Monday, April 28, 2008

Album Review: "All That You Can't Leave Behind" by U2

It's an epidemic: the only music I can write about now is safe, happy, and worst of all, comforting. I just picked up All Shook Down, the last album Paul Westerberg put out with the Replacements moniker, and I'll be damned if it hasn't made me feel nice and cozy with its sweet, sober melody. This can't continue. If I'm shooting to be a halfway-decent music blogger I've got to stop writing about all this everything's-gonna-be-alright shit and start up with some Black Flag or Dillinger Escape Plan and rip up the scene hardcore.

Eh, maybe next time.

All That You Can't Leave Behind starts up with "Beautiful Day" which might be the best goddamned song U2's ever recorded. I mean that. Well, ok, maybe not the best song, but there are few U2 songs that really bury themselves under my skin as much as this one does. It's got bombast to beat the band, but man, it's measured bombast. It starts with a slow, calculated crawl, with Bono keeping his voice low and steady, and then the band tears into that "It's a beautiful day" chorus like there's nothing left to live for. And then, bam, there's Bono's "TOUCH ME! TAKE ME TO ANOTHER PLACE!!" yelp with the Edge's guitar blasting through the door, and man, you've taken off. You're out of the building. "Beautiful Day" is a wonderfully crafted song because it lulls you in, locks the door behind you and shoots you straight into the stratosphere with Bono's super-powered howl and the band's layers and layers of rock bombast. There is no denying this goddamned song.

I don't like any other songs on Leave Behind as much as "Beautiful Day" but that's neither here nor there. The rest of the songs here follow "Beautiful Day"'s flow, but while that song was intended for the Great White Beyond, the other 11 here mostly stick around on planet Earth. They're Big Important Anthems, to be sure, but they're humble. They're here to make you feel good and fuzzy and warm, like an FDR Fireside Chat. Sure, you've got your nutty-rap-rock-thing "Elevation," which breaks the flow a bit, but otherwise Leave Behind is a collection of songs that beg the listener to let go and sweeten up a little. Themselves, too; this is an album U2 needed to make, I guess, if people were ever going to like them again. The whole album is pretty calculated - you can tell U2 wanted to be earnest here, tried to be the ultimate good guys in a rock 'n roll world filled with villains like Fred Durst and Andrew W.K. Of course, they succeeded, and of course they let it get to their heads with that "Gangs of New York" crap.

But I'll let the music speak for itself - despite U2's obvious desire to please here, I just like the melodies on this record so damned much that I don't care. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb be damned - this one's overloaded with pretty. "Stuck in a Moment," "Wild Honey," "When I Look At The World," "Kite," "Walk On": I'm sorry, I gotta just feel good listening to those songs. Nothing new or adventurous - there's some electronic flourishes here and there, and even some hip-hoppish beats slip in ("New York," "Elevation," "In A Little While") but it's not jammed down the listener's throat. This isn't an album that's gonna change your perception of rock music, it just wants to give you a big fat hug. Beyond those lovely melodies, I'll come right out and say I dig the lyrics here too. They're simple, effective, and not too preachy (with the exception of the all-too-helpful "Walk On" or "Peace On Earth"). Someone once told me that they hated the lyrics to "Stuck In A Moment" 'cuz they were cheap, but I just don't hear it. "I'm just trying to find a decent melody / something I can sing / my own company." That's so nice! That makes me smile!!

Beyond that, Leave Behind's got a weird kinda structure, at least for me. I've been a U2 fan longer than I've been a Beatles fan (!!!) so it's kind of surprising - even for myself - that I never heard all of Leave Behind until last summer. I think maybe it's 'cause the first four songs on the album were all over the radio - I've known "Beautiful Day," "Stuck In A Moment," "Elevation" and "Walk On" since I was fucking 13, so I didn't really need to hear them all in sequence, did I? After those hits, though, there's three more fantastic songs here that I've never ever heard before: "Kite," a neat slow-burning number with some of Bono's best vocals on the album; "In a Little While," featuring a surprisingly low-key atmosphere; and "Wild Honey," a straight-up pop number that might be the outright cutest song U2's ever recorded save for "The Sweetest Thing." God, I love those songs. After that, though, the last four kinda dip into Mellowsville; while I dig "When I Look At The World," I don't get much from "Peace On Earth," "New York" or "Grace." They're not bad, but they just don't get me goin'.

