Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for November, 2005

Back to the Slappin’

November 29th, 2005

I missed Dave M.’s response earlier, basically because I’ve been busy writing a book proposal and an article and otherwise takin’ care of business. Suffice to say that he makes his case so much more effectively here that I can’t respond without going back to the record, and that would require finding it in the piles of things in my house-still-under-repair, and so I probably won’t be able to get back into it for now. But I will say that I think that the issue of cultural appopriation is vastly different when you are talking about people “borrowing” from the most successful form of music/entertainment in the entire world than it is when you are talking about people stealing from poor unknown artists who are performing in juke joints. In fact it would be appallingly dumb and boring if artists from other cultures were not swiping from, commenting on, reacting to and subverting elements of hip-hop now. I don’t think the historical analogy transfers over at all. That said, Dave’s charge that NHS isn’t making interesting choices in what to steal (and that there’s something chicken about that) is a strong one, and certainly much more subtle than what he said in his review. I will say that the nerdy-insularity of the references is something I like about it - I’ll go so far as to say it represents, and in fact if it didn’t, there wouldn’t be people getting so very pissed off about it. Which is interesting exactly the way that Dave paraphrases Christgau to say it is.

Taking ‘Slap Dee Barnes’
to (Ninja High) School

November 26th, 2005

Gosh, how could these people possibly claim not to be hip-hop?

Someone pointed out Dave Morris’s review of the Ninja High School disc in this week’s Eye record guide, which I initially missed, and it has me peeved. Dave quotes Matt Collins out of context saying, “We’re not really hip-hop,” and proceeds to accuse him of saying so only to evade being judged by hip-hop’s lofty standards: “Not wanting to be that white dude who thinks he’s black is no excuse for being lazy.” I normally think Dave’s a very solid critic, but feels to me like he went into this one grinding the wrong axe. As I recall it, Matt specifically says that NHS is “positive-hardcore dance-rap” (hardcore as in punk), which borrows techno and hip-hop stylings - in a very very lo-fi way - to freshen up a style that’s otherwise pretty played out. If Dave’d ever been to an NHS show he’d certainly find it’s way more like a punk show than a hip-hop one in its energies, that its subject (or, more often, object of attack) is punk/indie cultural values (notice which section of the record guide Eye placed it in), and that rather than “leaving out rap’s more culturally loaded signifiers,” NHS is using the signifiers that represent who they actually are, a bunch of middle-class artsy white and Asian kids in Toronto - the rapping partly is a signal that they have a sense of humour and awareness of that status that many guitar bands don’t. Whereas if they actually used those “more culturally loaded signifiers,” I’d call them full of shit, and I bet Dave would too. If Dave wants to say the production could be better, I’m with him. If he wants to say the rapping could be improved (although I do like it), I’m with him. But to say anybody who uses “breakbeats and rhyming spoken-word vocals” is fooling themselves if they say they’re not doing hip-hop is, first, to use a terribly reductive definition of hip-hop (is any hip-hop artist who uses instruments and sings then fooling themselves that they’re not doing rock? or is genre actually a more complicated thing?), and second, to overlook a lot - is Beck actually hip-hop then? How about William S. Burroughs when he read over a beat? Anyone who goes to Ninja High School looking for a Dipset record is going to be disappointed, but as Owen P. told me the other day, it’s like the best Crass record ever.

As long as we’re catching up with our reading, and speaking of white guys soaking hip-hop up into other genres, I found Keith Harris’s second thoughts on Big & Rich in Seattle Weekly the other day really refreshing. It’s the first takedown of B&R that I’ve read that wasn’t anti-country, anti-hiphop or anti-cornball but still pointed out that B&R have a tendency to make songs that are little trinkets packaged in a big gaudy box with another big gaudy box around it and so on. Too often, there’s no bull to be found amid the bullshit, as colourful as that BS might be. Big and Rich are always evoking a band I’d really love, but it’s not the band they are.

Also congrats to Douglas (from oh-so-fashionable Portland!) on Friday’s NPR feature on his National Solo Album Month project (aka NaSoAlMo), and to John “Utopian Turtletop” Shaw for getting his Scooter Libby song featured there. John says: “I would have sent word beforehand but I didn’t find out until afterwards. Flo said, ‘You had your five minutes of fame and they didn’t even tell you.’ ” This idea of whether you can be “famous” if you don’t know you’re famous tickles my imagination - I guess it’s possible if you’re in prison, or in the wrong country, or, ah yes, if you’re Harry Potter. But it does seem to challenge the category.

