Tag Archives: Music

Three reasons why the Beatles video game could disappoint

I love the Beatles, and I love video games. So I suppose I should be overjoyed that there’s going to be a Rock Band-but-not-called-Rock Band music video game featuring the fabulous foursome.

Sure, it’ll be fun to shred to Taxman and show off my terrible John Lennon impression. But there are three issues that could keep this game from being bigger than Jesus.

First, not all of the great Beatles songs are suited to virtual rock. Just on a quick glance, the game will probably have to leave out Eleanor Rigby, Yesterday, Blackbird, A Day in the Life, Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, All You Need Is Love, Hey Jude, Let It Be. Songs like Norwegian Wood and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away would have to be separated from the full-band songs (unless you want your drummer and bassist to just sit there for three minutes).

True, there are dozens of guitar-heavy songs that will make it, but that will make for a decidedly uneven overview of the group — unlike, say, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, which can leave out Janie’s Got a Gun and Amazing and still give a pretty good idea of what the band sounds like.

Many of the earlier songs that do have guitars feature a fairly quiet, jangly acoustic guitar that would get drowned out by wannabe Ringos smacking the game’s plastic “drums”: Help (the verses), Eight Days a Week, Can’t Buy Me Love, to name a few.

That leads to the second potential problem: without a decent remastering, many of the songs could sound terrible. Take 1964 production values pumped through standard TV speakers and combine them with the clicking “strum” of fake guitars, the aforementioned loud drums, and inevitably too-loud singers, and it’ll be hard to hear the parts to many of the pre-Rubber Soul songs.

The reports on the forthcoming game are based on a vague conference call, during which the subject of remastering was rather conspicuously unaddressed. So maybe Paul, Ringo, Yoko, Gloria Harrison, and Apple Ltd. will get their collective act together before the end of 2009, and the Beatles catalog will finally be remastered and re-released first online and then via the video game. But I’m not going to get my hopes up.

The game could be fun even with a somewhat-circumscribed track list and less-than-stellar sound. But the whole effort could fizzle if it focuses on the guitars and forgets about the harmonies.

There are many reasons to love the Beatles. The complex-but-beautiful melodies. The deeper-than-they-seem lyrics (well, maybe not “love, love me do”). The innovative production. For me, the most exciting aspect of the band is their exuberance, their sheer joy of playing — something that infuses pretty much all of their recordings, no matter how much they were fighting outside (or inside) the studio. And nothing is more exuberant than their effortless, intricate harmonies: the falsetto “If there’s anything I could dooo!” in From Me to You; the call-and-response backups on Soldier of Love; the pristine overdubs on And Your Bird Can Sing.

But Rock Band doesn’t register harmony — only the melody. I haven’t played Rock Band 2 or Guitar Hero World Tour yet, but nothing I’ve read indicates that they’ve added harmonies. SingStar 2, a just-released (in the U.S.) sequel to the PlayStation karaoke series, does have a harmony mode; we’ll see if the others follow suit.

You’d think the brains behind the Beatles game would make sure to build a harmony feature into such a marquee project. But given the seat-of-the-pants announcement and the lack of innovation in the current round of full-band music games, I wouldn’t bet on it.

So, Alex Rigopoulos, if you’re reading this (and I know you’re not) — don’t let me down. Without harmonies, it’s not the Beatles. Simple as that.

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Journalism reality check II: The death and rebirth of criticism

Over at American Scene, Peter Suderman offers a good response to Patrick Goldstein’s LA Times lament about the loss of entertainment critics in print media. Suderman writes:

For the vast majority of people, a Friday night at the movies is just that — and nothing more. Most people really don’t care about and have no use for lengthy dissertations about the ways in which Steven Soderbergh borrows from Godard. They just want to know whether to see Ocean’s 12! Playing blame the audience doesn’t work for music studios trying to combat piracy, and it doesn’t work for cranky critics who remain convinced they deserve $2 a word for 1) their insights into obscure movies few people want to see or 2) their complaints about Big Dumb Movies that everyone’s going to see anyway.

I would add that a majority of criticism doesn’t even rise to this level of sophistication/pretension. When I led a session on criticism at the Poynter Institute’s High School Writers Workshop, I presented the difference between good and bad criticism as the difference between a term paper (an original thesis supported by examples from the text) and a book report (basic plot summary with maybe a cursory judgment). Many print reviews still tend toward the book report end of the criticism spectrum. (Plus more papers are experimenting with things like American Idol live-blogs and other “insta-criticism” that runs more toward summary/quick response but is totally appropriate for the subjects and form.)

Suderman makes an even more important point about the lack of perspective from those in the newspaper industry who mourn the loss of print critics. He writes:

Trenchant criticism hasn’t died; it’s just shifted venues. …

Meanwhile, I simply refuse to buy the argument that the loss of book pages and film-review jobs is a bad thing. Yes, it’s a bad thing for professional critics. Yes, it’s tougher for those lucky few thousand folks to make a living reading books and watching movies! On the other hand, the internet has actually created vastly more opportunity for aspiring critics to get their work read. The barriers to entry in top-end publications are still high, but those outlets are no longer the only options for critics on the make. So we’ll see fewer professional critics, sure, but we’ll also see far, far more criticism.

