Music Thursday: Jack Johnson and Echo & the Bunnymen

May 29, 2008

Jack Johnson — Rodeo Clowns

It’s an overused device, sure, but imagine for a second that Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Tony Hawk had a lovechild. It would probably look a lot like Jack Johnson.

I first got turned on to Johnson through G Love, who featured Rodeo Clowns and Jack on his 1999 album Philadelphonic. The syncopated acoustics are just low-key enough to trigger visions of morning-after-prom sunrises or 11 p.m. tiki lounge acts. That’s fitting, since Johnson is Hawaiian. I think it’s that island mentality that appears to me. It’s hard to imagine him playing anywhere far away from a body of water.

Another thing that I like about his music is that it’s always so understated. He has a habit of singing close to the mic, which lends a bit of intimacy — perfect for a love song or soulful disclosures about loss and healing.

I also recommend Flake and Better Together.

Space


Echo & the Bunnymen — The Killing Moon

For years I confused Echo & the Bunnymen for The Cure. That’s not a bad thing in my book.

Both bands are products of the post-punk move into the early 80s movement that would eventually become alternative. And both Robert Smith and Ian McCulloch sport periods of very pointy hair. But moreover — in case you haven’t noticed — I have a crushing weakness for very dark new wave ballads, and the Bunnymen deliver with The Killing Moon.

The single from the Liverpool boys’ 1984 album Ocean Rain didn’t exactly catch fire in the States until much later than The Bunnymen were hits in the UK. But as America gradually grew more aware of The Smiths and Joy Division, the band gained a foothold on top 40 radio. It even provided a niche for psychedelic hold-overs not quite ready to embrace the goth aesthetic.

Check out The Cutter and Bring on the Dancing Horses.

Advertisements

Music Monday: Silversun Pickups and Reel Big Fish

May 19, 2008

Silversun Pickups — Lazy Eye

This video is 1980s-a-licious. I suppose everybody goes through this as they grow up, but it was shocking to see some of these old styles come back into fashion. There’s the girl’s bob haircut, the leather jacket, the long hair and striped shirts, the teen dance club. The entire thing reminds me of Some Kind of Wonderful (Andrew and I agree Lea Thompson was haaawt back in the day).

But the song stands on its own, too. It’s got that laid-back bass line that always gets me in the groove, and it gradually escalates in the middle to a primal scream. Enjoy.

Space.


Space.

Reel Big Fish — Take On Me

Forget for a minute that this song headlined the Basketball soundtrack. I went to great pains to find a video sans Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Instead, focus on how catchy Reel Big Fish managed to get this remake of A-Ha’s classic 1985 video (which Andrew and I love — it’s undoubtedly the best of the early MTV videos from back when the channel had actual music). Radio never really treated ska as anything more than a fad, and some (Andrew) would argue that’s just fine. Not me. I think horns are horridly underutilized, and I often wish we could fall back on the good ol’ days when Chicago and Earth, Wind and Fire actually got respect for playing technically superior tunes.

God, I hope my father never finds this blog and reads that last sentence. He’s blare those two groups non-stop on a record player when I was growing up, and I made a show of hating his music. I’m never going to change my tune about Barry Manilow, though, Dad.


Week of Cartoons – Day 7: Animal-themed superhero team grab bag

March 28, 2008

thunderhobbit.pngFROM JASON’S BABYSITTER’S HOUSE — In a production studio basement somewhere in America, animators were throwing darts at a board covered with animal names.

ThunderCats was a smash hit. SilverHawks saw modest distribution. What kind of animals could they mutate into man-shapes next? THWACK! That dart stuck straight into fish, and TigerSharks hit the air. Rankin/Bass might as well have made LightningDogs, PlatinumPumas, or RhinoWolves.

The dying animation company needed a hit, and it didn’t really get one in TigerSharks — except that it strung along a legion of bratty fans like me, who curled up in a bean bag chair at the babysitter’s house in Salem, Oregon, every day after school to watch the epic tales Rankin/Bass churned out.

It turned out ThunderCats had the greatest staying power (I see the logo on the t-shirts of overweight, balding, middle-aged men all over the place today). TigerSharks, unfortunately, only had a one-season run and that marked the death knell for Rankin/Bass.