Douglas also has a post up reflecting on the comics element of this video-game/”post-expressive” question. (I think he just might top my list of bloggers I’d like to meet in person and never have. I’ve already met John.)

Also, note that there’s a feature, not by me, on Portland-is-the-new-Montreal in today’s Globe, which is pretty good aside from its uncritical stance on the unbearable unbearability of “It”-ness. Alex Gill makes nice use of the Decemberists’ have-the-audience-play-possum stunt as metaphor for Portland’s longstanding reluctance to become the new Seattle. (An acknowledgment that Sleater-Kinney ain’t exactly new also would have been nice.) Also note the pretty good sidebar at the end listing It Cities of the past. The sequel, apparently on how being briefly It in this continental game of pin-the-hype-on-the-city affected Montreal’s emotions, is promised for Monday. Perhaps we’ll talk about it then.

Graffito of the day (somewhat related): I’m not sure I feel the same way, but it was amusing to see sprayed on the stone of the new Starbucks going up on the corner of Queen and Dovercourt: “This is all your fault, Drake, you ho!” “Drake, you ho, this is all your fault”

Uh, there was no hotlink in the graffito, though.

Distillery Jazz Bites the (Temporary?) Dust

November 25th, 2005

A note just arrived from Toronto Distillery Jazz festival director Larry Rossignol that there will not be a fourth spring festival in 2006: “The festival, held since 2003 each May in Toronto’s Distillery Historic District, has not been able to secure sufficient corporate sponsorship to continue planning a spring 2006 festival.” The cause seems to be that prime sponsor Dynamic Funds pulled out and so far has not been replaced. The festival featured over a hundred shows a year and showcased innovative local jazz musicians in a way no other large Toronto festival has, along with multimedia and other experiments.

“The Distillery Jazz Festival has been a big hit in every way. In 2005 we attracted a record 50,000 patrons and earned significant critical acclaim for our innovative programming. We keep our ticket prices as low as possible and also offer a significant number of free concerts thus making significant corporate sponsorship crucial to financial health.”

They say they’re aiming for October of 2006 as an alternate date.

Drive-By Thursday Reading

November 24th, 2005

Inundated at work at the mo’, and not really wanting to put the brakes on the video-game debate (below), but here are some links for your perusing:

Eye’s music coverage this week is dominated by its holiday record guide (as Now’s was, last week) but there’s one must-read in there, in which Denise Benson catches up with Sandro Perri aka Polmo Polpo aka Continuous Dick, who’s mostly been singing ballads and improvising lately, but is coming back round to beats via Arthur Russell - as he’ll show tomorrow night at the Boat. You can also catch a glimpse of Zoilus posing as an “idealistic intellectual” (and a very short one, at that) in a Snaps feature from last Sunday’s fantastico all-day-and-alla-the-night Coach House Books launch for uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto, the new bible of T-dot love-ups. Meanwhile Now stages a showdown between Damian Jr Gong Marley and Lil Kim, who doesn’t stand a chance, and interviews Bettye Lavette, who totally should have been the cover. (Oh, and they’ve also got an interview with Sandro, but it’s not nearly as good.)

Elsewhere: My colleague Robert Everett Green does the official Globe review of The Hidden Cameras/TDT show. (His comment on the hetero/homo dance pairs reminds me of a note I made during a show: “A boy-girl pas de deux in modern dance always seems to me to tell the same story: She doesn’t realize her boyfriend is gay.“) The Star has a pretty appallingly badly written version of same.

Hip-hop censorship skirmishes at home and abroad. In reaction to which, Dave Morris presents the kicking of ass and the taking of names. Later: Oh, I missed this fine essay by Kalefa Sanneh in today’s Times about the symbiosis between rap and R&B (which, like Dave’s rant, could feed into the expressive-content debate), as well as the Times’ annual box-set roundup.

