Jason Panella

Jason Panella is a minimalist.

Winter Albums: Sounds for the Season

This was first published in 2011, but winter’s come again so why not?

As much as I enjoy all of the seasons, I’m glad to see the last flickers of autumnal warmth snuffed out by the cold. I enjoy watching trees shake themselves free of leaves. I like watching my breath roll away as I walk to work. I enjoy hearing the crunch of snow under boot. And I also enjoy the wood crackling in a fire, baking Christmas cookies, and noticing the first snow of the season dancing to the ground.

But what I really love is winter music. Not Christmas music—I do enjoy that too, but I consider “winter music” to be something different. My favorite winter music comes in two flavors: textured slabs of drone (guitar-based or not) or crystalline, atmospheric folk. (As much as I like other genres like jazz and R&B, I haven’t really found many examples that fit the bill here.)

There are many other albums that fall into this category, but for the sake of brevity, I only picked a few to highlight. I wrap up the article with an extended list. It’s not exhaustive (I could add any album by Mogwai there), but it covers some of my favorites.

HumDownward is Heavenward (1998, RCA)

Even though their indefinite hiatus as a band is interrupted by reunion shows every few years, Hum put their music career on standby after the release of Downward is Heavenward. What a note to go out on. Hum’s music was dense: waves of feedback and guitar effects coalesced into something quite melodic, and vocalist Matt Talbott’s quiet delivery of cryptic sci-fi poetry barely surfaced in the ocean of noise. Hum seemed equally indebted to the ‘90s shoe-gazer bands, prog metal, and Polish author Stanislaw Lem, and it’s a combination that worked perfectly for them. And I’ll repeat how thick their music sounds.

Though practically overlooked upon its release, Downward is Heavenward has gathered an incredibly positive reputation over the past decade. I think it’s deserved: the album shifts between complex, shimmering epics (“Afternoon With the Axolotls”),  space-bound pop rock (“Ms. Lazarus”) and tunes that are somewhere in between (“If You Are To Bloom”). While it’s a warm, rich, loud album, there’s nothing summery about it.

Son Lux At War With Walls and Mazes (2007, Anticon Records)

at war with walls and mazes

Son Lux is one man (Ryan Lott), a handful of repeated lyrical fragments, and thousands of short samples arranged into something magnificent. The album has elements of trip hop and neo-classical music, both resting on a wonderfully ambient shelf. Lott uses sampled tones from opera singers, keyboard drones, string quartets, breakneck drums, and a host more; it’s meticulously constructed and wonderfully downbeat, despite the moments of musical euphoria throughout.

Lott’s brittle voice chimes in from time to time, using lyrical riffs to set the mood. There’s a meditative, monastic aspect to how he pauses between verses, eventually repeating a variation and then repeating it again. “Tell me anything you want to tell me, I have nothing to say,” he sings on “Tell.” He follows it up with “I have nothing to say to you / But you have everything to say to me.” It’s simple, but has impact. That the song is permeated by mournful slide guitar and pulsating samples only heightens this. It’s a chilly album, but there’s a lot of warmth sheltered in the ice.

IdahoHearts of Palm (2000, Idaho Music)

Jeff Martin’s music project Idaho started moving away from a full-band rock sound almost immediately after they released their first album in the mid-’90s, but the drift to ambient soundscapes didn’t really register until Hearts of Palm. Martin uses piano and tenor guitar to create frozen skeletons of songs, only sometimes fleshing the music out with drums, bass or additional keyboards. The resulting songs, like “To Be the One” and “Alta Dena,” are hummable without being cloying, pensive without sliding into depressing.

My favorite cut on Hearts of Palm is also my favorite winter song, “This Cloud We’re On.” The warm, fuzzy guitars and shuffling drums part to let in fragile female backing vocals and stark piano. It’s like watching sun briefly cut through the cloud cover on a December day.

 

Other wintery suggestions:

The Cure — Disintegration

Elliott Smith — Either/Or,

Okkervil River — Black Sheep Boy

Castor — Tracking Sounds Alone

The Twilight Sad — Forget the Night Ahead

Red House Painters — Red House Painters (Rollercoaster)

Eric Bachmann — To the Races

Mogwai — Mr. Beast

Urge Overkill — Exit the Dragon.

Afternoon With the Axolotis

Do you think science and the arts have to live in their own hermetically sealed cubes? There are plenty of examples of the arts and sciences not only brushing shoulders but embracing, mingling, intertwining. For a quick and dirty example, you can look to some especially well-written science fiction, the tight bond between mathematics and music, or the work of Leonardo DaVinci. Or one of my favorite and lesser-known examples: the music of the band Hum. What follows is part history lesson, part music review, and part nostalgic reflection on a band that changed my life.

I

To set the scene, let’s take a trip back to 1995. As a young teen, I spent many late nights curled up under my tape deck/radio combo waiting for the right moment to slap the “record” button. Pittsburgh’s alternative rock radio stations usually saved the real oddball tunes for specific late-night time slots, and I often stayed up way past my school-night bed time in the hopes of catching something special.

This is how I discovered Hum: half asleep and then, five minutes later, so awake that I had a difficult time getting back to bed. “Stars,” the band’s only real commercial hit of any sort, was an anomaly on modern rock radio at the time—it didn’t sound anything like the Collective Souls or Silverchairs or Better Than Ezras of the time, and it pulled an effective bait-and-switch that probably blew out more than one set of speakers. “Stars” hypnotized me immediately; the music was loud, yet it possessed a sort of delicateness that surprised me. But there were also these lyrics, like tossed-off poetry written by an asteroid miner.

