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by John Bohannon

11 Nov 2008

After seeing a bit of Lukestar’s set on the last night of CMJ, I didn’t feel I gave them a proper chance. If anyone had been doing the amount of CMJ’ing that the PopMatters staff were, I’m sure they would have been in the same boat. But what it boils down to is that Norway’s Lukestar writes rather brilliant pop songs that aren’t meant for a crammed Cake Shop at 1 in the morning. They are meant to be played to wide open air in the Festival grounds or in an old cathedral where their sound can resonate.

“White Shade”, off their latest record Lake Toba, is the perfect example of the potential their sound can reach. Acting on perfect interplay between rhythm and melody, this song should have been the logical progression for the mid-‘90s alternative sounds of the Promise Ring and Sunny Day Real Estate into the new millennium, rather than finding itself rooted in mainstream American culture. Songwriter/Singer Truls Heggero, contrary to popular belief, does not sound like Sigur Ros. Just because he sings in a high register, does not make him anywhere comparable to the Icelandic group, and this is a good thing. His vocals have a more pop sensibility and serve not only as an instrument, but as a vital portion of the song.

by Gaelen Harlacher

11 Nov 2008

There may have been tension at the polls on Tuesday November 4th but things were running smoothly at this show. Everything ran on time with minimal gaps between bands, something that can really make or break a night for some. Rocket to the Moon kicked things off, followed by Automatic Loveletter, with Cute Is What We Aim For co-headlining with Secondhand Serenade.

Hailing from Buffalo, Cute Is What We Aim For kicked out a high energy performance and kept their political statements short and sweet. Starting with “Doctor”, the second track off their recent Fueled by Ramen release, Rotation, the band’s set was equally divided between new and old material. And as the songs flew off the stage, a few items made their way back onto it—a bra and a package of environmentally friendly animal bedding. Bras on stage are old news, animal bedding—creative.

Between songs Shaant Hacikyan (lead vocals) threw in comments such as “you’ll probably know this one,” and “maybe you’ll know this—it’s new.” Though the crowd knew the words to every song regardless of how new or old it was. According to Hacikyan it was their fourth time playing in the Big Apple and by far the best. Like the first track on Rotation and the last song of their set, “Practice Makes Perfect”.

 

by L.B. Jeffries

11 Nov 2008

In a piece I wrote about a year ago on the art of writing in video games, I tacked on at the very end that writing in a video game was more than just creating a setting or series of options, it was ultimately about designing a language. I technically didn’t really know what that meant when I wrote it. The phrase just struck me as correct and after batting it around a few forums that game designers frequent I figured it wasn’t utterly inane. No one told me it was wrong, in other words. What technically inspired the phrase was reading a few articles while researching about personalizing the player’s roles in games. You give actions and conduct that are relevant to the role the player is inhabiting instead of just tacking it onto the same old stab & shoot routine. Edge has an interesting article that goes into this by having a movie director gives his take on the subject. It’s not about giving your character the ability to jump around the world you’ve created, it’s about acting and behaving like the person in the game would. Once you combine that with the features of choice and player input, it is an easy leap to say that when a game is coercing you to act in a certain way, it is just as much encouraging you to respond to things in a certain way. It’s not exactly talking to another person…but it’s not just rolling dice or pressing shoot either.

One of the curious features Clint Hocking has been pointing out about Far Cry 2 is that it allows players to express themselves. Michael Abbott pointed out that on many levels the word “express” is exactly the way a video game feels for a player. That act of participation, of interactivity in a restricted setting, allows for a kind of weird emotional output. Yet what are the inherent virtues of Far Cry 2 that merit this term? The player is in a vast, open landscape where they can make numerous decisions about the plot and their tactics. The numerous choices the player is making are what Hocking argues merit calling something expressive. It connects back to what Sid Meier famously said was the critical principle of any video game: it’s a series of interesting choices. Once a game starts to feature hundreds upon hundreds of choices though, they become something greater than their individual parts. The player is now potentially able to make unique or unforeseen combinations. And as games feature even more choices and options, the capacity for the player to create a combination unique unto themselves becomes a reality. The game becomes a language that the player can use to express themselves by making unique sets of choices. This view is not dependent on games with numerous options either. Even very basic communications are occurring in even the simplest games. As Justin Keverne notes in an essay on game vocabulary, we are forming a sentence of intentions just by playing. When I press forward, in conjunction with my aiming, I am telling the game to walk there. Shoot this person. Duck. The meaning of these instructions is defined in the context with which they are used.

