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by C.L. Chafin

10 Mar 2009

Del Marquis, the guitarist for the tirelessly glamorous Scissor Sisters, makes a sharp turn to the dark side with “Character Assassination”, the title track from his forthcoming EP of the same name. We here at PopMatters are thrilled to be able to present the world premiere of the video for this track.

Over doomily cascading Gary Numan-style synths, Marquis explores the extremely thin line between delight and despair.  As for the video, it’s as if Nine Inch Nails had Philip K Dick direct a video using only the cover of Peter Gabriel’s Shock the Monkey as inspiration.  It’s moody stuff, but he can’t be all gold lamé bikini briefs all the time.

by Rob Horning

10 Mar 2009

Economist Simon Johnson, of the excellent Baseline Scenario blog, wrote a post that effectively sums up what is so frightening about the predicament the big banks’ negligence has put the U.S. in. Obviously, it’s not that the U.S. is in danger of becoming a social democracy or a socialist state or whatever making Limbaugh’s legions whine—I would welcome that sort of development anyway. And banks have never been a purely private industry anyway; they have always relied on certain dispensations and implicit guarantees from the state to operate. The real danger is that the current chaos and uncertainty in banking will worsen the principal-agent problem and lead to the sort of corruption we associate with organized crime becoming entrenched in the official economy.

Maybe I’m naive, but part of American “exceptionalism,” it seems to me, is its complacency about corruption, as though its highly ambitious and self-interested capitalists instinctively shy away from compromising the system by cheating it, by abusing the commercial codes of trust that allow the economy to function and thrive where graft-laden bureaucracies falter. But downturns challenge that faith, and well-placed people begin to see more advantage in rewarding themselves financially than in the glory of power in a proud and growing economy. Johnson’s post explains how that may be playing out now.

Boris Fyodorov, the late Russian Minister of Finance who struggled for many years against corruption and the abuse of authority, could be blunt.  Confusion helps the powerful, he argued.  When there are complicated government bailout schemes, multiple exchange rates, or high inflation, it is very hard to keep track of market prices and to protect the value of firms.  The result, if taken to an extreme, is looting: the collapse of banks, industrial firms, and other entities because the insiders take the money (or other valuables) and run.
This is the prospect now faced by the United States.

This analysis suggests some of the powerful incentives various financial players have to create more confusion than what the volatility in the markets have already generated. They can profit personally, or at least protect themselves, and the expense of the system generally. The scheme of bailouts as they are being conducted currently by the state, play right into these players’ hands.

The course of policy is set.  For at least the next 18 months, we know what to expect on the banking front.  Now Treasury is committed, the leadership in this area will not deviate from a pro-insider policy for large banks; they are not interested in alternative approaches (I’ve asked).  The result will be further destruction of the private credit system and more recourse to relatively nontransparent actions by the Federal Reserve, with all the risks that entails.

Responding to Johnson’s post, Yves Smith points to a 1994 paper by economists George Akerlof and Paul Romer that makes a similar point. Their argument is a kind of moral-hazard variant that sees an incentive for corruption in the wake of bailout plans.

Our theoretical analysis shows that an economic underground can come to life if firms have an incentive to go broke for profit at society’s expense (to loot) instead of to go for broke (to gamble on success). Bankruptcy for profit will occur if poor accounting, lax regulation, or low penalties for abuse give owners an incentive to pay themselves more than their firms are worth and then default on their debt obligations….Unfortunately, firms covered by government guarantees are not the only ones that face severely distorted incentives. Looting can spread symbiotically to other markets, bringing to life a whole economic underworld with perverse incentives. The looters in the sector covered by the government guarantees will make trades with unaffiliated firms outside this sector, causing them to produce in a way that helps maximize the looters’ current extractions with no regard for future losses.

Then we have an economy that lacks even the pretense of competitive meritocracy, an inherently unsustainable one in which connections to favored firms is all that matters. Those firms profit without sustainable business models, at the expense of firms that might have such models, until the economy grinds to a halt. That may actually be what has already happened.

by Michael Edler

10 Mar 2009

Michael Azerrad claims, ”Few American bands were asking to be taken seriously as art, but Sonic Youth did.”

