Here Comes the Water Now by Tom Brosseau

The past several songs have been a bit more frenetic and loud, so I thought I’d wrap up the week taking it down a notch, with an absolutely stellar alt-folk musician named Tom Brosseau. “Here Comes the Water Now” is a song off his 2007 album, Grand Forks, which centers around the 1997 flood of Grand Forks, North Dakota (his hometown, though he’s currently based out of LA when he bothers stopping anywhere). I originally discovered his work via KEXP, who has had him on live several times (both of which are linked to on Tom’s site, one in 2005, and one in 2007), highlighted him during a podcast showcasing “freak folk” artists, and selected “Here Comes the Water Now” as a song of the day back in January.

There’s something about the timbre of Tom’s voice that immediately puts me in mind of “Chelsea Morning”-era Joni Mitchell: it’s light and lilting, and feels like an impassioned, personal interaction between the two of you — not because of some urging or force behind the singing, but because it is simply abundantly clear that he cares about what he’s singing. Given the topic of the song — being flooded out of your home — it is perhaps unsurprising that this is the case, though that same sense of care is present in his other work as well. “Here Comes…” is primarily a solitary voice and some crisp, clean guitarwork that ambles through, establishing the pace of the song. As it progresses, several other instruments are added, but they serve very secondary roles, augmenting the focus — the vocals. It all comes together in a really excellent song that is easy on the ears, that makes you smile softly and take a moment to reflect when it ends.

[Tom Brosseau on MySpace]

[Official Website]

[Tom’s Blog (Well written and worth a read)]

[“Here Comes the Water Now” via KEXP (By way of Odeo, which archives older podcasts that may have dropped off the feed.)]

Heretics by Andrew Bird

Andrew Bird has a new album out called Armchair Apocrypha, a followup to 2005’s Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs, and it (along with its predecessor) are well worth your time to look up. Today’s song is from Armchair Apocrypha, called “Heretics”, which was highlighted back in April on KEXP’s Song of the Day podcast. It was highlighted for good reason: it’s an absolutely fantastic song.

One of the things Andrew Bird is known for is his ready use of loops to effectively play over his own work, which ends up giving a much richer sound than might otherwise be expected (he apparently does this live as well, using loop pedals to great effect). The song opens with a high hat and electric guitar, then grows to add a violin and another guitar, before the drums come up in earnest, and the pace of the song suddenly picks up. The song rises and falls several times as it progresses, before coming to a final denouement as the elements drop away to end on a quiet note. The melody is engaging, and works remarkably well with the lyrics both stylistically, and thematically.

I’ve had “Heretics” on loop while writing this review, and I must say, it simply continues to be excellent: I’ve listened to it probably a dozen times in a row at this point, and I’m still finding myself engaged by it. Whether you’ve already heard Andrew Bird in the past, or are just now being introduced to his work, you will be well pleased with this song.

[Heretics MP3]

[Andrew Bird on Myspace]

[Official Website]

Unsolved Mysteries by Animal Collective

Found via KEXP’s Blog, Animal Collective has released two tracks off their unreleased album, Strawberry Jam, as found at Obscure Sound. I don’t know if it’s a limited track release, or if they’ll be available as sample downloads for the duration, so I’d suggest grabbing them while you can. The two newly released songs are “Peacebone” and “Unsolved Mysteries”: I’ll be covering the latter, as I found it spoke to me more — your mileage may vary, so check them both out (links at the bottom as usual).

“Unsolved Mysteries” is absolutely an Animal Collective sound: there are multiple layers going on at once, while the song maintains a churning rhythmic cadence throughout. In particular, the guitar that opens the song acts almost like a railroad track: it pulses in a way that immediately put an image in my mind of a train barreling through the countryside. On top of this is a mixture of synthetic and traditional instruments, creating a symphonic cacophony, a style that the band has used to great effect in the past, and continues to explore with gusto. Lyrically, you catch snippets, but as they are often known for, the words function primarily as a lingual augmentation of the song, rather than vice versa: I’ve tried to pick out the lyrics, and as the other layers start coming together, it becomes difficult to do so: I don’t mind, though. It seems fitting that as the song builds to crescendo, the words matter less.

