Friday, December 26, 2008

The Best Albums of (What I've Heard Of ) 2008

2008 was a weird year for me.

If I construct this list strictly by what I liked most in 2008, then Kristin Hersh's _Speedbath_ would take the first-place spot and probably second and third as well. Saying that I loved that album would be an understatement. It's grafted onto me. This isn't hyperbole. Kristin's mentioned in one of her blogs that she's out to make "sounds that enrich one's inner life," and I'll be damned if I don't have a lot of material for it. Speedbath, however, isn't going to be officially released until 2009. This also disqualifies Power and Light by 50 Foot Wave (but go listen to it anyway!) I've mentioned this before, of course, and the other albums from other years which I've loved.

This, however, is a best-albums-of-2008 list. I did buy several albums from 2008, but I didn't completely love any of them. I did, however, like many of them a lot. Here they are.


The Best Of What I've Heard Of 2008:

Veda Hille - This Riot Life: I put off buying this for a long time. It hadn't hit Amazon yet, I rationalized, and besides, and besides... I suppose I had expected it to be too arty, too impenetrable, something I can admire at a distance but not quite love. In fact, it's the opposite. It even has a grenade of a pop song. At least one reviewer has panned "Ace Of The Nazarene" as "megachurchy", but if I ever ran across megachurch music with this much genuine drama and bombast, I might be convinced to reassess the whole concept. This may be the most accessible song on the album, but it isn't the one that grabbed me first. That would be "The Moon", with its dotty piano part that perfectly complements the lyrics (a poem by Shelley).

I mentioned earlier, offhand, that Veda Hille isn't a Christian, but she does Christian music better than 90% of the musicians who are. Religion's a recurring theme in the album; several songs are covers of hymns, and even the ones which aren't tend to reference religious topics, albeit with added playfulness. "Book of Saints," for instance, begins with this somewhat flip but nevertheless dead-on accurate definition: "Lookie here, the book of saints / What they are is what you ain't." Even the secular songs are excellent. "Sleepers" is a lovely lilt of a modern love song ("I never cared much for metal hair / until the boy you were, Slayer") and "Soapland Serenade," composed for the show "Sexual Practices of the Japanese," walks a fine line between dreamlike and bleak, never quite settling on either. They, and the rest of the album, manage to be highly crafted and highly intelligent without sacrificing a bit of what makes them compelling. That's a tough feat to pull off.

Emiliana Torrini - Me & Armini: Emiliana, where the hell did this come from? Your first albums weren't released outside Iceland and the debut isn't even on (the nevertheless amazing) Always On The Run. _Love In The Time Of Science_ was uneven, if excellent for a few songs - OK, mainly one song, "Telepathy". (That's "excellent" as contrasted with "just good", not "excellent" as contrasted with "crap". This is a best-of list, not a worst-of list.) And then with _Fisherman's Woman you took all that and turned it into placid acoustic guitar music that gets played on Grey's Anatomy. I wrote you off.

So where the hell did this come from? This is exciting again. This is inventive again. This is something I'm excited to pull up on my shuffle and don't feel compelled to switch in the first 10 seconds. Songs like the title track and "Dead Duck" and "Ha Ha", to name a few, actually make impressions. The center of the album, in particular, has a three-song sequence which in itself would qualify it for best-of stautus. You have "Jungle Drum," which starts out as a gleeful, if pastiche-y love song, but with undertones of mania: the key, the electronic flourishes that scribble in and out of the background. It doesn't take long for the undertones to become overtones, then to take over the song entirely. The lyrics, which sound a bit twee on paper, make perfect sense taken in the context of the song: infatuation, at double speed, and gloriously trying. And then the very next words after that song are "Hold, heart, don't beat so loud." Maybe I shouldn't pull it up on shuffle after all.

But that song's a leadup, really, to "Gun". What can I say about this? It's a slow burner, a builder, but one that creeps slowly from 1 to 3 without - crucially, without - reaching a climax. You expect it to explode. She's done explosions. Every so often there's a yelp or snap after some lyrics to remind the listener of the prospect. But the absolutely genius thing here is that all the elements that'd normally come roaring in stay muted: the wailing guitars, the synths, the rest of it - are barely audible, in the background. Everything's gloriously understated, and then you remember that this is a song about murder. The lyrics, unlike the music, do build; the dissonance between their nastiness (example: "Your kids keep telling jokes that ain't that funny, and you've failed in everything comes to mind") and the restrained music makes the track.

