Zoilus by Carl Wilson

Archive for April, 2007


April 29th, 2007

With that flurry of Pop Con posts (parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5) Zoilus is going into low gear for the next several weeks. I have a book to finish, and as a result, posting will be more sporadic and less long-winded throughout May. The gig guide and other features will be updated, but probably not as consistently as usual. My apologies for any inconvenience.

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Investigate, Impeach, Indict and Incarcerate:
EMP Pop Con, Part 5

April 29th, 2007


Finally, notes from some of the papers I got to hear:

Jonathan Lethem’s opening keynote talk was a lovely piece of writing about the sort of transcendental condition of the “wannabe,” about the music critic and fan’s place in the “fifth Beatle” position and the way various musicians have created room in their own music for those sorts of points of identification. (The hypeman being an obvious example.) People were a bit snooty about Jonathan’s talk, mainly because it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, but I appreciated the generosity of it: Jonathan, who’s got the kind of popular recognition for his writing a lot of critics would envy, was explaining in subtle, memoiristic style why he’s got his own case of music-critic envy. Still, as a keynote, it did set a bit of the tone of the conference, in which provocation and dissent took a back seat to appreciations and contextualizations.

Robert Fink showed how musicological analysis can rock in his paper on James Brown’s Soul Power, 1971, when he mapped that chorus against Stokely Carmichael’s 1966 “Black Power” chant - and showed that the “soul power!” shout falls rhythmically like a shout back at the black-power chant. “It’s as if James Brown recognized Stokely Carmichael as another performer - and decided to cut him,” Fink said. He also noted that Brown’s anti-revolutionary song (”we don’t need-uh/ revolution!/ we gotta have-uh/ constitution!”) put the emphasis on the word “soul” whereas Carmichael’s revolution-minded chant stressed “power.” He was calling up the political speech but also rebutting and rewriting it. As Fink summed up, “If one’s brothers rhythmicize politics, what can one do but politicize one’s rhythm?”

Joshua Clover gave one of the conference’s best presentations, “1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About,” part of a book in progress. I can’t convey all its multimedia umph, but its main point was to weigh the actual year 1989 (the year that included Tiananmen Square and the “fall” of the Berlin Wall) against the signified cultural 1989, or 1989 versus “1989″. Using the example of La Marseillese, he said that “it’s no easy matter to date a song” (adding, “as every Pazz & Jop voter knows”), which is like “the difficulty of dating history itself.” When the French Revolution happened in 1789, La Marseillese didn’t exist; it was composed in 1792. “It cannot belong to 1789 but it belongs entirely to ‘1789.’ ” The result of these slippages is that “our sense of process disappears,” and we lose our awareness of historical contingency, when memory is consolidated in images and symbols and songs.

Joshua then applied that thought to the songs of “1989″, such as Scorpions’ Wind of Change, which came out in 1990 but actually had been written earlier about glasnost, but was attached to the Berlin Wall story by its video (and the fact that Scorpions were German). “Power ballads exist so one can feel all weepy and overwhelemed, as one does in the face of the historical sublime… like a tiny Zippo in a world on fire.” He went on, “The ‘moment’ is ‘magic’ but unstated, so that it can attach to whatever magic moment may arrive - the first kiss, the sixth beer, the end of Communism, whatever.” His next example was 1991’s Right Here, Right Now, by Jesus Jones, which was the musical equivalent of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis and made the boast “Bob Dylan didn’t have this to sing about.” His last example was Roxette’s Listen to Your Heart, which besides being the first number 1 single that never came out as a 45, was the soundtrack to Civic Forum (Vaclav Havel’s party) advertisements in the then-Czechoslovakia, a song that Joshua said had the “eventless, pleasurable, post-historical ongoingness” that mirrors “the path of the ‘new world order,’ or as it would like to think.” These songs and their videos helped make “1989″ an “image-story that every song helped to tell,” a story in which “1989″ is removed from historical process and becomes a “magic moment,” rendered unanalyzable, a moment of “nerf humanism.” The music critic, he argued, has a responsibility to historicize in the face of “the pop-songization of history.”

