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Thursday, Aug 14, 2008

Perfect Sound Forever writer Tony Sclafani is someone I’ve enjoyed working with—he’s done a number of good stories for my zine. I’m also glad to see him making a name for himself at MSNBC as a writer there. What he didn’t anticipate was that writing pop think pieces can be a hazardous business. Not enough people do that nowadays and it’s easy to see why—when you’re dealing with a mainstream subject, most of the audience ain’t interested in theories and independent, unpopular thought. I happen to love this type of writing though I don’t envy the people who do it, especially for big publications.


As Tony found out, you get lots of slings and arrows for this type of writing. He was surprised about this at first and I tried to reassure him that it’s nature of the beast.


One case in point is his recent Madonna article. Here, he compares her cultural impact to that of the Beatles and finds that nowadays, Madge comes up as the winner. Mind you, he goes out of his way to say that her music isn’t necessarily better than the Fabs but that didn’t change anything in the mind of many readers. Look at the comment section for the piece and you’ll find a lot of scathing responses there. That’s to be expected. The readers prove their point (Beatles > Madonna) by quoting sales figures (which would ultimately mean that the Eagles beat both of them), musicianship (which ain’t always a guarantee of great music and which would qualify Keith Emerson or Richie Blackmore for Rock Hall of Fame slots that haven’t been available otherwise) and such. In other words, they don’t address the issues that Sclafani brings up and instead take offense that their heroes are being attacked. That’s not the purpose of the article though Sclafani clearly meant to tease the readers by bringing up the Beatles comparison- how much reaction would the article have gotten if he just said “Madonna’s had a lot of cultural impact”? (A: a lot less reaction)


One thing I do disagree about in the article is the cultural impact of the Fabs. Musically, it’s true that their legacy hasn’t DIRECTLY influenced a lot of music you hear today outside of power pop but the same could be said about another cultural icon named Elvis. The fact is that the Beatles did and still do have a lot of non-musical impact in culture today. They virtually invented the concert of stadium tours starting with Shea in ‘65. Also, Harrison’s love of Indian music helped usher in many musicians’ and fans’ interest in ‘world music.’ Sgt Pepper was a milestone as it introduced not only the concept of the album as art (both on the cover and in the grooves) but also that it could still be a best-selling item. Though Sam Cooke and others had done it before, the boys also popularized the idea of artist-run labels (Apple)—even beyond that, they branched out into other venues like a boutique and an electronics company (though both flopped). Their decision in ‘66 to end touring also made it viable for groups to be ‘studio bands.’  Even before they officially broke up in 1970, they had already began to popularize the idea of the ‘solo album’ (and did some interesting, strange things with it too). Even their interviews betrayed their art-school mentality instead of the aw-shucks persona adapted by the King. Their fascination with tapes and electronic music also helped usher in not only the idea of art-rock (which is a mixed blessing admittedly) and helped to push modern classical music more into the mainstream consciousness (even at the time of his death, composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, a giant of 20th century music, was still best known for his visage on the cover of Pepper).


And so on. You could spend all day listing the innovations that the Beatles brought about and which still are important today (and please do so, I wanna hear more myself!).


You can argue back and forth about whether the appended list above beats out what Madonna did or not but the end result is still the same. Both artists had a major impact on the pop world and continue to do so today.


As for Madge, I’m going to see her on her upcoming tour. I saw her on her last tour for what was supposed to be her worst record and she still put on a great show. I have no doubt that she’ll do it again this time- she’s a living legend and still a great entertainer. Nevertheless, there’s no denying that she’s not the cultural icon she once was, though she can still grab tabloid headlines (and though signing with Live Nation was a big move too). In a May cover story for Vanity Fair, she said that she thought that New York had lost its pizazz- “... it doesn’t feel alive, cracking with that synergy between the art world and music world and fashion world that was happening in the 80s.”  “In a response, New York said ‘right back at you!’” said Amy Poehler on Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update.


Oh and recent historical data has shown that Jesus was well over six-feet tall- he could have been a great point guard on a basketball team. So technically, he’s bigger than the Beatles or Madonna.


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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008

It had a strange sense of serendipity to it. On the same week as its release on DVD, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s now classic animated TV series was faced with the loss of the late, lamented character Chef. During one of their ‘commentary mini’ tracks that function as an added insight into the show’s creation, Parker discussed how the episode entitled “The List”, could have used the guiding presence and often sex-based sensibility of one Jerome McElroy. It was a passing sentiment, an acknowledgment that the issue with co-star Isaac Hayes in Season 10 still stung, if just a little. Then the news arrived of the actor/musician’s death at age 65. Suddenly, the turmoil over Hayes’ leaving and the controversy surrounding his possible motives seemed insignificant.


