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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 5, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Chocolate, snowflakes, Christmas music, videogame music, corn thins

I don't know about you, but I did not need another fine chocolate company. In fact, I needed all of them to go out of business for just long enough for me to restore my svelte youthful body.

Oh, wait. When I was youthful I was even pudgier than I am now. Never mind.

Here it is: The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory.

You know, I lived for many years in the Rocky Mountains, and I can tell you from experience, they don't grow any chocolate plants there. But whatever the rationale for the name, they make the finest chocolate toffee crunch known to man. Or, technically, known to woman, since I don't like toffee, and therefore this evaluation comes from my toffee-snarfing domestic partner. (OK, my wife. Sheesh, can't I even pretend to be cool and hip and edgy and up to date?)

They also have fabulous-looking caramel apples in more varieties than I thought were possible. But I have braces, so those apples remain tantalizing rumors to me.

Meanwhile, I can tell you from direct experience that their pure milk chocolate bar is good, their vanilla creme is very good, and their aspen creme (maple flavored) is extremely good.

The trouble is, their website, at http://www.rmcf.com/, only lets you buy assortments.

I hate assortments. Because the people doing the assortments always include nasty things that I don't want, like chocolates with walnuts or liqueurs or ... dark chocolates, which exist only to satisfy the cravings of pregnant women, none of whom live at our house. If you're going to sell chocolates online, you have to let people pick out their own assortments.

I hope they soon wise up, because until they allow me to order custom boxes that are half aspen cremes and half toffee crunches, I won't be ordering online. I'll just have to remember that they have a store next door to Angelato's just off the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, where I'll satisfy my carnal chocolate lust whenever I'm in California.

I will try to forget that they also have a store in the Four Seasons Mall in Greensboro, NC, where I could go anytime I want.

*

For those looking for Christmas presents that are <ahem> smaller than your foot, you might check out Restoration Hardware (or http://www.restorationhardware.com). Every year they have a new selection of cool new smaller-than-your-foot presents, many of which are so cool you'll just give up and buy them for yourself, like the nifty lighted magnifying glass that my wife is now carrying in her purse to save us when we're dining in a restaurant so dark that our aging eyes can't see the menu.

They have tiny tape measures, retro toys and games, and many other things that could be used to stuff an item of wearing apparel just a tiny bit larger than a foot. Some of them are even inexpensive.

Next week, when I'm through ordering everything I plan to order for Christmas, I'll review a whole array of online sites and catalogues. But I'm not so crazy I'll tell you about them in time for you to order all the coolest stuff and leave them out of stock when I show up. Nope. This year, it's me first. Live with it.

*

Remember how fun it was when you were a kid and you folded paper in half, then into thirds, and then used your cute little snub-nosed scissors to cut out wedges and half circles and other shapes? Besides leaving great confetti on the kitchen table, the original paper, unfolded, became a huge paper snowflake.

Many a winter we've had such snowflakes taped all over the glass door leading out to the patio.

Well, now there's a no-muss, no-fuss version that allows you to make far more intricate designs without spraining a wrist -- and then post it where your friends can all look at it and attach messages to it.

It happens online, of course, at Create Your Own Snowflake (http://www.popularfront.com/snowdays/). You see a window with trees and snow, and flakes are falling down. You pass your mouse over any of the snowflakes, and it grows larger. You can see many wonderful patterns; the ones you like best, you can print out. (Actually, you can also print out the ones that bore you completely, but why would you do that?)

You also read the messages that some people include with their snowflakes. You can even respond to snowflakes with little comments of your own (like, "Lovely snowflake, complete stranger!"), or you can tell the website to notify your friends and family to come look at the snowflake you made.

Wait ... snowflake you made? That's right. Because all the cool snowflakes are made by people like you. After all, how hard is it to cut out patterns using a mouse instead of scissors?

To judge by some of the most dazzling designs, it must be very hard, because compared to some of these my efforts were truly childish. No, that's an insult to children. Mine were chimpish. (Sorry, chimps, but you're no good with computer snowflakes.)

Each snowflake has a unique seven-digit number, so you can look up particular ones. For instance, may I recommend:

2733738 -- intertwining ropes

2733681, 2733659 -- simply glorious

2733716 -- you want a doily made out of this one

2733749 -- lacy and intricate

2733792 -- daisies

2733747 -- coiled springs

2733763, or 2733722, or 2733715-- faces

Some of them seem to be animated -- I can't figure out how that was done.

And some people report that snowflake making and snowflake watching are so addictive they spend hours doing it.

