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by Rob Horning

21 May 2008

As I was reading Rob Walker’s feature about dead brands—brands abandoned by their owners that firms are now acquiring and trying to reanimate—I was wondering how long it would be before he got into what I think is the most interesting point about them, namely, that the product that goes out under these brands is ultimately superfluous to their value—their “brand equity” seems entirely the product of their advertising and not at all of the original quality of the products. So the names can be purchased and a new product released under those names with no effort to simulate the original. The new Brim coffee probably won’t taste the same as the old Brim but no one will care. As Walker points out, most people won’t remember that it was decaf only. (I didn’t.)

Earle [founder of River West, a zombie-brand clearinghouse] says that this imperfection of memory can be used to enhance whatever new Brim he comes up with. This is “a benefit of dormancy,” he says. The brand equity has value on its own, but it can be grafted onto something newer and, perhaps, more innovative. “Consumers remember the kind of high-level essence of the brand,” he says. “They tend to forget the product specifics.” This, he figures, creates an opening: it gives the reintroduced version “permission” to forget that decaf-only limitation as well and morph into a full line of coffee varieties.

Brand value seems to be a matter of how memorable the jingle is—which points to the conclusion that branding has nearly nothing to do with guaranteeing specific qualities, as sometimes is claimed. If anything, it might remind consumers who to hold responsible if the product disappoints, but as the sale of brands from company to company shows, that now doesn’t really apply either. Brands are a language in the Saussurean sense, a collection of signifiers, with no necessary relation to any signifieds, whose meaning is established through grammar and custom alone—that is how they are used in the moment and what we collectively remember about their previous meanings. And our memory is very faulty.

Walker eventually gets into this through the way brands live on in people’s memory in a different way than the utility of branded products does. The brands connote emotional qualities—the bundles of characteristics of goods that economist Kelvin Lancaster argued (see Krugman’s synopsis here) were more relevant to consumers than specific products. These bundles, as brands, compete in the marketplace, the specific products in their particularity recede from the picture. Best of all for marketers, the connotation of the brand is fairly malleable—more so than, say, the taste of robusto beans. So marketers can bank on the brand’s sheer familiarity as a kind of abstract notion—not famliarity with some particular aspect, just familiarity in general. Brands, then, are like celebrities who are famous for being famous.

by Vijith Assar

21 May 2008

Look, I’m not going to pretend to have the ethnomusicology background necessary to really decode this on its own terms and accurately explain it to you people.  That’s kind of the point, though—quite unexpectedly, Burkina Electric is decidedly outside my comfort zone.

New York percussionist Lukas Ligeti is the son of noted Austrian composer and perennial Kubrick fave György Ligeti.  In 2000, he began working with Maï Lingani, a popular singer from Burkina Faso, by producing her debut album.  A few years later, the pair decided to call it a collaborative project and pad it out into a quartet; the first album with the new format came out in 2006

At first, Rêem Tekré came across as the sort of alien folk tradition that just served to remind me how little I know about music in the grand scheme of things.  Everyone needs a little worldly education every now and again, but eventually I found Ligeti’s incorporation of Western drums and electronics really unsettling.  I’m generally pretty comfortable with both, but here they are entirely inconvenient because they make it impossible to just file the songs under a catch-all term like “World Music” and think myself more educated for the listening.  As it turns out, there are people using those same tools in the parts of the world we generally don’t bother with.  Oops.

I’ll let you define your own philosophical ramifications for this one.  Personally, I just come back to it periodically to see if I’m comfortable yet; no luck so far, but I’m still glad to hear sequenced drums that aren’t accompanied by a filter sweep.

by PopMatters Staff

21 May 2008

The Charlatans
You Cross My Path [MP3]
     

Buy at iTunes Music Store

M83
We Own the Sky (Maps remix) [MP3]
     

Sloan
I’m Not a Kid Anymore [MP3]
     

Amos Lee
Ease Back [MP3]
     

Electric President
Monsters [MP3]
     

The Morning Benders
Boarded Doors [MP3]
     

Crosseyed [MP3]
     

I Love Math
A Good Flying Bird (GBV Cover) [MP3]
     

I Remember When I Loved Her (Zombies Cover) [MP3]
     

by Mike Schiller

20 May 2008

Even in the short time that this blog has been active, it’s become obvious that I have…well, I’ll call it a weakness for the genre that has come to be known as the “arena shooter” (others might call it a crippling addiction.  Tomayto, tomahto).  Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the most recent variation on the object of my constant affection, a little slice of freeware heaven with the impenetrable name of Debrysis.

It’s a mouse-‘n-cursor-keys experience, not unlike Geometry Wars or Everyday Shooter, that makes its presence matter via pure style.  There’s something appealing, in a utilitarian sort of way, about the rotating gear/buzzsaw-like pattern that surrounds the play area, the glowing light patterns that are the enemies, and the rhythmic sort of way that certain weapons take out those enemies.  The game flows with a sort of grace and ever-increasing intensity the likes of which I haven’t seen since Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and the muted color scheme is incredibly easy on the eyes.  There are local high score sheets and online leaderboards to facilitate competition, and it’s simply an incredibly addicting experience.

There’s actually only one blemish on the beauty of Debrysis, that being the avatar and the health bar of that avatar.  The player plays as this little, blocky moon car with a turret on top of it, which simply doesn’t fit in amongst the almost surreal beauty of its surroundings.  Not only that, but the little moon car’s health is represented by little blocks that hover around on top of the moon car, moving with the player as the destruction is happening all around.

The effect, then, is that of the destruction of the beautiful by the ugly, which could potentially be an interesting societal metaphor, though I’m not convinced that such a metaphor was the intent of the designers. 

Despite the unease that said metaphor can introduce into the player’s mind while the game progresses, one can’t help but play the thing over and over again, simply because it’s a new way to achieve that little bit of hypnosis that the best arena shooters can inspire.  It’s a game whose sheen is on the level of games that people, y’know, pay for, and the control is as sharp and responsive as it should be for a game like this.  It’s nothing new, and its audience is probably limited to a certain niche that I happen to belong to.  Still, it’s free, so the least you can do is give it a try.

by Bill Gibron

20 May 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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