 

Hum formed in the Champaign-Urbana metroplex in 1989. After some line-up changes, a terrible self-released debut album (1991’s Fillet Show, 12 Inch Records), and the departure of the band’s initial songwriter/frontman Andy Switzky, Hum’s roster settled on singer/guitarist Matt Talbott, guitarist Tim Lash, bassist Jeff Dimpsey, and drummer Bryan St. Pere (who, as legend goes, was discovered after the rest of the band heard him drumming along to Rush songs as they passed by his home). By the time the band independently released Electra 2000 in 1993, their sound had changed significantly. With Talbott swiveling around in the songwriting seat, Hum’s songs began shifting from a riffy blur between metal and punk to something a more oblique—the post-hardcore riffage is there on Electra 2000, but an attention to sonic atmosphere and texture makes the album a huge step forward from their first record. The galactic heaviness of songs like “Firehead” and “Double Dip” helped the band’s fans label them as “space rock,” as did Talbott’s astronomically rich lyricism. I don’t think it’s a great album, but it drew the band some attention; they soon signed to RCA Records.

II

I’d wager that Hum’s fanbase grew with the release of their third album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut (1995, RCA.). That’s when I came on board, buying their album—one of my first CDs!—from a Super K-Mart after I heard “Stars” on the radio. My parents were mindful of what I listened to, so the fact that a PARENTAL ADVISORY sticker was slapped on the album gave me serious pause . This sticker was like Cerberus,  posted to keep me away from the potentially scary things within (even if, in reality, the album didn’t deserve this sticker). But I bought it, and I still have my copy—it’s almost unplayable from all of the use over the years. “Stars” was a minor radio hit, and the album was received well both critically and commercially.

You’d Prefer an Astronaut does a great job of setting up Hum as something uncategorizable. The guitars throb and buzz, a mountain of effect pedals fueling the black hole of melodic noise. Talbott’s quiet, nasally vocals occasionally surface with an elliptic line or two about flashpoints or magnetic brains. The album has the same dreamy qualities that make a lot of shoegaze bands so good, but Hum adds some “oomph” in there as well.

You’d Prefer an Astronaut works well, because while it’s certainly loud, it’s a pop album through and through. Amdist all of the distortion, feedback, and scientifically obscure imagery lurk hooks—sometimes small and subtle, but hooks nonetheless. Tunes like “I’d Like Your Hair Long” and “The Suicide Machine” are a little more straightforward; the sneakier melodies—like the outro of “Why I Like the Robins”— are the ones that get stuck in my head for days.

Hum toured relentlessly to support the release of You’d Prefer an Astronaut, got some exposure thanks to Beavis and Butthead, and gained a supporter in Howard Stern (which they not have been thrilled by, judging from their deadpan response to his fawning). Their success was modest compared to some other alternative rock bands of the mid ‘90s (250,000 albums sold), but Hum was the biggest band in the world to me.

III

It wasn’t a particularly cold or snowy January in 1998. I paced the length of my family’s living room, my nervousness kept at bay by the on-hold music piping through the phone’s receiver. I was about to be patched through to Debbie Wilde, the late-night DJ at 105.9 FM in Pittsburgh. She had just played “Comin’ Home,” the first single from Hum’s upcoming album, Downward is Heavenward. I had good reason to be nervous: in about 30 seconds, I would embarrass myself in front of thousands of listeners with a muffled, nonsensical sermon about the greatness of Hum (despite the fact that at the time I really wasn’t sure what to make of “Comin’ Home”).

Downward is Heavenward received unanimous praise upon its release, and over the past sixteen years it’s built up a reputation as one of the best albums of the 1990s. This adulation, however, didn’t extend to sales. “Comin’ Home” and follow-up single “Green to Me” didn’t even scratch the charts, and the album sold a fraction of the copies that You’d Prefer an Astronaut moved. “Stars” really was a fluke hit. To make things worse for the band, the next two years were a disaster: they missed an opportunity to include their cover of the Police’s “Invisible Sun” on the X-Files: Fight the Future soundtrack, they were eventually dropped by RCA, and they totaled their van while on tour. The toll was too much: the band threw in the towel in 2000.

Which is a shame, considering how confident and well-written Downward is Heavenward sounds: there are layers of precise instrumentation without ever become too ornate. The tunes show quite a bit of diversity in melodies and structure: sweeping prog-rock (opener “Isle of the Cheetah” and the stunning “Afternoon With the Axolotis”), straight-up indie pop (album MVP “Ms. Lazarus”), and whatever “Comin’ Home” is. The album has aged gracefully, too—if anything, I like the album more than when I got it, and it’s gained fans since 1998

Talbott’s lyrics are in top form here, too. The years of touring seemed to have taken an emotional toll on the band, and that’s telegraphed well enough. Many of the songs deal with love, longing, and loss, and the throughline of science fiction elements help emphasize the distance. Between a riff-heavy chorus and watery verses, the progatonist in “Dreamboat” pines for the woman in a water-logged future who is kind enough to pack solar-powered lungs and sub-machines for him.“If You Are To Bloom” uses opaque medical and natural imagery to hint at both yearning and loss. And despite its jaunty nature, “Ms. Lazarus” concerns a time traveler stuck in a heartbreaking situation:

And still the crosshairs rest on one, and still you rest there in the morning sun.
Still I fumble through pages of constructions on the ride.
I like the blown out sound we’ve found, I like the way it feels here coming down.
The way your headstone shines, I only wish that it was mine.

My favorite song on the album, though, is “Apollo,” one of Hum’s few quiet songs. Talbott likens the long hours on the road away from his family to an astronaut drifting in outer space:

She said you can find a place inside my heart if you will stay
and I need you back here on the ground.
It’s lift off, lift off again.
She’s pissed off, pissed off again.

Moonlight brings me back again to stay
and I know if she had a way I’d always be through.
Tethered to a glass ring she keeps beside the phone, and never ever stepping out into…

Yet another long stretch on the road, yet another long time in space.

IV

The years following Hum’s break-up were the most musically fertile of my life. I joined a Hum listserv and, through the interactions there, started a snowball of band discoveries that’s still rolling today. I became a better musician by fumbling along to Hum’s music on guitar. I learned to dig into artists’ harder-to-find material, too, since Hum’s scant b-sides are among some of the band’s best songs (like the superb “Puppets”).