I enjoyed all of the “Songlines” panel, though I missed Roni Sarig’s first paper on Triggerman while I was listening to Mark Sinker’s interesting ramble on music writing; Michael Barthel, known to Zoilus readers for his Clap Clap Blog, one of my favourite music blogs, gave a great paper about how Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has gradually been reduced by successive cover versions (beginning with John Cale and then multiplying exponentially with Jeff Buckley’s cover of John Cale’s cover, which was then itself used as the source of uncountable covers), and their use in film and TV soundtracks. It’s gone, he said, from a drily sceptical, wry, multifaceted work into a one-dimensional “sad” song to use whenever you need to show a montage of various characters in various places being sad. “It’s become the auditory equivalent of a silent-film actress pressing the back of her hand to her head.” The effect, he said, was like “making a Matisse into a washcloth” - but, he added, a song isn’t a Matisse: “Wring it out and it’s ready again.” Then he demonstrated this by playing his own recording of Hallelujah, using verses Cale and Buckley cut from the original (which no one ever sings) and a panoply of wild, cheerful musical styles. Now there’s a critical manoeuvre you wouldn’t get from an academic. It was great finally to meet Mike, who’s as bright-eyed and wry himself as any reader would expect. His paper is up on his site now.

Next came Mike McGonigal, a writer I’ve admired since he was publishing the wonderful Chemical Imbalance zine in the early ’90s, speaking both reverently and humorously about Blind Willie Johnson’s Black was the Night, Cold was the Ground, and offering fascinating notes on guitar evangelists, street-corner singers and shout-singing preachers (most amazingly, Washington Phillips, who sang to an instrument that might have been an autoharp or a miniature piano called a doceola, but which sounded like “a celestial ice-cream truck”). His paper also featured the most hilariously self-reflexively sarcastic Power Point slides of the conference, which went perfectly with his mix of passion and self-mockery as a speaker. And the panel closed with Anthony Miller’s survey of songs about Patty Hearst, of which of course there are loads, and I can’t believe I’d never realized it before - from Patti Smith’s version of Hey, Joe to some awful Dylanish folk music to the Ramones’ Judy was a Punk, the Misfits’ She, Camper van Beethoven’s Tania on Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart and Black Box Recorder’s Love Song to an Heiress. Miller didn’t really have an extensive argument to make about all these weird refractions of 1960s mythology, but it was rich material.

Yuval Taylor’s piece on “feelgood/bad vibes” culture in 1972 was very fine, though he couldn’t improve on his opening, which pointed out that 1972 was the sole year the Grammys gave out an award for “Best Pop Instrumental With Vocal Coloring,” and the nominees were Santana, Isaac Hayes and Emerson Lake and Palmer. What kind of strange world was this, he asked, where flutey exotic-semi-rock with sighs and chanting could be considered an entire genre? A world where gatefold album covers were for rolling joints, clearly. (I’d say this was also a foretaste of the New Age music to come.) Meeting Yuval was one of the weekend’s highlights.

Franklin Bruno may win the prize for the conference’s weirdest topic: The various fifties-and-sixties satirical versions of My Fair Lady and their cast albums. He pointed out that My Fair Lady’s own original cast album was actually the “jackpot” that cemented the place of the 33 1/3 LP, selling 8 million copies. One of the versions was Canadian content (Franklin apologized in advance if he was about to commit any offences against Canadian culture): My Fur Lady, a hit musical at McGill in the late ’50s, featured, if I followed correctly, an, um, “Eskimo princess” who for political reasons needed to become a proper Canadian, and the main joke of the show seems to have been that you can’t “Teach Me How to be Canadian” (as one of the songs was titled) because Canadians don’t have any distinctive attributes. The others were My Square Laddie, in which someone tries to learn how to be a bohemian (”I could’ve boozed all night”), and, most interestingly, My Fairfax Lady, a kind of double-reverse-satire in which a British actress in L.A. wants to learn to be American, but stumbles onto L.A.’s Jewish strip and so ends up being taught to speak in a Yiddish accent, in a script loaded with Catskills-style humour. Franklin was a little pressed for time so he didn’t get to elaborate too much on his final analysis, and I didn’t take proper notes - again, hopefully he’ll publish it, at least on his blog.

