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by Terry Sawyer

28 Apr 2008

God, how I wanted to love the new Portishead record, to the point of erring on the side fandom: making excuses, exceptions, at times pretending to love a song that was actually causing vertigo. I understand that the progenitors of a genre that quickly descended into high-end frock shop soundtracks would want to make their long awaited comeback something of a departure. But why a decapitation?  I know that psychologizing people you don’t know is usually just an exercise in projection, but I do get the impression that Geoff Barrow resented Beth Gibbon’s centrality in their previous work. Her voice is abraded and assaulted, on this track trying to mournfully bleed through cold, staccato bullet beats. This is hardly the album exception: “Hunter” strangles and scribbles on her voice, backdropped with a lullaby rhythm where the cradle has fallen and been shattered by the 18-Wheeler from the “Enter Sandman” video.

The video helps little, framing the song in the cold mechanization of a factory studio, like H.R. Giger built it for them. I’ve been in a lot of studios and they don’t have to look like the torture rooms from Hostel. The song and visuals offer nothing but the experience of occlusion and abjection, a sad descent for a band that at the very least used to be able to do depressing well. This isn’t depression, it’s an adverse psychiatric drug reaction. Even more distressing, it’s not interesting, the very least you can offer a listener if you choose to be intractably difficult about rejecting your past. Both the video and song simply alternate between flat planes of abrasion while Gibbons clamors for air. It’s dull and lifeless. I’m open to having my mind changed on this; sometimes all it takes is for a thoughtful person to offer an alternate view that wholly alters your perception. But for now, at least, I think this is pure cantankerous clamor.

by Rob Horning

28 Apr 2008

In my local grocery store the other day, I was flabbergasted to find that it was stocking no generic brand breakfast cereals among the Fruit Loops and Special K and whatnot. Sure, it was a city grocery store and space is at a premium, but this still seemed odd. I didn’t crack and pay the extra money for the branded product; I have been years without cereal and nothing but whim (and soy milk left over from a cooking project) was prompting me to move to end that embargo. And the brand is adding especially little to my enjoyment of cereal—I never could taste any difference, and I wasn’t going to score any style points with anyone or in my own imagination for eating Kelogg’s instead of Jewel-T. I didn’t expect my cereal brand to project any sort of message to anyone or to myself. I just wanted it to be cheap or else I was going to forgo. However, cheap is a relative thing—the absence of generics made me assume that all the cereals were overpriced, though someone else might draw the opposite conclusion.

As someone who enjoys the illusion of saving for its own sake, I always look for off-brand goods, and the unanticipated absence of generic cereals made me wonder if I was hallucinating or having false memories when remembering having bought unbranded Corn Flakes in the past. It never occurred to me that generic products at the supermarket come and go with economic conditions, as this post at Calculated Risk details. CR links to a NYT story about the recession driving consumers to come up with “creative ways” to save money on shopping: Apparently these crafty innovators are starting “to switch from name brands to cheaper alternatives, to eat in instead of dining out and to fly at unusual hours to shave dollars off airfares.” How very ingenious. I wonder how these consumers came up with these radical ideas!

The underlying assumption is that consumers only think to cut back on branded goods when they can’t afford them—that generics are what economists call inferior goods, demand for which rises as income falls. They are “inferior” because they are not the preferred option but the substitute for when the preferred option becomes prohibitively expensive. Grocery stores respond the shift in demand—or rather to the downward shift of the trigger point at which people will buy—and stock more off-brand goods, protecting their volume of sales, which are of crucial importance to their low-margin business. It’s a little disorienting to realize that they don’t automatically supply cheaper options until necessity forces them to, that is, consumers don’t ordinarily demand the cheapest options and grocers get away with stocking only expensive goods. Why they do this is probably a matter of positioning themselves in the marketplace—too many generics out of season and you risk being mistaken for Aldi.

But there is something significant though in the impulse that drives the NYT business reporters to call this sort of switching between goods “creative.” Such a rhetorical move makes it seem as though there is a huge mental leap necessary to abandon brands, when in fact it seems more natural to assume generally that a huge intellectual jump is necessary to believe that there is value in brands, that they bring enough added value to leave in their wake a category of inferior goods—generics. In other words, we default to branded products, a stance that we must learn through ideology, through subtle cues that branded goods are “normal” and the unlabeled products are suspect, inferior. Thanks to how well I’ve absorbed that ideology, I can feel rebellious and subversive when I shop generic—and keep on shopping, which is the essential upshot of the NYT piece: Consumption continues despite the diminishing consumer confidence as the recession takes hold and people grow more and more economically insecure. That people might consume less, not just in dollar terms but in terms of time spent shopping isn’t directly considered, and is hinted at though it were some insane option, rather than a typical choice made at the margin. This may be a semantic conundrum; I have a hard time getting it through my head how broad and flexible a concept consumption is for economists, and that it is different from consumerism, which is the orientation of society toward maximizing consumption for its own sake. Still, I wonder if this indicates some lump-of-consumption fallacy—that there is always some raw amount of consumption determined by the size of a population, and all that varies is the value in dollar terms assigned to it—being promulgated to make us interpret the rational choice to spend less time on consumption as a crazy whim, a desperate measure.

