Saturday, April 14, 2007

Henry's Dream

My past experiences with "album posts" tell me that they are invariably doomed from the start, in that the end result is usually inextricably linked with the time of the listening, and is usually a result of me being far too excited after a listen. But now I tell myself this is not really about an album as it is about my thoughts concering a fine songwriter, and so I shall march on...

Henry's Dream is an interesting installment in my relationship with Nick Cave, because I remember almost vehemently disliking it the first time I gave it a listen. Seeing as how it follows the much mellower Good Son, there was probably a part of me hoping for some of the beauty of that album, even if I hadn't exactly read anything to strengthen such a view. But, of course, it is quite a different album, even if it was released not that long after. Louder, angrier at times, and, well, furious imagery for lack of a better description. Any hope of a repeat of The Good Son was immediately struck aside with the opening track. No Portugese hymns here, my friend!

No doubt this played some part in me finishing the album with a sense of deep disappointment and frustration. But the comparisons to its predecessor only went so far, and for the most part I simply didn't like the songs. "Where is the underlying elegance and beauty?", I asked (clearly, I hadn't paid much attention to the softer songs, like "Loom Of The Land"), and kept thinking about how unnecessarily angry the music sounded - I felt as though it was unable to communicate anything effectively. Indeed, this dislike of the album made me think about whether I really like Cave's work, or whether it is just a song here and there that captured my imagination. After all, I asked myself, is this not the sort of music he is known for? I took my dislike to mean that maybe I had just convinced myself that I liked his work, when in fact I was at best a casual fan. Give me some of his ballads, and keep the rest at a respectful distance, say what?

The fact that I was unable to convincingly answer these questions meant that I was quite unhappy about the whole thing. Here I had gone and told myself that this was a songwriter I held in high regard, and now I thought this might be one of my delusions - more worrying, of course, was that I had invested so much time in his catalogue with this potentially being the case! But with time, I think this was perhaps a bit hasty. I think all Henry's Dream is is an album that requires a dedicated listen. 'Tis a little dense, sure, but that is not to say one cannot learn to love it. One needs the right time and place, of course - "Papa Won't Leave You Henry" will otherwise come crashing down on your quiet night! I find that I do not mind the hard, driving force of the tracks as I used to, and indeed I actually like most of them! The album is a good example of one where the sequencing comes to the rescue; "Straight To You" providing a breather (and what a breather! Reminds me of "The Ship Song", and the lyrics are as sharp as...well, the sparrow's beak!) after the powerful, but draining, first two tracks.

Like I mentioned, the lyrics here are far more florid when compared to the previous album (where he claimed to be "sick of words" - I know the feeling!). At first, I only really took towards "Brother, My Cup Is Empty", which has a clear reference to "Invictus", but mostly reminds me of something out of Dostoevsky. The scene in the bar from Crime and Punishment, I think, though my memory is a bit foggy. Perhaps the parallel is purely imagined on my part, but imagined or not it makes the song more interesting! With time, though, I have found myself able to appreciate the apocalyptic "Papa Won't Leave You Henry" (I wish I could write something like the first stanza), and even at times "John Finn's Wife" (though I still do not find myself fond of the last stanza). My natural inclination is still towards the ballads, "Straight To You" and "Loom Of The Land", but I no longer find myself turned off by the songs that dare to, you know, be aggressive.

I guess the reaction to these types of songs is not the same as one has towards the more balladsy-material. The latter has what I would call innate beauty, an obvious poetic touch that comes through and is familiar territory for me. But the denser songs? I suppose one starts to respond to the powerful style of expression that is a trademark of a Cave song. Like I said, it does take the right mood for this to be possible, but it is possible to get past the initial trepidation. I cannot say that I find "I Had A Dream, Joe", say, to be a highly resonant or traditionally "beautiful" song. And yet...the frantic pace, the dream-like (by which I mean nightmare-like) lyrics, and the vocal melody, they paint something very unique, and clearly "pleasing", if not in the traditionally understood sense.

The experience has left me richer, and has renewed my faith in Cave the songwriter. That tiff I had with him after the first listen has been resolved, and he can rightfully take his place amongst the list of my favourite songwriters, and is still one of rock's finest lyricists in my book.
S really surprised me today with a comment about albums, and how listening to an album the entire way through is essentially dead. Words to the effect of "You're probably the only one in the country who does that anymore"! Wow!

