Thursday, December 1, 2011

Carpenters Fight!

Side fights are a fantastic niche of the Song Fight! community, little (and sometimes big) informal competitions that happen in the margins of the usual fights. My favorites are cover fights, and in the latest, a bunch of us got the hare-brained ideas to tackle The Carpenters.
I have to admit that when I started this fight, I was only passingly-familiar with The Carpenters' œuvre, mostly their big hits like "We've Only Just Begun." And at first it was a certain challenge to weed out the tunes that Karen and Rich had written themselves from their panoply of covers. (You'll note that some participants below went for The Carpenters' covers of a few tunes; this is cool.) This led me to an interesting idea of a comparative set of reviews, placing our covers alongside the originals. However, to avoid the usual trap of seeing a cover as an inferior copy, I'll look at the covers first, then Carpenters' original.

Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft
by Bad Boys at Bat Mitzvahs
+++ i know lot of more trained singers diss it, but i like your nasal vox +++
+++ alt-county vibe +++
--- drums seem a little uncertain at time ---

by The Carpenters
I really don't know how to process this tune. It crosses so many rhetorical, musical and narrative genres that I'm kind of at a loss. The individual parts, of course, all hold up very well. But... as a whole, it just seems to meander here and there and everywhere. I'll take "Space Oddity" or "A Day in the Life" for my prefered flavors spice of science-fiction / multipart songs.

The End of the World
by Karenvan Ray
+++ ominous +++
/// i was really hoping that echoing distorted guitar was going to herald a smashing hard-rock change ///
+++ it just got darker +++
--- just kind of ends ---
/// though i wouldn't have known where to go with that, either ///

by The Carpenters
There's something creepily (and somewhat pleasantly) disjointed about the depressing lyrics and the sonic beauty of this song. And that upbeat hi-hat, who let that in? Especially with those gentle steel guitars, I can see Patsy Cline ripping this up with more pathos and raggedy edges.

by Sportswriters
+++ dynamics; great swelling energy +++
+++ happy-sounding guitars and vocal harmonies +++
+++ solo +++

by The Carpenters
That guitar riff works wonders and I'm very happy that Sportwriters has kept in his version. What doesn't strike true to me is that electric-sounding "boop" in the second part of the verse. The dynamics are here, and again I'm happy to Sportswriters reproducing it in his own way. This is first tune on this list that has a brilliant matching of tone and lyric. The melody and vocal harmonies are joyfully evocative.

Close To You
by Jack Shite
+++ parody +++

Bias: I'm actually familiar with this one. This song really benefits from following Sportswriters, because while the Sports updates a lot of tones and instrumentation (for the better, in my opinion), he carefully reproduces  the core of what works in The Carpenters' original recording, deferring to it. Jack Shite takes a nearly opposite approach, or rather, a sideways one. Instead of ditching all of the dated 70's era instruments and tones, he revels in them, matching them as closely as possible. His innovation is a wonderful deconstruction of Karen's spot-on-pitch-perfect-way-too-sappy vocals.

The downside of this take on a cover is two fold. 1) To get the joke, you have to know the original. Otherwise, there's really not much here to talk about, and the vocal take would be off-putting. 2) It's a bit of a one-trick pony. After the first verse, there were no surprises and Jack Shite's cover just paints by the numbers.

by The Carpenters
By the above paragraphs, you can probably discern that I don't like this song. The lyrics are middle-school-crush sappy, and the vocal melody often nearly trips over itself. This is a song full of, to me, odd stops and starts.

Top of the World
by Johnny Cashpoint
+++ carnalesque cacophony +++
--- sudden starts and stops ---

by The Carpenters
I'm generally a fan of J$, and he doesn't disappoint here. Like Shite, he skewers one just-too-perfect aspect of the original, in this case, the disco-country vibe of the instruments is replaced with a Wurlizter of cacophonous electronica and distorted guitars. 

I have to say this about the original: damn if it never fails to get my head bopping! Its melody and rhythm are infectious!

We’ve Only Just Begun
by Paco del Stinko
+++ love the reverby guitar lick +++
+++ actually, every guitar bit is just perfect +++
--- you force your voice too much; it clashes with the up-beat lyrics and effortless joy of the music ---
+++ solo +++

by The Carpenters
The vocal harmonies on the original track are gorgeous, and the dynamics are wonderful, something that Paco makes the good decision to maintain. This is rightfully one of The Carpenters' most well-known songs. I love Karen's drum fills.

(I’m Caught Between) Goodbye and I Love You
by Noah McLaughlin 
--- ... and I kind of hate my own drum fills ---
+++ dual lead guitar parts as musical metaphor +++
+++ dynamics, even if some of the transitions are abrupt ///
/// i wonder if the bass part is too busy during the second part of the verse ///
+++ ending +++

by The Carpenters
When I first started studying this song, I was really engaged by its structural complexity. It has two choruses, or, a chorus with two parts. There's a lot going on, melodically, and all of it is interesting. I wanted to highlight that with my version. Karen's soulful crooning here is very emotive; and I knew I couldn't (and really shouldn't) replicate it. I don't like the syrupy backing backing vox for the first part of the chorus; it's too pretty for such a dire sentiment.

Goodbye to Love
by DJ Ranger Den
+++ finds the Leonard Cohen in the lyric +++
+++ crash swells +++
/// not sure about the theremin ///
+++ cascading vocal harmonies in the coda +++

by The Carpenters
There's a rather zen-like sentiment of letting go of attachment that I associate with these lyrics, and it rubs me the wrong way how the original track just barrels through it and coats it in syrupy pop-music. That electric guitar lead is a great counterpoint; wish the track had more of that.

by The Heartbreak of Invention
+++ best Karen Carpenter sound-alike +++
+++ instrumentation and arrangement +++
+++ dynamics +++

by The Carpenters
Musically, there's not much going on with this track that interests me. It's very similar to the more successful "Goodbye to Love" above, though I believe it precedes it chronologically in The Carpenters' catalog. The lyrics are a mixed bag: part narrative, part painfully on-the-nose commentary with the "I love you, I really do," line.

by bgm
+++ reminds me of David Bowie in all the good ways +++
+++ swell! +++
+++ instrumentation and arrangement +++
+++ great, effortless vox +++

by The Carpenters
With its sparse instrumentation, this tune is clearly a showcase for Karen's lovely voice. As such, it works well. The sound, alas, is dated: slick and lush, but snnnnnrrrxxx - oh, excuse me, I kind of nodded off there. The lyrics are again, a mixed bag, especially as their mediation on solitude and (again) a zen-like kind of shedding attachment clashes with the triumphant orchestration.

