C.A.T: Tea for the Tillerman

Cat Stevens – Tea for the Tillerman (1970)

Don’t let that cheesy gnome cover fool you, this is a real gem from the golden age of the singer-songwriter. Released at the height of Cat Stevens’ popularity Tea for the Tillerman is thoughtful folk rock that provides spiritual answers to life’s everyday questions. While he’ll sing about love on a track like “Wild World” he’ll also take the time to subtly address social issues on tracks like “Where Do the Children Play?” The results provide a more sophisticated approach to rock, yet in an enjoyable and pleasant package.

“Wild World” was the track that drew myself to Tea for the Tillerman and is still my favorite Cat Steven’s recording. With his nasally yet pleasing English voice he can effortlessly switch between soft and aggressive tones to better suit the message. A great deal of these tracks I heard prior on the Harold and Maude soundtrack which was a definite push in introducing me to Cat Stevens. I suppose his music worked so well in that film as Steven’s songwriting very much so reflects both the harder moments in life and the moments we should cherish.

The title track of course found popularity as the theme to Extras, can you believe it’s only a minute and three seconds long? I suppose that’s all he needed and am sure many have become Stevens’ fans from just that one minute. Although Cat (now Yusuf Islam) would give up pop music to devote his time to Islam in the late seventies, I’m glad to hear that in the mid 2000s he returned to playing some of his old classics and to playing the same kind of music that made him so beloved in the first place.

Favorite Tracks: “Hard Headed Woman”, “Miles from Nowhere”, “Wild World”

My Life in Holes

Portal 2

There has been some excellent symmetry between my first year of college and my last. When I was a freshman, I remember being really excited to play Halo 3, Assassin’s Creed and The Orange Box, which included the runaway hit Portal. As a senior, I’ve gotten to play Halo: Reach, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and now Portal 2 and they’ve all yet to disappoint. Like so many other things have.

While the first Portal ended in a way that certainly suggested a sequel, I never thought it would come. I thought the only successor to that amazing game would be references to portals or Aperture Science in Half Life 2: Episode 3. Instead, Valve decided to get back into that dark domain, greatly expanding its scope and narrative, along with introducing new gameplay mechanics that make the already trippy series a full on mind-bender.

To talk much about the story of Portal 2 is to deprive you of one of the great joys in gaming, so I’ll just say this game picks up were the first one left off. You’ve been in storage at Aperture Science ever since you killed the evil GLaDOS and you’re woken up by a delightful new robot friend Wheatley (Stephen Merchant) who helps you once again try to escape. Along the way you’ll learn more about the history of Aperture Science and its eccentric founder, Cave Johnson (J.K. Simmons). The story is fun to watch unfold around you in that classic Valve style, and this is easily one of the funniest games I’ve played.

You can’t afford to just think with portals this time around, the game has changed. Now you have to worry about lasers, light bridges, various types of goo and even anti-gravitational fields. If you’ve watched the trailers for Portal 2, it all looks super complex. In reality, the game does such a good job of slowly introducing these mechanics that things never seem truly daunting. Instead, you’ll just feel like the smartest little boy in the world when you figure these out on your own.

Of course, you’re not on your own in all of Portal 2. There’s an entire second campaign for two players to work their way through. In coop, you play as two lovable robots GLaDOS built to do the testing that was too dangerous for humans. Valve did a great job including in game functionality for countdowns and pointing out stuff to your partner, but for maximum enjoyment, make sure you both have mics.

It’s obvious the Source Engine is getting old. Portal 2 looks surprisingly great, but no one is going to say it’s an amazing game, graphically speaking. The worst part is the load times, which are too frequent and too long (at least on the PS3 version). But all that really means is that I liked Portal 2 so much that it really bothered me those few seconds I couldn’t spend playing it.

