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by Bill Gibron

7 Apr 2009

There are two kinds of musical scores in movies - those which do their damnedest to announce their presence and participate in the stories/scenes/scenarios being offered, and those that are content to sit back and act like scented candles in an overall atmosphere of shared experience and communal creativity. The former tends to make up the vast majority of today’s musical output, composers so concerned about the next job that they have to make their sonic status good and known less the next skilled craftsman take their place. We see it all over the mainstream movie dynamic, from the underrated Danny Elfman to the overrated John Williams. The latter, on the other hand, is far trickier to get a handle on. Rock and roll icons like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Blur’s Damon Albarn can step out of their bandmate mode and give subtle, signature sounds to even the largest project, while the genre’s biggest names continually revert to the same old pomp and cinematic circumstance.

This passive-aggressive act is perfectly illustrated in this installment of Short Ends and Leader‘s soundtrack overview, Surround Sound. In looking at three recent releases, we find illustrations of both flash with little substance (Monsters vs. Aliens), electricity with more fuel than any film should have (Crank: High Voltage), and the kind of subtle softness that balances support with symbolic shimmer (Sunshine Cleaning). Oddly enough, in two of the three cases, the studios have decided to “accent” these offerings with the same old canned pop charts chum that’s supposed to act like a kind of instant recall. While they work in one (Cleaning), they really undermine the epic earnestness another is attempting. In all three situations, however, we can literally see where ego usurps artistry, and where a need to be recognized is measured against the ability to truly support a motion picture paradigm. We begin with:


Monsters vs. Aliens - Music From the Motion Picture [rating: 6]

It’s tough for composers to make the transition from assistant to featured player. It’s doubly difficult when you’re moving from creator of additional music (for movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda) to producing the score for one of 2009’s possible blockbusters. That was the assignment given to Hans Zimmer protégé Henry Jackman. The classically trained UK artist who once collaborated with known pop music producer Trevor Horn, was asked to take on Dreamworks CG spectacle known as Monsters vs. Aliens. Following the tale of an everyday bride struck who grows 50 feet high after being struck by a meteor (she is then kidnapped by the government and secreted away with other so-called “creatures”) the assignment required Jackman to balance the needs of the narrative with the overall campy nature of the project. And just to make things a tad more interesting, he had to make room for a myriad of mandated “classics”, tunes taken in to suggest the 1950’s foundation for the set-up.

If Mars Attacks! and Wolfman Jack had a baby, the bizzaro world offspring known as the Monsters vs. Aliens soundtrack would be the result. Part b-movie schlock, part playlist from an out of touch studio exec’s IPod, this perplexing combination of score and songs gives sonic schizophrenia a new name. On the one hand, Henry Jackman does a marvelous job of matching the movie’s inherent camp with his over the top marathon orchestrations. Nothing here is small, not even the moments where the music drops down to supplement something sad or dramatic. Instead, numbers like “A Giant Transformation”, “A Wedding Interrupted” and “The Battle at the Golden Gate Bridge” literary excite the speakers with outsized action film scope. Then, just as the backdrop is promising something truly grand, we are taken aback by moldy oldies like “Tell Him” (by the Exciters), “Wooly Bully” (from Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs) and that Dr. Demento benchmark, “Purple People Eater”. We expect there to be some bows to ‘50s fluff when it comes to a movie named Monsters vs. Aliens. What we don’t need are the same old Happy Days jukebox tracks shoved down our sensibilities.



Crank: High Voltage - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]

When I arrived in theaters three years ago, no one knew what to make of Crank. It starred up and coming action adrenal gland Jason Statham and was helmed by a pair of aggressive upstart who referred to themselves by the last name novelty Neveldine/Taylor. Working on the neo-noir premise of a criminal with 24 hours to find the people who poisoned him, it was a video game gonzo trip into a wild ride world of testosterone, stunts, and scantily clad women. With an ending that suggested a possible (if highly improbable) sequel, and a growing cult following thanks to DVD, the inevitable update is here. On the negative side, the studio (Lionsgate) won’t be bothering to show the film to critics. That’s never a good sign. On the positive, however, is the sensational soundtrack from Faith No More’s/Mr. Bungle’s brilliant Mike Patton. Like a retarded rave on hallucinogenic, this multi-track masterwork is what contemporary composition is all about.