It’s too bad, because the company gave us some of the greatest Christmas and geek movies of all time, including those old stop-motion favorites: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Little Drummer Boy, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Jack Frost.

Surprisingly, the very same production house that gave us Lion-O, Jaga, Tygra, Panthro, Cheetara, WilyKat, WilyKit, and Snarf also gave us the animated The Hobbit movie and its successor, The Return of the King. It also made The Wind In the Willows, the Jackson 5ive cartoon, and several Pinocchio and Oz incarnations.

But I’ll always love Rankin/Bass for those three legendary, formulaic, afternoon cartoons:


ThunderCats (1985)


Part 2 | Part 3

You know this one. Feline heroes tag-team to take on Mumm-Ra, the immortal Egyptian-ish sorcerer. At times, the animation is very darkly reminiscent of comic book panels, but at others it’s almost Hannah Barbara in quality. ThunderCats was more or less a He-Man clone — right down to the magic swords, mix of tech and magic, and demonic henchmen. There was also a huge roster of unique “manimals” populating Third Earth, some aiding and some attacking the ‘Cats.

The pilot/origin story are linked above, telling how the ThunderCats fled their home planet, Thundera, and crash-landed on Third Earth with the Mutants of Plun-Darr in pursuit. Lion-O starts as a young child, but after waking from a long cryogenic sleep discovers he’s aged and wards off his enemies with the Sword of Omens.

Awesomesauce.


SilverHawks (1986)

I love Batman Beyond, but I think DC was stealing character designs and tech ideas straight out of SilverHawks. Super-powered costumes with armpit wings, inhuman strength, and a host of gadgets? Sounds the same. What set the two apart was that Terry McGinnis was wearing a suit while Quicksilver, Bluegrass, The Copper Kid, Steelheart, and Steelwill were actually bionic beings who sacrificed part of their humanity for their new machine bodies.

Okay, so Mon-Star is a bit of a transparent “yeah, this is the bad guy” name. But the show wasn’t going for subtlety — just pure 80s buddy cop adrenaline and explosions. It slapped you over the head with its police-in-space mentality, going so far as to make one character more or less a Texas ranger wannabe.

Do I need to point out the R2-D2 whistles and warbles that Copper Kid used to communicate? No, I don’t think I do.


TigerSharks (1987)

This one was really obscure.

TigerSharks aired as part of The Comic Strip, which I could swear aired on the USA Network, though I’m not positive. It was a long time ago. I could only watch it at the home of the lady who babysat me on Saturday mornings while my mother was at work, and it shared a tiny fraction of a half-hour slot with three other short ‘toons (Karate Kat, Mini-Monsters, and Street Frogs) in a strung-together-serials kind of way.

There’s not much to say about TigerSharks, for a few reasons: 1) It was so unabashedly a re-skinning of ThunderCats, 2) there were so few episodes produced before it was canned (like tuna), and 3) the only depth it had was under water.

Basically, a bunch of human crime fighters could jump in a special tank that temporarily mutated them into mer-fish-people-guys (a mako shark, a walrus, a dolphin, an octopus chick… A SEA HORSE?!). Their submarine could leave the planet of Lion-O Spaghetti-O Water-O and venture into space.

I’ll let it go at that.


Week of Cartoons – Day 5: Muppet Babies (1984)

March 27, 2008


Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S RUNAWAY IMAGINATION — If you think you’re too manly or cool to watch Muppet Babies, then you’re probably just an asshole with low self-esteem.

Sure, it was about toddlers modeled on felt puppets. So what? Muppet Babies was brilliant because it was the Robot Chicken of its time — and it had a heart of gold.

The Jim Henson Company (operating under the umbrella of Marvel, surprisingly enough), strung together pop references like candy necklaces. The writers spoofed Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, The Jetsons, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Back to the Future, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Adventures in Babysitting, Conan the Barbarian, Lawrence of Arabia, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Oliver Twist, E.T., The Wizard of Oz, Miami Vice, The Lone Ranger, Peanuts, The Twilight Zone, and Family Ties.

And that’s just going from memory. There were a lot more.