C.A.T: The Stooges

The Stooges – The Stooges (1969)

I was gonna write about Dylan’s Nashville Skyline (My second favorite Dylan album after Highway 61 Revisited) but after dragging my feet for a day or so I just wasn’t sure what to say about it, another time perhaps. Then when I noticed it was Iggy Pop’s birthday I was like “Well this is a no brainer.” Not to mention I was just rockin’ out to this a couple of days ago.

So it’s the debut record from the Stooges, the second Stooges album to be featured in our Classic Album Tuesday segment (Thursday in this case) and the third time now for Iggy. Now my liking for the muzak of Iggy Pop doesn’t go back that far (like a couple months) but I’ve always had a great deal of respect for the clown prince of rock. He’s charismatic with his bad boy sneer and relaxed “don’t-give-a-shit” delivery. They just don’t make frontmen like that anymore but you can’t count out the edgy musicianship from his fellow stooges either. Ron Asheton delivers track after track of sludgy riffage and ooften dabbles with some well deserved wah-wah. The rhythm section is classic rock 101 with some crunchy drums from Ron’s brother Scott and bass duties being filled by Dave Alexander, the first in a line of drug addicted bass players (That’s rock and roll).

But what really rock my socks off is the fact that thiscame out in 1969. Aside from maybe MC5 it’s hard to think of many other bands from the 60s that truly paved a way for punk (maybe even metal too). Sure there was a handful of pretty raw garage rock bands, but only so many of them were ya know, any good. I’ve delved fairly deep into the world of late 60s hard rock and these guys are still some of the best if not the best of their raw rock niche.

The Stooges just exude coolness without even trying. Sometimes it’s just the most simple things that have the most compelling effect. Just look at the lyrics to 1969 it’s like one sentence, yet every word carries with it so much angst and power. Now that’s balls-to-the-walls….

Favorite Tracks: “1969”, “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, “No Fun”

Mass Effect Beginner’s Guide

Over the past few weeks I’ve replayed the first Mass Effect and made it about half way through Mass Effect 2. It has cemented them as among my favorite games. Before I shift my focus to next week’s Portal 2 I wanted to share the wealth with anyone who has yet to delve into this fantastic vision of the future.

What’s Mass Effect All About?
In the beginning of the first Mass Effect, humanity is a recent arrival on the the galactic stage. Mankind got there thanks to the discovery of ancient technology from an extinct alien race called the Protheans. The Mass Effect is what makes FTL travel possible. The central hub of galactic civilization is the Citadel, and that is where the most powerful body of inter-species government, The Council, resides. Humanity wants a seat on the council and our chances would be improved if a human could become a Spectre, an agent of the council with incredible autonomy and authority. Commander Shepard is probably mankind’s best candidate.

Who is Commander Shepard?
That’s largely up to you. Shepard is a human, but that’s about all that’s set about the commander. You are free to choose is Shepard is a man or a woman, what kind of upbringing Shepard had, why Shepard is famous and what kind of combat Shepard specializes in. Both Mass Effects are engaging because you are usually free to make your own choice on how to tackle a situation. Your choices are categorized as Paragon or Renegade and if you consistently make choices down one of those paths, you are able to do more. As a Paragon, Shepard is a compassionate hero, always willing to help others and maybe even able to charm his or her way out of some sticky situations. As a Renegade, Shepard is a more intimidating, apathetic and selfish figure, willing to shoot enemies who spend to much time monologue-ing and even betray people for his or her own benefit.

For what it’s worth, choosing to have a background as a spacer war hero will boost your Paragon points at the beginning of the game and choosing to be a ruthless earth-born will boost your Renegade points. To start as neutral as possible, choose to be a sole survivor colonist. Personally, I think the female Shepard voice actor is better as a Paragon and the male actor is better as a Renegade. But most importantly, you should just make Shepard the kind of hero you want to play. You’ll be commanding the commander for quite a while.

