Monthly Archives: March 2010

Let’s Get Cynical About: GameCrush

It’s fair to say that, in recent years, video games have made significant leaps towards mainstream acceptance as both an industry and an art form. Whether it be having their own BAFTA awards ceremony, producing million-selling blockbusters or simply making gaming accessible to people who wouldn’t have touched a controller with a barge pole five years ago, it feels like video games are finally starting to sit comfortably alongside music, film and TV. The days where gaming was seen as being just for kids and/or lonely, shut-in nerds are surely coming to an end…

…but that’s not what the people behind new website GameCrush would have you believe.

Have a read of this article on IGN for more specifics if you so desire, but here’s the idea of GameCrush in a nutshell. Guys (or ‘Players’ as the service oh-so-hilariously names them) can pay to get a few minutes of game time with a girl (or ‘PlayDate’), either playing casual games with video chat on the GameCrush website itself, or via Xbox Live. Any girl who wishes to do so can sign up to be a ‘PlayDate’ for free and get paid to play, apparently.

I’ll give you a moment for the sheer, spirit-crushing stupidity of this idea to settle in.

…Seriously?

It’s hard for me to decide who the service demeans more – the girls who are being paid to play or the guys who are paying for them. While it’s depressing to think that the service hopes girls will be willing to sell themselves out for a bit of cash, it’s even more depressing that the service hopes that guys will actually pay for this. Actually, what’s most depressing is that girls already appear to be willing to sign up (the IGN article states there are around 1,200 profiles already) and that there are probably guys who*will* pay for this.

But rather than demean any particular gender, I feel that the service just demeans gamers as a whole. A girl who plays video games should at this point be par for the course, not something to be treated as a novelty. And being a guy who plays video games definitely shouldn’t imply some sort of abject social ineptitude. But here we are, with GameCrush presenting male and female gamers with the kind of “us and them” situation that is simply a load of bullshit. Gamers aren’t some sort of alien breed, but if GameCrush wishes to insult people’s intelligence by treating them as such, so be it. I can only hope the service dies on its arse as gamers do the sensible thing and just go out and talk to some girls face-to-face. I mean, I’m hardly the greatest socialite but seriously, it’s not *that* hard is it?

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Review: Blood Red Shoes – Fire Like This

Blood Red Shoes - Fire Like This

Blood Red Shoes - Fire Like This

I did very much enjoy Blood Red Shoes’ debut album Box Of Secrets, but I couldn’t help but wonder where they could go from there with their second record. The answer, as it turns out, is the obvious one – with Fire Like This, they’ve continued to follow the trajectory of fierce, grungey boy-girl indie-rock. But while the band aren’t fixing what isn’t broken, this isn’t just Box Of Secrets pt II – the band have subtly experimented and pushed their own boundaries, while maintaining a consistent quality that should make countless new bands green with envy.

The biggest departures on the record sit somewhat opposed to each other. On the one hand 7-minute album-closer ‘Colours Fade’ represents a bit of a gamble for the band – known for the punchy nature of their songs, can they make an ‘epic’ work? The answer is a resounding yes – sure, musically it’s a fairly straightforward song, comprised mainly of a steady beat and reverb-laiden guitar, but it’s the kind of song that begs you to lose yourself in it, particularly when the echoy chorus of “ah-ah-ah-aah”s kicks in.

As a complete contrast, ‘When We Wake’ is easily the most contemplative and beautiful song the band have ever written. A slow-burning anthem that builds from fragile guitar and quiet drums into the band’s more usual, full-on sound, it really showcases how pretty Laura-Mary’s voice can be.

Other new songs stick out as they seem to be so packed with hooks and ideas that they could have comprised multiple songs, but instead the band switch effortlessly between styles to create some fantastically dynamic and varied tracks. ‘Keeping It Close’ starts out with a raw blast of guitar before pulling back on the reins, letting Steven’s vocals come to the forefront before re-building itself via a menacing delivery from Laura-Mary. ‘One More Empty Chair’, on the other hand, begins with a sense of quiet melancholy, building up its energy with an increasingly urgent-sounding bridge – before unleashing it all in the chorus. Yes, ok, a lot of the appeal comes from good old quiet/loud dynamics, epitomised on first single ‘Light It Up’. But why should that be a complaint when it’s done so well?