A great deal of South Park‘s amazing satire functions in this capacity. During a run which saw the boys take on terrorism in both the brilliant three part epic “Imaginationland” and the 24-inspired “The Snuke” while maintaining the kid friendly perspective via “The List” and “Lice Capades”, Season 11 could be described as more of the same - and that’s a good thing. While the series continued to push the boundaries of acceptability (the halting homophobia of “Cartman Sucks”, the N-word incorporating mayhem of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”), it also used its creative ace in the hole to skirt around scandal. Parker and Stone have always argued that they get away with what they do thanks in no small part to being a pen and ink project. They readily recognize that, outside a cartoon format, their brand of humor would be impossible.



And then there’s the ‘children’. For those unfamiliar with the main premise of the series, South Park centers on a group of grade schoolers growing up in a pleasant, podunk Colorado town. The main kids are Stan Marsh (well meaning and slightly nerdy), Kyle Broflovski (Jewish, and frequently ridiculed for it), Eric Cartman (a bulky bully with a steel trap serial killer mentality) and Kenny McCormick (poor, parka-ed, and speaking in inaudible mumbles). Together, the guys hang out around town and fraternize with friends Butters (a gullible little goof), Tweak (tanked up on caffeine and paranoia), Timmy (unapologetically paraplegic), and Jimmy (a crippled stand up comic). Along with local residents Mrs. Garrison (the gang’s transgender teacher), Mr. Mackey (the guidance counselor), and their various zoned-out families, the main premise of the show finds current events and popular culture filtered through the prepubescent perspective of some smart, if slightly scatological, preteens.


That’s definitely true of the terrific triptych that forms the basis for the series’ most ambitious artistry ever. “Imaginationland” (reviewed here in its initial digital release) remains a perfect combination of South Park ideals. On the one hand, you’ve got the amazing and insightful look at how fear robs us of our safety - and how politicians push it to steal away our freedoms as well. In addition, you’ve got the loving look at fictional characters past and present, good and evil, classic and newly created. Drawing on dozens of inspirations, the sequences in the title kingdom are masterful. When you toss in the subplot scuffle between Cartman and Kyle, centering on a bet and the “sucking of balls”, you have the entire series in an ‘anything and everything goes’ nutshell. More importantly, it stresses the show’s desire to be topical while true to the characters involved.



This is showcased in several episodes involving the boys. While “Guitar Queer-O” definitely focuses on the famed videogame, the main thread takes Stan and Kyle on a rags-to-riches-to-rejection-to redemption-to-reconnection music industry satire that riffs on local Colorado celebrities and The Partridge Family in the process. The head lice episode, while dealing ostensibly with the kind of Jerry Bruckheimer inspired action films that turn everything into an over the top apocalyptic disaster, also shows how cruel and cliquish little kids can be. The aforementioned “List” is perhaps the most obvious example of this ideal. While painting young girls as capable of the same high crimes and corrupt misdemeanors of any closed off conspiracy, the real focus finds social rejection and peer acceptance as the main themes.


South Park has always been good about spreading the wit wealth, so to speak. It will go wholly down the commode for the ‘biggest turd’ treats of “More Crap” or the purposefully foul mouthed “Le Petite Tourette”, while pulling things back for the Dawn of the Dead parody “Night of the Living Homeless”. Some have suggested that, “Imaginationland” aside, Season 11 is nothing more than the series resting on its already substantial laurels (including an Emmy win for Season 10). Oddly enough, that’s not the critical complaint it’s intended to be, especially when similarity suggests a continuous level of cleverness, insight, and laugh out loud elements. Like The Simpsons, Parker and Stone have discovered that a simple set up can lead to a world of possible punchlines. They also recognize that some subjects heretofore unripe for parody can be made hilarious with just a little brains…and butt gas.



This is especially noticeable when you hear the men talk. The South Park creators are indeed their own worst detractors. During their three to six minute discussions on each episode in the DVD set, they frequently fall back, arguing over concepts that didn’t play out right, or approaches that, in hindsight, needed more thought. They generally dislike the Mr./Ms. Garrison as a lesbian lift of 300 known as “D-Yikes”, and wonder if their take-off of The Da Vinci Code, “Fantastic Easter Special”, really hit the mark. They admit to adding the Cartman fighting a dwarf subplot as a means of avoiding the otherwise hot button blatancy of “With Apologies to Jesse Jackson”, while “Cartman Sucks” had more anti-religious railing than they would probably care to admit.