There’s an excellent essay that mentions this idea by Nis Bojin. He uses the Wittgenstein theory of language games and retools it into a method for analyzing words that apply to game design. You don’t need to be a liberal arts major to follow the basic points of the essay. My extremely simplified explanation of language games goes like this: the debate about “free will” or “morality” is inherently dependent on your circumstances and perspective. Part of those circumstances are the actual language you’re using to communicate those concepts. The literal word itself has a varying set of meanings depending on the analogies, phrasing, and linguistic metaphors being used. Trying to isolate those concepts into a universal norm defeats the word’s purpose because it’s setting is what gives it meaning. Put differently, words get meaning from the context of where and how you’re saying them. They cannot be isolated from that without losing their original meaning. Bojin comments, “Being thoroughly entrenched in the language of a given language-game is to be bathed in the conventions, accepted modalities and ideologies that support a way of knowing and taking part in the language-game itself.” The leap we are making is that this is the exact same thing a video game does: create conventions, choices, and settings that the player then acts in relation with. They are expressing themselves within the confines of a language that the game creates with its various options. Bojin goes into very different territory after these initial observations, discussing the relationship of words like ‘play’ and ‘grinding’ as players and designers influence one another culturally, but it’s a very interesting read.

The initial complaint I had to this idea came from a blogger who goes by the name mummifiedstalin. He pointed out the ludonarrative dissonance dilemma, that one is not always or even often capable of expressing oneself in a game. This leads ultimately to a semantics argument about expression, because if you take Wittgenstein into account then our capacity to communicate revolves around the enormous and massive “game” that is our language. There are dozens of ways to express the same thing in a language, depending on the circumstances and ways the speaker wishes to interact with their surroundings. In comparison, video games have far less choices but that does not rule out calling them ‘tiny languages’. Their size then being directly proportional to the number of options given to a player. It can be tough to pick up on this in a mostly linear game like God of War because it has so few options that one can’t really appreciate the ‘games as language’ argument. That’s a game that falls under Hideo Kojima’s ‘games as museums’ design theory, and is more about delivering a series of set experiences that the player roleplays through. On the other hand, games such as Grand Theft Auto IV and Far Cry 2 on a greater level represent enough choices compounded together that the first indications of a language start to form. As other titles like Spore increase in complexity through add-ons and fan made materials, this will only become more evident. Games are themselves, despite their confined modes of expression,  languages.

by Rob Horning

11 Nov 2008

In the New York Review of Books, George Soros pushes his “reflexivity” thesis, which as far as I can understand—I haven’t read any of his several books on the topic—is simply a refutation of the idea that we can’t argue with the equilibrium points markets move toward.

As a way of explaining financial markets, I propose an alternative paradigm that differs from the current one in two respects. First, financial markets do not reflect prevailing conditions accurately; they provide a picture that is always biased or distorted in one way or another. Second, the distorted views held by market participants and expressed in market prices can, under certain circumstances, affect the so-called fundamentals that market prices are supposed to reflect. This two-way circular connection between market prices and the underlying reality I call reflexivity.

