Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sleep ∞ Over's Casual Diamond, and Boy Friend's EP

As an earlier blog post shows, I'm a big fan of the three-piece dreamy musical group Sleep ∞ Over. Having only an EP, a single, and a place on a compilation, they crafted some of my favorite dream pop tunes of 2010. I recently heard some good and bad news dealing with group. Let me start with the downer: two of the gals in the band, Christa Palazzolo and Sarah Brown, left the group. BUT... there a couple of good things because of this: The remaining member, Stefanie Franciotti, will still carry the name, released a single recently, and is planning on an album release later this year. Also, Palazzolo and Brown have already formed a new group called Boy Friend and released a self-titled EP.

So, how do the new releases stack up with Sleep ∞ Over's previous work? I'll start with the new Sleep ∞ Over single titled Casual Diamond. It opens with a familiar crunch of the drum machine, and the nearly monolithic picks of an electric guitar.The track does end up dissolving into lighter guitar tones and Franciotti's soothing vocal hook.  This isn't exactly the dream pop beauty found on the Outer Limits single; the murky, uneasiness found on the group's older tracks has been revived. Yet, there is more energy here previously missing from older tracks, and the song resonates with a certain urgency instead of a droning whirling synth soundscape. The sound is still lo-fi as ever... it's Franciotti's voice and her choice in the overall instrumental texture that bring quite a different take on the Sleep ∞ Over sound. It's a promising track, and I am looking forward to seeing what she can do on a full-length release later this year.

I was quite excited to hear the sound of Boy Friend's self-titled EP. To my delight, the sound is straight from the Outer Limits single: warm synths, heavenly vocals, a nice cushioned, slightly melancholic, atmosphere. The only contrast I feel worth mentioning is the frail drum sound; while I prefer the thick drum beats in the forefront on the Outer Limits single, the drop in prominence only brings more attention to the other angelic layers of sound. The EP is only four tracks, and like any dream pop release, you basically know what you are gonna get by the end of the first song. Not the most perplexing or challenging music, but it does have a consistent sound. I'm looking forward to their full-length, too.

2011 in music is just looking more and more awesome as I consider all the releases on their way. That, and the few surprises that will hopefully be surfacing over the following months. I'm interested to see where these upcoming Sleep ∞ Over and Boy Friend albums will rank on my year-end favorites. For those interested, here's Casual Diamond and D'Arrest (first track on Boy Friend's EP):

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Adding Your Own Audio Style To Gaming

Anyone here like the Ridge Racer series? The original game, simply titled Ridge Racer, had a great arcade port on the Playstation. Not only did the game arrive very early into the Playstation's life, it was also one of the first 3D racing games to make it to the home console. It had a formidable rival in the form of Sega's Daytona USA, which was also given its own arcade port on the Sega Saturn. Both games featured ridiculous and infectious dance music, smooth gameplay, and only a handful of cars and tracks; it's the simplicity you would expect from early 3D console gaming.

Ridge Racer and Daytona USA both make for a fun racing experience, but Ridge Racer had a kicker: a customizable soundtrack. By the time you boot the game up and make it to the title screen, the entire game, apart from the audio tracks, has been loaded. This allows you to switch out the game disc with any Audio CD. Doing so will play those audio tracks during the races and replay video. I found myself accelerating to high speeds in my blocky polygonal car while jamming to alternative rock tunes of yesteryear. Sure, the tracks were choses at random (and sometimes they would just start playing in the middle of the song, oddly enough), but it was a neat feature that made for fun audio experimentation.

I encountered a similar feature on the Xbox's Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Uploading music onto your Xbox's hard drive will allow you to play them while in automobiles in Vice City. My high speed police chases and drive-by's were soon featuring the likes of Rush, Lightning Bolt, Steely Dan, and Tortoise, to name a few. It was a simple idea that added countless hours of replay value to the audio lover in me. I wonder if any other Xbox game utilized the idea...