All About Jazz interviews Bernard Stollman, founder of ESP-Disk, the Albert Ayler/Sun Ra/Fugs/Godz/Pharoah Sanders label. Mark K-Punk offers a Deleuzian reading of Kate Bush’s Aerial (which I’m beginning to think is really the record of the year - it’s just got more scale than anything else). (Later: More K(ate)-punk.) Douglas on college radio in Slate. Clover on Zizek in the Voice: Jane provides outtakes as a good alter-ego should. Matos reviews the medicine-show-music anthology Buck 65 plugs in Now this week. Elvis Costello plans symphony tour. Xiu Xiu has new album. Greil Marcus plays rock-paper-scissors with Patti Smith’s Horses reissue. Stereogum raises problem of “cover vs. translation”, but then does not help solve it. Mark E Smith does the sports, a problem that needs no solution. Tom Breihan sums up doings at the Irv Gotti trial. Got something to say? Let Them Sing It For You (via Boing Boing). An ex-black-hat-hacker reflects on the Sony Rootkit scandal and concludes, “It would be good to arrest them.” (YES.) Another consideration of jazz treatments of rock songs as “new standards.” And Robert Christgau’s annual “turkey shoot” takes aim at easy targets. (Leading with Burt Bacharach? C’mon.)

Late late: Hey, no one told me Matt Woebot was blogging again! Plus, the UK version of the 40-bands meme - distinctly more poppist, the top 10 being bookended by Girls Aloud and Rachel Stevens….

If Video Games Really Are the New Rock…

November 23rd, 2005

King Kong computer games, ‘then’ and now.

All the chatter about the new Xbox this week has me thinking about how gaming seems to have usurped much of the glamor and the centrality of music to youth culture. Not that young people don’t still care about music. But the great mercurial day-in-day-out conversational hype energy of middle-class-teen culture feels like it’s more intimately knotted up with the games they play than with the sounds they hear.

What strikes me as odd is that gaming is more analogous to sports than art. The excitement about finding a perspective on life or a point of identification - the personalized gnosis that seems key to the teenage music-listening experience - doesn’t transfer to gaming. Not that the medium can’t be artful and adventurous, and I’m sure users form attachments and affective communities related to it. But has anyone ever uttered over-earnestly that a game tells the truth about their lives or that they feel as if some gaming designer would really like them if they could just hang out and talk? (And if they do, why do they?)

It seems to represent a kind of shift into a post-expressive cultural mode - one that seems reflected in pop music as well. Listening to early rock and a lot of early rap, it’s remarkable how literally (often excessively) they deal with typical moments and feelings in teenage lives; as both forms develop they distance themselves from that agenda in favour of something with more grandeur. But when I look at 50 Cent, the experience of listening to those songs for the vast majority of young listeners seems to be more akin to inhabiting a video-game avatar, one that rather blankly but with great potency executes a series of moves that represent a vicarious acting-out but seldom even metaphorically refer back to an inner life (as even the most grandiose, Zeppelinesque rock usually has - or maybe not?).

The funny thing is how often I’ve decried “self-expression” as a crap value for music (or art in general) - my distaste for emo, which seems as a genre like a third-law-of-motion reaction to the anti-expressive trend, is well documented. But when I consider the notion of a gaming-dominated culture where the main translation of personal issues into art generally means their representation as an expressionless vicarious competitive struggle, I’m chilled. It seems to connect to a post-industrial economic model of self as brand and information in ways I find difficult to unpack.

I don’t intend any “the kids aren’t alright” alarmism here - there’s more to youth culture than its entertainments, and music-centrism has its own problems (music accents cliqueishness, it encourages a narcissistic self-romanticization that games don’t, and so on). But I haven’t heard much conversation about the borders between music and gaming cultures (except for bands doing game soundtracks or adopting 8-bit sounds or whatevs), so I offer these initial thoughts as a spur to better ones.

In The Boneyard

November 23rd, 2005

The Hidden Cameras.

I knew I’d left someone off yesterday’s Canuck-band list: The Hidden Cameras, of course - whose latest collaboration with Toronto Dance Theatre, In the Boneyard, premiered tonight. Last year’s first TDT-HCs project, You Are the Same (which I covered in this feature) was extraordinarily successful - the HCs best-loved songs combined with beautiful-silly modern dance, in a studio space that had the dancers and band members not only mixing it up with one another but with the audience, who ended up dancing on stage with the performers by the end.

This year’s edition takes place in a fancier proscenium theatre, and it features all-new songs from the Cameras’ 2006 album Awoo (recorded but as yet unheard). That shift has many consequences.