Whether as a spectator or a creator, it's great fun. And it's free. (Well, except for the part about buying a computer and paying for an internet connection.)

*

It might appear that there isn't much to say about Christmas albums. I mean, when I tell you that Sarah McLachlan has an album called Wintersong, on which she sings a bunch of Christmas songs, what else can I say?

"Well, what does it sound like?"

"Do you know what Sarah McLachlan's voice sounds like?"

"Yes, of course."

"Well, it sounds like that, only with Christmas carols."

After that, what? The CD cover art?

"On the front cover, she's standing in snow in mountain country, she has slept-in-looking hair, there are some blurry blotches that look like they're supposed to be snowflakes or pixie dust or something, and she's wearing a halter-top dress that shows a lot of skin, which suggests that she's probably really cold, while the millions of thirteen-year-old boys who constitute her natural audience (especially at Christmas) will be really warm."

It's fine. It's a good album, of the Christmas genus and the Sarah McLachlan species. Can we move on now?

Bette Midler. Remember when we first heard her? It was "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" and we couldn't believe we were hearing something so thrillingly retro in the seventies.

But the Bette Midler show had only just begun. Her lush, wavering, over-vibratoed, sarcastically over-sincere voice took old songs and new songs and gave them a weird combination of emotional depth and shallow brassiness that many of us are still in love with.

So when, on her new Christmas album Cool Yule she sings "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" she manages a precarious balance between sweet sincerity and a hint of musical playfulness. While the jazzy "Cool Yule" is a dancy lark, reviving a tune by Steve Allen -- yes, that Steve Allen, the first Tonight Show host.

The fact is, this is actually one of the best Bette Midler albums ever. She shows all those young jazz vocalists that she can still hold her own with any of them. Her vocalizing on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," which has so many tricky intervals, is so deft and pitch-perfect that it suggests a virtuosity she never showed early in her career.

There are times when she even sounds like Doris Day -- and believe me, that's a good thing. I absolutely love her "White Christmas," and "I'll Be Home for Christmas is a heartbreaker when she pours it on.

Yet there she is, in true Bette Midler madness, singing "Mele Kalikimaka" like a Don Ho clone.

I'm not sure what to make of Celtic Woman: A Christmas Celebration. It's being advertised on television, where it sounds kind of crummy. When you play it on your own stereo, it's a lot better. But it's not really all the Celtic. Sure, there are occasional Celtic instruments, and now and then the singer will do some Celtic licks, but mostly it sounds like Christian smile music with backup signers straight out of Snow White.

The genuinely Celtic seeming moments are very nice -- I wish the album had more of them. But even the generic smiley passages are enjoyable. After all, it's Christmas music, which is supposed to offer familiarity and comfort and old-fashioned stylings. So if it sounds like she's being backed up by the Ray Conniff Singers, what of that? They were a good easy-listening vocal group.

But please. "White Christmas" on this album is so grimly sweet that you want to go brush your teeth. Where's the Celticness here? Nonexistent -- the style seems to have been borrowed from Amy Grant, with all the soul stripped away. Makes me want to shake her and scream, "Stop smiling when you sing that!"

I won't switch away from this album when songs from it come up in the ordinary rotation. But I can't think why I'd make a point of seeking it out.

James Taylor's At Christmas is an entirely different story. Taylor has always been a multiple-personality singer. He has kind of a small, light voice, but that doesn't stop him from singing everything from folk to blues, always with a hint of self-mockery. He's kind of like Bette Midler that way. When he sings the blues, there's a wink in his voice, as if he's saying, "Look, I know my voice is too perky and light, so that even when I growl it doesn't sound like I've ever been within fifty miles of the blues -- but isn't it fun to hear me try?"

So he does "Winter Wonderland" as if he were Harry Connick, Jr. Then he takes on the old spiritual "Go Tell It On the Mountain," and somehow he makes it work even though Taylor's voice is as suited for gospel music as a Smurf's.

"Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" has a great opening verse, and I'm always disappointed when singers leave it out. Especially James Taylor, because he so could have made it wonderful. But when he duets his way through "Baby, It's Cold Outside" with Natalie Cole, you realize that he is growing up to be the folk music version of Michael Buble. And that, too, is a Good Thing.

And now I'm going to make you jealous because of a Christmas EP that I own and you can't -- yet. I got my hands on a promotional copy of Shirley Eikhard's The Holidays Are Here.

