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by Gregg Lipkin

14 Oct 2009

One tongue. One set of lips. One titanic album, and the Rolling Stones had changed the course of rock and roll forever. Again.

When the Rolling Stones released Sticky Fingers in 1971 they had already surpassed the expectations of most rock and roll bands. They had proven themselves to be masters of the form with the release of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet and its 1969 follow up Let It Bleed, the first two in a series of what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in history. The two superlative discs were musical dictionaries that defined the concept of rock and roll for generations of aspiring musicians. In 1971, the Stones published a new dictionary called Sticky Fingers which defined the concept of rock and roll super stardom. Beggar’s Banquet was a lesson of simplicity, Let It Bleed was a lesson in authenticity and Sticky Fingers was a lesson in audacity.

by G. Christopher Williams

14 Oct 2009

Only one thing could’ve dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window.
—Ralphie, A Christmas Story (1983), MGM/UA Entertainment

Much like the “major award” won by Ralphie’s father in A Christmas Story, contemporary video games with “the snap of a few sparks, and a quick whiff of ozone” tend to offer rather ideal, if incomplete images of lurid matter to their audience.  Indeed, sexuality tends to get treated in one of two distinct ways these days. 

The first treatment appeals to Ralphie’s voyeuristic curiosity at the sight of the simulation of an adult female leg in its electrified form, the infamous leg lamp itself.  Getting to view some T&A in a Leisure Suit Larry game as a result of solving some puzzles or beating some mini-game or getting to ogle Dead or Alive babes clad in the scanty suits that took a lot of effort and deductive skill to convince those women to put on are both ways of treating electric (or stimulatory) versions of sex as if such images are indeed “a major award”.  After all, they serve as a visual reward for the player’s efforts in the game.

The second common treatment of sex is to reduce it to manual operations, seemingly a more suitable and participatory effort than other media can usually provide in their expressions of the pornographic. Film, television, and books can merely offer the same fleeting voyeurism of the aforementioned games, but video games offer the opportunity to participate in the representation of sex by potentially simulating its process and not merely by representing images similar to it as a Playboy magazine might. 

While Ralphie’s groping of the leg lamp in A Christmas Story has a certain passionate pubescent charm to it, efforts of the manual variety in recent video games maintain the cold, plastic feel of a mannequin leg and teach probably less about effective groping than Ralphie’s initial efforts at such business.  The sex mini-game in God of War reduces sex to the stabbing motions of button mashing (while obscuring the activity as the camera modestly turns its gaze away from the ménage à trois that Kratos is participating in).  Similarly modest is the Saint’s Row “ho-ing” mini-game that allows only the view of a bathroom door behind which some lurid behavior is apparently occurring between the player’s avatar and a john.  The only participation in this activity is represented by some odd manipulations of the right and left sticks of the controller that vaguely resembles the mechanics of a rhythm game.

Such efforts reduce sexual representation to some kind of weirdly mechanical process. Participating in simulated sexual acts in these games seem to maybe offer less insight into what sex is about than traditional passive, voyeuristic pornography does.

That is why I was fascinated by a recent interview with David Cage of Quantic Dream, the developer of the forthcoming Heavy Rain.  In the interview published in the October 2009 issue of Game Informer, the interviewer comments on a sequence in the E3 demo of the game, in which one of the game’s protagonists, Madison, is forced to strip at gun point by a mob boss.  The interviewer reports that playing this sequence “made me feel uncomfortable”.  Cage responds by saying:

Fantastic.  You know what?  That is exactly what we wanted.  Exactly.  It was really funny to read the reactions to this scene because people were kind of confused.  They really feel uncomfortable because it’s a really strange situation . . . You control a girl and you’re forced to strip in front of a guy, and the guy is really disgusting . . . Yes, it’s a strong moment for the character.  But if we managed to make you feel uncomfortable it is because at some point we made you believe you were Madison.

If I am interpreting Cage’s thinking correctly, he seems to be suggesting that Heavy Rain is moving beyond the voyeuristic simulations of sexuality offered by countless other forms of more passive media and also beyond simply making a participatory simulation of sexuality into a mere simulation of the “‘ol in-out, in-out”.  Instead, what seems to be offered here is a potential simulation of some of the psychology of the sexual experience. 

In this particular instance, the psychology is particularly fascinating as it is likely a rather novel experience for the largest demographic of video game players, males.  If feminist theory concerning the tendency for women to become the object of the male gaze holds any credence, the experience of being made object to that gaze may be an entirely new experience for many players.  Indeed, it may also be an uncomfortable one as traditional gender roles and perspectives may be tested and reversed as a result of being made to “believe you were Madison” because players will participate in this humiliating act rather than merely view it.

