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Archive for May, 2009

Skip Week Woo!

May 26, 2009 Leave a comment

My best friend (and best man) is coming down tomorrow to visit. This will be the first time I’ve seen an actual adult human being other than my wife for more than two hours in nearly six months. Therefore, no update this week.

We’re going to the Nine Inch Nails/Jane’s Addiction show in Noblesville, IN, on Saturday, so I should have a review of that up next week.

’til then, enjoy this:

Categories: Uncategorized

Martha Speaks; or, How Not to Dumb-Down Your Programming

May 18, 2009 Leave a comment

I spend a lot of time on this blog complaining. Like, a lot. Even when I review albums by my favorite bands, I seem to do nothing but disparage them. My reviews of U2, Metallica, or Tool‘s most recent albums are at least as much negative criticism as positive. But today… today I’m going to share with you something I whole-heartedly adore. But more introduction first.

As a stay-at-home dad (please, no jokes about being a house-husband; I deplore the term house-wife just as much), I watch a lot of children’s programming. A lot. Particularly on PBS, because we’re fairly poor and can only afford an internet connection. I’ve noticed there’s some trends in the genre, and the two major ones are:

  • Shows that assume children are idiots, and
  • Shows that assume children have brains.

As you can probably guess, I’m a bigger fan of the latter, with the former including things like Barney, Teletubbies, and Thomas the Tank Engine. These are, in my opinion, shows that exist to keep children quiet, to keep them docile and entertained.

Shows of the second type, the ones that assume children have brains, make up a painfully small portion of children’s programming. Sesame Street has long been a leader in this catagory, though I think the introduction of the “Elmo’s World” segment is a step in the wrong direction. Two other shows currently on PBS that follow in this trope are Curious George and Martha Speaks. Martha Speaks, in particular, is the one I’d like to talk to you about.

Martha Speaks is a cartoon show based on a series of children’s books of the same name. The protagonist, a dog named Martha (who I think might be a Corgi), speaks thanks to a freak occurance with a bowl of alphabet soup. The experience is impossible to reproduce in the show; other dogs try the same soup, with no effect. But past this incredibly preposterous premise—which is really no more preposterous than, say, a giant purple dinosaur in a classroom, or an anthropomorphized dump truck—the show works precisely because it lives within its own boundaries.

Note the use of the words “enumerate” and “elucidate” in a show aimed at kids.

Martha’s talking is seen as remarkable, even whimsical, by other cast members, but most people in the show are understanding enough to admit they don’t know everything and can accept bizarre situations. Even when Martha’s talking gets her into trouble or bad situations, most of the time, rational conversation and talking out problems become the focus of the show.

But the primary reason I like Martha Speaks is that Martha is a curious, positive character, and she is always trying to be helpful. She rarely gets in trouble without having good intentions at heart, and that is what makes the show endearing to me on a parental level. I am reminded that my daughter isn’t trying to be malicious when she does something wrong, she just forgets, or she’s trying to learn, or she’s trying to help. As it is with Martha.

From a technical level, the show is well-written. It rarely uses a big or new word without explaining it through natuarl dialogue (“No, ‘recouperate’ means to get better.” “Oh, I thought it was more like ‘Oops, I just recouperated all over the carpet.'”) The voice acting is top-notch, with Martha herself voiced by Tabitha St. Germain, and the rest of the cast culled from the Vancouver-based anime voice-over studio The Ocean Group. Considering the production studio that produces the show is also responsible for Curious George, I’m not surpirsed by the quality of the show, and I understand it’s been picked up for a second season. I can’t wait.

Also, the animation, for appearing to be mainly Flash-based, is surprisingly emotive and accurate for conveying mood, emotion, and the like. I find myself laughing at Martha’s facial expression almost as much the dialogue.

Finally, the reason for my love of the show is because it’s one of the few kids shows that my wife and I can watch after an hour of Family Guy and American Dad on Sunday nights and see a crossover in joke sophistication. People badmouth those two shows a lot, but the humor in them (generally) comes from situation more than individual joke/punchline formula. I’m not saying that Family Guy or American Dad is high-brow humor all the time, but when the shows are on-point, it’s hard to deny that they are the work of someone that knows how to make people laugh. The same can be said of Martha Speaks.

Yes, I just compared a kid’s show to Family Guy. Yes, I just said American Dad can be genius. Stop e-mailing me.

Anyway, when Martha Speaks introduces an episode with a sick little girl, and it spirals out of control to include chimney sweeps, a pizza delivery guy, the police, and the fire department, and the whole thing works, you know it’s the work of someone that knows what they’re doing. And, most importantly, they don’t pull punches. They don’t dumb down the show because they assume children are dolts. That’s a message that should go out to every producer of children’s television: treat your audience with respect and they’ll respect you back.

