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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008
Sincerely, Jane - Janelle Monae

One of the most offensively sexist critical crutches is the diminishing addendum of “protege”  applied primarily to female artists subtly hinted to be be ventriloquist dummies for more talented Father-Miyagi male musicians. (see also M.I.A. as Diplo’s protege)  Though Janelle Monae has built a resume as producer, vocalist, writer and arranger, her work with Andrew 3000 and Big Boi apparently makes her their understudies.


I wish the sound quality of this clip could convey “Sincerely, Jane’s” orchestral bombast. Unlike other uses of classical music in songs steeped in the hip hop tradition (where piano loops or violin shards suffice), the song is actually structured in grand movements with Monae displaying an acrobatic range in what amounts to a scalding litany of misery, blistering accusation and disdain for humankind.  In short, it’s fantastic.  Think Shirley Bassey having Marianne Faithful put a cigarette out in her eye.  I also love the crazy clash in her onstage image:  equal parts Grace Jones aggression and small-framed Anita Baker swaying. 


I’m cautiously optimistic about her debut.  Monae reminds me of Macy Gray and Imani Coppola (whose new project Little Jackie is my othersummer obsession) in that she borrows from several genres and the chemistry is either pop perfection or simply dull dilution.  Macy Gray in particular embodies the pitfalls of having a voice with no vision, resulting in songs that generically clip the tips of various fads and frenzies.  I think Janelle has more talent, style and depth, but for every successful genre alchemist there are dozens of Cree Summer’s, Rosey’s, and Nikka Costa’s.


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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008

If you go to Pitchfork for their review of the new record by Black Kids, you’ll see a SORRY message with two long-faced doggies. Cute but you have to wonder if they’re not tooting their own horn a bit here. True, they named Black Kids a phenom not long ago (hence the apology) but do they really think that they alone were responsible for the band’s ascendancy and now have to apologize about this because the group put out a crappy record? 


The Guardian, Vice and NME had written about them before that and Rolling Stone, the New York Times and the Village Voice wrote about them afterwards so how do you quantify that it was Pitchfork alone that put them over the top? Even if that were somehow the case, why does Pitchfork itself think they have to apologize? It’s not their fault that the band can’t follow-up a good EP. That’s like saying ‘we built them up and now they suck and so don’t get mad at us about it, OK?’ That’s a lot of assuming and even more chutzpah.


What’s worse is that the review they have up now might not even be their first crack at the latest record. According to one source, the original review earlier in the day was a 0.0 (which they promised to do away with after their Travis Morrison fiasco) with the text saying ‘Everyone makes mistakes’ (if anyone else saw this, please respond!). They sure do make mistakes but if that’s the case here, Pitchfork has a lot more to apologize for and not just to the band.


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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008

David Brooks has been on a kick lately of denouncing consumers for their addiction to shopping and how they have lost touch with the “great bourgeois virtues.” In his most recent effort in this vein, he is responding to a Gretchen Morgenson piece about personal debt, and in particular one woman, Diane McLeod, who’s in way over her head. Who is to blame? Borrowers or lenders? Brooks says neither, and instead posits a “third way” of explaining how people get in over their head:


people are driven by the desire to earn the respect of their fellows. Individuals don’t build their lives from scratch. They absorb the patterns and norms of the world around them.
Decision-making—whether it’s taking out a loan or deciding whom to marry—isn’t a coldly rational, self-conscious act. Instead, decision-making is a long chain of processes, most of which happen beneath the level of awareness. We absorb a way of perceiving the world from parents and neighbors. We mimic the behavior around us. Only at the end of the process is there self-conscious oversight.
According to this view, what happened to McLeod, and the nation’s financial system, is part of a larger social story. America once had a culture of thrift. But over the past decades, that unspoken code has been silently eroded.



That sounds reasonable enough, but as Tanta at Calculated Risk points out, it’s always a little bogus to preach a return to a nonexistent golden age.


This nostalgia for the lost “culture of thrift” always gets on my nerves. America has always had both a “culture of thrift” and a “culture of conspicuous consumption.” We have had our Gilded Ages before the year 1992. The “BankAmericard” (which became the Visa) was invented back in the “thrify fifties,” about ten years after economist James Duesenberry first popularized the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses.” Collapsing the history of America into a lost golden age of thrift contrasted to a degenerate present of consumption excess is a reliable sign you’re in the presence of ideology.


Of course, that’s a given with Brooks that you are in the presence of ideology, though to be fair, it’s safe to say ideology is present in any sort of opinion piece. Brooks wants to pin our fall from thrifty grace on housing wealth and changing norms.


