Saturday, October 30, 2010

No chops required


Two locally made guitar games cater to rookies and rockers alike

There’s a small audience gathered as Albert Polk and Andrew Mello of the Boston indie-rock band Streight Angular are plugging in their guitars. Requests are tossed out from onlookers, considered, and passed over. Eventually they settle on a crowd pleaser. It’s a cover they haven’t had a chance to rehearse, but one familiar enough that they’re confident they can wing it. When they kick into the unmistakable bass intro of “Just Like Heaven’’ by the Cure, the mood in the room brightens — that is, until they start fumbling with Robert Smith’s trademark delay-heavy guitar lead. By the time the synth line comes in, the song starts to fall apart.

If this were a normal gig, you might be tempted to ask for your money back. Fortunately for the band, this isn’t a club — it’s the offices of the Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems, where we’re testing out Rock Band 3, the latest offering in the MTV-owned developer’s enduring franchise.
The game’s release this past Tuesday came just one week after another locally-based developer, the upstart Seven45 Studios, launched its own entry into the interactive music game genre with Power Gig: Rise of the SixString.

In previous versions of Rock Band and in similar titles like Activision’s Guitar Hero, gamers “play’’ along with hit songs from well-known artists in a sort of pantomime of guitar playing — tapping out musical sequences on a color-coded series of buttons on instrument-shaped controllers. In an upgrade that could either enhance or inhibit their potential audience, both Power Gig and Rock Band 3 are introducing actual stringed guitars as controllers. Rather than just going through the motions, these new devices aim to deliver a gaming experience that comes a lot closer to actually rocking out.
Rock Band 3 offers a “Pro Mode’’ in which gamers can choose between two replica Fender guitars as controllers — the Mustang, which simulates strings along its neck with a series of easily playable buttons, and the Squier, which, along with controlling the game, can actually be plugged into a real amplifier. PowerGig also employs a controller which can similarly double as a traditional electric guitar. Both titles are available for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Rock Band 3 is also available for the Nintendo Wii.

“The technology works on where your hand is, what fret and what strings you play,’’ explains Sylvain Dubrofsky, senior designer on Rock Band 3. The onscreen image indicates the shape of the actual guitar chord or notes the user is meant to play.

Part of what makes these games so popular — Rock Band titles alone have sold 16.1 million units worldwide — is the way they give non-musicians the chance to experience, on some level, what it’s like to perform in a band. The addition of realistic guitars could draw a more varied audience: from rookie rockers taking their first ersatz music lessons in their living room to seasoned pros looking to fine-tune their chops. For musicians who double as gamers, it’s a development that’s been long anticipated, says Jonn Smith of the Boston power-pop band Sidewalk Driver.

“Ever since the Guitar Hero and Rock Band games came out, I’d hoped that they would make a ‘complete’ guitar controller for the game out of an actual working guitar,’’ Smith says. “I always thought the games were cool, but that the skills kids, and adults, were gaining by playing guitar or bass in these games for hours on end did not translate at all to an actual instrument.’’ What if gamers had spent all this time learning to play guitar, he wonders?

A common refrain among critics is that these virtual performance games are fun to play, but have little to do with music aside from introducing basic concepts like rhythm and beat.

“We’ve seen a lot of examples of people learning how to play songs around the office,’’ says Dubrofsky. “Employees who already know how to play guitar will come in and say ‘I want to learn how to play “The Power of Love’’ by Huey Lewis & The News,’ for example, and learn how to perform it on real guitar after a few plays through the game,’’ he says. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he says, employees with no experience have been able to pick up basic power chords with relative ease.

Polk and Mello, both guitar players with relevant gaming experience, were curious to see how the two games translated to actual musicianship.

“It’s like learning how to read music — or tablature,’’ Mello says, taking his first pass through the instructional mode of Rock Band 3.

“It takes a little getting used to,’’ Polk says. “Maybe because it’s so precise.’’ Indeed, sometimes this precision can expose a seasoned player’s weaknesses; flubbed notes that are easy to cover up with feedback and effects in a live setting become more apparent in game play.

Polk and Mello were especially intrigued by the possibilities the instruments will have for children learning on them, and for established musicians incorporating them into the songs they write.
“I think people will take this and start their own bands and write their own songs,’’ Mello says.
A test run though Power Gig later that evening proved less exciting for the duo.
“This is more about hitting the frets, like the older-style games,’’ Polk says.

In the Power Gig system, the stringed guitar controller seemed more of a novelty addition to the game than an actual guitar. Unlike Rock Band 3, Power Gig employs a more narrative format, in which a player’s performance on the instrument helps usher the game’s characters through various levels of an adventure-like story. The game also features a Quick Gig mode that allows players to simply play through a selection of songs.

That traditional video game level structure seems designed to appeal more to a younger gaming crowd than to musicians eager to test — or hone — their skills through simulation, Polk and Mello agree.
“This is simple enough,’’ Mello says. “But Harmonix has the range where the layman can understand it, and the musician can be entertained.’’

On higher levels of difficulty, Power Gig introduces the concept of forming power chord shapes along the guitar’s neck. “It will get your hands used to playing power chords,’’ Polk offers. “It has the strings so it gets people interested in what a guitar feels like.’’

That’s the idea, says Matt Sughrue, executive producer at Seven45. “The way we designed it is as a beat-matching game familiar to people who play existing games. Since you’re using a real instrument to play it, we designed game play to be very easy to play, even if you’ve never picked up a real instrument.

“It’s designed for the mass market, it’s for people who want to take the beginning steps of learning how to be a guitar player, not to teach you to be a shredder,’’ says Sughrue. “It’s designed to spark interest and take those skills further if you want to. Rock Band is for people who are more advanced in their skills — a very niche market, different from the approach we’re taking.’’

Like the guys from Streight Angular, for example. “It’s got pretty good action,’’ Mello said, inspecting the fretboard of the Power Gig guitar before plugging it into an actual guitar amp. “I could play this live. But when I walk away from the game I don’t know how to play this song,’’ he says of the Smashing Pumpkins tune he was working through.