Whenever someone proposes an “alternative paradigm,” you have to wonder if that person is a crank, and certainly Soros has been accused of that, despite the fortune he made in the 1990s in currency trading. And the nebulousness of the new paradigm here doesn’t help. It’s hedged and abstracted to the point where it doesn’t seem to argue for anything that anyone would disagree with. Yes, there are market failures; yes, bubbles form when investors misread the economic tea leaves. Yes, markets work dialectically—they are always in the process of aggregating the decisions of investors and so are never in a static state from which absolutely reliable conclusions can be drawn. Information is always in the process of being priced in, but there are lags, asymmetries, criminal manipulations all affecting what prices can signal, not to mention the fact that prices must be considered in relation to other prices, each with its own host of distortions. Investors are obviously forced to make decisions with imperfect information, because no one can adequately process all the information that is now accessible, let alone take into account the known unknowns. And markets may move toward equilibria, but they never quite achieve it, because inputs into the system are always in the process of changing. (Mark Thoma links to this paper, which deals with the same problem and champions Imperfect Knowledge Economics—perhaps a successor to behavioral economics in garnering future buzz?—as a way of accommodating policy to asset-price swings.)

Soros seems to be arguing for an inherent momentum in false perceptions, a feedback loop that compounds erroneous assumptions. His ponderous way of putting this: “occasionally there is a misconception or misinterpretation that finds a way to reinforce a trend that is already present in reality and by doing so it also reinforces itself. Such self-reinforcing processes may carry markets into far-from-equilibrium territory.” This continues until some unspecified magic moment when everybody all of a sudden recognizes that everything is out of whack (Soros: “it may persist until the misconception becomes so glaring that it has to be recognized as such”). But the imprecision about what prompts this sudden recognition is frustratingly vague. Why doesn’t it happen sooner? Do certain parties actively prevent such recognition? Is it a tipping-point phenomenon? Aren’t there already a plethora of opinions that the market is already aggregating? Are there investor opinions that don’t get factored into market-moving decisions until some later consensus is achieved? What is the mechanism here? Soros blames reflexivity on the “distorted view of reality” of market participants, but that seems to misrepresent the nature of financial reality. Not to go all postmodern here, but how can anyone presume to know what the underlying reality is to ascertain that it has been misperceived? Financial reality is not some given thing; it’s constructed by the market’s participants and is always in the process of being shaped. It’s not just there, waiting to be misunderstood by certain foolish investors. The difficulty in pinning down what “reality” is makes it hard to identify and prick bubbles, because for every benchmark one can cite to show that asset prices are misbehaving, one can also bring up some reason why this time it’s different.

Also, in trying to grasp the nature of economic reality, we confront the quantum problem: we affect what we are trying to observe. This is especially true of, say, Fed governors, whose comments profoundly affect markets.

Often in financial commentary, a dichotomy is set up between investing based on “fundamentals” and rampant speculation—trading on noise. Soros’s theory would seem to fit in to this: the reality is dictated by fundamentals—the raw data about capital flows—but the market moves according to the distorted interpretations of those fundamentals. But you don’t need to be in a post-structuralism seminar to be wary of this particular dyad. One can’t act on the fundamentals without interpreting them in some way, and once in the realm of interpretations, the nature of the fundamentals themselves becomes superfluous. In other words, fundamentals alone don’t dictate market activity. The interpretations are all that there is. Trying to present your own investment decisions as being based on fundamentals is just an appeal to the ineffable authority those fundamentals are supposed to give, but fundamentals are like the “master signifier,” unknowable in and of itself and without any essential meaning, though its theoretical existence supplies the rationale for all the meanings encrusted around it. We can collect all the data we want, but we can’t “know” the fundamentals. To paraphrase Lebowski, we just have, like, our opinion, man. Everyone is ultimately trading on noise. Often, as a result, amateurs are urged to “buy and hold” because we collectively have faith that we will produce more and not less going forward, so the sum total GDP in the future will be bigger. That’s about as fundamental as it gets.

One useful thing about Soros’s article is how he frames the events of September not as a catastrophe narrowly averted, as if often done in recounting the Fed and the Treasury Department’s heroic efforts to save the banking system, but as the catastrophe itself.

the inconceivable occurred: the financial system actually melted down. A large money market fund that had invested in commercial paper issued by Lehman Brothers “broke the buck,” i.e., its asset value fell below the dollar amount deposited, breaking an implicit promise that deposits in such funds are totally safe and liquid. This started a run on money market funds and the funds stopped buying commercial paper. Since they were the largest buyers, the commercial paper market ceased to function. The issuers of commercial paper were forced to draw down their credit lines, bringing interbank lending to a standstill. Credit spreads—i.e., the risk premium over and above the riskless rate of interest—widened to unprecedented levels and eventually the stock market was also overwhelmed by panic. All this happened in the space of a week.