Reflecting on these years makes me thankful for the weird, incredibly creative bands that not only scored record deals, but also crept onto corporate radio stations. This was something magical—maybe even preordained—about tuning in at the right moment to hear something wholly unlike what you’ve heard before. Platforms like Spotify and Rdio have countless songs immediately available, but the serendipity isn’t there. I’ve also learned to be patient over the past 16 years. Will they release any new material? I kind of doubt it, though my heart jumps when I hear about them playing some unrecorded song, like “Cloud City,” live.

The band seems content on the sidelines. Three years after their quiet break-up, the band reformed with similar stealth to play a one-off show at a festival in Alabama. Since then, Hum has played shows here and there, including some well-attended high-profile festival slots. Talbott formed a new band called Centaur, and is a professor (and football coach!) in Illinois. He also runs the excellent Earth Analog Studios. Dimpsey and Lash have kept busy with other bands (Gazelle and the excellent National Skyline for the former, Glifted and Alpha Mile for the latter), and St. Pere has a family and is working in the medical industry.

This is something that’s always made me love Hum: they’re not rock stars. Nor are they poets or astronauts. Matt, Bryan, Jeff and Tim seem like the sort of guys who’d rather watch Star Wars, play D&D, or grab a beer with some friends than be in the spotlight. Considering their music’s artful approach to the cosmos, it makes sense—sometimes the normalest folk peel back the heavens with the most grace.

photo by: Hubble Heritage

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

“I never travel far without a little Big Star.” – Alex Chilton, The Replacements

There is this moment at the end of the documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, and it is perfect. The shot is a second long at most — probably less, now that I think about it — and it somehow encapsulates my fifteen-year admiration of a band that most people will never know or care about: John Fry, prolific audio engineer and record label founder, is hunched over the controls in Ardent Studios as he mixes a new cut of Big Star “September Gurls” for this documentary. He leans back in his seat a little, his arms crossed, and smiles. Cut to credits. It’s a smile that reaches back 40 years and outlines all of the joy and pain that came with his friendship with the members of Big Star. It’s the smile of someone who can’t shake off all of the sad memories attached to the Big Star story, and it’s the smile of someone still stunned by how good that song is. John Fry is integral to Big Star’s legend, a friend and peer and co-conspirator; I’m just a guy who liked their music. But it’s impossible for me not to say, “I get it.” I did my best not to tear up at that grin, and — as a quick glance around the theater proved — I wasn’t the only one.

Nothing Can Hurt Me (2012, directed by Olivia Mori and Drew DeNicola) attempts to compact the world of Big Star into two hours. The film (the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign) is quite good, especially when it comes to the je ne sais quoi that makes the influence of the band and its music so interesting.

If you’re not at all familiar with Big Star, here’s a summary. Big Star formed in Memphis, Tennessee in 1971 after four musicians got together: Chris Bell (guitar, vocals), Andy Hummel (bass), Jody Stephens (drums), and former Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton (guitar, vocals). The band seemed destined to fail from the moment they started recording: they wanted to make melodic, Beatles-indebted rock during a decade that wanted nothing of the kind. They released #1 Record in 1972 to critical acclaim, but commercial silence, due to promotional and distribution mishaps from the band’s record label. Bell left the band, and the remaining trio recorded Radio City. Again, critics raved, yet sales were abysmal—even more so than with their debut. By the time the band got together to record their third album (titled Third or Sister Lovers, depending on who you ask), Big Star was down to just Chilton and Stephens. Record labels didn’t want to touch the slow, weird album, and it never saw a proper release until 1978…four years after the band broke up. At this point, the Big Star cult was growing — young Anglophiles all over the country started to get ahold of the band’s music, many of them journalists or burgeoning musicians. As the 1980s dawned, the band’s music would help serve as a blueprint for much of the power pop, new wave, and alternative rock (however you want to define that) that was to come down the road. Big Star’s songs and albums started showing up on “Best Of” lists left and right, even though the general public still had no clue who Big Star was.

Nothing Can Hurt Me fleshes out the band’s earlier history, infusing interviews from Big Star fans. The filmmakers interviewed dozens of people, and their love of the band radiates. We hear from musicians who loved and were influenced by Big Star (Cheap Trick, the Flaming Lips, and Teenage Fanclub, to name a few). We hear from producers and engineers who worked with, and then came to admire, the band. We hear from critics and journalists who, after hearing Big Star, decided it was their mission to proselytize on the band’s behalf. We hear from friends and family. And we hear from the band — mainly Stephens and Hummel, but also a few audio recordings from Chilton. Bell tragically died in an automotive accident in 1978, and Chilton’s death in 2010 motivated the filmmakers to start this project. Even more of a blow: Hummel passed away shortly after his segments were filmed. Much of the material here won’t be revelatory to Big Star fans, though it’s great to see much of the story told through anecdotes and experiences, especially since most of the folks interviewed have such a strong tie to Big Star’s music and what it meant in their life.

It’s hard for me to write this without thinking about my own Big Star story. I knew I was supposed to be a fan of Big Star before I ever heard their music. As I was getting into more esoteric music as a young teen, I kept seeing the band’s name. Bands and artists I admired, like R.E.M. and Matthew Sweet, spoke reverently of them in interviews. Big Star was named-dropped constantly in a book on the history of rock music that I permanently borrowed from a friend in high school (sorry I still have your book, Gruber). My takeaway from all of this exposure: Big Star was unjustly ignored during the band’s short life in the 1970s. By the time I finally heard Big Star’s music when I was 16 (30-second clips of “September Gurls” and “Back of a Car” in a listening booth at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of all places), I had bought the hype. Those were 30 magic seconds, and I needed more. I quickly ordered the two-for CD combo of #1 Record and Radio City and immersed myself in its sonic wash forthe next few years.