Another of my favourite bloggers, Mike Powell, was at the conference for the first time, and it was a delight to meet him. I really enjoyed his paper, “The Pyongyang Hit Parade,” which brought us into his pathological obsession with North Korean state-produced pop music, which is of course the only pop music there. It seemed as if Mike started out his journey feeling like he’d stumbled into sort of a “reverse Disneyland” that could be his own private anti-utopian dreamworld musical hobby, but became more and more uncomfortable and disturbed by it as he found out more about it. What sticks with me is his assertion that there is absolutely no sign of a musical underground, a culture of samizdat, in the country, according to accounts from people who have gotten out. I find this an impossible thought to assimilate - usually, at least after dictatorships fall, one finds out about the underground activity that was going on all along - it even happened in Nazi Germany - and I feel compelled to believe that of North Korea. It seems like the bleakest of all possibilities to contemplate that there can be a totalitarian state so complete as to staunch even private imaginative expression. But it also feels important to consider that possibility. This is what I love about Mike’s criticism, that it’s not only intellectually keen and curious, but never without a personal imprint, an eagerness to put the messy emotions and less-noble impulses and involuntary nerves and bruises on the page, too. I aspire to that.

It’s late and this is getting lengthy, but a few more: Kathy Meizels’ paper drawn from her thesis work on American Idol was typically strong - I’ve interviewed Kathy for my book, so I’ll wait to remark on her ideas there; Daphne Carr presented some cool research on the Great Battle of Hot Topic among teen punks and wannabes; and Michaelangelo Matos had the brilliant idea of doing a reality check on the stereotype of the Bob Marley poster in the white kid’s dorm room, highlighted by his interview with a couple who go around from campus to campus selling posters.

Wendy Fonarow talked charmingly about her “three zones” research on the psychogeography of the indie-scene club gig, which I’ve referenced here before - I need to read her book - updating it with some salient thoughts on how the cellphone-camera gig-documenting epidemic in zone 1 (the “pit” in front of the stage) is messing with the participatory dynamics there, moving the experience “into the future anterior,” so that it’s not about being there, but that tomorrow, “I will have been there.”

I’ve already referred to Jesse Fuchs’ paper on musical video games, which was a technical tour de force of game visuals and sounds. He argued that games can offer music context, causality, a blur of the listener-performer boundary, familiarity, educational purpose and decontextualization (appreciating music differently by engaging with it physically rather than aurally), and made a pitch for the value of the “honest fake” over “fake honesty” and the utopian impulse in game playing, an activity that’s the opposite of work.

The conversation at the University of Washington on Friday evening, between the great hip-hop writer Jeff Chang and the music historian Gaye T. Johnson (whose research on the way the arrival of the Eighth Regimental Band from Mexico in New Orleans in the 1880s for the Cotton Exposition would influence black music in NOLA sounds fascinating) was just a delight, and included some very stirring discussion of the plight of New Orleans now, “the right of return” and “the imperative to forget.” Their commitment, sensitivity and intellectual rigor were inspiring.

There’s more, like RJ Smith’s recreation of how the first incarnation of Destroy All Monsters (a proto-punk noise band with artists Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw) emerged from the post-sixties bummer of Detroit and Ann Arbor. Kembrew McLeod’s uproarious recounting of how his tiny Virginia town became the butt of a Spin magazine prank in the post-grunge search for the “next Seattle.” Simon Reynolds’s paper talked about the way that techno goes through cycles in relationship to the city of London - that a new style will come out of London (usually meaning black London), and then it will get modified by DJs who are responding to the tastes of a more international (white) audience, and at some point that will reach a breaking point where someone feels the need to assert a London identity again, and often their response creates the next genre. The kind of thing that’s obvious when pointed out but not beforehand. Meeting Simon at last was another of the Pop Con’s pleasures.

Then there was Ned Sublette’s call on the “Resurrecting New Orleans” panel that members of the Bush administration be “investigated, impeached, indicted, and incarcerated” for what they did and didn’t do around hurricane Katrina, which does in some ways seem even more criminal than the Iraq war. I spent a long night in the hotel bar being regaled along with David Grubbs with Ned’s tales of playing with Glenn Branca and LaMonte Young in the 1970s. Ned is an amazing, intoxicating raconteur.

But enough now. An affectionate hi to all the folks I got to meet at EMP this year, the old friends I got to spend too little time with, to Jake London and John Shaw for being my chauffeurs and tour guides to Seattle, and to those I wish I’d met and didn’t find space or nerve to talk to, or whose papers I had to miss. Next year, the great spirit and Paul Allen willing.

