Friday, April 8, 2011

Tiger Tunes: Stromata - Dancing, Milk Jugs, And A Bunch Of Pills

Hi kids.  Are you in the mood for some s’mores?  I sure am.  Oh, but not just because I long for the feel of smooth, velvety chocolate.  Not because I have a carnal hunger for billowy, fluffy marshmallows.  Not because I know my body will be satisfied with the sweetness and semi-healthiness of graham crackers.  And certainly not because I want to see a bunch of mindless Greek pledges and middle schoolers try to egg each other on in a game of Chubby Bunny.

 No, I mainly want some s’mores because I feel like sitting around a campfire and telling you all a story.  A story of hope, rejection, and redemption.  A story of underappreciation and recognition.  A story of a fair musical maiden by the name of Charlotte Martin.

Before going into the music industry, Charlotte competed in the Miss Teen USA pageant, then went to Eastern Illinois University to study opera and vocal performance.

OMG!  Did you hear that, Music Industry?!  An artist that actually knows a lot about music!  Sacre bleu!  Que horror!  Hoe afschuwelijk!  Oh il mio dio!! Oh mein Gott!! OH ο Θεός μου!  哎呀!

Anyhoo, after graduation, she moved to Los Angeles and began writing albums and EPs independently, before signing with RCA Records in 2002.  While RCA released one of the EPs shortly after her signing, they pretty much messed around and “sat on me”  (according to one interview) until late 2004, when her first full-length album, titled On Your Shore, was released.

Of course, Charlotte isn’t the only artist that RCA and Clive “The Dinosaur” Davis has screwed the pooch with, but that’s for another article down the road.

Charlotte left RCA in 2005,  just before touring to promote 2 EPs she had written in preparation for her second full-length album, Stromata.  She signed with Dinosaur Fight Records in early 2006 and released Stromata in September.  Since then, she and husband Ken Andrews own their own label, where Charlotte continues to write, record, and produce her own music.  While her foray into the mainstream music world was brief, she still continues today to bring new and interesting music to fans and music lovers all over the world.

I discovered Charlotte’s music 2 years ago with On Your Shore,and subsequently purchased Stromata plus several extra songs.   Between the 2 albums, I was at a loss as to which one to review.  On Your Shore, though controlled more by The Dinosaur and his minions, was a very solid effort with great acoustic piano material and a very Tori-meets-Sarah sound.  However, after splitting from RCA, Charlotte really let her artistic creativity rip and came up with an extremely different yet extremely intriguing album that includes everything from piano to synthesizers to milk jugs.  Yeah, you read that right.

So, my lovelies, I’ve decided to take a deeper look into the weird, wonderful world of Stromata.  Make more s’mores, mix more hot chocolate, sit back, and enjoy the melodies.

"Stromata":  Right off the bat, we get a pounding, piano-synthesizer tune and more influence from Tori Amos.  Lyrically, it’s very unclear what the song is about, but the song title refers to connective tissue frameworks of bodily organs.  So maybe she minored in Biology.  Grade: B+

"Cut The Cord":  Here Charlotte talks about the difficulty of freeing oneself from a toxic relationship.  Though the lyrics almost get a little drowned out in places, the jungle drum beats are really really cool.  Grade:  A-

"Drip":  I’ve heard conflicting information on what this song is about.  Some say it’s about being aware of your body and sexuality (like a “birds and the bees” song).  Some say it’s about eating disorders.  Some say it’s about a struggling relationship.  Whatever the meaning, the synth work is really neat, and the chorus really catchy.  One of the top songs on the album.  Grade:  A+

"Little Universe"":  This is probably the most experimental track on the album, with major synth and keyboard work.  While it’s a cool sound, it’s almost a little TOO electronic sounding and comes off as a little creepy.  Grade:  B-

"Civilized":  Here Charlotte takes on a more angry, Fiona-esque vibe, with fast-pace piano and drums.  And I think this song is about a breakup after the guy got caught cheating.  Maybe.  It’s a little hard to tell.  Grade:  B+

"A Hopeless Attempt":  The keyboard takes on a very melancholy tone as Charlotte sings about the pointlessness of rekindling a dead relationship.  It has almost a bit of a “lullaby” feel to it, like the subject is supposed to be crying herself to sleep.  It’s both soft and powerful at the same time.  Grade:  A-

"Four Walls":  This is another heavily-synthed arrangement, though it’s not as intense and creepy as “Little Universe.”  It’s a smidge on the filler side, but still an interesting track.  Grade:  B

