Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Forty Fords

As Yoggoth once put it, "I love Harrison Ford movies that don't make me cringe." Perusing this fascinating interactive graphic from the National Post, it does impress me that an actor with what you might charitably call "limited range" (hence the identical expression in every panel) has appeared in so many artistically significant films. Maybe Harrison Ford knows something about life that the rest of us don't.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hall & Oates Discover New Wave And Run With It

In Episode 2 of Yacht Rock, Oates slams Hall against the wall and shouts "Get your dick out of your heart. You even know what the kids in the street are listening to? Disco, motherfucker!" I doubt it went down quite like that, but at some point they must have turned the radio dial to a dance station and realized that their precious Philly Soul had become passe. They grabbed a synthesizer and a drum machine, and beginning with 1981's "Kiss On My List," they became ... inescapable.

Hall & Oates may have been huge, releasing five US #1 hits in the span of three years, but they weren't exactly "cool." At this point, Both Hall and Oates were in their 30s. To hip listeners, it was probably a bit like watching your dorky uncles try to "get down" with "the kids." Like any of that mattered to me. I was three years old, and as far as I was concerned, Hall & Oates were fucking gods.

My favorite moment of "You Make My Dreams" would have to be when Hall exclaims: "Now listen to this!" (at 1:43). And then nothing happens. Like, wait, what am I listening for exactly?

I remember when I was little I took "Private Eyes" literally and I imagined a bunch of private investigators in trench coats following some woman around. I didn't get the pun. "Private Eyes" may also feature the best use of hand claps in a pop song ever. And there have been a lot of pop songs with hand claps in them.

The title of "sleaziest Hall & Oates song" would have to go to "One On One," where Hall attempts to compare lovemaking to the playing of basketball:
I'm tired of playing all the team
Oh it seems I don't get time out anymore
What a change if we set the pace, face to face
No one even trying to score

How do you know when you're on fire? When even the new song you tack onto your Greatest Hits collection becomes a hit! Released in conjunction with Rock 'n Soul Part I (sadly there was never a Part II), "Say It Isn't So" doesn't sound like a classic Hall & Oates single right off the bat. But Hall & Oates are like ABBA or the Bee Gees: you need to have faith. Because when the chorus arrives...well, it touches me in places I didn't know I could be touched.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Yacht Rock: Episode 7

Back in the mid-90s, when I was not paying attention to rap in any way, I heard a song that I later realized was Warren G's "Regulate." But I noticed something that I'm pretty sure 90% of Death Row's target audience did not: the song sampled Michael McDonald's 1982 supermarket favorite "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)." I remember thinking, "Wait a second, are they really sampling Michael McDonald's 'I Keep Forgettin'?" Yes. Yes, they were.

And so we come to Yacht Rock Episode 7, which leaps ten years into the future, long past Yacht Rock's heyday. Initially, in 1982, when McDonald plays "I Keep Forgettin' " (featuring, of course, three members of Toto) to Loggins, the now hard-rocking songwriter is unimpressed. McDonald challenges him to a bet:

"God damn it Loggins, the smooth grooves of this song alone will make it to at least #2."

Although "I Keep Forgettin'" was a big hit, it nevertheless only managed to peak at #4. McDonald is undettered:

"I don't know how, and I don't know when, but my song will bounce back."

And Dr. Dre was right of course; Warren G was destined to be mellow, not aggressive. "Little brutha, you don't get it. You don't gotta be all gangsta to make it in the rap game. You gotta find a style that fits. And you're not hard. You're...smooth."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Discography Rediscovered: Trance to the Sun's "Atrocious Virgin" (2001)

Here I am again with a long overdue installment of Discography Rediscovered, the series in which I look back on older albums in my music collection. This time I'm taking a look at Trance to the Sun's magnificent "Atrocious Virgin".

I happened upon this album by complete and total chance. Working at my college radio station my senior year we received hundreds of albums by various labels in the hopes we'd give some of them airtime. I never had the privilege of listening to these albums, that was handled by higher ups, and frankly I didn't care because all I wanted to play was goth/electro songs I was familiar with anyways.

One day I saw this album sitting in the throw-away bin, someone having given it a listen and decided that it stunk. I saw the cover and something about it grabbed me. I thought it was by a trance group, but the art conveyed a more artful/indie band. I fished it out of the bin, took it back to my dorm room, and discovered one of my favorite albums.

