There’s something weird about the Android and Windows versions of the city-building board game Carcassonne: they feature a precisely equal number of apparently male and female playable characters.
Perhaps that shouldn’t be remarkable, but, well, it kinda is. Carcassonne’s characters are used as both user avatars and computer opponents, so they either have their own personalities or reflect the player’s. Representations of women in video games, when they exist at all, tend to be sexualized and unrealistic.
Since Carcassonne is the creation of our more enlightened cousins in Europe, it should be able to avoid those tropes.
What do you do when you find a great deal on a USB microphone at a secondhand store but it doesn’t come with its desktop stand? Simple: you dig through your junk drawers and messy office until you find a wooden pasta measure, a broken tripod, an old guitar pick, and the perfect rubber band.
At the end of January I joined the RPM Challenge, sort of a NaNoWriMo for music. The idea is to get your creative juices flowing by just creating, not really worrying about quality. The goal: 10 songs or 35 minutes of music, comprising a complete album, all written and recording in the 28 days of February.
Association with strong memories gets a lot of music stuck in people’s heads. “Favorite song” is not a meritocratic competition, even one judged solely on personal preference. That’s why I was so pleased with the phrasing of this meme a year ago – albums that “stuck with me” rather than “are objectively the best” or “I like the most”.
Take Hotel Paper. Part of its resonance for me is the timing of my discovery of it. “Tuesday Morning” played on my car stereo when I’d just had a very similar experience – shall we say, a significant milestone early in a relationship – on the same day of the week. Thus the stage was set for “Find Your Way Back” to be my personal soundtrack when that same relationship got temporarily rocky and estranged for a few weeks.
The album has quirks that are alternately irritating and immensely endearing. Branch sometimes sings like she’s never heard vowels pronounced before, swapping i for a or e for o like they’re Pokemon cards. A light percussion click on “One of These Days”, almost certainly inserted by a producer, is I swear lifted straight from the default Windows XP sound theme.
If there’s a formula for poppy solo female singer-songwriters, Branch nails it. There’s insecurity and girl power both in these mostly romantically-tinged songs; a quarter of them end by repeating the first line of the first verse, oh so soaked with meaning; one, as specified in all such devil’s pacts, is titled “Breathe”.
Sure, but it’s not like Faith Hill, Anna Nalick, or Tay-Tay had seven remixes made too.
One has to imagine if there was a debate about using the name for track 4, “Empty Handed”, since the word is prominent in that song’s chorus as well. With a more interesting chord progression and more creative lyrics (see: repeating first line), “Empty Handed” was never destined to be the hit that “Breathe” was so it got the more original title too.
None of this is to say that I don’t genuinely love this album. I do. I sometimes refer to Michelle Branch’s work as my “guilty pleasure”, as if she’s the most artificial superstar ever created (she’s not) and the music is blandly catchy with no real craft put into it (it’s totally not) so it doesn’t deserve my precious ears. It’s unfair and I should stop. Hotel Paper has honesty and poise surpassing many records, let alone platinum-selling ones.
It’s that honesty and vulnerability seeping through that keeps me returning. I suspect Hotel Paper is not Branch’s own favorite among her albums, given her turn toward country in later releases. It’s slicker and sparklier than independent singer-songwriters usually get, but it works.
(Note to any and all exes obsessively reading my blog: ending this series of posts on this song is in no way a message about my yearning and aching for you. It’s just the way it worked out. Emergent patterns and all.)