Ticket to Ride 
by Octothorpe
/// wish I could hear the vox more; they're buried by that synth lead to the right ///
+++ drums +++

by The Carpenters
Octothorpe is a kind of legend in Song Fight circles. Like Johnny Cashpoint, there's some jazz-like sophistication in their seeming simplicity and counter-culture takes on musical conventions. Like Jack Shite's offering, I feel as if I need to have The Carpenters' version on hand to understand what they're doing.  What we've got here, of course, is The Carpenters' covering a Beatles' tune, and as such, it's fantastic! It turns the upbeat, rockabilly of the the original on its head ans sideways and The Carpenters make it their own in interesting ways. Alas, I think this doesn't leave Octothorpe much to work with.

If there's one thing that this fight has taught me is the deceptive simplicity of The Carpenters. Sure, it's pretty and  the instrumentation doesn't seem all that complex and the lyrical themes usually seem to be straightforward romantic conventions. But don't let the slick '70's pop production fool you: The Carpenters have some fantastically complex songs, rich in time- and key-changes along with swathes of gorgeous sound that once you start deconstructing can get you lost in a hall of musical fun-house mirrors.

I'm really happy to say that all the participants really rose to the various challenges of their selected tunes. It's a fabulous illustration that regardless of genre, performance or production abilities, the heart of a great song will almost invariably produce a great song.

Friday, November 18, 2011

the last afternoon of a woman he only thought he knew

As seems to happen with frightening regularity, a new Song Fight is up! The Fightmasters often like to chuck out impossibly-long and awkward titles and it's a fantastic prompt for creativity, in my opinion. I would have loved to contribute to this fight and the title is tucked away on my list for the future.
Let's start with the cover art, which is awesome! Love the blending of textures, text and images. I could easily see this on a professional album cover.

Berkeley Social Scene
--- opening vox ---
+++ fem backing vox +++
+++ lead guitar tune +++
+++ chorus melody +++

This is much more catchy than many other BSS songs to my recollection, and I love it. Vote!

bgm | lyrics
+++ rhythm +++
+++ story & imagery +++
+++ dynamics +++

Everything I love in a song: melody, solid production and performance, a biting story with evocative imagery. Huge vote!

Billy and The Psychotics | lyrics
--- I dislike fake openings ---
/// wait, that's not Denni... but it's still damn fine +++
/// I'd like more grit from the bass tone ///
+++ CHORUS! +++

The chorus is hands down the best part: has me immediately pumping my fists and singing along. Do more of that. I love the way the second verse goes; I would open with that, and move the guitar shredding to the middle. Not a fan of how this begins, but it does nothing but get better the whole time, so vote!

+++ creepy opening loop +++
+++ lovely vocal harmonies +++
+++ solo +++

This is a fantastic study of tonal counterpoint. Great layers that compliment each other and create an evocative aural fabric. Even when the tune takes a left turn at Albuquerque during the guitar solo, it's an awesome detour. I'm less a fan of the choppy break-down towards the end, but still: Vote!

Dejected Motives
+++ low-end guitar +++
+++ there's some good melodies here ... +++
/// but they're not really fleshed out ///
--- that screeching tone ---
--- clipping vox ---
--- way too gorram long without any interesting dynamics ---

Vocoding is a favorite whipping boy these days. Given the electronica bent of this tune, I think it's okay. But you've got to get that damn microphone out of your mouth and/or check your levels while mixing.

Dirge | lyrics
+++ soundscape +++
+++ solo guitar +++
--- singing ---
+++ did I mention that solo? +++
--- lyrics ---
--- metal power breakdown ---

This was such a promising tune, then you turned on the Metallica. *sigh*

DJ Ranger Den | lyrics
+++ melody +++
+++ imagery +++
+++ story +++

I'm generally a fan of DJRD, (aka, Denise Hudson) and I'm happy to hear her deliver again, ditching her usual piano for some sparse guitar that still takes us in interesting directions. As has been mentioned on the review boards already, I'd love to hear this fleshed out with some more instrumentation, some nice R&B drums and an organ tones. Vote!

Emperor Gum
+++ creative instrumentation +++
--- hate that reedy flute sound ---
--- poor performance misses the beat here and there ---
--- why are you singing in a Port-a-Potty? ---

This submission gets full points for ambition. It follows in the footsteps of The Beatles' White Album, but it has too many production and performance flaws.

Future Boy | lyrics
+++ opening swell +++
+++ dynamics +++
+++ story +++

As this opens, I feel like I should be snapping softly along with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of red wine on the café table in front of me. Then the bridge hits like TNT. Fantastic: vote with enthusiasm!

Hip Hop Anonymous
/// reminds me of "Nightmare on My Street" ///
+++ creepy plot-twist +++
--- misogyny, rape and torture ---
I started a row by using the "M-word" last round, but I'm sticking by it. Straightfoward stories of rape, torture and victimizing women are not entertaining. Nor is yours even edifying; Kechiche you are not.

/// props for taking on the awkward title right in the first line; but it doesn't work to grab me ///
+++ it gets better the second time when you let the grove take you +++

This is straight-forward garage rock that was probably really damn fun to play, but I don't feel part of that vibe.

Life in Decibels
/// meh ///

Pretty much standard Euro-pop that has nothing to stand out or interest me. Solid production and pretty good performance. Please come again with something more creative.