This year’s show is better designed, nicely lit, has a fun four-level scaffolded set that gives the cast lots of opportunities to climb all over it barefooted and strike different configurations for every song-scene, and more sensuously costumed. Everyone, dancer or Camera, looks gorgeous, together and individually. There’s more of Christopher House’s vivacious and loose-limbed choreography. Joel Gibb, lead Camera, plays a more central role in this production, serving as more of a master of ceremonies and focal point, and taking more performance risks. We get to hear the band’s new songs, which take some interesting turns away from the HCs’ familiar dirty-anthem style towards something less archetypical, more directly emotional (with those Talking Heads and Smiths influences pressing up closer to the surface). And the Cameras themselves go much further as amateur dancers - and the dancers as amateur musicians - than in the first production, which is a charming and inspiring spectacle. (The more awkward the better, I say.) At 70 minutes, it feels too short - I wanted to see the whole thing again immediately.

But “spectacle” is the most apt description of In the Boneyard. Just as the Cameras have shifted the emphasis somewhat (though certainly not entirely) away from the collective-communal experience to Joel’s specific voice as a songwriter, this show is not the participatory immersive love-in that the first was. The proscenium arch is a formidable barrier, and while that fourth wall does get breached, it never truly collapses. (It might help if the forays into the crowd came sooner in the show.) The more formal space also tends to bring out a more dance-performance crowd, less of an indie-rock one, which tends to raise the audience’s reticence level too. They warmed up eventually, but it took much longer. And for the Cameras fan the all-new setlist is quite a lot to swallow at once: Much of the pleasure in 2004 was to see how the songs had been reconceived as dance, but in this case you have to try to catch the gist of the songs in the process, so inevitably you miss bits of each. Which is exciting but, along with the greater audience distance, less of a cathartic joy than the first show.

That said it’s still more than worth your time, and in fact I’m thinking of heading back to see it a second time on Friday or Saturday - I’m curious how it will develop over the week, and suspect there’s a lot of thematic threads running through it that will reveal themselves on second viewing. (And if anyone reading also saw the show, I’m eager to hear your perspectives, in the comments or by email.) For now, night-night.

With Glowing Hearts

November 22nd, 2005

Matt over at I Heart Music solicited nominees from all the bloggas for “hottest” Canadian bands of 2005, with the interpretation of “hot” left up to the nominator. I sent him a list of 10 but it really should be a list of about 20, with a 16-way tie for fifth, and still leaving a lot out. The ranking criterion is simply how much mental space each of these bands occupied for me in 2005:

1. Final Fantasy
2. Republic of Safety
3. Jon Rae & the River
4. Destroyer + Frog Eyes (Notorious Lightning ep)
5. Drumheller, Ninja High School, Veda Hille, Joel Plaskett, They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Venetian Snares, Tim Hecker, No Dynamics, The New Pornographers, Martha Wainwright, Chad Van Gaalen, Arcade Fire, Holy Fuck, The Creeping Nobodies, Hank or SS Cardiacs or maybe the Phonemes, CCMC.

Matt’s poll was topped by the Arcade Fire, with Broken Social Scene kicking and screaming in second place. It’s probably true, as Aaron’s comments suggest, that this is a “cat person” versus “dog person” kind of choice. And, as always, the dog people are Wrong.

I suppose this is a sign that Top 10 list season is about to rain down upon us.

Runnin’ Up That Thar Hill

November 19th, 2005

Kate Bush: The higher the hair, the closer to a deal with God.

If there’s anyone out there trying to come up with a birthday present for me (it’s Dec. 23), here’s what I want: a country-bluegrass version of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. Ideally with a female singer, but it could be a man with a nice high lonesome tenor, I suppose. I can almost hear it - the rolling drum-machine pattern taken over by a banjo, the higher synthesizer part played by a fiddle-stringbass duo, the parallel-fifths harmonies - but I can’t literally hear it, and I really really want to.

Psst! Pass it on!

November 17th, 2005

Just got this email and figured, what the hell, I’d tell you too:

Special crazy DJ party at The Queenshead tonight. In an hour. Tell your friends. It’s gonna be crazy.


$2 COVER (can you handle that?)
Resident DJs Mikey Apples and Jaime Sin
Shack Up is held at The Queenshead,
on the southwest corner of Bathurst & Queen.

Zoilus the Gramophone

November 16th, 2005

Pleased to advise you that I have a lengthy guest post up today on Said the Gramophone, one of the first and still one of the most gracefully curated and written audioblogs in existence (based in Ottawa & Scotland). The piece is a spotlight on the guitarist-improviser-composer Eric Chenaux (of the Reveries, Drumheller, Chenaux-McAdorey, Tristanos, Guayaveras, Chenaux-Arnold, Draperies, and Rat-drifting Records), one of Toronto’s most radiant but under-spotlit artists.

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