It got me thinking as to where I developed this habit in the first place. I suspect it is because of the hours upon hours my impressionable young mind spent taking in George Starostin's reviews. I seem to remember him making a few remarks as to how his reviews really were specifically about albums, and not just collections of songs. It didn't matter if there was any thematic or conceptual structure to the album; after all, that would strike out far too many albums from consideration. It was more to do with the overall feel that the album produced - listened, of course, from start to end.

There was a point in time when listening to an album the entire way through was the only way I would listen to music, and I think such an "extremity" is probably rare among listeners these days. I for one no longer belong to this group, for I have since been cured of this affliction, and now enjoy the pleasure of random playlists. But that is not to say that I have lessened my appreciation for the album as a separate experience, which I guess is also somewhat of a rarity. I of course accept that this is not at all the best way to listen to music, but I do think it provides an experience distinct from a randomized (or even personalized) choice of playlist.

One of things I like about it is, funnily enough, one of the points made by S against it - the continuation of mood, and occasionally the great arching structure the artist puts above it all. Again, I don't think this proscribes one to listen to the album in order, but that doesn't mean that there's nothing it offers that you can't get from a random playlist - which is all I argue, and which for some reason S seems to be implying to the contrary.

Actually, the only time when I feel like I have to listen to an album the whole way through is the first listen. In fact, while I am not entirely opposed to adding a track to one of my randomly chosen playlists after an initial listen, I do feel rather clammy about it until I feel I've properly listened to the whole album. Maybe in the space of an album, tough nuts have lots of protection around them, and are saved harsh criticism? Or (and this is probably more towards the truth), perhaps I think too much about albums, and get too excited about the times where the first song, chosen wisely by the artist, turns out to be a mini-masterpiece of sorts, shutting out all of the world for a moment or two. But there is also the fact that a shuffle seems so disjointed to me if I'm not at least somewhat familiar with the tracks. Of course, this is more a personal foible than anything else, and again I don't think I would ever argue that it is somehow "wrong" to have a different type of first listen. All I call for is a sense of balance!

Maybe all this talk about it being a separate experience in my head after all. It could just be that I place too much worth on the album as a concept, leading to all sorts of quirks like this. Still, I don't feel like it's something particularly restricting, nor something that closes doors to me; not yet, anyway!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Streets of your town

Let me walk these streets,
For it is a town I hardly know
Let me forget the thoughts that ask
Whether it always turns out just so.

Open them unto me,
Your silent streets and cafes,
Let me stare and ask myself
Why I claim I can never stay.

Be it under the Sun,
Or as the day retreats once again,
Let me see the world as I wish it
Let goodbye never be a matter of when.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Yes, unfortunately, it is true, I shall soon have to follow the footsteps of many a great student before me as I tread to the uncertain lands of the US of A. Apologies for the break in the facade.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Red Alert In Windows XP

I had more luck running Red Alert (one of the early Command and Conquer games, doncha know?) in XP than I did with Bad Mojo. It takes a bit of work, but it is worth it since it lets you play one of the true classics among strategy games, or so I hope ;) I thought I'd make a note of how I got it to work, in case I need to do it again - these are not my own ideas, of course, and are paraphrased from here.

Assuming you've uninstalled any previous versions of Red Alert, first, you need to install it via the SETUP95 folder, not via the autoplay system. In the SETUP95 folder, set the compatibility settings for INSTALL.exe to run in Windows 95 Compatibility mode, and then install the game. I did not install DirectX 3.0, but I did install Westwood Chat (which you might be able to do without, but I don't think it hurts).

Next, in the folder where the files have been installed, you need to make all exe files run under Windows 95 Compatibility mode. Just sort the files by type, and select all files which are labelled Application in the Details view (for me, there were 11 such files).

Now select the RA95.exe file, and change its Compatibility settings to "Run in 640x480", "Disable visual themes", and "Turn off advanced text services". This is the main game executable file, but we can't run it just yet! The game needs to be patched first - there are two patches that are needed.

The first patch, C& can be found here, and you just need to overwrite the THIPX32.DLL file in your install directory. The second patch, RA108USP.exe, can be found here, and you need to run it once to extract the file PATCH.exe, which you then run (this has to be in your installation directory!) to patch Red Alert to v1.08.

Now after all this, running RA95.exe should start the game! No dwwin.exe errors or anything...simple as that ;)

Saturday, April 07, 2007

You might laugh if you knew the motivation behind some of these writings. Is that what makes my writing mediocre at best; the inability to get across some of the deliberate bathos? Well, that, and the inherent banality I suppose.

Lying idle now, though meant for all to see,
Precious jewels I had eagerly gathered.
There was not even a blink - another loss,
But as if that ever mattered!
Well I had to try and make something not totally serious out of it, for the alternative would have been no fun.

