Archive for January, 2006
January 31st, 2006
It turns out Kurt Cobain had the idea for a lounge version of Smells Like Teen Spirit a long time before anybody else did. And he sang it on Top of the Pops while the rest of Nirvana goofed around not-pretending-to-play. (Granted it’s lounge music via Ian Curtis, but it’s still a very lounge/Elvis-in-Vegas kind of vocal.)
(Later: A little further on this. Cobain’s ability to pisstake spontaneously on the song is suggestive that the reason SLTS attracts so much of this remake energy, and there’s way more than I linked above, incl. most recently T.opiate’s beloved Laura Barrett’s kalimba cover of the Weird Al version, is that the multigeneric identity is actually coded into its creation, that the sarcasm of its vision of rebellion was always directed at the rock myth of which it has been claimed as final messianic avatar and that the swinging melody is in some ways key to its implicit critique, which is more traditionalist than Cobain’s ever presumed to be, with his junkie lifetime membership in the boho nihilist club, which is always gonna be counted for more than his decisions, for example, to marry and have a child, despite the addict-logic compulsion of the former and the voluntary choice represented by the latter. And yeah, I know it’s tiresome to be still retro-interpreting Cobain, but.)
January 31st, 2006
Mr. B. and his “What Is It?” tree.
David Byrne’s albums since the late 1980s have had their ups and downs, but his blog is consistently worthwhile (for instance, his recent musings on the idea that we might all just be fooling ourselves into thinking we have personalities, as a kind of mental support system comparable to the apparently built-in impulse toward religious faith, which you might argue is just an evolutionary shield against murder/suicide). But ya gotta check out these tree drawings he’s made, apparently a future possible McSweenys book. As he describes them, “a kind of humorous disjointed scientism of the mind heaves into view.” And humorous disjointed scientism is great on waffles. The Music Tree breaks the subject up into the categories “What it is” (”body language speaker,” “sex catalyst,” “personality annihilator,” “heartbreak device,” “time machine”) and “What it’s made of” (”sparse events,” “frequent repetitions,” “subliminal messages,” “gimmicks”) to create a kind of graphical representation of the immense surprise and unlikelihood that music works at all.
I was being interviewed for a teevee show about music writing and blogging today, and among my staircase moments afterwards, I thought that my answer to the question, “If writing about music is such a non-lucrative career, why do it?” should have been that precisely because music is so abstract and inimical to verbal capture, it opens up an infinite field to write across, an unending series of creative near-or far-misses - and because music is so insinuated in everyone’s personal lives and consciousnesses, it burrows tunnels into every subject matter, making it a subject that potentially permits you to write about anything and everything in the world. But then again, I thought, that could be said of writing about food or clothing or a hundred other things. You could do it even if you were covering the scrap-metal industry, and it would be all the more dazzling because more unlikely. At least with scrap metal you probably couldn’t fall back on writing a lot of articles using the words “angular” and “seminal.”
Then it occurred to me that the real TV answer should have been, “Because it still pays better than writing poetry.”
January 30th, 2006
Apologies for having vanished up the spout all week: I was distracted by a miscellany of bright shiny objects, including last night’s shows by Laura Barrett and Bob Wiseman and others, at the Boat, and then Dollarama and the “secret” set by Cursed at Wavelength. They were all a pleasure, but particularly Hamilton, Ont.’s Cursed: I think it’s been about eight years since I saw a live hardcore band, and Cursed rebaptized me in blood and filth with such loving care that for a moment I flashed back to the time when I regularly sought out the sensation of feeling my body forcibly shaken by such music (which is closer to techno, like gabba, in a way, than to song-based rock - and the way Cursed play it, on the edge between HC and metal, not unlike the opera either). It was amusing too to see the more mild-mannered of the art-pop Wavelength kids’ eyes bugging out and their heads wobbling, unsure whether they’d loved or hated the experience.
Anyway, while I’ve been gone there’s been some news - which some of you have gleaned already: I’m going to be writing a book for the 33 1/3 series of books-on-albums. In my case, it’s about what may seem a highly unlikely object of study: Let’s Talk About Love by Celine Dion. I could explain why, but I’d rather let you puzzle it out for now. (Speculation welcome.) Suffice it to say I’m very excited about the project, which is going to be the most challenging bit of music writing I’ve ever done. And I’m also thrilled, and relieved, finally to be losing my livreginity. (The first of many atrocious bilingual puns to come in the Celine-fixated future, folks…)
Meanwhile, catching you up a little, I had a feature in the paper on Friday about the Untitled exhibition at the Diaz Contemporary gallery, curated by the terrific Toronto artist Kelly Mark, featuring sound-and-music-related art by artists including Dave Dyment, Pete Gazendam, Adad Hannah and (Zoilusian favourite) Brian Joseph Davis (the 10 Banned Records, Burned, Then Played project, which has been much blogged about around the Internet, in fact). The show is on till Feb. 11 and worth a visit. (Read more here.)