Nowadays, audio tracks can easily be uploaded and incorporated to any Xbox 360 (and probably PS3, not sure) game. You can even plug in your mp3 player and play your tunes through that if you don't feel like putting music on your system's hard drive. Playing Stravinsky over a zombie apocalypse or sludge metal set to a Middle Eastern war zone is now relatively simple to pull off!

Not that hardware limitations would stop me; I've been playing Bach's Brandenburg Concertos over Final Fantasy V for the past week now. I guess I'm just a fan of the atmosphere and synchronization audio can bring to the art of video games. And of course, I am still all for the delicate and intricate work put into the sound design and soundtrack of any video game (Silent Hill 2's soundtrack comes to mind).

I have one more thing I wanna try with my copy of Ridge Racer... and that is Twisted Metal's music. The game turns into a bloodthirsty demolition derby. Holly crap I gotta go find my copy.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Echo Park Jitterbug

Nothing like coming back to a loving, loving friend after a long seperation. I gave up soda about a year ago, and have basically said goodbye to my main source of caffeine. Sure, I've had the occassional bit of chocolate, but not enough to really maintain a heavy consistent amount of caffeine in my body. All through my adolescent life, I was never without some kind of sugary beverage to pump in my body; heck, I even got into coffee by the 12th grade. I destroyed that bitter taste with sugar and creamer, of course.

I find it rather humorous that I never felt a "boost" in energy. I could go through a couple of sugary cups of coffee with a couple of warm strawberry poptarts, and not feel the slightest jitter in my legs or arms. If anything, I was just maintaining my caffeine/sugar addiction and that's it, no spike in activity. Eventually, I bored myself of coffee and slowly backed out of soda until I was drinking no more (no need for cold turkey!). It was actually rather easy when I considered substitutes, namely water or juice. I wonder if that's the secret to people kicking heavy addictions. Not saying that I could easily handle a cigarrette/cocaine addiction, but if I ever did, I'd look into trying to replace the stuff with similar, healthy actions.

Anyway, I'm living with a friend and his family now and I've noticed a very interesting invention in the kitchen: the ONE CUP coffee maker. That's right, one cup. No need for dishing out a heeping cup of Folger's brew either, as the coffee maker takes these little plastic coffee cups you simply place in a cartridge. Just add water, press a button or two, and you've got a cup of brewed coffee in about half a minute. I know I'm probably overrating this dated piece of a equipment, but sometimes accessibility, even for the stupidest things, can take me by surprise.

I decided to make a cup of coffee last night. I was on the computer, a few hours before I usually call it a night, and I was just in the mood for a slightly bitter/slightly sweet taste. It's not like I'll be wired, right? Caffeine's never had that effect on me before. I insert one of the little coffee brew cups, add some water, add a little sugar when it's done, and go back to my room. I slowly sip on the liquid, taking my time and progressing to bigger swigs as the coffee cools down. I eventually finish the cup, place the cup in the sink, go back to my room and sit.

... And I sit there... and I look blankly at my computer screen. Then, my mind starts telling me quite a few things.. "you wanna play guitar, no wait, the mandolin, you haven't gotten that out in a while. What about those Japanese flash cards right there beside you, study study study! Light that candle too, get this room smelling like some cinnamon! Christ, put your hair up it keeps falling in your eyes you need a haircut, hey remember those Tae Kwon Do moves you learned as a kid can you still do them hey put on some music NO NOT THAT AMBIENT TRASH PUT ON SOME ROCKIN yeah I guess Elvis Costello will do damn dude you still haven't memorized those Japanese phrases you gotta study more hey I bet you could play this tune on guitar LOOK IT UP ULTIMATE GUITAR DOT COM NOW LOOK IT UP holy crap dude wait wanna go on a run?? ehh it's pretty late how about a bike ride or pacing up and down the living room or something YOUR LEGS ARE JITTERING LIKE CRAZY DUDE YOU KNOW YOU WANNA MOVE JUST GET UP LETS DO SOMETHING come on come on COMEON COMEON."