+++ dynamics +++
+++ melody +++
/// singing is a little flat ///
+++ guitar tones and panning +++

I really like how this builds. It takes a while, so it won't grab impatient listeners, but I think it's worth the wait. Small mixing quibble: that backing organ, the primary instruments, is too loud. This is lovely, so vote!

Paco del Stinko | lyrics
+++ FUZZ +++
+++ dynamics ///

As much I love that fuzz tone, you need to lower it in the mix during the more melodic bits. It ruins the dynamism of this tune.

Pigfarmer Jr | lyrics
+++ story +++
--- boring prosody ---
--- chorus ---

This this sounds like an amateurish version of a much better song. Such a simplistic chorus needs to be sung with much more conviction; you need to channel Kurt Cobain

Ripping Hammer
+++ immediately gets me dancing +++
/// those electronic blips on 1 and 3 are little loud ///
--- it just stops ---

I would have voted for this if it had gone somewhere.

+++ lo-fi RAWK! +++
--- that slightly out-of-tune rhythm guitar ---
+++ doubled vox +++

This evokes a little bit of The Dead Milkmen, Stone Temple Pilots and everything great and raucous about a ton of '90s independent rock. Vote!

Sportswriters | lyrics
+++ lyricism +++
--- awkward drumming ---
+++ story +++

This would be a great song were it not for the deliberate odd time signature, which for me is just constantly jarring. I want to sway and waltz to this and the tune keeps tripping over itself.

T.C. Elliott | lyrics
--- robo-drums ---
/// nice, but predictable melody ///
--- boring guitar tones ---

Like your other entry for this fight, this has some good elements, but the performance (and, in this case, instrumental) choices make it sound amateurish.

Wicked Cripple feat. dont reply
+++ rhythm of vocal delivery +++
--- misogyny ---

Hanging a lampshade on your fear does not excuse you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Vénus noire / Black Venus (2010)

Monday night, I was very excited to present Vénus noire, the latest film by Abdellatif Kéchiche.  But my excitement was tempered with trepidation. This one of those movies that I feel merits a warning at the beginning of the screening, but not for the typical reasons. It is explicit without being grotesque; it is deliberate and at the same time subtle. It is far and away the best cinematic critique of colonialism - both old and new - that I have every seen.
Saartjie Baartman, is a woman born of the Khoikhoi tribe in present-day South Africa. In 1808, Hendrick Caezar, the brother of her former master, convinced her to leave for Europe, where they might both find fame and fortune. Their method? Exhibiting Saarjtie's body in a humiliating carnival show. English anti-slavery partisans bring the act up on charges, and so Caezar, Saartjie and a new acquaintance, bear-tamer Réaux, head for Paris. Once again, the act plays in carnivals, then in the aristocratic salons of Paris, and later on among the libertines. During this time, the French anatomist and eugenist Georges Cuvier takes an interest in her unusual anatomy (enormous buttocks and labia), but not in her mind, personality or native culture. Refusing to let the scientist fully examine her, she is effectively sold by Caezar to Réaux and finally rejected even by him to, ending up a prostitute.  She dies alone of pneumonia and a venereal disease in 1815, aged only 27. Her body is returned to Cuvier and his colleagues, where is is dissected, examined, preserved and a replica displayed in the Paris Musée de l'homme until 1974.
The film is both masterful and powerful, but it's not accurate to call Vénus noire "engaging." Indeed, the source of of the movie's power resides within a tension between our (Western) expectation to be able to identify with the protagonist and Kechiche's choice to continually deny that identification. Saarjtie remains ever in shadow, ever in a cage of some kind, and always just outside our emotional reach. Even when during her monologue-like testimony at the English court-case, where she is obviously given the chance to speak for herself, we gain no clear insight into her psyche. In a less competently-constructed film, this would be a serious fault, but not so here. Kechiche uses his command of the cinematic form and his love (yes, love) for his subject to constantly transport us - he just takes us places we'd rather not go. For ours is the point of view of self-deceived Hendrick Caezar, of the unscrupulous Réaux, of the eugenist Cuvier; that is, of the Europeans that surround Saarjtie but never acknowledge her as a person. She is always nothing more than a means to an end.

The damnable thing is that these points of view are imminently sympathetic, even sometimes appealing. Caezar wants to earn enough money to return home to Cape Town and support his family. He wants Saarjtie to be an equal in their enterprise - or at least that's what he says. When at last he breaks down and physically assaults her, his motivating frustration is shockingly understandable. Even Réaux's appalling actions are tempered by an almost tender seduction scene. Georges Cuvier, too, has a sympathetic portrait. His aims are purely scientific, improving his knowledge of the human form, of our evolution and therefore, future as a living race upon this world. There's no malice to his endeavor.

But neither is there any humanity. And realizing this is the careful trap that Kechiche lays for us time and again, using our expectations - and eventually, our very hope - to lead us into blind alleys of disquiet. It is a small-voiced tragedy of tremendous proportions.

Vénus noire isn't distributed in the United States, despite some impressive critical accolades in France and a nomination for a Golden Lion at the 67th Venice International Film Festival. Frankly, I'm not surprised, just a little disappointed. You can get it on a Region 1 DVD from Amazon Canada.

Monday, November 14, 2011

broken doll

Capo 2 [D - Am - C - G]
i am letting too much slip away
seems there's nothing left to hang on
just a voice on a distant phone
echoes of things pretending to be

she is your mirror; she is your twin
it's still not you; still not the same
there's a hole where your aura used to shine
spots on the sun where love would climb

[F - C :| F - C - G - G]
how do you do it?
i want to know
this broken doll i take home
how do you do it?
you want to know?
this broken soul you make whole

the stage was small; the billing, too
it was still the show to end all shows
you take your coffee black but a little sweet
these things stick with me even still

like morning traffic through a dirty pane
waking you from nightmare dreams
like letting go while i kicked and screamed
but only in my head

how do you do it?
i want to know
this broken doll i take home
how do you do it?
you want to know?
this broken soul you make whole

deep in that forest of steel and stone
we fought our dragons and we lost
we took on casualties and bound their wounds
we never took notice of our own

lamb or lion, it's all the same
i was your lullaby; you were my flame
i've been chasing shadows ever since
you have long been hunting this

i've been chasing shadows ever since
you have long been hunting this

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Little Nicholas

Le Petit Nicolas is a film bathed in oneiric nostalgia: a fantasy realm of France (especially Paris) during the 50's and 60's when the desperate times of Occupation and the privations of the post-war reconstruction had given over to an unparalleled economic boom full of optimism.
But this is only a dream, having only an indirect rapport with reality. If the set and costume design clearly draw from accurate historical models, if Nicolas' old-fashioned primary school and his father's impersonal workplace have real antecedents, these are all - happily - gross caricatures.