I discovered that Trance to the Sun are very much not a trance group. Instead it's akin to goth rock but with more electronics and a heavy dose of psychadelic rock, with a bit of a shoegazing vibe. The center of the band is the intriguingly named Ashkelon Sain, with various females on vocals depending on album (this album features Ingrid Blue on vocals). Atrocious Virgin, I would learn, was to be the last album by this group.

Apparently the band had been around for most of the 90s but I'd never heard of them. In fact, most people in the 'goth' scene aren't very familiar with them either, and it's virtually impossible to find their albums, even through file-sharing sites (alas I'll probably never get my hands on the"Florakleptononomy" live album).

Back to the album. It's a perfectly crafted album with dense layers of music. The songs vary from energetic rockers such as "Thistle Lurid" to slow, plodding instrumentals (such as "Icicle Song" which comes immediately after, and perfectly compliments, the former track). The whole thing is held together beautifully by Ingrid Blue's lyrics. She sounds like Lewis Carroll's Alice gone all dark and moody. While I love Blue's lyrics and voice, I could see this as a point of contention for some. If you're not into moody goth lyrics pondering death, with vocals that at times sound like a little girl (see reference to Alice above), and at times which are hard to discern, I could understand not liking them.

The production on the album is also quite a feat. The liner notes state that the album was recorded and put together over the space of a year, but you could never tell. There's something Ashkelon Sain has done here that makes the album sound like it was recorded live right in front of you in the studio. It's really phenomenal.

I'm a sucker for long, drawn out songs with multiple movements (such as Jim Steinman produced Sisters of Mercy albums), and Atrocious Virgin does not disappoint. The final track, "Song of the Silent Crew" clocks in at an impressive 17 minutes, with parts ranging from goth rock, to drum circles, and back to psychadelic rock. In short, the song would be great to drop acid to.

However, my favorite track, at a mere 11 minutes long, is "Horse Head Lake". Taking a good five minutes just to get to the first verse, Horse Head Lake is a terrific odyssey of sound, from the opening strums of the guitar, to a short spoken segment by whom I presume is Mr. Sain, to Ingrid Blue's lyrics, to the ending minute consisting of the sound of distant rain, this is just such a fantastic piece of music. Alas, the only version I can find online is a condensed version that drops those first five minutes, listen to it here.

If my review hasn't piqued your interest, then maybe Tom Schulte from AMG will. He writes, "Trance to the Sun continues where the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd left off. A dense swirl of guitar dissonance, synth, and drum machine lying under the haunting voice of Ingrid Blue... this is an audiophile psychedelic comeback experience worthy of comparison to Pink Floyd's Meddle." Since I'm not nearly as familiar with Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd as some of the folks here at this blog, I'll leave you to decide... if you can actually find the damn album (and speaking of Pink Floyd, here's a cover off a previous album of Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun). Regardless, this is really one of my favorite albums in my collection, one I keep coming back to again and again.

Recommended tracks you can actually listen to:
Sleeping with the Natives
Thistle Lurid
Horse Head Lake (short cut)
Homewrecker (live)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ah, So That's Where My Pet Capybara Went

From Slate:
A capybara, the world’s largest rodent, is loose in California. The rodent, which officials estimate weighs between 100 and 120 pounds, was photographed last month outside of a wastewater treatment plant in Paso Robles. The semi-aquatic rodent is native to South America and normally isn’t found in the U.S. outside of a zoo. Capybaras can grow to the size of a large dog and typically prefer swampy habitats. Local officials say that someone probably had one as a pet before either losing it or letting it go.
Nibbles! I've been looking for you everywhere! Thank God you're safe.
Fish and Game spokesman Andrew Hughan told the paper that while the rodents are “weird-looking,” they normally aren’t dangerous. As a result, officials have no plans to set traps for the beast unless hunters or trappers go after it. "You can't hunt that thing," Hughan said.
No kidding. And yet, when I think about it, this might actually be only the second most disturbing thing I've ever seen in Paso Robles.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Yacht Rock: Episodes 4 And 5

Episode 4:

Although the "Rosanna inspired 'Rosanna' " rumor is, as I've established, essentially false, the Yacht Rock writers gleefully run with it here. When all is said and done, Toto manages to bring Michael McDonald to this stunning conclusion: "I never knew that smooth music could rock so hard." Also, apparently there really was a skit on SCTV making fun of Michael McDonald, but I'm not sure if the footage here is from the original sketch. But yes, here we have a satirical sketch within a satirical sketch.

Yacht Rock is blowing my mind.