In case you missed it, Muppet Babies ran for six years on CBS. At the height of its popularity, the station ran three episodes back-to-back-to-back. Even after the show was cancelled, CBS kept it in reruns until 1992.

The ‘toon followed young versions of Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter, Skeeter (Scooter’s twin sister who was invented just for the show), Rowlf, and Animal. Sometimes they were joined by Bunson and Beaker, Bean, and one time by Janice. They all lived in a nursery and were cared for by a faceless woman called Nanny, who wore green-striped, knee-high socks.

Gonzo was by far the best of the cast. His schtick was bringing the bizarre, the red herring-ed, the geeky, and the sci-fi to the show. When everyone else was imagining pretty traditional or mundane things, he was way out in left field with the most oddball and deviant ideas, and I always identified with that.

Imagination is what Muppet Babies was all about. You’d see the Muppets’ fantasies as if they were real, like daydream sequences but with more substance. They would imagine flying through space. They would imagine building their own amusement parks. They would imagine being in dark dungeons or running from monsters — and they would react as if every single situation were real.

Looking back, this show was tremendously liberating and formative to me. The lessons were obvious: Think for yourself. Don’t be embarrassed to have a rich fantasy life. Creativity is a virtue. Childishness and complex, adult ideas can co-exist. It’s okay to be weird. Ideas can be fun and philosophically deep at the same time. Don’t always take things at face value.

Typing this now, I’m starting to realize this cartoon — this silly children’s show — may have had a strong influence on my early cognitive development, and that could explain a lot about why I’m a professional writer today. Imagination is a right-brain function and that hemisphere is associated with intuition, synthesis, creativity, art, emotion, language, problem-solving, and analysis of conceptual relationships. Those are the tools of my trade.

Of course, you can’t talk about Muppet Babies without discussing mixed media. The show would use live-action footage from movies and television — often from old public domain films or documentaries — right along with the animation. One running gag had Gonzo open the nursery closet to find a live action setting behind it, like Dracula or Alex P. Keaton. Internet legend has it that all of these licensed shots are why the cartoon hasn’t made it to DVD yet.

I would buy all of the seasons. Until then, a couple of awesome people have uploaded lots of episodes to YouTube for us to enjoy. Here are a few links:

Where No Muppet Has Gone Before
Out of This World History
Journey to the Center of the Nursery
The Great Muppet Cartoon Show
Muppet Land


Week of Cartoons – Day 1: Dino Riders (1988)

March 23, 2008

dino_riders_logo.png


Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S 13″ KITCHEN TV — There are two things that 8-year-old boys like: Dinosaurs and outer space. When I was that age, I couldn’t be bothered with the big pirates versus ninjas question. I just wanted a triceratops mounted with a laser cannon.

Along came Dino Riders and my world was complete.

Transformers had already set the standard for using cartoons as 22-minute ads for toys, and Dino Riders called on Peter Cullen and Frank Welker — again — to pretty much re-skin the eternal Transformers struggle with a whole bucket of prehistoric awesome. It was by all accounts a flop, with just 14 episodes made and 13 hitting the air. But its brevity belied the widespread appeal of the toys, which somehow managed to stay in my bedroom until the mid-90s.

The plot, briefly (it’s part of the show opener anyway): The Valorians are a peaceful people fighting the good fight against the evil Rulons. When the Valorians use an experimental time-travel warp drive to escape their attackers, the Rulons lock on a tractor beam. Both factions are hurled back in time to prehistoric Earth, where they use their advanced technology to carry on the eternal struggle.

Oh, did I mention that the good guys are telepaths and the bad guys are snake men, ant men, and shark men?

Dino Riders had the same premise flaw as all other 1980s cartoons: There were evil characters doing evil for the sake of being evil. There was no other motivation. The Valorians’ arch-nemesis, Emporer Krulos, was a Cobra Commander clone and just wanted to rule the universe for the sake of having power. There were no shades of gray in the Cold War mindset. America considered itself the soldier of the light, and it needed an Emmanuel Goldstein caricature to be the soldier of the dark.