“But when I walked away from the other one, I definitely knew how to play that Cure song.’’

Boston Globe

Friday, October 29, 2010

Double Date: Crash and cast

From left: The Deval Patrick, the Tim Cahill, and the Charlie Baker at Gargoyles on the Square.

Relive the beginning of the financial crisis on film, then relieve the stress by voting on political-themed cocktails

THE ARTS 

If you want to relive the go-go 1980s, then go see “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.’’ But if you want to remember what happened after that, and you should, go see “The Inside Job.’’ The idea of reliving the crash through film probably doesn’t sound like a great idea for a night of entertainment — but when someone gets punched in the gut, they usually like to have an idea of where it came from. Academy Award-nominated director Charles Ferguson’s new film is an in-depth look into exactly who it was throwing the punches. (Globe critic Wesley Morris gave it four stars.)

The documentary details the origins of the crisis through extensive interviews with people who watched, or helped, the economic house of cards fall apart, and points up the corruption that led to millions losing their homes. Ferguson has said it was a completely avoidable crisis that came about as a result of a culture of deregulation, and a financial industry of almost unchecked power and influence. “In the case of this crisis, nobody has gone to prison, despite fraud that caused trillions of dollars in losses,’’ he says in his director’s statement. The film, which they say, “cost $20 trillion to make,’’ is playing this weekend at Kendall Square Cinema.

Kendall Square Cinema, 1 Kendall Square, Cambridge. 617-499-1996. www.landmarktheatres.com

 
THE DRINKS 
 
No matter how hard you were hit, the topics addressed in the film are enough to get anyone thinking, not to mention in need of some serious stress relief. At Gargoyles on the Square in nearby Davis Square, they’re taking a more tongue-in-cheek approach to political discourse leading up to next week’s statewide elections. They’ve devised a gubernatorial poll of their own, with three new cocktails named for the candidates: the Deval Patrick, made with white chocolate liquor, house infused vanilla vodka, Kahlua, and espresso; the Charlie Baker, a smoky gazpacho Bloody Mary-style cocktail; and the Tim Cahill, made with fennel, dill, and caraway-infused vodka and Grand Marnier.

Owner James Conforti says the idea arose when he and some regulars were complaining about the bombardment of negative campaign ads. “We wanted to take the democratic process into our own hands,’’ he says. Customers vote for their cocktail, and candidate, of choice every night by what they order. Gargoyles’ poll results will come out before the real ones when they host an election party on Tuesday.

Conforti has opinions of his own, but the idea was to make each drink appealing enough to order that it wouldn’t sway anyone’s vote. “It’s more fun watching the customers and getting their feedback, and people are getting a kick out of it,’’ he says. “They don’t have to take everything so seriously.’’ Didn’t anyone ever tell them you’re not supposed to talk politics at the bar?

Gargoyle s on the Square, 219 Elm St., Somerville. 617-776-5300. www.gargoylesrestaurant.com

Boston Globe

AskMen A. List Newsletter

So I'm writing the weekly events column for Boston for AskMen.com now. Read the rest of it here.
bar OF THE WEEK
Island Creek Oyster Bar
Why? Island Creek + Eastern Standard=Win.
The people behind Island Creek Oyster Bar down in Duxbury have been keeping other restaurants stocked up on the good stuff for years now, so it only makes sense that they'd cut right to the chase and open their own spot.

Fortunately, there just happened to be an opening in the old Great Bay space next to one of the best cocktail bars in the city, Eastern Standard. ICOB imported talent from that operation to set up another stellar cocktail and bar program here with rotating specials based on today's fresh ingredients.

Island Creek Oyster Bar
500 Commonwealth Ave.
PHONE: 617-532-5300
SITE: islandcreekoysterbar.com

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thursty: Petit Robert Central



When you find yourself riding a towering escalator to get something to eat, it's usually not a good sign; visions of some garish food court nightmare come to mind. That's hardly the case at Petit Robert Central, although you may have some trouble actually finding the second floor Downtown Crossing restaurant space if you don't know where to look. (Try looking up). No matter, the after work and wet lunch office crowd should eventually know the path by heart if they've got halfway decent taste.

The recently opened incarnation of the expanding Petit Robert brand (with locations in Kenmore, Brighton, the South End and Needham) pays tribute to its French bistro roots with cocktails that lean on the Prohibition-era Paris bar scene with Sidecars and French 75s, French ingredients like Chartreuse, Lillet, and Pernod, and French Quarter New Orleans-born recipes. Bar manager Eric Cross emphasizes that heritage with a properly balanced selection of coquetiers (a French word once thought to be the origin of the word cocktail) like Harry's Pick-Me-Up Cocktail made with brandy, fresh lemon juice, grenadine and champagne.

The cocktail menu gives a brief background of where and when drinks like this were invented. “We want to create conversation,” Cross says. “To have people learn something about the drink that they're drinking. It adds another element to going into the bar, having a drink that has some history and a cool story.”


What he's having

“The Vieux Carre is my go-to,” says Cross, of the cocktail named after the French Quarter in the New Orleans made with equal parts Cognac, rye whiskey and sweet vermouth, plus a dash of Angostura and Peychaud's bitters. “But what does the trick is a teaspoon of Benedictine to soften it out. On paper it looks like a beast, but it's a great drink if you like brown liquors.”


Petit Robert Central
101 Arch St., Boston.
617-737-1777

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Midatlantic



MIDATLANTIC
Isle of Shoals

With so many bands wandering off in the digital wilderness these past couple of years, subsisting solely on a steady diet of looped beats and software-songwriting slouching, it sounds downright retro at this stage to play simple rock and roll. In the case of gloomy new-wave Boston punters Midatlanic, that approach — reaching all the way back to, like, five years ago, when the Killers weren't playing cowboy dress-up — comes as a welcome, if brief, respite from the tyranny of the synth.

