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Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles
When I first bought this album nearly two years ago, I had almost instant buyer’s remorse. How can you justify paying money for this when there are albums by David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, or Bob Dylan that you haven’t even heard? And how utterly disposable this album sounds! An insult to “proper” music of any form, possibly plagiarized from other chiptune artists, and played by two of the most grotesquely stereotypical hipsters on the “scene” today, Crystal Castles seemed unlikely to endear or endure, and yet I keep coming back to it, rediscovering it every six months or so. The album is a sweaty mess that bleeds the heathen pleasures of summer, but driving past my neighbors’ homes this week, draped with icicles reflecting my headlights, it sounds just as appropriate in our lonely, cold, dead winter nights. Have the digital blips of Game Boys and Nintendos supplanted the analog waves of the Moog as the new sound of “retro”? Will Crystal Castles be this generation’s Add N to (X)? I’m really hoping a new album will answer those questions soon.

Anton Zap – Take it as it Comes
This four-track EP came out late last year, I just discovered it last week and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since. I don’t mean to say I’m a hot shit cratedigging DJ or anything, I just downloaded it and listen to it while I’m doing my Microsoft Office homework. Jetsetting deep house that reminds me of John Daly’s stuff from last year. Fantastic.

Ethernet – 144 Pulsations of Light
Warm ambient drones over gentle, pulsating beats; Tim Gray probably owes a big debt to Wolfgang Voigt but who doesn’t? Really one of the better takes on this sound that I’ve heard in a while, mellow but forward-thinking enough to dodge the dreaded “new age” tag, although I’m not even sure that’s a bad thing anymore. He also makes music for “meditation and sound healing,” the sort of thing I used to roll my eyes at while I was shelving CDs at Borders but would probably love if I could get over the pretentious reputation of it all. But I’m loving this album so I guess I’m already halfway there.

Cosmin Trg – Now You Know
House that’s little bit funky, a little bit wonky, this isn’t the sort of thing that I usually seek out but in this case it’s too fun to resist. A potent shot from the fertile, always-shifting UK dance scene.

Four Tet – There is Love in You
After the successful techno indulgences of 2008’s Ringer EP, Kieran Hebden’s newest album arrives to scene that’s blurring lines like never before, perfect for his blend of genre-blending, anything-goes patchwork approach to music. Once again, he mixes cutting-edge digital sound with organic instrumentation, making for a very chilled-out record with a vibe all its own. Vocals are more prominently tossed into the mix this time, chopped and looped to great effect, the title track sounding like a slowed-down Kanye West jam (which I guess is what “Smile Around the Face” from Everything Ecstatic was, come to think of it). “Love Cry” is a stunner, but oh, just wait until you hear the Joy Orbison remix.

Monolake – Silence
Listeners with SAD might take a hint from the album’s cover and steer clear of this one, but despite being a seriously bleak and chilly affair, it’s also extremely engaging. Dark and twisting, for sure, but the it’s hard to deny the foreboding rhythms at work, which resemble the sounds of an abandoned construction site: empty buildings littered with sheet metal, barren and stairless basements strewn with gravel, stripped wires, and plastic tubing. A domicile stripped of all its comforts might be hazardous, but we’re still inexplicably drawn to tresspass and explore it. The stillborn twin of Autechre’s Draft 7.30?

Underworld vs. The Misterons – Athens
A nice compilation of jazzy, groove-centric tracks from past and present, not a true “mix” as I had hoped but a good primer to a lesser-recognized sound that’s always been a part of the Underworld aesthetic. Side one feels like Herbie Hancock jamming with Tortoise, an analogy that listeners already steeped in jazz fusion and funk might find a little misleading or superficial but could draw in others who’ve been less than taken in by Underworld’s dark and driving take on electronic pop. They also work in songs from Moodyman, Roxy Music, and Laurent Garnier, as well as a collaboration with Brian Eno that, well… kind of sucks, but the rest of the album is good.