And yes, some of it will be bad. But on the whole, I’d guess that it will create a net gain in serious, thought-provoking criticism of just about every medium. Meanwhile, most of those truly elite outlets — the New Yorkers and the Washington Posts — are not going away.

Terrific points all. Jody Rosen is the best music critic in the country; he writes for Slate, not a newspaper. Newspapers that have a Jody Rosen should build an online brand and community around that critic and hope the critic doesn’t leave. If they don’t have a Jody Rosen, if their critics file one book-report review after another — and if newspapers increasingly need to think about what they can offer readers that no one else can — then they should treat every kind of critic as a luxury except for (maybe) local-music and (definitely) restaurant critics.

But there’s one crucial piece missing from Suderman’s analysis. Yes, there’s plenty of great criticism online. Yes, there’s going to be a net increase in great criticism thanks to that online crit-boom. But like so much of the online news-commentary-criticism boom, it is invisible to newspaper readers.

Suderman assumes that getting rid of critics won’t matter because newspaper readers will find the good stuff online. That would be true if you assume everyone has an RSS feed and reads Slate, Pitchfork, and House Next Door. Needless to say, not everyone does. If they did, that would further erode newspapers’ declining readership.

So if newspapers do get rid of in-house critics, they need to simultaneously start giving readers some of the material Suderman talks about. That goes for more than just criticism. Newspapers can no longer treat the online universe as invisible. They have to find a way to bring that great content to their readers, both via the Web and in print.

Remasters gone wild

I’m a bit of a sucker for remastered music. I’ve rejoined the BMG music club three times for the remastered Paul Simon and Bob Dylan libraries alone. I’ve bought The Who’s Live at Leeds twice (expanded CD reissue and Deluxe Edition 2-CD set); The Clash’s London Calling twice (pre-remaster CD and 25th Anniversary Legacy Edition 2-CD/1-DVD set); and The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet twice (original CD and remastered CD/SACD hybrid), among others — though I’ve largely resisted the shameless re-rerepackaging of Elvis Costello’s albums. (Out of all my cremastered CDs, the only ones I can truly tell are an upgrade are The Band’s first two albums.)

I’ve also avoided the even more shameless repackaging of movies for various DVD reissues. So while I understand the intended audience of the Criterion Collection’s two-disc reissue of The Ice Storm (i.e. suckers like me), I couldn’t help but laugh when I read this in the Washington Post’s review:

Thanks to the Criterion Collection, releasing “The Ice Storm” today in a two-disc set ($39.95), the movie has a shot at rediscovery. The restored digital transfer, accompanied by audio commentary from Lee and screenwriter/producer James Schamus, allows viewers to see every detail in all its exquisite, retro glory. (emphasis added)

Keep in mind that The Ice Storm came out in 1997. I love the implication that the original print was found peeling and crumbling in some dank movie studio vault, and had to be restored to its full glory … 11 years after it originally came out.

And now that Sony has won the high-def DVD war, I guess we should brace ourselves for the coming Blu-ray remasters. Imagine the ad copy for the 2010 Transformers Blu-ray Legacy Edition: “You’ve never seen imaginary giant talking robot trucks like this before! Watch Shia LaBeouf talk to a car in this high-definition, luminously restored digital transfer that rescues a modern classic from the blurry, fading, what-were-they-thinking 2007 original digital file!”

The mysterious downfall of a Prince

Prince’s generally dreadful — but copious — recent output is one of the enduring pop culture disappointments of the past 15 years. His “comeback” performances at the 2004 Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony and last year’s Super Bowl notwithstanding, Prince’s creative decline falls somewhere between post-accident Stephen King and post-sanity Michael Jackson.

My friend Eric reminds us of better Prince times in this post, where he provides links to Prince’s aborted Camille and Dream Factory projects. They’re both definitely worth downloading and listening to, and they’ve inspired me to do a more thorough re-examination of what the heck happened to Prince (short answer: ego and a misunderstanding of hip-hop). This will require a bit of listening and a rereading of the fascinating biography Possessed.

But to get the conversation started, here’s a review of the 2004 album Musicology that was supposed to run in the St. Pete Times a few years back but got lost in the shuffle. It was an attempt to counter the CW at the time (which has since been revised, I think) that Musicology was vintage Prince and a real comeback. I saw Prince live for the first time on the Musicology tour, and he was great. But the album was just as boring and lame as The Rainbow Children, Emancipation, Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic, etc.

So two views of latter-day Prince: His jaw-dropping (literally — watch Dhani Harrison) RnR Hall of Fame performance (Prince solo starts around the 3:20 mark) …

And a contemporaneous review of Musicology:

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Obama, Meet We Are the World

I’m somewhat of a Barack Obama fan, so I suppose it’s nice that Will.i.am and other celebrities have decided his candidacy is important enough to warrant a pro-Obama (proBama?) “We Are the World”-style music video.

But with the “lyrics” consisting of sung-chanted portions of an actual Obama speech, and with the participants not once winking (see: Scarlett “Yeah, I Made a Tom Waits Covers Album” Johansson singing at a sibilant-dulling mic screen), the video basically is a cross between “Voices That Care” and the brilliant Ali G sketch where he beatboxes to a nuclear protester’s embarrassingly dreadful protest song.

Observe:

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Still, none of them holds a candle to the best celebrity song of all time: Rockers to Help Explain Whitewater.