I say "happily" for two reasons. First, this is a very funny movie. The stars here aren't the actors (Valérie Lemercier and Kad Merad are big headliners in France today); neither is the director (though Laurent Tirard's Molière was a pretty big hit); neither is the immensely popular source material. The stars here are the gags; and they're excellent. Tirard ferociously takes hold of the visual element of cinema and the situational incongruities that make great comedy to tap into everyone's love to laugh. Understanding the blitzkrieg-fast French (which can admittedly make it hard to keep up with the subtitles) adds another layer of charm and humor, but it really isn't necessary. This film is, in a way, a fabulous hypertext. But that's a subject for another time.

The film is also "happily" full of caricatures because it still has its profundities, lying just beneath its humor. There is no better satire than the world seen through the eyes of a child, whose priorities are different than those of the adults around him, whose hopeful imagination drives his actions more than his fear; whose worldview isn't entirely innocent, just different, perhaps simpler. Through the view askew, we can revel in our own memories of "simpler times" and simultaneously poke fun at adult life; that is, mock it; that is, criticize its absurd complications and torturous, sometimes unjust motivations.

The charm of this movie is Nicolas' opening invitation to take part of this view askew, to relish its joys (which aren't always that simple), to become children again without completely relinquishing an eye towards critical thinking, This is one of those films that makes you feel better, where you leave the theater with a smile on your lips. But in the car on the way home, the thought sneaks up on you: "Those absurd adults are kind of like me..."

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rien à faire : The Importance of Not Working

The 1995 remake of Sabrina is highly-underrated movie. What's not to like? Harrison Ford is charming, Julia Ormond delivers a simultaneously delicate and self-possessed performance. Greg Kinnear is quirky and fun as only he can be. The script is smart, the characters are engaging and funny. Moreover, it's light years better than the stodgy, formulaic, and down right misogynist 1954 original. And let's face it, despite the presence of the ever-charming Audrey Hepburn, Humphry Bogart is just old and creepy. Old and creepy.
All of this to, yes strongly recommend what is possibly the only "romantic comedy" that I like (though Definitely, Maybe has its merits...), but mostly to be able to talk my favorite quote from that film, one that somehow escaped the rather encyclopedic (and yet somehow repetitive) IMDB quotes page:
"The French work as hard any anyone else. They just know when to stop."
In a economy where employee productivity is up but employment is thin, in a space of the Internet where my artist acquaintances (you know, those wonderfully right-brained folks?) make public to-do lists, in a metro area where you need to zip about in a car to get anywhere (and people seem to drive by feel), on a day dedicated to meetings and pressure, I'd like to place one more thing on your agenda:
  • Stop working.
Take a break. Step away from the computer. Leave your office. Have a long lunch talking about last night's football game. When you finish your last email of the afternoon, close your inbox. Stop by a bar and have a drink on the way home. Chat up the bartender. Flirt innocently with the wait staff. Go home and make dinner, or order some Chinese. Talk with you family. Or pick up a phone call a friend. Watch Castle tonight while you're on the phone. Laugh. Cry. Get in a heated discussion about Star Trek captains. Anything but work.

American society is so performance-driven that it seems to drive us a little insane. I know, I've been there. I almost burned my life to the ground my first year of graduate school. You see, I'm one of the lucky people for whom most school work was easy. I had a knack for language and literature and book-smarts. So, grade-school was a snap. Most of undergraduate was easy, too. Grad school was an entirely different ball-game, one for which I was not prepared. Making lesson plans, reading hundreds of pages of literary theory a week, grading papers, preparing for comprehensive exams; I dove into it all with such frenzy that I literally blew my eyes: I've had bifocals since I was 22. The problem was, I didn't realize that graduate school was a job. So, I constantly brought my job home with me and it took over like kudzu. It wasn't until I started treating my graduate studies like a 9-5 job that life became sane once again.

Now the trick here is that I started treating it like the French treat their 9-5 jobs: I left the work at the office. I put down the lesson plans and research papers and went out to live life. I took long lunch breaks. I didn't think about Monday morning's class on Saturday afternoon.

It's not slacking; far from it. This principle was a key survival technique for my Doctoral studies. When I was at work, I was able to the be completely at work and I was quite productive. This "rest-ethic" allowed me to teach not only several very good intro French classes, but some courses on French cinema and world literature, and to craft a dissertation that eventually became a book in its own right. It continues to serve me well here at KSU. I don't slack in the office, but I do take a break about every two hours. I go outside, talk with the students, have a cigarette and recharge. And when I get home, I don't carry the stress of the day with me, nor any worries about tomorrow. That's tomorrow's problem.

So, this Monday, plan to do a little something that's not work. I know, it can be hard. Take it in small steps, an extra coffee in the morning. Leave your Blackberry off during dinner. Steal some email time and check out Icanhascheesburger instead.
See? It's worth it. Work hard and know when to stop.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Occupy My Heart

Song Fight! is a place that you should visit - often. It a nutshell, it's a songwriting competition. In a slightly larger nutshell, it's a community of songwriters crafting music of every color and kind, from lo-fi Casiocore to surf-rock pyschedelia to country and grunge. About every other week, Fight Masters Spud and JB post a title (and the occasional optional challenge). Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write, record and submit an original song by the deadline. Then you get to listen to everyone's else's submissions, vote for your favorites and, hopefully, share your thoughts on the review boards.
There's all kinds of other great stuff that goes on associated with Song Fight! including Nur Eincoverfights, the Daily Roll Call and the splendiferous annual Song Fight! Live event, but let's focus on the current fight.

