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by Bill Gibron

8 Sep 2008

Love him or hate him - or perhaps a better means of comparison is ‘revere him or reject him’ - but John Carpenter is much more than his frequently slipshod cinematic cache. Granted, over the last two decades he has yet to match the macabre benchmarks established with such groundbreaking efforts as Halloween, The Thing, and Escape from New York. But to diminish the man with a “what have you done for me lately” ideal seems silly, especially in light of how classic said previous creepouts have been. In fact, when you broaden your perspective a little and realize just what the man has truly accomplished, you’ll see that such irate instant gratification has no real legitimacy or leverage.

For the most part, film fans fail to remember that Carpenter is more than just an accomplished director. He’s a wonderful writer (he’s scripted at least 20 films and/or TV productions), an accomplished producer, and perhaps most importantly, a fantastic horror/fantasy film scorer. Some of the most memorable music to come out of a Carpenter film is typically created by the man himself. In collaboration with longtime associate Alan Howarth (among others), this rightful figure of renaissance rarity has made as much of an aural imprint on the genre as visual. In fact, many of his themes are so instantly recognizable that the complementary motion picture would feel lost without it (and visa versa).

While some of his later compositions pale in comparison, the years between 1974 and 1987 saw many of his most unforgettable efforts. Drawing direct inspiration from Dario Argento and his work with Claudio Simonetti’s Goblin (as well as the compositional kingpin Ennio Morricone), Carpenter’s soundscapes are both unique and referential. There are definite ‘disco’ underpinnings to his approach, as well as a reliance on analog synthesizers that give each effort a kind of cine-schlock b-movie sheen. Some may complain that once you’ve heard Carpenter underscore a film, you’ve heard his entire auditory canon, but true aficionados of his work know better. Here are at least five fine examples of the man making music to support his often outlandish and totally original flights of fear fancy.

Prince of Darkness (1987)
For his last legitimately great film, Carpenter decided to deal with the arrival of the Antichrist - the Devil’s true son. Set in a broken down church and imbued with a highly technical (and talky) take on science vs. philosophy, the director poured more of himself and his ideas into this film than he had in any other previous project. The results are riveting and ripe for post-millennial reexamination. On the sound side, this is one of Carpenter’s most clear cut borrows from Goblin. The throbbing electronic beat supports what sounds like banshees wailing over shrill strings. While the tempo never deviates, the drama inherent in the melody lines suggests something vast and apocalyptic. It couldn’t be more correct.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Decades before Quentin Tarantino was quoting (and ripping off) the Shaw Brothers as some kind of newly discovered cinematic standard, Carpenter was manufacturing his own unique revision on the then mostly unknown Hong Kong action movie genre. Thanks to a terrifically quirky script from W.D. Richter (the movie was originally planned as a Western) and a legendary turn by Kurt Russell (no one does clueless heroics better), this remains one of Carpenter’s commercial and cult standouts. It is also the most rock and roll of the filmmaker’s cinematic compositions. The end titles even use a song by the faux combo The Coupe De Villes (actually the director and fellow crewmembers Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace).

Christine (1983)
In what seemed like a match made in horror film heaven, the reigning Don of Dread was earmarked to adapt Stephen King’s killer car bestseller for the big screen. But instead of being completely faithful to the author’s automotive murder ideas, Carpenter decided to make his own hilariously sick satire of the generic John Hughes high school film. Funneling in a little ‘50s JD jive just for fun, he created a unique and undeniably odd effort. Even better, this is one of his most complex compositional undertakings. The score frequently references classic rockabilly with bits of Twin Peaks era Angelo Badalamenti tossed in here and there. Like the movie it supports, this soundtrack remains one of Carpenter’s more criminally underrated.

Escape from New York (1981)
For what is perhaps the ultimate example of an action film as flashpoint allegory of a dystopian society gone sour, Carpenter invented the iconic character of Snake Plissken, had the creative common sense to cast former child star Russell in the role, and the covered everything in a fascinating future shock sensibility. For many, this stands as one of Carpenter’s, and the filmic category’s, best. So is the sensational soundtrack. In what has to be a near perfect marriage of music and mise-en-scene, Carpenter makes every note and every cinematic beat sync up beautifully. Another instance where narrative and noise fuse in such a way as to forever coexist.