Is Big Star the best band of all time? Probably not. Are they even my favorite band? No. But no other band has come close to putting me in this sort of emotional headlock, even when I recognize the shortcomings in their music. #1 Record, as the documentary acknowledges, is an oddly sequenced album that suffers a bit from Bell’s good-but-not-great rock tunes. Third/Sister Lovers is basically a Chilton solo album that’s as unlistenable and chaotic as it is genius. Radio City, though, is pretty much the perfect album: ragged, insanely catchy and desperately heartbreaking. It’s the template for every sad-sack power pop album that’s been released since, which is understandable considering how good it is. And even though Bell was out of the band by the time of its recording, Radio City still bears his songwriting stamp on a handful of songs. There are better albums and artists out there, but those bands and their music wouldn’t exist without Big Star.

In fact, Bell’s ghost looms the largest over the Big Star story. While Chilton often gets singled out as Big Star personified, Bell was the initial agitator for the creation of the band. His dreams of making a hugely successful British-invasion-by-way-of-Memphis act left some sort of psychic imprint on the band, even after his departure from the group. I think Nothing Can Hurt Me also handles Bell’s post-Big Star life graciously. After his stormy exit, Bell moved to Europe and tried to put his life together. The documentary interviews his brother and sister, who emotionally recall Bell trying to figure out his drug abuse, sexual inclinations, and newfound Christian beliefs. After moving back to Memphis, Bell cut an album’s worth of material (including “I am the Cosmos” and “You and Your Sister,” both heartbreakingly good tunes that tower over Bell’s material on #1 Record). It’s weird: his chug-a-lug guitar workouts on Big Star’s debut are some of my least favorite moments in the band’s catalog, but I also realize how vital he was to the mix, and the documentary accurately summarized how powerful Bell’s vision was for the band. There would be no Big Star without Chris Bell.

If Nothing Can Hurt Me falters, it’s how fast it skips over Big Star 2.0. Chilton and Stephens’ reformation of the band in the early ‘90s (with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of The Posies in tow). The quartet, which played sporadic gigs, eventually released a fourth Big Star album, In Space, in 2005. I think many fans dismiss the album outright as not really being a Big Star album, but a glorified Chilton solo album. Still, In Space has a handful of wonderful tunes, and deserves more than the three seconds the film devotes to showing the album cover. Stringfellow and Auer at least show up a bit later in the film, gushing about how much the band meant to them.

Let’s go back to John Fry’s smile. I was trying not to lose it after that final shot. It brought back a bunch of memories: checking the post-Hurricane Katrina news with dread, because Alex Chilton was among the missing in NOLA; reading about — and eventually bawling over — Chilton’s sudden death, just days before a performance at SXSW; the countless times I hit “back” on my CD or MP3 player to hear a Big Star song again; and the first time I heard the beautiful, chiming single-coil guitar tones on “September Gurls.” Thing is, everytime I hear that song is like the first time. This is a band that always hits me in the heart, and I really can’t explain why. Maybe that’s why I think Nothing Can Hurt Me really works—it manages to capture that feeling and put it on the big screen.

Paul Westerberg sang, “I never travel far without a little Big Star.” And I don’t—my iPod always has some Big Star on it, in case I need it. And I know I’ll always need it.

 

On Going (or Not Going) to Concerts

The problem started about seven years ago. There was a particularly pleasant stretch of weather near the end of summer, I remember, closing in on the week approaching my birthday. Summers in western Pennsylvania tend to skew either toward grossly humid or outright hot, so I was thankful for a respite from either. Los Lobos had a free concert scheduled outside of Pittsburgh on that Saturday; a relaxing drive to hear some good music felt like the right choice. It was the right choice.

But I didn’t go.

I’m still not entirely sure why this happened when it did. I was a veteran concert-goer at that point, even in my mid-20s. Since my senior year of high school, I had gone to maybe 40 concerts—everything from Cheap Trick to second-wave emo bands to local power pop acts. And this was Los Lobos! A genuinely great band, playing for free at a beautiful outdoor venue! A band with a legendary live act! Free! I shrugged and fell asleep on the couch. I remember regretting it the next day (missing the concert, not the nap) and then proceeded to do the same over and over for the next seven years. I even bought a DVD of Los Lobos playing live to make myself feel better and, maybe somehow, make Los Lobos feel better about me not coming. (It’s a good DVD, by the way.)

And thus began a virtually endless parade of reasons I decided not to go to concerts. “Can’t find any friends who are free, I really hate that one venue, I’m tired, Pittsburgh seems so far away, I won’t be able to hear for days, I really hate that other venue, the tickets are expensive,” et cetera. Oh, and my favorite: “There will undoubtedly be at least one obnoxious drunk who will ruin the fun.” There’s some truth behind this laundry list of complaints.  Driving an hour to and (especially) from a late-show concert is draining, especially after a mind-numbing day at work.

Now, despite what this laundry list of complaints might suggest, I don’t hate people. I like the spark of excitement that seems to travel through a mass of tightly huddled concert-goers. “Hey, we’re all here together to see a show! Humanity, unite!” It’s a great feeling!

It seems like this experiential factor is a major draw to concerts. As a blog post at the electronic music site Sophisefunk pointed out, some research seems to point to the fact that people would rather spend money on an experience in an area they enjoy than on a material thing. Or, specifically, music fans would rather spend money going to concerts than spend money on the music itself. The post points to several reasons why concerts ultimately trump buying music: the social aspect of concerts is a big factor, and people’s tendency to think back wistfully to all of the enjoyable aspects that wrap together in the concert experience (instead of, say, merely buying an album on Amazon).

The author of the blog post brings up some really good points. Some of the best concerts I attended have improved over time, and some aspects—like little spontaneous alterations a guitarist makes to a song—still resonate. Plus, being a part of a temporal community of music fans is incredibly appealing. I love seeing flashes of joy on other concert-goers’ faces as they dance, sing along, or even just listen quietly. While I’m usually in the latter camp (with the occasional head bob), I have nothing but appreciation for people who enthusiastically express their love for the music—like the guy who broke into interpretive dance at this one Built to Spill show I went to in Cleveland. That guy was loving the concert as an experience. I remember that he wasn’t the only one; people were cheering on the band as they pulled off crazy guitar solos, new friends were laughing and talking as they bobbed their heads, and a few couples awkwardly danced in the venue’s aisles. I went to this concert almost a decade ago and I still remember it fondly.