A quick introduction to my review process. Usually, I only have time to listen to the whole fight once, and while listening, I jot down:
+++ what I like +++
--- what I don't like ---
/// what leaves me indifferent, or other comments ///
It's a quick and dirty but efficient process and I always try to provide constructive criticism unless a song is either too far outside my ken or, in my opinion, beyond saving. This time around, I'm going to go back for at least a second listen in order to introduce new readers to some Song Fight! stars and further develop my reactions. One of the great things about Song Fight! is the dizzying variety of musical genres available each fight.

Al Gore Band | lyrics
--- poor production ---
--- pretentiousness and self-reference fail ---
+++ internal rhymes and prosody +++

The production here is deliberately lo-fidelity, which some times I like (see Elephant Finger below). But here, while I like many of the lyrics, the abstract anti-mainstream nature of the ensemble is alienating. It's sloppy and self-righteous at the same time.

Berkeley Social Scene
+++ guitar tone, as always +++
--- wobbly vox "looooouuuuuder" ---
+++ tempo change for chorus +++

BSS is a Song Fight! staple, an LA-area (oops) a San Francisco-area jam band with a often-shifting line-up. The "plant your flag" line reminds me of Baudelaire's "Spleen IV," I wonder if the reference is intentional?
— Et de longs corbillards, sans tambours ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon âme; l'Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure, et l'Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.
I'll be the first to admit to admit that much BSS's more complicated stuff goes right over my head: various key signatures and chord structures that my ear is not trained to hear. Though, if it weren't for the uneven singing, this is one of my favorite offerings from them.

Billy and the Psychotics | lyrics
/// thought at first this was DJ Ranger Den's solo submission; then the band kicked in ///
+++ it was a pleasant surprise +++
+++ rock opera awesomeness, fully channeling stuff like November Rain +++

Vote! Billy and the Psychotics is something of a Song Fight! superband, a collaboration between Billy's Little Trip, Denise Hudson (aka DJ Ranger Den, who also submitted a solo work to this fight) and, often, Paco del Stinko or other guests.

This is hands-down one of their best works to date. They excel at hard rock with a feminine snarl, and previous attempts to stretch their musical boundaries have been mixed successes. This one is a perfect blend of Denise's subtle piano sensibilities and Billy's hard-rocking drums and bass.

+++ groove and tone +++
+++ love that plucky guitar tone +++
--- maybe it's my sound equipment, but some of this is right on the edge of clipping ---
+++ breakdown +++

Vote! A fantastic slice of ambient music and independent rock-pop. c.layne has just put out a new album, I'm Glad We Met.

Dealin' Doug and The Rocky's Autos
+++ grungy guitar riff +++
--- intro goes on way to long ---
+++ very creative take on the title +++
--- bop bop bop bop bop bop ---
--- fake horns are really fake ---
--- nasal singing ---

Like a lot of my own offerings, I get the impression that there's both a lot to like about this song and a lot that needs to be improved. The vocals sounds consistently bored and always sung through the nose. I like that the synthesizer line mirrors the chorus melody but, damn, it sounds so cheap!

Dirge and Sara
+++ i'm a sucker for female vox +++
+++ great vibe and overall tonality +++
/// this is one of those tunes you really love and bob along with when you're at the bar, but then you forget you when you get in the cab ///

This song has a great, solid vibe. I love the contrast of the clean vox and the dirty guitars and there are great accents all over the place. The main problem is that the whole thing lacks something for me to hang on to. It's not necessarily a matter of a hook, but just a memorable bit of melody or a really great line somewhere.

DJ Ranger Den | lyrics
+++ melody "you won't occupy my heart" +++
/// I wonder if the piano isn't too busy ///
+++ the lyrics and pining tone remind me of Ani DiFranco's "Dilate" +++
and i learn every room long enough
to make it to the door
and then i hear it click shut behind me
and every key works differently
i forget every time
and forgetting defines me
that's what defines me
DJ Ranger Den is a somewhat recent addition to the line-up for Song Fight! regulars and the feminist in me is very happy to see a woman contributing to what can be a pure sausage fest.

My only quibble with song is the very busy piano part, which seems to try to make up for the lack of other instruments. However, the "you won't occupy my heart" line makes this for me; the delivery is perfectly vulnerable. This is easily one of the best songs she's submitted, so vote!

dont reply
--- not a song ---

Elephant Finger Et Le Casio Ensemble Contemporain de Paris | lyrics
+++ delightfully lo-fi +++
/// the accidental mispronunciation of cœur, renders it corps (body), which actually works anyway. but there is a proper miss on liquidation [lee kee dah see-on] ///

Vote! The difference between this and The Al Gore Band is that the singer here (J$, or Johnny Cashpoint), is having fun. The Al Gore Band sound like they're sneering at the conventions and being snide.

Jon Eric | lyrics
+++ there's the core of a really good song here +++
--- but it's lost in some extraneous material ---
/// I would cut the verses in half; pare it down to the best lyrics ///

Jon Eric is another SF! veteran. In general, I'm a fan, and learning to play a bunch of his songs for this past year's Song Fight! was a real eye-opener about chord progression and composition. Here, I feel like Jon has just submitted too much. He jokes in this lyrics post, "I'd have written a shorter song if I'd had more time," and I think he should take this to heart and revisit this tune in order to pare it down.

King Arthur | lyrics
+++ lead guitar in the left ear +++
--- oh, but it stays in the left ear for the solo and really just kind of noodles ---
+++ it's always astounding that you program your drums +++

King Arthur is a Song Fighter in the stratosphere of nearly 100 submissions like Paco del Stinko and Ross Durand below. The critique I made of Dirge and Sara applies here: well put together with some great individual elements, but nothing for me to hang my hat on.