What are the Classes?
There are six classes in the Mass Effect games. They are broken into three focuses: combat, tech and biotic abilities. The soldier is pure combat, the only class able to master all the weapons in both games. The engineer is pure tech and which is handy for locked doors and crates in the first game and the ability to summon an attack drone in the second. The adept is pure biotic, able to use powers not unlike those of a Jedi. Lots of throwing people around. The other three classes are mixes of the first three. The infiltrator is a combat and tech specialist and an expert sniper in the second game. The vanguard is a combat and biotics specialist, a master of close combat. The sentinel is a tech and biotics specialist, arguably the most versatile of all the classes.

When I first played through Mass Effect, my Shepard was an infiltrator. I liked that, since I never felt obligated to bring another tech specialist just to unlock crates. I turned that Shepard into a soldier in Mass Effect 2, because I wanted access to all the guns. My second time through both games I played as a vanguard and have been really enjoying it. In Mass Effect 2, vanguards get the ability to charge, which I think is the most fun power in the game, although it takes a bit of skill to use properly. I’ve been told that sentinels and soldiers have the easiest time getting through both games. Once again, you should really just choose what sounds fun to you.

Why Should I Play These Games?
If you like third person shooters, RPGs or engaging stories, both Mass Effect games are worth your time. The first game is like great Star Trek, it builds an amazing new universe that you’ll love to explore and learn about. The second game is like a Star Wars, less focused on the science fiction and more about real drama and an epic story. Except you get to make all the choices.

Both games focus on your ability to assemble a team of misfits to overcome ridiculous odds. They feature a great cast of characters who you will genuinely enjoy getting to know and will make it difficult for you to choose who to bring to a battle, and, eventually, who lives and who dies. I have never enjoyed conversation more in a game than in both of the Mass Effects.

Admittedly, the first Mass Effect has started to show its age, especially if you’ve seen Mass Effect 2. If you have a PS3, that’s a non-issue, since the game never came out on that platform. You get a bonus interactive comic at the beginning of Mass Effect 2 that catches you up and lets you make the critical decisions from the first game. If you’re on Xbox or PC, suck it up, bitch. Get past the technical jank, the bad inventory management, the terrible Mako sections. At the heart of it all, the first Mass Effect is still quite an enjoyable title.

If you’re scared because of the RPG aspects of the games, don’t be. In Mass Effect 2, there basically is no wrong choice you can make, the leveling and inventory systems are so streamlined. More importantly, the combat is great fun, like Gears of War with magical sci fi powers. This isn’t turn-based at all, it’s a straight-up shooter that you could play without ever pausing.

Mass Effect 3 is supposed to come out at the end of this year. You’ve still got time to join me in line on opening night. It’s time you catch up with one of the greatest game series of all time.

Any Time Will Do

TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light

I usually try wait a little while for someone else to review a new album, or at least until I’ve listened to it enough that when I hear a track I like I don’t have to go look up what it’s called. But you know what? I really like TV on the Radio and I really like their new album. Since it came out I’ve listened to it every chance I’ve gotten, which hasn’t been often enough, let’s be honest. But I’m really enjoying Nine Types of Light and I wanted to talk about it before it was too late and we discover the tenth kind of light (did we already? Are types of light a thing?).

It seems like just yesterday I listened to Dear Science for the first time and wondered where these guys had been my whole life. But that was almost three years ago. Just like Radiohead, now they’re back and not really bursting into new territory. But, come on, Dear Science would be pretty hard to top, don’t you think. What Nine Types of Light misses in not being pretty much perfect, it makes up in being TV on the Radio’s most consistent, accessible album yet.

Sometimes “accessible” is a euphemism for boring or safe, but this is not the case with Nine Types of Light. The songs the band included are not about how the world is falling apart, rather, they’re about more familiar, warmer subjects, like love. And damnit, why not? Can’t these guys focus on the lighter side of life for a change? I think so.

