Archive for November, 2012

Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions (Music Review)

Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions cover

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

With digital music the new standard, CDs and their packaging have gone sharply downhill in quality over the past few years. Unless something makes it “special”, such as collectors’ editions or vinyl, physical media is an afterthought. But as the new reissue of Mermaid Avenue shows, even the deluxe releases may be trending downhill.

Mermaid Avenue certainly deserves an upscale release, especially as part of this year’s celebrations of Woody Guthrie’s centennial. Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded these unfinished songs of Guthrie’s only fifteen years ago, but they have already become a central part of the man’s legend: Playful and serious, sexual and political, Guthrie comes across as a much more well-rounded person than anyone ever knew, and his lyrics still feel fresh in today’s folk scene. The project seemed to bring out the best in all participants, especially Bragg, whose solo work rarely lives up to his potential. The first album was the strongest of the project, but the second is still a minor classic on its own.

The main selling point of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions is that it contains a new third album. While not quite as strong as the first two, it’s worthy of release on its own. The problem, though, is that there’s no way to get it on its own. All three must be bought together at a $40 MSRP, even though you probably own at least one of the others already. That “deluxe packaging” is simply a fold-out cardboard case whose promised “booklet” is an introductory letter and the lyrics to all the songs. It also comes with The Man In The Sand, a (previously released) documentary on the making of the original album. This is worth watching once: The people and music are interesting enough to carry the piece through, despite its fluffy marketing nature. But there’s little depth or conflict to make it worth returning to. (A part near the end covers conflicts about which songs and mixes to put on the album, but it both starts and ends suddenly, leaving the viewer with no more knowledge than what the musicians were willing to say to the camera.)

That mainly leaves album number three to justify this. And it does, more or less. So many good songs were still available that it doesn’t feel like scraps from the cutting room floor. There may be a few more filler songs on it, and it feels a little less like a complete album, but it could just be that I’m comparing something new to comfortable old classics. There are several great new songs, including the rousing folk-punk “My Thirty Thousand” and the Occupy-relevant “The Jolly Banker”. If there’s a complaint, it’s that many of the best songs have already been released as promos or in the She Came Along To Me EP years ago. It feels like a blatant money-grab that you can only get this as part of a larger set.

And that’s where the recommendation lies. Packaged like a simple “triple-length album”, but priced as if you’re buying three separate ones, this is neither the deluxe edition the project deserved nor the sale that might have made sense for music from the 1990s. If you have neither Mermaid Avenue volume yet, then buying this set is a no-brainer. But if you already have some of the music, this just isn’t worth it.

Grade: B-


Three Solo RPG Books

After trying a few (generic equivalents of) Choose Your Own Adventures last year, with mixed results, I was interested in seeing what else is out there. This time, I tried some solo RPG books, where stats and dice rolls play a part along with the branching choices.

I was surprised by how different the role-playing elements make these books. I always approached traditional CYOAs as something between a puzzle and a quantum story, where of course I’d keep placeholders at previous branches and go back and forth as necessary. The end result was a non-linear meta-story, in which I knew of all possible plot-lines at once. Once I have dice and a number of hit points, though, the book doesn’t work like that. These books were more about the adventure itself, and became a legitimate game instead of a story. I couldn’t jump around without invalidating my character, and that completely changed the experience.

However, the sudden deaths that are common in these books were very frustrating. I don’t mind them at all if I’m flipping through every path of a CYOA, but when I’m actually trying to follow a storyline, and my focus is on keeping a health stat above zero, it feels very unfair to have success ripped away by a single unpredictable choice.

Below the fold are the reviews of the three books I tried over the past several months.
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The Dead Milkmen – The King In Yellow (Music Review)

The King In Yellow cover

The Dead Milkmen – The King In Yellow

The Dead Milkmen were the class clowns of 80s punk, and the thought of them releasing a new album today seems both fascinating and unnecessary. The King In Yellow fills both those expectations.

As confident and unpolished as always, the songs are all over the place. Intelligent but absurd jokes sneak into the serious songs, while poignant observations can be found in the sillier ones. The bitter “Meaningless Upbeat Happy Song” is the closest to a “classic” Dead Milkmen song, but the band always featured too much variety to be pigeonholed. Contrast that song with “Fauxhemia”‘s more mature look at the life of an aging punk: They begins with the expected complaints about popular culture, but they don’t seem so proud of it now. (“I just don’t get Norah Jones, and maybe that’s why I feel so alone.”) It’s better to think of this as a collection of outtakes than a consistent album.

Some songs are surprisingly weird, and give the impression that you’re witnessing an inside joke. “Hangman”, for example, is a straight-faced story of condemned criminals staking their lives on a word game. Other songs are painfully literal, such as “Commodify Your Dissent”‘s complaint about corporations appropriating underground music. (Though you’re pretty much required to enjoy any song with the line “Johnny Cash died for you!”) There are also songs that seem to be closer to fragments than fleshed-out ideas: “Or Maybe It Is” ends immediately after bringing up the idea that a “horse race sniper” might not be committing any crimes. When all the elements come together, you get a clever deconstruction of modern life like “Solvents (For Home And Industry)”, and when they don’t, you get the unfulfilled plot ideas of “Quality of Death”. Imagine watching Monty Python for the first time, and you’ll have an idea of how it feels to listen to The King In Yellow.

In addition to everything else, there are enough songs about murder that even I, a big fan of murder ballads, feel a little weird about it. (The detailed fantasy of the stalker in “Some Young Guy” has a lot to do with it.) In fact, the title song is a (punchy, very fun) cover of an Irish folk song about a man killing his wife.

Intelligent and aimless, the modern Dead Milkmen are much the same as ever. Whether that is a good thing or not is a personal decision: Even the catchy songs are grating, and the lyrics are sporadically brilliant. Are you able to approach a Dead Milkmen album the same way you did decades ago, or would that just seem off-putting today? You may have to buy the album to find out.

Grade: B-


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