Like a kitchen sink gone psycho, this all inclusive sonic smorgasbord runs the gamut from balls out rock, ridiculous electronica, pure punk posing, and slinky lounge lizardry. There’s buzzsaw riff riots and overcharged chill outs o’plenty. Over the course of 32 astonishing tracks, Patton plays both participant and provocateur, giving Crank: High Voltage its necessary zing. You can practically see the cinematics propelling “Juice Me”, “Ball Torture”, “Shock and Shoot-Out”, and “Car Park Throwdown”. Elsewhere, Patton puts his own unusual spin on situations such as “Organ Donor”, “Porn Strike”, “Surgery” and “Epiphany”. For those used to the typical faux rock chug of the noxious nu-metal tracks that supposedly suggest brawn and battlements, the score for Crank: High Voltage is an astonishing ear-opener. It argues that, sometimes, a more avant-garde approach to aural backdrops is far more fascinating that more mock Marilyn Manson. Here’s hoping Patton continues is the realm of reel music making.



Sunshine Cleaning - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

When Michael Penn broke out of his famous brother’s shadow in 1989, delivering his debut album March and the MTV hit single “No Myth”, few could imagine the eventual path his career would take. Over the course of seven albums and numerous guest stints, he’s developed an oeuvre both instantly likeable and quietly insular. Current married to pop chanteuse Aimee Mann and working on films as well as his own self-released LPs, Penn has been responsible for the music in movies by Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights) and actor Alan Cummings (The Wedding Party, Suffering Man’s Charity). Now comes his work on the indie effort Sunshine Cleaning. Sharing the soundtrack with a group of neo-novel navel-gazing tracks that tend to mimic the movie’s moxie and sense of spirit, Penn delivers a likeable collection that takes its own sweet sonic time before settling it to assuage your soul.

If you liked plucked acoustic guitars, ethereal strings and keyboards, and a symphonic style that sounds like Carter Burwell channeling a college alt-rock station, you’ll adore Michael Penn’s ambient score for the recent indie quirk fest. The story of ladies working as crime scene clean-up “specialists” demands an equally idiosyncratic soundtrack, and the former hitmaker (with some help from Golden Smog, Ken Andrews, Electrelane, Bodega, Ernie Miller, and David Majzlin) turns in a lovely set of aural signatures. Each individual beat, from the laconic limits of “CB Radio and Resolve” to the buoyant beauty of “Some Ice Cream” defy easy description. More like tone poems than actual tunes, Penn plays around with character and time signatures to keep us off balance and emotionally connected. Standouts include the moving “Trestling”, the atmospheric “Trailer Park”, the personal themes for “Joe and Oscar” and “Rose and Mac”, and the terrifically tender “Mrs. Davis”. If there is one weak link, a moment so unnecessary it almost sinks the entire project, it’s the inclusion of the superfluous ‘70s stalwart “Spirit in the Sky”. Penn creates his own spirituality. We didn’t need this novelty bit of Bible thumping to amplify Cleaning‘s cosmic aura.

 

by PopMatters Staff

7 Apr 2009

Daedelus recently released a new project with Jogger called Friends of Friends Vol. 1. Our review appears in Short Takes tomorrow. “L.A. Nocturn” is a trippy, psychedelic, and yes, rather hynotic video directed by Eli Stonberg that appears on the record.

by Rob Horning

7 Apr 2009

I wonder if I am alone in this, but I am always surprised at hard it is to want things, how much effort it takes to manufacture desire. Of course, in our ordinary lives, it seems easy because the marketing infrastructure is there to serve us, to prompt us to impulsiveness. But I am in Madrid right now, and I don’t understand the language or the culture at all really, and I have this nagging sense that I should want to go shopping or something but it all seems pointless and tiring. I don’t know what I am supposed to want in part because I can’t decode what is even in the stores half the time. I find myself trying to interpret the fonts, find some temptation in them. But combined with the language barrier, the absence of marketing that targets me specifically has left me feeling oddly and disturbingly bereft. Who knew that advertising was so critical to my knowing who I am? Maybe Judith Williamson was right about the interpellating force of advertising discourse—they call out “Hey, you” to me, and when I respond, I know just who I am.

Without my being aware, I think that consumer culture has persuaded me that shopping is a natural way to conceive and express not only desire but creativity—the ability to know what to want, how to want it, and how to daydream and fantasize through it, and ultimately how to put it to use. Whenever I travel, I realize that I rely on marketing for those sorts of ideas to a degree that makes me ashamed. I’m discovering that without comprehending ads, without understanding why certain things are being sold and who they are supposed to be for, I’m without desire, and without desire, I don’t seem to exist. Suddenly it seems as though there is no place for me; suddenly I must make an enormous effort to make places my own. I suppose experienced travelers are adroit at that; they know what sort of experiences they wish to have because they emanate from within them, from the well of their prior experiences.