Some of the toxins were economic. Rising house prices gave people the impression that they could take on more risk. Some were cultural. We entered a period of mass luxury, in which people down the income scale expect to own designer goods. Some were moral. Schools and other institutions used to talk the language of sin and temptation to alert people to the seductions that could ruin their lives. They no longer do.
Norms changed and people began making jokes to make illicit things seem normal. Instead of condemning hyper-consumerism, they made quips about “retail therapy,” or repeated the line that Morgenson noted in her article: When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.


Brooks probably wants to temper Morgenson’s thesis that lenders have deployed sophisticated marketing techniques to encourage more people to take on more debt and pin the blame those who some reactionaries have called “predatory borrowers”. But oddly enough, Brooks’s account roughly fits the leftist theory that Western countries entered into a late-capitalism phase after World War II, in which the economic emphasis shifted from producing to consuming. Since then, the theory goes, the populace of mass consuming sheep have perpetually had new needs induced in them to keep GDP growing for its own sake, regardless of whether or not that actually improves society’s living conditions. (Which is not far off from what I think—that consumerism in our society is the way to secure social approval and communicate our sense of self to others. Other routes to recognition have been systematically sealed off, so it’s harder to summon the wherewithal to derive esteem or even self-knowledge from any actions other than shopping. Hence, the ownership society—we are what we own. And this happens to nicely fit the lenders’ incentives. They profit through the myriad transactions required to keep the money needed for all these self-fashioning ownership projects circulating.) You’d think Brooks would adopt the conservative tack that consumer goods have democratized luxury, making income inequality irrelevant, but here he is, like a latter-day Carlyle, faulting “mass luxury” as a kind of moral failing.


So what’s his game? Retro-conservatism? He implies (somewhat risibly) that he’s a Burkean conservative in his op-ed. But I think Tanta has him pegged when she argues that he is trying to divert blame for our decadent social mores away from the media establishment he is a part of:


Brooks, writing in that influential arbiter of taste the New York Times, somehow fails to notice the role of the media in constructing popular standards for “risk” and “normal” consumption patterns. In Brooks’ weird little world, Americans responded to “rising home prices” that they apparently directly perceived, without media intervention. It was those house prices that “gave people the impression that they could take on more risk,” not the reporting on house prices or the columnists who solemnly opined that these prices meant that people weren’t taking on more risk by buying or refinancing. How incredibly convenient that line is.


Indeed. So when Brooks writes, “In a community, behavior sets off ripples. Every decision is a public contribution or a destructive act,” he ought to look in the mirror and think about what sort of contribution his own books celebrating bourgeois bohemia and living on “Paradise Drive” in suburbia have made.


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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008

You’d think that a single 49-minute track where the songs bleed into each other, layered over one another, with some of them nothing more than snippets (as if some invisible hand is spinning a radio dial) would be the most annoying thing ever. Turns out, though, that it might be one of the best releases of Paul Westerberg’s solo career. 49:00 hit the Amazon MP3 store on July 19 (or June 49th, as Westerberg puts it) for the low, low price of 49 cents. Even if there were only one good song in the whole digital mess, it would be a bargain. But some of these songs (who knows what any of them are called, you give up after a while and just accept the sound collage flow) represent some of Westerberg’s best work since the Replacements folded (the one with the “devil raised a good boy” chorus is certainly one of his fiercest).


Thankfully free of Folker-esque bleating, 49:00 is of the same comfortable, cozy basement cloth as Stereo/Mono—heck, it might even be more ragged than even that wonderfully scruffy release. Ramshackle Faces-inspired rockers blend with sensitive ballads, jangly workouts, snippets of cover songs, Westerberg’s patented put-downs of new men in ex-flames’ lives, jokes about his cleaner lifestyle (“please don’t ask me about my liver”), and what might even be his son yelling over a vintage Westerberg rock riff. 


Listening to 49:00 is just a lot of fun (heck, it might even be Year’s Best material if its staying power holds up). It feels like being on a road trip where you’re flipping between two or three great radio stations—always missing the names of whatever you’ve just heard—that play solid song after solid song. For much of Westerberg’s solo career, it sounded like he needed a foil in the studio to kick him in the pants when his ideas weren’t up to snuff. Maybe all he really needed to do was relax. That said, it would be great if some of these songs got an “official” release as songs. Some of them are just too good to remain buried in this tasty blend of music.


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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2008
L.B. grumbles about hype for a while and then...wait for it...picks out some games to hype.