Also in Friday’s paper, I reviewed the new Rosanne Cash album, Black Cadillac, an immensely stirring collection of reflections on family, love and loss (prompted of course by the recent passing of her father, Johnny Cash, mother Vivian and stepmother June Carter Cash). It’s so much better than the last, Rules of Travel, which I now realize I overrated just because I was so glad to have Rosie back, but was too tempered and polite. This here is the real thing, the best since The Wheel from the artist my friend Gordon calls “the gal who put the cunt back into country.”
And on Saturday, I had the latest instalment of my rather irregularly appearing Focus section column, Thought Bubbles. Which actually includes a couple of spoonfuls of music content this time around.
January 24th, 2006
The Rat King by Maggie MacDonald at the Alchemy Theatre last weekend. From left: Jeremy Singer, Reg Vermue and Magali Meagher, about to consume their mother’s remains. Photo by Lee Towndrow.
The Internet, that virtual communal diary, that thief of dreams, turns out to be loaded with fragments of my experiences the past week.
1. The Rat King. Above a pic from a set by Lee T. of Maggie M.’s The Rat King, which I caught at the Saturday midnight show, which given its cannibalism, mutant rats, zombie sisters, shipwrecked sailors and other B-movie imagery, along with music by Bob Wiseman that was surprisingly often reminiscent less of Brecht than of Little Shop of Horrors, seemed quite apt. I largely agreed with my colleague Robert Everett Green about the show’s virtues and vices, though I thought Jeremy Singer (of the Hank Collective) deserved more recognition for the way he came alive in the second half, striking uproariously third-wall-busting switcheroos between razamatazz and menace in the musical numbers. There needs to be a soundtrack release of this one, as several of the MacDonald-Wiseman tunes, such as Germinal Man and Magali Meagher’s courting song (as the Girl) to the Boy, “Even if you have no talk, you can talk to me,” were sterling hit-parade stuff. There were some very slow-crawling patches, especially in the first several scenes (there should be more singing, earlier); the scenes with the zombie-ghost sister really need rethinking; and for me the resolution of the play was broadly unsatisfying (the ribs pictured above should really belong to the Boy; the alternate path taken felt quite muddled in the staging). A more radical rapprochement between the Girl and the rats seems called for by the play’s internal logic; the choice made instead is a bit pat. The Ratbot never amounted to much; it ended up as barely even a MacGuffin; more of a red herring. In these ways the show was a bit disappointingly conservative, insofar as a post-apocalyptic fairy tale in rhyming couplets can be. And certainly some of the amateur acting detracted from the line-readings, as much as it made this production far more charming and involving than much professional theatre. All those caveats aside, a new production in a bigger house or a longer run, perhaps with an assist from the pro’s, and certainly with the more complete pit band Bob told me he’d like (and as Robert says, maybe amplification), is more than warranted, and I do hope that possibility is somewhere in the air.
2. Laura Barrett. I will use the excuse of Sunday night’s Wavelength experience to point out that the mp3 blog I Guess I’m Floating has a full set of mp3s documenting Final Fantasy’s performance at the Over the Top event a couple of weeks ago, discussed in Zoiluses previous. If nothing else, listen to the performance with Laura Barrett of her song Robot Ponies (again, see the past) which sounds smoother than I remembered, though it does omit the crucial final verse. Not so the beautiful version heard on Sunday with Laura’s new guest bassist, who had a great limber sound and gave good bottom end to the kalimba’s plucky music-box sound, although we still adore it on its own. Laura’s WL debut was a triumph, with a packed house at Sneaky Dee’s falling into a respectful silence for at least the first 20-plus minutes. The girl’s got a sneaky kind of star power. It’s certainly testament to the oddness of the Torontopian moment that her nerdgasmic songwriting and demure style have been so immediately embraced, but the musical sumptuousness of the work would be tough to gainsay no matter where. Word is going to spread faster than anyone expects. (And not just because I’m going to spread it.)
