The National are a band, a favourite band of mine, from New York. Mentioning them to a music fan is likely to generate ambivalence or levels of devotion last seen under Mao Zedong. They’re not a love or loathe sort of band, they’re an ‘I don’t care, they’re alright I guess’ or ‘I’ve built a full scale model of the band from the spittle and hair I’ve collected whilst seeing them a hundred times’ sort of band. I fall into the latter camp, although my spittle statue is shamefully neglected and anaemic. Anyways my favourite Band has inspired three different sets of thoughts in me over the past hour, so here’s a blog.
On Why I Hate Portal
Eurogamer reported today that The National are recording a song for Valve’s videogame Portal 2. This is a sequel to the original Portal which wowed gamers partially by its amazing design structure, partially by the physics defying gameplay but mostly because of its ability to generate memes. In particular three jokes became synonymous with the game, the first being a reference to a potentially non-existent piece of cake, the second being players bizarre emotional reaction to a cube, and the third being an ear bug of a pop song called ‘Still Alive’. Portal, one of five games released on Valve’s Orange Box, would essentially eclipse content such as Team Fortress 2 and Half Life: Episode 2 by becoming a mass meme generator. The problem is that I live in Britain and that is viewed as something of a third world country by games publishers. As such 99% of games that don’t star Master Chief or Corporal Modern McWarfare have a three day delay in release. Normally this isn’t an issue (although the release of a BioWare game often forces me into internet hibernation for fear of spoilers) but with Portal the joke was old before it even got here.
The ascendance of the Cake meme and Jonathon Coulton’s catchy little ditty essentially destroyed any chance I had of enjoying the game. The problem was that Portal was actually quite low key and the humour which had been turned into memes often worked far better within the context of the game world. These were jokes that needed the ambience of the game to truly work and they were essentially raised to something bigger than the game. References to the ‘Cake Is a Lie’ have cropped up in a variety of games from Wolverine’s official tie in to Dragon Age: Origins, meanwhile there are over 5000 YouTube videos devoted to the song ‘Still Alive’.
This response to the game didn’t completely sour me on Portal, I still really enjoyed the actual gameplay, but in overstating these jokes they all kind of lost their power and became decidedly ho-hum. I’m intrigued by Portal 2 because I want to see if Valve try to actively recapture the success of their previous game by trying to create as many memes as possible, or if they try and retain the original style of Portal and see if lightning strikes twice. The focus on Glados, the generator of most of these memes, in the promotional material suggests not. Then again if the National can somehow expand their rabidly crazy fan base via Portal 2 then I’m all for it.
On Why I Love John Slattery
Yesterday The National released a video for their song Conversation 16, ostensibly a love song written by a cannibal, which stars Kristen Schaal as the President of the United States, James Urbaniak as the President of Russia and John Slattery as a smitten and bemused Secret Service agent. It’s an…odd video. Which probably overstates the general oddness of the lyrics of the song, but The National have always been ones for overstatement (albeit in a deceptively understated way). Slattery is pretty fantastic in a silent role, his body language and facial expressions generating the kind of hilarity some people would have difficulty producing in a five minute stand up bit. He’s essentially an exasperated sane man and it works beautifully within the odd confines of the video.
Like most people I know Slattery best for his role on Mad Men where he plays Roger Sterling. What was amazing about Slattery is that in a show which was often reticent to portray its characters in a positive light he found warmth at the core of his character which made us empathise with him despite him being essentially a dick. Roger Sterling is essentially a vanguard of a generation in passing. The cast of Mad Men are uniformly despicable at times, but Sterling was the kind of guy to dress up in Black face, have tumultuous affairs, make a pass at employee’s wives, and essentially act as almost a caricature of 50s excess. Yet it’s hard to take your eyes off him, the show never shies away from the extremes of Sterling’s personality but Slattery was able to make you understand why people liked him and put up with him. He plays Sterling as both deeply wounded and amazingly reserved a man who has built a thousand walls around himself for protection, but unlike Don Draper we’re very rarely allowed to breach those walls.
Slattery brings that charm to pretty much any role he’s in and can often take over a film without anyone noticing. In Iron Man 2 his brief screentime as Tony Stark’s father threatens to out-charisma Robert Downey Jr., whilst his comparatively small role in The Adjustment Bureau is one of the standout performances in the film.
Why I love and loathe gigs
I saw The Decemberists yesterday and they were amazing. Just a fantastic live group, well worth checking out if you’re a fan. It however got me thinking about gigs and specifically how the closest I’ve been to getting into an actual fight was last November at a National gig in Manchester.
Now I love live music, but I’m not a fan of drunken people in general. My height and generally cuddly visage kind of make me a prime target for drunken, testosterone addled, guys wanting to prove a point. As such going to gigs is often something of a tightrope, with me attempting to either occupy the space directly next to the mixing desk or loiter at the back. Of course this often means that I find myself mingling with that peculiar breed of gig goer who’ve paid the ticket price to have a chat with their friend over the music. It’s an amazing phenomenon and something I’ve not been able to escape in the half decade I’ve been going to gigs regularly.
For whatever reason Manchester seems to have an odd dichotomy of crowds who overall are far more into the band than my hometown crowd but also people who are far more intent in ignoring the band. During the Decemberists I literally had some guy explaining the ins and outs of his job as a bank teller for the entire ninety minute show, whilst the majority of the crowd reacted perfectly to the band. In comparison gig goers in Leeds are a little more low key both in their showing of appreciation and their idle chit chat.
I’ve seen the strangest stuff at gigs, last night I actually saw four guys toasting with pints of beer which is something I didn’t know existed outside of Jersey Shore, but a random Mancunian attempting to start a fight with me throughout the entirety of The National gig was perhaps the oddest. Largely because the crowd generally was one of the best I’ve seen and partially because of how much effort he put into amping himself up. The final result was him attempting to initiate a fight with the typical Forrest Whitaker eye and pushing routine and inadvertently launching himself into another part of the crowd when he got a little too acrobatic with the push. The thing that annoyed me, aside from the slightly bruised shoulder which he’d launched himself from, was how I was ruining the gig for my fellow gig nerds (you can always tell gig nerds because they crowd around the mixing desk and have either glasses or beards).
I never saw my Mancunian menacer after he disappeared into the crowd but for the next forty minutes of the set (a fantastic set by the by, The National are one of the better live acts operating today) I was convinced I was going to get WWE’d with a fold up chair when he finally drunkenly found his way back to me.