MC Charlie Oh
--- misogyny ---

I'll admit to some genre bias: rap and and Hip-hop needs to be exceptional for me to enjoy. This is worse than unexceptional, it crosses one of my few really firm ethical boundaries. I do not tolerate misogyny and hit the "skip" button the moment MC Charlie Oh took the lazy and hateful route singing about "bitches" and masking his own insecurities in machismo.

Metaluna | lyrics
+++ pretty guitar tone +++
--- lyrical prosody ---
--- singing ---
+++ dynamics +++

This is an example of half of a great song. I love the instrumentation and the arrangement. However, the prosody of the lyrics makes the song unlistenable. It trips over itself, forces the wrong places and just rubs me in every wrong way.

Monkey Touchers
--- what the ... ? ---

This contribution is something of a conundrum, because while it's nearly unlistenable (it certainly isn't enjoyable), someone obviously put some thought and effort into it. Maybe not a lot, but enough to set up the recording equipment and some... percussion and riff for two and a half minutes.

noah mclaughlin | lyrics
+++ chorus +++
--- not the right development ---
/// singing needs to be tightened up; probably more like battened down ///

As is my wont, I came up with a better arrangement for this tune just minutes after the deadline passed. The link above with play the submitted version, but for your listening pleasure, I'd rather you listen to this one:

In the very beginning, the third "verse" was supposed to be a 16-bar guitar solo. I didn't have anything interesting to say with the guitar and ended up riffing some lyrics over that bit instead. Alas, they pretty much repeat the second verse. To boot, the opening guitar riff really isn't that strong. Hence, the new arrangement that opens with the swelling chorus instrumentation and cuts the third verse to an 8-bar breakdown.

Paco del Stinko | lyrics
+++ RAWK! +++
/// chorus is kind of cliché... ///
+++ Did I mention the RAWK?! +++
+++ Owns the outro +++

Vote! This song almost lost me with the outro. Rock is already pretty frakkin' sexy, and layering overt sexuality on top of it is usually overkill. But Paco (another SF! vet) plays it so straight and with such talent that I end up convinced.

The Pannacotta Army
+++ channels the Beatles in all the good ways +++
+++ solid production +++
+++ great melody +++

Vote! There's nothing not to like about this tune: catchy melody, dynamics, solid prosody in the lyrics, good performances recorded well and mixed well.

Pigfarmer Jr | lyrics
+++ guitar lick +++
--- "You need a break today" : awkward prosody ---
+++ cello is a pleasant surprise +++

This is an example of the "GnG" done right. The guitar work is interesting, the singing is solid and the cello is a great minimalist touch. An often-denigrated genre at Song Fight is "Guy/Girl and Guitar," and rightly so It's an easy paradigm to record, and you often get naive beginners who think they're the next Bob Dylan. This is not one of those cases.

--- misogyny ---

See my critique of MC Charlie Oh above.

Ross Durand
+++ guitar riff +++
+++ melody +++

Ross Durand is a Song Fight! regular (and FAWM and SpinTunes). He's a really talented writer, singer and guitarist. This tune is pretty representative of his work: folk-influenced guy n' guitar work. Individually, the songs and their recordings are always strong, but it gets kind of samey. I always want him to expand more with his arrangement and production.

--- sloppy ---
--- derivative ---
--- dumb lyrics ---

+++ boldly surrealist lyrics that are still accessible enough to invite analysis +++
--- live production/recording is a little too raw ---
/// this sounds like an B-side, or something from Pearl Jam's Vitalogy album ///

I might actually vote for this, because it is so daring and its unusual elements congeal so well.

Sportswriters | lyrics
+++ opening that makes me go "Ooh! That sounds good." +++
--- lyrics rhythm is uneven; it kind of trips over itself and doesn't resolve in a satisfying well ---
+++ really solid, profession production +++
/// I feel like this should be in a scene from a Brat Pack movie... ///

This song is written 15/8 time, which might account for weird lyrical rhythm. Sportswriters is a newcomer to Song Fight! and his work reminds me of Manhattan Glutton. This offering is basically a list-song and it doesn't do much with that genre.

If I can remix my stuff, so can Sportswriters, check out a version with punchier vox, reworked drums and a new ending:

Occupy My Heart by The Sportswriters

State Shirt
+++ delicate and fully-realize soundscape +++
--- some of the vocal effects are grating ---
/// this would be a great song for a montage ///

The only thing that keeps me from voting for this is that the grating vocal effects pull me out of the "ooooh, this is pleasantly spacey" vibe.

Tony And Juan And Adam
+++ RAWK!+++
/// some one likes Rage Against the Machine, I see ///
/// as fun as this is, the lyrical take is kind of obvious for the musical genre and the music itself is derivative ///

I'd love to see this live. It would be a lot of fun, but then I would have another beer and forget about it.

The Yyarrell Brothers Band
+++ groove +++
--- tinny solo guitar tone ---
+++ melody +++
/// lyrics are kind of emo ///

One of the few straight-up pop song offerings this fight, and as such a refreshing part of this listen. I love the piano tone and the production is tight, but I can't relate to the story, which is very adolescent, and that guitar tone is horrendous.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Portal: Apologias Abound

Why do so many academics feel they have to apologize for bringing video games into the classroom? It seems like every last paper and book I'm reading begins with "Just hear me out, despite everything this is totally a good idea."
After a brief hiatus from the blog because life decided to happen all at once, I've decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to my current research on Portal - that quirky, engaging game from Valve Software. If this is your first time reading about my Portal ruminations, you might like to start here where I talk about the hidden depths of the game and its 2011 sequel. I'm developing a paper about the pedagogical and philosophic dimensions of a video game to present at Popular Culture Association and American Culture Association conference in April, 2012.

Since I've already developed a few ideas that I want to explore further, the first step is some research. What have other people said about Portal and Portal 2? The list of blog entries and reviews is pretty substantial, and there are some very good ideas out there. But there's a problem: none of these are really peer-reviewed publications; that is, they aren't published by professionals after (usually anonymous) review and editing by fellow specialists. Basically, no one in Academia has talked about Portal specifically. It's a little disappointing, but also understandable and exciting; there are no ideas for me to use as a springboard, but that's because this game is so new, in a rather niche field, and it means I'm really breaking into new fresh territory with this project.

