the Horn Farm Paste Mob


retro listening

This past weekend, I decided to listen to the beginnings of my music collection, in roughly the order I first heard them, and take notes. I’ve included Youtube links for the audio where possible.

I don’t know how far I’ll go with this; I can date most of my purchases to within about 3 months until the middle of college. (!)

1. Information Society – Information Society

The first record I ever bought, from a store on State Street that I can clearly visualize but can’t remember the name of.

It’s hard to listen to “What’s On Your Mind” with new ears, though if I make a conscious effort, I can follow instruments I never attended to before, mostly the bass. I think this song might actually be great. How I would I know, though? I mean, really.

The rest… huh, I remember finding “Walking Away” as good as “Mind” or better (not now; kind of slow) and liking side B okay (also no). I did feel a strong wave of emotion at listening to big ballad “Repetition”, in a way I can’t describe or explain. Something like: the music is still very familiar, but the lyrics have gone from being meaningless to being… an insipid description of a situation that first happened to me years after I last listened to this song. I am not making this sound nearly as strange as it felt.

The project’s already a success! Something I totally don’t understand has happened!

I just wish I could remember what made 13-year-old me decide to walk into a record store and buy a tape. I’d been an avid top-40 radio listener for 4 or 5 years, and had a Fisher-Price tape player that I used for Weird Al and for the tapes of Torah chanting that the rabbi made for kids who had bar/bat mitzvahs coming up. I went to State Street pretty regularly to spend my entire allowance on books and arcade games. What happened?

2. Erasure – The Innocents

I was a compulsive-enough listmaker as a kid that I still remember the exact order of these first several purchases. More than that, actually; this album still FEELS like the number 2, the same way that Nacho Cheese Doritos do (plain Doritos were “1″, Cool Ranch were “3″) or lemon Starbursts or Dave Swift (the second kid on my birthday invite list from elementary school; the first was me).

OMG reverb. Maybe it wouldn’t sound like that on better speakers.

I never liked “A Little Respect” as much as “Chains Of Love”– like, to the point where I initially thought people must be laboring under some objective confusion when they talked about “Respect” as “that one big Erasure song”. (I was like that.)

“Witch In The Ditch”: This music is not very well-suited to a methodical, socially naive 13-year-old. I think *maybe* I knew that “the guys Erasure from are gay” (half true), but “gay” would have been a pretty limited signifier to me. Probably if I thought anything, I thought it meant the two of them were a couple.

“Weight Of The World”– so this is a good song! “Hallowed Ground”, too. Those backing synths seem like total 80s stadium bullshit, though. If I don’t tune them out, I just start thinking about Mister Mister and Night Ranger. I think when I was 13, I did just tune them out.

Wait, is this even the right running order? Where’s “Chains Of Love”? No! It was on shuffle! Crud. I would have noticed that earlier with just about any other of these.

“Ship Of Fools”: More wobbly inchoate emotion I can’t quite find words for. I wonder whether feelings were just, in fact, that poorly defined when I was a teenager, and I’m remembering exactly how this song made me feel at the time.

At the time, I identified my unease with this album as being because of the Christian imagery. Was it, secretly, the queerness? You’d think, right? And yet, I suspect not. Heterosexuality scared me; I remember being uncomfortable with the reference to pregnancy in “Phantom Bride”. Which, listening to it now, I can tell is MEANT to have emotional punch… there’s a verse and a half of build-up, and then “the morning sickness and the kick inside” are thrown in, just before the “phantom bride” line that creates a distraction by paying off the tension of not having the title appear in the chorus. And then there’s NO THIRD VERSE. They just go over the comfort/triumph lyrics for another minute; the reality of the pregnancy is a dead spot, a sudden chill that you shake off, kind of, mostly.

I could tell the “pray to the lord on high” business in “Yahoo!” was in quotes somehow, a borrowing. But the easy references to hallowed ground and preachers elsewhere made it seem like this album wasn’t FOR me.