3. Trampoline Hall: Last week’s all-15-year-old edition of Tramp. Hall was a delight, as this slideshow (also by lensmaster Lee T.) should demonstrate. Several not-too-fugly shots of yours truly even pop up along the way, much improved by proximity to beautiful women. So, the primary quality of 15-year-olds forced to give lectures (on shortness, Christianity and their English teacher) to a bar full of adults? A straightforward forthcomingness near-unimaginable in their elders. Primary shortcoming? Much the same: Subtlety, context, sense of paradox are not early-adolescent strong suits, it seems, while for most of the regular 20/30-sumpthin’ TH crowd, they are almost paralyzingly everpresent. Funniest line? I think host Misha’s off-the-cuff claim, inspired by the fact that the night’s programme was for the first time ever not printed on paper but in the form of a CDR with video, that people born in the 1990s have the ability to read digital media without any computer hardware: “If you don’t yet have the perceptual upgrade, you’ll be able to download it from our website later this week.” Best post-show discussion (next to requests for info on the Ninja High School and Barmitzvah Brothers music I played at intermission): On how North American evangelical Christianity posits that a “personal” connection with God can be struck up by a simple egocentric act of will (”accepting Jesus Christ as my personal saviour”), etc., while far older monastic and other traditions emphasize the great self-sacrifice, humility and rigor that are required to achieve that relationship - and how this problem can be applied to other senses of vocation (political, artistic, ethical) - that this culture denies the very real possibility that you must reject a certain worldliness if you intend to dedicate yourself to a countercultural ideal. On the other hand, perhaps there is a quietistic strain to those older traditions, intended to ghettoize the misfits and prevent them from actually effecting any change. Now: Apply to “underground” music, “political” art and performance, etc. (If you cannot do so, you can download the upgrade from Zoilus later this week.)
January 24th, 2006
Read Frank’s fruitful thoughts and even more fruitful links on the devaluation of music via its disembodiment. I’m downloading far more than I used to these days, ever since I redid the Zoilus links page and provided myself a better browser’s guide to the MP3 blogs, and I am experiencing that devaluation and accumulative fetish, to my own distaste. Angry Robot, a blog I’ve never read before but will now, is particularly cogent on the relationship of this phenomenon to the iPod mania - the iPod itself substitutes for the album as an attractive object to which you can attach emotionally. (AR’s also smart about the Buddha Machine and the Ghostbox series - no coincidence, as the Brit bloggers have been discussing, that these themes of spectrality and hauntings might be linked to a project dedicated to restoring a corporeal presence to its music.)
January 24th, 2006
Jack & Olivia gettin’ down.
Well, that wasn’t as bad as we feared. (Warning: Music and culture content in this post will be minimal, though not non-existent.) Yes, we’ve got a wolf in beady-eyed sheep’s clothing in the Prime Minister’s Office, but it’s a government whose room to manoeuvre is limited, and the jump in NDP seats was terrific, though I wish they’d broken 30. (Congratulations to Jack and Olivia, a goofy, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time but still lovable pair.) The danger now is that because all the other parties recognize the lack of appetite for more elections, they’ll spend a long time compromising and not holding Harper to account, letting him accomplish mostly benign things (I do support the GST cut, which would be a progressive measure - the GST is a regressive tax, remember? - much preferable to the income and corporate cuts Harper actually wants, and the ones Martin implemented while ignoring the standing Liberal promise to phase out the GST). What we need is a mess that robs Harper of credibility so that he can’t parlay this eked-out win into a majority next time around. Luckily, his inexperienced caucus as well as Harper’s own arrogance can be counted on to create embarrassments in fairly short order. Who the hell will the next Liberal leader be? There’s a conspicuous shortage of true talent in that pool. Brian Tobin and Frank McKenna, yucch. Nobody outside Toronto and Montreal is going to vote for Ignatieff. Thumbelina Stronach, who always sounds like she’s running for student-council president? Pshaw. But then who?
A particularly happy development for local culture vultures is that the copyright flap in Parkdale (along with Gomery, and her own freaked-out behaviour) seems to have helped kibosh Hollywood stooge Sam Bulte and put the NDP’s impressive Peggy Nash in her place. Although of course, when Jack Layton said in his victory speech last night, “We will take your hopes to Ottawa,” one could only react by saying, “No! Wait! I like my hopes! Don’t take them to Ottawa - that’s where hopes go to expire. Leave them here!” When it comes to federal politics, you gotta stay critical or die.