The show was laced with a pretty cliché moral of universal harmony prevailing over coercion. The Valorians befriended the planet’s dinosaurs, forging alliances. The Rulons use force, creating mind-control devices called “brain boxes” to enslave vicious dinos.

There was no historical cohesiveness about the show, which mixed a few hundred million years worth of dinos into the same setting. In fact, there were primitive humans living alongside the dinosaurs, which in retrospect makes me wonder if stupid Young Earth creationists had something to do with the show.

Interestingly, the writers took great care to align docile and defensive saurians with the Valorians (stegasaurus, diplodocus, dimetrodon, brontosaurus). Meanwhile, the Rulons got dinos that were more or less tanks (T-Rex, ankylosaurus, and several triceratops-ish species). They also tried to evenly match the capabilities of the two factions; Transformers had always bothered me a bit because the Decepticons had all the jets and the Autobots were stuck with ground transportation (mostly). Dino Riders gave each side flying dinos.


TV advertisement for the toys.

My parents were at first a little upset about all the shooting of lasers and such (they were always prudish about cartoon violence), but finally caved and bought the toys because they were marginally educational. These were no cheap Chinese hunks of plastic. The dinos were extremely well-constructed and tremendously detailed, much larger-scaled than typical toys of the time (I never got the brontosaurus, which was HUGE), and often came with turrets or seats for multiple action figures.

I wish this concept would have worked out and that the stories would have been a bit more mature. Had the animation been a little more detailed, Dino Riders would have made an incredible anime cross-over hit like RoboTech, and I would have been a rabid fanatic. Oh well.

“We’re not Valorians anymore. We’re DINO RIDERS!”


YesterGames #5: Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy (Secret of the Oracle)

March 12, 2008

FROM JASON’S CYAN AND MAGENTA SCREEN — It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when side-scrollers didn’t work on the PC. Long after the folks over in Japan had figured out how to Mario themselves into Scrooge’s Money Bank-esque piles of cash, the PC was still lagging dangerously behind.

In a way, all of the modern computer games — Bioshock, Portal, Crysis, Sins of a Solar Empire, Supreme Commander, everything — owe all their success to a little 1990 game called Commander Keen (download). Its code surmounted a major problem facing PC gaming: the lack of parallax scrolling.

Inspired by Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, Buck Rogers, and other old radio serials, Keen tells the story of Billy Blaze, an 8-year-old boy with an IQ of 314 who journeys across the galaxy trying to thwart his nemesis, Mortimer McMire. Interestingly enough, Billy’s backstory was re-written after the release of Wolfenstein 3D (both created by Id Software) so that he was the grandson of Wolftenstein hero B.J. Blazkowicz.

Keen creator Tom Hall discovered a coding trick that allowed smooth scrolling on the EGA graphics card/CRT. His first move was to port the first level of Super Mario Bros. 3 to the PC and try to sell Nintendo on getting into the home computing market. Nintendo purportedly came close but eventually declined, and Hall (and collaborators) decided to make an original game.

The account of that venture is pretty widely established and you can read the 3D Realms version if you want. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to rehash it.

Of all the Keen episodes — there are six, including a Gameboy Color title — I think Secret of the Oracle (the first half of the Goodbye Galaxy story arc and the fourth in the series) is by far the best. First of all, it was the first to be backward-compatible with CGA monitors, which meant I could play it in its four-color glory: black, white, cyan, and magenta. It also boasted non-linear level selection once the first two stages were completed.


Keen’s level design was tops in 1991. This player knows what he’s doing.

But maybe the best thing about Oracle was the level design. These were still the days of randomly floating platforms and floating chochkes, but in Oracle alone did the Id team manage to make these elements look somewhat naturalistic and contiguous. The 2/3 view didn’t hurt, and the large, solid background elements like trees and desert, houses, the infamous slug statue, and Billy’s rocket ship added a sense that this wasn’t a world made up of just 16×16 sprites.

I also think a big reason why the early PC gaming community adopted Billy Blaze as its ad hoc mascot was because he’s so geek-relatable. Computers in the pre-Windows days weren’t exactly user friendly, and not everybody was savvy enough to get drivers to work or even learn commands for DOS (or DOShell). Those who developed even basic early PC literacy were pretty bright and I, especially, felt like I could identify with a kid genius slinging lines of DOS syntax and BASIC commands.