Certainly, Cage and Quantic Dream’s efforts are not entirely new.  Many video game players have toyed with gender bending experiments such as playing avatars that represent themselves as the opposite of their own gender.  I have played female avatars in online games and have noted differences in the ways that I am treated when playing as a female character as opposed to a male character.  Largely, my own experience had led me to observe that I seemed to receive a lot more gifts from other players when playing as a female (which may suggest something about cultural norms and expectations concerning male-female relationships). 

However, this limited sort of experience was not placed in the context of a story or a character whose entire personality is coded as female (my avatar was always driven by my own personality as I am not one to play “in character” in games, not attempting then to specifically act like the character that I am playing in the context of the gaming world).  Adding layers of storytelling and the more objective, dramatic qualities of scripted and directed behaviors into this mix may produce more focused statements on sexuality than we have seen in gaming thus far and may push this participatory art in directions that the passive arts are limited in exploring.  Because we may have to reconsider who we are as we play out the experiences of someone else.  Games have the potential to create empathy with characters rather than the sympathy that film or books might evoke in watching someone else suffer or experience pleasure. 

Such illumination might shed some interesting light on sexual issues by provoking emotional responses from players invested in “being” their characters rather than practicing the merely mechanical aspects of sex as if it were a mere game or puzzle to be solved.  I am hoping that more developers are willing to produce a more interesting and insightful vision of real sex through the simulation of the electric, rather than offering us the same leering peeks at it through the window that we have had before.

by Dave MacIntyre

13 Oct 2009

One of the greatest benefits of live band journalism/photography is the exposure you get to artists that are not yet in the mainstream. In most cases, these artists are opening acts who perform their hearts out attempting to make a lasting impression and ideally, warm up the audience for the acts that follow. Such was the case Saturday night at the El Mocambo in Toronto when the UK’s the Brakes (known as BrakesBrakesBrakes in North America due to a Philly based punk band’s claim on the truncated name) started the evening with an adrenaline boosting set of super-catchy pop songs. Fronted by former British Sea Power member Eamon Hamilton, the band formed in 2003 and has toured with the likes of Belle & Sebastian and the Killers, their experience evident both in ability and crow-pleasing interaction.

Next up was Glasgow’s We Were Promised Jetpacks, labelmates of the night’s headliner The Twilight Sad. The four-piece was immediately greeted by a wild group of cheering fans, whistling and clapping before they even had instruments in hand. They performed a tight set of shoe-gazey heart-felt melodies, all through which their fans openly sang along.

The room became electrified when headliners The Twilight Sad finally stepped on stage. After what I had just witnessed, I expected nothing short of an epic performance. Musically, the band sounded equally good live as when studio produced, covering songs from both Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters and the recently released Forget The Night Ahead, but their stage presence lacked the group unity the two previous bands exemplified. Band member interaction was virtually non-existent as each performer stood in expressionless stoicism throughout the entire show, with the exception of singer James Graham who, in his attempt to convey the angst and melancholy of the lyrics, sang on his knees and, at times, beat the drum set with his own stick. His whole performance felt too contrived, unconvincing and was more distracting than anything. Looking behind me to gauge how the rest of the room might be feeling, I wasn’t surprised to see the crowd had thinned considerably and those who were still there didn’t appear to be really into it either. By the end of the set, which concluded with a solid five minutes of feedback from the strings and Graham standing motionless staring off into space, I was ready to go home as well.

by Bill Gibron

13 Oct 2009

For many a devoted Talking Heads fan, 1983 was either the best year ever for their favorite band, or the telltale beginning of a slow and often painful end. It marked a break with Brian Eno, the producer extraordinaire who helped guide the group’s seminal albums More Songs About Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and most importantly, Remain in Light. It was the moment when David Byrne went from wiry wizened frontman to egomaniacal despot, shaping both the sound and the visual representation of the music and its members until their break-up eight years later. They even scored their first Top Ten hit that year, “Burning Down the House” becoming a favorite among the burgeoning MTV generation and fratboys everywhere.

It was also the moment in time when the foursome expanded into a nine-piece and let director Jonathan Demme film their performance art like concerts. Twenty-five years later, Blu-ray technology is ready to reintroduce Talking Heads’ seminal Stop Making Sense to fans far too young to recall the group’s post-punk no wave reverie, or its eventual spiral into shameless squabbling and infighting. For nearly 90 glorious minutes, the band reduces the stage to a symbol-filled symposium on musicianship, craft, sonic bliss, group jams, individual acumen, and balls out greatness. It also offers enough sweat-filled dancing to inspire even the most stoic member of the fanbase to get up and shake their groove thing.

