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Tuesday, May 20, 2008


If art were easy, everyone would make it. Sure, for some, creative craftsmanship is second nature, like walking, breathing, or composing a beautiful sonnet. For many though, talent is trumped by time, demands, lifestyle, situation, and most importantly, money. Besides, we no longer live in a society which values the artisan as a professional. Instead, the writer, the rock star, or the painter are seen as ideologues, avoiding the constraints of society to continue on in their noble if non-practical pursuits. For Ken Vandermark, following his muse means a life of constant struggle. Between booking gigs and securing payment, he continues to hone his abilities. After all, he’s a Musician, and as such, lives and dies by the sonic circumstances he creates.


As part two in his amazing documentary series Work, Daniel Kraus delivers yet another stunning celluloid portrait. As he did with Sheriff, he takes a willing subject, sets up his cinema verite camera, and lets the story tell itself. In Ronald E. Hewitt, small town South Carolina lawman, the director found a perfect foil for all the stereotypes and standards he hoped to explore (and explode). Vandermark is equally unique in that he’s an avant-garde jazz specialist, a dada deconstructionist who follows the very fringes of an already outsider genre. We anticipate a difficult, demanding individual, someone who already feels marginalized because of the particular sound he strives to create. With both men, Kraus uncovers something much deeper.


Vandermark is not an unknown, toiling away endlessly in self-imposed exile or industry avoided recognition. Instead, he has a following both locally (in his home base of Chicago), nationally (he tours the country frequently), and even internationally (we hear about upcoming gigs in Norway and the Netherlands). Far from the starving artist, he lives quite comfortably with his wife Ellen Major. Of course, her being a pediatrician does help when the bills come around. Yet as part of this story, brought to life by Facets on a delightful DVD, we do see the man besieged - over charts for a future performance, with agents who can’t commit, with printers and CD manufacturers who tap his limited resources, with venues that offer only superficial support. Living up to the series title, being a musician is clearly ‘work’ for this tireless virtuoso.

Kraus doesn’t shy away from the aural element, either. We see several performances, and this will be the area where Musician tests even the most learned audiences’ perception. Vandermark makes a beautiful noise, a combination of dissonance and harmonics that seems random until you realize how hard it is to get such chaos to feel coherent. In a post-performance Q&A, he says something that ties directly into this. After listening to one of his favorite instrumentalists, he was blown away by the fact that this man could create four LP sides of atonal improvisation. He, on the other hand, hit the wall at five minutes. Realizing that he needed to breakdown the barriers before he could embrace his abilities, Vandermark started said inner journey. We see several examples of his success throughout the film.


The DVD version of Musician adds even more illustrations. Over one hour of deleted scenes allows for more concerts, more concerns, and more clarification. Vandermark is not a snob, believing that people who don’t “get” his approach are simply lacking in perception. Instead, he compliments those who try to meet his music halfway, while embracing the many different ways he expresses himself. One of the most effective moments in the film itself comes when Kraus uses a montage format, showing several of the over 100 albums Vandermark has released as part of his bands The Vandermark 5, Bridge 61, CINC, and Powerhouse Sound, among many others. It indicates the level of commitment the 43 year old has put toward his talent. Even better, it flies in the face of those who continue to view artists as lazy, self-indulgent, and unwilling to support themselves.


Kraus again expands his visual language, using unusual set ups and less handheld happenstance. For the finale, a stirring rendition of a composition made up of what appears to be one single note, the director lets his camera hang back, slowly moving away from Vandermark as he makes that sole sound say hundreds of interesting things. Even better, when faced with an issue at the Canadian border (it’s over the narcotic notoriety of being musicians and the numerous compact discs the band is bringing to the performance), Kraus simply stops filming. We don’t get the typical cops and contraband confrontation. Instead, Vandermark reflects on the situation long after it is over, giving it the proper weight and outlook.


Indeed, what’s best about the Work series, and Musician specifically, is that it asks us to drop our own preconceived notions of what a job entails to actually experience what it is. Kraus’ decision to avoid talking head narrative or other forced storylines may seem scattered at first, but the pieces typically add up to one enlightening set of life lessons. In the case of Ken Vandermark, we clearly see someone possessed by the power of music - how his saxophone sounds when pushed beyond the normal registers, how seven instruments all playing improvised lines can come together like a surging sonic maelstrom. As an example of filmic language, it argues for Daniel Kraus’ continuing growth. It also makes the wait for future installments (including Professor and Preacher) all the more difficult.


As with all art, however, the waiting stands as the hardest part. Vandermark will sit in his small side office, toiling over a calendar that seems to run out of available space and dates rather quickly. Yet with each addition, each highlighted event or tangential task, he moves forward. Even hunkered down in his basement, instrument in one hand, white out in the other, desperate to make sense of the aural cues clamoring in his head, he presses onward, knowing that there is no stopping without jeopardizing everything he’s done. Sure, it would be cool, or fun, or a dream come true to be a musician. Reality, however, tends to ruin that fantasy. Filmmakers like Daniel Kraus can be thanked for showing the situation for what it truly is - very hard work.


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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Akron Family - Raising the Sparks

Maybe I just haven’t been listening to enough noise-rock, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen chaos turned into a viable mission statement like this.  Akron/Family is considerably more pop than the bands that usually get away with that sort of thing, which is why “The Rider” was such a hair-raising moment on Meek Warrior and why “Raising The Sparks” is the unqualified success of the preceding split LP.  Technically I guess it’s not really the chorus, but the congealing of voices which hits halfway through is clearly the whole point of the operation.  They’re certainly not the first band to shout at a microphone, but I can’t remember the last time I wanted to sing along like this.