Still, I need some outside research for a well-rounded analysis. Solution: broaden the scope to video games and teaching. Ah hah! With some judicious trimming of search parameters, I've snagged about twenty peer-reviewed articles. Looking towards books, it's no secret that Kennesaw State's physical holdings are meager in any area. However, we have a wonderful new tool via EBSCOhost's new eBook database. Voilà: a dozen full-blown book-length studies and anthologies. So now I have a nice, hefty stack of reading to sift through for ideas.

I haven't finished, but I wanted to talk about a recurring theme in many papers and introductory chapters: an apologia for video games. It's sad and silly all at the same time. No one feels the need anymore to say, "Hey, this Socratic method thing is pretty wild, but listen, it can be effective." (Though apparently, it can get you fired.) Neither does anyone make formal arguments about the inclusion of multimedia elements in lesson plans or that wild and wacky thing called a whiteboard.

The notion that the pedagogical utility of games in general and video games in specific needs to be carefully defended is silly because play is fundamental to learning. Games are effectively heavily-constructed problem-solving tasks with built-in formative feedback. They accomplish almost naturally (I say "almost" because they are designed, after all), what good teachers struggle to do with every lesson: motivate students to confront, analyze and overcome a challenge.

This mania for apologia is sad because it seems like so many academicians and pedagogues have their serious-pants on a little too tight. Don't they remember the joy of play, the freedom of exploration and jubilation of victory; those "Eureka!" moments? Didn't they learn something from those experiences, too?

On one hand, of course, we have to realize where this skepticism - or perceived, potential skepticism - comes from. Video games have a bad rap, so much so that there have been Congressional hearings about violence in contemporary video games and their potential to warp impressionable minds, blah, blah, blah. Videos games are largely thought of as commercial products and diversions - so much so that educational games have developed their own moniker: "serious games." It's difficult to think of a more Orwellian paradox of a term.

To boot, a little skepticism is healthy in the professional realm. Technology should serve instruction, after all; the latter should not bend to the latest fad just because it might better motivate a slice of the demographic pie. While games may be an exciting innovation for effective instruction, the jury's still out about how well they contribute to effective learning. That is, do players/students retain the knowledge, skills and attitudes they acquire during play/study and are they able to apply them later in a different context? To a certain degree, it's a chicken and egg conundrum. There's relatively little evidence because video games as pedagogy are thin on the ground and not many people are using video games to teach because the hard evidence isn't there. (Round and round we go...) Moreover, developing effective video games is a complex endeavor that usually entails a whole team of people with divergent sets of skills, aims and backgrounds. Even more than that, recent findings are conflicting: half of the studies show that games are more effective than traditional instructional techniques, the other half say "not so much..." (Full disclosure, there's a third edition of this book that I've just ordered. Maybe there's something new since 2008.)

But what I'm really interested in with Portal is not so much its uses in the classroom (though I can imagine many), but the way it models good teaching design. Michele Dickey is on the right track with her 2005 article "Engaging by Design," analyzing computer game design and its potential as a model for instructional design. Put simply: good video games are good lesson plans.

Check out her hypothesis yourself the next time you're playing a video game for the first time. Game tutorials are short-cuts: deductive lessons that are time-effective, but often retention-poor. More intelligent games (like Portal) teach you the inherent rules as you go along, using concepts like Vygotsky's zone of proximal development to help you slowly pick up the necessary skills to succeed, and then they let you jump the track and go wild behind the scenes.
Michele Dickey. "Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design." Educational Technology Research and Development. 53(2). 67-83.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Changing Paradigms

You may have seen this video before; it's been floating about various social networks for a while now. This infographic animate was created from a speech given by Sir Ken Robinson upon his acceptance of a Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Royal Society of Arts in London. It's a fantastic dissection of what's fundamentally not working in western education today.

As an educator, this gives me certain grounds for pause. I am very much imbricated in this industrialized, machine-like system based on a twisted, out-dated version of Enlightenment ideals. But not passively. This is what I do to change the educational paradigm, one class session at a time.

Pose Questions
As I've discussed earlier, posing questions to my students is a cornerstone of my teaching technique. Some find this off-putting and even hostile, at least a first, but I also make it clear that students can pose me questions. In fact, I encourage and sometimes even require it. Class sessions are regularly punctuated with "Avez-vous des questions ?" (Do you have any questions?) and I always do my best to respond meaningfully to those questions. Some times these are "teachable moments," either a particular problem that lets the class and instructor explore a concept together or a bridge to new information.

For instance, a recent session started with the question "Que feriez-vous avec mille dollars ?" (What would you do with a $1000?). The main objective was to allow students some personalized time to express their wishes and use the conditional mood. In response to this question, one student stated they would buy an iPad with a special case. But how do you say "case" in French? There are dozens of ways, and they're pretty context-dependent. But this was a perfectly teachable moment. I opened WordReference and with the class we started sorting through the possibilities. Way down the page, eureka!

casen(sheath)étui nm
Put your glasses back in their case.
Remets tes lunettes dans leur étui.

I never flinch from admitting I don't know an answer; it's always a springboard to a "Let's find out!" moment.  (Or, at the very least from a "Why don't you look that up and share your findings with the class?" moment.)

More than that, one of my very first lessons with students of any level is how to pose questions in French. Class is often a chorus of Comment dit-on ...? (How do you say...?) and that's okay. I really love it when students begin asking Pourquoi? (Why?) and Mais comment...? (But how...?)

Have Fun (and Be Creative)
Critical (self-)reflection is an effective teaching tool, but all work and no play makes Noah a dull prof. Moreover, students are more than just cogitating machines; they have feelings, like anxiety and pride, and they enjoy being entertained. I work hard to have fun in class. Some times this is a simple as making an slightly off-color joke. ("Automobile traffic" in French is la circulation - like in your veins; but le trafic refers to drugs. In our lessons about cars, many student unwittingly complain about the local drug trafficking problem on campus.) Some times this is out-and-out games, like Simon Says, or Jeopardy! Mostly, I seek to create an atmosphere that encourages students to relax and therefore feel free to make mistakes.