Episode 5:

Thumbs up for the depiction of Michael Jackson as a macho womanizer: "Fuck this smooth music, Steve! I ain't that little boy anymore, understand? How am I supposed to stick my dick into some pussy, when you got me singing like one? Hard rock has got me and Eddie drilling more cooch than Black & Decker!" Ah, but at the sight of Koko's ghost, he transforms into the tender MOR crooner as seen on this infamous record sleeve:

And yes, that is a real duet between Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry. I have it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Toto's "Africa": Haunting, Embarrassing, Quasi-Racist, Or Some Combination Of All Three?

Say it's 1982, you just bought Toto IV and you've put it on the turntable for the first time. There's "Rosanna," there's "Make Believe," some rockers, some ballads, some hits, some filler - in other words, nothing too unexpected. Finally you come to the end of the album, track number 10. There's this quiet drumbeat. Some bizarrely synthesized percussion. The verse begins:
I hear the drums echoing tonight
But she hears only whispers of some quiet conversation
She's coming in 12:30 flight
The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation
I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say , "Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you"
What is this? Where's Toto? Where are we? Who's the old man? What's waiting there? What the hell is going on?

Suddenly there's a dramatic drum fill, and the Toto that we know and (slightly) love appears in its full splendor:
It's gonna take a lot to take me away from you
There's nothing that a hundred men or more could ever do
I bless the rains down in Africa
Gonna take some time to do the things we never had
See, you wouldn't have been crazy if you'd concluded up to this point that Toto was only capable of churning out some slick, generic pop-rock and nothing more. But you would have been wrong.

Who knew Toto had it in them? Maybe they didn't. Apparently in one UK survey, the line "I know that I must do what's right/Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti" was voted the worst lyric of all time. I used to think it was "rises like a lepress." Either way, it's problematic.

But who cares about the ridiculous lyrics when you can savor the atmosphere? It's the little touches that impress me most, like the subtle instrumental shifts that make the last go-around of the chorus particularly powerful. Listen to how the guitars enter at 3:16, then climb even higher at 3:27. Or the soaring vocal ad-libbing around 3:32. What really does it to me every time are those little, extra-emphatic piano chords at 3:42. And then - all is quiet again. A man on the savannahs of Africa must conceal his passion, only to reveal it when the moment strikes.

I didn't think such an atmospheric song would have a video that matches the images in my head. Toto, why did I underestimate you so?

Jeff Porcaro said of the song, "... a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past." This is hilarious, because what I picture when I hear this song is not really Africa, but some city-dwelling white guy's weird mental images of Africa. I can tell you exactly what this song reminds me of. It reminds of the displays of African wildlife I used to look at as a kid in the old Academy of Arts and Sciences in Golden Gate Park, with their cheap, fake backdrops and stiff tigers and zebras. And Boom! Toto was thinking almost the same thing.

Here we have David Paich in a rather urban-looking library, staring at a black librarian, with lots of masks and flaming torches surrounding him. So they just found some black girl to play the librarian? How much do you want to bet she was just some black girl, not African or anything, but probably just from Baltimore, and they said, "Hey, do you want to be in this video about Africa?"

Paich keeps flipping through books. What is he looking for? He's looking for a book called Africa. But little does he know, the book called Africa is sitting under the feet of Toto! At any rate, when he finally finds the book, a savage warrior throws a spear into the library, and the black librarian's glasses fall shattered to the floor as the building burns down in flames. You see, by trying to search for Africa, the White Man has been destroying Africa! Yes, Toto. Yes.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Better Late than Never: Zrbo's Favorite Game of 2009

This post was originally going to update my list of favorite games of 2009 when I discovered that I had never actually made a post detailing those games. So think of this as a lost post that should have been posted a year and a half ago... if I had actually gotten around to playing my now favorite game of 2009 back then.

And the winner is... Demon's Souls! Ah, Demon's Souls, how did I not notice you back when you arrived to critical acclaim at the tail end of 2009? Even my go-to videogame review site, Gamespot, gave it the 2009 Game of the Year award and I still paid little-to-no attention to this wonderful, wonderful gem of a game.

Perhaps I didn't pay much attention to (or chose to ignore) Demon's Souls because of the reviews. The reviews were all extremely positive, but they all said the same thing: that the game is brutally difficult. And it is. Make no mistake, this is not some videogame-as-art kind of game, this is truly a gamer's game.