Really, you could say that for any medium, but television (and, by extention, film) seems the most egregious offender of audience disrespect. It seems like they’re always saying “Here, we know you’re going to watch this anyway, so we’re just going to give you this garbage, and you’re going to like it, because there’s no other choice.” It’s why I don’t even really watch network TV anymore. When TV shows move away from substance and put more emphasis on how the show looks (say, Who Want to be a Millionaire vs. Jeopardy!) then you lose out on the actual potential television has as a mass medium. Rather than enlightening, television has moved to pandering, and that insults viewers.

Even when your viewers are three years old.

A Stupid Top Ten List

May 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Not much this week. I don’t really feel like making any in-depth analyses, and I don’t particularly have anything percolating in my brain, so you’re getting a nice, generic Top Ten list. To accompany it, I’ve created a mix of the song at 8tracks.com.

The Ten Heaviest Songs I Have on My Computer at This Moment
a totally arbitrary list with no definition of ‘heavy’
(in no particular order)

1. “Finger Paintings of the Insane” – Acid Bath: This, actually, could be part of a quadriptych with the songs that follow it on When the Kite String Pops: “Jezebel”, “Scream of the Butterfly”, and “Dr. Seuss is Dead”. Acid Bath is, to me, the quintessential sludge metal band, with Dax Riggs’ vocals and their use of 3/4 and 6/8 time. But in “Finger Paintings…” the band creates a shifting atmosphere of horror that few bands will ever top.

2. “New Millenium Cyanaide Christ” – Meshuggah: I have no clue what time signature this song is in for the most part, but you can, in fact, headbang to it if you’re listening to the hi-hat/snare. Following the guitars or kick drums will give you a weird sort of jaunty-lope that seems natural but is still tough to reconcile with the 4/4 on the hats/snare.

3. “March of the Fire Ants” – Mastodon: This song has the best intro riff of the decade. It’s the song that got me into Mastodon back in the day, before they were all over the indie mags, before they were nominated for Grammys, before they were on Guitar Hero. It was tough to pin down one particular Mastodon song, so I just went with the first one I heard, which is still their signature song. Close runner-ups were “Blood and Thunder”, and pretty much the whole of their albums Blood Mountain and Crack the Skye, which is on my short list of Best of 2009.

4. “We Ride” – Strapping Young Lad: I am sad this band is no more. At least I have the knowledge that Devin Townsend is doing more solo work, and Byron Stroud and Gene Hoglan have gone on to help re-form Fear Factory. On each Strapping album, there’s at least two songs, if not more, that are in contention for Heaviest Song Ever. This happens to be one of the ones off of Alien.

5. “Ticks & Leeches” – Tool: Trying to find a good song by Tool is easy. Trying to find one I’d call “heavy” is a little tougher. This one won out over “Aenema” and “Jambi”. While you could argue the first two albums (well, the first EP and album) are more traditionally “heavy”, “Ticks & Leeches” has a lot more weight to it than those albums could ever hope to have. When Danny Carey’s drums come thundering in after the calm middle break, it sounds like hell on Earth. Playing a drum kit made out of stainless steel will do that, I suppose.

6. “Dead Bodies Everywhere” – Korn: It was a toss-up between this and “Freak on a Leash”, but the um… “harmony” vocals in the chorus of this one seals it. I acknowledge the breakdown in “Freak” gets ridonkulously heavy, but that’s just that one part of the song. I also have noticed that, over the years, as bad as Korn has gotten, they still have the “snare hit: HEAVY” formula down pat. Even their song “Here to Stay” has that moment, and it’s pretty alright.

7. “Harvester of Sorrow” – Metallica: Yep. Still their best song, in my opinion. Lots of people hate it, hate the record, and, thanks to a freak bus accident twenty years ago, hate the band. But this is proof that a band doesn’t have to tune down, play fast, or employ a terrible, impossible-to-understand singer to be “heavy”. Plus the solo makes exactly zero sense. This album paved the way for Meshuggah, and the 90s/early 2000s Slayer sound, whether anyone acknowledges it or not.

8. “Disciple” – Slayer: Speak of the devil. I’d probably have a different song up here, but I lost a bunch of my Slayer CDs to being poor. I plan on buying them up again eventually, and when I do, I’ll probably put “Raining Blood” in this spot.

9. “Mein Teil” – Rammstein: This is the heaviest riff ever written. It’s in drop-C, it’s mid-tempo, and it’s brutal beyond belief. Throw the ugly German on top of it, and it’s so over-the-top that it has to go on the list.

10. “Violence from Within” – Darkane: It’s, at its core, a pretty straightforward thrash metal song. It gets bonus points for drummer Peter Wildoer’s insane single-stroke hi-hat roll at the beginning.

Songs that almost made the list: Every song off Dethklok’s The Dethalbum. “Bastard Chain” by Soilwork. “Drag the Waters” and “Fucking Hostile” by Pantera. Probably lots of others.

There you go. Rick’s metal list. Maybe I’ll do Top Ten Pop Songs one day. Or most depressing songs. The possibilities are endless. But I’m not Spin here, am I?