EMP Pop Con, Part 5">4 Comments

Freaks in the Forkways:
EMP Pop Con, Part 4

April 29th, 2007


I moderated a panel at the Pop Con called “Forks in the Folkways,” unfortunately at the same time as the exciting “Rethinking Hip-Hop Roots” panel with Oliver Wang on boogaloo, Jeff Chang on the Latin sources of the breakbeat, Garnette Cadogan (whose acquaintance I was delighted to make over the weekend, a very quick, warm, learned and funny guy) on the Jamaican side of the story (which, as he mentioned to me, is a little more obvious to people in Toronto than it is to most Americans) and Joe Schloss on the Puerto Rican uprock antecedent to breakdancing. But I was proud of our panel, which included some of the best shit I heard all weekend. My friend Carl Zimring, an environmental historian who also happens to be a huge music geek, gave fascinating paper on Woody Guthrie’s love of dams and other attitudes that separate (and historicize) his politics from what contemporary left-wingers (including Billy Bragg and Wilco) might assume he thought.

Meghan Drury Askins, who comes from the same small countercultural California town as Joanna Newsom, put her old schoolmate’s music in the context of Nevada City history and psychogeography - for example the local river, which she points out appears in Newsom’s songs as a place of respite and recharge; not to mention the fact that the outline of the county is deliberately drawn in the shape of a pistol pointing at a neighbouring county, in hommage to old historical resentments, which points up the place’s ornery side. Scott Seward showed off his habitual blend of wit, knowledge and beautiful language in his paper on the folkie bent of much current extreme metal (not flinching from the way that folkie bent crosses over with Euro-metal’s pagan-Aryan drift toward Nazism, but pointing out that worrying too much about the politics of guitar-obsessed dweebs who seldom leave their basements may be misplaced).

And the amazing Erik Davis, as always, managed to make topics hippies think about seem a million percent more intriguing. This time he brought his engaged scepticism to bear on “Freak Folk and the Analog Ethic,” pointing out that unlike most analog fetishists who fixate on vinyl records, folks like Newsom and MV&EE and, to some degree, Steve Albini, among others, look to analog as a practice, and by physically intertwining themselves with the inconveniences and slowness of analog methods, they take an impulse that appears like mere nostalgia and turn it into a lived reality. I can’t do justice to the complexities of his talk (digital/analog as particle/wave, for example) because I didn’t want to take notes up on the dias, but it was exactly the sort of thing that our imaginary crossdisciplinary Believer-styled music mag ought to publish; it sparked some great chat in the q-&-a period.

(To be continued…)

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Good News for ‘Sounds of the Ocean’:
EMP Pop Con, Part 3

April 29th, 2007


My first two posts on EMP were a whole lot of meta-talk, but I think the meta-talk was one of the most invigorating parts of the event this year. One reason was that Robert Christgau was such a presence this year. In a way, the whole event and all this thinking about the future of music writing was in the shadow of the conflicts around Bob’s firing at the Village Voice, and Bob was in a (deserved but amusingly odd) position of being the Pop Con’s sort of patron martyr and saint. But I think finding himself turned into a freelancer also made him feel more than before that at EMP he’s among his peers, so he was a less distanced observer. His contributions definitely helped liven things up, but I think a few people also felt intimidated out of participating in discussions, inhibited from arguing with his authoritative voice. That’s probably inevitable at a gathering that brings together “big names” and small, and it’s mostly a wonderful thing that Bob, like Greil Marcus and other star critics, comes out year after year to mingle.

Bob’s own address was the essay manque for this year’s VV Pazz & Jop poll, the first ever that he didn’t preside over, and his thoughts on the rival Jackin’ Pop poll that Michaelangelo Matos organized for the Idolator blog. (And in which I voted, while boycotting P&J - Christgau, fyi, voted in both.) His talk included a lot of wise reflection with a smattering of generational crossfire, the flipside of Amy Phillips’ remark about “the kids.” I think Bob, too, was overgeneralizing. He was obviously right that a poll that skews younger might privilege “emergent” culture at the expense of the “residual” (TV on the Radio over Bob Dylan and the New York Dolls), but I think it’s actually that younger critics have more diverse interests in terms of older culture - that is, practice a kind of “long tail” historicism, with less focused attention on the established canon and more time for other roots and rhizomes. What’s more, those younger critics will be older someday too, and come to share Bob’s interest in the long view. (Maybe I find this easier to see, being almost halfway in age between Bob and the whippersnappers he was fretting about.) Whether they/we will be able to get jobs at that point, of course, is less assured.