There’s a vague pop sensibility going on to this song (and “Peacebone”), though I’d hardly say they’ve sold out. If I were going to compare it to other work, I’d be inclined to say it’s more reminiscent of Feels than it is Sung Tongs. (It says something that I’m hard pressed to come up with songs or albums from OTHER bands to compare to.) If you’ve liked Animal Collective’s other work, in particular from Feels, I think you will be well pleased with their new work.

[“Unsolved Mysteries” MP3]

[“Peacebone” MP3]

[Animal Collective on MySpace (With Tour Dates!)]

Built then Burnt (Hurrah! Hurrah!)

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for an impassioned monologue. Combine it with a slowly escalating, strident musical ambience, and I’m sold. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of “Built then Burnt (Hurrah! Hurrah!)” by A Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band with Choir. Don’t let the mouthful of a name deter you: they change the band name fairly regularly, and generally if you just look for “A Silver Mt. Zion”, you’ll find most of their work (though not all). It’s an interesting band that I was first introduced to by my brother Uriah, and quickly made it into my regular playlists. Their work is delightful mix of instrumentals and either spoken word or varied vocals. You really don’t mind, however, as the words form a sort of poetry with the instrumentals, creating a subtle intensity that is not to be underestimated.

“Built then Burnt (Hurrah! Hurrah!)” opens with a youthful voice addressing the audience, “Dear brothers and sisters, Dear enemies and friends,” as a string accompaniment gently rises up in the background. There is a tension to the music that perfectly augments the intensity of the monologue, which is delivered so earnestly and with such seriousness that it would be tragic were it not delivered by a child (or, perhaps, is more tragic for that fact). The imagery created through this combination is beautiful and bittersweet. The monologue ends before the song, allowing for a few moments of letting the accompaniment build, and giving the listener time to chew on the images and thoughts generated before moving on to the next track in the album.

This song is a good example of the sort of understated intensity that can be found on Born Into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward, along with other Silver Mt. Zion albums. There is a wealth of nuance found in their music that make it well worth the time to give a thorough listening, yet there are enough strong overtones that it can also be appreciated in a cursory manner.

Finding their music online for listening is a bit problematic, I’ve found. Their official site is largely unnavigable, nor are they listed in iTunes. Their record label’s site also seems somewhat lacking in navigation or material. However, I have managed to find a few places that you can find some of their work for listening, so please check them out.

[A collection of live performances via]

[The Band’s Official Website]

[Mountains Made of Steam (Fan Site, including links to videos and songs)]

Junior Kickstart by The Go! Team

“It sounds like the fucking Singularity touched down.”Warren Ellis

Last fall, Apple did a promotion with Facebook, offering up free music samplers each week for free to anyone who was a member of the Apple Facebook group. (I’d say the promotion was successful, the group currently has a little over 411,000 members.) Each week, they covered a different genre of music, and in the process of this, I was introduced to The Go! Team through their song “Junior Kickstart”. It’s a great, energetic British band that hopefully we’ll see a lot more of. I would like to point out, however, that due to the nature of how I gained this song, I have no direct link for free download: if you want to hear it, I’m afraid you’ll have to spend a buck. Trust me when I say it’s well worth it.

“Junior Kickstart” is an entirely instrumental song, opening with an urgent guitar riff before moving into an explosion of instrumental grooves, replete with horns, drums, guitar, bass, tambourine, and harmonica (created through a blend of live instruments and excellent sampling). It’s hard to describe precisely why, but the feeling of the song feels very much like out of a soundtrack where the heroes suddenly turn things around and proceed to kick some serious ass. The pacing of the song is very energetic, and sonically there are a variety of layers for your ear to explore, or you can simply let them all fuse together into an avalanche of aural pleasure. I will say this: your enjoyment of The Go! Team increases exponentially the better your sound system. Their sound has a lot of tonal variety, so you’ll get more out of the music if you’re using a system that can really accommodate that. (Even the difference between my iPod headphones and a better set of over-ear headphones is noticeable, playing the same song at the same volume and equalization.)

