Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for December, 2005

Tiny Mixed Feelings

December 21st, 2005

I’m intrigued by this list, as well as the many new-to-me names in this one, and these all look better than the records I got this year, and this is remedial education for those of us who were looking the other wrong way.

Otherwise, with Zoilus’ 2005 list hung (see below) by the chimney with care, that’s it for posts for the next week or so. I’ll be online but in and out of town, and using some of the time to refresh the links and other side pages. Keep discussing this year’s music (or next year’s!) in the comments boxes - I’ll jump in if the spirit moves me - and we’ll chat again before New Year’s. Peace and festive pleasures to you all meanwhile, and (I don’t say this often enough) … thank you so much for reading. It would have been a real drag if nobody showed up.

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… of the Year

December 20th, 2005

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You know, you’re not intending to do it, but then you read all the others and you get itchy.

The top 10 in order, left to right, row by row:

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That is: 1. The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree; 2. Kate Bush: Aerial; 3. Final Fantasy: … Has A Good Home; 4. Run the Road (grime compilation); 5. R. Kelly: Trapped in the Closet pts 1-12 (I really mean the collected singles, rather than the DVD, but this is the only format you can get them in, and of course worthwhile watching too); 6. Konono No. 1: Congotronics; 7. Sleater-Kinney: The Woods; 8. M.I.A.: Arular; 9. Charlie Poole: You Ain’t Talkin’ to Me (box set); 10. Drumheller: Drumheller.

The next 10: 11. Jon Rae & The River: Old Songs for the New Town; 12. Joel Plaskett: La De Da; 13. Bettye Lavette: I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise; 14. Veda Hille: Return of the Killdeer; 15. Amy Rigby: Little Fugitive; 16. Old 97’s: Alive and Wired; 17. The New Pornographers: Twin Cinema; 18. SS Cardiacs: Fear the Love; 19. Brian Joseph Davis: Greatest Hit; 20. Vijay Iyer: Reimagining.

And 20 more, in alphabetical order: Bjork: Drawing Restraint 9; Blackalicious: The Craft; Richard Buckner & Jon Langford: Sir Dark Invader Vs. The Fanglord; Cadence Weapon: Breaking Kayfabe; John Cale: Black Acetate; Rob Clutton: Dubious Pleasures; Constantines: Tournament of Hearts; Deerhoof: The Runners Four; Destroyer (with Frog Eyes): Notorious Lightning & Other Works; Jimmie Dale Gilmore: Come On Back; Holy Fuck: Holy Fuck; Seu Jorge: The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions; William Parker: Sound Unity; Republic of Safety: Passport EP; Silver Jews: Tanglewood Numbers; Wadada Leo Smith/Quintus/et al: Snakish; Tenement Halls: Knitting Needles & Bicycle Bells; Martha Wainwright: Martha Wainwright; Lee Ann Womack: There’s More Where That Came From; Xiu Xiu: La ForÍt.

In plain, this was such a rocky year personally (regular readers will have a notion why) that I didn’t feel my general music-tracking apparatus was in solid shape. Nor have I had time to do the usual year-end quest and catchup. I haven’t even had access to most of my records for the past few months - artists, if you were hoping for a review from me that never came, I’m sorry - your record was probably covered in ash and boxed up in the wake of the house fire, or it became part of the intimidating wall-of-sound that sits atop my desk at the Globe. Next year will be better. (Right?) So my list is both more predictable and more local than one could claim really reflects 2005. (Although to be local to Toronto is certainly a more accurate reflection of this year than most!) No doubt I’m forgetting significant records, but this is a fairly good reflection of what I listened to this year. Was it a good or a bad year for music? I thought it was a poor one, but that’s filtered through the dark lens of the year it was for me.

The reason that No. 1 is ranked there, besides that it’s an open, empathic and novelistic work by a boundlessly gifted songwriter, is likely that it spoke to these struggles the most directly: “I am gonna make it through this year/ If it kills me.” And the number 2 pick offers a generous creative outpouring from someone who has made it through to the deep centre of adulthood without losing her nerve, which is part of what feels at risk in any grim time. I believe I’ve said enough about number 3. And the rest of the top-rankers, frankly, were pure compensatory pleasure. Wish I’d had more time to keep up with pop music, in particular (actually more time-consuming, since it never gets sent to me - it involves whiling away time watching Much or spinning a radio dial); but certainly also jazz-improv-experimental, electronic-dance, etc.