In the same panel, Daphne Brooks gave a beautiful, erudite paper about TV on the Radio’s sonic black internationalism that made me want to give their album a fresh listen (although her mentions of their commonalities with Radiohead reminded me of other reasons I’m not so drawn to them).

Tim Quirk, the well-named, affable and charming executive from Rhapsody.com and singer for Too Much Joy, spoke about what the “universal jukebox,” subscription-based model of music delivery might mean for the future of listening and “the economics of adoration.” The upside is that it favours deep catalogue, transforming the industry term “turntable hit” (something that gets played a lot on radio but doesn’t sell) from a perjorative to a goal; the downside is that it favours background music - especially “warm, upbeat acoustic troubadors.” Several people voiced distress about the implications for black music, though Quirk pointed out that while he called his paper “Good News for Yo La Tengo” he could have called it “Good news for Luther Vandross.” I’d say what’s distressing is that this model disperses the marketing imperatives and pressures that can push pop toward novelty and surprise; that is, big hits could become less interesting.

">Jesse Fuchs (who’d earlier given a fantastic presentation on interactive music-based video games, from Parappa the Rapper to Guitar Hero) nailed it when he said that the paper should have been called “Good News for Brian Eno and ‘Sounds of the Ocean.’ ” And bad news for Timbaland.

Incidentally,, in the closing session, Quirk also pointed out that music writers are in demand by such services to serve as guides and curators for subscribers. Which is a way of thinking about music for living. But it’s not much of a way of writing about music, and that distinction matters to me much the way the distinction between foreground and background music does.

(To be continued…)

EMP Pop Con, Part 3">1 Comment

The Death of Rumination?
EMP Pop Con, Part 2

April 29th, 2007

Ellen Willis, photographed by Jade Albert, circa 1981. Thanks to Rockcritics.com.

The other lunch sessions included the very touching tribute to Ellen Willis, where Bob Christgau, Ann Powers, Sasha Frere-Jones, Daphne Carr and others who had known or been very affected by Willis’s work spoke affectingly about her and read various kick-ass passages of Willis’s rock writing, which cries out for a comprehensive collection. She sounded like a formidable woman. Christgau, who had a relationship with Willis in the 1960s and renewed their friendship later in life, said, “People thought she was shy. She wasn’t shy. She was thinking - and ignoring you.”

And then there was the closing discussion, “On the Future of Thinking about Music for a Living.” The story of this session has already been boiled down to the moment that Pitchfork’s Amy Phillips said that kids don’t read long pieces anymore and that if the writers in the room wanted to make a living they would have to learn to write very, very fast, for a market that wants information about music faster than they can listen to it, practically faster than it can be made. And then the room had a collective shitfit and Tom Kipp (a great thinker-without-portfolio) said, “We must not accept the death of rumination.”

Part of what’s wrong with how this story has been recounted is that Amy was interpreted as saying, “Pitchfork is gonna eat your lunch,” whereas in fact her passionate tone definitely conveyed her own alarm at the situation. But it also omits a lot of the other responses to and anticipations of the same idea that came up at the session: The academics spoke about the increasing support in disciplines such as American Studies and Musicology for pop-music studies and a growing crossover with journalistic methodology (as in researching music by actually asking the musicians). Jody Rosen (of Slate and many other publications) talked about the publishing industry’s hunger for non-fiction books - saying that he’s written a book about Irving Berlin and the song White Christmas and has a contract for a book about an obscure 18th-century musical instrument (Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica), and as a result he and his wife own an apartment in Brooklyn. If that sounds crass to you, you’re not a critic - the future of thinking about music doesn’t seem at all dark to me, but the question of making a living at it (and thus having time to do it deeply and well) is a fraught one indeed. Also, Douglas Wolk made a great, pithy point, that with the Internet, writers need to think of what they do less as making pronouncements and more as proposing conversations. (This is exactly why I started Zoilus.)

