Album Review: Silversun Pickups, Swoon

Posted by matt on April 8, 2009 at 6:37 pm

Silversun Pickups - SwoonArtist: Silversun Pickups
Album: Swoon
Wikipedia Genre(s): Indie rock, Dream pop, Shoegaze
Matt’s Fav Tracks: Panic Switch, Growing Old is Getting Old, Sort Of
# times listened: Moderate (10 – 25 times)
Matt’s Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Album: Amazon
MP3’s: Amazon non-DRM

I was introduced to Silversun Pickups a few years ago listening to XM radio, of all places and really dug their album “Carnavas“.  With the 2 obvious hits on that album, it was a little more inconsistent than I would have hoped, and I ended up putting the 2 tracks on playlists rather than listen to the entire album.

Enter Swoon.

I’m going out on a limb saying that Swoon will be one of the best alternative albums of 2009.  You listen to it and you instantly know it’s Silversun Pickups, but it still has a great newness to it.  The songs are more solid, yet explore the familiar, dreamy territory that is all their own (with a sound that Smashing Pumpkins wish they could have morphed into).

800px-silversun_pickups_01.jpgI was afraid that after the success of Carnavas that SP would mellow out, but am quite glad they didn’t go that route.  While some quieter moments exist on the album, other parts sound good REALLY LOUD.  They rock out with the best of them, and even with ‘indie’ as one of their genre labels, they don’t wuss out like too many other indie bands do on their sophomore album.

Lead singer singer Brian Aubert still has that off-beat, androgynous voice that works well with their sound.  Many of the melodies and guitar solos are quite simple, but unbelievably catchy (like the main riff and baseline in “Panic Switch”).  They’ll be running through your head all day after just a few listens.  SP is really good at the distortion-noise stuff too, if you are into that.

Check out the video for “Panic Switch”:

If you are bored with much of the music out today (who isn’t) grab this album (it comes out April 14th, 2009) for a fresh look at a genre nearing it’s 20th birthday.  It’s close to 5 stars for me, but giving it 4.5 out of 5 stars until it grows on me a little more.

Posted under music, reviews

How to play old arcade games with a MAME machine

Posted by matt on February 21, 2009 at 11:49 pm

Ahh, arcade games.  Last summer, I posted my “What’s your top 1% video game“, and it got me thinking that I haven’t played too many games lately…

Over 6 years ago, I decided that I wanted to build an arcade cabinet that would play all the old-school arcade games.  While my MAME (Multi-Arcade-Machine-Emulator) machine has gone through at least 3 rounds of iterations, it has been out of commission for over a year (after some hard use at my last Karaoke party… kind of a long story).  Until last week…  I finally got around to putting in an old workstation that would update the CPU hardware for the first time in about 4 years and get everything else back working.

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been messing around with MAME for over 10 years.   Growing up in a 12-machine video game arcade at my parents campground in the 80s was a dream come true.  Today, it would be too hard to figure out which specific arcade game to buy, so in the 90’s when MAME came out, having the ability to play many games on the same machine had huge appeal.  How many is many?  As of early 2009, how about over 6500 working games!!

While there are many paths to going and getting one of these machines running, I’ll tell you what I did:

tankstick_sm2.jpg1) Controls ($200 or less) – Back in 2002, I purchased an X-arcade Joystick.  This is arcade quality, and if you just want to use MAME with a normal computer it works well.  If you plan on having a cabinet, a better way to go would be to simply buy the controllers and build your own board.  I ended up ripping up my X-arcade and put it in a custom board.  I’m lucky that my good friend Cory was able to make me a board and layout.  Check his modern arcades site for more of the cabinets he has built!

2) Computer – (cheap/free?) Many people have an old computer lying around.  The one that is usually in my MAME cabinet is what typically becomes of my primary workstation after I upgrade (typically every 2-3 years).  While some games don’t even work with the newest hardware, you can easily play over 4000 of these games with almost any machine.  Remember, these games are from the 80’s, so emulation of them isn’t that intensive.  The first computer I used was a 486 running Windows 95 and it easily played all the early 80’s classics like Galaga, Pacman, etc.  Today I’m using a middle-of-the-line Athlon 3800+ with 1GB of RAM and a 256MB Radeon HD 3450 video card which also works quite well.

lowerhell-MAME-Custom-Arcade-cabinet-by-Matt-Apps3) Cabinet – ($varies, mine was $175 delivered) The biggest commitment is the cabinet.  Rather than try to build my own, I went to a local games distributor and asked if they had an old cabinet.  They did, and I ended up with an old Zenophobe cabinet (it had been later turned into Combattribes).  If you know of a game vendor in your area, chances are they have old stuff around in a warehouse that can be had for cheap.  Check craigslist too.  You might find a working machine that you could convert fairly easily.

4) Monitor ($varies) – I used a computer monitor that doesn’t look the best in my cabinet, but there are a lot of options.  With LCD’s so cheap, taking one out of the case and mounting in a cabinet may work well for you.   You can probably get a CRT almost free these days.

