Monday, June 29, 2009

To answer the first part of the last post, one reason for the relative paucity of music is my irritation at how I've used it as a crutch for a long time. The healing power of music is well known, as is its ability to serve as an escape from the outside world. Both noble moderation. By deifying music, I've sought to shirk from tough issues, I suspect. The cure isn't to stop listening to music, of course, it's to face up to those unpleasant things. But once again, I seem to have chosen the easy option.
5 months since the last one? And I'm still worshiping that Boognish?

1) Ween, "Flutes of Chi". When I hear it, I think it might be their finest melody. And can I say, imitating music sonically is one thing, but it is Ween's lyrical capacity that is doubly amazing. These later period songs also make me wonder what on earth prompted them to not release more singles. Could the charts really deny this on the basis that it doesn't sound like the competition? I think that if anything can take us slightly in the direction of the monoculture, it is singular talent, and asking for more than this is a bit too much.

2) Captain Beefheart, "The Floppy Boot Stomp". I could've sworn I'd discussed this: it feels like it's always just been there. One of those too-good album openers that is thankfully cooled down by "Tropical Hotdog Night", it demonstrates two things about the Captain's famed weirdness. One, it's rooted firmly in musicality, not dissonance: this is the blues, albeit framed in a more unusual way than one might be used to. Two, he's good enough a lyricist to not fall on simple beatnik or obscurist lines. It's what makes thing song so triumphant.

3) Cockney Rebel, "Hideaway". It's a pretty brave opening track, if you think about it. I instinctively liked the "dirty" vocals from the beginning, because while they did sound a bit exaggerated, it seemed appropriate given what's being sung about. Which is...well, I'm not sure entirely. Isn't that true of all great songs?

Friday, June 19, 2009

The download dilemma

My opposition to music downloading has been an interesting barometer to measure my changing perceptions of music. I'm still a staunch CD-buyer, but even I admit being tempted with the prospect of modern indie artists, for whom the risk ratio is much higher than what I am used to. I once placed enormous value on the tactile qualities of a CD, especially when I actually used the CD directly to listen to the music. It gave an opportunity to flip through the liner notes, and even when the music finished it was nice to look at the CD's place among its brothers on the shelf. Lately of course, my CDs have been in pristine condition because they're only opened once, to be converted into digital form, and subsequently sit quietly for months on end. I hardly ever read liner notes as a result, and longing gazes to the shelf are pretty much the only reaction their physical presence elicits.

Things become greyer when I think of CDs that lie in a house overseas. Not only my old collection that lies undisturbed, but the new CDs that family have added. It might be years before I see them, and so effectively the digital form is the only proof I have of their existence. Is this dramatically different to simply having the music in a digital form? Much as I'd like to argue that the knowledge of their physical presence counts for something, even I see that that's somewhat weak (even if not completely indefensible).

As for the "try before you buy" school of thought, I can't argue with it, really. What offsets this for me is that I really like hearing an album fresh; especially so, as you might expect, if the album turns out to be really good. This lies outside the music itself, sure. But when I say I like music, I think what I mean is not just the sounds themselves, but these "meta" pleasures as well; I don't think I can claim that my love of the sounds is greater than many people, but the meta pleasures, maybe. (The same, of course, applies to a stroll around a good record store.) There's nothing preventing me from downloading the entire album and listening to it in entirety, but there seems to be an implicit sense of it not demanding serious attention. I haven't parted with money, so there's no emotional reason to persist with something that seems initially puzzling.

What CD purchasing also prevents is overconsumption. Part of the allure of downloading is that it makes so much available instantly. I can imagine that once you get into the habit, quitting is close to impossible. When everything is available with no effort, it's pretty tempting to try and listen to everything in one go. In other words, persisting with a single album and letting it define one's world for weeks/months on end requires conscious effort. (It's possible, sure, but difficult.) I don't know if we can say that this is an objectively better mode of listening - probably not - but it's what makes me quite uneasy about downloading culture. I fear that our nature makes overconsumption natural (whether we realize it or not), and that means a devalued musical culture.

It goes without saying that I could be wrong about everything. The positive of this possibility is that it means I can listen to Bon Iver within a decade.