But Jody’s point also spoke to the bigger context that I think Amy missed: If nobody wants to read about pop music, if nobody wants extensive analysis, why does the 33 1/3 series exist? Why does the Da Capo anthology exist? Why are there more high-quality books about all kinds of music being printed these days than ever before? I think what Amy sees from the Pitchfork vantage point is actually a lot of “kids” who never would have read in-depth pop criticism in the first place, and are using blogs and Pfork the way previous generations would have relied on John Peel or another favourite DJ, just as tip sheets for good new music. But other blog readers, the students in popular-culture courses, the buyers of those books, form the same passionate minority that’s always been the critic’s audience, and I suspect that mini-crowd is bigger now than before - maybe not as activated as in the 1970s, when rock crit as we know it was born because music was the overwhelmingly dominant force in youth culture, but still plenty healthy enough to give rumination a future. (Pretty Goes with Pretty has some parallel thoughts.)

However, to move that future in a direction that Pop Con types would like to see, as Eric Weisbard (the director of the conference) pointed out, the Pop Conference community, if we can call it that, also has the ability to band together. Josh Kun brought up one possible venue - the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg’s Popular Music Project, which he directs, and which proposes to be “a one-stop home for the interdisciplinary study and analysis of popular music” and a “point of open contact between scholars, musicians, students, producers, musicians, engineers, critics, label chiefs, and of course, fans.”

As well, though, there was some talk about trying to create a way for the people that EMP brings together to stay in touch and share their work between Pop Cons - apparently this happened once before, in the early years of the event, with the “Pop Talk” message board, which fizzled, but perhaps the time has come to reinvigorate that effort. The most exciting vision, though, would be to try to start a magazine - online or in print or both - that would talk about music in the terms and on the level that the Pop Conference inspires. The Believer has been brought up a couple of times as a model, and in fact the Pop Con is in discussion with that magazine about doing a collaborative issue sometime in the future. An ongoing magazine, obviously, would require a group of people to step up to plan, finance, edit and publish the thing - and it would have its own downside, no doubt factionalizing folks who felt included and those who didn’t - but it’s a dream worth dreaming.

As for those who say rumination has no future? Keep thinking - and ignore them.

(To be continued…)

EMP Pop Con, Part 2">1 Comment

One Week After:
EMP Pop Con 2007, Part 1

April 28th, 2007

I didn’t get quite the mind-jolt from the Pop Conference at the Experience Music Project in Seattle this year that I have in the past. As always, it was an amazing event - the only place journalists, academics, some musicians and some industry people as well as a few thinkers-without-portfolio (like Internet fan-discussion group members) gather and exchange ideas and energies. I’m going to break my notes up into a series of more digestibly sized posts but this is really one long recap and reflection.

As I said, I didn’t come away with quite the same high. I don’t think it’s because the presentations were any weaker, though I felt that many were less pointed - collections of intriguing material and analysis rather than arguments. It was partly because it was my third time, and also that I’m a bit worn out from busyness and wasn’t as sparkable as usual. It may have been that the subject - about “time and place,” geography and history in music - was, though worthy, by nature a little distancing and less likely to cause present-tense controversy and conflict.

But it was also because there were more panels scheduled - which meant that whenever you were hearing one speaker, you were missing three others, and that when you chatted with people at the conference, chances were that they hadn’t heard any of the same presentations you had. So conversation was often limited to, “What have you heard that you liked?” rather than “What did you think of what so-and-so said?” I realize it’s tough for the programming committee to reject so many submissions, but the number will likely only rise in future (the way proposals have risen for the 33 1/3 series, which along with the annual Da Capo Best Music Writing anthology is in some ways a print analogue of the Pop Con), but the value of the event - as of all criticism - is as much in the conversation it enables as in the presentations themselves, and that side should be nurtured just as diligently. The curators recognized this by scheduling three different discussion/plenary sessions and a presenters’ afterparty (thanks, Matos!) on top of the opening and closing receptions, but the architecture of the conference also affects the content of those interactions.

