Music Monday: The Gandharvas and The Commodores

December 29, 2008

The Gandharvas — Watching the Girl

I grew up in New York state, right across the St. Lawrence Seaway from Ontario, Canada. So most of my youth was spent listening to Canadian radio, which is required by Big Brother law to broadcast a certain amount of nationalistic propaganda made-in-Canada media content.

Living now in the heartland of America, it’s strange to casually mention any number of Canadian bands — Barstool Prophets, The Tragically Hip, The Gandharvas — and get slackjawed stares in return. A few here and there remember Our Lady Peace, but nobody in Ohio has heard of Econoline Crush or Cowboy Junkies.

So here, American friends. Let me act as an ambassador for my penguin-eating, maple-syrup-snorting, hockey-puck-humping, bomber-hat-and-flannel-wearing cousins in our 51st state to the north. Let me share with you a taste of the boys from London, Ontario, the pride of Toronto’s 102.1 The Edge.

Even in the band’s height (they broke up in 2000, shortly after I headed to college in the Great Lakes Region) they didn’t grab a whole lot of airtime. Watching the Girl seemed to ignite a red-hot fan base for about a month, and then it was gone — which is strange, considering how I always thought its artistic invocation of Norse (Ouroboros) and Greek (Sirens) mythology was extremely attractive.

The Commodores — Lady (You Bring Me Up)

My father is a short, compact, curly-haired white man of German and English decent. If he slapped a yamika on his head, he could easily pass for a rabbi. But that never stopped him from thinking he was black, at least when it came to his LPs.

His vinyl collection (still very much in use to this day, and I am hoping to inherit it) is built around prog rock classics like Styx’s Grand Illusion and, strangely, soul brothers like The Commodores, Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye.

When I was little, he would crank up Brick House or Easy and dance around in a pitiful white man’s mockery of rhythm. The memories of that dancing still burn.

But now that I’m quickly approaching 30 and have lived through a full generational cycle of musical styles, a horrible truth is sinking in: My father, though I rail against the idea, had excellent taste. Lady (You Bring Me Up) probably isn’t the coolest song I could have mentioned here, but Dad would be able to tell you it’s got tight composition, a jumpin’ signature bass line, and just the right mix of brass to make it indelibly good, and a more or less permanent fixture on my iPod.


Justice League: The New Frontier — Kennedy-era problems, Art Deco packaging, grim trappings

December 28, 2008

FROM JASON’S 42-INCH PLASMA — My wife hates cartoons. Can’t stand them. Thinks they’re worthless, for kids. Immature.

Honey, I love you. But you’re an idiot.

(She really liked that line, looking over my shoulder in bed.)

What she just doesn’t understand is that cartoons are just a medium, like paintings, friezes, sculptures, sitcoms, musicals, or ink drawings. There are vapid hour-long dramas on television; there are comic book literary masterpieces; there are ingenious marionette plays; there are worthless 1,000-page epics.

Just like any other medium, there are trashy pulp cartoons and amazing works that can stand with Candide or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

This is the argument the wife and I waged Saturday night as I tuned into Justice League: The New Frontier (2008) on Cartoon Network. Her verdict: Stupid comic book animations with no scholarly value. But if she had bothered to look beyond the pretty colors and the usually-for-kids channel on which they appeared, she would have seen a surprisingly thoughtful story.

This is a tale that starts with a third-person suicide and a point-blank wartime killing in silhouette. It’s grim-edged throughout, exploring justifications for revenge slayings by rape victims, nationalist jingoism, government intrusion on individual rights, space-bound nuclear ethics, profound self-esteem issues, McCarthyism, and the tension between pacifistic and survivalist ideals.

None of these topics get a Boston Legal-level analysis. But they are used to exact a wide range of pressures that drive the protagonists to act as heroes, far more than any of the superpowers that have been thrust upon them. A web of origin stories show why J’onn J’onzz decides to help Earthlings, how Hal Jordan’s resolute pacifism allowed him to wield the unimaginable power of the ring, and how Barry Allen came to terms with his role as a “lesser” hero.

These are Kennedy-era heroes facing Cold War problems with a modern perspective. And they’re coated with an Art Deco face that is as much Mad Men retro cool as it is Andy Warhol-ish. The animation style is at once Golden Age in its optimism and Silver Age in its pesimism.

These are all very familiar hallmarks of the animated DC Universe, and for good reason. The man driving the action is Bruce Timm, creator of Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League. The New Frontier takes Timm’s progressive darkness to a new intensity, and a marked plateau in terms of talent. No sci-fi production is complete without the help of Keith David, and TNF also makes use of David “Angel” Boreanaz, geek hero Neil Patrick Harris, Lucy “Xena” Lawless, Kyra Sedgewick, Brook Shields, John Heard (you’d recognize him if you saw him), and Kyle MacLachlan (think Twin Peaks).

