…And Friends

ALEX’s Best Of 2010: A Pee-Pee Soaked Heckhole

[You have selected: Alex Spencer] Looking back at the end of a year, it’s always music that takes the lion’s share of attention. That’s because it’s easy to look back on a period soundtracked by a single album; it’s easy to hear a single so much it’s driven deep into your brain. (More or less the same way that books monopolise places: that beach where I finally read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Klay. Train journeys and road trips easily become monuments to favourite reads, and re-reads… But that’s a story for another time.)Point is: Films, and especially games, don’t get the same treatment. That’s a lot to do with their inherent nature (similar to my conclusions after a Summer With No Games). They are, respectively, a quick burst/an extended period of sitting in a dark room. There’s not much to hold onto, memory-wise. Except: Solium Infernum was the soundtrack to my spring. For a good three months, it permeated the majority of my thoughts as I slipped off to sleep. It dominated living-room conversation (and so, like the album your neighbour constantly turns up to obnoxious volume, probably seeped into defining that period for the annoyed non-players in my house too). There are a lot of reasons for this. To help explain them, I should probably lay out exactly what Solium Infernum is. A multiplayer board game, except with computers and mice instead of dice and sunshine-faded cardboard. To look over someone’s shoulder, the game appears completely harmless. Just some pieces, dragged across a map, and a lot of numbers. Except that it’s a game about politics and in-fighting, which makes it even more fitting for the time it defines, probably. It’s a game set in Hell. Solium Infernum gives you very little story. It gives you a beginning, one familiar to any player versed in our cultural past, from Milton’s Paradise Lost to Dante’s L’Inferno; Gaiman’s Sandman to… er, Sandler’s Little Nicky. Over in Hell, Satan got bored, decided he was about due a holiday, and abdicated the throne. You’re cast as one of the many demon lords who’ve decided they’d like a piece of this pie for themselves.From there, you have to make it up yourself. Which you do in turns, slowly gathering resources, moving units, and threatening your fellow demons in an attempt to gather as much prestige as possible. So you advance across empty wastelands, take fortresses and monuments by force and carve up the Unholy Land between yourselves.It’s an incredibly slow game, especially when played with others. It relies on email, meaning the progress of a Solium Infernum game can be agonising. On a good day, you’ll get to play twenty evenly-spaced three-minute turns, in which you can perform two actions. More realistically, on a day where at least one player actually has a social life, it’s more like one turn the moment you wake up, fifty impatient checks of your email, and one in the early hours when the last player finally gets in and thinks to check their inbox. This can be absolutely agonising. It’s also the defining feature of the game. Because it undermines the rules of what a game is, in terms of time. Those twenty three-minute bursts replace one two-hour session. This moves it closer to the territory of pop music, the repetition that gets the listener hooked. And Solium Infernum is all hooks.Because, ultimately, the game relies on one universally appealing thing: the opportunity to screw your friends over in increasingly torturous way. Everything is carefully placed so you have to be – at best – mean, or – more likely – incredibly sneaky to win. This isn’t a game about battles: to get into a scrap with your neighbour, you have to initiate a Vendetta, either by provoking them with insults, or forcing them to provoke you by refusing your perfectly reasonable requests for half their resources. Which sounds very complex, and to certain extent it is. But quickly the desire to succeed drives you into the rhythm of covert diplomacy, dodgy deals, and mind-games. Not success as in winning, but as in scoring another hit. The moment that, in the game, you pull out of a deal, leave your ‘ally’ suddenly alone with four other rivals, and run off with all the equipment they lent you. The moment that, at your computer, you laugh maniacally until you catch yourself and think, am I actually evil? Which is unique, as far as I can tell: Milton might have used the epic form to create sympathy for the devil, but Solium Infernum borrows from the tradition of Theme Hospital to really force you into that pantomime-villain role. I’ve never been one for role-playing games: it all feels too much like silly play-acting, whether you’ve got a controller in your hand or are sitting round a table in a cloak. Solium Infernum pushes role-playing into your life. The game doesn’t really exist in those three-minute bursts. The game lives in the moments between: the scheming emails and texts, guessing at plans over a drink and, best of all, seeing the friend that you completely irreversibly screwed over last night weeping into his breakfast cereal.It’s not unreasonable to say that Solium Infernum made me a worse person for those three months. I’d suggest it gave me a harmless medium to enact my cruel pranks and be really hilariously mean to my friends. But, then again, that would imply Solium Infernum is totally harmless, wouldn’t it? About the author: Alex Spencer isn’t evil. Honest. Just ask his mom.He may have punted a kitten off a bridge that once,but there were mitigating circumstances. He bears thebadge of being the least cool person writing for thiswebsite right now not as a burden, but with pride.…Ooh, shiny badge!