Is it OK for me to like this album? I know people have been saying that Atomic Bomb is a carbon-copy of it, but I just don't hear that. The melodies here just don't feel as put-on - every song is like a breath, seeping into the subconscious and flowing out with a cool trail of air. It's all natural, is what I'm trying to say. I'm sure Bono recorded this album for the good of capitalism, to make some sweet dough from throwing "Elevation" into that shitty Tomb Raider movie, but I don't care. This is one of those albums that just wants you to be OK, to get you some cocoa while you vent about your shitty job, to hold your hand at your mother's funeral. Who am I to resist?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Daily Campus Comics: Kelsey Grammer and Beyond

I have been reading UConn's student-run newspaper, The Daily Campus, for practically as long as I've been in Storrs. I used to pick the paper up every once in a while to alleviate the inevitable boredom of eating brunch on my own after my morning classes, and since then my relationship with the paper has been a textbook example of love-hate. Yes, it's nice to have our primary campus newspaper being run by students for students, but it also allows for editing errors and unusual bursts of immature and poorly-written articles. For every agreeable piece of work published, you get one claiming "Minutes to Midnight" to be the best rock record of 2007 or, even worse, a commentary warning of the evils of Facebook. While I'm glad that I've been keeping up with it for so long, the paper's quality fluctuates at an alarming rate, making for a muddled reading experience.

But nowhere is my love-hate relationship with the DC illustrated better than in the Comics page - the one page that, no matter what, I always have made sure to read every day. Even if I never read a single article on a certain day, I always found time for the comics. It's a natural urge, I guess - I've always loved comics, having read the daily funnies in local newspapers ever since I was a kid. So my attraction to the comics page was purely instinctive, and I've been pulled to it every day by some invisible gravitational force. What really got me interested in the comics was the knowledge that they, like the rest of the paper, are completely student-run. This was fascinating to me - most other college newspapers I'd seen were devoted almost exclusively to syndicated strips like Garfield or Dilbert, with maybe one or two one-panel student strips thrown in for good measure. But the DC, well, every comic is student-created - it's a rule. So naturally I figured, hey, this page must be a haven for untapped artistic talent!

And yet, this... wasn't quite the case. The comics, to put it bluntly, were shit - about 90% of them at least. Most were poorly-drawn, juvenile, and just plain unfunny, relying on either beer/weed jokes or cliched college gags about Ugg boots or X-lot. It was depressing, to say the least - really, we're attending one of the biggest and most densely populated college campuses in New England, and this was the best we could get?

Now imagine this every day for 3 years straight.

As the years wore on, things only got worse for the DC comics page. Halfway through my freshmen year a new comics editor was hired, one that would keep the page languishing in a perpetual state of mediocrity for another two years. Not only were most of the comics lousy, old strips were re-ran constantly, with some strips being re-printed over and over for weeks on end. Once in a while, a glimmer of hope would shine through - the introduction of Lucid TV, for example, single-handedly raised the bar for every other strip in the paper - but for the most part the Daily Campus Comics page remained in dire straits.

Of course, I went out of my way to bitch about the comics page as much as I could - mostly to my friend and co-Wilhelm founder Steve Winchell, who'd been drawing comics for the DC since his freshmen year. By the time fall '07 rolled around, my distaste for the comics page had become so pungent, so bitter, that I took a suggestion from Steve and started ripping on the Comics page in the Wilhelm blog. The posts gained some attention, being read and commented on by a surprising about of comic artists - some of who were upset that I called them out, and some who were upset at not being featured in the articles (weird, considering that there were few I complimented). But it was nice to see UConn students actually reading them, as writing them was a near-therapeutic experience for me, something I'd been meaning to do for years. Since I'd only done one post monthly in the fall, I planned on continuing the segment into the spring '08 semester, updating weekly - or, at least as much as I could.

But things changed - fast. The comics editor graduated, and surprisingly enough, Steve took her place (not TOO surprising, I guess, considering how long Steve had been around the DC). Once Steve took over, he encouraged me - along with a handful of our friends - to contribute new comics. Coincidentally I had a comic I'd been doodling since the beginning of the year, a silly little thing featuring a bunch of circular heads talking to each other; nothing great, but I enjoyed it. So I figured, what the hell? After years of shitting all over the page as much as I could, I reasoned that at this point it was put up, or shut up (I'm not one of those people who believes you can't criticize something unless you make something better, but damnit, I didn't want to look like an unjustified grump). So after some weeks of looking for Bristol paper, buiyng pencils and erasers, and trying my best to draw circles that weren't too gnarly-looking, I drudged up the first two weeks of Kelsey Grammer and never looked back.

The first Kelsey Grammer. Pretty much par the course for the rest of the strip.