Still, in a genre that often goes for the safe and inoffensive, South Park continues to flaunt its usually flawless, always fearless funny business. Season 11 will be a hard act to follow, but with the first half of 12 already available for scrutiny, it’s clear that Parker and Stone have no intention of backing down. More importantly, with themselves as the intended focus group so to speak, the show will never be accused of laziness or a lack of vision. After more than a decade of farts, feces, and friendship, you’d think they’d run out of compelling ideas. But as this DVD demonstrates over and over again, as long as its founders find fault in what they do, South Park will strive to maintain its own unique level of anarchic insanity.


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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008
Capcom's 1942: Joint Strike gets the Checkpoints treatment, courtesy of Arun Subramanian.

The 194x series of games were some of the earliest successful vertical scrolling shooters.  They were also one of the few examples of the genre not steeped in a sci-fi mythos.  1942: Joint Strike plays like a long lost entry in the series, though it’s interesting to note that despite the success of titles like Pacman: Championship Edition and Space Invaders Extreme, Joint Strike plays it comparatively safe.  Certainly, what made those reimaginings successful was the way they modernized gameplay concepts while leaving the core mechanics untouched.  Joint Strike, on the other hand, is largely content to present itself as a graphical update.  This is not inherently bad, particularly considering that scrolling shooters are fairly timeless, and that by and large Joint Strike is presentationally top-notch.  Finally, the electronica-inspired aesthetics of Pac Man: CE and Space Invaders Extreme would certainly be out of place in the context of 1942.


While not quite difficult enough to earn the description of a “bullet-hell” shooter, there is more than enough challenge in avoiding enemies and fire.  There are three available planes that vary in key statistics, any of which can take more than one standard enemy shot without exploding, but it’s probably best to behave as though any shot can take your plane down.  The three weapon types are standard, and it’s easy to imagine players will have different favorites.  The reality is that much of what makes Joint Strike enjoyable is what has always made it so.  The widescreen support is welcome, since it gives the game the opportunity to present more enemies, at the same time as it gives the player more room to maneuver.  This is especially noticeable in cooperative play.


Although they have very recently undergone something of a renaissance, scrolling shooters have certainly waned in popularity with the demise of the arcade.  Along with traditional beat-‘em-ups, arcade shooters had the quality of essentially being beatable by anyone willing to continue paying money when they died.  Because adding another credit traditionally just topped off your health and lives precisely at the point where you perished, it was generally possible to simply buy your way to the ending.  That’s not to say skill wasn’t rewarded, but the reward had to do with the monetization of that talent as measured by money saved.  This is something of a different idea than that of a pinball master getting endless replays or a fighting game wizard taking on the competition for hours on a single quarter, in that those game situations don’t really have discrete endings. 


In their transition to home consoles, then, with no money leaving the pockets of the player once the game has been purchased, many shooters have instituted much more stringent life and continue policies.  Certainly, in the arcade, there is more money to be made by allowing less skilled players to continually buy their way back in, but in the absence of this pay-to-play environment, there is a tendency to impose restrictions on the player in the home console versions, essentially limiting the number of virtual quarters the player has.  This necessarily removes some of the accessibility of these titles in favor of an artificial difficulty, but is likely the best compromise available.  Joint Strike is no exception to this, and in order to unlock level selects and continues, you must beat the game straight through.


In many ways, Joint Strike is a prime example of what’s good about downloadable games from the perspective of an established company, revisiting a classic franchise.  While it certainly doesn’t contain enough content to warrant a purchase as a full priced game published on physical media, a quality common to many classic arcade games, it works perfectly as something downloadable on a whim, imbued with both modern graphics and classic gameplay.


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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008

Last Thursday, a fellow book addict and I embarked on a book buying adventure to rival all others. We’ve travelled far and wide to hit secondhand stores before, but this was the first time we’d gone with our tax rebate cheques in hand. It seemed like free money, and neither of us minded in the least haphazardly spending as much of it as necessary on any and all books that grabbed our attention. Who says the government can’t be kind and generous sometimes?


There’s really no greater thrill than entering a secondhand bookstore with near-unlimited funds. Everything’s priced at or below $8.00, so it’s just too easy to fill your arms and go back for more. I loaded myself up with a travel-handy Walt Whitman collection, Christopher Reeve’s last book, and a battered copy of Jewel’s poetry. I picked up books by Carrie Fisher and Delia Ephron, Larry McMurtry and Oliver Sacks, I found a book on JFK, Jr.’s life and death, and I finally nabbed a copy of Charlotte Gray – a book I always see at secondhand stores yet am normally never in the right mood to buy. I went slightly nutty, overwhelmed by the musty book-smell, and the excitement of the old folks behind each and every secondhand store counter ready to talk my ear off about how busy I’ll be doing so much reading.