But I don’t know if I buy that concerts are really better than listening to recorded music, especially when faced with the “experience versus material” argument. Shouldn’t listening to recorded music also be an experience, and hopefully at that a worthwhile one? And can’t concerts become just a thing to do and not really experience? (Based on the number of people who were doing anything BUT listening to music at The National concert I went to a few weeks ago, the answer is “yes.”) To give credit where it’s due, the author of the blog post at least admits that listening to a studio album can be an experience in its own way. But I get the feeling author is saying that since listening to a recorded album is connected to buying a “thing,” it’s not as pure as going to a concert.

Nonsense, I say. The experience of listening to music in your living room or while driving your car or listening in the gym can be as rewarding as going to a concert, especially if you treat it as something more than the consumption of a material item. We listen to music a variety of ways and in a variety of places and, hopefully, learn to think about it and wrestle with it in a variety of ways, too. Listening to music doesn’t happen in a vacuum, thankfully. Some of my favorite albums and songs are framed around the experiences where I really got them. Like how I enjoyed a few songs from Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway, but I never let the album as a whole sink in until I was (get ready) on a roadtrip across Ohio. I can’t listen to the album now without thinking about the stretch of highway between Columbus and Indianapolis. Or like a few years ago when I was looking at jeans in Old Navy when, quite suddenly, I realized that Big Country’s “In a Big Country”—which was playing over the store’s PA— wasn’t just a good song, but maybe one of the best singles of the past fifty years (a fact so profound at the moment that I had to run across the store and excitedly tell my wife). I now hum the tune every time I go into Old Navy. These are just two of many experiences that made me love music more.

This isn’t a knock against concerts or those who swear by them—I still like concerts enough to go to at least a few each year. I just happen to enjoy the experience of digging into recorded music a bit more. I think it’s healthy to approach music, live or not, with the mindset that listening to it could be an experience that will change your life forever.

photo by: marfis75

Here’s Where Superchunk Comes In

Superchunk just announced that their tenth studio album “I Hate Music”  is set to release on August 20th. To prime the pumps, we thought we’d run Jason Panella’s 2010 piece on why Superchunk is great: “Here’s Where Superchunk Comes In.” 

 
Nice. But . . . who? The Chapel Hill-based band has been making music for over 20 years, but are on the musical fringe in a lot of ways, despite their football field-long resumes. Their brand of frenetic, loud pop rock – combined with singer/guitarist Mac Caughan’s still (at 42) squeaky voice – isn’t anything new. Why do they matter?

Some reasons, in no order:

1) You can call them “pop punk” without feeling ashamed.

Superchunk underline both words in “pop punk” with a Sharpie: their songs are fiercely hummable while remaining rooted in an equally fierce punk ethic and aesthetic (do-it-yourself record distribution, roaring buzzsaw guitars, the works). The four members – McCaughan, guitarist Jim Wilbur, bassist Laura Ballance, and drummer Jon Wurster – are all capable musicians, and can craft melodically complex and lyrically nuanced songs that sound nothing like the prefab mall punk wheezing from every Hot Topic in the United States.

2) Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance created, own, and run Merge Records.

And Merge Records is important. The two formed it in 1989 as a way to release Superchunk albums; now they’re releasing albums from Arcade Fire, Spoon, M. Ward, Dinosaur Jr., She & Him, Conor Oberst, and the list goes on and on. Plus, while overly corporate machinations are often hid behind an opaque “indie” skin, Merge are still quite independent. But more on that later.

3) Superchunk are both traditionalists and innovators.

Their first few albums in the early ’90s leaned heavily toward the second half of the “pop punk” label, but the band started branching out more with each release after realizing they needed to shake up the formula a bit. 1994’s Foolish debuted a slower, more introspectively dark side of the band’s sound, and 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In added a few more cups of pop texture to the batter. By the late ’90s, the band was still playing energetic punk pop, but occasionally fusing it with avant-garde arrangements, vintage keyboards, and horn sections.

4) The four band members spend their extracurricular time wisely.

As I mentioned before, McCaughan and Ballance still run and operate Merge records, but there’s more. During Superchunk’s hiatus, McCaughlan recorded fairly prolifically under the Portastatic moniker, covering lots of ground that he normally wouldn’t: bossa nova, soundtrack scores, and baroque pop, to name a few. Most of Mac’s Portatstatic work is excellent, especially 2005-06’s back-to-back releases Bright Ideas and Be Still Please. Jim Wilbur has kept busy helping with Portastatic and a few of his own bands, but the real busybody is Jon Wurster – he’s half of a pretty popular comedy duo with Tom Scharlpling, having written for several TV shows (including Monk), and acts as session or touring drummer for a staggering number of artists, including R.E.M., Jay Farrar, Ryan Adams, The New Pornographers, Charlie Daniels, and Katy Perry.

5) They’re all really friendly, kind and funny people. And they make videos like this:

6) Superchunk can legitimately be called “indie rock.”

Forget the trend to lump everything not easily pigeonholeable as “indie rock” (remember when everything was “alternative”?) – Superchunk actually are indie rock. No major labels own Merge Records, despite the amount of interest the label and its bands have garnered. They’ve done it their way, made mistakes and learned from them. As the music industry is imploding, Merge is actually succeeding – and they still have less than 15 employees and respond to e-mails personally. McCaughan, Ballance, and reporter John Cook told the label’s tale in Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records. It’s worth picking up.

7) Superchunk make great music.

