A new year calls for a new divination from the iPod oracle. Last year’s reading predicted the encouraging outcome of The Futureheads’ “Decent Days And Nights”, which is a reasonably accurate description of 2006 (and the rest of the lyrics arguably apply, but they’re pretty vague).
Of course, I meant to do this on New Year’s Day as I did last year, but didn’t get to it until now. Nevertheless, it’s worth doing it three days late to see what’s in store for the remaining 362 days. As usual, the key is here.
- The Covering: Feist, “One Evening”
- The Crossing: Lindstrøm, “There’s A Drink In My Bedroom And I Need A Hot Lady”
- The Crown: Zero 7, “Warm Sound”
- The Root: Spiritualized, “Stay With Me”
- The Past: I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, “According To Plan”
- The Future: The Hold Steady, “Crucifixion Cruise”
- The Questioner: Sufjan Stevens, “The Seer’s Tower”
- The House: Zero 7, “In Time”
- The Inside: Ladytron, “Seventeen”
- The Outcome: Islands, “Rough Gem”
The Crossing is funny, but makes me wonder if my iPod is not being synced properly. The Outcome, in addition to being the best song on the list, starts out talking about worker exploitation in diamond mines, so I’m going to assume this is a prediction that I will take a postdoc job by the end of the year.
The 2006 CD is ready! Distribution will begin this week in the Bay Area and continue through my holiday travels. I’ll post the list of songs sometime this week. Meanwhile, we continue with our regularly scheduled reviews:
Deja Vu: This is a thriller with a touch of sci-fi, as Denzel Washington plays a detective investigating a terrorist attack with the help of a secret government time machine. It’s not terribly profound, and one should not think too hard about the consistency of the time-travel logic, but it’s a reasonably fun ride with plenty of explosions and shootouts and car chases. Rating: 3/5
Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan: Ballad of the Broken Seas: Isobel Campbell, formerly of Belle & Sebastian, is not the person I’d look to for a great Americana record, seeing as she’s Scottish. Nevertheless, that is what she’s produced here in collaboration with grunge veteran Mark Lanegan. Campbell provides a soft and ghostly voice which is nicely complemented by Lanegan’s deep growl. But both are nearly upstaged by the acoustic instrumentation, which is beautiful. Most of the tracks were written by Campbell; highlights are “Black Mountain”, “Deus Ibi Est” (despite the bad pronunciation of the Latin lyrics), and “Honey Child What Can I Do?” which was my runner-up for the Best Romantic Song of 2006. My favorite song, however, is the dark “Revolver” which was written by Lanegan. There’s also a cover of “Ramblin’ Man” which is a bit cheesy, and is only saved by Campbell’s whispered vocals. Several of these tracks are available on MySpace, and two of them are downloadable. (The version of “Revolver” here is different from the one on the album, however.) Rating: 4/5
I meant to post this, like, a week ago. This may be the first December where my posting frequency goes up when I go on vacation. Anyway, I’m going to overuse the 4 rating again in this set of reviews.
Happy Feet: There is no truth whatsoever to the vicious rumor that I saw Happy Feet.
Casino Royale: By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard reports that this new start for the Bond franchise is really good. And I agree—not just a great Bond movie, but a great spy movie in general. It’s gritty and a big step away from the excesses of the Pierce Brosnan films. Casino Royale is a sort of Bond origin-story, which begins with his earning the 007 rank, and shows how he developed into the character we’re familiar with. Daniel Craig does a great job playing this unpolished Bond—later we were debating in lab the merits of the various Bond actors, and were only arguing over the #3 slot after an easy consensus on Connery and Craig as the two best. (The sentence “I like Timothy Dalton” was uttered without being intended as a Buffy reference.) Anyway, this is the best Bond film in years. My only complaint is that it is a bit too long, at nearly two and a half hours, but for most of this time it’s pretty gripping. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season Three: On the other hand, my only complaint about this is that it’s too short, because Fox canceled the show halfway through the season. This prompts the writers to step up the self-referential humor another notch, with embedded pleas to viewers and other networks to save the series, as well as digs at their competition (Desperate Housewives). Once again there are a few revelations that are foreshadowed in ways that make a second viewing rewarding. Although the second season is the show’s peak, it ends on a very strong note. Rating: 4/5
The Decemberists: The Crane Wife: This could be the Decemberists’ best album, at least the equal of Picaresque and maybe a little better. Although it doesn’t have standout tracks on the level of “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, it’s much more coherent and has a more professional sound (maybe the result of their move to a major label). There are a couple of epic tracks: “The Island”, which has some really excellent sections during its 12 minute extent, and “The Crane Wife 1 & 2″, which is fairly good all the way through. I find that I prefer some of the shorter tracks, though: “O Valencia!” is especially good, as well as the final track “Sons and Daughters” which is a little brighter than the others. A stream of the former track, along with “Summersong”, is available on their website. Rating: 4/5
My brain seems to have gone on vacation already, but I want to move the purity balls down the page. So here’s another open thread. Tomorrow I’ll be flying to Dallas for the holiday weekend, although historically that’s an inauspicious day for visiting that particular city.