It is in some sense funny that before the hilarious chain events that led him to hate me forever, I was the one who felt some sense of discord when thinking about him; I could never place my finger on it, but I felt that there was something to him that was wholly incompatible with me. It is hard to say now what exactly the cause was - jealousy, most likely, for I am ready to admit that his talents far dwarfed my own. But all those moments where I would attempt to rationalize this feeling, followed by me admonishing myself for thinking such things about someone I didn't know, what happened to them on that day? The answer is, quite simply, that they amounted to nothing. He came into the day without knowing who I was, except maybe as a face that moved in circles somewhere near his own. And it took a misheard remark for that to morph into a dislike far worse than the one I imagined that I held against him. I suppose I should feel slighted, but I know it was a misunderstanding, and further, one which I will never be able to explain.

But, even though it is ludicrous, what I really feel upset about is the fact that he managed to trump me without any forethought. What a waste to harbour those half-formed thoughts about him, seeing as how in an instant they were defeated by a snap judgement on his part! Perhaps it is simply the punishment for reflecting too much - the lesson from this experience must surely be that when it comes to matters such as hate, or at least dislike, it is best to not plan its hatching. Fate, I have found, seems only to reward the impetuous, and has no appreciation for planning, no matter how delicate.


The most earth-grounding exercise I perform when it comes to my attempts at writing comes from reflection on how I tend to express thoughts and feelings as compared to other works that I am fond of by writers of varying statures. So blunt, so devoid of humour, so lacking secret or subtlety, so...obvious. I think subtlety is the biggest lapse in my palette, but this is not a new realization, sadly. I hope I can get past the all too familiar hyper-serious, suffocating style of prose that I seem to have perfected over the years whenever it comes to something that almost cries out for careful, poignant treatment. I think the reason I do not naturally gravitate towards the latter is because whenever I have tried it, I end up being overtly maudlin and again, hyper-serious (but in a different sense). Maybe the problem is that I am just no good at these things ;)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

I still find that the first listen is the hardest. Of an album, that is - and I wonder whether it's to do with me, or if it's just how it has to be sometimes. It seems too easy to just call such work "subtle" and leave it at that, because I suspect there are other forces at play.

It is interesting to me that a non-trivial number of times, I have found myself either completely indifferent or actively disappointed about an album after my first listen. Sure, there are many times when I feel "Well, there is some good stuff here", confident that future listens will help bring out something - but far too many times for my liking, I have been scared away from future listens because of bad first experiences. And, in recent times, every time this has happened I have subsequently come to really like the album - we're talkin' becoming borderline devotional towards it, you know. I have to ask, is it the material, or is it just me? Or, better yet, is it just the way it has to be!?!

I don't think the material alone can explain this phenomenon, because it doesn't happen to "serious" albums alone. There's no doubting that a dead-serious album with complex themes really requires the right frame of mind if it is to be accepted with open arms the first time, and this can be a hard thing to summon up sometimes. But I have also had negative first experiences with albums that are essentially pop, ones featuring what I now consider to be very good melodies. No really complicated themes, just a lot of pretty melodies floating around, but...not a smile from me! I can remember the first time I heard them, where I would be itching, just itching for the darn thing to finish so that I could go clear my head and forget that I wasted my time on something so unworthy of it ;) The melodies, it would seem, did not make themselves all that well known on our first acquaintance*!

This leaves me to more or less conclude that it's either to do with me, or it's just a struggle we all have to sometimes go through. I wouldn't say I don't pay sufficient attention the first time around - I actually try and make it a point to give the album my full attention, especially I'm really excited about it. I suspect it's more to do with the fact that the first time around, the album needs to cut away any pre-conceived notions one has when coming into it. And in my case, albums usually have high expectations attached with them, and in the past I even used to expect specific songs to be knockouts based on reviews I had read. With such expectant listening, unless something is immediately, obviously good, one is bound to be disappointed that it didn't meet whatever lofty standards were set. I actually remember how before listening to Morrissey's Your Arsenal, I told myself that I had got it just for sentimental reasons, and that it was probably going to end up disappointing. And lo - I had a good first listen! Hardly scientific proof of my offhand theory, but it adds credence in my own subjective eyes.

Anyhow, it does leave the second listen in an interesting position. The first at least leaves open the possibility that it's one of these famous tough nuts that requires perseverence; the second is fraught with the peril that you are left in the exact same state as the first! This, in my experience, has been pretty rare. Even if I've left with a similarly unfavourable opinion the second time around, I usually manage to discover something that passed my careful ears the first time.

