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by Jamie Lynn Dunston

10 Dec 2008

Tired of slapping together creatures with the same old parts from Spore’s original creature creator?  EA hopes that the Spore Creepy & Cute Parts Pack will be a shot in the arm that you, the Spore junkie, will crave.  But is it enough? 

Judging from the pattern established by other Maxis/EA hits like the Sims franchise, Spore C&C will be the first in a long line of updates.  As with The Sims 2, Maxis has confirmed in a press release that they will employ a two-pronged approach to deliver additional building tools (in the form of “stuff packs”) as well as altered gameplay (in the form of “expansion packs”).  The first expansion pack, scheduled for spring 2009, will add depth to the Space phase. 

This delivery model will hopefully keep the game (and its accompanying online community) fresh and growing.  It will also keep the cash flowing into EA’s coffers, and this parts pack in particular feels more like a greedy grab for green than a bona fide attempt to refresh the gameplay.  Coming just two months after Spore’s initial release, the parts pack adds 60 new body parts, 12 new paint themes, and 24 “test drive” animations.  None of these additions alter the mechanics or difficulty of the gameplay, but are intended to give players more control over the appearance and abilities of their creatures. 

I strongly suspect that Spore’s upcoming expansion will be the first in a series of four expansions that will address each of the four phases of the game after cell phase.  Many critics of the game (myself included) felt that each phase merely scratched the surface of the genre’s capabilities, and I imagine that the expansions are going to offer Spore fans an opportunity to add complexity to the phases they like best without being obligated to spend money upgrading every part of the multifaceted gameplay.  Meanwhile—and this is pure speculation—now that a collection of creature parts has been released, expect to see additional stuff packs that expand the vehicle and architecture tool sets as well. 

After installing and playing with the Spore C&C for a while, I did feel that the game benefited from the greater variety of parts available.  Still, adding a few dozen body parts to the creature creation tools seems like a disappointingly simplistic approach to sparking creativity in the user community.  I couldn’t help but think back to a simpler time, when user-created content was an indie thing that required a fairly rigorous set of digital design skills but was completely and absolutely open-ended.  It seems to me that since so much of Spore’s concept revolves around a shared, creative community, limiting players’ creativity with a pre-set collection of materials impedes the growth of the fan base.  In other words, I think it’s a big, fat, hairy mistake. 

Once upon a time, back in the dark ages of 56k dialup modems, there were games that were both fun and hackable.  Players would create their own content for their favorite games and upload it to fan sites, sharing among themselves free of charge.  Sure, you had to muck around with graphics editors and such, and the results were sometimes comically bad, but back in the early days of The Sims—and I know I am dating myself by admitting I can remember this—people just made stuff and shared it.  Independent programmers even made simple tools to help other people make stuff, and it was a labor of love. 

I mention The Sims specifically because, although there were many other mod-able games at the time, the large, creative community that emerged was an unforeseen consequence of The Sims’ open-endedness that took even Will Wright by surprise.  Later, the huge success of the fan community inspired Maxis to create tools like Creature Creator and The Sims 2’s Body Shop, which would theoretically allow more people to create more stuff with less effort. 

However, when the grassroots movement was absorbed by the establishment, as it were, Maxis wanted (and needed) to exercise control over user-created content in order to maintain their “T” rating.  In other words, bye-bye, nude skins and double-D-cup meshes.  By standardizing and controlling the tools, Maxis was able to limit inappropriate content, but they also squelched much of the creative open-endedness that was inherent in the first-generation, third-party tools.  Furthermore, they opened the floodgates for the less skilled, less devoted, and less innovative designers to create enormous truckloads of mediocre work.  In short, more people are now able to make stuff, but most of it is crap. 

Should Maxis give more control back to the players and create tools that allow users to generate their own custom body parts?  Is it worth having six hundred creatures that look like anthropomorphic genitalia if it means we also get a digital equivalent of the Venus de Milo?  For Maxis, the ability to control and regulate content is an important part of their business model, so it’s unlikely that they will be willing to relinquish that.  But it certainly would be interesting to see what would emerge if they did.

by Bill Gibron

10 Dec 2008

In the current climate of motion picture making, where does the soundtrack really stand? When watching a remarkable movie like, say, Revolutionary Road, do you care that the music behind Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio is working, or that you can head on over to ITunes after the screening and download yourself a copy of Thomas Newman’s extraordinary score? Do audiences really appreciate the supplemental CD of a film’s sonic sentiments, or are they just too busy buying into the prepackaged and programmed plotting to care much about the aural material surrounding it. Sure, there are rare instances when a movie makes itself so culturally significant (Titanic, The Dark Knight) that people will purchase anything connected to it. But what about the everyday effort? Do journeymen have any place in the merchandising domain, even when the do amazing work?