Shuttle 358 – Type Radio Mix
Classic mix from the onetime member of the Type Records roster. I found this back in 2005 or so and I feel like it’s informed my listening since then more than any other single collection or piece of music. Quite possibly, it’s shaped my personality to a certain extent as well, or at least reflected some inner feelings that I’ve never been able to articulate in words. In a more universal sense, this is a good introduction to modern ambient music with a distinctly Japanese edge to it. Dan Abrams even sneaks in some recordings of Japanese trains and a Yoko Kanno piece amid the pastoral electronic tunes. That’s the extent of any anime connections, but it’s not a stretch to reimagine this as a “Dark Side of the Rainbow“-esque alternate soundtrack to a Makoto Shinkai film. A perennial favorite that I keep coming back to more than almost any musical find in the last five years, it’s no longer hosted on the Type Records website for some reason. Read about it here, then download it here.

Bundy K. Brown – Bird & Whale mixes
Tortoise bass player Bundy Brown offers up six disparate mixes in a variety of different styles. Bouncing from jazz fusion to IDM, post-rock, hip-hop and more, these aren’t “mixes” so much as mp3 bundles but they make for great introductions into their respective genres, while being deep enough for longtime fans to find new delights within. They’re all free and can be found here. Much like the Underworld mix listed above, these provide a good rundown of the influences that helped guide the Tortoise sound to what it is today. Good stuff.

I started this blog to give myself the freedom to write about whatever I wish, but despite the precedent I’ve set so far, that’s not always going to be about anime or music. Of course, I’d like to stay somewhat focused on those topics, because that’s what most people who find their way here are probably going to be into. Once in a while, however, I’ll probably feel compelled to opine on some unrelated matter, as I’m about to do in this post.

I only caught a few minutes of the Super Bowl this week, mostly during the fourth quarter, so I missed most of what were probably the highest profile commercials that people continue to sincerely mention as “the only reason to watch the game” and apparently await with great anticipation. What I did catch during the game (and later during the news… yes, local broadcasts replayed several of these in their entirety, devoting feature-length stories to them) was a pitiful collection that speaks volumes about American culture in 2010: obnoxious, shrill, more “in-your-face” than ever, and proud of its reality-denying slogans.

The worst of the bunch I saw was the spot for Audi, which seems to be getting good word of mouth online, despite being a terribly confused effort, memorable for all the wrong reasons and, at least in terms of moving cars off the lots or enhancing the brand image, can’t possibly be considered a success.

One stupid joke, milked for a very expensive minute’s time, in which the product and the brand name do not appear in until the very end, by which time no one who’s still watching could be the least bit concerned. I’d seen the ad three times and still couldn’t remember what it was actually for without a Google search to help me out (unlike the ad for Google itself, which penetrates your very mind and soul in every single frame). Instead, I was left only thinking of the the original “Dream Police” song by Cheap Trick, remembering the episode of The Simpsons where Apu is singing the song while washing his Thunderbird (er, Firebird?) in his driveway, and wondering if the band themselves were actually performing this horrible new mutation of it (sources say they indeed are). So much for getting your message across. And yes, I realize that simply discussing the ad at all is only furthering its saturation of/penetration into the Internet, and that going viral is considered the top honor that producers for these things are always shooting for, so I realize I’m contributing to the problem as much as anyone who Tweeted a genuine LOL in this commercial’s direction.

But something else bothers me about it and I think it’s worth bringing up. The ad attempts to highlight the Audi A3’s fuel efficiency, and as such would seem to be aimed at the environmentally-conscious consumer in the market for a pricey but still economic sedan. Yet, the ad obnoxiously belittles the entire notion of environmentalism, casting the eco-minded “Green Police” as fascist thugs that play up to every right-wing fantasy of violent tree-huggers. Could anyone outside of the SUV-driving, “drill here, drill now” crowd (who aren’t buying Audis anyway) find this the least bit funny? What is this ad trying to say? Some of us really care about these issues, you know. Maybe they’re ideas worth taking seriously, effecting the world in real time, no longer in any abstract, distant “future” that we won’t have to deal with. Or maybe they’re just meaningless fodder to distort and take down in ambiguous, sarcasm-drenched ad campaigns. Who knows! Maybe I just missed the memo saying that it’s okay for companies to belittle the deep convictions of their target market.