Halloween (1978)
This is, without a doubt, Carpenter’s crowning achievement. It represents his love of Hitchcock and all things suspense married to a prickly post-modern view of the everpresent personal boogeyman. Sure, it started the whole slasher genre (much to Black Christmas or Michael Findlay’s chagrin), but revisiting the film some 30 years later illustrated Carpenter’s mastery of filmmaking form and classical composition. So does the score. Like other seminal ‘70s films like Jaws and The Godfather, the aural backdrop here is so identifiable and iconic that it creates its own unique sphere of further influence. Beyond what it did for the fright flick, Halloween re-established that solid scary movies needed their own recognizable soundtrack to really resonate. Don’t believe it? Just ask Friday the 13th, or something as recent as Saw. There is more to fear than the sense of sight. Carpenter is one of the few filmmakers who embrace and exploit audio’s ability to deliver the shivers. That’s why he will always be a master of BOTH mediums.

by Sean Murphy

8 Sep 2008

Party Music for the Apocalypse: Mikey Dread’s Beyond World War III

If Mikey Dread (Michael Campbell) had never decided to pick up the microphone and sing, his status would be secure in reggae history. His groundbreaking weekly show on Jamaican radio, the ingeniously entitled Dread at the Controls not only made him a celebrity, but it brought Jamaican music to the masses, making hometown heroes out of otherwise obscure acts. Notably, many music fans have heard Mikey Dread even if they own zero reggae albums. As the ‘70’s came to a close, two things were difficult to deny: reggae’s golden era was over, and The Clash were, as many people acknowledged, the only band that mattered. Of course, The Clash’s kitchen-sink approach (which reached its apotheosis—for better or worse still a ceaseless debate amongst fans—on their fourth album Sandinista!) included the embrace of reggae, first evidenced in their cover of Junior Murvin’s classic “Police and Thieves” from their first album. It made all the sense in the world for Mikey Dread to enter their world, which he did when he became the opening act on their tour. Shortly after, they hit the studio and collaborated on the single “Bankrobber”. Mikey Dread’s fingerprints (and vocals) were all over the aforementioned Sandinista and at this point, it’s fair to conclude that his street-cred, both in reggae and rock circles, was beyond reproof.

With this experience, and bubbling with confidence, he returned to the studio to work on Beyond World War III. All of the albums in this series have featured vocal trios, and one duo, who represent the highest level of harmonizing skills. Finally, here is a record that features one singer—but not one voice. Mikey Dread, the dub master, multi-tracks himself to create a constant chorus that manages to sound fresh and clean. Unlike the glorious murkiness of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s productions, Dread’s sound is crystalline and unencumbered. Each sound from every instrument, each word (sung, chanted, spoken) is precise and perfect. And that voice! Regrettably, Mikey Dread rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great reggae singers, at least in part because he’s appropriately celebrated for his production skills. Allow me to make a case that his name should enter that conversation, with the most convincing testimonial being Beyond World War III.

This is one of the true lost classics. No, that’s not accurate. It’s more accurate to remember that it was never considered a classic in the first place, so it’s not a matter of it being lost so much as never having been found. And that is unacceptable. Words won’t be minced here: this is an outright masterpiece, as close to sublime in its way as any of the other albums discussed so far. Importantly, like the other albums, this one can, and should, easily appeal to casual fans of reggae music. Indeed, like the others, this one truly is recommended to anyone who listens to music, period.

The style here is heavy dub, with Dread (who, again, already had plenty of experience perfecting mash-ups of reggae hits) applying his considerable production acumen to his own songs. The mood is mostly upbeat, at times festive (“Break Down The Walls”) and at times jovial (“The Jumping Master” which features Dread giving approbatory shout-outs to his bandmates and his young apprentice, Scientist, and even name-dropping original “jumping master” Spiderman). The ebullient “Rocker’s Delight” dates back to the Sandinista! sessions, and the spoken word title track anticipates the concerns about nuclear confrontation that dominated the next decade. The most arresting, and timeless track is “Mental Slavery”, which catalogs some of the societal inhumanity that was about to fester in the ‘80s—and beyond:

How can we survive in times like these
When prices rise and wages freeze?