5) MAME Emulator – It’s free, just download it.  This is the program that acts as the hardware for all the different games by using your computer.  It’s been in active development for over 10 years and continues to improve.   I use the MAMEUIFX32 as it has some features over the official builds (like high-score saving).

6) ROMS and CHD’s –  These are the actual games and use use the MAME emulator to play them.  While the copyright on many of these games has expired or the potential interested parties are no longer interested, you will officially be entering a grey area playing any of these games.  There are groups of individuals that have been around for years that will get the roms to you for cost of the media.  Doug Burton is one of these guys.  You also may also consider bittorrent. Please don’t ask me–I’ll just direct you to this post.

Recently, the size of all the games has grown astronomically with the addition of CHD (compressed hard drive) files.  I mentioned before there are 6500 working games (about 7500 total that don’t all work).  If you sort by size, the first 3000 games only add up to 90MB!  But they go up from there…  To get to 5000 games, you need 611MB of disk space, and to get to 7400 you need 17GB!  Finally, if you include a couple of hundred games with the CHD files, the archive grows to almost 150GB!!  Drive space is cheap these days though, so even at that size it shouldn’t be an issue.

Check this Youtube video of me playing M.A.C.H 3, an old laser disk came from 1983.  While emulating Galaga and Pacman isn’t that hard, MAME has come a long way to be able to emulate old laser disk games too.

Posted under tech gadgets, Video Games

How to buy a decent, Dell Studio 15.4″ laptop for only $450

Posted by matt on January 31, 2009 at 10:24 pm

dell-studio-1531.jpgRecently, my wife’s old Toshiba Satellite A15-S157 laptop finally bit the dust, and it was time for a new one.  She wasn’t interested in a netbook (too small), and we weren’t interested in spending a ton of cash since it’s mainly one of those ‘lounging around the house’ laptops.

I was about to pull the trigger on one of those cheap Office Depot type specials you often see for around $500, when I realized it wouldn’t be much better than the 6-year old Toshiba it was replacing.

Using my tried and true buying site,, I found some deals at the Dell Outlet, where you can get either refurbished or scratch-and-dent re-certified computers.  I opted for a refurbished Dell Studio 15.  To get the best deal, here is what I did:

1. Dell Outlet – First go here and get familiar with the site, the options, how the selection works, etc.  To get the best deals you won’t be buying just yet, but you want to see what’s available and know how to ‘quickly’ buy one of these.  For the Studio Laptops, you can even choose from EIGHT colors, and typically there are a lot of options out there to meet your needs.

2. Dell Outlet Twitter – Often, Dell puts out 20% off coupons on these already cheap outlet PCs.  The best way to find out when they come out is to follow their twitter account.  I even put them on SMS update, so when the deal came out, I got a text message right when it happened.  This was important, because when the 20% off coupon comes out, the selection goes FAST.  Deal sites usually post this, but if you get the tweet, you are getting it the same time they are.

We’ve had the laptop now for a couple weeks with no issues.  It comes as it was new (nice boxes and all), and you would never know it was refurbished.  It’s re-plastic wrapped and totally clean with a fresh install of Windows Vista Home Premium SP1.  Here are the specs:

Studio 15 (1537) Laptop:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo T5800 (2.00GHz/800Mhz FSB/2MB cache)
  • 250 GB SATA Hard Drive (5400RPM)
  • 3 GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz (2 DIMMs)
  • Dell Wireless 370 Bluetooth Module
  • Dell Wireless 1510 802.11a/g/n Draft Mini Card
  • Integrated 2.0 Mega Pixel Web Camera
  • Fingerprint Reader Touchpad
  • Mobile Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500MHD
  • 8X Slot Load CD / DVD Burner (Dual Layer DVD+/-R Drive)
  • Genuine Windows Vista Home Premium
  • 15.4 WXGA LED Laptop Screen Display with TrueLife
  • Multi-card reader slot, HDMI & VGA output
  • eSATA, 3-USB, Firewire, PCMCIA, 10/100/1000 LAN
  • 6 Cell Primary Battery
  • Plum Purple
  • 1Yr Ltd Hardware Warranty, Mail-In Service after Remote Diagnosis, 24×7 Phone Support
  • Usual bundled software (that I uninstall)

$539.00:  Cost (Pretty good price–‘new’, this would be around $800)

– $107.80: 20% off any refurbished Studio 1537 (this is the twitter outlet coupon I used)

Subtotal:  $431.20
Shipping and Handling:  $19.99
Shipping Discount:  -$19.99 (coupon had free shipping too!)
Sales Tax:  $23.72
Total Amount:  $454.92


To get this laptop with a decent processor, wireless-N, bluetooth, webcam, the color you want and a nice sized hard drive for $450 is impressive.  Used on eBay you’d easily pay more and not have a warranty.

If you are in the market for a new laptop, don’t be afraid of refurbs.  I’ve purchased a lot of refurbished electronics and have had great success.  Usually you can save 30-40% from new, and you often can’t tell the difference.

Good luck!