Borat: I went into this movie having read various reviews that all called it a brilliant satire on the dark side of American culture. Funny, yes; brilliant satire: not so much. He managed to get some frat boys to say some obnoxious things, and some Deep South types to make some homophobic remarks, but this does not seem like a difficult task. Even his interviews with political figures weren’t really that political, just Borat acting bizarre. The movie consists of some disposable plot-related scenes interspersed with footage of Borat walking up to unsuspecting bystanders and generally being a jackass until he wears out their tolerance. Often this is pretty funny, but sometimes he’s just being an asshole and you feel bad for his victims. Rating: 3/5
Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid Of You, And I Will Beat Your Ass: Despite the belligerent title, this is a pretty calm and peaceful album. I’ve been catching up on Yo La Tengo’s earlier work through my ’90s music project this year—they’re now my fifth most-played band, partly because I really like them and partly because there’s so much to listen to. This one is a good addition to the catalog, a long, meandering record with a variety of styles and a warm and comfortable feel. It opens with “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” which runs for about ten minutes with few lyrics and mostly variations on a single theme, but is still interesting all the way through. This is followed by the upbeat, sunny, three-minute pop song “Beanbag Chair”, which is one of my favorite tracks. (Both of those can be freely downloaded at the band’s website.) My favorite song here is the beautifully assembled “Black Flowers”. Rating: 3.5/5
…and if you’re new to Yo La Tengo, the compilation Prisoners of Love is a good place to start. I picked it up for some tracks that were previously only on singles, and found the selection to be very good.
Here’s an attempt to take a chunk out of my review backlog, and post an open thread for the first time in a while. I’ve been seriously neglecting the blog lately, as part of a larger pattern of neglecting most of my personal projects in favor of general indolence. I have ambitions of getting back to posting regularly, but it will depend somewhat on inspiration, and the holidays usually disrupt posting anyway.
Lots of high ratings here, partly because I’m prioritizing items I’ve really liked recently.
The Prestige: A movie notable for casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and for including the back of Josh’s head in the trailer (reports that he appears in the film itself are unconfirmed). The plot itself is centered around two feuding stage magicians in Victorian England who make escalating attacks on each other both within and outside their respective shows. The film opens with Borden (Christian Bale) awaiting a death sentence for the murder of Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the bulk of the story is told in (sometimes nested) flashback. The movie is intricate and clever, but it also telegraphs its secrets so that the alert viewer will figure them out before the final reveal. Still, the ending was well-done even if it wasn’t a surprise, and the film as a whole is nicely coherent and thematically dense. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season Two: Everything I said about the first season applies, only more so: it’s even funnier and more cleverly written this time around. The show takes its mastery of the running joke to a new level, and its self-referential humor gets even denser. This show builds up jokes the way a dramatic series builds up the plot, so that it just gets funnier as the season progresses. Rating: 4.5/5
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria: I don’t know how Tri-Ace does it but I find every one of their games extremely addictive. (Except for the original Star Ocean, and Radiata Stories, neither of which I’ve played.) This game is no exception and devoured approximately 100 hours of my free time over a relatively short span of weeks. It’s a worthy successor to the brilliant Valkyrie Profile, maintaining the unique feel of the original while adding its own twists on the gameplay. The combat system in particular is much more sophisticated, and makes for very engaging battles. The side-scrolling dungeon exploration mode remains, but with a teleportation mechanic that allows for more complex (and sometimes maddening) puzzles. What it lacks compared to the original is mostly aesthetic: I found the music and art to be mostly inferior (although there are some expections); the beautiful 2D backdrops of Valkyrie Profile have been replaced by more realistic 3D settings (although, true to the profile concept, movement is still restricted to 2D). In certain locations, however, the graphics are truly spectacular and surpass any setting of the original. Overall, my aesthetic complaints are minor, and this is one of the best games I’ve played in a while. Rating: 4.5/5
Tad Williams: War of the Flowers: A rare standalone novel from Tad Williams, this one starts in familiar territory—present-day San Francisco—and then transports its slacker protagonist into the world of Faerie. Williams has imagined Faerie as having experienced societal and technological changes parallel to those in the human world; consequently his fairyland is an urbanized, deforested place in the midst of environmental and political crisis. An allegorical reading of the setting is straightforward; more interesting is the personal progress of the hero as learns how he fits in to this world. I found the prose a bit cumbersome, and the pace lags at times, but when it picks up it’s quite good, and the plot takes some nice unexpected twists. Rating: 3.5/5