3. New Order – Substance

At some point in here, MTV’s 11pm hour on weeknights consisted of Monty Python and “Post-Modern MTV”, their short alternative show. Maybe not in that order, I don’t remember. I taped Monty Python whenever I could, and, in mortal fear of missing part of it, always set the VCR to tape a few extra minutes on either end. I believe that’s how I first saw the video for “True Faith”, featuring Philippe Decoufle’s dance troupe in bizarre costumes, ritualistically beating one another up and jumping on trampolines. I *loved* it. I made everyone watch it, though since I don’t remember the timeline exactly, I don’t know if “everyone” was my parents or the middle-school friends who introduced me to Monty Python or the nascent high school crowd whose first mass hangouts, also heavily ritualized but without any costumed violence, took place that spring. Or what.

I also don’t remember if that motivated me to buy Substance or if it came later and just reaffirmed that this was totally The Right Thing To Like. For me, I mean. Most of my friends were lukewarm about the music and I don’t remember their reaction to the video, though they probably approved because it was weird. Ben Bridgman, my musical partner in crime for most of high school, either wasn’t around or hadn’t gotten into music yet.

I still listen to this record a lot. Paying extra attention now, I notice what a good educational tool it is for itself… the aesthetic of “True Faith” was familiar when I started, the cold post-punk of early New Order wasn’t. Listen to Substance a few times, though, and each song shows you how to listen to the one before it. (Except “Thieves Like Us”, which, I don’t know, whatever.)

This also has me thinking about how much out-and-out contempt I felt for Orgy’s cover of “Blue Monday” when I first heard it. And still do! I could talk about the ways Orgy missed the point, but the real question is why, by my lights, one is just not allowed to miss the point of that song. I have some theories.

3 (also). They Might Be Giants – Lincoln

I bought this on the same trip downtown as the New Order tape. I’d seen “Don’t Let Start” on Nickelodeon’s music video program (the only music videos my parents let me watch until… not that long before all this started), and I don’t know if I’d heard any songs from Lincoln. What I definitely did hear was some reference to They Might Be Giants having a new album. New! This was clearly important. So that was the one I bought.

Okay wait, let me actually press play on the music.

Wow, in the context of the last three albums, this is… noisy! And much more sophisticated musically and lyrically. Much as I still love They Might Be Giants, I didn’t expect that.

It’s not really any more or less artificial than synthpop, but the artifice is front-and-center. Really, it’s noisy. The bridge of “Cowtown” is a heavily distorted guitar, the ‘voice’ sound from a cheap keyboard (I’m guessing) and a whistle shriek. Flansburgh was still writing songs as though he needed special permission to do it– either by making the song a genre sketch (“Lie Still Little Bottle”, “Santa’s Beard”) or throwing noise at it (“Cage And Aquarium”) or ideally, some of both (“You’ll Miss Me”)

No emotional landmines under any of these songs, though. They refer to some emotionally complicated situations, but the songs themselves are digestible whether or not you know what they’re cartoons of. That’s a little hard to admit, because of all the time I’ve spent defending TMBG against reductive criticism over the years, but fair’s fair.

5. XTC – Oranges & Lemons

Judging from old playlists, I started watching 120 Minutes sometime in April of 1989. I know that’s where I heard XTC first.

I’m not impressed by the combination of preachiness and anti-intellectualism– actually, the defensive arrogance is almost Zappa-esque in places. The music *sounds* good, though. The xylophone in “Poor Skeleton Steps Out” sounds like it’s 10 feet tall, and even when I don’t like a song it’s worth listening to the arrangement. I knew XTC were supposed to “sound like the Beatles” when I got this, but that made so little sense to me that I ignored it. After devouring the whole Beatles catalog a year ago, I finally get it, which throws into relief the bits of this album that are *old* XTC peeking through (“Across This Antheap”, which never reached me before).

There’s almost nothing inviting here, though. I can’t understand what drove me to buy another XTC album immediately…

6. XTC – Skylarking

Still not inspired. I know I liked it back then, and the songs which grab me on this one playthrough (“1000 Umbrellas”, “Sacrificial Bonfire”) are nice surprises, but…

I do recall all the songs about nature comforting the younger me. I’ve always been a little alienated by my lack of appreciation for trees and seasons and so on, and some of Skylarking’s songs at least gave me stand-ins for the thoughts I believed I was supposed to be having on school field trips.