But I’m not used to making that sort of effort and have been deprived (or have deprived myself) of such experiences by the sensorium of marketing that I typically exist within. So as I wander the streets here, I float around with no particular drive to accomplish anything. I look at things without understanding at first, seeing them as though for the first time.Since I’m used to seeing the commercial world through the lens of my own desire, it is odd to see it from a different perspective, to have to place its meaning on a different register. “Wow, so that’s a children’s shoe store,” I’ll think to myself, and wonder why it is there, in that particular location, and who might go to it, and who might own it, and what sort of childhood it implies, and so on—all questions I think I know the answers to intuitively and instantly when I am in the U.S. (But what do I really know? The ideology embedded in common sense.)

And since I am less distracted by the meaning of objects, the temptations of desire for things and their meanings, I notice people more, which is good I suppose, but it intensifies the feeling of loneliness. I don’t know how my set of signifers registers to anyone, so I feel invisible.

I suspect I could get used to it, this blank naivete, and even embrace this particular and peculiar form of alienation as a traveler’s euphoria, or even more, as a return to some authentic self, but I would have to learn how to generate impulses for myself again. Maybe these would seem more real and true to me, even though there would most likely be far fewer of them, and I would still probably interpret that void as a lack of creativity. Would I be able to relearn how to desire before I began to understand the foreign marketing materials better? Probably not.

by Sarah Zupko

7 Apr 2009

The Dukes of Stratosphear was a side-project of XTC in the mid-‘80s meant to pay tribute to the ‘60s psych pop of their youth. Andy Partridge’s Ape House label is re-releasing the two Dukes albums 25 O’Clock (1985) and Psonic Psunspot (1987) on April 21st and they’ll come with copious liner notes and a host of musical extras. Sample a few songs and videos until then.

XTC as the Dukes of Stratosphear
“My Love Explodes” [MP3]
     

“Brainiac’s Daughter” [MP3]
     

by L.B. Jeffries

7 Apr 2009

Since video games must often devote a lot of time to teaching the player how to play, it is rare to see a game that relies on variety to engage the player. Beyond Good & Evil does not just teach the player one specific skill set and then have them apply it in new ways. Each level is a stream of new activities and skills, combined with a world map that we are continually finding new ways to explore. Combined with this game design is a narrative composed of layers. Our impressions of these characters and factions is continually refuted as we uncover more of the conspiracy, until even the protagonist herself is ambiguous. As the game’s title implies, it is borrowing form Nietzsche’s notion that the true scholars are ever-questioning of morality and society. Inspiration to work on this game came from Michael Abbott’s Vintage Game Club or VGC, whose discussion I did not participate in often but I drew on heavily for this essay. Their forums are a great resource for any careful analysis of a video game they’ve discussed.

The game begins with a news broadcast explaining a classic video game story: alien invaders are besieging the planet of Hillys and only the army can stop them. Our view is of the planet itself during this exposition, before the camera zooms down to the surface and we see the protagonist, Jade, practicing Yoga over a glowing sunrise. Right on cue the aliens attack and yet the army is nowhere to be found. The player takes control as the aliens abduct several of the orphans and our friend Pey’j. The tutorial defines what will be the teaching motif for the rest of the game: you learn a skill as soon as you need it. Jade is surrounded by aliens, you learn to fight by pressing A and swinging at them. You need to use your super move to beat one of the monsters, so you then learn to charge the attack. Narratively we are taking on the role of savior to these characters which will be played with later by our failure to fulfill this task. The army arrives once the crisis is over and the reporter we saw in the opening credits has no interest once Pey’j is frank about how useless the soldiers are. The tutorial continues by providing another need for the player: we’re broke and we need to restore power to our home. To do this we must take pictures of various wildlife, being paid per photo. The photo design is the game’s strongest feature, they introduce it early and provide incentives to keep taking pictures to the player. Doing this means that every animal, friend or foe, has a name to the player. Every tiny detail in the world that would’ve gone unnoticed or unappreciated will instead be photographed. Contrast this to Bioshock’s camera, which lacked both non-hostile creatures to appreciate and offered a weak reward for taking the picture. The design was introduced so late in the game and gave such a minor edge in combat that it mostly goes forgotten by players.

