Archive for March, 2011

Goodnight Loving – The Goodnight Loving Supper Club (Music Review)

The Goodnight Loving Supper Club cover

Goodnight Loving - The Goodnight Loving Supper Club

I don’t know much about Goodnight Loving, and I kind of like it that way. In my mind, they’re a group of underachieving stoner friends who hook up the recording equipment in someone’s garage about once a year to bang out hook-filled, fuzzed out rock, This idea is probably rooted in my mind because when I first found them, they had nothing but a Myspace page and Amazon was only selling used copied of their CDs. Well, those albums are finally easy to find in print, and their label has even given them a webpage now (from which I see that I missed one of their releases – there are downsides to being an enigma). Still, The Goodnight Loving isn’t as well-known as they deserve to be. In fact, I confidently declare them to be the best band without a Wikipedia page.

The Goodnight Loving Supper Club retains the low-fi atmosphere that defined the band, but it is obvious that they’ve stepped out of the garage into a real recording studio. There are no sloppy single-take moments, and everything fits together with a professional precision. The higher budget production does a good job of approximating their low-budget sound, but the smoothing out comes at the expense of both the highs and the lows.

Speaking of smoothing out, the songs seem to be comfortably bland. While Cemetery Trails used its rambling pop sound to examine painful moments and damaged people without getting too depressing, and Crooked Lake was high-energy fun with a great basement-country vibe, Supper Club’s focus is on more psychedelic lyrics. “She gave me flowers that I couldn’t see” begins “Bike + Stick”, while “Summer Dream” tells a rambling story that fits the name. “Ain’t It Weird?” trips through concepts like “we poked out our eyes in a game we devised where we looked through a cellophane screen” and seems to forget them by the end of the verse, and “Sunnyside” is an energetic little ditty about waking up hungover. The songs are fun, but rarely memorable.

The Goodnight Loving continues to belt out their songs with a punk efficiency: They average just over two minutes long, with only a few barely breaking the three-minute mark. Supper Club includes two instrumentals, though, each flowing smoothly from the preceding track. This is a good trick on the band’s part, allowing them to flesh out the space they’re working in and provide the rambling feel that this album’s stoner vibe demands, while still making each track short and standalone out of respect for their punk approach. The whole album feels a little like that, in fact: Goodnight Loving manages to find new territory to explore without ever leaving the confines that define them as a band. While this may not be their strongest effort, it’s that guaranteed mix of consistency and experimentation that makes all their albums sure bets.

Grade: B-


My Grading System

My recent article about Thor: The Mighty Avenger marked my 51st review. Oops: I meant to stop and look back at them when I reached number 50, but I guess I wasn’t counting carefully enough. 51 will have to do.

The friends that I’ve talked to don’t always know what to make of my grades. We’re all used to grade inflation, and it’s easy to assume that anything less than an A is a bad review. So I’ve added an explanation on the right-hand side of the blog showing exactly what the grades mean. I’ve also created a separate page with a detailed break-down for each +/- modifier. I don’t know that I’ve been completely consistent so far, but I now have a written standard, complete with questions I can ask myself to decide what grade I’d give something.

In short, remember that while As may be excellent, a B still means that I’m recommending something. It may have some flaws, but I explain the good and bad points in my review. That should help you figure out whether the good will outweigh the bad for you, keeping in mind that it did for me.

I was also curious about exactly how my 51 grades so far break down. More details below the cut.

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Thor: The Mighty Avenger (Comic Review)

Thor: The Mighty Avenger

Thor: The Mighty Avenger

In late 2010, to prepare for the upcoming Thor movie, Marvel released a barrage of new Thor-related comics. I’m not sure exactly how that was supposed to help with either publicity or sales: Marvel’s back catalog already had a confusing series of unrelated comics to sell if needed, so creating a bunch of new ones with different styles and from different continuities isn’t really changing anything.

But these days, the standard M.O. for superhero publishers seems to be to throw everything possible against the wall, and one or two good things will come out of the mess. That happened this time with Roger Langridge’s and Chris Samnee’s Thor: The Mighty Avenger. The second (and final) volume is released in paperback today.

The work that these two put out was unexpected. Langridge is best known for comedy work, with an unsympathetic edge. His writing here was surprisingly tender and human: Re-telling Thor’s “origin” story, this series starts just days after the god Thor is exiled to Earth. Langridge makes superhero tropes secondary so he can focus on the pain and anger of a proud man who has lost his home, and his growing relationship with Jane Foster as she helps him adjust to the human world.

Chris Samnee provides excellent art. I had not known of him beforehand, but between this title and the recently released Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale, I’ll be keeping my eye on him. His work is soft and understated, with simple lines calling out emotions, and incredibly natural body language. Every character looks distinct and natural. While that may sound out of place in an action-heavy genre, where artists usually focus on adventure at the expense of portraying the people, Samnee makes it work: When every pose conveys Thor’s quiet, confident strength, the powerful action flows naturally.

