Archive for June, 2012

New Albums from Tennis and Islands

Not only have a been a little slow about reviewing music lately, but the albums I have been reviewing are still all from 2011 or earlier. I ended the year with a huge backlist that I’m still working through, and the first time that I went to buy new music this year wasn’t until Record Store Day. Even then, it took me a little over a month before I was ready to review the first two albums I bought. Both of them needed a lot of time before my opinion settled.

Young & Old cover

Tennis – Young & Old

Tennis’ album Young & Old took me some time to evaluate because it comes across as such light, forgettable pop that I didn’t believe it had much substance at first. But at this time, I can say that it stays interesting. I’ve tried putting it aside for over a week, and when I listen to it again, it’s familiar and welcome, not at all like an album that wears out its welcome.

Alaina Moore’s vocals are gentle and innocent, and the music supports a vision of the wide-eyed naivety of 60’s pop. Her lyrics have a cynical bite, though. Songs like “Dreaming” sound like odes to youthful love, but the refrain of “I’m dreaming I can still believe in you” make the narrator seem foolish and willfully blind. Maybe the happiest-sounding, most memorable hook of the album is Moore’s apparently-joyful announcement that “paradise is all around, but happiness is never found.”

The band never seems to be intentionally satirizing the optimistic songs that they mimic. See “Traveling,” for example: The song doesn’t shy from the fears and dangers of initially falling in love, but paint them sympathetically. The impression is that Moore is exploring these themes because they are personally relevant. When she opens one song with “a sensitive heart, you’re doomed from the start,” she could easily be talking to herself.

If you only buy one collection of light, upbeat songs about love this year (and really, would you need to buy more?), Young & Old is your best bet.

Grade: B

A Sleep & A Forgetting cover

Islands – A Sleep & A Forgetting (Yes, the album art is hard to see)

There was a very different reason for why I waited so long before reviewing the new album from Islands. I love the band’s old work, especially their 2008 masterpiece Arm’s Way, and it’s hard to accept that their glory days may be over. Oh, A Sleep & A Forgetting is still a good album, but it never escapes the shadow of their best work.

In the past few years, the band has replaced youthful impishness with staid indie pop. It’s solid and enjoyable, but doesn’t highlight the interests that make their vocals so unique: Death, disaster, and the mechanics of the physical body are obsessions for the band, though they’re examined with macabre humor and clever wordplay.

The extremes of old are gone along with the catchier music. Instead of post-apocalyptic tribes looking for shelter or tiny gnomes devouring people, this album opens with several songs questioning reality: “In a Dream (it Seemed Real)” ties this theme to the album title, and the ideas of “This is Not a Song” carry forward to the next track, whose opening line is “this is not a band”.

It’s an appropriate concept for an Islands album, though it rarely rises above the basic ideas to come up with anything truly insightful or funny. They need more concepts like “No Crying”, an investigation into whether there’s something wrong with the narrator for not feeling bad when listening to sad songs. Even silly little ideas like “Can’t Feel My Face” (which suggests that the feeling leaves for “a better place”) would help. That line may not have their modern sophistication, but it provides a catchy lyrical hook to an album that feels a little dry most of the time.

A Sleep is a solid album, with plenty of decent songs and an unusual take on the lyrics. If this were my first Islands album, I’d probably be intrigued. As it is, though, I already know what the band is capable of, so I don’t need to see hints of it. It’s difficult to imagine that someone would regret this purchase, but that’s partly because it doesn’t make a very strong impression at all. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the forgettable pop album that I worried Tennis would deliver.

Grade: C+

Origins 2012 Wrap-Up

Another Origins Game Fair has come and gone. For me, it will be remembered as the first one I didn’t get to attend completely. Due to various issues back home (over two hours away), I left, came back, and then left early again. I only got to spend two and a half days at the convention, instead of my usual four and a half. Really, though, that made me realize what a big deal this is for me. Like a holiday, I had to make it back for that partial Saturday, not due to considerations of whether it would be fun enough, but because I simply had to have a complete event. Origins punctuates my gaming year.

It’s too bad I was gone, because in some ways the times I was there were my best ever. It never once took me more than a few minutes to find a game to play. The crowds at the Board Room are open and friendly, the people in the Rio Grande room proactively suggest things to me, and even my trips through the Dealer Hall ended up with more demos than normal.

Maybe this is because Origins happened a month early this year. I don’t know whether the attendance was really as low as it seems – every time, people compare their memories of last year’s busy Saturday to this year’s quiet Thursday – but I’m sure it was down. It’s too bad, because this is the first time in my six years of attending that Origins didn’t have to share downtown Columbus with another large event. It was great not to have rush hour traffic at 2:00 AM for once.

However, I definitely noticed a lack of exciting new games. There are plenty of exciting Summer and Fall releases lined up, but apparently the earlier schedule made Origins miss out on them. I’m not sure whether to blame the convention organizers for shifting the schedule, or the game publishers for not planning around something that had a full year’s notice. Either way, though, the only game with real buzz was Mage Wars, an upcoming constructible deck game that had the largest promotional push I’ve ever seen at Origins. I saw several groups discovering Lords of Waterdeep for the first time (which I’d played a few weeks before), and several more talking about Sentinels of the Multiverse (which I never got around to trying), but most years I’d end up putting those two in the “light buzz” category. This year, I have to abandon my pattern of sorting games by the buzz-factor, because there just wasn’t any.

Seriously, on Saturday afternoon I asked several people flat out “What should I buy?” I was leaving early, I still had a few hundred dollars in my pockets that I’d expected to spend on great new games, and I wanted to find something cool. But after asking almost ten people I trust, with a wide variety of tastes, no one could suggest anything. It’s not that there aren’t good games out there, but there really wasn’t anything new and exciting.

Instead, the buzz mostly centered around special guests Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day. Origins has celebrity guests every year, but this is the first time I’ve heard people truly excited about them, and also the first time that it sounded like the guests stayed to enjoy the convention instead of just cashing their check. My Twitter feed was filled with people talking to and about them, and it sounds like they hung out to try lots of games and actually visit people. The celebrities aren’t why I go to Origins, but I think this is an encouraging sign. Next year, it will be back to its more popular late-June date, and the organizers now know a new trick.

So with all that said, it’s time to look at the new games I learned. They are ordered from the best to the worst, at least as well as I can do for first impressions of such a variety of games.

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