Pandering to Sonic Youth on a blog dedicated to pop art and history and rock is about as cliché as any writer could perform. However, I also know writing about Sonic Youth is necessary because so few bands want to be taken seriously as art. The history of pop music is populated by people who just want to be musicians or in a band or, in some cases, a rock star. Sonic Youth wanted to be art! Their earnest beliefs during the early part of their career would fail an ordinary band. Pop/rock acts looking to become more than their worth usually burn out from the strain of having to meet such lofty self-expectations and, for the majority of their career, Sonic Youth has teetered between complete brilliance and sudden extinction.

But here they are; a 16th studio album Eternal due out in June, their last two studio albums,  Rather Ripped and Sonic Nurse displayed their relevancy, and the re-release of three of their mainstay and eponymous albums, 1982’s self-titled release Sonic Youth, 1988’sDaydream Nation, and 1990’s Goo brought many fans back to their fold. Then, Sonic Youth’s complete performance of Daydream Nation at 2008’s Pitchfork Festival made them an urgent expression. Many bands dry up, but Sonic Youth inspires imagination and creation.

When Neil Young released his 1991 “live” album Arc, it was a direct tribute to Young’s conversations with Thurston Moore. An inspired CD of mixed feedback loops from Young’s concerts with Crazy Horse or the band’s inspiration in the development of Wilco from alt-country heart throbs to feedback frenzied creators of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Sonic Youth is there as a nod to those who want to be more than a band, but art.

Most agree that two of the three most essential Sonic Youth albums are Daydream Nation and Goo. I don’t think these two could be argued against. Daydream Nation found the band exercising their vision in a non-stop attack on conventional sound and criticism of the age’s anti-culture and ignorance. Goo set into motion how the band could infuse their musical energy into tight three-five-minute sound bites that featured a growing sense of melody and an understanding of pop song mechanics. Goo is as important for the reasons that are not true in Daydream Nation; Goo is playful in the ironies of the modern world whereas Daydream is a bombastic soundscape of criticism and anger. Both are truly brilliant because they attempt to make sonic art.

However, after Daydream Nation and Goo, the band fell on tough times and the sweet taste of success clouded many musical adventures. The album Dirty although remarkable in its production value, fell short and subsequent albums of the 90s showed a band trying to recapture an energy many long time fans thought was a thing of the past, but the 2004 release of Sonic Nurse brought the band back from the depths. The release of Sonic Nurse demonstrated a band that still held musical relevance, but in its wake were the childish angers of the ‘90s and a band fully accepting of its age and maturity as song writers. Sonic Nurse revitalized a band left, by many, for dead.

Gone was the ironic and uninspired tinge of the Washing Machine album and replaced by a band hell bent on recapturing the artistic song crafting that had been a staple of Daydream, Goo and the like. Sonic Nurse begins with “Pattern Recognition” a nod to the William Gibson novel and a strong hint that the days of old were back for the band. William Gibson was highly utilized in Daydream Nation; his writing influential for many of that album’s work. The highly critical look outward to a world full of patterns; “I won’t show you,/
Close your eyes and feel the fun/ Pattern recognition’s on the run.” Sonic Youth is best when their critical eye is guided outward, but where there is demonstrated restraint sonically and lyrically. The sonic depth that makes Sonic Youth so brilliant is a sound that doesn’t overindulge in volume, but in the notable attempt to ebb and flow over sound.

Songs like “Dripping Dream” with its opening layers of guitar and Kim Gordon bass line, followed Steve Shelley’s steady drumming are subtle and evenly mixed. A track like “Stones” with its minute of rhythmic, Sonic Youth-esque guitar staccato and slow build to the final 1:30 of what may be the best riff in the entire career of the band demonstrates the band’s realization that Sonic Youth finally recovered its sonic mojo again after years of trying to hang on to ancient and angry tropes from the overused Grunge phenomenon. They understand what made Sonic Youth was not necessarily their desperate anger (although this is still a part of it), but they can layer a song like no other band.

When Kim Gordon whispers in the track “I Love You Golden Blue” I am reminded that Sonic Youth is in the art game. The gentle guitar and subtle but even groove of Gordon’s bass and Shelly’s percussion remind me that Sonic Youth has also grown. The band is too smart, too creative, and too good to go away for too long. I am eager for Essential because every time Sonic Youth goes away I want to whisper the line from “I Love You Golden Blue” with Kim Gordon, “I still miss you.”

by Alan Ranta

10 Mar 2009

Benbecula is one of the most exciting labels in Scotland.  Since 1999, they have delivered to the area and, thanks to the internet, the world some of the finest downtempo, ambient, experimental, glitch, folk, and all electronic variations of each. Not that they only deal with Scottish music, mind you. The electronic free-jazz of Brian Ellis comes from California, while Phrizzm’s IDM flows from Ontario. These six videos will give you a sense of their style. Two of them are from my personal favorite Christ. (pronounced like Christopher), who was an early member of Boards Of Canada.

