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by PopMatters Staff

26 Aug 2009

Orenda Fink
Ask the Night
(Saddle Creek)
Releasing: 6 October

Orenda Fink, one part of Azure Ray, releases her second solo album this fall. Ask the Night features many collaborations with others in the indie world, including Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), Dan McCarthy (McCarthy Trenching), and Adrianne Verhoeven (Art in Manila).

SONG LIST
01 Why Is the Night Sad
02 High Ground
03 Sister
04 That Certain-Something Spring
05 The Garden
06 Wind
07 Alabama
08 The Mural
09 Half-Light
10 The Moon Knows

Orenda Fink
“High Ground” [MP3]
     

by Bill Gibron

26 Aug 2009

The Simpsons was never a solo effort, no matter the recognition and raves creator Matt Groening has earned from the animated sitcom’s phenomenal success. The venerable Sunday night favorite, a Fox fixture since the days of The Cosby Show, Reaganomics, and the laser disc, is really the combined result of dozens of talented individuals. If one element underperforms - writing, directing, voice acting, drawing - everything suffers. It’s one of the reasons that the show’s continued creativity (and commercial appeal) is such an amazing thing. Every week, these funny business facets must be in place, properly calibrated via collaboration, or America’s favorite family becomes nothing more than a bunch of bozos.

While it would be nice if the studio stepped up the DVD release schedule and gave us more Simpsons more often (at this rate, any Blu-ray release schedule will more than likely outlast the format), it’s safe to say that no other digital presentation is this concerned about giving each aesthetic cog in their multifaceted machine a chance to be heard. The Season 12 set, just released on 18 August, continues in the tradition. Each of the brilliant 21 episodes offered is peppered with commentary tracks, outtakes, deleted scenes, animatics, and other added content that really explains the entire Simpsons process. From who pitches what idea to how some sequences get completely rewritten, the men and women as part of the process are more than happy to share their experience. Clearly, they love what they are working on.

And so do we. Sure, the naysayers love to argue about which portions of the Simpsons’ protracted popularity are better than others, but said grousing is never really a question of quality. It’s more like nostalgia wrapped in a need to play contrarian to the current cultural whims (call it “Armond White Syndrome”). If The Simpsons: Season 12 were representative of any other series, the messageboards would be lighting up with unqualified praise. It’s just impossible for any TV show to maintain such a high level of hilarity - and yet, surreal or not, stepping outside the typical suburban family dynamic the show started with, this ‘version’ is still a satiric gem. It even acknowledges the constant criticism by giving the show’s leading cynic, Comic Book Guy, his own love story themed installment…and calling it “Worst Episode Ever”. 

Elsewhere, Season 12 sees the family visiting Kenya (“Simpson Safari”), helping neighbor Ned Flanders build a religious-based theme park in honor of his dead wife (“We’re Going to Praiseland”) and picking up the ‘sport of kings’ (“Tennis the Menace”). Family patriarch Homer is up to his ‘everything old is new again’ tricks, starting a gossip website (“The Computer Wore Menace Shoes), a day care center (“Children of a Lesser Clod”) and a hunger strike to keep the local baseball team from moving (“Hungry, Hungry Homer”). He also becomes a ‘prank monkey’ for Mr. Burns (“Homer vs. Dignity”) and learns why he’s so stupid (“HomЯ”) while wife Marge vouches for a prisoner with a penchant for art (“Pokey Mom”). Lisa takes local ecological matters into her own eight year old hands (“Lisa the Treehugger”) while uncovering the secret to bullies (“Bye, Bye Nerdie”), Bart learns the art of grifting from his grandfather (“The Great Money Caper:”) and joins a boy band (“New Kids on the Blecch”).

In between, Krusty becomes an accidental dad (“Insane Clown Poppy”), the students of Springfield Elementary get trapped inside the school during a blizzard (“Skinner’s Sense of Snow”), the city splits over differing area codes (“A Tale of Two Springfields”) and Sideshow Bob returns to wreck even more havoc on the tiny town (“Day of the Jackanapes”). There is also the traditional Halloween show, offering a spectral Homer, evil fairy tale characters, and killer dolphins, as a take on traditional folklore offering Tall Tales revolving around Paul Bunyon, Johnny Appleseed, and Mark Twain’s Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer. The gaggle of guest stars include rock band The Who, comedian Kathy Griffin, Drew Barrymore, Stephen King, Patrick McGoohan, Tom Savini, Venus and Serena Williams, and mega-music stars (at least, at the time) N’Sync.

