Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Age of Adz: Album and Concert

Sufjan Stevens' proclamation of "electronica influence" for his newest album didn't exactly instill much confidence in many fans.  We want the solemn resilience of Michigan, the understated reverence of Seven Swans, the sincere exuberance of Illinois.  The very mention of "electronic" from an artist who'd build an indie empire out of acoustic, folk, and orchestral modalities just screams "now it is time for my seventh album and I am going to do some crazy experiments with it!"  And experiments go oft awry.

But hey, in 2003, if you'd asked me what I thought of a Ben Gibbard-"electronica" collaboration, I would have said that would be a bad idea too.  And I would have been very, very wrong.  So, bring on Age of Adz and all its electronic glory.

You can tell just by looking the cover that we're not getting the joyous proclamation of America that the Fifty States Project gave us.  Instead, it's raw emotion, something that Stevens dreamed up under some combination of influences including his disenchantment with his earlier, lyrical approach to songwriting; his battle with some mysterious disease over the last year or two; and the post-apocalyptic, schizophrenic art of Royal Robertson.  It's Robertson's treatment of the End of Days that colors a lot of the aesthetic on the album, including some downright "spacey" sound effects that would have seemed miserably out of place on any of Stevens' earlier records (even when the songs were about UFO's.)

At first, I was admittedly Not A Fan of Age of Adz.  I was such a massive fan of Stevens' earlier work--Illinois in particular is easily one of my top ten favorite albums--that any drastic departure from his earlier aesthetic was a change I just did not want to deal with.  Besides, when that change is to intentionally introduce dissonances and elements that make the music sound less good, I'm immediately biased against it.  (When Mae tried it, it didn't work out too well for them either.)

Then again, I was admittedly Not A Fan of All Delighted People, Stevens' ambush of an EP earlier this year... but I warmed up to it after only two or three listens.  In much the same way, I'm warming up to Age of Adz slowly but surely.  The thing to realize here is that Stevens' music is and always has been excellent because he's a master at arranging sound.  Whether that's the banjos and guitars of Michigan, the orchestral explosion of Illinois, or even the blips and buzzes of Age of Adz, Stevens is incredibly good at taking several different sorts of sound at once and putting them all together in a way that makes sense.

Age does have some standout tracks.  "Vesuvius," especially, has quickly become one of my favorite Sufjan Stevens songs ever.  Daring to use volcano imagery, the song begins slowly and quietly before erupting into an incredibly powerful message of following your heart and doing what you feel is right even in the face of dire consequences.  The title track "The Age of Adz," "I Walked," and "Too Much," are all quite good as well.  I'm less a fan of "Get Real Get Right" and "I Want to Be Well," which strike me as experiment for the sake of experimentation rather than for the sake of making interesting and innovative music.  But all in all, Age of Adz has good stuff on it if you know where to look.

So when I had the opportunity to see Sufjan Stevens live, even though I knew most of his material would be from Age, I figured I liked enough of the album that I'd be able to appreciate the live show.  And I'm glad I went.  Stevens doesn't exactly have the reputation for being conventional, and that showed as soon as he took stage--with a dozen people.  Among his retinue were two drummers, two trombone players, a handful of multi-instrumentalists, and two women who serves as both backup vocalists and streamer-waving dancers.  On top of all of that, a video screen behind the stage showed various cosmic and apocalyptic scenes taken from or inspired by Royal Robertson's work roughly synced to the music.  Spectacle is an important reason to see a live show, and Stevens absolutely nails it.

It's true that I'm feeling better about both All Delighted People and The Age of Adz than when I first heard either--and seeing songs from both live certainly helped me appreciate both better.  But it was still a little disappointing when all of Stevens' material save two songs came from either the EP or the recent album.  Of course, Sufjan played "Chicago"--even though this is the single most recognizable artifact of an era that he's clearly trying to distance himself from, there's no way Sufjan Stevens plays a concert and the fans let him get away with not playing "Chicago".  Stevens' encore started with the opening track from Illinois, which contains "UFO" and (in true circa-2005 Sufjan Stevens style) about ten other words, and it's a nice piano piece, but I would have liked even more Illinois throughout the show.

Though seeing most of the songs live helped me appreciate them better, I'm still not convinced that "Impossible Soul" is any good at all.  It's an oblique, 25-minute sprawl that closes the album, which Stevens referred (potentially tongue-in-cheek) to as his "magnum opus".  It's the potential tongue-in-cheek nature of this entire song that bothers me.  For a few miserable minutes in the middle of it, Stevens decides it's cool to use auto-tune.  This could be for one of two reasons: either he thinks this effect actually sounds good or he's going for a supremely hipster irony in smugly referencing a pop music phenomenon.  The first reason is simply incorrect; the second is actually more dangerous because it represents a departure from the deeply emotional sincerity we've come to expect from Sufjan Stevens.