Daming with faint praise is no fun. Next!

7. They Might Be Giants – They Might Be Giants

Not as satisfying as Lincoln, surprisingly! I’m starting to get fidgety for something resembling straight-up rock and roll. Lots of great songs, but sketchy tracks like “Number Three” and “Alienation’s For The Rich” break up the momentum.

Fun fact: “Boat Of Car” makes an excellent ringtone.

At this point, though, I think I was already hooked on anything that offered an aesthetic of abundance. Nineteen songs! Some of them barely even have a point! That’s so cool!

8. Adrian Belew – Mr. Music Head

Christgau’s old explanation of his grading system had a bit that went something like:

   D- It is impossible to understand why anyone would buy a D-   album.    F+ It is impossible to understand why anyone would release an F+   album.    F It is impossible to understand why anyone would record an F   album.

I read that before I played music myself, so the point that making music was fun even if the results were boring to listen to kind of blew my mind. (I mean, sometimes the act of cooking is relaxing in itself, but if the food doesn’t taste good, I generally regret the time spent on it.)

Nobody would call this an F record, and yet it doesn’t sound like it was even much fun to make. Listening to it is oddly like being stuck under a CNN monitor at the airport– so unrelated to my reasons for showing up that I don’t care whether it’s competent or not.

9. Wire – A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck

So, totally in love with picking out my own music, I went and read back issues of Rolling Stone at the library, trying to find more things to buy. A review of this album informed me that “you need a special decoder ring (not included) to understand the lyrics”… and I thought the writer meant it literally. My favorite band for most of high school, and I got into them through a misunderstanding.

(That writer turns out– I just learned!– to be Michael Azzerad.)

I now hear the band’s interest in drone/repetition coming up in places I didn’t before, like the sounds that start “The Finest Drops” (and continue identically pretty much all the way through).

Hey, you guys! This is basically a Radiohead album! Different concerns– Wire are more fascinated by alienation from one’s own body, Radiohead by alienation from one’s own mind– but a lot of the elements are in place.

I heard a lot about Radiohead’s influences when they shifted gears to Kid A, but I don’t remember 80s Wire coming up. Nobody really talks about 80s Wire at all. Listen to this, for example: “Free Falling Divisions”.

Huh.

10. Public Image Ltd. – 9

Much more of a piece with what I was listening to than I thought at the time– when I was 13, I responded (badly) to Johnny Rotten’s voice and to the Van Halen guitars, neither of which drew me closer. But they were, in fact, another iconic post-punk band trying to reconcile themselves to adulthood or big budgets or whatever it was that generated all these records.

“Warrior” is enjoyably ludicrous.

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The Desperate Bicycles – “Advice On Arrest”

Hear it on Youtube.

The Desperate Bicycles were a DIY band in the UK at the end of the 70s*, maybe known best for ending their first 7″ with a few seconds of silence and then the shout “it was easy, it was cheap– GO AND DO IT”.

Vocalist Danny Wigley starts this song with pretty standard political lyrics (the man on the street saying “if you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about”) but then matter-of-factly changes gears to a survival guide for those being arrested. I find it uniquely compelling how the same chorus can function as information (for a listener who does imagine they could ever be arrested) and as polemical narrative (for a listener who doesn’t).

* They get called “the first DIY band” a lot, though I don’t know how you’d verify that.

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Super Crate Box (Vlambeer)

Download it free for Mac or PC.

Reviews of video games have a lot of somewhat disingenuous warnings about addictiveness. “You won’t be able to put it down!” But addictiveness is in fact just about the only thing wrong with Super Crate Box– it’s a really elegant tiny game that’s unfortunately tempting to play all the fun out of in one sitting.

It’s ingenious, though. You face a room constantly filling up with monsters; your weapon changes randomly every time you pick up a crate, and your score is the number of crates you pick up before a monster gets you. With a good weapon, it only takes a few seconds to clear the room, at which point… well, if the next crate sucks, hopefully the one after THAT will be good. Or the one after that.