Two things you might notice about Grammer: one, it's unusually plot-driven, moreso than most other comics in the Daily Campus. Two, it's not easy to look at. Even when I'm just drawing circle-head-people with no backgrounds and hardly any props or objects, it is plainly obvious that I can't draw worth shit. Grammer's jokes are rarely visual, and usually come through in the dialogue - this results in some overly-wordy strips, which I try my best to avoid. The comic follows Billy Bernard, a cap-wearing twenty-something waif who is forced to flee his hometown after inadvertently killing both his roommate and his uncle. Once he moves from Oldtown to Newsville (lulz) he moves in with Shank Lawless, a mohawk-donning punk who berates Billy at his every opportunity. Basically, Billy is the recipient of constant bad luck, and Shank is an unapologetic dick. It's nothing remarkably original, but I try my hardest to make it at least somewhat interesting to read by throwing as many wrenches into the formula as I can.

This is Gort. Gort has problems.

Since Grammer runs three times a week - Monday Wednesday Friday - I try to keep the weeks themed, sometimes going for week-long story arcs. One of my personal favorites consisted of a week where Shank's so-called friend Gort came to visit, despite the two hating each other. Another was a five-strip run in which Billy and Shank's neighbor, a wide-eyed monster named GODSEID, decided to lay waste to the feeble balance of reality and the Nightmare Zone (although this wasn't detailed in the comic). The whole "GODSEID" thing made the strip much more surreal, and pushed me to hone my art style ever so slightly, resulting in the most purely visual strips I'd ever drawn for Grammer. It was helped along by Steve, who guest-drew a couple comics, resulting in a pretty insane week.

Two "GODSEID" comics, the first one by Steve and the second by myself. While both are kinda creepy, Steve's really takes the cake.

Beyond Kelsey Grammer, I started contributing some so-called "filler" comics, comics that would run in place of inappropriate or missing comics to curb the constant re-running of old strips that made the comics page so lousy in the past. Early on I struggled to find a fill-in concept that I liked; one was a continuation of the GODSEID arc called "Godseid Comix," which followed Godseid as he tried to adapt to everyday life. While I enjoyed drawing them, and it resulted in three strips that were arguably better than most Grammer strips, I couldn't come up with enough ideas for it. Then I tried out The Zimpzonz, a bizarre strip featuring re-drawings of Simpsons promotional art laced with various Simpsons quotes; while I loved Zimpzonz and consider it to be maybe the funniest thing I've drawn this semester, it didn't run due to copyright issues, and I've been too heartbroken to draw another one. The one fill-in I've stuck with, however, has been a little one called Rockin' Rick, featuring the titular Rockin' Rick, a rock 'n roll badass who only cares about one thing in his rock 'n roll life - rock 'n roll. Every strip is essentially the same joke over and over; someone tries to bring Rockin' Rick down, and he retorts with something about rock 'n roll, always ending with a dramatic close-up. It's silly, it's simple, and it's a helluva lot of fun to draw.

Three fill-ins, in order: "Godseid Comix," "Rockin' Rick," and "The Zimpzonz." This is probably as good as my art gets.

Since Steve encouraged me to pursue getting Kelsey Grammer in the DC, he's helped me out with the strip sporadically, often suggesting artistic touches or word-bubble placement. Since Steve's been drawing comics since he was a kid, he has a much better feel for them than I do, and his advice has been extremely helpful in the past few months. Not only that, but Steve's taken it upon himself to draw a few guest Grammer strips here and there - "secret Steve Winchell" strips, as he calls them. According to Steve, since the characters are so simple to draw, it's easy to focus on their facial expressions, which he seems to really enjoy drawing. And since comic-making comes so naturally to Steve, his guest Grammers are arguably funnier than anything I've come up with - and they look a lot better, to boot.

A couple "secret Steve Winchell" Kelsey Grammers, the first depicting Billy Bernard as a father, the second with a maniacal Shank Lawless. I really regret not making Shank as purely homicidal as he is in the second strip.

I enjoy Kelsey Grammer. It might not be the funniest thing in the world, but I think it's worth a chuckle here and there. But because I'm drawing it and publishing it in the DC, I don't feel comfortable ripping on the comics page like I have in the past - which means, for better or for worse, I won't be doing any more Wilhelm comic blogs. It's regrettable, as I really enjoyed those entries, but I enjoy drawing Grammer even more - I'd much rather contribute to the solution than exacerbate the problem, so to speak. Not to mention that a great deal of my friends have contributed quality work since Steve took over - Panda by Brenna Harvey, Dave's Adventures In College by Jake Lucas, The Awkward Turtle by fellow Wilhelm cohort Steve Kress, and Jazz Com Boz by Anthony Wasley, not to mention Steve Winchell's own Phil which I've enjoyed since the fall. Hell, even comics I wasn't in love with last semester have grown on me - Frank's Comic by Frank Donahue, for one, which I regrettably dissed in my Wilhelm posts and now enjoy reading on a daily basis.