Much like a metaphor for the entire album, "Impossible Soul" has its good parts, its parts I could do without, and its parts I can't really stand to listen to.  The Age of Adz is something I can get used to--but that means it's strictly worse than Illinois, which was utterly brilliant the first time I listened to it and has remained equally as utterly brilliant the dozens of times I've listened to it since.  As I've said before, Sufjan Stevens will not and should not be an artist who re-releases Illinois six times, puts his feet up on his desk, and sips cognac.  But we wouldn't mind it if he decided to release, say, Arkansas instead of Some Galaxy Following a Supernova.

Currently listening: "Adlai Stevenson", Sufjan Stevens

Friday, October 15, 2010

Videogame Best Hits List

This is probably the best viral facebook survey I've seen in years.

The rules:  Don't take too long to think about it.  List fifteen video games that will always stick with you.  List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.  Tag fifteen friends, including me, because I'm interested in seeing what games my friends choose.  (To do this, go to your Notes tab on your profile page, paste rules in a new note, cast your fifteen picks, and tag people in the note.)

1.  Earthbound is and will always be my favorite video game of all time.  It's not the first game I played or the first one I enjoyed, and I won't even make the claim that it's the best video game ever made, but it's the first one I "discovered" (this sort of thing is important to a quasi-hipster), and it's the only one that's ever made a real impact on my life.  From 1995 until 2001, Earthbound transcended being a video game for me, and it became a way of life.  Where today, most of my creative output happens in my blog, during those years, it happened through Earthbound: making websites, writing fan fiction, discussing the game on various fansites like  Earthbound has a particular culture about it--its quirky, almost trippy, aesthetic; its hilarious understated humor; its brilliant leitmotifs on its John Lennon-inspired soundtrack--all of these things make Earthbound an absolute masterpiece of a video game.

2.  The defining feature of Chrono Trigger is that it tells a linear story through a nonlinear timeline--sometimes you need to go forward in time to learn more; sometimes you need to go backwards.  And the true genius of the game doesn't reveal itself until you've already played through it once, when you can play through a second time and skip to the ending at any point to see how it changes.  It's one the few RPGs with legitimate replay value, and its reasonable approach time travel was well ahead of its time.

3.  Final Fantasy X is one of the only games that I characterize more by the number of things I didn't do (exactly two) than the number of things I did.  It is the crowning achievement in the Final Fantasy series.  VI was fantastic (and on this list), VII was truly revolutionary (and on this list), but there is no (and may never be a) better Final Fantasy game than X.  Sure, it introduced voice acting, had some innovative mechanics, and looked absolutely beautiful for its time... but the reason that X was so good was because its setting was impeccable.  It's the best example I've ever seen of a game where every detail--the game mechanics, the plot, the locations, and even the clothes the characters wear--reinforce the setting and make playing in it incredibly rewarding.

4.  Morrowind/Oblivion (/Tribunal/Bloodmoon/Knights of the Nine/Shivering Isles) are all grouped together on my list.  I know that they're technically at least two games, but they're similar in that they're set in the same universe, they're incredibly open-ended, they have a collective soundtrack that is one of the best of any video game ever, their style and tone are similar... and I sunk at least 120 hours into both of them.  They succeeded on different accounts--Oblivion was more balanced, more polished ("better produced" to use a music analogy), and better looking; Morrowind had slightly more to do and had a better story.  They're both among the greatest PC games ever, and well worth playing if you don't mind being antisocial for an entire month.

5.  The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time was the definitive game for the Nintendo 64.  I'll argue that Twilight Princess was actually the superior Zelda game, but Ocarina of Time did so much for the series and for 3D gaming in general that it's tough to pass up.

6.  Final Fantasy VI was the first Final Fantasy game I played, and it got me hooked, not only on the series, but also on JRPGs as a subgenre.  It's easily the most nonlinear of the Final Fantasy games, which makes it a lot of fun, and it probably features the best soundtrack in the series as well.

7.  I expect some resistance on this one, but I think Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is the best Grand Theft Auto game.  (Full disclosure: I haven't finished IV yet, but a few hours in, it's quite good.)  It was the first to feature voice acting from the player character and the first to include real-world music from well-known bands.  It was entirely better than GTA III, because it took everything good about it and improved it, but it avoided the trap of overextending like San Andreas.

8.  I'm not by and large a strategy fan, but I'd be remiss not to include Rise of Nations on this list.  I first played it in spring 2003, after I'd taken World History in high school (pretty much my favorite class ever), so I was on a real history kick around that time.  It implemented lots of innovative features like permanent cities and territory, it had enormous success in merging conventional RTS battles and world-domination grand strategy, and the expansion added some both fun and detailed re-interpretations of historical campaigns.

9.  Super Metroid is an absolutely classic platformer, most notable to me for being part of my friend Nicholas's self-proclaimed "best day ever".  My best friend through elementary and middle school, Nicholas's best day ever included seeing Good Burger in the theater and getting a Tamagotchi.  (Hello 1997.)  And it was the first time either of us completed Super Metroid in under the three hours necessary to see the "best ending".  (It was a team effort--I planned a course, and Nick executed it.)  Prior to that day, the goal had seemed nearly insurmountable to our ten-year-old selves.

10. Super Mario World was the very first video game I ever played and was therefore responsible for spawning one of my biggest hobbies over the past fifteen-plus years.  It helped to forge my friendship with Nicholas, and a decade later I remember playing through it as being one of the most fun things I did with my high school girlfriend Jenny (except for maybe discovering Curb Your Enthusiasm).

11.  Even though none of us had ever touched a skateboard in our lives, my friends and I spend an irrational amount of time playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 circa 2001.  (The game did spawn a short skateboard career for Nicholas, which was sadly cut short by injury.)  The soundtrack is atrocious (except in a hipster-ironic sense) and the skate culture is probably the furthest thing imaginable from my personal aesthetic, but how could you not love spelling inappropriate things in "horse" mode and pulling off the 900?

12.  GoldenEye 007 was basically the de facto go-to party game in the late 1990s.  It (along with its spiritual successor, Perfect Dark) was probably the only shooter I've ever truly enjoyed... and man, was it fun karate chopping, Moonraker lasering, and throwing-knifing all your friends.

13.  There is at least a plurality consensus among JRPG fans that Final Fantasy VII is the best in the series, and despite my mentions of X's beautiful story and setting (or VI's free-wheeling self-determination), I haven't won too many people over.  They have a point--VII pioneered 3D for console RPGs, plus it has some iconic characters and settings, the single best piece of music on any video game soundtrack ("One Winged Angel," of course), and enough secrets and side quests to occupy you for quite a while.  To add a personal note, this game is what convinced me to but a Playstation.

14.  Donkey Kong Country might not have made to this list had I not watched my friend Tom play about a quarter of it a few months ago.  I realized that, fifteen years after I'd played the game for the first time, I still instinctively know the first twelve or so stages backwards and forwards: optimal paths, locations of extra lives, how to get to secret areas.  That brought a flood of nostalgia, and I remembered just how much I'd enjoyed it back in the day.

15.  Admit it: you played Pokemon.  You only started playing because it was a fad, and you stopped playing when it became passe, but for the year or two when it was socially encouraged to play Pokemon, you had a hell of a good time.  To this day, I can't name a game that has taken such a creative spin on the RPG idea, nor one that has combined single-player and multiplayer modes so effectively.  In fact, looking back on it, you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that Pokemon was not one of the great achievements in video game design history--it was a social gaming experience five years before we knew what social media was.

Currently listening: "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk", the New Pornographers

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Letter in response to Blum Center protests

One of the sources of funding for my research is the Blum Center, an organization devoted to helping the quality of life in some of the world's poorest places.  Blum Hall, where the Center is based on campus, had its grand opening last week, and the point was to show the rest of campus all the good things that research funded by the Blum Center is doing.  But a bunch of asshats showed up to protest, because apparently that's what you do for an organization that's trying to bring cooking stoves to Darfur and clean water to the slums of Mumbai.  Here's my letter to the editor of the Daily Cal that expresses that same sentiment but much more professionally.

This letter is in response to the protests that occurred during the grand opening of Richard C. Blum Hall, the campus home of the Blum Center for Developing Economies.  The grand opening, last Friday, October 8, showcased some of the research that is supported by the Blum Center and featured remarks from Chancellor Birgenau, Richard Blum, Senator Dianne Feinstein, and former Secretary of State George Shultz.  It took place amidst several protests that bore messages such as "Blum, don't privatize UC" and "end poverty here first."  These protests were factually inaccurate on some grounds and logically misguided on others.

