Archive for November, 2012

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Mirror Traffic (Music Review)

Mirror Traffic cover

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks – Mirror Traffic

Every few years, Stephen Malkmus comes out of hiding to remind you that he’s still cooler than you will ever be. His albums with The Jicks, like that high school friend you desperately looked up to, remain as effortless and confident as ever. But after staying unchanged for years, you eventually start to understand that that friend could stand to mature a little.

Mirror Traffic comments on Malkmus’ persona like no other album he’s made. “No One Is (As I Are Be)” pokes fun at himself with lyrics like, “I cannot even do one sit-up. Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie. I’m busy hanging out and spending your money.” A couple breakup songs treat the subject matter with a casual disregard for commitment. Specifically, “All Over Gently” can be seen as either fun or cruel, depending on whether the other party agrees with his opinion that it’s time for her to leave with no hard feelings. And though the political satire of “Senator” is arguably new territory for Malkmus, it’s really an experiment in what how slacker lifestyle would fit in with corrupt politicians.

In fact, Jicks albums can now be described entirely in terms of what has come before. Mirror Traffic is as poppy as their debut album, but with the full sound and varied instrumentation of Face the Truth. The experimentation of Pig Lib is almost nonexistent now, though the meandering jams of Real Emotional Trash have remained even in the shorter pop songs.

It is, honestly, one of the band’s stronger efforts. The Jicks are honing one sound rather than looking for new ones, and there is a perfectionist streak hidden behind their casual front. The production and performances are near-perfect, and they keep building on the tricks that worked best in the past. I do complain that the albums have started to feel similar, but I have to admit that no song directly copies a previous one.

Mirror Traffic is something of a milestone, in that Malkmus has now released as many albums with The Jicks as he did with Pavement. But while it was a sign of stagnation when Pavement’s releases started sounding similar, it seems that The Jicks will be content to play with their sound forever. There is good and bad in that, but they get away with it because new albums only appear every few years. That friend who hasn’t changed since youth might not be a good person to have around every day, but if he can only show up as rarely as this band does, you’ll keep looking forward to the next time.

Grade: B


Gauntlet of Fools (Game Review)

Gauntlet of Fools box cover

Gauntlet of Fools

Though I love the theme, most dungeon-crawling games are disappointing. The setting seems to invite not only randomness, but “screw you” cards that swing the game uncontrollably and special events that interact with each other in game-breaking ways. Given that, it’s a relief to say that Gauntlet of Fools is a fun game. Of course, there’s still a heavy amount of chance, but it feels appropriate to the theme without any of the pitfalls typical to dungeon-crawlers. That doesn’t mean it’s completely satisfying, though; Among other things, this is designed to be a 15-minute filler, so it won’t scratch that itch for an involved evening of monster-slaying.

The game is straightforward: Players each choose a Hero, and then they fight monsters from a deck of Encounters. Eventually, everyone will die, and whoever ends with the most gold wins! The key of the game, and the only real player interaction, is during the initial selection. Each Hero is paired with a random Weapon, and may receive additional “Boasts” that weaken it further. The Boasts are basically a thematic auction: If you want to use a Hero someone else has already claimed, you can announce “I can have the Barbarian run the gauntlet Blindfolded!” (That means that you’ll earn less gold each time you kill a monster and dodge their attack.) To take the Hero back from you, another player would have to add another Boast, such as Hungover (a serious attack and defense penalty that lasts until the Hero manages to kill their first monster). The first Encounter is revealed only once everyone feels that their opponents’ Heros have been weakened too much to be worth stealing.

The Armorer can improve his defense as he kills monsters, and he’ll need that with his penalty for Hopping on One Leg! The Bow has two ability tokens that let him dodge monsters, which will be perfect when his defense is low at the start.