SAM LEWIS: 2010 – A Glass Half Full

[You have selected: Sam Lewis] Sam Lewis takes a looks back over the year he opened his heart to cinema, bought a lot of albums, and throw his lot in with my sorry self. In traditionally unusual Alex-Spencer.co.uk fashion, he’s done it in two halves. Check back tomorrow for the second installment. 2010 has been a strange year. As a LibCon government clashes with social groups, 80’s fashion becomes the norm and a nostalgia for over-produced electro-synth music thrives, 2010 has been dubbed either “our 1968” or quipped as “the 80’s called: they want their decade back”. I disagree. All these constant references to the past irritate me. 2010 has had its own character, both culturally and politically. However, I’m still left feeling bewildered. On the one hand, 2010 has seen one of the most consistent streams of good music and film releases in years. Meanwhile, I’m troubled by my dawning realisation that this world is a far more complex mess than I could ever have comprehended. So, when reflecting on 2010, I’m torn. These are confusing times; only with the power of hindsight will 2010 have any kind of solid definition. To illustrate my dilemma, I have chosen two tracks released this year that offer polar opposite perspectives. One is a knees-up celebration, the other a desperate cry for help. Between them they represent what I’ve loved and had to endure in 2010. A Glass Half Full: Empire State of Mind – Jay Z feat. Alicia Keys A highly-charged tune singing the praises of New York that has everyone on the dancefloor with their arms around each other belting out the chorus at the top of their lungs. If you haven’t heard it, it’s a bit like For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, with the ‘fellow’ being New York. I can see why it’s so popular. Alicia’s soulful sucker-punch chorus is used like a secret weapon, delivering euphoria every time. Instrumentally it’s a constant tease, hooking you in ready for that big chorus before taking it away again at the last moment. Jay Z’s style gels nicely with this. He’s the guy who knows that he has something you desperately want, yet smugly enjoys holding it back just to see you squirm. Not a bad thing; it’s flirtatious, with those on the receiving end loving it. Overall, a real feel-good pop tune. 2010 has been a great year for music for me. I can’t remember the last time that I looked back over the music I’ve accumulated over the year and found that most of it was released this year. In his celebration of the post-punk era, Simon Reynolds writes: “As I recall it, I never bought any old records. Why would you? There were so many new records that you had to have that there was simply no earthly reason to investigate the past… There was too much happening right now.” When I first read this, I didn’t get it. The idea of only buying new releases was alien to my 16-year-old self. Now I understand Reynold’s sentiment. 2010 has seen a huge range of new and exciting music released across a range of genres. I can’t even scratch the surface here, but my personal favourites include Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here, Pantha Du Prince’s Black Noise and Bonobo’s Black Sands. I still have a huge list of stuff I haven’t got round to getting. New releases from Liars, Kanye West, Dels, Big Boi, Konono, Aloe Blacc, The Jim Jones Revue… The list goes on and on and on. (To illustrate this point further, all the other contributors to this here blog will have their own excellent recommendations for you to check out.) Not only has 2010 been exceptional for music, it has also seen a fantastic stream of film releases. I’ve been to the cinema more times this year than I can remember. There has hardly been a film that I wasn’t prepared to ditch all other plans to go and see. The biggest blockbusters have been worthy of their praises; Inception proved that audiences aren’t as dumb as Hollywood thinks they are, Toy Story 3 concluded a great trilogy and The Social Network managed to make a story of hateful characters bitching and moaning about rights to some computer programming compelling and entertaining. My personal favourite film of the year is The Secret in Their Eyes. The best films for me are the ones where you leave the cinema exhausted from having had your attention, thoughts and emotions drained out of you. The previous films did this, but The Secret in Their Eyes did this and then some. I still drift into day dreams thinking about it; the themes of unrequited love, justice (both socially and politically), loneliness, betrayal. It’s dark and the build up of suspense is great. It also contains one of my all time favourite chase scenes in which the protagonist and his companion frantically track down the suspected murderer through a rammed Argentinian football stadium. The scene is uncut for nearly ten minutes, but the tempo is so well balanced that you barely notice. As with all things, pace is the trick. Even if you can’t be bothered for all the film-lover hyperbole, it’s simply a great thriller. A definite personal highlight of 2010. About the author: Sam Lewis is a bundle of polite enthusiasm andoptimism, as articulate with words as he isinarticulate with his hand gestures. He is a cogin the July Days machine, but doesn’t yet have ablog to call his own. Sources suggest that mightjust change, come the Year of Our Lord 2011.