Thea Gilmore - Liejacker: This album is solid. From the first line - "I'm looking for an old soul" - it knows what it's about, and delivers: finely crafted, rustic folk-pop, all sung in Thea's rich voice. It's the perfect respite from the parade of 80's synth revival that doesn't seem to have an end in sight (not that some of it isn't good, but at some point, someone's got to say enough already).

Best Debuts:

Laura Marling - Alas I Cannot Swim: I live in the United States. Word has it that she has quite a bit of hype across the pond. I haven't seen any of it, though. If the music press here pays attention to anyone, it's Lily Allen or Duffy. It's a shame, though, because this is a much better album than anything they've released, and much more likely to stand up to the test of time. These would be well-constructed and mature songs just on a debut, but the fact that she's only 18 makes it downright shocking. Hype be damned; this is excellent.

Lisa Hannigan - Sea Sew: I stumbled across this in a rather unorthodox way; she sang at Cathy Davey's "Songs that Scare Children" festival (to this day, I regret not being able to attend it, but I've already logged my share of concert-travel miles this year). The album cover alone (she knitted it. Yes, knitted it. It's gorgeous.) alone gets it praise, but the songs are lovely too. Very pleasant listening.

I Also Enjoyed:

Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree: Parts of this are beautiful, even if I've neglected it a bit in the past few months.

Kay Hanley - Weaponize: Fun, pop music. "I'm so shallow, but you can't sing!" is one of the best lines of the year.

Still Getting To The Party (albums from this year I haven't heard yet, but have high hopes for)

Amanda Palmer - Who Killed Amanda Palmer: The whole Rebellyon thing inspired me to purchase this with my end-of-year Amazon certificate. I'll have thoughts in a week or two.

Autamata - Colours Of Sound: I still have not found this yet. Two of my favorite musicians sing on it. See, the Internet isn't perfect yet.

Juliana Hatfield - How To Walk Away: I was this close to buying this with the certificate, too. It's on the priority list, at any rate.


Sarah Brightman - Symphony: She promised to make a gothic metal album that'd piss off her record company, and she and Frank come out instead with this bland Il Divo-like potboiler. Out of all the genuinely interesting albums you've done - the weird and wonderful Fly, the lush Eden, the fragile and beautiful La Luna - hell, even the Enigmafied pop of Dive - you choose to emulate your most boring one?


And so that was 2008 in music. I haven't seen enough movies this year to make any kind of a credible list, and most of the books I read were written at other times. Ah well.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Kristin Hersh, Old Town School of Folk Music, Dec. 7, 2008

This was the reason for my trip to Chicago, as anyone who's spoken to me in the past few months knows. (Sorry, everyone. I promise I'll have more than two conversation topics again.)

The concert itself was amazing. I went with a friend at the University of Chicago, Before, I met up with some TMO folks at the Grafton. Making it to the place was difficult enough because the neighborhood is wonderful - it's everything I had wanted the Loop to be. There was a street fair of some sort inside a tent - a Christmas celebration, with live jazz music, refreshments, and a few booths. I was this close to buying a necklace as a Christmas gift.

Anyway, dinner was great and everyone was really friendly. There were live musicians there - being next to the Old Town School, they probably get a steady stream of them - which only enhanced the atmosphere. Afterwards, we walked to the Old Town School and I picked up my tickets. There wasn't a bad seat in the auditorium, honestly, but I still think my table was pretty decently located.

The opener, Daniel Knox, was pretty good, amusing at times (I mean, it was intended to be funny; I don't mean so-bad-it's-amusing.) Then Kristin Hersh played her set, and it was great. The first part of the show was all folk songs. One or two were on "Murder, Misery and then Goodnight" but the rest were new. I was transfixed. It went by so quickly, but she did come back for an encore, mostly her songs - "Pearl" was one of them, as was "Sno Cat," and - this one had me especially transfixed since it's in my top five songs of hers - "Tuesday Night."

After the show I loitered around the stage area for a while, feeling a bit bemused and also a bit speechless. The show was that good, after all, and there was the prospect of meeting Kristin. Billy was on the stage selling lots of CDs. After the crowd cleared up a bit, I went over and said hello - and he remembered my name! Even stopping here would have made my day, but a few minutes later he invited the rest of the loiterers down to chat for a bit before they headed out.