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America: Although it’s no secret that I like this album, my review of it is overdue. It’s excellent, just a notch below last year’s Separation Sunday (which was my pick for album of the year). This album is less like a story than its predecessor, with Craig Finn actually singing instead of just talking most of the time, and the songs relating individual vignettes rather than a single overarching narrative. The album starts out very strong with “Stuck Between Stations”; this and the next two songs are among the best on the record, along with “You Can Make Him Like You” and a surprise acoustic turn on “Citrus”. (“Chips Ahoy!”, which follows the first track, can be downloaded here.) The slower ballad “First Night” fell a bit flat, however, and I’m not wild about “Chillout Tent”. Even with these weak moments, though, the Hold Steady have once again recorded one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 4.5/5
Hmm, maybe I should have bought tickets to see one of Yo La Tengo’s shows this week as well, they’ve got three consecutive nights at the Fillmore. But that would give me no time to devote to Valkyrie Profile. Tonight I’ll see the Hold Steady, almost exactly a year after the last time I saw them.
TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain: This album has been widely hailed as a breakthrough record for TV on the Radio, a substantial leap over their previous work. Basically, I agree with all of that, so I can outsource my review to the various glowing pieces that have appeared in music publications. The opening track, “I Was A Lover” is a bit weak, but is followed by “Hours” which is the first of a number of awesome songs. My other favorites are “A Method”, “Dirtywhirl”, and especially “Wolf Like Me” on which David Bowie makes an appearance (listen here). One of the best CDs of the year. Their live show is also spectacular; they were my favorite act from Coachella this year. Rating: 4.5/5
Live: Ladytron with CSS at the Fillmore: CSS is a band I’d heard of but not actually heard before last night. They are from Brazil and are nearly an all-girl group, with a 1:5 male/female ratio. The music was competent dance rock with a synth and usually three guitars (sometimes two guitars and two basses). Their singer was very bouncy and jumped into the crowd several times, quite the opposite of Ladytron’s reserved demeanor. What I could make out of the lyrics sounded pretty amusing, as if Art Brut songs were rendered in broken English.
Ladytron started out with “High Rise”, a perfect opening song but performed somewhat anemically. They didn’t sound warmed up until they played “Evil” a couple songs later, but from there they were able to keep the energy level pretty high. When I saw them at Coachella the band members maintained an air of aloofness, but here they were a bit more relaxed and interactive, Helen Marnie even dancing around the stage during her singing parts. The bands I’ve seen at the Fillmore are always overwhelmed by the history and prestige of the venue, and Ladytron were clearly not immune to this.
The setlist was fairly straightforward, most of Witching Hour plus older singles. The only thing really out of left field was a cover of “Send Me A Postcard” by Shocking Blue, a perky song that one wouldn’t ordinarily associate with Ladytron, but they did include the original on their compilation CD Softcore Jukebox. “Soft Power” was a highlight: the band had a collection of lights on stage which might have been primarily intended for this song, red arc lights and warm yellow bulbs suggestive of candlelight. The combination of the eerie lighting and the strength of the musical performance really brought out the witching hour aspect of the song, making it feel like an incantation drawing out magical energies. “Beauty*2″ came close to this effect as well. They saved “Destroy Everything You Touch” for the very end and pulled out all the stops for a spectacular ending to a strong show. Rating: 4/5
Ladytron setlist below the fold:
Remember when I used to update my blog? You may be wondering if I have been detained by the Bush administration, but in fact I have been distracted by things like science and Valkyrie Profile 2. However, I have once again been getting calls for an open thread, and I’d better start reviewing CDs if I’m going to get through my backlog before the end of the year. Also, I’ve been playing some video games lately:
Xenosaga Episode III: Also Sprach Zarathustra: The Xenosaga series was originally meant to run six episodes, but this was overambitious and the sequence was truncated here. This meant that some threads had to be wrapped up hurriedly, and the plot picks up after skipping an entire episode’s worth of developments. Fortunately the database from Episode I has reappeared and so the player can at least read about what happened; likewise, one character’s backstory is presented mostly in database text where it might previously had been slated to occupy most of an episode. The main storyline is left to play out at double speed (by the standards of this saga, but perhaps normal speed for another console RPG).