What makes the game so difficult? Well, to begin with, Demon's Souls eschews many facets of modern game design that have become the norm. Take the simple concept of the checkpoint. In most games the game is constantly saving your progress in the background, so that when you die you lose a few minutes of time and are usually placed near the beginning of the encounter that got you killed. Demon's Souls dumps this concept and makes it so that if you die you have to start the ENTIRE level over again, with all the enemies back in place. Not only that, but the game punishes you further by cutting your life bar in half when you die and by making you lose all of the souls (i.e., experience points) you've acquired unless you make it back to the place where you died and touch your bloodstain on the ground to retrieve your collected souls.

While that's usually the most cited reason for difficulty in Demon's Souls, there's certainly other ways the developer's have gone out of their way to make life difficult. Get this: the game does not include a pause option - as in you can't stop the game. Enemies will often be waiting in hiding and you can't see them until it's too late. If you do manage to survive to the end of the level and make it to the boss, you will find an absolutely cunning foe that requires all the skills you've learned to stay alive. And if you die during the boss fight, well it's back to the beginning of the level again.

So why would anyone go through with this torture? Well, for starters, the gameplay is just fantastic. Your character always responds to each press of the button, and the flow of combat, block, thrust, parry, block, stab, is so well honed and refined. What makes it so rewarding is that when you mess up and die from an attack it's always your error. Rarely will you have the problem of "WTF, I hit the button and my character didn't respond!". The combat mechanics work, and work well. It's just such a pleasure to engage in combat, learning all the subtle nuances of blocking, parrying, and swinging a sword around.

Another reason why the game is so fantastic is the multiplayer system. It's not however your typical multiplayer system. In Demon's Souls you play in your own world, but you can see the ghosts of other people playing in their world. This helps alleviate the lonely eerieness and sense of isolation as you wander around imposing castles, caves, and the like. Seeing someone's ghost running around gives you a sense of comfort knowing that someone else in a parallel world is going through the same tribulations.

The game makes a really wonderful use of these ghosts through the use of bloodstains. Occasionally you will stumble upon a bloodstain on the ground. When you touch it a red ghost pops up and reenacts the last few moments of another player's life so you can see how they died (watch this for an example). This is extremely useful in such an unforgivingly brutal world. You approach a blind corner, see a bloodstain on the ground and decide to touch it. A red ghost appears, runs around the blind corner, and then moments later comes running back only to keel over and die. That lets you know that there's something waiting around the corner. It's an absolutely brilliant mechanic, in that it can forewarn you about something without having the developer's resort to a sign or an NPC saying "hey you need to be careful ahead".

In addition to the bloodstain feature is a system in which other players can leave short messages scrawled on the ground that give you hints as to what to expect. It might say "Beware of the enemy ambush ahead" giving you yet another leg up. Coupled with this a recommendation system where you can recommend a message if you find it useful. The more people who recommend a message, the more likely it is to remain there, and every time someone recommends one of your messages you get a small health boost. It's an ingeniously wonderful system.

I haven't even begun to talk about the game world itself. It's a bleak, imposing world that marries elements of horror with traditional fantasy/Tolkien tropes. All the names have a decidedly Eastern European flavor to them (Boletaria, Vingard, etc.), plus there's a bit of Lovecraftian horror going on (such as the final boss known as 'the Great Old One' who looks suspiciously Cthulhu-esque). The various bosses have equally imposing names: The Adjudicator, Dirty Colossus, Maneater, Maiden Astraea, The Old Hero. The design of the various castles and settings really does evoke a sort of foggy-streets-of-Prague-at-night feeling. Overall, it's a wonderfully terrific atmosphere that further adds to the feeling of misery and gloom.

So, there you have it. Demon's Souls is a fantastic game that ignores traditional game mechanisms while bringing some wonderfully new mechanics along. When you finally manage to make your way through a forbidding castle, careful every step of the way, and manage to defeat the boss at the end, the game truly makes you feel a sense of accomplishment few other games can achieve. It's not hard for me to say that Demon's Souls is not only my favorite game of 2009, but one of my favorite games of all time.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Ubiquity Of Toto

The average man on the street may know Toto as a cheesy band that had several cheesy hit singles. What he probably doesn't know is that the musicians in Toto, apart and occasionally together, played on almost every single mainstream pop album ever.

If you were recording an album in LA in the late '70s and early '80s, Toto were your guys. Steely Dan? Call Toto. Don Henley? Call Toto. Lionel Richie? Jackson Browne? Stevie Nicks? George Benson? Call Toto.

Here's how omnipresent Toto were: they even played on parts of Pink Floyd's The Wall. Don't tell most Pink Floyd fans that.