By the way, in response to the chatter in yesterday’s comment boxes: I don’t think Stephen Harper’s Christianity is the scariest thing about him. He isn’t Stockwell Day. (Stockwell Day is still Stockwell Day, unfortunately, and soon to be a member of cabinet.) What’s worst about Harper is that he’s an absolutely ideological neocon on the Newt Gingrich/Mike Harris model who considers Canada an effeminate Northern European welfare state that must be made a decentralized, deregulated macho playground for capital, with minimal safeguards for the marginalized and underprivileged. He forbade his candidates to talk about abortion in this election but has no compunction about his plans to reconfigure Canada into a dysfunctional patchwork of underserved, undereducated backwater corporate dutchies. And he’s going to begin pulling the bricks out of the foundation in the most understated way as if there is no longterm plan, and the media will cover it as though it’s eminently reasonable, they way they did with Mike Harris, and the public won’t realize the mess they’re going to have to clean up until it’s very late. Yes, gay rights and women’s rights are under threat, too, but not so much while they’re in a minority position and have to curry favour with the Bloc and the NDP - it’s just important they never make it to a majority. What worries me more immediately is the surrender of our foreign policy to the U.S. agenda, when the Liberals had already screwed up this country’s tradition of foreign aid and human-rights support to an unconscionable degree. I can’t believe nobody made this an issue in the election. Canada’s problems all pale in comparison. (Yes, Olivia, child poverty at home is shameful, but the plight of Africa is far more so.)
And unfortunately I bet that one of the areas where the Cons can safely test out their incremental strategy is in the arts. The Liberals never officially budgeted the announced Canada Council funding increase. Expect that to disappear in a puff of amnesia. They despise the CBC. Et cetera. The way the vote fell last night, the political map presents us with urban Canada versus the exurbs, small towns and rural areas (except in the Maritimes), reminiscent of the red-blue split south of the border; expect that cultural gap to harden. However, there is a bright side: Canada is much more urbanized than the U.S., in fact, so the cities aren’t going to be so easy to shut out.
Finally, I’m disappointed that the consensus still remains that the NDP is not a viable federal governing party. The Cold War is over, after all. If half the world can elect social-democratic Labour governments, so can we, and you’d think that this year’s situation, with a discredited centrist party and a mostly unwanted right-wing party, would have been an ideal moment for a more substantial surge on the left. I’m not a member of the NDP and likely never would be - their utopia is not quite mine, and I often think democracy would be improved without a party system - but it’s sad that even Jack Layton never broached the suggestion that Canadians finally take a chance on putting the third party in charge. (Also, you nearly-five-percent who vote Green - do you actually know their platform? Do you realize the NDP has a more solid environmental policy and that Canadian Greens are actually a centre-right party on every other issue?)
This concludes this free-time political announcement, and we now return you to your regularly scheduled Zoilus.
January 23rd, 2006
Too grim today about the apparent spite-driven nosedive of Canadian democracy to chat about music. Canadian readers, if you haven’t gotten out to vote yet, please do so, and don’t allow the media hype about momentum and landslides to turn your head. I’ll be back tomorrow to discuss The Rat King, Laura Barrett and other weekend music experiences, and no doubt to kvetch about the state of confederation. Till then, fingers crossed!
January 20th, 2006
Cover art for Destroyer’s Rubies, due Feb. 21.
Pitchfork today linked to Zoilus in confusing ways while penning what felt like an instant-message conversation about Destroyer, but the item is worth reading for the following bits of Bejarian news (which I am about to share with you, thus making said item not-worth-reading again): “DB hopes to unleash a record by his band Bonaparte (’It features some of my best axework ever,’ sayeth Dan) and started practicing with a new duo, Hello Blue Roses, in preparation for a Valentine’s Day debut. … [Bit about Owen Pallett, misinterpreted from previous postings on this site, excised.] …. Bejar also has designs on forming - drumroll please - a bona fide Canadian indie supergroup! He’ll join the likes of Carey Mercer (Frog Eyes) and Spencer Krug (Wolf Parade/Sunset Rubdown) to record an album this February, due out someday via Jagjaguwar. The boys have yet to settle on a name…”
January 20th, 2006
Nurse with Wound associates: The Elton John/Sheryl Crow/Bono
of completely fucking doomed fundraising projects.
Perhaps the least-commercial charity record of all time is upcoming from David Tibet’s Durtro Jnana label, a five-count-’em-five-CD set titled Not Alone, with proceeds going to Medecins Sans Frontieres aka Doctors Without Borders, and particularly the group’s crucial efforts in the AIDS pandemic in Africa. It’s currently available for preorder on the label’s website.