Yep, I was jittery as hell. I've never felt that from caffeine before. And I also learned why people don't drink coffee at night, as I stayed up quite a few hours past my usual bed time looking over Japanese, playing bass guitar, and making quite a lot of progress in Mega Man X4. Even when I was exhausted, my body was still tingly and wanted to move. I'm actually considering adding coffee to my diet for the middle of the day when I feel the most unmotivated and lacking of energy. I just want to make sure I don't drink it in excess this time around; I should be fine with a little self control. What do you guys think of coffee? Is it a miracle study/concentration/energy device or does it taste like yucky diarrhea in your mouth? If anything, I'm happy to say I've got another weapon to fight against idleness.

Friday, February 25, 2011

I Forgot It in People

Before Broken Social Scene went famous in the hip indie music world in 2002, the Canadian singer/songwriter Kevin Drew was in a musical project by the name of K.C. Accidental. The project was mostly home-recorded instrumental rock diddies, and was created by Drew and future BSS bandmate Charles Spearin. Two albums were released during the group's lifetime: Captured Anthems for an Empty Bathtub in the late '90s, and Anthems for the Could've Bin Pills in 2000.

Both albums have a similar outlook: slow churning instrumental jams, recommended to kickstart your sullen, reflective state of mind. Besides the sound, the albums feature a similar setup as well: six songs, tail ended by 12 minute introspective epics. However, differences can be squared away after a couple of listens to the albums. Captured Anthems, the earlier release, has a strong cacophonous sound on the percussion that is almost completely missing from future BSS-related recordings. The album is heavy on that reflective, building sound I stated before, but isn't afraid to push that sound aside for a more immediate, loud offering, as you can hear on the opening rocker Nancy and the Girdle Boy and Anorexic He-Man. Anthems for the Could've Bin Pills is where contemporary BSS is starting to shine through. Songs like Residental Love Song and Them (Pop Song #3333) are lively counterparts to future BSS recordings; Them even features an early inclusions of vocals, albeit in a more experimental, not so melodically rich manner.

Broken Social Scene was one of my first jumps into modern alternative rock, after being stuck in a classic rock mindset throughout my middle school years. Lots of wonderful moments I can pinpoint thanks to their musical output, and I have been really enjoying going back to their roots and hearing the beginnings of their graceful sound. K.C. Accidental's two albums are slightly rock-oriented mood music, and are easily palatable with whatever tasks us humans waste our limited time on. If you like your music with a little more emphasis on composition alongside texture, try out Broken Social Scene's later albums. Here's Residential Love Song by K.C. Accidental.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Just Like a Dream: a Just Like Heaven Song Review

You know what I can appreciate in music? When a song takes you by the throat and demands you listen. That's right, I like to be at the complete mercy of a musical tune. These are the kind of songs that aren't going to fade into the background before someone makes a comment. It may even halt a few conversations as the listeners' attention have submitted to the sound. The song doesn't necessarily have to be drenched in self-importance or really any seriousness for that matter; it can be a simple ode to love and love lost.

The Cure were no strangers to such subjects, especially by the mid-80's with their single Just Like Heaven, a track cut from their '87 double album Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me. Robert Smith definitely knew how to write a pop song (even if it wasn't always his creative intention). With this talent, Smith crafted one of his best upbeat love songs on Just Live Heaven.

The song starts with an optimistic drum beat and simple bass groove, and goes directly into an instrumental build: big, thick strums of an acoustic guitar are introduced, then bright, heavenly synth chords, followed by jangly electric guitar, and finally, pop ecstasy with Robert Smith's bright, emotional vocals. The vocals
carry the emotion of the song throughout its three and a half minutes, but the instrumental sound and flourishes just perfect the mood and back the vocals completely. I especially love the bouncy piano, playing not chords but simple notes, that comes in during the second verse. Like any good love song, it's meaning is fragile and ambiguous; it has just enough uncertainty in the lyrics and minor chords to show love can stand joyfully beside sorrow.