"Inch":  Here, it’s a simple piano arrangement to a song about not letting a significant other get too close.  The riffs are beautiful, though a tiny bit draggy.  Grade:  B+

"Keep Me In Your Pocket":  The pace of the album picks up with this track, which uses a quirky,  absurdly catchy mix of finger-snapping, clock-ticking, and the aforementioned milk jugs.  The chorus and the bridge especially stick in your head for days.  Grade:  A+

"Pills":  Now THIS is artistry!  On the surface, you have simple lyrics describing a list of different kinds of pills, set to a jaunty, quirky piano rhythm and a fun little chorus of “Baaaaa-ba-ba-ba-ba-baaaa.”  Sounds cute and fun, right?  Actually, this song is about a drug addict who has taken so many pills that he goes out and steps in front of a train (yes, there are train sounds, too).  The cleverest song on the album.  Gotta love morbid irony.  Grade:  A+

"Just Before Dawn":  Charlotte shows off more of her versatility and immense talent by composing and singing an operatic track entirely in German.  Though it’s very short at 1:15, the song does a phenomenal job of allowing Charlotte to show off a powerful, 3-octave range.  It’s heartbreaking that artists like her get passed up for bimbos like Ke$ha.  Grade:  A+

"Cardboard Ladders":  It’s another lyrically cryptic song, but the piano and the echoing vocals give it a lush, majestic beauty.  Grade:  B+

"The Dance":  This is probably Charlotte’s most well-known song, and, in an album of very strong songs, the strongest one on the entire thing.  It has been used in the show So You Think You Can Dance,  among other places.  Its play count on my iTunes is one of the very highest.  As for the arrangement, the knee-slapping cadence is incredibly infectious, despite giving me the urge to go leaping thought a meadow playing a piccolo.  However, the slow build of the intensity of the piano throughout the song, mixed with the backing vocals singing “Amen” like a choir is absolutely exquisite.  There really aren’t enough words to describe how cool this song is.  Grade:  A+

"Redeemed":  The title and lyrics to this song are self-explanatory.  I love the soft, lingering piano riff transitioning to a more pounding intensity halfway through the song.  It’s a great way to end a really cool album.  Grade:  A+

This is usually the point where I sum up my overall feelings about the album and bid you all adieu for the week.  However, there is one more song that is not on the album that I want to review anyway. 

One of the EPs released before Stromata was titled Veins, and included several songs that were included on the album.  Yet the title track was not.  So I’m going to review it.  Why?  ‘Cause it’s cool.  And I just wanna.

Veins:  This song uses a little bit of religious imagery within the lyrics to portray self confidence and self-acceptance without the need to be revived.  The arrangement is electronic, ethereal, and creepy, yet very cool with pounding drums and a bridge of repeated hallelujahs.  It’s another song that has had many repeated plays on my iTunes, and I do think it’s a shame that it wasn’t included on the album.  Grade:  A+

NOW you have it!  Stromata may have its fair share of strange, experimental arrangements, but the array of sounds does a brilliant job of showcasing Charlotte’s musicianship and versatility.  Many of the lyrics take a page from Tori Amos and become a bit confusing, but they also make you think and try to come up with your own interpretations.  And if you ask me, someone who can write music that triggers lots of thought and deciphering is someone who deserves all the recognition in the world.

Recommended Songs:  “The Dance,” “Pills,” “Drip,” “Veins,” “Keep Me in Your Pocket,” “Cut The Cord,”  “A Hopeless Attempt,” “Just Before Dawn,” “Redeemed”

Until next time….long live s’mores..

WWE All-Stars Review: Ladies and Gentlemen, the "Soulcalibur" of wrestling games....

Ugh. Know when I should’ve started thinking better of putting WWE All-Stars under the microscope? The moment someone first explained the game’s outlandish, stylized tone and I observed, “Oh, so you mean it’s going to be a lot like WWF In Your House?”

Second hint: when the Blockbuster clerk made the same comparison.

For those wrestling fans who don’t remember In Your House – well, first off, who’s your shrink? I’m still trying to forget.

But for those who don’t remember it and didn’t play it, it was a World Wrestling Federation title more in the style of Mortal Kombat with its motion-captures of actual wrestlers. Instead of a true in-ring experience, the Undertaker chucked ghosts at people, Yokozuna belly-bumped opponents into submission and Doink The Clown electrocuted bitches with a joy buzzer.