ALEX’s Best Of 2010: Belle & Sebastian, Live

[You have selected: Alex Spencer] Birmingham Town Hall Symphony Hall, 6/12/10 The ‘call to arms’ is one of pop’s most common tropes. From P!nk to Pulp, Gaga to MCR, making yourself the carefully-styled face of the disenfranchised is a sure-fire way to sell more posters. But this is Belle & Sebastian. If ever a group of people was put on this earth to give freaks and literary geeks a rallying point, they all met in Glasgow in the mid ‘90s, formed this shy indie band, and produced quiet, sad, pretty songs for quiet sad people: not necessarily so much pretty. They’re just not like the other boys at school, everything screams, as loud as it dares. Looking around at the crowd produced a wide range of cardigans and specs. There were a lot of shoes which spent their entire lives under very close scrutiny. So, of course there was going to be an orchestra. Of course it was going to be sitting down in the Symphony Hall. The support act was always going to be a comedian telling a musical story about a kid and his quiet dramas and struggles at school. It was a Belle & Sebastian concert, it was always going to be different. It was just a gig. Of course there were going to be songs I didn’t know. A lull in the middle of the set. People dancing to the old classics. Of course, every single one of those dancers was a standing individual in the aisles of a completely sat-down hall. So when little groups got up, you noticed. And, providing you’re me, you smiled an irrepressible smile. Of which there were plenty. The gig wasn’t just a call to arms, it was a call to feet. The entire show was geared towards gathering a load of introverts in one room and getting them involved, getting them on stage and – most importantly – getting them dancing. I’m pigeonholing B&S fans here, for effect. But putting awkward types into a room which actively discourages standing up and moving (not to mention the frowning security guards) and working really flipping hard to make them dance? It couldn’t help but feel like an outreach programme. The clichéd jaunts into the crowd became something different. Not sweaty union or challenge, letting everyone touch their hero. Instead, a friendly hand on the shoulder, pushing the boundaries of our polite comfort zones just a little. Marking this out as our space, as the self-monikered ‘Uncle Stuart’ told us it was. And the more human they were, the more Stuart forgot lines or they fluffed between-song banter, the more it felt like a coming together, a celebration of shared awkwardness. Unlike the two boys in the orchestra who stood up to do an impromptu dance to the last couple of songs, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t get involved: I didn’t dance. Honestly, I really meant to. I was just waiting for that perfect last song, which never came. Of course it didn’t. After all, it was just a gig. About the author: Alex Spencer is a pop-cultural omnivore. He isalso a culinary omnivore, but has never eatena pig’s heart. He hopes this doesn’t make him acoward or hypocrite, but suspects it might. He livesinside his head, with three dogs, and a Pikachu.