It reminds us that we don’t have to wonder what disaster would have looked like; we saw it. And when we think of potential disasters to come, we can remember what that week in September felt like as a gauge of what happens int he midst of a panic, and how there is always some larger crisis that we are rushing heroically to prevent. When the house is on fire, politicians will tell us how effective they’ve been in saving the city from burning down.

by Bill Gibron

11 Nov 2008

A soundtrack, by its very definition, is a supplement. It’s not meant to overshadow the movie, or make a statement separate from the vision of the director, actors, producers, etc. At its best, it’s a seamless interpretation of the moments, a way to enhance the drama, amplify the comedy, misdirect the suspense, or rev up the action. It’s a cog in the machinery, a part leading up to a much bigger whole. But there are times when the creativity of a composer can be much, much more to a piece of media. It can be the missing element in an otherwise uninspired effort, the memorable bit out of 90 minutes (or more) or boredom. It can be the saving grace, the aural albatross, the defining facet, or the last straw on a cinematic camel’s already broken back. When it works, it works wonderfully. When it doesn’t, it draws far too much attention to itself.

In this edition of SE&L’s Surround Sound, we will look at four examples of scores as symbols, each one pointing to a problem or potential pitfall in their production. In each case, the sounds employed and the themes explored say more about the movie (or in a rare bit of diversity, the graphic novel) being supported than the entity had to offer itself. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the case of these soundtracks, the artists involved had an idea for what to say that differed somewhat from the initial intent of the project. Only in one case does it work out for all involved. In the rest of the situations, the sound flounders. By bucking the trends and pushing outside the boundaries, these collections also manage to patch holes that other aesthetic aspects (acting, cinematography, writing) couldn’t correct. Let’s b begin with the best:

Spooks - The Original Score [rating: 8]

It’s not everyday that a comic book gets its own soundtrack - but then again, not every pen and ink title is Spooks. Originally released in a four part series back in February of 2008, this past July saw all the material collected together to form a full blown graphic novel adaptation. With a new short story as a bonus and the reinsertion of some unnecessarily deleted material, this tale of a military-based ‘ghostbusters’ that “keeps humanity safe from things that go bump in the night” has oversized ambitions out the Fifth Dimension. While the book itself was unavailable for review, Adelph Records sent out copies of the limited edition score for critics to contemplate. One things for sure - composers Lalo Schifrin and Andy Garfield sure have their hookey homages down pat.

Sounding like what would result if Paul Verhoeven and Michael Bay got really really drunk, had the ability to procreate, and ended up doing the dirty deed, the Spooks soundtrack is a short but sweet loony lark. This overblown pomp and pseudo-epic circumstance is brilliantly cheesy and absolutely pitch perfect. One can easily imagine over-pumped future marines kicking werewolf butt while lost in the middle of a warlock’s coven. Granted, “Omega Team” sounds like a rejected theme song for the supernatural people’s court, and “Zach and Felicia” has the flavor of a ‘70s TV movie wrapped in a velvet David Lynch longing, and there are far too many nods to John Williams and his entire Star Worn-out space operatics. But for something meant to complement an already larger than life concept, Spooks is sensational.



Appaloosa - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 5]

Westerns used to be the bread and campfire butter of multiple old school mediums. Between radio and early television, film and comic tie-ins, Cowboys and Indians set the standard for many an entertainment ideal. That they dropped in popularity was not a question of quality. It was almost exclusively a matter of overkill. Now, almost five decades later, the genre is experiencing a kind of renaissance. Films like The Proposition, 3:10 to Yuma, and Ed Harris’ recent Appaloosa reintroduced the dynamic to a cynical and sheltered generation. In the case of the latter of these otherwise fine efforts, the story of a pair of lawmen trying to bring justice to a small settlement has its problems (namely, the casting of Renee Zellweger), but overall, it was a wonderful update on a stock cinematic style. Heck, Harris even crooned the movie’s “love theme”, just like days gone by.