The thing to realize is that although there are new weapons and levels to unlock, this isn’t a game with a constant supply of treats to give you. You should think of the weapon unlocks as an extension of the tutorial– the weapons that are hard to use will be introduced one at a time, but still all pretty fast. After about 20 minutes, once you’ve got them all, it’s just you and the high score board.

When Portal came out, Jerry Holkins called it “slapstick”, which struck me as weird. How can slapstick happen, if you’re in control of the protagonist and you aren’t trying to get hurt? But slapstick is about timing, and if Portal’s physics are such that you sometimes fling yourself into a wall with perfect timing, it’s funny! And so it is, sometimes, in Super Crate Box when a monster falls on your head, or you open fire with a gun whose recoil pushes you into a pit, or… well, I’ll just say that one of the best power-ups comes with a well-deserved apology from the designers.

Unquestionably worth a few minutes of your time, and impressively deep and well-balanced for how simple it is. It’s just not quite deep enough for how much fun it is.

(I’ve unlocked SMFT on the first arena, but not the other two, and I haven’t gotten Ambush Mode. So there may be gameplay I’m missing. The stuff I *have* seen doesn’t make it seem that way, though.)

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Rock Band 3 experiment journal, part 1

I got one of the 102-button (6 strings x 17 frets) guitar controllers for Rock Band 3 and am trying to learn to play it. Which is the sort of thing I’m tempted to post about in painful detail, except–

See, I was going to say “everybody who’s playing Rock Band 3 must be doing that”, but that’s not many people. The scoreboard for “The Hardest Button To Button”, which the game tries very very hard to coax you into playing (possibly it’s the easier guitar song) has about 800 people on it. So, MAYBE a thousand people are playing Rock Band 3′s Pro Guitar Mode on XBox.

That’s not a large number.

That’s the question here, right? If Harmonix succeeded in making this game a way to learn actual guitar skills, then they perforce made a game which is really, really hard and requires a lot of repetitive drilling to get better at. Is that appealing to most people?

It is to me. Apparently. For the moment.

For one thing, it’s fun. But I’m also driven by curiosity… can you actually learn guitar this way? So I’ve been tempted to borrow my housemate’s guitar and try transferring skills immediately, I’m resisting in the name of science. I want to get to the point on plastic guitar where, if the skills were 100% compatible, I could pick up a real guitar and play a song. That, obviously, won’t happen. I’m pretty certain, though, that at that point I will also be a lot closer to playing a song on real guitar than to playing a song on real saxophone. We’ll see.

== November 14 ==

I played the first few lessons before even trying a song– if you start the game with a MIDI guitar plugged in, it says “Hey, the trainer will help you play with that. Want to be taken straight there?”

After a few lessons I tried “The Hardest Button To Button” on Easy. “Easy” indeed– one note every few measures, always on the downbeat, the kind of thing which isn’t a challenge even if you can’t do it. If you see what I mean. Okay, I thought, maybe I was too cautious. Let’s try Medium… WHOA HEY WHAT ARE CHORDS

So I went back to the lessons. Whenever I could memorize something, so that I could play it while looking down at my hands, that made things a million times easier. Even so, I hit a difficulty wall as soon as the lessons introduced real three-note chords. (Power chords were fine, at least in the basic form presented.) It took two solid sessions for me to play G-C-D-C consistently enough that the game would let me move on.

Not that a few hours is that long, but the trainer doesn’t make it easy to alternate between two lessons in order to stave off despair/boredom.

== November 16 ==

Bass!

I’m used to ignoring the bass option when playing GRYBO, but Easy Pro Bass is fun. So is Medium. I still miss so many notes that going up to Hard sounds like a bad idea pedagogically, even though more complex rhythms would be nice.

(“Pro Bass” is another big step away from verisimilitude, since it is in fact just playing the guitar controller and ignoring two of the strings. But anyway, bass parts mean more hopping around the fretboard and fewer chords.)