Except, oops, they play synths here, too. But, you know, in a rock-and-roll way.

This quickie EP release proves that some bands are still reaching for the sweeping grandeur of stadiums past. "The New Frontier" picks up where their previous effort, the romantic and stylish The Longest Silence, left off, careering through giant, delay-darkened riffs and hammering disco-fied beats that prove just as useful for dance-floor spinning as they do for bedsit breast beating. It's the standout here; the slow-burning "Beautiful Lie" seems sluggish in comparison.

"Waiting For" and "Disaster" prove that Midatlantic fare best when they're edging toward the farthest reaches of the anthemic speed limit. It's not easy keeping up with the rise of the machines, but the resistance has at least one hearty soldier.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A jammin’ Garden party from start to finish


MONSTER JAM
At: TD Garden, last night. 

In a reliable bit of commercially thematic resonance, radio station festivals usually play out with the same ephemeral shelf life of their lightning-quick playlist rotations. So it went last night at JAM’N 94.5’s Monster Jam at the TD Garden. Performers are ushered in and out of the spotlight at such a blistering pace, both on stage and on the dial, the head spins.

Even memorably sticky songs like R&B belter Shontelle’s “Impossible’’ don’t stand a chance in the deluge. Pity the concert-goer who decided to run to the restroom between acts; she may have missed her favorite singer’s entire 10-minute set. “I know you all know this song,’’ Shontelle said, an understatement, to say the least.

That powerfully sung number lingered in the memory near the end of The New Boyz’ jerky, bass-pounding set until the hip-hop duo ran through their own crowd-pleaser, “Tie Me Down.’’ Soon afterward, Drake’s imminent approach returned the mind-erasing favor. That’s no condemnation of the songs — all of the wares on sale here are hits for a reason — it’s simply emblematic of the eternal sunshine of the spotless pop fan mind.

“No matter what you say on stage, the audience cheers’’ a radio station hype-man joked, introducing Drake. Another understatement. The Canadian actor-cum-rapper earned his massive response with a string of pop hits girded by a live rock band. “Last name ever, first name greatest,’’ he rapped on the boastful “Forever.’’ Overstatement finally.

By comparison, the party-starting braggadocio of elder statesman Nelly seemed downright venerable, even if he did have the audacity to play unfamiliar new songs. Poor Nicki Minaj flirted and spit through favorites like the romantic “Your Love’’ before going over her allotted time and having her mic cut mid-song. At that pitiless rate, the tasting platter of contemporary pop was over before one knew it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Horror shows

The Lights Out will play in costume Saturday night as several iterations of Madonna. From left: Adam Ritchie (“Blond Ambition’’), Jesse James (“Like a Prayer’’), Rishava Green (“Desperately Seeking Susan’’), and Matt King (“Like a Virgin’’). (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)


Some say Christmas is the most magical time of year, but our money is on Halloween. Every year around this time, kids get to play dress-up for the night and pretend to be what they’ve always dreamed of: a robot, a vampire, Spider-Man, Justin Bieber. Thus, it only makes sense that Boston rockers break out their face paint and leather pants to pay tribute to their favorite bands. Here’s a selection of some of the Halloween-inspired cover shows going on around town this week.

Members of Noble Rot and Bang Camaro as Motörhead; Buried in Leather as the Misfits; members of Panzer Bastard as Black Sabbath Since his band Noble Rot has played Motörhead covers in the past, it didn’t seem like much of a stretch to go all in, says Richie Hoss. “I remember someone saying that it was like going to a church where they knew all the songs.’’ That’s part of the appeal of a show like this. “Bands get to step outside their normal 12 songs and do something different on a night where bands are, shall we say, less ‘career minded’ and more ‘fun minded.’ They get to play the songs that inspired them to write the songs that they write.’’
Wednesday, 9 p.m., O’Brien’s, 3 Harvard Ave., Allston. Tickets: $8. 617-782-6245, www.obrienspubboston.com
 
BrownBoot as the Faces; John Powhida as Todd Rundgren; Preacher Roe as Guided by Voices; the Gilded Splinters as the Rolling Stones His real band formed as the result of a previous Black Crowes tribute night, says BrownBoot’s Rodrigo Van Stoli. He keys in one of the best parts of playing a show like this: Everyone already likes the songs. “I think it’s because it’s so much fun to step out of your songwriting shoes and do something that has immediate acceptance. Provided you do it well, of course.’’ And it doesn’t hurt that they already sound like the Faces anyway, he says. The look? Not so much. “I believe my only accessory will be a cravat. And maybe a soccer ball.’’
Thursday, 9 p.m., T.T. the Bear’s, 10 Brookline St., Cambridge. Tickets: $9. 617-492-0082, www.ttthebears.com
 
Members of Tijuana Sweetheart and the Information as the Misfits; members of Raw Radar War, Tired Old Bones, and Doc Hopper as Black Flag; members of Razors in the Night and the Appreciation Post as Face to Face; Jack Burton vs. David Lo Pan as Refused ; members of the Dents, Capital Radio, Doomriders, and Hallraker as the Descendents
Dealing with crowd expectations of cover songs by beloved bands can be tricky, says Raw Radar War’s Jonah Jenkins. “Personally, I try to just perform as I would like to see these songs performed.’’ For his set covering Black Flag, that means “tempering some of the cliches that Henry Rollins was known for, and amping up the energy levels on some songs.’’ But it’s most important to capture the spirit of the song. “We don’t want to turn these into anything different from what we love about the originals.’’
Thursday, 8 p.m., Great Scott, 1222 Commonwealth Ave., Allston. Tickets: $10. 617-566.9014, www.greatscottboston.com
 