Mikey was around to see things get worse, and the more things remain the same, the more compelling his message becomes. He left us, way too soon, this past year. His legacy is not in dispute, but his legend is still underappreciated. Beyond World War III is his greatest gift, and it’s one that keeps giving.

by Rob Horning

8 Sep 2008

This Sunday, the NYT Magazine had a piece by Clive Thompson about Facebook’s news feed feature, which broadcasts a user’s profile activity as a stream of syndicated updates to selected people in the user’s network. Thompson explains how the feature initially raised privacy concerns, but then users seized upon it as a convenient new form of maintaining intimacy without the nuisance of actual interaction. One could keep up with friends the way one keeps up with blogs in Google Reader—hurriedly, casually. (This morning I plowed through 100 posts, all of them seemingly about the atrocious unemployment reports and the long-anticipated government bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.) He then relates the phenomenon to microblogging services like Twitter and other applications that automatically chronicle and broadcasts one’s activities.

The applications—sometimes with our voluntarily assistance, sometimes not—do a good job of transforming our life into digital information that is easy to manipulate, heightening our “presence” online and make our shadowy self there seem more concrete. We fix our identity in a forum of public surveillance, to make it seem more authentic, more fixed. The price we pay for this is that identity becomes delineated by the categories most conducive to digital transmission: Twittter epigrams; lists of our favorite bits of culture; short videos of ourselves, etc.

As we generate more data that is captured and rebroadcast, we seem to take on more substance and become more significant—especially considering the way in which that data is processed to direct targeted advertising appeals and other forms of recognition from our actual friends our way. It’s easy to imagine a scenario when the recognition from the ad groups supplants our interest in friends’ approval. Marketers can be better than friends because they will pay us—as the buzz marketing firms already do to spread idle chatter about products. At Mind Hacks, Vaughan Bell posits the possibility that advertisers will find the most popular people within specifically defined networks and pay them to host relevant ads on their profiles.

you could identity the most influential people in the 18-25 age bracket, or the most influential in a small town, or the most influential people that like a certain type of movie. Online networks can then sell advertising space ranked by influence, like Google sells adwords based on popularity. Better still, it gives a quantified way of sponsoring highly selected people. You could be the David Beckham of 18-35 year old salsa fans in your town, sponsored to put the latest Latin sounds on your playlist.

Like celebrities, each of us will have an individual worth to advertisers, a price on our profile, and we will be the commodity that technology companies sell to marketers.

So Facebook and like technologies will allow us to leverage our friends into sponsorships, and our sponsors will perhaps become our real friends, when our former friends perhaps begin to regard us as just an extension (maybe useful, maybe not) of that commercial world. And it’s worth nothing too—“better still,” as Bell says—that we will all be in competition with one another to establish our dominance within networks and secure the ad dollars that end up being pumped into it. Maybe this kind of alpha-dog thing happens automatically, but the incursion of commercial interests will make the competition explicit, introduce the wonders of capitalistic “creative destruction” to our social lives, which have heretofore been organized around achieving continuity for our self-concept.

The constant updates, according to the sociologists Thompson consults, supply those interested in tracking us with a simulation of “ambient awareness”: “It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye.” When conducted via online updates (or phone text messages), it requires persistence to achieve this effect; it works cumulatively: No one message is important, no specific thought communicated is important, but the totality presents a character in the round, and engages us, proponents claim, the same way fiction does. “Merely looking at a stranger’s Twitter or Facebook feed isn’t interesting, because it seems like blather. Follow it for a day, though, and it begins to feel like a short story; follow it for a month, and it’s a novel.” If all parties are sharing their streams of data, this would seem to convey the reciprocity we presume is necessary for friendship, but the medium may interfere with that, encouraging us to embark on a kind of vicarious intimacy, an intimacy once removed that allows us to inject the drama and fantasy and daydreaming we can indulge in when lost in a novel.