If you’re looking for music that gets you excited and energized, “Junior Kickstart” is a great choice. It has a good deal of complexity to it, yet can still be enjoyed as a more simplistic amalgam. The Go! Team really delivers on the promise of blending synthetic and more traditional instruments, creating a great sound whether in the studio or live. If you haven’t heard them yet, please, go look them up.

[The Go! Team Live at KEXP Free MP3]

[Junior Kickstart on iTunes]

[The Go! Team Website]

Dr. L’Ling by Minus the Bear

Today’s song was discovered via Chris, who linked me to Drilling P.O.S. REDO by Minus the Bear over at Suicide Squeeze Records. While a good song, it got me curious about the band, so I ended up browsing through the site, and found a song that I ended up liking more: “Dr. L’Ling”, which is from their new album, Planet of Ice, which is due out in mid-August.

“Dr. L’Ling” starts out quiet, with an undulating, droning guitar, then adding a staccato drum, before kicking up to full volume with another, lightly distorted guitar that is vaguely reminiscient of “Creep” by Radiohead’s heavy pre-chorus thrash. The vocals aren’t entirely my cup of tea, but don’t really detract from the overall mood of the song, which mixes a sense of urgency with a vaguely ethereal, “space-y” vibe. (“Space-y” is perhaps a bit hard to describe, but you know it when you hear it, much like ProjeKct Two’s Space Groove.) The guitar work in particular really explores the space of the song, mixing melodic long notes with a rapid, abrupt progression that reminded me heavily of “Discipline” by King Crimson. The song finally winds down with more undulation fading into the distance, which gives the total song a mental image of a space patrol, idling along, called to duty, and then returning to its long quiet patrol.

Overall, it’s an engaging song, and I really don’t mind adding it to my musical library. I’ll look forward to hearing more from this band, and see where their musical evolution takes them in their latest album.

[Dr. L’Ling by Minus the Bear]

[Minus the Bear at Suicide Squeeze Records]

Invisible by Modest Mouse

I think it will come as no surprise to most folks familiar with both me and the band that I’m a fan of Modest Mouse. I was initially turned on to them fairly late in their career, with their album Good News for People Who Love Bad News, notably their one-two punch of “World At Large” followed by “Float On,” which when combined, served as a personal mantra and definition through a very trying period in my life. I quickly rounded out my collection of their prior albums, and eagerly anticipated their latest album, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank. The new album, while not exceeding my preference for Good News…, does not disappoint, with its frenetic, impassioned songs. Needless to say, I was glad to see one of these songs, “Invisible”, show up on KEXP’s Song of the Day Podcast.

“Invisible” starts with a muted drum and guitar build up, which then explodes into a sonic crescendo as the singing starts. Build-up and release seems to be a recurring theme within the song, with several points where the melody builds a sense of urgency before a staccato release of heavy, directed drums and guitar, with a bassline running throughout acting as a glue, bonding the elements together.

In short, the song rocks, and rocks hard. It engages the ear on several levels in a way that could be overwhelming if not prepared for it, combined with a pacing that can’t help but encourage a frenetic mood in the listener. “Invisible” is an excellent example of Modest Mouse’s musical style, and would be a great way to introduce the band musically to a newcomer.

[Invisible by Modest Mouse]

[Subscribe to the KEXP Song of the Day Podcast.]

Apple Pie by The Bastard Fairies

“I’m the life of the party, I’m always smiling. On the surface, I’m as happy as can be.”

You all know the people “Apple Pie” (off The Bastard Fairies’ Memento Mori) is talking about: they seem upbeat and cheerful (much like this song), but the reality is that they’re fairly shallow, and avoid dealing with their emotions, or anything too heavy or serious. It describes an individual who is shallow by choice. The mood and melody of the song encourages this image, with a relatively simple tune running through it, with only the chorus having more complexity and layers: for most of the song, it is simply a synth and lo-fi vocals. With each cycle through the chorus, however, they add more and more instruments, until the final chorus is a diverse cacophany of sounds that works well in a sonic fashion. This ties really well into the metaphor of the song, since you never run into these sorts of people alone.