The Honors as Morrissey ; Bearstronaut as the Rapture ; Vostok 4 as Talking Heads
“We chose the Rapture because they were one of the few bands that we all listened to when we started Bearstronaut,’’ explains guitarist-vocalist Dave Martineau. With an inspiration like dance-punk progenitors the Rapture, and with the expectations that come with playing the enduring retro-rock dance night the Pill, matching the band’s live feel is key. “The Rapture’s energy is incredible. I think for a show like this, you have to try your best to capture the band’s sound and style while still making it your own.’’
Friday, 10 p.m., Great Scott, 1222 Commonwealth Ave., Allston. Tickets: $10. 21+. 617-566 -9014, www.thepillboston.com
 
The Lights Out as Madonna ; Midatlantic as Lady Gaga ; the Luxury as the Go-Go’s ; the Hot Protestants as Britney Spears
Topping their performance as Phil Collins last year was going to be a tall order, says guitarist Matthew King of the Lights Out — the members of which will appear this year as four different iterations of Madonna. “These shows are the most fun when everyone in the crowd knows all the songs,’’ he says. “Madonna has a ridiculous catalog of hits, so that base was covered.’’ It takes about a month to get a set like this down. “It’s totally worth it because it not only gets our fans excited, but we get the freedom to be someone else for a change.’’
Saturday, 9 p.m., Church, 69 Kilmarnock St., Boston. Tickets: $12. 21+. 617-236-7600, www.churchofboston.com
 
The Sneaks as Wilco ; Nate Leavitt as Ryan Adams ; Old Jack as Jenny Lewis
Halloween shows like this go beyond just being a Boston tradition, says the Sneaks’ Johnny Arguedas. “Right now pop culture is in a nostalgic phase. There’s a reason movie remakes are so prevalent, it’s easy to tap into the familiar in order to evoke interest.’’ Nostalgia isn’t easy; he’s enlisted seven musicians to help flesh out the beloved alt-country band’s sound. “It may be just one night of music . . . but being able to re-create the music gives me a deeper appreciation of the source material.’’ That their version of Wilco happens to be zombies is an added bonus. “Yes, it’s corny, but Halloween itself is a little corny. That’s what makes it so fun.’’

Saturday, 9 p.m., Rosebud, 381 Summer St., Somerville. Tickets: $5. 21+. www.rosebudbardavis.com
SuperVolcano as MGMT ; Streight Angular as Passion Pit ; A Bit Much as Ziggy Stardust ; PFM as Radiohead ; Whores at the Door as the Pixies ; Deezy and the Brobots as Weezer ; Birdorgan as the Residents

“It’s fun to pretend to be your idol for a minute,’’ says Ashley Willard, of Whores at the Door. In this case that idol would be the Pixies’ bassist-vocalist Kim Deal. “It’s a chance for everyone to let go of the more serious full-time focus on their original music and just have fun. And we’re all a bunch of attention whores, so we’ll do anything that puts us on a stage in front of people.’’
Saturday, 8:30 p.m., P.A.’s Lounge, 345 Somerville Ave., Somerville. 617-776-1557, www.paslounge.com
 
Members of the Last Front and the New Dumb as Ween ; members of Campaign for Real Time, Mean Creek, PolarBaron, and Marconi as Talking Heads ; members of Horsehands, Shore Leave, and the New Dumb as Mclusky ; members of Shore Leave as Shellac
Playing songs everyone already likes is one thing, but exposing people to your under-appreciated favorites, like Ween and Mclusky, is what motivated Brian Rusnica of the New Dumb. Even still, he says, the pressure is on. “Boston’s music fans are really knowledgeable. They know their details and I think they appreciate the nuances that bands can put on their performances when they’re emulating something so completely.’’   Sunday, 9 p.m., O’Brien’s, 3 Harvard Ave., Allston. Tickets: $9. 617-782-6245, www.obrienspubboston.com

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Gold Panda

 
GOLD PANDA
Lucky Shiner
 
There are usually two options for electronic hip-hop records: mellow trip or study in complex head-buggery. This sample-and-synth glitch-hop debut LP from UK remixer and hype-shined Gold Panda is both. With no traditional vocals to speak of, Panda uses layered sound vistas and heaps of sampled noise to carry the weight of the hooks; the result is a surprising warmth of texture and melody that envelops you like a well-worn hoodie. "India Lately" incorporates found sound samples over a loop that's like the thump of a flat tire on grooved asphalt and a buzzing ambiance that's somewhere between a swamp full of mating insects and a droning sitar. Toward the finish, the swarm grows — trashcan drum hits, devotional chanting, and Eastern-film-score strings enter the mix. Opener "You" works a similar sitar-and-spliced-up-Bollywood vocal motif to push the glitch-hop bump forward. "Vanilla," on the other hand, is a minimal groove of stabbing twitch tweaks over the crackling static of rotating vinyl. "Same Dream China" is the centerpiece, though, with its cascading whirl of chiming synths that drip and burst like rapid-fire xylophone tricks. It's all a lot to wrap your head around, and depending on your mindset, you could either follow the sound collage down the rabbit hole or simply ride the surface-level groove.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Liquid: A swig of fig


Spend time working at a magazine, and you'll be amazed at some of the bizarre schwag people send to the office (seriously, food-coloring samples, boxes full of hay, and plastic severed fingers have all passed through our mailboxes in recent months). Much of it is promptly filed right into the dumpster. But products with the potential to get us drunk are more likely to get noticed. Still, when a publicist gave the STUFF staff a bottle of the newly launched, locally produced Black Fig Vodka to try, everyone was skeptical. Oh great . . . another vodka . . . with a little fig thing on it? How cute. "We were really skeptical and thought it would most likely taste horrible," editorial director Erica Corsano recalls.

After a while, the bottle's siren-like call worked its magic on the collective staff brain. "We gathered round and poured servings in paper cups and toasted each other as we giggled about the silver fig-leaf charm that was part of the packaging," Corsano says. And then, silence. No one wanted to be the first to say it was good. "Holy crap . . . this stuff is awesome. We each sipped it slowly in amazement. It was smooth, sweet, and really tasty. We were totally wrong."