Similarly to listening to a cowpoke concocting his own surreal take on New Orleans jazz, Jeff Beal’s oddball backdrop for Harris’ horse opera is endlessly fascinating. In the end, however, it’s also entirely flat. It’s the kind of soundtrack that needs the actual images to make a lick of sense. Take track four, for example. Entitled “Allison French”, we are supposed to get a real feeling for Zellweger’s coquettish character. There is even a hint of duplicity in the melody (which happens to be appropriate). Instead, it sounds like the opening to an episode of High Chaparral. Elsewhere, inadvertent moments of improvisation are probably meant to suggest the “American-ness” of the project, how its Western sensibility really matches with other ‘USA-A-OK’ elements. But it’s an uncomfortable match. Tracks like “Dawn in Appaloosa” have a loose, funky feel. Yet other material like “Cole and Hitch Stalk Bragg” sound like incomplete tone poems. For a thoroughly winning film, Beal’s score is only partially satisfying.



Max Payne - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 2]

Marco Beltrami has quite an impressive resume. A partial list of the films he’s scored includes Mimic, Resident Evil, Hellboy, Terminator III: Rise of the Machines, and last year’s winning Western 3:10 to Yuma (for which he received a well deserved Oscar nom). The winner of numerous ASCAP awards, as well as the holder of a formidable geek fanbase, you’d swear he was a true genre genius. Yet in collaboration with longtime production partner Buck Sanders, his work on the videogame turned big screen snoozefest Max Payne argues against both his talent and timelessness. For a movie already confused about its tone, and totally schizophrenic in its storytelling, this is one soundtrack that does little to help in our understanding. In some ways, Beltrami’s blasts of insignificant sound only add to our befuddlement. 

Truth be told, the score for Payne is a series of orchestral farts followed up by unnecessary techno lifts from The Matrix and any other implausible predictable post-modern thriller. Instead of setting a mood and atmosphere, Beltrami gets in, passes a little symphonic gas, and then disappears into the filmmaking firmament. None of the tracks are memorable here. Interchangeable titles like “Deathlab”, “Storming the Office” and “Factoring Max” are like blank canvases occasionally blotted with uninspired sonics. There is no tension or style, no real feeling for the movie’s mindless addiction to slo-motion chaos. Instead, we get a purposeful placing of notes, followed by a close facsimile to something resembling a soundtrack. It’s instantly forgettable - which in many ways reflects the feature film experience flawlessly.



The Express - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 4]

Ernie Davis’s story is inspirational. It’s also perplexing. As an icon, he holds a singular place in sports memory - college or otherwise. He’s the first African American ever to win the Heisman Trophy. It was an achievement his predecessor at Syracuse, the legendary running back Jim Brown, never managed to achieve. He also helped his team win a National Championship, a high tension game played against the backdrop of a racially charged Cotton Bowl deep in the heart of a segregated Texas. But for some reason, his myth has been marginalized, forgotten and faded from the memory of all but the most dedicated football fan. He deserves better. That being said, the cinematic interpretation of his life was supposed to jumpstart his reconsideration. Instead, it ended up flopping, playing like Brian’s Song without the sentimentality or staying power. 

Oddly enough, the soundtrack is even more disconcerting. If you didn’t know that The Express was just your standard feel-good five hankey sports film with the horrendous cloud of racism hanging over its collection of formulaic clichés, you’d swear it was the most dour and disturbing drama this side of Grave of the Fireflies. Mark Isham may have a long history as both a recording artist and helmer of major motion pictures (Quiz Show, Crash, Lions for Lambs, to name just a few) but he completely misses the point here. Instead of being uplifting and generous of spirit, tracks like “A Meeting” and “Don’t Lose Yourselves” sound like funeral dirges retrofitted for a pragmatic purpose. Even events which call out for celebration, like “Heisman” or “Draft”, are unexpectedly downbeat. Isham may have been trying to underscore Davis’ meteoric rise with his doomed date with destiny, but The Express needed more heart to battle the history. This soundtrack offers neither.

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