If you're hooked by the beginning, I guarantee you will be wanting more by the end. And that's the beauty of it.. the song ends rather abrubtly, as if to say, "yeah, I could of gone for a few more bars, maybe even throw in a few more chorus repeats, but I'm not gonna!". Pretty clever for an attention-demanding love song, eh? I could go on and analyze every wonderful thing this song has to offer, but I'll let the track speak for itself. Here's the link, hope you folks enjoy it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Learning Routines for Foreign Languages

Since high school biology class, I have always held up the effectiveness of completely engulfing myself in learning a subject. This can be done through different styles, including seeing, hearing, and hands-on experience. I remember taking many of those tests in school which always stated I was a "visual" learner, but I still stand by the idea of  attacking your brain with knowledge from all the senses. I'm still trying to tackle the German and Japanese languages with different methods.

For Japanese, I have the wonderful Genki textbook, apparently a preferred book for schools featuring basic Japanese learning courses (I have the audio CD, too). With the textbook, notebook, and a pencil, I've been taking notes on the grammar, writing all the vocabulary, and stopping my music occasionally (usually ambient, or at least quiet) to listen to the audio CD tracks of whatever segment I am on. Learning the Hiragana and Katakana alphabet is going to take a lot of practice to memorize; to help me on this, I've made printer-paper flash cards!

For German, I've opted for the Complete Idiot's Guide to Learning German. It's a bit more of a fun, easy read compared to the Japanese textbook, but I think the contrast will keep me more interested. For a more audio-oriented learning, I've been using youtube learning videos. Here's one of them:

As you can see, I don't quite yet have much "hands-on experience" in my learning methods just yet. An idea that comes to mind is to make up fake scenarios with somebody and act them out (which does sound fun if I can actually get somebody to join me). That will have to do until I can befriend a bunch of German and Japanese people, heh. I've also considered acquiring some flicks with German or Japanese audio to keep my entertainment learning-minded. What kinds of studying methods are most effective for you folks? Any tips and tricks are welcome.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sounds From the Blocky World: Minecraft's Music

I appear in a bright, sunny world, where crude blocks of sand, grass, and stone surround me. Simple farm animals bounce up and down on the terrain, and colorful paperthin flowers are speckled throughout. I immediately know my situation: if I want to survive through the night, I'm going to need a shelter. I must collect wood, and with that wood I'll set up a work bench to make the tools I need to go deep into the ground. With no time to spare, I head over toward the trees and slowly supply myself with the material. It's a painstaking job, but I can relax later (hopefully in my fully lit, underground shelter).

As I am working hard to survive, I begin to hear a sound. A soft chord from the touch of a piano. Then, an accompaniment of strings, swelling in a very subtle manner. As the melodic tune builds, sharp xylophone is buried into the mix. The sound is like a knock on my brain, reminding me that this peace is not timeless and tranquility, both inner and outer, is a secret. A secret you might have to struggle with for the rest of your existence. I'm working hard on making a wooden pickaxe when I realize, I can only hear the soft piano chords now. Eventually, those simplistic chords fade away too. All that's left is the natural sound of this land's living, breathing wonders.

Minecraft's music is not only a perfect soundtrack to crafting a door to keep out the zombies and spiders, or even trying desperately to find your way out of a long, complex cave you created; it is also some of the finest, unexpectantly organic chamber music I've heard in an independent PC game. Minecraft's popularity is skyrocketing for its creatively ambigious setup as a "sandbox" title with such a simple (and rather deceptive) look. And really, the beauty in this simplicity is found in Minecraft's music. Usually accompanied by the environment's various noises, Minecraft's music will slowly break the silence and caress your hard at work brain as you face the day's obstacles.

I do have favorites in the soundtrack. Check out these links, with the songs calm1 and calm3, respectively. The soundtrack really goes beyond the game; I had it playing through my earbuds one beautiful night time bike ride, just after a major rainstorm. I can't describe the way I felt as I strolled past a massive ditch of rainwater clearly reflecting all of the lights above.