So I guess things are looking up for the Daily Campus comics. I'm thinking of continuing Grammer next year, along with Rockin' Rick which'll hopefully run on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It'll be a bit of a workload, to be sure, but I'll always have the satisfaction of knowing that I contributed something to my college newspaper. It's a good feeling.

Also I get five bucks a pop.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Problem with Video Game Humor

I've been watching more and more of Zero Punctuation recently, and it's gotten me thinking - there isn't much decent video game comedy out there.

That's kind of a loaded statement, I guess, so I'll give a little background. For those of you who don't know, Zero Punctuation is a series of video game video-reviews (not redundant, I swear) written and performed by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, a British-born video game journalist and game developer. The premise is simple: Yahtzee reviews a game through narration while little animated characters act out everything he's saying. Oh, and Yahtzee also talks fast. Real fast. That's where the title comes from (except, you know, he is using correct punctuation most of the time - it just doesn't sound like he is). Also he's British.

But the good news is that they're funny, insightful videos. The whole animated-video-review concept isn't anything new, and Yahtzee's characters are in danger of being too cute, but the whole thing is kept afloat by Yahtzee's quick wit and well-thought-out reviews - the guy knows what makes a good video game good, and despite his constantly cynical tone he's not just a mean guy trying to put down popular games (as some people have labeled him). And, you know, he's got a good sense of humor. It's not surprising that the videos have become so damned popular.

A problem arises, though. A lot of the people who dig Zero Punctuation are the same people who, say, read terrible gaming webcomics, or watch other game review videos that are nowhere near as funny. In other words, they're internet gaming nerds with terrible senses of humor who find Yahtzee funny because, LOL, he talks fast and hates things!! That's what worries me - ravenous gaming fans reducing Yahtzee's videos to gimmick-status, not realizing that the humor of Zero Punctuation comes from its truthful critique, not its "gimmick". It's kinda like people who thought Superbad was funny 'cause they made dick jokes - totally missed the point. And that leads to the over-arching problem of video game humor. Barely any of it is any good - Zero Punctuation being a rare exception to the rule.

Now "video game humor" is a pretty vague term, so I'll give my definition of it: humor related primarily to video games. OK, so maybe that's still vague, so let me try out an example: Penny Arcade is a gaming webcomic, and it is a comedy strip. Thus it is a video game comedy. Alternately, Metalocalypse could be called "music humor," since its focus is on a metal band. Now, in theory, there's no point in dividing up comedy into these little niches; funny is funny, after all, no matter what the focus. When it comes to video game humor, though, you have to start talking about niches, because video game humor is completely niche, a world full of inside jokes and nerdy circle-jerking that nobody out of the loop would even attempt to understand.

Why is this? Well, because video games themselves are completely niche. I've mentioned this before, but unlike music or film or whathaveyou, there are many many people who just don't give a shit about video games. I mean, sure, the video game industry is a massive force, with Halo 3 outselling most Hollywood movies and yadda yadda, but good business does not equal mainstream acceptance. And since video games and the internet walk hand in hand, pretty much all video game humor you're gonna find is going to be on the internet, where it is not only accepted, but drooled upon. As such, there is no quality control present, not to mention an influx of obnoxious meme-based humor that tends to collide face-first with most video game-related media. Since the "gamer" lifestyle is already so insular, you end up with a lot of humor that either just doesn't make any sense outside of a "gamer" context, or isn't funny (or, most of the time, both).

The big kahuna of "video game humor" is gaming webcomics. That, it could be said, is pretty much what I'm talking about when I say "video game humor" - they're practically synonymous. The most popular one here is Penny Arcade, and I'll admit that by all rights it deserves to be - it's the best one I've seen. I wouldn't call it a great comic by any stretch of the imagination; too often the comic makes jokes that are so self-serving or obscure, they completely lose the humor. But it's got a nice art style and they seem to understand comedic timing and dialogue, which is not something I can say about almost every other gaming webcomic I have seen online - seriously, almost none of them are any good. They run from the obnoxiously long-winded to the awfully unfunny to the absolute scum of the earth. But, you know, these types of comics have ready-made audiences at their disposal - throngs of internet denizens eager to laugh at constant Portal references and All Your Base jokes and all that 4chan meme crap. It supports the notion that video games are a complete niche, hopelessly incapable of cracking a joke that anybody could find funny.