Maybe that’s a little narcissistic, but that’s how I felt as an 11-year-old 3.5-inch disc jockey.

Leave Billy alone long enough in-game and he’ll sit down and read a book — just like me. He’s also got some young punk cred; a trick in the Temple of the Moon level will make him moon you. He’s got that superior cocked eyebrow going on in the title screen. He’s also got that slightly lopsided grin that maybe I stole from him subconsciously.

One last thing: I always felt there was a little bit of ambiguity in the Keen games about whether the events were really taking place. The narrative always played it straight: Yes, Billy was really planet-hopping to fight the Vorticons et al. But I always thought that the entire Keen world might just be a byproduct of Billy’s imagination. I mean, I’m not too proud to admit that as a small boy (age 16 or 17 or 24) I would don a football helmet, grab a Captain Power lightgun and rush around the basement acting out some epic quest. I wonder if that’s all Billy was doing and if that means the surrealism of the game was entirely a figment.

There are better platformers out there now, or course, but Secret of the Oracle still holds up remarkably well (if you’re slightly forgiving). It certainly looks better than many, many Famicom Nintendo titles from the same era. Hall continues to waffle about the future of the franchise — he doesn’t have the intellectual rights anymore — but says he wants to someday develop another episode.

Let me say this: If a Keen-a-la-Mario64 reimagining hit the Nintendo DS today, I would pay double the retail price to get it.

NOTE: I was already planning to talk about this game, but Ninjarabbi gave me a kick in the butt. I hope Scrym talk about Keen on Geeknights soon.


YesterGames #4: Battle Chess

March 8, 2008

FROM JASON’S STONE AGE YOUTH — Gather ’round, children, and hearken unto a tale of the deepest, darkest days of computer lore.

The year was 1988, and the world was young. The low-browed ancestors of modern Man were just learning how to use rude tools, like the AT386 processor. No longer did humankind struggle with crude 4-bit gaming — a new era had arrived and 8 bits were preparing us for the next evolutionary leap.

And then Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra suddenly started booming from every corner of the Earth. From the remotest corners of a 3.5-inch floppy disk came Battle Chess.

Look — back in the day, there were very few games worth your time. There was no WoW. There was no Unreal Tournament. There was no Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect. We were happy with Sopwith, 3Demon, and Paganitzu.

So when Battle Chess rolled onto the scene, it looked amazing. The gimmick: Full-fledged battle animations between every piece on the board. Knights bashed pawns with swords; rooks transformed into golems and swallowed adversaries whole; queens seduced kings and then betrayed them; and kings clubbed their victims to death with their scepters.

Bishops fought with holy pikes; knights lopped off each others’ arms a la Monty Python and the Holy Grail; if pushed the wrong way, a pawn could open up a bottomless pit; and sometimes — in a finishing move — a queen could be reduced to dragon form to be slain.

It was a surprisingly violent and clever game.

The chess wars were little more than flashy sprites, but in 1988 they were amazing feats of color and sound — especially when the game was updated from its DOS incarnation to run in that primitive claptrap known as Windows 3.1 — in no fewer than 16 amazing colors.

It’s been a long time since I’ve played chess on a computer. The whole concept is horribly outmoded when I have so many high-intensity, 3D-rendered, gigabyte-of-RAM-hogging masterpieces of interactive fiction to play (Half-Life 2).

But when I sat down to download Battle Chess for this post Thursday, I found myself sucked into two solid hours of nostalgia. The incredibly non-threatening AI didn’t hurt too much, either, and proved to be just the boost my self-esteem needed as I soundly thrashed the computer several times in a row.

I’m begging you — especially if you’re under the age of 20 — to please download the game, which has for quite some time been freeware. Give it a spin. If nothing else, just play until you’ve seen all the animations from both sides of the board. You can live a piece of gaming history.

The game was also released on several other platforms, including the Nintendo Entertainment System. That means you can play online at Virtual NES, too.

TIP: It’s in the readme, but the copy protection on the game has been (somewhat) disabled. To play, just hit Enter through the three dialog boxes that pop up when the game launches.