For my part, I decided to propose a discussion session rather than a specific paper this year. It was called “Seeing Scenes: The Music Critic in Place.” My idea was to talk about localism and partisanship as both fruitful strategies and conflict-ridden problems in critical practice. I partly used Toronto theatre-maker Darren O’Donnell’s Q&A format - getting individuals up one by one and letting the audience ask them anything they wanted on the theme - and then let that morph into a more free-form discussion. I was happy with how it went - a chance among other things to talk to non-Toronto folk about my somewhat-controversial place in promoting and analyzing things like Torontopia and Bad Bands - but there were some disappointments: First, predictably, it took awhile to get warmed up, and with the necessary time constraints, it felt like we had to end just when things were getting interesting. Second, a lot fewer folks in the room than I expected actually work as local rather than (as they say in the U.S.) “national” critics. I inadvertantly compounded that problem in my facilitation, as the people I knew personally and who were therefore the first to pitch in and help the talk get going were all “national” writers, although Ann Powers, for instance, had some really fascinating things to say about working in Los Angeles and feeling frustrated by the way the entertainment-industry agenda and her editors’ need to drive eyeballs to their website prevent her from being able to engage with the city itself as much as she’d like. (With a nice sidebar on the fact that in L.A. the music business itself is “local.”)

In the second half a few folks, such as Peter Scholtes of Minneapolis’s City Pages (I love the name of his blog, by the way: “Complicated Fun”) spoke up for the values of localism, saying that all music begins as local music and that if critics disdain getting their hands dirty in that arena - a lot of the critics present said they just didn’t hear good music being made by local acts, for instance - then part of the ecosystem of how great music happens gets damaged. But mostly the localism idea (which to me is also a political proposal about the need as a citizen and an intellectual to be engaged with the community in which you’re physically situated, not just in the notional and virtual communities of culture) was slighted in favour of a discussion about how friendly critics should be with their subjects. I felt like this was a misreading of my advocacy of “partisanship” and critical engagement with the artistic process, but probably an inevitable one. Robert Christgau intervened on the side of the predictable but worthy ideal of critical distance, saying that critics who don’t maintain it are just bad critics. Ann asked, picking up on some points I’d made in my introduction, whether they might just be up to something different. Bob said, “No, I’ll stick with bad.” Which got a laugh, but was a bit difficult to answer without feeling like you’d be picking an unwinnable fight. (More about that in a second.) Still, it felt like the session stirred a few pots, and people said they enjoyed it.

(To be continued…)

Blushing Announcement

April 26th, 2007


Hi there. My hiatus ended up a little lengthier than expected, and I won’t be able to get to a Pop Conference recap till tomorrow (there were no major scandals), but wanted to pop in and mention that I’m taking part tonight in Coach House author, playwright and banjo player Sean Dixon’s launch party for his new, first novel, The Girls Who Saw Everything. The launch is an “authorial banjoree,” which will feature a bunch of writers, from Ann Marie MacDonald to RM Vaughn to yours truly and finally Mr. Dixon himself, among others, performing music. A sadistic and infernal scheme. Globe columnist Russell Smith will be spinning as DJ Roomtone. So if you want to witness me do two things I cannot really do, sing and play guitar, at the expense of a Mountain Goats tune and a Franklin Bruno song (two bits to those who suss the thematic), be at the Gladstone tonight. The other performers will be better. Doors are at 7 pm, show starts at 7:30, I’ll be on somewhere between 8 and 8:30. Entry is gratis. More tomorrow.


Farewells and Au Revoirs

April 16th, 2007

RIP Tonic, the vital space for creative improvised music in New York. Nate Chinen has a fine, and sad, requiem in today’s Times.

And I’ll be taking a blog break for a few days as I get ready to head out to one of my favourite annual events, the Experience Music Project Pop Conference, a gathering of critics, academics, musicians and gadflies in Seattle, this year on the topic of “Waking Up From History: Music, Time, and Place,” with Jonathan Lethem giving the keynote and other speakers including Sasha Frere Jones, Joshua Clover, Elizabeth Mendez Berry, Michael (”Eppy”) Barthel, Mike McGonigal, Robert Christgau, Ann Powers, David Grubbs, Tim Hecker, Daphne Carr, Michaelangelo Matos, Douglas Wolk, Jeff Chang, Greil Marcus, Franklin Bruno, Ned Sublette, Oliver Wang, Erik Davis, Eric Weisbard and many more, including yours truly leading a bull session and moderating a panel. I’m going to try to do some live posting from the conference, which begins on Thursday, but it’s a tight schedule, so most of my notes will probably be post-hoc. But the Pop Con always generates some provocative fodder. (Remember last year’s Stephin Merritt Zipadeedoodah flap?) Hope to see some of you in Seattle, and see the rest of you back here in a few days.