by Mike Schiller

28 Apr 2008

You know, you have to give Iron Man some credit.  Not only is Sega’s adaptation of the soon-to-be blockbuster film being released on every single major console and portable system this week, but it single-handedly ensured that every single system had at least one game to show off this week (thus avoiding the fate of withstanding a surely snarky synonym for “zero” in its release column).  The demo that Sega released on Xbox Live isn’t even all that bad, even if its all-too-short play time does cut out right when it seems as though the game might just get exciting.

No matter—if you’ve been at all privy to the world of gaming journalism in the past week, you know that anything on this list that isn’t Grand Theft Auto IV is being seriously, seriously overshadowed by Grand Theft Auto IV.  You’ve seen the exclusive review (and while I won’t begrudge them for it, I hope IGN thought long and hard about dishing out that 10 when they knew they’d be under scrutiny for being the only outlet allowed to break the dated review embargo that the rest of the media has had to follow), and heck, you’ve probably seen the rest of the reviews so far as well.  That Metacritic wall o’ 100s is awfully impressive, if not altogether unexpected.

The sheer magnitude of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s release is enough to make one wonder: why in the world would Nintendo choose to release Mario Kart Wii a mere two days before perhaps the most highly-anticipated release of 2008?  One could make the argument that the audience for the two games is different, but it intersects in enough places that the buying public for Mario Kart can’t help but be affected, at least a little bit.  One could also say that Mario Kart is a strong enough franchise that it’ll get its sales over the long-term, and it will be fine.  This is probably true—and I do expect that Mario Kart will sell gobs of product and little plastic wheels regardless of what other releases happen to coincide with its own—but still.  Mario Kart Wii got one, maybe two days of serious publicity when the journalists got their copies, only to be swallowed almost immediately by the Grand Theft Auto behemoth.  Pushing off the release (or moving it up, even) by a week or two might have been able to ensure a solid stream of publicity surrounding its release.  As it is, it’s going to have to rely on an admittedly sizable established fanbase.

Of course, one could also argue that that fanbase has been what has been sustaining Nintendo all along, but it wouldn’t hurt to try like hell to expand that fanbase, especially when there is such a sizable new install base just sitting there, waiting to be taken advantage of.  Nintendo apparently sees Mario Kart as a “bridge game”—that is, a game that could help casual players transition to more involved gaming experiences—and having had a day or two to play the game, this makes sense, given that it had the four game-playing members (that is, myself, my wife, and my kids) playing a game together for the first time since Wii Sports first invaded our home and free time.  Still, it’s not going to be a bridge for anyone who doesn’t notice its release.

Other releases this week include the happily budget-priced SNK Arcade Classics Volume 1 (a much cheaper way to get your Neo Geo fix than the Virtual Console, as it turns out), and Konami’s contributions to the Nintendo DS’s continued dominance as a lifestyle machine (as opposed to a simple game machine), called Let’s Yoga! and Let’s Pilates!.  I would be sarcastic about these things, but I may buy them.  Somehow, these activities seem more palatable when you plug them into a DS and pretend they’re games.

Perhaps I’ve said too much.  Go take a look at this week’s release list, after the jump…

by PopMatters Staff

28 Apr 2008

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
I dropped an unabridged Random House dictionary on my foot while wearing flip-flops. Needless to say, the tears welled up big time.

2. The fictional character most like you?
I am Holden Caulfield.  My penchant for italics proves it.

3. The greatest album, ever?
The greatest album ever is Revolver, but if you quote me, The White Album and Rubber Soul are going to be seriously miffed.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Starsailor. (Just kidding: they’re the worst.)

5. Your ideal brain food?
I’ve never tried the sesos tacos at any truck in Los Angeles.

by PopMatters Staff

28 Apr 2008

Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet
Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet, releasing 20 May on Nettwerk Records [Streaming]
Video [Strange]

Flight of the Conchords
Ladies of the World [MP3]

Amy LaVere
That Beat (Sun Studio Sessions series) [Video]

Jef Stott
Lamaset (Miami Mix) [MP3]

Buy at iTunes Music Store

Stumble In [MP3]

Thalia Zedek Band
Lower Allston [MP3]

Eric Avery
All Remote and No Control [MP3]

//Mixed media

Violin Virtuoso L. Subramaniam Mesmerizes in Rare New York Performance (Photos)

// Notes from the Road

"Co-presented by the World Music Institute, the 92Y hosted a rare and mesmerizing performance from India's violin virtuoso L. Subramaniam.

READ the article