When the New York Times takes the time to comment on E3 being dull, you know it’s going to be a slow year. A bunch of games we already knew were coming, a couple of games anyone could’ve predicted were coming, and Microsoft having a very bizarre ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ interface for Xbox. So…what upcoming games should we get hyped about? Hype is an integral part of the video game world, even if it has proven to be a bit problematic. Beyond the odd effect it can have on fans, hype can even be blinding to the actual critics involved. Mitch Krpata points out that critics can be so dead set on a game being good that they’ll list off dozens of flaws yet give a high score anyways. To give you an example of how ridiculous this can get, whether you loved or hated GTA IV, I can’t think of many players who would seriously consider comparing it to ’The Wire’. But it can’t be denied that hype can do a lot of good by getting the word out. So how do we pick we pick what games to hype?


 


William Gibson coined the term ‘cool-hunter’ in his book


Pattern Recognition

and it’s a very apt description of what a game critic needs to do when selecting which game to hype. You need a developed sixth sense that allows you to stare at a sea of clothes, movies, music, and advertising and detect the one that’s working. Gibson compares it to watching the snow on a television and being able to see an image in it. It’s a good term because it recognizes that there is a certain mystical element to spotting a cool game before it exists, something that is never going to be possible to put into words. Acknowledging then that some games are definitely going to be awesomely kickass and it can be predicted, it stands to reason that we should get out there and support it. The developer and producer need to sell as many copies as possible as quickly as possible, before shelf-space demands pushes the game into the bargain bin. We want to reward creativity and boldness in games, right? Even looking past the desire to economically help your favorite game, there is still something to be said for hype being fun. Over at Brainy Gamer, there’s an interesting post about enjoying hype as a kind of celebration. Soon enough video games will be the mega industry the analysts are predicting and everything will be a sea of jaded “It’s good but not great” reviews. We’ll all just be comparing them to old classics and not even caring about new releases anymore.


So what are some games that should be hyped? We’re entering the realm of subjectivity here but I’ll explain what makes these such stand-out games. I found The Nameless Game at Steve Gaynor’s blog and must admit the pitch is fascinating. They basically took the idea of ‘The Ring’ and applied it to a video game. What if there was a haunted cartridge game and whoever played it would find themselves horribly cursed? I’m basing this purely off the two trailers and Gaynor’s observations, but little touches like the 8-bit game within a game being buggy and glitchy are just the tip of the iceberg. One of the themes in both trailers is the cross-over of games into reality. In the first trailer, you pick-up a DS. The trailer comes to an abrupt end there, the fourth wall being shattered as the person playing a game is now confronting that very fact. In the second, there is a transition from incessant 8-bit music to the humming of a real person in the same tune. It’s this transition of the virtual into the real that both horrifies and fascinates us that the game is capitalizing on. What if our entertainment, our escape, became real? Sure, the graphics look fine, there may be some pacing issues and the puzzles may be dull. But this is a game that no matter what flaws there may be, it is still a very interesting concept.


 


Another game that has several interesting things going to for it is Red Fly Studio’s Mushroom Men. A studio comprised almost entirely of artists, one look at the game will convince you that it’s totally unlike anything else aesthetically. It also explores the mostly uncharted landscape of being a tiny person in a 3-D human landscape. Levels include a trailer, shed, and the underground world of the mushroom people as they face off against everyday creatures like rabbits, spiders, and moles. Sounds good, right? Here’s the kicker: Les Claypool of Primus is making the soundtrack. It’s extremely unusual for the selling point of a video game to be its soundtrack and yet the time seems ripe for it to happen. An interview with game composer Richard Jacques outlines the culture of game soundtracks today. The once level-based themes that composers knew would be heard countless times have been replaced by long epic scores that support narrative and tension. Games are just now entering a phase where they are moving past that orchestral phase and are looking for new ways to incorporate music into games. It’s safe to say Les Claypool is your man for that kind of job. Again, no matter what problems this game may have, it’s trying to do something new and it’s doing it with a whole lot of style.


 


The first piece of hype I ever read was for the game Monkey Island. It was a sprawling six page spread, with screenshots that showed snippets from every part of the game. Fighting the swordmaster, digging for treasure, and Monkey Island itself were all featured and captioned. It completely fascinated me, this world they were describing and the experiences I would have there. My obsession with the game was rewarded heartily when I finally managed to play it some months later, but looking back I can still remember that hype article very clearly. I’d played a lot of interactive fiction games before and I’ve played a lot since, but I think what made it so special was that I’d never played anything that was about pirates in the Caribbean. With so much unexplored territory still left for video games, it seems like the best thing we can do now is support the people who are doing the real exploring.


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