Some of their albums are better than others, sure, and they’re certainly not for everyone. But Superchunk write well, play well, and have fun doing so – and have been doing this for around two decades. All of their releases could serve as formidable entry points for new listeners, even Cup of Sand; the band’s mammoth collection of left-over tracks spans their whole career and has plenty of examples how the band has grown over their career. Come Pick Me Up is my vote for their most consistent album, though. The songs balance between playful and pensive, and McCaughan sells his lyrics – no matter what he’s singing about – as if they’re the only thing in the world worth buying.

Over 20 years and still going strong. Long live Superchunk.

The Horror of Knowing

The Innkeepers is part classic horror film, part workplace comedy, and part deliberate study of both place and character—which, when taken together, makes the movie a hard sell to a lot of people. And that’s a shame, since I think the movie occupies a unique spot in the cinematic world. Unlike a lot of modern horror films, The Innkeepers invites the audience to be patient and pay attention—good suggestions for film-goers in general.

While The Innkeepers was generally well-received by critics, it wasn’t treated as kindly by the public. Of course it’s fine if people don’t like the film, but I’d encourage those who initially went in with different expectations to revisit the movie. (If you don’t mind drowning in vitriol, visit the movie’s Amazon product page to get a taste.)

The film follows inn employees Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) through the last few days at the Yankee Pedlar Inn before it shuts down for good. The two engage in a lot of wheel-spinning as they watch the clock: They fiddle around with Luke’s clunky website, goof off in a variety of ways, and put off important projects until the last minute. Luke and Claire also spend a huge chunk of time searching for an angry ghost that is rumored to inhabit the Pedlar. Luke fancies himself a ghost hunter, and the duo explore the inn with his mountain of audio surveillance equipment to see if there’s anything to these rumors. (There is.)

Writer/director/editor Ti West first came in contact with the Yankee Pedlar Inn while staying there during the filming of his 2009 movie The House of the Devil. Yes, the Pedlar is a real place in Torrington, Connecticut—and it’s still open, too. He ended up writing the screenplay for The Innkeepers specifically for the Pedlar, and it shows. It’s not a particularly creepy place, but has a sort of warm, tarnished charm that sticks with you. The movie treats the inn and its (fictional) staff as the stars, and I think prioritizing place and the two focal characters over buckets of fake blood was a great move.

But here’s where some viewers get stuck. This was advertised as a horror movie, so where’s the horror? I think some were hoping The Innkeepers would join the parade of shock horror currently popular. But it didn’t. There’s very little blood, and there are just a handful of subdued and well-placed “jump scares.” Perhaps the trailer is partially to blame for the false expectations, since it suggests more exploitation and less Henry James—the latter is closer to the mark.

In reality, the movie is probably closest to the films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, such as Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie. The Innkeepers relies on building a sense of dread and eeriness rather than using sheer brutality the way many current horror films do. The Innkeepers demands that the audience use its imagination, and it also demands that viewers immerse themselves in the film’s atmosphere. So much of the film depends on soaking in detailed audio cues; the producers even put a preface on the DVD/Blu-ray release that suggests the viewer “play it loud.” Watching half-heartedly on an iPhone won’t cut it, nor will casually tuning in just to soak in some cheap thrills.

Healy and Paxton are convincing in their roles. Paxton’s Claire is a college dropout feeling no vocational calling, in any definition of the word. She’s a hyperactive goofball, yet incredibly detached. Luke defensively sports an abrasive, sarcastic charm, but you can see his guard come down a bit when Claire is around. By the end of the movie, I’d grown to care about these characters because they remind me of people I know and do care about. They crack jokes, embarrass themselves in front of each other, and discuss the mythology of their workplace. As the circumstances become more dire later in the film, we care about situation because of the characters, not the other way around.

This attention to detail—in character, place, and atmosphere—is why I’ve really grown to appreciate West’s films. He’s trying to take a careful, slow approach to a genre that isn’t known for restraint or intentionality. West hits on something vital that is lost in American film and entertainment culture: The real horror isn’t buckets of blood, but rather not knowing—or caring—about those around us.

 

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The New Gatekeeper: You

Saying Kickstarter has taken off over the past few years is an understatement. The crowd-funding platform has raised over $230 million for projects in the past four years, with some of the more popular campaigns drawing in thousands of supporters.

The most popular project categories seem like a given — it’s easy to get lost in all of the new “fund my indie film/band/short story collection!” type projects that spring up each week. Kickstarter has really given a boost to some other creative areas, though, including hobby board gaming.  (By “hobby board game,” I mean tabletop games that include German-style strategy games, more complex adventure games, designer games, creative card and party games, and so on. Think: Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Dominion, or Arkham Horror for some popular examples.)

If you’re not familiar with how Kickstarter works, it’s pretty simple. People can submit their creative endeavors to Kickstarter; these projects range from documentary films to iPad cooking apps to pieces of installation art. The creators set a monetary goal and deadline to reach that goal. If the public pledges enough money by the deadline to meet the creators’ goal, then the project creators get the money. It’s an all-or-nothing approach; if the proposal doesn’t receive enough funding by the deadline, then the creators don’t get anything (and project backers don’t lose anything either). By helping projects get off of the ground, the public is actively involved in the creation process.

Alien Frontiers, a Kickstarter success story.

While designing and self-publishing games isn’t a new concept, Kickstarter seems to have given a lot of aspiring game designers a real way to get their games to people’s tables. One of the first success stories was Alien Frontiers (designed by Tory Niemann), which collected almost three times its $5,000 goal in the summer of 2010. What really helped was that Alien Frontiers was a genuinely good game. It got great reviews, collected some year-end gaming awards, and — once it was re-published after its initial Kickstarter-produced run — actually seems to sell pretty well.

Alien Frontiers’s success seemed to open the floodgates — new projects spring up constantly, many of them reaching their funding goal within days. It helps that a lot of these projects give potential backers a really good idea of the game, either through substantial videos, proofs of the game’s rules, or even through limited playtesting. Being involved in the development of the game like this — and not just purchasing it — can be a powerful thing, especially if comments from backers ultimately help mold the final product.