I'm not the only one who feels this way. Yahtzee himself recognizes this and has even gone as far as to publicly call out Ctrl-Alt-Del on his blog. It's interesting - I wouldn't be surprised if many of Yahtzee's fans were avid Ctrl-Alt-Del readers themselves. To see someone as popular as Yahtzee savage something like Ctrl-Alt-Del so thoroughly and pointedly is refreshing to say the least - a voice of reason in a sea of wank-off mediocrity.

(Although some of the people he disses are outspoken fans of his. Hmm.)

Besides webcomics, the only instance of "video game humor" I've seen in a more mainstream context has been Grandma's Boy. But goddamn, that movie was terrible. Boring, way too long, not even a guilty pleasure. But hey, they played Frog Bog and DDR in it, so BAM, gaming humor.

I think there's hope, though. My friend Adam, who does not care for video games much, thinks Zero Punctuation is funny. I think part of the trick to making jokes about video games is, well, NOT making jokes about just video games - instead, making jokes about characters, truths, situations, life - that just happen to involve video games. I mean, hey, you don't have to be a metal fan to love Metalocalypse, or a pop music obsessive to like High Fidelity. But when you get caught up in an already inside-jokey culture, you sacrifice humor. As somebody who loves both comedy and video games, it is depressing to see how often this occurs.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Pissin' The Night Away: Five More Fun Selections From My Nostalgia Playlist

It's just one of those days.

In my unending boredom tonight, I casually looked over my iTunes nostalgia playlist, a sense of pride flowing forth. "Wow, Sean," I thought to myself. "125 songs. 125 cherished memories. You've certainly done a wonderful job in documenting the musical zenith of your youth. Pat yourself on the back!"

It was a wonderful feeling, but of course one that would not last very long. For soon, another voice inside my head would chime in - the voice of a gruff, angry 15-year-old skateboarder shouting "What the fuckin' tits, dude? Where the fuck is 'Break Stuff'??"

The 15-year-old was right. I had some downloading to do.

Here are five new songs I stumbled across tonight.

Limp Bizkit: "Nookie"

So here's the deal. I'm sitting at my desk in 6th grade Social Studies; the teacher hasn't shown up yet, so everybody's just shooting the shit. This girl I've known since 2nd grade is sitting in front of me - not facing me, of course, 'cause we aren't talking. All the sudden I hear her singing to herself - "Well I guess it would be nice / if I could touch your boddddyyyyy..." Within seconds, the kid behind me chimes in - "I know that not everybody, has got a body like youuuu..."

Now, this was unusual. For one thing, you know, there's two 12-year-olds singing to one another unprovoked in Social Studies, which actually wasn't unusual to me at the time. Honestly, I just didn't know the fucking song. "Wh... what is that?" I ask the girl sheepishly.

"What the hell?" She looks at me like I'm from fucking Saturn. "It's Limp Bizkit."

"Yeah, seriously!" the kid behind me chimes in again. "You gotta know Limp Bizkit!"

"Oh... okay." What did I know? The only music I listened to at the time was the Ragtime soundtrack. I didn't understand any of this "cool kid" music.

Then I started watching TRL. Then the "Nookie" video came out, with bad-boy Fred Durst swankin' on down the street with that legendary red backwards Yanks cap, rappin' about some BITCH who put his heart in a fuckin' blender (like that Eve 6 song). Then came that chorus about the aforementioned "Nookie" (a term which I was not yet familiar with) and sticking a cookie up your... YEAH! Then came Fred Durst getting harassed and arrested by a bunch of thuggish cops for rockin' out TOO DAMN HARD (which I'm sure wasn't staged AT ALL).

And ladies and gentlemen, I'll be damned if my life wasn't changed.

In other words, I'll be damned.

It's funny, though; downloading the album - aka TOTALLY RAW AND UNCENSORED - version of this song, you notice a few things. For one, the song isn't really censored all that much, and the legendary "Stick it up your YEAH!" was apparently totally intentional (which makes the line all the more hilarious). Secondly, there's this little background voice that serves as the answer to many of Durst's lines: "Should I be feelin' bad? (NO!) Should I be feelin' good? (NO!)" "You would think that I'd be movin' on... (MOVE IT!)" "I can't believe that I would be deceived (But you WERE!)" This adds a whole new dimension to the song, not unlike John Lennon's little quips in Paul McCartney-written Beatles songs such as "Getting Better" and "Hello Goodbye."

Yeah, that's a fair comparison.

So in conclusion: "Nookie" is better than Sgt. Pepper.

Small note: I can recite almost every lyric to this song. If you put it on, I'll sing along. Just a warning.