There are five tracks, but only two songs, both of them by Eikhard. For those in the know, this is great news, because she's one of the great singer-songwriters. Eikhard is the consummate jazz vocalist. There are quite a few good ones, and it takes nothing away from any of them to say that nobody can match the rich, smokey quality of Eikhard's voice. It's seductive without ever hinting that she's trying to seduce anybody. Even when she's being happy, there's a hint of deep pain behind her voice. So that, unlike James Taylor, she sounds like she was born to sing blues, but chooses to sing more upbeat songs as an act of will.

"The Holidays Are Here" has the greatest "Fa la la" chorus I've ever heard -- it's how those nonsense syllables should always be sung. And then she vocalizes along with the guitar, like George Benson. It's a great upbeat number.

The other song, "Christmas Is Coming Alive," has a strangely haunting melody -- especially because the lyrics are much happier than the music. This juxtaposition enriches the words, as if they were haunted by a much sadder song that we can't quite hear. I love this song. I want to sing it.

And here's the thing: I can. Because both these songs are then repeated on minus tracks -- everything but the voice. I know I'll never sound as good as Eikhard, so if I tried to sing along with her voice, the contrast would be too demoralizing. So I'll sing along with the accompaniment.

There's a fifth track, too -- a third version of "The Holidays Are Here," but with a bossa nova beat. As a lover of Brazilian music, it's like Eikhard thought, How can I make Card happy this Christmas?

I have no idea how you can find and buy this CD. It's not on Amazon. Eikhard doesn't have a website -- not that I can find, anyway. But if the situation changes and you can get these great songs, I'll pass the word on to you right away.

*

If you're looking for fun games to give -- or simply play -- at Christmastime, here's my take on a couple of new ones.

Gemblo is a companion game to one of our favorites, Blokus. You remember Blokus, the Tetris-meets-Chess game where you try to lay out different-shaped figures on a square board, blocking out opponents while extending your own tentacles to every possible space.

Well, Gemblo is the same game -- only the pieces are based on hexagons instead of squares. The result is that up to six people can play. But the rules are just a little harder to learn, mostly because hexes aren't as easy to visualize as squares are. That higher learning curve might mean that this won't be the favorite game on Christmas day.

But it might be by New Year's.

A surefire winner is Cosmic Cows. This game is really a Yahtzee variation, only instead of scoring X points for each dice combination you roll, you move one of the cows toward your goal.

But the other player (or team) might roll the same thing and move it back, which means that the game could theoretically go on forever. Sometimes you think it might. And then somebody gets a run of luck and puts three cows across their goal and the game is over. Lots of fun along the way, and anyone who can understand Yahtzee can play it.

*

For those who've been following Tim LaHaye's Left Behind series, here's good news ... or really horrible news ... I'm not sure.

Because some of the audience for Left Behind consists of people who think computer games are a tool of the devil, a sign of the impending apocalypse. So what will it do to them to learn that the highly Christian Left Behind is now spawning computer games?

No problem for me, mind you. We Mormons not only dance, we also play computer games. In fact, I've just heard a rumor that the Mormon Church plans to get Mitt Romney elected President by using our secret control of Microsoft to give us access to voters' brains through their children's Xboxes.

That's a joke!  It's a rumor that I just made up!

Of course, that won't stop it from circulating instantly throughout the known world. Or at least the Christian one. ("Crypto-Satanist-Mormon Writer Orson Scott Card Admits Mormon Puppet Mitt Romney Will Steal Presidency By Controlling Minds Through Xbox, Then Claims 'Joke.'")

Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a game for the PC. Yep, a Christian computer game. A born-again, rapture-expecting Christian computer game.

Nope. Heck didn't freeze over. In fact, if it's as successful as the books, it will provide a cool alternative for gamers who really don't want to spend time on hyper-violent crimefests.

But I'm not even writing about the game -- I haven't played it. But I have heard the soundtrack.

Wait a minute. Soundtrack?

The sound track of the earliest videogames consisted of the plink-plonk-plink of Pong or Breakout, or the deep thrumming rhythm of Asteroids. Then we got thin little melodies that were so maddening you had to turn off the sound in order to stand to play the game -- that or you'd have the horrible little tunes playing through your brain all the next day.

But computer games have come a long way, and composers are finding that, like movies, games are a medium where original music will get performed -- over and over.

When you think about it, musicians -- composers and performers -- have been hit by technological nukes more than once in the past hundred years.

Silent movies, for instance, provided a lot of employment for musicians, from the plinkety piano players in smalltown moviehouses to the full orchestras in moving picture palaces in the big cities.