As a nearly eight hour experience straight through (473 commercial free minutes, to be exact) The Simpsons’ 12th Season is stunning. It is loaded with classic lines (“more mouth-watering monkeys”) and moments that rank right up there with the series’ best. Certainly, some of the storylines go off on tangents that are purposeful middle fingers to the audience (Grandpa’s early funeral arrangements turns into a new tennis court for the back yard???) and unless Al Jean’s working on the story, the simplistic days of pure familial interaction are long gone. Some could successfully argue that at this stage in the show’s popularity, the minds behind the mayhem thought they could get away with pretty much anything. The commentary tracks included here argue for concept taken to bizarre extremes, while others were purposefully forgotten and tossed aside as being way too “out there”.

It’s also interesting to hear the creators revisit these shows some eight years after they were made. They all pre-date 9/11, which leads to some interesting insights, and every time a butt crack is show, everyone explains how Fox has since mandated no more nudity. The Simpsons Movie is mentioned, as are the graduates of the Springfield School of Animation Hard Knocks who have gone on to work at places like Pixar. In many ways, this DVD set is more than just a keepsake of a classic comedy. It’s a document of a specific time and place, as well as a history lesson surrounded by inside jokes and personal jabs. Certain no-shows - Nancy Cartwright, Harry Shearer, longtime writer John Schwartzwelder - always spike curiosity. One can definitely support their desire to stay silent. But with everyone (and in some cases, their droll 14 year old son) joining it, their absence seems odd.

Even with the MIA members of the Simpsons’ camp, the DVD of Season 12 is sensational, loaded with laughs, insights, unexpected treats and much, much more. Of the installments offered, more than a couple stand out. “Tale of Two Springfields” does a great job of illustrating the show’s hidden class subtext, while “Homer vs. Dignity” is a delicious take on the classic comic novel The Magic Christian. “Skinner’s Sense of Snow” is loaded with memorable moments (“Di di Mao, Seymour, di di mao!) while “New Kids” has some of the best fake pop songs ever conceived for a TV show. In between hobo sponge baths and dancing Texans, there is something here for everyone. And the best thing about The Simpsons - as long as they maintain the group effort in all they do, they can go on as long as they want. Even halfway through their unplanned legacy, the show is still great.

by G. Christopher Williams

26 Aug 2009

I don’t know if it is sheer coincidence or shrewd marketing foresight that governed that Quentin Tarantino’s re-imagining of Inglourious Basterds and id’s re-envisioning of the classic Wolfenstein FPS arrivred for public consumption in the same week.  Somehow it seems appropriate that Tarantino’s pleasure in providing his audience the chance to play voyeur to a heap of Nazi bashing and id’s return to its roots with what is kind of the original Nazi killing simulator would remind us of how we feel about violence and justice.  It seems that we take enough joy as a post-World War II generation in the witnessing of and even taking a hand in the disposal of the men of the Third Reich tto warrant two big budget media events that would celebrate this similar idea.

The intriguing thing to me about this seemingly well timed reminder of who really deserves to “get it,” though, is in the distinct difference between what a film can provide in considering this experience and what a game provides, which might tell us a little something about how we see ourselves ethically as players of games as opposed to viewers of movies.  As noted, Tarantino’s Nazi slaughter is voyeuristic in nature, but id’s is participatory; Tarantino’s is about witnessing the termination of the “master race,” while id offers the opportunity to take a hand in this extermination.

Since the release of the original Castle Wolfenstein in 1981, Nazis have served as a fairly common enough enemy in a host of games, be they fantastic villains as they are in id’s game about escaping from a fictitious Nazi castle culminating in a final battle with the Fuhrer himself in Wolfenstein 3-D to the more “historical” recreations of the European Theatre in games like Call of Duty.  They seem appropriate enough enemies for a game, though, especially given id’s even more successful cloning of the frantic FPS action of the Wolfenstein in the Doom series.  Like the horrible monstrosities that crawl out of Hell in Doom, the very appearance of the Nazis in the Wolfenstein games tends to provoke a rationale for killing.  Neither game needs to justify much to the player in pointing out that these are the “bad guys” because, for all intents and purposes, there is a presumption on the part of the narrative that we have enough historical and cultural understanding to presume that demonic hordes and Nazis essentially boil down to the same thing: monstrosity.

I do emphasize appearance in drawing this conclusion as Doom plays on some fundamental levels of the human psyche (appropriately enough, those most likely arising from the id) in demarcating its villains through pure ugliness and difference.  The first time that I ever saw a Cacodemon in Doom for instance (those creatures that resemble a gooey mound of flesh surrounding a giant levitating eyeball), I immediately wanted desperately to make it go away.  Luckily, I just happened to be holding a shotgun at the time.  Much like being surprised by a bug as big as your hand crawling near your shoe, your first instinct is to kill that thing because it is too alien to bear or, more simply put, too ugly to live.