98 Degrees: "The Hardest Thing"

About a second or so before I put this song on (for the first time in like a decade), I realized - through some inexplicable cosmic force - that I remembered almost every single lyric in the song. I started singing them to myself, without realizing what I was doing. It was weird.

But man, when the music kicked in, I got into it. I felt the emotion. This is a ballad, ladies and gentlemen. This is a sad song!!

Here are the opening lyrics, which I will recite here without the aid of a lyric sheet, 'cause... well, y'know:

We both know that I shouldn't be here, this is wrong
And baby it's killin' me, it's killin' you
the both of us tryin' to be strong
I've got somewhere else to be, promises to keep
There's someone else who loves me, and trusting me fast asleep
(okay so this part's a little hazy)

I've made up my mind - there is no turning back
She's been good to me, and she deserves better than that!!

As a precocious 12-year-old, these lyrics confused me. So the protagonist is with some girl, but he doesn't WANT to be with her, he wants to be with this other girl who treats him right. So why are you hanging out with your old flame, boys of 98 Degrees? But then the chorus puts things in a different light: "It's the hardest thing I'll ever have to do / To turn around and walk away / Pretending I don't love you." And furthermore: "You can get on with your life / I've got to be cruel to be kind." "You will never know, 'cause there can be no happy ending."

Wait, wait, 98 Degrees - so you LOVE this girl? Then why break her heart? Why go off with some random floozy who's been NICE to you - who you're OBLIGATED to be with? What forces are working against you, you young late-90's heart-throbs?? You guys aren't Fred Durst, I'm sure you can manage to salvage this relationship! DON'T BREAK HER HEART! DON'T RESIGN YOURSELVES TO UNHAPPINESS! EMBRACE WHAT YOU LOVE!! LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR THESE FICKLE BICKERINGS!!!

...err, well. Of course things aren't that simple.

As far as the music goes, this is your basic late-90's boy band ballad designed to make girls swoon. But... I'll be damned if it doesn't... oh jeez, I'm sorry.

Let's just move on.

Marcy Playground: "Sex and Candy"

So from what I've gathered, the longer the 90's wore on, the more boring alternative rock became. I mean, yeah, Nirvana and Pearl Jam kicked in guns ablaze back in '91, but once Hootie and the Blowfish and Matchbox 20 came onto the scene, it suddenly became cool to be blase. By the end of the 90's we by-the-numbers alternahits from Vertical Horizon, Creed, Third Eye Blind, Stroke 9, Everclear, and so on and so forth. They were the dregs of the alternative rock scene, holding on with fierce tenacity as their era of vaguely-industrial angst-rock faded into the ether with the turn of the millenium, to be replaced by indie-folk and emocore forever.

And of course, there was "Sex and Candy." "Sex and Candy" didn't shake things up too much, as you can imagine. Bored vocal, kinda lazy instrumentation, kinda-sorta-catchy chorus that sticks in your head without you even realizing it. "Oh, hey, 'Sex and Candy'. Uh, yeah. That song's alright. It's no 'The Hardest Thing' but it'll do."

Honestly, though, in my blossoming adolescence, any song with the word "sex" in the title automatically caught my attention. I was a sick little child. But candy? What does candy have to do with sex??

The Offspring: "Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)"

"Americana" by the Offspring was the first CD I ever bought. Now, for someone who is obsessed with music, I guess you could call this a landmark moment, but I can't really make that kind of pronouncement. I mean, it's not like I went out and bought fucking "Abbey Road" or some shit - "Americana" was just a 6th grade whim, which makes sense 'cause it was basically an album made for 6th graders (see: Korn, Limp Bizkit, Blink-182).

This was the song that did it for me. Dexter Holland - in his shouty, vaguely cynical voice - rips on some poser guy who thinks he's a rapper and listens to Vanilla Ice. I thought it was funny, mostly 'cause my friends thought it was funny too, so I got the album. Other songs included "The Kids Aren't Alright" (remember that Who song? Yeah, I didn't get the reference either) which bitched and moaned about how all teenagers are drug addicts or something, "She's Got Issues" which bitched and moaned about Dexter's INSAAAANE girlfriend, and "Why Don't You Get A Job" which stole its structure from "Obladi Oblada" and bitched and moaned about a lazy white-trash woman who sits on her ass all day (they switch the genders up near the end, but you know, only briefly - just to appease all the feminists out there, I guess).