The fun of Gauntlet of Fools comes from Donald X. Vaccarino’s design approach. The basic system for encounters is very simple, but it allows for a wide variety of ways for the Heros, Weapons, Boasts, and Encounters to interact with each other. It’s quick, clever, and manages to feel reasonably different from game to game. The dice rolls and shuffled deck of cards may do a lot to drive the game, but it also feels like you’re experiencing unique twists each time due to the simple yet varied ways cards can interact. (“The Giant Spider poisoned everyone, but my Priest’s healing ability made all the difference.” “I never should have said my Avenger could run the gauntlet without breakfast! He died first, and his ability only works after others have died.”)

There are a wide variety of monsters. The Armorer is hoping for easy opponents like the Gopher, so he can raise his defense quickly. But the Slime Monster, which reduces the number of dice the Hero’s Weapon has, could keep the Armorer from ever getting the kills he needs.

That randomness still makes it feel arbitrary sometimes. There are real strategic choices in deciding what combination of Hero and Boasts will work best, and it will take a few games to figure this out. However, the “right” choice for a game won’t become apparent until the top cards in the Encounter deck are revealed. The Priest may be the best choice if a Spider is about to poison everyone, but you won’t find that out until after the auction is done. This works, but because it only aims to be a quick and silly game. The theme and art are fun, and the game unfolds without any of the painful events that derail other dungeon-crawlers. Make your choices, play up the theme of Boasting, and then take a few minutes to see who guessed right.

Grade: B


Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil (Music Review)

Theatre Is Evil cover

Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre Is Evil

It’s easy to describe the music of Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra: It’s an amalgamation of goth and synth influences from the 1980s and 1990s, combined with heart-on-sleeve lyrics and performed with a theatrical flair. In fact, the album title Theatre Is Evil is as much of a joke as the sugary pink cover: Palmer’s real life is too intertwined with her art to ever separate her from her “theatre”, and her songs are frequently self-aware about that. (“I couldn’t do that, it is wrong/But I can say it in a song,” she explains in one refrain.)

The impact of her songs is much stronger than one would expect from that description, though. The styles may be openly derivative, and actually so varied that I wouldn’t expect the album to fit together coherently, especially since they were written over a period of several years. However, Palmer’s persona is the glue that makes it all work. Everything, from the Siouxsie to the Bowie to “Melody Dean” (which references “Love the One You’re With” over the riff to “My Sharona”) feels to be uniquely Palmer’s style.

With backing from The Grand Theft Orchestra, many songs take on an energetic sound that could fill arenas, but they somehow feel more personal than they ever did in her previous band: the stripped-down, thoroughly theatrical Dresden Dolls. “Want It Back” and “Olly Olly Oxen Free” are perfect examples of glammy pop-rock, while “Massachusetts Avenue” has a punk simplicity that approaches punk execution at the shouted crescendo. “Do It With A Rockstar”, possibly the highlight of the album, is a self-loathing pickup song packed with jokes, encapsulating the self-aware theme of “theatre is evil”.

Palmer and her band do slower songs, too. “Trout Heart Replica” is the sort of beautiful poetry that high school goths yearn to write, but it will be years before they have the life experience to examine relationships like “Grown Man Cry” does. “The Bed Song” does away with all the electronics, but its simple piano performance may be the emotional core of the album. And my other favorite song, “Bottomfeeder”, has the angstful but inscrutable lyrics that would have made it a hit on 90s’ radio. Theatre Is Evil has a variety that makes it incredibly satisfying as an album in addition to successes of the individual songs. (The only place the variety disappears is in the atmosphere. Even the fun, upbeat songs are uniformly depressing. “Melody Dean” and “Lost” are the only arguably happy songs. The former is a justification of an affair, and the second is an assurance that lost things can return.)

I wouldn’t expect to call a goth-pop throwback album a masterpiece, but Theatre Is Evil qualifies. My favorite songs are mind-blowing, and my least favorites obviously deserve to be loved by people with different taste. Nothing here is filler, so even those lesser songs feel like part of an experience. And for Palmer’s theater-meets-life attitude, it’s hard to come up with a better compliment than “this music is an experience”.

Grade: A