That’s the question facing the three soundtracks offered up for consideration as part of SE&L‘s recurrent recording roundtable, Surround Sound. This time, we see an upcoming family film, a current CG hit, and a usual independent offering getting positive notice, all threatening to have their composer’s sweat and toil trampled by a general public indifference. And what’s even more disheartening is that each individual offering is good - very good in some cases. But unless you have a cash register ringer so to speak (ain’t that right Miss Cyrus), few if any may become aware of your imagination and innovation. While it’s sad to say it, that’s the apparent state of the soundtrack biz. Anyway, let’s begin with an upcoming effort:

Marley & Me - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 6]

For a relatively young man (37), Theodore Shapiro has had quite a unique career as a film composer. Getting his start on the MTV sketch comedy series The State, he quickly became the go-to guy for the entire Stiller/Wilson/Wain school of slacker comedy. Recently, he’s been involved in such high profile projects as The Devil Wears Prada, Blades of Glory, and Tropic Thunder. So it seems strange for someone working within such crazed crackpot canvases to take on a family-oriented animal lovers movie. But that’s exactly what Shapiro did when he signed up to provide the sonic backing for John Grogan’s memoir, Marley and Me. While it may seem like an odd combination at first, the music speaks volumes for the artist’s ability to adapt.

For something with a sincerely sentimental premise (following the adventures of a family dog from adoption to death), Shapiro’s score for Marley and Me is surprisingly spunky. Acoustic guitars ring across jaunty soft rock ramblings. Oddball bossanova moves accent the film’s sunny South Florida locations. While some of the sounds here are meant to copy the fun-loving, mischievous nature of the title pup (“Off and Running”), or the mandatory movie passage of time (“Two Year Montage”), there is an inherent melancholy to the way Shapiro chooses his approach. This is especially true towards the end when we get several, sobering snippets (“When It’s Time”, “Boy and Dog”). Such sentimentality, however, is often thwarted by a big, rollicking rock-n-roll statement like “Heading Home” or the terrific title track. By constantly repeating certain themes, Shapiro ensures that we will be humming the main melody lines long after we’ve forgotten the film they come from.


Bolt - An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack [rating: 7]

At one time, animated films were almost always mandated to be musicals. Even if the characters didn’t sing the actual songs, studios put potential pop hits directly into their pen and ink adventures, the better to guarantee brisk soundtrack sales later on. All that stopped in the mid ‘90s, when studios like Dreamworks and Fox tried to take the artform in a slightly different, more snarky and non-singing, non-dancing direction. And that’s where it’s stayed, more or less. Pixar proved you didn’t need production numbers to sell tickets, and over the years, the slow death of 2D animation meant a limit on the number of Alan Menken/Elton John penned ballads. The latest from Disney, the delightful Bolt, doesn’t propose to change this approach. But when you’ve completely re-recorded an entire vocal performance to take an actress out, and to put a multiplatinum tween recording phenomenon in, you just know there’s going to be a couple of indirect aural references to such charttopper’s powerhouse skills. 

The mandatory Miley track aside (more on this in a moment) and the material from Ms. Jenny Lewis also initially forgiven, Bolt begins its run through several soundtrack stereotypes. We get the big bold action opening and stunt sequences (“Bolt Transforms”, “Scooter Chase”), the pastoral scenic sections (“The RV Park”), and the moments of humble heroics (“Where Were You on St. Rhino’s Day”). In between Powell, doesn’t waver. Everything is either bongo-driven road movie forcefulness (“Saving Mittens”) or a mix of light and soft (“House on Wheels”). As for the two actual songs on the CD, the Cyrus tune is accented by some intriguing help from co-star John Travolta on vocals (some of his strongest since Grease, or that early ‘70s hit “Let Her In”). It’s great to hear the actor working his vocal pipes again. Similarly Ms. Lewis’ track is unobtrusive and sweet, a tad too maudlin with a title that begs for creative reconsideration (“Barking at the Moon” - in a film about a dog…), but it does offer some nice cross-promotion possibilities for the House of Mouse, who is always looking for a way to maximize the return on their product.

Synecdoche, New York - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

You expect weird from screenwriter turned first time filmmaker Charlie Kaufman. The man practically perspires eccentricity. He’s quirky in bizarro world wackness. If his scripts weren’t strange enough, his public persona is a mixture of hermit, serial killer, and that way too smart kid in school who ended up sitting in his low rent basement apartment making wine all throughout college. While many feel the man is too meta for his own good, his most recent film has got critics both praising him while simultaneously scratching their more than befuddled head. To try and describe this movie’s premise is next to impossible. But it’s safe to say that the work of the equally idiosyncratic Jon Brion is borderline brilliant. Unlike the music he’s recorded for Paul Thomas Anderson (Sydney, Magnolia, Punch-drunk Love) or select comedies (I Heart Huckabees, Step Brothers), this is one soundtrack that’s in perfect sync with the director’s delusional genius.