Tagged as: akron/family
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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Prompted by James Surowiecki’s most recent New Yorker column, the econoblogosphere has been discussing this paper about purchasing power and income inequality. Says Surowiecki, “In a recent paper on the effect of trade with China, the University of Chicago economists Christian Broda and John Romalis estimate that poor Americans devote around forty per cent more of their spending to ‘non-durable goods’ than rich Americans do. That means that lower-income Americans get a much bigger benefit from the lower prices that trade with China has brought.” Broda and Romalis’s University of Chicago colleague Steven Leavitt (of Freakonomics fame) chimes in, highlighting the counterintuitive idea that “Inequality has not grown over the last decade — at least not very much. What we think is a rise in inequality is merely an artifact of how we measure things.”  Which in turn delights Cato Institute scholar Will Wilkinson, who’s anxious to rebut critics of rising income inequality: “If you think economic inequality matters, that’s because you think relative economic well-being matters.  If you think economic well-being matters, then what you care about is consumption, not income. So what you’re worried about, my egalitarian friend, is consumption inequality. If the trend in consumption inequality is flat, will you please make a note of it?” That’s all in line with the libertarian ideology that holds that we can’t jeopardize the outsize rewards reaped from capitalism’s “creative destruction” with any sort of regulation lest we hamper society’s “dynamism.” (That’s also why unreconstructed Randians like Alan Greenspan don’t want to do anything to forestall bubbles.)


Somewhat bizarrely, Leavitt argues (perhaps following the paper’s argument, though the abstract draws few interpretive conclusions) that because the lower-income bracket’s basket of goods has seen less inflation than the basket of goods typical for wealthier people, that inequality between the two groups has been mitigated. Felix Salmon questions the numbers here, but there seems to be a strange methodological assumption as well. Poor people haven’t chosen to buy the cheapening goods before the fact; they by them because they have to, because they are already cheap and not because they prefer them. So they may experience less inflation, but their stagnant incomes mean they don’t have the ability to price themselves into a different (and possibly more satisfying, more status conferring) level of consumption. I don’t know about you, but wouldn’t you want the rich person’s basket anyway, assuming you could afford it? Would you prefer clothes from SoHo boutiques or from Factory 2 U? Leavitt’s logic seems to be that you can enrich yourself de facto by buying cheap things, a la the Ernest and Julio Gallo commercial where the sybarite fat cat drinking cheap wine purrs, “How do you think I got so rich?” I don’t feel particularly rich when I go to the 99-cent store to buy recycling bags and am surrounded by mind-boggling amount of cheap crap available—instead I feel thankful that I don’t have to do my ordinary shopping there. It reminds me why it’s so comforting to be in luxury-retail zones, where clutter and sensory assault is minimized and precious retail space is wasted conspicuously. Less, in certain contexts, is much more. I’d suppose I would rather be in a position to enjoy fewer luxuries and revel in the experience they provide than be in a position where I couldn’t even dream about buying such experiences at all.


As economist Lane Kenworthy argues


Consumption is worth paying attention to. But income is important in its own right because it confers capabilities to make choices. What matters, in this view, is what you are able to buy rather than what you want to buy. If a rich person with expensive tastes gets an extra $100,000, she can continue buying high-end clothes and gadgets. Or she can choose to purchase low-end Chinese-made products and save the difference. Suggesting that if she opts for the former there has been no rise in inequality is not very compelling.



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Tuesday, May 20, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Scarlett Johansson
Falling Down [Video] [Listening Party]


Coldplay
Violet Hill [Video]


The Presets
This Boys in Love [MP3]
     


Langhorne Slim
Rebel Side of Heaven [MP3]
     


Tickley Feather
Tonight Is the Nite [MP3]
     


The Cure
The Only One [Video]


Mates of State
My Only Offer [MP3]
     


Impossible Shapes
Hey [MP3]
     


Common Market
Red Leaves [MP3]
     



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Monday, May 19, 2008
In part 7 of L.B. Jeffries' series, the previously-defined classification system is applied to a few well-known games


So with all these definitions, variables, and conflicting goals for what games should be, what is the role of the Zarathustran process? How does it work? Essentially, you’re analyzing the experience of the game itself. The important shift that critics must be aware of is that they are no longer judging the game by just one single element. How do the plot, player input, and game design work together to make the experience? Although a game may be extremely cutscene heavy, should this plot device work well to create a powerful experience then that isn’t a flaw. If a game has strange controls, do those ultimately improve the game or make the player feel like they have less input? The application is to see these things as means rather than ends in video games.

With that in mind, we’ll go through the process a few times. One of the more interesting examples of a player’s input facilitating an experience is Gunstar Heroes. The game’s a first person experience, despite the heavy elements of third person setting. It makes this shift by putting the emphasis on the game design of power-ups. You have two power-up slots and one of them is set for the duration of playtime. The second can be picked up during a level and will change the way your gun works. There’s a pretty impressive array of strategies as a result of this that lets the player truly individualize his own approach to the game. Whereas one may prefer the weak but auto-targeting attack, another might opt for the light saber combination. What it adds to the experience itself is that the player-input gives two kinds of positive feedback because you’re relying on strategy and reflexes. You don’t beat Gunstar Heroes, you figure it out. And as a result, the game design features a remarkable shift in connection that improves it.


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