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Must-Haves

December 20th, 2005

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Not so much for the holidays, but in general: The indispensible WFMU blog links us up to a 1972 Captain Beefheart video that’s revelatory to those of us who have mostly images of Don Van Vliet as a somewhat older man lodged in our heads, while unfortunately being a performance of a song that’s not much good. Much better is the TV ad for The Spotlight Kid which is a great example of topsy-turvey marketing: The point of this commercial isn’t, “This album is good,” but, “This album will confuse your square friends and family.” Not a noble tactic, but an effective and amusing one.

Also, since Finland is the next “it” country in underground music (I’m not kidding: If 2005 was Canada’s year, 2006 may well be Finland’s), get yourself or your aspiring internationally-unknown-frontperson friend or relative prepared now by learning to sing in Finnish. (Via Paul Collins, a favourite nonfiction writer I’m delighted to see blogging.)

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Robot Ponies: This Year’s Xmas Hit

December 17th, 2005

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I finally saw Laura Barrett, much talked about since her guest slot at the Final Fantasy gig at the Boat in November, perform in person last night for the first time. It was in the casually festive environs of the Greg Collins Christmas Concert (which wound up with a crazy mass-participatory dance-confetti-glitter-mosh extravaganza animated by Robocopp), but the scary-smart sparkle, warmth and stealthy humour of Laura’s songs, beautifully sung and accompanied on kalimba, were more than evident. A little bit reminiscent instrumentally of Joanna Newsom, whose harp style is African-influenced (and Laura’s kalimba style in turn is classically-influenced), but Laura’s singing, while somewhat quizzical, is more straightforwardly pretty. And I was reminded that Laura’s hit-in-waiting Robot Ponies, which you can hear on her MySpace site, is in fact a Christmas song, almost an entire stop-motion animated Christmas special in three minutes:

Christmas Eve, 2053
Underneath every little girl’s tree:
A robot pony.
Comb their soft and luscious nylon fur.
Listen close, hear their clockwork hearts whir.
Robot ponies.
They feed on plastic bags cut up like lettuce
Right out of your hand. Things get out of hand
Unless you use one of 20 pre-set functions
To make them understand, make them understand:
You know best. You know best …

Of course, it all ends badly. Or at least creepily. It’s kind of a cyborg Velveteen Rabbit story. With swearing.

Laura is performing all over the place lately (provided that place is Toronto). This week you can see her Tuesday at the “band bakeoff” at Rancho Relaxo or Thursday at the holiday benefit show at the Silver Dollar. (See the gig guide.)

Also last night, far less seasonal but still terrific new material from Pyramid Culture, the all-female beats choir that sings about science. More in future (for instance a rumoured plan for a split single on which Pyramid Culture would cover Robot Ponies and Laura would cover P.C.’s Pantherdog), but for now I’ll just say: Catchiest song of 2005 about parasitic fetal twins.

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Check that Maxim!

December 16th, 2005

Writing about music is not “like dancing about architecture.” It’s like architecture about dancing.

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Canada Seeks Silver Jews,
With Paly of Six Argent and Gules
on a Chief Azure, a Lion Passant

December 16th, 2005

David Berman’s the Silver Jews, whose latest album might be on my best-of-the-year list if I were going to make one, are embarking on their first tour in the history of Judeo-Christian civilization. It transpires in March. While it hews northeasterly, thus far it does not cross the border. Brave Toronto promoters! Unsheath thy cellular phones from their scabbards and bring yon silvery semites to our citadel on this their arduous journey! For damn sure!

The Greatest Living Ballad Singer

December 16th, 2005

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I have an appreciation of jazz singer (”Little”) Jimmy Scott, 80, who’s opening for the fine singer Dianne Reeves at Massey Hall next Wednesday, in today’s Globe and Mail. Jimmy Scott’s is one of the great lost-artist-returned stories of modern times, and his voice, at once masculine and feminine, boyish and worldly wise, is one of the most moving I have ever heard. (Antony lovers and haters alike need to hear it.) The piece emphasizes his music’s sadness, but gentle consolation also pulses through his tone. If you’re looking for a place to start, try the recent - well, not reissues so much as recoveries - of his once-shelved masterworks, the 1962, Ray Charles-supervised Falling in Love is Wonderful, and 1969’s soulful The Source. But Zoilus readers would also be interested in 1998’s Holding Back the Years, where he sings songs by Prince, Elvis Costello, Bryan Ferry and even Elton John, as well as (as mentioned in the piece) his 1996 gospel cover of Talking Heads’ Heaven. But first, read about his incredible life.

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‘Please Don’t Wake Me From This, My Golden Slumber:
I’m Proud to be a Part of this Number!’

December 15th, 2005

For those who can’t face an absurdly extensive exegetical text (see below) without a lip-smacking taste of the original scripture, Said the Gramophone is now proffering a download of the title track of Destroyer’s Rubies, with somewhat less fevered commentary. Other songs are available hither and yon, but you’ll have to play hunter/huntress.