Then movies got recorded sound, and thousands of musicians were thrown out of work.

Radio came along and there were jobs again, as orchestras accompanied live singers performing the latest popular songs. Then the radio stations started networking through direct cable lines, which meant a single orchestra in New York could provide music for the whole country at once. And when radio started playing records, that was it -- another employment crisis for musicians.

Then cds began offering near-perfect reproduction of near-perfect recordings of near-perfect performances by major orchestras, and local orchestras really fell on hard times.

But the worst thing that happened to serious composition was something the musicians did to themselves. They got all arty. They started pretending that the new anti-musical theories were so cool that only compositions that would sound hideous to untrained ears could be debuted and performed by serious orchestras. That last major modern American composers who still created beautiful music from time to time -- Copland, Barber -- were sneered at as being too sentimental. And we got Glass and Cage.

Where could composers who actually wanted to create music with beauty and majesty -- or even with humor or tenderness -- heck, with life -- where could such composers go? It couldn't be pop music -- that was the realm of songwriters now.

They went to the movies. Composers like Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape), Ennio Moricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Michel Legrand (Summer of '42), and Nino Rota (Romeo & Juliet, The Godfather) did brilliant work creating music so powerful that even though we thought we had only seen a movie, we had only to hear a snatch of the theme and the whole experience of the film came flooding back.

There are those who would say that John Williams had the same effect on movie music as any of the other disasters, since for a while it seemed like he was the only composer anyone hired. But that was just an illusion -- Williams simply created such powerful, heroic music that you sometimes didn't notice the quieter composers.

Computer games are now coming along and offering a similar chance to a new generation of composers. Because if you thought the soundtrack had a powerful effect in a movie, you should see what the soundtrack of a videogame does!

Think about it -- this music consists of themes that are played over and over, endlessly, as the player's avatar on the screen dies and comes back, dies and comes back, fighting through the same sequence again and again until he finally succeeds -- all the time hearing the exact same music over and over and over and ... aaaargh!

Unless the composer understands how repetitive it's going to be and composes music whose repetition can be borne.

Back to Left Behind: Eternal Forces (and you thought I'd forgotten). I think composer/conductor Chance Thomas has done a very good job of making strong, sometimes majestic, sometimes lovely, but mostly onward-driving music for the game.

But a game really isn't a concert. And few game have had their soundtracks released separately from the game itself. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to invest forty hours of gameplay trying to get to a level a twelve-year-old can reach in fifteen minutes, just so I can hear a music. Ain't no music good enough to be worth that.

Fortunately, the soundtrack is available as a download from iTunes. So, unlike Chance Thomas's scores for the game versions of King Kong and Lord of the Rings (which can be heard on the games' websites, but only sort of accidentally), you can seek out this talented composer's work and give it a listen. Remember its purpose and forgive a certain degree of repetitiveness, because it's a reminder that if you give a good composer a chance, he'll make good music wherever he is.

To some, scoring computer games is the composers' equivalent of street musicians.

But that's not a bad analogy. Most street musicians are kind of lousy. (You tip them because it's so cold ... or hot ... and they're so earnesrt.) But now and then you run across one that just blows you away. (The Opera Babes, remember, began as street musicians in England.)

So it is with videogame scores. Mostly kind of sad, when they're not downright annoying. But now and then, wonderful.

This is a wonderful one.

*

The worst thing about learning just how bad high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats are is that there's almost nothing in your average gas-station food store that you can eat! Everything contains high-fructose corn syrup, it seems.

So whenever I can duck into a health food store, I scout for snacks to replace the ones I used to eat.

I've already talked about rice cakes, but there's something I like even better than the best of them: Real Foods' "Corn Thins." As the name implies, they're thinner than rice cakes, and they have almost as few calories to the inch. However, they taste much, much better than plain rice cakes -- which has been verified by many of my students this semester, whom I've been using as guinea pigs as I try out new snack foods.

(You should have seen them on the day we sampled every type of Endangered Species brand chocolate bar. They just hate it when I test things with them. All the whining, the moaning, the shnarfing -- it's just pitiful.)

The original Corn Thins are great, but my favorite flavor is the Multigrain. I haven't yet found the Sesame or Rye & Caraway or Cracked Pepper & Lemon flavors in any store, and the Flax & Soy flavor I've ignored, since it seems to be fulfilling a need I don't have.

Did I mention 23 calories per slice?

That's right. Food the size and shape of a CD, with only 23 calories each. And delicious. I can live with that. Literally.


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