But wait, thinking about it, if we are to be precise (and we must, we must!), perhaps it is the pre-listen that is the hardest. Even the most eagerly anticipated album seems to require an extraordinary effort for me to sit down and prepare for the first listen. Put it down to one of my many foibles - I seem to require that things be "just right" for the first listen, for the all-important first impression. Which, more often than I'd like, ends up with me thinking "Well that was a waste of money"**.

Perhaps this sort of post is symptomatic of the problems I have with listening. It could just be that I think too much without sufficient listening time to give the thinking any reasonable form. I mean, the hours I've spent reflecting on how music I've never heard will probably sound...! Yes, there is a lesson here, but one which I haven't been able to learn well enough to put into practise. But then again, what are we really talking about - how to listen to albums? To paraphrase Zappa (again), "Just shut up 'n play it".

* Love's Forever Changes is what I am thinking of - the first listen I found absolutely dreadful, and I think I was so bored the first time that I stopped listening halfway through, and let it become background noise. For shame!

** Only half-seriously, mind you! For I don't think I have yet given up entirely on an album, no matter how atrocious the first listen was. True, getting myself to sit down and prepare for that second listen is tough, but I've been fairly diligent thus far.
One of the problems I had with my first viewing of Rushmore was the feeling that Wes Anderson was looking for reasons to include some songs he really liked into the movie. I guess this is in part because I felt they were maybe too frequently used, and started getting distracted.

But you know, thinking about it, I wonder if I can blame him. I think I'd do exactly the same thing if I had the opportunity! Of course, that is because I have no filmmaking talent, but still. It is actually very tempting to start to imagine film scenes where songs would seem beautifully appropriate...

Although, I think I still hold my criticism of the movie, and I am still left wondering whether I like it for what it is, or whether the nice music plays a substantial part. As always, I am sure it is a bit of both in moderate measures, but is it good that I am unable to say so comprehensively?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sometimes I think it impossibly strange, and impossibly funny, that a non-trivial amount of the writings here are attempts at verses. I don't know if I can give you any explanation as to why I feel like making such attempts, especially given how dissatisfied I usually end up with them. Yes, there have been times when I have looked back on something and felt glad that I wrote it (by which I mean I did not feel embarassed reading it again, and I did not feel like it was obviously bad!), but I would have to say that by and large, I am left feeling quite sheepish with most of what I write.

Given how little poetry I read, I really do wonder where I get the inspiration to put my thoughts into this particular form of expression. I can excuse my prose seeing as how I do still read books from time to time, but the poetry? I suppose it shows in the material - I can't say that they display any sort of finesse or well-honed style. And yet, I somehow do not feel overwhelmingly embarassed about most of them, which I suppose means that they are, at best, mediocre.

Sometimes, of course, I wonder why I bother thinking so much about such things; I say "Leave the poor lad be, let him express himself, pedestrian though it may be!". And of course, it doesn't really matter, but still, I suppose it is interesting because I can't quite pin down the motivation of this habit of mine. While I can try to explain its origins, its continuation is a mystery!

Who knows, perhaps they are my attempts at songwriting - the harsh street poetry of the modern day! Maybe in a few years my mode of discourse will become radical, experimental songs that eschew conventional verse-chorus structure and start a new branch of songwriting...!
I have so clearly been left behind by advances in gaming that I initially found it hard to believe that the reviewers at Good Game are able to see past the graphical brilliance of many modern games. To think I believed that graphics were still defined by Half-Life 2, maybe Oblivion - well, one quick look at Gears of War set all that nonsense straight.

What is worrying, however, is that this makes me ripe for the hype-machines, even though I try to be wary of them nowadays. Because really, what it takes is nothing more than a concept that I am half-interested in; given such a game, I am quite likely to lower my (clearly heightened) critical defenses against the horde of hype, even if momentarily. Then, all one needs to do is show me some really catching screenshots, and a few good reviews and the chances are good that I will get excited about the game, seeing as how I will probably be smitten by the graphics and let it override any critical judgement in me. 'Fristance, I do intend to play Oblivion eventually, but I sometimes wonder whether this is such a case where I have fallen for the pretty pictures. After all, I did not have it in me to finish Morrowind, so what is it that makes me think Oblivion will be any better? Drunk on the screenshots, I tell myself that they have probably made the quest system easier, and what have you, but I suspect it really comes down to the graphics...

A sad day when someone who roughed it out with Ultima Underworld falls prey to this common trap! Mind you, this is just speculation, and maybe I give myself too little credit. I don't think I have fallen for the trap completely just yet - after all, I haven't gone as far as buying any of these pretty games!