On guitar, I’m alternating between the trainer (still deeply stuck on three-finger chords) and playing actual songs on Medium, where it turns out almost the only chords, on easier songs, are power chords and… barre chords? Chords where you stop all the strings at the same fret, most of which seem to secretly be power chords anyway, just with the fifth played lower than the… root? Tonic?

Someone taught me most of these words a long time ago.

Also, there’s no good name for this object yet. Branding different kinds of guitar controller with the names of real guitar models (this is the “Mustang”) is an elegant solution to the problem of needing names for them. It’s just also inane. Calling it a “pro guitar” is also fatuous; nobody has yet offered me money to play Rock Band 3 for them. Maybe “MIDI guitar”, even if technically that’s also irrelevant to using it as a game controller.

== November 17 ==

My fingers seem much more willing to do G-C-D-C, with a little warmup. Power chords are suddenly an issue, though. My ring finger is no longer ever in the right place if I try to switch position quickly.

The charts for Easy and Medium might be at the right spot on the difficulty curve, pedagogically speaking, but it’s much easier to learn when there’s a close fit between what you do and the sounds you hear (or don’t hear). On Easy, you pluck one string and hear five or six notes, or a chord. In songs with the guitar mixed low or heavily processed, it’s hard to even tell which sound is ‘you’.

Proposal for RB4: a switch for “play my notes louder” (or maybe two switches, so you can decide whether, on lower difficulties, the game should also amplify notes from your instrument that don’t correspond to your actions).

Might get into trouble in setups with a lot of lag, though.

== November 18 ==

The new drums showed up today. I spent longer putting them together than playing them (45 minutes and 30 minutes, respectively) and am not sure what I think yet.

It hadn’t occurred to me that most songs just don’t use the toms much except during fills. I wasn’t planning to pay the $10 to import all of Rock Band 2′s songs, but right now I’d really enjoy playing “Go Your Own Way”.

Subjectively, the speed at which the notes move seems wrong. At first I found myself speeding up or slowing down to adjust, but that just got me out of sync– the problem’s in my head. It’s as if I can still sight-read the charts at high speed, but there’s a tiny bit of extra thinking I have to do *after* I read it.

Come to think of it, that’s pretty much exactly what’s going on.

I’m sort of glad this isn’t much of an additional challenge; I only have so much time, and have already been learning two new skills concurrently, with the MIDI guitar and keyboard.

Not to mention occasionally playing music with people for real.

2%


Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, for XBox)

Super Meat Boy has made me realize I don’t know what ‘difficulty’ is. How long it takes to finish a game? No, there are long easy games. How frustrating it is? That’s definitely part of the way a hard game feels, but frustration is draining in some games– the ones that don’t feel like they SHOULD be frustrating– and not in others. How many tries each goal takes? No, otherwise trial-and-error puzzles would be the hardest ones, as opposed to just the most tedious.

Super Meat Boy is very hard. I think. It seems hard, anyway; I’m close to 4000 deaths (it counts for you) and that’s at not quite halfway to the real ending. A lot of levels I’ve finished seemed impossible, which makes me feel good for beating them but just proves my sense of these things is highly fallible.

Is the game forgiving? Maybe that’s the key. It’s brutally unforgiving about basic failure/success; if you’re jumping over a sawblade, a split-second mistake usually means doom. On the other hand, if you have the right plan for a speed run, you can bobble the execution in a few places and still get that satisfying “GRADE: A+” at level’s end.

Plus, the more you focus, the more forgiving you can make it. Meat Boy and his friends are all very steerable in mid-jump, though this will do you more harm than good until you internalize just what rates of acceleration you can expect from various characters and situations. Most of the levels are designed to reward precision recklessness– take every jump at full speed and everything lines up but the floor is always falling out from under your feet; jump cautiously and you can catch your breath, but the angles are awkward.

It’s a very technical game. You have to enjoy seeing how the little details fit together, because there is no big picture other than “beat enough levels and you win”. If you’re capable of feeling like a winner for getting through level #28 out of 300, though, even knowing that level 29 will be even harder, you have to play Super Meat Boy at least once.