Not only could Toto play on your album; they could help you write it. Witness Boz Scaggs' Silk Degrees, in which half the songs were co-written by David Paich. Check out this Yacht-tastic groove from drummer Jeff Porcaro on "Lowdown":

Most significantly, Toto performed on almost the entirety of Thriller, and Steve Porcaro co-wrote "Human Nature," my favorite Michael Jackson song ever. So even if nobody realized it, they were all listening to Toto, almost all the freaking time.

Around 1977, this loose collection of studio professionals, including a seemingly limitless number of Porcaro brothers, decided that, hey, if they were already playing together so much of the damn time, maybe they should just form a band and get it over with. A bland, faceless corporate band, but a band nonetheless. It's sort of like one of those opposite sex friendships where you're not really attracted to each other but you've gotten to know each other so well and the tension has been building for so long you just get lazy and say, "Why don't we just go out with each other so we don't have to keep looking for someone else?"

Toto scored right out of the box in 1978 with the very catchy and very meaningless "Hold The Line":

Although they continued to work as steadily as ever, the hits under their own name began to dry up. That's when Steve Porcaro decided to date Rosanna Arquette. Actually, despite the widely spread rumor, according to Wikipedia, "Rosanna" is not about Rosanna Arquette at all:
This song has been widely misunderstood to refer to the band member Steve Porcaro's defunct relationship with actress Rosanna Arquette. However, this was actually just a coincidence. The rest of the song had already been finished, and Paich needed a name that fit well into the chorus.
Well OK, but gee, I wonder how anybody ever got the impression it was about Rosanna Arquette. They could have picked another three-syllable name, right? And no, that is not her in the video.

Also, did you know that the drum pattern on "Rosanna" is called the "Rosanna Shuffle"? I didn't know that either.
This song is routinely referenced by drummers as being a perfect example of a "half-time shuffle" (Purdie shuffle) and shows, "definite jazz influence". Featuring ghost notes and derived from the combination of what Jeff Porcaro calls the "Bernard Purdie half time shuffle" and the "John Bonham beat" (from "Fool in the Rain") with the well-known Bo Diddley beat. The pattern is notoriously difficult and played by Jeff Porcaro on the recording.
"Ghost notes"? Toto, you're spooking me out more than Vincent Price's monologue on "Thriller."

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Yacht Rock: Episodes 1 And 2

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we finally come to Episodes 1 and 2 of Yacht Rock. Hopefully, courtesy of my brief Yacht Rock tutorial, you will now grasp the hilarity of every obscure reference and subtle joke, as I do.

Here at the start, I think the show hadn't quite found the proper mockery/affection balance, leaning perhaps a little too far toward mockery, but this would correct itself in time. I should also mention that the YouTube video quality of Episode 1 is not so hot, making the show look cheaper than it really is, but bear with me: all subsequent episodes look better. Most of the characters, as we've established, are real, but I can confirm that Koko Goldstein is an entirely fictitious creation. Christopher Cross' real name really was Christopher Geppert, and yes, that is a piece of straw in his mouth, supposedly signifying his innocent country hayseed background. Without further ado:

Episode 1:

Episode 2:

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Meekness Of Christopher Cross

It's been said that the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" was written about Christopher Cross. While probably not true, it might as well have been. Christopher Cross lacked, shall we say, visual charisma. At least the similarly pudgy Elton John dressed up as Donald Duck and Mozart. Christopher Cross just dressed up as ... Christopher Cross.

But who needs looks when you've got such a ... weird, wimpy voice? Cross's self-titled debut album, loaded with soft rock gems, famously won the Album of the Year Grammy over The Wall. Other albums released that year: London Calling, Tusk, Fear Of Music, Unknown Pleasures, Off The Wall. But clearly none of them held a candle to Christopher Cross!

I find it hard to buy Cross as a gun-toting outlaw. "I was born the son of a lawless man/Always spoke my mind with a gun in my hand." Yeah, what, like a glue gun? Michael McDonald's transcendent backing vocals almost make me believe it. Maybe. Not really.

More convincing is "Sailing," which may very well be the purest four minutes and fifteen seconds of Yacht Rock ever recorded.

Yet Cross's finest moment may have come at the hands of a resuscitated Burt Bacharach and a drunken Dudley Moore. Even the black guy with a tambourine is gripped by the song's melancholy power. "Arthur's Theme (The Best That You Can Do)" would also hold a prominent place in my as-yet-to-be-assembled "Greatest Saxophone Solos of the '80s" mix.