Christ. - “Happyfour Twenty” from Blue Shift Emissions

Brian Ellis - “Para Ti” from The Silver Creature

Genaro - “Suspicions” from Genaro

Phrizzm - “Minutae” from Phrizzm EP

Christ. - “Always to Play” from Metamorphic Reproduction Miracle

Brian Ellis - “Say”  from The Silver Creature

by L.B. Jeffries

10 Mar 2009

The hindsight-driven popularity of Psychonauts has grown in leaps and bounds as a cult classic thanks to support from popular critics like Yahtzee and others. The game is a clever combination of adventure gaming with platform elements. Although both Yahtzee and Wikipedia point out that the idea of the game started out as being a peyote hallucination, creative director Tim Schafer’s appearance on the 1Up Podcast explains the final product a bit more clearly. The peyote idea was the start but it eventually evolved into attending a summer camp of psychics and visiting people’s internal dreamscapes. Citing a course in psychology he took at Berkeley, Schafer explains that he found it fascinating that otherwise unpoetic people could develop these elaborate metaphors and modes of expression about their problems. Carl Jung, one of the founders of dream analysis, explains in

Memories, Dreams, Reflections

, “Paranoid ideas and hallucinations contain a germ of meaning. A personality, a life history, a pattern of hopes and desires lie behind the psychosis…At bottom we discover nothing new and unknown in the mentally ill; rather, we encounter the substratum of our own natures.” It is this concept that Shafer turned into a game—a game that, if you can get past some gameplay issues, manages to explore subjects far outside the norm.

One of the great strengths of a point and click game is that you have to fill the world with a lot of details. Since the player is going to be looking at and fidgeting with everything, it means that all manner of things have a purpose and story behind them. Doing this makes your environment seem richer and more fulfilling, particularly if the player is able to engage with those details in some meaningful way. Psychonauts’ main hub, the campground, is filled with campers who can all be directly spoken to and be seen interacting in dozens of random conversations. Since these sequences are usually initiated by the player or are only starting when we’re walking around a passive environment they don’t feel as intrusive as cutscenes sometimes during active combat can. Combine this with the outlandish coloring and cartoonish appearance of each person, and the campers are easily distinguishable both visually and by their personality. For example, Chloe is marked by her space helmet and desire to contact aliens, Mikhail has a weird obsession with wrestling bears and Elka is easily recognized because of her constant ramblings about her boyfriend. A game with 25 active characters that are all recognizable and easily differentiated is no small task. These characters are then scattered about the camp and have their own story threads that can be ignored or followed. The game is basically creating an emergent camp drama for its first half. Until you complete a certain mission and night time falls, all of these details and events can be missed or seen by the player. The game itself does not suffer should the player choose to skip them, but the world becomes richer and fuller if they observe them.

On many levels, this peaceful camp setting forms a stark contrast to the chaotic minds that the player must enter psychically. Outside of the occasional wild animal, the camp is a safe place. Once we enter the dreamscapes of the various characters, however, we encounter a world that is no longer orderly or rational. The opening training level is an amalgamation of the battles of Coach Oleander’s past. In a nod to Jung, his primal memories are bizarrely tame and only show his victories and happy memories. We aren’t made aware of the oddness of this normality until we enter subsequent minds and begin to realize that, unlike Oleander, everyone has issues. Every mind has emotional baggage scattered about, which is reflected in the game design by being another item that can be collected by the player. This point is emphasized because the baggage is often loudly crying. Each person’s mindscape will even contrast with the loud sobbing coming from this baggage, such as the party world of Milla Vodello whose internal world makes her into a superstar. Another example would be the orderly mind of Sasha Nein which is mostly grey and dark. The baggage contrasts this color scheme and sticks out aesthetically just as much as it does with the sound. The game design encourages us to notice this because it is collectable and unlocks content, but its emphasis lies in realizing that everyone has issues.  Jung comments on the extreme problems of meeting people someone who claim to have no problems and are normal, pointing out that normality is often a shield people put over greater issues that are hidden deep in their psyche. Later on, Oleander’s deceptively “normal” mind will eventually reveal its true nature in the last level when we reach the true mindscape that Oleander was hiding.