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axioms

1. People who enjoy a work understand something about it that people who don’t enjoy it do not (initially) understand.

2. There is no cultural, aesthetic or critical question that can be resolved by asking whether a thing is art.

3. If someone thinks they enjoy an artwork, they do.

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Simon Evans

When I went to the SFMOMA retrospective with R (in May), there was one piece that really stood out to me– a city map doctored with text that seemed sometimes facetious (a contact address is listed as “2470 Purgatoire”) and sometimes outside cartography’s normal discursive bounds entirely (the legend “Main Gate – Security is a child against a building.”) It was titled “Different Drugs”, by Simon Evans, and when I finally remembered to look him up yesterday, I was thrilled to learn that all of his work is kind of like that:

Simon Evans (small images of selected works)

I’m a sucker for this sort of thing; eerie, abrasive, verbal. “ORIGINAL LOCATION OF ANGRY MUSIC FOR COWARDS”, “TOUGH VOICE MAKES MY HEAD LOOK SMALLER”, “IF YOU CAN’T KEEP YOUR SHIT TOGETHER ON TV WE WILL EAT YOU”. I was not surprised to read that he’s a big fan of The Fall. I was more surprised, though it makes sense, to see that he’d exhibited with Brendan Fowler of BARR, whose spoken-word pieces keep threatening to be generically confessional in the same way Evans threatens to be generically political; both of them seem to love wriggling out of their own traps.

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Uffie – “MC’s Can Kiss”

Hear it on Youtube

I’m temporarily fascinated by this song. As Uffie says early on, “There’s two kinds of MCs out there / The ones who rap and the ones who don’t care / And frankly I don’t give a fuck”. In other words, she’s too tough to bother being good at music, and that toughness is (unspokenly) exactly what she thinks makes her qualified to be a rapper. That and record sales, anyway.

I feel like that’s the aesthetic argument implicit in a lot of Ol’ Dirty Bastard too. I mean, plenty of performers are more endearing for lacking technical skills, but most genres don’t have a convention of totally identifying some non-musical characteristic with being good at that genre. Maybe if Madonna or Britney wrote a clumsy song about how lazy she was, in a way that made laziness seem sexy?

There must be some other example involving slackerhood and mid-90s indie rock. It’s tough, though; I never felt like the looseness of “Slack Motherfucker” would have been self-described as incompetence by the band at the time. Maybe!

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BLOC PARTY – Intimacy (Atlantic)

Bloc Party’s first album was produced by the exceptional Paul Epworth, their second by middlebrow drama merchant Jacknife Lee. So for the third album, they brought in both producers, and the result plays very much like a battle for Bloc Party’s soul, except that really, this is one of those twisty caper movies where it turns out Bloc Party pawned their soul years ago in order to buy gear, and the whole thing was a setup to deliver Epworth into Lee’s hands for the ransom money, and then internet people argue for months over whether the final scene meant that singer Kele Okereke really was Debbie Harry or what.

Y’know?

Anyway: a few bangin’ tracks that I suspect are Epworth’s and a few definite snoozers I suspect are Lee’s. (We might learn the truth once it comes out for real; at the moment, it’s digital-only and lacking credits.) Then we have a baffling, intriguing handful like “Mercury” where the band spend the whole time pulling quarters out of each other’s ears– there’s a viable, handsome new style that lies in that direction, I think, but I don’t know whether they’ll make it there if they try to go on foot.

Bloc Party on MySpace
Epworth (as Epic Man) producing UK rapper Plan B | Epworth remixing Interpol

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DRESSY BESSY – Holler And Stomp (Transdreamer)

Fully explores the surprisingly tiny range of styles between old Dressy Bessy (dazed-brat indiepop) and old Breeders. I think I’ve always underestimated them a little because of their terrible name– like for example, their two tracks used in “But I’m A Cheerleader” were the ones a friend of mine was saddest about when it turned out the movie’s soundtrack wasn’t going to be released, and I just didn’t get it. Oh yeah, those songs are great, but don’t you know it’s DRESSY BESSY? Hmm.

Anyway, Pink Stars Yellow Moons was classic and this is mostly just okay, but the exceptions are better than the rest, not worse, so my heart is a little warm.

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