Anyway. Anecdote. It was Chicago, of course, and it had snowed. I don't own any scarves (although I should rectify that); Nebula, living in Chicago, owned plenty, but the one she had chosen that day was a Harry Potter scarf - you know, the maroon and yellow striped ones. She was a bit worried about this. Anyway, we go down to meet Kristin and she practically exclaims "Hey, that's a Harry Potter scarf!" Cheerfully. Not irritatedly.

I wasn't too speechless. OK, that's a lie. I sounded ridiculous. Fortunately, everybody was so nice. It was as if I had stepped into a magical world, for a day, where the world forgot that it was supposed to have problems, and people forgot that they were supposed to be inherently flawed or subject to whichever failings they've been rebuked for this year.



Friday, November 7, 2008

IFcomp08 reviews: Trein

This is a review of a game in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. This text is so spoilers do not show up in the RSS feed. That would be less than polite. The feed is set to truncated, not full. You should only be seeing this paragraph, not the review itself. By the way, there are SPOILERS in the review. I repeat, SPOILERS. Do not read on if you do not want spoilers. You have been warned.

by Leena Kowser Ganguli

This is an old-schoolish kind of game, with castles and intrigue and plots. Not to say this is a bad thing; it is what it is. Because there have been games like this, however, one of these games stands or falls on its writing.

Now, I'm a huge supporter of more descriptive writing in IF. It's what is going to push the field away from Zork and towards literature. So I appreciate that this game is attempting it, but it feels like a massive first draft. For instance, take this room description:

"South End of The Shadowed Alley
You follow the Shadowed Alley as it curves to the South. It is a dead end. This area used to covered at some point - you can see the remnants of the roof on the ground, now useless lumps of wood and plaster. Above, you can see the last fingers of the evening light as they begin to fade into the night. This is a dead end. Following the Alley to the North leads back to the Shadowed Alley."

Leaving aside the obvious grammatical errors and capitalization quirks - generally, if you're going to be capitalizing in unorthodox ways there had better be a fantastic reason for it, even more so in prose - the "last fingers...fade" is a mixed metaphor and the final two sentences are superfluous. Revising this, of course, will leave you with a much shorter roomdesc, but that's good. It gives you more space to pack in evocative details and scenery and the stuff that immersive worlds are made of.

Other rooms fall along the same lines. The writing's trying to go beyond a simple, terse description, which is great, but doesn't quite make it. Atmosphere requires subtlety which I didn't quite get out of this. Furthermore, there's the action-in-the-description thing. If you're going to use a metaphor such as the wind brushing against you like a phantom, it loses something when you see it again and again in the room description every time you >LOOK.

Is this easy? No way. Am I an expert at this? Hell no. It takes polish, for everyone. I didn't really get the sense that this happened.

This need for polish extended into the technical realm as well. A few I noticed: The self description mentions that you're wearing dark clothes, even if you remove said clothes. Some nouns which could've been opportunities for atmosphere text (the shadows in the castle, for instance) weren't implemented. A lot of objects either needed to be marked scenery or given initial descriptions to avoid the constant repetition of "You can see a Noun here."

I encourage the author to write more IF; this isn't bad at all as a first draft. It's a first draft, though. More beta testing could help, but what would help more is authorial revision. I've said this a lot because it applies so often. Polish, polish, polish. Polish alone won't make a top tier game, but the lack of polish is often what keeps games out of the top tier.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

IFcomp 08 reviews: Buried In Shoes

This is a review of a game in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. This text is so spoilers do not show up in the RSS feed. That would be less than polite. The feed is set to truncated, not full. You should only be seeing this paragraph, not the review itself. By the way, there are SPOILERS in the review. I repeat, SPOILERS. Do not read on if you do not want spoilers. You have been warned.

Buried In Shoes
by Kazuki Mishima

I've sat here for five minutes trying to figure out how to word this review. You see, I genuinely can't decide if this worked or not.

It's about the Holocaust. That raises the stakes. If this works, it has to work. Not only that, but it has to work on a par with all the other literature, film, etc. which has been written about it.

In a vacuum, there is nothing wrong with this; it's excellent. Breaking it down like this seems wrong, but technically it's extremely well implemented. The prose is competent, even good. There were a couple of genuinely upsetting moments, like getting on the slab in the museum.