I’m Proud to be a Part of this Number!’">3 Comments

Destroyer’s Rubies:
‘I Passed Off Those Couplets
In Honour of the Void…’

December 13th, 2005

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Yes, the much-delayed post on Destroyer’s Rubies by Destroyer aka Dan Bejar. The domestic chaos this fall led me to put this one off, and now the album (due Feb. 21) has leaked all over the interwebbage. The upside is that people can respond with their own thoughts now.

It never occurred to me that the “drinking game” is a sub rosa form of criticism until I saw the notion of a Destroyer drinking game get tossed around on the Merge Records web forum. It brings to the surface everything that’s “typical” of its target, and the rules serve as a skeletal portrait of the thing at hand, a kind of recipe. I’ll put my own adapted version of the rules on the jump at the end of this post. My point is that Destroyer’s Rubies, more I think than any past Destroyer album, would leave you totally hammered: In a sense the surprise is that it is such a characteristic Destroyer album, that it doesn’t take some abrupt turn in the manner of Dan’s first two records after signing with Merge, This Night and Your Blues, the first a sprawling, noisy and near-improvised rock record and the second an inside-out tesseract of MIDI synth decadence.

Instead, it’s taking the spirits of both those records and transfusing them back into the comparatively straight rock form heard on Streethawk. It’s probably closer to the record Merge anticipated when they took Destroyer on, the one most fans expected to follow Streethawk. Ryan suggested to me that it’s the most “accessible” Destroyer album yet - a funny claim for a disc that begins with a nearly 10-minute-long song with no real chorus, but still a relatively reasonable one.

If I had been told this in advance, I might have felt let down: Why retreat to rock? People take the name Destroyer as a joke - this little fey singer-songwriter advertising himself like Thor - and it is, but no, it isn’t. Destroyer always had destruction earnestly on his agenda, a war against the social and aesthetic confines of “indie rock,” to break on through to a more imaginatively complex, less compromised zone - which is just the way Your Blues sounded, like a liberation from the empire of electric guitar. Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) told me a few weeks ago that he’d been thinking of inviting Destroyer to tour with him this spring, the deal being that Owen with his harpsichord and string quartet would serve as Destroyer’s backing band. Part of me would much rather hear that than a solid working rock band, as Dan’s reportedly assembled semi-permanently here. The song Looter’s Follies opens with a verse that could be heard as surrender: “You can huff and you can puff/ But you’ll never destroy that stuff./ Finally, I see why, I suppose:/ Kids, you’d better change your feathers/ ‘Cuz you’ll never fly with those/… things.” Perhaps meaning, give this crusade up, it’ll never fly.

But by the end of the song, he’s singing, “I swear somewhere the truth lies within this wood!/ I swear Looter’s Follies has never sounded so good!” So the surrender is a feint - it’s actually a boast. This is the most assured, least defensive record Dan’s ever made; it’s “characteristic” because it’s so confident in its character. It’s not afraid to rock because it’s not obliged to rock, and often it doesn’t - there’s as much chanteur-style crooning and theatricality here as on Your Blues, and knotty instrumental tomfoolery as on This Night - but rather than forming a Brechtian distancing screen, it coalesces into something like the song’s “mercurial presence hitherto unknown.” (A section hilariously sung, by the way, in an apparently deliberate Bob Dylan imitation - talk about swagger.) In sum, This Night and Your Blues were the manifestos for which this album is the exemplary masterpiece. Those were the journeys into the mine, and now here are Destroyer’s rubies. (Now, really, Your Blues was a complete treasure in itself, but as a useful myth, let it stand.)

Nearly every song here achieves the sort of epic form that was hinted at occasionally in past songs such as The Bad Arts, Crystal Country and What Road, dramatic pieces in which there are multiple scenes, themes and characters, variously placed in time and in chambers of memory. The “la-da-da-dee-dai” choruses that appear in six of the album’s 10 songs have many functions, and one is to crossfade between stations in a given song.

And while Destroyer still does and doubtless always will embody a polemic, an ongoing debate about the role of art in the world and of the art business in art and Destroyer’s own role in all of it… on Destroyer’s Rubies it is only secondary - which again suggests the end of the cycle that began on Thief, in which that dilemma was either rhetorically or formally (on Your Blues) a constant preoccupation. It still gets in some pointed sallies - as on the opening track’s “Oh, it is just your precious American underground/ And it is born of wealth,” and in Looter’s Follies, “Why can’t you see/ That a life in art and a life of mimicry/ They’re the same thing!” - but this album is more about worldly experience, usually considered in retrospect, with fierce passions and regrets. The (mostly) women he sings about and to - Candace in European Oils, the one with “that penchant for destruction in the way you talk” in the transfixing Painter in Your Pocket, even the one identified as A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point - all pulse with personality, rummaging through the wilds of these songs, and are themselves wounded or refreshed there. They’re seldom the girls-named-whatever who sauntered into earlier Destroyer songs to serve their rhetorical purposes and then be summarily dismissed.