She's mostly right. My first impression was that it's astringent but smooth, with a naturally sweet viscosity. It's not cloying, but it edges toward a sticky-syrup mouthfeel. Nonetheless, I found it totally drinkable as an aperitif-style liqueur, preferably un-chilled. Did local mixologists feel the same way?
Figs are a common ingredient in Italian cooking, so I thought I'd bring a bottle to some Italian restaurants and see what they make of the stuff. Turns out, some already have it in stock. At Prezza (24 Fleet Street, Boston, 617.227.1577), one of the most popular dishes is the roasted figs stuffed with gorgonzola, so the Black Fig Vodka "seemed like such a natural fit, especially because of the true taste and high quality of the vodka," says Prezza GM David Petrilli. Prezza plans on using it in a Black Fig Martini. Since Petrilli finds it a little sweet, he'll balance it with half normal vodka, then garnish it with a blue-cheese-stuffed dried baby plum.

Bar manager Adam Kischel at Davio's (75 Arlington Street, Boston, 617.357.4810) had just got the bottle in when I visited. He thinks it's a good product with a nice flavor, but says it might be a little too pricey to feasibly work into a cocktail. Whereas their Ketel One martinis sell for $11, using the Black Fig Vodka might push the price up to $15-$17. He agrees it's well-suited for sipping on its own, however. I put him on the spot and asked him to come up with a cocktail anyway. The result was a mix of the Black Fig Vodka, his house-made ginger-infused vodka, brown-sugar simple syrup, lemon juice, Bittermens chocolate bitters, and egg white with a brown sugar rim; it was approachable and smooth, if not exactly the type of thing I'd normally order. The egg white froth and brown sugar sweetness edged it into wintery dessert drink territory, but with everything else going on, the dark, dried-fruit flavor got a bit lost.

The reason for the high price - it will retail for $59-$66 a bottle - is the quality of the Calimyrna figs, two pounds of which go into each bottle of the hand-distilled stuff, says co-creator Randy Nason. Along with his partner, Mitchell Maxwell, he's been infusing vodka with figs for years at their restaurant, Maxwells 148 (148 East Central Street, Natick, 508.907.6262). They'd serve the vodka to guests after dinner, and people would instantly take to it. When they decided to take the product to the commercial level, they wanted to stay true to its home-made nature. "We didn't want to do what everyone does and add flavor," he says. They also wanted to keep the color, which comes directly from the figs, so no additional ingredients are added.

Sounds promising, right? But it still might not be an instant sell for many. A lot of people don't even realize they like figs, Nason says. "I don't know if that comes from not liking Fig Newtons or what. They have this notion they don't like it, but then they try it and it's delicious." For proof, just look in the STUFF office; the bottle is pretty much empty already.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How One Small DVR Improvement Screwed Up The Football-Watching Experience


I wrote this piece for Deadspin. Go check it out there

No sport lends itself more readily to the splendors of digital video recording than football. And nobody suffered more than football fans when Comcast introduced a schoolmarmish new DVR feature: auto-correction for fast-forwarding.
 
Over the past few months, Comcast, my cable provider, has been rolling out a series of "improvements" to its DVR software. Digital video recording has done a lot of great things for our TV-watching habits, particularly for sports fans who feel besieged by inane sideline reports, drippy human-interest segments, Rachel Nichols asking people how they feel all the time — all those eminently skippable things that don't involve actual sports people sporting around. One small "improvement," however, is almost single-handedly ruining the experience of watching sports on TV.
I'm talking about the new "auto-correct" feature for fast-forwarding and rewinding. Comcast describes it as follows:
As you fast forward or rewind a DVR recording, this feature will automatically adjust for that split-second delay between hand-eye coordination and the stopping point. Depending on how fast you are fast forwarding or rewinding, your DVR will add or subtract a tad of time to auto-correct to what it determines is the logical spot to resume playback.
It may not seem like much. If you're coming back from a commercial break to find out whether or not Draper banged his secretary, it's probably not a big deal. But with sports, and especially with football, precision is key — and auto-correct is imprecise by design.

Here's how the infernal thing works now: Let's say you've saved 10 minutes of football in the future by pausing the game while you've stepped outside for a smoke. You come back in, fast-forward to the point where the action resumes, press play, and instead you're sent to the spot where the tiny elf wizard inside the DVR "thinks" you wanted to go, the assumption being that your reaction time is too slow to stop at precisely the right moment. As a result, you're jerked back anywhere up to 30 seconds (depending on your provider and how fast you're forwarding) — back to the previous commercial, or the previous play, or some other godawful limbo where you don't want to be.

For fans, that system might be workable if they only forwarded through commercials. But, as we all know, there isn't a lot of football in our football — 11 minutes of game action, by one recent count. That's why the sport has always lent itself so readily to the self-editing that a traditional DVR once made possible. It's not at all odd to find time-efficient people who fast-forward between plays. Under Comcast's new auto-correct regime, however, they have to fast-forward into action they've yet to watch. Even before they've seen the play at normal speed, they'll know if, say, the Patriots' defense has given up another third-down conversion (well, obviously, but you know what I mean). Fans are left with a choice between maddening inefficiency and anti-climax.

The change hasn't quite reached full market saturation yet, a Comast rep told me, so maybe your area hasn't been affected. Rest assured, it's coming. Time Warner Cable has instituted a similar system as well, and other services like DirecTV and TiVo have had an auto-correct function for years. But Comcast is currently the nation's largest provider of cable services, with some 24 million subscribers in 39 states; 18 million of those are digital video subscribers. It won't be long before auto-correct is settled doctrine.