My favourite experience on the trip, however, was at the Book Inn. It’s a little shop, crammed with books, overseen by ladies who sit behind their counter-like table and knit all day long. One of the ladies was telling the other one that she’d picked up a book on assassinations and had been held rapt by its stories, especially those on political figures and celebrities who “were assassinated and survived”, like Ronald Reagan and George Harrison. The book had only cost her $4.95 at the supermarket.


But that’s not the experience I’m talking about. While browsing the Book Inn, I stumbled across the rattiest, dustiest copy of P.D. James’ The Children of Men for just one dollar. I took one look, put it in my pile, and continued shopping. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized what I’d done. See, I already own Children of Men, which I bought brand new early last year. I rarely buy books new, especially paperbacks for $20.00, like this one. I had to, though, because every single secondhand shop I’d visited in the months prior did not carry a single copy of the book. I scoured them, too. The big secondhand stores, right down to the crazy little ones near the bowling alley that mostly sell clothes from the 1960s and copper pots.


No one had Children of Men, and I was getting desperate. I wanted to see the movie, but I couldn’t without reading the book first. My partner cracked and saw the movie without me. And then I cracked. I was in Melbourne with my mum, it was the last copy left on the shelf, marked down from $24.95, it was shiny, and I thought, bugger it, I’ve got no choice. It was right in front of me. It was then or never.


So, a year and half later, when I saw that elusive book exactly as I’d wanted it for the price I’d really wanted to pay, I had to grab it. On principle. I don’t need two copies of Children of Men, but I look at my new ratty edition and think only one thing: Mission accomplished.


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Wednesday, Aug 13, 2008

The ninth installment of Live from Abbey Road (Sundance Channel, Thursday, August 7th at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific) is quite possibly the most dynamic yet. The Kills kick things off with “Getting Down” and “Last Day of Magic” from Midnight Boom. These are those fantastic, kinetic types of tunes that can only come from two people feeding off of each other and inspiring ever-escalating bursts of brilliance. It’s clear watching VV and Hotel facing off for these performances that they are locked into each other on every level, musically, and that’s what makes the songs so compelling.  Of course, good songwriting is important too, and the Kills have that locked in as well. “Goodnight Bad Morning”, also from Midnight Boom, is a languid, churning and obvious ode to the Velvet Underground, but it feels very in-the-moment, rather than sounding like a Lou Reed rip-off, which imparts an even greater sense of depth within the song. 


Sara Bareilles begins her segment by discussing—and then demonstrating—the depth of her relationship to music. She talks about not being taken seriously as a musician, because she’s a young girl playing “pop” music, but concludes that it ultimately doesn’t matter, because she knows who she is. Who is she? Well, to judge from these performances, she is a remarkably assured songwriter with an equally strong voice. If you’re unfamiliar with Bareilles’ piano-based songs and no-frills style, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised with this segment. She performs “Gravity” and her big hit, “Love Song”, from her debut disc, Little Voice, and then she pulls out all the stops for a stripped-down version of The Beatles’ “Oh Darling” in honor of the “sacred” atmosphere of the environs.


The Fratellis were one of my favorite finds of the past two years, and this set of songs doesn’t disappoint. Tales are told of coming up to St. John’s Wood for a weekend at 18, only to wander up and down Abbey Road all day (because you can’t just walk into the studios, you know!), and a bit of a warm up with some Pink Floyd is played to get the band ready for its set. First up is “Flathead” from the band’s incredible debut album, Costello Music, and in case you were wondering, yeah, neighbors will look at you funny if you funny if you’re dancing in front of the television and singing along to the chorus. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anyway, this performance practically demands it.


“Milk and Money”, off the sophomore release Here We Stand starts as a piano ballad featuring, dare I say it, a Harrison-esque guitar sound and a sad and lovely refrain questioning what happens when the last song has been played. Then it erupts into a frantic, all out rocker before briefly returning to the mournful piano melody as it ends. Finally, “Mistress Mabel”, which had its lyrical genesis in Cream’s “Badge” (yet another George Harrison connection!), closes out the Fratellis segment, and does so with possibly more energy than all the songs in all the segments preceding it! 


So if last week’s episode was about being happy and letting it come through in the music, this week is all about relentless, high energy coupled with an anchoring, unshakable depth. And remembering to close the curtains when we dance!


Upcoming Line-ups:


Episode 10 - August 21
The Subways, Gnarls Barkley, Herbie Hancock w/ Sonya Kitchell


Episode 11 - August 28
Bryan Adams, Ben Harper, Justin Currie


Episode 12 - September 4
Teddy Thompson, Martha Wainwright, Brian Wilson


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