Things seem a little slower this time around, they lack the desperation of a “Wolf Like Me” or “Dancing Choose,” instead taking their time to build up into sonic pleasure-centers. At times, Nine Types of Light is soulful, funky and even rocking. Even though this album might be a little less grim and a little more comfortable than you might expect, if you’re a fan of the band of even bands kind of like TV on the Radio, you’ll find something to cling on to here.

Favorite Tracks: “Second Song,” “Will Do,” “All Falls Down”

Cry Me a Riviera

Metronomy – The English Riviera

Much has changed since multi-instrumentalist Joseph Mount released the experimental electronic, mostly instrumental, album Pip Paine (Pay The £5000 You Owe) in 2006 under the moniker of Metronomy. Since then he’s released the incredibly infectious Nights Out and even added some new members to this former solo act. Metronomy has evolved into one talented Brit fiddling around into a full fledged four piece band. While the style is still essentially electronic it’s also taken a bit of an 80s New Wave sound, just look at that Miami Vice pastel cover.

It’s always refreshing to see actual melodic compositions created with electronic music rather than just some guy dicking around for like ten minutes, that’s why Nights Out worked so well it was dancey and catchy. Though The English Riviera is still ruled by old school synths Metronomy sounds (I hate to say) a little more mainstream. I’m not sure if it’s the addition of more common rock peripherals or the more relaxed compositions, but these songs are definitely lacking some of the punch of previous Metronomy compositions. Though if you were to look at The English Riviera without comparing it to previous Metronomy recordings I think you’d find it’s still very pleasing to the ears.

Sure The English Riviera is a little soft, maybe a little slow for the less patient, but there’s some great, lush sounds being produced by maestro Joseph Mount. At the same it’s a bit conflicting to judge The English Riviera as whole because it just happens to be one of those albums where the first five songs are probably the best and the rest is just fine. So for that it wavers between the common DaMorgue rating of three to three and a half stars. One thing I can definitely say is it grows on you so I’m gonna rate it on the higher end of the spectrum, not bad Metronomy, not bad.

Favorite Tracks: “Everything Goes My Way”, “The Look”, “She Wants”

C.A.T.: Astral Weeks

Van Morrison – Astral Weeks (1968)

Well it’s taken about three years, but we’ve finally reached 100 CAT’s, and we’ve still yet to post one that actually seemed worth writing.  For this 100th CAT I’ve picked somewhat of a doozy, as Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is one of those great albums that really defies any sort of categorization, so I’m sure I’ll fail to even crack the surface of what makes this a great album.

Coming off of the success of the single “Brown Eyed Girl”, Astral Weeks saw Morrison in the wake of a dispute with Bang Records, who had released a bunch of Morrison’s older songs as 1967’s Blowin’ Your Mind unbeknownst to Morrison.  Displeased with the result of that album, Morrison decided to release Astral Weeks on Warner Bros. Records.  Unsurprisingly the album was met with little fanfare or success, and it’s kind of easy to see why, as there really isn’t anything resembling hit single material on Astral Weeks.

But the beauty of Astral Weeks lies in the swirling musical textures of the album, while Morrison’s nostalgic lyrics are often evocative and abstract at the same time.  There really aren’t any verses or choruses on any of the songs, they kind of just slowly unfold over long stretches, leaving the listener with plenty of different sounds to swim around in.  Much of the album revolves around Morrison’s acoustic guitar, but this isn’t your typical ’60s singer-songwriter album, as Morrison is often accompanied by harpsichord, flute, and most prominently Richard Davis’s jazzy double bass.

Astral Weeks has often been described as a song cycle, and it definitely has that impressionistic quality that gives it a sound that isn’t really like anything else in the realm of folk, jazz, rock, or any other genre that the album skewers.  I’m certain that the Astral Weeks‘ odd sound and structure is what caused me to be a little perplexed by it’s reputation when I first heard it a few years ago, but it seems each time I return to it, I find myself being even more drawn into its strange beauty.

Favorite Tracks: “Astral Weeks”, “Sweet Thing”, “Madame George”