The company says the feature "was driven by customer feedback." I'm not the only one complaining, though. From Comcast's feedback site:
Auto-correction — is *that* what they're calling that god-awful bug in the system that makes my brother curse and threaten to throw the remote at the TV? We thought that there was just something wrong with the DVR, because now when you fast forward or rewind, it never stops where you wanted it to.
The auto-correction feature added to my Comcast DVR is an unfortunate change. It prevents me from fast forwarding to the next play while I am watching football since it automatically brings me back to a point well before the next play begins. This makes watching sports so much less enjoyable that I will have no choice but to drop Comcast's DVR service.
Whatever has been done to my fast-forward and rewind is HORRIBLE.... Please return my DVR's functionality or give me the option to turn off this garbage "feature." If I don't see this change in the near future, I may switch to a different service provider if I can find one that provides normal rewind/fast-forward controls. I get seriously frustrated and even angry while watching TV - this should be a time for me to relax.
The actual technology varies from provider to provider. Of the ones I contacted, only Time Warner would or could provide me with its exact correction time: seven seconds, no matter how fast you're forwarding or rewinding. TiVo's "overshoot correction" is just a few seconds. It was installed after the company's research determined that a typical person needs "around a second between seeing the correct scene and pressing the play button to stop the fast-forwarding," according to Elissa Lee, VP of research and ARM product management. Comcast is more extreme. Pressing play during a high-speed, five-arrow fast-forward sends me back nearly 30 seconds, by my estimate. Four arrows is roughly 15-20 seconds. Three arrows is about eight seconds.

It's not hard to imagine the people for whom these changes were intended. Some people out there — the fat-thumbed, I'm guessing, or those just generally slow on the uptake — can't handle the thrill of riding the five-arrow-fast-forward lightning. I have friends who've never even opened up the remote to four arrows. Too risky. They might run the fast-forward button right off the road. Or, worse, they might forward so far ahead they wind up in some quantum singularity watching a Big Bang Theory episode from the future. It's because of their inability to wield a remote with dexterity, with poise, you might say, that — much like everything else pure and good in the world — the DVR fast-forward function had to be dumbed down.

That's fine for most television programming, but a football game is something else entirely. Aside from maybe the Red Zone Channel and HD feeds, being able to watch a game on delay is the single biggest advance in football viewing technology in the past decade. After all, this is a sport of pauses and timeouts and commercial breaks, with the occasional bit of high drama mixed in. Football fans aren't just skipping commercials. They're skipping the huddles, the booth reviews, the 10 seconds of Peyton Manning flapping his arms. And in those instances, fans know when to ease their finger off the button. They know when the action is about to resume. They've internalized football's rhythms through years and years of viewing. They don't need to be auto-corrected by the schoolmarms over at Comcast.

I called into the ever-reliable Comcast customer service to see what help, if any, they had to offer, and to register my displeasure with the improvements to my service. Maybe there was a way to turn off the function? After a half-hour of waiting and three tries at explaining the issue I had with the auto-correct, it was suggested that I try getting a new remote. The woman on the line hadn't even heard of the feature I was trying to describe. Apparently the service reps don't even realize what their product is doing to ruin my life. Perhaps they're dealing with customer feedback on some sort of time delay? They should probably fast-forward a few minutes to catch up. Or is it rewind to go back? I can't keep track anymore.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Art Is Hard: When Cover Art and Merch Designs Seem a Little Too Familiar



“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” That quote, often attributed to Pablo Picasso, has gradually edged its way into the collective wisdom through sheer force of repetition. What he meant, or what we've come to understand as his meaning, is that influence is the fuel of artistic creation; learning through imitation—or copying—is how any artist learns the trade. Young art students sit in museums for hours sketching old masters displayed before them. Musicians learn an instrument by playing their favorite artists’ songs. But stealing—taking something of someone else and making it your own—is something different.

When cover art was revealed for HIS NAME WAS YESTERDAY’s self-titled album, the design—featuring a man in a black suit staring into a dingy bathroom mirror at an altered vision of himself—seemed somewhat familiar. That’s because it looks a lot like the cover of SENSES FAIL’s 2004 album, Let It Enfold You.

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This isn’t the first time this has happened. AFTER MIDNGHT PROJECT's 2009 album, Let's Build Something To Break, features artwork of an astronaut in a field, much like that of BRAND NEW’s 2003 full-length, Deja Entendu. BAND OF HORSES' Cease To Begin (2007) and its green moonlit seascape brings to mind the cover of BOUNCING SOULS' Anchors Aweigh (2003). ELECTRIC OWLS' Ain't Too Bright (which came out in May 2009) seems to be a carbon copy of IN FEAR AND FAITH's Your World On Fire cover, which was released a few months earlier. The list goes on and on.

For their 2008 album Rotation, CUTE IS WHAT WE AIM FOR used a design featuring the same concept and approach from a piece of art created around 2004 for COUNTING CROWS.
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On the design website YouThoughtWeWouldntNotice.com, design studio Alphabet Arm details how CIWWAF’s management contacted them to commission a design based on the Counting Crows imagery. A representative for Alphabet Arm says on the site, “After some back and forth over pricing, we were informed they were going to concentrate on the merch design in-house and [would] contact us later. We never heard anything back.” When the album artwork later surfaced, Alphabet Arm couldn’t help but notice a striking resemblance to their design.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to album covers. Old-school metal heads might notice a strong similarity between OVERKILL’s skull and bat wings logo and AVENGED SEVENFOLD’s. But that begs the question: is that really plagiarism? It's been held up time and again in musical plagiarism court cases that you can't claim ownership of a musical idea, just the execution of it. In other words, a band can't own the notes A-minor or D. They can, however, own their recording of themselves performing those notes. By that definition, you can't own the idea of a skull with bat wings or a butterfly collage.

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But there's a big difference when one artist copies another piece of art, changes a few things and uses it in a different way.  For example: An image inside the booklet for Owl City’s Ocean Eyes is clearly an altered version of a picture of Chicago by photographer Ben Eubank.

BREATHE CAROLINA  were also taken to task over the original cover art for Hello Fascination, which appeared to be a poorly altered version of a piece done by artist Ann Om. After Om contacted the designer of the Breathe Carolina cover, Hello Fascination was released with different artwork.