Defenders of the commercial would likely tell me to lighten up, it’s only a joke, after all. Or so it is to some, while to others it may be a telling and subversive, OMG it’s so true! commentary on the dangerous “socialist” direction our country is headed in. Being more energy independent, transitioning to more fuel-efficient vehicles, and just being better stewards of the environment are goals and values that everyone in this country should agree on regardless of ideology. But we live in a polarized, reactionary, bitter nation that somehow finds a way to disagree over the most banal issues imaginable, even when they’re as unpolitical as going “green,” which has fast become a trite notion that average consumers are growing sick and tired of hearing about. Like many great opportunities we’ve had as a country in recent years, we squandered the momentum behind the green movement and turned it into a meaningless catchphrase used for energy we rarely access, jobs we’ll likely never see, and products that are anything but. A lot of us realize how important it is to preserve and protect the environment, to make responsible everyday choices for the greater good and to continue working towards the kind of change that will bring society as a whole into a better balance with the planet. I just have a hard time making light of this, let alone a snarky mockery of it like this commercial does.

What I’m trying to say is, what a colossally misguided parody this ad is. I’m sure that Family Guy fans will enjoy how Audi really stuck it to those hybrid-driving crazies, though. Insert your own global warming joke here. Caring about things is so 20th century.

Now back to more of the usual entries. Probably about cartoons and shit.


Kow Otani
Haibane-Renmei: Hanenone
Pioneer
2003

Hanenone, as it seems to be titled, is the soundtrack to the 2002 anime Haibane Renmei, never a phenomenal success in America but well received upon its release and still well loved and respected among fans today. It’s sad to see that the DVDs now appear to be out of print, but hopefully a fine distributor will come along and fix that soon. I know it’s hard to market stuff like this in America, but the audience was there for it nearly a decade ago (before the recession and the Internet file-sharing explosion, that is) and still has to be out there somewhere. It’s a beautiful and touching series that more people need to see.

But this entry isn’t about the series, just the soundtrack, which is kind of an anamoly in my CD collection. I’m usually not drawn toward “traditional” instrumental music that relies on classical arrangements like this, but the pieces on this album are moody, memorable, and have a heart without being sappy or melodramatic, making this an irresistible collection. The pieces here are slow and gentle, with plenty of spaces in the music for the tracks to properly “breathe.” I know that’s a trite saying that doesn’t mean much anymore, but I really think it holds true in this case. In the world of Haibane Renmei, life in both the town of Glie and the Old Home (where most of the story is set) is simple, rarely rushed, and proceeds acording to long-held traditions. The music of the series operates in a similar vein, scoring the scenes with subdued and timeless chamber music.

There’s no single style at work here, although nearly every piece incorporates solo piano melodies or a small string ensemble. Only a few tracks, like the opening theme’s “Free Bird,” strive to make a big splash. Most take a more delicate, pastoral approach that incorporates elements of baroque, modern classical, and even jazz. Sure, there are a few moments of tension and intrigue — the gorgeous and stirring strings in “Blight” are an album highlight — but the overall mood is reflective and calm, sometimes upbeat and cheerful, but more often overtaken by a pensive melancholy, music to stare out the window to on an overcast afternoon. But the music still emits a wistful warmth that’s too inviting to hold at arm’s length, and the pair of vocal tracks in album’s the second half — a traditional-sounding Celtic folk song (“Wondering”) and a jazzy tune that sounds plucked from a smoke-filled piano bar (“Love Will Light the Way”) — are pleasant surprises that fit nicely and don’t break the mood.