Luckily, this iteration of the Justice League of America lays off the attention to Superman and Batman, opting instead to probe the motivations of “second tier” characters. And it uses the threat posed by a malevolent, Cthulu-esque, psychic, flying island that spawns prehistoric monsters (The Centre) as a plot-driving device and characterization catalyst rather than the focus of the story.

It’s worth a watch, scoring a respectably modest 7.3 on IMDB.


Music Monday: Louis Jordan

December 22, 2008

jordanMore than Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, or Elvis, Louis Jordan (1908-1975) is responsible for rock and roll.

Back in the 1940s, he fused boogie woogie and big band sounds to create “jump blues,” an up-beat kind of bebop that he crafted with both alto sax and his outrageous lyrics.

In a time of barbaric racial divide, Jordan demolished segregation on the charts by hitting the Top 10 on both the white and “colored” lists, selling about four million records. With help from his band, The Tympany Five, he had 54 singles on the charts in the 40s alone. Eighteen of them his number one.

I’m a child of the 80s, and far removed from those old rock-jazz roots. The first I stumbled on Louis Jordan was on hearing a cover of Knock Me a Kiss in 1996’s Swingers (one of the few times I’ve liked Vince Vaughn).

As soon as I heard it, I had to have the song. It took a long time to find it, mainly because YouTube — not even MP3s — didn’t exist at the time. When user-submitted video content started hitting the web, very few Jordan videos were among them, and authentic vids of many of my favorites (Saturday Night Fish Fry, Beans and Corn Bread, Knock Me a Kiss) still can’t be found.

Here are a few that are definitely worth watching:

Beware

Jordan was reportedly married five times, so he purported to know all about the vices of manipulative women. Sure, the song is a little misogynistic. But take it from another married guy — that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong.

And if you go for a walk, and she listens while you talk / She’s tryin’ to hook you.

If she grabs your hand and says, “darling, you’re such a nice man” / Beware, I’m telling you.

Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby

I put this in Jordan’s three best songs. It’s simple. It’s short. But it’s got a very catchy melody and a smoky trumpet hook that’s impossible to resist.

Of course, the grammar is loathsome, but if you can forgive Horse with No Name, you can forgive Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.

Caldonia

This song is arguably more about Jordan’s personality than musical merit. It’s wrapped around what we consider today to be a very elementary bass line, but where it shines is in its indictment of the title woman’s faults, and Jordan’s insistence on loving her anyway.

I mentioned he was a little sexist, right? To prove I can be just as bad, I’m going to say the cheesecake on the piano sure had some nice gams.

Knock Me a Kiss

This song is terrific, but I had to cheat to find a version worth posting. This isn’t Louis Jordan’s rendition, but Ina Ray Hutton’s 1943 performance tour to US military installations.


A quick question…

December 22, 2008

FROM ANDREW’S MIND AT 2:30 IN THE MORNING–Why does the media and the public refer to the head of special political positions “czars” in America? It just seems like a slap in the face of our government to call an elected official the title of an eastern European monarch.


We’re trying out the Diablo-esque MMO, Red Stone

December 18, 2008

FROM JASON AND ANDREW’S INVENTORY — We decided that a co-op dungeon crawler was in order, but had quite the time settling on a title. Neither of us really cared about World of Warcraft when we tried it, but we are both jonesing for the release of Diablo III.

So in picking over a mind-blowingly inclusive list of MMORPGs out there (free to play, but most with in-game options to purchase upgrades), we chose Red Stone:

I was hoping for something that would tax my new NVIDIA 9800GT a little more, but once in-game I found that so far the 2D gameplay is not only fun, but has the potential to be quite addicting.

Of course, we have friends who are ardently pitted against point-and-click rogue-style games because they require little skill; I love the exploration and the constant search for upgrades. I love leveling. I love my JRPGs. I love getting new abilities and skills, new combos, and new equipment.

Anyway, there will probably be a forthcoming review.

Until then, you can have some art. I hunted around and realized there were no Red Stone dock icons anywhere to be found (at least not in a 15-minute Google search), so I had to make one for my Rocket Dock bar.

While I was at it, I slipped the simple Photoshop style onto a few other pieces of Red Stone art. Total creation time: 12 minutes. Download them all by clicking here.

redstone011redstone02redstone03

redstone04redstone05redstone06


Remember these? The 10 best Atari 2600 games

December 17, 2008

atari26002FROM JASON’S FAVORITE WOOD-PANELED CONSOLE — Forget Pitfall. Screw Ms. Pacman. To hell with Pole Position, Joust, and Asteroids.

I want to talk about the games that I played so much as a kid that I still dream about them sometimes at night.