All in all, it was kind of a shitty album that all my friends loved 'cause there were lots of swears in it. I've known many people who have claimed that "Americana" was the Offspring's "sell-out" album, mining for big pop hits and abandoning their punk roots. But that's a crock of shit - the Offspring had a HUGE hit back in '94 with "Come Out And Play," a song that was nearly identical to "Pretty Fly." They were sell-outs from the word "go," and a total product of the 90's - a homogenized "punk" band with lyrics about Ricki Lake and getting tattoos. Don't try to make them out to be cool.

My second CD ever was "14:59" by Sugar Ray, an album which I still kinda enjoy listening to. I mean, neither album is quite as good as "98 Degrees and Rising" by 98 Degrees, but what are you gonna do?

Smash Mouth: "All Star"

Ahh jeez. Come on.

I know this song. You know this song. It was in Mystery Men, that movie with the zany alt-superheroes. It was in like 50 car commercials. I think it was in Rat Race. It was all over the fucking place.

And yet, despite its rampant overplay-factor, it's still a likable song. Not a great song, mind you, but I kinda like it. It's catchy, it's amiable, it's not too annoying. I approve.

Two things: I used to think the lyric went "Hey now, you're a rock star / Get the show on, get laid." Now, I had no idea what getting "laid" meant, I had just heard the term used somewhere - and I had no idea that, in all logic, it made perfect sense. I also had no idea what the lyrics meant; at this point of my life, I assumed that any lyrics to any song had some story tucked away inside of them, some narrative that made perfect sense if you paid close attention (a result of growing up with musicals, where every lyric is intended to push the story along). So of course, these lyrics frustrated me: "The ice we skate is getting pretty thin / the water's getting warm so you might as well swim / the world's on fire, how 'bout yours / that's the way I like it and I'll never get bored." Ka-whaaa? And that part near the end about the guy asking for change?? I dunno. I don't follow, Smash Mouth!

All in all, a fun song. No "The Hardest Thing," but I can't ask for the moon, baby.

So that's all for now. I assure you, as long as I am alone on a Sunday night, this will happen again.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Writing About Video Games

Google Image Search: "Video Games"

I used to write about video games pretty frequently in this blog. I haven't for the past year or so - since I decided to begin anew for 2008 and drudge up at least one post a week, the only topics that have come to mind have been music-related, with maybe a few regarding comedy or movies or whathaveyou.

Video games are tough to write about. The most obvious reason why is that, unlike music, lots of people don't give a shit about video games. Now, I'm not gonna get all NERD RAGE VIDEO GAMES ARE HIGH ART on people, because the truth is video games do NOT have the universal appeal music has. Some people have a tolerance for them, and some don't. That's fair. So I feel like, if I get real detailed and pontificate on every reason I love a certain game, I'm gonna feel like I'm just... blathering to myself. Not that I'm not doing that already, but hey.

Secondly - and this is a big one - video games take a while to play. I mean, this isn't just limited to long, epic Final Fantasy levelupathons - if you wanna review a game, you've gotta sit down with it, play it for a while, get a feel for it. Hell, some games require you to unlock every little pointless Dawn Shard or whatever before you can see everything you wanna see. Compare this to, say, a White Stripes album - sit down, listen for 40 minutes, maybe listen to it again in case you missed some cool guitar lick, bam. Review written, done. Try this with a video game, and you'll look like a jackass who doesn't know what he's talking about.

Not only that, but a lot of games I want to write about I just don't have on me. My Super Nintendo / N64 games are in storage, my Playstation games are all 70-hour RPGs, and I have only a few Game Boy games lying around that aren't Pokemon Blue. Unlike music or movies, video games are much more flash-in-the-pan; sure, you can go down to your local Barnes 'n Noble any day of the week and buy Vertigo on DVD, nice and remastered and whathaveyou. But does GameStop carry Excitebike? Fuck no, check out eBay. Hell, you can't even find old GBA games from maybe 3 years ago - they're off the shelves, out with the old and in with the new. There's no grand Video Game Preservation Society out there - just a bunch of diehard collectors. Once in a while, you'll get Super Mario Bros. ported to DS or something, but that's the extent of it.

So what I'm saying is, it's not easy for me to find games I've played, especially if I've borrowed them from friends. I spent a goddamned year playing through every Zelda game ever made - 'cause I love Zelda - and I had these Grand Poobah plans of writing some big essay on each and every one. But it's been a year, and I don't have those Zelda games anymore 'cause they're fucking old games that belong to other people. My only resort is ROM files, and those things are fidgety and ugly. I remember a lot about those Zelda games, sure, but I can't play them anymore, which makes writing about them akin to writing about a dream I had five years ago - blurry, distanced, and awkward. But hey, I haven't listened to "Fables of the Reconstruction" in a while, how will I review - oh, there it is in iTunes, I can just put it on again! Maybe once more!! Review written, problem fucking solved.