My initial problems with Neverwinter Nights 2 gave way to the realization that, no matter how undeniable the faults, the fact that the game is sufficiently reminiscent of Baldur's Gate 2 makes me want to forgive it. "Reminiscent" can be taken to mean aping unsuccessfully, if you like, but recalling BG2, which I first played a good 8 years ago, was a meta-pleasure that I will associate with the even otherwise still good NWN2. My character of choice in BG2 was (and still is) a spellcaster, and I still shiver when thinking of some of the higher level spells. I don't know if I will call it the best RPG I've ever played, because there is some very strong competition for that title (and that's only games that I know of). But it is the game that introduced me to the D&D system, which appears to be the de facto setting for almost all modern fare, and as such it's the first comparison for any game in that mould.

(Spoilers in this para) There were a couple of things I liked in the endgame, both of which were incremental novelties. First, the turning of some party members to fight against you was an interesting way to incite emotions in the player. After travelling for hours on end with some people, having them turn on you at the end can really hurt. In my case, I was especially shocked because I had almost exclusively used Qara the whole way through the game, and a betrayal at the very end made me really angry. Angry enough to unleash a WoTB on her :-) Second, the ability to control all your party (save the traitors!) in the final battle definitely makes sense for me. There's no sense in fighting an evil that threatens the fate of the universe and suddenly deciding that beyond four people, control is too difficult. I think that this again lends to the epic feeling of the end fight, because you have a large group fighting in unison against an ominous enemy.

Another thing that NWN2 made me realize is that, contrary to whatever protests I might have about being offered something new in games, I'm at a stage where I'm very happy just chugging along with things that I'm used to. Effort in learning something new is looked upon with great suspicion. NWN2 has a crafting system that lets you create special artifacts, a la Morrowind I suppose. "I suppose" because I spent zero time investigating this, being wholly focussed on getting Qara that Wail of the Banshee so that I could defeat that dratted King of Shadows. (Spoiler: Turns out Shadow Reavers are immune to death magic. Ah.) From memory, even KOTOR might've had this, and there too I completely ignored the undoubtedly enjoyable side-game. Heck, in this game I didn't blink when the area-of-effect spells left party members completely unscathed; no purist would stand for such a thing. (Do you know how much easier boss fights are when you can cast Meteor Swarms with impunity?) I should feel guilty about all this, but to be honest, the mere fact that I was able to enjoy a game after such a long time was good enough. None of which is to say that I've changed my mind about the whole issue of the future of gaming. No, I think I just I don't particularly mind if this is the height of gaming for me. But the medium as a whole ought to try to do better, just so a larger audience can figure out what exactly makes games interesting, and worthy of one's time.
I've noticed that at least three times now, I've been unable to summarize my preference in music. Not because it's amazingly eclectic or anything, but because (a) I don't really listen to that much of it, and (b) I don't detect a coherent thread connecting most of my library, which, aside from a few outliers whose catalogues I am deeply familiar with, is a slew of artists where I have at most two or three albums. Now that I have time to mull over the question, I'd call my library by and large the tried and true branch of rock music; "classic rock" without the connotations that that term carries. (I'm really not completely familiar with the Who & Floyd, say.) Reason (a) I've already discussed several times. What of (b)?

As I pointed out at the start, I instinctively don't want to call (b) eclecticism as much as I do laze. Yet, while laze might play some part, I think the relative lack of depth is best explained by my extreme propensity to saturation. With that claim in place, why is it the case? Certainly a quirk of personality to an extent. But what vexes me is the following: could it also be the relative lack of quality in the artists I pursue? Are most of them just worth two good albums? If so, we might all be doomed. I naturally think the things I like are objectively pretty good, and I can say that most have been received fairly favourably among the critics. But somehow, I haven't managed to find more than a handful whose catalogues have provided a slew of satisfying albums. My hope is that the fact that I know about relatively little music, and have been operating on a small section of it, means that I might be missing out on some artists who have released, say, five or six good albums. Off the top of my head, I can think of two artists immediately whom I would never have guessed, prior to listening to them, were capable of as much good material as I've discovered. My personal inferiority complex might be transferring to the music I listen to, then.

I suppose the tiny drops of classical fall outside, and remain unscathed. But I still wonder if I will ever be able to fully appreciate the genre. I am fairly confident that popular song, and its "emotional complexity", will be the primary form of music for me; classical provides a nice foil, a sense of scale and balance. I hope I can continue to find resonant music in popular song.

By the way, what I really don't want to say my catalogue is, although I hate to admit it might be as good a description as there is: Starostin's music. Although, if I think about it, there are worse things for a catalogue to be than a subset of a reliable reviewer's recommendations. The uncertainty I have is whether it means I display sufficient individual thought when it comes to music, but then I start wondering about the objective quality of music, and all that. Let me quit while I'm ahead and think about how good my last 3 non-Starostin albums are.