It was every bit as stupid as that sounds.

Since then, World Wrestling Entertainment’s games have stuck with replicating the presentation and action of actual matches, not cartoony crap. Simultaneously, for years, fans clamored for and Vince McMahon’s Flying Circus and THQ finally put together a concept of pitting wrestling legends against current talent. They first tried it with WWE Legends of Wrestlemania last year, in the style of the current Smackdown! Vs. Raw series. It wasn’t good. In fact, despite a stellar legends roster, it just wasn’t a great overall game compared with other recent ones. That castle sank into the swamp.

Then King Vinnie built another castle . . . on a different swamp. But this one . . .

Well, it fell over, caught fire, then sank into the swamp.

This time, the bites the most recent Street Fighter title’s pumped-up character outlines and ties them with controls that will make Soulcalibur fans wet themselves with joy. Whereas the Smackdown! series has at least historically employed somewhat more Tekken-like style and strategy elements with often less user-friendly and intuitive control schemes – but also with great graphics and a more true-life experience – this one combines admittedly amusing WWE caricatures with a frustratingly skill-free set of controls.

I admit, it’s amusing – if not a little off-putting – seeing John Cena, Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock rendered as cinderblocks with musculature. But unlike Smackdown!, they don’t even get fully animated entrances. They cut off about halfway down the ramp, more like the old-school WWF Wrestlefest arcade game. Make every steroid joke you want, folks. In this case, there’s no reason I should stop anybody.

Not only do the combination attacks once the match actually begins look physically impossible – however amusing they are to watch – but blocking or countering takes nearly millisecond-perfect timing and breaking a c-c-c-combo will just have you wondering “Wait, how’d I do that? How do I do that again?!” No game should ever make a veteran gamer feel like an octogenarian picking up an NES controller for the first time.

It’s a button-masher. That’s it. An arcade-style button-masher that requires absolutely no skill whatsoever. Changing opponents provide little difficulty variance at all, except that predictably the Ultimate Warrior seems very nearly invincible. Sure, wrestlers have varying classes that include Grapplers, Big Men, Brawlers and High-Fliers. But unique attacks aside, they all perform about exactly the same way.

Even the game modes don’t exactly smack of originality. There’s a fantasy-warfare mode of unlockable past-versus-present dream matches like The Rock versus John Cena, Randy Orton versus Jake “The Snake” Roberts and The Big Show versus Andre The Giant. There are also three story modes, in which you must run a 10-match gauntlet to face your choice (depending on the story) of the Undertaker at Summerslam, Randy Orton at Wrestlemania or DX at Wrestlemania. Once more, it’s pretty much exactly like the Wrestlefest arcade mode.

Considering the dumb luck and wild button-mashing involved, it’s also a reasonable difficulty comparison.

It’s to your advantage, no matter which mode, to just keep constantly attacking. Keep pounding the buttons and sooner or later, you’ll pull off something cool which will give some fans a 30-second, get-a-towel fangasm watching The Rock leap about 15 feet into the air when delivering a Rock-Bottom. Ultimately, though a blind kid could play this game as well as anyone actually trying to play it well.

It’s honestly not even worth renting, unless you have a drooling seven-year-old John Cena fanatic who will just be mesmerized by all the pretty, pretty colors. Honestly, though, THQ and World Wrestling Entertainment would really be better off just once more including more decent unlockable legends with each year’s Smackdown! iteration.

Building castles gets expensive after a while.

Homefront Review: Well-begun is half done....where's my other half, though?

Homefront is an exceptional first-person-shooter. That makes it a disappointment only because it clearly could’ve been so much more.

John Milius (writer of Apocalypse Now, writer/director of Red Dawn) penned Homefront’s single-player campaign. He revisits his Red Dawn vision – ever rooted in contemporary international realities – of an America first caught unaware and then overwhelmed and conquered, and stains it with Apocalypse Now’s grit, humanity, blood and naked horrors of war.

From its very initial moments, Homefront never lets you escape or withdraw from an emotional involvement in Milius’ bleak, near-future American landscape. The game’s opening moments aren’t a rendered cut scene, but a roughly five-minute crash course montage of both real newscasts and fully-produced live mock-ups that begins with Hillary Rodham Clinton addressing the press regarding true-life 2011 sanctions against North Korea. From that point, Asia spiraled into chaos following North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il’s 2012 death and the ascension of his son Kim Jong-un – the one this speculative America quickly realizes should’ve been the one they were really worried about.   