As the spiritual successor to Xenogears, Xenosaga labors under certain expectations, especially in its last chapter. Both draw heavily from Gnosticism in their themes, and lay out the plot in a style appropriate to a mystery cult, where the player is in the dark about the true nature of the universe until it is made plain in a series of final revelations. Part of the genius of Xenogears was the way it drew together the threads of Christianity, Gnosticism, and Nietzsche—it was one of the most literate console RPGs ever—into a coherent plotline. (Especially appealing to my philosophical sensibilities was the way it ultimately deferred to a kind of scientific materialism.) Unfortunately, Xenosaga doesn’t reach these heights, and in making the competing philosophies more explicit, it loses the coherence in the story. The major revelations near the end thus fall into two categories: the kind that the observant player figured out two episodes ago, and the kind that don’t actually help the story make any more sense.
This is probably a consequence of the shortened scope of the project and the departure from Monolith Soft of major contributors to the narrative aspects of the game. It’s a disappointment for those of us who came to the series in part because of the strength of it’s predecessor’s storyline. At a smaller scale things generally work better&dmash;several of the set pieces are very well executed, in particular the chilling weapons test scene that occurs early in the game.
But in some sense all these things are secondary considerations: this isn’t a movie, it’s a video game, and the actual gameplay is a lot of fun. The battle mechanics depart from the previous episodes somewhat (moving in the direction of Final Fantasy X) but maintain the same crystalline turn-based feel, with good strategic depth but less frustration. Meanwhile the mech battles now resemble a streamlined version of the Xenogears system, as big an improvement over the second episode’s approach as that episode was over the first in this department. The dungeons are visually spectacular, satisfyingly intricate, and generally a joy to explore. The biggest disappointment was the lack of any bonus dungeons like the ones in the previous episode. On the strength of the gameplay I’m giving this a high rating even if the conclusion to the story wasn’t to my satisfaction (and even if it’s not the best dungeon crawler to come out in the last two months—it’s hard to compete with tri-Ace in that department). Rating: 4/5
Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped: I assume the venerable noise-rock band needs no introduction. One doesn’t generally have high expectations for 25-year-old bands, but they’ve put out a decent album here that’s more accessible than much of their catalog. Their trademark fuzz, distortion, and atonal singing is certainly present but it’s put into the service of some catchy tunes, especially “Incinerate” and “Rats”. They might be well past their peak but they can still write some good songs. A stream of “Incinerate” seems to be available at Geffen Records. Rating: 3.5/5
Pirates demanded a new open thread, so I will comply to avoid walking the plank. I have a bunch of CDs to review, but haven’t figured out what to say about them. Here’s the first one in the queue:
Ratatat: Classics: Ratatat is a band based on the notion that it would be awesome to make songs blending hip-hop beats, techno synth, and arena-rock guitar. Classics is a broader and more layered take on this concept than their self-titled debut album, and finds mixed success. Some of the more intricate songs, like “Lex”, hold together well, but others seem to meander while passing by potentially great moments. One of the great things about their previous record was the way songs would focus on a single brilliant riff and spend three minutes examining it, turning it upside down and inside out. There’s less of that here as they reach for a more complex sound. “Wildcat” and “Tropicana” can both be played at MySpace; both are decent with the latter being slightly better. The best song title on the CD is “Tacobel Canon”, and the track itself is appropriately Baroque-sounding. Rating: 3/5
Arrr, mateys! It be Talk Like A Pirate Day once again! Of the holidays celebrated here at Arrrcane Gazebo, few be more highly anticipated.
Though my lists of the year’s best music won’t appear until December, it is now time to announce the winner of the coveted Arrrcane Gazebo Pirate Song of the Year. And the winner is…
Pretty Girls Make Graves, “Selling the Wind”
I buy these winds
to venge my children and their ghosts
I stole their ships
and every castle from their coasts
Need no advice
nor approval from the queen
I live my life
forever hellcat of the seas
Last year’s (unannounced) winner was, of course, The Decemberists’ “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”.