Kow Otani’s score works wonders in Haibane Renmei but stands up well on its own, making for a soundtrack that’s mellow and restrained but very effective. This is a good CD to fall asleep or study to, just don’t write it off as mere background music. You can easily lose yourself in this stuff if you so choose, and it’ll take you to some special places if you let it. Inspired music for an inspired anime, for sure, but with a magic all its own that really comes out when you apply your own story to it.

At my job (the tedious details of which I won’t go into for the sake of both myself and anyone reading this) I regularly have to ask customers to sign and date a variety of different forms. Many of these customers are from overseas, and usually pause for a few seconds before writing the date, unsure of whether to write it in their own country’s format or in the American style. There’s usually a four or five second pause in which they struggle to remember the current date while deciding which way to go about putting it down. When they do attempt to translate it to the American format (best known as MM-DD-YYYY), you can almost see the gears spinning in their travel-weary heads as they struggle to swap the numbers around from their traditional method (DD-MM-YYYY), every fiber fibre of their being resisting this action, a lifetime of calendar-reading and cheque-writing conditioning them to consider any alternative to their own way an outright perversion of nature. They pause, finally scratch out their half-written work, and write the date in their own format. I can’t really blame them. Putting myself in their shoes, I personally don’t know if I could ever fully accept having Christmas on 25 December, or recognize and mourn the infamous terrorist attacks of 11/9. And besides, I’ve always felt that we’ve been pointlessly out of step with the rest of the world in this regard anyway, once again adopting our own arbitrary standards and stubbornly sticking to them as an actual point of pride.

So I was surprised to see that Japan follows the same date format as we do in America, generally notating dates by their month and day, respectively (February 9). This goes against the practice of Europe and most of the rest of the world, which list the day followed by the month (9 February). This brings together a really strange league of backwards nations, also composed of China, Canada, Philippines, Mongolia, and Kenya, along with a handful of European countries that seem to waffle between the two formats.

This was an interesting discovery as I assumed that Japan would have sided with the DD-MM format, thereby dating the poster in the above picture as September 2. On the contrary, “Meat Day” in the world of Fullmetal Alchemist takes place on February 9. I was going to post this image simply for a laugh in a witty but subtle “check out my obscure and timely find” kind of way, until I actually looked in to it and had my mind unexpectedly blown.

Abbreviate February 9 down to its shortest form and get 2/9. Translated in Japanese, 2 is pronounced as “ni,” and 9 as “ku.” Bringing these together gets you “niku,” which happens to be the Japanese word for meat. Yes, I realize that this is probably elementary Japanese to most anyone who’s taken the time to learn the basics of the language, so I’m not patting myself on the back for needing a Google search to help me connect the dots in this case. Nor have I been able to find out if it’s an actual holiday of sorts or just an opportunity for butcher shops to have special one-day sales. Nevertheless, Meat Day is here. What does this mean to you? That’s up to you to decide, just make it special in your own way!

When I first began this blog I got a welcome and unexpected boost from Brent at Otaku, No Video, who was kind enough to compliment my initial posts and even add me to his blogroll. This was fairly unsolicited on my part and very encouraging, to say the least. As much as I was resolved to try to attract a few readers off the bat, past experiences in blogging had tempered any expectations I held that this would actually happen. So getting an endorsement from a long-established blogger like him was, to say the least, a confirmation that I was at least doing something right, and a motivation to keep on blogging despite lingering doubts about my capacity to add anything of worth to the massive, amorphous anime/music/media-of-the-leisure-class blogosphere.

I think I’m still trying to “find my voice” and feel out the direction I’d like to go with this. But for the last month I’ve really enjoyed having an outlet for my thoughts on all these things, which I was already spending a great deal of time absorbing and ruminating over, mostly in private. Why do I feel the need to express these thoughts in such a public way like this? I’m sure it’s because I feel like (or want to feel like) these thoughts are interesting or important enough to share, and in hopes that they’ll help me connect with others in a certain way that I feel I’ve been missing out on in recent years. In a deeper sense, I’ve also long held a certain feeling that my thought process is generally muddled, and this is one of the best ways I’ve found to sort it all out and try to make sense of it. And who doesn’t like talking about their interests, especially when it’s to an audience who’s most likely to understand and “get it” without passing judgment?