My uncle had an Atari 2600 when I was three, and he introduced me to low-skill, low-learning curve classic Outlaw. Over the next two years, I obsessed over the machine whenever I was at his house. Finally, my parents caved to my whining when they found a used Atari set for a few bucks.

I didn’t give that sucker up until well into high school.

Households back then tended to only have one television. With some spare birthday money, I managed to grab a second one for $15 at a yard sale when I was seven — it was black and white only and even had a UHF dial. It was the Atari TV, and it went in my bedroom.

I pillaged flea markets. I raked through bins at the Salvation Army. I obsessed over electronics tables at yard sales. Pretty soon, $1 or $2 or $3 at a time, the old TV was swimming up to its rabbit ears in piles of cartridges. My room started to smell of the dust that burnt on the tapes’ contacts.

The Atari never went out of use during the Nintendo revolution, or even when the Genesis came out. It was, even back then, hardcore. Old school. It was where you built your vidjagame street cred.

Sadly, my mother sold it when I went to college, and I’ve cursed her blasted name down through the years. Luckily, there emulators, and you can download Stella to play any of the following games. Grab the ROMs here.

Now, I’ve shied away for the past year on posting any “top 10” lists, but here I just can’t resist. These are my favorites; I know them inside and out. And I’m sure I have the order correct:

#10 — Berzerk

There wasn’t much in the way of fragging when it came to four-bit graphics, but Berzerk gave us a primitive shooter experience in eight degrees of freedom. Like James Cameron’s Terminator, this evil robot epic was also the result of a dream. Designer Alan McNeil said the idea came to him in his sleep.

But even though Jack Thompson was nowhere to be found, the real nightmare started in 1981 when a 19-year-old boy died of a heart attack while playing. Another boy, 18, died the following year after playing Berzerk.

Personally, the great thing for me about so many low-res Atari games was bringing your imagination to the screen. The cartridge cover showed a Luke Skywalker-type figure in white blasting away at rotund robots, and back in those days you kind of had to overlay that over the screen in your mind. In a series of technological dungeons with electrifed walls, flying laser beams, and a malevolent smiley face named “Evil Otto” on your tail….

#9 — Enduro

Activision usually had top-rate games, and Enduro, though simple, was no exception. This is a speed and reflexes test — an early no-shooting twitcher. The goal isn’t to wreck other cars or fire machine guns. Instead, you just have to take a queue from Ricky Bobby and go fast.

Through sun, snow, dusk, night, and fog, you’ve got to pass 200 cars with the odometer going.

There’s not much else to say, just that the rendering, third-person view, and concept are executed so much more beautifully than other racing titles like Night Driver or Pole Position. There’s also after-game content; after hitting the magic 200, you can keep going as long as you want.

#8 — Warlords

First there was Pong. Then there was Breakout. When Warlords was released in 1980, it combined the best of all the other bouncing-ball titles by using the 2600’s paddles, allowing up to four players at a time, letting players hold and aim the ball, and adding kill targets inside the “castles.”

Warlords got a lot of play in my house because it was one of few 2600 games to let many players in on the action at the same time, rather than taking turns. Rounds were quick and fun, and rarely ended without a jaded loser swinging a paddle at their oppressor like nunchucks.

#7 — Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

There were some real loser Star Wars titles for early consoles (Jedi Arena for the 2600 being among the mind-blowingly bad ones). But watching the movies, there were a few scenes that any sane 8-year-old boy wanted to play, and I’ve always had a big chubby for the Battle of Hoth.

Face it: AT-AT walkers are pretty much the coolest sci-fi transports ever. They’re like giant dogs or horses with the ability to crush groundlings and the firepower to zap snowspeeders out of the sky. So when they tromped across the cover of an Atari cartridge, I knew I had to own it.

As the pilot of a snowspeeder (you had to believe you were Luke Skywalker and not some lame cannon-fodder Rebel), you fly against hordes of AT-ATs marching toward your power generators. Sting them on the nose enough and they’ll change colors, eventually exploding. Or you can hit their flashing sweet spot, causing instant destruction.

My only gripe was the lack of tow cable trip-wires — at least until the Nintendo 64 gave me Shadows of the Empire. But that’s another story.

#6 — Solaris

Space Harrier gets a lot of credit for its semi-3D rail-shooter asthetic. But Solaris (and Battlezone, too — which just barely got edged off the list) proved that even the Atari with its limited memory could fake 3D first-person views.

Solaris, in many ways, is just a graphically superior version of the earlier Star Raiders (both are written by Douglas Neubauer). It lets you choose outer space battlegrounds from a grid and jump there through hyperspace, as well as allowing players to skim the surfaces of planets to refuel and pick up passengers.

The rendering was super-smooth and the backdrops (for Atari, at least) were jaw-dropping. It was obvous from launch that Neubauer cared about providing a simulation experience that cheap 2600 fliers didn’t. He gave me a nice combination between Star Trek strategy and Star Wars trigger-happiness.