All of which helps make the album “accessible” to those who don’t necessarily have the preoccupations shared by Dan and, I suspect, many core Destroyer fans up till now. But the real reason this album is going to be embraced by many, many people outside that inner circle is that it’s so luxuriantly musical, with the full potlatch-prodigiousness of textures and harmonies found on This Night - but where that album was eager to just throw all this music on a bonfire, here it’s built up and sculpted. These tunes aren’t just settings for Dan’s lyrics, supporting sceneries for contemporary poetry in song, they’re songs that swell with further song - the da-dada-dum-da’s are needed to soak it all up. And you’re conscious not only of Dan as maestro but of the independent will of the band members, always in the pocket but bursting to get out: Scott Morgan on drums and sax, Tim Loewen on bass, Fisher Rose on vibes and trumpet, Ted Bois hanging garlands of piano and other keyboards, and Nicolas Bragg and Dan jousting with guitar lines that often rival the singing as lead voices. Music writers may have to give up the “aka Dan Bejar” after Destroyer’s name now.

You could argue, and I have, that many of these points are also true of Your Blues, in its “adoration of surface,” its orchestral manoeuvres, its immersion in dramatic emotion - but that album had its naugahyde-white synthetic coating, like a plastic bubble to keep it pure and cool. There was a fresh sexiness to that music, and the tactility of the synthesizers made it gleam. But this album is made of rough leather crusted with stones and thorns as well as gems - here, seduction isn’t just a theory but a fluctuating-body-temperature sensory struggle in progress, between humans with as much “elementary desire” as pride or positional wariness at stake. Yet those humans are not private enclosures, as in most rock songwriting - they’re a mess of historical and aesthetic projectiles, feral political objects, murderer-loving corpses and sacrificial gods. When Dan sings in European Oils, “I made a tomb for all the incompatible selves I could take/ And I, I bought bells to the wake,” he’s pointing to the (twinned) scene of a crime - massacre or enlightenment, it’s up to you - of which the rest of the album is consequence and investigation. (Yes, we’re now in the territory of my EMP paper on “bandonyms” and the decentred self, though the “masculine abject” is mostly left behind on Destroyer’s Rubies.)

None of which footnoted blather can really touch the language here, which jumps off from the dramatic monologues of Your Blues into a sphere that’s practically Shakespearian. The words are such that I can only mix metaphors over them - they could be described with one of the album’s recurring phrases: “tall ships made of snow invading the sun.” Over and over he’s pulling ephemeral bits out of every extant lexical bag, forging them into phrases at a blow. It’s the kind of casual verbal sharpshooting you can only do when you can do it blindfolded: While much of the singing is Dan at his most languid, now and then he cockily gears up into rapidfire rounds, as on a verse of Dangerous Woman Up to a Point so accelerated I can hardly decipher it. (It concludes, “It was a trap it was a good time it was hard to realize - oh!“) Or on the shrapnel-shedding rocker 3000 Flowers, which flicks its lighter at Ezra Pound (”I was… a fresh face on a dying scene/ One-hundredth of a wet black bough”), then culminates in a striking passage with which I’ll end these revels. It reverts to the rock-scene issue, but that’s just fertilizer. It begins with a single voice which is then, on the repetition of “And the sky still reigned…,” joined by a backing chorus, as though the congregation he’s addressing (”the music lovers,” eponymous subjects of a Your Blues song) had joined in, showing him up as one (or many) among them, just another destructive wastrel - except this one is Destroyer, and he’s the one holding the rubies.

I was Clytemnestra on a good day,
Dispensing wisdom to the uninitiated,
The initiates brought out in tumbrels, shadowed by the dawn.
(Shadowed by the dawn, shadowed by the dawn.)
And like a woman I was kept
As the wealthy American underground wept
At the sight of Rhode Island sinking into the sea.
And the sky still reigned supreme over the land,
As the music lovers sat crosslegged in the sand
And in time and in space, and in other words in a band,
Too much like churchgoers…
And the sky still reigned supreme over the land,
As the music lovers sat crosslegged in the sand
And in time and in space, and in other words in a band,
Too much like destroyers of themselves.


(See below for the drinking game.)

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‘Crowned Myself the Prince of Buzz…’

December 11th, 2005

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As forecast, my piece on Final Fantasy in today’s Times is here.

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