Eurogamer did a decent retrospective on the game where they aptly summarize the game’s variety of activities, “The secret to the success of the game’s differing approaches is the simplicity. This does occasionally lead to a muddling of the controls, with multiple options assigned to buttons, switching in and out as the circumstances require. But it also means Jade’s capable of an array of different styles without your needing a third thumb.” In the vehicle sections you can explore the map, go racing, blast through obstacle courses, and eventually fly. Most of the driving sections all rely on the basic skill of driving but the third-person portions of the game vary things up much more extensively. In terms of playing as Jade you’ll do platforming puzzles, stealth, close combat, sniping, dialogue options, and even a few mini-games. What binds all of these activities is that they are typically easy to handle and require only a single button. The game’s missions can be boiled down to 4 levels mixed with exploration in the larger world map. Each mission is to take certain incriminating pictures of the Domz to reveal the greater conspiracy to the public. After Jade proves herself capable at taking photographs and dealing with the Domz she is recruited by the IRIS network to investigate the corrupt military.

User baf from the VGC points out that Jade handles a great deal like the princess from Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, pointing out that both games were made at the same time by the same studio. Jade can slide through cracks and access portions of the map the brawler partner can’t. Adding to her range of skills is an engaging NPC who adds more abilities. What this NPC does is enable an additional layer of puzzles and interaction that don’t actually involve the player. Just as the game is filled with numerous activities that can be directly solved, it adds variety by having the NPC be a necessary component as well. You need Pey’j to open certain doors or Double H’s slam ability to knock enemies off the ground. Part of how the game avoids needing the player to learn a dozen commands is by having other characters be the source of them. This relationship with the NPC is built up in a variety of other ways. The narrative creates a constant banter between the two parties. The game design requires us to give our heart containers and health to them, connecting the player in a literal way by actively caring for them. When Jade leaves Pey’j behind temporarily, he reminds us to not forget him. The level design mirrors this by having a puzzle where we need Pey’j appear almost immediately. After Pey’j’s abduction, Jade rescues her new partner Double H from the Domz just as she did Pey’j at the game’s start. The game design has us rely on them in combat and puzzles, connect by giving them health & items, and the narrative matches this by having them take on roles where they depend on you.

This is a game that brings its premise alive with details. The Alpha sections scream propaganda whenever we enter the city about how Hillys needs the army. With each mission, these propaganda statements become more intense all while protests form thanks to your photographs. By the time you’ve fully documented the corruption, you will even begin to recognize the people in the crowds. Like any hub game, there are countless items to collect or animals to photograph. Equally refreshing is the fact that the game brings out these moments without the use of quick time events. Smaller levels such as catching raiders or breaking into the Alpha sections warehouse in the city are both easy and fun break-aways from the main plot. When Jade is fleeing the Alpha sections the outcome is pre-defined but the player is put in a miniature race course. As lasers and soldiers race after her, the player feels a real sense of chase before she crosses the invisible line and the cutscene kicks in. The game’s flaws are usually when these invisible hands don’t quite work. Stealth sections often have linear solutions which are enforced through insta-kill turrets, leading to constant trial and error while you figure out what the game wants. The level design occasionally spoils the story itself, as Kimari points out at the VGC. If you’re going to have a character supposedly die yet I’ve seen a puzzle that requires them to solve it, the player is going to know that they will be back eventually. A tricky fight that should occur just before you discover the orphans have been kidnapped can potentially be missed if you run into the house directly. Having the combat before Jade’s dramatic speech about failure is essential, otherwise the feeling of hopelessness falls flat from facing against the tricky flying enemies.

The last level does away with most of the stealth and combat sections in favor of a different experience. Complimenting the sense of smallness and inferiority that Jade has struggled with, the final level has huge spaces and sections of running across long distances. We are made to feel what Jade is feeling as she tries to rescue Pey’j. Our own photos are used in the final cutscene as the populace finally sees all of the Domz corruption, leading to an uprising. The ending’s final plot revelation is that Jade herself is the source of the Domz. She is the reason they have been attacking Hillys and her humanity is only a sham to cover up her true nature. This ambiguity and role-reversal is shown in the game design by having the controls suddenly invert. Just as Jade is now suddenly the source of the conflict, up is down and left is right. Freezair noted that she potentially even infects Pey’j later on with the Domz, using her powers to heal him and subsequently corrupt him. When she defeats the final boss and uses her powers to heal the abducted orphans, Jade demonstrates the core idea of the game’s title. Just as Nietzsche argued in Beyond Good & Evil that the true hero can see beyond morality or social conventions, Jade can see past the revelation about her own origins. She does not blindly accept the Domz’s desire for power or that she is a part of it. What has been true throughout the game has been her friends, so that is what she sticks with despite her origin.

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