You read that right, I want my students to screw up. Because mistakes are the beginning of learning. Every one messes up; the key is what you do next. In a positive, structured atmosphere like the one I try to create in my classrooms, mistakes are acknowledged but more so are corrections. I try to keep the former to a minimum, a cocked head (like a puppy), a half-breathed "Euh...?", a simple prompt to indicate "That's not quite right..." But corrections are praised, and loudly. I applaud; I laugh; I constantly give thumbs up.

Related to fun, creativity and personalization play an important role in my courses. The ability to express your own meaning, even simply, in a foreign language is quite an achievement. To accomplish this, I seek to find the right balance between structure (often, prompting questions) and open-ended tasks. My students interview each other a lot. (There's that posing questions thing again.) Last unit, one class wrote letters to the president of the university suggesting what kind of building we should construct next on campus; presently, I have another class writing reviews of a panoply of Francophone movies, many of which I've never seen before. Last summer, students created guided tours of Francophone destinations and crafted websites to promote them.

Which leads me to the last point:

Make Connections
For me, the pinnacle of education is the ability to make meaningful connections between people, cultures and various fields of inquiry. It's more than just getting your classmate's email address, or learning about why the French tend to have smaller cars than Americans. That's just information, trivia, just the beginning of wisdom. What I really want to see is a student create a third space that bridges the gap between two cultures. To explain to a French person why our American cars are so big and why we take them everywhere, to adapt a French poem for an American audience, to overcome misunderstanding with patience and a will towards compromise. To be more than aware, to be inquisitive, to be creative: to change the paradigm.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I Want Better Myths

It's so easy to make feminist critiques of Disney heroines that they're almost straw men (if you pardon the expression).
But it bears pointing out that these misogynist depictions are bad models for males as well:
This is something right at the heart of Third-Wave feminism: that screwing women screws men in the process. A system of inequality may temporarily benefit a certain portion of the population, but when it comes to gender issues like it comes to race, being a bigot is just shooting yourself in the foot.

It may seem like I'm digressing, but bear with me here. This isn't one of those rants about how contemporary media unrealistic portrays women. It does, but I'm not here to rant about it. I'm here to address one of the primary objections I run into when I talk about the study of popular media:
"It's just a movie."
Insert "TV show," "song," "comic," etc. for "movie." These words are just stand-ins for "piece of popular culture," which decades of Ivory-Tower, canon-protecting, Dickens-Tolstoy-and-Hugo fellating white men have told you isn't worth serious study. To boot, so have decades of money-grubbing, shareholder-protecting Dow-Jones-and-Hollywood boot-licking white men have done the same.

They're wrong. These things are worth very close examination because they make up our culture - our daily lives and the attitudes we carry around to both view and shape them - much more than "High Art." (There really isn't such a thing.) Art is art, and you can use the same set of tools to take apart a poem Robert Frost as you can, say, a film from Disney Studios. Mind you, the former is often a lot more rewarding, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't put Walt's work and legacy just as much under the microscope. In fact, considering how many people could quote a Disney film faster than a Frost poem, I'd say it's more important to do so.

And plenty of people have done so. These are the myths that we use to build our society. Myths are very important, and even if today we call them "TV Shows" and "Rock Stars" and "Movies" this doesn't change either their social importance or the basic tools of narrative that we can use to talk about them. And let's face it, a lot of myths we keep telling ourselves are messed up. I'm not talking about such banal things as physical violence (which Disney movies, even early ones, have in droves) or drug-use (anyone seen Dumbo?), but rather sexual and political violence (Cinderella prostitutes herself, make no mistake; and Hercules is a political pawn, you know) and the opiates that mainstream movies have become with their sugary endings, simple formula and harmful gender depictions. These myths are poisonous to our psyche, yet we have been conditioned to accept them as not only natural, but ideal.

I want better myths. I want myths like Nausicaä.
Not that Nausicaä. (Well, Homer's character is pretty interesting, but let's file that away for a future discussion.) I want to talk about Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds:
This is the kind of myth I want to see more. And here's why: Nausicaä is a third-wave feminist. She's courageous and wise, active but deliberate, a leader and a listener. She sees people as people first, regardless of their upbringing or gender or nationality. She understands about process and balance, how nature works to equalize itself, and that humans unbalance their relationships both with each other and the environment at their own peril.

She also has pychic powers, the world's coolest sidekick and she gets to fly on a jet-powered ultralight.
Nausicaä is a synthesist with a curious mind. She doesn't see the world as a set of fixed categories, but rather understands that meaning comes from our actively labeling of things. At the same time, she's not relativist. She has a strong sense of moral propriety: the absolute value of life, but the need for death to define that life. She strives for truth, but the understands that silence or even misdirection can be necessary in the service of a greater good. Her first instinct is kindness but she does not flinch from action. She forgives but does not forget.

Nausicaä's journey is so also much more identifiable to us mere mortals. (How many princesses do you know?) She's coming into adulthood, learning about the consequences of her actions, striving to do what is right in the face of adversity, and especially whatever is "right" is often not so easy to discern. While Disney characters like Belle and Ariel might have been touchstone for an entire generation, their stories are ultimately still about caging those women, about taking away their dreams of freedom and replacing them with domestic stability. And at the same time, this delimiting is cast as both natural and desirable.

Nausiccaä shows the way out of the Disney trap: a fully realized character that, yes, happens to be female, but whose gender is secondary to her journey as a character, whose ideals are both complex and clear.

So, whether you are a filmmaker, a songwriter, a poet or any manner of artist: make better myths, myths as unique and powerful and refreshing as Nausiccaä.

P.S. Miyazaki's films are chock-full of great heroines, and here's a really great overview:
"Disney, Miyazaki, and Feminism: Why Western girls need Japanese animation" Christine Hoff Kraemer