Posted under how to, tech gadgets

Top 10 Rock Albums of 2008

Posted by matt on December 31, 2008 at 1:40 am

I’ve been blog-slacking for awhile, so thought I’d put out my picks for top 10 rock albums from 2008.  While primarily indie bands, there are a few big-boys on here as well.  I reviewed some of these earlier, but many are ones I’ve only had for a short while.  My picks for 2008 (in alphabetical order):bloc_party.jpg

  1. Bloc Party –  Intimacy – A varied album, it reminds me of Chuck Mosely era Faith No More with a post-9/11 twist (whatever that means).  I listened to this album a lot in NYC, so that might have something to do with it.  It could be the soundtrack for your life, depending on how your day is going.
  2. Flight of the Conchords – Self Titled – The TV show is great, and the songs are solid.  Combine the two and listening to these songs always put a smile on my face.  Season 2 starts in a few weeks!
  3. F**ed Up – The Chemistry of Common Life – Back in college, I went to many punk shows featuring bands that wished they sounded like this.  You know what I mean?  The sweaty club with the worst sounding PA, college kids moshing, skinheads doing that scary half-pogo, half I-want-to-kill-you dance.  Then the show is over, you buy the CD and it’s terrible, but reminds you of the night.   What if that CD wasn’t terrible? Put good production and catchy songs with the crazy, screaming, sweaty-fat-guy atmosphere and you are Fucked Up.
  4. Guns and Roses – Chinese Democracy – Really, this is on the list? Before you run off, there is enough here worth a few listens.  Pretend you never heard of them and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
  5. The Mars Volta – The Bedlam in Goliath – It’s weird and features songs written while under the influence of Ouija boards.  You either like this type of music or hate it.  I like it.
  6. Metallica – Death Magnetic – Another comeback album, this reestablished Metallica with at least the ability to play for 9 minutes straight.  They do it so well, too.
  7. Portishead – Third – listening to this album a lot = looming depression.   Such is Portishead, but Third (their 3rd studio album, clever!) takes the creepy movie soundtrack stuff to another level.  Turn off all the lights and listen to this if you dare!
  8. Protest the Hero – Fortress – Kapow! I’m noticing the bands on this list are either weird or punch you in the face.  This does the later, much like a hawkey slap-shot, or a case of Molson Ice.  These Canadians know their metal, eh?!
  9. Toadies – No Deliverance – Toadies sound mad on this album–much like they’ve blown all their royalties from Possum Kingdom!  They are on track though, with songs like “So Long Lovey Eyes” that if you listen while driving, will make you drive quite fast.
  10. TV on the Radio – Dear Science – Friends have been recommending TV on the Radio for a couple of years now, but I had trouble getting into them, until Dear Science came along.  It’s now accessible enough for me (or my tastes have changed) that this album is a must from 2008.  Some of the most interesting chord progressions and beats in modern rock.

There you have it, my top 10 rock albums from 2008.  Ones I missed?  Ones that shouldn’t be on here?  Someone will probably throttle me for putting GNR on here with no Narrow Stairs – Death Cab for Cutie, but hey, that’s what comments are for.  :)

Posted under music, reviews, top 10 lists

Mini-Album Review: Guns N’ Roses, Chinese Democracy

Posted by matt on November 24, 2008 at 1:08 am

chinese-democracy.jpgArtist: Guns N’ Roses
Album: Chinese Democracy
Wikipedia Genre(s): Hard rock
Matt’s Fav Tracks: Chinese Democracy, Shackler’s Revenge
# times listened: Not many (< 10 times)
Matt’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Buy CD: Amazon

Over 15 years ago, I remember watching the 9-minute video for November Rain with Nemolian.  After the video, they interviewed Axl in the back of a limo while he was trying to remember if the video cost $1.6 or $2 million…

Fast-forward to today and not much has happened with Guns, but a lot has happened to the music industry.  Entire music genres launched and already fizzled (i.e. Ska, nu-metal), music is delivered completely differently, and this type of music is not supposed to be popular anymore unless you are seeing it performed by <insert washed-up hair-band> at your local county fair.  During this time, Axl Rose was busy kicking people in and out of his band while working on the banned in China, Chinese Democracy.

Being 15 years in the making, there is no way this album (or any album) could possibly live up to hype and pressure similar to the last Indiana Jones movie or Duke Nuke ’em Forever, but this album really surprised me.

The title track opens with a growley scream that you’d expect if Axl had been cooped up spending tons of time and over $15 million in cash (about a million a year I guess).  Though Slash is not present, the guitar parts are brilliant (I’m assuming they are mostly the Buckethead ones) and the heavily layered tracks have a nice groove.  The songs do vary quite a bit and the tone has an epic feel–almost like Zepplin, mixed with Floyd, mixed with Steve Vai’s solo stuff.  There are a few clunkers on here, but at over 70 minutes, you get your money’s worth.  I currently dig the title track most of all so far, but some of the later tracks are growing on me.dr-pepper-logo-2.jpg

If you hurry, the free Dr. Pepper to everyone is still available to everyone in the United States, (EXCEPT Slash) until 6PM EST on 11/24/08!  I tried to get mine, but the website is still getting killed.  Check the story if you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

Posted under music, reviews