I guess what I'm ambivalent about is the length. It seemed far too short. All the scenes were fleshed out well, but I never really got a sense of characterization. Granted, this is much better than some of the other works this year (Grief, Freedom) at accomplishing characterization, but I still felt like more could have been done; the characters seemed rather static. Time played into this. Wouldn't the guard have thrown you out after some time? He had no qualms about yanking you off the slab. Wouldn't the houes have been invaved? Along another path, some of the items were a bit puzzly to find, mainly the photo (which I only found through the walkthrough.) In a puzzle game it wouldn't be an issue, but the game told me I wouldn't be looking for puzzles, so in my first run-through I blew right by them.

None of these problems were major, though. I'm leaning towards "this game worked." On its scale, at least. Ask me in a few days and I may change my opinion for better or worse.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008

IFcomp 08 reviews: Berrost's Challenge

This is a review of a game in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. This text is so spoilers do not show up in the RSS feed. That would be less than polite. The feed is set to truncated, not full. You should only be seeing this paragraph, not the review itself. By the way, there are SPOILERS in the review. I repeat, SPOILERS. Do not read on if you do not want spoilers. You have been warned.

Berrost's Challenge
by Mark Hatfield

OK, so upon reading the intro and >about, I have several bodes-not-well items: wall of text intro, five items hidden in the village, inventory limits and - ye gods - "sleep and hunger daemons." You're bloody right I can't abide them; this is 2008.

Oh, how nice, you reduced my Wit score by 1. I can play this game too! See, I just reduced your game score by 1!

Seriously. There's innovation, and there's gimmickry. Hint: Displaying my bulk and weight as fractions in my character description is not innovation. If you must do this, at least do it behind the scenes.

So that got me off to a nice grumpy start. Apparently my curmudgeondom set my Concentration, whatever that is, to 100%. All the better to notice the multiple grammatical errors, portable objects in room descriptions, daemon message overload, etc.

Oh. I died by jumping into the well. It took me THREE press-any-keys for you to tell me this.

Suspecting I wasn't giving this game a fair enough chance, I decided to play it in earnest, gritting my teeth through the errors and genericness and badness. I immediately realized it was going to take me way longer than two hours to do this. So maybe there's a spectacle of an ending that makes up for all of the rest. What I saw was merely generic quest stuff. Which might fly ten years ago, but then again, probably not.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

IFcomp 08 reviews: Opening Night

This is a review of a game in the 2008 Interactive Fiction Competition. This text is so spoilers do not show up in the RSS feed. That would be less than polite. The feed is set to truncated, not full. You should only be seeing this paragraph, not the review itself. By the way, there are SPOILERS in the review. I repeat, SPOILERS. Do not read on if you do not want spoilers. You have been warned.

Opening Night
by David Batterham

The game starts promisingly enough. I like theatre and historical games, both of which are under-represented in IF.

More could have been done. When I think of Broadway, I think sumptuous - rich colors, dazzling stagecraft, everything so much bigger than in real life. And this is from someone who's seen several plays. Someone like the PC would have even more of a sense of wonder. The prose, while competent and mostly error-free, didn't quite capture this for me. A lot of it, I think, was quantity; there were plenty of short responses, concise where I was hoping for lavish. The implementation was similar - while nothing stood out as glaringly bad, there was a lot more that could have been done, especially with listen/touch/etc. Some objects didn't have descriptions. At times, it felt a bit rushed.

Now for the ending, introducing war into the scene. Part of it worked for me - encountering a giant hole in the theatre all of a sudden is effectively jarring - but part of it was strangely detached. Mostly the exposition. More, for instance, could have been done with Miranda Lily's first performance. Since the PC is already waiting in the seat, there could have been less exposition and more showing the player what, exactly, is going on onstage. _So Far_, for instance, did this well. Here, there's only abstractions, and when the game tells me I need to catch my breath, I'm not sure why. The second performance gets a lot more of this right, for what it's worth.

The above gives the impression that I didn't enjoy this. I did. It coheres, it's solid. I think what's missing is scope. As it stands right now, it's a bit small. We're dealing with love and war and death; these themes deserve maximalism that just isn't here. I know there's a two-hour time limit, but I wasn't in danger of overshooting it. Think bigger, grander, wider, more theatrical, even cinematic. The game's by no means bad, though.