Other superheroes guest star in almost every issue, but this aspect still seems muted. The impression is that we are witnessing the quiet beginning of a superhero age, and the people of this small town would normally never see them. Thor’s sudden presence naturally brings some others in, but the feeling that this is a world populated by ordinary people remains strong.

"Simple and good. I like simple and good very much."

Words you rarely see in a Thor comic

This should have become a classic work, but it was canceled way too early by Marvel when they began culling the overstretched Thor line. Not only did this rob us of future comics like this, but it actually managed to lessen the existing ones: The first six issues were obviously intended to go together as an introductory story arc, with Thor gaining some acceptance of his new role. Issue 6 closes with a relationship beginning between him and Jane, and issue 7 opens up some time later, after he has gotten to know the other people of the town.

That’s a good structure, and it was natural for Langridge to assume that Marvel would want six-issue story arcs. But when the series was suddenly canceled at issue 8, we were left with a long introduction followed by a short, two-part follow up. To make matters worse, Marvel released the collected editions in two volumes, with four issues each. The stopping point between these two volumes feels entirely unnatural, and breaks the flow of the story.

This could have been a great series, and it’s not at all the fault of Langridge or Samnee that it didn’t reach that level. But the first couple issues were still finding their footing, the last couple felt like a slightly rushed coda, and Marvel’s collection policy means that the few middle issues are drained of some of their power. This is still a very good work, and unique among comics today, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. But judging it by what it became, instead of what it should have been, I simply can’t give it an A.

Grade: B+

(Editorial note: Since I have a Twitter feed to comment on all the comics I read, I don’t normally plan on reviewing them here. But I’ll look back on entire series, or notable stretches of them, when appropriate. I can only review the ones I read, of course, so they will often be positive reviews if I’ve stuck through to the end. But fortunately for you, there are some pretty terrible series that I’ve stuck with because it didn’t become obvious right away. So you’ll get to hear me complain sometimes as well.)

A Theory of Fun For Game Design (Book Review)

A Theory of Fun For Game Design

A Theory of Fun For Game Design

Have you ever wondered what makes games fun? Sure, you can talk about how you enjoy the challenge or the novelty, but what makes those things fun? What does “fun” mean, anyway? In A Theory of Fun For Game Design, Raph Koster tries to answer the fundamental question of how games work by defining “fun” itself. Though his background is in video games, he finds common ground with everything from sports to role-playing.

According to Koster, games appeal to us because our brain rewards us for learning new things. Games present a structured, learnable system, in effect providing us a lesson that can later be applied to our more complex reality. In fact, Koster takes this to its logical extreme, saying that games are part of the same medium as training drills and school. “Fun is just another word for learning”, and if we don’t normally perceive learning as fun, that is more a failure of school lessons than with the medium itself. After all, our brains are wired to want to learn.

It’s a compelling theory, as figuring out new challenges is a fundamental part of games and it explains why a game will not be fun for someone if it is too simple or too complex for them. Koster builds up this point with a breezy description of cognitive theory, throwing around terms like chunking and explaining levels of consciousness to quickly lay a foundation for the way he sees our relationship to games. This simple style is complemented by the cartoons that are found on every even page. They help the book fly by, partly because those pages read so quickly, and partly because they make it so easy for the reader to peak ahead and suddenly become committed to the next page. They also are effective at driving home Koster’s points; Whether it’s his game design experience or understanding of cognitive theory, he knows that using a second source to repeat a point to a reader will make it much easier to accept.

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Webcomics Roundup: The Great Return

Achewood is backI didn’t start reading any new webcomics in February. For me, the biggest news was the promise of a return from two established comics that haven’t updated in a while: Achewood and Mugwhump the Great.

Achewood, of course, needs no introduction. For nearly a decade now, it’s been one of the best (if not the best) webcomics out there. The clean lines, strong characters, and the unpredictable plot directions make this a consistent treat. So why am I not that excited that it’s updating again?

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The Appeal of Horror

A couple of days ago, Alicia commented on one of my blog posts. In response to my claim that Pump Six And Other Stories is a horror book because we can see ourselves and our culture in the worst parts of the stories, she said:

That’s a good point about horror. I feel like it should be distinguished from those horror *movies*, though, because this doesn’t sound anything like your typical “girl goes alone into a dark woods even though all signs point to dying screaming and crying” kind. The reason I don’t like those movies is because it all seems like gratuitous violence to me, silly or not, and I just don’t care to watch it.

I began a response by differentiating between a couple types of horror, but I immediately started finding new branches of things to say. So I never wrote the comment, and it spent a day bouncing around my head. Now I want to discuss exactly what the appeal of horror is.

I don’t watch very much horror, so I welcome feedback from anyone who is more immersed in its subtleties.

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