Maybe the deeper question, then, is why do I like these things at all? Why do I watch anime, and what is it that I like about it? To be honest, I don’t know if I’d ever pondered this before, at least not until Brent posed the question on Otaku, No Video last week. I’m still thinking about it today and I’m not sure if I’m going to come around to any simple or definitive answer for it, but I figure it’s still worth asking myself about anyway.

For better or worse, I know I watch anime as a form of escapism. I mean, I suppose I watch a lot of things for that reason, as do most people, but as animation is naturally an extra level removed from reality than “normal” film or video, it taps into something in my imagination that no other form of art or storytelling is capable of. And why escape to fictional worlds that are mere representations of your own culture? I’ve long been fascinated by Japanese culture, and while I realize that the Japan depicted in so much anime isn’t always the most reliable or authentic facsimile of the real thing, it’s still provided me with a valuable look at the mind and culture of its people and lead me to further investigations of the country on my own. And that’s just considering your average dramas or “slice of life” series. For further escapism, anime’s tradition of stories in the realms of science-fiction and historial epics has provided me with some of the most imaginative storytelling I’ve ever experienced.

The first time I can remember watching anime and really getting into it was in 1996, when Ghost in the Shell made its original run in North American theaters. Unfortunately, I didn’t actually see the movie until years later, but caught an episode of Siskel & Ebert where the two critics gave the film a positive, “two thumbs up” review. The clips shown in the review were unlike anything I’d ever seen, the animation gritty and realistic, the backgrounds exquisitely detailed and the poetic mise-en-scène of each shot calculated and composed to comic book panel-like effect. Yes, this was all it took, and while this wasn’t the first time that I’d seen anime, it was probably the first time I’d set eyes on any that went beyond the ambitions of a typical Saturday morning cartoon. I often set our VCR to record these episodes — I think they aired on Saturday evenings, and I’d often save them for mid-week viewing after coming home from school — which allowed me to rewatch these clips countless times. This was the best I could do in the pre-DVD, pre-Internet world I was stuck in, but it was enough to whet my appetite for more. I think I’m still trying to recapture that feeling of visual awe today.

Maybe what I loved most about those clips (and the film, once I was able to rent it some time later) was how the creators used their tools to create a genuinely exciting, unpredictable and immersive world that seemed full of possibilities. It wasn’t just a backdrop to tell the same stories that had been appearing in animated films for decades, but seemed to have all the potentials of an entirely new medium, one that was certainly part of everything that I’d previously known as “animation,” but without the cultural or commercial restrictions that seemed to govern what stories could be told or how they could be shown. While I realize now that it’s steeped in plenty of its own trappings and “laws,” I still feel that anime is one of the most vibrant forms of storytelling today, one that’s constantly redefining and reinventing itself, quickly enough for even casual viewers to observe its evolution even over just a few years’ time. Discovering what’s new out there today and wondering what it all might look like in another two, five, or ten years is surely one of the reasons I keep coming back to it all. It’s hard not to be excited by the possibilities.

Just as there’s no single strain of anime that I’m solely devoted to watching, there’s likely no single reason why I watch anime at all. Ultimately, I think everyone has an ideal vision of the world as they think it realistically could be. They also hold a separate vision of it as it should be, one often fantastic or impossible, and likely to be too deeply personal to share or describe. It’s that second vision in my mind that I occasionally glimpse onscreen when I watch anime. Like dreams, my mind has been extremely receptive to its unique language and logic (or lack of, at times), until I’ve found myself inexplicably drawn into its world, no longer sure how I got in this deep and less sure if I ever really want to leave.

And it’s not like there’s anything better on TV, anyway.