Here be a comment thread fer ye scurvy dogs t’ parley with each other.
In which I review something from almost every media category (but I should read more books) and give them all the same rating. Maybe I should go to increments of 0.1 instead of 0.5, so I can make finer distinctions: I would rate Asobi Seksu’s Citrus (reviewed last week) slightly higher than The Knife’s Silent Shout (in this post) for example.
The Descent: A heartwarming British film in which six women forge strong bonds of friendship during a spelunking expedition. At least, that’s what it looks like until monsters show up and start eating them. Hell yes. I mean, we’ve all been stuck in boring dramas where we wish it would turn into a monster movie and kill off the most annoying characters, and this movie actually does it. Except that it’s not boring at all; one thing this film excels at is ratcheting up the tension well before the monsters show up, with a series of plausible but legitimately scary or shocking events leading up to the gory climax. The cave where most of the movie takes place is itself a source of much of this tension, filmed in a way that conveys the claustrophobia and disorientation of the spelunkers. The descent referred to in the title isn’t just the literal descent into the cave but also the descent into madness of one of the characters, and this is paralleled in the increasing chaos and confusion as the caving party disintegrates. Overall, a very well-done horror movie. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season One: I kept hearing that this show was excellent, but didn’t really know much about it. Josh was happy to educate me, and we fairly rapidly went through the first season’s worth of episodes. The show is best watched in bursts of several 22-minute episodes at a time; it is very self-referential and excels at recurring jokes. Arrested Development centers around the Bluth family, most of whom have freeloaded off the wealthy patriarch George Sr., until (in the first episode) he is arrested for massive fraud. Most of the episodes have Michael Bluth, as the voice of responsibility and moderation, trying to rein in his flakier relatives. It’s the quality of the writing that makes the show stand out; the dialogue is very funny on several levels, and a narrative voiceover (by Ron Howard) is used to create an ironic interplay between an omniscient observer and the very self-unaware characters. Rating: 4/5
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow: The portable Castlevania games have been improving incrementally since Circle of the Moon on the GBA, and Dawn of Sorrow is the latest iteration, a refinement of (and direct sequel to) Aria of Sorrow. As with its predecessors it is a side-scrolling dungeon crawl, and preserves Aria’s mechanic of earning new abilities from defeated monsters. There are a few token uses of the DS’s touch screen (admittedly, finishing off boss monsters by drawing a magic seal is especially satisfying) but otherwise the gameplay will be familiar to veterans of the series. This installment does an especially good job with an interesting dungeon layout, smooth control, and challenging but not frustrating difficulty. The free-fall boss battle is particularly inspired. Rating: 4/5
The Knife: Silent Shout: The Knife, mentioned in yesterday’s post, has a new album out this year. Different in mood from “Heartbeats”, it’s a dark and ghostly record, perhaps another candidate for a Call of Cthulhu game soundtrack. Indeed, Josh and I listened to this in the car before and after seeing The Descent, and it was creepily appropriate to a claustrophobic horror movie. This one strikes a stronger emotional resonance than the similar atmosphere of Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead, and is also more danceable. Listen to “Like A Pen” and “Silent Shout” at their MySpace page; in further recent-post-synergy, the latter track appears to be a free download for Facebook members this week. Rating: 4/5
Live: Zero 7 with Jose Gonzalez at the Fillmore: Sure, I panned their latest album, but their earlier work is really good and I love going to the Fillmore. (I am ignoring Jessica’s suggestion that I post an entry titled “I Went to Zero 7 with Three Hot Girls”, but this might also have had something to do with it.) Jose Gonzalez’s opening set was a mellow and competent performance on acoustic guitar; afterwards he did vocals for Zero 7 along with Sia Furler. (The band proper is just two British guys on synths, but here they had a backing band and the two vocalists. The lack of their other singers meant certain songs couldn’t be played; “In the Waiting Line”, which appeared on the Garden State soundtrack, was particularly missed.) Naturally much of the set was devoted to songs from The Garden, but there was a good fraction of older stuff as well so I can’t complain too much. Sia seemed pretty drunk (or otherwise chemically enhanced) and her vocals were much more slurred than in the recordings, which detracted a bit. Fortunately they played a number of instrumental pieces, which tend to be my favorites out of Zero 7’s catalog. It would have been nice to hear “Speed Dial No. 2″, though. Rating: 3.5/5