If you’re reading daily updates from hundreds of people about whom they’re dating and whether they’re happy, it might, some critics worry, spread your emotional energy too thin, leaving less for true intimate relationships. Psychologists have long known that people can engage in “parasocial” relationships with fictional characters, like those on TV shows or in books, or with remote celebrities we read about in magazines. Parasocial relationships can use up some of the emotional space in our Dunbar number, crowding out real-life people. Danah Boyd, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society who has studied social media for 10 years, published a paper this spring arguing that awareness tools like News Feed might be creating a whole new class of relationships that are nearly parasocial — peripheral people in our network whose intimate details we follow closely online, even while they, like Angelina Jolie, are basically unaware we exist.

We basically transform ourselves through the technologies into a form of character-driven light programming. To the friends to whom we broadcast our updates, we become a moment’s distraction, a breath of novelty, an entertainment channel. Thompson points out that the “ambient updates are all visible on one single page in a big row, and they’re not really directed at you. This makes them skimmable, like newspaper headlines; maybe you’ll read them all, maybe you’ll skip some.” With this sort of audience out there, we can generate our own Truman Shows with the tool available and then we have the opportunity to check our ratings in terms of the online attention we have generated and then adjust the sort of life we live accordingly. The users that Thompson interviews express a sense of achieving a deeper intimacy with those they track:

The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.
“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.”

Perhaps, but what is characterized as “raw” here may merely be the effect of the immediacy of the medium on the same surface that friends always present to one another, and the layer that is now being simulated and broadcast. And parasocial relationships become the template for friendship generally; what was once spontaneous and intimate grows more and more caluclated, contrived to produce certain effects, drive traffic, entice readers, supply the simulacrum of intimacy that the medium enables. The habit of Twitter and other digital updates may change the nature of what we think to offer in friendship while eroding the space that once felt sheltered, the personal realm that was autonomous and spontaneous as opposed to designed and self-consciously elaborated. Thompson offers this grim assessment: “participation isn’t optional. If you don’t dive in, other people will define who you are. So you constantly stream your pictures, your thoughts, your relationship status and what you’re doing — right now! — if only to ensure the virtual version of you is accurate, or at least the one you want to present to the world.”

One of the Twitterers that Thompson interviews relates that “Things like Twitter have actually given me a much bigger social circle. I know more about more people than ever before.” That seems a good thing, but Thompson is rightly suspicious about the changes “friendship” must have undergone to enable non-social to suddenly feel comfortable being social. The technology may allow for introverted or indifferent people to be more interested in the lives of other people, but perhaps only because it lets us be voyeurs and fantasists.

Thompson notes that social networks and microblogs allow people to increase their number of “weak ties”: “loose acquaintances, people they knew less well. It might be someone they met at a conference, or someone from high school who recently ‘friended’ them on Facebook, or somebody from last year’s holiday party. In their pre-Internet lives, these sorts of acquaintances would have quickly faded from their attention. But when one of these far-flung people suddenly posts a personal note to your feed, it is essentially a reminder that they exist.” But the weak ties may come at expense of deeper ties, especially because they are more instrumental, more tangibly useful—a wide network will yield you helpful information to deal with a broken refrigerator, or a sketchy transmission mechanic, or a wireless router problem or what have you. That is information whose worth immediately becomes evident.

The “usefulness” of friendship, though, is more difficult to assess; it doesn’t bear being measured, and in fact may perhaps be defined as precisely that which can’t be measured. It’s not in the number of texts a person has sent you. Not to get too mystical (or mystifying) but friendship is elsewhere, outside the numbers. It is in the friction of real presence, in the accumulation of pregnant moments shared doing nothing specific, simply recognizing the otherness of the person you are with and committing to hold on to that sense and respect it. Thompson finds that some Twitter users experience it as serial meditation: “The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to ‘know thyself,’ or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness.” But perhaps our problem is a surfeit of self-reflection, a morbid preoccupation with knowing ourselves, making identity. Moments with friends may those moments where we are in a deep mode of self-forgetting, and the last thing we will want is Twitter interrupting, bringing us back to ourselves, forcing us to yet again to express our identity at a remove, alienating us from the present moment and urging us to accept, in lieu of the present, the perpetual archive of mediated utterances we’ve come up with instead of living.