TIM’s Top Cinematic Experience of 2010

[You have selected: Tim Maytom] Art feeds the soul. Trite, I know, but true. With music that I connect with, this experience arrives in a rush of nigh-religious euphoria, a shivering electric high that shoots up my spine and makes me feel like I’m levitating. With films, I can tell I’ve had a truly meaningful experience because I leave the cinema with my head abuzz with ideas. Something in the film will spark of part of my brain, and I’ll rush home and start writing almost straight away. In 2010, for all the wonderful films I saw, only one triggered this kind of reaction. Inception was a mind-twisting masterpiece, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World was a multi-layered pop-culture brainsplosion and Toy Story 3 turned me into a blubbering heap of manly weeping before lifting me up again, but in 2010, my heart belonged to The Brothers Bloom. The Brothers Bloom wasn’t widely seen in the UK (or the US for that matter, where it was released over a year earlier) but it’s sort of a tough film to sell to a wide audience. It follows the exploits of Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), two con artist brothers, alongside their “fifth Beatle” and explosives expert Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, once again playing mute), who are looking to steal the fortune of an eccentric heiress who has lived at home her whole life, played with effortless charm and enthusiasm by Rachel Weisz. Of course, things don’t go quite to plan, and there are double crosses and unexpected twists a-plenty. So far, so standard fare, right? However, the whole film takes place in a world not unlike that constructed by Wes Anderson in his films – a sort of timeless, hyper-real universe where characters cross the Atlantic by steamer, rather than jet, and children still wear their crisp white Sunday best to church. This sort of filmic universe created by director Rian Johnson (of the equally brilliant and underseen Brick) mirrors the tone of the film quite appropriately, because The Brothers Bloom is a film about films, or more accurately, a story about stories. From it’s opening flashback, with narration in verse, the film draws attention to the way we consume stories, and the way we use them to define our lives. Stephen, the older brother and brains of the operation, constructs his cons “like dead Russians write novels, with thematic arcs and embedded symbolism and shit” and the whole film plays with the ideas of life becoming fiction and vice versa. For all those critics who broke down Inception into a metaphor for filmmaking, The Brothers Bloom offers an examination that is both more overt and subtle. Rachel Weisz’s Penelope talks of deciding what sort of story she wants her life to be, while Bloom has grown tired of being a character in the tales his brother weaves. The idea of agency within someone else’s story is picked apart as characters struggle against their roles and try to find their own path, and when you take a step back and think about them as characters in a film, the whole thing takes on a metatextual flavour that wrinkles the brain quite effectively. Of course, the film isn’t just a clever examination of the human instinct to search for narrative. It’s also a fantastic caper film, the sort of good-natured romantic adventure that you rarely see nowadays. The timeless atmosphere reinforces the feel that it’s a throwback to an older Hollywood, as does the choice of actor. Brody and Weisz are both established character actors (Weisz has come close to breaking through, but even with The Mummy series, never really convinced as a straight-up blockbuster love interest) who you wouldn’t normally attach to such lightweight fare, but they bring a classic charm to the film, and both seem to be having great fun. Brody displays a hangdog charm and desperation throughout, convincing as someone who can only truly be himself when he’s playing a part, and as for Weisz…well, if there is another actress out there who can make the audience fall as quickly and completely in love with a character as Rachel Weisz, I’m not sure I want to know. She manages to balance Penelope’s naiveté with her fierce intelligence and array of skills (Penelope collects hobbies, from break dancing to karate to card tricks) while still selling the central love story between her and Bloom. Mark Ruffalo continues to be dangerously charismatic in everything he does, and Rinko Kikuchi shows some impressive comedy chops as Bang Bang, playing the deadpan snarker of the gang despite not saying more than 3 words in the whole film. So what secured The Brothers Bloom so firmly into my heart and soul? I can’t say for sure – it’s that unknowable alchemy of context, state-of-mind and art all at play, but I can say that I went in with high expectations and it still managed to surprise me with how much I enjoyed it. I’m a sucker for postmodern, metatextual shenanigans, for a well-executed caper and for the kind of stylised world that The Brothers Bloom weaves around you. The soundtrack was understated and unique, the plot was twist-filled without descending into incomprehensibility, and the tone manoeuvred from physical comedy to heart-breaking tragedy without ever succumbing to mood whiplash. More than anything, it is a work of charm, both in direction and performance. In the film, Stephen notes that “the perfect con is one where everyone involved gets just what they wanted”, in which case The Brothers Bloom has pulled the wool over my eyes completely. About the author: Tim Maytom is a man of style and taste, though –I suspect – not wealth. This is a great travesty as,being one of the English language’s finest and mostarticulate nerds, he deserves the world. Give himyour attention, if not your money, at trivia-lad.tumblr.com

ALEX: “But is it Christmas?”