(I'll probably get around to writing about those Zelda reviews anyway... I wasted too much time on them, I'll be damned if I don't write something.)

Oh, and thirdly, I haven't been playing video games much recently. My last big purchase was Super Mario Galaxy, which was a slice of pure magic to be sure, but I haven't touched it since my 120th star. I picked up Final Fantasy XII on a whim, and it's got some flare and pizzaz, but you know, those games take so much work to get around without dying every five minutes. Right now I'm just waiting to waste my next paycheck on Brawl and immerse myself in shameless nostalgia for hours on end, but you know, it's a crass experience. Fun, but crass. No Wind Waker-esque revelations or anything. See, I'm just not in the mode to write about video games because I haven't been living them. I haven't stopped enjoying them, but I haven't been swallowing them whole like I was, say, a year ago - when I wasn't bothering to write about them.

But I'll be damned, I want to write about video games. I like them. They're my pocket-pleasure; they give me real release that I don't get from anything else and that not many people care about except myself. They're my niche, whether I like it or not, and if I deny myself the simple pleasure of writing about them then I am only doing myself a disservice. It's as simple as that.

If you start to see some stuff in this blog about video games, and you don't like video games, consider this an apology in advance.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Old Friends

I don't actively seek out new bands. Come to think of it, I never really have; in the past I've usually relied on friends of mine to recommend new bands to me that I might like. Y'know, I don't scour the record racks every week looking for the Next Big Thing. I don't have the time and I don't care enough.

Now, I'm not saying I don't like new music. I do! I just don't look for it - it kinda has to find me. "Neon Bible" was my favorite new release of the past year, but it's also the only one released by a "new" band that I really listened to over and over. I dug "Boys and Girls in America" and "St. Elsewhere" and all that hip-cool shit (don't Gnarls have a new album out, too?), but I still feel pretty distanced from indie rock nowadays. None of it rocks enough for me, you could say. None of it grabs my ass and makes me wanna dance around. The ultimatum for popular music circa 2008 is if you don't wanna listen to "The Crane Wife" on your headphones, sitting alone in your room with the shades down, then you've gotta head out, hit the club, and dance to... err, Flo Rida. Or "Superman Dat Hoe." Or that Kanye song with Daft Punk that's kinda-sorta-alright. For me, most indie is determinately non-provocative and dance-R&B is predictable and too slow. It's just not my scene.

So I listen to old friends. For the past couple years I've been keeping track of new albums from the Flaming Lips, Wilco, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, The White Stripes, Stephen Malkmus and Radiohead. None of these albums have been shocking or revelatory, but they've been good, digging into the pleasure center of my brain and giving me exactly what I need out of rock music. Dylan's "Modern Times" and "Love and Theft" surprised the hell out of me, 'cause I thought the old bastard had burned himself out years ago, but besides that I haven't come across any major surprises - just solid music from bands I love. I just listened to the new R.E.M. record "Accelerate," and it has made me very happy, especially considering that they've been going through some rough patches in the past few years. It's not anything new, to be sure, but it burrows into my head and doesn't leave, which is really something. I've loved R.E.M. for years, and now it sounds like they're old friends coming to visit. It's nice.

Maybe it's a more troubling trend than I'm giving it credit for - older rock bands who've given up on making original music, leaning back on their strengths and essentially giving their fans what they want. "Sky Blue Sky" was Wilco doing good-feelin' mellow rock. "Magic" was an E Street Band record in full swing. "At War With The Mystics" was goofy psychadelic whoo-hah. "Icky Thump" was bluesy rockin' fun, no more no less. "In Rainbows" was challenging, to be sure, but didn't explore anything remarkably new. These albums could lead me to cite an epidemic in the old guard of rock 'n roll, an easy way to claim that the rock music I love is dead, stuck in a rut of predictability. But why should I care when I enjoy the music so damned much?

My friend Steve and I plan on throwing a Wilhelm-themed party sometime near the end of the semester. Whenever it does happen, we're gonna make sure that we make the party playlist - I can't remember the last time I've been able to do that. My years of attending college parties have led to many, many instances of hating whatever music was playing 'cause it didn't meet my asshole-ish standards. Of course, Steve and I are gonna load up the list with tons of stupid bullshit white-boy rock - Limp Bizkit, Sum 41, Andrew WK, all the crap we can find. After years of not caring about popular music, even "Nookie" sounds like the warm embrace of an old friend.

God, that's sad.

By the way, is the new Raconteurs album any good?