It’s not unreasonable to say that there are tracks like ‘Don’t Ask’ or ‘Heartsink’ certainly wouldn’t sound out of place on the band’s debut, but crucially they don’t sound like re-hashes or cast-offs – they’re simply more of the band at their no-nonsense best. It’s perhaps an easy thing to say about an album I like, but there isn’t really a dud track on here – it would be easiest to pick at ‘Follow The Lines’, but in the context of the album it’s interesting to hear a song that ditches the quiet/loud dynamic for a quiet/quiet one.

I’m not sure why, but I found myself connecting more with these songs when I listened to them on record than I did when I saw the band play live recently. Maybe that’s because Blood Red Shoes feel like the kind of band that you have to really invest yourself in to fully appreciate – and knowing the songs helps a lot in that regard. The good news is that if they keep creating records as consistently good as Fire Like This, then your passion for the band will be more than justified.

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New Grammatics songs? Yes please!

Well, this post was originally going to be me posting videos of the new songs that Grammatics played at their gigs in Leeds and York this week. However, due to unforeseen circumstances*, I’m going to have to resort to actually doing this whole journalism thing properly and describing them with words.

*The PA in Leeds being a bit crap, prompting Rory to kindly ask me to take the videos down. And also, me being a moron and charging my battery, but then forgetting to put it back in my camera for the York gig. Duuuh.

So, we were presented with five new songs by the band. Generally speaking, they’re heavier in sound than a lot of the tracks on their self-titled debut, and shy away from turning into sprawling epics a la ‘Polar Swelling’ or ‘Relentless Fours’ (fun Grammatics fact – Owen told me that these gigs are the first time in Grammatics’ history that they haven’t played ‘Relentless Fours’ during their set). In short, we’re looking at a punchier, harder-hitting version of the band – but that doesn’t mean they’re any less dynamic.’Stalinesque’ (bonus points for clever title) starts out with an infectious bassline and stop-start drumming, before a wiry guitar riff and dramatic cello stabs build the song into something with a great sense of urgency.

There are shades of older songs here too, of course, but they feel much darker and heavier – for example, ‘Mutant Reverb’ (working title?) sounds a bit like ‘Rosa Flood’s downbeat cousin, and another new song has an air of ‘Murderer’s beauty about it, but with a more melancholy feel overall. The heaviest of the new songs features a distinctive minor-key sound, with the cello adopting a sinister feel and and the bass just sounding plain dirty – at one point Owen even breaks out an almost metal-esque guitar riff that really hammers the tone home.

The last of the new songs is possibly my favourite. Entitled ‘Church Of The Great I Am’, Owen wryly described it as “us going R’n’B'” – and while he assured us he wasn’t joking, don’t fear that the band have gone all Beyonce on us. It’s definitely not a million miles away from a big pop ballad though with big, echoey drums and majestic, sweeping cello – Rory even swaps his bass for a synth and simulates hip-hop hi-hats with the world’s smallest triangle. But crucially, it’s earnest without being trite, and engaging rather than making you want to switch off. My only complaint? It perhaps ends a tad abruptly – it feels like it could quite happily go on for another 30 seconds or so. But perhaps that’s the point – I enjoyed the sprawling, yet measured excess of  the band’s longer tracks as much as the next fan, but as Owen pointed out to me when I spoke to him after the York gig, they take up too big a chunk of the band’s set time. Playing ‘Relentless Fours’ every night cuts down a half hour set to about 5 or 6 songs. Which is fine when you’re starting out – better to have 6 fantastic songs than padding the set out with filler – but when you’re trying to showcase new material alongside the old, it doesn’t really work. All things considered though, after these two shows I’m looking forward to the prospect of a new Grammatics record more than ever.