 

The symbolism of the game is equally strong. The opening screen of the game depicts Raz standing on a brain, which represents the player’s mind, so that the game world itself is our own personal dream being played out. When Raz enters his internal dreamscape, he enters the carriage he was born in and emerges from an egg, the symbolic representation of his own life beginning. When we enter the mind of a lungfish who has been mutated to far beyond its original size, we are reminded that it still perceives us as larger than itself. In that dreamscape we are a giant creature despite the boss battle we have just had with this creature. In the game’s most hilarious and clever level, we enter a deranged Milkman’s mind who is obsessed with conspiracy theories. Using the clairvoyance ability, the people in this dreamscape perceive us as 2-D and defined by the items we carry. It shows the simplified worldview and lack of real perception the man’s mind utilizes. The actress whose level consists of people acting out her childhood traumas requires you to defeat the evil critic who is constantly dragging her down. His weapon is a pen. The wrestler whose rage at being dumped in high school manifests into a complex interplay between his rage (which is a bull) that knocks over the tower of cards he is building to his neglected lover. Once the main plot is put into action and the campers have been kidnapped, it becomes night time in the game world. This is a nod to Jung’s dream analysis as well, where night time is the symbolic element of danger and confusion for dreams involving darkness. True to form, the camp will be filled with monsters and devoid of the immersive narrative that we enjoyed during the daytime there.

Marring this excellent game are a few complaints about gameplay and technical issues. When researching this article I could never find much consent about what anyone means by this. Both Yahtzee, the 1Up crew and various forums typically agree that the game’s wonky camera and clunky but easy combat certainly exist but also aren’t deal breakers. What does stick is the difficulty curve of the last level. It isn’t that the camera is causing this problem because by this point you’re used to actively swiveling the thing. And you didn’t get to the last level (The Meat Circus) without already being able to negotiate the game’s flaws anyways. Personally, throughout the game whenever I got stuck with a platforming problem I was always reminded of Insecticide (which you should play if you liked Psychonauts) and a trait that games which meld adventure elements with action always have. They tend to think of the platforming section as a puzzle rather than an act of skill. The developers want you to do one specific thing or use a power in one way to get through the obstacle. In most cases, this is the only thing that will work. The problem is that this goes against the failure feedback of a platforming game: the reaction to failure when jumping is to try to do it better, not try something new. To give an example, the worst moment in the Meat Circus is a circular series of nets you have to jump around while water is filling the tent. The only way to beat it is to use the float ability. The problem is that most people’s impulse is to just double jump since the net is right next to them. Rather than try something new the player thinks they’re not skillful enough and they keep trying again, resulting in a broken feedback loop where the player is failing more than they should.

The last level is a fitting end for a game dealing with psychology and dreams. Raz, while helping the villain confront his father issues, must in turn deal with his own. Throughout the game Raz’s father has been a looming specter, he is coming to take Raz away from the camp and drag him back to the life he is trying to break free from. When confronting the psychological manifestation of Raz’s father in the Meat Circus, the player must jump through various obstacles in an impossible attempt to impress their father. At the end of the level, Raz’s mental impression of his father accuses him of cheating and ignores this accomplishment. It is impossible to win the approval of this awful persona. When the real father arrives using his mental powers he sees firsthand this terrible depiction of himself. He asks Raz, “Is that…really what I look like inside your mind?” The father explains that he was only looking out for our best interests and that he only wanted us safe. The psychological delusion has been undone, the father issues that have been so prevalent in Raz’s mind are resolved and Raz is now liberated from his own personal issues. Jung, while discussing a “normal” patient he encountered, had to discourage the man from pursuing a career in psychoanalysis. Jung comments, “Do you know what it means to be an analyst? It means that you must first learn to know yourself. You yourself are the instrument. If you are not right, how can the patient be made right? You yourself must be the real stuff.” True to Jung’s standards, our reward for conquering Raz’s own issues is to become an official Psychonaut. In this way Psychonauts excels at not just being a wacky game to explore, but also a psychologically hilarious one.

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Cage the Elephant Ignite Central Park with Kickoff for Summerstage Season

// Notes from the Road

"Cage the Elephant rocked two sold-out nights at Summerstage and return to NYC for a free show May 29th. Info on that and a preview of the full Summerstage schedule is here.

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