I like this song, for several reasons. First and foremost, it’s a catchy tune, with a simple rhythm and lyrics that are easy to sing along to — it’s easy to end up nodding your head with the beat or even singing along. In particular when I was first introduced to this song via KEXP, I was dealing with several individuals that I found I was immediately identifying with the song: not bad people, but emotionally shallow, who’d rather sweep things under the rug than address the issues at hand. This gave it enough weight that I ended up tracking down the band online, where I discovered that they were offering their entire album available for download, free (links below). I’d definitely recommend looking them up, and giving the album a few listens, to see if it’s something you might like: especially for the price, it’s worth your time.

[“Apple Pie” [Free MP3]]

[The Bastard Fairies Website]

Design Metaphors and Philosophies

Much like every other medium, there are really no hard and fast rules to making a good game. “Add nice graphics,” or “Make sure the gameplay is fun” is hardly a schematic for making a good game, and could be roughly equated with back seat driving, telling someone to be sure to remember to use their turn signal when their turn signal is already on. That said, there have certainly been some attempts to give a basic grounding in what design principles work or don’t work in game design, by a great many individuals. There are a fair number of similarities between these authors (which is unsurprising, since they all read each other and come from similar backgrounds in the industry), but what I personally find more interesting is the differences between different authors, and what metaphors different designers have found most effective for them.

One of the earliest books I read this semester was A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. While not explicitly about game design per se so much as a discussion about the fundamental concepts of fun and play, Koster does also explore the method he finds most effective for game design. His metaphor is based around his theory that games are fun because the brain is constantly seeking patterns to process. With that in mind, he tries to find new patterns for the brain to process by thinking of a verb that would encapsulate an action or series of actions, and then designs the game mechanic around that verb (or if the game is expansive enough, verbs). From a ludological perspective, this is a very appealing method of design, since the game mechanic quite literally designs itself. This does not leave much room for a narrative-centric game, however.
Continue reading “Design Metaphors and Philosophies”

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Released in October of 2004, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series of games, developed by Rockstar Games and distributed by Take Two Interactive. This installment outsold its already best selling predecessors (Grand Theft Auto III, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City respectively), taking place in a fictionalized variant of LA in the early 1990’s. The game’s encouragement and emphasis of in-game violence had already caused a considerable amount of uproar from several advocacy groups, but did not receive its true level of infamy until early July of 2005, when a “mod” was discovered called “hot coffee” that allowed the player to participate in a sexual act, which was construed as a violation of its Mature game rating (instead of Adults Only), and has sparked a flurry of lawsuits, media attention, and reactionary legislation against video games in general.

Before I discuss the game itself, let’s address the Hot Coffee scandal a little more directly. The content within the mod is overtly sexual, though nothing is actually seen beyond the player’s character behind his in-game girlfriend, making sexual movements. Because of this, it is true that the game should have received an Adults Only rating from the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), had the content been available to players. The only way to access this content is through manually altering the code through external means (on the PC, this involves physically altering game files; on the Playstation 2, this involves using another device such as a “Game Shark” to manipulate the game data or downloading and installing a patch on a system that has no direct method of downloading or installing patches). Insisting upon an Adults Only rating because of this content is roughly akin to insisting that a movie be given an NC-17 or even X rating because of a scene that was filmed but then cut from the final version of the film. Given that the game’s rating was already Mature, which has the same requirements for purchase or to watch as an R rated movie (age 17 or higher), this uproar becomes even more ludicrous. It has unfortunately caused a flood of knee-jerk legislation[1] and use as a political tool by those seeking re-election,[2] despite clear first amendment violations within the proposed laws that have already shut down early attempts at similar legislation.[3] The overwhelming amount of bad press and shoddy handling of the situation on the part of Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive has caused company assets and stock value to plummet, inciting an additional string of lawsuits by the companies’ own stockholders.[4] Regardless of whether or not any of this furor is merited, it may well mean no more Grand Theft Auto games, and potentially hard and restrictive times for the game industry as a whole.
Continue reading “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas”