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Do It Live

13 Jan

DoItLiveLast night, I had the privilege of performing a reading as part of the venerable Writers with Drinks spoken word/variety show. The event is put on by fellow Gawker-er Charlie Jane Anders (io9), and takes place monthly at the Makeout Room in the Mission. WWD has been going on for more than a decade, and I, because I am a huge loser, have never been. After last night, I’ll probably never miss another one as long as live in San Francisco. It was a BLAST.

The setup is more or less this: Each month, four or five writers go up to the mic and read their stuff for about 10-15 minutes each. It can be a chapter from a book, or a few poems, or some spoken word thing, or a comedy routine, or an essay or article. When Charlie Jane asked me to participate early last week, my first thought was, “Okay!” My second thought was, “What the fuck am I going to read?”

For a while I considered throwing together some new thing, something about teaching, or music, or life in the city… the hidden message behind those ideas being, Christ, anything but video games. Then, my daily schedule being what it is, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have time to write 10 or 15 minutes’ worth of new material by Saturday in addition to writing for work. So, video games it was.

I wound up adapting a couple of older things I’d written: First was an essay about Pac-Man, lines, the Japanese visual art suibokuga, and jazz called “Onward, Pac-Man!” I also did a rendition of “Fisher-Fest 2010″, which is a breakdown of the ridiculous dialogue in Splinter Cell: Conviction. I asked my friend Dan to come up to read the dialogue from Fisher-Fest with me, to shake things up. How would this go? Would we tank? Would anyone care? God only knew.

Okay, so: I get to the Makeout Room and it’s packed. There are like 80 people there, and they’re all Here To Listen To People Read Things. Um. So I’m going to get in front of this huge group of people and read an essay about Pac-Man. Right. Then, it turns out that the person who was supposed to kick us off hasn’t shown up, so I’m going to go FIRST. Good lord.

wwdfallingI’ve actually performed at the Makeout Room before, but every time I’ve done it, it’s been with my band. I’ve had a guitar or a saxophone to hide behind, and a whole band to back me up. There’s something so naked about getting up on stage with a sheaf of papers and just sort of… reading.

So I go up there to read, and about thirty seconds in it becomes clear–praise be–that this crowd totally gets it. They are on board. They want to hear about Pac-Man and jazz. They’re laughing at Fisher-Fest. (Money line from Dan: “You’ll die on your knees, like a SCIENTIST!”) And the whole time I’m on stage, vaguely thinking, “Here I am, reading an essay about Pac-Man and making jokes about Splinter Cell, and this audience is super into it? What the fuck planet am I on?”

Anyway, it was grand. I now fully understand why readings are A Thing. Other readers included Jan Richman doing a chapter from her book Thrill-Bent, Ramez Naam sharing a hilarious sci-fi sexual misadventure from his book Nexus, Wired‘s Erin Biba reading this article about the history and future of prenatal genetic testing, and another writer (who wasn’t on the bill and so whose name I’m tracking down) who filled in for an empty slot with a riveting story of a woman traveling on a bus to an extramarital tryst, only to have one of the passengers go missing.

During all of the readings, particularly that last one, I was struck by how the very vulnerability I was so nervous about going in–No instruments! No band! Just words and a mic!–actually became a strength. Because there wasn’t any loud music playing, people were quiet. Because there was only one thing to pay attention to, the audience was focused. We hung on every word, laughed at every joke. It was remarkable.

I was also surprised at how helpful it was for me to rework my writing into something that’d work for a live audience. It’s always useful to read your work out loud, but I’d never really taken an article or essay of mine and asked of it, “Could I read this out loud to a bar full of people? Would they get it? Would it work?”

The changes I made to both essays helped them flow, and removed assumed knowledge and jargon without in any way changing their gist or substance. The Pac-Man essay still articulates a concept I remain enamored of even a couple of years after I wrote the piece, but my actual writing in it feels clunky and effortful now. It’s overly purple, like I was trying to impress everyone. (Guess what: I was.) I say too little with too many words, and in the lede I assume that readers know both Splinter Cell and Minecraft. In making the article work for last night’s performance, I didn’t just make it more accessible, I also made it better.

So, there’s a cool exercise in there. Next time you’re writing something, ask of it: “Could I read this out loud? To a club full of ordinary people? Would they get it?” Granted, the approach won’t do much for, say, a review of a new graphics card, but if you’re going for broad appeal with whatever you’re writing, it’s a helpful measuring stick.

Anyway. Writers With Drinks was a lot of fun. If you live in SF, you should come out to the next one. I’ll be there!

A Year Of The Melodic

27 Dec

SaxThere’s this thing about working at a high-output job like Kotaku where at the end of the year, you scroll back through the RSS of everything you posted and kind of just gape at it.

“Oh yeah, that article! I forgot I wrote or even conceptualized that.”

It’s certainly one of the challenges of the gig, but the high rate-of-fire is also a way to amass a bulky body of work in a short period of time. 2012 was the year we began to do separate “Channels” at Kotaku, the idea being to let our writers each highlight their expertise in various areas on the site. I got to run “Kotaku Melodic,” ostensibly dedicated to the intersection of games and music. I of course treated it more as my own personal fiefdom to write about Miles Davis, Kimbra, Amanda Palmer, and whatever the hell else I wanted. It was great.

I went back over the year and put together this post rounding up the best of the year at Kotaku Melodic. I’m immensely proud of the work we did this year. Give it a read, won’t you?

The Year In Music At Kotaku

He’s Still Out There

8 Dec

original

Watching, waiting. For the inevitable showdown.

“Of All Places!”

10 Jun

Discussion of the whole “growing the jazz audience” idea continues! Because hey, this is not something that gets conceptualized and then put to bed in a couple of weeks.

In the interest of keeping the discussion going, NPR’s “A Blog Supreme” has gathered a few responses to Kurt Ellenberger’s original piece, among them the one I wrote for Kotaku.

I’m happy to see my work discussed at an NPR blog, particularly given the fact that I get to blindside jazz folks by posting such an article on a video game website. (In the NPR article, author Patrick Jarenwattananon refers to Kotaku as “of all places” two times. Ha!)

I have to say I wish I got the sense that there were more people engaging with this discussion with the same vigor as Kurt did. I’ve seen jazz musicians on Facebook and in comments sections using this discussion as an excuse to bring up bones they’ve been picking for a while–the academization of jazz, the way that largely white college professors have ruined things, the effect of Berklee in the 80′s, the unfair misconceptions under which jazz has labored for decades now.

But I’ve seen a dispiriting lack of further, deeper discussion, of people looking to honestly engage in these bigger questions: Whose responsibility is it to keep an artistic movement alive? What role does artistic evolution play in that? How might we better teach music to young people? Is a holistic approach to musical education perhaps more engaging and successful than a strict adherence to jazz dogma? How far can you go before you lose fundamentals?

These questions are asked routinely at conventions like the IAJE (now defunct) and JEN, of course. But questions as vital as those shouldn’t be relegated to educators’ journals and conventions. They should be online, and everyone who wants to hear them should be able to.

I’m thankful to Kurt for bringing this conversation out into the light, and I’m glad to see that it’s continuing. I hope to see some more responses published in the future. I get the sense that this conversation is only beginning, and that it’s a worthwhile one to be having.

Your Comments About Building Jazz Audiences And Musicians With Day Jobs [NPR]—

Growing The Audience

26 May

There’s this running question in the jazz world about “growing the audience,” finding a way to get people to want to listen to jazz again. It’s kind of a bummer topic, since the whole thing is predicated on acknowledging that jazz isn’t really all that popular anymore.

But it’s also a really interesting thing to talk about, since it requires us to take stock of jazz’s musical legacy, and why it is that we teach the music in the first place. Jazz was the jumping-off point for me to get into so many other kinds of music, and at this point, I’ve begun to think of music a bit more holistically both in terms of education and performance.

Anyway! I wrote a big article for my music section at Kotaku about the idea of “growing the jazz audience,” and why A) that’s probably impossible, at least by the narrower definition of “jazz” and B) that’s totally okay. Which really, is only a depressing conclusion if you’re so hung up on the idea of traditional jazz that you simply can’t look beyond it.

Today’s jazz musicians (and jazz-program graduates) are versed in so many different types of music, from straight-ahead bebop to electronic trance to pop to heavy metal, that labeling them “jazz musicians” feels like a misnomer. Jazz may be the root of most modern musical training—it’s where rock, hip-hop and funk all came from, after all—but to pretend that musicians who can play all of that music must or should make a living playing jazz feels like a narrow viewpoint.

Go read the whole article:

Growing The Jazz Audience ‘Cant’ Be Done.’ Maybe That’s Okay?

Music, Lyrics and Song Design

18 Feb

This week over at Kotaku, I wrote a piece called “Gameplay and Story are Exactly Like Music and Lyrics”. It’s my take on the whole “gameplay vs. story” debate, and I believe it’s a useful one.

I’ve been chewing on the idea for a good long time now, and I was happy to finally get it down. It kind of works in tandem with my first Kotaku column from 2011 about “The Rhythm of Play”.  Two entries in my ongoing quest to demonstrate that video games are really just music.

(I’m kidding. Sort of.)

I’ve been happy with the response the piece has gotten–the analogy sure put the entire situation into perspective for me, and I’m glad to hear that it has felt useful for others as well.

I’ve been on the sidelines of the debate for a while now, reading recent pieces like Raph Koster’s “Narrative is not a Game Mechanic” and Mattie Brice’s response, “Narrative is a Game Mechanic”, watching Clint Hocking’s killer 2011 GDC talk on dynamics and “how games mean”, and earlier last year, brokering an enlightening letters debate between Tom Bissell and Simon Ferrari over at Paste.

But I’ve never felt like I had that much to add to the discussion. I understand the finer points of the definitions and analyses that are being thrown around, but most of those distinctions haven’t felt that vital to me. (That’s to me, I should stress. They’re entirely relevant to the discussion itself.) Anyway, this parallel did feel vital, and like something that was easy to understand and articulate.

After the article ran, friendly rabble-rouser Mattie Brice took issue with what she took to be my conflation of (or at least, lack of distinction between) “story” and “narrative.” I’ll point out that in my piece, I really only referred to story, though I did call these types of games “narrative games.” Perhaps I should have just gone with “story-based games.”

While I actually do find the distinction between story and narrative interesting (to think about more than to write about), I don’t believe that distinction was all that useful for the broader analogy I was making. Just as I wasn’t going to spend a paragraph making distinctions about atonal music, and how to find melody and rhythm in the work of, say, Merzbow, I wasn’t going to dedicate space to making distinctions between narrative and story.

I don’t meant to wholly disregard the importance of that distinction, however. As boring as semantics can feel at times, language is important. I just don’t think it’s all that important for the point I was making. But if you do want to make the distinction, I think that the musical analogy has a place for narrative as well as story.

The question is where we want to place narrative on the spectrum. If narrative and story are in fact interchangeable, then it’s a moot point. But I like Brice’s illustration of what narrative is, how while Tetris may not have a story, it certainly has a narrative:

Games are constantly communicating experiences to the player, as when the height of all your pieces in Tetris is juxtaposed against the increasing speed of the falling blocks to create tension and provoke anxiety.

So let’s say narrative is like musical form. The way that a piece is arranged and built; not the music specifically, but its structure. “Gameplay and Story and Narrative are like Music and Lyrics and Song-Form” is a bit of a mouthful, but it feels like an accurate headline.

At any rate. In my years as a composer and songwriter, I’ve come to understand my creative process as a kind of design. The term “song designer” sounds ridiculous, but that’s very much what writing a song is like.

Most of the songs I write start with a melody. I’m strumming guitar, or sitting at the piano, and I sing the melody to myself. It sticks, so I sing it over and over. I play through a chord progression, I figure out a bit of the form, I conceptualize the tune, but it’s all built around this one wordless melody. That melody is the core of my creative idea, the peg upon which I’ll hang the rest of the song.

Sometimes the lyrics I attach to my melodies don’t make sense right away, and I’ll wind up with a completed song with no lyrics. But other times, I know exactly what a song’s lyrics will be–I have a specific story I want to tell, and I build the song’s structure around that story.

No two songs come into existence the same way. It’s an endless puzzle, and an endless design challenge. It’ll never get boring.

I’m excited that I’ll have an opportunity to write more about music and games at Kotaku–I’ve got a regular weekly posting-block every Thursday evening called “Kotaku Melodic”, where I’ll get to write about whatever I want, from terrible menu music to Avishai Cohen. It’s gonna be a blast.

And hey, while I’m at it, maybe I’ll finally find some time to finish designing some of these songs I’ve been working on.

The Stage Lights Are Beckoning

11 Feb

Last weekend at the Brava Theater I did another episode of “915 Cayuga,” the live radio/theatrical/musical show that I started last year with my creative partner, the fabulous actor/writer Khamara Pettus. Khamara produces, writes, acts, and directs the show while I serve as musical director, sing and play a bunch of instruments, and write some of the skits.

I’m joined onstage by my friends and longtime bandmates Lindsay Garfield, Dan Apczynski and Dan Nervo. A bunch of other wonderful people contribute as well; it’s really becoming quite a production.

Below are some cool pictures from last week; they were taken by Carrina Maree. (You can view the full Flickr set here.) We’ll have a full recording online soon, and I’ll be sure to holler when it’s up.

The next performance will be at the Brava somewhere around the end of March, and you should come.

Play It Again, Samus

3 Dec

I’m thrilled to once again have contributed a feature to the lovely Kill Screen Magazine. This issue’s theme was “The Sound Issue,” so as you can probably imagine, I was excited to come up with something good to write for it. I think I did!

My article is a look at how both games and improvisational music (jazz) devise strict rule-sets to allow for improvisation. I talk about the rules on the bandstand, discuss some of the games I use to help young students learn to improvise, and take a look at composer John Zorn’s free-jazz “game pieces.”

It’s a collection of ideas that I’ve been chewing over for a very long while, and I’m happy with how I articulated them.

As I progressed from high school to undergraduate jazz studies and beyond, I began to see that both forms [videogames and jazz] have a great deal in common. Both play with the boundaries between designer/composer intent and player interpretation, both allow for improvisation and the reimagination of the original goals of the creator. And most of all, both use strict rules to spark endless creativity.

Thanks to my editors Chris Dahlen and Ryan Kuo for working with me so tirelessly on it; now more than ever, I am aware of the benifits of a rigorous editorial process, and working with those two gents was a luxury that few writers are afforded. Special recognition to Chris for coming up with the article’s excellent title.

Props, too, to the issue’s designer Jeremy Borthwick and art directors Keenan Cummings and Jon Troutman–this is the most eye-catching issue of the magazine yet, and Keenan’s illustrations on my article are brilliant! It’s so cool to send off a huge chunk of text and then, a couple months later, see it rendered into a sexy, art-laden thing.

The issue also features work by some of my favorite writers including Matthew Burns, Patrick Klepeck, Dan Bruno, J.P. Grant, Jon Irwin and Gus Mastrapa, as well as a terrific debut article by Sarah Elmaleh.

It can (and should) be ordered from Kill Screen‘s webpage.

Oh, Cayuga!

22 Jul

This Sunday, July 24th, I’ll be leading my band in the first-ever performance of the live musical radio show 915 Cayuga! The show is a project that my collaborative partner Khamara Pettus and I have been working on for a while, and it’s gonna be super-fun. It’s basically a radio variety show, featuring musicians (me, Dan, Nervo and Lindsay), actors (Khamara and the cast), and other acts (dancing, call-in advice, storytelling, monologuing), all performed and recorded in front of a live studio audience (you (hopefully)).

Basically, imagine “Prairie Home Companion” moved to the city and minus the midwestern fetish and all the Lutheran jokes, and you’ve got 915 Cayuga. I really hope you can make it out – we’re planning to do the show pretty regularly, and would love to have a great audience for our maiden voyage.

Show info is as follows:

Date: Sunday, July 24th, 7:00 PM
Venue: Main Street Theater, 915 Cayuga, SF (Near Balboa Park BART)
Cover: $10 door
Age: 21+, wine/beer available at the theater’s cash bar
Advance tickets at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/186816
Facebook Event: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=210891268956699

On a related note, I have finally updated my mailing list using the free mailing-list service MailChimp. I think it looks pretty good – if you’d like to sign up, you can do so here.

Hope to see you all Sunday!

The Spring Concert

13 Apr

Last week was the Urban School’s spring concert at Herbst Theatre. We always have a great time at these shows, but this year’s felt somehow special. My kids played their asses off, as did the other student groups. And there was this certain vibe, a joyfulness to the proceedings that was tough to describe but impossible to miss.

John Hefti, the father of one of my pianists, took some fantastic photos of the show. You can see them all here, but I thought I’d post a few of my favorites as well.

And my personal favorite, of our drummer Xander taking his ripping DS solo at the start of our closing number:

My Favorite Videogame Music

28 Mar

I recently got all distracted on Twitter talking about some of my favorite videogame music. Obviously, this is a topic that comes up quite often for me, and playing through FFVII again has really been hitting my game-music nostalgia nerve pretty hard.

You may recall that last year I went on the Brainy Gamer podcast to talk about game music with Michael and Dan Bruno, so I’d already spent some time culling a list of favorites for that show. Of course, we didn’t have time to get to everything there, so I thought it would be fun to make a list here of some (but of course, not all) of my favorite videogame music.

I should note that I mostly went with original soundtracks and tried to avoid licensed songs, hence no “Still Alive” or, like, the entire Rock Band 3 playlist. (I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of pretty recent tracks on here, and have also remembered some classics that I left off. Doubtless a second list will be necessary.)

(Okay, okay, here’s a second update: Looking at this list a couple months later, it’s clear to me that it’s I should have called it “Some of my favorite videogame music.” Because there are a huge number of soundtracks that didn’t make it on here that should’ve. At some point I’m going to go and really look back, really weigh older games, and really figure out my top ten. For now, think of this list as a list of great music that I like.)

Anyhow, they are in no particular order, and they are all incredibly good. Enjoy!

Final Fantasy Tactics A2 – Main Theme

Probably  my favorite DS game of all time, the soundtrack to this game is so good across the board that I had a hard time picking a theme. This montage contains two of my absolute favorites, however; the opening title theme and “Another Hill”.

Continue reading

“This Can’t Be For Real!”

25 Mar

Oh, Aeris… I got you these links and now they just sit here, reminding me of you.

Dragon Rage

First up, I wrote a review of BioWare’s new role-playing game Dragon Age 2 that was… well, it was quite negative. I was very frustrated by this game. I disliked so many aspects of it, and I really liked its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, which my friend and fellow games writer Denis Farr and I talked about at great length in this appropriately epic Dragon Age retrospective.

I’ve read a number of really good posts about the things Dragon Age 2 does right, particularly in terms of its subject matter and the novelistic way it tells its story. Kris Ligman’s review, in particular, was well-reasoned and well-thought out. And then of course there is DA2 head writer Daivd Gaider’s excellent response to a complaint on a message board about how all of the potential romantic partners are sexually omniverous. Fuck yeah, BioWare; fuck yeah David Gaider.

But when all is said and done, I simply can’t get around how unenjoyable the game was to play, and how fragmented and claustrophobic it felt. Alas.

Problems Stack Up

Speaking of highly critical reviews, I also reviewed the downloadable game Stacking for Kill Screen magazine. Their web editor Ryan Kuo was cool enough to let me get a bit creative with how I wrote it, so if you know about the game’s subject matter, you’ll get my wildly clever and amazing joke.

Here was another game that had a lot going for it but that was undone by simply being unpleasant to play. This one actually gave me motion sickness. It was a bummer, because I really like Double Fine, but there ya go. Hopefully their next game will be as fun and focused as Costume Quest was.

Oh Hi, Tim

This one is so entirely random that it kind of boggles me still. While at GDC, Paste‘s photographer Brian Taylor (who is also a writer and generally cool bearded man) took a whole bunch of pictures of legendary game developer (and Double Fine head) Tim Schafer. After looking through them, he asked if we could do a photoseries of them at Paste. I agreed, and so we ran it.

The idea had always been to have a caption contest for the pictures, and sure enough, over at the discussion thread at Kill Screen we all took the pics and ran with them. Jamin published his favorite captions over there, and they are pretty hilarious.

I have no idea what Tim made of all of this, though I’m fairly certain he does think we’re all really weird.

Reality is Bokeh

I didn’t write this piece but I wanted to link to it because it is so damn good. Game designer/writer/friend Matthew Burns attended GDC on a Paste press badge, and agreed to write up some sort of essay about his experience. He really was there to pitch a game, so he spent most of his time in closed door meetings.

The essay he eventually wrote, titled “Reality is Bokeh,” is a hell of a piece of work and approaches the weird creative convergence that occurs when you spend time engineering and building worlds from a number of different angles.

Hold Me Closer, Tiny Bronco

I continue to have a really good time playing Final Fantasy VII and writing letters to Leigh Alexander about my experiences. We published a couple more parts to our series this week: Part 3 is called “Our Hero, Our Villain” and talks about Cloud and Sephiroth, and Part 4 discusses the campiness of the game. I also start to talk some about the community that has popped up around me as I play. I feel a bit like that community is the vestiges of a group that has been somehow connected to one another since the game came out in 1997. It’s been really fun to experience a bit of the comraderie and discussion that FFVII seems to inspire. An index of all of our letters so far can be found here.

I just finished disc 1, so you all know what that means. I’m currently coping by building a huge shrine to her in my roommate’s room. He doesn’t know I’m doing it but he won’t be back until tomorrow and I should have it done by then so I hope he likes it.

Thanks so much for reading, and have a lovely weekend. Oh and check out “The Lemon of Pink” by The Books, which I have been listening to at the recommendation of Gus Mastrapa. It is great stuff and sounds weird on headphones.

The Exited Door, On Sale

9 Mar

In honor of all the new friends I’ve made over the past six months, I’ve decided to make my first solo record, “The Exited Door,” 50% off at Bandcamp. For the rest of this week, it’s selling for $5 (though you can name your price, should you want to pay more). You can also stream the whole thing for free on the site, or even listen to it right here:

I had no label, no producer, no mixing engineer, no professional studio—only me, my best musician friends, and anyone else I could convince to pitch in. I guess the word “indie” has taken a bit of a beating lately, but I’m not sure it gets more indie than how I made this album.

If you’re curious, I wrote a detailed, seven-part series about the process of making the album which was fun to write and is worth checking out. Even though I hope to work with a producer and a professional engineering team on my next album (and don’t doubt that the album would have been “better” had I had them), it is a point of pride for me that I managed to make it at all, and I’m really glad that I took the time to document the process.

We also do this stuff live, and I’ve made a video montage of a show we did a year and a half ago. I seriously, mega need to do another big show like this one; it was way too much fun.

 

Huge thanks to everyone who’s bought the record so far; I hope you are enjoying it. Your support is hugely valued, so please spread the word to anyone you think might like it!

Shadows and Whispers

14 Jan

When I was in music school, I was in a few saxophone quartets. At the University of Miami there is usually a freshman quartet, with the four freshman jazz saxophone principles assuming the four chairs in the group. It’s a great way to focus on intonation and blend. I’d never played in a “proper” rehearsing quartet before, and it was a challenging and exceedingly valuable experience.

My senior year, a group of upperclassmen actually put together an advanced quartet in order to tackle some really challenging music. The group consisted of me on tenor, Dan Kinzleman on soprano, Chris Shade on alto and Paul Roth on bari. UM Sax Prof Gary Keller directed us.

. We played a bunch of serious modern repertoire, including a Dave Liebman quartet that was as “out” as out can be. Lieb actually came down and listened to us play it, which was awesome and a bit harrowing. And in the spring, composer Jim Mcneely was the guest artist for the Concert Jazz Band, in which I was playing second tenor. Before the concert, our sax quartet took it upon ourselves to learn the final movement from a Mcneely piece called “Shadows and Whispers; Slash and Burn.”

We recorded it live at Gusman hall in early 2003. Every time I come back to the recording I’m struck by just how incredible Mcneely’s writing is, and how advanced the music was. His big band writing is equally cool, but something about the purity of the quartet really brings out what he does so well.

A (fantastic) student of mine named Ben is applying to UM, and Gary really likes his playing. Which is so very cool to hear. I saw Gary last week in New Orleans at the JEN convention, and we talked fondly about the Mcneely quartet. Gary went ahead and forward the recording along to Ben, so I thought I’d share it here, as well.

As you listen to it, bear in mind that there is no improvising in the piece – all of the notes were written. Check out how it goes in and out of focus, going from unison to harmony to rhythmic disjointedness and back. (Update: if you would like to purchase it, it is available via Advance Music.)

“Shadows and Whispers; Slash and Burn” by Jim Mcneely:


We End Up Together

31 Dec

Lots of people are doing lists of their favorite things from 2010, and I have done my share of those as well. And while I didn’t listen to enough new music to make a top-ten list, I did want to share what was probably my favorite album of the year: The New Pornographers’ Together.

This kind of music is very close to my own musical sensibilities—anyone who has listened to my stuff (and heard me sing alongside my own lovely redheaded co-singer Lindsay) can probably pretty easily tell that I’m a longtime fan of the band. Not that I chose to sing with Lindsay because she bears a superficial resemblance to Neko, I just… oh, you know what I’m saying. At any rate, Together is the Pornographers doing what they do so well: punchy, complex pop tunes with great melodies. It’s immaculately paced and listenable in the way that so many of my favorite records are—I put it on and before I know it, it’s over.

I wasn’t into their last album, Challengers; I thought it lost a lot of the drive and energy of their earlier albums. It was partly the softer, wider audio production, and partly just the songwriting. Together is a return to form—the album almost explicitly follows the template set forth in Electric Version. And like fellow DIY indies The Shins, The Pornographers have figured out how to mix their records so that each instrument has its own space (clustercuss mixes are a common problem for indie artists, myself included).

My favorite songs are all but impossible to choose. “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk” does that “New Face of Zero and One” shuffle thing, and it does it better than ever; “Valkyrie at the Roller Disco” is gorgeous and well-arranged. The closing track, “We End Up Together,” brings the whole record together (yes, together) in a grand-finale manner that they’ve never quite pulled off before. It’s also arguably the peak of AC Newman’s three-bar-phrase approach to building tense, looping verses.

Every song goes above and beyond to really give listeners something. Part of the Pornographers’ approach involves layering, repeated sections, but the songs on this album also feature codas, finales, unexpected breakdowns, lovely bridges. Despite the erudite lyrics and verbose indieness of it all, there’s a lot of heart on display.

I didn’t listen to that many new albums this year, but I was thankful for the stuff I did listen to, as well as for everyone who took the time to make music recommendations throughout the year. I hope you’ll all keep telling me stuff I should check out in 2011.

Happy New Year everyone!

Fuck Whom

27 Dec

I see you drivin round town
with the girl I love
and I’m like,
“fuck you”

>> Here I am, watching you [random gentleman] drive around town. My girl has left me, even though I loved her. She is now with you. Fuck you, sir.

Guess the change in my pocket
wasn’t enough
I’m like, “fuck you,”
and uh, “fuck her, too”

>> I lacked the financial stability to secure her romantic interest. Apparently you [man whom I have been addressing as "you"] can provide that stability, and I find that upsetting. Fuck you twice, sir. Fuck her as well.

If I was richer
I’d still be with you
Ain’t that some shit?
(Ain’t that some shit.)

>> If I had been more well-off, I would still be with you [man whom I have been addressing as "you"]. Doesn’t that just figure?

And though there’s pain in my chest
I still wish you the best,
with a “fuck you”

>>Despite my heartache, I hope everything turns out well for you [man whom I have been addressing as "you", or ex-girlfriend, or possibly both].

Still though, fuck you.

Fuck you both, I guess.

Chomp the Line

20 Dec

I have a new piece up at the recently launched Kill Screen site. It’s an essay I wrote last week about Pac-Man, Miles Davis, Kind of Blue and the Japanese visual art suibokuga. It might be my favorite thing I’ve written about a game, but then again I usually feel that way right after I write something.

Anyway, I’m real happy with it, which I guess isn’t a surprise since it’s a piece that fuses jazz and videogames.

In short order, Pac-Man finds himself tearing through a darkened dungeon trailed by a Technicolor train of doom, thirty shimmering ghosts trying and failing to catch the jaundiced maw. Row after row of dots is devoured, fruit bonuses are consumed; and the game gets faster, faster, faster until it is practically skipping across its own surface tension. The walls of the labyrinth are pulsing. There is house music playing.

Yeah, dude. Kill Screen is doing a whole lot of things right at the moment, but their visual aesthetic might be their crowning achievement. If you don’t have a subscription to this magazine, you should. It is beautiful to look at and tasty to read.

-Read “Onward, Pac-Man!” at Kill Screen.-

Musical Happenings

17 Aug

I’ve been working on a lot of different things, so I thought I’d take a minute to detail them here. Also, as you can see from that image, I’ve come down with a mild case of Scott Pilgrim Fever.

SF Songbird Festival Show @ The Blue Macaw

First up is a show we did a couple of weeks at at the groovy Blue Macaw in the Mission. It used to be called 12 Galaxies, and I actually haven’t been to the club since they changed names. Fortunately, the super cool Mz. Urban Therese (whom I have gotten to know as “Therese”) was putting together a bill for her Songbird Festival and asked if I’d like to participate.

We played alongside Debby Gipsman, Juliet Strong, and Jascha Hoffman, all of whom sounded great and were really cool. Debby opened with a solo acoustic set – girl has a really strong voice, sounds somewhat like Natalie Merchant, but better? And I don’t mean that in a silly way, I like Natalie Merchant’s voice, but Debby actually has a really cool quality that I dug. Juliet brought a really big, eclectic band, with accordion, cello, flute (who killed it and was a total babe to boot), cajón, upright bass and herself on keys and vocals. She sounded great, and has written some neat songs – check her stuff out! Jascha Hoffman played the closing set and gave a really charming performance with a kick-ass band – my bassist Daniel was playing with him, and his guitarist sounded great (his name is Adam Roszkiewicz, he plays with a ton of cats) and his drummer was Jason Slota, a great player from Afrodesia and John Vanderslice. Dang, that dude can freakin’ play the drums.

So yeah, our set. It was probably the most relaxed I’ve ever felt going into a show, which was so nice. All of my go-to color instrument folks (Violin, Trumpet, etc) were out of town or booked, so we went with the six-piece. Me, Dan and Lindsay on vocals, Nervo on guitar, Daniel Fabs on bass and Tim McGregor on drums. A killer group, and all friends, so we had a really laid-back vibe in general.

And we killed!  Seriously. I’ve never felt so good about a show – we could do that every night and it’d never get old. I mean, it’d get old, but it feels like it’d never get old. We went through the usual acoustic stuff – “The Darkened Street,” “No Crow, Scarecrow,” “North Kinser,” “Oh, Brother,” “If You’re Feeling Out Of It.”  Most of which are on my record, which hey, if you don’t have it, you should buy it. You know, forget iTunes even – you can actually buy it. Support independent music, man!

Just for kicks, Dan and I did our duo song “The Can Man,” which we wrote together a while back, and it was a ton of fun. We might have to start performing that one more often. And of course, at the end of the set, we played Shoshana. A hit, as always.

There was a really great crowd out, and we were so happy for everyone’s enthusiastic support. Thanks so much for coming, one and all! Thanks also to Therese and the awesome Frankie Burton, who helped run the show and took the pictures here. My next show will most likely be in September, and I’m planning on whipping out some mondo new material later in the fall, too. More on that soon.

Keyboards This Weekend with Blue Rabbit!

Next thing up is a cool one. I’ll be subbing on keyboards with the groovy chamber-pop vocal band Blue Rabbit! This is a band who, if you’ll recall, I described upon first listen as sounding like “the best episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer ever.” (Don’t worry, I elaborated. Or maybe, worry: I elaborated.)

They are awesome, and we’ve been friends since we shared a bill last year at the Rickshaw Stop. Tim, their keyboardist, wasn’t available this weekend, so they needed someone to fill in. They gave me a ring, and even though my first instinct was “Seriously? Can I learn this much keyboard music in a week?” after thinking about it, I realized “Yeah actually, I can!” So I went for it. We rehearsed last night, and the show is going to be a blast.

We’re playing at the Rock Make Street Festival in the mission, going on at noon. The best part about playing keyboards is that I don’t have to bring an instrument – just myself and my middling chops. So, after the set we’ll hang around at the festival and drink beer and listen to music. Come out! Say hi! Meet these people! They are like the nicest band ever!

Info on the festival is here. Do eet. Do eet.

New Songs, New Projects, DRUMS

Last but not least are the new things I’m working on. Mostly, it’s new music. A bootload of it, actually. I’ve got around eight songs in the hopper, and a few more ideas that are slowly working their way into more fully-formed tunes. It’s really, really fun stuff, and I’ve been having a blast finally adding lyrics and finishing up the form. Pretty soon, I’ll have demos out to the band and we can start actually learning this stuff!

It’s bigger, I’d say, than anything on The Exited Door. Not a huge shift in style or anything, just more fully-realized – the tunes take greater advantage of the three vocal parts, as well as the strengths of Lindsay and Dan, my two vocalists. In addition, they’re geared a bit more towards live performance – as fun as “The Bird Women of Golden Gate Park” and “Down By The Water” are, they’re not really songs that always come off amazingly live.

So, ton of new music there, as well as another cool project (or actually, series of projects) I’m working on with Khamara Pettus, the amazing actor/director/producer/force of nature with whom I’ve been working, scheming, planning over the past couple of months. We’re putting together some things to perform at the Brava Theatre, and I’ll have more on that stuff once it’s a bit more ready for the light of day. Suffice to say: it merges a lot of things about which I am quite passionate. Also, Khamara is a rock goddess.

Last, my odyssey into becoming a real-life drummer is all but complete – I’m confident now that I could hold it down in just about any bitchin’ rock band that’d have me. And I want them to have me. Do you know of a kick-ass, stripped-down, glammy rock punk freakout band, preferably with some female energy in the mix, that is in need of a tall, goofy drummer who makes up for his lack of extreme burning chops with energy and musicality? If so, A) I am surprised you know such a specific band and B) GIVE THEM MY NUMBER.

That’s All, Folks

So, that’s it for musical updates. I’ll post some demos and further thoughts on the new songs once I’ve got them in shape to share, and in the meantime, SFers come on out to the Rock Make Festival this Sunday and say hi!

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