As a score, Synecdoche New York is a uber-weird combination of old school composing, hackneyed homage irony, and just a tad too much stinging self-consciousness. Tracks have names that defy description (“DMI Thing From When She Was in the Kitchen”, “Someone Else’s Forward Motion (Posing as Your Own)”) and every once in a while Brion will step in and turn everything into a piece of pure instrumental bliss (“Piano One”). This is one musician who likes to mix things up, complex string pieces purposefully crashing into somber, almost ethereal New Age ambiance. Toward the end, actual songs are introduced, with “Little Person” and “Song for Caden” having a similar, lo-fi appeal. The last number, “Schenectady” sounds a tad too much like Sufjan Stevens channeled through Randy Newman. Still, for something meant to match with Kaufman’s crazed visions, Brion does a bang-up job.

by Jason Gross

10 Dec 2008

Wired’s blog reports that Limewire, the popular P2P service (aka one of the evil file-trading places that RIAA hates) is coming out with a new application that makes it easier for users logged into the service to remotely share not just music but also photos and other material.  One of LW’s founders gives his granny as an example and says that it’ll be easier than ever for her to see home photos from him now. 

Very touching but it’s also very canny- LW realizes that if it establishes itself with some indisputable legit services that become popular, it’s gonna be harder and harder for the labels and their RIAA lawyers to go after them so easily.  Ultimately, LW wants to do what the labels should have done a long time ago- cut deals so that they can serve up content legally with the majors’ blessings.  This might turn out to be part of that leverage.

by Rob Horning

10 Dec 2008

Social services in America are probably sufficient to prevent a noticeable outburst of nouveau hoboism, no matter how long the recession lasts. We probably won’t again see lean, bearded men riding the rails from agricultural day-laboring gig to gig, pleading for an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work. Socially necessary labor isn’t as fungible anymore, and the newly unemployed are not manual laborers so much as information processors who would be useless on a farm or in a factory anyway. And unemployment benefits are probably sufficient to prevent people from having to abandon their families and migrate aimlessly in search of employment.

But if we did have a return of the itinerant worker (who was not a Mexican immigrant), it might put to rest the myth of the hobo brotherhood that tends to crop up in Hollywood depictions. I have in mind one particular hobo trope, which I suspect is highly overrepresented: the way in which hobos carved fence posts with special symbols to share with other hobos important information about who lived there. This most recently popped up in Mad Men, where young Donald Draper has an encounter with a hobo who marks his family as evil.

Interestingly, the NSA, of all institutions, has a page detailing the history of this phenomenon.

The origin of the signs, like the Hobo name, is lost to history, but some of the symbols and their meanings have been documented. Carl Liungman’s Dictionary of Symbols makes a connection between the hobo signs in the U.S. with those in England and the gypsy signs used in Sweden. A few of the symbols are the same. Several look the same, but have a different meaning. And still more are completely different, even if the information being relayed is similar. Like any language, written or spoken, over time it develops independently to meet the needs of those using it.
What’s interesting to note, as Liungman points out, is that the system developed at all. Hobos, in general, travel alone and enjoy their independence. And yet, they still congregate in hobo jungles or travel with an occasional partner only to split when they decide to go a different way. Despite this preference for solitude, they still feel a certain camaraderie with their fellow hobos, an obligation to assist their brethren – thus, the creation of the signs and symbols.

I guess I am too cynical to believe in this mysterious camaraderie among the hobo brethren, or at least believe it was as widespread as you’d think from the movies. Hollywood producers and writers must find this romantic image of hobo communication irresistible; it perfectly captures the idea of their leading a secret life of adventure and all working together to subvert square, straight life. It makes it seem as though hobos have a code of honor, like knights errant or repo men. It almost encourages us to regard hoboism as something one volunteers for rather than something one is driven to by economic misery, anomie, or the stultifying conditions of everyday life.

Still, you wouldn’t think drifters would be so cooperative. Their incentive to help other drifters doesn’t seem particularly high, as the more drifters there are, the more they will be regarded negatively. Marking a fence post to indicate that the getting is good would probably alienate those who have helped hobos before, once they are inundated with new ones. And you’d think the choice to drift would indicate an inability to cooperate with social norms, with the ethic of cooperation that getting along with world requires. These are people who can’t integrate—I know that we are supposed to regard this as proof of their purity, their inability to get along in a corrupt system and deal with all the plasticity and checking out of the rat race. Kind of like how the crazy people are the ones who are really sane.




by Christian John Wikane

9 Dec 2008

Celebrating the 10-year anniversary of Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, Billy Porter headlined a special two-night run at the famed NYC venue. Accompanied by keyboard, bass, and drums, Porter treated the sold-out audience to what he called contemporary American standards. Whether re-casting Stevie Wonder’s “All I Do”, giving a hair-raising rendition of Elton John’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”, or tossing in rare gems by Oleta Adams and Julia Fordham, Porter held the audience rapt for a flawless 70-minute set. His take on the Marvin Gaye classic “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)”, which also incorporated a rap based on The Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” and an audience call-and-response, was a riveting tour-de-force.

Though he made no mention of a new album, Porter certainly has a wealth of material to accompany him back into the studio or on the stage, should he release a recording of his latest set. Few performers can make the familiar seem new but, on two bone-chilling nights in New York, Billy Porter excelled in doing just that.

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