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The degree to which artists take offense vary. JAMES RHEEM DAVIS, the designer of the Senses Fail, cover hadn't seen the His Name Was Yesterday artwork until contacted for this piece. But he says, “I would agree it's definitely influenced by the cover I did.” Instead of getting angry, Davis says he’s flattered that something he created “influenced someone” enough to make something similar. “Sometimes you see artwork and think, ‘That's what I want to do,’” he says. “You may try to replicate that style until you find your own.” That's probably fine for young artists who aren't exhibiting their work or selling designs to record labels—but it can’t last. “I think it's when you can't eventually branch off and distinguish your own style that it may become a problem for some,” he says. “If an artist continues to blatantly rip off other artists—especially with technology allowing more communication throughout the world—you will eventually be called out.”

His Name Was Yesterday drummer MIKEY WATTS says he's aware of the similarities between his band’s album art and that of Senses Fail, but that it's a fairly common practice for bands to borrow from one another's visual representations. “Many artists have had similar styles of artwork without stealing anything or paying tribute to the artist who had a similar design before them,” says Watts. “Some of our favorite artists like Killswitch Engage, the End Of Heartache, 36 Crazyfists, A Snow Capped Romance, Sevendust and Cold Day Memory all have similar imagery on their covers at first glance.” The differences, he believes, stem from coupling the image with the music inside “When you listen to [an album with similar art to another] and return to that image on the cover for a second look, that picture is its own reflection of that band's heart and soul. That's what we were trying to accomplish with the artwork—it’s the best representation of what's to come from the music inside.”

After Midnight Project frontman JASON EVIGAN says there wasn’t any intentional correlation between his band's cover and that of Brand New. He says the imagery came from a dream he had in which an astronaut was walking through a field of poppies. “He moved slow and calm while heading toward complete destruction,” says Evigan. “I think it was a city in flames he was walking toward. I told the guys in the band the idea for the album art and did a mock up version. Right when the album came out, people were instantly accusing us of ripping off Brand New. To be honest, it never crossed our minds.” Evigan says he doesn’t recall ever having seen the cover of Deja Entendu and had a much more innocent reason for including an astronaut. “In reality, spacemen are just awesome.”

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Some similar scenarios haven’t always gone down so peacefully, however. Guitarist RAMIN NIROOMAND of In Fear And Faith (who, incidentally, took their name from a Circa Survive song) says his band went to great lengths to make sure their album design for Your World On Fire would stand out. “This sleeve was intentionally different and very elegant and classy, yet simple,” he says. “A couple months later we saw a couple posts about our album artwork being stolen [by Vagrant’s Electric Owls] or vice-versa. But keep in mind that our album had already been released.” Niroomand says the reason for these types of incidents comes from there simply being too many bands. “The music industry in its current state is over-saturated with bands and lacking in the creativity department.”

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But who is really to blame when cover art is appropriated? Is it the bands? The designer? Niroomand blames the record labels. “They're the one's controlling the wallet most times, and they often don't want to spend for quality original art.” After all, as Davis told us, “Some artists get to be so popular, expensive and unavailable that if you can find someone with a similar style for cheaper, it may work for you to go that route.”

ASHLEY RINGROSE  of cover art design blog Sleevage.com says this is a current problem within the industry. “I guess designers want royalty-free art and also instantly recognizable imagery,” she says. “It’s sad as it seems like a cheap way out. They’re attaching their name to [someone else’s] artwork rather than trying to create something original.”

While a blatant rip-off can be funny to some, infusing humor into artwork is another way that this issue becomes more complicated. There’s a clear distinction between parody and plagiarism, and copyright law allows for a lot of protections for works intended to be viewed as a reference to the original work. In the world of punk— where tearing down the heroes of the recent past is a common practice—reusing an iconic image in a different context is an efficient means of deconstruction.

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THIS IS HELL  guitarist RICK JIMINEZ says the humorous approach to parodying other bands’ designs—like Weezer using AC/DC’s trademark font or Bad Religion and NOFX swapping each other’s iconic imagery for T-shirts—has become increasingly common. “Here and there, I think it works and can be clever,” he says. “But sometimes it seems like a ‘go-to’ as opposed to coming up with your own ideas.” Although he admits his own band have done this around the time of the release of their Warbirds 7-inch. “We covered an INXS song on that record, so the test press was a mock of the INXS Kick album cover,” he says. “For Weight Of The World, we mocked Guns ’N Roses’ [artwork for] Appetite For Destruction for the record release show cover.” But paying homage is not plagiarism. “I think it's usually pretty obvious,” says Jiminez. “When a band take elements from something and put a tiny variation on it and pass it off as their own without any credit acknowledged, that's when it becomes a foolish rip-off. The perfect example is Avenged Sevenfold straight-up stealing Overkill's logo and passing it off as their own.”

But some artists like  ROB DOBI—who has worked with everyone from Blink-182 to Underoath—think even resorting to parody is taking an easy way out. “I never try to do cheesy homage or parody stuff,” he says. “I try to stay above that and do my own shit.” The one time he did try an homage, he ran into a legal hassle. Fall Out Boy had commissioned him to create an image for their Where The Wild Things Are tour with the members drawn like the monsters from the classic children’s book by Maurice Sendak. “[The band] loved it,” he says. “They didn't think too much about how close it resembled Sendak's style. Then I got a call one day from Fall Out Boy's manager saying Sendak's camp has seen it and said if we didn't come up with a new poster, we were gonna get sued.”