#5 — Cosmic Ark

They must be cows. That’s it. After years of thinking about it, they must be cows that I am trying to abduct with my UFO in Cosmic Ark.

Space cows. Possibly robot cows. You can never really tell with Atari games.

Look, this one ranks pretty high for being such an unsophisticated game. There are only two stages, repeating and increasing in velocity. In the first, the player fires in four fixed directions to ward off a meteor shower. In the second, you get to flying down a mini-saucer from the mother ship to pick up (what must be) cows from a planet’s surface while avoiding a laser field.

What really makes this work, for me at least, is the UFO mythology, four-bit though it might be.

#4 — Demon Attack

There were a lot of  bottom-up shooters in the post-Space Invaders era, but Demon Attack had by far the best-looking baddies. This was altogether different than Galaxian or Phoenix (Atari sued Imagic because of Demon Attack‘s “similiarities” to Phoenix). Instead of small enemies and fixed formations, Demon Attack presented bigger aliens in swarms of three.

The monsters, portrayed on the cartridge cover as MechaGodzillas, materialize from both sides of the screen — a novelty — and they fly in unpredictable patterns. Early in the game, they start to split into multiple aliens, and what begin as clusters of falling bullets turn into lasers.

The game would have benefited from a scrolling background or at least a starfield or planetscape. But the gameplay itself was ace compared to its competitors.

#3 — Yars’ Revenge

What could have been mistaken for a lame house fly was perceived instead as a ferocious insectoid warrior, thanks to the cover art on the Yars’ Revenge cartridge.

Inane buzzing aside, piloting Yar around is fun. The player has to use Yars’ firepower to shoot through protective blocks, get to a target, get a special missile, and then time it just right to hit the target from across the screen. A later level surrounds the target in a rotating shield of blocks (a nifty trick by programmer Howard Scott Warshaw).

That Warshaw came up with a game as clever and enduring as Yars’ Revenge is something, considering he was responsible for the uber-stinker E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Looking back on both games, it might be fair to say he was good at coming up with pioneering game mechanics, such as using Yars’ jaws to eat through blocks, or E.T.’s neck-stretching flight.

Those mechanics kept me hooked despite the limited number of levels (the most common and tragic flaw of 2600 games, in my opinion).

#2 — Vanguard

There would be no R-Type without Vanguard.

For years, I couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe because it was such a good game, there didn’t seem to be any free copies floating around the used electronics circuit, so it became somewhat of a holy grail. But rarity wasn’t all. This was a truly great game to play, and offered so much in the way of variety that Yars’ Revenge never could.

There were the hordes of ever-changing varieties of enemies flying at you. There were the cave walls to watch out for, and the gas guage to keep your eyes on. There were the energy blocks that would grant temporary invinsibility (they not only made you invulnerable to enemies and lasers, but let you fly through walls, too). There was the ability to shoot in the four cardinal directions instead of straight ahead. The ship’s navigation was sluggish to add challenge.

And best of all, the screens changed from side-scrolling to top-down perspectives on varying stages to add a bit of a switch-up. There were traps and puzzles to get past.

Truth to tell, Vanguard could easily be #1 on this list, if it weren’t for…

#1 — River Raid

Maybe my obsession with River Raid had something to do with seeing Iron Eagle and Top Gun. The 80s were all about flyboys and speed. And, you know, lots of bullets and explosions.

But Activision also gave us a title that had excellent level design and gameplay gimicks to compliment the jet-jockey theme. The long river gave us non-repeating levels with increasing challenge and zero load times. Fuel was a factor, but a lot of the fun was in seeing how many fuel tanks you could destroy while keeping the needle off empty.

You could throttle up and down. There were helicopters and aircraft carriers and enemy planes and bridges to destroy. But the big problem, even though it was thematically accurate, was the Atari 2600 joystick. It was too stiff, which made flying hard. What changed the entire name of the game was the Sega Genesis.

Sega designed a D-pad to keep up with Nintendo, but the geniuses made it a nine-pin jack that was backward-compatible with the 2600. Even better, a third party made a touch-sensitive Genesis pad that made thumb-jamb a problem of the past. It also made flight through narrow river cliffs much more convenient.


Help Bush avoid loose shoes

December 16, 2008

FROM THE GIRL WHO DATES THE GUY WHO, ALONG WITH ANOTHER GUY, MAKES THOSE PODCASTSOur friend Emily of the Bunny People is a graphic and game designer in New York. After ol’ W was assaulted by an angry Iraqi protester Sunday, Em sat down with an accomplice and created this hilarious game that lets you take control of Bushy and help him avoid a horde of suddenly airborne footwear:

duckbush

There’s not a whole lot to it, but it’s hilarious (especially the faces W makes) and topical, and that’s enough for peasants like us.