Some of the best-funded projects are also not only giving backers the game, but giving the highest-funding folks exclusive promo items or other perks. This is working well enough that some game publishers are using Kickstarter almost exclusively to fund their games, basically using the platform as a pre-order system to gauge interest in an already developed game.

Some gamers take issue with companies doing this. As W. Eric Martin said in a post at Boardgamegeek, “[Some backers] resent the feeling that publishers see them as money spigots because the publishers don’t have enough confidence in their games to fund them properly, i.e., to put their own money at risk to fund a game’s publication.” This, however, isn’t the only problem some have with the Kickstarter board game boom.

Many gamers are curious — even anxious — to see what happens after the Kickstarter honeymoon is over. The bubble hasn’t broken yet, since there hasn’t been a notable game project that turned out to be a scam, or collapsed in on itself once it had been funded (though there are some potential candidates).

Critics have also brought up a number of other issues with the “Kickstarter model.” For instance, they say game companies have traditionally acted as quality gatekeepers to weed out shoddy games. While the public serves a comparable role on Kickstarter, there is no real assurance that the game has been extensively playtested. People are paying for hype, as I’ve heard some naysayers put it. Flashy videos and cool art can draw in a lot of money, but the result could just be a pretty game that is a slog to play.

With all of this in mind, I guess you could lump me in with the casually optimistic. My few experiences with Kickstarter-funded games have been positive, including the one game I actually backed financially. I think I understand where some of the concern comes from over the quality of the games coming out of Kickstarter, but the fact is that similar questions have been raised about professional board game companies, large or small. Some effort is being made to provide quality assurance for Kickstarter games; the folks at Game Salute are helping fledgling game designers playtest their games and iron out some of the wrinkles.

It’s also worth noting that while it seems like every new board game project (dud or not) succeeds, that isn’t the case — according this this recent infographic, less than half of all game-related projects actually get funded. While these stats might give pause to a potential designer about to try Kickstarter, maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the more projects fail on Kickstarter, the more careful campaign creators will be about their projects. After all, there is a gatekeeper at Kickstarter — the public.

What’s next for board gaming and Kickstarter? With how popular crowdfunding games has become, I’m concerned that the hobby will soon see a point of Kickstarter oversaturation (or, if you ask some folks, we’ve already reached that point). Regardless of when this happens,  cutting out the middleman and crowdfunding games has caught on. Kickstarter has become a big deal in the hobby gaming world, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

 

 

Someone’s Got To Do It

It’s taken me a while, but I think I figured out why no one wants to play video games with me. I’ve gathered some evidence, too.

Exhibit one: Left 4 Dead 2

Four survivors try to make it from Savannah to New Orleans, traveling through entire regions infested with zombies (“infected,” in game terminology). This is a first-person game, so players see things from the point of view of the characters and have to work together if they want to actually make it to safety. The game’s designers did a good job of fleshing out the locations, from a shopping mall to abandoned amusement park to the French Quarter. The game pays a lot of attention to detail, and many of the locations feel like real places (albeit ones with shambling undead) — atmosphere, I think they call it.

So I’m playing online with some total strangers, all with colorful handles like [aw3s0m3z] YOUR MOM or Linkinpark4evr (my name: Toes). These are folks that’ve been playing the game constantly since it was released last year, and they know every trick, have every corner of every level memorized. They know that if you stand on that ledge over there, you can shoot through a graphical glitch in the wall without having to worry about zombies nibbling you.

Anyway, we’re playing a portion of the game that involves wading through a flooding town in Mississippi, and an ongoing storm aggravates the zombies. Hundreds of the monsters are rushing toward our characters, and the other players are tactically racing through houses, yard sales, and playgrounds to make it to the safe spot at the end of the level. And oh lord toes were are u y are u lagging behind?!?!?!?! It’s because I noticed a bookshelf in one of the rooms, and paused to see what titles — fictional or not — the game developers placed there.

Thinking I’m getting attacked, one of the other players falls back to see what’s holding me up. The zombies catch up. We lose.

Exhibit two: Age of Empires II

In this real-time strategy game, players control one historical civilization (Turks, Celts, etc.) and build a society while battling other players. Even though it’s over a decade old, Age of Empires II summed up these cultures nicely, with everything from the increasing architectural strides the cultures would make to the comments your little worker people would make (in the various languages and dialects!) when you ordered them around.

I would occasionally play against guys in my dorm when I was in college, and while the rest of my friends were scurrying to built the best warriors faster than the rest, I would hum to myself and work on building nice town squares or thinking of effective ways for my townsfolk to work on their carpentry skills. I was always the first one out of the game, my town reduced to cinder. The one time I tried to fight back didn’t really work, either; I was playing as the Persians, and I thought it was really neat that I had war elephants. They were pretty powerful, from what I’d gathered, so I gripped my mouse harder than I probably should have and started training lots of elephant units. War elephants, baby!

Dozens of war elephants, ready to attack. I sent little troops around to scout out the map and soon learned that another player — the one cocky guy down the hall — was awfully close to my town. So I sent in the elephants, an almost comical swarm of swinging trunks and computerized trumpeting sounds. As the creatures starting plowing through the other player’s buildings, I typed something like “I’ve come for your peanuts” into the game’s chat function. His momentary panic quickly shifted to something more stable as he rallied his troops and not only wiped out my elephants, but then invaded my (defenseless) village. I lose.

Exhibit three: Dungeons and Dragons Online

Dungeons and Dragons Online — DDO to us nerds — is a recent computerized incarnation of the enduring pencil and paper roleplaying game. It’s a massively multiplayer game, so there are thousands of other people running around the fantasy world, interacting with you, trading with you, teaming up with you (or not doing any of these, in my case). There are numerous quests that players can take part in; characters advance through the game at a snail’s pace, though, and sometimes players will find themselves running through these quests multiple times out of necessity.