First, accepting research grants from private entities (whether corporations, individuals, or charitable organizations) in no way constitutes "privatization" of the University.  In 2008, the University accepted $120 million in research funding from private-sector or non-profit sources.  That funding has allowed the University to investigate topics as diverse as stem cells, robotics, and economic policy.  And it has enabled the University to become a world leader in biofuels and other renewable energy research.  Yet, Cal has remained a public institution and has consistently been recognized as the best public university in the country.

Second, the Blum Center's mission is to fight poverty in the developing world; construing this mission as a lack of concern for domestic poverty is a straw man fallacy. Roughly 40 million Americans live in poverty, and their situation is a serious one.  But this poverty is a fundamentally different challenge from the one that the Blum Center aims to address.  For example, among the eight million people living in the slums of Mumbai, many have no access to sanitary water; the Blum Center is funding research to develop viable and efficient solutions for ensuring a clean water supply.  As problems that require both scientific excellence and a commitment to global engagement, these are problems that the University of California is uniquely poised to solve.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Blum explained the goals of the Center to its researchers, staff, and students, he was interrupted by a loud protest.  To paraphrase Mr. Blum, apparently those involved with the protest would rather us not work toward improving the quality of life in the developing world.

In addition to interrupting Mr. Blum's speech, the protests closed an afternoon poster session to the public.  The poster session was originally intended to be an open house.  Ironically, the actions of the protesters did more to "privatize" the University's mission than did any donation from Mr. Blum.  By preventing UC students, faculty, and staff from attending this event, the protesters denied the entire UC community a chance to engage the Blum Center-supported researchers and support their creativity and social consciousness.

Berkeley has a strong tradition of free speech, often including protests, and that tradition ought to be maintained.  Protest injustices, protest unethical behavior, protest barriers that stand in the way of the University's goals.  Do not protest those of us who are trying to use our talents and our resources to make a positive change in the world.

Currently listening: "Your Hands (Together)", the New Pornographers

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

3-Sentence Reviews: September 2010 Television (part 2)

Continued from part 1...

The Big Bang Theory is the only conventional laugh-track sitcom I've liked since Seinfeld, and it's one that anybody who went to a tech-oriented school or had a lot of science-major friends will be able to appreciate.  Its fourth season is as strong as ever, and the show is on a definite upswing now that it's gotten the Leonard/Penny romance out of its system.  We're still ever closer to getting "The Sheldon Show," where everyone else is basically a supporting character, but that almost doesn't matter given how good Jim Parsons is.

I have a strange criticism of $#*! My Dad Says (pronounced "bleep my dad says"), and it has nothing to do with its unorthodox inspiration.   Instead, I don't like this show because it's nowhere near offensive enough.  The entire entertainment from the Twitter feed was the titular dad's vulgarity, bigotry, self-righteousness, and iconoclasm; at 8:30 pm on broadcast television (instead of a later timeslot or a cable channel), it can't feel anything but watered down.

While it really should have ended a year or two ago, The Office really better end after this season when Steve Carell departs.  The seventh season so far isn't as strong as the first three or four, but at least it has avoided the miserable drama of the most recent couple.  BJ Novak is still frustratingly underused, and the "Michael irrationally despises Toby" story/joke is not nearly as funny as the writers think it is, but new guy Gabe fits in perfectly, and the Dwight/Pam "we are stuck" moment was classic, hilarious, brilliant Office.

I probably would never have watched Outsourced had I not stumbled upon (and generally liked) the film of the same name (and inspiration for the television show).  This show illustrates how difficult the movie to television conversion is: the movie had about 100 interesting minutes, and when it had used them up, it ended; even though we're only on episode 2 of presumably 20-25, we've already seen 43 minutes of content from the show, and I honestly have no idea where the show might go after its fourth or fifth episode.  Still, I appreciate the change from love story to workplace comedy, and I like that the show isn't trying to make some grand statement on US/India relations, just pointing out that things one culture takes for granted are laughably bizarre to another.

In its last three seasons, The Mentalist has quietly emerged as the best procedural on television.  There's just enough House-esque snarkiness--but less abstract pontificating on the nature of lying and a whole lot less unnecessary drama with the eponymous character dating his by-the-book female boss.  Better yet, the series has finally hit its stride, including just enough Red John episodes to keep the overall arc moving forward but not so many that we get tired of it.

Alone among reality shows, The Amazing Race has redeeming value: the chance to be educated about all sorts of awesome things and places all over the world.  It's almost enough to make me want to do The Amazing Race... then I look at the ridiculous things the contestants are made to do, and I realize I really do not want to do The Amazing Race.  So far, I don't have a team I'm strongly rooting for--but then again I don't really hate many of the teams, so this season seems like it should be especially watchable.

Currently listening: "High Art, Local News", The New Pornographers