic than any pileup of iterary references ever could. The lengthy introduction sets the mood perfectly, and even though the false start at the beginning is really quite easy to pass, it introduces a sense of dread and apprehension that stays with you for the rest of the game. Silence, all except for the gentle but ominous hum of the space colony hallways (I'd love to fall asleep to this if I could find a long enough recording of it) and the sound of your own footsteps, is all that you hear from the start until the sudden first battle begins. Once the game really begins, as you touch down on the planet's surface and exit your ship, it's immediately the first thing you notice. Sure, it's all very cinematic and has a rich "atmosphere" and whatnot, but beyond such observations it's really the beginning of a very immersive and personal journey.

I've uploaded a mix of several of the game's tracks. It's maybe only about a third of the music in the game, but it's in chronological order and gives a good sense of how it feels wandering the chambers and corridors of planet Zebes, descending further and further into the unknown as the map slowly constructs itself, revealing the enormity of the world below you. If you grew up in the '90s and found yourself confined to an off-limits suburban existence of fenced-off lots or overprotective parental rules, maybe this was your world to explore. It's all so timeless and still sounds wonderful today. How much more for anyone who's plumbed the depths of this game. Music, sound, and well-timed lapses in each have never been used quite as well as this. If you've played Super Metroid, then you've surely come to notice and appreciate both in ways you never expected.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

video #56: Shugo Tokumaru - Parachute

I always wanted to try to make something like this. Not because I went through some "I want to make music videos" phase but just because. Video editing is fun. But the version of Windows XP I'm running doesn't come with Movie Maker, and my attempts to install it have completely failed. This computer can barely run Audacity without crashing, let alone a video editing program.

I can't afford any of these, but that isn't stopping me from constantly thinking about it anyway over the past week.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Barbara Manning - Mark E. Smith & Brix

Barbara Manning - "Mark E. Smith & Brix"

The first message board I ever belonged to was the Stereolab Correspondence discussion forum, which finally went offline sometime in 2002 or 2003. To get a quick idea of what it looked like, its closest cousin is the still-kicking Pavement Message Board, running on the same turn-of-the century template that SC used. It was a casual board -- the Internet wasn't Serious Business yet -- that didn't require registration, hadn't enabled image posting, and predated the rise of filesharing by a few years, so everyone had to come up with other ways to make it a fun experience. Thus, between 1999 and 2000, the Stereolab Correspondence tape-trading circle was born.

My mixes? Total garbage. And the shipping was a major pain given how my place in the circle placed me just behind someone in Australia. But once a month or so I'd get the coolest, weirdest tapes in the mail, full of songs that I'd never have heard otherwise, even today with the entire history of music seemingly at my fingertips. Sadly, though not surprisingly, the circle broke down within less than a year's time, though before the rise of Napster and other p2p programs. But no, it wasn't new technology that brought down our time-tested tradition. Just laziness.

I came into possession of 2 or 3 of the tapes by the end, which I continued to listen to for a few years' time before either losing them during a move or throwing them out during some furious cleaning session. Oh, how I wish I could find them again! I'm forever lost, trying to find some of the songs that I heard on those, and without anything more than a few fragments of melody in my mind to go on. It's a really terrible situation to be in, trying so hard to recall what was written on the back of one cassette in particular, remembering about half of the tracks, which included:

A Tribe Called Quest - Electric Relaxation
The Fall - Kurious Oranj
Barbara Manning - Mark E. Smith & Brix
Flowchart - New Radiolab Rip-off
McCarthy - Should The Bible Be Banned
Stereolab - Heavy Denim
Flin Flon - Upper Ferry

Towards the end of side two, there was a real dreamy, mellow track that was primarily instrumental, aside from some voices fading in and out of the mix, cooing and humming like some kind of male Cocteau Twins or something. There were keyboards and a nice beat; altogether, it sounded like Tarwater or Seefeel or some other Rough Trade-ish group, but despite all my research into this and other possibilities (To Roccoco Rot? Moonshake?) I still haven't been able to track it down. I remember enjoying it immensely during all the times I would play the tape in my room, in the car, and on the stereo in the bathroom while I'd shower, but either the tape was labeled incorrectly or it just never occurred to me to clearly look it over to see who the artist or artists behind this fantastic track were. Even if I had figured it out, the Internet was still years away from making this information very useful. Downloading music was still a huge pain and if there were lots of helpful mailorder sites out there, I wasn't able to find them.

At one point, I know there was a page (under construction?) designed to catalog and list all the songs on everyone's mixes. That was surely lost to time at least 5 or 6 years ago, if it was ever finshed at all. It's not linked to or mentioned in the archived pages of the forum, though my earliest attempts at boarding are faithfully preserved in all their incomprehensible and painful glory. The art at the top of this post shows off the misspelling that ran on all the board's banners for the first year or so before it was corrected. Whether or not this was an intentional pun is something I've always wondered but will now never know.

Anyway, I've tried my best to retrace my steps, to get in contact with members of that board who may remember the tape, should it have passed through their hands on the way to mine. I forget that most people out there, even the ones on music message boards, eventually find themselves with real lives and probably won't remember the tracklisting of a mixtape they may have heard in passing more than 8 years before. At least I remembered, or at least I strongly suspected, the screenname of the person who made the tape. She was the moderator of the discussion board, and after some creative cyber-sleuthing on my part, I was able to track her down.

She died more than two years ago. Looks like she was also part of a Belle and Sebastian mailing list/forum that's also long since passed. Hard to believe there was a time when fans actually made websites for the bands they like. Almost all of these have gone offline or been abandoned in recent years, replaced by cookie-cutter Myspace pages populated by manically-friending camerawhore kids. Yes, I understand that the spirit of an age is something to which one cannot return, but I can't help but mourn the past when I look at the state that we're in now. And I can't help but wonder if feelings like this are a good sign that I'm reaching the end of my Internet existence as I know it. As I try to keep up with the changing face of things, I feel a kind of cultural fatigue setting in and start to wonder if my ideals in the shadow world of the Internet are really worth pursuing any longer.

The Barbara Manning song that was on her tape is really good, and worth sharing here even though I have nothing to say about it. Now if only I could find the rest of the songs in the mix! Oh, if only I could whistle or hum the melody that's in my head, maybe then some helpful soul out there could point me in the right direction. The problem is, there are two or three melodies in this song going on at once, and faithfully reproducing just one of them is almost too much of a challenge in itself. Should I grow more desperate, I may attempt this, despite the promise that I'd look like an utter fool in doing so. This seems to be a quest that's going to take a lifetime for me to complete. I'm far from giving up my search, but how long can I keep on?