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Help a Fella (on a Deadline) Out

April 16th, 2007


As I hammer away at the block of shape-shifting, slippery and yet unyielding granite/jello that will become a short book on Celine Dion and the dilemma of taste, I’ve been collecting examples of cover versions of songs that she’s performed, in different styles - so far mostly of My Heart Will Go On. I’ve got punk, surf-guitar, Gregorian chant, techno-remix, and parody, but I could use more, and I’d like to get some that aren’t My Heart Will Go On. (Ideally they’d be songs from Let’s Talk About Love, since that album’s the focus of the book, but they don’t have to be.) Versions in other languages and any style that’s not too close to her own are welcome. If you can send me mp3s or YouTube links and such, all the better, but if you just happen to know of one, that’s fantastic too. (For the record, I already have the New Found Glory, Switchblade Kittens and Los Straitjackets versions, as well as the Illegal Art collage of Titanic samples with My Heart…, and someone’s promised to send me the Sigur Ros mashup. Anyone have copies of the Vandals version, or the rumoured and possibly apocryphal Libertines version? The Weird Al parody?)

Much obliged, thanks.


Nothing is Bulletproof

April 15th, 2007

Last night, I felt lucky indeed to be present at the second night of the Toronto debut of the reconstituted Simply Saucer at Ciao Edie’s, to witness Edgar Breau coyly quoting himself from the Cyborgs Revisited recording of Illegal Bodies: “This is a song about the future, when, unless you have a metal body, they’re not gonna allow you to walk the streets.” The small room was quite packed (considerably more than the previous night, I’m told) and there were plenty of high points to the set, including Dance the Mutation and Low Profile, but at least on this occasion, it didn’t seem to me that this reborn group (which besides Breau includes original bassist Kevin Christoff and three new members) quite has the electricity it would need to sustain itself and do the 1970s material justice. Breau’s still a guitar hero, but his singing has domesticated itself over the decades in ways that deprive it of the discarded-aluminum timbre it once had (an evolution that may or may not be associated with his embrace of family values and western civ in the intervening years), and the rhythms similarly never hit the funk-in-a-shambles (or shambles-in-a-funk) motorik spot that I associate with Saucer. Some of the new arrangements are attractive, but the reworking of Bulletproof Nothing (another in the Saucer top-five) stripped out the abjection of the original without quite arriving anywhere (I think they were going for a “pretty” version, but pretty really isn’t the Saucer’s forte). I’d happily go see them again, and look forward to the upcoming Half Human Half Live disc, which will bring us some unheard diamonds from the Saucer vaults, but it doesn’t quite bring the legend to life. Of course, one might wonder whether the legend ever came across live or whether part of the sonic aura of the Saucer was actually constructed in the studio. I imagine their gigs were always kind of uneven, which would partially explain why they made such slow headway the first time around, beyond the standard account (also true, no doubt) of music-biz misprision. But of course it’s also no surprise that there’d be a different chemistry between the gang of teens who united to become Saucer in mid-70s Hamilton and the mixed-age “project” that’s been assembled 30 years later. Goes to show, you can’t go home again, no matter how toxic and depressing home was to begin with. Witnessing the two-thirds-successful reunion of the Saucer also gives me new awe at the way the reunited Mission of Burma and Rocket from the Tombs managed to leave no gaps in their inhabitations of their past selves, to call forth those spirits as if it were as simple as swinging open a door. Watching Breau and co., you’re more aware of the complexity of that manoeuvre, which is reason enough in itself to witness them. I hope they’ll be back, albeit in a more hospitable venue (Sneaky Dee’s? perhaps in a Wavelength show?).

(Later: A clip of Saucer playing Here Come the Cyborgs on Sat. night. There are several videos from Friday on that site too.)

Also, at the risk of continued accusations of local boosterism - wow, if you folks thought Sasha Frere Jones’s New Yorker profile of Feist was adoring, brace yourself for the lovefeistfest that is today’s Jon Pareles piece on Ms. Leslie, the lead of the NY Times’ Sunday Arts section. I’ve yet to hear the album that’s causing all the fuss, The Reminder, but if you haven’t seen the video, whose shooting frames Pareles’ article, do yourself a favour. Mushaboom and the Bee Gees cover aside, I wasn’t a fan of Let It Die, but if 1 2 3 4’s any indication, I am about to be dunked in the waters and born again.

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