Kim Jong-un unites North and South Korea and drives American forces from the Korean peninsula. Meanwhile, continuing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran drives gas prices above $20 per gallon, crippling America’s infrastructure. Elsewhere, Japan surrenders to and becomes a vassal state to the Greater Korean Republic as America declares Martial Law in the face of its crumbling society.

Finally – following the combination of a deadly bird flu epidemic, drastic Korean military expansion and detonation of an EMP over Kansas – the Korean People’s Army invades and occupies America starting with San Francisco and Hawaii. That brings us to 2027.

The relentless pacing won’t so much “suck you into” or “draw you into” the game. From the moment the 16-year opening rehash ends, it throws you violently out your present-day comfort zone’s door and deadbolts it behind you. You’re now former U.S. Marine helicopter pilot Robert Jacobs and his eyes will be your eyes for the next five to 10 hours of game-play. Including not a single third-person cinematic cut scene is a brilliant tactic for a first-person game rendered in such striking real detail as this one via the Unreal Engine 3.0 with its dynamic lighting and shadow, destructible backgrounds virtually perfect NPC and enemy movement. There will never be a moment where you will detach and an end-of-mission summary or seeing your character from a different vantage point will remind you make a subtle reminder that it’s a game.

As the Korean People’s Army rousts you from your home and onto a bus bound for a re-education camp, never look anywhere but left. You’ll see fellow Americans similarly taken and swept away. Blood flies against your window as a countryman is executed curbside. See a child toddle howling to the parents just executed before his eyes.

Later, following an intense and vengeful firefight through a Korean prison camp, you’ll hide helpless from KPA patrols beneath a mass grave’s blanket of nameless corpses – with a dead man’s hand dangling over the camera and another victim’s empty eyes staring into yours.

Until a brief fly-over pan of a battle-torn Golden Gate Bridge you just fought and clawed your way across minutes earlier, this will be your vision. This will be your world. Jacobs’ face may as well be your face, because his eyes won’t cease being yours.

It’s something in gaming that rarely ever receives the praise it deserves, but a nod for such an immersive experience must be given to the sound design. My ears still echo now with the whistle of every bullet that whizzed inches from Jacobs’ ear on the battlefield and every equilibrium-rocking RPG and frag grenade that detonated at my fight. It’s a complete sensory battlefield replication right down to the challenge of adapting to finding enemies in rifle sights backlit against the blinding sun.

The game-play itself is smooth as could possibly be. Credit to Kaos Studios for a game in which I never experienced a single hit-detection, wonky clipping or many cheap deaths. Even at a default difficulty, Kaos found a line between challenging enough to taunt a gamer into continuing and the “f*** this” line of obscene difficulty.

It’s a tremendous, white-knuckle experience that has just one drawback, and if you ask me, it’s a big one: a seven-mission campaign? Just seven? Really? Five to 10 hours to complete the single-player mode? It’s a gripping, harsh experience that doesn’t feel remotely like an equivalent to the two-hour Red Dawn or the two-hour-plus Apocalypse Now.

I feel like the FPS genre should somehow be past this by now. I get that few genres – fighting and traditional sports included – lend themselves so well to great multiplayer experiences as the FPS. Thus, I can understand that being an emphasized selling point, and thus the most emphasized aspect of a shooter’s development. But without the kind of incredible storytelling that the Gears of War and Halo franchises displayed, so many shooters just feel like half-completed games to me.

Believe it or not, some people don’t game online frequently. It might not even be so frustrating if the single-player mode had been very, very bad. But on the contrary: it’s extremely good and highly intense, but what’s there is burned through too quickly and reaches a rushed, sharp conclusion.

I’ve heard rumors that Homefront’s saga will continue later this year with downloadable content. That’s even more disappointing. I love great DLC but only in a context where it expands upon an already great ending and the main game’s ending doesn’t drop off sharp. DLC should be an optional but attractive expansion on a complete game, not a means of bilking me out of coin for game-play that would’ve made the main game even better had it been included in the first place.

My verdict? Rent it. Play through it, even play the predictably enjoyable multiplayer maps. It’s a memorable experience while it lasts, and an admirable effort of a gripping solo campaign. It can be finished over a single lazy afternoon, with really little single-player replay value outside ratcheting up the difficulty setting. If you only care about multiplayer, I must wonder why you wouldn’t just buy Call of Duty: Black Ops.