Dobi is surprised that sort of thing doesn't happen more often. As a forum moderator on T-shirt design website Emptees.com, he constantly sees direct rip-offs of other designers’ work. “75 percent of the designs are band-related stuff and the amount of stuff that comes in that are direct rip-offs or copies of other shit is unbelievable,” he says. “People are ballsy thinking about what they can get away with—and people do get away with it. I haven't heard anything about bands getting the shit sued out of them when they should.” He points to one example featuring a Silverstein shirt. “Elements of the shirt were ripped directly from the artwork [of videogame Red Dead Redemption]. It wasn't redrawn or anything. Maybe it had some shitty Photoshop filter thrown on it.” Dobi is passionate when it comes to the topic of idea theft because he sees his own line, Full Bleed, copied all the time. “I wish there were some copyright police that you could call to go beat the shit out of people,” he says. “But I guess it's a sign that I'm doing okay if I'm getting ripped off constantly.”

Motivation isn’t always easy to pinpoint here. But poster artist  KEVIN TONG—who has designed for Weezer and Jimmy Eat World—has a theory. “Why does someone rip off another person's work?” he says. “Think of all the ways a person can be shitty and there's your answer. [Being] lazy, unoriginal, greedy, uncaring and selfish.” Artist and designer MICHAEL SHANTZ, who has produced artwork for Bring Me The Horizon and Gallows echoes the statement. “Lately, I have seen this circle in the scene where someone sees one designer do something—like an owl and an all-seeing eye—and then every single wannabe designer uses the same theme. Basically, the same design is done over and over. I feel like this is about kids having no knowledge of anything real—nobody reads and nobody does anything but look on blogs at things everyone else likes rather than [creating] art of something they love themselves. This is what starts the rip-off game. You see a design that's exactly what you want, and instead of doing your own, you 'borrow' something from it, copy the style or literally draw the exact same [design] and change one or two things.”

Shantz says he's been ripped off more times than he can remember. Then again, so have most bands when it comes to musical ideas. That's just how the music world works. “I think it's easier for a band to put a spin on another band's sound or musical ideas than it is for a visual artist,” says Jimenez. “In my opinion, there are way more subtleties in music than in visual arts. If someone is ripping someone else off, regardless of what media, it's a rip-off. But I think there is a lot more citing of influence in music as opposed to, ‘Let’s do what this band did' in artwork.”

From the other side of the discussion, Shantz says designers are getting away with highway robbery right now. “I can see how art and music overlap in this sense,” he says. “But I think with music, you may take a sample you like and use it to create a fully original song. Yes, you’re using someone else's work, but you're creating  with it. [Stealing] would be more like hearing a riff and using the exact riff and calling it your own. It's not really a new thing. This discussion has been going for ages, but I honestly think if you're [creating] art or music and question what you're doing, stop and do research on it. See if it's [original] and then continue. This would probably help to combat the theft that's running rampant in the art and music world.”

The debate is unlikely to go away any time soon, especially as our ability to reproduce other people's work remains at the click of a button—and some believe the practice is it’s necessary for creating new art or music. In an article written by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, he looks at where to draw the line between influence and plagiarism when it comes to the written word.

He writes, “There were times when one artist was simply replicating the work of another, and to let that pass inhibited true creativity. But it was equally dangerous to be overly vigilant in policing creative expression, because if Led Zeppelin hadn’t been free to mine the blues for inspiration, we wouldn’t have got “Whole Lotta Love,” and if Kurt Cobain couldn’t listen to “More Than A Feeling” and pick out and transform the part he really liked, we wouldn’t have “Smells Like Teen Spirit”—and, in the evolution of rock, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a real step forward from “More Than A Feeling.” A successful music executive has to understand the distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative.”

Kurt Cobain wasn't afraid to cite any of his influences, be they the Pixies or Boston. Perhaps if more visual artists took that respectful approach, it would free them up to further avenues of unrestricted creativity. Or they could do as Albert Einstein said, and just better cover their tracks. “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources,” he said. By the way, the idea of finishing a story with that quote comes from someone else.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Atreyu -- Covers of the Damned EP


FILE UNDER: Kill Yr Idols
 
If we told you Atreyu were covering Aerosmith, that wouldn't seem that jacked up, right? A lot of contemporary bands owe a debt of influence to the hobbling grandfathers of hard rock. But what about if we said it was a mid-period, MTV-era, shitty Aerosmith song like “Livin' On The Edge”? No, still not surprising—especially when you consider that this is a band who have regularly covered Bon Jovi's “You Give Love A Bad Name” over the years. With their polished, soaring pop choruses and flirting-at-the-mall-food-court-friendly metal, the Orange County, California, heavy-hitters know what side of the metal/pop divide their bread is buttered on.

That song is just one part of the mix on this quickie EP commemorating their upcoming Congregation Of The Damned Tour. For help they've enlisted members of tourmates Chiodos, Blessthefall, Endless Hallway and Architects (UK). Sounds like a dream come true for metal(core)heads—in theory. “Edge” is a mostly faithful cover, with Atreyu excelling with the multi-tracked studio-sheen vocals that they do so well. The guttural screaming break in the middle of the song is a bit jarring, and doesn't exactly fit the song, but anything's better than Steven Tyler's dreadful blues scatting—although Alex Varkatzas does manage to work some of that in at the song's conclusion. (Thanks for that.)

Being too precious about covers of beloved bands is basically the type of phony bitching that the internet was designed for, so expect a bunch of self-serious punks to get a little salty about the next track, “Holiday In Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys. At the risk of being sacrilegious, the improved production of this mostly dead-on update suits the song well. Don't like it? Too bad. The original still exists, so go tell someone who cares. Likewise, the cover of Deftones' “My Own Summer (Shove It)” should inspire beef from overprotective fans. Aside from missing the unmistakable menace of Chino Moreno's voice, it's a note-for-note replica. Chiodos' Brandon Bolmer avails himself admirably on the huge, screaming notes all the same. Thin Lizzy's “The Boys Are Back In Town” doesn't fair quite as well, the screamo background vocals here seem almost a parody of the genre on the breezy glam classic. It's still fun to hear what this collection of bands do with it, which is the point of the whole EP. It's not meant to hold up to critical scrutiny. Novelty and fun are good enough reasons to record a song—and to listen to them, too.