[You have selected: Alex Spencer] And Christmas is complete. Los Campesinos! release, alongside the eventual announcement of Big Secret Project ‘Heat Rash’ (more on this elsewhere, I’m sure), a Christmas song. It’s called Kindle A Flame In Her Heart and it is a Los Campesinos! song, and therefore good. (In my opinion. It has been called to my attention that, upsettingly, not everyone shares my views.) It namechecks almost every single piece of stock Christmas imagery: from Robin Redbreast to mistletoe, via lumps of coal and herald angels. It features the words “Merry Christmas”. It is, undeniably, a song about Christmas. However: it sounds like a song by Los Campesinos!. This is key, definitely. I’ve been doing my yearly playlist-making recently, gathering together all the Christmas songs I like. For the first time, I’ve been using Spotify. Which has led, inevitably and dangerously, to playing it around other people. Namely the lovely girlfriend. Quoth: “But it’s not very … Christmassy, though, is it?” Which is kind of true. Almost no other human being on the planet would associate any of this alternative Christmas sountrack with the festive season, and fair enough. That’s kind of the point of being alternative, I guess. But the truth is: the majority of these songs don’t instill any sense of Christmasness, even in me. Every other emotion exists across the spectrum of music. My years-long quest for a different kind of Christmas song can’t be unique. Does it come down to that age-old chestnut? They don’t make proper Christmas songs anymore? It’s not as if people aren’t trying. Kindle A Flame… is a particularly strong offender in the not-very-Christmassy stakes. By my calculations, you need exactly one thing to make a song sound like Christmas: bells. These are in abundant supply on the playlist. But take one of the Sufjan Stevens tracks, off his five-disc epic Songs for Christmas. In theory, that ticks all the traditional boxes, much more than, say, Wham!’s Last Christmas. But at the end of the day, which one feels more like Christmas? Maybe it’s a matter of tradition, and these songs need more time to settle. Low’s Just Like Christmas does help me feel like it’s Christmas – and the question of trying to make yourself feel like it’s Christmas is one of the great mysteries of our age, stretching far beyond the humble Christmas song – which is probably a result of it having been in my festive life for half a decade now. But this yearly tradition, and a least a few of its fellow songs, stretches back at least one Christmas further than that. It’s a tightrope. You need to have heard songs enough for them to embed into your Christmas memories. On the other hand… Well, let’s take the cautionary tale of the biggest Alternative Christmas song of all time. Once upon a time the Pogues had a well-earned place in that playlist. Fairytale of New York is a fine song, sufficiently Christmassy without sacrificing being, y’know, good. It’s the kind of thing that gets played in the family car and in my bedroom. Then, three Christmasses ago: the whole radio-censoring thing blew up, and it got, somewhat counter-intuitively, played even more than usual. It became The Christmas Song, it was everywhere, and I got sick of hearing it. Maybe the problem with Christmas songs isn’t their individual quality. By their very nature, Christmas songs have to be repeated over and over and over and over and over in a very short space of time, in order to become Christmas songs. Very few songs can stand up to that level of repetition. The underlying point here is that I can’t imagine a new song entering the Christmas canon. This isn’t an alternative vs. mainsteam problem, as such. Lady Gaga’s just released a Christmas song. The biggest pop star on the planet right now. Will it make a dent on the Christmas compilations, the Christmas adverts, the mass consensus of Christmas songs? It just feels impossible. Which leaves us with the same set of faintly naff Christmas songs, passed down from generation to generation. On one hand, that’s quite a sweet image. On the other … well, you want a picture of Christmas Yet To Come? Imagine Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody stamping on a human ear – forever. About the author: Alex Spencer is the slightly deranged genius whothought this blog might be a good idea. Of course,it might not really be Alex after all. After that onedark night a few years ago, it’s been suggestedhe split into three parts, all of them pure evil…

An Announcement.

Okay. So it’s the first Monday of December. That’s got to be something important, right? Right here, right now, it is. For the rest of the month of December, Alex-Spencer.co.uk shall be exploding into a crazy new format. The traditional end-of-year list is a bit boring as a format, innit? And I’ve been working the Quarters all year, so you could probably take a good guess at what I’d pick and see what lengthy rubbish I’ve got to spout on the matter. Having spent a while thinking it all through, I had a suddenly-awake 3am revelation. It was a lot like Batman’s recent moment of epiphany (unlike Batman, however, I didn’t need to vomit a load of black stuff that transformed into a demonic bat to reach this conclusion). I’ve realised how much I rely on my allies, my online brothers in arms. Bruce Wayne launched Batman Inc. I’m launching Alex-Spencer … & Friends! This is my blogging superteam, the Justice League of words, the Online Avengers. What exactly does that mean? Well…-Articles on all manners of seasonal stuff: from festive food to, hopefully, at least one guide to Christmas ukelele tunes.-Discussion of all the best stuff from the last year: 2010’s essential reading, listening, viewing and every conceivable type of cultural fallout.-Essays. Lists. The odd stray review we’ve been looking for a reason to finish.-And most importantly, an even wider range of specialities/insanities. Allow my to briefly introduce our players for this entertainment: More on each and every one of these characters as they (hopefully) submit stuff. Stuff that will sear off your eyeballs with its brilliance, I promise. See you at the aftermath. Peace.x Danny Stoker has posted his intentions for the …& Friends! season over on his exceedingly tasty-but-difficult-to-type-into-an-address-bar blog Lunch&DinnerMadeMe. They’re rather exciting, and I say that only 50% as someone who’s likely to benefit from his cooking experiments.