Honestly, the new digital update really isn’t necessary. From an audio and visual standpoint, nothing can beat Demme’s definitive work. Redefining the concert film for decades to come, the filmmaker manages the stage in ways that today’s modern quick cut stylists can’t even comprehend. Instead of using multiple angles and editorial overemphasis, Demme lets the lens linger. He follows certain segments of the band as a song simmers, allowing bassist Tina Weymouth or drummer Chris Frantz to steal the spotlight. Original fourth Jerry Harrison is often seen trading keyboard fills with former Parliament-Fundadelic ace Bernie Worell as backup divas Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt give Byrne a running in place rave for his vocal mania. With Steve Scales bringing the percussive noise and Brothers Johnson sideman Alex Weir working his six stringed magic, the movie is a collection of creative calling cards, skills all rolled into one amazing amalgamation of harmony and heroics. 

Byrne has to be credited for the “design” of this show, utilizing a highly suggestive structure that sees the band grow from its original minimalist art school roots (the frontman solo, followed by the gradual inclusion of bass and drums) to is then current multicultural co-op. By the time “Found a Job” arrives, we have the initial Talking Heads available, the entity that turned a hardcore CBGBs into a head scratching experience with this rhythmic preppy posing. Slowing adding more “spicy” to the mix, we eventually find all nine touring members onstage, driving such amazing songs as “Life During Wartime”, “Once in a Lifetime”, and “Take Me to the River” to stunning rock and roll heights. The highlight for many remains the infamous ‘big suit’ sequence, set to another classic workout from the Speaking in Tongues LP, “Girlfriend Is Better”. Quickly becoming the film’s most iconic image, it is also the first indicators that Byrne was bypassing the rest of the group to focus on his own ideas and image.

In fact, it’s easy to see Stop Making Sense as one man’s attempt to exorcise his celebrity demons while searching for his true ‘self’. Byrne plays many “parts” here, from solo showman to solid sideman to over the top center of attention. Each persona comes across organically and naturally, an outgrowth of the music being made and the lyrics being sung. Sometimes, Stop Making Sense is nothing more than the skill of perfect recreation. Many of the early numbers resemble their album counterparts, down to specific sequences and changes. But once Byrne is free to follow his own growing insanity, the paranoia becomes part of the subtext. Soon, as the rest of the group is headed into overdrive, he is reluctantly reduced to playing sideshow geek, given over to his insular flash dance-ability and transformed into something almost inhuman. As a journey through one man’s many mental states, Stop Making Sense is an eye (and ear) opener. It’s also Byrne unhinged and unhindered by the nature of playing nicely with others.

From a presentation standpoint, the Blu-ray doesn’t change much. The film still looks great, the slightest amounts of grain resulting from Demme’s lo-fi shooting style. The lighting was also intense (per Byrne’s instructions) leading to a loss of color throughout. No need to worry, however, the remaining imagery more than makes up for a lack of rainbow brightness. The 1080p does reveal more detail, like the copious amounts of perspiration generated by the band, or the various technical adjustments going on in the shadows. The aural reproduction is equally adept, the DTS HD Master Audio mix providing tons of dynamic display. As for added content, the new format mimics the old DVD by providing some bonus songs (“Cities”, “Big Business/I Zimbra”) and a commentary track featuring Byrne, Weymouth, Frantz, Harrison and Demme (all recorded separately, sadly). The best new bit is the 1999 press conference for the film’s theatrical rerelease. Several years since the break-up, the band is personable yet tense as they take questions from an audience eager to dispel myths while creating new ones.

In fact, Stop Making Sense is the kind of concrete legacy maker that’s hard to live down. Should they ever reform - and the mountain of animosity between the band members is a hell of a range to overcome, even for professed professionals - recreating what they accomplished back in the early ‘80s would be a daunting if not impossible task. The reason this concert film remains so revered, the explanation for its lasting impact and appeal remains that clichéd concept of capturing lightning in a bottle. When they took the stage in 1983, none of the band could envision the reception they’d receive, or the fact that it would be the last time they’d perform together until the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2002. In many ways, Stop Making Sense would come to represent the apex of the group’s appeal - both commercially and as a personal concern. From then on, things got very complicated indeed. Luckily, we have this reminder of when things were practically perfect, a rarity for almost any artistic collective. That’s the magic in Demme’s movie. That’s the brilliance of one of music most memorable acts.

by Eleanore Catolico

13 Oct 2009

Basement Jaxx reveals their new video for the song “Scars” from the album of the same name. With a rosebush like the plague, Basement Jaxx collaborated with Dutch Artist Jan Van Nuenen to make the video. “Scars” gushes with herbaceous fury circa 1989’s Biollante from Godzilla vs. Biollante (and yes, I did just make a Godzilla reference).

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