While all of the game’s quests are designed with story in mind, it’s easy to ignore that and just run from point A to point B as fast as possible to nab the treasure or experience at the end. I occasionally play with a few friends, and most of them have learned which quests yield the best rewards. They’re rushing through these quests, pausing only to fighting the monsters they need to fight and move on. I’m usually at the rear of the group, trying desperately to read the text that advances the plot, and end up desperately (mis)typing something like “Hey guyts wait up!! I’m trying to reaad all of the story!” Which then usually leads to me getting lost, eventually spotting something cool and thinking, “Hey, a haunted grotto! Sweet! I wonder what’s in there?” And then I die, and lose.

Conclusion

Playing video games online with other people usually involves boiling the experience down to simple actions. Make it to the escape area and shoot zombies. Quickly train soldiers and win. Get treasure and level up. Stopping to ponder, well, anything is frowned upon. Left 4 Dead 2 is more than just another shooting game because it takes the time to weave in nuances, be it the deft banter between characters or the subtle social commentary. I don’t think I can turn off the part of my brain that recognizes this, though, and that makes me a lonely online gamer. Winning, for me, is taking part in a story or being awash in near-tangible atmosphere, not just getting a lot of points.

This is an area that I think will be crucial in making video games more respected artistically. As fun as herky jerky escapism is, it leaves me feeling empty. While game designers and programmers might be crafting something worthwhile, it’s easy for the gamers on the other end of the screen to tear it all down. Maybe we’ll take the time to smell the digital roses; maybe, this way, we can win.

An Open Letter on Adaptations

Okay, look – you’ve told me a few times that the book is better than the movie.

Did you know that I read the book, too? Honestly, I also like it better than the movie. I guess the folks that adapted it for the screen really left out a lot. Two of my favorite subplots, for instance. Yeah, the one with the unsigned letters? That was so scary in the book. Oh, and the scriptwriters added a bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the book, and, well, I sort of wish that all of the internal monologues made it to the screen, too. They added a sense of humor that just wasn’t in the movie. And I can’t believe that they changed the protagonist’s hair color.

But you know what? The movie was actually pretty good. Maybe really good.

Stop laughing! Think about this: no matter how good a book-to-film adaptation is, fans will have a one-up on whatever the filmmakers can put on the screen – their imagination. Your imagination does a lot of heavy lifting; regardless of what faults a novel has, the imagination fills in the blanks, splashes on the perfect atmosphere, gives all of the characters the best possible traits to tell the story. At least, all of the best things for the reader.

So in a way, movie adaptations are really sketchings of written stories, not photographs. And besides, film and literature are two very different ways to tell a story, with both strengths and weaknesses that don’t overlap as much as we wish they did. Trying to transfer one to the other without any changes just doesn’t work – it’s almost like trying to adapt an epic poem into a short folk song. As storytelling forms, the few similarities are crowded out by the differences that have to be taken into account. Otherwise, you’d have day-long songs that no one would want to listen to, let alone make.

There are some novels that translate easily to the screen. Cormac McCarthy’s recent No Country For Old Men is a good example; the Coen brothers’ film version from 2007 hewed closely to the book’s sparse text. But the movie still felt and looked like a Coen film, as it should have – the adapted screenplay was clay molded by them, and the fact that it worked well on its own is more of a credit to them than McCarthy. (Though I must admit, when I read the novel upon its release, I felt like the normally dense McCarthy had written a Coen screenplay!)

But a good movie doesn’t have to follow the book precisely – I’d go so far as to say that the less a movie is constrained by a book, the better. Of course, an adaptation will probably need to retain at least some of the source novel’s traits before it becomes something completely unrelated to the novel, but creative interpretation is a good thing.

Two very different examples of excellent movies that are considerably different than their literature roots:The Wizard of Oz and L.A. Confidential. The former is cemented as a film classic, so embedded in Western society’s subconsciousness that people quote the film without even knowing the source. Do you think it’s because of a long-standing cultural love of L. Frank Baum’s book series? As historically important as Baum’s Oz series is, the film has dwarfed his books. For a good reason, too: it’s a fantastic movie, and one drastically different from its literary source. The film has stood on its own, as there aren’t many Baum purists that dismiss the movie.

The same goes for director Curtis Hanson’s take on L.A. Confidential, from James Ellroy’s novel of the same name. Like many of his other works, Ellroy writes a dense, detail-heavy jungle of staccato dialogue, complex plot elements, and almost ghoulish overtones. Hanson’s movie takes the basic structure of the neo-noir novel (three unlikely cops, one murder, chaos ensues!) and runs with it. Characters are completely changed, entire plotlines erased, endings and motives overhauled and retooled. And it totally works. I’m a fan of both the book and film, and Hanson takes Ellroy’s story and tells it again in his own way. It’s still recognizable as an adaption of Ellroy’s story, but it’s a movie first and foremost.

There are plenty of examples of literary adaptations out there, especially considering that people have been adapting the written word into motion pictures for over a century. In fact, I bet you don’t realize that some of your favorite movies are based on novels, comics, or short stories. From The Princess Bride to Eyes Wide Shut to Die Hard, from Exit Wounds to M*A*S*H to Original Sin to Shaft to Slumdog Millionaire. How “faithful” the adaptation is to the source material varies from project to project, with varying results.

I’m realizing more and more that the main reason I felt let down with film versions of the Chronicles of Narnia is not because they changed things from the book, but because, well, they were just average movies. Cute looking English kids have some adventures, a lion dies (or something) and there’s a big, suffocating CGI battle that envelopes the latter third of the movie. What fantasy movie doesn’t do this? I have a feeling that if the movies didn’t have the C.S. Lewis connection, they would’ve been completely written off by critics and fans and given a quick shove-off to the bargain DVD section of a big box retail store.

Here’s something to try: go watch a movie based on a book you love, but try to take a step back and just watch it as a movie. Pretend that you’ve never opened the book, even.

And it really comes down to this – you love the book, and you’re always going to love it. But no matter what, the film is always going to let you down if you keep treating it like a facsimile of the version on page. It isn’t, and won’t ever be. But it is a separate work of art, and needs to stand on its own two legs.