The set is about as successful as conceivable in assembling “big names” who don’t actually sell any records, from the ranks of noise-rockers, minimalist composers, industrial-blaggers, freak folks and fey crooners. Among the contributors of, mostly, previously unreleased tracks: William Basinski, Angels of Light, The Hafler Trio, Nurse With Wound, Jim O’Rourke, Jad Fair, Linda Perhacs, Richard Buckner, Matmos, Thurston Moore, Keiji Haino (with the marvelously titled fleeing panic-stricken shriveled equal temperament), Shirley Collins, the Shockheaded Peters, Marc Almond, Vashti Bunyan, Coil, the Bevis Frond and Charlemagne Palestine. And those are the better-known of the lot, but for a few: When they go all crazy and poppy, it’s Isobel Campbell from Belle and Sebastian (okay, a little commercial), Bonnie Prince Billy, Devendra Banhart, Antony & the Johnsons, Damon and Naomi (does anyone buy Damon and Naomi records new? or is it all promos that end up in second-hand shops? no offence meant, I love D&N, but I suspect nobody pays full price for their discs) and Teenage Fanclub (maybe the catchiest band ever to sell next to no records, at least after the Pernice Bros.). The most famous person on it is probably Allen Ginsberg. Who is dead.
Perhaps the critical mass of excellent artists, the heft of the set, the economical price ($25 U.S. plus $8 postage, or little more than $6 a CD total), the hand-assemblage etc. will mean MSF sees some profit? I hope so, as it’s mostly high-quality music for a tremendously vital cause, but the approach contrasts comically with the standard Bloated Superstars on the March approach to charidee music. Mightn’t it have been smarter to assemble super-rarities by each artist and set the price in the steeper, collectors’ range? Or is that strategy extinct in the age of complete rare albums on instant demand? So dig deep into those scruffy pockets, Wire subscribers. You are the world. You are the ch%*#/:/#%Nfal_iy9n.
January 19th, 2006
Newer readers may not know that throughout 2004 I ran a monthly series at the then-newborn Drake Hotel in Toronto called Tin Tin Tin, which put together musicians from different bands, scenes and genres to play together in multidisciplinary ensembles. Sadly, I didn’t have the time to keep it going, though I always nurture hopes for a revival someday. But even better is this week’s debut of Maggie MacDonald’s The Rat King, a full-scale indie-rock-opera that got its start as a set at the first Tin Tin Tin. The cover story on Maggie in this week’s Now weekly kindly acknowledges my part in kickstarting it (thanks, Sarah), but the reason you should care is that it’s a grand hodgepodge of Brechtian theatre and The Cat in the Hat with an underlying environmental-apocalypse theme and tunes by musical director Bob Wiseman, with a cast featuring members of the Hank Collective, the Phonemes and Gentleman Reg. Not sure how many tickets are left for the run between now and Sunday, but surf over to the show site to find out. Let’s hope it sees a well-funded revival in a larger theatre soon, tho given Toronto theatre’s general risk aversion, I wouldn’t hold my smog-choked breath. Meanwhile, I’ll be at the Saturday midnight show.
Also in the funny papers today, Eye Weekly presents its annual critics’ poll. For some reason, neither I nor any other Globe critic received an invite to participate this year (I asked, and Eye says it was an oversight, not any kind of submerged newspaper-war torpedo), but it’s still worth a glance as the only true hoser counterpart to the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. (Rumour has it this may be the Eye poll’s final year, which would be a shame.) This round’s top raters are unsurprising, save perhaps their order. From numbers 1 to 10, the album victors are Broken Social Scene, MIA, The New Pornographers, Sufjan Stevens (yawn - okay if I start just calling him Sufferin’ Succotash?), Antony and the Johnsons, the Constantines, Wolf Parade, Bloc Party, Sleater-Kinney and, bringing up the pale, somewhat tokenistic rear, Kanye West. The singles winners are perhaps equally predictable but sound much more like the 2005 that was, to me: Kelly Clarkson, Kanye (for Gold Digger), Madonna, Franz Ferdinand, Amerie, LCD Soundsystem tied with Metric (for Monster Hospital), Spoon (for I Turn My Camera On), Gwen Stefanie (Hollaback, of course), MIA (Bucky Done Gun), and The White Stripes (My Doorbell). R. Kelly’s unforgivable absence is due, I’m sure, to vote splitting between the dozen parts of Trapped in the Closet, a dilemma all 2005 pollsters should have anticipated and corrected for.