by PopMatters Staff

8 Sep 2008

Kanye West
Love Lockdown [Video]

Ani DiFranco
Emancipated Minor [MP3] (from Red Letter Year releasing 30 September)

The Last Shadow Puppets
My Mistakes Were Made For You [Video]

Animal in Every Corner (Version) [MP3] (from from Trying Hartz (First Fruits ‘94-‘04) releasing 4 November)

The Lexie Mountain Boys
Sweet Potato Sugar Tot [MP3]

Karl Blau
Mockingbird Diet [MP3] (from Nature’s Got Away releasing 23 September)

F*cked Up
Twice Born [MP3] (from The Chemistry Of Common Life releasing 7 October)

Reincarnation Blues [MP3] (from Doomsdayer’s Holiday releasing 7 October)

by Mike Schiller

8 Sep 2008

When I got an Xbox 360 last year, it was for one reason: Guitar Hero III—yes, I could have played it on my Wii, but that would have taken downloadable content out of the equation.  It was a good decision, as it turned out.  The last rhythm game I’d played and enjoyed, honestly, was Harmonix’s excellent Frequency on the PlayStation 2, and despite all of the hype and the positive reviews, the Guitar Hero series, to that point, had passed me by.

Now, I’m a “Raining Blood” away from five-starring every expert song in Guitar Hero III, I’ve played through expert careers on Guitar Hero III, Guitar Hero II, Rock Band, Guitar Hero: On Tour and Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, I’ve talked smack in the online iterations of these games, and I’ve even created a Rock Band avatar with a mullet and a tattoo featuring the name of this illustrious website across his chest.  Does that make me an addict?  I think it might.

Electronic Arts' Rock Band 2

Electronic Arts’ Rock Band 2

Dispute the comparative quality of the various games in the series all you want, but there’s no denying the almost unexplainable pull that pounding out virtuosic solos on plastic guitars (and drums, not to mention microphones for those who can hold a tune) seems to have on people.  As such, there’s nothing that sticks out in this actually-pretty-decent release week quite like Rock Band 2 does.

Despite the above-and-beyond innovation of last year’s Rock Band, and also despite the apparent philosophy of “anything you can do I can do better” that the upcoming Guitar Hero: World Tour seems to be exhibiting toward its Harmonix-developed rival, the approach of Rock Band 2 seems to be that of refinement rather than overhaul.  Harmonix has developed a dedicated fanbase of Rock Band players, as evidenced by a bustling forum and the ever-important gauge of general internet favor, and Rock Band 2 was developed with that community of devoted players in mind.  An 80+ song setlist, the ability to import all but three of the original Rock Band‘s tracks, compatibility with the first Rock Band‘s DLC, and the ability to play band vs. band matches with any mix of local and online teammates and adversaries are only a few of the many tweaks and touch-ups that Rock Band has received on this go ‘round.  Sunday can’t get here fast enough.

Electronic Arts' NHL 09

Electronic Arts’ NHL 09

Elsewhere, 2K and EA are releasing their competing hockey games this week, and if you love sports games, any kinds of sports games, you should be picking one and buying it.  In a social sense, there is very, very little that competes with video game hockey in terms of the amount of control you have over the outcome and the level of competition that comes out in the people who are taking part.  Viva Piñata shows up on a Nintendo system with Pocket Paradise, which is sort of confusing in a good way, and Nintendo’s also offering up a portable mystery in the form of Mystery Case Files: MillionHeir, a potential sleeper hit in waiting.  Oh!  And there’s a PC exclusive: the video game tie-in for Righteous Kill.  It’s never too early to get your virtual De Niro or Pacino on.

How about you?  Will you be putting down Spore long enough to play anything this week?  The full release list, and a trailer for Rock Band 2, is after the jump!

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