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All You Can Hear Is The Sound Of Your Own Heart; or, Why I Love Los Campesinos!

Los Campesinos! - Romance Is Boring

I’m not quite sure when I first heard Los Campesinos!, but it must have been towards the end of 2007, as I saw them play a show supported by You Say Party! We Say Die! and Sky Larkin in October that year. An eventful 2008 saw them release not one, but two fantastic albums, and now the band have returned with their third full-length, Romance Is Boring – and it’s quite possible that they’ve surpassed themselves with it.

Lyrically, Romance Is Boring is a deeply personal album – indeed, shortly after the record had been maliciously leaked, Gareth stated on the band’s blog that he “puts so much personal and autobiographical stuff into songs that it as good as breaks me”. However, despite the the fact that Gareth spends most of the time talking about his own experiences with life and love, the record is still very easy to relate to. Indeed, one of the reasons I love Los Campesinos! so much is that in pretty much every song, there’s something that touches a nerve. Sometimes, it’s the overarching sentiment of a song – see ‘Romance Is Boring’s frustration at a stagnant relationship, or ‘Straight In At 101’s realisation that ultimately, your own personal heartbreaks barely register in the grand scheme of things. The latter is brilliantly conveyed in the song’s coda – having split up with his girlfriend, Gareth expects it to be considered a signficant event, but what actually transpires is not what he’d hoped for:

“I phone my friends and family to gather round the television; the talking heads count down the most heart-wrenching break ups of all time. Imagine the great sense of waste, the indiginty, the embarrassment, when not a single one of that whole century was mine.”

Sometimes though, it’s a single line that really hits home. “Sometimes it’s just enough to know I keep him on his toes,” spits Gareth bitterly of an ex-lover’s new boyfriend during ‘I Just Sighed. I Just Sighed, Just So You Know’, while on ‘I Warned You: Do Not Make An Enemy Of Me’ Aleks wearily asks “But if this changed your life, did you have one before?”

But it’s not just the words that make Los Campesinos! so brilliant. Musically, they’ve always encompassed a sense of ordered chaos – squealing guitars and pounding drums contrasting with graceful violins and chiming glockenspiels, all delivered with energy to spare. And while there are tracks on here that wouldn’t sound too out of place on either of their previous albums, there’s also a definite sense that the band have pushed themselves to take their sound in different directions. ‘Plan A’ cranks up the noise to be the rawest thing they’ve ever done, while ‘Who Fell Asleep In’ is the complete opposite – the song’s tragic tale is underscored by a majestic, string-lead soundtrack to beautiful effect. However, if there’s one song that really demonstrates how far the band have come, it’s ‘The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future’ – a thoughtful, melancholy epic that juxtaposes bleakness and hope with heart-wrenching results. (As an aside, the song’s opening lines in particular have a definite significance for me.)

If, at this point, you need me to give you another reason to love Los Campesinos!, then I’d point you to their live shows. It’s here that their energy really comes into the fore – they give it everything they’ve got, and their fans respond in kind. The band’s most potent lyrics really do get an extra sense of gravity when there are hundreds of fans shouting along with them. I had the chance to see them in February at Fibbers in York, and I’m pleased to report that the new songs sound great live. My only minor complaint is that new member Kim isn’t quite as strong a vocalist as the now-departed Aleks was, but that didn’t really get in the way of my enjoyment of the band’s show.

It’s fair to say that Los Campesinos! do seem to be a love/hate proposition – if you love them then you adore them unconditionally, and if you hate them it’s with a passionate loathing. I could try to give you more reasons to love them, but that would ultimately just lead to me quoting Gareth’s lyrics some more and gushing about what they mean to me, so I’ll spare you any more self-indulgent bullshit. I will, however, say this – Los Campesinos have not only the benefit of a masterful chronicler of human emotions and relationships, but also a finely nuanced approach to their sound, whether it be chaotic or serene. The end result? An album that sets the bar for quality records in 2010, and a band that feel truly vital.

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