The swastika and the uniform of the SS seems to provoke a similar response in anyone in the least familiar with the actions of the Nazis during World War II, and thus, like that massive bug they become something alien and too ugly to live.  Most importantly, they are reasonable to kill.

As noted earlier, this otherness is very appropriate to games because it is an easy way of representing evil without much need for narrative and ethical justification for the player to actually participate in a behavior that might otherwise seem morally questionable.  But it is also appropriate given that video games despite being participatory media have a seemingly morally neutral quality in the choices that they represent to the player.  If I kill a Cacodemon or a Nazi or a Space Invader (the original “monstrous” alien Other in the shooter genre), what difference does that action make?  Rather than merely taking pleasure in seeing justice meted out or the destruction of something “other” to myself as I might in a film, I have participated in the act of destroying pixels, and that act amounts to little more than the “termination” of flashes of light on a screen.

Nevertheless, what the Nazi killing simulation does remind us (especially when we begin to make comparisons to other games) is that simulation is still representational and meaningful and that representation does matter to us in a way that the more clinical ways of considering what simulated murder amounts to (flashing lights on a screen) fails to address.  While politicians and parents might level criticism at the violence in Wolfenstein, it seems unlikely to me that anyone is upset that the game represents “violence against Nazis.”  However, I find it more likely that criticism of Grand Theft Auto might focus on violence generally but also specifically on violence against women.  Clearly even the notoriously libertarian Rockstar seems to recognize that what is being presented in a simulation and how it is represented may make a difference in an audiences’ reasonable or unreasonable reactions to such seemingly “unreal” activities.  For instance, I remember reading an interview with someone over at Rockstar a number of years ago concerning what fans often requested for upcoming Grand Theft Auto titles.  The developer said that while fans often wanted to know why there were no children or dogs in GTA games that—given the freedom the series affords in taking violent action against others—including character models of children and dogs was simply “not funny,” and thus, not in the developer’s plans for forthcoming titles.

Frankly, anyone who felt squeamish (as I did) upon learning that you had a choice to either rescue or harvest the Little Sisters in Bioshock understands what this Rockstar developer is getting at.  While simulating killing may be an activity that is functionally morally neutral, a lot of the experience of playing a video game and how we react and respond to the choices that we make have to do with the packaging and appearance of those choices.  Representation matters.

by PopMatters Staff

26 Aug 2009

Times New Viking
Born Again Revisited
(Matador)
Releasing: 22 September

SONG LIST
01 Martin Luther King Day
02 I Smell Bubblegum
03 City on Drugs
04 Born Again Revisited
05 Little World
06 No Time, No Hope
07 Half Day in Hell
08 Something Moore
09 2/11 Don’t Forget
10 These Days
11 (No) Sympathy
12 High Holidays
13 Hustler, Psycho, Son
14 Move to California
15 Take the Piss

Times New Viking
“No Time, No Hope” [MP3]
     

“Move to California” [MP3]
     

by AJ Ramirez

26 Aug 2009

Music does not always cost money these days, but it always costs time, something just as disappointing when it’s wasted. On occasion I’ve found myself listening to a CD of interesting sonic experiments, yet concurrently wondered if it occurred to the artist to ensure the record was an entertaining experience.

The concept of entertainment in music is one that is often outweighed by the quest for artistic exploration, but it’s one that should not be forgotten. The journey should be as rewarding as the destination. Unless there’s something provided during the listening experience to make it a rewarding sensation, chances are repeat plays will be few.

Consider that most albums will take an hour out of your day; this is especially important if you’re the sort to tune out the world to the detriment of everything else going one around you during the recording’s run-time. Live gigs have even more of an imperative to give you sufficient entertainment value. Depending on the type of show you are attending, you pay anywhere from pocket change to a small fortune to get a look at your latest sonic infatuation, and if you’re going to be there for an hour and a half (not counting finding parking, entrance queues, the opening acts, and trying to leave at the same time everybody else does) you should come away with a feeling a bit more satisfied than “Ehh, it was alright”. No matter what kind of musician and regardless of genre, at the end of the day, you have to ask: has the artist made an effort to entertain you, and can you honestly say that you were entertained?

One group whose chief goal it always was to deliver an entertaining spectacle was Queen, rock’s consummate showmen.

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